Thursday, March 25, 2010

#65 - Authentic Jewish TRADITION

Last that I knew, the famed "The Ten Commandments" movie is aired annually during the holiday of Passover on a Sunday in the United States. Sometimes, it's a bit ironic, because as I recall one year, I had to turn off the television in the midst of the movie because that evening marked the beginning of the last days of Passover when we are forbidden to do work as on Shabbat which includes not turning on or off electricity which includes television. Hence, it's the Jews who do not properly observe Passover by refraining from forbidden work who get to watch the whole movie.

No doubt that reading the Bible, today's original source of the Ten Commandments (the original source was G-d's announcement of the Ten Commandments which were afterwards engraved on the Tablets), will educate one more about what the Ten Commandments have to say than a movie that protrays a romantic scene between Joshua and Batya, daughter of King Pharaoh, who at one point converted to Judaism, though she later married Caleb and Joshua wound up marrying a different convert. With all respect due to Charlton Heston, who passed away a couple of years ago, though a non-Jew, well earned his pay for his role as Moses; Chaim Topol, born in Israel, protrayed more what the Ten Commandments represent as his role as Tevye the milkman in "Fiddler on the Roof" (his last appearance playing this role was just a few months ago).

Paraphrasing what Tevye said, Judaism is able to remain standing on an unbalanced roof due to one word - TRADITION. I must give credit to so many Jewish families in the United States, when a good percentage of them have never completely even followed the Ten Commandments such as observance of the Sabbath, besides other crucial commandments not mentioned in the Ten Commandments such as the laws of Family Purity (husband and wife separating from sexual relations and touching following the wife becoming menstrous until she enters a ritualarium close to two weeks later), the men donning Tefillin (phylacteries) on a daily basis except for Shabbat & Jewish holidays, and the biggest commandment of learning/teaching Torah; but these Jews, including in the United States, feel that they must have a Passover Seder.

Few of the non-observant Jews understand what the word Seder, which literally means order, truly implies. It's not the way that so many celebrate it with causually drinking some wine, enjoying a steaming bowl of Matza ball soup and then chanting a few Passover songs before eating the main course, curtesy of a "kosher style" eatery such as Wolfie Cohen's in South Florida, full of non-Kosher food excluding ham. The rabbis purposely chose to call our observance of the Passover laws at the Passover table with the word Seder, because there is law and ORDER as to HOW we observe this holiday celebrating the birthday of the Jewish nation according to AUTHENTIC JEWISH TRADITION. These are represented by the names of the 15 parts of the Seder.

We drink four cups of wine, but not just at any point during the Seder, or we have not fulfilled our obligation of drinking the four cups of wine, and it must be a certain amount drunk not to exceed a set period of time. The same goes for the Matza of which a minimum amount must be eaten not to exceed past so many minutes (there are varying opinions from two to nine minutes) which represent the fact that our ancestors had to leave Egypt in a haste. And just when you would think that after hearty eating, desert would be more like ice cream (Kosher for Passover) or fruit; guess what the real desert here is - Matza, with far less appetite than when first eaten during the evening. Oh yes, the wine and Matza (aside from eating the meal) must be consumed while reclining, or they have to be consumed once again in that position, reflecting how free we should feel on this night, just as our ancestors felt with their newly attained freedom from Egyptian mastery.

"So what's the big deal?", some will ask. "G-d understands", "G-d forgives", or does He? Is it Judaism the way that we feel good about, or how G-D WANTS US TO UNDERSTAND HOW JUDAISM IS SUPPOSED TO BE? And while this is how all of Judaism is supposed to be, when it comes to Passover especially, as the Mishnah notes, as we recite in the Haggada, each and every person is supposed to feel as though he or she himself/herself left Egypt on this holiday. And with understanding the significance of what we eat and drink in commemoration of the Exodus, doing so will help us put us in this frame of mind.

And one more question begs to be asked. So why put limitations as to a minimum amount to consume or a limit of how many minutes we have to do so? On the contrary, to feel we are free, we have to feel like we should eat or drink as little or as much as we can handle without having to keep looking at the clock. Is what we call the Halachic way of celebrating the Passover Seder called freedom?

Good point. But if we truly imagine ourselves leaving Egypt, we have to remember that our ancestors weren't simply given the green light to leave - they were pressured by the Egyptians to leave following the death of the Egyptian firstborn or head of the house in every Egyptian household. Hence, while Hashem told us beforehand not to consume leavened products and to eat Matza during Passover, the reasoning behind this only took place at the time that the Exodus occured, as the Jews quickly baked Matzas in lieu of taking more time baking bread for their upcoming journey in the desert as the Egyptians were hurring them to leave. Hence, eating a satisfying amount of Matza in a relatively short time helps us recall the exact details of how the Exodus took place.

