Monday, April 17, 2006

Pesah - Seventh Day

There is a certain sense of anticlimax about Shevi’i shel Pesah, the Seventh Day of Passover: to put it quite simply, it’s not clear what the day is all about. Unlike the other festivals, it is divest of any special mitzvah or ceremony giving it a special character. Indeed, broadly speaking, the festivals of the Jewish year may be divided into two groups: there are those with a clear, unique theme, centered around a prominent, distinct ceremony: the opening day of Pesah, with the drama and beauty of the Seder; the seven days of Sukkot, with the lulav and etrog, and the sitting in the Sukkah; and the two days of Rosh Hashana, with the stirring sound of the shofar and its rich, theologically profound liturgy. On the other hand, such days as Shavuot, Shemini Atzret, and Shevi’i shel Pesah strictly speaking have no special mitzvot of their own, but in terms of formal structure are simply a kind of “generic” Yom Tov: Kiddush, festive meal, refraining from labor, Yom Tov davening, Hallel, etc. Indeed, these three days are each in some ways sense a “completion” of the earlier, week-long festivals. But Shavuot and Shemini Atzeret each have a definite character of their own: the former, by tradition of hoary antiquity, is the anniversary, nay, day of reliving the Revelation at Sinai, widely celebrated (by those who have the strength for it!) with an all-night study vigil; the latter (at least in Israel, where there is but one day), is Simhat Torah, the day of concluding and rebeginning of the Torah, and rejoicing in the already-possessed Torah, expressed in concrete, physical terms by dancing with the closed, rolled-up scroll. Shevi’i shel Pesah alone constitutes a sort of anomaly, without any special mitzvot or universally accepted practices to distinguish it. As such, it most closely resembles Shemini Atzeret in the Diaspora. But unlike that day, it is the only Yom Tov on which one does not even recite Shehehayanu—the blessing thanking God for having brought us to a new time—in Kiddush, and one only recites a truncated Hallel. To many an Orthodox housewife, it must seem little more than an anti-climax, the end of a rather tedious week of coping with the limitations and restrictions of Passover kashrut, following the excitement and splendor of the Seder.

But Jewish custom, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Shevi’i shel Pesah is seen as commemorating the Splitting and Crossing of the Red Sea, the moment when the children of Israel for the first time burst into song, acknowledging with full-throated praise God’s kindness and redemptive deeds. Thus, its Torah reading describes Pharaoh’s pursuit and the moment when the waters suddenly, miraculously parted, and Moses and the people recited the triumphant Song of the Sea (Exodus 15) when they saw their enemies, “horse and rider” together, drowning in the sea.

In Hasidic teaching, Shevi’i shel Pesah is possibly the most joyous moment of the entire Hag, the high point and climax of the entire week of Passover. Many Hasidim have the custom of gathering in the synagogue or Study House a little before midnight, and reliving the moment of the crossing of the sea by spilling on the floor some water, symbolically representing the sea, and dancing through it, singing phrases from the Siddur and verses from the Song. Leaving aside the childlike naivete of using a small cup of water to represent the mighty sea, there is something very impressive about these nocturnal celebrations. I once visited the court of the Bobover Rebbe in Brooklyn on the Seventh night of Pesah. All of those gathered in the Beis-Medrash—five hundred Hasidim, or more—linked hands in a single human chain, which curled and coiled around like a snake, singing over and over again: Bevakakha Yam Suf, amkha ra’u, hayad hag’dola, va-yira’u: “When you split the Red Sea, your people saw the great hand, and they were in awe.” The Rebbe—at the time a man in his 60’s, a magnificent, handsome figure, with erect, noble bearing, snow white beard and payot, clothed in splendid robes—linked hands with his Hasidim, occasionally gesturing with one hand. At the conclusion of the dance, he sat down at the head of the festive table and spoke, in a voice filled with wonder, of the great joy at the Sea: Milyonen fun Yidd’n tantz’n in yam: “Millions of Jews dancing in the Sea!”

