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Posts Tagged ‘Chazal’

L’Zera Yaakov Tizkor

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

(Editor’s note: In contemplation of the yamim nora’im, we would do well to focus on proper liturgical expression in our tefillot. The topic that my good friend, Rabbi Nosson Dovid Rabinowich, rav of Beis Hamedrash Ahavas Torah, Flatbush, Brooklyn, discusses here is one that has long intrigued me as well as many others. Therefore, with his kind permission, we present this dvar Torah that he wrote for the shloshim of his dear friend, Menachem (Michael) Gruda from Ramot, l’iluy nishmato. Michael was torn away from us so suddenly while he was in the prime of his wonderful life. Yehi zichro baruch.)

A passage at the end of the Zichronot blessing in the Mussaf Amidah of Rosh Hashanah appears to have two slightly different versions. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim, 591:7) rules that this is the correct text: “V’akeidas Yitzchak hayom l’zaro tizkor.” It also rules and those who change the words and specify “l’zera Yaakov tizkor” are mistaken and guilty of changing the text instituted by Chazal. The source for this ruling is a responsum (chapter 38) by the Spanish and then Algerian Rivash (14th century).

There are many difficulties with this ruling. The main one is that the Gemara itself asks on the verse (Genesis 21:12), “Ki b’Yitzchak yekarei lecha zera”: Perhaps, the reference is to Esav, not Yaakov? The Gemara asks this in two places – Nedarim 31a and Sanhedrin 59b. Why then is it considered so wrong to detail explicitly in the Mussaf Amidah that we are referring to Yaakov and not to Esav?

The Rambam in Hilchot Nedarim (9:21), probably to resolve this difficulty, quotes the Gemara’s drashah but makes his own addition: “If one vows to derive no benefit from the seed of Abraham, he is allowed to derive benefit from the sons of Yishmael and the sons of Esav, but he is forbidden to derive benefit from Bnei Yisrael as the pasuk states: ‘Ki b’Yitzchak yekarei lecha zera.’ And we find further (Genesis 28:4) that Yitzchak says to Yaakov, ‘Veyiten lecha et birkat Avraham.’ ”

It is also noteworthy for serious students of the Rambam that in Hilchot Melachim (10:7), the Rambam essentially cites the Gemara’s drashah, repeats his addition from Hilchot Nedarim, and writes: “Circumcision was commanded only to Avraham and his offspring as the pasuk (Genesis 17:9) states: ‘…ata v’zaracha acharecha l’dorotam.’ This excludes the offspring of Yishmael because the pasuk states ‘Ki b’Yitzchak yekarei lecha zera.’ Further, Esav is excluded because Yitzchak said to Yaakov ‘V’yiten lecha et birkat Avraham.’ From here we see that Yaakov (and his progeny) alone is considered to be the offspring of Avraham, the one who is firm in the practice of Avraham’s beliefs and proper path.”

Nevertheless, Rivash’s application of the Talmudic principle “that whoever deviates from the proper formulation is guilty of altering our sages text” is a very strong statement. One wonders if according to the Rivash we have fulfilled our obligation if we do mention Yaakov in the tefillah in Zichronot.

Even if we fully accept the proposition that “b’Yitzchak” refers to Yaakov, perhaps “zera Yitzchak” can still refer to Esav. Indeed, this question is posed by the Magen Avraham (Orach Chayim, loc. cit., sk7). And in fact, if one makes a vow not to derive any pleasure from “zera Yitzchak,” he is probably forbidden to derive any pleasure from Esav and his descendants! (Cf. the crucial emendation of the Yad Efraim (loc. cit.) on this suggestion of the Magen Avraham.) So, the question remains: Why does the Rivash so strongly frown upon adding the word “Yaakov” after saying “l’zaro”?

