The Binding of Isaac is shown at left in a section of the mosaic floor of the Beit Alfa synagogue in Israel.
The Binding of Isaac is shown at left in a section of the mosaic floor of the Beit Alfa synagogue in Israel.

Why Reform Jews only hear once about binding of Isaac

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

Rosh Hashanah

Genesis 21:1-34; Numbers 29:1-6

I Samuel 1:1-2:10

Genesis 22:1-24; Numbers 29:1-6

Jeremiah 31:1-19

“Rabbi, I’m going back to university for the High Holidays, and I’m so confused. I grew up with you here in Chelm. My school’s Hillel has many services. On Rosh Hashanah, the Reform service reads Genesis 22:1-24, the binding of Isaac. But all the other services read Genesis 21:1-34, the long-awaited birth of Isaac to Sarah. What gives?”

The Rabbi of Chelm took a deep breath. He said, “Let’s remember the Torah only says, ‘This is the first day of the seventh month. It is a sacred day, and we may not do any mundane work.’ We are to hear the sounding of a horn, make a burnt offering consisting of one young bull, one ram, and seven yearling sheep without blemish. We still blow a horn, the shofar, and the Talmud adds the Torah reading Genesis 21, the story of Isaac’s birth. The reading begins with the words, ‘Adonai remembered Sarah as Adonai had said.’ Her deepest wish was fulfilled and the promise to Sarah was kept. According to the Talmud, Isaac was born on Rosh Hashanah. Happy Birthday, Isaac. And the haftarah, I Samuel 1:1-2:10, includes Hannah’s prayer for a son and then the birth of her son, Samuel.”

“But the Conservative and Orthodox services have two days of Rosh Hashanah,” the student said. “Last year I went to the Reform on the first day and the Conservative day two, and I heard Isaac almost being sacrificed twice!”

The Rabbi of Chelm explained, “Until the Destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., holy days were announced in Jerusalem based upon witnesses sighting the new moon. People living outside the Land of Israel would not know exactly which day was correct, so the sages of Yavneh, following the destruction of Jerusalem, declared two-day observances, especially for Rosh Hashanah, which occurs on the New Moon: two days of Rosh Hashanah, even in the Land of Israel.

“Now we needed another Torah reading for a second day, so we rolled on, from Genesis 21 to Chapter 22, and the binding of Isaac. Now here is drama! And what is more, Talmudic tradition tells us that the binding of Isaac also occurred on Rosh Hashanah. So Happy Birthday, Isaac. The top choice of shofars for Rosh Hashanah becomes the ram’s horn because of the connection to the ram caught in the bush that takes the place of Isaac, on his birthday, possibly his best birthday present, ever. Chapter 21: remembrance of promises and a birth. Chapter 22: peril and salvation and the image of the ram’s horn.”

“What happened to the second day in Reform?”

“The Reform movement in Central Europe had a rabbinical conference in 1846 in Breslau. It was resolved that ‘second-day festivals… have no more validity for our time.’ The Reform movement returned to the Biblical observance of the length of the festivals, even Rosh Hashanah.”

RELATED: What do I say to a mourner at High Holiday services?

“And the Torah reading?”

One day and two readings: Chapter 21 featuring the answered prayers of Sarah and Hannah and God’s promises kept. Or Chapter 22 with Abraham, God, a bound Isaac, a really big knife and a ram’s horn! A choice: women and birth, or men and near-death? The promise of life — or there is always someone trying to kill us. Maybe generational trauma triumphed, so Chapter 22, the binding of Isaac.”

“I’ve been thinking,” the student said. “I feel for people who want promises made to them, by God or humans. Promises should be kept and prayers answered. I understand that the Jewish people, and many people, have felt the fear of a knife over their heads. But the biggest problem I face is people not listening to each other. Everyone’s views are so fixed. Cancel culture is terrible.”

The Rabbi of Chelm replied, “So here is an idea. While you have a Chumash, the Five Books of Moses, in your hand, go on to the next chapter, to Genesis 23. It’s about the death of Sarah and Abraham’s search for a burial site.”

And Sarah’s life was a hundred and twenty-seven years… And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, it is Hebron, in the land of Canaan. And Abraham came to grieve for Sarah and to weep for her. And Abraham got up from in front of his dead, and he spoke to the children of Heth, saying:

“I am a resident alien among you. Give me a possession for a tomb with you so I may bury my dead.”

They said: “Listen to us, sir. You are a prince of God in our midst. Take our best burial site to bury your dead. No one among us will deny you.”

Abraham bowed low and spoke to them and said, “If you really want to help me bury my dead and [put her out of] my presence, listen to me, and speak up for me to Ephron son of Zohar.”

Abraham spoke to Ephron so that all the local people could hear. “Listen to me,” he said. “I am giving you the money for the field. Take it from me, and I will bury my dead there.”

Ephron replied to Abraham: “My lord, listen to me. What is ‘400 silver shekels worth of land’ between you and me? Bury your dead.”

“That’s cool.”

“Remember the Hebrew we learned when you were young? Sh’ma, listen. It’s all here: ‘Shma’enu / Listen to us’ and ‘Shma’eni / Listen to me’ and ‘Vayishma Avraham el-Efron’ / Abraham deeply listened what to what Ephron was saying.”

“So, Abraham got what he wanted through dialogue.”

“Right,” replied the Chelm Rabbi. “Not by divine intervention, not by threats of violence, but by dialogue. We are taught that one who possesses these three traits has learned from Abraham: a generous eye, a humble spirit, and a kind soul. How do we know Abraham possessed a humble spirit? When the children of Heth called him a prince, he refers to himself by saying: ‘I am a resident alien among you.’ We are all alien to each other until we listen.”

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan lives and works in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at [email protected].