Sunday 8 October 2023

Sukkot and Pesach -Two Facets of Jewish Epistemology



Pesach represents the love of G-d for his people. Sukkot represents the love of the people                                                                               for G-d." - Rabbi Jonathan Sacks ZT"L


Many years ago, I was watching an episode of “The People’s Court” with the late Judge Wapner. It was about a lawsuit presented by a person who lived on Malibu beach. His issue was with his Jewish neighbour who decided to erect a “hut,” during this time of year. The “hut,” he claimed, blocked his view of the ocean.

In his ruling, Judge Wapner gave the defendant one week to remove the “hut.” Everyone was satisfied with his decision.

Naturally, being Jewish, Judge Wapner knew the reason for erecting the “hut.” He knew that the suspicious “hut” is called a “Sukkah.” Having been raised in an orthodox home, he was aware of the commandment calling upon us, Jews, “Speak to the people of Israel, On the fifteenth day of this seventh month and for seven days is the Feast of Booths (Sukkot) to the Lord.” (Vayikra-Leviticus 23:34).

Now that we know the commandment, let us take it one step further and provide the reason for celebrating the Holy Day. The answer is provided in Vayikra 23:43,

“So your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in temporary thatched huts when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the Lord your G-d.”

Clearly, Sukkot, just like Pesach, commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. As the Torah tells us, throughout the wanderings in the desert, Am Yisrael was living in huts or sukkot.

Some believe that since both Pesach and Sukkot commemorate the same event, the Exodus from Egypt, they should be celebrated at the same time.  After all, it could be much more pleasant to have a Seder outdoors, in the Sukkah, during Springtime when Pesach occurs, than in the Fall when Sukkot takes place.

The question as to why Sukkot is observed separately and why it was set to take place at this time of year, Fall, engaged many Jewish scholars.

Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, also known as “Baal Haturim,” explains that during the spring and summertime, many people tend to sit under an awning or in a shade to protect themselves against the rays of the sun. Had we built Sukkot during Pesach, we would not have been able to discern as to whether we sit there for the sole purpose of performing a Mitzvah or merely for our own pleasure. However, when the rain starts and people generally seek cover in the comforts of their homes, we elect to go out and sit in the Sukkah to demonstrate that we perform G-d’s commandment.

The Vilna Gaon offers another explanation. He believes that that Sukkot is the time when the clouds of reverence returned to wrap Am Yisrael after they were removed subsequent to the sin of the Golden Calf.  The Gaon asserts that soon after his descent from Mount Sinai, Moshe decreed the building of the Mishkan. Upon commencement of its construction, there was reconciliation between G-d and Am Yisrael and the clouds returned. The Holy Day of Sukkot was solemnized to commemorate that moment in our history.

In my opinion, there is an educational component in separating Pesach and Sukkot on the Hebrew calendar. As mentioned above, a golden thread runs through these Holy Days. On both, Torah charges that we should stress the importance of teaching our children and our future generations the significance of freedom from the house of bondage. On Pesach, we are commanded, “And you shall tell your son in that day,” (Shemot, Exodus 13:8-9). A similar decree, as we saw above, is given regarding Sukkot, “So your descendants will know…” A lesson of such immense prominence needs to be reinforced and repeated lest we forget it.  Spacing its review every seven months, which is the span of time between the two Holy Days, is one way to ensure its absorption and retention.  

 The late Rabbi Sacks, quoting Rabbi Akiva, offers yet another explanation as to why Sukkot is celebrated in the Harvest time. According to him, the answer lies in the prophecy of Jeremiah who states,

“Israel is holy to G-d,

The first fruit of His harvest.” (Jeremiah2:2)

Just as during Sukkot,  “the Israelites celebrated their harvest,” states Sacks, “so G-d celebrates His – a people who, whatever else their failings, have stayed loyal to heaven’s call for longer, and through a more arduous set of journeys, than any other people on earth.”

Hoping and praying for better days.

Am Yisrael Chai 💖

Tuesday 26 September 2023

Yom Kippur and Yisraeli Democracy


Yom Kippur is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. I doubt that many will disagree.

For me, Yom Kippur bears a unique significance for a few reasons. It was a tradition in my family ever since I can remember. Its reverence vibrates in every part of my essence. In addition to its piety among our Jewish Holy Days, Yom Kippur also bears poignant sadness as it brings to the surface memories of the Yom Kippur war and its painful losses.

