Archive for Purim

Shabbat Zachor: A Torn Garment

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2023

 וַיִּסֹּב שְׁמוּאֵל, לָלֶכֶת; וַיַּחֲזֵק בִּכְנַף-מְעִילוֹ, וַיִּקָּרַע. 

As Shmuel turned to leave, he seized the corner of his robe, and it tore. ( I Samuel 15:27) 

Hello again! This weekend the Torah portion is Tetzaveh, mostly concerned with the garments of the priests, and the haftarah is for Shabbat Zachor, which is always right before Purim. Shabbat Zachor has a special additional Torah reading about Amalek’s attack on the Jewish people, and the haftarah continues the theme with the story of King Shaul’s war against Agag, king of Amalek in his day. The two stories of conflict with Amalek are connected to Purim because Haman, the villain of the Purim story, is a descendant of Agag, the antagonist of this week’s haftarah. 

Now that you have all that background, let’s ignore all of the Amalek/ Haman/Purim related themes for today and instead focus on the dramatic moment when Shmuel, the prophet, tells King Shaul that he has lost the kingship. Shaul failed to wipe out the Amalekites, which is a troubling command, which we can revisit another time. The text says that when Shmuel, the prophet, confronted the king about the failure to wipe out the Amalekites and all their animals and property, Shaul offered up the somewhat lame excuse that his troops wanted to offer the best animals as sacrifices to God and he was afraid of what they’d do if he, the king, didn’t let them have their way. Shmuel rebukes Shaul, saying that obedience is better than sacrifice – again, this is a story that’s difficult for modern readers- and tells Shaul that God has rejected him as king. 

When the prophet turns to go, we get the sentence quoted above: 

As Shmuel turned to leave, he seized the corner of his robe, and it tore.

What’s interesting here is that the Sefaria translation which I’ve adapted, says that it was Shaul, the king, who grabbed Shmuel’s garment, as Shaul wanted the prophet to go with him as he tried to fix his mistake. The Hebrew, however, is more accurately rendered as I’ve done above, with ambiguous pronouns. Rashi notices this too, and points out that even the ancient sages weren’t sure if it was Shaul tearing Shmuel’s garment- probably the simplest reading of the text- or the other way around, that Shmuel tore the king’s robe. 

The latter reading is plausible for two reasons. The very next verse has Shmuel comparing the tearing of the garment to the loss of the kingdom: 

And Shmuel said to him, “The LORD has this day torn the kingship over Israel away from you and has given it to another who is worthier than you. (15:28

Furthermore, Shaul’s garment gets torn by his successor, David, just a few chapters later. In chapter 24, Shaul sets out with thousands of men to find and kill David, but David is able to sneak up on him in a cave and cut off the corner of his robe. David then presents this as proof that he means the king no harm, as he could have killed him but didn’t. (See 1 Samuel 24 verses 1-21.) 

So it makes literary sense that it was Shmuel that cut Shaul’s robe when announcing that the kingdom is “torn from him,” as shortly thereafter, when David shows him the piece of cloth cut from his robe, Shaul is forced to admit that indeed, kingship is taken from him and given to David. In this reading of our verse, Shmuel’s action is a foreshadowing of David’s: when Shaul realized the two robe-cuttings were connected, he had no choice but to confront the bitter reality that he was trying to avoid. 

The key word in verses 27 and 28 is karah ( קָרַ֨ע), to tear. You might recognize this as the same root or sound as kriah, which is the tearing of the garment at a funeral or upon hearing of the death of a loved one. Kriah is one of the most distinctive Jewish rituals of mourning, going back to Biblical times. Connecting the Shaul’s torn robe with kriah, the ritual of mourning, fits with the interpretation that it was the prophet who tore the king’s robes and not vice versa: perhaps the prophet was showing the king through the symbolism of tearing that he must accept his loss, and that grief would be a better reaction than resisting the new reality. 

