Thursday, December 24, 2009

Scrap of Clay

I was learning a Mishnah the other day and came across an interesting piece of Talmudic realia.

כל המעות הנמצאין בירושלים--הרי אלו חולין, אפילו דינר זהב עם הכסף ועם המעות; מצא בתוכן חרס וכתוב עליו מעשר, הרי זה מעשר - מעשר שני ד:י
All money that is found in Yerushalayim is chullin (ordinary not dedicated to the Temple), even if there is a gold coin that is found among regular coins. If you find a piece of clay (in a coin-purse) and the word ma'aser (holy money which is dedicated to the Temple) is written on it - indeed the money is ma'aser. (Ma'aser Sheni 4:10)
Not surprisingly there was no such thing as a scrap of paper in the time of the Talmud. Paper was most likely very expensive to produce and it was easier to take a clay-shard and write on it instead. I say, "Let us return to the true religion of our ancestors. Let us turn our scraps of paper into clay-shards!" Anyone with me?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The True Miracle of Chanukkah

Mikdash MenorahThere is a well known disagreement, or possible confusion, about what the true miracle of Channukah is. Most people are familiar with the story of Channukah regarding the miracle of one jar of oil burning for eight whole days. This story can be found in Massechet Shabbat (21b). However there is also the additional prayer that we add to the Amidah and Birkat HaMazon , על הנסים, which does not mention the miracle of the oil at all. Rather this additional prayer focuses on the other miracle that happened during Channukah, the miracle of the military victory against the Greeks. The question that can be debated ad nauseum in Yeshivot is: which is the true miracle of Channukah, the oil or the military victory. (In Yeshiva-speak it would sound like: Which is the ikkar - נס פח השמן או נס מלחמה?)

In true Modern Kabbalistic Chassidic (and even possibly post-modern) style, this is not a disagreement (מחלוקת) that is meant to be resolved. The tension between the two miracles reflects two fundamentally different approaches to describe how HaShem interacts with the world. The miracle of the oil is an obvious miracle which contradicts the laws of nature. It is scientifically impossible for one jar of oil to burn for eight days. This type of obvious miracle is called a nes galui (נס גלוי). The miracle of the military victory is a hidden miracle (נס נסתר) - although it is improbable for a small band of Maccabees to defeat the might of the Greek army, it is scientifically possible. See my blog post for a discussion of the Ramban's explanation of hidden miracles (נסים נסתרים).

Now let us return to the question of why does the additional prayer (על הנסים) only mention the hidden miracle of the military victory? I would suggest that Chazal felt that it is only appropriate to daven for hidden miracles. There is a Rabbinic aphorism - על תסמול על הנס, do not rely on miracles. When we ask for help from HaShem we should not ask for outright miracles that contradict the laws nature.

For example, let me describe three approaches to getting a million dollars. The first approach is an obvious miracle - a million dollars suddenly appears on my doorstep. The second approach is a highly improbable hidden miracle - to win a million dollars in the lottery. The third approach is a common hidden miracle - to start a business and earn a million dollars. The military victory of Channukah would be in between approaches two and three - not as improbable as winning the lottery and not as likely earning a million dollars with a successful business. Channukah teaches us that it is only appropriate to daven for a hidden miracle that is similar to military victory of the Maccabees. Whereas, we commemorate the obvious miracles, like the jar of oil, with a different type of religious ritual or mitzvah.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Tzaddik

One of the contributions of Chassidut to the corpus of Jewish thought and life is the institution of the Tzaddik. The word tzaddik literally means someone who is very righteous and pious. The Chassidic Tzaddik is a divine communal leader who is intended to be an intermediary between the Jewish people and HaShem.

Kabbalah states that special individuals are able to impact the higher realms with their mitzvot. These individuals can also use esoteric mystical knowledge (like permutations of the Aleph Bet and the different names of HaShem) to effect change in this world. The general picture of this special Kabbalist is an ascetic hermit who is barely connected to this world. Like the Talmudic story of R. Shimon bar Yochai (the author of the Zohar) who lived in a cave for years eating carob. (An occasional carob bar from a Health Food store is okay, but I can't imagine eating it for a week - never mind years!)

This special Kabbalist is also part of the identity of the Tzaddik. The Tzaddik is able to daven and do mitzvot more effectively than other Jews. But unlike the Kabbilistic hermit, the Tzaddik lives in the community and is available to the people. Chassidut encourages people to daven with a Tzaddik, because the Tzaddik can also help the tefillot of individuals. Their davening is connected to the Tzaddik and their prayers carried to higher realms with the Tzaddik's prayer. The Tanya (פרק ב) encourages people to daven with a Tzaddik for this same reason. Even though every LCR (Local Chassidic Rebbe) is not on the level of a true Tzaddik, the role of the Tzaddik is crucial to Chassidic thought.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Original Cup of Coffee

I recently was struck with a difficult dilemma, how do you make that first cup of coffee in the morning? I like to consider myself a coffee connoisseur, whereas my wife prefers to call it an addiction. I don't really like the word addiction, so many negative connotations. Nevertheless, I often need a good cup of strong java to get my gray matter going early in the morning. Case and point - the other day I added the coffee grounds straight to the cup and then added hot water. It took me a minute to realize my mistake. And I also realized that it can be very difficult to make that first cup of coffee in the morning.

Certainly my experience with the original cup of coffee is similar to Chazal's comment about the original pair of tongs in Pirkei Avot 5:9.
Ten things were created at twilight on the eve of the first Sabbath:
Others add the original tongs, for tongs must be made with tongs.
The true meaning of the verse in Avot could be discussed on many levels: It could be a response to the Prometheus legend - that fire is a gift from HaShem. Perhaps it refers to the fact that the impulse to create technology and tools is part of the divine spark of creation. My own midrashic (and even possibly Chassidic) explanation of this Mishnah is that it refers to the first tools of creation. Only HaShem can create perfect tools ex nihilo. The rest of us are left struggling to make that first cup of coffee in the morning.

ps - As a coffee connoisseur making instant coffee is not an option. In fact, I would boldly state that drinking instant coffee is one of the signs of an unenlightened life.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Death of Sarah Imeinu

I have already posted about one of my favorite pieces by the Piaseczno Rebbe regarding Parshat Chayei Sarah and the concept of Yissurin. (That post was in the context of Yom HaShoah)

I don't know if this counts as cross-referencing or it is double-dipping, but you can read (or re-read) that post here.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Classic Rock Meets Midrash

In addition to having the זכות to learn with real live Chassidic Rebbes, I also draw religious inspiration from a wide range of Chassidic seforim. However, there is a hidden Rebbe who has much wisdom and religious inspiration despite the fact that he is not necessarily so religious. I like to refer to this man as the Hibbinger Rebbe.

The Hibbinger Rebbe is primarily a singer/songwriter and one of his classic songs is called, "Highway 61 Revisited." This song should be viewed as a modern Midrash/classic piece of Chassidic Torah. The Hibbinger Rebbe devotes an entire verse of this song to his analysis of Akeidat Yitzchak.
  1. Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
  2. Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
  3. God say, "No." Abe say, "What ?"
  4. God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but
  5. The next time you see me comin' you better run"
  6. Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin'done ?"
  7. God says. "Out on Highway 61".
Now I don't want to write out a long drawn-out over-analysis of every line, but let me point out a couple of salient details:
  1. (Line 2) Avraham was clearly reluctant to perform the Akeidah. Here the Hibbinger Rebbe clearly disagrees with Rashi 22:3 (ד''ה וישכם) who explains that Avraham was eager to perform HaShem's command.
  2. (Line 5) Regarding the Akediah, the relationship between Avraham and HaShem is based on fear and not on love.
Regarding the significance of the mysterious number 61, the Hibbinger Rebbe has not yet been willing to reveal that secret. Perhaps it refers to the word אני which has a Gematria of 61 (1+50+10) and would clearly represent the existential angst of the individual walking alone. HaShem tells Avraham to perform the Akeidah on Highway 61, on the lonely road. The Hibbinger Rebbe is telling us that HaShem acknowledges the difficulty of the task because Avraham is alone (אני) and separate from everything in the world.

