Sunday, 29 December 2013

Thoughts on Celebrating New Year and Sylvester Day

A lot of people have been asking me, "Is it ok to celebrate New Year and go to New Year parties?" and  "Why in Israel is the secular New Year called Sylvester Day?"


Well let's start with the origins of New Year celebrations. According to Wikipedia The Romans dedicated this day to Janus, the god of gates, doors, and beginnings. The month of January was named after Janus, who had two faces, one looking forward and the other looking backward. This suggests that New Year’s celebrations are founded on pagan traditions. 


In 46 BCE the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar made adjustments to the Roman calendar, including beginning the new year on January 1 rather than in March. In practical terms, all cultures celebrate the new year according to their particular calendar and the Romans were no different. When the Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire under Constantine, at his mother Helena's behest, the Christian world carried on the custom of celebrating the Roman new year.


Later it became a date in the Gregorian calendar of Christendom, New Year's Day liturgically marked the Feast of the Brit of Jesus. Note That January 1st is exactly 8 days after December 25th. For hundreds of years the Catholic Church celebrated New Year as a religious holiday. The Rema writes that New Year’s day is a Christian Holiday indeed it is clear that it is the eighth day of Christmas as much as New Year’s day whose celebration must be avoided and can only be marked when long term life threatening hatred to our community will result if gifts are not given. (See Darche Moshe Y.D. 148) 


Origins of Sylvester Day

In many European countries this day was named after Saint Sylvester (314-335 CE). Christianity grew under his rule and it is believed that he died on December 31. There is nothing remotely Jewish about "Sylvester Day." So why is it celebrated in Israel? Israeli society flows according to the Jewish calendar. Schools and businesses are closed on Shabbat, and the whole country shuts down on Jewish holidays like Yom Kippur. For that reason the secular/Christian new year has little significance. Yet when some ultra-secularists discovered that most of the world holds a "New Years party," they didn't want to feel left out. Yet they couldn't call it "New Years" because that title was already taken by Rosh Hashana. So the name Sylvester was adopted instead. However according to Rochel Sylvetsky, Sylvester was always a night of fear for Jews with many pogroms taking place. Similar to what happened on Christmas Eve.

But, despite the origins of New Years, today seems to be very different. There is no real sense
of it being a religious holiday at all. Over the last 300 years it has become completely secularized to the point that even religious Christians do not celebrate the date as a religious holiday at all and it might well have lost its status as a religious holiday. Rav Moshe Feinstein notes (Iggerot Moshe Even HaEzer 2:13) that the first day of the year for them is not prohibited according to law, but pious people should be strict.

So despite the Pagan and Christian origins of New Year, today there is no hint of those origins in the current practices an celebrations. Therefore it would be permitted to celebrate albeit taking care with how one conducts him/herself. Personally I don't celebrate New Year but that might have more to do with me being boring rather than a transgression of Jewish Law!

For more information on this see Rabbi Broyde's article in full.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

What was the Point of the Plagues?

What was the purpose of the plagues? If Hashem wanted to redeem the Jews from slavery, wasn't there an easier and quicker way? Why ten plagues? Were they there just sent to free the Israelites, or was there more involved? Here's the source sheet from today's class based on a wonderful shiur by Rabbi Amnon Bazak available at vbm here.

When Hashem first speaks to Moshe at the burning bush it looks like the plagues are there just to take the Jewish people out of Egypt. "And I shall set forth My hand and I shall strike Egypt with all My wonders which I shall perform in their midst, and thereafter he will send you out." (Shemot 3:20)

It is quite clear that if the goal is just to take the Jews out of Egypt the 10 plagues would not be necessary that could be just achieved with the killing of the first born. Therefore we must look for other reasons.

Later in Shemot (4:21-23) it is to punish Pharaoh for subjugating the Jewish people. "And I shall harden his heart and he will not send out the nation. And you shall say to Pharaoh, So says God: Israel is My firstborn son. And I said to you; send out My son that he may serve Me. And you refused to send him; behold, I will kill your firstborn son."

In Shemot 7:5 a second reason is given. "And Egypt will know that I am God when I stretch out My hand upon Egypt and when I take Bnei Yisrael out from among them." So the aim of the plagues is to punish Pharaoh and Egypt and to bring an awareness of God into the world.

The 10 plagues themselves can be subdivided as Rabbi Yehuda does in the Haggadah. This is not just a mnemonic Rabbi Yehuda is expressing that there is something going on in each set of plagues that is different from the other sets.

One can group them as 
Group 1: Blood, Frogs Lice
Group 2: Wild Animals, Cattle disease, Boils
Group 3: Hail, Locusts, Darkness
By itself: Killing of the firstborn

According to the Rashbam the first three were initiated by Aharon, with the use of Moshe's staff; and they involved water and land. The next three were initiated by Moshe without use of the staff, and involved those dwelling upon the land, man and beasts. The next three, finally, were initiated by Moshe, with the use of his staff, and revealed God's power to strike from the air. The slaying of the firstborn had, of course, a totally unique character.

Or you can look at the first of each group as a group and the second of each group as a group. E.g. Blood, Wild animals and Hail as one group.

