If you were cast away on an island with just one Jewish text for company, which would you choose?
This week, Rabbi Richard Jacobi of Woodford Liberal Synagogue, selects Zakhor by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi
Towards the end of my rabbinic studies, Dr Jeremy Schonfield drew to my attention to a slim volume entitled Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi.
The key message I took from it was that central to Judaism is storing and transmitting memories, rather than the factual, or pseudo-factual, recording of events. So much of Judaism is watermarked by remembering – Rosh Hashanah is known also as Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance.
The first Shabbat candle lit each Friday evening is rabbinically said to relate to Zachor et Yom Hashabbat – the fourth commandment, ‘to remember the Sabbath day’.
Each festival, especially Yom Kippur, includes a Yizkor or memorial service. We are told on numerous occasions to ‘remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt’.
The very act of ending the reading of the Torah and immediately beginning again ensures constant remembering. We don’t study our history, we study our story (aggadah) alongside the accumulation of wisdom (halachah).
This key difference makes our study something that engages bechol levavecha, as the Shema has it – all our heart and our entire mind. It is not an academic exercise, but engages our intellect and our emotions.
That is the enduring strength of Judaism – our remembering is auditory, visual and visceral, often enhanced by smell and taste (picture the seder table and, noch, chicken soup).
If I were to find myself on a desert island, memories would sustain me.
The text of Zakhor would legitimise both my mis-remembering (although I might not realise this was happening) and my forgetting.
In a postscript, Yerushalmi talks of the problems faced by someone who cannot forget, which can almost be greater than those of someone who cannot remember. Zakhor would also remind me that I was being very Jewish!