Thursday 27 April 2017

Parshat Tazria - Metzora: In the Eye of the Beholder?

From RRW

Rabbi Eliyahu Safran on the parsha -- hope you enjoy
In the Eye of the Beholder? | Eliyahu Safran | The Blogs | The Times of Israel

Huffington Post: How Is 'You Changed Your Mind' A Criticism?

In our world today, we find an accusation that one has changed his/her mind to be a critique. Isn't that actually a result of thinking? What does this say about our present world?

I develop this issue further in my latest Huffington Post blot -- How Is 'You Changed Your Mind' A Criticism? -- at

Feel free to comment here or there.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Wednesday 26 April 2017

Sukkah and Free Exercise Clause

From RRW
Anti-Semitism Or Ignorance?

Dear Trustees:
Given the review of our Association's rules now in progress, I write in the hope the following issue may be resolved in an amicable manner prior to next fall. If requested, I am willing to discuss this matter in person with the Trustees.
Please consider the following reason underpinning the free exercise of religion clause found in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and  then consider our Association's rule regarding the building of a Succah. Ultimately, the rights granted a citizen of the United States by the American Constitution cannot be obviated by a State. County, City, or Village. This is most definitely the case with regard to our Association. 
The Free Exercise Clause provides that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
"The Free Exercise Clause commits government itself to religious tolerance, and upon even slight suspicion that proposals for state intervention stem from animosity to religion or distrust of it practices, all officials must pause to remember their own high duty to the Constitution and to the rights it secures... Accordingly, Legislators may not devise mechanisms, overt or disguised to persecute or oppress a religion or its practice...Under the constitution, a law that is not neutral, but targets a specific action, and that does not apply generally to all people, but targets a specific group, must be justified by a compelling governmental interest and narrowly tailored to advance that interest.”
Justice Kennedy in Church of the Lukumi-Babalu Aye v. Hialeah
This famous case brought before the United States Supreme Court by the church in question, concerned the City of Hialeah outlawing the religious rite of animal sacrifice, the slaughtering of goats, practiced by the Lukumi-Babalu Aye. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Church with Justice Kennedy explaining the basis for that ruling.
As you may know, the construction of a Succah is a religious commandment found in the Hebrew Scriptures. Leviticus 23:42, 43 “You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All who are native Israelites shall dwell in booths that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the L-rd your G-d. ”
Last year, I attempted to build a Succah to fulfill the requirements of my faith. I informed our Association's Manager of my intent and he sent me the rule of the Association regarding this matter. I indicated I needed, because of my family requirements, to build a Succah slightly larger than the rules allowed and suggested the powers that be should have no problem with this modification.  Subsequently, I was barraged by neighbors telling me that doing what I wished was prohibited and that I would upset my neighbors. I therefore decided not to proceed, for as a new resident, and in light of the negativity which arose in the community upon my arrival, I wanted to start off on a cooperative note with my neighbors, this, in spite of the fact that as a Rabbi and more importantly, as a Jew, I was not fully able to observe the commandment of G-d.
I informed our Manager that I would not be building a Succah. Nevertheless, the very next day, the Manager sent me a formal violation for building the Succah. That same day an inspector from the Township came by and claimed I was building an illegal structure. All that he saw was the frame the workers I hired had started to construct. In spite of my protestations that we had decided not to build and that the frame will be removed by the workers, he issued a cease-and-desist order telling me I would be receiving a subpoena to appear in court in a few days and face the possibility of a fine of $2,000.00. I took the necessary steps to clarify this matter with the Township. The subpoena was not issued.
I asked the inspector how he learned of this situation.  His response - the management of your Association had called in a complaint.  I immediately contacted our Manager asking why he had done this as the day before I informed him I was not going to build a Succah. He has yet to reply. I do have in my possession the emails of both our Manager and myself regarding this situation.
I find the actions of our Manager quite bizarre. I would appreciate the Trustees clarifying whether this is the procedure our Manager has been instructed to follow in such situations.
It was my intent, and I advised our Manager of this fact, to build a permanent Succah, as has been the religious tradition of Jews for thousands of years, on the concrete patio in the rear of my home. It would blend in perfectly with my home and would not be seen by anyone except my neighbors to the right, that is, if they elected to peer over the hedge that divides our properties. They would see a screened in porch which blends in perfectly with the design and color of my home. Surely if the United States Constitution protects an individual’s religious right to slaughter a goat on his property, the erection of an unobtrusive structure such as a Succah, as mandated by the Hebrew Scriptures, which, according to both Judaism and Christianity define Jewish religious practice, is protected as well.
May I add a caveat to the above to provide you with a clearer perspective?  I note that folks, according to our Association's rules, are permitted to decorate their homes with lights and other decorations for the Christmas - Chanukah season. I’m sure you realize this is not a religious injunction of either Christianity or Judaism. Unlike the Biblical commandment to build a Succah, if one’s home is not adorned with such decorations, it does not pose any religious difficulty for the faithful. These decorations are placed on the front façade of the home and are quite visible to the passerby. They need not blend with the color or nature of the façade.
I would appreciate a timely reply.
Rabbi xxxxx xxxxxxxxx

