Category Archives: Sephardic

Parshat Vayakhel (5774)


Exodus 35 – 40

What Grandpa Taught Me About Making Olive Oil

olive-press-capernaumThis week we are going to talk about inherited wisdom, while exploring the significance of the Menorah instruments and the precious oil with which the lamps were filled.

All throughout the detailed description of the creation of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) we have heard that G-d has given abilities to the chachmah – the wise-hearted, people of wisdom and understanding. (see Exodus 31; Parshat Ki-Tissa 2013) But what do we mean by wisdom? This is what we are going to explore, because wisdom is something more than mere “knowledge.” It is something that most often comes from personal experience. Experience which is often transmitted through our traditions.

Let us to jump right into text:

“The Menorah for lighting

and the implements,

and its lamps

and oil for lighting.”

| Ve’et-menorat hama’or

| ve’et-keleiha

| ve’et-neroteiha

| ve’et shemen hama’or.

Exodus 35:14

Here near the start of our parsha, during the listing of all the items that need to be constructed for the sanctuary, we have this description of a complete Menorah provided for us. It is right in between the listing of the components from which the Mishkan was to be built, and the mention of the sacred items such as incense and the anointing oil (which we discussed last week, see Parshat Ki-Tissa 5774).

As we see from the description offered here, this candelabrum – the Menorah – it was made of a huge mass of gold. Most of us can picture what is needed to construct a functioning menorah. We need the candelabrum and the lamps which need to be lit. We understand that they also need to have oil for it to function, which we will further discuss as we continue.

However, there are certain things which some people do not so quickly recognize in this description. Right along with the mention of constructing the Menorah we are told that G-d orders the making of the matching implements, the utensils (keilecha).

What are these utensils, and what were they made of? We are told later on in our parsha, in the sixth aliyah, when their creation is tallied:

“And he made seven lamps, and the wick-tongs and the ash-scoop, of pure gold.

“He made it of a kikar (a talent) of pure gold, including all its implements.

וַיַּעַשׂ אֶתנֵרֹתֶיהָ, שִׁבְעָה; וּמַלְקָחֶיהָ וּמַחְתֹּתֶיהָ, זָהָב טָהוֹר:

כִּכָּר זָהָב טָהוֹר, עָשָׂה אֹתָהּ, וְאֵת, כָּלכֵּלֶיהָ:

Exodus 37:23-24

All of the Menorah and its various parts were made of one huge chunk of gold. From it was beaten the candelabrum itself, as described in the previous verse (v.22); it is one entire piece, hammered into shape.

In Rashi's commentary for Exodus 35:14, here he used an interesting word to describe the lamps of the menorah. He used the word “לוציי"ש" – luzes (or maybe even, lozes) for lights. This word could be just another translation into old-French of the 11th Century, but also any other language as well (notice the wording, בלעז). Though it might seem easy to assume that because this word sounds a lot like a Spanish word, it is Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). However, this is not the case. It actually appears to be based on the Latin word for lamp – or a lucerna, as sown here. While Rashi did live in Iberia, he was a French Ashkenazi, of a different cultural and linguistic influence. Also, the Ladino translations of the bible most often use the word “קנדילאש” – candelas, which does not necessarily mean the same thing as our English term “candle,” but often lamp instead; the same as lucerna, in Latin.

In Rashi’s commentary for Exodus 35:14, here he used an interesting word to describe the lamps of the menorah. He used the word “לוציי”ש” – luzes (or maybe even, lozes) for lights. This word could be just another translation into old-French of the 11th Century, but also any other language as well (notice the wording, בלעז). Though it might seem easy to assume that because this word sounds a lot like a Spanish word, it is Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). However, this is not the case. It actually appears to be based on the Latin word for lamp – or a lucerna, as shown above. While Rashi did live in Iberia, he was a French Ashkenazi, of a different cultural and linguistic influence. Also, the Ladino translations of the bible most often use the word “קנדילאש” – candelas, which does not necessarily mean the same thing as our English term “candle,” but often lamp instead; the same as lucerna, in Latin.

Here this verse tells us about the additional seven lamps individually crafted to go on top of the candelabrum, and filled with pure olive oil. In order to position the lamps in the correct direction – with all the wicks facing inward toward the center of the Menorah – it was required to use the wick-tongs. And later when cleaning and redressing the lights after their use, the ash-scoop would be used to clear the burnt remains from the lamps. And then the lights are reset again using these wick-tongs.

One of the reasons why we miss the point of the usefulness of these items, is because we don’t have the presence of these items as part of our Chanukah menorahs. Also, today most often people use wax-candles instead of the original oil lamps. In the lack of practice, or experience with oil lamps, the actual usefulness of these items doesn’t really appear obvious to most people.

As we have previously discussed, Sephardim and Chassidim still hold by the custom to ideally light with oil lamps. Not just on Chanukah, but also on Shabbat and festivals as well! (see “Chanukah: The Ner Mitzvah and the Shamash” and “Shabbat Lights: The Tradition of Great Scholars to Light with Olive Oil”)

However, even though these implements might seem practical for people who regularly utilize olive oil lamps, our lights are only temporary and so do not need to be constantly tended and trimmed like the Temple Menorah. Furthermore, on Shabbat we are not allowed to fix the wicks of our nerot (lamps, lights). If they go out or begin to smolder we must just let them go out, we are not permitted to tend them on the sabbath.

The need for these items is mentally superfluous for us. But the Torah and the rabbis harp on these points because we are not just talking abstractly about a sanctuary, as part of a mental exercise. We need them, because in a real world they are useful.

One of the reasons that these utensils are also not so necessary for our own sacred light sets is because we take special care regarding the oil itself, in order to make sure we do not need to tend our lamps or trim our wicks.

If we look in the halachic works, like the Shulchan Aruch and Mishneh Torah, some of the most heavy discussions we have is surrounding is the quality of the oils (shemen; oils, or fats such as tallow-wax) and when one needs to use new wicks. We learn how it is that the finest and purest oil, the best grades of oil, burn steady without separating.

Also on special nights such as Shabbat and holidays we are instructed to additionally use new cotton wicks, as they are able to soak up a fine oil better. Use the best oil and wicks so they burn without incident, providing a steady and soothing light until they extinguish.

Lights which burn without flicker, which we think of as symbolic of competing and fighting which we want to also avoid during our sabbath’s rest. We consider the idea that we should burn steady and strong, without neither flaring up nor smoldering out. Aspiring that our names and honor be good, as good and fine as pure olive oil. (see Parshat Mikeitz 2012) For all these reasons, traditional people prefer oil lights.

I would encourage people to take a look at the many halachic works regarding the details of lighting of nerot – of lights. Their instructions offer us some practical life experience many of us miss today. This is also something helpful for my many friends who are also reclaiming the ancient tradition of lighting with oil lights for themselves.

The oil of the Menorah. It is last, but not the least, among the Menorah dressings that we will address.

Not only is it last mentioned here in our key verse above, but interestingly the shemen zayit – the olive oil – is also the very last item mentioned later on when we read of the actual completion of the Mishkan. It is the last item that is presumably made. Without it, the rest of this whole operation will not function. (see Exodus 37:29)

Now interestingly, most of the knowledge and wisdom I have to teach about olive oil doesn’t actually come from books. It comes through experience with making olive oil.

Though in our own books, in the very commentary of the Torah itself by Rashi, it is there that I am reminded that some things are only taught through a lot of hands-on experience. And that making olive oil is a complicated task reserved for the wise and most skilled, as it is just as hard as any other skilled craft. The commentary reads as follows:

And the oil for lighting: That too required wise-hearted [people] because it was different from other oils, as is explained in Menachot (86a): he picks it [the olives] at the top of the olive tree, and it is crushed and pure.

ואת שמן המאור: אף הוא צריך חכמי לב, שהוא משונה משאר שמנים, כמו שמפורש במנחות (דף פו א) מגרגרו בראש הזית, והוא כתית וזך:

Rashi for Exodus 37:14

Rashi asks us to remember the Talmudic discourse regarding this matter of making olive oil. We are taught there in detail, the olives are picked from the tree starting from the top. A tree is harvested from the sun-beat top olives, working your way down until you get to the bottom olives. Three harvests from a tree in total. Working your way down until all that is left is softened olives below, so soft that they must actually be sun-dried before they are pressed for oil. This systematic way of harvesting helps maximize the output of oil and reduces spoilage.

Furthermore, different grades of olive oil that are produced from each harvest. During the first pressing the olives are milled, basket-ed and drained of oil. The second is a pressing with a wooden mortar, a pressing beam made of wood. The third pressing would be once again through mill to get any last bit out. This is how olive oil is extracted today.

Of course the first pressing is the best. This is oil of this purity and wholeness is akin to the claims of the extra-virgin olive oil grade of today. Then the purity and usefulness goes down from there, the more times you press the fruit. How can this be? Our Talmudic text doesn’t really elaborate. It just tells us not to soak the olives in water. But it’s not exactly clear otherwise. Only a skilled craftsmen of oil would understand the meaning of these instructions really.

When I think of the skill and complexity of olive oil making, the first person that comes to mind is actually my grandfather. He was the one who taught me how to make olive oil.

I think back to when my grandparents lived in that old small house, the pink one with all the olive trees in yard back in Mexico. My grandfather would lay down tarps under the trees, hand us baskets, and we would go up into these thick trees to pick the olives. The raw olives would then be taken and pressed almost exactly like the process described in the Talmud.

Olive Oil PressingThe olives would be carefully and throughly crushed, expressing everything held in the fruit. The pulp and solid matter being carefully retained, and only the oozing goodness of the olives would drip from the press to the vats. (see a demonstration of this process in a beautiful blog piece by the Emmett Family of their visit to an oil press in Israel)

Notice there is no previous soaking or processing that is involved or allowed in making of olive oil. As mentioned, we are not allowed to soak the olives. Soaking and brining them makes them edible, but it makes them impossible to press for oil. The reason is because as we juice the olives we are not just removing oil. Along with it we are also removing all forms of vegetable fluid from the fruit; water.

