Rabbi Ari Kahn on The Sin of Ascetism

An excerpt from The Sin of Ascetism by Rabbi Ari Kahn:

God created a beautiful world, and He placed the first man and woman in the “Garden of Eden,” which means, quite literally, the garden of pleasure. In a particularly beautiful passage, the Talmud teaches that a person who fails to enjoy the beautiful world God gave us will be held accountable as he or she stands in judgment at the end of their life. The Talmud then recounts the custom of one particular sage who took this teaching to heart and made it his custom to visit the market regularly in the hope of finding some new fruit or other delicacy, seeking out new tastes in order to be able to recite the appropriate blessing and have an opportunity to say the “shehecheyanu”, to appreciate the wonder and variety of God’s creation and to avoid the wrath of Heaven should he fail to take advantage of all that God created for the pleasure and benefit of mankind.(3)

The nazir’s decision to take on a level of asceticism, to forego certain earthly pleasures, is an option that the Torah condones for those who feel they are in need of more sharply-defined boundaries in order to achieve a higher level of spirituality. However, this decision has consequences: The nazir has taken a vow that precludes taking full enjoyment from the physical world, and for this, the nazir must make amends. As he (or she) prepares to return to his former life, he must “apologize” to God for passing up on the pleasures this world has to offer. The nazir’s sin-offering, then, is an important message for us all: In His benevolence, God created a world of wonder and delight, which He allows us to share. The Torah is the framework through which the pleasures of this world can be experienced and appreciated, enjoyed – and sanctified.

The Torah Teaches Us How to Think

From – The Path of the BT by Rav Itamar Shwartz.

As we mentioned, a person is divided in general, into three parts: actions, feelings, and thoughts. Often a person’s feelings seem very positive to him, even as his outward actions tell a different story. How many secular Jews say, “In my heart, I serve the Creator. I am a good Jew.” He helps everybody, even thieves. In his heart a person thinks that if he has good feelings, everything is fine.

Chazal said,[7] “Anyone who is compassionate to those who are cruel, will end up being cruel to those who are compassionate.” But what can I do if I feel in my heart that it’s good to be kind to those who are cruel as well? Is that a good feeling, or not? According to my logic, is it good to have mercy on a cruel person? Sure. Such a person is the most miserable person around. He is cruel! He is terribly unfortunate.

But Chazal teach us that a person should not always go where his natural instincts may lead him. The emotions need another source of direction. How do I know which feelings are positive and which are negative? According to how it seems to me? Not at all. If there is no brain, then the heart is not a true heart either. The emotions, too, are not the proper emotions. In order to know whether our feelings are correct, we need to learn, and if we learn, we will know what our feelings should be. In that case, let us begin with the learning.

An average person living in our world, whose place is not in the beis medrash, who is not part of the Torah world, barely uses his mind. A majority of people, obviously, think about what to do, what not to do, when to get up, when to buy things and what to buy, but the brain is barely put to use. A small percentage of people study in various institutions of learning, and their brains are also at work. But how long do they “stay in” learning? Two or three years, maybe even four or five? During the course of a lifetime, are they constantly learning? It is very rare to find, in the outside world, people whose brains are working at learning during their entire lifetimes. In the best case scenario, they may be learning for several years.

On the other hand, a person who sits in the beis medrash, his brain must continue to toil until his dying day. There is never a time when he is exempt from studying Torah. Whether he is young or old, whether he is healthy or ill, as the Rambam[8] says, he must learn Torah until the day he dies.

In order to understand this, we first need to understand the power of Torah learning. So long as a person is on the outside of the Torah world, he has no inkling that to become part of that world involves building a world of the intellect.

He thinks that to become a baal teshuvah means to do whatever must be done. Whatever the Rav tells him to do, he’ll do. It would be wonderful if everyone did that! But that’s only a small part of becoming a baal teshuvah. You cannot remain bound to the Rav like a child tied to his mother’s apron strings; obeying everything he says. In the beginning he will tell you what to do, but little by little, you must build and begin to think yourself.

When you enter the world of Torah, it’s not only a change in what to do and what not to do, as we mentioned earlier. An additional, basic change (that must be made) is to understand that “Yisroel were His first thoughts to be created.”[9] Chazal said, “Who did Hashem, so to speak, think of to create first? The Jewish Nation.”

In other words, the power of the Jewish nation is that they are ‘the first of the thought.’ They are the true power of thought that exists in Creation! That is the secret of the holy Torah; that it is the wisdom of the Creator, given specifically to the Jewish nation.

The Torah is made up of three parts. One part of Torah is the commandments that a Jew must fulfill. That is the aspect of fulfilling the Torah in action. The second part of Torah is to study it. The Torah is wisdom, it is a body of knowledge. The third part of Torah is to build the emotions based on true thought patterns.

Entrance into the world of Torah is, on the one hand, entrance into a world of action. What must I do, and what is forbidden to me? That is true. But another part of the world into which he has entered, which is often unclear at the beginning of the path, and is also often unclear in the middle of the way, and even sometimes until the end, is that he has entered a world that builds the power of thought in a person.

It is clear that entrance to the world of Torah means building something new in the brain. This is similar to building a new home. Everyone, upon entering the world of Torah, whether he is a young child growing up, or someone who has led a superficial existence, and then enters into it, must understand one principle. On the one hand, we must build up our active fulfillment of the laws– what is permitted, what is forbidden, what are we obligated to do. On the other hand, he is building a new home! In the words of the passuk,[10] “Through wisdom is a house built.” In a deep sense, building the mind of a person is like building a home inside of him.

To build a brain means that a person understands, first of all, that the business of Torah is not only to learn in order to do, although it is the main thing. In addition, however, he understands that he learns in order to build his intellect.

Rav Itamar Shwartz (Bilvavi) on Shavous and the Soul Perspective

Rav Itamar Shwartz, the author of the Bilvavi and the Getting to Know Yourself (Soul, Emotions, Home) seforim has a free download available of Shavous Talks here. Here are some short excerpts:

Three Kinds Of Love: For the Creator, For Torah, and For Another Jew.

With the help of Hashem, we are approaching the time of the giving of the Torah. When the Torah was given, there were three great revelations. The first revelation was that Hashem came down onto Har Sinai, and opened up all the heavens and showed us that Ain Od Milvado, there is nothing besides for Him. The second revelation was the Ten Commandments, which contains the entire Torah. The third revelation was that we all stood together with one heart.

The sefarim hakedoshim reveal that there are three kinds of love that we need to seek: love for Hashem, love for the Torah, and love for the Jewish people. These three kinds of love were all revealed at the giving of the Torah. Our love for the Creator was revealed when Hashem revealed Himself to us. Our love for the Torah was revealed through the Ten Commandments. Our love for the Jewish people was revealed when we had complete unity with each other, standing together with one heart.

Changing to a Soul Perspective
The choice that everyone has on this world is: If he will live life through his body, or through his
soul.

A person should ask himself how much physical gratification he’s getting, versus how much of his basic soul needs that he is getting. One should try thinking about this every day.

If anyone reflects, he’ll find that most of the day is spent on physical gratification – whether it’s coffee, smoking, food, newspapers, etc. Each to his own.
To begin to change this, one should try to make sure that he’s giving himself at least a little attention each day to his soul’s needs.

Today, pleasure is often only experienced sensually, with the physical. People often are completely devoid of experiencing any enjoyment whatsoever with regards to their souls. A person can start to change this by making sure to give his soul a little pleasure each day. This is just the beginning step.

When a person then feels a desire for something physical, such as for food – if he feels that he can give it up for something that is a soul need, he is making progress with this. It shows that he has begun to change his perspective at least a little.

Someone who does this and gets used to this will come to an amazing discovery. He will begin to actually feel others. He will feel other’s happiness when they make a simcha, and he will feel their sadness when they go through a loss. His soul will be able to feel the other’s soul.

Leaving The Body And Entering The Soul
When we heard the Torah at Har Sinai, our souls left us. In other words, we left the perspective of the body and entered the perspective of our soul!

This shows us that the way to prepare for the Torah – [at least] one of the ways – is to leave our body’s perspective and to instead enter into our soul a bit. This will resemble how the souls of the Jewish people left their bodies at Har Sinai.

May we be zoche to leave the thick materialism of this world and instead feel how we are a soul, beginning from the most basic needs of our soul [our emotional happiness], and then to the more spiritual needs of our soul, until we finally reach the highest part of our soul – the point of total d’veykus (attachment) with Hashem.

For Today, Erev Rosh Chodesh Sivan – A Translation of The Shelah’s Prayer for Parents on Behalf of their Children

The Shelah HaKadosh says that Erev Rosh Chodesh Sivan is a special day to daven for your children’s spiritual and material needs. Here is an English Translation of the Shelah’s prayer he composed for this day. You can say the Hebrew version here.

You have been the Eternal, our G-d, before You created the world, and You are the Eternal, our G-d, since you created the world, and You are G-d forever. You created Your world so that Your Divinity should become revealed thorugh Your holy Torah, as our Sages expounded on the first word therein, and for Israel, for they are Your people and Your inheritance whom You have chosen from among all nations. You have given them Your holy Torah and drawn them toward Your great Name. These two commandments are, “Be fruitful and Multiply” and “You shall teach them to your children.” Their purpose is that You did not create the world to be empty, but to be inhabited, and that it is for Your glory that You created, fashioned, and perfected it, so that we, our offspring, and all the descendants of your people Israel will know Your Name and study Your Torah.

Thus I entreat You, O Eternal, supreme King of kings. My eyes are fixed on You until You favor me, and hear my prayer, and provide me with sons and daughters who will also be fruitful and multiply, they and their descendents unto all generations, in order that they and we might all engage in the study of Your holy Torah, to learn and to teach, to observe and to do, and to fulfill with love all the words of Your Torah’s teaching. Enlighten our eyes in Your Torah and attach our heart to Your commandments to love and revere Your Name.

