Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Are we going backward or forward? (Rosh Hashanah 31a)

If you’ve ever wondered where the psalms recited at the close of the morning prayers – one for each day of the week – come from and why they were chosen, it’s explained in Rosh Hashanah 31a. R. Yehudah in the name of R. Akiba tell us that each of the psalms – Sunday Psalm 24; Monday Psalm 38; Tuesday Psalm 82; Wednesday Psalm 94; Thursday Psalm 81; Friday Psalm 93; and Shabbat Psalm 92 – mirrors the essential creative act of the corresponding day during the first week. Shabbat, however, is different because it is a yom she-kulo shabbat: Psalm 92 speaks to the future messianic time which will be one long shabbat.

A dissenting opinion is offered: R. Nechemiah holds that Psalm 92 also reflects the first week of creation, and recalls God’s rest on the seventh day. All the morning psalms are a rehearsal of the first week of creation. In that sense, all our days hearken back to the first days of creation.

Who is correct? R. Yehudah (in the name of R. Akiba) or R. Nechemiah? Is shabbat about the past or the future? When we keep shabbat, are we looking backward to a past paradise or forward to future redemption?

The Gemara seems to change the subject at this point, but perhaps that’s not at all the case.
With the musaf offerings on shabbat, what would [the Levites] recite? Rav Anan bar Rava sid in the name of Rav: HaZYV LaCH. Rav Chanan bar Rava said in the name of Rav: In the manner that it is divided here, so are they divided in the synagogue.
“HaZYV LaCH” is an acronym for Shirat-Moshe (the Song of Moses) in Parshat Ha’azinu, which we read this week, divided into six sections. Gemara tells us it was divided up in the same manner it was divided for aliyot for reading in synagogue and read at the time of the musaf sacrifice (the additional sacrifice made on shabbat) during the Second Temple period. Why Ha’azinu? We are not told.

Ha’azinu recalls in poetic terms Israel’s unfaithfulness to God throughout the years of the wilderness wandering. God guided them, but they went astray, following after idols. God saw and was vexed and spurned his sons and his daughters (Dt. 32:19). Really? Despite their misdeeds and disloyalty, the Lord will vindicate his people and take revenge for his servants when God sees that their might is gone and neither bond nor free is left (Dt. 32:36). The shirah ends on this note:
O nations, acclaim God’s people!
For God will avenge the blood of God’s servants,
Wreak vengeance on God’s foes,
And cleanse the land of God’s people.
The message we are left with is that when all is said and done – even after Israel’s perfidy and betrayal – God will vindicate, defend, and avenge Israel against her enemies. God is wholly on Israel’s side, and redemption is ultimately assured.

Gemara continues:
At minchah on shabbat, what did [the Levites] recite? R. Yochanan said: Az yashir [Exodus 15:1-10] and Mi chamocha [Exodus 15:11-18] and Az yashir [Numbers 21:17-20].
When the afternoon offering is made, the first two of the three accompanying passages are the first and second halves of Shirat HaYam, the song of redemption realized that the Israelites sang at the shores of the Reed Sea. The third is a short passage from the Book of Numbers. The Israelites have been suffering from thirst and God provides a well in the wilderness.

Musaf, then, is accompanied by Ha’azinu’s promise of God’s vindication. Minchah, which closes out shabbat, is accompanied by passages that evoke a memory of redemption realized. We look back in order to see the way forward.

I have often pondered Jews whose only connection to Judaism is the past or the future. There are those who come to shul only on the High Holy Days and perhaps attend a Pesach seder, but no more, and they say they check in twice yearly because of a parent or grandparent, or Jewish history, or the Holocaust. It’s all about the past. There are also those whose connection to Judaism is solely in terms of social justice: their brand of being Jewish is to work toward causes they feel mirror Jewish values. I respect both reasons, but neither alone bespeak a full Jewish life to me. Jewish life is lived in the present – in the here and now, day in and day out, with other Jews, with Torah, with God. I think Gemara is pointing us in the right direction: shabbat is not wholly about the past (God’s rest on the seventh day) nor wholly about the future (yom she-kulo shabbat) – but both are crucially necessary to live a full Jewish life in the present. We look back in order to see the way forward and thereby follow the path now.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman 2009

Thursday, September 17, 2009

We want to take this opportunity to wish you all a good and sweet year. May the coming year bring with it abundant blessings for you, your loved ones, and for our world.

Thank you for reading this blog and sharing your comments. May 5770 be filled with study and insight.

