Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Hanukkah's Eternal Message

A brief shiur on the Rambam's introduction to Hanukkah that I delivered at UMJCA's Bet Midrash in Great Neck, NY.

Monday, October 07, 2013

HaRav Ovadiah Yosef Z"L

I'm too distraught at the moment to fully formulate my thoughts...So I will surely have more to say about this tragic event later. In the meantime, let me remark that Rav Ovadiah Z"L was without a doubt the greatest Sephardic scholar of (at least) the past several centuries. He possessed a legendary and encyclopedic mastery of Jewish Law and was deeply sensitive and compassionate in his leadership and his halakhic decision making.

An awe-inspiring luminary who towered above and commanded the respect of Ashkenazic and Sephardic rabbis alike, Hakham Ovadiah Z"L enabled us (Sephardim) to take pride in the customs, traditions and Torah scholars that are uniquely our own. He was the architect of a renaissance of Sephardic learning and culture of which we have all been the beneficiaries and his legacy will impact countless generations. May his memory be a blessing.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Who Wrote The Book of Life?

This is a piece I wrote that was published in the Washington Jewish Week a couple of years ago. Although the High Holiday season has passed, I was reminded of the article and present it here:

The liturgy of the High Holidays abounds in sublime and majestic poetry. Among the richest and most memorable images presented to us on the High Holidays is that of the Book of Life that is opened before the Creator on Rosh Hashana, only to be sealed at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. We are told that the fate of every individual, community and of the world at large is somehow indelibly inscribed in the pages of this fearsome Book each year. We wish one another “ketiva vehatima tova” – a good inscription and sealing – which is based upon this powerful depiction of G-d’s absolute and irrevocable judgment.

 It goes without saying that an omniscient Creator has no need for a book to keep track of records or lay down His judgment. The Book of Life is a metaphor adopted by our Sages to offer us a glimpse into the mechanics of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It cannot be taken as a literal depiction of the manner in which God evaluates our merits or determines our fate. How, then, does the image of a grand Book filled with inscriptions, signed and sealed On High, help us appreciate the cosmic significance of the High Holidays? How can we move beyond the simplistic picture of a heavenly bureaucracy and access the deeper meaning of this parable?
I believe that the key to understanding the “Book of Life” properly is recognizing who, in fact, is the author of the book. Contrary to popular belief, it is not God who records our deeds in the pages of some mysterious tome. Indeed, in the words of the Talmud, three books are “opened” before the Almighty on Rosh Hashana. One book lists those who are righteous, one book lists those who are wicked, and one book lists those who are in between. We must ask ourselves, if the judgment has not been passed yet, on what basis were we assigned to our respective books? Apparently, it is not God who is classifying us as righteous, wicked, or “in between” – He is merely examining books that are already written! So who is responsible for the actual content of these Books?
Sephardic Jews have an ancient and beloved custom of rising early in the morning to recite Selihot from the second day of the month of Elul through Yom Kippur – a total of approximately forty days. Sephardic Selihot are filled not only with prayers but with beautiful poetry that is chanted aloud in traditional melodies.  One of these pieces, authored by Rabbi Yehuda Ibn Balaam of the 12th Century, includes these lines:

“How can he complain or protest, what can he say to justify himself? He who is but a creature of clay whose body will one day revert to fine dust! What can man give to You, whether he be righteous or wicked? Behold, his words and deeds are written in the book of his days.”
In this passage, Ibn Balaam provides us with a totally new perspective on the “Book of Life” that is such a big part of our High Holiday lexicon.  Our words and actions are not of consequence to God because they affect Him. The Creator of the Universe has no need or inclination to transcribe or peruse our personal histories. The Book of Life is written by us – we are the authors of our own histories, and it is these very histories, set down, as it were, in our own cosmic autobiographies, that will form the foundation of our destiny whether we like it or not. Through exercising our freedom of choice we have already written ourselves into one of the three Books that will be presented -
opened" - before the Almighty, and it is up to us, if we so desire, to write ourselves into a different one before it is too late.


This approach gives a whole new meaning to the central theme of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – personal growth and repentance. The reason we are inspired to repent and improve ourselves during this time of year is not because we want God to be impressed with our efforts and reward us with great bounty. The reason why we are moved in the direction of positive change is because we recognize that we alone - with God’s endorsement, assistance and support - are the ones responsible for our own future. The decisions and commitments we make now, the words we inscribe in our Books of Life today, will determine the course of the year ahead.  As songstress Natasha Bedingfield put it,
“I'm just beginning, the pen's in my hand, ending unplanned
Staring at the blank page before you…
Today is where your book begins
The rest is still unwritten.”


True, we cannot hope to erase the chapters of our life stories that have already been composed and submitted to the Divine Editor for publication. Nor can we anticipate with any certainty precisely what the details of the next chapter’s plot will look like. However, as long as the current chapter of our Book of Life is still a work in progress, we have the power to conclude it in a way that will ensure that the tone set for future chapters is a positive and blessed one. And we do so with the confidence that God will seal and deliver those chapters as promised.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Wisdom in Consolation

In Chapter 14 of Avot DeRabbi Natan, we read a fascinating story about consoling mourners in their time of bereavement. Specifically, we are told how Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai, the spiritual leader of the Jewish people in the wake of the destruction of the Holy Temple, lost his son and how his students attempted to comfort him:

When the son of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai died, his disciples came to comfort him. Rabbi Eliezer entered and sat down before him. He said to him, "My master, do you wish for me to say one thing before you?" [Rabban Yohanan] responded, "speak." [Rabbi Eliezer] said, "Adam the first had a son who died, and he was able to be consoled. How do we know that he was able to be consoled? Because it is written, 'And Adam again knew his wife, etc.' You too should be consoled!"

