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Rosh Hodesh

Francine Klagsbrun and Mark Podwal 1996
Jewish Days
Farrar Strauss Giroux, New York


The sages of the Talmud raised the question and answered it by suggesting that God foresaw that people would worship the celestial bodies as gods. Lest they regard the sun as the all-powerful deity, God created the moon to compete with it and diffuse its influence. The rabbis knew well that many ancient peoples worshipped both sun and moon. Moon worship was particularly popular in Mesopotamia, the area where the early biblical patriarchs lived and traveled. Abraham came from Haran, which had a great temple dedicated to the moon god, Sin. Jacob worked for his father-in-law, Laban, whose name in Hebrew, Lavan, means "white" and is related to levanab, the moon. It is a name that hints at an association with a moon cult. As the Bible portrays them, however, Abraham and Jacob and their descendants rejected sun and moon worship and other pagan practices. Instead, they entered into a covenant with a single God who transcends nature and its parts.

In posing their question and answering it as they did, the rabbis were subtly distinguishing between Israel and the peoples around it. But why did God make the moon smaller than the sun? Scripture first tells of the creation of "two great lights" on the fourth day (Genesis 1:16). Why then, the sages asked, did one become a "greater light" and the other a "lesser light"? One explanarion they gave was that the moon had to be reduced in size because it encroached on the sun's domain by being sometimes visible during the day as well as by night; another, that it was punished by being made smaller because ir complained abour having to share the universe with the sun. Most important, the rabbis compared the moon to Israel. Though smaller than the sun, the moon is more active. It waxes and wanes and waxes again, ever renewing itself So Israel will be ever renewed, and one day it will be redeemed and restored to its original brightness. Moreover, just as the moon can be seen by day and by night, Israel has a portion in this world and the next, the world to come. Rejected as a deity but identified with Israel, and essential to the Jewish calendar, the moon became incorporared into the Jewish year with the festival of Rosh Hodesh, celebrating the new moon, or new month. In biblical times, it was a ma'or festival, when special sacrifices were brought to the Temple. Eventually it receded in importance, becoming a minor holiday recalled mosrly through simple synagogue ceremonies. Yet, like the moon itself, the New Moon festival, seemingly faded, has once again been renewed. In our own day, women have rediscovered it, seeing in the moon's monthly cycle a reflection of the cyclical patterns of their own lives. The biblical Rosh Hodesh was a happy occasion when trumpets were blown and feasts held. Work ceased for the day, and people visited the prophets to hear their teachings. The first synagogues may havc developed from such Rosh Hodesh and Sabbath gatherings at the prophets' homes.

In biblical and talmudic times, before the calendar was firmly fixed, a colorful ceremony surrounded the appearance of the new moon. On the thirtieth of the month, members of the high court in Jerusalem would gather to hear resrimony from witnesses who had sighted the first sliver of a crescent in the sky. If, after careful examination, the testimony was accepted, the head of the court would proclaim the new moon with the words "It is hallowed!" Then all the people assembled would respond, "It is hallowed! It is hallowed!" The witnesses would be given a lavish meal, and notice of the new moon sent to Jews wherever they lived. If the new moon was not sighted on the thirtieth day, the proclamation would be made on the thirty-first. The elaborate proclamation of the new moon ended when the calendar was established, in the middle of the fourth century C.E.

