Friday, October 09, 2015

Review of James A. Diamond, “Maimonides and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon” (2014) by Menachem Kellner

Review of James A. Diamond, “Maimonides and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon” (2014)
by Menachem Kellner

Menachem Kellner is Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Jewish Thought at Shalem College, Jerusalem, and the Wolfson Professor Emeritus of Jewish Thought at the University of Haifa, where, among many other posts, he served as Dean of Students and Chair of the Department of Maritime Civilizations, and founding director of Be-Zavta, a program in Jewish enrichment. His most recent book is Menachem Kellner: Jewish Universalism, edited by Hava Tirosh-Samuelson and Aaron Hughes in Brill's Library of Contemporary Jewish Philosophers, and is available here. Bar-Ilan University Press is about to publish his next book, Gam Hem Keruyim Adam: Ha-Nokhri be-Einei ha-Rambam.

This is Professor Kellner’s second contribution to the Seforim blog. His previous essay, “Who is the Person Whom Rambam Says Can be ‘Consecrated as the Holy of Holies’?” was published in 2007 and is available here.

In People of the Book: Canon, Meaning, and Authority (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997) Moshe Halbertal distinguishes between normative and formative canons. Texts which are canonical in the normative sense are obeyed and followed; they provide the group loyal to the text with guides to behavior and belief. Formative canonical texts, on the other hand, are "taught, read, transmitted, and interpreted … they provide a society or a profession with a shared vocabulary" (p. 3).

In his brave new book, Maimonides and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), James A. Diamond, the Lebovic Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Waterloo (link), sets out to prove that "at virtually every critical turn in Jewish thought, one confronts Maimonidean formulations in one way or another" (p. 263). Diamond's claim is actually much stronger than that. He sets out to prove that the collected works of Rambam, alongside the Bible, Talmud, and Zohar "comprise the core spiritual and intellectual canon of Judaism" (p. 266).

Diamond makes his argument through a series of case studies, each one focusing on a different thinker: Ramban, Ritva, Abravanel, ibn Gabbai, Spinoza, Hermann Cohen, Neziv, and finally Rav Kook. These chapters constitute "a discussion of the long and continuing history of exegetical entanglements with Maimonidean thought…" (p. 26).

Diamond sets the stage with two chapters on Rambam himself, in which he makes a subtle and sophisticated argument to the effect that Rambam set the agenda for the future of Jewish thought by providing an "inextricable link between philosophy, law, and narrative" (p. 11).

In these two chapters Diamond continues the methodological breakthroughs of his two previous books on Rambam, Maimonides and the Hermeneutics of Concealment (Albany: SUNY Press, 2002) and Converts, Heretics, and Lepers: Maimonides and the Outsider (Noted Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 2007). The first book has literally changed the face of academic Maimonidean studies and deserves to be much better known outside of the academy. The book exemplifies a sophisticated methodology for reading the Guide of the Perplexed. This approach may be characterized as follows: Diamond takes Rambam at his word – to wit, that he was writing a book of biblical and rabbinic exegesis – and cleverly and closely follows Rambam's exegesis of his sources. It takes a person of rare abilities to do this as well as Diamond does; he is blessed with an impressive mixture of native literary abilities combined with extensive reading of rabbinic sources and rigid training in law and philosophy (he was originally a lawyer before realizing that life could be much more interesting with a PhD in philosophy). Prof. Diamond's reading of Rambam's exegesis of his sources is extremely convincing. Diamond also follows my wife's safe advice. She constantly reminds me: remember to tell your students, Rambam was also a rabbi (and not just a philosopher).

Diamond's second book consists of a series of extraordinarily close readings of core texts of Rambam's, readings which illuminate the delicate and multilayered interplay between philosophical and religious ideas in his thought. As in his previous work, Diamond convincingly illustrated the way in which Ramabam carefully chooses, subtly interprets, and circumspectly weaves together rabbinic materials to address philosophers and talmudists alike, each in their own idiom.

In his first two books, Diamond takes a linguistic pebble and throws it into the sea of Rambam's thought, following the ripples where they lead: verses connect to verses and to rabbinic glosses upon them, which in turn lead to further exegetical and philosophical ripples. In this, his third book, he uses the same subtle and learned method to analyze the ways in which eight prominent post-Maimonideans from the Thirteenth Century through the Twentieth engage Rambam's thought, in order to break away from it, or break it away from its medieval context to adapt it to the ages in which they lived (p. 5).

Diamond's claim is stronger than the oft-noted influence of Rambam on radically different thinkers. Indeed, there is hardly a Jewish thinker who does not claim to represent Rambam in his or her world – as I often say, the two greatest misrepresenters of Rambam in the 20th century were the Rebbe of Lubavitch and the Rebbe of (Yeshayahu) Leibowitz. We have recently been treated to a new-agish Rambam by Micah Goodman (Maimonides and the Book That Changed Judaism: Secrets of the Guide for the Perplexed) and (once again!) to a Kabbalistic Rambam in Mevikh Maskilim (!) by Rabbi Shlomo Toledano. In the chapters of this book James Diamond does more than show how various thinkers have appropriated Rambam to their needs – he demonstrates how Rambam was a formative influence on the Jewish self-perceptions of a wide variety of central Jewish thinkers.

In the first of these chapters, on Ramban ("Launching the Kabbalistic Assault"), Diamond shows how Ramban's theology  "can only be fully appreciated in its counterexegesis, reaction to, and reworking of Maimonides' own theology and philosophical exegesis" (p. 69). Fully aware of what Rambam was doing, Ramban sought to present an alternative vision of Judaism (just as I have argued elsewhere, Rambam himself sought to present an alternative vision of Judaism to that which found expression in Halevi's Kuzari). Thus, for example, for Ramban "Jewish history inheres in Abraham's biography both physically and metaphysically, to be played out by his biological descendants, [while] for Maimonides Abraham's life provides a manual on how to qualify as his ideological offspring" (p. 74). In this typically beautifully written and densely packed sentence, Diamond presents one of the core differences between the Judaisms of Rambam and of Ramban. Students of the two rabbis will see here hints at Ramban's view of Torah stories as prefiguring Jewish history (itself a cunning subversion of a classic Christian trope) and at Rambam's opposed essential lack of interest in history per se (even Jewish history) and his construal of Judaism as a community of true believers, defined by ideology, not by descent.

This is just one of the many ways in which James Diamond teases out the essential differences between Rambam and Ramban. I would like to stress that as much as Ramban was clearly aware of these differences (as brilliantly elucidated by Diamond), and as much as he rejected Rambam's picture of Judaism, Voltare- like he still defended Rambam's right to be wrong. It would be wonderful if today's rabbinic leadership would take a "musar haskel" from Ramban's behavior in this matter.

Rabbi Yom Tov Ishbili (Ritva) belonged to Ramban's school, and I would like to think that one of the lessons he learned from Ramban was to defend Rambam without agreeing with him, as he does in Sefer ha-Zikkaron, closely analyzed by Diamond in chapter four, "Pushing Back the  Assault." Diamond detects in Ritva an "ideological retreat from Nahmanideanism toward Maimonideanism" (p. 88). This "retreat" is not a rejection of the world of Ramban,  but, rather, an attempt to salvage "rationalism and reserve a space for it alongside Kabbalah within Jewish practice and belief" (p. 113).

In chapter five we are presented with a Don Isaac Abravanel "who struggled with Maimonides' thought throughout his prolific career" (p. 116); a specific locus of that struggle was Rambam's account of the Akedah. Abravanel, it has famously been reported, used to end lectures on Rambam in Lisbon with the statement: "these are the views of Rabbenu Moshe, but not those of Moshe Rabbenu." Here again, we see an attempt to keep Rambam within the fold, without denying the challenges he presents to more conservative interpretations of Judaism. It is one of the most important contributions of Diamond's book that time and again he shows us how medieval thinkers rejected much of what Rambam taught, without denying that he taught it. Comparing the approaches of Ramban, Ritva, and Abravanel to the furor surrounding the so-called Slifkin affair and the writings of many contemporary rabbis, makes one almost believe in the decline of the generations.

