French Israel

Thursday, May 27, 2004

I don't miss "yontiff". That's one thing about leaving the American Jewish world that I am happy about. Of course, I also have to get far, far away from my predominantly English-speaking yeshivah neighbourhood to avoid it.

In Givath Mordekhai, the little corner of Jerusalem where I just spent Shavouoth, the greeting is "'Hag Saméa'h" (or "Chag Saméach" for those of you who aren't yet used to my spelling conventions). Or "Moadim leSim'hah".

"Yontiff" is a derivation of "gut yomtov" (I don't know if there should be an umlaut there or not), which is itself the Yiddish expression for "Have a Good Holiday", a yom tov being a holiday in Hebrew. Got that?

The first time I heard Dov Shurin on the radio (on his English-speaking programme on Radio MiKol Ha Lév), he was saying that he didn't like people to wish him Pass. "You should have pas", the blessing goes. "I don't want pas," he complained. "That's what I left America to get away from. Because here in Israel, they have a different word for it."

What's the English-speaking greeting for Pessa'h?
What's the English-speaking greeting for 'Hanouca?
How about Rosh Hashanah, the new year?
You mean, not shanah tovah ["a good year"]?
No, it's YONtiff.

I experience a certain amount of schadenfreude each time I have a one-day holiday while my friends at yeshivah are enjoying two. Today, for example. Okay, so I had to put on tefillin, but that hardly makes the day more difficult. They have to go two days without a shower. And if their two-day holiday ends up on Friday, that's three days without a shower.

Still, I am sure there are plenty of folks who began their commitment to the Land of Israel recently, and who had their first one-day holiday yesterday. Welcome and congratulations.

Shavouoth has a few customs: Torah study, a dairy meal, decorations with flowers. The first because this is the date of the gift of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The second for various reasons, such as the difficulty of observing kashrouth laws at a moment's notice (yet there must be a better reason than that -- things didn't just happen so haphazardly with Divine guidance in the desert). The third because it is primarily a harvest holiday. In fact, that is the only way the 'Houmash (written Torah) refers to it. Yet the agricultural aspect seems to have faded to the background, compared to the celebration of the Gift of Torah.

There is a custom, in fact, to stay up all night without sleep, studying Torah (no, I did not say "learning", but "studying") until the sunrise. This practice is referred to a tikkoun, a repair for the mistake of Am Yisrael [the people of Israel] sleeping on the morning of the first Shavouoth, in the desert just seven weeks out of Egypt.

Because they were lazy, right? Or unaware of the importance of Torah knowledge in its entirety that was about to be revealed to them? Or because this was the first time it had happened, and they didn't realise it was going to happen?

Is this what have we been thinking all along? That sounds about right, for a goyish understanding of the Jews of the Tanakh: those clumsy "children of Israel", always bumping around through history, getting themselves into one legal bind after another. (Did you know that That Other Religion considers it an unfortunate mistake that bnei Yisrael got themselves into by accepting the Law, which of course they oppose to Grace?)

For the first time this year, I heard the best explanation. Rav Pinchas Winston, of Telzstone, quotes the following pesoukim [verses]:
To the prophets among you when I appear I reveal Myself only in a vision, and speak in a dream. Not so with My servant Moshe, who is the most trusted in all My house. With him I speak face-to-face, while he is conscious, and not in riddles; he has a true vision of G-d. (Bamidbar 12:6-8)

And he explains, in the name of Rav Dessler, that "the Jewish people had specifically gone to sleep the night before in advance of the giving of the Torah, SPECIFICALLY to receive It the next morning. They had every reason to assume that was the way to do it, and Moshe Rabbeinu had every reason to assume that they were correct in their assumption."

So we weren't so clumsy after all.
PinḼas Ivri 16:21


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