The more times you press the fruit in order to get the most out of them, the more of the pulps water is released and flows into the mix with the oil. Thus the last pressing of oil is the least useful, often separating between oil and fluid in use, making it inferior as a fuel for oil lamps. The fluid would eventually snuff out the oil lights. However it is edible, just not as tasty as the golden first pressing.

When we look at the Talmud in this light, it thus makes very obvious sense why we are told the first pressing is fit for the Menorah, while the second pressing is fit for the grain offerings. Not only was the oil used for lighting, it was an essential ingredient that was needed for the sacrificial offerings. Being mixed in with the grains offerings on the altar as well.

One of the reasons that we read of the mention of the olive oil first, when the items are ordered by G-d in the first account, is because the oil is a necessary prerequisite to making the incense and anointing oil that are next mentioned.

However, the olive oil is mentioned last during the account of the actual construction of the Mishkan, because it was the last and essential craft needed in order for this tent of light and offerings to function. Without it you didn’t just lack light, you also lacked the ability to sacrifice as well.

Many people get “bored” as they read through all the details of this. The points of all this, to mere religionists, is pretty dull and seemingly useless because they have no life application for it. It’s merely a mental game. All of this seems cold. And to the speculative its even demanding and cruel in their minds, that for some unknown reason G-d only wants the best oil for His Menorah. It’s easy to come to strange conclusions until someone has personally shown you the how and why of this craft.

The point of such descriptiveness is to demonstrate that there is a real practical nature of these Torah instructions. It’s about real deeds, not myth. We aren’t talking about abstract spiritual ideas, we are talking about a real lifestyle and its cultural ingenuity.

In light of all this, it makes sense to us when the Torah likewise says:

“And you shall command the children of Israel, that they bring unto you pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually.”

וְאַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶתבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִיתלַמָּאוֹר: לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר, תָּמִיד.

Exodus 27:20

And this is the point that I would like us to consider this week. Our sages further tell us that when the Torah commands the children of Israel regarding the making of olive oil to bring to Moses, it wasn’t because there was just a one time pressing. Indeed oil would be continually needed, it was regularly being made and brought forward to meet the needs of the congregation. (Sifrei, Parshat Chukat)

When we talk about these things, we aren’t talking about lessons that were useful at some point in the past. These lessons are here for “v’yik’chu elecha / for when you bring.” We focus on the “when,” as a future and continuous act that stretches to us today.

Our Discussion Point: I have learned so much from my family growing up. Most often from the elders of my family, they loved to show me everything because I was always curious and easily engrossed in their activities. So I have so many good memories, and a lot of life skills that I wouldn’t have otherwise. In fact, I’m more knowledgeable about our culture and traditions than even my parents, who didn’t have the same space and time to explore their roots as I did. My grandparents were mindful to pass the language, the arts, the recipes, the crafts and the stories to me. Show me how it was done, so I could show the others.

We all should ask ourselves, are we passing on our culture and traditions? Are we passing on our cultural and religious know-how to others, so that it doesn’t just end with us?

One of the reasons we need to pass on our traditions is because often times once a craft is lost, it is not easily regained. My many ethnic friends often warm me against loosing touch with one’s own roots, as through ignorance and apathy many groups are left unable to reproduce their own beloved culture. I’m warned not to let the Jewish community also become accustomed to thinking of their native crafts and delicacies as, “Ahh… just like grandma used to buy.”

Can we reclaim culture over consumerism? What essential tasks or crafts do you want passed down through the generations, which your family and community would not be the same without? Though we are in an age were we are out of touch with hands-on cultural expression as in days gone by, can we reclaim some of that organic cultural diversity for ourselves? What have you learned which you want to pass on?

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Parshat Lech Lecha (2013)


Genesis 12 – 17

That Time the First Jew and the First Priest Went Out for a Drink

Have you ever wondered who this Melchizedek character is? Why is he mentioned in the Torah, and what lesson does this personality have for us? In this week’s parsha we have this character just seem to drop into the story out of nowhere, and disappear just as quickly as he came. But there is a unique interaction going on here that is very curious and has kept the scholars speculating around it for ages.

Let us begin with the key verses of the section that we are going to explore this week:

“And Malchi Tzedek

king of Shalem

brought bread and wine.

He was the priest of the Most High G-d.

And he blessed and said:

‘Blessed be Avram to the Most High G-d,

Maker of the heavens and the earth.

And blessed be the Most High G-d,

who has delivered

your enemies into your hand.’

A tenth of everything was given to him.”

| UMalchi Tzedek

| melech Shalem

| hotzi lechem vayayin

| vehu kohen le-El Elyon

| Vayevarechehu vayomar

| baruch Avram le-El Elyon

| Koneh shamayim va’aretz

| Uvaruch El Elyon

| asher-migen

| tzareicha beyadecha

| vayiten-lo ma’aser mikol

Genesis 14:18-20

In this story we see Avram (the person later to be known as Abraham) meeting with a priest. We are told that he is the priest of El Elyon – literally the G-d Most High. We don’t know a lot about this person other than that he is a king and priest, and that Abraham feels obliged to show charity to this priest. Likewise this priest pronounces one of the first blessings ever recorded in the scriptures, recognizing Avram and pronouncing a blessing declaring him holy on to G-d.

melchitzedekThere is much known about Abraham, he is the father of the Jewish people. He is the patriarch of monotheistic tradition. We have plenty to explain his background in the scriptures, and in the midrashim and folklore that has grown up around his story. He is revered by all three of the major world religions as their root.

But of this Melchi-Tzedek there is such little to read about him, he is only ever mentioned in three verses of the Chumash, four verses in the entire bible. Everything else we think we know about him comes from interpretation and oral tradition. But there are a few things we for sure know about him, he is the king of a city named Shalem. Not only is he a king, but he is also a priest. He seems to be a dual spiritual and civil leader, along the lines of a Julius Caesar and the early Roman kings who served not just as emperor but also as Flamen Dialis, the high priest to Jupiter with official ritual duties. He is the first priest mentioned in the scriptures.

The scriptures don’t offer us much information about this king, nor his city. Other than his city is named Shalem. We do find another reference to this city of Shalem in the scriptures, “In Shalem is also set His tabernacle, and his dwelling-place is in Zion.” (Psalm 76:2) Shalem is thus equated with Jerusalem. Melchi-Tzedek is understood to be one of the Canaanite kings. The first king of Jerusalem.

His name also provides us a few ideas. It is not a simple name, it is actually two distinct words malchi and tzedek. It appears more of a title. In the Hebrew language there are two seemingly easy to recognize words, one is “malchi / my king” and other is “tzedek / justice.” However, Hebrew scholars note that ordinarily putting them together in this way is not with the normal rules of Hebrew. It appears more close to Aramaic, and therefore hints of possibly being derived from the closely related Phonetician and Canaanite languages.

This understanding leads modern scholars to believe that this king might have indeed been the first king of Jerusalem (though just merely known as Salem in those days). This city would have most likely been dedicated to the chief god of their pantheon, Tzedek, which we know as the planet Jupiter. In the Talmud we also see that the planet Jupiter is indeed called Tzedek in Hebrew as well. (Talmud Balvi, Shabbat 156a) Jupiter as a planet of huge mass and gravity would by Roman times be characterized as Zeus, the head the pantheon and the supreme authority among lesser gods.

This is a position that is very different from that of the most famous of midrashim. Our Jewish tradition most often equates Melchi-Tzedek with Shem, the son of Noah that is the patriarch of the Semetic peoples, the peoples of the temperate middle-east. Shem is believed to have eventually lived such a long life of success that he set-up the city of Shalem while the newly arrived Avram dwelt in the rough lands. In order to explain why our saintly father Avraham shows honor to Melchi-Tzedek the rabbis explain that Shem was also a great man with a saintly mission, even going as far as to suggest that Avraham learned at yeshivot he established. He was Abraham’s ancestor. With this in mind people would like to believe that like Abraham, Melchi-Tzedek was the last of a dying breed of monotheists. (see Parshat Lech Lecha 2011)

The truth probably lays somewhere in between the scholarship and the folklore. It is fair to assume to that Melchi-Tzedek was a Semite. It is also very likely that he was king of the infantile city of Jerusalem. Avram as a Semitic stranger would do well to show deference to this man. But what we do need to take notice of is that he only ever refers to G-d as “El-Elyon.” He does not refer to Him by Havayah – the distinct Four-letter Name of G-d. He instead seem to understand El, the well known god of the region as being his god; not just divine, but the most supreme (elyon) god (el).

I believe that we have enough proof to agree with the scholarly understanding, that Melchi-Tzedek is not a pure monotheist. Yet his status and faith is respected by Avram, and likewise in our tradition that it should make its way into the Torah.

Because of the mysteriousness of this character, Melchi-Tzedek has been commented and embellished upon. It was so in the times of Josephus and even in the Christian writings. By the time of the Talmud there had been a multitude of stories that attribute something almost supernatural about his character. In absence of information ridiculous claims are made, for example the Christian bible states that because we don’t hear of his mother of father mentioned this Melchi-Tzedek must have been divine; he just wasn’t born of humans. People write a lot in between the lines.

For a moment we need to step away from all the dogma and look at the facts as presented in the Torah. The reason we don’t see a lot mentioned about Melchi-Tzedek is because the story isn’t about him at all. It is clearly evident that in this story he not the star, he is just an extra on the set to help carry the story along.

To understand the story we need to go all the way back to the beginning and read it in context. It begins at the top of the fourth aliyah. Most readers only look at the verses that mention this guy’s name, but they are the last three verses of our actual reading!

