Tuesday, 22 March 2011

When is a Shankbone not a Shankbone?

Ask a child what the Zeroa, or shankbone, on the Seder Plate is supposed to represent and they should say something about the lamb whose blood was daubed on the doorposts of the Children of Israel. If they were particularly impressive they might say something about the command that the Pascal sacrifice be roasted, hence the roasting of our Seder Plate Zeroa. That’s entirely correct, but there is another valence which only makes sense in the Hebrew.


When we tell the story of Exodus we speak of a God who acted with a ‘strong hand and an outstretched arm.’ (Deut 26:8) And the Hebrew word translated here as ‘arm’ is our friend ‘Zeroa.’ In other words the shankbone sitting on the Seder plate is also a reminder of God’s outstretched arm arrayed before us as we eat our Matzah and drink our four cups. If you understand Hebrew it’s so obvious as to already be buried in one’s understanding. If Hebrew is entirely foreign it’s an impossible insight to discover.


Translation, said the great Hebrew poet Bialik, is like kissing a bride through her veil. Approaching the Hebrew texts of our tradition without Hebrew means that we will forever feel separated from them.


This is the insight behind the adult education classes we are offering on the next two Sunday mornings (10:30am in the Rabbi’s Office). We will read the Hagadah for understanding. What does the Hebrew actually mean? How does the grammar work and, most importantly, what are the insights that understanding the Hebrew will bring for us. Hebrew’s a simple language, fewer letters than English and far, far less exceptions and complex grammatical rules. These Sunday classes are designed for people who can read, but can’t decode simple Hebrew sentences. I hope you will enjoy them.


Shabbat shalom,


Rabbi Jeremy


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