Archive | Ask the Rabbi

Shavuot isn’t about a ritual

Posted on 16 May 2018 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
This year, we were invited to an observant family for a meal on the eve of Shavuot. We’re 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 W.
Dear Noah and Sarena,
Shavuos is the day the Jewish people celebrate the anniversary of God giving us the Torah. This year it falls on Saturday night, May 19, corresponding to the Jewish date of 6 Sivan, and we are commemorating the 3,330th anniversary of our nation standing at the foot of Mount Sinai.
Shavuos is not a “minor holiday,” but is mentioned in the Torah numerous times.
Just for the record, although it seems to be a commonly held concept, there actually is no notion of a “minor holiday” in Judaism. There are Torah-mandated holidays and rabbinically-mandated holidays, such as Purim and Hanukkah, but even those are not considered “minor.” All the holidays, regardless of their level of obligation, are considered of the highest importance, and all made it to the “major” leagues.
Shavuos is a critical holiday, the source of our nationhood — God’s presenting us with our mission as a nation. But don’t be embarrassed by not knowing much about it — you’re in good company. I have found that many Jews who are proud to be Jewish and very cognizant about Passover and Hanukkah have no idea about Shavuot.
I think one reason for this is that the other holidays have some tangible observance around which the holiday revolves. Pesach has its matzoh, refraining from bread and the entire Seder experience. Sukkot has its sukkah, etrog and lulav. Hanukkah has its menorah, and Purim has the Megillah and all the joyous festivities that accompany it.
Shavuos, on the other hand, has no such concrete, tangible ritual article or observance 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 Shavuos, besides the holiday meals and cheesecake, is the study of Torah. It is customary in congregations worldwide to spend a portion of Shavuos 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.
On this holiday we celebrate that Jewish continuity truly depends upon the study of Torah.
It is a well-known fact that, throughout Jewish history, any community that did not maintain institutions of Jewish learning assimilated within two to three generations. That is true even if it began as an observant community. Less observant communities that, nonetheless, remained staunch in their study of Torah always endured. This is 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 that transpired when a friend of his visited pre-perestroika Russia. Customs authorities asked him the reason for his visit. He answered that he was there as a tourist. They proceeded to open his suitcases and emptied out the contents, finding many mezuzos, shofars, tallitot, many pairs of tefillin, and books of 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, “these are the enemies of the people.”
Those communist customs officials realized that the strength of the Jewish people comes from their study of Torah. Let us realize this as well.
May this Shavuot holiday be for you and all of us a renewed acceptance of the study of Torah. Chag Sameach, a wonderful Shavuos holiday to you and all the readers.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Tzitzis are a constant reminder of 613 mitzvos

Posted on 10 May 2018 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
Thank you for your explanation of the “necktie tallis.” As I mentioned in my first email, once we’re discussing the particulars of the tallis, could you please offer some insight about what a tallis is all about? If it’s meant to be a prayer shawl, wouldn’t it be sufficient to just be a particular, set-aside garment for prayer? Why the strings? (I got the strings-attached joke, but really?)
Mark K.
Dear Mark,
Although a tallis is used primarily as a prayer garment, the mitzvah of tzitzis, or wearing special strings on the corners of a four-cornered garment, goes far beyond just the time of prayer. This is implicit in the mitzvah to wear tzitzis throughout the entire day — as observant Jewish males perform by wearing the tallis katan or “small tallis” all day (usually under one’s shirt).
We can understand this on multiple levels. Let us begin by studying the portion of the Torah that presents this mitzvah — the third paragraph of the daily recitation of the Shema.
“God spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them that they shall make for themselves tzitzis on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations. And they shall place upon the tzitzis of each corner a thread of turquoise wool. It shall constitute tzitzis for you, that you may see and remember all the commandments of God and perform them; and not sway after your heart and after your eyes after which you stray. So that you may remember and perform all My commandments and be holy unto your God. I am Ha-Shem your God, Who has redeemed you from the land of Egypt to be a God unto you, I am Ha-shem your God.’” (Numbers, 15:37-41)
From this portion, we see that the tzitzis are intended to serve as a constant reminder of the mitzvos, in order not to sway away from them.
The classical commentator Rashi explains the above verse — that by seeing the tzitzis, one remembers all of the mitzvos — by way of a calculation of the numerical value of the word tzitzis, plus the number of strings and knots, which add up to the number 613, the number of the mitzvos in the Torah. This doesn’t mean that one is expected to constantly have that calculation in mind. Rather, since one knows there is such a calculation, which qualifies the intent of tzitzis to remember all the mitzvos, one indeed can use the tzitzis as a vehicle to keep the mitzvos in mind all day while wearing them.
The Talmud cites an extreme example of a Jew who was on his way to committing a very low moral crime with a harlot, and his tzitzis hit him in the face, “waking him up” and reminding him of who he is and what he’s about to do. The harlot was so impressed that she converted to Judaism. (Talmud Menachos 44a)
The Talmud further comments on the requirement to add a string of turquoise that the turquoise looks like the sea, which looks like the sky, which reminds us of God’s throne in heaven. This constant thought elevates the Jewish people to a higher plane, propelling us above sin as we remain deeply connected to heavenly thoughts. (Talmud ibid. 43b)
(Today, as I am sure you noticed, most do not wear the blue strings. That is because the dye needs to come from a rare species of fish called a chilazon, and most authorities hold that during the exile we lost the knowledge of what that species is. There are some who do wear it, following the opinion of some authorities who hold that we have, indeed, found that fish and produce dye from it.)
This is the simple explanation of the mitzvah of tzitzis. Perhaps next time we’ll take a deeper look…

