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Thoughts on Snow in Jewish Tradition

The last time I was in Israel was about fourteen years ago. I was there for a conference during February, While there, I encountered a light snowfall in Jerusalem one morning..  One would have thought that this phenomenon was something brand new for the residents of the Holy City.  The hotel management where I was staying apparently didn’t think it might be a good idea to clear their sidewalk of this frozen precipitation.  A couple of meetings that had been planned at the university were canceled due to the weather.  In addition, on the front page of one of the local newspapers, was a picture of children playing in the snow and the heading was “Festival HaSheleg,” Snow Festival, as if this had never happened before.  To be clear, this was not a blizzard or some unusual amount of snow, maybe an inch or so at most, yet it was an event in Jerusalem.


I recall, when I was a student at Hebrew University, many years ago, we had a guest speaker, the then mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek.  Someone asked him about snow removal in Jerusalem and his reply was that for the tiny amount they get, it was not worth investing in a fleet of snowplows.  Coming from Bridgeport, CT, the city where I was born, this response was a familiar one. From 1933 – 1957, Bridgeport had a Socialist mayor named Jasper McLevy, known for his frugal fiscal policies.  His opinion regarding snow removal which I had heard about was, “Let the guy who put it there, take it away.” His public works department waited for the sun to come out and melt it.  Put more poetically, paraphrasing the book of Job, “The Lord gave and Lord will take it away (blessed be the name of the Lord.”


In Israel most of the snow is to be found in the Golan Heights where today there are ski resorts.  However, snow is not uncommon elsewhere in the land, in hilly areas like Jerusalem, and it was not unfamiliar to our biblical writers either.  In Second Samuel, we find a list of the mighty men who fought for King David including Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, who on a snowy day went down into a pit and killed a lion.  This memorable act is recorded once more in Chronicles as well.  The prophet Jeremiah refers to the snow on Mount Lebanon providing pure water and he can’t imagine a person abandoning the God of Israel any more than he can think of one abandoning water of such purity for some inferior drink.


Snow was mentioned in last week’s Torah portion too, not as one of the plagues, but as a description of the brightest shade of white.  Moses, after being given the sign of his rod turning into a snake was also shown a second sign.  He was to put his hand into his bosom and when he pulled it out it was encrusted with the scaly disease of tzoraat, often translated as leprosy, and described as “white as snow.”  The same description is found several more times in the Bible of this disease being “white as snow.”  This is the case in the book of Numbers when Miriam is afflicted with it as well as in Kings, where we read of the Syrian officer, Na’aman, who comes to the prophet Elisha for healing from this disease, both are described as “white as snow.”  On a more positive note, in Daniel’s vision of the “Ancient of Days” seated on his heavenly throne, the figure he sees is clothed in white which is like snow and the hair of his head was like pure wool.


Snow is not only used as a description of a bright shade of white, but it also appears as a sign of purity.  Isaiah preaches, “If your sins are like crimson, they can turn snow white; be they red as dyed wool, they can become like fleece.” In Psalm 51, which we looked at a few weeks ago, the Psalmist pictures King David seeking forgiveness for his sins and saying, “Purge me with hyssop until I am pure, wash me until I am whiter than snow.”


In a couple of Psalms we find in the daily service, God’s power is described through His mastery of the forces of nature.  In Psalm 147, we’re told “He spreads snow like fleece, sprinkles frost like ashes, scatters hail like crumbs.  Who can stand His cold?”  In the next Psalm, 148, again snow is mentioned in a list of God’s creations that obey His word.  The author of Proverbs emphasizes the coolness of snow which would be appreciated on a hot day when one is bringing in the harvest. He says that such coolness would be “as welcome as a faithful messenger.”  Elsewhere in Proverbs, we’re told that snow in the summertime and rain at harvest time are as inappropriate as showing honor to a fool.  Among the accomplishments of the Eshet Chayil, the Woman of Valor, described in Proverbs 31, we’re told that she has no concern for her household when it snows, for they are all provided with colorful crimson snowsuits. In the book of Job, we also find  a number of references to snow.