Our Father, compassionate Father, grant us all a long and blessed life. Who is like You, compassionate Father, Who in compassion remembers His creatures for life! Remember us for eternal life, as our Forefather Avraham prayed, “If only Yishmael would live before You,” which the Sages interpreted as “…live in reverence of You.”

For this I have come to appeal and plead before You, that my offspring and their descendants be proper, and that You find no imperfection or disrepute in me or them forever. May they be people of peace, truth, goodness and integrity in the eyes of G-d and man. Help them to become practiced in Torah, accomplished in Scriptures, Mishnah, Talmud, Kabbalah, mitzvos, kindness, and good attributes, and to serve you with an inner love and reverence, not merely outwardly. Provide every one of them with their needs with honor, and give them health, honor and strength, good bearing and appearance, grace and loving-kindness. May love and brotherhood reign among them. Provide them with suitable marriage partners of scholarly and righteous parentage who will also be blessed with all that I have asked for my own descendants, since they will share the same fate.

You, the Eternal, know everything that is concealed, and to You all my heart’s secrets are revealed. For all my intention concerning the above is for the sake of Your great and holy Name and Torah. Therefore, answer me, O Eternal, answer me in the merit of our holy Forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov. For the sake of the fathers save the children, so the branches will be like the roots. For the sake of Your servant, David, who is the fourth part of Your Chariot, who sings with Divine inspiration.

A song of ascents. Fortunate is everyone who fears the Eternal, who walks in His ways. When you eat of the toil of your hands, you are fortunate, and good will be yours. Your wife is like a fruitful vine in the inner chambers of your home; your children are like olive shoots around your table. Look! So is blessed the man who fears the Eternal. May the Eternal bless you from Zion, and may you see the good of Jerusalem all the days of your life. May you see your children’s children, peace upon Israel.

Please, O Eternal, Who listens to prayer: May the following verse be fulfilled in me: “‘As for Me,’ says the Eternal, “this My covenant shall remain their very being; My spirit, which rests upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart from your mouth nor from the mouths of your children, nor from the mouths of your children’s children,” said the Eternal, “from now to all Eternity.” May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart be pleasing before You, Eternal, my Rock and my Redeemer.

Internalizing Torah Lends Confidence … NOT Smugness

Why is the Torah’s system called Halachah?
How does Halachah tread the fine line between confidence and conceit?

If you will “walk/go in” My statutes and are careful to fulfill my commandments…

— Vayikra 26:3

 What nation is so great, that they have Elokim so close to it, as HaShem our Elokim is at whatever time we call Him?

— Devarim 4:7

Rabi Tanhuma taught: Once there was a ship that set sail on the Great Sea.  All of the passengers were idolaters except for one Jewish youth. A furious storm ensued and the ship was tempest-tossed and in severe danger of sinking. Each and every one of the travelers grasped his icons or idols in hand and began reciting his prayers, but to no avail.  So they said to the Jewish youth “cry to the L-rd your G-d, for we have heard that when you [people] cry to Him; that He responds and that He is mighty. The youth immediately cried out [to HaShem] with all his heart, HaShem accepted his prayer and the storm calmed.  When the ship docked at a port on a unfamiliar island the other passenger told the Jewish youth “Here; take some of our money, go into the island and secure some provisions for us.” He said to them: “Aren’t I lodger and a stranger in these parts [the same as everyone else, how will I find my way around?] They responded “is there such a thing as a Jewish ‘stranger’ ? No!  Wherever you wander … your G-d is with you! behold; ‘that they have Elokim so close to it!‘ ”

— Talmud Yerushalmi Berachos 9:1, Midrash Devarim Rabbah 2:16

 “And he [Yaakov] come into contact with the Place” (Bereshis 28:11) Rav Huna said in the name of RavAmmi “Why do we euphemistically refer to HaShem as ‘The Place’? because HaShem is the Place of His Cosmos … His Cosmos is not His place.” As another pasuk indicates (Shemos 32:21): ‘Behold there is a place with Me i.e all space is under My domain’. And so we see that  HaShem is the Place of His Cosmos … His Cosmos is not His place.”

— Bereshis Rabbah 68:9

The all-encompassing system of Torah observance is known as Halachah; a conjugation of the Hebrew verb translated as “walking” or “going”. Arguably, this term derives from the opening pasuk of our Sidrah. “If you will walk/ go” in My statutes etc.”  The system of Torah statutes empowers those who study and observe it to move about and not static. Absent Torah knowledge one is left essentially paralyzed.  It’s often said that knowledge is power. In particular, Torah knowledge proffers the power to move.

The Ramchal offers this famous metaphor for the strategy and tactics of the yetzer hara-the inclination to evil:

For the yetzer hara literally blinds his eyes and he becomes as one who walks in the darkness, where there are stumbling blocks before him which he fails to see. As our Sages of blessed memory said (Bava Metzia 83b), “You laid down darkness and it was night” (Psalms 104:20). This refers to this world [manipulated by the yetzer hara ]which is similar to the night.” … the darkness of night can cause two types of visual errors: it may conceal things completely such that one does not see what is before him at all, or it may deceive him so that a pillar appears to him as a man, or a man as a pillar. … The second error … is even worse than the first … inasmuch as it causes people to see evil as though it were goodness itself, and good as if it were evil, and, because of this, [the wicked] strengthen themselves in clinging to their evil ways. For it is not enough that they lack the ability to see the truth, the evil staring them in the face, but they also see fit to find … empirical evidence supporting their evil theories and false ideas.” (Mesilas Yesharim 3)  If a wanderer finds himself lost in a forest that is either pitch black or, at twilight time, where beasts appear to be men and vice-versa then, in this type of dangerous situation, the wisest strategy is to hunker down and not move.

Shifting from the realm of the metaphoric to the sphere of the practical, this means that the greater ones Torah expertise is — the more luminous his “lighting” — the greater his agility and maneuverability in living his life becomes.  Many of us have desisted from making certain moves for fear that we might be breaking some Torah law unknown to us. So — on a very pragmatic level Torah knowledge and observance confers the power and the confidence to move about in ways that would have been avoided while shrouded in the shadows of Torah-ignorance. Thus Torah transforms “standers” into “walkers” and “goers”.

The Izhbitzer teaches that the meaning of the opening pasuk is Im b’Chukosai– if My statutes become chiseled into you; — part and parcel of you — then and only then … Teileichu-will you go; i.e. will you be empowered to move. Only when the Torah becomes engraved upon a person’s heart, if it becomes an intrinsic part of him can he then “go” and move. Otherwise shev v’ahl ta’aseh ahdiph-it’s better to sit and do nothing.

Internalizing the Torah essentially means inculcating the Divine Giver of the Torah as well. As our sages taught: Oraysa V’kudshah Brich Hu kulo Chad-the Torah and the Holy Blessed One are all One (Zohar I, 24A; II, 60A). With HaShem directing traffic kivyachol-as it were; he who has chiseled the Torahs statutes into himself possesses an internal moral compass and an ethical GPS kivyachol. As the Midrash indicates the nearly-shipwrecked philo-Semitic gentiles traveling with the Jewish youth expected him to be incapable of losing his way or making a misstep even in a literal, geographical sense.

The Izhbitzer reveals an even profounder level of the mobility of those who “walk in/with the Torahs statutes/ decrees.”

The possibility of one losing one’s way or entering terrain or seaways fraught with danger is predicated on the notion that there are, in fact, diverse locations with dissimilar characteristics; some that are out of harm’s way while others are perilous. But if this were all a mirage, if a man thought that he had journeyed a thousand miles but had in truth never left the room; then whatever dangers or missteps that he confronted along the way were, in truth, illusory. One who walks with HaShem is in THE Place.  HaShem is sometimes referred to as “the Place” because, as our sages taught, He transcends space.  He is not situated within a particular space, on the contrary all individual spaces and locations are situated within HaShem.

Mindful of this inner truth, the Talmud resolves a very thorny question:  We derive all 39 melachos-categories of the creative activities; prohibited on Shabbos, as well as the precise specifications of each prohibited category, from the Mishkan-the portable Tabernacle that was home to the Divine Indwelling during the forty-year sojourn in the Wilderness. The category known as stirah-deconstruction/ demolition; is derived from the breaking-down of the Mishkan’s structure into its component parts whenever the Bnei Yisrael-the Jewish Nation; would break camp. Yet among the precise specifications for the prohibited category of stirah is that the one demolishing intends to build new construction on the site that he is now clearing:  “Rabbah asked Ulla, ‘Consider; all forms of melachah are derived from the Mishkan, yet there[in the case of the Mishkan]  it was deconstructing in order to rebuild elsewhere?’ Ulla answered ‘It was different there for since it is written: “By the Word of HaShem they camped and By the Word of HaShem they journeyed “(Bemidbar 9:23) it was like demolishing in order to rebuild on the same site.’ ”(Shabbos 31B). When one “travels” with HaShem no real change of location has occurred! In Halachah one can be a “traveler/ walker” with complete confidence. Still, the Izhbitzer cautions us not to allow confidence to outgrow healthy proportions and metastasize into arrogant smugness. In the pasukIf you will ‘go in’ my decrees etc.” the emphasis is on the word “if”.  Presuming that G-d walks with you, that G-d is on your side or, even, that you are on His; is always an uncertain, iffy proposition.  For even one who toes the halachic line may be contravening the depths of the Divine Will.

