Friday, November 1, 2013


QUESTION FROM A READER: Since we came to America, we celebrate Thanksgiving, is it OK for my family and I to celebrate Halloween? 

There are significant differences between Thanksgiving and Halloween. Thanksgiving is a civil holiday which has its roots in historical events, and has no traces of any practices related to idolatry. Most rabbis I know would not be opposed to celebrating Thanksgiving in America.  

Halloween, on the contrary,  has unmistakable pagan origins, deeply rooted in ancient idol worshipping practices. And although in our days its celebration might not be oriented toward idol worshiping, Halloween still possesses many elements related to idolatry. As we all know, idolatry or 'aboda zara is the most serious offense in Judaism. Idolatry consists of numberless rituals, superstitions, magic and mythical beliefs. One particular subject that might be considered the most prominent motif of pagan culture is "death". The aftermath was a scary mystery, which triggered extreme anxiety and agitation. Dead people, their spirits, were often an object of fear and cult. Halloween is no exception. "All-hallow-even" celebrates the "day of all (dead) saints". The Celts, that is as far as Halloween goes, celebrated Halloween at the end of the summer, a time when they believed the evil spirits and souls of the dead visited the world of the living. The idol worshippers considered the dead as Hollywood today considers the "zombies": bad and dangerous. The dead came back angry, for revenge, or to recruit newcomers. Pumpkins, which resembled the unpleasant faces of the dead, were carved to welcome them. And large fires would be lit to assist the dead finding their way into the world of the living.  Food, particularly sweets, would be left outside the doors to feed the ghosts (those who assisted the dead would be left in peace by them...). Cats were specially important in Halloween because cats, they believed,  could smell the presence of the invisible spirits. A black cat, however, was avoided (or killed) because witches or evil spirits reincarnated into black cats. The devil himself will come that night from inferno. The Druids, the Celtic priests--who would wear customs to make the dead think they were one of them--would knock randomly on the doors to request sacrifices for the devil or the revengeful ghosts (preferable a young son or a virgin daughter).   

As you can see from this brief description, Halloween might look fun or even innocent but it is deeply rooted in idolatry and cult to death. In one way or another, most (or all) elements that were part of the old-pagan-Halloween are still present today.   Therefore, we should avoid participating in any way, active or passive, in Halloween.  

As a side note, I personally think Halloween provides a great educational opportunity. How so? Heavy idolatry was the norm in ancient days. We Jews fought against it since the day Abraham broke his father's idols. But many times I find it very difficult to describe to my children or my students the environment of idol worshipping. And when you realize the real dimension of 'aboda zara, the human sacrifices, the religious promiscuity and the numberless of superstitions and delusions, you really appreciate our aversion for 'aboda zara, etc. Halloween is an opportunity to help our children identify and stay away from 'aboda zara, felling proud and privileged of being the children of Abraham Abinu.  

Shabbat Shalom!

Candle lighting in NYC:       5.33 pm
Shabbat ends in NYC:           6:32 pm

Thursday, October 31, 2013

BEST SEGULOT: Top SEGULA to improve your memory

Maimonides claims that certain Mitsvot act as "protecting angels". One of them is the Mezuza. What do we need protection from? We need protection from forgetfulnessWe live hectic lives. We are flooded with all kind of worries and distractions. Material needs that we need to solve urgently. Bills, jobs, tests, competition, etc.  All these demands our attention NOW.  We become so distracted occupying ourselves with thousand urgent matters, that we forget to re-focus on the most important thing in life: The purpose of our existence. 

Obviously, meaning of one's life is only relevant for those of us who believe in God.  If one believes that we are in this world by a cosmic accident that purposelessly produced life billions of years ago, he should not be worried about the question of "Purpose". Just goes ahead doing what he needs to do for survival. However, if you do believe that God created you, you know that He must have done it for a purpose!  Living with that purpose in mind (or even for the quest of that purpose) is what gives meaning to our life. 

Can you imagine a person who believes in God and yet is so absorbed in distractions that ends up forgetting what the purpose of his or her life was? That is spiritual suicide. The biggest human tragedy, perhaps.  

