Category Archives: Talmud

Parshat Bereishit (2013)

Genesis 1 – 6:8

How We Kabbalistically Bring Thoughts Into Reality

sephirot4pngbbbOver the past few years this Torah portion has been a starting place for me to discuss aspects of Kabbalah, the basics of Jewish mysticism. It is nearly impossible for me to discuss the topic of creative process without doing so through the eyes of received wisdom. In Hebrew to mitkabel means to receive. Our received Jewish mystical tradition is thus called Kabbalah, it is the studying of received truth as documented in the Torah and it’s wealth of commentary.

One of the reasons that I feel I must take this approach is because the allegorical and spiritual essence of this story is intentional and central to the creation narrative. It’s not a cop-out that was invented by modern apologist. The Torah uses seemingly esoteric use of symbolism that richly color this narrative like none other in the scriptures.

Generally when we are looking for mystical truth from the Torah we turn to books like the Zohar, the book of enlightenment that is a commentary to the Torah. The Zohar is broken down in basic discussions and parashot (sections) that match up with cycle of parashiyot (our weekly Torah readings). It’s not the only text of kabbalah, but it is the most exhaustive and essential of the primary works of Torah commentary. Though most scholars can only date this text back as far as the middle ages, it is written in the language and tone as that of the Talmud. It features the same sages and presents the same form of discourses as Talmudic literature. Jews receive this text as being among the many mesoretic inheritances handed down to us, one that was once oral but has since been written down for posterity.

I present some commentary from the Zohar in order to offer us some guidance of how we should look at the Torah, for how we should be reading it as we go along. This is probably a good discussion to have now, as we are renewing our cycle of Torah reading for another year. Our text reads as follows:

“Says Rabbi Shimon: Woe to the man who says that the Torah came to merely relate stories and ordinary words. For if this was so, even in this present day we could make a Torah from ordinary tales; and ones probably nicer than those [in the scriptures]. If it came to present earthly matters, then even the [present] rulers of the world have among themselves works which are superior. If this is the case, let us follow their example and compose some sort of Torah of our own…

…Woe to the wicked that say that the Torah consists of stories and nothing more, for they look at the [outer] garment and no further. Praiseworthy are the righteous, who look at the Torah the proper way. Just as wine must be in a container to hold it, the Torah does not endure unless in its mantle. So therefore only look at what is under the garment. All those words and stories are garments.”

רש אמר ווי לההוא בנ דאמר דהא אורייתא אתא לאחזאה ספורין בעלמא ומלין דהדיוטי. דאי הכי אפילו בזמנא דא אנן יכלין למעבד אורייתא במלין דהדיוטי ובשבחא יתיר מכלהו אי לאחזאה מלה דעלמא אפילו אינון קפסירי דעלמא אית בינייהו מלין עלאין יתיר. אי הכי נזיל אבתרייהו ונעביד מנייהו אורייתא כהאי גוונא אלא כל מלין דאורייתא מלין עלאין אינון ורזין עלאין.

ווי לאינון חייביא דאמרי דאורייתא לאו איהי אלא ספורא בעלמא ואינון מסתכלי בלבושא דא לא יתיר זכאין אינון צדיקייא דמסתכלי באורייתא כדקא יאות. חמרא לא יתיב אלא בקנקן כך אורייתא לא יתיב אלא בלבושא דא. ועד לא בעי לאסתכלא אלא במה דאית תחות לבושא ועד כל אינון מלין וכל אינון ספורין לבושין אינון:

Zohar: Parshat Behaaolatecha 58; 64

One of the reasons that many traditional, orthodox Jews find it fairly easy to exist in a world of deep religious conviction while still excelling in science and reason is because the two are not mutually exclusive. Nor is one called to compromise one for the other. Our Torah presents our truths, our reason produces our facts.

Though we look to this Torah for truth, we don’t presume that all that is true about the world is written here in the Torah. It is the truth, but it does not demand that we see it as necessarily factually or chronologically true. The Torah is the essential truth that G-d has revealed into this world, but it cannot be used as a history book or as a primer in physical science.

Interestingly, this Zohar text is redacted in the middle-ages, when knowledge was lost and they looked back to a more glorious and well documented past. But in his tone the author suggests that even in their dark-ages a contemporary historian could have come up with something more profound if one tried. If this Torah is about fact, then wise and important men have libraries of books that do a better job at that than our Torah. The Torah cannot have been given to us for that purpose or else it is obsolete and antiquated. Surely today in an age of science and empirical evidence this is even more true. We need to read the text deeper, in fact according to the “right way,” which is through allegory and symbolism.

Most people who come from other religious experiences tend to find this position mighty progressive, and maybe even a bit irreverent. But for the person of reason, this tends to come across as refreshing. The only people who tend to get irritated by this approach are those who intend to mock Torah, who need biblical literalism to stand as their straw-man to kick over.

It’s not just atheists that tend dislike this approach, even co-religionists tend to get upset with me for stating this. For instance once I sat in a class and heard a very liberal rabbi poking fun at our ancestors for not understanding how the world worked. His reason was to in like fashion characterize present orthodox Jews as handicapped by an almost magical view of creation and history.

When I later pulled him aside and asked how he felt his reduction to absurdity was intellectually honest he got upset. I posed that if you considering it, the more orthodox the person the more they tend to revere this mystical and allegorical mentality as found in the Zohar, it’s not theory for light-weights. In response he made issue with the authority of the Zohar and challenged that kabbalah is not universally appreciated. However I contended that this approach was a well documented and accepted concept in Judaism much prior to the Renaissance and Enlightenment, it is not a product of modern religious movements. Elements of kabbalah permeate much of our established Jewish customs and liturgy, it is a shared heritage. It is not a marginal philosophy, therefore it is dishonest to mis-characterize what it means to be a Torah believing person by slighting this approach.

One of the points I have to make to people like this when discussing the creation story of Genesis, is that we need to not just recognize the similarities that exist among the various myths and legends (example: the great flood). We also need to look at stories more multi-layered, the way we clearly know to do for the texts of other well documented societies; the Egyptians, Hindus, Greeks, Persians, Romans, etc. We know that their equivalent of the genesis narratives are made not as much to describe the literal composition of the world, but to present their perceived architecture of existence. Their philosophy surrounding the formation of the world and living souls presented in their stories was for the purpose of displaying the structure of the soul and the creative process. For these societies their sacred texts were discussion points that encouraged an almost early attempt at the philosophy of psychology. It not just said how the souls were formed, but also to exhibited what motivates them.

Now it’s not just defense of traditional Judaism that motivates me to engage people, like the previously mentioned rabbi, to dig further into our tradition to reveal a deeper kernel of truth in these stories. It’s because as people who represent Judaism to others we need to get beyond the claim that Torah is primarily concerned with mere history, because that approach does not offer us any reason for why one should personally seek out G-d or spirituality.

The Zohar, in the name of Rabbi Shimon, instead says it’s not just beneficial for us to look beyond the surface level meaning of the Torah, but it calls anyone that does not do so a sinner. The Zohar insists that we consider another way, it demands that we look for the soul of the Torah.

And this is that path that we will take as we begin to explore the Torah this year. Not that allegory is only present in the Zohar, it is present in all forms of rabbinic literature, however it is a central focus of the Zohar. Our starting off place this year is with the Zohar, as it offers us one of the best descriptions of how allegory and mystical interpretation of the scriptures works.

The Zohar contends that the Torah is wrapped in a mantle, but underneath there is a living soul to it. It’s like a person, when we look at someone generally the first thing that we see is their appearance. We judge their demeanor, how well they are dressed-up and how they present themselves. But the Zohar contends that just as foolish as it would be for us to judge a person based on their outer appearance, it is so when consider only the surface level of the Torah. (Zohar, ff. 61)

The Zohar tell us that the Torah is not just an abstract thing, there is a real substance to it. There is a solid body of truth to it. The Zohar calls the Torah mitzvot (the laws and commandments, good and holy deeds) “gufei Torah / the Body of the Torah” in Aramaic (the Talmudic language of rabbinic Judaism). It is the frame that holds us up. And on this frame hang our “levushin / garments,” the stories of the Torah are thus like the clothing one wears, that dress one up but at the same time conceal hidden person underneath.

The rabbis here challenges us to be wise, to not just look at the surface oblivious that of the anything else might existing beneath it all. If it was a person we would want to see the body underneath. Even more so we should want to get to know the person that is even deeper than that, so intimately so that we can almost touch their soul. The Zohar states that we are to look as deep as we can. Stating that the sages and our ancestors who stood at Sinai were so wise that, “la mis’taklei ela b’nishmata, d’i’hi ikara dchola oraita mamash / they only looked at the soul of the Torah, which is the essential root of everything, the real Torah.” We are told that in the future, in the world to come, all will see the soul of the Torah. (Zohar. ff. 62)

So why do we consider the Torah and its commands (mitzvot) at all? What do we have to learn from them? What importance does this Torah have to us? And why should we practice Torah mitzvot?

The Torah is the physical body that houses the soul of Essential Truth, clothed in the beauty of a story. It tells us how to bring the Divine Will into physicality, we do this by causing our soul to meet up with a physical action as mitzvot – doing the will of G-d in performing good deeds and spiritual acts.

But why does this kabbalah, the essence of all that is, have to be revealed through the Torah? The Zohar explains because it needs to be revealed in a form that we can understand. The Zohar brings forward an idea of the spiritual realm that we already understand to show as an example, it uses angels and their taking on a physical form. In order for us to perceive of them they take on a physical appearance. It is not just to see them, but also because their raw energy would be overwhelming if we came in direct contact with it. So too, this essential truth needs to be presented in a form we can understand, and in a fashion in which we can approach. (Zohar ff. 59)

The Zohar further contends that the “true Torah” (which we can call kabbalah) cannot be separated from its mantle, from the stories and it’s discussions in the scriptures. If we tried to separate them it could not last, anymore than wine could if you removed it from its flask. It needs to be held and preserved in this fashion.

However, just like with wine, we are really interested in what is on the inside. We should continue to seek to reach the sweet and sometimes intoxicating center of Divine reality hidden in these scriptures.

As we move forward in our Torah learning over this next year, I would hope that we begin to look at the scriptures as a guide to bringing our abstract feelings of faith and potential that is in our souls into reality. To utilize the Torah as our muscle to move us forward, so that we can labor in producing mitzvot that correct ourselves (tikkun atzmi) and repair our world (tikkun olam).

Continuing Discussion Regarding Applied Kabbalah

Last time we discussed this parsha we began to talk about basics of kabbalah. We started off with the primary concepts of the Three Pillars, the three modalities. They are symbolized by the variables ש for Fire, מ for Water, and א for Air. (see Parshat Bereishit 2012) When we discuss these aspects we must understand we are not talking about true elements. We are merely using these descriptions in order to best display the nature of the modalities. We are using these things to express how they react towards each other. It’s like talking about electromagnetic states; positive, negative and neutral. We began to discuss how we need to bring balance to our nature; to not be too much of a hot wire, nor should we bone cold, but we should find a golden middle path. We should bring balance to our thoughts and actions.

Now the reason we started out with the sefirah of Chesed – the Divine aspect of Kindness (also called Gedulah, or “greatness”) – is because that is the first real manifestation of G-d in the world that we can experience, according to kabbalah. It is a great and expansive form of kindness which is displayed in the scriptures as the first of the Seven Lower Sefirot – the seven Divine aspects that we display in this physical world (they are drawn from 1 Chronicles 29:11).

upperthreesefirotbThey are not the only aspects of G-d that exist. Indeed there are higher aspects of the Divine that transcend physical form, so they take the form of consciousness. They are understood as Chochmah (wisdom), Binah (discernment) and Daat (understanding, also displayed as Keter, the Crown). These are the Three Upper Sefirot. Though we understand that physical forms begin to take shape with Chesed, the scriptures tell us that very foundations of the physical world are first laid in Chochmah, in wisdom. (“Hashem b’chochma yasad-aretz,” see Proverbs 3:20) And that is what we are learning about today, creation and the creative process. How it goes from thought to physicality. We do so through the story of how a purposeful thought became ha-aretz, the Earth.

Our Torah text reads as follows:

“At the beginning

G-d created the heavens

and the earth.

Now the earth was desolate and


and darkness covered the face the deep.

And the wind of G-d hovered

upon the face of the waters.

And G-d said:

Let there be light!

And then there was light.”

| Bereshit

| bara Elohim et hashamayim

| ve’et ha’aretz

| Veha’aretz hayetah tohu

| vavohu

| vechoshech al-penei tehom

| veruach Elohim merachefet

| al-penei hamayim.

| Vayomer Elohim

| yehi-or v

| ayehi-or.

Genesis 1:1

In our kabbalistic understanding there are Ten Sefirot – ten aspects that manifest the Divine. Our sages first tell us in the Talmud that there are ten creative acts, that we call the Ten Utterances. (see Talmud, Rosh haShanah 32a) They point to here in the scriptures, where G-d says “Let there be…” Now the Talmud notes the fact that we only see nine actual spoken commands to accounts for. There is at least one unspoken act, and that is the actual creation of the world itself. If we look at our text we see a primordial world spring into existence at the beginning (bereshit). One that is formless and in chaos, with bodies of water and winds blowing over the surface of them. From this perspective the whole first sentence of Torah becomes one creative act.

From the Talmudic perspective we see how will and intention – pure thought (as expressed through the Upper Three Sefirot) – must precede action (as expressed by the Lower Seven Sefirot). Creation comes down from a higher consciousness, in the same manner that impulses from our brains manifest in the actions of our body.

The Zohar however has a slightly different take on things. It shifts the focus even more metaphysically. It agrees that there was something before this start, that is yet undescribed in the scriptures. Though it begins to count the Ten Utterances from the words, “Let there be light.” This is the first true act of creation, the Zohar contends. It starts with light, understanding that G-d needed to create a way in which to relate to us. A divine manifestation to permeate the universe that we can understand, which we perceive that as Light. The Zohar takes us to the very moments near the big bang, when the universe seems to inflate from an infinitesimally minuscule point and it is yet flooded with light.

The Zohar teaches that this overwhelming light which is displayed at the top of our kabbalistic tree, in Keter (the Crown, the highest level of consciousness), is what we can perceive of as G-d, the creator. He is manifested as a stream of pure and all-encompassing light that is without form, Ohr (אור). It is the highest aspect of the modality of synthesis, the type of state we spoke of in Tiferet (harmony); everything is in balance. There is no lack of anything, there is nothing but an endless amount of potential energy in this universe for us to draw from there. G-d is one, and nothing else exists aside from His being. In His highest form we understand G-d as being Ohr Ein Sof – the Light (ohr) that is without (ain) end (sof). G-d is everything, and yet not one thing at all.

