Holiday Thoughts

The Sukkah of Yom Kippur

As important (if not more so) as what one says is how it is said, when it is said, and what is not said. This is equally true regarding both our interactions with other people and our religious texts. Form is as important as substance. So much of Jewish law is derived by looking at form over substance, the 39 forbidden activities of Shabbat being just one of many examples[1].

Yom Kippur: Long Term Planning

“We work and get reward and they work and do not get reward?” This statement, said when one completes a Talmudic tractate, articulates a fundamental difference between a “religious” approach to life and a “secular” one. In the world at large one is rewarded based on results. It is the bottom line that matters, and few are interested in why, what or how you accomplished – or did not accomplish – your goals. Excuses just don’t cut it regardless of how true they may be.

Aseret Yemi Teshuva: The Freedom to Choose

“In a place where ba’alei teshuva stand there, not even the fully righteous can stand” (Brachot 34b). This teaching is generally understood to mean that penitents are on a higher level than the fully righteous. The underlying premise of this teaching is that sinning is enjoyable—if it were not so, then why sin?—and it is much harder to give up something that one has already enjoyed than to refrain from starting in the first place. I imagine I would enjoy lobster, but having never tasted it, I do not miss it.

Rosh Hashanah: Time for Change

Man has a tremendous capacity for self-deception. We easily see faults in others; somehow, we miss them in ourselves. Teshuva, repentance, can begin only when we are honest with ourselves and admit that we have made mistakes. While we often can admit to certain "minor" errors, like being late or failing to say “good morning” to somebody, we have tremendous difficulty admitting to mistakes that can only be corrected by a change of lifestyle.

Some Thoughts on This Year's Yamim Noraim

The Yamim Noraim of the year 70 must have been quite traumatic. The Temple had been destroyed less than two months earlier and thousands lay dead, with many others exiled. Never in anyone’s lifetime had there been such a disruption to the normal routine of life. Could Judaism survive, and if so, in what form? “The house of prayer for all nations” lay in ruins, and surely there was no way to observe Yom Kippur. How could there be with no goat to carry away the sins of the Jewish people nor high priest to effect atonement?

Tu B'Av: Breaking the Glass

One of the best-known wedding customs is the breaking of a glass during the chuppah. The common explanation given for this custom is that it serves as a reminder of the destruction of the Temple. Our breaking of the glass is meant as a fulfilment of the verse, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten; let my tongue stick to my palate if I do not mention you, if I do not raise Jerusalem above my highest joy” (Tehillim 137:5-6). 

The Nine Days: Aharon's Yahrzeit

“Aharon the priest ascended Hor Hahar and died there in the fortieth year... in the fifth month on the first of the month” (Bamidbar 33:38). It is on rare occasions that the Torah actually dates events recorded therein. Even the giving of the Torah at Sinai has no biblical date associated with it. Birthdays, anniversaries and yahrzeits are of little interest to the Bible. The tradition that Moshe dies on the 7th of Adar is one deduced, without 100% accuracy, from the narrative of Sefer Yehoshua.

Shavuot: An Evolving Torah

“Rav Yossi said: It would have been appropriate had the Torah been given through Ezra, but Moshe preceded him… and even though the Torah was not given by him [Ezra], it was changed by him” (Sanhedrin 21b). The Talmud explains that this change relates to the “font” of the Torah, which was changed from ketav Ivri, the initial font in which the Torah was given, to ketav Ashurit, the “font” we have today in our Torah scrolls.

Yom Yerushalayim: Natural and Supernatural

The Jewish nation waited for close to 1,900 years to regain sovereignty over G-d’s chosen land. It took an additional 19 years until sovereignty was established “in the place that I will choose to place My name.” The famous words of Brigade Commander Motta Gur, “Har haBayit b’yadeinu, the Temple Mount is in our hands,” marked one of the momentous events of Jewish history; the presence of G-d was closer that it had been for almost 2,000 years.

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