The Seven Lights: On the Major Jewish Festivals

sevenlightsThe Seven Lights:

On the Major Jewish Festivals

The Seven Lights is a book-length dialogue between Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz and Rabbi Josy Eisenberg on the subject of the Jewish holidays, in light of the teachings of the great hasidic master, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi.

The Jewish calendar is punctuated by the rhythm of the Sabbath and the holidays throughout the year. This book offers insight into the “The Seven Lights” that illuminate our spiritual lives on an annual basis: the Days of Awe, namely Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; the “pilgrimage holidays” of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot; and those holidays proclaimed by man, Purim and Chanukah. Rabbi Steinsaltz serves as a masterful guide through the journey of the Jewish year, drawing from the kabbalistic teachings of the “Alter Rebbe,” Rabbi Schneur Zalman.

This illuminating commentary on the celebrations and observances that define us as Jews began as a series of televised interviews on a French program called The Source of Life. The intense interest expressed by the viewers and the repeated requests for the texts used in the interviews inspired Rabbi Eisenberg to compile this book. His faithful rendition of their conversations brings new meaning to the Jewish holiday for the English-speaking audience.

Read excerpts of The Seven Lights:

Passover – “The Child and the Sage”
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – “The Days of Awe”


Passover – “The Child and the Sage”

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (RAS): The matzah eaten by the Israelites in Egypt has a dual meaning, as is clearly demonstrated by the Haggadah ritual.  On the one hand, it is the symbol of flight and powerlessness.  The dough prepared for the Exodus did not have enough time to rise, because the Israelites had to leave Egypt in haste.  On the other hand, the Israelites were instructed to eat matzah on the evening of Passover to accompany the Passover lamb.  “They shall eat the flesh that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs” (Exodus 12:8).  We are commanded to eat matzah although we eat bread the rest of the year and have apparently reached a higher level of knowledge.  One of the basic features of Jewish existence, both on the personal level and on the level of collective history, is that there is no possible beginning without a return to the roots of faith, to a state of pure knowledge free of all rationalization.  The rest is only construction, superstructure, and embellishment.  The primary meaning of eating matzah is the return to the starting point.  This return is necessary even when I have “eaten” more sophisticated nourishment.

Josy Eisenberg (JE): Precisely because that is what I eat all year long.  We have seen that Jewish tradition views the polarity between leavened and unleavened bread in a moral light.  Leavened bread, our daily bread, represents all artificial forms of expansion, pride, and unchecked growth.  Matzah, on the other hand, expresses the return to simplicity.  This is, in fact, what Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi says:

“But first we must understand the concepts of hametz and matzah.  Hametz rises and inflates itself and has a taste.  Matzah does not rise and self-inflate, and has no taste at all; as our Sages rule, ‘One who swallows matzah [whole], has fulfilled the obligation [of eating matzah on Passover].’  So, too, in man’s service of God, matzah is the element of self-abnegation.  This was the quality of the first matzah, which the Israelites ate before midnight – the ‘arousal from below’ through ‘nullify your will [before His]’…As is known, pride is the progenitor of all profanities, the source of all lusts. Thus through the quality of ‘nullify your will’ one achieves self-conquest (itkafia), and as it is written ‘and you shall eliminate the evil [from within you.]'”

RAS: The important point here is not the moral point of view, although it is edifying.  What is important is the basic fact of eating matzah, if we want a renewal and to leave Egypt.

JE: Hasidism says that through our limitations, we are always prisoners of “our own Egypt.”

RAS: Here matzah represents one of the most basic dimensions of exile and the exodus from Egypt.  The manifestation and revelation of God is so enormous that it crushes man and flattens his being and culture.  All his knowledge, which had swelled like leavened bread over the course of the year or the last thousand years, suddenly collapses with God’s revelation.  This is why the Haggadah places so much emphasis on the fact that the King of Kings of Kings was revealed.  To make this clearer, the Haggadah says: “I myself and not an angel.  I myself and not a seraph.  I myself and not a messenger.  I am the Lord I am He, and no other.”