E.g. Debts are to be absolved during shmittah-the sabbatical year, and the Torah harshly criticizes potential lenders who withhold loans for fear of having to clear these loans. (cp Devarim 15:9) Yet the Mishnah still teaches (Shvi’is 10:8) that “If the borrower seeks to repay his debt during shmittah the lender should tell him ‘I absolve it’ but if the borrower persists and says ‘even so [I want to repay my debt]’ then the lender should accept payment from him. As the pasuk says ‘and this is the matter/ word of absolution.’ (Devarim15:2)” The very next Mishnah exclaims “the spirit of the sages is with all those borrowers who repay their loans on the seventh year.” (ibid:9).

On the surface, these Mishnayos seem counterintuitive and contra-halachic.  If the Torah refers to the sabbatical year as the shmittah-the absolution/ forgiving-of-debts year then it would seem that the releasing of loans is the very definition of such years. Then why should borrowers earn the sages favor by repaying their loans? We are compelled to dig beneath the surface and understand that the Torah contains depths of meaning beyond what is “written”, even within the oral tradition. Sometimes the halcahah, is like a baggy, loose-fitting cloak that conceals the true shape of what lies within [i.e. the Divine Will], rather than being a revealing, form-fitting, second-skin, leotard that conforms to the precise contours of that which/He Who is being clothed.

Regarding the mitzvah of shmittas kesafim-absolving loans during shvi’is; HaShem enlightened the sages to the Depths of His Will — that verbal forgiveness of the debt suffices and that actual absolution of the debt is not required.

But this is but a single example among the myriads of Mitzvos and Chukim of the Torah.  HaShem, kivyachol, is hedging His bets on us, His People.  He is, kivyachol, praying that we succeed in hewing to and completely fulfilling His Will. “If you will ‘go in’ my decrees etc.” because even if one observes every jot and tittle of the Shulchan Aruch-Code of Torah Law there is still no guarantee that he has conformed to the Will of HaShem on the profoundest levels, for what human being can plumb the Deepest Depths of the Divine Mind and Will?

~adapted from Mei HaShiloach I Bechukosai D”H Im
(the second of three)

Mei HaShiloach I Bechukosai D”H Im (the second)

The Nachas of a BT Parent

By Esti

As a BT, and a BT woman who always liked to sing, I’m a bit frustrated. Of course the outlets for women singers (not that I was ever a professional but I’ve been told I have a perfectly trainable voice) are few and far between. So I’ve resigned myself to singing in my home, for my children. I sing some nice tunes I’ve heard for Modeh Ani and make up new words for songs I know to motivate my kids to get out of bed, get dressed, hold my hand while crossing the street, bring me something on the other side of the room, and various other daily living activities. My 5 year old is constantly mesmerized by the fact that I know so many different songs. I’m sure my old friends would be cringing at the latest household lyrics I’ve written to various Beatles tunes, etc., and my daughter always wants to know where I learned the latest song. “I heard it as a kid” I just tell her, knowing that someday it will become obvious to her that I didn’t grow up like her listening to the best of Uncle Moishe and Mordechai Ben David.

My daughter’s music teacher just called to thank me, and my daughter, for providing her the funniest teaching moment of her 2007-08 school year. Morah Miri is trying to teach the kindergarten all about sukkot through some new songs she’s written. She says to the group, “I’m going to play a tune on the piano, and if you know the tune, tell me what it is.” She begins to play, “Take Me Out To the Ballgame.” My daughter raises her hand. “You know this tune?”

Shira Leah nods.

M: “What tune is it?”

SL: “Take Me Out of the Bathtub.”

M: “Take Me Out of the Bathtub? Who sings that?”

SL: “My mother!”

Now, I’m sure I’m not the only mother who sings funny songs to get their kids moving when they need to. I think its much more effective and fun for everyone than screaming. I admit I’ve done my share of that too. I also do my 5 minute increment count-down to carpool, starting from when they wake up, encouraging them to be dressed and downstairs in plenty of time so they can “Have Breakfast Like a Mensch”. There is nothing more rewarding to a mom than have kids whining “Imma, I need your help getting dressed because I want to have breakfast like a mensch!” They know this means sitting at the table properly having their cereal and milk and warm drink or cold milk. And, of course, fighting over who got more wheat germ on their cereal.

But what to tell our kids about where we got these songs? Or do we not bother telling them? I’m so plagued by the truth that I feel a little dishonest in not giving full disclosure. “Imma used to listen to the secular radio and had record albums (ok we’ll have to explain that) of these music stars, but we don’t listen to them anymore because their messages aren’t for a bas Yisroel, Imma just didn’t know any better at the time.” Not quite. Ideas, anyone?

Originally Posted 11/14/2007

Time, Space and Soul

When you come into the land that I am giving you, the land must be given a rest interlude, a sabbath for HaShem.  For six years you may plant your fields, prune your vineyards and gather your crops. But the seventh year shall be a sabbath of sabbaths for the land, it is HaShem’s Sabbath during which you may neither plant your fields, nor prune your vineyards … You  shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants; This is your jubilee year;  when each man shall return to his hereditary property and to his family … Do not make him [your brother] pay advance interest , nor give him food for which he will have to pay accrued interest … And if your brother becomes impoverished and is sold to you, you may not work him like a slave. He shall be with you just like a hired servant, or a resident [farm] hand. He shall serve you only until the year of jubilee.

                                                                                                                                      —Vayikra 25:2-4,10,37,39,40

 A sabbath to HaShem: For the sake of HaShem, just as is stated of the Sabbath of Creation (i.e the Shabbos we observe on a weekly basis)

—Rashi Vayikra 25:2 from Toras Kohanim 25:7

 I.e., just as every seventh day is a holy Sabbath day, acclaiming that G-d Himself rested on the seventh day [after creating for the first six days] and thus confirming that G-d is the Supreme Creator of all that exists, similarly, man must refrain from working the land on the seventh year, for the Glory of G-d, not for the benefit of the land, so that it should gain fertility by lying fallow for a year.

— Sifsei Chachamim ibid

The mekubalim-expositors of the Torah mystical tradition; teach that all that HaShem created exists on the three parallel planes of olam/shanah/nefesh-world/year/soul i.e. in the realms of space, time and spirit. (cp. Sefer Yetzirah) In Parshas Behar the Izhbitzer school explores several applications of this concept.  Among our Sidrah’s opening topics we find the Shmittah/Shvi’is-sabbatical year; d’ror avadim-the liberation of slaves; and ribis-the prohibition of charging interest.  The Izhbitzer explains the common denominator of these three topics in light of olam/shanah/nefesh.

A ma’amin-one who is theologically correct and believes in the thirteen articles of faith should, in theory, have complete bitachon BaShem– reliance upon G-d.  Believing that G-d is Benevolent, Omniscient, Omnipotent and directly controlling of the infinite to the infinitesimal (hashgachah p’ratis) it would be foolish to place ones trust in anyone or anything else. Yet, as the chasm separating our dispassionate beliefs from our heartfelt emotions is vast; people are constantly looking for substitutes for G-d to place their trust in and to rely upon. First and foremost we search for things to vouchsafe our ongoing existence; ways and means that can maintain and sustain us and, broadly speaking, these ways and means fall into one of three categories; property, time-charges and other people.

The most tangible and static of properties is real estate. Once a mortgage has been paid off real estate ownership is permanent. Unlike movable property real-estate cannot be removed by thieves. Inasmuch as the structures comprising residential or commercial real estate can depreciate, be partially damaged or be completely destroyed the most solid and reliable of all real estate is, arguably, farmland. Farmland represents the owners tangible kinyan-possession; in olam-space; and that which he relies and depends on to sustain him with produce and which he hopes will enrich him with its surplus produce.

The mitzvos of Shmittah/Shvi’is force the farmer to lay down his tools and throw the gates of his agricultural properties open for man and beast.  These laws demonstrate that real-estate property ownership is an illusion; that all space belongs to HaShem. In so doing the farmer exposes his own reliance and dependence on his farmland, his kinyan in olam, for the mirage that it is.

While attorneys rack up billable hours and taxi-drivers meter their fares, at least in part based upon elapsed time, neither of these are the purest manifestations of the maxim “time is money.”  In truth, the client or the cab rider are paying for a service rendered.  Time is merely the yardstick used to determine how much or how little of the service in question was provided.

The purest manifestation of the “time is money” equation is the charging of interest.  When charging and collecting interest, whether simple or compounded, the lender collects a fee from the borrower for the units of time that the latter held and used his funds.  No greater goods or services are rendered on a $10,000 principal amount whether the loan is paid off in one year or in five years.  The higher interest paid by the lender for a five year loan is exclusively for the elapsed time.  When it comes to collecting interest, time is literally money.

Interest represents the lenders tangible kinyan in shanah-year/time; and that which he relies and depends on to sustain him with accruing wealth by transforming time into money.  The Torahs prohibition of interest and usury denies this ersatz security to those who would place their faith and trust in time rather than in the time-transcendent G-d.

The most G-d-like of all substitutes in which people invest their reliance and trust — are other people.  People are, after all, created b’tzelem Elokim-in the image of the Divine; and we are attracted to “dependable” people. This may be the most noxious form of bitachon-reliance; substitution inasmuch as it inverts the relationship between the one relying and the One being relied upon.  Instead of relying on and trusting HaShem Whom they must serve; people rely on and trust a variety of people who will serve them.

We depend on our domestics to keep our homes clean, on our gardeners to keep our lawns well-groomed and we trust our physicians to dispense correct prescriptions and medical advice and our stockbrokers to manage our portfolios to profitability. The salaries and fees that we pay these laborers and professionals represent our concrete kinyan in nefesh-soul.

But the starkest iteration of a kinyan in nefesh is slave ownership.  When one holds a slave he is not “renting” a particular talent or skill, a mere particular koach hanefesh; but has acquired the nefesh in toto. Every talent and faculty of the slave can be harnessed and depended upon to fulfill the owners’ needs. The slave is a wholly owned subsidiary of the slave owner, so much so that the reliance and trust that the slaver invests in the slave can almost be deemed self-reliance and self-confidence. The mitzvah of d’ror avadim in yovel-the jubilee year; conveys the truth that one Jew can never possess another Jew, even one who had his ear bored through because he refused to leave his master. All bonds of interpersonal human reliance are ephemeral and an ownership which must be surrendered is, in fact, no ownership at all, even before it is relinquished.

