Archive | Ask the Rabbi

The historical significance of Tisha B’Av

Posted on 07 August 2019 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
Could you please expand a little about Tisha B’Av? I heard that historically it has been a tragic day for the Jews, but what happened on that day besides the destruction of the Temple?
Jilian C.

Dear Jilian,
Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av, falls out this coming Saturday night, Aug. 10, and Sunday, Aug. 11. It is the day the Torah established for mourning all the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people throughout our history. Many of those calamities have, actually, transpired on that date.
To name some of the key events:

  1. During the time of Moses, Jews in the desert accepted the slanderous report of the 12 spies, and the decree issued forbade them from entering the Land of Israel (1312 BCE).
  2. The First Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, led by Nebuchadnezzar. One hundred thousand Jews were slaughtered and millions more were exiled (586 BCE).
  3. The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans, led by Titus. Some 2 million Jews died, and another 1 million were exiled (70 CE).
  4. The Bar Kochba revolt was crushed by the Roman emperor Hadrian. The city of Betar — the Jews’ last stand against the Romans — was captured and liquidated. Over 100,000 Jews were slaughtered (135 CE).
  5. The Temple area and its surroundings were plowed under by the Roman general Turnus Rufus. Jerusalem was rebuilt as a pagan city, renamed Aelia Capitolina, and access was forbidden to Jews.
    These are the five national calamities mentioned in the Talmud and other early literature, upon which the Sages enacted Tisha B’Av as a day of national mourning, fasting and recital of special prayers. Since then, many more tragic events have befallen us on the same Jewish date of Tisha B’Av:
  6. In 1492, the Spanish Inquisition culminated with the expulsion of Jews from Spain, ending nearly a thousand years of glorious Spanish Jewish flourishing.
  7. In 1914, World War I broke out when Germany declared war on Russia. This totally disrupted the Jewish communities of Europe and set the stage for the soon-to-come Holocaust.
  8. In 1942, the mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto began, sending them to Treblinka. The destruction of Warsaw, with its massive infrastructure of Jewish learning and huge Jewish population, has been likened to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
    When the great Jewish leader R’ Don Abarbanel led the Jews into exile from Spain in 1492, although it was Tisha B’Av, he instructed the Jews to have a marching band accompany them with joyous music. He saw the clear Hand of God waving at them at their time of greatest tragedy, letting them know that He was still with them behind the canopy of darkness. This was made clear by this event, as the others, occurring on that same ominous day.
    Hence, during this one and only sad time on the old Jewish calendar, the Code of Jewish Law makes the following statement: “When the month of Av enters, one should minimize one’s joy.” The commentaries point out that the Code does not say one should not be joyous, but rather to minimize one’s joy, indicating that even during the darkest times, a Jew never totally loses his or her joy. This, like Don Abarbanel taught us, comes from our profound belief that God is always with us, ensuring the eternity of the Jewish nation.
    The Chasidic masters teach us that the above message is implicit in the name of the month that all these calamities befell us: Av. The meaning of this word, besides the name of a month, is “Father” in Hebrew. This is a reminder that all that happened to us was not happenstance, nor meted out by an angry, vengeful God, rather by our Father is heaven, a loving Father, who wants only for His children to have the best and be the best, but sometimes needing to painfully inflict us with reminders to heed our mission as his chosen children.
    I recommend you join a synagogue and those sitting on the floor and lamenting the events of Tisha B’Av. (Especially to mourn the current holocaust of the loss of some 100,000 Jews per year to assimilation and cults in the USA alone.) Why? Because the Talmud says that anyone who joins the congregation and mourns the destruction of the Temple will surely merit to witness its rebuilding.

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Origins of the Jewish calendar

Posted on 31 July 2019 by admin

Sages, witnesses, and new moons formed today’s lunar calendar

Rabbi Fried,
We all get Jewish calendars at the grocery store or in the mail and take them for granted. What are the origins of the Jewish calendar? I’ve been wondering about this for years, and hope you can provide some insight.
Marvin G.

