Thursday, 17 January 2019

Jewish Values Online Blog Awards First Quarter 5779

Jewish Values Online, the leading site providing a mix of voices and viewpoints for
multi-denominational Jewish perspectives on moral and ethical questions is delighted to announce the selection of the best blog entries posted for the first quarter of 5779.

Feeling Deep Compassion for the Oppressed

Posted on 12/02/2018 by Rabbi Yaakov Bieler
A particularly moving paragraph that is recited by the entire congregation of pray-ers as part of the Shacharit (morning) services on Mondays and Thursdays, before the Tora is returned to the Ark, describes... 

Why Be Jewish?

Posted on 11/29/2018 by Rabbi Ben Hecht
Defining the Question Why be Jewish? It seems to be a simple, straightforward question, often employed to begin a presentation on the accolades and benefits in choosing to be a Jew.

What I Did When Someone Wounded Me

Posted on 09/13/2018 by Rivkah Lambert Adler
Recently, someone took a pretty enormous swipe at me online, accusing me of a serious breach of trust and of causing irreparable harm. The facts cited and the accusations posited are entirely false. The things... 

Thursday, 10 January 2019

Book Review -- Roots and Rituals: Insights into Hebrew, Holidays, and History by Mitchell First

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First 

This week I am not sending out an article of mine.

 Rather, I am sending out a book review of my new book: Roots and Rituals.
  In the book, I took 62 of my best Jewish Link articles and improved them with footnotes and Hebrew.
  If you scroll down below, you will see the amazing book review by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein. It appeared in the Jewish Press and it is now on amazon as well. - MF

by Mitchell First (Kodesh Press, 2018)

Reviewed by: Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

I must say that once again, First comes in first place. This book is not simply comprised of three separate sections, rather every chapter is chock-full of insights into history, liturgy, and the Hebrew language. I must also say that I admire Mr. First's daring use of alliteration (the literary device which joins alimony with allegory) in his book's title. Of course, only two-thirds of that title mirrors that of my first book Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew.

Mr. First's book appeals to and is readable by the scholar and layman alike, to the Talmid Chacham and Am HaAretz, to the serious scholar and the cynical boor. As an avid reader of Mr. First's weekly articles in the Jewish Link of New Jersey, I appreciate the humor in his ever-changing byline, and was glad to see that those bylines appeared at the end of each article in his new books, as well.

The section on liturgy delves into things which we take for granted and explains their origins. For example, Mr. First tells us about the origins of the Haftarah, saying Shema in the Kedushah of Mussaf, Mizmor Shir Chanukas HaBayis (for those of us who come to Shul on time) in the beginning of Shachris, and when we started saying Aleinu at the end of davening. Of course, he draws from a broad spectrum of sources, running the gamut from the Complete ArtScroll Siddur to the scholarly works of Dr. Yisroel Ta-Shema, from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan to the maskil Naftali Herz Tur-Sinai (Torczyner).

He asks questions like why in Grace After Meals do we refer to G-d's "full, open, holy, and abundant" hand; what is the word "holy" doing there?

When talking about the blessing of the gender-specific blessings of Birkas HaShachar, he compares those blessing to similar statements made by ancient Greek philosophers. Mr. First's judicious use of manuscripts makes his research all the more meaningful, especially when he brings to light overlooked variations that actually make big differences.

Indeed, these examples are just a sampling of Mr. First's way of presenting the fruits of his arduous research into the interplay of Jewish Tradition with archeology and established history. Mr. First is not not scared of offering creative, original explanations and rejecting what scholars before him understood to be fact. Although, as a word of caution, I must say that Mr. First sometimes pushes the envelop concerning what is considered acceptable in Orthodoxy (for some people that's considered a good thing).

Segueing to his linguistic prowess, I am in awe of the way Mr. First seamlessly parses words in the Hebrew language by using both traditional and non-traditional sources. Such an approach is almost unparalleled in contemporary works. His language musings show the conceptual links between apparent homonyms in the Hebrew language, and sharpen the differences between apparent synonyms. Mr. First's Modern Orthodox affiliation broadens his Overton Window into allowing academic sources into the foray, alongside traditional ones. His etymological discussions refer to the research of Hayyim Tawil (who wrote a lexicon of Ancient Akkadian), Ernest Klein (who wrote an etymological dictionary of the various strands of Hebrew), and Matisyahu Clark (who also wrote an etymological dictionary of Hebrew, but this one is largely based on the ideas of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch). 

