Tag Archives: Tishrei

Secrets of Rosh Hashanah

This first of this week’s two Torah portions, Nitzavim, is always read right before Rosh Hashanah, and appropriately begins: “You are all standing today before Hashem, your God…” The verse has traditionally been seen as an allusion to Rosh Hashanah, when each person stands before God and is judged. The Torah says today, implying one day, yet everyone celebrates Rosh Hashanah over two days. This is true even in Israel, where yom tovs are typically observed for only one day.

The reason for this is because in ancient times there was no set calendar, so a new month was declared based on the testimony of two witnesses. Once the new month was declared in Jerusalem, messengers were sent out to inform the rest of the communities in the Holy Land, and beyond. Communities that were far from Israel would not receive the message until two or three weeks later, so they would often have to observe the holidays based on their own (doubtful) opinion of when the holiday should be. They therefore kept each yom tov for two days.

Rosh Hashanah, however, is the only holiday that takes place on the very first day of the month, so as soon as the new month of Tishrei was declared, it was immediately Rosh Hashanah, and messengers could not be sent out! Thus, even communities across Israel would observe the holiday for two days, based on their own observations.

Although today we have a set calendar, and there is no longer a declaration of a new month based on witnesses, two days are still observed since established traditions become permanent laws. Of course, this is only the simplest of explanations, for there are certainly deeper reasons in observing two days, especially when it comes to Rosh Hashanah.

Judgement in Eden

Rosh Hashanah commemorates the day that God fashioned Adam and Eve. On that same day, the first couple consumed the Forbidden Fruit, were judged, and banished from the Garden of Eden. Originally, they had been made immortal. Now, they had brought death into the world, and God decreed that their earthly life would have an end. Adam and Eve were, not surprisingly, the first people to be inscribed in the Book of Death. Each year since, on the anniversary of man’s creation and judgement, every single human being (Jewish or not) is judged in the Heavenly Court, and inscribed in the Book of Life, or the Book of Death.

This is the idea behind the symbolic consumption of apples in honey. In Jewish tradition, the Garden of Eden is likened to an apple orchard, with the scent of the air in Eden being like that of apples. (Having said that, it is not a Jewish tradition that the Forbidden Fruit itself was an apple!) The apple reminds us of the Garden—of Adam and Eve and their judgement—and we dip it in honey so that our judgement should be sweet.

But what happens when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat? It is well-known that there is no judgement on Shabbat. The Heavenly Court rests, and even the souls in Gehinnom are said to have a day off. This is illustrated by a famous exchange in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 65b) between Rabbi Akiva and the Roman governor of Judea at the time, Turnus Rufus:

Turnus Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva: “How does [Shabbat] differ from any other day?”
He replied: “How does one official differ from another?”
“Because my lord [the Roman Emperor], wishes it so.”
Rabbi Akiva said: “the Sabbath, too, is distinguished because the Lord wishes it so.”
He asked: “How do you know that this day is the Sabbath?”
[Rabbi Akiva] answered: “The River Sambation proves it; the ba’al ov proves it; your father’s grave proves it, as no smoke ascends from it on Shabbat.”

An illustration of Rabbi Akiva from the Mantua Haggadah of 1568

Rufus asks Rabbi Akiva how the Jews are certain that the Sabbath that they keep is actually the correct seventh day since Creation. Rabbi Akiva brings three proofs:

The first is a legendary river called the Sambation (or Sabbation), which was known in those days, and which raged the entire week, but flowed calmly only on Shabbat. The second proof is that people who summon the dead from the afterlife (practicing a form of witchcraft called ov) are unable to channel the dead on Shabbat. (I know of a person who was once involved in such dark arts and became a religious Jew after realizing that he was never able to summon spirits on the Sabbath or on Jewish holidays!) Lastly, Rabbi Akiva notes how Turnus Rufus’ own father’s grave would emit smoke every day of the week, except on Shabbat. This is because the soul of Rufus’ wicked father was in Gehinnom, but all souls in that purgatory get a reprieve on Shabbat. (Historical sources suggest that Rufus’ father was Terentius Rufus, one of the generals involved in the destruction of the Second Temple.)

