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

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.