Archive | Ask the Rabbi

Enrich your understanding of Talmud with joint study

Posted on 22 January 2020 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
I was inspired to hear about the recent celebration of the completion of the Talmud held in MetLife Stadium. Even though I’ve never studied Talmud (and am not exactly sure what it is), it made me proud to be part of a People that tens of thousands of come out in the freezing cold for hours to celebrate Jewish studies. It makes me want to tap into Jewish studying myself, but I am not sure how. I don’t do well with classes; is there a way to study with someone who could teach me at my level and where we could discuss the material together one-on-one?
Mark K.

Dear Mark,
The event you mentioned, called the Siyum HaShas, or Completion of the Talmud, was truly one of the most inspiring Jewish events to be held in years. My wife and I as well as numerous members of our community had the good fortune to be present with some 90,000 Jewish men and women who gathered together, from around the world, to participate in the greatest and largest celebration of Torah in Diaspora history! Numerous concurrent celebrations were held throughout the world, bringing together about a million Jews in celebration of the Talmud. No words could describe the incredible feeling of celebrating, praying, singing and dancing with that many fellow Jews!
The Talmud is the fusion of the Mishna, codified in Israel in the third century CE, and subsequent discussions, called the Gemara, codified in the sixth century. The Talmud is the sum total of all Jewish law, thought and philosophy. It has been called the portable homeland of the Jewish people, keeping Jews connected through its study and teachings throughout the exile of our people.
The Jewish people worldwide unite through the study of a daily folio, or Daf (two sides of a page). This cycle, which was instituted in the early 1900s, is a 7½-year cycle to complete the 2711 folios of the Talmud. This celebration was the bar mitzvah celebration, the completion of the 13th cycle since its initiation.
A few years ago, in Berlin, a Holocaust museum was built with a series of stone structures to walk through, attempting to show the enormity of the loss of 6 million Jews. Of course, the artist, a non-Jew, constructing this could not actually erect 6 million structures, and created as many as possible given the space constraints, to convey that feeling. All in all, the arbitrary final number was 2711! The meaning wasn’t lost on anyone who noticed; what is keeping our people, the “People of the Book,” going throughout the trials and tribulations of our exile, is that 2711, the pages of the Talmud which bind us up together for all time.
This event has been an inspiration for untold thousands of Jews worldwide. Many have initiated their own Talmud study and attempt to join world Jewry for the next celebration in 7½ years. Many more have begun some sort of Torah study, at whatever level he or she may be on.
What I would recommend for you is one recently launched in Dallas called “Partners in Torah.” It is the local branch of an international organization,
partnersintorah.org, which matches up Jews around the world with a study partner, a mentor, to study by phone weekly. The local branch is run by my organization DATA, meeting weekly Monday nights 8-9, featuring refreshments and a warm, inviting atmosphere. Dozens of “partners in Torah,” men and women all join together with a mentor. The mentor, assigned by the program, works out to study whatever area of Judaism interests the student, at their own level. With the one-on-one discussion that ensues, there’s no comparison between studying alone and studying with another! Especially in a room filled with like-minded Jews, all seeking a better understanding of our tradition.
To join this wonderful, meaningful (free of charge!) program or for more information, please contact Binyomin Epstein,
binyomine@gmail.com.
May the inspiration of the Siyum HaShas bring you and many others to renewed learning and growing in our rich heritage!

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Ketubah’s aim is to protect the bride

Posted on 20 January 2020 by admin

Firstly, I thank you for your weekly article which enriches our weekend, and we look forward to it all week! Could you please explain what exactly is a ketubah; is it a document of sorts or is it part of the actual act of the Jewish wedding? Why do some people hang it on their wall?
Barbara L.

