The fruit of the goodly tree – the curious case of the etrog: or “what does the Etrog have to do with the Jewish people and land.

L’italiano segue il testo inglese

Sukkot is one of the three pilgrimage festivals – the shalosh regalim – where the bible (Leviticus 23) tells us that the people must come to Jerusalem with their harvested produce, to give thanks to God.

We read “The fifteenth of this seventh month shall be the feast of booths for seven days to the Lord… Also on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruit of the land, you shall keep a feast to the eternal seven days: on the first day shall be a Sabbath, and on the eighth day shall be a Sabbath. And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of the tree hadar, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick leaved trees, and willows of the brook… You shall dwell in booths seven days…that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt…”  Lev 23:33ff

Fascinatingly, this text about Sukkot gives us two reasons for its celebration – both an agricultural one with the celebration of the harvest, and a theological one, reminding us of our dependence on God during (and after) the exodus from Egypt.

In fact Sukkot is referenced in bible in a number of different ways. The book of Exodus repeatedly calls it “Chag haAsif – the Festival of Ingathering”; In Leviticus and Deuteronomy it is referred to as Chag HaSukkot – the Festival of Booths/Sukkot; In the Books of Kings, Chronicles and Ezekiel it is called simply “HeChag” –THE Festival; and in Leviticus in the text quoted above it is called “Chag Adonai” – the Festival of God. The first two names are clearly agricultural in origin – they reference the acts of harvesting and of living in small booths in the fields during the harvesting/birthing of animals. The second two are clearly more theological/national in origin. It remains for the rabbinic tradition simply “HeChag” The festival par excellence. And the rabbis have one more name for it, again deriving from the Leviticus piece quoted – it is Z’man Simchateinu, the time of our rejoicing.

What is this joy about? Is it because we have an abundance in the Autumn, before the harshness of the winter sets in? Is it because we not only are faced with out vulnerability as we live on and work the land, but because we also are secure in God’s protection?

In the Talmud (Sukkah 11b) there is a debate – Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva are trying to understand the verse “That your generations will know that I made the Children of Israel live in booths [sukkot] when I brought them from the land of Egypt..” Rabbi Akiva understands these to be literal physical booths, while Rabbi Eliezer understands them as metaphor – these booths are the clouds of glory that descended from God to protect the wandering Israelites in the desert.  If we were to follow Rabbi Eliezer we would understand that the mercy of God protects us, and in particular if we would see the context of Sukkot as part of the set of Autumn Festivals, then these clouds continue to hide our sinfulness and give us even longer to repent and return to a merciful God. Given that there is a tradition that one can continue to do the work of Elul/Rosh Hashanah/ Yom Kippur right up to the last day of Sukkot – Hoshanah Rabbah, this metaphorical understanding of the Sukkah is a way to give us extra time with a patient and merciful God waiting to offer us protection – something surely to be joyful about.

The text in Leviticus, besides telling us both the agricultural and the theological/peoplehood reasons for this festival, and giving us the command to rejoice before God (no other festival has this commandment), tells us to take four different plants – only two of which, the palm and the willows of the brook, are named. The others- the fruit of goodly trees, and the branches of leafy trees, require some interpretation.

The Book of Nehemiah describes an event that occurred on the date of Rosh Hashanah during the early Second Temple period. We are told that all the people gathered themselves together as one into the broad place that was before the water gate in Jerusalem; that they spoke to Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the Law of Moses, which God had commanded to Israel.  Later in the same chapter we find: “Now they found written in the Law, how that the Eternal had commanded that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month; and that they should publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying: “Go forth to the mountain, and fetch olive branches, and branches of wild olive, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees, to make booths, as it is written.” So the people went forth, and brought them, and made themselves booths, every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of God, and in the broad place of the water gate, and in the broad place of the gate of Ephraim. And all the congregation of them that were come back out of the captivity made booths, and dwelt in the booths; for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun until that day the children of Israel had not done so. And there was very great gladness (Neh. 8:14-17).

This is clearly a description of Sukkot, yet there is no etrog, rather the branches of olives and wild olives, and the leafy tree is named here as the myrtle. There is also no mention – unlike the passage in Leviticus – of putting the four species together and enacting a ritual with them. Indeed, it is clear to the people of Nehemiah’s time that these branches are for the creating of the booths/sukkot, and this is also reflected in a Talmudic discussion (BT Sukkah 36b – 37a), that Rabbi Meir says a sukkah can be built of any material, whereas Rabbi Judah, basing himself on the description in the Book of Nehemiah, says it can only be built with the woods of the four species.

It seems also, that the fruit of the goodly tree should, by rights, be the olive. It was and it remains a staple in the agriculture of the region, the oil used as both food and fuel for lighting, for medicine and for religious ritual. The olive also is harvested around this time. When you factor in the statement by Jeremiah (11:16) “16 The Eternal called your name a leafy olive-tree, fair with goodly fruit”, it seems a bit of a no-brainer that the fruit of the goodly tree would be the olive

Yet we have instead, the rather ambiguous fruit – the etrog. Why?