Though moon worship did not become part of Jewish practice, ancient Jews (even the sages) were not above superstitious beliefs. Some said that an eclipse of the moon was an evil omen for Israel, the result of its sins. Some said there is a man in the moon and he has the face of Jacob, or perhaps of Joshua, who led the Israelites into the Promised Land. Joshua was also believed to have chosen as warriors for his battles against the Amalekites men born in the leap-year month of Adar 11, because witchcraft has no power then. As for the months in general, Jews, like other ancient peo- ples, incorporated the signs of the zodiac into their ideas about the cycles of the year, but gave them uniquely Jewish meanings. The kabbalists of the sixteenth century introduced new rituals for the moon. They interpreted the moon's disappearance at the end of the month as the exile of the Shekhinah, the feminine aspect of God. Accordingly, they fasted on the day before the new month as a way of repenting and seeking God's return. Still observed by some Hasidic Jews, the fast is called Yo Kippur Katan, a small Day of Atonement. Today the standard Rosh Hodesh rituals are just shadows of earlier ones. On the Sabbath before the new moon, during the Torah service, the reader announces the coming month, giving i'ts name and the day or days on which the festival will fall. (One day of Rosh Hodesh follows twenty- nine-day months, and two days are celebrated after thirty-day months: the thirtieth day itself and the first day of the next month.) Congregants stand during the announcement, in remembrance of the original proclamation in Jerusalem. They repeat the month's name aloud and pray that it will be a time of goodness and blessing, of gladness and salvation. On the day of Rosh Hodesh itself, worshippers include special prayers and recite psalms of praise to God. Fasting is forbidden, and festivities are called for, including housewarmings, dedications, and other cheerful events. The most charming Rosh Hodesh rite doesn't actually take place on Rosh Hodesh. Between the third of the month and the fifteenth, on an evening when the moon is clearly visible, traditional Jews go outdoors and bless the moon. An air of mystery and mysticism surrounds this ceremony under the skies, reinforced by prayers for a messianic time when the moon will be restored to its former ILister and the kingdom of David will likewise be restored to Israel. Called kiddush levanah, the sanctification of the moon," or birkhat ha'levanah, the "blessing of the moon," it originated in talmudic times. Toward its end, participants exchange greetings. Shalom Aleikhem ("Peace be with you"), they say to each other, and they respond, Aleikhem Shalom ("to you peace").

New Moon Movement

The newest form of Rosh Hodesh observance expresses the vitality women have given the celebration by reclaiming it as a holiday of their own.

Why Rosh Hodesh is a woman's festival? An old tradition holds that women are freed from work on this day although men are not. The freedom and the festivity that accompanies it are rewards for the merit of ancient Israelite women who refused to surrender their jewelry for use in constructing the golden calf

The tradition probably reflects an older connection between women's monthly menstrual cycles and the cycles of the moon. It also reflects the cycle of marital sexuality in Judaism. According to Jewish iaw, partners abstain from all sexual activity during a woman's menstrual period and for seven days afterward, until she immerses herself in the mikveh, the ritual bath. Then marital intimacy is resumed, as the moon is renewed each month.

Since the 1970s, groups of Jewish women in rhe United States, Canada, Israel, and other parts of the world have held monthly New Moon celebrations, and the custom waxes stronger with each passing year. There is no set pattern to the celebrations, allowing free rein to the participants' imaginations. Most groups meet monthly, at the new moon or close to it. They may discuss the month's holidays or study a related text. Often they will chant together the prayer for sanctifying the moon, symbolically appealing for women's restoration to their full place in Jewish spiritual life along with the moon's restoration.

Occasionally, these rituals so emphasize women's biology and its connections to the moon that they seem to veer far from traditional Judaism and move close to New Age and other non-Jewish spiritual communities. But for most women who Join them, Rosh Hodesh groups offer the opportunity men have always had to priy and study together. And they celebrate in a creative and original way a festival older than the calendar yet one that each month signifies rebirth and the never-ending vibrancy of Jewish Iife.

The Jewish calendar is based on 12 lunar months as is the Islamic calendar totalling only 354 days.


Each week when Shabbat comes, it turns ordinary time into the sacred and extraordinary. So extraordinary is this day that it is the only one of the week with a name. All others simply bear numbers in relation to it, as . "first day," "second day," and so on. So sacred and spiritually fulfilling is it that the sages pictured it as a foretaste of the world to come, a touch of paradise here on earth.

The Sabbath begins at dusk on Friday evening with the lighting of candles, no later than eighteen minutes before sundown. But preparations-shopping, cooking, cleaning, bathing-start much earlier, and the entire day is referred to as erev Shabbat, the Sabbath eve. For the observant, the greeting for Sabbath peace, Shabbat Shalom, closes the workweek, just as it opens the Sabbath itself As candlelighting time approaches, the Mishnah teaches, a tailor should not go out with his needle stuck in his coat, or a writer holding her pen. Work needs to recede now to allow the spirit of the day to take over.