Thank you for reading my analysis of this piece of Chassidic Rock & Roll. If you have not yet heard the actual song, you are missing out.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Learning the Esh Kodesh in English

One of my faithful blog readers recently asked me, "Oh great Kabbalah u'Madda. What is the best way for me to learn the Esh Kodesh of the Piaseczno Rebbe in English?"

Here is my reply:

There are two books in English related to the Esh Kodesh: one is an English translation and the other analyzes the sefer.

The translation of the Esh Kodesh is called Sacred Fire: Torah from the Years of Fury 1939-1942 and is translated by J. Heschy Worch. The English is quite readable and there are no explanatory notes or comments. There are many powerful messages contained in the translated divrei Torah, but as you would expect it is difficult to appreciate the Rebbe's chiddushim without knowing the sources that he is quoting.

The analysis of the Esh Kodesh is called The Holy Fire: The Teachings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto by Nechemia Polen. He translates and analyzes portions of the divrei Torah and arranges them into categories.

I have used both books when teaching and I would recommend owning both of them if you can afford it. Both of them are available from Amazon.

Also, I know that R. Moshe Weinberger of the Aish Kodesh shul on Long Island has given shiurim on the Esh Kodesh and they can be purchased online.

Kol Tuv,

Reb Yaakov

ps - You can support Kabbalah u'Madda and purchase these books via the Amazon link at the bottom of the page!

Red Sea Splits Again

I found a news article about a new sea that is beginning to form in Ethiopia. Normally I am not a big fan of science proving miracles from the Torah, but I was intrigued by the idea of a scientific precedent for the splitting of the Red Sea.

Now some of you out there might be screaming, "The Torah refers to the Sea of Reeds, which is not the Red Sea!!!" I am aware that the Red Sea and the Sea of Reeds are indeed two different bodies of water. Nevertheless, I am focusing on the geological phenomena and not the geographical location.

ps - The photograph is actually from Hawaii, but I thought it conveyed the same idea.

Photo Credit -

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Avraham vs. Tevye

The first of Avraham's ten נסיונות (trials) is contained in the first pasuk in Parshat Lech L'cha. Avraham had to leave all the comforts of his home and break out for a new life in Eretz Israel. This might be a little similar to the experience of a religious Zionist making aliyah from suburban America. No more Trader Joe's. Goodbye Target and Netflix. HaShem wants me to live in Israel and I will give up these creature comforts for the sake of the Lord. I do believe that life in the 21st century CE is a little easier than life in the 21st century BCE. Also, I would not have a wisp of a chance of passing this נסיון of Avraham, while he aced that test with flying colors.

The Ishbitzer Rebbe explains that Avraham had to forgo his affluent life in Charan - Avraham needed to focus on the מידה of שמח בחלקו.

We usually explain שמח בחלקו as being content with what you have. According to the Ishbitzer, it was not enough for Avraham to appreciating the good things in life - he had to be happy with what he had. We know that according to Hilkhot Tzedakkah, if someone asks you for money to help pay for their chauffeur - you are obligated to give them tzedakkah. Should Avraham ask for tzedakkah in Eretz Israel to help him live a similar life that he had in Charan? The Ishbitzer Rebbe takes this idea one step further, what should Avraham ask from HaShem? What level of basic needs and פרנסה should Avraham daven for? This was Avraham's נסיון, not only did he need to be content with his new frugal lifestyle, he had to be happy and to thank HaShem for whatever material well being he had.

The Ishbitzer uses this explanation of Avraham's נסיון to explain the pasuk when Avraham returned from Mitzrayim.

Bereshit 13:2 "Abram was very rich (כבד מאד), with livestock, silver and gold"
R. Aryeh Kaplan brilliantly translates the phrase "כבד מאד" as, very rich. However, literally the phrase means, very heavy. The Ishbitzer states that Avraham was weighed down by all of his newfound wealth which completely contradicted his new outlook on life as a result of the first נסיון. After adjusting to a spartan lifestyle and to be genuinely happy and satisfied, Avraham felt that being wealthy was an actual burden.

One final note - the Ishbitzer's explanation of כבד מאד contradicts one of my favorite lines from Fiddle on the Roof. I will paraphrase Tevye who said, "If money is a curse, may HaShem smite me and may I never recover!"

Friday, October 16, 2009

Ramban, the Greeks, and Parshat Bereshit

There are a number of perushim by the Ramban on the Torah which have achieved the status of "world-famous" within the Yeshiva world. However, in the world of the Kabbalists there is one perush of the Ramban which is so famous and so fundamental to Kabbalistic philosophy, that I am inclined to refer to it as "Biblical". I am going to discuss the Ramban's "Biblical" comment about how the world was created. Nevertheless, since I do not want to confuse anyone, I will just refer to this comment of the Ramban as "world-famous", but we will know the real truth.

The "world-famous" Ramban in Parshat Bereshit concerns the first pasuk in the Torah
- בראשית ברא אלוקים. In reality, this is an extremely difficult phrase to translate accurately. The complex nuances of the Biblical grammar are barely within my grasp (hat-tip to Profs. Steiner and Eichler) but much too difficult to explain here. המבין יבין.

Nevertheless, the word בראשית is generally translated as, "beginning" - as in, "In the beginning blah blah blah." However, Chazal treat the letter "ב" at the beginning of the word as a preposition and translate the word as, "with ראשית." Now don't get lost because we are almost at the end - ראשית is generally translated as, "the best". Chazal translate the first phrase in the Torah as, "Elokim created with the best." Take a look at Rashi on this pasuk and you will see some suggestions for meanings of ראשית: B'nei Israel and the Torah. (Truthfully, Rashi translates the "ב" as, "for the sake of" - so Rashi would translate this phrase as, "HaShem created for the sake of the Torah".)

Ramban the Kabbalist is struggling to reconcile the first pasuk of the Torah with the Kabbalistic concept of creation ex nihilo. That is to say יש מאין, or something from nothing. The word ראשית refers to the very first "stuff" that was created by HaShem in the finite universe. Ramban explains that Greek philosophy has a similar idea of the first "stuff" that was used to create the universe - "hiyuli". (My Greek is a little rusty if not non-existent, so I welcome any help from any blog-like people out there.) According to Ramban, there was a single act of something from nothing creation, and the Torah calls the created stuff ראשית. All of the olamot and sefirot, and molecules and quarks are all made from this ראשית. And there you have it, Ramban uses a little Greek philosophy to help explain how the first phrase in the Torah actually refers to the fundamental Kabbalistic concept of tzimtzum.

Photo Credit -

Thursday, October 8, 2009

What is the Meaning of Hoshanah Rabbah?

Since I have already established that it is מותר to blog on Chol haMoed, I am prepared to contribute a Chassidic thought about Hoshanah Rabbah. I recently learned a piece by Reb Tzadok where he discusses the significance of Hoshanah Rabbah in relationship to the sefirot.

