Monday, 26 October 2015

When is Challah not Challah?

For everyone who bakes and loves to eat challah this blogpost is for you.

When is Challah not Challah? Quite simply when you can taste the sugar! Halachically speaking the taste of a challah and the amount of sugar in a challah make a big difference to how it should be treated. If it is too sweet, ideally one should not make Hamotzi on it unless one eats about half a pound of it!

You might be scratching your head at this moment thinking I regularly eat sweet challah or my spouse often puts sugar in our challah what's the problem?

Rav Yosef Caro writes in the Shulkhan Arukh (Chapter 168) Kisnin bread. Some say that this refers to dough in which honey, sugar, oil, or spices were mixed and the taste of the item mixed in the dough is recognizable in the dough. This is indeed the Halacha and such an item is given the halachic status of Kisnin bread on which a “Boreh Minei Mezonot” blessing is recited. 

Rav Moshe Isserles makes an additional note explaining Ashkenazic custom. Some say this is considered actual bread (on which a “Hamotzi” blessing is recited) unless there was a copious amount of honey mixed into it similar to a sweet baked good which we call “Lekach” in which the honey and spices are primary. This is indeed the prevalent custom.

As such for Sephardim, if one can taste sweetness the beracha is mezonot, for Ashkenazim it is only if the bread is actually like cake that the beracha would be mezonot. Therefore the Ashkenazic custom is to have sweet challah without there being any halakhic problem whatsoever for them. However, in today's world where Ashkenazic and Sephardic families are well blended (no pun intended) there is a problem for Sephardim eating this "bread".

Ideally, (lechatchila) for Sephardim sugar should only be used to aid in the baking process. I.e. anything more than a tablespoon is too much. That is the difference between a plain role and a paneziko! If you can taste the sweetness it isn't fit for hamotzi. However, since it is very common to come to a house that serves sweet challah what can you do?

1. Eat half a pound of it - A little known halacha is that if you eat half a pound (216g) of cake (even though the beracha is normally mezonot) one must wash and say hamotzi and do birkat hamazon. 

2. That is very hard to do and not necessarily very healthy. One can rely on the lenient position that the food one eats with the "bread" can combine. Therefore one needs to eat half a pound of food total. 

All this is after the fact (bediavad), if one is able to ask (without offending one's host) for non sweet challah that is of course preferable. 

One should also note that one should be careful when eating too much cake that one doesn't obligate oneself to make birkat hamazon on what they ate! Based on the lenient position that cake and food can combine to the half a pound amount. It is conceivable that many of us would need to do birkat hamazon after a big kiddush in synagogue!

Monday, 21 September 2015

Fasting on Yom Kippur and Medical Concerns

Fasting on Yom Kippur and Medical Concerns

This coming Tuesday night/Wednesday we have our holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur. This solemn day of atonement is a day when our sins of the past year are forgiven and we begin afresh with a blank slate. There are a number of things that we must be very careful of on Yom Kippur. The 5 no's of Yom Kippur are no eating and drinking, no leather shoes, no anointing, no bathing and no marital relations. The idea behind these restrictions are that all of those things represent our physical needs. On Kippur we are focusing on our spiritual side and almost trying to be like angels without any physical needs or desires whatsoever. 

Fasting has long been considered part of the atonement process and that this should never be taken lightly. Anyone with medical concerns should consult their doctor and rabbi before Yom Kippur to assess their situation. It is not appropriate to consider a person who eats because of medical necessity as a sinner.

It goes without saying that elderly men and women who have been told by their doctors that fasting on Kippur will cause adverse affects to their health are neither required nor permitted to fast (see Shulkhan Arukh O.H. 618). 

However, there are many of us who in different times of our lives have problems fasting. For example, pregnant women, nursing mothers and those with diabetes to name but a few. These people do not get a blanket exemption from fasting on Yom Kippur. Fasting isn't meant to be easy but at the same time we are not allowed to put our lives in danger (hence the exemption for extremely elderly and infirm people).

