Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Hilkhot Teshuba 3:1-8 Teshuba and the tipping point

In the third chapter of his Hilkhot Teshuba Maimonides explains that in terms of religious behavior, there are three categories of people: rasha', tsadiq and benoni.

The rasha' (the bad guy) is the person whose balance of good deeds against bad deeds is negative. The tsadiq (a righteous person) is the one who has done more good than harm. And the benoni (the average person) is defined by Maimonides as the person whose good and bad deeds are in a state of equilibrium (3:1).
At a later Halakha (3:4) Maimonides explains that the calculation of our own fault and merits is inaccessible to us. This estimate does not depend on the number of Mitsvot we have done, as if the Tora would be a system of "points" in a scoreboard. Actually this calculation is only known to God. Why? Because He is the only one who knows, for example, what our real positive potential is. If my potential is 10 and I reached 7,  I have less merit than the person whose potential is 5 and reached 5.
Another example, only HaShem knows the intensity of the negative psychological forces that might be driving a person to do what he or she does. The more intense these forces are, the more merit has the individual who overcomes them. For one person it may not be very difficult to avoid stealing because he might have a natural inclination to honesty. For another individual, not  stealing or lying might be a huge challenge.
The balance of our merits and faults, says Maimonides, is only known to God.
This thought leads Maimonides to the following question: Since I cannot know if in God's eyes I am or am not a righteous person, how do I have to see myself?
If I see myself as a great guy, I might rely too much on my merits and remain in a state of inertia, doing nothing to improve my life. On the other hand, if I see myself as a bad guy, I might think I'm already beyond redemption (= ye-ush, a state in which we give up) and will do nothing to improve.
Maimonides concludes (3:8) that a person should always perceive itself as a perfect 50/50. As if my good and bad deeds are at a delicate balance, between merits and sins, permanently. Knowing that I am in that state of equilibrium, the next action I do will definitely count! What I will do in the next few minutes is extremely important because it will determine whether I am a good or a bad person.
Thus, my next action becomes the tipping point of my entire personality. What I do next will determine who I really am.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

TESHUBA, in front of a camera

"What is considered a perfect act of repentance? When one is faced with the same opportunity to repeat the original transgression, but now he does not do it because he has repented... however, when one does not repeat the original transgression, [and refrains from sinning] because now he fears people will find out... his repentance is still accepted, but it is not considered a perfect repentance"  

To explain a perfect scenario of Teshuba, Maimonides gives the example of a man who is involved in an adulterous relationship and later on repents. The ultimate test of his repentance would take place if that man is eventually faced with a similar opportunity but now he refrains from repeating the transgression, because he repented, and because he has reached a new understanding: now he realizes that following his material impulses will hurt him, driving him away from God.
However, if that man faces a similar scenario but now he refrains from sinning because he fears somebody will find out about his affair, his Teshuba is still acceptable, but it is not considered a complete Teshuba. Why? Because this man might have changed his conduct not because of his repentance and his renewed understanding, but just because of social embarrassment, fear of losing his job, etc.
A modern example:  Very often we read in the news about a public figure, usually someone involved in politics, who was caught doing an immoral act. Many times these people would come in front of the TV cameras and publicly express their regret and apologize for what they have done. This is definitely an act of repentance. However, because of its timing, this act of Teshuba is questionable in terms of its credibility and genuineness. Why? Because the whole process of repentance, regret and apologies happened as a consequence of being caught. It is possible that what prompts this person to repent is his fear to loss his  reputation, his job, his family etc., rather than his moral conscience.    
Following Maimonides words, the perfect act of repentance in this case would have taken place if, while still involved in an illicit relationship or other immoral act, before being caught and with no external impediment to continue with it, one would decide out of his own conscience, to stop, repent and change.
That would be a perfect a and complete Teshuba

Monday, August 4, 2014

Tish'a beAb, the Jewish Day of National Mourning

Tish'a beAb, our national day of mourning, begins tonight Monday August 5th. In NYC the fast begins at 7.58pm and ends tomorrow, Tuesday August 5th at 8.27pm (some communities have different times).
This afternoon around 6.30pm we do the seu'da mafseqet, the last meal before the day-long fast.

This is virtually 'a mourners meal' and should consist of bread, eggs, lentils and water.  In some communities people would also have rice with lentils or other variations.