I have not had a chance to fully discuss the sefirot yet, but you can say that they represent seven different ways that HaShem connects to the world. We can describe HaShem in terms of Chesed, Gevurah (restraint), and Tiferet (balance). For example, Avraham represents Chesed because he exemplified generosity towards others. Yitzchak represents Gevurah because of his experience at the Akeidah. The seventh and final sefirah is Malchut which is represented by David HaMelech. Malchut can be explained as the actualization of theoretical plans. If you wanted to connect to the sefirah of Chesed, later you might also focus on Malchut in order to emphasize Chesed in our world.

All of this is background information for Reb Tzadok's commentary on Hoshanah Rabbah. He says that Hoshanah Rabbah is the seventh day of Sukkot and represents the culmination of all of our prayers on Sukkot. We perform seven הקפות on Hoshanah Rabbah - one הקפה for each of the seven sefirot. The seventh day of Sukkot is represented by the Ushpizin David HaMelech (you can read more about Ushpizin here) and the sefirah of Malchut. According to Reb Tzadok, Hoshanah Rabbah is the culmination of our teshuvah efforts of Elul and Tishrei. During Hoshanah Rabbah, we should focus on the sefirah of Malchut and on making permanent changes in this world.

Photo Credit:

What is the Meaning of Ushpizin?

Did you ever wonder what this whole Ushpizin thing on Sukkot was? Did you notice that Yosef often appears after Aharon and before David and he is not in historical order? If you have a little kabbalistic insight Ushpizin is an obvious and integral part of Sukkot. Each of the Ushpizin personalities also represents one of the Sefirot.
  • Avraham - Chesed
  • Yitzchak - Gevurah
  • Yaakov - Tiferet
  • Moshe - Netzach
  • Aharon - Hod
  • Yosef - Yesod
  • David - Malchut
Each day when we welcome a different guest (Ushpizin) into our sukkah according to the order of the sefirot. We can also use the Ushpizin as an opportunity to improve the middot that are connected to that sefirah. For example, on the third day of Sukkot, when we welcome Yaakov Avinu we can also focus on how to achieve balance in our lives.

Each of the Ushpizin that we welcome to our sukkah also reminds us how we can continue the teshuvah process that we began in Elul into the rest of the year.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Chassidic Blogging on Chol HaMoed

blogging device
sukkah blogging location

Last night I was at a Bat Mitzvah and I was suddenly struck by yet another profound halakhik idea: are you allowed to blog on Chol HaMoed? In general, you are not allowed to write on Chol HaMoed unless you will suffer some kind of significant loss (דבר האיבוד), so it is assur to write in a journal or a diary on Chol HaMoed. (NOTE - I am not a posek and I am not giving psak halakhah. There are many different הלכה למעשה היתרים involving doing melachah on Chol HaMoed. Please check with your Local Chassidic Rebbe for specific details.)

In my humble opinion there is are good reasons both to allow and to forbid blogging on Chol HaMoed. On the one hand, most blogs will lose readers if they do not regularly add new posts to their blogs. Blogging on Chol HaMoed would then be permitted because losing readers would constitute a significant loss. On the other hand, my blog is a Torah blog and I would think that most of my readers would assume that I might take a blogging break during Chol HaMoed and would then check back after Sukkot is over. According to this reason I would not be allowed to blog on Chol HaMoed. The brutal truth is that I have great respect for my loyal readers who are accustomed to waiting over a week to read my wonderful words of Torah - and ultimately according to the second reason, I should not be allowed to blog during Chol HaMoed. However, it would be a good question if it is permissible for a Torah blogger who consistently adds posts every day, like Hirhurim or Dixie Yid, to blog on Chol HaMoed. (In fact Hirhurim did address the issue of blogging on Chol HaMoed, but not from a blogging perspective.)

Back to the Bat Mitzvah - I mentioned this halakhik idea to my friend David Eisen who showed great initiative and emailed the question to a Posek. The Posek responded that it is permitted to blog during Chol HaMoed because typing on a computer is not equivalent to the melachah of writing. Thus it would certainly be permissible to blog דברי תורה during Chol HaMoed.

Nevertheless, I do not wish to offend anyone out there in the blogosphere who is machmir and does not blog during Chol HaMoed. Therefore I am blogging about blogging on Chol HaMoed, before Chol HaMoed.

ps - Literally not 5 minutes after I finished this post I saw it mentioned in two other places: Life in Israel and Hirhurim.

Blogging on Chol HaMoed - Shailah u'Teshuvah

The original Shailah u'Teshuvah was in Hebrew. Here is an English translation courtesy of Google with slight modifications by me. Feel free to contact me if you would like a copy of the original Hebrew.

Details of the question:

Blogging on Chol HaMoed

I am writing a blog on Torah which publishes 1-2 posts per week.

Is it forbidden on Chol Hamoed to write a blog, especially if the content is not necessarily tied to the holiday or to Chol HaMoed?

Alternatively, are you allowed to write a blog during Chol HaMoed regarding the question "Is blogging on Chol HaMoed a disgrace of the Chagim?" Especially if the writer's conclusion and/or Rebbe's conclusion will be
that writing a blog is * not * permitted on Chol Hamoed?

Or, is it possible to claim that writing blogs during Chol HaMoed may constitute a significant loss because readers may stop follow the blog (and might be less likely to read Torah

Gmar Tov and Chag Sameach,


Details of the answer:

Blogging on Chol HaMoed

Shalom u'Brachah.

Blog posts on Torah topics may be written on Chol Hamoed. Firstly because the computer itself is not considered the melachah of writing
on Chol Hamoed, and because we should be very lenient regarding writing Divrei Torah. On top of this, it is certainly better that they will be browsing these Torah websites.

If the conclusion of the religious authorities was that using a computer is forbidden, blogging Divrei Torah on Chol HaMoed would be equivalent to going to Mikvah while holding a dead lizard (
טובל בשרץ בידו). And in that case you would distance yourself from this prohibition.

Rather, Torah blogs should avoid losing of readers, and their continued existence should certainly be supported..

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Break from Blogging

It is with a heavy heart that I announce my break from blogging. I have enjoyed posting thoughts on the intersection between Torah, Kabbalah and Zionism. I hope to resume posting as soon as possible.

Thank you and Shanah Tovah.

photo credit -

Friday, September 4, 2009

Job Opening fit for a King (David)

A little piece of Zionist reality and humor.

I am currently unemployed and looking for a job. I receive over 20 emails a day informing me of a wide range of different jobs from every nook and cranny of the Holy Land. Today I received a job opening that has a long and hallowed history in the Tanakh. From Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, to Moshe, to the great David HaMelech himself - shepherding is certainly a prophetic career.

Do you know anyone who is up to the challenge? I am only a struggling Technical Writer, but one day maybe I can aspire to the illustrious career of Shepherding.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Gedolei Yisrael - R. Tzadok HaKohen

R. Tzadok (1823-1900) was a prolific author and a profound thinker. A chassidic Rebbe who was a talmid of the Ishbitzer Rebbe, R. Tzadok grew up as a Litvak and was later convinced to "do teshuvah" and follow chasidut. (A good lesson for all of us, it is never too late to become a chasid!)

R. Tzadok authored many seforim on different subjects and he often discusses Kabbalah. His two works which are the most well known are, "Tzidkut HaTzadik" and "Pri Tzadik". Tzidkut HaTzadik is a discussion of improving your Avodat HaShem, but it is also a perush on Massechet Berachot. Pri Tzadik was actually written down by his students and is a discussion of the Parshah and the Moadim.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Personal Pocket PC Chess Story

chess pieces

Many of you out there in the blogosphere may not be aware of the fact that I am a quasi-avid chess player. I have a wonderful little chess program on my Pocket PC called Pocket Grandmaster and I can often give it a pretty good game on the Novice level. I recently reformatted my Pocket PC and my name was erased from the Owner’s Information. This caused my copy of Pocket Grandmaster to unregister itself. I ended up being checkmated in real life by this chess program because I could not find a copy of the registration key anywhere!