Dear Marvin,
The very first mitzvah that the Jewish people were commanded while still in Egypt was to sanctify the new month. “This renewal [of the moon] shall be for you the beginning of the months, it shall be for you the first of the months of the year.” (Exodus/Shemos 12:1-2)
This means that the Jewish people are not to simply calculate our dates. We need to sanctify the first day of each month, which is called Rosh Chodesh, or the “head of the month.” From the time of Moses, and for nearly a thousand years, the high Jewish court, or Sanhedrin, calculated and sanctified the new month. Each month, the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem would wait for two witnesses to appear, stating they had observed a new moon. After testing the veracity of the witnesses, the court would establish the sanctity of Rosh Chodesh by the power vested in them, and by proclaiming “Mekudash, mekudash,” meaning, “It is sanctified, it is sanctified.”
From the time Joshua led the Jews into their land, conditions existed to carry out the sanctification of the new months. As long as the months were sanctified in this divinely ordained manner, there could not be an annual set “calendar.” Because each new month required witness testimony, no one could guarantee whether the current month would be 29 or 30 days. Jewish holidays, such as Passover, depended upon when the Sanhedrin proclaimed the new month.
Jews would wait to be informed when Pesach would “fall out” that year, an uneasy feat in a pre-electronic communicative world. A system of bonfires, lit atop mountains across Israel, would announce from Jerusalem when the new month was established. When saboteurs maliciously lit fires on the wrong days to mislead the people, the Sanhedrin had to send actual messengers by horseback across the country to inform all of the new month.
This process continued until one of the last generations whose leaders still had actual semicha, or ordination, through an unbroken chain from Moses. That type of semicha was a prerequisite to sanctify the new month. Because this semicha was in danger of cessation, the entire institution of Rosh Chodesh and Jewish months were in danger. To ensure continuity of Jewish months, Hillel the Last and his court, who still held that form of semicha, calculated and sanctified all the coming months until the time of the messiah. By doing so, they established the first actual calendar, in the year 359 CE. From that time, and onward, they no longer needed to wait for witnesses. Rather, they relied upon calculations sanctified with the semicha power vested in them.
The Torah established that our months be lunar, or moon-based, as opposed to the solar, or Gregorian, calendar used today in most of the world. The Torah also commands that Passover always fall in the spring. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:1) These two commands, however, conflict with each other. For this reason, an extra month or leap year, was established to synchronize the solar with the lunar calendar, seven out of every 19 years. In this way, the months have remained successfully synchronized for more than 3,300 years since we received this commandment.
As an aside, it is fascinating to note the precision of our sages’ calculations. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 25a) and Maimonides (Code, Laws of Sanctifying the Moon 6:2-3) calculate the length of a solar month as 29.53059 days. A number of years ago, NASA made the following statement: “After years of research based on calculations using satellites, hairline telescopes, laser beams and super-computers, scientists at NASA have determined that the length of the ‘synodic month,’ i.e., the amount of time between one new moon and the next, is 29.530588 days.”
Jewish dates don’t arbitrarily fall out. They are calculated. We don’t just follow along with the flow of time. Rather, the Torah empowers us to actually change time and dates. The Torah puts us above time, and to live above time is to connect to the eternity of the Jewish people.

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Foundation stone: More than just a rock

