Wednesday, December 31, 2014

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 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.

Monday, July 21, 2014

PSALM 144: Tehilim, from the battlefiled

This is a Special edition of Halakha of the Day. In these difficult days for Am Israel, we all need to pray for the victory of Medinat Israel in this cruel war, and for the safety of our young soldiers.   Our Chief rabbis are urging us to say Tefila and read Tehilim.
Today, I want to write about a very special Psalm, which I think is very appropriate for a time when our sons and brothers, the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, are risking their lives to protect Israel and create a better future for all of us.  
I dedicate this limmud to them. 
The commentators, particularly Radaq, explain that King David composed this Psalm when he was fighting with the Philistines. I think that David probably composed this Psalm while in the battlefield. In the midst of the combat.  Why? Because the words, the imagery, the prayers, the wishes expressed in this Mizmor are those of a soldier that feels the closeness of the enemy and the possibility of death.  The words of this Psalm do not describe the memories of a battle, but the battle itself: David's feelings, vulnerability, wishes and longings. King David is not a common man. Besides being a King and a soldier, he is also a poet. HaShem granted him the ability to put in words the turbulent flowing of thoughts and emotions traversing his heart and mind in those difficult moments.  
But the most important thing that David haMelekh teaches us in this Psalm, what every Jewish solider needs to remember, is that HaShem, our God"goes to battle with us". He is on our side, in the battlefield. Next to every young Israeli soldier. As  He was with David. It is this idea, the closeness of HaShem with those who fight to defend Am Israel, what give us strength and hope that Am Israel will emerge victorious from this and every war he will need to fight

לדוד ברוך ה' צורי, המלמד ידי לקרב אצבעותי למלחמה

PASUQ 1: [A Psalm] by King David. Bless is HaShem,my rock. He Who guides my hands in battle, my fingers in combat"
First, King David blesses God. In other words, he sees God's presence in the battlefield. True, we have to fight our wars and we cannot relay on miracles. But , as the Tora said,  in times of war  (Deut. 20:4) "HaShem your God will go with you to fight with you against your enemies, to give you victory." HaShem is with His people. Fighting with them against their enemies.  David sees Him and he says to HaShem
"You are my rock". 
The "rock" is essential in battle. The soldier stands behind a rock or a wall to protect himself from the eyes and the arrows of the enemies.  HaShem shields the Jewish soldier, like an invisible rock, and protects them against the enemies weapons. David also says to HaShem:
"You guide my hands..."
when I fight against my enemy in a face-to-face combat, with bare hands, You are there, moving my hands. And when I stretch the bow and hold it still
"You guide my fingers
to aim my arrows with precision.  When I attack the enemy or when I defend myself from the enemies, I know that You are with me.
PASUQ 2 : Now, David haMelekh, praises HaShem further,  acknowledging His  overwhelming presence in battle.

חסדי ומצודתי משגבי ומפלטי לי מגיני ובו חסיתי, הרודד עמי תחתי

"You are my loving ally. You are my fortress. You are my tower. You are my refuge when I escape [from the enemy]. You are my shield, in which I rely. You will [grant me victory] and make these [hostile] nations surrender".

PASUQ 3: The battle is intense, fierce and dangerous. David feels that the enemy is close. Armed, thirst of blood and unpredictable.  They might have seen him. David knows that although HaShem is present in the battlefield, he still might die.  The possibility of death does not represent for David a theological challenge for his conviction that God exists, or that He is present in the battlefield. For David the reality of God outweighs his own reality. And when he realizes that the end might be close he reflects on the value of human life from the perspective of God. And asks himslef 

ה' מה אדם ותדעהו בן אנוש ותחשבהו
"HaShem: what is a human creature to deserve your attention?
What is a son of man, to be considered by You?"
PASUQ 4: When his life is danger, David realizes his fragility and his inescapable mortality. He finds himself thinking that perhaps for HaShem humans are too small and insignificant. Why would you HaShem, Master of the Universe, Creator of billions of galaxies, care about us?
אדם להבל דמה ימיו כצל עובר
 "A human being is [ephemeral] as a breath; his life is like a passing shadow"
Our lives are so short. Unsubstantial, like a breath. Fugacious, as a shadow. Not even like a tree's shadow, which slowly grows and disappears thru the day. Rather, life seems now like a passing shadow of a flying bird, which can hardly be perceived. Feeling the end of his life, David or a Jewish soldier, does not question God. He questions himself, if he is worthy of God's attention. Mainly, if his ephemeral life was worthily for God.
PASUQ 5:  Now David prays. A very unusual prayer. A vision of a desperate soldier who sees no escape but a miracle. 
ה' הט שמיך ותרד גע בהרים ויעשנו
"Hashem, open the skies and come down, touch the mountains [where the enemies are hiding] so they will burn"
More than a prayer David expresses the wishful imagery of a soldier outnumbered by the enemy. Who believes that only "HaShem coming down from heaven" can save his life. 
PASUQ: David is vulnerable. And has more prayers/mirages of hope. He wishes that HaShem will fight for him. Using His celestial arrows against his enemies, to spare David's life.
  ברוק ברק, ותפיצם  שלח חיציך, ותהומם.
 "Crack a lightening and scatter them, send those celestial arrows and panic them".
 שלח ידיך, ממרום פצני והצילני, ממים רבים מיד בני נכר.
PASUQ 7: And if You don't destroy my enemies, David prays,  at least save me. Pick me up from the battlefield, with Your hand. Rescue me from my place and take me to safety.
"Send Your hand from heaven, pick me up and rescue me. Save me from this great danger (=mayim rabbim), from the hand of these foreign [enemies]"
PASUQ 8: Now David haMelekh expresses to HaShem why he deserves a miraculous victory, and the enemy a Celestial defeat.   The enemy speaks with arrogance against the Jews and against You, their God. And they also lie shamelessly. They, the Philistines, swore with their right hand that they will live in peace with us, and now the betrayed their word and attacked us.

אשר פיהם, דיבר-שוא  וימינם, ימין שקר.
 [Save me from the hands of those foreigners] "whose mouths speak with arrogance, and whose right hand is a right hand full of lies".
PASUQ 9: If You save me, HaShem (or "when" you will save me), I will not be silent. I will dedicate my life to You.  I will compose for you a new poem, to sing Your praises:

א-לוהים שיר חדש אשירה לך בנבל עשור אזמרה-לך.
"I will sing a new song to You, that i will sing with the ten strings harp"
PASUQ 10: In that song I will declare the truth: that it was not me who won the battle, but You. You are the One who decides the fortunes of war. The One Who grants victory to the Kings and defeat the enemy

 הנותן תשועה למלכים הפוצה את-דויד עבדו מחרב רעה.
"To the One who gives victory to kings, to the One who delivers his servant David, from the deadly sword"
PASUQ 11:  David prays to God again. "Spare my life..."

