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Simcha: Joy in Judaism

Drinking the Wine of Gladness - a libation to the Lord

Purim - mellow inebriation
Purim ~ Mellow Inebriation

Yeshivat Darché Noam / David Shapell College
We plan on relating to three aspects of this topic --

  1. Joy in Judaism (this unit);
  2. Joy in Chasidut
  3. Joy and Marriage;
  4. How to become joyous

The first unit shows how central and indispensable joy is to normal healthy Jewish life and how high of a priority it is in character development. In the second we see the special place joy has in the Chasidic world. The third dealing with the crucial role joy plays in marriage. The last unit both relates to different paths to attaining joy and will help us get a more precise idea of what it is.

The following sources clearly place joy at the core of a number of crucial areas of Judaism. Perhaps this first unit's main contribution is collecting them and enabling us to confront them all at once.

The Sources:

Joy and Avodat (Service of) Hashem
Serve G-d with joy, come before Him with song (Tehillim 100:2)
Serve G-d with fear and rejoice in trembling (Tehillim 2:11)
Be joyous in Hashem, and rejoice righteous ones, and sing out all those who are upright of heart. (Tehillim 32:11)
Because you did not serve Hashem your G-d with joy and goodness of heart . . . (Devarim 28:47). Context: the reason given by the Torah for the long list of troubles and sufferings that are part of the tokheicha (rebuke) of Parshat Ki Tavo.

The Rambam on Simcha
A person's joy in doing the mitzvot and the love of Hashem who commanded them is a great avoda (service). Anyone who avoids this is deserving of reproof, as it says, "Because you did not serve Hashem your G-d with joy and goodness of heart." Anyone who is arrogant and ascribes to himself honor in these situations [and thereby refrains from expressing joy in service of Hashem] is a sinner and and an idiot. This is what Shlomo warned -- "Do not aggrandize yourself before the King." This is also what David the King of Israel said, "I would even lighten myself more and be lowly in my own eyes." The only greatness and honor is to be joyous before G-d, as it says, "King David was ecstatically dancing before Hashem." (Rambam Mishneh Torah -- end of the Laws of Sukkah and Lulav)

Simcha, Torah, Prophecy, & Good Dreams
"The Torah is acquired in 48 ways: . . . with humility, with joy, with purity, . . . " (Baraita Kinyan Torah -- Avot 6:6)

"With joy: Because one who learns with joy can learn more in one hour than what he can learn in many hours when he is sad. Also, the Torah is the plaything of the Holy One, Blessed be He, and one must be joyous about such a great thing. (Ruach Chaim on Avot 6:6 -- Rabbi Chaim Volozhin)

To teach you that the Divine Presence does not rest on a person through sadness, nor through laughing or lightheadness, or conversation or idle talk -- only through joy of a mitzva, for it says [with regards to the prophet Elisha], "Take for me a musician. And it was when the musician played, the Hand of G-d was on him." Rav Yehuda says, This is also the case for a Halakhic teaching. Rava said this is also the case for a good dream. (Talmud Bavli Shabbat 30b)

Simcha and Prayer
A person should not pray when in a state of sadness or laziness or laughing or conversation or lightheadness or idle talk, but out of joy of a mitzva. (Talmud Bavli Berakhot 31a)

It is forbidden to pray out of sadness, and if one does, his soul cannot receive the higher light drawn on him during prayer. Rather, his prayer should be in exceedingly great joy, as much as possible. This is comparable to a servant serving his master out of great joy. . . . (Shaar Hakavanot -- Writings of the Ari, quoted in Netivot Shalom vol. 1, p. 285)

Why Simcha? The Maharal on Simcha Shel Mitzva
Why does simcha appear in conjunction with so many crucial core Jewish issues? Perhaps this selection from the Maharal's commentary on the following aggada:

It says, "I praise joy," and yet also says, "Of what use is joy?" This only seems to be contradictory. "I praise simcha," refers to simcha of a mitzva and "Of what use is simcha," refers to simcha that is not connected to a mitzva. (Shabbat 30b)

Maharal's comment: . . . When a man is joyous his soul (nefesh) is complete and whole (beshleimut) . . . Only when his joy is that of a mitzva it is Divine wholeness and praiseworthy. . . . Otherwise it is physical and cannot be considered complete and is therefore not praiseworthy.

