Friday, August 22, 2008

Melaveh Malchah: After Shabbat Afterlife After Party

The ritual meal of Melaveh Malchah ("Escorting the Queen") involves prayers, dancing, and songs performed at the close of the Sabbath, often as an extension of the "third meal" and Havdalah (hence it is sometimes called "fourth meal" - trending toward the Hobbit-like).

[A Sabbath Queen brooch]

It is intended to extend the Shabbat rest and experience. Based on a customary practice mentioned in passing in the Talmud (Shabbat 119b; S. A. Orach Chayyim 300), it is greatly expanded by Hasidism into an extended, at time raucous, party.

The ritual marks not only the departure of the Shekhinah ("the Sabbath Queen") from those who have known her special intimacy throughout the Sabbath, but also the taking leave of the "added souls" that join us during the Sabbath. The Shekhinah is thereby strengthened for the ordinary days that will follow. It also benefits the living and the dead. Participation by the living may enjoy various blessings, including relief to illness or barreness.[1]

Loosely connected to the theme of extra-ensoulment during Shabbat, according to one tradition, the souls of departed sinners in Gehenna are spared punishment for the duration of the Sabbath. Performing Melaveh Malchah is understood to extend that reprieve and help ease their term in the punishing afterlife [2].

Zal G'mor: To learn more, consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism - http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

1. Wertheim, A., "Traditions and Customs in Hasidism," Essential Papers in Hasidism, p. 372

2. Ginsburg, E., The Sabbath in Classic Kabbalah and Rabinowicz, p. 277, and The Encyclopedia of Hasidism, p. 309

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Shirayim: Divine Leftovers, Soul Food

Sherayim: (“Leftovers”). Food, usually bread, which has been blessed and set aside by a righteous man is a spiritual treasure and much sought after.

The significance of sherayim is derived from several sources. It is consciously understood to be a leftover, based on Deut. 28:5, where the word mishartekha ("your kneading bowl" - "blessed be...your kneading bowl") is interpreted to mean "your remainder."

It is also modelled on the old custom of the peyah, the corner of a field left unharvested and intended for the needy (Lev. 19; B.T. Ervuvin 53b; Orah Chayyim 170:3). The spiritual potential of consuming such remainders is illustrated in this Talmudic maaseh:

After the meal of the day to celebrate the New Month, R. Yohanan would go to the synagogue in the morning and would collect the crumbs and eat them, saying "May I spend my life in the next world together with those who ate here last evening." (J.M.K. 2:3. Also see Sanh. 92a).

The only component missing in the pre-Hasidic tradition is the special role of the Rebbe. This is elaborated from another Talmudic passage which talks of a family experiencing blessing through food distributed by the head of the household (Berakhot 51b). Among the Hasidim it is eaten in the belief that their tzadik’s touch is a "unification" of divine energies and he has released its holy potential (birur ha-nitzotzim). As mentioned in earlier entries, there is a belief that fit food actually contains the sparks of transmigrating souls. Consuming it allows them to move on and blesses the one who ate:

The point of eating and drinking is to locate the sparks, and to locate and restore the migratory souls that are reincarnated in everything that requires tikkun.

Why did God make man feel hunger and thirst?...for this reason it is said "Hungry and thirsty, their souls fainted in them" (Ps. 107:5)...so that he could raise the sparks of the divine, those souls who are 'fainted' in the food. (Taamei ha-Minhagim, pt. 2:3 and Sefer ha-BeSHT 2:24, as translated in Werthheim, A., "Traditions and Customs in Hasidism," p. 386).

Despite this, however, some will keep it as a relic or a segullah charm (inspired by Ex. 23:25). Whatever its fate, it is not unusual to see a scramble by the nearest Hasidim to gain a small bit of these remnants.

Zal G'mor: To learn more, consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism:

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Hasidic Tish: Tabletop Spirituality, Food for the Soul

(A rebbe's tish among the Satmar Hasidim)

I thought I would spend a few entries discussing some of the distinctive spiritual practices of the Chasidic community, starting with the Tish (Yid. "Table." Also Firen Tish; Farbrengen). Among the spiritual customs of Chasidism is the rebbe's tish, a mass gathering of Chasids around their spiritual leader, in which the sharing of food and drinking is combined with lengthy discourses on Torah, singing (often wordless melodies known as niggunim), and ecstatic dancing. These normally occur at Sabbaths, festivals, or commemorative days, and can last many hours.

The Sages of the Talmud characterized the dining table of the Jewish home as a mikdash me'at, a "small altar," elevating the mundane business of eating to a sacradotal level. The idea of a meal punctuated with Torah study also goes back at least as far as the Talmud (Avot 3:4; Taanit 5b). The practice continued on into the Middle Ages (Zohar II:154a), but early Hasidic masters were critical of their conventions, which focused more on virtuoso demonstrations of homiletic prowess rather than on spiritual inspiration [1].

The Tish, by comparison is focused on cultivating a emotional and spiritual identification between the attending Hasids and their leader. Attendees are encouraged to observe and reflect on the every gesture of the Rebbe, whose actions are understood to be "living Torah." Thus, for example, how the Rebbe handles the food, or which morsel he chooses as his first, are all assumed to convey a spiritual lesson. In most cases, the tzadik makes no effort to explain his actions. It is left to the individual hasid to find the metaphysical implications of the master's behavior. For many devout hasids, the tish is the highlight of their communal spirituality, for some it is more powerful than prayer. By means of notarikon, R. Sholem of Belz found that the initials of the phrase "You spread a table before me" - T'l'Sh - (Ps. 23:5) are the same as the initials for the phrase Tikkun Leil Shavuot, midnight study vigil held by Jews prior to celebrating the giving of Torah. Every evening spent at the tzadik's tish is as if you celebrated a major festival.

While there may be considerable food present, it is the food (usually bread and/or fish*) that is blessed and distributed through the hand of the rebbe that holds the greatest interest. In large crowds, often only those closest to the rebbe get more than a fragment. In very large gatherings, to get any at all is a rare and precious event, enhancing the significance of receiving it. It comes to signify a kind of grace. This food, called shirayim, is considered imbued with great sanctity. While most will eat it, some participants will keep the morsels as amulets.[2]

Among CHaBaD Hasidim, these spiritual hoedowns are often called a Farbrengen (Yid., "Gathering"). Functionally identical to the rebbe's tish practiced by other Chasidic groups, the farbrengen features long discourses on mystical teachings of Torah, interrupted by chanting, song and dance.[3] The crowd is also loosened up by a liberal supply of liquor present at all such events.
Zal G'mor: To learn more, consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism:

*Fish has long been held to be a uniquely 'metaphysical' food of special purity and status in the folk traditions of Judaism. Fish need not be slaughtered and kashered as the meat of land animals. The Talmud teaches that fish were spared the destruction of the land animals in the generation of the flood (T.B. Sanhedrin 108a). Fish are not vulnerable to the evil eye. Later reincarnation traditions hold this is because righteous souls transmigrate into fish. To consume them is to assimilate a measure of their merit. Thus fish is always integrated into Hasidic festive events.

1. Werthheim, "Traditions and Customs in Hasidism," p. 383.

2. Rabinowicz, The Encyclopedia of Hasidism, pp. 495-496.

3. Rabinowicz, p. 125.