Collectively the three mitzvos of Shmittah/Shvi’is, d’ror avadim in Yovel, and ribis give the lie to being able to cultivate a true kinyan, and thus acquiring the security and insurance through, either olam, shanah or nefesh.  We have no one and nothing to lean on but our Father in heaven.

The Izhbitzer’s disciple, Rav Tzadok the Lubliner Kohen, applies the olam/shanah/nefesh model to link the end of Parshas Emor and the start of Parshas Behar. His interpretation is based on a commentary of the Ba’al HaTurim that Parshas Emor essentially ends with the narrative of the Megadeph-the one who cursed G-d; and Parshas Behar begins with the laws of Shmittah/Shvi’is because, as Rabbah bar bar Chanah taught in Rabi Yochanan’s name: “The the sages convey [the elocution and precise meaning of the Divine] Name of four letters to their disciples [only] once in a seven year period. Others opine, twice in a seven year period.” (Kiddushin 71A)  Cursing the Name is a capital offense only when the curse was cast against the Name that had been articulated and pronounced correctly.

The Lubliner Kohen is unconvinced by the Ba’al HaTurim’s approach because the gemara does not indicate when, precisely, within the seven year period it was that the sages revealed the secrets of the Divine four letter Name of to their disciples. For the link between the sidros to be validated we must first establish that the secrets of the Divine Name were revealed during the Shmittah/Shvi’is year. Additionally, the conclusion of the gemara reads: Said Rabi Nachman ben Yitzchok “Reason supports the view that it was [only] once in a seven year period for we read, ‘this is My Name forever [le’olam]’ which is written ‘to conceal’ [le’ahleim].”  This explanation requires further clarification, for if  the Divine four-letter Name must be concealed why is it permissible to reveal It’s secret even once in a seven year period?  On the other hand, if the spelling of the word le’ahleim does not absolutely prohibit revealing It’s secrets then why limit it? Perhaps it could be taught twice in a seven year period?

Rashi cites the Toras Kohanim/ Safra that equates the Shmittah/Shvi’is year with Shabbos.  The Lubliner Kohen asserts that Shabbos is to time what Mikdash-the Temple in Jerusalem; is to space. The Mikdash was a consecrated space which was somewhat exempted from the prohibition of articulating the Divine Name explicitly. When the kohanim would confer the Birkas Kohanim-priestly benediction; in the Mikdash they would explicate the Divine Name and when the Kohen Godol would confess sins over various offerings on Yom Kippur he too would explicate the Divine Name. Just as the secret of the Divine name could be divulged in the Mikdash in the sphere of space; so too could it be exposed on Shmittah/Shvi’is year in the sphere of time.

As to why the parallel is to years rather than to days (it is absolutely prohibited to explicitly utter HaShem’s name on the weekly Shabbos of a non-Shmittah year) the Lubliner Kohen incorporates the Ramban ad locum. The essence of his answer is that just as HaShem created the world in seven days, history endures for seven millennia. For each of G-d’s “days” lasts a millennium as the psalmist wrote “For a thousand years in Your Eyes are but as yesterday when it is past … ” (Tehillim 90:4) The seventh millennium, that epoch which lies beyond the scope of olam hazeh-this world, is the time when our consciousness’ are raised to perceive the Divine without veils and obfuscation.  The very derivation of the prohibition of explicating the Divine Name comes with a built in statute of limitations.  The prohibition must only persist for the duration of the “lifespan” of the temporal here-and-now world. The le’ahleim- concealment is for the  le’olam-this world. The Lubliner Kohen concludes that it was permissible for sages to reveal the secrets of the Divine name during every Shabbos of the Shmittah/Shvi’is year.  This is the deeper meaning of the Ba’al HaTurim’s commentary.

~adapted from Mei HaShiloach I Emor D”H Dahber
Pri Tzaddik Emor passage 7

This post is an  installment for Behar  in the series of adaptations
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK
By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

 

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

If You Want Me to Be Closer to You … Get Further From Me

Why is contact with the dead prohibited to kohanim?
Why would Divine Providence create a kohen with a congenital mum-blemish; that disqualifies him from serving?
The Megadeph was apparently motivated by the holy yearning to “belong” to K’lal Yisrael-the Jewish People. Why was he so severely punished?

[Still, in spite of the kohen being physically blemished] he may eat the bread [i.e. food sacrifices] of his G-d, both from the holy of holies, and from the holy. But he shall not come to the cloth partition, nor approach the altar, for he has a blemish …  

—Vayikra 21:22,23

 And the son of an Israelite woman, whose father was an Egyptian man, went out among the children of Israel; and the son of the Israelite woman had a quarrel with a man of Israel in the camp. And then the son of the Israelite woman blasphemed the Name, with a curse. The people brought him to Moshe[’s court]. And his mother’s name was Shlomis, the daughter of Divri, of the tribe of Dan.

—Vayikra 24:10,11

 the son of an Israelite woman…went out:  Where did he go out from? … He “went out” of Moshe’s court [with a] losing [verdict. How so?] He came into the encampment of the tribe of Dan [attempting] to pitch his own tent. So [a man of this tribe] said to him, “What right do you have to be here?” Said he, “I am of the descendants of Dan,” [claiming lineage through his mother] he said to him, “[But Torah says (Bemidbar 2:2): ‘The children of Israel shall encamp] each person near the flag-banner bearing his paternal family’s insignia,’” [thereby refuting his maternal claim]. He entered Moshe’s court [where his lawsuit against the tribesmen of Dan was tried], and he “came out” defeated. Then, he stood up and cursed. (Vayikra Rabbah 32:3)

—Rashi Ibid

 Rabi Eliezer son of Rabi Shimon was coming from Migdal Gedor … and was feeling … elated because he had studied much Torah . There he happened to meet an exceedingly ugly man who greeted him, “Peace be upon you, Sir”. He, however, did not return his welcome but instead said to him, “Empty one, how ugly you are! Are all your fellow citizens as ugly as you are?’’ The man replied: “I don’t know, but go and tell the Craftsman who made me, ‘How Ugly is the vessel which You have made’ “.

—Taanis 20 A-B

 As it was taught, Shimon HaAmsoni … interpreted every [word] es in the Torah; [but] as soon as he came to, “You shall fear [es] HaShem your Elokim” he abstained [from interpreting the word].  His disciples said to him, “Master, what is to happen with all the esin which you have interpreted?” [Stumped by how to interpret the current ‘es’ Shimon HaAmsoni renounced the legitimacy of all his prior es readings. He taught his students … ] “Just as I received reward for interpreting all these words so too will I receive reward for retracting them [my elucidations.]”

                                                                                                                                      —Pesachim 22B

In Parshas Emor the Izhbitzer concentrates a great deal on the issue of תרעומות כלפי מעלה tarumos k’lapee ma’alah–grievances against G-d. When comparing and contrasting the Izhbitzers understanding of the kohen ba’al mum–who is physically blemished or disabled; and the Megadeph-he who cursed; i.e. the defeated litigant in a lawsuit in Moshe Rabenu’s court who cursed G-d; we find that their diverse approaches to tarumos addresses a trait central to the core of Jewish identity.

When a kohen becomes tamei-ritually impure; more often than not the cause is his carelessness or other human error. Moreover, being tamei is a temporary condition. In cases of tumah-ritual impurity; there is no permanent loss of the privilege of serving HaShem in the Mikdash. While a kohen tamei may be miffed at losing his turn at serving in, or even entering, the Mikdash, relatively speaking it is easy for him to accept and come to terms with his disappointment and frustration. However, many of the physical blemishes or disabilities that render a kohen a ba’al mum are congenital birth-defects. A kohen ba’al mum places the responsibility for his permanent ineligibility to perform the Divine service in the Mikdash squarely on Hashems shoulders kivyachol-as it were.  After all, as in the case of the ugly man whom Rabi Eliezer verbally abused, the kohen a ba’al mum considers HaShem “the Craftsman who made me”. He is bewildered over why his Creator/ Craftsmen would have brought him thisclose to the Divine Mikdash service by having been born into the patrilineal Ahronic line yet, ultimately, excluded him and distanced him from Divine Mikdash service through “crafting” a “defective product”. In short, the kohen ba’al mum bears tarumos-heartfelt grievances; towards G-d.

The Izhbitzer understands the mitzvah addressed to the kohanim ba’alei mumim of eating of the korbanos– sacrificial offerings; as a way of appeasing them and addressing their tarumos. Their pnimiyus-their inner essence; even physically, is equivalent to all other kohanim. While the kohen ba’al mum may be blemished externally and superficially, his inner core lacks nothing.  More pointedly; his internal organs become another vehicle for intimacy with HaShem. HaShem is Just and determines precisely how many kohanim ba’alei mumim there must be and which particular souls will be implanted into these “defective” bodies. Through the mitzvah of eating of the korbanos the kohen ba’al mum achieves intimacy with the Divine and, while being kept at arm’s length, kivyachol, in terms of service in the Mikdash, comes to realize that this too is a fulfillment if HaShems Will. In achieving this consciousness the bitterness of his tarumos are sweetened; transformed into wistful, brokenhearted yearnings for the closeness achieved through service in the Mikdash.  In turn these yearnings engender the closeness and intimacy that HaShem has with the heartbroken “HaShem is close to the brokenhearted” (Tehillim 34:19 cp Zohar VaYesheiv page181A)

In contradistinction to the letting go of tarumos of the kohanim ba’alei mumim; the Megadeph allowed his tarumos to become his undoing. Per the Izhbitzer the inclusion of the narrative of the Megadeph in the Torah is only to serve as a cautionary tale of just how much we all need to rid ourselves of tarumos k’lapee ma’alah, even those rooted in the most noble of yearnings.

