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October 2, 2014 / 8 Tishri, 5775
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Posts Tagged ‘matzah’

Parshas Vayikra: ‘The Call Of Humility’

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

In his classic work, Tending The Vineyard, my Rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, relates the following vignette:

“At the time that my wife and I made aliyah, the Ministry of Interior required certification through the chief rabbinate that any new immigrants were Jews in order to qualify for citizenship and immigrant benefits. After an hour-long wait at the ministry to be interviewed, my wife and I sat before a hard-faced clerk. I did not have a letter from a rabbi certifying to my Jewishness, but I felt confident that since I was on the chief rabbinate’s list of approved rabbis whose letter would be accepted to verify the Jewishness of others, I would suffer no problem.

“Well, I was wrong. The clerk acknowledged that my name did appear on that august list of recognized rabbis but she sweetly said: ‘Simply because you are acceptable to say about others that they are Jewish does not necessarily mean that you are yourself Jewish.’

“This baffling piece of legal logic astounded me. I told my wife to continue sitting at this clerk’s booth and I hurried out and hailed a cab that delivered me to the house of a rabbinical friend of mine whose name was likewise on the approved list of rabbis. He wrote out a letter for me and I took the same cab back to the Interior Ministry. My poor wife was still sitting at the clerk’s booth as I breathlessly charged into the office and presented the letter to the clerk.

“The clerk smiled at us and said: ‘Now you’re Jewish!’ And so we were. Never underestimate the power of a letter written by a rabbi who is on the approved list of the Israeli chief rabbinate.”

Chumash Vayikra, also known as Toras Kohanim, is chiefly dedicated to the unique laws pertaining to the Kohanim and their daily Service in the Mishkan. It commences with a detailed account of the many laws endemic to the various offerings brought in the Mishkan.

Aside from animal offerings, there were also Mincha/flour offerings that could be offered. Although there were different types of Mincha offerings, flour and water were universal ingredients of every Mincha. Yet, the Torah warns that when the flour and water were mixed they could never be allowed to leaven or ferment. “Any meal-offering that you offer to G-d shall not be prepared leavened, for you shall not cause to go up in smoke from any leavening or any honey as a fire-offering to G-d” (Vayikra 2:11).

As we are all aware, there is another prohibition of chometz, during the days of Pesach. Throughout the rest of the year there is absolutely no prohibition to eat chometz, in fact bread plays a central role in many food-oriented mitzvos. But on Pesach the mere ownership of chometz becomes a serious transgression.

The austere prohibition against owning chometz on Pesach and offering chometz on the altar seems to be interconnected. What is the deeper idea behind that connection?

In order for bread to rise, leavening must take place, catalyzed by yeast or another leavening agent. As oxidation occurs, air pockets develop. Nothing is added to the dough, but it gets bigger, propelled upward by warm air. It is nothing more than the process of nature which causes dough to rise.

Our egos are compared to the yeast in dough. Our ego comprises our sense of self, which is vital to a healthy identity. It is our ego which propels us to accomplish and to grow. But at the same time our egos are always in danger of becoming inflated with “hot air.” This occurs when our sense of identity becomes befuddled, and we no longer appreciate our uniqueness. A false ego can persuade us that trivialities are hugely significant and we can easily be distracted from what truly matters. Just as a healthy ego helps us love, be compassionate, and sensitive to others, it also can cause us to become self-absorbed, envious, and hateful.

Matzah, which consists of nothing more than flour and water that has not been allowed to leaven, symbolizes self-negation before G-d. It is flat and contains nothing but the barest essentials, demonstrating that we are nothing without G-d.

Chometz, on the other hand, symbolizes our sense of identity and independent contribution. Ultimately G-d wanted us to exercise our free will to contribute to His world and bring His Presence into it. In that sense Chometz is not a negative force at all. In fact, it is the source of all accomplishment and positive action. However, when one becomes arrogant and forgets his place things can easily spiral out of control. He loses perspective of where his independence and achievements come from and he begins to take himself too seriously.

Matzel Toff? Really?