Although the answer to this question is not simple, this much is obvious: The Rivash, based upon the various drashot of Chazal, believed it was totally superfluous to mention the very obvious – that Yaakov alone is Yitzchak’s progeny. In fact, Rivash claims that it would be disrespectful to Yitzchak to mention Yaakov since it would imply that the merit of Yitzchak’s akeidah sacrifice is insufficient for us.

He also adds another fascinating argument: Although, he admits, it would be much simpler to add the word “Yaakov,” and not have to resort to all the various drashot to prove that Yaakov is the only progeny of both Avraham and Yitzchak, the “difficult” approach preferable. Why? Because it is obvious from the omission of Yaakov’s name that the one reciting the blessing of Zichronot is a talmid chacham: As the Gemara (Berachot 50a) states: From the blessings that a person recites one can discern whether a he is or is not a talmid chacham (see also supra 38a). And creating the impression of being a talmid chacham is a “good thing.”

The Mouse Is Smarter Than Me: Preparing For Rosh Hashanah

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

It is hard to believe that Elul is upon us and that the Day of Judgment is only one month away. In a short 30 days we must face our Creator and have our deeds evaluated in the hopes of a receiving a merciful blessing for a good and healthy year. We spend the month of Elul focused on repentance, and we learn the holy books of mussar to inspire us to grow and change.

Over the past two months I have learned some important lessons from a brave mouse. Are we permitted to learn from the animals of the world? Chazal tell us that if we did not have the Torah to guide us, we would be able to learn how to behave by studying the animals. We could learn modesty from the cat, industriousness from the ant, and fidelity from the dove. As I have exhaustively searched for my illegal tenant, I have realized that not only is this mouse smarter than me, but that I can learn from its actions.

Chazal tell us that we can learn from all of Hashem’s creations. We can learn from the industrious nature of an ant – it lifts large amounts of food for storage when it will not live long enough to enjoy the large reserves of food it is toiling so hard to store.

A mouse of my acquaintance took up residence in a large industrial kitchen. One night it tore into three bags of flour in order to enjoy a midnight snack. The 150 lbs of flour that we had to discard could have provided hundreds of years of nourishment for it and its descendants. I wondered why it did not just stick with one bag; why ruin three bags of flour in one evening binge? I wondered whether it was the excitement of breaking into a new bag; once it had free reign, one bag was not enough.

The next week, I had ten bags of jellybeans in my office in preparation for a camp activity. Like the mouse, I had to try all ten flavors. This experience comes up often in the course of our lifetimes. We often become heady with the feeling of having free reign, neglecting to think about the repercussions of our actions. During these days of teshuva, however, we are reminded that we cannot always eat what we want or spend our lives doing whatever we wish. We came to this world for a purpose, and we must focus on our goals in order to live successful lives. Living a life of never-ending jellybeans will allow us to enjoy the bounty of Hashem’s beautiful world, but it must be accompanied with efforts to change ourselves for the better. In the absence of growth-oriented pursuits, we are living the lives of the wild mouse or the relentless jellybean-eaters. Hashem gave us the Torah and its commandments in order to guide us in living a life of meaning and purpose throughout the year.

Shortly after the mouse-in-the-flour episode, I met my friend the mouse in the bakery and watched as he was cornered, a glue trap on one side and a broom-wielding kitchen worker on the other. The mouse apparently chose to face a six-foot tall man rather than a six-inch long mousetrap. The mouse ran straight at us, and as the frightened worker hopped on the chair and I stepped aside in a temporary state of shock, the mighty mouse ran towards his freedom. Amazingly, despite the great disparity in our sizes, the mouse appeared to be less scared of us than we were of him!

