Friday, September 29, 2017

Yom Kippur


1) See below for my message for Yom Kippur. For the PDF format, click here.

2) See my related message for Lekh Lekha 2015 here.

3) Listen to a related class here. Follow along with the source sheet here.

4) Read last years message for Yom Kippur here.


"Hineni - Here I Am!"
A Message for Yom Kippur 2017
Read as PDF here.

The self which, in his despair, he wants to be – is a self he is not. To want to be the self he truly is –  is the opposite of despair. (Soren Kierkegaard)[1]


The formative years of Avraham’s life are bookended by parallel episodes. His first and last dialogue with God each began with the command of lekh lekha – “go forth.” Both missions entailed separating from family – at first leaving his “land, birthplace and father’s home” (Ber. 12:2) and later parting with Yisshak at the Akedah (22:2). And each of the trials was accompanied by God’s subsequent promise of blessing and bountiful offspring.

Avraham is the Torah personality most often associated with hesed. He demonstrated that trait by caring for and mentoring his nephew Lot after the passing of his father, begging Sarah not to send away Yishmael, and famously sitting at his tent’s entrance in search of needy travelers. Ironically, however, the critical moments in Avraham’s life are best characterized by constant separation from others. In a life that was framed by the famous departures of lekh lekha, Avraham was forcibly separated from his wife Sarah upon descent into Egypt, from Lot on return to Canaan and from Yishmael when he finally settled down. What was God’s intended message to Avraham with all of those separations?
* * * *
 R. Shimon said: … ‘Lekh lekha’ – To perfect yourself. ‘From your land’ – From the place of dwelling within you, in which you consider the wisdom with which you were born. ‘To the land that I will show you’ – There it will be revealed to you that which you seek, the power that is appointed over it (the land), which is deep and hidden. (Zohar)[2]

God’s repeated command of lekh lekha entailed more than a simple call to “go forth” (lekh) – it called for a courageous act of individuality (lekha). He challenged Avraham to “go for himself,” forcing him to struggle through the difficult process of identifying himself. Though Avraham was naturally inclined to surround himself with others – as a mentor, guide and leader, God time and again forced him to distance himself from them and grapple with the important questions of “Who am I?” and “What are my true convictions and beliefs?” In the presence of other people, it is often difficult to distinguish our individual thoughts and beliefs from that of the others. In solitude, however, our true selves shine forth.

Approaching Avraham for his final challenge at the Akedah, God prefaced the command by calling out his name: “Avraham!” (22:1) He challenged Avraham to answer the call of his true self-identity. Avraham courageously responded “Hineni – Here I am!” His single-word response reflected his confidence in completing the ultimate test of his life’s mission of self-identity. And as the chilling encounter at Har Hamoriyah wound to an end, God’s messenger appeared to Avraham and symbolically placed a stamp of approval on his success, crying out to him again, “Avraham, Avraham!” Having proven himself with his actions, Avraham convincingly responded, “Hineni – Here I am.” His life’s mission was complete.

Our consistent mention of Akedat Yisshak over Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur represents more than just a recollection of past events. It serves as the call to reexperience the challenge of Avraham, and to ask ourselves the important questions of, “Who are we?” and “What are our true convictions and beliefs?” It is the demand that we rise to the task of identifying our life’s goals and ambitions, and courageously answer “Hineni” to the call of our names.

... νεξέταστος βίος ο βιωτς νθρώπ[3]

Shabbat shalom and tizku le-shanim rabot!



[1] The Sickness Unto Death (London, UK, 1989), pg. 50.
[2] Zohar, Parashat Lekh Lekha, 76b.
[3] “The unexamined life is not worth living.” These are the famous words spoken by Socrates after he chose death over exile at his final trial.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Akedat Yisshak


As we make our way from Rosh HaShanah - when we read Akedat Yisshak from the Torah, to Yom Kippur - when the Akedah took place, I thought it appropriate to dedicate some time to reanalyzing that episode.


1) Listen to a class during which we textually analyzed the Torah's text in order to understand its ethical implications, here. Follow along with the source sheet here.


2) Listen to a class during which we analyzed HaRambam's understanding of the Akedah, based on several passages in his Moreh Nevukhimhere. Follow along with the source sheet here.