When the Holy One, Blessed be He, reveals Himself so directly, without intermediaries, it matters little what level of knowledge man has reached: for he is brought back to his starting point.

JE: It is said that a little science distances someone from God, whereas a lot of science brings one closer. Thought, knowledge, and culture can reveal God, just as they can also lead to atheism. The fundamental freedom of the intellect is suspended in Egypt, because in Egypt there is no doubt as to the existence of God. There the revelation is total, absolute, and irrefutable.

RAS: This is why matzah represents both the point of departure of all knowledge and its end point. It is the bread of slaves who are only just capable of opening their eyes and articulating “father”; it is also the bread of the Sages described in the Haggadah:

“Even if we were all, wise all of us men of knowledge and understanding the law, it nevertheless is incumbent upon us to narrate the exodus from Egypt, and all those who relate more and more of the narrative of the exodus from Egypt are to be praised.”

JE: One of the most remarkable features of the Passover holiday is that it is addressed to both the ignorant and to the wise. Customarily, the child’s role, the role of the ignorant, receives greater emphasis. Most of the Haggadah is based on questions a child is supposed to ask. However, the wise are also under the same obligation. On Passover, the child and the wise man are on an equal footing.

RAS: In fact, the whole Passover ritual could be summarized in a single commandment: “You shall tell your son.” This is why at the beginning of the Haggadah the child asks four questions: “Why is this night different from all other nights? Why do we only eat matzah?” and so forth.

According to the law, if there is no child present, or if an adult celebrates Passover alone, he must ask the questions, even though he is supposed to “know” the answers. It is customary in certain communities for adults to ask the questions, because on Passover, we should, in a sense, become children. This is also why in the Bible, Passover is called the “spring holiday.” On Passover, nature as a whole begins to blossom and man’s renewal coincides with that of nature. The Sages have pointed to the parallel between the word nitsan, “bud,” and Nisan, the month in which Passover takes place. It is a true renaissance.  We become children once again, and all we can do is ask questions. Why should we, after all we have learned?


Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – “The Days of Awe”

Remember to Forget

Josy Eisenberg (JE): These two facets, fatherhood and Kingship, are brought together in Rosh Hashanah, the holiday of beginnings and the holiday of final outcomes. We said earlier that Rosh Hashanah is a new beginning and that the previous year is completely nullified. Yet Rosh Hashanah is also called Yom haDin, the day of judgment. Judgment implies memory, recollection of the past, and confrontation. The tone of the liturgy is that of remembrance. For example, there are three series of shofar blasts during the morning service. The first series is called “Kingship” and the second series, “Remembrance.” We also say, “there is no forgetting before Your throne of glory,” and, “For You remember everything that has been forgotten.”

So is Rosh Hashanah the day we forget the past, the day we make a clean slate, or is it the day of remembrance?

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (RAS): The Chasidim have a very beautiful interpretation of the second passage you mentioned, “God remembers what men forget.” They say that if men only recall their merits and forget their sins, God only recalls the sins. But if men only remember their sins, God only takes their merits into account.

Nevertheless, remembrance and forgetting are not really antithetical. Both are recollections and are linked in subtle ways. The first day of Rosh Hashanah can be seen as a day when we obliterate the previous year. It is a time of transition. The second day of Rosh Hashanah starts the New Year.

JE.: Is this one of the reasons why the New Year lasts two days? Is the first day the day of forgetting and the second day the day of remembrance?

RAS: They are two sides of the same active process. The modern term for this very old idea is sublimation. On Rosh Hashanah, we sublimate the previous year. In other words, you can never forget without remembering. I need to relive and review the past year, so I can elevate it until it appears to have disappeared. This process of elevation, or sublimation, cannot occur unless we first recall faded memories. Thus, forgetting implies recollection.