He goes on to explain why joy is a prerequisite for prophecy and Torah. The Divine presence rests on something that is whole, not something that is lacking. Joy goes together with wholeness, completion and perfection -- and sadness with lack and fragmentation. G-d is transcendent and will therefore reveal Himself to one whose joy is transcendent, simcha shel mitzva. (Based on Chidushei Agadot vol. 1, p. 14)

The two sides of the wine question a Jewish 'must' - but equally, a warning.
ושאבתם-מים   בששון  ממעיני  יהישועה
Therefore with joy shall ye draw waters out of the wells of salvation   ....

Ultimately Jewish life involves connecting up with the Divine and joy is a necessary element of connecting up with the Divine. When we are joyous we are whole and complete -- and that enables the connection with the Divine that prayer and Torah, as well as prophecy and significant dreams demand.

This is in line with what we have seen about the importance of character in general in Judaism. The more our character is developed the more we emulate the Divine and are able to connect with G-d. The more we are joyous the more we emulate the Divine wholeness and enable a Divine connection.

Three Stories about the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliahu of Vilna, the Gra zt"l)
What makes a man happy?
Once his student, the Gaon Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin zt"l, came to Vilna on Erev Shabbat. He didn't go to visit the Gra on that day. He went to the bath house in honor of Shabbat, and before he started to get undressed a messenger came from the Gra calling for Rav Chaim to come. He hurried to his rav's house and found him looking terrible: sickly, with a scarf wrapped around his head, and in a terrible mood.

He was shocked at the Gra's appearance and stood without saying anything, afraid to ask what was going on. The Gra, though, when he saw that his student had entered, looked up and asked him to explain a difficult passage in a Yerushalmi he's unable to understand. Would Rav Chaim be able to answer the Gra's question? The Gaon Rav Chaim looked at his rav, "Who am I to understand and answer that which is perplexing in the eyes of the rav?" Answered the Gra, "'Open your mouth and let your words illuminate,' 'Two are better than one,' (Kohelet 4:9); and 'Each man should help his friend' (Yishaya 41:6)."

Rav Chaim looked deeply into the difficult Yerushalmi. Hashem illuminated his eyes until he started to see an opening for an answer, but he still didn't fully understand it. He relied on his holy rav that he would, through his depth of knowledge, smooth out any wrinkles in his explanation in order to come up with a clear and complete understanding of the Yerushalmi.

When he began to explain the gemara, the Gra's face was transformed and he was full of joy. He immediately removed the scarf from his head and ordered his attendant to bring him some food to eat.

This was very surprising to Rav Chaim. He knew that the Gra's longstanding custom was not to eat at all on Erev Shabbat afternoon. He went to the outer room where the Gra's family was, and asked, "What is the reason behind the Gra suddenly eating on a Friday afternoon?" They explained to Rav Chaim that for three days the Gra had not eaten anything in the course of his efforts at trying to unravel the difficult Yerushalmi. (Shivchei Tzadikim, pp. 97-98)

The Strange Bargain
One year the students of the Gra were not able to find him a lulav and etrog for Sukkot. They finally found a very wealthy man who had one and offered to buy it from him at a very high price. He would not sell it for money but offered to make the following deal. If the Gra would give away his reward in the World to Come for that year's mitzva of taking the lulav and etrog he would agree. The students deliberated among themselves about whether they felt it legitimate to agree to such a bargain on behalf of their rav. They finally decided to go through with it.

With a certain amount of trepidation they approached the Gra with thlulav and etrog and told him of the deal they had made, giving away his share in the World to Come for the mitzva.

The Gra was enraptured, full of great joy. "Finally," he said, "I will be able to do a mitzva without any ulterior motive, even that of gaining a spiritual reward in the World to Come."

Simchat Torah
They say that when the aron kodesh was opened on Simchat Torah and they brought out the Torah scrolls the Gra burst into wild, joyous dancing, which did not stop until they put them back.

"Serve the Lord with joy, enter into his presence with exultation" (Psalm 100:2) is the foundation for the concept of joy in closeness to God and his will that permeates Jewish tradition.

