Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Sukkot (Rambam)

“He who has not Seen…”

Traditionally, the festival of Sukkot marks the pinnacle of the joyous days on the Hebrew calendar. In Temple times, this was a time of mass pilgrimage to Jerusalem, with a number of special ceremonies: the offering of seventy bullocks, representing the seventy nations of the world; the adorning of the altar with long willow branches from the deep valley of Motza near Jerusalem; the water libation, symbolic of the importance of water, which falls during the season beginning with Sukkot, as the source of growth for all fruits of the land; and the night-long celebrations that preceded this libation, with instrumental music and juggling of torches and ecstatic dancing. The Mishnah states that “he who has not seen the Festival of the House of Water-Drawing has never in his life seen true joy” (m. Sukkah 5.2). Interestingly, Rambam devotes the concluding four paragraphs in his treatise on the holidays of Tishrei (its full title is “The Laws of Shofar, Sukkah and Lulav), which otherwise dedicated to those mitzvot observed today, to the special celebration held in the Temple courtyards in ancient times. Thus, in Hilkhot Sukkah ve-Lulav 8.12, we read:

12. Even though one is obligated to rejoice on all the festivals, during the festival of Sukkot there was especially great rejoicing in the Temple, as is said, “And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days” [Lev 23:40]. What did they do? On the eve of the first day of the festival a place was made for the women up above and for the men down below so that they would not mingle with one another. And they began to rejoice from the conclusion of the first day of the festival, and on each of the Intermediate Days of the Festival they began, after offering the fixed daily sacrifice of twilight [i.e., from mid-afternoon], to rejoice for the rest of the day and the entire night.

We are immediately struck here by the fact that Rambam does not refer to Simhat Beit ha-Shoevah by name; instead, he describes it as “an especially great rejoicing held in the Temple.” The laws of the water libation as such are brought in their proper place in the book devoted to Temple rituals (Temidin u-Musafin 10.6-10), but there, not only is no mention made of this celebration, but the solemn procession which gives it its name is not mentioned at all. In this ritual, the priests solemnly walked down the steps and across the Women’s Courtyard to the accompaniment of trumpet blasts, exiting the eastern gate of the Temple just before dawn so as to descend to the Shiloah stream to draw the water to be used in this libation.

By contrast, Rashi states at the very beginning of his commentary on the Talmudic discussion of this event: “And this rejoicing was all on account of the drawing of water for the libation, as is said, ‘and you shall draw forth water with gladness from the springs of salvation’” (Isaiah 12:3; in the original context, the springs and water are used in a metaphorical sense). Interestingly, the poem Ashrei ayin, recited at Musaf Yom Kippur after Seder ha-Avodah, includes the phrase (based on the Jerusalem Talmud), “Happy the eye that saw the joy of the House of Water-Drawing, the people drawing up Holy Spirit like water.”

Rambam uses a completely different verse as the basis for this celebration: “and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days” (Lev 23:40)—a phrase that in context refers to the four species. In a certain sense, then, he actually enhances the sacred character of this celebration by seeing it is a direct fulfillment of a Torah verse. But why does he choose this means of characterizing this celebration? And why does he detach it from the drawing of water?

13. And how so was this celebration conducted? They placed the flute, and upon the harp and psaltery and cymbals, and each one on the musical instrument he knew how to play. And those who know how to sing would sing. And they would dance and clap and bang and leap and whirl, each one as he knew, and recited words of songs and praises. And this joy overrides neither the Sabbath nor the festival day.

The Mishnah adds that the Women’s Courtyard was brilliantly illuminated with elevated torches made of used priestly garments soaked in oil, visible for a great distance. The celebration itself took place in the Women’s Courtyard of the Temple; as mentioned in the opening halakhah, a special balcony was built for the women, to avoid mingling of the sexes that might lead to frivolity or worse (a subject Rambam tended to emphasize, as we noted in HY V: Emor, re Hilkhot Yom Tov 6.21). This temporary alteration to the layout of the Temple is seen as the source for the mehitzah in Orthodox synagogues; this, according to a well-known teshuvah of Rav Moshe Feinstein.

In any event, by its location in the Women’s Courtyard, this celebration was somewhere between the secular and sacred precincts: within the Temple, but not within that area set aside for the solemn worship of sacrificial offerings. Symbolically, one could say that this type of free-flowing, unstructured explosion of joy, is an act of Divine service—but nevertheless somewhere on the boundaries between the sacred and the secular. But this is precisely the point addressed by Rambam in next two halakhot.

14. It is a mitzvah to magnify this joy. And it was not done by the ignorant or by all those who wished to do so. Rather, the great sages of Israel and the heads of the yeshivot and the Sanhedrin and the men of piety and the elders and the men of deeds—it was they who danced and clapped and made music and rejoiced in the Temple during the days of the festival of Sukkot. But the rest of the people, the men and women, all came to see and to hear.