Read more If You Want Me to Be Closer to You … Get Further From Me

Four Top Misconceptions About Judaism

A while ago I attended an excellent seminar in Kew Garden Hills, NY from Project Inspire, a joint initiative of Aish HaTorah and the OU aimed at creating a grass-roots outreach movement. One of the highlights of the evening was a presentation by Rabbi Chaim Samson from Aish about the four main misconceptions about Judaism than non-frum Jews hava, and the four reassurances that can overcome them. While I can’t recreate the full glory of the presentation in a written summary, the ideas are inspiring enough in any format. For anyone involved professionally or casually in outreach, keeping these four misconceptions in mind is a good starting point. The presentation is also great for ba’alei teshuva.

When he was learning at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem, Rabbi Samson and his friends would often pass backpackers hanging out in the old city. He and his friends had a running that joke that if they approached two backpackers and asked them if they’d like to spend some time in a yeshiva learning about philosophy, mysticism, ethics, how Judaism can inspire our lives, etc., they would get the same answers every time. One of the backpackers would jump at the chance, saying that he had always wanted to learn more about Judaism. The other would demur and make up a litany of excuses. Inevitably the one who is eager to learn about Judaism would be non-Jewish, and interested in comparative religions or an understanding of the development of religions, and the one who wants nothing to do with the religion would be Jewish.

Why this hesitancy? Rabbi Samson points to four misconceptions that lead to this, and four reassurances which can counter them.

1. Judging Others

First, there’s the misconception that religious Jews look down on non-religious Jews, judging them to be less holy or less of a Jew. So therefore why would a non-frum Jew ever want to walk into a room full of frum Jews, thinking that everyone in the room is judging him?

But this idea is completely contrary to Judaism! At the core of Judaism are the concepts of care, concern and love for our fellow Jews. Judaism brought the ideals of charity, kindness and respect to the world. No matter the religious beliefs of another Jew, we have a mitzvah to love and respect them.

As an illustration, Jewish law rules that if someone puts a gun to your head and tells you to kill someone else, you must refuse. This is based on the Talmudic concept that we can’t know whose blood is redder, for only G-d knows who is holier. Taking the example one step further, if you were forced to choose between killing a homeless, alcoholic bum, who never worked a day in his life, and shooting the Chofetz Chayim, one of the biggest Rabbis of all time, Judaism also would say that you cannot choose. We as humans cannot know which of the two people is holier. Each of us has a mission in this world and a potential we can reach, and we cannot know who is closer to reaching it.

Therefore this is a complete misconception, for it could be that the non-frum Jew is truly on a higher level and closer to G-d that his religious brother! The frum person can gain and learn from his less-religious coreligionist, so we can never say that one person is on a lower level than ourselves.

2. Who wants Judaism? It’s a hardship!

There’s the common misconception that Judaism is a hardship, a deprivation of all enjoyment in the world, and that a non-frum person would have to give up all that he enjoys in life. Nothing could be farther from the truth! Judaism is about sucking the marrow out of life and making the most of it. While we have to temper and focus some of our desires, one of the goals of Judaism is getting the most out of this world and achieving the greatest amount of satisfaction.

One of the most important desires that any parent has for a child is that he or she should be happy. It’s the same for G-d. We are His children, and He wants us to get pleasure in this world and the next. Therefore He shows us how real happiness comes from becoming holy. Learning Torah and keeping mitzvot brings the greatest levels of enjoyment a person can have.

Just as a person would never drive a car without reading the instruction manual, we shouldn’t go through life without first reading the instructions. The Torah is our instruction book, our guidebook for getting the most out of life. When a non-frum Jew sees a beautiful Shabbas table with singing, a closeness among family members and true happiness, he or she gets a taste of real enjoyment. The way to do this is by sincerely showing people that Judaism, the Torah and the mitzvot hold the key to happiness.

3. It’s all or nothing.

Upon seeing the multitude of laws and customs in Judaism, many people will throw up their hands and say “It’s too great for me! I’ll never achieve it all, so why should I try?” When they realize they can’t do everything, they opt for nothing.

But it’s a fallacy to assume that we can achieve everything. There is no person on earth who can honestly say that he’s learned every item of Torah, perfected every mitzvot and learned every secret. No one achieves it all.

Instead we all need to take baby steps. We need to take on new mitzvot one at a time. A person may think it’s hypocritical to only take on particular items, but it’s really being human. We’re all constantly struggling to achieve perfection, but that’s human nature. As long as we’re focused on constantly improving and adding to our observance, taking small steps is the way to go.

For example if a jeweler put 613 precious diamonds on a table and told you to grab as many as you could in a few seconds, it’s obviously impossible to grab them all. But that doesn’t mean you should walk away from the table without trying. You need to try to grab as many as you can at once.

By showing other Jews how easy it is to do single mitzvot, such as lighting candles on Friday night, wearing tzitzit, etc., you’ll inspire them to tremendous heights. One mitzvah leads to another. It’s important to get to know a person well enough to be able to recommend particular mitzvot to them, but the most important item is that slow and steady steps helps one win the race.

4. It’s not true!

Often people outside the spectrum of Torah-true Judaism will think of the religion as archaic and backwards, a belief system for people who lack something and who are less intellectual. This probably stems from a misconception based on other religions that require a leap of faith to accept their laws.

Judaism is based on the completely opposite idea. We believe that not only is there a G-d, but that it’s possible to know that He’s out there, that it’s provable. It’s unreasonable to think that G-d would want us to pray to Him without knowing for sure that He’s there. What would be the point of it? How would we ever achieve the heights of spirituality if we weren’t sure our prayers were being heard?

Judaism is one of the only religions that encourages questions and challenges. These are the central goals of Jewish learning and the cores of Judaism. If we can constantly question and challenge, it’s a tremendous testimony to the veracity of Judaism! G-d wouldn’t encourage us to question if it was impossible to find the truth. Our eagerness to question demonstrates our supreme confidence in the truth of our religion.

Based on these four misconceptions and four reassurances, we also have four key methodologies for reaching out to people:

1. Showing care for people, to show that any thoughts that they’re being judged are incorrect.

2. Demonstrating the beauty and pleasure inherent in Judaism.

3. Taking baby steps to observance.

4. Showing that Judaism is based on truth.

These four statements are fundamental to outreach, and fundamental to our performance of our religion.

To end with my own addition, these four statements are also excellent items to work on as we prepare for the divine tribunal on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. These are four areas that we need to constantly work on. By strengthening our love for fellow Jews and refraining from judging them, we become more caring and compassionate people. By making sure that our actions radiate the beauty of Judaism, we remind ourselves and those around us how beautiful our religion is and we enhance our performance of the mitvot. Taking baby steps is the best way to adopt any new mitzvah or practice, and doing so is especially appropriate during this month of Elul. By spending this month taking small steps towards our commitments for next year, we demonstrate to G-d and ourselves that we are sincere and that we will really try to achieve them next year, instead of just jumping into them without preparation on Rosh Hashanah. And by demonstrating to the world that truth is at the core of Judaism, we can inspire ourselves, our families and our communities to greater love and observance of Judaism.

Originally Published in October, 2006

Kedoshim – Spirituality and Materialism Do Not Mix

The Ramban’s commentary on the opening posuk of Parsha Kedoshim is perhaps the second most famous Ramban on the Torah. Rabbi Noson Weisz explains the Ramban’s comments as follows:

“The lesson of the commandment to be holy is that we can be fully observant without necessarily being very different than the rest of the world in terms of pursuing materialism or leading a life devoted to consumption. We can open restaurants that are up to cordon blue standards and yet are strictly kosher. We can dress our wives and daughters in the latest fashions without violating the letter of the laws of modesty. We can aspire to live in mansions and drive fancy cars and spend our vacations in romantic far away places without violating any of the strictures of the Torah in the slightest degree. In short, observance does not foreclose the possibility of leading a materialistic life.

In fact, there is even a downside to observance in this regard. Whereas the non-observant person who engages in such a lifestyle has no illusions that he is leading a spiritual life, the strictly observant person who engages in the same life with minor variations might easily conclude that because he is observing the Torah commandments to the letter, he is immersed in spirituality even as he drowns in materialism. It is to forestall this attitude that the Torah urges us to holiness.”

Read the whole thing and spend some quality time with Parshas Kedoshim, which the Ramban calls the foundation of all the Aseres HaDibros.

Here is the outline from Rabbi Jonathan Rietti. Thanks again to Rabbi Rietti for allowing us to post these outlines. (You can purchase the entire outline of the Chumash here).

Kedoshim
# 19 Be Kedoshim!
# 20 Consequences of Major Violations

# 19 Be Kedoshim!
* Train yourselves to be in control of your cravings
* Fear Parents
* Observe Shabbat
* Warning against following Avoda Zara. 
* Don’t make a Pessel for others.
* Don’t eat Pigul
* Don’t eat Notar.
* Laws of Peah, Leket, Peret, Ollalot
* Laws of stealing, denial of rightful claims.
* Laws of Oaths:
* Laws of cheating in business & withholding wages.
* Laws against cursing.
* Laws of Justice.
* Laws of interpersonal behavior.
* Forbidden mixtures.
* Forbidden practices.
* Behave with Awe in The Temple.
* Don’t seek mediums to communicate with the dead.
* Don’t seek out a Yidoni (to enter mystical states).
* Honor the elderly and Torah scholars.
* Don’t hurt a stranger or convert
* Love the convert like you love yourself
* Honesty. Don’t miscalculate, own honest measures.