On other occasions, I have visited Yeshivat ha-Matmidim, on the edge of Jerusalem’s Meah Shearim. There, hundreds of yeshiva students and older men gather around long tables to sing a series of favorite songs from the Haggadah: Vehei She’amdah, Dayeinu, Betzeit Yisrael, Ehad mi Yodea, Had Gadya—using the special melodies used in the old Jerusalem community, the “Yishuv Hayashan.” Then, at midnight, all the benches are cleared away, one of their number leads them in the recitation, verse by verse, of the Song of the Sea, followed by hours of ecstatic dancing. In both these places, I felt the special quality of Hasidic joy, and a sense that, whereas the Seder, held on the first night, is the celebration of the Exodus within the bosom of the (often extended) family, with the emphasis on teaching and telling and understanding, these gatherings are its celebration on the public, communal level, expressed in pure joy.

Seeing, Fearing, Believing, Singing

What is the meaning of all this? What is the significance of song? It seems to me that there is more to this than meets the eye. The Talmud tells us that the Song of the Sea is the “mother of all songs” in Judaism, and that the laws of Hallel (the group of Psalms, 113-118, recited on festive occasions), specifically, are based on this moment. We take the notion of Hallel, of reciting hymns of praise and thanksgiving to God, for granted, but it is in fact a profound, fundamental religious act. Theologically speaking, it begins with the consciousness of God’s presence in the otherwise seemingly mundane course of everyday history. Song is an expression of joy, of awe of God, of being overwhelmed emotionally, of having experienced something so great, so impressive, so tremendous, that it is impossible to hold back. On a certain level, the act of song may be seen as almost more important than the Exodus itself, than the fact of redemption, as it was that which made the Israelites into a people who accepted the Lord as their God. All the more so, given the grumbling, complaining nature of the Israelites, and that this is the first and one of the few times when we find a positive response on their part to the actions of God and Moses.

The process may be seen in the verse preceding the Song: “And Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea; and the Israelites saw the great hand that God had wrought in Egypt, and the people feared the Lord, and they believed in God and in Moses his servant. Then Moses and the Israelites sang…” (Exod 14:30-31; 15:1). First they saw the concrete, earthly reality of the corpses of the Egyptians; the next, most essential step, involved interpreting this as an act of God: “the great hand.” Thereafter, this religious perception was translated into the essential religious emotion of awe: “they feared the Lord.” This fleeting emotion, in turn, took the form of a more steadfast, ongoing relationship: “they believed/trusted in Him” (and in the authenticity of Moses as his appointed messenger); finally, they burst into song. This process, to my mind, may be seen as paradigmatic of the inner religious life of the Jew (and perhaps of all human beings) in all places and times.

“He Who Brings Down the Dew”

The synagogue service for the First Day of Pesah culminates in Tefillat Tal, the “Prayer for Dew” symbolizing the transition from winter to summer or, as they are known in Rabbinic literature, “the days of rain” and “the days of sun.” In Eretz Yisrael (and in much of the Mediterranean basin), where autumn and spring don’t really exist as seasons in their own right, but merely as brief transitional periods, these two are the only seasons of the year. Thus, from the first day of Pesah on we cease reciting the phrase in the Amidah prayer, mashiv ha-ruah u-morid ha-gashem (“He who turns about the winds and brings down the rain”), which had been recited all winter long, from the end of Sukkot on. From this point on, Sephardim (including Hasidim) and Ashkenazim living in Israel begin to recite in its stead the phrase morid ha-tal (“He who brings the dew”); Diaspora Ashkenazim simply omit the phrase, and continue with the fixed text (mekhalkel hayyim behesed….). Nevertheless, the recitation of an elaborate piyyut to formally introduce this change, known as Tefillat Tal, is universal.

