Saturday, December 30, 2006

Hachana L'Shabbat

We learn in the Talmud that Mi she-tarach b'erev Shabbat yochal b'shabbat (B. Avodah Zara 3a): one who works hard on the eve of Shabbat will eat on Shabbat. Surely the rabbis are thinking of the person who spends all day Friday (and perhaps even Thursday) shopping and chopping, boiling and baking, sweeping and scrubbing. And so I was a bit troubled when I realized that I hardly ever engage in any of these activities, especially not at the end of the week. Am I failing to do my part to prepare myself and my home for Shabbat?

I think about how I spend my Thursdays and Fridays -- though in truth I should not start there. The rabbis teach that our whole week should be oriented towards Shabbat. Thus we precede the psalm for each day by counting that day with reference to the Sabbath: Today is the first day of the Sabbath; today is the second day of the Sabbath, etc. As the gabbait of a minyan, I relate very much to this system of enumeration. Each week I take stock of how many days I have left to assign all the aliyot and the davening for the upcoming Shabbat. On Sunday, when the week is still young, I send out an email to all of our regular leyners asking them to email me if they'd like to read an aliyah. I generally try to make these emails humorous so that people actually take the time to open and read my message. Recent examples include the following:

Miketz (the Harry Potter theme):

The Prisoner of Egyptkaban interprets a royal dream!
Joseph is appointed to the position of half-blood prince!
The goblet of divination disapparates!
Come leyn at Kedem --- because Miketz is not for muggles.

Vayigash (the dramatic effect):

Genesis 45:1: "Joseph could no longer control himself before his
attendants. He cried out, 'I am Joseph! Are there any aliyot still

Very few people respond to these messages, and so by Tuesday (three days of the Sabbath) I follow up with personal emails, trying not to target the same people too many weeks in a row. (Face it, I tell myself – a gabbai is inevitably a nudge.) By Wednesday, it is time to make phone calls. Then on Thursday, I begin learning all the aliyot that are still unassigned. I generally learn my leyning while walking, and so on Thursdays and Fridays I can always be found with a folded-up Xerox from a tikun either in my coat pocket or in my hand. At this point, I begin to truly inhabit the parsha; inevitably, the wheels of my brain begin cranking out rudimentary ideas for divrei Torah. On Thursday nights I am often up long past midnight hacking away at the keyboard, trying to tease apart a problem or question I have with the text – generally with one of the aliyot I am leyning. I always feel a sense of time pressure even if I have no context for which I am preparing to speak. Shabbat is my deadline – by the time the sun sets, the d'var Torah has to be written, or else it will spoil like manna that is stored past the day it falls. Still, most weeks I don't write anything at all; I mourn the passing of full many a parsha born to blush undrashed.

By Thursday, too, I send out the weekly email with the minyan announcements. I make sure we have someone to set up chairs, someone to arrange for heating in the building where we daven, and someone to buy and bring Kiddush. (Fortunately, I have two co-gabbaim, who shoulder most of these burdens.) As the Shabbat countdown kicks in, I call the leyners to confirm their aliyot, and I scramble to find last-minute daveners.

On Friday morning, I often spend the morning in my office. Although Friday is technically a weekend day, I generally have a significant manuscript backlog, and I try to take advantage of the empty office to do any editing that needs to be done in a concentrated four-hour chunk. By the time I descend from my third-floor turret, Emek Refaim is already beginning to close down. The last-minute shoppers are lugging heavy bags of cucumbers, chumus, and rectangular loaves of white bread. The workers in the supermarket are bringing in the fruit and vegetables from outside and rolling up the store awnings. After three o'clock on a Friday, it is impossible to buy anything in the entire German colony except a newspaper or a cup of Aroma coffee. I follow the exhausted shoppers home, carrying nothing with me except a manuscript and a computer disk-on-key.

During these short winter shabbatot, I do not have much time at home on Friday afternoons. I throw down my papers, turn off all the lights but one, set my alarm clock, and run out the door with a bathing suit and a change of clothes. It is time for my favorite moment of the week: swimming into Shabbat. The rabbis say that Jerusalem received nine of the ten measures of beauty in the world. I am convinced that one of those nine is the Jerusalem municipal pool, an Olympic-sized swimming pool enclosed in a glass dome with a skylight open to the heavens. I throw on my bathing suit and jump in, watching as the sun around me slowly sinks lower in the sky. If I am sufficiently prepared, I review my leyning in my head while swimming as many laps as I can fit in before the Shabbat siren goes off and the lifeguard blows his whistle. Then I lift my wet body out from the water, jump in the shower, and put on my Shabbat skirt for the walk home.