Tuesday 25 April 2017

The Iasi Pogrom

From RRW

"The Iasi pogrom of June 27, 1941 was one of the most violent pogroms in Jewish history, launched by governmental forces in the Romanian city of Iasi (Jassy) against its Jewish population, resulting in the murder of at least 13,266 Jews, according to the Romanian authorities."
It is here that my parents AH together with my sister Miriam endured the horrors of the holocaust. Several years ago I penned this piece of our family's history. As we commemorate Yom Hashoa, I share it again with all of you, so that we remember and reflect...   
Eliyahu Safran

Sunday 23 April 2017

Bar Kochva Rebellion and the Deaths of Talmidei R Akiva

From RRW
Courtesy of R Elchonon Poupko

Here are some great resources on the topic. It seems like there is a lot to rely on when assuming the mourning of these days has to do with the crushing of the bar kochva rebellion. Good topic for a shiur. 

בגמ' כתוב שהמיתה הקשה שמתו בה היא אסכרה, ובאגרת רב שרירא גאון כתב שמתו בגזרת שמד. כהמשך לזה שמעתי פירוש מעניין, שמתו בעת מרד בר  כוכבא, והיו בין תלמידיו כאלו שיצאו להילחם ברומאים, והיו שהמשיכו בתלמודם. והחיילים ותלמידי הישיבה היו מבזים אלו את אלו, וכל אחד אומר: אני גדול מחברי, שמה שאני עושה חשוב ומועיל, ואילו בחברי אין תועלת כלל. ומפני שנאת חינם זו שהיתה בין הלוחמים והלומדים, ניגפו לפני אויביהם, ובפרק אחד מתו כולם. ואכן התאריך איננו מקרי, הוא בין חג הפסח המבטא את הלאומיות הישראלית לבין חג השבועות המבטא את התורה הרוחנית, ואותם תלמידים שלא כיבדו זה את זה, הפרידו וחילקו בין חג הפסח לחג השבועות, בין הלאומיות לתורה, ועל כן כולם מתו בתקופה זו. ויש גורסים בברא"ר: "שהיתה עיניהם צרה בתורה אלו באלו", ולפי זה עיקר התיקון צריך להיות מכוון כדי להרבות בכבוד בין לומדי התורה מהחוגים השונים.

Thursday 20 April 2017

Parshat Shmini: "My Sin is Before Me Always"

From RRW

Rabbi Eliyahu Safran on the parsha -- hope you enjoy
  Baltimore Jewish Life | Parshas Shmini - "My Sin is Before Me Always"

