Evolution: a Moral and Religious Imperative

We read in the second chapter of Breishit that Adam, the first fruit of creation, was fashioned from the adama, the earth. Later in the same chapter we read that the intention was for Adam work the land and protect it. However, if we look at what humans have wrought over the past 50,000 years, it seems that we took to heart the verse in the first chapter: “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue”, or “govern” or, perhaps, “conquer it”.

Am I the ‘Other’? Religion as a Bridge between Jewish and Arab Pupils in the Galilee and Central Israel

Direct Dialogue

Encounters between Arab and Jewish youth are often marked by heated ideological debate on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and possible solutions. And yet – when witnessing a direct meeting between Jewish and Arab (Christian and Muslim) ten-eleven year olds, pupils from the Alona School on Moshav Amikam and from the Greek Catholic School of Nazareth –  Al Asfiya, one senses that something very different is going on. The children are excited to greet one another, are sometimes nervous but happy to meet; they strike up friendships quickly and ask their teachers to schedule additional meetings. This may not be surprising if the kids were getting together to dance or play ball. After all, we assume that kids everywhere can find a common language, the language of childhood.

Religion as a Bridge?

What is more surprising is when this happens in a program like “Dialogue and Identity,”

The “Dialogue and Identity” program was initiated by the TALI Education Fund in partnership with the Jerusalem Council for Jewish Christian Relations (JCJCR). It offers a unique educational opportunity to teach Muslim-Arab, Catholic-Arab and Jewish schoolchildren, teachers and principals, from the TALI Jewish secular public school system and the Christian-Arab school networks, basic lessons in understanding, tolerance, and respect. The program is carried out in cooperation with the northern and Haifa departments of the Israel Ministry of Education Division for Co-existence Education. Guided by their teachers, each year some 400 schoolchildren meet within their schools in order to study and clarify the cultural treasures of all three religions that form the basis for their complex identity.
in which the pupils are required to come to every encounter with a full cultural knapsack. The meet affords them the opportunity to learn about the culture of the other, be he Jewish or Christian or Muslim, by way of his family and religious traditions. They become acquainted in the context of each other’s religion and culture, discovering what they share – which is enriching – and where they differ – sparking respectful curiosity.

Herein lie the challenge and the innovation of the program. Religion is the obvious vehicle for discourse between Jews and Arabs when the participants are religious leaders who meet to discuss philosophic and theological issues. But when the encounter is between 5th and 6th graders?

Based on past attempts to implement Jewish-Arab dialogue programs, and on Ben Mollov’s article 

“Managing Conflict: Can Religion Succeed Where Politics Has Failed?” Ben Mollov, in Jerusalem Viewpoints, No. 548, 10 Heshvan 5767 / November 2006; Dr. Ben Mollov is on the faculty of the Interdisciplinary Department of Social Sciences and Conflict Management at Bar-Ilan University
entitled “Can religion succeed where politics have failed?”, we developed a new educational concept by which pupils together investigate the three representative religions, with the aim of promoting mutual understanding, acknowledgement, appreciation, respect and trust.Religion, thought to be a divisive factor that heightens the conflict and widens the gap, here serves as a potential bridge to the other.

And not only to the other, but to ourselves as well – before meeting with each other, each group studies its own culture, as a necessary preparation to meeting their counterparts. This preliminary study is based on an educational approach that states when I become familiar with the complexities of my own culture, it enables me to be open to the complexity of the other. The idea that other people are different affords an opportunity to see ourselves as the different one, and we can more easily be accepting of the unfamiliar.

The pupils take turns hosting each other, meeting a total of four times during the school year. Each time, they deepen their acquaintance with their own traditions, beliefs and values as well as those of their visitors. They experience alternately being the majority and the minority, and develop a sensitivity towards each other when they meet face to face. The program gives a practical meaning to the Biblical verse, “For you were strangers in Egypt.”

Educating Towards Hope

After running the program for seven years, and expanding it to 14 schools, we see that the gamble has paid off. The participating schools view the Dialogue and Identity Program as an integral part of their educational vision. The pupils benefit several times over – they discover other religions and learn to view them as complex cultures with a system of beliefs, values and ancient traditions; they learn more in depth about their own culture and religion, when they prepare for the encounters that focus on holidays, formative texts, and life cycle ceremonies; and finally, they find hope for co-existence here in Israel.

To test the results of the program, we met a year later with veteran participants from the Greek Catholic School of Nazareth – Al Asfiya, to get their feedback. What became clear was that all the pupils remembered all the names of their counterparts from the Alona School; they all wanted to tell about new things they learned about themselves or about the others; they stated that “we never believed it possible to make peace between Jews and Arabs but now we wish for that so much!” They all requested another meeting as 6th graders.

The teachers and principals shouldering the burden of program implementation, together with their Jewish and Arab colleagues, are a model for their pupils to emulate. Their cooperation is inspiring: together they plan the meetings and facilitate them, making space for each other and their language and culture, in mutual respect. They open the doors to their schools and places of worship (synagogue, church and mosque) and invite everyone to become acquainted with the cultural assets of their pupils. The teachers also meet and learn about themselves in dialogue groups, gaining experience that helps them facilitate the pupil meetings with empathy and understanding.

The unique approach of Dialogue and Identity has brought it recognition abroad. Coexistences, a Swiss-based organization devoted to strengthening Jewish-Arab understanding in Israel, has chosen Dialogue and Identity for a second time to participate in a week-long summer retreat. In a pristine setting, removed from the pressures of daily life, the group of 18 teachers enters an intense yet fruitful exchange which allows them to further deepen their avenues of communication.

TALIs Dialogue and Identity project now operates in 14 schools in IsraelQuality of the Dialogue

The program partners seek to allow their pupils to take an active part in advancing understanding between the various elements in the society in which they live. The Jewish-Arab pupil encounters contribute towards elevating the maturity of Israeli society, enabling it to leverage the differentness that is usually seen as a cause of conflict and dispute, and transform it into a resource for building a democratic, pluralist, and dynamically creative society.

The program participants undergo a process that combines study, reflection and deepening of personal and collective identity. It is easy to succumb to a feeling of helplessness when facing a bitter, complicated and continual conflict. The program brings them closer to the goal of achieving a deeper inter-cultural understanding and a lessening of despair and hopelessness.

The fundamental principle is that direct dialogue is at the base of all significant education towards a multi-cultural society that is tolerant and democratic. As argued by sociologist Dan Bar-On, “the future Israeli collective identity will be determined by the quality of dialogue that develops between identity segments that are heterogeneous.”

The “Others” Within Us: A Socio-Psychological Perspective on Changes in Israeli Identity, Dan Bar-On, Beersheva:Ben Gurion University Press, 1999

The program staff members, Jewish and Arab alike, consider themselves fortunate to be part of a program that fosters cautious hope for co-existence in Israeli society. And we all know that hope is a rare and vital commodity in our region, as in the entire world.

Eva Halachmi is Educational Projects Director at the TALI Education Fund. In this capacity, she co-directs the Dialogue and Identity Co-Existence Program with Husam Elias from the Jerusalem Council for Jewish Christian Relations (JCJCR), and  is responsible for the TALI Educational Leadership Program, a two-year academic program for TALI principals and lead staff which empowers them with Jewish knowledge and the skills to be informed Jewish educators.

English translation by Penina Goldschmidt.

On Purim and Yom Ha-Kippurim

Img86447645Our Sages said: “All festivals will be annulled, except for the days of Purim, as it is written: ‘And these days of Purim will not be abolished among the Jews’ (Book of Esther 9:28). Rabbi Eliezer said: Also Yom Kippur will last forever, as it is written: ‘And this shall be for you an everlasting law’ (Leviticus 16:34)” [Midrash on Proverbs, 9:2.].

What is obviously common to both holidays is the word ‘purim’ in their names. Jewish tradition is founded on words. The nation of Israel entered into a covenant called Brit Milah (milah = word) with God; the Rabbis issued Halakhic rulings based on word games and combinations that to an outsider would seem fantastic. For example, one of the most common Halakhic methods of arriving at a ruling is based on analogy by common term. Many central laws of Judaism, such as the requirement for a quorum for matters concerning sanctity, are based on a comparison of two identical or similar words found in different places in the Torah. The Rabbis understood that not all would accept the authority of language, hence they stated: “The method of ruling by analogy by common term is dictated by Moses at Sinai and many precepts in Torah are based on it” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Pesahim 66). Indeed, language is the tool through which a thing is transformed from latent to overt – from inside a person, through his lips, outwards. Thus the Rabbis perceived Hebrew, the language of the Torah and of God, to be the world’s foundation. For God created the world, that is, realized the potential, by speaking (“And He said, … and it was…”), and He spoke, of course, in Hebrew.

The remarkable literal similarity between the two holidays, Purim and Yom Kippur, is sufficient to generate reams of drashot(sermons) on the meaning of Purim. In case one is tempted to chalk up the similarity of names to coincidence, I will attempt to prove a much deeper connection.

The Book of Esther is a strange, surprising and problematic Biblical book. It is entirely covert, containing no mention of God, redemption, the Landof Israel, the Temple, or any other element that recalls other stories of victory and salvation. The book is paradoxically called a megilla (from the word galui, or revealed) followed by the name Esther (from the word hester, or hidden), and it is precisely this ‘revealing the hidden’ that I will try to achieve here.

