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Archive for December, 2009

וַיִּגַּשׁ – Christmas Day, 2009

Posted by rabbiart on December 25, 2009

It might seem strange to be writing or reading a Torah commentary with the word “Christmas” in the title. During the Jewish sojourn in Europe and Russia over the last millenium, Christmas was the one day of the year that many Jewish communities abstained from studying Torah. Not in observance of Christmas, but for reasons of pikuach nefesh. Attacks on Jews were sometimes commonplace on Christmas, as marauders swept through Jewish settlements yelling (in their own language) “Jerusalem is lost”.

Although hostility toward Jews continues, and hostility toward the one country in the world with a majority Jewish population continues to be fomented, we are fortunate to live in a time when it is no longer dangerous to study Torah on Christmas Day. More recently, a number of Jewish communities have adopted the practice of performing practical mitzvot on Christmas, by doing volunteer work or substituting for Christian volunteers at hospitals and other places, so that they can devote themselves to celebrating their holiday.

In some places in the United States, Muslims are joining with Jews in this activity.  In Michigan, where the Muslim population is particularly large, Jews and Muslims are joining in “Mitzvah Day”, helping some 48 social service agencies.

It is particularly fitting that this activity should be occurring one day before we read the climactic episode of Breshit, wherein brothers who have despised each other achieve a heartfelt and emotional reconciliation.  Over the course of Sefer Breshit we have watched the painful process of brothers learning to live together in harmony.  First Cain kills Abel, and is sentenced to wander the earth the remainder of his days.  Isaac and Ishmael are forcibly separated by their parents, and come together only (as far as we know) when it is time to bury their father.  Jacob treats his brother with manipulation and deception, and the quality of their reunion is ambiguous and left to the reader to judge.

Joseph lords it over his brothers, and they respond with hatred, attempted murder, and selling him into slavery.  In his turn, having risen to power, he torments them when they come to Egypt looking for food to survive.  But this Shabbat, all is forgiven, if not forgotten, and they live out their days in peace.

How good it is for brothers to live together.  If only all of us could learn to emulate the teaching of our parshah this week, and follow the example of Moslems and Jews in Detroit, and come together to do mitzvot and repair the world.

Shabbat Shalom

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Israel Bike Ride 2010 Update

Posted by rabbiart on December 25, 2009

As of December 25, 2009, in very exciting news, my personal fund-raising for the 2010 Hazon-Arava Institute bike ride, has ticked over $1100.00. This means that I am almost to 33% of the minimum and over 20% of my current target of $5,000.00. I feel very fortunate to have the 18 (not a coincidence?) contributors to date. In a time of economic difficulties I am especially appreciative of the friends and family who have made a contribution. I’m also particularly grateful to my mother – Shirley Gould – who reached out to her community on my behalf and is responsible for about 20% of the money donated so far. Thanks Mom! A number of people have expressed interest in joining “Mitzvah Milers Go To Israel” and I am hopeful to see some new names on our team list in the coming month.

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Happy Hanukah – for Your Reading Pleasure

Posted by rabbiart on December 11, 2009

Some great reading material for Hanukah is all over the web, from all points of view. There’s something for everyone, especially if you read materials from a voice you don’t usually listen to.David Brooks has a wonderful column on the complexities of the historical Hanukah and its overtones for the present day. Also in the periodicals section is a brief exploration into the question of “What is Hanukah” from the New Jersey Jewish News.

Rabbi Eli Mansour’s Daily Halachah website is chock full of great halakhot for Hanukah. Especially for the first two nights, when Hanukah begins with Shabbat, all the questions of what do I light first on Erev Shabbat and how do I make Havdalah.

Orthodox Union is carrying a Vayeshev-Hanukah article by R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik – “The Two Dreams of Hanukkah“.

For those-who-have-not-yet-made-their-latkes, Jewcy’s Lilit Marcus gives here column over to the recipe for Bubbe Wende’s Latkes.  More on food… this exciting news from OU – Tootsie Rolls are now kosher.