In my work at the hospital, I often see patients or their loved ones who simply cannot accept what is plainly happening. We humans are often quite good at ignoring that which we don’t want to see, or denying that which we don’t wish to be true. Perhaps it’s even more true for people of wealth and power and privilege, who are used to imposing their will on others or getting their way in the world. In our case, a mighty king seemed to confess in the moment that his entire life had been upended, but soon enough went back to living as if he’d never heard what the prophet proclaimed. 

In this telling, King Shaul displays the most ordinary human fallibility: he denies to himself what he must, on some level, know to be true. He could have torn his garment in grief and humility, and perhaps not come to the tragic end that was the inevitable result of his fruitless attempts to hold fast to what was already lost. So in our own lives, when confronted with difficult truths, and we are shown that our robes are torn, as it were, the challenge is to mourn what is lost, but accept what we must. That is the path towards healing and renewal, and it starts with facing truth bravely. 

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Shabbat Zachor: Remember to Wage Peace

Good afternoon! I’ve been absent from commenting for far too long- maybe the world is so crazy I just don’t know what to say, but I do have a commentary on Shabbat Zachor published in this month’s Voice, the Jewish paper in Dutchess County. I shall return to the drashing blogosphere!

Now, on to Shabbat Zachor:

The holiday of Purim is not just one day of costumes and parties, but perhaps more properly understood as a drama of fasting and feasting unfolding over the course of a week, and not just because that’s how long it takes to assemble our mishloach manot (gift baskets of food given on Purim).  The drama of Purim begins unfolding on the Shabbat before Purim, called Shabbat Zachor–  the Sabbath of Remembering.  What we remember on Shabbat Zachor is not, in fact, what happened in Shushan in ancient Persia but what happened to the Israelites during the Exodus from Egypt. We remember by adding an additional text to our Torah reading:

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—

how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.

Therefore, when the LORD your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!  (Deuteronomy 26:17-19)

It seems fairly straightforward at first glance: remember the evil deeds of the nation Amalek, how they ambushed the weakest Israelites, and take action to “blot them out” from the earth. Lest there be confusion about what “blot out the memory” of Amalek means, our haftarah, or prophetic portion assigned to this Shabbat, tells the story of the first king of Israel wiping out the Amalekites in war: man, woman and child, and only getting in trouble with the prophet Samuel because he spared the king and the animals. These passages help put the Purim story in a larger historical context, as the villain Haman is descended from Agag, the king that Samuel executed, who himself is an Amalekite.

We hardly need contemporary political events to be troubled by the thought that a mad king could declare a genocidal war. Some commentators have insisted that Amalek no longer exists, so the commandment is no longer in force. Others have seen it as a warning not about any particular people or nation, but about evil more generally: “don’t forget,” in this reading, means “don’t be complacent.”

Yet the commandment to blot out Amalek isn’t as simple as it seems, for it is balanced by another commandment found earlier in Deuteronomy:

When you approach a city to wage war against it, you shall propose peace to it.  (Deut. 20:10)

Please note that the commandment above- to offer terms of peace before making war- has no exceptions, not even for Amalek; this opinion is codified by no less than Maimonides, the greatest legal sage of medieval Judaism. To be clear, offering terms of peace, according to the ancient texts, doesn’t mean equal coexistence or détente, but more like surrender and becoming a vassal city to the Israelites, along with accepting general commandments of justice and rejecting idolatry.

Yet even that definition of peace redefines our relationship to the memory of Amalek, a nation which cannot be understood as categorically, inherently evil and worthy of destruction if they, too, are  capable of accepting peaceful surrender and taking upon themselves just laws. The rabbis even point to certain clues in the story of Saul’s battle with Amelek to suggest that he offered terms of peace before the battle, which they rejected, thus leading to war.

So what, then are we remembering on Shabbat Zachor? Perhaps we are remembering that despite our anger at being ambushed on the way out of slavery, or any other grotesque historical injustice, we still have an obligation to avoid war if at all possible. Perhaps we must remember that even Amalek, or its contemporary manifestations, is not ontologically evil, but comprised of human beings who are capable of repentance and given the choice of blessing or curse, as are we all. On Shabbat Zachor, we remember what Amalek did to us, but if there’s going to be peace in the world, we also have to remember what the advertisements say about every investment opportunity: past performance does not guarantee future results, so offer peace before waging war.