The truth is that today, none of us follow - one hundred percent - the observance of the Passover Seder laws. After all, we are not observing the commandments of slaughtering and eating a Paschal lamb. And it was this lamb in Egypt that threw the Egyptians off base when they witnessed Jews tying these Egyptian lamb gods to their bedposts waiting for slaughter, the zodiac sign for the month of Nissan. It's true that we do not bring sacrifices in absence of the Temple (though rabbis in the last few years have attempted to get permission from the un"Sumpreme Court" in Israel to perform the Passover sacrifice but to no avail, but the halachic aspect of doing so when we do not have the Temple yet is beyond the scope of this post), and hence, we are not doing any sin by not bringing this most meaningful sacrifice; but in lieu of this, we have a representive shankbone that we show at one point during the Seder to recall the ancient Passover sacrifice.

Now, putting together Jewish tradition with the Passover lamb, there was a turning point in Jewish history from over 2,000 years ago as pertaining to Jewish tradition, which means the laws as transmitted to Moses on Mt. Sinai. As recounted in the midst of the Babylonian Talmudic Tractate of Pesachim (which consists of 120 Dafim/pages, just as Moses lived for 120 years), there were a group of scholars who were debating as to whether Jews would be allowed to slaughter the Paschal lamb in a particular year when the day preceding the first night of Passover was on a Shabbat; normally, slaughtering animals is forbidden on Shabbat. Though it's highly doubtful that they actually believed that there were years in the past when Jews did not offer the Passover sacrifice because of Shabbat, or they would have known this for a fact; however, they wanted to prove from the Torah that doing so is permitted. (NOTE:
The very first Passover that Joshua and the Jews celebrated upon their entry to Israel, which is recorded in the Book of Joshua, began on a Saturday night; hence, Passover eve when the Passover lamb was slaughtered took place on a Shabbat. Nevertheless, the above group of scholars were not content with this, as the Bible is not just a book of a bunch of stories, but comes to teach us how to live a Torah way of life, which is dictated on either oral tradition or how we learn out from the verses what the correct Jewish law is).

Without coming out with a definitive answer from the Torah that would give the Jews the green light to slaughter the Passover lamb that particular year, they asked around if there was any Torah scholar who would be able to provide the answer. After a little research, there was someone named Hillel, who made Aliyah from Babylonia, and learned Torah from the top scholars of his day, who offered a clear analysis of how we know that the Jews slaughter the Passover lamb even on a Shabbat. Following his brilliant explanation, he was voted to be the new Nasi/president of the Jewish court, a position that turned out to be a dynasty for many generations, including seventh generation Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi/Judah the Prince who formulated the Mishnah that we know it as such today, the foundation of the Oral Torah that was previously forbidden to be written down except for the fact that there was a fear that the Torah would be forgotten due to the excessive troubles happening to the Jewish nation from the Romans. A future descendant known as Rabbi Judah Nesiah formulated the Jewish calendar the way that we know it to be today.

So, a whole dynasty that would last for some 400 years happened because of a question that related to Passover (and Shabbat), the original holiday following a period of Jews "being a land that is not theirs" for 400 years. It would be Hillel, whose Gematria is 65 - and this is my 65th Post - that would take over the transmitting of the Jewish tradition. And why? As Hillel answered as to how he knew the answer to the question about the Passover sacrifice, he received the tradition from his teachers - Shemaya & Avtalyon - in turn.

We see from Hillel that if he had wanted to, he could have presented the facts as his own interpretation based on the 13 ways that the Torah is interpreted. However, as someone who breathed Jewish tradition, he would not dare present anything as his own "new" thought if he heard it taught by someone else who was part of the chain of the transmission of the Oral Torah.

And speaking of the Oral Torah, which is Torah She'Be'Al Peh, which literally means Torah that is via the mouth, the name of this very holiday, Pesach, is a contraction of two words - Peh Sach, the mouth that converses, which represents the ultimate Mitzvah of the Seder evening - the telling of the story of the Exodus. As in the format in the Haggadah of the 15 parts of the Haggadah, of which the storytelling (the fifth one) is called Magid, which means one who tells, which is similar to the word Haggadah, much of its style is the way that the Talmud is learned, besides the fact that some of the material comes straight from the Mishna or Talmud.

While the Jews would wait seven weeks until officially receiving the Torah following the Exodus, the Passover holiday would already show to be representative of the very concept that assures the transmission of the Torah from one generation to the next. As the Torah was given to the Jews before which the Jews' guarantee which Hashem asked for was the children, so is the very Mitzvah/commandments of the storytelling of the Exodus is based on the verse that begins with V'Higadta L'Vincha (L'Bincha) "You shall tell to your child on that day..."

And speaking of the Ten Commandments that formed the basis of the giving of the Torah, it is the TENTH part of the Haggadah called Corech that is based on the concept of the original sandwich, which consisted of the big mac of Paschal meat, Matza and Maror lettuce, that is based on how Hillel interpreted a verse from which he learned out in the context of the Oral Torah that the Passover Seder food is supposed to be eaten together, as opposed to the items being eaten separately.