What underlies this difference between Ashkenazim and Sephardim and, on a deeper level, what is the significance of thanking God for dew? In this context, the Talmud, seemingly like the Ashkenazic position, refers only to gevurat geshamim: “God’s strength [as expressed in] rain” (m. Ta’anit 1.1). Indeed, in many passages in the aggadah, the power to bring or withhold rain is seen as one of the major manifestations of Divine power, comparable to the resurrection of the dead and childbirth. There come to mind the allusions to rain and drought in many biblical passages relating to Divine reward and punishment (e.g., Lev 26, at 19-20; Deut 11:10-21, esp. 10-12, 14; Deut 28, at 23-24; etc.); or the account of the drought in the days of King Ahab, when Elijah withheld rain from Israel for three years, as a sign of God’s dissatisfaction with the former’s idolatry (see 1 Kings 17:1; 18:1, 5, 41-45). The Mishnah poignantly describes the heartfelt prayers for rain: when there had been no rain by a certain point in the winter months, pious individuals, then the whole people, engaged in a series of fasts of increasing severity, culminating in public prayer gatherings at which the ark with the Torah scrolls was brought out to the main street of the town, and a special order of petitionary prayer was recited. The aggadah in Ta’anit tells a series of stories about saintly men whose prayer’s were efficacious in coaxing God to send rain, most memorably Honi the Circle Drawer, the tannaitic figure who drew a circle around himself and announced that he would not move until God brought rain.

None of this is surprising: even in modern times—and all the more so in a traditional agricultural society—without rain there can be no harvest, no crops, and ultimately people may die of famine (s.v. the dustbowl in the US Midwest in the 1930’s, and more recent famines in Africa and elsewhere). Hence, God’s power is seen as most dramatically manifested in the refructifying of the earth each winter, with the power to bring or withhold rain serving as a central, daily reminder of God’s beneficence—or anger. Hence, the “strength of rain” occupies a central place in the opening blessings of the Amidah, where God’s praises, various dimensions of His attributes, are rehearsed in an orderly fashion.

But what of tal, dew? Further along in Tractate Ta’anit, the Talmud states that a person may, if he wishes, mention dew in that same blessing, or in the petitionary prayer for rain (i.e., the ninth blessing of the weekday Amidah), but is not required to do so, “because dew never ceases”—albeit, it adds, “dew of blessing does not always fall” (ibid., 3a). Similarly, mention of the winds and the clouds, which serve as preludes to rain, but are ever-present in one form or another, are not formalized in the liturgy.

Dew is nevertheless necessary for the proper functioning of the natural processes of growth during the hot summer months, sustaining the dampness needed by the soil, which had been irrigated by the heavy winter rains, for the growing crops. Without it, the earth may become thoroughly parched and desiccated. Anyone who has experienced a lengthy and severe hamsin (dry, hot east wind) in Israel will understand this. Thus, if rain is a dramatic, visible sign of God’s manifest powers, dew represents His hidden, more subtle, gentle, constant kindness. Numerous biblical passages give poetic expression to this idea: “I shall be like the dew to Israel” (Hosea 14:6); “may God bless you with the dew of heaven” (Gen 27:28); “may my speech distill as the dew, as gentke rain upon the grass” (Deut 32:2); “his heavens drop down dew” (33:28); cf. Micah 5:6; Ps 133:3; and, in a rather different sense, in 2 Sam 1:21; 1 Kgs 17:1; Jdg 6:36-40. In the Kabbalah as well, dew is regularly used to represent Hesed, the Divine attribute of lovingkindness (see. e.g., the Lurianic prayers found in many Siddurim after the beating of the Aravot on Hoshana Rabba or at the end of the hymn Azamer Bishevahin on Friday night).

