Se'udah Sh'lishit

The third Shabbat meal

Like so many Jewish occasions, Shabbat is celebrated by eating. The Talmud (Shabbat 117b) actually derives from Shemot 15 the obligation to eat three meals each Shabbat. I recall one of my teachers saying that eating the third meal on Shabbat is one of Judaism’s least onerous duties!

While the first two meals fit comfortably into normal life (Friday night and Shabbat lunch), Se’udah Sh’lishit (the third meal) is enjoyed towards the end of the day. During the summer, when Shabbat finishes late, this may be supper on Saturday evening; in midwinter, it may be just a light snack before dashing back to Shul.

Although ideally, one should eat a ‘meal’, technically, one need only eat a minimal volume of food to fulfil one’s obligation. Interestingly, the Tur reminds us that ‘the wise people have eyes in their heads and don’t stuff themselves at lunch, to leave room for Se’udah Sh’lishit!’ If possible, one should eat the third meal after the Minchah-afternoon service, although in practice, it often eaten beforehand. Unlike the first two Shabbat meals, this meal is not introduced with Kiddush, but simply with the two loaves that characterise each Shabbat meal. However, the texts record that one may use a single loaf if necessary and if one is not hungry, eat cake or, in extremis, fish, meat or fruit.

The atmosphere at Se’udah Sh’lishit echoes that fact that Shabbat is nearing its conclusion. Often quite mournful tunes are sung, capturing the waning majesty of Shabbat and the gradually encroaching reality of weekday life. Psalm 23 is a favourite, as is ‘Yedid Nefesh’ – a mystical poem by Rabbi El’azar Ezkiri, expressing the soul’s yearning for union with the Divine. This reflects what the sources consider the ‘third’ aspect of Shabbat. While Friday night connotes the creation of the world and Shabbat morning the giving of the Torah, the end of Shabbat focuses on the ‘Shabbat of the future’ – a time when the Jewish people will be at one with God in a harmonious Messianic age. Abudraham (a medieval halachist) explained that the weekly journey through Shabbat is akin to the celebration of a wedding, the groom being God with His bride the Jewish people. Friday night is the nuptials themselves, Shabbat morning the wedding festivities and the end of Shabbat the moment of first intimacy. It has taken the entire Shabbat to achieve this delicate state, but sadly, it will last only a short while and once Se’udah Sh’lishit is over, imperfection will reign once again.

The special ambience that pervades the closing moments of Shabbat is frequently captured at communal Se’udah Sh’lishit celebrations, which are particularly common in Chassidic circles, but also prevalent in other communities. The rabbi offers an inspirational discourse (many important Chassidic works are collections of them) and those gathered sing and imbibe the mood, sometimes in the darkening room, often until well after Shabbat has actually finished. Eventually, the weekday encroaches, the lights are switched on and another week has begun.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.

How Flexible Is Your Judaism?

Movement and Tolerance

Those familiar with the cycle of Torah readings will know that at this time of the year, we read about the construction of the Mishkan – the portable desert Sanctuary that accompanied the Jewish people throughout their wanderings. At first glance, the minutiae contained in the hundreds of verses dealing with the Mishkan seem complex and, dare one say, tedious. Yet part of the brilliance of the Torah is that even the most arcane passages convey profound and accessible truths applicable in any circumstance.

The nerve-centre of the Mishkan was the Aron, a container that housed the tablets brought by Moshe from Mount Sinai. In common with the other Mishkan utensils, it was fitted with rings into which carrying poles were inserted; when the Jews travelled through the desert, the Aron would be carried by four bearers. Rather oddly, the Torah instructs that despite their obvious function, the poles were never to be detached from the Aron, even when it was at rest in the Mishkan. This contrasts with the carrying-poles for the other utensils, which were removed and stored as soon as the journey was over.

The Talmudic sources question how the poles could be made so that they couldn’t be removed from the Aron. Apparently, their ends were thicker than their middles, so once the poles were forced through the rings, the Aron could slide around on them but never actually fall off.

