Have you read the Good Book? Your Christian friends have. (Shabbos 45)

If Christians know their Bible and we don’t, how must that look in the heavenly court?  It’s time we reclaimed our heritage.  The Tanach, or Written Torah, is the foundation of Judaism.  And yet, so many of us aren’t even familiar with the basic storylines in the Bible. 

A number of years ago, I was sitting on a plane when I happened to overhear the conversation of two young women in the row behind.

“What did you bring with you to read on the way?” asked the first.

“My Bible,” replied her friend, “I’m trying my best to make my way through it.  I’m just past half way.  Have you read the Bible?”

“Of course,” the first one responded, “I’ve actually just started reading it for the third time.  Each time, I’m amazed at how much more I understand!”

I don’t know the age of those ladies or what they looked like.  I didn’t turn around.  But that conversation will remain with me forever.  I thought to myself: Here are Christian girls who have read through the Bible multiple times.  And I, despite all my years of Torah learning, have never made my way through the entire Tanach.  Right then and there, I committed to reading my Bible on a regular basis and making Tanach an integral part of my daily learning schedule.

בְּעוֹ מִינֵּיהּ דְּרַב מַהוּ לְטַלְטוֹלֵי שְׁרָגָא דַחֲנוּכְּתָא מִקַּמֵּי חַבָּרֵי בְּשַׁבְּתָא, וַאֲמַר לְהוּ: שַׁפִּיר דָּמֵי! — שְׁעַת הַדְּחָק שָׁאנֵי. דְּהָא אֲמַרוּ לְהוּ רַב כָּהֲנָא וְרַב אָשֵׁי לְרַב: הָכִי הִלְכְתָא? אֲמַר לְהוּ: כְּדַי הוּא רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן לִסְמוֹךְ עָלָיו בִּשְׁעַת הַדְּחָק

מקמי חברי – שלא יראוהו בחצר כדאמרינן בפרקין דלעיל דנותנו בטפח הסמוך לרשות הרבים וידעו שהדליקו בו נר

מקמי חברי בשבתא – שביום חג שלהם לא היו מניחין נר אלא בבית ע”ז ואע”ג דבשעת הסכנה אמרינן בבמה מדליקין דמניחה על שולחנו ודיו הכא מיירי אם יארע שלא הניחה על שולחנו א”נ אומר ר”י דשעת הסכנה דלעיל לאו סכנת חברים קאמר אלא סכנת גזירה שגזרו שלא להדליק נר חנוכה

Didn’t they raise a dilemma before Rav: Are you allowed to move a Chanukah menorah away from the “chavrai” on Shabbos?  And he said to them: One may well do so, as exigent circumstances are different. For Rav Kahana and Rav Ashi said to Rav: Is that the halacha? He responded: Rabbi Shimon is worthy to rely upon in exigent circumstances.

Rashi: To remove it so that they would not notice it in the courtyard, as we said in the earlier chapter that one should place the menorah in the space close to the public thoroughfare.  And they would know that they had lit a candle there.

Tosfos: On their festival, they would not permit public lightings other than in their temples.  And even though we rule that during times of danger one may place the menorah on the dining table and that is sufficient, we are dealing here with a case where it happened that he did not place it on the table.  Alternatively, R”Y says that the abovementioned danger is not the danger of “friends”, but the danger of a government decree not to light Chanukah candles.

In order to publicize the miracle, Chanukah candles must be lit in the front doorway or by the window.  At various times in our history, however, lighting publicly was dangerous.  Tosfos points out that if the authorities had enacted an antisemitic law forbidding the kindling of Chanukah lights, the solution was simply to light candles on the dining table.  That way, if they were to enter unexpectedly, the lights would appear to be mere dinner lights.

But if that’s the law in exigent circumstances, asks Tosfos, then why is the Gemara concerned about a situation where someone lit by the front door?  Given any dangerous decrees, everyone would have lit at the table.  They conclude that our Gemara is not dealing with a government decree, but the danger of “friends”.   Who are these friends they speak of?

