The Thirty-third Hour: The Torah of Moshe Katan
by Mitchell Chefitz
The Thirty-third Hour is a suspense and romance
novel but also provides a platform for discussion
about new models for religious education, the structure
of religious institutions, and the role of clergy.
1. A statement
from the Talmud, the great compendium of Jewish law: As for any
man who becomes angry, if that person is a sage, his wisdom departs
bonfire story told in Chapter 19 (p. 251):
a story I don't know completely," he said. "Will you help
me with it?" He must have received nods of agreement, for he
continued, "Good. It begins with a wise man, a very wise man,
renowned for his wisdom. Now something made him angry, and that's
my problem. I don't know what it was that made him angry. The rest
of it I can see, but not that. Whatever it was, it was an anger
beyond any anger I have ever known, a terrifying anger. If you were
in the presence of such an anger, you might have been consumed like
this." He threw into the fire a handful of something that burst
What might that
anger be? We find a possible answer in Chapter 1 (p. 19):
"Rabbis don't drive Porsches," he said aloud, slamming
the door shut on his anger.
Why might Arthur
be so angry?
2. Maimonides, the great philosopher / theologian of the 12th century,
writes of anger and pride in the same paragraph. Is there any anger
that doesn't emanate from pride?
Concerning pride we find the following in Chapter 17 (p. 227):
we want to get out of a tight place, we can't be puffed up with
pride or self-importance.
"The opening to get out of a tight place is very narrow, both
in space and in time. It may be open only for a moment."
"Berlin," Michelle Kantor said. She was off camera, but
Arthur recognized her voice. "My father had brothers in Berlin.
They could have gotten out, but they were bankers. My father used
to say they wanted to take the bank with them. They wouldn't leave
without it. So they stayed. They died. My father left. He left the
If you are willing
to risk it, consider the damage, the rifts, the anger pride might
have caused in your community, your families, your lives.
3. Different models for a lifetime: In Chapter 1 (p. 21) we have
this from Moshe Katan:
". . .
A scuba dive is like a little lifetime. You go down with a full
tank of air, thrash about the reef looking for fish. Then in mid-dive
you settle down. The fish come out to look at you. When you have
only a few hundred pounds of air left, you slow down, stop moving
to conserve air and prolong the dive. You settle on a few square
inches of coral. During those last minutes you see more wonders
in that small world than you did in the entire dive. Then you drift
off to the ladder, a pair of angel fish with you, and climb up to
the higher world. The captain greets you and asks how the dive was."
In Chapter 8
(p. 119) Stephanie and Sidney present a different model, as recorded
by Brenda in a journal entry:
it takes forty years to get born. We don't get born all at once.
The body is a vehicle for the soul, but it takes that vehicle a
long time to pull the soul down into it. The soul exists before
life, and it is pulled into life gradually.
Are these models
useful to you? Do you have one of your own?
4. The story
of the artisan king in Chapter 2 (p. 42) is extrapolated from a
Lurianic concept of creation. Isaac Luria was a Jewish mystic of
the 16th century. In this model, God (the King) waits patiently
for creation to mend itself and does not interfere.
considered what he should do. To sweep up the shards and throw them
away was unthinkable. To touch them, to rearrange them, to try somehow
to reassemble them was also unthinkable. He feared should he so
much as touch one of them, the delicate balance that sustained the
light would be destroyed. All that would be left would be pieces
of broken glass.
"So the king kept his distance and continued yearning toward
the pieces of his creation, the pieces which contained his light,
and over time he noticed that, with a will of their own, the pieces
slowly moved toward each other and established bonds.
"The king was patient, his yearning constant. As each piece
joined another, his joy increased."
How do you understand
God's relationship to history? Does God intervene in daily events?
If so, how might the story be rewritten?
5. In Chapter 3 (p. 56) we learn some teachings of the Hasidic spiritual
master, the Baal Shem Tov, concerning prayer.
just enough to pronounce a word. You have to fill it with light.
The Baal Shem Tov goes on and says every word has levels within
levels. It has aspects of the physical world. It reflects on matters
of the soul. And it reveals something of the divine. When you illuminate
the tayvah, the word of prayer, the letters and the meanings all
bind together, and this draws the attention of God. So what you
do when you pray is to include your soul in each and every aspect
of the word, and then all of the worlds are united in ecstasy. Your
prayer becomes ecstatic."
a prayer precious to you and try it in such a fashion. Can you "include
your soul in each and every aspect of the word?" If so, does
your prayer become ecstatic?
6. In Chapter 3 (p. 60) Moshe Katan shares this with Arthur:
someday our children will consider us barbarians because we eat
our tuna rare."
What else are
we doing today that might be considered barbaric in the future?
7. We learn
in Chapter 10 (p. 145) that the Hebrew word eesh (man) is also a
name for an angel, any unidentified person in the Bible who comes
to make a connection between people, or between a person and an
event is, in rabbinic tradition, considered an angel.
apparently uncertain how to continue. "A difficult question,"
he said. "Has there ever been an eesh in your life, a stranger
who made a connection for you, who pushed you into a situation where
your life changed as a result? This is a hard question. It's for
the adults to share, if they like."
This is a hard
question. It's for the adults to share, if they like.
8. What's in
a name? The Tower of Babel; Abram and Sarai; Arthur and Artie .
. . Consider the role of names in The Thirty-third Hour? What's
in your own name? What would you write on your own name tag if you
were a participant in the exercise described in Chapter 22?
9. Symbolism: Water, water everywhere. The Thirty-third Hour is
overflowing with references to water. Ritual baths, lakes, oceans,
a shower. . . Bodies of water. How many mentions of water can you
recall? What might the various bodies of water symbolize?
social commentary: Did you recall this one in Chapter 10 (p. 157)?
"They had a narrow house in Venice, just off the beach, on
a pedestrian street. Two stories and a deck above from which, between
taller houses, one could glimpse the ocean." Or this mention
in Chapter 20 (p. 264)? "In Venice, California, where she could
see the ocean between the buildings."