Category Archives: Sabbath

no miracles today

parshat balak

My sister (the famed chocolatier and proprietor of Bond Street chocolate) recently told me the following joke:

So there’s these 2 muffins in an oven. They’re both sitting, just chilling and getting baked. And one of them yells “God Damn, it’s hot in here!” And the other muffin replies “Holy Crap, a talking muffin!”

I thought of this joke when reading the account of Balaam; the pagan prophet-for-hire, conversing with his talking donkey.  The donkey senses a threat on the road ahead and refuses to proceed.

Numbers 22: 28-30

And the LORD opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam: ‘What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?’  And Balaam said unto the ass: ‘Because thou hast mocked me; I would there were a sword in my hand, for now I had killed thee.’ And the ass said unto Balaam: ‘Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden all thy life long unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee?’ And he said: ‘Nay.’

וַיִּפְתַּח יְהוָה, אֶת-פִּי הָאָתוֹן; וַתֹּאמֶר לְבִלְעָם, מֶה-עָשִׂיתִי לְךָ, כִּי הִכִּיתַנִי, זֶה שָׁלֹשׁ רְגָלִים

וַיֹּאמֶר בִּלְעָם לָאָתוֹן, כִּי הִתְעַלַּלְתְּ בִּי; לוּ יֶשׁ-חֶרֶב בְּיָדִי, כִּי עַתָּה הֲרַגְתִּיךְ

וַתֹּאמֶר הָאָתוֹן אֶל-בִּלְעָם, הֲלוֹא אָנֹכִי אֲתֹנְךָ אֲשֶׁר-רָכַבְתָּ עָלַי מֵעוֹדְךָ עַד-הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה–הַהַסְכֵּן הִסְכַּנְתִּי, לַעֲשׂוֹת לְךָ כֹּה; וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא

The story culminates with the historic blessing of the people of Israel: How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel!

מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל

We start our prayers every morning with this blessing and it is engraved on most Synagogue Arks.  The blessing is deemed so seminal that it was considered to be included in the Shema Yisrael declaration of faith [1]

What intrigues me is why Balaam, the biblical editor or the major commentators fail to exclaim the classical Hebrew version of: “Holy crap… a talking ass!”

One can only assume that the issues raised were judged too important and the majesty of the poetry put into Balaam’s mouth, too sublime, for anyone to have a Disney moment.  But it may have to do with the deep aversion in our tradition for gratuitous miracles.

Says the Mishna (Ethics of the Fathers / Perkai Avot 5: 6)

Ten things were created at twilight of Shabbat eve. These are: the mouth of the earth [that swallowed Korach]; the mouth of [Miriam’s] well; the mouth of [Balaam’s] ass; the rainbow; the manna; [Moses’] staff; the shamir; the writing, the inscription and the tablets [of the Ten Commandments]. Some say also the burial place of Moses and the ram of our father Abraham. And some say also the spirits of destruction as well as the original tongs, for tongs are made with tongs.

The Mishna is saying that all the apparent miracles that appear in the Bible and later Jewish history, were actually pre-ordained and not miracles at all.  They were written into the DNA of creation, and like a mutation, are not outside of nature, but a force within it.

Maimonides takes this Mishna quite seriously, in his commentary to Avot, in his Shemona Perakim and again in his Guide for the Perplexed. [2]  In a previous blog I have expanded on the aversion to miracles in classic Judaism (gratuitous miracles).  For the purposes of our discussion, let’s agree that there’s no crying in baseball and no miracles in Judaism.

All miracles were pre-scripted into creation.  Some like the splitting of the Red Sea were scripted into creation on the day; day two of their creation. Some miracles which were critical to the survival of the Jewish People (the Meiri’s opinion) were scripted into creation during that amorphis and magical twilight time of sunset between the sixth day of toile and the holy habbat.

But let’s also recognize the corollary, namely, that everything in nature now becomes a miracle of creation.  Every moment, becomes a “Holy crap it talks” moment.

It is this lesson that is ultimately the lesson of Balaam and the power of his simple prophesy.

How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel! מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל

The tents of these simple Israelites camping in the desert was more miraculous than a talking donkey or a splitting sea.

It is this lesson that tempted the Rabbis to include Balaam’s blessing in the twice daily shema declaration of every Jew.

It’s called an everyday miracle and it’s worth remembering, every day and especially at those times between darkness and light, holy and profane, war and peace, hope and despair… it’s all we have and it’s as good as it gets.

בין השמשות

 

 

 

 

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[1] (Berachot 12b

berachot 12a shma

Berachot12a copy

[2]

Our Sages, however, said very strange things as regards miracles: they are found in Bereshit Rabba, and in Midrash Koheleth, namely, that the miracles are to some extent also natural: for they say, when God created the Universe with its present physical properties, He made it part of these properties, that they should produce certain miracles at certain times, and the sign of a prophet consisted in the fact that God told him to declare when a certain thing will take place, but the thing itself was effected according to the fixed laws of Nature. (Guide II:29)

In the Eight Chapters  (pp 90-91) Maimonides writes:

The Mutakllimun (Islamic school of philosophy) are, however, of a different opinion in this regard, for I have heard them say that the Divine Will is constantly at work, decreeing everything from time to time. We do not agree with them, but believe that the Divine Will ordained everything at creation, and that all things, at all times, are regulated by the laws of nature, and run their natural course, in accordance with what Solomon said, “As it was, so it will ever be, as it was made so it continues, and there is nothing new under the sun”. This occasioned the sages to say that all miracles which deviate from the natural course of events, whether they have already occurred, or, according to promise, are to take place in the future, were fore-ordained by the Divine Will during the six days of creation, nature being then so constituted that those miracles which were to happen really did afterwards take place. Then, when such an occurrence happened at its proper time, it may have been regarded as an absolute innovation, whereas in reality it was not. 1

 

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make-believe Judaism

Parshat behalotcha

If there’s one Jewish holiday and ritual that is rooted in time, it is Passover.  It’s the Festival of Spring that commemorates the night of the Exodus on the 14th of Nisan.  As it says in the Torah (Numbers 9 2-3 :

Let the children of Israel keep the passover in its appointed seasonבְּמוֹעֲדוֹ  . In the fourteenth day of this month, at dusk, ye shall keep it in its appointed season בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה …

So it comes as a surprise that of all the ordinances in the Torah, the only one that God offers a second chance at a more convenient time, is Passover.

And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying:
‘Speak unto the children of Israel, saying: If any man of you or of your generations shall be unclean by reason of a dead body, or be in a journey afar off, yet he shall keep the passover unto the LORD;
in the second month on the fourteenth day at dusk they shall keep it; they shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs;

 וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר.
דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵאמֹר:  אִישׁ אִישׁ כִּי-יִהְיֶה-טָמֵא לָנֶפֶשׁ אוֹ בְדֶרֶךְ רְחֹקָה לָכֶם, אוֹ לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם, וְעָשָׂה פֶסַח, לַיהוָה.

  בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי בְּאַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר יוֹם, בֵּין הָעַרְבַּיִם–יַעֲשׂוּ אֹתוֹ:  עַל-מַצּוֹת וּמְרֹרִים, יֹאכְלֻהוּ.

This make-up holiday is called Pesach Sheni (The Second Passover) and it intrigues me.

You see, the Passover Seder is the one holiday when we are asked to not only observe, but to re-enact and imagine we are actually experiencing the Exodus.  As the Hagadah says: “In Every Generation One Must Look Upon Himself as if He Personally Has Come Out of Egypt”  Mordecai Kaplan said there are three kind of believers: Believers, Non-Believers and Make-Believers…. at the Traditional Seder, we are all make-believers.

This is why this make-up seder intrigues me so.  In the second month, at the Second Pesach Sheni Seder, we are make-believers who make-believe that we are at a Seder… making believe that we are leaving Egypt!

To be sure… the Rabbis probably had their fill with Jews who make-believe so they did not want to encourage a new movement of Jews who make believe that they make believe so…..  they limited Pesach Sheni to individuals.  (Talmud Pesachim 66b from  אִישׁ אִיש).

There are groups that nonetheless celebrate the Second Passover, the most prominent being the Chabad Hasidim who view the 14th of the month of Iyar as a celebration of second chances.  This is certainly a valuable lesson worth commemorating, but my good friend Frederic Brenner discovered another group who celebrated the dialectic of Pesach Sheni that is less known and embodies a more complex message.

Frederic is currently completing an ambitious project where he invited world renowned photogrpahers to come to Israel for the first time and photograph it.  The project which will begin touring the world is called This Place  and you can read early reviews here. But in his younger years, Frederic traveled the world photographing vanishing Jewish communities and one community he cataloged were a group of isolated Conversos in Portugal.  He published a book called Marranes (in French) and a movie was made based on the book called The Last Marranos Les derniers Marranes.