The rabbis told of wondrous things created on the eve of the world's first Shabbat, in the mystical twilight after the sun had set but the stars had not yet appeared. Among them was the rainbow Noah would see after the great Flood, the ram that would be sacrificed in place of Isaac, and a miraculous well that would accompany the Israelites during their long trek in the wilderness.

Candlelighting on the Sabbath eve ushers in its own magic, as a canopy of peace and repose descends on the home. Usually the woman in the household kindles the Sabbath candles, but a man should light them if no woman is present. The lights recall the first act of Creation, the separation of light from darkness. Mystics also saw in them additional souls humans receive for the day, which depart when Shabbat ends. Two candles are lighted, representing the two versions of the Sabbath commandment, ro observe and to remember. But more may be lit; some families use one for each child. After the benediction over the candles many women silently add personal prayers.

Two braided ballah breads covered with a cloth rest on the Sabbath table, set more formally than at any other time. The word ballah comes from a portion of dough set aside for the priests in the ancient Temple, where a bread offering to God was made. Two loaves are used to echo the double portion of manna the Israelites gathered in the desert on Friday to last them through the Sabbath.

Joyous synagogue services known as kabbalat Shabbat welcome the Sabbath before the evening meal. They include images that go back to the third century, when the Palestinian sage Rabbi Hanina would wrap himself in a robe on the Sabbath eve and exclaim, "Come, let us go out to meet the Sabbath Queen." Another scholar, Rabbi Yannai, would say, "Come, 0 Bride; come, 0 Bride."

Building on those images, the sixteenth-century kabbalists spoke of a mystical union between God the K'ng and the Sabbath Queen. Their beautiful hymn "Lekhah Dodi " alludes to that union and ends with Rabbi Yannai's words. As congregants sing "Come, 0 Bride; come, 0 Brlde," they turn toward the synagogue entrance to receive the Sabbath Queen.

After services, a popular legend tells, two angels accompany people home, one good and one bad. If candles are lit and the home is beautified for Shabbat, the good angel says, "May it be this way on the next Shabbat," and the bad angel must answer "Amen." But if the home is not readied, the bad angel says, "May it be this way on the next Shabbat," and the good one must say "Amen."

The family greets those angels with the Sabbath hymn "Shalom Aleikhem," then bids them farewell. After the singing, parents bless their children, a ritual way of expressing their love and concern. A husband might then pay tribute to his wife by singing from the Book of Proverbs of the woman of valor," who devotes herself to the care of her family (31:10-31). Increasingly, in egalitarian families, husbands and wives sing the verses together, to each other, just as together they readied their home for Shabbat.

The kiddush, recited over a brimming cup of wine, sanctifies the Sabbath before dinner begins. Such Sabbath evening blessings on earth, the mystics said, add sanctity and blessing to the heavenly hosts above. Traditionally, the father recited the kiddush, which opens with the biblical verses that recall God's rest on the seventh day. Today women often lead it, and family members and guests may ioin in. Afterward, participants ceremonially wash their hands, and the haltah is blessed, cut, and sprinkled with salt, another reminder of the Temple offerings, which were accompanied by salt. The grace after the Shabbat meal is, like the meal itself, the most elaborate of the week. Then everybody lingers around the table singing zemirot, lively Sabbath table songs.

Oh, and one more part of this special evening: the sages deemed it of particular merit for husband and wife to have conjugal relations that night, to add to the Shabbat joy.