Many doctors recommend that pregnant women should never fast, but the studies as yet are inconclusive in providing proof that fasting causes any problems to the mother or child. Indeed, provided that the woman drinks plenty of water before the fast there should be no issues for a healthy woman. As such  a healthy pregnant woman must fast on Yom Kippur (See Shulkhan Arukh O.H. 617). 

However, a woman in a high risk pregnancy should consult with her doctor and discuss the situation with her rabbi. Nursing women are also obligated to fast and they should express extra milk before the fast to have available for their children. Staying well hydrated and being well prepared should ensure that the fast should pass without problems. Women who have recently given birth should consult their rabbi.

If a person takes a daily tablet(s) such as blood pressure medicine. It is permitted to take it on Yom Kippur but don't take it with water. Recently I was contacted about a person with diabetes, who assumed since he had been recently diagnosed as a type 2 diabetic he would have no choice but to eat on Yom kippur. The truth is that is simply not the case. Indeed there are many religious Jews who have diabetes and fast on Yom Kippur. For more information for those with diabetes about how to fast on Yom Kippur and those who just want to read the article please click here

There are situations where a person can be instructed by their rabbi to eat and drink very small amounts of food or drink with a timed space in between. What is known as eating in shiurim/measurements. To conclude, there are circumstances where fasting on Yom Kippur would be a sin so please call if you have any concerns.

Tizku LeShanim Rabot and have a meaningful fast.

Monday, 31 August 2015

What's a Prozbul

Every seven years we have a Shemitah year. MOst of the laws are agricultural and only affect those living in Israel. But one of the laws of Shemitah has an impact on us living outside of Israel too. It is that all debts are nullified. This is one of the many laws in the Torah meant to protect the poor and disadvantaged, affording them a chance to escape from eternal debt.

“At the end of seven years you will make a release. And this is the manner of the release; to release the hand of every creditor from what he lent his friend; he shall not exact from his friend or his brother, because time of the release for God has arrived.” (Devarim 15:1-2)

However, this law wasn’t great for lenders who would never be reimbursed once the Shemitah ended. The rich refused to loan money during the latter years of the seven-year cycle, refusing the poor even a temporary opportunity to make ends meet. They began to fulfil the verse “Beware, lest there be in your heart an unfaithful thought, saying, ‘The seventh year, the year of release has approached,’ and you will begrudge your needy brother and not give him, and he will cry out to God against you, and it will be a sin to you.” (Devarim 15:9)

The wealthy were concerned that the poor would always rely on the shemitah year to cancel their debts so they stopped loaning money in the latter years of the shemitah. This caused tremendous hardship on the poor and caused the wealthy to be going against God’s commandment. Hillel the Elder came up with a wonderful loophole to solve the problem. The answer was the prozbul (can be pronounced pruzbol or pruzbul).

The prozbul is a legal document signed in front of the Beit Din or in front of 2 witnesses which technically changes the status of individual private loans into loans to the public administration. Loans to the public administration are not nullified by the Shemitah year so the debts can now be collected after the Shemitah year. The Beit Din can now appoint the lender to collect the “public funds” owned. This legal loophole benefited both borrower and lender; because lenders knew their money was safe even following the Shemitah year, they were likely to loan to the poor.

Monday, 10 August 2015

The Power of Elul

This Shabbat and Sunday are Rosh Hodesh Elul which means starting next Monday Sephardim will be saying Selihot every morning except for Shabbat until Yom Kippur. At SBH we will be starting at 6:00 AM Monday to Friday and 6:30 AM on Sundays. Elul is the last month of the year and starts our preparations for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur

Why do we say Selihot during this time period? 
What unique power is in this special month of Elul?

After the Jews sinned with the Golden Calf, Moshe smashed the two tablets that Hashem had given him. Two days later Moshe went back up the mountain for another 40 days to atone for the Jewish people. Moshe went up for a third time on Rosh Hodesh Elul and came down 40 days later on the 10th of Tishri with the Second Tablets. This 10th day of Tishri became Yom Kippur, the day that God forgave the Jewish people for the Golden Calf. This day became the annual day of forgiveness for the Jewish People. So too, the 40 days before Yom Kippur became an essential period of God coming closer to us. A time of rahamim - divine mercy, where Hashem is considered closer to his children than at any other time of the year. The month of Elul, therefore, which is the last month before Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – is a time when we should dedicate our thoughts to teshuva - repentance in all things and examine our deeds.

