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The Jugglers

Are You an AM or a FM?

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

    4240 views
  • October 3, 2017
  • |
  • 13 Tishrei 5778
  • Comment

Class Summary:

One aspect of the Simchas Beis Hashoavah celebration in the Holy Temple during each night of Sukkos remains perplexing: the torch-juggling sages. The Mishnah states: The pious ones and men of great deeds would dance while juggling flaming torches. The Talmud states, that the leader of the Jewish people, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, would juggle eight blazing torches!

We can understand that during a grand celebration, someone gets up and does a juggling act to enhance the fun. But the fact that the Mishnah makes special mention of this act as a feature of the Simchas Beis Hashoavah, and the fact that it was performed by the greatest of the great, indicates that this was a necessary and central feature of the celebration. But why? It is a charming fun spectacle, but does not seem essential to a spiritual celebration?

The question becomes more perplexing when we consider, as the Talmud goes on to describe, that in subsequent generations, some of the greatest sages of Israel were somehow in love with juggling. We know at least four such stories recorded in the Talmud. Levi juggled knives, Shmuel juggles wine, Abaye juggled eggs, and Reb Shmuel juggled myrtle branches.

One would think these tricks were below their dignity. Yet, one generation after the other, literally the greatest of the great were juggling. It seems like their knowledge of Torah is what turned them into such efficient jugglers!

It was at a public address on the fifth night of Sukkos of the year 1957 (5718), that the Lubavitcher Rebbe presented a most exquisite and profound explanation. Juggling, he suggested, captures in a very physical, tangible way the meaning of life—and the path toward genuine joy. The celebration of Sukkos was essentially all about mastering the art of juggling.

​Leilu Nishmas Reb Eliyahu Tzion ben Reb Chananya Niasoff ז״ל
And in the merit of our partner in Torah, Yigal Yisroel ben Sofia, שיחי׳​

A comedian once shared: I went into a store and bought 8 oranges. The clerk asked me if I wanted a bag?

I said, "No, I juggle!

“But I only juggle 8.  If you ever see me in here buying 9 oranges, bag'em up!"

The Celebration

It was a glorious sight to behold: The greatest sages of Israel performing juggling acts; and it happened each year during this holiday of Sukkos.

Each night of the holiday, the Jews in Jerusalem during Temple times, held the "Simchat Beit HaShoeva," or "Celebration of the water-drawing." Throughout the year, the daily offerings were accompanied by the pouring of wine on the Temple altar; on Sukkos, water was poured in addition to the wine. The drawing of water was preceded by all-night celebrations in the Temple courtyard, with instrument-playing Levites, and huge oil-burning lamps that illuminated the entire city.

The singing, music, and dancing went on until daybreak when a procession would make its way to the valley below the Temple to “draw water with joy” from the Shiloach Spring. (When you visit Jerusalem today, you can go into this spring—and it is an incredible experience to dip into the spring where Jews dipped constantly right before entering the Temple, and from where they draw the water to pour on the Altar on each morning of Sukkos).

“For all the days of the water drawing,” recalled Rabbi Joshua ben Chanania in the Talmud, “our eyes saw no sleep.” The Talmud further declares: “One who did not see the joy of the water-drawing celebrations, has not seen joy in his life.”

It was a scene to behold. For seven nights, Jews, men, and women, were up all night—singing, dancing, celebrating, and rejoicing with each other and with G-d, in the courtyard of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

The Juggling Acts

But there was one aspect of the celebration, the Mishnah and the Talmud make special mention of: the torch-juggling sages.

The Mishnah states (Sukkah 51a-b): The pious ones and men of great deeds would dance while juggling flaming torches.

The Talmud relates the story of one particular juggler during these Sukkos celebrations. This was no ordinary person. It was Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel (circa 10 BCE-70 CE), who held the title of head of the Sanhedrin (High Court), known as the “Nassi” (the prince of the Jewish people). A direct descendant of King David, he was the spiritual leader of the nation. During these all-night celebrating on Sukkos, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel juggled. He kindled eight portable bonfires and juggled them, without dropping even one, and without them ever touching each other.

It must have been some scene: The greatest scholar and leader of the time, juggling eight blazing torches!

(This joyous experience continued uninterrupted for many generations. It ended when the Roman conquerors destroyed Jerusalem, razed the Temple, and slaughtered the population. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel was cruelly imprisoned and beheaded.[1] Most survivors of this devastation were eventually driven into exile. Yet the nation survived. And to this very day, even without the Temple, we celebrate each night of Sukkos with great festivity, dancing, singing, and rejoicing.)  

