The stranger wore a threadbare black sports jacket that looked like it might have come from a second-hand shop and a dusty black kipah. He stroked his short beard as he walked up and down the rows of graves as the ox plows, stopping for a few beats at each to read the headstone. In the row in front of me he had to detour around t-shirt and shorts-clad twenty-somethings from a Birthright group, listening to a guide I couldn’t hear. Finally he arrived at the last full row, the one where I sat, with the lawn in front of it waiting for new tragedies.
He nodded at me, hugging himself. I nodded back. After a moment of hesitation he spoke.
“It’s cold here in Jerusalem,” he said
I shrugged. “Here we’re used to the seasons starting to change the week before Rosh Hashannah. You must be from someplace warmer. Tel Aviv?”
“Tiberias,” he said. “Also Sura.”
I looked at him quizzically. “You mean the one just west of the Euphrates?”
“That’s where I studied.” He held out his hand. “Abba Bar Zabda.”
I shook it. “Haim,” I said. “I can’t place the name, though. I mean, I’ve studied a bit but I’m hardly a scholar.”
He sighed. “Yes, my wife wasn’t pleased at all when she saw the final redaction. ‘You’re never home,’ she griped, ‘all day at the house of study, and then when they finally publish, they barely quote you.’ I think it was because I had a knack for saying the wrong thing.”
“Oh wait a minute,” I said. “I remember. You’re the one with the vermin in the mikveh, the ritual purifying bath.”
He smiled and quoted himself: “As long as a man holds vermin in his hand, he may bathe in all the waters of creation, but he will never be pure.”
“That’s a good one,” I said. “I use it all the time.”
“Well, thank you. I appreciate that.” He pointed at a vacant plastic stool. “May I?”
I motioned for him to sit next to me.
He nodded at the grave. “Your son?” he said.
A cool breeze flew through the cypresses, perfumed by the rosemary growing on the headstone. A pinwheel left by my oldest daughter twirled.
“Yes,” I said. Then, after a minute: “I had some time between meetings, so I stopped by.”
“That’s good,” the scholar said. “It is a tradition to visit the graves of loved ones during the month of Elul.”
“And steel yourself for another holiday without them,” I said.
“What’s the hardest part of the holidays?” he asked me.
I considered. “Maybe building the sukkah. He used to help me with that.”
“Sukkot,” he observed, “is the only holiday on which the Torah explicitly commands us to be happy.”
“I do my best,” I said. “But it’s not the same.”
“I might quote Ezekiel,” he said. He looked at me. “The prophet, I mean.”
“Shoot,” I said.
“So he also lived by the river of Babylon. Centuries before I went to study there in Rav’s academy. Ezekiel had a wife he loved dearly, and the Holy One, Blessed Be He, told him: ‘Son of Man, behold, I am about to take the light of your eyes suddenly. But do not mourn or weep.’ Put on your best clothes, spruce up your beard, and go about your business as if nothing happened. You, said God, will be a living symbol of the promise of redemption. Your people lives in exile, despairing of redemption. I want them to look beyond their sorrow and loss toward my promise that I will return them to their land. By going on with your life normally despite the blow you have suffered, you will show them that they, too, must live as best they can, looking to the future and not to the past.”
I grimaced. “Perhaps a prophet needs to be a public symbol,” I said. “But I am not going to not mourn my son.”
“Now you may wonder what this has to do with building a Sukkah,” Abba Bar Zabda said. He looked up and saw a clutch of Birthrighters listening in. He explained: “That’s the holiday that begins on the fifteenth day of Tishrei, five days after Yom Kippur. According to the Torah, Jews are commanded to leave their homes on this day and spend seven days living in a ramshackle hut, like the ones their ancestors lived in during their 40-year sojourn in the wilderness.”
“Right, right,” I said. “Get to the point.”
“Now we might ask,” the Tiberian teacher said, clasping his hands together in his lap, “whether this law is incumbent on everybody, or whether in some cases one might be exempt. For example, is a mourner required to spend seven days in a Sukkah if the holiday coincides with his seven days of mourning? And must a bridegroom spend seven days in a Sukkah if it coincides with his seven days of rejoicing with his bride following his wedding?”
“You have a thing about seven?” asked a blond guy with a Texas accent.
“You mean,” I suggested, “that a mourner is too wrapped up in his sorrow to rejoice in the Sukkah.”
