Or Chadash Al Tzion Ta’ir
Yom Kippur Morning 2015 – 5776
Rabbi Joseph M. Forman
Shana Tova. Happy New Year to everyone.
In the Talmud (Brachot 34b) we learn that a synagogue must have windows. Because if we are to sit within the walls of our congregation and pray for the redemption of ourselves and of the world, then we need not only to be able to look within our own souls, but we also need to be able to look out and see the world.
Centuries ago, when so many people were illiterate, stained glass windows were one medium through which the stories and lessons of the Bible could be taught to individuals who neither read nor wrote.
Within the Jewish community, being able to read was essential. And so stained glass windows depicting Bible stories were not only not necessary, but also their iconography – their images of people – were typically prohibited within the synagogue.
In the modern period, synagogues began incorporating stained glass windows with ornate abstract designs to enhance the beauty of those sacred spaces.
At the Abbell Synagogue of the Hadassah Medical Center at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the Stained Glass windows created by Marc Chagall in 1962 depict the 12 tribes of Israel in what are perhaps the most famous of Jewish stained-glass windows.
In our sanctuary we have 16 small stained glass windows which were created by Jim Schettino from Out of Hand from 2003 until 2008. They celebrate the circle of life. The ones on the top depict the nine Jewish holidays and the ones on the bottom are the seven days of creation and Shabbat. They were started when Rabbi Siroka was here, and Jim and I worked on the last few together.
Or Chadash has a tradition of our Bar and Bat Mitzvah classes donating a gift to the congregation rather than exchanging gifts with one another. Our benches out front, the basketball hoop, the shed and the patio are all gifts from our students and their families.
With two empty windows on either side of the Bima still needing adornment, creating stained-glass windows was an obvious gift for our next Bar and Bat Mitzvah class – or the next six classes!
Jim and I collaborated again, and over the course of a year and a half, we worked on the design of the window to the right of the ark. As the work progressed, Jim brought glass samples to the Board and the final sketches for approval. It was a labor of love for him.
Just about the time that he began to assemble the window, Jim suddenly passed away. It was a terrible loss of a friend to so many of us. Jim was a brilliant artist, and his wife, Eileen, had helped him with the construction of other windows here. She had hoped to finish the window for us. The task proved to be more than monumental.
Over time, she helped us find Sunflower Glass Studios in Stockton, and Karen and Geoff Caldwell helped us complete the window this spring. And they will be helping us design and create the window to the left of the ark which will, coincidentally, be based on the Haftarah reading for Yom Kippur from Isaiah.
This morning, if you’ll pardon the pun, I’d like to shed some light on our new window and the theology behind its design.
For those of you who are seated close to the window and can see it well, I encourage you to look at the actual stained glass window. Everyone in the sanctuary, however, has received a postcard of our window. Thank you to Glenn Wasserman for his beautiful and meticulous photography skills to help create this postcard.
There are two Hebrew sections. At the very top it says: Or Chadash – a new light; and on the left it says: Al Tzion Ta’ir – may it shine on Zion.
It should not go unnoticed that the name of our congregation can be found at the top of the window, and indeed this phrase which comes from the prayerbook is the source of the name of our synagogue.
Turning for a moment to the liturgy for the morning service, the first prayer before the Shema is called the Yotzeir. The Yotzeir – meaning Creator – refers to God as the Creator of light.
When we study the prayers here at Or Chadash, our students learn the Yotzeir. It begins with the words, Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haOlam, Yotzeir or u-vo’rey choshech – Blessed are You, Adonai our God, creator of light and darkness.
The traditional Yotzeir prayer concludes: Or Chadash Al Tzion Ta’ir v’Nizkeh choolanu m’hayra l’oro – May a new light shine upon Zion and may we all soon merit its radiance. But not all of our students know that. And the reasons why go back over 1000 years!
You don’t need to, but if you want to look on page 305 of our Machzor – where the Yotzeir appears, you will not find that phrase. That’s right. It’s not there! The Reform rabbis who created our High Holy Day prayerbook in 1978 left it out. And so did every Reform prayerbook going back two centuries. I will come back to why they did that in a little bit.
We are not the first Jewish community to have some issues with this seemingly innocuous phrase. In the 9th century, Saadia Gaon, a prominent rabbi and Jewish philosopher from Egypt and later Bagdad, compiled one of the earliest prayerbooks.
He wrote: “It is forbidden to recite the words: Or Chadash Al Tzion Ta’ir.”
Why? Because, Saadia reasoned, the type of light that was the basis of the Yotzeir prayer was the celestial light; lights like the sun that the ancient Egyptians prayed to. Saadia declared that the only light which Jews should be offering prayers about should be the future light of the Messiah. A prayer like Or Chadash Al Tzion Ta’ir, he suggested, referring to the sun or the stars, was tantamount to idolatry. And so, Saadia prohibited its inclusion in his prayerbook. For generations, all prayerbooks from the Sephardic world omitted that line.
