Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Eclipses in Jewish Thought

On August 21st there will be a solar eclipse. For some of us it will be a total solar eclipse. Is there any significance to eclipses in Judaism? In the Book of Joel (found in the 12 ''minor prophets" - known for their shorter prophecies - not lesser significance) there is reference both to a solar eclipse and a lunar eclipse: 

"The sun shall turn to darkness, and the moon to blood, prior to the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord" (Joel 3:4). The sun turning to darkness is a solar eclipse, the blood moon is a lunar eclipse. Rashi in his commentary to Joel says that the solar eclipse is a sign for sun worshipers to realize that God is not a sun. 

Jeremiah has this piece of advice "So says the Lord: of the way of the nations you shall not learn, and from the signs of the heaven be not dismayed, for the nations are dismayed from them." (10:2)

You can find the main literature on eclipses in the Talmud in Tractate Succah 29a. It brings 3 opinions for what an eclipse means. The first is that a solar eclipse is a bad sign for the world. The analogy is of a master preparing an evening meal for his servants and then removing the candles. The second opinion is that both solar and lunar eclipses are bad for the Jewish people. The 3rd position is that solar eclipses are bad for those who follow a solar calendar and lunar eclipses are bad for those who follow a lunar calendar. However, the Gemara concludes with the verse from Jeremiah and states that if we are serving Hashem wholeheartedly we have nothing to fear. Despite this third opinion the Gemara and the rishonim - (Rabbis between 1000 - 1500) considered the Gemara a bad omen and even gave reasons for why eclipses happened. 

Today, we have a better understanding of science we have to ask a fundamental question. What is the Gemara talking about? This is just an act of nature it doesn't mean anything good or bad! The general approach of the acharonim - the latter commentators is that the eclipses were set up by Hashem in his rules for nature. They are there to remind us that sometimes we are blocking our own ability to connect with Hashem in a deeper way. 

Do we make a beracha on an eclipse? There was a thought to say the beracha - baruch dayan ha'emet - the blessing after the loss of a loved one. But the loss of sunlight is so short  the consensus is not to make a beracha. The consensus is not to make a beracha because it is not mentioned in the Gemara. Why did the Gemara not mention a beracha - probably a combination of it being short lived and because it is a bad omen. 

Rav Haim David HaLevy, the former Chief Rabbi and Av Beit Din of Tel Aviv was asked perhaps with the new knowledge that eclipses are not bad omens perhaps we should make a beracha. He writes the following "Our Rabbis instituted blessings over acts of creation and powerful natural events, like lightning and thunder and so on. However, they did not do so for a lunar or solar eclipse. And if only today we could institute a blessing when we are aware that an eclipse is indeed an incredible natural event. But we cannot, for a person is forbidden to make up a blessing. If a person still wants to make some form of a blessing, he should recite the verses “And David blessed…blessed are you, G-d, the L-rd of our father Israel, who performs acts of creation."

If you'd like to read more about halachic and hashkafic nature of eclipses please click here to read this scholarly work by Dr. Jeremy Brown. For more on whether to make a beracha click here to read an article by Rabbi Dov Linzer

I hope you enjoy the eclipse. Please remember to use the correct eyewear if you plan to look at the sun. 

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Preparing for Tisha B'Av 5777/2017

Preparing for Tisha B'Av

I'm calling this blog post preparing for Tisha B'Av because the mourning customs we have leading up to the fast day are all designed to prepare us for the intensity of the day. Without preparation a person can struggle to really feel the significance and poignancy of the day.

In just under 3 weeks we will commemorate Tisha B'av when we will mourn the destruction of our two holy temples and every Jewish tragedy that has befallen our people from the sin of the spies to the holocaust. There is no other day like Tisha B'Av. At the same time it is hard to feel a personal tragedy for the destruction of the 2nd temple that happened almost 2000 years ago. This is something our rabbis understood very well and as such they instituted a number of mourning customs to lead up to this sobering day.

The customs of different Jewish communities vary, I will try and concentrate on the main ones and explain them a little bit. 

There are four stages of mourning. The first stage is the 17th of Tammuz till Rosh Hodesh. In this period Sephardim don't listen to music or wear new clothes or say the blessing of Shehecheyanu on a new fruit except on Shabbat. When it comes to buying new things the general rule is it is forbidden unless the sale is an unusually great sale. Then the purchase can be bought and used after Tisha B'Av. Likewise for major purchases like a car or a house, one should avoid the purchase unless the availability will vanish if delayed. Such purchases should not be used till after Tisha B'Av

The next period of mourning intensity is from Rosh Hodesh Av till Shabbat. The third period is called Shevua Shechal Bo - the week that Tisha B'Av falls. (E.g. if Tisha B'Av falls on a Monday night/Tuesday then Shevua Shechal Bo is from Saturday night until midday the day after the fast.) Finally we have the most severe mourning customs on Tisha B'Av itself. Generally speaking the Sephardic customs are more lenient than for Ashkenazim. 


