This Thursday I will be marching in the gay parade in Jerusalem, after marking Tisha B’av (the Ninth of Av) earlier in the week, with the reading of Lamentations and other customs associated with mourning.
It is customary to sing Psalm 92 – Mizmor Shir Leyom Hashabbat – after the Torah reading during the Shabbat Minhah service at Camp Ramah and at some Conservative synagogues. What is the origin of this custom, which is not found in standard Ashkenazic prayer books?
What motivated Righteous Gentiles to risk their lives to save Jews from the Nazis? What drives people today to risk their own lives to save others?
At the outset, I would like to stress the importance of the laws of Tisha B’av. On the one hand, I believe that it is very important to fast on Tisha B’av and to remember the Destruction in our day, even after the rebirth of the State of Israel and the reunification of Jerusalem. On the hand, there are many stringencies connected to “the three weeks” between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, which were added in the Middle Ages by Aveilei Tziyon [= Mourners of Zion] and Ashkenazic rabbis, which have no Talmudic basis and which, in my opinion, there is no reason to observe.
In addition to providing the origin of this specific custom, I will give the sources for the custom of sprinkling or spilling drops of wine while reciting the Ten Plagues, the reasons that have been given for the custom, and the various permutations of the custom.
Purim is a holiday whose meaning is shrouded in mystery. The only clear element is what we are commanded to do on Purim as set forth at the end of the Scroll of Esther: read the Megilla, hold a festive meal, and give gifts to the poor. This last mitzvah is not an administrative detail of a system of social justice. Yes, the Jewish people are commanded to pay a tax of half a shekel, as we read onShabbat Shekalim, the Shabbat preceding Rosh Chodesh Adar. But gifts to the poor are another matter; giving charity is an expression of the direct, mutual economic responsibility between people.
The problem of parents who have deteriorated mentally is mentioned in Jewish sources as early as the second century BCE, and the specific question raised above has been hotly debated by halakhic authorities for over 800 years.
In his monumental work, A Mediterranean Society, S.D. Goitein devoted an entire chapter of Volume III to “The World of Women.” This was an unusual step for any Jewish historian, but Goitein was truly an unusual scholar. He had studied and analyzed an endless number of documents from the Cairo Geniza brought back from Egypt to Cambridge by Solomon Schechter in the late 19th century. Goitein realized that they unearthed information about a medieval society that defied all of the classic expectations regarding Jewish life in the Middle Ages. For him, Geniza society which dated from 950-1250, was a dynamic and surprisingly mobile conglomeration of Jews living in the Mediterranean.
I wish to first of all thank the Schechter Institute and the Award Committee who chose to award me, along with Eti Ankri, the honor of receiving the Liebhaber Prize, named for Rabbi Marc and Henia Liebhaber z”l, leaders in the North American Jewish community. There are two aspects to a prize – recognition for the past, and expectation of the future. Looking back over the many junctures of my past, I recall an abundance of tolerance as a way of life. Of these, I wish to mention three central influences.
When recalling my Jewish childhood, the first memory that comes to mind is from Seder night – the immaculate house, the set table covered with a white tablecloth, the taste of the holiday foods, and primarily the feeling of contentment after long days of hard work and preparation. The stars of the evening were the children, for whom the Seder was fashioned as a unique and fascinating experience, engaging all of the senses in order to allow us to absorb both the explicit and hidden messages of the Haggadah. The telling of the story was led by my grandfather, who would stand and hold the full Seder plate over the heads of the participants, as a symbol of abundance, blessings and success, while those seated would sing with great fervor, “This is the bread of our affliction… all who are hungry may come and eat…next year we shall be free.”