Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Momentum of Chag

Jewish Festivals are so total, so enveloping. I can almost imagine Jackie Mason in a skit saying something to the effect of:

The Gentiles, when they have a festival, what do they do? - They make a party, they eat in the living room, they drink, exchange gifts. It's fun, it's relaxed.
But us - we build a shack, we shvitz to put up a rickety hut, and then we sleep in it and eat in it - and we call that a holiday? We clean the house on our knees, and wash the curtains and wipe down the kitchen and change our entire kitchen round, and eat indigestible matza - and we say: That's a Holiday! Ah! - A Yom Tov!
On their new year, they make a drunken party and sleep all day with a hangover. On our New Year, we get up early, and spend half the day in shul!
Some Festival!

Jewish Festivals do have their grueling aspects at times. But I love them. and I love them precisely because they are so overwhelming, so all-encompassing.

Take the Yamim Noraim. The Shofar 30 days before, the selichot - getting up early in an intense vigil of chanting, day by day. And then the symbolic foods, the Shofar, the prayer service, and the intensity of the Asseret Ymai Teshuva. It all crescendos perfectly at Neila. Even for a person who isn't prepared in any particular way, the acts of our tradition create a certain momentum, they propel a person forward, thrusting him or her into the mood, the themes, the ideas, the mindset of that particular time of year with totality and immersion.

Take Sukkot which we just celebrated. The lead-up straight after Yom Kippur, with buliding the Sukka, and then decorating it, buying the Arba'ah Minim, cutting Aravot. It's an entire mobilisation. And then Chag itself, when we try to spend as much time possible in the Sukka, eating, relaxing, I even took my laptop out to the Sukka, and we had an entire family sleep-in for 7 days as we all slept in the Sukka. Not to mention Hallel with Arba'ah Minim and Hoshanot each day. And here in Israel, the kids are off school, and we are off work. The country is filled with a variety of music and arts Festivals, and people are all out enjoying themselves. It has a real Holiday feel! Suddenly, the Chag starts weaving its magic. As one lies in the Sukka and the flimsy roof over one's head, the deliberate move away from the creature comforts of one's bedroom and living room, one is inexorably prompted to ponder the deeper meaning sof the Chag, and behaviourly, existentially, the Holiday begins to penetrate, to infiltrate to seep into our minds and souls.

And similarly for Pesach, and other special times of the year, for example the Three Weeks. What is phenomenal is that the more intensely and comprehensively one observes the laws, rites, traditions and practices of the Holiday, the more it envelops your reality, weaving a magical web, and literally reframing one's environment. It is as if life were a stage, and suddenly the backdrop, the scenery and soundtrack were able to generate an entirely new vista, a radically different world, a fresh mode of living, with its unique texture , sounds, smells, feelings, thoughts, a different mood, a new reality.

I think that it is only in recent years that I have become more sensitive and aware to the power of the Chag and its Laws in generating the atmosphere and content of the moment. When in school, we spend ages studying about the upcoming Holidays. we learn the customs, and songs, the ideas and the texts. We are over-primed!

But as life is more busy with kids and work, I have felt (even as a teacher, teaching my students about the Chag) that I have less and less time to work my brain into the correct atmosphere and mindset. With all the hectic preparations, we frequently dash out the shower to shul for YomTov without having engaged ourselves in deeper thought about the chag! It is here that the comprehensive nature of our tradition, the huge numbers of traditions and Halakhot, the physical investment in building the Sukka, or burning the Hametz, and then the rhythm and tempo of the Chag itself, begin to have that amazing effect of penetrating our psyche, our consciousness, as the content and inner spirit of the Chag begin to spread their special aroma throughout our minds, body and soul.

I'm looking forward to Channukah already!

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Etrog Upside Down

How do you make the bracha on the Lulav and Etrog? I remember being taught that one should invert the Etrog to an upside down position when saying the bracha. Why? We don't hold our Kiddush cup upside down? What is the source of this practice?


First a few comments about the precise definition of the mitzva of Lulav.

A widespread misconception about the mitzva of Arba Minim is that we perform the mitzva by SHAKING the Lulav and Etrog. This is not true. The Torah states (Vayikra 23:40) “On the first day of sukkot, you shall TAKE the fruit of the beautiful tree and a palm branch .... and rejoice before the Lord your God”. The mitzva is simply to take the Lulav (and not to shake it). By the very act of PICKING UP the Lulav and Etrog, I have already performed the mitzva.

(NB - Taking it to shul in a container does not constitute the mitzva, since it must be performed ‘bederech kavod’; in a dignified way (O.CH 651:6) and having the Arba Minim in a box is not a dignified taking).