3) Read my written divrei Torah for VaYera 2015 and Shemot 2017 - both relevant to the Akedah.


4) As you might expect, there has been a lot of good stuff written on the Akedah. I have chosen several pieces that I have enjoyed, each from a different genre of Torah analysis:

a) Read R. Yitzchak Ethshalom's textual analysis of the Akedah, in his Between the Lines of the Bible: Genesis, here.

b) Read Rav Shagar's analysis of the midrashim related to the Akedah, in his Faith Shattered and Restored: Judaism in the Postmodern Age, here.

c) Read Kenneth Seeskin's philosophical summary and brief analysis of the Akedah, in his Thinking About the Torah: A Philosopher Reads the Bible, here.

d) Read Rav Soloveitchik's homiletic analysis of the Akedah, in his Abraham's Journey: Reflections on the Life of the Founding Patriarch, here.  

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The "Target Audiences" of Halakhic Writers


1) Several weeks ago, in a class dedicated to the life and thought of R. Asher b. Yehiel (Rosh), we briefly discussed different genres of halakhic writing. We distinguished between works written for the "scholarly elite" and those written for the "masses." We noted the several reasons that Rosh was dismayed by the "accessibility" of Rambam's Mishneh Torah, and the irony that his son R. Yaakov composed the "masses-friendly" Tur, and we suggested a Spanish influence. Listen to the class here and follow along with the source sheet here.


2) I recently read several excellent articles by Prof. Judah Galinksy that are relevant to this topic. The articles focus on the halakhic literature of Germany and France in the 13th Century. 

In Between Germany and France: Two Approaches Toward Popularizing Jewish Law, Galinsky distinguished between German halakhah works written during this period -  purposed specifically for the scholarly elite, and French works -  which were written for the interested layman. Read it here.

In Rabbis, Readers and the Paris Book Trade, Galinsky suggested several factors that led to this difference. One specific reason is a "Sephardic/Middle Eastern" influence on France. He noted that this was probably first relevant after the arrival of Rambam's Mishneh Torah in France during that time. The Sephardic/Middle Eastern heritage - dating back to the Geonim - was generally inclined to "inclusive" writing, a form and style meant to be accessible to all. Read it here.

The 13th Century French work Sefer Missvot Gadol  by R. Moshe of Coucy, was in fact built upon Mishneh Torah, and somewhat modeled in its fashion, as Galinsky showed in his The Significance of Form: R. Moses of Coucy's Reading Audience and his Sefer ha-Mitzvot. Read it here.


3) Fast-forwarding several hundred years, I believe that the "Sephardic/Ashkenazic divide" in halakhic output is still alive. I am reminded of the time that my Ashkenazic rosh yeshivah's wife - who hailed from a prominent rabbinic family - noticed a boy holding the book Shemirat Shabbat KeHilkhetah. She admonished him for using the book, telling him that that book was never allowed in her father's home

The book, written by R. Yehoshua Neuwirth, is an Ashkenazic guide to the practical issues that arise on Shabbat. It received haskamot (approbations) from several of the leading rabbis of the generation, but other gedolim specifically withheld their letters. The classic explanation for this is that there were "too many lenient rulings" in the the book (thus says Wikipedia - here), but I have always suspected another (and perhaps stronger) reason for the rabbinic hesitance -- the novelty of an "accessible" practical book on Ashkenazic hilkhot Shabbat. The very concept was new to them, and thus a cause for alarm.


4) Indeed, contrasting the works of the leading Ashkenazic and Sephardic halakhic decisors of the past generation reveals this same phenomenon. Rabbi Meir Mazouz, the rosh yeshivah of Yeshivat Kisse Rahamim named, in his mind, the three greatest Ashknezic and Sephardic rabbis of our generation: 

Ashkenazic: R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, R. Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and R. Shemuel Wosner.
Sephardic: R. Ben Zion Abba Shaul, R. Moshe Levy and R. Ovadia Yosef.

