A South African report on the WUPJ conference

MY TIME in Jerusalem was like an epiphany. I experienced, for a few hours, the lifestyle of an ultra Orthodox family. The choice my nephew and niece have made is not one I would contemplate but I respect their decision to live their lives the way that makes them happy. Although I do not understand the concepts of men being the “masters”, and preceding every action with a bracha, they are happy and fulfilled.

Then I was privileged to have a guide the leading expert on Archaeology in Jerusalem, and to see that city through the eyes of a passionate man, whose knowledge of Israel as a whole and Jerusalem in particular is vast. From the walled city of Bethlehem and Rachel’s tomb, to the ruins of the first Church (inside the old city) my morning was filled with exciting new discoveries.

It struck me, quite suddenly, that here I was, a Jew, in the country of my forefathers – that I was standing on land where many thousands of years ago my people had stood. That I was not one of about 60,000 Jews in South Africa, but one of millions, some of whom had gone before me, others who are still with us today. It was a feeling of wonderful and wondrous belonging.

But while this was food for the soul the nourishment came from the conference itself.

The opening ceremony was an absolute joy and delight. All participating countries flags were paraded (the South Africans were by far the most vocal when our flag appeared) and we were treated to an evening of wonder. After the Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, welcomed us to his city we were entertained by the Mattan Klein trio who entertained us with great jazz. Songstress Peri Smilow lifted our spirits and sand artist Evgeni Swerdlov overwhelmed us with his thrilling and imaginative creations.

Thursday found us gathered at the beautiful Beit Shmuel complex to listen to the controversial Rabbi Baroness Julia Neuberger who spoke on “A new inclusivity for Jews and Judaism – stepping out of the kosher closet.” One of things she spoke about was how, the Christmas period is one of difficulty for Jews. It was therefore decided that, in the UK, Limmud would be held during the period and this has proven to be extremely successful. The rabbi believes that with modern genetics it is not necessary to see the child come out of its mother’s womb to know if it is Jewish, but that it is how a child is raised and how it behaves that should determine if he/she is Jewish. She also believes that gay couples should be welcomed into Jewish communities.

Each region then presented verbal or electronic reports. Some points of interest – the Australasian region (Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Mumbai) donated approximately US$800,000 to the WUPJ in 2008, the FSU had 1200 children at their summer camps in 2008 and Chabad are closing schools in the FSU and the Progressive movement is planning to open its first kindergarten in the region. North America has about 900 congregations with approximately 1 million affiliated members. An “Ambassadors manual” has been launched by this region to get people excited about Reform Judaism.

The first real session of the day, that I attended, was “What do Jewish Women want?” Presentations were given by women from France, North America, the FSU and Israel. In France society is not equal although it is starting to be easier for women to have careers. There are differences in the way boys are educated and boys are often told “not to cry like a girl.”

In North America the main focus is on wanting to make a difference and to be accepted as equals in all aspects of life. The women in the FSU want everything but mostly personal fulfilment and they strive to be involved in the community. In Israel women want control over their bodies – for example some Rabbis now tell new mothers to only breastfeed for three months so that they can fall pregnant again. On the city councils men compliment the women who are silent and in a recent study it was found that women are seven times more likely to be interrupted than men. Some buses are segregated with men in the front and women at the back. Women ambulance drivers earn NIS 800 while their male counterparts earn NIS 2800. Women are forbidden from praying out loud at the Wailing Wall.

This session was followed by a lunch which was the inaugural meeting of WRJ-Israel. So far there are 16 Sisterhoods in Israel, some of which are twinned with Sisterhoods in the US. It was at this luncheon that I presented our gift of NIS1800 which was received with enormous gratitude.

Currently the various Sisterhoods are involved in Study, Philanthropy, working with B’nei Mitzvah students, working towards getting women called to the Torah, Care Committees, Rosh Chodesh groups and having mothers and daughters celebrate their Bat Mitzvah together. The following is their informal mission statement: “Do not let fear be your counsel. Learn to fail and let failure lead to making a difference. Choose your issues carefully. Do not steal another woman’s identity. Do not bear false witness. Do not covert. Do not choose projects that are unrealistic.”

Lunch was followed by the session “Women in Congregational Life. Using our power to affect change” This is the session at which I was the speaker and my speech is sent herewith as a separate attachment. Needless to say everyone present were totally gobsmacked by what we do with our limited numbers and resources. I will not detail anyone else’s presentation other than to say that what they do is really tiny in comparison to our involvement. As Rabbi Jacobs pointed out – we are the smallest community but do the most work.

The final session of the day was “The Torah – a Women’s Commentary” and here we had a brief study session and were given the opportunity to look at the Commentary, which some of us saw in Cape Town at the conference in 2008. The costs of this were funded by WRJ America.

Friday morning started on a fun note with all participants to the IMPJ (Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism) being given chewing gum, so that we could feel like real Israelis. They chew gum like it is going out of fashion. In 2007 research was conducted re the potential of Reform Judaism in Israel. This was designed to identify the attitude of secular and traditional Jews towards the Reform movement. (Traditional Jews constitute approximately 30% of the population). The results were interesting to say the least:

  • 75% secular and 42% traditional Jews support our movement;
  • 56% secular and 39% traditional Jews are willing to support our activities;
  • 71% secular and 48% traditional Jews will accept a liberal Jewish education;
  • 7% secular and 3% traditional Jews have been exposed to a Reform ceremony of some kind;
  • 51% secular and 72% traditional Jews have never been exposed to a Reform ceremony of some kind;

When asked what they think of Reform Judaism the following responses were received:

  • 28% secular and traditional Jews know nothing about our movement however
  • 46% were positive about our movement
  • 20% were negative
  • 27% were neutral.

The 15 year plan of the IMPJ is to double the number of Reform communities, to ‘brand’ Reform Judaism, to expand their activities and to identify and promote philanthropy.

Rabbinic salaries in Israel – 30-40% are paid by the congregation, the balance comes from the IMPJ. The workers on the Reform vineyards are handicapped in some way or another and therefore the wines cannot be declared kosher.

We then travelled by bus to Tel Aviv and I went with a group to Beit Daniel where we spoke to people either undergoing conversion or newly converted. Many of these tried the Orthodox route first and two of the more bizarre responses were:

  • One woman was told that because she was an actress the Orthodox could not convert her because theatre is Greek in origin.
  • Another response, this time to a child adopted by Romanian Jews. She must attend an orthodox school. We will convert her, but if ever she leaves the school her conversion will be revoked.

Such incidences are why many come to the Progressive movement for conversion.

On Sunday it was back to work, and another keynote address, this time regarding Israeli politics. The issue of whether Israel is a Jewish state or an ad hoc place was raised. There is reason to be concerned because whilst the US is breaking barriers, Israel is building them. Issues around marriages were also raised.

