This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Snap to Attention *

For the High Priests of ancient Israel, Yom Kippur could be an arduous ordeal that demanded considerable physical stamina and ritual expertise. Not only was the priest in the holy Temple of Jerusalem required to perform his duties while fasting, but according to the traditions related by the rabbis of the Mishnah, he was to be kept awake during the preceding night lest he be prevented from performing his duties by inadvertent contact with impurity. Toward that end, special contingents of young priests or Levites were assigned to keep him from dozing off. Whenever he appeared to be getting groggy they would strike before him with something called "a ṣeradah finger." I initially imagined the lads poking or hitting the priest with their fingers; however, the talmudic rabbis did not go for that explanation, perhaps because they could not conceive of such a dignified personage being treated so shabbily.

"Ṣeradah" was an unusual term that demanded an explanation. In one of those charmingly outrageous talmudic word-plays, Rav Judah traced it to an Aramaic expression meaning "her rival" and referring to the finger opposite the thumb. For good measure, Rav Huna demonstrated the required gesture before his colleagues and succeeded in producing a sound that resounded through the study-hall. Unfortunately, no YouTube video has yet surfaced of Rav Huna's demonstration, so the commentators are still unclear as to the precise nature of the practice being described.

According to Rashi, the young attendant would produce the sound by snapping his index finger against his thumb and then striking it on his palm. Most other commentators, however, identified the digit in question as the middle finger, not the index finger. This in fact was stated explicitly in the Tosefta (an ancient supplement to the Mishnah) and accepted by most medieval authorities, including Rashi's own grandson Rabbenu Jacob Tam who pointed out that "it is a well-know fact that you cannot produce a loud sound unless you strike with the middle finger."

Maimonides also alluded to a widespread practice, noting that "many people do this on festive occasions, and it produces pleasant gestures." It would appear from Maimonides' wording that what kept the priest awake was not necessarily the sound of the snapping or clapping, but rather the visual grace of the finger-play.

In his commentary to the Mishnah, Rabbi Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller concocted an elaborate drama--verging on a soap opera--in order to explain the various usages of the term "rival" in the Talmud and among its commentators. The underlying Hebrew word "ṣarah" is one that is normally used to designate co-wives in a polygamous marriage arrangement. In Rabbi Heller's elaborate reconstruction of the domestic metaphor, he observed that a woman can only take on the dubious status of a "rival" where there is already a veteran "main wife" in the household. Therefore, the scenario presupposes a domestic ménage à trois consisting of Husband, Main Wife and Rival. When this situation is illustrated with the help of fingers (I would even recommend finger-puppets), we find ourselves casting the thumb as the Husband, the index-finger (standing stalwartly beside her man) as the Main Wife, and the tall and lovely Ms. Ṣeradah as the Rival for Thumb's affections.

In support of this interpretation, several interpreters cited a passage by the liturgical poet Eleazar Kalir in which he expatiated on the theme of how effortless it was for the Almighty to create the vast universe using only the metaphorical fingers of a single divine hand. Crudely translated, the text states as follows: "The highest heavens he laid out with his little finger / and all the primordial mountains he weighed with his index finger / and the eternal hills he supported with the glory of his thumb / and the vale and all its soil he measured with his ṣeradah." It turns out that, by elimination, the only finger that Kalir could have been designating as the divine ṣeradah was the middle finger.

The Jerusalem Talmud offers a somewhat different slant on the use of the ṣeradah finger to keep the High Priest awake. It cites the following dispute: "Rav Huna [apparently the same sage who was cited in the aforementioned Babylonian tradition] says: with a ṣeradah finger in the mouth, and Rabbi Yoḥanan says: with a ṣeradah finger in the hand."

While Rabbi Yoḥanan's mention of a hand makes perfect sense according to all the interpretations that we have been discussing so far, it is far from clear what the finger was doing in anybody's mouth according to Rav Huna.

Most commentators understood that he was speaking about producing one of those powerful whistle sounds that are amplified by the insertion of fingers in the mouth. By implication, it has been suggested, Rabbi Yoḥanan would have been referring to the playing of a hand-operated musical instrument, such as the strumming of a lyre, or--as the Talmud later modifies his interpretation--to singing a vocal rendition of a tune that was more familiar in its instrumental version.

This understanding is attested in numerous medieval liturgical poems that were composed according to the Palestinian rite and were preserved in the Cairo Genizah. In the course of their elaborate descriptions of the order of worship on the Day of Atonement, the poets included stanzas such as: "those who intone song on the Temple platform sound the melody of the ṣeradah in the mouth and not on a lyre."

Although the talmudic discussions focused on describing the rituals of the Day of Atonement in ancient Jerusalem, some later religious authorities were able to derive lessons that were germane to contemporary questions. For instance, Rabbi Israel Isserlein (in fifteenth-century Austria) was asked about people who snap their thumbs and middle fingers on holy days for the amusement of young children. This practice was considered questionable in view of the fact that the Mishnah explicitly prohibits making sounds by slapping or clapping the hands.

As a precedent for allowing the practice, Rabbi Isserlein cited our talmudic discussion about keeping the High Priest awake before Yom Kippur. While he acknowledged that rabbinic prohibitions such as the one against hand-clapping were not normally applied in the Temple precincts, he argued that if that were the only reason for permitting it in this instance, then the Talmud should have mentioned that fact explicitly. Since the sages did not consider the matter worthy of explanation or discussion, evidently they did not think it was problematic. Hence, Rabbi Isserlein concluded that there is no halakhic objection to snapping one's fingers on sabbaths and festivals.
Indeed, a simple finger-snap might be a useful method for awakening those of us who drift into an occasional siesta during the synagogue services. However, the true message of the penitential season should be powerful enough to rouse us all from our more disturbing bouts of spiritual or moral lethargy.

This article and many others are now included in the book

For Signs and for Seasons
For Signs and for Seasons

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, September 10, 2010, p. 21.
  • For further reading:
    • Lieberman, Saul. Tosefta Ki-Feshuṭah. Vol. 4. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1962.
    • Malachi, Zvi."Keeping the High Priest Awake through Yom Kippur Night: Vocal Music instead of Instrumental." Sidra 2 (1986): 67-75.
    • Yalon, Henoch. Studies in the Hebrew Language. Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1971.