Tuesday, 24 April 2018


I live in Toronto, less than 2 miles away from where yesterday's horrific tragedy occurred. Toronto is generally a most tranquil city, noted for its many cultural faces. An event of this nature disrupts our reliances.

What is perhaps most unsettling is the nature of this lone attacker. He is not one who seems to represent a group. He has his own definition of right-and-wrong which led him to act in this most evil manner with the perception that he was justified. And all he needed to do was rent a van.

What leads a person to think so much of himself that he can decide to act in such a cruel manner, savagely killing, torturing and maiming innocent people, because he so decides that it is the thing to do? And this is not just happening in Toronto. When did we stop learning to question and examine ourselves? This is the very call of mussar and it is the obligation of us all.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Mussar: Be a Mensch

From RRW
Mensch - Wikipedia

My brother's Yohrzeit is 6 Iyyar

One of the charges he gave me that remains with me to this day is

"Just Be A Mensch"

I've always aimed to live up to that advice
Tehei Nishmato Tzarur Bitzror Hachaim.....

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Follow-up on my earlier blog postL Did we forget Yom Ha'atzmaut?

As we approach the end of Yom Ha'atzmaut, I wanted to comment on my previous post from 2010 (reproduce below) on the nature of our celebration of this day. In that post, what I was effectively raising was the question of whether our celebration of this day was like every other nation's celebration of their Independence Day -- and that we became a nation like all other nations -- or whether we were celebrating the creation of a distinctively Jewish State.

While many issues still stand before us, I am happy to say that I do believe we are moving in the latter direction -- but there is still more to do. So I wanted to present my thoughts from this old blog post as I further believe that the question presented therein must still be before us as we move foreward.


Did we forget Yom Ha'atzmaut?

 originally posted April 22. 2010

Some of our readers may have noticed that there was no Nishmablog post for Yom Ha'atzmaut. Could it mean that we were possibly making a statement through this lack of even a post. The fact is I was wondering myself why I didn't post something, at least to mark the day (which I do, in some way, personally mark).

What occurred to me was my own ambivalence about the day which, perhaps, indicated something to me about our celebration of Jewish holidays. What are we really marking when we celebrate, for example, Pesach? The simple answer may be freedom but I think that that is only part of the answer. The full answer includes a recognition of God's role in our Exodus and the expression of shevach v'hoda'ah in appreciation. The focus of Pesach is not on freedom itself but our appreciation to God for this freedom.

This led me to recognize that with Yom Ha'atzmaut we have the same issue. Are we celebrating the establishment of an independent Jewish country or are we celebrating God Who gave us this country? The two poles, of course, represent ends of a spectrum with different individuals experiencing different feelings -- but what is most dominant, that feeling of celebrating independence (a feeling that can be shared with secular individuals as well), or that feeling of shevach v'hoda'ah to HaKodesh Baruch Hu for giving us this independent nation?

I once heard a rav explain that it took 100 years before Chanukah was clearly accepted as a holiday to be celebrated into the generations. This may have been the issue. Clearly all felt positive in throwing off the Greek oppressors but was the dominant emotion a secular celebration of independence or a religious recognition of the Divine? It may have took years to answer that question or to bring the emotion that substantiates an eternal value in the day to come forth.

The same may be true for Yom Ha'atzmaut. Clearly it is a day that I mark and celebrate. I benefit from the reality of a State of Israel. But why did I not blog about? This celebration, it would seem, for me still has not moved into my realm of Torah thoughts. While I thank God for the State, I have not crossed the line where the celebration of God's role has precedence in my feelings over the feelings of independence itself. It has, as such, not yet become an eternal value within my structure of Torah. Thus it was possible for me to let the day past without a blog post.

Is this something that I should work on for next year or is this simply a reflection of the present reality of the day? That is something for me to think about but it may be something that demands further contemplation by all of us.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Monday, 16 April 2018

Thoughts on the video "Acheinu"

I recently watched the video "Acheinu" at https://www.facebook.com/seeyouonshabbos/videos/2110243472338046/ and my reaction was the same as the one I would expect from most caring Jews -- and there would be good reasons for such a reaction. I was deeply touched by the exchange portrayed in the video and felt most positive about the conclusion and, most importantly, the concluding, continuing message. 