I then attended the session on “Raise the Ruach” which should have been attended by every Progressive Jew in South Africa, because we really need it. Just to go back to Kabalat Shabbat – the service I attended at Beit Daniel was so wonderful – lots of singing, guitar playing and great Ruach. I left feeling totally uplifted.

But – back to the session: some of the ideas were to give each member a name tag, so that they can be identified. If this is not an option then at least members of Management should wear a name tag. At least 2 members of management should be on hand with the Rabbi to greet congregants before services. We should do a lot of communal singing. We need to get members to participate in the service and to make all members and visitors feel welcome.

I then attended a session on Tikkun Olam and it was a pity that South Africa did not participate although I did manage to tell those present about what we do during the question/answer session, focussing on our project “Put God on your guest list. Once again all were impressed and some said they would take that theme home with them, and institute it in their countries. In Australia Netzer have decided to go vegetarian for ecological reasons. They plant trees in the Netzer forest in Israel and work in indigenous schools in Cairns.

Other speakers felt that the Orthodox spend too much energy on things like putting on Teffilin, building Sukkot and lighting candles; the Reform way is to repair, to be involved in social action and to make concrete social changes. In Barcelona on Tu Bishvat they plant trees where they are needed, invite the poor to Pesach Seder and help the needy on every Jewish holiday. On Yom Kippur food is given to those in desperate need and on Suckot they help the homeless. In the Ukraine Netzer clean and maintain abandoned cemeteries. Prisoners are taught and 11 of these are studying through the Hebrew Open University.

After lunch (another wonderful meal, as they all were) I went with a group to see what the youth (machinot) in Tel Aviv are doing in the field of Tikkun Olam. 45 young adults, 10 months before their army intake, stay together and learn about their identities. They discuss moral dilemmas that they face, take turns in being responsible for duties in the house and do volunteer work.

In Jaffa the school system is integrated. About 60% of the learners are Jews. Approximately 80% of the Arabs are Muslim. After school those children who need extra tuition or assistance visit a learning centre where 2 of the machinot give one hour lessons. Other machinot visit an old-age home which is mainly for Jews from the FSU and they are entertained. I went to both these facilities and they are unbelievable. We were royally entertained by some of the residents at the old age home. The machinot also do other things to give them a feeling for what others suffer – one young lad lived as a blind person for three days, another lived in a Bedouin village.

From there it was unfortunately to the airport to come home. Due to pressures at work I was unable to stay for the closing ceremony which I am sure was as wonderful as the rest of the conference.

Once again, my gratitude to all who made it possible and to those in Israel who made it so special.

Phina Hoberman named again for world board

Phina Hoberman has been nominated to serve on the board of directors of the international organisation, Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ), for a third term.Hoberman has represented the South African Union of Temple Sisterhoods (SAUTS) on the board since 2003 when the sisterhoods of SAUTS nominated her to serve as their official representative.

“I was subsequently elected on November 8, 2003 as a member on the Women of Reform Judaism Board of Directors at the 44th WRJ Biennial Assembly, which took place in Minneapolis, Minnesota,” Hoberman said.

“Members of the WRJ board are usually elected for a four-year period only. It therefore came as a complete surprise when I received a letter earlier this year informing me that the Committee on Nominations had recommended that my term be extended for a further two-year period (2007-2009). I feel very honoured,” she said.

The vote for the board members will take place during the 46th WRJ Assembly, which is due to take place in December in San Diego, California.

According to SAUTS national president, Monica Solomon, Phina has represented the SAUTS with distinction, at great expense to herself, and has kept us informed of everything that is being done by the WRJ.

“She has been a wonderful ambassador, not only for the sisterhoods in this country, but for Progressive Judaism in South Africa,” said Solomon.

In a letter to Hoberman, Linda Canon of the WRJ said: “I want you to know we are delighted to have you as a board member even if you are unable to attend all the meetings. Mazeltov. I look forward to continuing to work with you.”

“Kol hakavod, Phina, from all the Sisterhood members in South Africa. We are so proud of you!” said Solomon.

Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) is the women’s affiliate of the Union for Reform Judaism, the central body of Progressive Judaism in North America. Established in 1913, WRJ now represents more than 75 000 women in over 500 women’s groups in North America and around the world.

With a mission to ensure the future of Progressive Judaism, WRJ works to educate and train future sisterhood and congregational leadership about membership, fundraising, leadership skills, advocacy for social justice, and innovative and spiritual programming.

About Phina Hoberman

Phina Hoberman has been a member of the Cape Town Progressive Jewish Congregation (Temple Israel) since 1964. She joined the Green Point Sisterhood Committee in 1974 and has served as chairperson of this sisterhood and president of the Cape Town sisterhoods on numerous occasions since then.

Hoberman was elected national president of the Southern African Union of Temple Sisterhoods (SAUTS) in 1983 and held in this position for two years. She represented the SAUTS at international conferences in the United States and in Israel during her term of office.

In 1999, Hoberman served a term as a member of Temple Israel’s executive committee and acted as Temple Israel’s representative on the Western Province Zionist Council for several years.

The SAUTS honoured Hoberman in July 2000 when the organisation bestowed upon her honorary life vice presidency in recognition of many years of devoted service to the SAUTS, and in December 2001, the sisterhoods of Cape Town presented her with the same honour for “exemplary leadership and many years of devoted, loyal and faithful service to the sisterhood and the congregation.”


A year later, Hoberman received the distinction of becoming the first woman ever to be appointed
as a trustee of the Cape Town Progressive Jewish Congregation.

In February 2004, she was selected by WRJ for the honour of co-chairing World Jewry in the WRJ Department on Religious Action, and in May 2006, she was elected to serve as a member of the WRJ Department of Programming and Advocacy.

Hoberman’s dedication to the SAUTS is noteworthy, and her commitment to the Cape Town sisterhoods continues.

Over the years, Hoberman has also made a variety of Judaica items for Temple Israel in Cape Town and other Jewish organisations. In January 1998, she donated to Temple Israel five Torah covers that she had made.

Hoberman was married to the late David Hoberman for 53 years. She has two daughters, two sons, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

May the lights burn through generations

For eight nights, beginning with the eve of 25 Kislev (4 December), candles are to be lit in commemoration of Chanukah, the feast decreed in the Apocryphal Books of the Maccabees and in the Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 21b. For centuries, these days were marked in home and in synagogue in quite simple ways. In more recent decades, Chanukah has assumed a new and more significant profile with more elaborate celebrations.There is a marked difference between the reasons for celebration of these days between the Books of the Maccabees and the Talmud. While historian, Flavius Josephus – formerly Joseph ben Gorion haCohen and commander in chief of the Judean forces in the Galilee in the first century CE – records the historical events of 168-165 BCE, when the descendants of the priest Mattathias rose in armed revolt against the Hellenistic overlord King Antiochus IV Epiphanes and created a satrapy of the Syrian empire known as the Hasmonean Dynasty. The Talmud offers a miracle at the conclusion of their revolt, when the despoiled Temple in Jerusalem was cleaned and purified and a last cruse containing olive oil sufficient to light the ancient Menorah for one day continued supplying necessary light for the sacred light for eight days while a new consecrated supply was made ready.

