No shout-outs this week!
Shuls of Color and Trees
Way back, efsher as far back as day six of creation, the RBSO told Odom and Chava that they may eat all they desire from Gan Eden (Garden of Eden). All that is but from one tree, the Eitz Ha’da’as (tree of knowledge). Of course, both man and woman dd not listen. Woman succumbed to the slithering snake,- what else is new, and man folded up like a cheap suit allowing his eishes chayil (wife) to convince him to partake. And so began our glorious history of man getting into trouble. In the year 2488 just as the Yiddin were getting ready to enter the Land, the RBSO, here in our parsha is back with a restriction on another tree: this time, through Moishe, He is forbidding the Yiddin from the planting of a specific tree. Which tree was forbidden and why? And how is this tree related to parshas Shoiftim? We shall look into this subject below, ober let’s begin with a shtikel discussion on shul and colors.
A website by the name of Mocha Juden is chock full of information on the united colors of Judaism. The site also provides a list of shuls all over the country –from reform to orthodox- where the many faces of its members include black one’s. Shoin: black is also a very beautiful color and let’s not forget that according to some, our own Moishe Rabaynu (Moses) was married to a Kushite. Rashi and others tell us that her skin was dark; pshat being that she was black. Good for him!
Color also seems to play a role when it comes to shuls and many are taka named after a particular one. Is a shul’s color indicative of something more than its name suggests? Is there anything special about the color of a shul? Is green unique? How about the colors yellow, pink, red, silver or blue?Avada we are all familiar with certain color idioms, a number of which, go azoy: green-thumb, yellow-bellied, blue-collar, silver-screen, golden-opportunity, red-tape, and white-elephant. In the world of black idioms, we are all avada familiar with the black-eye, black-out and black and blue. Let’s not forget black as the night. Did you know that the idiom “color me purple”can at times mean that one is guilty? And we lead with these idioms why?
This past shabbis, the Oisvorfer found himself davening in a shul owned and operated (dictatorship style: his words) by a gentleman he has known over 55 years. Unlike 1990 when I first arrived to the Five Towns and could count the number of shuls on one hand, today, the towns have exploded and one can easily count as many as 25 or more of them. Soon they will surpass the number of nail salons. Shuls come in every size and color. While the Young Israel of Woodmere can and does accommodate many hundreds at one time, as do a number of others, in recent years the towns are also enjoying (or not, depending on which rabbi you ask) the emergence of a plethora of tiny shuls known as shteiblich or sthibels. What the hec are shtiblech a whole bunch of readers might be asking? Nu, to answer that correctly, we consulted the great achroin (latter day exegete) Wikipedia, who says azoy:
A shtibel (a Yiddish word), or shtibels, (meaning “little house” or “little room”) is a place used for communal Jewish prayer. In contrast to a formal synagogue, a shtibel is far smaller and approached more casually. It is typically as small as a room in a private home or a place of business which is set aside for the express purpose of prayer, or it may be as large as a small-sized synagogue. It may or may not offer the communal services of a synagogue. In every event, and in varying sizes, the towns now have many.
A number of them operate only part time but they have their ardent followers. A number of shuls have names one can find in every city across America and even further. Kimat every city has a Young Israel and a Beth Sholom; certain names are just ubiquitous and appropriate for shuls; they feel right. At times, a shul’s name will be more emblematic of a theme or a vibe they wish to give off. At Eish Koidesh over in Woodmere, they like to think of themselves as holy, perhaps holier than thou. Many shtieblich are more associated with the owner/operator’s last name. Lawrence Bay Park has at least two shuls, one by the name of Adler, he being its owner operator and rabbi. It may have a real name but few know it. The other, just across the street, an impressive looking building -especially inside- has a name but the majority of people, when asked where they are davening, will answer “Kalish,” he being the rabbi. Near the Oisvorfer’s house, perhaps 100 feet or less, a gentlemen and friend of many decades, runs a part time shul known as Leifer.That is his and its official name. “I davened at Leifer” is an answer you will get when asked about that shul. Another shul just one block away and one the Oisvorfer used to attend while its founding and beloved rabbi/rebbe was alive, has always been known as Gruber’s. Who is Gruber? Rabbi Gruber, A’H, a warm Jew to say the least, had a shul in Canarsie Brooklyn for decades and then transplanted himself to the five Towns where his shul became instantly known and always referred to as Gruber’s. Though Rabbi Gruber passed away more than 10 years ago, and though the shul has had several rabbis since, it is still affectionately known as Gruber’s. Its moniker is seemingly forever set in stone! Grada this shul has a real name but unless you daven there regularly, few know it; it’s just Gruber.