Now all this seems obscure, irrelevant and so far removed from 2006 that you may even have stopped reading. But please don’t, because, believe it or not, this ancient building instruction contains one of the most fundamental truths about Judaism and the survival of the Jewish people. Bear with me!

The permanently attached carrying-poles testify to the unqualified portability of Judaism. The relevance and applicability of Judaism is absolutely independent of place and time. While, of course, Judaism is ideally lived in the Land of Israel, it is always possible to pick up the Torah (the contents of the Aron) and move it to new surroundings. No matter where we end up, we can set the Torah down and immediately make it the focus and driving force of our lives. Throughout our long and often torturous history, we have lived in places that have been friendly to us as well as those that have been hostile; we have encountered theologically sophisticated as well as primitive peoples, lived through eras that were technologically advanced and others that were functionally backward. We have been hosted by nations sympathetic to our spiritual pursuits, those for whom they were utterly alien, places where we were respected as people of God, others where we were viewed as the devil incarnate; environments where the beliefs of the locals enticed us away from our faith, still others where they offered nothing whatsoever of interest to us. The common feature shared by these disparate national experiences is that the Torah has been successfully transplanted into each of them. Part of its genius is its immense portability – whether in sixth century Babylon or 21st century New York, the Torah has been equally applicable, inspirational and indispensable to the Jewish experience.

A sad fact of Jewish history is that we have needed to travel from place to place to escape persecution; we have had to demonstrate the portability of the Torah in every century, for our past is littered with tales of displacement, expulsion and flight from discrimination and hatred. To ensure our spiritual survival, we have ‘lifted the Aron’, often at a moment’s notice, set it down in new surroundings and then began the arduous task of building a new Torah-centred life from scratch. This is a truly remarkable, and perhaps one may suggest, miraculous achievement, one that for at least for me, testifies to the historical truth of the Torah and the eternal survival of the Jewish people.

The nature of the carrying-poles educates us how this is to be done – remember that they were thick at the ends and thinner in the middles, enabling the Aron to move about on them without ever falling off. This teaches the critical concept of the need for flexibility within certain boundaries; the Torah itself has many different valid expressions, corresponding to the different positions that the Aron could occupy on the poles. It is hard to overstate the importance of this to a mature and properly-functioning Jewish community. The fact is that there are many manifestations of authentic Judaism. Of course, they all share the core belief in the historical truth of the Sinaitic revelation and the eternal imperative of Jewish law; nothing without these can be considered Judaism. Yet within these parameters, Judaism contains a great wealth of styles, philosophies, attitudes, complexions, emphases and even variations of observance. All of these are part of the amazing, and unsurpassable multichromatic Divine system we call Judaism.

Differing manifestations of Judaism (all, of course, committed to the core principles outlined above) are required in different places and times. In some societies, such, as I believe, our own, a whole range of different types of Judaism will be required, sitting comfortably next to each other, benefiting immeasurably from each other’s company. While the truth of Torah is absolute and eternal, it is hardly likely that the same style of Judaism would have suited 12th century Provence as 19th century Galicia.

The idea of flexibility (albeit within limitations) is fundamental to the survival of Judaism. The Aron could only be carried to its next destination because it could move about on the poles; without this latitude, attempts to carry it would have resulted in the poles snapping and the Aron being left behind. This conveys a stark message – that portability is absolutely contingent on flexibility. Lack of flexibility will result in the Aron (and the Torah it represents) remaining forever at its previous location, absent from its rightful place as the focus of activity at all future destinations. In short it could spell the death of Judaism.

Sadly, in parts of the Jewish world today, we see a tendency to ignore this truth. There are many people who believe that Torah can be anything one wishes to believe, whatever one chooses to observe, a kind of insipid humanism with a Jewish flavour added at will. By denying the fundamentals of Judaism, they have, in effect, detached the Aron from its poles, for they believe that the Torah can be prostituted into anything they wish.