The earliest text probably is that of 1st -2nd century Targum Onkelos, the first translation of the bible (into Aramaic), which has a habit of also interpreting the text, and which clearly writes “the fruit of the etrog tree”. Josephus (1st century Romano-Jewish writer) also describes the use of the Etrog when he writes about the festival. The Talmud (TB Sukkot 34a) tells the story of the Hasmonean king and High Priest Alexander Yanneus (103-76 BCE) who was not respectful of the ritual of Simchat Beit HaSho’eva (the ceremony of the water libation) and was pelted with etrogim by the angry worshippers.  The Hasmonean coins of the period show etrogim, and it was clearly an important symbol of the nation at that time.

I wonder if the etrog came to be one of the four species (arba’a minim) because it had a particular quality that the rabbis wanted to add to the ritual – and what that quality might be.

By the time of the Mishnah (2nd Century CE) the etrog is part of the group of the four species. While it is practically inedible in its raw state, it does have a particularly lovely smell should you scratch the skin a little with your nail. The old joke usually told about Israelis being like the sabra fruit, that they might be prickly and unedifying on the bush, but deliciously sweet when opened, is maybe better designed for the etrog – they appear to be firm dense and unyielding, but the smell of them when touched is exquisite. They also have another quality – leave most fruits and they will soften and rot. The etrog will generally wither and harden, but not rot, and the smell continues for a long time – not for nothing are they a favourite to make as the spice box for havdalah.

There are midrashim that talk about the four species describing the different people in a community – the date palm has taste but no smell, and describes the one who knows much torah but does not do good deeds. The myrtle has smell but no taste, the one who does good deeds but knows little Torah. The willow has no taste or smell – denoting the person who neither learns Torah nor does good deeds; and the Etrog has both taste  and smell – the ideal. We put them together in our sukkot ritual waving of the arba’a minim – because every community has people of each kind, and every community needs people of each kind.

There is a midrash that the four species resemble a whole person – the willow leaves look like lips, the myrtle leaves look like eyes, the palm is the spine and the etrog – the etrog is the heart. Again, we need to use our  whole bodies when we worship.

But the midrash I like best, and the one I have the feeling was the reason for the Etrog joining the branches of the other trees, is that each of the four species is a distinct botanical type, each quite different from the other.

The palm trees love hot and dry climatic conditions – they don’t fruit well in the humid coastal areas, but like to be in dryer, desert conditions. And so the palm branch represents the desert areas of the Land of Israel.

The myrtle thrives best in the colder and mountainous regions of the northern parts of the Land, and the willow needs to be in the areas close to the yearlong streams of water ; The etrog does best in the irrigated land of the lower coastal areas and the valleys.

The Land of Israel, small as it is, is a land of micro climates, and each one of the arba’a minim represents a different climate and so a different part of the Land. Sukkot is par excellence the festival of agriculture, of the awareness of the need for rain to fall appropriately and in timely fashion. The three trees named are, to a gardener’s eye, representative of three quite different climates. The olive is no such sensitive plant, so a different plant should be chosen to represent the carefully farmed areas of the land.

The shaking of the Lulav, the connection with harvest and agriculture, the pouring of water at Simchat Beit HaSho’eva – this is a festival both of thanksgiving and of request for the coming year. The shivering of the palm leaves as one shakes the lulav sound like the rain pattering onto the ground. What good would it be if one part of the land is well irrigated if another part suffers drought or floods?

As we become ever more aware about the problems of the changing climate – the hurricanes, the floods, the delayed monsoons, the scorching drying sun which allows fires to spread so quickly – we begin to realise what an interconnected world we live in, that what happens in one part of the world impacts upon us all.

So when we pick up the four species, let’s focus on the lesson it give us, in particular the substation of the etrog for the olive, to remind us that we are all inhabitants of the same earth, all individual parts of a greater whole, and lets do what we can to protect the earth, the crops, the rivers and the deserts, the frozen areas of the poles and on the mountains, the glaciers and the seas… Sukkot is all about how we respect water, Mayim Hayim, the giver and supporter of life.. and how we respect the world and its Creator.

 

Il frutto dell’albero di bell’aspetto – il curioso caso dell’Etrog: o “cosa ha a che fare l’Etrog con il popolo ebraico e la terra d’Israele”.

Di rav Sylvia Rothschild, pubblicato il 13 ottobre 2019

Sukkot fa parte delle shalosh regalim, una delle tre feste di pellegrinaggio, per cui la Bibbia ci dice che il popolo debba giungere a Gerusalemme con i prodotti dei propri raccolti, per ringraziare Dio.

In Levitico 23, si legge “…Il quindicesimo giorno dello stesso settimo mese è la festa di Sukkot, (delle capanne), in onore del  Signore, che dura sette giorni…. Ma il quindicesimo giorno del settimo mese, quando raccoglierete i prodotti della terra, festeggerete la festa del Signore per sette giorni; nel primo giorno vi sarà astensione dal lavoro e nell’ottavo giorno vi sarà astensione dal lavoro. E vi prenderete il primo giorno un frutto di bell’aspetto, rami di palme e rami dell’albero della mortella e rami di salice …. Nelle capanne risiederete per sette giorni …. affinché sappiano le vostre generazioni che in capanne ho fatto stare i figli di Israele quando li ho tratti dalla terra d’Egitto … ”

Questo testo su Sukkot, in maniera affascinante, ci offre due ragioni per la sua celebrazione: una agricola, con i festeggiamenti per il raccolto, e una teologica, a ricordarci la nostra dipendenza da Dio durante (e dopo) l’esodo dall’Egitto.