The observance of this sacred day is commanded in the Torah, in Vayikra (Leviticus 23:28-320: “You shall not perform any work on that very day…. and you shall afflict yourselves.” Furthermore, G-d warns that any disobedience will be followed by severe punishment and any person “who will not be afflicted on that very day, shall be cut off from its people. And any person who performs any work on that day, I will destroy that person from amidst its people.”

This, a few millennia old, directive, sounds appaling and scary, does it not? What a menacing scenario - the embodiment of theocratic dictatorship, so it seems.

The inevitable and eminent enforcement of that commandment is what some have tried to warn us against for close to a year. Yisrael, they keep parroting, is going to turn into a replica of Iran, G-d forbid.

Not quite.

On the Eve of Yom Kippur, as I was making my way to services in a nearby makeshift synagogue, dressed in white and immersed in the cloak of holiness, I watched my many fellow Yisraelis who were flocking the traffic free streets. While some were, like me, observing that commandment, others were playing with their children who were riding their bikes, some of which were electrical and enjoying themselves. A few were busy texting or speaking on their mobile telephones. Some were wearing shorts and dressed casually. I even noticed one or two drinking water out of plastic bottles. As I walked past them, I wished them “Chatima Tova,” the traditional greeting on that day. They responded in kind.

Having been warned, repeatedly, that religious dictatorship was upon us, I was surprised to see that none of the “disobedient” souls were scolded, stoned, or destroyed. My hawk eyes were searching for the secret “dress code police” ready to arrest the culprits. Alas, to no avail.

What I did sense, though, is what the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks termed as “The Dignity of Difference.”

As I approached the place of worship, I noticed many other folks entering it. They were young, they were old. They were dressed in the customary white attire while others were wearing torn jeans. Some women even entered it with their bare arms and shoulders exposed.

No one stopped them. No one scolded them. No one denied them entry, and no one sent them back home to change their garments. Surprisingly enough, even here the “theocratic dress police” was nowhere to be found.

“The Dignity of Difference,” was welcoming all who sought to pray indiscriminately.

Upon entering the room, as I always do, I seek a place in the women’s section (generally front row) and make myself comfortable. I personally prefer separate sections for men and women. Is it because of habit? Perhaps. Whatever the reason, I love it.

Before anyone jumps at me on that point, let me interject and add that separate seating for men and women is not the only setting available in Yisrael. A childhood friend of mine who wishes to sit next to her partner during prayer, elects to attend a reform synagogue. We continue to respect each other and accept our respective choices. Each to their own.

Indeed, there are those of us who continue to practice “The Dignity of Difference.”

Some parts of the service also include chanting. As a former singer, it is perfect for me. From what I know, some religious sectors bar women from joining in the invocation. They base it on Halachah. It is their choice and a difference that needs to be dignified. Exclusion of women is what a few elements in Yisrael have been warning and threatening us against. As I was singing, I stealthily checked around the hall in search for hints of the covert secret “religious police” lest its representatives come and arrest me for practicing my freedom of chanting.

Instead, “The Dignity of Difference” was smiling at me from every corner.

What did, however, catch my attention, admittedly for the first time, even though I have attended Yom Kippur services for many years, is one line, part of “Kol Nidrei,” a prayer which ushers in Yom Kippur. “Kol Nidrei” (All Vows) which is recited in Aramaic nullifies the binding nature of promises and vows in advance. They are declared invalid. All vows “are absolved, remitted, cancelled, declared null and void.” The line that struck me and sent shivers through my body is the one offering forgiveness to the entire congregation of am Yisrael and EQUALLY “to the stranger/foreigner who resides amongst them.”

Now, you tell me, dear readers, if that is not the epitome of “The Dignity of Difference.”

“The Dignity of Difference” amid members of any nation as well as towards the strangers amongst them is one of the most important pillars of any democracy. It is part of the Jewish D.N.A and is evident in almost every aspect that characterizes the modern-day State of Yisrael, the National Home of the Jewish People. Yom Kippur is but one example.