Dear Barbara,
During the early stages of the wedding ceremony, the first order of business is the completion, signing and witnessing of the ketubah, or marriage contract. This contract is required by rabbinic law and, according to some Talmudic authorities, actually dates back to Biblical times.
The ketubah, which is traditionally read out loud under the chuppah, is written in Aramaic, which was the spoken language of the Jews during Talmudic times when the wording was institutionalized. This document details the husband’s obligations to his wife, including food, clothing, dwelling and intimacy mandated by the Torah. The ketubah, which is a legally binding document, also creates a lien on all his property and his estate to pay his wife a sum of money should he divorce her or predecease her.
The document is signed by two witnesses, who have observed the groom’s acceptance of all the obligations within the ketubah by way of a kinyan, a type of acquisition effected by lifting up an object given to him by the rabbi officiating. The ketubah, once signed, has the status of a legally binding agreement in Jewish law, which in some countries is also enforceable by civil law.
The ketubah is not part of the actual betrothal or the wedding per se, but is a prerequisite for the wedding to take place once the financial agreements, enacted by the Talmudic sages, are in place. The Ketubah was enacted as a protection of the rights of the bride, and the sages did not allow the wedding to commence until that protection is in place. (Some, today, have the practice to enact a halachic prenuptial agreement as well.)
The ketubah is the wife’s possession and it remains in her care. It must remain in a safe place throughout the couple’s married life, such as in a safe or safety deposit box, as it serves as a sort of standing license in Jewish law for the couple to live as man and wife.
Because the ketubah is the tangible evidence of this momentous occasion in their new life together, it is sometimes decorated or written as an illuminated manuscript. Some couples frame it and display it in their home as a meaningful work of art, one which testifies to their home being built upon the timeless foundation of the chuppah and meaningful concepts of the Jewish wedding.

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What does it mean to be holy?

Posted on 08 January 2020 by admin

Dear Rabbi,
What is the Jewish meaning of “holiness”?
D.M.


Dear D.,
There is an age-old custom for Jewish children to begin their learning of scripture with the difficult book of Vayikra (Leviticus). At first glance, this custom seems strange. The general topics include Temple offerings and spiritual purity. It isn’t an easy book. When choosing which book of the Torah to begin with, the obvious choice would seem be Genesis, the Beginning, the story of creation which also offers a plethora of entertaining narratives — or perhaps Exodus, which discusses the making of the Jewish nation.
Indeed, this question was asked, and answered, during the times of the early sages, “Why do young school children begin their Chumash learning with Vayikra and not with Bereishit (Genesis)? Because small children are innocent and pure, and Vayikra discusses the offerings, that are pure, unblemished, and which restore spiritual purity to a person. Therefore, it is fitting that the pure begin their education with the topic of purity.’” (Midrash, Leviticus Rabboh 7:3, Midrash Tanchuma Tzav #14)
Along the same lines, Vayikra is sometimes called “the book of holiness and sanctity,” for that is its theme. The English term for holy (and purity) brings with it a variety of connotations and imagery — much of which comes from other cultures. I have often asked people to tell me what images or words come to mind when they hear “holy” and the answer (“the search for the holy grail” or hearing “silent night, holy night” …) is infused with legends and foreign values and proves hard to qualify in any language.
The Jewish concept of holiness, kedushah, carries an entirely different flavor. While the theme is featured more prominently in this volume of the Five Books of Moses, the root word permeates the Hebrew language (which itself is called the “holy tongue”) from Scripture, the standard blessings for commandments, our prayers, the term for marriage, the name for the Temple, and so on — suggesting that the Jewish concept of holiness is not simply an abstract religious term but extends to our daily activities.
What does it mean for something to be “holy”?