The chapter which I personally found most interesting was about Meir ibn Gabbai, the Sixteenth Century kabbalist, largely because he is the figure treated by Diamond about whom I knew the least. Chapter Six, "The Aimlessness of Philosophy" examines ibn Gabbai's Avodat ha-Kodesh, one of the most popular works of pre-Lurianic Kabbalah. This kabbalistic digest is "inextricably intertwined with a withering critique of  Maimonidean rationalism" (p. 138), further evidence for  Moshe Idel's claim  that Rambam was a "negative catalyzer" for kabbalistic conceptions. Ibn Gabbai's world was thus one "where Maimonides' thought inspired fierce rejection, while ironically at the same time providing  a fertile repository of ideas, exegesis, and terminology for the advancement of kabbalistic thought and interpretation" (p. 137).

Rambam was so important for a figure like ibn Gabbai that the latter felt forced to accept the widespread legend concerning Rambam's  alleged "conversion" to Kabbalah at the end of his life. That this legend was so widespread, and that ibn Gabbai and many others contributed to spreading it, is powerful support for the thesis of Diamond's book about the centrality of Rambam in forming the Jewish canon. Rambam is so important and central a figure, that a Kabbalist cannot allow him to remain outside the fold.

I will leave discussions of the last four chapters of Maimonides and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon (on Spinoza, Hermann Cohen, Neziv, and Rav Kook) to specialists in modern Jewish thought. To this reader, at least, they appeared every bit as insightful and illuminating as the six chapters outlined here. One comment, however begs to be made. Diamond’s concluding chapter deals with a twentieth century writer one rarely sees, if ever, mentioned alongside Maimonides -- Franz Kafka. Intriguingly, Diamond's argument is that even a contemporary, secular, Jewish diarist, thinker, and novelist is both made possible and understood better when read against the grain of Maimonides. In this case  Diamond argues that Kafka, the pessimistic prophet of gloom and alienation in the modern age, takes Maimonides’ negative theology to its logical extreme and leaves us with a sobering thought   especially in a post-Shoah age. If Maimonides’ “theology of negation ends in the breakdown of both intellect and language,” then perhaps it also “can all too easily lead to a theology of brokenness and alienation, and to the parables of Kafka.”

Did Maimonides indeed shape the Jewish canon alongside Bible, Talmud, Midrash, and Zohar? Each reader of this remarkable book will have to make up her or his mind on this issue. What cannot be denied is that each such reader will finish the book enriched, enlightened, and challenged.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

R. Yitchak Al-fasi’s Anti-Qaraite Legislative Activity

R. Yitchak Al-fasi’s Anti-Qaraite Legislative Activity
By Tzvi H. Adams

R. Yitchak Al-fasi (1013 – 1103) lived in North Africa and Spain during the Golden Age of Qaraism. It is quite natural that we find many instances of anti-Qaraite legislation in his writings.

Below are four such cases:

1) R. Al-fasi had the shofar blown on Shabbos Rosh HaShanah in his beth din in Fez, Morocco. (See discussion here: here). This ruling and practice baffled many later authorities as it seems to contradict the Talmud Rosh HaShanna 29b. R. Zerachiah Ha-Levi wrote about R. Al-fasi’s opinion – וזה אחד מן המקומות המתמיהים הנמצאים בהלכות  (המאור הקטן ר”ה פ”ד).

When we consider that the Qaraites (of whom existed a large community in Fez) did not blow a shofar at all on this holiday because such blowing is not clearly written in the Torah, it is understandable why R. Al-fasi would desire to have shofar blowing take place. Refraining from blowing the shofar would be like surrendering to Qaraite views. We should also recall that Rosh HaShanah can fall out on Shabbos as often as five times in ten years.

Aaron ben Elijah (1328-1369), a prominent Qaraite theologian wrote:
The Rabbanites draw an analogy between the Day of Trumpeting and the Day of Atonement which precedes the Year of the Jubilee, of which it is written: Then shalt thou sound the horn of trumpeting in the seventh month… on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 25:9). They say just as this trumpeting was done with horn, so also must the trumpeting on the Day of Trumpeting have been done with a horn. (However), we have already explained…. The Day of Trumpeting, therefore, signifies nothing but the raising of the voice in song and praise, inasmuch as there is no mention of a horn in connection with it. Moreover, why should we draw an analogy between a thing which is obligatory every year, and one which is obligatory only once in fifty years, the year of the Jubilee?…                    (from Leon Nemoy’s Karaite Anthology (1980) pg 173)
Read more on the Qaraite halacha here

2) R. Al-fasi was a key player in the transition of the evening prayer from reshut to chova:

Summary: Since the close of the Talmud, the accepted halacha had been תפילת ערבית רשות. Towards the end of the tenth century the custom solidified amongst Qaraites to pray only twice a day. To create a social divide, Rabbanite authorities responded by requiring every Rabbanite follower to pray three times each day. By attending synagogue three times a day one affirmed his allegiance to the Rabbanite camp; also by praying more often than Qaraites, Rabbanites distinguished themselves as being more holy and religious. The Franco-German sages, distant from the Qaraite-Rabbanite scene, upheld the original halacha of תפילת ערבית רשות.

Explanation: All early Gaonim ruled aravit is optional (עיין בראשונים ברכות פרק תפלת השחר). In early Qaraite times there were different views as to how many times a day one should pray. Anan ben David, the early sectarian schismatic, believed that only two prayers should be said: “Anan rejected the maariv – service, as being only a Rabbinic innovation (See Brochos 27b), and prescribed two daily services only in accordance with the times on which the Temidim were sacrificed” (Jacob Mann, “Anan’s Liturgy and his half-yearly cycle of the reading of the law”, Karaite Studies (1971) edited by Philip Birnbaum pg. 285). R. Saadya Gaon (882- 942), who had many interactions with Ananites, responded by requiring Rabbanites to pray three times- he made maariv mandatory (chova).

This was only the opinion of the Ananites; other sectarian Qaraite-like groups had other views as to the number of daily prayers required. Later, in the mid-tenth century, R. Sherira Gaon (906-1006) maintained the early gaonic psak that maariv is reshut, but wrote that one who does not daven maariv is a “poretz geder” (here).

Late in R. Sherira’s lifetime and in subsequent years, the view among Qaraites was solidifying that only two daily prayers were required. The Qaraite scholar, Levi ben Yefet, writes in his Sefer ha-Miswot (latter half of the 10th century),II pp.  501-502:

הדבור בכמה זה השער- כבר נתחלפו בו ואשר עליו ההמון, כי הנה שתי תפלת בכל יום בקר וערב שנאמר “ולעמוד בבקר בבקר להודות ולהלל ליוי וכן לערב”,… אשר יהיה זולת אלה הוא נדבה…
ואמרו מקצת חכמים כי חובה גם היא…ואלה הג’ תפלותיהם אשר זכר אותם דוד ע”ה “ערב ובקר וצהרים אשיחה…” …. והקרוב עמי כי אלה הכתובים לא יורו על חיובה…

Shortly thereafter, R. Al-fasi (1013 – 1103) further enforced the tri-daily prayer system by stating “והאידנא נהוג עלמא לשוייה כחובה”. A Jew who belonged to the Rabbanite camp distinguished himself from the Qaraites by attending synagogue three times a day. I am preparing a lengthy paper on this topic – “The Transition of Aravit from Reshut to Hova– a Rabbanite Response to Qaraism”.

