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Succas

by Joe Bobker

Four days in Autumn. That’s all there is between Yom Kippur and Succas - a back-to-back spiritual contiguity of dramatic differences: from awe-‘n-fasting to wine-‘n-feasting, a change of mood that is sudden and striking. Yet although we emerge renewed in a state of spiritual exhilaration, we must now face the hesitant reality, as the question looms large: "Where shall we go from here?"

This brilliant rabbinic vehicle, of sharp contrast and sudden disparity, is an effective tool to jolt Jewish memory away from the Book of Death and refocus on the Book of Life.

Yom Kippur's overwhelming influence, and its power to expiate sins, extends into these emotionally charged four days that correspond to the four letters of God's Ineffable Name. These four post-Yom Kippur days (when Jews are so busy preparing for Succas that they - theoretically - have no time to sin) [1] allows the Jew to time to settle back, a spiritual decompression mechanism, an "offset" for the (minimum) four days of predatory s'lichos that fall before Rosh Hashanah.

Although Jews break the ascetic Yom Kippur fast mainly by themselves, or amongst family at home, there is a sense of solidarity that lingers on: not only have we all survived a day-long experience of solemn reflection but we, still as a group, now enter another holiday together. But Succas comes as no post-Yom Kippur surprise attack: the fast day contains many distinctive reminders of spiritual flexibility; Yom Kippur's closing-of-the-gates ne'ilah imagery itself suggestive of a Festival of Joy fast approaching, including the haftora choice where the first thing Yonah ben Amittai does (after being belched out of the belly of a whale suffering from indigestion) is…build a succa! [2]

Succas, a seven-day fall harvest festival in Israel, begins on Tishrei 15th and ends nine days later with Simchat Torah, a festival that has no other mitzva other than mandating simcha [3] as soulmate, a “Rejoice before God” halachik demand that banishes all Nazirite-style moods of doom ‘n gloom. [4] But wait: is it "7" or "9" days? Actually, in the diaspora it's only eight days. [5] Confused? Don't be. In Israel only the first and eighth day are full festival days; the latter (Shemeni Atzeret) added by Ezra with the ninth day (Simchat Torah) tacked-on later in the Middle Ages; the two then being combined into one day. The third through sixth days are known as chol hamoed ("intermediary days") whilst the seventh day (Hoshana Rabba) is, technically, the end of yomtov.

Succas has no shortage of official titles: ha-Hag, "The Festival," Hag ha-Asif, "The Feast of the Gathering of the Harvest," Hag Adonai, "God's Festival" and finally, its most popular name: Z’man Simchateunu, "The Time of our Rejoicing." [6] The word 'Sukkot' appears for the first time in the Torah [7] as the name that Jacob calls the city he lives in after parting ways with his brother Esau, the first city that the patriarch establishes peacefully in the holy land since fleeing, some twenty-two years earlier, his ant-monotheistic gentile uncle (Lavan). Talmudists are intrigued that Succas is mentioned no less than three times within the Torah’s "cycle of festivals;" first in parshas Emor in its correct chronological order, then suddenly again, appearing twice, as if as an addendum. Why? Because Succas is both part of a major (that of the pilgrimage festivals) and minor cycle (the festivals of Tishrei); the former being more "jewish" (ie: Pesach and Shavuos being more particular to Israel) whilst the latter (ie: Rosh Hashanna) being more universal.

Succas thus straddles both worlds, a unique position that is reflected in the mitzvas of building a succa (which came first), and the arba minim (the Biblically-mandated “four species”) which came later when the Jews, now esconded in the holy land no longer as a "solitary nation" but as a challenge to become a light unto all nations. [8] That is why the arba minim are waved in all directions, an outward act, in the direction of the peoples of the world…and why it lies at a pivotal point in the Jewish calendar between Pesach and Rosh Hashanna, a Time tunnel where we get no respite and barely have time to catch our breath [9] as Jews hop aboard a roller-coaster of Jewish festivals, from seder to omer to Shavuos into a Three Week refuge only to emerge smack into the heavy Elul-Tishrei months where no less than twenty-four days (between Rosh Hashanna and Simchat Torah) are designated "holy" days.

No wonder I always welcomed Succas as a form of relief, a calendar alleviation, a Judaic redress of sorts, a final stop to the most busiest, longest and intensely regulated stretch of festivals in the Jewish calendar, in sharp contrast to the next six months that, with the exception of Chanukka, are calendar-free, until Purim.

The fact that the Torah immediately staples Succas to Yom Kippur is why Jews are warned not to stall, dilly dally, delay or procrastinate in building a succa the moment Yom Kippur ends. Halachists are of the opinion that this “construction” is either an integral part of the actual mitzva of dwelling in the succa, since the special blessing on building is called la'asot sukka, or that the construction is a separate mitzva in and of itself. [10] However even if one does not participate in building a succa they are not me'akev be-dieved, deprived of the mitzva of dwelling inside.

The Torah instructs Jews to take the esrog and lulav bayom harishon, on “the first day,” but fails to tell us: the “first day” of what? Our Sages answer “the first day of calculating our sins.” But didn’t we just do that? Isn’t that what those Ten Days of Awe were all about? Yes, and no. The days of z’man simchateinu are also continuing days of spiritual refreshment, a sort of spiritual ‘hang-over’ that becomes obvious on Hashanna Rabba when we reread parts of Yom Kippur’s neilah. An early Hebraic manuscript has the following order: b’Rosh Hashanah yishafeitun, (“On Rosh Hashana we are judged”), uveYom Tzom Kippur yikateivun, (“on Yom Kippur we are inscribed’), and finally uveHosha’anah Rabbah yechateimun (“on Hashana Rabba we are sealed.”)

This sudden contrast falls in the category of vegilu bir’ada vayihad, to “serve God with happiness tempered with trembling.” King David eloquently expressed this in song, “I feared in my joy, and I rejoiced in my fear,” the 19th-century philosopher Kierkegaard in philosophy, “Just as it takes moral courage to grieve, then equally, it takes religious courage to rejoice,” and Rabbi Yehuda haLevi in poetry, dividing the Torah into two emotionally diametrically opposite parts: one of fear and awe, one of love and joy, to emphasize that some mitzvas lead to God through fear, others through happiness. [11]

The sudden proximity of Yom Kippur to Succas gives us a healthy dose of both, and we waste no time jumping from one to the other. The moment the fast day ends, Jews immediately plunge into an entire week of unique activities, a week that not only contains far more mitzvas than any other Jewish festival, but one that assaults our senses, invades our smells and challenges our labor. [12] I remember how my sister and I would rush home from shul the moment Yom Kippur ended, our empty growling stomachs sending us straight to the kitchen. But not our father who, surely just as hungry, went straight to the backyard to start building a makeshift succa. Why? Because my father’s spiritual drive was more potent than the hunger drive. [13]

Jewish law not only mandates to build and decorate a temporary hut but also to spread out in search of the “fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of thick leafy trees, and willows of the brook.” [14] These are the arbah minim, held tightly together to become as one unit for the mitzva of na'anu'im (wavings), with the esrog in the left hand, and the lulav, three hadasim and two aravot, tied in a bundle, in the right. What if any one is missing? Then the whole is not acceptable.

Hadasim consists of three shiny myrtle leaves, Aravot are two sprigs of “delicate willows.” Why willows? Because the willow is associated with the river which in turn is a reminder of the life-giving quality of water. The lulav is a tall, beautiful, green and scentless palm branch that was once the national emblem of ancient Israel. Our Sages compare its straightness to Judaic righteousness. The esrog looks like, but is not, a lemon. All esrogs may be created equal but some are more halachically equal than others: a “quality” esrog is symmetrical, elongated, half-green-half-yellow, thick skinned, a bumpy surface with an indentation around the stem. The Torah's description of the esrog as a beautiful pri etz hadar [15] led our Jewish mystics to deduce it was a citron. How? Because the three Hebrew letters of hadar, which means “to dwell,” resembled the Greek word hydro, which means "water;" with the ‘dar’ within hadar meaning "permanence" (as in the English, to "endure.") So? Well, the citron happens to be the only fruit of Israel that requires constant irrigation (hydro) to ensure its growth (hadar). 

Archeological digs in Israel have revealed that even during battle (eg; Bar Kochba’s revolt), Jewish soldiers were supplied with the arbah minim; a mitzva so important that it has fueled an enormous industry as nearly two-hundred-thousand esrogim are imported from Israel into America each year, driving the cost of mitzva performance sky-high. The rabbis of pre-War Europe, highly sensitive about the financial burdens of yomtov, encouraged two esrog-lulav sets per community: one for the town rav, one for the entire kehilla (in contrast to todays custom where every family member has the need for their own esrog-lulav). The Ba’al Shem Tov, concerned  about the high price of esrogim, formed the acronym of “etrog” from the Psalmist's,  “Bring me not to the path of arrogance.” [16]

In der heim (the shtetl) the esrog was considered a symbol of birth itself. My mother would describe how Polish women, when experiencing difficult pregnancies, slept with an esrog under their pillows in the belief that its presence ameliorated child-birth pain. This folk custom is derived from the fact that an esrog grows out of, and is formed from, the pitum that, according to the rabbis of the Talmud, helps Jewish mothers conceive “fragrant” Jewish children. That is why many Jews hold on to the esrog after the end of Succas when it is no longer a halachik object. I remember in our shul how some of the children would use the esrog as a playtoy, or a throwing ball, which caused the women, Polish-Holocaust survivors all, to react with rage because they treasured the pitum as a symbol of “Life” itself.

Kabbalists loved Succas because of all its symbols, and gave the Four Species the mystic honor of representing Mankind; with the willow acting as a symbolic mouth allowing food to enter; the lulav as the Spine; the myrtle the Eyes; the esrog the Heart. Using gematria, the Gerer Rebbe, Yehuda Aryeh Leib, often reminded his chassidim that the numerical value of lulav was 68, the same as chayim, which means “life.” It was this strong association with life that Jewish weddings (the traditional vanguard to having children) traditionally had an abundance of hadassim-style leaves on the chuppa, and why fathers would give their sons a myrtle plant headgear wreath to wear at their wedding. [17]

When the arba minim are held and shaken in all directions they symbolize the collective survival of the nation of Israel; a theme of continuity that places the very air and atmosphere into a succa no matter where it is located in the world. This mystic component, one that transcends Space, is derived from an order by Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai that the lulav, which was originally only taken to Jerusalem for seven days, was to be disbursed “everywhere,” zecher le Mikdash, in memory of a destroyed Temple. It is from here that Succas, by adding the dimensions of Time, gained the reputation of being the Festival of Wandering, acting as Jewish history’s spiritual compass, a direct link (shevach) [18] between a geographic no-man’s land (the shameful Egypt of slavery and the wilderness of Pesach) to a glorious spiritual underpinning (Shavuos, symbolizing Zion as the final destination), brilliantly summarized by Rabbi Jonathan Magonet's, "Egypt to Sinai is sacred history, Sinai to Zion is sacred geography.”

The popular saying lakol z’man, “to everything there is a Season,” is literally correct with Succas, the time “when you gather in the results of your work from the field.” This helps explain why the prayer for rain dominates this yomtov, a humble admission that since the land of Israel “drinks water from the rain of the Heavens,” it is heavily dependent on Divine grace - and, by association, so are its inhabitants who are exposed to either a Godly punishment ("He will shut up the Heavens and you will have no rain") or the Mother of all Blessings ("I shall give the rain of your land in its time; the early rain and the late rain.") [19]  

Succas closed the agricultural year of an agrarian society, and celebrated the ingathering of Summer crops. It was the season to roll out the Judaic Welcome Mat for yoreh, the “first rains,” a downpour that brought a welcome bounty of luscious grapes, delicious dates, delectable plums, savory figs, scrumptious peaches, juicy apricots, full corn and tall wheat. Who could ask for anything more!? But it was no sure thing. What if the harvest had been disappointing and lean? Was the Jew still obligated to behave as if it were a joyous z’man simchateinu? Yes. In the face of frustration over insufficient crops, Jewish farmers were ordered to be sameyach with their lot; not in the sense of being “happy” but, as the rabbis of Pirkei Avos defined the word sameyach, as being  per se content, satisfied, appreciative, gratified. [20]

Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna (Gra), [21] considered the custom of greeting another Jew with a hearty chag sameach, derived from the Torah command v'samachta b’chagecha, "you shall rejoice on your festival," [22] as the most difficult mitzva in the Torah. That the Gaon had difficulty with what seems like a simple, straightforward mitzvah was not surprising to Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel…

“I could never understand this puzzling remark. Only during the war did I understand. Those Jews who, in the course of their journey to the end of hope, managed to dance on Simchat Torah, those Jews who studied Talmud while carrying stones on their back, those Jews who went on whispering "zemirot shel Shabbat" while performing hard labor, they taught us how Jews should behave in the face of adversity. For my contemporaries one generation ago, v'samachta b’chagecha was one commandment that was impossible to observe, yet they observed it.”

 The Hebrew word chag (festival) has the same root as chug, which means “a circle;” interpreted by our mystics as a reminder that no matter what the wheel of life brings, turning from tragedy to triumph, it remains the privilege of the Jew to observe the circle 'n cycle of the Jewish year; whilst cognizant of the fact that the religion of Israel is essentially a torat chayim, a "law of Life" intended to cultivate a happy frame of mind that pulsates with the joy of existence. “The Jew who does not rejoice,” wrote the super arch-rationalist 12th-century Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam), [23] “in the fulfillment of a commandment deserves to be punished.” Why? Because happiness, said the greatest Jewish philosopher ever, was the “highest form of prayer,” a conclusion he reached from the Biblical verse, “Because you did not serve your God with joy.” [24] The charismatic chassidic master, Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, would often caution his students that sadness was a clever ruse of the yetzer hora, the “evil spirit,” whilst encouraging them to keep the three Halachas of Happiness: always be cheerful, laugh a lot, tell each other jokes.

An outsider may be forgiven for concluding that the Torah loves the gaiety of feasts, good dining, happy music and leberdick dancing, evidenced today by the sumptuousness of Jewish weddings, barmitzvahs and other life-cycle events that are always marked by a meal. Why? Because Judaism encourages the act of eating together, in unity, since it sanctifies the occasion. This is why Abraham made a feast when his son was weaned; why the Jews celebrated their Egyptian exodus with a feast; and why the rabbis of Pirkei Avos criticize those who sit at a table without a d'var Torah. [25]

When Nachum Ish Gam-zu shouted, “Celebrate your festivals, O Judah” they did exactly that: top Sages gathered in homes, vineyards and fields for the sole determined purpose to “serve with gladness, come with singing." God, they warned, not only opens "the halls of Heaven to song” but stays away from the Jew “unless he is joyful.” But what if he is not? What if his circumstances are truly tragic, melancholy, bitter? Then, advises Nachum, he should respond to his plight with the gam zu l’tovah attitude: that “this too is for the good.” How about the reverse? Was it possible to get too happy? Yes. In a Talmudic tale [26] we find Mar, son of Ravina, at his son’s wedding concerned that his rabbinical guests were a wee too merry. So the father of the groom took an expensive piece of crystal and smashed it at their feet in a warning to moderate their behavior. [27]

Succas is such a substantial event that the Torah refers to it twice: “You shall celebrate the Feast of Booths for seven days [and] you shall live in booths for seven days.” Why? Because the Heavens wanted to stress a point: that “future generations know that I [God] made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.” [28] But if the intent is to pay homage to the Exodus why is Succas held in Tishrei, a full seven months after the Jews left Egypt? Wouldn't it be more honest (chronologically) to hold it in Nisan, the first month after the Exodus? The answer has to do with Mother Nature. Nisan falls in the post-Winter season and the beginning of Spring (March-April), a natural time for Jews to want to be outdoors. However, when Jews leave their homes at the dawn of the Fall season and go out to a succa in Tishrei (September-October), then this is a great and admirable act of abeyance to Torah, rather than to Mother Nature.

Succas was not just the final of the three pilgrimage festivals but was, by far, the most important of them all, even transcendentally so. According to legend, when the Messiah arrives all the nations of the world will ascend to Jerusalem at Succas time. [29] Its import is emphasized by a halacha that states if a Jewish farmer can only go to Jerusalem once a year, he was obligated to go on Succas when more sacrifices (seventy) took place at the Temple than during any other Jewish festival. Why seventy? Because this number equaled the seventy nations in the world, thus symbolizing the unity of mankind.

While the glory of Rome and the grandeur of Athens were being sung by poets, our Hebrew Prophets were praising the magnetic draw of a holy Jerusalem. And nothing seems to have changed over 3,000 years: consider the similarities between a Succas of yesteryear, as described in Sefer Nehemiah, to scenes we see in Israel today: “So the people went forth...and made themselves booths, every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the House of God...and there was great gladness.”