A few years ago I was asked to teach a class on Purim to parents at a TALI school. I succumbed to temptation and decided to talk about Haman. Any teaching opportunity provides me with an excuse to learn something new. On this occasion I wanted to better understand the phenomenon that goes by several names: Haman, Amalek, oppressor of the Jews. Out of a love for the Hebrew language, I started with the name Haman, that name that must not be uttered (and which must have been the basis for J.K. Rowling’s invented character Voldemort, whose name must not be said aloud) and which elicits a crescendo of noise throughout the synagogue each time the reader pronounces it.

I conducted a computerized search of the Bible for the nameHaman. I expected to find the wondrous manna that fell in the desert, and I wondered what connection I would discover between the two (for there must be a connection, since they are the same word in the same language). But I was in for a big surprise, as I came upon the first instance of the word haman.

Two women open the Bible, and two others close it, chronologically speaking. The two who open it are Eve and Lilith. Lilith is not explicitly mentioned in the text but the Rabbis identify her in the story of creation as the woman who preceded Eve. They find her concealed in the verse “this time it is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; I will call her Woman because she was taken out of Man” (Genesis 2:23). This time???  Yes, say the Rabbis, for there was an earlier occasion, and an earlier woman, Lilith (Otzar Hamidrashim, a Midrash collection, Eisenstein, 35:1). In naming Eve, Adam expressed his joy at finding at last the woman, the queen, if you will, to reign by his side over their kingdom. According to this midrash, Lilith resembled man, perhaps too closely, in that she was also created from the earth. But this shared attribute caused great strife between them, and as a result Lilith was expunged from the story, replaced by one more worthy than she.

The two women who close the Bible (again, chronologically, not in the order of the books) are Vashti and Esther. Vashti parallels Lilith, of course. She is also banished. The feminist ethos has us trying to befriend them anew, but in fact they both failed to fulfill their respective missions in their time – one to be a wife to Adam and become the mother of humanity, the other to reign at the side of Ahaseurus fromIndia toEthiopia.

By this logic, Eve must be Esther’s parallel image. Firstly, each successfully replaces her predecessor. ‘This time’ they both manage to meet the challenges confronting them. Secondly, both are orphans, without parents although each has a patron. The patron is part image, part destiny and role in the world, given to them by God. At Creation, this assignment is straightforward, because God is clearly present. In the Megilla, however, God is Hidden and is alluded to only once, precisely at the point at which Esther tries at first to evade her responsibility before totally accepting it: “Mordechai sent back word to Esther: “Don’t imagine that you alone among the Jews will escape to the king’s palace, and that this will save your life.  And who knows? Maybe it was for just such an occasion that you were made queen!” (Book of Esther 4:13-14). Here we glimpse a hint of a Directing Hand, a hidden patron and concealed wisdom that assign a role and destiny to a person.

There is an additional common element to the two women: they both flirt with a demon that threatens to harm, banish and deny: the serpent in Eden and Haman in Shushan. These demonic images are creations of God (for we should never think that the world of Torah contains two supreme powers): the serpent was created during the six days of creation, and Haman was “raised up by King Ahasuerus” (Esther 3:1).  (On another occasion we may delve into the possibility that King Ahasuerus is a metaphor for the King of Kings, as interpreted by those initiated in mysticism.). Both Eve and Esther are directly, and not by chance, associated with these demons; both play with fire and dangerous temptation. The serpent brings to mind connotations of the sexual, wily and evil; so does Haman, who at the story’s climax falls upon Esther’s bed.

Yet another image shared by both stories is the tree. But herein lies the difference between Eve and Esther, and the explanation of the connection between Purim and Yom Kippur.  When Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, their eyes were opened to evil in the world, shame was born, the first clothes were sewn, and the business of hiding began. Esther, whose name was actually Hadassah, hides under another name as per Mordechai’s instructions to conceal her true identity (hence the custom of masks on Purim). In the Megilla, good and evil are key words. The word ‘good’ is used repeatedly in the context of Ahasuerus and Mordechai, and Haman is labeled ‘the persecutor, the enemy, the evil one.’

The difference between the two women is that Eve plucks the fruit from the tree, whereas Esther has evil Haman hanged from the tree, the very tree that was meant by Haman to be the goodMordechai’s gallows: “’There’s also a fifty-cubit-high gallows in Haman’s house that Haman made for Mordechai, who saved the king.’ Said the king, ‘Hang him on it.’” (Esther 7:9).

Finally we arrive at the discovery of the origin of the word Haman,which makes its first appearance in Genesis 3:11-13. God challenges Adam, asking, “‘Who told you that you are naked? Have you eaten of the (in Hebrew, ‘Hamin’) tree, whereof I commanded you that you should not eat?’ And the man said: ‘The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.’”

It seems that there is a strong connection between Haman and the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Haman symbolizes feelings of shame and inferiority. When we first meet him, he is rather small, and it is the King who raises him up and enlarges him. This does not satisfy him, for he demands that all must bow down to him (i.e., make themselves smaller). When Mordechai refuses to do so, Haman is distressed, because he is obsessed with height, as seen by his preoccupation with the height of the tree from which he intends to hang Mordechai, who is good, has stature, and is more respected than Haman. This is the basis of Haman’s evil, and it is his downfall. When the King asks, “What should be done with a man that the king wants to honor?” Haman says to himself, “Who would the king want to honor more than me?” The turning point of the story is his moment of comprehension that the King is talking about Mordechai, and he is enraged. What an awful inferiority complex.

Yet the apex is still before us. When we celebrate Purim, which will remain a festival even when the Messiah comes, we are fulfilling a commandment to atone for the great sin of Eve. We are supposed to become drunk, to the point where we are unable to distinguish between Haman and Mordechai! When Eve picked the fruit and gave it to Adam and he ate it, he became aware of good and evil. The Bible, aspiring to complete the story, brings Eve’s sister Esther to atone for the sin, and return man to the state of unawareness that he enjoyed before he ate of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil; before he knew what shame was, for there was nothing to be ashamed of. Esther returns the demonic evil to the tree, and we pretend, if only for a day, that there is no good or evil in the world. In our lives, only a state of drunkenness can blur the difference between good and evil, but when the Messiah comes, good and evil will be obliterated, and our ‘pretend’ condition today will become real.

I dare not draw any lesson from this about the destiny of women in our world, nor will I state that they will redeem us all from the great confusion in which we exist. I am blinded by political correctness, and lest I confuse good and evil, I shall end here.

Elisha Wolfin heads the TALI School Rabbis program and conducts TALI teacher training. He is also the Rabbi at Kehillat V’ahavta in Zichron Yaakov, which he founded with a number of families 11 years ago.

Translated from the Hebrew by Penina Goldschmidt

Handmade Midrash

Dr Jo Milgrom and students from her Handmade Midrash classCreator and facilitator of the Handmade Midrash Workshop,
a course offered in the Judaism and the Arts M.A. program
of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies

The seed that became The Handmade Midrash workshop of the last twenty-five years germinated from a momentary flash of insight in a public school classroom in Richmond, Virginia  in 1963.  My daughter was in the 6th grade at Mary Munford School ecstatic in her ancient history class. I had to see how Mrs. Smith was teaching ancient history that could arouse such passion in an eleven-year old child.  Mrs. Smith taught the history accompanied by the visual art and archaeology of the period. Why not teach Bible this way! I asked myself in a moment of wild inspiration.

In December, 1964, Life Magazinepublished a double Christmas issue on Bible and Art which I distributed to each of my students. Together we learned how the artist could be a commentator on the Bible:  Rembrandt in the 17th century could say something as valid as Breshit Rabbah and Rashi in the Middle Ages and in late antiquity, six centuries earlier.  And the students could follow in their footsteps and also become commentators on the biblical text.

This started out as a Diaspora adventure. How was one to foster Jewish identity in teen age youth who were virtually illiterate in Jewish learning and uncommitted to Jewish life? This challenge is just as valid in Israel, for the vast majority Israelis.  Jewish learning, at least in the Hebrew language, is theoretically in the hands of all, but not necessarily the spiritual and symbolic aspects of the sacred books that can nourish the soul.

Soon after achieving academic status with a Ph.D. in Theology and the Arts I learned that the academic study of Bible and Art was insufficient to capture the heart of the student. I needed a way to unify Head, Heart and Hand.  The resultant experiments produced my book Handmade Midrash, Exercises in Visual Theology  where study ceases to be only cognitive and academic and becomes personal, even intimate, as strangers in a group become known to one another through the expression of their individual concerns and dilemmas and as they recognize the commonality of the human condition.

There are no requirements to participate in a Handmade Midrashworkshop, except the willingness to step out of old patterns of doing things.  New meanings emerge from making the familiar strange (not the other way around, making the strange familiar). The non-verbal imagination is disarmed by the ‘no right or wrong,’ by the absence of expectations and the honoring of the ordinary materials of daily living.

“Don’t try to make something beautiful. The idea is to make thought visible. It can be an ugly blob. But what is its meaning for you? And don’t go out and buy expensive material. Find stuff in the house; fish in the drawers, in the basement, in the attic for the discarded shmates you almost threw out.”