Posted on 25 July 2019 by admin

A discussion about the Temple Mount’s even she’seeah

Jerusalem, Temple Mount
Dear Rabbi Fried,
I was fascinated by what you said about a stone on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount (where the altar was), that began God’s creation of the universe. Could you expand on that thought? Thanks,
Leigh A.
Dear Leigh,
The stone I was referring to is a profound Jewish concept and is referred to in Hebrew as the even she’seeah, or “foundation stone.” One of the leading Kabbalists was R’ Moshe ben Nachman, better known as Ramban (Nachmanides, 13th-century Spain and Israel). In the preface to his classical commentary to the Torah, he writes at great length about this stone. This stone, at the Temple Mount, is said to hold within it all the world’s powers. Ramban said, for example, that various fruits and vegetables thrive in specific parts of the world. Fruits that are indigenous to central Africa won’t necessarily grow well in Japan, and vice versa. An “artery” extends from this stone to Africa, Australia and every part of the world, giving that part of the world a power to sustain its particular flora.
King Solomon, whom the Torah refers to as the wisest of all men, perceived and recognized those arteries. He was then able to plant the trees and plants which were specific to different parts of the world in Jerusalem, right above their specific artery of power. These plants thrived right in the middle of Jerusalem, as if they were grown in their natural habitat.
It was at the very same spot that the earth was taken by God to create the first man. Rashi (Genesis 2:7) gives one explanation, that since the earth of that place is the center of all of the earth, wherever in the world men die, they will be able to be “returned” to the earth, since all men emanate from the very earth that all the world’s earth emanates from. This has led to the custom, at Jewish funerals, to add a little dirt from Jerusalem to the casket, making the burial as if the deceased is returning back to his ultimate source.
This even she’seeah reflects a deeper understanding of Jerusalem and its pinnacle, the Temple Mount. The Midrash and Kabbalah explain that both a man and the Temple were created as a microcosm of the entire universe. Every part of the Temple coincides with an organ or limb of man, and represents that concept in the universe. The central focus and holiest place of the Temple was the Holy of Holies, the inner chamber which housed the ark and the tablets bearing the Ten Commandments. Only the Kohen Gadol, high priest, entered that place once a year, on Yom Kippur. That place, spiritually, coincides with the human heart. From there, the Jewish hearts were connected to the Al-mighty.
The heart is the organ that pumps the blood to the most distant extremities of the body, bringing oxygen and nourishment to its capillaries and cells, bringing the gift of life. The Holy of Holies was the Jewish heart beating in Jerusalem, giving power to that stone, to extend its arteries to the entire world, bringing the spiritual energy to far-flung places, the source of bounty and goodness.
May we merit to see the ingathering of all our exiles to that place, with peace and joy, once and for all.

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Judaism’s spiritual center must continue as one city

Posted on 22 July 2019 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,

Can you explain the concept of the status of Jerusalem under international law? Also, can you speak to the concept of separating the city, and designating half of it as the capital of Palestine? I would appreciate your insights.

Leigh A.

Dear Leigh,

On June 7, 1967 (28 Iyar 5727), a seminal event in recent Jewish history transpired: the reunification of Jerusalem. There are many sources for the geopolitical ramifications of that event. I will focus upon the spiritual importance of a unified Jerusalem. 

The name Yerushalayim is actually the combination of two separate names, Yeru and Shalem. The second name was assigned by Shem, a son of Noah, who served as the city’s spiritual leader for many generations, leading a yeshiva for Torah study. Shalem means peace, similar to shalom, and also means completeness. The name Yeru means “the awe of God,” and was named so by Abraham. The Midrash relates that the Almighty savored both names and the message therein, therefore He combined them into one name, Yerushalayim. 

Geographically, Jerusalem has a ridge running from north to south, which divides the city into the lower eastern and upper western sections. The lower city, which included the eastern slope of the Temple Mount, was known as Shalem in ancient times. The Upper City, which included the western part of the Mount and the place of the altar used by Abraham, was known as the Land of Moriah, renamed by Abraham as Yeru. The 1967 reunification reflected the idea that Jerusalem should be returned to its original grandeur.

The spiritual roots of Jerusalem run very deep: 

• In Kabbalistic sources we find there is a stone on the mountain, called even shetiya or “foundational stone,” which was said to be the beginning of God’s creation of the universe, and from there emanated all of creation. This exact spot was central to our history, again and again.

• The Midrash and Rashi explain that the place of the altar in Jerusalem is, in fact, the very spot from which God took the dust out of which he formed Adam, the first man. This was so man could have a place to repent from his very essence if he should succumb to the earthly, mundane side of his being. In that place, he could again be elevated to Godliness. Adam built an altar in that location, and Cain and Abel later on brought their offerings to that same altar.

• This was the altar on which Abraham offered Isaac, Isaac later prayed, and Jacob saw the vision of the ladder, as he slept next to it.

• Noah rebuilt the altar after the flood. Next to the altar, Shem and Ever, Adam’s son and great-grandson, built their study halls. 

• King David was shown this place prophetically when he established the place of the Temple to be built by his son, Solomon. 

All this reflects the essence of the two concepts. First, the awe of God through His service and Presence. And second, the peace among the Jewish people when they would come together as one family, thrice-yearly, for the three Jewish holidays, during which they worshipped together in the Temple.

