The Blessings of Completion

Headshot of Elliot Dorff
Headshot of Elliot Dorff
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, PhD

Sol & Anne Distinguished Professor in Philosophy, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
University Rector, American Jewish University

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, PhD is AJU’s Rector and Sol & Anne Dorff Distinguished Service Professor in Philosophy. He is Chair of the Conservative Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and served on the editorial committee of Etz Hayim, the new Torah commentary for the Conservative Movement. He has chaired four scholarly organizations: the Academy of Jewish Philosophy, the Jewish Law Association, the Society of Jewish Ethics, and the Academy of Judaic, Christian, and Islamic Studies. He was elected Honorary President of the Jewish Law Association for the term of 2012-2016.  In Spring 1993, he served on the Ethics Committee of Hillary Rodham Clinton's Health Care Task Force. In March 1997 and May 1999, he testified on behalf of the Jewish tradition on the subjects of human cloning and stem cell research before the President's National Bioethics Advisory Commission. In 1999 and 2000 he was part of the Surgeon General’s commission to draft a Call to Action for Responsible Sexual Behavior; and from 2000 to 2002 he served on the National Human Resources Protections Advisory Commission, charged with reviewing and revising the federal guidelines for protecting human subjects in research projects. Rabbi Dorff is also a member of an advisory committee for the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History on the social, ethical, and religious implications of their exhibits. He is also a member of the Ethics Advisory Committee for the state of California on stem cell research.

He has been an officer of the FaithTrust Institute, a national organization that produces seminars and educational materials to help people avoid or extricate themselves from domestic violence.  For eight years he was also been a member of the Board of Directors of the Jewish Federation Council of Los Angeles, chairing its committee on serving the vulnerable.  In Los Angeles, he is a Past President of Jewish Family Services and a member of the Ethics committee at U.C.L.A. Medical Center. He serves as Co-Chair of the Priest-Rabbi Dialogue of the Los Angeles Archdiocese and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.  

posted on March 5, 2019

“And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks – as the Lord had commanded, so they had done – Moses blessed them.”  (Exodus 39:43)

What is completing a task a source of blessing?  One reason is that one feels a sense of accomplishment – one set out to do something and successfully completed the task.  That is especially the case when, as in this case, a group has never been called on to do something like this, and so there is no record of accomplishment to demonstrate that one can, and so finishing the task relieves the builders of anxiety that they may well have in trying to do something that they never did before.  Another reason that finishing a task is a source of blessing is the pride that one can legitimately have upon completing a task on which one has embarked:  one can point proudly to what one has done.  Yet another is sense that one can contribute to the world in meaningful ways, that we human beings have the ability to see a need and to meet it.  In this case, there is also the satisfaction of doing what God has asked of us, so that the completion is not only a blessing for us but for us.  The same feeling may apply when one has done something that is not directly commanded by God, as in this case, but that accomplishes a purpose that we know to be divine, such as healing someone in body or spirit, ameliorating poverty, educating someone or making that possible, contributing compassion or beauty to the world, or building, renovating, or maintaining a synagogue, school, or social service agency that will enable people to worship, learn, and live more fully.  All of these elements may be included in the response of Moses to the completion of the Tabernacle and the vestments of the people who would serve in it.          

There is another indication in this week’s Torah reading of the blessings of completion.  Parashat Pikudei ends the Book of Exodus. Traditionally, as we end each of the five books of the Torah in our reading them in the synagogue, we say hazak, hazak, v’nithazek, “Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen each other.”  In a rabbinic ruling by Rabbi Nechama Goldberg, approved by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards in 2000, she traces the origins of this custom:

The earliest reference to the custom of saying hazak to one who reads from the Torah is found in HaManhig, written by Abraham ben Nathan ha-Yarhi, who wrote at the end of the twelfth and beginning of the thirteenth centuries regarding the customs of Jews of France, Germany and Spain. He writes:

As for the custom in France and Provence that all who read from the Torah, as they concluded, the hazzan would say to them in a loud voice, hazak, I have found support for this in Bereshit Rabbah, "Let not this Book of Teaching cease from your lips." The word hazak is used only to the one who holds the object in his hand, from which we learn that the Sefer Torah was in Joshua's lap. And God said to him, "Be strong and resolute [hazak v’amatz] (Deuteronomy 31:7, 23; Joshua 1:7)" From here, to the one who concludes the Torah reading we say to him, hazak.

