My Machine Gun Menorah — by Avraham Burg

(my translation from Avraham Burg’s memoir, IN DAYS TO COME, p. 19-23)

On Wednesday it was all over. After much shelling and bombing, endless rumors and newsflashes, patriotic music playing on the radio and families huddling together protectively, Father returned home from the “government” and said to Mother, “Get ready, we’re going to the Kotel.” I didn’t know what exactly this Kotel was. My parents had never taught me to yearn for it. We didn’t have a photograph of it on the wall, not even a bronze engraving, as was common in so many homes at that time. The walls of Father’s large library were decorated with iconic photos of mother’s family from the old Jewish community in Hebron that had been destroyed, and next to them was a lithograph of synagogues from around the world that were no more, from the Jewish diaspora that had been wiped out – but there was nothing to commemorate the Temple. I think I’ll remember Mother’s excitement until the day I die. She dressed in her blue pleated skirt. “Does this look all right?” she asked Father, as always. “Very much so, Rivka,” he responded, as usual, and together they went down to the road to board the military transport that had come to pick them up. A dusty, unshaven soldier helped them climb into the command car. “I want to go too,” I wailed at the top of my lungs, with heavy, salty tears I can still taste to this day. It was the first great outburst of my childhood. Cries of longing and sadness, of fear and disappointment, of a parting much greater than myself. Perhaps I was curious to see the fresh battlefield, and perhaps I was just giving voice to all the fears that had built up inside me during those days and that time. The cries of a young boy who was not ready to be left without the security and protection of his parents. But nothing helped – they left without me. After a few hours they returned, and my mother pulled out a small bag from her pocketbook and gave me a few greasy cartridges from an Uzi submachine gun. “I collected them at the Kotel especially for you,” she said. She wanted to compensate me for leaving me behind, but she was also entrusting me with a little treasure.
            In those last innocent days of the State of Israel, we all had to take a home economics class at school. Once a week we left the gray, desolate schoolyard and walked a few blocks to Mr. Tarshish’s workshop. In the faded apron of a craftsman from a bygone era, in a booming voice and with a ruler he rapped against the table any time he grew angry, Mr. Tarshish taught us all the survival skills we’d ever need. How to fix a short circuit with a special iron wire, how to sand down a rough board, how to polish metal, how to change a light bulb. To this day, I don’t particularly like fix-it work, mainly because I’m not that good at it. I am not just left wing politically, I also have two left hands, far more left than my most firmly-held views. I was also never good at conforming to the mold, or copying a template exactly and without variation. Even back then my spirit sought something else, something creative and original. The complete opposite of the strict, precise work ethic of the mythic Mr. Tarshish. A few months after that war we prepared a surprise for our parents in honor of Chanukah: We made metal menorahs, the proud work of our own hands. We toiled for days, cutting the brass, bending and joining, shaping the frame and the branches. The high point for me was attaching the Uzi cartridges that Ma had brought me from the Kotel, which I used as candleholders that remain laden with significance. My souvenir from the remnants of the Temple is inextricably bound up in weaponry, violence  and bloodshed. I was not yet familiar with a Judaism of pacifism, it had not yet exerted its hold on me, and in school we had not yet reached that Biblical verse renouncing all violent associations with the Temple and its altars: “And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones, for by wielding your sword upon them you have profaned them.” And thus the Jewish Kotel and the Israeli Uzi became melded together into something new, inseparable.
            To this day we light this menorah every Chanukah, and I both love it and hate it. Each time my heart is pierced anew – by a longing for the childhood I once had but that is no longer, and by a lament for the tremendous transformation that has come over all of us, a transformation not entirely good. I need that menorah not just as a nostalgic link to those innocent bygone days, but also as a tangible reminder of all those things that I still want, and still need, to change in this world.
            I always loved Chanukah, more than any other holiday. In the beginning, in my youth, it was because of the mystery of the darkness and the small lights that banish it, and because of the modest little gifts we always received from our parents. I loved those magic moments in which Father, Mother, my sisters and I sat on the rug and played with the dreidels, the spinning tops – among the rare instances when Father came down to our childhood heights. Perhaps that’s why dreidels became my favorite collector’s item, with thousands of them now decorating the walls of our home. With time I came to love Chanukah even more, as a unique and special holiday in which Mother had a role as well. Not just as the passive woman who responds Amen to all the blessings, rituals, and customs that Father performed with flair, but also as the one who lit the candles on the nights that Father was not at home. I loved observing her in this role – she inspired me the first time I took on a public position. That was during the Chanukah that I was in first grade, when I was selected to play the part of the shamash, the candle used to light all the others. Mother ironed my white shirt, made me a cardboard crown with a paper candle on top, and rehearsed with me again and again the line I was supposed to recite in a loud voice in the class play. “To be a shamash is to bear a great responsibility,” she said to me, “and my son needs to be the best shamash there is.” So I tried, for her sake. I wanted to be the best shamash there is.
            Since Chanukah is celebrated in the winter, it is the Festival of Lights, like many other festivals of light in other cultures. We Jews, who do not worship nature in and of itself, have added more and more layers of religious meaning, as with many of our other holidays. The miracle of the jar of oil, the redemption of the Temple, the victory of the few over the many – the whole deal. Thus we transformed a festival celebrating the shortest days of the year and the approaching lengthening of the hours of daylight into a religious holiday. The sigh of relief of Adam, whose fears were alleviated when the winter nights stopped growing longer, was transformed into a great, spontaneous joy. The joy of the faithful over the redemption of the Temple in Jerusalem after the Greeks had violated it with their pagan rites and their military conquest. Our benevolent God, the master of history, stood by our ancestors in their distress and secured them a “great victory.” As a sign of gratitude, and as a means of commemoration, the ancient Jews established these eight days to give thanks to the God who delivered them and to praise His name. It was never a holiday about wars and warriors – on the contrary. The mighty ones in the Chanukah story are the Greeks, not us – we are the weak ones. But that is something that no one told me before I ascended the tall chair of the shamash on Chanukah during first grade. In my black polyester Shabbat pants, which were secured high above my belly button, I sang my lines as loudly as I could: “In our time as in those days, God’s Maccabee redeems always.” I didn’t know that in my cousin’s Moshe’s secular school down the block, they sang the same song with a slight variation: “In our time as in those days, the Maccabee redeems always.” For us it was still a religious holiday with God at the center; for them the holiday had already been appropriated by the trampling revolution of the Zionist consciousness. God was cast aside, and the Maccabee assumed center stage.
            The Zionist revolution wanted to return us to an active role in political history, and thus it grasped hold of every symbolic straw it could find. It is natural, therefore, that the heroism of the war and the struggle of the Maccabees became the most important port of call in the Zionist movement’s voyage home. The return to the land and to our memories, to language and history, to the places that once were and to the glory of the past. And we, as small children, were each the best shamash there is, the shield-bearers of this fantastic revolution. A decade later, in the army, we were already singing completely different versions of those Chanukah songs. God had disappeared entirely from the holiday, and we marched in unison—left, right, left—accompanied by the hoarse loudspeakers, keeping pace:
We carry lights
Through darkest nights
The paths aglow beneath our feet.
We found no jar of oil
No miracle but our toil
We hewed the stone with all our might–
Let there be light!
With rifles on our shoulders and heavy militaristic steps we trampled on any religious vestige of the holiday. From a Jew in my parents’ home I became a new Israeli Maccabee. We, my Israeli friends and I, don’t rely on miracles. Not like all the weak, meek, lily-livered members of our parents’ generation. We take responsibility into our own hands, we are the masters of our own fates. We are heroes – but we’re not Greek. I was transformed from an anonymous little Jewish boy from Jerusalem into the common Israeli hero, whom none of my parents’ generation or their parents before them ever dreamed of before.
            This popular modern Chanukah song has become associated, in recent years, with the opening ceremonies for Israel’s Independence Day on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem. The Hasmoneans of yore became retroactive mighty heroes of the past, and the inspiration and the model for the military heroes of the present—for us—who hew the stones. By means of this marching song, which was written about the Zionist Chanukah and is played on Independence Day, the consciousness of Chanukah and Independence Day become inextricably intertwined. From marking the original moment of religious exaltation to, now, a holiday celebrating physical vigor and the victories of our time. The modern holiday of Chanukah became a day of heroism, rather than a day commemorating the rededication of the Temple. With each Uzi cartridge I fastened—any of which may have felled someone near the Kotel in ’67—I unknowingly fastened this new myth to our Israeli narrative.