Effettivamente, Sukkot viene menzionata nella Bibbia in diversi modi. Il libro dell’Esodo la chiama ripetutamente Chag HaAsif , “la festa del raccolto”; in Levitico e Deuteronomio viene indicata come Chag HaSukkot, “la festa delle capanne”; nel Libro dei Re, nelle Cronache e in Ezechiele è chiamata semplicemente HeChag, “LA festa”; infine in Levitico, nel testo sopracitato, la si chiama “Chag Adonai, la festa di Dio”. Le prime due denominazioni sono chiaramente di origine agricola: fanno riferimento all’atto del raccogliere e del vivere in capanne nei campi durante la stagione del raccolto e le nascite del bestiame. La terza e la quarta sono in origine più chiaramente più teologico-nazionali. Per la tradizione rabbinica resta semplicemente HeChag, la festa per eccellenza. E per essa i rabbini hanno ancora un altro nome, sempre derivante dal pezzo del Levitico citato: Z’man Simchateinu, il momento della nostra gioia.

In cosa consiste questa gioia? Perché abbiamo l’abbondanza dell’autunno, prima che inizi la durezza dell’inverno? Perché non solo affrontiamo la nostra vulnerabilità mentre viviamo e lavoriamo la terra, ma perché siamo anche sicuri nella protezione di Dio?

Nel Talmud (Sukkà, 11b) c’è una discussione: rabbi Eliezer e rabbi Akiva stanno cercando di capire il versetto “Che le tue generazioni sapranno che ho fatto vivere i Figli di Israele in capanne [sukkot] quando li ho portati dalla terra di Egitto…” rabbi Akiva interpreta, alla lettera, che si tratti di capanne, in senso fisico, mentre rabbi Eliezer le intende come metafora: queste capanne sono le nuvole di gloria discese da Dio per proteggere gli Ebrei erranti nel deserto. Seguendo rabbi Eliezer, potremmo dire che la misericordia di Dio ci protegge, in particolare se vedessimo il contesto di Sukkot come parte del complesso delle feste autunnali, allora queste nuvole continuano a nascondere il nostro peccato e ci danno persino più tempo per pentirci e fare ritorno a un Dio misericordioso. Esiste una tradizione secondo cui si può continuare a fare il lavoro introspettivo di Elul, Rosh Hashanà e Yom Kippur fino all’ultimo giorno di Sukkot,  Hoshanà Rabbà, questa interpretazione metaforica della Sukkà è un modo di darci del tempo con un Dio paziente e misericordioso che attende di offrirci la sua protezione, ed è sicuramente qualcosa per cui essere felici.

Il testo in Levitico, oltre a raccontarci le ragioni sia agricole che teologiche e nazionaliste di questa festa, e a darci il comando di rallegrarci davanti a Dio (nessun’altra festa ha questo comandamento), ci dice di prendere quattro piante diverse, solo due delle quali, la palma e il salice, vengono nominate. Le altre, il frutto dell’albero di bell’aspetto e i rami di alberi frondosi, richiedono una certa interpretazione.

Il Libro di Nehemia descrive un evento accaduto alla data di Rosh Hashanà durante il primo periodo del Secondo Tempio. Ci viene detto che il popolo si radunò come un tutt’uno nell’ampio spazio che si trovava davanti alla porta dell’acqua a Gerusalemme; che parlarono a Esdra, lo scriba, per portare il libro della Legge di Mosè, che Dio aveva comandato a Israele. Più avanti nello stesso capitolo troviamo: “Allora trovarono scritto nella legge che il Signore aveva dato per mezzo di Mosè che i figli di Israele dovevano abitare in capanne durante la festa del settimo mese. Così pubblicarono in tutte le loro città e a Gerusalemme questo bando: “andate in montagna e protatene rami d’ulivo, d’olivastro, di mirto, di palma, e dell’albero folto, per farne capanne, come è scritto”. Il popolo ci andò: portarono a casa rami e si fecero capanne, ognuno sul suo tetto, nei loro cortili, , nei cortili del Tempio, sulla piazza della porta delle Acque e su quella della porta d’Efraim. Tuta l’adunanza, quelli che erano tornati dalla cattività, fecero così capanne e vi abitarono. Dal tempo di Giosuè figlio di Nun, fino a quel giorno, i figli d’Israele non avevano celebrato così: la gioia fu grandissima. Ezra diede lettura alla Legge di Dio ogni giorno, dal primo all’ultimo,. La festa si celebrò per sette giorni; l’ottavo giorno, ci fu solenne adunanza, come prescritto. (Neh. 8.14-17)

Questa è chiaramente una descrizione di Sukkot, eppure non c’è l’etrog, piuttosto i rami d’ulivo e olivastro, e l’albero frondoso qui è chiamato mirto. Non c’è nemmeno menzione, a differenza del passaggio nel Levitico, del mettere insieme le quattro specie e con esse porre in atto un rituale. In effetti è chiaro al popolo dei tempi di Nehemia che questi rami sono per la creazione di capanne/sukkot, e questo si riflette anche in una discussione talmudica (BT Sukkà 36b – 37a), in cui rabbi Meir afferma che una sukkà può essere costruita con qualsiasi materiale, mentre il rabbi Judah, basandosi sulla descrizione del Libro di Nehemia, afferma che può essere costruita solo con il legno delle quattro specie.