One of the goals is to help the interfering ego to step aside.  Participants embark on an inner journey in search of what Erich Neumann calls  “the hidden treasure that in humble form conceals a fragment of the Godhead”.  The idea is to give the hands autonomy, to be a child, (childlike not childish) to allow the soul to play and make shapes that the rational mind may at first consider worthless.  Once these forms find their voice they can become powerful personal metaphors resonating with the individual’s nature and embodying a deep personal experience of the text.

The biblical text is studied prior to making the visual midrash and reviewed once more after discussing the handmade midrash.  The art aspect is never detached from a relationship with the biblical text. In the interim, one moves imaginatively far away from text before the return.  The result can be dramatic.  The words are not the same as before.   Neither is the student. Midrash is thus a two-way avenue enlightening the maker and simultaneously deepening understanding of the biblical text.

Who comes to such a workshop?  Handmade Midrash brings together groups of different religions, race, education, profession, trades, age and gender. Because the common element is a degree of life experience, Handmade Midrash workshops are successful in interfaith, interreligious, and intergenerational settings. Scholars, housekeepers, priests, rabbis,  policemen, can sit together not intimidated by wealth, education and social status and find a common language.  The human commonality is all that matters, not unlike the Turkish bath where you don’t know whether you are sweating next to the secretary of state or a bank clerk, nor does it matter.

An example follows: In one workshop a student struggled to make visual what it felt like to encounter God on Mt. Sinai.  He tore black and white construction paper to create a visual metaphor for radiance and awe and placed a human figure within an eye. Was it God or Moses within the eye, he asked himself.  He resolved the tension when he realized that the more centered he was, the greater his awareness that one perceives and reflects the Divine,  both within and without.

The student did not know the surrealist painting by Salvador Dali,“Moses After Michelangelo” in which an eye surrounds the head of Michelangelo’s radiant Moses in the Church of St. Peter in Chains. (See accompanying pictures). Dali was making a midrash on Michelangelo’s Moses, and the student was doing the same. Often student work can be directly related to an existing midrash or work of art giving evidence of the common reservoir of timeless human images and concerns.

The workshops are based on Carl Jung’s discovery that the psyche of an individual spontaneously produces images with a religious content, that the psyche is “by nature religious” and that many emotional disturbances spring from a disregard of its religious nature, particularly during the second half of life.

The process touches an integrative life principle that brings together the fragmented and opposing parts of the self. Handmade Midrash thinking is non-linear and associative, resulting in a holistic experience.  Holistic incorporates the concept of holy, healing.

Dr. Jo Milgrom is a lecturer in the Judaism and the Arts M.A. program at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

Blessing and Atonement: Blessings, Honoring Parents, Atonement and Closeness

If we stop a moment to think back and ask ourselves how our Jewish identity has been formed by our individual experience, what has influenced us to keep the tradition of our ancestors, and in rare cases to join the Jewish people in order to become part of its national and religious life – in most cases, we probably will recall childhood memories of our parents, who guided us to continue in their way of life. Perhaps it was family Shabbat excursions, prayer services, or the Shabbat meals; perhaps it was discussions on Jewish identity or the Seder table. We each have our own childhood memory, distant or recent.


Jewish children in 19th or 20th century Europe (many of whom were not in synagogue on the High Holidays) must have been spiritually nourished by the emotionally charged blessing they received on Yom Kippur Eve from parents or grandparents, who placed their trembling hands on the child’s head and blessed him or her through tears. The memory of this moving moment, which does not contain the content of the personal blessing, has been aptly described by Yehezkel Kotik (of Kamentz-Litovsk, in the Province of Grodno, 1847-1921), a Jewish intellectual with Hasidic roots:


Grandfather began to bless the children on one side of the room, Grandmother on the other. He would call each child by name, in order: first the older sons, daughters and daughters-in-law, followed by his daughters’ daughters… Even newborn infants were brought to be blessed. Grandfather started by blessing the males, from the eldest to the two-week old babe resting on a cushion carried by his mother. He would place his hands on the child’s head and bless him. Then he blessed the women, also according to order of age.

As he gave his blessing, Grandfather would weep bitterly, a sobbing that could melt stone. Everyone, of every age, of course cried with him. The air carried a mix of crying sounds, low and shrill.  An outside observer could well think that the city had been destroyed.

As soon as he finished, all moved to Grandmother to receive her blessing. She also cried, but quietly. She would lay her gaunt hand on the child’s head and the tears would silently flow…. The blessing ceremony would take more than two hours.

David Asaf, ed., What I Saw: Memoirs of Yehezkel Kotik (1847-1921), 2009, Ben Yehuda Project, http://www.benyehuda.org/kotik/ch14.html


Bella Chagall, the wife of painter Marc Chagall, describes the scene from her family, members of the Habad Hasidim:


The parents placed their hands on each child’s head and blessed them.  Even the older children seemed small under the spread palms of the parents’ hands on their heads. I, the youngest, was last. Father, his eyes downcast, placed his hand on my head, and the tears immediately came to my eyes. I could hardly hear his words – his voice was by then hoarse.

I felt as if I were set on fire by the wax candle made by my mother, and purified. I left the circle of fire formed by his burning hands, giving light as he blessed me, and I moved under my mother’s  anxious hand.

Here I relaxed somewhat. I felt closer to her tears. I heard her simple and heartfelt prayers, and I did not wish to remove myself from under her hands.  When she finished her murmured blessings, I immediately felt a chill.

Bella Chagall, Lit Candles, Tel Aviv: Dvir Publishers, 1970, p. 67


What has happened to this beautiful and moving tradition? Why do the guides to holiday observance written for non-Orthodox Jews omit this custom? How is it described in Orthodox guides? Former Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Yisrael M. Lau (1978, 1988) writes in his book Practical Judaism:


It is customary before leaving for synagogue for the head of the family to bless his children, each separately, according to the birkat habanim.

Rabbi Y.M. Lau, Practical Judaism, Shaul Meislich, ed., Tel Aviv: Masada, p. 208


It seems, then, that this rare and instructive custom of parents blessing their children has waned over the years. Orthodox rabbis have turned it into a purely technical matter, and secular researchers of Jewish tradition have dismissed it altogether. Both have removed any educational and philosophical significance from this custom, and the opportunity for a gentle, loving message to the child about the values and life we wish for him or her has been lost. How has this occurred?


It may be that the reason for the disappearance of this magical moment of a personal blessing to the children is to be found not in theological leanings, for even an atheist can freely take part in it, but rather in the loss of parental authority in a culture that celebrates revolution. This hundred-year old trend crosses cultures and borders, but commonly involves a lack of belief on the part of parents that they have anything of value to transmit to their children, and the children seek neither guidance nor a blessing from their parents.  This rebellion perhaps began in the 1960’s, or could be rooted in the socialist–nationalist revolutions that took place in the late 19th century. At the start, children rebelled against parents; but parents subsequently stopped believing in the need to guide their children.  A riveting depiction of this rift is to be found in the memoirs of the Israeli secular journalist Neri Livneh, writing about her memory of Rosh Hashanah Eve in the year 5768:


My father, donned in a blue satin kippa with pronounced creases indicating its fresh exit from the package, and a creaseless white shirt, sat alone at the teak dining room table situated in the ‘lithall,’…looking sad despite his festive clothes and kippa that so rarely adorned his head.

In the next room, called the ‘salon,’ sitting on the sofa bed, were his two children – my elder brother and me. My mother, with an accusing look, bounced back and forth between the table in the hall and the armchair in the salon that faced the Grundig television. My 14-year old brother, at the height of his rebellion against our parents, resisted what he termed their religious coercion and hypocrisy. He had already, a week earlier, announced his unwillingnes to sit at a holiday table at which any words of Jewish text were to be recited. I, ten years old, blindly followed him like a fool.

That is why, that year, my parents were forced to refuse the customary invitation from our relatives on the kibbutz to join them for the holiday meal, depriving my grandparents of the chance they so eagerly anticipated to spend the holiday with their daughter. We stayed home in our municpal workers’apartment, because of the principles of a fanatic anti-religious charismatic 14 –year old, who turned the holiday into a complete disaster for our father, descendent of a haredi family…

Evading family holiday celebrations became a sport for me and for my friends. Once I even hosted a holiday meal for all my friends who, like me, employed manipulations or outright lies in order to escape from celebrating the hoidays with their own families, calling themselves “orphans by choice.” We thought we were so original, witty and true to ourselves. I didn’t realize that one day it would be too late.

Everyone is mortal, but no one truly believes that one’s parents, and the foundations that were in place when one came into the world, are transient. Neither can one imagine how it feels to be orphaned, whatever one’s age, until it happens.

“The Season of Orphanhood,” Neri Livneh, Ha’aretz, Rosh Hashanah Eve 5768

This phenomenon is summarized by the writer and psychologist Wendy Mogel of Los Angeles in her book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee (2001).  The book describes a girl who shows disdain towards her elder relatives. Her parents regret this but are unwilling to restrain her. Mogel writes: “I recalled the protest buttons and T-shirts from the 1960’s and early 1970’s that sported the maxims ‘Question authority’ and ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30.’“  Here were two parents well past 30, but whose political philosophy was destroying their family life.