According to the custom, hazak was recited to each person who read from the Torah. At that time, Torah reading customs were in flux. It was customary for each person who was called to the Torah to read for himself. As fewer people were able to read the Torah, especially with the appropriate trope, a designated reader replaced the congregant. The blessing of hazak was addressed to the reader. (Ha-Manhig refers only to the reader and does not distinguish a separate individual receiving an aliyah.) The citation from Bereshit Rabbah is used as prooftext that the person reading from the Torah (or reciting the blessings) should be holding on to the Torah. By inference, since God said hazak to Joshua while he was holding the Torah, we should also say hazak to one who holds the Torah:

R. Shimon b. Yohai said: The Book of Deuteronomy was an ensign for Joshua. When the Holy One, blessed he He, revealed Himself to him, He found him sitting with the Book of Deuteronomy in his hand. Said He to him, "Be strong, Joshua, be of good courage, Joshua; this book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth." (Josh. 1:8). Thereupon he took it and showed it to the orb of the sun which he apostrophised thus: "Even as I have not stood still from (studying) this, so do thou stand still before me!" Straightaway, "And the sun stood still," etc.

The next source to report on this custom is Orhot Ha.yyim by Aaron ben Jacob HaKohen of southern France writing in the beginning of the fourteenth century:

In Bereshit Rabbah, "This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth," teaches that the Sefer Torah was in Joshua's hand since one only uses hazeh [“this”] when one is holding the object in his hand. And when he concludes, we say to him, hazak ve’amatz. From here, the custom derives to say to the one who concludes his reading in the Torah, hazak, and thus is the custom in France and Provence. However, in Spain, we only say this at the conclusion of the Torah exclusively, and each behaves according to his custom.

Rabbi Goldberg then addresses the question of whether those who read on a triennial cycle may say hazak, hazak, ve’nithazek after they conclude their reading that year of one of the five books of the Torah or only after they actually conclude the book in the third year of the triennial cycle.  She concludes that the variation of practice that she had demonstrated in her research means that communities may do as they like with regard to reciting hazak, but she quotes Rabbi Richard Eisenberg, however, who was the rabbi that spelled out what exactly should be read each year in congregations adoption the triennial cycle and who says that saying hazak should be said only during the third cycle, when a community actually completes a book.  In a rabbinic ruling that I wrote that was approved by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards in 2015, I say the following:

On the other hand, there are also good reasons why a rabbi and congregation might want to say hazak, hazak when completing what they are going to read from a given book of the Torah, even if that does not include the end of the book. They are, after all, transitioning to the next book of the Torah the following week, and so they have indeed completed what they are going to read from the book that they have been reading for the past few months. Rituals often mark transitions, even if they are not complete; we say, for example, that Bar and Bat Mitzvah marks the transition into adulthood for liturgical purposes, even though thirteen-year-olds are not really adults in most other ways. 

In that responsum I also point out that on fast days other than Yom Kippur, we skip from Exodus 32 to Exodus 34, despite the fact that the Mishnah says that we should not skip from one place in the Torah to another.  Furthermore, on a Rosh Hodesh or Festival that falls on Shabbat, we say hatzi kaddish after the weekly Torah reading, thus marking its end, and then read from another Torah scroll the section relevant to Rosh Hodesh or the Festival. I therefore conclude as follows:

Therefore, it is preferable to use an alternative option that builds on both practices mentioned above. Specifically, one should read the Torah portion for the week and then recite hatzi kaddish. Then, because the end of the book is only a few columns away from the end of the readings of the second and even the first cycle so that it is not especially burdensome on the community to wait the minute or two for the Torah to be rolled to the last three verses of the book, even for what are commonly double portions at the end of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, roll the Torah to the end of the book and read the last three verses as maftir, followed by the proclamation of hazak, hazak ve’nithazek. This follows our practice of taking out only one Torah scroll on fast days because the two sections that we plan on reading are close to each other, but it has the advantage over our practice on fast days of inserting hatzi kaddish between them so as to mark the end of one reading and the beginning of another, in fulfillment of the Mishnah’s principle.

So communities using the triennial cycle may either say hazak only during the third cycle, or they may follow the procedure above to enable them to say hazak each year when they come to the last reading that they will do that year from one of the books of the Torah.  The latter practice enables them to experience the blessings of completion each year with a ritual to mark that they have now completed their reading of this book in the Torah this year and are moving on to the reading the next book of the Torah. They can thus enjoy the many ways in which completion of a task is indeed a blessing, as Moses articulated long ago at the completion of the Tabernacle.

Shabbat shalom.

The full version of Rabbi Goldberg’s ruling can be found at

http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/public/halakhah/teshuvot/19912000/goldberg_hazak.pdf.

The full version of my ruling can be found at http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/public/halakhah/teshuvot/2011-2020/dorff-hazak.pdf.