Lag Ba’omer, Rebbe Akivah, and Kabbalah

By Rabbi Tzadok Cable

As we cross over the midway point of Sefiras Ha’omer we approach the milestone of Lag Ba’omer – the 33rd day of the Omer. What significance lies within this special day and what connection does it have to the days of Sefiras Ha’omer? When we look into this question the first thing that comes to mind is that Lag Ba’omer marks the day when the students of Rebbe Akivah stopped dying and it also marks the yartzeit (the day of passing) of Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai.

Rebbe Akivah was of course the great master and leader of the generation who saved the Torah from being forgotten through his sacrifice. One of his main cornerstones of teaching was “Ve’ahavtah L’reacha Kamochah – love your neighbor as yourself. Rebbe Akivah understood and emphasized in all of his teaching and in all areas of life, the importance of interpersonal relationships and the high level of sensitivity that the Torah demands us to have towards one another. To Rebbe Akivah this was not only a central precept of Judaism but also one that by mastering it would lead to growth and increasing levels of completion in all other areas of Torah.

With this in mind we must certainly be perplexed by the following teaching from the Talmud

“They said that Rebbe Akivah had 12,000 pairs of students between the cities of Geves and Antifrus, and all of them died during one period of time because they didn’t conduct themselves with the proper respect for one another. And then the world was desolate and the Torah was in danger of being forgotten until Rebbe Akivah came down to our Rabbis in the south – Rebbe Meir, Rebbe Yehudah, Rebbe Yosi, Rebbe Shimon, and Rebbe Elazar ben Shamuah and they reestablished the standing of Torah at that time. The Tannah teaches us that the period of time when Rebbe Akivah’s first students passed away was between Pesach and Shavuos. Rav Chamah bar Abbah and some say Rav Chiyah bar Avin said they all died a very bitter death, what is that referring to “Askarah”(according to our tradition this is the most painful form of death in the world). Yevamos 62b

The Beis Yosef in his comments on the Tur in Siman 493:2 says that there is an alternative version of this story found in a Midrash. The Midrash says that all of the first students of Rebbe Akivah died between Pesach and “pros ha’atzeres” which means fifteen days before Shavuos. He goes on to explain that this means that the students died between Pesach and the 33rd day of the Sefiras Ha’omer period.

These two alternative texts are the foundation for the different customs of mourning that we observe today during the Omer period. These practices of mourning include not getting married, not getting haircuts, and not dancing during this period of time. Some keep this custom for the entire 49 days of the Omer period based on the text of the Gemara above. However, the prevailing custom amongst Ashkenazic Jews today is to keep these customs of mourning for the first 33 days of the Omer (or what is otherwise known as “Lag Ba’omer – the word “Lag” – ‘lamed’ ‘gimmel’ has a numerical value of 33).

But putting the legalities of this time period aside there is a very difficult problem in this historical accounting. How is it possible that the 24,000 students of Rebbe Akivah were guilty of not conducting themselves with the proper respect for one another? Rebbe Akivah was the one who lived and taught to the greatest degree the foundation of “V’ahavtah L’reachah Kamochah”. How is it possible that his message wasn’t clearly established and practiced amongst his students? We can find the answer to this dilemma from our tradition. We know that there is a general rule in how Hashem deals with people in this world called “Hakadosh Baruchu Medakdek al Hatzadikim K’chut Hasa’arah” which means that G-d is actually more exacting in judgment (even to a hairsbreadth) with the righteous than he is with normal people. We know the famous Gemara in Bava Kamma 50a

“There was once a story that happened to the daughter of Reb Nechunia Chofer Shichin where she fell into one of the water wells that he had dug for the Jews coming up to Jerusalem for the 3 festivals. People went to tell this news to Rebbe Chaninah ben Dosa who was a very pious individual so that he would pray for her. The first hour passed and Rebbe Chaninah said she is still alive, the second hour passed and he said the same. The third hour passed and he said she has come out of the pit. When she came back from being saved she related a miraculous story of how a sheep had wandered and fallen into the opening of the well. There was an old man following it and he saw me and saved me. (Rashi comments that the old man was actually the spirit of Avraham Avinu who had come to save her) They asked Rebbe Chaninah if he had prophecy in order to know she was saved and he said I am not a prophet nor the son of a prophet but I knew that the mitzvah that her father sacrificed so much for could not possibly be the cause of death for his offspring. Nevertheless Rebbe Acha said that Rebbe Nechunia’s son died of thirst as it says “and for those in G-d’s close surroundings it is extremely tenuous”. This verse is teaching you that G-d is exacting with the righteous ones even to a hairsbreadth.

The question once again is that we understand why Rebbe Nechunia’s daughter was saved from this form of death. What we don’t understand is how it could have been that she should have fallen into that well to begin with. Would Hashem not protect the offspring and descendants of Rebbe Nechunia from any form of danger with regards to these wells which their father dug with such self sacrifice? The answer lies in a deeper understanding of why Hashem is exacting with the tzadikim even to a hairsbreadth. This seems so unfair. Shouldn’t it be that someone who is so dedicated to reaching the highest level of service of Hashem, and who sacrifices to such a great degree to do so, should receive some sort of immunity?

The answer is of course – NO! This is a warped view of the ways of the Almighty. He doesn’t offer diplomatic immunity to his righteous ones. On the other hand, if this is true then why would anyone want to make this sacrifice and try to be so great when all that is waiting for him on the other side is being treated with such exacting judgment? The answer is that the advantage and the benefit of living life on a higher plane of completion and to such a degree of sacrifice far outweighs the comfort of being treated with greater mercy but remaining less connected to Hashem. You can’t have it both ways. The tzaddik realizes that even though he will be judged more strictly as he reaches greater levels in the service of Hashem, it is worth it because in return a deeper level of closeness and a stronger bond with the Almighty becomes available. The normal person who doesn’t make that push may be treated with more mercy and allowed a more lenient form of judgment. However, in return for that he looses out on a greater level of closeness that can only be gained by the path of the tzadik. This is the insight of this teaching about Hashem’s way with the tzadikim.

Therefore, not only is the righteous person treated with greater exactingness in judgment, but he is judged more strictly specifically in the areas where he is great. It is no coincidence at all that Rebbe Nechunia’s daughter fell into one of his wells, nor is it a coincidence that Rebbe Akivah’s students passed away specifically because they weren’t complete in the area of “Been Adam Lachaveiro” – interpersonal relationships. Specifically because Rebbe Akivah was so great in this area, he was tested and judged so strictly with regards to it. Perhaps more than anything else we focus our attention on the centrality of “Bein Adam Lachaveiro” during the Omer. This is the time that the Torah wants us to make the transition between the barley offering on the second day of Pesach to the two wheat breads of Shavuos. We discussed in another article about the significance of the counting of the Omer that the whole point that the Torah wants is for us to realize that our productivity both physically and spiritually needs to be refined from more selfish to more selfless. The more selfless a person becomes the easier it is to fulfill the precepts of “Bein Adam Lachaveiro”.

We saw above that Rebbe Akivah wasted no time after his 24,000 students passed away. He immediately picked up the pieces and started to rebuild. He knew what needed to be done and he knew where he had fallen short in the past. It is therefore by no coincidence that one of the students that developed from his second try was Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai, the father of the Kabbalistic teachings and the author of the Zohar. The Tosefta in Chagigah 2:2 teaches us the following:

“Four men entered into paradise Ben Azai, Ben Zoma, Acher, and Rebbe Akivah. Ben Azai gazed at what was there and died, Ben Zoma gazed at what was there and went insane, Acher gazed at what was there and became a heretic, and Rebbe Akivah went up there in peace and came back down in peace”

Our tradition says that this idea of going up to paradise has to do with learning the mystical secrets of Kabbalah. To enter paradise means to gain access to the mystical secrets of the universe and thus be able to incorporate them into the way and manner in which we perform our Divine Service. Of the greatest scholars of his time only Rebbe Akivah was able to go into this realm of thought and absorb the depths of understanding available there. Only Rebbe Akivah was prepared and worked out enough to manage to gain access to the deepest ideas in the Torah and bring them back down to the physical realm, to the mundane day to day life we live.

What gave Rebbe Akivah this ability? It was his mastery of Bein Adam Lachaveiro. Because Rebbe Akivah had mastered the art of being selfless, therefore he was able to absorb the deepest secrets of the unity of G-d. He had no sense of self to distort the ideas and twist them to fit his “personal interest”. Clearly, one of his greatest students – Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai, was the benefactor of the greatness of his master and followed in his footsteps to the greatest degree. This is specifically what gave Rebbe Shimon access to the secrets of the Kabbalah like his master. Interestingly enough, we find throughout the Zohar that Rebbe Shimon constantly referred to his students as “a group of friends”. He saw the crucial element of Bein Adam Lachaveiro as being central to reaching the levels of depth and insight that can only be found in the Kabbalah.

Of course it is by no coincidence that Rebbe Shimon passed away on the 33rd day of the Omer. This is the same day that marks the ultimate breakdown of Rebbe Akivah’s first attempt at healing the rift in the world between the Almighty and His children. Rebbe Akivah’s message was clear even then. It’s all about Bein Adam Lachaveiro. This is the only way to bring the ultimate level of completion to the world through Torah. Anything short of striving for this ideal will leave a warping and a distortion in our full understanding of the Torah. The source of this distortion will be rooted in the aspect of selfishness. Rebbe Shimon passed away on the same day but in a totally different context. He left behind the “close group of friends” with whom he had shared such a close and deep relationship, that together they were able to bring down the revelation of the deepest secrets of the mystical teachings of the Torah. He left behind the Zohar with all that this gives us as Jews and with all that adds to the world. One of the most common and basic teachings in the Zohar is that someone who has truly mastered the stages of preparing himself to attain an understanding of the secrets of the Kabbalah, is capable of making the most profound and deepest form of transformation on the world. He can fix the world more powerfully and more intensely than others. Certainly if we understand that the Torah is “the precious tool that G-d used to create the world” (Avos 3:18), than all the more so we understand that someone who has refined themselves from all selfishness and thus attained the clearest and deepest understanding of Torah can wield the greatest change and the greatest impact on our universe through his Divine Service.

Perhaps we can now understand what David Hamelech was saying in Psalms 119:18 “[Hashem] – Open my eyes and I will see the wonders of your Torah”. The word for open in this verse is “gal” – the letters are ‘gimmel’ ‘lamed’ the same numerical value as 33. David says “Hashem open my eyes, meaning – allow me to see you and the others in the world that you have Created in the true form in which they exist without the distortion of selfishness. Then as a result of this “I will see the wonders of your Torah. This is a reference to the deeper teachings of the Torah. Furthermore, in the selichos we say in one of the stanzas “purify our impurities and to the light of Your Torah open our eyes”. Again here the word for opening the eyes is ‘gimmel’ ‘lamed’. In other words we say “Hashem purify our impurities – meaning our point of selfishness which constantly drives us away from you, and as a result “open our eyes to the light of your Torah”. Again here the reference is to the deeper element of the light of the Torah. This is the aspect that can only be perceived and revealed to a person when they are ready to absorb it.