Based on this, we can understand why Rosh Hashanah must be observed over two days. When the holiday falls on Shabbat, no judgement can take place, so the judgement is pushed off to the next day. This is also related to the fact that when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat, the shofar is not blown. This is not at all because blowing a shofar is forbidden on Shabbat, which is, in fact, permitted.

The simple explanation given for this is that we’re worried the person blowing the shofar might carry it to the synagogue (in a place without an eruv), and carrying is forbidden on Shabbat. The deeper reason is this: Blowing the shofar is supposed to “confound Satan”. Satan is not the trident-carrying, horned demon of the underworld (as popularly believed in Christianity). Rather, Satan literally means the “one who opposes” or the “prosecutor”. It is Satan’s job to serve as the prosecution in the Heavenly Court. The shofar’s blow confuses Satan, and prevents him from working too much against us. On Shabbat, the Heavenly Court rests, and Satan is having a day off, so there is no need to confound him!

The First Shabbat

One might argue that Rosh Hashanah should only be two days long when it falls on Shabbat; in other years, one day would suffice. Other than the fact that this would be confusing—as the holiday would span different lengths in different years—there are other explanations for the two days, including that each day involves different types of judgement (for example, one day for sins bein adam l’Makom, between man and God; and one day for bein adam l’havero, between man and his fellow). Nonetheless, our Sages still describe Rosh Hashanah as really being one day—one unique, extra-long, 48-hour day which our Sages called yoma arichta, literally the “long day”. Perhaps this is another reason for the custom of not sleeping on the “first night” of Rosh Hashanah. (The other reason: how could anyone possibly sleep through their own trial?)

Finally, the story of Rabbi Akiva and Turnus Rufus gives us one more reason to commemorate Rosh Hashanah over two days. Rufus questioned Rabbi Akiva on how he can be so sure that the Sabbath which he keeps is indeed the correct seventh day going back to Creation. If Rosh Hashanah is the day Adam and Eve were created, then it corresponds to the sixth day of Creation. That means the very next day was the seventh day of Creation, and that the second day of Rosh Hashanah always commemorates the very first Sabbath. When we celebrate on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we mark Adam and Eve’s first Shabbat, and recognize that each seventh day has been observed ever since, and will continue to be observed for another, 5778th upcoming year.

Shana Tova u’Metuka!

Should Jews Believe in Astrology?

This week’s parasha, the second last of the Torah, is Ha’azinu. This parasha is unique in that it consists almost entirely of one lengthy song – clearly visible when looking at a Torah scroll, where the text of Ha’azinu is split into two narrow columns. Moses sang this prophetic song to the nation right before his passing.

Two columns of parashat Ha'azinu

Two columns of parashat Ha’azinu

In the verses that introduce it (Deut. 31:19), we see God commanding Moses to write the song and “teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it in their mouths so that this song will be for Me a witness for the Children of Israel.” God wanted Moses to diligently teach this song to the entire nation. In fact, the actual wording of the verse has God commanding everyone – each member of the nation – to write the song for themselves. It is based on this verse that the Sages drew the mitzvah of writing a Torah scroll (or participating in writing one), even though the plain text of the verse states only to write this particular song, Ha’azinu.

Perhaps because of this, the Ramban taught that Ha’azinu contains the entire Torah within it. Moreover, he believed that every detail of every person’s life is somehow encoded within this song! In one famous story, when a student of the Ramban, a man named Avner, heard this teaching, he was so baffled by it that he left Judaism entirely, converted to another religion, and became a prominent anti-Semite. When Avner later confronted the Ramban, the Rabbi showed him how one verse in the song did indeed accurately point to this man’s life. Avner was so ashamed that he disappeared, never to be heard from again.