It is noteworthy to mention that the group which sets up these makeshift synagogues is “Herzliya Torah Center” (Garin Torani) headed by Tsachi Weiss. Tzachi and his team have been doing it for several years thus making participation in the High Holy Days accessible to all who wish to partake in them. The service is conducted by residents of Judea and Samaria who leave their homes and families during this special time of year to bestow upon us the blessing of the experience.

And what an experience it has been.

Chatima Tova to you, fellow Jews and Am Yisrael and a wonderful year to all.



Friday 16 June 2023

Yisrael is not only a Jewish State, first and foremost, it is also Democratic


The Jewish tradition carries very powerful democratic genes.” – Fania Oz-Salzberger

As many here are probably aware, the state of Yisrael is currently undergoing some turbulent times. Part of the public debate that has been raging surrounds the question of whether Yisrael, the National Home of the Jewish People, should give up its Jewish essence to maintain its democratic core.

We hear repeated calls to make the state “Jewish and Democratic.”

And that, dear readers, is precisely what Yisrael is and has been since its inception.

I doubt that there is anyone who would ever not associate Yisrael with Jews. Surprisingly enough, the Jewish substance of the state was decreed by gentiles, not Jews.  Lord Balfour, for instance, was one. In his famous Declaration of November 2, 1917, called for the establishment of a “National Home for the Jewish People” in Eretz Yisrael which, in those days was, also known as “Palestine.”

Then came the San Remo Accord where The Supreme Council of the Allied Powers, which acted as an International Court of Law echoed his call, in article 22 of the “Covenant of the League of Nations” of April 25th , 1920. That resolution has been anchored in International Law.

The final stamp of approval for what was to become a Jewish state was U.N. Resolution 181 of November 29th, 1947. It called for the partition of Eretz Yisrael into an Arab state A  N  D  a Jewish state. Yisrael is the name of Jewish state. It has been a Jewish state and will continue to remain that way, de Jure (by law/right) and de Facto (in effect).

The language of Yisrael’s Declaration of Independence which, I trust, was carefully crafted, reinforces, and repeatedly mentions that what lies at the heart of the nascent state is its Jewish essence. Already in its first paragraph, the Declaration mentions the “eternal Book of Books,” our Tanach, our code of ethics that teaches us the values of justice, equality, and freedom which we shared with the world.

These values were constantly preached by our prophets. They are the guidelines that have dictated the objectives of the newly established State, as mentioned in the Declaration “…it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants, it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.”

What are those values? What was the ultimate message of the “Book of Books” and the “Prophets of Israel?”

The decree to equality, do justice and ensure freedom runs like a golden thread throughout the Tanach, the “Book of Books.”

The concepts of justice and equality are stressed already in the Book of Bresheet (Genesis 18:18-19) where G-d proclaims “…. Since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth will be blessed through him. For I have signaled him out that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing tzedakah and mishpat (justice and law) …..”

“Justice, justice you shall pursue,” commands us the Book of D’varim (Deuteronomy 17:20). It is one of the cardinal obligations of Judaism. In the Torah portion of Shoftim (judges), we are commanded to “Appoint judges and officials for” our “tribes…. and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly,” we are told (Deuteronomy 16:18). “The Hebrew Bible,” claims Rabbi Dr. Bradley Shavit Artson, “possesses a passion for justice for the poor, the weak and the despised…. We betray a broad heritage of the Torah,” he continues, “when we fail to recognize justice and righteousness as primary religious categories of Judaism.”

The Tanach focuses on the weak and oppressed by referring recurrently to the “orphan, widow and foreigner” for a reason. A human society is measured by its attitudes towards the powerless. The care and the compassion that the “Book of Books,” the Torah and then the prophets display towards the under privileged of society is probably one of the reasons it has been translated into every possible language. The constant appeal to the advantaged members of society to feed the hungry and the disadvantaged is an appeal to one’s conscience and is justified as either a religious obligation (“I am G-d” Psalm 46:10), a historical rationale (“For you were strangers in Egypt” Deuteronomy 10:19), as carrying an eventual reward (“your days may be prolonged” Deuteronomy 5:16)or, sometimes, a social one (“So they may rest as you” Deuteronomy 5:14).

All these prove that Judaism and the principles of Democracy go hand in hand.

The word “democratic” is not mentioned in Yisrael’s Declaration of Independence. However, the social and “democratic gene” which manifests itself in the values of the “Book of Books” as its basis, the moral values of liberty, justice, and freedom, the pillars of any democracy, which the Declaration espouses were the guiding principles for the founders of the State.

