Author Archives: Michele Alperin

About Michele Alperin

Michele Alperin is a freelance writer in Princeton, New Jersey. She has a masters degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Next Year in Jerusalem

Traditionally, Jerusalem has been the focus of longing for Diaspora Jews who were forced from their land and the Temple of their God. Psalm 137 is the well-known lament of the Babylonian Jews who wept “by the rivers of Babylon” and declared, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither.” 

Yet with Israel a modern state, some see that longing as anachronistic, and with it the phrase that traditionally ends the seder, “Next Year in Jerusalem.” The temple was destroyed 2,000 years ago, and many Jews today feel comfortable, religiously and materially, in their Diaspora communities. Some are uncomfortable with the extremes of religious life and the ongoing political strife in the Jewish state. The issue is even more salient for Israeli Jews, residents of a country whose capital is Jerusalem, for whom “next year in Jerusalem” therefore makes little sense on its surface.

What, then, does it mean for today’s Jew to utter the words “next year in Jerusalem” at the end of every Passover seder?

the western, or wailing, wall in jerusalem -- next year in jerusalem!Redemption, Past & Future

The most straightforward answer is that “Jerusalem” refers to the future city–and its Temple–rebuilt when the Messiah comes. Most traditional Jews feel quite comfortable expressing this messianic longing at the end of the seder, just as at the end of each Shabbat Jews recite the hope that the Messiah should come “speedily in our day.” And to clarify for Israelis, some traditional Haggadot indicate that those in the Jewish state should replace the phrase with “next year in Jerusalem, the rebuilt,” implying a rebuilt Temple.

But many liberal Jews do not accept the idea of the Messiah and the return to a Temple-based Judaism focused on Jerusalem. The phrase “next year in Jerusalem,” however, can be interpreted in many different ways. These words convey a web of meaning from concrete to abstract, and from earthly to holy.

Although the phrase itself entered the Haggadah only in the Middle Ages, it resonates thematically with ancient biblical themes of past and future redemption. On the seder night, each participant has personally experienced the physical redemption at that Red Sea. As the Haggadah says, “For it was not our forefathers alone whom the Holy One redeemed; He redeemed us, too, with them,” and, “In every generation, every individual must feel as if he or she personally had come out of Egypt.” Then, as we end the seder, we utter this phrase that reaches forward to the coming of the Messiah and to complete spiritual redemption, represented by Jerusalem.

Conditional Divorce

A conditional get (bill of divorce) may be granted by a husband who will be facing mortal danger, as in the case of war. The get is delivered conditionally, so that it will take effect only if the husband does not return in a specified period of time. If the husband becomes missing in action, then the wife is saved from becoming an agunah, a woman abandoned without a get who cannot remarry. If the husband dies in the war, a childless wife will be spared the indignity of undergoing the ceremony of halitzah, which releases her from the requirement of marrying her unmarried brother-in-law (in levirate marriage). 

In an article entitled “The Aguna in Halacha,” Rabbi Jeremy Rosen writes that the talmudic rabbis devoted significant space to conditional divorce; he writes that “in an era of slavery, banditry, and kidnapping, one had to be sure a husband would not return before allowing a wife to remarry.” The Talmud also records a tradition that at the time of King David, his soldiers wrote conditional gets before they went to war in case they did not return.

jewish divorceConditional gets have been used throughout history to spare the wife. In medieval times a trader about to set out on a long journey would write a conditional get for his wife. In 19th-century Europe, particularly in Russia, rabbinic leaders took pains to convince the Jewish soldiers to grant a conditional get to their wives, especially on the eve of Russo-Japanese war. During World War II some rabbis encouraged soldiers going to war to write a conditional get. Even in the early days of the state of Israel, the rabbis encouraged soldiers going to war to write their wives a conditional get.

According to an article in Ha’aretz, September 6, 2001, the Chief Rabbinate had prepared a form granting a conditional get for all soldiers to sign; however, the practice was not widely followed. Military commanders argued that signing such a document before a military action would weaken morale, and soldiers worried that signing such a form would absolve the government of responsibility for their widows in the case of the husband’s death.