Sembra anche che il frutto dell’albero di bell’aspetto dovrebbe, per diritto, essere l’ulivo. Era e rimane un punto fermo nell’agricoltura della regione, l’olio era usato sia come cibo che come combustibile per l’illuminazione, la medicina e il rituale religioso. E l’oliva stessa viene raccolta in questo periodo. Quando si considera l’affermazione di Geremia (11:16) “Il Signore ti aveva chiamato ulivo fiorente, adorno di magnifici frutti.” Leggendo ciò sembrerebbe ovvio che il frutto dell’albero di bell’aspetto debba essere l’oliva.

Eppure abbiamo questo frutto piuttosto ambiguo: l’etrog, il cedro. Perché?

Il primo testo probabilmente è quello del Targum Onkelos del I-II secolo, la prima traduzione della Bibbia in aramaico, che ha l’uso di interpretare il testo e che scrive chiaramente “il frutto dell’albero del cedro”. Anche Giuseppe Flavio (storico ebreo romano del I secolo) descrive l’uso del cedro quando descrive la festa. Il Talmud (TB Sukkot 34a) racconta la storia del re e sommo sacerdote asmoneo Alessandro Ianneo (103-76 a.C.), che non rispettava il rituale di Simchat Beit HaSho’eva (la cerimonia della libagione dell’acqua) e fu colpito con dei cedri da dei devoti arrabbiati. Le monete asmonee del periodo recano dei cedri, che evidentemente erano un simbolo importante della nazione in quel momento.

Mi chiedo se l’etrog sia diventato una delle quattro specie (arba’a minim) a causa di una qualità particolare che i rabbini volevano aggiungere al rituale, e quale potrebbe essere stata questa caratteristica.

Al tempo della Mishnà (II secolo d.C.) il cedro fa parte del gruppo delle quattro specie. Mentre è praticamente immangiabile allo stato grezzo, ha un odore particolarmente gradevole se gli si graffia la buccia con l’unghia. Un vecchio detto comune riportava che gli israeliani sono come il frutto del sabra, il fico d’india, che potrebbero essere spinosi e poco attraenti sul cespuglio, ma deliziosamente dolci quando aperti, forse la similitudine si adatterebbe meglio al frutto del cedro: sembra essere rigido e irremovibile, ma il suo profumo, quando viene toccato, è squisito. Hanno anche un’altra qualità: la maggior parte dei frutti lasciati sull’albero si ammorbidisce e marcisce, il cedro invece appassisce e si indurisce, ma non marcisce, e l’odore continuerà a lungo: non per niente è uno dei frutti più utilizzati  per  preferiti da utilizzare nella scatola delle spezie per l’Havdalà.

Secondo alcuni midrashim, le quattro specie descrivono le diverse persone di una comunità: la palma da dattero ha sapore ma non profumo, quindi descrive la persona che conosce la Torà, ma non compie buone azioni. Il mirto ha profumo ma non ha sapore, corrisponde a colui che compie buone azioni ma conosce poco la Torà. Il salice non ha sapore o profumo e denota la persona che non impara la Tora né fa buone azioni; infine l’Etrog ha sia sapore che profumo: l’ideale. Uniamo gli arba’a minim, le quattro specie, nel nostro rituale di Sukkot perché in ogni comunità ci sono persone di ciascun tipo e perché ogni comunità ha bisogno di persone di ciascun tipo.

In un altro midrash le quattro specie vengono paragonate a una figura umana: le foglie del salice sembrano labbra, le foglie di mirto sembrano occhi, la palma è la spina dorsale e l’etrog… il cedro è il cuore. Nuovamente, abbiamo bisogno di usare tutto il nostro corpo quando preghiamo.

Ma il midrash che preferisco, e che ho la sensazione stia stato il motivo dell’aggiunta del cedro ai rami degli altri alberi, è che ciascuna delle quattro specie è un tipo botanico distinto, ognuna abbastanza diversa dall’altra.

Le palme amano un clima caldo e secco: non producono buoni frutti nelle zone costiere umide, ma necessitano di condizioni più asciutte e desertiche. E così il ramo di palma rappresenta le aree desertiche della Terra di Israele.

Il mirto prospera meglio nelle regioni più fredde e montuose delle parti settentrionali della Terra e il salice ha bisogno di stare vicino a un corso d’acqua per tutto l’anno; L’etrog rende meglio nelle terre irrigate delle zone costiere inferiori e delle valli.