פצני והצילני מיד בני-נכר אשר פיהם, דיבר-שוא וימינם ימין שקר.
"Save me from the hand of those foreigners who speak falsehood in their mouths, and whose right hand is the right hand of lies".
PASUQ 12: Now comes a very special Pasuq. Still, in the midst of the battle, surrounded by the cruel and violent enemy, David brings to mind his sweetest memories. His thoughts are the daydreams of every Jewish soldier in the most challenging moments of combat, or in the long nights of watch: Home. My family.  My children. My peaceful neighborhood.

אשר בנינו, כנטיעים מגודלים בנעוריהם בנותינו כזווייות מחוטבות, תבנית היכל
מזווינו מלאים מפיקים מזן אל זן צאננו מאליפות מרובבות בחוצותינו
PASUQ 13: While facing killers and assassins in the battlefield, David remembers the refined young Jewish boys of his city. For whom battle is not their pride, but an unwanted necessity. These young boys are polite, refined and educated. Because their parents take good care of them from their early childhood. The Jewish parents raised these boys like "saplings", young trees that need to be planted upright and carefully trimmed. To grow upward, unbending and strong. David remembers the girls, the young Jewish maidens. They are humble but walk with class and dignity. They are royalty. Raised to be the pillars of a palace (=hekhal). This "palace" is "the Jewish home" in which God is crowned by the parents as the King.  Finally, David also remembers the material blessing that HaShem so generously has granted to them.
"Our young sons are like saplings, tended from their youth. Our daughters like straight pillars, able to sustain a palace. Our granaries are full, dispensing food of every  kind. Our flocks are in thousands, tens of thousands, in our fields".
PASUQ 14: Now, David haMelekh makes what is probably the strongest point in his request to God for victory and peace. A request which so much resonates in our present days. We, Israel, have been blessed by You. We now have, Barukh HaShem, enough food and animals. We have beautiful families. We pride ourselves, not of raising little warriors trained to kill, but in raising children who build "palaces" for You, families who live exemplary lives. We despise fights, quarrels, and conflicts. Our neighborhoods are the epitome of peace. There is no robbery, no violence. There is loyalty, trust and respect. In our cities people do not yield or scream at each other.  WE LIVE with PROSPERITY and PEACE.

אלופינו מסובלים אין פרץ ואין יוצאת ואין צווחה ברחובותינו.

"Our oxen are loaded [with food], there is no breaching of walls [=robbery], no going out [= unfaithfulness], no cry of distress in our streets."


PASUQ 15 : We are satisfied with what we have,  
But we are especially HAPPY with what we are.
We are the happiest people on earth, because we are the people of HaShem

אשרי העם שככה לו אשרי העם שה' אל-היו

"Joyful are those who live like this! Happy are those whose God is HaShem".

We just want to live in peace. Fulfilling our highest aspiration, The people of Israel, in the land of Israel, with HaShem, our God, the God of Israel.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


As we have explained (see this), on the 17th of Tamuz of the year 68 of the CE, after many months of siege, the walls of the city of Yerushalayim were destroyed by the Roman legions.  
Once inside, the invading army pillaged the Holy City and thousands of Jews were killed, tortured or taken as slaves.   The Bet haMiqdash was destroyed and burned three weeks after the Romans enter the city, on the 9th of Ab. Six hundred years earlier, in 586 BCE, the first Bet haMiqdash was destroyed also on the 9th of Ab.

As we approach the 9th of Ab, considered the National day of Mourning of the Jewish People, we observe certain restrictions associated with mourning.

These restrictions become stricter as we get closer to the 9th of Ab.

These customs differ significantly from community to community. 

We present here a few illustrations:

WEDDINGS: The Rabbis of the Talmud, Maimonides, Mara"n etc. did not mention any restrictions for celebrating weddings before the beginning of the month of Ab.  For Sephardim, therefore, it is technically not forbidden to have a wedding ceremony between the 17 of Tamuz and the beginning of the month of Ab. The Ashkenazi custom, however, is to avoid wedding ceremonies from the 17th of Tamuz.   In our days,  maintaining a level of uniformity in this sensitive matter, Sephardic Jews also abstain from celebrating weddings during the three weeks.

SHEHEHEYANU: The Shulhan Arukh mentions that it is good to avoid eating a fruit of a new season, which will require the recitation of the blessing Sheheheyanu, during the three weeks. The custom for Sephardim (Rab Obadaia Yosef) and Ashkenazim (Penine Halakha) is to reserve this recitation of Sheheheyanu for Shabbat.

HAIRCUT: The custom for most Sephardim is to permit getting a haircut or shave until the week of Tish'a beAb. The Ashkenazi tradition (Ram"a 551:4) and the custom of some Moroccan and Algerian Jews as well, is different: haircut or shaving is forbidden from the 17 of Tamuz until after Tish'a beAb. (Haircut restrictions do not apply to women).

לע"נ דרור חנין ז"ל, הי"ד

What can you do for Israel?
Some ideas

Pray, do, give. See
Send packages to Israeli soldiers:  

Monday, July 14, 2014

What happened on the 17th of Tamuz?

This coming Tuesday, July 15th, we will commemorate the 17th of Tamuz, a fast-day.

Five tragedies happened to the Jewish people on this day.

1. The 17th of Tamuz occurs forty days after Shabu'ot. Moshe ascended Mount Sinai on Shabu'ot and remained there for forty days. The people of Israel made the golden calf on the afternoon of the 16th of Tamuz, when they thought that Moshe was not coming down. When Moshe descended from Mount Sinai and saw the Jews worshiping the golden calf, he smashed the tablets which carried the Ten Commandments.

2. Menashe --a Jewish King, the worst sovereign of the Kingdom of Yehuda-- placed on that day an idol in the Holy Sanctuary of the Temple of Jerusalem, around the year 700 BCE.

3. In the time of the First Temple, in 587 BCE, the Kohanim (priests) were forced to discontinue the offering of the daily sacrifice. This sacrifice (qorban hatamid) had been offered by the Jews since the time of the exodus of Egypt.  On the 17th of Tamuz of that year this sacrifice could not be offered anymore due to the shortage of animals caused by the siege of the city of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army.