For a quick look into the legal implications of placing your Hanukiah in the street (the mitzva of persumei nes– or publicizing the mitzvah), have a look at this Q&A on Ohr Somayach.

For the green approach to Hanukah, have a gander at

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Parshat וַיֵּשֶׁב – He dwelled

Posted by rabbiart on December 10, 2009

When we last left Yakov, he was still on his journey from Beth-El. We might say that he was still on his journey home. Where is Yakov’s home? Per the opening of this parshah, home is not necessarily the geographical place where we find ourselves, but most importantly, home is where our parents and grandparents lived. וַיֵּשֶׁב יַעֲקֹב, בְּאֶרֶץ מְגוּרֵי אָבִיו–בְּאֶרֶץ, כְּנָעַן It only happen to be that that Yakov lives in Canaan.

Our parshah parallels parshat Toldot.  That parshah opened by introducing Yitzhak, but quickly moved to the story of his son Yakov.  Our parshah opens by introducing Yakov, but even more quickly moves the focus to his son Yosef.  Like father, like son. Both quickly learn, in the modern phrasing, “it’s not about you.”  Perhaps the Torah is reflecting what most parents feel once they have children; live is no longer about them, but about their children.

Another interpretation… “Yakov dwelt”… Yakov wanted to live the remainder of his life in tranquility, surrounded by his family and attended to by the sons of his old age.  But almost instantly the story returns to conflict and animosity. Yakov will continue in his role as the man who struggles and wrestles. He cannot simply be the man who dwells in a tent.

We want to believe that the Torah’s story is the unfolding of HaShem’s design for creation; for the world.  But we are faced with the explosion of conflict among brothers and the arrogance of he-who-will-become-the-hero-of-the-story.  Is this the family dynamic that HaShem desires?

Rashi (relying on Midrash as is often the case) mentions the parallels between Yosef and Yakov.  The son looks like the father, is hated by the father.  Just as Yakov’s brother wanted to kill him, Yosef”s brothers want to kill him.

Were the brother’s justified in their animosity? According to the text, Yosef is a tattletale.

וַיָּבֵא יוֹסֵף אֶת-דִּבָּתָם רָעָה, אֶל-אֲבִיהֶם.

Yosef would bring bad reports about [his brothers] to his father.

Did Yakov, scarred by his own experiences, encourage this behavior?  As the story proceeds through Yosef’s two dreams of domination, the Torah hints that his father might be turning against him, or at least reconsidering his status as most-favored-son.

The Midrash is full of reactions to the animosity plainly evident in this story.  It attempts to retrospectively make everyone look better. About Yosef, commenting on the phrase “he was a son of his old age”, it says that he was a “wise son to him, Whatever he had learned from [the yeshiva of] Shem and Eber he gave over to him.  About the brothers, commenting on the phrase “they could not speak with him peacefully”, it says “from what is stated to their discredit, we may learn something to their credit, that they did not say one thing with their mouth and think differently in their heart.”

In this last remark we see the value of speaking the truth, or at least the truth as we perceive and understand it.  Even though (some of) the brothers are filled with hatred toward Yosef, they understand who he is and who he will become.  To them, he is “the dreamer”.

When his brothers call him the master of dreams, they are mocking him.  This point comes through much more clearly in the Hebrew, where the phrase is   בַּעַל הַחֲלֹמוֹת  (ba’al hakhalomot) the master of dreams.We the reader can see that rather than Yosef being in control  of his dreams, his dreams are in control of him.      At this point in the story his dreams are shallow, immature and vain. By the time we have traveled four parshiot with this family, we – and they – will see Yosef truly become a master of dreams.

When we read the Torah, we are all the characters. Each has something to teach us. We are Yakov, we are Yosef, we are each and all the brothers. Yosef grows, Yakov gains tranquility, the brothers learn to see the benefit of having a sibling who is a master of dreamery.  The Torah, as always, resonates with our own life experiences. We might want to dwell peacefully in tents, but we are thrust out to make our way in the world.  We might be jealous of siblings but it may be because we understand but cannot accept their essential nature.