Each has its own relevance and truth: The Hasmonean Revolt stemmed from the imposition of martial law in ancient Judea by an impatient monarch that included the imposition of Hellenistic worship in the Temple, a violation severe enough to cause the conservative Mattathias to refuse to take part in it, even in his own home near the modern city that bears the ancient name of Modi’in. The Temple itself was rendered unfit for the worship of God; it was not destroyed. Restoration of the purity was one result of the victory of the Judah, Simon and John, who are known as the Maccabees [Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, translated by William Whiston, Book XII, especially Chapters VI & VII].

The military nature of the Maccabees victory became increasingly problematic over the next centuries. As the fate of Judea descended under the rule of Rome, and especially after the catastrophic defeat that left the Temple in ashes and Jerusalem’s high places dedicated as Aelia Capitolina – the City of Zeus – the revision of the holiday had a new political imperative. The uprising became information largely suppressed; the Books of the Maccabees exist now only in the Greek translation preserved in Christian Scripture.

At the end of the 19th Century, however, the growth of political Zionism elevated the stature of this great and successful Jewish uprising. Growing prosperity and an increased awareness of the potential for Jews to create our own homeland by resettlement, land purchase and personal dedication to Eretz Yisraeil – the Land of Israel – made Chanukah an important time of the year. While some assert that it is the arrival of contemporary consumer culture, the Zionist appeal is even earlier.

In the synagogue, the eight days are marked by reading from the Torah, with prescribed selections taken from Numbers chapter 7-8 & 28. These readings describe the gifts offered at the dedication of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness. The daily service also includes the reading of the group of Psalms called Hallel [Psalms 113-119]. These special aspects to the worship offer some real evidence in a search for the original meaning of the holiday – for they duplicate the readings that are included on the much more important festival of Sukkoth, which is associated with both the dedication of the original portable Tabernacle and the First Temple constructed by King Solomon.

From a Progressive Jewish standpoint, the current high status Chanukah poses some real challenges. The Hasmoneans were strong opponents of the part of the population that accepted the aesthetic and life style of Hellenistic society. Their conservatism and opposition to change was supported by the ideology of the Sadducees. The Pharisees, whose ascendancy after this period became complete, were opponents because they sought to interpret Torah in ways that opened Judaism to the broader world of Hellenistic society.

What shall we do? In the opinion of this writer we should light the lights as a remembrance of the adaptability of Judaism through the eight nights of Chanukah. They are sacred lights, not used for illumination, and while they burn – standard Chanukah candles last about 18 minutes – we should enjoy the latkes and dreidels, the songs and stories that make the holiday beloved.

It would probably be preferable to minimize the gift-giving, perhaps substituting our own acts of tikkun olam – repairing the world – by offering appropriate gifts to the needy and poor, or to organizations whose work is the betterment of life and care of the environment.

Above all, this is a time for family and bridge-building. Watch the lights burn, and instil the light from generation to generation.


Further reading

See the Chanukah article on Judaism 101.

Other festivals

A Pesach recipe to share

Rabbi Robert Jacobs talks about the meaning of Pesach for our personal liberation.

Oranges and water wells

Two modern Pesach rituals, little-known in South Africa, bring a feminist angle to the celebrations. By Rabbi Greg Alexander of Temple Israel, Cape Town.

Sukkot and Simchat Torah

Rabbi Robert Jacobs talks about Sukkot, when the Ohel Mo’ed, the Tent of Meeting, is dedicated.

A time to build a Sukkot midrash

Not long ago, Ron and I were in the final stages of home reconstruction. After months of agonizing trips to Home Depot, the house was nearly at completion. Each step of the redo was a process in and of itself. Who would have known that there are over 100 shades of off-white?At last, at last, there was only one more hurdle to jump. The Los Angeles Building Inspector had to approve the construction and provide permits. When he finished his report, I was shocked to see the dreaded words, “Denied.”I looked at the paperwork in dismay. Here’s what I found:

  1. The roof has many holes and it is leaking
  2. The walls are rotting from the inside out
  3. The structure as a whole is unsuitable for a permanent dwelling
  4. The foundation is not bolted, and it will collapse in an earthquake

I thought for a few minutes, and then it hit me: Holes in the roof, unstable walls, structure not suitable for a permanent dwelling, easily collapsible… The building inspector hadn’t examined my house. He had examined my Sukkah!

At the bottom of the report was a note informing me I had a week to remove it from the premises. “Well,” I thought to myself, “As Sukkot is a week long Festival, I have time to make the best of this structure before taking it down.” Now there is a tradition of inviting special guests, or in Hebrew, ushpizin, for a meal in the Sukkah. I thought it would be fun to host an eclectic mix of community leaders. So I sent out “computer E-vites” and eagerly awaited responses. Imagine my delight when Moses, Tzipporah, Jonah, and Maimonides all RSVP’ed that they could attend! It would certainly be a Festival to remember.

Preparations finished, the big night arrived. The doorbell rang, and I went to greet my first guest. Before me stood a young man whose Mohawk rose at least six inches above his head. There were multiple piercings, and his leather coat smelled like oil. Whale oil. “Yo Rabbi,” he said, “I’m Jonah. I really didn’t want to come. I’m not into authority figures and all that. But I had nothing better to do.” (1) Jonah walked right past my outstretched hand and went straight to my fish tank. He just sat and stared at the water.

The door still open, three people then appeared at the entry, two men and a woman. The men were arguing about the placement of my Mezuzah. The woman looked annoyed. One man then extended his hand and introduced himself, “Hi, I’m Rabbi Moishe ben Maiman, but you can call me Maimonides. How kind of you to open your home.”

The other man had a large backpack and a sleeping bag beneath his arm. “Shalom, I’m Moses.” He came close and whispered in my ear, “This is my wife, Tzipporah. She’s not Jewish. Is that ok?”

Tzipporah rolled her eyes and gave me a warm hello. All three came inside. Moses threw his belongings onto the floor, and Maimonides went straight out the back door and into the Sukkah.

“Moses,” I asked, “Uh… what’s the sleeping bag for?”

“Oh, I’m spending the week here,” he answered.

“Excuse me?” I responded.