The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Shabbat Zachor: The Tragedy of Revenge

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tzav and Shabbat Zachor

“After these events, King Achashverosh promoted Haman, son of Hamdata, the Agagite and advanced him; he placed his seat above all his fellow ministers. All the king’s servants at the king’s gate kneeled and bowed before Haman, for so had the king commanded concerning him. But Mordechai would not kneel or bow. . . ”  (Book of Esther, 3:1-2)

Good evening!

This week we observe two related liturgical occasions within a few hours of each other. On Shabbat morning, we read a special concluding Torah reading and a special reading from the prophets, each related to Amalek, the enemy nation of the Jews whose descendant is the antagonist of the Purim story. These readings, calling us to “remember [zachor] what Amalek did to you,” give the Shabbat before Purim its name.

Then, a few hours later, after nightfall Saturday night, Purim begins, and we read the scroll of Esther, with its famous hero, Mordecai, and its villain, Haman, both mentioned in the verse above, which contains the plot device which propels the story to its conclusion: Haman is incensed that Mordecai will not bow to him as the king’s viceroy. Yet it’s not at all apparent why Mordecai won’t bow to the king’s second-in-command; after all, Avraham bowed to the visitors in the desert and to the residents of Hevron. There are other examples in the Bible as well; it is not an obvious Jewish principle of the times that one would not bow before a man of high station.

So something else is going on, and I believe it’s found in the family trees of both Mordecai and Haman. We learn from the verse above that Haman was a descendant of Agag, the king of Amalek who was slain by the prophet Samuel after being defeated by the first king of Israel, Saul. (Cf. 1 Sam 15– this is the haftarah for  Shabbat Zachor.) On the other hand, we are told that Mordecai is a direct descendant of Kish, and a man of the tribe of Benjamin. (Cf. Esther 2:5)

Who was Kish, you might ask? Kish, since you asked, was the father of King Saul, meaning Mordecai himself is of that royal, albeit deposed, family. (Cf. 1 Sam 9:1-2.) Now, to be clear, the genealogy of Mordecai is not meant to be taken literally; Kish lived hundreds of years before Mordecai, not just a few generations as in the text. I think the abbreviated list of ancestors is meant to give us the highlights of the family line and tell us something important- namely, that the enmity between Haman and Mordecai goes way back to the time of Saul and Agag. It is entirely understandable that Mordecai would not bow down to a descendant of his familial enemy- and it is equally understandable, but not justifiable, that Haman would seek to humiliate and destroy a man associated with defeating the king of his own family’s history.

So what do we do with all this? Shabbat Zachor reminds us of Amalek and Agag, thus putting in context the seemingly arbitrary hatred of Haman and unbreakable pride of Mordecai. Perhaps these historical reminders give the story of Esther a tragic element, in that long-simmering resentments broke out in such a way that tens of thousands died in the cycle of revenge and defense. Ironically, while the readings of Shabbat Zachor remind us of the evil of Amalek, they also humanize, to a degree, the Amalekite Haman, who is now seen as the willful prisoner of a long-standing cycle of violence and war. This does not excuse his evil choices, but does help explain them.

On Purim, we laugh as the wicked Haman got hung from the gallows he made for Mordecai; but every other day of the year, we are to refrain from rejoicing over the downfall of our enemies. It is a tragedy that hatred persists over generations; on Purim our joy overcomes our sadness, but it by no means diminishes the fundamental Jewish obligation to heal hatred when we can, and fight it when we must.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Purim,

Rabbi Neal

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Tetzaveh/ Shabbat Zachor: Remembrance of the Present

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tetzaveh / Shabbat Zachor

Good morning!