Yet at the other end of the Jewish world there is another, quite different, but almost equally worrying, phenomenon - the trend to extreme rigidity in Halachic practice and Jewish outlook. By this I mean the promotion of the attitude that there is only one right way to observe Judaism, only one way to view the world through Jewish eyes, and only one mode or style of Jewish life that is really ‘correct’. In reality, in most areas of observance there is a range of practices, as well as a variety of philosophic positions on almost every issue, all within the parameters of Judaism. We deny the validity of other authentic expressions of Judaism at our peril, for once we ‘shtetelise’ it to the extent that observance in any other form is unimaginable to us, we endanger the very future of the Torah world. If we link Torah observance to specific conditions, be they socio-economic, cultural, educational, or any other, we jeopardize the portability of Torah, for when they change, as they must, Judaism disappears together with them. When we force the poles into the Aron so that it cannot move about, we deny ourselves the flexibility that has enabled us to carry the Torah with us proudly through history.

It is vital that we capitalise on the immense cultural heritage that we have gained from our travels through history. The Jewish world is immeasurably enriched by every experience that our past has thrown at us. We should enjoy, explore and revel in every nuance, style and custom gained on our journey. But when our Judaism becomes contingent on a certain set of external factors, when only one way of doing things becomes conceivable, the existential warning sign should light up.

We should have known this idea from the experiences of recent history, profited from the sad example set by a generation of European Jews who left their Judaism in the shtetl; learned the lesson of those who threw their tefillin into the sea as they approached the United States. But not all of us have internalised this message; the attempt by some to turn Jewish practice and thought into an unbending monolith is testimony to that.

We have much to gain from investing our energies into developing a diverse and heterogeneous Jewish society and a great deal to lose by not. We live in a dangerous and unpredictable world, one in which we cannot be sure of our long-term security wherever we may be. We hope and pray that we will remain comfortable in our host countries, but history has taught us that we must be ready to travel at any time. Are we up to the challenge? Is our Judaism portable? Only flexibility within the system will ensure its portability. Our very survival may depend on it.

Based on a sermon given at Golders Green Synagogue on 4th March 2006 a version of this article first appeared on Jewish World Review

A Seder In February?

Tu B'Sh'vat and the mystics

Tu B’Sh’vat (15th Sh’vat) is best known today as a celebration of the importance of trees in Israel, but it actually hails from ancient times. The Mishnah (Rosh HaShanah 1:1) offers two choices for the date of the ‘new year for the tree’; Jewish law follows the School of Hillel, who opt for the 15th of Sh’vat.

This ‘new year’ is relevant only to the laws of tithes pertinent to fruit trees that grow in Israel. Since each year’s produce must be tithed separately, the ‘year beginning’ is important, as it divides one crop from the next. For most fruit-bearing trees, the moment when the buds appear determines the year in which they are tithed – so those that bud before Tu B’Sh’vat are tithed in one year and those that bud after Tu B’Sh’vat in the next. Although a good part of the winter is still to come, Tu B’Sh’vat is chosen as the cut-off date as most of the winter rains have passed and, as Rashi puts it, the sap starts to rise in the trees at this time of year. Although these laws were hardly observed for many centuries, the return to the Land means that they are widely applicable in modern Israel.

Other than agricultural laws, there are few formal practices associated with Tu B’Sh’vat. However, in recent centuries, a number of forms of celebration have emerged. Some sources mention that one should mark the day by eating fruit, thereby acknowledging the importance of trees in the Torah Weltanschauung. In some circles this is accompanied by psalms and songs of praise; in some Chassidic courts, Yom Tov clothes are worn and the Rebbe holds a ‘tisch’ – a festive table gathering with songs, food and words of Torah. Many people attempt to eat fruits from Israel, or at least the varieties (such as dates and pomegranates) for which the Torah praises the Land. The esoteric thinkers understand that the Divine blessing flows first to the Land of Israel and only then to other places in the world. So while in Europe, Tu B’Sh’vat is in the middle of the winter, the start of the spring season in Israel (as evident by the wakening of the trees from dormancy) is critical to the wellbeing of all humanity. The great Chassidic thinker Rabbi Zvi Elimelech records a tradition of praying on Tu B’Sh’vat for a beautiful etrog for the coming Sukkot. Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (Ari) understood that when one eats fruit on Tu B’Sh’vat, one should intend to rectify the error of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, who sinned by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Even the precise number of fruits eaten is deemed significant; examples are 12 and 15.