On the one hand, to be holy is to be distinctly removed from the physical. This characteristic is reserved for the Creator, Who is entirely transcendent — separate from creation. Accordingly, one may uncover within the world, the good, the noble, the beautiful and the exceptional — but all is still worldly, distant from “holiness.” On the other hand, there are countless references to holiness within the world, implying some middle ground. And, it is the latter concept of levels within holiness that presents a most fascinating component to Judaism.
How does it work?
To begin with, the commentaries relate a type of holiness that comes only through human action. The holiness of the land of Israel is brought about through the observance of the commandments within it. Likewise, the Shabbat day is made holy through man’s sanctification as in “Remember the Shabbat day to make it holy…” The human being fulfills the command to “Be holy, for I your G-d, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2) by refraining from certain activities, by mastering one’s natural tendencies, or through noble intent behind action.
Yet there are also references to an imminent holiness, one that is independent of our action either because it is inherited or inherent. In this vein, Maimonides writes (in his Laws of the Temple 6:16), “why do I say that the original consecration sanctified the Temple and Jerusalem for eternity… Because the sanctity of the Temple and Jerusalem stems from the Shechinah which can never be nullified… as the Talmud declares: (Megillah 28a) ‘Even though they have been devastated, their sanctity remains.’” It is holiness within the land that, once present, can never be nullified through one’s deeds.
The same idea holds true in time and with people: There is holiness inherent within the Shabbat and festive days, irrespective of human experience or embrace. During our prayer services, the Kohanim ascend the platform to bless the congregation and utter the famous blessing which states “who has sanctified us with the holiness of Aaron” — a quality that is inherited, not earned.
To be sure, to declare that something or someone has a quality of holiness certainly does not imply that it needs to be worshipped, and no commentary within the Jewish religion would ever say such a thing. We only worship G-d. Yet the Biblical, legal, philosophical, and mystical sources alike speak of the dissemination of holiness over creation, and even over this world of ours, in its abovementioned dimensions of time, space and the human being.
One of the further novelties in Jewish thought is the precise qualification of different levels and gradations of holiness. In the land of Israel, for example, the highest level was the site where the “Holy of Holies” stood. Providing the practical application in Jewish law, Maimonides writes: “the land of Israel has ten gradations of holiness, each higher than the preceding level.” Likewise, with objects, the Mishna states: “Objects used for the performance of a mitzvah may be thrown away, [since no sanctity attaches to the object after its use]. But objects which are accessory to sacred items cannot be discarded…”
The highest level within these objects is the sanctity of the Torah scroll.
The latter is a phenomenon in Jewish culture and law that we take for granted. The simple physical materials of ink and parchment, when combined to form a Torah scroll in the prescribed manner, are wondrously transformed into a “holy object” that has numerous implications in how it is handled and respected.
Indeed, this is the Jewish child’s first visual introduction to holiness.
As the Torah is carried through the aisles of the synagogue, he or she can watch as the people rise, extend their hand to kiss the Torah. The value placed on this object and the tender attention given to it is more than the wisdom than the words convey, and more than the skilled labor and materials. It is not a work of literature or art, but something mysteriously beyond. This awareness of holiness later develops into a more academic and sophisticated discussion, but the intuitive appreciation, one that defies logic and reaches to the core, never leaves. Indeed, there are moving stories of Jews rushing in to burning synagogues in Germany and Poland to save the Torah scroll.
In conclusion, even the most rational Jewish philosophers and codifiers of law devote attention to clarifying these levels of holiness, within a concrete and logical system. This combination of the legal and rational intertwined the ethereal and mystical is one of the beautiful aspects of Jewish thought. Finally, the complexity of the book in the Chumash sends this overriding message to the child and adult alike. The child, innocent and pure, initially takes the holiness for granted and then learns to develop the mind while the sophisticated adult must strip away the layers of complexity and foreign ideologies to revisit “the call” of Vayikra — to stay pure.

