Category Archives: Halacha

Havdalah as a Light to the Community


Reflections and Lessons from the Havdalah Circle of Boyle Heights

Dare to make anyplace a sacred space!

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I will trust and not fear"

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The human spirit is the lamp of Hashem

searching all the most deepest parts of ones being.”

נֵר יְיָ, נִשְׁמַת אָדָם; |

חֹפֵשׂ, כָּלחַדְרֵיבָטֶן. |

Proverbs 20:27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 8a

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

כּוֹס יְשׁוּעוֹת אֶשָּׂא, וּבְשֵׁם יְיָ אֶקְרָא:

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

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

Photo Credit: Zero-Renton Prefect

Photo Credit: Zero-Renton Prefect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Punk Rock Havdalah Circle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Touching Personal Experience from This Past Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to perform Havdalah with alternative items:

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

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

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

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

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


The new “Introduction to Judaism” course starting this winter

Everything You Wanted to Know About Judaism

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

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

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

Classes meet from 11am to 1pm

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This class is required for those interested in converting.

Introduction to Judaism courses in English and Spanish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Articles:


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


Un nuevo “Introducción al Judaísmo” clase para este invierno

Todo lo que usted quería saber sobre el judaísmo

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

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

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

Las clases comienzan el domingo
7 de diciembre 2014

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

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

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

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

Agarra un folleto aquí en, Inglés o Español.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Articles:


Jewish Conversion Scams Still Trying to Thrive on the Internet


A look at active frauds being committed by fake conversion authorities

RE: PunkTorah, OneShul, Darsha Yeshiva, Patrick “Aleph” Beaulier;
Chicago Conversion Beit Din, a.ka. “Skokie,”
Rabbi Johnathan Ginsburg, former Conservative rabbi

Follow-up to “Will Online Jewish Conversions Further the Chaos?” (Dec. 2013)

Conversion to Judaism is a topic that I have found myself discussing more often in recent years. Not just because of my experience with conversions and converts of diverse backgrounds, but more so because there are more people than ever brave enough to seek out Judaism. And quite often, people become interested in conversion. I love to help people in this very important journey.

Patrick More often than not I’m usually talking about the hardships imposed on converts to Judaism. I’m frequently calling out the system for the confusion, politics and suspicions which makes it more difficult than it needs to be. It’s a topic we all discuss, as this is quite possibly the most glaring problem in our community.

Rarely have I had to call out people for being unethically excessive regarding offering conversions. Its even rarer that I have had to call out people for offering fraudulent conversions and using deceptive outreach tactics, until recently.

Last month I began to report on a proposed online conversion program being advertised by PunkTorah (a.k.a. OneShul) and their matching Darshan Yeshiva. A program to perform non-denomination Conversion to Judaism under the auspices of a Beit Din (Jewish court) of Conservative Jewish standards convened by Patrick “Aleph” Beaulier, their leader and self-proclaimed rabbi. (see “Will Online Jewish Conversions Further the Chaos?“)

Patrick did spring into action and respond to me immediately after my write-up surfaced. After he communicating to me a sense of hurt and disappointment over my charges, I awaited a promised dialogue on this matter. In his first messages he did not hesitate to admit that by his own estimation 75% of the material was factual, but that I had just mis-characterized some things and he wanted to explain.

However instead of the discussions he promised, he immediately deactivated his own social media profiles, and began deleting the materials and videos which I cited. As most people pointed out, this was an odd move for a person who makes his living with an Internet presence.

Patrick’s mentoring parties also started restructuring their online presence in order to delete evidence of their actions as well. Among them again is the front-business for the expelled Rabbi Johnathan Ginsburg, under the name of ConvertJudaism.org and the Chicago Conversion Beit Din.

Today I will present you with some of what they have been suppressing and deleting. I will also present materials they haven’t deleted, and provide you access to a few permanently archived copies of their materials to reference. I will also explore how this is not just a former instance, but a current and active attempt by knowingly collaborating parties. People who are offering fake conversions to defraud unwitting persons online.

First off, in the matter of conversions offered by PunkTorah/OneShul. I do not wish to put words in the mouth of Patrick “Aleph”, their director. However, it was communicated to me directly that his in-house conversion program would most likely not be going forward. He cited personal hardship and a lack of time to commit to it. And a candid admittance that he wasn’t sure his program would really be helping anyone. While he didn’t actually address the issues I raised, his decision to not go forward with his proposed program is much appreciated and respected. I likewise have appreciated his toning down of his material’s for his Darshan Yeshiva, to focus on personal benefit and not about becoming pulpit-ready.

ginsburgpatrickalephsample

Item #1 -Patrick “Aleph” promoting Ginsburg by name in March 2013, for his conversion program at ConvertJudaism.org

However, there is one issue that he did directly address. His involvement in directing people to the shamed Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg. In private emails with Patrick “Aleph” he went on to assure me that he had stopped sending people towards Ginsburg as soon as he became aware his status.

He didn’t say when he became aware. However it is confirmed that he did send his own group leaders to Ginsburg in the past (many of the leaders are not yet converted), and that he never warned them of Ginsburg’s ban-status (most only hearing this directly from me last month). Some of them were devastated that they were perusing a fake program, while others among his on-line class hosts went on to expressed shame that they had themselves recommended Ginsburg for conversion to other interested parties in their capacity as PunkTorah leaders.

In the face of these charges I was assured by Patrick himself that the relationship with Ginsburg had long since been severed, and that he would not be recommending this program anymore. Patrick says once he knew of the charges against Ginsburg he stopped sending people his way; that is his claim. And it is a complete lie.

Why should we be concerned about this involvement of this Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg? There are moral and legal issue related to him aside from whether or not he is selling fake conversion certificates. (see his Tumblr and one of his many personal websites; including “Rent A Rabbi” and the one for his institution called “Rodfei Kodesh.”)

Simply put, Ginsburg is banned from the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism. He was forced to resign and is not eligible for readmission to the rabbinate, after settling a sexual abuse and exploitation suit from a female convert and rabbinical student of his. An affair to which he to admitted publicly. (see his profile at the website of The Awareness Center, Inc., the international Jewish Coalition Against Sexual Abuse/Assault, JCASA)

Ginsburg did not soberly cease his activity after censure. Instead he unrepentant and defiantly went right back to work doing the same stuff as before, namely conversion and ordinations. However now without any rabbinical authority at all. I previously mentioned:

“[12/14/2013] In fact, earlier this year (August 13, 2013) the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement had to reiterate their disavowal of Ginsburg because he has been continuing to build conversion and ordination outlets under other names (convertjudaism.org, jconversion.org, convertjudaismonline.org, watch him pitch for these programs of his on YouTube). The statement by the RA reads as follows:

‘The Rabbinical Assembly, the international membership association of Conservative/Masorti rabbis has received numerous queries regarding an organization known as the “Chicago Conversion Beit Din.” The Chicago Conversion Beit Din, one of whose principals is Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg, conducts long distance conversion and, according to their website, it is now sponsoring programs they refer to as “pararabbinic training.”

‘The Chicago Conversion Beit Din advertises that it will provide its students with a “Conservative Bet Din.” The Rabbinical Assembly, as the world’s sole membership organization of Conservative/Masorti rabbis, wishes to clarify that, as a body, we do not endorse the work of the Chicago Conversion Beit Din and will not endorse conversions completed under its auspices, for any purpose, including to seek citizenship in Israel under the law of return.

We have been asked whether Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg is a member in good standing of the Rabbinical Assembly. Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg is no longer a member of the Rabbinical Assembly, nor is he eligible for readmission. The RA has no association with nor does it endorse or recognize any bet din or other program run by, or participated in by Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg. Even if Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg does not participate in the bet din personally, the RA does not recognize or endorse any conversion under the auspices of the Chicago Conversion Beit Din.” [emphasis added]

Now, the connection of Patrick “Aleph” is more than as a simple recommendation akin to passing on someones business card to a friend. Patrick’s first “ordination” comes from Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg and his organization, where he claims to have received ordination in para-rabbinics himself. Patrick has also made promotional videos for Ginsburg’s conversion program as well (Note the URL of the website in Item #1, is ConvertJudaism.org).

So what do we know about ConvertsJudaism.org? Let’s explore just some of the evidence that shows the level of deception and carelessness shown by those involved in this scam.

Fact: ConvertJudaism.org was founded and developed by Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg.

While Jonathan Ginsburg’s name is mud, and he is not recognized as a rabbi for any authoritative purposes any longer in the eyes of the movement he claims to represents (Conservative), that hasn’t stopped him from operating. He has merely pushed his two other cohorts forward.

But the fact remains, the program is developed and still overseen by Ginsburg in the noticeable background.

DevelopedByGinsburg

You can also see a Perma.CC copy of this page here

See the item on the right. The copyright here on a ConvertJudaism.org page says “Developed by Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg.” Please take notice of how ConvertJudaism.org, is also using a copyright disclosure from eSynagogue.org. The latter being another program run with the help of PunkTorah board member “Rabbi Rob Thomas.” In an interesting but strange side-note, Thomas is also concurrently a board member of eSynagogue. Thomas directly mentions being ordained by JSLI – another fake, online conversion/ordination school attended and promoted by Patrick “Aleph.” Oddly, Thomas goes out of his way to mention Ginsburg and his founding of eSynagogue by name in his resume (please refer to my previous article).

Fact: Ginsburg has been trying to hide his involvement in the Chicago Conversion Beit Din.

Ginsburg and his staff have cheaply tried to use a search and find feature to delete his name out of his websites (thus, leaving odd breaks in type and grammar behind to identify this). He likewise attempted to delete pictures which show him involved. However pictures and videos taken from the active site on January 21st 2014, show that he is actively overseeing the program.

Please note these are pictures of Ginsburg and his beit din, along with potential converts at the site of the conversions and mikveh:

Jonathan Ginsburg and his Beit Din

GE DIGITAL CAMERAGE DIGITAL CAMERA

GE DIGITAL CAMERA

You can also see more at the Prema.cc archived copy of the page

In addition, please see the video presentation showing footage filmed by Ginsburg (holding the camera and speaking) and talking with candidates about their conversion experience with him. Please note that these videos were taken immediacy before and after the beit din was convened for these candidates:

Ginsburg: “What did you like best about the learning experience?”

Kathy: “I like the fact of how knowledgeable Rabbi Ginsburg is. Its very clear. He makes everything clear and concise, and easy to learn”

Ashley: “My name is Ashley, and I completed the conversion course with Rabbi Ginsburg. It was a great program because I was able to do it on my own time…”

Ginsburg: “…. looking forwards to having you Jewish in a few minutes.”