Wendy Mogel, PhD., The Blessings of a Skinned Knee, New York, Penguin Compass, 2001, p.68


The American sociologist Christopher Lasch, in his book Haven in a Heartless World (1977), explains that the disconnect between authority and love in the parent-older child relationship has caused parents to accept their own irrelevance, as if parenting is an obsolete institution.

Christopher Lasch, Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged, New York: W.W.Norton & Company, 1977, pp. 174-175


Is the trivialization, even the negation, of the parental blessing on Yom Kippur Eve derived from the rebellion against authority that has turned us all into perpetual youths because we fear to be adults? What is required in order for parents and grandparents to spread their canopy of hopes and dreams over the younger generation and inspire them with their blessings? The tradition teaches that it is the young who must seek their elder’s blessing.


In Jewish tradition, it is our cousin Esau whom the midrash praises for honoring his parents in an exemplary fashion. Although portrayed in othermidrashim as the archetype hater of Israel, the Book of Genesis teaches us only that even without the loss of his birthright, Esau could not have merited to lead the monotheistic religion in the face of social pressure that supported idol worship.  Instead, Jacob was endowed with the strength of character to fulfill that mission, entitling him to the birthright. Yet, the Rabbis taught that in the area of respect for parents, Esau was unparalleled. It is he who teaches us  excellence in the fulfillment of this mitzva. The following midrash in Tanhuma describes him thus:


Come and see, how delightful the mitzva of honoring parents is to the Holy One Blessed be He, who rewards both the righteous and the wicked for fulfillment of this mitzva. Esau the wicked was thus rewarded; after Isaac blessed Jacob, and ‘Esau lifted up his voice and wept’ (Gen. 27:38)…. God rewarded him for honoring his father. How much greater is the reward for one who honors his parents and fulfills other mitzvot as well. (Tanhuma Kedoshim 15).


The writer S.Y. Agnon sums it up as follows: “A person should always seek a blessing from his/her father and mother and especially on Yom Kippur Eve. Come and learn of Esau’s reward for crying out (Genesis 27), ‘Bless me, too, my father,’ and God granted him peace of mind.”

S.Y. Agnon, Yamim Noraim (Hebrew), Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1979, p. 245.


As the New Year approaches we are left asking ourselves whether we will learn to inspire our children with our blessing, and, if our parents are still alive, to ask them for their blessing before they are taken from us; a blessing that is as a thread that links the generations and binds us together in one Jewish human fabric.


Shana tova and g’mar hatima tova, may we merit a good year and be inscribed in the Book of Life.


Dr. Einat Ramon teaches modern Jewish thought and literature and Jewish feminism at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies

The Rabbis and Rain – The Religious and the Secular Approaches

“The rains come due to the merit of one person, one blade of grass, one field” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Tractate Ta’anit 66). The Bible links rain in its season to religious-moral behavior (Deut. 11:8-21; Jeremiah 14; Joel 2; and elsewhere).  Within the plethora of discussion in Rabbinic literature about rain and the water supply, two main approaches are discernible: rain as a divine omen to be understood in a spiritual sense, and as a vital resource to be managed using worldly tools. Did the Rabbis sense a tension between these two?

The Theological Plane

Our Sages sought theological reasons for rainfall and its cessation, as exemplified by the following quotes: “The merit of three things brings rain: the land, mercy and suffering” (Yerushalmi, Ta’anit 66c). “For four sins the rain ceases: worship of false gods, forbidden sexual relations, bloodshed and those who preach charity but do not give it” (Midrash Bemidbar Rabba, Chapter 8). “The skies are shut due to violation of gifts and tithes” (Tractate Shabbat 32b). “Only these cause the rain to stop: gossip and slander… haughtiness…absence of Torah study…stealing” (Tractate Ta’anit 7b). It stands to reason that the prevalent weaknesses of the current generation were identified as the causes of lack of rain, in an attempt to improve the people’s moral behavior.

Regarding the Land of Israel, the rabbis believed that since “God has His eye on the Land from the start to the end of the year” (Deuteronomy 11:12), not only is rainfall controlled by God, He also determines the yearly rain quota at the start of the year. Is it possible nonetheless to increase the amount of rain? Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai reveals some meteorological secrets of his time: “If at Rosh Hashanah Israel was worthy, and much rain was decreed, and later they sinned, the amount of rain could not be decreased, for it was already decreed. What does the Holy One Blessed be He do? He spreads the rain over seas, deserts and rivers, so that the land does not benefit from it. If at Rosh Hashanah Israel was unworthy, and little rain was decreed, and later they repent – the amount of rain cannot be increased, for it was already decreed. What does the Holy One Blessed be He do? He brings the rains down and sends wind so that the land may also benefit [drip irrigation…]” (Yerushalmi, Tractate Rosh Hashanah 57b).

Thus there was established a religious protocol for increasing the rain, in regular or drought conditions.

Standard Prayer

Each year there were prayers and religious ceremonies at the start of the rainy season (in which numinous traces can be detected). From Shemini Atzeret to Passover we add the phrase “Who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall” to the second blessing in the Amidah prayer (Tractate Berachot, Chapter 5, Mishna 2). Beginning on the 7th day in the month of Cheshvan, we ask in the ninth blessing to “Grant dew and rain for a blessing on the face of the earth” (instead of “Grant blessing”).

The tension that builds as winter approaches is manifest in the ceremonies of the High Holidays, perceived as days of judgment. On Rosh Hashanah we are sentenced for life or death, and on Yom Kippur the High priest prays: “May it be Your will….that this be a rainy year…” (Tractate Yoma 53b). On Sukkot we are handed the “decree of water” (Tractate Rosh Hashana, Chapter 5, Mishna 2). The science of meteorological forecasting tells us that the expected rainfall for the entire winter is largely determined in the month of Tishrei, by the atmospheric altitude flows.

Most of the rain rituals were held in the Temple on Sukkot (“water libation,” Tractate Sukka, Chapter 5). Their purpose was stated by Rabbi Akiva: “The Holy one Blessed be He said, Pour before Me water on the festival so that you may be blessed with rain for the year” (Tractate Rosh Hashana 16a). The Sadducees objected to the ritual performed by the Pharisees, and so the latter added the celebration of ‘Simhat Beit Hashoeva’ (Rejoicing at the Place of the Water-Drawing).

After the destruction of the Temple, the Hoshana prayers, recited in the synagogue while circling the bima with the four species in hand, served as a substitute for the Temple rituals, as a kind of judgment day for the coming year’s rain. On Hoshana Raba there are seven circuits made, after which we beat the willow branches as a symbol of our basic need for water.

Rain and Sexual Symbolism 

The many symbols and the powerful tension in these rituals make them seem magical to the outside observer. Rabbinic language also took on sexual nuances. Rain is referred to as ‘fertility,’ ‘fertilizing the earth.’ The earth receives the rain ‘as the female opens towards the male’ (Yerushalmi Brachot 14a); dew is named ‘the husband of the earth’ (Ta’anit 6b). The Sages thus indicated their preference for irrigation by direct rainfall from heaven, so that ‘the earth is impregnated as a bride by her first husband’ rather than by canals, ‘as a widow impregnated through harlotry (!)’ (Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 4).

Religious Ceremonies in Times of Drought

Much of Tractate Ta’anit is devoted to the struggle with drought. The length of the rituals is in direct proportion to the severity of the drought: “If by the 17th of Cheshvan the rains have still not come, individuals (‘special’ people) take upon themselves three fasts…if by Kislev, the court decrees three fasts for the public…if the rain still does not come, the court decrees an additional three fasts and prohibits work, washing, footwear, and marital relations… beyond this, the court decrees another seven….over the first ones, accompanied by the blowing of the shofar and closing businesses…beyond this, trade, building, planting, betrothal and marriage, and issues between man and his fellow are all suspended, and individuals repeat their ordeal until the month of Nisan” (Tractate Ta’anit, Chapter 1, Mishna 7). In these seven fasts: “They take the Ark [of the Torah Scroll] out to the open space, and ashes are placed on the Ark and also upon the head of the Ab-Beth-din, and everyone else puts ashes upon his own head, and the elder among them addresses them with words of admonition” (Tosefta Ta’anit, Chapter 1). The ceremony induces a feeling of Judgment Day (these fasts are now obsolete). When the month of Nisan ends, prayers for rain stop, despite their importance for water reserves, for fear of damage to the first summer crops.

End of Drought

The agricultural definition of the drought’s end is dependent upon whether sufficient rain fell to end the fasting, and several definitions are brought to denote the level of moisture of the earth: “Rabbi Meir says, [Until the rain has penetrated] as far as the knee of the plough enters the soil; The Sages, however, say: In the case of arid soil one handbreadth, in the case of moderately soft soil two handbreadths, and in the case of cultivated soil three handbreadths” (Ta’anit 25b). Rabbi Shimon ben Eliezer identified a phenomenon known today as ‘capillary action,’ in which water rises: “Not a handbreadth of rain coming down from above but that the deep with two handbreadths comes up from below to meet it.” The Rabbis also recognized that the force of rainfall can be either beneficial or harmful (used by the Committee on Drought Damages in today’s Ministry of Agriculture). The story of Honi Hameagel(Honi the Circle Drawer, Ta’anit 19a) defines three levels of force: “dripping rain,” rain that “fills the cisterns, ditches and caves,” and “rain of benevolence, blessing and bounty.”  Today’s farmers know that the breadth and force of rain are more important than its quantity. Thus the Rabbis taught: “And I will give you rains in their season. [This means that the soil shall be] neither soaked nor parched, but moderately rained upon” (Ta’anit 22b).