Throughout our exile, we pray three times daily for the rebuilding of Jerusalem. We mention it in our blessing after meals and in our Sabbath prayer service. Under the marriage canopy, at the time of greatest joy, a glass is broken and ashes are placed upon the head of the groom in solemn remembrance of Jerusalem. The entire Jewish people end the Passover Seder with “Next year in Jerusalem.”

The reunification of Jerusalem gave us the ability to again pray at the Western Wall and live with some modicum of peace. Those who seek to re-separate it seek the downfall of Israel. We should do all we can in our efforts and our prayers to keep Jerusalem unified. “Next year in Jerusalem!”

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What we mean by ‘Next year in Jerusalem’

Posted on 11 July 2019 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
We, in the Diaspora, end the Passover Seder with “Next year in Jerusalem!” What do people in Jerusalem say?
Mark J.
Dear Mark,
People in Jerusalem say, “Next year in Jerusalem!”
This should not come as a shock because as part of the daily silent Amidah prayer we also ask God to return us to Zion and Jerusalem. That prayer is recited by Jews living in Jerusalem.
Now, you’ll ask, “Why is that so? They have already returned to Jerusalem.”
The Jerusalem we have today is not quite the same Jerusalem we have been praying for the last 2000 years.
We are more than thrilled to presently have possession of the Wall, the Old City and the surrounding new cities of Jerusalem. It affords us the opportunity to connect to Jewish history, the Jewish people and God. It offers many Jewish young men and women the opportunity to study for short- or long-term periods of time in yeshivos and seminaries on very high levels of Jewish scholarship.
However, the Jerusalem of today is still a far cry from the Jerusalem we are still waiting and praying for. Jerusalem is not just a place, even a holy place, but a concept. It is the composite of two words, “yirah,” meaning the awe of the Almighty, and “shalem,” meaning perfection and inner peace. Shalem is also the root word of shalom. The combination of the two spells out “Yerushalayim,” or as we know, “Jerusalem.”
The way we arrive at the real Jerusalem is with the Divine Presence, the Shechinah which dwells within it. This took place in the Holy Temple which stood above what we know today as the Western Wall. That wall, with all its holiness and power, is merely a retaining wall, below the Second Temple courtyard. The Temple itself, known as the Beit Hamikdash, or House of Holiness, was a place that Jews and Gentiles could visit and bring their offerings to God. Many of those who entered that hallowed place felt they entered a different dimension, a kind of twilight zone which could not be described. Even Gentile visitors knew they were in a completely different space and were left changed forever. That feeling was not limited, however, to the Temple alone. Its light shone upon the entire city of Jerusalem. The entire city was a place where its visitors had the potential of being transformed by its granting of inner peace and the awe of God exhibited by many of its citizens. The light of the Temple illuminated courtyards throughout Jerusalem.
This is the meaning of the verse we sing with the removal of the Torah from the Ark each week: “Ki Mitzion Teitzei Torah u’dvar Hashem M’Yerushalayim,” “From Zion will emanate the Torah and the Word of God from Jerusalem.” When Jews from throughout Israel came to Jerusalem three times a year on each holiday as the Torah commands, something special happened. They saw the holiness on the faces and in the lives of the Jerusalemites, and observed the hallowed existence of the Kohanim, a group of priests performing the Temple worship in their unique garb. They noticed the shining face of the Kohein Gadol, the high priest, in his eight royal vestments, surrounded by holiness, and felt the aura of the Shechinah. All this they took back with them after the holidays to their respective towns and villages, serving as an inspiration to diligently study Torah and aspire to newer and higher heights of observance and spirituality.
That is the Jerusalem we, together with the citizens of the present Jerusalem, are waiting and praying for. Next year in Jerusalem!

