Category Archives: Sabbath

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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Filed under Bible, Jewish jesus, Judaism, Sabbath, Shabbat, Torah, Uncategorized, women's rights

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


Filed under Bible, Hebrew, Israel, Judaism, Religion, Sabbath, Shabbat, social commentary, Torah, Uncategorized

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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Filed under Amy Sillman, art, Judaism, Religion, Sabbath, Shabbat, social commentary, Torah, Uncategorized

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….


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Filed under Bible, Israel, Jewish jesus, Judaism, Religion, Sabbath, Shabbat, social commentary, Torah

concealed weapons

“The entire Torah is for the sake of the ways of shalom” says the Talmud (Gittin 59b) so we should not be surprised that the Torah shows an aversion to weapons.

In Exodus 20: 22 it is written:

And if you make Me an altar of stone, you shalt not build it of hewn stones; for if you lift up your sword upon it, and profane it.

וְאִם-מִזְבַּח אֲבָנִים תַּעֲשֶׂה-לִּי, לֹא-תִבְנֶה אֶתְהֶן גָּזִית

כִּי חַרְבְּךָ הֵנַפְתָּ עָלֶיהָ, וַתְּחַלְלֶהָ.

Rashi comments: and profane it Thus you have learned that if you wield iron upon it, you have profaned it, for the altar was created to lengthen man’s days, and iron was created to shorten man’s days [because it is used to make swords]. It is improper that the “shortener” be wielded over the “lengthener” (Middoth 3:4). Moreover, the altar makes peace between Israel and their Father in heaven. Therefore, the cutter and destroyer shall not come upon it. The matter is a kal vachomer [an argument from a lenient law to a strict law] -if [concerning the] stones, which neither see, hear, nor speak, because [of the fact that] they make peace, the Torah said, “You shall not wield iron upon them” (Deut. 27:5), how much more [are we certain that] one who makes peace between husband and wife, between family and family, between man and his fellow, will have no troubles befall him! [from Mechilta]

תחללה: הא למדת, שאם הנפת עליה ברזל חללת, שהמזבח נברא להאריך ימיו של אדם, והברזל נברא לקצר ימיו של אדם, אין זה בדין, שיונף המקצר על המאריך. ועוד, שהמזבח מטיל שלום בין ישראל לאביהם שבשמים, לפיכך לא יבא עליו כורת ומחבל. והרי דברים קל וחומר ומה אבנים שאינם רואות ולא שומעות ולא מדברות על ידי שמטילות שלום אמרה תורה לא תניף עליהם ברזל, המטיל שלום בין איש לאשתו, בין משפחה למשפחה, בין אדם לחבירו, על אחת כמה וכמה שלא תבואהו פורענות

The altar was to be made of natural “found” stones.

In a variation on this theme, all of the stone that was hewn many years later to build King Solomon’s Temple were to be cut off-site:

For the house, when it was in building, was built of stone made ready at the quarry; and there was neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron heard in the house, while it was in building. (1 Kings 6:7)

וְהַבַּיִת, בְּהִבָּנֹתוֹ–אֶבֶן-שְׁלֵמָה מַסָּע, נִבְנָה;

וּמַקָּבוֹת וְהַגַּרְזֶן כָּל-כְּלִי בַרְזֶל, לֹא-נִשְׁמַע בַּבַּיִת בְּהִבָּנֹתוֹ.

This variation against cutting stones at the Temple-site introduces a new element to the aversion with weapons.  Not only do weapons shorten, cut and destroy… they also make noise.   In striking contrast to the noise of violence, the alter and the Temple conveyed the peace and quiet of Shalom.

It is an powerful visual to think of a building being built in silence. As a poet in the 19th Century wrote:

“No workman’s steel, no ponderous axes rung;
Like some tall palm, the noiseless fabric sprung.”

In still one more variation on the theme of concealing the weapon is the notion and inherent value of  irregularity and serendipity.    The Altar after all was made of found objects.  Peace comes  when we live and let live…  when we grow to accept that which we cannot control with our tools and weapons… when we accept, nay embrace that which is alien to us.

