Category Archives: Chassidut

Saying Tehillim for Israel and the IDF

Saying Tehillim for Israel and the IDF
What can the faithful do religiously to help during crisis?

IDF SOldier, Birkat Kohanim

IDF soldiers extending the Birkat Kohanim – the Priestly Blessing (Numbers 6:24-26).

Often times during seasons of crisis or turmoil people turn to the scriptures for comfort. Probably the most well-known and often read books of the bible is Tehillim – the Psalms. Though the Psalms have many authors, a great bulk of them are attributed to King David who set a standard for combing prayers with poetry. In fact the Psalms are more than just poetry, they have all the makings of true music. They are famous songs of the heart that seem to rise the surface when our peace is ruptured. We turn back to the timelessness of the Davidic tradition, prayers said in deep words by people who truly understood overcoming suffering and hardships. We say psalms in their example and in their merit, that G-d should comfort and answer us likewise.

It is not by accident that we often fall back upon the Psalms, they actually make up a major part of the liturgy for Jews and people of many other faiths as well. This seems to be ideally what it was created for, as a graciously choreographed form of communal prayer that is filled with all the touches of personal devotion. Psalm 23 for example is probably the most known religious chapter in the world, “The L-rd is my shepherd, I shall not want… yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil.” This one psalm though it speaks of gloom it does not wallow in it, and has become the backbone for both times of grief like funerals and at times of celebration like Shabbat evening. It’s always a good time to say some tehillim because they are just so beautiful and meaningful on so many levels.

But some psalms carry a strong theme. Sometimes we pair certain Psalms together in order to be said in vigil. The most common example is saying tehillim for the sick. In our tradition it is common for people to take up Psalms relating to sickness and healing, or even verses that remind them of the person they are hoping a speedy recovery for. One says them together during our times of prayer in order to hope in G-d for their healing. We cause our prayers to rise up for this person to heaven in psalm. For that there are many methods and suggested lists of Psalms, both long and short. (Need help figuring out which tehillim to say for a sick person? Try this, at

But psalms can be paired together for all kinds of reasons, some are songs of praise and thanksgiving, while others can be about lamenting and mourning. The Psalms has prayers for almost every conceivable occurrence if we are open to the raw emotion of the words.

Soldier in TefillinBut most often for chassidim the Psalms are said at night or in the darkness of the early morning, during times of reflection and devotion (maybe even paired with Tikkun Chatzot, or the Bedtime Shema). For chassidim and the mystically inclined that are interested in looking inward, the reflection on the words of King David are always appropriate. And as the Likkutei Mohoran of Rebbe Nachman teaches us when we look into the Psalms of King David and we see his pleading regarding being saved from his wars, we should reflect on them our own personal wars with the yetzer hara – our evil impulse. (Likkutei Mohoran 101, 125) This is our most common way of saying tehillim on a day-to-day basis.

But sometimes there comes when the battle is more than just a personal struggle, the war is not the normative internal battle with the self. Sometimes there are seasons of turmoil and violence that disturb world peace. There are times when Israel finds itself in the literally need of salvation and deliverance from the trials of war and calamity. In these cases there are not so many examples of what chapters of Psalms to say, actually there are so many that would be very appropriate and are literally concerning battle. Here are a few that I think would be good suggestions in this time of crisis. We can say one or a few psalms a day after your prayers in order to hope in G-d for the safe deliverance of Israel and the safety of the Israel Defense Forces. One can select any psalm that fulfills the cry of their heart for the circumstances at hand. Here are some suggestions:

Psalm 144 – Deliverance from wars and the enemy’s slander. I would highly suggest this psalm. This song has a seeming chorus to it, it repeats the words “Rescue me, and deliver me out of the hand of strangers, whose mouth speak falsehood, and their right hand is a right hand of lying.” During the past few Israel military offenses it has taken much abuse from the international community because of the bias and lies against the Jewish state. More than ever the people of Israel not only need deliverance from war but also from the slander of her enemies.

Psalm 46 – “G-d is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. We will not fear…”

Psalm 20 – “We will shout for joy in your victory, and in the name of our G-d we will set up our flags; Hashem fulfill all your petitions.”

Psalm 22 – “But You, O Hashem, be not far off; O You be my strength, hurry to help me. Deliver my soul from the sword; mine only one, from the power of the dog.”

Psalm 69 – “Deliver me out of the mire, and let me not sink; let me be delivered from them that hate me, and out of the deep waters…For G-d will save Zion, and build the cities of Judah; and they shall abide there, and have it in possession.”

Psalm 121“I will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains: from whence shall my help come?” Though sometimes added in part during the Bedtime Shema, it is a wonderful Psalm to consider in time of need.

Psalm 130 – Repentance and reflections from fears in the night. “My soul waits for Hashem, more than watchmen for the morning; yea, more than watchmen for the morning. O Israel, hope in Hashem!”

Visiting the Grave of a Righteous Person

Visiting the Grave of a Righteous Person
My Visit to the Ohel Chabad-Lubavitch

Most of you know that for the most part, I’m a bookworm. Rarely do I escape the house to spend much face-time with people. As my health has been fragile for a long time I spend most of nervous energy working on these Torah learning projects and the transcription of the siddur. But this weeks blog is like no other, because it is taking us outside of the books and into the real world. In fact we are going on a quick tour of one of the most moving sites I have ever visited in my life, the Ohel Chabad-Lubavitch, the New York resting place of the Lubavitcher Rebbes. We are also going to briefly discuss the significance in Jewish tradition of such a graveyard visit, and its personal significance for me as well. This is a glimpse into the one end of this deeply religious world that many people are never fortunate to see.

Actually before I get started I want to say that my friend and I who came on this trip are observant, but not frum. I have not considered myself full-fledged Orthodox for several years. However, I have a deep connection to Chabad chassidus because it was through it that I learned the most about myself and Jewish life. The teaching and the legacy of outreach started under the tutelage of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of blessed memory, the Rebbe or grand-rabbi of the Lubavitch chassidim. Under his leadership he took a small group of faithful Chassidim from Russia who were struggling for their survival in Brooklyn and turned it into a world-wide movement. In the general Jewish community we are now so used to the presence of Chabad in the furthest reaches of the world we are known to chime in when discussing them, “Where ever you find Coca-Cola you’ll find Chabad.” I am one of the people who has benefited throughout my life because of Chabad’s outreach and easy-going approach helping people find their way in our tradition.

I like most people who have received so much from the teachings and work of the Rebbe, I never had the opportunity to meet him. I was too young and was not yet frum when he lived and passed away in 1994. “The Rebbe” Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the 7th and final Lubavitcher Rebbe was laid to rest in a monument known as the Ohel, the resting place of the 6th Lubavitcher Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak Shneerson, of blessed memory; they rest side by side. I remember the day The Rebbe passed, seeing the television announce the horrible news, even in my ignorance I knew we had lost a great light of Torah truth in this world and my heart ached. As my learning grew in Torah and I gained so much from his published speeches the feeling grew that I needed to pay my respects to someone I had come to admire greatly.

On some weeks, in fact on some days, there can be thousands of visitors to his grave to show their respects and pray at the graves of the Rebbes. If you don’t believe me all you need to do is see the entire site covered with letters of needs and prayers of people left in hopes that they be answered in the merit of our righteous deceased. People who would ordinarily seek out the advice of the personal rabbi still bring requests of guidance and requests for blessings to him at his resting place.

I was also coming with requests this time, some of my own but also baring the prayers of other friends who had desperate needs. But namely I was coming out of gratitude that just a few years ago I was literally on my deathbed and people came to Ohel to ask for a blessing of healing for my body. I always promised that if I was blessed with life and the physical strength I would visit the site and pray there myself.

Now this tradition of asking advice of the Rebbe was not started by “The Rebbe” Menachem Mendel Shneerson. It was a tradition that he himself did engage in, by visiting the same Ohel regularly to seek the guidance of his predecessor Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak, the Freidiker Rebbe. It is also true that he encouraged others to also bring their written prayers with the confidence that “the Rebbe will find a way to answer.” Even then he was not the first to do this, he followed the formula of the “Ma’aneh Lashon” (“The way one should speak….”) a guide for mourning and addressing the dead. The text he utilized was a slightly stylized version of the one edited by Rebbe Dov-Ber, the Mitteler Rebbe, second Lubavitcher Rebbe. He didn’t create anything, he merely encouraged a long-standing tradition of visiting the grave sites of righteous people and praying in their merit, even encouraging people to do so according to the Chabad minhag.

We know that the custom of visiting the graves of holy men even predating chassidut and was also a well established tradition held by their fellow Lurianic kabbalists, and Sephardim, prior to this. They would visit the tombs of rabbis with the same respect they showed our patriarchs tombs. Actually the history and content of the Ma’aneh Lashon gives us indication of how far back this tradition goes. The order of cemetery visits was originally contained in a larger work compiled Jacob Ben Solomon Darshan in 1615 in Prague, his work titled Ma’aneh Lashon also had prayers for the sick and considering other tragic occurrences. They presented some of the first guides on how to act with decorum in a tragic situation. The sections related to the visiting of the cemetery was composed of blessings, psalms, readings from the Zohar, and prayers of repentance. The kabbalistic Yichud (unification) prayers were added later by Rabbi Aharon Berechiah ben Rabbi Moshe of Modena, who printed them in Mantua in 1626. Later the content was edited and made more concise for the use of visiting the Chabad rebbes in the late 18th to early 19th century by the Mitteler Rebbe.

Now it is obvious that the readings from the Zohar do predate this, and they are a pretty clear explanation of the reasons that a person should visit the graveside of the righteous. It suggests that it is in order to repent. That a person may come with weeping to the graves of the righteous, and if possible after fasting and with the intent to changing their ways. They can make their requests heard, but they must also come with the intent to change something about themselves for the better. (see Zohar Arachei Mot 90b) So this practice has to go back as far as the Zohar, which is arguably the early Middle-ages at the very least if not all the way back to the days of the Talmud itself.

In it the Zohar indicates that Rav Yossi the sage of the Talmud provides us the reason that we can ask and say psalms as prayers in the merit of the righteous who came before us. He quotes the verse of Isaiah 37:35 to support his claim:

“Rabbi Yossi stated:

The righteous shield the world

in their lifetime,

and also after their death

even more than in their lifetime.

This why it is written [in the scriptures]:

‘I will defend this city,

saving it for my own sake

and the sake of my servant David.’

But this was not written about him in his lifetime.”

אמר ליה רבי יוסי |

צדיקייא מגינין על עלמא |

בחייהון |

ובמיתתהון |

יותר מחייהון |

הדא הוא דכתיב |

וגנותי על העיר הזאת |

להושיעה למעני |

ולנען דוד עבדי |

ואילו בחיוהי לא כתיב.” |

Zohar haKodesh, Acharei Mot

The Zohar is making an interesting point in order for us to understand the process of asking for blessings for the sick and praying in the merit of the dead. We ask prayers in their merit, trying to connect to their righteous example and seek guidance for the situation at hand. But even more than this, the Zohar explains that G-d does show gratuitous mercy to people, to save them from catastrophe merely for His own sake. Even more interesting it shows that G-d shows mercy by saving a whole city from impending disaster merely out of consideration for the merit of King David! Rabbi Yossi also states that despite all the psalms we say, this praise of David’s merit to influence mercy for his people Israel was not said about him while he lived. Rabbi Yossi states that the prayers and influence of the saint upon G-d does not end with their demise, in continues on and it influences His decisions in respect to their memory.

Expounding upon this thought the text of the Zohar continues in the name of Rabbi Yehuda, that G-d shows gratuitous mercy to people for their sake and G-d also displays gratuitous mercy in the honor of righteous people as well. He continues on by saying that we cannot say that people are on par with G-d, but the souls of the honorable departed such as David are completely connected to the Unity of G-d’s existence and we connect to G-d in their example, that G-d alone be blessed forever and ever. We seek to have that oneness with G-d that the saints did in their life, and that they enjoy even more so in their afterlife as uninhibited souls. All is connected, Rabbi Yehuda would contend; we just need to find a way of connecting and we can often do that through the example of great people.

Now before I move on I need to touch on one very important point about this tradition, that if not answered can confuse people. Most people are aware of how careful we are to worship G-d alone in Judaism and no other being or manifestation, but here are praying at tombs and invoking the names of our dead. Are we praying to our dead instead of G-d?

Lest we come to any false conclusions I present you with the prayer that is said before we are to leave the cemetery:

“May it be Your will, Hashem my G-d

and G-d of my ancestors

that all that I have asked of You

be in Your eyes like an incense offering.

Deal with me leniently,

beyond the measure of the law,

for You, merciful One,

listen willingly to the prayer of Your servant.

For this reason I have come before You,

for I have no mediator

to intercede with You on my behalf.

Do not turn me away

empty-handed from Your presence,

for You listen to prayers —

for the sake of all the righteous

resting here

and for the sake of Your great glory.

Blessed be He who hears prayer.

May the words of my mouth

and the meditations of my heart

be acceptable before You,

Hashem, my Rock and my Redeemer.”

יהי רצון מלפניך יי אלהי |

ואלהי עבותי |

כל מה שבקשתי לפניך |

יהיה העינך כקטורת |

ותעשה עמי לפנים |

משורת הדין |

ואתה רחמן |

שומע ברצון תפלת עבדך|

ובעבור זה באתי לפניך |

כי אין לי מליץ |

להליץ בעדי לפניך |

ונא אל תשיבני |

ריקם מלפניך |

כי אתה שומע תפלה |

בעבור כל הצדיקים |

השוכים בכאן |

ובעבור תפארתך הגדול |

ברוך שומע תלפלה. |

יהיו לרצון אמרי פי |

והגיון לבי |

לפניך, |

יי צורי וגואלי: |

Ma’aneh Lashon, Final Prayer

In our tradition, especially those of us of the mystical schools, we hold the memory and the legacy of the righteous departed as a living thing. Our holy rabbis were so close to the other world in their physical lives already, but now in their spiritual lives they still are sources of inspiration to us and empower us with the strength of generations. For this reason the religious do not speak of our rabbis as “Rashi said…” or the “The Rambam said…” instead we say “The Ramban says…” or “The Baal haTanya says…” They continue to live on through their lessons to us, their merit rising higher and higher as their example helps others reach greater spiritual heights. In this way our saints are still with us.

My Visit to the Ohel Chabad – October 28th, 2012

It’s seems almost ironic that the Zohar text should really center around this one verse from Isaiah about G-d defending this city and saving it for His own sake and that of His servant David. My dear friend and I had come up from North Carolina, I was joining him and making my second leg of the journey from California on my first visit to the Ohel. We had been warned a few days before that hurricane Sandy was approaching off the coast of North Carolina. But having already planned our trip, and considering the fact that hurricanes were common to the warm south and not the cool Northeast we continued on with our trip without much concern. I had vowed before we arrived “I must visit the Ohel, we will do this rain or shine.” Oh how I would be tested in that respect, as it soon became evident that the storm was following us up the coast and was now set to land in New York City in just another day.

As we arrived in the neighborhood surrounding the cemetery we were thrilled to find parking right away, as the wind and darkness was already dominating the sky. Likewise when we came into the welcoming-center building we passed just a few people going about their business. A couple was writing out their prayers on the tables set there just for that purpose. Comfortably out of the cold we sat and watched videos of the Rebbe’s speeches as we transcribed the prayers we were bringing. Some of my friends had dire health situations, others asked a blessing for a relative, and still others to deliver a message in memory of their dearly departed loved ones.

At first I was a bit worried that we would be too far out of our element. It’s one thing to attend your local Chabad, its a totally different situation to step foot in their most holy shrine. And here I came, dressed like a typical Brooklyn hipster, skinny jeans and all. Honestly, people didn’t even give us a second look. Actually my friend and I, being the only non-Orthodox looking people around, were very concerned about not wanting to show any form of disrespect. As we made our way into the complex that is immediately before the entrance to the cemetery we were greeted by a young man who was giving reception and information for the visitors. We explained that it was our first time and asked if there was any customs that we should be mindful of. He relayed the common custom of not wearing leather shoes as a sign of mourning and humility. This is since leather is considered a form of vanity that has no place in the memory of the righteous. Luckily we came prepared with canvas shoes and with our heads covered as a sign of respect.

Now there is a sense of decorum that has surrounded the visiting of the site. When one comes into the cemetery and up the path one can bring a candle with them to light in the anti-chamber of the Ohel. The Ohel itself, which literally means “a tent,” is an edifice that is built as a permanent mourning tent of stone that offers a place of sanctuary to the faithful who come to pray there. In the anti-chamber one will also find copies of the Ma’aneh Lashon and books of Psalms for people to pray from when they go into the second, inner chamber. Men and women each have their own entrance to the main vault of the Ohel. Before one enters into this burial place it is the custom of many to knock first as a sign of respect for the timelessness of our teachers.

As one enters into the inner chamber you cannot help but be struck by the amazing sight of our two Rebbe’s laying side by side, to the right is Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson and the left is the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Surrounding their graves and headstones is an enclosure filled with countless thousands of prayers. Though it is the custom to say the Ma’aneh Lashon and Psalms for the people that you are praying on behalf of, on many days there are lines of people waiting to get a moment of prayer there. Under crowded conditions sometimes visits are limited to a mere two minutes. One does not have to recite the entire 50-page liturgy and many Psalms if they are not able to. But it is suggested that one should at least recite the Psalm 111 which is the Psalm of correspondence to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and also a Psalm relating to ones own age (for example: I am 35 years old, if I was in my first year of life I would start with Psalm 1, but since in am 35 years old I recite Psalm 36). After one says their Psalms, and they make their prayers heard with tears in their eyes, they quietly read their prepared letters, rip them up, and place them in the enclosure. As one exits it is the custom to do so walking backwards as a sign of respect.

With all the needs heavy on my heart and so much to be thankful for in my life I found it very easy to lay my prayers out with tears. I was also very shocked by the appropriateness of the Psalms for my needs and how they offered guidance that I was not expecting. As I exited I backed out of the Ohel and the anti-chamber in order to collect myself, my friend was still inside praying. As I looked up and over to my right my attention was drawn to a couple extraordinary headstones. I realized as I read the name Chaya Mushkah that I was staring at the resting places of the Rebbetzins, the wives of our Rebbes. At their sight I became overwhelmed with emotion once again, contemplating the exemplary character and compassion they possessed in their holy lives. I placed a pebble on the headstone of the Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka before leaving.