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got the strings

Posted on 03 May 2018 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
I was visiting religious cousins in Israel and brought my tallis with me. When I wore it, one of their kids said I shouldn’t wear it, he called it a “necktie tallis” and said I don’t get the mitzvah by wearing it. That was painful for me to hear, because this was the tallis given to me by my late grandfather for my bar mitzvah and, as much as I’ve worn a tallis, I’ve used it ever since. Could you please let me know if what I was told is correct, and what would be the reason? Maybe, once we’re at it, it would be good to understand a little more what the mitzvah of a tallis is all about.
Mark K.
Dear Mark,
And you thought Judaism had no strings attached!
Sadly, your cousin is correct. Very unfortunately, untold numbers of well-intentioned, unsuspecting Jews go through their entire lives without ever fulfilling the mitzvah of tzitzis, which is the source of wearing a tallis. This is because the size doesn’t conform to the specifications necessary and it’s not being worn properly to fulfill the mitzvah. Furthermore, in most cases, the strings of the “necktie” tallis were not properly made in a way, or tied into the garment, which would fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzis.
As we have mentioned numerous times in these pages, the details of mitzvos do, in fact, matter. The world says that “the devil is in the details,” and we say that “God is in the details.” Many have asked if God really cares if a mitzvah is done with precisely this or that size object, with these or those specifications. The answer is a resounding yes. Each mitzvah was given with very precise particulars, and, without fulfilling those requirements, one has not yet achieved the desired result. Every mitzvah has a profound impact on the individual performing it, upon the world, and upon the upper spiritual worlds.
I think an appropriate analogy would be sending an email that never reached its destination because one period was left out of the address. The sender is so upset; it was so critical that the message reached the recipient on time to finish a deal…is it fair that it shouldn’t arrive and the whole deal was lost over a single dot? We all know that it’s not a question of fair. Without every dot, dash and letter, the email simply will not reach the intended destination and will not achieve the desired effect.
So, too, with mitzvos. The Al-mighty, with His infinite wisdom and understanding of the inner workings of an individual and the physical and spiritual universes, perceived precisely what it would take, with each mitzvah, to achieve the desired positive impact. If one doesn’t dot his or her i’s and cross the t’s, the spiritual email will not be delivered to its requisite inbox in heaven.
There are a range of opinions with regard to the minimum size of the tallis katan or tzitzis worn under the shirt all day. This range emanates from a statement in the Talmud (Menachos 40b), which states the garment needs to be the size for it to be able to cover the head and the majority of the body of a minor. There are disputes among authorities what age of a minor the Talmud is referring to, as well as the meaning of the majority. The most prevalent custom is 16 inches wide by 32 inches long, not including the hole for the head. (See Mishna Berurah 16:4.) This would cover most of the front and back sides of the torso. These minimum sizes apply to the large tallis as well.
With regards to the wearing of the large tallis, Jewish law requires it to be donned in the way of ituf, or “enwrapping” oneself. This means putting the tallis over one’s head and the majority of the body, pulling the entire bottom section with the strings toward the left, at least for the blessing, and holding it that way for about four seconds.
This is obviously only possible if the tallis is large enough to do so. To simply put it on one’s neck like a scarf would not fulfill the mitzvah, even if the tallis is very large. (See Mishna Berurah 8:3.)
After the blessing, some take it down from the head and leave it covering the upper section of the body, while others leave it covering the head throughout the prayer service. This brings one to the awe and fear of heaven while performing the prayer service.
The strings of the tallis need to be woven with the intent of using them for the mitzvah. They need to be inserted and tied into the four-cornered garment with that intent as well. The optimal strings to be used were handmade for that purpose.
I recently returned from Israel, where I try to always buy my tzitzis from a very holy Jew in Jerusalem from whom I’m confident the strings were woven and tied with the proper thought and intention.
I know it will be difficult to change from that which you received from your grandfather, as that tallis carries much sentimental value. You can certainly hold on to it for the memories contained within it. But for the sake of the mitzvah it’s certainly time to graduate from your bar mitzvah days and go to the next level, to be ensured to fulfill the mitzvah as required. And, I add with a wink, when you do so it will do much good for the soul of your grandfather as well.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Israel’s 70th anniversary significant in many ways