In several colorful places, the Talmud vividly describes the tumult of those colossal Succas pilgrimages to Jerusalem. [30]   The rich Jews arrived on chariots, the poor on donkeys and camels. Those that had neither, walked. You could tell who the rich Jews were: the poor carried their own lulavim, the rich Jews tied their branches together with golden ribbons. Hillel, the greatest of the Sages of the Second Temple, walked all the way from Babylon [31] because he believed that the Torah favored foot pilgrimages. The other Babylonian Jews started their two-week trek from the cities of Nahardea and Nisibis in huge shared caravans. Those that couldn’t make it sent along a head tax for the Temple. Muggers and road robbers were such a problem that rabbis in the Mishna debate the status of a diaspora Jews’ stolen head tax. The Roman government was even forced to provide protection for the visiting Jewish “tourists” whilst the historian Josephus relates how Zamaris, one brave Babylonian Jew, warded off attacks from thieves. [32]

Once safely inside the city walls of Jerusalem, the happy Jewish masses mingled in the merrymaking atmosphere of V’samachta b’chagecha; a satisfied fulfillment, the year’s simcha par exellance. And why not? Yom Kippur was over, and Jewish life went on in an amazing array of pilgrim parades, clowns and jovial Torah scholars (“men of piety and good works”) all rocking ‘n rolling as jugglers juggled burning torches, eggs and knives…all to a background sound of flutes, harps and lyres played by an elegant Levite Band. The ecstatic dances were a sight to see: chassidim ve'anshei maaseh, “pious Jews” (who had lived an entire life free of sin) pranced side-by-side with baalei teshuva, Jews who had sinned in their past and were now “returning.” The first group would sing, “Happy are our youthful years that have not embar­rassed our older years," as the latter joined in, "Happy are our older years which have atoned for our younger years." Rav Yitzchak Hutner elaborated that this joint experience of total joy derived from a commonality of purpose and a desire of unity to show that neither group could say their joy was greater. [33]

Every day before dawn, except on Shabbas, the priests would assemble at the Nicanor Gate and blow trumpets to herald in a spectacular water-drawing ceremony known as simchat bet hasho-evah, "the Rejoicing of the Bet ha-Sho’evah," which consisted of other priests pouring water from Jerusalem's sweet springs of Siloam over the altar under the watchful eyes of thousands of Jews. The crowds were so large and boisterous that a gallery was erected in the "Court of the Women" (ezrat nashim) out of fear that the overflow of men into the women's section would lead to levity and immorality. It is from here we learn that Judaism frowns on mixed seating in shul ("It was enacted that the women should sit above and the men below") although it was already customary that men and women should pray separately. How do we know? Because when the Jews crossed the Red Sea Moses and the men, and Miriam and the women, sang their songs of thanksgiving separately, [34] a practice that J.B. Soloveitchik (the Rav) was to describe as "the Jewish spirit of prayer." [35]

On the first Autumn night of hol ha’moed Succas, wicks were made out of the priest’s old clothes for the purpose of lighting up gigantic candelabras. As the crowd rollicked and frolicked towards the Temple, no Jew dared stay indoors, none dared not participate. These festivities were the annual epitome of ye-old-worlde-Judaic-Charm; a Judaic Disneyworld with theologic undertones. Remember: the cause of happiness was also related to something more immediate, more pragmatic. The harvest of farming had just ended, and the seeds that fed families had been planted; soon the crops would grow and hungry Jewish children fed.

Our Sages designated Succas not as “a” time of, but as “the” time of rejoicing. Is there a difference? Yes, a crucial one. It is easy to forget, in the midst of all the hustle ‘n bustle, that there are only three Torah-mandated mitzvahs for Succas: to “dwell” in a sukka (l’yeshev b'sukka), to gather the four species, and to “be happy.” The latter command is mentioned no less than three times! It explains why the Talmud calls Jews who fast on Succas “sinners,” why King Solomon chose this time to dedicate the Temple in Jerusalem, and why the most popular greeting is the simple Hag Sameach, have a “Happy Holiday.” Our Sages were so concerned that no Jew miss out on this “joy” that they even prescribed that parents bring their infant children into the succa as “soon as they no longer need their mother” (defined as the time a child can wake up at night and not cry for a parent). Why? Because “a man’s joy is greatest,” observed Rav Shlomo Ephraim Lunschitz (Kli Yakar), [36] when his family is with him in his own home. [37]

The Talmud’s determined dogma of unadulterated “gladness, joy and simcha” has created a fascinating custom; a rare exception to halacha. The mitzva to live, eat and sleep in a succa is subordinated to ones level of comfort; despite a well-established Torah precept that discomfort or annoyance are invalid reasons to avoid a command. The ruling comes from Raba: “Dwell, but don’t suffer for it” (mitzta’er patur min hasukka), [38] a prime example of the rabbinic concept of a ptur, a situation that exempts one from the obligation to do a mitzva. This spiritual loophole is unique, unheard of in a Sinai law in which there is no other positive commandment (except life-and-death circumstances) that a Jew can unilaterally forgo, solely on his own definition of convenience. Consider: poverty does not excuse one from keeping kashrut; hunger pains do not excuse one from not fasting; nor does the loss of income exempt one from keeping Shabbas. Yet on Succas, if it’s wet, we can eat inside. Cold? Sleep inside. Windy? Stay indoors.

I recall how every year our little humble succa went up during the pre-Winter months which meant (in down-under-Sydney) that it always rained on our parade. No matter. My father said that the mitzva to eat a achilat keva, a "substantial meal," in a succa applied to a minimum of two meals. So after making kiddush over wine we all quickly made a hamotzi over bread, sipped some soup and then the whole family, drenched by now, would run indoors to finish the main meal. We did this at least twice over the yomtov, to be yotzer (in fulfillment). Even if it stopped raining we were no longer obligated to go back out to the Succa. Why? Because whilst singing-in-the-rain may have been acceptable to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, eating-in-the-rain, a hardship, was unacceptable to God. In fact, making a blessing over food in the rain was, according to the Shulchan Aruch, a bracha l’vatalah, a “wasted blessing, one said in vain.” The text even attaches the label of “ignoramus” to any Jew who purposefully eats in the rain.

In other words: discomfort and Succas was an oxymoronic juxtaposition, a contradiction in terms! That is why J.B. Soloveitchik, master talmudic scholar, taught that these days should be experienced rather than observed; an observation he linked to the fact that the command “to dwell” was one of only four mitzvas in the entire Torah that allowed one to physically “enter” the mitzva itself. The other three? Immersion in the mikva, crossing the borders, entering eretz Yisroel.

The Hebrew plural term for booths is succot and the word  “tabernacles,” to describe “booths,” is first found in the 7th-century English King James Bible. Yet despite dozens of Talmudic attempts, no one knows for sure what these “booths” looked like, nor their significance, leaving them shrouded in ambiguity. Other commentators, including Rabbi Akiva, claim that “huts” meant just that, goatskin covered huts wrapped around flimsy and fragile poles, in which Jewish harvesters resided during their crop gatherings. Other important Torah personalities (Isaiah, Rabbi Eliezer, Rashi, Ibn Ezra) see the sukkots not as “physical” structures but metaphysical, like ananai haKavod, “clouds of glory” humbly enveloping the Jewish people, protecting them from the elements; one cloud acting as a carpet (to protect the feet), another as a shadow (to protect the heads), four more as walls (to protect the body politik) all complemented by a main navigationary cloud that led them through an uninhabitable desert. These clouds were disciplined, they theorize, stopping ‘n starting on God’s commands, al pi haShem yakhanu ve-al pi haShem yisa’u, rebelling only occasionally at Tav’era, Masa and at Kivrot-hata’ave. [39]

But all scholars agree: the Jews “dwelled” (dirat arai) in structures that were portable, temporary, exposed. Permanent yet stationary, strong yet vulnerable. What is the significance of such an inherently "impermanent dwelling?” The reflection of the temporary nature of life on earth. This is why, on the eve of the second day of Succas, the Hebrew prophets chose the poetic imagery of a booth to describe the tragic sight of a collapsed Temple (“Thy Tabernacle which has fallen down/Rebuild, O Lord, and raise it once again”), a poignant irony since both the First and Second Temples were dedicated on Succas. Even the fallen Kingdom of David is described as a “fallen succa,” evoking an imagery of the Shechinah hovering “over” the Jews like a Heavenly schach. [40]

 It matters not whether rabbinic commentators agree or disagree on whether the succa symbolized only Divine protective clouds or actual physical makeshift booths. One should not make a casus belli of the differences. Why? Because there is a concept in Talmud that when our Sages dissent on homiletical interpretations of Scripture, we can assume that both views are correct. What is more intriguing is that the dual Succas themes (temporary dwellings, permanent wanderings) seem to be an accurate snapshot of Jewish history, the “clouds” that led the way for the Children of Israel being symbolic of the risks that countless Jews have taken in every century to reach Israel since it was first promised as an inheritance to the Hebrews.

Many made the perilous journey only to be met by desolation and poverty, yet they never despaired. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that "Sukka teaches you trust in God. Whether you are richly or poorly endowed…whether living in huts or in palaces, it is only as pilgrims that we dwell for both huts and palaces are only dirat 'arai [a temporary dwelling], from our transitory home." [41] The Divine protectiveness that Succas represents, though invisible to the naked eye, has bound Jews from one century to Jews of another. This faith in a Godly guardianship has manifested itself in a long line of Jews who threw caution to the wind and, just like that desert generation, made aliyah. As Reb Nachman would say, "Wherever I am going, I am going to Eretz Yisrael." [42]

Is there one word that epitomizes Succas? Yes. Hospitality.

When Abraham made God wait as he offered food and water to three strangers, our Sages concluded that the patriarch’s astonishing chutzpah was proof that hospitality took precedence even over God's presence. [43] Ever since the 6th century, when the first Diaspora began as Jews were gratuitously being shipped to Babylon, the hospitality of a fellow traveling Jew has been extraordinary. In each Jewish community, the messenger, visitor or guest occupied a place of honor. In our shul, no Shabbas could go by when I wasn’t sent to greet some new face to inquire where he was from and whether he had a place to stay or eat. At times when I hesitated my father opened the Pirkei Avos and showed me the words of Shamai, that one must “greet every man with a pleasant expression.” Not only would the visitor always get an honored aliyah, and be called up to the Torah, but congregants in our little shtibl would argue amongst themselves over the honor of taking a visitor home for a meal. That is why it is a custom to go around and drop in on the neighborhood succa's: to simulate the act of being “guests” for other families.

Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, chassidic teacher and preacher, once observed that “whoever has a place anywhere, has a place everywhere.” If Pesach represented the act of liberation, Succas symbolized the actual highway to freedom, along which the Jew was not to travel alone, but to invite others to join. Each succa was thus equipped with a hospitality reminder composed by the mystical 16th-century Kabbalists of Safed, an artsy colorful poster, known as the ushpizim, and usually tacked to the flimsy walls, containing an Aramaic liturgy intended to serve as a daily reminder to invite certain Jewish heroes of the past. Who are these invisible ushpizim guests “who see but are not seen?” Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David. It is a Sephardic custom to prepare a special fancy chair, covered with the finest upholstery especially for them. Obviously, the actual physical presence of these seven ancestral Biblical heroes is impossible, so Jews are ordered to do the next best thing - substitute them with fellow Jews. But not just any fellow Jew. The mitzvah of hospitality demands that we search for the “maid and manservant, stranger, orphan and widow:” in other words, for the needy Jew, the Jew with no succa, the Jew with no family of his own. 

But why these particular seven Jews? Do they have something in common with Succas, or with each other? The common thread among these Magnificent Seven was that just like the drifting Israelites in the desert, or the latter wandering Jews in exile, these seven were all nomadic Jews, on-the-go. Abraham left home; Isaac wandered in Canaan; Jacob fled to Lavan; Joseph was exiled; Moses ran from Egypt; Aaron wandered forty years in a desert; and David ran from Saul. These restless seven Jewish heroes belong in our succas because they are already accustomed to finding solace in fragile, non-permanent places. Their fleeting lives are an analogy of the succa: it may not be well built nor physically stable, but neither is the Jew nor the unredeemed world he lives in.

Rav Isaac Arama, a medieval master of Jewish homiletics, forged many connections between Succas and the spiritual lessons of Rosh Hashana-Yom Kippur; and saw in the humble succa, indicative of a dirat arayi, a "temporary home," a moral of inestimable value of life itself. That the festival spanned seven days was significant, in that the Psalmist had allocated seven decades to ones normal span of life (yamei shnoteinu bahem shivim shana veim begvurot shemonim shana), and any prolonged stay in the succa (the eighth day, Shemini Atzeret) was considered symbolic of exceeding the limits of life itself. This characteristic feature, of the succa as the fleeting image of life, was intended to elevate and purify (davar sh'eino mekabel tuma'h) the occupant's awareness of a Heavenly canopy (tachat kippat  haShamayim), in and outside of the succa. And it is here that the laws of the roof and wall dominate: the confines must not be too high (lema'ala me'esrim ama pesula), and the cover (schach) must be compacted so that  the shade exceeds the light (tzilata meruba mechmata). These halachik demands suggest that the great mysteries of life and God's Ways can only be glimpsed occasionally.

That is why the festival of Succas is such an adventure. One need just sit there, and look up at the schach, the see-through roof made of tree branches and imagine a Back-to-the-Future escapade of Jewish history. This 'roof' is by far the single most important halachik component; in fact, a succa that casts less shade than sun is invalid. It is no coincidence that both words schach and succah are derived from the same Hebrew root, meaning “to weave together, cover with branches, to form shade.” The Mishnah uses a variation of this term to describe overhanging branches of trees whilst the Aramaic term for succa, metalalta, from the root tll, also means “shade.” Rashi, the brilliant 11th century French commentator, agrees: “It is called succa because of the shade it provides from the heat,” as does the Zohar that describes sitting in the succa yeshiva betzila demehimnuta, “sitting in the shade of faith.” As a floating roof, the schach thus symbolizes a Heavenly “shade” that not only sheltered the Jews during their forty-year sojourn to the holy land, but also sheltered thousands of other Jews down the centuries who acted out their dream of reaching Zion. [44]

Ironically when the Jews traveled in the desert they were, courtesy of the “succa clouds,” the safest they had ever been, despite the fact that the open wilderness offered no natural protection. This raises the obvious question: isn’t Succas a more appropriate “reminder” festival than Pesach?

I remember asking my father this question when I was about 7 or 8 years old. It was seder night and it was my turn to ask the traditional Ma Nishtana questions. Instead, I suggested that any question that begins with “Why is this night different from all other nights?” would be more apropos on Succas. Surely eating outside in an uncomfortable, exposed, crowded, makeshift booth was what made Succas, not Pesach, “different” from all other nights!? Warming up to my question, I pointed to the matza and said that other than the matza I could see no real difference between the seder tisch and a regular Succas meal, or for that matter, an ordinary Shabbas dinner.

My father, Reb Yehezkiel ben Arye z”tl, a pious Holocaust survivor and refugee from Poland who had been imprisoned in Siberia after losing the majority of his immediate family, turned to me, his only son and softly explained:

“The sight of a Jew dwelling in an uncomfortable, exposed and temporary locale was not new, nor extraordinary. What was new, extraordinary and ‘different from all other nights was the sight of a Jew, bathing in his freedom tzila dimheimnusa, in the ‘dwelling in quiet and safety,’ [45] reclining in comfort on a pillow, sitting safely amidst a warm, contented family environment.”  

From that moment on, I learnt to appreciate the underlying beauty of Pesach - a lesson that only Succas could have taught me.


Hoshanna Rabba

True or false? The entire Jewish calendar was rearranged to accommodate one custom dating back to the last of the Hebrew prophets. True. Which one? Willow-bashing. Willow-bashing!? Yes, a rather astounding fact considering that this aravos minhag is nowhere to be found in the Torah, and that our Sages couldn’t even agree on Hoshanna Rabba’s exact origin. [46]    

However, there was absolute rabbinic consensus on one fact: that this festival, the most awesome holy day of the entire Succas festivities, must always fall on a weekday. Imagine: Our rabbis could live with Yom Kippur falling on a Shabbas but wouldn’t allow Shabbas to fall on a Hoshanna Rabba. The problem started in the 4th century when the rabbinic hierarchy issued a halachik proclamation called chibut aravos, that the beating of willow branches was forbidden on Shabbas. Fair enough. But no-one listened. The Jews, unwilling to give up this custom, persisted and continued to beat sprigs of willows immediately after the morning verse kol mevasseir ve-omeir, even at the serious risk of being called a mechalel Shabbas, a “breaker of the holy Sabbath.”

For the Jews of the Second Temple era, breaking the Shabbas on purpose was no small feat. Yet those Jews wanted to beat, and beat they did. By thrashing and whipping the aravah bundle into submission Hashana Rabba thus became the only Jewish festival that seemingly allowed the desecration of an object designated to be used to do a mitzva! [47]

What was it about willow bashing that made it so significant?

There is simply no original Torah explanation for it, and, unlike the lulav, there is no need to make a blessing over the aravah. Why? Because this custom is based on rabbinic rather than Biblical law and the rule-of-thumb is that no blessings are recited over "a custom." [48] It is from rabbinic analogy that we get an understanding of this ritual. Our Sages compared each of the four specie to a different kind of Jew: the fragrant esrog possessed taste and an ethereal aroma (a symbol of the learned, God-fearing Jew); the straight lulav possessed only taste (a symbol of the learned, but non God-fearing Jew); the humble hadas possessed aroma but no taste (symbolizing the God-fearing, but unlearned Jew); whilst the aravah (which also means “wilderness”) suffers, having neither taste nor fragrance. As such they were positioned around the Temple altar with their tips directed towards the top, a metaphorical search for their missing qualities, and a symbol of the Jew who feared not God (ie: those out-of-step with the community), [49] and thus symbolically “punished” by being “beaten” into the ground.

