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Torah Sparks

September 29, 2007 – 17 Tishrei 5768

Annual: Exodus 33:12 – 34:26 (Etz Hayim, p. 538; Hertz p. 362)
Maftir: Numbers 29:17 – 22 (Etz Hayim, p. 935; Hertz p. 697)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 38:18 – 39:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 1260; Hertz p. 979)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of the Torah Readings

On the opening days of Sukkot, we read guidelines for the festivals from Leviticus, chapters 22 and 23. The passages about the sukkah and the four species --lulav (palm branch), etrog (citron), hadassim (myrtle), and aravot (willows) – are particularly interesting.

Today’s reading focuses on the Covenant of Compassion, in which God provides Moses with a list of 13 divine attributes to be invoked through prayer when the people Israel are in special need. We are familiar with these 13 attributes because they form a recurrent theme within the penitential prayers of the High Holy Days.

I. Hosha'not: A Prayer Agenda for Sukkot

Sukkot, which comes at the conclusion of our penitential season, provides a final opportunity for us to pray for the well-being of the Jewish people and for the land of Israel. This opportunity forms the backdrop for the Hosha’not, prayers for divine assistance that Jews chant as they walk in a procession around the synagogue, carrying a lulav and an etrog. A different poetic prayer is chanted on each day of Sukkot.

The agenda of things to pray for reflected in these Hosha’not suggest a pre-modern agricultural society. Among the themes encapsulated within the Hosha’not are:

  1. God must be mindful of the obligations implied by His covenant -- power, greatness and mercy.
  2. God must remember the Temple in Jerusalem, a vision of perfection and a focal location for the expression of mutual love between God and the Jewish people.
  3. We plaintively seek divine forgiveness for our inevitable transgressions.
  4. Throughout the centuries, Jews have endured suffering due to their loyalty to God. This deserves recognition and merits divine intervention on their behalf.
  5. Jews yearn for salvation. They study the Torah and observe the sacred seasons. We await the fulfillment of God’s promises, reflected in prophecies.
  6. Jews place their hope in God. May God provide water for every shrub, making the earth fertile and not withholding the blessing of rain.

The concern about rain, which is specified in one theme and implied in others, reflects the statement in the Mishnah: On the Festival (Sukkot) the world is judged concerning water. (Rosh Hashanah 1:2)

This concern is specifically focused on the agricultural needs of the land of Israel. Where else in our prayers do we focus on Israel and its agricultural needs? Why is the well-being of Israel so important to Jews, even those who live thousands of miles away from Israel?

II. Where Did the Hosha'not Come From?

The following information is excerpted from a marginal comment in Or Hadash: A Commentary on Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals (page 200):

A major feature of each day’s [ancient] Temple ceremony during Sukkot was a procession in which the Kohanim would walk around the altar holding lulavim and willows, chanting phrases calling upon God to save and deliver them (Sukkah 4:5). It is possible that the people joined in the procession. If not, they joined in the singing that accompanied it. The songs chanted during the procession came to be known as Hoshanot, from the words hosha na, save us. Our synagogue service derives from this ancient celebration. We too form a procession with the lulav and etrog and walk around the synagogue chanting special Hoshanot prayers.

Most of the Hoshanot are very ancient. If they are not those composed to accompany the Temple procession, they were composed not long thereafter following an ancient pattern. Some of them were written by early liturgical poets who also followed the simple pattern of the early hymns. All of them are litanies – brief, simple, repetitive, alphabetical songs that enable the congregation to join in a chorus.

III. The Content of the Hosha'not Designated for Shabbat

The piyyut (liturgical poem) that we recite on the Shabbat that falls during Sukkot focuses on the Jewish people and on their worthiness of divine attention and help due to their faithfulness to the Torah in general and to the Shabbat in particular. The choreography of the Hosha’not procession is different on Shabbat than on all the other days of Sukkot, because we do not use the lulav on Shabbat. This fact further redirects attention toward the Shabbat aspect of this particular day of the festival.

Our time might be well-spent examining this poem to see what were deemed, in an earlier generation, to be especially virtuous points of the people Israel. Even if the profile might not fit well today, it is important to know our collective origin, and to explore the possibility of reclaiming significant aspects of our heritage.

The nature of this liturgical poetry is that it is rich in allusion and not easily translated. It also reflects a stylized structure in which the poet accepts the restriction that each item must begin with a particular letter, working consecutively through the Hebrew alphabet. There are several reasons why this structure, the alphabetical acrostic, was adopted. Two reasons that readily come to mind that make the verses easy to remember (especially important before the days of the printing press) and the intuitive sense of the pervasiveness of the virtues being referred to (wherever one may look in the alphabet, these qualities can always be found).

Most prayer books do not translate the Hosha’not, for space reasons as well as those alluded to above. When the Conservative movement first published Siddur Sim Shalom in 1985, brief English summaries were included. In 1998, with the publication of the Sabbath and Festivals edition, this treatment was expanded to include more complete translations.

A partial list of the distinguishing characteristics of the Jewish people (referred to within the Hosha’not for Shabbat) includes the following:

  1. they fulfill the twin commandments to “remember” the Sabbath and to “observe” the day.
  2. they provide for the needs of the Sabbath from the six days of their workweek.
  3. they change into fresh clothes for Shabbat.
  4. they honor the Shabbat by serving tasty, special cuisine.
  5. they recite blessings over two loaves of bread for Shabbat.
  6. they observe the [rabbinic] commandment to light candles to welcome the Sabbath.
  7. they recite Kiddush to sanctify the Sabbath.
  8. they call seven people for the reading of the Torah on Shabbat.

The items on this list obviously do not appear in chronological order, within the timetable of the Shabbat. This is because the poet is working under the constraints of the alphabetical acrostic, which evidently have made it difficult to reflect a conventional timeline.

Which of the items on the above list do you find to be most significant?

Which items do you think are the most challenging to incorporate into the lifestyle of a Jew in the twenty-first century?

If you have access to a translation of this piyyut (e.g. page 202 of the above-cited siddur), take a look at the larger list, which should have 22 items (some of which are fused together by the translator).

Asher Ginsburg (1856-1927), the Jewish thinker known by his pen-name of Ha’am, quipped: “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” Which items from the larger list of 22 have contributed to the cohesiveness of the Jewish community? What forces of the modern world have undermined that cohesiveness? Is there anything (other than wringing our hands) that we can do about these problems?

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