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Is it appropriate to say Kaddish for a pet?

Posted on 02 January 2020 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
My cat recently died, and I want to know if it’s appropriate for me to recite the Kaddish prayer for her? In case this sounds ludicrous, allow me to explain. My ex-wife and I never had children, and we have been divorced for nearly 10 years. Through this past, painful decade, this cat has been a big part of my life; she gave me a lot more than I gave her. She gave me connection, she was a cure to my loneliness, and she gave me something to love. Now all that’s gone and all that remains is a hole of loneliness. I know sitting shiva would be going too far, but I thought that going to say Kaddish for her would make up for some of that loss.
Murray G.
Dear Murray,
I am very sorry for your loss. I once had a glimpse into how painful this must be for you when I lost my beloved dog Cookie as a young boy; my pet had been hit by a car. I vividly remember how intensely I cried and mourned her loss for weeks, walking around and collecting whatever hairs I could find; she was, at the time, the center of my life. I’m sure you are experiencing the same — and perhaps even more — pain. Pets can become part of our hearts.
Kaddish, however, is not the appropriate response to the loss of a pet, no matter how beloved the pet was and how mournful is its loss. This is based upon the understanding of what Kaddish means as a mourner’s prayer. If one takes a cursory glance at the words of Kaddish, looking for the mention of the deceased and the prayer for their soul, they will be shocked to find no mention whatsoever of mourning, death or anyone’s soul! How, then, is Kaddish meant to be a “mourner’s prayer”?!
The answer goes to the core of what it means to be a Jew. The primary responsibility of a Jew in this world is to effect a “Kiddush HaShem,” a sanctification of the Name of God. The way a Jew relates to another human being, whether in synagogue or a business setting, in public, or the privacy of one’s home, every act a Jew performs should bring nachas to the Al-mighty. Anyone, Jew or Gentile, who observes the actions of a Jew should be inspired to become greater and emulate the respectful, caring and truthful conduct of that Jew. Although we often fall short of that expectation and at times our conduct is less than inspirational, overall the life of a Jew who fulfills mitzvos and the will of God is living a life of Kiddush HaShem.
The loss of a Jew, any Jew, is empirically a net loss of Kiddush HaShem in the world. Even if their life was not so holy, their very existence as part of the Jewish people made the Jewish people stronger; the sum total of the Jewish people is a Kiddush HaShem. As a member of Klal Yisroel, the Jewish nation, that person’s life was that of Kiddush HaShem; their demise minimized somewhat the level of Kiddush HaShem in the world.
Kaddish is related to the word Kiddush. What Kaddish is all about is a proclamation of the greatness of the Name of God and His dominion over the world. It’s about stating out loud that God is the King of the universe and us asking Him to extend his reign into our everyday lives and all that we do. It is the ultimate statement of Kiddush HaShem. When a Jew leaves the world and effects a net loss in Kiddush HaShem, those the person left behind recite the most powerful statement we have to make up a little for that loss. To do so brings untold bliss to the soul of the deceased, as he or she continues to effect Kiddush HaShem in the world through those they left behind.
All of this would, of course, not apply to a pet. As much as they were beloved, they were not endowed with an eternal soul to be elevated and their existence did not effect a Kiddush Hashem, rendering the recitation of Kaddish for them inappropriate.
I would, however, recommend that you attend services and pray along with others without reciting Kaddish; it will be good for your own soul and will give meaning to the loss of your cat as a positive outcome will have been effected as the result of her loss. I also recommend you contact the Jewish Family Service and see in what way you can volunteer your time to help others; that will give you the kind of meaningful, positive connection you understandably crave and can attain in a very deep, meaningful way by bringing a bit more light and happiness into the lives of others.

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Where should we light the Hanukkah lights?

Posted on 18 December 2019 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
I once spent Hanukkah in Jerusalem and noticed that most people lit their menorahs in glass boxes outside their doorways or at the entrance to their courtyards. I’ve never seen that done back home; we have always lit inside in the window or just on the dining room table. Why the discrepancy between Israel and the Diaspora?
Sylvia P.

Dear Sylvia,
The Talmud states, “The light of Hanukkah; its mitzvah is to (light) it at the doorway, outside the house. If one lives on a higher floor, he places it in the window which faces the public thoroughfare. In times of danger (from hostile Gentiles) place it upon the table and that is sufficient.” (Talmud, Shabbos 21b)
The basic principle of this teaching is pirsumei nisa, meaning the lighting of the candles was enacted in order to publicize the miracles of Hanukkah. That is why we are to place the lights in the optimal location in or adjacent to one’s home which would publicize the miracle to the greatest number of onlookers.
Hence the custom in Israel of lighting outside the home, such as in a glass box, as this attracts far more attention than lighting inside, even at the window. Only one who lived on a higher floor and didn’t have a doorway which faced the public thoroughfare was allowed to light in his window.
(One fulfills the mitzvah only when the lights are in some way connected to the home or place of residence; to light in the street or in a public place, such as at a mall, fulfills no mitzvah whatsoever although it may be a place which would greatly publicize the miracle.)
The Talmud concludes: “In times of danger, place it upon the table and that is sufficient.” (Talmud Shabbos, ibid.) Historically, in the anti-Semitic atmosphere of much of our Diaspora, to light outside the home in such a public way may have caused danger to the individual or even to the entire Jewish community.
The rabbis enacted that under such circumstances one could fulfill the mitzvah of lighting in an alternative manner — without exhibiting the lights publicly. This is by lighting them inside the house, solely publicizing the miracles to the members of one’s own household.
The question arises: If one lives in the Diaspora in a place where anti-Semitism is not rampant or tolerated and there is no danger for one to light outside, should one then light the menorah outside as is the preferred way of lighting? This question has been the subject of discussion by authorities of Jewish law for many generations.
Most authorities maintain the following: Although lighting outside may be safe in one locale, there are always places in the Diaspora where danger still lurks as anti-Semitism is still alive and well. Dallas may be safe as we’re surrounded by friendly neighbors, but in many parts of France and Europe (or even Dearborn, Michigan), it would be quite dangerous to publicly exhibit a Jewish practice. These authorities maintain that we view all of the Diaspora as one locale: If it’s dangerous in one place, the “danger enactment” applies to the next place as well despite its relative safety.
This explains the discrepancy:
• In Israel, most continue the principal Talmudic ruling of lighting outside.
• In the Diaspora, most adopt the custom of lighting inside.
(For an in-depth discussion of this, see my newly published “Maadanei Shlomo,” pp. 230-232.)
We anxiously await the final miracle that of the redemption of our people, when we will all light the candles in the ideal way in the Land of Israel!