In the synagogue on Saturday morning, a reader chants a portion from the Torah scroll followed by the haftarah, a section from the Prophets. Orthodox and a number of Conservative synagogues read through the entire five books of Moses in a yearly cycle. Many Reform, Reconstructionist, and other Conservative synagogues stretch the reading over a three-year cycle. Certain Sabbaths of the year, named for the Torah porrion, are connected with special events, and are discussed in this book in their proper places on the calendar. A Sabbath custom is to eat three meals during the course of the day. Called shalosb se'udot, they were originally a sign of luxury for a people who generally ate only twice a day. Many congregations enjoy a light third meal together between afternoon and evening services, when they also study a sacred text. The Sabbath ends, traditionally, when three stars are visible in the sky, or, officially, forty-two minutes after sunset, with the ceremony of Havdalah, "separation." Instead of the simple white candles with which the day began, a tall multicolored braided candle with several wicks is lighted. In I .ts complexity, it stands for the hustle and bustle of the weekdays now returned. A benediction is said over a cup of wine (or juice), and another over a mixture of spices, whose fragrance represents a last reminder of the loveliness of Shabbat. A third blessing is said over the candle, and a final one emphasizes the many distinctions of life-between sacred time and profane, light and darkness, Israel and other nations, and the seventh day of rest and the six of labor.

The Havdalah service closes with thoughts of a time to come when the beauty of Shabbat will last eternally. It sings of Elijah the prophet, who, it is said, will herald the arrival of the Messiah.

Not content to let go of the Sabbath, the sages instituted a fourth meal at day's end called Melaveb Malkah, "escorting the queen." Today Hasidic groups in particular have a long, festive meal on Saturday nights. Folklore gives anorher explanation for the meal: God told King David that he would die on a Sabbath, but not which one. From then on, the king gave a feast every Saturday night in gratitude for having survived another Sabbath. Hence this meal is also called King David's Feast.

The number seven in mystical thought symbolizes perfection, the orderly creation of the world in six days, with the seventh day of Shabbat-itself perfection. The concept of Shabbat is so essential to Jewish life that it extends beyond humans and animals to the land and beyond days to years. Scripture decrees that every seventh year farmers must allow their land to "rest" by lying fallow. In that sabbatical year poor people and wild beasts may eat freely of the unworked land, and persons in debt are released from their obligations. At the end of seven sabbatical years, a j . ubilee ear must be declared, when indentured servants are freed and all land that has been sold reverts to its ori'gi'nal owners.

Later sages modified the laws of the sabbatical and Jubilee years so that people would not refrain from lending money to the needy for fear they might lose their loan in the sabbatical year. But the purpose behind the laws stayed constant. The seventh year was a "sabbath of the Lord" (Leviticus 25:4), just as the seventh day of the week is. Both are meant to show concern for others- the slave, the poor, the hungry. Both also are set apart as sacred time when humans relinquish con- trol over nature and one another and acknowledge, in the words of the Psalmist: "The earth is the Lord's and all that it holds" (Psalm 24:1)-

Because Shabbat is a day for J'oy and rest, no mourning or fast may take place on it, except for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. For the superstitious there is one other exception. The Talmud discusses the custom for a person who had a nightmare to fast the next day in order to annul evil effects. Some sages allowed such a fast even on the Sabbath if the bad dream had been on its Friday night. But, they ruled, the person had to atone for violating the Sabbath by fasting again the next day!

For all the centrality of the Sabbath, it gives way to the even greater centrality of human life.

Shabbat may be desecrated to save a life-not only may be but must be. The Talmud gives the example of a man who sees a door shut on a room in which an infant is alone and may be endangered or simply frightened. He must break down the door to get the baby out, and "the sooner the better," although that may mean violating the Sabbath. What is the rationale for overriding Shabbat to preserve life? Scripture says: "You shall keep the sabbath, for it is holy for you" (Exodus 31:14). That means that the Sabbath was given to you but you are not surrendered to the Sabbath, the rabbis explained. Even the sanctity of Shabbat must take second place to the sanctity of life.

The Sabbath was given to the people of Israel, and spread far beyond them. Ancient Roman writers such as Seneca and Tacitus spoke of it contemptuously as a superstitious practice of waste- ful idleness. Yet the spirit and beauty of this holy day influenced the general population. The Roman Jewish historian Josephus describes the spread of Sabbath practices throughout the Roman Empire, including the lighting of Sabbath candles. Christianity later incorporated the Sabbath into its the- ology, but transposed it to Sunday and connected it to the resurrection of Jesus. Muslims observe Friday as a form of Sabbath, a day of assembly, when work is permitted but prayer services are held.