Doesn’t this seem rather harsh, and overly acrimonious? Especially in light of the Torah’s own admission, that “no community is wholly rich or wholly poor?” Yes. But our rabbis are emphasizing, again, one of the most important features of Judaism: unity. [50] Since the "aravah Jew" was tantamount to a weakening of the whole, it received a symbolic superficial beating.

The moment Kabbalists linked the willow with human “lips” they saw the token “lip beating” as recognition that Hoshanna Rabbah, being the fifty first day of repentance (the gematria of the “na” in Hoshanna is 51), represented the final exhaustion all of the prayers and vows that had clothed the Jew since the first day of Elul. Since it was the “last chance” to “jump aboard” the Train of Tshuva the festival also became known as the "Day of the Great Seal,” referring to the Seal of Life granted by God [51] and traced back to His pledge to Abraham, “I will give your children one day for atonement…if Yom Kippur does not, then let Hoshanna Rabba.”

Hoshanna Rabbah has two interrelated halachahs; one still "active," the other not. The former involves circlement. The Jews who came to Jerusalem for Succas would go down to the Motza Valley [52] and search for huge willow branches (arvei nahal) whose leaves were “elongated, with a red stem and a smooth edge.” Jewish law demanded that these twigs come from a brook of running water. Why? In order to be mehudar, which means fresh or damp. Some Jews (eg; Rabbi Moshe Isserles) [53] would gather willows daily to make sure they were freshly moist. [54] In our home, we wrap the willow branches in aluminum foil, or wet towels, and store them in the fridge until needed to ensure that the leaves do not fall off from a lack of dampness. [55]

These aravah branches would then be taken back to the Temple courtyard and placed vertically around the altar’s yesod, “base.” As the trumpets sounded in the background, masses of lulav-waving Jews would then circle the altar on each Succas day (except Shabbas), opening their routes in rousing unison by crying out “hosha na." On the seventh day the encirclement was done seven times, accompanied by the piercing Hoshanna Rabbah plea, “Please God, bring salvation now!” [56]

The concept of seeking redemption by raising ones voice in prayer is derived from a Torah verse, “The maiden cried out and no one came to rescue her.” After the destruction of the Second Temple this "custom of the prophets,” having been broadened by Chaggai, Zechariah and Malachi, took place wherever Jews assembled on Hoshanna Rabbah, an expression that literally means The Great Hosanna, or numerous hosannas. The word hosanna means “Save Us!” From what? From hunger and starvation, which is why the wet brook was the preferred spot from which to gather the aravah twigs, a reminder to pray for the waters, which, according to Jewish tradition, are subjected to Divine judgment on this day; rain being one of three areas over which mankind has absolutely no control (the other two are birth and resurrection). [57] That is why two of the hoshanah's (the 5th and 6th) are ecological; vivid proof that our rabbis were concerned about their surroundings long before todays environmentalists became infatuated with endangered species.

Several thousand years later this custom still exists. Today, on Hoshanna Rabba, all the Torah scrolls are removed from synagogues and everybody participates in a circuitous seven-route custom, similar to the procession on Simchat Torah except this is far more serious, and in contrast to the single procession during the first six days of Succas when only one sefer Torah is held at the bima, the symbolic "altar.” The second halacha, inactive and dormant today, was the pouring of water (a sign of rain) over, or near, the Holy Ark itself, a human reaffirmation that rain and dew were not only just Heavenly blessings and rewards but that their absence was a brutal sign of Heaven's retribution. That is why, starting immediately after Shemini Azeres until the start of Pesach, when Israel's rainy season ends, Jews say a daily Elezar Kalir-penned prayer for tal (“dew") called tefillas Geshem; or as those lovable yiddishists put it: "Only a fool grows without rain.”

These twin-commands (to beat damp willows and pour water) were symbolic of the desire that the Heavens bless the Children of Israel with an abundant productive crop in the forthcoming year. The Hebrew prophets saw a link between the root in chibut aravos, "beating the willow," and yachbot Hashem, "God striking down all those who refuse to recognize Him." My father would tell me, in yiddish of course, to listen closely to the rhythmic willow movements; that their noise was a subtle reminder to Heaven, intended to simulate the sounds of wind and rain. Remember: in those days Jews were farmers, tillers and ploughers with a daily all-encompassing activity of seeding 'n sowing, nurturing 'n harvesting. They knew: a fertile earth equaled growth, growth equaled sustenance, sustenance equaled life....and the Jew was ordered to “Choose Life!” [58]

Since “all the toil of man goes to feed his mouth" [59] our Sages, in anticipation of a successful life-saving harvest, declared this time of the year to be a z'man simchaseinu, “the Season of Rejoicing.” Throwing the willows in the direction at the Ark itself was recognition that the power to cultivate Life lay not just in the fertility of willow branches, but in God’s benevolence, altruism, loving kindness. But why throw at the Ark? Because the Ark was as close as one could be to where the Shekhina, God's presence, lay. [60] When I was a child, I looked forward with mischievous glee to the beating of the willow branches, and throwing them at the sacred aron kodesh, the holiest symbol in shul. My father, probably having experienced similar childish thoughts in his own youth, went to great efforts to teach me the "right way" to be roguish about this custom. I was advised not to beat the willows against the walls nor the shtenders (“lecterns.”) Why? Because food comes from the ground, not walls or furniture. After sneaking an "illegal" blow or two I and my friends then did it correctly: beating against the natural ground, supposedly only five times but we were having so much fun that we would beat and beat and beat until either there were no leaves left, or some impatient adult would beat us over our heads with his own branches ordering us to stop already! As Koheles said: all good things must end someday.

By the 14th-century, the Kabbalists of the Middle Ages had turned Hoshanna Rabba into a mini-Yom Kippur, a transformation in both tone and color that has always been stronger amongst the Spanish-Portuguese Sephardic Jews than amongst Polish-German Ashkenazic Jews. The customary yomtov greeting became pikta tava, which technically means “a good note,” but is Hebraic shorthand for “have a good Writ of Judgment.” They then inaugurated an all-night Shavuos-style learning session over a special sefer (Tikkun Leil Hoshana Rabbah) in order to ensure that the reading of Deuteronomy was completed prior to Simchat Torah; and in honor of King David, the ushpizin of the day, who traditionally stayed awake every night singing the praises of God. [61] The learning was only interrupted when their wives or daughters arrived at dawn with bundles of fresh moist willow branches.

But not all rabbis were pleased by the festival’s sudden kabbalistic turn of events.

Rabbi Yosef Karo, of Shulchan Aruch fame, was alarmed at many of the mystical, and inappropriate solemn components that were infiltrating Hoshanna Rabba, including yeshivas who covered their walls with especially-stored old parochet as a backdrop to talks about the agonies of Jewish history, and Jewish women who served carrots after morning services in the shape of rings, a mystical sign for wealth. Yet try as he may, Rav Karo failed to slow down the day's transition into a secondary Yom Kippur. Hoshanna Rabbah has thus preserved its penitential undertones with a sober morning service, a chazan clothed in a white kitel, and Yom-Kippurish soul-piercing prayers (un'taneh tokef, avinu malkenu, etc).  

It was inevitable: soon the custom of beating willow branches took on a new meaning: a symbol of the casting away of vices, transgressions, sins. It was now not only associated with the saving of physical life, but spiritual life as well, making the rabbis’ attempt to stop the public desecration of Shabbas even more difficult. "What can I do?,” moaned Spanish Rabbi Solomon ben Aderet (Rashba), [62] “I must bow my head to the custom of Israel," himself bowing to the concept that advises, “Go out and see vos es zogt dos folk (what the custom of the people is) and rule accordingly!” There are dozens of habits, attitudes, and practices (eg; mourning, divorce customs) that appear nowhere in the written Torah except as pre-existing practices. This is what makes the Talmud unique from all other systems of jurisprudence; the recognition that “every river takes a different course.” Most of our Sages accepted the principle known as minhag mevattel halachah, "cus­tom nullifies the law," but not all. Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel (the Rosh) [63] frowned on this easy-come, easy-go, “When-in-Rome-do-as-the-Romans-do” philosophy, and only allowed customs that strengthened Jewish jurisprudence. However it is generally accepted that respected Torah leaders can change laws - but only temporarily and only for their own community - despite a Torah decree that one must not add nor subtract from the commandments. [64]

These are called either takkanot ("improvements") introduced to promote observance of the law, or g'zerot (from the Hebrew root "to cut"), designed to protect the law from infringement. Reform Jews refer to these as "reforms" but they are not because of the sheer halachik weight of the individual behind them, whose authority is derived from a Deuteronomic verse which empowers "the judge in those days" to declare the law. [65] Obviously the "judge" has to believe in, and obey the law, before assuming responsibility for any new takkanot-g'zerot.

But it is a myth that Jews have blindly followed their rabbis throughout Jewish history. In fact, many of today’s customs (aravas, tashlich) exist despite rabbinical wishes. In pre-War Eastern Europe, especially in the shtetl, cynicism against rabbis ran high and the local rabbi often found himself the subject of witty yiddishisms (“Because a goat has a beard that doesn’t make him a rabbi”), harsh rabbinic definitions (“A rabbi whom people don’t want to force out of town isn’t a rabbi, and a rabbi whom the community drives out of town isn’t a man”), [66] and the brut of rabbinic jokes ("My d'var Torah last night was a smash hit," bragged the notoriously egocentric rabbi, "I had my congregants glued in their seats." "Wonderful," whispered the older rav, "Clever of you to think of it.")

 Our Sages took “custom” so seriously that, in a startling and seemingly bizarre instruction, Jews are commanded [67] that, in times of persecu­tion, they must die rather than transgress a custom as innocuous as wearing a spe­cific color of shoelace. The French Tosafists explain the reasoning: one of the signs of mourning for the Temple was wearing black shoelaces, which made the Romans, determined that Jews forget the Temple's destruction, order them to wear laces of other colors. Yes, our rabbis said, black laces were “only” a custom but a cus­tom that represented something immutable - the dream of a return to Zion. Had they given in on this “custom” it could have made the battle against secular Romanism much more difficult.

But in the case of Hashanna Rabba and its branch-beating custom, the will of the people clashed with the Shabbas itself, thus conflicting with a direct and unambiguous Torah command; in fact Judaism’s most fundamental doctrine. And here the rabbis drew the line: Custom may be law, but they were not going to allow willow bashing (whose main associations were symbolic and created by the people themselves) to radically subvert Torah law. Nor were they going to tinker with the holy Shabbas. So they attacked the problem covertly. How?

They changed the calendar.      

By rearranging the first day of Tishrei (in order not to coincide with a Sunday), Shabbas and Hoshanna Rabba were kept not only literally but theologically apart. But tampering with the month of Tishrei, already the most crowded of all Jewish months, was also serious theologic business: so why didn’t the rabbis just shift the scheduled time of the willow-beating custom away from Shabbas? Because if there was one thing more sensitive than meddling with the Jewish calendar, it was messing with Mother Nature herself.

The rabbis, and more importantly, the Jewish community itself, firmly believed that Hoshanna Rabba was their final chance to do two things: “beating”- as a symbol of hope that all evil and sin would be beaten into the dust of the ground [68] - and gathering food produce before the arrival of another menacing winter.

Yep. It was better to change the calendar!

Since none of us in the westernized 21st century personally knows anyone who starved to death through famine 'n drought, it is difficult to fully appreciate the heartbreaking prayers our forefathers once said for rain, a necessary component to staying alive. (Judaica collectors are more aware, because some of the earliest discovered liturgies are Jewish prayers for rain.) Water represented Life itself, and “staying alive” was even more important than the coming of the Messiah; as expounded by the great Yohanan ben-Zakkai who ordered Jews to keep the Messiah waiting and “plant the sapling” first. This ambiguous attitude towards the coming of the Messiah weaves itself through Jewish history and rabbinic writings (“Grass will be growing through your dead jaws before the son of David appears.”) That is why, at the death of Moses, God uses poetic lyrics that flourish not with the language of Torah and law but with several magnificent metaphors of water: "May My discourse come down as the rain, My speech distill as the dew." According to a Midrash a miraculous well accompanied the Jews in the desert in honor of Miriam, Moses’ sister. When she died the well dried up “and the congregation did not have water." [69]

Our rabbis were sensitive to the fact that the welfare of the body always took halachik precedence over the welfare of the soul. Jews never took for granted the things that sustained physical welfare - neither food, nor God who helped create it, nor the land which nurtured it, nor the rain that preserved it. Guided by the motto Waste not, Want not!, it was forbidden to treat food with scorn. “When you have eaten and are full,” orders an adamant Torah, “you shall bless God for the good land which He has given you." [70] That is why Nachman of Bratslav compared the Jew who dared chop down a fruit tree to a murderer; why Jews were forbidden to live in an area that didn’t have a green garden; and why Jews were warned, “where there is no flour, there is no Torah.” Not because flour was more important, but because a lack of flour led to starvation and loss of life, a disaster worse than the loss of Torah.

This is why all Jewish families are overtly food-­oriented, and practice an indispensable “culinary Judaism” (nosh in yiddish), especially on Shabbas and Jewish festivals. "Tell me what you eat; I will tell you what you are," mused the 18th-century French philosopher Brillat-Savarin (La Physiologie du gout) because we reveal ourselves in what, how, and when we eat - and with whom. [71] This is why, despite rumors to the contrary, all Jewish food laws (kashrus) are about identity, not hygiene. Rabbi Ronald Lubofsky, in his essay Mooduco Ergo Sum: I Eat Therefore I Am, sadly noted “that there are more Jewish homes with a Jewish cookbook, than there are with a Tanach." [72]

As Hoshanna Rabba winds down Succas, it brings an end to our season of joy, to be followed one day later by Simchat Torah, the celebration of the giving of the Torah. We visit the sukka for the last time and say, “may we merit to dwell in the sukka next year made of Leviathan,” a reference to a mystical enormous godzilla-like sea beast who, according to the aggadah, was created on the fifth day and is the ultimate ruler of all the creatures in the oceans, unconquerable by man but finally to be vanquished by God Himself who then gathers all the righteous into a sukka made out of the legendary monster's body. [73]

It is simply who God kills at the end of days. Don’t wait for the movie version. Read the book first.


Shemini Atzeres

Shemini Atzeres creeps up on us in such a low-profile and modest manner that, in comparison, say, to the riches of Pesach, Rosh Hashanna and Succas, it is "practi­cally a pauper.” This is surprising because Shemini Atzeres is found in the Torah itself; not once but twice. [74]

The moment Jews were told that “on the eighth day [of Sukkat] you shall hold a mikrah kodesh (a solemn gathering [atzeret],” [75] the debate started: is Shemini Atzeret the official ending of Succas, like an encore, or a standing ovation, or is it a Regel b'fnei atzmo, a free-standing and independent Jewish festival? The latter is the rabbinic verdict; [76] despite the fact that, with the exception of a prayer for rain, there are absolutely no special Shemini Atzeret customs.

The Mashgiach of Mir, Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz, saw the essence of Shemini Atzeret as a time to demonstrate, after seven days of "closeness" to God, how difficult it is to leave His presence." But why, asks one astute Midrash, is it necessary to elongate Succas into eight days in the first place? [77] After a reminder that circumcision takes place on the eighth day (a day of "pause," allowing Jews to recommit to God's Covenant), our rabbis give us a glimpse into God's original intention; to give Israel one holiday every month of the year. When this Divine gift was sabotaged by the golden calf incident, God took away the post-Shavuos festivals (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Succas) from the next three months (Tammuz, Av, Elul) and instead inserted the "postponed" yomtovim in the month of Tishrei as an adjunct to Tishrei's designated festival, Shemini Atzeret.

A clue to this day's significance is via the word atzeret, derived from the Hebrew root, “to hold back.” In this festival context, it means “closure,” which is why Shemini hag ha-Atzeret is translated as the “Eighth Day of Completion.” Jewish mystics were immediately attracted to the similarity with Shavuos, which was also called atzeret, leading one Midrash to claim that Shemini Atzeret was once held fifty days after the end of Succas; akin to Shavuos being the ‘closure’ of Pesach fifty days later. There are several striking parallelisms: both Shemini Atzeret and Shavuos originally entered the Jewish calendar as one-day festivities, whilst Pesach and Succas were each seven-day holidays that just happened to close with certain yomtovim (Shavuos, Simchat Torah) whose central dogma is identical: to celebrate with the Torah.

But if Shemini Atzeret is a stand-alone festival, why dilute its importance by unceremoniously tacking it on to the end of Succas?  The answer lies in sheer pragmatism, in the reality that another shift in the agricultural year of Israel had arrived.