The Talmud, however, doesn’t seem to have much to say about snow.  In one passage they speak of the various layers of heaven and designate separate storerooms on high where God supposedly keeps a stock of snow, hail, and dew for distribution as needed.  We also find snow mentioned in the familiar story of the youthful Hillel who having come from Babylonia to study with the great teachers Shemayah and Avtalyon lacked funds to pay the gatekeeper at the study hall one day.  Instead, he climbed on the roof and put his ear to the skylight to listen to the lessons that day. The next morning, puzzled by the darkness in the study hall, his teachers went up on the roof and found him buried under several feet of snow. They warmed him up and awarded his dedication with free tuition to their academy thereafter.


Of course, as with any other topic, there are a variety of halachot relating to snow and its uses for various purposes.  In a small volume by a Rabbi Yishai Mazlomian, entitled “HaNoten Sheleg,” taking the phrase from the Psalmist, “He who gives snow,” one finds  a variety of interesting things. After mentioning various references to snow in Jewish tradition, the author shares several stories of sages in the past who took pains to clear the paths to their study halls from the snow that had fallen in northern cities to make sure that their students could continue their studies.  He goes on to consider a whole series of laws relating to snow.  May it be used in place of water for ritual handwashing?  If one drinks some melted snow, what blessing should one say?  Is there a blessing to recite when one sees snow falling or is it too common an occurrence, like rain, to warrant a special bracha? Which uses of snow are permitted on Shabbat particularly for cooling food or beverages?  May one use melted snow to make matzah for Pesach?  What if snow falls on your sukkah, is it still kosher? He even notes various views on whether it is all right to make snowballs on Shabbat and throw them or whether making a snowman is permissible at all.  He recommends lighting your Chanukah candles indoors rather than in the doorway when the wind and snow are likely to extinguish them.  He praises, however, those who set them in a glass box so they can withstand the weather.


Aside from these halakhic issues, it seems that Jewish mystics also have much to say about the symbolic meaning of snow, of sheleg. In some places, snow is seen as an illuminating force, akin to a spiritual light.  Particularly during the winter when the potential for spiritual growth is the weakest.  Rabbi Tzadok Hakohen of Lublin explains that snow has a negative connotation as well.  It is also connected to Amalek, the arch-enemy of the Jewish people.  Mystical tradition claims that the attack by Amalek after the Exodus took place at Rephidim, a word which when punctuated differently implies weak hands.  When the Torah speaks of Amalek later in Deuteronomy, it says, “asher korcha baderech,” who happened upon you on the road.  Rashi spotted the word “kor,” cold, in korcha and claimed that Amalek tried to cool off their spiritual enthusiasm and make them forget their connection with God.  Thus he attacked “when you were cool on the road.”  Sheleg – shin, lamed, gimel – has the numerical value of 333, the same as the word Shich’cha – shin, chaf, chet, hey, forgetfulness.  Thus, snow can be equated with forgetfulness, opening the door for Amalek, the evil inclination.


The Midrash Tanchuma says that after death the wicked suffer twelve months of judgment in Gehinnom (purgatory), six months in fire, followed by six months of freezing cold, in snow. Rabbi Boruch Leff cites the Aitz Yosef commentary which explains that the fire is punishment for all sins done with passion and energy against God while the snow is designed as punishment for all good actions done without zeal and excitement.  It is hard sometimes to distinguish between the good and bad aspects of life, the positive and the negative connotations of snow. However, Rabbi Leff points out that in the Isaiah quote we saw earlier, the prophet uses the words “kasheleg yalbinu” your sins will become white “as snow.”  Adding the letter kaf, “as,” to sheleg raises its value to 353, equivalent to simcha, joy. 


Rabbi Leff concludes, “Snow is a symbol of purity and holiness, but paradoxically within it lies the potential for evil. The Yetzer HaRa (the evil inclination) knows how powerful and inspirational snow can be, and therefore has his stake in snow as well, trying to force people to view it only as negative.  The decision is ours.  We can focus on the negatives of snow, become cynical in thinking like Amalek, or we can see the purity of God in snow.”  He goes on to urge us to become “holy snowmen.”


I guess this is similar to two views we may have of snow ourselves.  It can create a beautiful winter scene all around us or it can be an obstacle, a burden, that we need to go out and shovel.  Like most things in life, it depends on your attitude, how you look at it and what you do with it.      

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