Rosh Hashanah 30

Remembering through action.

On yesterday’s daf, a mishnah quoted the ruling of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai that the shofar should be blown on Rosh Hashanah wherever there is a beit din, or religious court of law. The Gemara then goes on to delineate several other rulings of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, including this one:

At first, during the Temple era, the lulav was taken in the Temple all seven days of Sukkot, and in the rest of the country outside the Temple, it was taken only one day, on the first day of the festival. After the Temple was destroyed, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai instituted that the lulav should be taken even in the rest of the country all seven days, in commemoration of the Temple.

In Temple times, the lulav and etrog were taken — i.e. shaken — only on the first day of Sukkot everywhere outside Jerusalem. But after the Temple’s destruction, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai ruled that they should be taken for the duration of the holiday in commemoration of how things were done in the Temple, which continues to be our practice today. 

Taking up the lulav on all seven days of Sukkot is one of several ways we commemorate the rituals performed in the Temple. Others include the Tisha B’Av mourning rituals, Torah study and prayer in place of Temple sacrifices, and more. 

But on today’s daf, the Gemara asks a deeper question: Why should we take such pains to remember the Temple? The answer might seem self-evident — after all, the Temple functioned as the center of Jewish worship for centuries and Jews today still pray for its rebuilding. Of course we should remember the Temple.

But as ever, the Gemara has something fascinating to teach in its explanation.

And from where do we derive that one performs actions in commemoration of the Temple? As the verse states: “For I will restore health to you, and I will heal you of your wounds, said the Lord; because they have called you an outcast: She is Zion, there is none who care for her.”  (Jeremiah 30:17) This verse teaches by inference that Jerusalem requires caring through acts of commemoration.

Quoting Jeremiah, the sages say we remember the Temple because Jerusalem itself needs us to care about her. And the way we show care is through behavior that demonstrates we remember how Jerusalem used to be. 

The Talmud’s use of a verse from Jeremiah as a prooftext is telling. Jeremiah lived through the destruction of the First Temple, and his image of Jerusalem is of a living, breathing entity. As it says at the start of the Book of Lamentations, traditionally attributed to Jeremiah as well: “Alas! Lonely sits the city once great with people! She that was great among nations is become like a widow; the princess among states is become a thrall.”

Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai too lived through the destruction of the Temple — the Second Temple, 600 years after Jeremiah. The Gemara was written hundreds of years after that. So how is it that these rabbis living in the early Middle Ages had a concept of what it means to have had a Temple so rich that they would insist on creating rituals to compensate for its absence?

Because Jewish leaders for hundreds of years before them had instilled the importance of the Temple in such a way that the rabbis of the Gemara and beyond — even into our own time — could understand and impart what the Temple represented, and what a loss its destruction meant.

Of course, we live in a time when Jerusalem (if not the Temple) has been rebuilt — it is once again “a city great with people.” And yet, we still observe Tisha B’Av, we still study and pray instead of offering Temple sacrifices, and we shake the lulav all seven days of Sukkot (except for Shabbat).

Remembering, according to the Talmud, isn’t just about words — it’s about action. And those actions in memory of the Temple don’t just have the effect of personifying Jerusalem. They bring Jerusalem, the Temple and Judaism itself alive for the next generation.

That’s what Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai — the man who created an academy at Yavneh to ensure that Jewish learning would continue in the wake of the Temple — was going for. It’s now our job to actively remember our history and teach it to the next generation. And for those of us who can study Talmud not only in a book, but on a website or a podcast, it has never been more possible — or more exciting — to do so.

Read all of Rosh Hashanah 30 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 8th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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