If Shavuos stood at the entrance of Summer, Shemini Atzeret opened the gateway of Winter; the more important entry of the two because, as his fields stood bare and his seeds stowed away, the Jewish farmer anxiously waited, and welcomed, the arrival of the torrential, blustering winter rains. This created a concern for Rabbi Joshua ben Levi and his colleagues. Shemini Atzeret, now held on the 22nd and 23rd of Tishrei, was initially positioned as a wintry holy day, which meant that Jews wishing to make this later winter pilgrimage to Jerusalem had to brave slippery slopes and torrential rains. The rabbis thus moved it forward to a more opportune time, to the end of the Fall festivals when most of the country’s Jews were already in Jerusalem.

This rabbinic benevolence may have helped the Jew but it hurt Shemini Atzeret’s independence as a singular festival. Sensing the possibility of this “inferior” status the rabbis of the Talmud then accentuated the day’s halachik autonomy with no less than six different minhagim intended to set this day apart from the previous seven days of Succas. That is why on Shemini Atzeret there is no need to dwell in a succa, no need for a lulav-esrog, no special sheheheyanu yomtov prayer. During the Temple times there was a different order of sacrifices, a different rotation of priests, and a different Psalm for the Levites. And since Jewish tradition linked each of the pilgrimage festivals in honor of a major Jewish personality (Pesach with Abraham; Shavuos with Isaac; Succas with Jacob), [78] Shemini Atzeret was paired with the greatest of them all, the entire Community of Israel (klal).

But no matter how hard they tried, including keeping its name separate, Jewish history quickly, and unfairly, consigned Shemini Atzeret to its vague role today as a minor mystery festival, a shadowy diminished holiday that suffers from its proximity to the enormously popular and more favored Simchat Torah, which follows it by one day. It became so religiously overwhelmed that even the teachers and textbooks of Judaism always refer to sholosh regalim, the three pilgrimages of antiquity, when in fact the Torah appointed four. [79]

This educational challenge was there right from the start, exacerbated by the fact that Shemini Atzeres is the only Jewish festival for which the Torah gives no reason. The saintly Israel Meir ben Hacohen of Radin (Chofetz Chaim, the "Desirer of Life"), [80] interpreting the word atzeret as “to tarry, hold back,” would stay behind in shul after hakkafos and learn Torah. When asked "Why don't you go home first, enjoy your meal, and then learn afterwards?" he replied in allegory…

"If you arrive at a wedding during the dancing and eating, you will find everyone dancing and eating.  You won't be able to tell who belongs to the family of the bride or groom.  If you want to find out who belongs to the family, you must wait until the party is over.  Then everyone will leave except for family members. It’s the same with hakkafos. Everyone is dancing. When the dancing has stopped and the party is over, I want to stay behind to show that I am a mechutan, a relative, an in-law of the Torah." [81]

Shemini Atzeret is the fourth (and final) stop on the road to judgment; a Godly verdict of reward or punishment that was only known later by the amount of rain which fell in the upcoming year. To help present their case the rabbis of the Second Temple era composed tefillas geshem, a special daily prayer (by adding a piyut to the silent amida of musaf) that sought a lavish rainfall, mashiv ha-ruah u-morid ha-geshem, from He “who brings forth winds and brings down rain.” [82] The final words ask that the rain be "for blessing, and not for a curse; for life, and not for death; for abundance, and not for famine" - a reminder that every boon has the ability to become a bane. There are many accounts of the piety of Choni the Circle-Drawer, who had such power of intercession with God that on a celebrated occasion he drew a circle around himself and refused to budge until the Almighty sent rain…but then, when too much rain fell, he had to plead with God not to be so generous! [83]

When it comes as a precious gift, rain can revive Nature; but it can also come as a curse in the form of a flood that engulfs and destroys. The Sh'ma promises the blessing of rain as a reward for obedience; Elijah warns King Ahab that drought will come as a punishment. "The world is judged through water," the rabbis of the Mishna solemnly state, after disclosing how our ancestors prayed and fasted in time of drought. Shemini Atzeret was the time of the year when Jews “count their blessings,” when scores of Kabbalists believed that they could change a Heavenly curse to a blessing by simply rearranging the letters of the edict; as such they turned the word nega (disease) into oneg (de­light), rasha (wicked) into ashir (riches) and pasha (sin) into shefa (abundance). And by adding the three letters 'm-a-r' in front of Heshvan, to become MAR-Heshvan, with mar meaning “drops” (as in mar m-d’li, drops from a bucket), the Jewish mystics reinforced the post-Flood tradition that rains would fall (drop) during the forty days, beginning with the month of Heshvan. [84]

Classical Hebrew texts denote no less than six different expressions (geshem, matar yoreh, malkosh, revivim, se'irim) of the bond between God and the land - and all are based on how intense the rain fell. Although the Hebrew word geshem designates rain the Bible alternates its use of the term, either by adding certain adjectives or nouns, in order to give it a positive or negative meaning. Thus a light rain or drizzle is called geshem kal, and by adding the adjective shotef with the onomatopoetic Hebrew term for drizzle (tiftuf, which means "a drip"), we get a downpour, as in it’s “raining cats and dogs” (whatever that means). [85] The words ruah and geshem, “rain and wind,” are considered metonymic Hebrew terms for Spirit and Matter, whilst both matar and tal appear together in the daily winter prayers, Ve'tain tal u matar livracha, "and give dew and rain as a blessing." The term matar is equivalent to geshem and is the root for mimtarim (show­ers) and mitriya (umbrella); meanwhile, in Israel the term tal ("dew") has become a popular Hebrew first name for either a girl or a boy. Why? Because it con­notes youth. But the rain-term to watch out for is gish­mei zaaf, which literally means "rains of anger," describing the torrents that can destroy the Jews’ life-saving crops.

Shemini Atzeret is one of several Jewish festivals shaped by the climatic whims of the holy land; evidenced by a beautiful body of Hebrew poetry known for its obsessiveness with the extraordinary sharp contrast of the land. The weather pendulum of Israel swings between hot and cold, sun and snow, fire and frost, dew-rain and wind - with the most impressive sight being the landscape’s changing light, often linked to the splendor of the dawn of Creation, "Let there be light." [86]

When the rains fell, from November to February, they did so only periodically, yet they were oftentimes fierce and ferocious. This is why the Jews equated their rainy season as being the Best of Times, the Worst of Times; fearing that it either represented the fury of Heaven (“a land that devours its inhabitants”) or its benevolence (“a land flowing with milk and honey.”) They were aware: rain flowed after blessings flowed, but its quantity and density could either ruin their principal crops outright, or provide just the right amount to maximize a healthy and abundant food produce. This is why the talmudic tractate Ta’anit, supposedly concerned with Jewish fast days, in fact devotes more time to the prayers for rain than to the laws of fasting; an indication that the rabbis linked fast days to the absence of rain. This explains why the prayer for rain is followed by liv’racha, which means rain-with-a-blessing, and why the Mishnaic section of Zeraim that deals with agriculture is called emunat, literally “faith.” [87]  

God, according to a Midrash, promised to give water to Abraham’s descendants, in recognition of the Patriarch having treated his guests with the hospitality of water, “Let a little water be fetched and I will wash your feet.” Abraham and his son Isaac may have been diggers of wells but their descendants had to be more creative. In order to make up for the chronic shortage of water (especially in Jerusalem) the Jews perfected a network of self-contained cisterns that protected them against long droughts. [88] Archeologists in Jerusalem recently discovered an amazingly huge reservoir of water-tight tanks near the Temple site, one carved in rock with a capacity of sixteen thousand cubic meters, which confirms the Talmud’s description of a giant tunnel-canal system that carried water to Jewish settlements.

Unlike Egypt with its Nile River, where one could “plant seeds and water them with your feet,” the Jews could not rely on the “streams, springs and subterranean waters" of Canaan. Milk and honey was one thing, but water was even more crucial. The Torah recognized this environmental fact early on when it made wet weather a centrality in Jewish tradition by describing the holy land as having to "drink the rain." Water supply-’n-demand was thus given a theological face and rain a two-fold symbol: it represented both a physical and spiritual connection between Heaven and Earth, overseen by a special angel in charge of rain that the 11th-century master Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac of Troyes, France (Rashi) identifies as af-bri (with af meaning “anger,” and bri meaning “health.”) [89]

I recall in cheder how we would often compete as to who had the best klotz kasher, the most “stupid of all questions,” measured by the level of exasperation in our rebbe’s response. My favorite Shemini Atzeret question? If it’s already raining, do we still have to say a prayer for rain? The answer? Yes. I will always remember this answer. Why? Because it came straight after I received a patch in punam (yiddish for ‘a smack across the face’) for chutzpa. Yet, I must confess, to this day, I still don’t know why we would pray for rain during a rainfall, even though I understand that the prayer was originally meant to be recited the entire year. The Sfas Emes agrees: the prayer for rain is metaphorical, as in our Sages comparing rain to a plea for one’s Torah growth. [90]  

A more intelligent question would have been: Why does the plea for rain not even use the word “rain,” preferring instead to use the term “water” more than thirty times!

The Torah has many references to mayim haim, “living waters,” a concept that our Sages wanted heightened during Shemini Atzeret, which is why they incorporated the plea for rain into the prayer of yizkor, so-named because of its opening words, Yizkor Elohim, “May God remember the departed soul.” A tenent of Judaism is that the dead are also in need of atonement, based on the Biblical verse, kaper la’amcha Yisrael asher padisa Hashem, “Grant forgiveness, God, to your nation Israel, whom you have redeemed.” [91] The first known yizkor liturgy appears in medieval Germany as an adjunct to the 11th century Av haRachamin prayer that appeared, anonymously, in the aftermath of the First Crusade in memory of the victims; [92] however the first known reference to hazkaras neshomos, honoring “the souls of the dead and martyred” goes back much further to the Book of Maccabees.

Yizkor is an intense and silent blessing, probably the most well attended of all services in the Jewish calendar (perhaps even more so than Kol Nidrei); despite the fact that it is not halachikally regulated anywhere but has the power of minhag ("cus­tom") [93] behind its inclusion in four festivals (Yom Kippur, Pesach, Shavuos, Shemini Atzeres). Our rabbis linked its content, that of praising God for reviving the dead, to Mother Nature’s water (which was equated with rebirth) and rain (which was symbolic of the revival of the parched earth).

Water ‘n rain were thus the twin Revivals of Hope, representing a people’s fervent longing that the fertility of a new Season would bring with it the life-force of food. This is why, during the final Shemini Atzeres sacrifices, thousands of Jewish onlookers would gauge which way the sacrificial smoke blew. Why? Because its direction was an omen; good for some Jews, not so good for others. The poverty-stricken assemblage were happy if the wind blew to the North, because north indicated a wet and rainy year, which translated into more crops and cheaper food; whereas rich Jews wanted the smoke to blow South for exactly the opposite reason; a dry year meant crop shortages, higher food prices, more profits.

What, I once asked my rebbe, thinking I had the greatest klotz kasher of all time, “if the wind blew the smoke Eastwards, or Westwards?” To my dismay, he had a real answer. The east direction meant moderation for all which made all Jews happy, whilst westward bound indicated a famine year (with nothing to buy, nothing to sell), [94] which made all Jews depressed.

What is Shemini Atzeret’s main custom? The public reading of Sefer Koheles, one of five Torah Scrolls (called megillas) set aside just for Jewish festivals. Yet this alliance is a real mystery. The Hebrew translation of Kohelet is "leader,” or “teacher,” derived from a verb linked to its more highly popularized Greek title (Ecclestiastes), which means an “assembler,” or “convoker,” whose Arabic root suggests an elderly Sage-like "gatherer of wisdom." The word is feminine, perhaps as a personification of "wisdom" (chochma, a feminine word). Who wrote it? Jewish tradition credits King Solomon as the author, which seems incongruous. Why? Because not only are its contents inconsistent, depressing, irritable and uninspirational (“all is vanity, all is emptiness”), Koheles meditates on the morbid meaninglessness of Life (our "fleeting days"), the mortality of mankind, the futility of Time ("Futility, futility, everything is futile!"). In order to reconcile the stark contradictions between Solomon's beautiful Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) and his wise Mishlei (Proverbs) to the disheartening Koheles, Jewish tradition claims that the future King of Israel penned the fist two works in the springtime of his youth and in his mature adulthood, whilst Koheles was a product of his cynical old age.

The Book of Koheles can be reviewed in five words: What's the point of living?

By announcing that nothing makes any difference ("That which has been is that which shall be"), the skeptic, pessimistic Koheles resembles the Greek philosophers who saw history as cyclical, with progress nothing but an illusion, and mankind's dreams amounting to goornisht (nothing). [95] Yet on a closer reading, the skepticism and pessimism of Koheles, just like a fragile succa, reminds one of the ephemeral quality of life, [96] whilst its despondent overtones appropriately match the beginning of winter. Perhaps this is spiritual matchmaking by default? How so? Because Succas is the only pilgrim festival without its own megilla, and Koheles is the only megilla without a festival!

Nevertheless many Torah scholars had difficulty reconciling the Succas command to "have nothing but joy" with a rabbinic ordinance that inserted this somber and bewildering poem of austere contradictions into the Succas-Shemini Atzeres' Sabbaths. Some, like the brilliant 12th-century Abraham Ibn Ezra, [97] tried (unsuccessfully) to ban its poetic cynicism from inclusion in the Bible (similar efforts to ban the Sefer Yechezkel, because of its contradictory prophecies, also failed). At first the Sages wanted to distance Koheles from the Scriptural fold because of its contradictory statements, but they changed their mind when they realized that “it commences and concludes with words of Torah” - and that at its heart it taught what “the sum of all matter was: to observe God’s commandments.” [98] And more: they related its message (that the true joy of Life lies not in wealth nor pleasure but in fulfilling mitzvas) to this time of the year, when Jewish farmers needed a reminder that their livelihood and prosperity were about to be determined by the coming months of winter.

With this insight it seems that Koheles, with its contemplative mood of introspection, is perfectly paired with the Succas season of withdrawal, when produce that grows suddenly "retreats" back into the ground, lying low 'n dormant, in silent preparation for the wintry period. One thing is certain: Koheles and its Shemini Atzeres message has endured because its words are popular and alluring, irresistible and captivating…and because the Jews of antiquity are just like us: spending a lifetime struggling with the meaning of life.

That is why its lyrics are now part of the general mainstream of culture: studied by scholars, quoted by statesmen, sung by such famous rock artists. [99]

To everything there is a season,

and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;

a time to break down , and a time to build up;

a time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

a time to seek, and a time to lose;

a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

a time to rend, and a time to sew;     

a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

a time to love, and a time to hate;

a time for war, and a time for peace...

Mesmerizing? Hypnotic? Moving? It’s easy to see why.


Simchas Torah

"An unlearned wagon driver once got the better of me," writes Chassidic master Rabbi Naftali of Ropshitz. "He was rejoicing mightily on Simchas Torah. Unable to restrain my cynicism, I said to him, 'Why are you so happy?  You have not studied the Torah!' 

He replied, 'Rebbe, if my brother makes a wedding, shouldn't I rejoice with him? Don't I have a share in his happiness?'

'I said to him, 'You are right, my son. Please forgive me.'" [100]

Is Simchas Torah part of Succas? No.

The confusion is understandable because it comes fast on the heels of the Succas cycle, however in the Talmud era this day was simply the second day of Shemini Atzeret. It was the distinguished 10th century Hai Gaon, one of the scholars behind the Babylonian Talmud, [101] who originally created Simchas Torah as a unique "stand-alone" yomtov with its own independent traditions and liturgy, thus making Shemini Atzeret the only Jewish festival whose second day customs are different from those of its first day.

What motivated the Sage? Hai Gaon saw a need for a day in the Jewish calendar for his exiled Babylonian community, long separated from the holy land after having survived the “loss” of Ten Tribes, [102] to reaffirm their dedication to Torah. The involuntarily eviction of the Jewish people from their "heart" [103] turned out to be just a dress rehearsal, a prologue, a glimpse of a future unpleasantly littered with forced exit visas, one-way tickets and a rootlessness laced with anti-Semitism. [104] The misanthropic Jews, displaced and alienated, became a land-lost people, perpetual wanderers, [105] timeless nomads, crossing strange frontiers and borders, carrying only cherished memories. This trek turned Judaism into history’s most mobile religion, as nostalgia reeked through its pores; the psalmist [106] sang the poetics of exile by the rivers of Babylon ("How can we sing God's song in a foreign land?"), [107] the great Yehuda Halevi waxed fondly of his “heart being in the East, but I am in the West,” the Hebrew prophets promised to go back to the future, to “rebuild ruined cities, plant vineyards, till gardens in Israel.” [108]

Hai Gaon's decision proved to be remarkably well-timed: the b’nei rahamim, God’s “merciful children,” were about to experience a long Jewish history of grim exile, brutal expulsions, and fierce land upheavals. That the Jews survived, and survived with their fidelity to God intact, astonished and dumbfounded even the rabbis of the Talmud themselves. They marveled how they, the most peace-loving peoples of them all, had been repeatedly targeted by the most mighty and powerful of them all - and lived to talk about it. “If all the seas were ink and all the reeds pens and all the people scribes,” sighed a Midrash, “it would not be enough to record all the misfortunes of the Jews in a single year,” [109] an observation that led the 18th century Rabbi Yaakov Emdin to conclude that “Israel’s existence is a greater miracle than the splitting of the Red Sea.”

