Thursday, 17 March 2016

Seeing the Beauty of Nature around Us

I was walking in the quad of the University of Washington after a Jewish Studies Advisory Board meeting when I was asked is there a beracha to be made on these beautiful cherry blossoms? Well there is a beracha for the blossoms of fruit trees in the Hebrew month of Nissan, but these Yoshino cherry trees are only good for birds and animals so despite their beauty they don't get the beracha for blossoming fruit trees. 
Since this year we have our extra month of Adar Sheni, Pesach and Nissan are later in the year. What do we do for actual blossoming fruit trees that start budding early? Is there a concern of missing the opportunity of making the beracha over the blossoms? Generally speaking the blossoms should last until Nissan. If one knows for sure that all fruit tree blossoms will have gone by the time Nissan comes around it is permitted to say the beracha in Adar. Conversely, in a year when spring is late and the fruit trees don't blossom until after the month of Nissan it is permitted to make the beracha in Iyar.

The text is:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם שֶׁלֹּא חִסַּר בְּעוֹלָמוֹ כְּלוּם וּבָרָא בוֹ בְּרִיּוֹת טוֹבוֹת וְאִילָנוֹת טוֹבוֹת לֵהָנוֹת בָּהֶם בְּנֵי אָדָםBlessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has made nothing lacking in His world, and created in it goodly creatures and goodly trees to give mankind pleasure. 

But going back to these beautiful blossoms in the quad at the UW. There is another beracha that one can say when appreciating something very beautiful in nature such as a person, animal, or tree and that beracha is:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם שֶׁככה לו בעולמו
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has such [beauty] in his universe.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Collecting for Matanot La'Evyonim

It happens every year, everyone is really excited about what food they will be sending their friends for Mishloach Manot and what costumes they are going to wear at the Purim Party (by the way the Hassan costumes will be legendary) but most of us pay less attention to the Mitzvah of Matanot La'Evyonim.


One of the four mitzvot of Purim is Matanot La'Evyonim - gifts to the poor. These contributions to the poor allow them to celebrate Purim just like we do and helps them out with their day to day needs. The mitzvah of Matanot La'Evyonim – providing the equivalent of a Purim meal for two individuals on Purim day – was always understood by our rabbis as being even more important in priority than the monies spent on mishloach manot and personal seudotTherefore, one should spend less money on mishloach manot and more on matanot la'Evyonim. I encourage you all to be generous. 


Once again, SBH is looking to raise funds for needy families in our community. We are collecting funds for the Nathan Etkin Chesed Fund. This Chesed Fund has already helped many families with saving homes from foreclosure, paying rent when a job is lost, paying health insurance premiums, debt reduction structure planning, certified financial counseling, money for weddings and everyday needs like groceries, utilities, and helping families make Purim, Pesach and other Holidays.


How can you help? The holiday of Purim is around the corner. And as we say at SBH, “Purim, Purim lanu, Pesach en la mano” – Purim is here, Passover is near.  


This time of year brings two wonderful opportunities to help:


1. We will be accepting Purim Matanot La’Evyonim donations starting now and until March 22nd, 2016, so we can distribute those funds in a timely fashion. You can make those donations by either sending a check to the SBH office with the word “Purim” in the memo line and the checks made payable to the Nathan Etkin Chesed Fund, or by making arrangements with me directly prior to March 22nd. 


I can be reached at rabbibenhassan@gmail.com. Please note that sending in money early for Matanot La’evyonim is the best way of fulfilling this mitzva and I will be acting as your shaliach in this matter. Of course, we will also accept donations up until the day of Purim as well.


2. Rabbi Morton & Leya Moscowitz have established the “Chasdei Shmully” fund in honor of Rabbi Shmully Moscowitz, zt”l. This fund, part of the larger Seattle Chesed Fund, ensures that local families have enough food to feed their children and provides dedicated assistance for major Jewish holidays. In order to help financially struggling families with the significant costs of Passover, congregants are encouraged to give to this fund specifically. Donations for Pesach should be mailed to the SBH office by April 8th, 2016 so we can make our distributions. Please write “Chasdei Shmully Matzah Fund” in the memo of your check.


Please note all checks whether for Purim or for Pesach need to be made out to The Nathan Etkin Chesed Fund and NOT to SBH.


