Category Archives: Siddur

Parshat Bamidbar (5774)


Numbers 1:1 – 4:20

Nationalism: How do you feel about flag waving?

 A Mexican-American student (left) is bullied by nationalist students for carrying the American flag while showing support of immigrant rights. When do you feel that use of national flags and symbolisms become excessive and unsavory? Have you ever felt “anti-flag?”

A Mexican-American student (left) is bullied by Chicano nationalist students for carrying the American flag while showing support of immigrant’s rights. When do you feel that use of national flags and symbolisms become excessive and unsavory? Have you ever felt “anti-flag?”

What do flags mean to you? Are flags uniting symbols, or are they emblems of division? It is obvious to us all that most often, to the people who hoist them, flags embody a symbol of nationalism. How do you feel about that? Because, as for myself, I’m not so sure sometimes.

Even when not used in the context of the actual nation-state, people often utilize state flags for other nationalistic reasons, such as ethnic and cultural nationalism. Can you think of some examples where these symbols are used well, and examples of when they are used poorly?

It is not that I am against people showing pride in their homeland and culture, but I do not believe in using these symbols as weapons. Furthermore, I do not believe in utilizing them in a way which does not call attention to a diverse fabric in that flag. As I completely stand against ethnic nationalism.

This is a topic that comes to mind in relation to current events, and upon reading our parsha for this week. First, let’s take a look at the text here:

‘The children of Israel shall encamp with each person near the banner which has his paternal family’s insignia; a good way off shall they pitch round about the tent of meeting.”

אִישׁ עַל דִּגְלוֹ בְאֹתֹת לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם יַחֲנוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִנֶּגֶד סָבִיב לְאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד יַחֲנוּ:

Ish al-diglo ve’otot leveit avotam yachanu benei Yisra’el mineged saviv le’ohel-mo’ed yachanu.

Deuteronomy 2:2

I don’t want to overwhelm us with commentery this week, but I want us to just quickly discuss the interesting points made by Rashi, the master commentary. But it’s essential we first connect to the discussion of the ages.

Rashi in his commentary makes sure we know what we are talking about, these otot – these signs, these symbols – he understands them to clearly mean flags. Notice how Rashi also describes these flags, pointing at their construction, he referred to them in Hebrew as mapa – meaning a tablecloth. This is what these “standards” were. Colored banners of cloth with symbols embroidered into them, hoisted on polls.

Rashi describes the background of the flags, saying that the color and hue of each was inspired after the color of their corresponding stone in the Breastplate of the High Priest. Thus each flag had distinctive colors, according to their distinct tribal identity. As each of these twelve stones were different, so too were each of the flags.

12 Shevatim Flags, MosaicThen Rashi gives us further details as to the appearance of the flags, and why they are called otot here – why they are to be understood as signs, and what the symbols mean. Rashi explains that each of the flags had a symbol placed on them. What type of symbol? Rashi says it was a symbol given to each tribe by Yaakov Avinu (באות שמסר להם יעקב), before his death in Egypt at the end of Genesis. (see Genesis chapters 49-50)

I was recently reminded of this lesson after a friend asked me to review some pictures of the historic Breed Street Shul, in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, California. Some have noticed that around the interior of the main sanctuary there are 12 symbols circling the entire sanctuary. Upon first glance, one cannot help but notice that most appear to be zodiac symbols, yet some figures do not seem to exactly fit this theme. This is not a unique depiction in this shul, it is actually quite common in classical synagogues as well.

Midrash based on this week’s Torah reading sheds some light on this subject. Our traditional folklore credits Avraham Avinu – Abraham our Father – as being among the first to assign symbolism to the zodiac. He, and Yakkov his grandson, are said to have correlated the symbols of the classical zodiac with the descriptions of these 12 tribal patriarchs given at their time of blessing. This is something that is reaffirmed as a long-held belief even in the classical age, as accounted by 2nd century Hellenistic writer Vettius Valens.

However, these signs are not all so obviously connected to the heavenly constellations they correspond to today. Instead the midrash explains them slightly different at times. For example, Zevulen is symbolized by a ship, Naftali an olive tree, Binyamin a wolf, etc. Each of these were to symbols useful to describe something about the nature of those tribes and what they were good at. As with Zevulen whose tribe is understood to have become great sea merchants, thus the ship.

And then at the center there was the flag of the Levites, whose ensign was a depiction of the multicolored breastplate which represented the 12 tribes of Israel. Their multifaceted emblem understood to be a symbolic representation of all the many colors of the Israelites.

Even today, in synagogues like the Breed Street, you will see depictions of the Twelve Tribes in the form of these traditional symbols which are only loosely related to the Zodiac. Instead what they really are present for, is to symbolize the balance and harmony of the tribes of Israel, each dwelling peaceably with their own clan as described here in this week’s parsha. (see diagram at the bottom)

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Inside the historic Breed Street Shul, Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, California. The symbols of the Twelve Tribes still remain. In fact, the round Star of David stained glass pieces are just place holders for 12 original pieces depicting the 12 Tribes of Israel. They are being kept in storage for safekeeping during the restoration. Please see more images and a correspondence chart below.

As described in Rashi’s commentary for this verse, Yehudah leads in the east, along with Issachar and Zevulen. The tribes are further laid out in orders of three. Three tribes in the east, three south, three west, three north. With the Levites then leaning towards the middle. This symbolizes each dwelling harmoniously in their camp, each tribe at peace with each other. The flags they originated from are a thing of the past, but their symbols remain enshrined in Jewish art and architecture.

Before we move on from addressing the actual text here, I would like us to take notice of one other important point that cannot be missed. We need to understand why these groups and tribes did not fall into isolation.

The answer is found in explaining why the tribes were matched with each other, three tribes placed at each side of the Israelite encampments. The tribes were purposely made to dwell with other tribes as part of a local community and unit. Sometimes the matches were clearly ideal, like Issachar and Zevulen – who according to Jewish tradition were historical partners in enterprise and learning (see “The Torah-Business Partnership” at Chabad.org). So at times we can see the tribes paired together according to their natural alliances.

Sure these groupings were often based on fraternal feelings, in the most literal sense. Example, the tribes born to mother Leah are all placed in the east and the south. Those tribes alloted inheritance through Yosef – including Ephraim and Menasheh – were encamped together, thus all the descendants of Rachel were placed in the west. As we can see, the tribes most often – but not always – were grouped to camp with those they were most related to.

But like all nations and communities, the people of Israel were not just a grouping of like people and families. No, they were a composite of naturally distinct people who were expected to come together as a unified people.