As my friend exited we once again took to collecting ourselves and commented on the wonder of the experience to finally pray at such a holy place, how palpable the sense of spiritual strength that is pooled together by the prayers of the righteous there. We were among the rest who emerged with true tears in our eyes.

But the visit was not completely somber. For me it was very joyful, and I shared with the other people who were there on their visit why someone not the least bit chassidish looking would come to pray there. I explained how a few years before I was literally dying, I was in the hospital suffering complications from treatment for full-blown AIDS. I was not expected to live, but people had come to the Ohel and prayed for the healing of my body. I was there to keep my promise to daven there if I lived, not for just myself but also for others, because I believed in the power of the prayer in the merit of the righteous that deeply. It wasn’t just something theoretical to me, it was a great source of strength in my life and I was here to extend the blessing and show my gratitude. As I explained not only did everyone become excited, but the shluchim that were there were grateful that I shared my story with them because very few times do people remember to come back after their life improves, people only tend to come when things are bad. I walked away caught up in the rapture of the power of prayer and with a sense of communion with the life-lessons of our beloved teachers.

As got in the car to leave and began to calm our excitement over being able to actually make our seeming pilgrimage to this site we began to become aware that we were in the midst of a truly phenomenal storm. I had kept my vow, to come rain or shine. But by the time we were leaving there was not much sunlight left, and though it wasn’t raining the sky was unusually dark with storm clouds lingering. Wind had become so fierce that few people would venture out that day, making our access to the Ohel very quick and easy. And then during our ride back from Upper Queens to lower Brooklyn we became aware for the first time that we needed to get in on the final search for fuel gripping the city and get to cover because the city of New York and all surrounding roads were closed to traffic because hurricane Sandy was barreling towards the Northeast. We hunted for gas and after a few tries were able to fill up with high-end fuel. But still excited we made a quick stop in Crown Heights, to the former residence of the Rebbe and the headquarters the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Our visit had to be quick because the wind was picking up so quickly by the time we arrive most people were fully engaged in trying to keep standing upright and hold their kippot and hats from flying away. But we were thrilled that we just got to be there, and we made our way back to our hotel for shelter.

Within 24 hours we would find ourselves still trapped as the storm flooded and battered the region. Though in another seemingly miraculous event my friend and I were able to escape the disaster region the morning immediately after the storm and to that safety of North Carolina which had escaped the full wrath of hurricane Sandy. We drove the entire way from New York City to North Carolina on empty roads except for emergency and electrical crews racing towards the disaster zones. The next morning I was also miraculously able to fly across the country all the way back to the safety of Los Angeles, all within less than 36 hours after the storm. As I write this people are barely getting their power restored in the disaster zone and gasoline is still in unavailable at the pumps as people wait in line for miles. My prayers are with you from here, the only way I can explain my safe return is that G-d was aiding us in our travels because we came faithfully to keep our promise. That must be the power of determination and prayer. May G-d continue to bless you all, as I have seen with my own eyes His hand displayed in the great spirit of charity you all have shown to each other in this time of crisis.

Reflections on a Cemetery Visit

Several years ago I found myself in a mess of a situation. As a result of bad decisions and the weight of some emotional turmoil I had found myself outside of religious observance. My Jewish partner and I were both hooked to heavy drugs and really lost in life. After his subsequent arrest one odd night for possession of drugs I was released by the officers to the sidewalk. During my wait for someone to pick me up I was really confused and felt lost as to how my life had come to this point. Wanting to avoid the attention of the police or other lowlifes I needed to get off the streets.

As I walked I looked up and saw a cemetery, noticing a huge Jewish section. I collected myself and went in. The Mexican gardeners kind of stared at me, why was a punk in the cemetery? As I walked and looked at the names I saw the relatives of some people I knew among the many others I had never met. Noticing that some hadn’t been visited for a while I began to clean the graves and people just let me be, soon I was the only person left except for one woman over to the far left of the cemetery.

“You don’t seem like the type to hang out in graveyards,” she stated without looking up. She was taking a charcoal etching of a shiny and beautiful headstone. She explained that it was her mother’s headstone, and asked me to come over and help her get the etching of the inscription. As we worked on getting the face of it transferred on to the paper I explained that I needed to find a place to clear my head and reflect on how things had gotten to this point in my life.

I explained that when I was religious a rabbi once taught me that a cemetery isn’t necessarily a dreary place. Actually, it’s a holy place he contended. He explained to me that when we pray or make vows we often do so on a sacred object. It could be a Torah or even an object that a mitzvah was done on; any sacred object counts. He also explained that in the lack of mitzvah items to make a vow one could make a vow upon their body, in fact a vow was taken by one merely laying their hand on the body part of Abraham upon which a mizvah was performed (see Genesis 24:2, “under his thigh”). The body is miraculous and awesomely created object by G-d. When we cannot find another place of sanctuary and holiness then one may come to a graveyard that holds the bodies of His holy people. We believe that their souls remain close by in order to rejoin their resuscitated body one day; a cemetery isn’t dreary at all, it’s a lively place.

“Why do you need to find a place of sanctuary? Why do you have no place else to turn?” she inquired. As we finished the transfer on to the thin paper she began to listen to my story and ask so many questions that helped me think out my situation. She showed real concern for my needs. After some time of talking and us needing to both get on our way, she turned to me and told me that if I ever needed anyone to talk to then please come and visit her mother. That her mother would have really liked me and would be there to listen.

To this day when I get a chance to pass through that obscure neighborhood I like to stop and pay my respects for the person that was there to listen when I didn’t feel I had anyone in the world on my side. That was a real turning point in my teshuvah, my personal repentance and turn around.

Related links:

Parshat Bereishit (2012)

Parshat Bereishit (2012)
Genesis 1:1–6:8

Are you mad that G-d isn’t a vegetarian? When moralizing turns ugly

I must admit that I’m only half-kidding with the title of this piece. I say only half, because as a young punk I was a vegan for many years. That’s right, in the early 90s at a time when it was almost unthinkable in the middle of the steak-and-potato suburbs I was one of the first people to take up the animal-free lifestyle, and boy was it difficult to do. Also quite costly. Luckily the food industry has been subjected to the better nutritional guidelines and forced to use dietary substitutions for the everyday products we enjoy today, and by virtue of that we have no problem finding meat-free food products on our plates everyday. This advance in the industry also has an added benefit for those of us keep kashrut, long gone are the days when you could find yourself falling off the derech because you ate an Oreo Cookie, with the realization that it was very likely that creamy center might actually be rendered beef fat; today they are certified kosher and use vegetable shortening instead. We all hold by a generally accepted truth that less animal fat is better for us, up against an over saturated existence.

What does this all have to do with the Torah? Many people who want to get back to a purer existence take a good look at what life was like here in Parshat Bereishit, in the Genesis story, in order to see what life was really like in paradise. To get a glimpse of a life without disease and cruelty we look back to the Garden of Eden. One of the points made by the moral-driven vegetarian is that in this paradise G-d caused the plants, trees and herbage to sprout up and be food for us. The ground did not need to be tilled by man. There was no farming of anything, neither plant nor animal. There was an abundance of fruit that man lived off of until the ground was cursed by G-d for man’s sin. (see Genesis 3:17-19)

Actually we don’t really seem to have to consider the concept of meat eating until the story of Noah; only after the earth is further decimated by the deluge, and coming forth from the ark on to this changed environment does our story even begin to concern itself with the issues of what is a clean and unclean animal for human consumption. It is safe to assume, as most midrash does, that before this time people were vegetarian. (see Genesis 9:3)

sephirot4pngbbbCan we assume that this was also so for that animal world as well? No, I doubt it. For the animal, if it was not already so, our tradition points out that their descent began with the first curse of the ground after the sin of Adam and Eve. Rashi tells us that the consequence of the ground being cursed on man’s account was also consequential for the snake that tricked them, when the ground was cursed it now also brought up insects, flees and ticks that harmed the animals of the field that the serpent would live upon. According to our rabbinic sources, this seems to be the point at which the sanguine circle of life gets complicated. All of nature turns on itself.

So why am I not a vegetarian any more? The real reason can almost be summed up because I became more religiously observant. How can this be when I present all these ideas supported by Torah? Mostly, because I found I really liked meat. And it all happened on Shabbat. I can even tell you what stripped the “Meat Is Murder” patch right off me, it was a Buffalo Chicken Wing. My friends would invite me for Shabbat meals week after week. In honor of the sabbath the meals are greatly involved and time-consuming, stretching on for many courses; salad, fish, soup, chicken and/or meats, some sides and kugels, a few drinks and then desert. Everyone brings out the best that they have and presents it honor of Shabbat; the crown of the week. Every week my meal would pretty much end at the first course and I would linger. I didn’t drink alcohol or eat animal products so almost nothing was left. After a while people started feeling sorry for me, and the Jewish mothers would start in, “But you’re still hungry, I think you would like one. In honor of Shabbat try just one…” That was it, all of a sudden I remembered that I really did like it. I’ve been eating tasty little kosher treats ever since.

It wasn’t an issue of people forcing their ways upon me or brow-beating me. Quiet to the contrary. To be honest I’m sure that I judged people more for their “indulgence” than they did me. Aside from the common ethical concerns that I had about meat, it just wasn’t something that I personally liked. And in my experience, traveling the world, I knew very well that meat was not something that was a daily staple for most cultures. It was something that I was less accustomed to having regularly, therefore it was only incidental that it was something I hadn’t acquired a taste for it. But in these ultra-orthodox friends I found that their old-world experience was very much the same as mine. They had all the same ethical concerns, and even more than I had considered. And they also weren’t accustomed to eating obnoxious amounts of meat, so it was reserved for special occasions. And there is no more special of an occasional than Shabbat and Yom Tov (holidays). In this spirit people would follow the common custom of Judaism to have wine, fish and meat as symbols of joy and celebration. They would save all the best of their provisions for the end of the week; for Shabbat. They would honor G-d with the best of the produce of their labor. They honor G-d with the best of their foods, these are what most of us feel are the best of our best.

Most certainly we can look in our Jewish tradition and see many examples that idealize vegetarianism though out our midrashic and mystical tradition. Aside from that, for many it seems to simplify kashrut issues to abstain from meat (this is also another reason cited by the less accustomed to Jewish observance, to believe kashrut is merely a meat issue, which is far from true). Most of us live in a culture which already overdose it when it comes to meat, and can agree that we no longer have the need in the modern world to consume meat the way we did in the past because of a wider variety of foods available to us. Being less meat dependent seems like a natural humanitarian progression for many, as they see the benefits it has upon the body and environment. It is sensible and is animal sensitive. Even in the most orthodox of homes I’ve seen many families only have mere symbolic amounts of meat and fish; even if only the meat is a mixed in ingredient for a main dish, or the fish only found in the paste made for the salad dressing. We honor our traditions, but think it wise sometimes to not go overboard.

The problem I most often had to deal with in my own character and now in other people, is that the people who go overboard tend to be the vegetarians. I understand their feelings, but I also very much recognize how inappropriately people judge others for not being as “progressive” about their eating as they are. Today I don’t mind saying that I like to eat meat. At one time I didn’t, because my ethical concerns were not appropriately met; now with that satisfied for me in my convictions, the choice of eating meat comes down to an issue of my own satisfaction. I take joy in it, so it is the right choice for me. Furthermore, for health reasons being a vegetarian is not appropriate for me. And some people do deeply judge me for that, making all the sideways statements and giving me all the glaring. No really, people are that way, no matter what the case is; that is because it is disgusting to them so it should also be so for you; they even get angry when you don’t comply to their mores.

What started out in the relationship as “I love animals so don’t eat them” for some immature people ends up leading to slurred statements like “Your a murder for eating that.” Sure, its rare that it goes that far, but more and more I see people acting that way. What started out as a kindness, turned to negativity; somehow that is a natural tendency in this universe so we need to beware of it. And that is what we are going to talk about today. Where that comes from and how to grow beyond letting our values turn sour.

Believe or not this davar Torah really has little to do with vegetarianism, that’s just a bonus in a way; okay so I merely jest. I only use this example because it is something that I can relate to in my own life, and because in a lot of ways the elements of this example are very similar to a tragic situation pointed out here in this parsha with the story of Cain and Abel.

One of the horrors of the story of Cain and Able is the emergence of anger, and in tern violence in the world. We all know the story very well, because it ends with murder.

Our parsha relates the story as such, that the two sons of Adam and Eve grow up to become men. We see their story begin with them both picking a trade for themselves. Cain raises animals (tzoan; sheep and goats), and Abel tills the ground; they are both partners in farming, just two different aspects of it. When it comes time for them to thank G-d and worship each gives according to their own produce. Cain of his produce of the ground, and Abel from his animal stock. One is accepted, the other offering is not. In then end this leads to such a feeling of being slighted that Cain murders his brother Abel over it.

Even before we can get to the issue of the sickening sin of homicide, many of us who are of a gentle nature first find ourselves stumbling over this part of the narrative first. What is it about this offering that is different that G-d would lift His eyes to recognize one, and the other he doesn’t take the time to count?

For the most part, people stumble over the issue of what the type of sacrifice it was. In a world that because of idolatry is so used to sacrifice, which typically holds animal sacrifice higher than any other because of its costliness and rarity, we tend to sometimes miss the point and think there was something better about the meat over the fruits. I have literally seen illustrations in picture books with Abel happy and his smoke rising high, and then a sad and skinny Cain whose fruits just smolder down. This odd and gross view is more prevalent in the mindset of those who follow blood atonement heresies. We know this is not true by the simple fact that the Torah demands both meat and grain offerings all through out it, and more often incense of herbage. There is nothing more sacred or more binding about a meat offering over a meal offering, they both found their place in our tradition. We cannot jump to the absurd conclusion that G-d can only take pleasure in bloody sacrifice.

Instead we are forced to find another reason. It is very apparent to us if we just take a simple look at the text, the only distinction between the offerings aside from their substance, was the maturity of the substance. It seems to be more an issue of timing for that substance. We see that Cain offered after many days, at the end of days he took from his fruits and offered. Instead we see that Abel instead took from the first-born of his flock, he didn’t wait for them to mature even, he gave immediately. It is not a matter of what type of offering, but when it was offered. This is pointed out when the mitzvah was spelled out to the children of Israel in the Torah later on, “v’lakach’ta may’reishit kol pri ha-adama/ you shall bring the first fruits of all the land…” (Deut. 26:2) Cain brought his leftovers, Abel enthusiastically gave the first of his produce. G-d regarded the one that had given with the spirit of eagerness.

We need to dismiss from our minds the idea that G-d is caught up on the issue of meat and blood. If anything our tradition suggests to us the only person caught up with this issue is Cain. Our sages widely suggest that one person hung-up on it was Cain. Our midrash tells us that Cain did not think it right that his brother should kill animals to offer in sacrifice. If we think about it, only animals killed and consumed each other, humans apparently did not. It would be natural for Cain to see something that was not natural or desirable to them as people to be barbarism, and therefore felt that Abel was acting impulsively like an animal. Some midrashim even suggested Cain thought it better for Abel to instead wait and buy grains from him by trading from his animal products with him when there was more hearty produce to sustain them with, suggesting that his way was matured as well as more humane.

The problem with Cain’s attitude is he cannot get beyond the fact that he finds someone’s practice disgusting and unbecoming. This was not their way, only animals and G-d had ever slaughtered in such a way (when G-d made garments for Adam and Eve out of animals skins; see Genesis 3:21). Sure this offering was for the worship of G-d, it was not for their consumption, but our rabbis say that even this became a stumbling block for Cain. If it was not allowed for them as humans ordinarily to slaughter, he reckoned that if it was forbidden for them then it should also be forbidden of G-d. He is not just irritated with his brother, Cain is also disgusted with G-d for this.

Our parsha describes Cain’s reaction to G-d dismissing his offering as follows:

“…and Cain became very angry,

and depressed.”

| Vayicharah le-Kayin me’od

| vayiplu panav

Genesis 4:5

And herein lies the tragedy, his attitude of disdain for cruelty, which in itself is a chesed – a kindness – got turned around and lead to negativity and even extreme anger. For as progressive and idealistic Cain’s values for life is, his inability to see his own fault and instead become more concerned with the actions of others leads him to become annoyed – another meaning of the word charah. He becomes enraged over the killing of an animal and it’s acceptance by G-d as barbaric, do much that he doesn’t seem to notice the rising coldness that eventually drives him to murder his human brother. He respects the animals, but murders a man.

I want to sum it up this way, we need to keep in mind that people who are more concerned with other’s actions than their own; people who moralize heavily upon narrow pet causes tend to cause harm to others through their negativity. More often than not descending into judgmental speech and treatment of people. And as we know, to cause to bring shame or embarrassment upon a person is also counted as a form of bloodshed in our tradition; its not just causing blushing, its spiritually more harmful than most recognize.

Three Season Kabbalistic Wheel of MonthsAnd so it is for many people, for some reason it is natural in the universe that what starts out as concept of warm chesed (kindness), often finds a way of turning into cold gevurah (judgment) over time. And that is really the topic really at hand today. How is it that such a thing happens to people over time?

Kabbalistically, it is quite easy to understand. In fact before we can begin to understand anything else about Kabbalah it is essential that people learn this principle. It is presented to us in the Sefer Yitzerah that there are three “mother letters.” They are three archetypal letters and corresponding energies. Shin (ש), Mem (מ) and Alef (א); the Shin we are told represents fire, Mem represents water, Alef represents air. They are three positions in time we are told, meaning lengths in a journey; when we apply them to a year calendar (like in the Israel, which has only three distinguishable seasons) they correspond to Shin being the heat of summer, Mem being the coldness of winter, and Alef as Spring that is the temperate and airy balance between those two extremes.