Shanah tovah u'metukah,
Rabbi Rieser and Rabbi Scheinerman

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


I want to take a pause from commenting directly on the Talmudic text to share two thoughts about how to approach the text. One is prompted by a comment from Simcha to an earlier post. The second has to do with the mindset with which I try to read the text.

In a comment on the post, “A SHOFAR OF SHARDS” Simcha pointed to the archeological discovery of a stone inscribed, “To the place of trumpeting,” which is currently in the Israel Museum. The stone matches an account in Josephus that the stone marked the place where a priest would stand and sound the trumpet announcing Shabbat. It is a stunning reminder that the debate in the text reflects the experience in the community.

Simcha then notes, “Indeed, the beauty of archeology is that it sheds so much light on the written. And this is why I keep asking you and R’ Amy how can we make sense of the Gemara if we have such little knowledge of the material culture of that period…” It is an important question.

Simcha is correct that every tool we have that tells us more about life on the ground in the time of the sages enhances our ability to understand their discussion. It is not only archeology, but other kinds of texts and our knowledge of the surrounding cultures. We benefit from advances in history, sociology, folklore studies and more. The discussion recorded in the text of the Talmud was never isolated from the life surrounding the sages.

There are many scholars who are currently exploring the ways in which the insights from these other disciplines can inform our understanding of the Talmud. I will only cite one book, though it will lead you to others: The Cambridge Companion to The Talmud and Rabbinic Literature, edited by Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert and Martin S. Jaffee. The essays included here survey the field and detail many influences on the Talmudic discussion.

I note only one example: Yaakov Elman’s essay discusses the influence of Middle Persian Culture on the sages. He cites parallels between Sassanian law and Rabbinic law. He details both the ways in which these laws change as they move between cultures and presents other examples in which the law entered Jewish life unchanged. The myth that the sages of Babylonia were unaffected by life in the Sassanian Empire is clearly false.

Elman’s insights are paralleled throughout the Cambridge Companion by other writers reflecting lessons learned from a variety of disciplines. Where possible I will incorporate their insights, but my learning in those areas is limited. It is important to remember our limitations.

When I read the text I am aware of two opposing tendencies. I am tempted to read the text through the lens of my contemporary practice, an approach that I know to be problematic. The sages mark the beginning point, while I am living at the (latest) end point. The two cannot be identical. So I try to maintain a mindset that focuses on the emerging forces that speak for one position or the other. My shorthand for these two approaches asks if I am reading from the text forward or from my practice backwards.

For example, as we studied the passages about which kinds of shofars were acceptable and which not, I had a clear picture of what counted as a shofar in my head, based on the selection available in our local Judaica shop. But that turns the matter on its head. The Judaica shop stocked those horns that had been deemed kosher not only according to the Talmudic debate, but more importantly by the decisions that had been made by generations of poskim, decisors, from the days of the Gaonim forward.

The traditional tools for the study of Talmud, the commentaries of Rashi and the Tosafot among others, lure us to read the text through the eyes of the later generations. These commentaries speak to the development of the halakhah more than the inner conflicts of the sages. They have a great deal to offer, and I do refer to them to help clarify the text. Nonetheless I am always suspicious that the questions they ask are not necessarily the questions the sages are grappling with, nor do they reflect the issues I may be seeking to understand.

We are currently reading in Chapter 4 of B. Rosh Hashannah. The question at hand is the sounding of the shofar in the aftermath of the Temple’s destruction. The discussion, noted in R’ Scheinerman’s latest post “Blowing in the wind and on shabbat (Rosh Hashanah 29b)”, leads to a comparison of the holiness of Yavneh versus Jerusalem. I hear in that passage a debate over the future of a community. The two centers represent different constituencies and different worldviews. If I can succeed in hearing that debate as they experienced it (I know that is an impossibility, but it is my hope), I believe I can better understand the text in front of me.

We have only imperfect tools with which to read the text. Simcha is correct that we need to consult a wide variety of disciplines – archeology and more – to understand more deeply the context from which the Talmud emerges. I believe I am correct as well that we need to strive to read through the eyes of the sages and not from our contemporary experience.

The bottom line is that the text offers us many entry points from which to appreciate the world of the sages.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Blowing in the wind and on shabbat (Rosh Hashanah 29b)

There is a common misconception that the Chinese character for “Crisis” is composed of two characters connoting “Danger” and “Opportunity.” Although this is a myth, it’s a wonderful notion because every crisis presents an opportunity for change.

