Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Ezra's Sukkos Part 1

After Ezra publicly reads from the "book of the law of Moses" we're told that the people "found written in the law... that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month."

Nehemiah 8 continues:
So, the people went forth, and brought [olive branches, and pine branches, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees] and made themselves booths, every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of God, and in the street of the water gate, and in the street of the gate of Ephraim. And all the congregation of them that were come again out of the captivity made booths, and sat under the booths: for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun unto that day had not the children of Israel done so. And there was very great gladness

How should the concientious and believing Jew understand these verses? There are at least three approaches.

See them after the jump
1 - The verse means what it says: From the time of Joshua, Sukkos was never celebrated as it was by Ezra and his congregation. 

This approach  is not troubling as it may seem. We have no religious obligation to believe that Sukkot was observed in all its details during the First Temple Period. This isn't one of the ikkarim, and it isn't a belief that is attached to any halachic observance. To paraphrase the Ramban's view on aggadot, one might choose to believe that Sukkot was forgotten or ignored "without suffering any spiritual harm."

Indeed, the evidence from the Book of Kings seems to support this. We're told that the majority of the people were idol worshippers, who likely had as much use for Sukkot as they did for the God who decreed it. Even the religiously outstanding people were mostly members of prophetic circles, who, we might deduce, were not quite as fanatical about the written word as we are. Why would they pay attention to text, with all its flaws and difficulties of interpretation, when they had immediate access to prophets and an endless fountain of revelation? Its possible, therefore, even the majority of this elite lost or neglected some - or even all -  of what we, today consider "requirements" of the holiday.

The view that significant halachic material was forgotten has support, incidentally, from the tradition. The Talmud records the view that First Temple Jews forgot the hoshana ritual, until it was later revived via prophesy. We're also told that at least one tanna believed that because of "Israel's sins" even the original script used to write the first Torah was lost, and we're told that large amounts of halachic material were lost during the days of mourning for Moshe.

What else did sinful Israel forget? The passage in Nehemiah seems to be telling us.

2 - The verse means what it says but not literally. It is speaking idiomatically or employing hyperbole, or perhaps it reflects the author's own misapprehension
According to this reading, the passage  means only that Ezra's people really had, like, a fabulous time celebrating Sukkot, with nothing about earlier generations intended on implied. Alternatively, the passage might reflect a mistake on the part of the author. Perhaps he sincerely thought that the Jews had forgotten sukkot during First Temple times (and given what it says in Kings, can you really blame him?) In any event, this reading (ie mistake, idiom or exaggeration) preserves the possibility that Sukkot was observed correctly by the majority of the people during First Temple times.

3 - The verse does not mean what it says
To me,  this is the most difficult approach, because those who take it have created a new problem for themselves. If, as the Talmud explains, the verse really means that the Jews abandoned idol worship and this spiritual step forward "protected them like a sukka" we must ask: Why didn't Nehemiah say so? Why is this national accomplishment concealed? Why aren't we told about the divine blessing? In short: Why doesn't the verse just say what it means? What profit is there in misleading the reader?

I anticipate some will be quick to point out that Bible verse often don't mean what they seem to mean\, with ayin tachat ayin being the most famous example, and this is true: that midrash halacha often departs from the plain meaning of a verse, and provides alternative interpretations that are reflected in practice. However, unlike ayin tachat ayin the passage in Nehemia isn't halachic and the explanation given by the Talmud isn't an example of midrash halacha. (A discussion of midrash halacha and why the legal tradition and the text often seem to disagree will have to wait for another day.) This is a different category of interpretation; moreover, the verse under discussion is found not in the Pentateuch, but in Ketuvim - also a different category.

Part II later

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