According to Rav Hirsch the first plague in each group (blood, wild animals, and hail) reduced the Egyptians in their own land to the insecure existence of strangers. The second plague in each group (frogs, pestilence, and locusts) robbed them of their pride, their possessions, and their sense of superiority, reducing them to lowly submission. The third plague in each group (lice, boils, and darkness) imposed upon them actual physical suffering. This was the retribution for their oppression of the Jews which had taken these same three forms; their punishment then reached its climax in the slaying of the firstborn.

The Ritva suggests that the first three plagues were designed to establish the existence of God; they were introduced by the warning: 'you shall know that I am God, (Shemot 7:17).
The second group was to demonstrate God's providence; here the introduction is: 'you shall know that I am God in the midst of the land' (Shemot 8:18).

The third group, finally, was to show the truth of prophecy; in connection with this group the Torah speaks of those 'who would not listen to God's word' (Shemot 9:21) and ‘in order that you will know that there is none like Me in all the land’

I think that there is another possibility for the plagues and that is that they are for the Jewish people to realize that they don't need to be slaves to Egypt anymore and that no person should ever be subjugated by another human being. But slavery was so ingrained in their psyche that God had to take them out gradually with 10 plagues so that they could see for themselves that they were entitled to something greater in life.

Shabbat Shalom

Monday, 23 December 2013

Nihya or Nihye Bidvaro!

Whenever I move to a new Jewish community I always get asked "Are you really Sephardi?" or "You're too pale to be Sephardi!" It's as if my last name has no significance whatsoever as people are drawn to my pale features and reddish beard. Whether it was Spanish and Portuguese Synagogues, or Moroccan communities or Kehillot in Israel!

Now it's true that my mother is Ashkenazi but my father was born and raised in Gibraltar and he taught me about all our customs and how to lead the tefillot and read Sefer the Gibraltarian way. However I did grow up in Manchester, England where the Jewish community was and still is almost entirely Ashkenazi. As such, the schools in Manchester catered only to Ashkenazi students. My parents chose a school that taught Hebrew reading with a modern Hebrew pronunciation so I was spared pronouncing the books of the Torah - Bereishis, Shemos, Voyikro, Bomidbor and Devorim!

However the tefillot and the brachot that I learned at school were all Ashkenazi just with a modern Hebrew/Sephardic accent. When it came to doing Birkat Hamazon and berachot before and after food we always learned it Ashkenazi especially since the Ashkenazim have such a great tune for Birkat Hamazon. (I was delighted when I was introduced to the Sephardic Birkat Hamazon melodies in Seattle so that my kids could finally learn to do Sephardic Birkat Hamazon).

The exception to this was obviously with Kiddush when we would always say Borei Peri HaGefen and not HaGafen like Ashkenazim. But one which went under the radar for me was the bracha we say on meat, fish, dairy products, mushrooms and drinks. That Beracha is called Shehakol. I always learned it as Shehakol Nihye Bidvaro נהיֶה but most Sephardim say Shehakol Nihya Bidvaro נהיָה. What is the significance of a Segol instead of a kamatz?

The prevalent practice is that Ashkenazim say Nihye and Sephardim say Nihya. This topic is discussed by several Rabbis who wrote commentaries to the Shulkhan Arukh. The Magen Avraham (O.H. 167:8) brings proofs for saying either Nihya or Nihye. In (O.H. 204:14) he implies that Nihya is in the past tense so the phrase means "by whose word everything came to be" whereas Nihye means "by whose word everything continues to be". 

However in all siddurim with an English translation whether it is Nihye or Niiya they all translate the phrase "by whose word everything came to be." The Sha'arei Teshuva and the Be'er Hetev (O.H. 204:20) are both unsure but conclude that since most people say Nihye it should be Nihye. All three of those commentators are Ashkenazi and that is the basis for most Ashkenazim saying Nihye. The custom of Chabad is to say nihya.

The Kaf HaChaim (O.H. 204:38) poetically writes of the significance of the bracha is acknowledging that it is through God's commands that everything comes into being from the time that God called the world into being with his 10 utterances. As it says in Sefer Devarim Chapter 8 verse 3: "That man does not live by bread alone, but by everything that comes out of the mouth of God does man live." 

That our intention when we make a beracha is far more important than just going through the motions of pronouncing the words correctly. We must both correctly pronounce the words and acknowledge God's role in our day to day lives. By making the berachot  with proper intent we are partners with God.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Parashat Shemot - Slavery in Egypt - Punishment or Process?

In my Parashat Hashevua class, we discussed some of the reasons why the Jews had to be slaves in Egypt. Why couldn't they just inherit the land of Israel immediately? This class is based on a shiur by Rabbi Zvi Shimon and can be read here. Here is the link to the source sheet

To understand the answer to why the Jews had to be enslaved in Egypt we have to go back to Avraham and the Brit Bein HaBetarim - The covenant between the Parts. Avraham receives a mysterious vision from God in Bereshit 15:12-16 that "his descendents will be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years; but I will execute judgment on the nation they shall serve, and in the end they shall go free with great wealth ... And they shall return here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete".