Rabban Yohanan said to him: "Is it not enough for me to be upset about my own tragedy that you mention to me the suffering of Adam the first?"

Rabbi Yehoshua entered and said, "Do you wish for me to say one thing before you?" Rabban Yohanan said, "Speak." Rabbi Yehoshua said, "Iyov (Job) had sons and daughters and they all died on one day, yet he was consoled for them - so too should you be consoled! And how do we know that Iyov was consoled? As it is written, "Hashem has given and Hashem has taken away; may the name of Hashem be blessed."

Rabban Yohanan said to him: "Is it not enough for me to be upset about my own tragedy that you mention to me the suffering of Iyov?"

Rabbi Yose entered and sat before him. He said to him, "Do you wish for me to say one thing before you?" [Rabban Yohanan] said to him, "Speak." He said, "Aharon had two great sons and both of them died on the same day, yet he was consoled for them, as it says 'and Aharon was silent', and silence can only mean consolation. You too should be consoled!"

Rabban Yohanan said to him: "Is it not enough for me to be upset about my own tragedy that you mention to me the suffering of Aharon?"

Rabbi Shimon entered and said, "Do you wish for me to say one thing before you?" Rabban Yohanan said, "Speak." Rabbi Shimon said, "King David had a son who died and yet he was consoled. You too should be consoled! And how do we know that King David was consoled? As it is written, 'And David consoled Bat-Sheva, his wife, and came to her and lay with her, and she gave birth to a son and he called him Shelomo.' You too, my master, be consoled!"

Rabban Yohanan said to him: "Is it not enough for me to be upset about my own tragedy that you mention to me the suffering of David?"

Then Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya entered. When he [Rabban Yohanan] saw him, he said to his servant: "Take a vessel before me to the bathhouse, for he is a great man and I cannot stand before him." He [Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya] entered and sat before him and said: "I will offer you a parable - to what can this matter be compared? To a man to whom the King entrusted a deposit. Each and every day the man cries and shouts and says, 'Woe is to me, when will I part from this deposit in peace?' So it is with you, my master. You had a son. He read Torah, Prophets, Writings, Mishnah, Halakha and Aggada, and he left the world without sin. You should be consoled that you returned the deposit intact."

He said to him: "Rabbi Elazar, my son, you have consoled me in the manner that human beings console."

There are many noteworthy details in this account that deserve an explanation; however, for now, I'd like to focus on two basic questions that trouble the reader about this narrative:

1) The first four rabbis who offer words of comfort seem to approach the issue with similar methodologies. Each highlights the suffering of a famous Biblical personality and encourages Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai to be consoled just as that historical character was consoled. What led them to adopt this approach to begin with, and, once it was rejected by Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai the first time, why did each subsequent student insist on trying variations of the same rejected theme?

2) What was the essential difference in the way that Rabbi Elazar Ben Azarya addressed Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai's suffering, and what can we learn from it?

I believe that the premise of the students was a simple one: The experience of suffering is emotional and essentially irrational, and the key to coping with suffering is rising above it, escaping from the grip of the pain and taking refuge in philosophical ideas that neutralize it. Let us see how each student attempted to facilitate this transition in Rabban Yohanan:

Rabbi Eliezer cited the example of Adam. In doing so, he suggested that from the dawn of human civilization parents have lost children, and yet they maintained their resolve to perpetuate the human race regardless. If we allow ourselves to be paralyzed by tragedy, human civilization as we know it would come to an end. In other words, Rabbi Eliezer was encouraging Rabban Yohanan to stop focusing on his personal tragedy and focus on the humanity and the imperative to perpetuate our species, the proverbial "big picture" of what is "truly important". Rabban Yohanan was not consoled.

Then Rabbi Yehoshua cited the example of Iyov. Iyov recognized and accepted that tragedy and loss is an inescapable part of human life. To live and to love is to expose oneself to the pain of death and mourning. "Hashem has given and Hashem has given away, blessed is the name of Hashem." If we are to partake of Hashem's blessings, we must also be prepared to endure His withdrawal of blessing. We can't have one without the other, and so we shouldn't be overwhelmed when tragedy strikes. This philosophical idea did not console Rabban Yohanan either.

Next, Rabbi Yose mentioned the case of Aharon, who lost two sons on the day that the Tabernacle was finally dedicated. Despite the horror of this tragedy, the service of God went on, Aharon and his remaining sons set aside their inner pain and continued their faithful implementation of the Divine Will. Rabbi Yose's point was that Rabban Yohanan, as well, should not allow his feelings of despondence to overwhelm him and interfere with his study of Torah and observance of Mitzvot. He should remember that the continuity of the Masorah, our sacred tradition, is a paramount value for the sake of which all other concerns must be sacrificed. The service of God is greater than anything in our personal lives and must be perpetuated! This, too, did not console Rabban Yohanan.

The fourth student to enter is Rabbi Shimon, who cites the case of King David.  Although King David lost a son (actually, a few sons!) this did not undermine his commitment to the Jewish people as their political leader and the forger of their destiny. He ensured that a stable monarchy would be established regardless of any personal suffering he experienced along the way. So too, argued Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Yohanan needed to look beyond the loss of his son and consider his obligations to the community as their leader and the source of their stability, as the man who was laying the groundwork for their future as a nation. This idea also failed to satisfy Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai.

Finally, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azarya enters and offers his brilliant allegory, which succeeds in comforting the ailing Rabban Yohanan. What was so different about his approach? Rather than try to move Rabban Yohanan's mind AWAY from his inner turmoil and sense of loss, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azarya infused the loss with great meaning. Instead of distracting Rabban Yohanan from his experience of suffering or downplaying its significance relative to the "ultimate truth", the allegory deepened his perspective on the experience, affirming that it was, indeed, significant.