G-d needed a place to display this power so He created a void space, The universe was thus created as an empty canvas for G-d to work with. A blank screen on which he could project His light. Into this space the Divine takes all this energy and projects it out of pure will. This is a positive force, akin to a masculine drive; this is displayed as Chochmah, which is the higher manifestation of Chesed.

tree-emptyIt takes root in Binah, in a constrictive and yet receptive form of consciousness; we understand it as being akin to a feminine aspect. Binah we understand to mean “understanding,” but it is more like receiving a spark of intuition. It is a consciousness achieved through receptivity. From here all creative things are birth. This is the upper aspect akin to Gevurah.

Thus in this structure, the crowing truth is that G-d Consciousness is pure thought, intellect and understanding (The Upper Three). When it is synthesized to be translatable into the mortal world it take the form of Daat, which is Knowledge. The world cannot contain all of the “ultimate truth,” but it is discernible through knowledge.

And at the heart of us people are our emotional drives, the first three of the Lower Seven, which is the second level of this cosmic modality (Chesed, Gevurah and Tiferet). But what we need to understand and be knowledgeable regarding is the reality that we are more than just the sum of our emotions and drives. These drives are reflections of a higher consciousness and state of mindfulness that we drawing down from a higher spiritual place.

The reason why we need to get into control of our thoughts and emotions, is because eventually they transform into actions. Our emotions replicate themselves as Netzach (Endurance), Hod (Glory), and Yesod (Foundation). This is the realm of action, where our thoughts result in work to produce what we only vision in an abstract way; in our thoughts and emotions.

These levels of the grouped sefirot are called partzufim (configurations); they are gradations of truth and existence. So far we have seen three levels of this emanation. Partzufim are described as almost separate realms, understood as distinct “worlds.” In this form of mystical teaching we state that the creative power of the Divine trickled down through levels of formation and actualization until it results in producing this world, the earth. We are told earth is created in Malchut, the lowest of the ten sefirot. It is displayed in the fourth and lowest level of the partzufim. This is the realm of the physical world, were intent, drive and actions come into true form. It is not just potential and intent anymore. Malchut in the fourth patzuf is the realm where one’s will become a true products – a solid form through action. (assiyah)

During creation in this realm we see the primordial states ש (Fire), מ (Water) and א (Air) take form to become a new elemental state never existed before – haAretz, the Earth. Unlike the mysticism of the occult schools, we understand the earth is not eternal, earth is not a natural state on its own. It is formed out of the combination of three primordial states.

The Three Mother letters thus take their place standing over the Three Pillars, they best exemplify the first three sefirot (Keter, Chochman and Binah; and alternatively in different instances Chochmah, Binah, and Daat). These three do not directly touch this world, as it cannot contain them; they are transcendent.

worldscharts2Now to I must quickly bring us up to speed how this affects our understanding of the Etz Chaim – the Tree of Life – the form that sefirot take as they descend into our reality. The Three Mother elements spawn the creation of the physical world. The Lower Seven Lower sefirot thus become expressed by Seven Letters (ב, ג, ד, כ, פ, ר, ת) that correspond to the physical world. They are clearly representative of a shift in reality to a consciousness of space and time. These Seven Letters also correspond to the seven days of the week, and the seven planets of the classical world (Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn).

Thus the Three Mothers are the mochin (the brains), and the Seven Lower are the middot (characteristics) in which we manifest these thoughts and impulses through (such as emotions).

So what does this have to do with you and I? Why should this matter at all to any of us? This is all very psychedelic, but what is the usefulness of considering this?

One of the things that we learn here in Parshat Bereishit is that man (adam) was created b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of G-d. That does not mean that we were made to look physiologically like G-d Almighty. We are made in His image, but not as a duplicate of Him. We are not photocopies of G-d, however we do exhibit more like a traced shadow copy of G-d’s nature as though made in a camera obscura. Still the blueprint form we see in the spiritual realms for His general workings are also displayed in us. The order we see spiritually displayed in G-d’s emanations are nearly the same in principle as that of the working of our souls.

Many kabbalists understand man to be almost a microcosm of G-d, and even of the Universe itself. We have G-d given creativity and ability to shape a destiny for this universe. We do this by actualizing things we perceive in our higher intellect and imagination, and continue to work with something until all our effort begins to take a true and functioning form. And above our own intellect is an inspiration that we can also learn to draw down from a higher realms of spiritual consciousness.

In conclusion I want to remind us that we are talking about creation and the creative process. We naturally have in us the ability to create what we conceive of in our minds and dream of in our hearts. But a lot of the struggle in making that possible is learning to first let our heads rule our hearts. To be mindful and follow the cues of the wise inspiration that G-d has placed in our hearts. If so then we can be people who are not just creative, but also profoundly artistic and productive. Like the craftsman Bezalel who build the Mishkan (tabernacle) and temple instruments, for whom it is said:

And I have filled him with the Spirit of G-d, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship…

וָאֲמַלֵּא אֹתוֹ, רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, בְּחָכְמָה וּבִתְבוּנָה וּבְדַעַת, וּבְכָלמְלָאכָה

Exodus 31:3

Tips: We learned today that the commandments and the spiritual acts that we do are the gufei Torah – the Body of the Torah, because this is how we embody the Light and the true fullness of the Torah consciousness. But just like any body, if we exercise our various parts we strengthen our greater body. We become stronger and more nimble at doing the things we challenge ourselves with. Likewise in order for us to build up our creative skills and ability we need to work-out spiritually. We engage all the various parts of our intellect and desires in doing mitzvot – good deeds, spiritual acts.

The Torah mitzvot are tried and true ways to help us develop our skills and strengths. For every little good deed we do we also grown in a sense of accomplishment and pride.

It doesn’t take much to spark mindfulness and the creative process. Chant a beautiful prayer, learning a little Torah, give a tad of charity, or volunteer in the community.

Sukkot: The Jewish Holiday that Makes Us Reflect on the Nations

Would it be different if Non-Jews adopted the mitzvot too?

As we continue to progress through this sweet holiday season we find ourselves in the midst of the bounty of the fall harvest season of Sukkot (Booths), just directly opposite in the yearly cycle from the spring harvest festival of Pesach (Passover). These two holidays are very alike, they are both Shelosh Regalim – one the Three Pilgrimage Festivals that people were required to make the journey to Jerusalem for. (see Exodus 34:18-23; and Deut. 16:1-17) They are both week encompassing, and both prescribe special sacrificial worship. So when you look up to that big harvest moon, just think we are only six months away from having a Passover Seder!

The holy days and the sacredness of the New Moon was always normally accompanied by special sacrifices that elevated the sanctity of the day; sacrifices of bulls, rams and lambs. Though Sukkot and Pesach are considered one wide holiday from beginning to end, and there is a commemoration that is related to moon-sign, they are not at all the same. First for Pesach and Sukkot these lunar occurrence coincides with a full-moon, not the waxing new moon, making them similar but not the same to ordinary moon related festivities. Also they both prescribe a very different approach to sacrifice.  If we were to account for all the holiday and special seasonal occurrences of sacrifice, Sukkot prescribes an almost overwhelming amount of sacrifice in comparison.

The seeming excessiveness of it becomes evident in the reading of these commands in the holiday Maftir readings (the final reading from the Torah Scrolls).

Pesach tells us how many animals to offer everyday, “After this manner you shall offer daily, for seven days;” (Numbers 28:24) it tells us how many animals, and that number is the same each day, thus the reading is relatively short.

In contrast the sacrifices of Sukkot are heavy, and their reading is correspondingly long. It gives us a huge number of animals, and a different amount each and every day. We are not talking about just a few small animals. When we read the text found in Parshat Pinchas we see it demand a staggering amount of 13 bulls being required on the first day alone (see Numbers 29:12-14). No other holy day requires more than two bulls, ever; even then a bull offering is rare, most sacrifices are goats, lambs and rams. This seeming excessiveness is tempered over time, but even this is a mystery to us; why does it decrease in the number of bulls offered everyday, until the final and 7th day there are only 7 bulls being offered? The Talmud, our Oral Torah, suggests to us why this is:

“Rabbi [Eliazar] stated:

‘To what do those seventy bulls


To the seventy nations.’”

אר [אלעזר] |

הני שבעים פרים |

כנגד מי? |

כנגד שבעים אומות. |

Talmud Bavli Sukkah 55b

If we add up the total number of bulls being offered up each day; 13 the first day of Sukkot, 12 the second day, 11 the third, etc. we come to the total of 70 bulls being offered. Our Jewish tradition regards that entire classical world being comprised of seventy nations; derived from the genealogies of Genesis chapters 10-11 we count seventy descendants of Noah, from whom came the foundations of seventy peoples and nation-states. The rabbis suggest to us the bulls are offered to draw close the nations to Hashem, to atone for them as well in a grand way. It’s not enough that we be concerned with Hashem drawing close to us, atones for us and provide for us through this fall bounty that will sustain us through the harsh winter to come; we also need to have a heavy level of concern for the nations as well.

For us Jews, it’s not enough that we be happy in this time of celebration, but we also need to be concerned with the welfare of the nations. And most certainly this is a time of celebration for us. In fact it tells us twice, not just in our current holiday reading, but also separately when discussing these holidays, “v’hayita af sameach / and you shall only be happy!” (Deut. 16:15; and also see Lev. 23:40) We are happy because G-d has provided us with all this abundance, this is our time of thanksgiving. We also begin to become thankful for the start of the raining season, that will essentially be the lifeblood of our spring harvest so many months away.

When our tradition looks to a better world, even in the face of post-apocalyptic challenges, we see a place where this spirit of joy will be enjoyed by all the peoples of the world:

“And it shall come to pass,

that every one that is left of all the nations

that came against Jerusalem

shall go up from year to year

to worship the King, the L-RD of Hosts,

and to keep the Festival of Sukkot.”

וְהָיָה, |

כָּלהַנּוֹתָר מִכָּלהַגּוֹיִם, |

הַבָּאִים, עַליְרוּשָׁלִָם; |

וְעָלוּ מִדֵּי שָׁנָה בְשָׁנָה, |

לְהִשְׁתַּחֲו‍ֹת לְמֶלֶךְ יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת, |

וְלָחֹג, אֶתחַג הַסֻּכּוֹת. |

Zachariah 14:16

In the age to come it does not just extend this celebration to the nations of the world, in fact its becomes a mandate for them. In face of the age of world peace and universal knowledge of G-d the prophet ends his book with the reality that the nations will have to come to acknowledge G-d on their own if they expect blessings of rain and physical security. All of humanity will all celebrate together, and receive blessings for our needs equally.

Looking forward towards this Messianic age in recent years many people of various backgrounds have begun to enthusiastically embrace the celebration of Sukkot – the Feast of the Tabernacles, or simply Booths; named after the huts in which we dwell for seven days. This year we are actually seeing thousands of Noachides, Christians and people of all religious backgrounds coming to Israel to join in the celebration; Christian-Zionists alone account for over 6,000 attendees by their counts. Aside from the overt “Messianic” Hebrew-Christian missionaries, whose goal is obvious, if you were to ask these people why they are doing this almost without exception they will frankly tell you that they are getting in touch with the Hebrew roots of their faith in order to embrace the whole Torah like Jews do.

For many years I have worked very hard to open the Torah and make it accessible to Jews, and our many non-Jewish friends that cherish Torah. Though I must admit, by and large the people who benefit from my work are Jews or people who are embracing the Jewish faith. Almost everyday I get an excited email from someone who is overjoyed with the richness of Torah-true wisdom and experiences. With all this excitement and hunger for deeper truth out there, some have pointedly asked why us Jews do not just throw the doors wide open to our faith, in fact many cannot understand why we do not just go the next step and proselytize. The reason is because seeking out something out of mere enthusiasm does not always lead to the most glowing end results.

In our tradition there are two examples I would like us to explore today, one well know and the other not so widely discussed. These facing Talmudic examples give us some very good reasons for curbing our enthusiasm when it comes to any type of notions of Judiazing or zealously imposing our way of life on others. But before I get started I must point out that these two examples are not initiated by Jews at all, these are examples of non-Jews embracing Jewish tradition on ones own out of their own impulse and desire.

Prophetically the Rabbis present us with two scenarios related to the nations embracing Judaism before the future Messianic age; neither of them end so nicely. One of these curious examples directly concerns Sukkot. For this story I would like us to look at the text of Talmud Avodah Zara, we will start with page 3a:

“The nations will then plead.

‘Offer us the Torah anew

and we shall obey it.’

But the Holy One, blessed be He,

will say to them,

‘You foolish of the world,

he who took trouble [to prepare]

on the eve of Shabbat

can eat on Shabbat,

but he who has not troubled

on the eve of Shabbat,

what shall he eat on Shabbat?

Nevertheless, I do have an easy command

which is called Sukkah;

go and carry it out….’


“And why does He term it

an easy command?

Because it does not affect one’s purse.

Straightaway will every one of them

betake himself and go

and make a booth on the top of his roof;

but the Holy One, blessed be He,

will cause the sun to blaze forth over them

as at the Summer Solstice.

And every one of them

will kick down his booth

and go away,

as it is said:

‘Let us break their bands asunder,

and cast away their cords from us.’

(Psalms 2:3).”

אמרו לפניו רבשע |

תנה לנו מראש |

ונעשנה |

אמר להן |

הקבה |

שוטים שבעולם |

מי שטרח |

בערב שבת |

יאכל בשבת |

מי שלא טרח |

בערב שבת |

מהיכן יאכל בשבת |

אלא אף על פי כן מצוה קלה יש לי |

וסוכה שמה |

לכו ועשו אותה… |


קרי ליה |

מצוה קלה |

משום דלית ביה חסרון כיס |

מיד כל אחד [ואחד] |

נוטל והולך ועושה סוכה |

בראש גגו |

והקדוש ברוך הוא |

מקדיר עליהם חמה בתקופת |

תמוז |

וכל אחד ואחד |

מבעט בסוכתו |

ויוצא |

שנאמר: |

ננתקה את מוסרותימו |

ונשליכה ממנו עבותימו. |

(תהילים ב:ג) |

Talmud Bavli, Avodah Zara 3a

As we will learn in the current reading of Parshat Vzot haBracha, before G-d offered the Torah to the small nation of Israel He also offered it to the other nations as well; but they rejected it; including the Edomites and Ishmaelites that the Israelites had long contended with as usurpers (see Rashi for Deut. 33:2). But here we see that gentile people in eagerness turn to Hashem and ask him to once again offer the Torah to them, and they will obey it.

