Originally published in The Jewish Chronicle.
17 April 1970:
Is it permitted to invite non-Jews to the Seder table?
Why not? If you are thinking of Exodus 12, 43 (“no stranger shall eat thereof”), this obviously applies only to the Paschal lamb in Temple times. It is the practice nowadays in many Jewish homes to invite interested non-Jews to the Seder, and those interested in fostering good relations between Christians and Jews encourage it.
I have been told by my mother that one has only boiled chicken at the Seder table, not baked, etc. Is this correct and why?
After the destruction of the Temple it was forbidden to set aside a lamb as a Paschal offering since to eat it without the Temple ceremonies was a serious offense. It Talmudic times it became the custom in some places not to eat any roasted meat at the Seder so as to avoid confusion with the Paschal lamb (which was roasted). The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim, 476) states explicitly that this refers also to chicken.
As a diet-reformist I never touch white flour. Can I use Ryvita or similar instead of matzot for Passover?
Contrary to popular opinion there is no obligation to eat matzo during the whole of Passover except on the Seder eve, and then no more than a small piece (an “olive’s bulk”―kezayit). This piece, however, has to be prepared specially for the purpose. Your scruples, therefore, ought to be relaxed in order to carry out the mitzvah of eating this very small quantity of matzo. Any substitutes […] eaten must of course be entirely free of leaven.
5 April 1985:
Some boxes of matzot have the word chametz prominently printed on them. How can matzot be chametz?
Matzo is unleavened bread; chametz is leavened bread. There is a good deal of discussion by the rabbis on what constitutes “leaven.” For instance, dough that has not been allowed to rise before it is basked is unleavened, while dough that has risen before being baked is leaven.
But what is the degree of “rise” in this connection? If the many detailed rules in this matter are not observed―care being sought with the amount of water that is put into the dough and the dough being placed as speedily as possible into the oven to bake―the result may look like matzo (and, in everyday parlance, be called matzo), but, from the point of view of the law, it may still be chametz, that is, “leaven” within the definition of the law.
The printing of “chametz” on the boxes is a warning that the requisite care has not been taken since the “matzot” were not manufactured specifically for Pesach use, but for consumption during the rest of the year for those who like to eat this kind of bread.
It is not a categorical statement that these matzot are really chametz, but that, in the absence of the care needed, they may be chametz, within the definition of the law, and should not be eaten on Pesach.
A number of firms have all their matzot manufactured as kosher for Pesach. Needless to say, these may be eaten during the year, since there is no rule that forbids the eating of matzo outside of Pesach.
However, if matzo that is kosher for Pesach is eaten during the rest of the year, it should be eaten as a purely optional food. To eat matzo during the year as if it were somehow more preferable on religious grounds would be to add to the mitzvot and this is wrong, rather like blowing the shofar as if it were a mitzvah to do so on any other day other than Rosh Hashana.
Or, to take another example, in hot climates people might wish to eat in the succah, where it is cool, and why not? But to sit in the succah at times other than on Succot, as if it were a religious act, is to offend against the law of adding to the mitzvot.
To peform a mitzvah means to do that which the Torah commands. To do otherwise than the way the Torah commands, by adding features of one’s own, is to disobey the Torah.
It follows from all this that there can be bread that is chametz which looks, nonetheless, like matzo (and may be called matzo). Such bread must not be eaten on Pesach.
You have mentioned as the usual reason for drinking four cups at the Seder the “four different expressions” in Exodus 6: 6 and 7, a reason borrowed from the Jerusalem Talmud (Pesachim 10:1). However, this source is not quoted correctly. The word leshonot (“expressions”) does not occur in this passage, where the four cups are in fact said to be in remembrance of the four geulot (“redemptions”). This, I believe, gives a more acceptable and significant reason for this obligation (see Torah Temimah, Exodus 6:6).
First, let me explain your points for the benefit of our readers. The Jerusalem Talmud does not say that the four cups correspond to the four expressions of redemption, but to the four redemptions.
As the Torah Temimah says, however, all the works which quote the Jerusalem Talmud render it as four expressions of redemption (see also the standard commentary to the Jerusalem Talmud, “Peney Moshe,” which uses leshonot, “expressions of,” in explaining the passage).
The Torah Temimah (by Rabbi Baruch Epstein) argues that if this is what the Jerusalem Talmud means, why does it say “four redemptions” since there is only one “redemption” expressed in four different stages in the redemption, hence four “redemptions.”
This, I admit, is a fine interpretation of the Jerusalem Talmud and may well have been its true meaning as you say. However, practically every other commentator quotes it as “four expressions of redemption.”
Rashi, for instance, to Numbers 16:41, quotes Rabbi Moses ha-Darshan that the reason why tzitzit are on the four corners of the garment is to correspond to “the four expressions of redemption.”