The fourth aliya begins at the top of the 14th chapter of Genesis. To save us the pain of all the mental work and identifying each party, all we need to understand is that the first half of the chapter is about how the kings of Mesopotamia and the kings of the Jordan valley come to war against each other. It appears that tribute states are rebelling against their regent and their allies. (v.1-9)

The second half of the chapter is about a literal quagmire of war, the rebels being hunted down and slaughtered in marshes as they tried to escape. Among the escapees were the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah who ran for their lives. (v.10) The rest of the chapter is about the aftermath of their defeat after the capture of these towns. We are told that the Persian king and the vassal kings sack the towns and take away pretty much anything they could carry. (v.11)

Now ordinarily this would have nothing to do with Avram, as he doesn’t live in either area. He dwells in the plains of Mamre among the Amorites and their allies. (v.13) However his most beloved nephew Lot dwelt in the city of Sodom, and his family and his possessions were captured as part of the plunder. They are likely to be killed or sold off into slavery. (v.12) One of the refugees from this war comes and reports all this to Avram.

Now here we see him described as Avram haIvri – Avram the Hebrew (עברי), the descendant of Ever (עבר), son of Shem. Ivri also means “to cross over,” here we see that Avram is different and separate from the rest of these Semites that are waring here. He is understood to be a distinct clan already. His own had already become a separate people, even though Avram has no children of his own.

And this is the key issue, Lot is an orphaned nephew that he was very close to. Not only are they endeared to another as family, but Lot stood to be the full inheritor of all Avram’s estate. (see the Parashiot of Lech Lecha and Vayeira 2012) Lot is Avram’s only heir as he had no son. What Avram did have was 318 trained disciples that had been born into his clan, men that he mobilized in rescue of his heir. (v.14)

The young men follow Avram to war, they follow them up through the valley of the river Dan in the north, until he surrounds and defeats the Mesopotamians just west of Damascus. (v.15) All that was sacked is brought back by Avram, all the people and possessions. Men and women both are delivered from their captivity. Among them are also Lot and his possessions. (v.16)

Now here is the one point that most people miss, on Avram’s return we have the runaway king of Sodom coming out to meet Avram. It is the king of Sodom that first goes out to meet Avram and his returning army.

And then in the middle of this the most striking thing takes place. Someone else walks into the situation and steals the spotlight just for a brief moment. Melchi-Tzedek just walks in out of nowhere, without any introduction. He offers Avram bread and wine, and extends his blessing. We hear nothing more about Melchi-Tzedek, other than that he receives a tithe from Avram from the captured booty.

Now notice no explanation is given for the tithe, and we have to assume it is Avram giving the tithe because the language itself doesn’t explicitly say so, just that a tithe “viyaten-lo / was given to him.” We assume Melchizedek is the “he.” The question comes in because we aren’t even sure why he is here at all, he is not king of one of these town nor was he even present in the battle. None of this concerns him. Is he coming out with symbols of hospitality and benevolence out of fear of Avram, or does he want something?

I think the latter point is the greater motivation. Avram is now returning with his small army and his captured spoils, and the local kings want their cut. This is such a major point that we begin a whole new aliya just to make this point. And at the head of the fifth aliya the first thing we read of is the king saying to Avram, “Ten-li hanefesh veharechush kach-lach / Give me the souls, and you can keep the goods.” (v.21) This point seems simple and maybe understated with few words, but in the reading of the Torah it stands out as one the driving points of the parsha.

The coward king of Sodom now comes out to meet Avram and he immediately and brazenly bark out his demands. He wants all the living souls, the people. But Abraham can keep of the other material spoils, for his trouble. He wants back all his people just as much as Avram wanted back Lot. There is no celebrating and praises as with Melchi-Tzedek, nor is there even a simple “thank you” given. He just wants what was taken from him.

According the orthodox female scholars Nehama Lebowitz, of blessed memory, Mechli-Tzedek is merely a character used as a device to contrast the unbefitting demands of the king of Sodom. To show the arrogance of his demands, and to display the lack of honor given to someone he should feel indebted to.

So what we see here is that Melchi-Tzedek is a person that who isn’t involved at all, but he shows respect to Avram and gets a portion of the spoils. We would expect the king of Sodom to show the same respect, in order to get back what he wants. But instead he just alarmingly barks a demand, before Avram starts giving away more of what he sees as his.

In the face of this demand Avram gives back everything that is taken, he didn’t really want it anyway. All he went out for was to retrieve Lot and his possessions from the mess he had gotten himself caught up in. All he claims for himself and his hired men was the food they had eaten. He doesn’t need his money, and startlingly gives everyone and everything back lest anyone say Avram was made rich off of this man’s misfortune.

For a second I would like us to step back and take a look at this parsha, and it’s use of a narrative to get across so much information. Yes we read about a long since forgotten ancient skirmish, one that would be of little relevance itself if it hadn’t been for Lot’s foolish attachment to this wild and lawless region. Here we are only in our third parsha of the Torah, and we are already being forced to have to pick out truths about the character of the persons involved. To learn from their example, both good and bad. Here in this we learn to find truth in even the most seemingly irrelevant of stories by keenly trying to identify with the people.

And the lesson is this, that even the smallest amount of gratitude goes a long way. We are taught the importance of respect and honor, and the uncouthness that there is outside of this code of ethics and morals.

Avram of course gives everything back, because he is a saint. Instead of being reactionary, he shames the king of Sodom with kindness. He shows he’s above this pettiness and hands it all over. Avram not only shows good character, he shows exceptional character. I hope that more of us would follow by his example.

A Battle for the Souls

One of the things that is brought up in this parsha is a contrasting of moral values. The lawlessness of the Jordan valley and their idolatry is contrasted against Avram and his monotheistic moral crusade. That is why Avram is spoken about as the Ivri – the Hebrew at this point, the one who “crossed over” to not be part of this mess and their way of life. What Avram had done instead is found a monotheistic community, a sizable one that is able to exert itself. Their ability to accomplish this campaign attests to their strength and influence.

Our rabbis and teachers often note on this point that here when Avram and his people first clash with the Canaanite kings of the region his issue is a battle for souls. I can’t help but be reminded of this by the language our rabbis use in the Ladino (Hebreo-Spanish language, the Sephardi tongue) translation of the Chumash, “Da a mi la alma, y la ganaçia toma para ti / Take for yourself the souls, and you keep the earnings.” (Constantinople Chumash, 1547)

Normally when we hear the word nefesh and souls used in the Torah we think of the word simply meaning living souls, meaning people. Souls mean people.

When it comes to Avram, the founder of this monotheistic community, the word souls takes on another meaning. Soul can also mean the deeper spiritual person within. We think of him primarily being interested in accumulating souls, in winning converts and growing his force of free men. If we wanted anything to claim as his reward from this battle, it would most likely be the people. He had interest in little else.

From this point of view the face off with the king of Sodom is one of the dethroned leader also telling Avram that they don’t want his religion, he wants his people back so they can live according to their own style as a pleasure kingdom. This eventually happens and it leads to their ultimate destruction later on.

But in the midst of this story comes forward one person of exceptional merit. He is not a Hebrew, he is part of the Canaanite establishment. He has all the makings of a good religious person, but his theology has degraded to being a near-monotheism; a composite form of monotheism. Melchi-Tzedek considered himself a monotheist in the same manner Christians or Hindus would consider themselves monotheistic, while still having a multiplicity of divine forms. Thus his god is designated “the Most High G-d.”

People often read too much into this story, and see the interaction as more than just the giving of gifts between the cheerful and celebratory Avram and Melchi-Tzedek. Though it is essential to recognized that there is a meeting of two great men of different faiths, that both show respect to each other.

Our father Abraham shows us a good example here early on in the history of the development of his faith, he shows how people of different ideas can be respectful to one another. But even more than that, Avram seems to recognize Melchi-Tzedek as a fellow traveler. Even though Avram has decided to take a different path away from the degraded theology that had come to dominate the other Semites of his day. Avram honors and recognized this man merely on the character of his words and deeds, he takes a chance on an unlikely candidate. Melchi-Tzedek is an outsider that is respected by Abraham himself.

For a lot of reasons people of just about every tradition have become fascinated with the story of king Melchi-Tzedek. He serves as an archetypal example for the outsiders. For this reason gentiles and the other religions who honor the bible often feel an affinity with him. He is not just a good gentile, but he is also a respectable non-Hebrew priest.

It should not surprise us that people want to lay claim to Melchi-Tzedek and his legacy, to be inheritors to knowledge about G-d that predates and supersedes the normal Abrahamic and Mosaic system.

The bible actually gives us our first example of a person pining to be honored as such an exception. Even King David wanted to be honored this way, as not just a king but also as a priestly figure in building the temple. He wrote a psalm where he declares that G-d has called him to be priest after the order of Melchi-Tzedek forever. He wants himself, or his messianic descendants be an exception to the rule. To be treated as a diamond in the rough, not just now but forever. (see Psalm 110)

In every moral religious community and stratus of religious commitment we can find these diamonds in the rough. These exceptional characters that by their deeds and words stand out. Their ethical behavior and good form is worthy of being recognized and emulated.

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Selichot: The Penitential Prayers for Rosh HaShanah


Selichot: The Penitential Prayers for Rosh HaShanah
Resources for repentance in the month of Elul and the Days of Awe

Tens of thousands of Jewish people gather for a mass prayer for forgiveness (slichot) at Western Wall in Jerusalem's old city

Tens of thousands of Jewish people gather while it’s still dark for a mass prayer for forgiveness (selichot) at Western Wall in Jerusalem’s old city

As we enter the month of Elul all Jewish communities begin to reflect on our ways and deeds in a spirit of repentance. The reason for our reflection and introspection is because we are preparing for Rosh haShanah (The Jewish New Year, the day of judgment) and Yom haKippurim (the Day of Atonements).

However there is more that just proximity to the start of a new civil year in the Jewish calendar that makes Elul an ideal time for repentance. Many people point out the similarity between the word Elul and the word “to search” in the Aramaic language. This is a perfect time for us to look inward and search out the state of our moral character. For this reason the entire month of Elul is considered a time of personal repentance and self-judgment. Though we have the High Holidays to petition G-d for mercy and forgiveness, we examine ourselves before we stand this judgment to be sure our hearts are pure.

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For Sephardim – the period of reflection begins in the month of Elul with Selichot, a month prior. When connected to the ten Day of Awe; this allows for as much as forty days for teshuvah and to do the work of renewal of the soul.