In 16th century Sefat, the circle of kabbalists surrounding the Ari developed these ideas into a ‘Tu B’Sh’vat Seder’, not dissimilar from the more-familiar Pesach version. One enjoys certain types of fruits in the context of readings that express the philosophical and mystical aspects of the day. Apart from the fruits for which Israel is famed, fruits and nuts of various types are eaten, accompanied, à la Seder, by four cups of wine. The first cup is white wine, the second white with a little red, the third half white, half red, the fourth red with only a little white. As white wine indicates the latent and red wine the actual, the progression through the cups represents Man’s increasing capacity to maximise his potential as he grows spiritually, as well as our capacity to appreciate God’s design and greatness in the world. Fruits with inedible shells (such as nuts) are eaten first, then those with inedible stones (such as peaches), then those that are entirely edible (such as blueberries). This sequence too refers to development from potential to actualisation. The edible part of nut is completely encased by an inedible shell, representing the start of spiritual growth, in which potential is still deeply concealed by negativity. Peaches are mainly edible but partly only potential (the inedible stone). Blueberries are entirely edible, representing the world of complete actualisation.

A major goal of any Tu B’Sh’vat celebration is for the participants to gain a heightened appreciation of God’s bounty and the centrality of the Land of Israel in Jewish life.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished with permission.

Shemirah - Guarding The Dead

Caring for the dead

Shemirah or ‘vaching’ refers to ‘guarding’ the remains of the deceased from the moment of death until burial. It is usually performed by close relatives of the deceased, sometimes with assistance from friends or, who sit with the body in shifts, not allowing it to be left unattended even for a moment. Some communities organise a rota of volunteers to help with this practice; in the past, there were even paid ‘vachers’ to call upon.

This practice is well-ingrained into the Jewish psyche and is observed in every segment of traditional society. While the imperative to ‘guard’ the deceased is not mentioned explicitly in the Talmud, we learn in Mishnah Berachot that those who are engaged in the shemirah are exempt from other Mitzvah observances during their shift of duty. It is evident from this that shemirah has been a widely observed practice since ancient times.

One practical reason for shemirah is clear from the word itself – to guard the deceased from any physical harm. Left unattended, there is a concern that the body may be stolen, interfered with in some way, burned in a fire or attacked by rodents. In hot or insecure environments, these are reasonable concerns. It is also understandable why some would suggest that in modern mortuaries, where the area is usually secure and the temperature carefully regulated, that shemirah is no longer necessary.

There are, however, other reasons for the practice. The corpse, until recently a living human being, must be treated with the utmost respect. Leaving it unattended would imply that one now regards it as useless. The esoteric thinkers explain that the body, once the receptacle for the holy soul, is susceptible to negative spiritual forces until burial. We are assured that attending it prevents this from happening. Another view understands that the soul is in a state of flux soon after leaving the body – it is starting the long journey into the afterlife, yet remains attached to the body, its only anchor in the physical world, which has been its ‘partner’ for so many years. It causes the soul great distress to see the slightest ill treatment or neglect of the body; this may impede the soul’s progress. However, assured that the earthly remains are accorded every possible dignity, the soul can proceed on its journey, without, as it were, looking back. Of course, these reasons mitigate in favour of shemirah, no matter the circumstances.