Monday, March 12th, 2012

Punning might be the most annoying form of art save for mime (a punning mime, now that would be hateful). Check out the Monday NY Post (a paper known for outrageous punning, not enough mime) for verification. They claim that an outfit named Urban Nosh, which got its start making Matzel Toff, a chocolate-covered matzah, is adding a new, year-round version of the same dubious treat, called Matzel Bits, and are also conspiring to launch yet another new product, called Holy Macaroons. Help…?

A couple who disclose only their first names, Abbie and Philip, conceived the treat (which, incidentally, has been enlarging Jewish thighs for centuries every Passover). The legend goes as follows (on their website):

Phillip grew up enjoying his Bubbie Edith’s toffee-chocolate-matzah. Inspired by her recipe, he eventually honed his own recipe as a graduate student in New York City, where it became his beloved staple for potlucks and dinner parties. One bite into this scrumptious treat and his friend Abby was immediately hooked. But she realized that the matzah needed a gourmet makeover, and decided that toffee-chocolate was the perfect fit. Phillip and Abby teamed up to make Matzel Toff! available to everyone wherever unbelievably seductive candy is sold.

The Post says Urban Nosh, which started with $10,000 in 2009, “generated $25,000 in revenue in 2009 and has doubled its revenue every year since. Its products are now in more than 100 stores nationwide, including Dylan’s, Fairway Markets, Zabar’s and Dean & Deluca in the city.”

But wouldn’t you rather snack on an apple? Just asking…

Clean Jokes

Friday, March 9th, 2012

Welcome back to “You’re Asking Me?” where we answer questions sent in by confused readers who thought they were writing in to Dr. Yael. That said, I’d like to thank all the readers who wrote in. I’m going to attempt to address your questions, not so much because I know the answers, but more so that I have an excuse to get out of cleaning for Pesach.

Dear Mordechai,

I find that I’m very overwhelmed by Pesach cleaning. Do you have any suggestions?

Nervous in New Jersey

Dear Nervous,

What on Earth were you thinking buying the biggest house you could afford? My advice is to not think of it as cleaning the entire house – on a deadline. I say that you should start, a couple of months before Pesach, with something small and manageable, like a single drawer. Take everything out, make piles, scrub down the drawer, and then put everything back in so it’s parallel. Then move on to the next drawer. If you keep doing that, little by little, eventually you’ll realize that you’ve been cleaning for six weeks and you’re still on the same set of drawers, and you have yet to come across something that is actually chometz, or even food for that matter, and you have no idea what you were thinking starting with your pajama drawers, because how often do you change your pajamas?

So you pick up the pace, dumping out entire drawers, throwing out visible food, shoving everything back in, and promising that you’ll get back to them after Pesach. Which you will not, because if you ever had a chance to clean out entire drawers when you didn’t have to, you’d also have a chance to put things away properly to being with, rather than shoving them into the drawer and hoping they’ll find their way the right part of the drawer by themselves. And before you know it, it will be Pesach again.

But my point is that in the end, you’ll come into Pesach panting and sweating and realizing that amid all that fury of dumping and shoving, you didn’t have time to be overwhelmed.

 

Dear Mordechai,

I’m flying to my in-laws for Yom Tov, and I’d like to bring along some food for the Seder. Is there anything I can bring along that will make it through airport security?

Pat Down, JFK

Dear Pat,

Not really. A bottle of wine has too much liquid, matzah will be confiscated as a sharp weapon, and we don’t even want to think about what they’ll do to you if they find marror. Potatoes, maybe? Last year I ran into someone at the post office putting some stamps on a box of round matzah. Though I doubt it was still round when it got to where it was going.

 

Dear Mordechai,

I’m making Pesach this year, due to an incident last year when my in-laws, who don’t eat gebrukts, received a box in the mail on the first day of Pesach containing what was basically matzah meal. Anyway, this is our first time making Pesach, and I’d like to know what I’m getting myself into. What would you say is the most annoying part of making Pesach?

T.S., Monsey

Dear T.,

Honestly? I like that my house actually gets cleaned once a year, and I like that I’m forced to make foods that are out of my comfort zone.

