Saturday, December 20, 2014


A few weeks ago, I attended a family Sabbath service with my grandchildren in one of the local synagogues. When the Rabbi announced the Shalom Alekhem (“Welcome”) song and went on talking about the angels that accompany us on that night, I was not at all happy. As an adult I understand metaphors, but young children do not, and are more likely to take things literately. And that is unnecessary and dangerous.

Shalom Alekhem is one of the most popular liturgical hymns for welcoming the Sabbath. It refers to the “angels of service,” conceived as two divine messengers, which, according to the Talmud, accompany every Jew on the Sabbath (BT Shab. 119b): one of two angels is good, the other one is evil. When the person arrives home and finds that the Sabbath lamp is lit and the festive table is set, the good angel approves of the action and blesses the individual; but if this is not done, then the evil angel invokes a curse on the person. (Ugh!). As a song, it is relatively late, probably originating at the start of the 18th century. However, it uses imagery that goes back in time.

The belief in angels is predominant in the ancient Near East. People then believed in the existence of divine winged creatures called karibu (“intercessors”). The Bible, too, knows of angels, called either satan, “holy ones,” cherubim, seraphim, and others. (See article on “angels” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 1).The role of angels dramatically increased in post-biblical literature as well as in rabbinic texts, and reached its height in kabbalistic material during the medieval times. In the Reform movement, the old Union Prayerbook (1959), reflecting the classical Jewish stand of its time, did not include Shalom Alekhem. The Gates of Prayer (1975) did. The new Mishkan T’Filah (2007) demythologizes it by adding a note at the bottom of the next page saying, “ordinary people are messengers of the Most High” (p. 143). But that is not what the text implies.

A number of Rabbis raised serious concerns about angelology in Judaism and specifically against the use of Shalom Alekhem during the Sabbath service. For example, Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin (d. 1821) taught that it is forbidden to make any requests of angels, because, he believed, they do not have independent power. Similarly, the Vilna Gaon (d. 1797) objected to the verse asking the angels for blessings (“Bless me with peace,”) for, according to a long standing Jewish teaching, blessings come only from God. (For an excellent discussion of this poem, read the chapter in Shabbat At Home, Edited by L. A. Hoffman, Jewish Lights, 2004). 

I don’t think there is such a thing as an angel, whether as real creatures floating in the air or as divine emanations advocated by Maimonides in medieval times. This primitive image belongs to the past, and better be left there. I would also argue that some liturgical passages, like Shalom Alekhem or Kal [note: not Kol] Nidre, should only be sung, but not translated, because they may lead people into believing in matters that are irrational and, worse, theologically objectionable. 

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D
Dec. 21, 2014

Friday, December 12, 2014


The traditional explanation of why the festival of Hanukah is celebrated for eight days is based on a Talmudic passage: Oil for one day, miraculously lasted eight. (See below). However, this is a late development. Early texts do not mention this so-called miracle. It is time we give up this irrational explanation and find a better one. And that historical explanation does exist.

The history behind Hanukah is, briefly, this: In the second cent. BCE, Antiochus IV, the Syrian king, set out to conquer Egypt. While he was fighting there, Jason, who was deposed from his position as the Jewish High Priest in Jerusalem, left the Ammonites with whom he had taken refuge, and attacked Menelaus, his brother in Jerusalem, in order to regain the High Priesthood. A civil war broke out between the two, and Jason successfully entered Jerusalem. King Antiochus was furious. On his way back from Egypt, the king attacked Jerusalem, imposed restrictions on Judea, and eventually desecrated the Temple. In reaction, a priest by the name of Mattathias, and his sons (called the Maccabees), fought against the Syrians, and were able to clean and rededicate the temple of Jerusalem to the worship of one God in the year 165 BCE. This rededication is called Hanukah (“dedication” in Hebrew). 

The First Book of Maccabees (c.mid-2nd cent. BCE), states that Hanukah ought to be celebrated for eight days but does not indicate the reason for it (see, 4:59). It is in the Second Book of Maccabees (c.125 BCE) that we find a rational explanation: It happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Kislev.  And they celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the feast of booths [Sukkot], remembering how not long before, during the feast of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. (10: 6). So, Hanukah was really like a delayed Sukkot that lasts seven days plus Atzeret, a one day festival (See, Lev. 23: 33-36; cf. v.39).

