Kitniyot: Eating Beans and Rice During Passover


Issues relating to the eating of Kitniyot for Sephardim and the implications of new hechshers

BeansCurrent for Passover 2015

Every years as I begin to prepare for the holiday I once again start the lengthy process of cleaning for the passover holiday, scrutinizing ever item and removing chametz (leavening) items for the holiday. As I’ve explained before, we are not jut talking about items with yeast and simple wheat in them. During the passover holiday we take special attention to clear out and items with displays any sort of grain based fermentation; this represents sin and pride. Annually we do a spring cleaning of the home and the soul during this time of the celebration of our freedom. (see Parshat Vayikra 2013)

Once the Passover season rolls around I tend to get flooded with emails asking questions about Pesach kashrut and cleaning tips, more often than not from people who are asking my advice regarding the customs of eating rice and beans during the Passover holiday. As I observe the Sephardic tradition, being of Spanish extraction and custom, I have some experience regarding the eating of these forms of legumes during these Passover season. Though I am not a rabbi and cannot give specific rabbinic approval for certain items and practices, I do have a lot of experience in how to apply these types of kashrut from years of observance. Here are some tips and resources that can help people who are new to passover observances, or are new to consumption of kitniyot during the holiday.

For those who want a rundown of the basic, traditional approach towards kitniyot I would recommend the following insightful article for starters:

For those who live in Israel, there is some level of certainty to buying kitniyot products that are certified “Kosher for Passover” under the supervision of Badatz Beit Yosef and other independent Sephardic rabbis. However, generally these products have not been imported to the Americas because local rabbinic supervisors have had no experience certifying kitniyot for Pesach for non-commercial use. The reason, simply put, is that the majority of North America’s Jews are Ashkenazi and regard themselves subject to a ban on kitniyot products, as they do not have a custom allowing for the eating of them. Historically there was not much of a demand for pesach kitniyot to begin with, and the general consumers seemed more concerned that possibility of confusing the status-quo of kosher certification outweighed the benefits of satisfying a slim minority.

oukitniyotThankfully that has changed, recently the Orthodox Union in America has announced that they will begin to certify items labeled “KITNIYOT” for those who are accustomed to eating them during Passover. Just like meat and glatt products are certified by their explicit labeling “MEAT” or “GLATT” under their OU certification, kitniyot products will likewise state “KITNIYOT.” Please note, this does not mean that kitniyot will be certified with the normative OU-P certification, which historically is placed on all items that are Passover appropriate. Any OU-P item should be assumed to be kitniyot free unless marked, in the same manner that parve items bear only an OU with no additional categorization. Please see the following announcement for details:

The Star-K has also rolled out their own certification of products appropriate for the Sephardic community under a project known as Star-S Project. By Passover 2013 they should be releasing their first product, non-chametz Carolina Rice, on a special Passover run. See the following related announcements:StarS

Though this was announced last-minute and most of us have yet to find these products on the shelves this year, there does seem to be an attempt by the establishment to rectify a general neglect in our society for the minority population of Jews and for those who on account of health reasons require kitniyot to supplement their diet. This is especially egregious considering many of these species are native to our own shores, while the reality has been that Israel has advanced beyond the United States in kosher certification in a proven fashion that demands we catch up. At this time of year kosher supervision is especially critical and gearing up for identifying yoshon items of the spring harvest, it does make this season an optimal time to make a change in labeling, even if these products wont find their way immediately to our tables.

Kosher for Passover Bamba in the USA

Kosher for Passover Bamba in the USA, bearing a OU-Kitniyot certification. March 2013 (Los Angeles)

So what can one do until we start seeing these newly certified items rolled out? Those who are lucky enough to live in the larger North-Eastern American communities should already be accustomed to finding some access to kitniyot that are chametez-free. Many local Sephardic rabbis do certify small runs of things such as rice for Pesach, these can often be found at the local kosher market or Sephardic synagogue just after Purim. Please be aware that there is never enough to go around, and some places even take waiting lists or merely drop a single shipment that everyone scrambles for so you do want to plan ahead.

If you cannot get your hands on one of these shipments or these products are not available in your area, don’t fret! There are also other ways you can acquire consumable kitniyot. The truth is that for the most part we don’t need to worry about chametz contamination of our kitniyot product in their whole, raw and unenriched form. Grain is most often not grown in shared or cycled fields with legumes, and if mixed it is clearly evident.

This is true for most kitniyot except for rice, which is easily mistaken for barely gains and commonly grown in shared fields with wheat. For this reason rice is the most scrutinized of the kitniyot. It also posses problems related to enrichment, which supplies dietary supplements often derived from corn or even wheat sources. Though these enrichment minerals do not identify their source on labeling most of the time, rabbinic supervisors do usually identify what brands and types of rice are not enriched with chametz for that year. The following recommendations have been made since Passover 2013 by the Jersey Shore Orthodox Rabbinate (Sephardic), one that breaks with their advice of former years:

“…the Star S has responded to requests made and they have supervised a non enriched variety of the Carolina rice. This is free of additives, but it has NOT been checked 3 times, as must be done before Passover! While for many years we have been able to investigate, with the assistance of Kashrut experts, the different ingredients used in the enrichment, and the processes that are employed to do so, we are no longer given access to that information! We will therefore only be able to provide brand names of rices that are not enriched. Regularly used brands such as Goya, Uncle Bens, River and Regular Carolina could not be determined as acceptable and alternatives must be used.”

In 2015 they again stressed:

The staple of the Sephardic Passover diet is Rice. It is the #1 question. Which rice is good? Most supermarket brands of rice are enriched. The enrichment is diluted with starch in order to distribute it evenly on the rice. This can be a corn, rice or a wheat starch base. Unlike for the past 25 years, we no longer have access to the detailed information about the enrichment processing ingredients, and therefore,

We do not recommend enriched rice.”

This year – for Passover 2015 – their recommendations for rice are as follows:

White Rice: Any unenriched or organic rice is acceptable. Star-SP has made a special run of certified unenriched Carolina and Goya Rice. It is not pre checked. Please check 3x according to our custom! Super Lucky Elephant brand (Star K) available at Costco and Walmart. Sugat brand from Israel. Kitniyot OU, Kitniyot.

Short grain: Nishiki, KoKuho and Cal Rose brands (K-ORC) are also enrichment free. They can be found at Wegmans and most Oriental stores. Also Lundberg’s Organic (not mixes).

Brown rice: Any brand without additives. The brand at Costco looked very clean and easier than most to check.

Basmati: Deer Brand, Himalayim, B&J brand or any unenriched.”

Pure wild Rice: (looks like short black sticks is acceptable without a marking: it is from the grass family, not a legume at all

Though theoretically all unenriched rice is appropriate for Pesach consumption, one should pay special attention when purchasing to not buy from open bins. This is not just because of the lack of labeling to identify enrichment. This is often the poorest quality, just like the beans in open bins, are often more “dirty” and contain more waste such as rocks. Likewise bin rice tends to have more barley contamination.

However, we must  also keep in mind that sometimes legumes come with chametz directly from the field as well. Rabbi Isaac Farhi of the JSOR thus stresses this point:

“It has been our custom throughout the generations to check all rice three times before Pesach. While in Arkansas, I was informed that the crops are rotated yearly, and that it is very common to find grain in rice fields. Although there is equipment to remove any non rice pieces, it is not 100% effective. Please be advised that every year grains are found in the rice, check carefully.”

All rice that is purchased, whether or not it is certified as Kosher for Passover or “KITNIYOT” per it’s certification needs to be checked by hands for chametz contamination. This requires the examination of each grain of rice, and the common custom is for rice to be inspected three times by hand. This applies to all rice including the Carolina Mehadrin (Star-S), which is assured to not be grown near or packaged with chametz machinery of any form. This is stressed by the Star-K:

“Despite the fact that these rice products are meticulously cleaned in the factories with advanced machines, the Gedolei Haposkim of the Sephardic kehillot feel that the established custom of checking the rice, grain by grain, three times is still required. Therefore, STAR-S-P certified rice products should be checked, grain by grain, three times prior to its usage on Pesach.”

This is similarly the case for all Sephardic agency certified rice, including that which is Mehadrin certified. For more information regarding the checking of rice please refer to the following article by Rabbi Eli Mansour, of Sephardic Congregation Bet Yaakob (Syrian):

Though it might seem tedious for people to check their rice, we must remember that this time of year it is important to be as machmir as possible. In actuality, the process of checking really is not much more tedious than normative process of checking ordinary store-bought legumes, except that we insist on checking several times. Rabbi Mansour offers the following advice in the above mentioned guide:

“One spreads the rice out on a white surface, so that any dark kernels will be visible and evident, and he checks the rice three times. It is preferable not to perform all three inspections in immediate succession, as he may grow fatigued after the first or second time and not inspect properly. One may not trust a minor below the age of Bar Misva or Bat Misva to perform this inspection.”

Though there are not any authoritative seforim that concisely describe the kashrut concerns for those who are kitniyot observant, we have much to draw from by following the customs handed down from generation to generation. Carolina MehadrinThe custom of checking rice in this fashion is something that is well established for all Sephardic communities. It seem that the perceived tediousness of inspection explains in part explains for why some Sephardic communities (including some Moroccans), despite being permitted, do not consume rice at all to avoid this cumbersome task.

One should follow the advice of their own community rabbis concerning the checking and consumption of kitniyot, often times they will have the best grasp of the local food offerings and their production quality. Sometimes these offerings will extend beyond the obviously certified products.

Thought the new kashrut classifications do promise to make many more products available to the consumer, we should also recognize that this is also a clear response by the kosher supervising agencies to reinforce the concept that no processed, consumable items should be utilized unless they bear proper certification or you are advised by your rabbi. This is especially important to stress to the newly observant, who often assume that kitniyot consumption is a leniency that readily allows one to eat most regular foods during the Passover holiday. As we see kitniyot is not necessarily “easier,” it is an active minhag that is also demanding and should not be regarded as the mere absence of a prohibition.

No matter what tradition we are from, this holiday does offer us a time to get more in touch with the basics of natural, organic and unadulterated foods that are free from major restrictions and limitations. Hopefully these guidelines can help us select more food choices with certainty for a truly joyful and kosher Pesach.

For additional information regarding selecting kitniyot Passover products, please refer to the following resources:

Related articles:


Passover: Health Foods and Nutritional Supplement Drinks


Passover: Health Foods and Nutritional Supplement Drinks
Quick tips on chametz-free healthy foods and alternatives for Pesach cooking
Also special instructions for Sephardim, those who eat kitniyot, and the infirm

Please note that product and brand information is valid for Passover 2015 and subject to change!

For most frum and traditional people, substitutions are an everyday occurrence. Having to balance the issues of meat and dairy in a culture that has a pallet for mixing has led to people using a lot of health food alternatives to get some of those fusion flavors and still adhere to kashrut. It surprises many people that the orthodox don’t blink twice at mixing in adventurous health food options. No other time does this openness and experience comes in handy then at Pesach.

Some pesach food productsOrdinary during the year we make use of items such as Rich’s Whip as non-dairy whipped cream, Mocha Mix or soy milks for baking and table serving, milk-free cheese, tofu ice cream and cream cheese, and much use of meat alternatives (would pizza be the same without Soy-roni “pepperoni”?).

Unfortunately a lot of these products will not be any aid to many people during the Passover holiday. Many of these products contain ingredients taken from the five-grains (wheat, barley, spelt, rye and oats), most often are made with wheat and oat products (items such as xanthan gum, malt, flavoring, sweetening and thickening). Some are even fermented with the aid of grain and/or yeast (textured vegetable protean and tofu products).

KitniyotLegumes, Beans, Soy and Rice

Secondly, many health foods are kitniyot – made from legumes, beans and rice. Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe are most often accustomed to not eating any of these products (including corn, soy, etc.) during Pesach; in order to not confuse one with the appearance of eating chametz. However, these products are generally permissible to people of the Sephardic/Mizrahi tradition (Spanish-Jewish, Middle-Eastern) who are not subject to this ban.

Even though some kitniyot products are chametz-free, you will not always find a “kosher-for-passover” certification on them. This is because it would not be true in the case of most of America/European Jewry that is predominately Ashkenazi. Causing such confusion for Ashkenazim has been thought to outweigh the possible benefit to Sephardic Jews who are not accustomed to making wide use of hekshers (rabbinic certification) and often know status of kashrut by asking their congregation rabbis and through communal knowledge regarding the local food offerings. [Update: as of late February 2013 the Orthodox Union has announced that they will begin to roll-out a Kitniyot certification. Though many of these products may not be immediately available this season, it shows an attempt to rectify the neglect by general kashrut supervision agencies by starting the cycle in food production at a time of year when we are scrutinizing items for yoshon as well. One should only utilize processed kitniyot products that are appropriately marked for passover or simply say “KITNIYOT” along with their certification symbol.]

The best way to know is to ask your own rabbi. But there are certain steps you can take in considering your chametz issues to help make this process easier and help save you time asking questions during this busy season. The rule of thumb is: if there is a kosher-for-passover certified product available one should utilize that product over and against the non-certified option.

We do have options for exploring chametz-free ketniyot items that is provided for us by some of the kosher providers in order to aid us:

For simply raw items that are ketniyot there is no need for certification. However, we must bare in mind that many of these bean, rice, corn and like products are stored or processed on the same machinery as grain products. For Sephardim who do eat ketniyot, it is necessary to check through all the grains of the product to ensure that it has not been mixed with chametz grains. One should check the item visually and by hand 3 times (or as much as 7 times for commercial cooking) to ensure it is not mixed with chametz kernels. (Note: this checking should also be taken with quinoa as well; it has been brought to my attention by poskim who have gone to Boliva to supervise these products to see quinoa harvested with barley; and even topped with oats and barley to keep the crows from eating it while being dried in the fields. For this reason it is best it be certified as Kosher for Passover)

Specifics on Rice

However, it is possible buy such things as beans with some level of certainty. Special passover runs of rice should also be available this year. Please refer to the following entry:

The reason that rice poses a problem is that rice is often grown in shared fields or after a harvest of barley, which is chametz. This leftover field barley can often be harvested with the rice and is hard to distinguish because of the shape and light color. One should pay special attention to this when purchasing, do not buy from open bins. This is often the poorest quality, just like the beans in open bins are often more “dirty” and contain more waste such as rocks, so too bin rice tends to have more barely (trust me, I’ve been Mexican my whole life, I know whats up! I’ve seen the kids playing in them like a sandbox long enough to notice).

Oils

Oils are one of the essential ways of getting amino acids and essential vitamins. Good use of oil helps provide all the good cholesterol we need. Those of us who are dietary challenged often must make regular use of oils to supplement these needs.

The guide for to the Mashadi Youth Organziation (Hachodesh) states the following for Sephardim:

“For Sephardim there are no restrictions in using any regular oils. Soy, canola or corn oil which is Kosher for year round such as: Mazola, Kirkland or Wesson, may be used for Pesach. Any Extra Virgin Olive Oil may also be used.”

However, the Orthodox Union gives us the following recommendations that are helpful for Ashkenazim who adhere to the kitniyot ban:

“The earlier Poskim, including Rema, clearly indicate that oil made from kitnios is forbidden on Pesach, but some of the later Poskim suggest that such oil may be permitted because some of the original reasons for the minhag don’t apply to the oil extracted from kitnios. It is generally accepted to follow the stricter opinion in this matter, but the lenient opinion is sometimes considered as one factor in a larger decision.

“Therefore, on Pesach one may not use corn or soybean oil (a.k.a. “vegetable oil” ), and some do not use peanut oil either (see above regarding peanuts). Oil from olives, palm, coconut and walnuts are acceptable for Pesach use because the fruits they are extracted from is not kitnios. Minchas Yitzchok (III:138:2) suggests that cottonseed oil is kitnios, but in a subsequent teshuvah (IV:114:3) he reconsiders this position (see also Mikra’ai Kodesh, Pesach II:60:2); in the United States cottonseed oil is generally not considered to be kitnios but in Eretz Yisroel there are those who refrain from using it.

“Canola oil was first approved for food use in the United States in 1985 and there are those who therefore suggested that it is a “new” item which shouldn’t be included in the minhag, as per Iggeros Moshe cited above. However, the fault with this line of reasoning is that “Canola oil” is actually “Rapeseed oil” (a.k.a. colza oil) which has been used for centuries in Europe. [“Canola oil” is rapeseed oil specially bred to have less erucic acid (a suspected cause of heart disease) and therefore only this better variation of rapeseed oil is approved for food use in the USA]. In fact, Avnei Nezer (373 & 533) and Maharsham (I:183) specifically mention rapeseed and its oil in their discussions of kitnios. It is also noteworthy that canola often grows near oats, and therefore even those who might argue that canola isn’t kitnios would agree that all of the oats must be removed before the oil is extracted from the canola.”

As in all cases one should follow the tradition of their ancestors. If one is newly religious, they are not necessarily breaking tradition and committing an offense by choosing the tradition of their community or adopting a tradition that is different from the region of their ancestry. However, choosing and adhering a tradition should not be taken lightly and discussed with their community rabbi. (Generally, the custom for converts is to adhere to the traditional of their officiating rabbi in their conversion as that rav is a symbolic adoptive “father.”)

Flour and Wheat Substitutes

Though the soy and legume problems seem to be the most pertinent for health-foodies, we also need to consider the obvious; how do we get around flour and wheat product issues? For many people this is not just a Pesach issue, more and more people are becoming aware of wheat allergies and the effects it has on conditions such as celiac disease.

For those of us who eat gebrochts (yiddish: for broken; meaning broken matzah that is mixed with water), we often make use of matzah meal and matzah cake mix instead of ordinary flour which in all cases is considered chametz. Only wheat that has been watched from harvest to baking to ensure it has not come into contact with moisture is considered kosher-for-passover. Once wheat is baked it is not possible to become chametz. For this reason we use matzah meals which are tempered as it is less likely to become chametz due to this full baking process. It is ground into various grades of meal fineness and used for cooking and baking. Matzah meal is good for dumplings and stuffings; as it is course. Matzah cake mix is perfect as a flour and cake flour substitut; as it is much finer. This is the widespread custom for most Jewish communities to make use of cooked and wet matzah, though there is a ban for certain communities including some chasidim (hopefully we will discuss this in upcoming studies).

