Mahzor for Yom Ha’aztmaut and Yom Yerushalyim – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

“I will establish My covenant as an everlasting covenant, between Me, you and your descendants that follow you, to be a God for you and for your descendants. I will give the land of your sojourning, the whole land of Canaan to you and your descendants for everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”

Bereshit 17:7-8

maxresdefaultI will be writing a longer review of this beautiful mahzor over the coming months as I only received my copy a few days ago. However you may still have the opportunity to buy a copy, if not for Yom Ha’atzmaut, then in time for Yom Yerushalayim.

The Rabbis clearly understood that it is hard for us to relate to events of the past. All of our festivals are full of symbols and prayers, one aim of which is, to enable us to focus on, and indeed experience the events of our ancestors. This is most clearly evident in the recent festival of Passover. We are told that the Exodus from Egypt and the subsequent experience of Mount Sinai was one of, if not the key event in Jewish history (the story of creation is the other main event!). In order to relive the event we fill our table with symbols, we ask questions and we sing memorable songs.

However, it is far easier for us, the Jewish people, to remember or at least relate to the events of 1948 and 1967. Not only do many remember these incredible events, but also view them as modern day miracles of biblical proportions.

Two years ago I was thrilled to be given a copy of the Hebrew Mahzor for these two days and used it with pride and joy over the last two years. For the English speaking Jewish world it is invaluable to have access to this new Mahzor and in particular the essays that it contains. I have not, yet, had an opportunity to read them but the calibre of the writers can leave the reader in no doubt as to the value of this volume.

According to the Koren website “The essay section explores the theological, philosophical, and halakhic implications of the modern State of Israel. Contributors include: R. Yehuda Amital (zt”l), Dr. Erica Brown, R. Zvi Yehuda Kook (zt”l), R. Binyamin Lau, R. Mosheh Lichtenstein, R. Yitzhak Nissim (zt”l), R. Shlomo Riskin, R. Michael Rosensweig, R. Jonathan Sacks, R. Herschel Schachter, R. JJ Schacter, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik (zt”l), R. Moshe Taragin, R. Berel Wein, Dr. Yael Ziegler, and many more.”

I, for one, cannot wait to celebrate these days of miracles whilst praying for the complete redemption of the Jewish people using the Koren Mahzor. The essays will no doubt increase my feelings of joy and love towards the Land of Israel and the Jewish people.

“The Lord your God will return your captives and will have compassion upon you. He will return and gather you from among all the nations to which the Lord your God has scattered you. Even if your dispersed ones will be at the edge of the heavens, from there the Lord your God will gather you and fetch you. The Lord your God will bring you to the land that your ancestors have inherited and you will possess it and He will do you good and multiply you more than your fathers.”

Devarim 30:3-5

 

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Koren and the Koren Talmud

To sit alone in the lamplight with a book spread out before you, and hold intimate converse with men of unseen generations — such is a pleasure beyond compare. ~Kenko Yoshida

I am very excited to announce that I am now reviewing books for Koren Publishers Jerusalem (including Maggid books). Over the coming months I will be reviewing the following books:-

1. With all your possessions: Jewish Ethics and Economic Life – Meir Tamari

2. A guide to the complex: Contemporary halakhic debates –  Shlomo M. Brody

3. Mahzor for Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Yerushalyim – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

4. John Lennon and the Jews: A philosophical rampage – Ze’ev Maghen

5. Orot (Rav Kook) – translated by Rabbi Bezalel Naor (Published end April 2015)

Since August 2012 I have been learning the Daf Yomi cycle and decided to learn using the Koren Talmud. This innovative new translation of the Steinsaltz Talmud was, from the very beginning, a breath of fresh air.

Each volume is divided into two main sections: i) the traditional page of the Talmud and ii) the side by side English translation.