The crisis in the minds of the Talmud is, of course, the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. It looms like a huge, dark cloud hanging over virtually every conversation, though it is not usually mentioned explicitly, as if it were too big and too awful to articulate. It is of interest, therefore, that in the mishnah at the beginning of chapter 4 of masechet Rosh Hashanah (29b), the destruction is mentioned explicitly. Mishnah, in general, does far more than capture and preserve late Second Temple traditions and procedures: it begins the process of reformulating Judaism to survive the destruction and flourish in a world sans Temple, and that is certainly the case with this particular mishnah:
When Rosh Hashanah coincides with shabbat, they blow [the shofar] in the Temple, but not in the provinces. After the Temple was destroyed, Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai instituted that they would blow the shofar wherever there was a bet din [rabbinic court]. R. Elazar said: Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai instituted [this practice] only in Yavneh. They said to him: Both in Yavneh and anywhere there is a bet din. And in this additional [respect] Jerusalem was superior to Yavneh: any town that could see and hear and was near enough to come [to Jerusalem] would blow [the shofar on shabbat]; but in Yavneh they would blow [the shofar] only in the bet din itself.
The question is whether and where shofar may be blown on Rosh Hashanah when the holy day falls on shabbat. The gemara will discuss whether blowing shofar is considered m’lachah (work) or not and conclude that while it is not m’lachah, carrying a shofar more than four cubits in the public domain (a risk of permitting it to be blown on shabbat) is a violation of shabbat. The Mishnah, however, is focused on where shofar may be blown on shabbat following the destruction of the Temple.

In the transition from a world centered on the Temple, to a world without a Temple, one opinion holds that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai designated on his own authority that the existence of a duly constituted rabbinic court renders a place acceptable for blowing shofar on shabbat – it has the status, to some degree, of the Temple. R. Elazar offers an alternative memory of Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai’s view: only Yavneh was given this status. (Yavneh, located outside Jerusalem in central Israel, was the city to which Yochanan b. Zakkai moved the Sanhedrin following the destruction and accordingly from where rabbinic Judaism emerged.) Finally, the anonymous narrator of the mishnah tells us that both Yavneh and any location with a sitting bet din were eligible.

Is Yavneh a sacred precinct in some regard? Does the convergence of scholars engaged in study and transmission of Oral Torah lend a place a measure of the sanctity of the Temple? Is it to function as a “new” or “temporary” Jerusalem in the aftermath of the destruction?

Alternatively: Does a sitting bet din lend a town a status like the Temple? Is the role of the bet din – in line with the new formulation of Judaism based on emerging Oral Torah – the sign of holiness?

Is it place that makes something holy, or the people who inhabit the place, or the activities that transpire there? These are the three categories under discussion.

Mishnah then adds a most interesting comment:
And in this additional [respect] Jerusalem was superior to Yavneh: any town that could see and hear and was near enough to come [to Jerusalem] would blow [the shofar on shabbat]; but in Yavneh they would blow [the shofar] only in the bet din itself.
Jerusalem, the eternal central holy location, although in ruins, retained its full sanctity and drawing power: if you were near enough to experience Jerusalem by sight or sound, where you stood – although outside Jerusalem – took on a measure of Jerusalem’s sanctity, enough to permit the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah when it fell on shabbat. In contrast, although the Sanhedrin was moved to Yavneh, and Rabbanan Yochanan b. Zakkai taught his circle of disciples there, shofar was blown only in the bet din itself.

With the perspective of more than 20 centuries since the destruction of the Temple, it is easy to see how these questions of time, space, function, and activity have been resolved. The Temple Mount is eternally sacred. Cemeteries are sacred space because of those buried there. Synagogues have a sacred quality because they contain arks with Torah scrolls. But synagogues are not eternally sacred: it is not uncommon for a congregation to move and sell its building. Rather, Judaism has invested with greatest sanctity moments in time.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously wrote in The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man:
Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. Unlike the space-minded man to whom time is unvaried, iterative, homogeneous, to whom all hours are alike, quality-less, empty shells, the Bible senses the diversified character of time. There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious.

Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn; a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate: the Day of Atonement. According to the ancient rabbis, it is not the observance of the Day of Atonement, but the Day itself, the "essence of the Day," which, with man's repentance, atones for the sins of man.

