Category Archives: Shabbat

the jewish cathedral

Shabbat Sukkot

There’s a story of two Hasidic rebbes sitting in a sukkah.  In answer to the question of “what’s your favorite mitzvah?”, one rebbe replied that the Sukkah was his favorite commandment, because when you sit in a sukkah, you are surrounded on all sides by the holiness of the commandment.  The other rebbe preferred the Sabbath.  “You can walk out of a sukkah, but you can’t walk out of the holiness of the Shabbat.” said he.

When hearing this story, I am reminded of Abraham Joshua Heschel ‘s insight that Shabbat is a “cathedral in time”.

The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn, a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate: the Day of Atonement. According to the ancient rabbis, it is not the observance of the Day of Atonement, but the Day itself, the “essence of the Day,” which, with man’s repentance, atones for the sins of man.

Now what was the first holy object in the history of the world? … “And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” There is no reference in the record of creation to any object in space that would be endowed with the quality of holiness.  …. it seems as if to the Bible it is holiness in time, the Sabbath, which comes first.

But here’s my question… what was the response of the first rebbe?  Did he fold his hands and agree that the holiness of time trumps the holiness of things?  And what about our cathedrals, our homes, our homelands and our things… can their holiness transcend or at least engage the holiness of time?

It seems to me that while you can’t walk out of the Sabbath, it’s holiness cannot be sustained indefinitely…. When the stars come out, the sabbath is over.  You can walk out of the sukkah, but it embodies a holiness that can be sustained.. at least through the complete cycle of a week.

During Sukkot, we add a prayer: “May the All Merciful establish (raise) for us the fallen Sukkah of David”

הרחמן הוא יקים לנו את סוכת דוד הנופלת

The notion of the “fallen Sukkah” come from the prophet Amos (9:11)

In that day will I raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen, and close up the breaches thereof, and I will raise up his ruins, and I will build it as in the days of old;

 בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, אָקִים אֶת-סֻכַּת דָּוִיד הַנֹּפֶלֶת; וְגָדַרְתִּי אֶת-פִּרְצֵיהֶן, וַהֲרִסֹתָיו אָקִים, וּבְנִיתִיהָ, כִּימֵי עוֹלָם

And I wonder whether “the Sukkah that has fallen  סֻכַּת הַנֹּפֶלֶת is best translated as the tabernacle that has fallen, or whether it is the Fallingsukkah.  (compare Frank Loyd Wright’s Fallingwater).  It seems to me that David’s Fallingsukkah is always in flux and engaged in a permanent dialectic between continuity and renewal, sustainability and disruption.  The Jewish Cathedral is a temporary structure, which by definition, can never be permanently destroyed nor can it achieve the stasis of permanence.  The Fallingsukkah informs the way we relate with the world of the physical.  The Fallingsukkah and it’s notion of holiness of things, continues the discussion begun by the notion of the holiness of time that Heschel began.

Ultimately, it is the Fallingsukkah which represents to culmination of theJwish New Year’s penitential season.

From the first day of Ellul until the last day of Sukkot we read Psalm 27 every day.

One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
to behold the graciousness of the LORD, and to visit early in His temple.  or He concealeth me in His pavilion (lit. Sukkah) in the day of evil;
He hideth me in the covert of His tent; He lifteth me up upon a rock.

אַחַת, שָׁאַלְתִּי מֵאֵת-ה’–    אוֹתָהּ אֲבַקֵּשׁ
שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית-ה’,    כָּל-יְמֵי חַיַּי;
לַחֲזוֹת בְּנֹעַם-ה’,    וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכָלו

כִּי יִצְפְּנֵנִי, בְּסֻכֹּה–    בְּיוֹם רָעָה:
יַסְתִּרֵנִי, בְּסֵתֶר אָהֳלוֹ;    בְּצוּר, יְרוֹמְמֵנִי

It would seem that the choice of this Psalmֹ  of David addresses the tension between permanently dwelling in the house of God and being just a transient visitor, the dichotomy of taking refuge upon a rock or in a tent.

Fortunately, one day every sukkot, we get to enjoy both the wonder of the temple built in time and in space… Shabbat Sukkat Shalom

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judaism as a language

Ki Teitzei

It should come as no surprise that a significant number of jews do not observe, or even strive to observe all the commandments. The truth is, that this lack of homogeneous observance is not new.  There was probably never a period when the body of card carrying jews kept all the commandments.  And I’m not talking about minor commandments like putting on tephilin or wearing fringes.  I’m talking about the big ones, like the Sabbath and the Passover.