Eventually, Yosef loves his brothers, they recognizes the value of his dreams, and Yakov lives out his last days in tranquility.  This parshah and the ones that follow it, can give us hope that in our lives we can move (if we need to) from suspicion and distrust to acceptance, respect and even love.  We can ride out the storms and arrive in a place of comfort and calm.

And in the meantime, we at least have one day out of seven.

Shabbat Shalom

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Some Erev Shabbes Customs

Posted by rabbiart on December 7, 2009

Our friends Chester, Miriam, Isaiah and Zoe have a wonderful “make more brachahs” custom that we’ve seen the last two times we were at their house for Erev Shabbes dinner.  They fill a plate with different fruits and nuts and pass it around the table.  Each time the plate comes around, you take a food that requires a different brachah, say the brachah and eat the food (of course!).  This helps get to the recommended 100 brachot a day, which is harder to reach on Shabbat because the number of brachot in the Amidah has dropped from 19 to 7.

When there are different foods – with different brachahs – there are at least two theories on the order of eating/blessing the foods.  Surprised? Of course not. In general, the order of precedence relies heavily on the verse that names the seven species of the land of Israel. When eating two or more of these items, you give precedence to the one that comes earlier in the verse, which in order, lists wheat, barley, vines, figs, pomegranates, olives and honey.

The deeper we delve into this, the more complex it becomes, and the greater the opportunity to sit around and wrestle with the question; what does it mean.  The specific orders presented next are taken from a wonderful article at  Feel free to read the whole article (what? I could stop you somehow) and learn even more. Of course, we are the people of differing opinions, so let’s start with this little snippet from Talmud Brachot 40b, which reads

If there were many different foods before a person: Rabbi Yehuda says that if one of the foods is from the seven species the bracha should be said on that. The Sages say make the bracha on which ever one you want.

According to the gemara, the case in point is where there are different foods all requiring the same blessing.  So R. Yehudah’s opinion is reflected in the list below. The sages would simply instruct us to say the brachah (and eat) the food we want to eat now, regardless of whether it is from the seven species.

IF you have several fruits/vegetables which require the same brachah (either ha-etz or ha-adamah), you eat them in this order.

  1. any of the seven species get preference over something not of the seven species, so for example, a date is eaten before an apple.
  2. whole fruits over fruits that are broken up, so for example an whole apple over a slice of orange
  3. the fruit you usually prefer to eat (given a choice), but if no preference
  4. the fruit you want to eat now.

IF you have several fruits/vegetables some of which require ha-etz and some require ha-adamah, you eat them in this order

  1. the one you would usually prefer, regardless of the brachah required, but if you don’t have a preference, then
  2. the one you want to eat now
  3. any of the seven species
  4. any of the fruits/vegetables that are whole
  5. if none of the above rules apply, any of the fruits/vegetables that require ha-etz takes precedence over fruits requiring ha-adamah.

Depending on your background and orientation, you might be reacting with “who cares” or “this is really cool.”  Personally, I’m in the “this is really cool” camp for a couple of reasons.  One is the concept of hidur mitzvah or taking special care in the performance of a mitzvah.  The second is an observation that we heard yesterday in mussar class; that outward orderliness helps create an inward orderliness.  Yes, it is just “good for us” to be meticulous in observing mitzvot and saying brachot.  Why wouldn’t it be?