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Jealousy: natural emotion that Jews must control

Posted on 03 July 2019 by admin

Dear Rabbi,
You once explained the commandment to “not covet” as a path to control jealousy. You also said that you can’t be expected to not be jealous to begin with; the mitzvah gives guidelines to deal with that jealousy. However, if you are already jealous, have you transgressed the commandment? Also, how can jealousy, a normal human emotion, be forbidden?
Mel J.
Dear Mel,
One of the classical commentaries, R’ Avraham Ibn Ezra, provides insight on this subject. He explains that we are only jealous of, or covet, something we believe could actually become ours. For example, when we see a friend, colleague or co-worker achieve financial success, we might be overcome by jealousy. When we observe, however, a king basking in the splendor of his riches, we don’t feel envious. Why this discrepancy?
The difference is clear. We recognize we are not kings. We were not born into royal families, and do not yearn for things that could not possibly become ours. We might, however, be envious of our neighbor, who we believe is no more capable than ourselves. “Lo Sachmod,’’ “Do not covet…,’’ teaches us a profound lesson regarding God’s involvement in our lives and livelihoods. The Almighty has provided each person with enough to meet his or her needs. What is appropriate for one is not necessarily fitting for another. What belongs to another is as much out of reach as if your friend was royalty.
I think this explanation is inherent within the verse itself. The commandment to not covet our friend’s ox and donkey is uttered in the same breath in which we may not covet his wife — “Lo Sachmod.” This is hinting to us that, just as my friend’s wife is completely off limits to me (that’s his royalty), so too the rest of his possessions are to be viewed as completely out of reach. Consequently, you will not covet those belongings.
This mitzvah doesn’t command us to quash our emotions. Rather, it gives us a direction in life, which enables us to control our emotions. Natural emotions have a place, otherwise they would not have been created within us. Our job, as Jews, is to control our emotions, utilizing them when appropriate, remaining above them when inappropriate. At times, you and I will be faced with the natural emotional challenge of jealousy. During those times, we need to regain control over that jealousy.
In general, prohibitions in the Torah apply only to actions, not emotions or feelings. Although the spirit of the law may be to control and properly direct our emotions, the letter of the law only applies to actions.
Additionally, Lo Sachmod is a related prohibition. When a person takes action and pressures an owner to give or sell the item he desires, he violates “do not covet.’’ Though the seller ultimately agrees to sell the item, if he was coerced or pressured into making the sale, Lo Sachmod has been violated.
The prohibition applies both when the buyer pressures the owner directly, or has other people apply the pressure on his behalf. Items for sale generally don’t fall into this category. Asking once or twice to purchase an item not for sale is also acceptable, without applying pressure.
Imagine a situation in which a developer requires a particular parcel of land to complete a development. If the owner indicates he is not interested in selling and the developer pressures him to sell, the developer has violated the prohibition of Lo Sachmod.
This is an example of a mitzvah, which is to ultimately refine our emotions and feelings but has concrete guidelines in Jewish law to make this mitzvah actionable.
Taking this a step further, to not covet is the ultimate purpose of all Ten Commandments. This we learn from the fact that it is the last of the commandments, and the sages have taught us that “sof maaseh b’machshava techila,” the last of actions manifests the original thought. Like the creation of man after all other creations, plague of the first born after all other plagues, the creation of the Jewish people after all other core nations. But why?
If one truly believes in “I am the Lord your God,” than one will trust in that God to provide his or her every need, and to be sure he/she has exactly what is deemed appropriate.
This is why the parallel of not coveting in the Ten Commandments is honoring one’s father and mother. As one trusts his or her loving and caring parents to anticipate and arrange specific needs, so, too, he or she extrapolates that trust to G-d. This commandment is, more than any other, relevant to our lives, day by day, hour by hour, situation by situation.
To conclude, I was always amazed by my father, ob’m, at the way he expressed joy at the financial successes of others, although he earned a modest income. My understanding was that my father, as a Holocaust survivor, maintained his joy by simply being alive and enjoying the simple pleasures he was blessed with. This enabled him to not covet what others had, and to fully join in the joy of others in their successes, a joy untainted by the desire of it coming to himself. This is a lesson we can all understand and learn from.

