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What is the Reason: Backwards and Yokes

Since we are approaching Rosh Chodesh Nissan, I would like to ask about two strange customs in Kiddush Levana – The Sanctification of the New Moon: 1) Why do we recite “May fear and trembling befall them, at the greatness of Your arm may they be still as stone” (Exodus 15:16) forward and backward? 2) Why do we say “Shalom Aleichem” to three people during this ceremony? By the way, I have often heard you say “Shalom Alecha” rather than “Aleichem”. Why do you prefer “Alecha” and which do you say during Kiddush Levana? G.N.


I actually refer to the ceremony as Birchat HaLevana, which is the more ancient formulation. (See Rabbi Yosef Kapach: Moreh Nevuchim 2:5 fn. 15)

I will use this week’s column to refer to the classical answers to your first question. I hope to continue next week:

Rabbi Alexander Ziskind of Horodna (Yesod VeShoresh HaAvodah, p. 192) asserts that the recitation of this verse, backwards and forwards, accomplishes, according to the Kabbalah, great and wondrous things in the upper worlds, and to drive away shells. I have no idea what he means.

In a poetic explanation, the Zohar HaLevana, by R. David Weissman, explains that a righteous person is protected by God “on all sides”, indicated by the verse being read in both directions. The evil, live with the converse, they will fear the vengeance of God from all sides.

Rabbi Yitzchak Lipiatz, in his Sefer Matamim HaChodesh, explains that this verse refers to the wicked and the righteous; concerning the wicked, which turn from right to left, the verse reads, “may fear and dread…” In the future God will remove the wicked from the world, just like the evil inclination, which is likened to a stone, will also be removed from the world. Reading backwards, the verse speak of the righteous, who turn from left to right, “Like a stone they will be silenced, your arm, in its greatness,” which means that at the time when God’s strength becomes manifest the righteous will be comparable to a stone, meaning the Divine Presence, which is also likened to a stone, as the Talmud states that the righteous are referred to in the name of God.

Why do we talk about the yoke of Torah and Mitzvot? The word ‘yoke’ evokes a burden, something heavy and oppressive…

But isn’t Torah supposed to be something that elevates you and fills you with joy? C.G.

I do not have a good answer to your question. I will think about it and ask others for their ideas.

Rabbi Moshe Stepansky:

Unfortunately,this question hinges upon the limitations of the English language capacity to translate our beautiful ‘Lashon HaKodesh’ – holy words.

C.G. actually answers his(?) question in the words of his question!!!! The Ivrit word that was translated as yoke is ‘ol spelled ayin vav lamed. The super-root is ayin lamed,that connotes elevation.
So, indeed, in our beautiful Lashon HaKodesh,the ‘yoke’of Torah and Mitzvot elevates us!!!

Dr. Heshie Klein:

The Hebrew word for yoke is “ol” (ayin – vav – lamed) as in the “ol torah u’mitzvos” – or the “ol malchus shamayim”. The world “ol” comes from the korbon Olah (ayin – vav – lamed – hei) – elevation offering . If we simply do the mitzvos and learn Torah by rote, then they can feel like “a burden, something heavy and oppressive. . . ” , but if we do them because we have a relatioinship with the Creator, Hashem, then the “ol” gets the “Hei” added at the end to represent that relationship with “H”ashem and the “ol” becomes an “olah” and the Neshama becomes elevated and filled with joy.

Ray Kaufman

An Engineering Haorah

It is every Jew’s responsibility to learn and observe the commandments of the Torah, to recognize and acknowledge HaShem’s Kingship, and to live a G-dly life. We call this “being Mekabeil Ol Malchus Shamayim”; accepting the “Yoke of Heaven.” We usually translate the “OL” as the burden of HaShem’s service. Of course, the word “OL” literally means, “Yoke”, specifically an ox yoke, the thing you see in old pictures over the shoulders of the oxen pulling the covered wagon.

Now an ox yoke may seem a simple thing. It has no moving parts and appears to be rather crudely fashioned. But the ox yoke is one of the most important inventions in human history. So seminal is it, that one Beraisah in Avos lists it as one of the ten objects created bein hashmashos. So, what’s the big deal?

Well, imagine a farmer in the days of, say, Lemech. To plow his field it takes two guys: one (his father) to guide the plow and one (him) to pull it. He pulls it via a rope passed over one shoulder and across his chest. As you might imagine, this is exhausting work and not much ground can be plowed in a day. Because of the extreme effort required, his farm is small, just big enough to feed his family. Also imagine that he owns an ox that he is raising for meat. One day, while taking a break from schlepping the plow, he looks over into the pasture where his ox is lazily grazing and he thinks to himself, “You know, that ox is ten times as strong as I am. If I could get him to pull the plow, I bet I could plow a lot more ground, not to mention I wouldn’t have to pull myself stoop-shouldered and knock-kneed.”

Now, there are two obvious places that you could tie a rope to an ox. The most obvious is to tie it around his neck, and that’s just what our farmer does. He ties a loop around the ox’s neck, attaches the other end to his plow, and off they go. But a funny thing happens. The ox starts out all right, but when the farmer wants him to pull harder, the ox stops. He’s choking, so the ox can’t pull very hard after all. Well, so much for plan “A”. Plan “B” involves tying the rope around the other obvious place, around his horns. So the farmer tries that and another odd thing happens. When the farmer wants the ox to pull really hard again, the rope forces the ox’s head up and back and the ox stops again. You see, an ox has powerful neck muscles but they’re for lifting and tossing his head, not for pulling it down. (This is why a 160 lb cowboy can wrestle an 800 lb steer to the ground.)

Stumped again! Well, now our antediluvian Einstein sits down and considers. He notices that there is a pronounced hump at the ox’s shoulders and that the ox carries his head low. He thinks,” if I could rig something that would let the ox take the load on his shoulders like I do, I bet that would solve the problem.” And so it does! He finds a piece of wood, carves it enough to fit over the ox’s shoulders, ties the plow rope to it, and yells giddup to the ox. This time, with the help of the thing across his shoulders, the ox can put his full strength into pulling the plow. Now the farmer can plow four or five times as much as he could by pulling the plow himself. He can raise enough food for his family and have plenty left over. He can sell the excess. And the rest, as they say, is history, literally.

The point is that the yoke isn’t the burden; it’s the implement, the means of carrying the burden. It’s the tool that allows the bearer to exert his (or her) full strength to the load. And that’s what kabolas OL Malchus Shamayim is. When we humbly acknowledge G-d’s suzerainty over us and our universe, we are granted a tool, and aid, an OL, that allows us to do the Creator’s will with all our strength (b’chol m’odechah).

May it be the will of Our Father in Heaven that each of us merit the gift of OL Malchus Shamayim, for it is truly a gift, not a burden.


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