# 20 Consequences of Major Violations
* Molech – Skila
* Inquiring after Ov – Karet
* Inquiring after Yidoni – Karet
* Cursing Parents – Skila.
* Adultery – Strangulation.
* Step Mother – Skila
* Daughter in law – Skila
* Homosexuality – Skila
* Mother & Daughter – Burning.
* Beastiality – Skila
* Step sister from father or mother – Karet
* Nidda – Karet
* Aunt – both die childless
* Sister in law – both die childless
* Don’t go in the ways of other nations.
* I separated you form the other nations to behave in a holy way.
* Act of Ov – Skila
* Act of Yidoni – Skila

The Three Keys To Jewish Happiness – Connection, Connection, Connection


The Improbable Happiness of Israelis

The WSJ ran an article yesterday titled “The Improbable Happiness of Israelis”, which pointed out that Israelis rank 11th of 158 countries in the United Nations’s World Happiness Index, and 5th out of the 36 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries on the OECD’s Life Satisfaction Index—ahead of the U.S., the U.K. and France. The author, Avinoam Bar Yosef, asks how can this be given that Israelis live in a hostile and volatile neighborhood, engaged in an endless conflict with the Palestinians and under the threat of nuclear annihilation by Iran.


The Nationality, Culture and Tradition of Israelis

Mr. Bar Yosef posits: “The explanation probably lies in indicators not considered in standard surveys. For instance, a new study by my organization, the Jewish People Policy Institute, looked at pluralism in Israel and found that 83% of Israel’s Jewish citizens consider their nationality “significant” to their identity. Eighty percent mention that Jewish culture is also “significant.” More than two-thirds (69%) mention Jewish tradition as important. Strong families and long friendships stretching back to army service as young adults, or even to childhood, also foster a sense of well-being. All of these factors bolster the Jewish state’s raison d’être.”


Connecting Within Ourselves, To Hashem, and To Others

I would like to suggest a different explanation of Jewish Happiness from a Torah perspective. Rav Itamar Shwartz, the author of the popular Bilvavi and Da Es seforim, points out that our purpose in this world is rooted in three types of connection: connection between our body and soul, connection between ourselves and Hashem, and connection between ourselves and other people.


The World Stands on Connection Via Torah, Service, and Acts of Kindness

The Mishna in Avos (1:2) says the world stands on three things, Torah, Service of Hashem, and Acts of Kindness. The Nesivos Shalom says that the world refered to in the Mishna is our personal world which we build each and every day. Torah provides us with the concepts and mitzvos that enable us to use the material world in a spiritual way – which connects or physical bodies to our spiritual soul. Service of Hashem is accomplished through prayer which connects us to Hashem on a daily basis. Acts of Kindness, both large and small, connect us to our family, friends and community.


Happiness is the Result of Completeness

The Maharal in his commentary on Avos (6:1) says that happiness flows from completeness, just as grief is the result of loss and deficiency. When we are connected within ourselves, to Hashem, and to other people, we are more complete and the happiness flows. Happiness is not the goal of Judaism, but when we accomplish our purpose through the pursuit of three types of connection, happiness is the result. If we are not feeling the resulting happiness, then we are not pursuing the connections properly.

May we continue to pursue our connections so that we can soon witness the day when Hashem is One and His Name is One in the eyes and hearts of the entire world.

Healing a Wounded Covenant – Children of Holocaust Survivors Reclaim their Heritage

By Bayla Sheva Brenner

Children born in the post-Holocaust era of the 1940s, 50s and 60s grew up knowing their parents had gone through hell on earth. The ghosts of murdered grandparents, aunts, uncles and siblings loomed large in their homes by their very absence. Sounds like an atmosphere ripe for major crises in faith. Yet, from many of the survivors who either lacked the strength to believe in a benevolent God or to observe His Torah came offspring who have picked up the discarded baton and enthusiastically embraced observant Judaism. I am one of those who chose to reclaim my heritage and have always wondered if there were more like me. These are the stories of survivors’ sons and daughters whose struggle with faith led to consequential life choices.

The “2Gs,” (the generation after the Holocaust) as many of us refer to ourselves, span a two-decade age range. Some of us were born in war-torn Europe, some smack dab in Middle America, but we all share basic commonalities that helped shaped our sensibilities about what it means to be in a world that could suddenly and brutally fall apart. We felt different, because our parents were different.

Born in the Bronx, New York, and raised in the Rego Park section of Queens, Allen Kolber remembers himself as a nervous and fearful child. “I was obsessed with the Holocaust,” he says. “By the time I was eight, I had amassed a whole collection of Holocaust material. I was trying to understand my father’s experience.”

His father had grown up in Sanz, Poland, and was nineteen when the war began. On Yom Kippur 1939, the Germans dragged the Jews out of the shul across the street from his home and brazenly cut off their beards. “My father decided then and there that he was leaving,” says Kolber. “He told his parents they should do the same, but they resisted. He convinced a brother and sister to join him and together they traveled to Soviet-controlled Lemberg.” The Soviets then shipped them to a labor camp in Siberia. “My father went through the war with a pouch around his neck that contained five photos of his family. Except for the brother and sister [with whom he had fled], his parents, two brothers with their families and another sister were murdered.”

Although his parents were raised in Torah-observant homes, Kolber, forty-six, was not. “Judaism [in our home] was defined by the Holocaust,” he says. “My Jewish identity was the European Holocaust identity. It wasn’t about a relationship with God or learning Torah.”
If there was any indication of his father being religious before the war, he “lost it completely afterwards.”

“He wasn’t anti-religious,” says Kolber. “[In fact,] he spoke about [his life in the shtetl] with fondness. He remembers going to cheder as a five-year-old, but doesn’t [seem to] know any of the Jewish practices. [Yet], in the photograph I have of his parents, his mother is wearing a sheitel and his father is wearing a koppel [kippah].”

At the age of sixteen, Kolber’s mother fled with her family from Berlin to France, to Spain, then to Portugal, and finally to the United States in 1942. Unlike her husband, she maintained an affinity for frumkeit. “They struck a compromise,” says Kolber. “We had a kosher home and Friday night dinners. On Shabbos, my mother, sister and I would go to a Conservative shul and then we were free to do whatever we wanted. She did, however, raise me with the sense that it would be good for me to become religious when I got older.”

Children of Holocaust survivors inevitably absorb the emotional repercussions of their parents’ trauma; its effects are usually played out as they enter young adulthood and begin to make their way in the world. Kolber describes his father as always having difficulty venturing beyond his own four walls. “He had this thing about suitcases. He couldn’t bring himself to pack a suitcase; he didn’t go on vacation or sleep away from the house.” Similarly, Kolber found that he also had difficulty navigating life. “It took me six years to graduate college,” he says. “I started out pre-med and got kicked out of [college]. I was depressed; I just sat in my room all day and smoked.”

Many survivors internalized the crushing deprivation foisted upon them; this, too, was passed on to their children. “I would ask my father, ‘What are you eating over the sink for? Sit down at the table and eat on a plate,’” says Kolber. “And he would answer: ‘You think I had a plate in Siberia? You think I need a plate? I ate for five years without a plate.’ I felt I didn’t deserve to be happy, to be fulfilled and complete.”

Kolber managed to graduate from Stony Brook University in Long Island, New York. He decided to go to law school, and to look into frumkeit. Throughout his three years of study, he attended Torah classes in Manhattan during the school year and learned at the Ohr Somayach, a yeshivah in Israel, each summer. He also started going to shul.

After graduating from law school, Kolber went to Israel for a year of Torah study and returned to the United States with a kippah, tzitzis and a desire to get serious about Yiddishkeit. He quickly set up a schedule of intensive Torah learning with Rabbi Dovid Schwartz, associate director of the Jewish Heritage Center in Queens.

Also a son of survivors, Rabbi Schwartz, fifty, has mentored a number of 2Gs who became ba’alei teshuvah. “The overwhelming sense that I get from learning with 2Gs is that their parents were generally silent about their experiences,” says Rabbi Schwartz. “Once they conducted their own Holocaust research and realized the enormity of the murder rate and how miniscule the chance of survival was, they felt a sense of mission, as if to say: ‘If my parents survived and they were incapable of regaining their frumkeit, I’ll be darned if I’m not going to.’ It brings them to a tremendous sense of purpose.”

Today, Kolber, an attorney, lives in Monsey, New York, with his wife, Liora, and their four children, each of whom is named after members of his father’s martyred family. His mother recently died; she had taken ill soon after the birth of Kolber’s first child and had been incapable of fully enjoying the gratifying nachas of grandparenthood. “I was wondering if she can see everything now,” says Kolber. “I have boys with peyos and tzitzis, and a girl who wears a long dress. She would be so happy with that.”

The Soul-Saving Power of Giving
Read more Healing a Wounded Covenant – Children of Holocaust Survivors Reclaim their Heritage

Translated Text of Pirkei Avos

As you probably know, there is a widespread Jewish custom of learning Pirkei Avos in the six week period between Pesach and Shavous. Some have the custom to keep on learning a perek a week until Rosh Hoshana.

Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld of Beit Shemesh, Israel has an excellent commentary to Pirkei Avos over at Torah.org.

A few years ago, to facilitate review of Pirkei Avos, I cut and pasted Rabbi Rosenthal’s translation into a document so that I could print off the perek of the week and keep it in my wallet for review. Rabbi Yaakov Menken, the man administering Torah.org, Cross-Currents.com and other spreading Torah projects was gracious enough to allow the document to be downloaded here.

Here is the link for the English Translation of Pirkei Avos.

Here is the first perek.

1 “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it Joshua. Joshua transmitted it to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise many students, and make a protective fence for the Torah.”

2 “Shimon the Righteous was of the last survivors of the Men of the Great Assembly. He used to say, the world is based upon three things: on Torah, on service [of G-d], and on acts of kindness.”