In Kabbala, and indeed strongly stressed in Chassidut, learning is held up on the foundation of these three pillars. For those who study the ChaBaD school of thought it is important for one to work out their path of maturing the higher intellect (as presented in the upper three sefirot), they correspond like our letters above in a descending pattern; Chochmah is wisdom, Binah is discernment, but the balance of them both is the understanding called Daat. It’s more simply explained through the human emotions by the Breslov Chassidim and the GR”A (Gaon of Vilna) by placing the example par-excellence in the center of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. We begin with sefirot of Chesed (Kindness), Gevurah (Judgment) and work our way to the central balance of Tiferet (Harmony, understood as mercy); the ChaGaT school. In these mystical teachings of these great schools of thought the goal is to balance out our human flaws by coming to a harmony between extremities inside of us.

This pattern is something that we need to understand because it tends to play out in the minds and lives of people even if we aren’t aware of this; it is a natural principle in the universe. Sadly it is most often seen in the lives of religious people, and we as people of faith need to recognize this. People often start out in their religious or ethical journey out a creative spark of kindness. They are motived by love and kindness and warmth, but then as we tend to cool down as time goes on and often fizzle towards judgmental coldness. Now gevurah is not a bad thing, it actually means to become more mighty and strong; it is not mere negativity, the problem is that as some of us cool down as we “mature” in our understanding we tend to become as judgmental as we are knowledgeable. We often tend to start out less understanding but burning with passion like wild youth, but then as we become more mature and wise we tend to cool down and sadly manifest all the things we have come to know in judgementalism if we aren’t careful. Somehow we think we know better, so everyone else should as well. Our expansive kindness (chesed) can turn cold if we aren’t careful, and we can get stuck in the moralizing rut of being the frozen-chosen though our unchecked judgment (gevurah).

Our goal should be to find the balance between the two, the harmony of tiferet. It is the maturity beyond any one extreme, it is not the hot high road, nor the cold low road, it is the golden middle path between them both. It is neither overwhelmed with endless permissiveness seen in the example of chesed as being the essential drive of expansiveness present in the world and the personal character, nor is it trapped in the constrictiveness and desolate coldness of strong opinion and judgments as with gevurah, instead it is the beauty (another meaning of tiferet) that is found in the balance between the two that allows us to show mercy to others in self-control. In this Kabbalah and Torah challenge us to move beyond being thoughtless do-gooders or judgmental smart people, and become beautiful people of true mercy and harmony and understanding; in the balance of tiferet. We need to find that centered spirit of joy in our souls.

Starting off the Spiritual New Year Right

Starting off the Spiritual New Year Right
Mitzvah-making Opportunities for the Spring and Summer

As we came into the month of Nissan we began celebrating the height of our spiritual year, in fact this is the start of the biblical year. (see Exodus 12:2, and Parshat Archarei). Whereas in fall we observe the start of the civil year and consider the concepts of righteousness, justice and repentance, we celebrate the spiritual new year with the joy of the “z’man cheiruteinu / season of our freedom.”

Just because Pesachthe Passover holiday– is over doesn’t mean this season ends. In the Talmud and classical Halachic works Nissan itself is considered an entire month dedicated only to joy and celebration; one big holiday free of mourning. There are a lot of ways to celebrate our freedom. One of the best was is to take advantage of that liberty and work towards our own enrichment. Nothing is more important to work on than our spiritual and emotional state. Coming out from under the effect what ever complications we might have stepped out of in this season should take first priority. There is no better investment we can make than in our own soul.

The spring season comes with unique opportunities for spiritual advancement and self-reflection. One of the best ways is by following along with the Sefirah haOmerthe Omer Count. Learn how to make this period between Pesach and Shavuot work for you. You can find a study and the Blessings according to the minhag Nusach haAri z”l (Chabad) with a counting guide in the links below. Also, part of the reflection is the recitation of the Psalm 67 (I failed to cite the source in the Siddur release, it will be corrected shortly). We can delve even deeper by meditating upon this Psalm as well, learn how:

Also during this season, we have to keep in mind that the physical seasons change as well. That means that the nights are getting shorter, and the days longer. This can effect some people, especially if you live in the far north, where daylight can be as little as as 4-6 hours long at best in the height of summer even if your not in the Arctic Circle. The following guides are how to approach Tikkun Chatzotthe Midnight Rite – during this season, as well as an introduction and the liturgical text:

At of course, in gearing up for Shavuot we again will need the prayers of the Shelosh Regalim, don’t forget to also get the Hallel and Rosh Chodesh packets. We are so grateful to have these resources hosted by our partners at the Open Siddur Project. You can find the link below.

And finally, the month of Nissan isn’t over yet. Have you had a chance to say the Blessing on a Blossoming Fruit Tree? For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, we still have a few more days to make this happen. Find out how:

Last but not least, it is important for us to remember when studying the parsha according to the 1-year scheme t – the weekly Torah portion schedule for a single year – that in 2012 it differs outside of Israel from the one read inside Eretz Yisrael. Those who are inside Israel and only observe 1 day of Yom Tov already began Parshat Shemini last Shabbat. For everyone else b’chutz l’aretz outside of Israel, in the Diaspora – we are just beginning it this week as last Shabbat was still Yom Tov. This schedule will remain ahead of us by one week until Shavuot of this year.

With all that said, I want to commend everyone who worked so hard to make a kosher and liberating Pesach. I am proud of all the hard work people in our little learning community have invested in cleaning not just their homes, but their inner self with careful scrutiny and humility. I am even more thrilled to see how much joy and feeling of freedom we are all experiencing for it as well. Now on to Har Sinai!

Do you need a siddur? This blog proudly cooperates with The Open Siddur Project. The project is a volunteer based organization dedicated to documenting and making the wealth of Jewish prayer and prayer resources available with free, redistributable licensing in electronic format and print formats. You can find my contributions of liturgy HERE. Find out how you can also be a part of this worthy cause!

Tikkun Chatzot

Tikkun Chatzot
Do we say the Midnight Rite During Spring and Summer?

When I originally wrote “Tikkun Ḥatzot: Getting Right at Midnight: Introduction to the Midnight Rite as a scholarly and historical piece to accompanist the release of the Nusach haAri z”l (Chabad) Prayerbook text I explained that many people take on this practice during the winter when the nights are long. But I failed to answer the question of how we apply this during the spring and summer when nights are shorter; mostly because this was answered in the actual siddur release itself. I didn’t keep in mind this would not be shown by most search engines, so I’ve received a lot of requests for an explanation.

To help answer this I am posting the actual instructions (with only one additional line of advice from the Tanya, in bold near the end; this will appear in all future editions to be released, bizrat hashem) from the Open Siddur Project release below (written by yours truly). Also see the links below to download your copy today! Hopefully before the seasons change again I will be able to translate a fresh English translation. For a detailed description of the rite, refer to the aforementioned introduction.

There are some general rules to keep in mind, we do not recite Tikkun Rachel on days the Tachanun confession is not said (this applies to the entire month of Nissan, as it is an entire month of celebration). This applies to Shabbat and Festivals – including Pesach and Pesach Sheini, Lag b’Omer, and the period from Rosh Chodesh Sivan until seven days after Shavuot. In the fall/winter months this will also apply from Erev Yom Kippur until the end of Tishrei, all of Chanukah, Tu biShevat, Purim and Shushan Purim. It is the custom of many Sephardim to not say Tikkun Rachel at all during the Sefirat haOmer. Some also choose to omit Psalm 20 and Psalm 51 from Tikkun Leah. On Tisha B’Av most Sephardim say Tikkun Rachel while omitting Tikkun Leah.

“It is, however, appropriate for anyone who is G-d-fearing, and all people of valor whose heart has been touched by Hashem, to rise at midnight and devote a little time to mourning for the destruction of the Holy Temple and the exile of the Divine Presence.”

Shulchan Aruch Ha-Rav, Mahadura Batra – Hashkamat HaBoker, 1:2
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, The Baal HaTanya

The scriptures tell us “Arise, cry out in the night, at the beginning of the watches, pour out your heart like water, facing the Presence of G-d.” (Lamentations 2:19) It is the custom among the pious to rise up during the night and pray for the rebuilding of Temple and the redemption of Jewish People.

The ideal times appointed for saying this devotional prayer is at the true celestial midnight; which is the actual midpoint of the night. This will vary depending on the season and location. The Baal HaTanya (S.A.HaRav; MB, Hashkamat HaBoker, 1:8) teaches us to calculate this as 12 hours after high noon, when the sun is directly overhead; this is agreed upon by many authorities including the Ben Ish Chai (Vayishlach §4). If one finds they cannot say Tikkun Chatzot at the appointed time then it is appropriate to say it at the first third of the night, or the second third of the night; or the end of the night, up until 1 hour before sunrise. There are various automated Zmanim resources available online, such as at or, that will calculate the halachic times for your location.

“The main devotion of the Israelite man is, in winter, to be vigilant to rise for the midnight prayer.And in summer, when the night is very short, less than six hours, and hence we do not rise at midnight, then he should be careful to rise in the morning early at dawn.”

Likutei Etzot, Chatzot §6
Reb Natan of Breslov

If one rises to say these prayers and has slept during the night then one should say “The Morning Blessings” and the “Blessing of the Torah.” If one woke up before it’s time, one should wait until chatzot (true-midnight) to say these blessings. However, if one cannot sleep and has awoken early then one may say the “Blessing of The Torah” and study until chatzot, then say “The Morning Blessings” and repeat the “Blessing of the Torah” together at that time. One will not have to repeat these blessings later, even if they return to sleep; their requirement to say them for that day has already been fulfilled.

Additionally, we should also keep in mind the urging of the Baal haTanya who stated: “Whoever cannot do this nightly should maintain an absolute minimum of once every week, before the Shabbat.”. (Lekutei Amarim – Tanya: Iggeret haTeshuvah §10)

The prayers of Tikkun Chatzot are divided into two sections, Tikkun Rachel and Tikkun Leah. The central theme of Tikkun Rachel is mourning over exile and distress, and therefore is not appropriate to say on days of celebration. However, Tikkun Leah carries the theme of praise and longing for the Presence of G-d.

Tikkun Rachel is only said on days in which Tachanun is said; it should not be said on days of celebration, including Shabbat and Festivals. Tikkun Leah, according to the Ashkenzi tradition, may be said on days even when Tachanun is not said; including Shabbat, Festivals, minor holidays, etc. (it is the custom of Sephardim to not say Tikkun Chatzot at all on Shabbat or Festivals).

When saying Tikkun Chatzot, it is the custom to sit close to a door that has a mezuzah affixed to it. It is to be said in a solemn tone, being sang according to the melody of Lamentations or merely read aloud.


The Tikkun Ḥatzot of Rav Shneur Zalman of Lyadi (from Siddur Torah Ohr, 1803) graciously hosted by the Open Siddur Project:
PDF | ODT | TXT (v.3.0)

Netilat Yadayim with Asher Yatzar

Netiliat Yadayim with Asher Yatzer
The Ritual Hand Washing after using the Toilet

“Blessed are You Hashem our G-d, |

King of the Universe, |

who has sanctified us |

and has commanded us |

concerning the hand-washing.” |

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ

מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם,

אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ


וְצִוָנוּ עַל נְטִילַת יָדָים:

Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haOlam, asher kadishanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu al netilat yadayim.”

Instructions: One should take a cup and fill it with water, lift it with the right hand, pass it to their left hand and pour the water over the right hand up to the wrist. The cup should then be passed from the left hand and over to the right hand, and poured over the left. One should then continue to wash the hands twice more, passing the cup back and forth so that one has rinsed each hand three times, in an alternating fashion. One should then recite the blessings.

During our study concerning to the ritual Morning Washing we learned that the reasons why we wash immediately upon arising is to purify ourselves of uncleanliness that we might have come in contact with during the night; specifically from touching or scratching our bodies or orifices as we slept. Besides our concern about spreading this to our other body parts, we are taught by our sages that we should begin our service before G-d with pure intentions. However, it was noted that we do not say the blessing of Netilat Yadayim – the blessing for hand washing – during this first washing. This is because we were not going to engage in any spiritual activities immediately, instead we are going to take care of our physical needs. We reserve the blessing of Netilat Yadayim – the blessing for washing – until after we have completed these necessities and are fully dressed, pairing it with this blessing of Asher Yatzar commonly known as “the bathroom blessing” by many.

These are a couple of the most common blessings in Judaism, however their combination during our morning avodah is a unique occurrence. People often feel confused over when one should say either one of these blessings. This is because most siddurim ambiguously place these two blessings among the morning blessings, without any indication as to when it is appropriate for us to say either. Today we will discuss the halachot for these blessings in our morning ritual, and then explore their normative re-occurrence in our daily practice.

The Morning Washing with a Blessing

After Modeh Ani, the next two blessings we will encounter in our day will be Al Netilat Yadayim and Asher Yatzar. The Shulchan Aruch haRav of the Baal haTanya beautifully explains to us as follows:

“According to the law of the Gemara

(Berachot 60b)

it is not necessary to say the blessing

‘Asher Yatzar’ until one relieves himself.

In all places is it the universal custom

to recite each morning,

immediate after the blessing

Al Netilat Yadayim,’

the blessing ‘Asher Yatzar;’

as each day a man becomes

a newly-created being.

Therefore, it is appropriate to

express the blessing


‘Asher yatzar et ha-adam b’chochmah.’

(“You have made man in wisdom”)

If one wants to remove doubt

one should be careful to take care of his needs

right after

the morning washing.

After leaving the bathroom

one should wash ones hands once finished

[a second time] and bless ‘Asher Yatzar,’

and thereby fulfill his obligation to bless

‘Asher Yatzar’ with this,

even if he was obligated to bless

Asher Yatzar

because he has been made

a newly-created being,

so that one blessing

serves for both purposes.

It is a good practice for one to

say the blessing

Al Natilat Yadayim

after the second washing

so as to wash after exiting the bathroom

especially if one rose to use the latrine,

or else it would be forbidden to bless.”

אף על פי שמדינא דגמרא |


אין צריך לברך ברכת |

אשר יצראלא כשעשה צרכין, |

מכל מקום נהגו העולם |

לברך בכל שחרית |

תכף אחר ברכת |

על נטילת ידים” |

ברכת אשר יצר“, |

שבכל יום נעשה האדם |

בריה חדשה, |

לכן |

שיך לברך |

בכל יום ויום |

אשר יצר את האדם בחכמה” |


והרוצה להסתלק מהספק – |

יזהר לעשות צרכיו |

תכף אחר |

נטילת ידים שחרית, |

וכשיצא מבית הכסה |

יטל ידיו פעם שהית |

ויברך אשר יצר“, |

ויצא ידי חובתו בברכת |

אשר יצרזו, |

אף אם היה מחיב לברך |

אשר יצר” |

על מה שנעשה |

בריה חדשה, |

כי ברכה אחת עולה |

לכאן ולכאן. |

וטוב שלא |

יברך ברכת |

על נטילת ידים” |

עד לאחר נטילה שנית, |

שנוטל אחר יציאתו מבית הכסא |

ובפרט אם צריך לנקביו, |

שאז אסור לו לברך. |

The Baal haTanya, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi of Russia in the 18thCentury
Shulchan Aruch haRav, Orach Chaim: Mahadura Kama – 6:1

For the first washing of the day we primarily concerned ourselves with cleanliness. We are taught that upon awakening we should be careful to not touch any of our orifices with our unwashed hands for reasons of health and hygiene. (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, siman 6) However, some of the first activities most people engage in once they get out of bed is to go to the toilet and wash-up in the bathroom.

If one slept at all at night one must wash upon awakening before going about using the facilities, though only a simple washing is required. We do not say a blessing the first time because we are not going to be immediately engaging in any mitzvot. Simply put, we wash the first time to be able to use the restroom and dress ourselves unsoiled.

However, the washing with a blessing that follows later on in our morning duties is not for reasons of cleanliness necessarily, but instead it is in preparation for engaging in prayer. Earlier in the Shulchan Aruch haRav it was expressed to us this way:

ואחר כך |

יבדק נקביו, |

שמא יצטרך לנקביו |

באמצע התפלה. |

אמרו חכמים: |

כל הרוצה לקבל עליו |

על מלכות שמים שלמה – |

יפנה ויטל ידיו, |

ואחר כך יקרא קריאת שמע |

ויתפלל. |

“And after [one is done dressing]

one should check

to see if he might have to go to the restroom

during the middle of prayer.

The sages say:

One who seeks to accepts upon himself

the whole yoke of heaven

should relieve himself and wash his hands

and after this recite the Kriyat Shema

and pray.”

Shulchan Aruch haRav, Orach Chaim: Mahadura Kama – 2:8

We should use the facilities after we dress because we are going to begin to pray, and we should not interrupt our devotion.

But we also check ourselves for another reason. Based on the Shulchan Aruch of Rabbi Yosef Karo, it is also understood that we should not delay using the facilities because we would be transgressing the Biblical commandment, “bal te’shak’tzu / do not make yourself loathsome.” (Leviticus 11:43) We are also careful to keep in mind that we are not allowed to say words of Torah or prayer in the presence of feces. We should clean ourselves up in order to be appropriate for prayer, learning and worship. (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 3:24-25)

Naturally the question arises when we consider his instructions, where are we washing and blessing? Is it at the synagogue or is it at home? The Baal haTanya has us outside of the restroom in his description, naturally some assume this must be at home. The answer is more precisely present by the Maran – Rabbi Yosef Karo in the original Shulchan Aruch.

“There are those whose custom is to bless

Al Netilat Yadayim

and then go to the synagogue

and include it with the

rest of the order of the blessings.

But this is not the custom for us Sephardim.”

יש נוהגים לברך |

על נטילת ידים |

עד בואם לבית בכסת |

ומסדרים אותו עם |

שאר הברכות |

ובני ספרד לא נוהג כך: |

The Maran; Rabbi Yosef Karo, Tzfat, Israel in 1563

Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 5:2

The Maran tells us that it is the custom of some to say all their blessings with the congregation at the synagogue; but that is not the custom of the Sephardic community, which he represents. What he doesn’t plainly say is that they instead say their morning blessings at home, so that they only need to say the communal prayers with the rest of the congregation.

