January 28, 2023 |

Let It Snow

This week, I have decided to depart from my usual practice in order to discuss the topic of snow in Judaism. There are three possible reasons for doing this. One, it's what we call inyana d'yoma, the topic of the day, based on the large drifts of snow that have become a regular part of my Manhattan landscape. Two, because this is the weekend of the MJE ski trip, notwithtanding that we have more fresh powder here in the city than they will have up there in Vermont. Third, because in this week's Torah portion, Moshe ascends the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights at God's invitation (Sh'mot 24:12 - "come up to Me to the mountain"). I am not saying Moshe went skiing up there or anything (he was busy learning Torah) but if there was one place he might have found snow, it would have been up there.

In any case, there are very interesting traditions of snow in Jewish tradition. Perhaps the most famous snow story is found in the Talmud about the great sage Hillel, before he was a great sage. Hillel used to make a small pittance each day in his manual trade and would bank half of his salary for this and his family's needs and spend half on the door fee to the local beit midrash, study hall. His needs were probably few and one hopes the fee to study Torah was not much, but one sad Friday he struck out and had no money to bring home and no money to get in to the beit midrash. After being stopped by the bouncer at the door, he climbed up to the roof and into the skylight, where he pressed his ear against the window to hear the sweet teachings of the two master teachers of that generation, Sh'maya and Avtalyon[1]. It snowed all night. The next morning, Sh'maya said to Avtalyon:"Avtalyon, my brother, the house is usually light in the mornings, but today it is dark; is it still cloudy outside? " The both looked up and saw the (frozen) shape of a man in the skylight. They immediately went to rescue him and, says the Talmud, found him buried under 3 amot (several feet) of snow. He was probably not in good shape, so they had to tend to him and warm him up, but it must have become clear to them the level of commitment the young man had to his Torah study. The story ends with their impressed words; "this is a man for whom it is worthwhile to violate the Shabbat!" Even in the snow, penniless, on a Friday night, he did not want to miss his regular learning. Consider that Hillel probably had no books of his own, no money, and that such a heavy storm was surely unusual. Snow was a test of his commitment and -- with the help of his teachers -- he passed.

Snow is most often associated in Jewish thought not with its coldness, but it with its color. Sometimes, this is in a negative light, as when Moshe's hand turns diseased, leprous like snow, (Ex. 4:6)though it is still part of the sign that God has sent Moshe and that a people that is diseased and beaten down can still be saved from Egypt. When Moshe returned his hand to his vest, his hand became healed again. Many times, though, white snow is a symbol of youth[2], innocence and forgiveness, like the white dresses worn by brides or the red string tied outside the Temple on Yom Kippur that was supposed to turn white when the sins of the Jews had been forgiven. In Yeshaya (Isaiah 1:18) , the prophet says the famous line that "if your sins are like scarlet string, they can be whitened like snow." It is interesting that it is not only the color of snow that gives this impression, but also the way it covers over everything else. All the imperfections of the ground are smoothed over by a white blanket of pure fresh snow, like forgiveness, which covers over the imperfectons of past misdeeds.

Of course, one of the problems of snow is that it is temporary; it melts. The snowpack of the mountains becomes the spring flow of the rivers (see Ta'anit 3b). This brevity has Halachic ramifications as well. It is both the reason it may be permitted to make a snowball on Shabbat (it cannot be the forbidden act of "building", since it melts quickly, or falls apart upon impact) and why one should be careful with snow on Shabbat, because melting snow on purpose (by crushing) to make water on Shabbat is forbidden. Also, even when a river turns to ice, the frozen surface is still considered water under Jewish law, not a new ground surface, since it will melt. This is also why, in exigent circumstances, one may wash their hands for bread by immersing them in snow (this is a great thing to know on a ski trip if you have a sandwich and no water; ask a rabbi for the particulars).

Snow brings up many other Halachic issues of wide diversity. For instance, one may shovel their walk on Shabbat (and sprinkle salt) if it is in order to prevent injury to passers-by. A person could eat snow, but only after saying the blessing of shehakol and saying the short borei nefashot prayer afterwards. One might even be able to make a mikva (a ritual pool) out of snow, though some authorities require it to be at least partially melted. Further, one has to consider whether or not it is permitted to take snow from a neighbor's property, to disturb one's neighbors with loud snowblower noises early in the morning and whether it might violate Biblical prohibitions of striking or taking revenge if one mercilessly pummels them with well packed snowballs.

Lastly, there is something ethereal and divine about snow. Angels are often viewed as if they are clothed in white. Interestingly, this is usually when they appear in human form, not angelic form. Similarly, Daniel has a vision of the "ancient of days" where He sits upon his throne "dressed in garment as white as snow." (Daniel 7:9) Though God's presence is also generally accompanied by thunder, lightining, fire, smoke and noise, it seems that whiteness - and perhaps snow - also surrounds the Divine throne. Based on the verse in Iyov: "He commands the snow: to the ground![3]", (Job 37:6) the Jerusalem Talmud comments that the world was created from snow, that from the divine snow surrounding Hashem's throne, He first created the earth.

Whether you find the new snow to be a hassle and hindrance[4] or beautiful and fun, I hope you will think about snow's symbolism in our heritage this Shabbat. If God will grant us as much forgiveness this year as He has bequeathed us snow, it will be a very white Yom Kippur I'll be dreaming of this year. Shabbat shalom!

[1] They were the top Torah minds of the generation and Hillel and Shammai became the leader s of the next generation.

[2] On the flip side, it can represent great age, like a vision of Hashem as an old man with a long beard white as snow.

[3] The simple interpretation of this is that he commands the snow to fall.

[4] There may also be a host of issues related to cancelled travel plans, from how to send Shabbat in an airport, to who is liable for lost revenue due to snow delays.


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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