Using the example par excellence of Jewish acceptance of the yoke of Torah, which is sabbath (see Exodus 32:16-17), G-d turns to them and in a chiding tone and warns them that they have not thought out what this means. The sabbaths rest is only possible if one put forth the effort ahead of time to make that island of time and space possible. It is something that is intentional, not just incidental. Shabbat is the reward of those who labor in Torah to observe and safeguard that sabbath. They are given a perfect example, if they don’t make the effort to prepare meals for the sabbath then how are they going to eat? How can they manage to keep the sabbath, let alone celebrate it with the joy that is required of that day without planning and forethought?

Instead G-d does not make them jump to the highest level of observance, He instead gives them a simple command; the mitzvah of Sukkah, clearly meaning to celebrate Sukkot.

It may seem strange to some that G-d would start with this command. And it seems even stranger to others that He would call it a simple command. The first reason we are mystified is this really is an obscure holiday to most of the non-Jewish peoples. When people think of religious festivals they tend to automatically think of Pesach. This is for several reasons; aside from the misconception that Pesach is the day of atonement (which is obviously present in Christian mentality, for example), this holiday is mentioned with great passion and detail in the Torah. It is the first of our major holidays in the religious calendar, and infamous festival associated with the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt to make us a nation. Pesach is the first festival ever for the nation of Israel. Most of us think it would make sense to start there, but instead G-d starts here with the simpler command.

The reason given to us, by the rabbis, is that it does not heavily impact the wallet; Sukkot is not an expensive holiday. All one needs to do is make a hut out of natural materials easily found, set up a booth and dwell in it temporarily. If your going to eat a meal, eat it joyfully in it. If its possible to sleep in it, then one can celebrate by doing so. Unlike Pesach, special foods are not required and their aren’t the overwhelming requirements of cleaning necessary. For us Jews who celebrate Pesach we can clearly see the truth of this, as almost all of our belongings need to be examined and cleaned. Nearly all of ones food possessions and manufactured products need to be considered and the inappropriate done away with for Pesach. Doing this and replacing chametz with appropriate items is not only labor intensive but also very expensive. Passover heavily impacts both home and business for the Jew in a costly and demanding way. Instead G-d gives them a simple command to people who live off the land and are already out harvesting for fall in the open fields, observe the mitzvah of Sukkah.

As the Talmud continues on we see that the people do enthusiastically run out to make their sukkah huts and dwell in them. They are so excited that they not only make huts, but they run back and make the huts on the roofs of their own houses.

Now one must ask themselves, why would people want to make a sukkah on the roof of their house? It seems odd. To be misakech means to be shaded. Look at Psalm 18:12, “Yashet chosech sitro, s’vivotayv sukato / He makes darkness His hiding place, His canopy around Him”. The sukkah is supposed to provide shade for the people, once shaded they can celebrate and rest. It is completely counterintuitive for people to make a sukkah on their hot roof. Why would they do so then? The only reason there could be is obvious if we consider it. Why else does someone do something wild on their roof; to be seen! They go back to their homes and do this in obvious sight so that their act can be witnessed. They want to be seen as being faithful by all. This is so obvious that even non-Jewish commentators agree in their scathing rants against rabbinics that this is the reason and meaning.

Sadly enthusiasm is not enough to get one through the pains of reality. Not giving proper consideration they didn’t plan for the possibility that this act might come with some level of difficulty and discomfort. Not that they are required to inflict their souls with this mitzvah, quite to the contrary; we are only to observe the holiday to the point that we enjoy it, never in harshness or discomfort. That would take away from the sacredness of the day. Especially during this holiday we are not allowed to be discomforted, for this reason this holiday is specifically called “z’man simchateinu / the season of your joy.”

The problem of their discomfort arises when something very typical happens for this time of the year, in a hemispheric zone that only has three real seasons (Spring, Summer and Winter; see Sefer Yitzerah) the time of Sukkot usually has transient heat and rain spells. For those who live in Los Angeles, which is almost the same in weather as Israel, we know this very well. It’s still hotter than blazes, like the height of summer; then it decides to rain on us. Fall doesn’t really exist necessarily.

I often had problems with this section of the Talmud because it can seem to the simple that G-d was giving these people a bad wrap. But this is not the case at all, this is a reality of the season. The issue of the gentiles discomfort is not that G-d was not fair with them, but that they put themselves in that situation needlessly. Had they performed the mitzvah properly then they would have carried it out correctly and for the right reason; to dwell in the happiness of G-d’s shade. Furthermore G-d did not require them to fulfill this mitzvah in pain, if they felt uncomfortable they were to leave it at any time like Jews do. But instead they were more interested in looking faithful and dedicated to other men, so they stayed in a shadeless sukkah during the heat until they couldn’t take it anymore.

Eventually in this example we see that when they had enough they did leave their sukkot behind. But they also do the most tragic thing, as they leave them they kick (מבעט) them over. Why do we suppose that these people would show such animosity towards the mitzvah to abandon and even desecrate it so? Because they could not follow through, and especially not for the reasons they had in mind of gaining glory; instead they now find themselves publicly shamed by their inconsideration and over-zealousness. They therefore decry mitzvot as a form of bondage and even oppression. They leave not just discouraged, but bitter over it. In the end they abandon this path of Torah living right away not with love for mitzvot, instead they learn to despise the commands of G-d.

As much as I would like to discount this Talmudic example as an outrageous story, that no one could be this shallow or thoughtless, my life experience tells me different. When I was a teenager I had several friends in the shelter I was staying at, a program for homeless youth. Most of us came from extreme backgrounds. But the most mind-boggling situation I heard of while I was growing in my understanding of Torah-true living was that of these three friends of mine that had escaped from a fundamentalist, holiness, sabbath keeping Christian upbringing. They hated religion because in their home the parents wanted to keep all the commands that they could, especially the sabbath. So their mother would not allow them to do any activity, nor would she even feed them at all because she wouldn’t cook for the sabbath; even digestion was considered work to her. They saw the commandments as oppression and restriction instead of as a symbol of joy. They were shocked to see me celebrate each week so much joy. Their parent’s attitude is very typical of people who aren’t used to the commandments, they do them with extremity and without mindfulness; only wanting to act super-religious so they appear to be “chosen” too. The result is warped and discouraging.

One of the reasons us Jews do not try to impose our way of life on other people is that not everyone has the wear-with-all to be able to take on our way of life. Furthermore, the less familiar one is in doing mitzvot the more they tend to jump to the wrong conclusions and get messed up, it’s just a matter of lack of experience to the point people can’t even consider the mechanics of the things they have never tried. That is the odd thing about us Jews, that we learn from doing; that is our way. When we accepted Torah as a people what did Israel say? “Naaseh v’nishma / We will do and we will understand.” (Exodus 24:7) Only by our doing do we gain the understanding, each time we do we ask more questions we wouldn’t have thought of until we put out our hand to do a mitzvah. Notice the new Jews-by-choice in our communities, many of them often freak out over the littlest thing because they don’t have enough experience to know what to do, nor what is really appropriate or not; most of the time the issues isn’t that big and they just don’t know yet. For this reason many people fall away from observance, because they got discouraged by being overwhelmed. As soon as the enthusiasm wore off it only became a burden to them. (Look at the infamous Dr. Laura Schlessinger who abandoned Judaism for being too demanding.)

We do not want to do this to people, we as Jews do not want to force our Torah responsibilities upon other people who are still children of G-d and when it is well enough in His eyes that they, “Do justly and love mercy and walk humbly with your G-d.” (Micah 6:8) This yoke of Torah-living is not a burden, we see it as more of a directing bridle that we as Jews need to help steer us the right way. This yoke is not easy, but it is what we take much joy in. We do not assume it to be so for others. Of course we accept those who wish to accept Judaism as their faith, we accept converts fully and rightfully so. But we don’t believe anyone is incomplete if they aren’t Jewish, and proselytize accordingly.

Accepting Judaism is a serious matter. Conversion is strenuous thing that I have helped many through. But for as many people as I have taught basic Judaism to, I would say only 1 in 10 actually make it through to conversion. More revealing is that I would only say of those people who do, less than that remain observant over the long haul. It’s not necessarily their fault, they just didn’t think it was going to cost so much. They only considered the moral and theological rightness, not if they could pay the price Jews do.

In conclusion I would like to discuss the second example, the lesser known one. For the sake of time I would ask you to refer to the text of Talmud Bavli Avodah Zarah 3b yourself, the next page over from the text we reviewed above, as I can only touch on it briefly. Rabbi Yosi makes the point that in the world to come there will be no idolaters. He comes to the conclusion that people will come and present themselves as proselytes. However, when rebuffed by the rabbis that there will be no conversions in the coming and Messianic age, as there will be no need for one to do so (because the Temple will presumably stand again, and atone for them as well, as in days of old), he says they will be self-made converts.

Now this second example is a bit more complicated than the first, because these people accept many of the mitzvot upon themselves. They go so far as to even accept the traditions that are only understandable through rabbinic law and Talmudic teaching. They will put tefillin on their head and arms, they will put tzitzit on the corners of their garments and mezuzot on their door posts. They will accept all the noticeable symbols of observant Judaism; even the most intimate and complex to perform. Ones that take some forethought and real knowhow, this time the people being discussed aren’t just mere empty-heads.

The tragedy of this example is for all the seeming dedication and knowledge this group of people has, when it comes time that the nations go against Israel in the battle of Gog and Magog, the assumed apocalyptic war, the nations will ask them why they have come up to Israel; what are their intentions? In the face of extermination they cannot pay the price of a Jew, they are not convinced enough that they should be martyred for their beliefs, so they declare that they too were there to go up against the Israel and the Messiah in battle. The end is the same as the first example, they then declare, “Let us break off their chains, let us throw off their fetters.” (Psalm 2:3) They too reject the Torah mitzvot in the end as bondage. They didn’t think it would cost so much, it’s more than they are willing to pay. The problem with this latter example, unlike the first, is that in this example they get put in the precarious situation of rejecting godliness with a disgusting amount of premeditation. Like I said, not everyone has the wear-with-all for Jewish living.

In the end we as Jews will always accept people who take on the Torah, who like Ruth cast their lot with the Jewish people, that our fate be the their fate, our G-d be their G-d. (Ruth 1:6) I will always work with helping to teach those who want to learn more and do more good deeds. But this story I present as a warning to those who Willy-nillie accept or try to force mitzvot on others. One should only take up tradition with mindfulness and with joy.

During these high holidays we continue to offer prayers for ourselves and the nations, that all the nations should accept the yoke of Torah, all of them, and that Hashem should reign over us all forever. This is part of our concluding prayers three times a day. It’s just that time hasn’t come yet, but it will. All nations will keep even Sukkot with us in the age to come, in that Messianic age; we just aren’t there yet. Some people would do well, for their own sake, to slow their row.

Translation: “The Development of the Transmission of the Oral Law”

The Development of the Transmission of the Oral Law

Sometimes I’m overjoyed to find a book in Spanish. As if finding Judaica in Español isn’t thrilling enough, once in a blue moon I get a double-wammie and find something that isn’t just sefardit (Spanish language), but is actually according to Sephardi tradition – the customs of the Sephardic Jews of Spanish extraction. This is taken from a very simple book written in the finest and simplest language Spain has to offer. As we often talk about Mesorah – the unbroken chain of Jewish tradition going back to Har Sinai – I wanted to explain this, but instead of reinventing the wheel I went looking for a simple intro that could lay it out for us. Instead of finding a complete listing for both Ashkenazi and Sephardi tradition in Hebrew, I found this simple introduction in Spanish. I have translated to the best of my ability – juggling idiomatic phrases left and right – but despite being clunky in translation, I hope it lays out a good map that we can follow. (All in all I knew I was at least doing a decent job when my grandparents handed it back to me and wish me good look on my endeavors with no suggestions; and they actually translate for a living.) The earlier parts of this appear to be extracted from the Mishneh Torah of the Rambam. Hope you enjoy!

Original Translation from “‫ / שלחן ערוך‬Shul’han Aruj de Rabbi Yosef Caro”
Recopilacion de las leyes practicas y sus comentarios hasta los Sabios contemporaneos segun la tradicion Sefardi”
by Rabbi Abraham M. Hassan
Pages 9-20, Printed for “Fundacion Hesde Lea”, Copyright (1989 ?), Spain
Translation by Shmuel Gonzales, 2012 – In use for education purposes only in keeping with Fair-Use Policy; please support this work by purchasing to enable its propagation and future endeavors.

All the ordinances received by Moses (Mosheh Rabbeinu), at Sinai were transmitted by G-d explicitly, as it is written: “I will give you the tablets of stone, and the laws and commandments.” (Exodus 24:12)

The Torah is the Written Law; and the order of the explanation which Moses received from G-d, that was called the Oral TorahTorah Shebeal Pe – which conforms to the Torah so that it can be applied.

At the end of his life, Moses personally wrote all the Torah and gave an example of the Sefer Torah [the Torah scroll] to each one of the Tribes of Israel. Another Sefer Torah was kept in the holy Ark – Aron HaKodesh – were it was also kept as a testimony for all generations with the Tablets of the Law received by Moses at Mount Sinai, as we read “Take this Sefer Torah and place it in the Ark of the Covenant of the L rd your G d, so that it can serve as a witness” (Deut. 31:26)

In regard to the Oral Law, that was not written by Moses, but was still verbally taught to the Elders of his generation (the 70 Elders that comprised his Beit Din [court]), which in tern taught the people. Then Moses entrusted the transmission of the complete Oral Law to his chief disciple Yehoshuah Ben Nun “All the words that I have commanded you shall observe exactly, without taking away or adding anything.” (Deut. 13:1) Yehoshuah Ben Nun intern confided the transmission to Pinchas and the Elders (Zekenim), during the age of the Judges that succeeded him. And it was transmitted from master to disciple until [the time] of the Prophet Samuel The generations of prophets that succeeded the Prophet Samuel. Samuel continued on as trustees of the Torah. The last among them transmitted it to Ezra HaSofer [Ezra the Scribe]. He instituted an assembly of 120 Elders called the Keneset HaGedola [the Great Assembly], that later was replaced by a similar institution, The Sanheidrin. The finial Elder of the great assembly was Shimon HaTzadik [Simon the Just].

