Sunday, 12 December 2021

Fast of the Tenth of Tevet

Why do we fast on the Tenth of Tevet? The short answer is it was the start of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, 2600 years ago. But if you look a bit deeper the fast actually commemorates 3 things that happened on the 8th, 9th and 10th of Tevet. On the eighth of Tevet during the Second Temple period, Ptolemy, King of Egypt, ordered the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, a work which later became known as the Septuagint. Seventy two sages were placed in solitary confinement and ordered to translate the Torah into Greek. 

The expected outcome would be a multitude of different translations that would then be compared and critiqued by the Greeks as there were some sentences in the bible that could be understood as offensive to pagans if taken wrongly and would obviously need to be changed. This would demonstrate the muddled meanings of the Torah and the divergent opinions of Jewish interpreters. 

Masekhet Megillah records the event as follows "King Ptolemy once gathered 72 Elders. He placed them in 72 chambers, each of them in a separate one, without revealing to them why they were summoned. He entered each one's room and said: Write for me the Torah of Moshe, your teacher. God put it in the heart of each one to translate identically as all the others did."

The Greeks saw this as a most impressive feat at the time. However, despite this great miracle the various rabbinical sources see this event as a tragedy, a debasement of the divine nature of the Torah, and a subversion of its spiritual qualities. They reasoned that upon translation from the original Hebrew, the Torah's legal codes & deeper layers of meaning would be lost. Many Jewish laws are formulated in terms of specific Hebrew words employed in the Torah; without the original Hebrew code, authenticity of the legal system would be damaged. 

Indeed, our reliance on English translations today can be seen as both a blessing and a curse. A blessing to have the ability to study texts that up until now were only available to Hebrew scholars. And a curse since we rely too heavily on their translations and interpretations without properly studying the Hebrew.

I like to view the 10th of Tevet as the polar opposite of Hanukah. On Hanukah, we celebrate the fact that the Greeks and the Hellenized Jews were defeated by the Torah faithful Jews. However, there were costs involved in our survival and living among the Greeks. Our Holy Torah was translated into Greek and this affected our culture and our very way of life. 

As a child growing up in England, in my teenage years, we would often discuss are we English Jews or are we Jewish Englishmen? To what extent do we value the Western values that enhance our lives and to what extent do they change our views of Judaism? These are the kind of things I ponder this time of year, when the world around us is focusing on Christmas and New Year, we have Hanukah and the fast of Tevet. I think the calendar is designed like this to make us think about our Judaism when it is so much easier to get wrapped up in non-Jewish Holidays instead. 

On the 9th of Tevet Ezra HaSofer who brought the Jews back from Babylon to build the Second Temple died. Some say Nechemia also died. The Tenth itself marks the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians ultimately leading to the destruction of the First Temple. Even though these events took place over a few hundred years. I think the message is clear. If we allow ourselves to become totally assimilated into foreign cultures it can lead not only to our spiritual numbness but eventually to even worse scenarios. We should not only celebrate our holidays but also commemorate our fasts and hold dear to what is truly valuable. 

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

Translation of Tefilla Composed by Rav Yitzchak Yosef - By Rabbi Yehuda Rapoport

Translation of Tefilla Composed by Rav Yitzchak Yosef, The Rishon Lezion Chief Rabbi of Israel
Translation by: Rabbi Yehuda Rapoport

A Prayer for the Cessation of the Coronavirus, Hashem Should Guard us and Save Us

May it be Your will Hashem our God and the God of our fathers, that you should have abundant mercy upon all the inhabitants of the earth, and upon all the inhabitants of this land, and shield them from all harsh and evil decrees that are arising and coming upon the world. And save us from all affliction, plague, sickness and disease. And all those who are sick, who have been infected by the disease, heal them with a complete healing.

Yours, Hashem, are the greatness, and the might, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is Yours; Yours is the kingdom and You are He Who is exalted over everything as the Leader.

And in Your hand is the life of every living thing and the spirit of the flesh of every man, and in your hand is power and might to make great and strengthen and heal every downtrodden individual, every oppressed soul. Nothing is too wonderous for you!