What strikes the reader most is the fluidity of the English text. If one simply wants to read the text as a literary unit then this is easily achievable. The addition of various notes on the page which deal with areas of law, short biographies of the Rabbis and other characters quoted in the text, background information on historical items or animals and explanations of unusual words from experts in linguistics, adds so much to the depth of the text. (An example of the side-by-side translation and notes can be seen below)

Koren Shekalim2a7f002a

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now that I am learning the 17th volume (41 will be published in total) I feel that Koren are trying to strike a delicate balance between an explanation of the traditional text and a more academic approach to the Talmud. For both the newcomer and the scholar of Talmud the text is accessible and at the same time challenging. The layers of halakhic debate are not spoon fed to the reader and the novice may find some of the texts need further exploring (Rashi and Tosfot at the least) in order to gain a clearer understanding.

One of the most challenging Tractates in the Talmud is Yevamot. An extremely complex series of bizarre family trees can leave newcomers and experts bamboozled at the very least. Koren introduced a clear diagrammatic schema to help students come to terms with this Tractate (example below).

Yevamot -Daf30A

 

 

 

 

Koren have certainly managed to bring the text alive for all to see and experience in the 21st century. It does indeed feel like we are able to “hold intimate converse with men of unseen generations”. For me, coming to the end of each volume, I feel the excitement rising, not only in anticipation of finishing another Tractate, but at the thought of going out to collect my next volume of the Koren Talmud. It certainly will be a long 7 and a bit years of learning but the journey will be so much more pleasurable using the Koren Talmud.

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Responding to tragedy

I am writing this just hours after learning of the tragic murder of three teenage boys in Israel. Eyal Yifrah, 19, from Elad, Gilad Shaar, 16, from Talmon and Naftali Fraenkel, 16, from Nof Ayalon יהי זכרם ברוך. The immediate aftermath of such national tragedy has elicited two ‘common’ responses:-

1) Israel must enact revenge. All arabs hate the Jewish people and the blood of these boys must be avenged;

2) It is our fault. We need to be better Jews. If we kept Shabbat better, if we didn’t eat non-kosher food, then this would not have happened.

I find both responses, whilst understandable, extremely unpalatable. Whilst it is clear that the perpetrators of such evil must be punished to the full extent of the law, we must not behave in the way that our enemies do. We are an Or LaGoyim and must therefore set a higher standard. We must not lower our own standards and we must ensure that innocent people are in no way harmed by our desire, however justified it may seem, to see these boys deaths going unpunished.

On the other hand, to blame ourselves is also undesirable. To suggest that we can understand the calculations of God and that these boys died as a punishment for our actions, is both egotistical (that we can understand God’s actions) and unhelpful (do we tell the victims families that had we all kept Shabbat it would not have happened?).

The greatest tragedy of Jewish history, the Holocaust, elicited many such responses, and many have tried to blame its occurrence on assimilation and the like. Others have gone so far as to ask where God was. For me, there can only be one answer. In Rabbi Dr Eliezer Berkovits’ masterful book, Faith after the Holocaust, he describes a situation of Hester Panim. God’s presence is hidden from us. This is not a new concept within Judaism, after all in the Purim story, another example of national tragedy, we are told by the Rabbis that God’s presence was hidden from the Jewish people (one proof comes from the fact that God is not mentioned at all in the Megillah that we read on Purim).

The result of this, according to Rabbi Dr Eliezer Berkovits, is that man is left to his own devices. Man, however evil, is allowed to express his free will. The Nazis carried this out on a grand macabre scale, the loss of three teenage boys is another expression of this. Man carried out these terrible atrocities.

So how do we, as finite human beings, bring the infinite, God, closer to us? How do we ensure that his presence is felt?

Esther Wachsman, whose son, Israeli seargent Nachshon Wachsman, was kidnapped and murdered by terrorists in Israel in 1994, recalled how she was overwhelmed with grief. She was able to move forward only by reminding herself that she had a choice: She could be a victim of her fate, or initiate a new destiny (See Rav Soloveitchik’s Kol Dodi Dofek).

How do we as Jews initiate a new destiny? Perhaps this is what is meant by “ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רע הגזרה. Here I will deal briefly with Prayer as a tool to initiate a new destiny.

Rav Soloveitchik in his book, Worship of the Heart describes the basic function of prayer:

“Prayer finds its full exoteric expression in the spiritual act of lifting up one’s eyes – the inner cry of dependence upon God, the experience of complete, absolute dependence portrayed by the psalmist: “I lift my eyes towards the mountain, from where will come my aid?” (Ps. 121:1).

