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    September 20th, 2018

    There once was a game called Housey-Housey. Regardless of the way the game works, Sukkot is a “housey housey” occasion.

    It’s about the house we emerge from – and the house we enter.

    During the rest of the year we mostly reside in comfortable homes, secure from the rain and the elements.

    On Sukkot we have frail huts. If the weather is nice everything is fun. If not, the sukkah gets buffeted by the wind and rain and if necessary we have to escape and go back into the house.

    Together with all the many rules and regulations about the sukkah there is also a philosophical and ethical aspect.

    We are guilty of self-delusion if we think that everyone has a house with firm walls and a dry roof, that everyone has a life of comfort and ease. Most of the world’s population have poor homes or none at all. It’s because of them that we have the festival of Sukkot.

    The festival is called in Hebrew z’man simchatenu, “our time of joy”. Maybe the phrase is a euphemism because Sukkot makes us experience hardship and deprivation.

    After the yom-tov we can go back to our houses; but what about those who are without houses? Our task is to make sure that all human beings have the blessing of a home.

    It can’t be a time of joy for us if others are suffering.

    The two communities

    September 20th, 2018

    A Midrashic interpretation of the Four Species which we take on Sukkot says that each of the four represents a human type and only if all types and opinions are held together do we have a community.

    A nice thought but some people turn it into a slogan. They say, “That’s unity: all are equal and everyone is entitled to their own point of view – from the most orthodox to the most unorthodox”.

    That’s a misunderstanding of the Midrash. There are two types of community, as Rav Soloveitchik says – the community of faith, and the community of fate.

    In the community of faith all are believers and accept the authority of the Word of God. Those who deny these elements cannot be members of the faith community.

    In the fate community everyone is obligated to the well-being of Jewish peoplehood.

    The etrog surcharge

    September 20th, 2018

    Compared to the Diaspora, Israel sells etrogim quite cheaply. Historically, the Diaspora found acquiring etrogim one of its biggest challenges.

    In the Western Synagogue in London, from 1809 there was a sixpence in the pound (5%) surcharge on seat rentals as Etrog-money. This tax enabled congregants to possess etrogim – not one etrog per member, but four for the whole congregation.

    Each etrog cost two guineas – two pounds two shillings – a huge sum in those days.

    Anglo-Jewry found a cheaper source of supply within a few years since the town of Penzance budgeted for one guinea per etrog plus transport costs.

    Growing your own etrogim was a real challenge if the climate and the season were wrong. Very few people succeeded.

    I recall that someone in Portsmouth in England claimed to have produced the fruit in time for Sukkot. In distant Melbourne, Australia, I believe that Dr Samuel Billigheimer and Rabbi Isaac Jacob Super succeeded.

    In most countries the festival citron had to be imported. The right to deal in etrogim was a treasured monopoly; some rulers such as the Empress Maria Theresa of Bohemia taxed the Jews for the right to import lulavim and etrogim.

    In the late Second Temple era King Alexander Yannai – a Sadducee supporter – contemptuously poured the water libation on the ground and the populace pelted him with their etrogim, leading to a civil (or uncivil) war.

    Rabbi Akiva claimed to have a large etrog which he could hardly lift!

    A Jewish delegation Jews were on a ship to Rome during Sukkot and they built a sukkah on deck and though they had only one set of Four Species, each rabbi presented it to the other so that everyone could fulfil the mitzvah with their own property.

    Afflicting the soul

    September 11th, 2018

    Our fast days are either national or personal, historical or spiritual. Which category is Yom Kippur?

    It is certainly spiritual, because of its association with kippurim (atonements) and innuyyim (afflictions).

    How can it also be national and historical? Because after Israel danced round the golden calf and Moses broke the tablets of the Decalogue in anger, God gave him the Yom Kippur message, Salachti — “I forgive!”

    If we look at the afflictions of Yom Kippur, let’s ask how they make a person more spiritual.

    It’s not because we believe in hurting ourselves, for example sweltering in the heat, shivering in the cold or suffering other pain (Yoma 74b). It’s not shev v’al ta’aseh (“sit and do nothing”) and pretending to enjoy it, but kum aseh (“get up and do something”).

    The five innuyyim in Yoma 8:1 require a choice, an action or reaction.

    Affliction of the soul is loss of enjoyment. The normal rule (Psalm 100:2) is, Iv’du et HaShem b’simchah — “Serve the Lord with joy”. But on Yom Kippur bodily joy is prohibited, particularly enjoyment that comes from eating. Fasting and affliction are linked in Deut. 8:3: “He afflicted you and made you hungry” (Yoma 74b).

    There are four other innuyyim: washing, anointing, wearing leather shoes, and marital intercourse.

    Rambam says (Moreh 3:43) that they encourage repentance and self-control. Sefer HaChinuch (313, 317, 185) adds that they reduce physicality, remove barriers to prayer, and restore the pristine Creation. Samson Raphael Hirsch says they restore personal purity and social harmony.

    Shlomo Riskin thinks they make Yom Kippur a happy day.

    He seems to be right. Yoma 8 applies to the day the words, Ashrecha Yisra’el — “Happy are you, O Israel” (Deut. 33:29). One who eats on Yom Kippur says the festive Ya’aleh V’yavo. We use a happy tune for the viddui.

    It seems that we can have happiness without enjoyment.

    Rabbi Riskin links innui with la’anot, “to respond”. There is a view that lechem oni (connected with innui) in the Haggadah is not “bread of affliction” but “bread of song (literally ‘response’)” (Pes. 115b). The innuyyim are five responses or modes of spiritual celebration.

    Even without earthly enjoyments we can still feel joy at gaining a glimpse of the angelic world.

    We sing, we rejoice, we are lifted above ourselves. Like angels we have no physical needs. We echo the angelic chorus, “Holy, holy, holy” – Kadosh kadosh kadosh (Isa. 6).

    If enjoyment is usually a physical experience, we can live without it.

    I stood for Ne’ilah

    September 11th, 2018

    We all have our own High Holyday customs. I have two in particular.

    One is that only on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur do I daven with my tallit over my head.

    I know how this originated. As a synagogue rabbi I was so busy looking at the timetable and prayer-leader lists, and watching the synagogue and the congregation, that I had inadequate time for my own davening. So I closed myself off from distractions and work on my own spiritual life, and that led me to cover my head with my tallit.

    The second minhag I followed without imposing it on the congregation was standing throughout Ne’ilah (I think I should have done so throughout Yom Kippur but that’s another matter).

    Standing during a synagogue service is a commitment to correct posture in the presence of God.

    When it comes to Ne’ilah there are two challenges – to recall the ne’ilat sh’-arim – the closing of the gates of the Temple, and the closing of the gates of Heaven (Jerusalem Talmud, Ber. 4:1).

    Both remind me that I have to make a supreme effort at prayer whilst the gates are still open.