What’s annoying is the part before Pesach where half your house is chometzdik and half your house is Pesachdik. You’re cooking in the dining room or eating out of a random room in the basement, you can’t bring Pesach stuff into this room, you can’t bring chometz into that room, you need to be on your guard the entire month to remind your kids about where they can and can’t bring food, they have more cookies to eat than ever before but there’s nowhere they can actually eat them, and your entire kitchen is Pesachdik except a couple of shelves in the fridge, so you have to take foods out of the fridge and move them around without putting them down anywhere. You spend all day cleaning for Pesach, but have to break in middle to figure out which chometz to serve the kids for supper, such as a random “this is what we found in the freezer” supper that consists of two hot dogs, three chicken wings, three types of French fries and a frozen bag of what was probably once soup. Should we have noodles? We’d have to make them on the travel range, and then strain them off the edge of the back porch without dropping any in the backyard, because the colander is too big to wash in the bathroom sink, which is where we’re doing all our dishes for the week. Sometimes we have to wait in the hall with a pile of dishes because someone is in there. Why on earth did we buy so many noodles?

Why Do We Read The Megillah?

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

On Purim we read Megillas Esther twice, once by night and once by day. It is uncertain what the nature of the obligation is. Did the rabbanan obligate us to read the megillah as a part of Kesuvim, similar to the obligation of reading the other megillos (such as Eichah and Shir HaShirim) and similar to the reading of the Torah? Or is the obligation to read only for the purpose of publicizing the miracle (pirsumei nisa)?

It says in Maseches Sofrim 14:3 that prior to reading Megillos Rus, Eichah, Shir HaShirim and Esther one must recite the berachah of “…al mikra megillah.” The fact that the Mesechta Sofrim combined all of the megillos into one halacha implies that the obligation to read each of them is the same – namely to read Kesuvim.

The Yerushalmi in Megillah 3:4 says that the reason we are not allowed to read Megillas Esther on Shabbos (when Purim falls out on Shabbos) is because it is forbidden to read Kesuvim on Shabbos. If the obligation to read Megillas Esther were merely for the mitzvah of publicizing the miracle, it would not be considered as if we are reading Kesuvim – and would therefore be permitted on Shabbos. The fact that the Yerushalmi prohibits the reading of Megillas Esther on Purim, when it falls out on Shabbos, clearly indicates that the obligation is to read Kesuvim.

Based on this, the Sefer Harirai Kedem suggests that we can answer the following question: The Gemara in Shabbos 23a and Sukkah 46a ask how we can say “vetzivanu – and He [Hashem] commanded us” in the berachah that we recite on lighting the menorah on Chanukah, for it is only a mitzvah mi’derabbanan. The Gemara answers that if one does not adhere to the command of the rabbanan, it is a transgression of the pasuk in the Torah of “lo sasur.” Therefore one can say that the Torah commanded him to perform this mitzvah. The question is raised: Why does the Gemara not have the same discussion regarding the mitzvah of reading Megillas Esther, which is also a mitzvah mi’derabbanan – but at which time vetzivanu is recited?

If we understand that the berachah of “…vetzivanu al mikra megillah” is a berachah that one recites when reading any megillah that is part of Kesuvim and not for the mitzvah, we can understand why the Gemara does not inquire as to how we can say vetzivanu prior to reading Megillas Esther. Since the berachah is recited even when there is no obligation to read it, the Gemara understood that the berachah is not recited because the rabbanan commanded us to read it, but rather because reading a megillah requires that this berachah be recited.

The Brisker Rav asked the following question: The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 690:3) rules, based on the Gemara in Megillah 18b, that one must read the entire megillah while looking inside the megillah. If the sofer skipped several words (up to half the megillah) the reader may recite those words by heart. (The Ramah says that this only applies if an entire inyan (topic) was not skipped. Reb Moshe Soloveitchik said that today we are not certain what an entire inyan is, and therefore we cannot rely on this halacha.) Reading Kesuvim must be read while directly looking at the words – just like krias HaTorah. How then can the obligation to read the megillah be to read Kesuvim, if one can read the megillah by heart? Rather, from this halacha, it seems that the obligation is to publicize the miracle.

