Sunday, March 29, 2009

Great Google Gag

I have to take a break from discussions of the Rambam, Chazal and et al., to mention a hilarious thing that I noticed on Google today. At the outset I have to say that I love Google. They make great products (unlike Microsoft) and they are heimish. For example, I use Google Chrome as my internet browser - one day it crashed and the warning message said, "Whoa - your browser crashed." I know that there are people out there that are nervous that Google is taking over the world - but maybe they have the potential to be Plato’s ideal philosopher king? Maybe I could just pretend that Google could be a well-run benevolent organization making the Internet better for the entire human race? Maybe they could take over the UN? Well a fellow can dream.

So today I had the “pleasure” of reinstalling Windows on my desktop computer. (BTW - the computer actually works much better now and a hat tip to HP for making the installation process so easy.) Also, the Google homepage was set in Hebrew because all of my old preferences were erased during the installation. I went into the Google language preference and saw that "Elmer Fudd" was listed as a language. You can see the results for yourself.

What can I say, I love Google.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Gedolei Yisrael - Maharal of Prague

Gedolei Yisrael - Maharal

R. Yehudah ben Betzalel Loew (or possibly Lev, Love, or Levi - any 16th century Prussian language experts out there?) lived in Prague from 1520 - 1609 and is one of the pre-eminent Jewish philosophers and בעלי מחשבה. He wrote seforim explaining many of the key concepts of Judaism: the chagim, Pirkei Avot, Torah, Tefillah, Tzedakah and also peirushim on Rashi on the Chumash and on Aggadata in Shas. He was a kabbalist and his philosophy is heavily influenced by Kaballah.

The Maharal’s influence can be seen in the works of Rav Kook; Polish Chassidut (Sefas Emes, R. Tzaddok, Shem M’Shmuel and others); and the Pachad Yitzchak (R. Hutner’s machshavah on the Chagim). The Maharal is not so easy to learn because did not have a short writing style and his ideas are developed over many pages. However, there are modern editions of his seforim with many footnotes that make the Maharal more accessible. The Maharal in well known in pop-culture for a golem that he created, but there is no historical evidence to support this.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Please Daven For Rain!

We only have a few weeks left to pray for rain and the Kinneret is still quite low. Please try and daven with extra kavanah during תן טל ומטר so that HaShem will give us more rain. I have added a chart from, which lists the current water level of the Kinneret.

As you can see we have almost reached the LOWEST acceptable level for the Kinneret to remain a water source for Eretz Israel. One of the primary beliefs of Kabbalah and Chassidut is that our tefillot do have the potential to produce change in the world - so please daven for rain between now and Pesach.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Are Chazal Organized?

WARNING - This post discusses the halakhot of Brit Milah and is thus biased towards men.

If you have been following the posts discussing the organizational system of the Mishneh Torah, then you may have the following thought going through your head: “Gee that Rambam guy is like hyper-organized. But those Chazal guys, they just seemed to put topics together at random.” And many people learn Gemara with the belief that Chazal do not intend to methodologically organize halakhah, unlike Rambam. This is not to say that according to Chazal the halakhot are completely random, rather that Chazal are not concerned with a systematic organization of halakhah.

I stand before you today and tell you that indeed Chazal do have a system of organization - but it is subtle, if not hidden. Yet with a little bit of extra studying, you can often discover profound philosophical messages based on the organization of the halakhot in Shas.

Massechet Shabbat is a prime example of Chazal’s system of organizing halakhah. I mentioned in a previous post, that Rambam places the halakhot of Brit Milah in Sefer Ahavah. According to Rambam, these halakhot are another example of how to be closer to HaShem. One could say that Brit Milah symbolizes removing a physical barrier between Jewish men and HaShem.

Why would Chazal place the halakhot of Brit Milah in the context of the halakhot of Shabbat? One answer could be that both Brit Milah and Shabbat are designated as an אות by the Chumash and by Chazal. They both signify and symbolize the unique connection between HaShem and the Jewish people. They are physical reminders to us, that we have a special covenantal relationship with HaShem. We can now state that Rambam emphasizes that Brit Milah represents our ability to be closer to HaShem. Whereas Chazal emphasize, that it symbolically represents our unique relationship with HaShem.

There are many other insights, chiddushim and vortlech that can be made regarding the connection between Shabbat and Brit Milah - please feel free to share them with me. Nevertheless, the fact remains that these connections are important and the organization is not random. Chazal deliberately arranged the topics in the Mishnah and the Gemara, and it is our job to discover their wisdom. instead of ignoring it.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Shushan Purim Thought

Well over here in the Holy Land it is officially Shushan Purim and I wanted to share an idea that I had earlier while listening to the Megillah this morning. We all know that one of the main points of Purim is to party. We go to a party - the Purim Seudah. Some of us drink on Purim - also an integral part of a good party. But most importantly the party is a key part of Megillat Esther.