Fortunately, I emailed an apologetic letter to the company explaining the situation. Amazingly, they still had my name in their records and they sent me the registration key. It is certainly a pleasure to work with a company that provides quality customer service.

Photo Credits:

Thursday, August 20, 2009

All the Torah Sh'Baal Peh from One Pasuk

Rambam Portrait

It is a rare treat that an edifice as large as the Torah Sh'Baal Peh can be boiled down to a single pasuk. Parshat Shoftim manages to do just that! It is better than seeing all of the works of Shakespeare in one 90 minute play. (I think that it is fair game to add a little Torah u'Madda to my blog.) It is better than having almost all of the written religious Jewish word on a single CD-ROM. It is even better than having an LCR (gasp!). This is the greatness of Parshat Shoftim according to the Rambam. The pasuk (Devarim 17:11), "על פי התורה אשר יורוך - According to the Torah that he (a Rabbi) teaches you" is actually that amazing. It states that HaShem commands you to listen to the Torah and to the halakhik decisions that a Rabbi tells you. Five little innocent words, yet more powerful than Superman on steroids.

Now before we get too excited, I am a Rabbi and this pasuk certainly does not refer to any halakhik decisions that I would make. In reality, I have always refused to make decisions, and I prefer to make halakhik deliberations. Less dangerous that way. At any rate, this pasuk most likely refers to halakhot that were created and/or enforced by Chazal. According to the Rambam, Chazal and earlier Rabbinical figures were commanded by HaShem to create and/or enforce the halakhot.

WARNING - The continuation of this blog post may present challenges to your emunah. Read on at your own risk!

Most of you probably know that there are 39 אב מלאכות for Hilkhot Shabbat, but how many of them are actually detailed in the Torah? I would say at most five. That means that Chazal described the other 34 מלאכות in the Gemara. However, there is no halakhik difference between a מלאכה which is listed in the Torah and one which is described by Chazal. All of the 39 מלאכות are halakhot d'oraita, they are commandments from HaShem and not from the Rabbis. According to our pasuk from Parshat Shoftim: if Chazal tell you that a halakhah is d'Oraita - then HaShem also commands you to listen to Chazal, even though that mitzvah/halakhah does not appear in the Torah.

One of the lesser-known treasures in the Mishneh Torah is Hilkhot Mamrim. It is located in Sefer Shoftim, which is the last Sefer in the Mishneh Torah. The title Hilkhot Mamrim, refers to the halakhah of a rebellious Rabbi a זקן ממרה, to be discussed at another time.

In the first perek of Hilkhot Mamrim, the Rambam discusses different types of halakhot and mitzvot: d'Oraita, d'Rebanan, Takkanot, and so on. He also states that this pasuk from Parshat Shoftim teaches us that the Great Sannhedrin in Yerushalayim is the essence of the Torah Sh'Baal Peh.

If you have some time this Shabbat, take a look at Hilkhot Mamrim and learn about the origin and development of the Torah Sh'Baal Peh. I am always here in the blogosphere to answer any questions.

Shabbat Shalom.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

How (Not) to Learn Chassidut

Chopping WoodRecently I was at another shiur given by my LCR (Local Chassidishe Rebbe) and he gave over a great story about the Yid HaKadosh and learning chassidut. The Yid HaKadosh is of R. Yaakov Yitzchak of Peshischa (1766-1813) and is one of the Chassidishe Rebbe's in the fourth generation after the Ba'al Shem Tov.

In the lifetime of the Yid HaKadosh seforim of Chassidut were being published and already there were over twenty different Chassidishe seforim that you could learn. The Yid HaKadosh was asked why do you need to learn Chassidut from a Rebbe when you can learn it from a sefer?

The Yid HaKadosh responded with the following mashal: If a person wanted to be a woodcutter, he could buy a book on how to chop wood. He could read about how to lift the axe over his head. And then he should use all his strength to bring the blade into the wood. There could also be all sorts of diagrams showing what angle he should swing the axe and what is the proper grip for him to use. But if he were to go and watch a person chop wood, he would hear the krecht krechtz (grunt) that is made as he swings the axe. He could read the book a hundred times and he wouldn't find that krecht krechtz mentioned anywhere. So too with learning Chassidut - you can read the words in a sefer, but you need to learn with a Rebbe to bring them to life.

As we approach Elul, try and find a Rebbe who can bring new life to the words of Torah.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Leaders Don't Fail Me Now

The last mishnah in Massechet Taanit lists five events that occurred on the 17th of Tammuz and five that occurred on Tisha B'Av. It states that the חטא עגל took place on the 17th of Tammuz, and the חטא מרגלים took place on Tisha B'Av.

Normally I would have thought that the חטא עגל was a more serious failure of B'nei Israel than the חטא מרגלים. Even a rabid Chassidic Zionist like myself would admit that Avodah Zarah is a greater aveirah than refusing to make aliyah. What exactly were Chazal thinking when they declared that the חטא מרגלים could be compared the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash?

Maybe it was the role of the leaders in both of these events that was the major factor. In the חטא עגל Aharon HaKohen failed spectacularly as the leader of the Jewish people and was unable to prevent them from committing Avodah Zarah. However, Aharon may not have been the best charismatic leader to stand before an unruly mob and stop them from committing a heinous aveirah. And thus eventually, he was pardoned for his failed attempt as a leader of the Jewish people.

The חטא מרגלים is a different story. Each of the twelve tribes sent one of their best leaders to scout out Eretz Israel. Ten of them came back and blatantly lied to B'nei Israel about what they found. These leaders directly went against HaShem's wish and caused the untimely destruction of an entire generation of B'nei Israel. I cannot imagine a greater crisis of leadership - all ten leaders failed their constituency when they needed them the most. This mass failure of leadership is why the חטא מרגלים was compared to the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash and was considered to be a greater aveirah than the חטא עגל.

Not only do I hope that this is our last Tisha B'Av and that the Mashiach will come ASAP. I also hope that we can learn from the mistake of the חטא מרגלים and we will be blessed with excellent leaders.

Tzom Kal.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Train in Vain (aka - To Daven or Not to Daven)

The great minyan trainI had yet another great experience on the Messilat Yesharim Train minyan. The train goes from Yerushalayim, to Beit Shemesh, to Ramla and Lod, and finally to Tel Aviv. The Shacharit minyan starts at Beit Shemesh. The minyan takes place in the last car on the train and sometimes when we get on the car there are "not-yet davening Yerushalmis" sitting in the minyan train car. The apparent policy of the minyan is to live and let live. We don't bother them and we hope that they won't bother us. Usually, these few individuals decide to leave the car and find another seat. Since there are plenty of available seats, I don't feel too bad that they have to move.

However, this week I came on the train and found twelve rowdy teenagers sitting in the minyan car! All of the minyanites exchanged nervous glances and wondered how this situation was going to resolve itself. What made the situation more difficult was that the teenagers were sitting in the middle of the car and forced the minyan to take place around them. Now you don't have to be a High School teacher to know that trying to move a bunch of teenagers is more dangerous than shakin' a stick in a rattlesnake nest. Nevertheless, we all put on our tallit and tefillin and began to daven.