When man is in need and prays, God listens. One of God’s attributes is Shome’a Tefilla – “He listens to prayer.” Let us note that Judaism has never promised that God accepts all prayer.

Acceptance of prayer is a hope, a vision, a wish, a petition, but not a principle or a premise. The foundation of prayer is not the conviction of its effectiveness, but the belief that, through it, we approach God intimately, and the miraculous community embracing finite man and his Creator is born.

The basic function of prayer is not its practical consequences but the metaphysical formation of the fellowship consisting of God and man.”

This feeling of closeness to God is beautifully expressed by Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits:

“In its original form, prayer is not asking God for anything; it is not a request. It is a cry; an elementary outburst of woe, a spontaneous call in need; a hurt, a sorrow, given voice. It is the call of human helplessness directed to God. It is not asking, but coming with one’s burden before God. It is like the child’s running to the mother because it hurts. It is not the bandage that the child seeks instinctively but the nearness of the mother, to unburden his heart to the one of whose love he is certain. So the human being brings his sorrow before God: Look, O God, to what has been done to me, consider what has become of me. This is the essence of prayer….To pour out one’s heart before God means simply to tell God about one’s troubles. To pray means to make God the confidant of one’s sorrow and need. The asking and begging are natural enough, but they are of secondary importance. Decisive is the pouring of the heart because one has to; the pouring out of the heart before God because He is the nearest, because He is the closest, because He is the natural confidant of the human soul.” [ref]

What should our response be? We must pray in order to build our personal relationship with God. We must not be the victims of fate but rather the creators of a new destiny.

Endnote

In times of loss of loved ones it is impossible to see light and beauty in the world. How do the families of these three boys go on living? After the death of his mother, Rabbi Avi Weiss wrote the following:

“To what can death be compared? To a person who enters a darkened room for the first time and trips over the furniture. Each time he enters the room, he learns more and more where the furniture stands. In time, he becomes familiar with the room, and despite the darkness knows how to get around.

So, too, death. There is a darkness in death that cannot be chased away. But it is possible to learn how to go on living despite the darkness that forever remains.”

 

Eyal Yifrah

Gilad Shaar

Naftali Fraenkel

יהי זכרם ברוך

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Yoma 53a – The interpretation of the Sadducees

In the current climate of the Orthodox Jewish world we are so often encouraged not to read texts which are challenging or outside of the consensus of traditional Judaism, and yet the Talmud, as it so often does, challenges this idea.

ת”ר ונתן את הקטורת על האש לפני ה’ שלא יתקן מבחוץ ויכניס להוציא מלבן של צדוקין שאומרים יתקן מבחוץ ויכניס מאי דרוש כי בענן אראה על הכפורת מלמד שיתקן מבחוץ ויכניס

The Sages taught [in a baraita:] “And he shall put the incense upon the fire before the Lord” [(Leviticus 16:3); this means that] he [should] not prepare [by placing the incense] outside, [in the Sanctuary,] and bring [into the Holy of Holies a coal pan holding the burning incense. This was emphasised in order] to exclude the opinion of the Sadducees, who say [that] he [should] prepare [the incense] outside [and then] bring [it in.]

[The Gemara asks:] What did [the Sadducees] interpret; [what verse do they cite as the basis for their opinion? The Gemara answers that it was the verse:] “For I will appear in a cloud upon the Ark cover” [(Leviticus 16:2), which the Sadducees say] teaches that he should prepare [it] outside, [so there would already be a cloud of incense, and only then should] he bring [it inside the Holy of Holies.]

Amazingly here the Sages of the Talmud look at the interpretation of a verse in the Bible from the Sadducees point of view. The clear meaning is so as to reject it. However, the very fact that it is repeated in our key Rabbinic text, the Talmud, suggests to me that there is something that we can learn from it.

It is worth noting the words of Rav Kook on heretical writings.

“All the words and paths that lead to the ways of heresy themselves lead, fundamentally, if we seek out their source, to a greater depth of faith, one that is more illuminating and life-giving than the simple understanding that was illuminated prior to the revelation of that outburst. ” Rav Kook Iggeret ha-Re’aya

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Shekalim 7a – Monuments for the dead

It is a pleasure to be forced to learn the Jerusalem (Palestinian) Talmud as part of Daf Yomi. As the Babylonian Talmud does not include Tractate Shekalim we learn the Jerusalem Talmud instead. That being said, this tractate is notoriously difficult.