This is a good thought to have in mind as we consider the often sung words of the psalms, “Hineh mah tov umah naim, shevet achim gam yachad / Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1)

Though the individual tribes of Israel had their own distinct characteristics and autonomous camps, they were still united as one people. They dwelt not just as brothers among themselves in completely isolated communities, but also as extended brothers in unity as one complete nation – one united people. They are thus named Am Yisrael – the nation, or literally, the people of Israel.

So now that we got all the smart stuff out of the way, what does this all mean? And how do we actually feel about this?

Let’s really think about this here, and vent some of the natural criticism that us Jews have for this text.

We see the tribes abiding by their flags. Camped and grouped according to paternal line – but also by maternal lineage in division, each person and family among their own clan. Sure we agree that they dwelt harmoniously, thus enabling them to not just encamp in their formations but also move forward in their desert migration as a cohesive unit. But nonetheless, for most of us modern people, today most have a problem with a description of people dwelling in such communities, that by todays standards are quite restrictive. We have a problem with the appearance of segregation.

And even more so, many people have a problem with the suggestion of the scriptures and midrashic tradition praising vexillophilia – which is just a long word for the love of collecting and studying flags. Yet our texts seemingly does. Indeed our texts call the tribes to fashion them, after their own identity. And then to dwell by them, encamped by tribe underneath them. This does not sit well with many, be they progressive or orthodox.

Actually it’s interesting that I bring up the Breed Street Shul, mostly because I recently had an argument with a lifelong friend of mine after he started bemoaning the presence of the American and Israeli flags in that complex, which is today being used as a cultural center. It should be noted that the Breed Street Shul was the first location in Los Angeles to hoist the flag of the newly recognized State of Israel, upon the UN recognition of the Jewish state. The connection to the Zionist cause historically runs deep in this community. I felt the symbols to be wholly appropriate and historically accurate, in face of objections.

I heard what he was saying though. The arguments he made were familiar ones which are quite common among many young Jewish people today. His arguments were slightly modified versions of anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism, mixed with his own theoretical sense of universalism – as opposed to restrictive nationalism.

Of course, our conversation came to an impasse when I could not condone the disparaging of the democratic tradition of America and the State of Israel. And more specifically when I would not trash the flag, nor be bullied into decrying the local custom of showing such symbols in public meeting halls and houses of worship.

But I’ll tell you the truth, the conversation set off a different journey of self-exploration on how I feel about flags and nationalism. Being challenged on this topic by someone I know very well, he appealed to my natural character to be opposed to nationalism. As I have always been a most aggressive opponents to ethnic nationalism and racism. Often finding myself verbally and physically opposing racial discrimination wrapped in a flag. He had a point that has been pricking in my side ever since.

Especially in the past few weeks. My own conflict on how I feel about nationalistic symbolism and their appropriateness was displayed in my feelings over recent communal celebrations in the area, such as Cinco de Mayo and the Israel Day Festival. On one had, I feel cynical regarding the celebrating Cinco de Mayo here in the USA. [It could be possible that my ill sentiments of Cinco de Mayo festivals are most derived from my childhood experiences, from before the city shut them down because of the violence at places like Lincoln Park, events which were often marred by the venting of racist nationalism of the worst nature.] Yet at the same time I do tend to feel somewhat welcoming to the recognition of Israeli Independence Day when it comes around. You would think as a Mexican-American I would feel the other way around. Or at least be consistent, and be completely opposed to the recognition of either celebration in diaspora.

I’ll admit, the inconstancy is something that has perplexed even myself. Even as I waved my little Israeli flag at the festival. I really thought about what it meant to me, and how it might also appear to outsiders who cannot internalize my love and support for the Jewish state. How can I seem to essentially promote Jewish nationalism? Does this not appear to compromise my core values which oppose exclusivity, racism and xenophobia?

I let my mind and heart wrestle with this, in hopes of coming to peace with this. Hopefully before the Fourth of July rolled around and I found myself struggling with this topic yet again. Before I unfurl the American flag and again begin to struggle with similar nationalistic sentiments and conflicts.

There is no way to avoid a certain truth about employing such symbolisms. When people begin to wave flags, most often they are making clear nationalistic statements. And nationalism seems to almost naturally have a tendency to result in chauvinism, which further leads to racism and xenophobia.

Nationalism, while it’s aims seem honorable in seeking to establishing people-hood and the building up of sound nation-states, it can also be a used as a very dangerous force. Nationalism can become a divisive and restrictive force. Often setting up barriers between regions and peoples. This is because nationalism is concerned with my people and my country – mine and not yours. Nationalism most often displays itself through regional struggles for resources, and even in senseless expansionism. And in senseless exclusion and persecution of others, simply for not being part of your tribe or people. Because your needs don’t really matter as much as mine, I can’t help you if I can’t help myself. That is how nationalism translates in the minds of many.

So how do I intellectually justify my own feelings of nationalism? How do I justify my own pride in and love for my country? Why not decry these structures all together?

I justify my support of the state in the same manner everyone else before me has, simply because that is the way things are. For now, this is the only way things can be. And like most citizens, I identify with the values and virtues of my country. I also accept the fact that at times nations must rise up to give life to their unique virtues. Nations and people seem naturally intended to rise to prominence to actualize a dream, and once accomplished they fade into the background. Disappearing into the larger fabric of history. That is how most of us understand the nature of nationalism.

Simply put, I support and identify with the western democratic tradition of American and the State of Israel because their vision and dream is still in the making. They are both young counties, who have yet to accomplish their goals before retiring themselves to the history books.

But even this intellectual justification does not completely set my mind at ease. Because I cannot deny the reality that nationalism can be a harmful force in any country or people.

On the walls of the public housing near the entrance of the parking lot, facing Lorena near the corner of Olympic Blvd. Estrada Courts.

On the walls of the public housing near the entrance of the parking lot, facing Lorena near the corner of Olympic Blvd. Estrada Courts.

And this is probably where I’m going to upset everyone, but I must be honest. My own life experience, especially in light of the history of my community, makes me leery of nationalism.

Its well-known that I’ve traditionally been known to be an aggressive opponent of white nationalists – a.k.a. “skinheads,” but more precisely “white power” Nazi punks. Living my life in the punk rock scene it has been something that I have always had pushed in my face, naturally I’ve resisted and fought against such forces in the scene. In light of this it seems logical why I would so strongly oppose such things as ethnic nationalism. Because it’s an obvious offense to minorities such as myself.

But my opposition towards nationalism actually comes from somewhere closer to home. It is formed from my observations of nationalism gone awry in my own community – in the Latino community of Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles; with “brown power” neo-nationalism. This is how I can say any type of nationalism can go wrong, even among disadvantaged minorities. My distaste for nationalism comes from seeing its divisive employment in my own minority community – among Latinos.