Posted on 19 April 2018 by admin

Dear Rabbi,
Everyone is talking about the significant milestone of Israel reaching its 70th anniversary of its birth, and we were wondering if there’s any Jewish significance to the number 70 in relation to this event.
— Marsha and Nathan W.

Dear Marsha and Nathan,
As a citizen of Israel with three children and five grandchildren (k’na hora) living there, this time means a lot to me and my family. (Especially since I’m landing there at 8 a.m. Yom HaAtzmaut morning to see a new grandson.)
This is truly a celebration of the Jewish spirit — that against all the odds, this tiny nation has grown, in such a relatively short time, to become a world power of significance far, far beyond its size in myriad areas. Medicine, sciences, psychology, computer technology, communication, irrigation and defense are some of the most significant, but only a few of the areas in which Israel has risen to the world stage, attracting the world’s most powerful and savvy investors into its market, purchasing its many startups, providing R&D dollars and more.
Of course, it goes without saying that Israel is at the forefront of the spiritual world, boasting many tens of thousands of rabbinical students and children involved in full-time Jewish education.
Sadly, Israel is also at the forefront of battles both physical and spiritual in nature. Despite its many accomplishments, Israel is probably the only country in the world in a constant state of high alert — for those who threaten its very existence. Just as fierce as battles have been, and continue to be, fought over the essence of its spiritual existence; in this case the battle is ,sadly, among fellow Jews.
The deeper side of these facts is that due to Israel’s elevated spiritual nature, its close proximity to the Al-mighty, there’s little room for the “middle of the road” in nearly any arena, no place for mediocrity. It almost fosters the fertile ground for extremism, both religious and secular, in a way that we don’t often observe in the diaspora.
The number 70 in Jewish history has always been a very significant one, such as the prophetic vision — which was fulfilled precisely — for the Jews to sojourn in Babylon for 70 years subsequent to the destruction of the Temple. At the end of those 70 years, the Jews were granted permission by the ruling monarch to return to Israel to rebuild the second Temple. After a long period of starting and stopping, and not without enemies and detractors standing in their way, it finally was rebuilt, ushering in a new period of Jewish history.
The number 7 connotes the fullest sense of the physical world: 7 days of the week, 7 musical tones, etc. The number 70 is the expanded sense of 7, the world with a sense of completion. The source of the Jewish nation was the 70 Jews who went down to Egypt. They were the seeds of Jewish eternity, as the Torah relates at the beginning of the Book of Exodus.
We only hope that this current 70, which is, in a way, a celebration of a rebuilding after the most recent destruction of Europe, will also usher in a new period in our history. Current events in Syria and the surrounding area certainly spell out the many prophesies of the final war, “Gog Umagog,” when the superpowers of the world are meant to battle around Israel, and suddenly realize it’s all about Israel, and the final battle will be turned to her, eliciting God’s own response, ushering in the final chapter of history and the messianic revelation. The headlines surely sound a lot like the prophetic teachings these days, in a scary but exciting way as we watch events unfold. I wish we could know the significance of these events with certainty, but, alas, we no longer have prophecy to know for sure (as I have said before, since the cessation of prophecy we have become a non-prophet organization.)
On one hand we look forward to that time we have long been waiting for; on the other hand, it is meant to be a very unpleasant pre-time of great war. The Sages ask, “How does one save himself from the ‘heat’ (preceding) the Messiah? Through the involvement of Torah study and performance of acts of kindness to fellow Jews.” (Talmud Sanhedrin 98b)
May we use this special time to fulfill the Talmud’s words. And may we soon merit to see the final redemption and ingathering of our people — once and for all — to our beloved homeland, with peace and love amongst all Jews.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Knots on Tefillin spell out the name of G-d