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Esau’s out-of-reach repentance

Posted on 20 June 2019 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
I have a question about Leah and Dina. When Leah heard she was to marry Esau, she prayed and cried to Hashem that she not be forced to marry a wicked man. As a result, she married Jacob. However, Jacob is blamed for concealing his daughter Dina from Esau because Dina might have influenced Esau toward repentance. If a woman’s influence on her husband is so powerful, why did Leah not understand that she could encourage Esau toward teshuva (repentance), rather than refuse to marry him?
Phyllis L.
Dear Phyllis,
What you are referring to is a rabbinical teaching, based upon the Midrash, that Jacob hid his daughter Dina in a large wooden box when he had contact with Esau, lest his evil brother lay his eyes upon her and ask for her hand in marriage. As you mentioned, Jacob was taken to task for doing so, and not placing his daughter in a position to influence Esau as his wife.
The obvious question is, why should Jacob be censured for what he did? What self-respecting father would allow his daughter to enter a home filled with evil and marry an evil man, with the hopes that her piety will trump his evil? Although it’s possible, it’s unlikely Esau would change, especially given his power and influence; he attempted to wage a war against his own brother and family. His evil wasn’t sudden; it had been quite some time since he’d sold his birthright — his future — for the sake of the instant pleasure of a bowl of beans at the moment of his hunger. It would be more appropriate to censure Jacob if he had allowed Dina to marry Esau.
A novel explanation of the above episode is offered by the Baalei haMussar (masters of the Mussar Movement of self-perfection through Torah). They maintain the meaning of the Midrash was not that Jacob was expected to allow Dina to marry Esau, for the reasons we mentioned above. In their words, the claim against Jacob was “that he didn’t hide her with a ‘kreptz,’ ” or with a sorrowful sigh. Mussar leaders later explained: “Of course he did it with a sigh; the sigh just wasn’t loud enough.”
According to these rabbis, the Midrash teaching is as follows: Although Dina rightfully needed to be protected from this evil, we still need to feel terrible that the person in question, Esau, is, in fact, so evil that his brother’s daughter must be protected from him. It is one of the greatest tragedies of world history that Esau sank so low, he was out of bounds to a righteous woman who might have been his last chance of ever reaching his potential for greatness and piety.
This fact deeply troubled Jacob, leading him to sigh out of sorrow for this tragedy when hiding Dina in the box, but perhaps not loudly enough. He was censured for not feeling sorrow for his brother deeply enough in his heart.
This packs a profound message for us all. We all need to feel the sorrow deeply in our hearts for all those Jews who have distanced themselves from our Torah and its teachings. We all need to kreptz and express it loudly enough to do something about it, and help all those who might desire to do so to reconnect with their rich and glorious heritage.

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Storm prompts our contemplation of wonders

Posted on 13 June 2019 by admin

Dear Friends,
We are sitting without power for the third day and expecting to be so for another couple of days — some five days (hopefully not more!) without power — due to the Sunday event which “took Dallas by a storm.” As the Rebbetzin and I entertained our guests by candlelight during the holiday of Shavuot, until now seeing some of the more serious devastation wrought upon many, it has been a special time for thought and contemplation.
My first thought was tremendous thanks and appreciation to the Al-mighty for sparing our community what could have easily been much worse devastation. Although many of us have had to trash food which has thawed in our freezers and refrigerators, that’s a very small loss compared to the many whose homes were crushed by the falling trees and winds. Just thinking about what our friends in Houston endured not long ago made me appreciate what did not happen here.
As my wife mentioned, perhaps as a community we need to do some soul searching to think about what the “message” is to us…
Another thought was — as a student mentioned to me — the extent of our frailty. A bit of wind and everything could be gone in the blink of an eye. How could we be haughty after contemplating that?!
Another feeling which struck us was the unbelievable power of God. When the storm began we recited, upon hearing the thunder, the special bracha which praises God, “ … Whose power and strength fill the world.” Seeing afterward how He snaps powerful trees like matchsticks is an overwhelming feeling upon contemplation.
Finally, how great are our people! The moment the word was out that many of us were without power, so many around us offered us and our neighbors to come over for a meal, sleep over, use their freezers to transfer our food and more. “Mi k’amcha Yisrael!”
May we use this opportunity for thought, contemplation and growth, to learn important messages which make it all worthwhile.

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Shavuot: minor holiday?