It follows that since shemirah is a sacred duty, there are strict rules governing the conduct of those performing it. One may not engage in idle chat, eat, drink, smoke, greet others or even pray, learn Torah or perform Mitzvot when in a room with the deceased. Anything that distracts one from the task at hand is forbidden. However, it is appropriate to read psalms or learn Mishnah in memory of the deceased. Ideally, even these should not be read right next to the body; we are required to remain sensitive to the fact that while we can learn and pray, the deceased cannot.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.

Swarming Supper

Locusts on the menu?

Fancy locust shish-kebab, locust chips or stir-fried locusts? Apparently, locusts should be cooked alive, otherwise they become bitter! The locust plague that attacked Eilat at the end of 2001 gave Israelis as well as workers from Thailand (where locusts are considered a delicacy) an opportunity to try these recipes.

While most Westerners don’t normally regard them as part of a kosher diet, the surprising fact is that the Torah in VaYikra 11 explicitly permits some types of locusts. The code of Jewish Law (Yoreh Deah 85) summarises the tradition for permitted locusts: any variety that has four walking legs, four wings that cover the majority of its length and girth, as well as two extra legs for jumping. In later Jewish literature, the presence of a ‘chet’-shaped mark on the insect’s thorax was also considered evidence of its kosher status.

Although locusts don’t require shechitah (just image if they did!) one must ensure they are dead before consumption and not simply pluck them straight from the air to eat. A Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 13:7) describes the ancient Egyptians attempting to profit from the plague of locusts by pickling them. Indeed, locusts remain a highly-prized dainty in some countries. While we would normally associate a swarm of locusts with catastrophic devastation, for many North African and Yemenite Jews, the 2001 plague in Southern Israel (the first for over 40 years) evoked memories of a culinary treat not tasted in a generation.

So why aren’t locusts on the menu in my local kosher restaurant? The Shulchan Aruch notes that in order to actually eat them, we require an unbroken tradition passed through the generations as to the identity of the correct species. In Ashkenazi, and most Sefardi communities, this tradition has not been preserved and although there is plenty of literary evidence that locusts were eaten in many countries where Jews lived through history, most communities have discontinued their consumption.

Rabbi Ari Zivotofsky, a prolific contemporary writer who is fascinated with obscure kashrut issues, quotes numerous sources to indicate that until quite recently, the consumption of locusts was very common; nowadays the tradition is maintained by a small number of Yemenite Jews. Eager to ensure that the tradition is preserved and even spread abroad, Zivotofsky organised a ‘halachic dinner’ in Israel at which he demonstrated the kosher varieties of locusts according to the Yemenite tradition. He then served locusts for desert! Another expert, Dr. Zohar Amar, himself of Yemenite descent, provided the tradition through which the insects were identified. A number of academic studies have appeared on the subject; the Encyclopaedia Talmudit devotes seven pages to the subject and issue 19 of the Israeli Halachic Journal ‘Techumin’ offers 17 pages of detailed analysis from a Rabbi Sari in collaboration with Dr. Amar.

The likelihood is that cultural factors and unavailability (they’re not too common in Northern Europe!) led to the loss of the tradition. Will they ever appear on Ashkenazi menus? While Zivotofsky, who clearly has a very strong stomach, would have us eating all manner of strange foods, I think it may be some time.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.

Sleeping In The Sukkah

A night in the garden

It might seem crazy, but there are people who sleep in a hut in the garden in October. We are familiar with the use of the Sukkah for Kiddush, family meals and even parties, but many Tabernacle enthusiasts go one stage further and camp out for the week of the festival.

Actually, the Talmud understands the main use of the Sukkah to be for sleeping. We are encouraged to teishvu k’ain taduru – live in the Sukkah in the way that we normally live in the house, which, of course, includes sleeping. Indeed, while a snack is permitted outside the Sukkah, one may not take even a short nap elsewhere. Of course, this only applies if the weather is dry; when there is enough rain to disturb the Sukkah-experience, one is not expected to live in it.