The first reference to the lights of Hanukah appears in the writings of Josephus (1sr cent. CE) who calls the festival “Lights” by saying: I suppose the reason was this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us and that hence the name given to that festival. (Antiquities, 7:7). 

In it only in the Talmud, which was edited in the 5-6th centuries CE in Babylonia that the so-called “miracle” makes its appearance (under Persian influence?): What is [the reason of] Hanukah? For our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislew [commence] the days of Hanukah, which are eight on which a lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden.  For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty (i.e. the Maccabees) prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel and thanksgiving. (BT Shab. 21b, Soncino). 

Later on a midrashic text (c. 9th cent.) provides another explanation: When the Hasmoneans defeated the Greeks, they entered the temple and found there eight iron spears. They stuck candles on these spears and kindled them. (Pesikta Rabbati 2: 5). 

It is clear that the explanation of why Hanukah was celebrated for eight days changed over the years, some legendary, and some more historical. For me, the simplest and the most reasonable explanation is that in its own time, Hanukah was a delayed Sukkot. No miracles. The festival today proclaims many important values, such as courage, dedication, thanksgiving, and, above all, the right to be different. These are the values we need to stress, and not the miracle of oil which is not rational, historical or even believable in our time.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D

Friday, December 5, 2014


The overarching teaching in Judaism is that death is as an integral part of life; it is sad when it happens early in life, and a blessing when it occurs in old age.  As the Hebrew Bible states repeatedly, “You came from dust, and to dust you shall return” (e.g., Gen. 3: 19; Eccl. 3: 20; 12:7). During most of the biblical period, death was considered final. As Job states, “He that goes down to the grave shall come up no more” (7:9). It is only around the 2nd cent. BCE, (cf. Dan. 12:2) and later on in the early rabbinic period (M San. 10:1) that the belief in resurrection began to appear in classical Jewish texts. Today some Jews believe in resurrection; others, like me, do not.

Death is a crisis that needs to be faced by all the members of the family, each according to his/her understanding. Even though young children believe in phantasies and have a hard time relating to death as final, they do know that flowers dry up, leaves fall and pets die. It is the job of the adults to help them deal with this reality and not reinforce false expectations. 

How to tell them? I suggest you tell them as soon as possible. In reality how you inform them is more important than what you say. Say it with love, with concern, with a sincere sentiment of sorrow. Do not give too many details and allow them to ask questions. Mourning is appropriate for all ages. It is normal to cry and to show emotion. Allow the children to express their feelings. As you mourn, so they will. 

Be aware of some possible reactions: Some kids will deny it: “I don’t believe it.” Others may have bodily distress: “I can’t sleep.” Some could turn hostile: “How can he do this to me?” or, even place blame on others: “It is the doctor’s fault he died;” even on oneself, “It is because of me.” Some children could begin to idealize the deceased: “he was a perfect daddy.” Others could turn to panic: “Who will take care of me now?” In every case reassure them with kind words. Do not raise unreal expectations. If you do not know the answer, simply say, “I do not know.” This is better than lying. 

A few don’ts:
1.    Do not try to cover it up or minimize the reality of death by saying, “He is now in heaven” or, worse, “God took her.” You don’t want to create false hopes or turn people against God and religion.
2.    Do not tell young children, “You are now the man/woman of the house.” This is too big a burden to carry at this stage.
3.    Do not use the kids as replacement for your loss by sharing the bed room and other personal items. 
Should children attend the funeral service? 

Explain what will happen during the funeral: how the covered casket will be brought into the sanctuary or left in the foyer; who will speak and sing; how the immediate family and friends will then go to the cemetery, and how the casket will be lowered in an open grave and covered with dirt. (In case of cremation, how to body will be taken to a crematorium and turned to ashes). Be guided by their wishes. Maybe they want to come to the funeral parlor but not go to the cemetery. That is all right too. 

After the funeral and/or burial, inform the school, religious institution and other programs in which the children are active. And then help them return to a new life without the presence of the deceased. Depending on the circumstances, this may take more time.

Even though we are sorry to have lost a dear one, most people have the capacity to live with memories, and to do honor to the deceased by the way we live our lives.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D