Posted on 31 May 2019 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
This year we were invited to an observant family’s home for a meal on the eve of the holiday of Shavuot. We are sort of nervous since we don’t know much about it, and don’t want to sound ignorant at their table. Is Shavuot a minor holiday? Could you “fill us in”?
Noah & Sarena
Dear Noah and Sarena,
This year Shavuot begins Saturday night, June 8, and continues through nightfall Monday, June 10 (in the Diaspora; in Israel it ends a day earlier).
Shavuot is the day the Jewish people celebrate the anniversary of God giving us the Torah. It occurs on the 6th of the Jewish month of Sivan and commemorates the anniversary of our nation standing at the foot of Mount Sinai over 3,000 years ago.
Shavuot is actually not a “minor holiday” but is mentioned in the Torah numerous times. (Just for the record, although it seems to be a common concept, there actually is no notion of a minor holiday in Judaism. There are Torah-mandated holidays, and later, rabbinically-mandated holidays, such as Purim and Chanukah, but even those are not considered “minor.” All the holidays, regardless of their theme, are considered of the highest importance and all made it to the “major” leagues.)
Shavuot is observed for two days in the Diaspora, one day in Israel. Its laws are similar to that of Shabbat, with certain exceptions. There is a custom to eat dairy at one of the Shavuot meals. One of the reasons for this custom is that Torah is compared to milk and honey, which is the epitome of sweetness. When the Jews received the Torah, God revealed that Torah is the greatest enjoyment and ecstasy which is available in this world. It is a piece of the next world available to taste in this world; a transcendental, eternal pleasure which dwarfs all the transient, physical pleasures which the world has to offer.
Although Shavuot is such a critical holiday, the source of our nationhood by God’s presenting us with His mission as a nation, don’t be embarrassed by not knowing much about it. You’re in good company; I have found that many Jews who are very cognizant about Passover or Chanukah have no idea about Shavuot. I think one reason for this is that the other holidays have some tangible object around which the holiday revolves. Pesach has its matzo, refraining from bread and the entire Seder experience. Sukkot has its sukkah, etrog and lulav. Chanukah has its menorah, and Purim has the Megillah and all the joyous festivities which accompany it.
Shavuot, on the other hand, has no such concrete, touchable item or ritual article upon which to focus the celebration. It’s all about a concept: the receiving of the Torah. All the other holidays are available in their celebration even to Jews who may not study Torah. The main celebration of Shavuot, besides the usual holiday meals and cheesecake, is the study of Torah. It is customary in congregations worldwide for many to spend a portion of Shavuot night, even the entire night, in the study of Torah. The greatest celebration of Torah is Torah!
This custom, together with the cognizance of the holiday itself, fell by the wayside when a large segment of our people were no longer students of the Torah. Sadly, the “People of the Book” closed the book.
It is a well-known adage that throughout Jewish history any community, albeit observant, that did not maintain institutions of Jewish learning assimilated within two-three generations. Less observant communities that remained staunch in their study of Torah always endured, as the rabbis of the Talmud explain, “the light within it (the Torah) will return them to the path.”
One of my mentors once related an incident which transpired when a friend of his visited pre-perestroika Russia. Customs asked him the reason for his visit; he answered, “Tourist.” They opened his suitcases and emptied out the contents: mezuzos, shofars, tallitot, many pairs of tefillin, and books on the Torah. They said, wryly, “Tourist, huh?” They returned back to the suitcases all the religious items but held back the books. They told him, you can have all this stuff, but the books, “those are the enemies of the people.” Those customs officials realized that the strength of the Jewish people comes from their study of Torah. Let us realize it as well and may this Shavuot holiday be for you and all of us a renewed acceptance of the study of Torah!
One more idea
The Torah describes the Jews at Sinai “and the nation encamped across from the mountain” (Exodus 19:2). The encampment adjacent to the mountain is expressed in the singular (vayichan), not in the plural (veyachanu), which is incorrect for a group of people. Why did the Torah use a word that seems to be incorrect?
The sages explain that something very significant is being hinted to by that subtle change of referring to the Jewish people in the singular. This was the only time in Jewish history that the entire nation was together with no dispute, like one person with one heart!
Why was this so? If we are so prone to divisions and arguments, how were we able to be completely and totally united when receiving the Torah?
The Torah is the great uniter of our people. Every Jewish soul is connected to a letter, line or crown of a letter of the Torah. Only a Torah which is complete, with no letters missing, is kosher. Only a totally united Jewish people is complete, all Jews connecting the lines, letters and crowns of their souls into one huge Torah scroll which is the Jewish nation. The Jews understood at Sinai that without complete participation the Torah will not be brought down from Above and be presented to them, because any Jewish soul which would not participate would constitute an incomplete Torah scroll. The Jews, therefore, went beyond all divisions, accepting the yoke of Torah as one soul, with all Jewish hearts beating in unison in their acceptance of Torah!
This is a very profound message for us today.
Unfortunately, there are many divisions in our people. The best way Jews can repair their divisions and reunite is to study Torah together. We are reminded of the profound words Senator Joe Lieberman once said many years ago: “Although we can’t necessarily all pray together, why can’t we all study together?”
Shavuot is a time to join a study session, a class or program! By doing so, one joins hands with hundreds of thousands of Jews around the world who are also studying Torah on this day. You are also being a link to the millions of Jews who have done so over the generations from Sinai, linking the past generations with the future.
Furthermore, by joining such a session, we express an acceptance to increase our Torah study and Jewish literacy throughout the year, much as the Jews accepted upon themselves the yoke of Torah for all time over 3300 years ago.