Despite their deep aversion to the Church, these New Christians who will only choose a mate amongst themselves go to the church and have the local priest marry them publicly after a private secret marriage ceremony. (see: The Last Marranos, Commentary Magazine May 1967 by Anita Novinsky)

Frederic took many pictures of them celebrating Passover which, they celebrated on the 14th of Iyar, Pesach Sheni.

Frederic spent much time with them and even made the aquantance of the local priest who complained that while he liked these people, they should really get themselves a Rabbi.

Needless to say, they did eventually get themselves a traditional Rabbi.

They no longer go to the Priest to get married, no longer light their Shabbat candles in specially designed hidden cabinets, and needless to say, they no longer celebrate Passover a month after the holiday was meant to be celebrated.

This loss of the Pesach Sheni of the last Marranos makes me sad.  Their Pesach sheni was a tribute to the commitment of their predecessors for their heritage, it was an artifact of God’s commitment to give second chances and it showed the radical ability we humans have to survive, persevere and to make believe that we can make believe.

morranos 3 morranos 1 morranos 2

 

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In 1985,1 visited one of their villages a month after the Jewish Passover. The timing was intentional. They don’t know the Hebrew calendar, but they know that Passover falls 14 days after the new moon in March, which is approximately the
start of the Jewish month of Nissan. As part of the tradition meant to fool the spies of the Inquisition, they postpone the holiday until what Jews call “Pessah Sheni” – one month later. Therefore I knew that it was Passover for them now.
Passover being their most sacred and secret ritual, I had always been asked not to come at that time of the year. From the moment we arrived we felt that we weren’t being received in the usual manner. People avoided us. Even my best friends weren’t inviting us to visit them. Knocking at their doors, we were not asked in. They apologized and asked us to come back at a different time. From the door we saw the women of the house – busy cleaning the floor. From Passover with the Anussim in Portugal, By ©Inacio Steinhardt, Saturday, May 21, 2005

Picture of famed photographer Frederic Brenner reading Madlik blog

Picture of famed photographer Frederic Brenner reading Madlik blog

 

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the gospel geniza – part 3

the great sabbath – the great son, the great slaughter and the great polemic…

The Shabbat before Passover is widely referred to as Shabbat HaGadol, the Big or Great Shabbat. Surprisingly, no Jewish source refers to the Shabbat in this way before the year 1,000. The earliest reference to the Great Sabbath is actually in The New Testament (John 19:31) where the crucifixion occurs on the Friday before Passover which.. “was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a great Sabbath.” (The Greek word used is: megalē μεγάλη which means: large, great). In fact, in early Christianity, “The Great Sabbath” denoted the Sabbath before Easter.

The Machzor Vitry)., a 12th Century Jewish source claims that Jews call it the Great Shabbat, but they don’t know why because it is no greater than the other Shabbats. Rashi actually writes that the customary lengthy Shabbat HaGadol sermon makes this Shabbat drag. He suggests that this is why it is called Shabbat HaGadol – gadol in the sense of “long/protracted.” (if you’re a fan of my recent blog keep it short, enough said)

Leopold Zunz, the 19th century founder of Jewish Studies raised the possibility that the Jews had borrowed the term “Great Sabbath” from their Christian environment which makes little sense. What makes more sense, especially based on recent research by scholars such as Daniel Boyarin (The Jewish Gospels), is that Christian sources have preserved a common Jewish belief and custom which, once embraced by the Christian offshoot, was repressed within Judaism.

After close to 1,000 years, Shabbat Hagadol began to reemerge into Ashkenazi circles. “The uniqueness was expressed in the choice of a new Hafarah portion, Malachi 3, because of it’s fitting conclusion that anticipated the coming of Elijah and thereafter, “the great and terrible day of God.” Shabbat Hagadol thus took it’s place in Ashkenaz as a Sabbath equal to the four special Sabbaths designated in the Mishnah for the (prior) month of Adar.”

If you subscribe to the thesis offered in part 2 of this series, that there had originally been a 40 day period of preparation for the redemption in Nisan, then Shabbat Hagadol served the same function as Shabbat Shuvah before Yom Kippur… as an opportunity for Rabbi’s to preach an inspiring sermon.

Israel Yuval and others * argue that The Great Shabbat was originally a (2nd – 3rd century ce) Christian innovation and was only integrated into Judaism much later date and as a response to the Christian Holy Week also known as “Great Week”. Shabbat Hagadol as a polemic tool against Christianity is supported by the choice of prophetic readings and samples of sermons from medieval (especially Ashkenazic) sources. The focus is on the “great slaughter” and the “great son”.

The Haftora for Shabbat Hagadol is Malachi 3: 4-24 concluding with (23-24):

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD.
And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers; lest I come and smite the land with utter destruction.
הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי שֹׁלֵחַ לָכֶם, אֵת אֵלִיָּה הַנָּבִיא–לִפְנֵי, בּוֹא יוֹם יְהוָה, הַגָּדוֹל, וְהַנּוֹרָא.
וְהֵשִׁיב לֵב-אָבוֹת עַל-בָּנִים, וְלֵב בָּנִים עַל-אֲבוֹתָם–פֶּן-אָבוֹא, וְהִכֵּיתִי אֶת-הָאָרֶץ חֵרֶם.

The point of the Haftorah (bedsides containing a reference to a Great Day) is that God will redeem the Jewish people and take vengeance upon their tormentors. **

But the polemics did not stop there.

The Jewish tradition addressed the Christian claim to be the younger brother (see part 1 of this series), with the counter claim that Rome was Edom in the Bible and that the progenitor of these Christian Edomites was the older or great brother Esau.

The Pesikta deRav Kehana ties the Shabbat Hagadol to the victory over the Great Brother…

And it came to pass, that when Isaac was old, and his eyes were dim, so that he could not see, he called Esau his elder (lit. great) son, and said unto him: ‘My son’; and he said unto him: ‘Here am I.’ (Genesis 27:1)
וַיְהִי כִּי-זָקֵן יִצְחָק, וַתִּכְהֶיןָ עֵינָיו מֵרְאֹת; וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-עֵשָׂו בְּנוֹ הַגָּדֹל, וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו בְּנִי, וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, הִנֵּנִי.
And Rebekah took the choicest garments of Esau her elder son (lit. great), which were with her in the house, and put them upon Jacob her younger son. (Genesis 27: 15)
וַתִּקַּח רִבְקָה אֶת-בִּגְדֵי עֵשָׂו בְּנָהּ הַגָּדֹל, הַחֲמֻדֹת, אֲשֶׁר אִתָּהּ, בַּבָּיִת; וַתַּלְבֵּשׁ אֶת-יַעֲקֹב, בְּנָהּ הַקָּטָן.

These two verses are referenced in the Pesikta de Rav Kahana in an explanation of Exodus 12:6 which deals with the preparations taken from the 10th of Nisan when a lamb is taken:

and ye shall keep it unto the fourteenth day of the same month; and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it at dusk.
The Pesikta, was compiled by the 8th century is thought to be based on substantially older texts similar to Genesis Rabah. It identifies the lamb with Edom, who it claims, God will make “small”:

The vision of Obadiah. Thus saith the Lord GOD concerning Edom: We have heard a message from the LORD, and an ambassador is sent among the nations: ‘Arise ye, and let us rise up against her in battle.’
Behold, I make thee small among the nations; thou art greatly despised.
חֲזוֹן, עֹבַדְיָה: כֹּה-אָמַר אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה לֶאֱדוֹם, שְׁמוּעָה שָׁמַעְנוּ מֵאֵת יְהוָה וְצִיר בַּגּוֹיִם שֻׁלָּח–קוּמוּ וְנָקוּמָה עָלֶיהָ, לַמִּלְחָמָה.
הִנֵּה קָטֹן נְתַתִּיךָ, בַּגּוֹיִם: בָּזוּי אַתָּה, מְאֹד.

And will slaughter:
The sword of the LORD is filled with blood, it is made fat with fatness, with the blood of lambs and goats, with the fat of the kidneys of rams; for the LORD hath a sacrifice in Bozrah, and a great slaughter in the land of Edom.
חֶרֶב לַיהוָה מָלְאָה דָם, הֻדַּשְׁנָה מֵחֵלֶב, מִדַּם כָּרִים וְעַתּוּדִים, מֵחֵלֶב כִּלְיוֹת אֵילִים: כִּי זֶבַח לַיהוָה בְּבָצְרָה, וְטֶבַח גָּדוֹל בְּאֶרֶץ אֱדוֹם.

Can one assume that the author of this midrash was also aware that Jesus was thought to be “great” (Luke 1”32; Hebrews 1:3-4)

In any case, we can assume that when Shabbat Hagadol (re-)appeared in medieval times, it was used as a polemical tool against Christianity. Similar to the evolution of the removal of leaven, the emphasis for the week before Passover, including the Shabbat before Passover was changed from self reflection to retribution on our external enemies.. with an emphasis on the last plague, the smiting of the First Born (the Big son). (see Yuval p. 218 where he cites tosafot b. Shabbat 87b on connection between Shabbat Hagadol and the first born in Egypt). ***

Israel Yuval argues that Shabbat Hagadol did not exist in Judaism until medieval times. I side with Daniel Boyarin’s argument, that if the synoptic gospels refer to a Jewish Great Sabbath, it is unlikely that it was their innovation, they were certainly claiming an existing Jewish religious/cultural institution as their own.