Is Bar/Bat Mitzvah a Communal or Personal Rite?

In an old joke, a wealthy man wants an unusual bar mitzvah for his son. The caterer suggests a bar mitzvah in Jerusalem, followed by a safari in the Serengeti. At the game preserve all goes well until the procession comes to a complete stop in the middle of the grasslands. An hour passes and the man asks what the problem is. The caterer responds reassuringly, “You will just have to be patient. There is another bar mitzvah ahead of us.” 

Another thematically similar dose of modern reality is an internet site touting the Adventure Rabbi, a service that creates bar/bat mitzvahs in the wilderness “that express the individual identity of the candidate.” If the sheer extravagance of the self-indulged fuels the humor in the safari joke, the second is simply sad in its focus on unaffiliated individuals who are completely detached from the Jewish community.

Bar/Bat Mitzvah: Performance or Communal Ritual?

Individualism has been insinuating itself increasingly into religious ritual over the last 30 years. Given the apparent truth of the popular mantra that “we are all Jews by choice,” religious ritual has had to evolve in ways that are attractive to individuals searching for personal meaning. The bar mitzvah is no exception. Rather than the children simply doing what they are supposed to do–to the degree to which they are capable–now children do their thing accompanied by fanfare and hoopla from parents and even rabbis. The focus, particularly in liberal communities, is often on children’s achievements and performance skills as much as it is on their new responsibilities as members of the synagogue community.

bar mitzvah torahThe bar mitzvah speech–once a serious exploration of Jewish text–is now often a ritual in which the quest for individual meaning is given equal weight with the Torah, which embodies the values of the Jewish community. At many synagogues, half of the child’s dvar Torah is devoted to a theme from the weekly portion and the other half is a discussion of “what it means to me.” Certainly it is important that children understand how Torah study can affect their own lives, but this type of speech often shortchanges the Torah and its traditional commentators.

How the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Child Participates in the Service

The bar/bat mitzvah child’s role in the service varies according to the abilities of the child and the expectations of both the synagogue and the movement to which it belongs. Because the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony is late in origin, the only real “requirement” is for the child to be called up to the Torah. In more traditional environments, bar mitzvah also marks the time when the young man begins to wear tefillin, or phylacteries, at the daily service. 

What Are the Possibilities?

A number of potential roles have evolved for the child during a typical bar/bat mitzvah ceremony.bat mitzvah girl

Aliyah (the blessing over the Torah): The child is called up for the first time to recite the blessings before and after the Torah reading. This aliyah actualizes the child’s new responsibilities in the Jewish community. Girls in some communities celebrate their bat mitzvah at the Shabbat evening service and therefore do not have an aliyah. Traditionalist communities do not call women to the Torah for aliyot (the plural of aliyah). However, even in some very traditional settings, a girl may have an aliyah, although with modified blessings, in the context of an all-women’s prayer group.

Reading from the Torah: The child may chant all or part of the weekly Torah reading, which is divided into seven portions. Although it is traditional for the bar/bat mitzvah to read the final portion, called the maftir (which usually is a repetition of several verses from the seventh portion), children may read more, up to and including the entire Torah portion.

Chanting the haftarah: The child usually chants the haftarah, the weekly prophetic portion, which is associated thematically with the Torah portion. The child also chants the blessings that precede and follow the haftarah reading.

Leading the service: The child may lead one or more parts of the service. On Shabbat mornings, these would include Psukai d’zimrah, the psalms and readings that precede the morning service; Shacharit, the morning service; the Torah service; and Musaf, the additional service. At a Shabbat afternoon bar/bat mitzvah, the child may lead the Mincha (afternoon) and Maariv (evening) services, as well as the havdalah ceremony, which marks the separation between the Sabbath and the weekday.

How Many Jewish New Years?

When is Rosh Hashanah 2015? Click here to find out.

Time, in its essence, is an unceasing flow on which human beings have imposed meaning with arbitrary divisions and markers–years, months, weeks, days, minutes, and seconds. These units of time serve as measures for human activity in education, commerce, leisure, agriculture, and religion.