3) R. Al-fasi participated in the anti-Qaraite transition of minor fast days from being voluntary to mandatory.

Though the Gaonim and R. Chananel (990-1053) explicitly say that not eating on the three minor fast days is the individual’s choice (as per the Talmud’s ruling RH 18b- אין שמד ואין שלום – רצו – מתענין, רצו – אין מתענין), R. Al-fasi chose to overlook this detail about fast days in his halachic writings. The purpose of this intentional omission was almost certainly to separate Rabbanites from the Qaraite community who did not observe the Rabbanite fasting calendar.

Briefly, here is the sugya in Rosh HaShannah 18b:

אמר ר”ש חסידא מאי דכתיב (זכריה ח) כה אמר ה’ צבאות צום הרביעי וצום החמישי וצום השביעי וצום העשירי יהיה לבית יהודה לששון ולשמחה קרי להו צום וקרי להו ששון ושמחה בזמן שיש שלום יהיו לששון ולשמחה אין שלום צום אמר רב פפא הכי קאמר בזמן שיש שלום יהיו לששון ולשמחה, יש (גזרת המלכות) שמד צום, אין (גזרת המלכות) שמד ואין שלום רצו מתענין רצו אין מתענין אי הכי ט”ב נמי אמר רב פפא שאני ט’ באב הואיל והוכפלו בו צרות
The Gaonim:

– בזמן הזה, בדורות הללו, שאין שמד ולא שלום, רצו מתענין לא רצו אין מתענין…. הילכך שלושת צומות, מי שאינו רוצה לצום אין בכך כלום ואינו מחוייב בהן. (תשובות הגאונים גנזי קדם ח”ג עמ’ 43)
R. Chananel:

שיש שלום – כלומר כל זמן שבית המקדש קיים יהיה לששון ולשמחה. יש שמד – צום.  אין שמד ואין שלום –  כגון עתה בזמן הזה, רצו מתענין רצו אין מתענין. וכיון שאם רצו שלא להתענות בהן אין חובה עליהן, לפיכך אין שלוחין יוצאין בהן. (רבינו חננאל – ראש השנה יח, ב)
הרב ברג’לוני ז”ל כתב מ”ט קבעום האידנא חובה? מפני שהם דברי קבלה … (שערי תשובה סימן עז)

By the time of Ramban (1194–c. 1270) and later authorities mandatory fasting was well established in Spain. (Rashba, though, is an exception- he still considered the fasts optional.)

About the practice of the Qaraites, Levi ben Yefet, writes in his Sefer ha-Miswot (latter half of the 10th century),III pg 452: Levi be writes

"צום הרביעי וצום החמישי וצום השביעי" וגו'. ... והוא העשירי מן החדש העשירי... והוא היום אשר סמך בו נבוכדנצאר על ירושלם והצר עליה ובנה עליה דיק, שנאמר "ויהי בשנה התשיעית למלכו בחדש העשירי בעשור לחדש בא נבכדנאצר מלך בבל וכל חילו" וגו'
והיום השני – והוא יום פתיחת המדינה, והוא היום התשיעי מן החדש הרביעי שנאמר "בחדש הרביעי בתשעה לחדש ויחזק הרעב בעיר ולא היה לחם לעם הארץ ותבקע העיר".
והצום השלשי – הוא היום השביעי מן החדש החמישי מפני כי אמר בו "בחדש החמישי בשבעה לחדש היא שנת תשע עשרה שנה למלך נבוכדנצר בא נבוזראדן רב טבחים עמד לפני מלך בבל בירושלם, וישרוף את בית יוי".
והצום הרביעי – הוא היום העשירי מזה החדש הה' שנאמר "ובחדש החמישי באחד לחדש" וגו'. והגרמתו וגם הגרמת היום הז' הוא שריפת בית יוי מפני כי אמר אחרי כל אחד מהם " וישרוף את בית ה'  שני פעמים.
והצום הה' - הוא יום כד' מן החדש השביעי שנאמר "וביום עשרים וארבעה לחדש נאספו בני ישראל בצום ובשקים" וגו'.
... ויש באלה הצומות חלוף. מהם בין הרבנים ובין הקראים, ומהם בין הקראים ובין העננים,...
הדבור בצומות אשר יצומו אותם הרבנים ... והוא יום יז' בתמוז ויום ט' באב, ויום עשרה בטבת... ואולם לא נצום אותם עמהם...
Dr. Isaac Gottlieb summarizes (here):

The Karaite calendar does not take note of our holidays of Hanukkah, Tu-b’Shvat… because these days are not mentioned in the written Torah. Three of the four fast days associated with the destruction of the First Temple are observed in Karaite tradition, but on different days from us: the “fast of the fourth month,” which we observe on the 17th of Tamuz, they mark on the 9th of Tamuz (cf. II Kings 25:3-4); instead of the Ninth of Av the Karaites fast on the 7th and the 10th of Av (II Kings 25:8; Jer. 52:12-13); instead of the Fast of Gedaliah, which we observe on the 3rd of Tishre, the Karaites fast on the 24th of Tishre (Neh. 9:1). The fast on the 10th of Tevet is the only one which they observe on the same date (Jer. 52:4-5). They do not observe the Fast of Esther but celebrate Purim for two days, and on leap years they only observe it in the first month of Adar.

Rabbi David Bar-Hayim’s view is that the transformation from optional to mandatory fasting occurred because later rishonim believed they lived in time of שמד – hence fasting was obligatory. More recent authorities only cited the words of these late rishonim and that perspective became the norm. Here is his discussion of this topic: “The Four Fasts and their Halakhic Status Today”. Rabbi Bar-Hayim suggests that the situation today (the political climate – war vs. peace) is not different than that of the Gaonim and R. Chananel – אין שמד ואין שלום.  This assessment has practical halachic implications. I suspect, though, that the transformation was not only because of ‘wartimes versus peaceful times’ but was also political and anti-Qaraite.

Rambam also omits this Talmudic leniency of רצו מתענין רצו אין מתענין. The Halachot digest of R. Al-fasi and Mishnah Torah of Rambam were both intended to replace Talmud study for the lay population. By ignoring the leniency of permissibility of skipping the minor fasts, these sages made sure their general readers would assume fasting is obligatory- thereby segregating them from the Qaraite communities who did not fast on Rabbanite fast days.

The language used by R. Y Barzillai, “קבעום האידנא חובה”, is similar to that employed by R. Yitzchak Al-fasi and others – “והאידנא נהוג עלמא לשוייה כחובה” – in explaining why, in the eleventh century, Jews were required to pray the evening prayer every night (עיין ברכות פרק תפלת השחר). This may hint at the same reason for change- to separate Rabbanites from Qaraites. See Case#2.

Furthermore, Sma”k 96 (R. Yitchak Corbeil- 13th century France) and Kolbo Laws of Taanith (Provence 14th century) cite the Gemara רצו מתענין רצו אין מתענין . These authors only cite practical matters- it is clear they still considered the minor fasts optional. The great R. Tam was asked if a pregnant woman needs to fast on the minor fasts. He responded by citing the Talmud – that these fasts are optional (cited in Hagaath Maimoni Laws of Taanith 5).

These European sages lived far from Qaraites and therefore had no need to respond to sectarian practices.

My suggestion – that the transformation of the three minor fasts from being optional to mandatory was a reaction to Qaraism – is novel and requires some more investigation and research…והמשך יבוא.