The Sanhedrin served the functions of educating and possessed judicial authority; it was comprised of 71 members, and had a seat in a section of the Temple called Lishkat haGazit (see Parshat Shoftim (2011): “The House of Hewn Stone: The Roots of the Sanhedrin”) The Oral Law was transmitted from master to disciple during six generations, from Shimon haTzadki until Hillel and Shammai When the second Temple and Jerusalem was destroyed Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai disciple of Hillel, took it upon himself to found a rabbinic institute in Yavneh, to perpetuate the teaching of the Law. It continued in this fashion of transmission for six generations until [the time of] Rabbi Yehuda haNasi, called Rabeinu haKodesh [Our Holy Teacher, and Rabbi].

The Elders that succeeded from Shimon haTzadik until Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi were called Tanaim. During the course of the age from that extended from Moshe Rabbeinu until Rabbi Yehuda haNasi the Oral Torah was not written definitively. But in each generation the president of the Beit Din or the Prophet of that age had a record written of the teachings of his teachers that was transmitted to the public verbally, that comprised the oral tradition of received by Moses, and as new laws that the great Elders were able to deduce from the “Thirteen Principals of Interpretation” (Shelosh Esrei Midot) of the Torah, introduced to the tradition after approval of the supervising Beit Din.

Rabbi Yehuda haNasi took an important role in securing the transmission of the Law. In fear that this system of oral teaching of the Torah could be be forgotten over the course of the generations as a result of persecution that the people were subjected, by their exile and the declining stature of disciples. As a result, he complied a compendium of principals received from the oral teachings of those that preceded, and constructed a written code, The Mishna thus transmitted this way for all Israel. Mishna,

The disciples of Rabbi Yehuda haNasi completed his work: Rav composed the Safra and the Sifri to state and explain the principals of the Mishna. Rabbi Hiya composed the Sifri, Tosefta, Tosefta a compendium of all the laws that Rabbi Yehuda haNasi, for the sake of being concise, did not introduce in the Mishna. Rabbi Oshaya and Bar Kapara composed the Braitot, a compendium of all the books written after the Mishna as commentary.

During the course of the ages of the Tanaim the population of Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel] were violently persecuted during the invasion [of the Romans], and a greater part of the people immigrated to Babylon. Great rabbinic schools were founded there and the Mishna was explained and taught to the people. The most celebrated academies of the time period were those of Punbedita Sura and Nehardea that for hundreds of years Punbedita, Nehardea, propagated the Law among all Israel.

The Elders that explained the Mishna were called Amoraim, (plural for Amora). Rav, the head of the yeshiva of Sura, and Shemuel the head of the yeshiva of Pumbedita were the primary Amoraim.

In the academies each law of the Mishna was discussed. There arose variances of opinions, followed by many discussions, supported by verses of the Law or Braitot. The concise laws of the Mishna were detailed and explained in the most minute details to allow the forming of halachic (legal) decisions.

In parallel, the Mishna was explained by the academies of Eretz Yisrael, where the most prominent Amora was Rabbi Yohanan.

Finally to preserve all the details of these fruitful discussions for future generations to come, Rav Ashe of the academy of Sura, six generations after Rav, undertook jointly with the cooperation of Ravina the prodigious work of redacting all the commentary concerning Ravina, the Mishna. This work called the Gemara was completed 300 years after the the redaction of the Mishna.

In Eretz Yisrael, this work was taken on by Rabbi Yohanan and completed 150 years after the redaction of the Mishna.

The combination of the laws of the Mishna with their commentary of the Gemara is called the Talmud The Babylonian Talmud is called the Talmud Bavli and that of Eretz Yisrael is called Talmud Yerushalmi. Of these two works the Talmud Bavli is the more important, Yerushalmi. because it was completed after the Yerushalmi and consequently contains the greatest part of these teachings in the end.

The teachings of the Gemara can be summarized as follows:

  1. Explanations of the Mishna, development of the controversies and analysis of the different argumentation that leads one to grasp the subject; the development of the teachings after the redaction of the Mishna until the end of the completion of the Talmud.

  2. Application of the Halacha [the way one should follow[, obtained from various opinions stated in accordance with the correct explanation of the Mishna, or new laws gained by deduction from the Thirteen Principals of Interpretation of the Torah.

  3. Explanation of the laws introduced en each generation by the Prophets or the Elders to establish a “fence,” a “protection” around the laws of the Torah, in order to avoid profaning them; this is in accordance with instructions: “And make a fence for the Torah” [Avot 1:1, commentary on Lev. 18:30, “keep my charge,” the word charge is ” meaning fence or post]. The Gemara likewise gives all the rabbinic rulings laid down according to the exegesis of each age by the Beit Din of the corresponding period. The Torah gives authority of law to these rulings, in accordance with the verse: “According to the laws that they shall teach you, and according to the judgment that they shall tell you, you shall do; do not turn away from their rulings, neither to the right nor to the left” (Deut. 17:11)

  4. Moral norms, instructive examples, and Jewish thought, etc.

This is a table of the primary Prophets and Elders who were the intermediaries of the Oral Law of the Torah, that was transmitted from generation to generation from Moses to the Talmud:

Transmission of Oral Law

Moses (Mosheh Rabbenu)


Pinchas (and the Elders)


















Baruch Ben Neriya

Ezra, [the Scribe] whose court consisted of the Elders, the Great Assembly “Anshe Knesset HaGedolah”

Shimon haTzadik [Simon the Just], the final Elder of the Great Assembly

Antignos Yose Ben Yozer

Yosef Ben Yohanan

Yehoshua Ben Perahia and Nitai Ha’arbeli

Yehoshua Ben Tabah and Shimon

Ben Shatah Shemaya and Avtalion

 Shamai and Hillel

Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai

Rabbi Eliezar HaGadol

Rabbi Akiva

Rabbi Yishmael, Rabbi Mier, and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai

Rabbi Shimon

Raban Gamliel HaZaquen

Raban Shimon

Raban Gamliel

Raban Shimon, the son

Raban Yehuda haNasi

Rabbi Yochannan, Rav, Sh’muel

Rav Huna


Rav Ashe, redactor of Talmud

With the closure of the Talmud, the teachings were shared with all Israel; one may not aggrandize themselves nor subject no one under him. The work of the wise is therefore to give explanations and clarification from the Talmud.

The Talmud has laid out the way in order to arrive at the Halacha, in case of divergence of opinions. It is this way. in the controversies between Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai the Halacha was generally set according to Beit Hillel. And for those between Rabbi Eliezar and Rabbi Yehoshua, the Halacha is according to Rabbi Yehoshua. Between Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva, it was established according to Rabbi Akiva. Between the Amoraim [of] Abaya and Rava, with the exception of six instances, the Halacha follows the opinion of Rava, etc.

In numerous cases however, the Halacha was not decided [finalized, definitive]. Likewise, because of the resulting variances of opinion between the Talmud Bavli and the Yerushalmi, there are different variations. The Saboraim, the Elders that pertained to the generation that followed the closure of the Talmud offered new explanations and clarifications. The Geonim succeeded them in the following period of 450 years.

The Geonim, the distinguished teachers of the yeshiva in Babylon, represented the dominant spiritual authority. They were the ones that were designated to receive clarification, particularly relating to concerns of new problems relating to Halacha that arose in each period. The answers given by the Geonim, with their explanations and decisions, formed extensive bodies of literature called “Teshuvot haGeonim,” which were their responsas (more specially Geonica) which until our days still constitute the basis for comprehension of the Talmud.

As these responsas were redacted in an academic style, it was only accessible to those who were trained in Talmudic teaching. But as a result of the persecution and instability that reigned, the quality of study decreased the comprehension of the Talmud and that of the responsas of the Geonim became only understood by a minority. Certain great teachers consequently sensed that there was a need to provide the public the decisions (Pesak) of the Talmud and the Geonim in a codified form of law. These master legislators were called the Poskim and their works were received with great interest from the public.

The first great Posek was Rabbi Yitzhak Alfasi (The Rif) who redacted a summary of the Talmud (which was written in Aramaic), divided according to topic, in which it withheld the debate in order to only present the deciding Halacha. The laws concerning the age of the Temple were likewise withheld. This masterpiece was the starting point and foundation of all the literature of the Poskim.

The Rambam (Maimonides the disciple of the Rif, composed his infamous code of law, the Mishneh Torah a compendium of all the laws contained in the Talmud and in the Torah, explanations of the Geonim, that was majestically constructed as artistically as [the work] of an architect. The Oral Law was divided into categories for the given themes, with all the laws relating to it and was preceded by fundamental explanations, systematically expressing with clarity and linguistic simplicity, carefully weighing each expression , as a single word can add or detract from the meaning; for virtually the entire Mishna. This work was divided into 14 parts, which is why it is called “Yad haHazaka (“the strong hand,” “yad” meaning hand has the numeric value of 14). The objective of the Rambam, specified in his introduction, was to place the knowledge of all the Oral Law within reach of the people, and not only a minority.

The Continued Development of the Halacha

The Geonim, succeeded the Rishonim [who were] distinguished teachers. Their era began Rishonim, with Rabbi Yitzhak Alfasi (the Rif 1013-1103), the first great posek, and continued until Rabbi Yosef Caro the author of the “Shulchan Aruch.” The teachers who successively came after, until our era were called Aharonim.

In addition, there were many wise men who took on the work of explaining the Talmud in systematic form of writing. Among the Rishonim there is:

  • The great classic great Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (known by the name Rashi 1040-1105) who is merited with making the Talmud clear and accessible by his explanation; which explains why it is the commentary par excellence of the Talmud.

  • The Baalei Tosafot the rabbinic authorities that complimented the the explanation Tosafot, of Rashi, delving deeply into them. This is why each page of the Talmud is accompanied by the commentary of Rashi and Tosafot. Ramban,

  • Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman (the Ramban, Nachmonadies; 1195-1270).

  • Rabbi Shlomo Ben Aderet (the Rashba, 1245-1310)

  • Rabbi Menachem Ben Shlomo (haMeiri, 1249-1315).

  • Rabbi Nissim Guerundi (the Ran, 1305-1360).

Furthermore, certain geniuses who specialized in the work of explaining the Written Law which was contained in the Oral Law, through studying the 613 mitzvot; such as Rabbi Moshe Ben Yaakov de Kutsi (haSemag), one of the baalei tosafot.

The Continued Codification of the Halacha

  • After the Rif and the Rambam, Rabbi Asher Ben Yechiel (the Rosh 1230-1328) the disciple of the last baalei tosafot, became the third great posek, who authored a code of laws redacted in Hebrew and similar to the Rif.

  • Rabbi Yaakov Ben Asher (the Baal haTurim 1270-1343), was the son of the Rosh and based on the work of his father composed a classified collection by theme, called the “Arba’a haTurim” in four parts (Turim).

  • Orach Hayim: rules relating to the prayers and blessings, Shabbat Hayim: and Festivals, etc.

  • Tur Yore De’ah: Laws of Kashrut De’ah:

  • Tur Even haEzer: laws of marriage haEzer:

  • Tur Hoshen Mishpat, (the Maran, our master; 1488 1575): who was among the Spanish exiles, and was the author of “Beit Yosef” an important commentary on “Arba’a Beit Yosef,” and was the foundation for the infamous code of law [called] the “Shulchan Aruch (which adopted the the structural divisions of the Arba’a Shulchan Aruch” Turim):

  • Orach Hayim

  • Yoreh De’ah

  • Even haEzer

  • Hoshen Mishpat

The “Shulchan Aruch” is the definitive collection of Jewish laws that govern the conduct of the people of Israel. To determine the Halacha, Rabbi Yosef Caro based it upon the three fundamental works of his predecessors; Rif, Rambam and Rosh. In instances where the decisions of the three poskim disagreed, it went according to the consensus which is the opinion shared by the Sephardi; which in general is that of the Rif and Rambam.

  • Rabbi Moshe Isserlis (the Rema 1525-1573) of Poland, complimenting the Shulchan Aruch with an appendix that bears his name, Rema. And in certain instances where certain laws that Rabbi Yosef Caro had not been included, other opinions stated by the Ashkenezi teachers that were different from the Maran were cited, as well as the customs of the Ashkenaz.

  • Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe (1530-1612), disciple of Rabbi Moshe Issereles, composed a code of law called “Lebush in a simple, clear and comprehensible form based upon the “Arba’a Turim”

Based upon the teachings of the Geonim and the Rishonim who are irrefutable authorities, the Aharoni teachers continued on bound by precise principals and developmental methods. The Oral Law, of Divine origin, is applicable to all times; as are the responses of the Aharonim, dealing with the problems that present themselves in each period. In our days great geniuses continue to reveal the way to continue to apply the Oral Law in all its detail.

The “Shulchan Aruch” which is complimented by the Rema has been amply explained and commented upon by the greatest poskim of latter days. Among the most important we can cite:

  • Rabbi Yehoshua Falk haCohen (the Sama, who died in 1614); the author of the commentary “Sefer Mierat Enei’im” based upon Hosen Mishpat. Enei’im” Sefer

  • Rabbi David haLevi (the Taz, 1589-1667) author of “Turei Zahav” based on Yoreh De’ah, and “Magen David” based on Orach Hayim

  • Rabbi Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna (haGra, 1720-1789), author of the commentary that bares his name, based completely upon the Shulchan Aruch

  • Rabbi Hayim Yosef David Azulai (the Chidah, 1724-1806), author of “Birkei Yosef Chidah, Birkei Yosef

  • Rabbi Yisrael Mier haCohen (Chafetz Chayim, 1835-1934) author of the “Mishna Berurah,” recognized as the greatest explanation that exists in our days of the sections of Orach Hayim of the Shulchan Aruch and has been turned out to be the most popular book of the Halacha.

Furthermore, certain teachers composed more later works of Halacha based on the four parts of the Shulchan Aruch or certain parts of it. We can cite:

  • Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (the Baal haTanya, 1748-1830), author of The Tanya, “Shulchan Aruch haRav,” which notes the customs of the Chassidim.

  • Rabbi Abraham Danzig of Vilna (1748-1821), authored the book “Chayei Adam” which deals with the laws relating to the section of Orach Hayim, and the book “Chochmat Adam” based upon the section Yoreh De’ah.

  • Rabbi Shlomo Gantzfrid of Hungary (1804-1886), author of “Kitzur Shulchan Aruch” (an abbreviated Shulchan Aruch), a very popular guide to the Halacha.

  • Rabbi Yechiel haLevi Epstein (1829-1908), author of the work [called] “Aruch haShulchan,” which details all the laws with their source in Talmud.