Bountiful rain created a dilemma; some prayed: “Master of the universe, Your people Israel can tolerate neither good nor trouble in excess…May it be Your Will that the rains stop and the wind blow;” and, on the other hand, there were those who opined, “In the case of any public distress, may it never befall us, the shofar must be sounded – except in the case of too much rain.” (Tractate Ta’anit, Chapter 3 Mishna 8).

Practical Water Management

At the same time, the Sages encouraged rational water management. A breita on the first and last rains of the season explains: [‘Former rain is termed] ‘yoreh’, because it warns people to plaster their roofs and to gather in their fruits [left to dry on the roof]” (Ta’anit 6:1).

The sages were also lenient in the matter of the seventh year and the holiness of chol hamoed (intermediate days): they permitted fortification of terraces and other vital work during the shemita year during the rainy season, and on chol hamoed it was permitted to “fix roads, open spaces and water reservoirs” (Tractate Moed Katan, Chapter 1, Mishna2). Thus the festival became a season of renovations, at the start of the winter on Sukkot and at its close on Passover. The importance of these tasks was understood by the Rabbis, who therefore allowed them to be carried out during chol hamoed.

The Tosefta describes the maintenance work performed on water apparatuses at the end of winter: On the fifteenth of Adar messengers from the Bet Din (court) go out and dig holes and caves to make water cisterns” (Tosefta Shekalim, Chapter 1). The Court was responsible for the development of the water infrastructure, acting as a religious judicial body as well as a municipal manager. Those who contributed towards the digging of pits for public use were praised for their charitable act. “There was once a hasid who used to dig water holes for passersby” (Yerushalmi, Tractate Demai 22a). The many stories of arguments over water holes have granted us much insight into the types of public and private water systems used.

Whose responsibility?

There is tension revolving around the question of who is responsible for the water infrastructure and its funding. A well-known discussion of the Rabbis about the Roman government relates: “They [the Romans] have made streets, they have built bridges, they have erected baths” (Tractate Shabbat 33b). And, “The Shiloah was gushing forth through a mouth of the size of an

Issar [thin spray]; the king commanded and it was widened so that its waters be increased, but the waters diminished” (Tractate Arachin 10b). Also, “it once happened that the people of Tiberias did thus: They conducted a pipe of cold water through an arm of the hot springs” (Tractate Shabbat 38b). It seems that the Roman customs took hold among the Jews, and there is archaeological evidence of developed water systems (at Tzipori, Tiberias, Kazrin, Bet Shearim and other sites), indicating that not all was left to Divine determination.


Yosef ben Matityahu (Josephus) writes of riots in Jerusalem that were sparked by use of Temple funds by the Roman governor for building aqueducts for the city’s water supply (Antiquities of the Jews 13:3b). This perhaps is the source of the halakha in the Talmud Yerushalmi: “The aqueduct and the city’s wall, towers and all its needs are to come from the Temple” (Tractate Sota 17a). There are additional examples that indicate that water works were funded from the Temple treasury.

Laws for Safeguarding Water Works

“A tree must be kept away from a pit [in a neighbor’s field] twenty-five cubits – a sycamore or a carob fifty cubits; it makes no difference whether the tree is on higher or lower ground or on a level with the pit” (Tractate Baba Bathra, Chapter 2, Mishna 11). A stone tablet from late in the period gives archaeological evidence of the importance attached to this issue; found near the conduit from Solomon’s Pools to Jerusalem, it threatens capital punishment to one who plants within 15 feet of the water conduit.

Similarly, “One must erect a rail around a public well” (Tractate Eiruvin, Chapter 2, Mishnas 1-4), to protect passersby or to define the well boundaries and facilitate supervision. Or, “Prayer is compared to a mikveh, because as the mikveh [reservoir] is opened twice and closed twice so are the gates of prayer” (Yalkut Shimoni, Tehilim 789), indicating that the reservoir was locked from time to time.

Priorities of Water Usage

Control of water sources allowed management, prioritization of its use and enforcement. The Tamud Yerushalmi, Tractate Baba Bathra 13a, states that when rainwater accumulated in the reservoir and people wanted to use it for laundering, a minority who objected could prevent it; similarly, when people wanted to convert a laundry pool into clean water, the protests of the launderers were not heeded. In sum, clean water always took priority. Moreover, Tractate Baba Kama 81a states that the poor of the town have first priority for fresh spring water.


We see a dual approach towards water: 1) a belief that all is determined from above in response to our moral behavior – this approach led to religious responses to routine and emergency water situations; and 2) a rational, operational approach (encouraged by the religious leadership) to act to prevent a water shortage, even entailing halakhic leniency when needed.

This perhaps resembles the manner in which the Rabbis dealt with illness – doctors were permitted to heal (Tractate Berachot 60a) despite the belief that illness was a punishment. If drought was also a punishment, why develop water purification systems? Perhaps water preservation was perceived to be a natural human act not representing a struggle against the Divine decree.

Whatever the approach, it is clear that the joy over rain was absolute: “Rainfall is as wondrous as the creation of heaven and earth” (Tractate Ta’anit 7b); Rainfall is greater than the giving of the Torah, for the Torah is a joy unto Israel, and rain for all the nations and the entire world, human and animal” (Midrash Psalms (Buber ed.) 117).


Dr. Yair Paz is a Senior Lecturer in Land of Israel Studies at the Schechter Institute.

Measuring the “Holiness” of the Land of Israel: The Western Wall

The Western Wall After 1967

Ever since 1967 Israeli society has been preoccupied with the question of the quintessential meaning of the Western Wall. For over forty years since the Six Day War, many dilemmas and struggles centering on this holy place have surfaced. The conventional perception that has developed is that the religious establishment, in its various guises, determines the flavor of the site. Repeated attempts by the Israeli government and other bodies to inject national content into the Old City, the Jewish Quarter, and even the Western Wall, have generally failed. Although the Israeli flag flies in the center of the plaza in front of the Wall, IDF recruits are sworn in at the site, and the opening ceremony of Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers is held there, the Rabbi of the Wall and the Holy Places has thwarted all attempts to alter the religious aspect of the place as fashioned by him and his predecessors. Members of other streams of Judaism are often prevented from holding prayer services in their preferred style, and the separation between men and women and imposition of stringent ‘modesty’ strictures has intensified. The opening of religious-historical sites such as the Wall Tunnel, the Chain of the Generations and the Wall Heritage Center all testify to an increased “Religious-ization”  of the Wall at the expense of its “Israeli-ness.”


The Western Wall and the Zionist Movement

With the formation of the Zionist Movement and its increasing activity in the Land of Israel, the question of the Movement’s attitude to the holiness of the Land, particularly Jerusalem, its holy places and the Western Wall, became more prominent. The Zionists preferred to concentrate on settling and ‘redeeming’ the Land, and were selective in their use of its aspect of holiness. When Theodore Herzl visited Jerusalem in 1898, he envisioned the Old City without political ownership, belonging to all nations as a center of faith, love and science. He wanted Jewish Jerusalem to develop outside the realm of the holy, placing less emphasis on the aspect of holiness. “My heart cannot feel deep emotion,” he wrote of his visit to the Wall.

Theodore Herzl, The Jewish Cause: Diaries, Vol. II, Jerusalem, 1999, p. 54

Despite the preference of many Zionist leaders to avoid attaching great importance to Jerusalem, the Western Wall nonetheless became central to Jewish-Hebrew discourse, especially against the background of the nationalist struggle between Jews and Arabs in those years. The leadership of the State-in-making strived to disregard the ‘earthly,’ physical Jerusalem and focus on the symbolic value of the ‘heavenly,’ spiritual one; but this quickly evaporated when the British established Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine-Israel. Zionist leaders were forced to take a stand regarding the Wall, which was the site of several violent eruptions by Arabs against Jews, as a holy place, and to safeguard the Jews’ freedom of worship there.


The Impact of the Six Day War on the Western Wall

Following the capture of the city by the IDF on the third day of the war, a stream of Israeli public officials wound their way to the Western Wall, sometimes with an interest to be seen visiting the site. The many visitors to the Wall in those hours came out of genuine religious yearning to touch the stones of the Wall and to pray there, as well as being politically motivated; there was internal rivalry amongst leaders who took part in preparation for the war and in the battle itself. If until 1967 Jewish prayer at the Wall was conducted under the auspices of foreign rule and in the midst of dispute with Muslim residents, a radically different reality came about after the war. The Western Wall was now under Israeli rule, allowing the State to renovate the area both physically and symbolically.

Even before the war ended, as the public came in waves to the Old City and to the Wall, a quick decision was made by the military governor and Jerusalem municipality officials to transform the site to accommodate masses of people. Only four days after the war ended, bulldozers were at work, systematically destroying many of the 150 Mugrabi homes next to the Wall in order to build a plaza. Prior to the War of Independence, Jews had to make do with a narrow strip of a few square meters in front of the Wall; now, an expansive area of several dunam was created.