So what was the nature of the original Jewish (Pre- Christian) Shabbat Hagadol?

According to a response from the thirteenth century a certain Menachem ben Yaakov writes that the Haftora read on this Shabbat was originally Jeremiah 7 (the Haftora we now read for parshat Tzav) but, says Menachem,  since that Haftora contains a rebuke by the prophet that God doesn’t want the Jewish People’s hypocritical sacrifices, it would be too insensitive to use this reading “on the day the they [the Jews] they slaughter the Passover sacrifice. (Yuval p. 223)

It is clear to me, that this is precisely the right Haftora to read when we celebrate the newly created Passover Seder…. after the destruction of the temple and without a Passover sacrifice.

It is also clear to me, that it became impossible to read this Haftora once the competition with Christianity began.   Jesus, after all modeled himself after Jeremiah when he overturned the tables of the money changers in the narrative of the Cleansing of the Temple.

But now that the competition is over… maybe we can read Jeremiah again… it’s powerful stuff for the Great Shabbat before Passover, and in my humble opinion, no one, said it better than Jeremiah.  Here’s a sampling… but you should open up a Bible and read it for yourself…

Have a Great Shabbat…..

Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place.
Trust ye not in lying words, saying: ‘The temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, are these.’
Nay, but if ye thoroughly amend your ways and your doings; if ye thoroughly execute justice between a man and his neighbour;
if ye oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your hurt;
then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, for ever and ever.
Behold, ye trust in lying words, that cannot profit.
Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and offer unto Baal, and walk after other gods whom ye have not known,
and come and stand before Me in this house, whereupon My name is called, and say: ‘We are delivered’, that ye may do all these abominations?
Is this house, whereupon My name is called, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I, even I, have seen it, saith the LORD……
Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD: Behold, Mine anger and My fury shall be poured out upon this place, upon man, and upon beast, and upon the trees of the field, and upon the fruit of the land; and it shall burn, and shall not be quenched.
Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Add your burnt-offerings unto your sacrifices, and eat ye flesh.
For I spoke not unto your fathers, nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt-offerings or sacrifices;
but this thing I commanded them, saying: ‘Hearken unto My voice, and I will be your God, and ye shall be My people; and walk ye in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.’
But they hearkened not, nor inclined their ear, but walked in their own counsels, even in the stubbornness of their evil heart, and went backward and not forward,
even since the day that your fathers came forth out of the land of Egypt unto this day; and though I have sent unto you all My servants the prophets, sending them daily betimes and often,

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* For a full treatment of the repression and reemergence of Shabbat hagadol see: Passover in the Middle Ages, Israel J. Yuval in Passover and Easter – Origin and History to Modern Times Vol 6 pp127 – 160 and The Great Sabbath and Lent: Jewish Origins? By Lawrence Hoffman Passover and Easter – Origin and History to Modern Times Vol 5 pp. 15 – 35.

** Not coincidentally, Malachi 3, 1 -3 is not included since it makes reference to a messenger, which Christians would take to mean; Jesus.
Behold, I send My messenger, and he shall clear the way before Me; and the Lord, whom ye seek, will suddenly come to His temple, and the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in, behold, he cometh, saith the LORD of hosts….. And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver; and there shall be they that shall offer unto the LORD offerings in righteousness.

*** here are the original sources quoted above:
Pesikta

 

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the gospel geniza

getting ready for passover

In the category of Jewish-Christian Dialogue, the award for the best back-handed compliment goes to Pope John Paul II who in 1986 went to a Rome synagogue to pray with the city’s Jewish community. Noting Christianity’s unique bond with Judaism, he said, “You are our beloved brothers … you are our elder brothers” in the faith of Abraham. (see: Catholic News). More recently, Pope Francis described the Jewish people as the “big brothers” of his Roman Catholic flock in words of solidarity marking the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht.

Why a compliment? Because we Jews are raised with a conceit… that Christians cannot possibly understand their religion without understanding Judaism, the religion of Jesus. We may be a minority and have been oppressed, but when all is said and done, our religion preceded and gave birth to Christianity… the two popes exploited this conceit.

Why a backhanded compliment? For those familiar with the Hebrew Bible, you know that the God of the Jews favors the younger brother.. from Cain and Abel until King David and on….

and the elder shall serve the younger. (Genesis 25: 23)
וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר

For a complete analysis of the history of this birth-order election tug-of-war see the brilliant: Two Nations in Your Womb: Perceptions of Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages by Isræl Jacob Yuval.

Why the Award and why now? Now that Christianity and Judaism are getting along so well, we can both agree that neither religion can achieve self-awareness without understanding the other. Both religions can lose their conceits and sense of election and need to admit that they both do not have a well thought out theology which includes the other. *

As Daniel Boyarin argues in his book Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity, both Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity were created in the chaos formed by the loss of the temple and the Jewish Commonwealth in the first centuries of the Common Era. And…. it turns out, both “religions” increasingly defined themselves in counter distinction to the other.

For the purposes of the present discussion, what this means is that both faiths jettisoned beliefs held by the other. So in his more popular book, The Jewish Gospels, Boyarin argues that if the early Christians were looking to convince Jews of their authenticity, it would hardly make sense to cite unheard of concepts and novel ideas to prove that they were the true heir to the throne. If they claimed that Jesus was divinely born and/or needed to be sacrificed, Boyarin argues, that must have been the expectation of the general Jewish population of the day. Similarly, if early Christian Jews claimed that the Godhead had multiple manifestations, then this belief must have been resident among fellow Jews. And in his writings, Boyarin proves that these beliefs were in fact, held by Jews of the time.

As the break between the two religions grew over time, the border lines became less porous. Previously common beliefs, rituals and traditions were divvied up as in a zero sum game.

So the two Popes have my appreciation for reminding me of a once important thread in my tradition, the election of the younger brother, which we jettisoned at the border and had forgotten about to the point where most of us smile with appreciation when we’re referred to by the leader of the Catholic Church as the older brother.

The two Popes get my appreciation, because in our new world where hostilities have ceased and Jewish Christian dialog is fashionable, we Jews are now free to roam around the Gospels (and the rest of Christian scripture, liturgy and literature) to reclaim customs, traditions, rituals, expressions, beliefs and even polemics that we discarded and buried long ago in what I call the Gospel Geniza.

In my next post we’ll explore this treasure trove, hiding in plain sight, for Jewish artifacts that impact the Passover celebration.

Here are some entrées to whet your appetite:

Shabbat Hagadol – see John 19:31 (megalē μεγάλη which means: large, great)
Hametz – See Mark 8:15 “the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod” and the connection between purging leaven and repentance.
Afikomen – broken and hidden, a symbol of the messiah and a lost polemic

fish

* i.e Christians, especially Catholics, have not fully worked out how their older brother need not be rejected and replaced by the younger brother for their new testament (covenant) to be valid, and Jews have not expanded their rudimentary category of natural religion (Noachide Religion) to include other eschatological monotheistic religions such as Christianity which have valid but alternative conceptions of the Godhead and end-of-days.

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kavanah – modeh ani

Madlik goes to shul …

My favorite prayer is the first prayer of the day.  The prayer goes as follows:

modeh-ani

Here’s a nice melody for Modeh Ani:


What’s not to like?
The prayer starts with gratitude.
It is  לפנך …. in the moment.
The prayer does not reference God.
It is a prayer of gratitude, in the abstract, without an address… just gratitude.
It is imminently personal, in the first person (unlike the prayers to follow).
And finally, the first reference to belief (emunah) every day, is not to our faith in…. , but rather in a higher being’s faith in us.

Here’s the source in Lamentations 3:22-23

Surely the LORD’S mercies are not consumed …… They are new every morning; great is Thy faithfulness.

….חַסְדֵי יְהוָה כִּי לֹא-תָמְנוּ

חֲדָשִׁים, לַבְּקָרִים, רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶךָ.

What’s the back story to this gem of a prayer that comes too early in the day for anyone to notice but sets the tone for the whole morning service?

It turns out that the modeh ani prayer was not written by a humanist. The simple reason that God’s name is not mentioned, is that the awakening individual has not yet washed his/her hands so God’s name cannot be spoken. Not surprisingly, the next prayer is the prayer on washing one’s hands. Which begs the question; why not wash one’s hands and then say a proper prayer?

