Thursday, January 16, 2014

T'U BISHBAT, the new year of the trees

Today, T"U BISHBAT, is the fifteenth day (in Hebrew the letter ט/T=9 and the letter ו/U=6.  T+U=15 ) of the month of Shebat, which is the new year, Rosh haShana, of the trees.  In the fifteenth of Shebat the trees are considered one year older. Halakhically speaking, the age of a tree does not increase on the date it was planted (the tree's "birthday"); all trees become one year older on the same day, T"U Bishbat. This in an important factor for many Mitsvot connected to agriculture, for example, 'orla: the prohibition to eat the fruits of a new tree during the first three years. For this and other Mitsvot one needs to know the age of the tree (see more details of the application of T"U Bishbat in the Mitsvot here). By the way, unlike most Mitsvot related to trees and plants, which pertain only to Israel, 'orla is a Mitsva that applies not only in Israel but outside of Israel as well. 

How do we celebrate the 15th of Shebat today?

There are no Halakhic instructions for any celebration of T"U Bishbat. The custom in many communities is to eat at night or during the day all type of fruits, and especially the seven fruits or species by which the Land of Israel was praised in the Tora: "...a land of wheat and barley, grape and fig and pomegranate; a land of olives and honey (=dates)" (Deut. 8:8).

Certain families have the custom to organize a Seder of T"U Bishbat. Saying berakhot ha'ets for the fruits of the tree and the correspondent berakha for whatever else is eaten, like wheat, barley (normally mezonot), etc. Many consider a special zekhut to have for this Seder fruits from the Land of Israel and say berakha for them.

No special prayers are added to the regular services today.  Tahanun, however,  is not recited in T"U Bishbat. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

SEPHARDIC RABBIS: Rabbi Ya'aqob Berab (1474-1546)

 Rabbi Ya'aqob Berab was born in the town of Maqueda, near Toledo, Spain, in 1474.  His teacher was the celebrated rabbi Isaac Abohab, Gaon of Castilla. After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 he fled to Fes, Morocco, where he was chosen the rabbi of the city being just eighteen years old.  From Morocco he went to Algeria, Jerusalem, Egypt, Damascus until he finally established himself in Safed (Tsefat), Israel. 

In Tsefat Rabbi Berab conceived the idea of hiddush hasemikha, the renewal of the rabbinic ordination.  For more than a thousand years, since the times of the Mishna, the Rabbinic ordination which was transmitted from Rabbi to student since the times of Moshe and Yehoshua' was lost. As rabbi Yosef Caro, one of Rabbi Berab students and contemporaries wrote in the introduction to the Shulhan 'arukh, because of the large and long Jewish Diaspora, the Jews had too many Halakhic traditions and customs. And since the times of the Sanhedrin, Jews have not had a centralized authority accepted by all Jews which could formulate a uniform Law for all Jews. Now, once a relatively large Jewish community was established in Israel, the renewal to the rabbinic ordination was a real a possibility.  Following Maimonides (Pirush haMishnayot, Sanhedrin 1:1 שאם יסכימו כל החכמים שבארץ ישראל למנות דיינים ולסמוך אותם, הרי אלו סמוכים ויש להם רשות לדון דיני קנסות ולסמוך חכמים אחרים) "If all rabbis in Israel appoint and ordain one rabbi, that assigned rabbi can rule for all of them and, furthermore, he could ordain other rabbis".  In 1538, twenty-five rabbis assembled in Tsefat and ordained rabbi Ya'aqob Berab, giving him the right to ordain any other Rabbis who would then form a new Sanhedrin.  Rabbi Berab then ordained among others rabbi Yosef Caro, and rabbi Moshe Miterani   (1501-1580). 

Rabbi Levi Ibn Habib (רלב"ח), the chief rabbi of Yerushalayim, was opposed to the renewal of the ordination and had many disputes with rabbi Berab. More opposition to the renewal of the Rabbinical ordination came from the Ottoman empire. The Turkish authorities perceived that the renewal of the ordination would open the possibility for a new Sanhedrin, virtually a Jewish independent Congress, which might ultimately lead to a sovereign Jewish State.  Fearing for his life, rabbi Berab fled to Egypt and in 1546 he ultimately returned to Tsefat where he died at the age of 72 years. 