And then a miracle happened. I don't want to be overdramatic (or over-Chassidic) but I would call twelve teenagers who are sitting in the middle of an impromptu Shacharit minyan on a train and manage to whisper for 30 minutes - a flat out miracle worthy of saying Hallel. Now saying Hallel is wonderful and uplifting, but this story gets better. Two of these pintele yids heard their neshamot crying out to do a mitzvah and responded. It was as if the Ba'al Shem Tov himself came onto the train and inspired two of these teenage boys to lay tefillin and daven Shacharit. The Tikkun Olam in the train was overwhelming. As we exited the train to go to work, the Messilat Yesharim regulars had a spark in their eyes. They looked at each other and confirmed that they had been part of something special.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Halakhot of Everyday Objects

Jackie Robinson holding a kli/baseball batThis week's Parshah, מטות-מסעי, contains the source for the halakhot of kosher dishes.
31:21 Eleazar the priest said to the soldiers returning from the campaign: This is the rule that God commanded Moses:
31:22 As far as the gold, silver, copper, iron, tin and lead are concerned,
31:23 whatever was used over fire must be brought over fire and purged, and [then] purified with the sprinkling water. However, that which was not used over fire need only be immersed in a mikvah.

The pesukim describe that all of the metal that was captured from the Midianites must be kashered before it can be used by B'nei Israel. How is the metal kashered? The famous halakhik dictum states: כבלעו, כך פלטו. Loosely translated as, "What goes in, has gotta come out." If the non-kosher taste was absorbed via heat, then it will come out of the metal via heat.
One of the lesser known elements of these halakhot is that they only apply to an object which has been halakhically designated as a kli.

I hear a timid voice calling to me from the hinterlands of the Internet, "Oh great Kabbalah u'Maddah person, what exactly is a kli?" Wow, I am so glad that you asked that question. Quite simply, a kli is a physical object (usually a finished product) that is used by a person. The key litmus test to know whether or not any given object is a kli is: can the object become טמא? If it can become טמא then it is a kli. For example, based on the pesukim from Chapter 31 in this weeks Parshah (from Sefer BaMidbar) a sword is a kli, because it can become טמא.

Now it starts to get interesting, because a plain piece of wood (like a two by four) is not a kli because it is not a finished product. But if I take this piece of wood, put it in a lathe, and 30 minutes later I have a baseball bat - which is a kli. One more example, a tree branch lying on the ground is not a kli. But if I take the tree branch and use it as a walking stick - behold I am holding a kli! (Note - the halakhot of kelim are quite complicated and you should consult your LOR for any הלכה למעשה questions, which are mainly related to טבילת כלים . Certainly you could (and should) ask your LCR the same questions, but I don't want to further complicate your lives.)

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Technical Writing and Kabbalah

CAT-5 WireNow that I am back on the Kabbalah and Chassidut band wagon (at least for a little bit), I want to share an idea regarding my two careers: Rabbinics and Technical Writing. I am going to boldly go where no human has gone before. I have already done the Google search and behold - this is the first piece on the ENTIRE Internet that attempts to combine Technical Writing and Kabbalah. Folks, do not try this at home - I am a highly trained professional.

The picture that you see before you is a humble CAT-5 cable. It contains 8 individual wires which are twisted together and then covered to form one fairly thick cable. In layman's terms a CAT-5 cable is capable of transmitting speeds up to 100 Megabits per second. There are other types of cables that are slower than a CAT-5 cable, and some that are faster. In more scientific terms used by us Technical Writers, a CAT-5 wire transmits data "in the blink of an eye." A CAT-4 cable is a little slower (has smaller bandwidth) and can only transmit data "in three blinks of an eye." CAT-6 cable can transmit data even faster, "in the wink of an eye." And then there are fiber optic cables which are so fast that they use, "pre-wink data transfer protocol." (PWDTP for short) I apologize for all of that technical mumbo-jumbo, but it is an necessary part of the trade. The bottom line is, almost all of you probably use CAT-5 cable to connect to the Internet so that you can receive spam and watch YouTube at blindingly fast speeds.

Kabbalistically speaking, each of us has a connection to HaShem and it transmits the impact of our mitzvot and aveirot to the higher worlds. You can think of this connection as a network cable. If your connection with HaShem is a CAT-5 cable, then that defines how much you are able to affect the higher worlds. The greater the bandwidth of your connection with HaShem, the greater impact that you can have on these worlds. To carry this metaphor farther than it should be carried, let's pretend that you have a connection to HaShem that is comparable to a CAT-4 cable. Every time you do a mitzvah or an aveirah, that CAT-4 cable transmits that mitzvah or aveirah to the higher worlds. Your impact on the higher worlds is limited by the bandwidth of your connection with HaShem. Thus, if you do teshuvah and improve yourself, you can create a stronger connection to HaShem and "upgrade" to a CAT-5 cable. According to this משל, the Tzaddikim in this world would have a fiber optic connection to HaShem. Not only does would this connection give them a special relationship with HaShem, but according to the stories, it would even allow them to affect miraculous changes in this world.

One final word about fiber optic Jews - according to Chassidut and Kabbalah, doing mitzvot and learning Torah are not enough to "upgrade" your connection to HaShem. Torah and mitzvot are the "data" that are transmitted across your connection. Only by learning Kabbalah and Chassidut can you learn how to "upgrade" your connection with HaShem.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Chassidic Story

Some of you may have noticed that I have moved away from the mission of this blog: to propogate and educate the world in Kabbalah and Chassidut (with a modern twist). Well - I'm back. I will doff my Biblical trappings of the past few weeks and don a shtreiml and bekeshe. (Is there actually a correct spelling in English for bekeshe? Maybe it is a kind of onomatopoeia. The sound that is produced as you stroke your hand down a black silky coat - b'kesh.)

I have started attending a shiur given by my LCR - Local Chassidishe Rebbe, and I am going to attempt to share a story that he told us. Yet another Shameless Zionist Plug - other than Monsey Ir HaKodesh, I am not sure how many LCR's there are in America. Naturally here in Israel, they make themselves available to a spiritually needy public.

Like any good Chassidic story, the emphasis is the ambience and not the veracity of the details. Pull up a bowl of cholent and feast your eyes on a classic piece of Jewish lore.

It is said of Reb Simchah Bunam of Peshisca, that he was always the last person to enter a tisch or simchah. The reason for this is connected to Reb Simchah Bunam's cheshbon haNefesh - he was constantly striving to acheive the middah of aneivut (humility). He would stand outside the Shteibl or Beit Midrash and look at every Jew that was sitting inside. Reb Simchah would determine how is this Jew a better mentsch than me? In what way am I a worse Jew than that person? Only after he had compared himself to every Jew that was inside, then Reb Simchah Bunim himself would enter.

One leil Shabbat Reb Simchah Bunim stood outside his Shteibl and reviewed the crowd who had come to the tisch. He saw one Jew who had committed a terrible aveirah during the past week. Reb Simchah Bunim asked himself, "How can I possibly be lower than that Jew?" He stood swaying from side to side for over half an hour, trying to imagine some way that he could be lower than this particular Jew sitting inside. Finally, his face lit up as he found the solution to his problem. He told himself, "If I had committed that aveirah (chas v'sholom), I would never have showed up to my Rebbe's Tisch that same week!" And then R. Simchah Bunim went into the tisch with a spirit of aneivut.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Andy Statman - Mystical Music

I am getting ready for Shabbat and listening to one of my favorite musicians, Andy Statman. I suddenly realized that some of my faithful readers and followers may be ignorant of this musical genius. Here is a YouTube video showing his musical brilliance. I highly recommend Between Heaven and Earth, it is the most creative Klezmer-Jazz fusion album I have ever heard.