Translation of a poem by Yehuda Amichai

The precision of pain and the haze of joy. I think
About the precision with which people describe what hurts in doctors’ offices.
Even those who never learned to read and write can pinpoint their pain:
Here it pinches, here it’s sharp, here it’s blunt. It hurts here. Right here.
Yes. Joy blurs everything. I have heard it said,
After wild nights of making love and merry: It was great, amazing,
I felt like I was flying. Even the astronaut hovering
In space can only say: Amazing! Awesome! I’m speechless!
The precision of pain and the haze of joy.
I want to describe the blur of ecstasy and rapture
With the precision of a sharp pang.
I’ve learned to speak from those in pain.

(Translated for SWR, 4.7.12)

Yehuda Halevi meets Kobi Oz

The popular Israeli singer Kobi Oz has set Yehuda Halevi’s linguistically clever eleventh-century poem to jaunty music. See below for the original poem, my translation, and then a video incorporating the translation, with typographical surprises towards the end!

ידידי די / ר’ יהודה הלוי

יְדִידַי-דַּי בְּאַהְבַת-בַּת כְּרָמִים
וְנָשִיר-שיר לְנֶאְדָּר-דָּר מְרוֹמִים.
אֲהוּבָך-בָּך וְעוּזָּך-זַך עֲצוּמִים
רְחוּמָך-מָך וחוֹמֶר-מַר רְחוּמִים
פְּלָאוֹת-אוֹת ונִיסִּים-שִֹים לְחוֹסִים
עֲשׁוּקִים-קִים והָאֵר-אוֹר תְּמִימִים
כְּאֶתמוֹל-מוֹל לְבָבִי-בִּי עֲדֵי כִּי
בְּפִשְׁרוֹן-רוֹן אֲהַלֵּל-לֵיל וְיָמִים.