4. Around the year 50 of the Common Era, Apostomus, a Roman captain, seized a Tora scroll and with abusive and mocking language burned the Tora in public. (According to Maimonides it was Apostomus, not Menashe, who besides burning the Tora placed an idol in the Holy Temple as well).

5. In the year 68 CE the walls of Jerusalem were breached after many months of siege by the Roman army. Three weeks after the breach of the wall, the Bet haMiqdash was destroyed on the 9th of Ab.

Because of these five tragedies we fast on the 17th of Tamuz. We also recite special prayers (tahanunim) which inspire us to mourn and repent for our transgressions and the transgressions of our ancestors.

The fast begins at dawn and ends with the appearance of the three stars.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The 17th of Tamuz in context

This coming Tuesday, July 15th, we will commemorate the 17th of Tamuz, a fast-day.  The 17th of Tamuz is one of the four fasting days in which we remember the events that lead to the destruction of our first Bet haMiqdash (=Temple of Jerusalem) in 586 BCE and the consequent exile.

1. We fast on the 10th of Tebet, when the enemy began the siege of Jerusalem, which provoked untold starvation, epidemics, etc.

2. We observe a day of fast on the 17th of Tamuz because this is when the Babylonians made the first breach in the walls of the city, that is, when they came into the city.

3. After three weeks of battle and agonizing resistance, the enemy finally prevailed. That is why three weeks after the 17th of Tamuz we observe the 9th of Ab, the National day of mourning for the Jewish people. On this tragic day the first Bet haMiqdash was destroyed and burned (the Second Bet HaMiqdash was also destroyed on a 9th of Ab, in the year 68 of the Common Era). Thousands of Jews were killed or died from starvation and the rest were taken captives to Babylonia. A small Jewish population remained in Israel as vassals of the Babylonians.

4. A few years later, a group of Jews killed the Babylonian appointee, Gedaliah ben Ahiqam on the 3rd of Tishri. The consequences were devastating. The Babylonian emperor interpreted this murder as a rebellion against his kingdom and he ordered that the the small Jewish population that had remained in Israel after the destruction of the Temple be also killed or exiled.

These four dates 10 of Tebet, 17 of Tamuz, 9 of Ab and 3 of Tishri were established by our Prophets as days of fasting. In order to remember the destruction of the Bet haMiqdash and our of responsibility, encouraging us to introspect and repent.

It is interesting to notice that around the year 516 BCE, 70 years after the exile, around 40,000 Jews came back to Israel and built the Second Bet-haMiqdash. At that point, the prophet Zekharia and Anshe Keneset haGedola (The first Jewish Congress) canceled these fasting days and declared them  days of joy and celebration.

"Thus says HaShem, lord of Hosts: The fast of the fourth month and the fast of the fifth and the fast of the seventh and the fast of the tenth shall [now end and] be to the house of Yehuda seasons of joy and gladness and cheerful feasts..." (Zekharia 8:19)

When the second bet haMiqdash was destroyed, in the year 68 of the CE we started fasting again.

BH, When the Third Bet Hamiqdash will be built, במהרה בימינו, these fast days will be turned again into days of celebration. .

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Rabbi Yishma'el haCohen (1723-1811)

Rabbi Yishma'el haCohen was born in the city of Modena, Italy, in 1723. He was considered the most important rabbi (poseq) of his generation in Italy.  He was also a very beloved rabbi by all his congregants. Despite his great intellect, he used to speak to his congregants in a simple language and at their level of understanding.
Rabbi Yishma'el served as the rabbi of Modena for more than 30 years, but practically speaking he was the main rabbinic referent  of Italy during his lifetime. He wrote thousands of Teshubot (Rabbinic Responsa) answering to Halakhic questions sent by Italian Jews from all the corners of the country.   He was highly praised by all his contemporary colleagues, among them the famous rabbi Hayim Yosef David Azulai, the Hida.
The times of rabbi Yishma'el, were the times of the first reformers in Europe.  Many "enlightened" Jews were proposing radical changes in Judaism, to reform the Tora to modern times and remove from Judaism its national dimension. Rabbi Yishma'el stood at the vanguard on the battle against reform, safeguarding traditional Judaism against the new waves of assimilation.
He wrote many religious poems (pizmonim, baqashot), some of them were sung every shabbat in his Synagogue. 

He also wrote:
Sefat emet: a collection of his speeches on the Parasha of the week.
Shebah Pesah. A book that explains the Hagada of Pesah and the laws of the holiday.
His most famous book is zera' emet.  This is a collection of hundreds of Responsa on many different Halakhic subjects. It is also very important because it is one of the first books to address questions that arose in modern times which required a respected  Halakhic authority to set new legal precedents. 
The name of the book, zera' emet ("True descendants") requires some explanation. Rabbi Yishma'el did not have children. And although, as he mentioned in his book, he loved and care for every one of his students as if they were his own children, he considered this book his true legacy for posterity.  In the introduction of zera' emet he quotes the beautiful analogy our Rabbis wrote to express the "immortality" acquired by a Torah Scholar who writes a relevant book. They said that when the readers read the words of a Torah scholar who passed away, "his lips move in his grave", (siftotav dobebot baqaber), in other words, the act of reading revives the words of the Torah scholar, bringing  his legacy and memory back to life.
Rabbi Yishma'el passed away in Modena, 1811

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Elokai Netsor, praying for our good behavior