We know that when the book of Deuteronomy was “found” in the middle of the reign of King Josiah (ruled 640 – 608 BCE) the Passover was no longer observed.  2 Kings Chapter 23: 21-22

And the king commanded all the people, saying: ‘Keep the passover unto the LORD your God, as it is written in this book of the covenant.’
For there was not kept such a passover from the days of the judges that judged Israel, nor in all the days of the kings of Israel, nor of the kings of Judah;

We know that the Prophets castigated the Jews for not observing the Sabbath and the fact that in the early Rabbinic period the Rabbis would promise that that the Messiah will come if every Jew properly observes two consecutive Sabbaths.  [1] It would seem that strict Sabbath observance was a challenge not unique to the post Enlightment.

So there was always a significant portion of the Jewish people whose observance of the commandments was less than perfect.  What is more intriguing is the notion that it may never have been the intent or objective that the laws all be observed… all the time.

If one reads the Hebrew Bible it is full of crimes punishable by death, but the Talmud basically neuters the death penalty by suggesting that: “A Sanhedrin that puts a man to death once in seven years is called a murderous one. R. Eleazar ben Azariah says ‘Or even once in 70 years.” Mishneh Makkot 1:10

There are those who believe that the 49 year cycle Jubilee where loans were forgiven and property returned to its original owner… was purely utopian and never put into practice.  Could it be that not all of the laws and rituals in the Torah were actually meant to be kept or if kept… kept without exception.

Which brings us to the law of the rebellious son:

If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, that will not hearken to the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and though they chasten him, will not hearken unto them;
then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place;
and they shall say unto the elders of his city: ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he doth not hearken to our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.’

And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die; so shalt thou put away the evil from the midst of thee; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.  (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

כִּי-יִהְיֶה לְאִישׁ, בֵּן סוֹרֵר וּמוֹרֶה–אֵינֶנּוּ שֹׁמֵעַ, בְּקוֹל אָבִיו וּבְקוֹל אִמּוֹ; וְיִסְּרוּ אֹתוֹ, וְלֹא יִשְׁמַע אֲלֵיהֶם

 וְתָפְשׂוּ בוֹ, אָבִיו וְאִמּוֹ; וְהוֹצִיאוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל-זִקְנֵי עִירוֹ, וְאֶל-שַׁעַר מְקֹמוֹ

 וְאָמְרוּ אֶל-זִקְנֵי עִירוֹ, בְּנֵנוּ זֶה סוֹרֵר וּמֹרֶה–אֵינֶנּוּ שֹׁמֵעַ, בְּקֹלֵנוּ; זוֹלֵל, וְסֹבֵא

וּרְגָמֻהוּ כָּל-אַנְשֵׁי עִירוֹ בָאֲבָנִים, וָמֵת, וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע, מִקִּרְבֶּךָ; וְכָל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, יִשְׁמְעוּ וְיִרָאוּ

Says the Talmud: “There never has been a ‘stubborn and rebellious son’, and never will be. Why then was the law written? That you may study it and receive reward.” Tosef. Sanh. 11:6 Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 71a).

Here we have an outright example of one of the so numbered 613 commandments which is a fiction and whose purpose is to create a learning moment.

It seems to me that the above examples, and many more that I could mention, give us a license to take off the legalistic glasses of Halacha and look at the statutes and rituals of the Torah in a different way.

The way that appeals most to me is that we look at the corpus of Jewish law and ritual more as a language than as an instruction manual.

As we say in the Sabbath morning prayers in the piut Ezrat Avotecha:

אשרי איש שישמע למצותיך

Happy is the person who can listen to your commandments.

It may not be the only way we wish to look at the corpus of Jewish Law, but certainly it is a lense worth looking through from time to time.  Judaism as a language.  For some it is a mother tongue, for others a second language.  For some it is their primary form of communication, for others, not so much.  It is a language that expresses certain emotions and ethical standards in a unique and powerful way. Some words lose their meaning, go out of fashion or become socially incorrect. Some words take on new meaning or have different meanings when used in different contexts or situations.  Some words are reinvented or take on a meaning diametrically different than their origin.  Judaism as a language is no less serious of an endeavor or subject of study or commitment, but besides its many other benefits, it does not have the same artificial line of demarcation between those who observe and those who don’t. The tent that holds those who listen and speak the language of the commandments is large.