In his section about the holidays, Mr. First again tackles some of the phrases and ideas that we take for granted and sheds new light on their meaning (for Rosh HaShanah he offers a new understanding of the phrase Yom Teruah; for Chanukah, the background to the term Maccabi; and for Pesach, the deeper meaning of Haggadah). He also gives some important insights to the Jewish Calendar, and, of course he addresses one of his personal pet-peeves, the identity of the characters in the Book of Esther (see his previous book for more about that).

From time to time, Mr. First also gives us short biographical details of the people he cites--filling the book with interesting historical tidbits.

Finally, and, perhaps, most importantly, I must mention Mr. First's good sense of humor (if you can call puns "humor"). In fact, as we see throughout his awesome work, Mr. First has his way with words. One might even call him "a way-word Jew".
Kol Tuv,
Reuven Chaim Klein
Beitar Illit, Israel

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Citing 'spiritual trauma,’ judge orders company to pay $25K for misrepresenting cake mix as kosher

This is something that should make Canadians proud.

The article makes mention of the fact that, while there may be various instances when a kosher symbol was used by mistake, a case such as this one, when it was done intentionally, is extremely rare. This, in fact, was the only time that COR took a company to court for using their trademark without permission. That is somewhat encouraging. What is most encouraging, though, is the language of the judge. It is most re-assuring in our world when one recognizes the values of others.


Monday, 7 January 2019

JVO Blog -- Why Be Jewish? (2): The Forces Within and the Forces Without

Jewish Values Online ( 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 also offers a blog which presents comments on various topics within Judaism and the Jewish world. See Rabbi Hecht is also a blogger on this blog.

His latest post 

Why Be Jewish? (Part 2)

The Forces Within and the Forces Without
is now available at

A link is also up on Facebook at  

While comments are most welcome at both these sites, as we also would like to develop a discussion on this topic here at Nishmablog, we also present the article below

* * * * *
          In our opening discussion on this topic (please see Why Be Jewish? - Defining the Question), we raised the issue that, while defining oneself as Jewish indicates that one is a member of a certain grouping, individuals generally still have their own personal definition of what it means to be Jewish. This then raises the question of what it truly means to be Jewish. If describing oneself as Jewish means that one is a member of this certain group, yet the members of this group may have their own personal definition of the nature of this grouping, what then does such a declaration actually mean? If the nature of the group is unclear, defining oneself as a member of such a group does not really provide much further distinct information about this individual – except that this person defines himself/herself as a member of this group without any clear clarification of what this association actually means. The further question would then be: why do individuals wish to so define themselves?

            Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek presents two explanations for association with the Jewish group: Fate and Destiny. By the term Fate, he maintains that one motivation for why a person describes himself /herself as a member of this group is because one believes oneself to share the same possible consequence as other members of this group. Phrased differently, this argument for group identity would be that one sees oneself as part of this group because of some external factor that connects the person to the group. A concern for antisemitism would be an example of such a factor; one recognizes oneself as Jewish, as a member of the Jewish group, in order to connect with compatriots in the battle against antisemitism. Within this motivation of group identity, the force of connection emerges from without.
            By the term Destiny, however, Rabbi Soloveitchik refers to the motivation for group identity that emerges from the self. We wish to connect with others who, we believe, share our visions, share our perception of what we wish for our destiny. This definition of the group, as such, does not necessarily emerge from outside ourselves as it must relate to our perception of what we wish from our connection to this group. Within this motivation of group identity, the force of connection actually emerges from within. 
            Of course, the nature of Jewish identity is not a this-or-that phenomenon but a result of a dynamic involving both these factors. It is actually thereby that we can better understand the challenge we face today regarding the identity of the Jewish group. There are variant forces outside of ourselves that are factors in the construction of the Jewish group. They are, furthermore, outside our control. We then also have within ourselves -- within our own individual desires of what we may wish from the group -- our own personal perceptions of the resultant definition of the group. Jewish identity is, thus, the result of a multi-dimensional interaction of various forces - within and without - often balanced singularly, and differently, by individuals. Why be Jewish? There may be many, many different reasons why a person may wish to integrate what he/she defines as Jewishness into his/her life. This is because there may be, given the variant possible forces existent in the construction of Jewish identity, numerous ways for one to find an expression of Jewishness to one’s liking – and this is not necessarily negative. It still demands. though, some cohesive structure within the unity of the group.
            In regard to our forefather Yaakov’s blessing to his sons recorded at the conclusion of the Book of Bereishit, the commentators note that the overriding message of this blessing was the importance for the brothers, as individuals with distinct talents and strengths, to come together as a unified collective. Jewish identity must be cognizant of the uniqueness of each person but it must also describe some collective understanding of the group. Even as we are all different with our own distinctive understanding of our Jewishness, we still must come together in articulating the essential nature of our group identity. In some collective manner, we still must balance these forces from within and from without. Our study and investigation must, as such, continue as we attempt to arrive at some collective, interactive understanding of what Jewishness is.