This vision implies that the reason why the Jews cannot inherit the land of Israel immediately is only because the Amorites have not used up all their ethical and moral credit yet. It doesn't explain why the Jews had to be enslaved. (I am not going to discuss here the 400 year count or why the nation that enslaved them needed to be punished).

The Radak puts the reason of the punishment on the Jews at the time of the slavery. They did not circumcise their sons and they were involved in idolatry.

Both the Gemara in Masechet Nedarim and the Biblical commentator Ramban identify the reason for the Jewish enslavement was because Avraham Avinu sinned. How did Avraham sin? They give slightly different answers based on a lack of faith of Avraham in the divine plan. According to the Ramban, Avraham should never have gone down to Egypt when there was a famine in his time that foreshadowed his descendents going down to Egypt. According to the Amora Shmuel, Avraham lacked faith in being given children in his old age.

The Abarbanel dismisses all of these questions on Avraham and comes up with a different reason for the punishment. "If we should hold that the exile in Egypt came about as a result of sin, it is improper that we should blame our father Avraham; God forbid that he would sin. It is much more plausible to attribute the sin to the sons of Yaakov. The Torah testifies to the fact that they sinned a horrible sin in their unjustified hatred towards their brother Yosef and in their plot to kill him upon his visiting them, and in their throwing him into a pit and in their selling him to the Egyptians".

The Maharal rejects the Abarbanel's position for the central reason that the vision that Avraham had seen predated the sale of Yosef by 150 years! So we can put all the punishment theories to one side for now and discuss another option.

The Torah says in Devarim 4:20 "the Lord took you and brought you out of Egypt, that iron blast furnace, to be His very own people, as is now the case". That iron furnace according to Rashi is used to purge gold off all of its impurities. The Alshich expounds on Rashi to explain that the nation of Israel needed purging of all its spiritual impurities and imperfections of pride and selfishness. Only through going through the Egyptian exile could they learn to be compassionate, merciful and moral. It was these qualities that merited them being redeemed from Egypt and allowed their descendents to teach Ethical and compassionate monotheism to the world.

Shabbat shalom

Monday, 16 December 2013

Why so much Kabbalah in Halakha

Apologies for those looking for Madonna.

In my last blog I mentioned that the custom of Turkish Jews was to wear Talet and Tefillin on a fast day even when the fast falls out on a Friday. Subsequently there has been much debate whether that minhag is a correct custom or not. I would like to state that this blog is not here to make halakhic rulings on particular minhagim or practices. It is here for the process of debate, discussion and food for thought. As such please feel free to comment on the blog or to send me a private email.

Let's start with an introduction. Levantine Sephardim and Sephardim from Western Europe have the custom of wearing Talet and Tefillin on the afternoon of all fast days (except for Yom Kippur of course). Some people have the custom to wear Talet and Tefillin every mincha.

The Be'er Hetev in his commentary to the Shulkhan Arukh (O.C. 37:3) writes that one does not wear Talet and Tefillin on Friday afternoons because of the sanctity of Shabbat. However Rabbi Mordechai Margoliot in his commentary to the Shulkhan Arukh called Sha'arei Teshuva (O.C. 37:3) writes that from a purely halakhic position there is absolutely no problem with wearing Tefillin erev Shabbat and one should not protest if someone wears tefillin on Friday afternoon. However, he adds that he asked many great Rabbis in Israel and they said not to wear Tefillin erev Shabbat. The Kaf HaChaim on the Shulkan Arukh (O.C. 25:100 and 37:11) first writes that there are those who do wear Talet and Tefillin Erev Shabbat but that the minhag in Beit El synagogue was not to wear Talet and Tefillin Erev Shabbat.

The reason given for not wearing Talet and Tefillin Erev Shabbat was Kabbalistic in nature that the holiness of Shabbat already starts from Friday afternoon and already permeates the feel of Friday afternoon especially late on Friday afternoon. This Kabbalistic teaching is held as law by the majority of great Sephardic Rabbis such as the Hida, Kaf HaChaim and Rav Palachi.

The Moroccan Poskim are in debate whether the Talet and Tefillin problem is all Friday afternoon or just late Friday afternoon. The consensus of the Moroccan authorities is that if Mincha Gedola is done on Friday there is no problem of Shabbat's holiness already taking hold. 

Nevertheless according to Maran if a person wishes to wear tefillin all day or even just Shacharit and Minha there is no problem with a person doing this on Friday afternoon from a halakhic perspective. The only issue is kabbalistic. 

My question which I don't really have an answer to is why does Kabbalah play such a central role in halacha? Maran was also a great kabbalist. But he took great pains not to bring too much Kabbalah into halakha. However, the Arizal, the Hida, the Kaf Hachaim, Rav Palachi and others saw Kabbalah and Halakha so intertwined that they always based their halachic rulings in Kabbalistic sources.

For example in my class last Wednesday night we were discussing whether it was permissible to wake up early before the fast started and eat breakfast if one made a declaration before going to bed? From Maran it was clear that this was acceptable to do but Rav Ben Zion Abba Shaul brings the Kabbalah that says even with a declaration once a person goes to bed they cannot get up to eat as the halakha. Now I'm not knocking Kabbalah I just find it strange that Maran would try and keep it away from halakha but in the last few hundred years it has been brought to the forefront.