Then there are shuls that are not as large as the several Young Israel’s and certainly not as small as the shtiblich. Some 20 plus years ago, over on West Broadway, they opened a shul known then as the “Red Shul”. That red shul was torn down in 2005 and replaced with a much nicer and larger edifice. It’s no longer red. The millions spent rebuilding it notwithstanding, it’s still known to many as the “Red Shul.” A few years later, a shul of another color was built. It was branded as the “blue shul” likely because it was taka blue on the outside. That shul too is no longer blue, but this past shabbis while walking to Woodmere, I asked -just for the fun of it- where the blue shul was and without hesitation, the gentleman and lady pointed me in the right direction. It was just a test.
Over in Far Rockaway, a shul founded in 1922 which became known as the White Shul in 1930, was also torn down and rebuilt. It hasn’t been white in decades, ober, ask anyone –outside its own membership and even them – what the shul’s name is, and the only response you are likely to hear is the “white shul.” Seemingly, people become attached to the color of their respective shuls. I say shuls because many many Yiddin belong to, or at least daven in, more than one. A Jew always needs an alternate shul;one he can pop into when he’s not in the mood, when he’s angry at something the rabbi or rebbe of his regular shul said, or for other reasons, including financial. The bottom line: larger shuls typically have names while shtiblich and those a bit larger, are more associated with either the block they are on – by way of example, a shul on Columbia Street is known by most as Columbia- or by the people who own and operate it. One far Rockaway shul is called the Bostoner, perhaps the only local shul named for city, though one could argue that Columbia has even greater status as it might be named for a country.
All that being said without a word on the parsha as the Oisvorfer on this Thursday morning has yet to begin thinking about what to write….. were awards to be given out for the most clever names ever given to a shul, I would easily nominate the Honig’s, as in Beth and Yehudah Honig as they named their semi- basement (beautifully adorned and soon to be even nicer) shul, Congregation Beth Yehuda. The gold medal of all names however belongs to the shul I attended this past shabbis. This shul located in the basement of its owners Yihudis and Shya Hersh Schwartz (sidebar: Shay’s Hersh’s father A’H, back in 1964,paid the future Oisvorfer a full dollar to sweep his driveway), is known as Congregation Bais-Ment. It does not get better or cleverer though when asked, people will respond with Shya Hersh. Though the White, Red and Blue Shuls have all lost their color, the beautiful, newly renovated (very creatively), and fully decorated Congregation Bais-Ment (just love that name) is mamish all blue. Davening begins at 9:15AM and must end by 11AM no matter where in the siddur the Ba’al Tifilah is up to. He must I was told, conclude by 11AM lest he put his life in danger. It also features a lavish kiddish each and every shabbis which includes real kiddish, if you chap, some home cooked cholent, kugil, and a few words of inspiration from its rabbi. This shul is mamish totally blue on the inside and masterfully adorned. So blue is the shul, the old Blue Shul on West Broadway, now brownish in color, should be embarrassed to still call itself blue; it has been out-blued!
Ober why was the Oisvorfer thinking about colors? Ver veyst! So happens that as the Oisvorfer was driving in this morning and while contemplating that he had yet to write one single word of this week’s review, he passed both the Red and Blue shuls and shoin here we are at the end of page three. And now a few words on trees and wood.
We began the review by discussing how the RBSO forbade Odom and Chava from partaking of the Eitz H’da’as, let’s then use the next page or two to find out why the RBSO now also forbade a new tree. Let’s meet the Ashera tree. Says the heylige Toirah (Devorim 16:21), azoy:
21. You shall not plant for yourself an asherah, [or] any tree, near the altar of the Lord, your G-d, which you shall make for yourself.
|כאלֹֽא־תִטַּ֥ע לְךָ֛ אֲשֵׁרָ֖ה כָּל־עֵ֑ץ אֵ֗צֶל מִזְבַּ֛ח יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ אֲשֶׁ֥ר תַּֽעֲשֶׂה־לָּֽךְ:|
Ober what the hec was and is an ashera tree? To chap, let’s also read the few pisukim which precede the tree prohibition. Shoiftim begins with the laws of the Jewish Court. “Judges and policemen, you shall place in all your gates and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.”The judges are prohibited from corrupting justice and from showing favoritism. In other words: they need to be color blind. Mamish an excellent tie in to the first three pages. They cannot be blinded and swayed by someone’s wealth or other features.In plain English: judgement cannot be colored and avada we all chap that once bribes are accepted, factors, other than the truth, come into play: always! Veyter.
Immediately after these instructions, the heylige Toirah introduces the prohibition of planting an Ashera tree next to the altar of the RBSO in the courtyard of the Temple. Ober how are these two concepts related? How is corruption of judges at all related to the planting of a tree? The juxtaposition of these pisukim – the demand for honorable and righteous judges, the concern for an impartial legal system which is a “no-bribe zone,” immediately followed by the prohibition of idolatry – seems to mix two completely different areas of religious concern. What’s taka pshat? Which of these two crimes is more grievous? Is it a corrupt judicial system which undermines the very infrastructure of an ethical society, or is it the worship of a tree instead of worship of the RBSO?