While claiming on the header to be supervised by Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Levine and Rabbi Neal Brief, there is no question about who is really running things. Obviously, Ginsburg is still the central pillar of this program. This fact of Ginsburg’s active involvement has needed to be concealed on paper as part of their faulty attempt to circumvent the ban again him. Without regard that their Chicago Beit Din (also listed as Skokie) is disqualified even if he isn’t directly involved, by virtue of being associated with him they are invalid.

The fact is the program was developed by Ginsburg. He is still there in the program. Levine might be the supervisor on the letterhead, however there is no question that Ginsburg is still the actual owner/operator.

These videos were originally uploaded to Youtube by Ginsburg in February 2013, and were active on his site up until late December 2013.

While Ginsburg has gone to great lengths in the past couple weeks to alter their homepages, he still has not been able to delete all of his telling videos from his JewishLearning profile on Youtube. You can also see in many of his hundreds of videos, branded with links back to one of his conversion websites.

Fact: This is not the only website operated by this Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg.

I say one of the conversion websites, because he has many websites. As previously explained ConvertJudaism.org is also the exact same program and organization also advertised at jconversion.org, convertjudaismonline.org and converttojudaism.net.

GinsburgsothersitesHow do we know this? In their desire to have an aggressive web presence, they admit to creating multiple websites and domains. Please note, in order to “increase web visability” (in the image to the left).

Interestingly, Ginsburg has also been marketing conversions to the Spanish speaking communities. He even has websites set-up in Spanish to market his program .

Likewise, he is very active in promoting conversions outside of the United States. Boasting converting people from all the world including Asia, Europe, South America, Israel, etc.

Ginsburg provides a very interesting model, one that is very closely attempted by Patrick “Aleph” up until recently. The idea is to get people converted and then encourage them to seek “ordination” from you as well. (see “Judaism part 2 More online adult Jewish learning“) Ginsburg offers this in the tone of being the obvious next step forward. He doesn’t just have people buy into their fold, but he then make them a marketer and distributor as well.

JudaismToChristians1

You can also see the Perma.cc copy of this page here

One would think this type of false income would pay-off pretty well for Ginsburg. However, his need to milk a dime out of interested parties normally outside of the auspices of the synagogue goes even further. He also offers his Introduction to Judaism class for Christians. He has a dedicated website specifically for teaching Judaism to Christians.

Being freed of the hard work of doing false certificates and setting up the mikveh, he frees himself up in this program geared for his obviously Christian consumers. He advertises this program in this fashion: “The point of this course is not conversion, simply edification. People can gain a better understanding of what formed Jesus’ worldview, his practices and beliefs for example. Rabbis are available to answer your questions if you wish.” (see the Judaism for Christians Course)

Ginsburg is making money all around. Taking Christian’s money and making them more interested in Judaism, taking people interested in Judaism and making them into Jews for a fee, and then more costly taking new Jews and making them leaders and rabbis. This is an idea that is reinforced in people as the outside Jewish communities do not accept his followers and as a result they feel they must invest themselves deeper into the programs he offers.

Fact: Patick “Aleph” and PunkTorah by way of Darshan Yeshiva is still sending people to the Chicago Conversion Beit Din of Ginsburg and Levine.

One reason this is all so egregious and upsetting to me is because Patrick “Aleph” has not just lied to me personally, telling me he had stopped engaging in this long ago. He knowingly and with premeditation has been sending people that direction all along. Premeditation and intent is established because it is clearly evident that once he became aware that Ginsburg’s name was not marketable last spring, he then kept in step with the Chicago Beit Din and inserted Rabbi Levine in his place and kept up business as usual.

He still mentions Ginsburg and directs people to him. And this is still even after he started citing Levine’s name as the new supervisor. It also sadly displays how Patrick has been uniquely targeting certain stigmatized groups for this scam:

MisspelledAsGinsberg

Patrick “Aleph” cannot claim simple ignorance in this matter. Keep in mind he was first ordained by Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg. It is inconceivable, in fact impossible, that Patrick did not know when promoting them as an authority for conversions that Ginsburg and Levine’s program were one and the same.

Patrick “Aleph” has been giving out the same website as he had given out before when hosting videos with Ginsburg, the same phone numbers he has given out before, the same email addresses as previously, etc. He cannot honestly expect the community to believe that he did not know that he was sending people to the exact same institution. We are talking about the office of his mentor and teacher, the officiate of his first ordination! Of course he knew where he was sending people.

His cheap excuses insult our intelligence.

Patrick

(1/21/14) Patrick “Aleph” is still directing people to Rabbi Jonathan Ginburg’s Beit Din, using his successor, Rabbi Levine, as a contact. But notice how few clicks it takes to get to pictures of Ginsburg himself, merely five from the PunkTorah’s homepage and just one click from the ConvertJudaism.org homepage leads you to clear pictures of Ginsburg at work in this enterprise (see the video immediately above)

Furthermore, it offends my personal sensibilities as a punk rocker as well that Patrick “Aleph” has been promoting his work as a counter-culture, punk, open source and DIY approach to Judaism. (see “The Big Jewcy: Patrick Aleph“) But that isn’t true at all. See a bloger’s previous critique of that here. Also take notice of his disinterest to cooperate and really be Open Source when encouraged by Jewish professions in the comments sections of an articled titled “Do-It-Yourself Prayerbook“). He uses elementary punk terminology, while dismissing punk’s real virtues and values like corporate slime.

In the end, what facts reveal is that he has been part of a marketing scheme to try to funnel in people interested in the Jewish faith and make them into paying customers (now for only $4.99 a month to study Chumash at Punk Torah! Or $50 a month to join Ginsburg’s “online shul”). To say this program reeks of commercial capitalism, that’s putting it lightly. (see the “discounted” offers at, “Start your Jewish journey by enrolling today“) But that still isn’t my real issue with this program.

My real issue with this approach is that if offers false hope to people, and then sells them a conversion that is useless for them to actually utilize for any purposes. People who are selling conversions that are not only invalid in Israel, but are also invalid to anyone else that closely inspects them anywhere. At over $650/person (see “Convert Judaism: Paying With PayPal“) they are converting people they have never met and sending back to communities, unprepared for the reality of the shame they will face once the fraud is caught.

These people are being set up for a crisis later on when they go to do something like get married, or want to apply to a Jewish studies program, or even even further down the line have their kids attend a Jewish school or camp. Setting people up to later being told they are not halachicaly Jewish down the road, when the fake conversion rabbi is long gone. They give no consideration for how crushed and defrauded the person is going to feel. The convert will already be back in their home town or country, and the bills would have long since been paid by PayPal. There is no consequences generally for the perpetrators of such scams, just for the person they sell this forgery to. People who rarely speak up out of their shame of being judged for being gullible.

This is not right, as this is a most terrible example of religious corruption being perpetrated here which has terrible emotional consequences for the victims.

Bottom Line: False conversion schemes like that of The Chicago Conversion Beit Din and the ill-fated attempt by PunkTorah/Darshan Yeshiva are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

The fact, is we do have a lot wrong with the conversion system. Actually, it’s worse than its ever been before.

While the Chicago Beit Din says they have Conservative standards, they will happily pull-off a

While the Chicago Beit Din says they have Conservative standards, they will happily pull-off what they consider a “Reform Beit Din” by Skype Video-Chat. See the ‘Common Questions’ Perma.cc archive

One of the problems for converts is that there is often a distrust of converts that goes beyond the issues of halacha. There is a general distrust, based on the assumption that progressive rabbis are being too easy, lenient and are merely selling conversions instead of actually enculturating people in Judaism. Of not having enough standards.

Of course the progressive rabbis charge the same, that the Orthodox system is so broken that some are selling conversion as well, without observance of proper standards; and they are correct in this matter as well. We all know and have heard of these such instances, its not hard to imagine (see “Special Sale on Conversions” at Ynet).

But the problem is that in the midst of such chaos there are real people who are getting hurt and lost in this battle over “Who is a Jew.” And in the battle of who is a rabbi, and who is a proper rabbi. And which rabbis have enough clout to do conversions.

And then there comes this story, as a horrible case in point which displays both abuse of the rabbinate and of the conversion process. A case which through its own bad form and example seems to validate the suspicion and doubts out there. This soils the dignity of the rabbinate and of the convert alike.

Instead of being brave halachic champions who are helping the rejected and needy, people like Ginsburg and Patrick “Aleph” are actually perpetuating the sense of distrust in converts and conversions courts.

The greater issue is that these parties mentioned are not authorized, nor are they dignified enough to testify on matters of personal status. They are people who because of their dishonesty and yet unrepentant pursuit of this scheme are not honorable enough to be trusted. They cannot be believed even as witnesses in our communities, let alone be recognized as judges and teachers in matters of Jewish law.

It's not just

It’s not just “religious fundamentalist” like me that are asking for Patrick to step-down. The counter-culture community has been asking this for some time. This brutal response comes from a forum comment, on a re-posting of his article on FrumSatire titled “Jewish Pluralism Means Orthodoxy Too

If Mr. Patrick “Aleph” Beaulier feels that he is ready to move forward honestly and ethically as an upright member of the Jewish people I feel that he should make some real steps towards redeeming himself. Shut down the Darshan Yeshiva, and donate the money he asked for to build such programs and give it back to the Jewish community as restitution, the spirit of which is spoken of in this weeks Torah portion Parshat Mishpatim.

Furthermore, give back all the contributed material that was provided by members of the group, returning it under a Creative-Commons Zero Open-Source licensing so they may utilize this material themselves and distribute it for the public use of all the Jewish community. Liberate the material as a free resource for the Jewish community. Work of a community based team should not be pay-walled in this fashion.

I would also ask him to hand over the PunkTorah concept and the control of this new independent cultural experience to the members of the community who helped build it. Do something really revolutionary, and stop treating the concept as a trademarked and corporate idea he owns and let it grow organically with the people who have built it up as their community.

Lastly, Patrick “Aleph” should stop calling himself by the faux title of “rabbi” and sit down as a student, submitting to the personal guidance and mentoring of a credible rabbi over himself. When Patrick can start fully admitting who he is and operate himself in a transparent fashion within our community, then we can talk about trusting this person again on a personal level. But it is certainly clear that Patrick “Aleph” Beaulier is not to be trusted as a representative of the Jewish people in any capacity on account of his continuous dealings in bad faith.