This does not mean that Rosh Hashanah is a period of guilt. In fact, we hardly even talk about our sins. We are judged, but we do not confess.

JE: It is true that collective confessions are reserved for Yom Kippur when we recite the Al Chet prayer, a confession (in alphabetical order) of all possible sins, and other penitential prayers. Through the mood of Rosh Hashanah tends not to be different from that of Yom Kippur, the two holidays differ at least on this point. There is only one prayer on Rosh Hashanah that mentions our sins. It begins with the words: “Our Father, Our King, we have sinned before You.”

Mostly Positive?

RAS: That is right. But do you know that in the Hasidic liturgy of the Chabad movement this prayer is not recited on Rosh Hashanah? Since Rosh Hashanah is above all a holiday, a feast day when we are not allowed to be sad, we do not mention our sins.

JE: But it is the Day of Judgment!

RAS: Correct; but in fact we are not being “judged for our sins.” I would go so far as to say we are being “judged for our merits.”

In fact, this judgment takes stock of who we are and what we have become. The purpose is not so much to make a list of all our daily shortcomings ? this type of soul-searching should be done every day ? but to make an overall assessment. On the Day of Judgment, we attempt to balance the assets and liabilities of the world. The year comes to a close. God makes an inventory and wonders whether He should close up shop or whether it is worthwhile to start the creative process over again and “invent” a new year.

JE: I like the metaphor of the world as a store, a “business” where God wonders whether it is worth continuing or not. At times, we have the feeling that this “business” is scarcely profitable and that God is continually covering the deficits so that it can stay open. In fact, the metaphor can be found in the Talmud in a slightly different form. The idea is extremely similar, and both expressions concern judgment:

Rabbi Akiva said: “The shop is open, and the dealer gives credit, and the ledger lies open, and the hand writes, and whoever whoever wishes to borrow may come and borrow, but thecollectors regularly make their daily round, and exact payment from man, whether he be content or not.” (Mishna, Tractate Avot 3:19-20, Dr. Joseph H. Hertz translation).

Does this world, this store where we live on credit, deserve another moratorium?

RAS: This is the real issue, and this is why on Rosh Hashanah we plead with God to go on running the world’s business and be our King. Our little self-examinations and personal soul-searching are not for Rosh Hashanah. We have the whole month of Elul, which comes before Rosh Hashanah, to devote to repentance and to return to God. Rosh Hashanah involves something else. Having finished the world’s annual stock taking, we are ready, through forgetting and remembrance, to start a new page of history and welcome God. This is why most of the holiday rituals, including the shofar blasts, are designed to solemnly proclaim the arrival of the King and make way for Him.

This is the meaning of Psalm 24, which is recited often on Rosh Hashanah: “O gates, lift up your heads! Up high you everlasting doors, so that the King of glory may come in.” (Psalms 24:7)

This is exactly what we do on Rosh Hashanah. We open the gates of the year, so that God may enter. To do so, everything needs to be in its place, the world must be worthy of receiving God.This is the meaning of our collective presence at the synagogue. By going there on Rosh Hashanah, Jews say, “Last year was more or less all right, we behaved more or less acceptably.But we want to continue, grant us one more year.” In a way, the children of Israel go to the synagogue to reiterate their pledge of allegiance to their King and, and beyond their shortcomings and expectations, to express the sole wish that God will, in turn, accept the crown from His people.

“Kingship emanates from this will to rule; in other words, the ability to contract, or conceal, the Divine being for purposes of ruling over a separate being (or a being that imagines itself to be a separate being, since there is nothing besides Him). What can God rule over? Nothing exists besides Him. It is written: ‘I have not changed’, and ‘The Lord was King, the Lord is King, the Lord shall be King forever more.’ But because everything that exists is nothing besides Him, every year we must arouse His will to rule.” (Likkutei Torah, Deuteronomy 51b)

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