O My Friend / R. Yehuda HaLevi

O my friend end now your love of drunken wine
And with song sung we will tell, Dweller on high
Love above, power of our hour of strength
Of compassion and of passion from within
Miracle full of the wonder underway
From oppressed pressed turned to light bright of the pure
Yesterday’s daze in my heart starts newly born
With a song sung I will raise praise all my days.

The Whore of Babylon (Kidushin 81b)

My translation from Ruth Calderon’s Hashuk, Habayit, VeHalev: Aggadot Talmudiot (Keter, 2002)

Rabbi Chiya bar Ashi lies on the stone floor, spreadeagled. He is praying.

There is no one else at home. It is market day, and his wife is out. He enjoys being alone in an empty house. Only this way does he find peace. It is strange, since the whole world lies open to him: the study house, the courtroom, the inn where he sometimes sleeps on fair days. She, his wife, is quiet and earnest, always in her corner between the stove and the stove, in a kerchief and gown. Twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, she goes out to the market.

“May the Merciful One save me from the evil impulse!” This is a prayer he utters frequently. His body lies close to the foundation stone of the house, his limbs still sprawled out around him. His face is to the ground. He seeks to ward off untoward thoughts. He prays with great fervor and concentration, until his heart pulses to the rhythm of his prayers.

One day she came home by chance. In the morning she had prepared bread as was her custom each day, and as it was Monday, she set out for the market. When she left home he was standing in prayer, wrapped in his Tefillin. Shortly thereafter, she realized she had forgotten the basket of fish, and came back to retrieve it. The basket was not particularly important; she could have easily put the fish somewhere else. But it would contain the smell of the fish, which would otherwise stink up the fresh fruit. In any case, she returned at that very moment when he did not intend for anyone to see him. He thought he had the house all to himself when he cried: “May the Merciful One save me from the evil impulse! May the Merrrcifful One saaaave meeee from the eeeevil impulsse!”

She was shocked to see her husband looking like a different man entirely. His body lay naked on the floor. He was without his usual pride and glory, without his characteristically even tone off voice. “And to think,” she mused, “For several years he has not slept with me. What evil impulse could he possibly be so afraid of?” A sense of insult flared up inside her. Was there another woman?

She crept out of the room quietly and retreated to a side room. She stood in front of the mirror, passing her hand over the lines of her face. Her reflection was like the face of an elderly woman. Her kerchief was drawn tightly over her forehead, concealing her hair. Her eyes were sunken. Deep wrinkles lined both sides of her nose. She tried to smile, but her cheeks were like stones. Each Friday evening she would hope for him to approach her bed, which was carved into the wall, but each Friday evening she was once again disappointed.

“Bless you for reaching this point, for not clucking at one another like chickens,” said the rabbi when she came to him somewhat embarrassed. She wanted to know whether they were still obligated in the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply,” and whether her husband was still obligated to satisfy her sexually. The rabbi set her mind at ease or at least got rid of the pain, like dirt swept hastily into the corner of the room. But now the dirt was visible again.

She fled outside, without the accursed basket. She walked distraught nearly all the way to the market. The color fled from her pale cheeks and her heart beat rapidly. She thought only of her pain and shame.

When she returned back home her face was restored to its natural color. She set a pot to boil on the stove, rinsed fruits and vegetables, preserved the leftover quinces, sliced cucumbers for pickling. All the while, she concocted a plan.

On Thursday she left the house for market as usual, early in the morning. But instead of turning towards the western part of the market, where her fellow housewives made their way among the stalls, she continued on, as if in a daze. She headed in the direction of the caravans, towards the foreign vendors whose stalls lay beyond the purview of a proper woman. These vendors came from far off and sold clothes, spices, and jewelry to simple, ordinary women. Bangles jingled on their ankles. She approached, and with clenched hands she counted out her coins. She handed over half the money reserved for fruit and all the money set aside for fish, as well as the small sum she saved from week to week to buy a new cloth for the Sabbath table. As if in a dream, she selected a dress, jewels, sandals, and a belt, as well as a bundle of myrrh. She unfolded her sack and placed everything inside, and then left without saying a word.

At an earlier hour than usual she set her steps towards home. Nothing felt normal. The world was awry. “The honor of the king’s daughter is within” (Psalms 45:14), she hummed to herself until she came to the alley that led to their house. In a secluded corner she put on the revealing dress, fastened the belt, freed her long hair from her kerchief, tied a dangling jewel around her wrist and a bangle around her ankle. The bangle set a new rhythm to her stride and her temples pulsed. “How lovely are your feet in shoes” (Song of Songs 7:2). She tied the bundle of myrrh around her neck so that it swayed between her breasts. After she finished getting dressed, she applied eye shadow to her eyelids with an unpracticed hand. When she approached the water cistern in the yard, she saw the face of a different woman entirely reflected in the water: the face of Libertina, she who instilled fear in all married women. “I am Libertina, the great whore of Babylon” she whispered. “May the Merciful One save you.”