אלקי, נצור לשוני מרע
As we explained last week, the 'amida technically ends with the nineteenth and last blessing: sim shalom (see our explanation of
sim shalom here). But before we finish the 'amida we recite the "Elo-hay, netsor..."
This prayer is different from every other prayer.  First, because while every berakha in the 'amida is written plural, "Elo-hay, netsor..." is written in the first person of the singular. This is because "Elo-hay, netsor..." was not part of the original 'amida but, as the Gemara explains, it was a "personal" prayer composed by Mor bareh deRabina (approx. 500 ACE), which ever since, has been adopted by all the Jewish people to end the 'amida.
Then, the content of this berakha is also very particular.  In this prayer Mor bareh deRabina asked: "HaShem, save my tongue from evil, and my lips from falsehood". Knowing how challenging is keeping our mouth under control, Mor bar Rabina asked for God's assistance to prevent him from speaking evil (leshon hara) and deception. Negative words, gossip, lies, curses, are considered by the rabbis the main source of most conflicts between man and man.
Next, this beautiful prayer says: "May I behave with humbleness and patience" and "May I keep my composure and calm". Now, we are asking haShem's help for something very special. How to react in moments of tension. For example, when someone offends or aggravates me, on the personal, social realm we are supposed to act with restraint, humbleness and patience (this principle does not apply in a political realm, or when someone hurts me physically, etc.), which is not very easy.... So we ask HaShem for His help to grant us patience. 
Do you why this prayer is so unique?
In the 'amida, we ask God to grant us the things we need: wisdom, health, livelihood, etc. In this prayer, however, we request something completely different. We ask God's help to refining our character and improving our behavior. We request God to help us and inspire us to do good, and to assist us, preventing us from doing evil.
Our behavior (saying or not saying leshon hara',  reacting or not reacting angrily in moments of tension, etc.) depends on us. We are endowed with freedom of choice to make moral choices. When saying this prayer, therefore, we must remember, that we are not asking God to control our lives and take charge of our actions and decisions. That is our responsibility! We ask for His help and His inspiration, to reach the best of our potential and behave with utmost integrity.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Balaq, Bil'am and the mind of the donkey

This week's Parasha is really unusual. We are not watching the same movie as last week: the happenings of the Jewish people in the dessert. The Tora's camera is now focusing elsewhere. Specifically, behind enemy lines. We are privy to look into the dialogues, plans and doings of those who wish to destroy us.  How do they prepare themselves to confront Israel? Three chapters of the Tora are dedicated to grant us a detailed look into the enemy's perspective. A a unique case in the whole Torah.

Although this Parasah is named after the King of Mo-ab, Balaq, the main protagonist of this Parasha is a very mysterious individual named Bil'am (Balaam).  Who is Bil'am? According to our rabbis Bil'am was granted nebu-a, i.e., God talked to him, as He did to Moshe Rabbenu. But we should not think that Bil'am was similar in any way to Moshe.

The fact that God talked to Moshe made him realize how small and limited he was. He had questions, many questions, about God's justice, for example, the fact that the righteous suffers, etc.  But after his "encounter" with God, all his questions disappeared. Not because now he understood these matters, but because the Presence of God allowed him to realize his human condition and his insuperable limitations. Now he understand why he does not (and cannot) understand. Why grasp God's motives is beyond a human's capacities.  This is why, after experiencing the revelation of God Moshe became more humble, the most humble man on the face of the earth (Numbers 12:3).

Bil'am, on the other hand, was also privy to a close encounter with God.  The same overwhelming epiphany experienced by Moshe Rabbenu. But Bil'am's reaction was exactly the opposite of Moshe's. Bil'am thought that since God had spoken to him, he must be a very special and unique individual.  The most important man on the face of the planet.   

Bil'am is the most arrogant character of the Hebrew Bible. He refers to himself in the third person (only Pharaoh did the same), he claims that he is God's spokesman (not even Pharaoh claimed this) because God speaks thru his mouth. He claimed to have the power to kill a whole nation, Israel, with his curse. And at one point he pronounces the most arrogant statement ever written in the Tora, yode'a da'at 'elion, "[I'm Bil'am], the one who knows the mind of the Almighty" . The same spiritual experience, God's revelation, affected Bil'am and Moshe Rabbenu in two completely, opposite ways.

As to Bil'am outrageous claims abut his "supernatural" abilities, our Rabbis pointed out to the episode of Bil'am with his donkey. When Bil'am was traveling to encounter Balaq, his donkey saw an angel and suddenly stopped.  Bil'am punished the donkey and threatened to kill him with his sword. God opened the mouth of the donkey and rebuked Bil'am back.

Our rabbis explained:

Bil'am proud himself that God spoke thru his mouth. Here, Bil'am sees that even a donkey, which was never considered a very intelligent animals, could also speak if only HaShem so wants.

Bil'am asserted that he could eliminate the whole nation of Israel with his magic curses, but to kill his donkey, he need to resort to the sword? 

Finally, Bil'am claimed that he understands the Mind of God, however, he failed to understand the mind of his donkey.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

PARENTING: Time to say goodbye

אמרו עליו על ריב"ז שלא הקדימו אדם שלום מעולם ואפילו נכרי בשוק

It was said of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai that no one ever preceded him in a greeting, even a stranger in the marketplace.
It is common sense and derekh eretz (politeness) that people would greet each other when they meet, after being away from one another, or when they depart from each other. That is what we do with our coworkers and friendsת even though we see them everyday.

When we leave home we should always say goodbye to the other members of our family, including very young children. This is beyond a matter of basic respect. For infants and little kids, knowing that mom and dad are home, unless they said "goodbye", builds trust and reinforce their self esteem. Mom and dad are here unless they let me know that they are leaving. No fear of abandonment.

In the case of older children, if we don't let them know when we are leaving the house, they might be finding themselves talking to a person that was there, but who has just disappeared. Moreover, if we behave in this way, our children will learn to follow. Perhaps then when our children get independent and drive, they would think that they can just leave without giving notice, especially when they are at the age where they don't need to ask permission to go to certain places. We must teach them that they need to let us know they are leaving the house and when are they coming back. All this will happen if they learn to say "goodbye".

Similarly, when we come home to our family, we should let our loved ones know that we are back. And It goes both ways. Those who are at home should acknowledge the presence of the person who just arrived saying: "Hi! Hello! How are you? or How was your day!" This is especially important when parents arrive. Jewish children are commanded to respect their parents. They should stop their activities and come and greet the parent that just arrived. When the kids are young, each parent models this behavior when the other parent arrives. Mom or dad should say: "Everybody come here! Look who has just arrived! Let's all give dad (or mom) a big hug!!"

In our modern society, where children are connected basically to electronic devices, these gestures of love and respect are more important than eve.
Regaining awareness of what it means to be a family might begin by knowing and showing that it matters a lot if you are home or if you are absent.  Don't abstain from saying "Have a great day! I love you! I missed you!". 

We should learn from Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai to be always the first to greet others.  Showing those we love that their presence does make a difference.

By Rabbanit Coty Bitton

לע"נ אייל יפרח, נפתלי פרנקל וגיל-עד שאער הי"ד

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

SEPHARDIC RABBIS: Rabbi Menashe Setton (ca. 1810-1876)

Rabbi Menashe Setton ( סתהון , also Sittehon or Sutton)  was born in Aram Soba (Aleppo) Syria.  He was a great Tora scholar, well versed in secular knowledge like astronomy, philosophy, mathematics and engineering. Although he was an ordained rabbi,  Rabbi Setton supported himself through business initiatives.  Following the tradition of Sephardic rabbis he was also an expert in Hebrew grammar (diqduq). 