The Shulchan Aruch quotes this position on Sukkah-sleeping as normative. Its author, Rabbi Yosef Caro, lived in Sefat, where the autumn weather is generally clement. However, Rabbi Moshe Isserlis (Rama), the author of the Ashkenazi gloss to the Shulchan Aruch, lived in Krakow, where the climate is rather colder. He notes that only those few who are ‘scrupulous in observance’ sleep in the Sukkah.

In trying to justify the common practice, he points out that the weather is too cold! One is not required to remain in the Sukkah if it is appreciably uncomfortable. If, for example, the Sukkah is invaded by wasps, or (as has happened in Israel recently) the weather is unbearably hot, one is exempt from living in the Sukkah. The same applies to cold.

However, Rama’s preferred explanation is that married couples should live together in the Sukkah, just as they do inside the house during the rest of the year. For those with a prurient interest, the Be’ur Halachah rules that marital intimacy is permitted in the Sukkah. Since (at least in 16th century Poland), most families didn’t have a private Sukkah, sharing instead with neighbours, the lack of privacy made this impossible. Rama recommends building a private Sukkah to obviate this problem. This justification was by no means accepted universally; indeed it was roundly rejected by the Vilna Gaon.

Of course, even if one accepts Rama’s reasoning, in warmer climes (or even elsewhere, armed with a heater and sleeping bag) and especially with the advent of private Sukkot, not sleeping in the Sukkah is hard to justify. In fact, even in England and the US, there has been an increased interest in sleeping in the Sukkah, whereas in Israel it is extremely common.

It is worth noting that despite the halachic normalcy of sleeping in the Sukkah, members of some groups (Chabad, for example) follow the tradition not to, even in ideal circumstances. This is because they understand the intense, all-encompassing holiness of the Sukkah to be incompatible with the state of sleep. Conversely, other mystical thinkers consider sleeping in the Sukkah to be the ultimate surrender of even our subconscious to God’s care. Better hope it doesn’t rain!

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished with permission.

Sheva Berachot

A week of celebration

Post-marriage Sheva Berachot parties are definitely ‘in’, and especially welcome by those who still feel hungry after the wedding!

The Sheva Berachot – seven blessings – said under the chuppah towards the end of the proceedings, form the major part of the ‘Nesuin’ – nuptial – part of the ceremony. They are repeated (in a slightly different order) following the wedding dinner Grace. They are also recited in the presence of a Minyan after meals attended by the couple during the week after the wedding. The Minyan must include at least one new participant who has not yet celebrated with the couple, although on Shabbat there is no need for a ‘new face’. The Sheva Berachot are recited for a week only when one, or both, of the couple has not been previously married; otherwise they are said just on the day of the wedding.

The term ‘Sheva Berachot’ has come to refer to a dinner-party thrown for a newly-married couple in the week following the nuptials. It might be a large, formal affair, or a modest, informal gathering; the idea is to create the circumstances in which the blessings can be recited in the presence of the couple. And while there is no absolute obligation for the newly-weds to attend such occasions, where circumstances permit, it is certainly desirable, and tremendous fun besides!

The blessings themselves are part of the great inspirational experience of Jewish marriage. They note that every aspect of human life is dedicated to the glory of God; refer to the creation of the world, and specifically to the uniqueness of human beings, who are formed in God’s image and are capable of emulating Him. They talk of Man’s creation as a single entity, before division into male and female, and pray for the new couple to experience a level of contentment akin to that of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Finally, they observe that God alone is responsible for every possible dimension of pleasure that the newlyweds can experience and yearn for ultimate joy in the Messianic age celebrated in a peaceful, spiritually replete Jerusalem.

In a few short lines, the Sheva B’rachot encapsulate the Jewish vision of the purpose of life, the yearning for love and inspiration, the historic role of marriage from the Garden of Eden through to the distant future, as well as the vital role of relationships, sexuality and happiness in building a meaningful physical and spiritual life. No wonder that the great mediaeval philosopher Rabbenu Bachya considered a wedding a micro-recreation of the universe itself; for the very concepts on which creation was based are reborn with every new union.