The Pilgrim Festivals are special occasions for rejoicing in God's presence: "And you shall rejoice in your festivals" (Deuteronomy 16:14). This festive joy is not confined to the Temple but understood by the rabbis to apply to he celebration of the festivals even in exile. It is a joy that is only complete when allied with concern for the needy; as the verse continues, "with . . . the aliens, orphans and widows among you."   "The Torah teaches you . . . that when anyone performs a mitzva he should do so with a joyful heart." (Midrash Vayikra Rabbu 34:9)

So essential is joy to the spiritual life that one cannot prophesy without it: "The Shekhina does not rest on one who is miserable, or lazy, or jocose, or frivolous, or talkative, or empty-headed, but only one who experiences joy in God's commandments (BT Shab 30b). The spiritual value of simcha shel mitzva (joy in performing God's commandments) is particularly pronounced in Hasidism.

Morman Solomon. pp205-206)

Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one's weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.

Oneg Shabbat ~ Joy of the Sabbath
If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the LORD, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: Then shalt thou delight thyself in the LORD; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it. [Isaiah 58: 13-14]

Call the Sabbath a delight? How do you make it a delight? Rav Judah, the son of Rav Samuel bar Shilat said in the name of the Rav: With a dish of vegetables [spinach or beets] and a large fish and garlic. Rav Hiyya ben Ashai said, quoting Rav: Even something small, if it was prepared specifically in honor of the Sabbath, is a delight. What is an example of this? Rav Papa said: a pie of fish-hash and flour. [Shabbat 118b]

Moses Hayyim Luzatto explains: A major principle in the service of God is joy. David declares, "Serve the Lord with gladness; come into His Presence with singing" [Psalm 100:2]. "Let the righteous be joyful." [Psalm 68:4]. Our sages said, "The Shekhinah rests upon one who performs a commandment in a joyous spirit" [Shabbat 30b].

There are three elements in the love of God: joy, devotion and zeal. To love God is to passionately desire His nearness, praised be He, and to pursue His holiness, as one pursues something he strongly desires, until mentioning His name, praised be He, or speaking His praise, or studying His Torah or His divine nature becomes a source of pleasure and delight as real as that of one who strongly loves the wife of his youth, or his only son. In the latter case, even speaking of them is a delight. And Scripture states, "As often as I speak of him, I remember him still; therefore my heart yearns for him" [Jeremiah 31:19]. Surely whoever truly loves his Creator will not neglect serving Him for any reason in the world, unless he is physically prevented from doing so. He will not need to be coaxed or enticed into serving Him. On the contrary, unless prevented by some great obstacle, his heart itself will lift him. This is the desirous quality which the early saints, the holy ones of the Highest, were privileged to attain . . .

Surely there must be no ulterior motive in such love. One should love the Creator, praised be He, not because He is good to him, or grants him wealth or success, but one should love Him naturally and as obligingly as a son loves his father. Indeed, Scripture states, "Is He not your father, who created you?" [Deuteronomy 32:6]. The test of this love is during a time of hardship and trouble . . . "Whatever Heaven does is for the best" [Berakhnot 60b]. This means that even hardship and trouble are apparent evils which in reality are good . . . Thus one should realize that whatever the Holy One praised be He does to him, whether it affects his body or property, is for his own good, even though he does not understand how it could be for his own good. Thus neither hardship nor suffering would lessen his love for God. [Mesillat Yesharim]

Strong's Concordance (for us beginners just learning Hebrew)
    oneg   - [6027]
    simcha - [8057]


Happy art thou, O Israel: who is like unto thee, O people saved by the LORD, the shield of thy help, and who is the sword of thy excellency! and thine enemies shall be found liars unto thee; and thou shalt tread upon their high places. [ Deuteronomy 33: 29]


אשריך ישראל מי כמוך עם נושע ביהוה מגן עזרך ואשר־חרב גאותך ויכחשו איביך לך ואתה על־במותימו תדרך

(HOW IT SOUNDS: relying on better brains online for this)
ashrik ishral mi kmuk om nusho bieue magen ozrik v'ashr-cherev gaavathk v'ikawchashu aibik lik v'athe ol-bmuthimu thdarak

Robert Shepherd - 2011Webster: Robert Shepherd - "Grafted In"