Unlike the simple washing of one’s hands before prayer or study, this first morning wash is done with a blessing.
One is washing one’s hands after a night’s sleep and a night’s sleep was profoundly important to the Rabbis of the Talmud:

Five things are a sixtieth part of something else: namely, fire, honey, Sabbath, sleep and a dream. Fire is one-sixtieth part of Gehinnom. Honey is one-sixtieth part of manna. Sabbath is one-sixtieth part of the world to come. Sleep is one-sixtieth part of death. A dream is one-sixtieth part of prophecy. [Berachot 57b and See: On Prayer: I Thank You by Rabbi Avi Stewart ]

sleep 1 60th
I’ve always enjoyed thinking of Shabbat as a taste of Olam Haba’ah (the world to come), unfortunately, thinking of sleep as a taste of death doesn’t give me the same lift.

But the Rabbis are doing something quite remarkable here. Death lies at the heart of all impurity (tumah) טָמְאָה. Whether one comes into contact with a corpse, menstruates, gives birth to a child, has a nocturnal emission or is afflicted with leprosy, in one form or another one has been separated or deprived of life or exposed to decay. In biblical times, the opposite of tumah was access to the temple upon becoming clean.
The rabbis introduced a radical dogma to post temple Judaism.. the belief in the resurrection of the dead. And in the prayerbook they have an agenda to weave their belief in the ressurection of the dead (techyat Hametim) into our prayers. They start with Modeh Ani.

But here’s the punch line: If sleep is a taste of death, then waking up is a taste of resurrection!

…..or as R. Alexandri interpreted it: From the fact that You renew us every morning, we know that great is Your faithfulness to resurrect the dead.

I’m not a big believer in the resurrection of the dead, but even I consider resurrection of the dead, diluted to 1/60th (batel b’shishim) to be kosher! If when the Rabbis woke up they got a taste of resurrection, when I get up and read the same prayers, I am refreshed with a taste of the possibility of being re-born on a new day… every day!

With this resurrection-lite in hand, I can follow the rabbis through the morning prayers with new insight and gratitude.
If the Shabbat is a taste of a better world, the morning prayers, starting with Modeh Ani become a taste of being reborn…. radical renewal.

Washing our hands and face when we first wake up and again before prayers (something that has remained more within the ritual and sanctuary architecture of Christianity and Islam) should refresh us.

The next place we encounter rejuvenation is Elohie Neshama

elohaineshama2
The prayer is beautiful, but if you have said it before, you may not have noticed the ending.. “who restores souls to dead bodies”. Armed with our understanding of rising in the morning as an exercise in rising from the dead, not only does the prayer make sense, but, as only a taste of rising from the dead, it retains its beauty but with new empowerment.

The other morning blessings also take on new meaning. The whole list of blessings that thank God “who made me “in His image”, “a Jew”, “free” make more sense if we are newly created … each morning.

“Clothing the naked”, “releasing the bound” מתיר אסורים and “straightens the bent” זוקפ כפופים relate directly to the steps of rising in the morning… but also the steps of being born again, and tie directly into  the Ashrei (Psalm 145 and Psalm 146) and the second blessing of the Silent Prayer (amidah). We are beginning to see how central to the theme of the morning service, this thread of reviving the dead becomes.

The climax of the early morning blessings is the last one… Thank you God for giving strength to the weary…which is what I ask of my morning coffee, revival of the dead and which, it appears, is the goal of our morning prayers, if said properly.

As we move on, in the Psalm of Shabbat we pick up this theme again (Psalms 92: 3)

To declare Thy lovingkindness in the morning, and Thy faithfulness in the night,
לְהַגִּיד בַּבֹּקֶר חַסְדֶּךָ; וֶאֱמוּנָתְךָ, בַּלֵּילוֹת
Here again… the faithfulness that is referenced is God’s faith for man…

With Psalm 90 “A Prayer of Moses” we catch up again with earlier, Biblical themes of morning as rebirth and night as sin, decline and death.

For a thousand years in Thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.
Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep; in the morning they are like grass which groweth up.
In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.
For we are consumed in Thine anger, and by Thy wrath are we hurried away.
Thou hast set our iniquities before Thee, our secret sins in the light of Thy countenance.
For all our days are passed away in Thy wrath; we bring our years to an end as a tale that is told….

O satisfy us in the morning with Thy mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.

כִּי אֶלֶף שָׁנִים, בְּעֵינֶיךָ– כְּיוֹם אֶתְמוֹל, כִּי יַעֲבֹר;
וְאַשְׁמוּרָה בַלָּיְלָה.
זְרַמְתָּם, שֵׁנָה יִהְיוּ; בַּבֹּקֶר, כֶּחָצִיר יַחֲלֹף.
בַּבֹּקֶר, יָצִיץ וְחָלָף; לָעֶרֶב, יְמוֹלֵל וְיָבֵשׁ.
כִּי-כָלִינוּ בְאַפֶּךָ; וּבַחֲמָתְךָ נִבְהָלְנוּ.
שת (שַׁתָּה) עֲו‍ֹנֹתֵינוּ לְנֶגְדֶּךָ; עֲלֻמֵנוּ, לִמְאוֹר פָּנֶיךָ.
כִּי כָל-יָמֵינוּ, פָּנוּ בְעֶבְרָתֶךָ; כִּלִּינוּ שָׁנֵינוּ כְמוֹ-הֶגֶה.

שַׂבְּעֵנוּ בַבֹּקֶר חַסְדֶּךָ; וּנְרַנְּנָה וְנִשְׂמְחָה, בְּכָל-יָמֵינוּ.

As mentioned above, we encounter the sources of the early morning blessings in Psalm 145 and Psalm 146

The LORD upholdeth all that fall, and raiseth up all those that are bowed down.

סוֹמֵךְ יְהוָה, לְכָל-הַנֹּפְלִים; וְזוֹקֵף, לְכָל-הַכְּפוּפִים.

Who executeth justice for the oppressed; who giveth bread to the hungry. The LORD looseth the prisoners;
The LORD openeth the eyes of the blind; the LORD raiseth up them that are bowed down; the LORD loveth the righteous;

עֹשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט, לָעֲשׁוּקִים–נֹתֵן לֶחֶם, לָרְעֵבִים; יְהוָה, מַתִּיר אֲסוּרִים.
יְהוָה, פֹּקֵחַ עִוְרִים–יְהוָה, זֹקֵף כְּפוּפִים; יְהוָה, אֹהֵב צַדִּיקִים.

Clearly there are other themes besides waking in the morning and rebirth which the curator of the siddur is weaving into our prayers, but this radical renewal is certainly the first theme and one that is sustained until the Silent prayer; the Amidah.

Here’s the second blessing of the Amidah which recycles many of the terms we have been seeing and adds “those who sleep in the dust לישני עפר to our repertoire:

You are mighty forever, my Lord; You resurrect the dead; You are powerful to save.

He sustains the living with loving kindness, resurrects the dead with great mercy, supports the falling, heals the sick, releases the bound, and fulfills His trust to those who sleep in the dust. Who is like You, mighty One! And who can be compared to You, King, who brings death and restores life, and causes deliverance to spring forth!
You are trustworthy to revive the dead. Blessed are You Lord, who revives the dead.

2nd blessing of amidah

Our theme ends with Modim Anachnu מוֹדִים אֲנַֽחְנוּ, the public version of the very private Modeh Ani מודה אני which which we began our morning. It is not only in the plural, but since the Amidah is chanted morning, afternoon and night, it covers our whole waking day, and besides repeating the sense of dependency it introduces the wonder and awe we have for the miricle that is life.  It ends, as Modeh Ani began; with gratitude (Thanks – הוֹדוֹת).

We thankfully acknowledge that You are the Lord our God and God of our ancestors forever. You are the strength of our life, the shield of our salvation in every generation. We will give thanks to You and recount Your praise, evening, morning and noon, for our lives which are committed into Your hand, for our souls which are entrusted to You, for Your miracles which are with us daily, and for Your continual wonders and beneficences. You are the Beneficent One, for Your mercies never cease; the Merciful One, for Your kindnesses never end; for we always place our hope in You. And for all these, may Your Name, our King, be continually blessed, exalted and extolled forever and all time. And all living things shall forever thank You, and praise Your great Name eternally, for You are good. God, You are our everlasting salvation and help, O benevolent God. Blessed are You Lord, Beneficent is Your Name, and to You it is fitting to offer thanks.

