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    Pouring out the water – Ask the Rabbi

    May 27th, 2018

    Q. Why is it customary to pour out the water from vessels in a house where a person has died?

    A. There are several theories.

    A prosaic explanation is that this is an indirect way of making it known that a person has passed away. This was considered better than to spread the bad news by word of mouth.

    Some link it to an episode in the wilderness: when Miriam died her well stopped flowing.

    A person’s life is like a flowing well and death deprives the world of the person’s vitality.

    Two extremes – Naso

    May 21st, 2018


    There couldn’t be a greater contrast than that of the two extremes that are depicted in this week’s parashah.

    There is the sotah, the woman who allows herself the extreme of licence, and the nazir, the person who is so strict that no transgression could ever arise on their radar screen.

    Both types are found in the society around us – people who always go for latitude and leniency even when it is unwarranted, and people who retreat into fanaticism out of fear that they will tie the wrong shoelace. Judaism regards both as sinful.

    Maimonides, writing in his Eight Chapters on Ethics, is not a great believer in extremes and urges the sh’vil hazahav, the golden mean.

    He says that the only way a person can justifiably go to one extreme is if they have found themselves at the opposite one, and in order to correct their conduct they should move towards the other extreme and eventually settle down in the middle.

    Some people hear this today and get the wrong impression. They think that there is a strain of religious politics in the “golden mean” idea and interpret it as saying, “Don’t be too orthodox, nor too reform”.

    That’s not what Maimonides is talking about at all. He is not speaking about how observant one must be of the commandments: for him there is only one Judaism, orthodoxy (though the term had not yet been coined).

    What he is talking about is ethical attitudes and character traits and the way towards personal equilibrium.

    A personal blessing – Naso

    May 21st, 2018

    The priestly blessing – “The Lord bless you and keep you” – is a major feature of the Jewish liturgical tradition. Enunciated in this week’s sidra (Lev. 6:23-27), it is invoked on the people by the kohanim.

    Its scope has broadened and we encounter it on a range of occasions. It is customary to use the words when blessing children on Erev Shabbat, when launching a bride and groom into Jewish marriage, when wishing other people well.

    Personally, I even used it on an occasion in Australia when meeting Pope John Paul II, who was probably more used to giving blessings than receiving them. He was such a remarkable spiritual leader that I saw nothing inappropriate in invoking the hallowed words upon him.

    No translation can ever convey the exact meaning of the words (there is a saying, “A translator is a traitor”), but the generally accepted view is that we are asking three things from God – material support and protection, a generous attitude, and intellectual understanding.

    Why does the text use the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter Divine name (yod-hey-vav-hey) and not the title which we often render as “God”?

    The “God” title is understood by the rabbis as representing the Divine Judge, whereas the Name we have here symbolises the loving Lord of mercy.

    The blessing we seek from Him is personal and loving.

    The rabbi at the wedding – Ask the Rabbi

    May 21st, 2018

    Q. You are on record as saying, “I do not marry people: they marry one another”. So why have a rabbi at a wedding?

    A. The role of the officiating rabbi at a wedding ceremony is not to make the marriage but to confirm that the set procedures have been followed.

    The rabbi is often called the m’sadder kiddushin, the one who “manages” the marriage ceremony. In a technical sense he is not necessary if all the rules are obeyed and in the presence of witnesses the husband places the ring on the bride’s finger and says the Harei At declaration.

    The ring ceremony ensures that the man gives the woman an object of (minimal) value. Mishnah Kiddushin lists three means of marriage, later narrowed down to the giving of the ring.

    Early Christianity also had a concept of the couple bringing their own marriage into being. In Webster’s play The Duchess of Malfi, Antonio and the duchess merely declare themselves married even without witnesses, though in Judaism the witnesses are essential.

    The all-night Tikkun

    May 13th, 2018

    Staying up all night to study on Shavu’ot is back in fashion.

    Other religious all-nighters are also on the way back, such as long Sedarim on Pesach, when some people keep going until almost dawn, like the five rabbis in B’nei B’rak in Rabbi Akiva’s day.

    We might even see a revival of the all-nighter on Yom Kippur, when the pious used to stay in the synagogue reading T’hillim. Even the Hoshana Rabbah night-time study sessions are creeping back.

    All these occasions defy the darkness and turn Judaism into the religion that never sleeps, like God Himself whom Psalm 121 calls “The Guardian of Israel (who) neither slumbers nor sleeps”.

    The Shavu’ot night-time experience is called Tikkun Leil Shavu’ot because the kabbalists’ anthology of texts for study is called tikkun, “arrangement”, since the contents of the book are set out in a set order – an idea akin to the name Seder (“order”) for the Pesach evening celebration, or the title Siddur for the prayer book.

    The Shavu’ot evening Tikkun has excerpts from each of the 24 books of Tanach, with some passages given extensively such as the Creation, the Exodus, the Song of Moses and the Ten Commandments. There are rabbinic texts, showing that both Written and Oral Law are Divine and binding.

    The Kabbalah is represented by extracts from the Sefer Y’tzirah (Book of Creation) and the Zohar, the handbook of the Jewish mystics. Finally comes a list of the 613 commandments.

    Not every community uses the set anthology but replace or supplement it by material that highlights the concepts of the Torah and their applicability in every age. Spending the night in this way is user-friendly and gets everyone discussing.

    Kabbalistic circles have a different night-time tikkun, the Tikkun Chatzot (“Order of Midnight”) when midnight prayers recall the destruction of the Temple and yearn for the restoration of the sanctuary. The practice derives from a Talmudic passage about God lamenting the destruction.

    Another meaning of tikkun is “preparation”. Through a night spent in study (like David, who woke at midnight to pray and learn) we prepare ourselves spiritually and intellectually to renew our acceptance of the Torah.

    There is an analogy with the mikveh, a means of preparation for the union of husband and wife. This is based on Avot D’Rabbi Natan, which says Moses immersed before the Revelation when God and Israel metaphorically “married” one another.

    The Midrash states that the Israelites overslept on the summer night before the Torah was given, and had to be woken up with thunder and lightning. Later generations, ashamed that their forebears were not ready to hear the word of God, decided to stay up on Shavu’ot night to ensure that they would be awake and eager when the Holy One, Blessed be He, wanted their attention.

    There is another sense in which tikkun has become fashionable – “repair”. We speak of tikkun olam, repairing a broken world. The night of study restores the harmony that joins Israel and God, covenant partners bound to each other throughout history.

    The Shulchan Aruch does not refer to Tikkun Leil Shavu’ot, though the codifier, Joseph Karo, mystic as well as lawyer, is said to have observed the practice. A commentator to the Shulchan Aruch, the Ba’er Hetev, says that whoever studies on Shavu’ot night will merit to complete the year in good health.

    These days it is especially young people for whom the Tikkun has a fascination and appeal. It’s exciting to stay awake and mark the hours with coffee and cheesecake and then end at dawn with Shacharit. But there’s more to it than that.

    One of the most encouraging signs of the times is that young people are rediscovering their heritage. Yesh tikvah l’acharitenu – there is hope for our future, as the Biblical prophets used to say. Tikkun Leil Shavu’ot is part of the revitalisation of Judaism.

    Who would ever have imagined that Torah study would become the great Jewish growth industry? Who would ever have foreseen that Jews of every shade of opinion, even the secularists, would engage with the classical texts?