Because of the prevalence of people to adhering to a stringency to not eat gebrochts (namely Chabad chassidim) and the influence of wheat-sensitivities many kosher producers have begun to phase out use of matzah meal and substitute it with potato flour for cakes, cookie, dumplings and anything they would ordinarily use wheat for. Those who eat kitniyot can likewise make great use of corn flours and starches for baking and thickening needs. They both are excellent for baking and helping bind foods together.

Yeasts and Baking Powders

One of the obvious things about the holiday is that we do not make use of leavening. We eat unleavened bread. As explored last week when discussing matzah, we are not talking about using yeast. Chametz does not mean yeast, it means leavening; namely self-rising from a sour-dough process. (see “Matzah: Bread of affliction or fluffy goodness?”)

Likewise, we do not use bread that is risen with yeast. But that does not mean that we are not allowed to make use of yeasts or rising agents. In fact the Orthodox Union helps clear up this confusion for people:

“As no bread or bread products may be used on Passover, we are obviously not referring to bakers yeast. There are many other strains of yeast which can in fact be kosher for Passover. Many of these are used in winemaking as well as for nutrients in fermentation products. Yeast is an excellent source of nitrogen and nitrogen is an essential ingredient in many fermentations. In order for yeast to be chometz free, it must be grown on a chometz-free medium. These often include glucose/ dextrose…”

So when it comes down to it, we need to be careful not to freak out when we see certain fermentation products that are certified as chametz-free.

But one area of confusion for many people. If we are not to permitted to allow bread to rise by becoming chametz, are we allowed to have fluffy grain products at all such as cakes, cookies and muffins? Though most of us are not master bakers and cannot get our hands on the commercial yeasts above doesn’t mean we have to eat sea biscuit. Make use of baking powders and soda, this can give just the lift one needs. To explore this issue we got some good starter reading for you:

The reason baking soda and powder can be used is because unlike yeast which metabolizes sugar in flour in order to produce CO2 (carbon-dioxide) bubbles, baking powders and soda do not. Sodas and powders cause a chemical reaction which causes a dough to rise but the food product is unchanged, whereas yeast changes the physical compounds and properties of the grain itself in its chemical process of leavening. Powders and sodas are not any more chametz than blowing air into a food with a straw.

This year our kosher-for-passover products seem to be Arm and Hammer, Geffen, Haddar, and Masphiach (“Kosher for Passover ONLY when bearing special certification”).

Food Supplements and Pesach considerations for the Infirm

As is widely known, our rabbinic law gives paramount prescience to our health and wellbeing. Our rabbinic maxim is: “pikuach nefesh docheh et hakol / the preservation of a life overrides all considerations.” We are to live by this Law, not die by it. We must submit to any medical consideration that limits our ability to adhere to our religious obligations; be this fasting or taking on Pesach restrictions.

However, during Pesach we are careful to take extra consideration of chametz. The last thing most of us want is to be cut-off or alienated from the celebration and our community and therefore do as much as we can to adhere to a chametz-free Pesach. That does not mean we are not allowed to relax for the young and the sick. Being observant and relaxed are not mutually exclusive.

One of the easiest ways for us to relax is to allow kitniyot for people whose custom is not normally to eat them. The Orthodox Union advises us accordingly:

Kitniyot foods are permitted to someone who is ill or a child who requires them, and is not yet cognizant of Passover concepts. Even a healthy adult may eat kitniyot on Passover if he would otherwise have nothing else to eat. In these cases, one should be careful to ensure that the kitniyot foods do not contain chametz, chametz-processing aids or additives, were not processed on chametz equipment and are stored apart from other Passover foods, as well as served on separate kitchen utensils.”

Many of us who live in the big cities are very blessed to have a side range of food available to us that there is not a whole lot of need to utilize chametz as appropriate chametz-free equivalents are available to us. But one should carefully follow the advice of their doctors and personal rabbis before making any dietary changes. Often times the need to change over to Pesach foods requires a gradual transition to not shock one’s body, consulting a nutritionist would also be helpful.

Please refer to the full article:

Dietary and Nutritional Supplements Drinks (Ensure, Boost, etc.)

One of the main staples of my diet, and for anyone who is physically frail is the use of protean drinks and nutritional supplements. Nutritional drinks like Ensure are vitamin and protean enriched, though carefully formulated for easy digestion and free of common allergens. Though these products are almost always kitniyot, we do have some advice to follow when selection these products. This year’s advice and listing is also provided for us by the Orthodox Union:

Additional Considerations

One of the best ways of keeping things chametz-free is to cook from scratch. That is the other part of the Pesach preparations that is just as much hard work as the cleaning. But it is a fun and very healthy yearly experiment with getting back to preparing foods from their basic raw ingredients up. This is a perfect time of year to make decent use of fresh produce, natural meat and organic dairy products.

Just keep in mind as your preparing for the holidays to read labels and ask yourself all the right questions to yourself. Some things aren’t always so obvious. Remember, flour tortillas are not kosher-for-passover; they uses chametz flour and sometimes bakers yeast! Neither is soy sauce, it is actually mostly made out of fermented wheat. Think along these lines and you will be on your way to a healthy and chametz-free home in no time.

I wish you all a joyful and kosher Pesach!


Tu biShvat: The active, virile energies it addresses in nature and us


The development of the seder, and what we can learn about our will for assertion from this tradition

Tu biShvat – the New Year for the Trees – is probably one of the most enjoyable, and yet one of the least understood, holidays in the Jewish calendar. It is a highly mystical holiday, and also deeply connected to nature. And because us moderns tend to be quite detached from both the mystical and the natural world, it’s hard for us to connect with this frame of mind. It’s often hard – especially for those of us who are primarily urban business people – to connect with the land and do it in a most spiritual way.

Just in time for Tu biShvat, we have sprouting etrog (Israeli citron) trees breaking soil!

Just in time for Tu biShvat, we have sprouting etrog trees breaking soil! This is a very virile holiday, it is not so much about embracing mother nature. It’s more about becoming aware and mindful of how we assert ourselves over nature, and then taking those lessons inward.

This is especially more so for us Jews outside of the land of Israel, where the agricultural issues of how to manage the crops of Eretz Yisrael and where observing the related halacha isn’t something we really experience.

This holiday marks the agricultural fiscal year in the land of Israel. This is when all the trees are accounted for in the land, allowing the growers to know when it was appropriate to harvest from a tree. This accounting made it possible to know when to observe the many agricultural related Torah mitzvot; such as to give first-fruit offerings from a new tree, and when to mark for the agricultural sabbatical years (shemitah) in the land, and from what point to give tithes from ones crops. (see Leviticus 19:23-25)

Notice that this year is the shemitah year in Israel, where we don’t plant or harvest in Israel. We let the land rest and lay fallow in the holy land. But here in the diaspora most people are unaware of it. Like I said, it’s hard to connect to this outside of the Land of Israel. Where the seasons might not jive and the cycle doesn’t apply. This makes it difficult to grasp and appreciate, this cycle of life in Isreael. And this can even be unnerving to some, who do not hold Israel dear. As indeed, this holiday does ask us to consider the nature and produce of the Land of Israel. And it also calls us out to actively connect with this very land.

But this holiday which we know today comes down to us today as an outgrowth of both spiritual and secular reinterpretation. Ones which have greatly shaped the holiday and the way we celebrate it today.

The kabbalists of the middle-ages – those Jewish masters of mysticism and the esoteric – they were deeply connected to the land of Israel after their expulsion from Spain in 1492 and upon their arrival in the holy city of Tzfat (Safed). There the symbolisms of this holiday came alive for them as they began to renew the land. And there they were also able to discover deeper spiritual meanings to this observance and to the traditions surrounding this holiday.

Out of this tradition we received the seder for this holiday, as documented in the “The Pri Etz Hadar: Fruit of the Majestic Tree seder for Tu biShvat by Rabbi Natan Binyamin Ghazzati (ca. 17th c.),” a deeply mystical text intended to help people take a spiritual accounting of their growth and produce on a soul level. This text first documented the customs for the Tu biShvat seder we know today. A source text made popular among Sephardic and Chassidic masters, being close adherents of the mystical schools.

Of course, as the age of enlightenment arose many people began to neglect the deeply mystical practices. And intern this holiday of Tu biShvat fell into neglect by many in the next couple centuries.

However, another huge revival and re-envisioning of this holiday – this time a secular one – would come about as the result of another direct encounter with Jews and the land of Israel. Actualized as part of the Zionist dream during the 19th and 20th century, during the rebirth of the land of Israel and the formation of the modern, secular State of Israel. This holiday would take on the role akin to Arbor Day, and focus upon the restoration of the land of Israel. Planting trees and restoring the wildlife of Israel, which had been stripped bare in the many wars, crusades and occupations.

For many Jews in diaspora, Tu biShvat would thus also come to hold significance. A day in which we direct our focus towards Israel. To try to connect with eretz Yisrael in the most direct ways possible. Many contributing to the restoration and preservation of the land. The world over, Jewish progressives and religious Zionists would come to observe this day by giving tzedakah (charity) for planting trees in Israel. This day noticeably marked with the passing around of the Jewish National Fund pushka.

Believe it or not, especially for Orthodox Jews in America, the giving of tzedakah for planting trees is one of the only ways most of us remember observing the holiday as kids. I was talking about this with my friends who were former yeshiva bochurs as we planned for the holiday this year. Except for obtaining from fasting, which isn’t necessarily an observance in and of itself, that was about it. Raising money in diaspora and physically planting trees in Israel was the most pronounced observance any of us remembers. One which was less likely if you were haredi, and therefore not Zionist leaning.

In the orthodox world I remember we would all do a little learning, but few people held a full Tu biShvat seder in those days. Most likely, because few people knew exactly how to perform it well enough. Which is quite sad because the seder is dripping in symbolism which should be most meaningful for those who are fully immersed in the verbiage of kabbalah and chassidus. And yet, we admit we have often been lacking in our application and enthusiasm.

Of course since then, a lot has changed. Newer siddurim and the advent of online resources, more people are finding the seder more accessible. But the reviving observance is also greatly motivated by a growing interest in kabbalah in society today. An interest which many traditional movements are thrilled to be meeting, so today there is a lot more promotion of this holiday more than ever to address this interest.

However, for the most part the most success in incorporating this holiday into the consciousness of diaspora Jews has come during the latter part of the 20th century and during the turn of the 21st century has been made by progressive Jews. By diaspora Jews who have brought the lessons learned in modern-day Israel to the rest of the world. Who have witnessed the melded of the secular with the spiritual in the modern-day State of Israel. And who have in this model taken the holiday and made it more socially conscious in our own lands. And who have also come to mark this day as an opportunity for their communities to become socially and politically active regarding the environment and nature. Realizing that we wont bear fruit until we break ground through social action.

In this spirit the holiday of Tu biShvat has come to be embraced the world over as a Jewish Earth Day Celebration of sorts. Where people not just celebrate nature, but actively show their green thumb and their social activism. A time when one gets to show their love for nature and vow to preserve it.

The latter reason is probably another factor for why this holiday of Tu biShvat is more well observed among progressives and less so among conservatives in America. Be it personal discomfort with being called a tree-hugger, one’s dissociation with nature… or even worse, ones troubling environmental politics. What ever the reason, many religious Jews in the Americas show neglect towards our observance because of our personal sentiments we need to correct.

Today I want us to take the time to focus on a tikkun atzim – a correction and repair within ourselves. So intern we can be more effective in making a tikkun olam – a correction and repair in the world! We need to have both.

A Peek into the Mystical Aspects of the Tu biShvat Seder

And that is precisely what this holiday is about according to our kabbalistic tradition. Making a tikkun (a correction) within ourselves.

And more specifically making a correction within our male energies and over our sense of assertion. This is a very virile holiday, it is not so much about embracing mother nature. It’s more about becoming aware and mindful of how we assert ourselves over nature, and then taking those lessons inward.

And this is where I fear I might lose readers, both nervous males and bashful females. I’ve noticed I can talk as much as I want about the feminine aspects of G-d’s shechinah these days, but talking about masculine things is something many are becoming less accustomed to! Men and women, both equally, show discomfort at times. However, I think that whatever our gender is we can all learn a very important lesson by looking at the very masculine and assertive essence of this holiday of Tu biShvat.

I don’t want to make it weird so let me explain what I mean, and use the paralleling examples we can draw from. At this time of year we are approaching the spring harvest two months from now, which is the biblical new year; that is something most of us know little about. So instead let us look at the opposite side of the calendar, and compare it to the coming of the civil and religious new year – to Rosh haShanah; that is something we seem to all naturally know more about. I’m sure many of you will immediate recognize the polar distinctions between these two seasons in our tradition.

When we think of the season of Rosh haShanah we think of it as a season with female spiritual correspondences. The season of Elul and Tishrei are often regarded as a feminine and receptive time of year. This month of Elul, its kabbalistic Zodiac sign is the Beitulah; the virgin which corresponds to Virgo, explained as the same virgin (beitulah) of Libra with the scales of justice (moznayim) in hand. This symbolizes the receptive nature of the virgin earth, during the season of plowing of the land. It also represents Din – or judgment, which is also seen as a feminine aspect of the Divine. As we know, we are making selichot in that month of Elul, in preparation towards being judged in Tisherei. That season is characterized by judgment and restriction.

But at the same time the season of fall is an intimate season, in which we are to mystically mirror a young virgin longing for marriage and intimacy. When we want to mirror that longing in our relationship to G-d. That is why we also consider Rosh haShanah our wedding day to G-d. From that point of spiritual reference, we focus upon our receptivity.

See, that wasn’t so hard. Not too difficult to talk about. And even if we are not kabbalistically learned, most of us recognize these themes. Now let’s see if we can grasp the other end of this.

In contrast, at this time of year we are supposed to be focusing on the more masculine correspondences displayed in these upcoming months. Now during Shevat we do not consider this season barren, this is now the time of the almond blossoms breaking forth. The ground will soon start to break forth with life, and with the hopes of budding of fruits to come.

We are now going into the fertile months. Two months from this night, we will be looking up at a full-moon like this and celebrating Pesach; we will be eating the produce of the spring wheat harvest, and counting towards the barley harvest until Shavout. This is a seminal and groundbreaking time of year. A very virile and fertile time of year!

We aren’t the only people who see this, consider how strong the theme of fertility is present in the cultures around us as this season approaches. As the common culture will soon find their celebrations also entrenched in symbols of fertility; as they decorate everything in eggs and bunnies. This theme is starting to be in the air for many cultures the world over, not just for us alone. It’s not hard to recognize and understand this seasonal contrast.

In contrast to the feminine and receptive nature of Rosh haShanah (and Beitulah), the spiritual new year of Pesach is a strikingly masculine holiday. And so is Tu biShvat. The Fall nature is barren and receptive, the Spring is asserting and springs forth. We know what we are talking about here, as traditionally cultures have often binarily called this “masculine initiative,” so we get what this means. I don’t need to be too explicit, I think we all get this.

Notice how the kabbalistic zodiac sign Taleh, the lamb in our tradition or a ram, it corresponds to the spring month of Aires (the month of aviv, spring; Nissan); it displays the masculine spiritual forces par-excellence. It represents an active and domineering partner in its spiritual attributes. It displays the Divine aspects of Chesed. – that passionate and ever-expansive type of love. That fiery and lusty energy is what takes center stage as this time of fertility draws close.

Now we really need to pay special attention to this point. And I think if we examine our own drives we can clearly connect to these points in every person. That what this side of the Divine essence represents is that power of assertion we have inside us. That drive to want to assert ourselves in life and in our relationship to other things. It signifies that ever-expansive desire to aggressively assert ourselves over nature and life itself. To take whats barren and make life spring erect from it.

These are the words and themes mystically woven together in this Tu biShvat seder. For those who are attuned to kabbalah and chassidut we know that part of the this tikkun we are making is within our own personal will and drive to assert ourselves; and to bring balance to an ever-expansive type of chesed in us, as displayed by masculine aspects of the spiritual forces used in the text of the seder. (Abba, Tzedek, Yesod, etc.) It calls us to consider and make tikkun (correction) for an expansive love and passion on overdrive.

Take a look at the Pri Etz Hadar when you get a chance. Notice that the seder wording clearly makes those parallels in how it speaks about making a correction in Yesod (the phallus), and by means of this expressing how our over expansive drives are so seen as a form of unchastity. As we are embracing the virile energy at this time of year, we are also asked to be equally mindful in using that power responsibly. It calls us to make a correction in ourselves, related to bring balance to our own carnal desires and actions. Instead of giving completely over to this virile drive we are called to bring balance to it. Asking men in the traditional text to be mindful that they might be over-expansive in their carnal passions, and to make a tikkun (a correction inside ones self) for that.

This is a lesson which was learned though nature, and which needs to be applied back in our relationship with nature. At the heart of the Tu biShvat seder, under all the layers of mysticism, that is what it is doing by calling us to on all levels overcome a base-level drive inside of ourselves to assert ourselves over nature and be more responsible with the power we assert over the earth.

At Rosh Hashanah in Fall we are called to be mindful of being receptive and properly submissive in our nature. But in this coming season of Spring, we are asked to be mindful of our will to assert ourselves and to expansively spring forth.

For those who are brave and honest with themselves, we need to be asking ourselves some questions deep inside our souls at this time. Privately ask oneself:

  • Am I over-asserting myself over the earth in a damaging and disrespectful manner? Am I being over-expansive in respect to the earth.
  • Am I over-asserting myself sexually, using it in a damaging and disrespecting manner? Am I being over-asserting in my sexuality?

The Seder and the Four Worlds

Now the structure of the Tu biShvat seder shows us how to apply this vigorous expansiveness, how to properly apply all this Chesed. And addresses how to become more effective in this aspect, both in our passions and actions. It does this by taking us on a journey up the scale of the kabbalistic Four Worlds of ABiYA:

Assiyah: The world of Action

Yetzirah: The world of Formation

Beriah: The world of Creation

Atzilut the world of Emanation (actualization)

In this seder we start our frame of reference grounded in the physical world of action, and we are moving towards pure thought which we perceive as being in the fiery heavens (where the sun and stars burn in the sky) as the mystics perceive of this path. We are moving upwards, elevating our senses and drives and thoughts to even loftier heights.

tree labeled four worlds kabbalahBut it all starts with activity, this process begins with us starting within the world of action. It starts with us putting our hands into action. And then as we begin to act, we can then better perceive of how to form and inspire creation in this world.