Upon contemplation, though, I found many challenges embedded in the video -- challenges that do not necessarily override the important message of the video but nonetheless need to be addressed if the video is ultimately going to have any real impact. The video touches the emotions but, to truly be effective, it must also enter into the realm of thought. The issues raised in the video are actually very deep and, as much as people may believe that answers to Jewish unity and Jewish identity can be attained through the emotions, this is not the actual case. Applying the terms employed by Rabbi Jospeh B. Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek in his discussion of Jewish identity, we cannot limit ourselves to only consider our shared 'fate' but we must also fully contemplate and investigate the idea of our shared 'destiny'. In this regard, to answer the question of 'why I am a Jew?', I have to have some definition of what it means to be a Jew. 

It is only in the realm of 'fate' that an Adolf Hitler ys"v can have a voice in defining Jewishness and this is a problem for many reasons. In a world where Jewishness cannot be imposed on anyone and one must effectively choose to be Jewish, the reality of such choice furthermore demands that one must arrive at some personal understanding of what Jewishness is so that one can make this choice. Beyond this reality that choice does exist, though, a strong personal commitment to this identity is actually only possible if one finds personal meaning in such identity. This, also, is the further challenge of Jewish unity. As individuals develop their personal understandings of what it means to be a Jew -- and, furthermore, find personal meaning in these possibly divergent definitions -- unity is only possible if these variant definitions can possibly converge. We must then necessarily also turn to thought to find the broader definition of Jewish identity, beyond the parameters of our personal definition, that can join us together -- if such a definition indeed does exist.

 In hearing any argument that Hitler taught us that all Jews are brothers and sisters, we must also remember that part of this lesson would also include the fact that Edith Stein also died at Auschwitz. This, indeed, must also be part of the lesson of shared 'fate' and on this level, she is indeed part of our people. This also highlights, however, the issue of shared 'destiny'. This video must demand of us to go beyond the video.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Touching Video

From RRW
An appropriate video for Yom Hashoah 

The Meaning of Sheol (Netherworld)