This topic comes to mind again, as recently racial and nationalistic tensions are once again begun to surface within this predominately Latino community (demographically, the area is 98.9% Latino). Most recently in the firebombing of four pubic housing units occupied by African-American families. (for details, also see: “Ramona Gardens Firebombing has some black residents fleeing the area,” LA Times)

I’m also finding it hard to ignore the obvious racism and chauvinism that is also being shown even more increasingly in the way people discuss the topic of gentrification and urban-renewal, along with the “white people” and minorities this is expected to attract to our communities. In the face of a perceived threat, some Latino people are once again trying to rebuild 1970s style nationalist protest movements to show dominance in this area.

ChakaArtist

Here we are talking about tribal and national symbols. Let us reflected on the growing tensions in Boyle Heights, and really consider how intentionally divisive and racially charged ways art, murals and nationalist symbols have been utilized in the eastside. How they are purposely employed to intimidate others out other races and nationalties out of our vicinity. We really need to reflect on how and why we need to move beyond this racial extremism, exclusivity and cultural hegemony. Notice it didn’t take long for this most infamous of the local graffiti inspired artists to validate my claims and understanding of this rhetoric for all of us.

As people of other races move in to the area one can’t help notice the rush to cover everything with a Mexican flag, armed revolutionaries or the Virgin of Guadalupe increases. Joining outdated slogans like, “Viva la raza” (meaning, long live our race) and the like which still theme this area. This all sits really badly with me, and I’m not at all quiet about it.

I challenge people on this. How can we attempt at being an open community in Boyle Heights when we cover our public housing in those areas exclusively in nationalistic and racially charged Chicano art? And by constantly covering everything with a Mexican flag? It’s not that I’m opposed to our ethnic art and cultural symbols being expressed in public. But I ask my people to consider if we are not being foolish in hollowing throwbacks from the most radical points of the civil rights movement. Could it be that nationalistic excesses in this art is sending a message that all other races and nationalities are not welcome here? Would it not be better for us as we grow as a community to mature into more inclusive tones? Is it not time that our nationalistic sentiments finally retire themselves, as the greater society moves beyond the ethnic divisions?

I must begin to speak up, not just for my own community. But also out of concern and communal solidarity with the African-American communities who are being violently targeted and squeezed out of their historic neighborhoods in Los Angeles by nationalist Latino gangs. (see “Racial Hate Feeds a Gang War’s Senseless Killing” and “Attack on family in Compton latest incident in wave of anti-black violence”) On behalf of the concerned members of the Latino community, I challenge the embedding of nationalism into our communities, because it’s unwise and divisive.

This is especially relevant for our community here in Boyle Heights, just as much as it is in most other inner-city communities. In fact, the way our racial and ethnic problems is being played out on the eastside is being modeled elsewhere, as the gang lifestyle and themes export themselves from our neighborhoods to build syndicate gang franchises in the inner-cities across the country. Its essential we tackle this issue here, and now. (see “Ramona Gardens Overcomes Past,” for some background on local racist sentiments and those who are working to overcome it.)

I think it is also important for us Latinos to employ new symbols of pride, which are sensitive. As us Latino quickly become the majority by sheer demographic growth in this country many among us are talking about what the future of the country will look like in generations to come. But we need to do some really good thinking. We need to decide if we are going to embrace people-hood with the other tribes of this country, or if we are going pursue cultural chauvinism and dominion.

This is what is running through my mind as I read these words in the Torah portion for this week, “The children of Israel shall encamp with each person near the banner which has his paternal family’s insignia.” (Deut. 2:3)

When we read about this topic of each tribe camping under their flags and tribal symbols in the Torah, I don’t see it as just majestic and lovely. On paper it looks nice. But I can also see where in the practical world, this can all go very wrong. When the use of flags and symbols is used to divide and distinguish, and not just as a mere symbol of pride. But can we tell the difference? I think that’s the problem, that sometimes people cannot.

Yes, I have a problem with the way some people in my community brandish the Mexican flag. Furthermore, I don’t just passively accept people reviving talk of a Mexican-American claim to the southwest and the expectation of social entitlement. This is the view which is most often paired with Mexican neo-nationalism. Along with a message for outsiders to stay out because this is ours, we should not have to share resources. This is the message being sent by many who aggressively embed the Mexican flag in our area. For me, this is wholly inappropriate, I just cannot do it. I cannot promote this type chauvinism in my community. From this, I feel I must have to abstain.

So how do I find it possible to raise other kinds of flags? Is this not hypocritical of me?

One of the reasons I can hold the American flag high is because I am an American. It is right for me to show my love for my own country, and in my own land. I see no problem with nationalism when properly expressed within the context of that nation. And because I stand proud in my identity as an American, which is not defined by any one color. We are all immigrant people, a nation of mixed heritage. A patchwork of cultures is sewn into the fabric of this nation. This flag does not just represent a sole nation built through the pooling of people of the same culture regionally, but of the gathering of people of many different traditions and origins to become a more perfect union. It is a country build upon the coming together of many people who value liberty, freedom and the pursuit of happiness.

Likewise I can also proudly hold high the flag of the State of Israel. Because that flag is a symbol of the national aspirations of the Jewish people, who are not one color or specific race either. It is the flag of a state which is a refuge and home to Jews of many origins and ethnic backgrounds. It is the historic homeland and the modern refuge for many Jews, established through democratic and political realities. I can support and defend the fineness of that vision. I can show solidarity with this civilization grounded both in faith and culture; all of which is above color, race and national origins. A country which also promises full civil rights to all the various non-Jewish minorities – the people of the historic Arab, Muslim, Christian, Armenian, Druze communities – who also take shelter in her.

In their own merit, I feel both the flags of the United State of American and the State of Israel are two symbols, which when used in their proper spirit and place, can be used as symbols of inclusivity and diversity. I sincerely believe that these symbols still speak of national hopes which are above race and ethnicity. If only people would aspire to fulfill those values embodied therein.

Discussion: When do you feel that use of national flags and symbolisms become excessive and unsavory? Have you ever felt “anti-flag?”

Pictures of art from the Breed Street Shul, with correspondence chart:

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The_Breed_Street_Shul_in_Boyle_Heights,_Los_Angeles

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breed-street-shul-in-boyle-heights

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The following chart is an original creation, for a study I made on Jewish mysticism relating to the tribes and months. This at displays the corresponding meditative thoughts and sequences, taught by Lurianic Kabbalah. It also lays out the exact order for the different signs displayed on the walls of the shul:

This chart is an original creation, designed for a study I once did many years ago on Jewish mysticism – relating to the traditional meditations (kavannot) upon the tribes and months. This displays the corresponding meditative thoughts and sequences, taught by Lurianic Kabbalah (mysticism as explained by the Ari z”l). It conveniently lays out the exact order for the different symbols displayed on the walls of the shul, and the meditative elements which relate to them.

