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Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Passionfruit: The Talmud's Secret Cure for Assimilation


Taanis 28

Assimilation today is the worst it has ever been in our history.  Sadly, none of us needed the Pew study to tell us that.  In the past, we had commissioned our own internal community studies every decade.  2010 rolled around and we didn’t even feel like confronting the truth.  We knew it was dismal.

Where did we go wrong?  Is it possible to stem the tide of assimilation?  The real question is: why should our kids even be interested in Judaism?  Life is good in America – amongst all the sub-cultural offerings, how do we get them to choose to do Judaism?

The Mishnah teaches that the family of “Pestle-Smugglers and Fig-Cutters” would donate wood each year to the Holy Temple.  Where did their strange name originate?

Our Rabbis taught:  It is reported that once the wicked ruling power, the Syrian Greeks, made a decree that Israel should not bring wood to the altar, nor bring their first-fruits to Jerusalem.  They placed guards on the roads just like we read in the Bible that Jeroboam the son of Nevat had done to prevent Israel from going on pilgrimage.

What did the pious and sin-fearing men of that generation do?   They took the baskets of the first-fruit and covered them with dried figs.  They carried them with a pestle (a tool with a rounded edge used for crushing spices) on their shoulders, and when they reached the guards they were asked, “Where are you going?”
They replied, “With the pestle on our shoulders we are going to make two cakes of pressed figs in the mortar we have further and the pestle on our shoulders.  When they had passed the guards they decorated the baskets and brought them to Jerusalem.

Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (the Maharsha) explains that the two practices of the wood and first-fruit were singled out for suppression because they were performed joyously by their adherents.   The wood donors would hold annual celebrations in honour of their contribution and the first-fruits were accompanied by a whole ceremony of music and revelry.  In an effort to quell the joy and enthusiasm of the Temple-goers, the Greeks chose to ban these two rituals. 

As we know from the Chanukah story that took place shortly after, as opposed to the Babylonians and Romans the Greeks never sought to destroy our Temple.  Their aim was to spread their Hellenistic culture throughout the empire.   They respected Judaism, but sought to rid it of all the ‘voodoo’ and ‘spirituality.’  The Greeks encouraged us to study Torah as a scholarly work, divesting it of its Divinity.

That’s why they chose to ban our wood-burning and first-fruit offerings.  The joy of a mitzvah was antithetical to the Hellenistic way of life.  Being passionate about Judaism was an impediment to being passionate about Greek culture.  Yes, we could do Judaism, but as long as we weren’t particularly passionate about it, because the Greeks understood that if you don’t have passion, you’ll eventually lose interest.  And that was the key to their successful campaign of Hellenization.

In Talk Like TED, Carmine Gallo writes, “Science shows that passion is contagious, literally.  You cannot inspire others unless you are inspired yourself.”

And that’s why we have a major problem on our hands today.  We’re just not passionate about our Judaism.  And if we’re not passionate, why should our kids be?  When we’re more excited about the Hellenistic culture around us, then why would we expect our kids to be inspired to do Judaism?

If you can’t exhibit at least the same amount of enthusiasm for building a sukkah as you do for the Superbowl, don’t expect your kids to find it meaningful.  If you can’t be passionate about staying up all night on Shavuot to learn Torah the same way you stay up to watch the Olympics, your kids will quickly get what inspires you and what doesn’t.  If buying a new car gets you more excited than buying a new pair of tefillin, your kids will see what you’re passionate about.  And, tragically, they’ll make their choices accordingly.


You want to stem the tide of assimilation?  Be passionate about your Judaism!  Run to synagogue to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah!  Count down the days each week till Shabbos!  Buy the most beautiful etrog you can find for Sukkot!   You’ll be amazed at how contagious passion can be!