One of the more perplexing Pesach customs is the public reading of Shir HaShirim (The Song of Songs). A variety of explanations are offered from every corner of our tradition. A new idea occurred to me over the holiday and I think it might be a useful perspective on the issue, but more importantly, I think there is a broader lesson that is worth sharing.
The three most widely celebrated Jewish holidays are Yom Kippur, Chanukah, and Pesach. Yom Kippur is celebrated with a fast and prayer. Over half of Jews in America fasted for at least part of Yom Kippur in 2012. An even greater number attended a prayer service on Yom Kippur. That’s a huge number considering fewer than a mere 55% of Jews believe that religion is either very or even somewhat important in their lives. Chanukah gets a holiday boost and also benefits from being really easy and really simple to observe. Lighting candles and exchanging gifts is fun. Pew didn’t even measure it. Pesach stands out with 70% of Jewish people participating in a Pesach Seder in 2012.
The beauty of so many Jewish people joining together in prayer on Yom Kippur is the singularity of the event. Everyone observes Yom Kippur in the same way. The only real differences are in degree. But the flavor is the same wherever you go. People are solemn, they are careful to be on their best behavior, they pray, and they seek forgiveness. We celebrate in public. We see our friends and neighbors. It’s almost alarmingly social in the sense that Yom Kippur is a holiday that takes place among our fellow Jews. Diverse people coming together with unification of purpose. Services are a sea of white, symbolizing purity and simplicity. That is Yom Kippur for everyone, pure and simple. I find it inspiring to unite with my fellow Jews every year for 25 hours. My shul is packed all day and the experience of celebrating Yom Kippur with every kind of Jew of every level of observance is something I cherish. It’s a special kind of unity.
When it comes to inspiration, most Orthodox Jews turn to glorious books of Mussar, or historical legends about our Torah sages, or fiery speeches by modern day orators, or the latest Aish.com inspirational story, or other Torah content that is heavy on encouragement or equally overloaded with deprecation. When it comes to Jewish law, we study Halachic texts. We don’t expect to find inspiration in legal works.
But Halachic text can be inspirational too. For example, Aruch Hashulchan, Orach Chaim §484.
The original text of OC §484in the Tur and Shulchan Aruch dryly discusses the codification of the Rif regarding the procedure for one who is, for some unknown reason, making blessings of the Seder in more than one home. It’s fairly straightforward and uninteresting. This is standard Talmudic and post-Talmudic legalism. Conjure up an obscure situation and use it as a test case to demonstrate the limits of the law. In this case, the laws that dictate how and where one must eat their Seder meal and perform the Seder rituals. The practical law is not relevant to the point of this article.