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Is there a Hebrew Thanksgiving connection? Yes, it’s the Turkey!


Interesting Points About the Origins of the Name Turkey in English and Hebrew

This holiday drash is a bit special because it is the first time that American Thanksgiving coincides with the start of Chanukah. Thanksgiving running late and Chanukah seeming to fall early in the season, causes a unique coinciding of two holidays that are very special to me. Add to that my birthday also falling this week, it’s been a week of joy and things for me to be grateful for.

thanksgiving-dinner-holiday-feast-turkey-wallpaper

One of the things I’m most thankful for at this time of year is Turkey! It’s actually one of my favorite foods. It is a symbol of thanksgiving the world over, used as the center of festive meals for many holiday observances. But for us North Americans it holds a special place as being a native bird, it puts some of the best of out bounty on display.

So what’s with then name of the Turkey? How does it get this strange name? English speakers and Hebrew speakers both have legends about how they came up with the strange name for this bird.

The well-known Anglo myth regarding why we call the bird a Turkey is because the bird was mistaken for another type of bird when it was imported into central Europe. They were simply classified as a Turkey Fowl along with guinea-fowl, the name Turkey however stuck in the end. Being named after their assumed place of origin, pointing towards their import location in Constantinople.

Now one might ask themselves, what they call them in Turkish? They call them a “Hindi.” That is where they assumed the wild turkeys came from, from the Indus valley in India. They also did not realize that they Spanish and Portuguese traders who colonized India were importing them from the New World at first. They are not the only people to have made that mistake. This is also reflected in other languages such as Russian, Yiddish, Armenian, Catalan, French, Italian, Polish, etc. Each of these languages still retains a variance of the name India in their proper name for the Turkey.

It is also true in Hebrew, we call it by a full name “tarnegol hodu,” or the Rooster of India. Hodu is also the long-held classical Hebrew name for India. In the end we all drop the first part of the name that states the type of animal it is, and just simply call it a hodu.

Now Jews also hold two urban legends about how they names Turkey and Hodu came to be used. There are those who hold by a legend that Christopher Columbus was a converso-Jew who had some crew expelled by the Inquisition with him, they named the colorful bird after the Hebrew work for a parrot “tuki,” it mistakenly got passed along as Turkey. Yet others also credit him with the name Hodu, saying that he thought the Native Americans were Indians so he called their bird Hodu, after where he thought he had landed; the Indian subcontinent. I can’t vouch for either one of these claims, as they both rely on tall tales. But it’s an interesting connection

Now if that isn’t enough to keep the mind thinking wild connections, I couldn’t help but giggle when I came across the places in our morning Hebrew prayers where we say the commonly used phrase “hodu l’Hashem.”

This is more grandly repeated in rounds on Shabbat and Festival days with the recitation of Psalm 136, “Hodu l’Hashem ki tov, ki l’olma chasdo / thank the L-rd for He is good, His kindness endures forever!” We see and hear the word “hodu” used, here but in a totally different way. Here the word hodu is a call to give thanks. From the Hebrew root holdot, meaning thanksgiving.

Though the word form seems the same, the only distinction that is made between the classical Hebrew word “hodu” and the more modern use of “hodu” is a slight variance by the native speaker. One tends to raise their voice in the prayer; accenting the first syllable, HOdu. In everyday speech though we tend to accent our last syllable, like when speaking of India it’s “hoDU.”

So remember as you say your prayers on Thanksgiving, when we say our prayer. It goes like this:

“Thank the L-rd for He is good,

His kindness endures forever”

| Hodu l’Hashem ki-tov

| ki l’olam chasdo

Psalm 136:1

Not:

“The Turkey of the L-rd is good, His kindness never ends.”

We all know that your bird isn’t going to last that long, not with a full-house of hungry people. The good things is that the chesed of Hashem – the kindness and mercy of G-d is something that is never-ending. It never runs out, it lasts forever. Not just today, but every day of the year. So we can and should also be thankful each and every day as well!

This is Shmu, from Hardcore Mesorah. I want to wish you and your family a Happy Thanksgiving and also a Chag Chanukah Sameach.

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Neilah: Closing the Gates of Repentance


Reflections on Forgiveness from the Yom Kippur Amidah

Neilah

Like most people, I am also battling my body and my will during this fast day of Yom haKippurim. It is a long day, being one of the few full day-long fasts in our calendar. This is especially rare this year, as this very solemn day of rest is also paired with the weekly Sabbath day of rest. Normally we do not fasts on Shabbat. However as our tradition considers this day of atonement a thing of pure joy, the regular festive meals are suspended as we feast on some deep prayers and reflections.

And during this holiday we certainly have many helpings of prayers. This holiday of Yom haKippurim – the day of atonements – we recite our central prayer duty, the Amidah no less that five times (Ma’ariv, Shacharit, Mussaf, Minchah, and Neilah).

I am sitting here considering the words of the final prayer, the Neilah – the closing of the gates of teshuvah (repentance) and heaven. I would like us to explore the concept of atonement, through the aid of this prayer and the scriptural context from which it is drawn.

The liturgy reads as follows:

“Our G-d and the G-d of our forefathers, forgive us our wrongdoings, on this Shabbat day and on this Day of Atonements, on this day of pardoning of sin, on this day of assembly; wipe away and remove our transgressions and sins from before Your eyes, as it is stated: ‘I, just I, am He who wipes away your transgressions. For My own sake, I will not recall.’ (Isaiah 43:25)”

אלהינו ואלהי אבותינו מחול לעונותינו ביום השבת הזה וביום הכפרים הזה ביום סליחת העון הזה ביום מקרא קדש הזה מחה והעבר פשעינו וחטאתינו מנגד עיניך כאמור: אנכי אנכי הוא מחה פשעיך למעני וחטאתיך לא אזכר:

Fifth Amidah, Neilah for Yom Kippur

Here we are asking G-d, for the last time, to forgive our avonoteinu – our wrongdoings. To wipe away our p’shaeinu v’chatoteinu – our transgressions and our sins. This prayer is an important one to me, because neilah is always a tearjerker. It has full urgency, as it is our last chance to repent. We don’t want to get left outside of the gates of repentance. But at the same time it comes with all the exhilaration of accomplishment for those who engage it. All the senses are firing at once.