  • Rabbi Yosef Hayim of Bagdad (1834-1909), author of the “Ben Ish Chai

The “Shulchan Aruch” with its ample explanations, its commentaries, and its different forms of presentation we have displayed all the details necessary for the practicing of Judaism. It is not a human code, but instead is the expression of the will of the Creator, transmitted throughout the Oral Law by Mosheh Rabbeinu, by means of an unbroken chain; the Prophets, the Elders, the Tanaim, the Amaraim, the Geonim, the Rishonim, and the Aharomim; who [through] divine inspiration successfully conserved this treasure in all its purity and its authenticity, while at the same time they scrutinized, clarified, and developed it so that it could be accessible for each and every one of us.

Parshat Shemini (2012)

Parshat Shemini (2012)
Leviticus 9:1-11:47

What the Torah Tells Us About Holding Your Drink

In this weeks parsha, we read of the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon who died after brining “aish zarah / strange fire” in their incense pans and placed it upon the altar. The scheme of the parasha like most of this book does not go in chronological order necessarily, but this incident hangs over the whole parsha. We aren’t exactly sure what this means.The sages gives us the opinions that either they arrogantly brought foreign corruption upon the sacred altar, others suggest that they were caught up in a form of fatal religious ecstasy. (see Leviticus 10:1-2)

Though we aren’t sure exactly for what reason they died, it was such a dramatic and heartbreaking loss on the day of the inauguration of the Mishkan – the Tabernacle Sanctuary – that G-d changes directions. Up until now He speaks to Mosheh – to Moses – but now in compassion He reaches out to Aharon directly.

“And Hashem spoke to Aharon saying:

You shall not drink strong wine to intoxication,

nor your sons,

when you enter into the Ohel Moed [the Tent of Meeting]

so that you do not die.

This is an eternal statute throughout your generations.”

| Vayedaber Hashem el-Aharon lemor:

| Yayin veshechar al-tesht atah

| uvanelcha

| itach bevo’achem el-Ohel Mo’ed

| velo tamutu,

| chukat olam ledoroteichem.

Leviticus 10:8-9

Does that mean that one is not allowed to drink wine when on duty? Not necessarily. The key word here in our text here is veshechar – from the simple Hebrew word “shechar / to make one drunk.” Rashi citing the opinion of the Sifra says that this doesn’t mean just to drink alcoholic beverages; but to drink a lot, undiluted, and uninterrupted until it leads to intoxication. (Sifra/Torat Kohanim 10:35) Because the key point is intoxication Ibn Ezra and the Sadia Gaon say this also applies to any other intoxicant aside from wine as well.

Noticing that this comes just after Moses instructed Aharon regarding the proper practice of the priestly duties, and immediately after the instructions regarding ritual purity. (see Parshat Shemini-2011) If we look at the text it is not hard to understand that the prohibition against Temple service while intoxicated is to safeguard one from accidents that could result in death. This ritual service is powerful and needs to be taken on with solemness, intention and sobriety.

But it’s more than just that. The priests not only had to take into consideration their own ritual cleanliness, but also that of the people they were appointed to serve. Notice the Torah continues on by stating it this way:

“So that you will be able to distinguish

between holy and profane (or the common),

and between the ritually unclean and the pure.”

| Ulehavdil

| bein hakodesh uvein hachol

| uvein hatame uvein hatahor.

Leviticus 10:10

Though strictly speaking, like most of the laws of Leviticus, these were originally mostly intended to apply to the Levitical priests and sons of Aharon. The priests acted in many functions, their chief responsibilities were not just to ritual but also serving as the physicians. Peoples inflictions and infections would be examined and a course of action prescribed, then followed up with them to insure they were cured.

But the post-Temple world, in the absence of the Temple cult and the change of station regarding purity in this void (all of us being ritually unclean, because we don’t have the Temple there is no essential remedy nor application for cultic purity) our rabbis broadened these commandments and helped apply them to the everyday lives of the common Jew.

But for the rabbis, the teachers and legal chiefs of our people, they also took from it a very solemn personal understanding based on the continuing verse:

“To instruct [also render decisions]

the Children of Israel

in the statutes

that Hashem spoken unto you

from the hand of Moses”

| Ulehorot

| et-benei Yisrael

| et kol-hachukim

| asher diber Hashem aleihem

| beyad-Moshe.

Leviticus 10:11

The sanheidrin, the assembly of the people always existed since biblical times in some fashion. (see Parshat Shoftim 2011) But in the absence of an active priesthood many of the functions fell squarely on the shoulders of the scholars and sages – our rabbis. They began to instruct and became the only body of people to render decisions and instructions for us. They declared that we should understand this to mean that one should not lay down halachic decisions when intoxicated. The priests weren’t allowed, neither should we. Not that the position is the same, the level of severity for an intoxicated priest is seemingly great enough to demand the death penalty, but it is not so for a mere teacher from among the congregation of Israel. That does not mean that one’s intoxication might not lead to their death, but it doesn’t demand it either in the case of a scholar. (see Rashi for v.11)

But as we look over this text we can begin to see that safety is not the only key issue here. The other is that one is not able to give judgment on matters of good and bad, sacred and profane when impaired. How can one whose senses are numbed and is not of a clear mind be able to distinguish between the two? This reason of temperance to maintain responsibility is equally important. Rashi teaches us in his commentary for verse 10 that a priest who performs any type of service or work his deeds are “avodato pesulah / his service is invalid” when drunk. Not just invalid but pasul – meaning inappropriate.

Just because Torah nor Jewish Law demands exacting punishment doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences when one gives in to debauchery. (see “When Redemption Turns Fatal: Atonement and the implications of premature death) But we cannot safeguard ourselves, nor be useful and appropriate when we do not have the clarity of mind to distinguish between good and bad.

Our tradition, where as it demands solemn sobriety of mind when it comes to our responsibilities, it does not demand that we become teetotalers. Halacha does not demand that we go dry and abstain. Though notice that here the text does step out of the normal mode of narrative with G-d Himself speaking to an individual and asking them to warn for future generations of the dangers of losing ones sensibility to inebriation.

Wine is a very important part of our tradition, we make Kiddish on it because it is a symbol of joy and celebration for each Shabbat and holiday. We are just coming out of Pesach with the four large cups we drink. Alcohol is not something taboo or disapproved; in fact if anything it is prescribed. So much so that some people make issue with one certain holiday because in all Jewish communities we are accustomed to drinking significantly on it; it is on Purim, which we celebrated just a few short months ago. And it is ordinarily prescribed that we not just drink, but drink to full intoxication. This is not just some obscure tradition by any measure, it comes from the Talmud itself.

Let us look at this text because it also gives us some good historical background and a good lesson to learn about how to handle our drink when we are partying. The Mishnah states:

“Rava said: It is the duty of a man

to make himself bisumi

[intoxicated, lucid, mellow]

on Purim until

he doesn’t know the difference between

‘Cursed is Haman’ and

‘Blessed is Mordechi.'”

אמר רבא מיחייב איניש |

לבסומי |


בפוריא |

עד דלא ידע בין |

ארור המן |

לברוך מרדכי |

Mishnah, Megilah 7b

According to our tradition, we are told by the Mishnah, the highest and authoritative level of oral tradition and case law, that one is to become intoxicated and make revelry until he cannot distinguish the difference between the mention of the name of evil Haman and saintly Mordechi during the reading of Megillat Esther. We begin to enjoy ourselves and loosen up to the point that not even the mention of our foe can bring us down – its all good in our haze of liquid joy and communal celebration. We are encouraged to get caught up in the ecstasy.

Now historicallyy we should understand that wine in the biblical times was not just for celebration, it was also used for everyday table use as a regular drink like we would soda, tea or juice today at our dinner table. Water was often of such poor quality wine was safer to drink, and to avoid intoxication wine would be watered down. In this diluted and yet still acidic state the plain water would not be as harmful or foul-tasting. Not that all wine was made to be highly intoxicating to begin with.

In fact to reach intoxication often times fragrant spices (Heb. basamim) and other additives were loaded into wine and drinks. Even resins (such as from the balsam tree, see בלסם) were known to be utilized by the Greeks for causing elucidation and intoxication. Others uses myrrh and frankincense as well in the days of the Temple and rishonim. For this reason it makes sense that many of the sages interpret in our parsha the word yayin to mean “strong drink” and insist it does not merely mean wine. It is spiked wine made for intoxication, with the aim of unbridled tipsiness; or bisum in modern Hebrew.

Our rabbis and our own linguistic deduction shows us the same reasoning of the rabbis. We can see they are correct in their assertion that in our parasha’s use of the word v’shachar means “to the point of intoxication” is correct; that one should not run around shikur (Heb. drunk) all that time. We are to be cautious so that intoxication does not lead to a lack of reasoning and enviably our harm.

Yes our tradition allows us to embrace the ecstasy! But the Gemara gives us a warning to not get overwhelmed by it:

“Rava and Rabbi Zera

made their Purim feast

with one another.

They became drunk;

Rava arose and slaughtered Rabbi Zera.

The next day, he asked for mercy for him,

and his life was resuscitated.

The next year, he [Rava] said to him:

‘Let my Master come

and we shall make a Purim feast

with one another.’

He [Rabbi Zera] said to him:

‘Miracles don’t happen every single time.'”

רבה ורבי זירא |

עבדו סעודת פורים |

בהדי |

הדדי איבסום |

קם רבה שחטיה לרבי זירא |

למחר בעי רחמי |

ואחייה |

לשנה אמר ליה |

ניתי מר |

ונעביד סעודת פורים |

בהדי הדדי |

אמר ליה |

לא בכל שעתא ושעתא מתרחיש ניסא |

Gemara, Megillah 7b

Some scholars contend this is just an allegory. Others who are more mystical take this completely literally. We see two rabbis celebrating Purim and are discharging their obligation to drink to intoxication and celebration. As they are drunk Rava takes out his shochet’s knife – a knife for kosher ritual slaughtering of animals for food – and slits the neck of his friends and companion Rabbi Zera. When Rava wakes up in the morning and realizes what he has done, as a learned man of medicine and as a tzaddik – a righteous and saintly man – he quickly acted. After praying for mercy for his companion, he was brought back to life.

As intense as this crisis is, in the end Rabbi Zera and all of us understand that he was intoxicated and not within his proper state of mind. He does not seem to be punished or held criminally accountable nor sued for negligence. And there is no bad blood between the rabbis even after this whole event. The love was still there, but that doesn’t mean he needed to go there again. Having adverted danger before, it was better to be on the safe side.

The Torah doesn’t demand that we avoid the drink, but it most certainly does insist that we avoid harmful situations; not relying on miracles or fate to rescue us.

When Redemption Turns Fatal

When Redemption Turns Fatal
Atonement and the implications of premature death

lost in the desertRecently as I was studying Parshat Bo I was taken back by seeing an interesting statement made regarding the celebration of Pesach with the eating of matzah. As Pesach is quickly coming upon us I was captivated by the details relating to the unique aspects of the first celebration and the way that it prescribes future observance. While bridging the two the Torah indicates that one who eats leaven will “v’nich’rata ha-nefesh hahi miYisrael / have his soul is cut-off from among Israel.” (Exodus 12:15) This is a “chukat olam t’chagu’hu / an eternal commandment that one rejoice.” (v.14)

The statement is unique, not necessarily in wording but in placement. We will see the phrase “cut-off” used many times in both Leviticus and Deuteronomy; but aside from that there are few reference earlier in the chumash. In Genesis we only have a couple similar examples; once in passing used by Isaac, and the other being the commandment given to Avraham Avinu that each Hebrew male be circumcised. (Genesis 17:14) It warns us that anyone who is not circumcised may be cut-off from his people, so they must carefully observe this.

But what do we mean by being “cut-off?” The Rashi to this verse explains to us:

And that soul shall be cut off:

He goes childless (Yevamot 55a)

and dies prematurely (Moed Katan 28a).”

ונכרתה הנפש: |

הולך ערירי |

ומת קודם זמנו: |

Rashi to Genesis 17:14

Though neither of these statements come with any prescribed punishment or qualification in the Torah, this phrase is one of the most harsh we can find in the scriptures. Our sages recognize 24 egregious sins that result in one being cut-off; meaning, ones life and legacy is cut short. (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilichot Teshuvah)

That is not to say that one is without remedy, Leviticus chapter 22 presents us with a means for repentance by removing whatever is the cause of ones offense and approaching G-d again through in worship. Clean yourself up, and return. By making teshuvahmaking repentance, returning, turning back – one is forgiven and their judgment is lifted; according to the halacha this is true for all cases, except for with the sin of idolatry (avodah zara). Though these sins seem to demand that a Sanheidrin (the supreme court of Jewish law) prescribe death for a person who commits any one of these sins, any person that repents is forgiven without consequence, except in cases of idolatry.

In Talmud Bavli mesecta Avodah Zara – which discusses the halachot related to judgment for idolatry – it is explained to us that the judgment of death is not necessary when the sin is not serious enough to demand such punishment. Thus the halacha of the Talmud is that all sins are fully pardonable, except for idolatry. Even if judicially forgiven by the sanheidrin there is a consequence to idolatry that cannot be avoided, as it is a sin against G-d the consequence comes from the hand of G-d even in face of repentance. More precisely, the hand of G-d’s mercy is restrained so that the person dies at a time and in way that only heaven knows. How can this be?

Simply put, the Torah says that when one commits a severe sin it results in keret – being cut down, one’s life cut short – though it does not necessarily imply a sentence, as much as it is a description of ones state. As the Tanya teaches, to be cut-off merely means to disconnect from our spiritual source – one disconnects themselves, and they in turn die from the atrophy this causes in their soul. (Lekutei Amarim – Tanya, Iggeret haTeshuva, siman 5)

Though this is generally the case, there are certain exceptions to the rule. The Talmud presents us a tragic example of someone, who despite his sincere repentance, still perishes; even more confusing, he is not guilt of idolatry at all. What could be so severe that one still dies after repenting? And what does this mean, is it that he was not forgiven or can it be that G-d yet demands “satisfaction?”

To understand this the rabbis present us with the story of Rabbi Elezar ben Doria as an example. We will find this presented in Talmud Avodah Zarah 17a:

והתניא: |

אמרו עליו על |

רבי אלעזר בן דורדיא, |

שלא הניח זונה |

אחת בעולם שלא בא עליה; |

פעם אחת שמע שיש זונה אחת |

בכרכי הים, |

והיתה נוטלת כיס דינרין |

בשכרה; |

נטל כיס דינרין והלך ועבר עליה |

שבעה נהרות; |

בשעת הרגל |

We learn in a b’raita of a Tanna:

‘It was said of

Rabbi Elezar ben Dordia

that there was no whore

in the whole world that he did not go to.

