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October 2, 2014 | 8th Tishrei 5775

Tradition, tradition

Galilee Diary #452, August 12, 2009
Marc Rosenstein

Rabbi Johanan said in the name of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai: If Israel were to keep two Sabbaths according to the laws thereof, they would be redeemed immediately. -Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, page 118b

When Shorashim was founded by about a dozen young families in the early 1980s, the group decided that while they were not (yet) affiliated with any particular denomination of Judaism, they wanted Shabbat to be an important part of the life of the community. They decided to hold services Friday evening and Saturday morning. Shorashim did not have a rabbi or other professional religious leadership, so the tasks of conducting services, preaching, and reading Torah were divided up among those with the requisite skills and willingness. Alas, there was only one competent Torah reader in the community, and he, like everyone else, wanted occasionally to spend Shabbat with friends or relatives elsewhere in the country - or even to go abroad. A problem: what would we do in his absence? A solution: commit to Shabbat morning services every other week. On "off" weeks, the Torah reader - and everyone else, would be free to travel (or sleep late) without letting the community down. Friday evening services could still be held weekly.

Almost thirty years later and we still don't have any professional leadership. That original Torah reader moved away twenty years ago, but in the meantime, the list of competent Torah readers has grown to well over a dozen adults and teens, as the community has expanded to 75 families, and the pool of members with other liturgical and teaching skills has grown proportionately. However, the tradition of biweekly Shabbat morning worship has continued. Indeed, on the off-weeks we have an adult study session on Saturday morning that has its own loyal following, mostly, but not entirely, comprising the core of regular attendees at on-week services. That means that we have around 25 Shabbat morning services a year (plus, of course holidays, which are independent of the regime of alternate weeks), of which maybe as many as ten include a bar/bat mitzvah. It feels silly when we have to explain our "system" to outsiders, but somehow, it works for us.

Last week, at the off-week study session, N., a veteran member who recently began to attend services regularly, asked for the floor and stated that in his opinion the time had come to start behaving like a "normal" synagogue, with Shabbat worship every week. After all, the original reason for our unusual custom has long been irrelevant, as we certainly have the manpower to sustain weekly worship. I have to say that on one level, I agree with him, and I know there are others in the community who feel that alternate-week Shabbat worship feels strange, incomplete. There is simply no good reason to continue our tradition. However, interestingly, the general tone of the conversations "in the street" after N.'s little speech was quite negative. For one thing, doubling the frequency of services would double the burden of preparation - and of "compulsory" attendance - on all the "regulars," for even with our growth we remain a relatively small community; the same pool of about 20 people who share the liturgical responsibilities biweekly would now have to commit to coming every week. Beyond that, I think that most of us (even some like me, who believe that weekly services would be appropriate), have gotten comfortable with our less demanding tradition, and rather like it. There is something to be said for sleeping in on a Saturday morning without guilt.

It will be interesting to see what develops. Local traditions, even when they have no rational basis - even when they are in conflict with central Jewish tenets - have a life of their own.

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