There is a profound lesson for all of us in this narrative. When offering comfort or consolation to someone, philosophizing is not the way to go. No one wants to be "talked out" of suffering, distracted or told to move on because there are greater or more important things to live for or to focus on. The key to helping someone cope with loss is not to downplay it but to enable them to find meaning within the tragedy, to help them develop a perspective on their experience that is deeper, healthier, and more adaptive.

In fact, the word for consolation - נחם - in Hebrew comes from the same root as "to change one's mind", because its essence is not getting one's mind off of tragedy but transforming the way one keeps one's mind ON the tragedy.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Sabbath: A Cornerstone of Judaism

I just rediscovered this essay, which I believe I wrote when I was about seventeen years old (approximately twenty years ago). There is a lot here that I would rephrase/edit/add/subtract today, but I resist the temptation to revise history and therefore present it to you in its original form.

                                      The Sabbath: A Cornerstone of Judaism

             The Ten Commandments, revealed to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai, contain the fundamental principles of religious belief, morality, and ethics by which every devout individual guides his life. The commandments to believe in God and honor one's parents, along with the injunctions against murder, stealing and adultery are all included in the famous and time honored code. Beliefs and practices such as these are clearly essential components of the lifestyle and philosophy of any religious person.

            When examining some of the Ten Commandments, however, it is much more difficult to perceive their profound significance. Belief in God and abstention from unethical and immoral activity are certainly cornerstones of any religion; however, they were not the only commandments etched into the stone tablets.
 
            The fourth commandment, that of observance of the Sabbath, is clearly neither a fundamental belief nor a rule of ethical or moral conduct. The Sabbath is a ritualistic institution, a commemoration of God's creation of the Universe. As the Torah explicitly states, "For in six days God made the heavens and the earth, the seas and all that is in them and He rested on the seventh day; therefore, God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it."[1]
 
           The question arises quite powerfully - why has a relatively insignificant rite of commemoration been placed among the ranks of "thou shalt not kill" and "thou shalt not steal" - laws of the utmost importance, foundations upon which all of civilized society rests? The question of the apparent overemphasis of the Sabbath's importance does not stop here. In Exodus 35:2 the Torah prescribes the most severe death penalty, that of stoning, for the Sabbath violator. The Talmud states emphatically and unequivocally that "anyone who willfully violates the Sabbath is considered to have worshipped idolatry."[2] These statements clearly contradict the commonly held opinion that the Sabbath is a relatively unimportant ritual, a mere celebration of the birthday of the Universe.[3]

            In order to resolve these difficulties, one's idea of the nature of the Sabbath must be clarified considerably. On the Sabbath, it is true, we commemorate God's creation of the Universe by refraining from all creative activity (melakha). In reality, however, the significance of the Sabbath extends much further than a mere "commemoration."
 
            On the Sabbath, we are given an opportunity to approach the Universe in an entirely different manner than we are accustomed to during the week. Sunday through Friday, we manipulate God's creation in accordance with our wishes - changing things to better suit our desires, improving things to better satisfy our needs, and creating things to help us accomplish our tasks more efficiently. On the seventh day, we step back from any creative involvement in the Universe and attempt to appreciate it objectively - not as a tool for accomplishing our needs and desires, but as an awesome manifestation of the infinite wisdom of the Creator. We contemplate the perfection and grandeur of the Universe, and we are compelled to realize what an insignificant component of it we truly are.[4]
 
             Indeed, despite all of our thoughtfulness and creativity we remain helplessly subject to the unchanging laws of the magnificent Universe of which we are but a small part.[5] Jewish law demands that we partake of three meals during the Sabbath so that we are physically satisfied and emotionally prepared to enter the world of abstract thought. The practices of lighting candles, bathing, and donning fine clothing prior to the Sabbath all serve to emphasize the honorable nature of the day's pursuits, and to create an atmosphere ideal for and conducive to intellectual activity. In fact, according to the strict legislation of Jewish law, one is required to refrain from any discussion that does not pertain to the acquisition of knowledge or that may distract one from involvement in its apprehension.[6]
 
            On the Sabbath, we approach the Universe with our minds rather than our hands, and we relax, free of the troubles of everyday life, to enjoy the most delightful beauty we are capable of perceiving - the profound wisdom manifest in Nature. As the Psalmist states, "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament displays His handiwork."[7] Our Sages teach us that human perfection and true happiness can be achieved only through the acquisition of knowledge. In the words of Maimonides, "when a person ponders His great and wondrous works and creations and recognizes thereby His wisdom that is immeasurable and infinite he immediately loves, praises, and extols and is filled with a great desire to know the Supreme Being...And when he contemplates these things he is immediately drawn back with great reverence, realizing that he is a tiny, insignificant, unenlightened creature standing with his frail intellect before He Who is perfect in knowledge."[8] [9]
 
            Similarly, he writes: "the commandment to love God requires that we analyze and gain an understanding of His commandments, statements and actions until we acquire true knowledge of Him and experience by way of this knowledge the ultimate enjoyment...Thus I have explained that through contemplation you will arrive at true knowledge and experience the aforementioned enjoyment, and the love will of necessity follow."[10]
 
           This concept is constantly reiterated throughout Scripture,[11] [12] the Talmud and the writings of later sages. In the Ethics of the Fathers we are taught that "an ignorant person cannot be righteous."[13] Our Sages believed wholeheartedly that the laws of the Torah were fashioned purely for the purpose of guiding all of us toward true wisdom and understanding.[14] The Torah itself expresses this in Deuteronomy,[15] "For this is your wisdom and your understanding in the eyes of the people, who will hear all these statutes and say, surely this great people is a wise and understanding nation."[16] The Sabbath, a day set aside for thought, contemplation, and honest appreciation of the wisdom inherent in the Universe, is the clearest expression of our unique philosophic system in which the acquisition of knowledge is viewed as the ultimate goal for mankind.[17]