One of the goals of the newly established state, as the Declaration states is to “Ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex: It will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” The Declaration further appeals to “the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institution.”

The mere fact that such noble social and economic principles coupled with the ongoing quest for justice and the continuous deliberations over the best form of government which are sewn all over the Tanach, the "eternal Book of Books" formed the basis for Yisrael's Declaration of Independence, points to the undeniable fact that democracy is part of the DNA of the Jewish State. 

Saltzberg further asserts that in modern Yisrael today, "anyone pretending that Judaism and democracy are incompatible traditions and that Yisraeli "society must decide between the two is showing a certain measure of historical ignorance. Not only," she claims, "are Jewish and democratic elements of its statehood compatible, but they have been influencing one another for well over 2,000 years."

Monday 24 April 2023

A Little Known Part of the Shoah


The following is an English translation of a Face Book post of Mr. Haim Taib. It was written a few hours before he, along with his family, partook in the “March of the Living” in Auschwitz' last week.


“In a few hours, I will have the privilege to participate in the “March of the Living” in Auschwitz and light, for the first time, a memorial torch in commemoration of the glorious Tunisian Jewish community which was conquered by the Nazis and suffered anti-semitic persecution, forced labour and hunger.

As a third generation to Tunisian Shoah survivors, I will lead he march, while carrying in my heart my grandfather, Haim Taib, after whom I am named, who was sent along with thousands of Jewish men, to forced labour camps and came back skin and bones, beaten and bruised.

Tunisia was conquered by the Nazis in November 1942.

The German launched a policy aimed at destroying Jewish life. Community institutions were closed, many Jews were fired from work, children were kicked out of schools, heavy fines were applied, private properties were confiscated and about 5000 men were forcefully enlisted to construction camps and fortifications.

My father, who was merely five years old at that time, would recall painfully how the German soldiers, dressed in ironed, grey uniforms, burst into the house, crushed personal items with their boots and confiscated his father’s radio and his mother’s sewing machine.

My grandfather, Haim and Zion, my grandmother’s brother, were taken to forced labour camps.

The following months filled the family with fear and concern. The German soldiers frequented Jewish homes in search of healthy and able men.  Sirens were wailing, shells were fired, and explosions heard daily. Roaming the streets ceased, windows were covered with dark fabrics and blackness befell the city, in an effort to defend against bombing of the allies which were directed at the anti-aircraft posts which the Germans deliberately scattered in civil neighbourhoods.

Four months later, Haim and Zion suddenly appeared at home. They were thin and bruised, their clothes torn, their faces unshaven and their hair messy and lice ridden. My grandmother, Koka, burst into tears of joy. She gave them food and boiled water so that they could shower and clean themselves. My grandfather recounted that he was sent to a deserted field, not far away. There the Germans ordered him to construct a forced labour camp. They were able to escape since in the last weeks, the German security loosened and under the blanket of one of the Allies bombings, he and his friends were able to escape from the camp.

On Friday, May 7th, 1943, my father woke up to the sounds of joy. “The war is over!” shouted my grandfather and everyone ran out of the house still wearing their pajamas. The streets were buzzing with people, music, and dancing. Seven months of siege, bombing and suffering had come to an end.

Only two years later, when the family members were exposed to the horror movies which the Nazis had filmed in Auschwitz, were thy exposed to the horrible truth regarding the unfathomable size and cruelty of the Nazi plan for the Jews of Tunisia, Algiers, Libya, Morocco, and Egypt

Almost eighty years have passed since that dark era in history, and here we are, living in a Jewish and Democratic state that promises all of its citizens and pledges that the horrors of the Shoah will never be repeated.

Today, I shall march in the “March of the Living” and will light a memorial torch to commemorate the Jewish communities of Tunisia and North Africa who had they not been freed when they were, would have suffered the same fate as European Jewry.