Two centuries later, in France, the great Biblical and Talmudic commentator Rashi had a slightly different take on Or Chadash Al Tzion Ta’ir. Rashi agreed with Saadia that the theme of the Yotzeir prayer is, indeed, about celestial light – the sun and its creator. But, according to Rashi, the phrase Or Chadash Al Tzion Ta’ir has no business being included in the Yotzeir. The Yotzeir, he wrote, clearly speaks of a source of light that is renewed every day.
Or Chadash Al Tzion Ta’ir, he says, refers to a light that will emanate in the future, when the Messiah arrives. Rashi felt that because the phrase Or Chadash is about Messianic light and not a celestial one, we should not include it in the Yotzeir prayer. And so prayerbooks compiled in Rashi’s day also omitted that line.
By the 19th and 20th century, the phrase Or Chadash Al Tzion Ta’ir was returned to most prayerbooks in America. But not in the Reform Movement. Reform prayerbook authors consistently omitted this line not because of a debate about the Light (a topic that hardly interested them), but this time it was excluded because it mentioned Zion. Early Reform Jews removed all references in the Prayerbook to the land of Zion because of their opposition to Jewish nationalism. They had no interest in returning to the historic homeland of Israel. And they didn’t want any prayers talking about Zion. For the early Reform Jews, Zion was wherever Jews lived.
The phrase Or Chadash Al Tzion Ta’ir finally did make its reappearance, but it would not be until 2007 with the publication of Mishkan T’filah, our movement’s new prayerbook that we use here on Shabbat. In the words of Rabbi David Ellenson, the past-president of the Hebrew Union College: “With the return of these words to our liturgy, the Reform Movement consciously affirms its devotion to the modern State of Israel and signals its recognition of the religious significance of the reborn Jewish commonwealth.”
For over 1000 years Jews have argued over the phrase Or Chadash Al Tzion Ta’ir. Now, we are not only able to recite it, but here at our Or Chadash, we can sing it, as well. Our former Student Cantor Ross Wolman composed a setting of it for my Installation in 2006. And now, we are able to look as those words, as well, with light streaming through them.
And now a bit of explanation of the images in our window.
If everybody will take a look at the top of the window you will see that there are seven pomegranates – one for each day of the week. The pomegranate is the historic symbol of the people of Israel. In Jerusalem, archaeologists often dig up small clay pomegranates.
According to the Torah, the priests of the ancient Temple wore bells in the shape of pomegranates on the hems of their robes. And in many synagogues today the silver crowns on top of the Torah have bells in the shape of pomegranates.
The debates between the rabbis about the phrase Or Chadash focused on the source of the light – whether it was the light from the sun or the light from the Messiah.
In our window the rays of light emanate from the pomegranate itself – the light comes not from the heavens or from some future redemption, but from the people of Israel – from us. 36 pomegranate seeds coming from one of the pomegranates symbolize these rays. Why 36?
There is a Midrash, a story written by the Rabbis, which tells that at any given moment there are 36 Tzaddikim, 36 righteous people in the world. In our window, rather than our righteous deeds meriting a light from above, our righteous deeds are themselves the light. We are the source of enlightenment, and the radiance from our behavior enables the flourishing of the olive tree.
There are 18 olives in our window. They symbolize the Hebrew word Chai, a word which means Life and whose numerical value is 18. The olive branch is the symbol of peace. And so now our window reveals that through the righteous deeds of every one of us we are able to bring peace.
And where does that peace come to? According to the phrase Or Chadash Al Tzion Ta’ir, it shines on Zion. If you look at the bottom of the window you will see the reds and golds of an autumn scene. They don’t have trees like that in Israel, much less in the desert climate of Jerusalem.
Our window is in a Reform congregation, here in Hunterdon County. And still true to our Reform heritage, Zion need not be the mountain-top in Jerusalem, but is wherever Jews reside. And for us, that means the Jersey side of the Delaware River Valley – right here in Hunterdon. The light, the righteous deeds, the peace are all centered on our home, here at Or Chadash.
On this Yom Kippur morning, my prayer for all of us is this ancient phrase:
Or chadash al Tzion ta’ir v’nizkeh kulanu meheirah le-oro.
May a new light shine upon Zion, and may we each soon merit its radiance.
It is my hope and wish for all of us in this new year that we become sources of light, beacons of righteousness, to enlighten our community with courage and the capacity to realize a vision of the future that will bring peace to us all – here in Hunterdon and throughout the world.