It reminded me that fear and respect is often wasted on relatively silly fears, instead of reserving our awe for that which is worthy of respect. Try to recall the fear that races through your heart when you see the flashing lights in your rearview mirror as you get pulled over to the side of the highway for exceeding the speed limit. Remember the feeling of trepidation as the man with high black boots and shiny buttons asks for your license and registration. While this experience generally does not yield more pain than a fine and points on your license, the fear of the eight-inch piece of paper leaves you begging for mercy with the respect and dignity reserved for royalty. Are we not embarrassed at the contrast between the respect accorded to a stranger with ticket-wielding power and the lack of reverence that we display to our Creator when we speak to Him three times a day? When I consider that during these days of judgement, everything is on the line, in contrast to the small fine administered in the course of speeding ticket, I realize that my priorities are not aligned with the reality before me.

Title: The Lion Cub of Prague: Thought, Kabbala, Hashkafa from Gur Aryeh – The Maharal of Prague

Friday, August 17th, 2012

Title: The Lion Cub of Prague: Thought, Kabbala, Hashkafa from Gur Aryeh – The Maharal of Prague
Author: Dr. Moshe David Kuhr
Reviewed by Yitzchak A. Breitowitz

Rabbi Yehuda Loewe of Prague, known as Maharal, was one of the greatest lights that G-d has given to the Jewish people. Halachic authority and active communal leader, linguist and grammarian, philosopher and mystic, master of the totality of rabbinic literature and conversant in the arts and sciences as well, Maharal revealed new depths to the words of Chazal and uncovered layers of meaning that would otherwise have gone unnoticed.

In a very real way, he cracked the code to the symbolic language of agada and midrash and exposed the powerful incontestable inner truths behind the stories and parables. Maharal wrote many works and all of them are devoted to uncovering the inner world of Chazal but, for many, Gur Arye – his masterful commentary on Rashi’s biblical commentary – might be the best place to start.

As the first of his works, it contains all the basic ideas of his philosophy in a relatively concise and accessible form and links them to the biblical text and Rashi’s comments. Because of this linkage, Gur Arye passages tend to be shorter and more easily digestible than some of Maharal’s other writings Moreover, because of its thematic connections with the Torah text, Gur Arye is not exclusively philosophical or mystical but is rich in grammatical and halachic analysis as well, appealing to readers of diverse interests and talents.

In many ways, Gur Arye is an ideal introduction to the rich tapestry of Maharal’s thought. Nevertheless, as is the case for all Maharal’s writings, the thoughts are deep, the language is concise (albeit vivid and colorful) and the vocabulary presupposes basic familiarity with not only rabbinic literature but with the esoterica of Kabbala and the technical vocabulary of medieval religious philosophy.

As such, for many readers Gur Arye is simply a closed book. We all hear about it and admire it as a classic, but few of us ever open it up to actually study it.

Dr. Moshe Kuhr, a faithful and conscientious student of Maharal’s writings for more than 15 years, has performed a major service to Klal Yisrael in making this treasure accessible. He has carefully selected passages from the Gur Arye that are suitable for the general reader and that are broadly representative of central themes in Maharal’s thought; translated them into modern readable English; provided annotations, sources and cross-references to other writings of Maharal; and added illuminating comments, questions and observations of his own set off in a distinct typeface.

The translation is flowing and felicitous; the source annotations and references are extremely helpful for further in-depth study; and Kuhr’s comments are penetrating and thoughtful. All of us owe Dr. Kuhr a debt of gratitude for a labor of love extending almost two decades of assiduous study.

Caring For Our Parents: A Child’s Hardest Job

Friday, July 27th, 2012

They say that one mother can take care of five children, but five children cannot take care of one mother. One of the most challenging situations, and perhaps the most unnatural, is when children need to take care of aging or infirm parents. Why is this so difficult and why do so many of us fail at caring for our parents when they need us most?

As I put pen to paper, it is my father’s yahrzeit and I contemplate my continued responsibility to act on his behalf, to learn and do chesed to uplift his neshama. With Hashem’s help, these words should be an aliya for the neshama of Rav Yekusiel ben Dovid. I often think of how I am unable to fulfill the amazing mitzvah of kibbud Av, and I regret not doing more while I had the opportunity. When my father was niftar, a rav told me that I still have the opportunity to honor my father by respecting my mother, since that would be his wish. Additionally one can continue to show respect by doing good deeds and learning Torah in a parent’s memory. Chazal tell us that children are the feet of their parents in Heaven, and when the children grow in Torah their parents grow as well.