I invite all of you to join me, here on my Face Book page to the live stream of the “March of the Living” and the ceremony of torch lighting starting at 14:00 on this link:

My parents, Eliyahu and Janet Taib, of blessed memory, who were children at that time, tell of their memories from the Nazi conquest of Tunisia. Please watch the video

Here is the link to the Face Book post:

Wednesday 30 November 2022

Fleeing from Babylon


Two days ago, Yisrael marked the seventy fifth anniversary of the U.N. vote to divide Eretz Yisrael into Arab and Jewish states. That event prompted a wave of exodus of Jews from Arab countries to the modern-day State of Yisrael. Even prior to that historical event, many Jews had been forced to leave their homes in Arab countries because of violent attacks against their community. They became refugees, albeit, forgotten refugees. It is time to remind our fellow Jews and the world of that part of our history, lest we forget. This is the story of one person and her family.                                    

Rachel Hazan was born in Bahgdad, the capital of modern-day Iraq. Though her father’s family had originated in Iran, on her mother’s side the family had been there for as far as they can remember, possibly since the Babylonian exile following the destruction of the first Temple in Yerushalayim.

The Jews of Iraq had a momentous two-thousand-year-old history. They lived as an independent, homogeneous community which was not only a staunch guardian of Jewish tradition but added immensely to it.

During the 20’s and 30’s of the last century, this community influenced almost every aspect of the Iraqi society, primarily in the economic arena. It founded commercial bases in many of the middle eastern and far eastern ports as well as in Europe and north America.  Under the hegemony of King Faisal the first, Jews had conducted an orderly life and lived peacefully alongside their Arab neighbours. They regularly contributed to the social, literary, and scientific life of the Iraqi culture.

This was the world which Rachel was born into on an early day in the summer of 1925. She was the third child in a family of nine children.

As a young woman who was reared and raised in a conservative environment, Rachel was never sent to school. Her father who was a skilled carpenter, earned a good living and provided the family with all their needs. Other than sending her learning and mastering the skill of sewing, Rachel was destined to stay home and help her mother raise her younger brothers and sisters

Unfortunately, all good things come to an end. The peace and tranquility which were the lot of the Iraqi Jews, ceased with the outbreak of WWII. As a result of the ascension of Nazism in Europe, coupled with the assassination of King Faisal, in 1937 and the pact between the Mufti, Hajj Amin al Husseini and Hitler, antisemitism reared its ugly head again. It also cascaded into Iraq and the surrounding countries in the Arab world.  

The Jews of Iraq were subjected to many harsh edicts that were imposed upon them. They were constantly harassed and threatened by their Arab neighbours. The attacks on them culminated in 1941 in what came to be known as the Farhud (Arabic term which means “pogrom” or “violent dispossession”). It erupted on June 1st and lasted for two days. During that time, mobs assaulted Jews, Jewish businesses, and homes. According to the official report of the commission investigating the incident, “128 Jews were killed, 210 were injured, and over 1500 businesses were damaged.”

Fortunately, the Hazan family was spared any attacks of violence. Their neighbours with whom they were in very good relationships, protected and defended them.

Unfortunately for many other Iraqi Jews, most of their Arab neighbours were not as kind. They either, actively, partook in the attacks or simply stood idly and watched from afar.

The Farhud, as history illustrates, raised Jewish national awareness, and increased the number of Iraqi Jews who joined the Zionist organizations which operated as an underground movement and, eventually, prompted many Jews to emigrate to Yisrael. That desire did not escape the Hazan Family.

The first step towards making that move was initiated by her uncle Ya’acov. A short time after the Farhud, he decided to move his family to Yerushalayim in search of starting a new and better life there.

Noteworthy to mention here is that in those days, one passport was issued to all members of one family regardless of the number of siblings.

Taking advantage of such a rule, Ya’acov returned to Iraq and suggested that Ezra, Rachel’s oldest brother join him, as his son, and accompany him to Yerushalayim. A year and a half later, the Hazan family began to sell their assets, home, business, and many personal items. Part of that money was sent through one of their trustworthy Arab employees to Yisrael who, in turn, bought a plot of land for them in the Hatikvah neighbourhood of Tel Aviv. Her mother went to Basra, where her brother resided to apply for passports for the family. Naturally, they were prohibited from mentioning Yisrael as their destination.

Once their passports were in place, the plan of their route of escape to the promised land continued to be woven and started to take shape.

Since, as we all know too well, the British limited the number of Jews that were allowed to emigrate to Yisrael, Rachel and her family had an arduous and challenging project ahead of them. That is where the Jewish Agency which operated in Iraq in a clandestine manner entered the picture.