4) R. Yitchak Al-fasi, and his teacher, R. Chananel, created a six hour waiting requirement between meat and dairy in the early eleventh century – thereby limiting the social participation of Rabbanites with Qaraites. This was not the common practice in Judaism until their new legislation. I elaborated on this in “Waiting Six Hours for Dairy- A Rabbanite Response to Qaraism” –  here.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

The Torah’s Jewish Sense of an Ending: A Yasher Koyach to Moses

The Torah’s Jewish Sense of an Ending: A Yasher Koyach to Moses
by James A. Diamond
James A. Diamond, Joseph & Wolf Lebovic Chair of Jewish Studies, University of Waterloo. He is currently a Fellow of the Jewish Philosophical Theology Project sponsored by the Herzl Institute in collaboration with the John Templeton Foundation. His latest book is Maimonides and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon, published by Cambridge University Press ( This is his first contribution to the Seforim blog.
Every year, the joy I experience on Simchat Torah, is somewhat diminished by the apparent dismal ending of Deuteronomy whose closing we celebrate on the way back to creation and beginnings once again. Rather than climaxing in the rebirth of a nation and entry into the territory long ago divinely promised as a homeland, it ends in death and a frustrated life. Not only does it conclude on a morbid note, but it does so regarding Moses, the noblest protagonist of the narrative, the one who least deserves a premature death. His career begins with his first venture outside the cocoon of a privileged life within the royal palace walls, triggering an empathic act of heroic proportions. Without any knowledge of the Israelite God or the principles and norms that God stands for, Moses reacts violently out of an inherent sense of justice to prevent human suffering inflicted by those he was raised to recognize as compatriots. His subsequent intervention in an aggressive dispute among his own native tribesmen, also to prevent maltreatment of another human being, meets with a ‘mind your own business’ attitude, along with an ominous prospect of betrayal. Rejected by the Hebrew community to which he belonged by birth, and by his adoptive Egyptian community in which he was nurtured, for his opposition to injustice no matter its source or target, he became alienated from both. There remained no choice but to live out his life in exile- a stranger in a foreign land.[1]

A divine commission, plunging him back into that very orbit of rejection to complete what he had started, shattered what little peace he found in an estranged existence. He in fact proved himself to be precisely the most qualified to lead by marshaling repeated arguments against his qualifications for the mission of national liberator, ranging from insignificance (Who am I?)[2] to lack of confidence (They will not believe me)[3] to inarticulateness (I am not a man of words).[4] The politician who doesn’t seek out position, and who is compelled by others to run for public office on the strength of his principled reputation, is the one least likely to fall prey to the seductions of power that accompany that office. In fact the rare objective description of Moses’ character in the Bible, a humble man, more so than any man on earth,[5] reflects a sense of self-effacement that rules out self-interest as a decisive factor in his public life. Hesitatingly, he accepts and liberates the Israelites only to encounter years of incessant complaint, ingratitude, and rebellion. Ceaseless aggravation and insult escalated to the outrageous extent of the peoples’ longing to return to the “comforts” of that very hellish existence Moses had fought so courageously to release them from.

This is the man that God summons to the top of a mountain where he can almost touch everything he had dreamed of, fought for, and ardently dedicated himself to, and on whom God then abruptly drops the curtain- and there you shall not cross.[6] It is difficult to see this as something other than unbecoming of God, profoundly deepening the pain of a leader who is on the precipice of his life’s goal. Why would God prevent Moses from taking that tiny step necessary to consummate his mission? Why would God withhold a future from the man who was not only instrumental in attaining it, but was the man who originally surrendered his own entire regal future in the name of justice? At the end of the annual cycle of Torah readings, are we to celebrate a malevolent God who punishes his most devoted “friend” by denying him the joy of completing a quest He Himself imposed upon him? And shouldn’t the punishment fit the gravity of the crime? Slighting God’s honor (You did not affirm my sanctity in the eyes of the people),[7] surely does not warrant sanctioning it as a capital offence by denying Moses the fruits of his relentless sacrifices when they are within reach. And finally, doesn’t this reading land precisely in the season for forgiveness, a time for the supreme Being to have set a supreme example of mercy, graciousness, and magnanimity, when the simple cost would have been to yield His own glory? God seems to have missed the lesson of Moses’ humility.

As always though, in the long history of Jews reading their sacred texts, those texts’ problems goad the reader into rethinking what may at first seem obvious or apparent. As the eminent biblical scholar James Kugel points out, the Bible’s irregularities, in this case morally and theologically troubling aspects, are the grains of sand that irritate the oyster-like Jewish interpretive tradition to construct pearls around them.[8] Perhaps the way to approach this final episode is to reconsider God’s “punishment” as really a favor and concession to Moses’ character and sensibility. On closer examination it may in fact be graciously consistent with Moses’ biography, and superbly commemorates who he authenticated himself to be.

The key to these final verses is their casting of Moses’ relationship to God in terms of equals who meet each other face to face. Earlier in the Torah that same phrase, face to face, captures the familiarity of a normal human conversation, as one man speaks to another.[9] Genuine dialogue can only take place when both participants express their own views, assert their own personalities, and are open to debate. Any conversation wholly dominated and monopolized by one participant amounts to a monologue that promotes only listening but not responding or true engagement. Understood in this way we become mindful of Moses’ inaugural meeting with God who, for the first time in biblical history, formally introduces Himself by name. However, the puzzling name, I will be whoever I will be (ehyeh asher ehyeh),[10] is a tautological non-name. Rather than a being that is fixed by definition, confined to a particular place, and possessing jurisdiction over an exclusive domain, God tells Moses that He cannot be pigeon holed into a pre-conceived framework that a specific name might enable. God is a being in flux, encountered differently by different human beings in different circumstances. He is an evolving God, rather than a God that simply and immutably is, there to be called on ritually by those privy to His name. As such, this open-ended non-name conveys a relational being, a God of perpetual becoming, that cannot but be elusive. God is continually shaped and reshaped by the respective partners with whom She establishes relationship. Moses’ life is paradigmatic of this Jewish spiritual model.

Returning to Moses’ origins, God’s awareness of Israel’s suffering in Egypt immediately follows a quick succession of Moses’ actions, all sharing the common feature of interventions curtailing injustice and oppression. Considering the literary progression of events it is quite plausible to conclude that Moses’ autonomously motivated acts instigated by his own “seeing,” or evaluation of circumstances, provokes God’s immediately reported own “seeing” and “knowing” of Israel’s suffering- And God saw the Israelites and God knew.[11] The Jewish Publication Society’s translation exquisitely captures this nuance with its rendering of “knew” as “and God took notice of them.” In other words, God, who was oblivious to human suffering until then, was inspired to emulate Moses’ moral activism with His own moral awakening- an act of maturity with which the declaration “I will be” resounds. Rashi’s comment on “God’s knowing” expressively understands this divine realization as an emergence from apathy, transitioning from “ignoring the plight of His creation” to “focusing His attention on them.” God’s new consciousness, compelling His own intervention is evoked by Moses’ example. It is a premiere instance of God imitating man, the inverse of the primary religious mandate of imitatio dei, or emulating God.

Both in the Bible itself and later rabbinic traditions Moses continues in this vein of affecting and shaping God’s will and actions. When God categorically declares His intentions to wipe out the Israelites in response to their worship of the golden calf, Moses refuses to accept it as an irrevocable fait accompli and argues God out of it. It is as if God announces His genocidal intent in order to provoke a visceral moral response to it - “Nu, Moses, what do you have to say?” What God doesn’t want, it seems, is the silent submission to His will so often associated with religious orthodoxy. The Rabbis positively accentuate the boldness of what normally would be taken as insolence by picturing Moses grabbing God and threatening not to release Him until He submits to the demand of a pardon.[12] Moses proves his spirituality precisely by refusing to blindly succumb to divine fiat, and instead, transforming God Herself with his extraordinary devotion to humanity. An opinion in the Talmud even portrays God as lamenting the death of Moses for the loss of the one who mediated between Him and His children.[13]

Indeed, the Rabbis push this idea radically further. The ancient rabbis noted Deuteronomy’s inconsistencies long before modern biblical criticism “discovered” them. However they offered a far more radical and ethically provocative solution than the determination of different author’s hand at play in the composition of the text. Some laws in Deuteronomy, which contradict previous versions of them in the Torah, are attributed to Moses’ own creative revisions, which God subsequently endorses. For example, Moses replaces God’s explicit endorsement of vicarious punishment in Exodus, visiting the iniquity of fathers on children, with a just antithetical version in Deuteronomy- every person shall be put to death for his own crime.[14] Moses doesn’t simply amend and repeal divine legislation and theology to keep it current. He humanizes God.