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Kabbalah’s rich history explained

Posted on 11 December 2019 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
I have noticed that you often offer explanations to the Torah from the “Kabbalists” or “Kabbalistic Masters.” Who are these people and how do they differ from the standard rabbinical analyses and explanations? Are they Jewish mystics?
Micheal W.
Dear Micheal,
When God uttered the Ten Commandments, He miraculously conveyed the message to each and every Jew at the exact level of understanding that he or she could fathom. So, too, with the entirety of Torah, it was transmitted with myriad levels of meaning, from the most simple level to the most profound, esoteric understanding. Each letter and word of Torah is like a disk which contains reams of information, to be played in the minds of the Jew studying it. (See, for example, the story of Moses receiving the Torah at Sinai with reference to Rabbi Akiva in Talmud Menachos 29b.)
There is a level of perception, befitting every Jew’s mind, commitment to understanding and ability, to penetrating the depths of Torah.
The deepest of those levels, passed down by God at Sinai to Moses, is Kabbalah. Kabbalah is not an independent system of mystical thought which exists externally from Torah. It is, rather, the most profound level of understanding of the Torah, fulfillment of the mitzvot and God’s relationship to man and the world. It teaches the innate holiness of Man as created in the Image of God and all that is contained within that statement, how Man is a microcosm of all that God created in the world and universe. It informs us of the cosmic impact we have upon the entire universe by our actions, greatly amplifying the importance of mitzvot and punctuating the ripple effect we have by studying Torah and fulfilling the will of God.
The bulk of Kabbalistic literature is based upon the magnum opus of Kabbalah, the “Zohar.” The “Zohar,” which means “the glow,” is a commentary to the Torah. It was written in Aramaic by the Mishnaic sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who lived after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Rabbi Shimon, who is quoted profusely throughout the Mishna and Talmud, was one of the greatest sages in all Jewish history. All later Kabbalistic sages base their works on interpretations of the “Zohar,” which contains the foundations of all Kabbalistic thought. There are other contemporary works of Kabbalah as well, but none that contain the breadth and detail of the “Zohar.”
The word “Kabbalah” means “the receiving,” referring to the way the Oral Torah was once transmitted, by word-of-mouth from rebbe (master) to student. In fact, all of the Oral Torah was transmitted in this way; Moses himself “received” the Oral Tradition from God Himself at Sinai, which was called “Kabbalah” (Mishna, Avos 1:1). The reason this more mystical portion of the Torah is called “Kabbalah” more than the rest is because it was only handed down to a select few in each generation: those who were considered its most insightful sages.
Since R’ Shimon, the most recognized luminary of Kabbalah was the 16th-century sage Rabbi Yitzchok Luria of Egypt and Safed, Israel. Known as the Ari z”l, the “Lion of blessed memory,” R’ Luria used his genius to develop the thoughts contained in the “Zohar” into a complete system, known as Lurian Kabbalah. He revolutionized, and in many ways popularized, the study of Kabbalah, making it more understandable, and at the same time revealed its intense profundity. He reinforced the tradition that only one deeply versed in the “revealed Torah” could possibly understand the “hidden Torah.”
Based on the Lurianic teachings, many later Kabbalists developed introductory works, enabling students who so desired to have a path in beginning these studies. Some very good books have been written which filter down some of these concepts in a way that a layman can have some grasp of them. These were written by their authors with the hopes of enhancing the joy, depth and meaning of mitzvah observance by the Jewish people.
One needs to be very careful, however, as various cultish, charlatan organizations have sprung up in our generation which can be very misleading and often grossly misrepresent the true meanings of Kabbalah.
The Kabbalistic portion of the Torah is said to be hinted to in its entirety in the image of the Chariot in the beginning of the Book of Daniel. I heard from my mentor in Jerusalem the reason for this: that the Kabbalistic teachings explain to us how we are moving ahead, like a chariot, toward the final redemption.
Please feel free to contact me and I will be happy to point you to either a book or a local class where you could learn more about this subject, depending upon your objectives. There is a meaningful point of entry into the study of Torah and its profundity for all Jews.