It’s just a day before Purim, which means tomorrow is Shabbat Zachor, or the “Shabbat of Remembering,” which means there will be a special concluding Torah reading and a special haftarah.  These texts, always read on the Shabbat before Purim, tell of Israel’s war wit Amalek, the lawless people who attack the Israelites on their way out of Egypt. We are told in the Torah reading to always “remember” [zachor] to wipe out the memory of Amalek, hence the name Shabbat Zachor. Hundreds of years later, the first King of Israel, Shaul, was given the command to wipe out the Amalekites- man, woman, child and animals- but spares the Amalekite king as well as much of their riches.

This act- sparing the king and some of the animals- costs Saul his kingship, and sets up a connection with Purim (Agag, the Amalekite king, is the ancestor of Haman.) One might say that the texts of Shabbat Zachor remind us of the historical challenges of Jewish security; some believe that Jews must always remember there could always be an Amalek, or a Haman, just waiting to strike. The texts of Shabbat Zachor, and the Megillat Esther, or scroll of Esther, could be seen as teaching the historical imperative of Jewish self-defense. After all, at the end of Megillat Esther, the Jews rise up against those who would have attacked them and kill tens of thousands of their enemies in a preemptive strike.

Yet many readers are deeply troubled by Samuel’s order to Shaul to wipe out the Amalekites, including the children and even the animals. Such brutal warfare, punishing the innocent for the sins of their ancestors, seems out of place in a religious system that insists on justice and due process. (See, for example, Abraham’s famous argument with God over the innocent of Sodom.) Such questions become even more urgent in an age of genocide directed against Jews (and Armenians, and Tibetans, and Rwandans- the list goes on.) How can we possibly hold as a sacred text one which condones the massacre of an entire people, along with animals and property?

Perhaps one way to redeem the texts of Shabbat Zachor is by seeing them not as texts about them, but about us. Yes, Jews (and civilized people generally) must be vigilant about those who would harm us, and yes, sometimes innocent people die in defensive wars. It’s also true that if we are troubled by what the texts says happened in the past, we must remember that such acts happen now, in our day, and not only by countries or groups we might consider lawless or aggressive. Let’s remember that the United States is engaged in warfare on several continents, and unknown numbers of innocent men, women, and children have died in drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and perhaps other countries as well. Drone strikes are sometimes targeted on the basis of activities deemed suspicious from the air, but in some cases bombs dropped on villages and houses kill civilians, including children, as well. (Please see the websites of the NYU Law School drone project  and ProPublica’s comprehensive collection of known information about this semi-secret war for more information. Just hit the links. You’ll probably be amazed.)

I am neither endorsing nor condemning the Administration’s war actions in various countries; I am merely pointing out that we, too, currently take the lives of children when we as a country believe it to be necessary. Our moral revulsion at the violence in Biblical times should be tempered by introspection about the moral state of our own times; at the very least, reflection on how to fight Amalek should require that every citizen become knowledgable about what is being done in our names. On Purim, we rejoice in Jewish victory, but we also reflect on the ethical dilemmas of being a free people in a brutal world. The texts of Shabbat  Zachor call us to remember not only the past, but the present as well.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Purim: Reading and Reliving

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Dear Friends:

Tomorrow night is Purim, with its costumes, noisemakers, feasting and merriment, at the heart of which is the reading of the megillah, or scroll containing the book of Esther. We learn in the Mishnah, the early part of the Talmud, that one must read the book of Esther from a scroll, and in fact, one is not permitted to declaim it from memory, even if one had memorized the whole thing. (Mishnah Megillah 2:1- see text here.)

Now, that’s interesting, especially when one considers that just a month from now, we’ll sit down at a Passover table to tell the story of the Exodus, but we are not commanded to read a text, per se- just to tell the story and explain the central symbols of the holiday. The Passover text- the haggadah– is a tool, not the central idea. Yet on Purim, a lesser holiday, we have to tell the story by reading it out loud, from the written form, just as written.

Of course, the story of Mordecai and Esther is not more important in Jewish history than the story of the Exodus, but we should note that the story of Purim itself is told through texts- letters, laws, scrolls- from the decrees of Achashverosh and Haman, to the counter-decree which saved the Jews, to the command of Mordecai to remember the story itself, which was propagated far and wide by means of written communication:

“And Mordecai wrote these things, and sent letters unto all the Jews that were in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus, both nigh and far, to enjoin them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar . . . . .”(Es. 9:20-21, old JPS translation.)

