* BOOK REVIEW by Zvi Leshem

The moment that a couple stands under the chupa is undoubtedly one of the most powerful and meaningful in their lives.  What can serve to make this special moment even more powerful is the drasha often delivered by the officiating rabbi at the beginning of the ceremony.  Having been privileged to give many such drashot myself, I am well aware of the difficulty of saying something that rings authentically true to the couple, their families and friends, and which is not just a rehashing of the usual clichés.  The awareness of the Rabbi that this is also the last chance to equip the young couple with a guiding message before their relationship is finalized, further drives home the importance and difficulty of this unique form of sermon.  Of course, no two couples are alike, and the words that will ring true to one may be completely inappropriate to another, forcing the Rabbi to hone his message carefully and to personalize it as well.

In light of this, we have been blessed with a remarkable new volume of wedding homilies, Reim Ha’ahuvim, Beloved Friends, which were delivered by the late Rav Shagar (Shimon Gershon Rosenberg), the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Siach Yitzchak in Efrat and his co-Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yair Dreifuss, at the weddings of their own children and students.  The book has been published based upon notes from these weddings, in a lovely album format, with extensive footnotes detailing the sources (Biblical, Rabbinic, Kabalistic and Hasidic) upon which the sermons are based.  The collection contains thirteen homilies from Rav Shagar and eleven from Rav Dreifuss, as well as one longer article of each pertaining to marriage and relationships.  In a sense this volume completes two earlier volumes published in recent years by the Yeshiva’s “Bina L’Itim” Research Institute, And He Named Them Adam: Love and Relationships from a New Jewish Point of View, and The Two Great Lightings: Women’s Equality in the Family from a New Jewish Point of View.  Unlike the earlier volumes, however, what we have here is not the Written Torah of intellectual analysis of various topics subsumed under the general framework of marriage and relationships, but the Oral Torah of words that were spoken from the heart b’shaat maaseh, at the intimate moment of the wedding itself.  As Rav Shagar wrote in the introduction, penned only weeks before his untimely death last summer, the nature of a drasha is different than that of a Torah lesson or a philosophic essay.  The drasha turns towards the emotion and the imagination.  Its task is not to explain, but rather to create an atmosphere, to paint the wedding ceremony in the appropriate colors…to express the unique yearnings and desires of each couple.   The collection reflects the unique style of modern Israeli Hasidic existentialism that was popularized by Rav Shagar and his students, and which hits at the core issues that we all deal with, such as loneliness, the deliverance from it offered by marriage, along with the issues that lie ahead in transforming a meaningful wedding into a successful marriage in the context of holiness.  Thus issues such as equality, modesty, passion and marriage as a microcosm of the Divine (and as a vehicle for reaching the Divine) are all woven together in a beautiful tapestry of images and ideas.

Among the sermon topics we find such diverse headings as; The Interplay of Revealing and Covering, Covering the Bride’s Face, On Doubt and Love, Youthful and Mature Love, Divine Unity in the Marriage Covenant and Holiness and Pleasure.  All are explored through the lexicon that Rav Shagar helped to popularize in his teaching and writing, such as betiut (feeling at home), intimacy with the other, the shining of one’s countenance, and the teshuva that comes as a result of self-acceptance and the rectification of shattered relationships.  Let us explore one of these sermons together.

In the homily Seven Circles Rav Shagar addresses the custom that the bride encircles the groom seven times at the beginning of the ceremony, a custom which has been attacked by some feminists as representing the wife’s subservience to her husband.  Rav Shagar begins by pointing to other examples of ritual encircling in Judaism; on Sukkot we encircle the synagogue reader’s desk with the lulav and etrog (seven times on Hoshana Raba), and on Simchat Torah we circle with the Torah Scrolls.  Joshua encircled Jericho seven times before conquering the city and the official expansion of the holy city of Jerusalem also involves encircling.  Thus, he concludes, encircling is an act of defining or expanding sacred space.  Since the chupa represents the future home of the couple, it begins with circles that mystically define the holy domain of the new couple.  While it is the groom who actually consecrates the marriage by presenting the ring to his bride, this act is preceded by her demarcation of the sacred space within which they will build their future home.  As Rav Shagar writes; the marriage ceremony thus begins by the bride defining a space and sanctifying the couple’s territory [ha’teritoriah ha’zugit].  It is the bride who weaves this space of the home around the groom – at first only virtually, but nonetheless a very real announcement [of intent].


Rav Shagar then (based upon the writings of the famous mystic, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria) compares these circles with an embracing which is also identified with the Sukkah that envelopes the Jewish People in a special state of intimacy with the Shechina, the Divine Presence.  Finally he quotes the verse from Jeremiah 31:21; the female will surround the man, which according to Kabbalah is a future vision of equality between man and woman, between the sun and the moon, and in some sense between God and humanity.  In this future reality of harmonious cooperation, each partner will gaze into the face of the Other, as opposed to the current reality of inequality and alienation, a reality of polarization in which one is ashamed to directly meet the gaze of the Other and therefore turns away in embarrassment, as explained by the Italian Kabalist, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato.  The chupa, concludes Rav Shagar, receives its special holiness from that future fully redeemed world, and thus we bless the couple with achva, shalom v’reut, fraternity, peace and companionship.


Beloved Friends is thus a uniquely meaningful adventure in the world of zugiut (a popular Hebrew term which literally translates as “couple-hood”, but doesn’t really have a good English equivalent).  These homilies transport the reader to that most intimate and mystical of moments, the moment when bride and groom stand beside each other at the chupa, the moment when two become one, creating a new and unique reality.  We anxiously await the publication of more of Rav Shagar’s and Rav Dreifuss’s many manuscripts and their translation into English and other languages as well.

Rabbi Zvi Leshem is the Spiritual Leader of Congregation Shirat Shlomo in Efrat and Director of Overseas Programs at Nishmat: the Jerusalem Center for Higher Torah Studies for Women.  He holds a PhD in Jewish Philosophy and is the author of Redemptions: Contemporary Chassidic Essays on the Parsha and the Festivals.


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