            Idolatry, however, stands in absolute contradiction to this approach to the Universe. Faced with the daunting grandeur of God's creation, the idolater is gripped with an overpowering sense of helplessness and despair. As a child, he had been sheltered and provided for by his parents. Even during the most difficult times, he had been able to find comfort in the knowledge that his parents would always be there for him - to feed him, clothe him, and protect him from all harm. Now that he has attained maturity, the feeling of security which had sustained him since childhood has been torn from him mercilessly. Peering out at the vast Universe, he witnesses the wonders and the horrors of Nature: life-giving rainfalls and destructive floods, plentiful harvests and widespread famines, the miracle of birth and the mystery of death. The anxiety and feeling of utter defenselessness before Mother Nature is too much for the primitive individual to handle.
 
           Thus, the idolater "creates", by way of his imagination, myriads of forces, spirits, and deities whom he can manipulate to fulfill his desires. Once again he is safe, shielded from harm by "gods" who are greater than he and who regulate and direct the laws of nature. Dominated by his physical needs and desires, he is compelled to deny the absolute and unchanging system of the laws of Nature anytime that it conflicts with his wishes. Imprisoned in shackles of self-centered emotion, he is unable to perceive knowledge and to enjoy its beauty and profundity. Whenever the idolater meets with difficulty in the satisfaction of his instincts he appeals to his gods through prayer or sacrifice,[18] begging them to assist him by causing the Universe to operate in accordance with his will. With a little imagination the idolater has restored the peaceful situation of his childhood.
 
            Einstein, in observation of this phenomenon, wrote "Now what are the feelings and needs that have led men to religious thought and belief in the widest sense of the word?....With primitive man it is above all fear that evokes religious notions - fear of hunger, wild beasts, sickness, death. Since at this stage understanding of causal connections is usually poorly developed, the human mind creates illusory beings more or less analogous to itself on whose wills and actions these fearful happenings depend. Thus one tries to secure the favor of these beings by carrying out actions and offering sacrifices, which, according to the tradition handed down from generation to generation...makes them well disposed toward a mortal."[19] Sigmund Freud wrote along similar lines, "It can clearly be seen that possession of these (religious) ideas protects him (the idolater) in two directions -against the dangers of nature and Fate, and against the injuries that threaten him from human society itself."[20]
 
             The idolatrous personality cannot conceive of the Universe outside of the framework of his own needs and desires. In his philosophy, the Universe's very existence is only valuable in so far as it provides him with the tools to pursue and satisfy his instincts. Thus, the concept of a Sabbath is utterly alien to the primitive individual. In his mind, an attempt to relate to the Universe with anything other than one's animalistic drives would be unheard of, even objectionable. The base, sense-perception oriented philosophy of idolatry is diametrically opposed to any system of thought which would produce a Sabbath. A day for contemplation of abstract beauty and objective appreciation of the Universe has no place in the lifestyle of the individual steeped in idol worship.[21]

            It now becomes clear why the Sabbath is so essential to Judaism, as well as why desecration of the Sabbath is considered by our Sages to be tantamount to idol worship. Violation of the sanctity of the Sabbath is equivalent to a rejection of the philosophic principles upon which it is founded; and it is the rejection of these principles, as our Sages rightly observed, that constitutes the very essence of idolatry.
 
            Observance of the Sabbath clearly distinguishes Judaism, a religion based on knowledge and created to facilitate intellectual perfection, from the pagan religions, all of which were formed in attempts to provide false security to primitive mankind. Belief in idolatrous religious principles is truly destructive to human beings, causing them to deny reality, convincing them to shun wisdom, breeding ignorance and demanding blind faith. For all intents and purposes, the idolater conducts his life like an animal, obeying his instincts and retarding his intellectual growth.
 
            The Sabbath, on the other hand, brings one who observes it properly the truest form of human happiness, that which results from the acquisition of knowledge and understanding.[22] [23] It expresses quite clearly the unique philosophy and value system of Judaism. In the poetic words of the Sabbath prayer service,[24] "those who observe the Sabbath with joy will forever possess glory...those who love its ideas have chosen true greatness."