In contrast the Ashekazi tradition is to say all the blessings as part of the service, often recited out loud by the shliach tzibur – the person leading the prayer service. This is often helpful for people who are less familiar with Hebrew and the prayers, one would be able to fulfill their obligation by responding “amein” upon hearing the leader recite them, thus partnering oneself in the prayers. (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 46:2) The Ashkenazi practice of washing immediately before praying at the synagogue also seems to more closely resemble the ritual washing of the Holy Temple which inspired the rabbinically instituted ritual-washing. People washed at the Temple complex before they engaged in their prayers there, therefore its more logical to wash at shul. In-fact the only reason ritual was instituted in the first place was to serve as a preparation for saying the Shema and davening. (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 4:23)

Then why do Sephardim not say these blessing with a congregation? The Rema (our Ashkenazi master who provides the halacha of Eastern-Europe in his glosses to the Shulchan Aruch), explains to us that the only time this does not apply is when one is going to learn Torah before he gets to the synagogue. We are not to engage in words of Torah without ritually washing and say the the Torah Blessings. If one is going to discuss or learn Torah at home, they must first wash and bless. It was also a well established custom for Sephardim to say slichot and Tikkun Chatzot, which are said prior to the morning services, most often at home. Sephardim follow the tradition of the Ari z”l, the Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (Shaar haKavanot, brought down by the Kaf haChaim 6:3), who prescribes that one say blessings during their morning activities when appropriate at home; to do this we must first wash and bless accordingly.

The Rema explains to us that we are only required to say the Birchot haShachar – the Morning Blessings – once, either way is acceptable be it at home or shul, as long as we do not needlessly repeat the blessings. We bless this way once a day, as we are only newly-created once each day. The Maran tells us:

ועל כל פנים |

לא יברך בפעמים |

ומי שמברכם בביתו |

לא יברך |

בבית הכנסת |

וכן מי שמברכו |

בבית הכנסת |

לא יברך בביתו |

(כל בו סימן ג‘). |

ומי שלומד |

קודם שיכנס לבית הכנסת או מתפלל |

קודם יברכם בביתו |

ולא יברך |

בבית הכנסת |

Either way

one should not say the blessings twice.

And one who says the blessings at home

does not say the blessings

at the synagogue

And also one who says the blessings

at the synagogue

does not say the blessings at home

(Kol Bo, siman 3)

And one who learns [Torah]

before he goes to the synagogue to pray

he first says the blessings at home

and does not say the blessings

at the synagogue.”

Glosses of the Rema, Rabbi Moshe Isserilis of Kraków, Poland

to the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 5:2 printed in 1578

We should not say the Birchot HaShachar more than once, likewise we only say Netilat Yadayim and Asher Yatzer together once during the day. Though we do wash for other reasons during the day, such as before eating a meal with bread or performing certain mitzvot. But we don’t wash with a blessing each time we go the restroom. We merely wash with water without a blessing and then say Asher Yatzer as our blessing of gratitude. The reason again is because we are not washing for any specific sacred act, just for general cleanliness. We should be decent when we bless so we do a simple washing. This is laid down for us by the Maran:

כל היום |

כשעושה צרכיו |

בין קטנים |

בין גדולים |

מברך אשר יצר |

ולא על נטילת ידים |

אף אם רוצה ללמוד |

או להתפלל מיד: |

“Any time during the day

one goes to restroom to relieve himself

be it to urinate

or be it to defecate

one says the blessing of ‘Asher Yatzar

and not ‘Netilat Yadayim

Even if one wants to learn [Torah]

or daven immediately.”


Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 7:1

The Rema agrees. No matter how “dirty” our hands become we are not required to bless, merely to remove what is soiling them:

היו ידיו מלוכלכות ששפשף |

בהן אפילו הכי אינו |

מברך על נטילת ידים |

(סמג סימן כו מלות עשה) |

“If one has soiled his hands whipping,

even in this case one does not

say the blessing ‘Netilat Yadayim‘”

(The Semag, Rabbi Yitzhak ben Yosef of Corbel; Siman 26)

Rema to

Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 7:1

Though the Baal haTanya seems to prefer that one the Birchot haShachar with the congregation according to the Ashkenazi custom that is native to his region (Shulchan Aruch haRav, Orach Chaim 6:1), he did look favorably upon those who do bless at home:

אבל יש נוהגים |

לברך |

על נטילת ידים” |

ואשר יצר” |

בביתם מיד אחר הנטילה. |

וכשכאים לבית הכנסת |

מברכים כל ברכות השחר, |

לבד מאותן ברכות |

שברכו בביתם |

שאין מברכים אותם פעם שניה. |

ומנהג זה יפה הוא, |

וראוי |

לנהג כן, |

שהרי כל המצות צריך לברך עליהן |

קדם לעשית, |

אלא שבנטילת ידים |

אי אפשר לברך |

קדם הנטילה, |

לכן נדחית הברכה |

עד לאחר הנטילה, |

אם כן כל מה דאפשר |

לקרב הברכה |

שתהא סמוכה להנטילה – |

צריך לקרב, |

ולא להפסיק בינתים: |

“However, there are those whose custom

is to say

Al Netilat Yadayim

and ‘Asher Yatzar

at home immediately after the washing.

When they come to the synagogue

they recite all the morning blessing,

except for the blessings

they already recited in their home,

which are not to be recited a second time.

This is a desirable custom,

and it is indeed an appropriate

to practice thusly.

For all of the mitzvot one must bless

before it is performed.

But since for the washing of the hands

one cannot recite a blessing

before he washes his hands,

the blessing is therefore postponed

until after the washing.


the blessing should be recited

as close as possible to the washing –

being mindful so that it is immediate

and without any delay.”

The Baal haTanya, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi of Russia in the 18th Century

Shulchan Aruch haRav, Orach Chaim: Mahadura Kama 6:5

And this is the halacha by the Chassidim to this day, that one wash immediately before Shacharit – the morning prayer service – with a blessing. However, in actual practice it is more prevalent for one to wash with a blessing at home in order to learn, say slichot, Tehillim, Tikkun Chatzot or take on other personal forms of devotion (and in some cases, to eat breakfast; if ones minhag permits).

The Baal haTanya though again brings up an interesting reason for washing before praying at the synagogue, it is the general halachic principle that one say blessings immediately before engaging in something and not after. We discussed this last week when we considered the kindling of Shabbat candles, which is also a strange mitzvah in that most people bless after the lighting. The Baal haTanya tell us to say our morning blessings before Shacharit because blessings come before performing any mitzvah. This is a wonderful reason.

But notice it does hint at another oddity, we are actually washing and blessing Asher Yatzar after using the facilities. How is this? Consider this, the reason we bless after we wash is because it is not appropriate to bless with filthy hands; we cannot say a blessings before we wash so we say it as soon as we are able to, once they are clean. In the same vein we cannot bless for using the toilet before we have actually done so. In addition it is not appropriate to bless in a restroom either or with soiled hands; so we say Asher Yatzar at the first chance we get, which is immediately after the washing with a blessing once we leave the restroom.

We should not delay in saying our morning blessings, if we are required to bless for any reason we should do so. Yet we must keep in mind that once we begin the process of blessing we must continue with any order of blessings that might be conjoined to the ones we are saying. For example, the Netilat Yadayim should be said along with Asher Yatzer in the morning, and Asher Yatzar is also said along with Elohei Nishma without any interruption in between them, etc.

For this reason Sephardim are a bit more scrupulous regarding the saying of the Birchot haShachar and washing with a blessing at home. It is therefore the custom that all the morning blessings are said together. Though Ashkenazi siddurim most often follow with the Blessings for the Torah immediately after Elohei Nishma, in Sephardi siddurim the Torah Blessings are said immediately after the full set of morning blessings. This makes the approach for Sephardim very straight forward, it is explained to us by the Mekor Chaim haLevi, along with advice as how to appreciate the variance in minhag:

א) אחר שיתלבש כראוי, |

יברך כל הבכות |

מברכת נטילת ידים” |

עד ואני הברכם” |

וכך נוהגים בני |

קהילות הספרדים |

וההולכים על פי תורת |

הארי .|


ב) ויש נוהגים לברך |

ברכת התורהתחלה |

ואחכ ברכות השחר, |

וכל אדם ינהג |

כמנהג אבותיו. |

1) “After dressing properly,

say all the blessings,

and bless from ‘Netilat Yadaim

until ‘V’ani habrachem;’

and this is the custom of members

of the Sephardic communities

and those who are guided by the teachings

of the Ari z”l

(Rabbi Yitzhak Luriah haKodesh)”

2) “And there are those who say

the Torah Blessings first

and then the Birchot haShachar,

but everyone should act according to the custom

of his ancestors.”

Kitzur Mekor Chaim, Chapter 4:1-2 (p.12)

Rabbi Chaim David haLevi (1924-1998), Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv-Yaffo

Thus the Nusach haAri z”l which is based upon the Nusach Sephard, includes all the blessings together, so one can pray completely through until the end of the reading of Numbers 6:22-27 that we read with the Blessings of the Torah. This is also the order of the Siddur Nusach haAri z”l of the Baal haTanya (Chabad-Lubavitch), being arranged according to the teachings of the Ari z”l. However, his halachic approach permits one to utilize the blessings as necessary and then omit their repetition with the congregation during the Shacharit service. His position is very much accommodating to the traditional Ashkenazi representation which haphazardly presents the brachot in siddurim to be use as necessary, instead of in a methodical one-direction fashion like Sephardim. Though there is a great deal of variance as the to the order of the Birchot haShachar, the general rule for Ashknazim is according to the Rema who prescribes that the Torah Blessings are said immediate after Asher Yatzar.  (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 46:9; Rema)


Question: Do we bless after we wash our hands when we use the toilet?
Answer: After using the toilet the first time during the day, we wash with a blessing. Only this first time, no matter how many times we go the bathroom during the day.

Question: When do we say Asher Yatzar?
Answer: Every time we use the toilet we should say this blessing of gratitude for our proper bodily functions.

Question: Does it matter if we urinate or defecate?
Answer: If we pass even as much as a drop of water we should bless once finished relieving ourselves, immediately after we wash.

Question: Do we wash with a blessing at home or shul?
Answer: One should follow the custom of their community, Sephardim and Kabbalist at home, and Ashkenazim at the synagogue. However, everyone is required to wash if they intend to engage in Torah learning or sacred acts prior to going to shul for Shacharit.

Question: If one says the blessing at home, should they say them with the congregation?
Answer: No, one should not repeat the blessings. They should merely respond “amein” to hearing them being recited if they are said by the shliach tzibur or the congregation during the service.

Do you need a siddur? This blog proudly cooperates with The Open Siddur Project. The project is a volunteer based organization dedicated to documenting and making the wealth of Jewish prayer and prayer resources available with free, redistributable licensing in electronic format and print formats. You can find my contributions of liturgy HERE. Find out how you can also be a part of this worthy cause!

Chanukah: The Ner Mitzvah and the Shamash

The Ner Mitzvah and the Shamash
Oil Lamps or Candles?
Do Sephardim Really Light the Shamash Last?
Do We Need A Menorah?
The Mystical 36 Lights of Chanukah
One’s Minhag: Is it Something to be Dogmatic About?


Lighting an oil Chanukah menorah (chanukiah) on top of the classic Sixth Street Bridge in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles.

Today I want us to explore some lessons in Jewish tradition regarding the Chanukah lights. We are going to be looking at our texts with a special eye on the Sephardic tradition. All the while explaining the development of shared Jewish tradition as we know it today. In order to be able appreciate the diversity of Jewish minhag (tradition) and the progression of halacha (Jewish law).

As we come upon the holidays one naturally finds their mind considering all the rituals and customs associated with the celebrations. I find myself going over the liturgy and preparing the mitzvah items to make sure everything is in order.

The liturgy, aside from additional prayers added to our daily davening, is pretty minimal; we have prayers for lighting of the Chanukah lights. There are three blessings, halalu (“these lights we kindle…”), some Sephardim and Chassidim add Yichud (a kabbalistic unification meditation) first and a song of praise such as Psalm 30 (a Psalm for the Dedication for the Temple) last, while most Ashkenazim add the liturgical poem Ma’oz Tzor (“Rock of Ages”). That’s it!

The instructional commentary is also just as minimalistic in siddurim. Both Ashkenenazi and Sephardi prayerbooks tend to contain little more than a few lines related to the blessings, and in which order to light the ner mitzvah (the one commanded candle that was added to the menorah for the current festival day) and the additional candles that might have been added in previous nights. A typical example can be found in the Siddur of the Baal haTanya:

יברך בכל לילה |

להדליק נר חנוכה |


ושעשה נסים |


ולילה הראשון יברך |

ג״כ |

שהחיינו |


ואץ |

להדליק עד שיגמור |

כל‬ הברכות |


המנהג הנכון |

לדבק הנרות |

או לתלות |

המנורה |

בעובי המזוזה בחלל הפתח |

ויתחיל להדליק |

בליל ראשון נר‬ ‫הימין |

ומליל שני |

ואילך יברך |

על הנוסף וילך |

משמאל לימין: |

One blesses on all nights

lehadlik ner Chanukah

(the kindling blessing),

and “she’asa nissim.”

(“for the miracles”)

On the first evening one blesses

with three blessings,


(“who has granted us life”)

[thereafter] is excluded.

Kindle only after you have recited

all the blessings.”


It is the proper custom

to affix the lights

or to hang

the menorah

opposite the mezuzah of the door-post

and then begin to kindle;

on the first night the light to the [far] right;

and then on the second evening

go ahead and bless,

for the additional ones work your way

from left to right”

The Baal Ha-Tanya, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Russia;

Siddur Ha-Rav, Late 18th Century

Though there are striking differences between the minhagim of Askenazim and Sephardim, the commentary is generally the same for both communities. This is appropriate because these are the points with which both traditions agree. However, the finer details of the order of lighting the Chanukah lights is curiously not mentioned. It is these unique and often obscure customs that one would hope to have explained to them, not the points that are universally known.

Because most religious people know how to light the Chanukah lights according to their community’s custom, people often tend to overlook the obvious here; it does not tell us what we should be using as a Chanukah light, what it should be lit with, or even who should do the lighting. It is in these specifics that the various communities make departure from one another. Understanding these details in necessary for functional reasons, a person who is unfamiliar with them might find themselves unable to actually perform this mitzvah.

Most of us know the laws and the customs from being taught by our parents or community. Many are familiar with the way to perform the mitzvah through practice, yet very few through actual learning from the halachic sources. The instructions of the siddurim are not as barren to the observant person because they understand the terms and elements in light of their minhag; the words are loaded. Though one my be able to explain the ritual through interpreting the terms for someone as they understand them, implicit meanings do not provide a true reason nor a methodology. Furthermore, as these terms also hold different implied meaning by other communities this type of explanation cannot suffice. We need to provide a textual source, preferably a principal source so that the meaning is clear and free of jargon; then work from there.

We will be exploring some of the halachic works, both Ashkenazi and Sephardi sources, from preferred texts that are widely accepted by their respective communities. Of course, we will start with the Shulchan Aruch (popularly known as The Code of Jewish Law). Not only is this the chiefest source in halacha (Jewish Law), it also has the benefit of presenting both Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions. The Maran, Rabbi Yosef Karo hailing from the holy land begins by presenting the halacha, his views accepted by the Sephardi and Middle-Eastern communities. This is commented upon by the Rema, Rabbi Moshe Isserlis of Poland; whose glosses represent the Ashkenazi tradition. All these other sources will be examining thereafter will be be interpreting these laws for their own community as well, working our way from the 16th century to present day. All of our text will center around one specific chapter of the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, Chapter 673. Of course as the material coalesces the chapters mix together a bit, but ill try to keep on target. I will be translating these works, most of them for the first time into English, to help us along.

Do we light a Menorah of oil or candles?

Before we can even begin to discuss the mitzvah of the Chanukah lights we must begin with defining what a ner (a light) actually is. This might seem silly, because it is a common everyday word used in Jewish culture and the Hebrew language; its simply a candle in the vernacular. Though this meaning is correct, it is not actually appropriate for the age and region in which the Shulchan Aruch was written; from ancient times until the relatively recent times a ner meant an oil-lamp, a lantern. Only by starting from this understanding can we begin to make sense of the first clause.

כל השמנים והפתילות כשרי |

לנר חנוכה |

ואעפ שאין השמנים נמשכים אחר הפתילה ואין |

האור נתלה יפה באותם הפתילות |

All fats ( or “oils”) are appropriate

to light the Chanukah lamp

even if the oil is not drawn up by the wick

and the light is not held nicely by the wick.”

Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 673:1;

Maran; Rabbi Yosef Karo, Tzfat, Israel in 1563

In an oil-lamp the oil is drawn up by a wick, the wick holds a flame while consuming the oil that is held in the reservoir of the lamp. However, we must understand that though “fats” implies oil, this is a generic term used for any liquid fuel. Though this may also refer to other forms of fats such as tallow, which can also be solidified around a wick to hold a flame in order to produce light as it is consumed.

Logically, as we are lighting the mitzvah lights in order to commemorate and publicize the miracle of the lights Menorah of the Holy Temple which was sustained for eight days with one day’s supply of olive oil, it would seem appropriate for us to light with oil lamps. The Menorah only utilized oil-lamps, and the miracle concerned oil. For this reason we go out of our way to emphasize the significance of the oil, through eating oily foods and similar customs we regard the miracle of the Menorah oil.

It has been the custom since the ancient world for Jews stretching from the near-east to Iberia (Spain) to light oil-lamps of fine olive oil. This is the assumed tradition of the Maran in the 16th century and is sustained as the Sephardic custom.

The fact that this is the most fitting way of fulfilling the mitzvah and remembering the miracle of oil is attested to the by the Rema in his gloss to the Maran’s above statement.

ומיהו שמן זית |

מצוה מן המובחר |

However, using olive oil is the

choicest way of performing the mitzvah”

Rema; Rabbi Moshe Isserlis of Kraków, Poland;

Printed 1578

However, we need to take a careful look at the Maran’s statement again in order to understand on what basis is it appropriate for some to light candles. Though lighting an oil-lamp is the best way, the Maran tells us we can use any type of oil or wick to light as a Chanukah light even if it isn’t the choicest method.

In order to make good use of an oil-lamp one must use fine oil, as a unrefined and dirty oil will separate, resulting in it smoking and smoldering; thus failing to produce a steady and sustaining light. Likewise, for a wick to hold a flame well it must be of fine quality and material; the choicest is fine, new cotton wicks.

