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Archive for March, 2009

Modern Technology and an Ancient Custom – Birkat HaHama

Posted by rabbiart on March 25, 2009

The once every twenty-eight years opportunity for pronouncing Birkat HaHama (Blessing of the Sun) is fast approaching. It will be celebrated on the day of Erev  Pesach.  There are all sorts of web resources available for reading up on this custom.  Basically – and skipping over hard-core astronomical science – our tradition has it that every twenty eight years the sun is in exactly the position it occupied when first created.

A selection of issues involving Birkat HaHama include:

  • Given the principle of performing a Mitzva with zeal and alacrity (i.e. the first opportunity), and given that the b’racha should be said as soon as one sees the sun, does one daven Shacharit first and then say Birkat HaHama, or the other way around?
  • Can you eat before saying the b’racha?  (Halacha generally forbids eating in the 30 minutes before performing a time-bound Mitzva.)
  • Since this is an “opportunity mitzvah”, should one make special efforts to see the sun?  (You’re only obligated to say the bracha if you see the sun.)
  • If the sun is covered by clouds (so you can’t say the bracha), but you are davening where you could see the sun if it appears, and it appears in the middle of reciting the Shema, should you interrupt your recitation to recite Birkat HaHama? (Normally, interrupting your recitation of the Shema – and its accompanying blessings – is a big no-no).  Turns out the answer is “Yes” you should interrupt the Shema, if necessary, because Birkat HaHama (in these circumstances) is a mitzva with a very limited window of opportunity.
  • If you are involved in a Brit Milah (which also, by tradition, should be performed as soon as possible on the eighth day), which takes precedence?  Brit Milah is a time-specific mitzvah, as is Birkat HaHama.  Brit Milah takes precedence for two reasons; it is mandated by the Torah whereas Birkat HaHama is only a “rabbinic commandment”, and it takes precedence by another rule – Tadir Ve’she’eno Tadir Tadir Kodem – (Regularly scheduled mitzvot take place over non-regularly scheduled mitzvot) .  But (don’t you love Talmudic reasoning? It’s way better than crossword puzzles or Sudoku for keeping your brain fresh and young) if it’s a cloudy day and proceeding with the bris will cause the only opportunity for Birkat HaHamah to be missed, then (you guessed it), you postpone the bris for a few moments to say Birkat HaHamah.
  • So, you’re still wondering… hey Rabbi Art… what about that modern technology you promised in the article headline?  According to Daily Halacha (which is the source for all of the above) the Satmar Rabbi was faced with a situation where heavy clouds were forecast for the day of Birkat HaHamah and there was no reason to expect even the briefest opportunity to recite Birkat HaHamah. What to do?  What to do?  He told his Hasidim to get on an airplane so they could fly above the clouds, see the sun, and say the B’rachah!!  Hmmm… wonder if the airlines have a “Birkat HaHama fare”?

    Posted in Jewish Practice | Leave a Comment »

    A Great Mystery of Creation

    Posted by rabbiart on March 18, 2009

    One of the greatest mysteries of creation is why the first two humans ate from the tree of the knowledge of tov and ra.*  According to the creation story, the first independent free will action of Adam and Eve is to choose what is generally labeled disobedience.  Everything has been given to them except one thing, yet that is precisely the thing that they decide they must have.  If Joseph Heller hadn’t written Catch-22 and named Yossarian’s paradox, we would need it now to make Midrash on this part of the creation story.

    Without the primal act of disobedience, Adam and Eve would have remained forever in the Heavenly Garden, and lived out their lives as the ultimate crowns of creation.  But, had they not eaten of the tree, they would not have exited the garden to live as “normal” human beings, and the Torah could only have been a pleasant fable, completely un-descriptive of the realities of human existence.

    What if we put a different label on eating from the tree? Suppose it were not an act of disobedience, but acting on aspiration? Maybe a pleasant life as gardeners in paradise was an insufficient challenge for them? What if – by the act of eating from the tree – they invented the very notion of challenging themselves. Perhaps Adam and Eve simply aspired to be “all that they could be.”

    Hold that thought.

    Once the Mishkan is complete, Moshe gives it his review, and passes judgement on what has been built.

    וַיַּרְא מֹשֶׁה אֶת-כָּל-הַמְּלָאכָה, וְהִנֵּה עָשׂוּ אֹתָהּ–כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה, כֵּן עָשׂוּ; וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם, מֹשֶׁה

    Moshe regarded all the the work. Behold it was done according to Hashem’s commandment; Moshe blessed them.

    This verse parallels the commandment to build the Mishkan, where HaShem tells Israel, “Build me a mishkan so I may dwell among you.(Israel)” Moshe reviews the completed Mishkan, and then he blesses them (Israel).

    The commentary Kli Yakar comments on the similarity between this verse and the five times during creation that HaShem views HaShem’s work at the end of the day, and sees that it is good.

