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Shabbat

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Sabbath

Three-and-a-half Hakafot — Topology of Simchat Torah

Why is this night different from all other nights, asks a child on the Seder night. On this Simchat Torah I asked a different question—why is the day different from the night? Indeed, on the night of Simchat Torah, we dance seven hakafot-circuits. However, during the morning service of the next day, we only dance three-and-a-half hakafot. What is the meaning of this number—three and a half? There are a few instances the Torah, Talmud, and Rabbinic instances where this number is mentioned (e.g., during the Gaonic period, c. 590–1000 CE, in some communities in the Land of Israel, the Torah reading cycle was completed in three and a half years; Maimonides rules that only half of the tzitzit string should be dyed blue leaving three and a half strings white), but none of them [...]

Shabbat in Numbers

Last week Torah portion, Emor, speaks about prohibition of working on Shabbat. In fact, the Talmud enumerates precisely 39 categories of labor forbidden on Shabbat. But why 39? Rabbi Shimon b’ Rabbi Yossi ben Lakunya (Shabbat 49b) suggests that the number 39 can be derived from the number of times the various forms of the word “melacha” (work) appear in the Torah. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to see how this works out. In his commentary on this passage, Rabbi Hananel ben Hushiel (990-1053) already pointed out that this word appears 61 times in the Torah, not 39! Actually, this word actually appears 63 times! Another Talmudic Rabbi Chanina of Sepphoris derives the number 39 homiletically strenuously computing gematriah of the phrase, “These are the things.” (Shabbat 7:2) The lack of clear source for the [...]

Secrets of the Talking Ass

And God opened the mouth of the ass, and she said to Bilam: "What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?" And Bilam said to the ass: "Because you have mocked me; I would there were a sword in my hand, for now I would kill you." And the ass said to Bilam: "Am not I your ass, upon which you have ridden all your life to this day? Was I ever wont to do so to you?" And he said, "No." Num. 22:28-30 Despite the simple dialogue between Balaam (Bilam) and his ass in the Torah portion of Balak, this ass was no ordinary ass. This ass saw an angel where a prophet as great as her owner, Balaam, did not. It stands to reason that [...]

Menorah

Speak unto Aaron, and say unto him: "When thou lightest the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light in front of the menorah." (Num. 8:1) In the Torah portion Behaalotecha (Num. 8:1), Aaron is commanded to light the Menorah so that three light on the right and three lights on the left are directed towards the middle light. On the first blush, it appears to be a very strange commandment. Why would lights on the right and on the left need to be directed towards the center light? What is the significance of that? It seems to me that this unusual arrangement hints at fundamental structure of our world. Sefer Yetzirah states that this world is created in three domains – Olam (“World” – meaning space), Shanah (“Year” – meaning time) and Nefesh (“Soul” [...]

Carpe Diem

As we have discussed in the previous blog, It’s the time, stupid, Pharaoh never got the message that it’s all about mastery of time.  To make sure Jews did get this message, God gave them the very first commandment – the commandment of keeping time, of marking new months: This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you. (Ex. 12: 2) It is important to note that Jews were not only commanded to keep time, they were commanded to “make” time.  Indeed, in Biblical times, the new month was not calculated according to a calendar as it is done today.  It was proclaimed by a Bet Din (an ecclesiastic court) based on the testimony of two live witnesses who observed the [...]

Passover, Shabbat and the Principle of Least Action

There is hardly a Jewish holiday more widely celebrated than Passover (Pesach). Jews of all denominations, affiliations, and levels of religious observance—if any at all—gather at the Passover Seder to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. What is often lost amid all of the beautiful rituals, not least among them the singing of Had Gadia and other Seder songs, is the deep meaning of this holiday, which is far more profound than a mere recollection of historical events, no matter how important they may be. What is, then, the deeper meaning of Pesach that transcends its historical significance? On the morrow of Shabbat One obscure and little-known (outside of the observant Jewish community) mitzvah may lead us to a deeper understanding of the meaning of Pesach – this is the commandment [...]