the Undated Anniversary
by Joe Bobker
a late-Spring, early-Summer yomtov, and our only festival with
no well-defined date, despite its association with a singularly
imposing theophany, Sinai; a time when "no bird put forth
their song, no bird took wing, no ox gave bawl, no angel moved
a feather…the sea did not roar
no creature said a word."[i]
In Torah vocabulary
God is only "heard"[ii] via an echo, known as a bat kol,
literally "the daughter of a voice;"[iii] and only "appears" via indirect
anthropomorphic images such as a dream or vision.
tension is obvious: V’chol ha’am ro’im et hakolot, and
all the people saw the thunder that announced the Revelation
– but isnt thunder seen, not heard? Yes, ro’im means to
see, but this vision must coexist on two levels; by sight and
by perception (as in, "I see your point"), in order
to truly see the overwhelming importance of the occasion.
In fact, our
entire Judaic belief system is that Judaism lacks an intermediary;
that God spoke directly to an entire people, not through a "son"
(Christianity) or a "prophet" (Islam), and that through
the Jews He revealed universal laws for all mankind, known as
sheva mitzvot Bnei Noach, the seven Noahide laws.[iv]
the day Jews made the transition from being a people to God"[v] (in theory) to accepting
Torah min hashamayim (by way of a "Cosmic
Contract, with no escape clause.")[vi] Technically,
this phrase means "Torah from Heaven" but in reality
it describes a lifestyle that gave Jews heaven from Torah.
Known as the
Pentateuch, a Greek term derived from a Hebrew root (yrh)
which means "to teach [in five parts]," most Jews misinterpret
Torah as "law." They are misguided. The verbs "teaching,"
or "instruction," are closer to its true meaning. How
then did "legalism" become synonymous with Torah? Because
Nomos, the first Greek translation of the word Torah
was shortened to Lex, and then, when translated into English,
mistakenly became "law."
think that there was one Revelation, one Torah, ten Commandments.
They are wrong: Jews received three Revelations,[vii] two Torahs, thirteen Commandments.
with a burning Bush, at a makom hefker (a "place with
no owner"), in order to symbolize that God is universal.
This was followed by Mt.Sinai’s covenant with the Jewish people,
and Elijah’s encounter with God at Mt.Carmel whilst on the run
from King Ahab in the wake of his dramatic defeat of Baal.[viii]
[Torah] fonts of revelation" are known as she-bi-khetav
("written") and she-be-al peh ("oral"),
both being ellu ve-ellu divrei Elohim hayyim, "the
words of the Living God.
How do we
arrive at thirteen Commandments? Immediately after issuing the
first Ten, God adds three more that exclusively concern themselves
with civil and criminal law (beginning with the laws of an eved
ivri, a Jewish "bondsman" owned by another Jew).[ix]
God also surfaces
not once but twice at Sinai, sending Jewish mystics into a search
for the episode’s hidden shtei bechinot, "two aspects."[x]
When the Divine
Presence (Shekhina) first descends on "the whole mountain
in the sight of all the people," the Torah text bursts with
descriptive adjectives: "trembling, fear, thunder, lightning,
dense clouds, loud blasts of a horn," stapled to a vivid
use of words ("stoned, smitten") within emphatic expressions
of awe, fear, death.
appearance, to only the "top of the mountain," is more
subdued; all the fire ‘n brimstone rhetoric conspicuous only by
dramatic emergence was for the entire nation of Israel, united
as a people of prophets; the next was reserved for the nation’s
elite; individual Jews (such as Moses and Aaron), who aspire to
climb the spiritual peaks of Judaism and who are not in need of
the fiery rhetoric.
on the opening word of the Ten Commandments, "I" (anochi,
Rabbi Nehemiah, in a midrashic homily, ties anochi to the
ancient Egyptian anok, which also means "I,"
in order to better communicate with those who had just spent brutal
centuries of slavery in Egypt.
is clear: patience and communication is everything, and in this
case enabled the Jews to collectively respond to God’s "I"
with their own hineni, "Here am I."
point to the words used by the Jews, na’aseh ve-nishmah,
which means "we will do and obey," as being in the wrong
order. Usually, the "doing" comes after the "obeying;"
however, it is more correct to translate nishma as "understanding,"
since religious acceptance follows actions.
is a vagueness: when God "spoke all of these words,"[xii] the Torah doesn’t tell
us to whom.
Ibn Ezra argues
that the entire nation heard all ten commands; Moshe ben Maimon
claims, based on his theory of prophecy,[xiv] that only Moses understood
the contents (the Jewish people hearing, but not comprehending).
Rashi argues that the Jews only heard the first two ("I am
the Lord," and "You shall have no other gods"),
and the remaining eight from Moses[xv] (based on the Torah’s switch from first
person singular to third person); the Ramban[xvi] suggests a compromise – all ten were
given by God, however only the first two were understood by the
children of an Egyptian polytheistic culture, the other eight
required further explanation by Moses.
(Sinai)? Was it the most impressive, stirring, majestic, inspiring
and imposing of all mountains? No. On the contrary, God chose
it because it was the smallest.
thus has its foundations poured into the unobtrusive slabs of
modesty and humility, a mount whose location still remains unknown,
for the same reason the Torah is mute as to the whereabouts of
the burial place of Moses, despite being the greatest Jewish leader
our Sages always chose events and contents over location; remember,
there is not a single Talmudic suggestion that Jews need ever
return to Mt.Sinai, or build a sanctuary there, or make pilgrimages
to Moses’ grave.
mystics, in surely one of the most startling summations connected
to any Jewish festival, trace the history of anti-Semitism[xviii] directly to the similarity between
Sinai and sinah, the Hebrew expression for hate,
as it appears in mishama yarda sinah la’olam, "from
there originated the world’s hatred [sinah] of the Jew."[xix]
is a bizarre paradox: the Torah is riddled with anti-hate laws,
ranging from Lo tisna et achicha Bilvavecha, "You
shall not hate your brother in your heart;" to Ve-ahavta
lre-echa kamocha, "Love your fellow man as yourself;"
to Betzedek tishpot amitecha, "You shall judge your
fellow man in a just manner."
The fuel that
has driven this gentile engine of hatred can be traced to a verse
in Exodus, Now, if you will truly keep My covenant, then you
shall be unto Me a choice from all the nations.[xx]
When the philo-semite
William Norman Ewer[xxi] wrote his sly little jingle
summarized the handbook of every paranoid and irrational[xxiii] Jew-baiter ever since
Balaam first called the yiddishe folk, "a people that
shall dwell alone."[xxiv]
not so odd
as those who choose
the Jewish God
but spurn the Jews"[xxv]
This is the
"difference" factor; the common thread of all anti-Semitic
reasoning, that Jews eat differently, dress differently,
behave differently – accusations that Jews, in sharp contrast,
of Catholic theologians found it theologically scandalous that
God would bestow His special favor only on the Jews, especially
after He Himself had richly documented their imperfections ("a
stiff-necked people," "You are the least of the nations,"[xxvi] etc.)
People theme (am segullah), that God’s Jews are the "jewel
from among the nations" (asher bochar banu mikol ho’amim),
ripples throughout the Torah and all rabbinic writings.[xxvii]
derived from the Latin seligere whose root meaning is "choice;"
in Aramaic it means, "that which is preferred." Rashi
links it to royalty, as in segulat melachim, "Treasures
whilst Abraham Ibn Ezra, a Jew who exerted great influence on
both the Rambam and Ramban, interprets segullah as a "desired
and honored" a priori object that can never be duplicated
(the King James Bible’s Jacobean translation translates it as
the "peculiar people," but in those days "peculiar"
stemmed from the Latin peculiaris, which means "special.")