Over the years, I have encountered many men and women who have deep regret at not having shown respect for their parents during their lifetimes or for not having taken care of their needs during their final years. At a levaya of a parent we request mechila, forgiveness, in two different ways. We ask forgiveness for anything we may have done while they were alive and did not properly atone for. These are sins of commission that all children do, but most don’t get the opportunity to properly atone for. The harder form of mechila is for sins of omission, requesting forgiveness for all the things we should have done, but either did not get the chance to or did not do because of our skewed priorities. If the Torah places such importance on our respect for and fear of our parents, again I must wonder why it is such a hard mitzvah to fulfill properly? Besides for the reward of a long life for those who fulfill the mitzvah, it clearly seems to be the logical and correct thing to do.

The Gemara in Sanhedrin tells us that parents will give up anything for their children. “A man can be jealous of anyone, except for his child or student” (Sanhedrin 105b). The theory is that giving to a child is in essence giving to oneself as children are extensions of ourselves. Giving to a child is natural. I was once famished and about to eat a slice of pizza. My children came home from school and eyed my small feast. When they asked for some pizza, I told them that their mother had made them a delicious supper and it was waiting for them in the kitchen. I was hoping to divert their attention for long enough to enable me to eat the pizza. When they predictably responded that they still wanted my pizza, I allowed them to take some… until there was none left for me. At that moment, I was happier making my children happy than I would have been had I eaten the pizza myself, and I realized that I love my children more than they could ever love me. I asked myself–if a parent loves a child so much and gives a child so much, then why isn’t it natural for the feelings to be equally reciprocated?

Chazal tell us that the way we treat our parents is the way our children will treat us. They relate a parable of a man whose elderly father lives with him. The father slurps loudly and makes a mess when he eats, so the son makes a large wooden bowl and spoon for his father to use and has him eat in the kitchen. After many months, the adult son sees his own son carving something out of wood and asks what he was making. His young child responds that he is making a bowl and spoon so his own father would have something from which to eat when he aged.

Music During The Nine Days (Part II)

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

Question: Is it prohibited to listen to music in the privacy of one’s home (or car) during the Nine Days?

Answer: We noted last week that HaGaon HaRav Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe, Y.D. Vol. II:137) maintains that it is, indeed, forbidden. He actually maintains that Chazal banned public musical events throughout the entire year. What is prohibited specifically during the Nine Days is music in the privacy of one’s home.

The Rema (Orach Chayim 560:3) seems to argue that Chazal only prohibited music year-round for people who used to awake or retire with music (i.e. kings, and the like) and for people at a bet mishteh. Rav Feinstein, however, contends that this reading of the Rema is incorrect. Rather, according to Rav Feinstein, even the Rema prohibits public musical events throughout the year.

* * * * *

Bimchilat k’vodo, Rav Feinstein’s ruling is difficult to comprehend or follow. According to this ruling, it would be prohibited to attend any kind of musical concert throughout the year. Yet, except for perhaps g’dolei yisrael, hardly anyone makes a point of not attending concerts. It is difficult to suggest that the majority of k’lal yisrael is violating a basic halacha.

Accordingly, it seems logical that Chazal never prohibited all public musical events during the year. Rather, the prohibition is like the simple reading of the Rema and limited to people who used to awake or retire with music and for people at a bet mishteh.

Interestingly, in his Sha’ar HaTziyun (Orach Chayim 560:23), the Mishnah Berurah cites scholars who rule that the prohibition to listen to music at a bet mishteh is limited to drinking parties only. If anything other than drinks are served, there is no prohibition.