What make this meal special is that:

1. We abstain from eating two different cooked dishes to express (or inspire) a mood of austerity, by consuming only what is needed to endure the fast (Raw vegetables and fruits are not restricted).

2. The ancient custom is that everyone eats in solitude, with no zimun, sitting on the floor or on a low chair, like mourners do.

For Arbit, we chant the prayers with a sad tune, starting with 'al neharot babel (Tehilim 137), the Psalm of the mourners for the Bet haMiqdash. In many Sephardic communities the Shema Israel is said with a sad intonation, instead of the regular ta'amim .

Then, we read Megilat Ekha, the book of Lamentations written by the Prophet Yrmiyahu. The book of Lamentations describes the destruction of the First Temple (586 BCE), the desolation of Yerushalayim, the pain of the exiles to Babylon, the mockery and pleasure of our enemies seeingour misery, the impotence of the defeated, the deadly starvation, the horrors of sickness and death.

Then, we recite the Kinot. The Kinot are poems which describe different tragedies that we endured throughout our history.

At the end of the Kinot, sitting on the floor, with lights dimmed, we declare with sadness and tears: "Listen, oh our brothers of the house of Israel....today we count ... 1946 years from the destruction of our Bet haMiqdash...."  (According to the traditional Sephardic account the second bet haMiqdash was destroyed 1946 years ago, in the year 68 of the Common Era).
May we all have an easy and meaningful fast.

May this be the last year we mourn for our Bet haMiqdash! AMEN



The fast of Tish'a beAb should be observed by all those who are in good health.

Yoledet: During the first 30 days after birth or after a miscarriage, a woman is exempted from fasting on the 9th of Ab.

Pregnant and nursing women: Similar to Yom Kippur, pregnant and nursing women should observe this fast. In cases of complicated pregnancies or physical weakness, or if the pregnant mother is worried that fasting will affect her health or her baby's health, she should ask her doctor before the fast-day and proceed as the physician recommends. If during the fast a pregnant woman feels sick, especially if she is vomiting or having any signs of dehydration, she should break the fast and drink or eat immediately. However, mild dizziness and nausea that can be coped with by lying down on a couch or a bed are considered normal (Listen to a very important lecture "Pregnancy and fasting" at the end of this email).
Hole She-en Bo Sakana: People with a chronic disease like diabetes or patients under treatment or someone with high fever should not observe the fast. In some cases, when is not possible to fast for 24 hours it would recommended to fast from dawn until the end of the day, as we do on the 17 of Tamuz or the 10 of Tebet.
Elders: Should consult with their physicians to make sure that the fast will not affect their health. If it will, they are exempted (or forbidden) from fasting.
Minors: Boys younger than thirteen years old and girls younger than twelve are exempt from fasting. Unlike Yom Kippur, there is no need for children to fast for a few hours. The reason is that while we do educate our children to fast on Yom Kippur as part of a teshuba (=repentance) process, we do not educate our children to mourn for the Bet haMiqdash before they formally need to. Because hopefully this will be the last year we mourn for the Bet haMiqdash, and BH training for next year will be unnecessary. 
When allowed to eat during Tish'a be-Ab for health reasons, one should eat only whatever is necessary for his or her health, and not for pleasure or in excess.

                                                     FOR PREGNANT WOMEN

Click here to listen to Dr. Jessica Jacob's  lecture.

 Dr. Jessica Jacob is a MD/OBGYN and although this lecture was given for pregnant women fasting Yom Kippur most information is relevant for Tish'a beAb as well. The most important difference is that on Tish'a be-Ab, when exempted from the fast, one can eat normally and does not have to eat in small portions, as it is required on Yom Kippur.


Tish'a beAb is a day of fasting and it is also a day of collective morning. During Tish'a beAb we behave virtually as mourners  who are grieving for a loved one who just passed away.  To express and reach this emotional state of grief, we avoid engaging in certain pursuits: activities from which we derive a physical pleasure, actions associated with happiness or which would distract us from the mood of mourning.  
Some examples
REHITSA (Washing) Same as Yom Kippur, taking a shower, bathing or washing for pleasure is forbidden on Tish'a beAb. However, if a part of the body is unclean we can wash it.
Washing our mouth is not permitted on Tish'a beAb. Except in a situation of great distress. In such a case one should bend the head downward when washing the mouth to avoid swallowing any liquid (Rabbi Obadya Yosef z"l). 
It is permitted to use baby wipes to clean one's face, eyes, hands, etc. because this type of cleaning is not considered "washing". 
Technically we could wash our hands normally in the morning for Netilat Yadayim, because we do it for a Mitzva and not for pleasure. The standard Sephardic custom, however, is to wash only the fingers for Netilat Yadayim.  
SIKHA (Using creams) Using creams for pleasure or comfort is not permitted on Tish'a beAb. Medical creams or oils are permitted. Using deodorant is permitted.