The Maran seems to be telling us that if the choicest type of oil or wick isn’t available to us then we can use one that is of lesser quality. Whatever we have at our disposal is appropriate. Based on this the Rema also provides the following statement:

ואם אין שמן זית מצוי |

מצוה בשמנים |

שאורן זך ונקי |

ונוהגין במדינות אלו |

להדליק בנרות של שעוה |

כי אורן צלול כמו שמן. |

And if there is not olive oil available

it is a mitzvah with [other] oils

that burns pure and clean.

It is the custom in those countries

to kindle the lights of wax

as they burn clean like oil.”


From this Askenazim derive their tradition of lighting candles as Chanukah lights. One is permitted to use any type of oil that will produce a steady and clean light according to the Rema. As olive oil, or even other types of liquid oils, are not available in some regions, there some people have become accustomed to light the lamps utilizing wax candles

The Rema appears to be of the opinion that we should use what ever we have at our disposable that is of the finest hidur (quality). If that means another type of oil, it will suffice; do your best. As oil is just not available in some places wax candles has had to suffice, but they do in-fact produce clean and steady light, though this is consequential.

The Maran continues, stating:

ואפילו בליל שבת |

שבתוך ימי |

חנוכה |

מותר להדליק |

בנר חנוכה |

השמנים והפתילות |

שאסור להדליק בהם נר שבת |

Even on the eve of Shabbat

which is in the middle of the days

of Chanukah

it is permissible to kindle

the Chanukah lights

with oils and wicks

that are forbidden to use as Shabbat lights.”


What do the Chaunkuah lights have to do with the Shabbath candles? They appear very similar because as candles were virtual unknown to Sephardim, the custom was also to light oil lamps also on Shabbat, not just Chanukah. Askenazim generally utilize wax candles on Shabbat and Chanukah. [See: “Shabbat Lights: The Tradition of Great Scholars to Light with Olive Oil.“]

But this is where the similarities end, the mitzvot are not the same.

On Shabbat we utilize only the best we have in honor of the sabbath. The finest of all things are normally set aside for the sabbath use, such as oil; and we do not make ordinary re-use items but instead use fresh materials, like wicks. However, this is not true for the Chanukah lights. We can reuse old wicks, there is no requirement that they be replaced everyday. And the oils used for the Chanukah lights does not need to be of the finest quality, we can even use left over oil from the nights before if some remains to light the next night. Though ordinarily on the sabbath we want the best wicks and cleanest oil for a practical purpose. We need a light that we will stay lit so that we can do our sabbath activities that night and maybe even the next day, we want a wick that will last and a oil that gives us more than just smoke before going out. We need a fine wick that will work, one we will not be tempted to adjust on Shabbat because it tends to extinguish itself. Keep in mind we are in an age where this is the primary source of light, lanterns of candles or oil.

The Rema agrees this is true, but introjects:

אם אינו נותן בנר רק |

כדי שיעור מצותו |

[Thats is] If one puts in enough [oil] in lamp

to fulfill the mitzvah”


The only real concern we should have is that we supply enough fuel in order for the lights to stay lit for the required amount of time to fulfill the mitzvah. The ideal burning time is one-and-half hours.

Why do we not use longer lasting lights, or utilize oil that provides the best amount of light? The Maran explains it is of no consequence to us because we are not even allowed to make use of the illumination of the Chanukah lights, this is in complete contrast to Shabbat where the sabbath lights are essential for functional purposes of illuminating our home. The Maran explains:

לפי שאסור להשתמש |

בנר חנוכה |

בין בשבת בין בחול |

ואפילו לבדוק מעות |

או למנותן לאורה |

אסור אפילו תשמיש |

של קדושה |

כגון ללמוד לאורה |

אסור |

ויש מי שמתיר בתשמיש |

של קדושה |

ונוהגים להדליק נר נוסף |

כדי שאם ישתמש לאורה |

יהיה לאור הנוסף שהוא אותו |

שהודלק אחרון |

ויניחנו מרחוק קצת |

משאר נרות מצוה.|

For it is forbidden to make use

of the Chanukah lights

both during Shabbat and weekdays;

even if to see if [the wicks] are twisted

or to examine [the intensity] the light.

It is forbidden to use them for even

sacred purposes,

such as learning [Torah] by its illumination;

it is forbidden.

There are those who permit this

for sacred use.

But the proper custom is to light an additional light

so that if the light is utilized

it is from the light of the additional one that

was lit last;

it should be placed a small distance

away from the mitzvah lights.”

Shulchan Aruch, O.C., Perek 673:1; Maran

We cannot make any use of the Chanukah lights, we should not even examine the elements of the Chanukah rituals by means of it’s light to see if it is crooked, distorted or twisted (ma’ot); or as others more simple suggest, we cannot check or count money, as ma’ot (ma’ah singular) are small coins in Talmudic terminology. Either way, we are not allowed to make personal nor sacred use of the Chanukah lights for any reason. Not even for the most lofty of purpose of such as studying Torah. As we will come to see, the difference between Shabbat lights and Chanukah lights is that whereas we use the light to enable us to do our Shabbat mitzvot (we use the light to make Shabbat in our home), during this holiday the lights are the mitzvah (our only requirement is to kindle, nothing more).

The Ner Nosef and the Shamash: The Customs Regarding the Additional Light

In paragraph one of the Shulchan Aruch the Maran acknowledges that there are others who do not hold by this opinion, being lenient concerning sacred use (though he doesn’t identify anyone). However, he goes on to express that it is not the custom of his community to be lenient in this matter, stating that the “proper minhag” (presumably meaning that of the Sephardic community) is to instead light a ner nosef; an additional light. He states the purpose of this additional light is so that one does not make use of the Chanukah lights, instead providing them another light. And by being set apart from the Chanukah lights, one is not prone to make use of the sacred lights but instead use this light. He then says this additional light is lit last.

The Rema continues on to presents the minhag of his community, stating:

ובמדינות אלו אין נוהגים |

להוסיף רק מניח |

אצלן השמש |

שבו מדליק הנרות |

הוא עדיף טפי |

In these countries it tends not to be the custom

to add an additional [candle]

but to delegates the Shamash

with which he kindles the lights;

this is preferable.”


The Rema takes a personal tone, saying that in region from which he is writing (he is in Poland) it is the custom not to add an additional light. Instead one uses the Shamash for this purpose of providing light. The Shamash is also used to kindle the Chanukah lights. Logically, if you light the festival lights with the Shamash then it must be lit first and not last. By virtue the word shamash means “the servant,” suggesting that it is used in service of kindling the other lights. This is our first mention of the Shamash, it’s purpose is suggested by the name that is ascribed to it. Though the idea that it is lit first is not yet explicitly stated here.

In this line the custom of Ashkenazim to light the Chanukah lights with the Shamash is documented for us here in the 16th century by the Rema. It also provides us from where the custom of placing the Shamash light right next to the Chanukah lights is derived. The word preceding is also generally understood figuratively, according in its literary form as “azal” meaning to place close by or near to something, instead of “eh’zel” (same spelling, different pronunciation) which means to delegate and utilize. Whereas, the Maran says a light should be a bit away, this figurative understanding of the Rema’s words suggests “close by” instead.

So now not only do we have two varying minhagim relating to the type of lights, Askenazim lighing candles and Sephardim lighting oil lamps, but we also have two different types of auxiliary lights. Askenazim lighting it first and the Sephardim lighting it last.

PM Netenyahu and Defense Minister Barak at army base lighting for the first night

The Rema will also go on to tell us that this auxiliary light should be longer than (יותר ארוך) than the rest of the lights so that one makes use of it. Though this explicitly means longer-lasting, not taller or higher, it is the custom of many Askenazim to also place this light above the mitzvah lights, on a single candelabrum with one branch rising higher for this auxiliary light to be placed upon. For practical reason this is helpful, to make better use of the light we should place it higher. It is the universal custom to not place the mitzvah lights too high so that we are not tempted to make ordinary use of them, but any additional lamps in the home are placed at a good and sufficient height to better illuminate the room. Though this does not need to apply to the Shamash, it is still appropriate and helpful.

All of this might seem confusing to some, virtually then entire Jewish world only knows the custom one way. Even the gentile world knows the symbol of the menorah through the lighting of the chanukiah – the 9 branched (8 arms, 1 Shamash) candelabrum that is lit for Chanukah. From the White House to your local shopping center you will find menorah lighting ceremonies to celebrate the holiday. We think of candles being lit. It seems self explanatory, you get a candle and you light the rest of them with it. If you had to pick which one was gonna to single out, it’s obviously going to be the Shamash.

Now lets try considering the Sephardic custom to light the Shamash last, and try to work through the mechanics of that with candles. And here we have a really big problem. That extra-candle is all good and well for extra light, but now it’s really close to the rest of the mitzvah lights so we are now prone to use them by using it. But is something that should be more drastically obvious to us to struggle with. This extra light is not even used for lighting the other candles so its superfluous; it doesn’t serve any real purpose. It doesn’t make any sense. Furthermore, it would seem frustrating because now we don’t know what we are supposed to be lighting the rest of the candles with.

As most of American Jewry is Eastern European (Ashkenazi) their custom is the most prevalent in our society. We understand this method. Being in America, it is true that olive oil in this day and age is not hard to acquire. And it is relatively affordable, though not necessarily inexpensive. However, candles are very inexpensive and we all know how to use them. If olive oil was as common to America as it is in the Mediterranean and middle-east, we would most likely make use of oil lamps for economical reasons instead.

The Chanukiah Candelabrum is not a Menorah

We do not need the finest olive oil to light. Nor need to have a special menorah to light Chanukah lights upon. All that is required is that we light the right amount of lights for the day and the Shamash. In the east it is the custom to use individual oil-lamps without placing them on a candelabrum. One does not even need separate lamps, one can use a single reservoir lamp with one wick for each night. Likewise, it is permissible for us to just light the right amount candles without use of a menorah. All that is required is we keep the ner mitzvot at the same height. This is true in any community.

We are not commemorating the Menorah, we are keeping the mitzvah of the miracle of the lights. We fulfill our obligation by lighting the lights, not by lighting a menorah. The two are very distinct from one another. This is expressed to us by the first words of the next paragraph in the words of the Maran:

| הדלקה עושה מצוה

The kindling is the mitzvah.”

Shulchan Aruch, O.C., Perek 673:2; Maran

Sure there are some Askenazim that do make use of olive oil for Chanukah lights. Sometimes the oil-lamps are placed in the form of a menorah, but one needs to be careful not to confuse the two. In relations to what we have already discussed, we cannot make use of the lights for any purpose; whereas the Menorah of the Tabernacle and the Second Temple period was utilized explicitly for lighting inside the sanctuary. The Menorah of the Temple had seven branches for oil-lamps and were regularly refilled with oil. At the center was an offset ner meharav (the western light) thats was perpetually kept lit, and it was utilized to relight the other lamps.

Though it is the stringent custom of some to relight Chanukah candles that are accidentally extinguished, it is also the stringency of such communities to not allow kindling one light off another: This is the sustained Ashkenazi opinion, despite being allowed by the Maran (674:1). The opinions of the Rema and subsequent Ashekenazi poskim are blatantly presented as stringencies. Naturally if one was using candles this would be reasonable as you want to use as much of the candle as possible and not waste it, and relighting is easy as one has an available Shamash with which to do so.

This opinion would be presented to us clearly in the mid-19th century by Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried of Hungary in his widely celebrated Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (also popularly known as The Abridged Code of Jewish Law). This work of Ashkenazi scholarship is the single most well known reference for Jewish law and is considered the most accessible of all the halachic works. He would also reaffirm the points also established by the Rema. But notice he is going to add one extra statement before he explains to us the placement and the usage of the Shamash as an auxiliary light:

יג) ונוהגין להחמיר

שלא להדליק מנר לנר,

אלא מדליקן מן השמש

או מנר אחר.


יד) כל זמן


דהיינו חצי שעה,

אסור ליהנות מאורן.

ולכן נוהגין להניח

אצלן את השַמָש

שהדליקן בו,

כדי שאם ישתמש אצלן

ישתמש לאור השַמָש.

וצריכין להניחו

קצת למעלה מן הנרות,

שיהא ניכר שאינו



It is our custom to be stringent |

not to kindle from lamp to lamp, |

but to kindle it with the Shamash |

or another light. |


During the time of |

fulfilling the mitzvah, |

for an hour and a half long, |

it is forbidden to make use of it’s light. |

For this reason it is our custom to place |

near it the Shamash |

with which you kindle it, |

so that if one uses the light |

one is utilizing the light of the Shamash. |

You must place it |

a little higher than the [other] lights |

so that it is not considered among |

the count |

of the [mitzvah] lights.” |

Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfied (1804 to1886), of Hungary

Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, Chapter 139:13-14

Now for a moment I need us to step back and consider this for a second. All the commentaries up until now have relayed the information related the laws of Chanukah lights in a specific order. Naturally since all these works are themselves are commentaries and pretty much the “Cliff’s Notes” of the Shulchan Aruch, we expect the information to flow in accordance with that. The Rema who first comments on the Shulchan Aruch even keeps in complete step with the order of the Maran. In fact the Maran himself is following an order and line of thought already set up by the Tur (in the late 13th to early 14th century). But here Rabbi Ganzfried gets ahead of himself and starts interpreting the text broadly. Surely he knows whats coming up in the next chapter by the Maran so he has to make a pre-emptive statement; be stringent, do not light one light off of another light, but instead use the Shamash or another light. Though this should only really apply to relighting candles (which the verses immediately before this concern themselves with), he is making a blanket statement about lighting and relighting in one solid swoop.

I say “pre-emptively” because the next whole chapter of the Shulchan Aruch is going to be the Maran explicitly telling us that we are permitted to light one light from another. He says that we are actually even allowed to light one light right from the other without having a candle in between them to light with. However, he admonishes us that one is not allowed to light with an ordinary light; an ordinary candle (ner shel chol) / a weekday light. Though he admits some permit this, as long as there is not the fear that the light will go out in between lighting the Chanukah light with the ordinary candle (ha-ner shel chol).

20151213_181646The Rema and Ashkenazi tradition will disagree with this. The reason that is given to us by the Rema is based on a true assumption; only one of the candles is actually a mitzvah light, the one light for that specific night. The rest to the right of the light are to aggrandize the mitzvah, but in reality only one of the candles is necessary. We all know the story of how we came up with the lighting in this fashion, it was a debate of lighting one candle, or changing the order to correspond to 8 days in either by adding or subtracting lighting. In the end the tradition implemented by the Rabbis of the Talmud was that of adding lights so that we would come to an honored climax. (Talmud Shabbat 21b) On account of this it is felt that the other lights are less holy, because in essence we only really need one candle per day. If we were to light the first light then light the additional lights off of it, we are using the light of the mitzvah for something that is not necessary for a mitzvah, we are cheapening the mitzvah light by using it for a lesser act.

But like I said, I want to deal with only one chapter of the Code (though the text and translation for the section cited will be listed in the footnotes below), so I cannot go into more detail at this time for the sake of time. But there are some details we have to cover in order to understand why the next work also jumps the gun as well as.

First off, the reason that the Maran seems concerned that we do not take any ordinary object and take fire for the Chanukah lights for it is also in order to not appear to cheapen the mitzvah as well. He thinks its better practice to light one Chanukah light directly from another if necessary. First off there is a subtle assumption made, that by lighting up another candle from a sacred light in order to light another one thereby designates that item for sacred use and it should not be treated like an ordinary item from that point on. The other cause for concern seems to be that if one uses an intermediary candle, then one must be sure that the light is not likely to go out before completing the process of transferring the flame. If there is such a risk (like heavy wind for instance) attempting a transferring of the light for kindling is not permissible. We want it to be clear we only use the flame for a mitzvah and not for personal use in the interim of lighting, which would appear to be the case if the light went out before we actually lit another candle. Nachon, are we following along so far? It seems the Maran is making a stringency saying we shouldn’t use an intermediary candle, though some permit this.

The Sacred 36 Lights

Though a reason is provided above by the Rema, concerning the lesser “importance” of the other lights aside from the single light intended for that day; this will not be the final halacha for even Ashkenazim. In the end it is going to be tempered by generations of rabbis who are going to attest to the fact that because the other lights of the Chanukah count are set aside for a sacred use, they also have holiness imparted to them. They must be treated sacredly. By the time of Rabbi Ganzfied with his Kitzur the halacha is going to be established as such, and signified by us keeping all the mitzvah lights at the same height to signify they are for the mitzvah, and the Shamash we raise a little bit higher. This is the custom in all communities.

In the minds of many people the halachic process ends at this point. The halachic reasons presented up to now are sensible to us. Here we see the evolution of a halachic processes taking place in how we perform this mitzvah, it is natural for many to think that we should follow the rulings that is most contemporary; in this case the urgings of our Ashkenazi rabbis such as the honorable Rabbi Ganzfried. Some also see this as keeping in step with progress, we are moving from oil lamps to standard candles so the halacha shifts. However, Rabbi Ganzfried’s positions represent the Ashkenazi tradition in as much as he follows the ruling of the Rema. And furthermore, there is a voices even more contemporary that shares the Sephardi position.

We will find our Sephardi/Mizrahi position provided to us by the Ben Ish Chai, Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad. The Ben Ish Chai, one of the highest regarded “oriental” rabbis:

Do not light some oil lamps and some wax

so that it can not be said

two people have lit [sets of lights]

therefore this is not

a completed [also. elegant] mitzvah.

Therefore it is good that the entire set

of lights are equal;

in size, appearance and kind.

As one complete mitzvah.

It is good that this additional light,

called the Shamash,

be made distinct (Lit. strange)

from the Chanukah Lights

so that it is evident

that it is not part of the Chanukah lights.

And this is my custom.”


It is forbidden to light

from a sacred item

for [lighting] an ordinary item.

But from the additional light

it is permissible.

And there are the stringent

who also allow with an additional candle.”