    The ability to determine that something is good – or bad – is the ability to make judgements. How does Moshe know that the Mishkan is built according to plan? How is it that Bezalel and Oholiab are able to understand and follow a plan? Because humankind has acquired the ability to make distinctions and exercise judgement! Because Adam and Eve at the fruit of the tree of knowledge? Without knowledge, there is no judgement, there is no understanding of plans, there is no making of plans.

    Of course there are multiple levels of human knowledge, and multiple purposes to which human knowledge can be put.  Knowledge and the ability to make distinctions is by itself a “neutral” ability.  The end may not justify the means, but the end is the measure by which we determine  whether the means have been justly exercised.

    Our story is about much more than the ability to exercise human knowledge.  The building of the Mishkan is the prime example of using human knowledge and the ability to make distinctions to a higher purpose; to invoke the very presence of the divine.

    Adam and Eve’s act, which puts distance between human and heaven, is a necessary means for enabling humans to reach for and make space for the divine.

    “Build me a mishkan so I may dwell among  you.”  In the Gan Eden fable, human and G-d are close because HaShem has made it so.  In our real world, human and HaShem can and will only be close, when it is we humans who want and make it possible for that closeness to happen.

    Building a mishkan so HaShem will live among us, is the highest exercise of the knowledge of tov and ra. It is the model for how we should live our lives.

    Shabbat Shalom


    * Forget everything and everytime you have heard the words tov and ra translated as good and evil. Do this for two reasons. First, because those are English words and so, so much is lost in translation. Second, but more importantly, the use of paired opposites is the Bible’s way of describing a complete continuum. In another context, think of the phrase “from soup to nuts”. This phrase described a complete dinner and not just a couple of food items. The dinner begins with soup and ends with nuts, but the phrase itself encompasses the entire dinner. Similarly the phrase tov v’ra encompasses the entire gamut of human behavior.

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    פְקוּדֵי – וַיַּקְהֵל The End of the Beginning

    Posted by rabbiart on March 17, 2009

    This Shabbat we read the double parshah of Vayakhel-Pekudei. By the time we rise and pronounce the traditional formula of Hazak, Hazak v’Nithazek we will have reached the end of multiple beginnings.  We have completed the building of the Mishkan – in all regards according to its plan.  We will have completed the beginning of building ourselves into a nation; maybe not so much completely according to the plan.  And we will have understood one of the great mysteries of creation and learned how humankind is truly like the divine.

    Building the Mishkan According to the Plan

    As VaYahkel opens, Moshe again commands Israel to contribute materials, spirit and energy to building a house for HaShem.


    וְכָל-חֲכַם-לֵב, בָּכֶם, יָבֹאוּ וְיַעֲשׂוּ, אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה. אֶת-הַמִּשְׁכָּן

    Everyone with a wise heart, come and make all that HaShem has commanded, the Mishkan…[and all its parts]

    In a development that should warm the heart and encourage the efforts of every synagogue fund-raising effort, the people bring more than is required. They bring so much so that Bezalael and Oholiab report back to Moshe that the people have brought more contributions than can possibly be used.  Shemot 36:5-7 (Say, is it too late to get the leftovers?)

    Finally, in the penultimate verse of the penultimate chapter of the Book of Shemot, we read that “According to all that the LORD commanded Moses, so the children of Israel did all the work”.  The Mishkan has been built, and now, as promised, HaShem can live among the Israelites.

    Commenting on the end of this building saga, Rashi refers to Psalm 90, which we recite in the Shacharit service each day.


    וִיהִי, נֹעַם אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ– עָלֵינוּ: וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ, כּוֹנְנָה עָלֵינוּ; וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ, כּוֹנְנֵהוּ.

    Behold, let the pleasant nature of Hashem be on us; let our hands reflect your intentions, establish your intentions in the work of our hands

    Israel has built a house for HaShem, but (more importantly?) Israel has made its own work of creation, completing the beginning of building itself (ourselves) into a nation. One more chapter, and we will be strong and growing stronger, although a long road lies ahead, just as it does today. And just as HaShem renews each day Hashem’s marvelous work of creation, Israel must create anew each day.

    Stay tuned to examine how we learn – in this Parshah – to understand one of the great mysteries of creation.

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    כִּי תִשָּׂא – Mitzvot in this Parshah

    Posted by rabbiart on March 13, 2009

    According to Sefer HaHinuch there are nine mitzvot in this parshah; four positive and five negative. The mitzvot are
    105 – To give half a shekel each year. It applies to all (male) Israelites from the age of twenty and up. It is based on Shemot 30:13.

    106 – To rinse our hands and feet when ministering in the sanctuary. It applies to the kohanim and is based on Shemot 30:19-20.

    107 – To make anointing oil for each high priest and king. It is an obligation for the community and is based on Shemot 30:31.