In the Sephardic tradition this season is a bit more obvious, for the entire month prior one says the Selichot – the Penitential Prayers. From the second day of Elul (once Rosh Chodesh has passed) they are recited in the presence of a minyan (a full congregation) for communal repentance.

For Ashkenazim this period is not as long, only requiring a minimum of four days of Selichot before Rosh haShanah. As the New Year only falls on certain days of the week according to the rules of the Jewish calendar, this may vary. If Rosh haShanah falls on a Thursday or on Shabbat, then one only recites from after the preceding Shabbat. If it falls on Monday or Tuesday, then this period starts about a week and half earlier. This period is commenced immediately after celestial midnight on motzei Shabbat (the going out of the sabbath, Saturday evening); with men and women, both adults and their children, gather to engage in prayer and liturgy. (For 2015 this starts on September 5th)

So the Sephardic tradition starts in Elul. While Ashkenazim start closer to the holiday of Rosh haShanah, during the period when the series of traditional Selichot begin to become most grand and intense right before the holiday.

In both traditions, both Sephardi and Ashkenazi, the Selichot are said after Tikkun Chatzot – the Midnight Prayer Service – during the period between halachic midnight and dawn. However, for the sake of convenience you might find that your local congregation holds their Selichot service immediate before Shacharit (Morning Prayers).

It is ideal that one say Selichot in the presence of a minyan, as some of the prayers are only able to be recited with a sufficient quorum. The prayers are not just worded in the plural, but they are composed to be said responsively. Selichot are often said in rounds by lay persons, giving everyone an opportunity for participation. Selichot are said daily (except on Shabbat).

It is the custom of most communities to say Selichot during the Aseret Yamei Teshuvah – The Ten Days of Repentance, the days between Rosh haShannah and Yom Kippur. This is not the case in the Chabad custom, in which one does not say Selichot during these Days of Awe except for on the day of Tzom Gedalia – the fast of Gedalia. (For 2015 this will fall on September 15th)

Do you need a copy of the Selichot? You can download digital copies in PDF format, and according to different traditions. Here are a few leads:

  • New Chabad Selichot in Hebrew – this is a new typesetting with instructions, there is no English translation. According to the tradition of Chabad chassidus.(Chabad.org)
  • Classic Chabad Slichot in English – this text also has the facing Hebrew pages, however the person who digitized it scanned the Hebrew upside down in many cases. (Hebrewbooks.org)
  • Classic Chabad for Day One – with English, this also has upside-down Hebrew pages. (Hebrewbooks.org)
  • Selichot Avodat Yisrael, Sephard – this is a comprehensive set of selichot for each day. (Daat.ac.il)
  • Selichot Saadia Gaon – Mizrahi tradition, the tradition of the middle-east. Nusach Edut haMizrach (Daat.ac.il)
  • Selichot Teimani – according to the Yeminite tradition (Daat.ac.il)
  • Selichot Kol Tuv Sefard – de acuerdo a la tradición de las comunidades sefarditas de Londres y Amsterdam, en hebreo y español. Compilado por el Rabino Juan Mejía, rabino Masortí. (koltuvsefarad.com)


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:

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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


Passover: Health Foods and Nutritional Supplement Drinks


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

Please note that product and brand information is updated and valid for Passover 2016 and subject to change!

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

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

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

KitniyotLegumes, Beans, Soy and Rice

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

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

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

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

For simply raw items that are ketniyot there is no need for certification. However, we must bare in mind that many of these bean, rice, corn and like products are stored or processed on the same machinery as grain products. For Sephardim who do eat ketniyot, it is necessary to check through all the grains of the product to ensure that it has not been mixed with chametz grains. One should check the item visually and by hand 3 times (or as much as 7 times for commercial cooking) to ensure they are free from cross contamination.

Note: this checking should also be taken with quinoa as well; it has been brought to my attention by poskim who have gone to South America to supervise these products have seen quinoa harvested in areas nearer to the lowlands which are hospitable to grains.

The  Kashrut Administrator of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, Rabbi Sholem Fishbane, stated in 2011:

“As a result of a recent investigation, the Star-K found it possible that quinoa’s kosher for Passover status is compromised when it grows or is processed in the proximity of certain crops. Therefore, quinoa will only be accepted with reliable Kosher for Passover supervision. The cRc approves the use of whole grain quinoa for Pesach on the following conditions:
  1. The quinoa is imported exclusively from Bolivia and packed by companies that pack whole grain quinoa exclusively. While there may be others Ancient Harvest, Trader Joe’s, and Sugat (a brand of quinoa sold in Israel) are brands that only import quinoa from Bolivia and only pack whole grain quinoa.
  2. The quinoa must be purchased and carefully inspected by hand before Pesach. This is done by spreading one layer of quinoa at a time on a board or plate and checked to be sure that there are no other grains or foreign matter mixed in with the quinoa. This does not apply to quinoa flour, pasta, or any other version of quinoa which are not permitted on Pesach.”

Specifics on Beans and Rice

It is possible buy such things as beans with some level of certainty. However, the selection of rice is a more complicated of an issue due to the common instruction of chametz based enrichment to white rice in many western countries. In fact it is generally required by law in the US. Though special passover runs of rice should be available again this year, just in time for the holiday; certified to be free of chametz based enrichments. Please refer to the following entry:

Another reason for why rice poses a problem, is that rice is often grown in shared fields or cycled after a harvest of barley, which is chametz. This leftover field barley can often be harvested with the rice and is hard to distinguish because of the shape and light color.

One should pay special attention when purchasing, so as not to buy from open bins. This is often the poorest quality, just like the beans in open bins are often more “dirty” and contain more waste such as rocks, so too bin rice tends to have more barely (trust me, I’ve been Mexican-American my whole life, I know whats up! I’ve seen the kids playing in them like a sandbox long enough to notice).

Oils

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flour and Wheat Substitutes

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

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

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

Gluten-Free Foods

Many items on the market today are marked as gluten free. This has also become more and more the case with the rise of gluten-free diets. Though please note that “gluten-free” certification does not necessarily means it is free of chametz; only that gluten forming proteans were removed from these food product, while not removing the grain itself. This means that many of these products may actually be made of various forms of processed chametz grains. For this reason we avoid processed gluten-free food (pasta, cereals, cookies, etc.) unless they are certified as kosher for passover. (See: “Passover Status of ‘Glutten Free’ Foods” from the Kosher with Food Allergies blog)

Yeasts and Baking Powders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food Supplements and Pesach considerations for the Infirm

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

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

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

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

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

Please refer to the full article:

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

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

Soy Milk and Dairy Substitutes

One of the most important parts of the modern diet is the use of soy/rice/almond/coconut milk and other dairy substitutes. These are useful ingredients in today’s kosher kitchens and on our daily menus. And essential parts of fortifying healthy, vegetarian and vegan diets.

As we won’t really find any with a kosher for passover certification in our local stores, and they certainly are processed foods. So how do we known which are chametz free brands for Passover?

Please refer to these resources by the OU:

The reason one needs to be especially sure to check their dairy-free milk products is because some of these products are blended with filtered wheat and oat milk (Example: most brands of EdenSoy Soymilk; including Eden Soy Original, Extra and Vanilla; as they use wheat and barley extract).

Unfortunately, there is no recommendion for soy coffee creamers, which are often are made with additional starches and other processed materials which are actual chametz.

Additional Considerations

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

Just keep in mind as your preparing for the holidays to read labels and ask yourself all the right questions to yourself. Some things aren’t always so obvious. Remember, flour tortillas are not kosher-for-passover; they uses chametz flour and even bakers yeast! Neither is many brands of soy sauce, often actually made of fermented wheat. Consider the source and the additives added to stuff you eat daily, and you will see which foods are best to avoid for this holiday or to substitute for its duration.

Think along these lines and you will be on your way to a healthy and chametz-free home in no time.

I wish you all a joyful and kosher Pesach!


Matzah: Bread of affliction or fluffy goodness


Matzah: Bread of affliction or fluffy goodness
Is it permissible for one to have soft matzot for Pesach?

Soft Matzah

Soft Sephardic-styled matzah waiting to be packaged.

Some people love matzah. I’m not necessarily one of them. I mean I use matzah meal for cooking throughout the year, but I’m not a fan of machine-made matzot. You know them. They come in boxes, which makes sense for some of us as they closely resembles the taste of the cardboard container itself. No really, those crispy crackers taste good when you start the week. But usually a few days in you start to understand the whole “bread of affliction” metaphor. Most of us don’t say it because of the dry lump in our throat, or because we are more preoccupied with the mirroring one in our digestive track.

All I have to say is, suffer no more! Get soft matzot! That’s right, I said soft matzah bread for Pesach.

I would love to do a good blog about the history of matzah. But most of us know this history quite well, and realize that the crispy crackers that we have today are a result of a fully automated process that was created about 150 years ago. Even if we use handmade matzot, their evolution to a bread identified by its perforations and crispy thinness has sustained as mehadrin and machmir (stringent) to the point it is almost universally utilized as our only style bread for Pesach in the greater Jewish world.

But it wasn’t always so. More precisely, it isn’t always so. For some Sephardim and Mizrahim, automation is not widely known in their communities and they still utilize homemade or community made matzot that are according to the pre-Industrial, handmade method and retain a fluffiness akin to Pita bread.

How is this possible? The issue of chametz (leavening) comes down to not allowing our flour to rise. It rises without even introducing yeast. In fact, historically we need to understand people didn’t usually go down to the local Food4Less and get a packet of yeast. It was done by fermentation of actual flour itself, like the sour dough process in which decay and fermentation in flour spreads its leavening to the rest of the dough, so that it will rise with appropriate heat and time to rest.

The last detail is part of the trick. As long as the dough is not allowed to sit more that 18 minutes it will not become chametz. As long as the dough is kept kneading it will not leaven. In the Sephardic world it was common practice for whole teams of people to keep working the dough to keep it from this form of leavening. The resulting dough, being more worked would become softer and retain some of that even once baked. The minhag also allows for thicker matzot too, thus explaining why they are akin to everyday pitot or laffa bread.