While Rashi translates the term “chavrai” in the Gemara as a nation that existed during Persian times, Tosfos’ translation of the word as “friends” appears to be a tongue-in-cheek reference to early Christian antisemites, who would attack the Jews on Christmas.  Indeed, Rabbi Gavriel Zinner quotes a view that “if the gentiles saw a light in a Jewish home on the day of their festival, they would start pogroms.”

In order to avert such attacks, for many centuries in Ashkenazi communities, it became common practice to avoid learning Torah on Christmas eve.  The day is called “Nittel Nacht” and it is customary to engage in extra-curricular activities, such as chess, until midnight.  We would do our best to stay as inconspicuous as possible, leaving the lights down low and not venturing out into the street to attend one’s regular evening Torah classes.

The Gemara seems to refer to a situation where someone put their menorah by the door as they would every night of Chanukah. Suddenly, they hear trouble coming down the road, and the realization of the date on the Gregorian calendar hits them.  They’re desperate to hide the evidence of their festival lights.  But it’s Shabbat, when we are not allowed to move the candles.  It’s not a clear and present danger – after all, the revellers might be non-violent, just loud.  Are they permitted to bring the menorah inside just to be on the safe side?  Rav responds that, in such circumstances, you can bring the menorah inside, and avoid any unnecessary attention from the Christian neighbours.

The Chasam Sofer offers an ingenious explanation for the custom of Nittel and why the ban only lasts until midnight.  What happens at midnight?  Christians head off to church for Mass.  At that moment, if all the Christians were engaged in religious devotion and the Jews were sleeping, we would look bad in the heavenly court.  The Rabbis thus instituted a ban on Torah learning for the first half of the night.  Consequently, we must delay our nightly study schedule until midnight and only then start catching up on what we missed!

Most contemporary Christians have no idea about the religion’s spotty history.  A few years ago, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the Catholic Church’s reassessment of its approach towards the Jewish people, I spoke to a Christian audience about various major Christian attacks on Jews over the centuries.  Perhaps the greatest eye-opener for all was the diametrically different perspective we each have on the Crusades.  For Christians, it was a period they take immense pride in, an era of triumph.  For Jews, the Crusades were a bloodbath when Jewish communities were destroyed and our people murdered in cold blood.

Thank God, we are blessed to live in an age when Christians have long since repented of their past misdeeds.  Christians and Jews today are best of friends in ways our ancestors could never have dreamed of.  And so if the Chasam Sofer was willing to be inspired by Christian devotion, we most certainly must do what we can to strive to reach the levels of religious devotion of our Christian friends.

Which brings me back to 10,000 metres above the Pacific.  If Christians know their Bible and we don’t, how must that look in the heavenly court?  It’s time we reclaimed our heritage.  The Tanach, or Written Torah, is the foundation of Judaism.  And yet, so many of us aren’t even familiar with the basic storylines in the Bible.  Across the globe, from South Korea to social media, the Talmud seems to be all the rage right now.  But whatever happened to the Bible?  Somehow, our key text got lost in all the excitement.  The Talmud is certainly vital to Judaism.  But the Bible is no less important.

We currently find ourselves in the midst of Sefirah – the period of counting up to the festival of Shavuot, when we celebrate the Giving of the Torah.  Each day, we are called upon to prepare ourselves for the big event.  What better way to prepare than to learn a little Tanach?  Whether you’re learning it in-depth or simply reading through and anticipating gaining a deeper appreciation on the second or third time around, a mere five or ten minutes a day of Bible will be life-changing!

At our shul, Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, we are aiming to complete the entire Tanach as a community initiative by Shavuot.  If you’re part of the HGSS community, please sign up for a couple of chapters.  If you’re part of another community, perhaps consider a similar initiative.  It doesn’t need to happen over a period of seven weeks, a year is also an admirable congregational accomplishment.  May the Bible become an essential part of your daily routine!

About the Author
Rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, London, UK.
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