מוֹדִים אֲנַֽחְנוּ לָךְ,
שָׁאַתָּה הוּא, ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵֽינוּ וֵא-לֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵֽינוּ, לְעוֹלָם
וָעֶד,
צוּר חַיֵּֽינוּ, מָגֵן יִשְׁעֵֽנוּ, אַתָּה הוּא לְדוֹר וָדוֹר,
נֽוֹדֶה לְּךָ וּנְסַפֵּר תְּהִלָּתֶֽךָ,
עַל חַיֵּֽינוּ הַמְּסוּרִים בְּיָדֶֽךָ,
וְעַל נִשְׁמוֹתֵֽינוּ הַפְּקוּדוֹת לָךְ,
וְעַל נִסֶּֽיךָ שֶׁבְּכָל יוֹם עִמָּֽנוּ,
וְעַל נִפְלְאוֹתֶֽיךָ וְטוֹבוֹתֶֽיךָ שֶׁבְּכָל עֵת, עֶֽרֶב וָבֹֽקֶר
וְצָהֳרָֽיִם,
הַטּוֹב, כִּי לֹא כָלוּ רַחֲמֶֽיךָ,
וְהַמְרַחֵם, כִּי לֹא תַֽמּוּ חֲסָדֶֽיךָ, מֵעוֹלָם קִוִּֽינוּ לָךְ.
וְעַל כֻּלָּם יִתְבָּרַךְ וְיִתְרוֹמַם שִׁמְךָ מַלְכֵּֽנוּ תָּמִיד
לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד.
וְכֹל הַחַיִּים יוֹדֽוּךָ סֶּֽלָה,
וִיהַלְלוּ אֶת שִׁמְךָ בֶּאֱמֶת,
הָאֵ-ל יְשׁוּעָתֵֽנוּ וְעֶזְרָתֵֽנוּ סֶֽלָה.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, הַטּוֹב שִׁמְךָ וּלְךָ נָאֶה לְהוֹדוֹת.

Looking forward to exploring more themes in Jewish Prayer the future…..

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keep it short

parshat Shemini

So this guy from Crimea is having a press conference and the Russian reporter asks him to describe the “situation” in one word….. “keep it short” he says.  The Ukrainian answers “good”.
“Could you elaborate?” asks a Western reporter.   “Not so good” replies the Ukrainian.

Draw your own social commentary.  For the purposes of this post the joke dramatizes the diametrical difference between short and long.

So Aaron’s sons are consumed by fire for offering a unfamiliar sacrifice.  In a previous post I have argued that they committed the ultimate transgression… they added to God’s command… they played the dangerous game of being Holier than Thou.

Today, I’d like to make it even simpler… Nadab and Abihu committed the ultimate offense… they made the service longer….

And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD. Then Moses said unto Aaron: ‘This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron was still. (Leviticus 10: 1-2)

nadav and avihu

The key phrase is ” before all the people I will be glorified “.

וְעַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָעָם, אֶכָּבֵד

כבוד הציבור

The Mishnah (Yoma 68b) relates that on Yom Kippur the kohen gadol would read two adjacent sections from his sefer torah. A third section, whose location in the Torah was somewhat distant from the former sections, would be read by heart. The Gemara explains that rolling the sefer torah to the relevant location was not an option, “because of the honor of the congregation.”

טורח ציבור

Although the Gemara mentions the honor of the congregation, the idea clearly refers to the familiar concept tircha de-tzibura [”burdening the public.”] — causing the congregation to wait while the sefer torah is rolled. As Rashi explains, the concern was “on account of the congregation’s honor, for they would wait in passive silence[i] [while the Torah was rolled].”

An interesting extrapolation from this halachah relates to public speaking.  In principle, it is forbidden to quote Torah verses by heart: Quotations of scriptural verses must be read from a written text.  Based on the practice of the kohen gadol,  the Mishnah Berurah (49:3) suggests that it might be permitted for somebody engaged in public speaking to cite scriptural verses by heart, for looking up each verse would place a burden (of waiting) on the tzibbur [congregation]. (see: The Halachic Principles of Tircha De-Tzibura, Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer)

To put it another way: A good sermon should be like a woman’s skirt: short enough to arouse interest but long enough to cover the essentials.

The sin of abusing the Jewish People and needlessly lengthening the service, applies not only to the public reading of the Torah,  the Rabbi’s sermon but even to the prayers themselves.

In a statement that seems most surprising, the Gemara (Berachot 12b) writes that it would be fitting for our reading of the Shema to include the passages of Bilam’s blessing. The reason why the section is not included is on account of tircha de-tziburah—”burdening the public.”

The long and short of it is that the sin of Nadab and Abihu was that they made the service longer.

There’s a lot that our Israeli brothers and sisters can learn from the Diaspora in terms of pluralistic Judaism, but one thing that we certainly can learn from the Israelis is how to shorten our services. A 2 ½ – 3 hour service …. Just shoot me!

Would you go to a 2 ½ hour yoga or exercise class?  And what’s with all these instructions and accommodations for the visitors and novices.  If you had been practicing yoga for years, would you really go to a novice yoga class. Isn’t that what beginners services and orientation weekend are for?  If you are an opera aficionado, would you really go to an opera that was translated or where the action was stopped to explain or call a page number? And the audience is told when to clap?

So if you’re interested in the future of Judaism in a modern time-stamped world, keep in mind that the stakes are high … ask Nadab and Abihu!  Remember that the difference between short and long may be the difference between good…. And not so good.

If you want a historical perspective on how our liturgy got so long check out: WHAT HAPPENED TO SHORT PRAYERS? by Woolf Abrahams

I want to keep this post short… so I’ll end with a few quotes regarding length of service from: Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities by Rabbi Elie Kaunfer which provides lessons from the independent minyan at Kehilat Hadar.

I was always confounded by the fact that the Orthodox Shabbat morning service started eating Kiddush while the egalitarian traditional service— using exactly the same prayers— took thirty to forty-five minutes longer. The sixth time Hadar met, in June 2001, we actually finished the entire service in two hours. This was a breakthrough that was critical for the community— we had demonstrated that we didn’t need to cut parts of the service or race through the liturgy at breackneck speed in order to finish davening in a reasonable amount of time. It is a matter of eliminating the “dead time,” finding quality Torah readers who make minimal errors (mistakes always slow down a service), starting on time, and insisting on a brief dvar Torah. [ii]

We fought the notion of Jewish Standard Time in several ways at Kehilat Hadar. We had a very strict rule from day one that we would start the minyan on time, no matter how many people were there. People often complain about the late ending time of synagogue services, but in my experience, the best place to “save time” is at the beginning.[iii]

…. there is also a cost in announcing page numbers. Besides interrupting the flow of the service and the rhythm of the emotional arc, a page number announcement sends a clear message that (1) everyone should be on that page and (2) there is one siddur to use (the one with the page number being announced). In truth, public prayer allows for individual pace and expression much more than a page announcement might imply. …. Finally, announcing pages every week assumes that the congregation will always depend on an announcement to know where the leader is. This gives very little sense of empowerment to the worshiper, even one new to the davening. At what point is he able to find his own way through the service, without the repeated guidance of a page announcement?  It is worth noting, however, that announcing page numbers as a rule diminishes personal engagement with the prayer service and should at least be considered to have costs as well as benefits.[iv]

keep is short


[i] Although I am not arguing that the Biblical source for Kavod Hatzibur and tircha de-tzibura is וְעַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָעָם, אֶכָּבֵד and before all the people I will be glorified…. It is curious that Kavod is linked directly with “silence”.  In the Talmud with the bored silence of the congregation as the Priest, Rabbi or Torah reader fiddles and extends the survice and in the account of Nadab and Abihu, with the silence of their father, Aaron וַיִּדֹּם, אַהֲרֹן.

[ii] Kaunfer, Rabbi Elie (2010-02-01). Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities (Kindle Locations 930-935). Jewish Lights Pub. Kindle Edition.

[iii] Kaunfer ibid (Kindle Locations 868-871)

[iv] Ibid (2240 – 2251)

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temples on the move

parshat pekudei

The Bible spends an inordinate amount of time prescribing, describing and cataloging the construction of the Tabernacle. You’re forgiven if you missed the punch-line:

33 ….. So Moses finished the work.
34 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.
36 And whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the children of Israel went onward, throughout all their journeys.
37 But if the cloud was not taken up, then they journeyed not till the day that it was taken up.

The climax is that after all the effort… the glory of God actually filled the place. Anti-climactic you say! Well, think of all the temples, synagogues, and shrines that are sterile and empty of all things divine and most things human. Think of all the building campaigns that drag on and on and when finally completed lose all sense of original and ultimate purpose and mission.

To put into perspective the accomplishment of receiving God’s glory into the Tabernacle, it’s a little known fact that there were many Jews who believed that the glory of God never favored the Second Temple with It’s presence. That’s right… the Western Wall of the 2nd Temple that pious Jews pray at, framed a temple that lacked its most basic requirement.. God’s glory.

When Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers, he was acting out a disdain shared by the majority of Jewish sects of time:

The second temple.. although authorized by the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, was built by a gentile king and was never authenticated by an overt sign of divine favor. Second Isaiah, … is aware that some Jews do not approve of God’s plan (“Woe to him who strives with his maker, and earthen vessel with the potter! Does the clay say to him who fashions it, ‘What are you making’? Isaiah 45:9). The old men who had seen the first temple in its glory cried at the dedication of the second temple (Ezra 3:12) – apparently tears of sadness, as they contemplated the puny temple that was before them. In the second century B.C.E., the temple’s problematic status was revealed to all. The high priests were corrupted and the temple was profaned by a gentile monarch.… Herod the Great rebuilt the temple magnificently, but his detractors viewed him as a “half-Jew,” he completely debased the high priesthood, appointing men who had even less claim than the Maccabees to be legitimate successors of Aaron.