[1]Exodus 20:11
 
[2]Tractate Chullin 5a, as well as Maimonides' Laws of the Sabbath 30:15, and numerous other places in the Talmud.
[3]The Prophetic books abound with praise of the greatness and importance of the Sabbath. For example, in Isaiah 58:13-14, we read "If you restrain your foot because of the Sabbath, from pursuing your business on My holy day; if you refer to the Sabbath as 'a delight', to the holy day of the Lord as 'honorable'; and you honor it, by not pursuing your business or speaking of worthless matters, then you shall delight yourself in knowledge of the Lord; and I will cause you to ride upon the high places of the earth..." Statements like these are made quite frequently in the book of Isaiah as well as in other books of the prophets.
[4]In the words of King David (Psalms 8:4-5), "When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and stars that You have established - what is man that You should take notice of him?"
[5]This is not meant to imply that Judaism rejects the concept of Divine Providence. On the contrary,it is a fundamental tenet of Jewish philosophy that God extends a measure of His Providence to individual human beings which is in proportion to the degree of perfection which they have attained. As Psalms asserts (91:14), "For he has yearned for Me and I will deliver him, I will elevate him because he knows My name." Our Sages teach us that God's "name" refers to His wisdom as it is expressed in His actions, i.e., the laws of nature. (See Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed, Book One, Chapters 61-64,  where this topic is dealt with in its entirety, as well as the commentaries of Rabbi Obadya Sforno and Ibn Ezra on Exodus 3:14-15 and 6:2-3 and the commentaries of Ibn Ezra and Radak on Zechariah 14:9.)
[6]Tractate Shabbat 113a as well as Maimonides' Laws of the Sabbath 24:4-5 and Shulchan Aruch, Mishnah Berurah and Tur Shulchan Aruch Section 307.
[7]Psalms 19:2
[8]Maimonides, Laws of the Fundamentals of the Torah, Chapter II, Law II.
[9]Compare Albert Einstein, "Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe, a spirit vastly superior to man and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble."(Albert Einstein, The Human Side, Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffman, p.33)
[10]Maimonides, Book of The Commandments, Positive Commandment III.
[11]In fact, two books of the Bible, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, are devoted exclusively to praise of the life guided by wisdom.
[12]Note the statement of King Solomon (Proverbs 3:13-18), "Happy is the man who finds wisdom, and the man who acquires understanding. For the value of it is greater than the value of silver, and its gain than that of fine gold. She is more precious than rubies, and all things you may desire are not to be compared to her...Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who hold fast to her; happy are those who rely upon her."
[13]Ethics of the Fathers, 2:5
[14]Maimonides discusses this point at length in his Guide for The Perplexed, as do Gersonides (see, for example, his introduction to his commentary on the Bible and his comments on Genesis chapters 1-3), Rabbi Obadya Sforno (see, for example, his introduction to his commentary on the Bible and his comments on Genesis chapters 1-3, as well as his introduction to his commentary on the Book of Ecclesiastes), Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, the Chinuch (see, for example, his explanation of the philosophic basis for the commandment to fast on the Day of Atonement), the Meiri (see, for example, his introduction to his commentary on the Talmud), Rabbi David Kimchi (also known as the Radak; see, for example, his introduction to his commentary on the Bible as well as his introduction to the Book of Joshua), Rav Saadiah Gaon, Rabbi Bachya ibn Pekuda, Rabbi Joseph Albo, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (refer, for example, to his work entitled The Way of Wisdom), and many later authorities.
[15]4:6
[16]Similarly, the Psalmist declares (Psalms 19:8), "The ordinances of the Lord are trustworthy, making the simple one wise."
[17]Compare the words of King David (Psalms 92:1, 2 and 5-6), "A psalm, a song for the Sabbath day. It is good to give thanks to the Lord, and to sing praise to Your name, O Exalted One....For You have gladdened me through Your deeds, when I perceive the works of Your hands I sing glad song. How great are Your deeds, O Lord; exceedingly profound are Your thoughts."
[18]For an explanation of the concepts of prayer and sacrifice in the highly sophisticated and rational framework of Judaism, see "The Role of the Sacrificial Service in Judaism" by this author.
[19]Albert Einstein, Religion and Science, 1930. Found in Ideas and Opinions.
[20]Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, 1927.
[21]The stark contrast between the world view of the idolater and that of the Jew is the basis of the Talmudic adage (Tractate Kiddushin 40a), "Anyone who accepts idolatry is considered to have rejected the entire Torah, and anyone who rejects idolatry is considered to have accepted the entire Torah." Along similar lines, Maimonides stated in his Guide that "the principle objective of the Torah is the extirpation of idolatry."
[22]Einstein expressed his unconventionally religious love for and devotion to knowledge in the following manner: "To know that what is impenetrable for us truly exists and manifests itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty whose gross forms alone are intelligible to our poor faculties , this knowledge, this feeling...that is the core of the true religious sentiment. In this sense....I rank myself among profoundly religious men."(Albert Einstein, The Man and his Theories, Hilary Cuny, P.149)
[23]Maimonides writes (Laws of the Sabbath, 30:10), "...This was the custom of the pious men of old on the Sabbath day: they would pray the morning and additional service in the Synagogue, then return to their houses to eat the afternoon meal; after this they would go to the House of Study..until the afternoon service.." Similarly, the Jerusalem Talmud states, "The Sabbath was given to the Jewish people only to provide them with free time to engage in Torah study." See also the Meiri's introduction to his commentary on the Talmud, the Sefer HaChinuch Mitzvah 31 and 32, Maimonides in his final letter to his son,  the introduction of Abraham son of Maimonides to his work The Guide for Worshipers of God, the commentaries of Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, Rabbi Obadya Sforno, Rabbi David Kimchi and Gersonides on Genesis 2:3 and Exodus 20:8-11, the Shulchan Aruch, Mishna Berurah and Tur Shulchan Aruch 290:2, and Midrash Tanchuma Vayakhel.
[24]Siddur, Additional Prayer for the Sabbath (Mussaf)
 

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Two "Tisha B'Av"'s of Maimonides

Generally speaking, Jewish law is formulated so as to apply to everyone equally. There are no double standards in halakha. Yet, when it comes to the laws of Tisha B'av as codified by Maimonides (Rambam), it would seem as if there were two completely different sets of rules at play simultaneously. Specifically, the Rambam expects Torah scholars to adhere to practices far more stringent in nature than what is required of laypersons. The Rambam legislates this in four contexts:

1) In discussing the pre-Tisha B'Av meal, or Seudah Hamafseqet, the Rambam codifies the basic principles that only one cooked dish may be served, no meat or wine may be included, that the rules apply only to the final meal and only when the meal is eaten after midday, etc. Then he describes the ideal to which scholars should aspire - sitting on the floor, devastated with nothing but bread and water like one who has just lost a dear relative - and mentions that he never in his life had any cooked dish, even of lentils, on the Eve of Tisha B'av.

2) The Rambam discourages work on Tisha B'av but states that it is a matter of communal custom and not strict halakha. Then he qualifies this assertion by saying that "in all places, the Torah scholars do not work on Tisha B'av."