To answer our original question about the difference in custom between Ashkenazim and Sephardim on this point: the approach of the Ashkenazim, who say only mashiv haruah umorid hageshem, celebrates the manifest, visible expressions of God’s power, namely, that in the rain—and have good basis in the Bible, the Mishnah, and the Talmud for doing so. The position of the Sephardim, that also in summer one mention’s God’s power through morid hatal, is explained by the Bet Yosef quite simply as “to mention in each time that which is appropriate to it: morid hatal in the warm season, and morid hagashem in the rainy season” (on Tur, Orah Hayyim 114, s.v. umah shekatuv rabbenu): that is, that one is appreciative of all of God’s kindnesses, great and small, overt and covert. One might perhaps draw an analogy to the difference between Shammai the Elder, who always put aside choice portions he found in the marketplace to honor the Shabbat, the special, prominent day of the week; as against Hillel, who enjoyed them on the weekdays, his motto being “Blessed be God every day.” Or it might be compared to the difference between the Hallel of festivals, commemorating Divine deliverances and epiphanies, as against the daily “Hallel” of Pesukei de-Zimra, recited on the ordinary “day of small things.”

It is interesting that there is a parallel liturgical difference between Ashkenazim and Sephardim regarding the other reference to rain in the daily liturgy: namely, the addition made to the ninth blessing of the Amidah, Barekh Aleinu, in the winter months. Sephardim completely change the text of this blessing in winter, replacing the summer version by a much longer prayer for rain; Ashkenazim simply add the two words tal u-matar, “Give dew and rain upon the earth.” Does this difference reflect the differing climates of the Mediterranean and European environment of these respective groups, or something deeper? Since the Ashkenazim did not experience the change in seasons between rain and dryness, perhaps they did not lend it the same emphasis? But was Andalusia (i.e., the homeland of classical Sefarad) indeed so different in this respect from the Rhine Valley, or especially from the Provençal country in France, part of classical Ashkenaz?

A Note on Nishmat

As the Seventh Day of Passover is the time when we read the Song of the Sea—“The Song” par excellence in Jewish literature—it is a suitable time to make a brief comment about the song with which the formal, halakhically required part of the Haggadah ends: Nishmat Kol Hay, “The breath of all that lives …” This poem, an impressive song in which all of creation is portrayed uttering praises of God, goes on, in a series of beautiful images (“were our mouths full of song like the sea… and our eyes bright as the sun and the moon, and our hands stretched forth like eagles…”), to declare the inadequacy of human words to tell even the smallest fraction of His kindness. Near the end, there is a description of how all organs of the human body—mouth and tongues, knees and “height,” heart and innards—all engage in God’s worship, summing up with the phrase, “All my bones will say, O Lord, who is like You!”

But what I find significant is that the verse continues: “You saves the poor from he that is stronger than him, and the humble and misfortune from he that would despoil them” (Ps 35:10). The Sephardic rite continues with the (non-biblical) phrase, “You hear the cry of the lowly, the shriek of the poor you hear, and deliver him.” The point being that, alongside the all-embracing theocentric experience of ecstatic prayer (“all my bones…”), there must be awareness of the suffering and misfortunate that exist in the world. The implication is that, just as God hears the poor and downtrodden, so must we be sensitive and act to help them. It is interesting that, on the very last page of Guide for the Perplexed, after describing the highest levels of knowledge of God, Rambam concludes with an interpretation of Jer 9:22-23, stating that true knowledge of God involves imitation of His ways in the ethical sense: meaning, acts of compassion and justice in the real world (and see also his comment about sharing one’s festival feasting with those less fortunate; Yom Tov 6.18).

The Seventh Day: High-Point or Anti-Climax?

There is an interesting paradox involved in the Seventh Day of Pesah. On the one hand, it is seen halakhically in somewhat minor key, as simply the last of the seven days of “Hag ha-Matzot.” It is the only full holiday on which we recite a truncated Hallel, and the only one on which we do not recite the Sheheheyanu blessing in the festive Kiddush. There are two explanations offered for this: one is that, unlike Sukkot, where each day has a different sacrificial offering made in the Temple, on Pesah the same offering was brought each day, implying that all the days are basically the same, without any unique character. The second explanation is a midrashic one: when the angelic hosts saw the Egyptians drowning in the Sea, they began to sing praises ti the Almighty, but He silenced them, saying, “My creatures are drowning in the sea and you sing praises?!” That is, a certain universal ethical sensibility prevents us from celebrating in unrestrained fashion a day that was marked by human suffering.

