Historic Gardens Shul still plays a vital role
Visitors to Cape Town’s classy Mount Nelson Hotel may have come across a plaque recording that a little over 160 years ago the first formal Jewish religious services took place in that part of the complex. Back then, the site was occupied by Helmsley Place, the home of 1820 Settler and entrepreneur Benjamin Norden Esq.
On September 26, 1841, Norden and 16 other adult men gathered there on Erev Yom Kippur to form the first recorded minyan in southern Africa. Thus was born Tikvath Yisrael – The Hope of Israel – later to be known as the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation. The “Mother Congregation” of South African Jewry, it continues to play a significant role in Cape Town Jewish life to this day.
Cape Town’s first synagogue was built in 1849, next to what are today the Parliament Buildings. That year also saw the appointment, short-lived though it proved to be, of the country’s first Jewish clergyman, Rev Isaac Pulver (dismayed by the still low standards of observance, he departed for Australia two years later and was replaced by Rev Joel Rabinowitz.
In 1863, the congregation moved into larger building in Government Avenue, just a few hundred metres away. Today, this forms part of the South African Jewish Museum complex.
The congregation moved into its third and final home, conveniently located right next to the old building, in 1905. Previously referred to as the Great Synagogue, but now more commonly called the Gardens Shul (since it adjoins the famous Company Gardens), the synagogue is celebrating its 110th anniversary this year.
Like its counterpart in Wolmarans Street in Johannesburg, Cape Town’s Great Synagogue, itself a magnificent, ornate structure, served as the de facto headquarters for Cape Jewry. It was the seat of the Chief Rabbi of the Jewish congregations of the then Cape Province, as well as of South West Africa and the Sephardi Congregation of Rhodesia (only since 1986 has South Africa had one Chief Rabbi for the whole country).
Like Wolmarans Street, it also took the lead in fostering Jewish religious education, and it was there that the community at large has gathered for such important prayer meetings as the Day of Mourning for victims of Nazism (1942) and, more recently, the memorial service for Yitzhak Rabin following his assassination in 1995.
The membership of the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation progressively declined with the move of most of the Jewish population from the City Bowl area to suburbia. However, it gained a new lease of life through becoming incorporated within a new and vibrant Jewish campus from the late 1990s onwards. That campus today includes the SA Jewish Museum, the Cape Town Holocaust Centre, the Jacob Gitlin Library, function and conference centres and a restaurant and book shop.
As a result, the membership of the congregation picked up steadily. Today numbering some 800 souls under the current spiritual leadership of Rabbi Osher Feldman, it once again has a full complement of clergy, as well as world-class choir, and important public prayer gatherings continue to be held at its historic premises.
Tragedy struck in Meron, Israel, last week. Dozens of deaths and injuries in a horrific collapse as thousands were celebrating the joyous day of Lag B’Omer. My wife and I were privileged to be there a few years ago, and it was an incredibly inspirational experience. Our hearts go out to the bereaved families, and we wish the injured a complete and speedy recovery.
Sadly, the Jewish people are no strangers to tragedy. Usually, though, it has been inflicted upon us by those who hate us.
One section stands out from the rest in this week’s parsha. It’s known as the Tochecho or The Rebuke. There we read a whole litany of disasters that will befall our people should we abandon the G-dly way of life. The tradition is that the Torah reader himself takes this aliyah, and when he reaches the relevant section, he lowers his voice to soften the blow of these terrible curses.
For 24 years, I produced and hosted South Africa’s only Jewish radio show, The Jewish Sound. Once, my guest on air was Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat, Israel. He told the story that as a child growing up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, one Shabbos, he went to daven in the shul of the Rebbe of Klausenberg. Originally from Hungary, the Rebbe was a spiritual giant of a man who had lost 11 children in the Holocaust and never sat shiva because he was pre-occupied with saving lives. After the war, he settled in America and developed a large following. Subsequently, he relocated to Israel and among other things, set up the Laniado Hospital in Natanya.