Additional Reading Material from Patrick “Aleph:”

For more information on Patrick’s “Aleph’s” approach towards conversion and his take on halacha, please see his piece titled, “Conversion To Judaism: Lies, Mistakes and Creating Jewish Identity.” (interesting that a person so crooked and dishonest uses the word “lies” so liberally in his many materials) In this peace he teaches people how to argue that their conversion should be recognized as valid after the fact. His last word on the matter is to arm a person with at Talmudic phrase that he didn’t actually cite or formally quote, saying that if a person comes to a Jewish community and says they are Jewish then they are halachically entitled to be believed. Learn how Patrick “Aleph” has been coaching people on how to pass objection and argue in defence of their status after the fact in this terribly poorly thought out and non-researched lesson.

Also take a look at his pieces titled, “Teachings About Conversion to Judaism (according to Winkler).” In this piece he shows his bottom line approach in that discussion as well: “If someone converts before a tribunal of Jews who are not qualified to perform conversion, after the fact, the conversion is still valid. The same applies to someone who was not questioned about his or her convictions or motives by the tribunal and it turns out that the convert converted for ulterior motives, or to someone who was not taught the essentials of Judaism.” Of course, being illiterate in Hebrew he didn’t provide any text or interpretation. But it tells a lot about how his mind works, what type of hurdles he is trying to scale and where he is coming from.

For some time Patrick “Aleph” has been talking about wanting to break the system when it comes to conversions and do it a totally different way from what we know today. His first topics when he launched PunkTorah and OneShul was about conversions, its been a central focus for them. But look at how in May 2009 he was already giving everyone a notice of where he was going. See this article at Jewcy.com titled “How to Save Judaism: Better Marketing!” Patrick was not too shy to state, “Second, we need to improve our conversion rate. In order to do this, we need to change what it takes to convert to Judaism. Telling people that it takes a year, intense study, and a religious court does not bring people into the fold. It just creates resentment. Instead, let’s look at the conversion of Ruth and the trials of Abraham as models for a new form of conversion, one that looks at the heart more than the brain. I would love a time when a person could simply go to a rabbi, say they have a Jewish heart, and could take home a Torah and commentary simply saying, ‘this is us…if you want this, take it’ and the following week be in a mikvah.” [emphasis added] Someone actually asked if he was joking, but of course he never replied.

Related articles:


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Will Online Jewish Conversions Further the Chaos?


Sometimes the topic of “Who is a Jew” is actually the least of the problems

 Also, please see the follow-up: “Jewish Conversion Scams Still Trying to Thrive on the Internet” (Jan. 2014)

Note: While I have a deep respect for the passion and spirit of PunkTorah and feel a close connection to the many great people from OneShul, I feel that intellectual honesty demands that I speak up regarding recent events. While I cannot help but be critical of the leadership and present them in a light that is clearly unflattering, I would like to reiterate my love and respect for each person and their unique challenges. I regret much of what I must say, but I think we are all adult enough to take on this topic with the gloves off. Though I am not a member myself, I feel a special concern for the people who are turning to me in confusion on this matter. Personally I like Patrick, but I just wish he hadn’t made a blind power grab akin to a protestant youth pastor trying to take over a church. Hopefully, this is just a phase.

NPatrick "Aleph" Beaulier and Punk Torahever before in my life have I seen Judaism been more appealing to the masses. In a modern age where information is so easily accessible, many people have taken interest in exploring Judaism. And not so infrequently people become so touched and inspired by the values and culture of Judaism that they embrace the Jewish faith through conversion.

Though honestly, conversion has never been harder than it is today. The cost, demands and political constraints have never been so heavy. As standards vary between the movements, and between Israel and diaspora as well, the answer to the “Who is a Jew” question has never been more frustrating.

Truth is, conversion has always been something looked at as rare and obscure. In the less exciting times few people converted, and even fewer rabbis did conversions at all. Though there seem to be more rabbis doing conversions today than before, there is still whole states and countries that don’t have a local rabbi to serve in this capacity. Harder yet, many don’t have a congregation near them at all.

And this is where PunkTorah and OneShul came in, presented as a truly revolutionary approach. If you can’t get to the shul, Patrick “Aleph” Beaulier said they should bring the synagogue to you. With a mix of counter-culture and DIY flair the project helped found the first fully-interactive way to study and hold Jewish prayer services. Programs and services attracted a wide range of involvement and people of various affiliations.

Seeing itself as an actual congregation in the true sense, it only seemed logical they would need a leader. Patrick stepped up as “Rabbi” for the organization. In the same manner, it seemed a natural progression that for a congregation that has an amazingly large number of the attendees interested in conversion that they would also seek to Do-It-Yourself in terms of conversions to Judaism as well. But not just performing their own in-house conversions, they have announced that they plan to offer a future conversion study program entirely on the Internet. (see “Coming Soon: Online Conversion“) Why not, as that is their native medium anyhow, right?

While this was well received by many of their fans, quietly a lot more went into panic-mode and ran-off as they watched a promising program jump the shark in a most gruesome fashion.

It got even worse when the announcement of the proposed conversion program, written by Patrick “Aleph” read:

“The conversions will be valid, but not under Orthodox and/or Israeli religious law. Just as Reform and Conservative conversions are not taken as valid by Orthodox Israeli rabbis, our post-denominational conversion would not be either. However, because our program will include a bet din, mikveh in a Conservative shul and brit milah for men, the conversions will be valid and anyone who says otherwise would be ignoring halacha. (Jewish law)”

No defense of halachic standards, just a statement that everyone else is ignorant if they don’t accept him. Sounds as punk as hell, sure. But also quite childish, and a lot naive.

Then it made it to the Times of Israel (see “To Convert to Judaism, click here“). That is when people really panicked. In truth, it was just about the most damaging article imaginable. It coarsely displayed certain elements that have troubled people about Patrick for some time. Strangely he is talking very triumphantly about the exposure, even as harmful as it is to his cause and the reputation of his followers.

On a personal note, I have spent much time hearing the pain and counseling bewildered people after this announcement. This was received with great applause by the many people interesting in pursuing conversion through them. But in the background many others were left scratching their heads as to how Patrick and the program could offer something which he couldn’t possibly deliver, while at the same time talking about the potential cost of a program.

At first people did just accept it as someone being artistic of cute. But little did we know there were more issues related to why this person refused to go by his name for years.

Who is Patrick “Aleph”? At first people did just accept it as someone being artistic or cute. But little did we know there were more issues related to why this person refused to go by his name. See him try to explain this away at Jewcy.com One can write a whole paper alone on how Patrick’s approach and philosophy was built out of the spasm of one occurrence with a Orthodox rabbi and being asked his full name. There is an incident cited by him several times elsewhere which raises the same discussion as this. He recounts how he was traumatized over having to figure out how to respond in a way without outing himself with a false moniker a or an unJewish sounding name. Someone who is that uncertain and mixed-up about his own identity does not need to be defining the personal status of anyone.

It’s even more bewildering because not long ago Patrick “Aleph” posted a piece titled, “Why I Don’t Perform Conversions (Even Though I’m A Convert).” While I wanted to applaud the position of restraint in this halachic matter, I said nothing as I felt that he was priming the pump, just teasing the conversation forward. It appears I was unfortunately right. Two months later he announced that he would do conversions on-line.

I am disappointed in the direction he has decided to go, but it is not because I am another person splitting hairs with him on halacha. In fact that seems to be Patrick’s position, that if he does everything properly his conversion is valid (except for the Orthodox, of course). But even if he followed everything according to the Shulchan Aruch (The Code of Jewish Law), unfortunately his conversions are still going to be invalid and non-transferable to another movement.

Whereas Patrick might have some interesting and valid points when he talks about the hardships in answering the “Who is a Jew” question, he oddly steps around the issue that supersedes this. The issue of “Who is a Rabbi.”

Though most lay people consider the issue of conversion to be a matter of who can call themselves a Jew, the bigger issue that comes into play is who can call themselves a rabbi. Who is truly ordained, and which ordained rabbis are further recognized to do conversions. This is something that Patrick seems quite aware of because it was his first objection back in October, that people would not recognize his work as a “post-denomination rabbi.”

As a religious commentator, I have to say that Patrick and his branding of this program and ordination as “post-denominational” was quite interesting. It’s a term that is almost never used in Judaism, mostly because it always has a bad connotation carried over from the Evangelical Christian culture that popularized that term. To attend a post-denominational congregation in America is most often described as attending a break away movement, lead by a minister that didn’t go to seminary, and that their church has no active oversight or superior governance. They are an island on to themselves, governed by themselves.

Let me be clear, the problem most have here is not with his halachic approach as such (since we have nothing to inspect from him so far), nor even his movement being outside of “the establishment.” The issue is graver, that Patrick “Aleph” Beaulier is not properly ordained as a rabbi, despite his claims to the contrary.

Working in the different Jewish movements I’ve had time to learn a lot about the business-end and politics of religious governance.

At one time I even worked for the Union of Reform Judaism. One of the issues that often came up was the difficult topic of defining who is a rabbi. As new leaders would come into the region there would often be contention over a rabbinic appointment because occasionally temple boards would pick a person that was not officially ordained by any of the recognized movements or institutions. Most often these people had “private ordinations” or came from dubious institutions.

I once had an interesting observation while working with the definition of the rabbinate. I was made clearly aware that progressive movements would not even ordain former Orthodox Rabbis out of hand. Unconsidered by most of us who came out of orthodox movements, I came to realize that it wasn’t just a matter of halachic knowledge or chain of ordination through notable individuals. Today the progressive rabbinate most often requires actual post-secondary education, training in pastoral counseling, psychological screenings of potential candidates, completion examinations, etc. As my superiors insisted, “Orthodox smicha lacks most of those qualities.” It was clearly made known to me that they could not become ordained rabbis in progressive movements until they fulfilled those requirements and joined the association. The contention of the Reform movement was that they had higher standards, ones that are standard across the progressive movements. Though in recent years the same type of requirements have become more standard even in the Orthodox Rabbinate of Israel as well.

So what of a person who is not really ordained? In such cases they could be called “spiritual leader,” but not as rabbi of the congregation as they were not fit to join the Central Congress of American Rabbis. In fact, even cantors are now regularly required proper ordination and membership to their association in order to hold the official title of “Cantor.” (see American Cantoral Congress)

The status of rabbinic authority most often lays not just in the proper education of a person and a one-time ordination, it also requires being in good  standing with the governance of the movement for their rulings to hold the weight of authority of the movement’s rabbinate.

None of this can be said about the ordination of Patrick, nor is it even true of his teachers and “mentors.” None of them are able to confer “smicha” (rabbinic ordination), because all the programs he has cited are pointing towards rogue rabbis who have basically been forced to resign, or in some cases even thrown out of their movement.

Furthermore, as members of the rabbinate they are urged not to offer ordination to another individual. The by-laws of the rabbinic associations generally ban the offering of “private ordinations,” meaning the conferring of the appearance of rabbinic authority on another person outside of the auspices of the movement’s institutions. This is a ban at risk of expulsion, the equivalent of a lawyer being disbarred. But in the absence of active rabbinic oversight, of course there is no perceived risk for these people who are diploma-milling.