Posted on 12 April 2018 by admin

Dear Ben,
My apologies for the Pesach interlude while in the midst of answering your questions regarding your son’s Tefillin for his bar mitzvah. Now we’re back on track, and we’ll proceed to attempt to address the rest of your questions.
You asked what is the meaning of the various knots which are tied in the Tefillin straps. The knots are tied in a fascinating way, together spelling the name of G-d, Sha-dai; the Hebrew letters shin, dalet and yud (which is the same name of G-d on the outside of the mezuzah, hence the letter shin often symbolically carved on the mezuzah case).
The head Tefillin actually has the letter shin engraved upon it, and the letter shin is formed upon the hand when the strap is wrapped around the hand (in Ashkenazic and many other customs). The letter dalet is formed by the knot tying the head Tefillin. The yud is formed by the knot tying the hand tefillin. In this way, the Jew donning his Tefillin is enwrapped and cloaked by the name of G-d.
The Talmud says that this is in fulfillment of the verse,” And all the peoples of the earth shall see that the Name of G-d is called upon you and they shall be awed by you” (Deuteronomy. 28:10; see Talmud Menachos 35b). There are numerous stories throughout Jewish history in which Jews were saved or rescued by virtue of the awe-struck state of their persecutors when they were confronted by Jews wearing their Tefillin, cloaked by the Name of G-d and glowing with the holiness of His name. Sadly, that wasn’t always the case, such as many less happy endings in the Holocaust.
This concept is further alluding to a very deep connection between G-d and the Jewish people. The Talmud, (Berachos 6a) teaches that “G-d wears Tefillin.” Our Tefillin mirror His “Tefillin”; the awe the nations have for us when wearing Tefillin is indicative of the awe of G-d Himself. In our Tefillin, it says “Shema Yisrael … our Lord is One,” in the Al-mighty’s Tefillin it says, “Who is like Your people, Israel, One nation on earth…” (I Chron. 17:21). The Tefillin are an expression of the deep, intimate connection, the bonding of love and respect between G-d and the Jewish people.
This statement is actually one of the most mysterious teachings in the entire Talmud. G-d wears Tefillin? We believe G-d has no physical body. We are furthermore taught that when Moses asked G-d to show him the secret of Divine Providence, G-d showed him the “knot of His head Tefillin.” What does this mean?
One way of understanding this is the vital importance of Jewish history. Although we can’t fathom G-d directly, we can have insight into His ways by looking back into history, seeing how He interacts with us in myriad situations. This is the hint into G-d’s “Tefillin,” which are allegorically referring to His connection with us; the knot on the back of the head Tefillin — hinting to looking back into history. (This I heard in my youth from R’ Ahron Soloveichik ob’m).
We can follow this thought to another level. The deep sources teach us that chesed (love and kindness) are reflected in the right hand and din;(strict judgement) and power are in the left. This, teach the Kabbalistic sages, goes back to the source of creation and the emanations of G-d’s attributes in the highest spiritual worlds. The crown above it all, which is the source of all emanations, is the place where the Tefillin rest (see Tikunei Zohar 17a).
An insight into the meaning of this is that G-d exercises His midos, or traits, in controlling the world, which at times seem contradictory, such as kindness and judgement. In truth, however, they all go back to the Oneness of G-d; they all fit into His master plan. The purpose, above all, is the Jewish people which manifest His purpose in creation through their teaching and fulfillment of Torah; a light unto the nations.
That is the crown of the Tefillin; the purpose which towers above and beyond all purposes in G-d’s creation and Providence. The two Tefillin straps, one resting on the right and one on the left, represent the two opposing main character traits of kindness and judgement. These two straps are bonded together in the knot which holds the head Tefillin, the crown, in place; bonding together these two opposing traits into one unity of purpose emanating from the crown of the Oneness of G-d and the Jewish people.
This is the profound message of the knot of the head Tefillin – on the back of the head; back into history – where these seemingly cross-purposes of Providence meld into one as they emanate from the crown, the source of all purpose, from the Al-mighty. (See more in The Aryeh Kaplan Anthology II, NCSY Press, pages 253-9).
When we view the mitzvos from their deeper perspective, even the most seemingly trivial details reveal a treasure-trove of depth and meaning.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Final days of Passover are not a separate holiday

Posted on 05 April 2018 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
I know that the last days of Sukkot are technically not really Sukkot, but a separate holiday called Shemini Atzeret and Shimchat Torah. Are the last days of Pesach also a separate holiday or just the end of Pesach? I’ve never heard of it being referred to as a separate holiday, but on the other hand, I know one doesn’t drive, etc. like the first days, so maybe it is a separate holiday?
Seth Z.