When I was studying philosophy, back in the day, the philosophy of language was a primary area of interest.   Philosophers such as Noam Chomsky argued that the structure o language was built into our DNA.  Not everyone agrees with Chomsky’s linguistic philosophy and fewer still with his political views, but this son of Hebrew teachers understood that a language reflects the DNA of the speaker.  In that regard, Judaism as a language becomes an act of discovery of who we are and who we can be.

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[1] R. Johanan said in the name of R. Simeon b. Yohai: If Israel were to keep two Sabbaths according to the laws thereof, they would be redeemed immediately, for it is said, Thus saith the Lord of the eunuch that keep my Sabbaths,( Isa. LVI, 4.)  which is followed by, even them will I bring to my holy mountain, etc.(verse 7)  (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 118b)

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sustainable kashrut

parshat re’eh

Recently Italian archeologists dug 50 meters down and discovered small pieces of copper. After studying these pieces for a long time, Italy announced that the ancient Romans had a nation-wide telephone system. The Greek government was not that easily impressed. They ordered their own archeologists to dig even deeper. 100 meters down they found small pieces of glass and they soon announced that the ancient Greeks already had a nation-wide fiber network. Israeli scientists, not to be outdone dug 200 meters down & found absolutely nothing. They happily concluded that the ancient Israelites had a cellular network.

I was reminded of this joke when reviewing the source of kosher meat in Deuteronomy 12:20-21:

When the LORD thy God shall enlarge thy border, as He hath promised thee, and thou shalt say: ‘I will eat flesh’, because thy soul desireth to eat flesh; thou mayest eat flesh, after all the desire of thy soul.
If the place which the LORD thy God shall choose to put His name there be too far from thee, then thou shalt kill of thy herd and of thy flock, which the LORD hath given thee, as I have commanded thee, and thou shalt eat within thy gates, after all the desire of thy soul.

 כִּי-יַרְחִיב ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ אֶת-גְּבֻלְךָ, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר-לָךְ, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֹכְלָה בָשָׂר, כִּי-תְאַוֶּה נַפְשְׁךָ לֶאֱכֹל בָּשָׂר–בְּכָל-אַוַּת נַפְשְׁךָ, תֹּאכַל בָּשָׂר

 כִּי-יִרְחַק מִמְּךָ הַמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ לָשׂוּם שְׁמוֹ שָׁם, וְזָבַחְתָּ מִבְּקָרְךָ וּמִצֹּאנְךָ אֲשֶׁר נָתַן ה’ לְךָ, כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִךָ–וְאָכַלְתָּ, בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ, בְּכֹל, אַוַּת נַפְשֶׁךָ

Comments Rashi:

you may slaughter… as I have commanded you: We learn [from here] that there is a commandment regarding slaughtering, how one must slaughter. [Since this commandment is not written in the Torah we deduce that] these are the laws of ritual slaughtering given orally to Moses on [Mount] Sinai. — [Sifrei ; Chullin. 28a [1] ]

וזבחת וגו’ כאשר צויתך למדנו שיש צווי בזביחה היאך ישחוט, והן הלכות שחיטה שנאמרו למשה בסיני

This is how The Stone Artscroll Chumash translates Rashi:

As I have commanded you. “Since we find no explicit teaching in the Torah regarding kosher slaughter, this verse alludes to the existence of the Oral Law that was communicated to Moses at Sinai.  Obviously, therefore, God must have taught Moses at Sinai laws that are not in the Written Torah (Rashi)”

I will explore in a future blog the concept of a “Law given to Moses at Sinai”, but for now I marvel at the honesty of our texts and commentators.  It is clear that all the laws of ritual slaughter are nowhere mentioned in the Torah or in Biblical law.  Saying that the details were given to Moses is an elegant way of saying that the details were left to us, the people to figure out.  Most probably, the traditional practices used by the people and in the Temple were codified into law for consumer meat. At the time, they were undoubtedly cutting edge…..

The Sifrei that Rashi quotes goes further. The category of meat broached here in Deuteronomy (circa 8 – 6th century BC) is meat, not eaten in the temple for the purposes of sacrifice, but  ordinary meat for consumption  בָשָׂר תְאַוֶּה    (literally: “Meat of desire”).