Thanks to the insight of those early Babylonian geonim, the distinctive Simchas Torah, which means “rejoicing with the Torah," was carved into the Jewish calendar, an annual masterpiece dedicated to paying homage to a steady Torah that acted as a dependable life-raft of continuity. Destined to shape a people’s consciousness, the day was to become the most exuberant and high-spirited Jewish festival of the entire year, a time when scores of ordinary Jews placed the Torah, their “portable homeland,” up high on a pedestal as the symbol of an unbroken Covenant, and tightly wrapped it around the shared adventures of the Jewish people in exile.

The crystal ball of Torah paid early tribute to the "be'er chafaruha sarim," those who dug wells of Torah in the tough soil of spiritual deserts; including the United States of America that, less than six decades ago, was considered by the European pietists a place where afilu di shteiner zeinen treif, "even the stones are not kosher." [110] The glue that held Israel together was its belief system, a treatise bound by values and stapled by a tradition that proved unbelievably resilient in all geographic circumstances. [111] It was this “luggage” of Torah, which Rabbi Yosei ben Kisma calls a “precious gem,” [112] packed with morals and manners, [113] that enabled entire Jewish communities to reestablish themselves after each forced uprooting. No matter where the reluctant Jew went, a copy of Talmud (which means, "to learn") went along for the ride, a silent companion of ritual and consciousness. [114] “There is no more powerful sight in Judaism than a page of Talmud,” [115] writes the articulate Leon Wieseltier, “It daunts, teaches, scolds, tempts, pleases, defeats...It is the sight of tradition itself.” When a student excitedly told the Kotsker Rebbe that he had just finished all of shas (the Talmud), the Rebbe replied, “You’ve done all of shas but what did Shas do to you?” - to which even the non-traditionalist Sigmund Freud had the right answer: “It was the study of Torah which kept the scattered Jews together.” When launching his innovative daf yomi program, Rav Meir Shapiro quoted the story of a shocked Rav Gamliel who witnessed Rav Akiva drowning from a shipwreck only to find him later alive and healthy on dry land. "How did you survive?" he asked Akiva who replied, "I grabbed hold of a daf (a plank of wood), and with this daf for support, I sailed over every wave until I reached land." Rav Shapiro used this clever play on words to argue that one cannot survive the turbulence of life without clinging to a daf gemora, the folio of Talmud.

 “On Simchas Torah the question is not merely whether we feel like dancing with the Torah,” comments Rabbi Raymond Apple, “but whether the Torah feels like dancing with us.” This “shared dance” was a triumph for a Rabbinic Judaism that had replaced the Temple’s caste system with a transportable Judaism that became freely accessible to scores of quixotic everyday Jews whose persona revolved around Hillel's belief that “more Torah study [leads] to more life.” [116]

After her husband once complained about chest pains, a wife called the family doctor. The doctor rushed over, held the patient’s hand and began taking his pulse.

“Doctor,” said the husband, “It’s not my hand that hurts, the pains are in my chest, near my heart.”

To which the doctor replied, “I know, but from the hand we know how the heart is doing.”

It was “the hands” of Israel, in exile, that clutched the sefer Torah from one Simchas Torah to the next, in an annual check-up to insure that “the heart” of the Jewish people was still in good working order. This festival thus became the Jewish calendar symbol of a shared love for a common object (Torah), from which flowed a mystical force that kept Jews unified during their sordid sufferings, tragic travails, awesome abasements. [117]

“Jewish life is a symphony whose score is the Torah, whose composer is God, whose orchestra is the Jewish people," notes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, "and whose most moving performance is on Simchas Torah.” [118] This is best evidenced by the central Simchas Torah custom known as hakkafos ("seven circlings"), [119] a circular procession of Jews praising the Torah. Only a Torah that can reach down to the feet is authentic, mused Chassidic Rabbi Zalman Schachter, adding “anything else is just a manipulation of words.” This is why the charismatic Chassidic leader, Israel ben Eliezer (Baal Shem Tov), once danced with the Torah, stopped, put it aside - and continued dancing and clutching it in its invisible form. This ability to perceive something that is not there, and continue as though it is, is the single most remarkable strength of the yiddishe folk. It is confidence personified, emunah on a stand, “evidence,” according to Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, that “faith is clearer than sight.”

This concept became stunningly clear to me at a Itzhak Perlman Lincoln Center performance in May 2001. Perlman, stricken with polio as a child, walked on the stage in pain. He then sat down, put his crutches on the floor, undoes his leg clasps, tucks one foot back, extends the other, bends down, picks up his violin, nods to the conductor - and begins to play. After a few minutes however one of his strings broke, snapping suddenly, the sound reverberating through the huge hall. The audience assumed he would stop, struggle to his feet, and limp off stage. He didn't. Perlman closed his eyes, signaled the conductor to start again, and picked up where he had left off. Even though it's near impossible to play a symphonic work with only three strings Perlman did just that: modulating with passion, recomposing with purity, returning with perseverance. The audience sat in total awe, breaking the silence with applause, as Perlman smiled, raised his bow to quiet the crowd, and said, "Sometimes it is the artist's task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left." 

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ehpraim once told of “a fiddler who played so sweetly that all who heard him began to dance, but when a deaf man came by, he looked at these dancing people and thought they were madmen, people who had lost their senses.” In other words, the music and lyrics of the Torah, the melody and words of our Sages, are only heard by those who are willing to dance to them - and to each other; and when there is less to sing and dance with to continue to do so, Perlman-style, with the little we have.  

When Kabbalists compared the human body to the Jewish festivals, they suggested that the brain serves Rosh Hashanah (via remembrance), the hands serve Succas (via building) whilst the feet serve Simchas Torah (via frenzied dancing). From a distance it seems that the Torah scrolls are intensively clutched to Jewish hearts. Look again. The holder’s devotion, shining through a forest of radiant faces, is linked by the holding of hands moving in merrymaking synch to circular foot movements. The early Jewish mystics, fascinated by the form of a circle, incorporated “circling” into many life-to-death ceremonies. Consider: brides circle the groom, Jews circle a cemetery (or coffin) at funerals, the Talmud [120] even nicknamed Honi, a Jerusalem rabbi, the "Circle-Drawer" because he would draw a circular ring, stand inside, pray to God for rain and not leave until his prayers were answered.

Commenting on the fact that there is no specific halachik mitzva, none whatsoever, allocated to the dual festivities of Shemini Atzeret-Simchas Torah, Rabbi Henoch of Alexandria traced this to its “conclusionary” [azteret] status: “It is a day on loan from the future, for, in the future, all active mitzvot will be annulled, and all Torah will be in the mind.” This “conclusionary” aspect of the festival, he continues, is symbolized by the power of the “circle,” akin to a hakkofa, a self-contained shape that flows with no dramatic beginning nor end, suggesting an endless spiral of Torah readings, of a world within itself that knows of no boundaries nor limits.

Simchas Torah is thus the most emotionally mixed of all Jewish festivals. Its pendulum swings between two extremes: from the somber elements of the just concluded Ellul-Tishrei cycle to the hyperactive Purim-like command sisu ve’Simchu be'simchat Torah, “rejoice with the Rejoicing of the Law.” One moment we are repeating many of the most lofty piyuttim from Yom Kippur; the next minute we are singing, dancing and drinking the yomtov away, even getting drunk…but not too drunk! In the only introductory paragraph in his Mishnah Berurah, Rabbi Israel Meir ben Hacohen of Radin (Chofetz Chaim) prefaced his chapter on Simchas Torah with a warning against excessive drinking.

I recall as a child that Simchas Torah was the best of times. There was dancing ‘n prancing, candies ‘n apples, miniature Torahs ‘n flags. Why the flags? To symbolize the tribal flags that the Children of Israel marched under in their exodus through the desert. Why the apple? I’m not sure, but the custom of carving a hole in the apple for a lighted candle was meant to evoke the image of light emanating from Torah. For that reason, the apples were placed on top of the flags, symbols of waging milchamtah shel Torah, [121] the “battles for Torah.” It was customary in our shul when the Ark was empty of sefer Torahs to place a candle inside to signify that the “light” of Torah was still present (derived from the verse, “Light is a precept, and the Torah is light.”) [122]

Was it always a custom to circle the synagogue clutching the Torahs? No. The Machzor Vitry describes [123] how it used to be: on both Simchas Torah and Hoshanna Rabba all the Torahs were removed and held, unopened and unread, in the center of the shul whilst the congregants circled them. Hakkafos is a relatively recent custom traced back to Rabbi Chaim Vital, 16th century kabbalist from Safed and pupil of the famous Ari. [124] Today, the concept of seven hakkafos has not only been enthusiastically accepted as minhag eretz Israel, “custom of Israel,” but has multiplied itself to as many as three different times - both evenings, plus Simchas Torah by day. At first the rabbis were concerned at this creeping expansion of hakkofat on the evening after Shemini Atzeret (which in the Diaspora coincides with the additional rabbinically decreed ninth day of the Festival) because of possible desecration of a yomtov. However all rabbinic doubts quickly collapsed for predictable reasons: the masses demanded hakkofas, the more the merrier!  

During the attah hareisa hakkofas all the Torahs must be removed from the ark. Why? Because no sefer Torah was to be left behind, alone, standing solitary and unaccompanied, whilst all the others were making the rounds of singing ‘n dancing. [125] Our rabbis considered this a lack of derech eretz, which means “the way of the world,” [126] an insensitive breach of respect in a religion that confers dignity on everything, ranging from mankind to animals to objects, and demands that Jews treat everybody and everything with unadulterated menschlichkeit, “decent behavior,” in the pursuit of mipne darkhe shalom, “the ways of peace.” Judaism is a religion of etiquette, a French term that means label or card, and that came into use when guests at royal French functions were handed little cards instructing them on how to behave. These cards were called “etiquettes.” Jews have the same cards. They're called mitzvas. Our rabbis filled two entire Talmudic tracts with the mitzvas of derech eretz and bravely declared that it preceded Mt.> Sinai by twenty-six generations, the span of time between Creation and the giving of the Torah. [127] By ignoring one sefer Torah on Simchas Torah and rejoicing with all the others, our rabbis were warning us that we trample on the concept of civility and reward nonhumility. [128] The concern not to offend is why the Vilna Gaon restricted the number of Simchas Torah aliyahs to five, including both chatan Torah and chatan Berashit. [129] The Judaic respect for objects is displayed in many customs ranging from covering challahs on Friday night to leaving the earth untouched during its Sabbatical cycle.

My friends and I loved being carried on adult shoulders during the noisy hakkofas; it was a time when grown-ups (quasi-halachikally) tolerated our childish synagogue misbehavings. In my shul we got our adolescent kicks by tying the fringes of one adults tallis to anothers’ tallis, or to a chair, book, in fact anything! I recall that my most daring Simchas Torah act occurred when the chazan reached the mashiv ha-ruah section in musaf, “who brings forth wind and brings down rain;” I would lift him just high enough for my friends to put a bucket of cold water under his feet. I would then place him back down in the bucket - with his shoes ‘n socks still on. Poor chazan. He couldn’t do a thing. Why? Because he was still in the middle of saying the amidah, the silent prayer of shemonei esrei, and was thus halachikally unable to move his feet until he finished. Did I ever get punished? No. Like Purim there were times in the Jewish year, and this was one of them, when childish mischief was sanctioned. 

The synagogual atmosphere (ruach) on Simchas Torah is truly an amazing experience. Everybody - and I mean everybody - got an aliya. How is this possible? By reading the first two-thirds of the Deuteronomic parsha of v’zose haBracha over-’n-over again, in multiple minyans if necessary, until every Jew is “called up.” [130] Cementing its ties to children, Simchas Torah is the only time that a special aliya, under the concept of kol haniaarim, “all the children,” is given to, yep...all the children. I recall getting an aliya before I was even tall enough to reach the bima, and certainly before I even knew how to make the blessing. Some Torah commentators trace this custom to parsha Vayelech, [131] where the Jews were instructed to “gather the little ones” (known as hakhel, which means “assembly”) [132] together with the rabbis, priests, and King and read the Torah during the Succas of the seventh year.  What happened to this practice? It collapsed together with the collapse of the Jewish monarchy. In 1995, this disused custom was initiated by Israel and thousands of Jews attended the renewed ceremony at the Western Wall.

As soon as all the Torahs were out the singing rose in crescendo. [133] It was not eis lirkod, "a time to dance," but eis rekod, "a time of dance;" [134] or as my mother would say, in yiddish of course, es tantzt zich alein, "the dancing comes of its own (from inner joy)." The idea that song equals Torah can be traced back to a Biblical injunction of Moses, “And now write for yourselves this song,” a position supported by King David who declared that “Thy statutes have been my songs." [135] Song was, and still is, a favorite form of religious self-expression, especially for chassidim. [136] The Baal Shem Tov introduced joy via dancing-singing as a perfectly legitimate way of serving God, especially for the am ha-aretz (the “unlearned”) and made it a point of learning as many niggunim (“melodies”) as possible. [137] Chassidim would “borrow” tunes, rhythms and dance steps from the local White Russian prisiudki or gentile Rumanian shepherds, and then add Hebrew words and allegorical Judaic content. Attempts by Ger and Kotzk to infuse chassidus flavor into the works of Schubert, Chopin and Verdi were not too successful; although nothing beats Ger’s Shabbas marching tunes, with Moditz coming a close second (even Napoleon's march somehow found itself into the Kol Nidrei liturgy). [138] In fact some of our favorite melodies (eg; Ma'oz Tzur, Adir Hu) are derived from non-Jewish folk songs, as are several popular synagogal hymns whose cantorial composition and performance are based on European operatic arias (I even once heard a segment from "Phantom of the Opera" in the Kedusha!) [139]

Why do the most moving of chassidic songs have no words? [140] Because the first of the line of Chabad Rebbes was convinced that since "melody is the outpouring of soul, words interrupt the stream of emotions." Music, concluded Rabbi Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag) [141] "is good for the soul," inspired by Tehillim's suggestion that God be praised, "with harps, trumpets, drums, and other instruments." A melody with words is by its very nature limited in time, whereas a lyric-free niggun is endless, and infinite. Many Jews have told me that their first impression when walking into a Beis Medrash, a Torah House of Learning, is the unique orchestral-type sound of Torah being discussed, dissected, debated. They are hearing the fertile “noise” of exhilaration, the sounds of excitement, the songs of verbal animation whose lyrics are “the words of the living God." [142]

That is why it is customary on Simchas Torah, the festival of concert that resonates to the inspirational symphony of Torah learning, to conclude the annual cycle of reading the Torah (with the end of the forty-year desert wandering and the death of Moses), and, as Neil Sedaka once softly observed in song, “breaking up is hard to do,” we thus immediately start reading it all over again (with Genesis’ rebirth chapter of Creation). [143] This tradition, to finish and immediately start reading the Torah with no pause, underscores a premiere canon of Jewish faith, as expressed by Ezra: that the study of Torah is, like a circle, a never-ending celebratory “renewal of the Covenant.” It was Ezra who, in 5th century BCE, first gathered the returning Jews from Babylon in a large solemn assembly and read, and interpreted, the Torah of Moses. [144] Today this sounds pretty blasé. However until then, all legal and holy books were the exclusive province of Kings, royalty or selective religious leaders. Ezra’s public reading was the first time in history that the translation of a legalized sacred book was being shared with the common masses. Christians liked to keep the Bible in Latin to keep it away from the unlearned peasants; but Jews kept theirs in Hebrew, to open it up to all their folk. Why? Because all Jews were encouraged to indulge in bibliolatry, in order to master the Scriptures themselves as much as any rabbi. That is why, in medieval Europe, the average Jew, let alone the average rabbi, was more literate than the average Christian priest.

At the conclusion of the Torah reading, the hagbah, the lifting of the Torah scroll, is done differently than the rest of the year. The person lifting the Torah, known as the bal hagbah, criss-crosses his hands so that the Torah writing is reversed, facing the congregation. Some scholars link this custom to Pirkei Avos's, “Turn it [Torah] over and over, for everything is in it;” others say it symbolizes going back to the beginning whilst others give it a practical reason: it is easier to lift since all the weight is on the left hand. [145] This annual ritual, to end and begin immediately, has become such a primary Simchas Torah tradition that it is hard to imagine that it wasn’t always so. [146] But it wasn’t. This requirement is nowhere mentioned in the Talmud, and later Sages conspicuously ignore it in their prolific writings. The Rambam describes how the Torah readings were spread out over three, or three-and-a-half years, ending just before Pesach. [147]

One of the first appearances of this stop-start custom appears in Rav Avrohom Ben Yitzchok’s Sefer HaEshkol; [148] and, in his fascinating travel diaries [149] the famed 12th century Jewish explorer Benjamin of Tudela (who writes that it was the custom in his own hometown in Spain to finish the Torah readings annually) records how, during a stay in Cairo, he visited two synagogues - one attended by Jews from Israel, the other by Jews from Babylon. The former had broken each weekly Torah parsha into three parts, thus completing one full Torah reading over three years; the latter finished their Torah readings in one year. Nevertheless, in a show of unity both shuls got together every year on Simchas Torah to rejoice with the Torah, no matter where they were each up to in its reading. This changed shortly thereafter when the rabbis of Spain, Provence and Germany sought uniformity; and they did so by accelerating the reading cycle to an annual one and choosing to end it, not at Pesach-time (as was the then-custom), but on the last day of Succas. Why? Because this period was already heavily laden with halachik laws of joy and gayety.