Jewish time grew out of God’s imposition of order on the primeval chaos. First, God separated the light from darkness, creating day and night. Then, as a reflection of God’s cycle of creation and rest, the work week was differentiated from Shabbat. Later, at the time of the Exodus, God mandated that the Israelites mark the new moon of Nisan, thereby establishing a monthly and yearly cycle.

As the body of Jewish law developed, the Jewish calendar has served to demarcate both holiday observances and numerous time-bound obligations. To ensure that certain commandments were completed at their appointed times, four different Jewish new years were established to provide boundaries and markers for these activities. For example, since the Israelites were required to contribute a tenth of the current year’s produce, they had to know exactly when the current agricultural year began and ended.

The four Jewish new years specified in Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1 are 1 Tishri, 15 Shevat, 1 Nisan, and 1 Elul.

1 Tishrei

man blowing shofarThe first of Tishrei serves as the New Year for several purposes, the best known being the New Year for the civil calendar, or “the new year for seasons.” Rosh Hashanah literally means “the head of the year.” Jewish years are traditionally figured from creation (for example, this year is considered the 5763rd year from creation), with the New Year beginning on 1 Tishrei. Although Rosh Hashanah is not a well-defined holiday in the Torah, distinguished mostly as “a day when the horn is sounded” (Leviticus 29:1), the Talmud expanded its religious connotations to make it the Jewish New Year and the anniversary of creation. Rosh Hashanah 8a explains, “For R. Zeira said [that Tishrei is considered the New Year for years in relation] to the seasons. And this [opinion of R. Zeira] is [in consonance with the view of] R. Eliezer, who said that the world was created in Tishrei.” In fact, the rabbis focused particularly on the creation of human beings, without whose perceptive ability the physical creation would go unappreciated.

How Rosh Hashanah Became New Year’s Day

When is Rosh Hashanah 2015? Click here to find out.

The effort to strike a balance between a particularistic loyalty to Jewish religion and nationhood and a more universalistic commitment to the human community played itself out in the struggle to set a date for the beginning of the Jewish calendar year. The two possibilities were Nisan, the month of Passover, and Tishrei, the month of what is now known as the festival of Rosh Hashanah.

In the Torah, the beginning of the year was clearly set at 1 Nisan, in the context of a description of the first Passover. “The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you” (Exodus 12:1-2). This new year celebrated the creation of the Jewish nation through the redemption of the Israelites from Egypt. Nisan, as the first of the months, coincided with the beginning of Jewish national history.

calendarBut it is surprising that the Torah made no mention of a new year at 1 Tishrei, which today is so central to the Jewish religious experience. The Torah’s reference to 1 Tishrei is sparse altogether, describing a holiday characterized primarily by the blowing of a shofar. “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts. You shall not work at your occupations, and you shall bring an offering by fire to the Lord.” The name “Rosh Hashanah” is not mentioned, nor is there a reference to its function as a day of judgment and anniversary of the world’s creation.

Transforming Hanukkah

Embedded in a three-page treatment of Hanukkah and its ritual in the Talmudic tractate Shabbat 21a-24a is a seemingly offhand, yet surprising question: “What is Hanukkah, anyway?”

This question appears, seemingly out of nowhere, in the midst of a rabbinical discussion about kindling the Hanukkah lights. But shouldn’t it have been obvious to the Rabbis what Hanukkah was? People were presumably celebrating it already in commemoration of the Maccabean victory, and one might think that the Rabbis simply needed to clarify the legal and ritual requirements.

It turns out, however, that the Rabbis were uncomfortable with the existing rationale for Hanukkah, namely the Maccabean victory; and their answer to the question “What is Hanukkah?” provided an entirely different source for the holiday, the miracle of the single cruse of oil that lasted for eight days. The Rabbis taught:

“On the 25th day of Kislev begin the eight days of Hanukkah, on which lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils in it, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed over them and defeated them, they searched and found only one bottle of oil sealed by the High Priest. It contained only enough for one day’s lighting. Yet a miracle was brought about with it, and they lit with that oil for eight days. The following year they were established as a festival, with Hallel (prayers of praise) and Thanksgiving” (Shabbat 21b).

