Sunday 24 February 2019

The Truth and the Lie

From RRW
 According to a 19th century legend, the Truth and the Lie meet one day. The Lie says to the Truth: "It's a marvellous day today"! The Truth looks up to the skies and sighs, for the day was really beautiful. They spend a lot of time together, ultimately arriving beside a well. The Lie tells the Truth: "The water is very nice, let's take a bath together!" The Truth, once again suspicious, tests the water and discovers that it indeed is very nice. They undress and start bathing. Suddenly, the Lie comes out of the water, puts on the clothes of the Truth and runs away. The furious Truth comes out of the well and runs everywhere to find the Lie and to get her clothes back. The World, seeing the Truth naked, turns its gaze away, with contempt and rage.
The poor Truth returns to the well and disappears forever, hiding therein, its shame. Since then, the Lie travels around the world, dressed as the Truth, satisfying the needs of society, because, the World, in any case, harbours no wish at all to meet the naked Truth.


Friday 22 February 2019

Parshas Ki Tisa - This They Shall Give; Raising Others, And Ourselves

From RRW

Rabbi Eliyahu Safran on the parsha -- hope you enjoy
This They Shall Give; Raising Others, And Ourselves

The Noam Elimelech explains that money is like fire; it can be used to create, protect and nourish, or it can be used to harm and destroy.
How to balance wealth, material beauty, comfort and desire with spirituality? 
How we manage our inherent materialism speaks to how we manage the fundamental tension between the physical and the spiritual.  It is not surprising that how we embrace (or don’t embrace) materialism speaks directly to our sense of good and evil.  Unfortunately, too often the culture in which we find ourselves pushes us in the direction of materialism rather than holiness.  Our Torah portion speaks to the tension between the material and the holy. 
To be counted in the first census, each male twenty years or older was to perform the mitzvah of donating a half-shekel coin.  “This shall they give – everyone who passes through the census – a half-shekel of the sacred shekel, the shekel is twenty geras, half a shekel as a portion to Hashem.  Everyone who passes through the census, from twenty years of age and up, shall give the portion of Hashem.” (Shemot 30:13-14)
This is, at first glance, a curious method of taking a census.  Why not simply… count?  But when it came to the Jewish census, the people weren’t to be counted as mere ciphers, as sheep or some number of inanimate objects.  When a census was to be taken, the people were counted by inference.  Their number was determined by having each contribute a half a shekel and then the coins would be counted to determine the census!
Our numbers then depended on our coinage!  It wasn’t enough to “stand up and be counted”.  Our contribution was the determinant of our presence.
Zeh yitnu - this shall they give!  Rashi quotes a Midrash Tanchuma depicting God as showing Moshe a coin made of fire; weighing this required half a shekel and instructing Moshe, “This is what they shall give.”  The Midrash elaborates that Moshe had difficulty envisioning what this half a shekel looked like and so God had to show him.  This, God tells Moshe.  This is what they shall give
We are left to contemplate an obvious question, why was Moshe having difficulty visualizing, understanding what God is expecting each to give.  Why would the adon ha’neviiim – the Father of Prophecy – have trouble visualizing what a half a shekel looked like?   It’s true, this is not the only time Moshe had trouble visualizing something.  He struggled to picture the Menorah that was to be erected in the Mishkan.  We understand that, as the Menorah had many detailed and intricate parts as outlined in Terumah.  Likewise, we understand his difficulty in visualizing the many forms of impure sheratzim (insects and reptiles) listed in Parashat Shemini.  But these things were intricate, never seen before.  How hard could it be for Moshe to visualize a coin?
Rav Simcha Zissel, Chevroner Rosh Yeshiva, brings a perspective that resonates in our materialistic, over-commercialized, money-oriented time.  He teaches that Moshe could well understand (and visualize) that there are things in the world that are categorized as cheftza shel mitzvah – things used to perform mitzvot.  Some of these objects are natural products, such as an etrog or lulav.  Others are “manufactured” like the cow’s hide made ready to receive the sacred words of a Sefer Torah, tefillin, or mezuzah.  The process of rendering cow hide to parchment is a man-made endeavor but the sofer, with his sacred kavanah, his focus and holy endeavor transforms the hides and the strokes of ink he inscribes on them to become cheftza shel mitzvah.
But a coin