3) When he discusses social interaction on Tisha B'av, he mentions that Torah scholars do not greet each other on Tisha B'av; they sit in agony like mourners (this is in contradistinction to our practice, which is that nobody greets anybody on Tisha B'av). He goes on to mention Torah subject matter that is either prohibited or permitted for study during the fast for the community - but not for the Torah scholars, who remain silent and do not study anything.

4) When it comes to wearing tefillin, the Rambam mentions that "some of the scholars didn't wear the head tefillin" on Tisha B'Av (the prevalent custom is for nobody to wear any tefillin in the morning on Tisha B'Av; we defer them till Minha).

We see, then, that the Rambam promotes a double standard with regard to Tisha B'Av. In the world of Maimonides, the Tisha B'Av observance of the scholar differs substantially from that of the average person. Why should this be so?

I believe the answer is as follows: Mourning always involves both the intellect and the emotions. When it comes to personal mourning, one is naturally overwhelmed with feelings of melancholy and it is the job of the mind to temper those feelings and place them into perspective so that adjustment, adaptation and transition forward can occur. The emotional response is automatic in any healthy individual; the intellectual response is conscious and deliberate, an attempt to contextualize and thereby rise above the powerful tide of feeling that has welled up in his broken heart. Slowly but surely the intensity of the feelings diminishes, slowly but surely life returns to normal as the currently tragic event recedes into the past.

Tisha B'Av embodies precisely the opposite concept. Here, we "build up to", rather than back away from, full fledged mourning in a gradual manner, by slowly adding to our repertoire of restrictions from the 17th of Tammuz until the 9th of Av. This is because in this kind of mourning, the engagement of the intellect necessarily precedes and guides that of the emotions.

It is only when we think deeply into the significance of the losses represented by Tisha B'Av that we can really feel something. The expressions of mourning on Tisha B'Av are not natural reactions to a personal and very tangible loss; rather, they are manifestations of an underlying intellectual awareness that must be cultivated and enriched in order to have an impact.

Thus, unlike the framework of familial mourning in which everyone is equal - we are all equally subject to our emotions and equally in need of some intellectual process to work through and contextualize them - in the framework of mourning for the Temple intellectual understanding must precede emotionality. The response one has to Tisha B'Av is not a visceral one like the loss of a loved one; it is the consequence of thought and reflection a long time in the making.

So it makes sense why Torah scholars will experience and observe the day differently from their lay brethren. Torah scholars have a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of the significance of the tragedies of Tisha B'Av, and their actions must mirror that understanding.

While for others it may be OK to have a decent meal on the Eve of Tisha B'Av, to socialize a little, to go to work or wear tefillin, this is because they are not totally overwhelmed by the tragedy - the reality is that they retain some of their selfish interest in pleasure and comfort (food), social proclivity (socializing), desire for financial advancement (working) and their sense of dignity (tefillin, a sign of honor) even in the face of Tisha B'Av.

A Torah scholar, however, is expected to experience Tisha B'Av on a totally different level. His despair and agony are especially powerful and poignant because they emerge from a genuine internal appreciation of the tragedy. And as the Rambam states in Hilkhot Deot (the Laws of Character Development), a wise person is obligated to demonstrate the truth of his principles and convictions through his behavior, so as to educate and inspire others. The scholars serve as models for us of genuine Torah knowledge which we have the opportunity to study and emulate, and it is part of their responsibility to serve in that capacity.

Furthermore, the Prophets - for example, Yirmeyahu (Jeremiah) in the Haftara for Tisha B'Av morning - the importance of the "wise man" reflecting upon and responding to the implications of the tragic withdrawal of Divine Providence from the Jewish Nation. Clearly, he assigns a special role to the scholars whose duty it is to study, conceptualize and explain the meaning of the dark chapters of Jewish history to the rest of us.

Thus, the Rambam bases himself on the Prophets when he insists that the Torah scholar is both expected and required to have a uniquely intense Tisha B'Av experience, an experience from which the community as a whole can derive insight and inspiration.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Sephardic Tradition - The Judaism of The Future

This lecture, which I delivered at the Hillel of the University of Maryland, attempts to articulate the differences in worldview, philosophy and practice between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews. Based on the feedback I have received from many Jews of both backgrounds and all levels of learning, I believe it was a success! Please take out some time to listen to it and feel free to comment on it or to share it.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Essential Laws of Pesah 5773

                                          קיצור הלכות פסח                                                                           
  Essential Laws of Pesah by Rabbi J. Maroof

  איסור החמץ - The Prohibition of Hametz

1. On Pesah we are not permitted to eat or to possess any hametz. This includes any food product that contains one of the five grains (wheat, barley, oats, rye or spelt) or one of their many derivatives, unless it has been properly supervised for Pesah use.

2. In addition to the prohibition of eating and possessing hametz, the Torah prohibits us to benefit from it in any way. Therefore, we may not sell it, present it as a gift or feed it to any animals on Pesah.

3. Containers of condiments and spreads like butter, cream cheese and fruit preserves that have been opened and used with hametz should be thrown out and new ones purchased for Pesah.

4. Since spices, oils and other additives are sometimes poured directly into a pot over the fire and may have absorbed hametz from its steam, one should purchase new, unopened ones for Pesah. However, the old ones do not need to be thrown out or sold, just put away. 

5. The prohibition of hametz also requires us to treat all of the pots, pans, utensils and other cookware that have been used with hametz as non-Kosher for Pesah use.

6. In addition to the restriction on eating actual hametz, Ashkenazim also refrain from eating kitniyot (‘legumes’, such as rice, corn, and beans) during Pesah. However, they are permitted to possess kitniyot and may utilize pots, pans, dishes and utensils that have been used with kitniyot.

