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