The fact that all of the stones for the Temple had to be shaped off-site, meant that either the builders were great craftsmen, or once in a while they goofed.  According to the Midrash[i], the whole Temple was complete except one opening at the top, over the holy of holies.  The opening was irregular (pick your synonym, different, quer, strange, etc) and none of the pre-cut stones would fit.  Finally, one of the builders recalled a stone that had been rejected during construction and discarded, which was retrieved and became the cornerstone of the Holy Temple…

The stone which the builders rejected is become the chief corner-stone. (Pslams 118: 22)

אֶבֶן, מָאֲסוּ הַבּוֹנִים–    הָיְתָה, לְרֹאשׁ פִּנָּה

The Temple and its altar are long gone (they should rest in peace…) but according to Jewish tradition, the home has become our Temple and the dinner table, especially the Shabbat dinner table has become our alter (see Ethics of our Fathers 3:3).  The challah bread have become the Temple Showbread.

It is the home and the Shabbat table which now brings peace between Man and Woman, humanity and God and so it is at the Shabbat table, in the cutting of the Challah that the Torah’s aversion to weapons survives.[ii]

Some Jews have the custom of not using a knife at all, and tear the challah[iii].  Some have the custom of concealing the challah knife under the challah cover.  At a certain point in time, innovative craftsmen came up with the idea of creating a special cutting board just for challah which contained a sheaf into which the knife could be inserted and concealed when not in use… Many challah boards today have a channel cut into their side to hold (conceal) the challah knife.

My favorite solution came from what i imagine was an enterprising knife-smith who adapted and modified the pocket knife (also known as a jackknife[iv]) and created a Holy Shabbos pocket knife where the offensive blade could be concealed when not in use.

Shabbat Jack Knife

Pictured, is a rare folding Shabbat Challah knife, set with ivory or bone, and inscribed in Hebrew with the words “Holy Sabbath” Length 14cm. [v]

I have a collection of these knives which started when my Grandmother (Henrietta Stern) gave me hers and I hope to collect enough so that I can distribute to my children in grandchildren one day..

Whatever custom you follow (or choose to adapt) cut your Challah well….  There are ancient lessons to be learnt.  Lessons about the overwhelming importance of peace, the sounds of silence, the miracle of serendipity and the need  to honor things and people that don’t appear to fit in.

Shabbat Shalom!

[i] I need the original Jewish source for this… I have only found it quoted by Christian sources (See for example Acts

By H. A. Ironside page 58.

“The story goes that when the temple of Solomon was in the course of contruction all the stones sent up from the quarry below were practically of the same size and shape.  But one day a stone was found different from all the rest, and the builders said, “There is no place for this stone.  There must be a mistake.” So they rolled it to the edge of the cliff and tumbled it down into the valley of Kedron below the temple area.  As the years went on (Solomon’s temple was seven years in building), they were finally ready for the chief cornerstone, so they sent down the order for it.  They were told, “You must have it there.  We sent it long ago.” Their search proved fruitless.  And then an old workman said, “I remember now.  There was a stone different from the rest.  We thought there was no place for it and tumbled it down to the valley below.”  So as the story tells us, they went down the valley of kedron and there they found the stone, now covered by lichens and debris – the very stone the builders rejected.  So now they had to hoist it to the top of the cliff, then back to the platform and put it into place.  It fitted perfectly. The stone the builders rejected had become the head stone of the corner.

[ii] It should be noted that there is a morbid custom to remove all knives from the table prior to saying the Grace after meals.. (see The Book of Customs,  By Scott-Martin Kosofsky page 21)

“After finishing the meal, one should put away the knives from the table.  The reason for this custom is that there was once a man who recited the Grace after meals with great devotion, and when saying the section Uvenei Yerushalayim, he remembered the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, grabbed the knife on the table, and stabbed himself in the heart.”

[iii] Some say this is because the avoidance of using a knife is symbolic of the Biblical story of Abraham who in the end did not sacrifice his son Isaac with a knife when tested by God…. But I prefer the connection with the knifeless alter.

[iv] According to the Norwalk Hour May 31, 1961, the name jackknife comes from the shape of the “J” and describes a pocket knife when it is in the partially opened position… “Jack” is also used to describe things that are smaller than the norm which the pocket knife certainly is.

[v] You can buy it at Ivantiques, a very reputable Judaica store in Jerusalem down the street from the King David Hotel (21 King David St.) where I have purchased a few knives as well as Bezalel Judaica.  According to Ivan Halperin the proprietor and Judaica expert, the knife is a souvenir that was sold to Jewish guests in Karlsbad around the 1920’s -30’s, the folding feature made it easy to carry around. … Granted that it’s called a pocket knife, but does Ivan really think that observant Jews would design a knife to carry on the Shabbat?  I think not.  I stick with my concealed weapon theory… for more images of these folding challah knifes look here.