La Terra di Israele, per quanto piccola, è connotata da microclimi, e ognuno degli arba’a minim rappresenta un clima diverso e quindi una parte diversa della Terra. Sukkot è per eccellenza la festa dell’agricoltura, della consapevolezza della necessità che la pioggia cada in modo appropriato e tempestivo. I tre alberi nominati sono, per un giardiniere, rappresentativi di tre climi piuttosto diversi. L’ulivo non è una pianta così sensibile, così andrebbe scelta una pianta differente per rappresentare le aree della Terra coltivate con cura.

Lo scuotimento del Lulav, il legame con il raccolto e l’agricoltura, l’acqua di Simchat Beit HaSho’eva: questa è una festa di ringraziamento e di richiesta per il prossimo anno. Il tremolio delle foglie di palma mentre si agita il Lulav suona come la pioggia che batte sul terreno. Dove sarebbe il vantaggio se una parte del terreno fosse ben irrigata e un’altra parte soffrisse di siccità o inondazioni?

Man mano che diventiamo sempre più consapevoli dei problemi del cambiamento climatico, degli uragani, delle inondazioni, dei monsoni in ritardo, del sole cocente che inaridisce e consente agli incendi di diffondersi così rapidamente, iniziamo a renderci conto in che mondo interconnesso viviamo, tanto che se qualcosa accade in una parte del mondo avrà un impatto su tutti noi.

Quindi quando raccogliamo le quattro specie, concentriamoci sulla lezione che ci dà, in particolare la sostituzione dell’ulivo con il cedro, per ricordarci che siamo tutti abitanti della stessa terra, siamo le singole parti di un tutto più grande, e facciamo ciò che possiamo per proteggere la terra, i raccolti, i fiumi e i deserti, le aree ghiacciate dei poli e sulle montagne, i ghiacciai e i mari …

Il significato di Sukkot riguarda completamente il modo in cui rispettiamo l’acqua, mayim hayim, elemento che dona e sostiene la vita, e in come rispettiamo il mondo e il suo Creatore.

 

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

 

29th Elul: Leaving Elul, with joy, with forgetting, with God.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav wrote that while people generally thought that forgetfulness was a disadvantage, he felt it could be helpful, because knowing how to forget means we can loosen ourselves from the traumas and bonds of the past

נהוג לחשוב שהשכחה הינה חסרון. אני סבור שהיא יתרון. לדעת לשכוח, פירושו להשתחרר מכל תלאות העבר

During the days of Ellul we have been thinking, bringing to mind, remembering and sometimes cringing about our past behaviours, what we did, what we failed to do. We have been trying to mend our relationships, apologise where necessary, and repair where we can. Forgetting has been the last thing on our minds.

Nachman also said that

אם אתה מאמין שיכולים לקלקל, תאמין שיכולים לתקן

If you believe it is possible to break things, then you must also believe that it is possible to repair.

On the last day of Ellul, when some will feel despair, some will feel inadequacy, a few may feel proud that they have moved, others may still insist there is no work of change to be done, it is helpful to enter the world of Rabbi Nachman, whose style of relationship with God – hitbodedut  – was unstructured, meditative and  conversational prayer, and whose world view was that joy was far better than grief, despite the difficulties that life brings us.

If we tell ourselves that we have enabled brokenness in the world, then we must acknowledge our power to mend that brokenness. If we have dealt with our painful experiences as far as we can, acknowledged them and recognised the hurt, then we must be able to allow ourselves to try to forget, rather than carry the burden of historic and unmitigable pain with us through life.

Kapparah, the action of yom kippur, does not mean to erase but to cover over. Whatever happened in our lives happened. We can only find ways to engage with and deal with the realities of that historic reality, not to pretend it is over, or it never happened.

I am a huge believer in the skill of forgetting. Whether it be as a communal rabbi being privy to other people’s secrets at difficult times in their lives, or to let go of the pain and anger caused by the behaviour of others, kapparah, covering it from view and not allowing it to direct us or affect us is a skill we all need if we are to continue our lives with some form of equanimity, not held back by past trauma or unfinished business.

Joyfulness is another skill – according to Rabbi Nachman it is a mitzvah – Mitzva gedola lihyot be-simcha tamid,” “It is a great mitzvah to be happy always, and to make every effort to determinedly keep depression and gloom at bay (Likkutei Moharan II:24)  Many synagogues have the motto above their Ark “Ivdu et Adonai b’simcha – serve God with joy” (Psalm 100:2)

Maimonides reminds us One should not be overly elated and laugh, nor be sad and depressed in spirit; rather one should be same’ach (happy) at all times, with a friendly countenance. The same applies with regard to one’s other traits… (Hilchot Deot 1:4)

Traditionally joy is seen as a by-product of doing a mitzvah.

