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What Did They See When They Entered the Orchard?

What Did They See When They Entered the Orchard?

Almond trees in an Israeli orchard

At my seder, as at many, we go around the table, taking turns reading successive pieces of the text. In the Magid section (the portion of the seder that retells the story of the exodus from Egypt), right before the story of the Four Children, someone gets this story:

It happened once on Pesach that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon were reclining in Bnai Brak and were telling the story of the exodus from Egypt that whole night, until their students came and said to them, “The time for reciting the morning Sh’ma has arrived.”

The moment tends to pass quickly. Someone stumbles over the names. Someone hopes, in an undertone, that dinner will happen before the morning Sh’ma. We move along.

But who are these rabbis? We may know something about Rabbi Akiva, but most of us know nothing about the others, let alone their relationship to each other.

Now Israeli author Yochi Brandes has written a fascinating novel that makes real, human characters out of these and others you may have heard of but never encountered as part of a coherent narrative. The book is called The Orchard in its English translation by Dan Libenson. It tells the story of the rabbis who, following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., began creating the Judaism we know. These are the Tannaim, the teachers whose voices we hear in the Mishnah (the oral Torah). Brandes has also given us the voices of the women, voices we hear much less frequently in the ancient sources.

The narrator of the novel is Rachel, wife of Rabbi Akiva (the second of his three wives, who knew?). Also appearing in the narrative – somewhat surprisingly – is Saul of Tarsus (Saint Paul of the Christian tradition), who brings readers an interesting account of the relations of the early rabbis with the early Christians.

This is a novel. It isn’t “true,” but it is deeply grounded in the texts, Talmudic and later. If you know a story about these rabbis or you are familiar with one of their famous aphorisms or teachings, you are virtually guaranteed to have a little smile of recognition as it appears here. Moreover, your view of that story or that line is likely to change after you encounter it in the context of the novel.

For example, Rabbi Akiva in Pirkei Avot (The Teachings of our Ancestors) says: “Everything is foreseen; yet free will is given.” In the novel, he learns the second clause from a woman who violently disagrees with his reliance on the first clause.

The “orchard” of the title is the orchard of another famous tale of these rabbis:

Four men entered the Orchard – Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher (Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah), and Rabbi Akiva. Ben Azzai looked and died; Ben Zoma looked and went mad; Acher destroyed the plants; Akiva entered in peace and departed in peace.

As the novel makes clear, this legend is assumed to refer to some sort of mystical practice of the rabbis. The word for orchard is pardes, related to “paradise.” Acher means “the other” and is the way the Talmud refers to Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah who “destroyed the plants,” meaning that he became an apostate and left Judaism. What did they see when they entered the orchard? You may not like Brandes’ answer, but you will not lightly dismiss it.

Like any great Midrash (commentary on or interpretation of the Torah), The Orchard has the power to transform our understanding of a portion of our tradition.

That may be why the English translation comes with a surprisingly interesting collection of “blurbs” on the back cover. It is not too unusual to find a line from another novelist; in this case, the famous Israeli writer, A.B. Yehoshua. Finding a write-up from Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, is a bit more unexpected. Encountering Reuven Rivlin, president of Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is still more of a surprise. 

If you remember the Yom Kippur afternoon liturgy or if you are familiar with the history of the second revolt against Rome, you will know that this is not a they-lived-happily-ever-after sort of novel. In a sense, Brandes is living out that line from Pirkei Avot: “All is foreseen.” The basic arc of her story was there when Brandes started, “Yet free will is given.” She used that gift to shape the material into an account that will change the way you think about the seder at Bnai Brak when that paragraph appears in the Haggadah.

Jeremy M. Wolfe is the East district chair of the URJ North American board and a longtime member of Temple Sinai in Brookline, MA.

Jeremy M. Wolfe
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