In honor of this odd confluence of holidays — 30 Days of Dead, Chanukah, and Thanksgiving — I offer these thoughts on Jewish worship, text study and the Grateful Dead. It is not necessary to know anything about the (Grateful) Dead or to like them, musically or culturally, to explore this analogy. I’ve been told by fans and non-fans that it is helpful. I hope you enjoy and find it useful and welcome comments.
The material was originally shared at Temple Micah (DC) for Shabbat Shelach in 2011. Here’s the introduction from that dvar torah.
Not Just for Dead Fans
“How the Grateful Dead, Jewish Text and Worship Explain One Another and Raise Interesting Questions.”
The Torah did not tell a Jew to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem on Shabbat [as on festivals]. There is no need. On Shabbat the Shekhina [Presence] knocks on the door. All we have to do is let Her in.
— comment on the “Sanctification of the Day” blessing**
Koren Mesorat HaRav Siddur, p.520
**On Shabbat/Festivals, one “Sanctification of the Day” blessing replaces the middle 13 blessings of the daily Amidah. The first three and the final three remain unchanged: Avot [ancestors], gevurah [strength], Kedushat Hashem [sanctification of the Name]; Avodah [worship], Hodaah [thanks], Shalom [peace]. This gives the Shabbat Amidah a symbolic seven blessings.
The peculiar blue [תכלת, tekhelet] thread used in tzitzit [ritual fringes] (Numbers 15:37-41) also appears prominently in the construction of Tabernacle (Exodus 25ff). It is used in the inner curtains and the loops that connect them; it also appears throughout the priestly vestments.
Why this blue?
It has been taught: R. Meir used to say: Why is blue [תכלת] specified from all the varieties of colours? Because blue resembles [the colour of] the sea, and the sea resembles [the colour of] heaven, and heaven resembles [the colour of] the Throne of Glory, as it is said: And they saw the God of Israel and there was under His feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone [לבנת הספיר], and as it were the very heaven for clearness (Exod. 24:10) and it is written: The likeness of a throne as the appearance of a sapphire stone [אֶבֶן-סַפִּיר] (Ezek 1:26).
— Sotah 17a (also: Menachot 43b and Chullin 89a)
Kedushat Levi links the above passage about blue, תכלת, to the stages of a creative act, beginning and ending with its purpose [תכלית]:
[A project from thought to completion] has undergone four distinct stages. 1) original mental image of the project; 2) clarification of the details, etc. 3) translating thought into deed. 4) carrying out the intention which originally prompted the project. [Punctuation follows translation.] When the original mental image of the project is seen reflected after its successful completion, the person inhabiting this building will experience a sense of satisfaction and joy.
— Kedushat Levi, p. 475 (see Source Materials for full citation)
One of the 30-cubit, goat-hair curtains on the outside of the Tabernacle is folded over the front of the tent (Exodus 26:9; see Thirty Cubits and Cloaking) for more on the curtains). Two aspects of this are emphasized in the commentary of Kedushat Levi, among others:
Folding: Folding [כפל, khaphal] is related to the idea of “klipah” [קלפה], the protective shell covering God’s Light in the world, according to mystical teaching. Kedushat Levi links the folding of the curtain and God’s cloaking, to protect humans from what they cannot withstand, adding that “folding over” implies reinforcing something not otherwise as strong as necessary. (Kedushat Levi, p. 473; full citations for Kedushat Levi, Stone Chumash in Source Materials.)
Half: Kedushat Levi also emphasizes the fact that the curtain is folded in half. He links “half” to “awe” through a play on the Hebrew words: the curtain, folded in “half” [חצי, chatzi], is linked via “crush” [מחץ, machatz] to “awe.” (More below.)
Additional thoughts on the concept of “half,” regarding the command to collect a half-shekel as part of the census embedded in the Tabernacle story, suggest a different direction:
Many commentators interpret homelitically that the requirement of half a coin alludes to the concept that no Jew is complete unless he joins with others; as long as we are in isolation, each of us is only “half” of our full potential.
— Stone Chumash, on Exodus 30:13
Combining these views on folding and half seem to suggest that any approach to God is best accomplished in community.
Readers of Moby Dick have long skimmed the whaling sections. Love-story followers generally hurry through the “war” part of War and Peace, while others skip through the boring relationship stuff to focus on land distribution. Likewise, many Bible readers’ eyes glaze over at the close of Exodus: Some 200+ Torah verses describe plans for the Tabernacle and its furnishings. Another 200+ verses describe the actual work. Four entire weekly Torah readings are dedicated to the details of the Tabernacle, with Ki Tisa’s story of the Golden Calf in between.
Some teachers focus on general messages extracted from these passages: the importance of working collaboratively, supporting community infrastructure, or honoring the arts, for example. But others take an allegorical view, mining details rather than glossing over them. Kedushat Levi (Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, 1740 – 1809) is one of the later. And some of those details surround the number 30.
Each Sukkot morning, many of us stand momentarily with God’s name across our chests, facing away from us, like so many tour guides awaiting the same unfamiliar customer.
For a little over 200 years, Psalm 27 has been associated with the season of repentance: Some have the custom of reciting this psalm during Days of Awe (10 days), some for the whole month of Elul as well (40 days), and some beginning on Rosh Hodesh Elul and continuing through Hoshana Rabba (51 days). There are several explanations for this association. Most focus on the psalm’s themes; also noted: the expression “were it not” — לוּלֵא — in verse 13 spells Elul — אלול — backward.
Many siddurim include the full psalm somewhere in Psukei D’zimrah (verses of song, in the morning service). Mishkan T’filah includes the single verse, 27:4, for which there are a number of popular tunes (p.662 in “songs and hymns”).