Dear Seth,
That’s quite an educated question.
The final day of Sukkos, in Israel, or two days in the diaspora, are indeed a separate holiday. This is as the Torah tells us “The eighth day should be an Atzeres for you…” and goes on to relate that the system of offerings to be brought in the Temple are entirely different from those of Sukkos. (Numbers 29:35-30:1)
The word “atzeres” has multiple meanings: a gathering, also a restriction or withholding. It’s a special day to gather together and “withhold” from returning back to mundane life, rather to remain one more precious day with the Divine Presence before finally leaving the high holiday period. The Torah considers this a separate holiday, one where we put down the four species, leave the Sukkah, return to our homes and rejoice in our connection to G-d.
The final days of Pesach, however, are different. The Temple offerings brought the last day of Pesach are identical to that of the first and intermediate days. The Talmud says this is indicative of the final days not being considered a separate holiday, rather a continuation of the same holiday of Pesach. Although the Torah also invokes the word “atzeres” in relation to the final day of Pesach, (Deuteronomy 16:8), nevertheless, since the offering is identical and the mitzvos of eating matzoh and refraining from leavened bread are the same as the first days, we consider it the same holiday. The meaning of atzeres in the context of Pesach would only be referring to its prohibition of forbidden activity, similar in many ways to Shabbos, where we refrain from certain categories of activity, but not to infer it is a separate holiday.
For this reason, on the final day or days of Pesach, we do not recite the full Hallel prayer, as we don’t on the intermediary days of Pesach. This is because we only recite the full Hallel prayer when there is either a new miracle to celebrate or a new holiday. On Sukkos, since there is a different offering brought each day, every day requires a full Hallel prayer. Shemini Atzeres is no different. The final day(s) of Pesach, however, are just a continuation of Pesach with identical offerings, therefore only a partial Hallel is recited.
One thing which is unique about the final days of Pesach is that not only are we celebrating the leaving of Egypt, but the seventh day of Pesach is the day of the monumental miracle of the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. Many miracles were performed and noted at the sea that far transcended the miracles of Egypt. In fact, the Talmud says that even the simplest Jewish maidservant witnessed greater revelation at the Sea than the greatest prophets observed later in Jewish history. Some have the custom to stay up the eve of the seventh day of Pesach to share words of Torah about that miracle and the subsequent song sung by the Jewish people at that time. (Exodus 14:30-15:19)
There is so much to be said about this event, not within the purview of this column.
A joyous continuation of Pesach to all the readers.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Counting of Omer and anticipating the Torah

Posted on 29 March 2018 by admin

Dear Rabbi,
I have learned that the period of time after Pesach is called the “counting of the Omer.” We are said to be counting the days from Passover until the holiday of Shavuos. What is the point of this counting, now that we have calendars and can simply look up the date of Shavuos? Is it one of those things we do just because they used to do it, or is there some other reason for doing this count?
Marc W.