One of the most famous acronyms that we have to show this closer relationship with God at this time is Ani Ledodi Vedodi Li - I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me, a verse from Shir HaShirim - Song of Songs. The linkage to this verse implies that both we should all spend Elul thinking about our special relationship with God and how to improve it. Elul is a time to reflect on the year and prepare ourselves for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. If we truly want to be ready for these Days of Awe we must put in the hard work before hand.

The Selihot that we recite are very powerful prayers. And the melodies that we sing them to are wonderful. I marvel every year at the excitement we Sephardim have to get up super early for a month to sing Selihot. But the powerful melodies and tunes carry us through for the month. At the end of Selihot we blow the Shofar to awaken in ourselves the call to teshuvaHere's an audio of SBH Hazan, Rabbi Frank Varon singing Kamti BeAshmoret and Ben Adam Ma Lecha Nirdam

May we use this month of Elul to work on ourselves, to get closer to God and start our teshuva process.

Monday, 6 July 2015

When Tisha B'Av falls out on a Sunday

This year, Tisha B'Av falls on Shabbat. Since we are only permitted to fast on Shabbat when Yom Kippur coincides with Shabbat, the fast day is pushed off to Saturday night/Sunday. The following is a list of laws when Tisha B'Av falls on a Sunday or when Tisha B’Av is pushed off to Sunday.

This guide is for Sephardim only. This year we have the strange scenario of not having a real Shevua Shechal Bo - the week that Tisha B'Av falls in. As such this year there are a couple of extra leniencies. For Sephardim only, it is permitted to launder clothes, and take showers all the way up to Shabbat the day before Tisha B'Av. We still refrain from meat and wine from Rosh Hodesh Av or the 2nd of Av depending on your family custom. If you don't have a custom I recommend you keep from Rosh Hodesh.

In order to go into the fast looking unkempt, men still have the custom not to shave the week before Tisha B'Av. Because Erev Tisha B'Av is Shabbat the Seudah HaMafseket - the last meal before Tisha B'Av is a regular meal without any limitations. However, one must be careful to finish the meal before the fast starts. Please note that the fast begins before Shabbat ends. 

One is not allowed to prepare for Tisha B’Av on Shabbat. The restriction of eating and drinking begins on Shabbat but the leather shoe prohibition only begins after Shabbat goes out. Therefore on Friday afternoon you should bring non leather shoes to synagogue so that you can change into them before the reading of Eicha.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Yom HaShoah - Holocaust Remembrance for All of Us

This Wednesday night - Thursday is Yom HaShoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day. This year marks 70 years since the liberation of the concentration camps. There are fewer survivors from the holocaust as each year goes by and it is up to us to ensure that this Remembrance Day is meaningful and that the next generation places in their hearts never to forget what happened.

Having grown up in England and having lived in Australia for several years, Yom HaShoah is a very poignant day. Relatively large numbers of survivors settled in England in Australia so there are always large communal programs to mark the day. I was very impressed by the quality of the Yom HaShoah programming in Seattle but I was surprised by the relatively low turnouts at the different community events. When I asked people about this, I was told that since there is a very low percentage of holocaust survivors in Seattle, it never took on the same significance in Seattle as it did in other places with larger percentage holocaust survivors.

Sociologically it makes sense that if I am personally involved in a tragedy I will feel more connection to it than if I am not. However, with the passing of years there will come a time when there are no more survivors. There will come a time when there are no children or grandchildren of survivors. Holocaust remembrance must move from personal and family tragedy to a tragedy for our people. I mourn the holocaust, not just for my mother's extended family who were murdered but for all the Jews who had their lives cut short. Ashkenazim, Sephardim, religious, secular, rich and poor alike. Not to mention the many non Jewish people who were also murdered at that time. 

