Monday, 26 May 2014

Looking to Shavuot

Shavuot is the holiday where we celebrate Hashem giving us the Torah at Mount Sinai over 3300 years ago. One would surmise that this would make for a remarkable holiday. But it is noted more by its absence of any unique mitzvot than by anything active. There is no matza, no lulav, no frantic cleaning beforehand and no building of a sukah. Although we do have is a series of customs that have developed over the years, Shavuot is unfortunately the forgotten holiday.

Most people, when asked about Shavuot, will give one of three answers. Dairy food, staying up late, or 'did I miss that holiday?' Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote a very thought provoking article recently where he touched upon Jewish continuity and identity.

“Throughout a century of reflection on how to sustain Jewish identity in an open, secular society, the case has often been made that we need to make Judaism easier. Why make the barriers so high, the demands so steep, the laws so rigorous and demanding? So, one by one, the demands were lowered. Shabbat, kashrut and conversion were all made easier. As for the laws of taharat ha-mishpacha (family purity), in many circles outside Orthodoxy they fell into abeyance altogether. The assumption was that the less demanding Judaism is to keep, the more Jews will stay Jewish.

To show that this is a fallacy, I once asked a mixed group of observant and non-observant Jews to list the festivals in order of difficulty. Everyone agreed that Pesach was the hardest, Shavuot the easiest, and Sukkot somewhere in between. I then asked, which festivals are kept by the greatest number of Jews. Again, everyone agreed: Pesach was kept by most, Shavuot by the least, with Sukkot in between. There was a pause as the group slowly realized what it had just said. It was counterintuitive but undeniable: the harder a festival is, the more people will keep it. The proof is Yom Kippur, by far the most demanding day of all, and by far the best attended in synagogue.”

In essence Rabbi Sacks was saying in order for us to foster the next generation of Jews who are engaged in Judaism we should not be lowering the standards at all! All that does is dilute things and cause more apathy. Rather we should be looking for ways to teach, explain and inspire about the depth of Judaism.

On Shavuot we read the book of Ruth which tells the story of Ruth a non-Jew accepting the God of the Jews as her God and the Jewish people as her own. She says the famous words “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.”

Ruth is the quintessential convert to Judaism and her inspiring words are the basis for the intricate halakhot of conversion that a person must totally accept the yoke of heaven. She is an inspiration to aspiring Jews and Jewish-born people alike. She embodies the lesson that Judaism isn’t a series of half measures and quaint customs but something, rather it is part of our very essence and being.

There are several reasons why we read the book of Ruth on Shavuot – both Shavuot and the book of Ruth take place in the harvest time, King David who is the great grandson of Ruth died on Shavuot. But I think there is a much more powerful reason and that is on Shavuot we affirm and commit ourselves to the Torah, an act which our ancestors did 3300 years ago at Mount Sinai. Ruth, as the righteous convert, totally accepts the Torah too, showing us, whether we are born to Judaism or we choose Judaism it is something that we must strive to do wholeheartedly.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

What's really behind Lag LaOmer

What is Lag LaOmer all about? (Sephardim call it Lag LaOmer and Ashkenazim call it Lag BaOmer.)

As a child growing up in Manchester my Elementary School always took us out on hikes on Lag LaOmer. In other times in my life we would have bonfires and barbecues. But I didn't realize the significance behind these activities till I was older.

Lag LaOmer is most commonly connected to three personalities Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and Bar Kochba. Rabbi Akiva was Rabbi Shimon's teacher for many years and their are several stories in the Talmud and Kabbalah about their relationship. These personalities lived 60 years afters the destruction of the Second Temple.

The Talmud (Yevamot 62b) tells us that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students and all of them died in one period of time because they did not conduct themselves with respect towards one another. They all died between Pesach and Shavuot. The main rabbinic tradition has been to use this time period as a time to work on our relationships. According to the Rabbis of the Geonic Period the day when Rabbi Akiva's students stopped dying was on the 33rd day of the omer what we call Lag LaOmer. 

Rabbi Akiva went on to teach 5 more students one of whom was Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. The two great scholars would teach and learn Torah in secret against the ruling of harsh Roman decrees. Rabbi Akiva was the leading rabbi against the Romans and started a rebellion against the Romans which was led militarily by Bar Kochba.

At first there was great success and the Jews established their own sovereignty over the land of Israel and even minted their own coins. But for a number of reasons the revolt failled and the Romans came to put down the rebellion. 