Heavenly Princes

And so, each and every one of the song’s 43 verses has a great deal to teach us. The eighth verse begins by telling us that God gave each nation their lot, and the ninth verse says that “Hashem’s portion is His people, the lot of His inheritance.” The Zohar comments on these words that while God established Heavenly “princes” to watch over every nation in the world, Israel is watched over by God Himself. The Ramban (in his Discourse on Rosh Hashanah) elaborates:

He gave each and every nation… some known star or constellation, as is known by means of the science of astrology… Higher above [the constellations] are the angels of the Supreme One, whom He appointed as “princes” over them… It is further written, “So shall you be My people, and I will be your God, and you will not be subject to other powers at all.” (Jeremiah 11:4)

When we often say that Hashem is our God (as we do in the daily Shema), or when the Tanakh writes that we are God’s people, this does not mean that gentiles cannot have a relationship with God, or that there are other gods out there for the non-Jewish world. Rather, it means that while God oversees absolutely everything in His universe, and has created all people, He has also appointed various Heavenly (or astrological) forces above each nation – except Israel. These forces are not independent in their own right, as they are subject to the angels above them, and these angels ultimately serve God. As such, the nations of the world have various Heavenly intermediaries between themselves and Hashem. Israel, however, has a direct connection to Him. In fact, this is the hidden meaning within the name “Israel” (ישראל), which can be read as yashar El. (ישר-אל), “straight to God”.

Ain Mazal L’Israel

Long before the Ramban, the Sages of the Talmud debated whether the constellations had an effect on people (Shabbat 156a). The consensus of the Rabbis was that constellations do impact people, but Jews are free from this influence. They learn this from the prophet Jeremiah, who prophesied: “Thus said Hashem: Learn not the way of the nations, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the nations are dismayed at them.” (10:2) God tells Israel not to draw meaning from heavenly signs as the other nations do. The Talmud goes on to tell us a story about Abraham, who cried out to God: “Master of the Universe! I have looked at the constellations and find that I am not fated to have children.” To this, God replied: “Stop your star-gazing! Israel has no constellations.”

Hebrew Zodiac from a 6th Century Synagogue

Hebrew Zodiac from a 6th-Century Synagogue

Elsewhere, the Talmud tells us that Abraham was once a powerful astrologer, and great men from around the world came to consult with him about their fortunes (Bava Batra 16b). When Abraham looked into his own fate, he saw that he would not have children. God commanded him to desist from astrology, for the Jewish people have the power to transcend the stars. Of course, Abraham went on to have many children.

Later on, Moses would record in the Torah the prohibition for Jews to consult various fortune-tellers and astrologers. The Rambam codifies the law in this way:

It is forbidden to tell fortunes. [This applies] even though one does not perform a deed, but merely relates the falsehoods which the fools consider to be words of truth and wisdom. Anyone who performs a deed because of an astrological calculation or arranges his work or his journeys to fit a time that was suggested by the astrologers is [liable for] lashes, as [Leviticus 19:26] states: “Do not tell fortunes.”
(Sefer HaMadda, Hilchot Avodah Zarah, Chapter 11, Halacha 9)

Transcending Nature

We see from the above that various Heavenly forces, angels, and constellations do exist, and certainly do influence the world. Astrological signs can be potent forces. Ironically, earlier in his discourse, the Ramban points out how astrology is intricately tied into the Jewish calendar: it is no coincidence that Pesach is celebrated in the month of Nisan, the sign of which is Aries (the ram, or sheep), since the main mitzvah of Pesach was to sacrifice a lamb; and it is no coincidence that Rosh Hashanah – judgement day, when each person is put on trial – is in the month of Tishrei, the sign of which is Libra, the scales of justice. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Shemot 418) even tells us how each of the 12 Tribes of Israel corresponds to one of the 12 astrological signs of the zodiac!

And yet, all the sources are clear: Jews are not to dabble in astrology, for we have no need for intermediaries, and we have all the power to break free from the influence of the constellations. It is precisely when we believe in astrology that it becomes real, just as Abraham had no children as long as he believed in the heavenly signs that he saw. Every Jew must realize that we are Israel, yashar El, and that Hashem alone is our astrological sign. There is no need to believe in what the Rambam calls “emptiness and vanity”. The Rambam ends his laws on this subject by telling us to live up to the Torah’s call (Deut. 18:13) to be of “perfect faith with Hashem, your God.” When one has perfect faith in the Master of the Universe, anything is possible, and this is how God finished his rebuke to Abraham:

“Stop your star-gazing! Ain mazal l’Israel. What is your calculation? Is it because Jupiter stands in the West? Then I will turn it back and place it in the East!”