Shabbat Jack Knife - open


Filed under Bible, Judaism, Religion, Sabbath, Shabbat, social commentary, Torah

animated gratitude

parshat va’era

The first three of the ten plagues were performed by Aaron and not by Moses to show Moses’ gratitude (hakarat hatov הקרת הטוב  ) to the water; which saved him as an infant in a basket and to the soil; previously used to dispose of the Egyptian slave-master Moses slew.

The Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch forth your hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, over their canals, over their ponds, and over all their bodies of water, and they will become blood, and there will be blood throughout the entire land of Egypt, even in wood and in stone.’  (Exodus 7: 19)

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֶל משֶׁה אֱמֹר אֶל אַהֲרֹן קַח מַטְּךָ וּנְטֵה יָדְךָ עַל מֵימֵי מִצְרַיִם

עַל נַהֲרֹתָם עַל יְאֹרֵיהֶם וְעַל אַגְמֵיהֶם וְעַל כָּל מִקְוֵה מֵימֵיהֶם

וְיִהְיוּ דָם וְהָיָה דָם בְּכָל אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם וּבָעֵצִים וּבָאֲבָנִים:

Rashi: Say to Aaron: Since the Nile protected Moses when he was cast into it, it therefore was not smitten by him, neither with blood nor with frogs, but was smitten by Aaron.  [from Tanchuma, Va’era 14]

אמר אל אהרן

לפי שהגין היאור על משה כשנשלך לתוכו, לפיכך לא לקה על ידו לא בדם ולא בצפרדעים, ולקה על ידי אהרן

See also Rashi to Exodus 8: 12

Say to Aaron It was inappropriate for the dust to be smitten through Moses since it had protected him when he slew the Egyptian and had hidden him in the sand. [Therefore,] it was smitten through Aaron [instead].  [from Tanchuma, Va’era 14, Exod. Rabbah 10:7]

אמר אל אהרן

לא היה העפר כדאי ללקות על ידי משה לפי שהגין עליו כשהרג את המצרי ויטמנהו בחול ולקה על ידי אהרן

While gratitude is certainly a wonderful thing, showing gratitude to inanimate objects such as water and soil smacks of animism.  Was not Abraham’s great achievement that he rejected the worship of the stars and of wood and stone (See Maimonides Laws of Worshiping the Stars Chapter 1) and recognized a singular higher authority?

It’s infantile to “make nice” to an object which is helpful and hit a “bad” table after we stub our toe on it.  If idolatry is ultimately misplaced faith, then showing gratitude to a clump of soil is misplaced affection if not outright idolatry. Since it was God who dictated that Moses not show a lack of gratitude, Moses can certainly be forgiven (as he was not forgiven many years later when he hit a rock without such a commend), but why sanction animism in the first place?

I am reminded of the wonderful story attributed to the founder of the Musar Movement, Rabbi. Yisrael Salanter who was invited to the home of a wealthy Jew for the Sabbath meal.  When the man of the house was about to recite the Kiddush, he realized that the two Challah loaves had not been properly covered.  In front of Salanter and the gathered guests, he shouted to his wife that she had neglected to cover the challah.  After an embarrassed wife rectified the travesty, Salanter asked his host if he knew why it was customary to cover the loaves. The host replied, “Sure… every heder (kindergarten) child knows that you cover the challah so as not to embarrass it, since on weekdays bread is blessed at the start of every meal and on the Sabbath it takes second billing to the Kiddush wine”.  Salanter replied “You fool, you should only listen to your own words.  You have embarrassed your wife so as not to embarrass an inanimate loaf of bread.  I’m sorry but the food in your house is not kosher.” And he left.

Moses’ show of respect for the water and soil and Salanter’s understanding of the true meaning of kosher certification are good bookends for 3,000 years of Jewish ritual observance. .. maybe, taking a license from Hillel we can suggest that the rest is commentary.

We need to acknowledge that every ritual act proscribed or prescribed in the Hebrew Bible is in a sense the assignation of holiness or taboo to an act that is human.. not divine.  There are numerous examples of inanimate objects which in the Bible and by the command of God are invested with spiritual power; positive or negative (Kadosh, Tahor, Tamei) otherwise known as a system of Totem or Taboo… one could argue that all of ritual is nothing more than vesting an action or an object with misplaced holiness or profanity.