The Inspiring Story of an Early Israeli Settlement in 1883

From RRW

Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

Mazkeret Batya:  The Inspiring Story of an Early Jewish Settlement

                The modern Jewish settlements are always in the news today. But I would like to tell the story of an early Jewish settlement founded in 1883.
                The background to the early Jewish settlements was a wave of pogroms in Russia in 1881, which made most of Russian Jewry realize they had no future there. Of the two million Russian Jews that left Russia over the next few decades, 90% came to America. But a small portion went to Palestine.
               Historians characterize the first wave of these Russian Jewish settlements in Palestine as “The First Aliyah.” These settlements spanned the years 1882-1903. The settlements from 1904-14 are referred to as “The Second Aliyah.”
               A tremendous misconception is that all the early settlements were founded by secular Jews. It is true that the Second Aliyah was mainly a secular one, and this Aliyah formed the basis of Israel’s secular, socialist character. But with regard to the First Aliyah, almost all of the settlements were established by Orthodox Jews. A fascinating book came out in 2012, entitled Rebels in the Holy Land: Mazkeret Batya- An Early Battleground for the Soul of Israel, by Sam Finkel. This book tells the story of one of these early settlements founded by Orthodox Jews from Russia. As this book stresses, these were Orthodox Jews with beards and payot!
             This is a must-read book. It is both easy to read, and extremely well-documented with extensive photographs. I am now going to summarize its story.
              In 1882, a few Orthodox Jews in a small town in Russia were presented with a proposal.   Baron Edmond de Rothschild in Paris was willing to support their establishment of a farming colony in Palestine. These Jews were already farmers in Russia. These men agreed to separate from their families for an extended period, and make the arduous trek to Palestine and start from scratch. They ended up establishing the sixth Jewish agricultural settlement in Israel. It was initially named Ekron, but a few years later, Rothschild renamed the settlement Mazkeret Batya, in memory of his mother.
            Like all books, this book has heroes and villains. The heroes are Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever, Yechiel Brill, and Baron Rothschild.
            Rabbi Mohilever was the chief rabbi of Radom (near Warsaw). He was deeply concerned about the mass exodus to America, due to the lack of a Torah environment there. In 1882, he organized a society whose goal was for Jews to take concrete steps to establish a presence in Palestine.
          In the summer of 1882, he traveled to Western Europe to garner support for his society. He first visited Vienna and Germany but failed to win over anyone of importance. His next destination was Paris. But being exhausted, he took some time off to relax at a spa in Germany.           
          Coincidentally, influential journalist Yechiel Brill happened to be at this spa. Brill had established the newspaper Ha-Levanon in Jerusalem in 1863. He later relocated to Mainz and was publishing the paper there. After the pogroms of 1881, Brill began writing about the idea of sending professional Jewish farmers to colonize Palestine. Brill urged Rabbi Mohilever to send a group of experienced Jewish farmers to Palestine, to build farms and infrastructure and send for their families later.
             Mohilever continued on to Paris but initially had no success at getting financial support. Coincidentally, he ran into Brill there. Brill then had the idea of meeting with the chief Rabbi of Paris, who was close to Rothschild, and he convinced the chief Rabbi to arrange a meeting between Rothschild and Rabbi Mohilever.
            Mohilever wrote a detailed description of the meeting and the devar torah he gave. In my view, this was one of the most important divrei torah ever given! (I will not reveal it, but it began with the question of why Moshe had a speech impediment.) The persuasive devar torah was able to break down the initial coldness of Rothschild, and Rothschild agreed that if a few farmers would be willing to come to Palestine, he would be willing to help them financially.  This represented a major shift in Rothschild’s thinking. Prior to this, he had not been supportive of the idea of colonizing Palestine.