Sunday, 6 January 2019

"How Do We Deliver “The Religious Experience” to Our Kids?"

In response to an on line article from the OU,
available at

I sent in the following response.

I would be most interested in your comments.


Dear Sirs:
In regard to "How Do We Deliver “The Religious Experience” to Our Kids?", I would like to comment on what I (and others who have read the article) perceive to be the author's, unfortunate, singular understanding of the religious experience. The challenge that we face in transmitting the religious experience to others, including our children, is actually in its inherent personal -- and, thus, individually, singular -- nature. We all, and I believe that this is a fundamental principle within Torah thought, uniquely relate to HKBH; we all have our own distinct religious experiences. A problem thus actually arises when I assume that the Other is having and/or will have the same religious experience as me, when we assume that the religious experience is a similar, singular experience to all.

There is still, of course, clearly value in sharing our personal religious experiences with others but it demands a recognition of the distinct, personal nature of the experience and, most importantly, the potentially vast divide between one and an Other. What I  experience as positive, the Other may find negative and what moves the Other, I may find challenging. It is only with this recognition and the subsequent openness we display in our conversations regarding our connection to the Divine that, I believe, we can truly touch the Other religiously.

This concept, furthermore, was actually, in my opinion, most fundamental in the thought of Rabbi Soloveitchik. One can look at the opening remarks in his Worship of the Heart (edited by R. Shalom Carmy) to see how he defines the religious experience as most personal and unique. The Rav's opening remarks in "The Lonely Man of Faith" are actually most powerful in this regard. He demands of the reader to recognize that he is sharing the personal and it is important that his remarks be seen in this context. Remarkably, in presenting this most brilliant discourse on the nature of human existence, he describes it not as a thoughtful presentation to be incorporated objectively into one's mind but as a description of a personal response he wishes to share with the recognition that the reader may not relate. It is in this language of the Rav that I believe we do find the best way to deliver the religious experience to others including our children.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Mussar - Meshubadim hayyinu _Abarbanel

originally posted July 9, 2013

I wish to credit the great Don Isaac Abarbanel for this interesting insight!
"And if the Almighty had not rescued us from Egypt, behold we, our children, and grandchildren would still be (meshu'badim) enslaved unto Pharaoh in Egypt!"
Well the Pharaohs haven't ruled Egypt in a long time - and it is hard to visualize us Israelites as slaves unto Pharaoh forever! Plus we would have probably assimilated a LONG while ago into Egyptian society and been just poor old Egyptians just as the rest. To take the statement literally; I.e. That we would still be enslaved is hard to comprehend.

Clear your minds of the image of the "evil Pharaoh". Now go back to the time of Joseph and recall a kindlier, gentler Pharaoh. Now, if the Almighty had chosen, HE could have appointed a liberal-minded Pharaoh.  THAT Pharaoh might have listened to Charlton Heston and willingly, or even joyfully released the Israelites from bondage!

Just as Tsar Nikolai I freed the serfs and Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, a generous Pharaoh could have Let HIS people go without a fight!

What would have been the upshot of such a kinder and gentler ruler? We would be singing "his" praises instead of God's praises!

Thus, Abarbanel homiletically reads meshu'badim in its alternate meaning - mortgaged or indebted or encumbered. Had GOD not forced the issue by bringing Pharaoh unwillingly to his knees we would be be indebted to PHARAOH and not to the Almighty.

Perhaps the most ennobling aspect of our liberation is that we became indentured to GOD HIMSELF. " Kee Lee B'nei Yisro'el Avadim.." The emancipation of other slave societies met with less success. Without Divine intervention and inspiration, "Up from Slavery" succeeded only for the very few idealists.

A sobering thought to precede our last three cups of rejoicing!


Thursday, 3 January 2019

Why was Moshe Commanded to Remove His Shoes at the Burning Bush?