I would like us to look at the basics of why we go through this process at all. We will find the answer provided for us straightaway, here during the height of the High Holy Days, during the pinnacle of our celebration here in the Neilah prayer. There is one simple point that drives this holiday. We do all this simply because G-d wants to forgive us. We aren’t trying to necessarily convince G-d to forgive us, its has more to do with us getting in-line with the spirit of atonement and the theme of forgiveness for ourselves.

One of the reasons that this holiday is so hard to explain to outsiders is that the world often has a very different message about atonement, as does the common culture. In most religions its it is most often about who you go through to get redemption, or more precisely who does it for you. Who is this leader that either commands G-d’s recognition of his pardon, or who is the man who sacrifices himself to pay off your moral dept. How can we repent without such a person? When we say we are atoning the big question is, “Who is going to forgive you? Who atones for you?”

This kind of perplexes us Jews. Because as reasoning people, and knowing the Torah, we understand that the true way to atone is to ask forgiveness from the people that we have sinned against and to remedy the wrong. We have been doing this work of teshuvah (repentance), revisiting the situation and setting it right, for some weeks now. We aren’t atoning by asking G-d to forgive our interpersonal wrongs, nor our lapses in ethics. That we must do for ourselves, with the people affected.

Hopefully at this point most of our ethical and moral issues have been dealt with and considered. So why is it so heartfelt for us at this point in the service? Why does it shake us in such a way through to our very core? This is because what we are dealing with now is the issues that are between us and G-d, and between us and ourselves. Often times these prayers of Yom Kippur are heavy with prayers of forgiveness for the wrongs that we have done against ourselves and G-d alone. The things deep inside of us that need to be settled, the places that are tremendously hard to reach and painful to touch. Things that can only be settled on a heart-level.

As we approach this prayer I would hope that we can say it with all joy, because we have remedied our wrong deeds and are ready to stand atoned and forgiven. We should feel overcome by a sense of relief. Why should we stand upright now with a sense of celebration and awe? It is because we can stand forgiven if we chose to make it so today! Who is the guarantor of this pardon that we should acknowledge it?

Our prayer draws from the words of the prophet Isaiah:

“I,

I am the One who

blots our your transgressions

for My sake,

and your sins I will not remember.”

אָנֹכִי |

אָנֹכִי הוּא |

מֹחֶה פְשָׁעֶיךָ, |

לְמַעֲנִי: |

וְחַטֹּאתֶיךָ, לֹא אֶזְכֹּר: |

Isaiah 43:25

G-d declares to us that He is the one that forgives our sins, it is He alone. And He does this “l’maani / for My own sake.” Just because He wants to! What of the guilt of our sins? Of our sin’s, He says that He chooses to remember them no more.

The text of the prophet Isaiah from where this is drawn actually gives us a good look into not only why G-d wants to forgiveness us in this way, but also why it is important for us to set a day for atonement aside. This verse can be found in the paragraph of Isaiah 43:22-28.

For a moment G-d calls out to us, like a long-lost parents during the holidays. You can hear the almost distinctive tone of a Jewish mother in the voice of G-d here. You haven’t called on me or even bothered to remember me. You haven’t troubled yourself on account of Me, G-d says. Even more interestingly, He starts out by saying in verse 22 that “v’lo oti karata / you haven’t called out to me,” not even when you needed help. That is so like us, to call out only when we need something, so He mentions that form of outcry first. But here G-d is calling out to people who don’t even have the impulse in them for that. Rashi says instead they called out to idols to help them. That’s how distance the relationship has become for some.

G-d also calls out something remarkable to us. He calls out to the people who haven’t been bothered to offer sacrifice. People who haven’t bothered to offer any offerings up for G-d. What is so astounding about this verse is that even as it accuses the people of not sacrificing or giving offerings, G-d says, “I have not burdened you with grain offerings, nor wearied you with incense offerings.” (v.23) In this verse Rashi take the tone a little more directly for us at this point, saying that G-d indeed has not burdened us, in fact even the grain offerings of the Temple itself only required a mere handful. Of being wearied, Rashi chimes on how quickly we can grow tired of our service before Him. We are too tired to care, even when all He is asking is that we show a pinch of conviction and regard in our daily lives.

In the next verse we see the theme follow in the same tone. We have not bothered G-d with our offerings of money and sweet cane, nor have fat meats for offerings been brought; but the people have instead burdened Him with their sins, and wearied G-d with our many wrongdoing we commit. We just can’t be bothered sometimes, except when it comes to doing wrong.  (v.24)

And it is in this context that G-d takes the higher grounds and says to us, “I, even I erase your transgressions for My sake, and your sins I will not remember.” (v.25) G-d thus offers us His means for atonement and pardon. It is He that initiates and calls us to the table to discuss whom has been wronged in this game of life. He calls “hazikraini,” He is calling out, “Remember Me!” He challenges us, “nisaftah yachad / let us reason together.” G-d asks us to consider ourselves and our role in this universe, and the role G-d and our own will both play in our existence. He calls us to saper, to lay it all out and take a true accounting, so that in the end we can come to a just resolution. He calls to you and me. That you may be, “l’maan titz’dak / that you may be accounted just.” (v.26)

And this is really what the majority of the Yom haKippurim is spent doing. Not just feeling penitent for our wrongs, but also focusing on how to “titz’dak,” how to get right. Even if we are already right with other people, sometimes we aren’t exactly right with ourselves and G-d yet. We hold the weight of guilt and shame hanging our shoulders. The pressure of all kinds of wrongs and moral failures that we are grieved over, for which we still hold ourselves accountable for. But we are asked to give it up, because G-d wants to relieve us of that for His own sake.  Just because He wants to, because He thinks it’s best for you to live a life free and justified in your own being. G-d doesn’t want to remember anymore, and neither should you. These words in neilah are one last chance to deliver this message.

For me these are some of the reasons the prayers of neilah are so beautiful. It drives such a beautiful message home for us: Not only do we need to seek out atonement, but we also need to be willing to accept forgiveness for ourselves.

As we approach neilah I would ask us all to just hold on through one more prayer service. We are almost there, we can see the finish line. Put all your energy into the final stretch of this marathon of teshuvah (repentance). As we come together for this last tefillah and service before Hashem, let us fully embrace this prayer with equal joy and awe. And with confidence, knowing that our heartfelt prayers of repentance and atonement have been heard. We can now let these gates close, our work is done. So raise your voices high, this is just an encore!


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


Mishebeirach Prayers for Israel and the IDF


Misheberach Prayers for Israel and the IDF
What are the prayers of blessing for the Jewish State and Israel Defense Forces?