What exactly is this ashera, and what might have been a person’s intention in planting it next to the altar of the RBSO? Are trees and temple service mutually exclusive? Let us find out.And where else have we seen the ashera tree? Elsewherein the heylige Toirah? Not! Nu, as it turns out, the word ashera is mentioned in the heylige Novee (Scriptures) in two different contexts. In most instances,it taka refers to a tree, and that’s how we understand it from the instructions in the parsha. Ober is there another definition of ashera? Indeed there is and in Melochim (Kings) I 18:19, we find the expression “prophets of the Ashera,” parallel to the expression “prophets of the Ba’al.” And? From that we conclude that Ashera is the name of a goddess, just as Ba’al is the name of a god.Both fake of course. Veyter: Elsewhere in the Novee, (Melochim II 23:4) we find, “And the king commanded Chilkiyahu the Koihen Gadol, and the secondary kohanim, and the gatekeepers, to remove from the RBSO’s (God’s) Temple all the vessels made for Ba’al and for Ashera, and for all the host of the heavens, and he burned them outside Jerusalem…” Shoin: that’s a secondary source to confirm that Ashera was the name of some goddess. And says Wikipedia: in ancient Semitic religion, Ashera is a mother goddess who appears in a number of ancient sources. What all that means, ver veyst. Ober whatever she was, the RBSO was not very crazy over His people being involved with her.
We first find the Ashera, as an adornment for palaces, but it is nevertheless is despised by the RBSO, since it is an instrument for idol worship. The Ashera was also a goddess in the Canaanite pantheon, paralleling the god Ba’al. Alternatively, the Ashera was a ritual object made of wood, which is perhaps called by that name, because of the goddess, and which apparently represents the goddess or her fertility. The object may have had the form of a tree trunk, or else a wooden pillar set up against the altar.Avada we can chap how having wood, if you chap, and fertility go together. Which of these angered the RBSO? Let’s learn a posik form the Novee (Shoiftim 3:7) not our parsha by the same name, where we find this: “And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord and forgot the Lord their God, and served the Ba’alim and the Asherois. In the course of Eliyahu’s struggle with Izevel and her idolatrous practices, the Novee (I Melochim ( 1 Kings 18:19) tells us that Eliyahu turned to Achav and declared: Now therefore send and gather to me all Israel to Mount Carmel, and the prophets of Ba’al four hundred and fifty, and the prophets of the Ashera four hundred, who eat at Izevel’s table. Seemingly there were prophets of Ba’al and prophets of the Ashera who encouraged the worship of those idols. This Ashera was all over the place. The Novee cites other examples where the Ashera was worshipped as some form of deity: avoido zoro mamish.
Says the Ramban:”You shall not plant you an Ashera” – Any tree planted near the doors of a house of worship is called an Ashera… Scripture warns that one must not plant a tree next to the altar of G-d for ornamental purposes, thinking that it is a show of respect and glory to the altar of G-d. It is forbidden because it is the practice of heathens to plant trees at the doors of their houses of worship. The Ashera was an ornamental ritual object that designated the place as a ritual site. It is forbidden because it was the practice of heathens to plant trees at the doors of their houses of worship.
As for the relationship between these two meanings – a Canaanite goddess on the one hand, and a tree serving as a ritual object that is planted alongside the altar, on the other – it is reasonable to assume that in Canaanite culture, an Ashera represented the presence of this goddess. Planting this tree next to an altar seems to imply that the sacrifices offered there are being brought in her honor. Case closed!
Ober is it not equally forbidden to serve a free-standing ashera tree even it is nowhere near the Mishkan or Temple?! Ober says the heylige Gemora (Avoda Zoro 52a) so gishmak, azoy: Resh Lokish said, ‘anyone who appoints an unworthy judge is considered like someone who plants an ashera tree in Israel, as it is written, You shall appoint judges and executors in all your gates and it is written right next to it, You shall not plant for yourselves an ashera tree.’ You hear this raboyseyee? These two concepts are mamish connected. And Rav Ashi added azoy: And if it is in a place where pious scholars are found, it is as if he planted the ashera next to the sacrificial altar.’” Wait, there’s more. Says the heylige Gemora (Sanhedrin 7b): Anyone who appoints an unworthy judge is as if he planted an Ashera tree. Appointing an inappropriate judge who will show favoritism to the powerful, the mighty and the wealthy, is perverting justice. The same could and should be said about any rabbi who favor or listens to one constituent because of his wealth over one with less.
A gittin Shabbis-
The Heylige Oisvorfer Ruv