Perhaps what the Haggadah wants to tell us is that only someone like Hillel who learned Torah the proper way by not only repeating over what he heard from his teachers, but learning to apply the way to learn Torah and what it has to say through one of 13 principals of how we learn what the Halacha, the Jewish law is supposed to be, is someone who can be trusted to transmit his interpretation of the Torah to the next generation. And while most of us do not pose as seasoned scholars, the least we can do is to quote the Sages and their teachings to our children demonstrating the need to learn the Torah the same way.

It's interesting to note that during the slaughter of the Paschal lamb in the Temple, the Hallel psalms (Psalms Chapters 113-118) were recited. In Hebrew, the letters for Hallel are spelled the same way as the name Hillel, without the vowels, which is one of the synonyms for the word praise, which is also something related to the mouth. And indeed, the 14th part of the Seder, is called Hallel, which includes the Hallel psalms (the last four chapters, while the first two chapters are recited at the conclusion of Maggid) among other prayers of praise and thanksgiving to Hashem. And to note, the Hallel psalms form part of the Book of Psalms which were put together by King David, whose name David is the Gematria of 14.

And as the end of the 15th Parsha of the Torah (like there are 15 parts of the Seder), the Parsha in which the Exodus took place, mentions among many other places in the Torah, that it was with a strong hand - the word in Hebrew for hand which is Yad, which is the spelling for the number 14 - that Hashem took us out of Egypt. (NOTE: There are technically 14 parts of the Seder, but with 15 names, as the names of Motzie Matza, the part of the Seder referring to the Matza is in essence one thing, but has two names as we recite two blessings as represented by the names over the Matza. According to this, Hallel would be considered the 13th part of the Haggadah, having the same letters as Hillel, who represented part of the transmission of the Torah that can be interpreted through the 13 methods of how the Torah is learned, part of the Oral Torah).

In another context, the word Seder is what the Yeshiva (Jewish college) curriculum is called. While in colleges, the main structure of learning consists of professors lecturing, and then the students spend time in the library, lab, etc. working on assignments; the majority time spent in a Yeshiva consists of study partners learning Torah together, with a lecture which is sometimes not more than an hour from their Rebbe/Torah teacher from anywhere from once a week to daily. The Seder in a Yeshiva, an ORDERLY PROGRAM, assures that the Yeshiva students will be focused on the set learning that is assigned for them to discuss with their respective learning partners, who are expected to be on time and learning for a few hours with a few brakes during the day.

It's interesting to note that one of the main books of Jewish law is called Shulchan Aruch, which literally means "a set table", representing how a dining table is supposed to look like right before eating. Indeed, one of the parts of the Passover Seder has a very similar name - Shulchan Oreich, which basically means the same thing, which is the key phrase for the part of the Seder when we eat the main course between the Coreich sandwich invented by Hillel and the Afikoman - the final Matza eaten that evening. In any case, it's called a Passover SEDER primarily because it is an order that relates the story of the Exodus which are words of Torah learning using food items to help us experience and remember what is being discussed, in an orderly fashion.

Speaking of Hillel in this post, I must note that the name Hillel is no stranger to Jews on college campus life where the Hillel organization helps Jews identify with their Jewishness. While I am not here to endorse any organization per se as a teacher of Torah, for those Jews who are in a non-Jewish environment, I feel that it is very crucial that such an organization exists which will help Jews feel proud about being Jewish and hopefully will be more of an opportunity for many to celebrate Judaism in a gathering of unity among other Jews than they had in high school. Indeed for some, this may make the difference when it comes to choosing between marrying a Jewish spouse or a non-Jewish spouse, representing the theme of the climax of "Fiddler on the Roof". For more information, you can check out

Yes, let us get back to the REAL Jewish Tradition, the way that Torah scholars such as Hillel showed us, via the Oral Torah. As the name of Hillel, the sage who formed part of the 40 generations of teaching the Oral Torah before written down, is the Gematria of 65; it was Rav Ashi of the 65th generation - as Moses who was the 26th generation descended as such from Adam, and Rav Ashi was the 40th from Moses to have received the Oral Torah/Tradition as dictated by Hashem, who wrote down the Oral Torah in the form of the Babylonian Talmud, which has since formed the crux of Jewish learning for the last 1,500 years.
Then, and only then, will we be in the proper frame of mind of telling over the story of the Exodus and teaching the proper way of keeping the Torah to our children which will guarantee the continued existance of Judaism the way that is meant to be.

Wishing you all a happy and KOSHER Passover!

NOTE: Will post next after the Passover holiday.

11 Nissan 5770

P.S. The timing of this post is 3:17 PM. And indeed, the first word of the reading of the Torah for the first day of Passover is Vayikra (He called), which is the Gematria of 317. In this context, Moses related over to the Jews the very first Torah which included the laws of Passover that Hashem related to him, representing the concept of the Oral Torah.

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