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Surprising book finds at the airport

Posted on 11 December 2019 by admin

I’ve spent an awful lot of time lately in airports — first, several trips to Pittsburgh during the illness and ultimately the death of my last uncle, then more to New York as my sister entered hospice and several weeks later passed away. I find it easy to sleep on planes, but sometimes the way I travel requires plane changes that also require fairly long stints of airport sitting. What I do with that time is read. I always carry a book with me, but more often than not I can finish it while I wait, and then I comb the airport stores for others. And for me, there is no such thing as an unsuccessful search for another book!
On one of those trips I purchased “The Tattooist of Auschwitz,” a novel based on truth. It is the telling of a real person, Lale Sokolov, whose assignment by the camp’s Nazis was the tattooing of numbers on incoming prisoners who had been sent to the right upon entry — meaning life of horrific work, but life nevertheless, not immediate death in the gas chambers.
Many people say that we have had enough Holocaust books already: biographies and memoirs of survivors as well as fiction based on their incarcerated lives, plus the tales told by their children and even grandchildren as memories were finally released and reactions made their ways into print.
However, I strongly disagree; I believe all these stories need to be told, these books must be written, for the peace of survivors and the understanding of all who have followed them and been affected by their past histories. But I continue to be surprised by finding them among the more popular novels and self-help books that are the primary offerings of airport souvenir and food emporia.
The next one I found is very different, but equally important and necessary because of our own country’s history, with its long unsolved problems that keep bubbling up from the past to cause foment in the present. As I read “White Fragility,” subtitled “Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” I kept shaking my head in recognition, nodding it in agreement, and thanking author Robin DiAngelo for daring to put into print what she’s found as hard truths in her 20-plus years of dealing with racial and social justice issues. I hope many people — particularly white people — will read this book, which may help us understand how our nation got into the racial divide that seems to continue widening even today. Again, I was surprised to find it for sale at an airport — particularly one in the southern city where I bought it.
A much easier read than the two above is “Not Our Kind” by Kitty Zeldis. I’d call it a contemporary take on what those of us who have already lived a long time will remember from the 1947 novel and subsequent film called “Gentleman’s Agreement,” a look at how we Jews of that time were discriminated against by the Christian majority through the eyes of a Christian posing as a Jew. The new book is a pleasant story, but after reading it, I’ve gone back to the earlier one, which has far more “teeth” in it.
And finally, my most recent purchase: “Never Look Back,” a book of the type I often see in airport stores but have never bought before. I made this exception because the author is Alison Gaylin, the pen name of a prolific author of bestselling novels who is the daughter of Beverly Sloane, a longtime Jewish friend from our time together at National Federation of Press Women conferences. But I have yet to read it. Truth told: I may never read it…
A word of caution: Do not take too seriously what “New York Times bestseller” means. Because of book club growth these days, many mediocre escapist novels sell better than volumes of far more lasting value.

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Joy starts on the inside

Posted on 04 December 2019 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
I have recently been bombarded by a number of downturns in my personal life: trouble with my teenage kids, health issues with my husband, and, of course, issues with the bank. I am groping to find a way to find joy in life despite all this. I know you’ll say just trust in God, but right now that’s not enough; do you have something I can grab onto to perhaps have some simcha in my life?
Marcella L.