Based on this it is clear that the 33rd day of the Omer is a very special day. It marks the bridge and the transition of our preparation during the Omer from selfishness to selflessness. We have 17 more days to go until Shavuos but we have crossed the bridge. The seventeen remaining days have the same numerical value as the Hebrew word “good” – TOV. This is when we can cross the threshold into a new level of understanding the world. We can see the good in everything. We can understand the secrets of our universe and learn to use them to bring the ultimate good into the world. This is the legacy of our great master Rebbe Akivah and his giant of a student Rebbe Shimon. Let us take this special day and use it to give us inspiration that we too can reach selflessness. And through this we will merit to stand again on Shavuos as a nation at the base of Mount Sinai like one man with one heart!

Rabbi Tzadok Cable:

My name is Tzadok Cable. I am originally from Miami Beach, Florida, but I have been living in Israel since 1992. Over the years I have had the opportunity to learn Torah from some of the leading Rabbis of our time including: Rabbi Noach Weinberg zt””l, Rabbi Yitzchak Berkowitz, Rabbi Yirmiyahu Kaganoff, Rabbi Yonason Berger, Rabbi Nosson Weisz, and Rabbi Yochanan Bechoffer. Over the last 8 years I have been running the Rabbinical Ordination Program at Yeshivas Aish Hatorah.

I have realized during my years of learning and teaching that there is a tremendous thirst and interest in the world today for deep, explorative, and impacting Torah content. I strive to address this interest in my teaching style. In recent years I have seen the trend in the world towards the usage of the World Wide Web and social media on the internet. My vision is to use this trend to provide an opportunity for people to find what they are looking for.

I have developed a vast range of resources and made them available to you on binyanhaolam.com.

Fifty Ways to Meet Your Lover (Sefirat HaOmer)

Mystical writings make this time period analogous to a woman preparing for union with her lover. She purifies herself for seven days. Seven is also the number of types of impurity that must be eliminated, and in our case linked to seven weeks, the time period between Passover and the Biblical holiday of Shavuot, forty-nine days called Sefirat HaOmer, “Counting the Omer”. God reveals all wisdom that there is to know on the fiftieth day, Shavuot, symbolized by the consummation of a marriage. In other words, to learn wisdom is to become one with the Infinite.

Therefore “spiritual purification” is a theme of these fifty days. Each day is designated for us to pray for and work towards a small piece of spirituality.

Don’t get me wrong, anyone who wants God’s wisdom can have it. He loves everyone and wants to give to them. But the more we are equipped to deal with it the more useful it will be.

There’s an old story of a person who seeks to speak with a wise Zen master.

As the proposed disciple sits before the master, the disciple begins to expound on his own knowledge to impress the master. The master stays quiet and begins to pour tea into a cup for the visitor. After the cup is full the master continues to pour until the tea is pouring over the sides causing the disciple to jump up and yell “Stop, the cup is full and can hold no more!”

The wise Zen master replies, “And what about you? Are you full of wisdom? If so, there is no more room for me to teach you anything.”

Wisdom is being poured out from above, but we have to be ready to receive it. Are we humble enough to know how little we know about marriage, parenting, happiness, and meaning? If so we will hit the jackpot.


Step by Step

We are commanded to count each and every day between Passover and Shavuot. This implies that spiritual growth is best achieved step by step, one day at a time. Our soul wants to soar straight to the Infinite. Our body also wants to become holy overnight so it doesn’t have to work. The real path, though, is to fire up a burning desire for purity every single day, working step by step to make progress on the ladder to the Heavens.

Seven Shepherds

One path the sages recommend to grab this opportunity is to emulate the Seven Shepherds. Each week is designated for a different holy one to try to be like.

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David each represents a different character trait. The first week is dedicated to Abraham, the second to Isaac, and so on. There are seven kabbalistic terms in Hebrew that do not lend themselves to an English translation so I will describe an aspect of them instead.

1st Week:
Abraham exemplifies the quality of Chesed, a trait evidenced in his extreme love of mankind. This first week, in order to purify yourself and tap into the flow of Divine assistance, we can look for the positive things in others that bring to the surface that natural love in our hearts for all humanity. If the Almighty can love all His children, so can we.

2nd Week:
Isaac exemplifies Gevura, a trait of discipline and inner strength. He never wavered from whatever he deemed the will of God. To imitate him we can focus our attention on things we are doing that we know are not God’s will and eradicate them.

3rd Week:
Jacob is Tiferet, the ability to be in harmony with all forces. Sometimes he fought, sometimes he bowed. He knew how to handle every single person that came his way. He even had two names which showed his flexibility. He blessed each of his children, showing that he spent time considering the nature of each child, trying to give each one what he needed, encouragement, rebuke, insight, etc. We can do this too by thinking deeply about each of our close family and friends and think about what each person needs.

4th Week:
Moses is Netzach, the Torah’s eternal conduit. We can emulate him by studying the insights of the Torah and try to remove any of our own personal influence on the insights, looking for the pure unadulterated truth.

5th Week:
Aaron is Hod, a trait which made him beloved by all who knew him. He loved peace and did everything he could to bring peace into the world at every opportunity. We all want people to get along, but how many of us are doing anything about it? This fifth week we can emulate Aaron by doing something practical and specific that brings more peace in the world.

6th Week:
Joseph is Yesod, similar to Jacob’s ability to relate to all people, Joseph’s ability was to be able to bond with, join, and become a part of each and every person he met. He easily and successfully became a trusted assistant wherever he went, whether with Jacob, Potiphar (an Egyptian official), the jailer of the dungeon, or to Pharaoh himself. He was immediately trusted because he truly felt the pain of each person he met. We can imitate him by trying to become one with the people we know and their challenges to the point they truly trust us.

7th Week:
David is Malchut, a trait that allowed him to connect his own royal power and tie it to the Almighty. Power corrupts unless you constantly remind yourself that your power is only the Divine putting you in a position like a marionette puppet. When all others were afraid of Goliath, David said, “Are you going to let this guy curse the Almighty? HaShem will help you defeat him.” David knew that the Almighty runs the show at all times. “To You are the greatness, the strength, the harmony, the permanence, and the glory….” We can look at all of our abilities or power roles this week and see how we are merely a conduit for the Almighty.

If you try to emulate each character trait for one week of the seven week period you will experience a new type of enlightenment at the end. This is a simple straightforward approach to the Sefirah period. A more complicated approach uses all seven traits each week. Because each trait is incomplete without all the other six. You can’t have real love like Abraham if you don’t include Isaac’s awe of God. Otherwise you’ll transgress God’s laws to fulfill your love. You’ll spoil your children and become a doormat to your spouse. Each trait properly includes all the others. So a complicated approach to the 50 days has a different combination of two traits each day.

Our tradition says that the Israelites accomplished this when they left Egypt and fifty days later received the Torah.

Riding the Escalator of Life

Sometimes we get a special gift. When you work on spirituality in a consistent way the Almighty opens up a gate for you that you might not have imagined. If you look for reminders of what you are working on you will also notice on a daily basis how the Almighty is guiding and directing your efforts at self-growth. This daily testament to His role in our daily life is comforting and keeps us connected. But when we get that special gift, sometimes a whole new world opens up.

Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch) had an angel come to him and teach him many secrets because of his consistent study of the Mishna, the Oral Tradition. We are not all going to have such a special and holy event happen to us like that but each on our own individual level will receive a boost.

Kind of like that way someone gets “discovered” after plugging away for many years at something. Kimya Dawson was a relatively unknown recording a performing artist for years until one day an actress in a movie called “Juno” recommended her recording with the Moldy Peaches for the soundtrack which became a chartbuster. Now Kimya Dawson is “suddenly” a recognized star. Suddenly….after years of continuous effort. In the spiritual world it happens too.

Whatever area of growth we want to grab a hold of, consistency and continuity will be helpful, and sometimes they will be the cause of a major leap that propels us into a higher level. Our small path of steps just might be turn into a springboard. Now is the time to take the first step.

First Published on May 14, 2008

How I Learned to Stop Complaining and Love Yom Tov

Making Yom Tov requires a Jewish woman to be a frugal shopper, an adequate cook, an event planner, an astute student of Jewish law, and a gracious hostess. She needs to be all this while still being a wife, a mother, or often a career woman too. In short, making Yom Tov is an endeavor that requires a Project Manager. Being the balaboostah is not a simple task, as she must oversee all aspects of the project from start to finish. Over 20 odd years of running my own kosher kitchen in our Torah observant household, I have learned through repeated failures and successes how to stop complaining and love Yom Tov. Here are ten of my tips:

1. Always prepare well in advance.
Like any big project, making Yom Tov requires a schedule. Give yourself ample time, weeks or months if necessary, to do all the planning, shopping, cooking and freezing. Inviting guests is often best done at least a few weeks ahead of time, lest you find yourself disappointed that people have made other plans. It helps to know as soon as possible exactly how many people you are catering for. This way you know what quantities of food to buy, and you also have time to search for bargains. Then you can measure out your freezer, because unless you have a separate freezer for Yom Tov, (which some lucky women do) you will still be using it for everyday food storage. You need to know there will be room to store all the Yom Tov food, before and after it is cooked. I like to work out what to purchase and cook by dividing it into the number of servings for each meal. If I know that I will be serving 45 portions over the entire two days of a Yom Tov, then I know I need 45 portions of soup, 45 portions of fish, 45 portions of desert, and so on and so forth.

Then I cook in short cooking sessions over the course of days or weeks. To do a long cooking marathon into the wee hours of the morning leaves me too exhausted to go to work the next day. Instead, I grab an hour or two here and there, in the early evenings and on Sundays, to cook a tray of fish balls, or a tray of chicken, to bake a cake, or to make a kugel or two, etc. Then I pop them into the freezer with labels taped on the containers to keep track. Following this method ensures that by the time Yom Tov comes around I am relaxed and ready without panicking or having endured undue loss of sleep.

2. Never try to keep up with the big Rebbetzins or the Goldsteins.
Yom Tov became much more enjoyable for me when I stopped comparing mine to other women’s Yom Tov tables. I used to drive myself crazy by feeling inadequate when my table wasn’t as fancy or my food not as elaborate as the big Rebbetzins or the Goldsteins next door. It took me a while, but soon enough I realised that it was all so self-defeating. Just as no matter who you are, there is always going to be someone smarter, richer, or better looking than you, there will always be those women whose Yom Tov making is more efficient, more beautiful, and more tasty than yours too. Some women have more talent and an eye for aesthetics or cooking. Some women grew up with better Yom Tov making training than others, so they have an advantage. So what? At the end of the day, only Hashem knows your particular circumstances. And your circumstances includes things like your inborn talent, the amount of money you can spend, the amount of time you have, the amount of energy G-d gave you, your family situation (5 little kids under the age of ten is challenging for anyone), and the type of lifestyle you live. No one else can or should judge you. Remember, the only one you really need to impress is the Almighty. Only He really knows if you extended enough effort to honor the Yom Tov, and that is between you and G-d.

3. I make sure I cook what my family likes.
The most important people you have to satisfy is your own family. No sense of copying a great fancy recipe just because it looks great in the latest trendy kosher cookbook, or because your friends loved it, if your own family doesn’t like it. It’s your home, it’s your Yom Tov table, and your most special guests are your own family. Keep them happy first and foremost, and then your guests will also enjoy your meal all the more. If your husband likes plain instead of fancy, then make plain. You can prepare an extra dish or two just for the guests, but be sure the bulk of the meal satisfies your family. Remember, your guests will leave after the meal, but your family lives with you. Believe me, a family with happily filled tummies makes for more a much more pleasant Yom Tov and more shalom in the home.

