Yahrzeit and Exemplarity

Years ago in my corner of academic-educational institutes in Jerusalem, people who worked in Jewish thought remembered the yahrzeit or hillula of the person on whom they were writing. They gave memorial classes or a hug bayit or a photocopied handout. During Elul, many people took note of Rav Kook’s yahrzeit on the 3rd, some noted Maharal on the 18th, and I took note of Rav Zadok’s yahrzeit (Elul 9) followed by Reb Simcha Bunim three days later (Elul 12).

As this blog approaches its second anniversary, I must confess that the original idea for the blog was to post a daily yahrzeit. Since the goal of the blog was to keep me writing on other projects, a daily yahrzeit would be a chance to talk about a sefer or person. I originally envisioned starting with an Elul yahrzeit date, but I scrapped that idea. At first, it seemed like too much continuous work and not in tune with the zigzags of writing academic books. Second, it seemed easier to type up something I was reading or teaching on that day. And third, and probably most important, I saw so much on the internet about the Yahrzeits of these Elul deaths that was gibberish, name dropping, out-of-context, or pop-psych. I did not want to argue with those who gloried in posts of Wiki, Rambi, and Reb Shlomo stories. My goal was to have a personal board for thoughts on these figures such as why they are important. Instead, I choose the post on what I was reading. The earliest, more serious posts were on Sagi, Fishbane, and Novak-and what I was writing. That was the entire purpose of this blog.

Nevertheless, I still like yahrzeits as a means of discussing heritage. Yahrzeits let you parade out a full gallery of potential Jewish exemplars and discuss why they are important or to argue the merits of their positions. They point to what was and is not anymore, as well as what could have been. To discuss the many authors in Shem Hagedolim can capture lost voices and forgotten moments—they move us beyond presentism to consider other ages. Discussing Jews under the Mamluks or Jews under the Hapsburgs does not open up a vista to a new world, as we do not want to change our material culture. But to consider the thought of David Hanagid ben Avraham ben Rambam (Elul 1) or Maharal (Elul 18) awakens potential.

I am drawn to them because they offer saints, mystics, visionaries, and creative authors. They allow one to discuss the unique, the personal, the individual—all of them coming to God. Greatest is not defined in terms of cookie-cutter lives but rather is evaluated in terms of unique personalities. One celebrates and learns from these realized beings. I am not referring to the soul numbing contemporary gedolim tales that cauterize the intellect and emotions, rather the actual books and lives of diverse figures.

The source of yahrzeits goes back to late antiquity; there are several rabbinic texts that were interpreted to imply the importance of the day of the death of a great person. The Zohar speaks of the hillula when the deceased gives special influences every year on the day of their death, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Meir Baal HaNes were the most famous hillulot. Later centuries assume that one can receive inspiration or even an avatar from the deceased soul. Customs arose of lighting candles on the yahrzeit, either fasting or having a drink, and to visit the grave for communion with the soul. It was important to mention the name of the zaddik because, as Moshe Idel showed, that in Renaissance Jewish thought there was a hermetic-magical power associated with name of the righteous. As late as 1943, the sefer Zikhron Zaddikim advocated these ideas. In addition, they taught that if one prayed for the dead, the dead will pray for you.

Between the 18th to 20th centuries, this approach to yahrzeits generated a genre of Jewish literature that listed at least one person’s yahrzeit daily. Originally, one only celebrated the yahrzeit of those whom one had allegiance to their dynasty. One was either Breslov, or Tolne, or Chabad. But, with the large influx of Jews from Ukraine to Poland, from Poland to Galicia, and from Galicia to Hungary, people could pick and choose which yahrzeits to celebrate. Like Catholic saint calendars which became unmoored from their original monastic context including one’s singular alliance and evolved into reading a calendar in the city and choosing which saint to celebrate. It also reflected the rise of Hasidic pilgrimages within Eastern Europe itself and the ability to have allegiance to a religious organization from a region other than one’s own. It was a way to know about the many new seforim that were being published, republished, or newly discovered.

Yahrzeit allows one to imagine other times and places. On one hand, we have those who visiting the grave of the Lubavitcher Rebbe or engage in the Halakhic Man’s cognitive séance of the Rambam and Rabbenu Tam as each in their own way using the past for a presentist understanding. On the other hand, the antiquarian and those satisfied with the triviality of an obscure document lose the exemplarity. The spiritual path of Rabbi Simchah Bunim is more important than the novelty of his diploma from pharmacy school.

Which yahrzeits can appeal to us today? Those that can serve as a role model or broader horizons for our thoughts, our actions, or simply, our lives. They each have different virtues but can give us insight into the religious life. John Henry Newman wrote essays on the importance of saints in our lives as models of holiness. Not saints because they are officially recognized or because they have exalted angelic sanctity, but rather are people who help us aspire to holiness. They feed our imaginations, give us goals, and show the many paths that one could take. Pascal observed how easily veneration can pass over into a pious trivialization of their challenge. We tend to regard the saints as “crowned with glory and years, judged almost divine before our time.” Gedolim, who are painted as divine preternatural children that grew up to have no knowledge of human life, do not inspire those looking for inspiration. In contrast, we need to see elements that showed how they faced the challenge of faith of their time and place and learn what it can teach us for our time.

“Traditional saints, precisely insofar as they responded to the demands of their own moment, remain a precious resource.” Ascetics, recluses, and gnostics were important in their time and still have much to teach us, today, however, they hold less interest for many of our needs. But what are the needs of the present moment? We need exemplarity for our narrative self, our psychological self, the self that needs both insights and to grapple with applications. Unlike 19th century Galicia, we are not looking for miracles or heavenly interceders.

Back in my high school teaching days, my interest inspired one of the students to add selected dates to the student newspaper. Back then, I asked one of the Jewish publishers if they wanted a book of Zaddik days, (I had graduate school friends who were editing Catholic saint calendars and it was a popular doctoral topic in those years.) the publisher said: no, modern Jews are not interested in these things.

Is he still correct? Listening to news is important for our economic and political decisions, but we mark our days with infotainment news for the very sense of talking about new people each day. If we cannot talk about ideas, then what if we discussed a rabbinic exemplar each day? What if aspiration matters more than creating controversies of the day? Picture a Jewish Exemplar Daily instead of Jewish ideology daily. What if we had one of those tear-sheet daily desk calendars with a description and quotes of Zaddik each day?

Reb Simcha Bunim: “Just as a person must find for himself a teacher in this world, so too a person must find for himself a teacher in the next World.”
Yahrzeit of Reb SImcha Bunim Elul 12

2 responses to “Yahrzeit and Exemplarity

  1. From the responses I got over the years, I would guess that publisher is not (and was not) correct. People are fascinated by people, in my experience. I would note yahrzeits and other historical markers in my HS teaching, and with adult audiences. It never failed to draw people in, getting them to see history and a chain of tradition as occurring through real people. Mind, I didn’t focus only on tzadikim; but the majority were religious figures. When we did a monthly melave malka I used to present yahrzeits and historical occurrences for the coming month, and it always got interest.

    So, I think folks find people inherently interesting, and also as models, and also as an entry into a historical event, development, or period.

  2. I say go for it!

    Though given the vagaries of the Jewish calendar, it might work better as a blog and app than as a printed book.

    As to R’ Simcha:

    > “Just as a person must find for himself a teacher in this world, so too a person must find for himself a teacher in the next World.”

    I confess I don’t understand this. What does this mean?

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