The Chesed Fund functions with total respect for the person in need, and all requests are handled with dignity and confidentiality. It partners with Jewish Family Services when the need becomes more long-term.  A dollar donated is a dollar distributed. The Chesed Fund is a registered 501(c)3 organization, and all gifts are tax deductible.  

Monday, 25 January 2016

Honi and Tu Bishvat

There is a wonderful piece of Aggadata (the narrative material in the Talmud) about the Rabbinic personality Honi HaMa'agel - Honi the circle drawer. Honi had a special gift, much like Moshe that his tefillot (prayers) were able to be answered by God almost immediately. As such whenever the Jewish people of his generation needed something they would ask Honi to pray on their behalf and their needs were met instantly. 

Carobs have long been associated with Tu Bishvat and are included in the Turkish traditional seder tu bishvat called Fruticas. The following piece of Aggadata comes from Masekhet Ta'anit (page 23a).

Rabbi Yochanan said, this righteous man [Honi] was troubled all of his days about the meaning of the verse, 'A Song of Ascents, When God brought back those that returned to Zion, we were like dreamers.' Is it possible for a man to dream continuously for seventy years?

One day he was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked him, how long does it take to bear fruit? The man replied, seventy years. He then further asked him, are you certain that you will live another seventy years? The man replied, I found carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted these for me so too I plant these for my children. Honi sat down to have a meal and sleep overcame him. As he slept a rocky formation enclosed upon him which hid him from sight and he continued to sleep for seventy years.

When he awoke he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree and he asked him, are you the man who planted the tree? The man replied, I am his grandson. Thereupon he exclaimed: It is clear that I slept for seventy years. He then caught sight of his donkey who had given birth to several generations of mules; and he returned home.

He there enquired, Is the son of Honi the Circle-Drawer still alive? They answered him, 'His son is no more, but his grandson is still living.' Thereupon he said to them, 'I am Honi the Circle-Drawer', but no one would believe him.

He then went to the Beit Hamidrash and there he overheard the scholars say, “The law is as clear to us as in the days of Honi the Circle-Drawer, for whenever he came to the Beit Hamidrash he would settle for the scholars any difficulty that they had.' Whereupon he called out, 'I am he'; but the scholars would not believe him nor did they give him the honor due to him. This hurt him greatly and he prayed and he died. Rava said, that is the popular saying, either companionship or death.

The piece is very poignant and hard to understand. It certainly doesn't have the happy ending that we are used to in Western Civilization stories. How is it that Honi could not understand the Jewish lesson of planting, not just physically but also spiritually for our children and grandchildren? Isn't this Judaism 101?

The farmer is telling Honi that we don't see the outcome of our efforts overnight they take time to develop sometimes long after we are gone. For Honi this is too hard to take because he is used to Hashem giving him instant gratification for all of his needs. This is not so for us. We are used to making berachot and waiting before we enjoy our food. We are also used to waiting as it were for Hashem's answers to our difficult questions in life.

Why is it so hard to be Jewish? Why is there anti semitism? When will the exile end? These long term questions were beyond Honi. It was only after sleeping for 70 years that he understood for most Jews we have to grapple with these issues. On Tu Bishvat in the middle of the winter we eat carob chips to remind ourselves that we are in a long game of Jewish peoplehood. Many of questions take many years to answer and sometimes several generations. 

As parents and grandparents we are providing the strong roots for our children and grandchildren to follow after us. We are providing the fruit for them to enjoy in the future when they in turn will be making deep roots for their children and grandchildren so they too can enjoy their fruits. May we take on the lesson of this piece of aggada to appreciate the long term picture but also to hope that the long path of exile may be coming to an end with the coming of Mashiach.

Happy Tu Bishvat!

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Tu Bishvat and Fruticas: What's it all about?



I've always enjoyed Tu Bishvat and everything that it represents. Tu Bishvat is probably the lowest ranked Jewish Holiday and certainly one of the least well known. Tu Bishvat is the New Year for the Trees. This is the season in which the earliest-blooming trees in the Land of Israel emerge from their winter sleep and begin a new fruit-bearing cycle.