And yet the
Rambam, who authored the magnum opus Mishneh Torah, a concise
compendium of Jewish law, and the philosophical work, Moreh
Nevuchim, "Guide for the Perplexed," instinctively
didn’t like the term Chosen People. The 12th century
Sage from Spain thought "chosen" smacked too much of
a religious chauvinism that hinted at inherited biological differences
between Jews and gentiles (goyim);[xxix] divisions which didn’t exist.
years, Jews have upheld this belief: that they are God’s elect,
the "apple of His eye," a claim that H. G. Wells calls
a hindrance to world unity." The incongruity is obvious:
on the one hand, God wanted to secure the Jewish people’s unique
chosenness, whilst simultaneously upholding the equality and dignity
of all human beings, created in the image of God.[xxx]
This has not
The most brutal
members of the anti-Semitic Hall of Fame have hurled their weapons
of hatred not just against the Jew but against what he stood for:
Sinai, God, Torah.
initial fury and frenzy was directed not at the inhabitants of
the House of Jacob but also at the House itself; his Kristallnacht[xxxi] destroying more synagogues
and Torah scrolls than Jews. The Germans singled out Torah teachers
for extreme brutality, sought out mikvehs in which to drown Jewish
wives and daughters, hung ritual slaughterers by their own kosher
meat hooks, and specifically targeted Jewish "Festivals of
Joys" with aktions un seleckions to transform
them into "Festivities of Cruelty."
oppressors demanded sacrifices from us for every holiday,"
reveals a concentration death camp diary in Plaszow, penned on
the first night of Succas, "On Rosh Hashanah 200 Jews were
slaughtered, on Yom Kippur, 90, Erev Succot, 150 such sacrifices…"
themselves realized that their symbols and customs were targets
and reflected their pain accordingly; a yiddish ditty describing
Jews as being
and punched with holes like matza,
beaten like Hoshanahs,
rattled like Haman,
and burned as though it was Chanukah…."
is why the Jews at Sinai hesitated at first to take upon themselves
a "Torah" that came with such potentially devastating
elaborate that Israel only accepted the "yoke of Torah"
(ol malchus Shamayim) under duress and coercion. Rav Avdimi
bar Chama bar Chasa describes the encounter: God held the mountain
over their heads like a bucket (kafa aleihem et ha-har ke-gigit)
and said: ‘If you accept the Torah, good. And if not, your burial
place will be here.’"
What if Israel
had simply said, "Thanks, but no thanks, we don’t want it!"
posits another Midrash, would have caused the world to revert
back to the void (tohu va’vahu) that existed before Creation.[xxxii]
question: how could they not accept Torah, having just
witnessed a series of dramatic and climactic incidents at Sinai?
Rabbi M. Kamenetzky
compares this forced acceptance to a 19th century
incident in British history: When Queen Victoria was about to
marry Prince Albert, she wanted to have him bestowed with the
title King Consort through an act of the British Parliament. The
Prime Minister strongly advised against it, on the basis that,
"if the English people get into the habit of making Kings,
they will get into the habit of unmaking them as well!"
synonymous with Revelation, an einmalig tzayt, "once
only, forever," when the Heavens attempted for the third
time (after the Flood and Abraham) to fulfill the journey which
began at Creation. The Children of Israel participate "like
one man, with one heart"[xxxiii] in the grand premiere
of their own arrival on the stage of history; and yet the exact
calendar rendezvous, the marriage[xxxiv] of Jews to Torah and
the giving of the most compelling ketubah (Torah) of all
time, is Judaisms best kept covert secret; a day shrouded in
clandestine theology, hidden from centuries of great scholars
and deep thinkers.
uncertainty is extraordinarily unusual in a religion that "worships"
dates and times: for example – the very first commandment the
Jews receive as a people is time-orientated (Rosh Chodesh),[xxxv] as is the very first Mishna (a discussion
on the right time to say the Sh’ma).
reason lies in its own structure; ein mukdam u’m’uchar ba’Torah,
the view that the Torah "unfolds" in no particular
"prince" of Torah commentators, is of the opinion that
the mitzvot in the Torah are organized thematically, by topic,
without regard to the actual chronological order in which God
gave them to Moses (eg: the mitzva to build the Tabernacle[xxxvi] was given after the Golden
Calf sin[xxxvii] because of the thematic
similarities to that event).
But the Ramban,
a leading Torah scholar of the Middle Ages, disagrees, claiming
yaish mukdam u’m’uchar, the Torah is in chronological order.
What do we
Only the year
(2488), and the day of the week (Shabbas) when the Jews reach
Sinai, described in a single teasing reference: either in the
"third month" of Sivan, or "on the third new Moon,"
after leaving Egypt.
on which formula one chooses, the encounter could have occurred
on the 6th, 12th, or 15th of Sivan.
What is the
universally accepted date? The 6th and 7th
of Sivan, making Shavuos the only festival that fluctuates year-by-year
in a state of calendar non-conformity; caused by being halachikally
anchored not to itself but to the climax of a mandated seven-week
math formula (s’firat ha’omer) that began in Pesach.[xxxviii]
thus in an awkward position: not only is it held spiritual hostage
to a previous yomtov but even as late as the final days of the
Talmud it still lacked its own identity, being viewed simply as
a "closure" (atzeret), as in atzeres shel
Pesach, "the end of Pesach, in much the same
manner that Shemini Atzeret "closes" the festival of
explain why Shavuos is the most ignored (or unknown) festival
of them all; even in its heyday it was seen as nothing more than
the finale of Pesach, the most minor of the three pilgrimage
festivals (aliyah le-regel).
in college how even Jewish professors didnt believe me when I
said I couldnt attend a class because of Shavuos; and how the
official Department of Education calendar listed all the
Jewish holidays as days which "teachers of the Jewish faith"
were entitled to take a day off without any pay penalty – but
left this one out (in malice? no, in ignorance!)
minor role for Shavuos is highly unfair: for if Pesach gave us
freedom, Shavuos gave a free people a law that infused liberty
with a challenging and exhilarating purpose.
tell us that even a sefer Torah needs mazel to be
chosen from among the others in the ark; and it seems that even
Jewish festivals need mazel to be "chosen and used."
Perhaps it should be renamed Sssssh-vuos, or the Cinderella
Festival, disappearing at midnight?
even having yizkor on Shavuos (let alone cheese blintzes)
didnt bring the masses. Nor did the fact that on Shavuos we can
eat what, when, and where we want, in contrast to Pesach when
we can’t eat what we want, Succas when we can’t eat where
we want, Rosh Hashanna when we can’t eat when we want,
and Yom Kippur when we can’t eat at all!