Dear Marc,
The “counting of the Omer,” which begins the second night of Pesach until the holiday of Shavuos, is called sefiras ha’omer and is one of the 613 mitzvos of the Torah.
The Torah says, “You shall count for yourselves, from the morrow of the rest day (Pesach), from the day when you bring the Omer (offering)…seven weeks…” (Leviticus 23:15).
Let’s try to understand this mitzvah.
When one has a special event coming up that he is truly excited about and looking forward to, he often counts the days until that time arrives. For the Jewish people, the most exciting time in our history was receiving the Torah at Sinai. This was the time that we achieved the greatest intimacy of all time with the Almighty. At that time, we became an eternal nation and received our “marching orders” for the upcoming thousands of years: how to be a light unto the nations and elevate ourselves to unique spiritual greatness.
Although this transpired over 3,300 years ago, our tradition teaches that our holidays are not mere celebrations of historical occurrences. We have often explained in this column that our holidays recur yearly; the same spiritual light revealed by the Almighty at that time of our history returns when we arrive at the same time of the year.
In a sense, the Torah is given to us yearly at Shavuos. Hence, year after year, we again count the days from our freedom (Pesach) till the time of the fulfillment of the purpose of that freedom (Shavuos). This counting shows our anticipation and excitement to again experience those spiritual heights on Shavuos.
Going one step deeper, the period of sefiras ha’omer is one of growth. In order to receive the Torah, we need to transform ourselves to be worthy receptacles fit to receive all that intense spiritual energy.
The Mishnah (Pirkei Avos, ch. 6) enumerates 48 study habits and positive character traits through which one merits the acquisition of Torah. The 49 days of “counting” are a period of acquiring these “48 ways” and, on the last day fusing them into oneself, ready to receive the Torah on Day 50, the day of Shavuos.
(To study these “48 ways,” see aish.com. In addition, DATA is sponsoring a communitywide study of the 48 ways this year, providing weekly emails and insights, based upon the book The 48 Ways by Rabbi Noach Weinberg ob’m and available at aish.com or at artscroll.com. Anyone who would like to join the communitywide program can contact Rabbi Shaya Fox at sfox@dallastorah.org. It promises to be very enlightening.)
The deeper sources provide yet another vehicle for growth through the sefiras ha’omer, based upon the concept of sefiros, or 10 Kabbalistic levels of existence. During the 49 days of sefiras ha’omer, it is a time to perfect ourselves in relation to the seven lower sefiros; those sefiros which reflect God’s interaction with the physical world. These seven sefiros interact with each other, like DNA, where every cell of the body has within it the DNA of every other part of the body. Each sefirah contains all the aspects of each other sefirah within itself, hence the seven multiples of seven, or 49 days of counting.
In order to tap into this spiritual energy, we count the days, connecting ourselves to the days and marking it as a time of growth and introspection, taking us forward toward Shavuos.
Wishing all joyous final days of Pesach and happy counting!

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Hawking went out of his way to reject Creator

Posted on 22 March 2018 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
There has been lots of discussion around the passing of the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking; in particular I am fascinated by his rejection of the belief in God. Although he was a scientist and not known as a theologian, it would seem that he arrived at his belief, rather non-belief, through his understanding of physics and science. Do you have a take on this and do you see his atheism as a challenge to your own belief?
Ronald T., Ph.D.
Dear Ronald,
Let me begin by saying that, although Stephen Hawking was not the first atheist and certainly won’t be the last, I, personally, owed a tremendous debt of gratitude and respect to him for his classic works, especially A Brief History of Time. It is largely through Hawking’s works that I gained entry into the world of physics, kindling a passion that has continued for many years since.
At the same time, I do not overly respect Hawking as a theologian. For one thing, he uses his sterling credentials as a scientist to disseminate his theology even when he arrives at his theological conclusions not so scientifically. Furthermore, I have always felt there is also a subtle undertone of arrogance throughout his writings, especially with regards to the concept of God. This is despite his earlier writings reflecting an acceptance of a God, albeit somewhat grudgingly, later with more conceit and finally rejecting God altogether, rendering the human mind as great as that of the “alleged” God.
Hawking once said, in an interview with Spain’s El Mundo, “In my opinion, there is no aspect of reality beyond the reach of the human mind.”
His attitude is so different than that of Einstein, who, in his youth, viewed the belief in God as superstitious. But in early 1950s, Einstein had composed a kind of creed he called What I Believe. It concludes with: “To sense that behind everything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense…I am a devoutly religious man.”
And in response to a young girl who had asked him whether he believed in God, Einstein wrote: “Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe — a spirit vastly superior to that of man.” That, unlike Hawking, was the approach of a man of humility to appreciate something greater than himself.
Nobody like Hawking, with his vast understanding of the elegant precision of the universe, could appreciate the compelling argument for a Creator. In The Illustrated Theory of Everything (pp. 71-73), after discussing the parameters of a hot early universe, Hawking raises the following questions: “…it leaves a number of important question unanswered…why did the universe start out with so nearly the critical rate of expansion to just avoid
recollapse? If the rate of expansion one second after the big bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have recollapsed before it ever reached its present size. On the other hand, if the expansion rate at one second had been larger by the same amount, the universe would have expanded so much that it would be effectively empty now…Why should the universe have started off at the big bang in just such a way as to lead the state we observe today? Why is the universe so uniform, and expanding at just the critical rate to avoid recollapse? …It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us.”
To avoid that difficulty, Hawking goes on to present Guth’s “Inflationary Model,” which would potentially explain the exactness of the rate of expansion in great detail, seemingly escaping the uncomfortable conclusion that there must have been a Creator involved. But, alas, he concludes that this model would not suffice and, on page 78, seems to despair.
Hawking finally concludes, (with his co-author Mlodinow), in his book The Grand Design, “Just as Darwin and Wallace explained how the apparently miraculous design of living forms could appear without intervention by a supreme being, the multiverse concept can explain the fine tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the Universe for our benefit. Because there is a law like gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist.”
They then explain the basic theory behind the “multiverse.” “According to M-theory, ours is not the only universe. Instead M-theory predicts that a great many universes were created out of nothing. Their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law.”
Scientists have pointed out the circular reasoning involved here. You can’t have a universe without it being created, you can’t have spontaneous creation without physical laws, and you can’t have physical laws without a universe. As brilliant a scientist as he was, Hawking becomes irrational when it comes to explaining away the universe sans a Creator.
My hypothesis is that, as we so often have found historically, that even scientific theories can be the result of a deeper agenda or emotional issue; here it is no different. I conjecture that Hawking was in the grips of an emotional wrestling match with his debilitating condition, ALS, and couldn’t accept that if there is a God involved in our lives He would allow such a condition to take over his production and brilliant life. This, I have often thought, was the undercurrent pushing him to often state that his mind knows all that God knows, and, furthermore, what he knows makes a God unnecessary. I always have considered this a great tragedy; rather than appreciation and humility to a God who has kept him alive and productive far beyond the norm and all predictions, Hawking chose to reject his great Benefactor.
The miracles of the Exodus from Egypt, writes Nachmanides, are our historic refutation of the atheism of the time, and of all time. There we witnessed that there is a God, who is in charge, and does know what is happening in the world and even communicates with humans. As we approach Pesach we, as Jews, say “out with the atheism of Hawking” and in with our belief in a loving, all-powerful God.
A joyous Pesach to all the readers, and blessings of peace to our brethren in Israel and throughout the world.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Tefillin reminds us of God’s love, deliverance