As a postscript for future years: The next time that Asara Be'Tevet falls on Friday is Dec 25th 2020. There would be no problem having an early mincha on that Friday and that may resolve the problem a little. But there are many who hold even an early mincha is problematic.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Friday the 13th and the Fast of the 10th of Tevet

Is there any Jewish significance to Friday the 13th? Why is there a fast day this Friday? How will this fast be different to a regular fast day? Why do we fast on the Tenth of Tevet? 

When I went to Secondary school in England (basically 7th grade) all 7th graders dreaded one day above all others - Friday the 13th. It was called "Sprog Bashing Day" a day where the older students had licence to beat up all the little kids as much as they wanted. Fear of the number 13 is the most prevalent superstition in the Western world. We even have a name for it triskaidekaphobia. Friday has always been a feared day in Christianity so Friday 13th is considered the scary day/night where bad things could happen Fear of Friday the 13th is called ParaskevisekatriaphobiaThe Movie Franchise Friday 13th make many Americans terrified. 

But in Judaism there is no negative concept associated with the day. Quite the opposite. It has positive associations and is significant in many ways. At 13, a boy becomes Bar Mitzvah. God has “13 attributes” of mercy. Maimonides lists 13 principles of faith. Talmudic law and logic was reduced by Rabbi Ishmael into 13 principles. There are 13 months in a Jewish lunar leap year. The Purim victory celebrated by Queen Esther took place on the 13th day of Adar.

This coming Friday, is also Asara B'Tevet - The fast of the 10th of Tevet. With the exception of Asara B'Tevet all fast days are moved up or pushed off if they fall on a Friday and Yom Kippur can never fall out on Friday. So why is it that the 10th of Tevet isn't moved? The verse mentioning the fast (Yekhezel 24:2) says עצם היום הזה -  that very day. Our rabbis teach us that the 10th of Tevet must be commemorated on the day it falls out and not moved. 

The 10th of Tevet then causes us to be fasting on Shabbat as the fast continues into nightfall. In Seattle this year, the fast will end at 4:55pm when kiddush is recited and the regular Shabbat continues. I feel sorry for my Southern Hemisphere friends. In Melbourne the fast won't finish till after 9pm. So while for most Asara B'Tevet is an easier fast than most for Australians it's pretty difficult. 

The major difficulty the fast presents is Friday afternoon preparation. Mincha will start around 30 minutes earlier. Levantine Sephardim wear Talet and Tefillin on Fast day afternoons and will do so even on Friday afternoon. So remember to bring them this Friday with Mincha starting at 3:30pm in Seattle.

The fast 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. 

However, all seventy-two sages independently made identical translations into Greek. The Greeks saw this as a most impressive feat. However, 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. 

On the 9th of Tevet the 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. 

Have a meaningful fast

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Parashat Vayigash - Why didn't Yosef contact Yaakov?

When I was 18 I went to spend a year in Israel on a Bnei Akiva program.
My program spent most of the year in Yeshivat Kibbutz HaDati on Kibbutz Ein Tzurim. The head of the Yeshiva was Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun and he would give at least an hour long lecture in Hebrew weekly. At that time in my life I was just beginning to learn Hebrew so it wasn't always the best time. 

However, all those in the group who had a good grasp of Hebrew would always go on how good the classes were. As my Hebrew improved I realised that the person talking to us for an hour was an incredible scholar. After leaving yeshiva I found out that Rav Bin Nun was a giant in Bible study in Israel and an incredible Talmid Hakham. (I do want to state that I don't agree with all of his interpretations or his political and hashkafic positions). One of his more famous pieces is on 

Why didn't Yosef ever contact his father the 22 years that he was in Egypt?

Here are the sources of the class I gave this afternoon at Island Crust Cafe. Rav Bin Nun works through the question of the Ramban "How is it that Yosef, after living many years in Egypt, having attained a high and influential position in the house of an important Egyptian official, did not send his father even one message to inform him that he was alive and comfort him? It would have been a grave sin to torment his father by leaving him in mourning and bereavement for himself and for Shimon; even if he wanted to hurt his brothers a little, how could he not feel pity for his aged father?"

Ramban offers a couple of solutions. First that Yosef wanted to realize his dream of the sheaves of wheat bowing down to his sheaf and the dream of the sun, moon and stars bowing to him. These dreams representing Yosef's mastery over his brothers and parents. And second that Yosef wanted to test the brothers to see if they harbored ill feelings towards Binyamin aswell.

Rav Bin Nun rejects both of these solutions because the dreams had already come to pass with the brothers bowing down to him. Secondly he knew what the brothers thought because he heard them say how guilty they were when Shimon was taken. They blamed themselves for what they did to Yosef.

Rav Bin Nun suggests a novel solution to the problem. We read the stories knowing that the brothers lied to their father saying an animal must have killed Yosef as they dipped his coat in blood. This never entered Yosef's mind. He thought to himself why has my father not searched to find me. After years in prison he believed that his family had got rid of him so when he rose to prominence there was no need to write for who would care? 