to its mysterious birth date, there are several other Shavuos
other festival, this yomtov’s title is unrelated to its historic
Chanukka and Succas are all intrinsically linked and underpinned
by their respective past events, the three designated titles of
Shavuos are not: Hag Shavuot ("The Festival of Weeks"),
Hag ha-Kazir ("The Harvest Festival"),[xl] and Yom Ha-Bikkurim (First Fruits)
are all totally foreign to what Jews today associate the day with:
Torah and Sinai (the Ta’amei Haminhagim notes that the
term Shavuos means oaths, in that on this day both parties exchanged
certain vows: God "promises" to stick with the Jews
as His chosen nation, and, in return, the Jews promise to stick
is obvious: why then does the Torah not explicitly and openly
link the holiday of Shavuos with the giving of the Law (matan
Torah)? And doesn’t the Torah repeatedly enjoin us to remember
the experience of the Sinai revelation?[xli]
To Rabbi Yehuda
Liwa ben Betzalel of Prague (Maharal),[xlii] the seminal thinker of the 16th
century, the answer lies in the fact that although Jews are automatically
obligated to embrace all Jewish festivals with simcha, joy, happiness;
such emotions cannot be legislated nor coerced – but must originate
it was left up to the Jew, individually and communally, to "find"
their own way to Shavuos, and to conclude through the experience
of time that the gift of Torah was worth rejoicing over. Even
the self-hating Jew Heinrich Heine (who had himself baptized into
Christianity), called the Torah, "the very fatherland, treasure,
governor, bliss and bane" of the Jewish people, "proof"
that one can take the Jew out of Judaism but not Judaism out of
Lichtenstein links this to the embarrassment of the Golden Calf
episode, similar to our Sages using a scandalous parable to help
explain why: "This is comparable to a bride who commits adultery
under the chuppa (wedding canopy)." One Midrash[xliii]
even highlights the idea that in the wake of the Golden Calf,
it was as though matan Torah had not even taken place.
concludes Rav Lichtenstein, "in the case of a bride who conducts
herself thus under the chuppa, we would prefer to forget not only
her specific action but the entire chuppa as well."
HaLevi compared Moses to a sheliach holakha (an agent
to deliver) and a sheliach kabbala (an agent to receive),
whereas in the role of the former (holding the first tablets),
Moses was like a messenger whose message has no effect until delivery,
which was prevented by the sin of the calf. In the case of the
second tablets, however, Moses was no longer a "messenger
boy" but a legal representative charged with receiving the
document on behalf of the Jewish people, binding the nation immediately.
between Sinai and Time is found in the way the Torah spells Shavuos:[xliv] with
a shin, beis, ayin, vav, sof, rearranged by our kabbalists
as Shebo eis, in it [Shavuos] is the meaning of Time.
When Reb Meir
Alter was asked why Shavuos is referred to as z’man mattan
Torataynu, "the time of the giving of the Torah"
and not "the time of receiving," the Gerer Rebbe replied
that with each giving comes a bit of receiving, and that "the
giving of the Torah happened at one specified time, but the receiving
of it happens at every time and in every generation."
To Rabbi J.B.
Soloveitchik (the Rav) the Shavuos prospectus was a beginning,
not an ending; a gate through which the rabbis of each generation
were to preserve an unfolding, yet timeless, "season of Torah
was a continuum gift semper et ubique, designed to link
generations, it required no fixed time, no fixed laws, and no
In fact, Rav
Moshe Feinstein, America’s premiere 20th century halachist,
would refrain from calling Shavuos a Torah Day. Why? For fear
of giving the impression that Torah was special only on
this day. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch went one step further: he
saw an actual danger in creating a specific holiday for the Sinai-Torah
axis, concerned that this would somehow "box-in" Gods
Words in contradiction to the Torah’s own wish that it be with
Jews at all times.
thus a religion of constant rebirth, evidenced each year by Shavuos
itself, a festival that not only joyfully receives the Torah anew
but sternly imposes an annual reminder: that there is a responsibility
(first) on the fathers and (then) on the teachers of Torah to
replicate Sinai dor to dor (generation-to-generation) "in
the same manner that it was first given.
is derived from the expression Torah lo b’shamayim hi,
that the Torah is not in Heaven nor was it "given to the
angels," a directive that first came into play with the death
of Moses whose mantle of Torah was passed down to the "Elders"
via Joshua; a Divine courier service whose drivers throughout
Jewish history have had such humble titles as rabbi, rebbe, rav,
hacham, baba – sharing credit with any student-parent-teacher
who exchange a few words of Torah ("Ask thy father [first
and then] thy elders.)"[xlvi]
The men of the Great Synagogue were not rabbis as we understand
the term to mean today: in fact the word rabbi appears nowhere
in the Old Testament.
In the days
of the Talmud, rabbis never relied on their scholarship as the
source of their livelihood ("As I have taught you statutes
and ordinances without charge, so should you teach others without
in the Middle Ages when the Jews were dispersed throughout Europe
and North Africa and scattered as far away as the Orient. Out
of necessity the rabbinate became stipendiary spiritual leaders.
When the ethicists of Pirkei Avot warned, "Do not make the
Torah a spade to dig with,"[xlviii] they meant, "Do not make the
Torah a crown to aggrandize yourself" (ie: don’t study Torah
for the purpose of money, status, office or advantage, but for
the sake of God); which is the basis of Torah scholars trying
to earn a livelihood not from teaching Torah but from other sources.
A quick study
of Talmud finds the Sages working as wood choppers, water-carriers,
cobblers, even gladiators. However, if a rabbi who has to make
a living from some other occupation would thereby neglect the
study of Torah, so that Torah would eventually be forgotten, the
community is obligated to support him to free him for study.
Talmudic tales neatly highlight the power vested in the accepted
rav of each generation.
describes how Moses, interpreter of the original Torah, sits puzzled
and confused in a class of Rabbi Akiva until Akiva closes with,
"This is the law from Moses on Sinai." Then there is
Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus vigorously giving an opinion that is
unacceptable to his peers. To get their attention he calls upon
Heavens support and they comply with a rebuke to the others,
"Who are you to differ with Rabbi Eliezer, for the law is
according to his view on every question."
think that this Word from God would put a quick end to the debate.
But instead, incredibly, Rabbi Joshuas and Jeremiah defiantly
respond, "The Torah is not in heaven!"[l]
conduits of Sinai were given remarkable powers: et la’asot
l’adonai heferu toratekha, the "right of Sages
to amend or abrogate Jewish law."
But who are
the "Sages? Originally this was a self-description that
the Pharisaic scholars gave themselves, however, by both Torah
law ‘n lore, no Sage has ever been appointed or voted in, his
authority coming from a Godly directive, "Select for yourselves
men who are wise, understanding, and known to you."
The key word
here is "known to you," which places the onus
on the community-at-large to self-select one who has earned
the title to join such leaders of every generation as Ezra, Hillel
or Rav Hiyya and sons, who the Torah credits with rivaling Moses
under whose authority he had become the leading halachik decisor
of his time, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein simply replied, People asked
for my opinion, and I guess they must have had confidence in the
answers, because more and more asked. In London, the Chief Rabbi
was once asked, If they [Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles]
decided to remarry and couldnt find an Anglican Church to marry
them, could they go to a synagogue? to which Jonathan Sacks replied,
I didnt become Chief Rabbi without knowing how to avoid answering
questions like that.
Meyer of Ger, the Gerer Rebbe, once asked a young boy,
"Have you learned any Torah?"
a little," he replies, to which the Rebbe nods, "That
is all any of us have ever learned."
Even the great
Rambam admits, "I have learned a great deal from my teachers,
more from other teachers, but most of all from my students"
(in traditional French and German Jewish communities, Shavuos
was considered the most appropriate day to initiate young children
into the study of Torah).
phrase of the Kotsker Rebbe was chanoch lenaar – inculcate
a Jewish child with a never-ending desire to learn so that even
in old age he will crave for more knowledge.
At his baby
son’s bris a father once asked the formidable Brisker Rav for
some guidance on how to bring up his boy to be a learned, God-fearing
Jew: "It is almost too late now to be asking that question,"
the Brisker replied, "these are matters that should be at
the forefront of one’s mind even before one gets married."
Another parent once came to the Steipler Rav and asked for a blessing
that he be successful in raising his children in the "path"
(derech) of Torah. The Steipler responded, "It is
crucial that you yourself pray! Do you think that a simple blessing
will suffice? I myself still pray for my son every day!"
