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    Changing over & changing back

    April 23rd, 2019

    Just over a week ago we changed over from year-round to Pesach food and utensils, and now it’s almost time to change back.

    The question is whether things will revert to exactly what they were before Pesach.

    On one level the answer is probably no. People sometimes mislay something in all the domestic upheaval. Sometimes you keep out a Pesach utensil for use during the year.

    On a deeper level the question is psychological.

    Has our thinking, our whole being, reverted to what it was?

    Let’s hope the answer is no. Pesach should have changed what we are and how we think of things and people.

    The person I will be next week will hopefully be more tolerant, able to live with the wicked as well as the wise one, hoping that the son who once was unable to ask questions is now well on the way to being a fully involved member of the family and the Jewish people.


    Magdil & Migdol

    April 23rd, 2019

    The climax of the 7th day haftarah of Pesach is the same as the conclusion of the Grace After Meals – the verse, Magdil (or: migdol) yeshu’ot malko v’oseh chessed lim’shicho l’David ul’zar’o ad olam: “He magnifies (or: is a tower of) victory for His king and deals kindly with His anointed, with David and his descendants for ever.”

    The haftarah version comes from II Samuel 22; the Grace After Meals version from Psalm 18. The psalm says magdil and the haftarah says migdol.

    The psalm version seems better linguistically, since magdil as a verb is paralleled by the verb oseh in the second half of the verse, though it is not unknown for God to be called a tower, e.g. Psalm 61:4, where He is “a tower of strength”.

    It is easy to blame the variants on scribal carelessness but Samson Raphael Hirsch says, “This psalm began in II Samuel, Chapter 22, as a part of the story of David. David himself made some changes in it when it was finally turned over to the people as a kind of national hymn”.

    David turned verse 51 from history: “God is (or: was) my tower of support”, to a prayer or hope that He may in future support the Davidic dynasty, reflecting the natural ambition of a ruler to see his dynasty endure.

    Our practice is to assign magdil to the Grace After Meals on weekdays and migdol to Sabbaths and festivals.

    Baruch Halevi Epstein believes that though people tended to use magdil (the psalm version), the prayer books had a marginal note, bet-shin-bet migdol, i.e. “In II Samuel – biSh’mu’el Bet migdol”, which was misread due to the use of abbreviations as b’Shabbat migdol – “On Sabbath (and festivals) migdol”.

    Epstein argues that either version is acceptable and that there is no need to assign the alternatives to different occasions.

    Why do we need to conclude Grace After Meals with this verse at all? Because of the practice of ending major prayers with a reference to the messianic redemption.

    * For a detailed analysis of this subject, see Rabbi Apple’s article from the Jewish Bible Quarterly, “Magdil & Migdol – liturgical responses to textual variants”.


    Hansen’s Law

    April 23rd, 2019

    Shabbat Candles, lithograph by Sandu Liberman

    Pesach, when the Haggadah talks of parents whose children ask, “What are the testimonies and the statutes of the Torah?”, is the tailor-made occasion when observers of Jewish life get a reminder of Hansen’s Law which says, “What the son wishes to forget, the grandson wishes to remember”.

    This “principle of third generation interest”, formulated by the American historian Marcus Lee Hansen in a 1938 essay, “The Problem of the Third Generation Immigrant”, has been widely debated and criticised, but in Judaism it seems to have special pertinence.

    Once upon a time the Jewish world was full of froom grandparents who strictly observed the practices of Judaism (or so it is claimed; the reality was rather more patchwork).

    In many cases the families migrated to the New World, gave up the old level of observance and lived on memory: “My father was so froom, he davened all day, he was never without a Hebrew book in his hand, he kept every detail of Shabbat.

    “My mother worked day and night to keep a kosher home, she lit Shabbat candles with tears in her eyes, she didn’t know much Hebrew but she insisted that we say the b’rachot with her.

    “Our parents didn’t have any money but material things weren’t important to them.”

    The son started off keeping very little but at least remembering, and then even the remembering went and the Jewish future was at risk.

    Recently, Baruch HaShem, a miracle has occurred and the risk has receded because the grandchild has begun to rediscover the ways of their froom grandparents and even surpass them.

    Parents these days are often shaken up and complain about how orthodox their ba’al t’shuvah (“returner” or “reversioner”) children have become.

    But in many ways the intergenerational family dynamic has turned tense. The children are frequently rather intolerant of their parents’ laxity; the parents are frequently intolerant of the new standards their children have adopted.

    No-one can insist that others suddenly drop the way of life they think right, but surely both sides can work out a pattern of mutual tolerance, and surely the parents can make a gesture towards their child.

    I recollect the day when a parent complained to me, “My daughter is making a fuss. She insists that I should light Shabbat candles! What shall I say?”

    My answer was, “Do it, and say ‘Thank God’ that that’s what your daughter wants – to show her love of the Almighty. Think how much worse it could have been!”


    The Passover festival & the need for ritual

    April 18th, 2019

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics website on 18 April 2019.

    The festival of Passover appeals to perhaps every Jew.