On the other hand, there are several places in the Torah where special emphasis is placed on the seventh day, specifically: “Seven [or: six] days you shall eat matzot, and the seventh day shall be a solemn assembly for the Lord” (Exod 13:6; Deut 16:8). This seems to suggest that the seventh day is in fact the culmination of the Exodus, the high point of its celebration. After all, only after the splitting of the Reed Sea and the obliteration of the Egyptian charioteers were the rag-tag bunch of recently fled slaves truly free from their oppressors and from the threat of being taken back in chains.

Many Hasidic texts speak of the inner meaning of this holiday. Sefat Emet, for example, speaks in several places of this day as being one for “receiving faith,” and the Song of the Sea as the first expression by the Israelites of their own subjective sense of having been redeemed; that not only were the Egyptians dead, but that “Egyptian-ness” no longer had an inner hold over them. They no longer needed to overcome harsh blows and suffering to achieve freedom, but simply to rise to the level of Shabbat—of singing out to God. This is particularly suitable for a year such as this, when the Seventh Day in fact falls on Shabbat, and Song of Songs, which some say also has an inner connection to this day, is read on that day.

“My Creatures are drowning in the Sea and you Recite Song?!”

It is impossible to leave the subject of the Song of the Sea without referring to the serious ethical problem it presents. Is there not an element of gloating over the misfortune of others to sing and dance and rejoice in memory of an occasion which involved the violent death of fellow human beings, even if they were one enemies? And especially to speak of this as “the mother of all Songs,” the very archetype of religious hymnody? In fact, a well-known and widely quoted midrash expresses this sentiment quite succinctly: “When the Egyptian soldiers were drowning in the Sea the ministering angels wished to sing song to the Almighty. The Holy One blessed be he stopped them, saying, ‘My creatures are drowning in the Sea, and you recite Song?’”

This midrash is often cited as the source for the practice of not reciting full Hallel on the last or intermediate days to Pesah, unlike Sukkot—as if to say, our joy is somewhat diminished by the sufferings of other human beings (much like the pouring out of a few drops of wine from the Seder cup at mention of the ten plagues that befell the Egyptians). But in fact, there is another, more technical halakhic reason for not reciting the full Hallel: namely, that the sacrificial offerings brought during the latter days of Pesah were not differentiated from on another, but were uniform in nature (see Arkhin 10b).

This past Shabbat Shirah, I attended a synagogue where a prominent Jewish theologian, known for his liberal and universalist-ethical interpretations of the tradition, somewhat demonstratively refused to stand for the reading from the Torah of the Song of the Sea, as is the usual custom. He cited just those reasons, speaking of this chapter as one of the worst and unacceptable passages in the whole Torah. When I was younger, striving for a pacifistic, thoroughly universalist Judaism, I used to refrain from saying the Song in the daily davening. My response today, by contrast, would be to take note of the precise language of the above midrash: God silenced the angels, not the Israelites, from singing. Angels, who are incorporeal, without physical needs and concerns, and are closer to a divine purview of the universe, may reasonably be expected not to gloat over the death of “evil-doers.” Human beings are allowed to have a human reactions; surely, a certain feeling of relief and even joy upon the death of those who have pursued one is only human. A similar issue arises at the Seder over the passage Shfokh hamatkha: “Pour out your wrath upon the nations who know you not...” etc. It seems to me inhuman to demand the excision of such a passage, reflecting the pain and travail of centuries of Jewish suffering and humiliation. (I hasten to add, that the above is not to be understood as advocating any particular political program or viewpoint; davka a humanistic approach requires that we acknowledge the humanity of our opponents as well.)