3 “Antignos of Socho received the transmission from Shimon the Righteous. He used to say, do not be as servants who serve the Master to receive reward. Rather, be as servants who serve the Master not to receive reward. And let the fear of heaven be upon you.”

4 “Yossi ben (son of) Yo’ezer of Ts’raidah and Yossi ben Yochanan of Jerusalem received the transmission from them. Yossi ben Yo’ezer used to say, let your house be a meeting place for the sages, cleave to the dust of their feet, and drink thirstily their words.”

5 “Yossi the son of Yochanan of Jerusalem said: Let your house be open wide, and let the poor be members of your household, and do not talk excessively with women. This was said regarding one’s own wife, certainly with another’s wife. Based on this the Sages have said, one who talks excessively with women causes evil to himself, wastes time from Torah study, and will eventually inherit Gehinnom (Hell).”

6 “Yehoshua the son of Perachia and Nittai of Arbel received the transmission from them (the Rabbis mentioned in Mishna 4). Yehoshua the son of Perachia said, make for yourself a Rabbi, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge everyone favorably.”

7 “Nittai of Arbel said, distance yourself from a bad neighbor, do not befriend a wicked person, and do not despair of punishment.”

8 “Yehuda the son of Tabbai and Shimon the son of Shatach received the transmission from them (the scholars mentioned in Mishna 6). Yehuda the son of Tabbai said, do not act as an adviser to judges. When the litigants are standing before you they should be in your eyes as guilty. When they are dismissed from before you they should be in your eyes as innocent, provided they have accepted the judgment.”

9 “Shimon the son of Shatach said, examine witnesses thoroughly, and be careful with your words, lest through them they learn to lie.”

10 “Shemaya and Avtalyon received the tradition from them (the scholars mentioned in mishna 8). Shemaya said, love work, despise high position, and do not become too close to the authorities.”

11 “Avtalyon said: ‘Sages, be careful with your words lest you deserve to be exiled and are exiled to a place of bad waters. The students who come after you will drink of these waters and die and God’s Name will be desecrated.’ ”

12 “Hillel and Shammai received the transmission from them (the scholars mentioned in Mishna 10). Hillel said, be of the students of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them closer to Torah.”

13 “He (Hillel) used to say, one who seeks a name loses his name, one who does not increase decreases, one who does not learn deserves death, and one who makes use of the crown [of Torah] will pass away.”

14 “He (Hillel) used to say, if I am not for me who is for me, if I am for myself what am I, and if not now when.”

15 “Shammai said, make your Torah study fixed, say little and do much, and receive everyone with a cheerful countenance.”

16 “Rabban Gamliel said, make for yourself a Rabbi, remove yourself from doubt, and do not give extra tithes due to estimation.”

17 “Shimon his [Rabban Gamliel’s] son said, all my life I have been raised among the Sages, and I have not found anything better for oneself than silence. Study is not the main thing but action. All who talk excessively bring about sin.”

18 “Rabbi Shimon the son of Gamliel said, on three things does the world endure – justice, truth and peace, as the verse says (Zechariah 8:16), ‘Truth and judgments of peace judge in your gates.’ ”

R’ Noah Weinberg’s Lakewood Seminar

Download the 6 part mp3 series from R’ Noah Weinberg’s Lakewood Seminar.

Kiruv Training Seminar by Rabbi Noah Weinberg zt”l

This 6-talk series was presented to the advanced rabbinical students of Lakewood Yeshiva, New Jersey. The sessions focus on the full array of issues raised by today’s questioning youth. This is probably Rabbi Weinberg’s most comprehensive explanation of the principles of kiruv – and is considered his most brilliant performance.

Beyond Vertlach – Key Points of the Seder

Divrei Torah and vertlach at the Seder are wonderful, but it’s important to focus on the key points of the seder.

Here’s are the Key Points of the Seder in text:

1) Tell the Detailed Story – Sippur Yetzias Mitzraim

2) Use Imagery & Details to Really Live/Feel It

3) Strengthen Your Emunah
a. Hashem Exists
b. Hashem is Directly Involved – Hashgacha Pratis
c. Hashem is One – No Other

4) Feel the Gratitude – Hakaros HaTov

5) Give Thanks, Sing, Praise – L’Hodos, L’Hallel, L’Shevach

6) Serve Hashem with Love, Joy and Enthusiasm

Download the one page graphic here.

Guide to the Seder and The Five Minute Seder

The Beyond BT Guide to the Seder contains all the steps of the seder along with some commentary and halachic instructions.

A few years ago I edited the above guide and compiled a Five Minute Seder for a non-observant friend and his family. Five minutes may be stretching it, but it’s pretty bare bones for those who have trouble going through the whole thing.

And here’s the One Minute explanation if you’re really pressed for time.

The Events of the Exodus
The process of the Exodus began when our forefather Jacob, the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, and his family settled in Egypt as the honored guests of the Pharaoh at that time. The process continued through the Jewish enslavement by the Egyptians; the 10 nature-defying plagues prophesized by Moshe and activated by G-d over a period of 12 months; the subsequent release of the approximately 3 million Jews to freedom after the plague of the death of the first born; the splitting of the Red Sea 7 days after their release; and the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai 7 weeks after their release.

The Centrality of the Exodus
The centrality of the Exodus in Judaism is predicated on the fact that the Jewish people were freed and separated as a unique nation through the clear actions of G-d Himself. Besides the physical freedom achieved, G-d chose us to be the world’s spiritual leaders by giving us the mitzvos of the Torah at Mount Sinai The mitzvos free us from a purely animal-like physical existence, to one in which we can elevate all our actions to be spiritual and G-d connected. Passover is a time where we commemorate the Exodus and renew our spiritual focus.

The Seder
The Seder with its focus on the telling of the story enable us to experientially reconnect with the slavery and freedom of the Exodus and express our appreciation to G-d for our redemption and selection as His chosen people. The salt water in which the green vegetable is dipped and the bitter herbs are associated with our bondage. The four cups of wine and the festival meal help us relive our freedom.

The Holiday of Matzah
The Matzah is the central component of both the Seder and the 8 days of Passover. Matzah, consisting of just flour and water was our no frills food when we were slaves in Egypt. It’s also a symbol of our freedom because we hastily left Egypt without time to bake bread.

On a spiritual level, the leaven in bread makes it more digestible and flavorous. This is appropriate for the rest of the year when our main challenge is to integrate the physical into the spiritual. On Passover, we eat only Matzah and abstain from the physically oriented leaven. This allows us to keep spiritually focused as we recharge our spiritual mission and focus during the holiday of Passover.

Understanding the Structure of the Haggadah

According to the Malbim (although there is a dispute as to whether it really is the Malbim) the structure of the narrative portion of the Haggadah is based on the verse in the Torah from which the obligation to tell the story is derived:

And you shall relate to your child on that day, saying “It is because of this that Hashem acted for me when I came forth out of Egypt.” (Shemos (Exodus) 13:8)

This source verse is broken up into six parts corresponding to the six sections of the story in the Haggadah.
— And you shall relate to your child
— on that day
— saying
— It is because of this
— Hashem acted for me
— when I came forth out of Egypt.

“And you shall relate to your child…”
The first eight paragraphs correspond to this verse and teach us about this obligation to tell the story
— “We were enslaved unto Pharaoh and G-d freed us”– tells us we should relate this to our children who would also still be enslaved had G-d not taken us out.
— “It once happened that Rabbi Eliezar..” –shows that our greatest sages told the story, since the main function is to recount it for our children.
— “Rabbi Elazar, son of Azaryah, said…” –shows the duty to do so at all times.
— “Praised be the Ever-Present, praised be He…” –shows how every type of child is to be instructed at the Seder.
— “What does the wise son say…” –shows how to teach the wise son
— “What does the wicked son say…” –shows how to teach the wicked son
— “What does the naive son say….” –shows how to teach the naive son
— “And regarding the one who does not know how to ask a question…” –shows how to teach the son who can’t ask a question

–“on that Day…”
The next paragraph tells us when the obligation to tell the story applies
— “One might think that the obligation to talk…” –explains when the special duty applies.

–“saying…”
The next paragraphs contain the actual saying of the story of the Exodus
— “In the beginning our fathers were worshippers of idols…” –shows the deeper roots of the exile and the Exodus as the way to spiritual redemption.
— “Blessed is he who keeps His promise…” –shows that G-d kept His promise to Abraham that we will be enslaved and redeemed
— “It has stood firm…in every generation there are those who rise against us..” –shows that G-d continually redeems us
— “Go and ascertain what Lavan the Aramite intended to do…” –describes the beginning of the Exodus when Jacob went down to Egypt
— “And he went down…And he sojourned there…With few people…And he became there a nation…” –Great, mighty…And formidable…describes how we became a great nation in Egypt
— “And the Egyptians made evil of us…” –And the tormented us…And laid hard labor upon us…describes how the Egyptians enslaved us
— “And we cried out unto G-d… And G-d heard us…And He saw our distress… And our travail… And our oppression…” — describes how G-d heard our pleas
— “And G-d took us out of Egypt…With a strong hand…And with and outstretched arm…And with great terror…And with signs…And with wonders…” –describes how G-d redeemed us
— “Blood, and fire and smoke…An alternative explanation…These are the ten plagues…Rabbi Yosi the Galiliean says…Rabbi Eliezer says…Rabbi Akiva says…” –describes the miracles and wonders G-d did for us during the redemption
— ‘How indebted are we…How multiple, then is our debt to G-d…” –describes additional accounts of G-d’s benevolence which were not yet mentioned

“It is because of this…”
can be read this is because of.… Rabban Gamliel reads it this way… this refers to Pesach, Matzah and Maror
— “Rabban Gamliel used to say…” –explains the concrete Mitzvos ordained for the Seder: Pesach, Matzah and Maror.
— Pesach… Matzah…Maror…explains the reason for these Mitzvos

“Hashem acted for me…”
The next paragraphs describe how we should consider it as if Hashem took us out of Egypt
— “In every generation, one is obliged to regard himself…” –emphasizes that, in celebrating the Seder, we must see ourselves as having gone out from Egypt.