Against this background the Torah’s ending is recast from a cruel insensitive scene into one that poignantly depicts a final reunion of two dedicated friends who have mutually enriched each other’s existences. Should Moses have extended his leadership tenure and guided the people into the land he would have been faced with simply more of the same anguish and suffering he had experienced up until this point. It would surely have entailed the wrangling, the complaints, the jealousy, and the power struggles that accompany the burdens of state building. God privileges the visionary Moses with an ocular vision- and God showed him the whole land[15] - that guarantees the posthumous success of his efforts. God does not invite Moses up the mountain to deny him entry into the Promised Land (I have let you see it with your own eyes But you shall not cross there[16]), but rather to preempt the pain of doing so, while assuring him that his vision will inevitably become a reality. The verse reads better as “I have let you see it with your own eyes and there you need not cross.” Moses is thus spared being mired in the partisan machinations that, as the historical record of the books of Joshua to the end of Kings evidence (let alone the contemporary history of the modern Jewish state!) would certainly have ensued. His record then of autonomy and initiative, even in the face of divine obstinacy, is preserved and remains untarnished by the political intrigue that would have inevitably consumed him to the very end.

The final three verses spell out the absolute uniqueness of Moses’ three pronged legacy- an unparalleled face to face intimacy of with God; the efficacy of the miracles that the Lord sent him to display in Egypt against Pharaoh; and all the great might and awesome power that Moses displayed before Israel.[17] Moses’ singularity is first evident in his private life communing with God, and then in two dimensions of his public life, combatting enemies and sustaining friends. Yet, note the subtle distinction made between Moses as God’s emissary vis-à-vis the Egyptians in the second last verse, and Moses in his own capacity vis-à-vis Israel in the last. It may have taken miracles to convince the taskmasters of the Israelite God’s invincibility to release their repressive stranglehold on their slaves. However, the establishment of a cohesive nation and its continuing viability cannot rest on miracles and otherworldliness. That requires human autonomy and human sensitivity to the social, political, and moral dimensions of a human polis, which Moses qua Moses independently sets in motion for his successors to follow.

Rashi’s Torah commentary analogously ends with a striking midrashic explication of this final verse that accentuates its extraordinary emphasis on the human dimension. Rashi oddly identifies that awesome power wielded by Moses in front of the entire nation of Israel with his breaking of the Tablets at Sinai. As Rashi states, Moses “decided on his own to break the tablets publically and God’s will acquiesced to his will, offering him congratulations (yishar kochacha) on breaking them.”[18] Rabbinically the Torah’s ending picks up on its patent sense of concentrating on human capability, but empowering it to the utmost extent of overcoming God, of persuading God to defer to the human perspective. In fact this midrash is the very source for the idiomatic salutation of yasher koyach (may your strength be firm) in response to any job well done, particularly those that benefit community. Every single positive human accomplishment and societal contribution then resonates with its origins in Moses’ exertion of the very outer limits of human capacity.

This is why it is so important for the Torah, despite its minimalist narrative style, to emphasize the seemingly superfluous detail of the hiddenness of Moses’ grave- no one knows his burial site to this day.[19] Given the phenomenon prevalent in our own time of worshipping dead saints, it is not difficult to imagine the idolization Moses’ gravesite would have certainly attracted. Shockingly perhaps to many, yet soberly, Moses Maimonides discourages frequenting cemeteries and halachically rules in his legal code against the erection of monuments on the graves of the righteous (tzadikim), “for their words are their memorials.”[20] As Moses’ life and death illustrate, Judaism must never lapse into a cult of the dead but must be a celebration of life. Moses’ grave is concealed precisely so that the focus will always be directed toward a life lived and profound teachings transmitted.

There is a well known debate in the Talmud concerning the authorship of the last eight verses in the Torah that record Moses’ death, with one opinion attributing them to Joshua’s hand. However, even those that consider Moses to have penned the report of his own death admit that there is a change in its manner of transcription, imagining Moses writing in an inconsolable silence, “with tears.” Even more moving is the alternative interpretation of this phrase where the words on the parchment were literally inscribed with tears rather than ink. An intriguing halakhic consequence regarding the rules governing the formal reading of these final verses in the synagogue informs this heartrending debate. Its ambiguous Talmudic formulation that a single individual reads them attracts a number of interpretations, but the dominant one is that they must be read as one unit by one person without any interruption (Rashi).[21] Maimonides however interprets it stunningly and uniquely as dispensing with the standard requirement of a prayer quorum of ten males (minyan) for their recitation! His rationale is “since the sense of these verses refers to what occurred after the death of Moses they have become distinct.”[22] Maimonides’ ruling strikingly affords a normative framework for my philosophically theological reading the Torah’s final scene. His halakha captures the shift in narrative focus and mood of the transition from ink to tears, from the people at the foot of the mountain to Moses alone at its summit, from community to the solitary individual. It promotes a dramatic reenactment of everything I have argued about Moses’ characterization in these final verses- a demarcation of a private space for the individual, for the emergence of one’s uniqueness, for a semblance of the relational spiritual intimacy of the face to face, and for the creative power of the single person who stands out from the crowd. By granting halakhic legitimacy to this Torah reading outside the formal framework of a minyan, Maimonides transforms every Simchat Torah into the possibility of momentarily experiencing, however partially, the awesome power of Judaism’s incomparable lonely man of faith.

And so the Torah ultimately climaxes, neither with an impressive tombstone, nor with preternatural transcendence that is the subject of its penultimate verse, but with the spiritual strength and moral defiance of a single human being. It carves out a space for human beings in what can all too often slip into a dangerously God intoxicated universe that overwhelms human autonomy rather than inspire it. It concludes with humanness rather than godliness. That is Moses’ life and that is his epitaph- a joyful and Jewish sense of an ending.

[1] Exodus 2:22.
[2] Ibid, 3:11.
[3] Ibid, 4:1.
[4] Ibid, 4:10.
[5] Num. 12:3.
[6] Deut. 34:4.
[7] Num. 20:12.
[8] See his seminal study in James Kugel, “Two Introductions to Midrash,” Prooftexts 3:2 (May 1983): 131-155, reprinted in Geoffrey Hartman and Sanford Budick, eds., Midrash and Literature (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 95-97.
[9] Exod 33:11.
[10] Exod 3:14.
[11] Ibid, 2:25.
[12] bBerakhot 32a.
[13] bSotah 13b. Here I follow Rashi’s explanation. Maharsha, in his Hidushe Aggadot, actually identifies this talent directly with assuaging God’s anger against Israel because of the golden calf incident.
[14] On this see Tanhuma, Shofetim 19. There are many other sources where not only Moses, but patriarchs, other prophets, and even rabbinic sages convince God of the correctness of their opinions and actions. To mention just a select few see for example Shemot Rabbah 15:20, Bereshit Rabbah, 44:21; and Midrash Tehillim 4 that commences with the idea that this ability singles out the greatness of the Jewish nation.
[15] Deut. 34:1.
[16] Ibid, 34:4.
[17] Ibid, 34:10-12.
[18] See Sifrei 357 and bShabbat 87b.
[19] Deut. 34:6.
[20] Mishneh Torah, Avel, 4:4.
[21] bMenachot 30a; bBava Batra 15a.