4. Use paper goods.
Yes, I know you invested in fantastic crockery and cutlery, or maybe you have that special set handed down to your from your grandmother. So use them, for at least part of the Yom Tov if you must, but paper goods will save you so much extra cleaning time. After Yom Tov you will appreciate doing only two loads of dishes in the dishwasher instead of ten. And its less pile up in your sink and on your benches during Yom Tov too. Paper goods need not be expensive to be pretty and practical. I absolutely love popping them all in the rubbish bag after the meal, it’s a machayah!

5. Turn on Torah tapes or inspiring Jewish music while working.
Preparation time can be long, mundane, and mind numbing. You can utilize that time by making it inspiring. Not only are there heaps of Torah leaning tapes you can borrow or buy, but the internet has dozens of Torah websites that have unbelievably good Torah classes on audio. Listen while chopping, kneading, mixing, scrubbing, and polishing. Not only will you stimulate your mind, you’ll have some words of Torah to give over at the table, and the holy vibes of the Torah learning will get absorbed into your food making it all that more tasty.

6. Be inner directed.
Don’t look for compliments or appreciation from hubby, kids or guests. If you get it, then great, but don’t be needy of it. Get your head straight as to the purpose of making Yom Tov and, that is to strengthen your connection to G-d and to create holiness, to sanctify your home, and to do the mitzvah. Not everyone in your life will always understand how hard you worked, especially kids, and some guests, so get over it!

7. Go to shule only after I am rested.
I love going to shule, but not if I haven’t got the attention span or the energy. It’s better to get bit of rest or quiet time sometimes on Yom Tov mornings, even if it means missing a Kaddish or two. So what? We’re not men, we are not obligated to be there, we can daven just as well at home most of the time. It’s just nice if we can go and only if we enjoy it. And why drag your kids along if they won’t behave, or if you spend the whole time chasing them, or shushing them to be quiet?

8. Go to a Torah class or gathering if there are any.
No matter how tired I get on Yom tov afternoons, if there is a Torah class, or a frabrengen, or any type of speaker or gathering, I try with all my strength to drag myself to go. I find that once I am there I am always happy I went. After all that cooking serving, hostessing, etc., it’s great to have some social interaction with other women and it can charge your batteries up even better than a short sleep.

9. Indulge yourself and buy at least one nice new thing.
Get something nice for yourself for Yom Tov, whatever you can afford. If not an entire outfit, it may be a piece of costume jewelllery, or shoes, or get a facial, a manicure, or get the sheitel done. Whatever it is that makes you feel more feminine, more princess like, more pampered, do it, and do not feel guilty. The Torah agrees that we women need these little perks.

10. Endorse yourself for a job well done!
When it is finally all over and done with, when you have finally put that last dish away in its place in the cupboard, take a deep sigh and pat yourself on the back. You did it again!

Also posted on Shoshanna’s blog.
Originally Posted on 10/27/2010

Purim, the BT and Unity

I still remember my first Purim as a BT. I didn’t drink, reasoning that I didn’t come to Torah observance to party. However I did get to witness a few unbelievable Purim Shpiels at Ohr Somayach in Monsey as Rabbi Lam was a central participant.

After many years I have a much greater appreciation of Purim and its connection to the BT. Purim at its core is about Jewish Unity and Teshuva. Faced with annihilation that entire Jewish people banded together to rediscover their true purpose and reconnect with Hashem and His Torah. As Baalei Teshuva we certainly have first hand experience of the intense Teshuva experience and the power it creates.

On the Unity side, the mitzvos of the day, illustrate this theme. The reading of the Megillah is a public proclamation of Hashem’s guidance over the affairs of the Jewish People. It is often noted that Purim night is the most crowded event at Shul, with the possible exception of Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur.

The Purim Seudah is a unifying experience as are all Shabbos and Yom Tov meals. Shaloch Manos and Matanos L’Evyonim are both mitzvos designed to created closer bonds between Jews. Some Poskim hold that the drinking on Purim at the Seudah serves to bring us together, as sometimes it is necessary to loosen up to make closer connections.

Baalei Teshuva long for authentic Jewish connections, which is why communal integration is one of our major issues. And as Jews who have been on both sides of the observant/non-observant divide, we have the potential to spur the community to further unification. But first we need to feel in the depths of our hearts that we are all part of one Jewish People. If we can feel that deep connection, many of the divisions caused by judgementalism would fade, as we tend to judge ourselves favorably. Deeper connections would also spur us to collectively work on the crisis’s of Jewish Assimilation, Financial Pressures, Kids at Risk and Shidduchim. Often we see these as somebody else’s problem, but as integral parts of the Jewish people we need to view them as all of our problem.

Today as we engage in the very communal act of a public fast heading into Purim, perhaps we can focus on the essential mitzvos of these days, working on caring deeply about our fellow Jews and collectively returning to Hashem.

Sukkos – The Jews Inner Self

From Bilvavi.net Succos – The Jews Inner Self
Visit the link to download a number of Sukkos Talks from Rabbi Itamar Schwartz.

Sukkah and the Four Species – The Dual Natures of Man

On Sukkos, we have two mitzvos: to sit in the sukkah, and to shake the Four Species. These two mitzvos represent the two sides of man. The Four Species, which we shake around and move, represent how man is always in movement. We are full of various retzonos (desires), and all of these desires are a kind of movement. The mitzvah of sitting in the sukkah represents a totally different side to us. In a sukkah, we don’t move; we sit there.

Hashem is mainly called by two names. The lower name of Hashem is “adonoy” – He is our adon, our master. This refers to how we serve him with the mitzvos. The higher name of Hashem is the four-letter name of havayah, and this refers to the simple recognition of His existence. The two names of Hashem reflect the two sides of our life’s mission. On one hand, we “move” constantly by doing all the mitzvos. This is how relate to Hashem as our Master, Whom we serve; that He is adonoy. But the inner essence to our life is that we recognize his existence and integrate our own existence as a part of Hashem. This is how we relate to Hashem with his higher name, havayah. It is the deeper part of our life.

The fact that Hashem exists is not just a fact about life, but it is something which we can connect ourselves to. The mitzvah of sitting in the Sukkah is entirely about this concept – to sit in Hashem’s Presence, with no need to move around, and instead to connect to Hashem’s Endlessness.

In this discussion, the intention is not merely to say a nice dvar Torah for Sukkos, but rather, to define the very essence of Sukkos: accessing our innermost point of our self – our point of non-movement – when we integrate with Hashem. It is also a concept that has ramifications to our entire life. It is the way how we can prepare for the future, when we will sit in the Sukkah made of the leviathan skin.

The depth of our Avodah on Sukkos is to combine the two sides of mankind and integrate them together: the Four Species, which represents our mitzvos\movement, and the mitzvah of sitting in the Sukkah, which represents our recognition of Hashem\non-movement.

Our Actual Essence Vs. The Outer Layers of the Self

We will try to explain this as much as Hashem allows us to understand it.

The most complicating thing in the world is our self. Anything else we recognize are all superficial realities – such as our house, the block we live on, the country we live in, even the world; it’s all an external, superficial kind of recognition. If this is all a person knows of, then he lives a superficial kind of existence – he lives on the outside world. He is thinking all the time about things that are outside of himself. The clothing we wear is not either a part of who we are.

When a person begins to look for his inner essence, he is apt to think that he “is” what he “does.” He identifies himself based on his actions, his emotions, and his thoughts.

For example, a person has an affinity to do chessed (kindness), so he thinks of himself as a “good person” since he sees that he is drawn towards doing good things. When he has to reprimand his children sometimes, he feels horrible inside, because now he thinks he’s a “bad person” by having to act cruel to them.

If a person is deeper, he knows that there is more to himself than the actions he does. He is aware of his thoughts – and he identifies himself based on what’s going on in his mind. Yet this is erroneous as well, because a person is not his thoughts either.

Our actions, our emotions, and our thoughts are just outer layers that cover over our essence. They are like garments that clothe our soul.[1] But there is more to who we are than our actions, emotions, and thoughts.

How can a person identify who he really is?

To be frank, there is almost no one who truly knows who he is, and there is almost no one as well who really recognizes Hashem. If a person doesn’t know he really is, he can’t either recognize Hashem!

There are many people who are searching to find Hashem. But, it is written “From my flesh I see G-d”[2]; in other words, we need to know who we are in order to be able to recognize Hashem.

Only By Recognizing Our Self Can We Recognize Hashem

Read more Sukkos – The Jews Inner Self

Tu B’Av – Completing the Circle

By Yossi from NJ

Tractate Ta’anis ends with a fascinating and somewhat enigmatic Mishna:

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said, Israel had no days as festive as The Fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur; for on those days, the maidens of Jerusalem would go out dressed in borrowed white clothing – borrowed, in order not to embarrass those who had none. All the garments required ritual immersion.

The maidens of Jerusalem would go out and dance [in a circle] in the vineyards.

And what would they say?

“Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself. Do not consider physical beauty. Consider rather family. ‘For charm is false, and beauty is vanity. A woman who fears Hashem, she is the one to be praised..’ (Mishlei/Proverbs 31:30) “.

And it is further stated ‘Go forth and gaze, O daughters of Zion, upon the King Shlomo, adorned with the crown His nation made Him on the day of His wedding and on the day of the joy of His heart’ (Shir HaShirim 3:11) On the day of his wedding – this is the giving of the Torah; and on the day of the joy of His heart – this is the building of the Holy Temple, may it be rebuilt speedily in our days! Amen.

Chazal often use the metaphor of a wedding for the giving of the Torah; Hashem, the groom, joining in an intimate relationship with his people. In fact, the Alshich explains that Moshe broke the first luchos when he saw the chet ha’eigel as if to say, “the ring (the luchos) has not yet been given, so rather than being like a married woman who has commited adultery, the Jews were still not in the ‘betrothed’ stage”.

Yom Kippur was the day that Moshe brought the second luchos down; therefore the Mishna compares it to a wedding day. And Shlomo HaMelech consecrated the first Beis Hamikdash on Yom Kippur – that year they did not fast, but rather celebrated it as a festival.

The Gemara (Ta’anis 30b) raises the obvious question:

I can understand the Day of Atonement, because it is a day of forgiveness and pardon and on it the second Tablets of the Covenant were given, but what happened on the Fifteenth of Av?

At least six reasons are recounted, each, it seems to me, has the common denominator of a renewed relationship, and ultimately, hope for the future.

  • R’ Yehudah in the name of Shmuel said, it is the day on which the tribes were permitted to intermarry. While in the desert, each tribe would only marry within, so as not to complicate the division of the land (since a woman’s property would transfer to her husband upon her death), on Tu B’Av of the fortieth year, this ban was lifted.

  • R’ Yosef in the name of R’ Nachman said, it is the day on which the tribe of Binyamin was again permitted to marry into the congregation of Israel. The ban, due to the incident of the concubine at Givah (see Judges 19-20), only applied to that generation.
  • Rabah bar bar Chanah in the name of R’ Yochanan said, it is the day on which they realized that the decree of those destined to die in the desert had ended. Rashi explains, every year on Tisha B’Av, the men who were between the ages of 20 and 60 at the time of God’s decree, would dig graves and lay in them. In the morning, an announcement was made, “Let the living seperate from the dead”. In the fortieth year, no one died – the people thought they had erred in their calculation and repeated the procedure every night until the 15th of Av, at which point they realized that the decree had expired. Alternately, Tosafos (B”B 121a) raise the possibility that people did die in that year, but the mourners got up from Shiva on Tu B’Av, the seventh day (inclusive) after Tisha B’Av.