Close inspection of Patrick’s credentials and the organizations who issued them reveals an interesting web of self-aggrandizement and false claims.

First, Patrick identified himself with receiving “rabbinic ordination” from Rabbinical Seminary International, founded by Rabbi Joseph H. Gelberman, who Patrick defines as a “radical” who was kicked out of the Conservative movement. [Correction: Gelberman claimed to have studied “Hungarian chassidism” and was ordained there in Hungary, and his ordination of Orthodox smicha is supposed to trickle down to his followers from there.]

Apparently this “ordination” was still insufficient because Patrick then appears to have marketed himself just down the street and one zip code over from RSI, and joined another dubious organization called Jewish Spiritual Leadership Institute (JSLI) for ordination, which is without question founded and run by individuals who are ordinarily banned from the rabbinate and cantorship (however, their Director Steven Blane never receiving official rabbinical ordination himself, apparently at one time only being member of the Cantor’s Assembly and not the actual rabbinate, see his profile at JSLI).

JSLI’s Rabbi Steven Blane, is also RSI ordained, and by self-admittance, “…resigned [from the Cantoral Assembly of the Conservative movement] after being offered either resignation or expulsion when he began officiating at interfaith weddings.” Thought this might seem to some progressive Jews to merely be an infraction on account of his open-mindedness, the further couldn’t be from the truth. [Blane is also opposed to brit mila – ritual circumcision, as well. Blane is proud to say, “We do not engage in circumcision… There’s no official place in our movement’s philosophy for circumcision…”]

And he isn’t the only strange character on the radar. Patrick admits that he was a student of Rabbi Johnathan Ginsburg, and studied through “Rodfei Kodesh,” for para-rabbinic ordination. Ginsburg is also like many of the JSLI leadership too, he also claims his line of authority stretching from the Conservative Movement. In reality Ginsburg has been formally disavowed for irregularities related to conversion and ordinations. Part of his withdrawal from the Conservative Movement might have been further pushed along by a sexual abuse and exploitation suit from a convert and rabbinic student.

In fact, earlier this year (August 13, 2013) the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement had to reiterate their disavowal of Ginsburg because he has been continuing to build conversion and ordination outlets under other names (convertjudaism.org, jconversion.org, convertjudaismonline.org, watch him pitch for these programs of his on YouTube). The statement by the RA reads as follows:

“The Rabbinical Assembly, the international membership association of Conservative/Masorti rabbis has received numerous queries regarding an organization known as the “Chicago Conversion Beit Din.” The Chicago Conversion Beit Din, one of whose principals is Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg, conducts long distance conversion and, according to their website, it is now sponsoring programs they refer to as “pararabbinic training.”

“The Chicago Conversion Beit Din advertises that it will provide its students with a “Conservative Bet Din.” The Rabbinical Assembly, as the world’s sole membership organization of Conservative/Masorti rabbis, wishes to clarify that, as a body, we do not endorse the work of the Chicago Conversion Beit Din and will not endorse conversions completed under its auspices, for any purpose, including to seek citizenship in Israel under the law of return.

We have been asked whether Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg is a member in good standing of the Rabbinical Assembly. Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg is no longer a member of the Rabbinical Assembly, nor is he eligible for readmission. The RA has no association with nor does it endorse or recognize any bet din or other program run by, or participated in by Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg. Even if Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg does not participate in the bet din personally, the RA does not recognize or endorse any conversion under the auspices of the Chicago Conversion Beit Din.” [emphasis added]

The  influence of Ginsburg is not just something in the past, and this is easily revealed in a paper-trail left by a Rabbi Rob Thomas, a board member of PunkTorah and rabbi ordained from JSLI. If one takes a look at his Linkedin you will see that Thomas has also actively been building an “eSyngogue” and distance learning program, that follows a similar evolution as PunkTorah and other JSLI programs. Odd and damaging is the connection of PunkTorah and eSynagogue back to Ginsburg made here by Thomas in his resume:

“Director, Board of Directors, eSynagogue; June 2011 – Present (2 years 7 months); eSynagogue is a non-profit online Jewish educational foundation focused on all things yiddishkeit. It includes courses for conversion, para-rabbinic education, and lifecycle events. Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg is widely recognized as one of the founders of the online Jewish educational movement.” [emphasis added]

Now notice, this is not the only board “directorship” Thomas holds. He is collaborating concurrently with banned rabbis while active in PunkTorah governance, whilst involving in the specific acts that Ginsburg has been censured for. This is a fact. You will find just two entries below this listing on his resume:

Director, Board of Directors, PunkTorah; March 2010 – Present (3 years 10 months): PunkTorah, a 501(c)(3) Jewish non-profit, is an online community helping people who have fallen through the cracks of Jewish life. Our multimedia network spreads a message of love, inclusion and hope to thousands of people around the world. No matter what shape you are, at PunkTorah, you fit.”

These are not the only connections back to Ginsburg in the PunkTorah program, in fact Patrick has already been directing potential converts and his group leaders to pursue Jewish conversion through Ginsburg by means of his distance program, still with the claim that they are recognized as valid Conservative conversions. (see  the evidence at, “Jewish Conversion Scams Still Trying to Thrive on the Internet“)

Once one closely looks at the programs of PunkTorah, JSLI, eSynagogue, etc. you will see that they all pretty much are doing the exact same thing. Though independent in appearance, they all point back to the same personalities and mutually aided self-aggrandizement. One cannot help but wonder if this is just a headless blunder, or if this is actually a kick-back system. One cannot help but wonder if they are attempting to corner the market to unsuspecting people through simultaneous branding and outreach attempts, and then sharing the profits.

Simply put, in the crude parlance of the punk culture from which I come, this all appears to be a circle-jerk by a bunch of poseurs. There is no credibility in the conversions of PunkTorah/OneShul and their affiliates, neither is there in the ordinations of Patrick’s matching Darshan Yeshiva. One doesn’t need to wait and see if these “halachic” rulings by them are going to be challenged and thrown out, they have already been formally disavowed higher up their chain of command so the matter is settled.

Federation - Punk Torah / OneShul Conneciton

This organization has been receiving funds from the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta

As I’ve stated, the fact that there is collaboration is evident from their timing and cross over in promotional videos (see below). Just a few months before Patrick made himself “Rosh Yeshiva” of his own Darshan Yeshiva, he was directing people to get ordination through JSLI. They are all different faces of the same beast. They all seek to not just convert, but also create their own rabbinate.

So why should one make such a big issue out of a runaway sect? Aside from disrespecting the values of Judaism and the dignity of the rabbinate, the PunkTorah venture has been greatly funded but the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. It is appalling to both the affiliated and un-affiliated that Federation monies, which are not to be used for politics or dogma, are being utilized for this program. Not only was PunkTorah / OneShul funded by the Federation, their site still bares the branding by the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta to give them the appearance of respectability. This in and of itself is appalling and insensitive of the feelings of the Jewish community for them to use Federation resources for engaging in overtly provocative endeavors related to our community’s religious politics. Federation money should not be used for sectarianism, let alone the formation of new rogue sects.

This program is both defrauding the Jewish Federation, and the members of PunkTorah who turn to them for religious rulings and ordinations.

Many followers of Patrick are extremely desperate for the conversion they have not been able to attain by other means. People who badly want this program to be legit in their minds, so they are fiercely defending this potential conversion program. Little are they keeping in mind of the reality that no matter how they perform their conversion with these people, they will not be recognized by any of the official Jewish movements in North America; Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative and of course Orthodox. Neither are they valid in Israel.

A person that is seeking a valid conversion from a recognized beit din are best advised to join and convert through a local program. Any conversion by a valid and recognized beit din, which is verifiable and properly performed, will be recognized not just by their movement here, but is generally valid for immigration to Israel as well (while not recognized according to Orthodox law and standards, one is still applicable for aliyah under the Law of Return according to the civil law of Israel). Anyone who is offered a mere partial conversion is advised to run and not walk.

As Patrick "Aleph" doesn't believe in transparency and accountability, he has begun to delete his social networking connections and locking his videos

As Patrick “Aleph” doesn’t believe in transparency and accountability, he has begun to delete his social networking connections and locking his damning videos.

Though on the surface it appears that Patrick and his cohorts are simply being more compassionate and innovative, in reality their actions have left several of their most ardent fans and contributors feeling hurt, misled, shamed and defrauded. Even worse it is causing a crisis of identity for potential converts who feel that they have now been further alienated and stigmatized though the false hopes offered them by PunkTorah and Patrick. Keep in mind, PunkTorah is already funnelling people to Ginsburg for conversions, Patrick is merely attempting to go one step further in doing it himself now.

I feel for these potential converts. Sincere people, who don’t deserve to have their experience with Judaism soured by the actions of people who don’t actually represent the Jewish community in any true capacity.

I can’t think of anything more cruel for an individual to face than  for them to be told they are not Jewish, an issue that wouldn’t be such a wound had it not been for sheisters who fed them false hopes and an unfounded sense of entitlement. People playing with the emotions of the helpless. I feel sorry for the people who are already too emotionally crippled by stigma to recognize they aren’t being faulted for being a convert, but for their association with people of bad reputation.

Please note, this is not the first consorted effort to do halachic conversion outside of the auspices of a movement. There is also the group once know as Dor Deah, but has since been rebranded several times and repackaged with other programs called Bejewish.org, TorahJudaism, and Ways of Israel. It imploded nearly immediately after it was pointed out they were not just doing something unsanctioned, but also accepting money for it which constitutes fraud. Shortly after they dropped the costs associated with program, reiterate that their program is “100% free” as one is only paying for cost of materials. While claiming to be Orthodox, eventually they were even forced to backtrack and state the obvious for their “converts:” (see actual text)

Although WAYS OF ISRAEL is an Orthodox organization, our conversions are not guaranteed to be recognized by other Jewish courts or the State Israel. This is due to conversion controversies around the world and the relatively recent politicization of the conversion process in general. If recognition by the State of Israel is what you desire, we suggest that you move into an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood and begin your process there under a more widely recognized Orthodox beth din. Another option for one who wants recognition by the State of Israel may be to first convert under our auspices and at a later date do another conversion under a more widely recognized beth din when one has the financial means to do so.

This is some semi-good advice from some sketchy people who have already tried going there. People who have learned the hard way that no matter how you perform it halachically, conversions will be rejected outright and summarily when performed outside of the auspices of a recognized rabbinate authorized for this function.