This holiday orients us and points us forward, and up. Directing us to strive on for a higher level of thought and passion which is beyond constriction, understood as the world of Emanation (Atzilut). Where G-d is One and the world is one. At this highest level of consciousness, we are trying to actualize a world without striving, restriction, disunity and lack; where there is completeness and wholeness.

Now I’ve said a mouthful, and I know very well that most of us aren’t mystics. I know not many of you consider yourselves too spiritual or mystical. Many of us are moderns and progressives, people who are not wrapped up in a world of mystical symbolisms as others. I understand this.

But that is the beautify of this holiday, it doesn’t require us to be at a place of lofty spirituality. The spiritual exercises of this holiday starts us firmly on the earth, in the natural world and in this very realm of physical action. All we need to do is focus on how to bring our actions better in line with our most loftier thoughts.

This tradition of ours doesn’t tell us we need to attain great spiritual heights. It just tells us to start with our actions, and to elevate our thoughts which inspire our actions. We don’t need to be concerned if we reach Atzilut, really. We aren’t literally trying to reach perfection, but what is important is that we are striving towards bettering and perfecting this world towards that more ideal reality. And doing a tikkun, making a correction, for those defects we recognize in this world.

In both our actions and with our passions as previously discussed, we are asked to become more conscious about our sense of assertiveness. That is what I want us to keep in mind as we make our way through the Tu biShvat seder this year. How to make a tikkun in that area of our lives as well.

Reflection: Now I don’t think that traditional Jews are less observant than progressive Jews in respect to this holiday, just less enthusiastic about it sometimes in diaspora. As it is noticeable that progressives have started to do more visible activism during this holiday in the west. And that’s a chesed, it’s a really great thing!

In actually, I don’t believe one side is necessarily more observant or correct than the other. But that traditional Jews and the progressives Jews today are often approaching this holiday from different sides, but for the same goal:

  • In the orthodox circles, people are and often have been more attuned to their tikkun atzim – a correction and repair in themselves.
  • And in the progressive circles, people are generally more attuned towards a tikkun olam – a correction and repair in the world.

However, the reality is that all of us need to be working towards a tikkun in both these areas, and do so more seriously during this season. Our tradition actually calls us to deal with both. We can’t really achieve one without the other, so we need to bring balance to both.

Tu biShvat Seder Resources:


Parshat Bo (5775)


Exodus 10:1-13:16

How Plaguing Addictions Affect Those Other Than Ourselves

Today we are going to talk about addictions. We are not only going to consider the personal struggle with addiction, but we are going to explore how addictions affect the other people in our lives. How they can come to plague not just us alone, but also cause casualty to others.

destitute familyThis topic has been rolling around in my mind since last Shabbat, when I happened upon this verse as I was thumbing my way to the reading for that day. This verse so interested me that I wanted to ask our own Rabbi Osnat Margalith about it right then, but held back so we could tackle the lesson at hand. But just then she quickly affirmed a view that I just saw open up to me moments before. As she noted how Rabbi Abraham Twerski connects the Ten Plagues of Egypt to the stages of addiction. Though I haven’t yet read this book she is referring to, I hope to soon. I’m intrigued now. As I also see so many unique connections along this theme, and today we will explore just some of that.

Not only was Rabbi’s observation timely for where my mind was at the moment, but it’s also a very timely thought for what I have been observing in the lives of people I care about. For as I began to sit down to learn this lesson from this angle of addiction, I was contacted by someone close to me who has had a long road with addiction. Reaching out to me from rehab, where he has been working through his few steps in sobriety.

Hopefully, I have a bit to offer on this subject. As I am no stranger to addicts. And I am no stranger to addiction myself. So when I speak about this, it’s from the position of personal experience. Personal experience which lend to both my empathy and frankness when it comes to this struggle. To this battle of the wills.

As we begin to look at this story of Pharaoh and the Ten Plagues, I want us to keep in mind that this story is about a battle between two wills. The will of G-d and the will of Pharaoh. The narrative takes a focus upon the heart of Pharaoh all through out this part of the story regarding the Israelites exodus to freedom. This story of our fate is deeply intertwined with the narrative of this man’s battle of personal will.

Then again, this is also the case for his people – his Egyptians people and all his faithful servants – and that is something which also needs to be noted.

Now I know that during these weeks nearly everyone is talking about the “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart in their divrei Torah. What that philosophically means, as well as what the personal implications are for freewill and personal responsibility. And asking difficult questions. Was G-d controlling Pharaoh’s will here? Was He stacking the cards against Pharaoh? Wasn’t Pharaoh being set-up?

I don’t really want to go trudging down that path too far, because that is low road which many addicts prefer to take when resisting liberation through sober living: It’s not my fault, I wouldn’t be this way if G-d didn’t make me this way. I have a disease, so I’m not responsible for this. This is just the way I’m wired, how can you blame me? G-d has given me a hard life and hard heart, and if it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t be this way! This situation I’m in, both G-d and life are setting me up!

Let me be frank and straight to the point with this. None of us should really want to relate ourselves to Pharaoh too much here. As he is an archetypal rasha (evil person) personality. And it is especially so in this respect, when we talk about Pharaoh and his lack of freewill. Did Pharaoh lose his free will because G-d hardened his heart? The Rambam (Maimonaides) in Hilchot Teshuvah says, yes! However, such a person is rare, and we don’t ever want to be that type of person.

The Rambam makes this point in his commentary there, that Pharaoh’s lack of free will and likewise his punishment to follow, this all came about because of his original act of enslavement and oppression. All of this came about because of a primary action, for which he did have free will. The hardening of his heart by G-d was just to grant Pharaoh the toughness of character to resist the repentance which would stop his downfall and much deserved judgment. Judgment for his actions done, not his persisting resistance. G-d was hardening up Pharaoh to cause him to descent into a place in which repentance just wasn’t really possible for him anymore, so that he had to be dealt with as an example.

I know this is deep. Lots of philosophy going on here, and I’m not a philosopher so I encourage you all to look at Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah, Chapter Six. We could go on and on with this topic, and many people do with heady conversations. But let me try to keep it simple.

The Rambam seems to point to Pharaoh as an extreme example to wake us up. I think the Rambam and most rabbis would agree that there are very few people in the world like Pharaoh. Who are so evil that they lose their ability to repent of their ways entirely. But then again, just look at Pharaoh! Do you want to be Pharaoh? You could end up like Pharaoh. Be careful, you don’t want to be Pharaoh!

Most of us with a history of addiction know what I’m saying here, about what it’s like to start out with the control in our hands when we start with substances (or behaviors) and then in contrast seem to not have any will over it at all at some point. And where our direction towards disaster seems inevitable, we can’t stop it anymore.

I have my own understanding which I’m still considering, but let me quickly share it with you so we can move on to the text and main point of this lesson. Look at the word we have here at the top of our parsha for Pharaoh’s heart being “hardened.” It says, “hichbadti.” To be hichbid means to be heavy, to be a burden, to be a nuisance; in a literary sense, it also means to intensify, or to aggravate. To me it seems fairly clear that what we see here is that G-d is increasingly burdening Pharaoh, and being a nuisance to him. Intensifying the aggravation for Pharaoh to continuously assert himself as he does to this terrible end. Maybe our understanding might not have to be all that complicated after all.

So much for my gentle side-note, but now lets us move on to main point for this week’s lesson I want us to consider. And I want to focus our lesson on this point, because if we are going to talk about addiction we need to recognize that it affects people other than the addict alone. No, we are not alone in this battle with willpower. As we often drag other people into our suffering along with us. The people closest to us and who we should value the most.

At the top of our parsha for this week, we see that Moses is told to go to Pharaoh because G-d has hardened his heart and the heart of his servants. G-d says that He has done this to make a mockery of the Egyptians. And to display His greatness through the signs and wonders to come, for all generations to know He had done this for them. (Exodus 10:2) Moses approaches Pharaoh and gives him a provoking ultimatum once again.

But notice, before we get a response from Pharaoh this time the servants and advisors raise their cries of concern to him. And they don’t really seem quite as hardened as Pharaoh! No, they do seem to be sensible and responsive at this point. And this is where we find ourselves, as we come upon our key verse for this week. Our text reads as follows:

“Pharaoh’s servants said to him, ‘How long will this one be a stumbling block to us? Let the people go and they will worship their G-d. Don’t you yet know that Egypt is lost?’”

וַיֹּאמְרוּ עַבְדֵי פַרְעֹה אֵלָיו עַד מָתַי יִהְיֶה זֶה לָנוּ לְמוֹקֵשׁ שַׁלַּח אֶת הָאֲנָשִׁים וְיַעַבְדוּ אֶת יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיהֶם הֲטֶרֶם תֵּדַע כִּי אָבְדָה מִצְרָיִם:

Exodus 10:7

Moses has just come before Pharaoh and announced the eighth plague of locusts, and by this point we can only imagine how battered the entire nation of Egypt was at this point. So even the servants, they seem to lose the composure and deference one would normally expect of them before their “divine ruler.” And they speak out in a most striking way.

Look at the text here. Their response is not a simple, “Oh, this guy.” No, they see Moses as a mokeish – he’s is a hindrance, and obstacle; or more precisely Moses is a snare. When they see Moses walking into the room, they see Pharaoh walking into a trap. They know Pharaoh is going to fall for his provocations again. So they have had enough with looking at this guy, Moses.They raise their cries and say to Pharaoh to let the Israelites go and let them worship their G-d already!

Then these servant make a shocking outcry to stress their point, “Don’t you know that Egypt is lost?”

I find this statement to be amazing, considering that it is coming from these people who we can only assume are servant advisors of Pharaoh here, getting sassy with the king. Saying, don’t you know that we have already lost this one? This seems to come with both sarcasm and frustration at this point, because surely that had been telling him for a while now that this was out of hand. He needed to stop this insanity already, and let all these people go.

However, I believe there is something deeper than merely a snarky statement made in frustration here. I think that if we consider these people – who they are, what their motivations are, and what they have also endured with Pharaoh all through this – their outcry comes with a lot of weight. An outcry made more in a tone of hysteria. This is a type of human suffering which I think is worth considering. As often times it really does happen like this in the real world.

Consider that these are the servants of Pharaoh. These are people who are quite honored to be able to appear before their Pharaoh. But for as much as they are honored to serve before him – while some of them even advise him and guard him – in their world view he is the one who is supposed to guard and guide them. He is the king of Egypt, he not just represents the people of the land, they also look to him as their source. They look to him to be their strength. He is supposed to be the smartest and strongest guy in the room. Their Pharaoh is supposed to be looking out for them, as their great protector.

But even above all that, they love Pharaoh just as much as they depend upon him for their wellbeing. They absolutely adore this king of theirs. As he is the living symbol of their civilization and religion, they cherish this Pharaoh whom they consider a living deity. So dedicated and adoring, his people are used to following behind him and keeping his every order even unto death.

So now once again, consider all of this suffering here. What Pharaoh is putting himself through, he is not in it alone. His people, they are also suffering through these plagues with him! They don’t want to at this point, and they really shouldn’t have to. Pharaoh’s people have already had enough of this misery, yet he still hasn’t.

They aren’t just being dramatic when they cry out to Pharaoh this way. They have some real suffering going on. Look at the second to the last word of our verse here, you will see it highlighted in red. The word avdah – the world translated as “lost.” We are not just merely talking about Egypt falling. What do we mean here by “lost?” Just for a second think of this word as a noun, to envision this as something for us. What are we talking about here then?

When we mention avedot, we usually mean human losses. Here we are talking about casualties. Generally when we are talking about avedot we are talking about perished people. Human lives which have been destroyed, or even snuffed out all together. And that is clearly evident here already, these people of his are beginning to literally perish along with Pharaoh amidst this battle of the wills in which he is engaging in.

Now I know that we don’t often consider this narrative from the position of the Egyptians. We take this story for it straightforward meaning as it tell us, to cause us to wonder at the glory of G-d’s salvation from generation to generation. (Exodus 10:2)

We don’t generally read this story with ourselves in this uncomfortable position of a stubborn Pharaoh. Even rarer, do we consider the suffering of Pharaoh’s people. But I believe that if we read this story this way we need to also consider the suffering of all the other Egyptian people, his servants and subjects who now are being lost along with their leader in this series of crisis and plagues. Reality is, we should do our best to not relate too much with the position of Pharaoh himself and should be worried if we do.

Today I want those of us who deal with addictions – or addictive behaviors – to consider the suffering that our addictions might cause others in our lives. To the people closest to us. To the people who adore for us the most, and for the loved ones who depend on us the most. For the people we care for, and the people who naturally care for us in our times of need. The people whose lives are intertwined with ours, and whose lives are naturally effected by the calamity we attract. Whose lives also begin to be continuously plagued by the consequences of our stubborn refusal to let go of our addictions.

I want us to consider our lives and the people in it who are also becoming casualties in our battle with addictions. As our hearts are often hardened to that sort of rough and twisted life, we need to consider the people who are dragged into this who hearts aren’t so hard. Who cannot withstand this type of calamity and loss anymore.

For a hard moment I want us to consider all those in our lives who also find themselves dealing with the disparity, poverty, violence, emotional distress and disease which our addictions often bring into their lives along with us. We aren’t alone in our addictions, a reality we can recognize no matter how cheaply we fool ourselves into believing otherwise.

So what can we do with this heavy lesson? How can we get out of this cycle of continuously asserting our hardness of heart in pursuit of addiction? I think it should start by softening up our heart to the people closest to us. And as the Rambam says, adjust our hearts so that our will should be to change.

My friends, we need to really listen and give weight to the words of our loved ones. Especially when they put their foot down and say something like they did to Pharaoh: “Hey, we are tired of this already! How long are we going to keep doing this, and having these menacing people in our lives tripping us up? Give it up already. Are you the only one that is so clueless to not have noticed that all is already lost? Make it stop!”

We have a choice to make today. Are we going to listen? Or are we going to harden are our hearts, yet again, until all really is lost?

Something to Consider: Have you ever found yourself at a point in addiction where you feel that you honestly feel that you have no free-will over it anymore? Or has your life ever gone out of spiral until you feel like you have no choice in the outcome anymore, where you feel that you simply cannot stop that cycle of tragedy?

Sometimes its hard to get beyond addiction with just the help of loved ones, because they are often as caught up into the momentum of the crisis as we are. And they often times don’t know how to help best. So it is also useful to get professional help from addiction counseling professionals, or support groups and sponsors. People who do have the resources to help you when willpower fails you.

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Parshat Shemot (5775)


Exodus 1:1 – 6:1

When Immigrants and Migrants are Hated for their Success

This week we begin a new book of the Torah, and our story picks up where we left off at the end of Genesis, with the family of Yaakov going down to Egypt. Why are they going down there? Surely the most emotional impacting reasons is so that the family can be re-united with Yosef. However, as touching of a reason as this is, there was a much more harsh reality at play which brought them there. There is another reason we need to considered. Namely that initially they were forced to come to Egypt in order to survive a famine in their homeland of Canaan.

The Immigrants which Built Up Boyle Heights: (clockwise) The Yiddish School , Jewish Education by the Arbeiter Ring; Mexican-American Zoot Suiters; Russian Molokian, Russian Christian pacifists; a local Japanese-American family.

The Immigrants which Built Up Boyle Heights: (clockwise) A Yiddish dayschool , Jewish education offered by the Arbeiter Ring/Workmen’s circle; Mexican-American Zoot Suiters; Russian Molokians, Russian Christian pacifists; and a local Japanese-American family.

In this week’s parsha we are quickly presented with the rise of that family, from a mere “seventy souls” of the descendants of Yaakov (Yisrael) who had come to take refuge with their brother Yosef in a foreign land, to becoming a distinct and successful people in their own merit. And how they came to be hated, not for their neediness in the end, but for their success as foreigners and their emerging greatness. This is a pattern which is all too real many times.

I don’t want to dig into the story of their journey down to Egypt, because of course we got that already in detail in the book of Genesis. Here in Exodus we are talking about the coming together and the rise of these children of Israel in a foreign land. How they rose to be a distinguished people in the land of Egypt. And the details surrounding this are few here, as in very few verses the story turns sour for the Israelites.

In the sixth verse we read that Yosef died, as well all the people of his generation. Everyone who knew Yosef personally were deceased. All those who knew of how he had saved all of Egypt from famine were now dead. Now, that was not what captivated the minds of the new generation and their new ruler when he came to power. That was not what came to mind as they considered the Israelites and their successful sojourn in Egypt.

As we see here, the main observation in this narrative – especially from the point of view of the Egyptians – is made plainly present to us right away:

“The children of Israel

were fruitful

and swarmed and increased

and became very strong,

and the land became filled with them.”

| Uveney Yisrael

| paru

| vayishretzu vayirbu

| vaya’atzmu bime’od me’od

| vatimale ha’aretz otam

Exodus 1:7

Now in this key verse from this weeks parsha, we see how the negative attitude and distrust arose. It was not just that there was a new generation, which did not have the same direct ties between the two cultures as in Yosef’s day. But more so the concern at hand was that the children of Israel had become very populous and exceedingly strong since then. And that the land had now become filled with Israelites.

These Israelites had become too successful, and there now were too many of them. And this began to concern the Egyptian people. And it also began to concern their new Pharaoh.

Before we look at the Pharaoh’s reaction to this populist outcry, let take a look at the psychology of the Egyptians rising prejudice in this narrative. I believe we have a word in the text which aptly delivers the very thoughts of this Egyptians host society. Here with the word, “vayishretzu,” meaning and they swarmed. This word, sharatz means “to swarm,” or “to infest.”

The Egyptians seem to be so alarmed by the rise of the Israelites that they easily dehumanized them in their minds. The Israelites are made out to be something as less than human, instead they are thought of as an infestation. Like bugs or vermin.

Even when our master Rashi interpret this text in order to deliver a meaning for us Jews reading on as later observers to this narrative, he cannot help but to also draw our attention as to how inhuman this word is. He instead takes it as a positive by applying midrash, suggesting in his commentary that the Israelites became numerous because they were each given six children with each birth. Something which is normally not so for us human mammals.

Rashi seems to take the understanding that we should read this word along the lines of the meaning “to be spawned,” as that’s how drastic their rise in numbers seemed. As though the Israelites were each given miraculous fertility, people having babies in a fashion comparable to the way other mammals might have litters.