After he heard of this certain whore

in a large seaside city

who accepted a purse of denari [coins]

as payment

he took a purse of coins and crossed

seven rivers,

all the while traveling on foot without anything.”

Talmud Bavli Avodah Zarah 17a

As we see from the Talmud the sin of Ben Dordia was related to sexual immorality. So caught up in his sexual indiscretions that people reckoned that there wasn’t a prostitute in the entire world he hadn’t slept with.

As the story goes, one day he hears that there is a certain whore in a far off place that he hasn’t been with. Driven by compulsion, his desire to have her is so great that he immediately begins to gather the necessary money to pay her. Knowing that her fee was 100 denari, he collects only enough money necessary to pay her and then sets off on foot. And this is a hint to the level of lust that motivated him. As she is so far away and in a seaside town you would think he would pay to go by ship. Instead he is unwilling to wait or delay and therefore makes this ridiculously long journey by foot and without provisions. Being blinded by lust, he disregards his own needs and wellbeing in pursuit of this prostitute.

דבר הפיחה |

אמרה: |

כשם שהפיחה זו |

אינה חוזרת למקומה – |

כך אלעזר בן דורדיא |

אין מקבלין אותו |

בתשובה. |

So he he got it on with her.

And she said:

‘Just like this breaking-wind

will not return to its place,

so too Elezar ben Dordia

will not not be received back

in repentance.’”

As unlikely as it was, he did actually make it to his destination and get with this woman. Considering all the effort and personal cost, one would hope that his fling have would actually be worth it to him. Instead of her being the desirable woman he probably imaged, she instead showed herself to be crude and unrefined. To the point she broke-wind in bed and even made a joke over it. Then she actually went so far as to make fun of him, teasing him that he would never be accepted back because of how far he had strayed; the pun being just like her fart couldn’t go back to where it came from, so too he couldn’t go back to where he came from. Considering all he had done, his people would never accept him back.

Though she is an inappropriate and seemingly vile person, she isn’t the only one that needs her character scrutinized in this story. One has to wonder anyhow, what is Ben Dordia doing there at all? How is it that this man is even called “rabbi” when he is completely consumed by his perversion?

What we should first understand about Ben Dordia was that he was not actually a “rabbi” in the conventional way we think, as he was not a member of the sanheidrin at all. Notice even the prostitute calls him merely by name, the redactor doesn’t give him this title of honor early on here in the story either when recounting it. Ben Dordia was just an ordinary man, in fact probably someone best described as a mediocre man in terms of his practice; there is no other way to explain how he is able to have such a serious pursuit of his sin and not neglect his religious duties. Also notice most of the people we see in the Talmud come from legacy and with a lineage we all know, but this man just comes out of nowhere and onto the pages of the highest source of rabbinic discourse.

Despite his lack of character and duplicity, Ben Doria is somehow deeply troubled by the prostitute’s words. Though being desensitized to the depravity he was surrounded in, he had enough conviction left in him that he became overwhelmed by the realization of the truth of her estimation and completely broke down. He then ran from the place where he was at, seemingly to find his way back. His need for teshuvah was not just metaphoric, he was literally desperate to find his way back. The Talmud continues:

He went away and sat down

between two hills and mountains

and said:

‘Hills and mountains,

ask for mercy for me!’

And they said to him:

‘How can we ask for you

when we need to ask for our own sake.

As it is said:

‘For the mountain be departed

and the hills be removed…’

(Isaiah 54:10)

He said:

‘Heavens and earth

ask for mercy for me!’

And they said:

‘How can we ask for you

when we need to ask for our own sake.

As it is said:

‘For the heavens

shall vanish away like smoke,

and the earth will wear out like

a garment’

(Isaiah 51:6)

He said:

‘Sun and moon ask for mercy for me!’

And they said to him:

‘How can we ask for you

when we need to ask for our own sake.

As it is said:

‘Then the moon shall be confounded,

and the sun ashamed;’

(Isaiah 24:23)

And he said:

‘Stars and mazalot [constellations]

ask for mercy for me!’

And they said to him:

‘How can we ask for you

when we need to ask for our own sake.

As it is said:

‘And all the host of heaven shall moulder away!’”

(Isaiah 34:4)

הלך וישב |

בין שני הרים וגבעות, |

אמר: |

הרים וגבעות |

בקשו עלי רחמים! |

אמרו לו: |

עד שאנו מבקשים עליך – |

נבקש על עצמנו, |

שנאמר |

כי ההרים ימושו |

והגבעות תמוטינה |

(ישעיהו נד י) |

אמר: |

שמים וארץ |

בקשו עלי רחמים! |

אמרו: |

עד שאנו מבקשים עליך – |

נבקש על עצמנו, |

שנאמר |

כי שמים |

כעשן נמלחו |

והארץ כבגד |

תבלה |

(ישעיהו נא ו). |

אמר: |

חמה ולבנה בקשו עלי רחמים! |

אמרו לו: |

עד שאנו מבקשים עליך – |

נבקש על עצמנו, |

שנאמר |

וחפרה הלבנה |

ובושה החמה. |

(ישעיהו כד כג) |

אמר: |

כוכבים ומזלות |

בקשו עלי רחמים! |

אמרו לו: |

עד שאנו מבקשים עליך – |

נבקש על עצמנו, |

שנאמר |

ונמקו כל צבא השמים! |

(ישעיהו לד ד) |

As the Talmudic text picks up again we then see him sitting between two hills and two mountains. Lost and unable to orient himself he begins to cry out to the mountains and hills. He speaks to them in a personal tone, going so far as to ask them to pray for him; pleading “rachamim,” have mercy on me. As strange as his actions seem, what is even more strange is the fact that they actually speak back to him; the rabbis tell us that they were granted a voice to respond to him in his time time of need. Without anyone to turn to he begins to carry on a dialogue with the natural forces, and they respond to him.

If you got a miraculous response from heaven, you like most people would probably want to hear words of comfort. But there weren’t any words of encouragement or compassion given. As he goes through this back and forth with nature, each time they are going to respond with the simple truth that there is nothing they can do for him. In fact, if we look at the wording it not only tells us they are in need of help from G-d themselves, but it also suggests to us one must ask “atzmeninu / ourselves,” meaning on their own behalf.

As concise as the Talmud tries to be with content, this whole episode is not only drawn out but it is unusually repetitious. He makes the same statement each time, and the responses are the same, except for a single variation when it comes to supporting biblical quotes offered. The majority of the details are in the list of the elements he cries out to. Our rabbis suggest there is some type of deeper psychological association he must be making, for this reason their commentary mostly concerns itself with asking “what do these statements mean to him?” Though it would be easy to dismiss his pleading as mere ranting and look no further than his hysteria, we need to keep in mind that for Ben Dordia his need for a response was so great that G-d was compelled to grant him this by supernatural means; his desperation was not all trivial, nor were the words of his pleading.

Rashi is the first to offer us a explanation, suggesting that when he called out to the “harim / the hills” what he actually meant on a heart level was “horim / ancestors;” literally meaning his parents. Rashi deduces this based on Talmud Rosh haShanah 11a; citing Micah 9:2 the rabbis compares our ancestors to the mountains. The hill and mountains are made of many layers of rock and soil, each generation built upon another to provide a firm foundation. This is true of mountains and also of ones heritage. We make this journey in life on a higher road, built upon and paved by the contributions of our ancestors. Any moral higher ground we have is provided us from their ethics and experiences. The rabbis teach us here in the Talmud that we aren’t just raised to a higher and better place, but we are recipients of their divine merit. Instead of merely calling us to stand on their giant shoulders, the rabbis insist that just like wise Solomon they call to us “listen my beloved, and come leaping upon mountains, and skipping over the hills;” (Shir haShirim 2:8); our heritage in them provides us a source of joy that comes from divine grace. The mountains represent the patriarchs, the hills are the matriarchs. He cries out to his holy parents “rachamim / have mercy on me,” he is pleading for them to help him.

We can look at the other references to the natural forces likewise. The heavens and earth are also thought of in a complimentary gender dichotomy, and so too the sun and moon. It is easy for us to understand, as the ancient peoples similarly recognizing the greater light of the sun that rules the day as a symbol masculinity and the less light of the moon as the a symbol of femininity. Even in the Torah we see this, in the story of Yosef’s dream the sun represents his father and the moon his mother. (Genesis 37:11, see Parshat Vayeshev)

Though his second request, to the heavens and earth, does also clearly show a more obvious intention. He asks for mercy, first from the heavens and then from the earth. He starts first by asking for grace from heaven, and then secondly for mercy from the earth; the heavens being the mysterious seat of G-d’s mercy, the earth being the calculated world of justice.

Even the sun and moon imply to us a deeper meaning, the sun also being an ancient symbol of authority. The ancient kings and rulers of the nations often considered themselves as the earthly representation of the sun-god, the moon conversely represented their goddesses and queens. In his third request he appears to be asking for the help of the rulers and authorities.

Having made three request for mercy and compassion, Ben Dordia then makes one final request to the stars and the mazalot – the signs of the zodiac. This is less in line with the dichotomy but easier to explain. He is literally pleads for the stars and zodiac (mazalot) to intervene for him and change his fate.

When we consider all this, the story begins to take shape and his motivation becomes clear. He is asking for help from anyone who will listen, from the most accessible to the least; “mom and dad, save me,” “world and universe, help me,” “your honor, sir, ma’am, have mercy on me,” and lastly “fate, can you please give me a break here.”

Though they are not able to help him, they do respond to him. And their responses are neither harsh nor unkind, they each declare their limitations and need of help from G-d themselves. They don’t just turn him down, they reveal their own frailties and inability sympathetically. They weren’t telling him “sorry, but we have our own problems to worry about,” they instead seem to be saying that they can relate to being in need.

Hearing this and understanding the truth of it Elezar ben Dordia stops his pleading. The Talmud continues with his response:

And he said:

There is nothing that doesn’t depend on me!

And he hung his head between his knees

and wept until he exhausted

his soul to death.”

אמר: |

אין הדבר תלוי אלא בי! |

הניח ראשו בין ברכיו |

וגעה בבכיה עד שיצתה |

נשמתו; |

As there is no one that can help him, Ben Dordia becomes even more inconsolable. Lost and helpless he remains crouched on the ground, head hung low between his knees, weeping – not just crying, but bawling with all the strength left him. He cries with all his being until his entire soul is exhausted to the point of death. As no one is coming to rescue him he exclaims to himself alone, “it all depends on me.” And there on the ground he remains until he weeps himself to death.

Is it possible for a person to die from inconsolable crying? And if it is, what can break a man so that he weeps until he dies? What has him so tore up and broken down? Though one might assume that his hysteria is because no one will help him, his words reveal something different all together. Sure he is broken from the reality that he is solely responsible for his own redemption, but even more so by the truth that the whole situation (ha-davar) is of his own making. He is dying inside from the revelation that “it’s all on me.” Those are the last recorded words of Ben Dordia before he lays down and dies.

Fortunately the story doesn’t end there. The Talmud continues:

Just then a bat-kol was heard saying:

‘Rabbi Elezar ben Dordia is destined

to live in the world to come!’”

יצתה בת קול ואמרה |

רבי אלעזר בן דורדיא מזומן |

לחיי העולם הבא.’ |

In his final moments before he draws his last breath a heralding voice is heard from heaven declaring that he has been accepted in repentance and earned his place in the world-to-come. His personal confession is heard in heaven and his pardon is declared by an angelic messenger.

As we look at this incident and consider his acts of repentance it is clearly evident that he is sincere and contrite, but what merits the response of heaven to pardon him is his confession, “ain hadavar talui elah bi / there isn’t anything that doesn’t depend on me.” This is not any matter for which I am not responsible.

What is so remarkable about his words? These word don’t seem intended for anyone other than himself, but they catch the attention of heaven. They are few and unsophisticated, neither lofty nor spiritual sounding in the least. But if we look beyond the simplicity of his statement we will find more than just a realization that he is helpless. G-d does not respond to him out of pity, He responds to him because Ben Dordia has a dramatic change of heart and mind. He moves beyond being more concerned with the role everyone else plays in his tragedy.

As unbecoming as his pleading with all of the world and the sky to help him seems, his attitude is very actually very typical. In fact many people go one step further and actually blame others for their downfall. He could have easily said like many people do, “its not my fault, its my parents and my culture that are to blame.” He could have blamed the world, the politicians, the system and even fate itself. But here we find him for the first time taking full responsibility. This is such a drastic change in his character that it merits him full salvation.

Though he does find a place in heaven, we cannot avoid the fact that he still dies. As discussed, this is not demanded by the halacha. This is so unusual most editions of the Talmud contain an extra line to emphasize this lest we miss this point (in brackets). This is what makes the story even more tragic, his death was unnecessary. His repentance is complete and attested to by the bat-kol, for this reason none of our rabbis suggest that his death was part of his atonement. He was not dying for his sins. The Talmud continues, and provides us a simple suggestion:

[For he only committed a sexual sin and yet he died!]

And this is how it comes together:

As he was so addicted to [his sin]

it was counted as minut.”

[והא הכא בעבירה הוה ומית!] |

התם נמי: |

כיון דאביק בה טובא – |

כמינות דמיא. |

Our halacha is that one is only required to die in cases of idolatry. Here the rabbis suggest his sin was so habitual and severe that it was equivalent to minut – to apostasy and heresy. He was not necessarily guilty of idolatry, but his sin was so great that it like a idol in his life and thus suffered likewise.

Had his sin been considered a typical transgression or he been a member of the sanheidrin, his resulting death might be understandable. The Torah commands that willful sinners among the elders are to be put to death, for intentionally violating the law and causing others to do likewise even after being censured by their peers. There are three ways ones atonement can be secured after execution is ordered if one chooses to repent; being pardoned by the sanheidrin, Yom haKippurim – the Day of Atonements, and suffering. Ordinarily any one of these will suffice. But in the case of a religious leader the offense holds much more weight. Even if being reconciled to his people and his peers, the elder suffers in death. The Talmud elsewhere tells us:

אבל מי שיש חילול השם בידו – |


אין לו כח |

בתשובה לתלות, |

ולא ביום הכפורים לכפר, |

ולא ביסורין למרק. |

אלא כולן תולין, |

ומיתה ממרקת, |

שנאמר: |

ונגלה באזני הצבאות |

אם יכפר העון הזה |

לכם עד תמתון” |

(ישעיהו כב) |

But if the sin he enacts is a chilul Hashem

(a desecration of the name of G-d)

it is not enough for him;

relying only on repentance,

Yom haKippurim to atone,

nor suffering to purify.

