• Home
  • Parashah Insights
  • Ask the Rabbi
  • Festivals & Fasts
  • Articles
  • Books
  • About

    The wedding parody – Simchat Torah

    October 8th, 2017

    The historian Cecil Roth had a theory that Simchat Torah was modelled on a wedding.

    Writing in the London Jewish Chronicle in 1934, Roth described the customs that Jewish communities developed for wedding celebrations and showed how Simchat Torah became a communal parody of a wedding.

    The real-time bridegroom was a king for a day. His arrival under the chuppah was accompanied by hymns in his honour, he was showered with sweetmeats, his head was garlanded and when he was called to the reading of the Torah the chapter in the Book of Genesis about the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah was read from a special scroll.

    Step by step the celebratory procedure was followed in honour of the Chatan Torah and Chatan B’reshit on Simchat Torah.

    The only difference was the identity of the bride. At a wedding there was of course a real-life bride decked in festive garments; on Simchat Torah the bride was the Torah itself.

    The whole occasion celebrated Israel’s love affair with its Torah. Where Scripture said that the Torah was Israel’s heritage (Morashah K’hillat Ya’akov), the sages had a play on words whereby they read, not morashah but me’orasah, “betrothed”.

    The Jewish people and the Torah were betrothed to one another, their destinies intertwined with God looking on benignly and in joy.

    Candies & candles – Simchat Torah

    October 8th, 2017

    Simchat Torah customs concentrate on children.

    In most places the children get candies and chocolates, and often the children’s parade includes flags on sticks topped with apples, candles or even fireworks – not very safe of course, and often bitterly criticised by the spiritual leaders.

    The Magen Avraham opposed burning aromatic herbs on Simchat Torah and all the more the use of fire crackers.

    Those who opposed the opposers agreed that the candles should not be lit on the festival itself but thought that if they were lit from a light kindled before yom-tov there could be a way of letting the candle burn down to let the flame ignite the fireworks. Probably fun, but highly dangerous.

    Carrying flags on sticks is also dangerous: the sticks can cause damage to people and even to the synagogue seats.

    One of the questions that hardly anyone asks is why flags were part of the processions. Maybe it is to let the children feel part of the army of the Almighty, carrying the message of the Torah wherever they go.

    Superlatives – B’reshit

    October 8th, 2017

    We never finish a mitzvah without starting on the next one.

    We have hardly completed Yom Kippur when we begin the building of the sukkah.

    When we end the Torah readings we start again with B’reshit.

    Though only a year has passed since last time we always find something new in the ancient text. The Vilna Ga’on said that he never failed to find a chiddush in the familiar words.

    In our case let us look at a well known passage from B’reshit veru’ach E-lokim merachefet al p’nei hamayim, usually rendered, “and the spirit of God hovered over the surface of the waters”.

    The Bible has no superlatives, so if it wants to say something is immensely great it says it is big even in God’s terms. Jonah says that Nineveh was “a great city unto the Lord”, indicating that even God thought it was great.

    So “the spirit (or wind) of God” is “a mighty wind”, one that even God notices.

    God created beginnings

    October 8th, 2017

    Two types of interpretation address the beginning of the Bible – the prosaic and the poetic.

    Amongst the poetical interpretations, d’rash, one can say that B’reshit bara E-lokim means “God created B’reshit (the beginning).”

    The sages say that God created many other worlds first but was not satisfied with any of them. Eventually He created this world and decided to let it continue in existence.

    He began His real work of Creation with this world. The other attempts were defective and were not allowed to continue.

    What was so good about this world?

    One can’t be certain, but the big difference appears to be that the earlier worlds did not contain a human race whereas ours did. What won God’s approval was His making of Man.

    What quality did Man have that Creation swung in his favour?

    He was certainly not a perfect being, but he was perfectible. Making something of himself was man’s privilege.

    There would be rough times when God would regret creating man, but God always decided to let man live and improve himself. It would take time. But time is relative.

    When the Psalmist says, “A thousand years in Your sight as are like yesterday” (Psalm 90:4), it indicates that what we think takes millions of years is only like a second in God’s terms.

    Egotism and the etrog

    October 8th, 2017

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 8 October, 2017.

