Author Archives: Rabbi Iscah Waldman

Rabbi Iscah Waldman

About Rabbi Iscah Waldman

Rabbi Iscah Waldman is the director of education and family programming at Ansche Chesed in New York City.

Filling in the Gaps

Midrash is commonly defined as the process of interpretation by which the rabbis filled in “gaps” found in the Torah. It is a literature that seeks to ask the questions that lie on the tips of our tongues, and to answer them even before we have posed them.

What made Cain kill Abel: Was it jealousy over his own rejected sacrifice? Why would God choose the sacrifice of one brother over another? Did Isaac know that his father intended to sacrifice him on that altar? Did Sarah know what was going on? These are only a few out of thousands of questions for which the rabbis searched for answers.midrash

But is exegesis–the attempt to understand, most accurately, the meaning of a sacred text–what midrash is about? In the world of midrash, can there be only one answer to these questions?

Let us examine the issue of Cain and Abel: In Bereishit Rabbah, the rabbis interpret an ellipsis from Genesis 4:8: “And Cain spoke to Abel his brother… and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.” The midrash is as follows:

“AND CAIN SPOKE UNTO ABEL HIS BROTHER… (4:8). About what did they quarrel? ‘Come,’ said they, ‘let us divide the world.’ One took the land and the other the movables. The former said, ‘The land you stand on is mine,’ while the latter retorted, ‘What you are wearing is mine.’ One said: ‘Strip'; the other retorted: ‘ Fly [off the ground].’ Out of this quarrel, CAIN ROSE UP AGAINST HIS BROTHER ABEL” (Breishit Rabbah 22:7).

Window into the Rabbis’ Minds

A close reading of this midrash tells us not only about Cain and Abel, but also about the rabbis who struggle to understand them. Notice that in this midrash, Cain and Abel are equally to blame. Cain is the one who commits fratricide, yet Abel was a willing participant in the quarrel. The rabbis interpret the ellipsis in the biblical text as a mutual disagreement, representing the unfortunate tendency for humans–even (or especially) siblings–to become greedy about family property, and to hate each other, even to the point of violence.

Mahzor Contents

“The great shofar is sounded. A still small voice is heard. This day, even the angels are alarmed, seized with fear and trembling as they declare: ‘The day of judgment is here!'”

In a loud and trumpeting voice, the cantor describes the shofar’s blast, then softly and gently describes a “still, small voice.” This poignant line from the Musaf (“additional”) service sets a tone for the High Holidays. It is a dichotomy that is played out over and over throughout the liturgy of the Days of Awe. On these days, we sing of the king, judge, and awesome sovereign who sits in judgment over us, while at the same time, we appeal to God’s mercy and longstanding tradition of forgiveness, likening God to a shepherd sheltering a flock.

Rosh Hashanah is the first day of court. In the liturgy, we see this played out in the number of references to God as sovereign, ruler, and as a most judicious king. Additions and different emphases start as early as the beginning of the Shaharit (morning) service, with the word “Hamelekh” (The King). While these words also appear in the liturgy of Shabbat morning, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur they are highlighted in such a way that a new leader begins the service with a powerful note on the word “King” itself.

The structure of the morning service on Rosh Hashanah is similar to weekday and Shabbat services. It is, however, additional piyyutim (liturgical poems) such as L’eyl Orekh Din (“to the God who sits in judgment”) or Adonai Melekh (“Adonai is King”) that evoke the seriousness with which we would approach a trial with the true judge.

The Torah reading on Rosh Hashanah is from the story of Isaac’s birth, describing God’s kindness in giving a child to Abraham and Sara in their old age (Genesis 21). On the second day we read the story of the binding of Isaac, which ends with a ram as a substitute for Isaac (Genesis 22). The shofar that is so prominent on Rosh Hashanah is considered to be symbolic of this ram.

As the continuation of the piyyut U’netaneh Tokef quoted above, tells us, on Rosh Hashanah we are inscribed into the book of life, while on Yom Kippur, the book is sealed. These simple lines open us up to the possibility of teshuvah (repentance) and of reflection of our past deeds. U’netaneh Tokef is recited on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as an introductory piyyut to the kedushah (literally, holiness) in the musaf Amidah. The key line of this prayer follows on the heels of a long rhetorical piece that demands to know who among this congregation will be here next year–how many will perish and how many will be brought high? But, notes the liturgist, even those who are fated for the worst can depend on the following precept: “penitence, prayer, and good deeds can annul the severity of the decree.”

Public Displays of Hanukkiyot

Not every commandment is given a rabbinical justification as clear as that of the mitzvah (commandment) of lighting the Hanukkah lights (whether they are candles or oil, which are both acceptable). The rabbis explain that we light them in order to publicize the miracle of the holiday (pirsumei nisa in Aramaic, the language of the Talmud). menorah in the window

This symbolic act shifted during the time of the rabbis from the lighting of a solitary candle each night of the holiday to the lighting of an increasing number of candles throughout the eight nights of Hanukkah, according to the custom of the House of Hillel. These lights were to be placed outside, in a public space, during the most heavily trafficked time of the evening. Today, the variety of practices range from carefully measured oil lamps to electric menorahs in department store windows to the lighting of 30-foot Hanukkah menorahs in public squares in cities all over the world.

The requirement to kindle lights on Hanukkah could easily be fulfilled with the lighting of a single light. This solitary light was all that was needed to symbolize the miracle of this late holiday–be it the divine intervention of the story of the oil, or the Maccabean victory. At an early stage, the rabbis delineated a mehadrin (better or more meticulous) way to perform the mitzvah, namely to allow for one candle per family member each day.hanukkah quiz

The mehadrin min hamehadrin (the most meticulous) method would be to do precisely what has since become the common practice–to begin with one candle and add a candle for each subsequent night of the holiday. Along with the development of how many lights would suffice to properly publicize the miracle, questions arose surrounding the actual placement of the Hanukkah lights: How can the lights be placed in a way that maximizes their exposure to the public.

Maximum Exposure

Not unlike the idea behind TV networks’ “prime time,” the rabbis were careful to determine the proper time for lighting the hanukkiyah (Hanukkah lamp, also known as a menorah) as the one during which the largest amount of traffic would be able to view the miracle renewed in every house. During the 30 minutes or so that followed sunset, people made their way back home from the market or workplace, and this would be the optimum time to have passersby walk through what must have seemed like an endless number of kindled lights. The lights were to be lit outside in the courtyard, or if one lived on another floor, in a window so that people could see it.