Therefore, may it be Your will, the Almighty, trustworthy, compassionate Father, who heals all of the illnesses of His people Israel. You, the trustworthy Healer, send cure and healing and arise with abundant compassion, mercy and caring for all of those who are sick, that have been infected with this illness.
Please Hashem, grant your kindness upon all the inhabitants of the earth, and upon all of your people Israel. Please rise up from your throne of judgement and sit upon the throne of mercy, and go beyond the strict law, and nullify from upon us all harsh and evil decrees. “And Pinchas stood and prayed, and the plague was stopped.”

Decree upon us decrees of goodness, salvation, and consolations for the sake of your kindness and tear the evil decree of our judgement and let our merits call before us: Raise up help for us and redeem us for the sake of your mercy!

Please hear the voice of our supplications, for you are the One who hears the prayers of every mouth, blessed is He who hears prayer.

May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart be desirous before you, Hashem, my Rock and my Redeemer.

Let the words of the verse be fulfilled for us: “All of the diseases that were put upon Egypt, I shall not put upon you, for I am Hashem your Healer.”

Cleaning for Pesach Refresher Course!

This year's Pesah is going to be like no Pesah we have had in living memory. Please read this refresher on how to clean Pesah and please try to stay calm I know this won't be as hard as you think it is.

Pesah cleaning doesn’t have to be a full spring cleaning and it doesn’t have to take from Purim just to get it all done. Here is a quick guide for Pesah cleaning which can be done with a medium of fuss.  It is incumbent upon us to clean before Pesah but we are not required nor is it recommended to arrive at the Seder exhausted.

In order to change our attitudes, we must know the halakha. There are so many Pesah preparations that are done unnecessarily, where if you want to do them for extra credit, that's fine. But it's important to understand what is necessity and what is voluntary.

Here is a guide based on Rav Aviner on How to get ready for Pesah in just one day!

If you are going away for Pesah and will not be at home during the entire holiday, you can be lenient and not clean for Pesah. You should sell all of the hametz in the house, including all of the crumbs - but not just the crumbs on their own, because that would have no halachic value. It is possible, however, to sell the food in the cabinets and closets including the "hametz dirt." If someone is staying in your house, you need to clean the rooms which will be used. The remaining unused rooms must be closed off with tape, and you must sell any hametz which is in them.

There is still the question of how to fulfill the mitzvah of Bedikat Hametz (the search for hametz). If you arrive at your Pesah destination by the fourteenth of Nissan, perform the search there. If you arrive on the morning of the fourteenth, you should clean well and check a small room, i.e. the entrance way and not sell the hametz in that room. You must also perform the search for hametz, with a blessing, in the rooms in which you will live during Pesah - if no one else has done so.

Hametz which is less than a "Kezayit" may not be eaten, but it is not included in the Torah prohibition.  Usually, only rooms in which children are allowed to bring sandwiches or cookies are likely to contain such big pieces of hametz. A room in which people do not walk around with food does not need to be cleaned at all.

Only search for hametz in places in which there is a reasonable chance of finding it. It is nearly impossible for hametz which is an inch square to be hidden inside a book! Everybody knows their kids' habits. Peek, and open here and there. Regarding crumbs in the corners of the house:

1. They are not a "Kezayit."

2. They are inedible to a dog. If there is bread behind a cabinet in an unreachable place, nobody will get to it on Pesah and it is as if it is buried - just as you do not have to search under stones or under the house's foundations, since nobody will take hametz from there.

By the way, start "Bedikat Hametz" in a place where hametz was used, so the blessing will apply to it.


There may be cookies in your kids' pockets. Even the crumbs must be removed, since a child may put his hand into his pocket and then into his mouth. Toys must also be checked. However, you may put some or all of the toys away, and buy new toys as a present for the holiday! This serves a double purpose of saving work and making the children happy.

Bathroom Cabinets: These may contain hametz, such as wheat germ oil and alcohol derived from wheat. What a waste to clean it. Close and tape the cabinets and include it in the sale of hametz.