The ideas contained in the Sheva Berachot are multifaceted to an astounding degree – each time they are replayed in front of the couple we hope that they internalise a little more of their powerful, timeless message. By the end of the week, they are set up for good; inspired to develop a life together in which every moment is sacred.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.

Of Rosh HaShanah And Monkeys

Of humans and animals

One of the most meaningful things we can do on Rosh HaShanah is to review what we are trying to achieve with our lives and whether we have met our goals in the past year. Perhaps we should also review those aims and perform a reality check. If we don’t do this on Rosh HaShanah, I think it’s safe to say that we will probably never will. There are many ways of achieving this, but my suggestion for this year is to consider the following.

It is clear that before the great flood, Man was intended to be vegetarian - he was not allowed to kill animals for food until afterwards. It seems that human nature was somewhat different before the deluge; perhaps more passive and contemplative than today. Actually, it was the act of killing animals that was prohibited – there are sources that suggest that Adam was allowed to eat carrion. Only after the flood were Noah and his family permitted to slaughter animals for food. The Torah strongly contrasts its authorisation to kill animals with the prohibition of killing people, which remains strictly forbidden. Man must not make the mistake of cheapening human life, although he may kill animals.

This is a rather interesting point, as these days, it is not uncommon for people to equate the value of animals and humans. A while ago, I heard a radio broadcast in which a Californian academic with quite impressive credentials noted that as monkeys have over 90% of the genes of humans, they should be accorded rights in the same proportion. By this he meant 90% of the healthcare facilities, social services etc. We may assume that in response, our simian friends will have to bear 90% of the responsibility of humans – i.e. taxation and service in the armed. Presumably, in the future, we can expect to share hospitals wards, army barracks and dole queues with monkeys. Criminal monkeys will serve 90% of the prison sentences of their human counterparts and will be required to attend 90% of their quota of schooling. It may also means that a human who steals a banana from a monkey will be condemned to 90% of the consequences of robbing a fellow human. An old joke comes to mind – a monkey that has escaped from its cage is eventually found in a library holding a Bible in one hand and Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species’ in the other. When questioned about its behaviour it responds, ‘I am wondering if I am my brother’s keeper or my keeper’s brother.’

A thought occurred to me on this theme – since bananas share some genes with humans, would it not be logical to accord them say 30% of the rights of people? Where is the line? Some people might even prefer sharing a prison cell with a banana than a monkey, although I think we can assume that the monkey would prefer to share with the banana! I recall a conversation a number of years ago with a prominent academic who asked me if I would eat a monkey, were it kosher. I answered in the affirmative. (I don’t know if monkeys taste good, and many Hollywood adventure films feature the apocryphal monkey-brain feast, but that wasn’t the point). He said that the higher functions of monkeys are so sophisticated that it seems morally wrong to eat them. They are just too human. When challenged about chicken and fish, which he seemed comfortable eating, even though they express certain humanoid faculties (such as thought and pain), he acknowledged that drawing the line can be very difficult.

The Torah is unequivocal about this – the line is drawn between humans and animals. Of course, we are obliged to respect animals and be sensitive to their needs and pain, but there is a dimensional gulf between us and them. It lies in something I mentioned above – the notion of responsibility. What divides us from the animals (and thereby makes us human) is that unlike them, we can be altruistic, focus on the needs of others and if, necessary, delay our need for immediate gratification to achieve higher goals. Animals live deterministic lives; they feed, reproduce, run from danger and migrate in instinctively. We, in contrast, have the freedom of choice that allows every moment and experience to be invested with meaning. Monkeys may share 90% or more of our genes, but they share none of our potential and or capacity to change ourselves and our world. In this regard, there is no distinction between a monkey and the banana he eats. The only cogent place to draw a line is between the free-choosing and the deterministic; between we humans and everything else in God’s creation.