Under Sephardic rabbinic supervision such matzot can be found in many major cities worldwide. They are even more greatly available in Israel. But the question arises for some, are they appropriate for Ashkenazim to eat as well? The answer is answered for us by HaRav Aviner(I have also provided his matching Hebrew statement):

ש: האם מותר לאשכנזים לאכול מצות רכות


ת: אמנם יש אוסרים, ומודים שבעבר היו אוכלים אבל חדלו (הגרשזא הליכות שלמה פט הערה פ) ושאין מסורת להתיר. אבל אין גם מסורת לאסור, ומוזכר ברמא שהמצות היו עבות (תס ד) אז בהכרח היו רכות, וכן בשערי תשובה שם שהיו מגררים את המצות עם מין פומפיה, סימן שהיו רכות. והגר אשר וייס מתיר מעיקר הדין רק חושש כי אין בקיאים ברכות (בסוף ההגדה סטו). אבל עדות המזרח כן בקיאים. וכן הגר צבי שכטר מתיר בסיכום מותר

Q: Is it permissible for Ashkenazim to eat soft Matzah, like the Sefardim?

A: There are those who forbid it. While they agree that in the past Ashkenazim did eat it, they ceased doing so (Ha-Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Halichot Shlomo chap. 9 note #80) and there is no tradition (Masoret) to permit it. But there is also no tradition to forbid it, and the Rama (Orach Chaim 460:4) mentions that the Matzot where thick (and must therefore have been soft). And the Sha’arei Teshuvah writes there that they would prepare them with a type of grater, which is also a sign that they were soft. Ha-Rav Asher Weiss writes that the basic Halachah is that they are permissible, but he is concerned that we are not experts in making them soft and there is therefore a concern about Chametz (at the end of his Haggadah, siman #15). But Sefardim are experts. And Ha-Rav Herschel Schachter also permits them. In sum: It is permissible.”

So there you have it folks, us weird Sephardim got it right somewhere. Not only that, its proper for everyone’s use and not just us “orientals.”

In keeping with current standards for Pesach food preparation, they are all expertly prepared in under 18 minutes; which makes them equally on par with all the standards as that of crunchy matzot.

Now this announcement isn’t exactly a comfort to the masses, as they are still hard to get if you don’t live in a major Sephardic Jewish community.

One of the reasons they are now becoming more widely available today is because of the of aid of modern technology as well. Such soft matzot tend to dry out very quickly and usually have to be used the same or next day. Though freezing has allowed them to last longer. But if your don’t live in one of the major communities its unpractical to try to buy these matzot and have them shipped to you as the cost of shipping can easily be double the cost of the product itself; they need to be shipped overnight in order to remain frozen. Nonetheless you can order them online.

Related articles:


Netilat Yadayim with Asher Yatzar


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

“Blessed are You Hashem our G-d, |

King of the Universe, |

who has sanctified us |

and has commanded us |

concerning the hand-washing.” |

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ

מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם,

אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ

בְּמִצְוֹתָיו,

וְצִוָנוּ עַל נְטִילַת יָדָים:

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

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

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

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

The Morning Washing with a Blessing

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

“According to the law of the Gemara

(Berachot 60b)

it is not necessary to say the blessing

‘Asher Yatzar’ until one relieves himself.

In all places is it the universal custom

to recite each morning,

immediate after the blessing

Al Netilat Yadayim,’

the blessing ‘Asher Yatzar;’

as each day a man becomes

a newly-created being.

Therefore, it is appropriate to

express the blessing

everyday

‘Asher yatzar et ha-adam b’chochmah.’

(“You have made man in wisdom”)

If one wants to remove doubt

one should be careful to take care of his needs

right after

the morning washing.

After leaving the bathroom

one should wash ones hands once finished

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

and thereby fulfill his obligation to bless

‘Asher Yatzar’ with this,

even if he was obligated to bless

Asher Yatzar

because he has been made

a newly-created being,

so that one blessing

serves for both purposes.

It is a good practice for one to

say the blessing

Al Natilat Yadayim

after the second washing

so as to wash after exiting the bathroom

especially if one rose to use the latrine,

or else it would be forbidden to bless.”

אף על פי שמדינא דגמרא |

|

אין צריך לברך ברכת |

אשר יצראלא כשעשה צרכין, |

מכל מקום נהגו העולם |

לברך בכל שחרית |

תכף אחר ברכת |

על נטילת ידים” |

ברכת אשר יצר“, |

שבכל יום נעשה האדם |

בריה חדשה, |

לכן |

שיך לברך |

בכל יום ויום |

אשר יצר את האדם בחכמה” |

|

והרוצה להסתלק מהספק – |

יזהר לעשות צרכיו |

תכף אחר |

נטילת ידים שחרית, |

וכשיצא מבית הכסה |

יטל ידיו פעם שהית |

ויברך אשר יצר“, |

ויצא ידי חובתו בברכת |

אשר יצרזו, |

אף אם היה מחיב לברך |

אשר יצר” |

על מה שנעשה |

בריה חדשה, |

כי ברכה אחת עולה |

לכאן ולכאן. |

וטוב שלא |

יברך ברכת |

על נטילת ידים” |

עד לאחר נטילה שנית, |

שנוטל אחר יציאתו מבית הכסא |

ובפרט אם צריך לנקביו, |

שאז אסור לו לברך. |

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

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

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

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

ואחר כך |

יבדק נקביו, |

שמא יצטרך לנקביו |

באמצע התפלה. |

אמרו חכמים: |

כל הרוצה לקבל עליו |

על מלכות שמים שלמה – |

יפנה ויטל ידיו, |

ואחר כך יקרא קריאת שמע |

ויתפלל. |

“And after [one is done dressing]

one should check

to see if he might have to go to the restroom

during the middle of prayer.

The sages say:

One who seeks to accepts upon himself

the whole yoke of heaven

should relieve himself and wash his hands

and after this recite the Kriyat Shema

and pray.”

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

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

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

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

“There are those whose custom is to bless

Al Netilat Yadayim

and then go to the synagogue

and include it with the

rest of the order of the blessings.

But this is not the custom for us Sephardim.”

יש נוהגים לברך |

על נטילת ידים |

עד בואם לבית בכסת |

ומסדרים אותו עם |

שאר הברכות |

ובני ספרד לא נוהג כך: |

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

Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 5:2

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

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

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

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

ועל כל פנים |

לא יברך בפעמים |

ומי שמברכם בביתו |

לא יברך |

בבית הכנסת |

וכן מי שמברכו |

בבית הכנסת |

לא יברך בביתו |

(כל בו סימן ג‘). |

ומי שלומד |

קודם שיכנס לבית הכנסת או מתפלל |

קודם יברכם בביתו |

ולא יברך |

בבית הכנסת |

Either way

one should not say the blessings twice.

And one who says the blessings at home

does not say the blessings

at the synagogue

And also one who says the blessings

at the synagogue

does not say the blessings at home

(Kol Bo, siman 3)

And one who learns [Torah]

before he goes to the synagogue to pray

he first says the blessings at home

and does not say the blessings

at the synagogue.”

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

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

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

כל היום |

כשעושה צרכיו |

בין קטנים |

בין גדולים |

מברך אשר יצר |

ולא על נטילת ידים |

אף אם רוצה ללמוד |

או להתפלל מיד: |

“Any time during the day

one goes to restroom to relieve himself

be it to urinate

or be it to defecate

one says the blessing of ‘Asher Yatzar

and not ‘Netilat Yadayim

Even if one wants to learn [Torah]

or daven immediately.”

Maran

Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 7:1

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

היו ידיו מלוכלכות ששפשף |

בהן אפילו הכי אינו |

מברך על נטילת ידים |

(סמג סימן כו מלות עשה) |

“If one has soiled his hands whipping,

even in this case one does not

say the blessing ‘Netilat Yadayim‘”

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

Rema to

Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 7:1

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

אבל יש נוהגים |

לברך |

על נטילת ידים” |

ואשר יצר” |

בביתם מיד אחר הנטילה. |

וכשכאים לבית הכנסת |

מברכים כל ברכות השחר, |

לבד מאותן ברכות |

שברכו בביתם |

שאין מברכים אותם פעם שניה. |

ומנהג זה יפה הוא, |

וראוי |

לנהג כן, |

שהרי כל המצות צריך לברך עליהן |

קדם לעשית, |

אלא שבנטילת ידים |

אי אפשר לברך |

קדם הנטילה, |

לכן נדחית הברכה |

עד לאחר הנטילה, |

אם כן כל מה דאפשר |

לקרב הברכה |

שתהא סמוכה להנטילה – |

צריך לקרב, |

ולא להפסיק בינתים: |

“However, there are those whose custom

is to say

Al Netilat Yadayim

and ‘Asher Yatzar

at home immediately after the washing.

When they come to the synagogue

they recite all the morning blessing,

except for the blessings

they already recited in their home,

which are not to be recited a second time.

This is a desirable custom,

and it is indeed an appropriate

to practice thusly.

For all of the mitzvot one must bless

before it is performed.

But since for the washing of the hands

one cannot recite a blessing

before he washes his hands,

the blessing is therefore postponed

until after the washing.

Accordingly,

the blessing should be recited

as close as possible to the washing –

being mindful so that it is immediate

and without any delay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

א) אחר שיתלבש כראוי, |

יברך כל הבכות |

מברכת נטילת ידים” |

עד ואני הברכם” |

וכך נוהגים בני |

קהילות הספרדים |

וההולכים על פי תורת |

הארי .|

|

ב) ויש נוהגים לברך |

ברכת התורהתחלה |

ואחכ ברכות השחר, |

וכל אדם ינהג |

כמנהג אבותיו. |

1) “After dressing properly,

say all the blessings,

and bless from ‘Netilat Yadaim

until ‘V’ani habrachem;’

and this is the custom of members

of the Sephardic communities

and those who are guided by the teachings

of the Ari z”l

(Rabbi Yitzhak Luriah haKodesh)”

2) “And there are those who say

the Torah Blessings first

and then the Birchot haShachar,

but everyone should act according to the custom

of his ancestors.”