The Sefer Harirai Kedem explains that the reason one may read part of the megillah by heart is because we apply the rule of rubo kekulo – the majority is considered as if it is the whole megillah. Since the majority of the megillah is written, when one reads the remaining part by heart it is considered as if he read the entire megillah directly from the megillah. The reason we do not apply this rule to krias HaTorah is because the rule can only be applied when the subject matter is a complete item but lacking a part of it. However, if the matter of discussion is not a complete item, even when it is in its entirety, we cannot apply the rule. As Megillas Esther is a complete item, we can apply the rule. But when one must read a certain amount of p’sukim in the Torah, those p’sukim do not combine to create a complete entity on their own. Rather they are only a part of the complete Torah, and therefore the rule is not applied.

If, though, there was a halacha to read the entire Torah at once, we would apply the rule and it would suffice to only read the majority directly from the Torah. Similarly we do not apply the rule when one must eat a specific amount of matzah (a k’zayis) and say that it suffices to eat the majority of the matzah since a k’zayis is not a complete item but rather an amount. As a result, we can suggest that the obligation to read the megillah is to read Kesuvim.

Our Mother’s Lessons

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

All societies survive through the retention of customs and traditions. If ritual law, halacha and Torah observance are the keystones of Jewish existence, the customs and traditions of Israel are the chain that has kept Israel bound to the Torah and its laws and values. The rabbis called the customs and traditions of Israel “the lessons of your mother” – in contrast and at the same time complementing “the teachings and disciplines of your father.”

Discipline and teachings are sometimes cold, harsh, demanding. Your mother’s lessons are warm, loving, comfortable and reassuring. Thus the relationship of the Jewish people to customs and traditions is a millennia-long romance. Infused with holy memories and meaningful vignettes and life’s wisdoms, customs and traditions have long been a dominant factor in Jewish life.

Customs evolve and many times are influenced by unknown and even non-Jewish sources. A people does not live in Spain for eight hundred years without becoming at least slightly Spanish in its customs and mores. The same is certainly true for central and eastern Europe (Germany, Italy, Poland, Russia, Lithuania, Hungary, Bohemia, Romania, Austria, etc.) Many customs that the Jews adopted in their long exile were not necessarily of Jewish origin. Yet over the ages, all customs that entered Jewish life, no matter what their original source may have been, were invested with authority and holiness – many times over the objections of the rabbis and sages of the time.

Customs had such a strong hold on Jewish behavior and lifestyle that Rabbi Yaakov Emden (eighteenth century) ruefully remarked that it was regrettable that the commandment not to steal was written in the Torah and was not a custom, for had it been a custom it would have wider acceptance and practice among the Jewish people. Thus the struggle between custom and halacha, between the sages of Israel and its masses, was and is a never-ending contest, and Jewish history attests that custom usually wins out.

The rabbis were willing to grant that custom takes precedence in monetary and commercial affairs, stating in essence that agreed-upon business custom is essentially halacha itself in that realm of human activity. However the main disputes concerned custom in ritual matters and prayer, Holiday and Shabbat laws, and the extent of rabbinic authority over the community and the masses.

An accepted principle that was adopted even in Talmudic times was that when there is considerable doubt and much dispute as to what the halacha actually is, the customs of the people in this matter will prevail. However, there were sages who stated that the customs that one should follow are only those that are stricter than the apparent halacha, but customs that introduce leniencies that the halacha did not countenance should be discarded.

However, both from the Talmud itself and from later works of the sages of Israel, it seems that customs that were essentially more lenient than the original halacha also had validity. Apparently this was in line with a Talmudic concept that there are times when the halacha itself is set as such and such, but nevertheless we do not teach it or follow it publicly. This flexibility relative to halacha and some of its decisions created the loophole through which custom marched and took hold in the Jewish world.

The upshot of all of this was that a certain consensus was reached regarding the relationship of custom and halacha. It may generally be stated that the consensus included the following rules: (1) When there was doubt as to what the actual original halacha is, then the custom will decide the matter; (2) when the matter does not really touch upon behavior that is forbidden or permitted, such as matters of blessings and prayer texts, then the custom even if not sanctioned by the prevailing rabbinic authorities is allowed to continue; (3) custom cannot prevail over established halacha in matters of Torah or Talmudic ritual law as to what is forbidden or permitted; and (4) when a major dispute exists among the halachic authorities as to what the halacha should be, the custom of the community or even the individual is valid.