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First 

Why Was Moses Commanded to Remove His Shoes at the Burning Bush?

            In Exodus chapter 3, God sees that Moses went to look at the burning bush. Then God instructs Moses: “Do not come near. Remove your shoes from your feet because the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Why did Moses receive this instruction to discalceate?  (Don’t you love that word!)
             Note that the reader is not told how far the radius of holiness extended.
             One scholar suggests that the problem was with Moses’ sandals. Sandals, being fashioned from animal skins, were considered impure. (Of course, this solution assumes that there was a concept of  impurity even before the Torah was given at Sinai.)
             Another suggestion is that taking off ones shoes is a sign of respect. Sandals accumulated dust and dirt and may have been typically removed before entering a house. All the more so, it may not have been considered proper or respectful to come into a sacred place without first removing one’s dusty and dirty footgear.
                A third idea is presented by Rabbi S.R. Hirsch: “Taking off one’s shoes expresses giving oneself up entirely to the meaning of a place, to let your personality get its standing and take up its position entirely and directly on it without any intermediary.” He adds that the kohanim in the Beit Ha-Mikdash also had to function barefoot.
                A fourth idea is that the removal of the sandals represents a renunciation of any claims to possession. Walking with shoes was a way of taking possession. Yet man cannot take ownership of the place of a theophany, since those places exclusively belong to God. (This explanation also fits nicely with the idea that the priests in the Beit Ha-Mikdash had to function barefoot.)
                A fifth idea is presented by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. “The shoe is the symbol of vulgarity and uncouthness, of superficiality, of raw power…To understand holiness, to gain sensitivity, a person must remove his shoes.” (See Chumash Mesoras Ha-Rav, p. 24.)    
                Finally, another suggestion notes that Moses was about to commence a mission that would begin the world afresh by bringing Torah from heaven to earth. Therefore, Moses was instructed to learn the difference between holy and profane. Since Moses was to lead the nation from the amorphous mentality of slavery to the elevated status of freedom, Moses himself was tested to see if he was willing to accept the distinctions that religion sometimes demands.
               (The above discussion was based on Alec Goldstein, A Theology of Holiness, pp. 96-98.)
                   When Moses was commanded to take off his shoes above, the word used was Sh-L (“shal”). It means “slip off, drop off.” Where does this word come from? It turns out that the root is N-Sh-L. This root appears only seven times in Tanach, and three of these times, the nun is not even there. (Another famous example of this root is at Joshua 5:15 where Joshua receives a command similar to the one that Moses received.) This is a good place to remind everyone that a peculiarity of Hebrew is that in the command form, that first root letter often (but not always) drops.  Another example is K-H (=take) where the initial L drops. But only certain letters drop as first letters in the command form.
                    R. Hirsch has an interesting discussion of N-Sh-L at Deut. 19:5, “ve-nashal ha-barzel min ha-etz.” The context is an accidental killing where the killer is allowed to escape to the city of refuge. At Makkot 7b, there is a disagreement between R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi and the Sages as to what the precise case is.   R. Hirsch agrees with the Sages that the case involves the iron coming off from the handle. He writes: “All the other places in which N-Sh-L occurs indicates that it does not designate a part being separated from the whole…, but the separation of one body from another to which it had been attached, thus of a shoe from a foot …, the fruit from the tree (Deut. XXVIII,40),  the inhabitants from their land (Deut. VII,1)…”                   
                  Now would be an appropriate time to discuss a perplexing statement found at Psalm 60:10. First the verse insults Moav. The verse calls it: “sir rachatzi.” The meaning seems to be “washbasin,” a place where a conqueror might wash his feet. Then the second part of this verse reads: “Al Edom ashlikh na’ali”= Upon (or Unto) Edom, I will throw my shoe.
                   What is the symbolism of the shoe here? I will mention a few suggestions:
                    -Throwing a shoe, which is an insult even in modern times, was also an insult in Biblical times. (E.g., a master throws a dirty shoe at a slave so that the slave can clean it.) The meaning is that Edom will be treated with contempt.
                     -It symbolized taking possession of their land.
                     -It symbolized trampling and military defeating the other party.
                      -It symbolized making the recipient your slave, since shoe removal was a task of a slave.
                Of course, others think that “na’ali” does not mean “shoe” here at all but means “my chain.” I.e., a chain will be thrown at their feet to try to trap them.
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at He usually keeps his shoes on and tries not to throw them.