Couches: You have to check between the pillows. It is an interesting experience to find lost objects.

Dining Room: You do not have to clean everything, just the place where people eat, i.e. the chairs and the table. Chairs: If the chairs are clean, there is no need to clean them. If the kids throw cereal or other things on them and they do not look clean, clean it with a wet rag. Table: Covering with tablecloths.

High Chair: If it is plastic, it may be immersed in a tub with boiling water and cleaning agents. Clean the cracks with a stiff brush. It is unnecessary to take the chair apart, because whatever is in the cracks and holes is inedible to a dog.

Kitchen: This room must be thoroughly cleaned and not one crumb of hametz left.

For all the appliances see the Vaad Guide pages 17-20

Refrigerator: Clean it, but it does not have to be a lot of work. It is best to eat up all hametz before Pesah, but if expensive hametz food products are left over, i.e. frozen foods, they may be wrapped up well, labeled "hametz," stored in the back of the freezer/refrigerator and included in the list of hametz sold before Pesah.

Food Pantry: Do not clean. It is a waste of time. Seal, put sign or sticker not to use and include it in sale of hametz.

Dishes, shelves, and drawers that will not be used on Pesah may be sealed, and need not be cleaned. There are those who are strict to clean even the things which are used for hametz, but one can be lenient on account of three reasons, each of which would be enough:

1. We sell all the crumbs together with the sale of hametz.
2. The dishes are clean - nobody puts a dirty dish away in the cabinet.
3. Even if there is "hametz dirt," it is definitely less than a "Kezayit."

Humrot - Being Strict

If you know that you are being stricter than Halakhah requires, and you choose to be strict, you deserve a blessing. If you have a strong desire to clean a lot, you deserve a blessing, especially for Pesah, "whoever is strict deserves a blessing." You should not, however, force a stricture on yourself, but accept it with love.

Pesah Allegre!

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Laws of Purim

Shabbat Parshat Zachor, 11 Adar, March 7th
The Shabbat immediately preceding Purim is called Shabbat Zachor. It is very important that everyone comes to synagogue to hear the Torah reading of this special Maftir, since it is a fulfillment of a law found in the Torah. Please bear in mind that hearing Parshat Zachor is a fulfillment of this mitzvah.

Fast of Esther, 13 Adar, Monday, March 9th
This fast commemorates both when the Jews fasted at the behest of Queen Esther in response to the evil decree from the Persian empire and when the Jews fasted on the 13th of Adar in preparation for their defense against Haman's decree. There are leniencies for women who are pregnant, nursing or anyone not feeling well. If you have any questions about whether to fast, contact Rabbi Hassan.

Machatzit Hashekel: In remembrance of the half-shekel given by all males to the Beit Hamikdash in Adar, it is customary to give three coins with a denomination of half of the primary local currency. In the United States, the custom is to give three half-dollars. The machatzit hashekel is given in the synagogue after Mincha on the Fast of Esther or during Purim. 
Reading the Megillah
Both men and women must hear the reading of the Megillah at night and day. It is customary to bring children to the synagogue to hear the Megillah. However, they should be prevented from making a disturbance. One who is unable to go to the synagogue, should hear the Megillah from someone who is reading from a kosher parchment scroll. Each word of the Megillah must be heard to fulfill the mitzvah of listening to the Megillah. Even missing one word invalidates the mitzvah.
Mishlo'ach Manot
On Purim day (and not at night), men and women must send to a fellow Jew at least one food parcel containing two kinds of food or drink which are ready to eat without further preparation. Although one is required to send only one parcel, it is praiseworthy to send parcels to many friends. It is preferable that one parcel is sent via someone else and not delivered personally. Do not send a parcel to a person within one year of the death of a parent, or within thirty days of the death of other immediate relatives. However, one can send to the person's family members who are not in mourning.
Matanot La'evyonim
All men and women must give gifts to the poor on Purim day. The minimum requirement is to give gifts (money or food) to at least two poor persons. Those who are liberal with their giving on Purim will be blessed. The Nathan Etkin Chesed Fund distributes Matanot La'evyonim to local poor people on Purim day.
The Purim Feast
Men and women are obligated to have a festive bread meal on Purim day. It is preferable to have a meat meal. A man should drink a little more than usual at the Seudah. 