[22] Mishneh Torah, Tefillah, 13:6. Rabad, caustically attacks this ruling as “bizarre," sarcastically questioning “Where did the quorum go?”

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

What Did the Willows Ever Do to Deserve Such a Beating? An Original Explanation for a Perplexing Custom

What Did the Willows Ever Do to Deserve Such a Beating?
An Original Explanation for a Perplexing Custom

By Steven Weiner 
Steven had the privilege and good fortune of learning from Rav Aharon Lichtenstein ztz"l and Rav Yaakov Meidan Shlit"a at Yeshivat Har Etzion (1982-83) and prior to that from Rav Yisroel Mendel Kaplan ztz"l and other Rabbeim at the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia.  He is currently working on a series of essays on the theme of Shivat Tzion and its contemporary resonance.
The seventh day of Sukkot – the day we now call הושענא רבה – has no special significance in the Torah.  The day has no distinctive name; no mitzvot or rules distinguish it from the rest of Sukkot; its sacrifices follow precisely the same pattern as the previous six days; and, unlike the seventh day of Pesach, the seventh day of Sukkot is not even a מקרא קדשIn other words, the seventh day of Sukkot appears in the Torah as indistinguishable from the other days of המועד חול.
Nevertheless, the Talmud describes several unique practices that were performed on הושענא רבה.  One such practice is the custom we still observe today known as חיבוט ערבות (chibut aravot), beating our ערבות against the ground.  What is the meaning of this strange ritual, and does it have any meaningful relationship with הושענא רבה?
In this article, we suggest an original answer grounded in a deep connection between the curious practice of beating ערבות and the teachings of the final נביאים who were active during the early days of the Second Temple, also known as the period of שיבת ציון.
A most mysterious מנהג נביאים
According to the Mishna (Sukka 4:5), on each day of Sukkot the people brought tall ערבות branches to the מקדש and stood them on the ground surrounding the מזבח, thereby adorning the מזבח with an overhanging canopy of leaves.  The Gemara (Sukka 44a-44b) concludes that this practice is rooted in a הלכה למשה מסיני (an oral tradition received at Sinai).  However, while the Mishna describes only a ritual performed inside the מקדש, the Gemara adds that a custom involving ערבות also developed later outside of the מקדש – but only on one day of Sukkot, הושענא רבה.[1]  The Gemara describes this custom using the verb חיבוט – understood by Rashi as waving the ערבות, and by Rambam as beating them e.g. against the floor.  The familiar custom nowadays is to take a bundle of ערבות on הושענא רבה and strike it sharply, several times, against the floor or a chair.
What is the source and meaning of חיבוט ערבות outside the מקדש?  The Gemara (Sukka 44b) calls this practice a מנהג נביאים (“custom of the prophets”).  Rashi and other traditional commentators understand this as meaning that the custom was instituted by the trio of prophetsחגי זכרי' ומלאכי , who prophesied during the early Second Temple period and were members of אנשי כנסת הגדולה.  However, barely one page earlier (44a), the Gemara indicates חיבוט ערבות is a זכר למקדש!  Indeed, Rambam and numerous other subsequent authorities who discuss the practice of חיבוט ערבות echo the Gemara on both counts, dubbing the practice a זכר למקדש as well as a מנהג נביאים.  But performing a זכר למקדש is an act of דרישת ציון, a response to Yirmiyahu’s cry that poor Zion lies destroyed and abandoned with none seeking her.[2]  How could a זכר למקדש in the spirit of דרישת ציון possibly make sense in the earliest days of the Second Temple, centuries before its destruction[3]

Furthermore, why does the Gemara ascribe this custom specifically to the prophets?  The intriguing term מנהג נביאים is not used elsewhere in the Talmud.  While many familiar practices are known as enactments of אנשי כנסת הגדולה (the Rabbinic authority during שיבת ציון, whose members included חגי זכריה ומלאכי as well as other leading scholars of that period), they are not labeled as מנהג נביאים.  What significance is to be found in the Talmud’s attribution of חיבוט ערבות specifically to the prophets of the early Second Temple?

In addition, the peculiar way we perform this custom – beating ערבות against the ground[4] – also cries out for explanation.  What does beating branches symbolize?  Moreover, if the custom is intended to remind us of the ערבות ceremony inside the מקדש, shouldn’t we instead encircle and adorn the שלחן with our ערבות, just as the מזבח was encircled and adorned with ערבות in the מקדש?  After all, we commemorate the practice of הקפות in the מקדש (Mishna Sukka 4:5) by marching around the שלחן in very similar fashion.  Why then do we commemorate a ceremony of adorning the מזבח by beating our ערבות against the ground?

A well-known Kabbalistic explanation views חיבוט ערבות as a rite of atonement, and interprets הושענא רבה as a day of final judgment and forgiveness.  Beating the branches symbolizes, and mystically brings about, a sweetening of the Divine attribute of justice.[5] While a mystical interpretation is certainly possible, the Talmud never mentions judgment or atonement regarding חיבוט ערבות or הושענא רבה.  For those of us who might prefer a less esoteric alternative, I wish to propose an explanation for חיבוט ערבות that is grounded in Biblical sources, and which also helps to resolve the puzzle of exactly how and why a זכר למקדש was initiated as a מנהג נביאים in the early days of שיבת ציון.  I am not sure that difficulty is tackled by the Kabbalistic approach.