But when the Simchas Torah reading ends, then begins again, what is the Jew celebrating? The ending? The beginning? I don't know. I imagine it's a bit of each. The most honored portion is acharon, the last aliyah. Why? Originally the custom was that only the first person called to the Torah would say the opening blessing and the last one called up would say the closing blessing. Those called up in between would not say a bracha; hence the person called up last had a special privilege, including the fact that the final aliyah was the one through whom the Torah reading became complete. Our Jewish mystics had a field day in "closing" this circle: taking the last letter (lamed) of the last word in the Torah (Yisrael), and adding it to the first letter (bet, or vet without the dot) of the Torah's first word (Bereishit), they arrived at lev which in Hebrew means "heart;" indicating that Torah is the heart of the Jewish people. There is also a striking similarity in both the first and last direct Torah commands involving bountiful visions bordered by restrictions: Adam begins his life being shown the Garden of Eden and ordered not to go to a certain tree, whilst Moses ends his life being shown the land of Israel's beautiful hills, valleys and fertile plains and being told "you shall not go there."

Simchas Torah is the only time of the year when the Torah reading is done at nighttime. Why? I don’t know. But why read the Torah again, and again, and again? Why not just study it once thoroughly, then discuss, debate, dispute it at will? The answer comes to use from the sage Ben Sira: the Torah’s “understanding is wider than the sea, and its counsel deeper than the abyss,” [150] to which Yosef Josel Hurvitz adds…

"The Torah is a deep sea, and man a vessel,

to draw water from it, and he draws according to the vessel.

If he comes with a spoon, he will draw a spoonful;

if with a jar - a jarful;

if with a bucket - a bucketful;

if with a barrel - a barrelful.

He may draw as much as he wishes…"

            Rav Hurvitz is beautifully illustrating how the Torah’s rich soil can be “harvested” on so many levels that each time one opens a page of Torah, even the same page, one discovers a new experience, a new adventure, “a new Heaven,” according to the Zohar. The more one looks, the more one finds; the more one finds, the more one understands; the more one understands, the more one can grow. In fact it is a Torah command to explore and innovate to “the full extent of one’s abilities,” thus attracting the “Shekhinah itself to hover over” the holy bearers of our ancestoral faith. This is why the Torah is called etz chayim, a growing “Tree of Life” (a term that comes from the verse etz chayim hi l’machizikim bah etz chayim, “She is a tree of life for those who hold her tight; a tree of life”); [151] and why Islam pinned the label ahl al-kitab, “The People of the Book” onto the Jewish people. Egyptian leader Ptolemy II, a noted bibliophile, even ordered that "the Jews’ book" be translated into Greek because, “their laws are befitting of imitation.”

                Does this mean that Simchas Torah is a day of actually learning Torah? No. This is a myth. It is a day of praising the process of, and commending the method of, but not necessarily the learning of, Torah. Thus Simchas Torah answers the age-old Jewish version of the chicken-’n-egg question - is it better to study Torah, or to live Torah? The answer? Action speaks louder than words; a conclusion that comes to us courtesy of Judah ha-Nasi, “What we do is more important than what we study,” to which Rabbi Shimon-ben Gamliel adds, "Study is not the main thing but deeds, for it is by deeds that Man atones for his shortcomings." [152] Rav Hutner, in his Pachad Yitzchak on Shavuos, saw an asymmetrical relationship between the two, in that the study of Torah "co-opts" performance and transforms the fulfillment of a mitzva into a dimension of "active study" (in other words, study has independent, and yet paramount, significance). We know this instinctively. How? Because the Torah was given years before many commandments became obligatory, and the very popular rabbinic expression, "Torah u- mitzvot," demonstrates that talmud Torah and mitzva observance are two separate and distinct aspects of service of God. Or as Rav David Rosen, the Rugochover Rebbe, so eloquently summarized: "When I pray, I talk to God; when I study Torah, God talks to me." [153]

But there is an obvious paradox: if Simchas Torah and Torah are “as One,” why do we need Shavuos, or vice versa? Remember: the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai as represented by Shavuos chronologically precedes Simchas Torah. So why not link Jewish children to the Torah of Shavuos instead of to the Torah of Simchat Torah?, especially since it was always customary for Jewish parents to take their children to their first day of cheder on Shavuos, not on Simchas Torah. Similarly, why not have tikkun layl Shavuos, the “all-night learning” Shavuos session on Simchas Torah? And, while we’re on the topic, why aren’t Jews freilich ‘n sameach, “happy and celebratory,” with the Torah on Shavuos as much as they are on Simchas Torah? Come to think of it: doesn’t it make more sense to finish-’n-start the Torah’s reading cycle on Shavuos instead of Simchas Torah?

The clue to all these questions lies in an unusual event that occurs immediately before Shavuos; a Torah reading [154] that is a not-so-subtle intimation that the well-being of the Jew is conditional on abeyance of laws, statutes, codes (mizvot, hukim, mishpatim.) It is here that we are startled by a catastrophic catalogue from Heaven; a "do-this-or-else" checklist followed by a harrowing and frightful litany of Godly warnings for those who don’t, prefaced by the warning, [155] “I set before you a blessing and a curse: a blessing if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God - and a curse if you do not.” [156] In fact, so grim are God’s consequences of violation that the chazan lowers his tone when reading them - in fear and apprehension. (Not surprisingly, this is the only time of the year when a Jew actually does not seek the honor of an aliyah.)

Within this discomforting, jarring and disquieting atmosphere of punishment, retribution and vengeance, it seemed unnatural (bad-timing, if you will) for Jews to take out all the sefer Torahs, then dance ‘n party the night away…and it was certainly not the most appropriate atmosphere within which to gather all “the little ones” up to the Torah. Therefore our rabbinical leaders, serving as our primus inter pares, decided it was far more befitting and proper to keep Shavuos somber, low-key, inward; for in the shadow of castigation it was better to learn more, and rejoice less. However by Simchas Torah, these chastisements no longer hovered menacingly in the air. The mood? Loose, unrestrained, free. The tone? Upbeat, vigorous, energetic. And why not? It was the end of the Succas period, when hopes for future redemption were running high with such towering lyrics as kol m'vasser, m'vasser v'omer, kol dodi hineh zeh ba, “A voice heralds and informs - the voice of my beloved (the Messiah)…hear it, he is coming."

So Simchas Torah was the right time; time to put the serious learning aside, throw a party, get the wine, candy, flags, apples ‘n kids - and dance the night away with wild, lively and vigorous hakkofos.

I’m exhausted just thinking about it.



Footnotes: Succas

> [1] > That Succas is the first day for the accounting of sins is traced to the verse, "You should take for you on the first day" (Shlah HaKadosh; Midrash Yalkut Emor 651)

> [2] > Why do we read the book of Yona on Yom Kippur? The repentance of the Ninveh community serves as an inspiration for repentance, and as "proof" that t'shuva can in fact overturn a Divine decree.

[3] Leviticus 23:40; Shabbat 30b.

[4] Nazarites (the famous being Samson) were those who took a self-imposed, restrictive oath not to eat, drink wine, have haircuts, etc in order to castigate oneself to a higher spiritual plane. Some Sages called this holy behavior; others called it sinful. The Torah does not encourage ascetic practices, and only reluctantly condones them (Ta'anit 11a).

[5] Eight is a significant number (not because of the Beatle’s popular “Eight Days a Week” Top 40 hit) but because there are eight days of Chanukka, Sukkot and Pesach; Abraham circumcised Isaac on the eighth day - and eight is a multiple of four; which is a predominant number (four cups of seder wine, four promises of God, four matriarchs, four weeks to each Hebrew month); as is forty (forty days of the flood, forty days between the first of Elul and the shofar blast that ends our High Holy Days, forty years in the desert, forty days of waiting for Moses to receive the tablets from God, etc).

[6]   “Eat well, drink sweet,” advises Nehemia (8:10) for the most flamboyant of all the seven feasts mentioned in the Torah (1 Kings 12:32; Exodus 23:16; Leviticus 23).

[7] Genesis 33:17

[8] Sota 36a

[9] Commenting on why the month of Marcheshvan was the only month with no significant day of its own, a patient Reb Bunim of Peshischa linked the term marchesvan to merachshan, a Hebrew word which means vibrating, in that the aftereffects of the intense Tishrei days of t’shuva were still “vibrating” during Marcheshvan

> [10] >    The two Talmuds (Bavli and Yerushalmi) disagree on this particular halacha. The Bavli agrees it’s a mitzva to build but rejects the need for a separate bracha on the basis that a bracha may only be recited at the “completion” of a mitzva, and not during its “preparation.” The Tosafists (Sukkah 46a) considered building a succa, in contrast to, for example, buying a pair of tefillin, a stand-alone mitzva (Sukkah 1:2; Berakhot 9:3).

[11] Psalms 2:11; Tanna de’Bei Eliyahu Rabbah 3; Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks, Bringing Heaven Down to Earth, October 9, 1998, Jewish Chonicle, p 23.

[12] There is one similarity between Succas and Pesach, that of “smell,” both being fragrant festivals. The scent of the succa is greater than that of the seder, because it lasts a full seven days and nights. Smell is an integral part of Judaism: the Temple had its incense, Shabbas has its havdalah (Shabbas itself is called a “spice” to explain why the day feels so good); Mt. Moriah’s name comes from the Hebrew word mor, which means “the spice myrrh” (Rashi, Genesis 22:2). Rabbi Raymond Apple enjoys telling the tale of a yeshiva class that was studying b'rachot when one talmud asks his rebbe, "What blessing do I say if I smell a rat?" The rebbe was not amused. What about Pesach? Isn’t it also rich in mitzvas? No. Its halachic duties are limited to erev yomtov and the first and second nights; followed only by the prohibition of chometz - which is a passive mitzva.

[13] Today the pursuit of certain mitzvas (such as building a succa) has become too convenient. Rolling away the roof of an existing room is just not the same. Jewish mothers would once make dough on Thursday evenings and get up early Friday morning to finish baking challa; today it is bought ready at the markets. Rabbi Isaac Luria, master mystic, saw great significance in the sweat of Jews baking their own matza and in their tears from grating the maror. Today we buy matza packaged and ready to serve. The result? No sweat 'n no effort (potentially) leads to…no appreciation.

[14] Leviticus 23:40.

[15]   Sukkot 35a.

[16] Psalm 36:12

[17] In one of her beautiful short stories for Jewish children, Sadie Rose Weilerstein’s fictional character (Isaac Samuel ben Baruch Reuben) describes his birth. “Once upon a time there lived a husband and wife. They had everything in the world to make them happy, or almost everything - only one thing was missing and that was a child. “Ah," the wife said, "that I might have a child!  I shouldn't mind if he were no bigger than a thumb." On the advice of an old Jewish woman, the wife bit off the end of "a very fine etrog, a perfect sweet-smelling one from Palestine" - and before a year had passed a little baby was born to her, exactly the size of a thumb. Hence, he became known as K'tonton,” a word in the Torah that appears (Genesis 32:11) after Jacob wrestles with the angel, turns to God and says, “I am very, very small [k’tonti].”

[18] Pesachim 10:4.

[19] Exodus 23:14-16; Dr. Nachum Wahrman, Chagei Yisrael U-mo'adav, pp. 68-69; Deut 11:11-12.

[20] Pirkei Avos 4:1

[21] 1720-1797

[22] Deut 16:14

[23] 1135-1204

[24] Mishneh Torah, Hilkot Lulav 8:15; Deut. 28:47.

[25] Judges 21:21; II Samuel 6:19; Pirkei Avos 3:3

[26] Nahum 1:15; Tehillim 100:2; Tikunei Zohar 64; Shabbos 30b; Taanis 21a; Berachos 31a; Zichron Yerushalayim.

[27] Since that early display many rabbinical authorities over the centuries have tried to curb lavish or overly ostentatious simchas by enacting "sumptuary laws" that set limits (either on the number of guests and/or the amount that could be spent, much to the dismay of the caterers). In 15th century Forli, Italy, for example, the rabbinate restricted the guest list to twenty men, ten women, five girls and relatives up to second cousins; unconcerned at the social "b'roiges" factor of insulting those uninvited despite the fact that it was this very practice that our ancestors blame as having caused the social disintegration that led to the destruction of the Second Temple ("Because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, Jerusalem was destroyed.") How so? Because a servant mistakenly invited Bar Kamtza, his master's enemy, instead of Kamtza to a feast. When Bar Kamtza arrived he was unceremoniously shown the door and publicly humiliated, an act that the Talmud uses as "evidence" of the causeless hatreds that were undermining Jewish society at the time.

[28] Deut 16:13; Leviticus 23:42-43.

[29] Exodus 23:14-16; Zechariah 14:16.               

[30] Apparently Jews are not the only ones motivated to make a Succas pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Every year several thousand members of “Christian Brothers/Sisters-in-Zion” (representing more than seventy countries) descend on Jerusalem for their Annual Tabernacles Pilgrimage.

[31] Today, Iraq is located where Babylonia once stood, in West Asia along the Euphrates river. The non-Jewish name is derived from bab-ilim, which translates as “the gate of the gods,” whereas the Hebrew root balal, found in Genesis, means “to confuse.” This is linked to the Babylonian tale when man revolted against God by building the Tower of Babel.

[32] Rosh Hashana 31b; Betsah 5a; Sukkah 37a, 41b; Aboth de Rabbi Nathan, 2nd version, Ch 27; Mishnah Taanith 1, 3; Shekalim 11; Josephus, ‘Antiquities of the Jews,’ XV11, 2 paragraph 2; XVIII, 9, paragraph 1.

[33] Sukkah 53a; Pachad Yitzchak, Sukkos 9

[34] Sukkah Ch 5, 52b; Exodus 15

[35] "Prayer," writes Rav Soloveitchik, "means communion with the Master of the World and therefore withdrawal from all and everything. During prayer man must feel alone, removed, isolated...The presence of women among men, or of men among women, which often evokes a certain frivolity in the group, can contribute little to sanctification or to the deepening of religious feeling, nor can it help instill that mood in which a man must be immersed when he would communicate with the Almighty...Such a state of being will not be realized amid family pews."

[36] c.1550-1619

[37] What should a traveling Jew do in regard to sitting in a succa, if none is available? The Talmud claims that these Jews are exempt (Sukkah 26a). Why? Rashi links it to a halachic principle known as teishvu ke'ein taduru, wherein one is only obligated to “live” in a succa if it matches the way he “lives” the rest of the year (Orach Chaim 640:8). Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, America' 20th-century premier halachist, ruled (based on Menachos 41a) that the exemption applies only to necessary business travelers and not, for example, to picnickers (Igros Moshe, Orach Chaim 3:93). Rav Yosef Sholom Elyashiv disagreed, on the basis that Jews go on picnics during the year and therefore may continue to “live” likewise during Succas. Why the different conclusions from two Torah giants? Because Rav Moshe (being US-based) had to deal with westernized Jew who traveled on business, whilst Rav Elyashiv (being Israel-based) had to deal with Israeli tourists who used their yomtov holidays to go on outings (1 Kings 8; Mo’ed Katan 2:4).

[38] Sukkah 26a

[39] Interestingly, the Torah is practically mute on thirty-seven out of the forty years of wanderings. Other than remunerating the people’s encampments and sojourns, the Torah, notwithstanding calling them am k’shei oref, a “stiff-knecked race,” describes a loyal and obedient folk during years two to thirty-eight, and for the majority of the years one, two and forty (Midrash Sifra; Tur, Orah Chaim, 725; Deut. 8:2-4; 9:22-23; Numbers 9:23; 33:1-48).

[40] This is all relative: Judaism has a unique view of strength and power, reserving these qualities for those who know how to apply true wisdom (chochmah), a word that also spells ma koach?, "What is strength?" and koach ma, "What is strength's purpose?" (Numbers 20:5; Amos 9:11).

[41] Collected Writings,  Samson Raphael Hirsch, NY: Feldheim, 1984

[42] This leads us to the obvious question: if Succas symbolizes the age-old Jewish yearning of reaching the holy land, why do so many orthodox Jews choose to live in the diaspora when Israel (a country in which it is a mitzva to live) is only an air fare away? Consider: "A person should always live in the Land of Israel, for it is considered as if you have a God, whereas if you dwell outside of Israel it is as if you have no God" (Ketuboth 110b; Tosefta Avoda Zara, 5). Many orthodox Jews rationalize away the inner tension between living in exile versus living in Israel, and simply struggle with the ambiguity. This explains the wide variety of contradictory rabbinic conclusions, ranging from the Rambam not listing living in Israel as one of the 613 mitzvot, to the Ramban remonstrating him for the omission.