Kol Tuv

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וַיִּשְׁלַח Two Jews – Three Opinions (even in halachic matters)

Posted by rabbiart on December 3, 2009

There is probably not a post Bar/Bat Mitzvah who has not heard some variation of the phrase “two Jews, three opinions.”  We’re all familiar with the phenomenon, and often we find it difficult to agree even with ourselves.   This week’s parshah provides ample evidence that even among halachic authorities there are multiple opinions and rulings, just as there are multiple practices among the Jewish people.The story begins with Yakov wrestling with a man who is commonly understood to be an angel. They wrestle through the night, and as the day breaks the angel man is unable to prevail.  so he touches the hollow of Yakov’s thigh to weaken him. (Aha, the first hamstring strain in the Torah!) Yakov demands and receives his new name – Israel – and for once, receives a blessing without deception or negotiation.  As Yakov resumes his journey, he limps because of the strain in his leg.  Therefore, we are told, Israelites do not eat the gid hanasheh (sinew of the thigh vein) “even to this day.” (What ho! the voice of the narrator is heard).  This particular kashrut related mitzvah is described and therefore given, before the general mitzvot relating to kashrut are established.

To avoid eating the gid hanasheh some communities avoid eating the entire hindquarter, others perform a practice called “porging” to remove the gid hanasheh so the hindquarter can in fact be eaten. We often hear that Ashkenazim follow this practice, while Sephardim remove the offending sinew, but consume the rest of the hindquarter.

According to the Orthodox Union kosher website the division is not that simple.  There is no rabbinic ban on making the hindquarter fit to eat by removing the gid hanasheh. Rabbi and Doctor Ari Zivotofsky gives a fascinating digest of the various rabbinic opinions and community practices.  Sixteenth century and later rabbis differ on whether there is a prohibition against consuming the hindquarter, and what rabbinic authority may have a established a custom that “Godfearing people refrain from eating hindquarters.”  Depending on what authorities are followed, the hindquarter is prohibited, or it is not. But in practice, as it turns out, the basic reason to forego consuming the hindquarter is that there may be – in a given community – a lack of the necessary skill to properly prepare it.

So is it somehow “better” or “more observant” for (kosher keeping) Jews to avoid the hindquarter?  Would this be a good “fence around the Torah?” Is the halachah fixed on this particular question, and can we see in this case whether or not the halahach can change?  Rabbinic authorities differ on eating the hindquarter, as do community practices.  Market and financial considerations come into play as well.  As R. Zivotofsky relates, English consumers were not happy with the appearance of properly prepared hindquarters, so kosher butchers were drawn to sell hindquarters that had not been “porged.”

If hindquarter meat cannot be sold to Jews, what happens to it?  Generally, the practice was to sell this part of the animal to non-Jews who were of course not concerned with the laws of kashrut.  But in Poland, where the practice of porging had lapsed, a particular historical condition brought about the resumption of consuming.  In 1938 Poland prohibited the sale of kosher-slaughtered meat to non-Jews.  Rabbinic courts immediately ruled that porging should be re-introduced and that the hindquarter should be consumed.  This was complete in response to market conditions created by the legal prohibition; kosher butchers would be at a financial loss if the hindquarter could be sold to neither Jews nor non-Jews.  No text in the Torah or Talmud changed, no old halachic ruling was discovered.  Simply put, market conditions changed, so the halachah was changed in response.

What might we learn from the halachah of gid hanasheh?

It is easy to get lost in all the details of disputes and interpretations reported on by R. Zivotofsky, and that’s before we look up all the footnotes. More interesting is that there is no disputing that the halachah on this point is not unanimous, and that the halachah can and does respond to changes in community conditions and even the level of knowledge or skill in a certain practice.  Anyone who thinks that “halachah is fixed, outmoded and cannot change” should take another look at the halachah.  And anyone who makes halachah without carefully considering community practices and market condtions should take another look at the impact of halachic decisions on ordinary people.

After all, kol yisrael aravim zeh lazeh, and all of us are responsible for building klal yisrael into a unified entity.

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וַיִּשְׁלַח What Message Shall We Send

Posted by rabbiart on December 1, 2009

As the last parshah concludes, Yakov is going on his way –  הָלַךְ לְדַרְכּוֹ   – or “proceeding on the path”.

