Shabbat Arba’a | The Case of the Extra Letter
Shabbat Arba’a – The Case of the Extra Letter
By Richard Abbott, UK
My friends were visiting and we were all sat in the living room drinking wine after dinner.
“It’s getting dark, do you need to light candles?” asked Oli.
“It’s OK, I have an alarm set.” I nodded to him gratefully. About ten minutes later my Casio beeped and I got up, without any fuss to attend to my mitzvah.
I struck a match at ten minutes past nine, lit my kosher candles and started to daven (pray).
I prayed the bracha of candle lighting and started to ask G-D for blessings upon my family and friends. I asked one for myself, to succeed in becoming a Jew.
I spoke to a dear friend this week on top of a rocky outcrop in Goblin Combe wood outside of Bristol. He was paying a cajon and I was playing klezmer on a clarinet. He told me about his difficulties in becoming Jewish and I told him mine. He saw his obstacles as difficult but mine as insurmountable. But that, at the end of the day, is why they’re mine. Had he been given my obstacles he may have seen the whole idea as impossible, I know from experience that HaShem empowers us to overcome challenges that we can see now way out of. So many times I’ve felt utterly overcome in my life and I’ve prayed for G-D’s rescue plan to unfurl around me, that He would give me the strength to me my challenges not the challenges to me my strengths and here I am, alive and kicking, and loving G-D.
My wife is goyish and doesn’t want to be Jewish, she loves G-D and prays to Him, she concurs with the Jewish beliefs, but G-D made her as she is and she is happy to be her. I completely agree with her. G-D doesn’t need her to be Jewish. However, an orthodox Beit Din would not allow me to convert if it means creating a mixed marriage counter to hallakhic restrictions.
“So what are you going to do?” my friend often asks me.
“Keep trying and whatever G-D decides is what He decides.”
“I just don’t see how you can succeed this way.” he’s right, neither can I, but if it were easy it wouldn’t be a miracle. You’re not trying to tell me you think this is a challenge to great for G-D are you? Just be patient. In the mean time I’ve got lots I still need to learn. My Hebrew is far from fluent, I need to learn to live as a Jew, I need to have a tattoo removed and get circumcised.
What has the bible told us about the way HaShem works?
Avraham Aveinu was up a mountain with a knife raised above his bound son before HaShem stayed his hand and gave him the goat he needed. Struggle, trial and the unknown never did Avraham any harm, so I can stand to trust G-D a little longer myself.
I was talking to Rod this week about why G-D is asking us to wait at the door while the big Jewish party is raging inside. Sometimes it might feel like a rejection, but it’s not, Adonai Jireh.
Imagine Him saying it like this;
“Welcome, welcome, everyone. I’m so glad you’re here! Come inside we’re making kiddush!
Oh, Richard, Rod. Just the men I wanted to see. I know it’s hard but could you wait here at the door? There are many more coming and I need someone to welcome them in. Don’t worry, there’ll be plenty of falafel left when you’re ready.”
If we ignored the role, the struggle, walked away or forced our way in despite the Halakha, HaShem wouldn’t turn us away, but He’d prefer it if we did things right.
Selflessly, with Chesed and Tsedekah.
I had a strange feeling walking to Shul. Rather than walking the back streets as normal I found myself walking down through the centre of town. I’m quite sensitive to people turning to look when I’m wearing my kippah, perhaps it’s in my head, bu-dum tish, but I don’t think so. I did see a father point me out to his daughter, I wish I could have overheard than conversation. I never take it badly, after all before I started on this journey I was acutely aware of Jews. Do you remember my Israeli with the whiskey at the bar mitzvah? Two years ago I saw him in Asda (that’s like Walmart my American friends). He was wearing his kippah, it was mid-week and he caught me staring at him. My stare was not anti-semitic, it was a look of longing that one day I might be called to cover my head in deference to G-D.
I was waiting for James outside the BBC’s broadcasting house on White Ladies road, you can google maps that if you want to picture the scene. A healthy thoroughfare of Bristol’s goyim passed me with varying degrees of reaction from indifference, to curiosity to ambivalence, but no malice.
Aton from my synagogue passed by, I shabbat-shalomed him and shook his hand.
“I’ll be along in a minute, I’m waiting for James,” I told him. James was later than I would have liked, but it’s a very relaxed shul, no one ever minds. But I like that I know that, I like that I’m becoming a member of the community. Attending once was special for me, but supporting the Jewish community is the Jewish thing to do.
I took up my siddur and chumesh and quietly moved to my seat. I followed along with the prayer in with my finger, joining in whenever I was able – increasingly so each week.
Then we stood and the Torah was brought out from the Aron Kodesh (literally the holy cupboard). It was paraded around the bimah (the raised platform from which the torah is read). I bowed to the word of G-D as it passed my seat. Everything in Judaism is arranged to honour G-D. Anything with His name written on it is holy, anything that quotes G-D or describes Him is holy; you can imagine how we feel about the Torah. As blessings were made more and more late-comers joined the congregation until we had well over a minyan (ten Jewish men, required for a full service). There were many elderly gentlemen and some of them were called up to read sections from the parshah (this weeks reading) or to bless the Torah before and after each reading. A young man, perhaps fifteen years old, was called up to give a blessing as was his father. The boy was half my age but had ten times my Jewish knowledge and experience, such it is to be a member of the nation G-D created.