Based upon the logic of Rav Feinstein that the prohibition to listen to music during the Nine Days must be severer than the prohibition to listen to music year round, we may suggest that the extra prohibition during the Nine days covers all kinds of bet mishteh, even ones that serve more than drinks. Alternatively, the extra prohibition may cover all public musical events – regardless of whether food is served or not.

Hence, it’s possible that our sages never outlawed music in the privacy of one’s home (or car) during the Nine Days.

Rabbi Cohen, a Jerusalem Prize recipient, has written several works on Jewish law. His latest, “Jewish Prayer The Right Way: Resolving Halachic Dilemmas (Urim Publications), is available at Amazon.com and Judaica stores.

Midrash and Talmud

Friday, June 29th, 2012

Man is seldom satisfied with his life. Even when he has done great things, amassed vast amounts of wealth and achieved great fame, he still yearns for more and his soul is not fulfilled. “No man dies with even half of his ambition fulfil­led,” say Chazal.

Thus was it with the conqueror, Alex­ander the Great. Here was a man who top­pled empires, before whose armies people trembled, who set his stamp on lands as far away as India. Still he was not satisfied. He yearned to do something that no man had ever done. He yearned to fly high above the heavens.

Alexander And His Flight

Despite all the mighty deeds that he had done, Alexander was still not satisfied.

“Unless I do a thing that was not ac­complished by all the kings who have preceded me, men will never remember me for real greatness.

“They will only say that once there was a king named Alexander who went and made war and conquered many na­tions and gathered a vast amount of booty and set his heel on the heads of people.

“This is all good, but there must still be something that I do that has never been done by any other man from the days that G-d made the world till the present.”

The Eagle

And so, Alexander ordered that his men capture the most gigantic eagles they could find. Once they had gathered several enormous birds, he chose the greatest among them.

“Starve the bird for two days,” he ordered his men.

At the end of the time, Alexander took a large piece of meat and stuck it on his spear. He then climbed on the back of the hungry eagle and he raised his spear high in front of the eagle’s beak.

The starving bird immediately tried to reach the meat and flew into the air. Higher and higher he climbed as he vainly tried to reach the meat, which hung tantalizingly just before him.

The Earth So Small

Higher yet, the eagle climbed, until Alexander was surrounded by swirling clouds. Looking down to the earth far below, he saw that the towns, forests and rivers appeared as dots and ribbons. He looked to where his great army was camped and he could see nothing but little dots. Alexander’s heart thereupon grew light and his head swelled:

“Who is like me and who can compare unto me? I sit here alone looking at the lit­tle ants below me.”

Another Thought

Suddenly, however, a second thought entered the Greek emperor’s mind.

“If my great army, with all its hordes of men, appear to me to be so small, what do I appear like to my army below? Probably, I have disappeared from view and am like nothing in their eyes!”

The thought was a bitter one and destroyed the great happiness that he had felt just a moment before.

Turning the spear with the meat downward he looked at the earth as his eagle turned to descend. The land rushed forward to meet him and he could now see the people becoming larger and larger in his eyes.

“I, too, am becoming larger in their eyes,” he thought.

When he had descended from the back of the eagle he gave orders that a statue of himself be made and in his hand a round ball –symbolizing the earth – be placed. “This shall be so the people will remember me,” he said.

Can The Dead Wake

One of the great differences between the rabbis and the Tzedukim was over the question of whether the dead will someday be resurrected. Our rabbis, of course, maintained that this was a cardinal prin­ciple of the Torah, that the A-Mighty would some day awaken the dead, while the Tzedukim denied this great article of faith.

One day, one of the leaders of the Tzedukim approached Gevihah, the son of Pesisah:

“Shall the dead really rise? How is it possible? If people who once had the breath of life in their nostrils eventually die and become still and cold, how shall those who are dead ever hope to live?”

Gevihah then asked the man:

Humanity, Liberty, Rationality: A Review of the Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch: Volume IX

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

Looking for inspiration? Read Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch. This is my general rule of thumb, which is why I was thrilled when the ninth (and presumably last) volume of the Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Feldheim Publishers) came out a few weeks ago.