In the later Middle Ages and early modern period, when the study of Zohar and Kabbalah spread throughout the Jewish world, many new kabbalistic customs entered Jewish life. Even those sages who opposed the widespread study of Kabbalah among the masses, nevertheless adopted kabbalistic customs in their communities. Naturally this was not without dissension and division within those communities. Even so, kabbalistic customs were widespread throughout Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jewry.

Both Rabbi Yosef Caro in his Shulchan Aruch and Rabbi Moshe Isserles in his “tablecloth” (Mapa) glosses to the Shulchan Aruch included many customs, kabbalistic and non-kabbalistic, in their monumental and authoritative works. Thus custom itself was enshrined in the major halachic works that have ruled Jewish life ever since the sixteenth century. Rabbi Shmuel HaLevi, the seventeenth-century author of Nahalat Shiva, a well-known halachic work, attacked the concept of custom overruling halacha but apparently to little avail.

The rise of the eighteenth century chassidic movement, with its heavy emphasis on kabbalistic thought and mass practice, created many customs that were enshrined as obligatory behavior within the chassidic groups adopting these differing customs. Some customs such as the wearing of a ritual belt (gartel) during prayer services and other occasions became universal chassidic custom as did the change from strictly Ashkenazic ritual text of prayer to one that resembled Sephardic text.

Among Lithuanian Jews, many private customs of Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, the Gaon of Vilna, took public hold and were observed in synagogues and yeshivot. Some of those customs have become the accepted norm in today’s Jerusalem as well.

Even as late as the nineteenth century there were great rabbinic authorities who opposed the custom of kaparot – the slaughter of chickens before Yom Kippur – as being an expiation of one’s sins. Among Lithuanian Jews the superstitious custom was modified to giving coins to charity instead of slaughtering chickens. Nevertheless, the custom has persisted and even gained strength and followers especially in chassidic society, and the custom of kaparot with chickens is alive and well (though not for the chickens) in present-day Jerusalem even within “Lithuanian” society.

* * * * *
The line between custom and superstition is a very thin one and has often been crossed in Jewish history. In our day, the custom of wearing red strings to ward off the evil eye is quite prevalent. The origin of that custom is clearly not Jewish, it being part of Italian and Sicilian lore. Nevertheless it is certainly present in today’s Jewish society.

Perhaps the strongest and longest-lasting custom that has become a part of Ashkenazic Jewish life is that of the non-use of kitniyot on Pesach. This custom, which originated in the early Middle Ages, was apparently based upon the use of legumes to make a type of Pesach bread. The banning of the use of legumes stemmed from the confusion that might arise from people thinking that if bread made from rice, beans, peas, etc. was permissible, then bread made from oats, barley, rye, wheat and spelt was also somehow acceptable – these latter grains being pure chametz if not carefully and expeditiously turned into quick-baked matzah.

This custom is a very strong one and the rabbis over the ages have been very loath to relax its severity even in seemingly extraordinary circumstances. In fact the custom has expanded in our time to even include liquids derived from legumes and other such legume derivatives. The Sephardic world generally does not observe this custom of kitniyot, though there are some Sephardic communities that do not use rice on Pesach.

In our time, American corn, which was unknown to Europe and the Middle East until the eighteenth century, is also treated as being kitniyot. However, tea, coffee, sugar, garlic, cocoa, tobacco and other like ingredients are not considered to be kitniyot, though all of them were at one time or another discussed in rabbinic literature as perhaps being such. Among the masses, the custom to include garlic as being kitniyot was widespread even when rabbinic decision was almost unanimous that it not be considered so.

Kitniyot

is one area where custom completely rules. The fact that the entire matter of kitniyot is absent from Sephardic Jewish communities only emphasizes the role of differing customs in different Jewish communities. Rabbinic wisdom decreed that instead of arguing over the efficacy of one custom over another differing one, each community should observe its customs and traditions. In cases of “mixed” marriages between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, in the absence of agreement among the spouses as to which customs will prevail in the house, the usual practice is that the custom of the husband takes precedence.