יג) אין להדליק קצת נרות משמן וקצת משעוה, |

כדי שלא יאמרו |

שני אנשים הדליקו |

ועוד אין בזה |

הידור מצוה, |

ולכן טוב שגם גוף |

הנרות יהיו שוין |

בגודלן ומראיהם ומינם |

משום הידור מצוה, |

וטוב שזה נר הנוסף |

שקורין שמש |

יעשהו משונה |

מנרות חנוכה, |

כדי שיהא ניכר |

שאין זה בכלל נח |

וכן אני נוהג: |


יד) אסור להשתמש לאורה |

בין תשמיש קדושה |

בין תשמיש חול, |

אבל לנר הנוסף |

מותר |

ויש מחמירין |

גם בנר הנוסף… |

The Ben Ish Chai, Rabbi Yosef Chaim (1832 – 1909) of Baghdad

Shana Rishon, Halachot Chanukah

First off, before I get any further I must note that in the paragraph before this one (paragraph 12) the Ben Ish Chai who is a only 25 years the junior to Rabbi Ganzfried attests that we in the “orient” and near-eastern lands still use olive oil, he says of both Chanukah and Shabbat lights; only differences really is the quality of the wicks. He begins this by quoting the already discussed words of the Rema himself, “shemen zait mitzvah min ha’muvchar / olive oil is the mitzvah done to perfection.” But this shouldn’t be anything shocking to us, because this is also agreed upon in the Kitzur (139:4).

But instead of immediately going into making the argument and mechanics for using wax like the Kitzur does, here the Ben Ish Chai is going to say that its okay to use candles without making an argument for it. But he will present us with certain guidelines concerning this advancement. If we are going to use oil, then we use all the lights oil. If we use wax then all of the lights should be wax. This is because the lighting is one complete mitzvah. We need to keep the candles not only level with each other, but of the same kind so that it is obvious and apparent we are completing one whole mitzvah with these lights.

Now the Shamash should be distinct so it can be different from the rest of the lights. It seems to be suggested that it can not just be set aside, but be a strange candle or light that is different from the rest. We should raise it a little bit higher, or set it aside from the rest.

But what about lighting and relighting? He says we should not light weekday or ordinary lights from the sacred Chanukah lights, but from the additional light it is permissible. Sacred lights sacred, ordinary lights ordinary. But then he throws a zinger at us here. The stringent of the Sephardic custom allows one to light with an even additional candle yet. This is the light that we utilize for lighting the initial lights (which we light before we recite the blessings and light the number of lights for the day). We can take this third-party candle and use it to light; then put it out. If we relight, we can use this third-party candle again. Yes, we can even relight from the other Chanukah lights for another Chanukah light. But we should only light sacred with sacred, and non-sacred with non-sacred.

But what about the concern on transferring sacredness to the intermediary candle or temporarily using the light in the interim? The answer will be provided for us by another chacham, but this is one more closer to our day and age; in the voice of Rabbi Ovediah Yosef, shlitah, the former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel and spiritual leader to the Mizrahi and Sephardi communities to this day:

אסור להשתמש לאור

נרות חנוכה,

ואפילו תשמיש עראי

כגון לבדוק מעות


לאורה אסור,

כדי שלא יהיו

המצוות בזויות עליו

(שבת כב.).


א) ותשמיש עראי של

מצוה מותר.

ולכן אם נסתפק לו דין

שהוא צורך חנוכה,

מותר להשתמש לאורה.


ב) ואפילו תשמיש של קדושה

כגון ללמוד

לאורה אסור

ולכן נוהגים להדליק נר נוסף

שנקרא שָׁמַשׁ

כדי שאם ישתמש לאורה,

יהיה לאור הנוסף,

שמדליקים אותו לאחרונה,

ונוהגים לתת הנר הנוסף יותר גבוה

מנרות המצוה,

ורמז לדבר:


ג) שרפים עומדים ממעל לו”,

שמנין נרות המצוה

בכל הלילות ביחד הם שלשים וששה

כמנין לו

ואם אי אפשר

להניח נר השמש

גבוה יותר משאר הנרות, יניחנו רחוק קצת מהם,

כדי שיהיה ניכר שאינו

מנרות המצוה.

It is forbidden to utilize the illumination of |

the Chanukah lights |

even if for a temporary use |

for things such as counting coins |

or examining; |

from the illumination is forbidden |

so that there is no |

contempt for the commandment. |

(Talmud Shabbat 22) |


Use of a temporary item for a |

mitzvah is allowed; |

therefore if we are satisfying a law |

that is necessary for Chanukah, |

the light may be used. |


Even for a use that is sacred |

such as learning, |

by the illumination it is forbidden. |

Therefore we kindle an additional light |

that is called the Shamash |

so that if we make use of the illumination |

it is from the additional light. |

So kindling it last, |

the additional light tending to be taller than |

the commanded candle lamps |

hinting to its meaning |


‘Seraphim stand above “it” [or Him]'(Is. 6:2)|

as the total lights of the mitzvah |

of all the nights together is 36 |

like the word ‘it.’ |

If you cannot place |

the Shamash light above |

we place it aside a little distance from them |

so much that it is not considered as a |

mitzvah lamp.” |

Rabbi Ovediah Yosef, (1920 – ) shelita; Rishon LeTzion (Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel)

Yalkut Yosef, Yayikra Yosef, from the “Kitzur Edition;”

Halachot Chanukah, Chapter 1- “אסור להשתמש לאורה

Herein he also provides us with a beautiful understanding of the mitzvah lights. Using a mystical understanding of the lights he notes that if we combine the amount of mitzvah lights that we light it comes to a total of 36. It is not just the single light for the night that is sacred, but mystically all 36 of the mitzvah candles we light over the eight days have spiritual virtue. They are like the holy seraphim, whose name literally means “the burning ones.” They stand around the Throne of G-d and proclaim the holiness of G-d (see Isaiah chapter 6.)

It also spells it out for us plainly. We can use any temporary item in order to light or relight the candles with, what ever is necessary in order to perform the mitzvah. Though we are not allowed to make use of the fire or illumination for any other purpose, even for fulfilling another mitzvah; but for the mitzvah of lighting or relighting the Chanukah lights we may temporarily use that light, or use a temporary item in order to accomplish that. It can be another match, or another candle. Generally we use another candle that is able to aid us with this, then when we are done using it we extinguish it, it does not need to be kept contentiously burning like the rest of the lights.

And here, as late as the 20th century despite innovations in halachic approach and even the instruments we utilize as Chanukah lights; the tradition of the Maran that was present in the Shulchan Aruch still holds true for Sephardic and Middle-eastern Jews up until the present day, at the urging of rabbis of our own tradition.

One’s Minhag: Is it Something to be Dogmatic About?

After Rabbi Ovediah Yosef left office as Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Tel Aviv-Yaffo, Rabbi Chaim David haLevi took the position, in which he served for over 25 years. He was a widely respected rabbi who was known for his temperance, wisdom, modernity and keen insight. His Kitzur Mekor Chaim (named after the larger 5 volume halachic work, the Mekor Chaim haLevi, which would also become his nickname) became a standard text used in the Israeli religious education system and in Religious Zionists yeshivot. He is uncompromisingly Sephardi in tradition, but is bold in bridging the gap between the customs of the Jews of the East Orient and those of Eastern Europe by even including Ashkenazi halacha in his conclusions when appropriate. It’s this balance that made it a widely accepted work.

He would not be very explicit about the order of the lighting of the Shamash. Notice the vagueness of the language in the conclusions he provides us, he tries being true to each tradition by applying an open-ended statement that is applicable no matter which school you are hailing from:

On the first night

kindling one

and adding one more each night,

as is well know.

Therefore, it is the custom

that each member of the household

light his own.

And it is forbidden to utilize

the light of the Chanukah lights

even for a sacred use

such as learning Torah;

for this reason it is the proper custom

to light an additional light

called the Shamash;

so that if you use it,

it is from the illumination of the

additional light

which we place a small distance

from the rest of the lights.”

ו) בלילה הראשון |

מדליק אחד |

ומוסיף אחד בכל לילה |

כידוע. |

ויש נהגים |

שכל אחד מבני הבית |

נר לעצמו. |

ואסור להשתמש |

לאור נרות חנוכה |

אפילו תשמיש קדושה |

כגון למוד תורה, |

ולכן נוהגים |

להדליק נר נוסף |

הנקרא שמש, |

כדי שאם ישתמש |

יהיה זה לאור |

הנר הנוסף, |

ויניחנו רחוק קצת |

מיתר הנרות. |

Rabbi Chaim David haLevi (1924-1998), Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv-Yaffo

Kitzur Mekor Chaim, Halachot Nerot, p.282

There is one interesting feature though in this statement. He would interestingly seem to not stand behind the already established Sephardi customs of permitting only the head of the house to kindle the Chanukah lights, appearing to side with the Ashkenazi tradition that each person old enough has to light their own Chanukiah.

Though one might assume that his approach of balancing both traditions left him with a choice regarding the application of the clause referring to who is obligated to light the Chanukah lights. Some have incorrectly assumed that he has sided with the Ashkenazi approach, as this custom is choicest and more logical. They disregard various passages from the Maran himself, were he twice he suggests to us that one who is old enough to learn is obligated to light too.

His opinion seems to be that everyone should light, nonetheless we must keep in mind that the obligation of lighting is performed by the head of the household only in the Sephardic tradition.

It should be noted that all Sephardic poskim prior to this have ruled that one should not allow children to light the mitzvah lights, but they are permitted to light the Shamash or any other additional light. This was first provided in clarity to us by the Ben Ish Chai:

It is good that one should give

to his small sons

a little extra candle to light for themselves,

so that they can be educated in the mitzvot.

So with this small extra light

they can perform a small mitzvah.

And this is my custom,

and it is proper to do so.

However, do not let them kindle

the obligatory lights…”

טוב ליתן לאחד |

מבניו הקטנים |

להדליק בידם נר הנוסף |

כדי לחנכם במצות, |

שגם בזה הנר הנוסף |

יש קצת מצוה, |

וכן אני נוהג |

וראוי לעשות כך, |

אבל לא יתן להם להדליק |

מנרות של חיוב… |

Ben Ish Chai, Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad

Halachot Chanukah, Paragraph 12

However regarding the type of lights we should use, he will be a bit more explicit concerning them. He would present the words of the Maran and the Rema almost exactly, choosing only to simplify the grammar of the text. He would also add an opinion regarding the use of electric lights. Here the Mekor Chaim brings us into the modern age:

ט) כל השמנים והפתילות כשרים לנר חנוכה, |

ושמן זית מצוה מן המובחר. ונהגו מהדליק בנר |

שעוה כי אורו |

זך וצלולץ. |

ואין יוצאים ידי חובה |

באור החשמל |

להדלקת נר חנוכה. |

All oils are permissible for Chanukah lights,

and olive oil is a mitzvah done to perfection.

There are those who light

wax for a pure and clean light.

But there is no fulfillment of an obligation

with a electric light

lit as a Chanukah light.”

Kitzur Mekor Chaim, Halachot Nerot, p.283

The Kitzur Mekor Chaim is an ideal example of modern scholarship, presenting halachic opinions necessary for our current age. It brings down law without disregarding the halacic opinions of those who came before us.

His approach is very much like that of the Baal haTanya, who presents to us a mixture of both Sephardic and Ashkenazi tradition. Whereas the Baal haTanya sought to produce a nusach and siddur that was applicable for all Israel, the Mekor Chaim sought to produce a halachic reference that was also applicable for all Israel. They both present us what is true and necessary in the broader sense. Their statements are most often purposely left open to interpretation. This is not a fault, but instead another example of their brilliance in that they were able to produce a text usable by the general public; without the pitfalls of dogmatism. That is not to say that they don’t have opinions, as they were both prolific halachic commentators who published extensively; but this just isn’t the place for it. That which is not mentioned here should be understood according to our own minhag, we are not allowed to disregard our own tradition. This is because of the general legal principal that:

The custom of Israel is Law”

מנהג ישראל, תורה הוא |

Chida, Mihazik Beracha 261:7

Now if we want to understand our minhag, that requires more than just a passing reference in a single volume. That requires an honest and deeper look at the halachic process. Once we do that, it is very apparent that we are actually a lot more alike than we are different.

Need the blessings to light your Chanukah lights? Get them HERE

1] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 674:1

מדליקין נר חנוכה מנר חנוכה ודוקא להדליק זה מזה בלא אמצעי אבל להדליק מזה לזה על ידי נר של חול אסור ויש מתירים גם בזה אאכ הוא בענין שיש לחוש שיכבה הנר של חול קודם שידליק נר אחר של חנוכה:

MARAN: We [Sephardim] many kindle one Chanukah light from another Chanukah light, in fact kindle one from another without without an intermediary, but to kindle one from another through a non-sacred light is prohibited. However, there are those who permit even this, unless there is the feeling that the non-sacred light will be extinguished before he kindles the other Chanukah light.”

הגה: ונהגו להחמיר בנרות חנוכה שלא להדליק אפילו מנר לנר דעיקר מצותו אינו אלא נר אחד והשאר אינו למצוה:

REMA: We [Ashkenazim] have adopted the custom to be stringent regarding the Chanukah lights; not even to kindle one from another; because the main mitzvah is one light, and the rest are not so much for the mitzvah.”

2] Shulchan Aruch O.C. 671:2

סעיף ב — כמה נרות מדליק? בלילה הראשון מליק אחד. מכאן ואילך מוסיף והולך, אחד בכל לילה, עד שבליל האחרון יהיו שמונה. ואפילו אם רבים בני הבית, לא ידליקו יותר.

MARAN: How many lights should one light? On the first night light one. And then continue on adding additional; one every night until he ends with eight. And even if there are many more members of the household, one should not add more.

הגה: ויש אומרים דכל אחד מבני הבית ידליק (רמב”ם), וכן המנהג פשוט. ויזהרו ליתן כל אחד ואחד נרותיו במקום מיוחד, כדי שיהא היכר כמה נרות מדליקין.

REMA: But there are those who say that each member of the house should light; (Rambam) and therefore it is the widespread custom. One should be careful to place their lights in their own separate space, so that one can recognize how many lights they have lit.

Shulchan Aruch O.C. 675:3

סעיף ג – מי שאומר בקטן שהגיע לחינוך מותר.

MARAN: There are those who say that small children old enough to be educated are permitted [to light].

הגה: ולדידן דכל אחד מבני הבית מדליק בפ”ע קטן שהגיע לחינוך צריך להדליק ג”כ.

REMA: And for us, each member of the household [is obligated to] light. There are those who say even a small child that is old enough to be educated must light.

Shulchan Aruch O.C. 677:2

סעיף ב — קטן שהגיע לחינוך צריך להדליק:

MARAN: A small child that is old enough to be educated must light.

The Morning Washing: Clean and Holy Hands

The Morning Washing: Clean and Holy Hands
Negel Vasser and Netilat Yadayim

כל אדם הקם |

ממטתו שחרית, |

בין עשה צרכיו בין לא עשה צרכיו – |

צריך לרחוץ ידיו |

ברביעית הלוג מים מן |

הכלי |

ואפילו אינו רוצה להתפלל עד |

לאחר כמה שעות, |

לפי שכל אדם כשהקבה |

מחזיר לו נשמתו |

נעשה כבריה חדשה |

כמש |

חדשים לבקרים כו,” |


שהאדם מפקיד נשמתו עייפה, |

והקבה |

מחזיר לו |

חדשה ורגועה, |

כדי לעבוד להשית |

בכל יכולתו, ולשרתו כל היום, |

כי זה כל האדם לפיכך |

צריכים אנחנו להתקדש |

בקדושתו, |

וליטול ידינו מן הכלי, |

כדי לעבוד עבודתו ולשרתו, |

כמו כהן שהיה מקדש |

ידיו מן הכיור |

בכל יום קודם עבודתו. |

וכיון שצריך לטל ידיו מן |

הכלי דוקא, |

לכן יברך על נטלית ידים,” |


ולא על ריחיצת ידים,” |


מפני שהכלי |

שממנו נוטלין לידים – |

נקרע נטלאבלשון חזל, |

לכן תקנו בברכה זו |

לשון נטילה, |

להורות דצריך כלי. |

Anyone who rises

from his bed in the morning

whether he relieves himself or does not –

he needs to wash his hands

with a quarter of a lug of water

from a vessel.

Even if he does not intend to prayer

for several hours.

Considering that the Holy One, blessed be He,

He returns his soul;

becoming a newly-created being.

As it is written,

They are new every morning…”

(Lamentation 3:23) [At night]

A person entrusts his weary soul to him

and the Holy One, blessed be He,

returns it to him [in the morning]

new and refreshed.

to worship Him with all his ability,

in any capacity, and serve him all day,

for this is the entire purpose of man [1]

We should therefore sanctify ourselves in

His holiness,

taking our hands with a vessel,

to carry out his duty and service

Like a priests who would sanctify

his hands from the Lavern

everyday before his service.

Having taken his hand with

an actual vessel

therefore bless [with] “al netilat yadayim

(Heb. “to take the hands”)

and not “al rechitzat yadayim

(Heb. “to wash the hands”)

because the vessel

from which one takes the hands

is called a Natla in the words of the Sages.

By them fixing this blessing

with the word netilah

they mean with an actual vessel.[2]”

Shulchan Aruch haRav 4:1 – Helichot Netilat Yadayim –

The Laws Regarding the Sanctification of the Hands

I have to admit, this topic is one that is of such difficulty and can easily bring so much controversy regarding it that I have been very hesitant in approaching this next piece. But it is absolutely necessary to deal with this topic before we move on. I don’t want to debate out the controversies, but I do want to give explanation to the rituals of washing in context of the Nusach haAri z”l. This might differ in some respects from the normative traditions known by Ashkenazim and Sephardim alike as many personal customs and chumras have complicated how different communities approach this custom. I will present the simple and straight forward approach, relying on elements of practice and Jewish law taken from the urging of chachaimim (scholars) of both traditions.