“Well,” Moses began, “According to what God told me, we are commanded to live in the Sukkah during this Harvest Festival.(2) It’s to remember what the ancestors went through when they crossed the desert. All these commandments! As if Pharaoh’s laws weren’t tough enough. So I figured, if it’s going to last a week, I may as well be as comfortable as possible!” He took out some palm branches, willows, pumpkins, and other assorted harvest-related offerings. “Don’t worry,” Moses went on as he arranged his belongings, “You won’t even know we’re here.”

I stared at Moses with my mouth open.

Tzipporah then spoke up, “I don’t think ‘the ancestors’ were all that interested in grass huts, Moses. And what about theses palm branches? Do you really think they had an abundant vegetation out there in the middle of the desert?”

Moses looked up, “You know, I never really thought of that!” Then he looked at me, “Tzipporah is the more intellectually honest of the two of us. Her father, Yethro, is an international consultant. (3)She grew up learning how to mediate in the toughest of situations. And she’s a great mother. Ironically, she’s the one who makes sure our son gets a good Jewish upbringing.”(4)

I looked over to Jonah, who was still staring at the fish.

Maimonides then re-entered the room with a perplexed look on his face. “Rabbi,” I asked, “Is something wrong?”

Maimonides looked at me and said, “Well, I hate to tell you this, but someone has to… Your Sukkah, it’s not kosher.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, according to my authoritative Talmudic code, the Mishna Torah, the Sukkah can not be placed beneath a tree because you must be able to see the sky through its roof. Yet yours is too close to that big Oak, and its braches are blocking the view. The Mishna Torahforbids anything that smells offensive to hang in the Sukkah, but I think I saw a squash so old that it was growing a tail. And the schach, the covering for the Sukkah, it’s supposed to be made of organic material, not a tarp from L.L. Bean.” (5)

I thought to myself, “Oy vey,Maimonides should get a job with the Los Angeles department of Building and Safety.”

Moses spoke up, “C’mon, Maimonides, what are you talking about? All God told me back in the desert was to observe the festival for seven days and build a little hut to live in. Where do you get all these laws from?”

“Moses,” Maimonides went on, “outside of Israel we observe the Festival for eight days, not seven. Why? Because we want to build a fence around the Torah, (6) to protect the law, to make sure we get it right. You never know if your watch stops and we miss the ordained time of rejoicing. And you’re not supposed to physically live in the Sukkah. Now that is a hardship.”

Moses looked exasperated. “My atomic watch keep precise time, thank you. There’s no need to observe eight days anymore! And you talk of rejoicing? You’ve got to be kidding! How can we rejoice with all these restrictions? Further,” Moses gasped, “The Torah specifically commands us to live in the Sukkah! How can we deny that?”

“You think you’re the only one who has a relationship with God, don’t you?” Maimonides shot back, ” Listen, my friend, the truth is that no one understands God’s intentions better than I do. Look at all this stuff you brought. For heaven’s sake! We’re supposed enjoy the Sukkah by having a meal in it, by decorating it, by studying in it. But living in it is not what God intended.”

Moses just looked at Maimonides with disbelief. He then said to Tzipporah, “And I suppose he’s going to tell us next that cheeseburgers aren’t kosher?!”

For the first time, Jonah spoke up, “Do you all realize how ridiculous you sound? Who cares if God wants us to live or eat or study in the Sukkah? It’s all nonsense. Why should we have to live according to these rules anyway? God told me just the other day to go to Niniveh to deliver a motivational speech. You know what I did instead? I went on a cruise. Ok, ok, it didn’t end up quite as nice as I thought it would. I never expected to be swallowed by a fish. But we can’t go around just blindly following these voices we hear.”

Jonah looked at Moses and said, “Don’t you ever think that maybe, just maybe, you misinterpreted some of the things that God said to you? Judaism isn’t only about what comes down to you from above. Judaism is about how to deal with people on this earth. There’s a lot you can learn from Tzipporah.”

“And before you get too high on yourself, Maimonides,” Jonah continued, “Your ‘definitive’ code of law has room for improvement as well. Other voices have a right to be heard.(7) The two of you spend so much time spewing off hot air that you can’t even hear what you are saying. Why don’t you just be quiet and listen for a change.” (8)

Moses retorted, “Jonah, it’s ok to question, but we can’t run away. We have to face and even challenge the tradition. We can’t just pretend the traditions don’t exist.”

The room grew silent. My four guests all stared at me, and I had no idea what to do.

Just then, we heard a voice sobbing from outside. I opened the door to find a young man, probably no more than twenty years old, dressed in colorful rags and quite emaciated. “Can I help you,” I asked as I led him inside.

“My name is Joseph,” he said. “My family, my eleven brothers and sister, have abandoned me, and I have nowhere to go. I was looking at your Sukkah from the backyard and thought that yours might be a home that provides shelter. I’m a good worker and can help you to build anew from the inside out.” (9)

I looked into this poor boy’s eyes and I saw that his heart was filled with hope and dreams. I then looked to Moses, Tzipporah, and Maimonides. Here we were arguing over the structure of the Sukkah and the laws of Sukkot. Yet we had ignored what belongs at the heart of the Festival. Sukkot is about building order into a world filled with chaos. It’s about a communal journey to strengthen ourselves as individuals and as a people.

Our Sukkah is physically open to the outside world, making it impossible to ignore those without shelter. Sukkot reminds us to give structure to our lives, but not a structure so permanent that we can’t question it. While on Yom Kippur, we put ourselves in God’s hands, during Sukkot we take the world into our own hands. And while on Yom Kippur we tear ourselves down, on Sukkot we begin to build once again.

I set an extra seat around my Sukkot dinner table, and the five of us enjoyed a true Festival meal.

And when they left, I watched as their images blended into the endless mysteries of time. I watched and I thought to myself, “Next year I’ll keep it simple.”

As we read in Ecclesiastes during Sukkot, “There is a time to break down and a time to build up.” (10) Friends, our world has seen enough of breaking down. Yom Kippur in and of itself is about breaking down. Let’s come together to build up, to reach out, to embrace the spirit of Sukkot, and to breathe new life into old rituals. Let us work toward a true “Sukkat Shalom,” a shelter of peace and of wholeness.

You see, Sukkot is only partially about building a structure. The true meaning is about building a community. One person at a time.

Ken Y’hi Ratzon.


(Click on the BACK button to return to your position in the text)

  1. Based on Jonah’s running away from God/ responsibility. Connection to YK
  2. Lv 23:42-43
  3. Based on Ex. 18:15-22
  4. Based on Ex 4:24-26, Tzipporah is the one who circumcises their son
  5. Shulchan Aruch, Orah Hayyim 629-631
  6. Pirkei Avot 1:1
  7. The Mishna Torah does not express the minority view, just the Halacha
  8. Based on Jonah Story: He has fulfilled God’s command to tell the people to do Teshuva
  9. Based on Joseph Story Gn. 37
  10. Ecc. 3:3

A leading roof and rotting walls … likely to collapse during an earthquake
It is at Sukkot that the Ohel Mo’ed, the Tent of Meeting, is dedicated. RABBI ROBERT JACOBS of Bet David looks forward to Succot and Simchat Torah

High Holy Days and
linear time

RABBI ROBERT JACOBS talks about Judaism and the notion of a linear time. PLUS: Some of the rituals around the High Holy Days.