At that very moment, Rabbi Chiya bar Ashi was learning in the garden. A light breeze passed among the branches of the pomegranate and olive trees. The mishnah he was learning was difficult and his mind was unfocused. Suddenly he saw before him the image of a woman — and what a woman she was! “What, who are you?” he asked, as if spellbound. “I am Libertina. I just returned,” she replied indulgently, enjoying the game. She was surprised to find that she knew the rituals of courtship. She made her way towards him to the garden, at once close and distant, familiar and foreign. Her movements aroused him, quickening the pace of his heart.

He demanded that she sleep with him there on the dust among the weeds and thorns, where small rocks would cut into his flesh. He undressed like a man possessed, his body exposed to the world as if he were a dog. He scratched, he licked, he lusted; he craved the taste of her breath but she eluded his grasp again and again, until he pressed her desperately against the trunk of the tree, his hand on her nipple, and penetrated her like a sharpshooter. Then he moaned. It was different from anything he had ever known with his wife, with any woman ever. It brought him closer to the Merciful One than all of his prayers.

When he caught his breath again she asked, her expression firm, that he bring her a pomegranate from the top branch. He did not dare refuse her. His legs were covered in scratches from the tree branches, and when he climbed down the branch beneath him broke and he tumbled down after it. She took the fruit from his hand, casting a scornful glance at his open robe, his unkempt beard, the sweat on his brow.

When he limped into the house his wife was already lighting the stove. He felt as if his torn clothing and his scratches betrayed what he had done. He worried that the scent of Libertina clung to him and to his hair, which was still disheveled even after he combed through it with his fingers. His heart and soul felt undone too. There was no way to take back what he had done. He was consumed by guilt.

As if he were setting out on a long journey, he looked over at the bench beside the stove which seemed suddenly so inviting. He cast a parting glance at the carved beds, the washing corner, the good woman who had borne him his children, who had once made his spirit dance when he peered at her through the lattice from the men’s section of the synagogue. The fire in the stove burned high and red, until the coals calmed to a steady blue. He entered the stove and sat inside.

With her two strong arms she pulled out his faint body, and it was as if he was being birthed from inside the stove. When he awoke, his legs were wrapped in rags soaked in oil. She asked quietly, “Why?”

For a moment he remained silent, and then he told her the whole story. The words flowed from his mouth as if he were feverish, as if he could not hide anything from her now. He had decided earlier that there was no point in confessing to her, that it would only cause her pain, that it was better to stay silent, that she would not be able to understand. She listened calmly, and when he finished she said, “It was I.”

He knew that this was his opportunity for love, even redemption, but he averted his glance. “But in any case, my intention was to sin,” he told her.

She raised her arm as if to object, and her wrist jingled. She unfastened the jeweled bracelet and placed it on the kitchen table.

This story is based on a sugya from Kidushin 81b, translated here:

Rabbi Chiya ben Ashi,
Whenever he would prostrate himself in prayer,
Would say: “May the Merciful One save me from the evil impulse!”
One day his wife heard him.
She said: “Given that for several years he has not engaged in sexual relations with me,
Why is he saying that?”
One day he was learning in his garden.
She adorned herself, passed by, and came before him.
He said to her: “Who are you?”
She said: “I am Libertina (Cheruta). I’ve just returned from a day of work.”
He demanded that she sleep with him.
She said to him: “Bring me that pomegranate from the top of the tree.”
He jumped up and brought it to her. When he came home, his wife was lighting the stove.
He went and sat inside it.
She said, “What is this about?” He said, “Such and such happened.”
She said to him: “It was I.”
He said to her: “But in any case, my intention was to sin.”

Yishmael My Son, Bless Me (Brachot 7a)

My translation from Ruth Calderon’s
Hashuk, Habayit, VeHalev: Aggadot Talmudiot (Keter, 2002)

The sanctuary is silent. All alone, Rabbi Yishmael crosses the twenty-two cubit distance between the antechamber and the altar. Further and further inside, beyond the curtains that are always drawn, as if walking through water and coming ever closer to its source. He has already immersed himself five times in the ritual waters, and his body is as soft as a freshly-laundered garment. Now, dressed in four articles of clothing like one of the regular priests, he is conscious of his exposed forehead, which is usually covered with the gold plate bearing the words “holy to the Lord.” In his hands is a firepan made of beaten gold containing finely-ground incense. Its smell enters his nostrils and the smoke rises like a pillar, parting the hallway before him. The smoke from the incense trembles and then is still, like a solid black candle.

His mind is filled with thoughts of the cows, rams, and sheep that passed before the priests in the evening in preparation for the sacrifices. He thinks of the Jerusalem elders who came to make sure he stayed awake all night, as was the custom. Their voices can still be heard in his ears, like the roar of a distant ocean inside a conch shell. His ears are no longer his; his eyes are no longer his; his sleep is no longer his. His whole body has become a sacred vessel. When he parts the last curtain, he can feel the tautness of the string that is tied around his right ankle. This is the string with which the other priests will drag out his body, should anything go awry in the Holy of Holies.