For Jews the seventh day has remained sacred. In the Middle Ages and later in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, families would scrimp on food all week in order to en'oy a Sabbath meal that included a piece of fish or meat. For those who could not afford Sabbath festivities, the communi- ty often provided help. That is not to say that Jews have always kept all the laws. As far back as bib- lical times, the prophet Jeremiah warned against carrying merchandise in and out of the gates of Jerusalem on Shabbat, adding, "But they would not listen (Jeremiah 17:23)- In economically pressing eras, many Jews found restrictions against working on the Sabbath a particular hardsh'tp. In our own age of greater affluence but also greater assimilation, many have dropped Sabbath obser- vance. Yet growing numbers do incorporate some ceremony into their lives, such as lighting Shabbat candles or gathering the family together for a Friday evening meal.

And always, the rhythm of the Jewish calendar flows around this day of rest and reflection. In every week of every month of every year, the Sabbath arrives to re-create that moment after Creation when God rested and the entire cosmos was in peace and harmony. Shabbat may be a miracle, as my father taught me. It is also a unique gift only fully appreciated when used.

Passover Sabbath and the Song of Songs

Feminist seders during the intervening days of Passover pay tribute to the righteous women and explore the festival from a much-neglected female perspective.

Women are featured again in a totally different context during the intermediate days: in the reading of the Song of Songs, particularly in Ashkcnazic synagogues and usually on the Sabbath of Passover. (Some people also read it at the end of the first seder.)

One of the puzzles of the Hebrew Bible has always been why the Song of Songs was included in the holy canon. It is, after all, a collection of love songs - erotic love songs at that - between a woman and man. The woman, known as the Shulamite, is strong and direct about her love. She invites her lover to her "garden," goes after him when he has left her, celebrates her own sexuality and his. She and other women whose songs are heard appear to be on an equal footing with men, to glory in their femaleness and to be loved and praised for it. For his part, the male lover is both tender and powerful, enthralled by his female partner and transported by sensual love.

The book never mentions God or religion, the Exodus, Sinai, or the Temple. It sings of spring and brides, of vineyards and mandrakes, and of the sweet fragrance of myrrh and frankincense. In every way, it seems a series of secular poems, some of them wedding songs, some exuberant expressions of physical passion.

Yet the great Rabbi Akiva stated: "The whole world is not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel; for all the writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holiest of the holy."

To Akiva and other sages, the Song was an allegory of the love between God and Israel, so deep and binding that it could be unashamedly expressed in sensuous terms. Because King Solomon's name appears in the poems, the rabbis attrlbtited them to him, making it easier to accept them as sacred writing.

In a study of the Song of Songs, the scholar Gerson D. Cohen gave the most cogent explanation for their religious stature. He raised the question of why it would have occurred to anyone in the first place to treat these blatantlv erotic poems as allegory. He answered by pointing out that unlike other peoples, Israel had no fertility rites and no love goddesses to worship. It was also the only nation that had a relationship to its God that centered on exclusivity, an absolute fidelity between the people and their one Deity. The prophets expressed that fidelity in marital terms, speaking of Israel as God's wife and admonishing the people to be ever faithful. But the rabbis longed for a way to convey the love that went along with marriage and apply it to their love of the Torah and their yearning for God's love. The Song of Songs filled that need, serving as a metaphor for an intimate, intense, and loving dialogue between humans and God that no magic fertility rite could equal,

Chanted in a distinctive melody, the Song of Songs enhances the sense of springtime and joy that mark the Passover scason and the deeper sense of identltv with a tradition and a history that the holiday as a whole evokes.


The Miriam we encounter in the Bible is an elusive figure, emerging from the shadows at crucial moments in Israel's history, then disappearing again. Those few appearances, however, set her apart so radically from other women in the five books of Moses that some critics believe they are based on a more fully developed tradition about her that was lost over time. In tantalizing hints we see Miriam as her brother's protector, as the leader of women in song and dance, and as a prophet of influence. We may never retrieve the narrative of her life, but as if to compensate for the loss, the midrash surrounds her story with rich interpretations and warm fantasies. At its most beautiful, it connects Miriam with a miraculous well that nurtured the Israelites throughout their long trek in the desert.