 To avoid any suspicion, the Agency advised Rachel’s father to move to Turkey first. From Turkey, the family traveled to Syria under the pretext of seeking medical treatment for Rachel and her sister Victoria. Since they had taken too much luggage along with them, the Agency relieved them of some and promised to deliver it to Yisrael where it eventually waited for them.

The family spent one week in Syria. From there, it crossed the border to Lebanon. In order to reach the Yisraeli Lebanese border, the family had to travel four hours by car and then on for six hours, not an easy mission for a family with eight children some of whom were still very young, including one baby.

Luckily, they were guided by a Jewish Iraqi police officer who was employed by the British but also worked for the Jewish Agency. The officer also happened to be the son of one of the Hazans’ close friends in Baghdad. It was his task to ensure that they cross the border from Lebanon to Yisrael and safely reach Kfar Gila’di which was situated near the border with only an asphalt road separating between the two places.

At that spot, however, there was also positioned a British Military base. Hence, one had to be overly cautious not to be noticed.

Much to their dismay, that was a rainy night which was interspersed with the occasional showers of heavy hail.

Just as they were all ready to cross the road to freedom, a British soldier came out of his tent, turned on his projector and inspected the area, as always, looking, mainly, for Jewish illegal immigrants who were trying to make their way to a home that had been given to them by a decree of the family of nations. Fortunately, they were able to hide in a pit alongside the road, in an angle that the British soldier’s projector missed.

Drenched, shivering hungry and covered with mud, they finally reached Kfar Gila’di where they were provided with a room, hot water, and a nutritious warm meal. The police officer who had escorted them could not stay with them. As an officer in the service of his royal highness, King George the VI, he had to pretend and act in a “business as usual” manner yet made sure that all their needs were satisfied.

After a few days, he arranged for them to be transported to the central bus stop in Haifa where they finally reunited with their uncle Ya’acov, his son Yoseph and their oldest brother Ezra whom they had not seen in a few years. The three had all moved to Tel Aviv a short while earlier.

Unfortunately, however, it was not yet time to breath a sigh of relief. It was almost Shabbat, when they eventually reached Haifa, and no buses were available to transfer them to Tel Aviv, their final destination. After a persistent persuasion process which lasted close to ten hours, a bus was finally furnished for the large family as well as for some other Jewish immigrants who had just arrived at the shores of their future Homeland.

For a whole year, following their arrival, the Hazan family lived in a tent which the father set up on the property that they had purchased earlier. Later, a hut, constructed of wood and stone, replaced the tent which was later succeeded by a comfortable house which stands there until this very day and where Rachel still resides.

Rachel is surrounded and wrapped by the love of her four children, thirteen grandchildren and twelve great grandchildren. We wish her many more years of abundant health, nachat and sheer bliss.


Note: By 1951, ten years after the Farhud, 92 percent of the Iraqi Jewish community had emigrated to the State of Yisrael.

Thursday 13 October 2022

Kohelet - the Embodiment of Intellectual Courage


     “Intellectual courage is the quality that allows one to believe in one’s judgment in the face of disappointment and widespread skepticism. Intellectual courage is even rarer than physical courage.” - John Charles Polanyi, Nobel Prize Laureate in Chemistry 1986

Jews, the world over, are celebrating the Holy Day of Sukkot. This festivity is a milestone in our Jewish year for more than one reason.

First and foremost, Sukkot is one of the several links in the chain of events which commemorate the Exodus from Egypt, from slavery into freedom, a momentous event, in our Jewish history. “Live in sukkot [temporary shelters] for seven days: All native-born Yisralites are to live in sukkot: so, your descendants will know that I had the Yisraelites live in sukkot when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the Lord your G-d” (Leviticus, 23: 42-43).

Sukkot also marks the completion of a 52-week-old yearly cycle of reading the Torah portions and the commencement of a new one. It concludes with Simchat Torah which is characterized by Jews dancing with the Torah, our Tree of Life.

Another special custom that takes place on this Holy Day is one when on the Shabbat that occurs during the intermediary days of Sukkot (Chol Hamo’ed), we read one of the greatest books ever written, Kohelet (Ecclesiastes).

