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Talmudic Treasures by Rabbi Ziona Zelazo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Baba Batra 99a - Facing each other - the cherubim and us

          Most common discussions between people today are conducted through the internet. Skype, Facebook or simple email modalities replace the intimate face-to-face interactions. Our life today also requires us to run, run, run, from one place to the other. We over task and thus, hardly take the time to listen to our colleagues, our peers, or our beloved relations, let alone, spend quantity and quality of time sharing. I ask where can we find the authentic commitment to each other? I wonder whether we understand the meaning of face-to-face interaction. I worry that the intimacy between us is losing its intensity and being diluted.
          Lets us look at a very important symbol that was commanded by God for us to embrace. In Exodus 25:18 God commanded the Israelites to make the Cheruvim – the cherubs with the Ark covering. In Exodus 25:20 we read that the specific positioning of the cherubs is designated to face each other;
          And the cherubs would spread out their wings in an upward  direction as they cover up the ark-covering with their wings. And their faces face each other ; towards the ark-covering  their faces should be [my translation].
In II Divrei Ha-Yamim 3:13 we read that Solomon the king built the ark with its cherubs facing the Temple, not each other;
          The wings of the cherubs are spread for twenty amot (measure), and they stand on their feet and their faces are towards the Temple.
Why do we have such a difference in the cherubs placement? What does it mean?
This question is addressed in Bava Batra 99a;

            And how they {the cherubs} stand? Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Eliezer [debate]: One taught that the two keruvim faced one another; the other taught that they faced the Temple. And to the one who said that they are facing one another - the verse in Exodus 25:20 says that they faced each other, while for the one who said that they face the Temple, In II Divrei Ha-Yamim 3:13 it says that they faced the Temple. This [difference in text] does not pose a problem; Here {Rabbi Yochanan} it refers to the time when the people of Israel were doing the will of God. Here {Rabbi Eliezer} it refers to the time that the people of Israel were not doing the will of God [My translation].

          According to this approach in the gemara, the keruvim represented the relationship between God and the Jewish People. When the Israelites behaved properly and the relationship was good, the keruvim looked at each other, but when there were difficulties with the relationship, they looked away from one another. It is as if the deeds brought about the presence of God right between the cherubs, not anywhere else.

          When we are in a relationship we commit to act in such a way that it would open the space for holiness. More we look at each other, more we engage in this creation of sacredness. When we avoid facing each other we neglect the mission of creating the spirit that fills the space to do well. When we loom away, we destroy a relationship. As Martin Buber wrote that “Spirit is not in the I, but between I and Thou. It is not like the blood that circulates in you, but like the air in which you breathe". Buber tells us that we live 'in' the spirit, not the spirit in us, but this - only when we enter into this relation with the whole being.
          Let us remember that the whole being is the way the cherubim faced each other. So take it in to your life as a Face to Face interaction, which would affirm the key to a good and meaningful life.    


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Incense during Prayer?

             One of the things I love about meditation is the ambiance. The light of the candle which is lit in front of me is enhanced by the fine unique and pleasing aroma of the burnt incense. The room is filled with the smell of nature that makes it totally possible to get into the moment. When I enter a room that is full of this fragrance, I immediately shift gears from the daily routine to a tranquil time. It allows me to pray and reflect with ease. It opens the space to welcome the divine and the sacred.
            Incense is used in many religions, but in Judaism we only reminisce of this practice. We do not use the aromatic incense during worship in the synagogues. All we have left is the Havdalah service as the Shabbat exits, when we smell the sweet-smelling spices. Simultaneously, we praise God for making the distinction between the holy and the mundane. From this week’s portion, Exodus 30:7-10 we learn that the High Priest used to burn incense twice a day in the Temple, right after the sacrifice ritual;

On it [the altar] Aaron shall burn aromatic incense; he shall burn it every morning when he tends the lamps, and Aaron shall burn it at twilight when he lights the lamps – a regular incense offering before the Lord throughout  the ages.
            Perhaps there should be no wonder that Judaism does not incorporate incense during services. After all, we have no Temple and we do not sacrifice animals. But, should we not keep at least something...? I wish we could consider walking into a synagogue, filled with the sweet aroma of incense. I would not, however, want the aroma to be as strong as the Talmud describes to us in Yoma 39b;
            The goats in Jericho [which is far from Jerusalem] used to  sneeze          because of the odor of  the incense. The women in Jericho did not have to perfume themselves, because of the odor of the incense. The bride in Jerusalem did not have to perfume herself because of  the odor of the incense. R. Jose b. Diglai said: My father had goats on the mountains of Mikwar and they used to sneeze because of the odor of the incense. R. Hiyya b. Abin  said in the name of R. Joshua b. Karhah: An old man told me: Once I walked towards Shiloh and I could smell the odor of the incense [coming] from its walls.
            Interesting enough, the use of incense (or ketoret in Hebrew) according to Exodus 30: 34-38 was a sacred act, which belongs only to the High Priest. No one but Moses got the formula for the mixture of the three precious spices combined with frankincense; 
            And the LORD said unto Moses, Take unto yourself sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense: of each shall there be a like weight: And you shall make it a perfume, a confection after the art of the apothecary, tempered together [salted], pure and holy: And you shall beat some of it very small, and put of it before the testimony in the tabernacle of the congregation, where I will meet with you: it shall be unto you most holy. And as for the perfume which you shall make, you shall not make to yourselves according to the composition thereof: it shall be unto you holy for the LORD.
            The fascination of the ketoret in the Talmud extends to more than fifty different discussions in various tractates. There is an attempt to find meaning in the use of incense. I will list only a few examples.
            One addresses the social and the religious framework of the People of Israel. While the Hebrew Bible tells us about four spices used for the ketoret, the Talmud in Kritoth 6b lists eleven ingredients; some fragrant spices as well as the foul-smelling galbanum, which itself acquired a pleasant aroma when combined with the other spices of the ketoret. So were the mixed spices as the symbol of the different kinds of people who join together, positively impacting upon one another;

            Said R. Johanan: Eleven kinds of spices were named to Moses at Sinai. The verse says: "Take for yourself spices ­- balsam, onycha, galbanum, spices, and pure frankincense." If  the Torah only meant that the four main substances should be taken and nothing else, it should simply have said, "Take for yourself balsam, onycha, galbanum and pure frankincense." The Torah uses the word spices (samim), repeated twice. This indicates that there were other spices. Said R. Huna: ‘Where is the text? Take unto thee  sweet spices, at least two; balsam, and onycha, and galbanum, that makes together five; ‘sweet spices’ means another five, that makes together ten; ‘with pure frankincense’, which is one, that is together eleven.
In Berachoth 6b incense symbolizes prayer;
       R. Johanan says: [Special care should be taken] also about the evening-prayer. For it is said: Let my prayer be set forth as incense before Thee, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.
            Lastly, according to Arachin 16a and Zevachim 88b the incense was used in the Tabernacle to atone for lashon hara – slander, when the speaker hides his true feelings from the subject of his criticism and the 'victim' has no awareness that someone is criticizing him.
            The rabbis have given lots of thinking on the way worship works. They took the few verses from the Hebrew Bible and tried to add understanding to the hidden meaning of the practice. I wonder why we do not continue to explore. I am looking for more ways in which I can connect to the divine. I would like to connect to my ancestors and the way their spiritual means showed devotion to God through smoke and aroma. I would want my lungs to be filled with aroma during prayer. I wish I could rediscover the mystery of the ketoret as I get into the moment. But may I add that all of this without animal sacrifice, as I am not voting for this.