Yet it seems strange. Why was the juggling of blazed torches such a highlight of the celebration, as to warrant a special description in the Mishnah and the Talmud? We can appreciate the music, the singing and the dancing, which are all-natural forms to express joy—but why did juggling play a central role? And to the extent that it was performed by the greatest spiritual giant of the time?

We can understand that during a grand celebration, someone gets up and does a juggling act to enhance the fun. But the fact that the Mishnah makes special mention of this act as a feature of the Simchas Beis Hashoavah, and the fact that it was performed by the greatest of the great, indicates that this was a necessary and central feature of the celebration. But why? It is a charming fun spectacle, but does not seem essential to a spiritual celebration?

A Nation of Jugglers

The question becomes more perplexing when we consider, as the Talmud goes on to describe (Sukkah 53a), that in subsequent generations, some of the great sages of Israel were juggling. We know at least four such stories recorded in the Talmud.[2]

The sage Levi (circa 150-220 CE), who was a highly creative thinker, and who assisted in the compilation of the Mishnah, juggled eight knives before Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi (c. 135-219 CE), the national leader and Nassi of the Jewish people during his era (Rabbi Yehuda was a great-grandson of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel mentioned earlier.) Somehow, Levi was trying to bring some joy to this great leader by tossing up and juggling these eight knives.

Next, the author and teacher Shmuel (180-275 CE) was considered one of the greatest Talmudic scholars in Babylonia and was also known for his outstanding expertise in medicine and astronomy. He was eventually promoted to dean of the academy at Nehardea. He managed to perfect an act wherein he juggled eight cups of wine without spilling a drop! Shmuel did this in front of the Persian monarch, King Shapur, with whom he had a close relationship.[3]

Another distinguished scholar, one of the greatest sages in Jewish history, Abaye (280-339 CE), would juggle eight eggs before his great teacher, Rabah. Abaye was head of the Academy at Pumbedita and is one of the most quoted sages in the Talmud. He was a great juggler.

Then we have another story about the great sage Rabbi Shmuel bar Yitzhak (circa 300-370 CE) who would attend weddings, dance before the bride, juggling three hadasim, myrtle branches. When one of his contemporaries, Rabbi Zeira, saw this, he said: "The old man is embarrassing us!” (Through this crude behavior.) Yet at his funeral, Rabbi Zeira observed a pillar of fire, separating him from the people, and he said: “It was this insane behavior which put him on such a high spiritual level.”[4]

[The tradition of juggling at joyous occasions has continued throughout Jewish history. Remember the wedding scene in "Fiddler on the Roof,” where a group of four wedding guests perform a well-choreographed dance step while balancing bottles of wine on their heads without spilling a drop. These tricks are still practiced regularly at many traditional Jewish weddings.]

But here is the question: What was the significance of this practice during the Sukkos celebrations? Why was it performed by the greatest sage of Israel? And why did some of the spiritual giants of the Talmud engage in juggling? One would think these tricks were below their dignity. 

The Story of Life

During a public address on Sukkos 1957 (5718), the Lubavitcher Rebbe presented an exquisite explanation.[5]

Juggling, the Rebbe suggested, captures in a very physical and tangible way the meaning of life—and the path toward genuine joy.

Often, we hear people lament: "I've got too many balls in the air!" Life in our time-strapped, stressful, busy, and chaotic world has become a juggling act, both at work and at home. We're all jugglers.

Yet in Judaism, we take this one step deeper. We are not only juggling duties; we are juggling torches of fire.

Let Your Soul Soar

"The soul of man is a flame of G-d,” says Proverbs.[6] We each carry a blazing torch within ourselves; our soul is full of fire: intense passion, warmth, light, and the incredible possibility to cast light and warmth on the world around us.

In life you have to be able to juggle: to toss up your “torch,” as high as you can. You need to allow your flaming soul, to lift itself up once in a while and detach from all the pressures, stresses, burdens, and anxiety of your earthy existence. At least a few minutes of the day, you need to allow your soul to “melt away” in the sublime, to cleave to its pristine source. We all deserve a few moments of intimacy with ourselves, with our G-d, with our truth.