From personal experience, as a minority descendant of immigrants, I’ve heard phrases used both these ways. However, not exactly as kindly as maybe our Rashi is suggesting, I’m afraid. The first way, I’ve heard in the voices of the anti-immigrant radicals; people who tend to call Latinos like myself roaches and vermin. And then there is the second way I’ve also heard it used, even by the most progressive professors of mine in college. When I heard them occasionally uncouthly remark on how supposedly immigrant Latinos are “so damn fertile” as a means to explain our rising demographics. As you see for me, either way, I never really felt like this was a compliment. Rarely is it used as one either.

I think too few people are sensitive enough to give attention to precisely how dehumanizing these type of words can be. And we often fail to consider how these dehumanizing attitudes and statement, when left unchecked as in this story, can result in inhumane acts to come.

Now once again, let us take notice of the situation. These Israelites had become too successful, and now there were too many of them. And this began to concern the Egyptian people. And likewise it also began to concern their Pharaoh. He had to act, but he also had to have his own pretext which justified his actions against these people.

He didn’t just see these people as an infestation, but also as part of a potential invasion:

“He [Pharaoh] said to his people, ‘Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more numerous [or greater] and stronger than we are.

“Get ready, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they increase, and when a war befall us, and they join our enemies, and fight against us, and depart from the land.’

“So they appointed over them tax collectors to afflict them with their burdens…”

וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל עַמּוֹ הִנֵּה עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל רַב וְעָצוּם מִמֶּנּוּ:

הָבָה נִתְחַכְּמָה לוֹ פֶּן יִרְבֶּה וְהָיָה כִּי תִקְרֶאנָה מִלְחָמָה וְנוֹסַף גַּם הוּא עַל שׂנְאֵינוּ וְנִלְחַם בָּנוּ וְעָלָה מִן הָאָרֶץ:

וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלָיו שָׂרֵי מִסִּים לְמַעַן עַנֹּתוֹ בְּסִבְלֹתָם

Exodus 1:9-11

Here Pharaoh questions the loyalty of these resident-alien Israelites, and thus makes them out to be a threat to national security. They are a potential threat within his boarders, a threat which needs to be dwelt with.

Now I understand that many people might feel uncomfortable with this subject of the immigrants plight. In this part of the country in which I live, in a region which is heavily effected by the constant influx of migrants, this is a much painfully debated topic from both the right and the left. So talking about immigration is not exactly the best way for teachers like myself to satisfy their crowd. No matter how nuanced my presentation is. I’m likely to upset someone. Yet I feel that I must touch on this topic, because this lesson hits home for people like myself. Not just as a Latino, but even more so as a Jew! And as a Jew who caries on the heritage and ethics of my local community. And as a local who carries the burden of our local history in order to overcome it.

Let me explain before we go on to conclude our study of the Torah text, as I believe our local history will help draw this Torah lesson closer to us in a more vivid way.

Our Local History which Binds our Jewish Commitment

to the Immigrant Community

If we want to talk about the hardships of the immigrants, our accounts really needs to mention the deplorable way that Asian immigrants have been treated in our society since the beginning, especially here in California. First there was the lynching of Chinese in Los Angeles in 1871. Then in 1882 the “Chinese Exclusion Act” was ratified, which had tremendous consequences for the Chinese immigrants in this state. Chinese immigrants were stripped of their rights and dehumanized by society. And also barred from immigration; be they skill, unskilled, or employed in mining (the most major break-back job of the day). They were painted as too needy, as thus the Chinese were unwelcome and treated as a threat. Unlike any other people, they were mistreated and even surcharged in death as a foreign burden, when they were begrudgingly buried here outside the limits of Evergreen Cemetery here in Boyle Heights.

The suffering often crudely summed up as the plight of the Chinese rail-workers – those strong people who also helped unite this continent – how they were treated is considered a national shame. It’s something we need to all remember and consider. Even today, in an age when in contrast people often show contempt and sometimes even commit hate crimes against Chinese immigrants simply because of their present-day successes and educational prowess. (see “3 Los Angeles teens ordered to stand trial in death of USC exchange student.” “Killing of Chinese Student in LA a Wake-up Call”)

However, this was not the first occurrence of anti-immigrant prejudice to overtake California. Our first occurrence of legislation targeting resented immigrant minorities was actually enacted in 1855, just five years after the state was admitted into the Union. William W. Snow, Speaker of the State Assembly of California (and creator of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco), enacted unconstitutional Christian Sabbath laws. And in a slanderous manner accused Jews of depriving Christian business owners of customers and profits. Snow even accused Jews of being foreigners who did not contribute to the state!

This accusation that Jews were strangers getting successful at the expense of Christians was challenge by none other than Samuel K. Labatt, the American Sephardic Jew, and founder of the Hebrew Benevolent Society of Los Angeles (today known and operating as Jewish Family Service). Samuel and his lawyer brother Henry J. Labatt saw to the writing and publication of effective denunciations of Snow, which were also republished here by the Los Angeles Star in April 7th, 1855. Making Samuel K. Labatt the first anti-defamation activist of Los Angeles.

Both for the Jews and the Chinese, attempts to legally marginalize them did often succeed. Surfacing over and over again in a constant back and forth of legal discrimination waged out in the courts, and sparked by whatever social anxiety of the time. Jews became very aware of our need to mobilize and denounce the persecution of immigrants each time it arose.

When the next flow of the poorer Eastern European Jews came and settled in the area of Boyle Height in the early 20th century, the connection between our local Jewish community and our other minority immigrants became permanently forged together. And not just by being neighbors, but by infinity with each others suffering. This suffering would then intensify in the wake of World War II, as many immigrants would experience the second element of the discrimination we’ve been talking about. As many of our immigrant minorities were also wrongly accused of being disloyal.

This is a copy of the "The Siren," published by Hollenbeck Middle School (Jr Rough Riders) students in the 1940s. What should we notice about this page? A publication with mostly Jews and Japanese in the masthead, and the occasional idiomatic spelling slip-ups which reveal there are some Spanish speaking hands at the presses typesetting too. And most interesting, an article by one Jewish girl named Marilyn Greene, about the tone of Christmas in Boyle Heights in 1941, right after the US was thrown into WWII: "CHRISTMAS 1941 "Christmas 1941! We are all looking forward to a joyous Christmas season, a time when all would be in a glad holiday mood, a time of peace and good will. "This Christmas season has come but not as we foresaw. It will be a wartime Christmas, for on December 7, 1941, the Japanese Empire declared war on the people of the United States. "We have a special concern for our loyal American citizens of Japanese descent who are as truly American as any of us. "They have our especial (sic) sympathy in the hard days and difficult situation that may lie before them. "We Americans of all colors, races and creeds must unite to win, that freedom for all people may be possible. "Marilyn Greene” The apprehension felt in this immigrant community was justified. Shortly after the Japanese-Americans of the neighborhood were taken and interred in camps.

This is a copy of the “The Siren,” published by Hollenbeck Middle School (Jr Rough Riders) students in 1941.

First in December 1941, when the United States was first thrown into World War II. The Jewish community was outspoken about their concern for their Japanese neighbors, even before their internment. Everyone from small to great.

As noted by a Jewish girl named Marilyn Greene, a student at Hollenbeck Junior High School at the time: “We have a special concern for our loyal American citizens of Japanese descent who are as truly American as any of us. They have our especial (sic) sympathy in the hard days and difficult situation that may lie before them.” (“The Siren,” student newspaper dated December 1941; see image to the right)

Their apprehension was justified, as shortly after the Japanese-American families were interned in camps. And their property and entire wealth was generally liquidated. In the wake of this, our local Jewish publishers were alone in decrying this injustice in the mass media. Al Waxman’s “East Side Journal” and the “L.A. Reporter” were the only newspapers in the nation to editorialize and decry the Japanese interment at the time. A brave and bold position in decrying injustice, one Waxman would also hold in the wake of the Zoot Suit Riots as well.

Which brings us to a most notorious event in local history, the Zoot Suit Riots. Which was not any one event, but a series of riots which gripped Los Angeles in 1943. A shocking spectacle of violence inspired by populist rhetoric. Riots inflicted upon the community by local Marines against the ethnic Zoot Suiter youth, one which most often resulted in stripping them naked and beating them. Defrocking them of their glorious outfits for which they were notorious. All this happening during the height of wartime, and with the aid of the local authorities and stoked by the conservative media which controlled Los Angeles at the time.

Though this wave of violence was inflicted on all minorities of this style of street-culture in those days, the brunt of the abuse was mostly directed at Mexicans. Partially in reaction to the US government’s much debated “Bracero Program.” (named for the Spanish term bracero, meaning “manual laborer” [lit. “one who works using his arms”]) which allowed immigration for manual laborers in the US’s existential time of need. A program aimed at helping provide workers to fill jobs left vacant as the local men were off to war. (see “Fighting over the American Standard of Living, 1943-1945: Zoot Suit Riots, Wildcar Strikes, and the Supremacy of the Soldier.”)

Zoot Suit Riots ServicemenServicemen of the day were regularly incensed by the appearance of the lack of support in uniform by these Mexicans during WWII, all the while accusing Mexicans of making out well financially in industrial jobs they were called up to fill as the war raged. Offended at the appearance of excess which Mexicans seemed to flaunt in the lean times of war, the Zoot Suit became their hated symbol of excess and opportunism. For this reason they were stripped and brutally beaten. All with the tactic approval of the police and sheriffs.

The Zoot Suit Riots were an orgy of violence directed against those perceived of as draft-dodging and disloyal, which spilled into all the minority communities of Los Angeles.

This series of brutal attacks were so severe it likewise traumatized the Jewish community of the area, as many regarded the unrest and targeting of Mexicans as reminiscent of the pogroms inflicted against themselves in Eastern Europe. Where Jews were also often accused to succeeding at the expense of their host countries. Where they were also often hated for their lack of participation in the wars of their Czar and the nobles. Where they were also attacked for maintaining their own identity and standing apart.

Zoot Suit Riots: Mexicans Stripped and Beaten

Zoot Suit Riots: Mexicans Stripped and Beaten

For this reason the Jewish community felt a great affinity with the cause of Mexican-Americans and threw their strong political support behind this other immigrant rich community. The first vestiges of a working Latino civil rights movement would emerge from the aftermath of the riots. Even before most of my Latino ancestors had a concept of what civil rights activism looked like, progressive Jews supported our cause here. Understanding that Latinos of the area needed a voice and sense of self-determination in this shared community of ours.

The political unions made with progressive Jews at that time would also later help propel Edward R. Roybal to city council as the first Mexican-American council member of the City of Los Angeles in 1949, representing this very district. With the predominate Jewish community strongly endorsing Roybal, over and against a popular nationalist Jewish American candidate of the time. The election of Roybal kicked off a season of progressive advances in housing, education and healthcare access for the overlooked minority communities.

I could go on and on, brining us to the present with examples the Jewish commitment to our minorities and immigrant communities. However, I present just a mere selection of our foundational history. As I want us to understand our basic roots here. And from where the bonds of our historical loyalties are derived. This is all to remind us, we have a historical and religious obligation as Jews to support and hold the cause of the immigrant minorities in this region, and specifically in this neighborhood of Boyle Heights.

This scenario which the Torah lays out to us here in this parsha, it is mirrored in real life. This resentment of an immigrant people who first came poor and then were hated for their successes in the end. People who were often called disloyal strangers. It is very accessible to us if we just think about the history around us.

In Conclusion: “So did they multiply and so did they gain strength.”

As we see from real life, persecution often fortifies people instead of breaking them. Making them more determined, and forcing them to further develop their strengths. And so it was for the migrant Israelites as well. As we read in the next verse:

“But as much as they [the Egyptians] would afflict them [the Israelites], so did they multiply and so did they grow, and they were disgusted because of the children of Israel.”

וְכַאֲשֶׁר יְעַנּוּ אֹתוֹ כֵּן יִרְבֶּה וְכֵן יִפְרֹץ וַיָּקֻצוּ מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:

Exodus 1:12

The Torah text tells us that despite all the cruelties and afflictions laid upon them by the Egyptians, the Israelites continued to increase both in number and in strength. These are points which are important for us to understand. But as the translations often greatly vary here, lets us take a look at this for ourselves. What is it exactly saying here?

What happened for the children of Israel? They were able to yirbah they were able to not just multiply, or increase. They were able to expand themselves.

What else happened for the children of Israel? They were able to yifrotz – they were able to grow, as most translations of the bible read. But I believe this translation is weak and insufficient. The word yifrotz means to break-out, to burst, to erupt, and to breach.

Our scriptures paint a picture of people who are blessed and whose lives are filled with success. They had arrived as a small and helpless people, and in a relatively short period of time they became great there. So great that they increased in population and in success, bursting out from their constraints in both these respects. Outgrowing their disadvantage in seemingly miraculous ways.

And what was the Egyptian reaction to this? We are told of the Egyptians, “vayakutzu mif’nei bnei yisrael / and they were disgusted in the faces of Israel.” What is this disgust? Is it merely just dehumanizing loathing? Or is it something more?

There is two more ways we can look at this text, depending on how we personally understand our master Rashi’s interpretation. We are presented with both of these ideas in the commentary for this line:

And they were disgusted: They were disgusted with their lives. (Others explain: And the Egyptians were disgusted with themselves, and it is easy to understand why.) Our Rabbis, however, interpreted it to mean that they [the Israelites] were like thorns (כקוצים) in their eyes. [from Sotah 11a]”

ויקצו: קצו בחייהם. ורבותינו דרשו כקוצים היו בעיניהם:

Rashi to Exodus 1:12

We have actually talked about this before. When dealing with turns of phrase similar to this. One reference found in a statement made by Isaac, and another found in the story of Moab and Balaam. In both those cases we saw that this phrase meant to be “disgusted” with life. To be “weary” of one’s own existence, but on account of others! (see Parshat Balak 2011)

So we can look at this two ways. The first being, that these Egyptians couldn’t feel contentment in life because of these Israelites whom they loathed. Their very existence and presence in their land caused them to be disgusted with life. As long as Israel remained and was prospering, they could not feel anything but disdain for life. These immigrants were ruining their lives!

And then there is the second way to look at this. That the Egyptians were disgusted with themselves. That the Egyptians grew disgusted with the results of their own way of life. They grew disgusted with their own inability to succeed and overcome their own challenged. And furthermore they grew disgusted with the way that they mistreated these Israelites. Everything about their conduct made them disgusted with themselves as they stood before these noble Israelites. They became disgusted of their own conduct when forced to stand, “mif’nei bnei Yisaael / in the face of Israel.” They could no longer stand looking at these people eye to eye.

For this reason the Egyptians felt that they had to be “shrewd” with these Israelites. Inflicting taxation, slavery, heavy labor, etc All of this we read as our parsha continues. But still we need to ask ourselves. Why would they go to this extreme, to all but annihilate this people? And how could they then further descent into the slaughter of the Israelite babies?

An understanding of this is drawn out of the text here by our sages here, as Rashi finally notes. It’s because these Israelites became like thorns in the eyes of the Egyptians. Meaning everywhere they looked all they could see was these Israelites, and it was more than an irritation to them. It was even a pain – like kotzim, thorns in their eyes – for the Egyptians to see this people increase and succeed. So they took matters into their own hands.

And this is a hardship which Israel has always faced. In conclusion, I would like us all to consider this deep observation made by Rabbi Robert Kaplan concerning this phenomenon of hatred toward Israel by their detractors, hatred for their success and growth:

“When people look honestly at the accomplishments of the Jewish people and all of the advancements to civilization they have provided over the millennia of human existence, it is an astounding record. The achievements made by the Children of Israel, in every historical time period be it peaceful but mostly turbulent, is unexplainable in terms of natural causality. This fact registers unconsciously in the minds of our enemies particularly when they boast of numerical superiority and cultural enlightenment. There are two ways to deal with these phenomena. The enemy can look inward and reexamine its culture, its way of living and philosophy of life. If they did, they would realize the great advantage such recognition would bring to their existence. They would be able to make the necessary changes to improve their lives. However, the easier path is to blame the other, successful society for making you look bad. When this course is chosen, the only way to relieve the disappointment at failure of your own inability to succeed is to turn the frustration outward onto the ones who make you look and feel bad by their success. If possible, destroying them from existence is the best solution. Then there will be no more reminders of your internal disgust at your own inability to succeed.”

Rabbi Robert G. Kaplan of

CURE: Community Understanding for Racial and Ethnic Equality

Something to Consider: Are you anxious or distressed by immigrants and foreigners? Do you hold resentment for certain cultures for their increasing prominence? Maybe instead of being intimidated and unwelcoming, it would be a benefit for us to learn from other peoples unique ways and see how to adapt their strengths to our society as well. To appreciate these people as a contributing benefit to our society, and not as a threat.

Related articles:


Havdalah as a Light to the Community


Reflections and Lessons from the Havdalah Circle of Boyle Heights

Dare to make anyplace a sacred space!

Havdalah at the 6th Street Bridge, overlooking the city. Dare to make anyplace a sacred space! Punk rock Havdalah with Shmueli Gonzales and Jesse Elliott. Los Angeles.

As Shabbat comes to an end, I always make my way back towards the town and people I love. Towards the arches which over the years have become know as my station and post. And leaning against the metal arches of the bridge, high upon the Los Angeles Sixth Street Viaduct, I bask in the final and lingering rays of the Sabbath’s sun. And then I wait. Wait for the sun to set. I wait, for my buddies to count the stars and declare that it’s time. “One… two… three stars… it’s time!”

And then out from my ubiquitous bag I take these items. A Hebrew prayerbook, a dried etrog and clove bundle as a D.I.Y. “spice-box,” a kiddush cup and a multi-braided havdalah candle.

Havdalah – the ritual for closing the Jewish sabbath – has always been one of my favorite Jewish traditions. And over the years I have always tried to make pause to observe it with the people I care for the most. There is something very warm and loving about the ritual. Something which has always captivated me, and has interestingly drawn my friends in along the way.

Indeed most of my local friends are not Jewish, and consider themselves firm atheists. I am one of the less than a half-dozen Jews who are currently connected to Boyle Heights. And among them few Jews, I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who is strongly religiously observant. Nonetheless my friends – Mexican-American, Anglo, African-American, Asian, and especially my older Jewish friends of mine who were born in classic Boyle Heights – they all encourage me to do Havdalah. And they also love to include themselves in this ritual, which is so part of my life. Even the occasional homeless Jewish person.

In a very fundamental way, over the past few years my adventitious return of Jewish rituals such as this back to this historical multi-ethnic neighborhood – one which itself has such a deep and rich Jewish history – has really touched people. These are symbols that the light of Jewish life and expression has not been fully extinguished here. It reminds the community that we haven’t forgotten those who went before us here, who also embraced these enrapturing acts.