It is Shabbat by the time I get back, and I have neither cooked nor cleaned. But no matter. Either I am invited to someone's home, or else I eat pita and chumus from the makolet around the corner while singing up a storm to the angels in my otherwise empty apartment. I trust that they will come in spite of the books all over my desk, the newspapers on my table, and the occasional dirty tupperware still waiting patiently in the sink. My apartment is neither sparkling clean nor redolent with the smell of home-cooked chicken soup, but my soul feels ready. I hum a new melody for L'cha Dodi, put on my favorite warm pajamas, and prepare to greet Shabbat.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Extempore Effusions on the Completion of Masechet Beitzah

They asked Rav a question of law
On yomtov; they held Rav in awe
But Rav, quite abashed,
Had to tell them, "I'm smashed!
Please ask later! Don't tell what you saw!"

A chicken has sex in the light
It won't procreate in the night
It would wade through a fen
To get laid by a hen
But would it cross a river? It might!

A small pigeon knows that it's best
It will tell you, if put to the test:
"I make sure that I stop
If I find that I hop,
Hop so far that I can't see my nest."

If you feed a strange baby some bread
Make a mark or a sign on its head:
Rub its forehead with oil
Or paint it with soil
So Mother knows Baby was fed.

After eating the festival feast
Hillel brought a he-goat to the priest
He lied, "It's a female,"
And adjusted its tail
(He did all this to try to make peace.)

A student, though deeply inflamed,
Should answer his friend with the same:
If a friend threatens violence
Respond with "What's silence?"
For those are the rules of the game.

Rav Nachman let Yalta his spouse
Ride on shoulder-chairs out of the house
On yomtov he'd say
"I still hold it's OK."
For poor Yalta was scared as a mouse.

Rav Chiya's wife dropped a big brick
In the oven – she wasn't too slick
Lest it spoil the bread
Of the people she fed
Chiya said, "Honey, take it out quick."

A person who may have forsaken
That olive tithes still must be taken
And eats one at a time
Has committed no crime --
But if he takes a bunch, he's mistaken.

If a mouse crawls inside of a spice
Or burrows through your yomtov rice
Grab the thing by its tail
Does it wiggle and flail?
Use a non-muktzah trapping device.

These are really nice poems with a catch
There's a caveat I must attach:
I have still one more blatt
So I really should not
Count my beitzim before they have hatched.

Beitzah: A Shakespearean-Miltonian Diptych

Shimon the Teymani Did Not Arrive (21a)

Shimon the Teymani did not arrive
One morning to the study house. His friend
Yehudah found him (thankfully alive)
And said, "We feared that you had met your end."

Shimon replied, "Forswear, I nearly did:
A band of soldiers came into my town.
They threatened us -- they said they would get rid
Of each last man 'til no one was around."

"What did you do?" Yehudah rasped, aghast.
"We killed a calf – though chag. We feared attack.
We cooked it, made the soldiers a repast --
They ate and left." Yehudah answered back:

"I hope, Shimon, you'll gain more than you lose –
One may not cook on chag except for Jews."

* * *

Day-labor, Light-denied (30b)

Though I consider how my light is spent
And when my flame will die, so too my art –
I don't ask of my sukkah, which is bent
By howling winds: When will it fall apart?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

These Three Have Lives Which Are Not Lives At All (Beitzah 32b)

These three have lives which are not lives at all
In misery they pray soon for the end:
The one who has no table he can call
His own; but must take all meals from his friend.

The one whose wife rules with an iron fist
And says when he may move, and when be still
And pounds the flour cakes with heavy wrist
And thus the whole house bends to do her will.

The one whose body's wracked by searing pain
With weariness, with fever, and with fret
Whose bones ache sadly with the coming rain
Who wakes each day to find no respite yet.

Some say: Also the man who has one shirt
But he can pick the lice and wash the dirt.

The Sifter of Nehardea (Beitzah 29b)

It was taught in a baraita: One may not sift flour on the festival. Rabbi Papiyas and Rabbi Yehudah ben Beterah said: One may sift. And they all agree that if a stone or wood chip fell into the flour, one may sift it. The teacher in the baraita taught before Ravina: One may not sift flour on the festival, but if a stone or wood chip falls in, then one may pick it out by hand. Ravina said to him: That is even worse, because it involves [the forbidden activity of] picking things out.

Rava bar Rav Huna Zuteh taught at the entrance to Nehardea: One may sift flour on the festival. Rav Nachman said to his students: Go say to Rava bar Rav Huna Zuteh: Hang your good teachings on the thorn bushes. Go out and see how many sifters there are in Nehardea.

