The saintly Rabbi Yitzchak Luria of blessed memory said
that a Jew needed to perform every single commandment properly
over the lifetimes in order to exit the cycle of rebirth.
Rachel was Liorah and Dovber and Sarah and Evyatar
even though Rabbi Luria taught that women did not reincarnate
except in special circumstances
and Rachel did not feel special in any way.
Only afterward did she remember all the lifetimes.
#94 – To afflict oneself on Yom Kippur
[5713 AC / 1952 CE, United States]
Rachel grabbed hold of the pew, dizzy;
she did not take well to fasting, especially not for twenty-five hours
without so much as a drop of water or a morsel of food.
The prayers went on and on and on, begging Hashem for forgiveness
not for the people’s sake, but for His own and the promises He had made.
Basically, blackmail – Rachel thought, then tried to focus on the words.
Eventually, the intrusive thoughts faded, though the dizziness remained
until the prayers were over and she could grab a brownie or two
in the kiddush room, amidst all the people milling around,
each one relieved to be alive.
#114 – To eat matzah on the first night of Pesach
[5774 AC / 2014 CE, Hungary]
Liorah led the family Pesach seder on the first night
because none of the men knew what to do.
She herself had become observant only relatively recently
and most of her family still scorned her for it.
She lifted the matzah and said the words in Aramaic –
Hei lachma anya, this is the bread of affliction.
#178 – To examine the signs of fish to distinguish between kosher and non-kosher
[5833 AC / 2073 CE, European Union]
Dovber pulled at his beard, the way he always did
when faced with frustration. The kids wouldn’t listen
to his explanation, their attention flicking away
from the words of the Law like a swarm of butterflies
waved away by a giant swatting hand. He sighed softly,
then began again. “So let’s get back to the catfish.
They have no scales and therefore we don’t eat them,
as you can see on this specimen–” One of the boys yawned.
“You probably know all this already. but have you heard,”
Dovber paused for dramatic emphasis, “of the vampire fish,
a catfish that sneaks up on people bathing in the water
and bites their private parts?” He waved his fingers.
The kids’ eyes opened wide with fear and fascination,
and Dovber wondered if any parents would protest the next day.
#250 – To give charity
[5633 AC / 1872 CE, South Africa]
Sarah stood on tiptoe, wavering slightly
since the tzedakah box was placed on the top shelf;
did her dad put it there, forgetting about her and the coin?
She bit her lower lip and reached. The box fell off
and hit the tiles with a loud crack, but it did not fall apart.
Sarah clapped in delight and put the coin in her palm
– still warm from her touch – into the slot right on top.
#379 – The High Priest must bring a meal offering every day
[2886 AC / 875 BCE, Israel]
A sweet offering to Hashem, Evyatar thought,
an offering by fire. He wanted to taste it
just a little bit. Would it taste any different
from his own generous priestly portion?
He resisted the urge to try; he knew about
the fate of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon,
the first high priest of the line.
They brought fire in front of Hashem, entirely unbidden,
and they were struck down on the spot.
If he ever desired to die, he knew what to do,
but that was a different prohibition –
do not try Hashem your G-d.
#487 – Save someone being pursued even by taking the life of the pursuer
[3960 AC / 200 CE, Anatolia]
Chanah didn’t think, definitely didn’t consider the commandments;
she just wanted to stop the man waving the knife and yelling
at her eldest daughter, then giving chase. Dark locks fluttered
and sandals slapped into dust. There was screaming
and gasps from onlookers, but only Chanah ran after the man,
raising the copper candelabra she had been cleaning,
swinging it with almighty force. There were many witnesses,
but later all of them agreed that she had acted correctly.
#594 – The king must not have too many horses
[3151 AC / 610 BCE, Israel]
He had to let a few of them go, his advisors had said
after having argued over the interpretation for three days.
Should he pick sweet Kochav with a star on his forehead,
a companion for many years, already ailing from age?
Could he part from dearest Raam whose time was also passing,
who carried him in those early, overlong days of his kingship?
He sighed from the belly as he suddenly felt his own age.
He wished he could be someone else, heart not stolen by horses:
maybe a little girl in one of the households of his subjects,
or one of the priests who had different worries and cares –
no, they were just as bound to law as he was,
in exactly the same manner, unto death
and probably even beyond.
Bogi Takács is a neutrally gendered Hungarian Jewish person who’s recently moved to the US. Eir speculative fiction and poetry has been published in venues like Strange
Horizons, Apex, Scigentasy and GigaNotoSaurus. You can visit eir website or find em on Twitter. Bogi says:
This poem was inspired by my reading of Shaar haGilgulim by Rabbi Chaim Vital, chief disciple of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria. It’s exactly as it says in the poem itself – according to Rabbi Luria, women usually don’t reincarnate. Judaism by and large has very little dogma about the afterlife, due to its focus on right actions in the present. Some Jews believe in reincarnation, others don’t – this article is, I think, a good summary. In the community I used to belong to, belief in Lurianic concepts of the afterlife was normative. (Another note: non-binary gender in Judaism is a further very complicated issue I’m looking at in some other works of mine, like this recent novelette in GigaNotoSaurus.)