The final phrase, assigning a passive role to the majority of the people, is reminiscent of the description of the septennial ritual of Hakhel (Deut 31:10-13, esp. 12). Alongside the ecstatic intensity of this celebration, there were clear limits and lines of demarcation and even exclusivity to its celebration. (Is this limitation already explicit in the Mishnah’s statement that “pious men and men of works would dance….”? Or is this Maimonides’ extrapolation from that phrase?) What is the underlying idea here? There is a certain concept here of sacred joy; of uninhibited joy as becoming, in an almost paradoxical sense, an act of solemn worship. But in order for a person to truly “rejoice before the Lord,” there must be a certain deep connection to the holy, a developed inner spirituality, a religious attitude that is part of the total life of the person—all this, so that dancing and skipping and whirling clapping and even a certain amount of tomfoolery become an act of holy worship and not merely a “good time.” I have seen, for example, Hasidic rebbes and elderly talmidei hakhamim dancing on Simhat Torah, and there is something different in the way they dance and that of ordinary people. There is a difference between the normal “animal spirits” of a 20-year-old, and a dance of the soul, possibly even of an elderly person, whose joy carries them beyond ordinary physical limits.

And yet, I also know that ordinary people can be swept up into another plane in the dance of the holy. I have seen this in Hasidic dance, at weddings, at great festive days of ecstatic dancing, or even in the simple dance of half a dozen Bretslaver Hasidim who link hands in a brief circle dance at the end of a weekday study session, where the dance becomes the concrete expression of their being fellowship. And I know, too, that this may sometimes be found (lehavdil) in “primitive” cultures. The animists of, say, the South Seas or of Africa, may enter into a state of trance-like ecstasy in which they discover a deep sense of the sacred. Perhaps it is only our modern, secularized culture that finds it so hard to enter into the realm of the sacred through the body.

In Hasidism, there is a certain tension between, on the one hand, a certain populism—all the Hasidim dancing and singing and rejoicing in an equal way—and, on the other hand, a focus on the acts of the charismatic, holy leader, the Rebbe. Thus, in more than a few Hasidic groups, it is customary for the Rebbe to dance alone on Simhat Torah, in the center of the circle (thus at Bobov and Toldot Aharon, to name two that I have seem; interestingly, in Lubavitch, notwithstanding its cult of personality, the Rebbe always danced with another elder of the community—Rabbi Chadekoff or Gur Aryeh). We continue:

15. The joy by which a person rejoices in performing the mitzvah and in the love of God who commanded them is a great act of worship. And whoever holds himself back from [participating in] this joy is deserving of punishment, as is said, “Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and with a glad heart” [Deut 28:47]. And whoever is haughty, giving honor to himself and seeing himself as too dignified for such things, is a sinner and a fool. Solomon warned concerning such things, saying, “Do not make yourself too magnificent before the king” (Prov 25:6} But whoever is humble and is at ease with his body in such situations is the great and honored one who serves out of love. As David king of Israel said, “Would that I would make myself even more contemptible than this, and be lowly in my own eyes” (2 Samuel 6:22). And there is no greatness and honor but to rejoice before the Lord, as is said, ”and King David was leaping and spinning before the Lord…” (ibid, 16).

We see from this that whatever elitism may have been implied in the previous paragraph is not snobbism in any usual sense. The bottom line is that the true man of spirit is one who knows how to be completely humble, and to rejoice before his God without inhibitions (“who is at ease with his body…”). The fundamental idea is that true honor is not connected to pride in self, but in seeing oneself as a servant of God. Hence, poses of grandeur and dignity, in situations where simple joy before God are called for, are a grave evil. (This, in stark contrast to the ironic comment someone once made to me, that there was a time in America when rabbis felt that being pompous came with the job.)

A few words about the background to the verses about King David quoted here (in reverse order). During the early years of Saul’s reign the ark of the covenant had been captured by the Philistines, who held it for many years. At one point it was recovered, but due to a certain strange incident was left for many further years at a midway spot on the way up to Jerusalem, at Kiryat-yearim (near the contemporary Abu Ghosh). Once the ark was finally brought up to Jerusalem, David was ecstatic with joy, dancing and prancing before it with total spontaneity, and without any regard for the dignity of his royal position. His wife Michal, herself of royal blood (she was King Saul’s daughter), took him to task for this with bitter sarcasm. He replied that “I wish I could be even more ‘shamed, if it were for the honor of the Lord.” Her punishment for this was that she never had a child. Is this meant to suggest that there is somehow a hidden connection between rejection of down-to-earth spontaneity, and lack of fruitfulness? (See our discussion of this in HY II: Shemini; for all stages of the story, see 1 Samuel 4:1-7:2; 2 Sam 6.)

To return to our original question: why did Rambam not refer to Simhat Beit ha-Shoevah by name, and why did he use the verse he did to illustrate it? We have already seen, in Hilkhot Yom Tov 6.20, that Rambam saw joy as an essential component of religious life, defined as a quietly confident, optimistic, happy approach to life, avoiding the excesses of both melancholy and hilarity. But there is another level of joy: the sense of exhilaration, of enhanced being and consciousness, that are experienced when in the presence of God—simhah lifnei hashem, “rejoicing before the Lord.” It was this that was experienced in the Temple, and that is the essence of this celebration. The bringing of the water libation was no more than a landmark, a signifying occasion, but not the real source of this joy.


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