Previously we began our studies with the topic of Modeh Ani, of giving thanks to G-d immediately upon awakening. As we learned one of the unique features about the prayer is that it intentionally does not make use of any of the seven Divine Names before washing, these are the scriptural names which should not be erased: [3] They are:

El, Elohim, Adonai, YHVH, Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, Shaddai, and Hashem Tzevaot

If we have slept at all unclothed one needs to wash. The reason is because the sages teach us that when we sleep a spirit of uncleanliness, an unenlightening consciousness comes over the body in the absence of our conscious self. According to the Zohar there is a residue of this unclean spirit that remains on the tips of the fingers that should removed by washing (Zohar, Vayishlach). For practical reason, this also is a good practice because one might have touched unclean parts of their body during the night, before touching any other parts of our body especially the orifices of the body, one should first wash. By washing one shows the immediate need to care for oneself, but also to approach our walk and practice before G-d with pure intentions. Based on this it is the Kabbalistic custom to not walk outside of ones reshut hayachid – their personal space, or own domain – without washing; the span of four amot (about 6-feet; or 2 – 2.3-meters).

Washing is one of the most misunderstood of all the mitzvot (commandments). Most often the reason is because people misunderstand exactly why we are washing. This is because washing has had different applications at different points in history. And because there are different types of washing during the day. We need to look at both topics to understand which instance we are actually speaking about here.

The Biblical Significance of Washing

Washing Hands At Kotel

Washing before prayer at the Kotel

One of the earliest examples we have in the scriptures of ritual washing takes place in the context of the Mishkan – the Tabernacle sanctuary. Before the priests entered into the holy confines of the Temple complex to worship they would wash in the copper Lavern that stood inside the courtyard (see Exodus 30:17-21, 38:8). This ritual purification was as a sign of preparing oneself in order to worship. Likewise even sacrifices that were going to be offered on the altar were washed, washing serves as a symbol of preparing something for sacred use.

Now there are other examples biblically of washing; washing for reason of impurity. This is the most often known reason, often enumerated in the mitzvot of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. When one is ritually unclean for some type of sin or affliction they are to wash their hands, wash his clothes, then bath and they are unclean for a certain amount of time (example, Leviticus 15:11). Because this topic comes up so often, it is often thought of as the only reason that people of the bible washed. People often associate all washing with removing illness and for reason of cleanliness.

However, this is not the case here when we wash our hands in the morning. Simply put the biblical form of washing and bathing is to make someone ritually pure, to remove tumah that would prohibit them from being able to enter into the Holy Temple. Since the Temple does not stand today, and we have no means of attaining true ritual purity through its rites, we are not concerned with ritual purity to the same extent (as we see this is a full washing of ones hands, feet and clothing; as well as full and complete ablution, immersion in a stream). All of us until the future Temple is rebuilt are in a state of general impurity, but as we don’t utilize the Temple rituals this is without consequence to us.

Secondly, if we consider it, obviously a person that was subject to tumah impurity could not ascent to the Temple complex anyhow. Until they were pure again, no matter how many times they washed their hands, they could not go up into the sacred places until the days or even weeks of their quarantine passed. Thus the biblical washing in the courtyard is undoubtedly something all together different.

The reason we wash is not to somehow elevate ourselves out of impurity necessarily, but to elevate our mindset through an act of devotion. When we consider this the words of the Psalm of David make sense:

I will wash my hands in innocence,

and so will I surround Your altar, Hashem.”

| Eirchatz b’nikayon kafi

| vaasov’vah et-mizbachach Hashem

Psalm 26:5

We wash our hands as an act of purifying ourselves for divine service, as we wash our hands we are doing so with intention of coming before G-d with a pure and innocent heart. This is further explained to us by the Psalms as well:

Who shall ascend

into the mountain of Hashem,

and who shall stand in His holy place?

He who has clean hands and a pure heart.”

| Mi ya’aleh

| b’har Hashem;

| u’mi-yakum bimekom kadosho.

| N’eki chapaim u-var leyvav.

Psalms 24:3-4a

Our clean hands are symbols of our innocence, hands free of innocent blood and the stains of wrong doing.

The Rabbinic History and Law Regarding Washing

One of the reasons this washing in the morning is often misunderstood and people debate the practices related to it is because we don’t have a great deal of Talmud writing regarding this practice of morning washing. Though we will find extensive writing regarding the washings of the priests, the washing of sacrifices, immersions of vessels and people in the mikveh, and washing before and after meals; we will be left with a lot of ambiguity relating to morning washing. This would be something that would be dealt with in clarity by the later halachic writings from the Shulchan Aruch in the 16th century on, but this specific morning washing we are talking about is not a major rabbinic topic in Talmudic times.

The most closely related form of washing from the Talmud, the example that stick out in peoples mind the most when it comes to ritual washing, is the use of yetilat yadayim – washing with a blessing for the elevation of the hands that is taken from the Talmud. Though there are different types of washing the one most people associate mentally with is washing with a blessing before a meal (in which bread is eaten).

Though ritual washing would be an important topic about Judaism noticed by foreign cultures and religions, the broad practice of ritual washing was not established until well after the destruction of the Temple. Rituals which were reserved for the priesthood in the Temple era would be memorialized in everyday practice, reintroduces as spiritual practices that the whole community of Israel would participate in as early as the 3rd century CE. A lot of these symbols became things that would take place around the table, a symbolic altar. Just as the rabbis instituted the blessing and salting of bread in honor of the holy sacrifices that were salted, we wash our hands before a meal just as the priest washed before their sacrificial service. We wash to rise to a spiritual occasion, not to remove germs or physical impurity. Though one needs clean hands for netilat yadayim, the blessing of the hands, it does not purify the hands; it sanctifies them, prepares them for spiritual use.

Washing Hands At KotelScholars often note that the word netilat is a strange and uncommon word. One cannot escape that the word netilat does not mean to wash. To translate it as such would be incorrect. Notice when we say the blessing for the lulav the blessing of netilat lulav is recited; it doesn’t mean to wave the lulav, and most certainly it doesn’t mean to wash the lulav. Netilat is often understood by the scholars to mean to elevate. They notice that during the post-temple rabbinic age the people took to washing their hands by elevating them, washing to the wrist from a vessel. It was often assumed by linguists this practice came about by being suggested because such a uniquely styled vessel in the Greek speaking Mediterranean is called a natla (αντλίον), (and thus it is likewise named as such in Aramaic) was utilized for this purpose. (see Talmud Bavli, Brachot Chullin 107a)

The blessing makes more sense to us if we use the modern Hebrew understanding of what it means to netilah; it means to take, to receive, to accept something. But it doesn’t mean to take just in the sense of merely obtaining something; it can also mean to accept responsibility. As we wash our hands with a blessing we are taking our hands and accepting upon them responsibility to do righteousness and holiness with these hands.

The question that often arises for people when they are learning how to wash, is when do we say a blessing for washing. Some people assume that every time we wash, we say a blessing. This is not so. We wash with a blessing before a meal, because we are about to bless for eating. We are blessing in order to do a specific holy acts of blessing again over food and eating.

However, when we awake in the morning the first thing that we as proper people should do is to ready ourselves for the day. That means getting dressing and cleaning up; washing our face, brushing our teeth, etc. However, remember, as I stated the kabbalists have taught us one should not touch any orifices of their body with unclean hands upon awaking because it can bring harm to us.

Just as pious people do not walk four amot without a kippah (a yarmulke, a head covering) out of respect for G-d, pious Jews are of the practice of not walking more than four amot without washing to avoid harm. Though technically the rule of four amot can extend to the personal domain outside of one’s home, it is the practice of the pious to not walk more than four amot from their bed without washing. For this reason it is the custom of most Chassidim, and many Sephardim and mystics, to wash at the place one slept. Though one might reckon their reasons are for the purpose of being stringent in regard to the distance of four amot, the true impulse to doing so lies behind the spirit of the devout to not delay in doing a mitzvah. We should jump to perform a mitzvah as soon as we can, not putting it off. In enthusiasm to start doing works of holiness the pious make practice to wash at their bedside.

Now when one washed at their bedside, they do not need to recite the blessing of netilat yadayim, as they are not going to going to engage in any specific holy act immediately. In fact it is preferred by our rabbis that one merely wash to remove the spirit of impurity from ones hands; pouring clean water from a vessel over one hands, first the right then the left, alternating three times back and forth. The water should be allowed to flow into a bowl or basin, and disposed of in a place where one does not intended to walk; this impure water is specifically what we call negel vasser in Yiddish (lit. “nail water”), meaning dead and impure water.

Now that ones hands are clean they may go about washing and doing all their daily activities. We do not say a blessing because we are going to engage in our mundane activities. We reserve the blessing of netilat yadayim for after we are finished arising, specifically after we have evacuated our bowels by going to the restroom and after saying the appropriate blessing of asher yatzar, we pair those two blessings together. Being relieved and refreshed, we wash with a blessing in order to go about the rest of our spiritual and worldly obligations. But this is a topic we will discuss more in detail next time, when we discuss the blessing of Asher Yatzar.


Question: Why do wash?
Answer: In order to remove an impure and unenlightened spirit of slumber.

Question: How often do we need to wash in this manner?
Answer: After every time we sleep we wash.

Question: Do we wash with a blessing?
Answer: When we arise we do not need to wash with a blessing.

Question: What if there is no water for washing available?
Answer: One should rub their hands together with a dry clean substance such as dirt or sand [4].


1 – See Ecclesiastes 12:13

2 – This is in agreement with the Rashba (Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet of 11th century Spain), vol. 1, §190, and §595.

3 – See Shulchan Aruch haRav 4:3, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi.

4 – See Shulchan Aruch haRav 4:3

Sheviti Hashem: The Unspoken Declaration

Sometimes The Siddur Has Silence that Speaks Louder Than Words

If one was to ask a class of observant Jewish students what the first prayer in the siddur (hebrew prayerbook) is just about every hand would go up in the air. It’s seems like an obvious answer for most of us. But of course, if this was a real classroom I would be pulling a Lisa Simpson and complicating the matter by pointing out some geeky fact that turns the questions on its ear. You know the type, the preschool kid that tells the teacher she’s wrong because it was Copernicus that proved the world was round. No one likes a know it all. But, truthfully the answer is not quite as cold cut as it seems. And my reason for pointing out my odd fact is not to be an intellectual elitist, holding on to some more stringent view. Let me explain. First off, it would be helpful if before we start talking about liturgy we understand what we are discussing.

The Development of Liturgy

Liturgy has always existed within our tradition. The most published portion on the holy scriptures, probably more so than any book, is the Book of Psalms which is clearly written as a collection of musical and liturgical standards. Repeating holy scriptures was our first stab at formal prayer, and in some cases fixed prayers later became enshrined in holy scripture. The influence went both ways as scriptures and Temple prayers developed.

When the Temple era came to an end, with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. prayers took center stage as prescribed in Isaiah chapter 1, to offer sacrifice of the lips instead of animals. Fixed prayers from the Temple were now elevated in significance, and new prayers were added over time to deliver something worthy of saying for just about every occurrence and season. But the siddur, the prayerbook we know today would not make its rise until around the 15th century at best and not widely available as a complete work until the mid-to-late 19th century. For most of our history people have just repeated prayers they knew from their common recurrence in our life-cycle events. And when in doubt people would turn to their rabbis for advice. Through out the ages we have learned these prayers like one learns a song, that is our liturgy. The tune and delivery I use my be different from yours, but that’s the nature of song. But no matter how it’s delivered, it’s a homelike tune we all relate to on some level.

The Development of the Nusach Ha-Ari z”l

As the treasury we know today as the siddur was being developed, so too the school of Jewish mysticism was on the rise. The mystics were a group of elite rabbis who collected prayers, but for a different reason than to just know what to say on a given occasion. They knew the prayers by heart, they didn’t need a script. Prayers collected by the kabbalists were incorporated in their own siddurim, but these books mostly served as commentaries on selected prayers. The commentaries contained many diagrams and instructions on how to focus the mind in a meditative way though kavannot (Heb. “Intentions”).

As I briefly touched upon in my last weeks look a the kavannah of Psalm 67 for the Sefirat ha-Omer, the Baal haTanya – Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe – was one of the first of the great rabbis to really take the mystical traditions of the Lurianic kabbalists (the followers of the ARI Z”L, the great mystic of the 16th century) and present their customs in a complete liturgical work for congregational prayer and daily devotion. The Baal haTanya’s siddur was intended to teach the common man how to pray, a much needed aid that was starting to take root during the late 18th century in Europe. His simplification came by focusing on documenting the things that needed to be said, and leaving out silent meditations.

The Baal haTanya provided his chassidim with a siddur that made full use of the richness of Jewish prayer that Eastern European Jews enjoyed and carefully conformed it to the teachings of the ARI Z”L. The text the holy Ari adopted and taught from was the Sephardic tradition, the liturgy documented by the Jews of Iberia and intern favored by the Jews of the near-east. The Baal haTanya conformed his text to that style and incorporating many of it’s unique prayers.

However, interestingly, prayer books like Eastern Europeans enjoyed were not at all common in Sephardic and Oriental Jewish communities. There was more documentation about their prayers and customs in classical legal works and kabbalistic commentaries they called “siddurim” than in any book dedicated to how to say your prayers or lead a service. Simply put, it wasn’t as needed because there was greater familiarity with the Hebrew prayers for the Jews of the near east. In the end as Sephardim and Mizrahi Jews began to formulate true prayerbooks for their prayer services like Ashkenazim (Eastern Europeans) invented, they brought in the silent meditations presented with their highly involved diagrams. Why? Partially because of their familiarity with them. Secondly because, in the days before the prayer books the diagrams were often enlarged and displayed in synagogues and holy shrines for one to use as prayer aids. It just seemed right that they belonged.

The Shviti: Placing Hashem Before Us

Those of you who have visited any Jewish shrines know exactly what I’m talking about when I mention charts and mystical diagrams. We call them Shvitis, they often take on the form on an enlarged writing of the Four-Letter name surrounded by verses of Psalms or prayers. The most famous of these is probably in the form of the Psalm 67 menorah. Others incorporate many mystical ways of reading Divine Names, but that are not meant to be pronounced. Why do we call them Shvitis? Because they usually bear the words of the Psalm that says:

“I have set


before me at all times.”

| Sheviti

| Hashem

| l’negedi tamid

שִׁוִּיתִי |

יְהוָה |

לְנֶגְדִּי תָמִיד |

Psalms 16:8

Now one might ask, how intrusive into the text of the siddur can these mandala like meditations be? I mean, if they are useful why are they left out of the Baal haTanya’s siddur? You might say, who is he to leave out these things that are so authentic and sacred? Well, if we use a siddur as a seder (an order) of prayers and devotions, and go through it from waking up to going to sleep, then the first occurrence of shviti is at the beginning of the siddur. That’s right. When one wakes up they are to immediately have in mind this verse “I have set HASHEM before me at all times.” For this reason in many Sephardic and Edut haMizrach siddurim the first words you will see is these words “sheviti Hashem l’negedi tamid.”

If this was a real classroom I would hear just about every western, observant Jew gasp. This is problematic because at this point in history we all accept that the first words of out of our mouth and before we open our eyes is the prayer Modeh Ani, that we greatly thank G-d. Of course we also obsess over the different customs of washing among the different sects of Judaism, but we all accept in unity that we don’t intone the Four-Letter Name of Hashem in the first prayer we say of the day and instead wait until we get around to taking care of our business. So we all start with this prayer that refers to G-d, but without explicit use of the Four-Letter Name (יהוה).

So ingrained is it into the mind of observant Jews that this prayer is taught and known by the children as some of their first words. Really, before some Jewish toddlers can tell you answers to simple questions they already know how to say this prayer by heart. Though in our different communities we might truncated the prayers to make them easier to say for children at first, Modeh Ani is not one of them as we want them to learn it in full. This is our first confession of the day. I don’t want to spend too much time of it, as we will get to this prayer next week, and I’ve already taken us the scenic route to the point of all of this.

At this point, many would say “Oh, okay, I understand now why the Baal haTanya would leave it out. You don’t want to confuse people so that they might say the words of sheviti Hashem. Good thinking.” But still there will be the few who will grumble, and whisper to each other “See I told you those sephardim, chassidim, and kabbalsists are playing fast and loose with orthodoxy.” Considering myself to be the product of all of the above I would ask someone to cough up their copy of the Shulchan Aruch for a second. I’d hold it up and make the point that there is nothing more Orthodox than the Shulchan Aruch, which would become known to anglos as The Code of Jewish Law. I wouldn’t even site the words of Rabbi Joseph Karo, the Sephardic Kabbalistic master known as the Maran who first authored the work. Ironically I’d cite the words of the Rema, Rabbi Moses Isserelis – who wrote the Ashkenazi glosses to the work:

“I have placed Hashem before me

at all times:”

This is a paramount principal

of the Torah

and attribute of the steps of the righteous

who walk before G-d.

שויתי הלנגדי |

תמיד:” |

הוא כלל גדול |

בתורה |

הורה ובמעלות הצדיקים |

אשר הולכים לפני האלהים: |

Shulchan Aruch: Rema 1:1

We don’t need to turn far. If we take “the book” when it comes to Jewish practice and turn to the very first reference page and paragraph, and here we have it. This would also be repeated by the Baal haTanya in the Shulchan Aruch haRav, Mehadurah Batra 1:5, just with the quote of our biblical verse at the end instead of being the leading words. According to the “code” the first thing we are supposed to think in our mind at the start of the day is “I have placed Hashem before me at all times.” Here the Rema is himself quoting the Rambam – Rabbi Moses Maimonides, the 12th century Sephardic scholar, master rationalist, and first exhaustive codifier of Jewish law (see Moreh Nevuchim – The Guide for the Perplexed 3:4)

Now, there is probably a reason other than just typesetting that explains the juxtaposition when the Baal haTanya repeats this law; to make it clear to his reader that this is a thought and not a statement he moves it to the end and adds the words “k’umo shekavut / as it is written.” He wants his chassidim to know this is a thought, it’s not spoken words. Like it’s written, it remains written but not said. As I have pointed out, when he created his siddur the Nusach Ha-ARI Z”L known as Siddur Torah Ohr (the precessor to Siddur Tehillat Hashem) he focused on the spoken words and not the meditations. However, if you look closely, it was not a forgotten point. It just became mentioned in the notes (which are exact quotations from his Shulchan Aruch).