    President Eisenhower is said to have remarked, “Everyone should have a religion, and I don’t care which one.”

    The first half of the sentence sounds fine, but I’m not sure about the second.

    To have a religion is code for having a spiritual outlook on life, recognising forces and energies which are above and beyond the earthly and commonplace, acknowledging that we are answerable to history, destiny and a higher power.

    But to add, “I don’t care which one” is to diminish both the uniqueness of who I am and the distinctiveness of where I come from.

    Religions are not all the same, and neither are human beings.

    Most religious people are moulded by and in the faith into which they are born: others choose a particular religion because of their own life experiences and spiritual needs.

    As far as Jews are concerned, the observance of Sukkot is a potent symbol of why Judaism is the right religion for us.

    Before attempting to validate this assertion, let me recall something which actually recurred many times in my rabbinic career.

    Life in the Diaspora brings Jews into constant contact with members of other faiths and none. Rabbis find themselves acting as Jewish ambassadors, explaining Jews and Judaism to individuals and audiences in many places.

    My own contacts ranged from sitting on the bus reading the local Jewish newspaper and finding the passenger next to me highly curious about what it is to be a Jew, to mixing with public figures who constantly wondered why Jews were different.

    Audiences I addressed varied from seminaries and synods, media meetings and national commemorations to groups of school children who visited the synagogue and asked, “Why can’t you see that being Christian is the right religion?”

    My answers remained consistent, though I varied the packaging.

    To the crucial question of whether Christianity was the right religion I always said, “It is the right religion – for Christians. For us the right religion is Judaism.” I would often add, “What makes us different is our history, our culture and our beliefs.”

    Judaism is the Jewish response to the challenge of living on earth and reaching for heaven, writing ourselves in God’s book and writing Him in ours. Judaism is also a people, relying on each other and jointly creating a community of faith and fate.

    Sometimes we feel fragile as Jews. We survived the ups and downs of history because we knew that One on High protected us like a sukkah and supported our vision of the day when all the nations will come to Jerusalem to the mountain of the Lord of Hosts.

    Sometimes we wonder about ourselves as Jews. We are such a small people and so divided. Some of us dream of a united people in which there are no divisions.

    I don’t share that dream. What a boring world it would be if we were all stamped out with cookie cutters. We have a blessing that praises God who “varies the forms of His creatures.”

    An orchestra needs all its different instruments. Our world needs a spectrum of faces, personalities, professions and propensities.

    The Midrash uses the four plants that mark Sukkot to show there is room in every human community for individual difference.

    We talk of waving the lulav, but the most interesting fruit is the etrog. This was always the most expensive, the most minutely scrutinised plant of the four. In far-off places Jews were never as happy as when they succeeded in importing an etrog. They even imposed a communal levy to pay for the community’s etrogim.

    Ibn Ezra was convinced that “there exists no fruit more beautiful than the etrog.” The Midrash waxed lyrical about the etrog’s fragrance and edibility.

    It comes as a surprise, then, to learn what Nachmanides tells us about etrogim. When we take the four plants on Sukkot we can bind three of them together – lulav, aravot and hadassim – but the shape of the etrog defies any attempt to bind it with the others.

    Nachmanides argues that the etrog is left out of the bundle and held separately because it needed to be shunned!

    He derives the name etrog from an Aramaic word which means passion and desire. He believes, as do others, that the etrog was the fruit that Adam and Eve ate in the Garden of Eden.

    He adds, “The etrog was the source of lust, the cause of the sin of Adam and Eve. In it sin lurks, and the other three of the four species provide the atonement for it. The etrog is not bound with these three but is held separately, since it stands in opposition to them.”

    Is there a lesson to derive from this rather negative view of the etrog?

    Surely this: that a community is not only divided ideologically and culturally, but ethically too. There are differences of view and also differences in character. Some are good people and some are not.

    Sukkot and its etrog indicate after Yom Kippur that the waters of penitence do not succeed in eradicating every vestige of sin and sinfulness, but that we can always do better next year.

    Will there be a time when there is no longer a need for the etrog? Unlikely, since we need a stern reminder not to lapse again.

    In any case, not everyone agrees with Nachmanides.