According to some commentators and historians Rabbi Akiva's 24000 students actually died fighting in this revolt against the Romans. It actually makes a lot of sense to say this because after the Romans put the revolt down around 135 CE, there was no major Jewish presence in the land of Israel until the late 19th Century. So the sad part of the Omer is really a mourning of the end of Jewish sovereignty in Israel. 

Rabbi Akiva was also tortured by the Romans and killed. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai as the leading disciple of Rabbi Akiva went into hiding with his son. The two of them spent 13 years in a cave learning Torah. It was during this time that Rabbi Shimon learned the mystical secrets to the Torah - the Kabbalah. 

On the day of his death Rabbi Shimon revealed the Kabbalah to his students. That day was Lag LaOmer. The Bonfires we light symbolize the light of the Kabbalah being revealed to the world. The Bows and Arrows remind us of the great revolt led by Bar Kochba. Although the rebellion failed and we mourn that failure with the first half of the Omer, we still celebrate the positive aspects on Lag LaOmer and the revealing of the Kabbalah.

Happy Lag LaOmer!

Monday, 5 May 2014

Saying Hallel on Yom HaAzmaut

Today is Yom HaZikaron and tomorrow is Yom HaAzmaut. Two more diametrically opposed days you will not find in the calendar. They are both extremely emotional days and both strengthen our pride for Israel. But Yom HaZikaron is the saddest day in the Israeli Calendar where we remember the fallen all of our brothers and sisters who died so that we can live in Israel. Whereas Yom HaAzmaut is the great party to celebrate the State of Israel and all its accomplishments. Before I get into a discussion about the halachic nature of saying Hallel on this joyous day. I'd like you to watch a video clip about Yom HaZikaron and try and appreciate the sacrifice that so many have given for our country.  

As we turn to celebrating Yom HaAzmaut is there a religious way of celebrating this milestone too? Many congregations omit tahanun prayers and say Hallel - psalms of praise to God. But should we say this Hallel during the tefillah or at the end, with or without a beracha? The majority of Jews were not living in Israel at the time of the Declaration of the State of Israel and the subsequent War of Independence. Is that significant? 

These questions are addressed by Haham Ovadia Yosef zt"l in great detail (Yabia Omer 6:41). Click here to see the source sheet. He notes the importance of saying Hallel to recognize Hashem's miracles in our lives. Indeed the righteous king Hizkiyahu was not made the Mashiach because he did not praise Hashem enough (Masekhet Sanhedrin 94b). But at the same time he notes that someone who says Hallel all the time is considered a blasphemer (Masekhet Shabbat 118). So great care must be taken not to devalue the saying of Hallel.

Rav Ovadia notes the times when Hallel is said even by an individual with a beracha. The Talmud (Arachin 10a) relates that there are 18 times in Israel and 21 times in the diaspora. They are the 8 days of Sukkot, the 8 days of Hanukah, 1st day of Pesah and the day of Shavuot. (The extra 3 days in the diaspora are the extra day of Pesah, Sukot and Shavuot). The talmud (Pesakhim 117a) notes that on top of these days there are days where Hallel is said when one is saved from tragedy or when one is redeemed.

The early commentators on the talmud (the rishonim) argue on the status of the gemara in Pesakhim. Most note that Hallel should only be mentioned if the majority of Jews are involved in the miracle. The Meiri holds that if it is a minority of Jews Hallel is mentioned just without a beracha.

For Sephardim there is an issue of changing the order of tefillah or adding extra things in the middle. As according to the Zohar this can be very damaging to the efficacy of our prayers. So the Chida notes that it is better to add Hallel at the end of tefillah. Therefore Hacham Ovadiah recommends Hallel to be recited at the end of tefillah without a beracha. 

Hacham Ovadiah writes "and now where we have seen such great miracles done for us in the War of Independence that Hashem saved us from our enemies who were plotting our destruction, and Hashem muddled up their thinking and in his kindness we prevailed. But since this miracle did not happen to all of the Jewish people it is correct to say Hallel but without a beracha."

This will be what is done at Sephardic Bikur Holim tomorrow morning. This is in line with our current custom of omitting tahanun. We will be adding to our current custom with the addition of Hallel at the end of tefillah. 

Whether you say Hallel with or without a beracha may we all celebrate this wonderful day in our calendar and may we hope for the complete redemption. For more on saying Hallel and Sephardic practice. Please see my good friend Rabbi Ilan Acoca's piece on the Sephardic Responsa Forum

Moadim Lesimha L'geula Shelema  מועדים לשמחה לגאולה שלמה
Am Yisrael Hai עם ישראל חי