Kohelet belongs to the group of books entitled “The Books of Wisdom” in our Tanach. According to tradition, the book is attributed to King Solomon and was written by him at an old age. Its name, Kohelet, stems from the same Hebrew root as the word “congregation,” or “to congregate.” Scholars explain that Solomon was called "Kohelet" because Solomon “congregated congregations in Yisrael” – gathered the People and taught them Torah as is expected of a king.

The wisdom of Kohelet has engaged many philosophers, thinkers, and writers such as Maimonides, Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, professor Leibovitch, my most favourite Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks ZT”L and many others over the years, and for a good reason.

It is not my intention to delve into the complexities of the book and the intensity of the insights that Kohelet embraces. I doubt I ever could grasp the degree the author’s intellectual courage nor the tragic meaning of his sentiments. Neither could this space ever accommodate all the book’s intricacies.

I would like, however, to dwell on a few points.

Kohelet focuses on one important issue: the meaning and purpose of life, a question that has preoccupied humanity for a long time. It is not just another philosophical book with a methodical doctrine. Its conclusions do not flow in a linear manner. Moreover, in most cases, it does not bother to justify its claims. It merely states them and in a rather pessimistic way which is summed up in the second verse of the book, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”

Kohelet, a man in his twilight days stresses the pointlessness, the absurdity, and the temporality of everything. He feels that now, at an old age, not only can he say whatever is on his mind in an open and intellectually courageous way, it is his duty in the pursuit of truth. In the words of Milan Kundera, old age awards “a greater degree of freedom;…… only in old age can one ignore the opinion of the herd, the opinion of the public, and the opinion of the future.”

Professors Ya’akov Klein and Michael Fox describe Kohelet as a hard book to penetrate. They portray its views as “often strange and even contradictory.” Its flow of reasoning is winds from subject to subject back and forth without a clear structure that could guide the reader in deciphering them.

The intensity with which Kohelet expresses its view about human tragedy, its uncompromising pursuit of the truth as its author sees it and his unusual poetic ability to express himself, even in parts which the average reader is unable to comprehend them are, according to these two, what makes this book one of the greatest pieces of world literature.

Why then, do we read Kohelet on Sukkot?

One angle of looking at this book of wisdom is through the inevitable perception that everything in life is transitory. On Sukkot, we dwell in temporary, fragile structures which mirror our existence. “Our lives,” states Rabbi Sacks in his interpretation of Kohelet, “are a mere microsecond in the history of the universe. The cosmos,” suggests Sacks, “lasts forever while we, living, breathing mortals are a mere fleeting breath. Kohelet,” explains Sacks, “is obsessed by this because it threatens to rob life of any certainty. We will never live to see the long-term results of our endeavours.”

How, then, are we to find meaning in life, the core of Kohelet’s concern?

According to Sacks, “Kohelet eventually finds it not in happiness but in joy – because joy lives not in thoughts of tomorrow, but in the grateful acceptance of today. We are here; we are alive; we are among others who share our sense of jubilation.” 

That is, indeed, the ensuing message which ends every one of Kohelet's deliberations on the purpose of life. They culminate with an entreaty to rejoice. His conclusion is unequivocal and clear, "However many years anyone may live, let them rejoice in them." (Kohelet 11:8). 

May we all enjoy a Healthy and Happy Sukkot, fellow Jews and a jubilant and rewarding life to all, this time of year and always. 


Yours truly has also engaged in studying “Kohelet.” When completing my undergraduate degree at the University of California San Diego, I wrote a paper comparing its perspective with that of Buddhism. My paper was entitled “Ecclesiastes and Buddhism, Two Facets of Human Epistemology.”




Monday 13 June 2022

Am Yisrael, a Holy Nation to G-d, Primarily


                        “For you are a Nation of Priests, a People holy to the Lord Your G-d.”- Exodus 19:6

“Bamidbar” is the Parashah that opens the fourth book of the Torah. Moshe is embarking on the important task of preparing Am Yisrael, the newly molded People, to living as a safe, productive, and independent nation in its own land.

It is not an easy undertaking. To try and instruct a People that has only recently gained its freedom, after centuries of slavery, to live an autonomous life is a major challenge. Most of them are illiterate, submissive and rely on Moshe to guide, lead, and decide for them.

As we recall, thus far, Moshe has been setting the ethical and ground rules for preparing Am Yisrael to live its G-d given destiny as a “Holy nation.” We were given the Torah which rabbi Sacks ZT”L correctly and succinctly defines as “our constitution of liberty under the sovereignty of G-d.”