However, all of them together suspend it,

and death finishes it off.

As it is said:

‘It is obvious in the eyes of the L-rd of Hosts

that the atonement for this one

will not be until he dies.’”

(Isaiah 22:14)

Talmud Bavli Yoma 86a

The first reason this example does not apply to Ben Dordia is because the scripture cited is actually about an unrepentant person. The Tanach speaks of a person who refuses to call out to G-d in weeping and humility (v.12), and they instead are happy in their sin and glad of it as they eat and drink themselves to death (v.13); of such a person G-d is saying that until it kills them they will not atone for themselves (v.14).

Though the rabbis only use this verse figuratively when they cite it here. They are rabbis who most often concern themselves with matters that pertain to themselves, with the Talmud being their court records and transcription. They naturally discuss things herein that relate to themselves. But they are fully aware that they are merely men, even among them their could be found people who despite their wisdom and sincere religiosity retained the attitude of “eat, drink for tomorrow we die.” They therefore read this verse another way, that sometimes sins of pleasure are so strong and binding that even for the religious the battle will remain until the day they die. Maybe even more so, we all know the rabbinic maxim that states: “the greater the man the greater the yetzer hara (negative drive).” (Talmud Bavli Sukkot 52a) The impulse towards sin only dies with with the person, but a living person will always need to balance the influence of their higher-self and their base-nature. But its not possible to kill the drive of a person’s sinful nature without killing them intern.

But again this does not apply to Ben Dordia in either case. He is just a lowly man, that is fully repentant. But there is some similarity, he will battle sin until his dying day. But his death is incidental, in that there is no way for him to find his way out of the wilderness and back to his people. Being only indirectly consequential, in that his death was caused by the lifestyle he lived prior to repentance. The damage he had done to himself could not be reversed, so he died. We don’t know if he would have survived if he found his way back and repented in the proper way as a Jewish man before the elders, on Yom haKippurim or through personal infliction. He was left in such a fragile state that he could go no further and so he died where he lay. As he could not find his way back, a voice from heaven came to him and declared that he would be destined for salvation.

This outcome for him seems so unfair that heaven itself has to speak up and say that if he cannot live in this world he deserves to know that he will live in the world to come. This is because the scripture do explicitly tell us that life is the rewarded of the penitent. G-d sends messengers to call people back; even if only for them to hear the message and care less, or see the point of their error but not “get it.” Some people will never accept the message, closing their eyes and ears. But for those who understand and who take this call to heart and return, they will be healed. (Isaiah 6:9-10)

His death seems to trouble the rabbis even more so, they understood these laws and scriptures thoroughly and found no reason for his demise either. Instead of being insensitive and without comprehension, Ben Doria comes to this ascent of consciousness of his personal responsibility on his own, and without any intervention. His understanding is something so remarkable that they count him among the chachamim. For this reason they elevate him beyond being a simple person that they could not find remedy for, and instead reckon him a great man who suffered post-facto for apostasy.

That is not to say that his deathbed repentance doesn’t trouble some. Unlike the many other religions that hang their atonement and salvation on ones belief, Judaism does not and instead puts greater stock in ones actions. Emunah to the Jew means faithfulness, not faith that is an abstract feeling; it’s a description of ones ethic to follow through. Even our term for Jewish law – halacha – is a term that emphasizes the helek, the way one goes and the path they lead in this life. One should repent and live a life of holiness. This was not the case for Ben Dordia. No one challenges the truth of his redemption, yet even the Talmud itself shows the discomfort some feel with his late reflection:

Rabbi heard this and wept, saying:

‘It is possible to acquire the world to come

after years [of dedication],

and another to quire that world in an hour?’”

בכה רבי ואמר: |

יש קונה עולמו בכמה |

שנים |

ויש קונה עולמו בשעה אחת. |

Talmud Bavli Avodah Zarah 17a

The concern of Rabbi Yehuda haNasi is also understandable, being devout and faithful in Torah was the lifetime occupation of the rabbis of the Great Assembly, the sanheidrin that he headed; that enforced Jewish law, which he was chiefly responsible for documenting in the Mishnah of the Talmud; he is a tzadik par-excellence. We can look at the above statement several ways, but the obvious tone clearly carries through. For all the dedication Rabbi has invested in his practice he is anguished that Ben Dordia did nothing at all and was granted salvation. It might even seem convenient. He has no opportunity to exit his situation and there he remained, until there is nothing left he can do and then he repents. It angered Rabbi to the point of tears that for all his years of dedication, this single act of repentance by this sinner was regarded just as meritorious as his accomplishments. If this story concerns itself with what is fair, in the eyes of the faithful Ben Dordia’s “easy” redemption is unfair.

It is quite true, this is not something ordinarily we as Jews would look upon favorably. But the truth of the validity of such redemption remains even if it saddens and upsets anyone. Though this type of atonement is extraordinary and surely less than ideal, it is necessary that one not compare their own path of redemption to that of Ben Dordia or anyone else. Though most people who occupy themselves in Torah living will have an entire lifetime of personal growth and struggles to master, this story of redemption does not cheapen our approach towards atonement. What is important to comprehend here is that the understanding that Ben Dordia had to come to was his life’s struggle, this battle with himself was just as difficult as the entire life-struggle of anyone else.

Even his very name showed a tendency to be prone towards depending on supernatural help, his name Elezar means “G-d will help” or “G-d has helped.” But here he has to transcend his understand of his self and realize “there is nothing that isn’t dependent on me” to solve.

This is not hard to understand if we look beyond our own personal discomfort and consider the struggle of another. It should not need to be explained, for this reason no one responds to Rabbi’s lament. It is Rabbi who reflects upon this and rebuffs himself. The Talmud for this ends with Rabbi himself commenting a second time:

Rabbi [also] said:

‘Not only are baalei teshuvah

[repenters, lit. people who return]


but they are even called “Rabbi.”’”

ואמר רבי: |

לא דיין לבעלי תשובה |


שמקבלין אותן, |

אלא שקורין אותן רבי‘! |

Talmud Bavli Avodah Zarah 17a – Rabbi Yehuda haNasi, 2nd century CE

Considering all this, Rabbi Yehuda haNasi goes on record in praise and support of Elezar ben Dordia. He not only comes to the conclusion that this man’s story of redemption is honorable, but acknowledges the commonality of their human experience. Yehuda haNasi calls him “Rabbi,” a nickname that most often refers to himself in the proceedings of sanheidrin; he is the chief and senior elder and is called “rabbi / my teacher” by the others in the Talmud. The redemption of Rabbi Elezar ben Dordia is something which all of us, even the most pious of people, should learn from.


As we come to the completion of this study, one of the things that I want us to keep in mind is that reality that we are always able to make teshuvah – to turn around and make a change, to return. But we do need to keep in mind the reality of repentance, it might remove the stains of sins no matter how deep they run (Isaiah 1:18) but this does not mean that we are free of the natural results that such distorted living causes. This does not in any way effect our level with G-d, but it can be confusing and almost unfair that some of the results of sin can be revisited in our lives. Most often take place after a while, once a person has moved on from that type of life. Revisiting it can often bring confusion and shame of ones past back to haunt them. But our place as penitent people is not in any way compromised before the Throne of Heaven.

Keeping this in mind it should on one hand bring us comfort, our struggles are merely with the physical that we are trying to subjugate to our spiritual and higher selves. Sometimes it takes a lot longer to remedy distorted living in our physical person than it does on a heart level, and what we sow today does not necessarily reflect what we are currently reaping. When your hearts is right, it is right no matter what the physical manifestations say. But conversely, we need to bare in mind that we cannot be foolish enough to sow today and think that we wont reap the consequences of our deeds at some point.

Shmueli Gonzales, is a writer and Torah student from Southern California. In addition to divrei Torah and contributions to the Open Source publication of the siddur, he also spends much time as a volunteer educating people regarding HIV/AIDS.

Parshat Ki Tavo (2011)

Parshat Ki Tavo
Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8

“My Father was a homeless Aramean.” The story of the Jew, both born and converted

Our parsha begins with the words “vehaya ki tavo el ha’aretz / and it shall be when you have come into the Land,” derivi ng its name. In this parsha, we continue with discussing the laws related to the people coming into the Land. But here we are talking about once they already have come into the Land to possess it and settle it.

We are told that the people are to take the first fruits of the Land and to put them in a basket and go up to the place “vehalachta el-hamakom asher yivchar Hashem Eloheicha leshaken shmo sham / to the place where Hashem your G-d will choose to cause His Name to dwell there,” meaning the Beit haMikdash The Temple. What we learn from the sages is that during the first season of fruit it was to marked by a reed rapped around it to identify it as the first fruits, then when they were ripe they were to be collected in a basket and brought to Beit haMikdash, and as our text says presented before the altar. This was done during Shavuotthe festival of first fruits, which was spring barley festival also known as Pentecost (see Exodus 23:16, Numbers 28:26). Settlement would happen bit by bit as we are told (see Deut 7:22), and eventually the sanctuary of the MiskanThe Tabernacle, would give way to a permanent home, just as the people each find their own home. This was their moment to celebrate not only did they have a home, but also a parnasa – a way to support themselves. They really had it all now, they were complete.

So when this happened they were to go up to the Temple and present themselves before the priests, whoever it is in those days (obviously meaning it was gonna be at a different times for different people).

For a person like me who loves the siddur (prayerbook), this is lovely because it goes step by step through a process of the ritual and how it was officiated by the priests. I don’t want to spend to much time on the process because its beautifully clear. But one part we must take notice of is the statement the man makes to the priest, he says to him:

I affirm today

before Hashem your G-d

that I have come into the land

which Hashem swore

to our forefathers to give us.”

| Higadeti hayom

| l’Hashem Eloheicha

| ki-vati el-ha’aretz

| asher nishba Hashem

| la’avoteinu latet lanu.

Deuteronomy 26:3


The basket is taken by the priests and presented before the altar, then a declaration is made. Now it’s a little bit long so we should assume it was read by each person. In fact the Mishnayot tell of this, as we learn how the people who knew what they were doing and were literate went first to make their declaration to get out of the way, and then those who didn’t went next so that they could be helped through the process. It’s a very beautiful way of showing that we should be concerned to help our fellow through the joy of a mitzvah too, if we are good at something we are then more than able to help another along too. But I digress…

The declaration started with the statement:

My father was a wandering Aramaean.

He went to Egypt

and resided there as an immigrant…”

| Arami oved avi

| vayered Mitzraimah

| vayagor sham bimtei

Deuteronomy 26:4

The statement made would go through how the Hebrews became a great people in Egypt, and how they became persecuted and were enslaved. It goes into great detail about the suffering and afflictions, and then how G-d saved the people with terrible signs and wonders. And then how they were brought into the land flowing with milk and honey.

The statement concludes with the basket being taken once again and presented in keeping with the words:

And now, behold,

I have brought the first of the fruit of the land,

which You Hashem have given me”

| Ve’atah hineh

| heveti et-reshit pri ha’adamah

| asher natatah li

Deuteronomy 26:10a

Then the fruits were finished being presented and he would prostrate before the altar.

Now back to this statement being made, as I said it goes through a very strong description of the type of sufferings the children of Israel went through. It doesn’t just say they suffered, it says it in many colorful ways just how much they suffered. Yet they also went on to speak amazingly about the deliverance from bondage and how they were brought to a prosperous land. Why are they to do this though?

You shall rejoice in all the goodness

which was give you to you by

Hashem your G-d

and unto your household;

and the Levite and the convert

which is in your midst.”

| Vesamachta vechol-hatov

| asher natan-lecha

| Hashem Eloheicha

| uleveitecha atah

| vehaLevi vehager

| asher bekirbecha.

Deuteronomy 26:11

The reason we are to go through this whole declaration is so that we can rejoice, because G-d has taken us from being children of a wandering Aramean to now be a people who possess a fruitful land. Though telling our story comes with a lot horrible scenes, we came from nothing to having it all; so we rejoice in this.

Every so often I speak with my family about the horrors of the shoahthe holocaust and the stories surrounding the families I know that are survivors. Though my family has been here in California for many many generations, they remember the early days of Los Angeles and the Jewish community of Boyle Heights, the original immigrant Jewish community. They watched on as may people after the war came to join family members already here, swelling the neighborhoods with new enterprise and energy. My grandmother speaks to me fondly of shopping in the farmers markets and shops. But they confided in me one of the things that perplexed a lot of them, like most American people, was what the stories were surrounding these earlier pioneers and then the immediate survivors of the Shoah. They had to ask as the people still had an awkwardness present in their personality and attitudes, along with a resolute spirit worth noticing. But the bearers were not willing to speak about what refined such a temperament within them. Of course these Ashkenazim also married into my family, but they still were left wondering

I had to remind them that not to long ago these people were not so well off, many of them came with nothing and not but a few pennies to rub to together. I put it bluntly, these immigrants were strangers and poor and were really taken advantage of on top of all their suffering, most didn’t want to talk about it as living it was hard enough. Those who did really didn’t start speaking of the horrors of the shoah, for instance, until well into the late-1970s when I was a child. In some way I can understand, in some way that’s the way it always is that people can only really get beyond the anguish of it all when their joy is complete and they are looking back at it from a better place. It took at lot of hard work, but as we see these Jews often did very well for themselves in this prosperous land. Now a lot of Jews openly talk about their struggle, but it took a long time to feel secure enough to be that open.

I think about this as I sit here and read the declaration of the first fruits being made, it starts out with a pretty sad start “my father was a homeless Aramean.” This is not just exaggeration. Its not a story of “I walked to school, barefoot, in the snow, uphill, both ways.” Our father Abraham was a wandering nomad. And being a wanderer is something us Jews certainly understand well, often doing it ourselves. But the reason we should give our story is to rejoice. And as we see, it’s a compulsory mitzvah that we rejoice.

But it makes me think. How do I tell my story, am I beaten down and angry? Or do I have the spirit of a mitzvah maker? Either you can think of it as “My father was a homeless Aramean…” and tell “…see how far I have come” or you can be negative and ungratefully ignore just how good you really do have it in the here and now. How do you tell your story, what is your declaration?

The Honor of the Convert: Who’s Your Daddy?

As we see everyone is required to bring first fruits, once they have land and the trees produce they are to bring the fruit and declare. Everyone is to do so, including the Levite priests and the gerimconverts, the people who were formerly strangers in the land. The obvious questions arises when we read the statement that this is about the children of Israel and their subjugation and redemption. The point of this strikes us in the very first words “My father was a wandering Aramean,” and continues on with all kind of lines relating us calling out and being saved by “Hashem Elohei Avoteinu / Hashem G-d of our fathers.”