Robert Shepherd, the webster, is not Jewish at all, except by cultural osmosis: my Christian faith-heritage. But then, two thirds of the planet is, too. It could well be said that the most successful proselytizers the world has ever seen were the Jews - who did not proselytize at all. Actually, we are told that for a few brief periods, such as the Hellenistic era, Jews did proselytize. Both Christianity and Islam could, in this sense, very much be called daughter religions of Judaism. We are proselytes of the gate (marginal Jews, or Noahide believers). One pope (Pius the eleventh) even said that "Spiritually, we are all Semites." He reasoned that God's promise to Abraham was true, and we "spiritual Semites" are the proof. So yes, in that sense I am "Jewish" -- that is, I am grafted in, or adopted into Israel.

Your love is more fragrant than wine
from Song of Songs (Shir ha Shirim)

Wine, Oil or Drink-Offering
Sacrifice & Libation or Oblation?

A sacrifice is an act of offering something precious to one's deity, especially when presented on the altar of one's temple.

A libation is a ritual pouring of a liquid as an offering to a god or spirit or in memory of those who have died. Various substances have been used for libations, most commonly wine or olive oil, and in India, ghee. The vessels used in the ritual, including the patera, often had a significant form which differentiated them from secular vessels. The libation could be poured onto something of religious significance, such as an altar, or into the earth.

Oblation has similar meaning, but in a religious sense, to oblate carries the added meaning of emptying oneself (kenosis), as in confession, so as to create a space that The Creator will then fill with its spirit, its inspiration.

In ancient times, the Israelites were instructed to bring animals to sacrifice. Without the shedding of blood there is no remission. Not just any animals, but the very best of what they possessed. When food and drink was involved in sacrifice, they also had to bring the very best. This concept of "the best" of all one receives is called the firstfruits. So they would bring the best from among their food and livestock to offer as sacrifices in the temple. Since they depended upon these for their survival, they were indeed quite precious gifts. When using the historical reference to determine the meaning of sacrifice and oblation to our time, one should not get hung up on the image of animal sacrifices but remember the underlying concept of bringing the best and most precious to the altar.

In modern times, money has come to be accepted as an expression of the firstfruits of our labor. All over the world, in all kinds of temples, people come to oblate themselves and offer some kind of sacrifice on the altar of their choice. In the present, as in the past, the degree to which one receives depends upon how heartfelt the sacrifice and oblation.

But in a real sense, a living sacrifice is whatever you commit or "offer" your life for, since the life is in the blood. Judaism regards blood as sacred, holy. For the blood itself has the power to speak. (See the voice of Abel's blood). The obscure mystical language of the prophets foretelling a (future or "third") temple made without hands might be said to refer to a new "day" of ha Shem, in which the old blood sacrifices have been reworked, prophetically or metaphorically, to a whole new meaning - a living, practical one.

Personal Sacrifice & One's relationship with The Creator

The practice of sacrifice and oblation enhances and develops one's relationship with the deity (the Infinite) and the world, for all of spirituality is about a relationship with The One (deity, the Infinite) and the creation. We are not the Source, but through free will we direct the power that FLOWS through us.


The joy of living comes when we use that power to create expression of our inner desires. The matching of our talents to the needs of the world is an expression of that relationship with The Creator.

Consider the following aspects of the acts of sacrifice and oblation that lead to an understanding of this relationship:

You sacrifice your sweat, the water of your life, in your daily vocation (a choice "Catholic" phrasing).

The result is the fruits of your labor, thus a "giving back."

You bring your firstfruits, the best of what God has given you, and offer it back to God in the temple. You also empty yourself of your sins & transgressions. The emptying expression, kenosis, has been used by Christian mystics to suggest a worship, a purification, and even a dedication, celebration.

In the temple, in the presence of God and the congregation, the glory of God, or holy spirit is encountered. The degree to which you receive and are filled depends on how well you have emptied yourself.

The teaching of the ritual of sacrifice is that there is a continual flow between The Creator and the creation. Our life, vitality and joy lie in keeping that flow wide open. When we hang onto grudges and offenses, instead of confessing and letting them go, they only become stones that weigh us down and impede the flow of the river of life, the spiritual force that powers us.

More on the Third Temple idea

Bob Shepherd
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