The historical story of Hanukkah–as it is related in First and Second Maccabees, ancient works that the Rabbis decided not to include in the Jewish biblical canon–is of the Maccabees’ military victory over Antiochus’s Syrian Greek armies and their Hellenist sympathizers. That being the case, why do the rabbis decide to focus entirely on this miracle of the oil?

The 16th-century Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Judah Loew, offers a concise answer to this puzzling rabbinical emphasis on the miracle of the oil: “The main reason that the days of Hanukkah were instituted was to celebrate the victory over the Greeks. However, so that it would not seem that the victory was due only to might and heroism, rather than to Divine Providence, the miracle was denoted by the lighting of the Menorah, to show that it was all by a miracle, the war as well.”

The longer answer about why the Rabbis changed Hanukkah’s meaning in midstream has to do with the Rabbis’ historical context, their lives under Roman rule, their attitudes toward the decadence of the Hasmonean dynasty, and their rabbinic theology, which celebrated learning and prayer over physical strength.

Historical Circumstance

For the Rabbis, the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. and the devastation following the Bar Kokhba revolt of 135 C.E. were historically too close for comfort. They knew that Jewish attempts to challenge mighty powers by military means had failed dismally, and they feared the repercussions of celebrating the military victory of the underdog Maccabees against the powerful Syrian Greeks and the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty in Judea.

They may have worried about potential Roman reprisals, but certainly did not want to encourage Jews to engage in a suicidal rebellion against their Roman rulers. They may have also been concerned about the possibility of harsher religious restrictions being imposed by the Romans.

Hasmonean Decadence

The Rabbis also had little admiration for the Hasmonean dynasty, which descended from the Maccabean heroes. First of all, the Hasmoneans had illegitimately usurped both the priesthood (which belonged to the descendants of Zadok, one of the High Priests during the time of King David) and the kingship (destined for descendants of King David).

Worse yet, they had combined the priesthood and the kingship, nullifying the separation between religious and political power that had been traditional in Israel. Ultimately, the Hasmoneans became the very Hellenists against whom the Maccabees had fought. Eventually, they invited the Roman Empire to be protectors of Judea, paving the way for the Roman conquest. Finally and perhaps most importantly, the Hasmoneans had supported the Sadducees, the priestly party, against the Pharisees, the spiritual progenitors of the Rabbis. Indeed, the Pharisees suffered a period of intense persecution during the late Hasmonean period.

Rabbinic Ambivalence and the Transformation of Hanukkah

Given their ambivalence about the Maccabean victory, the Rabbis had a problem: What could they do about the popular holiday established by the Maccabees and celebrated each year on the 25th of Kislev? They could get rid of it, as they had done with other holidays instituted by the Maccabees and their descendants—after all, Hanukkah was not a holiday of biblical origin. Or they could transform the meaning of Hanukkah in line with their own theology, which is what they did.

The Rabbis’ first tack seems to have been to try to suppress the holiday altogether. The books of the Maccabees, which recount the historical events surrounding the genesis of Hanukkah, were not included in the biblical canon. (The books of First and Second Maccabees are still accessible today only because they were incorporated into Catholic and Orthodox Christian Bibles.) Among the Jews, these books are called sefarim hitzonim, external books, or in Greek, apocrypha, and the Rabbis expressed their opinions about such books in no uncertain terms in Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1. Following a list of several categories of individuals “who have no share in the world to come,” Rabbi Akiva adds, “Also one who reads the external books….” Otherwise, the Mishnah is virtually silent about Hanukkah, except to refer to a "ner Hanukkah" in Baba Kama 6:6.

Only later, in the Gemara, particularly in Shabbat 21a-24a, do we see the Rabbis begin their transformation of Hanukkah with a new rationale for the holiday’s significance, the miracle of the oil. This legend about the oil is the most revealing clue of the Rabbis’ intentions for their re-imagined holiday of Hanukkah. Through this story, the Rabbis were able to give prominence to God while diminishing and even nullifying the role of the Maccabees. The miracle was no longer the military victory, but rather that a single cruse of oil sustained the lights in the Temple Menorah for eight days.