The inner sanctum is filled with the smell of the past. Yishmael has never been able to describe what it is like to his family at home. It is a different space than anything he has ever seen before. He walks inside, his heart quaking with each step. He can feel his own death like a ghostly presence. Dizzy and exhausted after a night of no sleep, he feels the weight of the day’s labors on his shoulders. As if performing the steps of a complicated dance, his minds runs through the morning immersion to the confessional beside the sacrifical cow, and from there to the lottery box where the goats were designated—one for God and one for Azazel, and then to the cliff where the latter goat was sent off into the wilderness, and then another confession and sacrifice and another collection of blood in a bowl, followed by the removal of the firepans.

Although he is alone in the Temple, he feels beleaguered by the priestly elders who seem to be peering at him with expectant eyes, measuring each step he takes and each wave of his hand. He is seized by a sense of fear: What if he is not worthy? What if he makes a mistake? His mouth is filled with the words of the confessional prayer: “I have strayed, I have sinned, I have transgressed before you, I and my household. Because on this day I will atone for you to purify you of all your sins. You shall be purified before God.” He remembers his hands resting on the head of the cow and the shudder that ran through the animal’s body, its sharp smell, its vigor and strength. He had leaned with all his weight on its great back, trying to lose all his anxieties and doubts in the warm flesh.

The names of the various types of blood used in sacred worship are as strange to his ears as song lyrics in a foreign tongue: Blood of the skin, blood of the soul, blood of the essence. The meaning of these terms eludes him, though he has memorized what he must do: “The firepan is in his right hand and the spoon is in his left hand, until the high priest comes between the two curtains which separate the Holy from the Holy of Holies, which are a cubit apart. He walks between them until he comes to the northernmost part. Then he turns and faces south, and walks to his left along the length of the curtain until he reaches the ark.” He can recite these words by heart, but they do not seem to accord with the dark hallway in which he finds himself. Where is the ark? He steps through the thick darkness into the Holy of Holies.

Yishmael senses a presence, as if someone is watching him. He stands in place enveloped in the smell of the incense, his eyes gradually adjusting to the darkness. Someone is sitting there. Is there someone else in the sanctum? Did he make a wrong turn? His heart flutters as if caught in a trap. He suddenly does not feel like the high priest, on whom all of Israel’s hopes are bent; he does not even feel like an ordinary priest, or like a regular human being.

From behind the pillar of smoke, he sees light.

“Achteriel Yah Hashem Tzvaot,” his lips murmur.

Across from him is a high and lofty throne. Should he prostrate himself before it? He dares to raise his eyes. The face of the One seated on the throne appears as if a storm is passing over it.

“Yishmael my son, bless me.” He is been addressed by name, as a man addresses his fellow. “Yishmael” – prounounced just as his mother would say it. “My son.” This is a face-to-face encounter, filled with grace, like a meeting between father and son. But bless me? What could that mean?

Yishmael does not understand what the man seated on the throne wants from him. The sound of his voice and the words that he speaks do not accord with his expectations. For a moment he fears that a foreign god has penetrated the inner sanctum and has sat upon the throne. After all, it was a well-known principle that heavenly beings never sat down. But then the seated presence calls him by name. In that moment Yishmael divests himself of his role as high priest, and becomes only himself. He listenes. He tries to overcome his fear and his preconceived notions. He wishes to be fully attentive, freed from his anxieties.

Suddenly he understands. Yishmael is filled with blessing, and he is ready to bestow blessing on others. The words come to him with love: “My it be Your will.” The words follow one another without any effort on his part, like a person praying for the well-being of a friend. “May it be Your will that Your mercy conquer Your anger, and that Your mercy overcome Your stern attributes.” He enjoys this newfound generosity of spirit. He is happy that he wants to bestow goodness. He glances at the seated presence with a tinge of embarrassment, aware that he is saying the right thing.

He continues, “And may You behave toward your children with the attribute of mercy. And for their sake, may You go beyond the boundary of judgment.” The seated presence nods graciously. Yishmael no longer doubts himself. He knows what to do next. He comes to the ark and places the firepans between the two cloths. He stacks the incense on the coals and the whole sanctum is suddenly filled with smoke. He exits and then enters an outer chamber and prays a short prayer, so that he would not upset the people, who would begin to worry about what happened to him in that most holy of chambers at the holiest time of the year.

Truly, how splendid was the appearance of the High Priest when he exited the Holy of Holies in peace, without any harm.

This story is based on a sugya from Brachot 7a, translated here:

Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha said:
Once I entered into the Holy of Holies
To burn incense in the Inner Innermost sanctum
And I saw Achteriel Yah Hashem Tzvaot
Sitting on a high and lofty throne of compassion
He said to me: Yishmael my son, bless me
I said to him: Master of the Universe
May it be Your will that Your mercy conquer Your anger,
That Your mercy overcome Your sterner attributes,
That You behave toward Your children with the attribute of mercy,
And that for their sake, You go beyond the boundary of judgment.
He nodded to me with His head.
And this comes to teach us
That the blessing given by an ordinary person should never be taken lightly.