Purim Allegre and Purim Sameach

Friday, 28 February 2020

Shabbat Zachor Short Reflections

This Shabbat we read Parashat Zachor – 3 pesukim which command us to remember what Amalek did to us after we left Egypt and to utterly destroy their memory. This has to be one of the hardest mitzvot in the Torah to understand from a moral/ethical standpoint. Hashem is asking us to commit genocide. For sure Amalek committed a heinous crime by attacking the old and the young but how can we justify the killing of an entire nation – men, women and children? Not to mention this law doesn’t apply to the Egyptians or the Greeks or the Romans who caused great harm to the Jewish people over the years.

So what was so bad about their attack? The nation of Amalek were descended from Esav. Although Esav made a tentative peace with Yaakov, Esav still passed on to his children and grandchildren a hatred for the Jewish people. A hatred so severe that they were willing to travel hundreds of miles from their home to kill innocent Jews. Amalek were unlike any other nation because they attacked us for no reason other than pure hatred. We weren’t looking to conquer their land and we didn’t stand in their way either.

The Rambam in his Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Melakhim 6:1-4) explains that the commandment to wipe out Amalek is only applicable when Amalek refuses to keep the 7 mitzvot that Noah was commanded (Not to murder, not to steal, not to commit sexual immorality, not to worship idols, not to blaspheme the name of God, not to eat an animal while it is still alive and to set up law courts.) In a way, the Rambam is saying it is the behavior of Amalek that is the problem, if we were to re-educate them, they would no longer be Amalek.

Amalek also had another problem other than their lack of moral behavior and hatred of the Jews and that was that they didn’t believe in God. The verse states that ‘he did not fear God’. This was the very reason that Amalek attacked the way they did when they did it. All the other nations were terrified of the Jewish people and Hashem but Amalek said we don’t fear God and went off to attack us. Amalek failed in their mission to destroy us but they did succeed in their audacity to attack God. Hashem said the problem with Amalek was they were the moral opposite of us. That is the reason we have to blot out their way of life completely. However, if they change their ways then the mitzvah no longer applies.

Shabbat Shalom,

Geniza Day - Yevar La Ley

Our Sifrei Torah do not last forever. We have several Sifrei Torah that are too old and worn out to be used, the writing is too cracked and faded and the parchment too fragile. In Jewish Law and tradition, we bury Sifrei Torah that are too old to be used. Al Maimon pointed out to me in his father’s writings an old custom called Yevar La Ley which means burying holy objects. Every two to three years the Sephardic community would go to the cemetery and bury old prayer books and Rabbinic works.

It is our desire to bring the whole community together to take part in this noble endeavor of burying our holy Sifrei Torah together with old Humashim, Siddurim and the like. Please save the date of May 3rd at 11:00 AM at the Seattle Sephardic Brotherhood Cemetery for this auspicious occasion.

Please note Shabbat programs, photocopied sheets, synagogue newsletters and Jewish magazines etc. do not need to be put in geniza and should be wrapped in a paper bag and recycled. 

Burying Holy Objects (Yevar La Ley) by Sam Bension Maimon

Aside from the burial, there are several other occasions at which time Jewish people go up to the cemetery, referred to as Beth Hahayim (house of the living).  For example, such as going to unveil a tombstone, or going to make a “visit” to our dear departed, or going to say prayers on Erev Rosh Hashanah or Erev Yom Kippur.

One such special event that was prevalent in the early days of our Seattle Sephardic community was the custom of making a pilgrimage to the cemetery for the purpose of yevar la ley, literally “to carry the law.”  This was done probably once every three years, and most often coincided with the Sunday or the week of Lag La Omer.

