Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A Tale of Haroseth

For the past two nights, Jews have been celebrating Passover with the seder, a ritual meal that features a number of traditional foods. One is haroseth, which a blend of fruit and nuts whose consistency is supposed to recall the mortar that the Hebrew slaves used in building Pharaoh’s pyramids: And they made their lives bitter with hard labor in mortar and brick” (Exodus 1:14).

Haroseth is not of biblical origin, but it is mentioned in the Talmud in a passage that indicates it was already part of the festival celebration in “the days of the Temple.” The proper method for making haroseth can be a source of strain—or more accurately pitched battle—among women from different traditions making Passover together.

In Temple times, the street peddlers sang,
"Come and get your spices for the mitzvah*
of haroseth,” already a commandment
though about it, Moses speaks not a word.
“Take dates or figs or raisins. Add vinegar,
cardamom and fresh ginger. Mash.”
Here is the mortar of the Sephardim,
recorded by Maimonides* himself.
Beneath the mezzaluna, hard-boiled eggs
merge with oranges, almonds, matzah, prunes,
holding together the Italian Jews
as sand and lime cemented the bricks of Egypt.
On the battlefield of Gettysburg,
no “necessaries” for haroseth. “We found
a brick,” a soldier reported. “Rather hard
to digest, but looking at it made us remember.”

The B’nei Yisroel of Calcutta boil the dates
into a syrup. “This has never changed,”
the matriarch insists, ruling the kitchen
of her daughter in Great Neck, New York.
Apples, walnuts, cinnamon, wine—ganoog.*
This is my mother-in-law’s haroseth, sacred
as the formula for holy incense
given to Moses by his exacting G-d.

*Commandment in Hebrew
*Preeminent medieval Jewish philosopher and author of the Mishneh Torah, a code of Jewish Law
*Enough in Yiddish

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Prayer

This week we learn the rituals associated with sacrifices of all kinds: the burnt offering, the sin offering, the thanksgiving offering, and so forth. When G-d describes the guilt offering, He adds, "It is most holy" (Leviticus 7:1). With the destruction of the Temple, the system of ritual sacrifice was replaced in Jewish practice by prayer.

Every night I volunteer my sins.
The mean, crabbed thoughts crouch
in my heart, and my tiny soul,
sitting on the cage door,
minds the latch. This is the ritual
of the guilt offering. It is most holy.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


Leviticus, as its English name implies, is the book of the Bible concerned with the Levites or priests and the many duties they had to perform in order to ensure the purity of the camp. The regulations regarding ritual purity were so exacting that they were sometimes transgressed accidentally. For example, a priest wandering through the desert might come into contact with an unclean animal and not even realize or remember it. This week’s portion provides a complicated sacrificial ritual to expiate this “unwitting” guilt.

The early light slants into the cul-de-sac,
picking out the frond of the neighbor’s palm
so it appears to be a hand, raised
in blessing. The lemons are without blemish.
A white birch cants crazily over the road,
but does not fall down. And yet despite the sky,
limpid as an easy problem in sums,
this morning you’ve brushed up against the dead—
the boy on the TV news, fallen in battle,
whose formal photo in the white uniform cap
is propped up before the flag-draped coffin.
You should know how to expiate this sin:
The formula—the dipped and sprinkled blood—
is in the book. But you are not a priest;
the golden altar has been melted down,
struck as coins that bear a Hebrew girl
mourning beneath a palm: Judea Capta*.
Are these wrongs with which you have to live?

*A series of coins issued by the emperor Vespasian in honor of the capture of Judea and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE by his son Titus.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


This week, we read two portions, Vayakhel and Pekudei, both about the building of the Tabernacle. This is a communal affair, with all the people asked to give what they can, whether gold or talent. As a poet, I love that the names of artists are preserved in the text: “Now Bezalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, had made all that the Lord had commanded Moses; at his side was Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, carver and designer and embroiderer” (Exodus 38: 22-23). Indeed, Moses “calls” every skilled person to take part in the task. I was reading this section around the time my daughter turned 18, and it prompted me to think about her calling.

I watch you listening for this call, wondering
which of the divine skills will fashion your life.
I think to warn you, “Years aren’t adamant;
they don’t stay still while you incise some meaning
into them; a life’s not gold, to pour
into a mould or solder to another’s.
Even the loom, that mythic equivalence
for what we make with the riches we’re given—
weaving a strand of honor, a thread of love—
won’t stand for the accounting we must present
of how we let our gifts be used. “As clay
in the hand of the potter, who thins or thickens it
at will,” so the hymnist proclaims are we
“in the hand of a gracious G-d.” My dearest girl,
gifted with music, what does the Lord require?
That when the task presents itself, you must,
a tuning fork struck, take up your skillful song.

Monday, March 8, 2010

G-d's Children

While the Ten Commandments tell us to honor the Sabbath day, they do not specify what that would look like. As Moses begins to give the Hebrew people instructions about how to build the Tabernacle, he tells them that they may work for six days, but on the Sabbath, they must rest. I was surprised by the vehemence of the proscription against work, which is attributed directly to G-d: “Whoever does any work on it [the Sabbath] shall be put to death” (Exodus 35:3).

This G-d, wrathful, sounds like me
on a bad day, when the children won’t listen:
“Stop doing that, or I will kill you.”
Not that He didn’t have cause; signs
and wonders amused them for a moment,
and then it was on to the next demand—
meat, leeks, water, golden calves.
He wanted it to stop—the clamor,
the bickering—for their sakes,
so they might experience the world
as it had been before they came:
the order, the peace. It was good.
But children change everything.
That’s the cliché; that’s why we bear them.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Counting Jews

Jews do not count people directly. When G-d asks Moses to take a census of the people, He stipulates that each shall pay a “ransom” of a half-shekel upon being enrolled in the army “so that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled” (30:12). The Ramban, an important 13th century scholar, argued that the census was actually taken by counting the money instead of the people. Since then, various other stratagems have been devised to avoid counting people, which is considered to be asking for trouble.

Not one, not two, not three. The Jew counts,
trying to avoid the evil eye,
the same way we might name a sick child Alter,
“old one,” to mislead the angel of death
assigned to yank the infant back to heaven.
So we number the stars or the half-shekels
each must forfeit rather than our lives,
which, being counted, some might judge
too numerous. True, G-d is minding
in the genial way of uncles babysitting
while they kibitz with their cronies on a bench.
In the meantime, what other spirits overhear
our census, to what purpose might they count?
A dozen, a hundred, a thousand, a million, six.