The Wedding Night

My translation from Ruth Calderon’s
Hashuk, Habayit, VeHalev: Aggadot Talmudiot (Keter, 2002)

In the West [that is, in Israel] when a man married a woman, everyone would then ask him: “Found or find?” He in turn would respond with one of two words, both taken from verses in the Bible: “Find” as in the verse, “I find a bitterness worse than death in women,” or “found” as in the verse, “One who found a woman found goodness.” (B. Brachot 8a)

A warm clay candle rests in my palm, the weight of the oil passing from the front to the back of my hand with a quick flick of the wrist. In the evening the oil was congealed, with a small warm puddle of liquid gathered just around the flame. Now the entire candle is warm oil — the flax wick is light and floating and the flame appears as if suspended in midair.

The room is cold and the man standing across from me has his head buried in a notebook. The pages are tied together haphazardly. He reads while half-asleep. Occasionally the chant of his learning breaks forth from his throat; then he plunges back into quietness like a whale diving back into the ocean. It is the second watch of the night. This man is my new husband. This is not how I imagined my wedding night; this is not what the women told me to expect when they stood over me to remove the hair from my body with oils and lime. Why did they bother? What is the use of my soft skin, my plucked eyebrows, my colorful nightgown? Outside cats and beggars devour the remains of the wedding feast. If only everyone knew the real reason I went under the wedding canopy. I am a pillar of fire, not a bride.

And my mother, what would she say? At the beginning of the evening, I was so happy. My wedding dress was tight against my waist, a veil hung from my head, and a circle of candles illuminated the courtyard like stars fallen down to earth. Under the wedding canopy, under the dome of the sky, I was enveloped in the happiness of everyone around me and in the display of honor towards the family I was joining. I did not feel homesick. I was excited as if I had found a lost object by the roadside. Familiar expressions of blessing fell upon my ears, and during the wedding benedictions I mustered the courage to look at my bridegroom. I had not seen his face since our engagement. I found him attractive. Then there was dancing, and when he danced with the men his eyes shone. He captured my heart with his awkward steps.

The groomsmen accompanied us until our rooms, and for a while we could still hear them singing the familiar wedding song: “With neither eye make-up nor blush nor braids in her hair, she radiates grace.” I thought that he had chosen to remain silent until we could no longer hear the voices of the merrymakers outside. I also remained silent. After the voices had faded off into the distance, I sat on the bed in my wedding dress. I was secretly grateful that he was not too close to me, and I was pleased that he did not seize upon me suddenly. But then I grew flustered, unsure what to do. Beside the wall, between the shadows, I took off my dress, folded it carefully, and rested it beside the bed. I climbed into bed and covered myself with a sheet. I knew the reason a bride enters under the wedding canopy. I lay on my back and waited for a sign. He took off his clothes slowly, and folded them in a neat pile under the bed. The light of the candles illuminated the two of us between the shadows. I unfastened the barette in my hair and peeked out from between the sheets. The smell of jasmine filled the room. “Bring a candle so I have light,” he said evenly. Was I supposed to get up?

While I was lying there, my nakedness was covered and enveloped. My body disappeared in the bed and only my face was visible. If I stood up, I would bare my flesh; he would see me from all sides. He waited. His prayer shawl functioned for him as a sort of nightgown. Its whiteness was soft and pleasant against the dark night. I heard once that in the Torah scroll belonging to Rabbi Meir, it was written in Genesis that God dressed Adam and Eve in “garments of light” instead of “garments of leather.” Now I saw a dim light from the whiteness of the candle. As in a dream, I stood on my feet and took the candle from the column in the wall. I approached him, the candle in my hand. The candle defined a small circle of light in which we could see: Cheeks, lips, eyes. He extended a strong but gentle arm and positioned me as he wanted me, facing him. I took the candle and stood before him. He picked up his book and continued learning.

The hours passed. I lost track of time. I stood with the candle in my hand, my mind wandering back to our wedding earlier that night. All evening, my eyes had been drawn to his mother. When I sat with the women, covered in a veil, I saw her making her way uncomfortably through the wave of well-wishers and guests which rose up around her. Her beauty was still pronounced, her eyes bright. She carried herself proudly. The toughness and anger from her long days of loneliness did not disappear when her husband returned home and she became, once again, the wife of the great rabbi, his footstool. She did not exude warmth like my mother, but I thought I could grow to love her nonetheless.

All through my childhood, I heard the stories: How he betrothed her in secret, and how her father cut her off from his possessions when Rabbi Akiva traveled far away to study Torah. My mother and the other women, when they would sit together sorting lentils, used to talk about her sadness. They, too, would wait at home for Torah scholars who spent most of their days in the study house. Rabbi Akiva’s celebrated return should have compensated for the hard, lonely hours, between a crying baby and an unlit stove, with no adult company except for the neighbors.

It seemed to me that my husband was much more the son of his mother than his father. Would the son also devote himself to study like his father? Would I remain a “living widow,” raising children who would not recognize their father? Now, in the room, I steal a glance at his book. Back when we were young, my grandfather used to reward us with nuts when we could recite a chapter by heart. I was good at such recitations, before they shut me out of the study house, along with the other girls. “Rabbi Akiva says: One lights a candle from another’s flame; one gains light, and one stays the same.” How do you light one candle from another? I am embarrassed by what I am picturing in my imagination. But his eyes are in his book; he does not see me.