The raison d’etre assigned by the Rabbis to Hanukkah is made even more explicit by the haftarah–prophetic reading–they selected for the first Shabbat of Hanukkah. The reading from the book of Zechariah is about the prophet’s mystical vision of the rededication of the Second Temple. When the prophet sees a dream vision of a golden menorah, he asks an angel to explain its meaning, and the angel responds: “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, not by power, but by My spirit—said the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6). Again, God’s role is paramount.

The Al Hanissim (“for the miracles”) prayer–recited during the Amidah and the Blessing after Meals throughout Hanukkah–also echoes this rabbinic perspective. In this prayer God is entirely responsible for the successful military revolt, whereas Mattathias and his sons are reduced to mere time markers as to when the events occurred (“in the days of the Hasmoneans”).

The prayer emphasizes God’s role, particularly with its insistent repetition of the word “you”:

“We thank You also for the miracles, for the redemption, for the mighty deeds and acts of salvation, wrought by You, as well as for the wars which You waged for our fathers in days of old, at this season. In the days of the Hasmonean, Matityahu son of Yohanan, the High Priest, and his sons, when the iniquitous power of Greece rose up against Your people Israel to make them forgetful of Your Law, and to force them to transgress the statutes of Your will, then did You in Your abundant mercy rise up for them in the time of their trouble; You pleaded their cause, You judged their suit, You avenged their wrong, You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the arrogant into the hands of those that occupied themselves with Your Law….”

Just as the Rabbis of yesterday endowed the holiday with a meaning appropriate for their day and time and their religious theology, Jews today are finding in Hanukkah old and new meanings that resonate strongly. Some emphasize the nationalist and military aspects of Hanukkah, others the Maccabees’ role in defending religious freedom, and still others the metaphorical themes of light versus darkness, as expressed in a Secular Zionist Hanukkah song, “We have come to expel the darkness. With fire and light in our hands, each one of us is a small light, but all of us together are a powerful light.”

The rabbinical willingness to reinterpret the historical Hanukkah and endow it with new theological import is echoed in the efforts of today’s Jews to reflect and refract the history and texts of Hanukkah to create new images for their own lives.

The Maccabees: Heroes or Fanatics?

When is Hanukkah 2015? Click here to find out!

Although celebrated as heroes who saved Jewish practice and Torah law from suppression and abrogation by the Syrian Greeks, the Maccabees are portrayed in the First Book of Maccabees as religious zealots, murdering coreligionists who had chosen the path of Hellenism.

READ: A Synopsis of the Hanukkah Story

The historical reality is murky, refracted as it is through the political and religious agendas of First and Second Maccabees (books relating the Hanukkah story that the rabbis chose not to include in the Hebrew Bible). Because of this ambiguity, both interpretations have some legitimacy, and later commentators choose the one most consonant with their own needs and goals.

READ: Why the Books That Tell the Hanukkah Tale Are Not Included in the Bible

For example, readers who have personally experienced anti-Semitism may identify Mattathias as a hero who was loyal to his religious identity in the face of an anti-Semitic Greek civilization. On the other hand, civil libertarians may judge the Maccabees less generously, criticizing their infringement on the civil rights of their coreligionists [the latter of whom may also have treated those belonging to the Maccabean party in a similar manner].José_Teófilo_de_Jesus_-_A_morte_de_Judas_Macabeu

The Role of Hellenism

Central to any assessment of the Maccabees is an evaluation of the role of Hellenism, an ideology whose universalistic outlook was based on Greek ideas and athletic prowess. Following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, Hellenism became a political tool used by the Syrian Greeks to consolidate their power among the wealthy bourgeoisie. In turn, the aristocratic elites who embraced Hellenism gained access to the social and economic perquisites flowing to citizens of a Greek polis, including the right to mint coins, to take part in international Hellenistic events, and to receive protection from the city’s founding ruler.

But Hellenism encompassed more than a pragmatic relationship between the ruler and local economic elites; it also represented an “enlightened” worldview considered by many to be the way of the future. Nations who shut themselves off and did not confront the challenge of Hellenism were falling by the wayside. Because it was viewed as the wave of the future, the pressure to acculturate to Hellenism was quite intense in Judea. Therefore, the people of Judea had to decide whether the universalistic focus of Hellenism constituted a danger to their ancestral religion and its God or whether it simply represented a more modern and “progressive” way of life that could be merged with Jewish practice.