In a discussion of how to deal with excess funds collected for a cause or for an individual the Mishnah states in Halakha 5:-

Rabbi Natan says: [With] the leftover [money collected] for a deceased [person they] build a monument [nefesh] on his grave for him.

The Koren notes the following:-

“…Since the monument is only a way of marking and remembering the place of the grave, the Sages said that one does not erect monuments to righteous people, as their words commemorate them sufficiently.”

Maimonides was very much against visiting the graves of righteous people due to fear of praying to those individuals rather than Hashem. Indeed, I have always found the practice of visiting Uman at Rosh Hashanah time rather curious. Maimonides would certainly object. Rav Ovadiah Yoseh zt”l was also against this practice but for very different reasons. He believed that their were many righteous people buried in Israel and it was a disgrace to them to leave Israel to visit the grave of another.

The Mishnah concludes that where money is raised for a general cause and there are excess funds then those funds should also be applied to the general cause. In the case of money raised for individuals (which include the poor and the captive) we give the excess funds to the individual

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Pesachim 62b – Berurya – An impressive woman

In yesterday’s daf we have mention of Berurya. It is worth noting the Koren ‘Personalities’ section that deals with this remarkable woman:-

Personalities

Berurya was the wife of the tanna Rabbi Meir and the daughter of the tanna Rabbi Hanina ben Teradyon, who was one of the ten martyrs. Berurya was renowned not only for her character and personality, but also for her extensive Torah knowledge. Her aptitude for Torah study exemplified her exceptional genius. She occasionally disagreed with several Sages of her generation, and the halakha was ruled in accordance with her opinion in certain disputes.

As a result of decrees of persecution, nearly all of Berurya’s family was martyred. Calamity continued to afflict her throughout her life. The Gemara relates how she conducted herself with exceptional courage when her two children died in a single day. From a story that is only alluded to in tractate Avoda Zara (18b) and explained in greater detail by Rashi, we know that her own death also came about in the wake of a series of painful events. Aside from a few halakhic statements, we find several places in the Talmud where Berurya’s modest and considerate characteristics manifested even through sharp responses to various people.

For a more detailed account of Berurya’s life see Rav Binyamin Lau’s excellent ‘The Sages – Volume III‘.

 

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Pesachim 53a – A curious Mishnah

The Mishnah in Pesachim (53a) tells us:

 

ד,ג  מקום שנהגו למכור בהמה דקה לגויים, מוכרין; מקום שנהגו שלא למכור, אינן מוכרין.  ואל ישנה אדם, מפני המחלקות.  בכל מקום אין מוכרין להן בהמה גסה, עגלים וסייחים שלמים ושבורים.  רבי יהודה מתיר בשבורה; בן בתירה מתיר בסוס

In a place where [the people] were accustomed to sell small livestock to gentiles, one [may] sell [them. In] a place where [the people] were not accustomed to sell [them due to certain concerns and decrees,] one [may] not sell [them. However] in every place, one [may] sell [to gentiles] neither large livestock, [e.g., cows and camels, nor] calves or foals, [whether these animals are] whole or damaged.

[The sages prohibited those sales due to concern lest the transaction be voided or one side reconsider, creating retroactively a situation where a Jew’s animal performed labor for a gentile on Shabbat in violation of an explicit Torah prohibition.]

Rabbi Yehuda permits [the sale of] a damaged [animal because it is incapable of performing labor.] Ben Beteira permits [the sale of] a horse [for riding, because riding a horse on Shabbat is not prohibited by Torah law.]

The Koren notes:

The Sages prohibit selling large animals to gentiles due to the concern that a Jew’s animal might perform labor on Shabbat. It is permitted to sell the animal through an intermediary, since the concern with regard to desecrating Shabbat no longer exists.

I find this most curious. Who is this intermediary? If he is Jewish then surely he cannot sell on to a gentile and if he is a gentile then how can the Jew sell to him at all? 

Answers on a postcard please…..

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