As Dayan Dr, I Grunfeld writes in The Jewish Dietary Laws (pp52-53)

“Through permission was given man to take animal life for human food it was only done by a process of very gradual education and adapation.  According to Rabbi Ishmael (and most authorities agree with him cf. Babylonian Talmud Hullin 16b, 17 [2]) the killing of oxen, sheep or goats for ordinary meat consumption – Basar Ta’avah – was forbidden during the whole period of Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness, unless they had been consecrated as peace offerings – Shelamim…”

Dayan Grunfeld - concession

(see Hulin 84a and Samson Raphael Hirsch Deut. 12:20)

What IS written in the Torah and what does come out clearly in the texts is an ambivalence if not distaste to the consumption of meat and the slaughter of animals.

The Talmud remarks: “The Torah here teaches a rule of conduct that a person should not eat meat unless he has a special appetite for it” (Hullin 84a [3])

One of the seven commandments traditionally given to Noah and therefore for all of mankind is the prohibition of eating a limb torn off of a living animal (Ever Min HaChai אֵבָר מִן הֶחָי) as it is written (Genesis 9; 3-4)

Every moving thing that liveth shall be for food for you; as the green herb have I given you all.
Only flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.

כָּל-רֶמֶשׂ אֲשֶׁר הוּא-חַי, לָכֶם ה’ לְאָכְלָה:  כְּיֶרֶק עֵשֶׂב, נָתַתִּי לָכֶם אֶת-כֹּל

אַךְ-בָּשָׂר, בְּנַפְשׁוֹ דָמוֹ לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ

Says Rashi:

shall be yours to eat: (Sanhedrin 59b) For I did not permit the first man [Adam] to eat meat, but only vegetation but for you (mankind after Noah), just as the green vegetation which I permitted for the first man, I have given you everything.

לכם יהיה לאכלה  שלא הרשיתי לאדם הראשון לאכול בשר אלא ירק עשב, ולכם כירק עשב שהפקרתי לאדם הראשון, נתתי לכם את כל

flesh with its soul: He prohibited them [to eat] a limb [cut off from] a living creature; i.e., as long as its soul is in it, you shall not eat the flesh. — [from Sanh. ad loc.] [i.e., if the limb is cut from the animal while it is alive, it is forbidden to be eaten even after the animal expires.]

בשר בנפשו  אסר להם אבר מן החי, כלומר כל זמן שנפשו בו לא תאכלו הבשר

It was only after Noah, allegedly saved all the animals in the Ark, that man was given the right to slaughter the animals that he saved…

What’s our take away from the clear biblical bias towards vegetarianism, aversion for animal slaughter and prohibition against unnecessary suffering of animals (Tza’ar Ba’alei Hayim).  What is our take away from the fact that the Torah leaves the details up to us?

My take away is that what is extraordinary about Jewish Law is that it not only exhibits a profound concern for animal suffering, but creates a link between that concern and the permission to eat animals.  The laws of Kashrut are, to my knowledge, the first legislation that links ethics with consumption.  If it’s not kosher, you can’t consume it.

This past week Nestlé announced animal welfare standards that will affect 7,300 of its suppliers around the globe, and their suppliers… [5] which is unprecedented accept for the fact that Jewish law has been sanctioning such certification and labeling for over two thousand years.

Does this mean that we should be satisfied with the current state of Kashrut or rest on our laurels?  Hardly… what I would love would be to have Rabbis (and here is a grand opportunity for non-orthodox Rabbis) to have the courage to review more humane methods of slaughter than those of traditional shechita.. such as stunning the animal.  We should accept any technology that minimizes the suffering of animals… (initially in conjunction with the traditional method of shechita, but eventually, whether it includes a traditional knife or not…).. this is in accordance with the spirit of “as I have commanded thee”  ַּאֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִךָ   this open ended admonition, that we supply the details.

Other areas where Kashrut has an opportunity to live up to it’s first-mover advantage is in the area of fair labor laws and sustainable farming and herding practices.