The Mezuza is a protection against this type of existential forgetfulness. Every time we enter a room, we cross a door, or we go frenetically from one place to another, the Mezuza forces us to stop and remember our Creator. The Mezuza helps us to regain awareness of the bigger picture of life: what is really IMPORTANT and what is just URGENT. 

Maimonides mentions explicitly this segula of the Mezuza. In MT, Mezuza 6:13 he says. "A person must show great care in [the observance of the mitsvah of] Mezuza. Whenever a person enters or leaves [a room], he encounters the name of God...and then remembers Him. Thus, he awakes from his sleep and his obsession with the vanities of time, and recognize that there is nothing which lasts for eternity except the knowledge of the Creator of the world. This will motivate him to regain full awareness [of his purpose in life] and follow the paths of the upright."

Maimonides calls the Mezuza (and the Tefilin and the Tsitsit) an angel of protection. Protection from forgetting our real mission in life.  "These are the angels who will prevent a person from sinning,  as it is written [Tehilim 34:8]  "The angel of God is around those who fear Him, and protects them." 

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Rabbi Isaac ben Abraham Abohab (Spain, 14th Century)

Rabbi Isaac ben Abraham Abohab was a Talmudic scholar from Spain. We do not know the exact dates of his birth or death, or where exactly did he live. There were at least another two Rabbis with a similar name: Rabbi Isaac Abohab, the Gaon of castilla (b. in Spain, 1433-1493), and Rabbi Isaac Abohab de Fonseca (b. in Portugal, 1605-1693). 

Our rabbi Isaac Abohab is known for his pen name, Menorat haMaor,  his most celebrated book. Rabbi Abohab was a very learned man in Talmud, all aspects of rabbinical Judaism  and also in classic philosophy.   He was a businessman, not a community Rabbi. Toward the end of his life he dedicated almost exclusively to write Menorat haMaor. In his introduction, and out of a deep sense of humility, he assures his readers that he composed his book chiefly for his own use as a public speaker. 

Menorat haMaor, "A shining menora"  is a book that contains the ethical and spiritual teachings of the Rabbis of the Talmud, some times with the commentaries of Geonim and other rabbinical authorities. It is considered a classic and it serves as a virtual encyclopedia of Jewish values. It touches upon subjects dealing with human nature and human psychology.  

It is divided into seven nerot, candles or branches, like the Biblical Menora. Each branch represents one principle of Jewish ethics.

The 1st branch, for example, deals with identifying and avoiding excessive behaviors. It follows the Rabbis' statement that there are three "pitfalls", that if not avoided, might cause our own destruction. Envy (excessive competition, destructive jealousy), lust (obsession for food, sex or money) and kabod (obsession with self glory, recognition, image).  In this chapter the author describes in detail each of these categories, the outcome of following these paths and the ways to stay away from them.  

Menorat haMaor became one of the most important books in Sephardic communities and beyond. It is a book that could be read and reread to find inspiration and guidance for virtually all areas related to our daily life. Menorat haMaor is not a short book and it was studied in Talmud Tora by young children and also by adults, every Shabbat before Minha. This custom persists even today in several Sephardic communities.  Yemenite communities have an enormous esteem for Menorat haMaor and in some Yemenite congregations, to this day, it is the subject of their daily Tora studying 

The book Menorat haMaor was published dozens of times. Including several contemporary editions. It was translated to Spanish, German, Yiddish and parts of it into English (I do not know if is there a complete English translation...). 

These are the subjects of the seven nerot or branches (in my own words) 

1st branch: Avoiding excesses.
2nd branch: Keeping away from damaging or negative speech. 
3rd branch: Diligence in the observance of Mitsvot.
4th branch: The value of studying Tora consistently.  
5th branch: Teshuba, the ways and practice of repentance. 
6th branch: The pursue of peace and harmony.  
7th branch: Behaving with humbleness and simplicity. 