Jewish ritual may be characterized as the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time. Most of its observances--the Sabbath, the New Moon, the festivals, the Sabbatical and the Jubilee year--depend on a certain hour of the day or season of the year. It is, for example, the evening, morning, or afternoon that brings with it the call to prayer. The main themes of faith lie in the realm of time. We remember the day of the exodus from Egypt, the day when Israel stood at Sinai; and our Messianic hope is the expectation of a day, of the end of days.
The sages of the mishnah are in the process of working this out. They are juggling possibilities and considering what will create community and meaning, and preserve and extend the tradition of Torah in a world without its functioning geographic center, the Temple in Jerusalem. They must find a new center on which to balance the needs of the Jewish people, a center that is not a fixed location. That new center is time and for that reason, in most of the Jewish world when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat, as it will this year, shofar will not be blown because the sanctity of shabbat supersedes that of Rosh Hashanah. For Jews, sacred moment have more power than sacred places.

© Rabbi Amy R. Scheinerman 2009

Sunday, September 6, 2009


The Mishnah poses a puzzle.
If one was behind a synagogue or lived close by a synagogue and heard the sounding of the shofar or the reading of the Megillah [for Purim], have they fulfilled their obligation.
The problem is that this person only overheard the sounding or reading, it was incidental, not intended. So does it count? Do we require intentionality in the observance of the mitzvot, and in this case the question arises, whose intention.

I feel like this is a no-win proposition. Of course we want everyone to come to their observance of Judaism with conscious intention. What would it even mean to have people sleep-walking through the mitzvot? They might hear the shofar, but it would have no impact, no significance. It would only be another sound in a noisy world. But then there are problems on the other side. If intention is mandated, it invites a certain “check on your neighbor” mentality. I have been told by those who consider themselves more observant than they think I am that my performance of a given mitzvah doesn’t really count. Presumably I failed their litmus test for the proper intentionality. So sorry.

The gemara on Rosh HaShannah 28a-b examines the question of intention from a variety of angles. Whose intention is important? Do all of those involved require intention? Is it required that the focus be on the mitzvah, or are there other issues? What started as a simple question -- are you prepared and awake to this holy opportunity before you -- becomes much more complex in the hands of our sages.

The gemara asks, what if the one sounding the shofar was only fooling around, not really intending to fulfill a command or to create any particular sound. Does the one who hear his playing, not knowing that he is not serious, fulfill his obligation to hear the shofar? Rava suggests (Rosh Hashannah 28b) that “mitzvoth do not require kavvanah (intention).” The one who hears, fulfills the mitzvah.

The sages test that proposition by citing a different mishnah (from Berachot, Prayers) stating that if one was reading Torah and came to the verses of the Shema at the hour when they were to be recited as prayer, did they fulfill their obligation. They escape the obvious conclusion by positing a scribe correcting the text, instead of a regular reader engaged in study. The scribe would only be scanning the letters, not really paying attention to the words as such. In this case intention means consciousness; the scribe needs to know what text he is reading and be conscious of its meaning, but does not require an intentionality to be reciting the Shema as a mitzvah.

The gemara tries again, this time returning to the case of our mishnah, the person wandering behind the synagogue. The mishnah says, if he directed his heart, he has fulfilled the obligation, if not, not. But the sages ask where his heart needs to be directed. Again they avoid the obvious. The issue they discover is that the person was focused on hearing something, that is, he could distinguish the blast of the shofar from the braying of a donkey, not that the person was focused on fulfilling a mitzvah. Hearing the sound of the shofar is sufficient. Intention now equals recognition or awareness.

The next case makes this all more difficult. If the one hearing the sound intended to fulfill the obligation of the mitzvah, but the one sounding the shofar did not, or vice versa, then the mitzvah was not fulfilled. That is, everything needs to be lined up. The hearer and the sounder both need to have a common intention at the same time to do the same act. This holds out the highest standard of intention, it needs to be a concerted effort by the players on both sides of the act, both performer and listener.

This would seem to be the most obvious case, in part because it matches our normal experience. We gather in the synagogue, we are directed to rise as the shofar service begins. The Baal Tekiah, shofar blower, is loudly prompted to sound each call. It is hard to miss the moment if you are in the room. Everyone’s attention is directed to the right place.

But the gemara is still not convinced. What, they ask, if the shofar blower was merely intending to create music? Or perhaps the person who picked up the shofar had no intention of fulfilling any mitzvah, but was merely making a barking sound, puffs of indiscriminate sound through the shofar? Isn’t it sufficient if the person hearing the sound intended to hear the shofar and believes he heard the correct sounds of the season? Can intention be one-sided?

