The Chamber Of Secrets

While everyone was going crazy over Harry Potter in the nineties, I never really got on that fandom train. I half-heartedly read the first two books, both of whose themes I barely recall. Thus, I surprised myself when I recently started obsessing about the title of the second book: Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets. I went as far as consulting one of my children, as well as Wikipedia, to recall the book’s main theme.

In their second year at Hogwart’s, Harry and his friends investigate the opening of the chamber, which was created by Salazar Slytherin, a founder of the school and the founding namesake of Slytherin, the most racist and elitist of the school’s four houses. The dark and forbidding chamber is occupied by the Basilisk, a fearsome serpent controlled by Slytherin’s leaders who plot to use it to murder students at the school whose family pedigrees are not pure-blood wizard.

Given my lukewarm interest in the series, what got me fixating belatedly on this title of JK Rowling’s was its incidental precedent in ancient rabbinic literature.  I’m being quite serious. Allow me to take you on my personal journey of seeming non-sequiturs, which I assure you will all make sense at the end of this essay.

The Mishnah (the ancient tradition of Jewish oral and common law) records the following about the lishkat ashaim, literally the Chamber of Secrets, that existed in the ancient Jerusalem temple:

There were two chambers in the Temple. The first was the Chamber of Secrets.  The second was the Chamber of Vessels.  Pious people would secretly make charitable donations to the Chamber of Secrets, while impoverished people of good background (who had lost their finances) would secretly sustain themselves from those donations in the chamber.  (Mishnah Tractate Sheqalim 5:6)

Commenting on this passage, the sages of the less well-known Jerusalem Talmud provided an abundance of stories of rabbis who made regular charitable donations to others in secret. Writing well after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans, they assiduously carried on this tradition of anonymous philanthropy for the poor. Almost a millennium later, Maimonides, the great scholar of Jewish law and philosophy, used this description of the Chamber of Secrets to describe one of the highest levels of tzedakah, the obligation of charitable giving:

The second highest level is one who gives tzedakah to the poor and does not know to whom he gives, and the poor person does not know from whom he receives. This is purely a mitzvah for its own sake, similar to the Chamber of Secrets in the Holy Temple. There the righteous would give in secret [and leave], and the poor, of good background, would sustain themselves from it in secret. (Mishneh Torah:  Laws Of Gifts To The Poor 10:8. Translation taken from the Sefaria website: See sefaria.org.)

It seems that this Chamber of Secrets served three purposes:  it ensured financial support for the poor of the community, it prevented the receiver, and the giver as well, from being embarrassed in the other’s presence, and it mitigated the tendency of at least some donors to seek attention and accolades for their giving.

Certainly, the spirit of the Chamber of Secrets abounds today.  Those of us who seek to help impoverished people often prefer to do it anonymously.  Far from an exercise in callousness (“I’ll help those poor people as long as I don’t have to talk to them”), anonymous giving allows everyone to give and receive in a way that preserves people’s privacy, and thus their dignity.  The original Chamber of Secrets idea involved giving to the poor who were people of good families and backgrounds.  As I alluded to above, this is a likely reference to people who had lost their resources and were reduced to dire economic poverty.  Let me suggest that, at all times, and especially in these days of pandemic induced hunger, everyone and anyone who comes for food assistance is considered a person of good family and background who has been reduced to economic poverty.  All are unconditionally worthy of our help, and with no questions asked.

So, the spirit of the Chamber exists today, but can an actual Chamber of Secrets be found in modern cities and neighborhoods?  In fact, yes.  One of the smallest but most inspiring charities – the one that got me thinking about the original Chamber of Secrets – is located downtown in my city, a mere two miles from my home.  Known as the South End Children’s Cafe, it provides meals and other support to the city’s most economically devastated kids and their families. As part of its sacred work, the café has built two outdoor cupboards right at its doorstep. Anyone anytime can drive or walk up to the door and anonymously drop off non-perishable food items; anyone anytime can drive or walk up to the cupboards and take items, no questions asked.

The cafe’s cupboards are an official program of a social service agency, but they aren’t really anything new. According to a 2017 National Public Radio report,  an entire informal movement of backyard and front door mini-pantries has been taking root in North American communities for the past several years. It would not surprise me if this informal movement and more formal endeavors to deliver food privately and with dignity to people in need have gained even more urgency and momentum across the United States in this past COVID year.

Modern food security projects like these are part of a venerable commitment to food justice that is deeply embedded in ancient Jewish tradition, even if only incidentally.  It takes little to imagine those two outdoor cupboards as our Chamber of Secrets, echoes of  the chamber in the ancient Holy Temple. Every time we leave food in places like these, we are, as it were, returning ourselves to that holy place: our simplest act of anonymous kindness at that moment is an opportunity to encounter the God of justice and mercy on a low-key, nondescript street in my hometown and in every hometown.

Those humble cupboards are reminders of something else as well, in light of our celebration of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. JK Rowling’s imaginary Chamber contains the darkest secret of lurking evil that threatens to swallow up innocent people in its darkness. Our Chamber of Secret allows us to give and receive food under the dark cover of blessed anonymity. This then allows all of us to do what the lights of Hanukkah demand of us, especially at the darkest, coldest time of the year:  to bring more and more light into the world by seeing to it that no one goes hungry, that everyone has enough to eat.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (Jewish Publication Society, 2020.)
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