(this incident occurred when Horav Chaim Kanievsky, the Steipler’s
son, was fifty-two years old and was reknowned as a Torah scholar
whose encyclopedic knowledge was without peer and whose yiraas
Shomayim, fear of Heaven, was a standard for others to emulate).
study is not study all day, but each day," advises the master
of mussar, Israel Salanter Lipkin, who preached consistency over
of children learning and studying is Numero Uno, priority
number one in the Laws of Moses, elevated to be as important as
prayer. "A child in the house fills all its corners,"
goes a famous yiddish proverb, that combined it with the Psalmists,
With all your getting, get understanding![lii]
And so they
did, under the strict Torah tutelage that you who have studied
in your youth, study in your maturity.[liii] According to the Sh’ma, teaching a
child is a parental duty: "You shall teach them (the words
of Torah) thoroughly to your children."
times schools did exist, but not for the masses.
of formal elementary schools was almost fortuitous, to cater for
children who had no parents or whose parents were unable to teach
them. By the early 1st century BCE, schooling had become so established
that Shimon ben Shetach ruled that all children should go to school,
"for otherwise the Torah would be forgotten."
was Jewish schooling for a pax deorum harmonious relationship
between the Jew and God, that Rabbi Hamnuna declared that Jerusalem
itself had been destroyed because the community neglected its
school system. Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai even ordered that certain
towns in Israel be abandoned because they didnt maintain salaried
credits the Judaic educational boon to the example of Greek and
Roman schools; the growing complexity of Jewish knowledge; and
the reorganization of Jewish life under the Pharisees;[lv] whilst H.G. Wells defined Judaism as
"a literature sustained religion." Why? Because it
"led to the first efforts to provide elementary education
for all the children in the community."[lvi]
Jews in the Torah world can someone answer the question, What
are you doing? with ikh lern, Im learning – an incomplete
answer but complete enough not to have to ask what theyre
answer is obvious: Torah, a term derived from the root yud
raish hiu, which means to teach or to direct, thus
making it, in Rabbi Berel Weins words, the Manufacturers Instruction
Manual of Life."
great rabbi was once asked, "What should the course of study
be for a person who only has a half hour a day to learn? Should
he learn Bible, Talmud, or halacha?"
him learn a half hour a day of mussar (manners, how-to-behave,
etc)," the rabbi replies, "for then he will change his
value system – and realize that he has more than a half hour a
day to learn Torah!"
is singularly obsessed in making intellectual and mental demands,
which is why Hai Gaon taught that owning a book, any book,
was as important as buying a burial plot; and why our rabbis claimed
that the Jew who studies a particular portion of Torah 100 times
does not know it as well as one who studies it 101 times.
author Hugo recounts how, in the 15th century, the
King of France viewed the first printing press (courtesy of Johann
Gutenberg) and described the first best-selling book ever printed
(The Hunchback of Notre Dame) as the work of the Devil;
in sharp contrast to how that great Talmudist Samuel de Medina
reacted at the sight of the first dated Hebrew book ever printed
(Italy, 1475) with the joyful declaration that from now on, our
teachers are none other than our books!
respect for the printed word is evident in Walter Benjamin’s memoirs:[lviii] "when a valued, cultured and elegant
friend sent me his new book and I was about to open it, I caught
myself in the act of straightening my tie."
his will, the 12th century Judah Ibn Tibbon, whose friends called
him The Father of Translators, instructed his son Samuel
(who went on to translate the Rambams Guide to the Perplexed),
Make your books your companions; let your bookcases and shelves
be your gardens and pleasure grounds (this father-son missive
explains why the frenzied rejoicing at Simchas Torah is not just
a celebration of Torah, but a celebration of knowledge and education
– and of the power of books).
The Greek adored the philosopher, the Jew the hacham,
wise man, Sage, despite the absorbing fact that the word school
is never mentioned once in the Bible.
It comes from a key Greek word skhole, or schola,
which, interestingly, does not mean education but leisure.
Why? Because only the non-working class were educated. They had
time to study. The ordinary guy-in-the-street was too busy earning
a living to indulge in the luxurious leisure of learning. They
saw work as a necessary evil.
Not so with the Jews.
Judah ha-Levi said it well: the Greeks produced flowers,
but no fruit. Their accomplishments were intellectual, not moral.
Meanwhile, High Priest Joshua ben Gamala and Rabbi Shimon ben
Shetah, the heads of the Sanhedrin, were becoming pioneers in
Jewish education, being the first to institute a compulsory public
education system, dictating that every Jewish community, regardless
of size or wealth, had to have a school.[lix]
Consider the contrast: Whereas the typical carefree Greek and
Roman man-in-the-ancient-street spent his leisure hours at the
arena, the Jew was found at his academy of learning. So ingrained
was this education-fixation, that Jews were appalled by illiteracy
and alarmed by ignorant people.
Quid Athenis cum Hierosolymis, said the early Christian
Tertullian, what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? In regard
to the value of education, obviously not much.
Another sharp contrast is the death scene of Socrates, as recorded
by Plato in Phaedo. The great philosopher gathers all his
friends and students around him in order that they may engage
in one last deep discussion before he dies. Socrates then notices
a little boy (his own, in fact) in the room and asks that he
be removed saying that children cannot compare with the ideas
of man – a foreign and repulsive idea for our Sages. This, despite
the fact that Socrates was a family man.
is also unique because it is the only Jewish festival with no
specific Torah-derived halachik rituals. The day might have nothing
on a halachik par with, say, an esrog, matza, or shofar, and yet
its whole is far greater than its parts. Why? Because Shavuos
does not celebrate a part of Judaism, but Judaism as a whole.
It is thus unconcerned with any one particular mitzva, whilst
being synonymous with the entire body of Jewish ideas, the Torah
as a whole.
festival may lack Biblical laws but there is no shortage of customs.[lx]
is the day when Jews listen to the unique melody of the Torahs
"user-guide," the Aseret Haddibrot, the "Ten
Commandments" (or Haddevarim, the "Ten Utterances,"
known in Greek as the Decalogue); read Ezekiels prophetic passages
(even though the prophet makes no mention of this festival);[lxi] are riveted by the compelling
and idyllic Akdomus ("Before I Speak"), an exquisitely
beautiful poem and "celebration of Torah" penned in
Aramaic by 11th century German Rabbi Meir ben Isaac
Nehorai, a chazan[lxii]
and teacher of Rashi, whose son was killed by Crusaders and who
himself died soon after a "forced debate" with the local
piyut of Akdamus "debates" the truths of Judaism
to a hostile audience, which is why it is written in Aramaic,
a disguise for posterity because the Christian world and its censors
were unfamiliar with this language. It praises God who gave Israel
the Torah, describes how the nations try to entice the Jews away,
and ends with a lyrical account of the messianic era with the
banquet of the leviathan.
we with ink the ocean fill,
Were every blade of grass a quill,
Were the world of parchment made,
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love
Of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor would the scroll
Contain the whole
Though stretched from sky to sky.
reference to all the seas being ink and all the reeds pens is
derived from a Midrash to Shir Hashirim, "Song of
Songs;" an imagery that was "borrowed" by both
and medieval Christian sermons; and even inspired this light-hearted
17th century English nursery rhyme
all the world were paper,
And all the Sea were ink,
And all the trees were bread and cheese,
How should we do for drink?