Now we can see a similarity between Purim and Passover: on Passover, at theseder, we re-create the experience of slavery by eating matzah and maror, and then celebrating our freedom with the feast, wine, and grateful prayers. On Purim, we re-create the experience of the Jews in Persia by hearing the story declaimed from a scroll, a text, just as if we are there, receiving the words of Mordecai, enjoining us to observe the day and remember the events which lead to it.

Hearing the megillah, we’re like the Jews who have just been saved, grateful to be alive, determined to replace evil with good, hearing the news proclaimed as if from the royal court itself. We don’t just tell the story, but live it. Just as Mordecai commanded the Jews of his day to give gifts to the poor and gifts to neighbors and friends, we give gifts to the poor and send gifts of food (see herefor details.) As they celebrated and gave thanks, we celebrate and give thanks.

Reading from the megillah isn’t about recounting ancient history, it’s about being in the events, right now- because its greater themes, of life and death, gratitude and celebration, generosity and courage, are not history, but the core of life itself, today.

Happy Purim to one and all,


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Shabbat Zachor: Sending Gifts

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion Tetzaveh

Shabbat Zachor

In Tetzaveh we learn laws of the priests and their service in the portable Sanctuary. Shabbat Zachor is right before Purim; we read a special Torah reading and haftarah reminding us of the dangerous nation of Amalek.

“And Mordecai wrote these things, and sent letters unto all the Jews that were in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus, both nigh and far, to enjoin them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar, and the fifteenth day of the same, yearly, the days wherein the Jews had rest from their enemies, and the month which was turned unto them from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning into a good day; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor.” (Book of Esther, 9:20-22)

The quote above teaches us not only to observe Purim, but also two central practices of Purim observance: mishloach manot, or gifts of food, and matanot l’evyonim, gifts to the poor. (Click the links to get further explanation of these mitzvot.)

I draw your attention to these practices- sending gifts- by way of reflecting on the reading for Shabbat Zachor, which begins with the remembrance of Amalek’s attack on the Israelites and continues with the prophet Samuel, in the haftarah, executing Amalek’s king, Agag, as part of Israel’s war against its enemy. These texts are connected to Purim through the figure of Haman, said to be descended from Agag; just as the Amalekites sought Israel’s destruction in its land, Haman seeks Israel’s destruction in exile.

The texts of Shabbat Zachor and even of Purim itself contain shocking violence and are thus a sobering reminder that our world is not always safe nor joyful. Some interpret these readings as reminders of the necessity for Jewish self-defense when Amalek returns; while I don’t disagree that self-defense is one theme of Shabbat Zachor and Purim, I also don’t think it’s the only significant teaching of these passages.

We read above that Mordecai instituted Purim as not a solemn memorial day, but of feasting and sending mishloach manot and matanot l’evyonim, as explained above. To me, these practices- sending portions of food to our friends and family, and giving gifts to the poor- are also critical parts of the message. Precisely because the world can be cruel and unpredictable, our responses must not only be in kind, but also in kindness, creating compassionate communities. Compassionate communities, wherein the poor and lonely are remembered and sustained, will not in themselves stop an Amalek; but self-defense, in itself, will never heal us or the world from the scars that Amalek leaves. Perhaps Mordecai understood that after the people rose up against their enemies, the only way forward was to love each other more, and thus create the possibility that Amalek would be defeated in the realm of values, and not only in battle.

Shabbat Zachor calls us to remember what Amalek did to us, but Purim calls us to act in a way that defeats Amalek more completely: by acting out of our deepest vision of caring community, sustaining and gladdening each other, we show the world a different way of being, and this too is a triumph.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Purim,


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Purim and the Challenge of Remembering

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Purim

Today is Purim, but for the first time in years, I’m not going to
write Purim Torah for the occasion. (Of course, some of you may regard
what follows as Purim Torah – that is, silliness- anyway, but it’s not
deliberate Purim Torah.)

