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..