    The Gemara continues, only then did Hashem continue to speak to Moshe “face to face” – in the interim, Moshe received prophecy, but not in the intimate manner that he did before the “dying in the desert” began or after it ended.

  • Ulla says, it is the day on which Hoshea ben Eilah removed the guards that Yeravam had set up to prevent people going to Yerushalayim for Yom Tov.

    Yeravam ben Nevat was the first king of the divided kingdom of the ten tribes of Israel. In order to sever the people’s attachment to Jerusalem, and to prevent them from going up on the three festivals, he established and enforced the idolatry of the golden calves (see I Kings 12).

  • R’ Masna says, it is the day on which the slain Jews of Beitar were allowed to be buried. On that day, they established the Beracha of ha’tov v’ha’meitiv. ha’tov – that the bodies had (miraculously) not decomposed; v’ha’meitiv – that they were allowed to bury them).

    The destruction of Beitar was seemingly the end of hope for the kingdom of Judah. This had been the stronghold of Bar Kochba – the last hope for organized rebellion. The Gemara says that 2.1 million people were killed there by the sword. The Emperor Hadrian did not allow the bodies to be buried, rather, the corpses were used as “fences” around his vineyards. After his death, (12 years later) the new Caesar allowed their interment – on Tu B’Av.

  • Raba and R. Yosef both say – It was the day on which they stopped chopping wood for the pyre on the Mizbe’ach. As R’ Eliezer ha’Gadol taught, from the fifteenth of Av, the sun’s strength wanes, and they stopped cutting wood for the pyre as it wouldn’t dry properly. It was called the axe-breaking day. From this point on, whoever adds on to his night-time Torah study will have years added to his life.

    My Rav explains that this last reason is the primary one. Now that the men could go back to learning Torah full-time, this alone was cause for celebration.

The Gemara, as it often does, concludes the tractate with an Aggadic teaching:
Ulla Biraah said in the name of R’ Elazar: In the future, the Holy One, Blessed is He, will make a circle of all the righteous people, and He will sit among them [in the middle of the circle], and each one will point with his finger, as it says, And he shall say on that day, ‘Behold! This is our God; we hoped to Him and He saved us; this is Hashem to whom we hoped; let us exalt and be glad in His salvation” (Isaiah 25:9).

Ben Yehoyada explains that just as a bride circles her groom, so the righteous will form a circle, as it were, around God. Further, the “finger” suggests a bride’s ring finger.

The Yaavetz points out that the word used here for circle “Machol”, has the same root as mechila, forgiveness. The Gemara thus implies that in future God will forgive all the sins of Israel, enabling all of Israel the privilege of joining this circle.

The Apter Rebbe wrote,
The circle has no top and no bottom, no beginning or end. So too, in the future the righteous will experience no jealousy or dislike, for no one will be said to be on a higher level than another…

This itself is the “holiday for Israel” – when there is no jealousy, competition or envy between them. This is what our sages allude to: Israel had no holidays like Tu B’Av – as the 15th letter of the Aleph Bet is the letter Samech, which is a round circle, with no top or bottom. This is the concept of the dance, and this is the greatest holiday for Israel.
(Ohev Yisrael Likutim 113:B)

So perhaps the last verse quoted by our Mishna can also be refering to Tu B’Av – certainly, it is a day of weddings, of gladness of the heart, and of Torah. Further, the Pri Tzaddik wrote that the future Beis HaMikdash is destined to be built during the month of Av.

“May it be rebuilt speedily in our days! Amen.”
Originally Posted August 9. 2006

Mourning’s End – Understanding Sefira and Lag B’Omer


The Torah’s Honor

The untimely demise of a Torah giant impacts every Jew, leaving a deep feeling of loss. If two Torah leaders died on one day (G-d forbid), the tragedy would be immense. We cannot even fathom how we would feel if the number was ten, fifty, or a hundred. In this light, we can begin to grasp the devastation of 24,000 Torah scholars dying between Pesach and Shavous, all students of Rabbi Akiva.

Our Sages reveal that they all died for the same reason: they did not honor each other properly ( Yevamos 62b). Their failure to honor their colleagues prevented them from appreciating words of Torah said by others. As a result their understanding of Torah was confined to their own insight, an extremely limited perception. Lacking total comprehension, they were not worthy to pass the Torah on to the next generation.

This flaw was rooted so deep in their conduct that they were not aware of it. Even Rabbi Akiva did not perceive it and never reproached them for it. If so, why were they punished so severely? The period between Pesach and Shavous is a time when a Jew is meant to prepare himself to receive the Torah. They should have used this opportunity to look within themselves and recognize their shortcomings. Instead, their souls were returned to their Creator.

Because of this tragedy, the Jewish people observe a period of national mourning between Pesach and Shavous. During this time we refrain from getting married, taking haircuts and shaving ( Shulchan Aruch 493:1-2). In addition, the accepted custom is not to listen to music ( Igros Moshe 1,166 and other poskim ) or to dance, even at a seudas mitzva ( Mishna Berura 493,3).

Days of Mourning
Although the students of Rabbi Akiva died between Pesach and Shavous, all agree that there were not deaths on every single day of this period. Some Rishonim cite a Midrash which says that the students died continuously from Pesach until “ Prus, ” half a month before Shavous (Abudraham , Razah and others.) According to this calculation, mourning should be observed as long as the deaths continued, i.e. until the 19th of Iyar, the 34th day of the Omer . This is the conclusion of the Shulchan Aruch (493,2) and the accepted practice among Sephardim.
Other poskim cite a comment by Tosfos saying that they continued to die until right before Shavous (Maharil). However they did not die on the sixteen days that Tachanun is not said (i.e. seven days of Pesach, six days of Shabbos, and three days of Rosh Chodesh ) leaving a total of thirty-three days. Those who accept this version do not mourn on the exact days that the students died, but rather during a corresponding thirty-three day period established by our Sages.

The Rema follows this view and it is the accepted practice among Ashkenazim (Rema 493:2-3 citing Maharil see Bach ). Some have the custom to observe this period from the second day of Pesach to Lag B’Omer, and others from the day after Rosh Chodesh of Iyar until Shavous.


Dancing at Two Weddings

What are the practical implications of these two different understandings? According to the Sephardi custom , one may not celebrate a wedding until the thirty-fourth day of the Omer . According to the Ashkenazi custom, a wedding may be held until the second of Iyar, or from Lag B’Omer onwards (depending on the custom of the parties involved).

However in certain areas there is a halachic concept of miktzas hayom c’kulo (part of a day is like a full day). For this reason, although seven days of shiva are required, a mourner “gets up” from shiva on the morning of the last day. Therefore Ashkenazim may take a haircut after sunrise of the thirty-third day of mourning, and Sephardim after sunrise of the thirty-fourth day.

May one officiate or participate at a wedding which falls during the period of mourning one observes? An Ashkenazi who knows he will attend a wedding during the Omer ahead of time should follow the custom which places the date of the wedding outside of his mourning period if possible. However at times this is not possible, e.g. he has two weddings, each in a different period.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled that since attending a wedding is a fulfillment of the mitzva of rejoicing with a bride and groom, and the couple are allowed to get married at times permitted according to their custom, it is permissible to attend a simcha during one’s Sefira mourning period (Responsa Igros Moshe, 1,159; 2,95).

The Rema rules that since a bris mila is considered to be a personal Yom Tov for the father of the child, he may have a haircut the day before. The haircut should take place close to nightfall unless the bris is on Shabbos, in which case he may do it at any time on Friday. The same halacha applies to the Sandek and the Mohel , for the bris is also considered to be a Yom Tov for them ( Mishna Berura 493,12).

If one needs to take a haircut for health reasons one may be lenient and do so during Sefira ( Aruch HaShulchan 493,2). If one will sustain a financial loss (e.g., you may lose your job) it is permitted to shave or get a haircut (Responsa Igros Moshe , Orach Chaim 4,102). Similarly if one is learning to play a musical instrument for financial reasons, he may practice during Sefira ( ibid . 3,87).

Lag B’Omer
A number of poskim maintain that according to the Rema, a wedding may be celebrated on the night of Lag B’Omer ( Chok Yaakov , Elya Rabba , Graz , Mor Ukatzia Igros Moshe ibid . and others). Since Lag B’Omer is a Yom Tov in its own right, one should not mourn on that day. A proof for this is that Tachanun is not said during Mincha on Lag B’Omer or the day before ( Mishna Berura 493,9). If one has a good reason to hold a wedding on the night of Lag B’Omer, one should consult with a rabbi.

The commentators are unclear on the exact nature of Lag B’Omer ( Pri Megadim ). There are a number of reasons offered for the festival, all of which share a common theme – the strengthening and beautification of Torah for the Jewish nation. In this light, Lag B’Omer fits well into the period between Pesach and Shavous, which is a time of preparation to receive the Torah. At the same time, this period serves as a rectification for the transgressions that brought about the original decree against Rabbi Akiva’s students.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai
It is commonly believed that Lag B’Omer has significance because it is the anniversary of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s death, as well as the day that he and his son left the cave after years of hiding from the Romans ( Kaf HaChaim 493,27; Aruch HaShulchan 493,7; Chaye Adam 131,11 and others). On the day of his death Rabbi Shimon revealed the mystical insights of the Zohar and he did not die until he had completed this revelation ( Bnei Yissaschar, Iyar 3,3). To commemorate this momentous transmission, Rabbi Shimon stipulated that Lag B’Omer should be a day of simcha and promised tremendous reward to those who would rejoice on this day at his graveside . As a result many have the custom to ascend to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon and his son Rabbi Eliezer in Meron to celebrate Lag B’Omer.

The Ari relates an incredible story which sheds light on the magnitude of this day. A great tzadik named Rabbi Avraham HaLevi had the custom to add the prayer of nachem (consolation for mourning) to Shemonah Esreh during the Omer . One year he went to Meron for Lag B’Omer and said nachem usual. The image of Rabbi Shimon appeared to him and told him that he had desecrated this holy day with his prayer, and as a result he would need consolation in the near future. Within a month one of Rabbi Avraham’s children died ( Magen Avraham 493,3 ; Kaf HaChaim 493,26.)

Lag B’Omer is an auspicious time to pray to be blessed with children and it is a well-known segula to pray for this purpose at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon on the day. Some people also distribute eighteen rotel (a fluid measure) of wine or grape juice, another act considered auspicious.

The sanctity of the day has the power to restore life as well. More than a hundred years ago a woman ascended to Meron on Lag B’Omer to give her son his first haircut on his third birthday. In the midst of the celebration the boy suddenly fell deathly ill and shortly afterwards everyone thought that he had passed away. His mother cried to Hashem that she had brought her son to rejoice on Lag B’Omer and instead tragedy had befallen her. Shortly afterwards, she heard the boy crying and he soon recovered ( Ta’amei HaMinhagim p. 263).

Other poskim also associate Lag B’Omer with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in a different way. After the death of his 24,000 students, Rabbi Akiva acquired five new disciples, one of them was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. On Lag B’Omer he gave them semicha , declaring them to be rabbis, thereby assuring that the transmission of the Torah would not be halted by the death of his previous students but would continue with his five new disciples ( Chida, Tov Ayin 18.)