Indeed, it was logical for two reasons. First, when Avraham had two children Yitzchak and Yishmael, Yishmael was sent away and only Yitzchak inherited. When Yitzchak had Yaakov and Esav only Yaakov inherited. Yosef thought he was the one singled out to be pushed out by the family. Second, it was his father who sent him to check on his brothers when they sold him. Yosef may have thought that his father was in on the whole plan to get rid of him.

This tragic misunderstanding caused Yosef and Yaakov to be separated from each other for 22 years. It is often in our own family situations that we can misunderstand interactions and make the wrong conclusions. May we learn from Yosef and Yaakov's tragedy to never be the one who doesn't want to initiate dialogue or be the one to offer the hand of friendship. Life can be too short and we can miss the opportunities that God presents for us. 

May we also learn to not make our perceptions of things our reality. It was Yosef who thought that his father no longer loved him so he never tried to reach out to his father. It was his brothers coming to Egypt that reawakened the self-doubt within him. When Yehuda approached him and unwittingly explained that Yaakov was still distraught from what he thought had happened that broke all the walls down. Yosef broke down and said I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?! Is it true that after all these years my father still loves me?! The perception was broken and Yaakov's family could be whole again.

Shabbat Shalom

Monday, 2 December 2013

Praying for Rain - Why start December 4th?

Questions: Why in the Diaspora do we start praying for rain on the 4th December (and the 5th December when preceding a Leap Year)? Why not follow the Hebrew calendar? Why is it different to the practice in Israel? How is the prayer Veten tal Umatar different to Mashiv Haruach Umorid Hageshem?

Answer: Several readers have asked me to address the question of what's VeTen Tal Umatar all about. I will attempt to explain how things started


Mashiv Haruach Umorid Hageshem is acknowledging that Hashem has the power to bring rain. However, it is not asking for Hashem to bring rain. That is why it is found in the first 3 berakhot of the Amidah where we acknowledge Hashem's greatness. Whereas Veten Tal Umatar is found in the 9th Berakha in the middle of us asking for our needs. In this case our need for rain for the crops in our land.

The reason why we don't start on the 7th Heshvan like in Israel is because we aren't asking for rain in Israel only, we are actually mainly asking for rain in our home location. I find this fascinating as 1) I always assumed that all our weather tefillot were only for Israel and 2) since I lived in Manchester for 20 years and now live in Seattle the idea of needing to ask for rain is crazy!


So looking a bit deeper in the gemara (Masekhet Taanit 10a) the Hakhamim declared the 7th of Heshvan as the date to start in Israel. This was 2 weeks after those visiting for the Holidays could go home before the roads would turn to a muddy mess. 

The gemara then goes on to explain that in Babylon where most of the Jews were living at the time there was no need to ask for rain till 60 days after the fall equinox corresponding to the start of the rainy season there. 

Despite objection of individual rabbis, this became the dominant position that all Diaspora communities start asking for rain on this date which corresponds to the 4th December (and the 5th December when preceding a Leap Year). This law thus represents a unique case in which some places mark the civil calendar date, while others use the Jewish calendar. 

We start saying the prayer at Arvit on the 4th December (and the 5th December when preceding a Leap Year). We finish saying this prayer at the minha before Pesah

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Women and Hanukah

I gave a class on Shabbat on Women and Hanukah. Click on the source sheet here. This shiur was based on a great article by Rabbi Yaakov Medan co-Rosh Yeshivat Har Etzion. His article can be found here on  VBM

The class was a discussion on the role of women during the Hanukah period. Were they afflicted by the Greeks as much as the men and since they were beneficiaries of the military miracle they light the Hanukah lights or were they the agentד through which the military miracle took place through the Jewish heroine Yehudit who killed the Greek General Holofernes? Here is the story brought on Chabad.org

Rabbi Medan however, suggests that the texts mentioning the story of Yehudit did not necessarily happen and maybe an amalgamation of a number of stories such as Yael the Kenite who killed Sisera in Sefer Shoftim - the book of judges and stories of Roman persecution in the time of Bar Kochba.

Rabbi Medan concludes his article by suggesting the most likely thing that the Jewish women did in the time of Hanukah was that they were willing to die in order that their sons have Brit Milah (as quoted in the Book of the Macabees) and it was this sacrifice that heralded their male counterparts to start a rebellion under Mattityahu. It could well be that this is hinted at by the fact that Hanukah lasts 8 days aligning to the 8th day when the brit milah takes place.

Happy Hanukah /Hanukah Allegre/חנוכה שמח!



Monday, 25 November 2013

Thanksgiving + Hanukah = Thanksgivukkah?

 As we approach Thanksgiving and Hanukah everyone is busy preparing for these joyous festivals. The question is do we combine them into Thanksgivukkah or not? To clarify for those who thought I was anti-Thanksgiving, I'm very much looking forward to the holiday. As a born and raised Brit I'm excited for a new reason to eat Turkey and all the trimmings. 