Starting on Rosh Hodesh and including Rosh Hodesh Jews from Turkey, as well as Ashkenazim have the custom to abstain from meat (including chicken) and wine until the 10th of Av. The exception being on Shabbat when we eat meat to the same level that we would on a regular Shabbat. Other Sephardic communities including many from Rhodes refrain from meat from the 2nd of Av till the 10th. When it comes to drinking the wine/grape juice after havdallah, Ashkenazim give the cup to a child whereas for us we follow Rabbi Yosef Caro and drink it ourselves.

Shevuah Shechal Bo
Starting from Saturday night, Sephardic men refrain from haircuts and shaving. (Some follow the custom of our Ashkenazic brothers and do not have haircuts for the entire three week period from the 17th of Tammuz.) We do not do any laundry, we only take short showers out of necessity, we only change our undergarments or any clothes that are soiled. We also aren't allowed to go swimming for pleasure (and most people don't have swimming lessons either since they can be fun too).

When Tisha B'Av is nidche (pushed off) to Sunday. Many halachic authorities do not consider there a need to have a Shevuah Shechal Bo at all. As such it is permitted to do laundry and shower and even to swim. Most people are strict and avoid having haircuts. 

Erev Tisha B'Av
The day before Tisha B'Av we continue to learn Torah until sunset. (Ashkenazim stop learning regular Torah portions at midday.) After this time we are only allowed to learn Torah that is upsetting such as reading Eicha - The book of Lamentations describing the destruction of the First Temple, Sefe Iyov - The Book of Job, Sections from the prophet Jeremiah, Sections from the Talmud dealing with the destruction of the First and Second Temples and Kinot - poems about Jewish tragedies throughout the ages.

On Erev Tisha B'Av we have a Seudah Hamafseket. This is the last meal before the fast. The meal should consist of only one cooked dish. Two foods that are normally cooked together are considered one dish. So for example a dish of egg and lentils would be ok to eat. One can also eat bread with this meal too. My practice, has been to have a normal pre fast meal a few hours before the fast. Then just before the fast I have a piece of toast and I sit on the floor and think of the destruction. 

When Erev Tisha B'Av is on Shabbat none of these laws apply and we treat the day like a regular Shabbat. However, one must be careful to finish Seudah Shelishit before the fast starts. Please note that the fast begins before Shabbat ends. 

Tisha B'Av
Apart from learning Torah that makes us happy there are five things which are prohibited on Tisha B’av. Eating and drinking, washing, rubbing one’s body with oils or lotions, wearing leather shoes, and marital relations. Although not strictly forbidden, it is strongly recommended to take the day off on Tisha B'Av or at least not to work until halachic midday (1:15pm). Since we are all considered mourners on this day, we do not greet each other.

Ladies who have given birth within 30 days are exempt from the fast. Similarly, anyone who has a serious illness or would become ill from fasting is exempt.

The liturgy on Tisha B'Av is very powerful and the tunes are very moving. Although one isn't supposed to enjoy the tunes on Tisha B'Av, my grandfather of blessed memory would love to hum the melodies of Tisha B'Av throughout the year. One of the powerful kinot contrasts the festival of Pesach with Tisha B'Av using the famous "Ma Nishtana - Why is this night different from all other nights?"


On Tisha B'Av night the lights are dimmed low, or tea lights are used. We sit on the floor and read Eicha - The book of lamentations. On Tisha B'Av day we don't wear talet and tefillin in the synagogue and we continue to sit on the floor. (Some Sephardim have the custom to wear them privately at home before coming to services but that is not the SBH minhag). We again read Eicha and more sad kinot. After midday we are allowed to sit on regular seats and at minha we wear talet and tefillin. Since we are forbidden to learn Torah on Tisha B'Av, if one learns daily, that learning should be done either the day before or the day after Tisha B'Av. Tehillim may be recited on Tisha B'Av itself but only after halachic midday (1:15pm).

The mourning practices are in reverse to those of a loved one. Instead of most intense to least intense, we go from least to most. The idea being that we must prepare ourselves for it. If we were to go straight into the strict mourning of Tisha B'Av without the three weeks of preparations we would struggle to find meaning. Instead we build up gradually. As we do that this year let us work on our mitzvah observance and the way we interact with others. May Hashem grant peace in Israel.

When the fast finishes, one should still not eat meat or drink wine until Midday the following day. The reason being that when the Second Temple was destroyed it continued burning for much of the 10th of Av. Other restrictions such as showering and shaving etc. are permitted from the end of the fast. (Ashkenazim wait until midday for those too).

When Tisha B'Av is commemorated on the 10th, one does not need to wait until midday of the next day.

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!