This definition of the mitzva provides a serious halachik difficulty as regards the recitation of the bracha on the Lulav.

There is a general principle of Brachot: A bracha must directly precede the action that it is being recited for, in the most immediate manner (Sukka 39a). This is the rule of “oveir le’assiatan”- that the bracha must be recited at the moment of performance of the mitzva or act concerned. An example would be a bracha for food. We hold the food in our hand and make the bracha and then immediately take our first taste of the food. The action should follow on smoothly from the bracha.

How does this work with Arba Minim? If I say the bracha without holding the Arba Minim, I will not be able to follow the brach with immediate performance of the mitzva. It frequently takes a while to get organised with the Lulav and Etrog. By the time we put down our machzor from the bracha and pick up the Lulav and Etrog from their respective boxes, we have already seperated the bracha from the mitzva by a significant pause!

Even if we can cut down the time, the ROSH brings the example of tefillin. When putting on tefillin, we make a bracha when they are already on our arm but before firmly tightening them. We do not make the bracha while they are still in the bag. A bracha must be recited at the moment one is primed for action!

How do we apply this principle regarding our Lulav and Etrog?


How do we have the Lulav and Etrog in our hands, ready to do the mitzva without fulfilling the mitzva? A number of solutions are presented in the Rishonim (medieval halachists).

1. Inverted: The ROSH gives the most famous suggestion. One cannot perform the mitzva of Arba Minim unless each species are held upright. He suggests that we take our Lulav and and then pick up the Etrog upside down. In this way, I am ready to perform the mitzva but I have not yet fulfilled it. I make the bracha and turn the Etrog around to an upright position and I have now performed the mitzva!

In this situation one must PICK UP the Etrog in an already inverted position. It doesn’t help to invert the Etrog after I have already handled it normally because I will already have been holding the entire Arba Minim upright before the bracha!

2. Intent:
A further option suggested by the ROSH is to expressedly have intention NOT to fulfill the mitzva until after the bracha. The Aruch Hashulchan rejects this as regular practice because those who are looking on , not knowing the intention of the person concerned, will follow the actions of the person and miss saying the bracha before the act of the mitzva. In addition, people don’t remember all the details of Arba Minim from year to year. They will remember what they DID but not necessarily the accompanyimg THOUGHT!

3. Hold the Lulav ONLY for the bracha: The THIRD OPTION suggested is to pick up the Lulav leaving the Etrog in it’s box, make the bracha and then immediately take the Etrog into one’s hand.

The SHULCHAN ARUCH (651:5) takes options 1 and 3 as recommended.

“ One should make the blessing of “al netilat Lulav” and “shehechiyanu” before
picking up the Etrog in order to recite the blessing in conjunction to the
performance of the mitzva.

Alternatively , one should invert the Etrog until one has made the blessing”


If one picks up the Lulav and Etrog in the normal way and forgot about all these restrictions, is a person still allowed to say the bracha? The answer is Yes.


The Mishna Berura(#36) states that despite the fact that one fulfills the mitzva without having shaken the Lulav, the shaking of the Arba Minim represents a higher dimension of the basic performance of the mitzva. It is on this added dimension that one is allowed to make a bracha if one picked up the Arba Minim without using the methods above. One should simply make the bracha before shaking the Lulav and Etrog.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Did we sit in Sukkot in the Wilderness?

“You shall live in Sukkot (booths) for seven days, all citizens in Israel shall
live in Sukkot (booths); in order that future generations may know that I made
the Israelite people live in booths, when I brought them out of the Land of
Egypt, I am the Lord your God.” (23:41-43)

The Torah informs us that the Sukkot, the huts or booths in which we reside for the week of Chag Hassukot correspond to a specific historical reality. God “made the Israelite people live in booths” during the Exodus from Egypt, and we imitate and simulate that collective experience on Chag Hassukot. Now, this familiar passuk has always raised a number of questions. What exactly does the Torah mean when it speaks about God housing us in "Sukkot" during the Egyptian Exodus? What booths is the verse referring to? Does the Torah record such an event?

Most readers are probably familiar with the Talmudic discussion in Sukka 11b:

‘I made the Israelite people live in booths.’
It refers to the “clouds of glory” said Rabbi Eliezer.
Rabbi Akiva says: God made real Sukkot for them.

For Rabbi Eliezer, the booths of the wilderness are the miraculous protective "Clouds of Glory." For Rabbi Akiva, God's booths are real huts in which the Israelites lived during their years of sojourning in the wilderness. Let us investigate this relationship between the past and the present. How do our Sukkot relate to the booths of the Exodus? We shall take our cue from Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva and investigate their respective opinions.