The Covenant entered between G-d and Am Yisrael was unanimously and unconditionally accepted at Mount Sinai. We, their descendants, are bound by it. Both the Book of Shemot (Exodus) and Vayikra (Leviticus) outline the duties of this meaningful and important vocational role. G-d, as we are reminded time and again, is the common denominator that connects them all.

As part of our calling, the Priests and the Levites have been assigned their tasks. The protocol for running their sacred, very important and not always easy work has been outlined. A “priest in the service of the Jewish People,” states Rabbi Berel Wein, “was someone who served the public and private needs of Jews. The Priest was a social worker,” continues, Wein, “the peace maker, the cement that binds a community together and gives it its necessary sense of unity and cohesion.” Above all, the Priests were the guardians of our national as well as our Spiritual well-being. 

However, to live in safety and for physical survival, it is also essential to build a strong army.

Towards that end, Gd directs Moshe to conduct a census of Am Yisrael. Moshe needs the count of people who could be of military age, who could fight, ones who could defend the nation. 

There are 603,550 men of draftable age (20 to 60 years) who will be trained in warfare. The Levite circle, with its 22,331 or 3.7% of the total, are exempted from that duty.

The Levites had an alternative role, not just to be holy as some have interpreted it, but as mentioned by Rabbi Wein above, to also be the educators, counselors and, the ones responsible for teaching the masses of people how to shell the slaves' mindset and start thinking like free and responsible people. That, too, was being part of the strength and defense of the nation. They were simply soldiers of a different kind.

Fast forward to the 20th century modern day state of Yisrael. Many members of the Hareidi segment of the Jewish population dedicates many hours of the day to studying Torah and, like the Levites and the Priests dedicate their lives to serving G-d. Like the Levites, they are exempt from enlisting to the army. This, naturally, causes some resentment among other Jewish sectors in the Yisraeli society.

Learning and studying Torah, as we all know, is highly important in our Jewish tradition. “And you should contemplate it [The Torah] day and night,” Moshe commands Yehoshoa (Yehoshua 1:8). It is important to note that Yehoshua was the Chief of Staff of Moshe’s army.

This decree by Moshe to Yehoshua, however, is not a reason to pass the responsibility of self-defense to others, or any responsibilities to others in favor of something just for oneself. It was not a deal that if one sits and studies, that one should be exempt from the responsibility of defending one’s family and people from aggression. 

On the other hand, there are those who want to deny the importance of Torah learning, those who want to tear Torah scholars away from what they dedicate themselves to be doing.  Neither are right. 

Our sages have understood this issue very well and debated it at length. They quote Devarim (Deuteronomy 11:14) which states, “You shall gather your grain, your new wine and your olive oil.” At the same time, they remind us of Moshe’s decree to Yehoshua regarding the importance of studying the Torah. Many have acted in accordance with Rabbi Yishmael and combined working for a living and learning Torah. (Berakhot 35b:4-10)

Consider an idea for today.  Hareidim, as the new Levites in the role Moshe Rabbeinu designed 3400 years ago for those who would serve the people, not as combatants but as educators and social workers, and maybe even helping with the harvests in season, out in the smaller communities from the Lebanon border to the tip of Eilat, to every area in Judea and Samaria. 

It is not really a new idea.  Religious girls have been doing it for some time as a substitute for regular military service. It would mean adding a program for Hareidi men between 18 and 21 in addition to those already voluntarily enlisting in percentages equal to some other sectors of the population. It would mean that everyone is required to comply with their responsibilities to the nation for 2-3 years of their lives, either in combat roles or in other ways.

And there should be a bonus.  For every individual serving, regardless of role, there should be post-service educational benefits and reduced mortgages to buy a home, in some proportion to years of service. Before someone asks about Miluim (reserve service), that could also be accomplished both in military readiness and service to small communities in other ways.

It is time that Medinat Yisrael employ ideas that bring all segments of the Jewish community together to improve the quality of life for all, just as Moshe Rabbeinu insisted that everyone participates -  in building the Tabernacle,  in defending the nation, and in serving the welfare of the people.

This article was written jointly by Roger Froikin and Bat-Zion Susskind-Sacks