How is a coin, the epitome of materialism, to be transformed into a holy thing?  How can a coin, minted by secular – often ruthless, oppressive and certainly non-sacred – governments and authorities become cheftza shel mitzvah?  And let’s also keep in mind that these coins, used to count everyone under God’s canopy, were also intended to l’chaper al nafshoteichem - to atone for your souls.   
It is a challenge to reconcile the possibility of atonement being realized using worldly and possibly defiled coins.   
It was this challenge that Moshe struggled to comprehend; that coins could be a cheftza shel mitzvah, not what the half-shekel looked like in their physical form.  And so, God affirms to him that yes, indeed, even a coin can be uplifted and sanctified to the point of not only counting souls (and in doing so taking note of the significance and uniqueness of each Jew) but in aiding in their atonement.  The very coin that is required for every earthly, physical, and mundane exchange is also capable of spiritual currency!
We are familiar with the balance of good and evil, of man’s physicality and spirituality, but to see in physical currency the very same tension and promise?  That seems to be a step too far!  Money is the root of all evil – we know this from experience and from adage.  How can it also be a means of holiness?  And yet, this is what God describes as kesef ha’kipurim“You shall take the silver of the atonements from the Children of Israel,” God says, “and give them for the work of the Ohel atone for your souls.” 
Lucre is what Hamas pays terrorists who murder innocent Jews.  It is the lubricant which oils drug transactions, turning a generation of children into addicts.  It is the reason an elderly shopkeeper is held at gunpoint on a lonely night.  How can this same evil bring man closer to God? How can this mere coin, a half-shekel mind you, not even an entire shekel! be used to be counted as an entity before God even as it is also used as “a remembrance before Hashem ... to atone for your souls”?
This question certainly must have tormented Moshe and it is the reason God showed him a coin made of fire. 
Is fire good or bad? Constructive or destructive? 
Without question, fire can be the most destructive element in the world.  Even so, it can provide warmth and protection; with it, we can prepare food that is delicious to eat and not merely sustenance for our bodies; with it, we lit the flame of the holy sacrifices on the Temple Mount. 
The world does not exist without fire.
Therefore, the Noam Elimelech compares money to fire.  It can be thrown at our feet to “reward” demeaning behavior or it can elevate the essence of our goodness and generosity.  It is essential to expressions of tzedakah and chesed
God’s command that to count the children of Israel each is to give the half shekel begins, ki tisa.  That is, “when you count”.  But ki tisa means, literally, “when you raise up.”  The Talmud in Bava Basra 10b recounts a conversation between Moshe and God, “How can the Jews rise to a higher level as a nation?” Moshe asks.  God responds, Ki tisa – “when you raise them up by collecting charity from them.”  In other words, money is no different from the essential aspects of life, earth, water, fire.  There is no way to make one’s way in the world without it.  The challenge is to make one’s way with it in a way that is dignified, spiritual, caring and good.
Money can be the source of evil.  It can also be used to feed the hungry, clothe the needy, educate the forgotten.  As with all other aspects of life, God wants us to engage in the world for good.  So, He teaches Moshe to inculcate in the Jewish psyche ki tisa – the notion that money can be used to raise up, to raise themselves and others.  But to remember that, as with fire, left untended, forgotten, or dealt with unmindfully, money can bring an inferno of destruction and pain.
We call charity tzedakah because “tzedakah” is derived from tzedek, righteousness.  Giving is the right thing to do.  It is not a choice; it is not merely an ethical response.  It is just, it is right.  This is why Rabbi Soloveitchik notes that halacha requires that the poor also give tzedakah to one another.  Neither actually “gains” much, but in the giving, in the act of performing the mitzvah, they are raised up.
And to that the Kotzker adds, why did God show Moshe a coin of fire?  To teach that all giving of tzedakah, as all acts of giving to others, should always be done with “fire”, with enthusiasm and passion.  Not as an obligatory act but with an unstoppable inner need to raise others while raising oneself. 
In giving, we are counted among those who stand up and raise up.
Rabbi Safran’s recently published volume on all parshiyot ha’Ttorah available on Amazon at greatly reduced price:  Something Old, Something New: Pearls from the Torah: Rabbi Eliyahu Safran: 9781602803152: Books

Thursday 21 February 2019

What is the Meaning of "Kedeshah"?