Any movement, be it conservative or liberal, is only going to recognize the rulings of people whom they recognize to be rabbis. To expect anything different is just childish and ignorant on a paramount level.

The bottom line is this, the only weight a conversion certificate has comes from the name of the Rabbi that signs on the dotted-line. Unfortunately the leadership of PunkTorah and their affiliates/associates may have already soiled their reputations in a manner which can’t be laundered, no matter how pricey of a mikveh fee you pay to a self-appointed group.

Related articles:


See Patrick “Aleph”  promote JSLI in March 2013, right before he founded his own “yeshiva.” The video is captioned, “Become a rabbi in one year? We tell you how!”

blanepunktorahordination


Kitniyot: Eating Beans and Rice During Passover


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

BeansUpdated and Current for Passover 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is true for most kitniyot except for rice, which is easily mistaken for barely gains and commonly grown in shared fields with wheat. For this reason rice is the most scrutinized of the kitniyot.

It also posses problems related to enrichment, which supplies dietary supplements often derived from grain and even wheat sources. Which is coated over the rice in a starch powder form. Though these enrichment minerals do not identify their source on their labeling most of the time, rabbinic supervisors do usually identify which brands and types of rice are not enriched with chametz for that year.

Though the following recommendations have been made since Passover 2013 by the Jersey Shore Orthodox Rabbinate (Sephardic), one that breaks with their advice of former years:

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

In 2015 they again stressed:

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

We do not recommend enriched rice.”

This year – for Passover 2016 – their recommendations for rice are as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This can also be verified by this report, from the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture as well:
“Soybeans, corn, and wheat are typically rotated with both rice and cotton in Arkansas to reduce weeds or insects and to improve soil fertility.”

The use of more efficient irrigation methods today allows farms to more readily rotate their crop. Of course this technology and method is also used in other states as well, including Oklahoma. This poses a risk for cross contamination during harvesting.

It is precisely for this reason that all rice that is purchased, whether or not it is certified as Kosher for Passover or “KITNIYOT” per it’s certification, needs to be checked by hands for chametz contamination. This requires the examination of each grain of rice, and the common custom is for rice to be inspected three times by hand.
This is stressed by the Star-K:
“Despite the fact that these rice products are meticulously cleaned in the factories with advanced machines, the Gedolei Haposkim of the Sephardic kehillot feel that the established custom of checking the rice, grain by grain, three times is still required. Therefore, STAR-S-P certified rice products should be checked, grain by grain, three times prior to its usage on Pesach.”

This applies to all rice, including the Carolina Mehadrin (Star-S), which is assured to not be grown near or packaged with chametz machinery of any form.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related articles:


Afternoon Prayers: Mincha Gedolah or Mincha Ketanah?


When is the earliest time to daven Mincha and how does a Minyan effect this choice?

Davening Mincha / MaarivA few weeks ago a friend asked a very important, but very basic question. One that got me taken down a long path of consideration. We are going to look at this in-depth. Our question is: When is the best time to say Mincha – the afternoon prayers.

It is most common for people to say Mincha later in the afternoon. Most often the prayers are said at the same time, or just adjacent to, the evening prayers of Maariv (Arvit). This is how it is normally done. This is the halacha (the law) as we will see.

Although often times there is a consideration given to one’s opportunity to say prayers with a minyan – a full congregation, a sufficient quorum. It is ideal to say prayers with a minyan than on one’s own, so people plan their prayer schedule to conform to meeting with this group. Nonetheless there is a time requirement in which to say morning and evening prayers; we say them in the morning and any time at night, if we are close to passing the appropriate time of day then we say them on our own. However Mincha can apparently be said all day long, as long as its past midday, so on some occasions that might leave us up to considering for ourselves when is ideal.

Is it better to say it on our own at the most halachically agreeable time later in the afternoon, or with a minyan even if that means saying it earlier? What is more appropriate? We are going to look at some answers to that question, and explore the reasons why we pray Mincha in this manner to begin with. We also make this even more interesting by taking a look at what some Sephardic poskim have to say regarding the halacha.

A look at the Laws relating to Mincha

Normally when I start presenting instructions for any type of mitzvah I start with the Shulchan Aruch – popularly known as The Code of Jewish Law. It usually is the stopping off place for our consideration of just about every mitzvah. In general, it not only presents us with the Sephardic approach for things as its base text, but it also is augmented with the glosses of the Rema who speaks for the Ashkenazi tradition as well. Very few times do I need to dig much further than that, or needing to do much more than identify halachic sources that clarify the approach for their respective communities based on this text. But today we are going to see a divergence from this, where the Shulchan Aruch is not necessarily giving a definitive voice.

We might need to break this down a bit for this to be understood, but let us start first off with the Shulchan Aruch‘s approach first. This is necessary also because we really need to draw a line of thinking as to why one might deviate from this approach.

The Maran (Rabbi Yosef Karo) tells us one fulfills his obligation of saying their Mincha prayers – which correspond to be our afternoon prayer service – after a half-hour past midday. We mean from when the sun is actually at its zenith, not when it says noon on the clock, this is decided by dividing the day into 12 proportional hour. However he states that the most ideal time to daven Mincha is after 9 hour all the way up until a ¼ hour before the 11th hour. One who discharges his obligation after 6 ½ hours apparently does so “b’deieved,” counting as one that does a make-up, but that the ideal time is later in the afternoon.

The Rema (Rabbi Moshe Issereles) in his glosses for this stresses the point that we are talking about proportional hours, that relate to the actual calculation of daylight and not mere relative hours like we find on the clock, in which all hours are 60 minutes long. If we think about it, simple hours are only the case on the equinoxes in the central temperate zones. But if you go more north or south, or the days drift longer or shorter because of the seasons, this calculation changes; these divisions of time are not static but instead are proportional to the length of day. The celestial hours work out well for people in Eretz Yisrael and Babylonia but it doesn’t really hold true up north in his native Poland and thus needs to be adjusted proportionally to the actual daylight hours, where in winter the days are exceedingly shorter.

The Maran and Rema seem to agree, with the Shulchan Aruch favoring the Ashkenazi approach even down to agreeing therefore that one has until tzet kochavim (the appearance of stars) to discharge their service, which would mean the birth of a new day. There would be little disagreement on this, except the consequential debate as to when this period to discharge Mincha ends; be it actually at tzet kochavim (twilight) or at shkiah (sunset). It would also be debated how early is too early to say Maariv. But thats not necessarily what we are talking about today, so we will pass right on to how this halacha effects us choosing the optimal prayer time. (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim, Siman 233)

Why is Mincha not said at Noon?

In all my travels I have rarely seen people engage in their Mincha prayers in the height of the midday. It is generally the case that congregations convene a Minyan to pray late in the day to say Mincha and then after a short pause engage in Maariv close to sunset. One may pray three times a day (four times on holy days, when you account for Musaf), but congregations are only made to convene twice a day.

But if we are saying “afternoon prayers” then one should naturally wonder why anyone would suggest that we do not say them until late in the afternoon. Why not near noon?

The confusion, in some ways, arises out of a disagreement that goes all the way back to the Talmud as to who instituted the daily prayer times to begin with. It is a disagreement that would continue to surface up until the middle-ages and even cut into the middle of certain communities themselves. For instance the Rambam and the Ramban (both Sephardic) would also disagree with each other as to the origins of our prayer services, leading each to different views as to if they were essentially biblical or rabbinic in origin. The answer to this defines if one would be transgressing a biblical command or merely failure to live up to a rabbinic custom if not meeting their obligation.

In the Talmud, in the name of Rabbi Yosi ben Chaninah, we are taught that the prayer services were introduced to us by our fathers. Avraham Avinu instituted the morning prayers (Shacharit) and Yitzhak Avinu the afternoon prayers (Mincha). By prayers, we are talking about saying the standing Amidah – which is our duty before G-d. (Talmud Bavli, Brachot 26b) The Gemara notes that Yitzhak prayed and meditated in the field, then stayed there because the sun was setting and then after his devotion he laid down to rest. (see Genesis 28:11)

However, earlier on in the Gemara we are taught that of all the prayer services the one that is the most acceptable before G-d as a spiritual devotion is the afternoon prayers. (Talmud Bavli, Brachot 6b; statement of Rabbi Chelbo in the name of Rabbi Hunah) We are taught to pay special attention to pray the afternoon prayers because even Elijah the Prophet was only heard during the afternoon offering. He prayed for G-d to hear him, and He did, responding with fire from heaven. (see 1 Kings 18:36-37)

This brings up a great machloket (disagreement) between the Sages (if not also dividing the Biblical approach) as to what is the most appropriate time of day for Minchah – the afternoon prayers. What is better, during the late afternoon or during the time of the midday sacrifice?

If we return to our main source text regarding the subject (Talmud Bavli, Brachot 26b), we find that there are rabbis who state that the institution of our daily prayer services are based upon the daily sacrificial offerings, meaning as a substitution for sacrificial offerings presumably instituted by the Sages; so it is stated in the name of Rabbi Yehoshuah ben Levi. We then find that Rabbi Yehuda seems to concur initially in the Gemara, that one can only say similar prayers up until the 7th hour of the day. He gives as his example that the additional (Musaf) offerings of a holy day can only be brought until the 7th hour. This time in the middle of the day therefore seems ideal.

However, as we look at this text we must be reminded that his initial statement that he makes is that one may start Mincha until the middle of the afternoon (plag haMincha). But the Gemara continues and begins to explain something very different in the end. It begins to define what we mean by afternoon. We are then also taught in the name of Rabbi Yehudah that afternoon is divided into two periods; the earlier being Mincha Gedolah that begins a ½ hour after high-noon, and Mincha Ketana that begins 3 ½ hours after high-noon. It is obvious to all that these statements appear contradictory to each other.

Nonetheless when the Talmud apparently goes to rule on this subject it answers the dispute this way: “Come and hear: for it has been taught: Rabbi Yehudah said: They referred to the middle of the latter afternoon-tide, which is eleven hours less a quarter.” In his own name a clarification is offered up.

Still it must be noted that the dispute does not end here. Though there is a seeming ruling being brought down to settle the confusion, this does not detract from the conviction of Rabbi Yosi ben Chaninah. He goes on to retort that though the Rabbis found justification for the services by corresponding them to the sacrifices, he contends that the actual true birth of the prayer services was in the biblical example and age. He contends that the Sages just added on to them by finding justification from our forefathers, and only then added the Musaf prayer services after the manner of the others. Philosophically his point is that the prayer services transcends the mere spirit and rules of sacrifice alone.

The Talmud thus does not offer us a definitive answer for this dispute. It continued well into the middle-ages as a matter of dispute between our Rabbis, in some cases even cutting through communities themselves (as is the case with the Rambam and Ramban’s disagreement on this matter).

