Monday, September 14, 2009

Rosh HaShanah Torah Reading: Akedat Yitzhak

This coming Shabbat is the first day of Rosh HaShanah, and the Torah reading is the section of B'reisheet concerning the binding of Isaac.

Here are a few suggestions for reading and viewing that can inform our conversation on Tuesday morning:

First read chapters 21 and 22 of B'reisheet here or in your Humash. [note: in traditional synagogues both chapters are read - 21 on the first day and 22 on the second day. In Reform synagogues that celebrate only one day chapter 22 is read. In Reform synagogues that celebrate two days the story of creation is usually read on the second day]
  • What is the content of chapter 21?
  • What is the content of chapter 22?
For a detailed article about the Akedah - the Binding of Isaac, you may want to read Jewish Virtual Library's long and well-researched description of the story from early Biblical origins, through successive Jewish thinkers, and including the meaning of the Akedah in modern Israeli society.

A shorter version which includes much of the above appears at My Jewish Learning, in an article by Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs. You may find it easier reading, and you will still get most of the ideas that are in the JVL version, though not in as much detail.

One of the issues often discussed by Jewish educators is the issue of the suitability of this story for children. An excerpt from an article about this appears here. Although just an excerpt, it can easily serve as a jumping-off point for our conversation.

Tablet Magazine, a wonderful online resource for interesting and often controversial articles and Jewish news, has posted a podcast (you can listen here) of an interview with a Christian author who has written about the akedah from the perspective of its influence on Judaism, Christianity and Islam, particularly in the attitudes of each of these religions toward martyrdom. The podcast is long, nearly 20 minutes, but if you have the patience to listen to the whole thing I think you will find it adds to our understanding of the impact of this story.

This article in Jewcy Magazine - Son Sacrifice: Humility and the Significance of the Akedah is a good presentation of the difference between the way Americans look at this story and the way Israelis see it.

Finally, as a sort of comic relief, watch this video. I'm really curious as to your reaction.

I'd like you to think about the following questions for our conversation tomorrow. As always, I welcome your comments directly on the blog as well as in person.

  • In your opinion, why do you think the rabbis chose these two chapters to be read on Rosh HaShanah?
  • In those synagogues in which Rosh HaShanah is celebrated for one day, why do you think chapter 22 was selected?
  • What do you think about teaching this story to children? Does the age of the children affect how you will tell the story? Or if you will tell it at all?
  • Telling this story in Israel is very different from telling it in our context. Why? Do you think the way it is understood in Israel should be shared with our students here? What can our students learn about Israel and Israeli culture from this conversation? What can Israelis learn about American Jews from this conversation?
  • If you think about teaching these two chapters year after year, before every Rosh HaShanah, how do you think the teaching and learning might change from year to year?
  • Remembering that our guiding principle is that the Big Ideas in what we learn are those elements we want our students to remember after they have forgotten everything else, what do you believe is (or are) the Big Idea(s) of this Torah reading?


  1. Hey Betty Ann,

    You know I love you but this video is a bastardization of Torah and the relationships between Man and God; Abraham and God, Abraham and Isaac, and Isaac and God. It is not funny (and I have a great sense of humor). It does not even follow the text in its depiction of the akeidah story. As we say where I am from, "it is a shanda!"

  2. Emily - I never suggested that all my readers or even most of them would agree with everything that is presented here. What I would suggest is that you might feel comfortable encouraging your students to compare the text with the video. I believe we can't prohibit contact with things that violate our belief system - but we can provide the environment that empowers our learners to look at the source, look at the commentaries, and make their meaning from the comparison.

  3. emily and betty-
    i love you both- but i agree with betty.