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First 

                                What is the Meaning of the Word “Kedeshah”?
     We have all been bothered for decades by the following fundamental question. If the root K-D-Sh means “holy,” how could “kedeshah” mean “prostitute”? Note that the Tanach refers to both a “kadesh” and a “kedeshah.” The first is a male and the second is a female. See Deut. 23:18 which refers to and prohibits both. (These words, in various forms, are mentioned a few more times in Tanach.)
     There are those who see these seemingly inconsistent meanings as evidence that in Hebrew a word can sometimes mean its opposite. But this phenomenon is very rare.
      One approach to reconciling our different meanings of K-D-Sh is taken by Menahem ben Saruk (10th cent.). He believes that the root K-D-Sh means “separation” and suggests that there are three types of separations: favorable separation, neutral separation, and unfavorable separation. “Kadesh” and “kedeshah” would be examples of the last.
       But in a widespread alternative view, the root K-D-Sh is always positive. It has two components: “separation” plus “elevation.” See Alec Goldstein, A Theology of Holiness (2018), p. 30. In this view, we need an alternative approach here. Such an approach is expressed well by P.C. Craigie, in his The Book of Deuteronomy (1976), p. 301. Craigie writes that a “kadesh” or “kedeshah” was “a person belonging to a particular class of temple personnel in certain of the religions of Israel’s neighbors. They carried out their function in relation to the fertility rituals of certain deities.” “Though in Israelite eyes the cult-prostitute was anything but holy, he or she would be considered to be holy within the context of the foreign religion.”
      In other words, we now realize that K-D-Sh was not just a root for “holiness” in Hebrew. It was a root with a “holiness” meaning in many of the other ancient Semitic languages. So a “kadesh” and “kedeshah” could have had an original meaning with an aspect of holiness in these other cultures. Then the meaning could have expanded.
      Now let us discuss the word “kadesh.” Until now, I have been assuming it had a meaning parallel to “kedeshah.” But Hayim Tawil, in his Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew, entry “kedeshah,” summarizes an interesting approach by a scholar named Mayer Gruber (published in Tarbitz, vol. 52, 1983, pp. 167-76). Gruber agrees with Ibn Saruk that the root meaning of K-D-Sh is “separation” and that this can mean separation for exaltation or for degradation. (He points out that another root with a similar range of meanings is Chet-R-M.) Now, as to “kedeshah,” we know that this word has a meaning like “prostitute” because it is parallel to Z-N-H at Hos. 4:14 and because it is found in the story of Judah and Tamar. But as to “kadesh,” Gruber argues that there is no evidence whatsoever that this word means “a male cult prostitute.” He thinks it just means “cultic functionary” and that Deut. 23:18  juxtaposes moral and cultic prohibitions as follows: let there be no prostitute among the Israelite women, and let there be no Canaanite cult singer from among the Israelite men. I.e., the Torah is using wordplay here and joining two unrelated prohibitions which share the same root.
       Although this is clever, 1 Kings 14:24 makes Gruber’s interpretation difficult. 1 Kings 14:24 tells us that there were “kadesh” in the land of Israel and “asu ke-khol ha-toavot ha-goyim asher horish Hashem mi-pnei Bnei Yisrael.”
      Another issue of a possible negative meaning of K-D-Sh arises in the case of Deut. 22:9: “You shall not sow your vineyard with two kinds of seed; lest the entirety of what you have planted be k-d-sh….” Both Onkelos and Rashi understand K-D-Sh here as a type of “unfavorable separation.” But there are ways to avoid this interpretation. For example, one scholar interprets the verse to be instructing that “it will belong not to you, but to the sanctuary.”
      Finally, the phrase “k-d-sh war” is usually translated as “prepare war.” (See Jer. 6:4, 51:27-28, Joel 4:9, and Mic. 3:5). But war has sacral components, since its preparations included holy vessels (u-khlei ha-kodesh) and trumpets (Num. 31:6). More importantly, Deut. 23:15 states: “For the Lord thy God walks in the midst of your camp to deliver thee and to give up your enemies before you, and your camp shall be kadosh, and He shall not see any ‘ervat davar’ and turn away from you.”  So we do not have to give k-d-sh an additional fundamental meaning of “prepare.”
        Two weeks ago, I explained why “lo titaveh” (tenth commandment, Deuteronomy) is in the hitpael. The root aleph-vav-heh means you have a desire for something, but unlike Ch-M-D, it is not based on a visual inspection. The import of the hitpael in the case of the root aleph-vav-heh is that one is actively building up one’s desire for the object (since it is not in front of you being seen).  I only learned this a few weeks ago. In my 2018 book, Roots and Rituals, p. 243, n. 385, I had made a different suggestion to explain the hitpael in the case of “titaveh.” If you have already bought my book, please make a notation there with my new explanation. For those of you who have not bought it yet, I take this opportunity to remind you.  It is available at,, Judaica House, and the YU seforim sale.
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at He has a strong desire that you buy his book! (The book collects and improves 62 short articles originally written for the Jewish Link.)