             The author writes that the Mohilever-Rothschild meeting lasted only 30 minutes, half of which was consumed by the translator. But this meeting changed the course of Jewish history. Over the next several decades, Rothschild ended up providing significant financial support not only this group, but also to many of the other early Jewish settlements. 
              The agreed upon plan was for ten Russian farmers to be selected and then trained at the Mikveh Israel agricultural school, which had opened in Palestine in 1870. After the training, Rothschild would help the farmers acquire their own land. The potential historic impact of the venture was obvious to all. If successful, it would serve as a model for future colonies in Palestine for the oppressed Jews of Russia. Shortly thereafter, ten farmers from the town of Pavlovka were selected. On parshat Lekh Lekha in 1882, a contract was signed, outlining everyone’s obligations.
            Brill agreed to accompany the men to Palestine, temporarily abandoning his family. He felt obligated to insure that the ten men made their transition safely.  When he arrived at the train station, eleven men appeared! The added man was one who had left farming and had become a melamed.  He was not someone that Brill would have chosen. But the ten needed him along so that they could correspond with their families, as they did not know how to write.
        The journey was a long one, and many severe challenges arose along the way. When they finally arrived in Alexandria, Brill was able obtain papers which made it appear that the men were born within the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish government had recently issued a ban on Russian Jews settling in Palestine.  Brill taught the men how to reply in Arabic when asked their names and city of origin. But when they arrived at the port in Jaffa, the inspectors realized that these were Jews from Russia and refused them entry! The men got back on board and attempted to enter again at the next stop, Haifa. After many complications, they were successful in entering there.
      One villain in this book is a man named Shmuel Hirsch. He was the head of the Mikveh Israel agricultural school. He continually made things difficult for the farmers, including feeding them bread that was only fit for animals! He was from Western Europe and was not Orthodox. He could not relate to these Orthodox Jews from Russia and was not interested in the grand plans that Brill, Mohilever and Rothschild had for these men.
        Brill eventually received a letter from his family in Mainz. His wife had not been able to pay the rent for six months. His creditors had confiscated his printing press and the housewares. His children had been expelled from school because of failure to pay tuition. His daughter and his wife were in need of medical care. Shortly thereafter, in 1883, he was forced to return to his family.
         Meanwhile, the farmers needed a plot of land and Hirsch was not making proper efforts to find one. The men were threatening to return to Russia. Rothschild sent a telegram that he did not want these men to return to Russia under any circumstances. He realized that if these experienced farmers returned to Russia, no Jew from Russia would ever think of doing something like this in Palestine again.
           Eventually, Hirsch let the Russians search for their land by themselves and they found a barren piece of land that was suitable for their needs near the Arab village of Aqir. Since they were not Ottoman citizens, the land could not be registered in their names. It was registered in the name of a French citizen and later transferred to Rothschild.  In November of 1883, they finally began to plow on this land.
         The book continues with the story of what happened in the Shemitah year of 1888-1889. The settlers of Mazkeret Batya felt obliged to let the land rest. They were relying on the pesak of the rabbis from the Old Yishuv in Jerusalem. But Rothschild and his men supervising the settlement had different ideas. They wanted the land to be worked in some way and wanted the settlers to rely on the heter granted by Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor of Lithuania. A large portion of the book deals with the conflict that ensued and the difficulties that the settlers faced when they stood their ground.
          I have only given a very brief summary, but it is very inspiring to learn about the hard work and struggles of these early Jewish pioneers. I highly recommend this book!