Watch the video clip here:


Whereas all three of these Ashkenazic rabbis' halakhic works are responsa (שאלות ותשובות), which were specifically written for the advanced scholar or student, the works of the Sephardic rabbis are far more "accessible": 


a) Though R. Ben Zion Abba Shaul only published responsa during his lifetime - Shu"t Or LeTzion, his children and students published his halakhic rulings following his death. They were published as a continuation of the series, in the form of a practical and easy to read "upper section" - which summarizes the "bottom line" of the law, and a more lengthy "lower section" - in which the various sources and approaches are laid forth and discussed.


b) R. Moshe Levy wrote responsa Tefillah LeMoshe, but his clear claims to fame are his  halakhic works on hilkhot Shabbat - Menuhat Ahavah, hilkhot berakhot - Birkat Hashem, and hilkhot ribbit - Melaveh Hashem. Each is structured with the "upper" and "lower" section, as above.


c) And now to the halakhic works of R. Ovadia Yosef...

Hebrew University recently published a book that contains monographs of many of the previous generations great rabbis, entitled HaGedolim. Among them are R. Ben Zion Abba Shaul and R. Ovadia Yosef. As I read the summary of the various works that Hakham Ovadia had published during his lifetime, I noticed a development and direction in his halakhic output. (Read the summary here).

Though there are several works which I will leave out of my analysis, I detail the basic and broad contours of Hakham Ovadia's halakhic writing below: 

Hakham Ovadia's first serious halakhic writing was a commentary on Masekhet Horayot (it was later published at the end of Yehaveh Daat vol. 6). He then wrote a "counter-commentary" to Ben Ish Hai, in which he lay out the rationale to the many rulings from which he diverged (due to its "revolutionary" content, it could not put to print until several decades later - in the six-volumed Halikhot Olam). Hakham Ovadia then wrote Hazon Ovadia on the laws of Pesah, which consisted of long analyses of specific laws and issues related to Pesah. He then began work on his grand responsa Yabia Omer (which reached 10 volumes in 2004), which was written on all areas of Jewish law and also contained elaborate discussions that analyzed every angle of the given issue.

Each of these initial works were written for the "elite" - the halakhic scholars who were familiar with the general issues, sources, halakhic language, etc., and were interested in his specific summary and ruling regarding a particular issue. 

(Hakham Ovadia's son, R. Yitzhak Yosef, later "collected" these rulings of his father and made them accessible to the masses in his Yalkut Yosef - written in the "upper" and "lower" sections structure).

In the late 1970's, R. Ovadia Yosef began a new endeavor - Shu"t Yehaveh DaatThis began his outreach to a "broader" reading base. Based on rulings he had broadcast over the radio, Hakham Ovadia described its purpose (in the introduction to vol. 1) as a condensed version of Yabia Omer. It was meant to open his rulings to a wider circle of people, by choosing only the more "important" sources relevant to the analyzed issue, and resulting in 2-3 page "easier to read" question-and-answers. And then, during the last 15 or so years of his life, Hakham Ovadia began his final project - the set of books known as Hazon Ovadia. Written in the "upper" and "lower" sections, he wrote on the Jewish holidays, hilkhot avelutpruzbul, berakhot and much of hilkhot Shabbat

Though continuing to publish subsequent volumes of Yabia Omer throughout his lifetime, the last forty or so years of Hakham Ovadia's life took a sharp turn toward an ambition of reaching beyond the "elite," to the "masses."

Monday, September 25, 2017

Sefer Yonah: Yonah's Prayer


Listen to tonight's class, "Yonah's Prayer," here.

Follow along with the source sheet here.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Halakhic History of Coffee


1) As I was sipping coffee in the early hours one morning last week, I flipped through the latest Hakirah journal. I found in it several interesting articles, among them Ari Greenspan's The Halakhic History of Coffee, Tea, Sugar and Chocolate. It is a good summary and easy to read. - do so here


2) We mentioned the role that coffee played in Jewish history several months ago, regarding tikkun leil Shavuot. We mentioned Elliot Horowitz's truly excellent article Coffee, Coffeehouses and the Nocturnal Rituals of Early Modern Jewry - read it hereHe wrote a brief synopsis of the article for Jewish Review of Books - read it here. 


3) Several years ago, Robert Liberles wrote a great book that details the history in great (and entertaining) depth, entitled Jews Welcome Coffee: Tradition and Innovation in Early Modern Germany. Buy the book here (and read the introduction here).