This notion helps us to formulate our life-goals at Rosh HaShanah. What makes us truly human is our capacity to live life in the presence of God, constantly aware that every action counts, that each thought and feeling is significant and can, quite literally, change the world. Regrettably, during the year we often lose this sensitivity, forgetting that we can dedicate ourselves to lives of altruism, focused on the needs of other human beings, tuned in to higher, spiritual concerns. Instead of a life in the spiritual fast lane, in which we transform ourselves and our world, we may favour the lazy and banal, relegating personal growth and the elevation of every experience to the bottom of our agenda.

Rosh HaShanah is the birthday of the world; as such it the annual chance to ensure that we are living up to God’s expectations for us and His creation. Do we deemphasise our needs in preference to those of God? Do we grab every opportunity to set aside our own desires to bring happiness other human beings? Does our behaviour in private reflect the same high standards as those we exhibit in public? These things define who we are; they not only distinguish us from the animals, but validate God’s decision to create the world in the first place. This is the theme of Rosh HaShanah – reawakening the God awareness in all of us that so fundamentally expresses the purpose of creation. So on Rosh HaShanah we crown God, paying homage to His majesty and limitless might through our renewed commitment to implementing His will with every act.

Let us celebrate our true human potential on Rosh HaShanah; may this be a year in which we take full advantage of every precious moment that God grants us.

A version of this article first appeared on Jewish World Review.

Repeating Chazzanim Chazzanim

Repeating words

‘Comfort you, comfort you, my people’, once quoted a rabbinical wag. ‘Why does Isaiah repeat himself? Was he a chazzan?’ The issue of repeating words in prayers has long been a source of conflict between some rabbis and chazzanim, for while rabbis claim that repeating words spoils the meaning of the ancient prayers, the chazzanim insist that reiterating certain phrases enhances the beauty of the music and hence their inspirational value.

It is noteworthy that there are Biblical texts used in our prayers that contain repeated words. The most well-known example is Exodus 34:6, in which God’s name appears twice – ‘Lord, Lord, merciful and graceful God….’ In the group of psalms known as Hallel, which are read on Yom Tov and other special occasions, tradition has determined that some of the verses are read twice. None of these repetitions need concern us, as they are absolutely integral to the prayers themselves. The debate arises over the repetition of words, phrases or even whole sentences by the chazzan during the course of leading the prayers.

The blessings that constitute most of the main prayers –Amidah, blessings surrounding the Shema and Hallel – were very carefully formulated by the prophets and early sages; each word is of significance, whether its choice, position; even the total number of words. The esoteric thinkers understand that every phrase expresses a lofty concept and quite literally moves worlds – as such, we interfere with the text at our peril. From a halachic perspective, since God’s name is invoked in every blessing, it must follow the correct form to ensure that the Divine name is not pronounced in vain. These restrictions will not apply to more informal parts of the service, such as the collection of verses read before the Torah is taken from the ark and liturgical poems added on special days.

Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, writing in 1870 Frankfort, viewed the repeating of words by chazzanim as a reformist tendency, and therefore adopted a very strict view on the matter. Referring to the repetition of God’s name (which is treated very seriously by the Mishnah, as it smacks of dualism), he said that the ‘repetition of words for the sake of the metre of the tune seems on many occasions to be like the most repellent example of rejection of the unity of God… Doing this mocks things of tremendous importance… Any community that regards prayer more seriously than a fools’ game must instruct the chazzan not to repeat words.’ He goes as far as suggesting that if the chazzan won’t comply, he must be sacked!

Moving to mid-20th century New York, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein took a more lenient approach. While acknowledging that repeating words is against the spirit of the prayers, he distinguished between repetitions that render the prayers meaningless (which he prohibits) and those which preserve the essential meaning (which he reluctantly permits).

Finally, from the perspective of the congregant, it has been suggested that the services are long enough without reading any of the words more than once!

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished with permission.