I hope I will not offend any member of this Torah study community by
referring to the recent words of an American politician. Referring to
these words must not be construed as a partisan endorsement of his
candidacy, but are merely a response to some ideas put out into the
American discourse in the past week, ideas which I believe have some
resonance in and for the Jewish experience.

Today is Purim, and so last night and this morning we read the scroll
of the Book of Esther, containing a story which will be familiar to
many readers. Esther becomes queen of Persia, but does not reveal her
true identity as a Jew until forced to by external, existential
pressures. The wicked Haman is linked to Amalek, the nation at war
with Israel since the days of the Exodus- in fact, the Torah reading
for Purim is Exodus 17, recalling Israel’s war with Amalek. The
message seems clear: in the days of Moshe and in the days of Esther
and in every generation, an Amalek arises against the people Israel,
and so Jews can never let down their guard, must always suspect the
worst, can never be fully at home when enemies may be present in any
society in which we live.

I have known many Jews who have suffered real and undeniable
anti-Semitism, either in Europe or here in North America- and yet for
many Jews, myself included, it’s almost impossible to imagine not
feeling entirely at home in America. Generations who have suffered
bigotry may not understand those who come after them who haven’t, and
vice versa. Those who have known Amalek first-hand may have a very
different sense of what it means to be a Jew than those who – not
incorrectly- see the Jewish community in America as mostly prosperous,
powerful, and integrated into civic institutions.

To me, Senator Obama’s recent speech on race relations in America
resonated deeply with my own thoughts about the Jewish experience. If
you substitute “Jim Crow” for “Amalek” in the paragraph above, I think
you get at what he was trying to say about the disconnect between
those who have suffered greatly, and whose worldview has been greatly
shaped by that suffering, and others, perhaps in a different
generation, who believe that a society can, in fact, progress and change.

This is where I find the Book of Esther and the readings about Amalek
so challenging: of course I think we must remember our encounters with
Amalek, but I also think the Jewish community and Judaism itself are
sometimes overburdened by history, which wasn’t (isn’t) always so
tragic. As I said on Shabbat Zachor, the problem with remembering what
Amalek did to us is remembering that not every critic or political
opponent is Amalek- and far too often we resort to archetypes which
make ordinary conflicts seem like existential threats.

Every community struggles with its history, but history is rarely
simple. On Purim, we let loose and have fun, but we also struggle with
challenging texts- stories which demand a thoughtful response, stories
which challenge simple notions of “remember what they did to us.”
Amalek is real, but the world changes and evolves. Both are true, and
admitting the one is not denying the other. That’s what I heard said
in Philadelphia, and that’s what I remembered last night at our Purim

Happy Purim, and Shabbat Shalom,


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Tetzaveh/ Purim: The Torah of Hunting Accidents (long)

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Purim

Dear Friends:

It’s almost Purim, and you know what that means . . . . . .

That’s right, it’s time to study Torah with the most holy Adar hermeneutic!

Every year, around Purim time, we look at some of the sacred principles of our
most holy
religion in a slightly different way, usually influenced by such great scholars
as the former
chief rabbi of the Freedonian Ghetto, Slib Ovitz, and another great rabbi, Sam
Buca, who
was Rabbi Ovitz’s second cousin once removed (for, apparently, getting sauced
making a non-halachic suggestion to a female guest at a bar mitzvah party.)

With that in mind, let’s turn to Parshat Tetzaveh, which is mostly a description
of the
special and sacred garments of the Kohen Gadol, or “High Priest,” who was
dressed in
extraordinary clothing in order to perform the rituals of the ancient Sanctuary.
The Kohen
Gadol wore a robe, called the “ephod,” which had a breastplate built into it,
decorations around the hems. (These days, most Jewish professionals who are men
generally don’t wear “breastplates,” unless they are going as Xena the Warrior
Princess to
the Purim party, but I read in the newspaper that the “Law Committee” of the
Movement is looking into permitting it as a daily thing. A decision is due in
about 2043.)