The wife of Rav Yosef used to sift her flour on the back of the sifter. He said to her: But it is good bread that I want.

* * *

Yosef is still in the study house even though the sun is no longer high in the sky. I had thought he would come home for lunch, and that we would all eat the festive meal together. But the lentils grew cold and the bread hardened to a crust and the little ones, Yehudah and Shimon, were irritable and tired from long hours of hunger. Finally I gave up and let them eat – I remembered what happened when Rav Rechumi's wife Chana waited for too long in her moated grange. That poor woman. She is still in her widow's rent garments, and I have heard, from those who know her, that has developed a terrible fear of heights.

I know that Yosef will come back, and it is this conviction that drives me as I clear off the table and turn to bring the big sack of flour from the storeroom adjoining the house. Turning over in my head, again and again, are the words they used to say to us: "What you would bake, bake; and what you would boil, boil." They are from the holy Torah, and I hum them to a melody I composed after years of overhearing Yosef chanting from the scroll. What you would bake, bake; and what you would boil, boil.

I am heaving the great sack of flour over my shoulder when I remember the conversation I overheard last week by the river, where all the women were doing laundry in preparation for the festival. These outdoor conversations are often quite lively, and I generally prefer to listen quietly from the side. This time it began with Sarah bat Beterah, who tends to be, as is well known, particularly vociferous. About her, the women often say, "For the person seven houses away from her, it is like being next door." She is not just loud; she also speaks with the conviction that she is right, which somehow make her seem even louder. This time by the river was no exception.

"Now I know it for sure. You cannot resift flour on the festival. I remember the bread we ate in the Sukkah when I was a child. It was always thicker and denser from having undergone just one sifting."

Leah bat Shelah would not hear of it, however. She stood up before Sarah, lifted her right foot on an overturned bucket that was beside her, and declared, "That's nonsense. Whoever heard of baking bread without resifting the flour? If you can bake bread, then of course you can resift. It's part and parcel of the process. What, are you going to tell me that you can cut off the head of a chicken but not kill it? If you are going to bake bread, you are going to resift the flour."

At that point, as I recall, Sarah told Leah that she was as foolish as a headless chicken, and that she should go stuff herself with breadcrumbs. Leah went off in a huff, and the women returned to their laundering.

Standing here now in my kitchen, I think about their disagreement. Can a person resift flour on the festival? I find that these types of questions, with their yes-or-no answers, are dreadfully uninteresting. Can one do this? May one do that? OK or not OK? Yes or no? These are questions for people who dress in black and white and sleep soundly through the night. These are not questions for a woman who rises before dawn to heat water for a man who will never love her. They are not questions for a woman who buried three newborns and was told that she may not mourn them. They are not questions for any woman, perhaps.

I think of my mother in her kitchen on those festival afternoons, just a few hours before the sun set to bring in Shabbat. Yes, she would sift flour. But she would hold the sifter upside down and sift the flour on its backside. And so this is what I have always done as well, though I would not announce it in the bathhouse. With the sifter awkwardly overturned, some of the flour inevitably scatters on to the floor; and some of the unsifted flour falls into the mixing bowl too. The sifter seems heavier upside down, and I am straining my arm and back when I hear the hinge of the door creak and Yosef walks in to the house. "I bless the lazy man who does not leave his house on the foot-festival," I mutter with half a smile as he enters before me.

Yosef begins to smile too, but then his eye falls on the sifter, and his whole body stiffens. "I want good bread to eat on the Sabbath," he says gruffly. "Turn that thing over and start again."

She Is Yosef

By Nurit Zarhi
(My translation)

Rahel sits in the tent
Soaking her yarn in water
Knitting a kippah to hide
The hair of Yosef, her daughter.

For if you wanted a son
And your days are nearing their end
What can you do but lie?
The will of God won’t bend.

The little one sits in the tent
In a coat of many colors
In public she’s a boy;
In private she’s another.

Now the whole world knows
Her shame has been unfurled:
Rahel gave Jacob a son
Except that he’s a girl.

The mother looks at the head of her daughter
At how she will be scarred:
Your dreams will cast you into a pit
And from there to a stranger’s yard.

The little one sits in the tent
Her mother’s voice in her ear
The one latches on to magic
The one latches on to fear.

And Rahel trembles still
The blows won’t end there, it seems:
You’ll be locked inside a jail
But you’ll get out through your dreams.

Your dreams will save you, daughter,
And cast you into a pit
Rahel’s days grow still shorter--
Her secrets told, that’s it.

The little one sits in the tent
Listening to the voice of her mother
In public she’s a boy;
In private she’s another.