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

    It isn’t Purim

    October 16th, 2019

    In popular thinking Simchat Torah is a sort of Purim, a day for carnival jollification. But the popular view is wrong.

    Simchat Torah is, in some respects, more spiritual. It epitomises the simchah shel mitzvah, the joy of the Divine commandment, a day to rejoice in the study and observance of the Torah.

    Purim is more down to earth. It symbolises the fear and fright of the antisemite’s plan to exterminate us, and our relief at escaping.

    Both are occasions of joy. The one reminds us that it’s hard to be a Jew, the other that being a Jew is good.

    Both, however, are days of happiness, and on both it is we have to share our rejoicing with others, not just by being generous but by being thoughtful.

    One Simchat Torah, Rabbi Chaim Gutnick of Melbourne asked one of his congregants who insisted on dancing with the Torah, “If you were a person who studied the Torah I would understand why you want a Torah to dance with!”

    The congregant responded, “If someone else has something to celebrate, I am happy too!”


    Drinking & thinking

    October 16th, 2019

    Some congregations wax and wane on Simchat Torah morning.

    There is a custom to call as many people as possible to the Torah reading. After each Aliyah it seems to be the practice in such places that the person who has just been called up immediately makes an exit from the synagogue.

    When I first encountered this practice I became a detective, following the person concerned to see where he was off to. I discovered that in a nearby room there was a drinking club in session. Each Aliyah was followed by a whisky (plus, in that particular shule, herring on a cracker).

    I must say I was underwhelmed. A whisky has its place and time, but what it adds to the love of the Torah which is the purpose of the Simchat Torah festival is highly debatable.

    I am even less impressed with the habit in some places of plastering young people with alcohol which often ends up as vomit in the gutters. No God, no religion, no spiritual joy.

    The answer is not necessarily to be a teetotaler, but can’t we think of something better? Can’t the policy be that of the Psalmist, “Worship the Lord in gladness, enter His Presence with song” (Psalm 100:2)?


    Adding a new festival

    October 16th, 2019

    In a traditional faith like Judaism it is understandable that new commandments are not to be introduced, so how can the Jewish people have brought into being a new festival like Simchat Torah which has no roots in the Bible?

    Yehudah HaLevi’s answer is that the prohibition applies to individuals, not to the sages of Israel.

    When the sages institute something new, it is in order to strengthen the existing structures of Judaism. Thus their “Seven Commandments of the Rabbis” include kindling Shabbat lights with the purpose of strengthening the hold of Shabbat. They include chanting Hallel on festive days, which enhances the joy of the occasion.

    Simchat Torah enriches the Jewish love affair with the Torah, especially by means of the regular reading of the Chumash.

    Making the Torah reading an annual obligation not only stresses that the whole of the Torah is sacred, but emphasises the authority of the Babylonian custom of reading the Torah over the course of one year (as opposed to Eretz Yisra’el where they took three years).


    The sukkah of Leviathan

    October 10th, 2019

    The Destruction of Leviathan by Gustave Doré, 1865

    Some sukkot are so tiny that a person can hardly squeeze in. Others are so huge that they could accommodate an army.

    The biggest of all is the sukkah of Leviathan, a huge sea creature whose hide will cover the tent in which the righteous will be seated for the ultimate messianic banquet.

    In the Pesikta, Rabbi Levi explains that whoever fulfils the mitzvah of sukkah in this world will dwell in the sukkah of Leviathan in time to come.

    Not that Leviathan the monster is to be praised and admired despite its massive size. Isaiah says (27:1) that God will use His sword against “Leviathan the straight serpent and Leviathan the crooked serpent, and He will kill the dragon that is in the sea”. The two Leviathans are respectively male and female, according to the Talmud (Bava Batra 74b).

    Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that the name Leviathan (found in Psalm 104:25-26) comes from the same Hebrew root as melaveh and halvayah (accompanying). “Leviathan” therefore has the general connotation of society.

    God approves and encourages the formation of groups for the study of Torah and the service of one’s fellow man.

    But not every group is formed for good and constructive purposes. Think of the Tower of Babel and you get the point. God feels impelled to attack an animal or human society which clubs together to wreak fear, fright and terror.

    What has the Leviathan to do with Sukkot? At the time of the final resurrection there will be a banquet at which the flesh of the Leviathan will be served and from the monster’s hide God will construct a massive tent.

    Maimonides gives the banquet of Leviathan a spiritual and intellectual connotation: it will be the climactic gathering of the learned tzaddikim.


    Secret of the Seventh Day

    October 10th, 2019

    Hoshanot procession on Sukkot, engraving by Bernard Picart, c.1723

    Hoshana Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot, has an unfortunate fate.

    Tucked in between the excitement of Sukkot and the exuberance of Simchat Torah, it seems to be largely ignored and broadly neglected.

    Yet it has a spiritual flavor that the rabbinic works acknowledge when they speak of the cantor wearing a white kittel and the congregation using Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur melodies for the prayers.

    Its very name conveys this message. Hoshana is a phrase from Hallel that means “Salvation”; the Hallel says, “O God, please send salvation”.

    Colloquially, hoshanot are the willow twigs (aravot) that are beaten towards the end of the service in token of our appeal to God to beat out of us the last trace of our sins.

    Hoshana Rabbah is a day of judgment, especially amongst the kabbalists. The Zohar says that on this day, the final decree goes out from the House of the King. This is why in some circles the day is called Yom HaChotem, “The Day of Sealing”.

    The reason for the day bearing the extra name of Rabbah, which means great or many, is probably the number of prayers said that day that begin with the word Hoshana.