Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Sukka 45 a, b

A new Mishna tells how willow branches were part of the Sukkot rituals.  Motza, a town close to Jerusalem, would provide very long willow branches which would stand at the sides of the altar. The branches were tall enough to drape above and over theAltar.  With shofar blasts, people would circle the altar once each day and call out, "HaShem, Hoshia Na! HaShem, HaSelicha Na!" (Psalms 110:25) and possibly more.  On the seventh day of the holiday, the would circle the altar seven times after saying, "it is beautiful for you, Altar", and "To the Lord and to you, altar."  On erev Shabbat, people would place their willow branches in golden pots filled with water to keep the branches from becoming dry.  Rav Yochanan ben Baroka says that we also place palm leaves at the ground by the altar on the seventh day of Sukkot.  Also, on that last day, children take apart their lulavim and eat their etrogim.

Without commenting on all of this Mishna, I must state that the "beautiful for you, altar" smacks of an idolotrous tone not usually found in modern Jewish thought.  To imagine the Altar being complimented; the altar somehow 'hearing' our words sounds as though the altar is somehow godlike.  Highly problematic.  I wonder if this is why Rabbi Elazar follows this immediately with "to the Lord and to you, altar."

The Gemara first explains that Motza is a town that was originally a Roman military colony.  Its name refers to being exempt (motza means 'removed') from the king's taxes.  It goes on to describe the dimensions of the altar and the required length of the willow branches.  A number of rabbis look to a quote about enhancing the joy of this holiday after the first day.  Next, a number of different rabbis teach us that when we use fruits and branches in mitzvot, we fulfil those mitzvot only when the items are positioned in the same direction that they grow.

I finally understand why we flip the etrog and why we hold the lulav in a lengthwise position.  I am going to take note of other rituals that include produce to ascertain whether or not this particular guideline is generalizable.

We move into a bizarre set of statemnets made by Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai.  Apparently in his years of hiding together with his son, Rabbi Elazar, in a cave, Rabbi Shimon had revelatory experiences.  He recounts many ways in which he and his son are two of the world's 36 righteous people.*  Apparently he was respected to such a great degree that the other rabbis did not chastise this behaviour, nor did they discount his assertions.  He states that he can 'see' G-d through a mirror-like partition, just as Moses was said to do.

I'm pleased to see that the rabbis discuss my concern regarding the lauding of the altar as if it were a holy entity.  They resolve this conflict by stating that the statements about the altar and about G-d are distinct and separate enough to satisfy any concern regarding impropriety.

The rabbis examine the requirements of the date palm.  Rabbi Levi shares a lovely analogy.  He compares the Jewish people to a date palm.  The date palm has only one heart; the Jewish people have only one heart, together, that we direct toward our Father in Heaven.

The daf ends with a conversation about why we bless the lulav each day and we bless the sukka only once.  The rabbis share a number of answers.  My preferred response comes from Rabba bar bar Chana who tells that Rabbi Yochanan saw the mitzvah of sitting in the sukka as Torah law for all seven days, with no distinction between the mitzvah in the day time or at night.  The taking the lulav, however, is time bound, and is thus a new mitzvah each day.

*Abaye stated that there are always at least 36 people who greet G-d's glory every day with righteousness.  A note teaches that this number might suggest the existence of a perpetual Sanhedrin court.


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