The article above is an excerpt from Garments of Light: 70 Illuminating Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion and Holidays. Click here to get the book! 

Chanukah: Did the Jews Really Defeat the Greeks?

“No two cities have counted more with mankind than Athens and Jerusalem. Their messages in religion, philosophy and art have been the main guiding light in modern faith and culture. Personally, I have always been on the side of both…”

– Winston Churchill

Chanukah is perhaps the most famous of Jewish holidays. The nine-branched candelabrum, the chanukiah, is instantly recognized by people around the world. One reason for this is because of the halakhah of pirsumei nissah, literally “publicising the miracle”. Although just about every Jewish holiday revolves around some kind of miracle, it is particularly with regards to Chanukah that there is a special mitzvah to publicize its wonder. And so, one can find a glowing, public chanukiah on display in pretty much every major city on the planet.

Chanukah Around the World

The purpose of the chanukiah is well-known: after defeating the Greeks and recapturing Jerusalem, and its Holy Temple, the Jewish warriors led by the Maccabees discovered only one cruse of oil for the Temple menorah (this one with seven branches, as the Torah commands). Although the oil was meant to last only for one day, it miraculously burned for eight, the amount of time necessary to produce a fresh batch of olive oil.

Temple Menorah Replica by Jerusalem's Temple Institute

Temple Menorah Replica by Jerusalem’s Temple Institute

This is the story as recounted in the Talmud. However, the more ancient Book of Maccabees (which is part of the apocrypha, scriptural texts that did not make it into the official Biblical canon) provides a different reason for the eight-day festival. Here, we are told that since the Temple was still in the hands of the Greeks two months earlier, the Jewish nation was unable to celebrate the Torah festival of Sukkot. Of all the Torah-mandated holidays, Sukkot is most associated with the Temple, and was celebrated with many offerings on the altar, along with water libations, and eight days of revelry. Since the people were unable to commemorate Sukkot properly in the month of Tishrei, they decided to commemorate it in the month of Kislev instead, now that the Temple was back in Jewish hands. So, they kept an eight-day festival, with offerings, libations, and revelry, both in honour of the belated Sukkot, and to celebrate their victory over the Greeks.

A David and Goliath Story

Chanukah is a beautiful underdog narrative. The mighty Syrian-Greeks (better known as the Seleucids, to differentiate them from the mainland Greeks in Europe) are imposing their Hellenism upon the conquered and impoverished Jewish people, still struggling to rebuild after the decimation of the First Temple period. The Greek king, Antiochus, demands the sacrifice of a pig upon a Jewish altar, and the Jews refuse. Well, at least some of them do.

Bust of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, of Chanukah fame, at the Altes Museum in Berlin (Credit-Jniemenmaa)

Bust of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, of Chanukah fame, at the Altes Museum in Berlin (Credit: Jniemenmaa)

At the time, there were many Hellenized, assimilated Jews among the masses that were very much okay with a pig on the altar. (It seems that history repeats itself: the first graduation ceremony in 1883 of Hebrew Union College, a Reform seminary, consisted of frog legs, crabs, and shrimp, among other non-kosher foods, earning it the nickname, “the treif banquet”.) Matityahu the High Priest wouldn’t have any of it, and together with his five sons—soon to be known as the “Maccabees”—started a revolution.

More than anything else, this was a civil war between traditional Jews and the Hellenized ones. Of course, the Hellenized Jews had support from the Greek government, which soon brought in some 60,000 troops, together with war elephants, according to the Book of I Maccabees (4:28-29). The Maccabee forces managed to scramble 10,000 mostly-untrained, guerrilla warriors. Ultimately, the 10,000 overpower the professional Greek army. The Seleucid Empire would never be the same again, and less than a century later, would totally come to an end.

Spiritual vs. Physical

Today, the Chanukah story often carries the same message: the Greeks were materialistic, promiscuous, Godless people, while the Jews were moral, spiritual, and God-fearing. Chanukah, then, celebrates the triumph of righteousness over licentiousness, religion over secularism, spirituality over physicality.