    108 – That no outsider (anyone not a kohen or King) should be anointed with the anointing oil. It is based on Shemot 30:32 and applies to both adult men and women.

    109 – Not to make the anointing oil according to the scriptural formula. It applies to adult men and women. According to the Gemara, anointing oil was never produced except the oil that Moshe miraculously made in the wilderness. So how do we have anointing oil to use when needed? Miraculously, it was “self-replenishing”; whatever was used for anointing was automatically refilled, and there will be oil when the Mashiach comes and the Temple is rebuilt. it is based on Shemot 30:32.

    110 – Not to make incense according to the Torah’s formula. The incense works the same way as the anointing oil, and the mitzvah is based on Shemot 30:37.

    111 – Not to eat or drink of anything offered up to an idol. This mitzvah applies in all times and places and to both men and women. It is based on Shemot 34:12 and 34:15.

    112 – To let the land lie fallow during the Shmitah year. This mitzvah is very similar to what our author describes in Mitzvah 84 that occurs in Parshat Mishpatim. The Shmittah year applies to both men and women, but only in the land of Biblical Israel, and only when Israel is occupied according to the dictates of the Torah. This mitzvah is based on Shemot 34:21, and Mitzvah 84 is based on Shemot 23:11.

    113 – Not to eat meat and milk that were cooked together. It applies to all of Israel and is based on Shemot 34:21.

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    The Objects of our Affection – כִּי תִשָּׂא

    Posted by rabbiart on March 11, 2009

    This Shabbat we climb to the highest heights and sink to the lowest lows. Israel (us) purifies itself (ourselves) and prepares to receive HaShem’s greatest gift; the very blueprint of creation. Even before the gift itself can be brought down the mountain and celebrated, Israel (us again) debases itself and offers up the greatest rejection that could possibly be imagined.Are we a schizophrenic two timing messed up people, or what?

    While Moshe sits atop the mountain establishing that HaShem is the One who brought us out of the slavery of Mitzraym, Israel is partying down below and inventing a way to violate the first and most fundamental commandment. Have no other gods before HaShem? We got your other god right here. That we made all by and for ourselves. In the language of the street, what the (expletive deleted) is going on? What are they (us) thinking?

    We’ve reconfigured the sanctuary seats at Temple Beth Abraham so that we can have a more intimate arrangement on Shabbes mornings when there isn’t an event or speaker. Everything happens on the floor, including reading the Torah. There is no “Torah stand”, so whoever has Hagbah has to hold the Torah until it is time to return the Torah to the Aron HaKodesh.

    Awhile back I was given the honor of Hagbah and found myself seated hding the Torah for the Haftorah, the special prayers and Ashrei. It was also a Shabbat on which we were announcing the coming Rosh Hodesh.

    So I was sitting holding the Torah in my right arm and a Humash in my left hand to follow the Haftorah. Eventually I began really feeling it’s weight but since I pump iron I had no urge to shift it to my other arm or change my seated position.

    Jay Goldberg, seated on my right, leaned over and whispered a comment that called for a response and hinted at a brief conversation. (Its OK – it was about the Haftorah and not frivolous.)

    Instinctively I shifted the top of the Torah leftward across my body to lean in close to Jay and whisper my response directly into his ear. This resulted in my holding the Torah on my lap with both my arms around it. Like you would hold a small child or (don’t get ahead of me here) or a loved one. An amazing transformation immediately took place. I could feel a surge of what I – in that moment – could only have described as love as love and affection for the Torah. When it came time to announce the coming Rosh Hodesh I reluctantly gave up the Torah to Jay so he could hand it to the shalach tzibur at the appropriate moment. (it is customary for the Shatz to hold the Torah when reciting the specific day(a) on which Rosh Hodesh will occur.)

    As we sat back down for Ashrei, Jay offered to hold the Torah. I would have none of that. I wanted, nay, I needed to hold the Torah on my lap. I beleve I felt a momentary surge of jealousy or resentment. How dare Jay Goldberg not hand me back my Torah, my beloved! All because of a subtle shift of position.

    This, I think, is part of the secret understanding of “the strange incident of the Golden Calf”. We all need a place to put our love and affection. Even the beaten and downtrodden wilderness generation had all the complex drives of Hashem’s most marvelous creation. Individually and collectively, they (us) needed to make a place in their hearts.

    When we can’t find the right place, we risk choosing the wrong place. If we can’t find any place, we create one. The cosmic distance between right and wrong, between wrong and right, can be traveled with hardly the smallest movement in our position. Hold the Torah to your side with one arm, and feel only the weight of wood and parchment. Wrap two arms around it, and the Torah comes alive as any human being, and we can awake to our love for her teachings and her creator.

    May we always understand what truly should be the objects of our love and affection.
    May we always find our way to holding the Torah – and each other – in our hearts.

    Shabbat Shalom

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