Honouring the living

By Rabbi Malcolm Matitiani

“And from the day on which you bring the sheaf (omer) of elevation offering — the day after the sabbath — you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week — fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Eternal” (Leviticus 23:15-16).

The commandment to count seven complete weeks from the second day of Pesach to the day before Shavuot establishes a ritual link between the two festivals. This palpable connection between the Festival of Human Freedom and the anniversary of the receiving of the Ten Utterances at Mount Sinai makes us aware of the importance of the governance of society by rules of behaviour that preserve human rights and guarantee true liberty from oppression.

The period of sefirat ha-omer (The Counting of the Omer) is characterised in rabbinic literature as a time of semi-mourning. The Talmud (Yevamoth 62b) mentions that a plague decimated Rabbi Akiva’s twenty-four-thousand disciples because they did not treat each other with respect. The Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chayyim 493.1) claims that this took place during sefirat ha-omer and thus ruled that one should refrain from marrying at least until the thirty-third day of the omer. Later the cutting of one’s hair and the playing of music was also banned during the seven weeks preceding Shavuot, with the exception of lag ba-omer and the two roshei chodesh that occur during this period.

While based on a legend, the reason for these restrictions is a source of an important truth. We, as a Jewish community are often more concerned about the important concept of kibud ha-met (honouring the dead) than the equally, or dare I say it, more important, concept of kibud he-chai (honouring the living). We are very punctilious about mourning a beloved departed by observing all the ritual involved with bereavement, and rightly so. But it saddens me that we are often guilty of degrading and demeaning the living. We are often intolerant of those who are different, either physically or mentally, or who express different points of view. 

The beauty of both biblical and rabbinic tradition is the accommodation of alternative opinions and practices. Thus the Book of Ezra expresses the view that it is not possible for a person to convert to Judaism (Ezra 9 and 10) while the Book of Ruth recognises and even applauds the possibility of conversion to Judaism, an opinion that is accepted by all streams of Judaism. The Torah expresses the notion that children shall be punished for the wrongdoings of their parents (Exodus 34:7) while the Prophet Ezekiel declares, “The person who sins, he alone shall die. A child shall not share the burden of a parent’s guilt, nor shall a parent share the burden of a child’s guilt; the righteousness of the righteous shall be accounted to him alone, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be accounted to him alone” (Ezekiel 18:20).

Both the Mishnah and Talmud are well-known for recording the minority opinion along with that of the majority. Although the halakhah is always legislated according to the majority opinion, the sages were careful to respect their colleagues who differed in their interpretation of the biblical text or law, by not assigning their ideas to the metaphorical rubbish heap but including them in the definitive source of halakhic authority.

Rabbis Hillel and Shammai are always used as ultimate examples of scholars who disagreed with each other’s views in a healthy manner that avoided shaming the opponent. Such care and tact led to their halakhic disagreements being classified by the Mishnah as machalokot leshem shamayim (disputes for the sake of heaven) — that is ‘well-meaning disputes;. These two great teachers sparred with each other on the intellectual battlefield but co-operated with each other on a personal and professional level (Hillel was nasi [President] of the bet din and Shammai was av bet din, [Father of the bet din].

We are privileged to live in a city and a country which is inhabited by a diverse and multi-cultured population, and our Jewish community contains many interpretations of Judaism, ranging from ultra-Orthodox to secular. As we count the days and weeks leading up to Shavuot and the anniversary of receiving the life-affirming principles of Judaism (and indeed western society), let us learn the lesson of the legend of the plague that struck the students of Rabbi Akiva: In a free society we have a right to disagree and debate but this right should never be exercised at the expense of preserving the dignity of all human beings (including those with whom we disagree). We must commit ourselves to the Jewish tradition of healthy argument leshem shamayim.

Temple Israel www.templeisrael.co.za

Published in the PDF edition of the May 2022 issue – Click here to read it.

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