    People who are never seen in synagogue ― except, perhaps, for weddings and funerals ― and who follow few if any of the regular practices of Judaism, somehow find themselves involved ― however grudgingly ― in Passover observances and even secretly enjoy them.

    Maybe it’s nostalgia, the recollection of the Passover foods, stories and songs. Maybe it’s because on Passover the family always got together and despite the occasional squabbles derived pleasure from the cross-generational company.

    It’s not the synagogue services that attracts them, but the evening home celebration known as the Seder (“order” or “procedure”).

    The deeper philosophical meaning escapes many people ― the Passover concepts of freedom of action and thought, the messianism that derives from history and feels the pull of destiny ― but the true appeal of the Seder is the comfort that comes of fitting into a ritual.

    The Seder is proof that human beings can’t live without ritual ― be it religious, sporting, professional or whatever. There is ritual at a sports match; ritual in court or in Parliament; ritual at the doctor’s or dentist’s or in hospital; ritual at a university lecture or debate; ritual, especially, in religion.

    Even in a rather secular age, and even in Australia which has been called “the most godless place on earth,” religion still has a hold, largely because of its ritual ― what some call the church’s “bells and smells.” People laugh at religious pomp and pretensions and even say that ecclesiastical robes look like the Queen of the May, but secretly they would miss the ceremonies if everything became drab and uncolourful.

    Those who oppose rituals and ceremonies, as the British rabbi and spiritual leader of the St. John’s Wood Synagogue in London, Solomon Goldman, once said, misunderstand the nature of human beings:

    If man were a completely rational being, guided and living by purely rational and moral impulses, then the (anti-ritual) argument might be valid, but man has body, senses, imagination, memory and feelings as well as reason. He is a creature of habit and associations as well as of logical motives. If a religion is to appeal to the whole of man it must satisfy his search for the picturesque and colourful, the beautiful, the stimulating, as well as the search for the true and the good.

    Defending the role of ritual in religion, Goldman went on:

    Religion is something more than an intellectual awareness of God, plus righteous living. Religion demands constant effort to get closer and closer to God, to achieve, as far as human beings can, a form of spiritual union with the divine. And religious exercises and symbols are important elements in achieving and maintaining such a sense of closeness.

    Ritual became entrenched in ancient cultures. The ceremonies featuring dead and revived gods symbolised the ebb and flow of the forces of nature and earthly history.

    There was a time when the “Myth and Ritual” scholars attempted to denigrate the religion of ancient Israel, but the Jewish biblical tradition refused to let itself be belittled and developed a pattern of rituals which gave credit to God as the Master of history and invested the biblical stories with ethical components that not only commemorated but inspired.

    Hence Passover looked at all three tenses ― the past, present and future.

    It internalised the past ― saying, “In every generation a person must regard themselves as if they themselves had been freed from bondage in Egypt.”

    It enriched the present ― saying, “It is our duty to keep the rhythm going.”

    It brought the future within grasp ― saying, “The way to bring about the future redemption is by acts of charity to the poor, love for the stranger and justice for the victim.”

    None of this is mere talk. It is ritualised. The critic might say it is play-acted. Whatever verbal judgment one uses, the fact is that these rituals clothe the ideals that create a just society. At the same time, they enhance one’s life and appeal to one’s heart.

    Back to Solomon Goldman. Speaking of Judaism, he said:

    However true it is of other religions that there must be a place in them for symbolism, it is still more true of Judaism, because Judaism is a way of life, a culture, a civilisation. It legislates not only for worship and morals, but for the whole living; and as such it must employ all the means of creating in its adherents habits, associations and disciplines of life.

    Religion without ritual would be dry and disembodied, lacking personality, colour, excitement and symbolism. Indeed, if rituals did not exist, they would need to be invented.


    What is the question?

    April 15th, 2019

    Mah Nishtanah, from the Sarajevo Haggadah, 1350

    Abraham Joshua Heschel said that our generation knows the answers but has forgotten the questions.

    With regard to Pesach we know that our ancestors were slaves in Egypt, God redeemed them and took them out across the Red Sea to become a free nation, and we celebrate these events by observing Seder night and reading the Haggadah.

    That’s the answer, but what is the question?

    The question seems to be Mah Nishtanah. But there are at least two problems with this phrase.

    Problem 1:

    What do we mean by mah? Is it “What?” – i.e. “What is different about this night?” – a question. Or is it “How!” – i.e. “How different this night is!” – an exclamation.

    If it’s a question, the four statements that follow are answers and not questions. In other words, “What is different…? The fact that we eat matzah, etc.” That means that there aren’t four questions but only one.

    On the other hand, if mah is an exclamation, the four statements in Mah Nishtanah are illustrative explanations, and therefore there are no questions at all and nobody is asking anything.

    Problem 2:

    What do we mean by nishtanah?

    Most translators render it in the present tense, “Why is this night different?” or “How different this night is!”

    But nishtanah is actually not present but past tense from the root shin-nun-heh, to change or differ. The translation therefore ought to be, “In what way did this night become different?” or “How different this night became!”

    In that case the topic of discussion is not what we thought it was, the Seder procedure.

    What we are called upon to do is not to talk about the content of the Seder but the history of the Haggadah.