Another contentious custom that exists in the Ashkenazic world regarding Pesach is that of the non-use of matzah-meal flour in conjunction with cooking and baking. This matter called “gebrokts” (literally, ground or broken matzah) was not widespread until the rise of chassidism in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century eastern Europe. The non-chassidic Lithuanian Jewish world never adopted this custom and even the chassidic world allows gebrokts on the eighth day of Pesach in the Diaspora. This custom apparently arose from the chance the matzah would not be baked thoroughly enough and thus a kernel of grain would remain embedded in it. When the matzah was made wet in cooking, baking or dipping, that kernel would begin to ferment and could become chametz.

Since the prohibition against chametz on Pesach applies even to the minutest amount of grain, this custom took hold in the chassidic world and is observed by most Jews of eastern European background even today. Jews of Lithuanian descent do not observe the custom of gebrokts and this often leads to a certain disconnect within families where generations of eastern European Jews with these different customs have married each other and the question arises as to who eats or does not eat matzah balls and the like at the same meal.

There is nothing quite like being Jewish when matters of custom are involved. To the outsider the issues may appear to be slightly amusing. However, in my rabbinic experience I have witnessed that unfortunately these matters are deadly serious to those involved and can tear family bonds asunder. Therefore, even observance of custom requires good sense, tolerance and prioritizing values.

* * * * *
There is one area of Jewish law and life which is almost completely governed by custom and that is the subject of avelut – the procedures of grieving, mourning and consoling the bereaved. Since we are dealing with the dreaded unknown, death itself, it is understandable that custom should have a strong hold on the matter. Kabbalistic customs rule in these areas. For instance the covering of mirrors in the house of the mourner is a custom that has acquired almost universal acceptance, even in homes that sadly do not otherwise observe basic Jewish law and practice.

Death is spooky and when it comes to spooks even the most hardened rational intellect wavers. Visiting graves, placing stones on the monuments, reciting Kaddish in memory or in honor of the dead, the Yizkor service held four times in the year in the midst of Yom Tov prayer services, lighting yahrzeit lamps or candles to mark the anniversary of the death of a family member and other such death-related customs connected to grief and consolation are all fairly late arrivals in Jewish life, mostly unmentioned in records of biblical and Talmudic times.

Much has been written about the Jewish way of grieving and consolation, mostly based on the customs that now prevail. Most of these customs have become Jewish law and halacha itself and occupy great space and discussion in rabbinic writings and scholarly works. Jewish law discourages undue mourning over death. It is the way of God’s world. The customs of Israel in these matters are meant to ease the mourner back into normal life and routine and somehow begin to assuage the pain of the loss and death of a loved one.

In a broader sense one may see that tradition and customs have eased the terrible exile for Israel and helped us preserve our faith and family structure against overwhelmingly difficult odds.

This is also apparent in the ironclad “custom of our fathers that remains in our hands” to observe a second day of Yom Tov on Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot in the Diaspora. This observance was originally a matter of halacha, since there was real doubt as to which day was exactly the correct date of the holiday. However, with the establishment and acceptance of the calculations of the permanent Jewish calendar after the demise of the Sanhedrin in the fifth century, the doubts regarding the exact date of the holiday were seemingly removed. But the second day of the Diaspora holidays then morphed from absolute halacha into custom.

And the custom became as binding as the halacha itself had been. It was the “extra” day of the holidays that helped the Jewish people survive the long exile. Those movements that did away with the custom of the “second” day of the holiday soon found that their adherents had lost observance of the “first” day of the holidays as well.

* * * * *
The reformers and progressives among us have constantly underestimated the power of custom in the life of a society and a people, certainly in Jewish society and the people of Israel. The warmth and love of our mothers as represented by the customs and traditions of Israel are the mainstays of Jewish life even now in our land of Israel and its Jewish state and in a more favorable Diaspora atmosphere.
Jewish free thinkers and agnostics have mocked Jewish customs in every age and country of Jewish residence. Yet they have been unable to find any worthwhile substitute for the tradition and customs so much maligned by them, any other mechanism that would help ensure Jewish continuity and survival. Is it not perhaps that all of us have only one mother? And the one mother of Israel in this matter remains our sense of tradition and the customs developed over the ages to protect the Torah and enrich Jewish life.

