Yesterday, it was Purim – actually, according to tradition, today is Purim for those living in walled cities like Jerusalem.
On Erev Shabbat, we enjoyed the wonderful Purim Spiel written by Stan Baker – and despite being unable to gather together as we did at Purim last year, nevertheless, in the cacophony that is characteristic of zoom when people unmute, we booed the villains and cheered the heroes with our usual gusto.
Heroes and villains; good and evil. The Book of Esther relates the history of the persecution of minority Jewish communities in the diaspora in simple binary terms. And yet the triumph of good over evil in the story involves an orgy of violence perpetrated by the ‘goodies’. In some ways it’s not surprising. How often in the complex, messy reality of human affairs, have efforts to overturn tyranny from Egypt until now involved violence? And how few have been the occasions when this has not been the case. Perhaps, the division between good and evil, ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’, isn’t as straightforward as it seems.
The same is true of all binaries that divide life into neat polar opposites. As it happens, a significant dimension of Jewish teaching is expressed in terms of binaries – and by one binary, in particular, the gender division between ‘male’ and ‘female’. In fact, halakhah, Jewish law is rooted in gender divisions, specifically, the division between the public space that is the preserve of males and the domestic space that is the preserve of females. And so, the responsibilities of Jewish life are divided according to gender between these two spaces, the public and the domestic. Men are obligated to perform the great majority of the positive time-bound mitzvot, including, thrice-daily prayer. Women are exempted from public positive time-bound mitzvot and are specifically obligated to observe just three positive mitzvot, all of which are performed in the domestic or private sphere: lighting Shabbat and festival candles, dividing the challah dough and keeping the rules of niddah, often expressed as taharat ha-mishpachah, ‘the purity of the family’– that is, going to the mikveh, the ritual bath for immersion, following childbirth and menstruation.
And yet, this is not the whole story. Indeed, Jewish teaching includes a great deal of wisdom that isn’t expressed in binaries. There is so much I could tell you about this – it would fill a book – which is exactly what I’m going to do; write a book about it. So, in the limited time available, I would like to focus on just one example of non-binary Jewish teaching. It’s a rather beautiful example.
My favourite ritual is the havdalah ceremony that concludes Shabbat. Significantly, it centres on three elements: the fruit of the vine (wine or grape juice), spices, and the lights of the fire. On the face of it, the ceremony marks the distinction between the seventh day and the six working days – and, in fact, havdalah means, ‘distinction’. Indeed, the concluding blessing lists a series of binary distinctions:
Blessed are You Eternal One our God, Sovereign of the universe, who distinguishes between holy and mundane (bein kodesh l’chol), between light and darkness (bein or l’choshech), between the seventh day and the six days of work (bein yom ha-sh’vi’vi l’sheishet y’mei ha-ma’aseh).
But when we examine the three ritual elements that constitute the havdalah ceremony, it’s clear that there is some subversion of binary assumptions going on. First, the single havdalah candle is plural; an intertwining of multiple wicks. Lit at the beginning of the ceremony, the blessing over the candle, follows those for the fruit of the vine and spices – and the words are very interesting: we acknowledge the Eternal One who ‘creates the lights of the fire’ – borei m’orei ha-eish. While on Erev Shabbat, we are commanded ‘to kindle the light of Shabbat’ – l’hadlik neir shel Shabbat – singular – havdalah speaks of ‘lights’ – plural. So, plural wicks, plural lights. And that’s not all; unlike on Erev Shabbat, the blessing we recite on the blazing flames of those multiple wicks is about fire. Kindling fire represents the first creative act after Shabbat. But fire is not simply a creative power. It is also a destructive power. As human beings we are creators and destroyers. And not just at different times. Sometimes in the same moment.
There is so much more I could say, but let’s move on to the other elements. After the candle is lit at the beginning of the havdalah ceremony, the first blessing we recite is for the fruit of the vine. However, while on Erev Shabbat and during Shabbat day, we simply drink this symbol of joy, at the end of havdalah we don’t just drink from the cup, we spill the contents and douse the flames of the candle with it, and so demonstrate that our joy is diminished.
The second blessing is reserved for the spices – again, the notion of plurality is key and reflected in the words of the blessing, acknowledging the Eternal One who ‘creates different types of spices’ – borei minei v’samim. And of course, by definition, spices are complex, in their aroma and in their taste. As we bid farewell to Shabbat, we breathe in the stimulating, potent mixture of aromas – taking in the arresting spirit of the day set apart for rest and renewal like spiritual fuel for the working week ahead, which, inevitably, will mix in with all the other complex energies within us as we deal with the challenges of our daily lives. Ostensibly, a ritual that symbolically distinguishes Shabbat from the six working days, havdalah draws out the complexity of our lived experience in which all the myriad elements cannot be neatly separated and distinguished.
Interestingly, the beginning of this week’s parashah, T’tzavveh, offers another gateway to recognising that complexity. The portion opens at Exodus chapter 27, verse 20, with the instruction to the Israelites to bring clear oil of beaten olives for lighting the lamp (ma’or), which Aaron and his sons were to set up in the tent of meeting, outside the curtain over the Ark to burn from evening until morning. While the verses here seem to suggest nothing more than a singular lamp, elsewhere in the Torah, at the beginning of the parashah, B’ha’alot’cha at Numbers chapter 8, we learn that the singular lamp was also plural:
The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying; / Speak to Aaron and say to him, ‘When you mount the lights (ha-neirot), let the seven lights (shivat ha-neirot) give light (ya’iru) in front of the lampstand (m’norah)’.
Apart from the fact that the lamp is designated by different Hebrew words in the two texts – ma’or, which is related to or, ‘light’, and m’norah, which is related to neir, another word for ‘light’ – the most significant difference between the two passages, is that the second one speaks of shivat ha-neirot, ‘seven lights’. As we find when we read the detailed description of the lampstand in last week’s Torah portion, T’rumah, the m’norah consisted of a central branch, with three branches on either side. Each of the seven branches was topped by a cup to be filled with oil for the lighting.
The seven-branched m’norah is the most ancient and the most powerful symbol of Judaism. And of course, the number seven is significant. We live through each year in cycles of seven days. Ultimately, what the ceremony of havdalah dramatises is not so much the distinction between Shabbat and the six working days, but rather the way in which the meaning of the seventh day as a day set apart for rest and renewal can only be understood in the context of the week as a whole. May we learn from the ritual of havdalah and from the symbolism of the m’norah to acknowledge and celebrate the glorious, multiplicity of life. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
27th February 2021 – 15th Adar 5781
See the Book of Esther, Chapter 9. ↑
See Exodus chapters 7:14-12:29 for the narrative of the ten plagues unleashed against Egypt ↑
The principal is stated in the Talmud as ‘positive precepts dependent on time from which women are exempt’ (see the Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 22b-35a, commenting on Mishnah Kiddushin 1:7). But since the mitzvot specifically allocated to women, in particular the lighting of the Shabbat and festival candles, are dependent on time, it is clear that women are specifically exempted from those positive mitzvot dependent on time that take place in the public arena – that is, in the congregation. ↑
The traditional version also includes the words: bein Yisra’eil la’amim – ‘between Israel and the nations’. ↑
Although it is common to have two candles, in some traditions, a single lamp is lit. ↑
Exodus 27:20-21. ↑
Numbers 8:1-2. The text continues for two more verses. ↑
Exodus 27:20. ↑
Numbers 8:2. ↑
Neir is the word used in the Shabbat and festivals candle-blessing: l’hadlik neir shel … ‘to kindle the light of…’ ↑
Exodus 25:31-40. ↑