“Right. Now, my teacher, Rav, who was the strict type, said that mourners must observe all the precepts in the Torah except for putting on tefillin.” The rabbi looked up at the young people. “These things we strap onto our arms and heads when we pray,” he explained. “But then he also said that a person who suffers in the Sukkah—I mean, if it’s raining, or cold, or there’s a bad smell—can eat and sleep in his home. What are we to make of this contradiction?”
“I guess if it’s raining you can’t do much about it,” the Texan suggested.
“Very good,” said Bar Zabda.
“This assumes that the mourner is capable, by an act of will, of not suffering,” I objected.
“Rav said that the mourner must compose his mind,” the Tiberian said. “I’m not saying that I agree with him, I’m just reporting what he said. Now, what about the case of a bridegroom? He has an obligation to rejoice, so why shouldn’t he do so in the sukkah?”
“Depends how big the Sukkah is,” said the Texan. “How big can it be? Can you fit a whole wedding banquet in?”
“Maybe the party isn’t what was worrying Rav,” I suggested.
“Quite possibly,” agreed Bar Zabda. “Certainly other scholars thought so. Abaye, for example, thought it was an issue of privacy, whereas Rabbah was worried about the bridegroom’s discomfort.”
“Privacy? At a wedding?” asked the Texan.
“At a traditional Jewish wedding,” the Tiberian explained patiently, “the groom and bride retire, immediately following the ceremony, to a private room. I realize this may seem quaint today, but in my day this would be the first time they were ever alone together. And the expectation is that they would—and should—take advantage of the opportunity to consummate their love.”
The Texan guffawed. “While everyone else is partying?”
“Abaye was concerned that the groom might need to step outside,” Bar Zabda said. “You know, he’s nervous and his bladder might act up. And a sukkah is open and often built on a street or in a courtyard. Some other man could slip inside and compromise the bride.”
“Not if she doesn’t want to be compromised,” said the Texan.
“The appearance of impropriety is no less problematic than impropriety itself,” the Tiberian reminded him.
I considered. “Rabbah,” I said, “must have been concerned that the nervous bridegroom might have trouble performing if he was worried that someone could walk in on them any time. Odd, however, that he doesn’t consider how the bride might be feeling.”
Bar Zabda shrugged. “I admit that, back in the third century, we all had trouble seeing things from a woman’s point of view. But certainly the bride would not find the sukkah a congenial place to be alone with her husband.”
“So what’s the conclusion?” I asked.
“That the problem of privacy is not sufficient to cancel the obligation for the groom to observe the precept of sitting in the sukkah, but the problem of discomfort is.”
“So, in short,” I said, “a mourner is expected to collect himself and rejoice in the sukkah, while a bridegroom, who is rejoicing anyway, is given a break. Sounds counterintuitive to me.”
“Let’s go back to God’s commandment to Ezekiel,” Bar Zabda suggested. “There mourning is equated with the Exile. Ezekiel is commanded not to mourn his wife’s death publicly, not to observe the rituals that make him look to others like a mourner. This is meant to be an example to the Jews in Babylonia, who are to live their lives and go about their business as if they had not been forcibly deported from their homeland.”
I considered a minute. “A sukkah, too, is a form of exile,” I proposed. “You are forced to leave your house and live in a rickety structure exposed to the elements.”
“Yet in the sukkah we rejoice,” Bar Zabda encouraged me.
“Let me carry this further,” I said. “The bridegroom is moving in the oppose direction, from the exile of being alone in the world into his permanent home.”
“Not that I always understand the record of my respected colleagues’ discussions,” said Bar Zabda. “The Talmud was not edited according to modern standards. But I think you are going in the right direction.”
“A bride and groom do not need to be commanded to rejoice,” I said. “A mourner needs the commandment. Otherwise he will stay forever in exile and never be open to redemption.”
The Texan looked at his friends. “I don’t get it,” he said.
I looked at my son’s grave.
“It’s not going to be easy,” I said. “Isn’t rejoicing when you’ve lost a child like dipping in a mikveh with vermin in your hand? You can never get clean?”
“I would say,” Bar Zabda said, “that in this case you need to hold fast and immerse yourself anyway.”
We listened again to the breeze.
“Ok,” I said. “I’ll do my best.”
“Glad I could be of help,” Bar Zabda said. “I should get going or I will miss my bus home. Have a good year, the best it can be.”
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