Rabbi Setton's most famous book is "kenesiya leshem shamayim", a "gathering for the sake of heaven".  In this short book rabbi Setton argues fiercely against a prevalent superstitious ceremony called "Endulzado" (Spanish for "sweetening").

In the beginning of his book Rabbi Setton describes this practice: Whenever there was a sick member of the family, a women about to give birth, or someone whose loved ones were dying, etc.  they would empty a house, remove all type of Tora books and Mezuzot and display in the floor all kinds of baked sweets, candies, honey, etc. The patient and the expert exorcist would stay and sleep for three consecutive nights in that house. All this time, it was forbidden for the patient to pronounce any word of Tora or Tefila. The exorcist, usually a female, would summon "demons" (shedim) to visit the house. The demons would come into the house freely, because the house was empty of anything "holy" which would drive them away. Once the exorcist felt that the demos were inside the house, she would offer the demons those sweets to appease them and ask them to cure the patient or release the patient from their curse. 

Rabbi Setton first explains that this is a flagrant act of idol-worshiping, known in Hebrew as 'aboda zara, the most serious offense in the entire Tora.  He also explained that these people learned this ceremony from the books of the ancient "sabians", an ancient pagan sect who worshiped angels and demons. 

After describing this practice, rabbi Setton referred to the silence of the rabbis of the city. He said that the reason the rabbis did not denounce this practice was probably because they were not aware of what was going on behind those closed doors. Many of them thought that perhaps, people were just praying in an intense way, etc.  Once the rabbis became aware of what was going on in those houses, ALL the rabbis "gathered together for the sake of heaven" (from here the name of the book) to ban and eradicated this pagan practice.

Rabbi Sutton was widely supported in his efforts by numerous other rabbis from his city (thirty six rabbis from Aleppo signed their approval of his book) as well as from rabbinic leaders in Jerusalem, Tiberias, Hebron, and Safed, from both the Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities.

Rabbi Menashe Setton died in Alexandria, Egypt in 1876

To download this enlightening book KENESIYA LESHEM SHAMAYIM click here

לע"נ אייל יפרח, נפתלי פרנקל וגיל-עד שאער הי"ד

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

TEHILIM # 3, Our prayer in times of darkness

In this Psalm David haMelekh prays to God to save him from the hand of his enemies.

ה' מָה-רַבּוּ צָרָי  רַבִּים, קָמִים עָלָי.
David recognizes that "His enemies are many, too many" for him to handle.  His enemies are completely aware that they outnumber David and his army. 

And this is why they proclaim:

רַבִּים, אֹמְרִים לְנַפְשִׁי אֵין יְשׁוּעָתָה לּוֹ בֵאלֹ-הִים סֶלָה

"David's life, has no hope anymore."  The enemies believe that  "Now, not even God can save King David".

וְאַתָּה ה' מָגֵן בַּעֲדִי כְּבוֹדִי וּמֵרִים רֹאשִׁי

"But You HaShem, You are my shield". You protect me against my enemies even before I request Your protection. Some times, I'm not aware that is was You Who saved me. And while You protect my life, "You don't let my enemies to humiliate me". You spare my life while "You hold my head up".

 אֲנִי שָׁכַבְתִּי, וָאִישָׁנָה הֱקִיצוֹתִי כִּי ה' יִסְמְכֵנִי

Knowing that You are on my side, "I lay down in my bed and I'm able to sleep". Because I know that during the night You are awake,  watching over me. And "when I wake up" in the morning, I'm confident, knowing that "You will sustain me" during the day.

 לֹא-אִירָא מֵרִבְבוֹת עָם אֲשֶׁר סָבִיב, שָׁתוּ עָלָי

Knowing that You are on my side, "why should I be afraid of my enemies?" You are my shield, "why should I be afraid, even when millions of brutal enemies are surrounding me from every corner."

לה' הַיְשׁוּעָה

"The salvation", the decision of who will be victorious and who will be defeated in battle, "is YOURS". We have our army, our wonderful and courageous sons/soldiers who are ready to fight and if necessary, to sacrifice their lives to protect our people. But we know that at the end the "salvation" is Yours. You determine who is victorious and who is defeated.  

עַל-עַמְּךָ בִרְכָתֶךָ סֶּלָה

Our enemies are many. Too many to handle by ourselves. They outnumber us greatly. Literally, 100 to 1. For them it is obvious that the end of Israel is inevitable. For them, it is not IF, but WHEN and HOW.  And even when they are busy fighting among themselves and killing each other, we are their biggest goal. The world, most of the world, is divided into two: those who are afraid of our enemies (because they don't know YOU) and will never act in our defense, and those who are not afraid of our enemies but concur with their ideas that we, Israel, don't deserve to live in peace.

You are our hope. Our only hope. HaShem, "bestow Your blessing" of victory and peace "upon YOUR people", upon YOUR children.

לע"נ אייל יפרח, נפתלי פרנקל וגיל-עד שאער הי"ד

Monday, June 30, 2014

Amida (Berakha 19) The blessing of Peace

ברכת הקב"ה היא שלום, שנאמר  ה'  יברך את עמו בשלום
The last berakha of the 'amida, sim shalom, is the blessing in which we ask HaShem for Shalom/peace.

"Grant us peace, goodness, and blessing,
life, grace, kindness and mercy,
for us and on all Israel Your people.
And bless us, our Father, all of us, as one,
with the light of Your Presence..."

Shalom is the highest aspiration of the Jewish people. We do not pray for world dominion or for the death of our enemies. Our ultimate dream is to live in peace with other nations and among ourselves. From the beginning of our history the Tora's  utmost promise is that, if we will keep HaShem's commandments we will be left alone by our enemies and live in our land, Israel, in peace and tranquility (Lev. 22:5).  In May 14th, 1948, when the modern State of Israel was established, David Ben Gurion read in the Declaration of Independence "WE EXTEND our hand of peace and unity to all the neighboring states and their peoples, and invite them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land." In our days, this Shalom/Peace is still an ideal (utopian?) aspiration.  As if "Peace" could not be considered as the "normal" situation of the Jews but a God given blessing. To certain extent, "Peace" is a miracle, for which we Jews still pray everyday, three times a day.