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During Omer, focus on self-improvement

Posted on 23 May 2019 by admin

Dear Rabbi,

Thank you for answering my recent question concerning the counting of the Omer. I was fascinated by the point you made at the end of your remarks, that one can connect, during this seven-week period, to the seven Kabbalistic sefiros. Could you please elaborate on that point?

Thanks again,


Dear Marc,

Rabbi Yaacov Haber, in his work “Sefiros: Spiritual Refinement Through Counting the Omer,” sums it up the best. The energy that God uses to create the world can be likened to a bright light. This light is so bright and so complex we cannot even begin to comprehend it in its totality. White light breaks down into seven different colors when we shine it through a prism. Similarly, we can begin to understand God’s connection with the world by understanding seven aspects of His interaction with mankind and creation.

In Jewish thought, these seven aspects are seven of the 10 sefiros. In Hebrew, a sefira means a sphere, but its root, safar, is also the foundation of the words story, number and boundary. Thus, the sefiros divide the infinite unity of God into perceivable parts, enabling us to read the story of creation and subsequent unfolding of history and Jewish life.

The seven sefiros connected to the 49 days (seven times seven, of counting the Omer from Passover until Shavuos) are the following:

1. Chesed/kindness

2. Gevurah/strength or restraint

3. Tiferes/glory or harmony

4. Netzach/eternity or victory

5. Hod/splendor or beauty

6. Yesod/foundation

7. Malchus/kingship

These seven categories of God’s interaction with the world break down to 49 subcategories (seven times seven). Each attribute combines with all six other attributes. For example, chesed shebachesed (kindness within kindness), kindness within kindness, gevurah shebachesed (restraint within kindness), and so on. Just as the wavelengths of light move from red to violet, so too the sefiros appear to us in a certain prismic order, reflecting the full range of God’s actions in the world. These range from pure kindness at one end of the spectrum, to kinship on the opposite end.

Mankind is created in the image of God. Therefore, these traits and behaviors of God are also our potential behaviors. During these 49 days we not only can study how God interacts with the world, but how we interact with the world. We can learn how to act like and emulate God.

The Kabbalists revealed that the specific aspect of each day of the counting of sefira allows us to perfect that sefira within ourselves. In examining these behaviors, we not only gain a deeper, more beautiful understanding of God, but we gain profound insights into ourselves. For as much as the sefiros reveal about God Himself, they also hold the key to understanding what it means to be created in God’s image.

Furthermore, the keys to opening, maintaining and repairing our relationships with others are also held within these behaviors. In the process of examining the sefiros, we perceive the eternal bond that ties us to God, as well as the equally strong bond that ties us to each other.

This is our goal during this period; to appreciate the way God interacts with the world it is necessary for us to act in a Godly manner. This is the way we prepare to “receive the Torah” every year on the holiday of Shavuos.

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