Dear Marcella,
Allow me to relate to you a story I heard from my dear rebbe, R’ Yosel Tzeinvirt ob’m of Jerusalem.
Reb Yosel often would tell the story of a group of downtrodden Jews who traveled to visit the famed 18th-century Polish Chasidic master, Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk. Each member of the group presented his “pekela tzarus,” his package of problems — sickness, poverty, etc. — and asked his advice how to deal with their situations. The Rebbe advised that if they want an answer they should go to the nearby study hall and present their issues to his brother, Reb Zushya of Anipoli. The group entered the study hall, asking for Reb Zushya. A man at the door pointed out Reb Zushya: He’s the one over there with the torn suit which, due to his abject poverty, he cannot afford to fix or replace. His wife and children are home sick, with a leaking roof over their dilapidated house. The group approached Reb Zushya, saying they had come to Reb Elimelech to receive his advice how to deal with their many problems and issues. Reb Zushya, taken totally by surprise, apologized that there must be some mistake in being sent to him. “I’m sorry I’m not able to advise you; I have no problems in my life, baruch Hashem (thank God) I have all I need and have exactly what is intended for me, so I can’t really relate to your problems and issues; perhaps you should go back to my brother and revisit your problems with him!”
Needless to say, the men got their answer!
Reb Yosel, without intending to do so, was actually describing himself! He lived most of his life with a very serious, life threatening heart disease which prevented him from giving the lectures he so desired to deliver, and lived in poverty in the most simple of homes in the Meah She’arim section of Jerusalem. Despite this, none of us ever witnessed anyone whose joy and ecstasy even approached the simcha R’ Yosel expressed every day. He and his Rebbetzin would open their meager home to us all, sharing the little they had while their love and joy in life far transcended the minimal physical trappings they had to offer. Those who had much more would visit Reb Yosel, invariably walking away far richer than he or she had originally entered, envying the “riches” of that home which, in his own words, “lacked everything and at the same time lacked nothing”!
Joy, we learned from Reb Yosel, is not something which comes from outside-in, depending upon circumstances. It is, rather, a human condition which flows from inside-out, with no bearing or relation to the actual situation one is found in. Consider a poverty-stricken woman who just won a million dollars in the lottery standing next to a woman who had two million dollars and just lost a million on a deal that went south. They presently both are in the exact same financial condition; but will they have the same mood? Is their mood reflective merely of the situation, or of their interpretation of their circumstances?
Attempt to focus on the blessings of your life, and look at them as challenges to overcome in the game of life, unique challenges endowed to you by Divine wisdom. The inner joy of that connection can overcome any external situation from putting a damper on the innate joy of your soul.

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Judaism’s formula for happiness? Choose joy!

Posted on 20 November 2019 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
I have been challenged finding joy in life given my present situation. My former financial standing has been considerably lessened by the recent downturn, putting my retirement in question. On top of that some physical issues, and some more with my kids. Does Judaism have a formula for happiness?
Bob J.