The "Renewal of the semikha"  project established by rabbi Ya'aqob Berab was discontinued after his death.  Still, a few more rabbis were ordained by Rabbi Ya'aqob Berab before he died.  Althought there are some debates about it, it seems that the following rabbis were also ordained by him:   Rabbi Israel Curiel (1501-1573) and Rabbi Abraham Shalom (d.1557) both served in the Bet Din, Rabbinical court,  of Maran Yosef Caro in Tzefat. Rabbi Moshe Cordobero (1522-1570) Rabbi Yosef Sagis ( d. 1573).  Rabbi Yosef Caro ordained Rabbi Moshe Alshekh (1508-1593, Safed). Rabbi Moshe Alshekh then ordained Rabbi Hayim Vital(1543-1620). We know  of a few other musmakhim. For example: The grandson of rabbi Ya'aqob Berab, Rabbi Ya'aqob Aboulafia, from Damascus; his student Rabbi Yoshiahu Pinto (1565-1648), also from Damascus, and his grandson, rabbi Hayim Abulafia (1660-1744). Althought these rabbis were musmakhim, they never exert, or claimed to have, a superior authority over other rabbis.   

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

AMIDA: The basic structure

The 'amida is the most important prayer. It was composed by anshe keneset hagedola, the Men of the Great Assembly during the Fifth century BCE. The words of 'amida are extremely significant, second in their importance only to the words of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible). The text of the 'amida was also formulated in a very precise and sophisticated structure, as follows. 

The 'amida contains 19 berakhot, or blessings, each blessing is dedicated to one theme. The 19 blessings are divided in 3 sections. 

(3) The first section, "Praise", contains 3 berakhot. In this section we are not asking, nor soliciting anything from God. We begin this prayer by praising Him, declaring that we are aware that He protects us, as He shielded our ancestors. We also acknowledge that our physical survival is entirely dependent on His benevolence (hesed, rahamim). 

(6.6.1) The second section, "Requests" contains 13 blessings. In these blessings we ask God to fulfill our needs. The first 6 blessings of this section we focus on our basic personal needs. We ask God to give us wisdom, health, a decent livelihood, etc.   The next 6 berakhot focus on our national aspirations. We ask God to bring to fruition, soon in our days, redemption (=coming back to Erets Israel), having the right political leaders, re-building Yerushalayim, etc. The last berakha of this section, shome'a tefila, contains a general and comprehensive request. We ask God to listen to all our previous pleads. At the same time, because this berakha does not focus on any specific theme, it allows us to beseech God for any particular requests that might not have been covered in the previous berakhot (for example: finding the right wife/husband, having children, etc.).

(3) The Third section, "Gratitude", contains 3 blessings:  The middle blessing of this section, Modim, is a prayer of gratitude to HaShem. In the blessing that precedes Modim, we ask God to restore the conditions which will allow us to worship Him once again in His Temple with prayers and sacrifices. Finally, in the 19th and last berakha, we ask HaShem to bless Israel with peace. We end the 'amida asking for peace, "shalom" because peace is the Jewish people's highest aspiration, personally and nationally, and the most encompassing of all of God's blessings.    

Monday, January 13, 2014

AMIDA: The after effects of the 'Amida

Last week we explained that prayer, particularly the 'amida, requires kavana, the proper state of mind. When praying the 'amida we don't allow mundane thoughts to enter our mind. We pay attention to every word we pronounce, focusing our mind exclusively on God. 

A good way to detect if my 'amida has been said with kavana, is to observe our state of mind after the 'amida. 

If we have taken seriously the notion that when praying the 'amida we are literally standing in front of God's Presence, that experience must have left a very noticeable impact in my thoughts, feelings and values. When we pray the 'amida with kavana we place God back in the center of this world's reality. We become more humble. We understand that if we want our lives to be meaningful and we wish to leave the periphery of life, we should get closer to Him. 

After the 'amida, we should also realize that as much as we push for things to happen, we try to adjust the world to our plans it is HaShem who is ultimately in charge.  No matter how strong, rich, and in good-shape we are, our powers and wishes are limited (or enhanced) by the "G" factor". After the 'amida, Emuna/faith, usually understood as "hope", acquires a new deeper meaning:  "acceptance".

After praying the 'amida with Kavana, we reach a deeper state of humbleness.   Conducive to getting closer to God and to a higher level of internal peace. 

However, if after the 'amida we have not become less self-centered and more God-centered, most probably we have not prayed the 'amida with the proper Kavana. 

Then, it will be time to review the state of our prayers.