But if we follow the trail from the first three plagues to Salanter’s redefinition of kashrut, the message is clear and consistent.  In the service of a higher good, the God of the Hebrew Bible can tolerate, condone or even prescribe activities that may include elements of misplaced-faith and animism similar to those found in idol worship.  It’s called “talking in the language of man”. דברה תורה כלשון בני אדם  (Sifre, Num. 112).  It may be that we are actually invited to ignore all the layers of theology, legalism and learning and react at a primal level when it comes to gratitude and respect for the dignity of our fellow man or woman.

What the Hebrew Bible, especially the Book of Exodus, has zero tolerance for is indifference to the suffering of others and hard heartedness. In the service of teaching Gratitude – recognition of the good that we receive, the Bible may turn a blind eye to the most primal and primitive rituals or superstitions.

The only act which is totally taboo… not-Kosher, is a ritual… an act in the name of God which shows a lack of gratitude (כפר בטוב  kofer baTov  literally: “denier of what is good” where kofer has the sense of a heretical denial cf arab kāfir  non-believer) or sensitivity to the suffering of another.

When, in Genesis (3: 12) after eating from the forbidden fruit, Adam answers God “The woman whom You gave [to be] with me she gave me of the tree; so I ate.” Rashi comments:

“Here he [Adam] showed his ingratitude.  [from Avodah Zarah 5b]” כאן כפר בטובה

In the haggadah the wicked son asks “what does this meant to you” saying “you” in such a way that it is clear he lacks all sensitivity to the suffering of his people and has no gratitude for what was done to save them.  This son is tagged as a kofer be’ikar;  a denier of the basic principle of our faith.

The Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer [Chapter 7] writes, “There is nothing harder for the Almighty to live with (as it were) than an ungrateful person.”  And brings the example of Adam’s lack of gratitude for the gift of Eve.

The Midrash continues that our ancestors in the Wilderness also angered God with their failure to recognize His Goodness towards them. They bemoaned the loss of the “good old days” in Egypt when they had melons, cucumbers, and garlic, and complained about the Manna bread.

The Midrash equates the sin of ingratitude with fundamental theological denial (kefira b’Ikar) of the Almighty. One who is ungrateful towards his fellow man is ultimately ungrateful towards the Almighty as well. (quoted by Yissocher Frand)

In the service of denying the suffering of others or of ingratitude, there is no ritual, theology, ideology or lip-service to piety that the Almighty will tolerate.

Thank God for that…



Filed under Bible, Judaism, magic, Religion, Sabbath, Shabbat, social commentary, Torah

gratuitous miracles

Parshat Shemot

Not until Book II of the Five Books of Moses do we have an incidence of a gratuitous miracle.

And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. (Exodus 3: 2)

Exodus 3-2

Gratuitous miracles like gratuitous sex or gratuitous violence are unnecessary…  they don’t add  anything to the plot but instead are just thrown in as a ‘freebie.’  Deep into the Hebrew Bible, we realize that all miracles that preceded the burning bush were either functional or medicinal (or should I say; punitive).  Sure, the creation of the world was miraculous, but like the Big Bang, necessary.  Certainly, people are not turned into pillars of salt, but Lot’s wife had been forewarned and like Pharaoh who suffered the ten plagues…  she had it coming.

The Hebrew Bible, especially the first five books are for a religious text, miraculously miracle-adverse.

The Rabbis were so uncomfortable with the miraculous that they attempted to neuter any super-natural biblical event by claiming that all so-called miracles were actually pre-ordained and thus written into the code that God wrote when He create the world:

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. (Mishna Perkai Avot 4: 8)

10 miracles-avot

Since so much of what is commonly valued in religion and the world of the spirit is the miraculous, it is worth stopping to consider this ambivalence, if not downright adversity to the supernatural .

If it is claimed that the Eskimos have a multitude of words for snow, let us consider the Biblical Hebrew words for “miracle”.

The first word for miracle that we encounter is nes
see Numbers 26: 10

10 and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up together with Korah, when that company died; what time the fire devoured two hundred and fifty men, and they became a sign.