12 April 1985:
What is the meaning of the prophetic vision in Isaiah, chapter eleven, read as the haftara for the last day of Pesach, and what is the connection with Pesach?
First the connection with Pesach. Verse 16 ends with the words, “Like as there was for Israel in the day that he came up out of the land of Egypt,” providing a link with the Exodus.
But there is more to it than that. The vision is of (or, as least, has always been understood as referring to) the messianic age. In the liturgy, this age is said to be inaugurated by the Pesach of the future (pesach le’atid), the culmination, as it were, of the events set in motion when Israel became a people at the first Pesach, the Pesach of Egypt (pesach mitzrayim).
On the last day of Pesach, when remembrance of God’s wondrous works in the past is nearing its end, it is fitting to look forward to the goal to which all history is moving.
Judaism encourages us to reflect constantly on our history. But it also encourages us to look forward to the goal to which all history is moving.
In the Pesach Hagada, too, based on a passage in the Mishna, there is the well-known reference to the days of the Messiah, when the Exodus from Egypt will still be remembered, but will be overshadowed by the greater deliverance of the messianic age.
As for the meaning of “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb,” and the rest of the vision about the domestication of the wild beasts, opinions differ among the Jewish commentators on whether all this is to be understood literally or figuratively.
Some of these commentators do see the vision as one of a complete change in the natural order. On this view, in the messianic age, the wild beasts will become tame.
Nature will no longer be “red in tooth and claws.” Harmony will be restored throughout the whole of creation.
Others, including Maimonides, take it all as metaphor. The “lamb”—Israel—will be spared for ever from the attempt of the devouring destruction, who themselves will come to realise that God hates war and destruction.
The Kingdom of God will be established on earth and peace will reign because the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord “as the waters cover the sea.”
The truth is that the doctrine of the Messiah itself has been given two different interpretations, which might be referred to as the natural and the supernatural.
In the Talmud, for instance, it is debated whether poverty will be abolished in the messianic age.
Some Jewish teachers hold that the Messiah will establish his credentials by performing miracles; others, like Maimonides, reject the idea that the Messiah will be endowed with the power to perform such miracles as raising the dead.
Nevertheless, in the traditional doctrine, the messianic age is far more than a secular doctrine of progress. It is God who intervenes directly to bring about this final end.
In modern times, especially in Reform Judaism and in Zionism, the naturalistic interpretation is prominent. Yet it would amount to a complete reversal of the traditional view to see it all in purely secular terms.
Many a Jewish believer today will hold, again like Maimonides, that the messianic future can be left to God, and all speculation on what is to happen in that glorious period is precisely that, pure speculation which does not harm, but is really irrelevant to a living faith.
Deuteronomy 16: 1-8 indicates that God wished the Passover to be celebrated only in Jerusalem. Clearly, we are too many to congregate in Jerusalem today, but are we violating God’s will by celebrating the festival elsewhere?
The passage in Deuteronomy refers to the offering of the paschal lamb. This could only be offered when the Temple stood. What we celebrate today is, of course, the festival of Passover and this is independent of the Temple and Jerusalem.
At the Passover Seder, there are, however, a number of reminders of the paschal lamb, as, for example, the shank-bone.
4 June 1971:
On Shavuot, during the reading of the Law and Kaftara respectively, some congregations recited Akdamut and Yatsiv Pitgam. Whence derives this custom and what do the prayers signify?
Scholars suggest the following reason for the recitation of these two hymns (not “prayers”). They are both in Aramaic and in praise of Israel and the Torah. Now there is evidence that in some communities in the Middle Ages it was still the custom, as in Talmudic times, to recite after each verse the Targum, the old Aramaic paraphrase of the Bible. This was originally introduced so that those who were unfamiliar with Hebrew would know the meaning of the Scriptural verses that were being read.
These Targumic readings were introduced by a hymn or liturgical poem in the same language. Eventually the Targumic readings were dropped, probably because people understood less Aramaic than they did Hebrew, but the poems were retained. This fails, however, to explain why only these two poems were retained. Perhaps the reason is because of the special significance of Shavuot as the festival of the Giving of the Law.
Akdamut was composed by Rabbi Meir ben Isaac Nehorai (whose name is preserved in the acrostic at the end of the poem), a chazan of Mainz and Worms who lived in the second half of the eleventh century. (Chazan in this context does not simply mean the cantor but a composer of prayers, hymns and liturgical poems).
The acrostic for Yatsiv Pitgam is Jacob ben Meir Levi and the hymn is consequently attributed to the famous grandson of Rashi, Rabbi Jacob ben Meir of Troyes, known as Rabbenu Tam. It appears, however, that another Jacob ben Meir flourished as a liturgical poet at that time and he may have been the author.