"I will trust and not fear"

Hinei el yeshuati eftach v’lo efchad! – Behold G-d is my salvation, I will trust and not fear! – for G-d is my might and my praise – Hashem – and He was a salvation for me.”

A revelation of how much a part of my routine and how meaningful it has become to others came when I ran out of supplies recently, and my punk rocker friends went scavenger hunting to find me items to make havdalah with on the spot. Knowing that my joy would not be complete without this moment, they just had to find a way to improvise! A very sweet and revealing moment for me.

To say the least, I learned after that to never be caught without supplies again. This week we will use a new candle. A long bees-wax candle with nine wicks all braided together.

Standing at the observation point overlooking the skyline of Los Angeles. Lingering at what could well be considered the gates of the city, we make our stand. My prayerbook placed upon a decorative niche of the bridge as a shtender. As I stand there above the train tracks and the water of the river, suspended between heaven and earth. There I light the wicks. I wait for the flames to take hold, until it comes to a roaring flame like a torch. Before I hand it over to one of the guys, who are ready to take it in hand and hold it high.

Overlooking the city I can’t help but be reminded of the Talmud section from which we get this most ancient custom of using candles as a torch. In Pesachim 8a this conversation takes off with the sages calling attention to why we use bright lamps and lights, namely to search. Our sages draw from the prophets, on how G-d will search the city of Jerusalem with lamps, in order to punish the complacent; those who are indifferent to realities of good and evil. (Zepheniah. 1:12) With a light that is meant to search out for justice.

And furthermore the Talmud suggests to us that this light represents our need to extend a light to search out for other precious souls, drawing from the scriptures:

“The human spirit is the lamp of Hashem

searching all the most deepest parts of ones being.”

נֵר יְיָ, נִשְׁמַת אָדָם; |

חֹפֵשׂ, כָּל-חַדְרֵי-בָטֶן. |

Proverbs 20:27

So among this most motley crew of eastsiders, among the most unlikely of circles I make my stand, and I bless from this place. From this cultural corner of Los Angeles my heart calls home, I stand with other diamonds in the rough. Among other unique souls worth searching for. This tradition challenges me to search people out as with a penetrating light, looking deep into their souls to find their worth.

Havdalah itemsI love the symbolism of this candle. Braided it represents the separations between the spiritual and physical wolds, and mystically symbolizes how they come together; to be intertwined. It represents the separations between the sacred and the secular, and also how they come together. That they are both needed in our lives. A symbolism which is poignant as we step out of the sacred joy of Shabbat, and into the secular workweek which we have before us. As we stand at the cosmological gates between the sacred and the secular.

And it also represents the souls of people, who are distinct; we are each our own flame, but in unity we must intertwine ourselves for the purpose of a mitzvah. Together our small and single flame becomes a roaring torch; for we are much better together and united.

As we stand I see the flames of the candle reflected in the awe of the guys faces and in the twinkle of their eyes. As Jesse exclaims, “Look how brightly you can see it, even from far away! It really is like a torch!”

As he says these words I keep in mind what the Talmud further relates to us as to why this is the best way to make havdalah, with the use of a torch:

“Surely Raba said: ‘What is the meaning of the verse: “And his brightness was as the light; he had rays coming forth from his hand: and there was hiding of his power.” (Habbakuk 3:4) To what are the righteous comparable in the presence of the Shechinah? To a lamp in the presence of a torch.’ And Raba also said: ‘[To use] a torch for havdalah is the most preferable [way of performing this] duty.’”

והאמר רבא מאי דכתיב (חבקוק ג) ונוגה כאור תהיה קרנים מידו לו ושם חביון עוזו למה צדיקים דומין בפני שכינה כנר בפני האבוקה ואמר רבא אבוקה להבדלה מצוה מן המובחר:

Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 8a

The sages then call attention to our own souls, in the light of this mitzvah. It says to consider ourselves as though we are search lamps. But as for this torch, to consider it as comparable to the presence of G-d. That our souls are as bright as lamps, standing next the presence of G-d – in the most radiant light of the Holy One, blessed be He. As the true torch, the most beaming of lights, the Shechinah – it is as thought the surrounding presence of G-d is made manifest among us as we stand with this light.

When I extend the lights of this multi-wicked candle I am welcoming the presence of the Shechinah – the presence of G-d to this place. Welcoming the all-encompassing spirit and the life of all the worlds to this place. For a moment spirituality becomes an almost tangible atmosphere.

"Shalom and Son's," a kosher food and wine distribution business still operating in the Boyle Heights Flats

“Shalom and Son’s,” a kosher food and wine distribution business still operating in the Boyle Heights Flats.

The Talmud further instructs us upon this subject of havdalah. That we need to include at least three distinct blessings, but adding no more than seven; not more than the days of the week, whose cycle we are renewing with this act.

I take my drink in hand as the ceremony begins. Today we are without wine or kosher grape juice, which is a shocking thing. Considering that underneath us, and just a few hundred feet to the east of us, right in the Flats of Boyle Heights, on Anderson sits a kosher food and wine distribution plant with their Kedem trucks parked in their gates. One of the few present-day Jewish businesses of Boyle Heights is “Shalom and Son’s,” which by way of this neighborhood supplies so many Jewish tables in Los Angeles with this staple of wine as a liquid symbol of joy. Yet we are all out after days of celebrating, and they are closed for shabbos. So the wine-cup goes away and a beer is placed squarely in the palm of my hand.

And then I begin to rhythmically chant the words of the prophets and psalms which begin the ritual of havdalah (in the western Jewish tradition):

Behold G-d is my salvation, I will trust and not fear – for G-d is my might and my praise – Hashem – and He was a salvation for me. You can draw water with joy from the springs of salvation. (Isaiah 12:2-3) Salvation is Hashem’s, upon your people is your blessing, Selah. (Psalm 3:9) Hashem, Master of legions, is with us, a stronghold for us is the G-d of Jacob, Selah. (Psalm 46:12) Hashem, Master of legions, praised is the man who trusts in you. (Psalm 84:13) Hashem save! May the King answer us on the day we call. (Psalm 20:10)”

הִנֵּה, אֵל יְשׁוּעָתִי אֶבְטַח, וְלֹא אֶפְחָד, כִּי עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ יְיָ, וַיְהִי לִי לִישׁוּעָה. וּשְׁאַבְתֶּם מַיִם בְּשָׂשׂוֹן, מִמַּעַיְנֵי הַיְשׁוּעָה. לַײָ הַיְשׁוּעָה, עַל עַמְּךָ בִרְכָתֶךָ סֶּלָה. יְיָ צְבָאוֹת עִמָּנוּ מִשְׂגָּב לָנוּ אֱלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב סֶלָה. יְיָ צְבָאוֹת אַשְׁרֵי אָדָם בֹּטֵחַ בָּךְ: יְיָ הוֹשִׁיעָה, הַמֶּלֶךְ יַעֲנֵנוּ בְיוֹם קָרְאֵנוּ:

As we stand upon this massive chunk of concrete and metal, I chant the words in Hebrew. For me, the words become more alive here, at this spot and among these friends of mine. This is our “mishgav lanu” – this is our stronghold, our fortress, our hideout. It is only right that I come here to make such a mitzvah. The rain has just passed, so the river is filled with water. You can hear the faint rushing below, as my soul draws water with joy from the springs of salvation. The sights and sounds are all so vivid.

Shmueli Gonzales and Jesse Elliott, Havdalah with Los Angeles in the backgroundAside from the sound of an occasional train below and the rush of a bus at our side, the only other sounds are from the cars passing over the bridge to and from downtown. And the faint and distant rumbling of the freeways which are integral to this viaduct. Though this is the choice spot to observe this city from the eastside, we are among the few people who come here, as mostly its just locals and homeless people. More often these days the occasional hipster does come out of the arts district, but sadly they usually take one look at us edgy punkers standing upon the bridge and nervously turn around instead.

Indeed, this viaduct it is the most picturesque location in the city. But for those people who are more of a boutique style of urbane, this is not a regular destination. It’s a wild adventure, because its lodged right in between the infamous Skid Row and the much ignored ethnic community of Boyle Heights. We are standing on the main artery through the “rough neighborhoods.”

But still we hold the torch high, and with full conviction in my voice I declare in the holy tongue: “Hinei el yeshuati eftach v’lo efchad / Behold G-d is my salvation, I will trust and not fear!”

And for a moment, walkers take pause as they pass. And the drivers who are weary, my friends say they can catch a glimpse of the awe on their faces as well as they pass. No fear nor even dreary eyes for just a moment. Just awe and wonder as people witness this amazing sight. As we perform the ceremony cars honk at us as they go, joining in like urban “amen”s.

I can hear Zero-Renton say, “Look, those westsiders standing at Mateo are pointing towards the torch! They see it all the way over there!”

And then we continue with the next words, which I say in Hebrew and English. These words which are meant to be repeated by the participating crowd. An all-inclusive and universal phrase which extends the light and joy of Judaism to all who dare to embrace and befriend it:

For the Jews there was light, gladness, joy and honor (Esther 8:16), so may it be for us!

“I will raise the cup of salvations, and I will invoke the name of Hashem:”

לַיְּהוּדִים הָיְתָה אוֹרָה וְשִׂמְחָה, וְשָׂשׂוֹן, וִיקָר. כֵּן תִּהְיֶה לָּנוּ:

כּוֹס יְשׁוּעוֹת אֶשָּׂא, וּבְשֵׁם יְיָ אֶקְרָא:

So I then lift my drink. Today day we need to brown-paper bag it, since we are out of the kosher grape juice. We will have to exchange out one the blessing for wine with the appropriate blessing for beer (she’hakol).

As I lift my drink and at the right moment along with the words of the ritual. And I say the words of respect and reverence: “Savri maranan ve-rabanan ve-rabotai / By your leave my masters, teachers and gentlemen…” Words which ask permission of my guests for me to bless before them.

Photo Credit: Zero-Renton Prefect

Photo Credit: Zero-Renton Prefect

But also mystically, when we say the savrei maranan – it is meant to symbolize a deferring of reverence to our Jewish sages, rabbis and masters who have gone before us. We acknowledge that through their teachings and traditions they gave us, that they still are living to us and with us. I show respect to them before I proceed.

Standing here I raise my drink as I also make a toast to my friends, family, my city and the historical Jewish heritage of Boyle Heights. And as I say these words, even my non-Jewish friends show their comfort and familiarity with this custom and respond with the traditional response: “L’Chaim! To life!”

Now it is the Jewish custom to bless, over a cup which is filled as near as we can to overflow. So that our joy should be the same, spilling and running over. (Psalm 23:5) And it really seems to, as I say the blessing over the drink.

Next we take the bundle of spices. Made from an etrog – an Israeli citron used during the Sukkot holiday for the mitzvah of Lulav right here in the eastside community – which was dried with cloves, as a spice-box. I say the blessing over the basamim; the fragrant species, the spices and herbs.

The Jewish tradition says that an extra soul is given to each Jews for the celebration of Shabbat, an additional soul to have twice the joy! But when the sabbath leaves us, so does this extra soul. This transition from the hight of joy to the lowly place of mundane life can be deflating. But in order to awaken our spirits anew, to rouse them to attention we use these spices. They are our traditional smelling salts, but they are instead intended to help arouse our common soul to life once again. Pleasantly reanimating us after our long day of Shabbat celebration. We each take a moment to deeply inhale this fragrance, passing it around the circle.

Next Jesse draws the candle low, within reach of us all, as I say the next blessing; “borai morai ha’aish.” As I bless G-d who creates the illuminations of fire. Tradition says that fire was created on the first Saturday night, at the end of the week of creation. (Pesachim 53b) When G-d gave Adam, the first man, the knowledge to rub stones together and create fire. We recall this act now, commemorating that very moment in order to reenact the wonders of creation, in which we are also active partners. I meditate upon this hope now, that G-d may likewise continue to give us the knowledge to continue to do awesome works of creation in this world.

20141220_174405And now near the flames we all hold our hands close and cup them, to see the light passing through the tips of our fingers. Not between them, but shinning through the translucency of our fingertips. For a movement I consider how the spiritual world and the Divine, it is hidden from view. We can only merely perceive this realm of spirit as a flame, the reality of which shines through from within our own holy being, as through good deeds this holy light emanates outward from within us all.

So for a moment I again make a mystical reflection as I look at these hands which I try so hard to use for good deeds. The Zohar, the main mystical text of Kabbalah which interprets the Torah, it tells us that when G-d first created man we were beings of pure light, translucent bodies which were “clothed in light.” And that from the depths of us, our souls would shine brightly to the surface from within. But that after the sin of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the consequence was that people lost their vestiges of pure light and became beings of mortal flesh. However, this tradition tells us that G-d let humans keep a reminder of our former state, in the translucency of our fingertips.

When I hold my fingers close I remind myself of this truth, that I am a being of light. A light in this world and this community, a light which will shine through to the outside world through my tireless work I perform with these very hands. This is a truth I strive never to forget.

The streaming passers still taking notice as we huddle together into a warm circle for these moments. Then once again we raise the candle and the cup high! And I begin the concluding words of the ritual (which are the same in all traditions, Ashkenazi and Sephardi):

Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the Universe, Who distinguishes between holy and secular, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, between the seventh day and the six days of labor. Blessed are You, Who distinguishes between holy and secular.”

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, הַמַּבְדִּיל בֵּין קֹדֶשׁ לְחוֹל, בֵּין אוֹר לְחשֶׁךְ, בֵּין יִשְׂרָאֵל לָעַמִּים, בֵּין יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי לְשֵׁשֶׁת יְמֵי הַמַּעֲשֶׂה, בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, הַמַּבְדִּיל בֵּין קֹדֶשׁ לְחוֹל:

I really consider these words deeply each and every time. The word that stands out to me is the key word of this ceremony, hamavdil. The word hivdil – in Hebrew, it means to distinguish.

Shmuel Gonzales, Havdalah flames and downtown Los AngelesWe draw our understanding for this word from the Torah, from the book of Leviticus which contains the holiness code; there we are told to be holy, and to be distinguished people. There we are told to separate ourselves and stand apart, to be holy by keeping the Torah laws which keep one sanctified (i.e. keeping kashrut; Leviticus 20:25; 10:10; 11:47). This word likewise brings to mind how on Shabbat the Jewish people are to separate from the world’s secular activities and all its toils and embrace the joy of the sabbath. That it is as different as the difference between light and dark, this embracing of the sacred over the “profane.” And so too, as a people who keep these ways we are distinct and unique because of these practices.

Lately, I feel that far too many times when religious people speak regarding this they focus far too much on the idea of separating themselves from that which they feel is “profane.” From people and a society which they feel are less than kosher; less than sacred. But I don’t believe that is what it should actually mean to us, here and in this place. In this place with this mixed assembly of people; Jews and non-Jews, religious and secular, cultured and counter-culture.

The word hivdil means to distinguish. It’s often used in everyday speech to contrast one thing to another, not to really compare as there is no real comparison. As they aren’t really meant to be compared against. But it doesn’t just mean that, it also means that you can tell something apart from the rest. You can tell what it is, as it stands apart and is recognizable for what it is. I remind myself that I am special as a distinct person as a Jew, and so is each of these friends of mine distinct in their own way.

Punk Rock Havdalah Circle

Zero-Renton Prefect, Shmueli Gonzales, and Jesse Elliott.

Again, I bring our attention back to the candle. To recognize that life and the world is like this braided candle. There are certainly distinctions in the world and between people, but in our own ways we are unique lights in the world; just like each wick upon this braided candle. Though we must allow ourselves to be intertwined! Just like Shabbat is intertwined with the work-week, we must have one in order to have the other! We need to have a partnership between the sacred and secular. We could not have the joy of the sacred, without the labor of the week and its secular duties. So too, the sacred and the secular both have their place and their time to shine.

But now as this joy of Shabbat must come to an end, we must hivdil – we must separate – from the radiant light of a most holy Shabbat and begin our toils anew. And as the blessings of havdalah come to an end, I drink from the cup and I extinguish the candle with a pour of drink over the flames. Putting out the light of Shabbat until next week.

And as we make our way back home to the eastside over the bridge I begin to sing the traditional songs. Among them are “Am Yisrael Chai” and “David Melech Yisrael.” Songs of life! And as we pass the old Jewish sites, we remind ourselves that the works of the Jewish people and the joy of Jewish life are still flickering to life here. And keep in mind that the spark of this Jewish heritage needs to remain alive, to continue to contribute to the diversity which has enriched Boyle Heights for the past century. To show some continuity in the community, where change and modernity seems to quickly be making many things around here all but a memory.

The canopy of beams and girders of the Sixth Street Bridge, by daylight. She is set for demolition in 2015.

The canopy of beams and girders of the Sixth Street Bridge, by daylight. She is set for demolition in 2015.

But sadly, even this last-stand act of havdalah is going to change for my circle in the near future. After all these years of hanging out at the Sixth Street Viaduct, I’m sorry to announce that the bridge is being demolished.

This iconic bridge which has graced the Los Angeles landscape since 1932, she is suffering an alkali-silica reaction in the concrete (called “concrete cancer” by engineers). This reaction creates cracks in the concrete, which are now seen covering all over the body of the structure. With a 70% probability of coming down in the next major earthquake, this most famous of Los Angeles sites is being demolished. It will be closing this Spring of 2015 and demolished in the following months, to make way for a newly designed bridge which is expected to open in late 2019.

So where will we perform havdalah in the future? I don’t know. Now, it’s not that we haven’t tried other spots for havdalah. But they don’t feel the same, and this is where people know to come and join in if they want to. It’s going to be interesting to see if I can recapture this spirit elsewhere.

A Touching Personal Experience from This Past Week

Let me give you one last precious story, from this past week. A special havdalah which really touched me.

This past week my dear friend Irv Weiser calls me while I’m on the bridge. He calls right as the boys are heading back, because as non-Jews they had plans for a ham related holiday feast! Oy, what a dilemma! I was sure I was gonna miss havdalah on the bridge this week, the ceremony which closes the gates of Shabbat. In the face of the rare occurrence of not having any participants, I was thinking I’d have to do it back at the house on my own.

Punk Rock Havdalah, in Los Angeles. Photo Credit: Zero-Renton Prefect

Punk Rock Havdalah, in Los Angeles. Shmuel Gonzales and Jesse Elliott. Photo Credit: Zero-Renton Prefect

But Irv calls me and says to stick around. That he was just a few blocks away having coffee with a Mexican Jewish man, a homeless friend of his from the eastside. They were wondering if they could join me for havdalah. So we went up and they said the blessings of havdalah with me.