, has less of a sense of miracle and more of a sense of a sign or a lesson.  In fact the word nes is closely related to a test nisayon
nes test
When God tested Abraham at the Binding of Isaac, the word used is nisayon.
1 And it came to pass after these things, that God did prove Abraham, and said unto him: ‘Abraham’; and he said: ‘Here am I.’ (Genesis 22: 1)

The truth is that the Rabbis intermingled the word nes miracle, with nisayon test:

With ten tests our father Abraham was tested …
Ten miracles were performed for our forefathers in Egypt…
With ten tests our forefathers tested God in the desert…
Ten miracles were performed for our forefathers in the Holy Temple (Mishna Avot 5: 3-5)


It turns out that nes and the biblical connotation of miracle that it contains is less a magical break with the laws of nature as much as it is a sign.  As the Ramban (Nahmanides) writes in his commentary to the Binding of Isaac, it is for the one being tested an experience which brings “forth the matter from potential into actuality so that he may be rewarded for a good deed, not for a good thought alone.” A nes is an act which is an outward sign, first to the protagonist himself and secondly to the observer or the reader, that a challenge has been overcome and a higher level of existence achieved. “These aren’t just miracles for their own sake – they are trying to show something, to act as a sign.” [1]

Another word commonly taken as a miracle is ot

This word ot is used on a daily and weekly basis in reference to tefillin which should be “a sign for you upon your hand” (Exodus 13:9) and the Shabbat which you shall keep “for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations” (Exodus 31: 13).

Again, the connotation of miracle is subsumed under the larger meaning of a sign of a covenantal relationship.

Finally, the word mofet


which appears for the first time in Exodus 4: 21
21 And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘When thou goest back into Egypt, see that thou do before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in thy hand; but I will harden his heart, and he will not let the people go.

Unlike nes and ot, mofet is never used as a symbolic sign.  In the Bible mofet is inextricably connected to the shock and awe perpetrated upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians.  On the receiving end, mofet falls into the non- gratuitous miracle category of a functional and bitterly medicinal miracle. But to the beneficiaries of the ten plagues there is nonetheless a message:

And they shall be upon thee for a sign and for a wonder, and upon thy seed for ever; (Deuteronomy 28: 46)
ot umofes
The root of mofet is unclear.  It has been suggested that its eytomology is from yafe

beauty…  “and that it properly means a beautiful or splendid deed”, albeit a bitter-sweet beauty given the suffering of the recipient (e.g. drowning Egyptians).

Returning to our burning bush, we are struck by the lack of a caption.  No mention of a nes, of an ot or even a mofet.  Is this not-consumed burning bush the first and possibly only instance of a gratuitous miracle or are we missing the point?  Was this Moses, the reluctant (and ultimately recalcitrant[2]) miracle-worker of the Exodus in need of a gratuitous miracle? Why not take another track? After all, there’s no mention of a miracle, maybe, for someone less than a Moses, there was no miracle?  Maybe it was all in the eye of the beholder.  Maybe we are seeing this lonely bush through the eyes of one who at the height of his powers saw God in all His glory (Exodus 33: 18).  Maybe in that moment, when time stopped it was that the bush was not consumed and Moses achieved what we all strive to achieve… a moment of wonder.

The narrative continues:

13 And Moses said unto God: ‘Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them: The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me: What is His name? what shall I say unto them?’
14 And God said unto Moses: ‘I AM THAT I AM’; and He said: ‘Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel: I AM hath sent me unto you.’

i will be

Everett Fox in his amazing translation and commentary on the Torah records that according to Martin Buber and Franz Rosensweig God’s answer to Moses “ehyeh asher ehyeh” means “I will be there with you” in the present….  They interpret hayot as signifying presence, “being there” and hence see God’s words as a real answer to the Israelites’ imagined question – an assurance of his presence. .. and may we suggest, also an answer to our question of wherein lied the miracle… in the beauty of the moment.

Fox continues: “It is, however, also possible that ehyeh asher ehyeh is a deliberately vague phrase, whose purpose is antimagical and an attempt to evade the question (Rosenzweig speaks of this as well), as if to suggest that possession of the true name cannot be used to coerce this God.  In this interpretation, it would follow that, just as God is magicless, he is nameless, at least in the conventional sense of religion. (The Five Books of Moses, Everett Fox page 270)

With that said…. Let the miracles, gratuitous and otherwise…. begin.