more: we are drawn like a magnet to the public reading of Megillas
Ruth, "The Scroll of Ruth" (which, incidentally,
contains a Purim-style absence of any involvement of God: whatever
references exist are portrayed as va-yiker mikreha, natural,
non-miraculous chance events.)[lxiv]
is the oldest of the five megillas that are read on separate Jewish
festivals: the others being Pesach’s Shir Hashirim (Song
of Songs); Sukkat’s Koheles (Ecclesiastes); Purim’s Megillas
Esther (The Scroll of Esther) and Tisha b’Av’s Eichah
(Lamentations). Interestingly, with the exception of Koheles,
all are dedicated, allegorically, to women.[lxv]
Story of Ruth is the ultimate "daughter-mother-in-law"
tale: it takes place during the leadership period of the Judges,
who preceded the Kings, and begins with the affluent Elimelech,
his wife Naomi, which means "pleasantness," and their
two sons, Machlon and Kilyon (it is highly unlikely that these
were the real names, because they mean "destruction"
and it is doubtful that any parents would give their children
such names) fleeing from a famine in the holy land to the foreign
"fields of Moav" where the boys marry into the royal
the famine ends, a poverty-stricken Naomi returns to her home
in Beit Lechem with two daughters-in-law (Orpah and Ruth) who
want to convert to Judaism. Naomi discourages them, and succeeds
with Orpah who returns to Moav, but not with Ruth.
sheer determination and persistence, a tenacious Ruth becomes
the earliest record of a sincere conversion in Jewish history;
and is rewarded with impeccable lineage. She gives birth to a
son (Oved, which means "one who worships") who fathers
Yishai who in turn becomes the father of King David, from whose
descendants ultimately will emerge the Redeemer of Israel, "Melech
enters the pages of Judaism as the young beautiful widow of Mahlon
who sacrifices her home, family, religion, and burial among her
own people to walk in the ways" (vehalachta bidrachav)[lxvi]
of the God of the Jews. As a result of her commitment, she is
transformed from a simple sequestered woman supporting an aging
destitute mother-in-law (Naomi) to become the wife of Boaz, a
Sages describe her lure not in terms of "beauty," but
in her exemplar qualities of courage and determination, loyalty
and faithfulness. It is Ruth who pens the famous declaration that
has now resonated, reverberated and ricocheted off the walls of
people shall be my people, your God my God, where you will go
I will go, where you will be buried I will be buried."[lxvii]
Hebrew word for a male convert is ger, a female being a
gerah (or giyoret), derived from gur, a verb
which means "to reside," or "to dwell."[lxviii]
the Biblical sense the ger was simply the "resident
stranger," and applied to those (even Jews) who were living
amongst "others" (eg: the children of Israel were considered
gerim "in the land of Egypt.")
expression was so generic at first that the rabbis created different
categories: there was the ger tsedek, the "righteous
ger" (a sincere convert who chooses to join the people of
Israel; Isaiah describes such a person as "one who joins
himself to God;"[lxix]
the Midrash is full of praise, calling the proselyte [in Latin
proselytus, in Greek proselutos], "Dearer to
God than all the Israelites who stood before Sinai");[lxx]
the ger toshav, the "resident ger" (who "partially"
converts, living amongst Jews and following certain practices
such as Pesach, Yom Kippur, and ritual purity);[lxxi]
the yerei-elohim, "God-fearing ger" (those who
identified with the Jewish God of monotheism but were lax with
observing mitzvas; in Latin they were called metuens, in
Greek phoboumenos); and the ger sheker, the "mendacious
ger" (who converts for ulterior motives, such as materialistic
reasons, or, as the ger arayot (the "lions’ ger")
who, according to the Book of Kings, converts in the hope that
their newly-found status would protect them against the lions
roaming the hills of Samaria).[lxxii]
has always accepted sincere converts; Abraham and Sarah were "making
souls" in Haran (Abraham converting the men, Sarah the women);[lxxiii] the sailors were awestruck at the power of the God of Jonah;[lxxiv] and when Haman was defeated "many of
the people of the land became Jewish."[lxxv]
fact, there are so many halachas as to how to accept and treat
them that an entire Talmud tractate[lxxvi] reads like a Guidebook-For-Potential-Proselytes.[lxxvii]
motivates one to become a Jew, especially when, from the outside,
it certainly seems like a difficult faith to embrace?
"jewishness" was not an easy way of life, there is a
halachic obligation on the rabbi to point out all the drawbacks[lxxviii]
(are the Trinitarian ideas of Christianity idolatrous? yes, says
the Rambam; no, says Rabbenu Jacob Tam.)[lxxix]
is a rabbinic view that the souls of sincere converts were already
disposed towards Judaism from time immemorial; when the nations
were offered the Torah and rejected it, there must have been some
amongst them who disagreed and would have preferred to accept
the Torah, and it is the descendants of those dissentients who
one day find their way back to the principles their ancestors
the link between Ruth, a pagan Maobite, and Shavuos?
acceptance of the God of Israel, told against a background of
the barley harvest, parallels the festival’s theme of the Jewish
people’s acceptance of Torah at Sinai. And more: many of our ancestors
converted at that time;[lxxx] King David, a descendant of Ruth, was born and died on Shavuos;[lxxxi] the potent personality traits (gitter
midos) of Ruth and Naomi are matched to the chesed
in the Torah – and then there is the numeric, mystic link: the
gematria of Ruth is 606, plus the seven Noachide laws she was
obligated to keep (before her conversion) totals 613, which equals
the number of mitzvas given at Sinai on Shavuos.
question is obvious: in the context of Jewish history, Ruth is
just one of many proselytes, so why is she selected for
such calendar prominence?
list of other contestants is impressive: it would include Yisro,
Moses Midianite father-in-law priest, Josephs wife Asenath (daughter
of the Egyptian priest of On), David and Judahs wives (Philistine
and Caananite); Rahab (one of the world’s four outstanding beauties,
along with Sarah, Avigail, Esther) who not only married Joshua,
but became ancestor to no less than eight priests and nine Prophets
(including Jeremiah and Hulda); Onkelos the Ger was a Jew-by-Choice
and such distinguished talmudists as Rabbis Akiba, Shmaiah and
Avtalyon were all proselyte descendants.[lxxxii]
Ruth? Rabbi Ze’ira posits, "In order to teach the great reward
of those who perform acts of loving kindness."
is often compared to Rivka, the Torah’s prototype of kindness
compassion, benevolence.[lxxxiii] And more: as the great
bubba (grandmother) of David, the Sweet Singer of Israel"
and author of the indispensable Book of Psalms (Tehillim),[lxxxiv] her role in Jewish history
is decisive (this is why David, aware of the public unease of
his non-kosher genealogy, reminds his nation in his farewell
speech, that all are "strangers" in front of
Ruth, as a member of Moab, had come from one of the nations that
the Torah explicitly excludes from converting to Judaism (lo
yavo Amoni u’Moavi b’kahal Hashem, "an Ammonite
or a Moabite shall not enter into the assembly of God"),
which is why the prophet Shmuel, author of Megillas Ruth
(and the one who had anointed David as King in the first place),
felt obligated to set the record straight; by ordering that the
story of Ruth be publicly read on Shavuos, the prophet cleared
any doubts as to the lineage of David.