Following the raiding by Federal Agents of the Agriprocessors kosher food plant, the Conservative Movement’s Hekhsher Tzedek Commission Announced the Creation of Magen Tzedek and Orthodoxy suggested a Yashrut standard… I’m not sure what has become of either of these initiatives.  It seems to me that the biggest barrier to increasing the social component of Kashrut is cost… Kosher meat is already prohibitively priced. This does not have to be the case.  Grow and Behold Foods brings delicious OU Glatt Kosher pastured meats raised on small family farms. They adhere to the strictest standards of kashrut, animal welfare, worker treatment, and sustainable agriculture.

There’s something special about a Kosher Home.  Those of us who grew up in one and continue this tradition know how it, along with Friday night Shabbat dinners profoundly impacts our life, family and the continuation of the best in Jewish tradition.  We need to continue to explore ways to reinvent the kosher paradigm to permit it to continue to serve our people and the world at large.  Kashrut might well be an invisible cellular network that connects us with our past and with a growing commitment by our youth to social responsibility and sustainable living.

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[1]

Rabbi says. The verse: And thou shalt slaughter . . . as I have commanded thee, teaches us that Moses was instructed concerning the gullet and the windpipe; concerning the greater part of one of these organs [that must be cut] in the case of a bird, and the greater part of each in the case of cattle.

[2]

AT ALL TIMES ONE MAY SLAUGHTER. Who is the Tanna who holds this view? Rabbah replied: It is R. Ishmael. For it has been taught: [It is written] When the Lord thy God shall enlarge thy border, as He hath promised thee, and thou shalt say: ‘I will eat flesh’ . . . (Deut. 12, 20) This verse, says R. Ishmael, is stated specially in order to permit the Israelites to eat flesh at will.( Lit., ‘of desire’. I.e., on entering the Holy Land the Israelites would be permitted to slaughter animals at will and eat the flesh without having recourse to sacrifices.) For in the beginning they were forbidden to eat flesh at will, (When the Israelites were in the wilderness they were not permitted to slaughter and eat flesh at will. The animal had first to be offered up as a sacrifice, v. Lev. XVII, 3 and 4.) but on entering the land of Israel they were permitted. But, now they are exiled, it might be said that they should revert to the former restriction; the Mishnah therefore teaches us: AT ALL TIMES ONE MAY SLAUGHTER. Babylonian Talmud Hullin 16b

[3]

Our Rabbis taught: When the Lord thy God shall enlarge thy border, as He hath promised thee, and thou shalt say: I will eat flesh. The Torah here teaches a rule of conduct, that a person should not eat meat unless he has a special appetite for it. I might think that this means that a person should buy [meat] in the market and eat it, the text therefore states: Then thou shalt kill of thy herd and of thy flock. I might then think that this means that he should kill all his herd and eat and all his flock and eat, the text therefore states: ‘Of thy herd’, and not all thy herd; ‘of thy flock’ and not all thy flock. Hence R. Eleazar b. ‘Azariah said: A man who has a maneh may buy for his stew a litra of vegetables; if he has ten maneh he may buy for his stew a litra of fish; if he has fifty maneh he may buy for his stew a litra of meat; if he has a hundred maneh he may have a pot set on for him every day. And [how often for] the others? From Sabbath eve to Sabbath eve.

Of a more contemporary nature… according to the findings of a Weizmann Institute of Science research team headed by Prof. Ron Milo — in collaboration with Israeli ex-pat Prof. Gidon Eshel from Bard College in New York — beef is measurably the most environmentally draining livestock on the market. ( see )

[4]

Maimonides. Guide for the Perpexed III, 26

Thus killing animals for the purpose of obtaining good food is certainly useful, as we intend to show (below, ch. xlviii.); that, however, the killing should not be performed by neḥirah (poleaxing – hitting the animal), but by sheḥitah (cutting the neck), and by dividing the œsophagus and the windpipe in a certain place; these regulations and the like are nothing but tests for man’s obedience. In this sense you will understand the example quoted by our Sages [that there is no difference] between killing the animal by cutting its neck in front and cutting it in the back. I give this instance only because it has been mentioned by our Sages; but in reality [there is some reason for these regulations]. For as it has become necessary to eat the flesh of animals, it was intended by the above regulations to ensure an easy death and to effect it by suitable means; whilst decapitation requires a sword or a similar instrument, the sheḥitah can be performed with any instrument; and in order to ensure an easy death our Sages insisted that the knife should be well sharpened.