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

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

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

Summary:

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

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

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

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

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

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


Shabbat Lights: The Tradition of Great Scholars to Light with Olive Oil


Entering the Shabbat through kindling with Olive Oil

The Sephardic custom and what it teaches us about ones temperament
Do Sephardim bless before they kindle their Shabbat lights?

I feel privileged to have a great collection of siddurim (prayerbooks). In fact I have not met a person that owns more siddurim that me in many, many years. Each one of them is important to me because they help shed light on various minhagim. I love to learn about different traditions and the halachic process that led to them.

Shabbat CandlesOne of my favorite prayerbooks is the Siddur Ish Matzliach. It is a Mizrahi/Sephardic prayerbook that conforms to the customs of the near-east and Mediterranean (it refers to itself as “lifnei minhag haSephardim v’Edut haMizrach”). As this is the native nusach (style) of the Land of Israel, it is accepted widely outside of the Sephardic community and holds much weight in the Dati Leumi (Religious Zionist) circles. However, it should be noted that it goes to great lengths to document the nuances of the North African minhagim, being edited and checked under the tutelage of Rav Matzliach Mazzuz (of blessed memory; 1912-1971) who was a tzadik of the Minhag Djerba of Tunisia.

Many of my Sephardic friends, and those who are newly religious and accept the Sephardi minhag have asked me to relate to them any advice I can give them regarding the lighting of Shabbat candles and how to do it in keeping with the minhag. The Siddur Ish Matzliach is a great place to start, because it does show us some unique ideas regarding how the Sephardic communities approach the tradition of kindling Shabbat lights. With the blessing and prayers related to kindling you will find the following instructions presented (however, the translation is my own as this siddur has never been translated before):

מצוה מן המובחר |

להדליק נר של שבת |

בשמן זית. |

(שוע סימן רסד סעיף ו‘) |

ומעשה באחד |

שהאריך ימים |

ולא מצאו לו שום זכות |

אלא שהיה מדליק |

נר של שבת |

רק בשמן זית. |

(כהח שם אות לה) |

ובמקום |

שמצוי שמן זית, |

צריך ליזהר בו, |

שהרגיל בנר, |

יהיו לו בנים תלמידי חכמים |

|

המאירים בתורה |

שנמשלה לשמן זית. |

(מרן החידא בספרו מחזיק ברכה שם אות ב‘) |

ולכן לאשה |

להתפלל אחרי שתדליק, |

שתזכה |

לבנים תלמידי חכמים |

וצדיקים. |

(כהח סימן רסג א‘) |

A mitzvah done to perfection

is to kindle light for Shabbat

with olive oil.

(Shulchan Aruch 264:5)

And the act of one

who extends his days;

of him there is not found any credit,

except that he kindles

light for Shabbat 

only of olive oil.

(Kaf haChaim 34)

And places where

olive oil is commonplace

it is right to be careful in this,

and to make a habit of [Shabbat] light,

only are sons of Talmidei Chachamim

(great Torah Scholars)

who are illuminated by Torah

compared to olive oil.

(Maran haChida, in his book, part 2)

And if a wife

prays after you light up,

you are credited as one of

the sons of the Talmidei Chachamim

and Tzadikim (saints)

“(Kaf haChaim on Sadia Gaon, Siman 1)

Siddur Ish Matzliach

הדלקת נרות של שבת – “Kindling Shabbat Lights”, page 306

When presented with that, those who are unfamiliar with the Sephardic customs can be thrown for a loop. This is strikingly different from what most of us are familiar with, no matter what our custom or where our community is in the world. Though this is the correct approach for the Sephardic minhag, it is not how most of us understand Shabbat lights if we have any connection to mainstream Judaism. Where do we start?

Hanging Shabbat Oil Lamp

Hanging Shabbat Oil Lamp for multiple wicks from the 19th century

First off, for those of you who studied along with me concerning the lighting of the Chanukah Lights it should come as no surprise to you that it is the Sephardic custom to use olive oil for Shabbat lights. This what the Temple menorah utilized for providing light by which the mitzvot of the Kadosh Kadoshim – the sanctuary containing The Holy of Holies, could be done by. Oils and fats are the standard type of fuel used for providing light, however in some parts of the Ashkenazi world such oils could not be found so out of necessity people began to utilize bees-wax candles. Even citing the Kaf haChaim (Rabbi Yaakov Chaim Sofer; 1870-1939) it is noted that this is the custom where olive oil is readily available, in the third part of the instructions.

The reason given to us by The Ben Ish Chai (Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad; 1832-1909) for why we utilize lamps of olive oil is because they burn to produce a clean and steady light, which keeps the house from the harm of a “ruach ra / evil spirit” (Shana Rishon, Halachot Chanukah §12). Of course by this we don’t mean demons or malicious beings, we are talking about a negative spirit; meaning a bad mood, attitude or energy (think of the term “school spirit”). We brighten up the house to encourage shalom bayit – or peace in the home. Sitting in the dark we would be prone to negativity, confusion and mix-ups that lead to arguments. We should brighten up the house to brighten the mood. We use olive oil because of the steady light it provides that does not flicker; this also improves the mood of the home.

The tradition of lighting with oil lamps thus also hints to us the type of person that we should be; ones whose light burns steady, without flair-ups or smoldering out. Flickering of lights is like fighting, instead we want to be a steady stream of light that is peaceful and temperate. Thus it is the tradition of Sephardim, and of many Chassidim who daven by the Nusach Sephard, to light with oil lights for Shabbat. In fact, myself living in a Chabad chassidic community I remember every family I knew to utilize oil or liquid parafin (kerosene) in keeping with this spirit of shalom bayitpeace in the home.

This does not seem hard to understand when we consider it. But there is something curious that is brought down to us second, in the name of the Kaf haChaim. What does it mean about a man not having any “zichut / credit?” If that isn’t confusing enough, the siddur then goes on to provide the blessing for kindling, but it leads with the instructions:

קודם הדלקת נרות של שבת, |

תברך: |

Before kindling the lights for Shabbat,

bless:”

Siddur Ish Matzliach

Any of us who have ever seen people light candles in our local synagogues anywhere in the world know that the overwhelming custom is for a woman to light the candles. The process begins by lighting the candles, then gently putting the match down, waving over the candles three times to welcome in the light of the Sabbath day, then covering the eyes and lastly saying the blessings over the candles. This is the custom that is well known to all of us, no matter what our tradition is. It is what we see regularly practiced in normative Judaism. However, here the siddur changes the method around on us.

Now as with the Chanukah lights, the practice we all know is the normative way as prescribed in the Ashkenazi (Eastern-European) tradition. Just as the Sephardic tradition differs in what we utilize to light, so too the mechanics change. However, unlike the tradition of the Chanukah lights where classical instructions are going to be silent regarding this and leave us to just accept that we have different approaches, this is going to stand out as a striking difference pointed out by siddurim. However, in all honestly, the majority of even Sephardic siddurim and halachic works are going to prescribe that we say the blessing after kindling the Shabbat lights.

Now one might wonder, on what basis does this respectable siddur depart from this tradition? How can a universally known approach stand to be challenged? This simple answer is, this is the ikar ha-din; this is the letter of the law!

To understand the law we should probably start with the Shulchan Aruch (also popularly known as The Code of Jewish Law). This is always our first stop. Our text reads:

כשידליק יברך |

ברוך אתה ה‘ |

אלוקנו מלך העולם |

אשר קדשנו במצוותיו |

וציוונו להדליק |

נר של שבת” |

אחד האיש ואחד האשה |

גם ביום טוב |

צריך לברך |

להדליק נר של יום טוב” |

וביום הכיפורים |

|

בלא שבת |

“When one lights, bless [saying]

‘Blessed are You Hashem

our G-d King of the universe

who sanctifies us with His commandments

and commands us to kindle

light for Shabbat.”

One man, and one woman.

And on yom tov (holiday, festival)

be careful to bless,

“kindle the festival light;”

and on Yom haKippurim

(the Day of Atonements),

and not Shabbat.”

Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 263:5

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

Nothing seem apparent to us yet, in fact it will not be the Maran (the Sephardic master who authored the Shulchan Aruch) who would present our position to us, interestingly it is going to be the Rema (the Ashkenazi master that provided the glosses by which Eastern-European Jews hold by) that would do so:

יש מי שאומר שלא יברך… |

יש מי שאומר |

שמברכים |

קודם ההדלקה |

ויש מי שאומר |

שמברך אחר ההדלקה |

וכדי שיהא עובר |

לעשייתו |

לא |

יהנה |

ממנה |

עד לאחר הברכה. |

ומשימין |

היד לפני הנר |

אחר ההדלקה ומברכין , |

ואחר כך מסלקין היד |

וזה מקרי עובר לעשיה |

וכן המנהג |

“There are those who do not bless…

there are those who say

that the blessing

comes before the lighting,

and there are those who say

that the blessing is recited after the lighting.

In order to meet the requirement

as though it was said

immediately before the act

to which it pertains one should not

derive any enjoyment from [the lighting]

until after the blessing.

One should place

one’s hand in front of the light

after the lighting and recite the blessing.

Afterwards, remove the hand.

This fulfills the requirement,

and this is the minhag.”

Glosses to Shulchan Aruch, Printed 1578

Rema; Rabbi Moshe Isserlis of Kraków, Poland

And here the Rema acknowledges that there are those who do not say a blessing over the lights, those who say it before, and those who say it after. Then he goes into presenting the Ashkenazi tradition of blessing after the kindling, and explaining why one should cover their eyes before blessing. Thus the Rema expounds on the different approaches, two of them being Sephardic and one of them Ashkenazi. But how do we know that this is the Sephardic method presented first, when the Maran doesn’t seem to know there is a difference so he doesn’t elaborate and the Rema doesn’t identify who holds by what? Second, and an ever better question, is why is the Rema concerned that we pass this mitzvah off as though we were blessing before the lighting? Notice, and I don’t say this to be condescending in any way, but in reality all one is doing by covering their eyes with their hands is pretending that they haven’t lit yet; why does one go out of their way to do this?