Anyway, these decorations had the shape of fruit and bells:

“On its hem make pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, all around the
with bells of gold between them all around: a golden bell and a pomegranate, a
bell and a pomegranate, all around the hem of the robe. Aaron shall wear it
officiating, so that the sound of it is heard when he comes into the sanctuary
before the
Lord and when he goes out — that he may not die. ” (Shmot/Exodus 28:33-35,

Now, it’s easy to understand why the Kohen Gadol would have pomegranates on his
after all, since the earliest days of the Jewish people, the question: “maybe
you want a
piece of fruit?” has been linking one generation to another as a spiritual
legacy, and thus
the robe of the High Priest is a sartorial representation of the eternal Jewish
ideal of truly
omnipresent, yet healthy, snack food. Other religions have principles of faith:
as Jews, we

But understanding the pomegranates just begs the question: why the bells? After
wouldn’t the acute, argute, blaring, blatant, cacophonous, clanging, clangorous,
deafening, discordant, ear-piercing, ear-splitting, harsh, high, metallic,
noisy, penetrating,
piercing, piping, raucous, screeching, sharp, strident noises of the bells
disturb the
devotional head-space of the High Priest as he made his prayers?

As you can imagine, the Talmud and other traditional commentators have a lot to
about this. One midrash, found in a collection of ancient sermons by the famed
Abissel Kichel, links the bells to the last part of verse 33, where it says
“that he may not
die.” This commentary points out that if the High Priest didn’t have bells on,
maybe the
guards around the Temple wouldn’t hear him coming, and would mistake him for a
animal, or an intruder. Rabbi Kichel offers a parable:

“The bells on the hem of the ephod- to what may these be compared? It may be
to the Viceroy who goes hunting with his friend- his friend comes up behind him,
and the
Viceroy mistakes him for a beast in the bush, and grievously wounds him. But
with the
bells on the ephod, it may be compared to a Viceroy who goes hunting with his
friend, and
the friend warns the Viceroy of his approach, and there is no accidental

[Note- the “Viceroy” the one who actually runs the kingdom for the king. The
king was
often a mere figurehead, or “do’ofbal” in Aramaic, who achieved his office by
accident of birth, not by virtue of administrative capability or ability to
speak a coherent
sentence in any known language. In the Hebrew of our parable, the word for
“Viceroy” is
the “S’cheney,” or “second.”]

Another medieval commentator, Zalman Rashdi, in his commentary on the priestly
called “The Kohanic Verses,” takes Abissel Kichel’s parable one step further:

“The Kohen Gadol – his bells are not for his honor, but for the honor of the
people, lest his
approach to the Sanctuary should cause the Temple guards to mistake him for an
The Holy Books compare this to a Viceroy [“S’cheney”] who wounds his friend
hunting- but would not the Viceroy, because of the arrogance and pride that
comes with
his exalted station, be loath to admit his mistake to the people, and would he
therefore bring shame upon the Torah and the people Israel ? For if the Viceroy
did not
immediately admit of his error to the people, woe unto the Torah, for repentance
humility are lost to the world! Therefore, let the Priest always wear bells, so
that there will
be no accidental shedding of blood.”

Now, admittedly, the author of the Kohanic Verses is mixing his metaphors a bit,
the Talmud is apparently saying that the priest wears the bells so not to cause
any . . .
well, let’s say, weaponry mishaps, in the Temple courtyards. The parable,
compares this to a “Viceroy” who is hunting with his friend, and accidentally
wounds him-
but if the Temple guards thought the High Priest was a wild bird, for example,
and they
accidentally wounded him as a result, then it’s the guards who are like the
“Viceroy” in the parable, and not the Priest.

So it seems that these commentaries are saying that even if it was guards who
had a –
what did we call it? a weaponry mishap- it would still be, in some sense, the
fault of the
High Priest, who is compared to a Viceroy, and is thus always responsible for
extreme caution in situations where somebody just might get hurt. That’s why he
has to
wear bells on the hems of his robe, just to make sure nobody gets a sharp arrow
in the
you-know-what. (That’s gotta be a big ouch, when you think about it.)