However it should be noted that the law, as laid down by the Shulchan Aruch, does not just rule with the latter clarification of Rabbi Yehudah regarding Minchah Ketanah but also keeps in mind other implications, ones revealed to us in great detail by the commentary of the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah.

The Mishnah – the raw and unqualified source of the Talmudic text does give us something very deep to consider. The Mishnah of Talmud Balvi for Shabbat 9a, it tells us that before Mincha it is not allowed for a person to get their hair cut, enter a bathhouse (or sauna for cleansing oneself) or a tannery (that processes animal skins), nor engage in eating or even in deliberating a lawsuit. The reasons is so that one will not be delayed in saying his prayers by engaging in a lengthy process.

The Gemara – the commentary of the Talmud, that clarifies the Mishnah it will begin to debate out what this means, and how much engagement in one of these acts has to be done before one finds themselves fully engaged and unable to stop. The Gemara however does bring our attention to the latter clause of Mishnah that tells us that one who is already engaged in one of these acts does not need to break off his actions, but he can continue what he is doing. So as long as there is time for him to continue to prayer after, he need not worry and can be lenient in these matters.

However, if we look at the Mishnah we are clearly told that when we are talking about someone engaging in a distracting or postponing act near Minchah, we are talking about Mincha Gedolah, not the latter Mincha Ketahah.

The Rambam, in his commentary for all of Jewish Law in the Mishnah Torah, cannot ignore this clause. He does rule in agreement with the Mishnah above, and likewise it is brought down to us in the Shulchan Aruch, (Orach Chayim 234) which in unison with him on this matter. However, even the Rambam has to do much work in explaining what is the point of no return for a postponing action, likewise what it mean by eating.

This point here cannot be missed, because as we begin to see our seasons changing this becomes a real concern. If the Mishnah outright says that one should not engage in any time consuming or involved acts after Mincha Gedolah until one prays, this puts a very big constraint on to one’s day. Especially if one is insisting on praying at Mincha Ketana, near sunset. We would be saying that no one can really do any viable business or even eat from midday until after dark. Sure one can rely on the leniency, but this is obviously not the ideal. What we would be saying, for example, is that in a long days like we have in Summer one should wait an enormous amount of time to take on a meal, something that is quite impractical.

The seasons also have another implication, one that is relevant for us now during the middle of winter when the days are very short. Sometimes, because of the shortness of the day, people will often encounter difficulties if they wait until the late afternoon to pray their Mincha. It can often be hard for an individual to even distinguish if it’s daytime or night time already. Though evening prayers (of the Amidah of Maariv) are not a requirement, being only a service of rabbinic institution which does not have any correspondence to a separate sacrifice of its own, the Mincha prayers are required to be said and we would all agree that they correspond to their time of day. Now Maariv does not have a repetition of the Amidah, reminding of the fact that it was not distinct but merely the occasional offering of leftover pieces of the other sacrifices of the day in evening flames.

However it is the custom for many to say a shorted Mincha Amidah, truncated by adding only a partial repetition by the Shliach Tzibur (the prayer leader); the leader starting the prayers himself but cutting off his repetition after the Kedushah, with the congregations then continuing on after that point with their own silent reading of the rest of the Amidah. However keep in mind that the reason is not because of similarity of Maariv and Mincha that might lead one to dispense of a full repetition of the Amidah, its because with days so short it can often be impossible for one to finish their Mincha prayers on time. The Maran cites this as the Sephardic tradition that he was familiar with, but he instead rules in favor of the full repetition of Mincha in agreement with the Ashkenazi approach.

Modern debate among Sephardic poskim regarding the halacha

Now it must be noted that many great rabbis, even among the Sephardic tradition, hold by the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch; it is defined by “the code” and the Mishneh Torah, therefore is the Ikar haDin (the letter of the law). This is made clear to us, even among critical and scholarly poskim such as Rabbi Chaim David haLevi (the famed Sephardi legal expert know as the Mekor Chaim haLevi). In his Kitzur Mekor Chaim, like many who came before him, he saw no reason to break with the position of the Shulchan Aruch and Rambam.

In fact the Mekor Chaim makes some interesting points after defining the names Mincha Gedolah and Ketanah – having to explain away why one is the greater and one is the lesser. He outright says that it is wrong for a person to pray at Mincha Gedolah, especially if there is a time later in the day that is less stressful for a person to pray, presumably during Mincha Ketanah! It is more ideal in the afterglow of the day, and one has up until the Shkiah of Sunset in which to say their Mincha prayers.1

The Mekor Chaim also makes another interesting point, that seems relevant for our modern day. He makes it clearly proper for even Sephardim to hold by this, his reasoning is because it alleviates one having to gather and then scatter at two different times, especially for those who show up to services for joining in with the congregation because they don’t read Hebrew. However, he stresses that for those who pray in Hebrew themselves, they should make sure to not delay so late as to wait until twilight for dispensing their Mincha prayers. Presumably waiting for a later congregation to convene is not justifiable in the case of a literate Hebrew speaker.

However when it comes to explaining how to fit waiting until later into our lives, and the details of the poskim regarding waiting for meals and such he further offers logical explanations for being lenient in this respect. He states that if one is relieving oneself by taking on a small meal (a snack) to make it easier to pray, then one may. Though he says that in the case of large meals such as for a wedding banquet it should be that one pray and then engage in a big meal after their davening. The Mekor Chaim is once again our compassionate conservative, and offers us logical reasons for our modern age. Though we can not ignore that first he outright tells us at the beginning that his position is “afilu meikar hadin / after the essence of the law,” that no one should have more than a egg sized portion of bread or fruit after Mincha arrives without praying. He does not wish to break with the law, even by a letter unless humanly necessary. (see Kitzur Mekor Chaim, Siman כה Tefillat Mincha, pages 56-57)

Interestingly enough, his predecessor as Rishon L’Tzion (Sephardic Chief Rabbi) of Tel-Aviv – Yafo was Rabbi Ovediah Yosef (shelita), who tells us that he too was previously of this opinion, siding harshly with the Shulchan Aruch. He even noted that on days when he saw a congregation going past the seventh hour he would say Musaf on his own and not wait for the congregation.

He asserts that he felt likewise about Mincha, that it should be said at its ideal halachic time. However upon inspection he later rejected this position, noting that a great deal of early rabbinic sources held that saying Mincha Gedolah was “Le’chatehila,” it was the ideal way to fulfill a mitzvah. Among those that he cites the Saadia Gaon, the Rif, the Rosh (Rabbi Ashen Ben Yechiel), the Ramban and the Ritba. This is further supported by prominent legal experts such as the Tur. The Rav tells us that had the Maran been aware of the long list of sources that held by this view, then he would have acquiesced and ruled differently in the Shulchan Aruch. (see Teshuvot Yechaveh Daat)

As we see, when all this comes together we have a very interesting perspective being delivered to us by Rabbi Ovediah Yosef. He says it is thus better to say the prayers at their corresponding times in full with a minyan, and not delay them to wait for a later minyan who says them truncated or even to say them privately at the more halachically agreeable time.

Theoretically this should be optimal from the perspective of people who hold by the Nusach Ari z”l (namely Sephardim and Chassidim). As we see the Rabbi Yitzhak Luria – great kabbalist know as the Ari z”l – did not establish a shorter and easier to say order of prayers. He first off insists that the entire repetition be recited by the leader, which he asserts is the established custom (as cited by the Aruch haShulchan, 223:6); thereby seeming to insist that one not wait until the latest times possible for saying Mincha. But he also further extended the prayers by including readings of the daily Tamid offering of Ketoret (incense) to be said with one’s prayers. To do this one needs more time, starting earlier is more helpful.

Okay, now enough of looking at teshuvot – to legal discourse after the fact regarding this. When we look at the rabbinic literature we find that we have a halacha being brought down – a law to guide us by – but a debate still remains. We would have a legal opinion presented to us by the Shulchan Aruch, supported by the Misheh Torah of the Rambam. However even well respected commentaries upon these such as the Aruch haShulchan and the Mishna Berurah would not attempt to settle the issue of what is better, be it Mincha Ketanah or Mincha Gedolah. They would actually show a curious honesty that even the Rambam had, despite their opinions, and present both arguments. The issue is far from settled, in fact each approach has certain philosophically merits behind it.

Mincha is our “Gift” to G-d

As we look at Mincha I would ask us to finally consider a more elementary definition of what we are talking about, one often noted by our scholars. Sometimes words come layered with legal terminology and idiom, to the point that we often look over the obvious truth about something that is revealed in it’s very name. Mincha more essentially means grain offering in biblical Hebrew, poetically it means a gift, present or tribute.

It can be said that if we really want to reinforce the significance of Mincha as a mindset and not just a mere time of the day that comes and goes, then we should be more interested in presenting our prayers as a real gift before G-d. One can argue that taking time out of their day to daven Mincha Gedolah would be more meaningful. Nothing is more precious than the hight of the day, if used for prayer then it’s a really big gesture.

Nonetheless one who chooses to daven later is also losing out on “prime-time hours.” Probably even more so today considering many of us work until quite late, not being limited by considerations of daylight for operating our businesses. Taking time out of our day in order to offer it up as a gift before Hashem in prayer is a real sacrifice. It has merit also, we should not just dismiss the halacha of the Shulchan Aruch right away either. Our sacrifice in light of halacha doesn’t have to be too oppressive to our daily activity as functioning people. But we do need to give back something.

And that is the real lesson of Mincha, I believe; that we are to take time out of our day and give it in service to G-d. We take time out of when we should be more concerned with making that final dollar or merely getting back to the safety of our homes, and we give it to Hashem. Not trying to make the best of the day for just our uses. We offer part of our day back as a gift to G-d.

The Halacha in Summary

The ideal halachic time for saying Minchah is during the later part of the afternoon, during Mincha Ketanah. One has the entire afternoon in which to say their prayers, but halacha favors the latter for engaging in prayer. However if given the chance to pray with a minyan at a less ideal time during Mincha Gedolah then this is acceptable.

Do you need to find out the halachic times for praying? There are various automated Zmanim resources available online, such as at Chabad.org or MyZmanim.com, that will calculate the halachic times for your location.