My message for everyone who reads my blog is that Yom HaShoah is a day of national mourning for what happened to us as a people. Therefore the day is relevant and poignant for all of us. I encourage you to attend one of the Holocaust programs happening as well as to light a memorial candle at home on Wednesday evening.

I encourage all of you to visit holocaust websites, to take a few minutes in your life this week to remember those who died. I was particularly moved by this piece on Anne Frank's website. Click here to read.

I will be attending the Holocaust Remembrance program on Sunday April 19th at the JCC and will be reciting kaddish. May all those that died in the holocaust be remembered in our hearts. 

Friday, 20 March 2015

Modern Pesach Issues

Last year, I wrote a blog about what really needs to be kosher for Pesah. I discussed how we shouldn't go overboard "blow torching everything" and that things that are inedible are not a hametz concern. This year, I would like to tackle the topic of being more careful about food products that may indeed have genuine issues of hametz.

Modern food is produced in a very different manner than it was 30 years ago and certainly in our grandparents days. Every year there are developments in food chemistry. Foods are infused with additives and preservatives and stabilizing agents that may well contain hametz. 

I was asked by a congregant why it was that the VAAD guide listed any kosher certified vegetable oil as permitted for Pesah use but Canola oil was not. But when it came to cooking sprays the VAAD guide listed that Pam was ok when the main ingredient was Canola oil!

So I looked into the situation to understand it better. Canola oil is not a problem for Sephardim as such. The issue is the admixture of grains that are often in it due to the proximity to other grains. The canola oil in Pam is produced in a plant that gets its rapeseed from fields that have been checked, whereas other Canola oil products are not produced in the same plant.

UPDATE 2019: The OU has informed us that we no longer have a source of the canola oil so PAM spray is not certified for Pesah use this year.

Another question I was asked is why is it that coffee needs to be certified kosher for Passover? It is true that the coffee beans are kosher for Passover. The issues are the processes done to the coffee beans - the decaffeination, drying and flavoring. Please read here for more information.

Milk is fine but most dairy products such as cheeses and yogurts have problems. The issue relates to enzymes used in making these products. Enzymes are made from glucose which often comes from barley (hametz), corn or sweet potato. The source of enzymes must be checked to ensure it is not from the hametz source. 

The Vaad Pesah list is a list where everything is guaranteed hametz free. I cannot say that for other lists around. Therefore I recommend to be extra careful for the 8 days of Pesah. When I know there is a legitimate concern that an item may have hametz I prefer to avoid it then run the risk of eating hametz on Pesah. 

Wishing you all a Pesah Allegre!

Monday, 23 February 2015

Collecting for Matanot La'Evyonim

It happens every year, everyone is really excited about what food they will be sending their friends for Mishloach Manot and what costumes they are going to wear at the Purim Party (by the way the Hassan costumes will be legendary) but most of us pay less attention to the Mitzvah of Matanot La'Evyonim.

One of the four mitzvot of Purim is Matanot La'Evyonim - gifts to the poor. These contributions to the poor allow them to celebrate Purim just like we do and helps them out with their day to day needs. The mitzvah of Matanot La'Evyonim – providing the equivalent of a Purim meal for two individuals on Purim day – was always understood by our rabbis as being even more important in priority than the monies spent on mishloach manot and personal seudotTherefore, one should spend less money on mishloach manot and more on matanot la'Evyonim. I encourage you all to be generous. 

Once again, SBH is looking to raise funds for needy families in our community. We are collecting funds for the Nathan Etkin Chesed Fund. This Chesed Fund has already helped many families with saving homes from foreclosure, paying rent when a job is lost, paying health insurance premiums, debt reduction structure planning, certified financial counseling, money for weddings and everyday needs like groceries, utilities, and helping families make Purim, Pesach and other Holidays.

How can you help? The holiday of Purim is around the corner. And as we say at SBH, “Purim, Purim lanu, Pesach en la mano” – Purim is here, Passover is near.  