The Miracle of Manna
The Chasam Sofer has a different approach to the nature of Lag B’Omer ( Responsa, Yoreh Deah 233). He proves that when the Jewish people left Egypt they first received the Divine sustenance of the manna on Lag B’Omer. Just as the miracles of Chanukah and Purim are commemorated with national festivals, so too we remember the manna on Lag B’Omer.

One should keep in mind that the manna was not just a source of food for the Jews in the desert. It provided spiritual sustenance that elevated the Jewish people, enabling them to later learn Torah ( Meam Loez, Shemos 16,12). In this respect it has a direct connection to the receiving of Torah and it is appropriate to commemorate this event before Shavous.

The Talmud ( Yavamos 62b) tells us that the students of Rabbi Akiva were punished because they did not show honor for one another. This statement implies that they felt respect for each other but they did not outwardly show it.

In these troubled times it is incumbent upon the Jewish people to look for ways to find favor in Hashem’s Eyes, especially in this matter where we have transgressed in the past.

Demonstrating respect for all of our fellow Jews is no trivial matter. It is an essential prerequisite to receiving the Torah.

Rabbi Travis is the Rosh Kollel of Kollel Toras Chaim.

Originally published here on 5/4/2007

It’s Never as Bad, or as Evil, as It Seems

How does Jewish sin differ from sin in general?
Why do we read Parshas Parah only at this time of the year?

I have recorded a homiletic interpretation … of R. Moshe Hadarshan … And have them take for you… just as they took off their own golden earrings for the calf, so shall they bring this [cow] from their own [assets] in penance. A red cowThis is comparable to the baby of a maidservant who soiled the king’s palace [with fecal matter]. They said, “Let his mother come and clean up the mess.” Similarly, let the cow come and atone for the calf.] … [Midrash Aggadah and Tanchuma Chukath 8]

–Rashi Bemidbar19:22

A Kohen who converted to an idolatrous religion should not “raise his palms” in the priestly blessing. Others say that if he repented then he may perform the priestly blessing.

–Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 128:37

But if he actually worshipped an idol, even if he was forced to do so and even if he subsequently repented, he may not perform the priestly blessing.

–Be’er Heitev ibid footnote 63

Approach the altar: [The salient corners of the altar reminded Ahron of the juvenile horn-buds of the Calf] because Ahron was embarrassed and frightened of approaching [the altar] Moshe said to him: “Why are you ashamed? You have been chosen for this [role]!”

– Torath Kohanim on VaYikra 9:7

Fire came forth from before HaShem and consumed them [Nadav and Avihu], such that they died before HaShem. Then Moshe said to Ahron, “This is precisely what HaShem meant, [when He said], ‘I will be sanctified through those near to Me (Shemos 29:43) … “

–VaYikra 10:2,3


מוֹצִיא מִזָּלוֹת יְקָרוֹת. מַתִּיר מֵאֲסוּרוֹת מֻתָּרוֹת. נוֹתֵן מִטְּמֵאוֹת טְהוֹרוֹת
HaShem brings forth the priceless from the worthless, He allows the permissible from the prohibited, He produces the pure from the impure.

Piyut-“Yotzros” for Parshas Parah

The mei chatas-the waters whose main ingredient were the ashes produced from immolating the carcass of the Parah Adumah-the Red Heifer, are the only means to gain purity after contracting impurity through contact with the dead- tuma’as meis. A person who has become tamei meis may not consume the korban Pesach-the Passover sacrifice. (Or, for that matter, any consumable sacrifices.) When the Bais HaMikdash-the Temple in Jerusalem, stood those who were tme’ei meis would undergo the mei chatas purification process required to enable them to offer their korban Pesach.  Nowadays, as the Bais HaMikdash lies in ruins, the four special parshiyos/ maftir readings that precede Pesach are all meant as a preparation for the holiday.  So we can easily understand that it is apropos to read Parshas Parah at this time of the year.

However, during each of the shalosh regalim-pilgrimage holidays, multiple offerings had to be sacrificed and consumed in a state of ritual purity.  This being the case, the Biskovitzer asks: Why is the reading of Parshas Parah limited to pre-Pesach preparation?  Logically, we ought to be reading it before Shavous and Sukkos as well. The insights that he and other members of the Izhbitzer school provide by way of answering this question reveal a profound and deep-seated difference between Jewish sin, and sin in general.

In Torah literature the Parah Adumah is known as THE Chukas haTorah, THE (most) irrational mitzvah of the Torah (preceded with the definite article.)  In a broad sense the entire body of Torah law covering the rules of purity and impurity contains only chukim-irrational mitzvos.  After all, the states of ritual purity or impurity rise above sensory perception.  We can neither see taharah-purity nor smell tumah-impurity.  Similarly, there seems to be no rhyme or reason when trying to connect the dots between cause and effect in either tumah or taharah or in endeavoring to understand their various levels.  But what makes the Parah Adumah a category of chok unto itself is the conundrum of it being a factor causing both tumah and taharah.  Those who prepare and handle it contract a low level of tumah while those who were sprayed with the mei chataas regain a state of purity after being in the thrall of the most powerful and fundamental form of tumah.

Tumah is identified with sin while having attained atonement and rapprochement is associated with taharah.  As such, the conflicted nature of the Parah Adumah serves as a metaphor for the convergence of sin and repentance; of merit and the demerits; of kilkul-spiritual ruination, and tikkun– it’s repair and restoration. The Parah Adumah itself is seen as atoning for the greatest of all sins; the Golden Calf.  It is the mother that comes to clean up the mess that her baby left in the king’s palace.

While the Calf is the “child” and the Red Heifer the “parent” oddly enough, in this case, it is the child that gives birth to the parent.  Absent the Golden Calf there would never have been a Red Heifer. The Biskovitzer maintains that the message of the Parah Adumah is that Jewish sins even the most catastrophic an egregious of Jewish sins; are not all bad.  A weed cannot produce a tasty apple.  If we were to see a delicious apple hanging from a noxious weed we would be forced to conclude that there’s more to this weed than meets the eye.  While it may look and smell like a weed, it must contain some genetic material capable of producing such delicious and nourishing fruit.

If ever there was a sin, a metaphysical weed that looked “all bad” it was the Golden Calf.  Yet when considered on a deeper level it was motivated by something virtuous. K’lal Yisrael, the Jewish People wanted (a) god to lead them.  Ultimately HaShem agreed to this and said “and they should make a sanctuary for me and I will cause my Divine Indwelling to be among them.” (Shemos 25:8) And when they besieged Ahron to become their agent to serve/ worship and to build the altar this too remained as a permanent fixture in the Divine service of HaShem, as Ahron became the Kohen Gadol.

Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen, when listing many examples of spiritual/metaphysical darkness that are the necessary prerequisites to the light that follows, goes so far as to say that the sin of the Golden Calf was the primary cause of the construction of the Mishkan and that the sin of Nadav and Avihu was the primary cause of the Mishkan’s holiness.  Still, the Lubliner Kohen pointedly reminds us that, while the light is contained in the darkness and that spiritual purity and sanctity are present in potentia in every Jewish sin, that sin nevertheless remains, well, sinful … and something to be ashamed of. (cp Taanis 11A Tosafos D”H Amar Shmuel). Otherwise, why would it be prohibited to remind those Ba’alei Teshuvah-masters of repentance, who were motivated to repent by the love of HaShem, of their earlier misdeeds?  While we know that repentance motivated by such love has the power to transform premeditated, and even malicious, sins into zechuyos, merits/ mitzvos, there is nonetheless something untoward and unseemly about the original acts which still appear as sins in the historical record.

This explains Ahron’s reticence and sense of shame and apprehension when he first approached the altar to do the Divine service.  Ahron had done absolutely nothing and exerted no efforts to attain the Office of Kohen Gadol.  On the contrary, his culpability in the sin of the Golden Calf would have seemed to torpedo any chances that he had to serve in the Mishkan.  The halachah states that a Kohen who worshipped idols is disqualified from serving again as a Kohen to HaShem, even after returning to the fold and repenting. How much more so for the “enabler” of this foulest idolatry of the Jewish People? It was only his profound sense of shame over his involvement in the sin of the Golden Calf and his feelings of unbridgeable distance and alienation from HaShem that, paradoxically, brought him closer to HaShem than anyone else. To paraphrase the paytan-liturgical poet, of the Parshas Parah yotzer vis-à-vis Ahron;  HaShem brought forth the premier servant from the most mutinous rebel.

The Biskovitzer concludes that while ritual purification from contact with the dead is required in order to consume any of the korbanos we read Parshas Parah only before Pesach because they convey the identical message.  During the Exodus from Egypt the ministering angels “challenged” HaShem’s salvation of the Jews and simultaneous destruction of the Egyptians by saying; “these and those are both idolaters.”  Yet, during the night of the slaying of the firstborn, HaShem “passed over.” He, kivyachol-as it were, leapfrogged from one Egyptian occupied home to the other while leaving the Jews occupying the homes in the middle, unscathed.  On a level so profound, deep and imperceivable that even the angels could not grasp it, there was, indeed, a difference between Jewish idolatry, and the concomitant descent into the 49 gates of impurity, and the idolatry of the Egyptians.  While both Egyptians and Jews worshipped idols, the Jews had suffered terribly for k’vod Shamayim-for god’s greater Glory.  Jewish idolatry was not all bad, somehow the purity and sanctity of Mattan Torah-the revelation at Sinai inhered in the degradation, defilement and, yes, even in the idolatry of the Jewish slavery experience in Egypt.

~adapted from Neos Desheh Parshas Parah
Takanas HaShavin 5 page 21
Resisei Laylah 24 pages 3031

This post is An installment for Shmini-Parshas Parah 5774–  in the series of adaptations
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
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By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

Twice Adar – Understanding the Halachos of Adar Rishon and Adar Sheini

Rabbi Daniel Travis
Kollel Torah Chaim

Rising to the Occasion

“When Adar arrives we increase our level of happiness” ( Taanis 29a). All year long Jews strive to feel the tremendous sense of joy that should accompany our service of G-d. As we draw closer to Purim, we are instructed to raise our spirits to an even higher level.

What is the reason for this?

We can answer this with help from the famous dictum of the Rema, “There is no joy greater than that which we feel when we have eliminated doubts” (Responsa 5). Adar and Nissan are months during which Hashem performed extraordinary miracles for the Jewish people. Through studying and celebrating these events we can achieve clarity of faith and rid ourselves of any doubts regarding G-d’s eternal dominion over the world. When everything is so clear, we know that our Father in Heaven is watching over us every moment of the day, and we are free to experience a constant state of simcha .

Haman’s lots determined that we celebrate Purim in the month of Adar, the month in which Moshe Rabbeinu was born. What do we do in a leap year, when we have two months of Adar?

Although all opinions agree that Purim is celebrated in Adar Sheni, the overwhelming joy of this period makes its presence already felt in Adar Rishon, with the celebration of Purim Katan. However, numerous other issues arise concerning the halachic question of which Adar is which.

Shabbos Mevorchim

The following scenario raises a fascinating halachic conundrum: On the Shabbos before Adar Rishon begins, the chazzan stands before the congregation in synagogue, holding the Torah scroll. As he clears his throat to announce the new month, he wonders to himself, “Should I call the upcoming month Adar, or must I say Adar Rishon?”