Shavuos customs include eating dairy (milchig) foods, (cheese
cake, blintzes, yogurt with honey, lasagna, and kreplach – any
custom that leads to kreplach is OK with me because kreplach
was my favorite yomtov food!)
mystics associate the custom of eating kreplach (three-cornered
cakes) to the number "3" – a nation of three (Kohanim,
Levites, Israelites) were the descendants of 3 ancestors; at Sinai
they prepared for 3 days before receiving a Torah which consists
of 3 parts (Tanach: Pentateuch, Prophets, Holy Writings) via Moses,
a third-born child (after Aaron and Miriam), in Sivan, the third
month of the year (if one starts counting from Nisan).
reasons abound – and give food-for-thought: some trace it to the
lyrics in The Song of Songs, "milk and honey shall
be under your tongue;" others to the fact that since the
Torah "begins and ends with an act of chesed," milchig
is thus a reminder of the "milk of human kindness."
kabbalists took the initials from Mincha chadasha l’Shem b’Shavuoteichem
(the Torah verse of bringing offerings to the Temple) and arrived
at m-I-c-h-a-l-a-v, which means "from milk," and then
buttressed their claim by equating the gematria (40) of chalav
(milchig) to the number of days and nights that Moses spent
on the Mount.
is why the Midrash refers to Mt. Sinai in such "milchig"
terms as Har Gavnunim, in that the mountain was as white
and smooth as cheese (gevina).
Jews have milchigs at night and fleischigs by day;
on the logic that nighttime is "more" Shavuosy and the
day "more" generically yomtovish. Others do the reverse;
whilst some families I know will make kiddush, wash, eat dairy
dishes, bensch – then wait a while, change the table coverings,
wash, and start all over again, but this time for a meat meal.
is a great time of the year for nurseries because it is a custom
to decorate the synagogue with greenery.
greenery? Again, the reasons are plenty: Jewish mystics embrace
the custom as a reminder that the House of Israel is like the
Song of Songs’s "lily among the thorns;" others
link it to the idea that Shavuos (atzeret) is the Judgment
day for trees, and a day when Jews pray to God for a bumper year
some see it as commemorative of a mount that was uncharacteristically
rich in greenery during the giving of the Torah.
custom is very old: even Haman complains that Jews spread grass
on the synagogue floors on Shavuos as a reminder to worship the
laws of a grassy Sinai[lxxxvii] instead of the laws of King Ahasuerus.
order to give the synagogue an air of Mount Sinai floribundus,
some communities even carpeted their shul floors with freshly
mown grass, others said a bracha over the aroma during
services; in Mainz the shul’s shammas would attach a rose
to the lecterns of the talmidei chachamim; in Pressburg,
Rabbi Moshe Schreiber (Chatam Sofer)[lxxxviii]
would settle himself in a bower of flowers; in Alsace and Lorraine
the French Jews crowned their Sifrei Torah with diadems of flowers;
and the presence of beautiful floral arrangements inspired Rabbi
Herzfeld to call Shavuos the "Holiday With Flower Power."
all rabbis embrace this Sinai custom? No.
ben Solomon, the formidable gaon of Vilna,[lxxxix]
forbade his shul to become a flower display of sheafs, verdant
branches and bouquets. Why? Because of its potential derivative
of idolatry, since it resembled the Christian Pentecostal Harvest
Festival and thus violated the serious sin of bechukoteyhem
lo telechu, "their customs thou shalt not follow."
most Jews simply ignored the Vilna Rav’s concern, or compromised
by using only flowers or grass from Jewish gardens.
Vilna Gaon however was right: a search through the Torah and Talmud
shows that flowers were never referred to within liturgical settings
(which the Garden of Eden was not) but for their aesthetic, aromatic
and medicinal qualities; and so the Rambam expressly forbids,
as a mimicry of idolatry, the placing of a tree near an altar
as a spiritual supplement in order to beautify it, based on ancient
references wherein flowers were used in pagan worship.[xc]
none of these Shavuos customs and conventions are halachikally
decreed. Why? Because Shavuos can only be understood juxtaposed
with the brutal intrusion of history.
the Second Temple fell, its victims included all the Torah’s agricultural
underpinnings, joyful harvest pageants, and mandated laws of fruits
Jews no longer active tillers of the Palestine soil, our Sages
moved quickly to protect tradition, maintain custom, strengthen
belief. How? By upgrading the spiritual aspect of the 49-day proximity
between Pesach and Shavuos; nothing less than blanketing the Shavuos
of Agriculture with a Shavuos of Torah, a dazzling act that combined
Torah and land, Sinai and harvest, God and nature.
all was not well: there was still something lacking in Shavuos,
something missing; epes felt, as my mother would say, in
yiddish of course.
was not until the 16th century that this spiritual void was brilliantly
kabbalists of Safed cleverly weaved together no less than four
mystical tenets to create one new custom; a tikkun layl Shavuos,
which literally means "The Repair of the Night of Shavuot."
were the four? That Jews of all time were present at Sinai; that
the Torah was given at daybreak while Jews slept, making it necessary
for God Himself to awaken them; that the Heavens open at midnight,
thus allowing prayers to go directly to God; and that, since Israel
is compared to a groom and Torah to a bride, one must prepare
the bride with sweet words in anticipation of the wedding day.[xci]
simple! Ask not what God can do for you but
solution? An all-night stand of Torah study,[xcii]
another "seder" in affect, a pragmatic activity that
worked fabulously to help Jews re-experience the Revelation on
an annual and recurring basis.
was a perfect match, a shidduch – made in Heaven, so to
speak. Why? Because an uninterrupted twelve-hour Torah learning
session infused Shavuos with a personality and a disposition towards
the historic giving of the Torah, described by Rabbi Berel Wein
as part of the Jewish DNA.
it may be a recessive gene in some Jews, it is never entirely
absent, merely dormant. And more: this minhag had several positive
all-night chanting of Psalms became a memorial anniversary to
David’s death; it also reintroduced into Judaism an obscure reference
found in the Book of Jubilees, written during the Second Temple
and consisting of midrashim on Genesis (unfortunately the original
Hebrew edition has been lost. The only references we have today
are to an Ethiopian version, which itself was translated from
the Greek, that was discovered in Abyssinia in the mid-19th century;
in other words, we have no way of knowing if its contents are
manuscript recalls how the Jews of the Second Temple kept Shavuos
as an annual renewal of Gods pact to mankind via Noah; and, by
placing the nightly Torah marathons in local synagogues it acted
as a reminder of the importance that the early synagogue played
in its role of maintaining yiddishkeit.
the Second Temple it was the synagogue that fulfilled a triple
purpose; as a House of Study, a House of Prayer and a House of
Community Assemblies. This core premise is still with us today,
having outlived everything from Roman rule to Jewish rebellions.
despite its prominence in Jewish survival, there is no exact information
regarding the origins of the synagogue – only guesswork places
it at the time of the Temple, because all sacrifices were accompanied
by prayer, therefore a place of prayer probably existed.
should learning Torah be unique for this holiday; especially since
v’higisa bo yomam v’layla, the order to study it day
and night, already applies?!
fact, the Shulchan Aruch does not refer to Tikkun Leil Shavuot,
though its author, Rabbi Joseph Karo, who was both a lawyer and
mystic, is said to have observed the custom; as did the Ba’er
Hetev, one of the commentators to the Shulchan Aruch (who
was convinced that whoever spends the night of Shavuos in study
will complete the year in good health).