Others have suggested that חיבוט ערבות represents a prayer for rain, the sound of beating ערבות evoking the sounds and sights of a rainstorm.[6]  This seems plausible, as the Talmud and Midrash indicate that arba minim and other practices of Sukkot are in part connected to our prayers for rain, which begin at this time of year.  However, once again this explanation fails to shed light on why the custom was initiated specifically by the prophets of שיבת ציון, or how we can possibly reconcile the seemingly self-contradictory, dual status of מנהג נביאים and זכר למקדש.
Affirming a powerful prophecy by acting it out
I believe the key to unlocking the significance of חיבוט ערבות may be found by examining the visions proclaimed by the prophets of שיבת ציון.
The Second Temple was built in a climate of intensely mixed emotions.  The austere structure of שיבת ציון paled against the splendid, opulent בית ראשון constructed by Solomon.  Celebrating their first Sukkot shortly after rebuilding the מזבח, the people of Ezra’s time offered the obligatory holiday offerings בְּמִסְפָּר כְּמִשְׁפַּט דְּבַר־יוֹם בְּיוֹמוֹ – “by number, according to the obligation of each day.”  In contrast, Solomon offered such bountiful sacrifices for the inauguration of בית ראשון that the capacity of the מזבח was overwhelmed and more space had to be specially consecrated![7]  Moreover, בית ראשון was graced with a visible appearance of God’s presence, ‘ה כְּבוֹד, with clouds filling the Temple upon its dedication, just as occurred in the original משכן.[8]  No comparable revelation is reported for בית שני.  Accordingly, elders who remembered the magnificent First Temple wept loudly over the Second Temple’s modest foundations, and the inaugural ceremony was accompanied by a heart-rending mixture of tears and rejoicing (Ezra 3:12-13).  To make matters even worse, Persia soon suspended further rebuilding of the Temple in response to slander against the Jews by their envious, non-Jewish neighbors (see Ezra 4).
Against this painful backdrop, the prophet חגי received a stirring vision on the 21st day of Tishrei – i.e. on הושענא רבה, the same date when Solomon had concluded his spectacular חֲנֻכַּת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ for the First Temple centuries earlier:
חגי פרק ב
(א) בַּשְּׁבִיעִי בְּעֶשְׂרִים וְאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ הָיָה דְּבַר־יְקֹוָק בְּיַד־חַגַּי הַנָּבִיא לֵאמֹר:
In a powerful message of hope and encouragement, God first acknowledged that the Jewish people were demoralized by the humble stature of בית שני (“it is nothing in your eyes”) in comparison to the glorious Temple and kingdom of Solomon:
(ג) מִי בָכֶם הַנִּשְׁאָר אֲשֶׁר רָאָה אֶת־הַבַּיִת הַזֶּה בִּכְבוֹדוֹ הָרִאשׁוֹן, וּמָה אַתֶּם רֹאִים אֹתוֹ עַתָּה? הֲלוֹא כָמֹהוּ כְּאַיִן בְּעֵינֵיכֶם:
Nevertheless, God urged the people and their leaders to strengthen themselves and take action (continue rebuilding), mindful that He is with them.  God declared that in but a moment He could shake (מַרְעִישׁ) the heavens and the earth, overturn (וְהִרְעַשְׁתִּי) powerful empires and deliver their wealth to Israel, and “fill this house with כָּבוֹד.”[9]  The כָּבוֹד of the new Temple could then exceed even the כָּבוֹד of the First Temple, in both material wealth and Divine presence:
(ד) וְעַתָּה חֲזַק זְרֻבָּבֶל נְאֻם־יְקֹוָק, וַחֲזַק יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן־יְהוֹצָדָק הַכֹּהֵן הַגָּדוֹל, וַחֲזַק כָּל־עַם הָאָרֶץ נְאֻם־יְקֹוָק, וַעֲשׂוּ – כִּי־אֲנִי אִתְּכֶם, נְאֻם יְקֹוָק צְבָקוֹת:
(ה) אֶת־הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר־כָּרַתִּי אִתְּכֶם בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרַיִם וְרוּחִי עֹמֶדֶת בְּתוֹכְכֶם אַל־תִּירָאוּ:
(ו) כִּי כֹה אָמַר יְקֹוָק צְבָקוֹת: עוֹד אַחַת מְעַט הִיא, וַאֲנִי מַרְעִישׁ אֶת־הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ וְאֶת־הַיָּם וְאֶת־הֶחָרָבָה:
(ז) וְהִרְעַשְׁתִּי אֶת־כָּל־הַגּוֹיִם וּבָאוּ חֶמְדַּת כָּל־הַגּוֹיִם וּמִלֵּאתִי אֶת־הַבַּיִת הַזֶּה כָּבוֹד אָמַר יְקֹוָק צְבָקוֹת:
(ט) גָּדוֹל יִהְיֶה כְּבוֹד הַבַּיִת הַזֶּה הָאַחֲרוֹן מִן־הָרִאשׁוֹן אָמַר יְקֹוָק צְבָקוֹת וּבַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה אֶתֵּן שָׁלוֹם נְאֻם יְקֹוָק צְבָקוֹת:
I suggest our מנהג נביאים of beating ערבות has its roots in this prophecy.  When חגי received these powerful words, cutting to the heart of the difficult challenges that he and his generation faced, he responded by acting out his own prophecyוְהִרְעַשְׁתִּי /אֲנִי מַרְעִישׁ, “God will shake the heavens and the earth” – by striking the earth sharply with a bundle of ערבות.[10]  Using ערבות poignantly evoked the similar branches that were used on that same day by the people within the מקדש to encircle and celebrate their modest, fragile מזבח.
Prophets in the Bible often acted out the imagery of their prophecies, as a way of affirming and reinforcing their visions.  Ramban notes this phenomenon in his commentary to the Torah (Breisheet 12:6).  One famous example is even highly reminiscent of חיבוט ערבות: Elisha instructed the King of Israel to bang arrows on the ground, in order to affirm Elisha’s prophecy that Israel would smite and defeat its enemy (Melachim II 13:16-17).  It is easy to picture חגי following in Elisha’s path and striking the ground with ערבות in place of arrows, as an affirmation of his own prophecy ofוְהִרְעַשְׁתִּי /מַרְעִישׁ and as a prayer to God that it be completely and speedily fulfilled.[11]
Thus, חיבוט ערבות was from its very inception both מנהג נביאים and זכר למקדש – a זכר למקדש ראשון!!  Our puzzle is solved!  חגי and his colleagues performed חיבוט ערבות in the purest spirit of דרישת ציון.  Their ritual expressed a heartfelt plea for the redemptive upheaval (רעש) that they envisioned, so that the full glory of בית ראשון could be restored and exceeded.  At the same time, the custom also served as a reminder of God’s command to חגי that we strengthen ourselves and act courageously in fulfillment of God’s mandate to continue rebuilding.
Although בית שני was eventually completed, the longed-for glory of Solomon’s era remained elusive. Judea was a vassal state for most of the Second Temple period.  God’s presence (שכינה) was not manifest in בית שני, at least in comparison with בית ראשון.[12]  Therefore, it makes sense that חגי and his colleagues, and eventually all Jews, would annually repeat the custom of חיבוט ערבות outside the מקדש on הושענא רבה, affirming the yearned-for prophecy on its anniversary.  To this day, in the prayer we recite just before חיבוט ערבות – known as (“"קול מבשר) אומץ ישעך – we plead for complete and imminent redemption by evoking “sounds” of deliverance including the earth-shaking upheaval around Jerusalem foretold by זכרי' , close colleague of חגי.  Like the original prophecy of חגי, and much like אני מאמין, our custom of beating ערבות expresses both a prayer to God for redemption as well as an uplifting pledge of faith and determination.
Our novel interpretation also explains why the custom of חיבוט ערבות outside the מקדש is unique to הושענא רבה.  The Gemara (Sukka 44a) explains why חיבוט ערבות is performed on only one day of Sukkot, as opposed to all seven days, but never explains the choice of which day.[13]  According to our explanation, the prophecy of חגי is naturally reenacted and reaffirmed on its anniversary.  Intriguingly, Taz[14] suggests חיבוט ערבות is performed on הושענא רבה because of its unique holiness: יותר קדושה ביום זה.  Our proposal offers one way of interpreting that special holiness.  הושענא רבה, the anniversary of בבית ראשון חנכת המזבח and of נבואת חגי, is a day of yearning for full redemption and the imminence of God’s presence – precisely the theme expressed by חיבוט ערבות.
Counterpoint: who dares scorn the day of small beginnings?
While beating ערבות outside of the מקדש expressed a deep longing for more completion redemption, adorning the מזבח with a beautiful canopy of ערבות sounded a complementary note inside the מקדש.  I believe this latter practice acquired particular poignancy during the Second Temple period, precisely because nagging feelings of disappointment over the limited “glory” of that redemption were so palpable from the very start.  As cited above from Ezra 3, tears threatened to drown out the shouts of joy heralding the inauguration of the Second Temple.  Likewise, חגי in his הושענא רבה prophecy hears God say: “Who among you remembers the glory of the First Temple, and what do you think of this house now?  It is nothing in your eyes!”
In the prophecy of חגי, God’s primary response to these feelings of disappointment is a promise that the future can be brighter if the people will only be strong and act with courage and faith.  However, in 4:10 זכרי', we hear a somewhat different response: כִּי מִי בַז לְיוֹם קְטַנּוֹת?  – Who scorns the day of small things?  I sense a sharp tone of rebuke in the word “scorn”: Who dares to scorn the גאולה of שיבת ציון simply because it appears “small” and modest compared to Solomon’s empire?  Shouldn’t the people be grateful for even the smallest beginnings of גאולה?  Perhaps חגי 2:3 contains a hint of the same rebuke: is the nascent בית שני really nothing in your eyes?
I suggest that for the Jews of the Second Temple[15], adorning the מזבח with ערבות became a deeply meaningful way of expressing gratitude and appreciation for the redemption they enjoyed, imperfect as it was.  The ceremony became a way of saying: we will never scorn you, oh מזבח, you are precious to us!  In fact, the Mishna (Sukka 4:5) records that when the ceremonies in the מקדש were completed on הושענא רבה, the people shouted: יופי לך מזבח, יופי לך מזבח (“beauty is yours, מזבח”).  The reason for this charming salute to the altar is not discussed in the Talmud, and several commentaries have commented on it.[16]  Personally, I cannot help but hear an unmistakable echo of the “cheers of ‘Beauty! Beauty!’” foretold in 4:7 זכרי':
מִי־אַתָּה הַר־הַגָּדוֹל לִפְנֵי זְרֻבָּבֶל לְמִישֹׁר וְהוֹצִיא אֶת־הָאֶבֶן הָרֹאשָׁה תְּשֻׁאוֹת חֵן חֵן לָהּ:
Whatever great mountain [obstacle] lies before Zerubavel –will be flattened!  He will present the cornerstone amid cheers of “beauty, beauty!”
This vision of זכרי' is adjacent to his rebuke against those who scorn the day of small things.  The prophet’s message is that when the cornerstone of the new Temple is placed, the proper response is joyous applause of “beauty, beauty!”  Do not dare to be so ungrateful as to scorn the modest beginnings of our new מקדש, thunders זכרי'!  I suggest that for the people of בית שני, the ערבות ceremony around the מזבח was an opportunity to align themselves with those who gratefully cheered the cornerstone, and to distance themselves from any thoughts of scorn.
Our novel interpretation of the ערבות ceremony in the מקדש is further supported by the Gemara’s citation (Sukka 45a) of Tehilim 118:27 – אִסְרוּ־חַג בַּעֲבֹתִים עַד־קַרְנוֹת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ – as a source for encircling the מזבח with a canopy of ערבות
In this section of Tehilim, familiar to us from Hallel, just a few verses earlier (118:22) we read:
אֶבֶן מָאֲסוּ הַבּוֹנִים הָיְתָה לְרֹאשׁ פִּנָּה
The lowly stone once scorned by many is now the celebrated cornerstone!  This echoes the message and “stone” imagery of זכרי' that we read above.  As Tehilim 118 continues, we rejoice in this remarkable gift from God (23-24), we bless those who come paying respects to the מקדש (26), and we gratefully salute the מזבח by encircling it with leafy boughs (27).  The Gemara’s citation of this excerpt from Tehilim as a source for adorning the מזבח makes perfect sense.
A Message for Our Own Era
We have suggested a new interpretation for the mysterious custom of חיבוט ערבות, attributed by the Gemara to the prophets of שיבת ציון.  We suggest the custom arose from confrontation with the incomplete redemption of the Second Temple era.  The seemingly bizarre ritual of shaking branches and striking the ground expressed profound longing for (and faith in) a more perfect גאולה, by vividly acting out the vision of חגי that one day God will bring a fully redemptive “upheaval” when His presence returns to “shake” the earth and overthrow all oppressors.  This same theme is emphasized even today on הושענא רבה in our prayers accompanying חיבוט ערבות.
At the same time, we have also suggested that the related practice of adorning the מזבח with a beautiful canopy of boughs and shouting יופי לך מזבח expressed a complementary sense of gratitude.  Even as the people of בית שני pined for complete redemption, they acknowledged the partial, beautiful redemption which they had merited to receive, and did not dare scorn it.
How fortunate are we in contemporary times, two thousand years after the Second Temple’s destruction, that while still yearning for שלמה גאולה, we can once again also express gratitude for an imperfect but precious redemption already granted us.  Indeed today’s Jerusalem and Israel are beautiful gifts – יופי לך – as well as a work-in-progress.  As we continue to beat our branches against the earth crying out for the קול מבשר heralding our ultimate redemption, and committing ourselves to the national project of rebuilding (materially and spiritually), we dare not forget to appreciate the remarkable gifts God has already bestowed upon us.