The text of this berakha is modeled after the most important blessing to be found in the Torah: birkat kohanim. Thus, in birkat Kohainim, we ask for God's blessing (יברכך), then for HaShem to  enlighten us with His Presence (יאר ה' פניו) and  we end by asking HaShem to grant us the blessing of peace (וישם לך שלום). In sim Shalom we first ask HaShem to bestow upon us all His blessings (peace, life, kindness, goodness, etc.), then we ask Him to bless us with the light of His presence (וברכנו אבינו...באור פניך) , and we end by requesting HaShem to bless us with strength and peace (עוז ושלום).

The Sephardic custom is to say the same text for this berakha in every 'amida, while the Ashkenazi custom is to say this berakha in its entirety only when Birkat Kohanim could be recited, namely, in Shaharit and Musaf. This is why the Ashkenazi custom is to replace sim shalom for shalom rab, a shorter version, for Minha and Arbit. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Rabbi Moshe Capsali 1420-1495

Rabbi Capsali was born in the Island of Crete (today Greece) in 1420.  Not much is known about his early life, except that he went to study Tora in Germany, became a rabbi and then in 1450 he settled in Constantinople (modern day, Istanbul). 

Rabbi Capsali became very prominent thanks to his closeness with the Turkish Sultan Mehmed the Second, also known as "The Conqueror". Mehmed II brought the end of the Byzantine empire and conquered Constantinople in 1453. He was one of the most powerful men on the planet in those days. The Sultan appointed Rabbi Capsali as the Chief Rabbi or Hakham Bashi of the Ottoman empire.    

As the Chief rabbi of the Empire, rabbi Capsali was in charge of appointing other rabbis and supervising the collection of taxes coming from the Jews. He also acted as a civil judge. It is said that the Sultan's respect for the rabbi was because, disguised as a civilian, Mehmed II was present one day while Capsali was rendering his decisions and he assured himself that the rabbi was incorruptible and impartial in his judgments.

The Sultan appreciated so much Rabbi Capsali that he assigned him a seat beside the Mufti, the Muslim highest authority, and above the seat of the Christian patriarch.

One of the most important contribution of Rabbi Capsali to Am Israel is that thanks to his favor with the Sultan, the Sultan opened the gates of his empire to tens of thousands of Jewish refugees who were escaping form the horrors of the Inquisition in Spain and from persecutions they suffered in many Christian countries. The Sultan allowed and even encouraged the Jewish refugees to build homes, synagogues and houses of study (Bate Midrash), and to practice their religion freely.

In 1492, towards the last years of Rabbi Capsali's life, the great tragedy of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain took place. His advanced age notwithstanding, Rabbi Capsali dedicated himself in soul and body to help the victims of the expulsion. Many Sephardic Jews were captured by pirates when escaping from Spain and were sold as slaves. Rabbi Capsali personally traveled to various Jewish communities in his country to collect funds for Pidyon Shebuim, to redeem these Jews.  It was thanks to rabbi Capsali that the most prominent Sephardic communities in those times flourished in Constantinople and other cities of the Ottoman empire.

Rabbi Capsali died in 1495 at the age of 75 he was succeeded as Hakham Bashi by  Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrahi.

SIXTH COMMANDMENT: Killing vs Mudering

There is a difference in English between killing and murdering. While "killing" is a verb than can be applied to causing the death of humans or animals, "murdering" refers exclusively to the act of killing another human being.

Our rabbis explain that the context of the 10 Commandments refers to actions from a person to another person, and not from a person to someone's property. The Eight commandment לא תגנב, for example, usually translated as "You shall not steal" has been explained by our rabbis as "You shall not kidnap" (You shall not steal...a person), an unfortunate practice that leads to forced-labor or slavery. There is another commandment in Vayqra (Lev.  19:11) that uses the same words, לא תגנבו, but the context refers to damages against other people's properties. In Leviticus, therefore, לא תגנבו is translated as: "You shall not steal". This method, the understanding of a word or a law according to its context, is one of the 13 principles of hermeneutics (=legal interpretation of the Bible) known in rabbinic literature as דבר הלמד מענינו, "a law that is deduced by its context".

Going back to the Sixth commandment, we should then translate it as "You shall not murder", referring to the act of killing another human being,  and not "You shall not kill".

This is a short commandment in terms of its length, just six letters, but it is, perhaps, the most comprehensive in terms of its details, scope, applications, etc.

First, Jewish Law, similar to American Law differentiates  between different levels of murder: premeditated murder, murder by negligence, accidental murder, etc. Then, we also have the case of killing as an act of self defense or preemptive murder.  We also need to define the application of this commandment to complex situations, Halakhic scenarios which are very prevalent in our days. For example: is abortion considered murder? Is euthanasia (=killing a person who is suffering) permitted in Jewish law?  Does Jewish law allow organs' donation? These subjects require a clear definition of the moment in which life begins or end; quality of life vs. termination of life, passive vs active euthanasia, etc.   In the following weeks BH we will analyze these matters one by one.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

AMIDA (Berkha 18). Mastering the art of gratitude

מודים אנחנו לך
The eighteenth berakha of the 'amida, Modim, is the longest one and the main blessing of the third section of the 'amida known as hoda-a (gratitude). The Hebrew word modim actually means: "We thank... (You God)".

After having focused in the previous blessings on what we need and want from God, now we turn our attention to all what we have been given by God. Gratitude, Jewish gratitude, consists in the acknowledgment that God is the ultimate source of what we are, of what we have, and of all good things that happen to us.

The psychological effect of this berakha cannot be underestimated. "Modim" educate us. It trains us to feel a sense of endless indebtedness toward God. As if for a moment, we abandon our selfish sense of entitlement and we reassess the blessings that we usually take for granted. By enumerating the multitude of "gifts" we constantly receive from HaShem, this berakha opens our eyes to appreciate. Appreciation is the prerequisite for gratitude.

It is important to notice that we begin by thanking haShem for being our God. In other words, we express our gratitude to God for having chosen us among the nations.

Then, we turn our attention to the fact that we still exist as a nation, despite having so many enemies who wish we were not here. We acknowledge that our physical survival depends on Him.

This is the beginning of Modim

"We thank You,  that You are HaShem, our God,
and the God of our fathers. (You are our God) for ever.
You are the Protector (tsur=rock) of our lives.
You are our Shield and Savior.

This berakha is so important (second only to magen Abraham) that our rabbis instructed us to bow-down at the beginning (modim anahnu lakh) and at the end of this blessing (hatob shimkha...).  