Shaye J. D. Cohen, Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations of Harvard University (quoted above) argues that it was the implicit false claims of the second temple that were primarily responsible for the emergence of sects such as the Essenes of Qumran and Dead Sea Scroll fame, the early Christians and even the Rabbinic Pharisees.  [From the Maccabees to the Mishnah by Shaye J. D. Cohen (Nov 1988) pages 131-132]

Today, in America, as Judaism confronts new challenges, we don’t expect the glory of God to grace our congregations, but we do look for validation by attendance. If in the first millennium, Jews left the temple because God’s glory was absent, in the second millennium we can register the absence of God’s glory when the Jews are missing.

As Solomon Schechter, the founder of The Jewish Theological Seminary and patriarch of the Conservative Movement said:

“Every generation,” the ancient Rabbis say, “which did not live to see the rebuilding of the Holy Temple must consider itself as if it had witnessed its destruction.” Similarly we say that every age which has not made some essential contribution to the erection of the Temple of Truth … is bound to look upon itself as if it had been instrumental in its demolition. For it is these fresh contributions and the opening of new sources, with the new currents they create, that keep the intellectual and the spiritual atmosphere in motion and impart to it life and vigor. But when, through mental inertia and moral sloth, these fresh sources are allowed to dry, stagnation and decay are sure to set in. The same things happen which came’ to pass when Israel’s sanctuary was consumed in fire. [Inaugural Address, delivered November 20, 1902, Seminary Addresses and other papers by Solomon Schechter, The Burning Book Press, 1959 p 18]

Boredom, not the glory of God, is what characterizes our modern day temples… as Jay Michaelson wrote recently in The Forward describing a friend’s choice of Synagogue:

Lifelong liberal, egalitarian Jews, my friend and his wife nonetheless chose the Orthodox synagogue. Perhaps surprisingly, she was more comfortable there than he was. Yes, my friend’s wife said, she resented being excluded from participation in ritual, but at least at the Orthodox synagogue, she had access to some meaningful prayer experience. The only thing egalitarian about the more liberal settings was that everyone was equally bored.

It seems to me that those of us who are in the shul business…. and there’s no business like shul business …. spend too much time discussing rituals, standards and ideology… as important as these issues might be.  Whether it is same-sex marriage, egalitarianism, musical instruments, microphones on the Sabbath or even mechitzot (separation of men and women). These are important items but they have no bearing on whether our sanctuaries are boring or inspired.

Perhaps it is the set standards  of Orthodox congregations, especially Chabad congregations which spares them the debate on these ritual issues and which permits them to focus on inspiration.  I know that my Orthodox friends may disagree, but I just can’t accept the premise that egalitarian seating and a microphone contributes to the sterility and boredom in many progressive synagogues.  We have to move beyond our standards and focus on that which engages and inspires us. (read Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities by Rabbi Elie Kaunfer for more on this)

As a member of a Conservative Synagogue I worry about Shechter’s  “stagnation and decay” and take solace that Shechter’s movement gave birth to Havurah and Recontructionist Judaism.  At it’s core, the Conservative Movement, which today shows little movement, should be the petri dish for Jews to become more knowledgeable and for knowledgeable Jews to explore and create.  Most of all, the Conservative Movement needs to stop it’s incessant and pointless fixation with defining it’s place in the middle and instead provide an avenue for Jews to experiment and branch out.

As Scott Shays writes:

American Jewry needs the Conservative Movement to reinvent itself as a broad-spectrum association based on practice, not theology that encourages its members to reach achievable goals. Through these efforts, Conservative Jews will pioneer and illuminate the vastness of terrain between Reform and Orthodoxy.  Conservative Judaism can become the first “post-denominational” movement for Jews who feel disaffected from the way the traditional Movements are structured.  [Getting Our Groove Back: How to Energize American Jewry by Scott A. Shay, 2006 Devora Publishing pp 24 – 25]

At the end of the day, the message of the tabernacle; the first successful Jewish temple, was not so much that “the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.” The real battle cry of the tabernacle was that “whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the children of Israel went onward.”

The message of the Tabernacle is that our so-called “movements” should actually move! If your temple is not experimenting and taking risks to keep “the intellectual and the spiritual atmosphere in motion” it is failing you and the Jewish endeavor. If your congregation has talked about hosting an independent minyan but has flinched, if it’s only attempt to make the weekly reading of the Torah relevant is to switch to a triennial cycle .. then shame on it and you. If your shul is not moving forward, then it is moving backward and its time to imitate the Divine Glory and move .


Solomon Schechter

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39 ways to break the sabbath

parshat vayakhel

The Torah gives minimal guidelines for the observance of it’s signature social institution – the Sabbath.  When first introduced in Genesis, the concept is fairly simple… God rested and so should we.  On the Sabbath, Man like God should stop dominating and changing nature and should un-plug and peace-out for one day a week.

And God blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it; because that in it He rested from all His work which God in creating had made. (Genesis 2, 3)

וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶת-יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, וַיְקַדֵּשׁ אֹתוֹ: כִּי בוֹ שָׁבַת מִכָּל-מְלַאכְתּוֹ, אֲשֶׁר-בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים לַעֲשׂוֹת

In light of the Exodus from Egypt, the Torah adds a social-political element to Sabbath observance:

Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work; but the seventh day is a sabbath unto the LORD thy God, in it thou shalt not do any manner of work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy man-servant, nor thy maid-servant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; that thy man-servant and thy maid-servant may rest as well as thou. And thou shalt remember that thou was a servant in the land of Egypt, and the LORD thy God brought thee out thence by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day. (Deuteronomy 5, 12-14)

שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲבֹד, וְעָשִׂיתָ כָּל-מְלַאכְתֶּךָ.

וְיוֹם, הַשְּׁבִיעִי–שַׁבָּת, לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ: לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה כָל-מְלָאכָה אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ-וּבִתֶּךָ וְעַבְדְּךָ-וַאֲמָתֶךָ וְשׁוֹרְךָ וַחֲמֹרְךָ וְכָל-בְּהֶמְתֶּךָ, וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ–לְמַעַן יָנוּחַ עַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתְךָ, כָּמוֹךָ.

וְזָכַרְתָּ, כִּי עֶבֶד הָיִיתָ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, וַיֹּצִאֲךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מִשָּׁם, בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה; עַל-כֵּן, צִוְּךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לַעֲשׂוֹת, אֶת-יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת

The only definition and/or practical  example of work ( מלכה ) comes in Exodus 35 where we are instructed not to kindle a fire ( לֹא-תְבַעֲרוּ אֵשׁ ):

1 And Moses assembled all the congregation of the children of Israel, and said unto them: ‘These are the words which the LORD hath commanded, that ye should do them.
2 Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of solemn rest to the LORD; whosoever doeth any work therein shall be put to death.
3 Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day.’
4 And Moses spoke unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, saying: ‘This is the thing which the LORD commanded, saying:
5 Take ye from among you an offering unto the LORD, whosoever is of a willing heart, let him bring it, the LORD’S offering: gold, and silver, and brass;
6 and blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine linen, and goats’ hair; etc. etc. etc.

10 And let every wise-hearted man among you come, and make all that the LORD hath commanded:
11 the tabernacle, its tent, and its covering, its clasps, and its boards, its bars, its pillars, and its sockets; etc. etc. etc (Exodus 35:1-11)

וכו וכו

I quote at length and in context because the Rabbis, in their characteristic need to define and quantify simple and straightforward provisions…. take off here.

Rabbi Hanina bar Hama learns from the fact that the admonition of the Shabbat is mentioned next to the description of the actual building of the tabernacle that the labors forbidden on the Sabbath in Exodus 35:2 correspond to the 39 labors (lit. forty less one”) necessary to construct the Tabernacle. (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 49b.)

For a complete and wonderful explanation of each and every one of the 39 types of labor … feel free to visit Wikipedia Activities prohibited on Shabbat, in particular see the treatment of: winnowing/sorting Hebrew: בורר which is responsible for the invention of Gefilte Fish,* and cooking בישול  for which we are in debt for the invention of Chulent.

So we owe the Talmudic Rabbis thanks for at least two good recipes, even if we question their preoccupation with complicating the simple and using questionable methods of textual analysis. ~

The truth is, it could have been a lot worse! There were Jewish sects around at the time that were a lot more restrictive. Josephus says that the Essenes are “stricter than all the Jews in abstaining from work on the Sabbath” (Jewish Wars. II.147). In all probability, (and based on a strict interpretation of Exodus 35:3 [Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations] the Essenes sat in the dark on the Sabbath rather than benefit from a lit candle and the Samaritans were even stricter then the Essenes. … Those Samaritans are reported to have refrained from travelling from house to house, taking their hands out of their sleeves and even try to remain in the position in which he or she was overtaken on the Sabbath, until the Sabbath was over. It seems that these Samaritans had a very strict interpretation of Exodus 16:29, “Remain every man where he is; let no man go from his place on the seventh day”. According to Josephus, the Essenes would not move a vessel or …… go to the bathroom on the seventh day! (Josephus Jewish Wars. II.147).. See: The Samaritans: Their Religion, Literature, Society and Culture by Alan David Crown , Mohr Siebeck, 1989 – History – 865 pages pages 315 331-332 see also fellow heterodox blogger anadder and his blog entry: No Shitting on the Shabbat.