In modern slang, they call it “downtime.” Everyone needs downtime, when you can “let go” of your duties and pressures, and chill out. Moments when you allow yourself just “to be,” to breathe, to be present in the moment, to be burden-free. In Judaism, we call it “uptime”—it is the time you toss up your soul and let it soar, freed from its chains and shackles. Like a child running into his or her father’s arms just to be lifted up and embraced, without any motives, the soul too needs its moments when it can be elevated in an embrace by its Father in Heaven, liberated from any concern or incentive, but the opportunity to dwell in the bosom of its transcendent source.

AM or FM?

And yet, our torch must not stay up there forever. Down it must come, to re-enter our moment-to-moment concerns and responsibilities. Descend it must, returning back to reality, to the daily grind. We cannot live in heaven; we must bring it down to earth.

The juggler is the person who has that unique ability to continuously operate on two levels, living simultaneously in two states of consciousness.

There are people who live in “AM” radio, and there are those who operate in “FM” radio. Some lives revolve around “headline news,” “talk show” pessimism, traffic reports and political scandals and crisis. They live in the universe of Hannity, Savage, and Mark Levine. Between Biden, Corona, Afghanistan, and Global Warming, the world is about to come to an end. “You give us 22 minutes and we will give you the news.” Oy, and in those 22 minutes you hear enough to make you meshugah, nervous, anxious, worried, stressed, and overwhelmed.

In the immortal words of the ancient Jewish telegram: "Begin worrying; details to follow."

And then there are souls who hang out in “FM radio.” They march to the beat of soft music, unencumbered and undisturbed by the realities and pressures of “the news.” They could not care less if the GW Bridge or the Holland Tunnel is backed up 45 minutes. They are not eager to learn of “breaking news,” and of the endless reports of traffic jams. They just spend their time in the sweet, delightful, relaxing world of FM music channels.

What is the Jewish approach? To live in AM or in FM?

The answer is: To juggle. To always have “part” of your soul way up there; and part of your soul way down here. One torch goes up, while the other comes down. One part of your flaming soul lingers above, while the other comes down to bring light and warmth into a dark and cold world. Then conversely, the other one goes up to refresh, and the one that was tossed up to the air, makes its way back down to bring down the light.

To be a Jew means that you have the ability to operate simultaneously on AM and FM. As the dream of our forefather Jacob on his way to building the Jewish family: The Jew is a ladder standing on the earth, but its peak reaching heaven. Our souls are anchored in a space of deep innocence, sacredness, peacefulness, and truth. Yet our souls were sent down to this world to transform earth into heaven, darkness into light, to take the endless details of our day and infuse them with Divine meaning and holiness. We juggle. We remain above, while we are present right here and now.

What is a Jew? Someone asked the holy Chassidic master Reb Yitzchak Vorker. “To be a Jew,” he said, “is to dance while you are sitting in one place; to scream while you are silent, and to be alone even when you are among a thousand people.”

The Integrated Souls

Juggling, thus, embodies the essence of our festival of joy. The life of happiness demands mastering the art of juggling.

If I remain down here all the time, stuck in AM mode, I get too entangled in the pressures of life. I become burdened and depleted. If I stay up there all the time, in FM mode, I am abandoning my mission and my duties to man and to   G-d. I can’t be content. Happiness requires me to cultivate the spiritual juggling act.

It was the great sages who taught us how to juggle. It is a skill that requires profound spiritual focus and dedication. There are people who enjoy running away to FM—they would love to toss themselves up, and never return. They abandon duty, service, family, and devotion. Sometimes in the name of spiritual oneness and serenity, they become selfish. There are others who know not how to get out of the rat race, out of their entanglement with the stresses of life. But it is the great soul, defined in the Talmud as the “Chassid,” who masters the art of juggling: fly high, but let part of you always remember your responsibility toward G-d and man. Stay above, but be within.

It was the great leader Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel who was the master juggler. For this is the sign of a true leader among our people. He never gets entangled in the pitfalls of human frailty and filth. But he also never goes into isolation, detaching from his flock. He is always fully present, but never loses his connection to Heaven, to purity, sacredness, and innocence. He never becomes cynical, disillusioned, and corrupt. He or she masters the art of integration.[7] And he teaches us all how to emulate this ideal.

_________________

[1] We recount the story in the section Aleh Ezkerah in the Musaf of Yom Kippur.

[2] Sukkah 53a.

[3] Shapur I (reigned 241-272 CE), of Sassanian descent, defeated the Roman Legions in the battle for Edessa. His portrait appears on a rock relief at Naksh-i-Rustam and on a gem in the Museum of Gotha.