Irv, was born and raised Orthodox Jewish in the neighbourhood of Boyle Heights. And educated at the Breed Street Shul and local yeshivot. He says he’s agnostic now. But as I begin the ceremony he starts to join in the Hebrew prayers. And tell me touching stories of his parents, who were holocaust survivors and who came to Boyle Heights after the war to join a relative already here. He related to me how his parents used to perform the ceremony, and how they pronounced the words in their Eastern European accents.

He then takes a look at the skyline and across the bridge, which he hasn’t seen that way since he was young… now he’s in his 60s. But all the more he’s in awe of the sight after all these years.

For a few moments I also got to talk about the significance of the ritual up there on the bridge with this new friend I’ve met through him, as my buddy Irv gets thrilled by my knowledge and passion. And willingness to take the time. (And in a caring manner nagging me why I don’t study for the rabbinate already, that’s the story of my life!)

As we completed the ritual with song and stories, Irv thanked me for keeping Jewish tradition alive here in this way. As a means of keeping the memory of the legacy of classic Boyle Heights alive, even today after the once predominate Jewish community started migrating away from the neighborhood some 50 years ago.

Irv also expressed his gratitude to me, for investing myself into nurturing the future Latino Jewish community on the eastside. A growing community of Jewish Latinos, who are noticeably becoming integral to the future of Jewish expression here and in our local synagogues.

Irv’s been texting me since. And he keeps telling me, interestingly and touching coming from a self-proclaimed “cynical” and “bored” Jewish agnostic, “Havdalah… the prayers… and that place on the bridge. Now that is really spiritual, and most memorable.”

How to perform Havdalah with alternative items:

  • Though it is most common to make havdalah over wine or grape juice which requires the blessing “pri ha-gafen,” (fruit of the vine) one may also say havdalah over any type of pleasant drink if kosher grape juice is not available; anything except for water or a common drink like soda (according to Rav Moshe Feinstein), which is meant mainly to quench thirst. One should pick a drink which is considered a sociable drink. This can include even coffee or tea (with or w/o milk), or other fruit juices. However, Sephardic rabbis such as Rabbi Ovediah Yosef suggest that the use of intoxicating drinks such as wine, beer, etc. is choicest. One should say the appropriate blessing for what ever drink you choose, in place of the blessing for “pri ha-gafen” (fruit of the vine) when noted in our siddurim.

  • If you do not have a havdalah candle, all you need to do is find two candles and hold the wicks together. Pick a couple of friends out and have them hold the candles with the wicks touching through-out the havdalah ceremony. This is also a great way to physically display how our individual lights are so much stronger when people come together in unity.

 
1896912_10152650980936110_1390575560_n About the Author: Welcome to Hardcore Mesorah! My name is Shmueli Gonzales, and I am a writer and religious commentator from Los Angeles, California. I dedicate the focus of my work to displaying the cultural diversity within Judaism, often exploring the characteristics and unappreciated values of Chassidic and Sephardic Judaism. Among my various projects I also produce classical liturgical and halachic texts for free and open-source redistribution.

I am a proud member of Congregation Beth Shalom of Whitter – a modern-traditionalist Jewish congregation – where I also teach “Introduction to Judaism” and coordinate Spanish language programming for our growing Latino Jewish community here in the Los Angeles eastside and the San Gabriel Valley.

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Zot Chanukah: And this too, this is Chanukah!


Celebrating Inclusion on the Special Eighth Day of Chanukah

As the festival of Chanukah comes to a close it seems that we can’t help but heighten our joy. As we make one last crescendo of the holiday melodies. It’s almost like we are tossing in all the remaining oil on to the lingering flames of Chanukah, to go out of the holiday in full glory. So special is this day, it seems to make sense why we call this day “Zot Chanukah,” – Hebrew for “this is Chanukah” – because this (zot) is Chanukah at its grandest.

Public lighting for Chanukah in front of the White House.

Public lighting for Chanukah in front of the White House. Let us use this final day of the holiday to focus upon and display radical inclusiveness!

Though there are some very good reasons why we call this eighth day of the festival Zot Chanukah.

One suggestion is that it gets its name from the special Torah reading for this day of Chunukah (Numbers 7:54-8:4) which begins with the words: “Zot Chanukat Hamizbe’ach,” meaning “This was the dedication of the Altar.” To chanukat means to dedicate. This reading relates to the dedication of the Mishkan – the Tabernacle sanctuary.

Our tradition tells us that the work to complete the construction of the Mishkan was completed on the 25th of Kislev, in the dead of winter as we are now. However, this sacred space and the Altar were not officially dedicated until the start of the cosmological and spiritual year, in Nissan – the month of the spring renewal, the agrarian new year starting with the month or Aires. We are also taught that the reason for waiting was in order honor the month in which the patriarch born and died, the month of Nissan. (Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 11a)

Our tradition thus suggests to us that Chanukah was always there in the story, but we just need to look for it! We just needed to actualize it!

In the case of the dedication of the Tabernacle, in the Torah reading for this day, we have a most astounding thing described for us. Our special reading begins with the dedication offering by a prince from the Tribe of Menasheh. But notice, if we look at the text in the Torah, we will see though that this entire seventh chapter of Numbers is all about the princes of each tribe presenting their dedication offering for the Mishkan. Each tribe offers the exact same offering and it is even described exactly the same way, only changing the names of the princes who presented the offering.

How powerful is this story! That a work is not complete – that a community and sacred space is not whole and ready for service – until it includes all the tribes! These princes and tribes are all equal, and all deserve mentioning. And given as much text as is dedicated to this – some 89 verses in all – going to great lengths to accomplish this sense of inclusiveness is literally written into our Torah itself!

Let us consider this, as we meditate upon the special Chunukah Torah reading this day. And as we consider these starting words, “Zot Chanukat Hamizbe’ach.” (Numbers 7:54)

There is also another explanation for the name Zot Chanukah is brought down to us by means of the Beit Yosef – the words of Maran Yosef Karo – when he asks a most infamous question:

“Why do we celebrate eight days of Chanukah when the single flask of oil that was found was only sufficient for one day and burnt for eight – the miracle, in that case, was really only seven days because the flask of oil was sufficient for the first day?”

מדוע חוגגים שמונה ימים, שהרי הנס נמשך רק שבעה ימים, כי ליום הראשון בכל מקרה היה מספיק שמן?

The Beit Yosef presents an interesting quandary for us, as to why we celebrated this holiday for eight days. When the nature of the holiday seems to logically suggest that the miracle of the lights was only seven days long. After all, they had oil for the first day! There was no miracle there on that day. Our master asks us, so why do we celebrate eight days?

One of the thoughts in this line of thinking also suggests that the reason the holiday is actually eight days was because the Hasmoneans who rededicated the Temple in the days of the Chanukah story were not sure of the actual day of the Rosh Chodesh – the new moon, so they instead celebrated eight days to compensate for their doubt. That the sages weren’t sure, so they just included the eighth day anyhow!

The followers of this school of thought contend that to call the day Zot Chanukah actually is to gloriously embrace the day – and declare to people that despite any confusion or doubt – that it is right that we acknowledge that “Zot Chanukah… this too, this is Chanukah!” It needs to be included as much as any of the other days.

Chanukah Olive Oil LampsHowever, most of our rabbis and scholars would reject this latter explanation by the Beit Yosef. Instead they would point plainly to the name of this day to declare there is no doubt or confusion, they say we are sure about this day, because “Zot Chanukah… this too, this is Chanukah!”

Though the eighth day of Chunukah has already come – and the lights have already been lit the eve preceding this day – we still have a few more hours to extend this holiday joy. To show inclusiveness and to boldly broaden the reaches of our spirituality.

It is customary to light candles during the daytime as well! During the daytime we may light-up Chanukah lights in synagogues, in public spaces, and at gatherings held in honor of the festival. These lightings are done without recitation of the blessings as they do not constitute an observance of the mitzvah of kindling the Chanukah lights. But it is a great way to include and be included within the community.

Though Chanukah is the not a major holiday to the Jewish people, merely a minor festival, this holiday has taken a prominent role in our society during this season. As the secular new year comes and as popular culture celebrates their celebration of Christmas, Jews have also been called to the forefront and to deliver a spirit of joy during this dark and dreary season.

For this reason the Lubavitcher Rebbe most infamously made the lighting of large public menorahs for the public a holiday staple in America and worldwide. In every major city people can find a giant menorah erected by Chabad. This has become a custom that almost all movements and communities have also come to embrace.

So as this eighth day of Chanukah is upon us, I call us all to embrace this day with full joy. If we got some extra oil or candles, grab them and set them ablaze just one more time during the daylight. Light the eight lamps to declare, “Zot Chanukah… this too, this is Chanukah!”

I also challenge us to use these last hours of the day to reach out to others, those who do not have this sense of joy. Who do not feel they have a place in this season, nor anyone there for them. I challenge us to embrace them and assuredly find a way to include them in our joy. And to take the time to show them these lights and say to them, “Zot Chanukah… this, this is Chanukah!”

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“A Toolbox for Jewish Learning” Classes in English and Spanish


The new “Introduction to Judaism” course starting this winter

Everything You Wanted to Know About Judaism

Are you from the Los Angeles eastside or the greater San Gabriel Valley, and looking for a learning opportunity to help you more deeply connect with the Jewish tradition? At congregation Beth Shalom of Whittier the new “Introduction to Judaism” course for this winter is uniquely formatted to help people learn about the practical tools of Judaism. This class is not just for converts, it is also geared for those who want to become better informed about Judaism.

This class is meant for those looking to connect with Jewish rituals, theology and beliefs. It touches on Jewish history, prayer, calendar and holidays, life cycle events, Bible and much more!

Join Rabbi Osnat Margalith on Sundays for our next 18-week course.

A Spanish version of this class will be taught by Shmueli Gonzales. (That’s me!)

Classes meet from 11am to 1pm

beginning December 7th, 2014.

Contact the synagogue office or myself for more information and reservations.

This class is required for those interested in converting.

Introduction to Judaism courses in English and Spanish

Grab a leaflet here in English or Spanish

Regarding Conversion to Judaism: While converting to Judaism is not a requirement for people to participate in this program, this class is a required course for all those seeking to convert. This course covers all the material needed to satisfy the essential educational requirements for the conversion process in an exciting, engaging, hands-on format. This course is intended to provide basic training for Jewish living, as well as to prepare those who are seeking conversion to Judaism to approach the conversion beit din (rabbinic court) with confidence.

Congregation Beth Shalom of Whittier and our clergy are proud members of the “Sandra Caplan Community Conversion Beit Din of Southern California” – the publicly operated and not-for-profit beit din which oversees conversions for all the progressive movements in our region.

In order to uphold klal Israel – the unity of the Jewish people – and to provide the dignity of recognition of our local converts throughout out all of the progressive movements – Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, Renewal and trans-denominational – our congregations have collectively agreed to cease the contentious and messy practice of “private conversions” in Southern California. Private conversions, which are often not recognized by other congregations or denominations.

In place of that ad-hoc way of functioning and to end the related confusion, the local Jewish community has collectively organized this publicly operated, transparent and not-for-profit conversion court. One which performs all it’s conversions under the proper halachic standards; supervised and singed-off by rabbis representing all the various movements, thus assuring one recognition of their conversion across the spectrum of the progressive Jewish denominations; over 150+ rabbis in total. In our region we have chosen to embrace public accountability and display pluralism at it’s best!

We are also proud to align with this progressive regional body, which rightfully welcomes people from diverse backgrounds and life experiences. In their own words:

“We welcome candidates for conversion to apply regardless of their race, color, ethnicity, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, age, height, weight, physical or mental ability, or marital status.”

For more information about the Sandra Caplan Community Conversion Beit Din or to see if your local rabbi is a participating member, please be sure to also refer to their helpful website!

About our Spanish Program: Congregation Beth Shalom of Whittier is proud to once again offer the “Introduction to Judaism” courses in Spanish. We will be covering the same exciting material as the English course during our Spanish sessions. As a congregation with a very active Latino membership – and which regularly makes use of the Spanish language in our liturgy as well – we are very much committed to making all the resources of the community available for the Spanish-speaking.

I am very pleased to contribute to this wonderful educational opportunity, to service our local community and the needs of our Latino families!

Grab a leaflet here in English or Spanish, or find more information on the website of the synagogue!

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“Una Caja de Herramientas para el Aprendizaje de Judaísmo” en Inglés y Español


Un nuevo “Introducción al Judaísmo” clase para este invierno

Todo lo que usted quería saber sobre el judaísmo

¿Está cerca de East Los Angeles o el área de San Gabriel? ¿Está buscando una oportunidad de aprender y conectarse más profundamente con la tradición judía? En la Congregación Beth Shalom de Whittier el “Introducción al Judaísmo” para este invierno se formatea únicamente para ayudar a todas las personas a aprender acerca de las herramientas prácticas del judaísmo. Esta clase no es sólo para los convertidos, sino que también está orientado para aquellos que quieren informarse mejor sobre el judaísmo.

Esta clase es para todos aquellos que están buscando como a conectarse con las rituales, teología y creencias de judaísmo. Cubriendo la historia judía, las oraciones, el calendario y tambien las fiestas, los eventos del ciclo de vida, la Biblia y mucho más.

Aprender con Rabbi Osnat Margalith para este curso de 18 sesiones.
Una versión en español será impartido por Shmueli Gonzales (que soy yo!).

Las clases comienzan el domingo
7 de diciembre 2014

Las clases se reúnen los domingos, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.

Contacte la oficina de la sinagoga o conmigo para obtener más información y para hacer reservaciones.

Esta clase es un requisito para todos los que quieran convertirse al judaísmo.

"Introduction to Judaism Course in Spanish / “Introducción al Judaísmo” en Español

Agarra un folleto aquí en, Inglés o Español.

Con respecto a la conversión al judaísmo: Aunque la conversión al judaísmo no es un requisito para las personas que participan en este programa, esta clase es un curso obligatorio para todos aquellos que quieran convertir. Este curso cubre todo el material necesario para satisfacer los requisitos educativos para el proceso de conversión en una forma divertida, con la participación, y en un formato práctico. Este curso se ofrece la base para la vida judía, y también prepara a los que buscan la conversión al judaísmo como abordar el Beit Din (corte rabínica de conversión) con confianza.

La Congregación Beth Shalom de Whittier y nuestro cleros son miembros orgullosos de la “Sandra Caplan Beit Din para la Comunidad del Sur de California” – la corte operado en forma pública y no lucrativa. Qué es supervisado por los rabinos de todos los movimientos progresistas en nuestra región; mas de 150+ rabbinos en total!

Con el fin de mantener klal Israel – el unidad del pueblo judío – y proporcionar la dignidad de reconocimiento de nuestros conversos locales en todos los movimientos progresistas – Conservador, Reconstrucionista, Reforma, Renovación y trans-denominacional – nuestras congregaciones han acordado colectivamente a cesar la práctica contenciosa y desordenado, el de “conversiones privadas”. Conversiones privadas, no reconocidos por otras congregaciones o denominaciones.

En lugar de esa manera improvisada de funcionamiento y para terminar la confusión relacionada, la comunidad judía local ha organizado colectivamente este tribual público. Un tribunal de conversión transparente para el público, y no lucrativo. Que realiza todas las conversiones dentro de los estándares propias de la halajá; supervisado y firmado por rabinos que representan a todos los diferentes movimientos, lo que garantiza un reconocimiento de su conversión en todo el espectro de las denominaciones judías progresistas. En nuestra región hemos optado por abrazar la responsabilidad pública y mostrar el pluralismo en todo su esplendor!

También estamos orgullosos de alinearnos con este entidad regional. Una organización progresista que acoge a personas de todos los orígenes y estilos de vida. En sus propias palabras (un traducción):

“Damos la bienvenida a los candidatos a la conversión a aplicar con independencia de su raza, color, origen étnico, origen nacional, sexo, orientación sexual, identidad de género, expresión de género, edad, altura, peso, capacidad física o mental, o estado civil.”

Para obtener más información acerca de la Sandra Caplan Community Conversion Beit Din” o para ver si su rabino local es un miembro participante, por favor asegúrese de consultar también su página web (en Inglés).

Acerca de nuestro programa en español: la Congregación Beth Shalom de Whittier se enorgullece de ofrecer una vez más los cursos de “Introducción al Judaísmo” en español. Durante nuestras sesiones en español estaremos cubriendo el mismo material que el curso de inglés. Como una congregación con una membresía latina muy activo – y que hace regularmente el uso del idioma español en nuestra liturgia – estamos muy comprometidos a poner todos los recursos de la comunidad disponibles en español.

Estoy muy feliz de ayudar en esta importante oportunidad educativa, y dar servicio a la comunidad local y nuestras familias latinas!

Agarra un folleto aquí, o encontrar más información en el sitio web de la sinagoga!

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Parshat Vayeitzei (5775)


Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

The Trees As Markers in the Life of Yaakov

The threes et Beit El-Luz. Photo Credit: Voices Magazine.

The threes et Beit El-Luz. Photo Credit: Voices Magazine.

As the season being to change, my attention takes to the trees. Now it is true that I live in urban Los Angeles, so the seasonal changes aren’t as dramatic. However, I do greatly enjoy the sights of the old and historic non-evergreen trees of the area, ones which the pioneering families planted and nurtured over a century or more ago. These tall and noble trees each have a story, if only you know someone old enough to tell you.

But we aren’t going to talk about the neighborhood history today, at least not the local history of this city. We will talk about the history of an ancient biblical city, and the possible connections there is to its name being inspired by trees mentioned elsewhere in this weeks Torah portion. This should be something interesting for all of us, tree-huggers or not.

Let us start with taking a look at our first piece of the text for today:

“And Yaakov rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it.

“And he called the name of that place Beit El, but the name of the city was Luz at first.”

