Author Archives: Rabbi Avi Shafran

Rabbi Avi Shafran

About Rabbi Avi Shafran

Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.

Celebrating Submission

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All biblical Jewish holidays but one are distinguished by specific mitzvot (commandments), that attend their celebration: Rosh Hashanah’s shofar, Yom Kippur’s fasting, Sukkot’s booths and “four species,” Passover’s seder and matzah.

The one conspicuous exception is Shavuot. Although the standard, traditional prohibitions of labor that apply to the other holidays apply no less to Shavuot–and while special sacrifices were brought in Temple times on every Jewish holiday–there is no specific ritual or “objet d’mitzvah” associated with Shavuot.

There are, of course, foods traditionally eaten on the day–specifically dairy delectables like blintzes and cheesecake. And there is a widely-observed custom of spending the entire first night of Shavuot immersed in Torah readings and study. But still, there is no Shavuot equivalent to the shofar or the etrog (citron used on Sukkot) or the seder.

The early-19th-century Hasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev suggested that perhaps the mitzvahlessness of Shavuot was why it is called throughout the Talmud “Atzeret“–which means “holding back” and refers to the prohibition on labor. The lack of particular Shavuot mitzvot, though, may reflect something sublime.

The Essence of Passivity

torah in sandShavuot, although characterized by the Torah only as an agricultural celebration, is identified by the Jewish religious tradition with the day on which the Torah was given to our ancestors at Mount Sinai.

That experience involved no particular action; it was, in a sense, the very essence of passivity, acceptance of G-d’s Torah and His will. The revelation was initiated by G-d; all that our ancestors had to do–though it was a monumental choice indeed–was to receive, to submit to the Creator and embrace what He was bestowing on them.

Indeed, the midrash compares the revelation at Sinai to a wedding, with G-d the groom and His people the bride. (Many Jewish wedding customs even have their source in that idea: the canopy, sources note, recalls the mountain held, according to tradition, “over their heads”; the candles, the lightning; the breaking of the glass, the breaking of the tablets of the Law.)

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The Sukkah Still Stands

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There is simply no describing the plaintive, moving melody to which Yiddish writer Avraham Reisen’s poem was set. As a song, it is familiar to many of us who know it thanks to immigrant parents or grandparents. And, remarkably, the strains of "A Sukkeleh," no matter how often we may have heard them, still tend to choke us up.

Based on Reisen’s "In Sukkeh," the song, whose popular title means "A Little Sukkah," really concerns two sukkot, one literal, the other metaphorical, and the poem, though it was written at the beginning of the last century, is still tender, profound and timely.

Thinking about the song, as I–and surely others–invariably do every year this season, it occurred to me to try to render it into English for readers unfamiliar with either the song or the language in which it was written. I’m not a professional translator, and my rendering, below, is not perfectly literal. But it’s close, and is faithful to the rhyme scheme and meter of the original:

A sukkaleh, quite small,

Wooden planks for each wall;

Lovingly I stood them upright.

I laid thatch as a ceiling

And now, filled with deep feeling,

I sit in my sukkaleh at night.

A chill wind attacks,

Blowing through the cracks;

The candles, they flicker and yearn.

It’s so strange a thing

That as the Kiddush I sing,

The flames, calmed, now quietly burn.

In comes my daughter,

Bearing hot food and water;

Worry on her face like a pall.

She just stands there shaking

And, her voice nearly breaking,

Says "Tattenyu, the sukkah’s going to fall!"

Dear daughter, don’t fret;

It hasn’t fallen yet.

The sukkah will be fine, understand.

There have been many such fears,

For nigh two thousand years;

Yet the sukkahleh continues to stand.

As we approach the holiday of Sukkot and celebrate the divine protection our ancestors were afforded during their 40 years’ wandering in the Sinai desert, we are supposed–indeed, commanded–to be happy. We refer to Sukkot, in our Amidah prayer, as "the time of our joy."

And yet, at least seen superficially, there is little Jewish joy to be had these days. Jews are brazenly and cruelly murdered in our ancestral homeland, hated and attacked on the streets of European cities–and here in the United States, our numbers are falling to the internal adversaries of intermarriage and assimilation.

The poet, however, well captured a Sukkot-truth. With temperatures dropping and winter’s gloom not a great distance away, our sukkah-dwelling is indeed a quiet but powerful statement: We are secure because our ultimate protection, as a people if not necessarily as individuals, is assured.

And our security is sourced in nothing so flimsy as a fortified edifice; it is protection provided us by G-d Himself, in the merit of our forefathers, and of our own emulation of their dedication to the divine.

And so, no matter how loudly the winds may howl, no matter how vulnerable our physical fortresses may be, we give harbor to neither despair nor insecurity. Instead, we redouble our recognition that, in the end, G-d is in charge, that all is in His hands.

And that, as it has for millennia, the sukkah continues to stand.

© AM ECHAD RESOURCES

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What’s With the Fours?

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Reprinted with permission from Am Echad Resources.

Despite the late hour and exhaustion (not to mention wine), many a Jewish mind has wondered long and hard during a Passover seder about all the Haggadah’s “fours.” Four questions, four sons, four expressions of redemption, four cups. There’s clearly a numerical theme here.

While some may superficially dismiss the Haggadah as a mere compendium of random verses and songs, it is in truth a subtle and wondrous educational tool, with profound Jewish ideas layered through its seemingly simple text. The rabbis who formulated its core, already extant in pre-Talmudic times, wanted it to serve as a tool for planting important concepts in the hearts and minds of its readers–especially its younger ones, toward whom the seder, our tradition teaches, is aimed. And so the authors of the Haggadah employed an array of pedagogical methods, including songs, riddles, and puzzles, as means of conveying deeper understanding. And they left us clues, too.fours on passover

When it comes to the ubiquitous “fours,” we might begin by pondering the essential fact that Passover is when the Jewish people’s identity is solemnly perpetuated. The seder is the ritual instrument through which each Jewish generation inculcates our collective history and essence to the next. Which is likely a large part of the reason that so many Jewish parents who are alienated from virtually every other Jewish observance still feel compelled to have at least some sort of seder, to read a Haggadah, or even–if they have strayed too far from their heritage to comfortably confront the original–to compose their own. (I once joked before an audience that a “Vegetarian Haggadah” would likely appear any year now, and someone in attendance later showed me precisely such a book, though it lacked the “Paschal Turnip” I had imagined.)

And so the role we adults play on Pesach night, vis-a-vis the younger Jews with whom we share the experience, is a very specific one. We are teachers, to be sure, but it is not information per se that we are communicating, but something more: identity.

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