On Shavuot 5727, a crowd of over 200,000 people gathered on the new plaza by the Wall. For most, either young native Israelis or new immigrants, it was the first time they were seeing it. Large numbers of people continued to flock to the Wall after Shavuot, and the renewed ritual activity plus the lack of clear rules for prayer services created logistical confusion that highlighted the need for an established order at the place.  Suggestions, some of them quite strange, were put forth for the re-design of the physical space and the establishment of prayer service procedures. These included covering the plaza with carpeting and requiring visitors to approach barefoot; erecting a tower decorated with symbols of Jewish history to commemorate fallen soldiers; or adding a row of black stone to the top of the Wall upon which important events and disasters in Jewish history would be depicted.

The mixed crowd, which included many secular people for whom a visit to holy places was not a familiar routine, did not know exactly how to behave at the site; they occasionally displayed insensitivity to the religious nature of the place. In an effort to guide the public in the rules of acceptable behavior, newspaper ads appeared that specified proper conduct at the holy places and specifically at the Western Wall. The mingling of sanctified and profane created an unusual situation that prompted immediate criticism from many sources.

Even before 1967, Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz criticized the development of cultic activity at holy sites; following the war, when public interest in the matter grew, he called for “dispensing with the holy places, including the Western Wall.” He labeled the Wall the ‘Diskotel,’ proposing that the plaza in front be converted to a ‘Divine Disco,’ the country’s largest discotheque. “The Western Wall,” others noted with sarcasm, “has turned into a lot with a wall. The hugepiazza del populo that is dotted with police barriers, temporary shacks,tzedakah boxes, black nylon sheeting, and cars belonging to big shots with special permits.” Others added their protest saying, “This is an outdoor synagogue that provides business for photographers, beggars, tefillinsalesmen, and Jews praying for other Jews for money. It is a noisy, dirty picnic area.”


Whom Does the Wall Belong To?

The Ministry of Religious Affairs, responsible for the Western Wall, has taken certain steps that have caused a storm of protest among many Israelis. Most controversial was the separation barrier between men and women, which allots an area for male worshippers four times the size of the women’s prayer area. During the 30-day or so period that the Western Wall was under the jurisdiction of the Military Rabbinate, there was no such separation, and prayer, like everything else that took place at the wall, was mixed. Themehitza barrier that was erected afterwards was a first. Earlier, towards the end of Ottoman rule and during the Mandate period, there had been attempts to separate the sexes at the Wall, but these failed mainly due to strong objections by the British who opposed any change to the status quo.

Transforming the Western Wall into a synagogue caused tremendous resentment. The Ha’aretz daily newspaper wrote: “Who decided that the Western Wall is strictly a religious site? Is it not a national historical relic? […] Among many groups in today’s society a separation barrier is intolerable and unacceptable.” Then Prime Minister Levi Eshkol referred to the separated areas as ‘pens,’ making the mehitza a political issue and battleground between Israeli political parties and the religious establishment. In response, the Ministry of Religious Affairs overcame its strained relationship with the Chief Rabbinate to explain that “only chief rabbis may set the rules for the Western Wall,” and that since the Wall is a holy place and a house of prayer, male and female worshippers must be kept separated. They claimed, among other things, that just as in the Temple there was a separation between the sexes, so should there be a mehitza at the Wall.



The argument over the fundamental nature of the Western Wall and the right of all Israelis, religious and secular alike, to have a share in the place and identify with its symbolism, began in the days and hours after the war. As soon as the last shot ceased to echo and silence returned, the site became problematic and posed a challenge. The problem did not exist prior to 1948; the Western Wall then occupied a marginal place in the Zionist consciousness, among both leaders and Jewish residents in the Land.  In 1967, though, the situation changed completely. Not only did the State of Israel now control the site, but many among the Israeli public took an interest in the Western Wall, visited it, and desired to share in its national, as well as its religious, symbolism.


Dr. Doron Bar is Advisor to the Land of Israel Studies Track.  His most recent book Planning and Conserving Jerusalem: The Challenge of an Ancient City 1973- 2003, was published by Yad Ben Zvi in 2009.

Four Cups of Wine: A Path to Freedom

Img55185593Many people have the impression that the Jewish tradition discourages drinking. There is little evidence of this in the sources. Jews are commanded to celebrate each and every festive occasion – Sabbath and festival, circumcision and wedding – with a glass of wine. While many of us use grape juice on these occasions, grape juice is a fairly recent invention. Fresh grapes are available only during the fall grape harvest, and if their juice is squeezed out it will ferment naturally unless the fermentation process is stopped by chemicals, a technique first developed in the early twentieth century. Until the twentieth century grape juice was available only in the autumn and only if one had a fresh bunch of grapes on hand to squeeze; otherwise, the only wine available to Jews for ritual purposes throughout the ages was fermented.

Plutarch, a first century pagan observer, found Jewish ritual so replete with drinking that he associated the God of Israel with Bacchus, the Greek god of wine:

… The time and manner of the greatest and most holy solemnity of the Jews is exactly agreeable to the holy rites of Bacchus; for that which they call the Fast they celebrate in the midst of the vintage, furnishing their tables with all sorts of fruits while they sit under tabernacles made of vines and ivy… And I suppose that their Sabbaths have some relation to Bacchus… The Jews themselves witness no less; for when they keep the Sabbath, they invite one another to drink till they are drunk; or if they chance to be hindered by some more weighty business, it is the fashion at least to taste the wine. Some perhaps may surmise that these are mere conjectures. But there are other arguments which will clearly evince the truth of what I assert. (Plutarch, Moralia 671b-f, “Who is the God of the Jews?”)

Plutarch may have erred in his interpretation of the facts and in some of the details, but his comment does accurately reflect the centrality of wine in Jewish ritual. Alcohol serves three distinct functions in Jewish ritual: (1) Nearly all ritual texts recited outside the synagogue are uttered while holding a cup of wine, which is normally drunk afterwards. (2) The four cups of wine at the Passover seder accompany the recitation of ritual texts, too, but in addition they are meant to induce a happiness or mild intoxication evocative of freedom. (3) On Purim we are bidden to get so thoroughly drunk on wine or other intoxicants that we are unable to distinguish between the blessed Mordechai and the cursed Haman. While halakhists dispute the question of whether this is meant literally and whether it is halakhically binding or even advisable (see David Golinkin, “To Drink or not to Drink”,http://www.schechter.edu/insightIsrael.aspx?ID=28), the notion of drinking oneself into oblivion on Purim is certainly part of the Jewish tradition, and is widely observed. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains this unusual religious rite as follows:

Nothing created by G-d has a negative purpose… On Purim we are required to elevate our understanding to the point that we perceive no essential distinction between Mordechai and Haman. For the ultimate goal in the creation of Haman is that he become a force for good, like Mordechai… Self-transcendence is the goal of our drinking on Purim. The state which transcends the limits of reason is related to the concept of transforming evil to good. From an intellectual perspective, good and evil have clearly defined boundaries… However, the infinity of

G-d’s essence (and likewise, the infinite potential of our souls) is not bounded by these limitations. At this level, “darkness is like light” (Summary of Likutei Sichos 7, Vayikra 3 inhttp://livingjewish.net/chassidus-page/a-mitzvah-to-drink/) .

It is the first two ritual functions, however, that characterize the four cups of wine drunk at the Passover seder: each cup accompanies the recitation of a ritual formula or text, and the collective experience of drinking four cups of wine is meant to induce a sense of freedom.

Each of the four cups is held in hand during the recitation of one of the texts in the Haggadah: the first cup accompanies the kiddush, as at every festival meal; the second cup is meant to be held aloft during the recitation of the story of the Exodus, although most of us lift the cup only at certain points during the recitation and at the very end; the third cup accompanies the Grace after Meals, which in tannaitic times was always recited over a cup of wine, whether on weekday, Sabbath or festival; and the fourth cup is held while thehallel is sung. Two of the four seder cups are thus simply the year round kiddush and Grace after Meals cups. The other two, accompanying the telling of the exodus story and the table hallel, are unique to Passover, but these are merely two additional examples of ritual texts given formal status by recitation over a cup of wine. Nearly all ritual recitations performed outside the synagogue are ideally recited over a cup of wine: Kiddush, havdalah, circumcision, kiddushin and sheva berakhot are well known examples.

When wine accompanies the recitation of a ritual text, the drinking is secondary to the holding of the cup. The important thing is that the text be recited while holding a cup of wine, and although the norm is that the person reciting the ritual text drinks of the wine afterwards, halakhic decisors dispute the question of whether and under what circumstances the wine must actually be drunk, how much wine must be drunk, and who among the participants in the ritual must drink it. By contrast, most authorities rule that each and every seder participant must drink his or her own four cups of wine. This is because in addition to accompanying the four ritual texts that make up the haggadah, the four cups of wine drunk at theseder serve an additional function, a function in which the drinking itself is of paramount importance.

In Yerushalmi Pesahim 10:1, 37c, Rabbi Yohanan says in the name of Rabbi Benayah that the four cups of wine of the sedercorrespond to the four phrases of redemption found in Exodus 6:6-7: “Therefore say unto the Israelites, I am the Lord. And I shall take you out… and I shall save you… and I shall redeem you…and I shall take you unto me as my people…”. According to these sages, the four cups of wine symbolize freedom and redemption. The Babylonian sage Rava, however, went a step further: he believed that the four cups of wine are not merely a symbol of freedom – they are actually the path to freedom. “The four cups”, he states in Bavli Pesahim 117b, “were instituted by the Rabbis derekh herut; since that is the case, we should do a mitzvah with each”. The phrase derekh herut literally means “by means of freedom” or “through freedom”, but it is clear that in this case it is not the four cups that were instituted by means of freedom, but rather freedom that is achieved by means of the four cups of wine.