In recent years the idea of learning joy – and the benefits of it – have entered the mainstream. Be it “laughter yoga” or the habit of mindfulness and of cultivating gratitude – focussing on one good event in the day.  Joy and gratitude are embedded in our tradition – indeed the end of the Yamim Noraim will take us to Sukkot and “zeman simchateinu” – the season of our rejoicing. Every morning with the modeh/modah ani prayer we give thanks for our continuing existence, knowing that each day brings with it new possibilities, a new creation.

So I commend Rabbi Nachman with his exhortations to forgetting past pain and cultivating joy. And I would add to those his most famous (probably) saying – that the world is a narrow bridge, and the important thing is –not ‘not to be afraid’ as the song would have it, but not to make ourselves afraid.

If we cultivate joy in our lives, if we allow ourselves to forget the pain of our past once we have done all we can to ameliorate and mitigate it; If we remind ourselves that we make ourselves afraid much more than are made afraid, and so we have control over our responses – then we can go into the coming months and years with a tool kit that will sustain and nourish us until our soul departs.   It is not too far from us to do this. It is not over the sea that we have to ask someone to help us achieve it; it is in our hearts and minds if only we make the first step on the journey, transform the “oy” and create joy.

As Rabbi Nachman also taught

זכור תמיד: השמחה איננה עניין שולי במסעך הרוחני – היא חיונית

Always remember: happiness is not a side matter in your spiritual journey – it is essential.

Shanah Tovah u’metukah – have a sweet and a good new year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tu b’Av: an especially joyful festival to be reclaimed

The three weeks that lead from the 17th Tammuz (breaching of the walls of Jerusalem)  to the 9th of Av (Tisha b’Av) are traditionally a period of mourning, known as bein hametzarim – in the narrow straits. So it is all the more surprising that just one week after Tisha b’Av comes an especially joyful festival – the full moon of Av brings us Tu b’Av – when we are told:

Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel said: Never were there any more joyous festivals in Israel than the 15th of Av and the Day of Atonement, for on them the maidens of Jerusalem used to go out dressed in white garments – borrowed ones, however, in order not to cause shame to those who had none of their own. These clothes were also to be previously immersed, and thus the maidens went out and danced in the vineyards, saying: Young men, look and observe well whom you are about to choose; (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8)

The rabbis of the Gemara are perplexed – ““On the 15th of Av and on the Day of Atonement,” etc. It is right that the Day of Atonement should be a day of rejoicing, because that is a day of forgiveness, and on that day the 2nd tablets of the Law were given to Moses; but why should the 15th of Av be a day of rejoicing?”

And so begins a fascinating rabbinic journey into what is behind the celebration of the fifteenth (Tu) of’Av :

Said R. Yehudah in the name of Samuel: “On that day it was permitted to the members of the different tribes to intermarry.” Whence is this deduced? Because it is written [Num 36: 6]: “This is the thing which the Eternal has commanded concerning the daughters of Zelophehad,” they claim that “this is the thing” implies the decree was only for that generation, but for later generations the decree doesn’t apply.

  1. Joseph in the name of R. Nachman said: On that day the members of the tribe of Benjamin were permitted to intermarry with the other tribes, as it is written [Judges 21. 1]: “Now the men of Israel had sworn in Mizpah, saying: Not any one of us shall give his daughter unto Benjamin for wife.”

Rabba bar bar Hana said in the name of R. Johanan: On that day the last of those who were destined to die in the desert died, and the destiny was thus fulfilled;

Ulla said: “On that day the guards appointed by Jeroboam to prevent the Israelites from coming to Jerusalem were abolished by Hosea the son of Elah, and he said: ‘Let them go wherever they choose.'”

  1. Matnah said: “On that day permission was given to bury the dead who were killed in battle at the city of Beitar”

Rabba and R, Joseph both said: On that day they ceased to cut wood for the altar, as we have learned in a Baraita: R. Eliezer the Great said: “From the fifteenth day of Av the heat of the sun was lessened and the timber was no longer dry, so they ceased to cut wood for the altar.”

There is a golden rule in rabbinic exposition – the more explanations given for something, the less likely it is that anyone knows what the explanation actually is. Clearly a celebration on the 15th of Av, which coincided with the beginning of the grape harvest, is part of the custom and practise of the Jews by the time of the Talmud, but its origin is already lost in the mists of time.

Let’s look briefly at the Talmudic explanations before looking at the festival itself.

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad is told in the book of Numbers- a rare piece of case law in that book and a powerful piece of text about women confronting Moses in order to attain fairness under the law. Zelophehad is dead, he had 5 daughters and no sons, and according to the rules of inheritance at that time, the girls would be left without anything. They approach Moses and argue their case, including the fact that their father will be forgotten in his tribe. Moses has to ask God about the merits of the case, and God tells him that the case of these daughters is valid; they should indeed inherit from their father. Later a problem arises, the leaders of the tribe of Manasseh – which the family of Zelophehad belong to – also bring a petition to Moses. Should daughters inherit when there is no son, and then marry into another tribe, the inheritance and land that would normally stay within the tribe will be given to the tribe that the woman marries into.

So the law is amended – such women who inherit land from their fathers must marry only within their own tribe – a limiting phenomenon that itself causes problems. So Rabbi Yehuda quotes Samuel by saying that tribes may now intermarry freely – and the date of this decision was the fifteenth of Av on the last year before the Israelites entered the Land of Israel.