Both these questions can be answered by one text. We turn to the writing of the the Rambam, the Sephardic master who codified all of Jewish law for us in his Mishneh Torah. He explains to us the general principal of fulfilling a mitzvah as follows:

“There is no mitzvah

for which the blessing should be recited

after its fulfillment;

ever.”

אין לך מצוה |

שמברכין |

אחר עשייתה |

לעולם |

Mishneh Torah, Hilichot Berachot 11:9; §7

Rambam, Rabbi Mosheh ben-Maimon, Maimonidies;

the 12th Century Spain and Egypt

The halacha is that we say a blessing before we do something, period. (the Rambam here is citing Talmud Pesachim 7b) This is known, this is accepted law and therefore to circumvent this fact one covers their eyes so that after they say the blessing and they uncover their eyes the lights are now there for them to enjoy.

The Rambam, as a detailed writer, explains the line of thinking to us clearly as to why we should bless first. In paragraph 7, halacha 5 he gives us the sample of tzitzit, tefillin and sukkah. We say a blessing before we even engage in the acts of acknowledging them because the performance of them is ongoing. The act of doing it is not an act in and of itself, but engaging in it was the commandment therefore we say the blessing before. The only time we say the blessing after is if the act requires many steps and then we say the blessing last after all the steps are completed, but this is not one of those cases.

When we Sephardim light for Shabbat we do so for utilitarian purposes, our oil lamps are in order to provide light for our homes throughout the Sabbath. They are dressed with finer wicks and oils than we would use the rest of the week so that they sustain and don’t need to be meddled with, but nonetheless they are just standard lamps and we use them for providing our light. We light lamps shel Shabbat, meaning “for the Sabbath;” to enable us to do our sabbath duties.

This is very different than lighting “Shabbat candles.” The candles in Ashekanzi tradition are a sign and symbol in and of themselves of the Sabbath. Whereas Sephardim just light up the house in order to have light to live, learn and dine by, so that the act is merely utilitarian; to Ashkenazim this is a ritual of the Shabbat customs that symbolizes the start of the sabbath. More precisely, with the saying of the blessing over the candles one symbolically takes on their observance of the Sabbath. The lighting is a mitzah to Ashkenazim, to us Sephhardim it is observing Shabbat that is the mitzvah and having a bright home helps us accomplish that but the candles are no mitzvah themselves.

For this reason many different Sephardic siddurim and halachic works that deal with the welcoming of the Sabbath point out that it’s traditionally the custom of Sephardim to not say a blessing, or say a blessing before kindling the lights; the custom varies by community. But when stating this it is noted that this is in on account that Sephardim do not recognize the beginning of the Shabbat to commence with the saying of the blessing over the candles.

Now lets back up to the statement made by the siddur’s explanation, regarding a man not having any “zichut / credit” when lighting. At first it looks to be the a simple phrase that tells us that candle lighting on Shabbat is not a virtue for a man, but for a woman. But it’s not saying this at all. What it is doing is giving us an example, of a person who takes in Shabbat early (as we can start enjoying Shabbat at any time we like), the custom is often to begin by kindling Shabbat lights to signify taking in the sabbath. However, here the siddur tells us that if one lights a lamp for Shabbat they are just lighting an oil lamp and nothing else. It is not a special demarcation of any sort. However, it calls us to look at the hidur mitzvah – the beauty, the detail of care to which we perform a mitzvah, as a symbol of our temperament and in pursuit of shalom bayitpeace in the home.

However interesting the approach of the Siddur Ish Matzliach is, even more interesting is the number of Sephardic prayerbooks that do not hold by this halacha. Normally I would point to certain books like the Artscroll’s Nusach Sephard siddurim and decry them being a Sephardic approach to Ashkenazi tradition, stating that they are not Sephardi sidddurim in that that don’t follow Sephardic minhag. But even those sources that are firm in Sephardic minhag for ideological purposes tend to favor the blessing after the lighting. In fact, you will be hard pressed to find a halachic work of Sephardi origin that does not explain the kindling of Shabbat lights and follow the minhag of blessing last as prescribed by the Rema.

Among the few who are going to champion the approach of the Shulchan Aruch to bless first before lighting is Maran Rabbi Ovediah Yosef, shelita (1920 – present; Rishon LeTzion, former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel).

The majority of the Sephardic poskim would in the end prescribe the blessing as being last, but few who insist on this method that is contrary to Maran Yosef Karo would be as honest as the Mekor Chaim haLevi in their explanation as to why. He states in his kitzur:

“For all mitzvot one blesses

on their way through,

(before) one does it.

And one must bless “before

the kindling;

and bless ‘Blessed are You…

…to kindle light for Shabbat.’

And so this is the letter of the law,

but instead we are already

accustomed to blessing after

kindling…”

כל המצוות מברך |

עליהן עובר |

(קודם) לעשייתן. |

וחייב לברך קודם” |

הדלקה, |

ברוך וכו‘ |

להדליק נר של שבת. |

וכך הוא עיקר הדין, |

אלא שעתה כבר |

נהגו לברך אחר |

ההדלקה… |

Kitzur Mekor Chaim, Chapter 60:5 (p.127)

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

What all this means when we walk through the steps of the halacha and history is we find that the Ashkenazim took on the tradition of lighting as a symbolic ritual act at some point along the way. In reality if you consider the way they lived, their candles were superfluous for use for light anyhow; most people used bonfires, stoves and fireplaces as their primary source of light anyhow. This was a way of them connecting to an age old tradition of bringing light, life and joy into the home. However, the tradition of lighting up the house for Shabbat has always remained a practical act in the Sephadic halachic approach. But our own custom of lighting Shabbat lights is adopted from Ashkenazim, and at this point in history even our lights are also merely symbolic because these lamps are not our primary source of light either; our electric lights are.

Hanging Oil LampMany rabbis do not make a big deal concerning when you say the blessing because in reality there is nothing wrong with follow the ritual lighting of Shabbat lights according to the custom of the Rema since this is a wholesale adoption of this ritual custom anyhow. We became accustomed to this tradition through their practice of it this way, so its okay for us to follow likewise. In fact though the way of Maran Yosef Karo and the Rambam is the ideal way, the only reason that people do not follow the ikar hadin – the letter of the law – is to not show contempt for ones elders, as we are not allowed to change the tradition that we are taught by our forebears.

Some might wonder on what basis does Rabbi Ovedia Yosef and here the Ish Matzliach have the authority to go against hundreds of years of halachic tradition documented by Sephardic sages? Though it is true that some Sephardic communities have been following the tradition of lighting Shabbat lights for hundreds of years, others have only come to know this tradition since becoming reconnected to the greater streams of Judaism once their communities made aliyah to Israel. When adopted by newly established communities it seems only logical that they apply the law as-is. Secondly, there are many people who are newly religious and have only recently taken on mitzvot. For these people, there is no tradition they received regarding this from their parents so for them to adopt the actual custom in accordance to the rule of law poses no problems (people such as anusim, crypto Jews who have recently become religious Jews). In fact, it is best that we not frown upon such people because such individuals have the rare opportunity of applying the ikar hadin without the hangups of trampling a minhag.

Even though the Sephardic tradition has been influenced by the other communities regarding this, there are certain halachic consequences that remain that one must be careful to keep in mind. Even if one decides to light with a blessing after in avoidance of doing a melacha after a blessing, you still have not taken upon the Sabbath and are therefore still able to engage in acts of work or preparation until one officially davens to bring in the sabbath once sundown comes. We do not begin with lights. Likewise we do not end with lights. For instance, Sephardim do not make havdalah before lighting Chanukah candles. As the lighting of Chanukah candles is a mitzvah and making havdalah is not so much so, one engages in the mitzvah first to not put off it fulfillment. And this is permissible because there is no consequences of breaking Shabbat because your havdalah does not break Shabbat any more than lighting begins Shabbat. This is true in all Sephardic communities. But we will deal with this more once its time for Chunukah again.

Though we might adopt traditions from among the different communities, and this is acceptable and has happened over time, the tradition of using oil lamps and the significance of them to us points to how even when we accustom ourselves to new ways we should still be mindful to perform our devotion according to our own style!


Chanukah: The Ner Mitzvah and the Shamash


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

menorahcityshmu

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

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

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

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

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

יברך בכל לילה |

להדליק נר חנוכה |

|

ושעשה נסים |

|

ולילה הראשון יברך |

ג״כ |

שהחיינו |

|

ואץ |

להדליק עד שיגמור |

כל‬ הברכות |

|

המנהג הנכון |

לדבק הנרות |

או לתלות |

המנורה |

בעובי המזוזה בחלל הפתח |

ויתחיל להדליק |

בליל ראשון נר‬ ‫הימין |

ומליל שני |

ואילך יברך |

על הנוסף וילך |

משמאל לימין: |

One blesses on all nights

lehadlik ner Chanukah

(the kindling blessing),

and “she’asa nissim.”

(“for the miracles”)

On the first evening one blesses

with three blessings,

she’che’ianu

(“who has granted us life”)

[thereafter] is excluded.

Kindle only after you have recited

all the blessings.”

|

It is the proper custom

to affix the lights

or to hang

the menorah

opposite the mezuzah of the door-post

and then begin to kindle;

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

and then on the second evening

go ahead and bless,

for the additional ones work your way

from left to right”

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

Siddur Ha-Rav, Late 18th Century

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

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

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

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

Do we light a Menorah of oil or candles?

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

כל השמנים והפתילות כשרי |

לנר חנוכה |

ואעפ שאין השמנים נמשכים אחר הפתילה ואין |

האור נתלה יפה באותם הפתילות |

All fats ( or “oils”) are appropriate

to light the Chanukah lamp

even if the oil is not drawn up by the wick

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

Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 673:1;

Maran; Rabbi Yosef Karo, Tzfat, Israel in 1563

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

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

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

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

ומיהו שמן זית |

מצוה מן המובחר |

However, using olive oil is the

choices way of performing the mitzvah”

Rema; Rabbi Moshe Isserlis of Kraków, Poland;

Printed 1578

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

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

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

ואם אין שמן זית מצוי |

מצוה בשמנים |

שאורן זך ונקי |

ונוהגין במדינות אלו |

להדליק בנרות של שעוה |

כי אורן צלול כמו שמן. |

And if there is not olive oil available

it is a mitzvah with [other] oils

that burns pure and clean.