[43] Why was the Torah not given to Abraham? - especially since the Talmud, in relation to Ezra, concludes, "Had Moses not preceded him, Ezra would have been worthy of receiving the Torah for Israel" (Sanhedrin 21b). Surely Abraham, was as qualified as Ezra? The same Talmud provides the answer: from Adam to Abraham the world was destined to be spiritually desolate (Sanhedrin 97a), leaving Abraham in an environment not ready for Torah. Moses' generation, however, had suffered slavery, been carried out of Egypt "on eagles' wings" (Exodus 19), shared the birth pangs of nationhood, and were thus ready. Abraham accepted the fact that there would be no Revelation in his generation, just as David had to accept that there would be no Temple during his lifetime (Shabbas, 127a; Pirkei Avos 1:15).

> [44] > Sukkah 1:2, 8b; Sifrei ‘Emor 17:4, 102d; Leviticus 103.

[45] Jeremiah 46:27.

Footnotes on Hoshanna Rabba

[46] Succas 44a.

[47] Over the years there has been a blurring of the concept of a “custom” versus a “mitzva.” In fact, even the original intent of the term mitzva is no longer what it used to be. Initially, a mitzva described a Divine “commandment.” Today, the term also means "a good deed,” or an “act of charity.”  It has even been extended to describe the pursuit of a “commandment” - in other words, it has become a “mitzva,” say, to seek out a fruit in order to have the mitzva of making a blessing. This voluntary extra-initiative and extra-effort to do a mitzva has, today, become a mitzva in itself.

[48] Shulchan Aruch Ha-Rav.

[49] Avot 2, 4.

[50] Shabbat 31a.

[51] Sefer Hachinuch, 185; Rabbeinu Bachya, Kad Hakemach, The Arava, p 459; Ramban, Numbers, p 136.

[52] Sukka 45a.

[53] Known as the RAMA (1530-1572), Moshe Isserles' short and incredibly productive life produced Mapa ("Tablecloth"), a treatise that put an indelible stamp on the world of Torah scholarship, integrating the Ashkenazic Torah world with the Shulchan Aruch, thus enabling it to represent the entire Jewish Torah spectrum.

[54] Sukka 33b; 34a; Midrash, Emor; Leviticus 23:40; Sukka 33b; Orach Chaim 647, 654:1

[55] Unlike the other elements of esrog and lulav, the method of buying the aravos is so ad-hoc today (purchased just before yomtov) that there is a high chance of it being posul (unfit) and becoming kosher on

ly post-facto.

[56] Psalms 118:25.

[57] Deut 22:27; Sukka 44 a-b; Taanis 2a

[58] Deut 30,19

[59] Ecclestiastes 6, 7

[60] Despite the Biblical announcement that “there is no place where the Divine Presence is not”, the rabbis identified several places that lacked His presence; including places of “gloom, sloth, frivolity, levity or idle chatter.” 

[61] Tsav 31b; Machzeh Avraham

[62] c. 1300 C.E

[63] 1250-1328

[64] The Rambam permitted enactments provided there was no claim that they were of equal authority to the Torah. The Raavad says there is no problem unless an enactment alters a positive commandment (e.g. to have five, not four, sections in the tefillin). As such the Chazan Ish modified the status of the heretic; Rabbi Jacob Ettlinger treated Shabbas-breaking Jews differently than other cities, etc. Most rabbis agree that technological advances are OK if they enhance the performance of a mitzva (eg; using a flashlight instead of a candle to search for chometz). As the Torah giant of his generation Hillel was able to enact a device called a "Prozbul" (from pros buli ubuti, "an enactment for the rich and the poor") to prevent debts from being canceled in the Shmita year in the face of widespread exploitation of a Torah rule (Deut. 15:1-2) and a situation wherein, during the final years of a seven-year cycle, loans were being withheld because of the fear that creditors would not get their money back. The "Prozbul" allowed lenders to transfer their debts to the court who then acted as collection agents (Yevamot 7.2, 12:1; Berachot, 45a; Eruvin 14b; Genesis 23:2; 50:10; Numbers 20:29; Deut 4:2, 13:1, 24:1-3; Hullin 6, 18, 136b).

[65]   17:8-11

[66] Israel Salanter Lipkin

[67] Sanhedrin 74a

[68] Tolaath Yaakov

[69] Ta’anit; Deut 32:3; Numbers 20:2

[70] Masekhet Soferim; Deut 8:7-10

[71] In fact, Jewish holidays revolved so much around the stomach, that in 1951, after the Third Jewish Commonwealth initiated the 5th of Iyar as its Independence Day, the Knesset consulted a nutritionist for suggestions on a “new” food for a “new” yomtov. He suggested a special Independence Day Cake which didn’t catch on; instead the only “special” Yom Ha’atzmaut cuisine today is the mangal (“barbecue”) - not exactly a “jewishly” unique ritual (Aaron Ahrend, Perkei Mehkar l’Yom Ha’atzmaut).

[72] “Many Jewish culinary terms have become integrated into the gourmet vocabularies of the civilized world, but none has the impact of Schmalz [German for chicken or goose fat], which has oozed into literature, films, music etc," writes Rabbi Ronald Lubovsky, "understandable it is, when the zemirot, lustily sung at the Shabbat table, specifically refer to the barburim avusim v'chol minei matamim, loosely translated to mean, 'fatted geese with a smorgasbord of delicacies.'"

> [73] > The Leviathan plays a prominent role in Jewish folklore. Our Sages say that at the resurrection of the dead the tzaddikim will have a banquet at which the Leviathan's flesh will be served. From the creature's hide God will make tents for the tzaddikim of the first rank, girdles for the second rank, chains for the third and necklaces for the fourth. Many commentators treat these legends as an allegory; the Rambam sees the banquet of Leviathan as an allusion to spiritual and intellectual enjoyment (Baba Basra 75a; Avodah Zorah 3b; Job 40:30).

Footnotes on Shemini Atzeres

[74] Leviticus, and in Numbers; Shlomo Riskin, All Together, Jerusalem Post, December 10, 1998

[75] Numbers 29:35

[76] Sukka 48a

[77] Pesikta Rabbati

[78] Tur, Orach Chaim 417

[79] Leviticus 23:4

[80] 1838-1933

[81] Even Rashi, the most elucidate and articulate of them all, had to resort to homily and parable to explain this festival: “A father was visited by his sons.  They stayed a few days, enjoyed one another's company, and had a good time together.  When it was finally time for the sons to leave, the father said: 'Stay one day longer!  Not for any special reason, just that I don’t want to see you go.'”

> [82] > The prayers for rain make perfect sense in >Israel>, but in the Antipodes it might seem strange to speak of rain when summer is just 'round the corner. Because the antipodean seasons are (from the northern hemisphere point of view) "upside down," certain Australian shuls, for example, reversed the prayers for rain and dew, reciting the former on Pesach and the latter on Sh'mini Atzeret. This down-under custom has been abandoned. However there is still both a civil date (4th or 5th December, because the equinox is related to the solar calendar, not the lunar), and a separate Hebrew date (Sh'mini Atzeret); the former for the amidah's v'ten tal umatar, "Grant dew and rain" (which prays for rain in Israel in the rainy season, starting from 7 Cheshvan to allow Jews visiting Jerusalem for Sukkot to get home before the rains began; the Talmud requires diaspora Jews to say this prayer sixty days after the autumn equinox. Why? Less rain is needed there (Rashi); the latter for the commencement of mashiv haru'ach umorid hagashem, "He makes the wind blow and the rain fall" (one of the amidah's unique g'vurot, "powers," of God, said on Sh'mini Atzeret that is not a "request" for rain but a praise for the Giver of rain).

[83] Deut. 11:11-17; I Kings 17:1; cf. the Haftarah for the first day of Sukkot, Zechariah 14:1-2; Rosh Hashanna 1:2; Mishnah Ta'anit

[84] Toying with gematria, Reb Yehoshua of Dzikov took the word dal (poor) and arrived at its numerical value of 34. He then divided this to get 17, which was, voila!, the same numerical value as tov, for goodness (Midrash Tanhuma).

[85] Next time someone tells you it’s raining cats ‘n dogs, tell them you know, you just stepped into a poodle!

[86] Genesis 1:3.

[87] Numbers 13, 32; Deut 6, 3; Taanis 7b; Shabbat 32a

[88] Bereshit Rabbah; Genesis 18:4; Chronicles 32:4, 30. 

[89] Deut 8:7; 11:10-13; Rashi, Job 37:11.

[90] Baba Kamma 17a.

[91] Sifri, Deut, 21:8

[92] Kol bo Al Aveilus; Yalkut Das v’Din; Gesher HaChaim.

[93]   Yevamot 1; Hullin 136b.

[94] Sukkah 47:1.

[95]   Koheles 8:5-6; 1:4, 5, 9.

[96] Koheles 2: 7-11.

[97] Ibn Ezra (1089-1164), born in Tuledo, Spain, was a wandering polymath Jew with no materialistic needs. He was an expert in Bible, literature, philosophy, astronomy, astrology, medicine. A close friend of Judah HaLevi, he made his mark in Jewish literature with a classic book on the grammatical structure of the Hebrew language.

[98] Chagigah 13b; Shabbat 13b, 30b; Koheles 12:13.

[99] Turn, Turn, Turn, sung by 60's folk-pop trio Peter, Paul and Mary

Footnotes:  Simchas Torah

[100] Artscroll, Simchas Torah, Mesorah Publications, Ltd, p. 82.

[101] Don’t get confused between the terms ‘gemora’ and ‘Talmud;’ they are not necessarily the same. The gemora is sometimes called Talmud (as distinct from the usage of Talmud which embraces the Mishnah as well) but is more often used in the context of commenting on the Mishnah, a work written mostly in Aramaic and produced by rabbis called amoraim, who succeeded the tannaim. The Mishnah is a philosophical legal treatise in six sections that was edited in Palestine (about 200 CE) by the patriarch Judah Hanasi. It is not an interpretation of the Old Testament (it rarely cites it) but presents itself as a collection of traditions and teachings on religious laws and practices known as halachah. How many Talmuds are there? Two. The Jerusalem or Palestinian Talmud (Yerushalmi, around 300 CE) and the Babylonian Talmud (Bavli, around 500 C.E.) Although both Talmuds follow the outline of the Mishnah, neither covers all of the Mishnah’s sixty-three tractates. The Palestinian Talmud treats thirty-nine, the Babylonian thirty-seven. Yes, there is extensive overlap between the two Talmuds, however each Talmud supplies certain gemoras to tractates that the other does not. Which Talmud is the more popular? The Babylonian one. Why? According to Maimonides, it was by vox populi, the people themselves who, through sheer popular will, chose one over the other.

[102] The original Kingdom of Israel consisted of ten Tribes (plus Judah and Benjamin) who, in 722 BCE, simply disappeared from the stage of history.  Some Talmud-historians, recinfoced by statements from Isaiah (11:11), Jeremiah (31:8), Ezekiel (37:19-24), and Chronicles (1:5,26) believe in their continued-existence, in contrasrt to Rabbi Akiva who emphatically announced that "the Ten Tribes shall not return again." Inevitably many travelers over the centuries have spotted the “lost” Jews. For example: in 1644 Aaron (Antonio) Levi de Montezinos returned from South America and convinced Amsterdam chief rabbi Manasseh Ben Israel that Cordilleras Indians had greeted him by reciting the Sh'ma. The excited rabbi wrote a whole book on the find (Hope of Israel) and dedicated it to the English Parliament in an appeal to Oliver Cromwell to permit Jews to return to England - the only country at the time that had no Jews.

[103] There is a common motif in all religions: the centrality of sacredness, that of one space, one place, one foci that represents “the heart.” The Greeks call it omphalos, the Romans axis mundi. For Jews this centrality is the Holy of Holies on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, known as “the House of the God of Jacob” (Isaiah 2:3). According to tradition, the holy land began no larger than the stone that Jacob rested his head on during his Beersheba-to-Haran journey; a pillow-stone that the Patriarch called “the gateway to Heaven,” a reference to his famous ladder-and-angels dream in which God informs him that “the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and your offspring ...and you shall spread out to the west, east, north and south" (Genesis 28:10-17). Once ensconced in their land, the Jews’ physical space was only a few thousand square kilometers, a piece of real estate so Lilliputian that it was statistically insignificant when compared to the vast territories of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Canaan, Syria. Even during its greatest times, under King Solomon or under the Maccabees, the eretz of Israel was no greater than 26,000 square kilometers. Canaan always had a special affinity for the Jews who constantly referred to it as the land of their ancestors (Genesis 48:21; 50;24; Deut. 1:8; 6:23; 31:20.) What is the halacha regarding giving away parts of Eretz Yisrael to the Palestinian Authority? The Torah says (Deut. 7:2), "lo t'chonnem", literally " do not be gracious to them". The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 20a) links "t'chonnem" with "chanah" - to encamp, understanding the verse as saying that once the land has come into Jewish possession it must not be alienated (ie: territory promised by God must remain Jewish). Rav JB Soloveitchik said, however, that this obligation is subject to the duty of saving life, "pikuach nefesh" and would be permissable but only for a real peace.

[104] "The first recorded event of anti-Jewish feeling took place in 410 BC in the Egyptian military colony at Elephantine" (Peter Schifer, Judeophobia: Attitudes Toward the Jews in the Ancient World; Harvard University Press, 1997).  Apion, a first century AD Alexandrian, wrote that the Jews of his time were kicked out because of ass-worship, hu­man sacrifice and ritual cannibalism. In 19 AD Tiberitis expelled his Jews for a novel reason: too many Romans were converting to Judaism. In general, expulsions started as early as the kingdoms of Assyria and Babylon in the 8th and 6th centuries BCE. During the Roman era there were further periodic expulsions and long stretches of time when the Jews were forbidden to enter Jerusalem, for example, from the end of the 135 CE Bar Kochba revolt to the Muslim conquest in 638. Until the expulsions of 1948 from Arab-Muslim countries, massive expulsions occurred mainly from Christian countries. Sixteen thousand Jews were thrown out of England in 1290. Between the 14th century and 1789, France continued its policy of expelling its Jews. During the 1492-1497, more than 100,000 Jews left Spain and Portugal courtesy of the Inquisition. During the Black Death (1348-1350) Jews were thrown out of many European cities. Russia kept Jews out between the 15th century and 1772 and then of course, came the most brutal expulsions of them all: the Holocaust where Jews found themselves expelled through chimneystacks.

> [105] > Where did the expression, "Wandering Jew," come from? There is a plant, which bears the name Wandering Jew because it is has a tendency to spread; there is also a bird called Wandering Jew, a card game and even a game of dice. Logic would trace it to Cain, punished by eternal wandering for murdering his brother, or perhaps to a tale in the Koran, wherein Moses curses Sameri to eternal wandering for his role in the Golden Calf episode. However it is linked "religiously" in Christian legend to a Jew who supposedly struck Jesus on the way to the cross, and who was thus condemned (together with all future Jews) to wander in suffering until the so-called Second Coming. Its anti-Semitic undertone picked up steam in 13th century British Benedictine monasteries who, having turned the image into a negative embodiment of anti-Jewish animus, tainted the mythical Wandering Jew (as depicted in Roger de Wendover's 1228 "Flores Historianum" chronicles) as a pathetic permanently-doomed sinner, a paradigm of exile, "proof" that the Jew was socially incapable of developing roots in any host society. The embellished image soon became the central character, solitary 'n tragic, in a sheaf of poems (Shelley's 1813 "Queen Mab"), novels (Kipling's "The Wandering Jew: Life's Handicap," and Alexandre Dumas's unfinished novel "Isaac Lequedem"),literature (Eugene Sue), cartoons (the notorious 1880 anti-Jewish caricatures by French artist Lorentz), paintings (by Caspar David Freilich, Kaulback) and musical works (Jacques Fromental Halevy's 1852 "Le Juif Errant") - and even in advertising, where companies pitched the endurance of this Jewish sojourn with longevity tonics and walking shoes (Nicholas Simon, The Jerusalem Report, Jan 14, 2002).

[106] Psalm 137.

[107] Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in Modern Jewish Imagination, University of California Press, 2000.

[108] Deut. 11:9; Amos 9:14

[109] Midrash Megillas Taanis

[110] Numbers 21:18, Rashi

[111] More than 2,000 non-Jewish editions of the Torah have been produced along the way; ranging from today’s compact CD's back to the Septuagint (Greek for, “the translation of the Seventy Elders”), and further back to the antique Egyptian scrolls whose material (papyrus) was, ironically, made from the same reeds along the Nile banks that Moses was rescued from. 

[112] Avot 6:9

> [113] > There are two categories of Judaic belief, philosophical and spiritual. The former approach is found in the writings of Saadia Gaon, Yehudah HaLevi, Joseph Albo, etc, and highlighted by the Rambam's thirteen principles (see the siddur's Ani Ma'amin and Yigdal), whilst the latter is summarised in a question posed to Hermann Cohen, "You have told us about the God of philosophers, but what about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?" This "living Judaism" is reflected in the overall tenor of Torah, Talmud, Midrash, etc, and incorporates certain timeless truths (eg: "Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one;" "Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt;" etc). Rabbi Simlai, a third century Sage, best summed up Judaic belief by quoting the prophet: "The righteous shall live by his faith" (Habakkuk 2:4), which inspired Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch to conclude that "the creed of the Jew consists of his calendar" (ie: how a Jew lives shows what a Jew believes in).