So should I have this great feast on Thursday evening or Friday night for Shabbat. Traditionally Jews have saved their Thanksgiving feast to have it with Shabbat. Although some Jews did not always celebrate Thanksgiving see this interesting halakhic piece here.

But with Hanukah this year it might be a shame to push it off. My in-laws are coming on for Thanksgiving but my father-in-law won't be making it till Thursday night so I think we'll probably wait till Friday night. It would be mean to leave him with Turkey sandwiches!

There are many pros such as they have similar themes of Thanksgiving to God. Hanukah for being saved from the Greeks and Thanksgiving for the wondrous gifts that God grants us each year. Some more cynical out there might be thinking that it's a good idea so that you don't have to meet up with relatives more than you need to!

We often associate Hanukah as a fun holiday of lighting candles, eating oily foods and gift giving. But it is a lot deeper than that. The Hanukah story is often portrayed as a struggle for national liberation ― the Jewish revolt against the Greek occupation of Israel. In reality it is much more complicated than that. The real conflict was not physical but intellectual. Hanukah was ultimately an ideological-spiritual war between paganism and Judaism. It was also not a struggle purely between Greeks and Jews. It was first a foremost a civil war of Jew against Jew. The initial impetus for the Greek attack against Judaism came from a certain splinter group of the Jewish people ― the Hellenized Jews.

At this time, we have a small but very vocal and powerful group of Jews, who align with the Greek authorities and who become Hellenized. They do everything the Greeks do. They send their children to the gymnasium, and they reverse their circumcisions ― a very painful operation ― since much of Greek culture is focused on the physical with sports being done naked the Greeks would consider them mutilated otherwise.

The revolt of the Maccabees ― which we celebrate today as Hanukah ― is as much a story of a civil war between Jews as against Greece. It's not a war for national liberation, nor is it a struggle for physical freedom ― it is a struggle of ideas. It is a battle against assimilation. If we celebrate Hanukah and Thanksgiving together we end up watering down the message of Hanukah. 

It isn't a question for me of whether to celebrate these holidays I plan to. I just will be having separate events to mark them. This picture shows there is a small amount of common ground but they are 2 separate holidays. I wonder what the Macabbees would think of some of the Thanksgivukah things going on!

Wishing you all a Happy Hanukah and a Happy Thanksgiving

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Recognizing Yourself - Thoughts on Perashat Vayeshev

Vayeshev has a number of themes in it that I could write about such as Yaakov's favoritism of Yosef over his brothers or the sibling rivalry that ensues causing almost fractricide. Yosef resisting temptation or his wife's master and then his keeping faith in God when it looked like He'd deserted him. Instead I want to look at the narratives of Yosef being sold and the story of Yehuda and Tamar.

I'm going to pick up the story with Yosef arriving to see how his brothers are doing.

18. And they saw him from afar, and when he had not yet drawn near to them, they plotted against him to put him to death.
19. So they said one to the other, "Behold, that dreamer is coming.
20. So now, let us kill him, and we will cast him into one of the pits, and we will say, 'A wild beast devoured him,' and we will see what will become of his dreams."

The original plan of the brothers (at least that of Shimon and Levi)  is to kill their brother. Reuven enters the scene and has other plans. He wants to return Yosef back to his father by throwing him into a pit and then returning Yosef back to his father secretly. Reuven does not attempt to tell his brothers what he is really thinking because he realises they would not allow that.

21. But Reuven heard, and he saved him from their hands, and he said, "Let us not deal him a deadly blow." 22. And Reuven said to them, "Do not shed blood! Cast him into this pit, which is in the desert, but do not lay a hand upon him," in order to save him from their hands, to return him to his father.

Unfortunately Yehuda had other plans in mind. He neither wanted to kill Yosef or return him to his father. He wants to profit from Yosef by selling him.

26. And Yehuda said to his brothers, "What is the gain if we slay our brother and cover up his blood? 27. Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but our hand shall not be upon him, for he is our brother, our flesh." And his brothers hearkened.

Reuven comes back and is terrified that Yosef has been sold. He fears that Yaakov will blame him so they devise a plan to dip Yosef's tunic - the tunic that is the physical representation of their jealousy and enmity toward Yosef and dip it in animal blood to convince their father that Yosef was killed by a wild animal.

With no sensitivity whatsoever the brothers send the garment for Yaakov to identify the garment and understand that his son has been killed. PLEASE RECOGNIZE who does this tunic belong!


32. And they sent the fine woolen coat, and they brought [it] to their father, and they said, "We have found this; now recognize whether it is your son's coat or not."

The Torah goes on to tell that Yaakov goes into deep mourning and is not comforted by any of his family and that Yosef was sold to Potifar in Egypt. We expect the Torah to continue the narrative of Yosef's life in Egypt of becoming a successful slave to his master, of resisting the advances of Mrs. potifar and his subsequent imprisonment. 

Instead we have the story of Yehuda and Tamar. Rashi explains that this story is mentioned here to tell us that when the brothers saw how melancholy their father was they regretted their actions but above all blamed Yehuda for them saying we listened to you when you said sell him had you told us to return him to father we would have done so. As a result Rashi says that Yehuda was lowered of his leadership of the brothers and he left them. 