Monday, June 23, 2014

TEHILIM Psalm # 2: Israel, a newborn baby

ה ' אָמַר אֵלַי בְּנִי אַתָּה אֲנִי, הַיּוֹם יְלִדְתִּיךָ

This Mizmor was composed by King David at the beginning of his kingdom. All the kings of Philistines (pelishtim), fearful of the new Jewish King, got together and conspired against David and his people.  The Philistines thought that they could easily defeat David and were singing their own praise.  In verse 2:4 David describes what was happening in heaven while the enemies of Israel were bragging about destroying us. 

יושב בשמים ישחק " [God] the One Who sits in His heavenly [throne] laughs"... at their thoughts.  This powerful literary motif, "HaShem's laughing" is used here to express that the enemies of Israel, when they plan their battles and attacks against us, they are oblivious of Hashem's intervention to protect us.

David haMelekh says that although Hashem intervenes in all areas of our personal life, His oversight is absolutely critical when our enemies conspire against us.

In 2:7 David haMelekh explains "how" HaShem protects Israel.

ה' אמר אלי בני אתה "HaShem told me You are My child". First, we learn that Hashem loves us as a parent loves his or her child.  But then, David haMelekh takes us to a deeper level of understanding of God's love for us.    אני היום ילידתיך  "I gave birth to you today".

Two different motifs are expressed in this verse, a child and a newborn baby. Why?

1. Imagine a mother with her nine years old child in the park. While he would be playing with other kids or on his own, the mother will supervise him. And she will assist him just upon his request. A baby is different than a child.  A newborn baby demands 24/7 attention, supervision and total-care.  The mother would not abandon her newborn child even for single moment. The mother would nurture, help and assist her baby all the time. Even when the baby would not be asking for anything.

2. A nine years old child knows what he needs and recognizes his mother's intervention in helping him. A baby is not conscious of what he needs. The mother feeds him, nurtures him and protects him without him been aware of his mother intervention!

David haMelekh says that HaShem's ultimate level of protection is when He takes care of us like a loving mother takes care of her newborn baby. 

I think about "Israel" as a baby under haShem's constant invisible supervision. We all know that many bad things happen all the time. But think about this: Medinat Israel is in the midst of the most volatile area of the planet. Surrounded by the most violent people on earth. Kamikazes, who don't mind to immolate themselves if they would kill a Jew in the process. People for whom the desire to destroy Israel is the only thing stronger than the desire to destroy each other. And many of those live within Israel. We are all very, very sad for all the bad things happening in Israel right now. But at the same time we need to be in awe, and very grateful to haShem, for all the many tragedies that are not happening in Israel, and we are not even aware of.  Our incredible IDF has a great part in this endeavor, and they are surely acting as agents of HaShem in protecting our people. But above every human effort, it is HaShem who protects us in ways that we, like a newborn baby, can't even begin to realize.

In honor of  Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel ה' ישמרם ויחייהם

אחינו כל בית ישראל, הנתונים בצרה ובשביה, 
העומדים בין בים ובין ביבשה
המקום ירחם עליהם ויוציאם מצרה לרווחה
ומאפילה לאורה ומשעבוד לגאולה
השתא בעגלא ובזמן קריב

Monday, June 9, 2014

AMIDA (Berakha 17) Prayers or sacrifices?

This blessing, birkat ha'aboda, inaugurates the third section of the Amida known as hoda-a, 'gratitude'.

Here, we express our gratitude to God for having chosen us and giving us the privilege to serve Him.

 Serving God includes keeping His commandments and worshiping Him. God's worship consists of two elements: prayers (tefila) and sacrifices (qorbanot).

In this blessing we first ask God to accept us and our prayers:

May You, HaShem our God, accept Your people Israel and attend to their prayers
Then, we beseech God to restore His House, the Bet haMiqdash, where we will offer our sacrifices the way our ancestors did two thousand years ago.

And restore the Holy service to the Sanctuary of Your houseNow, in the Bet haMiqdash, there were sacrifices and also prayers. As it is written in Yesha'ayahu (56:7) "For My house [the Temple in Jerusalem] will be called a House of Prayer for all nations" , After the destruction of the second Bet haMiqdash, 68 CE,  prayers replaced the sacrifices. This is not to say that during the time of the Bet haMiqdash people did not pray. Actually, it seems that at the individual level very little changed after the Bet haMiqdash.  The main change took place in the public services: the establishment of minyan, public prayers, bet hakeneset, etc.

Accordingly, we convey our aspiration to offer again both, our sacrifices and prayers.

So that You will accept lovingly the sacrifices given by the people of Israel and their prayers,

God chose our ancestors out of unconditional love (see Debarim 7,7). Now, we ask God to consider us too, worthy of that privilege. To love us as He loved our fathers. To accept our prayers as He accepted the prayers of our ancestors. Even though we might not be meritorious as our fathers, who were able to serve God in the Bet haMiqdash. That is the meaning of the next statement:

And You, with Your great mercy, care for us and accept us...

Finally, we express our wish to see in our own days the return of God's presence to Zion and Jerusalem, to embrace us again as the People He has chosen, to serve Him.

and may our eyes see Your return to Zion..... AMEN. 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

SHABUOT: 5 customs in 1 word

Tonight we will celebrate Shabu'ot, the day we stood at the foot
of Mt. Sinai to be appointed as God's chosen people and receive the Tora.
There are 5 Minhaguim (customs) that most Jews follow on Shabu'ot. To remember them, keep in mind the Hebrew word
A /HA/ R/ I/ T .  א ח ר י ת
 A: Azharot or Aqdamot. During Shabu'ot we read these beautiful poems which contain the 248 positive commandments and the 365 Biblical prohibitions. The word azharot means warnings, i.e., rules, precepts. (also 613= אזהרת).
HA: Halab (milk), like any other Yom Tob during Shabu'ot we should have a meal with meat and wine to fulfill the Mitzva of simha (material happiness). Still, the custom is that some of the meals are dairy, which is tradition particular to Shabu'ot, and it is not followed in any other Holiday.
R : Ruth. During Shabu'ot we study Megilat Ruth. Among the many reasons for reading the story of Ruth is that when Ruth converted to Judaism she accepted the Tora upon herself. Likewise, in Shabu'ot we celebrate our acceptance of the Tora and becoming the Jewish nation.  Another reason for reading Megilat Ruth is that from Ruth we learn the dependency of the written Tora on the Oral Tora, because by the letter of the Tora, Ruth, a Moabite, could not have been accepted as a convert. 
I : Yereq (Greens). Many communities have the custom to decorate their Synagogues with plants, flowers or tree branches to remember Mt. Sinai. We still treasure in our collective memory that when the Tora was given to us, Mt. Sinai was green and blossoming with flowers. In the Persian tradition Shabu'ot is known as mo'eed gol (the festival of flowers).
 T : Tiqun (Reparation). The custom is to stay awake studying Tora during the night of Shabu'ot (Tuesday night until Wednesday morning) to repair for our ancestors who went to sleep the night of the sixth of Sivan instead of waiting awake for the giving of the Tora, which was taking place the following morning.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Can we lie to avoid embararsement?