Taamei Minhagim points out that this particular all-night-Torah-learning
is different because it contemplates the all-year-round Torah
study. This is why tikkun layl Shavuos has a particular
order to its study, a compilation organized centuries ago, wherein
each section in the Tanach, as well as each of the six books of
the Mishna, is begun and concluded.
source of this chronology of study, according to an insightful
Sefer Minhagei Yisroel Torah, is an incident in Persia,
when the King ruled it forbidden for Jews to say the Shma,
so in order to circumvent this terrible order, the rabbis turned
to the kedusha of Shabbas mussaf and covertly inserted
the Shmas first and last verses.
then decreed that saying this particular kedusha was equivalent
as having said the entire Shma.
similar rationale was applied to the Shavuos Torah study: by learning
the beginning and end of each part of the Torah, it was as if
one had learned the Torah in its entirety.
a similar reference to the endlessness of Torah, every line in
the Akdamus poem, read on the morning of Shavuos before the k’riat
haTorah reading, ends with the syllable ta, which consists
respectively of the last and first letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
soon as the final letter (tav) is reached, Jews immediately
return to dwell on the Torahs infinite depth by going back to
aleph, the first letter.
is not sufficient for a Jew to discover joy in the Torah,"
notes Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, "but the Torah should also
discover joy in the Jew."
is why tikkun layl Shavuos is so perfectly tailor-made:
it acts in a similar vein to the Jew who relives Pesach (not as
a mere reminiscence, or historical curiosity), but as a means
for seriously complying with the rabbinical canon that, "in
every single generation one must regard oneself as though one
had personally left the land of Egypt.[xciii]
asked what Shavuos meant to him, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks, chief
rabbi of the British Empire, replied from a personal perspective,
as he echoed an ancient observation, that "the Priestly caste
did not support the Ark; the Ark supported those who carried it."[xciv]
great-grandfather, Rabbi Aryeh Leib Frumkin, left Lithuania in
1871 to make his home in the Holy Land, where he became the historian
of Jerusalem. He took one item with him – a Sefer Torah, which
he held in his arms throughout the sea voyage, and while riding
on a donkey from the coast to Jerusalem….
me, the image of my great-grandfather cradling the Torah as he
journeyed to Jerusalem became a metaphor of Jewish life through
were the people who, wherever we traveled, carried the Torah with
though we thought we were carrying, in truth it was carrying
than the Jewish people gave life to the Torah, the Torah gave
life to the Jewish people."
Why is it called "daughter of a voice?" Because it is
not the voice itself that is heard, but an echo. "Every day,"
says Pirkei Avot, "a bat kol [literally, a Heavenly
message], goes forth from Mount Horeb and says, ‘Woe to mankind
for insulting the Torah’" (Avot 6:2). Slightly lower
in status than the ru’ach hakodesh, "the Holy Spirit,"
the bat kol, from the time the prophetic spirit ceased in Israel,
has been God’s means of communicating with mankind (Yoma
9a). It was a bat kol that announced Tamar’s innocence;
that exonerated Samuel who was accused of deriving personal advantage
from his office; who came down on the side of King Solomon’s decision
between two mothers who each claimed a child (Makkot 23b);
and that helped decide, after three years of conflict, halacha
between Shammai and Hillel: "Both these and these (views)
are the Words of the living God, but the halacha is according
to Beit Hillel" (Eruvin 13b; Isaiah 30:21;
Megillah 32a; Midrash Tanhuma) – however as a general
principle Rabbi Yehoshua argues that "the Torah is not in
heaven" (Deut 30:12).
The popular term Shechina only means "presence;"
and God often resorts to such instrumentalities as angels (malach),
which implies "a messenger or agent" (helping Hagar
in the desert; stopping Abraham from sacrificing his son; accompanying
Jacob on his wanderings, etc). Forces of nature (wind, fire, etc)
are also considered God’s messengers (Psalm 104:4), and
kohanim (the priesthood) act as intermediaries through
which God blesses his flock (Numbers 6). Is it rude for
Jews to turn their backs on the kohanim during the priestly blessing?
No: to gaze directly borders on irreverence because of the belief
that the Divine Presence streams through the open fingers of the
priests (Megillah 4:8; Orach Chayyim 128:23;
[vi] Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, The
Strife of the Spirit, Jason Aronson, NJ, 1988.
[vii] This term describes any encounter
between the Heavens and mankind.
[viii] The rabbis were ambiguous in
their halachik attitude towards singling out the Ten Commandments
as being central to Judaism. The Asseres haDibbros went
from being recited daily in the Temple, together with the Sh’ma,
to being abolished from the synagogue liturgy (Midrash Tanchuma
Bamidbar 10; Kings 19).
The first account appears in Exodus 10-19; the second in
[xi] This expression is only found
in the Bible; it is not used in rabbinic texts.
Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides); 12th century Torah
scholar from Spain whose family fled to Egypt from the Almohades,
a fundamentalist Moslem sect who believed in spreading religion
via the sword. In Egypt, whilst serving the Sultan as his personal
physician, the Rambam produced his most important halachik works;
Yad HaChazakah (the "Strong Hand," aka the Mishne
Torah, "Review of the Torah"); Perush HaMishnayot
("Explanation of the Mishnah"); and the philosophical
Moreh HaNevuchim ("Guide for the Perplexed").
Although he is universally accepted today it was not always so:
many early Sages frowned upon his tinkering with Greek Philosophy,
and strongly criticized him for not quoting the sources for his
[xiv] Guide, Chapters 32,
Rashi 19; Ibn Ezra, 20:1; Rambam, Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah
8:1; Moreh Nevukhim II:23; Makot 24a
Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Nachmanides); 13th century
Torah scholar who vigorously defended the Rambam from detractors
who were burning his writings, and is credited with preventing
a serious rift amongst the Torah scholars of his time.
[xviii] Robert S. Wistrich, Anti-Semitism:
The Longest Hatred, NY: Pantheon Books, 1991; Hyam Maccoby,
A Pariah People: The Anthropology of Anti-Semitism, London:
Constable, 1996; Joel Carmichael, The Satanizing of the Jews:
Origin and Development of Mystical Anti-Semitism, NY: Fromm,
[xix] English translators of Isaiah’s
phrase eretz sinim (49:12) mistranslate it as "the
land of Sinim," not realizing that the word refers to a people,
not a place.
[xxii] Some trace this hateful ditty
to Hilaire Belloc or G. K. Chesterton; commenting on Chesterton’s
anti-Semitism, the poet Humbert Wolfe wrote,
lies G. K. Chesterton
to Heaven would have gone,
didn’t when he heard the news
the place was run by Jews."
A speaker was denouncing the Jews for causing the First World
War, when a heckler interjected, "Yes, the Jews and
the bicyclists." Thrown off course, the speaker asked, "Why
the bicyclists?" The heckler replied, "Why the Jews?"
[xxiv] Numbers 22:9; Yaakov
Herzog, A People That Dwells Alone, Weidenfeld & Nicolson
[xxvii] Deut 26:18; Exodus
19:5,6; Leviticus 20-26.
In classical Hebrew the term goyim originally meant "nation"
or "people," and applied to Jews and gentiles.
"The nations of the earth" were goyei ha’aretz
(Genesis 18:18), Israel was called a goy echad ba’aretz,
"a unique nation on the earth" (I Chronicles
17:1), and "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,"
mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh (Exodus 19:6). Later,
the term came to denote "them" (as in, not "us"),
as per Hagoyim asher s’vivotechem, "the nations that
surround you" (Leviticus 25:44), or Chukkot hagoy,
"the (pagan) customs of the gentile" (Leviticus
20:23; II Kings 17:8).
[xxx] Genesis 1; Malachi
[xxxi] On November 9-10, 1938 more
than 100 synagogues and scores of Jewish stores were destroyed
littering the streets with broken glass, which is why the day
became known as "Crystal Night" (in German, Krystallnacht.)
[xxxii] Exodus 19:17, 24:7;
Shabbat 88a, Rashi 19:17.