The candle is no more than a spoonful of oil. The wick juts out from the lamp and the smell of the burning olive oil is pleasant. Will the oil last? I do not know how much time he still needs, but it is clear to me that I am responsible for the candle. I shift my hand gently to conserve the oil as best I can.

Maybe I have forgotten something about how brides are supposed to act? Did I do the right thing in removing my gown? Am I supposed to say something? I try to remember my mother’s words. When she came to speak to me about the wedding night, I saw how embarrassed she was and had mercy on her. She averted her glance and said, “Anything a man wants to do with his wife, he may do – you be good to him, and then all will be good for you.” She went on about the subject of the mother-in-law, and spoke about pain. She instructed me to recognize that he would be preoccupied. “A groom is exempt from reciting the bedtime Shma on the first night.”

Now everything is a riddle or a big mistake. Maybe I ruined my marriage? Maybe I will not be found a virgin? My heart is pounding; such things have been known to happen. A girl may lose her virginity by means of a beating or a plank of wood. I once heard of someone who stained her clothing with the blood of a bird to redeem herself with her blood.

I look at him, his eyes glued to his page. My hand trembles. A stream of oil drips behind the candle, towards the wick, and the candle is nearly extinguished. And maybe he too does not know what to do? After all, he is still a boy. Is he waiting for a sign from me? I come closer to him, holding the candle so he can see, following his movements with the book. We sway in place, almost dancing. My nakedness through the sheet does not ruffle him. We are like two small boys who have undressed before bed. When the chanting once again escapes his lips, his voice is pleasant, on key.

Morning comes and we are still standing there. I look at him in the first light: His face is lovely. His eyes are honey-colored with flecks of green. When I pretend to fall asleep, my eyelashes flutter and he casts a cautious glance in my direction. Examining me. When I open my eyes as if I have just awoken, his eyes retreat back between the letters.

When the sun rises higher in the sky, I put down the candle. The oil has nearly run out and the wick is resting on the underbelly of the wet candle. The mouth of the candle is filthy and disgusting, encased with charcoal. My hands are also filthy, and I wipe them on the clothing that should have redeemed me with my blood. One way or another, my clothes have become stained. I sit back on the bed, and it seems I fall asleep. When I open my eyes, I do not see my husband. Through the shutters, striped rays of light penetrate the room. I hear his father’s voice: “Found or find?” I listen with intense concentration.

“Found,” says his sweet voice in the night, and his words fall softly like morning dew.

“Amen,” I murmur, and sink back to sleep.

This story is based on a passage from Yalkut Shimoni, Proverbs 18, translated here:

A story is told about the son of Rabbi Akiva who got married.
What did he do? When he brought his bride home,
He stayed up all night reading the Torah portion.
He said to his wife: Hold a candle and illuminate my page.
She held a candle and stood before him.
She illuminated his page until morning came.
In the morning, Rabbi Akiva approached his son.
He said to him: “Found or find?”
He said to him: “Found.”

Song to be sung on the bus at camp after Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer: A translation of Yoma 84b

You should save a life on Shabbat, and the faster you do so, the better. And you need not ask permission from the Bet Din first. Yes, you need not ask permission from the Bet Din first.

If a man sees a baby fall into the ocean, he should cast out a fishing net and catch the baby. And the faster one does so, the better; and it is not necessary to obtain permission from the Bet Din to save the baby in this manner, even though fishing is prohibited on Shabbat.

If a man sees a baby fall into a pit, he should dig a step out of sand and lift out the baby. And the faster one does so, the better; and it is not necessary to obtain permission from the Bet Din to save the baby in this manner, even though building a step is prohibited on Shabbat.

If a man sees a door slam on a baby, he should break open the door and release the baby. And the faster one does so, the better; and it is not necessary to obtain permission from the Bet Din to save the baby in this manner, even though breaking open a door is prohibited on Shabbat.

You should save a life on Shabbat, and the faster you do so, the better. And you need not ask permission from the Bet Din first. Yes, you need not ask permission from the Bet Din first.

Niddah K’Negged Niddah (a translation)

Translated (by me) from Ba El Ha-Kodesh by Ari Elon (Yediot, 2005)

I. When a woman inseminates herself

There is no phrase more fitting than “when a woman will bring forth seed” (Leviticus 12:2) to characterize the tremendous revolution that is taking place before our very eyes. In today’s rapidly-unfolding future, the man is no longer the sole inseminator, and the woman is no longer a receptacle of male seed. Rather, the woman decides how to inseminate herself, when, if at all, to inseminate herself, and with which men or women she will do so.

The future-tense construction “when a woman will bring forth seed” alludes to more than just artificial insemination. This future-tense construction reflects a reality in which nature herself, and God Herself, designates the woman to legislate over all matters of insemination, both of herself and of all Creation. For only this power of legislation will put an end to the violent reign of “and unto your husband will be your desire, and he will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16).