Monday 10 April 2017

Passover: A Celebration of Liberty, Long Before Freedom

From RRW

Meaning of Ve-Higadeta

From RRW

Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                   Ve-Higadeta Le-Vincha (Ex. 13:8):  What is the Meaning of Ve-Higadeta?

                  Ve-higadeta le-vincha ba-yom ha-hu… (“you shall tell your son on that day”) is a key verse of the seder night. But what exactly does ve-higadeta mean?  I will now present several approaches. (Note: I usually save the likeliest approach for last!)
           Approach #1:  Explain the reason. This approach is taken by S.D. Luzzatto in his commentary on our verse. He cites Judges 14:19 where the phrase le-hagid is used in the context of explaining a riddle. (See also Daat Mikra to Exodus 13:8.)
          Approach #2: Demonstrate by action. Rav S.R. Hirsch (comm. to Deut. 26:3) writes that HGD means “making clear not by words but by deeds, actions...“ He uses the word “demonstrated.”   He says something similar, although less explicitly, in his commentary to Ex. 13:8.
         Approach #3 : Ve-higadeta is related to the Aramaic root NGD, which means “draw out.” The implication may be that the telling must be in a drawn out, long way. See, e.g., Siddur Otzar Ha-Tefillot, p. 951, commentary Maaseh Nissim, and Netziv to Deut. 32:7. Or the implication may be “moshkin libo shel adam” (draw out the heart of the listener; see the Arukh). Or the implication may be draw your child out so that he will ask a question. (Netziv to Ex. 13:8.)
         Approaches #4 and 5:  At Shabbat 87a, the Talmud interprets the word va-yaged of Ex. 19:9. Two opposite interpretations are offered, a “soft” interpretation and a “hard” interpretation. The “soft” intepretation: she-moskhin libo shel adam ke-aggadah. This interpretation is cited by Rashi at Ex. 13:8. The “hard” interpretation: matters that are as hard as gidin (=sinews, tendons). This interpretation is cited by Or Ha-Chayyim at Ex. 13:8. (See also the interesting approach of Kli Yakar.)
       Approach #6: Study. Reflections of the Rav, pp. 212-13 includes the following statement: “The word Haggadah connotes more than the act of ‘telling’ or ‘narrating.’ It suggests an elaborate form of study.”   This approach of Rav Soloveitchik is based on the Mekhilta to Ex. 19:3 (tedakdek imahem) and Rashi to this same verse.
       Approach #7: Tell A Story/Elaborate/Sippur.  The Radak, in his Sefer Ha-Shorashim (entry NGD), tells us that the implication of HGD is sippur. He is probably deriving this from the passage in the Haggadah: mitzvah aleinu le-sapper bi-yitziyat Mitzrayim. (Of course, why the author of this passage chose to use the word sippur is the million dollar question! Perhaps he was influenced by the use of the root at Ex. 10:2. This choice by the author of the Haggadah has had a tremendous influence in the way the mitzvah has been understood over the centuries.This Haggadah passage is the earliest source to use the verb sippur in connection with the mitzvah.
       Approach #8: Inform, Cause to Understand. At Hilkhot Chametz U-Matzah 7:2, Rambam writes: mitzvah le-hodia le-vanim...she-ne’emar ve-higadeta le-vincha.   (Of course, Rambam uses the word le-sapper as well nearby.) Le-hodia is from the root yod, dalet, ayin.
       After describing all the above approaches, it is finally time to reveal what the word ve-higadeta  means on its simplest level. Ve-higadeta comes from the verb le-hagid.  This word originated as le-hangid. The root here, and of all the HGD words in Tanakh, is N-G-D, neged, meaning “next to.” The H at the beginning reflects that the word is in the hiphil (=causative) stem. So le-ha(n)gid means to cause something to be next to someone else. See, e.g., Rav S. R. Hirsch to Gen 3:11 and Deut. 17:10, and the concordance of S. Mandelkern, entry NGD. The closest English equivalent would seem to be “to present.” Perhaps there was originally an implication of face to face conversation in HNGD. See, e.g., Gen. 49:1: he-asfu ve-agidah lakhem...
        I also believe that many of the sources cited above would agree with this “NGD-present” approach on a peshat level; they may have merely been trying to give an additional layer of meaning to the word.
        Long ago, I assumed that the term haggadah derives from the phrase ve-higadeta le-vincha. Indeed, this view is expressed in the 11th century by the Arukh. But although the standard printed text at Pes. 115b and 116a refers to the haggadah, there are some manuscripts that have ha-aggadah. Similarly, there are Rishonim that refer to what we recite at the seder as the aggadah. See, e.g., Haggadah Shel Pesach, Torat Hayyim, p. 12 (comm. of RABN), and Tosafot, Avodah Zarah 45a. So it is possible that aggadah was the original term for the material recited at the seder and haggadah was just a term that evolved later. Moreover, even if haggadah was the original term (or alternatively was a term that evolved later), it is very possible that the term was not derived from ve-higadeta le-vincha.  
       According to most scholars, the terms haggadah and aggadah have essentially the same meaning, with the latter being the Aramaic form of the former.                                                           
         I would like to share one more insight regarding a word of the seder. The meaning of the word hesebah 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 hesebah means “recline.”  But wait a minute. Everyone will agree that the root of this word is SBB, which has a meaning relating to “going around” and “circle.”  What is going on here? Why has the word hesebah been used since Mishnaic times to mean “recline”? We can only conjecture but surely the following was the process. When the ancients used to eat festive meals, they would position couches around a table. The word HSB originally meant “to cause couches to be placed around a table.” (It is the hiphil of SBB. See, e.g., Jastrow, p. 359.) But when they would eat in this manner, they would recline on these couches. So the word hesebah, which originally meant “to cause couches to be placed around a table” and probably took on the meaning of of “eating with couches around a table,” eventually took on the meaning of “reclining,” even when no couches were involved.

Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. His most recent book is Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy. He can be reached at He used to present face to face lectures. Now he enjoys reclining and writing for the Jewish Link, even though there is a question of whether he is complying with the term HNGD (“cause to be next to”).  Given that his picture and the paper are in the hands of the reader, there is room to be lenient.