4) There are still many halakhic issues related to coffee that can be discussed, but I realized that I have quoted two specific ones in the past year: a) R. Ovadia Yosef's analysis (in Yehaveh Da'at 4:42) of the potential problem of bishul aku"m and coffeeand b) R. Yisshak Yosef's brief analysis (in Rishon LeSion 1:43) of drinking coffee during pesukei de-zimrah.


5) Several years ago, R. Meir Mazouz spoke in the presence of R. Ovadia Yosef about his greatness as a Torah scholar. In the middle of the derashah, Hakham Ovadia pushed his cup of tea over to R. Mazouz as a show of respect to him. This fact was mentioned in the footnote to the printed derashah, in R. Mazouz's recently published MiGedolei Yisrael vol. 3 - read it hereWatch part of the video here:



Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Elul, Rosh HaShanah and Teshuvah


On the eve of Rosh HaShanah...


1) My month of Elul began on a high note, with the arrival of R. Jonathan Sacks's newest book, Ceremony & Celebration: Introduction to the Holidays (buy yours here) . It is a collection of his previously published introductory essays to the Sacks Mahazorim. 

In R. Sacks's essay for Rosh HaShanah he mentions, and briefly analyzes, the famous passage in Rosh HaShanah 16b:

Said R. Kruspedai, in the name of R. Yohanan: Three books are opened on Rosh HaShanah, one for the wholly righteous, one for the wholly wicked and one for the intermediates. The wholly righteous are at once inscribed and sealed for life; the wholly wicked are at once inscribed and sealed for death; and the intermediates are held suspended from Rosh HaShanah until Yom Kippur. If they are found worthy, they are inscribed for life; if unworthy, they are inscribed for death.

Read R. Sacks's analysis here.


2) This passage has for generations troubled everyone - from the classical Talmudic commentators to the philosophers and theologians - and everyone in between. Marc Saperstein summarized many of the classical analyses and approaches (as well as that of the "less classic" R. Saul Levi Mortera), in his "Inscribed for Life or Death?", published in "Your Voice Like a Ram's Horn": Themes and Texts in Traditional Jewish Preaching, available here. Read it here.


3) We have in the past discussed the approach of Minhat Hinukh, which was tinkered with by R. Soloveitchik, regarding the distinction between kapparah and shem saddik. This approach aided our explanation of this Talmudic passage, discussed in the context of HaRambam's Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:4. 

Listen to the class on Hilkhot Teshuvah wherein we discussed this matter here. Follow along with the source sheet here, and read the related devar Torah that I recently wrote, "Teshuvah: 'Returning' or 'Turning'?" here.

We revisited this matter in an entirely different context, when discussing R. Soloveitchik's Halakhic Man - listen to that class here. Follow along with the source sheet here.


4) R. Soloveitchik later made a similar distinction, albeit in different terminology, as recorded in On Repentance. The book On Repentance has just been reprinted - with an enhanced translation (תודה לא-ל) and a new forward and afterward - in addition to a prettier cover and font. Buy it here.

On that note, several years ago I wrote a paper regarding R. Soloveitchik's conception of teshuvah. Read it here

And see here and here for 2 "yeshiva-style" essays that are similarly related.

Tizku le-shanim rabot and shanah tovah!

Monday, September 18, 2017

Sefer Yonah: Yonah, Noah and the Lesson of Universality


Listen to tonight's class on "Yonah, Noah and the Lesson of Universality," here.

Follow along with the source sheet here.

Aramaic prayers and Selihot


1) During our class prior to Minha last week, we discussed the issue of saying the Aramaic portions of the Selihot while praying without a minyan. The Selihot Bet Yaakob, which our synagogue uses, lists several relevant halakhot, among them: 

The Aramaic portions of the Selihot should not be recited by individuals but only with a minyan. Therefore, when ten people are not yet present, the Aramaic portions should be skipped and should be said only after the tenth person arrives.

We discussed the Talmudic source (Shabbat 12) upon which this matter is based - the gemara (Shabbat 12) states that the malakhei ha-sharet do not understand Aramaic, which diminishes the efficiency of an individual's prayer.