This chazzan’s seemingly simple question is discussed extensively by the commentators . They agree that Adar Sheni is the “real” Adar and Adar Rishon is the additional month ( Ridvaz 1:150). Although this information has relevance concerning when to commemorate a yahrzeit (a memorial day for the departed), our Sages did not define words based on halachic parameters. Interestingly enough, the meaning of a word is mainly determined by its colloquial use, i.e. what people mean when they say it.

Most Rishonim agree that when people say or write the word “Adar” by itself, they are referring to the first Adar, Adar Rishon (Rosh, Ran, Nedarim 63a). This answers our chazzan’s question, and he can say that next week will be “Rosh Chodesh Adar.” However, it is always better to avoid ambiguity, and for the sake of clarity it is preferable if he explicitly announces, “Adar Rishon” ( Mishna Berura 427:3).

An Adar Deadline

All kinds of legal questions can arise when people are not specific about which Adar they mean. Here is an interesting story of one young man whose confusion became almost overwhelming:

David’s father passed away on the second day of Adar during a non-leap year. To honor his father’s memory, David made a vow that by Rosh Chodesh Adar of the following year he would reprint a book written by his great-grandfather.

David hired a printer and wrote in the contract that the books must be ready by Rosh Chodesh Adar.

Meanwhile, David became engaged and the wedding was scheduled for the third of Adar Rishon.

Three weeks before the wedding David contacted the printer and requested that the first few hundred copies be printed as a souvenir to be given out at his wedding. The printer told him that he had not been planning to complete the books until the middle of Adar Rishon, but he could do it for him for an extra thousand dollars.

That week David found among his father’s papers a document recording a $1,000 loan given to someone three years previously, also a leap year. The document was dated “the fourteenth of Adar,” but David clearly recalled that the loan had been given on Purim – i.e., the fourteenth of Adar Sheni. The borrower had since died, but David hoped that with the signed document he would be able to collect the debt from the estate.

To add to his concerns, David wished to fast on his father’s yahrzeit , as was the custom in his family. Would this mean that he would have to fast on two consecutive days – the day of his father’s yahrzeit and the following day, the day of his wedding?

This story encompasses four halachic issues, each one discussed in a different section of the Shulchan Aruch .

The first question regards David’s vow to print the book by Rosh Chodesh Adar. Must they be ready by Rosh Chodesh Adar Rishon or Rosh Chodesh Adar Sheni?

The next question is by which date did the printer obligate himself to complete the printing?

Third, we must clarify whether the loan document is valid or not. If the loan is considered to have been predated to Adar Rishon, it would be invalid and David is not allowed to use it to collect from the property of the borrower.

Finally, we must determine whether the yahrzeit of David’s father should be observed in Adar Rishon or Adar Sheni.

The Shulchan Aruch and the Rema both rule that the word “Adar” used by itself refers to Adar Rishon. Therefore, since David vowed to print the books by Rosh Chodesh Adar, he must have them ready by Rosh Chodesh Adar Rishon ( Yoreh Deah 220:8).

Similarly, regarding the printer’s contract, since the word “Adar” without explanation means Adar Rishon, the printer is obligated to finish the job in time for David to fulfill his vow without any extra charge ( Choshen Mishpat 43:28).

Concerning the document David found, since the word Adar means Adar Rishon, while the loan was actually given in Adar Sheni, the date is incorrect, meaning that the document is predated and therefore invalid (cf. Rema, Even Ha’ezer 126:7).

In conclusion, when someone says or writes the word Adar, the Shulchan Aruch and Rema agree that it means Adar Rishon, even if he actually meant Adar Sheni.

However, other authorities differ, ruling that the word Adar refers to Adar Sheni (Bach, Shach, Yoreh Deah 220:8). Because of this and other factors that could affect the final ruling, a halachic authority should be consulted in every case.

The question of the yahrzeit depends on other factors. Let us study them in more detail.

Yahrzeits

The Shulchan Aruch writes that if a person passed away in Adar of a non-leap year, the yahrzeit should be observed in Adar Sheni during leap years ( Orach Chaim 568:7).

Regarding vows and financial contracts, the exact date usually depends on what people intend when speaking or writing. However, the date of a yahrzeit has more significance because it is a day of judgment for the deceased and his family, and can only be determined by the month which is considered halachically the “real” Adar. Since Adar Sheni is the real Adar, the Shulchan Aruch places all yahrzeits in that month.

The Rema, however, notes that even though Adar Sheni is the real Adar, we follow the principle of doing mitzvos at the first opportunity and yahrzeits should be marked in Adar Rishon ( Yoreh Deah 402:12). Yet the Rema himself cites authorities who say that since this issue is unclear, it is praiseworthy to observe the yahrzeit in Adar Sheni as well ( Orach Chaim 568:7).

The Mishna states that “the only difference between the first and the second Adar is that the megilla is read and matanos l’evyonim are given [in the second Adar]” ( Megilla 6b). In this vein, some rule that keeping the yahrzeit in both Adar Rishon and Adar Sheni is not just desirable – it is an obligation ( Magen Avraham , Gra, Mishna Berura ). As with the previous halachos , there are many different issues involved in determining which opinion to follow, so a Rabbi should be consulted.

Bar Mitzvas
While the question of when to observe a yahrzeit depends on which month is considered the real halachic Adar, regarding a bar mitzva in a leap year we calculate differently.

In order to consider a child as having reached manhood according to the Torah, it is not enough to identify the real Adar. This calculation requires us to be aware of when thirteen years have completed. Here, even the Rema agrees that a boy born in Adar during a non-leap year does not become bar mitzva until Adar Sheni of his thirteenth year, since the year cannot be considered complete until then (Rema , Orach Chaim 55:11).

Continuous Celebration

The Rambam writes that any celebration that is not accompanied by lifting the spirits of the downtrodden is mere self-gratification ( Hilchos Yom Tov 6,18). Therefore the commentators write that when preparing one’s seuda on Purim Katan , it is proper to give charity to orphans and widows ( Eshel Avraham 697,2). Similarly someone who experienced a personal miracle should distribute money among Torah scholars ( Mishna Berura 218,34). However, there is another secret for making sure that one has the correct intentions when celebrating miracles.

After discussing the opinions of whether one should make a seuda on Purim Katan, the Rema concludes his commentary on Orach Chaim , the section of the Shulchan Aruch which deals with daily life, with a quote from the Book of Proverbs: “ Vetov lev mishteh tamid ,” (One who has a good heart is always feasting). In doing so he repeats the word tamid that he mentioned at the beginning of the Shulchan Aruch where he quoted a Psalm: “ Shivisi Hashem lenegdi tamid ,” (I place Hashem’s Presence in front of me always).

The Birkei Yosef notes that the use of the word “ tamid” in both of these instances hints at a very deep concept.

The temidim , the offerings which were brought on a daily basis in the Temple , had to be offered in their specified order, i.e. the morning korban must always precede the afternoon one.

The use of the word tamid at the beginning and the end of Orach Chaim implies a connection between the two ideas. Only after a person senses Hashem’s Presence before him can he aim to achieve the second level of tamid of “One who has a good heart is always feasting.”

Rabbi Label Lam on Personal Growth Lessons from Tu B’Shevat

Today is Tu B’Shevat.

Rabbi Label Lam gave a wonderful Drasha a few years back where he looked at the Mishna in Pirkei Avos which states “Rabbi Yaakov said, one who is walking along the road and is studying [Torah], and then interrupts his studies and says, ‘How beautiful is this tree! How beautiful is this plowed field!’, the Scripture considers it as if he bears the guilt for his own soul.”

In questioning what is the great crime here and why the cases of a tree and a plowed field is chosen, Rabbi Lam uncovers some powerful personal growth lessons that we can glean from Tu B’Shevat – the holiday of trees.

Click on this link to listen to Rabbi Lam on Personal Growth Lessons from Tu B’Shevat. (To download the file to your computer, click with the right mouse button on the link and select Save Target As)

Elul…make the most of it

Elul…sweetness, light, redemption.

This is the month that Hashem gives us the opportunity to determine our destiny. Not to succumb to a fate that is inconsistent with our innermost desire but the choice to proactively affect our lives. The Slonimer Rebbe z”l writes that on Rosh Hashana we choose the life we want to live and ask for the tools that will assist us in refining and lighting up our world. Elul is a 30 days of preparation so that you have absolute clarity when making that decision.

The fact that you woke up this morning and are able to read this message is Hashem telling you, “I want you here, you have a mission to accomplish, and this mission has been waiting since the beginning of time for YOU to achieve.” We are here, partnering with Hashem to make a difference. We are granted the years of our life to fix, resolve and leave our mark, as we live our legacy. We don’t have much time. Seize the opportunities that are granted to you and make a difference.

We each have incredible potential and it’s about time that we stop talking and reading about it and take action. Live every day of your life to your best. Not the best…but YOUR best!

The questions we should be asking ourselves as we account for our existence are:
“Why am I here?”
“Am I living a meaningful life?”
“Am I living consistently with my values?”
“Am I the best spouse, teacher, friend, mentor, parent that I can possibly be?”

These are not “one off” questions, they are questions that can and need to be asked daily. These are the questions that help orient our lives and make them meaningful. Truthful answers to these questions have the power to help us transcend adversity and embrace each opportunity to reveal our inner essence.

We can be assured (but never perturbed) when at the moment of enlightenment, as we feel that we have discovered our unique mission in this world the inevitable happens. There will be a distraction. There will be obstacles. There will be challenges. And that is part of our story. Overcoming difficulty brings you closer to your mission. We are not born at the peak of a mountain, because it is not so much about the destination as much as it is about the journey to arrive there.

Hashem charges us to live a fulfilled life whereby we realize and actualize our dormant potential. We must act with courage to leap beyond our comfort zone to live our legacy.

אלול spelt backwards is לולא which translates as “if only”. This precious month is about reflecting all those lost opportunities throughout the year when I could have or should have but didn’t. It’s about asking for forgiveness for not bringing to the world what I was meant to. It’s about resolving to remain steadfast and committed to my mission.

May it be your will Hashem that we are granted clarity. That we are strengthened in our resolve to foster a deeper relationship with You as we embrace our unique mission in this world and remain loyal throughout the journey.

Rabbi Aryeh Goldman has released an ebook “Days are Coming – Inspiration for Elul and Tishrei”. Subscribe at hitoreri.com to receive your copy.

Parshas Shekalim – Restoring the Fire

Here is an excerpt from the Shem MiShmuel on Parshas Shekalim: The Power of the Fiery Shekel:


Rabbi Meir said, “The Holy One, may He be blessed, took a type of fiery coin from under his Throne of Glory and showed it to Moshe. He said to him, ‘This shall they give.’ ” (Yerushalmi, Shekalim 1:4)


Reish Lakish said, “It was known and revealed to He Who spoke and made the world that in the future Haman would count out shekalim [to buy the right to exterminate] Yisrael. Therefore He arranged His shekalim [the obligatory half-shekel] to precede Haman’s shekalim.” (Megillah 13b)

When describing the evil nation Amalek, the Torah tells us that we should remember:

“…how he chanced upon you on the way…” (Devarim 25:18)

They cooled you down and made you lukewarm after your great heat, when all the nations feared to attack you. (Rashi loc. cit.)\

When Yisrael performed their mitzvos with a burning desire for closeness to God, they were invincible. But as soon as they lost their enthusiasm, as happened just prior to the war with Amalek, the enemy was able to strike, clearing a path for attack by any other adversary. As a future safeguard against this repeating itself on a national level, God gave the mitzvah of the half-shekel, the embodiment of excitement in mitzvah performance, the burning fervor of the fiery coin. Thus the Jewish people’s means of salvation was in place long before Haman, the wicked progeny of Amalek, was able to try his ancestral wiles against klal Yisrael. And in a deeper sense, we re-experience these feelings each year. Although we no longer give the half-shekel to the Beis HaMikdash, we are certainly able to reawaken our burning desire to serve God with all our strength.