Yakov sends messengers.  What kind of messengers?  What message does he send? Who is he sending it to?  Why did Yakov send messengers at all?  There is  yet nothing in the text to suggest the Esav was still interested in Yakov, or in fulfilling the vow to a kill  made twenty years earlier.  According to Midrash Rabbah of Breshit (Section 65:3) the Kadosh Baruch Hu pointed out to Yakov that Esav was going his own way, “but you sent messengers to him”.  The comment immediately follows this parable.

R. Huna quoted this verse “He that passes by, and meddles with strife not his own, is like one that takes a dog by the ears.” Nahman b. Samuel said: “This may be compared to the case of a robber who was sleeping on a path.  A man passed by and woke up the robber, saying “Get up, for there is danger here.” At that the robber arose and began beating him.  The man cried out “Hashem rebuke this wicked man!”.  The robber retorted “I was asleep and you woke me up.”

There are several nice little points packed into this parable.

  1. Rabbinic tradition is not fond of Esav, so here R. Huna manages to compare Esav to a dog. The modern reader might focus on the double-dealing nature of Yakov, and feel that Esav is a more laudable character. Rabbinic tradition has no such qualms.
  2. Nahman b. Samuel is perhaps constructing an analogy where Esav is the robber, and Yakov is the good samaritan who receives a beating for his trouble.
  3. Yakov would have been better off to let sleeping dogs lie. Just as there is nothing to fear from a sleeping dog, Yakov had nothing to fear from his brother.

Yakov good, Esav bad, end of story.

Who does Yakov send? Are they men or angels?  Are they peaceful emissaries or a scouting party getting ready for combat?

Some translations render the word מַלְאָכִים (malachim) as “angels” rather than “messengers”. Again, the modern reader may wonder why the word is not translated as “messengers” when clearly that is the sense of the verse – or so it would seem. Rabbinic tradition is not uncomfortable with mixing the natural and (we might call it) the supernatural.  If the text says “angels” appeared, then it must be literally so. Even in cases where the text says “man”, some midrashim interpret the text to mean “angel.”In this case we have a textual basis for identifying Yakov’s delegates as angels.  In the last three verses of the prior parshah Lavan departs to return home, and Yakov proceeds on his way.  מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים (malachei elohim) – Elohim’s angels – meet him. He declares that the place is Elohim’s encampment.  So in the next verse when Yakov sends malachim it is natural to think that he is sending angels rather than human messengers.

In a story that mixes pshat and drash, Yakov is a bundle of conflicting emotions,.  In the text, Esav is “his brother.” Yakov wants to believe that he can reconcile; that he and Esav can still be brothers.

According to one midrash on the word malachim, Elohim’s encampment is populated by four thousand angels disguised as armored troops. So when Yakov sends messengers he is telling Esav that he is not the weak mama’s boy of twenty years earlier, but rather has grown into a powerful man with a powerful force at his disposal.  Part of him wants to deal with Esav from a position of strength.  They may still have a sibling relationship, but Yakov wants to be clear that he is the stronger brother.

The messengers return with the news that Esav is coming with four hundred men. A different midrash interprets “four hundred men with him” as each man is like him.  Just as Esav commands four hundred men, each of the four hundred men commands four hundred men.  So in this midrash, Esav has a force of 160,000 men!  fear takes over. Yakov is afraid, very very afraid.  And distressed.

If you were Yakov, what would you do?

Yakov wants to be loving and strong, yet he is afraid.   Yakov prepares for battle even while he hopes for reconciliation and peace.  Just as Yakov fights his fight and establishes his identity, each of us has to decide who we shall be in the world, and what our name shall be; warrior or peacemaker.  We can prepare to be the one, and hope to be the other, but ultimately,  it is not possible to be both.  Conducting war does not increase peace in the world; it is a delusion to think otherwise.

Ultimately, Yakov and Esav establish a cold peace. They meet, embrace, and one brother kisses the other. But soon they part, and the story continues without Esav.

In our time, can we do better?

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