Legally, the new year for trees relates to the various tithes that are separated from produce grown in the Holy Land. These tithes differ from year to year in the seven-year shemittah cycle, the point at which a budding fruit is considered to belong to the next year of the cycle is the 15th of Shevat. 

As a child my primary memory of Tu Bishvat was eating the Shivat HaMinim - the 7 species special to the land of Israel - wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates. I loved singing the words from Devarim Chapter 8 Verse 8. 

אֶרֶץ חִטָּה וּשְׂעֹרָה, וְגֶפֶן וּתְאֵנָה וְרִמּוֹן; אֶרֶץ-זֵית שֶׁמֶן, וּדְבָשׁ
A land of wheat and barley, and grapes  and figs  and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey (dates).

If you ask me very nicely I won't sing it! The other memory I had was planting trees and sending money to JNF to plant trees in Israel. In the last 100 years Tu Bishvat has been used as both a Zionist day with support for Israel and a day for furthering environmental issues and concerns.

Sephardim, have a much older custom which is to have a Seder Tu Bishvat The custom goes back to the Kabbalists in the 16th Century who worked on a Seder with 4 cups of wine and all the fruits and nuts and highlighting the 7 special fruits of the land of Israel. 


In Seattle, we have a slightly different Tu Bishvat seder called Fruticas. Here's the text of the service. 

Monday, 26 October 2015

When is Challah not Challah?

For everyone who bakes and loves to eat challah this blogpost is for you.

When is Challah not Challah? Quite simply when you can taste the sugar! Halachically speaking the taste of a challah and the amount of sugar in a challah make a big difference to how it should be treated. If it is too sweet, ideally one should not make Hamotzi on it unless one eats about half a pound of it!

You might be scratching your head at this moment thinking I regularly eat sweet challah or my spouse often puts sugar in our challah what's the problem?

Rav Yosef Caro writes in the Shulkhan Arukh (Chapter 168) Kisnin bread. Some say that this refers to dough in which honey, sugar, oil, or spices were mixed and the taste of the item mixed in the dough is recognizable in the dough. This is indeed the Halacha and such an item is given the halachic status of Kisnin bread on which a “Boreh Minei Mezonot” blessing is recited. 

Rav Moshe Isserles makes an additional note explaining Ashkenazic custom. Some say this is considered actual bread (on which a “Hamotzi” blessing is recited) unless there was a copious amount of honey mixed into it similar to a sweet baked good which we call “Lekach” in which the honey and spices are primary. This is indeed the prevalent custom.

As such for Sephardim, if one can taste sweetness the beracha is mezonot, for Ashkenazim it is only if the bread is actually like cake that the beracha would be mezonot. Therefore the Ashkenazic custom is to have sweet challah without there being any halakhic problem whatsoever for them. However, in today's world where Ashkenazic and Sephardic families are well blended (no pun intended) there is a problem for Sephardim eating this "bread".

Ideally, (lechatchila) for Sephardim sugar should only be used to aid in the baking process. I.e. anything more than a tablespoon is too much. That is the difference between a plain role and a paneziko! If you can taste the sweetness it isn't fit for hamotzi. However, since it is very common to come to a house that serves sweet challah what can you do?

1. Eat half a pound of it - A little known halacha is that if you eat half a pound (216g) of cake (even though the beracha is normally mezonot) one must wash and say hamotzi and do birkat hamazon. 

2. That is very hard to do and not necessarily very healthy. One can rely on the lenient position that the food one eats with the "bread" can combine. Therefore one needs to eat half a pound of food total. 

All this is after the fact (bediavad), if one is able to ask (without offending one's host) for non sweet challah that is of course preferable. 

One should also note that one should be careful when eating too much cake that one doesn't obligate oneself to make birkat hamazon on what they ate! Based on the lenient position that cake and food can combine to the half a pound amount. It is conceivable that many of us would need to do birkat hamazon after a big kiddush in synagogue!

Monday, 21 September 2015

Fasting on Yom Kippur and Medical Concerns

Fasting on Yom Kippur and Medical Concerns


This coming Tuesday night/Wednesday we have our holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur. This solemn day of atonement is a day when our sins of the past year are forgiven and we begin afresh with a blank slate. There are a number of things that we must be very careful of on Yom Kippur. The 5 no's of Yom Kippur are no eating and drinking, no leather shoes, no anointing, no bathing and no marital relations. The idea behind these restrictions are that all of those things represent our physical needs. On Kippur we are focusing on our spiritual side and almost trying to be like angels without any physical needs or desires whatsoever. 