[4] Kesuvos 17a. For a very detailed explanation of this story, and the three versions of what Reb Zeira said, see Maamar Basi Legani 5735 (1975). For an explanation of why he juggled a myrtle, see Kisvei Reb Isaac (by Rabbi Isaac Scheu from Montreal) to Kesuvos ibid.

[5] Published in Sichos Kodeash 5718 and in Toras Menachem 5718 vol. 21 For other explanations into the significance of this behavior, see: Chasdei David to Tosefta Sukah ch. 4. Eyun Yaakov and Yefeh Enaf to Ein Yaakov Sukkah ibid. Aruch Lener Sukkah Sukkah ibid.

[6] 20:27

[7] Why eight torches? Perhaps, corresponding to the four levels of the soul: Nefesh, Ruach, Neshamah and Chaya, each of their “torches” operating both “above” and “below.” The fifth level, Yechidah, of course, is always one with G-d, and is not subjected to the pendulum of Ratzo and Shuv (see Likkute Sichos vol. 4 Yom Kippur). For other explanations for the number eight, see references in footnote 5.

Please leave your comment below!

  • Anonymous -5 years ago

    The Juggler

    What?  Since 1917 no one commented?

    I was elated when an American prize-winning Juggler and Ba'al Teshuvah, juggled at my daughter's wedding.  My 14-yr.-old son was fascinated.  For years I had hoped to find some way to get him interested in Juggling, as he was adept at the 5-stones game the Israeli kids play.  I also felt that this physical exercise would unlock his intellectual potential. 

    This wonderful young aspiring Talmid Chacahm who had abandoned the glitz of Juggling for Gemara, agreed to give my son one 45 minute lesson.  My son took out a tiny piece of paper and jotted down all of the information he needed to get practicing in an organized manner.  Perhaps he also got one more check up lesson on the actual performance of these exercises.  He juggled flaming torches; not eight, but three; at his friends' weddings and also at three of his four brothers' chassunas.  Now he is juggling a family of six children, bli ayin Hara, with his Eshet Chayil, who supports the family while he learns. 

    Your article brings all of the import of the Juggling Jew to the fore in a most beautiful way.  When I mentioned to my son that he was following in the footsteps of these great Sages, he pointed out to me that they were Juggling on a high spiritual plane and didn't need to practice to get it right, while he struggled to get 'up there'.  We are so happy to be blessed with children who have learned to pursue the struggle and raise themselves up, step by step. 

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

Sukkos Essay

Rabbi YY Jacobson
  • October 3, 2017
  • |
  • 13 Tishrei 5778
  • |
  • 4240 views
  • Comment

​Leilu Nishmas Reb Eliyahu Tzion ben Reb Chananya Niasoff ז״ל
And in the merit of our partner in Torah, Yigal Yisroel ben Sofia, שיחי׳​

Class Summary:

One aspect of the Simchas Beis Hashoavah celebration in the Holy Temple during each night of Sukkos remains perplexing: the torch-juggling sages. The Mishnah states: The pious ones and men of great deeds would dance while juggling flaming torches. The Talmud states, that the leader of the Jewish people, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, would juggle eight blazing torches!

We can understand that during a grand celebration, someone gets up and does a juggling act to enhance the fun. But the fact that the Mishnah makes special mention of this act as a feature of the Simchas Beis Hashoavah, and the fact that it was performed by the greatest of the great, indicates that this was a necessary and central feature of the celebration. But why? It is a charming fun spectacle, but does not seem essential to a spiritual celebration?

The question becomes more perplexing when we consider, as the Talmud goes on to describe, that in subsequent generations, some of the greatest sages of Israel were somehow in love with juggling. We know at least four such stories recorded in the Talmud. Levi juggled knives, Shmuel juggles wine, Abaye juggled eggs, and Reb Shmuel juggled myrtle branches.

One would think these tricks were below their dignity. Yet, one generation after the other, literally the greatest of the great were juggling. It seems like their knowledge of Torah is what turned them into such efficient jugglers!

It was at a public address on the fifth night of Sukkos of the year 1957 (5718), that the Lubavitcher Rebbe presented a most exquisite and profound explanation. Juggling, he suggested, captures in a very physical, tangible way the meaning of life—and the path toward genuine joy. The celebration of Sukkos was essentially all about mastering the art of juggling.

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