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Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23)

“Command the Children of Israel to bring you clear olive oil,
pressed for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly.” (Leviticus 24: 2)

Parashat Emor includes a complete listing of the holidays in the Jewish calendar. This includes Sukkot, also known as z’man simchateinu, the time of our rejoicing. A highlight of the Biblical Sukkot observance is nisuch hamayim, the water libation ceremony, during which the kohen, or priest, pours water over the altar while the community rejoices with song and dance. This becomes the rabbinic paradigm of joy: “One who did not see the joy of the water-drawing celebrations, has not seen joy in his life.” (Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 53a)

The ritual includes something peculiar, though: the priests make wicks out of their worn-out underwear and use them to light four menorahs in the Temple courtyard, which illuminate the entire city of Jerusalem (Mishnah Sukkah 5:3). Rabbi Judith Abrams (1958-2014; rabbi, scholar, and Talmud teacher) observes the ritual involves taking something completely hidden (underwear) on the person of the most secluded individual (the priest), in the most limited-access space (the Temple), and exposing it in full view of the entire population! This ceremonial reversal of status (from invisible to visible, hidden to exposed, private to public), is one of the functions of ritual; dressing up in costume on Purim is another example of sanctioned “boundary crossing.”

Catherine Bell (1952-2008; influential anthropologist) explains ritual is a means to regulate and stabilize society, adjust internal interactions, maintain the group ethos, and restore a state of harmony after any disturbance. Rituals are important and common in societies with rigidly defined hierarchies and roles. Given the divisions within the Jewish world today, what rituals might be invented to re-establish communal unity and joy?

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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