V’samachtem b’chagecha Rejoice at the Festival

Sukkot is known in Jewish literature as heChag – the Festival, although it is only one of the three pilgrimage festivals of the year. The others, Pesach and Shavuot, share with this seven day celebration both literal agricultural meanings and metaphorical religious meanings as part of the annual cycle that traces Jewish peoplehood from physical liberation through Divine revelation to Sacred Communion with God.The Sacred Communion is the special identity of Sukkot, for if Pesach recalls the Exodus from Egypt and its slavery, and Shavuot records ma’amad Har Sinai – standing at Mount Sinai – it is at Sukkot that the Ohel Mo’ed – the Tent of Meeting – is dedicated and put into use.That act of dedication of a tabernacle in which the Ark of the Covenant stood, and where Moses entered regularly through the 40 wilderness years, was the place where God and people would meet. In a continuation of that glorious tradition, King Solomon rehearsed the events of that dedication. It is relatively easy to review these texts as weekly Torah Portions Vayakhel and Pekudei (Exodus 22:1-40:35), and their respective traditional Haftarot (I Kings, chapter 7 & 8). Much later in Jewish history – 165 BCE – the re-dedication at the Feast of Lights – Hanukkah – also found this celebration so compelling that it became the model for that much younger semi-holiday.

Sukkot has a specific structure that is outlined in Leviticus 23:33-36:

“God spoke to Moses saying: ‘Say to the Israelite people: On the 15th day of this seventh month, there shall be the Feast of Booths to Adonai [to last] seven days. The first day shall be a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations; seven days shall you bring offerings by fire to God. On the eighth day, you shall observe a sacred occasion and bring an offering by fire to Adonai; it is a solemn gathering: you shall not work at your occupations.”

For Progressive Judaism, which follows the Israeli calendar around the world, there are two Festival days separated by the intermediate days of the festival – chol haMo’ed. The rules of the Festival days, which by tradition are two distinct holidays – Sukkot and Sh’mini Atzeret-Simchat Torah (see below) – are less rigorous than those for Sabbaths, including both Yom Kippur – whatever day of the week it might fall on – and the Intermediate Sabbath of the Festival during either Sukkot or Pesach.

In the citation above, the sacred occasion observed on the festival limits working at one’s occupation. On Sabbath, that limitation is expanded to “no manner of servile work”. The Sabbath restrictions are known as 39 melachot – the kinds of labour used in building the Ohel Mo’ed and its trappings, often expanded into related actions and activities, as well as the making of any fire. On Festivals and Rosh Hashanah, the tradition offers eruv tavshilin, a virtual start to preparation of food which allows cooking to take place and transfer of fire from an existing flame.

This section of Leviticus continues with more instructions for Sukkot (Leviticus 23:40-43):

“On the first day, you shall take the product of the goodly [hadar] trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before Adonai your God seven days. You shall observe it as a festival of Adonai for seven days in the year; you shall observe it is the seventh month as a law for all time, throughout the ages. You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens of Israel shall dwell in booths in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I Adonai, your God.”

Based on these verses, four species native to the land of Israel are customarily carried in procession and waved during the reading of the Hallel, Psalms 113-119, throughout Sukkot and culminating on Hoshanna Rabbah, the concluding intermediate day of the festival on which special pleas for redemption-hoshannot-are to be recited. These four species referred to as the lulav are generally agreed upon as being:

  • Lulav – palm branch
  • Aravah – willow
  • Hadas – myrtle
  • Etrog – citron

They are bundled together, and in Midrash, viewed as representing the body and soul of each person: spine (lulav), eyes (shape of the myrtle leaves), lips (shape of willow leaves) and heart (shape of the etrog). Together, they symbolise the complete connection between Jew and God, between human and nature.

In the Booth-sukkah-it is also customary to recite blessings in this series:

Upon entering the booth:

Blessed is the Eternal our God, Ruler of the World, who makes us holy by commandments and commands us to dwell in booths.

Upon taking up and assembling the four species:

Blessed is the Eternal our God, Ruler of the World, who makes us holy by commandments and commands us to take up the lulav.

Before taking a ‘meal’- a minimum amount of the size of an olive:

Blessed is the Eternal our God, Ruler of the World, who brings forth bread from the earth.

The first occasion on which any of the above occurs:

Blessed is the Eternal our God, Ruler of the World, who has kept us in life, sustained us and brought us to this joyous time.

For those blessed with the luxury of outdoor space, a sukkah can be constructed at home. The booth is a temporary structure with a minimum of three “walls” which can be no less than three handbreadths wide. The booth may be free-standing or use existing walls. Critical is that the stars are visible through the grass-covered roof. The rugged will camp out in this open space; others might use it only at meal times. In any case, the experience of a meal in the sukkah with blessing, songs and good company is a unique experience of public proclamation of Jewish identity and pride.

The days of dwelling in the sukkah end at Hoshanna Rabbah when the four species are carried for the final time. Although the sukkah is left standing, on the separate Shemini Atzeret-Simchat Torah Festival, life returns indoors to home or synagogue sanctuary. The emphasis shifts then to the cycle of Torah reading, which apparently was fixed through the Italian tradition about a thousand years ago.

On one evening, the last words of Deuteronomy are read by a Chatan Torah – Bride/Bridegroom of the Torah followed immediately by the reading of the opening words from Genesis read by a Chatan B’reishit – Bride/Bridegroom of Genesis. Whether these two chatanim are male or female, it is a high honour to represent the community in its quest to proclaim aloud the centrality of Torah and its covenant.

Simchat Torah is especially to be marked by the physical act of following the Torah scroll as the hakafot-circlings with the Torah-are accomplished. Dancing, singing and rejoicing are all the order of the day, inside and outside the sanctuary, and in many communities even into the courtyards and streets of the town.

The lulav and etrog consist of palm, willow and myrtle branch, and a citron.succah4

The succah is walled on three sides and has branches across the top.


The sky should be visible through the foliage of the roof.

Towards a Succot Midrash

As Rabbi ZACHARY SHAPIRO of Temple Akiba in Los Angeles ponders a construction problem, he receives some unexpected guests …

Shavuoth – Feast of Weeks or Pentecost

ON THE 50th day after Passover, Deuteronomy 26 specifies that each person is to bring to the Priest an offering of the first fruits of the year, and upon transferring the offering, to make confession:”My father was a fugitive Aramean, He went down to Egypt with meagre numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labour upon us.

