Sunday, February 08, 2009


Selective Holiness
Rabbi Gustavo Surazski
Just last week, we stood up for the reading of Shirat HaYam (The Song of the Sea). This week, Shabbat "Yitro", we will stand for the reading of the Ten Commandments.

Every year, I have mixed emotions regarding standing throughout the reading of the Ten Commandments, Shirat HaYam and other portions of the Torah. On one hand I feel it is the right thing to do, because these are the most central chapters of the Torah. But on the other hand I ask myself if it is in our hands to rank the holiness of certain paragraphs and say which ones are holier than others.

A question in regard to standing while reading the Ten Commandments was turned to the RaMbaM, and he forbade that custom in order to indicate that there is no difference in the holiness level of the Ten Commandments versus the rest of the readings.

Following the RaMbaM, other Rabbis also thought it's not a proper custom to stand during the reading of the Ten Commandments. If every paragraph originates from the heavens above, and they behold the same holy regard, then there is no reason to stand through parts and sit through others.

A Sefer Torah is considered pasul (flawed) and unusable if it is missing just a single letter. The letter Vav from the word "VaYomer", for example, or the letter Alef from the word "Anochi" at the very beginning of the Ten Commandments.

But also there are Midrashim that hint that not all letters are of the same importance. Even though from a theological point all the letters have the same holiness, beside the theological arguments there are other points of view.

For example, the Midrash says, that for twenty-six generations the letter Alef complained to G-d, saying: "Sovereign of the Universe! You made me the first letter, and yet created the world with a Bet, (i.e., Bet is the first letter used in the Creation narrative) as it says, "Bereishit (in the beginning) God created the heavens and the earth." God answered: "The world and the fullness thereof were created only in the merit of the Torah...Tomorrow I will reveal Myself and give the Torah to Israel; then I will place you at the head (of the Ten Commandments), commencing them with you; as it says, "Anochi (i.e. the word Anochi begins with the letter Alef): I am Hashem, your G-d" (Shemot 20:2). (Bereshit Rabba 1, 10).

According to this midrash the Alef only calmed down after she was told that she would be the opening letter of the Ten Commandments with the word "Anochi".

Therefore we can say that if the Torah in holy in its entirety then there is no need to sit or stand according to our judgment. Based on Theology this may be convincing and correct. But on the other hand, we do not build our customs and religious experiences on Theology (Rabbi Harold Kushner once said that the difference between theology and religion is like the difference between eating in a fancy restaurant and reading its menu...).

And although its true that many Theologians say there is no essential difference between the paragraph "VaYomer A-donai El Moshe Lemor" (And God said to Moshe saying) and "Shema Israel A-donai E-lohenu A-donai Echad" (Hear, O Israel: A-donai is our God, A-donai is the One and Only). But even if this is true, it is also a fact that for thousands of years Jews recited the "Shema Israel" while dying for the sake of "Kiddush HaShem" and nobody said "VaYomer A-donai El Moshe Lemor".

And that's also the difference between Theology and Religion.