In both poems the reader asks for permission to carry out his task which supports the view that they were originally introductions to the Targum of the Torah reading and the Haftara. If, as seems likely, the person who carried out this task made his own Aramaic translation, the poems mean that he was saying in so many words, please give me permission to engage in this difficult task and I can only hope that I will not give an incorrect rendering.
28 May 1971:
Would you expound on the custom or Tikkun Lel Shavuot?
The custom is based on a pas sage in the Zohar which speaks of the great significance of this night as the time of preparation for the marriage of God and Israel, when the Torah is given again, as it were on Shavuot. Actually, the Zohar refers to the community of Israel on high, the name given to the Shechina, of which Israel is the counterpart here below. In other words, at this special time of grace the “sacred marriage” takes place on high between the Holy One, blessed be He and His Bride, which is a highly-charged mythological way of expressing the unity that then reigns in all creation with harmony restored, as it were, in the divine realm.
Rabbi Simeon b. Yohai and his associates, we are told, therefore spent the night in vigil in order to prepare the ornaments for the Bride. There are 24 in number and represent the 24 books of the Bible. To assist the harmonisation of the supernal powers is called by the Cabalists tikkun (“putting right,” “perfecting.”) The mystics of Safed in the sixteenth-century elaborated on this idea and produced a special Tikkun, that is still used, containing passages from the Bible, the Mishna, the Zohar and other classical works.
In some circles however, instead of selections from the classics, a more detailed and rigorous study of a particular passage was preferred. As the Maggid of Dubnow is reported to have said, samples of goods for sale are only of value if the seller can deliver the goods. Nowadays, he argued, we cannot pretend, by quoting selections, that we have the whole of the Torah at our fingertips.
A less mystical reason was given for the custom of spending the whole night in study is that, according to the Midrash, the people of Israel all fell asleep on the night before the Torah was to be given. By staying up all night before the anniversary of the giving of the Torah we make sure that Israel will not be found asleep again.
24 May 1985
Can you give some illustrations of the Ten Commandments were elaborated on in the Jewish tradition?
On Shavuot we read the portion of the Torah describing the Revelation at Sinai and, in this, prominence is given to the Ten Commandments. But the Talmudic rabbis were opposed to any attempt to give too much attention to the Ten Commandments, thereby implying that only these, and not the whole Torah, were important.
For this reason, the rabbis abolished the practice of reading the Ten Commandments daily together with the Shema, as, we are told, they used to do in the Temple.
You are quite correct, therefore, that another way of extending the demands of Judaism beyond the Ten Commandments has been to read further ideas into each of these, thus giving them a far wider application. Here are a few illustrations of how the process has worked.
The second commandment is directed against idolatry. Now, from rabbinic times onwards, very few Jews were likely actually to bow down to idols.
The command was extended to embrace worship of self, so that the rabbis say that whoever flies into an incontrollable rage, it is as if he had worshipped idols.
In a remarkable passage in the writings of the sixteenth-century Italian author, Joshua Boaz, it is even said that it is wrong to bow to the Torah because the Torah is not to be worshipped. (We do bow to the Torah, but only as a token of respect, not as an act of worship.)
The third commandment is extended to cover hypocrisy. A passage in the Midrash states that anyone who wears large tefilin in order to persuade others that he is pious while behaving badly takes the name of the Lord in vain.
This commandment was also extended to apply not only to a vain or false oath in court, but to any unnecessary mention of God’s name.
The fifth commandment was extended to cover not only parents, but grandparents, step-parents, parents-in-law, teachers and older siblings.
In the Midrash, the “father” to be honoured is God and the “mother” is the community of Israel, so that the fifth commandment is made also to imply respect for our religious traditions, those which have been developed by the Jewish community throughout the ages in its quest for God.
The famous Chasidic teacher, Zevi Elimelech of Dinov, adds that, in the Cabala, the “father” is wisdom and the “mother” for discernment.
His comment is that the fifth commandment urges us to have respect for our minds, which give birth to our ideas; the mind should be used to its fullest extent in understanding the profundities of Judaism, and baneful, malicious thoughts should be avoided.
Space does not permit further examples, but I hope that these few will be enough to show that, for the Jewish teachers, the Ten Commandments were never seen as a reduction of religion.
On the contrary, they became the basic principles by means of which the Torah had something to say about every one of life’s situations.
Why do we recite the Adkamut prayer on Shavuot?
Akdamut is not a prayer, but a hymn in Aramaic. It is in praise of God, who gave the Torah to His people, a suitable theme for the anniversary of the giving of the Torah.
The hymn is, in fact, a kind of introduction to the old custom, now generally abandoned, of translating the reading of the Torah into Aramaic. This is the Targum, the Aramaic paraphrase of Scripture.