“We cried to the Eternal, the God of our ancestors, and the Eternal heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Eternal freed us from Egypt by a might hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. God brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, God, have given me.”(Deuteronomy 26:5-10.

As we conclude the Counting of the Omer, the harvest season is ended and the agricultural cycle continues; we also mark the end of the period of anarchy in the great march of our Israelite forebears from Egypt and slavery and into the wilderness. Yet this first period is without Law, without ceremony, and without a clear understanding of the nature or requirements of the worship that Moses proposed to Pharaoh early in the Book of Exodus.

Torah teaches that on the first day of the third month – the month we call Sivan – the people encamped in the Wilderness of Sinai. And on the sixth day, the great revelation at Sinai took place. Midrash Rabba connects the sixth day to Genesis 1: 31. Humans created on the day six of creation are to receive the revelation of Torah at Sinai on the sixth of the month, a further step in explaining the purpose of creation.

Other Midrashim explain:

  • The selection of the Jewish people (all other people rejected the restrictions of Torah, Jews were compelled by the mountain held over them like an inverted washtub)
  • The choice of the place (God took a piece of Mount Moriah – the Temple Mount – and tore it off like challah from dough and placed it in the wilderness)
  • The choice of the first letter of Torah. Bet, the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, is closed above, below, and behind but open to the front. We are only permitted to speculate about what follows the bet, not what precedes it.

No less controversial through all ages is the nature of the revelation that is celebrated on this festival called Yom Matan Torah – the Day of the Law-Giving. Whether it was the words recorded in Exodus 20, or Deuteronomy 4 (The Ten Commandments) or the written Torah, or the whole of Torah-written and oral – it emerges as the great encounter of the Jewish People with God that sealed the Brit-Covenant that binds us even now to be a light to all nations and exemplars of humanity created in the image and likeness of God.

Calendar of
festival dates

Calendar of dates of Jewish Festivals for the years 2008 to 2010.

Counting of the Omer

The eve of the second day of Pesach begins the “Counting of the Omer” which ends on the 50th day with Shavuoth. Rabbi Robert Jacobs explains

A Pesach recipe for everyone

The seder discussion for a progressive Jewish family should be not only about the ancient journey from slavery to liberation, but also about the personal journey of our own liberation

A compact paragraph embracing our beliefs

Pesach is a time for us to ask where we came from, where we are going, and what our life journey means

Haggadah: As much an archeology as a book

The Pesach haggadah is a multi-layered text, embracing some traditions thousands of years old — and some very recent, writes Rabbi Greg Alexander

Oranges and water cups at Pesach

Two powerful feminist additions to Pesach custom, worth considering for your next seder: Miriam Cups and oranges

The universal festival

It is the universal message of Pesach which makes it the one festival that appeals to unobservant Jews … and even to non-Jews

Counting the seven weeks to Shavuoth

THE seven weeks between Passover and Shavuoth are marked in tradition by the ceremonial Counting of the Omer. There are several interpretations that apply to this Biblical injunction:

  1. 1. Sefirat ha’Omer is detailed in Leviticus 23:15-17 as part of the harvest of the grain that was so central to life in ancient Israel. Each harvest day, the first sheaves were set aside as offerings to God, and entrusted to the Kohanim. We are offered insight into the laborious and protracted process of this harvest by the extension of the activity through a week of weeks, to the fiftieth day. That festival day is known as Shavuoth or Pentecost. It is notable that the counting begins at the eve of the 2nd Day of Pesah.
  2. 2. The harvest begins on the first day spent outside slavery in Mitzrayim – as ancient Egypt is called in the Torah. The newly liberated were still to cross Yam Suf (“Red Sea” or Sea of Reeds), and weeks away from the revelation of Torah. That great moment is associated with the end of this period of counting, Jewish tradition assigning to the festival of Shavuoth ma’amad har Sinai – the revelation at Sinai.
  3. 3. Megillat Ruth – the Book of Ruth – records the title character returning from Moab as a young widow with her widowed mother-in-law Naomi at the time of the barley harvest. Ruth’s journey to the fields of Boaz as a gleaner (cf. Leviticus 19:9-10), her sojourn in the harvest booth, and her meeting with the relative of her deceased husband and father-in-law, lead to her role in Jewish consciousness as the direct ancestor of King David, from whose house the Messiah is to descend.

In the 19th Century, Reformers moved away from many of the traditional restrictions placed upon Jewish society during Sefirah-the counted days. Reviewing the three interpretations of the period as outlined above, perhaps their motivation can be understood as a rejection of the role of the Kohanim in Jewish life-a common theme in Rabbinic Judaism.

In the period just after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Roman legion under Titus (70 c.e.), the Priests were limited to the 1st Aliyah to Torah in Synagogue, Pidyon haBen (Redemption of the First Born), and Duchen (the Priestly Benediction). Even these prerogatives were dismissed by Reformers.

The second interpretation, dealing with the agricultural aspects of life, was likely dismissed during the urbanization that has typified the past 200 years. The third, associated with the ancient messianic hope, fell away as rationalism, positivism and optimism about the human role in progress became predominant explanations of this world in the Jewish community.

Our own consciousness, however, might call us to re-evaluate their decision on the basis of the second and third interpretations. As our awareness of ecological concern for the state of the world grows, and as we perceive the fragility of food supplies, adequate harvests and the importance of meaningful work for every person, turning back to regular acknowledgement of the significance of the harvest is a means of calling us to mindfulness of God’s role in the most mundane aspects of life.

It is notable that the newly published Siddur Mishkan Tefilah that has been edited to supersede Gates of Prayer includes the brief ceremony for counting the Omer, traditional at evening services on weekdays and Shabbat.

Tradition – and Minhag South Africa – urge us to refrain from joyous celebration throughout the sefirah with the exception of Roshei Chodesh Iyar and Sivan (First day of each month) and the 33rd day of the Omer (Lag B’omer); many in the Progressive community also add Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) to this list.

Calendar of
festival dates

Calendar of dates of Jewish Festivals for the years 2008 to 2010.

A Pesach recipe for everyone

The seder discussion for a progressive Jewish family should be not only about the ancient journey from slavery to liberation, but also about the personal journey of our own liberation

A compact paragraph embracing our beliefs

Pesach is a time for us to ask where we came from, where we are going, and what our life journey means

Haggadah: As much an archeology as a book

The Pesach haggadah is a multi-layered text, embracing some traditions thousands of years old — and some very recent, writes Rabbi Greg Alexander

Oranges and water cups at Pesach

Two powerful feminist additions to Pesach custom, worth considering for your next seder: Miriam Cups and oranges

The universal festival

It is the universal message of Pesach which makes it the one festival that appeals to unobservant Jews … and even to non-Jews

Why does this night draw even the unobservant?