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                                 The Origin of the Word “Sheol  (=Netherworld)
                 There is never an appropriate time to discuss this word...
                “Sheol” appears over sixty times in Tanach.  On the simplest level, it is a large place, located deep underground, where the bodies and spirits of dead people dwell. (But sometimes “sheol” refers only to an individual grave, and other times, it is used merely as a metaphor for distress.)
                My question for this column is whether we can relate this word to our well-known Hebrew root “Sh-A-L” which appears almost 200 times in Tanach with meanings like “ask a question,” “inquire,” “demand/ask for an object,” and “borrow an object”?
                 The word “sheol” as a term for the netherworld appears only in Hebrew (although it is found as a loanword from Hebrew in a few other languages). This means that I will not be able to surprise you at the end of this column with an insight from another language, as I sometimes do.
                In the ancient world, dead people were sometimes consulted for advice. (I believe such consultations persist in our time as well!) Recall the story of Saul going to a “baalat ov” to bring the deceased Samuel back for consultation. (I Sam., chap. 28.) The word “sheol” is nowhere mentioned in this story, but the fact that Samuel had to be “brought up” is mentioned a few times. This implies that he was located in an underground location. Accordingly, “sheol” can be viewed as “a place that you consult with.” But there is only one such consultation story in Tanach.
                   Another widely proposed suggestion is that “sheol” derives from the root “shin-aleph-he,” and that the final “lamed” is not part of the root. This is the case, for example, in the word “carmel,” from the root “C-R-M.” (Another example, is the word S-M-O-L, “left.” Most likely, the lamed is not part of the root.) The root “shin-aleph-he” has meanings like “loud noise,” “crash into ruins,” and “desolation.” The first two of these meanings do not fit at all, and even “desolation” does not seem to have been a main aspect of “sheol.” “Sheol” was the destination of everyone.
                (With regard to the root “shin-aleph-he,” probably it originally meant “loud noise.” See, e.g,  “teshuot,” Zech. 4:7, the last verse of the haftorah for Chanukah. Then “shin-aleph-he” encompassed the meaning “crash into ruins” because of the loud noise. Finally, it developed into “desolation,” since this is the fate of ruins.)
                   The very scholarly multi-volume work Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament has a long discussion of the root “sheol,” presenting many possibilities. The most interesting approach suggests that we should not view the “shin” as a root letter in this word. Rather, it is a prefix and the root of the word is “aleph-lamed.” The two-letter word “al” appears many times in Tanach as a word of negation, and seems to have originally meant “nothing.” See, e.g., Job. 24:25. With the shin as a prefix, the word could have meant “make into nothing,” “belonging to nothingness,” or “place of nothingness.“
                     A very interesting suggestion is made by Rav S. R. Hirsch (in his commentary to Ps. 9:18). He states that the grave is called “sheol” because it demands the body back. Rav Hirsch’s comment is very brief, but I would like to expand on it. Perhaps there was an ancient belief that, while we attempt to live on earth, there is an opposing force called “sheol” which tries to pull us down below, like gravity. “Sheol” is even described as having “cords” to pull people. See Ps. 18:6 (“chevlei sheol sevavuni;” see similarly II Sam. 22:6). (But perhaps the primary purpose of those cords was to restrain people from leaving “sheol.”)
               A similar suggestion posits that “sheol” is called this because it is never satisfied and always asks for more (i.e., more dead people to absorb.) The idea that “sheol” is never satisfied is found explicitly at Prov. 27:20 and 30:15-16. (See also Is. 5:14 and Hab. 2:5.) This suggestion sounds the most reasonable of all the suggestions that I have seen.
                Of course, all these suggestions are speculative. You are free to reject them and conclude that “sheol” probably just meant “deep pit” and has no connection to our familiar root “shin-aleph-lamed.”  “Sheol” is parallel to “bor” in many verses in Tanach, such as one we recite daily in Mizmor Shir. (See Ps. 30, verse 4.)
                  It is of course ironic that scholars have made extensive efforts inquiring about the meaning of the root “sheol.” This is as humorous as the fact that E. Klein, in A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English, describes the word “safek” (=doubt) as “of uncertain origin”!
                  Finally, on a homiletical level, perhaps “sheol” is called this to remind us that we are all on “borrowed time” on this earth!  (I thank Shulamis Hes for this profound thought.) We should all use our time here wisely!         
                 Regarding the story of Saul bringing up the spirit of the dead Samuel for consultation, I would like to make an interesting observation. What was Samuel’s first comment on being raised? If I were composing the narrative, I would have had Samuel make a comment like: “It’s nice to see some flesh and blood people for a change!” (Or perhaps: “Please get me a tasty slice of ox. I have been longing for one for a while!”) Instead, what does Samuel say?  “Lamah hirgaztani le-ha’alot oti?” =“Why are you bothering me!  This suggests that “sheol,” presumably where Samuel was, was viewed (at least by the author of the book of Samuel) as a somewhat restful place. (But note that midrashically, many of the “sheol” references in Tanach are interpreted as “Gehinnom,” a place of punishment. See, e.g., Rashi to Gen. 37:35.)
                  It is also very interesting that, when Samuel was brought up, he was wearing his robe (me’il). This suggests that it was assumed that people dressed in “sheol” in the same type of clothes that they wore above ground! See also Ez. 32:27 (warriors go to “sheol” with their war weapons).
                     There is one more insight that should be mentioned in any discussion of the root Sh-A-L. When the Israelites left Egypt, they were commanded to Sh-A-L items from the Egyptians. See Ex. 3:22, 11:2 and 12:35. We all know the root Sh-A-L from the Mishnah and later rabbinic literature as a term for a “borrower.” Were our ancestors misleading the Egyptians and pretending to borrow valuable items  prior to leaving, with no intention of returning them?
                       Rav S.R. Hirsch deals with this issue. He points out that in Tanach, the root Sh-A-L rarely means “borrow,” so this is almost certainly not its meaning here. Rather, God told the Israelites to ask for these items at this time. As Rav Hirsch writes (comm. to Ex. 11:2): “God wanted the first foundation stone of the prosperity of His people to be acquired and consecrated through the recognition of their moral greatness by those who had hitherto despised and looked down on them….Their masters and oppressors…by their ready and generous acquiescence to their requests seemed to be moved to make some slight atonement for their past behavior.”
                  (Rav Hirsch claims, in his comm. to Ex. 3:22, that the only time Sh-A-L means “borrow” in Tanach is at Ex. 22:13. Most others believe it means “borrow” in a few other passages as well. But Rav Hirsch’s general point is still valid. “Borrow” is a rare meaning of the root in Tanach.)  
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at MFirstAtty@aol.com. When he has a large enough number of difficult words, he may consult with “sheol” and bother the wise king Solomon for a consultation.