[5]

“In the digital world, everyone has a smartphone and they want to know where things come from and share that information,” said Kevin Petrie, chief procurement officer for Nestlé in North America. “Is it good for me? Is the quality good? Has it been responsibly sourced?” The new policy, he said, was another step in Nestlé’s efforts to address risks in its supply chains like child labor and palm oil, the production of which is damaging to forests. Consumers today know far more about how components in their food are made — and they are far more willing to share that knowledge to stir up a fuss on social media, he said.

Before Social Media, Judaism had a complete oversight of the supply chain from farm to table… (ed)

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judaism: a dirty business

Parshat hukat

The Red Heifer is actually a rather simple ritual.  Death, the result of man’s original sin in Eden and the ultimate insult to our spiritual immortality; makes us ritually impure and is in need of an antidote.  The Red Heifer is that antidote.

The sacrificial cult and culture contained in the Hebrew Bible provides the mother of all sacrifices, an unblemished red cow, which is to be sacrificed, and whose ashes are to be mixed with water and sprinkled by a priest onto those defiled by contact with the dead.  End of story.

But for reasons to be explored below, the Red Heifer represents THE puzzling paradox of the Jewish Religion. (Numbers 19: 2-10)

This is the statute of the law which the LORD hath commanded, saying: Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring thee a red heifer, faultless, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came yoke. [1] And a man that is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer, and lay them up without the camp in a clean place, and it shall be kept for the congregation of the children of Israel for a water of sprinkling; it is a purification from sin. And he that gathereth the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until the even; and it shall be unto the children of Israel, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among them, for a statute for ever.

 זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה, אֲשֶׁר-צִוָּה יְהוָה לֵאמֹר:  דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ פָרָה אֲדֻמָּה תְּמִימָה אֲשֶׁר אֵין-בָּהּ מוּם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-עָלָה עָלֶיהָ, עֹל.

[2]

 וְכִבֶּס בְּגָדָיו הַכֹּהֵן, וְרָחַץ בְּשָׂרוֹ בַּמַּיִם, וְאַחַר, יָבֹא אֶל-הַמַּחֲנֶה; וְטָמֵא הַכֹּהֵן, עַד-הָעָרֶב.

וְהַשֹּׂרֵף אֹתָהּ–יְכַבֵּס בְּגָדָיו בַּמַּיִם, וְרָחַץ בְּשָׂרוֹ בַּמָּיִם; וְטָמֵא, עַד-הָעָרֶב.

  וְאָסַף אִישׁ טָהוֹר, אֵת אֵפֶר הַפָּרָה, וְהִנִּיחַ מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה, בְּמָקוֹם טָהוֹר; וְהָיְתָה לַעֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל לְמִשְׁמֶרֶת, לְמֵי נִדָּה–חַטָּאת הִוא.

 וְכִבֶּס הָאֹסֵף אֶת-אֵפֶר הַפָּרָה, אֶת-בְּגָדָיו, וְטָמֵא, עַד-הָעָרֶב; וְהָיְתָה לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְלַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכָם–לְחֻקַּת עוֹלָם.

Rashi immediately goes on the defensive:

This is the statute of the Torah: Because Satan and the nations of the world taunt Israel, saying, “ What is this commandment, and what purpose does it have?” Therefore, the Torah uses the term “statute.” I have decreed it; You have no right to challenge it. — [Yoma 67b]

זאת חקת התורה; לפי שהשטן ואומות העולם מונין את ישראל לומר מה המצוה הזאת ומה טעם יש בה, לפיכך כתב בה חקה, גזירה היא מלפני ואין לך רשות להרהר אחריה 

Sprinkling some water and “poof” your sins are washed away give us moderns the Heebie jeebies, but also seemed to trouble non-Jews of the 1st Century. (Pĕsikta Dĕ-Rab Kahăna, Chapter 4 Parah Aduma)

RHeifer pesikta rav kahana 4 1[3]

But what really made the Red heifer into a theological flash point was the fact that while it purified the impure, the priests involved with it’s preparation and with the sprinkling, were made impure.

מטהרת את הטמאים ומטמאה את הטהורים

[as formulated by Saadia Gaon, The Book of Beliefs and Opinions 3:10] [4]

 

RHeifer pesikta rav kahana 4 2It is hard to understand what made this paradox so perplexing.  After all, if you take a glowing piece of molten metal and put it into a cold pot of water…. The water gets hot and the metal gets cool.  In physics, we call this the law of conservation of energy which states that the total energy of an isolated system cannot change.