The second explanation in the gemara is from a much darker story found at the end of the book of Judges, where a woman staying overnight in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin, was gang raped until she died. The other tribes went to war against the Benjaminites who would not give up the criminals for justice, and a ban was proclaimed which meant no one could marry into that tribe. This ban was eventually lifted on the fifteenth of Av. One assumes that this idea comes from the commonality of Tu b’Av to the statement in the Book of Judges ““And see, and, behold, if the daughters of Shiloh come out to dance in dances, then come out of the vineyards, and let every man catch  his wife of the daughters of Shiloh, and go to the land of Benjamin.” (21:21)

The third explanation – This comes from a midrash found in the Jerusalem Talmud amongst other texts, which say that the generation who were to die in the desert because of their connection to the sin of the Golden Calf expected to die on Tisha b’Av. This would cause a problem – if there were to be so many deaths on one day, then who would be able to dig the graves and bury the people? So Moses sent out a decree: On Tisha b’Av everyone must dig their own grave and sleep in it. Those who would die would die, and the survivors would simply have to fill in the graves with the bodies already in them. But many did not die who felt that they too were destined for this fate, and so they continued to sleep in the graves they had dug for themselves until they saw the full moon of Av and realised that Tisha b’Av was well and truly behind them. They would live!

The fourth explanation: King Jeroboam (c900BCE) had challenged Rehoboam the son of Solomon, because of his authoritarian rule, and took the ten Northern tribes with him to his capital Shechem. He built two temples as rivals to the one in Jerusalem (Bethel and Dan) and banned his people from going to worship in Jerusalem.  Fifty years later, the last King of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, rescinded the ban – on Tu b’Av – and the joy that ensued is encoded in the festival.

The fifth explanation also involves graves, in this case the ones slaughtered in the rebellion against Rome led by the false messiah Shimon bar Kochba in 135. The massacre of the Jews by the Romans was estimated by one Roman historian as being at least 580 thousand dead and many more taken captive into slavery in other parts of the empire. The majority of the Jewish population was exiled from the land and the land given a new name by the Romans – Syria Palestina – to try to sever the connection between the land and the Jews. Tisha b’Av saw the final destruction of Temple and hopes, and the fortress of Beitar was breached and its inhabitants murdered and left unburied. So Rav Matnah’s explanation for Tu b’Av is that 6 days after the tragedy (some stories say a year and six days), the Romans finally permitted the burial of the slaughtered Jews – on Tu b’Av.

After such dramatic explanations the final one in the list is more prosaic, but also most likely to be the case. Simply that the full moon of Av is around the summer equinox, the days are beginning to shorten and one might be less sure of enough dry weather for the wood cut down for the Temple sacrifices to be sufficiently prepared for its use, and any wood cut down later would be liable to smoke unpleasantly. This explanation is bolstered by the fact that we know of customs in the near East whereby the end of the season for cutting wood is marked by celebration including dancing and music.

So having established that Tu b’Av was being celebrated in Mishnaic times, that the young women would go out into the vines wearing white dresses they had borrowed so as not to be identified by their clothing, that they danced and sang and that clearly a shidduch market was in full swing on that date – the young men would chase them and choose their brides – the rabbinic tradition tried to explain the event using stories of rape, graves, massacre, orphaned women claiming economic rights and hence losing the right to marry outside of their tribe, civil war and rebellion against both internally among the Jewish people and also against an oppressive occupying power. One has to wonder why.

I am reminded of a recent “tweet” that asks why a prominent politician is tweeting terrible racism, and suggests that the deflection is to stop people paying attention to something worse – the statutory rape of underage girls.  Here the rabbinic tradition has a clear story of strong young single women in public space, helping each other with their clothing and “seductively” dancing and singing among the grape vines, with their symbolism of wine and wealth and fertility. So immediately there is a deflection – Beitar! Bnot Zelophehad! Possibly the darkest story in bible of a young concubine gang raped and murdered, whose fate was to be cut into twelve pieces each of which was sent to one of the tribes of Israel! Sin and death and lying in the grave! Rebellion and Massacre!

It seems to me that the Tannaim (the rabbis of the Mishnah, c50-200CE) were fine with the celebrations of Tu b’Av and the fact of young girls out on a summer evening enjoying their bodies, their strength and their music, but the Amoraim (the rabbis of the Gemara c200-500CE) were decidedly not. So Tu b’Av became a date more often ignored than celebrated. The single attention was liturgical – Tachanun (the penitential section of prayers of supplication and confession) are not said on Tu b’Av. Only since the modern State of Israel has been established has Tu b’Av been celebrated – it has become a kind of Jewish “Valentine’s Day”, a day for love, for weddings, for romance. The 19th century Haskalah poet Judah Leib Gordon wrote about its celebration in the newly planted vineyards and certainly for the more secular Israelis this is a Jewish festival to take to their hearts.