While the above description of the Seleucid-Syrian-Greeks may be true, it presents a false image of the Greeks as a whole, and one that isn’t at all consistent with traditional Jewish holy texts, especially the Talmud. In truth, the great Jewish sages of the Talmud valued and respected the Greeks. They stated (Megillah 8b) that it is forbidden to translate the Torah into any language, except Greek, which the rabbis considered a rich and beautiful tongue. The rabbis also adopted the Greek style of democratic government, with elected officials sitting on the Sanhedrin, from the Greek root synedrion, meaning “sitting together”.

One of the earliest known synedrions was established by Alexander the Great, made up of representatives from across his vast empire to assist him in government. The Talmudic sages spoke highly of Alexander the Great. According to legend, Alexander saw a vision of the Jewish High Priest before coming to conquer Jerusalem. There are several versions of this story, but all agree that Alexander was grateful to the High Priest, and spared Israel from his destructive conquests (as well as from paying tribute, according to some sources). In turn, the rabbis adopted “Alexander” as an honorary Jewish name. Indeed, one of the sages of the Talmud is Rabbi Alexandri, and many other rabbis have Greek names, such as Hyrcanus, Teradion, Antigonus, Dosa, Papa, Symmachus, and Tarfon.

These rabbis gathered in various learning academies across Israel and Persia (producing the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, respectively). Their academies were very similar to the Greek academy. In fact, the successors of a Greek academy spoke very much like the rabbis of the Talmud, quoting teachings from previous generations and debating them, while citing an uninterrupted chain of tradition all the way back to Plato, much the same way that rabbis cite an uninterrupted tradition back to Moses. Many of their modes of reasoning and dialectics were the same, too, even lesser-used forms such as gematria, another Greek word adopted by Judaism. The Greeks had also used their alphabet for numerology (an art that they called isopsephy).

Greek traditions appear to have even found their way into Jewish holidays. In ancient Greece, families would get together for symposia, parties in which they would recount the history of Greece and its great victories. According to the Greek philosophers, it was best to drink three cups of wine at a symposium, while drinking five cups was considered excessive and inappropriate. Thus, most people drank four cups. They would lie on couches, specifically on their left side. Recounting history while drinking four cups of wine and lying on one’s left—sound familiar? Let’s not forget that afikoman is itself a Greek word (epikomon, literally “that which comes after” or “that which comes last”, referring to either dessert or the concluding festive songs).

While the ancient Greeks certainly held onto a number of abhorrent beliefs and practices, to suggest that all the Greeks were atheistic, unjust, or not spiritual is certainly untrue. Socrates was killed for criticizing Athenian injustice, Plato preached how illusory this physical world is, and Aristotle described metaphysics and theology as the “first philosophy” and most important of subjects. One of the earliest known preachers of reincarnation was Pythagoras, who also wrote of three souls, much like the Jewish conception of nefesh, ruach, and neshamah. Nor is it a secret that some of the angels mentioned in the Talmud bear Greek titles, among them Sandalfon and Metatron.

So, did the Jews really defeat the Greeks? We certainly defeated the immoral and oppressive Seleucid Greeks in battle, but definitely not the Greek spirit as a whole. In fact, some might argue that Judaism is the best preservation of ancient Greek culture in the modern world! Whereas the rest of society has moved on to other methods of education, we still have a yeshiva system like the ancient Academy. While others celebrate their holidays with gifts and formal dinners, we gather in symposia, reliving the words of our sages, who openly bore their Greek names. And of course, while most of society is primarily concerned with what’s happening on television, we’re still trying to be philosophers, debating the finest points of reality.

The Greeks had a profound impact on all of civilization, and Judaism was not immune from it. Perhaps this is why, over time, the holiday became less about defeating Greeks and more about the miracle of light. Chanukah is a holiday celebrating Jewish resilience, and symbolizing the power of light over darkness, and hope over despair. It is a lesson in resisting assimilation and being true to ourselves; in standing up for what’s right and upholding our customs; and most importantly, in the longest, blackest nights of winter, Chanukah teaches us that although the world may be full of evil, one tiny flame can break through all the darkness.


The article above is adapted from Garments of Light: 70 Illuminating Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion and Holidays. Click here to get the book!