7. The restriction on kitniyot only applies to foods that are primarily made up of kitniyot. Food products that contain kitniyot as an incidental ingredient and in which the kitniyot are not recognizable, like soft drinks that contain corn syrup, are permitted even for Ashkenazim on Pesah.

8. Sephardim who are accustomed not to eat kitniyot during Pesah may discontinue their custom if they so desire. Ideally, they should ‘annul’ the custom before a Jewish court (bet din).

9. Nowadays, Sephardim who eat kitniyot such as rice that are packaged commercially are not obligated to check them for traces of hametz because the companies that prepare these products have already purified them. However, if one happens to find a grain of hametz mixed in with rice, it must be removed. If one has already cooked the rice, consult a Rabbi about how to proceed (many factors are involved).

10. Sephardim are permitted to eat ‘egg matza’ on Pesah, provided that it is prepared under proper supervision. Ashkenazim only allow egg matza for the sick and elderly who cannot digest regular matza.

11. Some authorities permit both kitniyot and egg matza even for Ashkenazim on Erev Pesah.

12. Items that are not edible, such as shoe polish, aluminum foil, glue, cosmetics, toiletries, shampoos and medicines do not need to be kosher for Pesah (or in general), because they are not foods.  Pet food, however, must be kosher for Pesah, because it is considered an edible item.

13. The prohibition of eating hametz will begin on the eve of Pesah – Monday, March 25th  - in Rockville, Maryland at 11:11 AM this year. The prohibition to possess, sell or otherwise benefit from hametz will begin at 12:12 PM.


  בדיקת חמץ- The Search for Hametz

1. On the night before Pesah begins – this year, Sunday, March 24th - every Jew is required to search their property for any hametz. The search should be a genuine, serious inspection for hametz, not a ritualistic walk through the house with a feather and a candle.

2. The search for hametz should begin twenty minutes after sunset or as soon as possible thereafter.

3. Before the search, we recite the appropriate beracha (found either in the Haggada or Pesah prayerbook) and proceed to inspect all areas that we may have brought hametz into during the year. This includes our homes, cars, offices, coat pockets, etc.

4. A flashlight should be used during the search so that one can inspect all of the necessary areas with sufficient lighting.

5. There is no need for ‘spring cleaning’ during the search for hametz. One should concentrate on finding substantial pieces of hametz (like a cookie or pretzel) rather than sweeping up crumbs. If there is extra time, removing even smaller bits of hametz is an enhancement of the mitzvah.

6. After the search for hametz, one should gather all the hametz one intends to save for dinner or breakfast and keep it in one place.

7. When the search for hametz is concluded, one must say the nullification of hametz (‘bittul hametz’) formula found in the Haggada or Mahazor. The nullification statement is repeated in a slightly different form in the morning, right after one destroys or eats the last of one’s hametz.

8. If one is going away for the holiday before the night of the search but is leaving less than a month before Pesah one must conduct a proper search for hametz without a beracha on the last night that one is still home. One should recite the nighttime ‘bittul hametz’ formula immediately after the search, but should wait until erev Pesah to make the daytime “bittul” statement.



 ערב פסח - The Eve of Pesah

1. On the eve of Pesah – this year, Monday, March 25th - it is prohibited to eat matza, so that the matza eaten at the seder will be special. Egg matza is permitted for Sephardim as well as for those Ashkenazim who are lenient in this matter on Erev Pesah.

2. It is customary that every firstborn male fasts on the eve of Pesah. The fast may be broken if one attends a ‘Siyum Masechet’, a celebration held when somebody completes the study of an entire tractate of the Talmud.

3. Where possible, first born females should attend the Siyum as well, since many authorities maintain that they are also obligated to fast.

4. One is not permitted to begin work projects that are very involved after midday on Erev Pesah so that one can fully devote one’s energy to preparing for the seder.

5. Beginning about two and a half hours before sunset on Erev Pesah, one is not permitted to eat the equivalent of a meal (even of egg matza), so that he/she will be hungry enough to enjoy dining at the seder. Snacks of fruits and vegetables are permitted.


הכשר כלים -Kashering Vessels


1. Many people keep separate sets of cookware and utensils for Pesah use. If, however, one wishes to use one’s year-round kitchenware for Pesah, it must first undergo a process of ‘kashering’. In order to avoid complications, it is best to complete this process before hametz becomes prohibited (i.e., before 11:11 AM on March 25th this year).

2. Only metal, stone, wood and plastic vessels can be kashered. Items made from earthenware, such as china, cannot be kashered.

3. Sephardim do not require any kashering for glass or Pyrex vessels and are permitted to use them after a thorough cleaning. Ashkenazim treat these items like earthenware and prohibit their use for Pesah unless they have been used exclusively with cold food.

4. The method used to kasher an item is always based on the way in which the item is used. A vessel that is used for cooking liquidy substances, such as a pot, should be kashered by boiling water in it and then dropping a hot rock or hot piece of metal into it so that it boils over on all sides. Utensils such as soup ladles and carving knives that are placed directly into hot pots are kashered by completely submerging them in a pot filled with boiling water. Serving platters and strainers that have food poured onto them from hot pots are generally kashered in this way as well.

5. After kashering a vessel with boiling water, it is customary to rinse the item off with cold water.

6.  Customs differ with regard to kashering vessels that are used for eating hot food but have no direct contact with hot cookware (for example, forks, spoons, knives, etc.) Sephardim may kasher these utensils by cleaning them thoroughly and then running them through a regular cycle in a kosher-for-Pesah dishwasher. Ashkenazim require all vessels that come into contact with hot food to be kashered through placement in a pot of boiling hot water. 