Shabbat Shalom.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Fuzzy Wuzzy was a Jew?

How many of you ever considered the possibility that a classic piece of children's dogrel was actually inspired by the Tanakh? Hopefully the the title of this post has led you in the direction of the following poem:
Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear.Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair. Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn't very fuzzy - was he?

Today I finished מלכים ב' פרק ב, which discusses the transfer of prophetic power from Eliyahu to Elisha. It also contains the account of Elisha visiting Bet-El. Elisha ran into some ne'er-do-well lads and taught them a thing or two about respecting your elders.

23. And he went up from there to Bethel, and he was going up on the road and some little boys came out of the city and jeered him, and said to him, "Go away, baldy; go away, baldy!"

24. And he turned around and saw them, and he cursed them in the name of God. And two she-bears came out of the forest and tore apart forty-two boys of them.

Now first of all, Rashi assures us that Elisha "saw" that no good would come from these children. So we can be reassured that the slaughtered children do not pose any ethical dilemmas.

But more importantly - could there be a link between Elisha's gleaming pate and the ursine assassins? Maybe one of the bears was also a little less than hirsute. Could this bear have been an ancestor of the famous Fuzzy Wuzzy coming to defend Elisha's honor? I believe that further research into parhsanut and Midrashim is required!

PS - Did anyone else notice that number of slain children is exactly the same as the answer to life, the universe and everything?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Rambo HaKohen?

Parshat Ki Tetze (דברים כ) describes the halakhah of the כהן משוח למלחמה, the kohen who is anointed and appointed for war. This morning on the מסילת ישרים train minyan - I witnessed a modern day of כהן משוח למלחמה. A new breed of battle priest who is poised to lead Israel into the 21st Century and beyond. A religious leader who knows that you have to be cruel to be kind in the right measure. That's right, I am talking about a gun-toting kohen. But that's not all, this is a fully armed kohen who is blessing the Jewish people at the same time!

All kidding aside - it certainly caused me to pause and think, when I saw this 20 year old kohen trying to decide what he should do with his rifle as he got ready for Birkat Kohanim. Ultimately he laid the rifle at his feet and then raised his hands to bless the minyan. It is all part of my Religious Zionist dream: to daven shacharit on the train, and to have birkat kohanim by an armed soldier. I think Ben Gurion and the Netziv (or any other Zionist gadol) would have been proud.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Planes, Trains and Minyanim

I am not sure if I have informed my little ד' אמות of the blogosphere of one of the hidden wonders of living in Israel - the daily Beit Shemesh train minyan which is called מסילת ישרים. It is wonderful to have a productive commute in the morning, we have a sefer Torah for Mondays and Thursdays and usually we even have birkat Kohanim. However, I am not such a big fan of davening Minchah on the train. At Shacharit we have enough people in the minyan that we take up an entire train car, and we do not disturb the other commuters. At Minchah, we daven in the space in between the two cars which I find to be less comfortable. Fortunately for me, there is a Minchah minyan at work and I do not lose out if I decide to avoid Minchah on the train.

Yesterday there was a bit of excitement and academia in action during Minchah on the train. Some of the men in the minyan refused to daven in the usual area for Minchah because there were some young women in tank tops sitting there. I suddenly realized that this was a real living example of Prof. Chaim Soloveithchik's article about Orthodoxy and חומרות. For years Minchah has taken place between the train cars. Come rain, shine or tank tops, Minchah always happened in the same place. I wondered, would this new attitude towards davening Minchah on the train forever change tefillah commuting that I have come to know and love? Fortunately, the חומרה did not hold and today Minchah returned to its regular location on the train.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Shevet Achim Gam Yachad?

David HaMelech wrote in
Tehilim 133:1,

שִׁיר הַמַּעֲלוֹת, לְדָוִד:הִנֵּה מַה-טּוֹב, וּמַה-נָּעִים שֶׁבֶת אַחִים גַּם-יָחַד
How pleasant and nice it is for brothers to live together.

This is a very famous pasuk that celebrates the concept of unity among the Jewish people. Yet I am forced to ask myself, "How often has this pasuk actually been realized?" My experience of the Jewish world, is that not enough Jews are making an effort to live together. This painful fact of life was reinforced for me in מלכים א פרק ט''ו which is the account of King Assa.

Now any of you out there in the hinterlands of the blogoshpere who have learned Sefer Melachim, know that a good king can be hard to find. So you can imagine my joy to read in pasuk 11 that Assa was an upright king, "ויעש הישר בעיני יקוק." However, I was then dismayed to read in pesukim 15-24 that King Assa took all of the money in Yehudah and gave it to Ben-Hadad the king of Aram (aka Syria) to attack Basha the king of Israel.

Where is the, "שבת אחים גם יחד"!? I understand the King Assa was losing a war to the idolotrous King Basha - but there must be a better answer than bankrupting the kingdom to hire Ben-Hadad. I was actually almost in tears as I read these pesukim thinking about how this money was wasted because of a futile war. I hope that we can all learn from the mistakes of the past and avoid repeating them.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Kings and Taxes

Unfortunately my busy life is conspiring against my blog and I am having trouble finishing (or is that starting?) my next post on the comparison between Rambam and Chazal. Fortunately for my faithful readers, I came across a nugget in the Tanakh today that is must be shared.
My daughter is in the process of learning Neviim Rishonim for her Bat Mitzvah, so I decided that I should try and keep up with her. Unfortunately for me, she has already finished Melachim Aleph, so I am playing catch-up. Today when I was learning Perek 12, I came across a pasuk that has a very modern feel.

"And king Rehoboam sent Adoram who was in charge of the tax, and all of Israel pelted him with stones, and he died, and king Rehoboam exerted himself to
get up into his chariot to flee to Jerusalem." Melachim Aleph 12:18
I think that many people today also would have the urge to physically harm the tax collectors if they came around.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Metaphorical Meaning of Parshat Sotah

Today as I was learning Parshat Naso as I was coming home from work on the train. I was thinking about the connection between the halakhot of Sotah and Nazir that appear one after the other. I was suddenly thunderstruck with yet another brilliant insight into the deeper, if not the deepest, meanings of the Torah. Naturally, when this happens to me I try and add my insight to the blogosphere. Fortunately for the blogosphere - my children are taking along time to fall asleep and I am afforded the opportunity to write a blog post as I dutifully sit outside their doorway.

It is practically a literary fact that the Sotah ritual is also a metaphor for the relationship between HaShem and B'nei Israel. For example, after the חטא עגל, Moshe Rabbeinu ground up the עגל הזהב into water and forced B'nei Israel to drink the mixture. This mixture reminds us of the Sotah potion which contains water, dirt from the floor of the Ohel Moed, and ink from the Sotah שבועה. When B'nei Israel worshipped the עגל הזהב they were unfaithful to HaShem they were being compared to a Sotah and her husband. There are numerous imageries in the Tanakh comparing B'nei Israel to an unfaithful wife because they have abandoned HaShem and the Torah u'Mitzvot. (Sefer Hoshea leaps to mind and I am sure that there are other examples.)

This comparison between the Sotah ritual and the Egel is the basis for my brilliant insight into Parshat Naso - the burning question on everyone's mind is: Why is the Sotah ritual located in Parshat Naso?! It would make much more sense if it was found in Parshat Ki Tisa after the עגל הזהב! The answer to this burning question is: B'nei Israel are being warned at the beginning of their journey to conquer Eretz Yisrael. This is going to be a difficult and challenging journey and they will need every bit of emunah that they can muster so that they can succeed. The Sotah ritual is a warning to B'nei Israel of what might happen to them if the do not follow HaShem and Torah u'Mitzvot.