Nusach ARI Z”L as a Process, Not a Possession

And this is primarily the differences between the Nusach ha-Ari (Chabad) tradition and the Nusach ARI Z”L siddurim of either Sephardic or other Chassidic origins. The nusach of the Sephardim/Mizrahim and other Chassidim have been heavily influenced by the teachings of the ARI Z”L and following his teachings so their prayers are Nusach ARI in their own right as well. However these other texts tend to contain many meditations and silent things that are not meant to be spoken out loud, and contain local variances and customs. This pretty much sums up the differences. The ARI Z”L never wrote a siddur of his own, and for that matter never wrote any writings for himself. Instead we learn of his wisdom through his student Rabbi Chaim Vittal and his other disciples, so we all just copy his teachings. Thus no one can lay claim to having “the” Nusach ARI. The Nusach Ha-ARI Z”L is a way, not a thing.

I say all of this because as we start to step into the study of the siddur I am going to be presenting the text according to the Nusach Ha-ARI Z”L. This is most often going to be based on the text of the Lubavitcher Chassidim, the text I have adopted and utilize in my daily prayers. Though at other time I will mention the Nusach Edut haMizrach, the tradition of the Sephardic and Middle-Eastern Jews; which is my tradition by birth. I do this to be intellectually honest, I can only share what I know. This is what I understand so that’s all I feel free talking about. But I will try to touch on other unique aspects of the different traditions when possible. But I hope we all understand that when we talk about the siddur we are talking about a growing and living thing that we all need to be flexible and giving towards. Because it’s something different to us all. And that is okay and possible, without compromising anything! Nachon, got it?

The Kavannah: How to Sheviti Hashem

Now on to the fun part. As we have discussed, the generally universal tradition today is to always start our day with a prayer of thanks; this is the Modeh Ani. It is the custom to not open one’s eyes nor say any other word in the morning until we give thanks. But we don’t say any Divine Name until we wash out of respect of G-d and in respect of our need for self-care right away. However, before we open our eyes it is a good practice for us to mentally make ourselves aware that Hashem is before us at all times. We can even visualize the Four-Letter Name (יהוה), but not say it. This is something we should all be able to agree on, it is appropriate.

But why should we do it? If it’s a kavannah – an intention – what is it’s purpose? What do we want to achieve or recognize by this? To find the answer lets continue looking at the text of the Shulchan Aruch:

“For the manner that a person sits,

moves and conducts himself

when he is alone in his house,

is not the manner one sits, moves and deals

when before the presence of a great king.

Likewise, in the way one chats openly as

he wishes while he is among his household

and relatives, is not the same way as when

he speaks in the court of a king.

How much more, if a man strongly takes

to heart that the great king,

The Holy One, blessed be He,

whom the whole earth is filled with His glory,

stands over him and observes his deeds.

As it says, “If a person hides

out of sight, will I not see him” says Hashem.

[Considering] this he will respect

and surrender to awe

of the Holy One, blessed be He,

and be bashful before Him always.

One should not be ashamed

before people

who mock his service to Hashem.

Even secretly when lying in ones bed

know before whom he is lying.

Immediately arouse oneself from slumber

with agility to serve the

praised and exalted Creator.”

כי אין ישיבת האדם |

ותנועותיו ועסקיו |

והוא לבדו בביתו, |

כישיבתו ותנועותיו ועסקיו |

והוא לפני מלך גדול; |

ולא דיבורו והרחבת פיו |

כרצונו, והוא עם אנשי ביתו |

וקרוביו, כדיבורו |

במושב המלך. |

כל שכן, כשישים האדם אל |

ליבו שהמלך הגדול, |

הקבה |

אשר מלא כל הארץ כבודו, |

עומד עליו ורואה במעשיו, |

כמו שנאמר: “אם יסתר איש |

במסתרים ואני לא אראנו נאם ה‘”, |

מיד יגיע אליו היראה |

וההכנעה בפחד |

השית |

ובושתו ממנו תמיד. |

ולא יתבייש |

מפני בני אדם |

המלעיגים עליו בעבודת השית. |

גם בהצנע לכת בשכבו על משכבו |

ידע לפני מי הוא שוכב |

ומיד שיעור משנתו, |

יקום בזריזות לעבודת |

בוראו יתברך ויתעלה |

Shulchan Aruch: Rema 1:1

The Rema, does such a great job of explaining this concept so it’s hard to top that. But he gives us a lot to think about. Everyday as we consider this the meaning of it grows. Let’s take a few minutes to walk through some of these thoughts together, these are just a few ideas of what we can think about:

Make The Name of G-d Apparent – even before we have opened our eyes or moved to get up we are to think about G-d. Placing G-d before us means that we make a mental commitment to act as though we are in the presence of G-d. Just like if we were in the presence of a king or judge we would want to behave becomingly, we should recognize our lives are watched over by G-d. This comes with a benefit, on one hand we have G-d looking out for us to administer liberty and justice. But we also have a responsibility, to recognize that G-d demands that we behave as decent people in our dealings even when we think that no one else is watching. Before we open our eyes, we determine to behave as noble and dignified people in our dealings; both in public and private. If we can do it in our private lives we won’t have slip ups of bad actions in public.

Choosing to Use Noble Speech – what’s funny about the wording that the Shulchan Aruch uses is that it describes a person that is in their own home, among their own guests and surrounded by their own family and feeling free to speak openly he just “blabs” with his mouth widely letting loose whatever he feels like without regard. Before we say a single word we determine to employ noble and becoming speech. One of the terrible things about lishon hara – evil speech – is that most of us would never allow ourselves to say the types of things publicly that we say privately, we would be too ashamed. So we should think about being in the presence of the greatest King, G-d Himself, then we would watch what comes out of our mouth and speak in a dignified way. This means, even in the way we speak to ourselves in our thoughts. Think about it, some of us say demeaning things about ourselves that we are too considerate to ever say to another human being

Consider Where G-d Is At In Our Lives – the entire world is filled with G-d. We understand, in kabbalistic principal, that G-d is the Ain Sof; without limits, without end. But that also means that though G-d is not one thing or a person, His very sustenance and glory fill the entire universe. G-d’s glory exists in everything and everywhere, no matter how much any of us try to take credit or mold things our way. We need to consider that there is nothing outside of His realm of influence or where His rules of goodness need not apply. We need to think, how would we act if G-d was a person standing over us and observing our deeds? It’s not that G-d is watching over us like a prison guard waiting for us to slip up. Actually, the relationship is one in which G-d is given credit for everything we enjoy and every opportunity we have through a blessing. In order for us to do something that is wrong most people out of seeming shame decide that they will not say inappropriate blessing for whatever action or item they are illicitly enjoying. But just because we don’t mention G-d doesn’t mean His ways don’t exist; that’s as silly as pretending your spouse doesn’t existing if you turn around their portrait. We should discipline ourselves to know that godliness is displayed through creation, progress, wisdom, prosperity, etc. Everything we see is a manifestation of G-d’s order, if we understood that then everything we see will begin to remind us of G-d and His ways.

Be Bashful Before G-d – often times when people speak in the English vernacular we refer to this concept as being “ashamed before G-d.” Though this is not a mistranslation, it’s not exactly a one-for-one rendering. Even before we get up out of bed and out of the sheets we need to understand that we are completely exposed before G-d. But its more than that. As we begin to engage in our daily needs and we assess the day we can stand amazed at how brilliant the Creator is. Everything we begin to do and enjoy has blessings traditionally associated with them. Sometimes the truth of it just hits us, we just have to say “wow, it really is amazing that all these things necessary for life work out for me day after day.” Life is a complex function, with many dependencies for us to just to wake up let alone get through the day. G-d  is called Chai haOlamim – The Life of the Worlds – all the universe and  life within it is an extension of Him and sustained by His will. Even us. We are just a small part of this big universe, yet even as simple people we benefit from so much that we can be humbled. We feel so small before G-d and the universe that we become like a child with a surprise gift that is so bashful for being remembered that they want to hide shyly. We should always try to retain this type of wonder with the world.

But Don’t Be Ashamed Before Men – even before we move from bed, to get out from under the sheets we make a conscious choice to not feel embarrassed or foolish for our wonder of life and our respect to honor the little things in life, realizing that all these small things when they come together make our world so much better. There is nothing mature or smart about taking for granted the gift of life and the wonders of the world as the self-proclaimed intellectuals of our age like to flippantly do. They say that nothing you do as an individual matters that much. Some suggest that religious people thinking G-d considers their needs and betterment to be egotistical. Others suggest a faithful person is needlessly groveling and that his humility is a sign of mental weakness. Either way, it can be hard to face the world some days because people are so jaded that many will attack your devotion for reasons of humility or ego; you just can’t do anything right. But we aren’t supposed to hide from the world, we are called to transform it. That mean’s we also aren’t to conceal our service to G-d and pride in being our true selves, because it is through those things that we exemplify the truth of our values. Our actions speak louder than words.

Wake Up With Enthusiasm – if we really took to heart the idea that G-d watches over us then we would realize that we are laying before the Great King. Just as people jump up from bed with excitement if an important guest suddenly showed up, we need to wake to the day in order to serve G-d. We wouldn’t leave a king waiting at the foot of our bed, no we would jump up quickly and honored to be of service. How do we do accomplish this? By arousing ourselves to get up and wake the day. It means more than just getting up. The battle of our day starts even before we open our eyes or say a word, it starts when we actually wake. We should arouse ourselves to wake with all the agility and excitement that a youth would show toward their beloved.

When we begin the day by placing Hashem before us we recognize that G-d is present. As the day and world unfolds before us we begin to see that G-d is present in the world, in our deeds, and in our happenings. If we want to encounter G-d then we need to get up and see Him in action. As we lay there without saying a word we begin to arouse ourselves to rise up and meet G-d where He is, emulating G-d’s passion to be active in the world. This gives meaning to the scriptures when it says “has kol basar mif’neh Hashem ki naior mim’on kadsho / be silent all flesh before Hashem, for He is aroused out of His holy habitation.” (Zechariah 2:17)

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Sefirat haOmer: The Kavanah of Psalm 67

To Focus on a Purpose Greater Than Us Alone

The counting of the omer is one of the most mystical rituals in Judaism. It’s reflection on the elements of burnt offerings, as with all offerings and sacrifices, has been interpreted as a symbol of spiritual elevation. Both the topics of sacrifice and ecstatic spirituality so much turned off modern and “enlightened” people that many communities had abandoned the omer all together. Interestingly though, in recent years the resurgence of interest in mysticism has caused such a demand for these type of prayers that you will now find them in the siddurim (prayerbooks) of just about every movement of Judaism. The other prayer making an amazing comeback is the Ana Bekoach, which is usually paired closely with Psalm 67 in Chassidic and Sephardic siddurim.

The Ari z”l himself instituted the inclusion of Psalm 67 and the Ana Bekoach into the daily prayers and when performing special mitzvot. However, the method that was related from the Ari z”l through his disciple Rabbi Chaim Vital in how to recite these prayers was presenting in very detailed kavannot (focused mediation) that were very complicated and involved. Psalm 67 is a great example, because the method most often used to meditation on this verse was not to just read the text, but instead to imagine the 49 words being a 7 branched menorah, with each of the 7 branches containing a verse of the Psalm. Each of the branches relates to one of the 7 sefirot that are active in the physical world, just as with each of the 7 lines of the Ana Bekoach does as well.

The Nusach Arizal as presented by The Baal haTanya – Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe – though it is a kabbalistic prayerbook, was purposefully freed of nearly all the kavannot in order to focus on creating a prayerbook that was appropriate for users of all skill levels. Complicated diagrams and pages of meditation material interspersed within selections of actual prayers were put to rest. Instead his text was complete yet concise, as well as clear and understandable as a true liturgical work. Though the Baal haTanya did not include the meditating upon the form of the menorah, he did prescribe a reading of Psalm 67 and some interesting kavannot relating to it. What made these kavannot so meaningful that he felt compelled to include them?

It is quite standard for most traditional siddurim to include the reflection upon the names of the sefirot relating to the day. Less common is the meditation of assigning one of the word or names of the Ana Bekoach to each day, though this sometimes appears in the Sephardic and oriental texts. However, in addition to including a plain reading of Psalm 67 after the counting of the omer, along with the prescribed words for declaring the day’s count one is also provided one word of the psalm and one letter of verse 5. Psalm 67 contains 49 words, and verse 5 of that same chapter contains 49 letters. There are 49 days counted in the sefirah period, so each day one focuses on one pieces of the picture for what we hope to achieve during this time of personal reflection.

When it comes to the reason this chapter and this verse is chosen for meditation, the reason does not appear as clear as the reason we include the Ana Bekoach which contains supplications for the removal of sin and purification. This is in line with the tone of the season. Instead Psalms 67 starts out with a request, not a humble confession that we would normally expect during a season of personal refinement. We read the words:

“G-d be gracious to us, and bless us;

May he cause his face to shine upon us.


| Elohim y’chanainu viybar’cheinu;

| ya’air panav itanu

| selah.

Psalms 67:2

Now lets looks at verse five alone. When we read it we find something seemingly completely unrelated at first glance:

“The nations will be gland and sing for joy.

For you will judge the nations fairly,

and the peoples of the earth will rejoice.


| Yismauchu viyarnenu, l’amim.

| Ki tishpot amim mishor:

| ul’amim ba’aretz tan’chaim

| selah..

Psalms 67:5

Here we see that this second meditation, upon verse five, seems to be a related to conceptualizing human equality and the pursuit of happiness. So we have prayer for the blessings of the nation of Israel, and a reflection upon the goal of universal betterment. For a start, we see that it is a good practice to be as concerned about the welfare of all people just as much as we are concerned for ourselves. It is balanced.

That’s a nice idea, and rings true. However, the message goes deeper than that, as it is clear if we read the rest of the chapter in context. Yes, this request seems different in tone than we would expect. But it is not a a brazen request for divine favor just for the purpose of our own security. If your asking yourself why this request of verse 2 is so bold, we find our reason in the next immediate verse. It also answers for us why we find ourselves considering the People of Israel, as well as all the nations of the earth in these meditations. It asks for blessing for a special reason:

“To make Your way known upon the earth,

and your salvation among all the nations.

| Ladaat ba’aretz dar’kehcha;

| b’chol goyim, yishuatecha.

Psalms 67:3

The topics are not unrelated. They are completely related because we are people in need of blessing, just like the rest of the nations of the earth. However, it asks for blessing for Israel not merely for our own contentment but in order to enable us to make the ways of godliness known to the people of the world. It asks for blessings so we can share it with others and model graciousness. We ask for the face of G-d to shine upon us so that it can reflect off us, that we be spotlighted as an example of salvation.

There are plenty of people out there who say that this dream is impossible to achieve, and therefore foolish to consider. But being able to show this truth through the example of our own experience is the type of truth people cannot easily deny. In fact we see a few times in verses 4 and 7 that when this happens the people will then be able to “yoducha” which means to admit and acknowledge, as well as give thanks. That people will see the goodness of this way of godliness for themselves though our lives. Then the nations will even become glad, knowing that there is hope for themselves.

So the request isn’t as self-centered as it sounds. It’s not necessarily a request for prosperity or even success, you will never find such hopes directly expressed anywhere in this chapter. What it does ask for is for us to be blessed, which we all know in Hebrew means to be set apart for a special purpose. When we bless something we take an ordinary thing, and by doing a special mitzvah with this object the item becomes special because it was a part of doing something sacred. The item was ordinary before, but now merely because it was used to do something special it becomes recognized and designated for that special purpose. This item isn’t better, it’s just purposeful now and worthy of being respected accordingly. How can I be certain of this? Near the end of this short chapter we read,

“The earth has yielded her produce,

May G-d, our own G-d, bless us.”

| Aretz, nat’ena y’volah;

| y’evracheinu elohim eloheinu.

Psalms 67:7

Now we have a good clue as to why this verse is appropriate for this season of harvest, because it references this good fortune of the reaping already taking place. And yet it still asks for being blessed, which only makes sense in the classical sense of being consecrated and not according to the misconception of blessing as random fortune.

When we think about it this way, these meditations become a beautiful way of looking at why we are going through this time of personal reflection and development during the omer period. The reason the children of Israel went through this process of development for the 49 days after the exodus was to be prepared to receive the Torah. We all know and recognize that. But what we are doing here in these meditations is deeply focusing on the reality that the Jewish people are blessed with Torah in order that all the peoples of the world benefit from it.

The two meditations, one for blessing Israel and the other for the betterment of the nations of the world are not unrelated. This is what our purpose should be, to be worth of being blessed in order to be a blessing to others. Our fate is very much tied to that of the rest of the people on the earth, so we need to get serious about becoming better people because we aren’t the only people that need to benefit from our enrichment. During this season we become better people so we can be better to others! That’s why the last verse sums it up simply:

“Bless us, our G-d;

so that all the ends of the earth will be amazed by you.”

| Yebar’chainu elohim;

| veyir’u oto, kol af’sei aretz.

Psalms 67:7

It is very easy for us to just scan Psalm 67 and quickly dismiss it as arrogant and nationalistic. Or we might lazily just look at it, then simply conclude that their incorporation into the siddur was only because the body of the text has 49 words and coincidentally a verse with 49 letters as well; just like the sefirah period counts 49 days. Though others might say it was just a pretty random pick, chosen because it quickly mentions the reaping of the earth’s produce. That might be an easy assumptions for scholars and even some general Hebrew speakers I suppose, because a simple reading brought these ideas to mind even for me. First, read it all; be patient with the process. Second, remember that as people who practice Judaism everything we read has to be thought of as a way to help us make tikkun olam – reparation of the world. If it doesn’t then we are reading it wrong!

During the Sefirat haOmer we have a moment everyday for nearly 50 days to pursue personal growth in order to be a better example of goodness, and be a favorable display of Torah powered chesed (kindness, goodness). If we follow through we are assured results that will amaze everyone, maybe even ourselves!

Ready to make it happen? You can download the blessings for the Sefirat haOmer hosted HERE or also graciously hosted  by The Open Siddur Project HERE, as well as find all other related liturgical transcriptions.

Do you need a siddur? This blog proudly cooperates with The Open Siddur Project. The project is a volunteer based organization dedicated to documenting and making the wealth of Jewish prayer and prayer resources available with free, redistributable licensing in electronic format and print formats. You can find my contributions of liturgy HERE. Find out how you can also be a part of this worthy cause!

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