By the time you read this article we would have recently commemorated Tisha B’Av, the fast mourning the destruction of the First and Second Temples and other national catastrophes that befell the Jewish People over the centuries.
The demolition of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the exile of the upper echelons of Judean society to Babylon led to the introduction of formalised community prayer services that were held at the times when sacrifices would have taken place had the Temple not been destroyed. This early form of synagogue service became the sole means of communal worship until the Second Temple was built in approximately 350BCE. During the Second Temple period the nascent synagogue service took place alongside the biblical sacrificial service performed by the kohanim in the Temple precincts, and began to develop into the service that we know today.
The destruction of the Second Temple at the hands of Titus and his Roman legionaries in 70CE resulted in the permanent end of the ancient sacrificial based worship of God and the idea of worshipping God through avodat ha-lev, ‘worship of the heart’ (i.e. prayer) became the norm. While both churbanim were national catastrophes, resulting in loss of life and sovereignty, they were also catalysts for change.
According to the Mishnah, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai escaped the Roman siege of Jerusalem and founded a yeshivah in the small village of Yavneh. Gathering his students and followers around him, Rabbi Yohanan restructured Jewish practise so that worship and community life could continue without the Temple and its hierarchy of Kohen, Levi and Yisrael with the accompanying animal sacrifices, meal offerings and wine libations. We can thank this famous and ingenuitive sage and his talmidim for creating Judaism as we know it. Leaving behind the need for a sacred space in which the sacrifices had to be slaughtered and offered, Judaism is based on worshipping God by means of the three daily set prayers of Ma’ariv, Shacharit and Minchah; study of Torah and rabbinic teachings; and the performance of the ritual and ethical mitzvot. Sacred time was and is emphasised over sacred space.
This new focus made Judaism more portable and Jewish communities spread and thrived all over the world. A new era of our history had begun.
We Jews use the acronyms BCE (Before the Common Era) and CE (Common Era) when referring to Gregorian dates. Since the rise of the worldwide COVID-19 virus some of us use the newly coined BCE (Before the Covid Experience) and CE (Covid Experience). While slightly amusing, this new meaning of BCE and CE does suggest that humanity has entered a new reality and indeed Judaism has had to adapt once again to changing circumstances. Funerals and the mourning process are now very different CE than they were BCE. Attendances at the cemetery are limited, physical distancing must be maintained, and masks worn throughout. The natural tendency for loved ones to embrace one another to give comfort during times of sorrow has to be curbed.
Progressive, Reform and Liberal synagogues around the world have resorted to Zoom and Facebook to live stream our Shabbat services and most of us count ten adults with their video images on in Zoom as a minyan. In doing so we follow in the footsteps of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai who made revolutionary changes 2000 years ago in order to drag Jewish practise into the new post-Temple era.
Faced with the new reality of the dangers of congregating to celebrate Shabbat and the chaggim, we are forced to think creatively to ensure that congregants are able to observe Jewish ritual and have a sense of community. While we all pray and are hopeful for a vaccine, we would be foolish to think that life will go back to what it was BCE.
This pandemic has caused untold physical, mental, economic and social suffering and hardship and Judaism, along with other faith practises, has had to adapt to the new reality in order to assist its practitioners to cope with life during and, please God, post COVID-19.
Temple Israel www.templeisrael.co.za
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