We mentioned that the pesak preventing an individual from saying these prayers follows Hakham Ovadia Yosef's opinion in Yehaveh Da'at 3:34.


2) We mentioned, as well, that R. Yisshak Yosef recounted that upon his first encounter with Hakham Yom Tob Yedid (18 years ago), the latter admonished him for listing this law in Siddur Hazon Ovadia. Hakham Yom Tob's claim, in line with Kaf HaHayim, was that although the individual's Aramaic prayer may lose efficacy in such a circumstance, there is no reason to prevent him from saying it. 


3) R. Yisshak Yosef quoted to Hakham Yom Tob the teshuvah of Ben Ish Hai in Torah LiShemah (no. 49). We read and discussed the details of that teshuvah.


4) Interestingly, R. Meir Mazouz disagreed with Hakham Ovadia on this matter, and permitted individuals to recite the Aramaic portions. He claimed that this is the long-standing Sephardic minhag, and brought several proofs in its support.


5) R. Reuven Chaim Klein analyzed the general concept of malakhei ha-sharet not understanding Aramaic from various angles, providing a good scope of the rabbinic history on this matter, in his (English) book, Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness & Hebrew (available here). 

Lewis Glinert briefly mentioned the fierce rabbinic condemnation of Aramaic prayers, as part of a larger section in his recently published The Story of Hebrew (available here).


6) Marc Shapiro discussed the theological difficulty posed by the notion of malakhei ha-sharet's involvement with our prayers, as the core of his discussion of HaRambam's fifth ikkar, in his The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides' Thirteen Principles Reappraised (available here). 

This specific analysis of Shapiro was subsequently contested by several people, which we will discuss on another occasion. In the meantime, listen to the two classes wherein we discussed the general significance of Rambam's ikkarim here and here. Follow along with the source sheets here and here.

Click on any of the above hyperlinks to access the cited text.

Rosh HaShanah

See below for my devar Torah in the newest Qol HaQahal. See it in its QHQ format here.


Striving for More
A Message for Rosh HaShanah

To become aware of the ineffable is to part company with words.
(Abraham Joshua Heschel)


The shofar adds breadth and depth to the human voice. A person invests all his energy into the shofar, and the shofar emits a sound that is far more powerful than the human voice. The sounds of the shofar express more than one can convey in words.
(R. Yehuda Amital)


At the very onset of his Hilkhot Teshuvah (1:1), HaRambam set forth a puzzling law. He wrote that the vidui segment of the teshuvah process, during which the sinner states his or her wrongdoings, must be performed verbally. Simply reflecting upon one’s wrongdoings without verbally expressing them misses the mark of proper repentance. Whereas HaRambam generally accepts the halakhic principle that permits performance of verbal mandates through mental contemplation (hirhur ke-dibur), he inexplicably presents vidui as an exception to the rule.


Bearing in mind the repeated viduim over the course of the Yom Kippur prayers, we may sense an emphasis on speech during this time. Our custom to recite Kal Nidre on Kippur night is yet another venue for our focus on speech. Vows, of course, represent man’s unique ability to “create” a halakhic reality – through speech. And Yom Kippur is the time that we emphasize them.


The focus of Rosh HaShanah seems different. Its missvat ha-yom is speechless. It is constituted by a mere sound – the kol shofar. The Hakhamim (TB Rosh HaShanah 33b) in fact taught that the sound of the teru’ah is modeled after the speechless cries of the mother of the fallen general Sisera, as she awaited his return from battle (Shofetim 5:28-30). Speech, it appears, is replaced on Rosh HaShanah by sounds and cries. Why?


In a well-known passage in his Moreh Nevukhim (1:59), HaRambam explained that ideal prayer isn’t performed through verbal expression, but rather through an intellectual connection with the Almighty. Although our human deficiencies mandate verbal expressions of prayer, HaRambam nonetheless noted the resultant limitations on our proper expression of praise to God. Language is a necessary tool for human expression and interaction with one another, because we are unable to read one another’s minds. It is, however, limited. It is impossible for man to express the full depth of his internal thoughts, feelings or beliefs with mere words. The complex inner workings of man cannot be captured by the practicality of language. In short: speech represents the human reality of life.