There were probably many such introductions to the Targum, but only Akdamut and Yetziv Pitgam (recited on the second day of Shavuot) have survived as part of the liturgy.
Perhaps this is because, on the anniversary of the Torah, it is necessary to emphasise the many facets of the Torah, including its interpretation through translation into a language other than Hebrew.
16 October 1970:
Why do we keep Succot?
The reason is given in the book of Leviticus (23, 42-43): “You shall live in booths (Succot) seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God.”
But if this is the reason, why especially at this time of the year? Would it not have been more appropriate to dwell in booths at Passover time, when the Exodus is celebrated? Historically considered, we have here an example, of which there are others, of an original nature (harvest) festival being transformed into a feast celebrating God’s deliverance in the past. But the traditional Jewish explanation is that to leave one’s home in the spring, when it is hot in the Holy Land, to dwell in a refreshing succah would be less indicative of the desire to do God’s will than to prefer the succah to the house in autumn.
A further thought associates Succot with the preceding High Holy-days of Rosh Has hana and Yom Kippur. On Rosh Hashana it is the mind that is chiefly engaged in contemplation on life’s meaning. On Yom Kippur it is the heart that is brought into play. On Succot the deed (of building the succah and taking the lulav and etrog) is especially prominent, thus giving concrete expression to the thoughts of the mind and the emotions of the heart.
It is also said that Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur represent repentance out of fear, while Succot, the “season of rejoicing,” represents repentance out of love.
Why do some people buy their own lulavim and etrogim?
The Book of Leviticus (23 : 40), speaking of the four plants to be taken on Succot, says: “On the first day you shall take. . . .” On the basis of this the rabbis declare that the Biblical injunction is for the plants to be taken on the first day, the duty of taking them on the other days being rabbinic.
Since scripture says: “You shall take” the rabbis further say that on the first day the plants must be one’s own, not borrowed from another. However, the ruling is that a lulav, etc, bought by the congregation can be paid for this purpose to belong to each member of the congregation.
30 October 1970:
When is the day of Simchat Bet Hashoeva celebrated and what is its significance?
According to the Pharisees there was a special libation of water on the altar during the festival of Succot, Simchat Bet Hashoeva (the rejoicing of the house of the water-drawing) was the name given to the special celebrations in the Temple which began immediately after the first day.
The Mishna (Succah 5, 1) observes that whoever has never seen the joy of this ceremony has never seen joy in his life. The fifth chapter of tractate Succah contains vivid descriptions of the celebrations, when the most pious men and sages would dance and even juggle with lighted torches.
In some circles a trace of the original Temple celebrations is still preserved by having festive meals in the Succah on the nights of Chol Hamoed Succot.
Those who observe this custom still refer to it as Simchat Bet Hashoeva. A scriptural verse frequently quoted in connection with the rite is: “Therefore with joy shall ye draw water” (Isaiah 12, 3).
23 October 1970:
What is Shemini Atseret?
It is recorded in Leviticus 23, 36 and in Numbers 29, 35 that the eight day of the festival beginning on the fifteenth day of the seventh month shall be an atseret. The meaning of the word is not clear. It is generally translated as “solemn assembly” or “solemn gathering.”
The rabbis say that there are in fact two separate festivals: (1) Tabernacles (Succot) from Tishri 15 to Tishri 21 and (2) Shemini Atseret, “the eighth day of atseret,” on Tishri 22. Since two days are observed outside Palestine for each of the pilgrim festivals (there is, nowadays, much discussion on whether the “second day of Yomtov” should be abolished both because the original reason for its institution no longer applies and in order to fall into line with Israeli practice) the second day of Shemini Atseret is observed on Tishri 23. This is the day on which the cycle of Torah readings is completed, and since the Middle Ages has been known as Simchat Torah, “rejoicing over the Torah.”
A rabbinic midrash takes the word atseret to mean “holding back.” God says to Israel: “You have been near to me during this season, stay behind just a little longer.”
Since Shemini Atseret is a separate festival, the liturgy of the day refers to it as such and not as “the feast of Succot.” For the same reason, after kiddush on the eve of Shemini Atseret the shehecheyanu benediction, recited at each new festival, is recited.
A special feature of the Shemini Atseret liturgy is the prayer for rain (geshem) during the Musaf service. The time of the year, as the autumn begins, is obviously appropriate. The chazzan wears white for the recitation of this prayer, just as white is worn on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur since this, too, is a day of “judgement.”
In rabbinic literature the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot) is also referred to as atseret. This suggests another possible meaning of the word, namely “concluding festival.” It concludes the Omer period which starts at Pesach and ends on the fiftieth day thereafter, when Shavuot is celebrated.
It is also suggested in the sources that Shemini Atseret should have been celebrated on the fiftieth day after Succot but was telescoped with the latter to save undue inconvenience caused by the rainy season in Israel.