This time of year brings two wonderful opportunities to help:

1. We will be accepting Purim Matanot La’Evyonim donations starting now and until March 22nd, so we can distribute those funds in a timely fashion. You can make those donations by either sending a check to the SBH office with the word “Purim” in the memo line and the checks made payable to the Nathan Etkin Chesed Fund.

I can be reached at Please note that sending in money early for Matanot La’evyonim is the best way of fulfilling this mitzva and I will be acting as your shaliach in this matter. Of course, we will also accept donations up until the day of Purim as well.

2. Rabbi Morton & Leya Moscowitz have established the “Chasdei Shmully” fund in honor of Rabbi Shmully Moscowitz, zt”l. This fund, part of the larger Seattle Chesed Fund, ensures that local families have enough food to feed their children and provides dedicated assistance for major Jewish holidays. In order to help financially struggling families with the significant costs of Passover, congregants are encouraged to give to this fund specifically. Donations for Pesach should be mailed to the SBH office by April 8th, so we can make our distributions. Please write “Chasdei Shmully Matzah Fund” in the memo of your check.

Please note all checks whether for Purim or for Pesach need to be made out to The Nathan Etkin Chesed Fund and NOT to SBH.

The Chesed Fund functions with total respect for the person in need, and all requests are handled with dignity and confidentiality. It partners with Jewish Family Services when the need becomes more long-term.  A dollar donated is a dollar distributed. The Chesed Fund is a registered 501(c)3 organization, and all gifts are tax deductible.   

Monday, 9 February 2015

Mikveh - Why is it so important to support it?

Why should I support the mikveh?

Having a mikveh in the Jewish community is a fundamental prerequisite that is so essential that it even takes priority over building a synagogue. However, since most people don't talk about the mikveh in the same terms as schools and synagogues its importance gets minimized. In this short blog I'd like to draw your attention to the significance and relevance of having a mikveh and also how you can support the Seattle Mikveh located in Seward Park. 

Ritual immersion is an essential part of Jewish law and is as significant as observing Shabbat and eating Kosher food. Immersion in a mikveh is an act required by Jewish law: for converts to Judaism, for brides, for women observing niddah and after childbirth. We also immerse new utensils used for eating and cooking foods but that is done in a separate mikveh - called a mikveh keilim.

I would write in length about debunking the myths about mikvaot, or why women should make it a priority to go, but there are wonderful websites that we all can read which have this information. Instead I will recommend just a couple of links from the website The first is a video clip on the centrality of the mikveh. Please click here for the link. The second link is on a number of great articles about mikvaot, click here to read more

Finally, our Seattle Mikveh housed in the BCMH compound is having its annual fundraiser on February 21st. I would encourage women to attend the event as well as community organizations to financially support our mikveh. There are constant costs with a mikveh to keep it in line with halakha and providing women with the opportunity to immerse privately and with dignity in the 21st Century following in the footsteps of our mothers for over 3000 years. 

Checks should be made payable to Seattle Mikvah Association and sent to BCMH or to Sharon Adatto.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Tu Bishvat - Fixing the Original Sin

Being a rabbi, I don't get to hear many classes or talks given by speakers. But at SBH we have a learning Shabbat every four to six weeks. At these learning Shabbatot, different rabbis, educators and congregants give a twenty minute class. This past Shabbat I had the pleasure of listening to my wife's presentation on the "Roots of Tu Bishvat". This blog is based on her shiur. Click here to read the source material

Tu Bishvat is first mentioned in the first mishna in Masekhet Rosh Hashana. The topic of the mishna is the different New Years in our calendar. The date for the New Year for trees is an argument between Bet Shammai (1st of Shevat) and Bet Hillel (15th of Shevat). We hold with Bet Hillel and the New Year for trees is the 15th of Shevat. This date is significant in agricultural terms but for those of us who are not farmers there is very little relevance. The mishna and the Talmud make no reference to this being a festive day or a day for eating fruits and wine with friends and family so where does that come from?

