Author Archives: Philip Goodman

About Philip Goodman

Philip Goodman is the author of The Rosh Hashanah Anthology (Jewish Publication Society, 1970, 1992).

What An Etrog!

Tales of the Jews of Helm (or Chelm) are a folk tradition. The people in this town are well-meaning but their logic is inevitably faulty and they inevitably end up doing things incorrectly–and humorously. Excerpted from The Sukkot/Simhat Torah Anthology. Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.

The wise men of Helm were elated with the etrog the president of their congregation had purchased for Sukkot. This was not an ordinary etrog. It came from the Land of Israel. It was yellow as the color of an etrog. It was fragrant as the odor of an etrog. It was without a blemish as an etrog. It had a firm and dainty pitma [stem]. In short, this was an etrog!

Shaking a lulav and etrog

The president reluctantly entrusted the sexton to take the etrog to all the Helm householders so that they could recite the traditional blessing over it. Apprehensive of the sexton’s carelessness, the president warned him. “Remember! This etrog is an etrog! Handle it with tenderness. Be especially careful that the pitma should not be spoiled by handling and thereby render the etrog unsuitable for use. Remember! This etrog is an etrog.

The wise sexton joyfully embarked on his holy mission. Clutching the etrog in both hands, he started out through the streets of Helm, when a sudden inspiration stopped him in his tracks. He looked at the etrog, held it level with his eyes, and scrutinized it from all sides. Shutting his eyes in devout meditation, the sexton recalled the president’s instructions to take extreme precautions that the pitma should not be spoiled. Ah, he was shrewd! But what was the inspiration that brought him to a sudden halt? Had he forgotten his clever device? No! No! He knew what he had to do. No sooner said than done!

The sexton took a sharp knife from his pocket and carefully cut out the pitma from the etrog. The president had ordered him to take  good care of it, and he would never dare disobey the president. He placed the pitma in a clean handkerchief and gently placed it in his pockets.  He then proceeded to the homes of the wise Helmites to allow them to recite the blessing over the etrog.

As the sexton entered each home, he reiterated the president’s adnonition.

“Remember! This etrog is an etrog!”

The Shavuot Marriage Contract

Reprinted with permission from The Shavuot Anthology published by the Jewish Publication Society. The ketubah is translated by Solomon Feffer.

In many Sephardic congregations, prior to the Torah reading on the first day of Shavuot a ketubah le-Shavuot (marriage certificate for Shavuot) is read as a symbolic betrothal of God and His people Israel. There are various versions of such piyyutim (religious poems), nearly all similar in terminology to the traditional t’naim [literally “conditions”] the premarital document specifying the conditions agreed upon between the two parties) or the ketubah (certificate the bridegroom presents to the bride at the wedding ceremony).

These are hymns based on the verses, “I will betroth thee unto Me for ever; yea, I will betroth thee unto Me in righteousness, and in justice, and in lovingkindness, and in compassion. And I will betroth thee unto Me in faithfulness, and thou shalt know the Lord” (Hosea 2:21-22) and “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel” (Jeremiah 31:31).

Some texts describe the marriage as being solemnized symbolically between the Torah–the bride–and the people of Israel, the bridegroom. In these versions, God as the bride’s father gives as dowry the 613 commandments, the Bible, Talmud, and other sacred writings. Moses presents as dowry to his son–the people of Israel–the prayer shawl and phylacteries, the Sabbath and festivals. The contracts are witnessed by God and His servant Moses.

The Matzah-Baking Machine

Reprinted with permission from A Passover Anthology (Jewish Publication Society).

In about 1857, the first matzahbaking machine was invented in Austria, beginning a heated controversy that raged for half a century. Dr. Solomon B. Freehof has given us a full account of this dispute, which he calls "one of the most acrimonious discussions in the history of the responsa literature." However, this should not be surprising as this was, indeed, a radical innovation for the fulfillment of a duty whose execution had long ago been elaborately defined to the minutest detail.

The newly invented machine kneaded the dough and rolled it through two metal rollers from which it came out thin, perforated, and round. It was then placed in an oven. As the corners of the dough, cut to make the matzot round, were re-used, it was feared that the time elapsing until these pieces of dough were used again might allow them to become leavened. A later machine was developed that produced square matzotso that there would be no leftovers. Other subsequent improvements in the machinery speeded up the entire process of production, leading to a general acceptance of the modern method. Meanwhile, many distinguished rabbis raised their voices in protest against the new machine, while others, equally respected, permitted its use.

Solomon Kluger of Brody, in a letter to Rabbi Hayyim Nathan and Rabbi Leibush Horowitz of Cracow, Galicia, where the machine was already in use, prohibited the eating of the machine-made matzot,especially for the matzot mitzvah [the matzah eaten to fulfill the commandment at the seder]. This letter and similar pronouncements by other rabbis were published under the title Moda’ ah le-Bet Yisrael ("Announcement to the House of Israel," Breslau, 1859). In rebuttal, Rabbi Joseph Saul Nathanson published the pamphlet Bittul Moda’ah ("Annulment of the Announcement," Lemberg, 1859).

One of Kluger’s most telling arguments was that the opportunity given to the poor to earn money for their Passover needs by working in matzah bakeries would be denied to them, as the use of machinery required fewer manual workers. He and his adherents also argued that matzah shemurah ["watched" matzah that is prepared in less than 18 minutes to be certain that no leavening has taken place],particularly, must be made with the intention of fulfilling the precept that requires the understanding of a mature adult. They also claimed that there was a suspicion that the pieces of dough left in the wheels of the machine, which were difficult to clean, would become leavened.

Rain, Rain Go Away?

The prayer for rain on Shemini Atzeret asks that the water be sufficient for “a blessing and not a curse.”  That phrase motivates the events of this tale.  This piece also underscores that everything and everyone is fair game in Jewish humor.

Excerpted from The Sukkot/Simhat Torah Anthology. Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.

A severe drought wrought havoc with the crops, and unless rain fell soon, the fanners would suffer great losses. To demonstrate the efficacy of prayer, the rabbi decided to utilize the approaching festival of Shemini Atzeret, when it is customary to recite the prayer for rain. To this end, he engaged a cantor to officiate for the festival.

On Shemini Atzeret morning the rabbi preached a soul-stirring sermon on prayer. Emphasizing that God always answers prayers emanating from the heart, he urged the congregants to worship fervently for a favorable response to the prayer for rain. With deep emotion the cantor chanted the special prayer and the congregation responded in like vein. Never before was such a prayer for rain heard.

No one was therefore surprised that a heavy rain fell as the services were concluded. So abundant was the downpour, that it seemed the very heavens were emptying. Surely, the rabbi was being vindicated; their prayers were answered.

However, whatever had been left of the crops was completely destroyed by the plethora of water. Two neighbors who had left their houses in the rain to examine their ruined fields met on the road. With a deep sigh of anguish, one said to the other, "The rabbi really knows how to get answers to his prayers."

The other rejoined, "That is quite true, but he certainly doesn’t know how to irrigate a field."