1) Kitzur Mekor Chaim, page 56:

טעה להתפלל משש שעות ולמעלה ללא שעת דחק יצא בדיעבד ומצוה להתפלל עם דמדומי חמה, היינו מעט קודם שקיעת החמה


The Death of the Twinkie or Not? It’s Implications for Kashrut


The Death of the Twinkie or Not? It’s Implications for Kashrut
How the closure of “Hostess” Brands as we know it might create greater kosher advances

Hostess TwinkieIt may sound ridiculous, but with all the calamity in the world the one thing that has America reeling is the loss of the Twinkie. America just doesn’t seem to know what it’s going to do without what they feel is an authentic American staple. People have literally begun to stockpile. As we watch this it is kind of humorous to us people who were raised more on wise cracks surrounding their supposed lack of an expiration date than actually eating them. And we have all had our fill in entertainment being littered with subplots like in “Zombieland” where the main character Tallahassee seeks out a Twinkie as a prize in a post apocalyptic world. Some thought it would last forever.

But for us religious people the loss of this product isn’t really a drastic consideration though. Unless you’re a foodie, one who wasn’t always religious, has experienced them and always wondered what it would be like to have the Twinkie go kosher.

Some people might ask why would a Twinkie need to be kosher at all. What could be so offensive about it’s moist golden cake and creamy filling? Mostly that the moisture in the cake and the “cream filling” might actually be “rendered beef fat” as a base shortening. What you think of as a dairy dessert might actually be sugar and flour moistened by lard, “and/or/with vegetable shortening.”

Beef Fat in Hostess Cakes

Beef Fat in Hostess cakes in place of shortening

For this reason they have been untouchable for religious people, their loss won’t cause crisis in our kitchens. In fact this is a pretty good blow to one of the biggest temptation items out there is in the public sphere for good, one less foe for parents to have to fend off some might figure. But in actually Hostess closing it’s doors might strangely bring the Twinkie brand to observant people for the first time if current news is any indication.

Though Hostess is closing, the Twinkie brand is already proving to be an indispensable American icon that people are not content to do without. The only comparison there in this iconic status is the Oreo Cookie by Nabisco. But even the Oreo has gone through an evolution, one that we might be seeing played out with the Twinkie brand in a different way. There is one thing that is true of them both, both of the brands are indispensable and highly sought after. And some feel that substitutions just wont do, a knockoff wont fulfill their need for nostalgia.

It is this demand that made Oreo go kosher in the mid-1990s, their success. Oreo’s great success meant that it became a staple for desserts and ice cream toppings, one that manufacturer such as the large ice creameries wanted to include in their products but couldn’t because the white filling of the Oreo was sometimes lard based and jeopardized the kosher customer base of their products if included. This the other manufacturers saw as more harmful to their wholesome image than using generic cookies, all the while pressuring Nabisco to comply for everyone’s benefit. Nabisco did actually comply and converted their entire national operation over to become fully kosher, a lengthy and expensive process that required the blow-torching of all metal surfaces and replacement of every plastic item in their bakeries. This process of cleaning out the lard and replacing it with pure vegetable shortening was completed in December of 1997. It was hailed as the biggest advance in kosher eating in recent memory. They became a leader in moving away from lard and thus became an industry benchmark. It took years and millions of dollars in conversion costs, but they had the vision of not wanting to be on the wrong side of wholesomeness.

Little Debbie Cloud Cake

Little Debbie’s “Cloud Cake;” Kosher Certified by Rabbi Ralbag, Chief Rabbi of Amsterdam; Triangle-K Dairy. Nothing sinful about them at all!

Now one would wonder why with the advances in kosher food productions, today accounting for about roughly 40% of retail food in the supermarket, why Hostess did not go the distance and strengthen their customer base by having kosher certified dessert cakes such as Twinkies. This would have also opened them up to the halal and vegetarian customer bases. It is true that they already produced Wonder Bread, was has also up until now been one of the largest national brands of kosher ingredient, white bread; not pas yisrael, but still kosher and thus a great relief to many. It is also true that industry standards have been growing in the past two decades, with people moving beyond needless animal fats. Also the legal prohibition of trans-fats meant that in many cases companies had to overhaul their productions all together in order to meet the new legal guidelines. You would think with such make-overs being an industry-wide move Hostess would have followed through as a leader. The reason is quite obvious as to why they didn’t if we consider it. The parent company of Hostess/Wonder has already faced two prior bankruptcies and could not afford to make-over every surface of their production-line when they couldn’t turn a profit to begin with.

New hope for the Twinkie brand and its likely emergence as a kosher food product will likely be a result of the reality that someone else will take up the making of the Twinkie brand in new industry-standard facilities. This will also provide verifiable purity of the shortening by virtue that they would come out of plants and machinery that have never used pork or beef fats. The Twinkie production could be rebuilt from scratch and without the former hangups.

As the days progress it seems inevitable that another company will step up to the plate and purchase the Hostess brand including the Twinkie in order to produce it for the masses of begging fans. In fact there has been one company poised to move into this market for several years. The privately owned Mexican bread giant Bimbo – the staple branded table bread in Mexico – has been eying the brand since the 1990s. Backed by billions in successful revenues for both bread and dessert cakes Bimbo has also made a major name for itself north of the border as well by producing fluffy and delicious treats at affordable prices. No longer are they brands geared only for Hispanics who want a taste of home. (see “Next Twinkie Maker: Will A Mexican Billionaire Family Buy Hostess’ Orphaned Brands?” – Forbes)

Bimbo Truck

Bimbo Truck in the United States. In many places like Los Angeles and San Diego, CA and the surrounding areas you can even find Kof-K certified parve Bimbo white bread; notoriously inspired by the original Wonder Bread style

If it sounds ridiculous that a third-world company could come to be the holders and producers of one of American’s most iconic foods, we need to consider that there has already been a crossover between the Bimbo and American brands. Bimbo is already the licensed producer of Wonder Bread in Mexico, a sign of its quality and clout. And here in the United States that quality is further testified to by the fact that Bimbo is also entrusted to produce mini-frosted donuts for Entemann’s, a premium dessert cake producer that is common in many Jewish homes because of their long-standing history of bearing an OU-D hechsher. Bimbo also produces other kosher bread and dessert products here in the United States for Sara Lee, Oroweat, Thomas’ and Francisco. They have the market viability and real-world expertise in saving a branding under a new incarnation. It is likely that we will see an agreement made to seal an acquisition of the Hostess brands by Bimbo in the weeks to come, or at the very least another producer take up the product line in new plants and with new workers in their stead.

Until that happens most of us are going to wait in amusement to see if Twinkie the Kid hops back on the saddle again for another ride or just rides off into the sunset. Either way, if you can’t wait in suspense there is an alternative to the Twinkie, one that might actually be better than the real thing. The “Cloud Cake” baked by Little Debbie is slightly moister and (if you can imagine it) more spongy version of the Twinkie with a simple cream filling. Absolutely delicious and kosher bearing the Triangle-K Dairy hechsher; they are not chalav yisrael but they are free from lard so they really are something worth writing home to mom about.

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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.

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Kosher Meat: Once again, a tender subject


Kosher Meat: Once again, a tender subject
Does your meat live up to a “higher calling?”

In the past week most of us have seen near-hysteria arise both in communal discussion and over the media concerning the recent allegations being made as to the quality of kosher meat, as well as the business and labor practices of Hebrew National; who represents one of the most notorious American producers of kosher products, including hot dogs, whose standards they claim “answer to a Higher Authority.” The media interest arose after a lawsuit was filed which anonymously claims they do not live up to that trademarked slogan. (see “Hebrew National sued over non-kosher allegations” at CNN)

Before we get too far into the subject, it should be fair for us to put some of this information into perspective. It is important for us to all keep in mind why this is being played-out so harshly in the media. So far reporting is mostly relying upon public conjecture regarding the public’s feelings about the ethics of kosher food production in this country. Simply put this is because hard-hitting reporting, with interviews of people related to the case, hasn’t been possible because the petitioners are anonymous. There is no official statement from any religious groups at this point either, because the petitioners of this lawsuit are not a religious organization or kosher agency; in fact it is reported that the record states none of the petitioners adhere to kashrut, but are merely members of the general public that feel misled by the slogan of superior standards.

Though this case raises nothing but questions, and is a piece of litigation that people would ordinary brush aside as another case of a frivolous lawsuit, this story is riding on the momentum of public concern related to other scandals in kosher food production. And in those cases, no matter how we slice it and dice it, not all those allegations were so baseless. Most notorious is the Rubashkin’s/Aaron’s Best, Agriprocessors case which led to the raid of their Postville, Iowa plant in May 2008. Among the reasons cited for the federal raid was the violation of immigration, labor and safety laws. The plant was once the largest producer of Glatt Kosher meat, mostly meeting the needs of the growing Chabad-Lubavitch community.

Whereas there was a level out outcry from within the Jewish communities for some of the most conservative elements to want to defend Rubashkin’s, you will not be seeing the same level of concern shown for Hebrew National. Quite honestly, the defense of Orthodox communities of Sholom Rubashkin was out of necessity; we needed meat. There is not that type of demand for the Hebrew National product, so the vanguard defenders of kashrut seem to care-less for now.

Many years ago I had a conversation with a boss of mine who was a very prominent progressive rabbi about kashrut. I had mentioned once when planning for an event that it had become more expensive because of the use of glatt kosher hot dogs. When asked why they didn’t go with Hebrew National, he was quite confused when it was communicated that going that route would result in a huge loss of sales. People wouldn’t want the product. In fact, the local rabbinic supervision agencies demanded the highest level of kashrut because a higher quality of product was widely available in a large city like Los Angeles. If we wanted supervision, it had to be this quality. Though not adhering to kashrut himself, and being of an old school, classic Reform mindset it was beyond him to comprehend the concern. All he could keep asking was, “So you saying they are treif?”

Pretty much that’s how its come out in the more liberal Jewish media too with this issue. Because of the allegations surrounding Hebrew National many have been quick to ask, “Are they treif?” The answer to that question, so far, is no. Most of the concerns surrounding Hebrew National are ethical concerns, not related to kashrut at all. Simply put, ethical concerns are not normally taken into consideration when it comes to kosher food supervision. There are certain allegations regarding kosher law, however the claims regarding the application of the halacha is at best an infantile understanding of the inspection of regular Stam (Heb. regular, simple standard; that it meets the purpose) kosher meat. Stam Kosher is the level of adherence for Hebrew National under the supervision of Triangle-K.

Now again we must keep in mind, this is not up to the standards of Chassidic, Haredi, and Sephardic Jews who follow an even higher standard yet; Glatt kosher (Heb. mechaber; which means mehadrin styled standards of kashrut).  This standard does not permit certain abnormalities upon organs, in certain and select case that are determined by supervising rabbis during their inspections of the animal after slaughter. (see “What Is Glatt Kosher” by Rabbi Jason Miller)

Kashrut sometimes seems to be all about standards. In theory, the more observant you are, the greater level of standards of dietary laws you adhere to. But is there really a difference between the classes of kashrut?