Intention, we learn, can be of many kinds. Intention might equal consciousness or awareness. It might speak of ability to recognize certain stimuli. What would happen if our hearing were affected and we were unable to distinguish the sound of a shofar from other sounds, could we fulfill the command by watching the shofar blower bring the instrument to his lips? Intention may rest on one person , or many. With each change of focus a requirement of intention opens up a new story.

This is not the end of the discussion, but it is sufficient to give a taste of the complexity of the matter. I find the sage’s deconstruction of the simple term “intention” instructive. Our classic tradition is more concerned with right behavior than with right belief. It is reasonably easy to know that you heard a shofar, spent time in a sukkah, or recited words of blessing over a meal. It is impossible to know if your thoughts match some external standard of intention.

I subscribe to the teaching of R. Judah, cited in the name of Rav (Pesachim 50b): One should always engage in Torah and good deeds, even if it is for ulterior purposes, for from doing the right thing, one will come to do it for the right reason. Religious observance is a journey, a striving. May we be blessed to have good companions and wise teachers to accompany us on our journey.

© Rabbi Louis Rieser 2009

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Intention and mitzvot: what might this say about God? (Plus an excursion into Ki Anu Amecha)

In my previous post, I discussed the question of whether or not one requires intention to fulfill a mitzvah. How can we determine another’s intention? Focusing on behavior is far more objective, and avoids the messy judgmentalism of trying to analyze another person’s inner states. That said, using behavior as a religious metric for piety has its own limitations.

There are many ways to conceive God and our relationship with God. By and large, however, the predominant metaphor is that God is Creator/Ruler/Law-giver and we are bound to God in a covenantal relationship that entails legal obligations: 613 of them, to be precise. As I said, it’s not the only metaphor, but it is the dominant one, and serves as the foundation of the entire mitzvah system.

This emphasis is consistent with Judaism’s emphasis on human behavior, above and beyond theology, philosophy, and many other religious concerns. We are what we do and say, whether or not we wish to believe that is the case. The quality of our communities and societies depends upon the limits on human behavior and our ability to abide by those limits, as well as our willingness to extend ourselves to others in the directions of chesed (kindness) and tzedek (justice), which is also a matter of behavior. Certainly ideas and beliefs inform behavior, but in the last analysis, what affects us and what we can regulate and judge, is behavior.

At the same time, the dominant metaphor is limiting and, indeed, theologically stifling for many people. It lends itself to a black-and-white view of religious practice – acts are either “right” or “wrong” – and a hierarchical view of the world.

On Yom Kippur we sing Ki Anu Amekha four times, just prior to each Vidui (confessional). This beautiful prayer offers us a menu of ways to envision our relationship with God:
We are Your People, You are our God.
We are Your children; You are our parent.
We are Your servants; You are our master.
We are Your congregation; You are our portion.
We are Your heritage; You are our destiny.
We are Your flock; You are our shepherd.
We are Your vineyard; You are our vineyard-keeper.
We are Your creatures; You are our creator.
We are Your beloved; You are our lover.
We are Your treasure; You are our best friend.
We are the ones who speak up for You; You are the One who speaks up for us.
Most of the metaphorical offerings in Ki Anu Amekha are, not surprisingly, hierarchical and as we have come to expect, God is in the superior and powerful position. The two exceptions are, “We are Your beloved; You are our lover.” This is not the translation you’re likely to find in a machzor (High Holy Day prayerbook), but the Hebrew is clear (see Song of Songs, undoubtedly the inspiration for this verse). Lovers are (or ought to be) equals in a relationship. The other exception to what are unambiguously hierarchical relationships is the last verse: “We are the ones who speak up for You; You are the One who speaks up for us.” The use of the root aleph-mem-resh, which means speak or utter carries connotations of the utterances that created the universe, suggesting another interpretation to me:
We are Your utterances; God is the one who speaks us.
God, Torah tells us, created the world with words. Barukh she-amar v’haya ha-olam. Blessed is the One Who spoke and the world came into being. Creation is ongoing. The entire world is continually in the process of becoming, of creating itself each and every moment. We are words of God – we are vehicles of creation. Our choices, which fuel our actions and deeds, affect the ongoing creation (process) of the universe. When we are in relationship with God – cognizant of the Covenant, considering our choices and how our actions will affect others – God speaks us, God reaches into the world through us. Being God’s utterances suggests a partnership with God, a working relationship of ongoing connection on the deepest level.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, 2009