After a while my Israeli was reading and one of the gentlemen at the bimah corrected him. It’s so important to read the Torah correctly that there will always be men stood beside you when you read to make sure you’re doing it properly. No one minds being corrected, because everyone understands the gravity of the role. As an Israeli, with Hebrew as his first language you’d expect these corrections to be unusual but actually modern hebrew is different to biblical hebrew so he needs support like everyone else. What was unusual was that he argued with the correction. The room went quiet. The correction was repeated.
“No, look for yourself.” he said. In his hand he held a yad, a small silver pointing stick, that allows the reader to keep their place in the Torah, without touching the holy words themselves. It has a little silver hand on the end with a finger pointing. The word Yad is hebrew for hand.
The word was inspected and a discussion ensued. After a moment Rabbi Daniels, who was sat amongst the congregation, laughed and took to the front of the room.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we will take a short recess to solve this, it seems we have an extra letter in our torah scroll.” Rabbi Daniels seemed quite entertained by the event, that allowed me to enjoy it also. This is, after all, quite an unusual event. A couple of minutes went by, the extra letter was confirmed and so the scroll was rolled up and reverently returned to the Aron Kodesh.
A replacement was retrieved. Luckily there was a replacement of the appropriate book, Numbers, otherwise I don’t know what we would have done. Anton called Rabbi Daniels aside and sought further clarity.
“So according to law, we can’t continue with the scroll?” he asked.
“That’s right,” the Rabbi answered, “We can’t read from that scroll again while until it’s repaired.”
“But we must have read from it last year, how did we miss the mistake?” Rabbi Daniel’s accepted the mystery and posited some possibilities, but this is the thing we read through the entire Torah in an annual cycle, it ruffles one’s feathers to discover something out of place.
“What will happen to it?” Anton intoned and the rest of us silently echoed.
“We will have to take it to a scribe for repair, these days scrolls are all checked by computer.”
Checked by computer because scrolls are still handwritten. It’s actually amazing how few mistakes there are, mostly because of the deep culture of care that it taken over Torah.
I mean really, one letter out of place and the Knesset comes to a standstill, the scroll is shelved until it can be repaired, it’s halakhically illegal to use this scroll until the problem is resolved.
This is a culture that takes bible seriously.
This is Judaism.
We don’t read whatever translation is to hand, we read it in the original.
We don’t let mitzvot pass quietly into the night because they’re not convenient.
We don’t allow reverence for HaShem to dwindle, we seek out ways to honour and obey Him.
Later, upstairs, after the kiddush I caught my Israeli:
“What was the extra letter?”
“Oh in the scroll? A lamed, yeah it was a lamed.” He looked wistful, like remembering a mighty fish that had escaped his hook. He’ll remember that lamed, he’ll tell stories about it.
I chatted to a man visiting and made suggestions of things worth seeing in Bristol, he and I talked about my teaching. I’m working in a school of kids with behavioural problems until the end of the year, he had lots of questions. I shabbat-shalomed all my shul-friends and made my way home.
I passed an lovely elderly couple who had visited and shalomed them as I passed, they smiled warmly and shalomed me in return. We had greeted each other as we passed by some Uni students who gawped at us like they were glimpsing a secret society and away I went home.
My wife was already waiting in the car when I got home, we had a thirtieth birthday to attend and I was cutting it fine. I jumped in and kissed her and she put ‘This Is The Kit’ on the CD player. I left my yarmulke on as we drifted up the motorway towards Stroud. The sun was baking our tiny car and it felt good to nearly be a Jew. I wondered if I should leave on my kippah, or take it off, or leave it on, or what? It was hot so I took of my jumper (I think Americans call it a pullover?) and the hat came with it, decision made.
The party was lovely, in a small town called Selsley, Cotswold stone buildings, hot open paddocks and buzzards soaring. Beer too warm for the Australian guests and food too tasty for the thin ones.
My Father-in-law, John, asked me “So Rich, how goes the conversion to Judaism?”
“Very well, thank you John, slow but well. It takes a long time, but it’s more about getting things done than time taken.”
“What’s the Jewish position on Jaegermeister?” asked my brother-in-law, Dave, drinking down a Beer.
“Let me tell you about Purim some time Dave.” I laughed.
“So you are allowed to drink then?” he said almost genuinely concerned.
“Dave, I had wine today in synagogue, it’s part of the service. It’s called a Kiddush, although some of my friends switch to whiskey or vodka for the meal.”
Dave has asked me many questions about Judaism over the years but never has he been so satisfied with an answer as this one. He pressed me about Purim and he was overcome when used the phrase “…drink so much you can’t tell right from wrong or up from down…”
“That’s what should put on the front of your pamphlets!” he said, I think seriously.
“Jews don’t have pamphlets Dave.”
Later John sought me out with more questions, he’s genuinely interested and supportive.
I’m very lucky.
I finished my shabbat with a gentle Sunday. I grilled some cheddar cheese over matzah and replied to a friend on Facebook asking advice about keeping shabbat. More and more new converts are coming to ask me, informally, for help. I’m no expert by any stretch, but we all support each other. I’ll tell you what I told him:
“So keeping the shabbat is a wonderful thing to do, but it’s best to take it on gradually.
There are many things you’re not supposed to do but also lots of things you’re supposed to do that bring you close to your family.
Step one, don’t do work, handle money, light fires, build anything on shabbat.
I’ll add to this list later.
Step two light two candles when the sun goes down on Friday and say a blessing.
Try that this week and we’ll add more next week, is that ok?”
It’s a start. You’ve got to build up to spotting surplus lameds. For now it’s enough to love G-D and spend a day with my family learning and talking about Him.
Baruch HaShem. May G-D bless you with His presence in your life.