How Coffee Paved the Way for Mystical Night Vigils

Oct. 21 2016

A century ago, there was a widespread Jewish custom to stay awake all night on the eve of Hoshanah Rabbah—the final day of Sukkot, which falls this Sunday—and recite a fixed order of scriptural and rabbinic readings known as a tikkun. A similar all-night tikkun is still observed by many on the late-spring festival of Shavuot. Although these practices can be traced back to the middle ages, later kabbalists imbued them with mystical significance. They became widely popular, writes Elliott Horowitz, only when coffee made them possible:

[B]oth these study vigils [on the eve of Hoshanah Rabbah and Shavuot] began to spread through the Ottoman empire during the 16th century, the same century in which coffee first arrived, changing the possibilities, both sacred and profane, of nightlife in such cities as Cairo, Damascus, and even Safed, [the capital of kabbalah at the time]. . . .

In contrast to their rapid reception in Ottoman Jewish communities after the Spanish expulsion, the Shavuot and Hoshanah Rabbah vigils spread more slowly to the Jewish communities of northern Europe, where coffee arrived considerably later as well. This can be seen in the comments of Isaiah Horowitz, whose book Shney Luḥot ha-Brit was completed in Jerusalem during the 1620s and published posthumously in Amsterdam in 1648-1649. Horowitz, who had served as a rabbi both in Frankfurt and in his native Prague, had clearly not encountered the Shavuot vigil in either of those cities, for he described it in his wide-ranging work only as having “spread throughout the land of Israel and the [Ottoman] empire.”

The Hoshanah Rabbah rite was described there similarly as “practiced in the land of Israel, like the night of Shavuot,” but including both study and prayer. Although Horowitz . . . had not encountered either vigil in his native northern Europe, his enormously influential work . . . was instrumental in their spread from the elite circles of Safed kabbalists to ordinary Jews.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Hoshana Rabbah, Isaiah Horowitz, Kabbalah, Religion & Holidays, Shavuot

On Thanksgiving, Remember the Exodus from Egypt

Nov. 27 2020

When asked to design a Great Seal of the United States, Benjamin Franklin proposed a depiction of Moses at the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, while Thomas Jefferson suggested the children of Israel in the wilderness after departing Egypt. These proposals, writes Ed Simon, tapped into a venerable American tradition:

The Puritans from whom Franklin descended had been comparing their own arrival in the New World with the story of Exodus for more than a century. They were inheritors of a profoundly Judaic vision, melding the stories of the Hebrew scripture with their own narratives and experiences. . . .

For the Puritans, Exodus was arguably a model for understanding their own lives and history in a manner more all-encompassing and totalizing than for any other historical religious group, with the obvious exception of the Jews. . . . American Puritans and pilgrims like John Mather, John Winthrop, John Cotton, . . . and many others placed the Exodus at the center of their vision, seeing their own fleeing from an oppressive England and a Europe wracked by the Thirty Years’ War to an American “Errand Into the Wilderness” as a modern version of the Israelites’ escape into Canaan. . . . [Thus the] Exodus . . . has become indispensable in comprehending the wider American experience. Through the Puritans, the story of Exodus became a motivating script for all manner of American stories. . . .

We read its significance and prophetic power in accounts of slaves who escaped the cruelty of antebellum plantation servitude, and who crossed the Ohio River as if it were the Sea of Reeds. . . . We see it in photographs of the oppressed escaping pogroms and persecution in the Old World, and in the stories of later generations of refugees. Exodus is an indispensably Jewish story, but what more appropriate day than Thanksgiving, this most American and Puritan (and “Jewish”?) of holidays, to consider the role that that particular biblical narrative has had in defining America’s civil religion?

Read more at Tablet

More about: American founding, American Religion, Exodus, History & Ideas, Thanksgiving, Thomas Jefferson