Which brings us to God and religion…

The Pĕsikta Dĕ-Rab Kahăna devotes a whole chapter to the Red Heifer and starts as follows:

RHeifer pesikta rav kahana 4 start 1

RHeifer pesikta rav kahana 4 start 2What makes the Red Heifer so audacious is that ultimately it is God who purifies the world and according to the law of the Red Heifer (and the law of the conservation of energy) … God must become impure in the process.

This heresy lies behind the Lurianic Kabbalistic concept of Tzimtzum (צמצום   contraction/constriction/condensation/withdrawal”) that God began the process of creation by “contracting” his infinite light in order to allow for a “conceptual space” in which finite and seemingly independent realms could exist.  If God’s purity is in His infinite nature, then to allow a finite world to exist, He had to contract, or compromise His purity.

This heresy lies behind a lesser known concept sported by Maimonides known as the “gracious ruse” a concept perhaps borrowed from the second-century-C.E. philosopher Alexander of Aphrodisias who developed the theory of divine condescendence (Greek synkatabasis; cf. Arabic talattuf Hebrew:   הערמה האלהית  ibn tibbon ).  Maimonides uses this concept of the Divine trick to explain why God permitted Judaism to be compromised with so many artifacts of paganism:  “It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God (literally “gracious ruse”), as displayed in the whole Creation, that He did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service; for to obey such a commandment it would have been contrary to the nature of man.  Part III, chapter 32

Ultimately, this is the heresy that gave birth to the concept that the suffering, even death of a holy person can purify and redeem the Chosen People. (read Isaiah 53 excerpted below )

He was despised, and forsaken of men, a man of pains, and acquainted with disease, and as one from whom men hide their face: he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely our diseases he did bear, and our pains he carried; whereas we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded because of our transgressions; he was crushed because of our iniquities: the chastisement of our welfare was upon him, and with his stripes we were healed. All we like sheep did go astray, we turned everyone to his own way; and the LORD hath made to light on him the iniquity of us all. … Yet it pleased the LORD to crush him by disease; to see if his soul would offer itself in restitution אָשָׁם נַפְשׁוֹ, that he might see his seed, prolong his days, and that the purpose of the LORD might prosper by his hand: Of the travail of his soul he shall see to the full, even My servant, who by his knowledge did justify the Righteous One to the many, and their iniquities he did bear.  Therefore will I divide him a portion among the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the mighty; because he bared his soul unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many וְהוּא חֵטְא-רַבִּים נָשָׂא, and made intercession for the transgressors.

Of no surprise, scholars, even Jewish scholars, have seen this Suffering Servant as a precursor of the, initially Jewish expectation that a messiah will come who will die for our sins (see The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ by Daniel Boyarin pp150-)

See also “Said R. Ammi, Wherefore is the account of Miriam’s death4 placed next to the [laws of the] red heifer?5 To inform you that even as the red heifer afforded atonement [by the ritual use of its ashes], so does the death of tie righteous afford atonement [for the living they have left behind].  (Moed Katan 28a)

It’s a slippery slope and a short walk to go one step further and require that not the messiah, but God Himself must commit the ultimate compromise and …. Die, so that we can live.

It’s no wonder that when Moses goes up to heaven to visit God he finds God studying the Torah portion of the Red Heifer!

When Moshe went up to the heights of heaven, he heard the voice of the Holy One, blessed be He, as He sat engaged in the study of the passage on the Red Heifer, citing a law in the name of the sage who stated it: “Rabbi Eliezer said: The heifer whose neck is to be broken must be [not more than] one year old; and the red heifer [not more than] two years old.”

Moshe said before the Holy One, blessed be He: “Master of the Universe, worlds above and worlds below are in Your domain, yet You sit and cite a law ascribed to flesh and blood!”