The legends stretch back to her early years before the birth of Moses, in fact, giving Miriam credit for that birth.

The biblical story opens with the words "A certain man of the house of Levi went and marri'ed a Levite woman" (Exodus 2:i), referring to Moses' parents, Amram and jochebed. "Where did he go?" asked Rabbi judah ben Zebina, and answered, "He went and followed the advice of his daughter." What was that advice? After Pharaoh decreed that all newborn males must be drowned in the river, Amram and other Hebrew men despairingly divorced their wives to avoid having children. Miriam chastised her father, saying that his decree was even harsher than Pharaoh's, for Pharaoh's edict affected only males, whereas Amram's affected males and females. Miriam also prophesied that one day her mother would have a son who would redeem Israel.

Urged by his daughter, Amram remarried Jochebed, and Miriam and her brother Aaron danced at the wedding. Moses was born from the remarriage.

The biblical narrative picks up: Jochebed hides Moses in a basket among the reeds of the Nile and his sister stands at a distance to watch over him. When she sees that Pharaoh's daughter has discovered the child, she offers to find a Hebrew nurse ro suckle him. The nurse, of course, is her mother, and as a resulr of Miriam's intervention, Pharaoh's daughter ends up paying Jochebed to nurse her own son.

Miriam protects her brother at the Nile River, and years later she Joins him in a song of triumph at another body of water, the Red Sea. The Israelites have crossed that sea safely, and now the waters close in on the Egyptians pursuing them. Miriam takes a timbret and leads the women in a victory dance, singing aloud the refrain Moses and the men had sung a few minutes earlier. Here, for the first time, Scripture refers to her as "Miriam the prophetess," a personage in her own right (Exodus 15:2o). The Juxtaposition of Miriam's singing with her title as a prophet has led modern critics to believe that women's prophecy often took the form of song and poetry. They also suggest that Miriam's refrain became the foundation upon which the entire Song at the Sea was built.

Unfortunatcly, Scripture gives us no details about Miriam's prophetic skills, but they seem to be at the root of the darkest period in her life, for in her next appearance she is vying in prophecy with Moses. She and Aaron have been whispering to each other, first against the "Cushite" wife Moses married and then against his leadership. "Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?" they say. "Has He not spoken through us as well?" (Numbers 12: ).

Their complaints about Moses' wife are unclear. Zipporah, the wife we know of, came from Midian, not Cush, which is usually identified as Ethiopia (although some sources do place Cush within Midianite borders). Their criticism seems to have an ethnic edge, for the Cushites were black, yet in other places both the Bible and Talmud identify blackness with beauty and specialness.

Enter the midrash. Here the talk is not directed against Zipporah but in her favor. Zipporah has told Miriam that from the day Moses descended from Mount Sinal, filled with holiness, he has not had sexual relations with her. Worried that her brother will stop procreating, Miriam speaks to Aaron about the situation. Thus the text says, "Miriam and Aaron spoke . . ." (Numbers i2:i), placing Miriam's name first and using the feminine form of the verb in Hebrew to indicate that she instigated the discussion. As she did with her parents, Miriam concerned herself once again with strengthening her family's domestic life.

But in this account the midrash ignores the second, more significant parr of the siblings' grumblings, their protest against Moses' privileged position in relation to God. That complaint suggests that they did not wish to be subservient to Moses, for they were also recognized among the people as prophets. It is another hint that Miriam held a more prominent position as an Israelite leader than the Bible spells out.

For her jealousy and criticisms of Moses, God punishes Miriam with leprosy-and women through the ages have objected to that one-sided punishment that strikes Miriam but not Aaron, her partner in ralebearing. Aaron pleads with Moses for help from God for their sister. (His punishment may be his need to entreat his younger brother-whom hc addresses as "my lord"-rather than speak to God directly himself) Moses utters a poignant short prayer, "O God, pray heal her!" (Numbers 12:13), which the rabbis considered a model of what a short prayer should be. But God only partially relents.

