Rabbi Dr. Raymond AppleRabbi Dr Raymond Apple AO RFD is Emeritus Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem, where he publishes OzTorah, a weekly email list and website with Torah insights from an Australian perspective.
The plague of darkness, Dore's English Bible, 1866
The word order is significant: “There was thick darkness: no-one saw their fellow” (Ex. 10:22-23). Metaphorically, that’s what thick darkness is, that you don’t even notice, much less greet, the other person.
Someone I know once complained to my wife that I walked past him in the street and didn't even say “Hello”. I must have been in another world, thinking about something far removed from my present surroundings. I did have the sense and good grace to apologise and to assure him that I usually greeted people, even – as Jewish ethics require – greeting them before they greeted me. Rav Huna said that if you fail to return a person’s greeting it is as if you have robbed them (Ber. 6b). I know that Pir‘kei Avot (3:7) is not in favour of a person interrupting their study in order to comment on their surroundings, but this is probably a warning against lack of concentration.
As a general principle one should never regard the other person as if they did not exist – a piece of advice particularly relevant in an age when we tend to ignore the dignity and conscience of people we don’t agree with.
One should never forget the famous rabbinic interpretation of the Four Species of plants which we take on Sukkot. The community of Four Species requires the tall and the short, the fat and the thin and so on. This is symbolic of the ideological community; there is no reason why everyone should think alike. If I believe the other person is wrong, the answer is not to pretend they don’t exist but to sit and talk with them and if necessary agree to disagree.
Ex. 12:2 says, “This month (Nisan, when we left Egypt) shall be to you the first of the months”. The sages tell us that this verse is not only the first commandment addressed to the people of Israel, but it tells us two things: to have a calendar, and to start the list of the months with Nisan (see Rash’s commentary on this verse and Gen. 1:1).
Why is the Hebrew word for a month chodesh? It comes from the word for new. Ibn Ezra tells us that when we look up at the sky we see that the moon becomes new again twelve times a year, which is why we have twelve months.
Where then do we get the word shanah for a year? Once again we quote Ibn Ezra: “The sun proceeds on its course for 365 and a quarter days and then returns a second time (shenit), which is why a year is shanah”. I have heard it said that sun is linguistically connected with shenit, but that theory is too simplistic for the etymological experts.
On another level, it is important for human beings to divide their years and lives into sections and to plan what they will endeavour to do with their time at each stage.
The classical Jewish attempt at subdividing life as a whole is found at the end of Pir’kei Avot chapter 5, which tells us where we can or should expect to be at the ages of 5, 10, 13 etc. Events often affect the orderly rhythm of life, and some people’s pace is faster or slower than others’, but it is good to have a yardstick.