You can download the book Menorat haMaor from

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Rabbi Obadia Yosef and Halaq meat

Last time (see here) we explained that the Hebrew word "Halaq" (Halak) means "smooth", and Halaq meat refers to red meat coming from an animal whose lungs are completely healthy and without any sirkhot (fibers, filaments). The presence of these filaments render that meat forbidden, according to the Sephardic tradition.  The Ashkenazi custom, however, is more lenient in this case, and it authorizes non Halaq meat when some removable sirkhot were found in the animal lungs (Ashkenazi Jews who adopt a stricter opinion consume Glatt meat).  This debate is already found in the Shulhan 'arukh. Rabbi Yosef Caro, the author of the Bet Yosef/Shulhan 'arukh, adopted the stricter view. That is the reason Halaq meat is known and marketed today as "Halak Bet Yosef".    
Rabbi Obadia Yosef z"l emphasized very much that Sephardic Jews should continue the tradition of their ancestors and consume exclusively Halaq meat.  When Rabbi Yosef began this clarification campaign, in the early 80's, he found a big opposition, not just from an Halakhic standpoint but mainly because the Israeli food market had already adopted the more flexible Kashrut standard. This new requirement was going to affect not just the butchers but also restaurants, hotels, caterers, etc. What is more, even the average Sephardic Jew was not very enthusiastic about Halaq meat because it was very difficult to find.  I remember in 1982, when I was a rabbinical student, there was just one butcher in Yerushalayim, Mahane Yehuda, that sold Halaq meat. And the price was almost double the price of the standard Kosher meat. 

Winning this battle took Rabbi Yosef many years of struggle, but today we can see the fruits of his persistence. In Israel, in NY and in many other cities in the world, the standard meat for Sephardic Jews is Halaq Bet Yosef. 

We should clarify that the category "Halaq meat" applies specifically to cow meat. Chicken or turkey, for example, do not have problems of sirkhot, and their lungs are not even checked. So the Halak concept does not apply in the case of poultry. Therefore, for white meat, the Sephardic and Ashkenazi Kashrut standards are exactly the same. 

This is a recording from the famous classes that rabbi Obadia Yosef z"l used to teach Saturday nights in the Bet haKeneset shel Yazdim, for many years.  This class is from the 80's and its main subject is the development of Basar Halaq in Yerushalayim (audio only, Hebrew). 

Monday, October 28, 2013

Why do we cover our heads?

אסור לילך בקומה זקופה, ולא ילך ארבע אמות בגילוי הראש

2:6 "It is forbidden to walk in an upright posture, and a man should not walk with his head uncovered for four cubits (6 feet)." 

The textual source of these two Halakhot is the same: TB, Qiddushin 31a. The trained student, however, will notice a difference in the way these two rules are presented.  While walking in an upright position is classified as "forbidden", walking with the head uncovered is not. 


All Rabbinical laws have their origin in the Talmud, and the later Rabbis paid close attention to the way the laws were formulated.  In the case of walking upright the Talmud quotes rabbi Yehoshua ben Levy who said: "It is forbidden to walk erected".  Rashi explains that in light of God's Omnipresence walking in an upright position is considered a sign of arrogance. We should walk with humbleness. 

On the other hand, when talking about covering one's head the Talmud does not bring a general rule, but the case of Rab Huna. "Rab Huna never walked [even] four cubits without covering his head. Rab Huna said: God's Presence is above me". In another text Rab Huna emphasized the exceptional nature of his behavior: "I should be rewarded for never have walked four cubits with my head uncovered".   

All rabbis agreed that as opposed to "walking upright", "walking with the head uncovered" is not a universal prohibition but Middat Hasidut: a personal stringency.   Maimonides classified this kind of personal regulations, brought very often in the Talmud, as mandatory for Tora Scholars. Maimonides dedicated one whole Chapter, Hilkhot De'ot Chapter 5, to the standards of behavior of Talmide Hakhamim (Tora Scholars) which are obviously, way above the normal standards.  In Halakha 6 he mentions that a Tora Scholar should not uncover his head. 

On the other hand, and formulated as "one should not",  the Shulhan 'arukh, following the Tur, did no limit this indication to Talmide Hakhamim but to everyone else, as a permanent reminder of God's presence. 

NOTE: The above mentioned debate refers to "walking" with the head uncovered (at the workplace, in the street, etc.) . However, in the Synagogue, when praying or when studying Tora, the head must be covered.