The Megillah starts with the 180 day long uber-party of Achashverosh. This party also coincides with Vashti’s party which leads to her demise. (BTW - does anyone know if she actually dies?) Ultimately, Esther manipulates Haman’s downfall with not one, but two parties. Coincidence? I think not.

I would propose that Esther’s party is a tikkun for Vashti’s party. In other words, Esther plans to make a party to honor Achashverosh. She contrasts with Vashti’s party, which was intended for the queen’s personal interests and excluded the king’s party. Esther’s plan to save the Jewish people requires Achashverosh to make a choice between Haman and her. It would be reasonable for her to assume that a party for the king would tip the scales in her direction. Esther’s party is designed to have the opposite effect of Vashti’s party. And what do you know, her plan works!

If you have time, feel free to take a look at Megillah 15b (starting from line 36) for a variety of opinions of exactly what Esther is planning to achieve with this party. Also, I was inspired by Rashi on Esther 6:1, where he comments that Achashverosh is concerned that Esther invited Haman because she is attracted to him. 

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Esh Kodesh - Happy Purim

I wanted to share a short yet powerful piece by the Esh Kodesh on Purim. As I mentioned in his Gedolei Israel post, you often get a feeling for the difficulty of living in the Ghetto from the drashot of the Esh Kodesh. His piece about Purim from 1940 discusses how to celebrate the simchah of Purim, when you are not experiencing any simchah in your life.

The Esh Kodesh starts with a quotation from the Tikkunei Zohar which states that Purim is like Yom Kippur (which is יום כפורים). He states that on Yom Kippur you must fast whether or not you want to, because that is HaShem’s command. So too on Purim, we are commanded to feel happy even if we feel like there is no simchah in our life. We must make an effort to enter a spark of simchah into our hearts.

He concludes that some say that the essence of the day of Yom Kippur grants atonement for our aveirot, even if we have done incomplete teshuvah. (Shitat Rebbe in Yoma 75a) So too, the simchah that we experience on Purim has the potential about redemption - even if we experience incomplete simchah.

Purim Sameach.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Gedolei Israel - The Piaseczno Rebbe

The Piaseczno Rebbe is R. Kalonymous Kalman Shapira (1889-1943) and he is the author of a number of seforim. His sefer, Esh Kodesh is a fundamental part of my life and religious growth.

The Esh Kodesh is a collection of clear and concise Shabbat derashot that were given in the Warsaw Ghetto from 1940-1942. It is a unique window into an Orthodox response to the Shoah. As each year passes the drashot reflect the situation in the Ghetto becoming more difficult. For example, in Parshat Ekev 1941 (page 113), the Esh Kodesh rebukes the community for being lax in their Torah study. People should at least be able to learn Chumash or to say Tehillim. However, there is a footnote in which he explains that by the year 1943 this rebuke no longer applies. The situation in the Ghetto has become so dire, that the Jews can only be expected to focus on survival. Some of the drashot are only focused on the Parshah, and some of them also reflect on life in the Ghetto.

In times of my life where I have been in extremely difficult circumstances, I have turned to the Esh Kodesh for chizzuk and support. His drashot validate the suffering and pain of the individual. He does not attempt to minimize suffering, and use the commonly heard expression, “HaShem only gives us what we can handle.” Rather he often states that because the situation appears to be so hopeless, the only possible salvation can come from HaShem. He is emunah in HaShem is strong and flexible enough to ask difficult questions that do not have good answers - because there are no answers to the horrors of the holocaust. Yet the Esh Kodesh shows us that it is possible to maintain your emunah during a difficult situation.

The Piaseczno Rebbe wrote another well known sefer called the Chovat HaTalmidim, which is a religious guide for teenagers. I will discuss this sefer in another post.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Mishneh Torah - Sefer Ahavah

The next Sefer in the Mishneh Torah is Sefer Ahavah. However, every time I translate the name of this sefer into English, I instantly begin to hum the great 50’s song by The Monotones (possibly one of the all-time worst names for a band). Just as Chazal began Shas with Massechet Berachot, so too Rambam began the formal mitzvah section of the Mishneh Torah with the Halakhot of Prayer. (See this post for an explanation of why Sefer Madda is a quasi-hakdamah to the Mishneh Torah.) Sefer Ahavah contains the following sections of halakhot: (I am not going to explain the eponymous sections.)

  • Hilkhot Kriat Shema
  • Hilkhot Tefillah and Birchat Kohanim - Laws of the Amidah
  • Hilkhot Tefillin, Mezuzah and Sefer Torah
  • Hilkhot Tzitzit
  • Hilkhot Berachot
  • Hilkhot Milah - Laws of Brit Milah
  • Seder HaTefillah - Description of prayer liturgy (נוסח התפילה)

First of all, let’s talk about the name Sefer Ahavah. There are other seforim in the Mishneh Torah where Rambam uses the same names that Chazal used, for example: Nashim, Nezikin and Tehorah. Certainly, it is significant that he chose not to use the name Berachot for this sefer. Also, it is a name which does not easily explain the topic of the sefer. Rambam could have called it Sefer Tefillah because it mainly contains the laws of prayer. However, Rambam decided to include the laws of Tefillin, Mezuzah and Sefer Torah and the laws of Brit Milah which are not at all connected to prayer. Why would Rambam have decided to group these laws with the obvious laws of prayer?

