Nehemiah – Chapter 8

Watergate

By Rabbi Jack Abramowitz

The people who had returned to Jerusalem all gathered at the Water Gate and they told Ezra to bring a Torah with him. The day was Rosh Hashana and Ezra taught Torah, both Written and Oral, to everyone – men, women and children. He taught in front of the Water Gate from daybreak until noon. (Because it was a holiday, they had to break to partake of the festival meal, as we will see.) A special platform had been constructed for the occasion and Ezra was surrounded by minyan of prominent people. (The Torah is only read publicly in the presence of a minyan – a quorum of ten adult males.)

When Ezra read from the Torah, he started by blessing G-d (as we do) and all the people answered Amen. They gave thanks to G-d and bowed down before Him. The prominent men and the Levites taught the people as they stood in the courtyard. The Torah was read, then clarified for the people through its Aramaic translation. The people cried when they realized how much of the Torah they had neglected (or, possibly, when they heard that Rosh Hashana – that very day – was a day of judgment), but their leaders told them not to mourn, as it was a holiday. Rather, they were instructed to eat and drink and to share with those more needy. So the people left to enjoy their meals and to rejoice.

For reasons beyond the scope of this synopsis, Rosh Hashana is the only Yom Tov (Festival) that lasts two days in Israel. On the second day, the leaders of the people, the priests and the Levites all went to Ezra for deeper instruction in Torah. They learned about the holiday of Succos (“Tabernacles”), scheduled for two weeks later. They resolved to publicize this throughout the land, as many of the people were completely ignorant of Torah following decades in exile. They instructed the people to build succahs (huts) for the holiday, which they did. They observed Succos with a spiritual closeness to G-d not felt since Joshua first led the Jews into Israel. (Another explanation is that the Jews at this time lived exclusively in their succahs, which had not been done since their ancestors conquered the land in the time of Joshua.) Ezra read from the Torah all seven days of Succos and on the eighth day, which is the holiday of Shemini Atzeres.

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