IDF SoldierWe are quickly coming upon Shabbat. This week we have seen a great escalation of the violence against Israel. In response the military is deploying for defensive and possibly policing actions. One of the best ways we can help our brothers and friends in Israel is to bombard heaven with prayers of mercy and deliverance from this crisis.

After the readings of the Torah on Shabbat we will include Mi Shebeirach prayers of blessing that the One Who blesses us remember those who are in need of healing or help. We petition G-d on behalf of those in the deepest need of help during the hight of the service, before the face of the most holy Sefer Torah itself.

Does you congregation include the prayers for the State of Israel or the Israel Defense Forces regularly? If not, this is surely a good time to remember them in this time of crisis. Here are the traditional prayers to be said by the Gabbai, the one who calls people up to Torah.

Prayer for the Members of the Israel Defense Forces

He Who blessed our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – may He bless the fighters of the Israel Defense Force, who stand guard over our land and the cities of our G-d from the border of the Lebanon to the desert of Egypt, and from the Great Sea unto the approach of the Aravah, on the land, in the air, and on the sea.

May Hashem cause the enemies who rise up against us to be struck down before them. May the Holy One, Blessed is He, preserve and rescue our fighting men from every trouble and distress and from every plague and illness, and may He send blessing and success in their every endeavour.

May He lead our enemies under their sway and may He grant them salvation and crown them with victory. And may there be fulfilled for them the verse: For it is Hashem, your G-d, Who goes with you to battle your enemies for you to save you.

Now let us respond: Amen.

מִי שֶׁבֵּרַךְ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ אַבְרָהָם יִצְחָק וְיַעֲקֹב הוּא יְבָרֵךְ אֶת חַיָּלֵי צְבָא הֲגַנָּה לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, הָעוֹמְדִים עַל מִשְׁמַר אַרְצֵנוּ וְעָרֵי אֱלהֵינוּ מִגְּבוּל הַלְּבָנוֹן וְעַד מִדְבַּר מִצְרַיִם וּמִן הַיָּם הַגָּדוֹל עַד לְבוֹא הָעֲרָבָה בַּיַּבָּשָׁה בָּאֲוִיר וּבַיָּם.

יִתֵּן יְיָ אֶת אוֹיְבֵינוּ הַקָּמִים עָלֵינוּ נִגָּפִים לִפְנֵיהֶם. הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא יִשְׁמֹר וְיַצִּיל אֶת חַיָלֵינוּ מִכָּל צָרָה וְצוּקָה וּמִכָּל נֶגַע וּמַחְלָה וְיִשְׁלַח בְּרָכָה וְהַצְלָחָה בְּכָל מַעֲשֵׂה יְדֵיהֶם.

יַדְבֵּר שׂוֹנְאֵינוּ תַּחְתֵּיהֶם וִיעַטְרֵם בְּכֶתֶר יְשׁוּעָה וּבְעֲטֶרֶת נִצָּחוֹן. וִיקֻיַּם בָּהֶם הַכָּתוּב: כִּי יְיָ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם הַהֹלֵךְ עִמָּכֶם לְהִלָּחֵם לָכֶם עִם איבֵיכֶם לְהוֹשִׁיעַ אֶתְכֶם:

וְנאמַר: אָמֵן:

Prayer for the Israel Defense Forces,

This version is according to the decision of the

Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel, 27th of Elul, 5764

Prayer for the State of Israel

Our Father who is in heaven, Protector and Redeemer of Israel, bless the State of Israel, the beginning of the flowering of our redemption. Shield it beneath the wings of Your love; spread over it Your canopy of peace; send Your light and Your truth to its leaders, officers, and counselors, and direct them with Your good counsel.

Strengthen the defenders of our Holy Land; grant them, our G-d, salvation and crown them with victory. Establish peace in the land, and everlasting joy for its inhabitants. Remember our brothers, the whole house of Israel, in all the lands of their dispersion. Speedily bring them to Zion, Your city, to Jerusalem Your dwelling-place, as it is written in the Torah of Your servant Moses:

“Even if you are dispersed in the uttermost parts of the world, from there Hashem your G-d will gather and fetch you. Hashem your G-d will bring you into the land which your ancestors possessed, and you shall possess it; and G-d will make you more prosperous and more numerous than your ancestors.”

Unite our hearts to love and revere Your name, and to observe all the precepts of Your Torah. Speedily send us Your righteous Messiah of the House of David, to redeem those waiting for Your salvation.

Shine forth in Your glorious majesty over all the inhabitants of Your world. Let everything that breathes proclaim: “Hashem G-d of Israel is King; His majesty rules over all.”

Amen. Selah.

אָבִינוּ שֶׁבַּשָּׁמַיִם, צוּר יִשְׂרָאֵל וְגוֹאֲלוֹ, בָּרֵךְ אֶת מְדִינַת יִשְׂרָאֵל, רֵאשִׁית צְמִיחַת גְּאֻלָּתֵנוּ. הָגֵן עָלֶיהָ בְּאֶבְרַת חַסְדֶּךָ וּפְרֹשׁ עָלֶיהָ סֻכַּת שְׁלוֹמֶךָ וּשְׁלַח אוֹרְךָ וַאֲמִתְּךָ לְרָאשֶׁיהָ, שָׂרֶיהָ וְיוֹעֲצֶיהָ, וְתַקְּנֵם בְּעֵצָה טוֹבָה מִלְּפָנֶיךָ.

חַזֵּק אֶת יְדֵי מְגִנֵּי אֶרֶץ קָדְשֵׁנוּ, וְהַנְחִילֵם אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְשׁוּעָה וַעֲטֶרֶת נִצָּחוֹן תְּעַטְּרֵם, וְנָתַתָּ שָׁלוֹם בָּאָרֶץ וְשִׂמְחַת עוֹלָם לְיוֹשְׁבֶיהָ. וְאֶת אַחֵינוּ כָּל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל, פְּקָדנָא בְּכָל אַרְצוֹת פְּזוּרֵיהֶם, וְתוֹלִיכֵם מְהֵרָה קוֹמְמִיּוּת לְצִיּוֹן עִירֶךָ וְלִירוּשָׁלַיִם מִשְׁכַּן שְׁמֶךָ, כַּכָּתוּב בְּתוֹרַת מֹשֶׁה עַבְדֶּךְ:

אִם יִהְיֶה נִדַּחֲךָ בִּקְצֵה הַשָּׁמַיִם, מִשָּׁם יְקַבֶּצְךָ יְיָ אֱלֹהֶיךָ וּמִשָּׁם יִקָּחֶךָ: וֶהֱבִיאֲךָ יְיָ אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יָרְשׁוּ אֲבֹתֶיךָ וִירִשְׁתָּהּ, וְהֵיטִבְךָ וְהִרְבְּךָ מֵאֲבֹתֶיךָ:

וְיַחֵד לְבָבֵנוּ לְאַהֲבָה וּלְיִרְאָה אֶת שְׁמֶךָ, וְלִשְׁמֹר אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי תּוֹרָתֶךָ, וּשְׁלַח לָנוּ מְהֵרָה בֶּן דָּוִד מְשִׁיחַ צִדְקֶךָ, לִפְדּוֹת מְחַכֵּי קֵץ יְשׁוּעָתֶךָ.