[114] Talmudic commentary reached an all-time peak during the 13th century CE, more so than even the period of the great academies in Babylon (which lacked the kind of methodical exegesis that developed in the medieval period). Prior to the 11th century there was no comprehensive written Talmud commentary; this changed with the rise of the Spanish-North African (sephard) tradition of Tunisian rabbis Hananel ben Hushiel and Nissim ben Jacob of Kairouan, followed by Moroccan Rabbi Isaac Alfasi (Rif) whose "Little Talmud" inspired the medieval European Talmudic literature. This paralelel rise occurred in northern Europe, courtesy of Gershom Me'or Hagolah and his (ashkenaz) scholars of Mainz, and French Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (Rashi, b. 1040) whose revolutionary methods of elucidation (continued by his three son-in-laws' commentaries known as Tosafos, "additions"), made him the uncontested Torah commentator par excellance. This style was reintroduced in the Spanish Torah world by the great 13th century Gerona-Barcelona Moshe ben Nahman (Ramban, 1195-1270), an admirer of Toleda Rabbi Meir ha-Levi Abulafia (Rama, d. circa 1244), whose profound influence inspired the "comeback" of Spanish-Talmud commentary after a long hibernation; a process further boosted when Asher ben Jehiel (Rash), star student of Rothenburg's Meir ben Baruch (Maharam), arrived in Catalonia-Aragon after fleeing Germany with the help of Shlomo ben Avraham Adret (Rashba), Spain's most eminent rabbinical authority (Israel M. Ta-Shma, "Hasifrut Haparshanit Latalmud: Talmudic Commentary in Europe and North Africa, Literary History, Part II, 1200-1400," Magnes Press).

[115] Daniel Bomberg (a famous Christian publisher) produced the standard pagination when he brought out the first edition of Talmud in Venice (1520-1523).  His basic page layout was adopted by the nonJewish Romm family's printing press that brought out the first Vilna Talmud in 1880-1886, continuing the design ideas from the Soncinos, the great Jewish publishers who introuced the layout of main text in the center, surrounded by islands of commentaries, in the 15th-16th centuries.

[116] Pirkei Avot.

[117] It may be an exaggeration to say that Simchas Torah saved Soviet Jewry in the 1960s, but it is no exaggeration to claim that it was Simchas Torah that inspired that enslaved Jewish community to poignantly reaffirm its identity. Thousands of young Jews, oblivious to the dangers of a dreaded KGB, heroically chose this festival as a symbol of resistance, a day to publicly express their desire to join their fellow folk back in the Jewish, not Russian, motherland. They were inspired by a visit from Kiev-born Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (nee Mabovitch), the first Jewish minister of the Third Jewish Commonwealth to visit Russia. In 1970 Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach chose Simchas Torah as the festival around which to visit the USSR; his song am Yisrael chai, “the nation of Israel lives!” becoming the rallying battle cry for Soviet Jewry. As they defiantly danced their hakkafos in the streets of Moscow and Leningrad, to the spontaneous lyrics of mi-pi-eil, mi-pi-eil and sisu v’Simchu, their uplifted voices of praise created a striking snapshot of the overwhelming power and source of Judaic sustenance. Later, in a stunning reversal of the trends in Jewish history, Soviet leader Michail Gorbachev opened his gates in a modern-day enactment of the Biblical “Let My People Go!”, a courageous act that eventually released a million Jews, the majority going to Israel, the equivalent of the entire population of France moving to America.

[118] Bringing Heaven Down to Earth, Jewish Chronicle, October 9, 1998, p 23

[119] Why seven? To recall the seven circuits that the priests made around the altar.

[120] Taanith 23a

[121] Succot, section 142; Rabbi Yitzchok Lifyitz, Sefer Hamtamim.

[122] Proverbs 6:23.

[123] Tu Bareket Section 383

[124] 1534-1572

> [125] > Originally the Torah was read at floor level, but during the 5th century it was moved to a podium called a teva in Sephard (from the Hebrew noun tevah, "box," or "ark"); an almemor in Germany (from the Arabic term meaning a raised "pulpit"); or a bima in Ashkenaz (in yiddish, belemer or balmemer), derived from the Greek bema, which means a "step," or a low "speaker's platform," on which the Athenian general assembly stood to publically debate issues in the semi-circular Pnyx.

[126] Derech eretz can be described as the moral-halachik jurisprudence area of Torah because the religion of Judaism is primarily behavioral, secondarily doctrinal. So important is the concept of be kavod ha-Briyot, “respect for persons,” that our rabbis have even changed Jewish customs rather than embarrass someone publicly. For example: the Torah law of mourning (atifat ha-Rosh, requiring the complete covering of the head) was halted in the Middle Ages when it provoked laughter from the masses that the rabbinic hierarchy interpeted as being too humiliating.

[127] Rabbi Yishmael son of Nahman, Vayikra Rabba 9:3; Seder Eliahu Rabba 1.

[128] Judaism's greatest quality trait? Modesty (“If you have done another a little wrong, let it be great in your eyes; if you have done another much good, let it be little in your eyes; if another has done you a little good, let it be much in your eyes and if another has done you a great wrong, let it be in your eyes as little...")

[129] Maaseh Rav, section 231

[130] I must admit I always found one custom a bit unsettling, a bit too commercialistic within a day of holyness; that of “auctioning” off special Torah portions to money “bidders.” Yes, there is a basis for it in the Tanach and a Midrash, however this custom only got "serious" in Eastern Europe where shul deficits were paid off by selling aliyah “honors” (ie: each hakkafa had a “For Sale” sign on it). The two highest honors were the first and last Torah portions (hattan Torah-hattan Bereishis), and although the highest bidder would traditonally pass the honor to either the rabbi or a worthy congregant, my experience has been that the truly “worthy” (and usually poorer) members of the synagogue always seem to be unfairly ignored, even publicly dishonored.

[131] Deut. 31:10-13.

[132] No one knows exactly when this “assembly” custom for children, a public Sabbatical reacceptance of Sinai, originally occurred. Rashi says on Simchas Torah; the Rambam places it on the second night of Succas. However all agree that it initially took place once every seven years and not, as is today’s custom, annally on Simchas Torah.

[133] On motzei Shabbas after Simchas Torah, Moroccan Jews sing Shirat Habakashot, “Poems of the Requests,” from a collection of 550 piyyutim, “liturgical songs” from Shir Yedidout, a custom that started when Jews, prohibited to study Torah, incorporated excerpts into “poems” enabling them to continue their study “secretly” via song.

[134] Koheles 3:4

[135] > What “song” was Moses referring to? Convinced that Moses was equating “song” with the entire Torah, the Rambam made it a positive command for every Jew to write a sefer Torah for himself, one “which contains shira, an element of song." The term Selah, which appears often in the siddur and more than seventy times in the Psalms, denotes a musical pause ending a sentence or paragraph. Its Hebrew root is sal from sullam ("a ladder"), denoting "to raise up" in a "continual" manner. The chief musicians would open the Palms vocally, followed by the sweet sounding instrumentalists and cymbal-bearing singers who loudly banged their instruments and suspended their singing when they heard the word Selah (an "elevation" or raising of the tones), thus indicating the termination of one sentence-paragraph. Commenting on the verse Elokim motzi asirim b'kosharos, "God brings out prisoners into prosperity" (Tehillim 68:7), our rabbis (Sanhedrin 22a) translate b'kosharos as "bechi v'shiros," "weeping and song," in that the Jews left Egypt in a fusion of tears (the elegies in slavehood) and ecstasy (the symphony at the Red Sea) - (Deut 31:19; Psalms 119:54; Sotah 35a; Jeremiah 1:26; Isaiah 57:14; 62:10). 

[136] Is it a coincidence? The number of notes on a piano, if one switches up and down from one doe (in black) to the other (in white), known as the Chromatic Scale, is twelve; the same number as the Hebrew Tribes. That song and verse have altered the course of history is undisputed: ranging from the itinerant John Ball whose words inspired the English commonfolk in their historic 1381 revolt; to the marching song of the peasantry led in battle by Wat Tyler; to the camp-meeting hymn that ended up as the cocky marching tune of "Yankee Doodle," the revolutionaries song in the American war of liberation; and its rousing "Glory, Glory Hallelujah" chorus based on John Brown's body ("lies a'moldering in the grave") that became American labor's signature "Solidarity Forever" song of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic;" to the rallying "We Shall Overcome" civil rights theme of the 1960s and the Judaic-inspired "Let My People Go" that the slaves of white Christians sang on  Southern plantations.

[137] > Many of the songs we hear these days at Jewish weddings and other simchas are no more "jewish" than Mick Jagger wearing tefillin, or Led Zeppelin blowing the shofar. Original Jewish music was more chant than rant, more like classical music which wa>s derived from the Gregorian chorus line of the Catholic church. An example of Christians "stealing" Jewish music is the Ashkenaz melody for Friday night's Yigdal, the basis for the Catholic hymn, "The God of Abraham Praise," which was "borrowed" after Thomas Olivers, a Wesleyan minister, heard Myer Leon, the popular Dublin-based chazan and opera singer, sing it in a London shul in 1770. The Judaic music tradition goes back to the first century when the musical life of the Jews centered around the ancient city of Jerusalem, and its hereditary caste of musicians (the Levites) who directed and performed intricate instrumental and choral music (via silver trumpets, drums, reed pipes) in the Temple during the three-times-a-year agricultural pilgrimages (Mark Slobin, Tenement Songs: The Popular Music of the Jewish Immigrants, Old Jewish Folk Music: The Collections and Writings of Moshe Beregovski.) Apparently the singing was more essential than the instrumental music. How do we know? Because the number of instruments was restricted, but there was no maximum limit to the number of singers (the minimum being twelve.) Like other Levites, the choristers commenced their training at the age of twenty-five, entered active service at thirty and retired at fifty (Numbers 4:5; 8:24:25; Hullin 24a). There were male singers only. Boys, who could normally not enter the court of the Sanctuary, were allowed to join the choir k'dei littein tevel bane'imah, "to add flavor to the music." They were known as so'adei halevi'im, "assistants to the Levites," though, by a play on words, their critics called them tzo'arei halevi'im, "tormentors of the Levites.” Why? Because they had high, unbroken voices, and adult choristers could not reach such high notes. The day the music died was the day the Romans entered as professional pyromaniacs, burnt the House of God to the ground, exiling the Jewish people, and their music. As a mark of mourning, the Sages discouraged the use of music and choral singing; instead chanting the synagogue services. And in order to preserve the singsong scriptural melodies in exile they introduced (in 900) a system of cantillation-notation which is still in use today, guiding the Jew to divide sentences and texts, even if he cannot understand what he is reading. The song of Torah may have found itself serving a new master in captivity, but it managed to retain the serene beauty of its ori>ginal monophonic melodic line. The magnetism of music is indicative of the Jews' longing for the past in that the melody, the harmonious consonance, always returns to the tonic, to its fundamental root note, to its "hook" as they say in the trade: to the Doe, as in doe, rei, mi, etc - made eternally famous by the great Julie Andrews' observation, "Doe, a deer, a female deer," etc. (The "sound of music" has so deteriorated that John Cage could compose a work called "4:33," which involved the pianist sitting in silence in front of a piano for four-minutes-and-thirty-three seconds.) The recent wave of nostalgia for Eastern European music, known as klezmer, is a reminder that Jews themselves were once considered walking instruments. Klezmer groups usually consisted of at least three members playing a string instrument (eg; a fiddle), a wind instrument (eg; a flute) and one on a drum. If there was a fourth player it would be another string instrument (a tsimbl, akin to a banjo). The Yiddish term klezmer comes from klei ("vessel," "instrument") and zemer ("song"), metonymically describing the musicians themselves. Jeremiah would compare the people of Judah to a k'li rek, an "empty pot" (for failing to resist King Nebuchadnezzar), the 4th-century CE Rava would refer to himself in his prayers as "a vessel [k'li] full of shame," books were titled k'li yakar, "a precious vessel," and the Torah uses the expression k'ley-kodesh, "holy vessels" (in reference to the Temple's ritual objects). Thus Jews engaged in song (k'ley-zmorim) were performing a semi-sacred task, especially since they were performing together, in unity.

[138] Velvel Pasternak, Beyond Hava Nagila - A Symphony of Jewish Music in Three Movements, Tara Publishing, 1999.

[139] > Although instrumental music was permitted in the Temple in Jerusalem, it (now called "organ" music) was later banned by the rabbis of >Europe> as a chukkat hagoy, a "gentile custom." >Britain>'s Chief Rabbi Lord Jakobovits once commented that each Jewish community had its makkat ham'dinah, "local halachic problem." In >Britain> it was mixed choirs, in the >United States> mixed seating, in >Hungary> the removal of the bima from the center of the synagogue, and in >Germany> the introduction of the organ ("Jewish Law Faces Modern Problems").

[140] > Many chassidic songs spawned a whole new industry: mockery music, in Lithuanian-accented yiddish naturally, from and by misnagdim (anti-chasidic) who chassidim called the klein kepeldik (the "pedantics"); some so melodically beautiful with moving lyrics that it is hard to tell they are parodies. They range from the whimsically longing "Zog-zhe, Rebenyu" to "Der Rebbe Elimelekh" to "Kum Aher, Du Filozof," ("See here, you philosopher, with your cat-sized brain, Come sit at the rebbe's table and learn some sense. You've gone and invented the steamship and think a lot of yourself, But the rebbe spreads his handkerchief and crosses the ocean in no time") to the jolly "Az Der Rebbe Tanzt" (which has chassidim imitating their Rebbe, from dancing to snoring).

[141] 1288-1344

[142] Eruvin 13b

[143] Sephardim and Ashkenazim have different customs concerning Hagbah (raising) and Gelilah (rolling) the Torah scroll (after unrolling it first). Sephardim do this custom before the Torah reading whereas Ashkenazim do it after. There is no “correct” way although the Sephardi custom is much older than its Ashkenaz equivalent. Ashkenazim abandoned the original sequence by the 15th-16th century (Rema, Darkei Moshe to Oruch Chayim 147:4).

[144] According to tradition if Moses had not preceded Ezra he would have received the Torah instead (Sukkah 20a; Kohelet Rabba 1.4; Megilla 15a; Sanhedrin 21b).

[145] > What if there is nobody present who can read from the Torah? Provided there is a minyan, you can still open the Ark and take out the Torah with the usual ceremonial. One person should read aloud from a Chumash with another repeating the words whilst looking at them in the scroll. Blessings should not be made over the Chumash but only over the Sefer Torah. A person who can understand and read Hebrew with expression, but does not - yet - know the cantillation melody, can however, read the Torah without cantillation (Pirkei Avos 5:25).

[146] Rabbi Yonoson Hirtz, essay, Simchat Torah, Viewpoint Magazine, Fall 1998, page 45

[147] Mishne Torah, Hilchot Tefilla 13:5; Megillah 298; Sofrim 16:10

[148] Rabbi Yitzchok died in Narbonne, Provence in 1179.

[149] The Voyagers of Benjamin of Tudela, page 63.

[150] Ben Sira 24 28-29.

[151] Or ha-Hammah on Zohar 3:106a; Turei Zahav; Avot 3;3; Ben Zoma, Pirkei Avot.

[152] Avot 1.17, 4.5,3:22; Kiddushin 40b; Sifre Ekev 41.

[153] What role does study or faith play, if any? They are important only if they lead to the right acts (mitzvot). "Study is not the main thing,” writes Rabbi Shimon-ben Gamliel, “but deeds, for it is by deeds that Man atones for his shortcomings," to which Rabbi Yish­mael adds, "If you learn in order to teach, it is given to you to learn and teach. If you learn in order to do, then it is given to you to learn, teach, observe and do." In a famous Talmud debate Rabbi Tarfon maintained that action takes precedence, Rabbi Akiva argued the opposite. Their conclusion? That learning is more important. Why? Because (at least in theory) it leads to action. Yet, action not rooted in study is unsustainable. Consider the sequence in the Torah’s account of Sinai: "Moses took the book of the covenant and read it aloud for all the people to hear, and they said: 'All that God has said we will do [first] and [then] we will hearken to...’”. That learning is more important is the reason we say a blessing when we see someone involved in Torah studies but not when we see one involved in performing mitzvas. The bracha is shechalak mechochmato liyire’av, “Who has given a part of His wisdom to those who revere Him.”

[154] Exodus 19:8.

[155] Deut. 11:26-28.

[156] Based on this theory, there is no suffering without sin, no death without cause. There have been times in Jewish history however when this concept has come under considerable strain: for example, the Holocaust, with its murder of more than a million Jewish children, halachikally innocent of all sin by their very age. In a famous story Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya is rebuked by Rav Elisha whose position is that ultimate justice is found only in the afterlife. This concept requires absolute emuna (faith) because it flies in the face of what we witness daily (emuna is akin to emun, which means "training," in that even - and especially - faith requires training.