The stranger wore a threadbare black sports jacket that looked like it might
have come from a secondhand shop and a dusty black kippa. 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
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 Hashana. You must be from someplace warmer. Tel Aviv?” “Tiberias,” he said.
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
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.
the one with the vermin in the mikve, the ritual purifying bath.”
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.”
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
A cool breeze flew through the cypresses, perfumed by the rosemary
growing on the headstone. A pinwheel left by my oldest daughter
“Yes,” I said. Then, after a minute, “I had 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
He used to help me with that.”
“Succot,” he observed, “is
the only holiday on which the Torah explicitly commands us to be
“I do my best,” I said. “But it’s not the same.”
quote Ezekiel,” he said. He looked at me. “The prophet, I mean.”
“So he also lived by the river of Babylon.
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
“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.”
you may wonder what this has to do with building a succa,” 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
“Right, right,” I said. “Get to the point.”
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 succa if
the holiday coincides with his seven days of mourning? And must a bridegroom
spend seven days in a succa 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 succa.”
“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,”
“But then he also said that a person who suffers in the
succa – 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.
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 succa?” “Depends how big
the succa is,” said the Texan. “How big can it be? Can you fit a whole wedding
banquet in it?” “Maybe the party isn’t what was worrying Rav,” I
“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.
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 succa 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.
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
But certainly the bride would not find the sukka a congenial place
to be alone with her husband.”
“So what’s the conclusion?” I
“That the problem of privacy is not sufficient to cancel the
obligation for the groom to observe the precept of sitting in the succa, but the
problem of discomfort is.”
“So, in short,” I said, “a mourner is expected
to collect himself and rejoice in the succa, while a bridegroom, who is
rejoicing anyway, is given a break. Sounds counter-intuitive to
“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 succa, too, is a form of exile,” I proposed. “You are forced to leave
your house and live in a rickety structure exposed to the
“Yet, in the succa we rejoice,” Bar Zabda encouraged
“Let me carry this further,” I said. “The bridegroom is moving in the
opposite direction, from the exile of being alone in the world into his
“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
“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.
going to be easy,” I said. “Isn’t rejoicing when you’ve lost a child like
dipping in a mikve 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
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
Haim Watzman is the author of ‘Company C: An American’s Life as a
Citizen-Soldier in Israel’ and ‘A Crack in the Earth: A Journey Up Israel’s Rift