NE'ILAT HASANDAL (Leather shoes)Leather shoes are considered a luxurious item. During Tish'a beAb then, we don't wear leather shoes but snickers or other type of footwear made of fabric, plastic, etc. Other leather items, like a belt or a leather Kippa are permitted.

TASHMISH HAMITA (Intimacy)Marital relations are suspended on Tish'a beAb. If the Mikveh night falls on the eve of Tish'a beAb, i.e., Monday August 4th at night, Mikveh has to be postponed for the following night .

LIMUD TORA: On Tish'a beAb we refrain from studying Tora, because studying Tora is a joyous and pleasurable activity. We might read and study books or texts with a sad content such as the book of Iyob or Ekha, some passages of the book of Jeremiah or some Psalms, masekhet mo'ed qatan, etc.

WORK:  On Tish'a beAb it is not recommended to work because working would divert our minds from the feeling of grief. Refraining from work on Tish'a beAb, however, is not a formal prohibition but rather a tradition some communities have adopted and some have not (minhag hamaqom) and it also depends on each individual's financial or professional situation. In any case, it is beyond debate that if one would incur in significant losses or if one's job position will be compromised it is permitted to work.  
TEFILIN: We do not use Tefilin in the morning of Tish'a beAb. Tefilin is a signal of honor and pride: a crown in our heads which declares that we are the people of God. In most Sephardic communities men wear Talit and Tefilin just in Minha. In some Syrian communities the tradition is that before going to the Synagogue in the morning one says Qaddesh Li and Shema Israel at home with Talit and Tefilin. In other communities men wear Tefilin and Tallit normally in the morning (=minhag Yerushalayim).  
SHE-ELAT SHALOM: On Tish'a beAb we don't greet each other as usual, because our mood is or should be a mourner's mood. If someone greets us, we can discreetly and politely acknowledge the gesture.  
SITTING ON THE FLOOR: The general custom is that during the reading of Megilat Ekha people don't sit on the Synagogue's benches but on the floor, like mourners do during the shib'a (the first  seven days of Jewish mourning), while the lights are dimmed.

Five tragedies are remembered on Tish'a be-Ab
1. HET HAMERAGELIM (ca. 1300 BCE): The Jews in the desert accepted the slanderous report of the ten explorers. They cried and complained to God for taking them out of Egypt. They also hinted that the Almighty won't be able to help them in conquering the Land of Israel and defeat so many enemies. HaShem decreed that all those who were 20 years or older would not enter the Promised Land. The people will wander  for forty years until that generation disappears.  The night on which they cried and were condemned to die in the dessert was Tish'a be-Ab.
2. HURBAN HABAYIT HARISHON (586 BCE): The First Temple was destroyed and burned on the ninth of Ab by the Babylonians, led by Nebuchadnezzar. Thousands of Jews were slaughtered, enslaved or exiled to the Babylonian empire. The story of the destruction of Jerusalem and its desolation is narrated in Megilat Ekha.
3. HURBAN HABAYIT HASHENI (68 CE): The Second Temple was also destroyed on Tisha be-Ab. The Romans led by Titus destroyed the city. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed, sold into slavery or exiled.
4. NILKEDA BETAR (135 CE): The Bar Kokhba revolt was crushed by Roman Emperor Hadrian. The city of Betar (Sephardim call it "Bee-ter"), which was the Jews' last stand against the Romans, was captured by the enemy on Tish'a be-Ab. Over 100,000 Jews were slaughtered and their bodies left unburied.
5. NEHERASH HAHEKHAL: Around the same period, also on a ninth of Ab, the Temple's holiest area and its surroundings was plowed by the Roman general Turnus Rufus. Jerusalem was turned into a pagan city, and renamed Aelia Capitolina. Access to Jerusalem was forbidden for Jews.