The Ibn Ezra explains that this story is to contrast Yosef and Mrs. Potifar with Yehuda and Tamar and that they are not at the same time.

Either way Yehuda leaves the family and marries a Canaanite woman - something expressly forbidden by Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. In many ways this is Yehuda casting himself out of the family and this could be the end of the story.

Instead we hear that he has 3 children, Er, Onan and Shelah. Er is married off to Tamar and Er dies, then Onan marries Tamar through Yibum and he dies too. Shelah is not given to Tamar because he is too young. But the real reason is that Yehuda feels that Tamar is some sort of black widow.

A few years later, Yehuda's wife dies and Tamar realises that Yehuda has no intention of giving her Shelah as a third husband. She dresses up as a prostitute and Yehuda picks her up. She takes his signet ring, staff and cloak as collateral for a goat that will be given to her as payment for services rended. All the while Yehuda has no idea that the prostitute is Tamar. 

Yehuda sends his friend Hira to find the prostitute and the townspeople tell him there is no prostitute in these parts. Hira and Yehuda cover their tracks and we here no more till 3 months time Yehuda is told that his daughter-in-law has got pregnant through harlotry. Yehuda still has no idea what has happened and calls for her to be burned. 

As she is being taken out to be burned she sends the following message to Yehuda:
"From the man to whom these belong I am pregnant," and she said, "PLEASE RECOGNIZE whose signet ring, cloak, and staff are these?"

Yehuda recognizes them and saves Tamar from death. The phrase please recognize in Hebrew is הכר נא. That phrase only appears twice in the whole of the Tanakh both in our perasha. First when the brothers ask Yaakov to recognize Yosef's tunic and the second for Yehuda to recognize his staff, cloak and signet ring.

There is a deep significance to this phrase. Tamar was asking Yehuda not only to recognize the cloak, staff and signet ring she was asking Yehuda to recognize himself. Until this point Yehuda had been a selfish opportunist who was only interested in his own aggrandizement. 
Tamar was taking a huge chance by sending a subtle message to Yehuda he could have concealed her secret by having her burned but he realized in himself what he had been doing all his life and something changed inside of him.

Until this moment the brothers had not spoken of selling Yosef even when in next week's perasha Shimon is taken captive, they still don't tell their father anything. The climax of the Yehuda and Tamar story is not in chronological order as Ibn Ezra and Rashi mentioned. The end of the story takes place just before Yaakov's family have run out of food and they must decide to take Binyamin with them or starve. 

Tamar's actions were a seminal event in Yehuda's life he had the courage to put Binyamin's life ahead of his own. He was able to take back his leadership role amongst the brothers. Not a leadership by right but by deed. In the coming parshiyot of Miketz and Vayigash Yehuda proves himself and brings the family back together. But none of that could happen till Yehuda could recognize in himself what he had become and what he needed to be. Once he knew himself and his role he could lead the family. That is why it was him and not Yosef who eventually became the dominant tribe.

The rest is history. Yehuda and Tamar had twins Peretz and Zerach. Peretz is the ancestor of King David and the line of Mashiach. Out of this forbidden union and Yehuda's lowest depths comes the future redeemer of Israel. We all have low points in life and we all question ourselves it is how we deal with them and strive to improve that counts.

Shabbat Shalom

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Don't Put Your Children in a Box - Prepare them for Life

One of the wonders of the Torah is its timelessness. Every year there are always new insights I find. I've been thinking a lot recently about parenting. I think raising children to follow in our ways is the key to the future of Judaism. 

When I was reading the Torah portion this week I was struck by a difficult Rashi to understand. Yaakov is preparing to meet Esav when the text lists his 2 wives, his two maidservants and his eleven children. Rashi notes that someone is missing - Yaakov’s daughter Dinah. (Binyamin was not born yet so Yaakov had 12 children, 11 sons and one daughter).

Rashi cites a Midrash from Bereshit Rabbah. “But where was Dinah? Yaakov had put her into a chest and locked her in, so that Esav should not set eyes on her. Therefore, Yaakov was punished for withholding her from his brother, perhaps she would cause him to improve his ways and she fell into the hands of Shechem.”

In other words because Dinah was hidden from Esav a much worse fate befell Dinah- she was raped by Shechem as a punishment for Yaakov.

Just a bit of background after Yaakov survives meeting Esav the family go to Shechem. Then this happens.

"Dinah, the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Yaakov, went out to look about among the daughters of the land. And Shechem the son of Hamor, the Hivvite, the prince of the land, saw her, and he took her, lay with her, and violated her."

This Midrash is difficult to understand. Didn’t Yaakov do the natural thing of protecting his daughter from potential harm? isn’t that what all parents should try and do? I mean who would ever want someone like Esav as a son in law!

As parents we want what’s best for our children and we try to protect and shelter them from the dangers in the world. However, sometimes we can protect our children so well from the dangers that we see that when they go out in the world by themselves they have no idea how to live.

I like to explain the Midrash as a metaphor. When we put our children in a box like Yaakov did with Dinah we do not give our children the tools to survive in the world.

