Blog Archives

Why do we read Song of Songs at Pesach?

There are five books in the Hebrew Bible that known as Megillot. The word means scrolls, because that is how they were originally written. We read each scroll in a cycle throughout the year.

Esther is read at Purim because it tells the festival’s story; the scroll even contains the instruction that Purim is when it should be read. Lamentations, bewailing the destruction of Jerusalem is read on the 9th of Av, the anniversary of the city’s fall. The story of Ruth, which is set at harvest time is ideal for the agricultural festival of Shavuot. And Ecclesiastes is linked to Sukkot because of an ancient tradition. Every seven years, when the land lay fallow and the people had time on their hands, the nation is said to have gathered at the festival of Sukkot to hear the Torah read. The person who read them the Torah was known as Kohelet, the one who gathers. The book of Ecclesiastes opens with “the words of the Kohelet”. Ecclesiastes, also known as Kohelet in Hebrew, is clearly the appropriate for reading Sukkot.

As for the Song of Songs, it is a love story that is set in Spring: “For behold the winter is passed, the rain has ceased, it is gone. Buds are seen on the earth, the time of the birds’ singing has arrived and the voice of the turtle dove is heard in the land. The figs put forth their young fruit, the tender grapes on the vines give off their fragrance, arise my beloved, my beautiful one and come with me.” Passover, which of necessity coincides with the onset of Spring is the season to read Song of Songs. Read more »

A Band of Evil Angels

In the section of the Haggada that calculates the number of plagues at the Red Sea, Rabbis Eliezer and Akiva each quote from Psalm 78: “He sent against them the fierceness of his anger, wrath, indignation and trouble, a band of evil angels”. They chose to quote from this psalm because it elaborates on the plagues sent against the Egyptians. But it is not clear why the fierce, destructive angels sent against the Egyptians are described as ‘evil’. Unpleasant as they were, surely they were acting for good, not evil. Read more »

The Dotted Letters in the Torah

Maimonides, in his introduction to the last chapter of Mishnah Sanhedrin, writes “There is no distinction between a verse of Scripture like “…And Timna was a concubine” (Gen. 36:39,12), and one like “Sh’ma Yisrael”. For Maimonides, the Torah is a unit, and every verse, indeed every word is of equal value. Read more »

The Rise and Fall of the Hasmoneans. A Hanukkah Story

The villain of the Hannukah story, Antiochus IV, succeeded his brother Seleucus IV, at a particularly burdensome time for the Syrian-Greek dynasty. Some years earlier their father, Antiochus III had been defeated at the battle of Magnesia by a rampant Rome.  As the newly emergent masters of the world, the Romans demanded a considerable tribute from the Greeks. When Antiochus III died Seleucus inherited an economically straitened kingdom, and when he was murdered its financial woes were passed onto his brother, the new king. Read more »

God’s Will or Human Reasoning? Which is More Important?

A fascinating discussion in the Jerusalem Talmud (Berachot 6,2) illustrates the tension in rabbinic thought between human creativity and divine power. The discussion concerns the blessings that are to be made over food. Generally, when eating something that grows on a tree, a blessing is made to God who creates the ‘fruit of the tree’. If it grows in the soil the blessing is for the ‘fruit of the soil’. But some foods, notably bread and wine have their own specific blessing. The question is, why? What makes these foods different, and who said that they are? Read more »