The Universality of Pesach

The annual celebration of the Israelite’s liberation from slavery in Egypt is one of the most popularly observed festivals in the Jewish calendar. Most Jews who are not particularly observant during the rest of the year will attend a Pesach seder and will refrain from eating bread. The seder with all its ritual and tradition is appealing to old and young alike.

The question to be asked is: why does Pesach, especially the first night evoke such commitment from Jews who do not ordinarily observe the tenets and traditions of Judaism? Many who make a point of attending or even hosting a Pesach seder do not observe the weekly Shabbat or celebrate the festivals of Shavuot and Sukkoth.

The answer can be found in the universal message of Pesach – the message of the importance of human dignity and freedom. Pesach is not only a celebration of the physical redemption of the children of Israel from the tyrannical rule of Pharaoh, it is also a celebration of spiritual and intellectual freedom.

The conflict between Moses and Pharaoh symbolises the clash between the life-affirming God of Israel and the culture of ancient Egypt that deified the king and revered the dead. While the ancient Egyptians left the legacy of the Great Pyramid of Giza our ancient ancestors gave the Tanach to the world.

The pyramids, being great feats of human ingenuity are nothing more that tombs of the pharaohs; the Hebrew Bible is a record of the Israelites’ relationship with God and a source of inspiration to thousands of generations of Jews, Christians, and indeed Muslims (the narratives of the Quran are based on the Tanach).

It is no accident that the symbols of ancient Egypt and ancient Israel are diametrically opposed. The pyramids are concrete symbols of the tyrannical views of the Pharaohs who held the power of life and death over their subjects. Any individualist tendencies were forbidden and knowledge was the exclusive domain of the Egyptian priests.

In contrast the Hebrew Bible is the repository of life-affirming ideas that are fluid and applicable to life and the world in succeeding generations. The sacred texts represent the dynamism of God and life. The narratives provide lessons for all human beings, regardless of their social status, ethnicity or faith.

The laws and precepts of Torah are motivated by the desire to sanctify society, to promote the spiritual and intellectual growth of its individual members, thereby fulfilling the notion that we are created bezelem elohim, in God’s image.

Our ability to create is a manifestation of our godliness, a characteristic which must not be stifled by any ruler or master. Thus the history of the nation of Israel as a people began with the liberation from servitude to a Pharaoh of Egypt and the subsequent forging of a covenantal relationship at Mount Sinai with the God of Israel, a God who demands no abdication of the mind but only that we refrain from doing to others that which we would not want them to do to us (Shabbat 31a).

Bound by this “Golden Rule” of Rabbi Hillel the individual Jew is free to express his or her own personality and discover his or her own relationship with the Source of Life. We are encouraged by our tradition to study and critically analyse the sacred texts, the world and life in general. The rituals and traditions of our people are to be used as conduits to holiness and are not there to enslave us.

Because Torah is a “Tree of Life” and because the story of Pesach is a celebration of freedom and life it resonates with all Jews, and indeed with all human beings. Rabbi Ben Zoma taught (Berachot 1:5) that one must recall the Exodus from Egypt twice a day (morning and night) during the recitation of the Shema. Since the liberation from physical and intellectual enslavement to Pharaoh is the paradigm for the eventual redemption of humanity from tyranny and oppression the sages deemed it necessary for us to remind ourselves of our people’s deliverance twice daily.

All peoples who have experienced bondage and intolerance can relate to Pesach. It is no coincidence that the black slaves of the southern states of the United States of America in the mid 19th century viewed themselves as modern-day Israelites suffering at the hands of the Egyptians. The Afro-American spiritual written to inspire the salves in their struggle for liberty and made famous by Paul Robeson is entitled “Go down Moses” and was based on Exodus 8:1.

While the Torah limits the celebration of Pesach to members of the covenant (Exodus 12:48), a limitation which was extended by the rabbis to the Pesach seder, there are some rituals connected to the seder that have universal significance.

The spilling of wine (symbol of joy) for each of the Ten Plagues demonstrates our sorrow that the Egyptians had to suffer before the Israelites were allowed to leave. This interpretation is based on a midrash in which God chastises the angels who wish to emulate the Israelites by singing praises to God for drowning the Egyptians in the Sea of Reeds (Sanhedrin 39a).

The midrash and the ritual of the aseret makkot at the seder teach that God does not rejoice in the suffering of the wicked, since God is the God of all. The ritual of the cup of Elijah, expresses the Jewish hope for the universal redemption of humanity when all men and women will be free from persecution, oppression and discrimination.

Thus the festival of Pesach, while a specifically Jewish celebration of the deliverance of the people of Israel from the despotism of Egypt, is also a festival that addresses an issue that is of paramount importance to every single human being that resides on planet earth.

As we sit around our seder tables may we remember that we are part of a universal humanity and that we have much to share with our fellow human beings. I wish you all a Pesach Kasher VeSameach.

Painting by Gabriella Jacobs of Pretoria.

Calendar of
festival dates

Calendar of dates of Jewish Festivals for the years 2008 to 2010.

A Pesach recipe for everyone

The seder discussion for a progressive Jewish family should be not only about the ancient journey from slavery to liberation, but also about the personal journey of our own liberation

A compact paragraph embracing our beliefs

Pesach is a time for us to ask where we came from, where we are going, and what our life journey means

Haggadah: As much an archeology as a book

The Pesach haggadah is a multi-layered text, embracing some traditions thousands of years old — and some very recent, writes Rabbi Greg Alexander

Oranges and water cups at Pesach

Two powerful feminist additions to Pesach custom, worth considering for your next seder: Miriam Cups and oranges

The orange plate and the cup of water

As you are preparing your seder plates this year, take a moment to consider two customs that may or may not be new to your home. The first is placing an orange on the seder plate next to the other symbolic objects. There are two “accepted” reasons for why this is done, both involving Susannah Heschel – a prominent feminist teacher of Torah and daughter of the famous theologian and human rights activist, Abraham Joshua Heschel – and you choose the one that you like.The first is that she was invited to speak in a certain synagogue and was heckled by a man in the congregation who protested that “a woman on the bimah is like an orange on the seder plate”. She subsequently placed an orange on her seder plate that Pesach.

The “real” reason, supplied by Heschel herself, is that in the early 1980s, she was trying to find a ritual way of symbolising the struggle by Jewish lesbians and gays for recognition in mainstream Judaism. One Haggadah suggested placing a crust of bread on the seder plate (to symbolically protest the notion that “gays and lesbians are as welcome at the seder as bread”).