Rabbi Berel Wein is an internationally acclaimed scholar, lecturer and writer whose audiotapes on Torah and other Jewish subjects have garnered a wide following, as have his books, which include a four-volume series on Jewish history. A pulpit rabbi for decades, he founded Yeshiva Shaarei Torah of Rockland in 1977 and moved to Israel in 1997His latest book is “Patterns of Jewish History” (Koren Publishers), from which this essay is adapted.

Give Me A Troika: The Hillel Sandwich

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

When fulfilling the commandments God has given us, I often think of dedicated high school athletes who, when their coaches say “Jump!” do not seek an excuse to do less but rather focus on doing what the coach said, and then some.

How much more should we seek to fulfill God’s commandments! So it was for our great sages and so it is why, in remembrance of the Temple, we do as Hillel did in combining Pesach, matzah and maror in a sandwich and eating them together. He did this in literal fulfillment of the commandment given in Bamidbar 9:11 – “They shall eat it with matzot and bitter herbs.”

During the Seder, once we have fulfilled our obligation to eat first the matzah and then the maror, we are confronted with Hillel’s view that “the Pesach offering, matzah and maror” must be eaten together. Since the destruction of the Temple, we no longer are able to bring the Pesach offering. How then to “combine Pesach, matzah and maror in a sandwich and eat them together”?

If we were less dedicated than a high school athlete, we might satisfy ourselves with the sad fact that we cannot do all that we are commanded to do. But even in a world in which the Temple does not stand, that is not enough.

We must enthusiastically preserve Hillel’s practice by doing whatever remains of his approach. With no Temple and no Temple sacrifice, we cannot eat the Pesach meat, matzah and maror together, but we can still combine matzah and maror.

Why combine the Pesach meat, which signifies the redemptive act, together with matzah, which also represents the miraculous geulah, with the maror, which is a reminder of the bitter state of galut and slavery? Hillel’s sandwich combines such odd bedfellows! A blending of apples and oranges. Galut and geulah. How and why bring these opposites together in one sandwich?

Hillel, in his wisdom, understood that to fully appreciate the sublime taste of freedom (the Pesach sacrifice) one must first fully digest the bitter ingredients of slavery (matzah and maror). Every aspect of the Hillel sandwich has power and meaning.

Two matzot – one symbolizing the bitterness of galut and the other the sweetness of geulah.

Maror is inseparable from the redemption experience. No joy exists without bitterness.

But it is not enough to remember, or even understand, the two distinct phases of the Mitzrayim experience. If that were Hillel’s goal, he would simply have followed the chronology of our slavery, listing maror first followed by Pesach and then matzah. After all, maror and pain and suffering of galut preceded the redemptive acts of Pesach and matzah.

But it was not Hillel’s goal to simply remember; not enough to simply “jump.” His intent was to do more. Hillel meant to teach that maror is part and parcel of the geulah/redemption troika. Pesach and matzah do not stand alone as geulah reminders. Maror does not stand in a separate category of the galut/enslavement.

They are three parts of the same whole.

Like Hillel, Rabban Gamliel also insisted on the geulah troika. “Whoever has not explained the following three things on Pesach has not fulfilled his duty, namely: Pesach, matzot, maror.”Rabban Gamliel, like Hillel before him, understood that to fully comprehend and appreciate the magnificent grace of redemption, and be able to fulfill the obligation of recalling the wonders and miracles of our exodus from Egypt, one must view all the elements of geulah as equal and vital components of the process.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein teaches that the Pesach offering symbolizes that God is the absolute Ruler of this world – that man is not his own master. This truth was not fully recognized even by the generation of the Exodus until God saved them so quickly as when “the dough of our fathers did not have time to become leavened.” Matzah too is an integral part of the redemptive process. Even in the most unbearable and seemingly hopeless of times, when hope seems lost, God’s redemption is at hand.

God needs no warm-up or preparation time to perform miracles or bring salvation.

However, when we relax our spiritual zeal and take God’s protection and providence for granted, particularly in times of peace, prosperity and tranquility, then maror rears its ugly head yet again. Maror periodically issues a stern warning to Jews and forewarns of our ever-present vulnerability. The commandment to eat maror together with the Pesach and the matzah not only symbolizes the correct approach to life but represents a danger flare should we stray from it. Redemption, once attained, is not guaranteed. It must be safeguarded and protected.