Although the English translation of the phrase ראש השנה לאילן is New Year for the trees. The truth is that אילן is in the singular. So what tree is the mishna referring to? According to the Kabbalists there is a deep connection between Tu Bishvat and the tree in the Garden of Eden - עץ הדעת טוב ורע - the tree of knowledge. This was the one tree that God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat from. But as we all know, this was the tree that they couldn't resist.

It is a point of discussion in the Talmud (Masekhet Berakhot 40a) of what type of fruit the tree was. You are all thinking an apple tree? Well not exactly. The Talmud posits three possibilities.

"Rabbi Meir holds that the tree of which Adam ate was the vine, since the thing that most causes wailing to a man is wine, as it says, And he drank of the wine and was drunken. Rabbi Nehemiah says it was the fig tree, so that they repaired their misdeed with the instrument of it, as it says, 'And they sewed fig leaves together'. Rabbi Yehuda says it was wheat, since a child does not know how to call ‘father’ and ‘mother’ until it has had a taste of grain."

The Midrash (Bereshit Rabbi 15:7) adds "Rabbi Abba of Acco said that the fruit referred to the etrog as the verse states ‘and the woman saw that the tree was good’. Go forth and see, what tree is it whose wood can be eaten just like its fruit, and you find none but the etrog" So where does the apple idea come from? The etrog was known in Ancient Greek as the golden apple.

There is a lot more to Tu Bishvat than just eating fruit and wine. The 16th Century Kabbalists under the Arizal established the Seder Tu Bishvat with a particular order and sequence. The idea being that by eating these particular foods we are repairing the original sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge. We eat from the seven species connected to the Land of Israel - wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates. Firstly to keep us connected to Israel and second to repair the sin of Adam and Eve who may have eaten from one of these fruits. Some also have the custom to eat etrog jam on Tu Bishvat too.

Have a wonderful and meaningful Tu Bishvat!

Saturday, 17 January 2015

What is an Avraham Seev?

Wendy Bensussen and John Lefor are getting married on Thursday and having an Avraham Seev on Shabbat at SBH. But what exactly is it? The Shabbat after the wedding the bridegroom (Hatan) is called to the Torah. Indeed, this custom is done by all Sephardic communities but most Sephardic communities call it a Shabbat Hatan. Ashkenazim have the custom to call up the Hatan the Shabbat before and they call it an "Aufruf" which is Yiddish for an aliyah to the Torah. 

This custom of calling the Hatan to the Torah either the Shabbat before or the Shabbat after is ancient and goes back to the time of King Solomon. Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir comments on the significance of being called to the Torah. "The custom of calling the Hatan up to the Torah sends a powerful message of belonging and context... There is the belonging to the community and to the Jewish people as a whole." To read his piece click here.

What is unique to Sephardic Bikur Holim and Ezra Bessaroth, is not just the fact that we call this event an Avraham Seev. There is a whole ceremony which to my knowledge is only done by these two congregations in Seattle. (Feel free to let me know if I have that wrong).

Hazzan Ike Azose makes the following remarks when introducing the Avraham Seev Ceremony on page 375 of the Zehut Yosef Siddur. "The Avraham Seev is a custom that goes back many years. It is observed on the Shabbat following a wedding when the bride and groom are present in the synagogue. For this ceremony, we take out an extra Sefer Torah. It is not read until we are finished with the Aftarah. At that point, we place the special Sefer Torah on the Tevah and call up the bridegroom, the Hatan, who will say the blessings of the Torah as usual. From the Sefer Torah, the reader sings the first seven verses of Genesis, Chapter 24 (פ' חיי שרה) alternating each sentence with its Aramaic translation, which is sung by someone else. Each Aramaic verse, however, is sung to the tune of a different Makam (musical mode or theme).

"The appropriateness of the seven sentences can be found in the fact that Abraham, who is old and nearing death, makes his servant Eliezer swear that he will go back to Abraham's birthplace and choose a wife for his son Isaac... Eliezer came back with Rebecca, a beautiful match and soulmate for Isaac. The congregation's wishes, likewise, go out to the married couple for a very happy marriage."

It is my berakha for Wendy and John that they have a long and very happy marriage together. Mazal Tov!