Tuesday, 10 April 2018

JVO Blog: #MeToo and the Pursuit of Modesty

Jewish Values Online (jewishvaluesonline.org) is a website that asks the Jewish view on a variety of issues, some specifically Jewish and some from the world around us -- and then presents answers from each of the denominations of Judaism. Nishmablog's Blogmaster Rabbi Wolpoe and Nishma's Founding Director, Rabbi Hecht, both serve as Orthodox members of their Panel of Scholars. Nishmablog, over the years, has also featured the responses on JVO by one of our two Nishma Scholars who are on this panel. 

The Jewish Values Online website now offers a new service -- a blog which presents comments on various topics within Judaism and the Jewish world. See
http://www.jewishvaluesonline.org/jvoblog/index?aid=0. Rabbi Hecht is also a blogger on this blog.

His latest post 

#MeToo and the Pursuit of Modesty

is now available at http://jewishvaluescenter.org/jvoblog/metoo

A link is also up on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/JewishValuesOnline/ 

Please also take note of Rabbi Hecht's further comment on the sites

Friday, 30 March 2018

Interesting Words of the Seder

 From RRW

Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                         Some Interesting Words of the Seder

            Karpas: This word appears in the Tanakh only 1 time, at Esther 1:6. There it means “fine fabric, linen.”  In the Mishna, Tosefta and Talmud, it has the meaning of a plant, or celery/parsley, but it is never used in connection with the seder.
              It is only in the Geonic period that we first find karpas (in the form karpasa) used in connection with the seder. It is mentioned as one of the permissible options for the bore pri ha-adamah at this stage. The earliest such reference to karpasa at the seder is a Geonic responsum published in Louis Ginzberg’s Ginzei Schechter, vol. 2, p. 252. For another early reference to karpasa at the seder, see The Complete ArtScroll Siddur, p. 922 (citing an 11th century piyyut).
              We are all misled by the introductory kadesh u-rechatz piyyut to view the word karpas as integral to the Seder. Many other such introductory piyyutim have come to light, and many of them do not include the word karpas. This stage of the seder is there in the these piyyutim, but it is represented by a different word or words. Some of these other piyyutim are collected at Menachem Kasher, Haggadah Shelemah, pp. 77-82.
            Matzah: The etymology of this word is much debated. The simplest approach observes that the verb M-Tz-Tz  means “to suck” and the related verb M-Tz-H  means “to drain out.” (The word mitz=juice, found in Tanakh three times, is related to these.) Because it was flat and dry, matzah=unleavened bread could have been viewed as bread in which the normal texture and moisture was sucked or drained out.
             Many scholars find the above unsatisfying and propose alternatives. One suggestion relies on the fact that there was a  Hebrew root aleph-vav-tzade  that meant “urge” or “hasten.” There may even have been a Hebrew root nun-tzade-heh  that meant “hasten.” (See Lam. 4:15). The word matzah could have been derived from either of these and meant “that which was made in haste.”
               There is a dot in Tanakh in the tzade of M-Tz-H. One of the functions of such a dot is to indicate that a root letter is missing. This would support the idea that the root was M-Tz-Tz  or  N-Tz-H.
             I cannot resist mentioning the creative approach found in Rabbi Matityahu Clark’s Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew. He has an entry for a Hebrew root  N-Tz-H  that he defines as “resist; oppose sporadically.” We are all familiar with this root. See, e.g., Ex. 21:22. Rabbi Clark includes matzah  in this entry (implying that it derives from an original M-N-Tz-H)  and defines it as “non-fermenting bread.” In other words, he views it as bread that resists fermentation. Of course, this is clever but it is farfetched. I doubt that we should view a struggle going on within the matzah!  (Rabbi Clark’s book is largely based on the commentaries of  Rav S.R. Hirsch, but Rabbi Clark sometimes makes suggestions not found in Rav Hirsch. I did not see this particular suggestion in Rav Hirsch himself.)
          Please forgive me for mixing in a chametz- related word now. The contrasting word challah  probably derives from the root Ch-L-L=empty space. A reasonable explanation is that  challah  in ancient times was probably a “pierced” or “perforated” cake with an empty area in the middle (like pita).