It’s worth noting the framing of the Mishnah where Tu b’Av is recorded. It is mentioned in the same breath as the most solemn day in the calendar – Yom Kippur, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, the white fast. On this day people traditionally wear kittels – the white shrouds they will be buried in. The day is a day of joy as well as penitence, because when we have truly repented, God will forgive us. We leave the day lightened by our activities and return more able to continue with living our lives.

There are real similarities between the two festivals, albeit one is a day out of time “as if dead” and the other a day of sensuous delight. Each reminds us of the importance of living our lives as fully and as well as we can. Each reminds us about living” in the now”, each helps us create our future selves.

So – let’s reclaim Tu b’Av, the full moon that follows three weeks of mourning,  that takes place 6 days after the blackest day in the calendar. Let’s remind ourselves that life must continue, joy must be part of our living, that relationships with others matter and that the future is ours to create

Chol HaMoed Succot leading into Simchat Torah

Chol HaMoed is literally the “mundane of the festival” – the intermediate days of the festivals which are bookended by more ritually observant days, and we see this twice a year with the festivals of Pesach and of Sukkot in the spring and the autumn.

It is a strange phrase, and halachically it is an odd time – some work is restricted but not all. The boundaries are blurred between special festival time and ordinary working day. Does one do a particular ritual or not? If so, does one say the blessing or not? Needless to say, hours of rabbinic time have been spent over the generations in deciding just how much of the time is Chol – ordinary, and how much of it is Moed – festive.

And Succot has an extra dimension. Biblically there are seven days of Succot ending with Hoshanah Rabbah, when there are 7 hakkafot (circuits of the synagogue) with the lulav and etrog, and when the final judgment written on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur is delivered – yet we have an eighth day, Shemini Atzeret, literally the” eighth of ending” which in the diaspora has also claimed a second day.  No one quite knows what Shemini Atzeret is for – though it may have been the day of cleaning the Temple, which, given the tradition that seventy bulls were sacrificed on Succot to atone for the seventy nations of the world, might certainly need some cleaning.

The Rabbis of the Talmud are themselves somewhat puzzled about what Shemini Atzeret is, and declare Shemini Atzeret to be a holiday in its own right, not just the final day of Succot.  Reform Judaism has added Simchat Torah, an entirely different festival following a different cycle, to the date. Orthodox Jews celebrate Simchat Torah on the second day of Shemini Atzeret. This concatenation of different celebrations does mean one thing though – while the intermediate days of Succot may be an unclear time of both secular and holy mixed together, the final days are a blur of festivity and enjoyment. Not for nothing is this festival period called “zeman simchateinu”, the time of our rejoicing. For a week there is the pleasure of sitting in one’s Succah, not obligated to work at the daily grind, and entertaining guests – ushpizin. And then follows the exuberance of Simchat Torah, the achievement of having read the whole scroll and the anticipation of starting again kicks in, and we dance and sing and drink and eat sweet things and let go of all the sombre introspective tropes that have been shadowing us since the beginning of Elul, or some would say since Tisha b’Av.

Simchat Torah is a time for partying. We have been so solemn, so thoughtful, so penitent. Now we turn back into Life – and we dance, sing, laugh, run, bound back into life, with all inhibitions left behind.

Famously Samuel Pepys witnessed Simchat Torah in Bevis Marks Synagogue in 1663 and this is what he wrote in his diary:

“Thence home and after dinner my wife and I, by Mr Rawlinson’s conduct, to the Jewish Synagogue: where the men and boys in their vayles, and the women behind a lattice out of sight; and some things stand up, which I believe is their Law, in a press to which all coming in do bow; and at the putting on their vayles do say something, to which others that hear him do cry Amen, and the party do kiss his vayle. Their service all in a singing way, and in Hebrew.

And anon their Laws that they take out of the press are carried by several men, four or five several burthens in all, and they do relieve one another; and whether it is that everyone desires to have the carrying of it, I cannot tell, thus they carried it round about the room while such a service is singing. And in the end they had a prayer for the King, which they pronounced his name in Portugall; but the prayer, like the rest, in Hebrew.  But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this. Away thence with my mind strongly disturbed with them, by coach and set down my wife in Westminster Hall, and I to White Hall…”

Pepys was horrified at what he saw, and had no understanding of it. He had no context in which to view it and a certain set of beliefs about what constituted worship. I would love for every synagogue to have a Simchat Torah like the one he saw – the joy, the comfort with the sifrei Torah, the comfort in offering worship through the body as well as the mind, the pleasure in knowing that a new year is started, and one that offers us all the opportunities we might need once more.

Judaism is unusual in that we move on from our Atonement once we have come together as a community and taken seriously the command to return to God and let go of our habits and inclinations that stop us living the lives we should. We move on always into Life. And if we need more Atonement – well, we can always return to God, do Teshuvah at any time, but at a fixed point in our yearly cycle we make sure we do it. I think that is the beauty of this strange concept of Chol HaMoed – there is always time for the world in our festivals, and there is always time for our religious commitments in our daily lives. While much of Judaism is about keeping boundaries, we also allow the crossover places, the liminal space which allows us always to return, always to make holy that which is ordinary, and keep holiness as an ordinary imperative in our lives.