The internalization of the divine power that is inherent in the phrase “when a woman will bring forth seed” will put an end to the reign of the imperious husband, the man who marks his conquered territory with the help of the seed that he sprays and plants on every hilltop and under every blossoming bush.

II. A woman is useless; then her husband makes her into a receptacle

A student of Torah discovers new knowledge. But everything that she discovers has already been given to Moses on Mount Sinai. The insights of Torah scholars is part and parcel of the original divine utterance. When the Divine said to Moses, “when a woman will bring forth seed,” She was referring, among other meanings, to a liberated Hebrew language that will be spoken someday in the future.

The Torah has seventy faces. Seventy thousand faces. The linguistic field of the Torah is seeded with the possibility of a more liberated language, one that breaks the bounds of the translations and explanations that we have hitherto known. In contrast to this liberated language of the future stands the linguistic field of the past and the present, much closer to the patriarchal literalism that assumes that the man is forever the inseminator and the woman is forever the inseminated.

The woman of the past was essentially a receptable for male seed. As the Talmud (Sanhedrin 22b) says, “A woman is useless, and God does not make a covenant except with one who makes her into a receptacle, as it says in Isaiah (54:5): ‘For He who made you will espouse you — His name is Lord of Hosts.'”

So long as the woman of the past failed to realize her destiny as a receptacle, she was useless. Then, when her husband espoused her, she underwent a felicitous metamorphosis – not into a butterfly, but into a receptacle. And the man who espoused her was converted, through his act of mastering, into a member of the ancient militaristic order whose motto is, “‘For He who made you will espouse you — His name is Lord of Hosts.'”

III. Niddah K’Negged Niddah: Since she spilled the blood of Adam, she was given the mitzvah of niddah

The first husband, Adam, came into existence only by ruling over the legend that was [untranslatable pun: mashal haya/mishel haya]. He ruled over the legend of his wife’s desire; he ruled over the legend of his own desire; he ruled over the legend of the Holy Writ; he ruled over the legend of the Torah portion Tazria; he ruled over the legend of Seder Nashim and the legend of Masechet Nidah; and he ruled over the legend of “to what is this similar” [v’mashal l’mah ha-davar domeh].

All his days, Adam would spray his seed and mark his conquered territory in order to continue to rule over his wife’s desires; and in order to rule over his own desires; and in order to continue to mark the territory of his dominance with a sign that would soon be obsolete.

He used to say [all quotes in this section come from Breishit Rabah]: “Why is a man prone to seduction whereas a woman is not? Man was created from earth, and drops of water can soak the earth; but Woman was created from bone, and even if bone is watered for several days, it will never become soaked….

And why does a woman have to put on perfume whereas a man does not? Man was created from earth, and earth never stinks; but Woman was created from flesh. If you leave meat sitting out for three days, it will begin to stink….

And why does a man woo a woman, whereas a woman does not woo a man? A parable: A person loses an item – who woos whom? The one who has lost something woos the lost item.

And why does a man deposit seed in a woman, whereas a woman does not deposit seed in a man? A parable: A person holds a pledge in his hand, and he entrusts it to another….

And why does a man go out with his head uncovered, whereas a woman covers her head? A parable: A person committed a sin and was embarrassed, so he would only go out with his head covered and hidden from view.

And why are women the first ones to walk out with the dead body at a funeral? Because women brought death into the world at the beginning of time…..

And why were women given the commandment to light Shabbat candles? Because Eve extinguished the soul of Adam, and thus she was given the commandment to kindle light.

And why was she given the commandment to take challah? Because she corrupted the first man who was the bread-and-butter of the world; thus she was given the mitzvah of taking bread.

And why was she given the mitzvah of nidah? Because she spilled the blood of the first man; therefore she was commanded to count the days of her bleeding.”

And were it not that these things were written, it would be impossible to give them voice…..

IV. Nidah K’neged Nidah: Women die in childbirth because they are not careful about the laws of nidah

“Women die in childbirth on account of three sins: They are not careful when it comes to nidah, challah, and lighting the Shabbat candles” (Mishnah Shabbat 2:6). This mishnah has developed into a prayer. Every Friday night, between Kabbalat Shabbat and Maariv, men recite the chapter “Bameh Madlikin,” and at the end, they remind themselves of the three sins for which women who are not careful will die in childbirth.

By age six, I knew this prayer by heart, and ever Shabbat I would pray it with intensely devout concentration. I worried about my mother. I remembered the stories of Aunt Nechama and Aunt Miriam, the two sisters of Grandma Rivka, who died in childbirth. I knew that my mother had already lit the Shabbat candles; and I knew she had laid the challot on the white tablecloth. But no one knew how to tell me what it meant to be “careful about the laws of nidah” – and so I continued to worry.

Now I understand even less, and still I worry. I understand that being careful about the mitzvah of challah is not about laying the challot on the white tablecloth, but rather about buying products that say “Challah has been taken.” And I understand that “Every woman and daughter lights Sabbath candles” is a Chabad slogan. And I understand that being careful about Nidah is a thousand times more problematic and more complex than being careful about lighting candles or taking challah. Above all, I know that “a woman who brings forth seed and gives birth” is, if nothing else, a woman who has not died in childbirth.