וַיַּשְׁכֵּם יַעֲקֹב בַּבֹּקֶר, וַיִּקַּח אֶת-הָאֶבֶן אֲשֶׁר-שָׂם מְרַאֲשֹׁתָיו, וַיָּשֶׂם אֹתָהּ, מַצֵּבָה; וַיִּצֹק שֶׁמֶן, עַל-רֹאשָׁהּ:

וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-שֵׁם-הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא, בֵּית-אֵל; וְאוּלָם לוּז שֵׁם-הָעִיר, לָרִאשֹׁנָה:

Genesis 28:18-20

Yaakov has run away after tricking his way into receiving the blessing from his father, running away from the real risk of revenge from his brother Eisav. He has escaped into the wilderness. And after resting at this place and having his angelic vision of Jacob’s Ladder, he calls this place Beit El (which is anglicized as Beth El) – meaning the “House of G-d.” He is afraid as he exclaims the phrase from which this name will become derived, “’How full of awe is this place! This is none other than the house of G-d, and this is the gate of heaven.’” (Genesis 28:17) This is the reason why he commemorates this place and anoints it as a sacred space.

But notice, the Torah also gives us another mention here. It tells us what the former name of this place was. The name that it used to have, when it was first founded by the Canaanites. The place is thus also referred to as Luz.

But why is this name Luz mentioned here in this story of Yaakov’s journey? Why does the Torah even bother to make this point? We believe that every word has a purposeful thought behind it. Us students of Torah treat no words as superfluous, we look for a meaning.

If we follow the advice of our rabbinic commentators, even the fairly obvious words like armon gets complicated and becomes hazelnut as described by Rashi, using the medieval French term coudre (coudrier). And Radak also comes to such a conclusion, translating the word luz into old Spanish as avelanier, which today we simply call avellana; Spanish for hazelnut.

Almond or hazelnut? If we follow the advice of our rabbinic commentators, even the fairly obvious words like armon gets complicated and becomes hazelnut as described by Rashi, using the medieval French term coudre (coudrier). And Radak also comes to such a conclusion, translating the word luz into old Spanish as avelanier, which today we simply call avellana; Spanish for hazelnut.

Thought to a fine rationalist this might sound hokey at first, but the truth is anyone who studies literature and communications recognizes that each word of a good work should be carefully considered. Looking for other instances of a word to deliver a meaning. As well as looking for any injection of one’s subtle mental connection they are making surrounding this line of thought. Especially if these similar words are close by in the text. And I think we might have yet another of those instances here in this week’s parsha.

The Torah tells us that the former name of the place was first Luz, but it doesn’t give us a definition or origins of this name. Or why this is of importance to a person like Yaakov. Nor why it is important to the overall narrative. So the question stands, why does the text give a name of a place but not bother to explain it? Is there something we can learn from this name if we explore it?

Often times the reason we don’t get definitions for names is obvious, many times we don’t ever see these names again so the text seems not to bother. But this is not one of those cases. This name Luz will be mentioned again in the scriptures as part of its proper name (Genesis 35:6, Genesis 48:3, Joshua 16:2, 18:13, etc; and a second site is later so named in Judges 1:26). Also because of its prominence in the scriptures, this name will also go on to be well-recognized in our oral legends. So what do know about this place and its name?

First, lets consider the more obvious meaning I see here. The word Luz (לוז) in ancient biblical Hebrew is understood to mean almond, or small nuts. Thus small nuts are poetically called lozim. But from where do we get this understanding?

I believe it is displayed for us readers two chapters ahead in our reading:

“And Yaakov took for himself rods

of fresh poplar

and of the almond,

and of the plane-tree;

and peeled white streaks in them,

making the white appear which

was in the rods.”

| Vayikach-lo Ya’akov makal

| livneh lach

| veluz

| ve’armon

| vayefatsel bahen petsalot levanot

| machsof halavan asher

| al-hamaklot

Genesis 30:37, (based on the JPS)

We know that these are all a type of white-wood trees. Their wood is described simple as that, lavan – meaning white; or blond wood, as we technically call it today. But that’s about it. But the exact species of each tree mentioned here in Hebrew, we aren’t exactly sure.

The best logical hints we have are drawn from the last mentioned of the three types of tree, the armon (ערמן) tree; often translated as chestnut, even though chestnut trees do not grow in the middle-east. It is better understood by some as meaning some type of almond. This can probably better be logically inferred by the fact that this name is paired with the luz tree, a species of tree which is obviously associated with the Arabic word loz, meaning almond. The words for “almond” here seems to actually apply to some of various small nuts from local light wood trees.

plane tree

From the Pictorial BIble of John Kitto (b. 1804 to d. 1854).

The complications of understanding the exact species of these trees is because of our lack of precise understanding of what the armon and livneh tree mentioned here are. It becomes more complex as we try to draw more ideas from among ancient texts and old translations. Notice how later on we likewise see the armon translated as a nut-tree in many bibles (see Ezekiel 31:9; also see image to the right for an understanding of the western interpretations of this, which the JPS follows). But then alternatively later on in the prophets, the livneh tree is going to be translated as “poplar,” along side a different clan of trees like the oaks and the elms. (Hosea 4:13) So maybe we are talking about a different species all together.

But again, I have to stress that we aren’t exactly sure the species of each tree. If we follow the advice of our rabbinic commentators, even the fairly obvious words like armon gets complicated and becomes hazelnut as described by Rashi, using the medieval French term coudre (coudrier). And Radak also comes to such a conclusion, translating the word luz into old Spanish as avelanier, which today we simply call avellana; Spanish for hazelnut. The fact is, we aren’t exactly sure. But we have a pretty good idea concerning the possible types and the nature of the trees we are discussing. In the majority of cases, we can agree these are talking about light wooded nut trees. This area formerly know as Luz, it might have been named for the presence of such sightly trees.

A few times in the bible we see this name Luz mentioned in relation to the thickness of the wilderness. Like later in Joshua where Luz is mentioned. It is a spot that people pass on their way though and so is it noteworthy. (see Joshua 16:2, 18:13) This also follows the pattern of the bible to mention places according to physical markers, like these fortuitously shady trees; as later on at Shechem. (see Genesis 35:4; interesting if one compares it against Hosea 4:13) It makes the spot easier to identify by site, which apparently existed from the most ancient days and still persisted to that day.

And yet another the other reason yet to mention this site is because the name Luz might have meant something, and this could have been something worth hinting at. There could have been some legends or folklore regarding the site, which would lend its meaning into the story. Now keep in mind, like many famous sites in the middle-east, there is more than on place called Luz; the name was fortuitous enough for people to want to associate it with yet another site.

There seems to be this old legend regarding the location known as Luz, that if you get there you were finally safe and clear of all harm. This place seems to be associated with a feeling of good fortune on the part of travelers, soldiers and merchants; a place which emotes a sense that you have somehow cheated mortality amidst the fierce wilderness. Or in Yaakov’s case, the Cannaan valley below.

This thought seems carried over when we see the second site of Luz mentioned, as noted in Judges 1:26. This Luz was a city founded by a man whom the Israelites showed mercy on and let escape as they invaded Canaan. This was his reward for showing them their way in their time of need. In the Oral Torah we read a well-known and fascinating reflection on the folklore surrounding a city name Luz. The Talmud reads:

And the man went into the land of the Hittites, and built a city, and called the name thereof Luz: which is the name thereof unto this day [ibid, verse 26]. It has been taught: That is the Luz in which they dye the Blue/Tekhelet [Soncino: For the fringes (Num. XV, 38). The purpose of this statement and what follows is to illustrate the words ‘which is the name thereof unto this day’, showing that the city survived destruction and still exists.]; that is the Luz against which Sennacherib marched without disturbing it, against which Nebuchadnezzar marched without destroying it, and even the Angel of Death has no permission to pass through it, but when the old men there become tired of life they go outside the wall and then die.”

Talmud Bavli, Sotah 46b

Now this second site Luz, we don’t know anything about it other than it is also on in the side of the hills of the wilderness with the trees. We don’t know if it is some distance from, or just adjacent to the old Luz. Still, it is the name that we should consider more.

And there is still another story yet about Luz from the Talmud which we should also keep in mind:

There were once two Cushites who attended on Solomon, and these were Elihoreph and Ahyah, the sons of Shisha, scribes [Kings 4:3], of Solomon. One day Solomon observed that the Angel of Death was sad. ‘Why’, he said to him, ‘art thou sad?’ — ‘Because’, he answered him, ‘they [in Heaven] have demanded from me the two Cushites who sit here.’ [Solomon thereupon] gave them in charge of the spirits* and sent them to the district of Luz. ** When, however, they reached the [mere gate of the] district of Luz they died.

On the following day he observed that the Angel of Death was in cheerful spirits. ‘Why’, he said to him, ‘art thou cheerful?’ — ‘To the place’, the other replied, ‘where they expected them from me, thither didst thou send them.’ Solomon thereupon uttered the saying, ‘A man’s feet are responsible for him; they lead him to the place where he is wanted.’”

Soncino Notes:

*Over whom Solomon had dominion (cf. Meg. 11b, on I Chron. XXIX, 23).

**To save them from death. V. Gen. XXVIII, 19 and Judg. I, 23. Owing probably to the identification of this word with the one meaning ‘the indestructible bone of the vertebra’ (Lev. R., XVIII) tradition says that the Angel of Death had no power in Luz (v. Sot. 46b).

Talmud Bavli, Sukkah 53a (Soncino)

Luz in our folklore is a place where one can almost cheat death, while at the same time being located in what is regionally considered a perilous locale. It’s name comes with a lot of lengends associated with it.

What can we glean from the name of this place and the layered folklore which comes into play with this legend of Luz, and how might it affect the mood of the story here in the life of Yaakov?

Luz seems to emote this mystical idea of being protected from harm by reaching and dwelling there. But danger for those outside of it. So much that this myth arose about those who dwell in the actual city not ever dying, as the Angel of Death as no power within the walls of Luz. People would could just continue to keep on living and living, without risk of death or mortality. But as we see, this often creates a painful sense of stagnation. One which the legend tells us ends with the old men eventually getting tired of their life, and finally leave it all behind and venture outside of the walls of the city to lay down and die there.

In a parsh study by blogger Mitch Morgenstern, he sources an wonderful drash upon the first of our Talmudic interpretations from Sotah to Rabbi Abner Weiss, Rabbi of the Village Shul in Westwood, Los Angeles:

יט. וַיִּקְרָא אֶת שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא בֵּית אֵל וְאוּלָם לוּז שֵׁם הָעִיר לָרִאשֹׁנָה:

19. And he named the place Beth El, but Luz was originally the name of the city

Question – What is the significance that Luz was the original name?

Answer: Luz is mentioned in Sotah 46b as a place where people lived forever and when the old men became tired of life, they go outside the wall and then die.

Luz represents stagnation, lack of growth. Yaakov brought the concept of growth, that we must all grow in our service to God, in spirituality, and in life. This is behind the name change. Yaakov taught the world the we must became a בֵּית אֵל – a house of God, always growing in our connection to God, our learning, and our helping others and in spirituality.

Mitch Morgenstern, from “Exploring Kotzk,”

attributed to Rabbi Abner Weiss, Rabbi of

Village Shul in Westwood, Los Angeles

When the rabbi talks about helping others, he means like the kindly Canaanite in the stories of the Judges. Showing people the way out of their danger, like the Canaanite did for the Israelites. We must show this type of service, and even more by escorting others and providing for them in their perilous journey – which is actually the main thrust of that talmudic text in context, I see the truth of this.

I also see the connection he is making to Yaakov making a mental and emotional transition at this place. Leaving behind just the tedious of his mere existence, because Yaakov is still alive but he’s not really living here. He’s alone and possession-less. He lays his head on a nearby stone because he has nothing else to use. He may be alive, but he is a wreck and he can’t go on any further. So here he lays.

My own understanding of this interpretation also follows these lines of the folklore. It could also be that Yaakov falling to a heap and resting here, at Luz, was a terrible sign about both his physical and emotional state as he fled to the east. This Luz was a perilous place out in the open, among the rocks and trees. He was not within the safety of a city yet! That he laid down there is not just to say to that he was physically endangered here, but he was also on a heart level ready to die. He didn’t know how to or nor see a way of going on, so all of himself just collapsed and laid there.

Here he lays among the rocks and trees of the wilderness. So why doesn’t he notice, nor the text explicitly mention, the trees we ranted on so much about? Because he arrive there at Luz right after the sun sets, as the text tells us. (see Genesis 28:11) To look for shade is not needed! In the story here, he merely takes immediate notice of a rock to use there as a pillow and thus make no upfront mental note of the area’s trees. He merely takes notice the of the rocks he lays his head upon. He lays his head at this place and has a dream, one which changes him. It inspires Yaakov so much, that he changes the name of this place and anoints this rock with oil before he moves forward. This spot becomes know as Beit El, the house of G-d, but still often referred to as Luz within the same breath.

But why mention these trees as part of the terrain and make hinting notes of them? First off, in order to give physical markers regarding the geography of this area for native Judeans. With the expectation of people being able to identify these sites, all in order to lend historic credibility to the narrative. And to connect with the native legends of the region.

And because the references regarding the tress of these wilderness places spoken of here in Judea are going to persist throughout the next couple parashiot; as the trees are going to become markers of major transition points in the life of Yaakov – and not so much the rocks. The trees of the wilderness are going take prominence in this story of Yaakov; just as much as the altars of Abraham and the well of Isaac did.

These tree-laden places are going to be emotional and spiritual markers for the life of Yaakov.

In next week’s Torah reading we are going to hear of Yaakov making his way back from Charan. He will be coming back after many years of exile and servitude abroad. (see Genesis chapter 35)

And he is going to have two pivotal moments where infamous trees are mentioned. First is the great elm of Shechem. This is where Yaakov’s wives give up their foreign gods and any of their associate jewelry, and they are buried there at the base of the elm of Shechem. This is a pivotal moment, in which his household removes all forms of idolatry from themselves and sanctify themselves to serve Hashem alone, before going back up to Beth El to worship G-d there. (see Genesis 35:4)

The other marking point to notice is going to be after they finally arrive safely and do their duties at Beth El, marked by the death of Devorah the governess and nursemaid of Rebekkah. She is mournfully buried near the great oak, which is still existent and called Allon-Bachut in their day. Yaakov again has to step-up his role as leader and elder to his clan even more so now. (see Genesis 35:8)

But more importantly, Yaakov will also arrive at Beit El-Luz free of any revenge attacks by his brother Eisvav or his father-in-law Laban. He will have escaped mortality again, in many ways. He will be making his way back from the journey he is barely setting out on here in this weeks parsha, as he leaves Luz here as a merely a broken and destitute man. But next time he will be something far from that! He will then be a complete person with a clan of his own, and role as patriarch secured.

I believe for this reason the Torah will go out of its way to remind us that this Beth El is the same place as that old Luz, which he passed through in such a sorry and sad shape in our narrative this week; alone and destitute. To contrast how much things will have changed, for and regarding Yaakov Avinu:

“So Yaakov came to Luz, which is in the land of Canaan – the same is Beit-el – he and all the people that were with him.”

וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב לוּזָה, אֲשֶׁר בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַןהִוא, בֵּית-אֵל: הוּא, וְכָל-הָעָם אֲשֶׁר-עִמּוֹ.

Genesis 35:6

Mitzvah Suggestion: Do you have a momentous occasion or life cycle you wish to commemorate? Why not plant a tree! Then like Yaakov you can have some tangible markers in your landscape, which bear witness to your momentous and pivotal moments in life. Make it a fruit or a nut-tree, so you can also say a Shehecheyanu when it fruits – offering us even more opportunity to bless the arrival of more good seasons.


Parshat V’Zot haBerachah (5775)


The Security of Dwelling on Your Own, Under Your Own Vine And Tree

We have now entered into a new Jewish year, and we today find ourselves in the middle of the holiday of Sukkot. The year is over but we still have some more Torah to read.

The Hollenbeck home, La Villa de Paredon Blanco, from Thompson and West's history of Los Angeles County (1880). This one one of the first residences  east of the river here in the paredon, the bluffs.

The Hollenbeck home, La Villa de Paredon Blanco, from ‘Thompson and West’s history of Los Angeles County (1880).’ This is one of the first residences east of the river here in the paredon, the bluffs.

However, normally this parsha does not get the same attention that we give the other parashiot. This Torah portion is regularly reserved as a final reading, meant to be paired with the start of the Torah cycle as we start over again at the beginning with Genesis. We don’t want this Torah learning to end, so we save this last reading for when we start over again with the celebration of Simchat Torah.

But consider for a moment how this reading is not honored or regarded among the weekly readings. It is often overlooked as utilitarian, something that just gets us from one point to another. To critical scholars, this final Torah portion is just a chance for the scriptures to wrap-up loose ends. It’s not treated as all that special. It’s the one most often overlooked, and purposely so. So every year I make sure to give special attention to this parsha, and dedicate it to those who feel ignored or left out. This one is for you. This is also further dedicated to my community, which often feels so ignored.

Today we will focus on the 6th reading, which is the second to the last reading. This reading is so short, it only contains three verse. We will focus on the middle verse, which is the second to the last spoken line attributed to Moses in the Torah. This is among the last words Moses gives us before he dies and the people move forward towards their destiny without him:

“And Israel dwelt in safely,

the fountain of Jacob alone,

in a land of grain and wine;

also, his heavens will drip dew.”

| Vayishkon Yisrael betach

| bedad ein Yaakov

| el-eretz dagan vetirosh

| af-shamav ya’arfu-tal

Deuteronomy 33:28

This statement is one of the closing lines after Moses gathers the people together and blesses them just before he dies. Just as Jacob – also named Israel – blessed his children on his deathbed, so too Moses blesses these children of Israel before he passes away. This connection is hinted at in his words, as well as through our rabbinic commentators who also relate this back to the similar blessings of Jacob.

However, here we have a break neck statement presented in this single line of the Torah. The first parts seems to be talking about something extending to them from the past, that Jacob dwelt safely and alone. Hinting that so too will they also be so blessed.

But then there is a statement about being blessed with life-sustaining dew from the heavens, that clearly appears to be talking about the future. That G-d will continue to bless them with the moisture of the dew they so badly need in their dry environment, to help sustain their crops.

I don’t want to get too much into this topic of tal just yet – of dew; but we are just coming out of the summer season where we pray for tal (dew). Now starting after the harvest days of Sukkot, we instead being praying in expectation of the coming of earth renewing ruach (wind) and geshem (rain).

We all know what the scriptures tell us regarding these things. We read it along with the Shema at morning and night, and with our prayers everyday. We are told that if we do what the Torah asks of us we will have all these things in their proper seasons, and be blessed with the resulting sustenance by our G-d. (see the Second Paragraph of the Shema; Deut. 11:13-21) I’ll touch on that again in closing, so keep this close in mind.

