Commentary Magazine


Cedars of Lebanon: “Sanctify The Ordinary”

Rabbi Abraham Yehudah Chein was born in Russia in 1878, and lived in Jerusalem during the latter part of his life, up to the day of his death, which happened on Yom Kippur day, 1957. He was known to many in Israel for his essays on Jewish themes published in a variety of periodicals. Those who heard him speak at public functions or in more intimate gatherings at his home knew him as a man of distinguished appearance and an unusual style of expression. His “Torah” was marked by an originality of thought that set it apart from other Orthodox rabbinic writing of his day, and even from the Habad Hasidic school, to which he belonged by family descent and spiritual training. This very originality, however, made him something of a tragic and lonely figure in his later years. He was eloquently committed to pacifism and non-violence during the days when the Jewish community in Palestine was battling the Arabs and the British. He tried to relate his readings of Tolstoy and Kropotkin to his own mystical Jewish background, and at times it seemed as if he was caught “between the suns,” as the Hebrew expression goes: that is, between the rising sun of a new age and the setting sun of the European Jewish life which he profoundly appreciated. Rabbi Chein was proud of his genealogy, which could be traced back to a distinguished 16th-century North African rabbi, the “Rif.” There is now in preparation in Israel a Hebrew book on Rabbi Chein and his writings. Below I offer—in my own translation from the Hebrew—an excerpt from one of his essays, illustrating the kind of fresh, provocative view he habitually took in examining matters of Jewish life and thought.—Herbert Weiner

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“Days of heaven on earth” are these days, these Sabbaths of God and festivals of Israel. . . . Days lowered from on high, from “the quarry of the higher days,” to the house of the Jews, to the dining room, the bedroom, even the kitchen. . . . The over-all goal and mission of these days . . . is “to raise oneself, if only by a hand’s breadth, above the ground: if only for a moment, above the day.” There are two aspects of this effort. One is to rise above that which is low, to cast oneself off from the lower things, from the flatness and filth, from the ordinary and the trite. . . . The second, and higher, aspect of this attempted ascent is related to the first, yet different. It is “to raise up the low itself,” to sanctify the ordinary. Not flee from it and not dismiss it, but sanctify it. The kiddush is deliberately performed at the festive table. It is the place of food, of the ordinary physical act, that is made holy. An “altar is to be made of the table.” . . .

And along with and beside this one overall principle common to all these days, are several other characteristics which they share. . . . Elements out of which is created a new world, a new man. There exist many of these common elements. A few seem to be central and fundamental; they are three in number. One might be called the psychology of “poverty”; the second the element of “mystery”; the third the principle of renewal or “revival.” These are common to all the Chosen Days, previews of that age which the Prophets termed “end of days.”

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Consider now the psychology of poverty, and how it runs like a purple thread through the warp and woof of our holiday calendar. Money is not to be touched on Sabbath and the holidays! Is there another people or group in the world who in their days of rest and joy refrain from handling money? We are that people—we, the people of the storekeepers, “who have no other ideal except the dirty coin.” Precisely with us does the law insist that, at moments of elevation, of man’s unity with his roots and with the root of the world, we are forbidden even to touch money. The emphasis of this great principle, and its elaboration, you find in all the Holy Days . . . each according to its particular laws. For example:

Sabbath. One should search his clothes before Sabbath. This is a high law of the Sabbath—to break off all relations with “the pocket.”

Shavuoth. The law regarding the first fruits: the containers of gold in which the rich brought their first fruits were set down in the outer courtyard: only baskets of straw could be taken into the inner courtyard. On approaching the mount of the Temple, even King Agrippa bore his wicker basket on his own shoulder.

And with respect to a higher aspect of Shavuoth, namely, the occasion of the giving of the Torah, the day of Sinai: where does the drama take place but in a desert? in abandoned and ownerless land, free from discussion of ownership and property—great stress is laid on this detail—the Torah is a “gift in the wilderness,” for, “just as the desert is available to all so is the gift.”

Succoth. Exit from the fine mansion, from the secure and fortified, to the temporary, to the succah and shack. Nor may the booth be tall, and it may be habitable only for a short period of days. The rain must be able to fall into it—from beginning to end, chapter of poverty.

Pesach. It is explicitly noted that with “rich matzah” one cannot fulfill one’s obligations. Thus even the food, the matzah, is a symbol of poverty, called “bread of affliction.”

Yom Kippur. No food and no shoes, and in the garments of the dead. Hungry and barefooted in simple flaxen gown; white clothes symbolic of absolute poverty, without embellishment. And the ceremony of the day: the one selected man, the High Priest, at the climax of the Day of Atonement, must be clothed only in white garments when he enters as one before the One, in this one place (the Holy of Holies), and at this one moment in the ritual—he must cast off all the glamor of gold. . . . [It is indicated] that all the previous assuming of the golden garments in the ritual was but in order that he might shed them. If he had worn the white previously, the negation of the gold would not have been noticed. To put on clothes of gold and then to shed them to teach that in order to enter, within and within, one has to shed first the gold, shed even the glory and beauty of the gold, even the gold of the holy clothes and of the high priesthood must be shed.

Rosh Hashanah. “A shofar covered with gold may not be used, its sound is invalid.”

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This quality of purity and cleanliness which inheres in poverty, and the recognition of gold as a defect in holiness, passes like a thread through the whole life of Torah and holiness.

“A Torah which is written in gold is invalid.” . . . It happened once that Alexander of Macedonia wrote the Torah in gold and sent it to the Elders. They “put it away” [rather than destroy it] because the Holy Name was mentioned within it. Thus, only the mention of the Holy Name rescued it from burning; but it was invalid, it could not be repaired.

“There was a flute in the Temple, and it was smooth and of reed. And it was of the days of Moses. The King commanded that it should be covered with gold, and lo, its tone was no longer sweet. They removed its coating and its voice was sweet again.”

And finally, Israel’s greatest sin is represented as the “golden calf,” and the Rabbis call the evil inclination “king,” “old and foolish,” . . . all his attributes emanating from gold: his self-adornment, his pride, his strength; but the good impulse is called “poverty-stricken”—“a child, poor and wise.” The Rabbis proclaim: “There is no wealth before Him who spake and brought forth the world”; “The son of David will come only when no coin remains in the pocket.” And behold, the Messiah himself, he who fulfills prophecy and is the peak of perfection, is described as a poor man, riding on a donkey. Not a lofty lord, flying on eagles of fire, from whose nostrils pour forth flame, whose clothes are laden with all the treasures of Korach and armed with the bows of Nimrod—no, only a poor wretch, riding a donkey.

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