[2] Moses fatal flaw – he refused to do a miracle Numbers 20: 11


Filed under Bible, Judaism, magic, miracle, Religion, Sabbath, Shabbat, Torah

a blessing on your heads

parshat vayechi

The Jews have a rich liturgy, but most of the prayers are innovations of the Rabbis from the first century and forward.  The standard formula for a blessing beginning with “Blessed art thou oh Lord our God” is certainly not found in the Hebrew bible.  The Psalms found throughout the prayer book are technically not prayers but “verses of song”.  The Kiddush on Friday nights which begins with a recitation of the biblical account of the sanctification of the seventh day after six days of creation bears witness to this event and is not technically a prayer although it is followed by one.  Even the Sh’ma Yisrael is not actually a prayer, although it’s recitation is prescribed twice a day. Deuteronomy 6: 6-7

Similarly the recitation of the First Fruits where the Bible (Deuteronomy 26: 3,5) actually provides the liturgical text is less of a prayer and more of a testimonial.

There are only two liturgical texts in the Hebrew Bible which have been preserved in the prayer book; the priestly blessing and the blessing that Jacob gave his two grandchildren Ephraim and Manasseh.

The one has all the grandeur we would expect from a biblical blessing:

The LORD bless thee, and keep thee; The LORD make His face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee; The LORD lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace. (Numbers 6:24–26)

The other seems to have been written by Leonard Cohen’s “little Jew who wrote the Bible”:

“God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh”

The one blessing is said only by the Priestly caste, once in the Temple and now; daily in Israel or on holidays in the decrepit diaspora.  The other blessing, by parents of every caste, in every traditional Jewish home and every Friday night.

Here’s the context of this pithy little parental prayer:

1 And it came to pass after these things that one said to Joseph: ‘Behold, thy father is sick.’ And he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. 5 And now thy two sons, who were born unto thee in the land of Egypt before I came unto thee into Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh, even as Reuben and Simeon, shall be mine. 10 Now the eyes of Israel were dim for age, so that he could not see. And he brought them near unto him; and he kissed them, and embraced them. 13 And Joseph took them both, Ephraim in his right hand toward Israel’s left hand, and Manasseh in his left hand toward Israel’s right hand, and brought them near unto him. 14 And Israel stretched out his right hand, and laid it upon Ephraim’s head, who was the younger, and his left hand upon Manasseh’s head, guiding his hands wittingly (literally; with sechel – common sense); for Manasseh was the first-born. 15 And he blessed Joseph, and said: ‘The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac did walk, the God who hath been my shepherd all my life long unto this day, 16 the angel who hath redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads; and let my name be named in them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.’ 17 And when Joseph saw that his father was laying his right hand upon the head of Ephraim, it was evil in his eyes, and he held up his father’s hand, to remove it from Ephraim’s head unto Manasseh’s head. 18 And Joseph said unto his father: ‘Not so, my father, for this is the first-born; put thy right hand upon his head.’ 19 And his father refused, and said: ‘I know it, my son, I know it; he also shall become a people, and he also shall be great; howbeit his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his seed shall become a multitude of nations.’ 20 And he blessed them that day, saying: ‘By thee shall Israel bless, saying: God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh.‘ And he set Ephraim before Manasseh. (Genesis 48: 1 -20)








The truth is that the blessing: “God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh” is a culmination of all the blessings of the Book of Genesis, a book which could just as easily be called the Book of Choosing. God chose Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and now two children, born in a strange land.  Two nondescript kids who are never mentioned again, didn’t amount to anything of note and who could be typecast as either the simple son or son who doesn’t know how to ask, of the Haggadah.

Ephraim and Manasseh, in that order, are the culmination of the patriarchal narrative because, their choice, in that order, gives finality to the rejection, not of the birthright, but of a sense of entitlement.  This rejection is the essence of Genesis.  Rather than select the blessing of Abraham who is blessed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and whose seed shall possess the gate of his enemies (Genesis 22; 17), Jews who shall wander as strangers in strange lands will take Ephraim and Manasseh as their model… Little Big Men.

In a narrative full of sibling rivalry, more than Oedipal complexities, two brothers finally, both receive a blessing, together. In a narrative where the chosen son is given preference, here the chosen son; Joseph, is ignored… it’s not about you, it’s about the future, the generations to come, the unknown and that which lies beyond our control… your grandchildren.

I’m reminded of a comment by the Rabbi of my youth; Rabbi Shlomo Riskin who said something to the effect that, Hitler declared you a Jew if you had a Jewish grandparent, so who is a Jew? He who has a Jewish grandchild.