The two speeches that I had been told would appear in this new volume – one celebrating the 100th birthday of the German poet Friedrich Schiller and another glorifying the ideals of the French Revolution – did not disappoint. Indeed, they only reinforced my belief that Rav Hirsch is truly unique among the pantheon of rabbinic greats.

One of the themes in Rav Hirsch’s writings that has always struck me is his universalism – mainly because it runs so counter to the prevailing parochialism in many contemporary Orthodox communities. Take, for example, the recent open letter signed by a number of prominent rabbis in advance of the Internet Asifa. In it, they declare that the world revolves around the Jews and therefore theorize that the Internet only entered world history to test the Jewish people’s moral character. What about the rest of the world? Are these rabbis really suggesting that an Internet that affects billions of lives only appeared on planet earth as a moral test for one million Orthodox Jews? Apparently they are.

Rav Hirsch’s writings could not stand in greater contrast to this sentiment. “The God of Jewish Teaching is the universal God,” writes Rav Hirsch in an essay in this new volume. God’s covenant with our forefathers was “only for the benefit of all of mankind” (emphases in original). In The Nineteen Letters Rav Hirsch even argues that the “universal acceptance of the brotherhood of mankind [is the Jewish people’s] ultimate goal.”

Rav Hirsch’s ode to Friedrich Schiller is filled with the same universalistic spirit. “[E]nlightenment and…moral civilization,” he says, “are intended to be the heritage of all to whom God has given breath on earth. It is the seedling of this heritage that God has planted into the hearts of mortals, and the purpose of Judaism is to be the sunshine that will cause these seedlings to ripen.”

Rav Hirsch lauds Schiller, a “sublime flower enveloped in an earthly husk,” since his poetry contained ideas that “are now increasingly germinating in mankind’s breast, where they will eventually complete the enlightenment and ennoblement of all humanity.” According to Rav Hirsch,

anyone who emerges in the midst of mankind as a herald who knows how to employ the gift of poetry to inspire the human mind with enthusiasm for all that is pure and true and godly, anyone who knows how to make man proud to be human and to enable him to recognize his God in every breath of his existence, anyone who can snatch man from the dust to have him stand upright in all his dignity and nobility, is, in the view of Judaism, a messenger of God on earth….

I quote Rav Hirsch at such length not only because his rhetoric is so beautiful, but because the universalist strain running through these sentences is truly remarkable. Would that contemporary Orthodox Jews thought of non-Jews in such lofty terms!

Rav Hirsch’s glorification of liberty in another speech appearing in this new volume – delivered on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Leipzig – is no less amazing. Many contemporary Orthodox Jews speak fondly of the “good-old days” in Europe when Jews lived in shtetls and ghettos, shielded from the allures of the outside world. They believe freedom’s advance in Europe destroyed an idyllic ideal. They essentially share the perspective of the Baal HaTanya who prayed in 1812 that Czar Alexander I defeat Napoleon, fearing the freedom and concomitant spiritual dangers that a French victory would bring.

Once again, Rav Hirsch could not stand in greater contrast. To be sure, Rav Hirsch was not blind to freedom’s hazards and writes in The Nineteen Letters that he cannot welcome freedom if the abandonment of Judaism is its price.

Nonetheless, freedom, qua freedom, is an unmitigated blessing in Rav Hirsch’s view – “a triumph of Divine justice” – and the French Revolution, which unleashed liberty on Europe, “was one of those moments when God visibly entered history” (emphasis in original). In that year, 1789, “with a light that the world had not previously seen, and with a victorious power hitherto never experienced, the sense of justice triumphantly entered into the minds of men.”

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/books/book-reviews/humanity-liberty-rationality-a-review-of-the-collected-writings-of-rabbi-samson-raphael-hirsch-volume-ix/2012/06/07/

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