7.  According to Ashkenazic practice, a vessel must be left unused for 24 hours before being purged with boiling water for Pesah use. Sephardim are only required to observe this stringency in two cases: (1) when kashering a microwave and (2) when kashering meat and dairy vessels together in the same vat. However, it is meritorious for Sephardim to follow the stringent practice in all cases if possible.      

8. Before a vessel can be kashered with boiling water, it must be totally clean. When cleaning a vessel to prepare it for kashering, one may come across food substances that adhere to it and cannot be removed. In such cases, simply apply a caustic cleaner such as bleach or detergent to the substance in order to render it inedible. 

9. A vessel upon which dry food is directly placed to cook, like a grill or baking pan, should be kashered by cleaning it carefully and then heating it until it is red hot (libun). This is the most intense form of kashering, and vessels kashered in this way do not need to be left unused for 24 hours beforehand. 

10. Vessels used for cold food only, such as goblets for Kiddush or cups used for cold drinks, need only to be rinsed with water and are permitted for Pesah use.

11. According to Sephardim, if a vessel is used in different ways at different times, the method of kashering that is applied will follow the primary usage. For example, if a pot normally used for cooking liquidy foods were used for dry cooking once or twice, it would still be kashered by boiling water inside. Similarly, if a fork normally used for eating was used to stir a pot over the fire a couple of times, it could still be kashered by a run through the dishwasher. However, if the vessel was used in a more intense way than usual during the past 24 hours, the more intense method of kashering must be applied.

12. Ashkenazim always kasher based on the most intense way that the vessel has been used with food, even if it has been used that way only once. Therefore, in the two cases mentioned in Law #11, the pot would need to be heated until red hot and the fork would need to be placed in a pot of boiling water.

13.  If one carefully cleans one’s oven racks and covers all food placed in the oven with single sheets of tin foil, there is no need to kasher the oven because there is no way for food cooked in the oven to absorb hametz from it.

14. If one does decide to kasher an oven, self-cleaning is perfectly acceptable. If one’s oven does not have a self-cleaning option, one should carefully clean the racks and walls of the oven and then - after leaving it unused for 24 hours - place the oven on its highest temperature setting for one hour.

15. For Sephardim, the grates on which pots are placed on a gas or electric stovetop need only to be spotlessly cleaned to be kosher for Pesah. As an added measure of stringency, some Sephardim also place them into a pot of boiling hot water.

16. After cleaning the grates, Ashkenazim are required to heat them to the temperature at which a tissue that touched them would ignite.

17. Sephardim may kasher dishwashers, regardless of the material they are made of, by leaving them unused for 24 hours and then running them (without dishes inside) through at least one complete cycle with detergent. Ideally, for Ashkenazim, three complete dishwasher cycles should be run (only one needs to include detergent). The racks do not need to be changed.

18. For Sephardim, sinks, countertops and tabletops require nothing more than a careful cleaning to be kosher for Pesah (however, please be sure to consult Law #20.) Some Sephardim are stringent with sinks and, in addition to cleaning them, pour boiling hot water over them

19. Ashkenazim are advised not to use their sinks, countertops or tabletops without kashering them first. They should either (1) not use these items with anything hot for 24 hours and then pour boiling water over them OR (2) simply clean and then cover them.

20. If a sink, countertop, tabletop or stove grate is known to have had contact with hot hametz during the past 24 hours, then Sephardim are required to kasher them according to the same standards as Ashkenazim.
 
21. Dish sponges and toothbrushes should be cleaned thoroughly with hot water or replaced for the holiday.

22.  A microwave can be kashered by leaving it over for 24 hours, cleaning the inside thoroughly and then heating a dish of water in the microwave until it is filled with steam.

23. Refrigerators and cabinets need only to be wiped down with water to be kosher for Pesah. Dish strainers on which clean dishes are placed to dry do not require any kashering at all.

24. If one is not planning on using a particular vessel or appliance for Pesah, it does not require any kashering. Non-Pesah vessels should be cleaned and put away, preferably in a cabinet that is taped up or locked.

 ליל הסדר - The Seder Night

1. One may not begin the Pesah Seder until at least 45 minutes after sunset.

2. Men, women and children are obligated to fulfill all the mitzvot of the night. It is especially important for children to have the Haggada explained to them.

3. The custom of Sephardim is to use red wine for the Four Cups, even if superior white wine is available. The custom of Ashkenazim is to use red wine unless a superior white wine is available.

4. The minimum amount of wine that must be contained in each of the four cups is approximately 3 fluid ounces. One must drink more than half of each cup (about 1.6 fl. oz.)  to fulfill the mitzvah.

5. Almost any vegetable may be used for karpas, provided that its blessing is bore peri ha-adama. One should make sure that any vegetables eaten at the Seder (and all year round) have been carefully inspected for bugs.

6. It is preferable to use handmade matza shemura for the Seder. However, machine-made shemura is also acceptable.

7. It is ideal to use Romaine lettuce for Maror.

8. Everyone participating in the Seder is required to lean to the left when drinking any of the four cups or eating the matza, korech, or the afikoman. If a man forgot to lean while performing one of the mitzvot he must go back and redo it. Women may be lenient and need not repeat the mitzvah.

9. Sephardim recite the beracha of Borei Pri Hagefen only on the first and third cups. Ashkenazim say a beracha on all four cups.

10. The most essential part of the Haggada is “Rabban Gamliel Haya Omer”, in which the special mitzvot of the night are explained.

11. The minimum amount of matza that must be eaten for each mitzva is a little more than one third of a medium size handmade matza. However, for motzi matza on the first night, one should eat at least half of a handmade matza. The minimum amount of maror one must eat for each mitzvah is approximately 28 grams.

12. One should make every effort to complete the entire Seder, including Hallel, before “midnight” (in Rockville this year, 1:15 AM).  If this is not possible, one should at least eat the afikoman before this time.