Publicizing the Miracle

The Talmudic explanation of the laws and significance of Hanukkah in tractate Shabbat 21a-24a appears almost as an afterthought amidst a discussion of appropriate wicks and oils for Sabbath lights. Yet in this sole discussion of Hanukkah in the Talmud, the rabbis seem to be pursuing a definite agenda as they debate the details of the Hanukkah ritual–they are creating the ritual that will embody the meaning of the holiday. And for the rabbis, the spiritual goal of the Hanukkah ritual is to publicize the miracle of the oil (in Aramaic, pirsumay nisa).hanukkah quiz

Publicizing the miracle is so critical for the rabbis that they are willing to say that in certain situations kindling the Hanukkah lights takes precedence over that mainstay of Jewish ritual—reciting Kiddush over wine on the Sabbath. If a person does not have sufficient funds for both oil and wicks for the hanukkiyah (Hanukkah lamp) and wine for Kiddush, the rabbis recommend kindling the Hanukkah lights instead of making Kiddush. As the sage Rava thought through these issues:

“Rava inquired: Where the choice is between kindling a Hanukkah light and sanctification of the Sabbath day by blessing the wine, what is the law? Is sanctification of the Sabbath day preferable since it is a frequent obligation (whereas kindling the Hanukkah lights is only an annual event) Or perhaps kindling the Hanukkah light is preferable since its purpose is publicizing the miracle that God wrought for the Jewish people? After Rava asked this question, he himself resolved it: Kindling the Hanukkah light is preferable, since its purpose is publicizing the miracle.

Where to Light the Candles

old menorahThe rabbinical goal of publicizing the miracle even has implications for something so seemingly inconsequential as where Hanukkah flames are to be lit. For the rabbis, the lights must be kindled where they are to be displayed so that act and intent are one; and appropriate placement of the burning lights means making them visible from the public thoroughfare. Consequently, the lights should be kindled either at the outer doorway of one’s home or, if the home fronts onto a courtyard, then at the entrance to the courtyard.

Special Shabbatot

Part of this article addresses the additional Torah reading chanted on special occasions. Many liberal congregations that do not read from an additional “maftir” Torah scroll will still note the special Shabbatot of the year by reading the appropriate haftarah, prophetic reading, for the occasion.

The spiritual cycle of the Jewish year depends on an interaction among the flow of holidays, the marking of Rosh Chodesh (the new month) and the weekly Shabbat (Sabbath) observance. The holidays and fast days sometimes permeate the surrounding Shabbatot (plural of Shabbat) with holiday themes. These special Shabbatot may create the mood for an upcoming festival, reflect or enhance festival themes, or ease the transition from a festival back into the weekly flow of Shabbatot.calendar 

A special Shabbat usually includes a special Torah or haftarah [prophetic] reading that either replaces the standard weekly reading or is read in addition to it. The Torah reading on a Shabbat morning is chanted in seven sections [in traditional congregations], each introduced and closed by blessings of a congregant during an aliyah–literally a “going up” to the Torah. After these seven aliyot is a maftir or final, aliyah, which usually repeats a short section from the end of the portion. However, on holidays and certain of the special Shabbatot, the maftir is an additional reading that reflects the day’s theme and is usually read from a different Torah scroll.

Rosh Chodesh

Although not designated as “special Shabbatot” per se, the Shabbatot surrounding Rosh Chodesh do have distinctive titles and readings. Shabbat Mevarkhim, the Sabbath of the Blessing of the New Moon (for the upcoming month), is the last Shabbat of the previous month. During the Torah service, a special “blessing for the new month” identifies the new month by name, specifies the day or days on which it begins, and asks God for a life of blessing during the upcoming month.

If the new month actually begins on a Shabbat, that Shabbat is called Shabbat Rosh Chodesh, and the special maftir reading, Numbers 28:9-15, describes the special Rosh Chodesh offerings; the special haftarah reading, Isaiah 66:1-24, prophesies a special pilgrimage to Jerusalem on Rosh Chodesh in the future.