It is the custom in those countries

to kindle the lights of wax

as they burn clean like oil.”

Rema

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

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

The Maran continues, stating:

ואפילו בליל שבת |

שבתוך ימי |

חנוכה |

מותר להדליק |

בנר חנוכה |

השמנים והפתילות |

שאסור להדליק בהם נר שבת |

Even on the eve of Shabbat

which is in the middle of the days

of Chanukah

it is permissible to kindle

the Chanukah lights

with oils and wicks

that are forbidden to use as Shabbat lights.”

Maran

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

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

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

The Rema agrees this is true, but introjects:

אם אינו נותן בנר רק |

כדי שיעור מצותו |

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

to fulfill the mitzvah”

Rema

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

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

לפי שאסור להשתמש |

בנר חנוכה |

בין בשבת בין בחול |

ואפילו לבדוק מעות |

או למנותן לאורה |

אסור אפילו תשמיש |

של קדושה |

כגון ללמוד לאורה |

אסור |

ויש מי שמתיר בתשמיש |

של קדושה |

ונוהגים להדליק נר נוסף |

כדי שאם ישתמש לאורה |

יהיה לאור הנוסף שהוא אותו |

שהודלק אחרון |

ויניחנו מרחוק קצת |

משאר נרות מצוה.|

For it is forbidden to make use

of the Chanukah lights

both during Shabbat and weekdays;

even if to see if [the wicks] are twisted

or to examine [the intensity] the light.

It is forbidden to use them for even

sacred purposes,

such as learning [Torah] by its illumination;

it is forbidden.

There are those who permit this

for sacred use.

But the proper custom is to light an additional light

so that if the light is utilized

it is from the light of the additional one that

was lit last;

it should be placed a small distance

away from the mitzvah lights.”

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

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

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

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

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

ובמדינות אלו אין נוהגים |

להוסיף רק מניח |

אצלן השמש |

שבו מדליק הנרות |

הוא עדיף טפי |

In these countries it tends not to be the custom

to add an additional [candle]

but to delegates the Shamash

with which he kindles the lights;

this is preferable.”

Rema

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Chanukiah Candelabrum is not a Menorah

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

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

| הדלקה עושה מצוה

The kindling is the mitzvah.”

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

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

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

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

יג) ונוהגין להחמיר

שלא להדליק מנר לנר,

אלא מדליקן מן השמש

או מנר אחר.

|

יד) כל זמן

מצוותן,

דהיינו חצי שעה,

אסור ליהנות מאורן.

ולכן נוהגין להניח

אצלן את השַמָש

שהדליקן בו,

כדי שאם ישתמש אצלן

ישתמש לאור השַמָש.

וצריכין להניחו

קצת למעלה מן הנרות,

שיהא ניכר שאינו

ממניין

הנרות.

It is our custom to be stringent |

not to kindle from lamp to lamp, |

but to kindle it with the Shamash |

or another light. |

|

During the time of |

fulfilling the mitzvah, |

for an hour and a half long, |

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

For this reason it is our custom to place |

near it the Shamash |

with which you kindle it, |

so that if one uses the light |

one is utilizing the light of the Shamash. |

You must place it |

a little higher than the [other] lights |

so that it is not considered among |

the count |

of the [mitzvah] lights.” |

Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfied (1804 to1886), of Hungary

Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, Chapter 139:13-14

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

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

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

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

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

The Sacred 36 Lights

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

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

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

Do not light some oil lamps and some wax

so that it can not be said

two people have lit [sets of lights]

therefore this is not

a completed [also. elegant] mitzvah.

Therefore it is good that the entire set

of lights are equal;

in size, appearance and kind.

As one complete mitzvah.

It is good that this additional light,

called the Shamash,

be made distinct (Lit. strange)

from the Chanukah Lights

so that it is evident

that it is not part of the Chanukah lights.

And this is my custom.”

|

It is forbidden to light

from a sacred item

for [lighting] an ordinary item.

But from the additional light

it is permissible.

And there are the stringent

who also allow with an additional candle.”

יג) אין להדליק קצת נרות משמן וקצת משעוה, |

כדי שלא יאמרו |

שני אנשים הדליקו |

ועוד אין בזה |

הידור מצוה, |

ולכן טוב שגם גוף |

הנרות יהיו שוין |

בגודלן ומראיהם ומינם |

משום הידור מצוה, |

וטוב שזה נר הנוסף |

שקורין שמש |

יעשהו משונה |

מנרות חנוכה, |

כדי שיהא ניכר |

שאין זה בכלל נח |

וכן אני נוהג: |

|

יד) אסור להשתמש לאורה |

בין תשמיש קדושה |

בין תשמיש חול, |

אבל לנר הנוסף |

מותר |

ויש מחמירין |

גם בנר הנוסף… |

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

Shana Rishon, Halachot Chanukah

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

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

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

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

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

אסור להשתמש לאור

נרות חנוכה,

ואפילו תשמיש עראי

כגון לבדוק מעות

אולמנותן

לאורה אסור,

כדי שלא יהיו

המצוות בזויות עליו

(שבת כב.).

|

א) ותשמיש עראי של

מצוה מותר.

ולכן אם נסתפק לו דין

שהוא צורך חנוכה,

מותר להשתמש לאורה.

|

ב) ואפילו תשמיש של קדושה

כגון ללמוד

לאורה אסור

ולכן נוהגים להדליק נר נוסף

שנקרא שָׁמַשׁ

כדי שאם ישתמש לאורה,

יהיה לאור הנוסף,

שמדליקים אותו לאחרונה,

ונוהגים לתת הנר הנוסף יותר גבוה

מנרות המצוה,

ורמז לדבר:

|

ג) שרפים עומדים ממעל לו”,

שמנין נרות המצוה

בכל הלילות ביחד הם שלשים וששה

כמנין לו

ואם אי אפשר

להניח נר השמש

גבוה יותר משאר הנרות, יניחנו רחוק קצת מהם,

כדי שיהיה ניכר שאינו

מנרות המצוה.

It is forbidden to utilize the illumination of |

the Chanukah lights |

even if for a temporary use |

for things such as counting coins |

or examining; |

from the illumination is forbidden |

so that there is no |

contempt for the commandment. |

(Talmud Shabbat 22) |

|

Use of a temporary item for a |

mitzvah is allowed; |

therefore if we are satisfying a law |

that is necessary for Chanukah, |

the light may be used. |

|

Even for a use that is sacred |

such as learning, |

by the illumination it is forbidden. |

Therefore we kindle an additional light |

that is called the Shamash |

so that if we make use of the illumination |

it is from the additional light. |

So kindling it last, |

the additional light tending to be taller than |

the commanded candle lamps |

hinting to its meaning |

|

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

as the total lights of the mitzvah |

of all the nights together is 36 |

like the word ‘it.’ |

If you cannot place |

the Shamash light above |

we place it aside a little distance from them |

so much that it is not considered as a |

mitzvah lamp.” |

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

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

Halachot Chanukah, Chapter 1- “אסור להשתמש לאורה

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the first night

kindling one

and adding one more each night,

as is well know.

Therefore, it is the custom

that each member of the household

light his own.

And it is forbidden to utilize

the light of the Chanukah lights

even for a sacred use

such as learning Torah;

for this reason it is the proper custom

to light an additional light

called the Shamash;

so that if you use it,

it is from the illumination of the

additional light

which we place a small distance

from the rest of the lights.”

ו) בלילה הראשון |

מדליק אחד |

ומוסיף אחד בכל לילה |

כידוע. |

ויש נהגים |

שכל אחד מבני הבית |

נר לעצמו. |

ואסור להשתמש |

לאור נרות חנוכה |

אפילו תשמיש קדושה |

כגון למוד תורה, |

ולכן נוהגים |

להדליק נר נוסף |

הנקרא שמש, |

כדי שאם ישתמש |

יהיה זה לאור |

הנר הנוסף, |

ויניחנו רחוק קצת |

מיתר הנרות. |

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

Kitzur Mekor Chaim, Halachot Nerot, p.282

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

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

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

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

It is good that one should give

to his small sons

a little extra candle to light for themselves,

so that they can be educated in the mitzvot.

So with this small extra light

they can perform a small mitzvah.

And this is my custom,

and it is proper to do so.

However, do not let them kindle

the obligatory lights…”

טוב ליתן לאחד |

מבניו הקטנים |

להדליק בידם נר הנוסף |

כדי לחנכם במצות, |

שגם בזה הנר הנוסף |

יש קצת מצוה, |

וכן אני נוהג |

וראוי לעשות כך, |

אבל לא יתן להם להדליק |

מנרות של חיוב… |

Ben Ish Chai, Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad

Halachot Chanukah, Paragraph 12

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

ט) כל השמנים והפתילות כשרים לנר חנוכה, |

ושמן זית מצוה מן המובחר. ונהגו מהדליק בנר |

שעוה כי אורו |

זך וצלולץ. |

ואין יוצאים ידי חובה |

באור החשמל |

להדלקת נר חנוכה. |

All oils are permissible for Chanukah lights,

and olive oil is a mitzvah done to perfection.

There are those who light

wax for a pure and clean light.

But there is no fulfillment of an obligation

with a electric light

lit as a Chanukah light.”

Kitzur Mekor Chaim, Halachot Nerot, p.283

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

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

The custom of Israel is Law”

מנהג ישראל, תורה הוא |

Chida, Mihazik Beracha 261:7

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

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


1] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 674:1

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

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

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

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

2] Shulchan Aruch O.C. 671:2

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

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

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

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

Shulchan Aruch O.C. 675:3

סעיף ג – מי שאומר בקטן שהגיע לחינוך מותר.

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

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

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

Shulchan Aruch O.C. 677:2

סעיף ב — קטן שהגיע לחינוך צריך להדליק:

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


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