Unfortunately, we all know that this journey was actually a disaster and that the vast majority of this generation of B'nei Israel were not allowed to enter Eretz Yisrael. In fact, the ten bad spies die in a horrible plague (another support for my brilliant insight) similar to the punishment for the Sotah. However, in Parshat Naso everything is still going well and B'nei Israel are dutifuly following HaShem's commands (see BaMidbar 5:4). And we can clearly see that the halakhot of the Sotah were taught to B'nei Israel at the beginning of their journey to Eretz Israel to warn them not to stray from HaShem's commands.

Photo Credit - Ron Almog

Monday, May 25, 2009

Lost in Translation

Parshat Naso contains the description of the ritual of the Sotah (suspected adultress). This ritual is rich with descriptive imagery of what can happen to a husband and wife who allow animal desires to override their rational thought. For example, the husband is overcome with insane jealousy (5:14), and the wife brings barley as a korban which is associated with animal feed (Rashi 5:15).

However, I would like to use the Sotah ritual as an opportunity to pontificate about the importance of reading pesukim in their original Hebrew. There is a beautiful phrase that is used to describe a part of the Sotah ritual, and it is impossible for this phrase to be conveyed in translation. (Certainly an English translation - I cannot claim that there is a language out there that might be able to give a faithful rendering of the Hebrew. Anyone know Esperanto?)

The Sotah is forced to drink a potion that even Severus Snape could not prepare - and this potion will have a nasty impact on the Sotah's limbs if she is indeed guilty of adultery. R. Aryeh Kaplan (a noted kabbalist) translated the description of the potion as, "the curse-bearing bitter water," in his magnum opus - The Living Torah. This translation is a big improvement over the 1917 JPS translation which uses the following traslation: "the water of bitterness that causeth curse." Yet The Living Torah is still a far cry from the richness of the original Hebrew phrase: מי המרים המאררים (mei hamarim hamarrim). This phrase is a rhyming alliteration and the literary power is lost in translation, because neither the rhyming, nor the alliteration can be conveyed in English.

A few words about this bitter cursing potion. Water is usually a positive symbol, and it is generally associated with birth and Torah. However, if the Sotah is guilty of adultery, then the bitter cursing water is a source of death and not life. It is interesting to note that in Massechet Berachot (32b - I think), Chazal explain that an innocent woman who undergoes the Sotah ceremony would become pregnant. So actually the מי המרים המאררים is less of a potion and more of a catalyst - if the Sotah is gulity, than that sin is catalyzed into a physical punishment. If the Sotah is innocent, then the water has a positive effect on her.

If you like my little d'var Torah - great; but more importantly, I hope you have learned the lesson of reading pesukim in the original Hebrew! Don't get lost in translation.

ps - I have not seen the movie.

pps - The image is taken from wikimedia commons and is pretty neat. It is a:
Scan of plate 19 of the 1880 translation of the 1849 Johann Scheible (editor) version of The Sixth And Seventh Books Of Moses. No Author given. "The sixth and seventh books of Moses: or, Moses' magical spirit-art, known as the wonderful arts of the old wise Hebrews, taken from the Mosaic books of the Cabala and the Talmud, for the good of mankind."

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

To Count, or Not to Count?

The minchah minyan at work asked me to give a short dvar Torah this week, and I thought I would share it with you.
Parshat BaMidbar is not exactly an action filled Parshah - it almost exclusively consists of numbers. And not even interesting numbers like 7, 40, or 613. It is full of the numbers of the population of Jews in each shevet - are those cyber-snores that I hear? Chas v'sholom that an entire Parshah in the Torah could be called boring, allow me to enlighten you to the deeper meaning of counting.
How does one perform a Biblical census? It is assur to go out and simply count every Jew. Rather the population was counted passively with the מחצית השקל. (Everyone had to pay an annual half-shekel tax. So if you halved the total tax collected, you would have the total population of the Jewish people.) Why is it assur to count every individual Jew?
A couple of years ago in my prior incarnation as a teacher, I attended a seminar that focused on Holocaust education. One of the speakers mentioned her strong dislike for the documentary, "Paper Clips." The documentary focuses on a school in Tenessee that collected 6 million paperclips to commemorate the Holocaust. The speaker objected to the idea that her grandmother could be compared to a paperclip. The same idea can be applied to the counting in Parshat BaMidbar - every Jew is a unique individual. An ordinary direct census removes that uniqueness and transforms a human being into a number. Thus it is assur to count people purely for the sake of determining the population. Instead, you may only calculate the population as a result of another action - like the מחצית השקל. As B'nei Israel begin their journey towards Eretz Yisrael, they have become one nation - yet it they are comprised of unique individuals.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Rambam Sefer Zemanim (Part 2)

The content of Sefer Zemanim is almost identical to the content of Seder Moed in Shas. The only difference is that Chazal placed Massechet Chagigah at the end of Seder Moed, while Rambam placed Hilkhot Chagigah in Sefer Korbanot. It is interesting to note that many Halakhik seforim (notably the Rif, and the Tur/Shulchan Aruch) only discuss and posken halakhot that are relevant today. They do not discuss the halakhot of the Mikdash and Korbanot because they have no relevance for practical halakhah (הלכה למעשה). The Rambam discusses all 613 mitzvot whether they are observed today or not - thus the fact that the Mishneh Torah poskens halakhot about the Mikdash and the korbanot makes it a unique sefer. However, Rambam dedicated two seforim of the Mishneh Torah to discuss all of the halakhot relating to Korbanot and the Mikdash. Chazal mixed practical halakhot with halakhot about korbanot and the Mikdash in Seder Moed.

For example, the first four perakim of Massechet Pesachim discuss the halakhot of chametz and matzah. The next five perakim are concerned with the details of the Korban Pesach. The final perek discusses the halakhot of the Pesach Seder. One massechet analyzes all of the halakhot of Pesach.

The Rambam places the halakhot of the Korban Pesach in Sefer Korbanot and the rest of the halakhot of Pesach in Sefer Zemanim. Unlike Chazal, the Rambam wanted to place the practical halakhot in a separate section from the halakhot that are not currently observed. Another explanation (דבר אחר): Rambam wanted the mitzvot that applied to all the Jewish people in one section, and the mitzvot that focused on the kohanim in another section. Once you begin to realize the different halakhik structures between the Rambam and Chazal - the perushim are endless.

Here is the list of halakhot that appear in Sefer Zemanim:
  • Hilkhot Shabbat
  • Hilkhot Eruvin
  • Hilkhot Shevitat Assur - Laws of Yom Kippur
  • Hilkhot Shevitat Yom Tov
  • Hilkhot Chametz u'Matzah
  • Hilkhot Shofar, Sukkah and Lulav
  • Hilkhot Shekalim - Laws of Annual Half-Shekel Tithe
  • Hilkhot Kiddush HaChodesh - Laws of Declaring Rosh Chodesh
  • Hilkhot Ta'aniot
  • Hilkhot Megillah u'Channukah
Happy learning.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Rambam Sefer Zemanim (Part 1)

I apologize for getting a little off course from my comparison of the organization of the Mishneh Torah to Shas - but now we can resume analyzing the different approaches to organizing the halakhot. And after all, what are a couple of months between friends?