We can now understand how it is that the simple mitzvah of the half-shekel can enable an errant Jew to rejoin the klal. Our task as Jews is to perform every mitzvah and to learn every word of the Torah with a great and passionate love. Failure to do so may mean that even a technically observant Jew has failed to achieve full membership of the Jewish nation. But anyone, even the least observant person, who appreciates the great power inherent in his soul and gives the half-shekel, intent on awakening these strengths, has revised his personality and Jewish orientation to the extent that he is now truly part of klal Yisrael.

The Tenth of Teves – A Fast for Torah

An excerpt From Torah.org:

The Rambam writes that the wise and the prophets should desire the arrival of Moshiach not because the stature of the Jews will have changed for the better, nor because they can then rejoice, but rather because they will be free to study the Torah without distraction. Exile is a time when we are all burdened with worries and afflicted by persecutions. Exile is not conducive to Torah study. With the start of the siege of Jerusalem, our exile effectively began. The splendor of the Torah began to dim. For the first time in our history, we were not in the optimal setting for Torah study. We were in a decline. With death of Ezra years later, the distance from the proper method of Torah study increased. With the translation of the Torah into Greek, we fell to a new low: not only were we in exile, but we were faced with the new challenge a translation presented.

The three events that the Fast of the Tenth of Teves commemorate share an unfortunate common denominator: a decline in diligent Torah study. This decline started with the siege of Jerusalem and remains with us until this very day. It is very clear what pain we are still suffering from that stems from the events of the Tenth of Teves. We should all feel this pain. We should all realize what a great loss we have been afflicted with. Most importantly, we should implement the words of the Rambam by reminding ourselves of these matters, so that we repent and improve our conduct.

A Succos Reawakening

A few years ago, on Chol HaMoed Succos, our family headed to New Jersey for a few days of outdoor fun. It’s the time of year when our family spends the most extended time together. One of the expected highlights was a ferry ride between Delaware and New Jersey where we hoped to spot dolphins and whales sporting in the water. Unfortunately, on the morning of the ferry ride, we got a late start and the ferry left without us. We missed the boat! The following year, our family excitedly set out for our annual Chol HaMoed Trip.

On this trip we headed, once again, for New Jersey making our first stop at Allaire State Park, a restoration type village twenty minutes from Lakewood. At the Park, we rode an old time railroad and the children placed coins on the tracks and marveled at how the locomotive flattened them and smoothed them out. Afterwards, we walked through the village watching a blacksmith perform his trade, 1800s style. Next, we rented old-time fishing poles: a reed of bamboo, a piece of string, a cork, and frozen hot dogs for bait! We fished in the village pond and it seemed like the entire village was cheering us on when we snagged quite a large tenacious fish, along with two other smaller fish. Finally, we hiked along the Manasquan water table surrounded by streams, creeks, a small waterfall, lush greenery and, to the delight of the children, lots of mud. That night, upon returning to Lakewood, we had a barbeque in the Succah complete with S’mores.

The next morning, we were off vegetable picking. We visited a farm where you can pick just about any vegetable you could imagine. Potatoes, string beans, sweet potatoes, peppers (even hot ones which left the kids red in the face, teary-eyed and screaming for a drink!). There were black-eyed peas, eggplants, cucumbers, onions, you name it. We picked zucchini nearly the length of my arm and about as wide as my thigh! We ate corn, sugar sweet, straight out of the husk, no cooking or butter needed, thank you. On the way back, we stopped at the Manasquan Reservoir where we took in a gorgeous sunset and the children romped in a park complete with a zip-line. The evening was topped off with pizza and ice cream in the Succah.

The next morning, back on the road again. This time to the Shenedoah River where we rented row boats and attempted to fish with a broken rod and reel and uncooperative worms. The setting was bucolic; shimmering water, bright sun, a light breeze and ducks diving for their lunch as we floated along.

After this whirlwind, incredible three days, I asked my four year old daughter which part of Chol HaMoed she liked the best. She looked up at me through her wispy bangs, widened her big blue eyes and said, in her sing-song voice: ‘The Lulav’. Whoa! You could have knocked me over with a feather. I almost missed the boat again! I almost got so caught up in the Chol, that I forgot the Moed. I picked up my daughter, swung her around, gave her a big hug and a kiss, and secretly thanked her for her unintended lesson.

The next morning, Hoshana Rabbah, I took advantage of my last chance of thr year to bentsch lulav. I made the brocha with extra focus and kavanah and with sincere thanks to Hashem, and my daughter, that I didn’t lose the lulav for the trees.

This piece originally appeared in Horizons magazine.
Originally posted October 23, 2006.

I’m Happy … Feeling like a Room without a Glass Roof

Is Judaism a meritocracy or an aristocracy?
Why do we dwell in our Sukkos on Shabbos but do not fulfill the mitzvah of Lulav on Shabbos?
Why is a stolen Lulav invalid for performing the mitzvah when one does fulfill the mitzvah of Sukkah in anothers Sukkah?

[The nation of] Israel was crowned with three crown: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty. Ahron merited the crown of priesthood, as the passuk-verse; declares: “And it will be an eternal covenant of priesthood for him and his descendants following him.”(Bemidbar 25:13).  David merited the crown of royalty, as the passuk declares: “His progeny will continue eternally, and his throne will be as the sun before Me.” (Tehillim 89:37)

The crown of Torah lays at rest; waiting and ready for all, as the passuk declares:  “The Torah which Moshe commanded us is the inheritance of the congregation of Yaakov” (Devarim 33:4).  Whoever desires may come and take it. Lest you say that the other crowns are superior to the crown of Torah, consider that the passuk declares: “By me [Torah], kings reign, princes decree justice, and nobles rule” (Mishlei 8:15,16).  Thus, you have learned that the crown of Torah is greater than the other two.

— Rambam: Laws of Torah Study 3:1, 2

 

Today is to do them (the mitzvos) and tomorrow is NOT to do them. Today is to do them and tomorrow is to receive their reward.

— Eruvin 22A

Judaism contains elements of both an aristocracy and a meritocracy. On the one hand being a Kohen, a Levi or a candidate for Moshiach– the Messiah; is purely an accident of birth.  Jewish identity itself is determined by biological matrilineal descent while tribal identity is determined by patrilineal descent.

But on the other hand our sages teach us that a mamzer-one born from a kares prohibited union; who is a talmid chacam-Torah scholar; takes precedence over a Kohen Gadol-High Priest; who is an am haaretz-ignoramus. Anticipating sociological patterns, Chazal comment “take heed of [the dignity of] the children of the impoverished, for Torah [scholarship] shall emanate from them”(Nedarim 81A) and “[why is it] that the sons of talmidei chachamim are rarely talmidei chachamim themselves?” (ibid).  Some of history’s greatest Jews e.g. Onkelos, Rabi Meir and Rabi Akivah were geirim-righteous converts; or their descendants.  On this level Judaism is the ultimate meritocracy with no glass ceilings that impede upward social-spiritual mobility.

We will see that paradoxically; the aristocratic, heredity-based aspect is actually the more egalitarian, classless of the two elements whereas the meritocracy creates a stratified, multi-tiered hierarchy. Based on two Halachic differences between Sukkah and Lulav-the four species; the Izhbitzer understands the two mitzvos of the holiday in light of the hereditary- and merit-based components of kedushas Yisrael-Jewish sanctity.

On Shabbos the Halachah exempts us from fulfilling the mitzvah of Lulav whereas we are still obligated in the mitzvah of Sukkah.  The reason for the contrast is that Shabbos is a scintilla of Olam Haba-the Coming-World wherein avodah-serving the Creator through the exercise of free-will; no longer exists. There (then?) all that the person toiled to acquire in the here-and-now world through his choices and actions are secured in his heart. This is why all 39 categories of creative activity are prohibited on Shabbos. Whether we are speaking of our weekly Shabbosos or “The Day that shall be entirely Shabbos and eternal rest”, only one who has exerted himself on Shabbos eve will enjoy the fruits of his labors on Shabbos (Cp. Avodah Zarah 2A). Sukkah is an effortless mitzvah, one is merely “there.” Sukkah represents the hereditary kedushas Yisrael present in the heart of every Jew passed along like spiritual DNA from the patriarchs. The mitzvah of Sukkah resonates with same the kind of “all our work is done” sensibility that inform Shabbos and Olam Haba.

But Lulav, which we take up in our hands and move in every possible direction of human endeavor, is characteristic of all mitzvos maasiyos– the mitzvos requiring decision-making, exertion and activity. The Izhbitzer’s disciple, Rav Laibeleh Eiger points out that the gimatriya-numerical value; of Esrog is 610. When we count the other three species used to fulfill the mitzvah along with the Esrog the sum is 613, the precise total of all of the mitzvos. The 4 species embody every possible avodah endeavor. There is something very proactive, workmanlike and this-worldly about Lulav that makes it inconsistent with Shabbos.

Read more I’m Happy … Feeling like a Room without a Glass Roof

Succah: A Temporary Structure

One of the interesting laws about a succah is that it isn’t allowed to be too high. How high is too high? The Mishnah tells us: 20 Amos, which is about 35 feet tall.

The Talmud explains that a succah has to be a temporary structure. It is meant to represent the travels of the Jews in the desert after The Exodus from Egypt. Likewise it is supposed to represent the transient nature of our material possessions in this world. “If the succah is too high it is invalid, because it will have to be built in a more permanent way.”

Interestingly, the Talmud maintains that a person is allowed to build a permanent succah, as long as it isn’t too high. It is only when a person builds a succah in a way that it is so high that it must be permanent, that halacha declares it invalid.

A few months ago I read an article written by a woman who described a life altering odyssey that she had undergone. She described how at the age of eighteen she was engaged to a wonderful man. She considered him the best guy in the world, and he catered to her every desire. And then he broke the engagement. He told her, “I really liked you. But I see that with you everything must be ‘just so’ for you to be happy. I cannot live a life like that.”

The writer explains how pained she was by the broken engagement. But eventually she took his words to heart, and realized that he was right. She was living a life where everything had to be just right for her to be happy. And she decided that she must change.

She began to challenge herself in every area of life to prove that she could survive in different circumstances. First she skipped meals occasionally; then she fasted. Sometimes she went to sleep late, sometimes she woke up early, even though this deprived her of her normal sleep routine. She came to realize that life still worked even if things weren’t the way she preferred.

We do not wish on anyone the challenging experiences that that woman went through. We certainly bless people with a life that is stable, permanent, and comfortable. But the message of the succah is that it doesn’t have to be perfect for us to be able to function. Our living life correctly doesn’t hinge on everything being “just right”.