That Shabbos, The Rebuke was being read. When it came to the part of the curses, the reader did what he always did. He lowered his voice. Suddenly, the Rebbe shouted in Yiddish, “Hecher! (louder).” The reader was confused. He was simply following the tradition of generations. Perhaps he wasn’t hearing right, so he continued reading in the softer tone. “Hecher!” thundered the Klausenberger Rebbe. “Let the Almighty hear what is being read! All the curses have already been fulfilled. Now there must be only blessings for our people.”
Many of our sages have described the Holocaust as the birth pangs of Moshiach, and the ultimate redemption. Never will there be a repeat of such calamities. We have endured more than enough of exile, wanderings, pogroms, and persecutions. The curses, in all their tragic, cataclysmic imagery have materialised. Now there must be only goodness, happiness, warmth, and blessing for am Yisrael.
At the end of The Rebuke, G-d says, “And I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham will I remember, and I will remember the Land.”
As He remembers us, let us remember Him and our covenant. May we prepare for Shavuot and the giving of the Torah with earnestness and joy. May G-d and His people always remember each other. Amen.
Lag B’Omer, fire, and faith
With the old Johannesburg General Hospital, Cape Town’s Table Mountain, and the University of Cape Town having suffered devastating fire damage just last week, I would imagine that the custom of lighting bonfires on Lag B’Omer will be somewhat subdued this year.
Perhaps it’s timely to ask where this custom originates. And, in general, how is fire looked upon in Jewish thought? What, is, in fact, the spiritual symbolism of fire?
If we go back to the very beginning of time in the Genesis story, we find that the first human, Adam, discovered fire on the very first Saturday night in history. It was the first time he had experienced darkness and, somehow, he was inspired to rub two flint stones together sparking a flame which enabled him to see in the night. This is the source for our weekly blessing over fire, “boreh meorei haeish”, in the Havdalah prayer recited at the conclusion of Shabbat.
Fire features prominently throughout the Bible and in the Tanach. Just a few episodes that come to mind immediately are Moses’ very first revelation from G-d at the burning bush, and the clouds of glory which miraculously guided and protected the Israelites during their travels in the wilderness which included a pillar of fire. During the great revelation at Sinai where we heard the ten commandments directly from G-d, scripture records that, “The whole of Mount Sinai was smoking because the L-rd had descended upon it in fire.” Indeed, the Torah itself is described as “a fiery faith”.
Tragically, twice in our history, our enemies set fire to Jerusalem and our Holy Temples, causing destruction and the enduring exile from which we have yet to fully recover.
Arguably, the most famous wedding speech one hears under the chupah is the one about the Hebrew words for “man” and “woman”, “ish” and “isha”. Ish (man) contains the Hebrew letter yud while isha (woman) contains the letter hay. Together, yud and hay spell one of the holy names of G-d. Remove those letters, and you are left with only the alef and the shin in each word, which spells aish, or fire.
The sobering message to bride and groom? Leaving G-d out of the marital relationship definitely spells trouble and may well bring a fiery end to the marriage, whereas the presence of Hashem in their home is a recipe for a life of happiness.
Not long after the people sinned with the golden calf, the Jewish people were remorseful but needed to do something meaningful to atone for their terrible mistake. G-d told them to bring a half shekel of silver as their penance.
But Moses was puzzled. How could the giving of a mere coin atone for such a grievous sin as idolatry? Rashi, quoting the Midrash, writes that G-d showed Moses a “coin of fire”. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explained that the concept of the coin of fire means that while a coin alone is certainly an inadequate atonement, if it is given with fire, meaning with passion and profound feelings of contrition and regret, it can indeed bring about the desired atonement. Thus, fire becomes a powerful symbol of a passionate and inspired spiritual experience.
Of course, fire has always been a symbol of warmth, light, illumination, spirituality, and even divine revelation as it pierces the darkness of the material world. But, as we all know only too well, fire can also be a source of horrific chaos and destruction. Fire can illuminate and open our eyes to new and higher realities. It can help us to “see the light”, but it can also wreak havoc and destruction.