The episode ends with Miriam, shamed, staying olitsidc the camp with other lepers, while out of respect for her the people do not resume their Journey until her illness heals and she returns. The midrash softens the sconce by adding that because Miriam had waited at the riverbank years earlier ro guard her infant brother, she is rewarded in her time of trouble by having all of Israel wait for her.

The exuberant Miriam who danced with her timbrel at the Red Sea is gone. Her name, sometimes associated with the Hebrew word itiar, for "bitter," may refer to the bitterness she suffered because of her humiliation. The biblical narrative tells us nothing more except that she dies and is buried at a place called Kadesh. Tradition places her death on the tenth of Nisan.

Immediately following Miriam's death, we learn that the Israelites have no water and blame Moses for their situation. Once more the midrash moves in to enlarge the picture, this time to tie Miriam's death to that lack of water. For Miriam's sake, the sages said, a wondrous well was created in the magical twilight of the eve of the first Sabbath at the end of Creation. It resembled a rock in the form of a beehive, and it accompanied the tribes wherever they went, watering the desert lands they inhabited, From it came all the good things the Israelites enjoyed-fruits, vegetables, trees, even wine. But on the day Miriam died the well dried up, leaving the people without water.

Rashi goes a step further. In the biblical text, Moses strikes a rock to get water from I . t, disobeying God's command to speak to the rock, and thereby forfeiting his right to enter the Promised Land. That rock was Miriam's well, Rashi says, and Moses struck it in grief and anger at his sister's death, not really wanting to draw water for the clamoring Israelites.

Chancellor Ismar Schorsch of the Jewish Theological Seminary adds a modern midrash. Miriam had sustained Moses all his life-from his infancy to the crossing of the Red Sea and through the difficult desert years. Her death left him depleted, deprived of the sisrerly support that had meant so much to him. Without her, he lost the compassion necessary to be an effective leader, and therefore lost his leadership.

The sages taught that despite the difficulties of Miriam's life, it ended, like that of her brothers Moses and Aaron, with a kiss of God. And although we may never know all of her story, we know that she left her mark on the history of Israel. For, said the prophet Micah in God's name, "I brought you up from the land of Egypt / I redeemed you from the house of bondage, / And I sent before you / Moses, Aaron, and Miriam" (6:4).


And it shall come to pass in the end of days,
That the Mount of the Lord's house
shall stand firm above the mountains,
And shall tower above the hills;
And all the nations shall gaze
on it with joy (Isaiah 2:2).