So let’s bless our children every Sabbath eve for the children we pray they will have.  Let’s bless them not because we hope that they will be stars or because they will become masters of anything, let alone the universe, but because they will remain true to themselves and what is best of their patrimony.  Let us bless them not because they will walk with a sense of entitlement but because they will walk as strangers in a strange and mysterious world full of awe and wonder. Let us bless them not as priests, but as Jacob and other little, simple Jews who wrote the Bible, with sechel.

And as anyone who has attempted to raise kids, let alone grandkids… especially in this crazy world we live in… let us pray for mazel and hope along with Jacob, that there are angels above who will protect them and us, from all evil!


Filed under Bible, Chosen People, divine birth, Israel, Judaism, Religion, Sabbath, Shabbat, Torah

of noah’s ark, cathedrals in time and jewish ships – parshat noach

Shabbat is a “cathedral in time” suggested AJ Heschel by which he meant that Judaism emphasizes the sanctity of time over space.  In making a distinction between the Sabbath and the cathedral, the iconic edifice of institutional religion Heschel was following a time-honored Jewish tradition.

The Torah follows the laws regarding the building of the Tent of Meeting (Mishkan) with an admonition to keep the Sabbath (Exodus 31: 12-17) from which the rabbis learnt that any of the 39 tasks used to build the Mishkan, were forbidden as work (melacha) on the Shabbat. The lesson is clear: The Mishkan and later the Temple were built as an accommodation to our need for edifice and to accessorize… or as Mel Brooks would say: merchandising.  The Sabbath – a sanctuary in time – with its aspiration to sanctify time, activity and state of mind supersedes any temporal temple.

The Mishkan was not the first biblical construction commanded by God. Moses & Bezalel were not the first master builders.  Biblical scholars have noted the parallels of the divine architectural specifications to build the Mishkan to similar specs provided to Noah to build an ark.

See: R. Jonathan Sacks: The Architecture of Holiness and a Mormon scholar who recently wrote an extended article on the subject: The Ark and the Tent: Temple Symbolism in the Story of Noah [especially notes 134-]

If Noah’s ark is the first biblical temple then as such it represents our tradition’s first clear compromise and recalibration to the shortcomings of humanity and our need for building campaigns, clergy, chapel and sacrifices to the Gods (see previous blog post honor thy sources and Genesis 8:20 ; the first biblical sacrifice burnt by Noah).  Noah was the first religious leader who had to quantify the message … (see: Bill Cosby’s “What’s a Cubic”)

But if Noah’s Ark was the first cathedral, where is the offsetting “Cathedral in time”?  Where is Shabbat and it alternative and aspirational message of the sanctity of time over thing?

Here at the emergence of organized religion where one man; Noah, was chosen from amongst others to lead, where sacrifices were brought and institutional religion and government, with corrupt (or at least, drunk) leaders were born… Where was the reminder that these were all accommodations, that the real ideal, the real prize … was the Shabbat?

Fortunately, there are those like me, who have Shabbat on the mind and who read the story of Noah’s Ark (Genesis 8) and found Shabbat:

ח  וַיְשַׁלַּח אֶת-הַיּוֹנָה, מֵאִתּוֹ–לִרְאוֹת הֲקַלּוּ הַמַּיִם, מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה.

8 And he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground.

ט  וְלֹא-מָצְאָה הַיּוֹנָה מָנוֹחַ לְכַף-רַגְלָהּ, וַתָּשָׁב אֵלָיו אֶל-הַתֵּבָה–כִּי-מַיִם, עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ; וַיִּשְׁלַח יָדוֹ וַיִּקָּחֶהָ, וַיָּבֵא אֹתָהּ אֵלָיו אֶל-הַתֵּבָה.

9 But the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned unto him to the ark, for the waters were on the face of the whole earth; and he put forth his hand, and took her, and brought her in unto him into the ark.

י  וַיָּחֶל עוֹד, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים אֲחֵרִים; וַיֹּסֶף שַׁלַּח אֶת-הַיּוֹנָה, מִן-הַתֵּבָה.

10 And he stayed yet other seven days; and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark.

יא  וַתָּבֹא אֵלָיו הַיּוֹנָה לְעֵת עֶרֶב, וְהִנֵּה עֲלֵה-זַיִת טָרָף בְּפִיהָ; וַיֵּדַע נֹחַ, כִּי-קַלּוּ הַמַּיִם מֵעַל הָאָרֶץ.