But for a moment I would like us to back up here and look at this first part of the verse: “Vayishkon Yisrael betach badad / And Israel shall dwell in safety and alone.” We really need to ask ourselves some questions. What type of blessing is this? And what are the implications?

There is one word that stands out to me, one that catches my attention because this whole verse can mean something different based on how we perceive this word badad – which simply means “alone.”

But this word not only means alone, the same root word in everyday speech means to be “insulated.” Do we seem to be talking here about being insulated and separate from others? We can see an example of the word used this way elsewhere in the Torah, when the wicked Balam says of Israel collectively:

“For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: look here, it is a people that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations.”

כִּי-מֵרֹאשׁ צֻרִים אֶרְאֶנּוּ, וּמִגְּבָעוֹת אֲשׁוּרֶנּוּ: הֶן-עָם לְבָדָד יִשְׁכֹּן, וּבַגּוֹיִם לֹא יִתְחַשָּׁב.

Numbers 23:9

These are the words of Balam, the wicked prophet of sorts. Who didn’t have anything against Israel, but didn’t necessarily have anything for them either. Nonetheless in his many statements he shows how astonished and impressed he is with these people. Several times he mentions how lovely they dwell. (Numbers 24:5) Here in this statement he notices that this people dwell well on their own and alone among the nations, as they are destined to so dwell alone.

He makes the observation many people have made about the children of Israel, that they are not like everyone else and they are people prone to keeping to themselves. They live off on their own. People make this observation both positively, and sometimes negatively as well. But I would dare say, that while the Jewish faith empowers people to build a distinct sense of community, it does not encourage people to be isolated and devoid of pluralism. It demands we welcome and even love the stranger. (Leviticus 19:34)

So why does the Torah use this word here? Isn’t it a negative thing for a people to be “alone”? Is it really healthy for a nation of people to be alone and insulated from other peoples? Is that what the Torah is asking of us here? Is that what we are to be in pursuit of? Is happiness found only when people are just left alone?

In our verse we read that according to this promise of Moses we are to dwell, “betach, badad / in safety, and alone.” Betach means securely, peacefully and tranquilly. That we should dwell securely and alone. But there is one question that I can’t help but ask myself continuously as I consider this text, is peace and security only found when a people dwell alone? Is that what these scriptures are trying to tell us?

There are some who might actually read it this way. Certainly there are some people who do think this way, and who in light of their feelings cannot seem to help but read a verse this way. Projecting their isolationist sentiments in to their understanding of this text. That in order for their own people to have safety, be it physical safety or the security of resources, this people must dwell separate and alone. That the best way to be at peace and in tranquility is to be alone, without the bothers of clashing interaction and the threats of competition. Being at peace, by virtue of the absence of all others.

Now most of us notice that a lot has changed since the time of Yaakov, there are a lot more people in the world today. And the regions in which we live are now heavily populated. Most of us dwell in urban centers, filled with a diversity of people. We cannot be like Yaakov, all off to ourselves. We have to dwell with others. But in the desire of some people to have this sense of security of being “alone,” some people unfortunately do negatively voice how they prefer their vicinity to be made of people all like themselves; thus they are alone, and left alone by others.

Living Examples from the Community of Boyle Heights

Let me us give some real-life examples of this tendency in action, and at the same time address the needs of my community for a moment if you will. Because this topic hits home for me.

This is a theme which comes up often as I do community work in the local barrio of Boyle Heights, my most beloved neighborhood. People often talk with me about how our insulated, predominately Latino community, does today and has historically at times had, ethnic and economic related tensions. But going back further into our history, in the earlier half of the 20th century this was a place of tolerance and diversity for our residents, a blending of cultures found almost nowhere else. A tight historical bond of cooperation and camaraderie between diverse ethnic groups was modeled here in the classic era of this community.

So why now all the focusing on negativity of the past by the disgruntled locals? It’s just that today, more than ever, people feel threatened; both in the housing and job market as other races and classes slowly consider migrating towards our Latino working-class area we live in, with the fear of them displacing our own people. Economics is fueling a sense of isolationism. A bitter fight against gentrification, and also against any sort of progress or upgrades which would possibly make the neighborhood “too fancy” for us Latinos to sustain a future in. People threatened by new potential home owners and skilled labor, which many of our immigrant people are not. As our people badly need the home they rent and the livelihood of their unskilled mom-and-pop storefront job they have, plain and simple.

But being alone has its consequences, being isolated – today 98% Latino in demographics – has its downsides as well and comes with many negative elements. And with this in mind, a local man was pining upon the past of Boyle Heights as a mixed community. He outright asked in a public forum, when are we as a community going to be ready to return to that type of diversity and brotherhood? To make this place somewhere we can challenge the barriers once again.

I kid you not, it was a local preacher’s wife who was the first to chime in, “¡Chale! There’s too many of us here already.” That people need to leave our community alone. Followed with an us vs. them, nationalist argument. And a dismissal to the tune of, “I have nothing against them, it’s just economics.”

So as you see, even when people claim they have faith in G-d they can still have a lot of problems having faith in humanity. There are many people, who no matter what their persuasion, can still cling on to hardened ideas of tribalism. And we still have a lot of cultural religionists around here, who just don’t have faith in those of other cultures. I find that unacceptable, and totally against the scriptures.

So how do we help address these problems for people who feel like they lack a sense of security? For people who out of fear want us to be alone, and desire to build a bulwark around our community? I believe that the scriptures do give us some examples if we are willing to listen and learn.

The Security of Being at Home, Under Your Own Tree

Now as we turn back over to our scripture which we are studying today, I asked us to once again draw our attention to these words: “betach badad / in safety, and alone.” Remember how betach is also understood to mean securely, peacefully and in tranquility.

And again I ask the question, is peace and security only found when we dwell alone? Now I ask us an ever more direct question in this vein. Is security only found when we are amongst our own? Is our safety only secured by sheer numbers? When we are surrounded among our own kind in order to avoid the risk of all others? Our rabbis would say, no. That that is a sign of insecurity! That is a very sure sign of a community in danger.

If we look at our ever-present commentary by Rashi, he defines being secure and alone a much different way:

Safely and alone: Every single individual [will dwell safely] – each man under his own vine and his own fig tree. [And their security will be so sound, that] they will have no need to live together in one group, because of the enemy.”

בטח בדד: כל יחיד ויחיד איש תחת גפנו ותחת תאנתו מפוזרין ואין צריכים להתאסף ולישב יחד מפני האויב:

Rashi, Deuteronomy 33:28

Rashi describes security as a person being at home under his own vine and fig tree!

Then he also draws us a picture of what insecurity looks like, it’s when a people are forced to live together huddled in a group. “Yachad miphnei ha-oyeiv / together as one because of an enemy.” When people must be amassed and concentrated together for security, because of the risk of rivals or opponents.

Bario White Fence History as told by the gang themselves: White Fence is consider the mother of all Chicano gangs. The one most often modelled and portrayed in movies, videos and books. Indeed most of all popular cholo values and style originates from this very local gang. Notice how in their version of history, gangs were formed to protect themselves from the other minorities and whites who abused them. Still in the absence of these competing groups today, the violent impetus to keep others out still remains.

Bario White Fence History as told by the gang members themselves: White Fence is consider the mother of all Chicano gangs. The one most often modelled and portrayed in movies, videos and books. Indeed almost all of popular cholo values and style originates from this very local gang. The author contends,”I am not attempting to glamorize the hood or gangbanging but present an accurate picture of real and true barrio history.” Notice how in thier version of history, gangs were formed to protect themselves from the risk of other larger ethnic groups and the whites who abused them. To protect their small and isolated barrio (neighborhood). Yet still, these many years later even in the absence of any of these competing groups today, the violent impetus to keep others out still remains.

I can tell you for a fact that our rabbi here is correct, as I witness this type of reality in my own community. Indeed that is one of my biggest challenges, trying to stir our local people out of a collective nightmare in which our barrios were huddle masses of scared minorities and whose only reprieve from outside harassment was through the prevalence of racial gang violence which threatened outsiders away. It’s disheartening that even today, some people still tactically accept this as the cost worth paying to avoid cultural and demographic dilution. But the persistence of this for the past century has offered no security, quite the contrary.

Again, Rashi describes security as a person being at home under his own vine and fig tree! When a person is not stuck with the wagons circled. It’s under the shade and sustenance of a fruitful vine and fig tree. But if you consider it, there is one precondition to us having the benefit of such things. You need to have land! You need to have a place to plant your vine and fig tree, in order to persist and see them grow to fruition. One needs their own homestead, to put down roots. Where each man dwells in the safety and shade of his own home and livelihood, though a direct connection with his own land. Reaping the direct benefits of land ownership, which grants one self-dependence and the means for self-determination. With the security of living on one’s own, that’s how we should read this passage here.

All people need this sense of security. Especially here in this community where it is lacking, we need to turn our struggling renters into home owners. Helping find adequate housing for people in this crowded neighborhood, where often times even more than one family may struggle to live in a single unit already.

We need to help the anxious make a home for themselves, so as not to be blown around the neighborhood by the winds of the markets or tossed around at the whims of absentee landlords. Educating people on their rights and options.

We need to educate and empower people to put their money to use in gaining them equity as home owners, which also grants them security and resources in time of need. Helping people buy homes in this neighborhood of theirs. Instead painfully watching money slip through their fingers season after season, and year after year in the cost of rent. And of course more importantly, so a person can feel that they have their own place in the world and all the sweetness that comes with.

We also need to do more to help create new housing opportunities for low-income and struggling families. With new development which offers more safe housing options for all the various working-class people of this diverse city. Building new opportunities together, and restoring old alliances. Working together to fight displacement, homelessness and overcrowding!

What we really need around here is dedicated people who are less interested in descending into revolution, and more dedicated to bringing this community to fruition. People who are willing to bring this community together in peace, to reap the benefits of investing in our own community. Investing with both our resources and our efforts.

Closing the season of dew, entering the seasons of rains

I asked you to keep a thought in mind a while back there. So I want us to just touch on this in closing, this topic of tal. The future promise that is given to Israel by Moses, that we will have heaven-sent tal – G-d will send us His life-giving dew.

As I said we are just coming out of the summer season were we are asking for tal (dew) in our prayers, when it is much-needed to help sustain our produce with essential water and moisture through the summer heat. And now we will transition for the season and begin to ask for ruach and geshem, wind and rain; for the wind that will scatter seeds and pollen, and the rain that will water it. And likewise we are expected to sow, in line with the times and seasons. So that months from now in the spring we will see the results of this natural cycle of renewal of the land, when the spring harvest comes.

Blessing comes in the right season. But it comes through a mixture of action on our part, and living with a sense of promise and hope that we are aided by the blessings of our G-d. A mixture of effort, and faith.

We need to encourage people with the promise that our G-d will also help sustain us in our undertakings. As with the life-giving dew through which we and nature find ourselves sustained by our G-d. He will preserve us with His blessings, with His “tal” sustaining us in mercy. He will help us make this investment blossom and bear fruit when the season is right. But its time for us to get ready to sow!

I choose to encourage people with a message of hope, instead of resorting to fear and hysteria. I choose to embolden people to make this land their own and make it blossom for their families. I choose to stand apart from the people sounding like prophets of doom around the barrio. Hysterics talking of the coming changes with anxiety and disseminating a sense doom for our district.

I instead choose to raise the prophetic voice of the Jewish tradition, as found in the bible. I draw upon the words of the prophet Zechariah, one of the most dramatic of all the prophets. Yes, he was among them that foretold of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and exile of his people during the First Temple Period. But he also spoke in surety of the promise of their salvation, and with certainty of the restoration of his people. Zachariah gave hope, because that is what a prophetic voice is for! As the scriptures read:

“For the sowing is for peace. The vine shall give forth its fruit, and the earth shall give forth its produce, and the heavens shall give forth their dew – and I will cause the remnant of this people to inherit all these things.”

כִּי זֶרַע הַשָּׁלוֹם הַגֶּפֶן תִּתֵּן פִּרְיָהּ וְהָאָרֶץ תִּתֵּן אֶת יְבוּלָהּ וְהַשָּׁמַיִם יִתְּנוּ טַלָּם וְהִנְחַלְתִּי אֶת שְׁאֵרִית הָעָם הַזֶּה אֶת כָּל אֵלֶּה:

Zechariah 8:12

I ask people to sow into this community, both the Latino and Jewish people who love this neighborhood. Help us sow in peace, so we can cause the remnant of this people to inherit and fruitfully develop this land.

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The Kapparot Ceremony with Money


Liturgy and cruelty-free guide to the traditional expiation ceremony

It seems like every year I have a discussion with several people about kapparot – the ceremony commonly understood as an expiation of sins. Most commonly with a chicken, which to many of us makes this ceremony seems like a sharp reminder of the old days of Temple animal sacrifice.

Kapparot Ceremony WoodcutAt this time, I don’t really think I need to fully explore the history or debate the ethics of this practice. As that is well written about. Nor would it even be helpful for me to join in the complaining about this tradition, which is not going away. Instead I feel that I must do something more practical, and provide the tools that people need for the most compassionate alternative. Instead of deriding a custom, I alternatively choose to help redeem and elevate it for us.

I am not at all unfamiliar with the practice. I have been around the fervently Orthodox and Haredi long enough to understand it, see it and to not judge people for their minhag. However, I have never myself felt comfortable with performing the ritual with chickens. Nor have I ever felt the need to perform it with a bird. No one has ever tried to compel me or my peers. As our tradition does offer well-known alternatives: either the use of a fish or money, in place of a white chicken. In this piece we will explore the use of money for this ritual.

The guide at the bottom of this page presents the traditional text of the kapparot ceremony with the proper wording necessary for using money in the ritual. For the ease of user the text is presented in Hebrew and translated into English, with transliteration of the key words of the ceremony. No more guessing what to say, and which words to replace! It also comes along with clear instructions and a guide to the kavannah (the inner intention, the meditation) of the ritual.

* Consider our Tradition: *

Kapparot is a deep-seated custom for many. It dates back to the period of the Geonim – the period of Jewish geniuses stretching from the late-sixth to the early eleventh-century of the common era, in Babylon. Often explained to us as being originally based up a tradition of the Persians Jews, today in the west it is most commonly associated with Chassidic and Haredi Judaism. As it is said to be a tradition encouraged by the ARI z”l, it is commonly observed among the followers of kabbalistic mysticism in both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities.

According to the traditional custom, one takes a white chicken – a rooster for a man, a hen for a woman, and at least one of each gender bird for a pregnant woman. During the ritual the bird is swung three (3) cycles over the head. The bird is then ritually slaughtered, and the blood of the animal is covered over with dirt as a solemn and rare mitzvah using the bracha (“Baruchal kisui hadam be’afar). Covered over as a sign of reverence, commanded by Torah. (Leviticus 17:13)

This ritual brings on shock and awe in the most unnerving fashion. And that is what it’s designed to do. To remind people of the frailty of life, of how mortal we are. And reminding us how sin can lead to our untimely death.

What kapparot is not, it is not an easy way to unload our sins. It is not a short-cut to atonement, as our rabbis remind us. It is a sobering reminder, of the specter of sin and death in our lives. But true atonement is achieved through t’shuvah – sincere repentance; with prayer and fasting, with mitzvot and good deeds. (see Isaiah ch. 1) This act is a dramatic reminder of our need to do t’shuvah, and a way of engaging a person in G’milut Chasadim – acts of loving-kindness – before Yom Kippur.

Following the custom, one is to prepare the bird and give it to the poor of the community. In this act, also alleviating need among those within the community, providing charitable meals during this sacred season.

However, over time as people began to centrally urbanize, it became much less possible for many communities to sustain this tradition with chickens; getting so many live and appropriate birds was not always possible. And furthermore, rushing to perform so many of these kosher slaughters before the holiday often left a lot of problems with improper attention being paid to shechitah to proper kosher slaughtering practices. For this reason many communities began to use money in place of the birds. Money which could be given to the poor to fulfill this mitzvah.

More and more people today have begun to use money. Indeed many people, because of reasons of sensitivity or personal ethics, have begun to use money in place of chickens. To focus on the bright side of tzedakah, as opposed to the carnality of slaughter.

But some might say, how does this connect us to old tradition? How can this bring us remembrance of mortality? Why should we use money instead?

And we can even ask, what additional and greater benefit is to perform kapparot by this method? It is because such an act as this is one of G’milut Chasadim – one of loving-kindness, an act which is said to be superior to even the tzedakah (charity) itself:

Our Rabbis taught: In three respects is Gmilut Chasadim – acts of Loving-kindness – are greater than tzedakah – charity. Charity can be done only with one’s money, but Gmilut Chasadim can be done with one’s person [through acts] and with one’s money. Charity can be given only to the poor, Gmilut Chasadim both to the rich and the poor. Charity can be given to the living only, Gmilut Chasadim can be done both to the living and to the dead. [e.g. burying the dead, attending a funeral, etc.]

תנו רבנן: בשלשה דברים גדולה גמילות חסדים יותר מן הצדקה, צדקה - בממונו, גמילות חסדים - בין בגופו בין בממונו. צדקה - לעניים, גמילות חסדים - בין לעניים בין לעשירים. צדקה - לחיים, גמילות חסדים - בין לחיים בין למתים.

תלמוד בבלי, סוכה מט

Talmud Bavli, Sukkah 49b

I ask this year, and going forward, that many more of you choose to start their acts of G’milut Chasadim with true chesed – with pure kindness and mercy, and use money as kapparot. Showing kindness towards living animals, and giving as an act of kindness towards our fellow-man.


KapparotPage

The following documents are fully Open Source and free for redistribution, reproduction and editing. As a working and living project, I encourage people to make suggestions on how to improve this text. I also encourage you to personalize this text for you or your community’s needs. You may download the text here in either Open Office of PDF format:

Download: Kapparot Ceremony with Money (PDF)

Editable Document: Kapparot Ceremony with Money (ODT, Open Office format)

This is a project of Hardcore Mesorah, in cooperation with the Open Siddur Project’. I am the original transcriber of this liturgy “Seder Kapparot with Money” and translator/author of its accompanying instructional text. I am licensing the liturgical transcriptions and translations within it under the Creative Commons Zero License, and the instructions with the Creative Commons By Attribution license. Attribution may be given as ‘Contributors to the Open Siddur Project’, with the transcriber/translators name Shmuel Gonzales included in the contributors list.” September 2014 – Tishrei 5775 (First Release)


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