A Rabbi’s Rabbi Shares His Seder Secrets

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

The ideal drashah (sermon) combines science and art.

There is the scientific component, where the darshan embodies deep and authentic Jewish scholarship: breadth of knowledge, methodology, and faithfulness to tradition. Equally significant are the artistic elements of the drashah: eloquence, presentation, and a penetrating understanding of one’s intended audience.

It is no easy feat to compose good Pesach sermons. One must envision creative twists to well-trodden ancient texts, emerging with new understandings that educate, inspire, and delight.

As an accomplished scholar, and armed with a lifetime of experience as a community rabbi and then president and rosh hayeshiva of Yeshiva University, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm brings all his credentials as a master darshan to our Pesach Sedarim in his newly published commentary on the Haggadah, The Royal Table (OU Press).

Perhaps the core philosophy of this treasure-trove of insights can be identified in Dr. Lamm’s interpretation of the preface to the first half of the Hallel (Psalms 113-114), where we promise to sing a “new song” (shirah chadashah).

Dr. Lamm expresses amazement that this “new” song is none other than “the old, tried, worn Hallel.” His response: “Our people throughout the ages have instinctively understood that the rhythm of Torah combines the old and the new new insights are possible, insights that come with age and wisdom and experience . We must keep the old in sight; perceive in it the new through Insight; and as a result learn – to excite our souls and galvanize our spirits.”

That interplay between tradition and creativity receives magnificent expression throughout his elucidations of the classical Haggadah text.

Dr. Lamm stresses that ethical living is central to Judaism: “The highest form of creativity is neither intellectual nor artistic; it is ethical.” Elsewhere he even converts the korech sandwich into a lesson in balancing the different elements of our personalities – represented by the symbols of matzah and marror – to achieve perfection. Extremes must be avoided.

There is a talmudic debate about whether we should begin the negative aspect of the storytelling from our physical slavery or from our idolatrous origins. Instead of tackling that debate, Dr. Lamm explores a more basic question. If the Talmudic sages cannot even agree on so fundamental a point, how can we ever speak about “tradition”?

Dr. Lamm answers that uncertainty provokes machloket l’Shem Shamayim (debate for the sake of Heaven), and that uncertainty coupled with ongoing study makes life more interesting and energizing.

Religious existentialism emerges in the discussion of the plague of darkness. Darkness and solitude can indeed be a plague, and this is how the Egyptians perceived it. However, one with a healthier perspective finds blessing in moments of solitude. Loneliness can be painful, but also can become a creative opportunity to hear the voice of God and discover ourselves.

Dr. Lamm infuses ironic meaning into our practice of reclining. We recline as a relic from the Roman period, when nobles did so on couches while they dined. In an age of great technological advances such as chairs, however, of what value is this fossilized custom?

Dr. Lamm responds that our Seder is profoundly lacking because there is no Temple, and it was the ancient Romans who destroyed it. We shall not allow that destruction to undo us as a people.

Our response is to celebrate a living tradition from the era of the Temple with a Roman practice, while that once invincible Roman Empire is long gone.

Along with his perspicacious discussion of the Four Children, Dr. Lamm delights the reader with another section that outlines traits of the Four Parents. Education should not be focused exclusively on children and their respective differences. Rather, our continuity as a people depends heavily on the religious-educational attitudes of parents and how they speak to their children.

Dr. Joel Wolowelsky has provided an invaluable service in reading Dr. Lamm’s sermons, selecting and abridging them, and placing them alongside the text of the Haggadah as a running commentary. He also has succeeded in retaining Dr. Lamm’s authentic voice (as stated in the general introduction, Dr. Lamm reviewed the volume).

The Royal Table is a veritable gold mine for rabbis and educators. In addition to the wealth of insight, it is a consummate model as to what makes a great drashah. The Royal Table similarly is a welcome addition for all committed Jews seeking to enhance their Sedarim and ultimately their personal religious growth. The book is accessible to Jews of all backgrounds, as Dr. Lamm combines his hallmark eloquence and subtlety with clarity and a keen understanding of a diverse Jewish community.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/a-rabbis-rabbi-shares-his-seder-secrets/2010/02/10/

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