The four cups of wine were instituted by the Rabbis as a derekh herut, as a “path to freedom”; they are the means by which we achieve the sense of freedom that we are commanded to experience on the first night of Passover. Rava states explicitly that their ritual use is secondary to the effect that they are meant to have at the seder: mild intoxication is identified with freedom. Note that this does not mean drunkenness. In Rabbinic times wine was normally diluted with water, and was not considered enjoyable if drunk straight. Because Rava considered drinking at the seder a means to achieving a sense of freedom, and not merely a ritual, he stated that if one drinks the wine without diluting it, “he has fulfilled the duty of wine, but not the duty of freedom” (Bavli Pesahim108b). Rava’s sense of freedom is clearly defined as a state of pleasant, mild intoxication, somewhere between sobriety and drunkenness.

In light of Rava’s conception of the four cups as “a path to freedom”, halakhic authorities are divided as to whether it is appropriate to use grape juice at the seder. During Prohibition, Professor Louis Ginzberg of the Jewish Theological Seminary wrote a long responsum arguing that Jews had no need for a religious dispensation from the ban on alcohol, since the unfermented grape juice that had recently been made available by twentieth century technology could be used for all ritual needs (for the historical background, see S. Yahalom, “Jewish Existence in the Shadow of American Legislation: A Study of ‘Prohibition'” [Hebrew], Tarbiz 53 [1984]). Ginzberg summarizes as follows:

We thus arrive at the following decisions: … From the point of view of Jewish law and custom, there is no preference to be given to fermented wine over unfermented. Both are of equal standing… As for the objection that has been raised against the use of unfermented wine for religious ceremonies on the grounds that it is against Jewish custom… There can be no doubt that in the past most of the wine used for religious purposes was fermented, since the process of preventing fermentation was unknown. But to base on such a fact the prohibition of the use of unfermented wine would be as unreasonable as to suppose that because only wax and tallow candles were used for lighting synagogues, the use of gas and electricity for that purpose is forbidden. (The Responsa of Professor Louis Ginzberg, ed. D. Golinkin, New York and Jerusalem 1996, pp. 130-131).

Ginzberg did not distinguish between the four cups of the sederand other uses of wine in Jewish ritual, nor does he mention the notion of “freedom” in this regard. Other authorities, however, do make such a distinction. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, for example, ruled that on Passover one must mix in a small amount of fermented wine with the grape juice in order to fulfill the obligation of derekh herut(D. Feinstein, Kol Dodi, New York 1970, pp. 5-6).

The uses of alcohol in Jewish ritual all have secular correlates. Drinking oneself into oblivion, as some Jews do on Purim, is of course far better attested in non-religious contexts than in religious ones. The two ritual functions of the four cups at the seder also have analogues in Western culture. The sense of freedom evoked by the four cups of wine at the Passover seder corresponds to the serving of alcohol at any festive dinner in order to impart a sense of well-being to the diners and facilitate cordiality and comfortable social interaction. The halakhic requirement that we recite certain ritual texts, including those in the Haggadah, while holding aloft a cup of wine corresponds anthropologically to the western custom of raising a glass of alcohol in a toast; in both cases the drinking is secondary to the sense of importance that the act of holding the cup imparts to the text itself. Raising a glass calls attention to the fact that this act of speech is different from normal conversation or discourse, and the sip of alcohol which follows serves a symbol of seriousness, as though the drinking in unison signifies assent to the text recited.

These two values, freedom and the diligent observance of ritual, are not contradictory. True freedom, according to the Rabbis, can only be achieved by commitment to Torah. May the four cups we drink at our forthcoming sedarim serve as both a symbol of the seriousness with which we take our ritual obligations and a path to true freedom for all.

Moshe Benovitz is a Professor of Jewish Law and Talmud at the Schechter Institute.

Tali Schools: Fostering “Unconditional Love”

TALI teachers at Leadership Development Program at the Schechter InstituteDuring the second week in July, we note the seventeenth day of Tammuz, the day on which the walls of the city of Jerusalem were breached by Roman forces almost two thousand years ago. This event hastened the destruction of the Temple three weeks later, on the ninth day of Av, 70 C.E., which occurs this year on July 30.

These distant events take on contemporary meaning as we contemplate the reasons our Sages gave for this disaster. Prominent among them was the prevalence of “baseless hatred” among the Jews of that generation.  To counter this phenomenon, which to our consternation is also a contemporary one, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the Land of Israel, has suggested the cultivation of “unconditional love” among the Jewish people, despite their differences of opinion. In the highly politicized and ideological climate that exists in Israel, then as now, this is not an easy endeavor.

Fostering “unconditional love” is an educational challenge, not only for families and communities, but also for teachers and students.  In this short article I will focus on two TALI teachers, one religious and one secular, and the change they underwent, in both their personal as well as professional lives, as a result of teaching in a TALI school. I will bring the voices of these teachers, and use pseudonyms in order to protect their privacy.

This article is a variation and abbreviated version of an article by the author entitled “Change in TALI Teachers: Two Case Studies,”Journal of Jewish Education 68(1), (2002).

Rivka: From Religious Towards Religious Pluralist
As a graduate of religious education, Rivka had to adjust to aspects of TALI which challenged her conceptions of the purpose of Jewish learning and of the nature of her students’ commitment to Jewish tradition:

In the beginning I felt a certain frustration [about teaching what the children don’t observe]. It was a bit of a problem because I was educated that one learns in order to do, and here [in TALI] one learns to know and maybe to do…  It took me the whole first year to understand that this is the way to teach it…The frustration lessened with time, because I saw that something stays with the children…deep within their heart.

In making a professional commitment to teaching in TALI, Rivka decided that being a TALI teacher committed her to the task “with her whole heart,” even if it included participating in activities outside the norms of her experience and that of her family and community.  However, she learned to value certain aspects of this experience on a personal level, such as being asked to say the prayer for the welfare of the soldiers, which is not done by women in Orthodox synagogues.

The view among large sectors of Israeli society, that one must be defined as either religious or secular and anything else is not authentic became unacceptable to her.    As an observant Jew, Rivka values that fact that TALI gives the students enough knowledge to participate in religious activities, even if the students are not religious.

I see TALI as a school with a religious dimension, because there’s prayer and because we teach what needs to be taught before the holidays in the most respectable way …and you do it, out of joy, and not out of coercion…TALI… relates to the experiential part of religion.  I say to the students. “When you get to the army and someone will ask you if you can complete a minyan, you won’t ask, “What’s that?”; you’ll know what it is.  And if someone asks if you can join the kaddish, you’ll know what it’s about and even if someone will ask you a question on a television [quiz show] you will not demean yourself by not knowing what Kol Nidrei is

This actually happened on an Israeli quiz show
… you’ll know.  It’s impossible to be a Jew without knowing something about our religion. We’re not just Israelis, we’re Jews and even if you don’t observe you must know what it is that you’re not observing.
Although the theme of prayer figures prominently in the interviews with both Sarah and Rivka, only one-third of TALI schools have instituted daily prayer. In half the TALI schools, prayer is not dealt with at all, and the emphasis is on gaining knowledge of Judaism.

Rivka greatly values TALI’s success in building a school culture in which the Jewish tradition permeates every school activity:

Everything is done through the prism of love for the tradition. If we visit old people it’s not just because we are a community school.  “Show deference to the old” is what’s behind this.  [In] the animal corner in school, there has to be a verse from the Torah that tells us how to relate to animals.

Teaching at TALI influenced her not only in her role as teacher, but also as a person. Rivka notes the influence of TALI on the way she views her fellow Jews and their various religious beliefs:

The openness [in TALI] stems from a clear intention to accept the children as they are, with their background, with everything they bring with them.  There’s no one good and no one no-good.  You too can participate in this community.

She found that this newfound openness to different forms of religious expression influenced the way she related to her own son, a soldier:

Many times there’s something that’s on the border of religious non-observance, like my son not praying, or his wearing jewelry, or a ring with his initial on it, which I don’t like, but upon which I don’t comment. They [my brothers] say, “It’s because you teach in TALI.  You learned to be more forgiving about things connected to religion, and that’s why this is happening”.. .They’re right that it made me more tolerant.  It’s a fact. .. I think I have the openness that everyone should have. If it didn’t come to me this way, it might have come to me a different way, maybe, but maybe not… I can be stringent about my own practice, but not about someone else’s.

I tell them [my brothers and sisters] that there are things that we see now and there are things that we can see only as the years pass.  And if in the years to come I’ll feel that my children are not religious as I would like them to be, I still think I was a good mother, and I don’t think that education by coercion is a better education.  I don’t believe in that kind of education.

In sum, in the course of teaching at a TALI school, Rivka’s religious identity expanded to include the component of a pluralistic outlook.

Sarah: From Secular Toward Traditional Secularist
When Sarah began teaching at TALI, she had a clear sense of her identity, considering herself secular.