Nuclear energy can fire up power plants producing electricity for an entire continent, but if it gets into the wrong hands, it can blow our entire planet to smithereens.
Fire, too, can be a positive tool for building, illuminating, welding, and bringing things together; or, it can be a weapon of mass destruction, G-d forbid. It all depends on the people using it and their intentions, whether noble or evil. When controlled with intelligence and sensitivity, fire can provide energy to fuel a nation. Unchecked, it destroys and leaves utter devastation in its wake.
In the Lag B’Omer story, besides Rabbi Akiva, the other hero of the day is Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the second century sage who passed away on this day. Besides being a famed Talmudist, he is acknowledged as the author of the holy Zohar, the “Bible” of the Kabbalah and the father of Jewish mysticism.
Tradition has it that when he taught Torah it was, quite literally, a fiery experience. And, on that fateful Lag B’Omer day, when his holy soul was leaving this world, his face was so radiant that his students couldn’t gaze at him directly. And his entire house was shining with a fiery light, symbolising the powerful, spiritual light of his holy teachings. For this, as well as other reasons, we light bonfires on Lag B’Omer, especially around his tomb in Meron, the little town in Upper Galilee in Israel.
I will end with a Jewish proverb from the saintly sages of old that tells us: “After a fire, one is blessed with wealth.” So may it be for all who have suffered trauma and loss.
- Rabbi Yossy Goldman is the life rabbi emeritus at Sydenham Shul and the president of the SA Rabbinical Association.
To love is easy, to respect is hard
“Twelve thousand pairs of students were under Rebbi Akiva, and they all died in one chapter for they did not act respectfully to each other. It was taught, they all died from Pesach until Shavuot. They all died a bad death.” (Talmud, Yevamot 62b).
There is something that really bothers me about this piece of Talmud, namely, were these students of Rebbi Akiva “goodies” or “baddies”?
On the one hand, they seem to be real baddies. To treat each other without respect certainly sounds pretty bad. And the Talmud tells us that they all suffered a “bad death”.
On the other, they seem to be real goodies. After all, the Talmud calls them Rebbi Akiva’s students. It doesn’t say that there were 12 000 pairs of dropouts from Rebbi Akiva! Furthermore, their demise is mourned for more than a month every year by every Jew. It could be that no other people in the history of the world are mourned to the same extent.
So which one is it?
It’s both. This profound Talmudic text teaches us the tension between two magnificent human traits: love and respect.
Rebbi Akiva taught love. It was none other than Rebbi Akiva who said, “Love your fellow as yourself.” This is a great principle of the Torah. No doubt, it’s the reason why his students were described as being in pairs. If the Talmud wanted to emphasise the enormity of their numbers, it should have said 24 000 individuals. But it said 12 000 pairs because it wanted to reveal their inseparability, and to emphasise the enormity of their love for each other.
Why, then, did they die? The Talmud is teaching us that they died not in spite of their love for each other, they died because of it.
The core power of love is commonality. People love each other because they share things in common. It’s this commonality that brings them together and unites them. It allows them to become one.
But people in love becoming one has its problems. First, it leads to sameness, and sameness leads to redundancy. And second, it leads to exclusivity, and exclusivity leads to rejection.
This is why the students of Rebbi Akiva died “in the same chapter”, because they all lived only “in the same chapter”. And it’s why they were able to love each other, but weren’t able to respect each other, because love is based on sameness, respect is based on difference.
The Talmud is teaching us about the goodness and importance of love, about the students of love who learnt from a rebbe of love, who taught a Torah of love. And we mourn those students to this day out of our love for them.
But the Talmud is also teaching us the dangers of love. To love is easy, to respect is hard. To love is to remove otherness, to respect is to admire it.
As great as love is, by itself, it has no future. It’s when love leads to respect that it will lead to Sinai, and a better future for all.
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