Let's take this one step further with the recently published Pew Report on the current trends of American Jewry. If we don’t give our children the Jewish skills when they are young it is no surprise when our children do not follow the path that we would like them to take when they go off to college. We must protect them in their youth by teaching the centrality of Judaism to their everyday lives. If we can do that then they won’t throw away Judaism as young adults and they will be able to evade the Shechem’s in this world.



Saturday, 16 November 2013

Vayishlach and Vampires

After my Thursday afternoon class on Parashat Hashevua I got thinking more about the thesis of Esav being a vampire - or at least midrashim painting him that way.

First a disclaimer: This is not a serious Dvar Torah so please take it with a big pinch of salt.

I was discussing on Thursday amongst other things the identity of the mysterious "איש" that Yaakov wrestled with. Ish means man but Yaakov says "that he saw God face to face and my soul was saved". Many of the medieval commentators Rashbam and Radak amongst others identify the mystery ish as an angel. Rashi takes it one step further and identifies the angel as the angel of Esav.

But I have a different take and that is that he was fighting Esav and that Esav may have been a vampire!

Here are my reasons
1. Yaakov wrestles with someone who suddenly has to leave at dawn!
2. When Yaakov and Esav meet, Esav kisses Yaakov on the neck. The midrash says that Esav tried to bite Yaakov but Yaakov's neck turned to marble and Esav's teeth fell out.

As I said before I'm half joking with this position and then I saw a blog on rationalist Judaism. There Rabbi Slifkin brings many proofs. Here's the link for anyone who wants to read more.

Have a great week.


Friday, 15 November 2013

Removing the Shel

This is my first time writing a blog. In this blog I'd like to answer any questions that people have in Judaism in the form of a She'ela u'teshuva - a question and a developed answer. First up is a question raised on the exact wording of the berakhot recited on the festival Hanukah.

Q: What is the significance of having the word של/shel in the first berakha of lighting the Hanukah candles?

A: There is a disagreement over the text of the first berakha said before lighting the Hanukah lights. Ashkenazi and a minority of Sephardim (Spanish and Portuguese communities, Gibraltar and others) say the berakha is להדליק נר של חנוכה while most Sephardim recite להדליק נר חנוכה. So what's the significance of one little word של meaning of? To light the Hanukah candle or to light the candle of Hanukah? There doesn't seem to be too big a difference in English or in the simple understanding of the Hebrew.

One of my favorite books to look up when it comes to differences in text or custom are the books of Rabbi Shem Tov Gaguine. His set of sefarim are called the Keter Shem Tov and are an encyclopedia of explanations of different texts and minhagim. He writes (volumes 1-2 p.515) that the text in the gemara (Shabbat 23a)  uses the word של and that is followed by the Rambam, Rav Amram Gaon, The Tur and others. Haham Ovadiah Yosef zt"l also adds in Hazon Ovadiah that the Rif and the Rosh follow the text of the gemara.

However, Maran Rav Yosef Caro in Shulkan Arukh brings the berakha without the word של. Rav Gaguine explains why Rav Caro does not follow the gemara and the Rif and the Rambam by explaining that although the text of the Babylonian Talmud uses the word של the Yerushalmi version is על מצות הדלקת נר חנוכה (which no one uses today) and the version in Masekhet Soferim is להדליק נר חנוכה.

So how did the version of Masekhet Soferim which is not the usual source for halakha become the position of the majority of Sephardic communities? Haham Ovadiah writes (Hazon Ovadiah on Hanukah p.125 footnote 1) that Maran Caro bases his position on the words of the Arizal. The reason that the Arizal prefers the berakha without the word של is because the phrase להדליק נר חנוכה can be rearranged to be the abbreviation נח"ל. נח"ל in turn is an abbreviation of נצר חסד לאלפים and נפשנו חכתה לה

The Hida in Birkei Yosef gives a beautiful explanation of the significance of not using של. He explains that when we use the word של when lighting Shabbat candles it is because we are using the light and it provides shalom bayit - peace in the home. But on Hanukah we are not permitted to use the light for anything just to look at them. A second reason is that on Shabbat there are other mitzvot like making kiddush and having 3 meals but on Hanukah the lights are the only mitzvah so no connective word is needed.

To add to the Kabbalistic direction there are 13 words without using the word shel which is the gematria for the word אחד meaning Hashem is one. There are also 13 words in the second berakha too. 13+13 = 26 which is the gematria for the name of G0d which is not pronounced. The Maharshal combines the two words to form שלחנוכה in order to keep the best of both worlds of keeping the version of the gemara and also having 13 words for kabbalah.

I ponder to think if before the Arizal all Sephardim said של. But such is the influence of Kabbalah in our liturgy it is hard to imagine a world without it. But it wasn't just the Arizal that brought Kabbalah to our liturgy the Hida had a huge impact. Today with the Iraqi dominance of Sephardic practice, especially in Israel, Sephardic siddurim no longer even mention the word shel. 

Everyone should light the hanukiah in accordance with their tradition. Turkish Jews today do not use the word של while lighting the hanukiah. I hope you all found this illuminating! Special thanks to Yossi Babani for asking the question and Jack Babani for research on this topic.