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    The chutzpah of Uzzah – Sh’mini

    April 18th, 2017

    The haftarah tells a story of joy marred by tragedy. So does the sidra.

    In the sidra it is two of the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, who misconduct themselves in the Sanctuary by bringing “strange fire” (Lev. 10:1) and suffer terrible punishment in the form of death by fire; in the haftarah it is Uzzah the son of Avinadav who touches the Ark of the Lord and dies instantly.

    Though the nature of the “strange fire” in the sidra is not spelled out, and the sages suggested a number of possibilities, the sin in both stories is the same – behaving with undue familiarity towards the people’s sancta.

    The people who frequent the Sanctuary and deal on a daily basis with sacred objects are tempted to feel so much at home with their environment that they can relax the normal standards of respectful behaviour.

    It still happens. People who forget to conduct themselves properly towards the Torah scroll, towards the place of worship and even towards the rabbi – theirs is the sin of Nadav, Avihu and Uzzah. They may not be struck down from Heaven, but they have still committed a grave transgression.

    It is not only the over-familiar behaviour of the type described in the Biblical texts but the inappropriate laughing and joking that pay no regard to where they are, but these days even the use of mobile phones during prayers (giving people the benefit of the doubt, let us say this refers to weekdays but I am afraid I have seen it on Shabbat too).

    The beginning of the Shulchan Aruch reminds us that if we would not conduct ourselves in an improper way in the presence of a ruler, all the more so should we be scrupulously reverent in the presence of the Holy One, blessed be He.


    49 or 50 days of the Omer? – Ask the Rabbi

    April 18th, 2017

    Q. The Torah says that the counting of the Omer is for 50 days (Lev. 23:16), so why do we in actual fact only count 49 days?

    A. The technical explanation is that the 49 days bring us to Shavu’ot, and that is the 50th day.

    The Lubavitcher Rebbe, however, adds another dimension. He says that though the 49 days of counting bring us closer and closer to ultimate spirituality, the final goal eludes us.

    We elevate ourselves further and further every day of the Omer, but the experience of complete revelation and understanding will always be beyond us.

    That realisation must nevertheless not prevent us from trying the experience of elevation. We might not get there, but only if we make the effort do we give ourselves the chance of succeeding.


    Aramaic & the Haggadah

    April 13th, 2017

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 14 April, 2017.

    An article by Philologos in the April 2017 issue of Mosaic has a surprising take on the fact that with the Ha Lachma Anya paragraph, the Passover Haggadah commences with Aramaic.

    His theory is that Ha Lachma Anya, an invitation to the Seder, is directed to ordinary people, not to demons or evil spirits, who do not understand Aramaic.

    I prefer to say that because Aramaic was the vernacular spoken by vast numbers of Jews in the late Second Temple period, an offer of Passover hospitality had to be in a language that people understood.

    Using a vernacular was one of the issues in the modernisation of orthodoxy.

    A 19th-century British chief rabbi who faced agitation for English prayers ruled that the synagogue service had to be in Hebrew, with no English except for the sermon, the Prayer for the Royal Family and, once a month, the Ten Commandments.

    Maybe the chief rabbi was not aware that some congregations read the Book of Jonah in English on Yom Kippur – a European custom which some synagogues (for example in Australia) extended by reading haftarot in English on a number of other days.

    Those who wanted more English noted the chief rabbi’s ruling but still complained that they could not follow the service.

    There were actually precedents for using the vernacular. Relying on a statement in the Mishnah Sotah that certain prayers could be said in any language, the London Sephardim said some of their liturgy in Ladino; all rites including the Ashkenazim used Aramaic for Kaddish as well as Kol Nidrei and parts of the Haggadah; and in ancient times a meturgeman (translator) rendered scriptural readings in Aramaic.

    The rabbis who opposed Aramaic used populist arguments against it.

    In the Talmud, Rabbah bar Bar Chana said: “When we followed Rabbi Elazar to greet a sick person, he sometimes said in Hebrew, ‘God visit you in peace’ and at other times in Aramaic, ‘God remember you in peace.’ How come? Did not Rabbi Yehudah say, ‘One should not ask for his needs in Aramaic’? Rabbi Yochanan said: ‘When one asks for his needs in Aramaic, the Ministering Angels pay no heed, for they do not know Aramaic!’ – With an invalid it is different; God’s Presence is with him (and no angels are needed)” (Shabbat 12b; cf. Sotah 33a).

