My Search for the Tribes of Zion: Part Two

“Sound the great shofar for our freedom, raise the banner to gather our exiles, and gather us together from the four corners of the earth.” (Weekday Shemoneh Esrei Prayer)


Dear Friends,


During our long exile, when we wandered to the “four corners of the earth,” there developed another version of “tribal” divisions among our people. For example, there are Sephardic, Ashkenazic, Yemenite, Eastern, and other Jewish communities – each with its own special characteristics.


During most of the centuries of our exile, these diverse communities shared the same basic Torah beliefs, and they were committed to fulfilling the mitzvos of the Torah; moreover, they chanted the same basic prayers with minor variations in the liturgy. As I began to get to know these communities, I discovered that there are some differences among them with regard to customs and music. I also discovered that most of these communities have subdivisions with customs and songs of their own, and the Syrian Jews – a subdivision of Sephardic Jewry – can serve as a good example. Even the subdivisions of these communities have subdivisions, and a good example is the extended Chassidic community – a subdivision of Ashkenazic Jewry which is divided into diverse Chassidic groups, each with its own special customs and songs.


According to Jewish tradition, we are to follow the customs of our respective communities, as long as they are in accordance with “halacha” – the detailed requirements of the Torah path. The importance of maintaining these diverse customs was stressed by a noted Ashkenazic sage of the 17th century, who was known as the Magen Avraham, in his commentary on the Shulchan Aruch – the classical code of halacha which was written by Rabbi Yosef Karo, a noted Sephardic sage of the 16th century. The Magen Avraham indicates that there is a connection between the diverse Jewish customs of today with the diverse customs of the twelve tribes during the biblical period, and he writes:


“A person should not depart from the accepted custom of his community. For there are twelve gates in heaven corresponding to the twelve tribes. And every tribe has its own gate and tradition, with the exception of those traditions cited in the Talmud which are applicable to all the tribes.” (Orach Chaim 68)


For the three pilgrimage festivals – Passover, Shavuos, and Succos – the twelve tribes went up to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Within the Holy of Holies of the Temple was the Ark of the Covenant, and within the Ark were the Tablets of the Covenant which we received at Mount Sinai. Within the Ark was also the Torah scroll transcribed by Moshe, and according to another view, this scroll was placed on a board protruding from the Ark (Baba Basra 14a-b). Within one of the courtyards of the Temple was the Chamber of Hewn Stone where the Supreme Court of Torah Sages – later known as the Sanhedrin – guided our people through their Torah teachings and through their decisions regarding halacha.


The Holy Temple was therefore the Sanctuary of the Torah. When all our diverse tribes made the pilgrimage to the Temple, we were renewing our bond with the Torah – the Divine Teaching that unites all our diverse tribes.


After I moved to Jerusalem, I experienced a celebration which reminded me of the potential of the Torah to unite the diverse “tribes” of Israel. I was living in the neighborhood of Givat Shaul, which is located in the west of Jerusalem on the edge of the Jerusalem Forest. One weekday evening, I was sitting in my ground floor apartment, when suddenly I heard the sound of music on the street. I opened my door, and I was surprised to see rows of children carrying torches and singing joyous songs about the Torah. They were followed by singing and dancing adults, and in their midst was a new “Sefer Torah” – Torah scroll – which was being brought to a neighborhood synagogue. I had never experienced this traditional celebration when I was living in the non-Jewish neighborhoods of New York City, and my eyes became filled with tears of joy when I witnessed the amazing scene of Jews of all ages singing and dancing on this street of Jerusalem on a regular weekday night, in order to honor the Torah. I joined the procession, and as we passed by a Sephardic synagogue on the route, the people who were studying in the synagogue or who had just finished their evening prayers came out to join us. We then passed by a Yemenite synagogue, and those who were in the synagogue came out to join us. The new Sefer Torah was brought to the large Ohel Yonasan Synagogue – an Ashkenazic synagogue and house of study which follows the traditions of the Lithuanian Yeshiva world.


After we brought the new Torah into the synagogue, the dancing became ecstatic, with circles forming around circles. Within the inner circle, I noticed an Ethiopian yeshiva student joyously dancing with a group of Ashkenazic and Sephardic yeshiva students.


I will conclude this letter with the words of a song that we sing during Shabbos lunch – words which remind us of how our tribes became united at Mount Sinai, as we got ready to receive the Torah:


Then they all joined together in a covenant – “We will do and we will listen,” they said as one. Then they opened their mouths and called out, “Hashem is One!” Blessed is the One Who gives strength to the weary.

(“Yonah” –composed by the noted Sephardic sage of the late 11th and early 12th centuries, Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi)


May the Unifying One bless our diverse “tribes” with Shabbat Shalom.

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  

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