[1] It is evident from the Gemara’s complicated discussion on Sukka 43b-44a, and is universally accepted by all subsequent authorities, that חיבוט ערבות outside the מקדש is performed only on הושענא רבה.
[2] Sukka 41a, ditto Rosh Hashana 30a, citing Yirmiyahu 30:17.
[3] One might attempt to answer that חיבוט ערבות was originally a מנהג נביאים, but after המקדש חורבן it became instead, or in addition, a זכר למקדש.  See Tosafot Yom Tov (Sukka 4:5), the only source I have seen so far who addresses this apparent contradiction between מנהג נביאים and זכר למקדש.  But this answer seems problematic.  Following Gemara Sukkah 44b, all of the major poskim rule that we recite no blessing on חיבוט ערבות precisely because it is a mere custom, a מנהג נביאים.  But if the practice was converted after the חורבן into a זכר למקדש, then why shouldn’t it warrant a blessing, just like holding arba minim after the first day of Sukkot זכר למקדש?  Evidently then, even the זכר למקדש aspect of חיבוט ערבות itself only has the authority of a מנהג נביאים, which leaves our question unanswered.
[4] This question is strongest according to Rambam and others who understand חיבוט as banging against a surface, as is our common practice nowadays.  According to Rashi, who interprets חיבוט as a synonym for waving or shaking, the ritual would not stand out as so unusual per se.
[5] Zohar parshat Tzav (end of 31b); see also Ramban on Bamidbar 14:9.
[6] E.g. Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs, in The Jewish Religion: A Companion, reprinted  here.
[7] Compare Ezra 3:4 versus Melachim I 8:63-64 and Divrei HaYamim II 7:5, 7.
[8] Melachim I 8:10-11, Divrei HaYamim II 7:1-3, Exodus 40:34-35.
[9] Compare Melachim I 8:11 and Divrei HaYamim II 7:1-2 (כִּי־מָלֵא כְבוֹד־יְקֹוָק אֶת־בֵּית יְקֹוָק).
[10] The same verb רעש – upheaval, literally shaking the earth – also appears prominently in the visions of final redemption recorded by זכרי' (contemporary of חגי) and יחזקאל (slightly earlier, during the Babylonian exile), traditionally read as haftarot during Sukkot.
[11] There is also Midrashic precedent for the notion that shaking the branches of ארבע מינים symbolizes the overthrow of our enemies and the redemption of Israel.  See ספר הרוקח, in the attached source sheets.
[12] Yoma 21b.  See also Yoma 9b: because the Jews of that era did not return to Israel en mass “like a wall”, and instead mustered only a relatively weak return, God’s presence likewise returned only to a limited extent.
[13] Admittedly, the choice of הושענא רבה might be arbitrary: might as well pick the last day, if we must pick one.  Compare Sukka 43a, explaining why ערבה was taken in the מקדש on הושענא רבה even on Shabbat.  Essentially, the Gemara explains that הושענא רבה was selected by Chazal for this purpose not necessarily due to its inherent special character, but perhaps simply because it happens to be “the last day.”  Beit Yosef and Bach (O.C. 664) both suggest explaining the assignment of חיבוט ערבות to הושענא רבה in a similar manner.  However, it is more satisfying to find an underlying connection between the day and its practices, if we can.
[14] Taz O.C. 664 note 2; cited by Mishna Berura in note 11.  Taz also connects the special holiness of הושענא רבה to the performance of seven הקפות in the מקדש; we hope and intend בעזרת ה' to explore the meaning of הקפות in a separate, companion essay.
[15] The precise origin of adorning the מזבח with a tall canopy of ערבות is unclear.  I am not aware of any indication that it was an essential part of the original הלכה למשה מסיני of holding extra ערבות in the מקדש.  However, for our purposes, it doesn’t really matter if the practice originated during the Second Temple era, or if it was initiated earlier and simply took on additional meaning later.
[16] See Aruch Le-Ner (Sukka 45a); Tiferet Yisrael in הלכתא גבירתא on Mishna Sukka chapter 4.

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