Ironically, during the late 1990s I had this explained to me by Rabbi Sholom Rubashkin himself. He was traveling the country, and was well received by the local Lubavitch communities. Before he departed he had a chance to address the shul, as everyone was interested in hearing about the trends relating to the growing standards and availability. At one point he began to talk about his own product and the higher prices people pay at the check-out line. He related that its obvious there is a price difference between non-kosher and kosher meat, and glatt meat is even higher yet. Some are for mere economic reasons. But some of it is also related to the quality of the meat, as fewer animals meet the final-inspection, there is less of it, thus higher demand means higher prices. But then in the middle of his statement he candidly stated that halachically there was nothing wrong with Stam Kosher meat; it is not treif.

Without as much as a seconds pause I heard a woman yell from behind the mechitzah, “Good! It’s cheaper, we will go with that then!” Of course the whole shul busted up laughing. And cheerfully Rubashkin began to make the point to us that in reality the regular Stam Kosher meat met all the requirements of Jewish law, however it did not adhere to the customs of the Chassidic communities.

He cited the well-known halacha that we not to buy meat from a shochet that is of questionable sources. Even more so, people should adhere the halachic standards that have been set down by their communities. He stated that what people were paying for is assurance that the people who process their meat are of their own persuasion and adhere to the standards they hold dear. A sense of certainty is easier when the person is known because they are of their own sect.

In reality, he was right. In fact kosher certification with a recognizable hechsher marking is something more of an American trend, that has strongly taken root in Israel since the founding of State and then subsequently throughout the world as food production increased overseas. However, the laws of kashrut demand that a person be proactive regarding their food sources. Traditionally the different communities knew what was acceptable in their own region, and when in doubt they would ask their local rabbi. But kosher certification on a can or bottle is a modern invention, originating in America after the invention of the registered trade-mark. People trust the mark on the can, because they trust the agency that licenses that food producer to print that seal of approval on that product; the agency vouches for the product’s compliance with the Jewish dietary laws.

One benefit of greater kosher observance and demand worldwide is that you can find products bearing well-known kosher certifications just about anywhere. Better distribution has meant that the certainty of kosher supervision should reach as far as the distribution line of that product.

Problem is these companies are often so far away and so large that there is little personally known about them in order for people to make informed decisions regarding the product. In reality many are merely are going on their faith in the certifying agency, often times without even knowing exactly who the supervising rabbis really are. They just know everyone they go to shul with holds by that certification too. In their defense, it’s simply not possible for most people to know much about the food producer or the kosher supervisor when they are a large corporation that is producing for a whole region, if not the whole continent.

The allegations against Hebrew National are going to have to slowly play out in court. Until then this is being dramatized in the Jewish communities and blogosphere.

But it should be kept in mind, once again, that the Hebrew National product is no longer a major player in the Jewish community, mostly attracting non-Jewish customers who prefer the taste and follow their assumption that kosher means healthier. (see “Hebrew National – Answering to a Higher Authority?” by the Shiksa in the Kitchen) In a way it seems non-kosher observing people are shooting for standards higher than the industry benchmark, and observant Jews are shooting higher than the kosher standard to get the finest standards possible yet. In this hierarchy, at this point in the developed world we look at USDA, Stam Kosher, and Glatt like the ratings we assign eggs by B, A and AA-ratings; meaning good, best, best yet.

These are some of the most popular American hechshers – recognizable certifications of kashrut

For this reason people become upset when they hear a product doesn’t adhere to the standards they expect, they put their trust and they feel if the allegations are true then that trust has been broken. They don’t know the intricacies of kashrut so they trust someone else to assure that for them. In this way the implications and concerns transcends the Jewish community itself. And it is certain that this case will entirely center around the definition of what “higher standards” means, as the courts have refused to rule in the past on the issues of Jewish-law for obvious reasons. The controversy cuts at the heart of a much-needed consumer base for this product.

However, in my opinion there is going to be long-lasting consequences for the Hebrew National product no matter what the outcome of the lawsuit. Even if all the claims are found to be false, enough damage has been done in the public sphere that people are not going to quickly forget that allegations were once made. And that will be enough to justify many consumer’s doubts.

In reality Hebrew National is already at a disadvantage because of wide-held suspicion within the Jewish community due to commonly held misconceptions regarding their kosher supervising agency, Triangle-K. This is despite wide-held Rabbinic acceptance of their supervision in recent years (see “Major New Acceptance for Triangle-K/Hebrew National As Kosher” at JTC). True the suspicion of Hebrew National predates their relationship, but Triangle-K contracting as the independent supervisor did not remedy the pre-existing concerns of Jewish customers. Among the reasons cited by individuals is because Triangle-K does certify grape and dairy-related bread items as kosher; this is not a widely held custom, but it is in accordance with halacha and the rulings of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, z”l. Because these customs have not been widely known or understood some have mistakenly jumped to the conclusion that their halachic understanding is erroneous, making their hechsher subject to suspicion. (see “Interview with Rabbi Aryeh Ralbag” at The Cannonist)

Though one should take to heart if their own personal rabbi tells them to not use certain products, it is not within our right as individuals to unilaterally designate something as non-kosher. In fact,  I have yet to meet a rabbi in my entire life that has attained the status of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein in order to impeach his rulings regarding these matters. Simply put, until one has the status of Rav Moshe they are not within their right to proclaim any different; they are merely bound to adhere to their own minhag, but to overrule him is not permissible. To do so in public is lishon hara (slander), and personally  holds one responsible  of breaking the commandment to not act presumptuously against the Law. (see Parshat Shoftim)

The Triangle-K has already made public their response to the allegations against Hebrew National. The statement is directly from Rabbi Aryeh Ralbag, who manages the everyday operations of Triangle-K. He is also a well respected posek, head of a beit din, and is further honored as the official Chief Rabbi of Amsterdam. (see “Triangle-K: Complaint About Kashrus Issues Of Hebrew National Outrageously False” at Voz Iz Neiase)

In the case of Hebrew National, just like Rubushikin’s, the main concern remains surrounding the ethics of their business. We must understand that most animal rights concerns will not be taken seriously beyond the scope of legal standards and ritual practice, because the activists are generally unwavering in their abhorrence of meat consumption all together; kosher consumers will not consider them objective. Those who do not feel compelled by coercive vegetarian sentiments, the moderate voices in progressive Judaism and Modern Orthodoxy, still feel that there must be some type of Jewish response made. One suggestion has been the Conservative movement’s Hekhsher Tzedek, which would independently certify the ethics and business practices of the company; meaning a secondary supervising agency in addition to the kosher supervisor.

Although the Hekhsher Tzedek does offer the progressive movements some type of representation, along with some quality and ethical assurances, it still does not hold much importance to many kosher consumers in order to command respect. We should also recognize that to some companies this is already being looked at rather coldly; being considered just another cumbersome threshold that might further complicates production. In fact some even go so far as to suggest that it may frighten away company’s interest in independent certifications for many mainstream food items all together. (see “Hekhsher Tzedek’s Law Problem” at the Daily Jewish Forward)

Though Hekhsher Tzedek can be considered a start if it takes hold, it is not the ideal. It is my personal opinion that it falls short of the traditional Jewish expectation of knowing one’s food sources. I feel certifications can and should symbolize the start of the process in whether or not we choose a product, but it shouldn’t end there. We should know more about the production of the products we buy, their fair business practices, their environmental record and their nutrition. And ideally we should accustom ourselves to buy local products and form relationships with producers. We cannot pretend to have any type of certainty with, in fact it’s hardly possible to feel any impulse to hold responsible, huge corporate producers whose deeds are out of sight and thus out of mind.

Looking back now I can see why it was so important for Rubashkin to go on tour. He had to try to make connection with the communities, there was no other way that people could really feel a sense of trust in a faceless company two-thirds of the continent away and providing for everyone from there and in between. Sadly, the crimes that he was found guilty of landed him 28-years in federal prison, which constitutes a life sentence for Rabbi Sholom Rubashkin. Though many see this as excessive, we need to recognize that the severity of his punishment seems to be in relation to the largeness of the crimes committed, and that are comparable to the size of their operation. His downfall is embarrassing to many observant Jews, sure. And it should be, because to some point we as kosher food consumers contributed to a crime of that magnitude by not asking enough questions and assuming too much as well.


Reflection:

When I was very young I was very concerned about the laws of kashrut. Many of the specifics of laws left me with questions because I wasn’t used to that level of kashrut. I often found myself, and even more so my friends who weren’t observant at all, tending to be more strict than necessary for my sake. Being part of a chassidic community I adhered to high level of kashrut so it seemed reasonable to be so concerned.

However one day in a discussion related to kashrut a personal rabbi of mine, who was also a very knowledgeable mashgiach himself, sat down and began to teach me certain aspects of kashrut that I was not familiar with. His observations and suggestions were fully supported, and completely logical. However, at one point someone overheard the conversation and said, “I’ve heard of that, but never held by that because it sounds too lenient.”

His response back was, “They used to say the same thing to the Alter Rebbe.”

The rabbi began to explain how in the lifetime of the first Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, z”l) many critics of the chassidim tried to find issue with the Rebbe. One day they decided to quarrel with him over giving his approval for certain people’s chickens that were brought to him to inspect. The misnagdim insisted that they were not kosher. The Rebbe detailed issues of kashrut related to the birds, and being a master in Jewish-law who wrote his own Shulchan Aruch, he easily dispelled their claims.

But after they conceded to his points, he related to these contrary rabbis that he didn’t just give his approval but he also asked about the owners situation; did they have another bird and could they afford another, what was their level of necessity? For those who had other options available to them he wouldn’t invest too much time, but for those who really needed that meal he did everything in his power and knowledge to find a way of making that acceptable if possible; so that the hungry would not go without.

The rabbi made the point that Jewish-law is responsive to actual situations at hand and personal necessity. But he was also making a deeper point. We need to look at the situation at hand and think about it, not just jump to conclusions. The Alter Rebbe was applying halacha that was not easily understood, yet valid upon demonstration. This does not mean he was being lenient. Actually, quite to the contrary it shows his sophistication of knowledge.

He compared the situation to a doctor prescribing medicine for a person who came in with a bump. One doctor says it’s cancer and they should radiate right away. However, the doctor who the patient went to for as a second opinion was a cancer expert and says that it’s just a pimple that needs a simple cream to remedy it. The expert doctor is not being lenient, he is just knowledgeable enough to know the difference and not jump to extreme conclusions.

Kashrut is about being mindful. But we don’t need to jump to extremes to show how faithful we are. How religious we are should not be defined by how many people’s houses we are too stringent to eat at.


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