11 And the dove came in to him at eventide; and lo in her mouth an olive-leaf freshly plucked; so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth.

יב  וַיִּיָּחֶל עוֹד, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים אֲחֵרִים; וַיְשַׁלַּח, אֶת-הַיּוֹנָה, וְלֹא-יָסְפָה שׁוּב-אֵלָיו, עוֹד.

12 And he stayed yet other seven days; and sent forth the dove; and she returned not again unto him any more.

As if the reference to the dove not finding Menucha “rest”, the fact that the name Noach is a cognate of the word rest-menucha and the repeated seven day intervals were not enough, the Rabbis calculated that by the calendar the dove actually landed on Shabbat.

Based on this tradition, we sing a song  called Yom Shabbaton attributed to Yehuda Halevi  on shabbat afternoon (see verse 11 above “eventide”) which celebrates the magnificence of the Shabbat with a refrain that connects Shabbat to Noah’s Ark:

The day of rest should not be forgotten: On it the dove found rest, there shall rest exhausted​​ ones.

For Halevi, the Shabbat was not only a sanctuary in time; it was also a refuge in time that transcended the daily humiliations and exhaustion of his particular time and space.  Shabbat was a weekly refuge from the Inquisition and the indignities of the exile from his beloved land of Zion. (press to hear my favorite melody for this zemer).

For Halevi and for generations of our people, the Shabbat was a life raft…. The Shabbat provided relief not only from a misreading or compromise of the world of the spirit, but more critically, it provided a refuge from physical persecution, poverty, hunger and pain suffered by a people. It was a Jewish boat.

The father of my VERY good friend Eileen Posnik was a Yiddish writer named Usher Penn who lived in Cuba and in 1943 wrote the following poem called Di yiddishe shif.  It is about a ship that was not built in time to save the six million, but is a ship… a fleet of ships, that represents the power of an ideal… the ideal of the weekly Shabbat and the ideal of the return to the Jewish homeland.  Heschel’s Sanctuary in time, Halevi’s ark of refuge and Penn’s Jewish boats represent that which transcends time and space, institutions and edifices, persecution and insult.  In them lies the secret of our survival.  After all the necessary accommodations, humiliations and physical and moral exhaustion of the work week and the construction of institutions, structures and states (and associated compromises and accommodations) we need to refresh ourselves with Shabbat menucha …Shabbat rest

The Jewish Boat – Usher Penn 1943

I have learned to design ships

Pleasure ships and warships

Now, after thousands of years, the time has come

To build a ship for the wandering Jews

A wondrous ship, a new design

With all the latest modern techniques

A ship that can swim deep under water

And soar over the stars

A new ship for a very old people

Whom the sea has swallowed more than once,

Hounded from shore to shore

And drowned like disease-ridden rats.

I will build you a ship, my brothers,

Refugees from the Shturme and the St Louis

You, upon whose heads has fallen the rage

Of all the vampires and wild beasts

I will build you a ship,

An entire fleet,

And I will hide it deep it the depths of the sea;

It will come to save you,

When it hears the cry of the ancient wandering Jews.

Di yiddishe shif

Ich hob gelerent tzu shifn, tsu tsaich’nen

Shifn far kreig un far frid’n.

Di tzeit iz shoyn raif

Efshr toizenter yor’n

Tzu boyen a shif

Far farvoglte idin.

A shif gor bazunder

A plan gor a nayer

Loit der letzter technik un modern,

A shif, vos zol shvimen tif unter’n vaser

Un zol kenen oich fliyen

Heit iber di shter’n

A shif gor a naiye

Far a folk gor an alten

Vos hot shoyn nit einmol

In yam zich getrinken,

Getrib’n gevor’n fun alerlay breg’n

Vi kretzike shtoshures

Gevor’n gezinken

A shif vel ich boyen

Far eich, meine brider

Ir vogler fun  “shturme” un fun “st louis”.

Vos oif ayere kep

Iz gefal’n der tzor’n

Fun alle vampir’n

Un chayus royus.

A shif vel ich shaf’n

A flot gor a gantz’n,

Tif oif dem opgrunt

Vel ich im bahalt’n

Er vet kum’n aich dinen

Ven er vet derher’n

Dem ruf fun dem idish’n vogler

Der alten.

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Filed under Bible, Israel, Judaism, Religion, Sabbath, Shabbat, Torah