Onkelos accordingly translated the verse that referred to the creation of life in man, “And He blew into his nostrils the soul of life” (Bereshit 1:7), as referring to the “ruah me-malalah” – “the soul of speech.” Man’s very spirit and life are defined by his ability to speak. Many of the medieval philosophers, as well, classified forms and bodies into four groups – “domem – silent beings” representing the inanimate, “someah – growing beings” representing plants and vegetation, “hai – living beings” representing the animal kingdom, and “medaber – speaking beings” representing man. Human beings are distinguished by their ability to speak.


We may now understand the emphasis on speech during this period, as portrayed by the verbal vidui and hatarat nedarim. The Yamim Noraim represent the time for our approach of the Divine. Ignoring our human essence during this time would constitute a tragic deceit. We stand as internally broken beings because we are humans. We possess human desires, human imaginations and human deficiencies. We attempt to enter into a relationship with God, but honestly state the obvious yet significant at the onset: “We are human and you are God. We would nonetheless like to take another stab at this one.”


Therein lies the essence of the shofar. We have spoken – and we will continue to speak – because we are humans. But we are trying – so desperately trying – for this relationship with the Divine, and for that we seek Godly attributes. The sounds of the shofar – the cries of the mother of Sisera – represent our carefully measured steps toward God.


Cognizant of our human realities, and therefore drawn to the convention of speech, we seek to rise above. We look to erase the speech created by our vows with Kal Nidre, to use our humanly speech to rise above our sins with the vidui, and to ultimately rise above speech itself with the shofar.


Tizku le-shanim rabot!

2 Approaches to Pesak Halakhah (1)


1) Several months ago we dedicated a class to clarifying an important facet of the system and process of pesak halakhah: the distinction between a "mimetic tradition" approach, and one that is primarily reliant upon texts. Listen to the class here. Follow along with the source sheet here.


2) As we mentioned, Dr. Haym Soloveitchik's classic essay "Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodox Society," set forth the structure and theory of the class. Read it here.


3) I have scanned many of the core sources that we analyzed, so that you can view them in their full context: a) Yehaveh Da'at 1:84, b) Sansan LeYair 3-4, c) Hazon Ovadia - Pesah pg. 108-14, d) Rabenu pg. 84, e) Hakdamat Hakham Barukh, f) Yehaveh Da'at 3:12, g) HaMashbir pg. 42-45, h) Mishnah Berurah 8:26, i) Yehaveh Da'at 2:1, j) Or Lesiyon 2 pg. 27, and k) Mekor Ne'eman pg. 9.


4) At one point during the class we mentioned Menachem Friedman's related article, The Lost Kiddush Cup: Changes in Ashkenazic Haredi Culture - A Tradition in Crisis. Read it here.


5) I reflected upon the significance of halakhah's "mimetic tradition" in the devar Torah that I wrote this year for Parashat Kedoshim. Read it here.


6) We mentioned and discussed the issue of the proper berakhah on massah before and after Pesah. Enjoy the short story that R. Mordekhai Eliyahu told, regarding R. Ezra Attiah's deliberation on this matter:


Sunday, September 17, 2017

Parashot Nissavim-VaYelekh

Watch the divrei Torah that I taught for Parashot Nissavim-VaYelekh at Yeshivah of Flatbush HS, on Friday:

The "Formalization" of Halakhah


1) Listen to this morning's class here.


2) Click here for the source sheet. 


3) View some of the core texts that we analyzed in their original context: a) Hazon Ovadia, b) Meta-Halakhah, c) Yabia Omer, and d) Divine Law in Human Hands.


4) Buy Meta-Halakhah here.


5) For further research: We mentioned that the first issue that we raised, regarding the history behind R. Avahu's takkanah for shofar sounds, has ramifications regarding whether one can say a silent vidui in between the sounds of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah. This issue is in fact a point of contention between R. Ovadia Yosef (Yabia Omer 1:36 and Yehaveh Da'at 1:55) and R. Meir Mazouz (Bayit Ne'eman no. 36). See, as well, R. Yaakov Hillel's discussion of this matter, in VaYashov HaYam 3:24.

Tizku le-shanim rabot!