Rabbi Eliezer talks about Ananei HaKavod – Clouds of Glory. What are these clouds? The Mekhilta offers us some clarity:

"There were seven clouds[1]: Four of them to each side/direction (of the Israelites), one was above them and another below their feet. A further cloud would pass in front of them leveling the valleys and flattening the mountains." (Mekhilta Beshalach 1)

We are dealing with a miraculous phenomenon whereby mysterious clouds with protective and other powers shielded and eased the path of B’nei Yisrael as they trekked through the wilderness. According to Rabbi Eliezer, the Sukkot that we inhabit mirror and reflect the cloud-experience of the wilderness. But how?

Obviously, this concept has its advantages and disadvantages. Advantages will include a straightforward reading of the passuk: I placed the Israelite people in sukkot. This is a Godly form of envelopment and protection, and hence God's protective clouds might fit the bill.


But for adherents of the peshat approach to Chumash the Anannei Hakavod are a red flag. After all, the text of the Chumash never mentions clouds leveling mountains, or clouds under the feet of the Israelites! Those who adopt a more rational mode of thought and more text oriented approach are immediately attracted to the more realistic proposition by Rabbi Akiva, that the Israelites lived in huts, shelters. After all, if we are commanded to live in huts in commemoration of the booths of our ancestors in the wilderness, we should assume that B’nei Yisrael did indeed live in huts!

They are in good company. The Ibn Ezra also didn't favour the theory of Annanei Hakavod very much!


"Some of the early scholars said that there were seven clouds, but to my mind, there were only two, and possibly only a single cloud." (Ibn Ezra)

The Ibn Ezra is commenting on the verse in Shemot that informs us that the Am Yisrael were lead by a cloud as we departed from Egypt:

"The Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, that they may travel by day and night. " (Shemot 13:21)

The Ibn Ezra reads that verse in the following manner:

"A pillar of cloud by day, to guide them: to show them the route. It also protected them[2], and this is the meaning of the phrase (in Tehillim 105:39) 'He spread a cloud as a screen.'
A pillar of fire by night, to give them light – It might be that the pillar of fire was within the pillar of cloud at night, as its states (Shemot 40:38) 'fire will be within it at night.'
That they may travel by day and night: They traveled around the clock … These clouds, if there were two, remained with them until the crossed the Yam Suf (Reed Sea) but in my opinion, they then ceased to accompany them for there wasn't a need to travel at night after Pharaoh and his army had drowned in the Sea. (Shemot. Peirush Katzar 13:21)

But questions remain. And the most significant of them is the origins of Sukkot. If we have debunked the theory of the "Clouds of Glory," then what are the Sukkot that Bnei Yisrael lived in during the wilderness era?

The Ibn Ezra answers:

"…Near Mt. Sinai was a forest of Acacia trees. When they arrived there (Sinai) and were told that they would reside there for some time – and there was no (protective) cloud as I have already explained – each person constructed a hut … and they cut down the entire forest…." (Ibn Ezra . Peirush HaAroch Shemot 25:5)

the Ibn Ezra's theory helps explain what the Biblical Sukkot were, but it also goes some way to inform regarding the source of the wood that the people contributed to the construction of the Mishkan.

So this is a neat answer. But, is it correct?


Let us check it out. Did the Israelites live in wood huts? Did they chop down a forest? Many places record the manner in which Bnei Yisrael dwelt in TENTS[3] , termed Mishkan or Ohel:

"And they (Moshe and Yitro) went into the tent." (Shemot 18:7)

"And the people bowed down, each person at the doorway of his tent" (Shemot 33:10)

"and Datan and Aviram emerged defiant at the portal of their tents." (Bamidbar 16:27)

"How comely are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places (mishkenotecha) O Israel." (Bamidbar 24:5)

In each place they talk about tents, and the term "Sukkot/Sukka" are noticeably absent! In fact, other than the Festival of Sukkot, that word is NEVER used as a term for a home for Bnei Yisrael when they are in the Wilderness! Never![4]

So, we are stuck. Because the Israelites lived in OHALIm and not SUKKOT. And now we are raising serious doubts as to the identity of the living shelters that housed Bnei Yisrael during their forty years in the wilderness. if our Sukkot commemorate the huts of the Midbar, do they refer to the physical object of a Sukka! Where does this leave us?


So let us investigate the verb S"CH"CH which is the grammatical root of the sukka. What does that word tell us? (Look up the root in the concordance!)

If you examine virtually every instance of the verb S"CH"CH in the Tanach, it refers to God's protection in some way. More specifically, it frequently refers to Temple references[5], but that is far from exclusive. The overwhelming majority refer to God as directly shielding or protecting a person:

"You shielded my head on the day of war" (Tehillim 140:8)
"With his wing he shelters you" (Tehillim 91)

This is about basking in the divine presence, or being protected by Him.