      Maror:  The word maror in the singular appears nowhere in Tanakh. The word used in Tanakh is the plural: merorim. It appears three times: in the commandment of pesach (Ex. 12:8), in the commandment of pesach sheni (Numb. 9:11), and at Lamentations 3:15 (hisbiani va-merorim; he has filled me with bitterness.)
          It is interesting that the Torah never tells us why the merorim are to be eaten with the pesach and pesach sheni sacrifices. It has been suggested that the merorim were merely added as a condiment to the sacrificial meat.(See, e.g., Daat Mikra to Ex. 12:8) But the phrase va-yemareru et chayeyhem is found earlier in the story, at Exodus 1:14. Therefore, it is very compelling to understand the inclusion of the merorim in the sacrificial pesach meals as symbolic of the bitterness of the slavery.
       Sippur: In Biblical Hebrew, the root S-P-R meant both “to count” and “to tell a story.” (It meant “count” in the kal construct. It meant “tell a story” in the piel construct.)
       Can we find a common ground here? Interestingly, there is such a phenomenon in English as well: to count, and to recount a story. Also, an “accountant” works with numbers, but a newspaper “account” is a retelling of a tale. The relationship between counting and telling a story is found in words of other languages as well. See E. Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English, p. 626. The simplest explanation is that a story is the sum of details and that, in telling a story, there has been a counting and an ordering of all the details.       
     Ve-Higadeta Le-Vincha  (Exodus 13:8):  On a plain sense level, ve-higadeta  comes from the verb le-hagid. This word originated as le-hangid.  (Over time, the initial nun dropped.) The root is N-G-D,  meaning “next to.” Therefore, le-ha(n)gid  (a verb in the hifil) meant “to cause an idea to be next to someone else.” There was even perhaps an implication of  a “face to face” conversation.  The closest English equivalent would seem to be “to present.”  
      Haggadah: I had always made the common assumption that the word derived from the phrase ve-higadeta le-vincha.  Indeed, this view is expressed in the 11th century by the Arukh. But most likely the term was not derived from ve-higadeta le-vinkha.  Rather, the terms haggadah and aggadah originally had the same meaning and the term haggadah did not originate as a Pesach-related term. Haggadah is merely a variant form of aggadah. (Perhaps the meaning of both was “narratives that expound upon Biblical verses.” This meaning may or may not have derived from the Hebrew root N-G-D.)  But over time, the word haggadah eventually came to be associated mainly with Pesach, based on Exodus 13:8 and statements such as the one made by the Arukh.          
         Finally, it is interesting that the haggadah uses the word le-sapper in describing the mitzvah of the evening: “mitzvah aleinu le-sapper ….”  The key Biblical verse, Exodus 13:8, had used the word ve-higadeta! The unusual choice of the word le-saper in the haggadah here has had a tremendous influence over the centuries in the way the mitzvah has been understood. The haggadah is the earliest source to use the verb le-sapper in connection with the mitzvah.
      Ch-S-L: This root, which means “finish,” is used at the end of the seder, after the fourth cup.  This root appears seven times in Tanakh. Six times it appears as chasil, a word for locusts. The other time, at Deuteronomy 28:38, it appears as yechaslenu ha-arbeh (=the locusts will finish it/eat it away).  Most likely, locusts are called chasil because they finish off the crops.     
       S-D-R: A word with this root appears only one time in Tanakh, at Job 10:22 (sedarim). As we would expect, it means “order.”
      Hesebah:  The meaning of this word is ingrained in all of us. Wake any of us up from our reclining position in the middle of the night and we will tell you that it means “recline.”  But wait a minute. Everyone will agree that the root of this word is S-B-B, which has a meaning of “round.”  What is going on here?  How did this root S-B-B turn itself into a root meaning “recline”?
         Most likely, the process was as follows.  The root first evolved into a word for “eating a meal,” since meals were eaten in a circle. Then it evolved into eating a meal with couches around the table, where the practice was to recline on the couches. Now we use it to mean “recline,” even where no couches are involved!  
Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. He used to present face to face lectures. Now he enjoys reclining and writing for the Jewish Link.