The Holy One, blessed be He, replied: “Moshe, there will arise in My world a righteous man who, [in his concern for the purification of Israel], will begin his instruction of the Oral Law with the passage on the red heifer, and so I, [also concerned for the purification of Israel], say: ‘Rabbi Eliezer said: The heifer whose neck is to be broken must be [not more than] one year old; and the red heifer [not more than] two years old.'” [Pĕsikta Dĕ-Rab Kahăna, Chapter 4] [5]

Fortunately for us Jews, Christianity took this heresy and ran with it.  We Jews replaced the laws of the Red Heifer and the sacrificial cult with prayer and water works… washing our hands and dunking in the mikva (ritual bath). Mishna Yoma 8:10

Rabbi Akiva says: Fortunate are you O Israel! Before whom do you purify yourselves? [And] who purifies you? Your Father in Heaven! As it is said: “I will sprinkle upon you pure water and you shall become purified” (Ezekiel 36:25), and it is further said: “The hope [dewn] of Israel is the Lord” (Jeremiah 17:13), just as a mikvah purifies the defiled so too, does the Holy one Blessed is He, purify Israel

אָמַר רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא

אַשְׁרֵיכֶם יִשְׂרָאֵל

לִפְנֵי מִי אַתֶּם מִטַּהֲרִין

וּמִי מְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם

אֲבִיכֶם שֶׁבַּשָּׁמַיִם…

וְאוֹמֵר, (ירמיה יז) “מִקְוֵה יִשְׂרָאֵל יְיָ” –

מַה מִּקְוֶה מְטַהֵר אֶת הַטְּמֵאִים

אַף הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מְטַהֵר אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל

Akiva changed the model.  Unlike the water of the Red Heifer, the water of the ritual bath (mikveh) is not a zero sum game.  The impurity removed from the impure in the mikveh is not transferred to the living water (בְּמַיִם חַיִּים) of the mikva (Leviticus 15:13), and so presumably God need not be compromised and made impure when He purifies His people.

Judaism may be a dirty business, but fortunately we have Akiba and God Himself reviewing the texts and massaging the data.  As for me… and it’s hot outside… I’m going to take my pre-shabbat dip.

—————–

For a wonderful (hebrew only) source of texts on Parah Adumah go here.

[1] And ye shall give her unto Eleazar the priest, and she shall be brought forth without the camp, and she shall be slain before his face. And Eleazar the priest shall take of her blood with his finger, and sprinkle of her blood toward the front of the tent of meeting seven times. And the heifer shall be burnt in his sight; her skin, and her flesh, and her blood, with her dung, shall be burnt. And the priest shall take cedar-wood, and hyssop, and scarlet, and cast it into the midst of the burning of the heifer. Then the priest shall wash his clothes, and he shall bathe his flesh in water, and afterward he may come into the camp, and the priest shall be unclean until the even.

[2]

וּנְתַתֶּם אֹתָהּ, אֶל-אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן; וְהוֹצִיא אֹתָהּ אֶל-מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה, וְשָׁחַט אֹתָהּ לְפָנָיו.

וְלָקַח אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן, מִדָּמָהּ–בְּאֶצְבָּעוֹ; וְהִזָּה אֶל-נֹכַח פְּנֵי אֹהֶל-מוֹעֵד, מִדָּמָהּ–שֶׁבַע פְּעָמִים.

וְשָׂרַף אֶת-הַפָּרָה, לְעֵינָיו:  אֶת-עֹרָהּ וְאֶת-בְּשָׂרָהּ וְאֶת-דָּמָהּ, עַל-פִּרְשָׁהּ יִשְׂרֹף.

וְלָקַח הַכֹּהֵן, עֵץ אֶרֶז וְאֵזוֹב–וּשְׁנִי תוֹלָעַת; וְהִשְׁלִיךְ, אֶל-תּוֹךְ שְׂרֵפַת הַפָּרָה

[3]

שאל עובד כוכבים אחד את רבן יוחנן בן זכאי: אילין עובדייא דאתון עבדין [הדברים האלה שאתם עושים] נראין כמין כשפים. אתם מביאים פרה, ושורפין אותה, וכותשין אותה, ונוטלין את אפרה, ואחד מכם מטמא למת מזין עליו שתים ושלוש טיפין [=טיפות (של מי הפרה)], ואתם אומרים לו: טהרת

[4]

R saadia gaon egel arufa-english1

The Book of beliefs & Opinions, trans Samuel Rosenblatt pp 177-8

The Book of beliefs & Opinions, trans Samuel Rosenblatt pp 177-8

R saadia gaon egel arufa

R. Saadia Gaon, Emunah Vedayot, 3:10

[5]

RHeifer pesikta rav kahana 4 moshe up at sinai

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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,

——————

* 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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