The truth is that the way that Jews have observed the Shabbat is extremely varied and, in my opinion … all valid.  Shaye Cohen, a groundbreaking scholar at Harvard has shown in an article entitled Dancing, Clapping, Meditating: Jewish and Christian Observance of the Sabbath in Pseudo-Ignatius that Jews clapped, danced (men), danced on balconies (women), swam and even went to the theater in their observance of a day of rest. .. Nowadays, some Jews (who I shall not name) even write their parsha blog on the Shabbat… (after a busy week, that is)

So shame on us if we judge or preconceive Shabbat observance.  As Heschel believed, the Shabbat is a temple (mishkan) in time… and in it… there’s room for all of us…. Maybe that’s why an admonition to keep the Sabbath was textually connected to the building of the Mishkan, otherwise know as the Tent of Meeting…

Sorting or “winnowing” usually refers exclusively to the separation of chaff from grain, but in the Talmudic sense it refers to any separation of intermixed materials which renders edible that which was inedible. Thus, filtering undrinkable water to make it drinkable falls under this category, as does picking small bones from fish.

~  The Rabbis of the Talmud provided rules by which biblical texts could be interpreted such as the Thirteen Rules of Rav Yishmael found in the morning service of a traditional prayer book.

[For a discussion of these types of rules and how they may be similar to rules created by the Greek rhetors see Rabbinic Interpretation of Scripture in Hellenism in Jewish Palestine by Saul Lieberman]

To my knowledge, you will not find a rule such as that used here by Rabbi Hanina bar Hama that when facts or incidents are placed near one another in the Bible, one can derive a lesson from just that juxtaposition.

If I were writing a Biblical commentary I would suggest that the writer or editor of the Bible, by juxtaposing the Shabbat to the Tabernacle, was suggesting that the ends don’t justify the means, and that when you go ahead and build your Priestly temple… you should still remember the revolution of the workers that started this whole movement… and don’t work or have the workers work on the Sabbath.

Be that as it may…. you can in any case see that the Rabbis were fumbling to find a reason for an oral tradition of 39 activities… that they already knew about.

waiting for a bus on Shabbat

waiting for a bus on Shabbat

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Amy Sillman and the Shulchan Aruch

Jewish thought bubbles

I had the pleasure of viewing Amy Sillman: one lump or two, the current exhibit at ICA; THE INSTITUTE OF CONTEMPORARY ART/BOSTON.

I was particularly intrigued by her Seating Charts.

Amy Sillman seating combo 1

Amy Sillman Seating Charts 2006 and 2011

Sebastian Smee writes in a review in The Boston Globe:

In the process of introducing us to her talents in gouache, watercolor, oil paint, and iPhone app, the show’s first two rooms contain several examples of an ongoing series called “Seating Charts.” Mordant excoriations of social life in New York’s art world, these text-heavy diagrams spell out the kinds of silent assessment we all instinctively make in the social arena.

One person is identified, for instance, as “Frustrated artist who still has her beautiful looks but who also has financial problems that keep her up at night. She can’t reconcile her beauty with her difficult row to hoe.” Another is summed up more bluntly: “Guy who’s really a fraud and just there to suck up to the curator at the next table (keeps looking over . . . ).”

Another “Seating Chart,” this one describing guests at a benefit dinner, is pithier still: “Strange rich woman with snazzy wardrobe and frizzy hair.” “Money guy — can’t wait to leave – keeps checking time — can’t remember if he fed the dog.” And “Plus one — only here by accident.”

The humor is sharp. But it goes beyond humor into a kind of pathos that runs all through Sillman’s work: the pathos of being unable to transpose our own thought bubbles into social life; the fraudulent feeling of having to operate continuously in two registers.

The reviewer hits the mark as to how these works relate to Sillman’s oeuvre, humor and artistic contribution.  But since Art is about what the viewer brings to the table (forgive the pun) I can be excused for viewing these works through a more Talmudic lens…

Amy Sillman seating combo 2

Amy Sillman, Seating Plan 2009

Amy Sillman Seating Chart, 2009       Babylonian Talmud, Vilna Edition

Or if you draw and study Talmud outside of the lines……

Amy Sillman, Untitled (seating chart), 2009   GStern Talmud glosses 1970's

Amy Sillman, Untitled (seating chart), 2009       G Stern gloss on Talmud 1970’s

I am not the first to compare Jewish Law to dinnerware, in fact the preeminent code of Jewish law was called The Shulchan Aruch (Hebrew: שׁוּלחָן עָרוּך‎, literally: “Set Table”) authored in Safed by Sefardic scholar Yosef Karo in 1563.   Ashkenazi Jews follow rulings of Moses Isserles whose glosses to the Shulchan Aruch are widely referred to as the mappah (literally: the “tablecloth”).  Commentaries on the work include Peri Chadash (“New Fruit”) and Megadim (“Dainty Fruit”) culminating in the early 20th century work  Aruch HaShulchan (Hebrew: ערוך השולחן) (“the table is set”)  which attempts to remaster the original recipes of the overly processed rulings of the Shulchan Arukh and identify their sources.

With all the wonderful mixed metaphors of tables, fancy cloths and sweet fruits, there’s a bitter irony here.

Remember: Jewish Law was to be a vibrant and dynamic oral law.  It should come as no surprise that Karo himself had no very high opinion of his work, remarking that he had written it chiefly for “young students” (Shulchan Aruch, Introduction).  Karo wrote the Shulchan Aruch for the benefit of those who did not possess the education necessary to understand the earlier works that included multiple rulings, opinions and ambiguity.  We should be thankful that Karo had not lived to see the Sparknotes version of his work; The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (Hebrew: קיצור שולחן ערוך, “The Abbreviated Shulchan Aruch“.

Today, like every day for the next 6 1/2 years, literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud, along with Jews around the world and trying to make some sense of it weekly in Tablet : Close Encounters With Talmud.  It’a a heroic task, but as anyone who has tried to swim in the sea of Talmud will admit, our oral law, committed to writing, like Amy Sillman’s Seating Charts, are tortured endeavors full of the pathos of being unable to transpose our own cultural and religious thought bubbles into social life…

So why bother?  Why does Amy still go to these meetings, dinners and receptions?  Why do we still study these texts? I guess it’s like the Woody Allen joke “you know, a guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says, hey doc, my brother’s crazy! He thinks he’s a chicken. Then the doc says, why don’t you turn him in? Then the guy says, I would but I need the eggs.”

If Amy doesn’t lunch with these choice specimens of social life in New York’s art world… What’s she going to draw about?  If we don’t (hopefully) discuss the competing and contradictory texts and ideas of our religious and cultural heritage over the shabbat and holiday table ….  What will become of us?

Be honest… What are the alternatives? Schlepping our thought bubbles around with us on a ball and chain like a prisoner in solitary?

Amy Sillman Me & Ugly Montain 2003

Amy Sillman Me & Ugly Montain 2003

note: Want to read madlik on  parshat lech lecha? please click here:  walking without pretext.

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Shabbat HaGadol is a Big Deal

Shabbat Hagadol

The Shabbat before Passover is widely referred to as Shabbat hagadol, the Big or Great Shabbat which is not a big deal.  What is a big deal is that no Jewish source refers to the Shabbat in this way before the year 1000, and …. the earliest reference to the Great Sabbath is actually in The New Testament (John 19:31) where the crucifixion occurs on the Friday before Passover which..   “was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a great Sabbath.” (The greek word used is: megalē μεγάλη which means: large, great).  In fact, In early Christianity, “The Great Sabbath” denoted the Sabbath before Easter.

A 12th Century Jewish source claims that Jews call it the Great Shabbat, but they don’t know why because it is no greater than the other Shabbats (Machzor Vitry). Rashi actually writes that the customary lengthy Shabbat HaGadol sermon makes this Shabbat drag. And, he says, this is why it is called Shabbat HaGadol – gadol in the sense of “long/protracted.”

Leopold Zunz, the 19th century founder of Jewish Studies raised the possibility that the Jews had borrowed the term “Great Sabbath” from their Christian environment which makes little sense.  What makes more sense, especially based on recent research by scholars such as Daniel Boyarin (The Jewish Gospels), is that Christian sources have preserved a common Jewish belief and custom which, once embraced by the Christian offshoot, was repressed within Judaism.