[xxxiv] There is a beautiful Sephardic
custom of actually writing a love-song ketubah in the form of
a marriage contract between God and the Jewish people and reading
it on Shavuos. The piyut was composed by Rabbi Yisrael
Najara, a great Jewish grammarian and poet who modeled it after
Shir HaShirim, a metaphor for the relationship between
God and Israel.
The Midrash finds another clue to support this: an extra nun
is added in "ta’avdun" in the verse ta’avdun
et HaElokim al ha-har hazeh, you will serve God on this mountain"
(Exodus 3:12). So? Nun is the Hebrew letter for 50, which
equals the number of days from Pesach to Shavuos.
Deut 4:19-20; Ramban Sefer Ha-mitzvot, mitzvot she-shakhach
otan ha-rav, lo ta’aseh #2.
[xlix] Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Understanding
Judaism: The Basics of Deed and Creed, Jason Aronson
Deut 1:13; Sukkah 20a.
[liv] Schoolings import is reflected
in halachists making the following exception to their otherwise
strict rules regarding free economic competition: if a Jew wants
to open a pizza parlor next to another Jew, he can be stopped
under the halacha of interference. But what if he wanted to open
a school? Ah, that was different. Why? He was encouraged to do
so, because the jealousy of scholars increaseth wisdom.
[lv] Shabbat 119b; Hagiga
[lvi] H.G. Wells, Outline
[lvii] In recent times the rise of
the married kollel student, those who spend time exclusively
in the pursuit of Torah study, have raised questions over what
takes priority: learning Torah or making a living? Rabbi Nehurai
argues for the former, Ishmael ben Elisha the latter. The answer
can be found where all answers are found: in the Talmud which
clearly states that fathers are "obligated" to teach
sons a trade (Kiddushin 29a; Bava Metzia 30b, Nedarim
49b; Rashi, Makkos 8b), even on the Shabbas; and along
comes Rashi, in an uncommoningly ominous warning to all parents:
any son deprived of the means of livelihood will end up a common
ganef (thief.) Note that the Talmud is dotted with scholar-tradesmen
(shoemakers, tailors, carpenters, etc) who are held in great esteem
for both qualities.
[lviii] Benjamin drowned in 1940
at Port-Bou in a tragic shipwreck of European Jews.
[lix] In the field of chinuch
(education) the Talmud singles out for specific praise Rabbis
Hiyya and Yehoshua ben Gamla, a high priest shortly before the
Second Temple was destroyed (Bava Batra 21a; Bava Metzia
Abraham Chill, The Minhagim, Sepher-Hermon Press, 1979.
[lxii] The "chazan" in
those days was not the equivalent of todays "cantor."
It was a position of also great Talmudic scholarship.
[lxv] Maseches Sofrim 14:18.
[lxvi] Sotak 14b; Shabbat
133b Sifri; Rambam, Laws of Avelut, ch. 14.
If a gentile comes to convert, said the Sages in Vayikra Raba,
Jews must extend their hands and bring him under Divinity’s wings.
Along the centuries there were varying attitudes towards conversion
in Judaism, ranging from downright antagonism all the way to forced
circumcisions (by the Hasmoneans) of newly conquered populations
in Transjordan. Sometimes, entire communities converted to Judaism
(In his book "Israel and Humanity," Rabbi Eliya
Benamozegh (Raba), rabbi of the Italian city of Livorno
in the second half of the 19th century, argues that at its essence,
Judaism in fact seeks to attract others. Over the centuries multitudes
of Alexandrian Greeks and Roman heathens have converted, and no
less than six entire kingdoms have taken Judaism upon themselves:
the Khazars; Sheba (which adopted Judaism in the wake of the visit
of their queen to King Solomon); Adiabene, today’s Kurdistan (whose
kings converted shortly before the destruction of the Second Temple);
Hamyar, in the southern Arabian Peninsula (which converted en
masse sometime at the start of the first millennium); Kahena,
which was ruled by a woman ("the Kohenet," or priestess),
in the area of Libya, during the Arab conquest of North Africa;
and the Bracha V’shalom ("blessing and peace")
kingdom, formed in the mid-17th century in the jungles of South
America by Jews who fled Inquisition-era Portugal. So successful
were Jewish conversion efforts that historian Salo Baron calculates
that their numbers soared from 150,000 during the Babylonian destruction
of the First Temple to over 8,000,000 by the first century of
the Common Era (reaching 10% of the Roman Empire’s population),
leading Rabbi Elezar ben Pedat to assert that God exiled Jews
from the holy land for one reason only – to convert! (Pesachim
87b). This aggressive stance stopped when Christianity overtook
Rome and Judaism became an outlawed religion, a nefarium sectam.
So successful were the Jews that the Gospel complained about Jews
"who travel over sea and land to make a single proselyte."
The conversion efforts of the early gentile Christian movement
was simply a drive to get the b’nei Noach into a messianic
"Judaism" without the need to actually convert to Judaism.
Yet on the whole, Judaism’s approach to conversion was quite clear:
to refrain from actively seeking new followers, and at the same
time welcome those who embraced our faith of their own volition.
This traditional approach has now become Israel’s Theater of the
Absurd: whilst some orthodox rabbis crisscross the globe from
the Peruvian Andes to the Burmese jungles in a quixotic effort
to seek out "Jewish tribes" ripe for conversion, other
Orthodox obscurantists hinder the conversion efforts of thousands
of Soviet immigrants already living in the holy land.
[lxx] Numbers Rabba 8:2; Tanchuma,
[lxxi] Exodus 12:48: Leviticus
16:29: Numbers 19:10.
The majority of todays conversions are motivated by "romance"
(ie: intermarriage), despite the fact that halacha disqualifies
applicants if they have any ulterior motive (Yoreh De’ah
Raymond Apple wonders why the whole world is not Jewish?
am part of a vibrant folk, heir to a rich heritage of culture,
challenged by an ethical tradition; a faith that dares, a faith
that cares; a philosophy that stretches the mind; a way of life
that enriches the heart. I have poetry and prose, individuality
and community, history and destiny. I sometimes wonder why the
whole world is not Jewish?"
[lxxix] Mathew 23:15; Sanhedrin
56-60; Acts 15; 1 Corinthians 5-6; Aaron Lichtenstein,
The Seven Laws of Noah, NY, Berman Books, 1981; Yoel Schwartz,
A Light to the Nations, Jerusalem, Yeshivat D’var
[lxxxi] Tosefta 17, Shaarey
Teshuva, Orach Chaim 494
[lxxxii] Berachot 2:8; I Samuel
25; Megilla 14b, 15a.
[lxxxiv] How do the Jews choose which
daily tehillim to say? There is a custom to pick the chapter
associated with the year or your age, plus one. My mother doesnt
have this problem: she says all of tehillim every
morning, getting up before sunrise in order to finish together
with the miracle of a morning light.
[lxxxvi] Kol Bo; Sotah 14a;
Magen Avraham, Orach Chaim 494; Rosh Hashanah 16a
[xci] Midrash Shir Hashirim Rabba,
Likutei Tzvi, Magen Avraham, Orach Chaim 494; Zohar, Emor
[xcii] So important is the study
of Torah that techilas dino shel adam eino ela b’divray Torah,
"Man’s final judgment will begin with a grilling about time
spent on Torah study (Orach Chaim 155:1; Shabbos
31a). But what if one only has a limited amount of time? The Mishna
Berurah lists priorities: practical halacha first, in order to
know how to apply Torah to one’s daily life, followed by a quick
review of the weekly Torah portion, followed by some mussar
(lessons in ethics).
[xciv] Benectiate ben Natronai tia-Nakdan