Or, for example, the Ark of the Covenant has cherubs that are "shielding – sochechim - with their wings over the Kapporet" The Ark is the place where God's presence is manifest! "and I will speak to you … from between the Cherubs" (Shemot 25:18)

And now I am understanding that this verb is dealing with God's protection, or even more than that, with God's Presence itself!

And I recall the passuk in Shemot: "God's presence – Kevod Hashem – appeared in CLOUD" (Shemot 16:10) Are ANNANEI KAVOD in truth, a metaphor for God's presence, his manifest protection?

And here I find myself coming full-circle. We are back to the start. We began by hearing Chazal talk about seven protective divine clouds. It sounded bizarre, textually unfounded, too supernatural. So we explored Tanach for a rational physical booth within which to understand the phenomenon of the sukkot of the Wilderness. And now, with a linguistic analysis, we understand that in truth, the word "sukka" refers quite directly to God protecting man.

In other words, the word "Sukka" refers quite clearly to the notion that we thrust our trust into God's hands and we rely upon Him. Or even further, that God allows us to have relationship with Him. Maybe this is actually the inner meaning of the Midrashic concept of the 7 protective clouds.

When we sit in our sukka this week, we are expected to allow our "home" to be rather more fragile than it usually is. But that very understanding – that we are limited and not absolutely able to control our personal and physical environment , our destiny – this very understanding affords us more "room " to recognize God's caring hand, God's presence in our lives

Wishing you a Chag Sameach!

[1] Interesting that in the Mekhikta, other views are offered:
Rabbi Yehuda – 13 clouds
Rabbi Yoshiya – 4 clouds
Rebbi – 2 clouds.
So there is far from consensus amongst the Tannaim on this point.
[2] The Ibn Ezra may be referring to Shemot 14:19 where we read how the "the pillar of cloud shifted from in front of them and took up place behind them. It came between the army of the Egyptians and the army of Israel … and one could not come near the other throughout the night."

Might this episode be one of the primary sources for the concept of Annanei Kavod - protective clouds - in each direction?

At any rate, the Ibn Ezra seems to think (on the basis of the verse in Tehillim) that the pillar of cloud spread itself wide over them to shield them from the scorching desert sun.
[3] See also Devarim 1:27, 5:27, and possibly Bamidbar 19:14
[4] One could claim, even with the Ibn Ezra, that they used the wood to create some sort of frame, and that the walls were made of cloth, and that this sort of wood-frame/cloth structure is known as an Ohel, a tent. That would assist us with logistical issues, but it still leaves us bewildered as to the word "Sukkot."
As for the word "Sukkkot", there IS a PLACE named Sukkot (Shemot 12:37; Bamidbar 33:5) which was their FIRST stop in the Wilderness after leaving Egypt. Might the Torah be relating the booth-Sukkoth to the place called Sukkoth? That seems unlikely. (– more about this at the end of the shiur)
[5] See the work of Yaakov Nagen from Yeshivat Otniel, who elaborates upon the Sukka-Mikdash connection or symmetry.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Like a Pomegranate

Pomegranate is a fruit that has become associated with Rosh Hashannah. The true origin of the connection might well be (as I can testify from the tree in my garden) that pomegranates ripen just around the time of Rosh Hashanna. The coin in the picture here is from the period of the Bar Kochba revolt and clearly contains an image of three pomegranates. This is an ancient Jewish symbol.

People frequently quote the Talmudic saying "even the empty are filled with mitzvot like a pomegranate" which appears several times in talmudic literature. (Brachot 57a and Sanhedrin 37a) It means that even the ignorant, or unworth of Israel, are filled with good deeds like a pomegranate.

But this statement is strange. I understand that the uneducated can possibly exhibit be piety. But what if the phrase "empty" here indicates an unworthy person? Why should the "empty" (reikanim" be filled with mitzvot like a pomegranate? If so, why are they "empty"? Clearly they AREN't filled with mitzvot or else they would be "full"! Then how is this famous saying to be understood?

I had an insight into this as I was scooping out the seeds from a pomegranate of Rosh Hashannah. The seeds are tough to extract, and one constantly finds hidden chambers with yet another few seeds, and then a further section with yet another few.

maybe THIS is what Chazal meant. Even the empty of Israel have Mitzvot in all sorts of unexpected places. This is certainly true. How often do we realise that even the most unlikely Jews keep many aspects of tradition, or engage in secret acts of kindness. These are the hidden pomegranate seeds that every Jew possesses. The point then is not that the "empty" are filled with seeds like a pomegranate, but rather that their seeds are not necessarily self evident.