Dear Bob,
A great Chasidic master, R’ Nachman of Breslav, was famous for his statement which formed one of the key the foundations of his Chasidic court: “Mitzvah gedolah li’hiyos b’simcha tamid,” or “It is a great mitzvah to be joyous at all times.”
How can Simcha, joy, be a mitzvah? Either we feel happy or we don’t! We aren’t in control of our feelings! If a mitzvah is a commandment, how can one be commanded to do so, especially “at all times”? Let us focus on the Mishna, which states “Who is a rich man? One who has joy in his portion” (Mishna Avos 4:1). This is a very new definition of wealth. The rabbis are saying it’s not defined by what’s in your bank account, rather it’s a state of mind. If one has joy in her stock portfolio, even if it’s way down, she is, according to the Mishna, rich.
Let’s go a step further: The Mishna does not say “one who is satisfied with his portion,” rather “has joy in his portion.” If the “portion” is not so significant, what is the source of that joy?
The answer to this is twofold:
•First, it is predicated upon the core Jewish belief of Bitachon, or Trust. Bitachon teaches us that whatever our situation is, monetarily and otherwise, at any given time, is exactly what we’re supposed to have at that moment. It is the belief and trust that the Al-mighty is constantly watching out for us and giving us, or withholding from us, exactly what we’re due. This foundational Jewish belief brings one to a state of inner peace and calm. Those feelings are the underpinnings of simcha, joy. Worries and fears are the antithesis of joy; tranquility and serenity are its basis.
•Second, is the focus upon the myriad blessings which are contained within life itself. The Jewish sages of old wrote entire treatises, focusing upon the myriad blessings which occur every moment of our existence — things we take for granted due to their everyday commonness and familiarity. This is one of the reasons Jews make 100 blessings every day (Talmud Menachos 43b, Shulchan Aruch O’Ch 46:3), to literally “count our blessings” and take joy in the many amazing gifts we do have, rather than focus upon what we don’t. To be truly cognizant of all of one’s blessings in life will bring joy into whatever portion we have, because there is, indeed, so much to be joyful about!
These concepts allow us to build up within ourselves reservoirs of simcha which can take us through the more difficult times, like a canteen of water in the desert.
This brings to mind my grandmother, of blessed memory, who was never a well-to-do woman. In her final years, she would look upon a picture of her grandchildren and exclaim, “See that, there’s my million dollars!”
I’m presently reading a beautiful book, “Holy Woman” (Shaar Press), on the life of Rebbetzin Chaya Sara Kramer. Despite experiencing the hellish hardships of Auschwitz, she was always full of joy. She learned from her mother that joy is not the result of a particular life situation, rather the cause of a well-lived life. Joy is a choice, not an outcome. Rebbetzin Kramer was the only one left alive of all her siblings to be used by the sadistic Dr. Mengele for his inhuman experiments, leaving her barren. When asked by the author how she could always be happy despite not having the children she so craved to mother, she replied “What! I should be both barren and sad?!”
The German Jewish psychiatrist Victor Frankl used his experiences in Auschwitz to pioneer a new field of psychology, logotherapy. (In fact, Dr. Frankl writes that he discovered logotherapy before the war, and the camps became his laboratory to test and further develop this now-renowned theory of psychology.) In his “Man’s Search for Meaning” he outlines the subhuman conditions and barbarism of the camps, and saw in some of the inmates, including himself, that how one reacts to those conditions is a choice. All life, even that of the lowest “quality,” has meaning given that one looks for that meaning. These two Jews, Kramer and Frankl, embodied in many ways the Jewish concepts of joy. If Rebbetzin Kramer and Victor Frankl could find meaning and joy in the abyss of hell on earth, certainly we can do so even if our finances or other life situations are less than perfect!
Itzhak Perlman, the violin virtuoso, once made his slow ascent to the stage, dragging his polio-stricken legs to the chair for his concert. When he began, one string snapped. Everyone knows one can only play a violin with four strings, so the audience braced themselves for the slow reattaching of his leg braces and off the stage to have his instrument fixed and return. After a moment’s contemplation, Perlman suddenly exhibited his genius by playing his piece, somehow compensating for the lost string. When he finished, there was a shocked, prolonged silence in the room, followed by a thunderous standing ovation. Perlman raised his hand to silence the audience, saying, “Sometimes you need to play with what you have left.”

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Take heart: the body and soul connection

Posted on 13 November 2019 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
In reciting “the Shema,” in the first paragraph it says you should not be swayed “after your heart.” I have always wondered why there and other places in the Torah that I have read it refers to “thoughts of the heart,” when we know that thoughts are in the brain?
Zachary B.
Dear Zachary, For years I was perplexed by this question and fascinated that in Western civilization and earlier secular literature, emotions and thoughts are also attributed to the heart, perhaps following the Torah’s lead.
An insight on this is that the heart, besides its physical role of pumping blood throughout the body, in Judaism is given a unique role as we shall attempt to explain.
A human is not a soul — or just a body — but the union of the two. At what point in the human body do these two opposites — body and soul — meet?
The deeper sources in Torah explain that the principal seat of the soul is said to be in the brain, while the main bodily organ representing physicality is the liver. The heart is the chamber where the body and soul meet and join, fusing together to make a human being. Just as the heart pumps the oxygen-enriched blood throughout the body, providing nourishment for its cells, the heart “pumps” the connection of the soul throughout the physical body.
This idea helps explain a profound message in the tefillin. One box, comprised of four smaller boxes, is worn on the head corresponding to the four lobes of the brain. This sanctifies our thoughts. The other box, worn on the upper arm, infuses holiness into our physical actions. The latter is supposed to be tipped toward the heart, as the heart is the place where the physical and the spiritual are combined.
Not to “sway after your heart” means not to allow the physicality of the body to overcome the soul, as it potentially could, because the two are connected at the heart.
Later the Shema says to “put these words (of Torah) upon your heart”; with thoughts of Torah one’s entire being becomes a miniature tabernacle of holiness — body and soul working in unison.
This enables us to take a new look at the common statement that it’s enough to be “Jewish in the heart.” (I call that a “Jewish heart condition”!) To truly be “Jewish in the heart” one needs to combine one’s thoughts and actions to serve God; the heart combines the two. Otherwise, to just think Jewish thoughts without actions would be only “Jewish in the brain” — missing the heart!
We should strive to be wholesome, complete Jews, meshing every area of our existence into our Jewish mission, with complete hearts.

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