Friday, December 2, 2011

Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh mi-Modena (Venice 1571–1648)

Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh (Leon) mi-Modena was born in Venice in 1571.

A prodigious child, he studied Bible, Hebrew language, poetry, letter writing, voice, music, dancing, Italian, and Latin. At the age of 13, he wrote a short book, sur me-ra', on compulsive gambling and its destructive power. 

Modena was commissioned to write for James I a description of Judaism, the Riti Ebraica, the first vernacular description of Judaism written by a Jew for a non-Jewish audience, first published inParis in 1637 and subsequently republished and translated many times.

From his ordination in 1609 until his death, Modena served as the chief Hebrew translator for the government and Cantor of the Italian synagogue.  He ordained candidates for the degree rabbi, including medical students in Padua. He approved the decisions of other rabbis, and authorized books for publication, with the result that by 1618 he was referred to as a gaon, and an excellent, well-known, honored and brilliant preacher. By 1627 Rabbi Modena signed his name first in order among the Venetian rabbis. In 1628 he was maestro di cappella for a Jewish academy of music, Accademia degli Impediti, which was popular both inside and outside the Venetian ghetto.

He also produced an autobiography, Chaye-Yehuda which was recently translated into English, documenting in poignant detail the turbulent life of his family in the Jewish ghetto of Venice. The book also contains accounts of Modena's sorrow over his three sons: the death of the eldest from the poisonous fumes of his own alchemical laboratory, the brutal murder of the youngest, and the exile of the remaining son who traveled as far as South America. 

Rabbi Modena died in 1648. 

Click here to read the book sur me-ra', a philosophical dialogue against gambling, written by Rabbi Modena at the age of 13. This is the version published in Vilna in 1896.

His writings include

Magen va-hereb, where Rabbi Modena criticizes Christians interpretations of Hebrew scriptures, refuting their claims and dogmas.

She'elot u-Teshubot Ziqnei Yehuda, Collected Responsa on various 'modern' subjects. 

Bet Lechem Yehuda, an anthology of statements of Talmudic Rabbis organized around 'en ya'aqob.

Tzemach Tzadiq, an Ethical Treatise.

Leb ha-Aryeh,  a monograph on memory improvement and mnemonics, in which he greatly extols the use of memory techniques to remember the 613 commandments. 

Pi ha-Aryeh, an Italian-Hebrew dictionary of all difficult words in the Tanakh 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Shema Israel. Pasuq 2. "You shall love HaShem your God"

The words of the Shema Israel are so important that we say them three times a day, every day of our lives. 

The first thing we are taught in the Shema is to love God. 

"You shall love HaShem your God with all your heart, with all your sold and with all your might." 

Our love for God is a reflection of His love for us. Because He loves us we love Him in return and we must inspire others to love Him.

To love God "with all our heart" means that we are happy just by knowing that He loves us. And if we do wrong, we are unhappy until we ask His pardon and obtain His love again.   How can you make sure that you really love HaShem? When you are happy doing what is right in His eyes, and unhappy when you do what is wrong in His eyes.  On the contrary, if you feel obligated but unhappy to do what is right in His eyes, then you might "fear" God, but not "love" God.
To love God "with all our soul" means to love Him so sincerely that we will willingly give our life for Him.   Our ancestors risked their lives and were willing to be killed and not abjure God. If so many of our ancestors gave up their lives for the sake of HaShem, should not we be willing to live our lives for the sake of HaShem?

Loving HaShem with "all our might" means: with all our possessions, our money, our time.  In this sense we should understand "to love God" as "to prioritize God" over our possessions, our money, our time.  The strength of our love for God is proved by the greatness of the sacrifices we are willing to make for Him.


Wednesday, November 30, 2011

CHUPA: The proper age to get married

The first Mitzva mentioned in the Torah is Peryia veRibyia, the commandment (and God's first blessing!) to get married and bring children to this world (see here).  

Two thousand years ago, in Pirke Abot, the Rabbis said that a boy should get married when he reaches 18 years old. They said that God himself 'watches him and waits for him' from 18 to 20 to see him getting married.  However, the Rabbis themselves explained that if the boy is busy with his studies and fears that once married he will have to stop studying (veitbabtel min haTorah) he could postpone his marriage (Shulchan Arukh, Eben haEzer 1:3). Some rabbis suggest that marriage should not be postponed beyond the age of 24 years old.