The Tora instructs us to stick to the truth and stay away from lies. In some exceptional cases, however, the Rabbis acknowledged that it was permitted or even recommended to withhold the true facts (see this).  The Rabbis also considered that when a person is faced with an embarrassing situation, he is also allowed to change the story.

For example, if a person goes to see a doctor, a therapist or visits the hospital, and he meets a friend or a neighbor, and he does not wish others to know about his problem, he is allowed to withhold the truth and conceal the real reason for his visiting to the hospital. 

It is important to remember that all cases in which we are allowed to withhold the truth are situations where our narrative does not affect, damages or hurts somebody else. If there are two partners in a business, for example, and one of them made an embarrassing mistake that somehow affects the company, he can not conceal his mistake from his partner adducing embarrassment. 

Also, a son or a daughter should not lie to his or her parents (or teachers) when they made a mistake, in an attempt to avoid embarrassment. Parents are supposed to know (and accept!) that a son or a student might fail or make a mistake. And adults are there to guide and teach their children on how to learn from those mistakes.   By the way, it is very important is for parents to praise our children when, despite the embarrassment, they have the courage to tell us the truth. When children find a mature, confident and empathetic parent who helps the child processing his embarrassing experience in a positive way, that child will have no reason to hide his future mistakes from his parents and will be in a better position to avoid repeating them in the future. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

PIRQE ABOT: Sodom vs. Mi Casa Es Tu Casa

The Mishna describes  four patterns of generosity / selfishness.

When somebody says:
1.What is mine is yours and what is yours is mine. Nonsense.
2.What is yours is mine and what is mine is mine. Evil.
3.What is mine is yours and what is yours is yours. Kindness.
4.What is yours is yours, and what is mine is mine.... some say, that was the trait (=the sin) of Sodom".

According to the Mishna, the ideal attitude in Judaism is to give with kindness, to share with others what God gave us. And all this, without expecting automatic reciprocity ("What is mine is yours and, what is yours is still yours"). This is the epitome of Jewish morality.

Now, what is so wrong about "What is yours is yours, and what is mine is mine". For many, "leave ME alone and I leave YOU alone" is the best possible scenario for living in society! Moreover, why the Mishna compares this seemingly perfect behavior with Sodom, the city of evil?

First, we need to remember that Sodom was a very rich area. No one was allowed into their city (into their "club") unless he was rich, like Lot. To prevent others from sharing in their wealth, the Sodomites legislated laws against helping the needy. Strangers and poor people were not welcomed, on the contrary, they were brutally abused. 

As it is typically the case in any corrupt society, to justify their selfish laws the Sodomites developed a suitable "philosophy"(which I cannot resist to comparing with the Nietzschean notion that helping the poor and the sick delays the evolution of the Ubermensch).  The people of Sodom reasoned: Why should we share what the gods had given us with the needy? That would be a sin! If the gods would have wanted this poor man to have food, they, the gods, would have given him food! Giving food to the poor will be definitely a sin: going against the will of the gods.  This cynical philosophy, which characterized Sodom, precipitated its destruction.

In Judaism, "Mine is yours, and yours is still yours" is the practical application of "You shall love your fellowman, as you love yourself"

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Rabbi Hayim Habib (1882-1945)

Rabbi Hayim Habib was born in the city of Salonica (aka Saloniki, or Thessaloniki), Greece, in 1882. His father was a Dayan (Rabbinical judge), rabbi Refael Habib.  The Salonican Jewish community was one of the most prolific Sephardic communities in the world. In 1900 there were approximately 80,000 Jews in Salonica, out of a total population of 173,000 souls. The Jews could be found in every profession: merchants,  lawyers, physicians, teachers, etc. The Jewish stevedores of Salonica were famous. On Shabbats the town and the port was closed since the Jews did not work. There were 49 Synagogues in Salonica and a 500-year-old Sephardic cemetery with half-million graves. 

Rabbi Hayim Habib studied in the Talmud Tora (elementary and High School) under rabbi Moshe Ottolenghi (1840-1901) and later in the rabbinical School of Salonica, "Bet Yosef" where he was granted his rabbinical ordination.  He also studied accounting and European languages. 

When he was in his early 40's Rabbi Habib was offered to serve as the chief rabbi of Salonica.  He was so humble that at the beginning he refused to take the position, but upon the insistence of the Rabbis, he accepted the difficult job.   The duties of rabbi Habib were many. Besides being responsible of the kashrut of the city and overseeing all the technical issues of Jewish family Law, Bet Din, etc. he was also in charge of overseeing education . He supervised the rabbinical school, the appointment of hazanim, mohalim and rabbanim for all the Synagogues of the city. 

He was also involved in the schools, assisting the teachers, examining the students and making improvements in the school curriculum, which included also the study of modern Hebrew.  Rabbi Habib and all Salonica Jews, were very involved in the Zionist movement. 
Rabbi Habib was very loved by its community and many considered him a saint (איש קדוש) because he was always helping those in need. The poor, the sick, the elder, they all could count with the unconditional support of rabbi Habib. 

During the early 1900' many Salonica Jews left Greece and emigrated to the US , France and Israel. Still, the pre-World War II Jewish population of Salonica counted 56,000 souls. 

In 1941 the Nazis יש"ו came to Salonica.  They destroyed the Synagogues, the Jewish schools, the libraries, and desecrated the Jewish cemetery.   98 percent of Salonica's Jews, 54,000 Sephardic Jews, were killed in Auschwitz-Birkenau, or died during the long, exhausting Death March from January to May 1945.  Among them Rabbi Hayim Habib, his wife and his two daughters הי"ד.

Rabbi Habib had also another daughter and a son who emigrated to Israel before the Nazis came into the city. The descendants of rabbi Habib live today in Tel Aviv.