When you build your succah you may build it permanent and beautiful. But you may not build it at a height that requires that it must be permanent, because that symbolizes an attitude that everything must be “just right”, otherwise it will not stand.

The Mishnah in Avos states that if a person wants to succeed in Torah he should, “Eat bread, drink water, and sleep on the floor.” Certainly there are people who have succeeded in Torah even though their menu was more varied than the Mishnah describes, and their accommodations more comfortable than sleeping on the floor.

What the Mishnah seems to be conveying is that to succeed in Torah, you have to realize than amenities are not requirements. You can build your succah as permanent as you wish, as long as your succah is not built in such a way that it must be permanent.

As one man said to me: I will mortgage my home if I must. I will sleep in a tent if that is what is required. But my daughter must have a Jewish education.

So as you build your succah of life, make sure to build it in a way that recognizes that it could be temporary. In that way you will ensure that your’s will be a succah that will last forever.

With best wishes for a wonderful Yom Tov,

Rabbi Mordechai Rhine
Originally Published October 2009

The 60 Second Guide to Succos

Three Principles of Judaism
Judaism believes in the importance of both action and belief. The Jewish principles of belief can be divided into three categories 1) G-d is the source and ultimate authority over all existence, 2) G-d revealed his plan for the perfection of the world through the prophetic experience, 3) G-d exercises providence over the world in response to man’s actions to assist in bringing the world to its ultimate perfection.

Jewish Holidays and The Three Principles
Every Jewish holiday has a spiritual energy which man can access in pursuit of self perfection. Three of the primary Jewish holidays help us strengthen our understanding and connection to the three principles of Jewish belief. Pesach is focused on G-d’s existence, Shavuos is focused on G-d’s revelation and Succos is focused on G-d’s providence.

Succos and G-d’s Providence
Succos is a reminder that G-d provided and continues to provide a special level of providence over the Jewish people. This special providence guarantees the physical survival of the Jewish people throughout history and provides a special continuing spiritual connection between G-d and every Jew. This special providence was originally provided by the special clouds that surrounded the Jews when they left Egypt. This providence is renewed every Succos when we live in the Sukkah and when we hold and wave the four species of the lulav, esrog, willows and mytle branches.

Happiness and Pleasure
Succos is a time of special happiness. Pleasure is the experiencing of unity and completion, while happiness is the active pursuit of that completion. We experience unity in the physical realm in a musical piece, work of art or the beauty of nature, in the emotional realm when two hearts beat as one, in the intellectual world through the understanding and reconciliation of ideas and concepts, and in the spiritual world through the experience of the unity of the body and soul.

The Happiness of Succos
On Succos the end of the harvest season provides physical happiness, the connection to others through the many meals and collective prayer services promotes emotional happiness, while the spiritual cleansing of Yom Kippur and the sense of G-d’s presence in the Sukkah creates a spiritual happiness.

May we all merit to use the tools G-d provided us to achieve the highest levels of understanding and happiness.

The Succah Hug

Rabbi Aryeh Goldman
hitoreri.com

My family loves hugs. Towards the end of my overseas trips or school camps, I eagerly anticipate my family’s hugs. And the longer I have spent away the more intense these hugs tend to be.

There are times in our lives when we just need a shoulder to lean on or a comforting cuddle. Then there are times when we really need a true bear hug.

The pasuk says, semolo tachas roshi, veyemino techabkaini, meaning, His left hand supports my head (referring to Rosh Hashana) and His right hand embraces me (referring to the sukkos hug). The left refers to the middas hadin which is when Hashem acts with discipline and judgment, while the right is representative of middas hachesed – Hashem’s loving kindness.

Succos is the time of year when Hashem gives us a hug. Interestingly, the succah can be built in a few ways: with two and a bit walls, three walls or ideally four walls. Some of us are ok with a shoulder to lean on (2 and bit wall succah), while some of us need a comforting cuddle (3 walls succah) but then there are those of us who need a huge Divine bear hug (4 walls succah).

After Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, while the intention is for us to purify and discover who we are, some of us are not really happy with what we discovered about ourselves or quite ready to make all the necessary changes. On Succos Hashem says: You are my beloved child and I love you anyway…come and give Me a hug.

It is the only mitzvah that we are are totally engaged in with every fibre of our being. With our clothes, possessions, and as one chassidic master said, “and even with the mud on your boots.”

Perhaps that is why succos is referred to as zman simchasainu – the time of our joy – because for seven precious days, Hashem accepts me and embraces me as I am. It is this acceptance and love that will hopefully spark within me the desire to return the hug, savour it, and remember its warmth when confronting the challenges or relishing in the joys this new year will bring.

Hug Sameach!

Kinah – Woe for all the heads without Tefillin – We have what to cry about!

1
Woe to us on this bitter day!
We have what to cry about!
Woe for all the heads without Tefillin
After 3700 years from Avraham Avinu
After having survived Holocausts and Inquisitions…
Jewish boys and girls blunder
In the darkness that plagues our generation
And go lost by the millions
With visions of isms and instant pleasures
Rapt in utter ignorance
Bathed in a blue light they may never escape
And generations and giant whole families
Holy congregations have disappeared
For nothing!
And their names dead ended
Now only grace lonely stones
In forgotten cemeteries
Bearing words their children
Those that had- Could never read
Woe to us on this bitter day!
We have what to cry about!
2
The pervasive angst of isolation!
Microwaves our very beings!
We feel beaten from within.
The continuous waves of psychological pain.
We suffer with a wry smile and a diet coke.
The gnawing insecurity and emptiness.
It brings us to search for things that do not exist.
The sublime is substituted with the virtual.
Pictures and fantasies tickle n’ dissolve like
Cotton candy for the eyes…in a world of lies
Fire works for lonely hearts that only grow lonelier
Noshing on empty calories for an endless soul
And as for the big itch…the really big itch…
That small thin voice is starved…
Portrait of a Holocaust victim!
So we turn up the tempo
Tapping like a blind man
Louder and more frantically
We are lost as never before.
Woe to us on this bitter day!
We have what to cry about!
3
The Chutzpah around us and within.
The skirts…the so called “styles”…
the pressure to conform
The lewdness …the angry language
Rap -rap -rap….bark -bark –bark!
Bitter and desperate…is the new normal
The almost total loss of respect
Nothing and no one is Holy
The good ones are ridiculed-
The object of derision
For framing a G-dly Image
And dressing as humans do
For keeping the Shabbos Holy
Watching our eyes and tongues!
While pictures of the unthinkable
The pop-ups of our lives
Invade constantly
On every bus that passes by
Our brothers and sisters
Drop like fall leaves
Fewer and fewer hang strong
Woe to us on this bitter day!
We have what to cry about!
4
The inmates are running the asylum.
Clouds of chaos gather all around
Bombs are fashioned for our final solution
And we are lost in the mirror again.
Wondering if we are loved or looking good
70 wolves salivate with teeth like daggers
Aimed to devour our tiny flock!
Where are we?
Busy with our cell phones
Texting our way to oblivion
Dealing with emergencies of little import
Consumed by crumb size concerns
Like Chometz…And the size of our noses
Woe to us on this bitter day!
We have what to cry about!
5
The Chillul HASHEM
We have lost our luster
Suspicion surrounds us
The Nation of HASHEM
The people of truth
Are ridiculed and considered low
While every sports team and slick politician
Has their stadium…Their edifice their complex
Where their glory is on open display
Where is the place of HASHEM in this world?
Billions speak falsely in His name
Identity theft on the grandest scale
Religion is a rejected and dirty word
We are tagged zealots and bigots
For preserving four cubit of Halacha
This is our crime
And so we owe the world an apology
HASHEM and we His People
Share all time low approval ratings
For this we truly owe a broken heart
Woe to us on this bitter day!
We have what to cry about!
6
What can be done when what’s done is done?
Who can rebuild such a wall torn down?
Our Holy Temple is destroyed!
Echoing in the cosmos
Is a muffled scream!
Of unspeakable abuse
A silent crime!
Against our most beautiful daughters
Made to suffer alone
Scarred in a way
No one can say
With more than broken hearts
Shattered Tablets
And bitter memories
Bleed bad blood
And families crumble
With no happy choices
But to seek greatness
And avoid the pit of insanity
There I said it! Without saying it!
Woe to us on this bitter day!
We have what to cry about!
7
Where are our boys
Our three boys
The cry of a nation
How can we go up to our father
and the youth are not with us?
How can we go up to our Father in Heaven
and youthful innocence is no longer with us?
HASHEM wants the heart!
Where’s the heart?
A frantic cry and persistent search!
The pain of parents…all parents
Amplified and Magnified
The frustration of a nation
Turned sudden victims
Imprisoned by the worst news
Too little…too late
Savages have ravaged us
In our most sacred home
Three sweet faces of joy
Plucked from our midst
For the sake of pure cruelty
Our hearts… are shattered
Our minds are raging and
We are painfully aware
They are all our children
A piece of each of us is torn away
On this day of brutal truth!
We have what to cry about!
8
How did it happen? Where are you?
Unanswerable questions!
Persist in their asking!
Where a person’s mind is…
Says the Ba’al Shem Tov
That is where he is entirely!
So with a single Holy thought!
One of 60,000 a day!
An apple…a golden apple
Is rescued from the thieves
And goodness is restored
When opening our inner eyes
We begin to realize
The ground we are standing upon
Is not less than the Holy of Holies
The shoes are easily removed
A Burning bush…is revealed
We survived! We survived!
Till this historic moment!
You and I together
With a song …the wail of a longing heart…
Brought history and destiny to meet and embrace
As tearful friends reunited!
After thousands of years!
Moshiach is born!
On this special day!
We have what to cry about!

Na’aseh V’nishma – Making Torah Observance the Core or One’s Life

Rabbi Noson Weisz is one of the best at making spiritual concepts from the Ramban, the Maharal and Rabbi Dessler accessible.

In this essay, Rabbi Weisz explains:

Perhaps the best known passage in Jewish literature concerning the covenant at Sinai is the following passage of Talmud:

Rabbi Simai expounded, “When Israel uttered na’aseh before nishma, or “we will do” before “we will hear,” 600,000 ministering angels came to each and every Jew and tied two crowns to each Jew, one corresponding to na’aseh and one corresponding to nishma. (Talmud, Sabbos, 88a)

The statement “we will do, and we will hear,” amounts to a commitment to carry out God’s commandments even before hearing what the observance of those commandments actually involves. Only someone who is totally willing to shape his entire life around Torah observance would be willing to make such a commitment.

To the modern mind, isn’t this kind of blind acceptance irrational?

BLIND ACCEPTANCE OR COERCION?

Perhaps we can begin to glimpse the answer to this question by considering a neighboring Talmudic passage nearly as well known as the previous.

They stood at the foot of the mountain (Exodus 19:17) R’Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa said, “This teaches us that the Holy One, blessed is He, covered them with the mountain as though it were an upturned vat and He said to them: ‘If you accept the Torah, well and good. But if not your burial will be right here!'” Rav Acha bar Yakov said, “From here stem strong grounds for a complaint of coercion regarding the acceptance of the Torah.” (Talmud, Shabos 88a)
This passage would appear to indicate the diametric opposite to the first; far from accepting the Torah willingly, the Jewish people had to be coerced to accept it.

Is there any way to reconcile a willingness to say na’aseh v’nishma with a need to coerce the Jews into accepting the Torah?

Give the article a read for an explanation according to the Maharal.