Clearly, according to our Rabbis, it is preferable to get married young.   But they themselves acknowledge that there are other elements beyond age to be taken into consideration. For example, the maturity of the boy and the girl, which is essential to have a happy life (=Shalom Bayit) and the possibility to provide for the basic expenses of a family.  Maimonides wrote: "Those who are emotionally-balanced (derekh ba'ale hade'a)they first secure a job which enables them to provide for their livelihood, then they get a home, and then, they get married. But those who are emotionally immature (tipeshim), first they get married, then they try to get a place to live, and then they look for a job..." (De'ot 5:11). 

We can see that, in the Rabbis' opinion, the younger one gets married, the better. Especially when one is emotionally mature and has the means to live a decent life, marriage should not be postponed!  From the other side, many other factors need to be considered in this equation, as the circumstances differ from individual to individual.     


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Practical Monotheism

The following lines are quotes from the  book " The Jewish religion ethically presented" written by Rabbi Hayim (Henry) Pereira Mendes in New York, 1904. 

"You shalt not have any other gods before Me.

"This commandment teaches us that there is only one God. He is our God and we do not believe that there are any other gods. Therefore to worship any being except the one and only God, is a sin. It is called idolatry".

"Self-Conceit, to give way to violent outbursts of passion, etc., are declared by our sages to be tantamount to idolatry. For the former shows that self, and the latter that passion, is a greater power with us than God is".

"If we believe in the one true God, we can prove it by not neglecting or disobeying Him for the sake of anything. Many neglect Him for the sake of business, or pleasure, which is as much as saying that business or pleasure is a greater power than God".

The descendants of Abraham Abinu are called to be "a blessing to the nations of the earth, preserving for mankind the knowledge of God... Our ten Commandments are recognized as fundamental among all civilized nations. The wisdom of our Torah is recognized universally. The ideals of our Bible are the ideals of humanity. And our Psalms are read and sung in worship in countless cathedrals and churches- while they comfort and inspire countless hearts and homes."

"We will continue to be a source of "blessing to all the families of the earth"... by showing through the lives we lead, the wisdom and beauty of our Torah, and the ethical value of our religion and its ceremonies; by our loyalty to the ideals of our Bible- and by our standing at all times for God and Justice. When Jewish life means honor, when Jewish homes mean love, and when Jewish citizenship means righteousness- then Jewish example becomes a source of blessing to "all the families of earth."

Monday, November 28, 2011

Organ donation cards

In the previous weeks (see here), I explained the opinions of the Rabbis regarding living organ donation, and the differences on opinion over the determination of the moment of death, which affects the Rabbis' ruling on cadaveric organ donation.

In our days, the willingness to donate one's organs is stated in the driver license or in a card that one carries in his or her wallet.  The practical question we will address today is, what is the best way to declare that one wishes to donate his or her organs.

In my opinion, the best recommendation (and what I have personally done) for a Jewish person who wishes to donate his organs, is to register in the Halachic Organ Donor Society, and to carry their card in his wallet. 

The advantages of this card, compared to the general statement written in the driver license, is that the HODS card specifies the following points:

1. Organs should be removed only if they are to be transplanted, not for research or experimentation.  Due to the importance Judaism gives to the integrity of the body at the time of burial, only the possibility to save a life outweighs those concerns. 

2. To insure that medical care is not compromised in most sensitive moments, the HODS card specifies that:"Transplants may commence only after a medical team, that is independent of the attending physicians and that is unaware that I am a potential organ donor, determines death ...."

3. It also indicates that the body damage should be minimized: "All medical procedures must be done with proper respect, and minimum damage, to the cadaver." To this effect, consultations will be made with a family-appointed rabbi.

4. Finally, it gives the carrier the option to choose between one of the two major Halakhic opinions prevalent on determination of death:  a. Irreversible termination of  breathing activity, for those who follow the more stringent rabbinic opinion, or b. Irreversible brain stem death, for those who follow the Chief Rabbinate of Israel's opinion.  

Each person should consult with his or her Rabbi to make a final decision on this delicate issue. 

For those who wish to register as potential Halakhic organ donors, see here . 

For Israel, see here

May Hashem bless all of us with good health and a long life!