After close to 1000 years, Shabbat Hagadol began to reemerge into Ashkenazi circles.  “The uniqueness was expressed in the choice of a new Hafarah portion, Malachi 3, because of its fitting conclusion that anticipated the coming of Eliza and thereafter, “the great and terrible day of God.”  Shabbat hagadol thus took it place in Ashkenaz as a Sabbath equal to the four special Sabbaths designated in the Mishnah for the (prior) month of Adar.” (for a full treatment of the repression and reemergence of Shabbat hagadol see: Passover in the Middle Ages, Israel J. Yuval in Passover and Easter – Origin and History to Modern Times Vol 6 pp127 – 160 and The Great Sabbath and Lent: Jewish Origins? By Lawrence Hoffman Passover and Easter – Origin and History to Modern Times Vol 5 pp. 15 – 35).

The reason that the millennium long repression of the Great Sabbath is such a big deal is that in rebounding to Christianity’s embrace of the Great Sabbath, we repressed not only the Great Sabbath but lost a critical element of Passover… the month-long preparation for Passover.

You see that just as Lent (which means “long” and signifies the lengthening of days and the beginning of Spring) starts with a Carnival and a Mardi Gras and signifies the practice of the last days of eating richer, fatty foods before the ritual fasting of the Lenten season, so too, Purim welcomes in a similar period before Passover where Jews were to engage in introspection and repentance.  The purging of Leaven was not something done the night before the holiday when looking for a few symbolic crumbs, but was a month long period of preparation, when sin was to be removed.

4 And there shall be no leaven (שְׂאֹר) seen with thee in all they borders seven days; … (Deuteronomy 16: 1 – 4)

It turns out that leavened (unlike matzo) is a symbol which was part of the vernacular of the ancient world and whose significance was readily understood not only within Judaism, but also Christianity and Arab – indo-Iranian groups in the ancient near east.

We first find Leavened in the Bible in Leviticus 2: 11:

11 No meal-offering, which ye shall bring unto the LORD, shall be made with leaven; for ye shall make no leaven, nor any honey, smoke as an offering made by fire unto the LORD.

כָּל-הַמִּנְחָה, אֲשֶׁר תַּקְרִיבוּ לַיהוָה–לֹא תֵעָשֶׂה, חָמֵץ
כִּי כָל-שְׂאֹר וְכָל-דְּבַשׁ, לֹא-תַקְטִירוּ מִמֶּנּוּ אִשֶּׁה לַיהוָה

In his scholarly commentary on Leviticus, Jacob Milgrom writes regarding leavened . . . leaven. hames . . . se’or.:

The difference between the two is that se’or leavens the dough and the leavened dough is called hiimes” (Yahel ‘Or). … Similarly, Akk. emesu ‘be sour’ and emsu ‘sour’ (adi.) are used in connection with wine, vinegar, beer, fruit, or leavened bread, in other words, with foods that have fermented and, in the case of bread, to which leaven has been added. Fermentation is equivalent to decay and corruption and for this reason is prohibited on the altar.

“Leaven in the dough” is a common rabbinic metaphor for man’s evil propensities (e.g., Babylonian Talmud Berachot  17a).

“Sovereign of the Universe, it is well known to You that it is our will to do Your will. Who prevents us from doing so? The leavening agent in the dough (the evil inclination within us) and our subservience to the nations. May it be Your will to save us from these so that we can return to fulfilling Your commandments wholeheartedly.” Prayer of Rabbi Alexandrai

The New Testament mentions “the leaven of malice and wickedness”

Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened [bread] of sincerity and truth. [Corinthians 5:8] and “the leaven of the Pharisees,” which is “hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1; d. Mark 8:15).

This view is shared by the ancients:

“Leaven itself comes from corruption, and corrupts the dough with which it is mixed . . . and in general, fermentation seems to be a kind of putrefaction” (Plutarch, Quaest. Rom. 109). Plutarch records that the Roman high priest (Flamen Dialis) was forbidden even to touch leaven (ibid.). To be sure, all of the above-cited references stem from late antiquity (Christian, rabbinic, and Hellenistic sources), but they undoubtedly reflect an older and universal regard of leaven as the arch-symbol of fermentation:’ deterioration, and death and, hence, taboo on the altar of blessing and life. [pp 188-9 Leviticus 1-16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary Anchor Bible, Vol. 3, Jacob Milgrom]

Listen to what Philo of Alexandria (representing the Jewish Hellenistics) wrote:

Leaven is forbidden because of the rising which it produces. Here again we have a symbol of the truth, that none as he approaches the altar should be uplifted or puffed up by arrogance; rather gazing on the greatness of God, let him gain a perception of the weakness which belongs to the creature, even though he may be superior to others in prosperity; and having been thus led to the reasonable conclusion, let him reduce the overweening exaltation of his pride by laying low that pestilent enemy, conceit. …. For naked you came into the world, worthy sir, and naked will you again depart, and the span of time between your birth and death is a loan to you from God. During this span what can be meet for you to do but to study fellow-feeling and goodwill and equity and humanity and what else belongs to virtue, and to cast away the inequitable, unrighteous and unforgiving viciousness which turns man, naturally the most civilized of creatures, into a wild and ferocious animal! (Philo,The Special Laws, Book I, 293-295 quoted in The Passover Anthology, Philip Goodman).

My guess is that if someone in 1st – 3rd Century CE had asked a Jew, a Hellenist, an early Christian or even a local pagan whether he had gotten rid of his leaven… the respondent may have hesitated and wondered whether the subject of conversation was old pita in his kitchen cabinet or the worker conditions in his sweat shop.

It is surprising that the symbolism of the purging of leaven as a metaphor for introspection and repentance seems not to appear in the Haggada directly itself and is relegated to the commentaries as meta-interpretation.  In fact, the removal, nullification and prohibition to own leaven is not mentioned during the Seder service all… surprising since at least half of the effort in preparing a seder goes into making the home hametz-free! (“On all other nights we eat Hametz and matzo .. on this night we eat only matzoh” does not count.. since the emphasis is on eating matzoh, not clearing and nullifying hametz.)

To be sure, for the Hasidic or more mystically inclined who recite a meditation (kavanah) before or after the Bedikat and Biur Hametz (search and nullification of the leaven) ritual, there is mention of leaven as a metaphor for impurity:

May it be Your will, Lord, our G-d and G-d of our fathers, that just as I remove the chametz from my house and from my possession, so shall You remove all the extraneous forces. Remove the spirit of impurity from the earth, remove our evil inclination from us, and grant us a heart of flesh to serve You in truth. Make all the sitra achara, all the kelipot, and all wickedness be consumed in smoke, and remove the dominion of evil from the earth. Remove with a spirit of destruction and a spirit of judgment all that distress the Shechina, just as You destroyed Egypt and its idols in those days, at this time. Amen, Selah.

But the sense of leaven as representing decay, corruption and arrogance is lost.

It occurred to me that while we Jews do our cleaning during our first month Nissan, Persians at the outset of the Iranian Norouz, (the Persian new year, which falls on the first day of spring) continue the practice of “khooneh tekouni” which literally means “shaking the house”? Everything in the house is thoroughly cleaned, from the drapes to the furniture.

Similarly Lent comes from the word length.. as in the longer days of spring. Instead of Ash Wednesday, the Eastern Church celebrates Clean Monday, otherwise known as Ash Monday. According to Wikipidia:

The common term for this day, “Clean Monday”, refers to the leaving behind of sinful attitudes and non-fasting foods. It is sometimes called “Ash Monday,” by analogy with Ash Wednesday (the day when the Western Churches begin Lent). …. Liturgically, Clean Monday—and thus Lent itself—begins on the preceding (Sunday) night, at a special service called Forgiveness Vespers, which culminates with the Ceremony of Mutual Forgiveness, at which all present will bow down before one another and ask forgiveness. In this way, the faithful begin Lent with a clean conscience, with forgiveness, and with renewed Christian love. The entire first week of Great Lent is often referred to as “Clean Week,” and it is customary to go to Confession during this week, and to clean the house thoroughly.

The fact that so many other competing religions, especially Christianity, retained the spring-purification rites may explain why it’s symbolism became muted in Judaism. (The: “the leaven of the Pharisees,” snipe does not help.) But for whatever the reason, it seems to me that a reintegration of this critical element of the Passover message is overdue, especially because the Jewish version of spring-purification message is uniquely political… it combines the Exodus-Revolution.. with spring purification…

The unique Spring message of Passover is that in every spring and in every generation, each person and every people needs to look within and at the ruling powers. We have to root out the corruption, pride, arrogance, decay and death that is the “leaven in the dough”, both in our souls and in our public squares… we need to weed out arrogance in our souls but also in our Pharaohs… This political element to the nullification of leaven is uniquely Jewish.

And that is a big deal.

Let us reintegrate the political and spiritual, social and ethical message of the awakening of spring and purging/abstinence from decay and corruption into our Passover celebration.

Let us make note that most haggadot, especially older illuminated ones, don’t start with kiddush, but rather with the search for leaven…. even though the search and nullification of leaven takes place before the onset of the holiday and holiday service… as if to say… that little search with the candle and wooden spoon is actually a big deal….

hametz

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