Posted on 15 March 2018 by admin

This is the second part of the answer to last week’s question about tefillin.
Dear Rabbi Fried,
Soon is my son’s bar mitzvah and I bought him tefillin to wear, because that’s what my father did for me at my bar mitzvah. To tell you the truth, that’s about all there is to it for all I know. The problem is that that’s not good enough for my little boy; he questions everything. He wants to know why we do this? What does it mean? Why are they black and you can’t order a set in your favorite color? Why are the knots the way they are? He doesn’t stop. And the bigger problem is that I have no idea what to answer any of his questions; can you please help me out here?
Ben
Dear Ben,
Last week, we addressed your question as to the sources in the Torah for wearing tefillin daily, the four Torah sections fitting into the four boxes of the head tefillin and the one arm box. We saw how the arm tefillin affects our actions and our hearts, the head one elevates our thoughts, all toward our belief in the Oneness of God, and that our thoughts, emotions and actions should reflect that belief.
Today we shall attempt to understand this further, by focusing upon two of the messages within the tefillin. First, the message of Love.
When two people love each other and treasure every moment together, they create constant reminders of that love. The sealing of an engagement and of a wedding is through the transfer of a ring, a sign to be worn perpetually as a constant reminder and sign of that love.
God loves His people deeply and intensely, as He proclaims through prophecy, “I have loved you with an infinite world of love” (Jeremiah 31:3). We return that love to Him through the mitzvah to love, which we proclaim twice daily in the Shema, “And you should love Hashem, your God, with all your heart, all your soul and all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5 and the second paragraph of the Shema, Deuteronomy 11:13).
This mitzvah of love is inscribed upon parchment and inserted into the tefillin, ensuring that the wearing of these special boxes serves as a type of “wedding band” for us to express and remember daily our love for the Al-mighty as He loves us. In fact, the verses we recite while wrapping the tefillin strap around our fingers are statements of love, reflecting God’s love for us and our binding that love upon our fingers, like a ring; “I will betroth you to Me forever, and I will betroth you to Me with righteousness, justice, kindness and mercy. I will betroth you to Me with fidelity and you shall know God” (Psalms 145:16).
That love has taken us through the brightest and darkest of times. Countless numbers of Jews continued to clandestinely and miraculously don their tefillin even in the hellish camps of the accursed Nazis, showing their unshakable love and belief that all that happens to us, although beyond our comprehension, somehow happens out of love.
Another important theme of the tefillin is that of the Exodus from Egypt. The final paragraph of the Shema ends with the remembrance of that Exodus. This is not by chance; the belief in the Exodus is the foundation of our belief in the oneness and dominion of God. Only one who strongly believes in the Exodus can truly believe in the oneness of God (R’ Asher, Orchos Chaim). This is because seeing is believing. Nobody was present to witness the creation of the world; the entire Jewish people was present to witness the miracles of the plagues in Egypt, our miraculous deliverance from that land, the splitting of the sea, the clouds of glory, pillar of fire and the manna falling from heaven to sustain us.
For this reason, when God formally introduces Himself to us for the first time in the first of the 10 commandments, He opens by saying “I am the Lord your God Who has taken you out of Egypt, from the house of bondage.” He could have delivered a much more impressive introduction, “…Who created the stars, sun, heaven and earth…” but, rather, chose the Exodus from Egypt. This is because He was speaking to a nation whom had just witnessed and benefited from that very Exodus; seeing is believing. He was telling them, and us by the tradition that generation passed down to us, that the One who performed those miracles and redeemed us was none other than God. (R’ Judah Halevi, Kuzari, Book I).
This message of Exodus, the foundation of our belief, is also enwrapped in the parchments within the tefillin. In fact, the Code of Jewish Law instructs us that, when wrapping our tefillin, we need to have in mind that we are donning our tefillin Zecher l’yatzias Mitzrayim, as a remembrance of the redemption from Egypt.
This message is especially poignant for us now in the days and weeks leading up to the holiday of Pesach, punctuating the importance of the eternal message of our belief in the Exodus from Egypt.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at yfried@sbcglobal.net.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