I think that I was secular because of the extreme of Orthodoxy…as a reaction…to their viewpoint about religion, to their fanaticism.  There is only one way, this is the way it’s supposed to be, and left and right are not possible.  There’s no compromise, no middle, no understanding…I knew about the existence of the streams of “knitted kipot” [a reference to those belonging to the national religious camp], but I didn’t talk to them. They didn’t interest me.  My reaction was of not talking and lack of interest, that is, distancing.  I didn’t want to meet this and deal with it.

Sarah had no desire to explore different viewpoints within Judaism until she came to TALI. Interestingly enough, even though her father went to the synagogue, prayer to her was an act connected to the ultra-Orthodox.  Like all the women in her family, she attended synagogue only on Yom Kippur.  Now she was teaching at a school where she had to pray with the children, and she saw this as part of her job that she had to learn to do right.  She relates:

In the beginning it was a little strange, because there were prayers and at home we’re secular.  Then I didn’t know the prayers but after I experienced them and I saw how it was done, in a different way, not the way I thought it would be done…[What I had seen about prayer was] through the media.   Seeing the haredim [ultra-Orthodox] and how they pray…and the meaning of prayer for them, that’s what I thought it is… [In TALI] it’s done differently, with changing tunes for all the prayers. We discuss the prayers, there’s room for the children to say their personal prayers; they’re not something closed and limiting.I got into it.  I’m a person who adjusts. Maybe deep inside, the tradition from my house and the prayers remained and I connected to them.

Thus, what might have been a daunting endeavor proved to less so, not only because of Sarah’s flexible personality, but also due to the support of her colleagues and to the in-service education [training the TALI Education Fund provides to all TALI schools] she received :

I had to understand what the silent devotion is.  I had to pray with the children – indeed I did pray.  I didn’t understand the meaning so much, but after the in-service courses I understood what’s happening… Today I teach the silent devotion differently from previously, with the meaning, not just technically, which was to sing it and have them imitate me.  To teach the contents is to talk about each and every prayer in it…  What’s the meaning for the children.  To connect it so it should be authentic for their everyday life.

This new self-definition expressed itself not only in Sarah’s new appreciation of the Jewish tradition and in her ability to teach it well, but also in her relationships with her family:

The change is that when we make kiddush at my parents’, I’m part of it.  I’m also the initiator in singing zemirot, and also encourage everyone to join me, which was not true earlier [before TALI]. Before it was a burden, another kiddush.

Sarah would like all state schools to be like the TALI school in which she teaches, for

it teaches Jewish values and it wrestles with all sorts of dilemmas and difficulties, like Sabbath observance and belief in God, and doesn’t try to escape from them… The secular avoid them and the religious deal with them, but not in the way I would like. I think that all Israeli children should be connected to their roots.

Sarah began to confront her own Jewish identity, and began questioning her own self-definition:

Until I came to TALI there were either religious or secular, and I was secular…After I came to TALI I saw that we can be Jews in different ways.  There are additional movements and one doesn’t have to be at the extreme of secularism or religiosity. I underwent a revolution. It became very difficult to define what I am.  Am I secular? Am I religious? Am I traditional? I had a lot of difficulties with these questions since I came to TALI.

She sums up, “I’m a traditional secularist”.

As we approach Tisha B’Av, the commemoration of the destruction of the Temple, may the experiences of Sarah and Rivka become the “norm” for more and more teachers in the Israeli school system,.  Indeed, in the past decade the number of TALI schools has grown to encompass more than 10% of all Israel’s elementary public schools. As these teachers influence the families in which they come into contact, the antagonism among various groups in Israeli society will be replaced by a willingness to live together in peace, as expressed in the aspiration for “unconditional love.”

Dr. Brenda Bacon is a lecturer in Jewish Education at the Schechter Institute.


Study of the Ancient Seder and Modern Observance

The Schechter HaggadahAfter 10 years of studying the rabbinic texts that went into composing the seder, after reading numerous studies on the development of the Haggadah, and after writing (and rewriting, and rewriting) a critical commentary on the Haggadah, I can safely say that at least one thing has changed in my life-my family no longer has to starve before the main meal is served at our seder. At my childhood seders and at the first seders that I myself led, we were allowed to eat a sprig of parsley dipped in salt water (two, if we were lucky) before the seder began and then we waited, and waited for at least two hours until we could finally eat some matzah. I remember being jealous of my friends who had potato for their karpas. Potato – an appetizer fit for a king! And all of this was after a day in which the only food we could find in the house consisted of yogurt, eggs and cashew crunch. Is this the way to begin a banquet? Who came up with such a crazy idea?

Now, however, at the seder I run at my own home, no one sits and starves while we fulfill the mitzvah of remembering the Exodus from Egypt. For this, my family can thank a Haggadah manuscript discovered in the Cairo Geniza and eventually published by Daniel Goldschmidt. In this thousand-year old Haggadah, there are four different blessings recited over a course of appetizers that most likely included vegetables, fruits, eggs, rice, and meat. In another ancient Haggadah, recently published by Ezra Fleischer, a blessing is recited over some sort of (kosher for Pesah) pastry. These ancient Haggadot remind us that the seder is a banquet enjoyed by people celebrating their freedom. Free people don’t celebrate by starving themselves (or by eating parsley). They celebrate their freedom by eating good food. Indeed, in the Greco-Roman symposium – after which many elements of the seder were patterned – one did not typically engage in discussion without having first satiated one’s elemental need for food. It seems that the modern custom to refrain from eating before the seder is a distortion of what the seder was truly intended to be. Hence, at our seder we attempt to correct this wrong by making sure that while discussing the Exodus from Egypt, we are not so ravenous that all we can think about is food.

This is just one example of how modern scholarship can enhance modern observance of the seder. Separating the study of the seder into two separate fields – one that examines the history of the seder, and one that examines the meaning of the seder and how we observe it today – is an unnecessary and fruitless separation. By understanding how our ancestors celebrated this night, and allowing this understanding to inform our modern customs, we emerge with a richer perspective on our history and observance of the evening’s rituals.

Several examples of this can be found in my commentary in The Schechter Haggadah. When I wrote out the ritual instructions for The Schechter Haggadah, Professor Golinkin commented to me that some of them were terribly confusing-when do we lift the plate, when can we put it down, when do we pick up the wine, how long do we have to hold it for and when can we finally drink it? I readily agreed; it is indeed confusing and distracting. One can become so concerned with whether he/she is holding the correct object that the meaning of the words being recited becomes completely lost.

All of this lifting and putting back down becomes simpler when we examine the origins of some of this confusion. In mishnaic times, people ate formal meals while reclining on couches. Small tables were brought to each couch, each table with food enough for one or more people. When the course of appetizers was completed, the tables were removed. In the post-talmudic period, people no longer used small tables; rather, in Europe they ate off tables similar to those used today. Hence, the removal of the tables would have been terribly cumbersome and indeed, meaningless, because tables were not normally removed. It was in this period that a custom began to lift up the seder plate, instead of removing the table. Now this makes no sense-we are supposed to be removing the table not lifting it (or something like it) up! Some halakhic authorities opposed the custom and suggested moving the plate to the end of the table instead. From here, all sorts of customs flourished. Some people lifted it up, some lifted it and then moved it away, and some just moved it away. When we remember that the source of this confusion is merely a European adaptation to material reality which differed drastically from that which existed in Eretz Yisrael a thousand years earlier, we can at least be assured that our modern confusion is nothing new.

Finally, I would like to discuss a slightly more textual example. The beginning of the arami oved avi midrash states that Lavan was worse than Pharaoh, as Pharaoh decreed against the males whereas Lavan wished to uproot all of Israel. Numerous commentators, both traditional and modern, have attempted to explain how Lavan was worse than Pharaoh, or why the Haggadah would make such a statement. Indeed, it makes little sense. Lavan may not have been a praiseworthy character, but he is hardly an arch-enemy like Pharaoh. When we examine two talmudic parallels, we can see that this statement in the Haggadah is an adaptation of an earlier statement made with regard to either Amram or Haman. Amram wished to “uproot everything” because, according to midrashic legend, he forbade Israelite men from having intercourse with their wives, as a result of Pharaoh’s decree to cast the boys into the Nile. In a similar piece found in Megillat Taanit, Haman is worse than Pharaoh, for Haman wished to kill off the Israelites, both men and women. It seems that someone picked up on this familiar trope (“so-and so is worse than Pharaoh”) and added it on to thearami oved avi midrash, perhaps in an attempt to emphasize that Israel faces enemies “in each and every generation.”

These examples, and many, many more that I have written about inThe Schechter Haggadah, demonstrate that study of the rich history of the seder and Haggadah is not merely an “academic” exercise. It has the possibility to deeply impact how we celebrate our seder and give us an enhanced understanding of our modern-day Haggadah.

Dr. Joshua Kulp is a lecturer of Talmud at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. As author of The Schechter Haggadah: Art, History and Commentary, he presents a discussion and anaylsis of the historical development of each aspect of the Seder. Along with the traditional Hebrew text and English commentary, The Schechter Haggadah is adorned with over 100 illuminations from Haggadot from the medieval and modern periods, edited by Prof. David Golinkin. To purchase the Haggadah, go to the Schechter Bookstore.