    All these rabbis knew and used Aramaic – so how could they object to praying in it? There were four issues:

    • The common folk believed in angels. In illness they clutched at straws, though rational people were wary of an angel cult. In time the liturgy even said that angels usher in the prayers. How can anyone claim that the angels do not know Aramaic? The text does not say yod’im, “know”, but makkirim, “esteem.” The angels knew Aramaic but did not have a high opinion of it.

    • If Aramaic were allowed in heaven where it is believed that the angels dwell, it might displace Hebrew on earth (Nehemiah 13:24), so people were told to pray in the language of the Bible. The Amidah could be in any language (Sotah 33a) but it was so well known that there was no temptation to say it in the vernacular Aramaic.

    However, those who prayed for the sick used common and not classical idiom.

    • By law, a person may pray in any language he chooses during communal worship, but if praying alone should use Hebrew. Individuals need the help of the angels, who prefer Hebrew, but communal prayers go direct to God without angelic intervention.

    • Aramaic, the language of the street, was not considered sufficiently elevated or pure for prayer, though it could be used for study. There were Aramaic phrases in the Bible and even biblical books and chapters, such as Daniel and Ezra, written in Aramaic.

    Bible readings could be in Aramaic if rendered in Hebrew first. Some even said that the Torah was given to Moses in Aramaic as well as Hebrew. People were warned, though, that if they prayed in Aramaic the prayers might not work.

    Later generations, schooled in the Targum and Talmud (in contrast to the Midrash, which is largely Hebrew), had a higher regard for Aramaic and used it for popular prayers like Kaddish.

    The Passover Haggadah itself could be read in any language one understood.

    However, vernacular languages could only be second best and Jewish law opposes using them for statutory services, though personal prayers and non-statutory items like the piyyutim may be different (Aruch HaShulchan, Orach Chayyim 101:4, 185:2-3; 62:4).

    Still, even the best translation has limitations; the Hebrew original has more flavor, precision and “Jewishness.”

    Philologos raises a good problem, but the real issue is not whether we want to keep the demons out but whether the ordinary folk would understand Ha Lachma Anya if it were not in Aramaic.


    They came armed

    April 12th, 2017

    The Exodus from Egypt, Golden Haggadah, Catalonia, c.1300

    What did the Hebrews take on their trudge through the wilderness? Wives, children, clothing, matzah to eat, water to drink?

    All these, but the Torah says something more: they went chamushim (Ex. 13:18), which Onkelos and others understand as “armed”, ready for the journey ahead and for any encounter with hostile tribes.

    Cassuto says the word meant “disciplined”: they were not a mob but an organised people.

    The rabbis saw that chamushim is reminiscent of chamesh, five. Maybe each Hebrew had five children.

    Some thought that only a fifth of the people left with Moses (some said one in 50 or even only one in 500). This indicates that there were many who had made their peace with their degraded status and wanted what they were used to instead of the unknown future.

    Or does it mean that only a minority were really worthy of the redemption?


    A whole year of Pesach

    April 12th, 2017

    Dickens’ Uriah Heep, by Frank Reynolds, 1910

    All that effort to get the house ready for Pesach, and the festival is over in a week!

    Actually, there is a sense in which the observance of Pesach should continue for the whole year. Avoiding leavened food is done on Pesach in a literal, physical fashion, but refraining from leaven in the sense of puffed-up arrogance is a permanent part of Jewish ethics.

    There are two extremes to be avoided – being so arrogant and puffed-up that one is impossible to live with, and being so little concerned with one’s personal worth that one is too self-effacing.

    Modesty is a wonderful thing, but not when it turns someone into a nobody. At the same time one’s modesty should not be turned into an art form to such an extent that it’s a type of arrogance. Boasting of one’s modesty is still boasting.

    When Dickens creates the character of Uriah Heep, he deliberately makes him the sort of person who keeps on and on saying how ‘umble he is and as a result one gets the impression that Humble Heep is nothing but a show-off.