She found the idea interesting, but felt that since placing bread on the table makes the whole seder chametz, that was exactly what she didn’t want to be saying about gays and lesbians. So at her next seder, she divided an orange into segments and offered her guests one each for all the different kinds of Jews who have been marginalised – gays and lesbians, widows, agunot (women who are “chained” to their previous husbands) etc. The orange symbolised the fruitfulness that Judaism would be missing if it kept these people outside, and the seeds that were inevitably spat out as one eats a segment of an orange were for spitting out all the phobias (xenophobia, homophobia, etc.) from Judaism.

Whichever you find more appealing, the fact is that the orange has popped up on seder plates all over the States, UK, Israel and now here in SA, and it’s starting to become a normative feature cuddling up next to the karpas and charoset.

The second recent custom is the filling of the cup for Miriam. This is based on a midrash on two verses in B’midbar/Numbers. In the first verse (Numbers 20:1), Miriam dies, and in the second (vs. 2), it immediately states that there was no water for the Israelites and so they come to challenge Moses and Aaron. Noting that the water seems to disappear the moment that Miriam died, the midrash explains that Miriam had a magical well that would follow the Israelites on their journeys – so that they had a continuous source of water. But it was sustained only by the merit of Miriam herself, and when she died, the well disappeared.

Water is a key image in the Torah and rabbinic literature, symbolising life and Torah, and Miriam was the provider of both for the children of Israel. The custom is to place a cup on the table and fill it with water, not wine, to recall her role in the exodus, and also to make some small recompense for the fact that women seem to get such short shrift at the seder (Moses, Elijah, lots of male rabbis – not too much mention of women at a traditional seder).

So, wherever you are this Pesach, at home or at Aunty Adele’s, why not try out making this seder night different from all other seder nights with the addition of two powerful new minhagim?


An elaborate, hand-painted Miriam’s Cup by Israeli artist Yair Emanuel. The cup, which comes with a matching plate, shows dancing women.

This cup, and a number of others, can be bought from the website JewishGifts.com

Calendar of
festival dates

Calendar of dates of Jewish Festivals for the years 2008 to 2010.

Haggadah: As much an archeology as a book

The Pesach haggadah is a multi-layered text, embracing some traditions thousands of years old — and some very recent, writes Rabbi Greg Alexander

A Pesach recipe for everyone

The seder discussion for a progressive Jewish family should be not only about the ancient journey from slavery to liberation, but also about the personal journey of our own liberation

A compact paragraph embracing our beliefs

Pesach is a time for us to ask where we came from, where we are going, and what our life journey means

Miriam’s cup: links

A number of websites provide information about Miriam’s Cup. Here are two we recommend:

www.miriamscup.com An entire website devoted to the topic

www.ritualwell.org Ritual Well is a feminist Jewish website

Haggadah: Less a book than an archeology

One can often be excused for thinking that Jewish practise fell to earth from Sinai fully formed, yet this is far from the case, and with Pesach around the corner, the seder is a perfect example.One of my teachers, Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, used to say that the Pesach Hagaddah is less a book than an archaeological dig. If you go to most Israeli archaeological sites you will find that they uncover layer upon layer of building. As the earliest inhabitants moved on, the desert sands covered up the buildings and the next generation comes along and builds anew, and so on until you have a multi-layered “tel” that sometimes spans thousands of years going straight down in one place.

The Haggadah is a similar work, with the Hallel psalms dating back to the earliest days of Biblical Judaism, and songs like Chad Gadya and Adir Hu unknown to Haggadot until the early Middle Ages. Familiar pieces like Mah Nishtanah are almost a quotation from the Mishnah (Pesachim 10:4) until one sees that in the Mishnah there were three (different) questions and our Haggadot have, of course, four. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise to find out that new rituals are finding their way into today’s Haggadah, and a great example of that is Miriam’s Cup.

We are all familiar with Elijah’s Cup, but many seder tables today have another cup, one for Miriam the prophetess and sister of Moses and Aaron. The custom is based on a midrash (Ta’anit 9) that during her lifetime, and because of her special merit, the Children of Israel drank water from a miraculous well that followed them as they wandered through the desert. When she died, their water disappeared immediately. (B’midbar 20:1, 2)

We often think of Moses as the hero of Pesach, but Miriam has a huge part in the Exodus story. She prophesied that Moses would be born, she guarded the infant Moses as he floated down the Nile, and she sang the song of victory at the Sea of Reeds, taking the women with her as they danced and played timbrels in celebration. In fact, our tradition says, “If it wasn’t for the righteousness of women of that generation we would not have been redeemed from Egypt” (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 9b).

So many people have now begun to take on the custom of placing a cup for Miriam alongside the cup for Elijah. Why not try it this year – choose a lovely goblet, or a decorative vase, fill it with water, and place it in a prominent place on the table.

As Miriam’s Cup is still a new addition to the seder, its use is not fixed. Some fill Miriam’s Cup at the very beginning of the seder. Miriam, after all, appears at the very beginning of the Exodus story (watching over her brother Moses in the Nile). Starting with Miriam’s Cup is also a way of letting people know right from the beginning that your seder is going to be a fully inclusive one. Also, since Elijah’s Cup comes at the end of the seder, it is nice to use the two cups as a frame for your seder and begin with Miriam.

Others fill or raise Miriam’s cup after the recitation of the Ten Plagues and before dayyenu, which carries the story of the Exodus through the crossing of the Red Sea and into the wilderness, moments during which Miriam played an important role. Others use Miriam’s Cup along with Elijah’s Cup towards the close of the seder, with Elijah representing the herald of the messiah, and Miriam, a prophet urging us to do the work to bring about redemption.

Another suggestion is to close the seder by passing around Miriam’s Cup for every one to take a drink, and commit to carrying the seder’s themes with them beyond the night of the seder. You can either fill your Miriam’s Cup with water from a jug, or you can invite everyone at the table to pour some water from their drinking glasses into Miriam’s Cup. Everyone contributing water emphasizes that we each have a role in reviving the stories of women and in sustaining the Jewish people on our journey. Feel free to use any one or any combination of these ideas for incorporating Miriam’s Cup into your seder.

Whichever way you choose to do it, you are connecting your seder to the generations that have come before and adding another layer to the dig. Chag Sameach.


Hand-painted Miriam’s Cup by Israeli artist Yair Emanuel, illustrated with dancing women.

This cup, and a number of others, can be bought from the website JewishGifts.com

Calendar of
festival dates

Calendar of dates of Jewish Festivals for the years 2008 to 2010.

A Pesach recipe for everyone

The seder discussion for a progressive Jewish family should be not only about the ancient journey from slavery to liberation, but also about the personal journey of our own liberation

A compact paragraph embracing our beliefs

Pesach is a time for us to ask where we came from, where we are going, and what our life journey means

Oranges and water cups at Pesach

Two powerful feminist additions to Pesach custom, worth considering for your next seder: Miriam Cups and oranges