הוֹפַע בַּהֲדַר גְּאוֹן עֻזֶּךָ עַל כָּל יוֹשְׁבֵי תֵּבֵל אַרְצֶךָ, וְיאמַר כֹּל אֲשֶׁר נְשָׁמָה בְּאַפּוֹ: יְיָ אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֶלֶךְ וּמַלְכוּתוֹ בַּכֹּל מָשָׁלָה.

אָמֵן סֶלָה.

Chief Rabbis Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac Halevi Herzog and Rabbi Ben Zion Uziel

with the assistance of the celebrated author Shai Agnon; Elul 5708 – September 1948

Want to learn more about the history of saying prayers for the government and state? Want to understand the history of the prayer for the State of Israel? One of the finest articles on the subject is written by Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin, President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem simply titled, “Prayers For The Government And The State Of Israel.”

Related Links:


Parshat Nasso (2012)


Parshat Nasso
Numbers 4:21 – 7:89

The Priestly Blessing: What Does It Mean to Have Favor?

Last year we explored the ritual of the Sotah the ancient ceremonial practice for a suspected adulteress. This parsha also talks about the almost ascetic Nazarite vow. And among these seemingly otherworldly mitzvot is the command of the Birkat Kohanim – the Priestly Blessing.

In our tradition few things are considered more sacred than the Birkat Kohanim, and probably nothing is more loved. That is because this ritual is one of the deepest rooted traditions in all of Judaism. Those who are critical of biblical representation of history have had to concede to the ancientness of this traditional blessing after finding it partially preserved on a silver scroll dating from the 7th century BCE, which is the latter part of the Assyrian exile. This predates the previously presumed authorship in the post-exile period in the days of Ezra the prophet. The item was a personal amulet, showing that already in those days this blessing was a considered deeply endearing and culturally pervasive.

The ethereal nature of this benediction comes from the honored place that it has in our tradition as being the height of blessing during the Temple service in ancient times. This was pronounced during the hight of the day and immediately after the priests would emerge from sacrificing in the Holy of Holies.

In order to distinguish and honor the Birkat Kohanim it became common Ashkenezi tradition that it be recited by the Kohanim – the living descendants of the priesthood – on high holidays when one was in a mindset of joy and expectation. The priests are called up during the Musaf service, to remove their shoes, wash their hands, lift hands to the sky and recite the ancient blessings presented to us here in this parsha. Though Sephardim (Jews from Spain through the Middle-east) have maintained the older custom of it being recited on weekdays as well during the Mincha prayer service; thus Jews in Israel and Sephardim worldwide are accustomed to recitation of the Priestly Blessing daily.

Though today in modern Israel nothing is more spectacular than watching the recitation of the Birkat Kohanim said from the Kotel – the Western Wall in Jerusalem, outside of the site of the Holy Temple. The entire plaza filled with Kohanim lifting their hands, spread out under their tallitot, fingers spread uniquely and widely to represent the windows of heaven. It makes the scripture come alive for us, “Behold, He stands behind our walls, He looks in through the windows, peering through the lattices.” (Song of Songs 2:9) We reckon G-d peering down to us from the windows of heaven to send us blessing. We cover our eyes in reverence, and do not attempt to peer knowing that we cannot comprehend such greatness anyhow; but as we stand facing the priests we look inwards to G-d and accept blessing into our lives.

And that is precisely the point that needs to be stressed about this blessing. Even though we call it the Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing, it is actually not a blessing from the priests. Notice how our parsha begins:

“And Hashem spoke to Moses, saying:

Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying:

This is how you shall bless

the children of Israel,

saying to them…”

| Vayedaber Hashem el-Moshe lemor.

| Daber el-Aharon ve’el-banav lemor

| koh tevarachu

| et-benei Yisra’el

| amor lahem…

Numbers 6:22-23

Let us follow the Rashi, and some other pieces of commentary to help us interpret this text. Though this blessing is short and simple, the meaning of these few words runs very deep.

What we notice first-off is that G-d is speaking to Moses, to tell Aaron and his sons to bless the people in this manner; and with these words. It is not something they thought up themselves, nor was it merely the advice of Moses. This is a mandate from G-d. Not just in that generation, but for all generations; as Rashi points out that it commands the Kohanim to “amor / say” in the infinitive tense, just like when we are commanded to “zachor / remember” (Exodus 20:7) and “shamor / keep” the Sabbath (Deuteronomy 5:11); meaning it is a perpetual commandment to do so from that time on to the present. This blessing is to be pronounced loudly and clearly, so that all can hear. It is to be said patiently and with full intention and concentration; as Rashi says “u’b’lev shalem / with wholeheartedness.” Even though they are pronouncing the blessing, it is G-d who is providing the blessing. This is made obvious to us from the first words of the blessing:

“May Hashem bless you

and safeguard you:

| Yevarechecha Hashem

| veyishmerecha

יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהֹוָה וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ:

There are three lines of blessings that are pronounced by the priests. It is the tradition that after each verse is said the congregation responds “amen” and “kein, yehi ratzon” in agreement and acceptance. This is our first blessing, that G-d should protect us, and keep us. That he should watch and guard over us.

Now one of the first questions we should ask ourselves is, “why should these blessings start this way?” Why do we start with this concern first? Any of us who have taken basic psychology in college will quickly see why, once we consider Rashi’s commentary. Despite the clearly and simply meaning being that G-d should bless and guard us, it does not just apply in extreme cases of G-d saving our lives. He does not watch over us like a superhero. It means G-d watching over and protecting us and our needs on all levels.