The spiritual lesson we can learn is this: even in the most holy precincts of
our ancient
Sanctuary, mishaps could have occurred when men are running around with
projectile weaponry. If- God Forbid!- such a weaponry mishap DID occur, our
understands that it’s the natural inclination of public figures such as the High
Priest, who
is compared to the “Viceroy,” to be too proud to properly repent before the
people, and
thus they have to be prevented from causing any trouble in the first place.

Fortunately, of course, we know that in all of Jewish history- and really,
throughout all of
Western Civilization- the Torah’s warnings have been heeded most stringently,
and in any
situation where important people could be the cause of unfortunate weaponry
the utmost precautions are always foremost on everybody’s minds. Thus, to this
day, the
bells on the garment are a symbolic way of expressing that “Viceroys and
hunting” are a
very dangerous combination, to be avoided at all costs, so that “humility and
are not lost, and the Torah itself is exalted among the nations.

happy Purim and Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Neal

PS- if you want more, well, you know, serious, commentaries on Tetzaveh, you can
them, along with a summary, here:

and the text of the parsha is here:

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The Poetry of Purim

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Purim

Dear Friends: With the holiday of Purim almost upon us, I
thought it would be a good time to do something a little more-
aahh, cultural, shall we say?

As many of you know, Purim is a fun and happy holiday, in which
we read the story of Esther and her bravery, which saved the
Jews from destruction in ancient Persia. What many of you may
not know is that not only does Purim typically involve funny hats,
a bit of shnapps, and yummy hamentaschen, but there is a more
serious and creative aspect of traditional Purim observance as

Of course, the Jewishly educated among you realize that I’m
referring to the revered and holy art of Purim haiku, which is
rapidly regaining its prominence as one of the most spiritually
satisfying of Jewish religious practices. Many of you probably
learned in school that a haiku is a short poem, with lines of five,
seven, and five syllables, often evoking nature, which originated
in Japan. Well, that’s only partially right- recent linguistic
research has shown that the history of the word involve a hard,
gutteral -kh- sound, making the Hebraic origins obvious: it’s a
chai-ku, a poem of life.

Many Purim haikus illustrate the way Jews celebrate the holiday
in their places of worship, with the guidance of their spiritual and
lay leaders. For example:

cantor in costume
much Jewish frivolity
rabbi wearing drag

joyful children smile
songs, laughter, festive feasting
board members tipsy

Or perhaps you might have a haiku which is a paean to the
distinctive foods of the season:

delicate pastry
golden star, heart of sweet prune
soon, only matzah

It’s also important to understand that Purim haiku, in particular,
is something that helps Jews connect the timeless story of
Esther and Mordecai with their local circumstances and modes
of cultural expression. For example, these two haikus only work if
you pronounce the key phrases of local idiom with a heavy
Boston accent:

Queen Esther, so brave
Risked life, saved the Jews
She was – wicked smahhht*

Mordecai wise, strong
Gave Haman and sons what fer **
spring breeze, they sway high

Then again, Purim haiku can have an implicit political message
in it:

King of Persia
nefarious advisor
like “W” and Rove

Sometimes Jews write Purim haiku in order to give local or
historical figures the symbolic seriousness which derives from
being compared to the epic and paradigmatic figures of the Book
of Esther:

hero of legend
appeared when life was dark
Mordecai? Ortiz!

all times hatch evil
then, Haman plotted bad schemes
today- Steinbrenner

As our final example, here’s a Purim haiku which is fascinating
for its linking of local events- in this case, the merger of two
neighborhood synagogues- with the release from the
oppressions of bureaucracy which the Jewish holy day provides:

Bereshit process
Xanax prescriptions arise
aaah! Purim, no vote !!!

As you can see, Purim haiku continues to be a living art form,
putting into poetry the spirituality of the season.

happy Purim, y’all,


*[smart, for those outside New England]

**[a term meaning vengeance]

PS- for those who want some serious learning this week, here
are two links: the first is teachings on Parshat Tzav, the next is on
the holiday of Purim itself.

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