Fasting has long been considered part of the atonement process and that this should never be taken lightly. Anyone with medical concerns should consult their doctor and rabbi before Yom Kippur to assess their situation. It is not appropriate to consider a person who eats because of medical necessity as a sinner.

It goes without saying that elderly men and women who have been told by their doctors that fasting on Kippur will cause adverse affects to their health are neither required nor permitted to fast (see Shulkhan Arukh O.H. 618). 

However, there are many of us who in different times of our lives have problems fasting. For example, pregnant women, nursing mothers and those with diabetes to name but a few. These people do not get a blanket exemption from fasting on Yom Kippur. Fasting isn't meant to be easy but at the same time we are not allowed to put our lives in danger (hence the exemption for extremely elderly and infirm people).

Many doctors recommend that pregnant women should never fast, but the studies as yet are inconclusive in providing proof that fasting causes any problems to the mother or child. Indeed, provided that the woman drinks plenty of water before the fast there should be no issues for a healthy woman. As such  a healthy pregnant woman must fast on Yom Kippur (See Shulkhan Arukh O.H. 617). 

However, a woman in a high risk pregnancy should consult with her doctor and discuss the situation with her rabbi. Nursing women are also obligated to fast and they should express extra milk before the fast to have available for their children. Staying well hydrated and being well prepared should ensure that the fast should pass without problems. Women who have recently given birth should consult their rabbi.


If a person takes a daily tablet(s) such as blood pressure medicine. It is permitted to take it on Yom Kippur but don't take it with water. Recently I was contacted about a person with diabetes, who assumed since he had been recently diagnosed as a type 2 diabetic he would have no choice but to eat on Yom kippur. The truth is that is simply not the case. Indeed there are many religious Jews who have diabetes and fast on Yom Kippur. For more information for those with diabetes about how to fast on Yom Kippur and those who just want to read the article please click here

There are situations where a person can be instructed by their rabbi to eat and drink very small amounts of food or drink with a timed space in between. What is known as eating in shiurim/measurements. To conclude, there are circumstances where fasting on Yom Kippur would be a sin so please call if you have any concerns.

Tizku LeShanim Rabot and have a meaningful fast.

Monday, 31 August 2015

What's a Prozbul

Every seven years we have a Shemitah year. MOst of the laws are agricultural and only affect those living in Israel. But one of the laws of Shemitah has an impact on us living outside of Israel too. It is that all debts are nullified. This is one of the many laws in the Torah meant to protect the poor and disadvantaged, affording them a chance to escape from eternal debt.

“At the end of seven years you will make a release. And this is the manner of the release; to release the hand of every creditor from what he lent his friend; he shall not exact from his friend or his brother, because time of the release for God has arrived.” (Devarim 15:1-2)

However, this law wasn’t great for lenders who would never be reimbursed once the Shemitah ended. The rich refused to loan money during the latter years of the seven-year cycle, refusing the poor even a temporary opportunity to make ends meet. They began to fulfil the verse “Beware, lest there be in your heart an unfaithful thought, saying, ‘The seventh year, the year of release has approached,’ and you will begrudge your needy brother and not give him, and he will cry out to God against you, and it will be a sin to you.” (Devarim 15:9)

The wealthy were concerned that the poor would always rely on the shemitah year to cancel their debts so they stopped loaning money in the latter years of the shemitah. This caused tremendous hardship on the poor and caused the wealthy to be going against God’s commandment. Hillel the Elder came up with a wonderful loophole to solve the problem. The answer was the prozbul (can be pronounced pruzbol or pruzbul).


The prozbul is a legal document signed in front of the Beit Din or in front of 2 witnesses which technically changes the status of individual private loans into loans to the public administration. Loans to the public administration are not nullified by the Shemitah year so the debts can now be collected after the Shemitah year. The Beit Din can now appoint the lender to collect the “public funds” owned. This legal loophole benefited both borrower and lender; because lenders knew their money was safe even following the Shemitah year, they were likely to loan to the poor.