Bless: that your assets be blessed

|

Safeguard you:

that robbers should not come

and take your money…”

יברכך: שיתברכו נכסיך |

|

וישמרך: |

שלא יבואו עליך שודדים |

ליטול ממונך… |

Rashi on Numbers 6:24

The first blessing that G-d wishes to bestow upon us is for our physical needs, and also to grant us security. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where our needs are laid out like a pyramid as it is theorized, we as human tend to rate our needs from most fundamental to the auxiliary. Our basic needs are our first needs and foundation of the others, with our more abstract feelings and self-actualizing at the top. But in this theory of human behavior we cannot move on to other luxuries of healthy, higher human behavior until we get our most essential needs met. The first of these is our physiological needs; shelter, food, water, and sleep, and the like. What we need to live. Then second, closely tied to the first comes the need for safety; only when our physical needs are met can we even begin to consider our personal safety. For example, one doesn’t even have the luxury of consider the quality and safety of your home or food until they have those type of provision met. G-d seems keenly aware that He needs to start with what we need the most first! The rest of the blessings nicely follow this same patters.

Rashi begins to further explain this verse to us through a parable of sort in the latter part of his commentary to verse 24. He says its like if a master was to was to give a servant a gift, sadly you are not able to watch the gift once it is handed over so anyone can steal it from him. Rashi comments that this would be terribly sad. Quiet frankly it would be better if he had never gotten the gift at, if he never got any enjoyment out of it himself. Rashi thus explains that for this reason G-d not only gives us blessings, but the Almighty also protects those things He blesses us with as well.

Our second blessing continues the pattern:

“May Hashem cause His face to shine on you

and be gracious to you.”

| Ya’er Hashem panav eleicha

| vichuneka

יָאֵר יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ:

In this we see the “face” of G-d, meaning the attention and consideration of the Divine, focused on us, radiating on us in pleasantness. G-d shinning His face upon us means to convey the mental picture of G-d turning to us with smile and laughter, aglow with happiness as He looks down upon us from heaven. But how Rashi literally describes it in his words is as smiling, breaking out into laughter, and “yellow-faced;” meaning radiating with pleasantness, instead of flushed with anger.

Now the second part of this blessing here is one of the parts of the Birkat Kohanim that I find the most interesting, as it’s probably one of the least understood parts. Actually its just a one-word phrase. “Vichuneka / and be gracious to you.” That is because most of us are more used to using this phrase poetically; “and deal kindly with you,” “have pity on you,” and more commonly “have mercy on you.” It is the last of these meanings that most properly conveys the literal and simple understanding of this word; as to chanan means to pardon someone, or grant them amnesty. It means to show merit-less mercy to a person. One does not presume to be worthy of G-d blessing them, but we do have full trust in the concept that G-d is gracious enough to want to bless us.

Rashi and our sages also break it down even more precisely for us to consider.

And be gracious to you:

Give you favor.”

ויחנך: |

יתן לך חן: |

Rashi on Numbers 6:25

Rashi’s interpretation gets to the heart of the word. Chen means grace; a noun. It is charm and etiquette, a beauty that comes with refinement and good form. When one shows another grace they mercifully look down upon someone with an attitude that is favorable.

This is not to say that we are expecting G-d to play favorites. Though it might appear so to outside people, this just isn’t the case. But what it does mean is that G-d, who is on a higher level of compassion and understanding, chooses to look down on us humble people in a kind way. It’s like the poise that one shows when they interact with a silly or confused child; you do not yell at them in their folly, but instead react with laughter and smiles. So should it be for us that Hashem should look upon us this way.

The Ohr haChaim explains it this way:

Be gracious to you, etc.:

Which should be interpreted by us to mean

grace and favor.

The reference of this interpretation

is from the verse:

‘And Hashem was with Yosef

and showed kindness unto him,

and gave him favor

[in the sight of the keeper of the prison].’

(Genesis 39:21)”

ויחנך וגו‘: |

פירוש יתן לך |

חן וחנינה, |

ועיין מה שפירשת |

י בפסוק: |

ויהי ה’ את יוסף |

ויט אליו חסד |

ויתן חנו |

וגו’: |

(בראשית לט, כא) |

Ohr haChaim on BaMidbar

The Kabbalist Rabbi Chaim ben Mosheh Ibn Attar z”l

of Morocco and master Kabbalist of Jerusalem

In this explanation we are shown the example of Yosef haTzadik – Joseph the righteous patriarch. He asks us to call to remembrance the situation in which Joseph was unjustly imprisoned in an Egyptian jail. He was in the most lowly situation possible, sold into slavery and then further humiliated by being wrongly incarcerated. But even in that situation G-d was with him, by providing a person that would do kindly for him. G-d gave him favor in the sight of the prison warden, who lightened his suffering as much as he could. May it be that G-d should do likewise for us, placing people above us who choose to look kindly upon us.

But G-d does not just wish to look down at us. He also wishes to look up at us! This is expressed in our final line of the Birkat Kohanim:

“May Hashem raise His face to you

and grant you peace.”

| Yisa Hashem panav eleicha

| veyasem lecha shalom.

יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם

Even during this most grandiose of religious rituals, when we are considering G-d and reverencing Him as the awesome and transcendent One in order to receive blessing from Him, G-d does not ask us to humiliatingly grovel before Him. Instead G-d takes a remarkably accessible and demure position when considering us for this final blessing.

“May Hashem raise His countenance toward you:

by suppressing His wrath.”

ישא הפניו אליך: |

יכבוש כעסו: |

Rashi on Numbers 6:26

G-d restrains any inclination to react towards us in a way that appears to bear anger or scorn. G-d says He wishes to restrain and hold back His wrath; and unlike us humans, not become overcome by rage. Instead His will is to level His anger, and look up towards us to grant us peace. Amein, so should it be for us and all Israel.

Again, this is not just our wish for ourselves, nor just an extension of the good wishes of the Kohanim. This is G-d’s wish for us. For this reason it calls back to remember who is really doing the blessing here, it is G-d through the benediction of the Kohanim:

“And so shall you bestow My Name

upon the Children of Israel

and I shall bless them.”

| Vesamu et-shemi

| al-benei Yisra’el

| va’ani avarachem.

Numbers 6:27

The blessing is a way for G-d to connect with the people, to attach His essence with them. The priests would bless them with His explicit Name, Havayah (יהוה). They stand as witnesses to this blessing and partners in the mitzvah of pronouncing it, but the blessing is G-d’s insomuch as He is the one to actually bring it to fruition in our lives. This blessing is the Birkat Kohanim because they stand as witnesses, but it is G-d’s Holy Name that endorses this blessing.



Starting off the Spiritual New Year Right


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tikkun Chatzot


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Likutei Etzot, Chatzot §6
Reb Natan of Breslov

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

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

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

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

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


Download:

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

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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 lights 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

a Shabbat light

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 that are going to champion the approach of the Shulchan Aruch 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 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 fulfilment. 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!


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