Shira Hadasha and Shir Hadash: Singing a New Song

The main street in my neighborhood, Rehov Emek Refaim, has the odd distinction of boasting two synagogues with similar names, both of which mean “A New Song”—the one in the feminine form, Shira Hadasha, and the other in the masculine, Shir Hadash. Appropriately enough, and no doubt deliberately so, the one whose name is in the feminine is renowned as a kind of flagship congregation for what has become known in recent years as orthodox feminism—that is, a synagogue that pushes the limits of the halakhah in terms of enabling women to take as active a role as possible in synagogue life, including honoring women with aliyot and with reading the Torah, leading Kabbalat Shabbat and certain other portions of the service. Shir Hadash, on the other hand, is a more traditional, “centrist Orthodox,” American style minyan in which only males are active players.

Beyond being a cute neighborhood anecdote, this phenomenon raises an interesting question: what, if any, is the difference in connotation between the Hebrew words shir and shirah? Both refer to song or poetry. The Seventh Day of Pesah is an appropriate time to raise this problem, because the Song of the Sea that we read on this festival is in fact referred to in the opening verse as a shira (Exod 15:1). The term is in fact only used for a handful of songs in the entire Torah or, for that matter, in the Tanakh as a whole. In addition to the Song of the Sea, it is used in describing the instructional song that Moses ordered the people to learn well so as to serve as a constant admonition against the dangers of future backsliding (Deut 31:19, 22, 30; the song itself, which begins with the word Haazinu, is in Deut 32); it is used by King David for the song of praise and thanksgiving to God which he recited shortly before his death, after he had finished his conquests, thanking God for saving him “from all his enemies and from Saul” (2 Sam 22:1 // Ps 18:2); it refers to the very short song that the children of Israel sang in celebration of the miraculous well that had accompanied them in the desert until the death of Miriam (Num 21:17-20); and it is used by the prophet Isaiah for the song of a lover to his vineyard that he planted in Keren Ben-Shemen (Isa 5:1), which symbolically represent God and Israel, in which he bemoans his disappointment after all the labor that he has invested in it, yet it nevertheless has become ruined. One place where the word shirah is most conspicuously not used is the Song of Deborah and Barak after the defeat of the army of the Yavin, the Canaanite king of Hatzor (Judges 5). This last poem is referred to neither as shir nor as shira, but begins with the verbal form: vatashar devorah, “then Deborah sang…”.

From examination of all these cases, one can infer that the word shira is used for what might best be described as epic or heroic songs, either celebratory or instructional. The song of the vintner to his vineyard and that of Moses to the Jewish people are clearly instructional songs, admonitions warning them against going astray. The others seem celebrations of great historical events, almost spontaneous expressions of joy and gratitude. Why are those specifically feminine while numerous psalms of all kinds in the Psalter bear the masculine shir? The question requires further study.

At the End of the Day

It is customary in many communities to conclude the festival with a light festive meal during the late afternoon of the final day, in the home or synagogue. Interestingly, each group has its own name and rationale for this meal. Among Mitnaggedim, this is called “the Meal of the Gr”a”—i.e., the Gaon of Vilna, who taught that it is a mitzvah to eat matzah all seven (or eight) days of Passover, and hence one holds a meal at that time “in order to honor the mitzvah upon its going out”; to Habad Hasidim, this is known as Se’udat Mashiah (Messiah’s Feast), demonstrating faith in the imminent coming of the Final Redemption; among Polish and Galician Hasidim, it is called Begleiten demYom Tov—“escorting out the Festival”; while German Jews celebrate this meal in the intimacy of the home, singing favorite melodies from the Seder one last time with their children.

Among Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover is the portal to the Maimuna—the great Moroccan festival in honor of Rabbi Maimon, father of Moses Maimonides, who was a beloved leader of Moroccan Jewry over eight hundred years ago. During the evening of the Maimuna, people traditionally visit one another in their homes, and all practice their famed hospitality with freshly prepared (hametz!) foods, such as thin fragrant pancakes (muflita), stuffed dates, sweets, and other delicacies.


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