The laws of Tefillin, Mezuzah and Sefer Torah appear in Massechet Menachot - obviously! The laws of Brit Milah appear in Massechet Shabbat. On the surface, both of these groups of laws do not seem to be connected to the Massechtot where they appear.

Tefillin, Mezuzah and Sefer Torah appear at the end of the 3rd perek of Menachot, seemingly because they are included in a long list of mitzvoth that are: מעכב זה את זה. This is a situation where missing a part of the mitzvah (like one of the two paragraphs of the mezuzah scroll) prevents you from being able to perform the mitzvah. In other words, if you have a mezuzah that has only one paragraph, then that mezuzah is not kosher. But there does not appear to be a philosophical or halakhik connection between the laws of the minchah korban and the laws of Tefillin, Mezuzah and Sefer Torah. Similarly, the laws of Brit Milah appear in the 19th perek of Massechet Shabbat, where the Mishnah discusses whether or not you can carry the items needed for a Brit Milah on Shabbat when there is no Eruv. Again there is no obvious connection between the halakhot of Menachot and Shabbat and the halakhot of Tefillin, Mezuzah and Sefer Torah and Brit Milah.

Here goes my grand unifying theory of Sefer Ahavah - these are mitzvot which easily enable you to express your love to HaShem. Our quest begins with the last perek of Hilkhot Teshuvah, which presents the idea that the love that a person should feel towards HaShem is comparable to the love that is described in Shir HaShirim. To worship HaShem with love is one of the highest levels of doing mitzvoth. This idea is a natural connection to the grand unifying theory of Sefer Ahavah: after you have learned about the goal of your Avodat HaShem, here are some mitzvot to get you started - the laws of prayer. And certainly it is obvious that the laws of Tefillin, Mezuzah, Sefer Torah and even tzitztit can be considered to be a subsection of the laws of prayer. Similarly, the laws of Kedushat Beit HaKnesset which appear in the 4th perek of Massechet Megillah are placed towards the end of Hilkhot Tefillah. Brit Milah could represent removing a physical barrier that exists between HaShem and men. Thus all of these laws emphasize how we can easily express our love of HaShem, and enhance our experience of loving HaShem.

I plan to discuss why Chazal chose to place the halakhot of Brit Milah in Massechet Shabbat in a separate post. (In ten years when I get a chance to learn the 3rd perek of Menachot I can also write a post about why the laws of Tefillin, Mezuzah and Sefer Torah are located there. I’ll keep you posted - pun intended.) 

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Sunday, March 1, 2009

Sefer Madda Addendum

A few additional words that I wanted to mention about Sefer Madda. Sefer Madda can be described as the halakhik prerequisites to being able to do mitzvot. You should be able to accomplish the following concepts before you can properly perform a specific mitzvah. (Similar to Derech Eretz Kadma L’Torah. Click here for my rant on origin of this Rabbinic aphorism.)

  • Believe in HaShem - Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah
  • Be physically and psychologically able to do mitzvoth - Hilkhot Deot
  • Learn how to do the halakhot - Hilkhot Talmud Torah
  • Avoid idolatry - Hilkhot Avodah Zarah
  • Repent for aveirot or mistakes: Hilkhot Teshuvah

I would like to describe two reasons that prove that Sefer Madda is genuinely distinct from the rest of the Mishneh Torah. Firstly, there is a good vocalized (menukad) edition of the whole Mishneh Torah by Mosad HaRav Kook called Rambam L’Am. The ONLY volume of the Mishneh Torah that you can buy individually is Sefer Madda. If you want any other volume of the Rambam L’Am you must buy the entire set. (Unless you get lucky in a used-seforim shop.)

Secondly, Sefer Madda was quite controversial in the halcyon days of the Middle Ages - back when hygiene was poor and book burning was de rigueur. Not only did copies of the Moreh Nevuchim go up in flames, but so did copies of Sefer Madda. Ramban agreed that most of Sefer Madda was heretical and therefore deserved to be burned. (Presumably because of Rambam’s liberal use of Greek philosophy.) However, Ramban stated that Hilkhot Teshuvah was such a great work of machshavah that it prevented them from burning the rest of Sefer Madda. Ramban did not suggest burning the entire Mishneh Torah, rather only Sefer Madda was problematic. Hence, I assert that Sefer Madda can be considered to be separate from the rest of the Mishneh Torah.

We will continue with the second book of the Mishneh Torah, Sefer Ahavah. Yet, in many ways it is appropriate for it to be considered as the first book, since Sefer Madda is a preface to the Mishneh Torah. In reality there is a preface to the Mishneh Torah called the Sefer haMitzvot, but does anyone actually learn it from cover to cover?

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