Thursday 14 February 2019

What is the Meaning of the Word "Chalom" (Dream)?

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First 

                    What is the Origin of the Word חלום  (=Dream)?
             I had always wondered what view of dreams was reflected in Biblical Hebrew.  My initial thought was that Ḥ-L-M might have derived from Ḥ-L-H (sick).  (I will use Ḥ for the letter “chet.”)
            But as I investigated, I learned that the issue is really the opposite. Two times in Tanach (at Isaiah 38:16 and Job 39:4) there are words that seem to be from the root Ḥ-L-M  and that mean something like “healthy” or “strong.”   Therefore the issue that scholars discuss instead is whether there a connection between “dream” and “healthy/strong”?
              One suggestion made is that from an initial “healthy/strong/youth” meaning evolved the meaning “sexual dreams,” and from this, the meaning evolved into “dreams” in general. This suggestion is based on the fact that in Arabic there is a root similar to Ḥ-L-M that has the meanings “dream” and “come of age” (=become mature). I find the above scenario farfetched.
              Marcus Jastrow, in his dictionary (p. 471), also seems to relate the two Ḥ-L-M roots “dream” and “healthy/strong.” His fundamental definition of Ḥ-L-M is “to sleep well.” This too seems farfetched.
                I also have to point out that the words with the letters Ḥ-L-M  at Isaiah 38:16 and Job 39:4 may instead derive from the word Ḥ-Y-L (= strength), so perhaps there was no root Ḥ-L-M  in Hebrew that meant “healthy” or “strong.”
              Another scholar claims that we should relate Ḥ-L-M/dream to the root Aleph-Lamed-Mem. One of the meanings of this root is “bind.” Accordingly, he suggests that dreams reflect “the entanglement of ideas during sleep when they are free of the rule of the intellect.” But obviously we would prefer to understand our root without having to make a substitution of aleph for chet.
                Rav S.R. Hirsch is another figure who tries to understand the Biblical view of dreams.  In his commentary to Genesis 20:3, he sets forth an entire Biblical philosophy of dreams that he believes is implicit in the root Ḥ-L-M. But there is a problem with his analysis. There is an unusual word at Job 6:6: “chalamut.” The Targum understands this as meaning “the yoke of an egg.”  Rav Hirsch’s theory is based on assuming that this word “chalamut” is related to dreams and that its translation is “yolk of an egg.”  (Rav Hirsch writes: “Every chalom  is a chalamut, a return of the psyche, the mind, to the embryonic state.”) But today most scholars believe that this word “chalamut” has nothing to do with dreams and is not the “yoke of an egg.” Rather, it is a plant that has liquid flow from it.   (Rav Hirsch does use the word “healing” in his discussion. He believes that dreams have an aspect of healing to them, consistent with the other Ḥ-L-M meaning.)
                Now I would like to offer my own speculative suggestion for the etymology of “chalom.”  The word “chalon” (=window) derives from the root Ḥ-L-L/opening. Perhaps “chalom” comes from this root as well and even the ancients understood that a dream is an “opening” into the mind! (Of course, all such suggestions have to be evaluated in light of the form of the word in all the Semitic languages. Typically, suggestions that sound like they have potential based on Hebrew fail when the form of the word in all the Semitic languages is taken into account.)
               Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament concludes that the etymology of the root  Ḥ-L-M/ dream “has not been completely explained.”  This is a tremendous understatement! They should have written “the search for its origin still remains a dream!” But as you can see, I did learn many interesting things along the way.
                I also learned that the vowel “cholam” may be called this because it is a “strong” vowel. (So says Ibn Ezra.)
                 In my Ḥ-L-M/ dream research, I also came across a very interesting interpretation of a phrase that we are all familiar with. Psalms 126:1 use the phrase “hayyinu ke-ḥolmim” to describe the Jewish reaction to the return to Zion with the permission of the Persian kings. We are used to understanding these words to mean “we were like dreamers.” I.e., the turn of events was so surprising that it was unreal. Interestingly, the Targum offers a different interpretation: “we were like sick people who were healed.” Professors Shmuel and Zeev Safrai, in their classic work Haggadat Chazal (1998), p. 232, take the position that this is most likely the correct interpretation! They also mention a text of this verse in the Dead Sea Scrolls that has a spelling which supports their interpretation. But I would not rely on the spelling in the Dead Sea text (very possibly an error) to understand the meaning of our traditional text. Also, the post-Talmudic Masoretes certainly knew of the Targum’s interpretation. If they thought it was correct, they would have likely chosen a different vocalization for our word. Finally, since Ḥ-L-M with a meaning like “healthy/strong” is rare in Tanakh, only appearing two times, it is unlikely that this alternative (but creative!) interpretation of Psalms 126:1 is the correct one.
                 This is also an appropriate time to mention a fascinating work from the early 13th century, authored by one of the French Tosafists, R. Jacob of Marvège. R. Jacob would seek answers from heaven about halakhah (by means of seclusion, prayer, and uttering divine names), and his questions were replied to in a dream! R. Jacob then compiled the answers he received and published them as “She’elot U-Teshuvot Min Ha-Shamayim.” I wish there was someone around now who could use this method and finally determine for me the origin of the word “chalom.”!
                (For other Rishonim who relied on dreams for pesak, see the introduction in Reuven Margaliot’s edition of R. Jacob’s work [1957, third ed.], and Ephraim Kanarfogel, Peering Through the Lattices [2000], pp. 164 and 238.)
                 I would like to close on a homiletical note. R. Mayer Twersky in “A Glimpse of the Rav,” Tradition 30:4 (1996), p. 108, observes that the root Ḥ-L-M has two meanings: “dream” and “healthy/strong.” He then elaborates on this in the context of R. Joseph Soloveitchik and the  strong dream that he had for fostering Torah growth in America. R. Twersky writes;
                         The ideal dream is not an idle, but rather a guiding vision.
                         It does not represent a flight from reality, but rather a blueprint
                         for improving it.
                         As the righteous Yosef of old, the Rav was not an idle dreamer.
                         He combined vision with conviction [and] prophecy with persistence.
           The above article is an adaptation of the “chalom” article in my new book Roots and Rituals.  The book is available at,, Judaica House, and the YU seforim sale.

Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He will not be able to sleep and dream properly until the origin of the word “chalom” is finally determined.