“when I came forth out of Egypt.”
The next paragraphs are the introduction and recitation of Hallel songs of praise, similar to the songs of praise that were recited when we left Egypt.
–“Therefore it is our duty to thank, praise…” — since Hashem took us out from Egypt, we praise Hashem for his kindness ending the Haggadah with a Bracha.
–“Praise G-d…” — When Israel went out of Egypt…is the beginning of Hallel which describe the going out from Egypt

Surviving the Seder – Guide to the Perplexed

Years ago, Maxwell House Coffees used to give out free Haggadahs at all the grocery stores, a nice way of reminding people that Maxwell House Coffees are Kosher for Passover. Those Haggadahs were actually quite nice (with charming illustrations) and were really helpful, with clear translations, a picture of the Seder plate layout, and easy instructions in English. In addition, if you had a couple dozen of these free Haggadahs, everyone at the Seder table could literally be on the same page.

OK, you can survive preparing for, and undergoing, the Pesach Seder even without the help of those good folks at Maxwell House. Bring some common sense, sanity and a lot of organization and you too can Do It Right on the Seder Night.

Kaarah shel Pesach (Seder Plate): Most seder plates have labeled spots where each item goes. Beytzah, Maror, Zroa, Karpas, Chazeres, Charoses. Beytzah (Roasted Eggs): Hardboil a lot of eggs in your Pesach pot (you’ll eat most of them later in salt water as a first course of the festive meal). Take one hard boiled egg, hold an end of it gently into the flame of the gas stove to get a dark spot. Use this slightly browned egg for the seder plate (keep it in the fridge to use again on the second night). If you prepare the egg on Yom Tov itself, eat the egg the next morning and then the second night prepare a new roasted egg (refer to the halachos of not preparing food on one day of Yom Tov for the next day, which starts evening before).

Zroa: I like to use a turkey wing just for this purpose, but really a chicken wing or any meat bone will do. I wrap the turkey wing in foil and place it right on top of the stove top gas burner flame. This could get a little messy, as the turkey fat melts and sputters. I have an old metal Pesach flat grater that I don’t use anymore for grating, so I put the foil wrapped packet containing the turkey wing on it, that holds some of the grease. I leave the turkey wing on the flame until it’s actually roasted and edible and browned (if anyone wants to eat it later following the Seder night they could if they wished). Again, as with the roasted egg, follow the halachos of cooking on Yom Tov if preparing the Zroa after Yom Tov begins (might need to eat it the next morning and prepare a new Zroa the next night for the second seder).

Charoses: There are a zillion Charoses recipes out there. If you want to make it easy on yourself, buy a package of ground walnuts. Peel and core an apple, cut into very tiny pieces (some people use a chopper or food processor). Mix the chopped bits of apple with the ground walnuts and some red wine. Add cinnamon and a speck of ginger if on hand. The exact proportions are disputed, make it as thick or as runny as you want. You don’t really need quarts of this stuff, we use just a large dollop on the seder plate and that’s good enough. People aren’t generally eating the stuff, it’s only a dip for the maror (and you shake it off, too). We used to be even lazier and use the dried Charoses mix that one yeshiva used to send us every year (they stopped doing that a few years ago). Those who want to keep kids busy might prefer buying whole walnuts, distributing nutcrackers and ordering kids to crack the nuts. Without kids to do it, don’t bother, use the packaged ground walnuts.

Maror and Chazeres: If you plan on using the eye-watering, throat-clearing stuff, be aware of the halachos about grating the horseradish root less than 24 hours before you use it (meaning grate it on Erev Pesach to be used the first Seder night) but then leaving it uncovered so that some of its strength lessens (the Pesach guidebooks by Rabbi Blumenkrantz zatzal and Rabbi Eider zatzal discuss proper preparation if you are using horseradish root). Also buy a clean new jigger glass (one fluid ounce) since the shiur or required measurement for fresh grated horseradish root is quite small (check with your own Posaik or local Orthodox rabbi).

My family gave up on fresh grated horseradish years ago (my husband used to turn purple after ingesting) and now we use romaine lettuce for maror. The shiur (minimum size) differs if you are using the leaves, the stalks or the solid centers of the romaine lettuce. Also romaine lettuce is extremely bug-infested and difficult to clean properly. We use the more expensive pre-checked pre-washed romaine lettuce (that used to be a specialty of Gush Katif before the expulsion, the Aleh Katif romaine lettuce). Again, the Pesach books have charts to measure the correct sizes when distributing the romaine lettuce for achilas maror and again for the Korech (combination).
On the Seder plate itself, some people use a little bit of the ground horseradish as Maror and a little bit of romaine lettuce for the Chazeres. We like to use a solid center from the romaine lettuce on the Kaarah as Maror, and a little piece of leaf for Chazeret.

Karpas: Everyone’s going to get a tiny bit, less than a Kazayis, so I simply boil a potato (we have tons) and use that for Karpas. Celery is OK too. This will be dipped into a small bowl of salt water (simply add some salt to water) and distributed to all participants in the Seder.

Matzah: If you use the hand baked shmurah matzohs for the Seder, follow what the R. Blumenkrantz and R. Eider guidebooks say and use approx 1/3 of a hand matzoh for a Kazayis (volume of an olive) and twice that or 2/3 of a hand matzoh for a K’beitzah (twice that or the volume of an egg). So everyone should get 2/3 of a matzoh for Motzi Matzoh, 1/3 of a matzoh for Korech, and 2/3 of a matzoh for the Afikoman. That works out to 5/3 of a hand matzoh for each person. Eleven hand shmurah matzohs are in a two-pound box, which is enough matzohs for six people at one seder. Obviously the three shmurah matzohs on the table for display won’t be enough to feed the crowd, so you give out little bits of those matzohs along with all of the extra matzohs you need to make up the minimum shiur. If somebody really can’t eat all of that matzoh I believe that in those cases just managing a total of one Kazayis or 1/3 of a hand matzo is enough, but ask your Poseik or Rav.

There is a nine-minute time period for eating the matzoh, this seems to include chewing but not swallowing, so your Seder participants sit with bulging cheeks chewing away at the round hand matzohs.

Wine or Grape Juice: Don’t be daunted by the requirement for four cups. We use small size cups, actually five ounce juice glasses, much easier than using regular size wine bechers which can be six or eight ounces. We also use very light wines for those who have trouble with heavy or high alcohol wines. Kedem has some very drinkable light wines such as Matuk Rouge Soft and Matuk Rouge Kal. The Pesach guides have a discussion here also about the minimum shiur. The first Kos has to be at least 4.42 ounces for Kadesh if the first Seder falls on Friday night and it is also Kiddush for Layl Shabbos, otherwise the shiur is even smaller for each of the arba kosos. Since for two of the kosos you must drink the whole kos and for two of the kosos at least half of the kos, it is easiest to use small glasses or cups for the kosos (measure in advance).

Maggid – With daylight savings time, the Seder doesn’t start until after the guys get back from davening Maariv, which means not even beginning until 9 PM. Pretty late. Our family takes about 2-1/2 hours on Maggid, we don’t get to the Matzah and Marror eating until about 11:30 PM and the dinner itself until close to 11:50 PM. Since chatzos is at 1 AM that gives us just one hour for the meal itself (we do it quickly by leaving out the fish and salad courses, just hardboiled egg in salt water, soup, main course, dessert), getting to the Afikoman at about 12:58. We try to allow everyone to say something during Maggid even though we want to move the Seder along. I think we strike a good balance. Benching then Nirtzah, we finish by 2 AM, hopefully the adults are awake enough to drink the last two Kosos and sing Hallel plus the famous Seder songs Chad Gadya and Echod Mi Yodaya.

You too can survive the Seder. Try to take a nap Erev Pesach, easiest when Erev Pesach is Shabbos, more difficult on a weekday. Help to get the table and the Seder Plate ready so that the Seder can begin right away after the men get back from Maariv. Everyone should start off with a Haggadah and a Kos on a small plate or saucer. The dish of three matzohs with a cover should be near the person leading the Seder, also the bowl of salt water and some utensil for dipping the bits of Karpas. Plenty of different strengths of wine and grape juice should be ready for pouring on the table. There should be a washing cup and towel near the sink for Urechatz and Rachtzah. People should have cushions or pillows ready on their chairs so they can lean (“recline”) when they drink the Arba Kosos. As mentioned above, it helps for everyone to use the same Haggadahs, however some people have their favorite Haggadahs and there are kid-friendly Haggadahs (aside from kid-made Haggadahs from school). Dig in the closet to get out the white Kittel that was cleaned and put away after Yom Kippur.

As long as you fulfill the halachic requirements, surviving the Seder is quite doable, and there’s plenty of room for some creativity and even humor. There are families who toss around stuffed frogs at the Esser Makkos – Ten Plagues point of the seder. My kids still sing songs from an old Pesach tape they heard about twenty years ago. I know that there are people who conduct a very serious Seder; we are a little more lighthearted. It’s very important for the children at the Seder table to be involved in the telling of the Haggadah; after all, that’s one of the mitzvos of the night, teaching your children about yetzias Mitzrayim. It’s interesting to think about how the sages of two thousand years ago designed the Haggadah and the Seder in a way to keep children interested and awake, millennia before anyone dreamed up the phrase, “multi media presentation.”

Chag Kasher v’Sameach to all!

Originally Posted on March 26, 2010