The third sefer of the Mishneh Torah is Sefer Zemanim. We can immediately see that the Rambam has abandoned the halakhik structure of Shas. Chazal placed Massechet Berachot at the beginning of Seder Zeraim - the halakhot of agriculture. Rambam places Sefer Zeraim as the seventh book of the Mishneh Torah. I would suggest that the Rambam wanted to connect the halakhot of agriculture to the halakhot of the Beit HaMikdash which is the eighth sefer of the Mishneh Torah. I will discuss the placement of Sefer Zeraim in a (much) later post.

The Rambam states in his Introduction to the Mishnah Torah (hat tip to Rabbi Josh Weinberger for bringing this to my attention) that the theme of Sefer Ahavah is to enhance the relationship between the Jewish people and HaShem. This same theme could explain why the Rambam placed Sefer Zemanim after Sefer Ahavah - one of the purposes of Shabbat and the Chagim is also to enhance our relationship with HaShem. This them connects the halakhot of Tefillah and Shabbat/Chagim and should not be interrupted by Sefer Zeraim and the halakhot of agriculture.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Ramban Says, “Make Aliyah Now!”

I am not in the habit of recklessly recommending to people to make aliyah - it is a very difficult transition to change from being an American to becoming an Israeli. Nevertheless it is impossible to ignore the significance that the single greatest piece of religious Zionist propaganda falls out on the week of Yom HaAtzmaut. I am sure that at least one of my faithful readers has realized that I am talking about THE Ramban on Parshat Achrei Mot, where he explains that mizvot aseh only "count" in Eretz Yisrael.

Dramatic pause for self-satisfied Zionist sigh of contentment.

VaYikra 18:25 states: The land became defiled, and when I directed My providence at the sin committed there, the land vomited out its inhabitants.

The Ramban begins by explaining the connection between committing an aveirah and being ejected from Eretz Yisrael. His explanation is based on his Kabbalistic cosmology - each of the 70 nations of the world has a ministering angel which acts as the Divine intermediary between that nation and HaShem. That means that all reward and punishment for that nation is delivered by that ministering angel.

The Jewish people are different; they have Eretz Yisrael as their Divine intermediary instead of an angel. This is the explanation of the pasuk - Eretz Yisrael punishes its inhabitants that sin, by forcing them to leave the land. Yet the reverse is also true - once Eretz Yisrael was given to the Jewish people, then they are rewarded by Eretz Yisrael. (You can go back to Parshat Noach and the episode of Cham, where he is punished by losing his land to the descendants of Shet - the Jews.) This type of reward could also describe the 2nd paragraph of the Shema - the Jews will be rewarded with rain in Eretz Yisrael because they are doing mitzvot in Eretz Yisrael.

Yet, the Ramban does not stop there - he states that mitzvot have a limited effect outside of Israel. For example then nation of Brooklyn is outside of Israel. When the nation of Brooklyn does a mitzvah, the angel of Brooklyn takes that mitzvah and then brings it to HaShem. The angel of Brooklyn then returns with the reward to the nation of Brooklyn. However, this angel gets to “take a cut” in both directions. That is to say, the positive mystical impact of doing the mitzvah, and the reward are reduced in the process of going from the nation to HaShem. The angel of Brooklyn is profiting from all of the mitzvot being done there, at the expense of the Jews. But, if you do a mitzvah in Israel, Eretz Yisrael brings that mitzvah straight to HaShem without reducing the mitzvah or the reward at all. When you do mitzvot in Eretz Yisrael, there is no go-between angel involved in the mitzvah transaction at all.

The Ramban uses this statement about doing mitzvot in Eretz Yisrael to explain the Gemara in Ketubot 110b, which states,

“Anyone who lives outside of Eretz Yisrael, it is as if they have no God.”
According to the Ramban, you have no God outside of Eretz Yisrael because your mitzvot are going straight to your local angel. Whereas, when you live inside of Eretz Yisrael, your mitzvot are going straight to HaShem.

This Ramban is often misquoted and misrepresented (see earlier in this post!) to mean that mitzvot outside of Eretz Yisrael do not count. Rather, the proper pshat is that the Ramban means that the positive effects of the mitzvot are limited outside of Eretz Yisrael.

I highly recommend that you read the Ramban in the original Hebrew because I have certainly butchered him in my summary. Nevertheless, the bottom-line is that the Ramban in Parshat Achrei-Mot teaches us that HaShem REALLY REALLY wants us to live in Eretz Yisrael.

Chag Sameach.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Yom HaShoah – Too Many Yissurin

Yom HaShoah is coming and I wanted to mention a powerful idea by the Esh Kodesh. In Parshat Chaye Sarah (1940), the Esh Kodesh discusses the death of Sarah Imenu. He starts with Rashi’s comment that explains that the fact that Sarah’s death is recorded next to the Akeidah teaches us that Sarah died when she heard that Avraham was taking Yitzchak to Har HaMoriah.

The Esh Kodesh expands on this idea to teach us about the concept of Yissurin – difficult events. Chazal often talks about Yissurin shel Ahavah, that there are difficult events that come from a place of love in order to make us better people. However, the Esh Kodesh explains that there can also be too many Yissurin that can damage a person.

Yissurin can be compared to salt and food. Just as a small amount of salt enhances the flavor of food; so too, a small amount of Yissurin enhances a person. And just as too much salt ruins the flavor of food; so too, too many Yissurin can ruin a person. The Esh Kodesh concludes that if Sarah, who according to Chazal lived a life without sins, can die because of the overwhelming Yissurin that were connected with the Akeidah. Then certainly we can be damaged by too much suffering. For me, this is an appropriate message for Yom HaShoah.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Chol HaMoed in Israel and Talmudic Ovens

I am really sorry to keep going on and on about how wonderful it is to live in Israel, but I had another wonderful experience today and I feel forced to share it with the blogosphere. (I will also mention that making Aliyah is the single most difficult experience in my life, and that includes studying Biblical Hebrew. So I do not want any of you to get the impression that every moment here is flowing with milk and honey.) Today the family went on a tiyul in Naot Kedumim, which is a large park filled with Biblical fauna and flora.

It was a great hike, and I really enjoy getting to see a range of Israelis out and about on Chol HaMoed. There were examples of exciting Biblical plants like hyssop (אזוב), which was the plant that was used to sprinkle blood on the doorposts in Mitrayim. And there were loads of pesukim from Shir HaShirim next to the appropriate flora. But I was bubbling over with excitement when I saw a great example of Talmudic ovens.

Anyone who has learned the halakhot of Bishul on Shabbat, or even Mishnayot Shabbat with the fancy picture book – has surely struggled to understand what exactly these different Talmudic ovens looked like. There was an archeological village that contained some examples of some of these ovens.

Here is a picture of the famous “double oven” (כירה).

The fire would have been below and the cooking pots would have been placed on the holes on top.

Here is a picture of the “bread oven” (תנור).

This oven was used to bake bread, and the dough would be on a pole and stuck on the inside wall of the oven to bake.

So if you are visiting Israel, make sure to add Naot Kedumim to your itinerary.

Moadim L’Simchah

Friday, April 10, 2009

Pesach Seder - Israeli Style

I am trying hard not to be too smug about the fact that I do not have a three day Yom Tov, and we went on a tiyul today instead of recovering from our second Pesach Seder. Ironically, the children were complaining about the fact that they only got one Seder at Pesach this year! I guess they were not the ones working their fingers to the bone to get ready for Pesach.

I discovered yet another wonderful aspect about living in Israel (WARNING - Shameless Zionist Plug), we used wine that was Kedushat Shevi'it at the Seder. That meant that it was assur to spill drops of wine for the makkot. I love it when halakhah wins out over minhag!