The whys and the wherefores of tefillin

Posted on 08 March 2018 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
Soon is my son’s bar mitzvah and I bought him tefillin to wear, because that’s what my father did for me at my bar mitzvah. To tell you the truth, that’s about all there is to it for all I know. The problem is that that’s not good enough for my little boy; he questions everything. He wants to know why we do this? What does it mean? Why are they black and you can’t order a set in your favorite color? Why are the knots the way they are? He doesn’t stop. And the bigger problem is that I have no idea what to answer any of his questions; can you please help me out here?
Ben R.
Dear Ben,
I consider your “problem” — your son questioning everything — a very good problem. His questions are excellent; every Jew should understand why we do what we do. Perhaps if we passed down the mitzvos with all their understanding, meaning and beauty, then far more Jews would observe the mitzvos, and those who already do would do so with more joy, pride and love.
Since we can’t possibly answer all the questions you posed in the space of one column, perhaps we’ll dedicate the next couple of columns to attempt to get a deeper understanding of tefillin.
Let’s begin by looking at the sources in the Torah. The primary source for donning tefillin is in the recitation of the “Shema Yisrael.” In this foundational recitation — by which we accept the belief in God, His Oneness or Unity and to love Him with all our heart, soul and might — the Torah says to bind all of these incredible messages upon our arm and head in the form of tefillin (and in the mezuzah) (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). We are meant to literally wear our belief system “on our sleeve.”
The simple meaning of the two tefillin is that binding this message upon our arm signifies our actions conforming with our beliefs. The wrapping seven times around the arm reminds us that we are to act in consonance with our belief in G-d all seven days of the week. The arm tefillin also tips toward the heart, representing that our actions emanate from a believing heart. They are also bound upon the head in order that these core concepts should deeply occupy our minds.
The commandment of tefillin appears three more times, teaching further that the tefillin are a remembrance of our miraculous birth as a nation: the Exodus from Egypt. (See Exodus 13:9, 19:16.) And finally, they are again mentioned in the second paragraph of the Shema, (Deuteronomy 11:18).
Clearly, the fact that the mitzvah of tefillin is repeated four times in the Torah punctuates its unique significance in the hierarchy of the mitzvah system.
Another practical lesson learned from the four-time repetition of this mitzvah is that all four sections of those commandments are to be written by an expert scribe upon parchment (like a Torah scroll) and inserted into the tefillin. This the essence of what the tefillin are, the four messages of their very commandments. In short, this means the following:
The section containing our obligation to remember the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 13:1-10).
Our obligation to transmit this tradition to our children (Exodus 13:11-16).
The Shema, speaking of God’s unity and our mutual bond of love (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).
The second paragraph of Shema, man’s responsibility toward God (Deuteronomy 11:13-21).
In the box upon the arm, all four sections are written upon one long parchment and inserted into the one box. In the box upon the head, which is made up of four separate chambers, the four sections are each written upon a separate parchment and inserted individually into their respective compartments.
This is the essence of the tefillin. Hopefully we will answer more of your questions and understand this more deeply in the columns to follow.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

View or Subscribe to the
Texas Jewish Post

Advertise Here

Photos from our Flickr stream

See all photos

Advertise Here