To understand this practice, we would do well to review, in short, the rabbinical rule that anytime any religious object got worn out or became unusable, rather than throw it in the junk heap, we are bid to put it away in the geniza (a small storeroom or a cupboard).  This is done to avoid the desecration of the name or names of God that these objects might contain.  A torn out page from a Bible, or an old mezuza contains the name of God.  It’s our duty to treat these names of God with dignity and respect and not to discard them wantonly, without regard to its sacred contents.

Every synagogue has a geniza, where members bring in their worn out leaves from tefilah (prayer) books, old talets (prayer shawls), mezuzot (small parchment with biblical passages affixed to doorpost), tefilin (phylacteries), etc.  When these storerooms or cupboards get too full, all the contents of the geniza were gathered and taken to the Beth Hahayim to be buried in a special grave set aside for this purpose.

In our Seattle Sephardic community, when the men in charge had determined that there was enough ojas de ley (torn pages from sacred books, etc.) to warrant such a pilgrimage to the cemetery, this geniza material was filled up in several gunny sacks.  The general public also accompanied this procession, which included singing and dancing.  People today still talk about this as a very unusual and happy occasion.

When the people reached the cemetery, the chairman then would announce that there were so many gunny sacks filled with la ley and that each gunny sack was to be auctioned off, the highest bidder thus acquiring the privilege of accomplishing the mitzva of enterar la ley, or burying that particular sackful in the appropriate “grave,” and so the chairman would sing, “Kuanto dan por el primer saco de la ley?” (“How much is offered for the first sack of the law?”) Each gunny sack that was sold was accompanied to the place while the audience would sing appropriate songs including Bar Yohay, a song which Jewish people usually sing on Lag La Omer in tribute to the memory of the saintly Tanna Rabbi Shimon Ben Yohay who died on Lag La Omer.

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Is God in Our Synagogues?

In this week’s Perasha, God tells Moshe to “make for me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst” (Shemot 25:8). Note that God plans to dwell among the Jewish people and not in the sanctuary. The Ohr HaHaim (17th Century Moroccan Rabbi) explains that this refers not only to the mishkan – Tabernacle and Batei Mikdash – Temples but also to our synagogues when we are in exile. This means that when we show our devotion to God by praying to Him in kal, he will rest his divine presence upon us. As Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (19th Century German Rabbi) explains the true meaning of the verse “is the proximity of God in our midst”.

The Ohr HaHaim bases his explanation on a verse from Yechezkel (11:16) “Thus said the Lord God, ‘Although I have removed them far away among the nations, and although I have scattered them among the lands, yet I have remained for them a small sanctuary in the lands where they arrived.’” Rashi explains that the small sanctuary, the mikdash me’at is the synagogue.

The Gemara in Masekhet Megillah (29a) explains that the mikdash me’at can also refer to Batei Midrash – study houses. Indeed, when the Mashiach comes, these mini sanctuaries will be uprooted and transported to the land of Israel. In Masekhet Berakhot (6a) the Gemara tells us that prayer is only truly heard in synagogue as that is where God is found. The Gemara (Berakhot 8a) also tells us that one who spends long hours in the synagogue and study houses will have length of days – a blessing reserved for one who lives in Israel as the verse states “that your days mays may be multiplied and the days of your children, upon the land”. The Gemara explains that the synagogue is an extension of the Land of Israel.

The Ramban in a long passage to Shemot 13:16 explains “the purpose of synagogues and the merit of praying with a congregation is this: that people should have a place they can gather and acknowledge to God that He create them and caused them to be, and where they can publicize this and declare before Him “we are Your creations” This the intent of Chazal in what they said “and they shall call out mightily to God”. From here you learn that prayer requires a voice, for boldness can overcome evil.” From the Ramban we see the significance of synagogue as actualizing our ability to pray to God.

However, if we aren’t truly calling out to God in prayer, does God really rest his divine presence in our synagogues? Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo argues that God is preparing to leave our synagogues as we aren’t fulfilling their purpose. It is only when we use the synagogues as they are intended that we can hope to have Hashem’s divine presence upon us. It is a call to challenge us to not only build the synagogue, not only visit the synagogue, but to call out fervently in prayer to our Father in heaven.