In the prophet lsalah's visions, the end of days will be like their beginnings, like the Garden of Eden, an age in which all the world's creatures will dwell side by st'de in goodness and harmony. At that time, too, as the prophet foresees it, a leader from the stock of Jesse, a descendant of King David, will govern Israel and the entire world in righteousness under God's dominion. The future ruler the prophet foretold came to be seen in Jewish thought as the Messiah, the "anointed one," who will usher in the days to come, the messianic era. Tradition usually views the Messiah as a man, but how and when he will arrive and exactly what that era will be like have been the subjects of endless, often contradictory, speculations. Some of them have already appeared in various places in this book. But, taken together, the imaginings of the Messiah make up a great patchwork of dreams and hopes that has added depth and texture to Jewish life, and sometimes danger. He will come riding in on a donkey, in some versions. He will come flying in on a great cloud, in others. He sits among the poor, bandaging the sores of the sick, and will come today-if Jews would but heed God's voice. He will come after a Sabbath that every Jew has observed properly, or perhaps two such. He will be preceded by another Messiah, the son of Joseph, who will herald his coming and then be killed battling the enemies of God. He will be preceded by the prophet Elijah, who will prepare people for redemption. He will come, in one persistent belief, only after that period of dreadful destruction and desolation known as the "birth pangs of the Messiah." In the imagery of the prophet Ezekiel-elaborated on by the rabbis-it will be a period of intense wars between God and the powers of evil, the mythical empires of Gog and Magog. Earthquakes will shake the land, mountains will be overthrown, and torrential rains and hailstorms will cause misery on earth. In a subtler mode, the Mishnah pictures the messianic birth pangs as a period of moral deterioration when insolence will increase and drunkenness abound, when the young will shame the old and children will turn against parents. So terrible will be that period before the advent of the Messiah, according to some, that the third-century sage Rabbi Johanan could say, half-seriously, "Let the Messiah come, but let me not see him!" Better to give up the joys of the messianic age than suffer the agonies that will precede it. But oh, those Joys! Here the most fanciful of Jewish fantasies come into full play. In the messi'ani'c era, the earth will be so fertile that trees will bear fruit every day and loaves of delicious bread will grow from the ground. It will be so ferrite that one grape will be large enough to serve as a huge keg of wine. In that new age, the sun will give forty-nine times as much light as it does now, and God will order it to heal anyone who is sick. All the cities of the world will be rebuilt then, even the wicked Sodom and Gomorrah, so that no place on earth will be desolate. But Jerusalem will be rebuilt with precious stones to make known the glory of Israel. More: in the days to come, there will be i wondrous banquet at which the pious will eat the delicious meat of primeval creatures-the sea monster Leviathan, the beast Behemoth, and the huge bird Zlz. The diners will sit under a magnificent tent, a sukkah, made of the skin of Leviathan. God ill stretch the remainder of the skin over Jerusalem, and the light streaming from 't w'll shine from one end of the earth to the next. And more: in the end of days, there will be no more weepi . ng or wailing or anguish in the world, only rejoicing. And there will be no more death in the world, But if those alive when the Messiih comes will bask in these splendors and live forever, what of those already dead? A belief that the dead will come back to life is a basic doctrine of Judaism. Maimonides includes it as one of the thirteen fundamental principles of faith for Jews, and it is still affirmed in the traditional dally liturgy. Nevertheless-and to the credit of this tradition-nothing about this doctrine is fixed or rigid. It, too, remains amorphous.

Will the resurrection take place before the messianic age? During it? And what will happen after it occurs?

The theories have varied over time. Generally, the tradition has come to regard the messianic era as ending at some point and the resurrection as occurring then. At that time the dead will arise from their graves with bodies and souls reunited (and some say, dressed in the clothes they wore during their lifetime). They will be 'udged in the heavenly court and sent to their final reward or punishment in the world to come.

The messianic era seems to exist, then, in Jewish thought, between this world as we know it and the next, a golden age that may not last forever but will bring with it serene happiness and an end to suffering. That goal has given Jews incentive enough over the centuries to long for a Messiah who will restore them to their own land and save them from the suffering they knew only too well. The longtngs grew most intense in periods and places of most persecution. Sometimes in the past-and the present-the wishes have led to intricate calculations of the exact date of the Messiah's arrival. "Blast those who calculate the end," the third-century Palestinian sage Rabbi Jonathan ben Eleazar once said, "for when their computed end arrives but the Messiah does not, they say, 'He'll never come.' "

Better to wait patiently, the rabbis said, to dream but not to dwell on expectations. When Rabbi Akiva declared Bar Kokhba the Messiah in his war against Rome during the second century, Rabbi Johanan ben Torta retorted, "Akiva, grass will grow in your cheeks and he will still not have come!"

Better to dream. When the dreams turned into actions, they invariably ended in disaster or disillusionment. Bar Kokhba's war led to the death of thousands of Jews. Shabbetai Zevi's false messtanic claims led to chaos and a myriad of broken hearts.

It is the dream of a Messiah and a better age to come that has fueled the Jewish spirit. On a historical level, one might say that the dream has been partially fulfilled with the establishment of the State of Israel and the ingathering of Jews from all parts of the world. But on a spiritual level, and at its noblest, the dream builds on the visions of Isaiah and other prophets of a day outside the reach of time and history. It is a day at the end of days when the people of Israel, restored to their land, will be delivered from all evil. Bur it is also a day of universal deliverance, when wars will cease and nations will live with one another in unity and understanding. The one preoccupation of the whole world then, Maimonides taught, will be to know God. For "in that day," said the prophet Zechariah, "there shall be one God with one name" (14:9) for all of humanity.