One really has to take notice because even before the convert is directly mentioned we can already start asking the inevitable question. Everything begins smooth as the statement to the priests first used the words, “Hashem Eloheicha / G-d of your fathers.” But what happens when a person gets a few lines into it and the statement is made that we have come asher nishba Hashem la’avoteinu latet lanu / Hashem swore to our forefathers to give us” and the person is a convert; meaning their forefathers were not so promised? Can one say this? To some critical people it may sounds like these converts are making an untrue statement.

This is an issue that is presented to us as early as the Mishnah:

These bring [first fruits] but don’t

recite [the declaration]

The convert, since

he cannot say:

‘[I have come to the Land] which Hashem

swore to our fathers

to give to us’ (Deuteronomy 26:3).

But if his mother was an Israelite

he brings and recites.

When he prays [shemonah esreh] in private,

[instead of saying: The G-d of our fathers]

he says: ‘The G-d of the fathers of Israel’

and when he prays

in the Beit Keneset (synagogue)

he says: The G-d of your fathers.

But if his mother was an Israelite

he says: The G-d of our fathers.”

אלו מביאין ולא |

קורין |

הגר מביא ואינו קורא, |

שאינו יכול לומר |

אשר נשבע ה‘ |

לאבותינו |

לתת לנו” (דברים כו,ג); |

אם הייתה אימו מישראל, |

מביא וקורא. |

וכשהוא מתפלל בינו לבין עצמו, |


אומר אלוהי אבות ישראל; |

וכשהוא מתפלל |

בבית הכנסת, |

אומר אלוהי אבותיכם. |

ואם הייתה אימו מישראל, |

אומר אלוהי אבותינו |

Mishna, Mesecta Bikkurim 1:4

I don’t want to spend too much time on the topic of conversions (we dealt with that last week, in Parshat Ki Tietzei). But the statement comes across with an honest point. One should not say the statement because the promise was not made to their forefathers. This small section is a well known passage, taken directly from the Babylonian Talmud.

But the part that continues on related to the mother is present for pretty obvious reason to a Talmud student but often missed otherwise, at this point in history Jewishness is passed through ones mother already. True inheritance is through the father as declared in the Torah, but religious linage is defined by the mother. Because of rape during war and such it could become impossible identify lineage in a very definite way. In a male oriented society, linage submitted to matrilineal descent by reason that the although father could be in question, the mother was almost always known. What is suggested here in this continuing section is that if ones mother was Jewish, then he was properly descended and the statement is still true. A convert who had a Jewish mother, could say this. But it says otherwise the convert should not pray this way, but instead in private say “G-d of the fathers of Israel” and then only “G-d of your fathers” when in shul.

The discussion doesn’t go any further here in the Talmud Bavli – the Bablyonian Talmud which is the standard, due to it’s general comprehensiveness; as opposed to the Talmud Yerushalmi, the Palestinian Talmud which did not have the benefit of and extra 150 years for compilation which was afforded the sages in the east. People being more familiar with Bavli often cite this source as halacha (law) because in general we posek (rule; decide) according to Bavli (even more so in the Ashkenazi world), and it has found itself into many scholarly works.

However, when it comes to citing the halacha most often people will cite it differently than presented above, though still affirming the source. This is because both Rashi and Rabbenu Tam state that one is indeed commanded to bring first fruits, but a converts is not to make the declaration so as not to make an untrue statement. From here it appears the heavy weights have spoken and the issue is settled.

However, this very position by the wise Rashi in the 11th century is quickly opposed even by Askhenazi poskim such as Rabbi Yoel Ben Yitzhak haLevi immediately after him the 12th century (see Ravyah 2:253–6). This position would even be opposed by Rashi’s own grandson, Rabbeinu Yitzhak mi-Baale ha-Tosafot (Rabbi Yitzchak haZaken bar Shmuel) who stated that a convert should indeed declare the statement (see Tos. Bava Batra 81b).

Now how would powerful Talmudists come to this conclusion? Rabbi Yitzhak cited the Talmud Yerushalmi.  This might seems strange to some as there is no real difference in the Mishnah, they share the same text except for a couple changes. First the the word shainu of Bavli is exchanged with sh’ain, and the omission of the section related to unique phrasing of “G-d of the fathers of Israel” and to pray differently in the synagogue; but aside from this it is very much the same. Sure it could be looked at from a different angle, but in full honestly the statement of prohibition sounds resolute.

However, the Talmud Yerushalmi, unlike the Bavli has a Gemara (original commentary on the Mishnah); this is very unique, we often would expect the case to be the other way around. And in this commentary we find one amazing turn of law as the Gemara goes directly against the Mishnah. Once again I’ll provide my own translation:

Converts say ‘G-d of our fathers’

as if to indicate if his mother was from Israel

he would say ‘G-d of our fathers,”

even though his ancestors

were not foreigners.

Said Rabbi Yossi, affirmed by

Benyamin bar Ester

sustained by Rabbi Chiyyan bar Bo.

Rabbi Chezekiah

in the name of Rabbi Bar Bo affirmed

bar Ester established

for when a gentile violated

a daughter of Israel;

Matnita [Baraita] (outside the mishnah).

Rabbi Zarkon said Rabbi Zaira,

want to hear something

revealed to me:

For Avraham, Yizchak and Yaakov

was it not so;

Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov,

their ancestors did not have anything

to swear upon but

but the Holy One, Blessed be He;

however their males perhaps declared.

I was taught in the name of

Rabbi Yehudah:

If a convert comes between you and declares

what is his grounds?

‘”Because father of many nations (goyim)

I have made you.” (Genesis 17:5)

Before you were father

of man, and now from here I will make you father

of all the nations’

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi

stated this law

as Rabbi Yehudah

It was authenticated and established

by Rabbi Avehu

as indicated by Rabbi Yehudah.”

גרים אומרים אלהי אבותינו |

. והא תנינן אם היתה אמו מישראל |

אומר אלהי אבותינו |

הא גרים בני |

גרים לא. |

אמר ריוסי קיימה |

בנימין בר עשתור |

קומי רבי חייא בר בא |

רבי חזקיה |

בשם רבי חייא בר בא קיימה |

בר עשתור קומינן |

בגוי שבא בעבירה על |

בת ישראל |

היא מתניתא. |

רבי זריקן אמר רבי זעירא |

בעי כלום |

הוא מתכווין לא |

לאברהם יצחק ויעקב |

וכי |

אברהם יצחק ויעקב |

אבותיהם היו [כלום] |

נשבע |

הקבה |

אלא לזכרים שמא לנקיבות. |

תני בשם |

רבי יהודה |

גר עצמו מביא וקורא |

מה טעם |

כי אב המון גוים |

נתתיך. |

לשעבר היית אב |

לאדם ועכשיו מכאן ואילך אתה אב |

לכל הגוים. |

רבי יהושע בן לוי |

אמר הלכה |

כרבי יהודה. |

אתא עובדא קומי |

דרבי אבהו |

והורי כרבי יהודה: |

The Gemara Yerushalmi Mesecta Bikkurim 3

And in a striking statement we have our halacha laid out for us from the Gemara of Talmud Yerushalmi. We find that if one’s mother was an Israelite then he could make the statement even if his father’s fathers were not Israelites. However, it points out that even the forefathers were converts, who had no one to mention as their fathers, they could merely swear upon G-d alone and yet seem to have made the declaration. But Avraham was made the father of many goyimnations, also the term we use for gentiles as the term merely means they are from among the other nations. This halacha is laid down for us in the name of Yehudah bar Ilai and as we see it is properly certified to be true, thus this is the law; even though this is in opposition of the Mishnah of Rabbi Yehudah haNasi.

Though there seems to have been some debate upon the subject between many great rabbis of Rashi’s age and immediately after, by the time of the Rambam (Maimonides; mid-to-late 12th century) this issue would begin to narrow.

The Yerushalim would be set down for us as law in the Rambam’s Mishne Torah. In the first part of chapter four we learn that a woman and the androgynous [note: I’m walking right past that one, not even go bite at it!] do bring first fruits, but do not declare. Why? Because they are women and women cannot own land at this point in history, remember land ownership for women is even relatively a new concept in western society. Also woman is also not bound to have to keep time related mitzvot, so it is very similarly to when doing such a mitzvah; a woman can perform it but without need to say the blessing (to not say a blessing in vain, and because it includes G-ds name also means using G-d’s Name in vain). And then we read:

Nor does a guardian, a slave, or an agent declare,

because they

can not say ‘which

You have given me, Hashem’ (Deut. 26:10)

However, a convert brings and declares,

considering it is said of Abraham

‘Father of many nations I have made you.’

(Genesis 17:5)

Indeed he is father of all the world,

all who come under the wings of the

Shechinah (Divine Presence).”

וכן האפיטרופין והעבד והשליח אינן קוראין,

לפי שאינ ן

יכולין לומר אשר |

נתת לי, ה‘” |

אבל הגר מביא וקורא |

לפי שנאמר לאברהם |

אב המון גויים נתתיך” |

(בראשית יז,ה) |

הרי הוא אב כל העולם |

כולו שנכנסין תחת כנפי |

השכינה |

Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilichot Bikkurim 4:2, Halacha 3

The Rambam states that for a man, the only time he can not read and declare the statements is when he is not the actual owner; it cannot be done by proxy, because the words “which You have given to me” are not true. But he says a converts both brings and declares, hinting that there is no contradiction about it being promised to ones fathers because Avraham is the father of the nations of the world, and even more so for those who come into the Kahel HashemCongregation of Hashem (see Parshat Ki Teitzei) and come to roost under the Shechinah. A convert can refer to G-d as “G-d of our fathers” because truly Avraham is his father.

How is that the Rambam, a Sephardic sage, and Rabbi Yoel the Ashkenezi came to this opinion. Quite frankly I believe they both had experiences with people that forced them to look at the situation intently. Rabbi Yoel befriended a convert from Würzburg, who despite the halachic opinions to the contrary he permitted lead the prayers as a shliach tzibur (cantor) and ordered not alter the text; a topic he would note in his letters to Rabbi Epharim ben Yitzhak.

The other note worthy note is an infamous letter made by the Rambam to the convert Ovadiah. Now understand the issue for a moment. The statements about promises being make and kept by G-d of our forefathers not just made when making these declarations, they are also in the Amidah and in the Birkat haMazon. If one could not make these statements they should not lead the grace after meals because they could not say the statements as truths, and people could not properly agree with “amein.” The same problem would arise when leading prayers in shul. And if even if one did not lead, by altering their prayers they could be distinguished as different and feel embarrassed. This is a real problem,

Our tradition is very sensitive to not shame or embarrass anyone, we are not to remind them nor tell anyone they are converts. This should be taken seriously, because to tell other that someone is a convert is considered lishon hara – evil speech, gossip. Reminding the person that they are a convert is considered ona’at devarim – hunting one down with words, which means verbal abuse. Do this in a congregation your could be breaking two mitzvot right off the bat!

And as we see the Rambam, who is to Oral Law what Moses was to the Bible, would not tolerate this, as we see in his letter of Ovadiah he bluntly sates:

You must say everything regularly,

and without changing anything

only as all citizens of Israel prays and blesses

should you too bless and pray

when praying alone

or if you happen to be the shliach tzibur.”

יש לך לומר הכל כתקנם, |

ואל תשנה דבר. |

אלא כמו שיתפלל ויברך כל אזרח מישראל, |

כך ראוי לך לברך ולהתפלל, |

בין שהתפללת יחידי |

בין שהיית שליח צבור |

The Rambam walks past the issue of if a convert could lead prayers all together, its not even worthy of discussing so he just states that when you are the leader you can’t change anything. He goes on to talk about Avraham being the father of truth and true religion. How the way of Avraham overcame idolatry, and enlightened the world. He even tells us that Abraham was not only a convert himself, but he converted his other children/ And that Abraham also taught others and took on converts, who also fathered children among the nations; whom he was spiritual father to. In summation he charges:

Therefore, you have to say

‘our G-d and G-d of our fathers,’

As Abraham, peace be upon him,

is your father, and you have to say as

endowed “our forefathers”….

…but the “brought us out of Egypt”

or “You did miracles for our ancestors,”

it you wanted to change and say

“You have brought Israel out of Egypt”

and “You did wonders with Israel “, say it.

And if not, again your not harming anything,

since you came under the wings of

the Shechinah,

and are accompanied by it.

This is no difference between us and you.

And all the miracles that were made for us

were made for you

After all, He says in Isaiah:

“Neither let the foreigner, that has joined

himself to Hashem, speak, saying:

‘Hashem will surely separate me from

His people'” etc. (Isaiah 56:3)

There is no difference at all between us

and you in all matters.”

לפיכך, יש לך לאמר |

אלהינו ואלהי אבותינו” |

שאברהם עליו השלום הוא |

אביך, ויש לך לומר |

שהנחלת את אבותינו“…. |

אבל שהוצאתנו ממצרים” |

או שעשית נסים לאבותינו“, |

אם רצית לשנות ולומר |

שהוצאת את ישראל ממצרים” |

ושעשית נסים עם ישראל“, אמור. |

ואם לא שנית, אין בכך הפסד כלום, |

מאחר שנכנסת תחת כנפי |

השכינה |

ונלווית אליו, |

אין כאן הפרש בינינו ובינך. |

וכל הנסים שנעשו כאילו לנו |

ולך נעשו. |

הרי הוא אומר בישעיה: |

ואל יאמר בן הנכר הנלוה |

אל הלאמר |

הבדל יבדילני המעל |

עמווגו‘ (ישעיהו נו, ג) |

אין שום הפרש כלל בינינו |

ובינך לכל דבר. |

The Rambam has a striking and clear position. This would be enough to settle the issue for Sephardim permanently. It would later be affirmed by the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) of Rabbi Yosef Karo (the Sephardic master), and would not be objected by the Rema (who wrote the Ashkenazi glosses). And thus the issue ends in the 16th century.

Those opinions that arise now are merely out of step based on a minority opinion who are not aware of the halacha due to the uniqueness of its source. In my estimation the only real resistance left is a few Ashkenzi sources that are not accustomed to poskim of Yerushalmi as much as Sephardim who widely rely on it, and thus have a very different world view of “Minhag mevattel Halakhah – custom nullifies law” which is prevalent in Talumud Yerushalmi, but resisted in Talmud Balvi despite its often tendency to deviate from this position which itself is bound by it’s own version of this dictum in the famed Babylonian Talmud which reads, “Minhag l’Yisrael torat hi / the tradition of Israel is Torah law”; but again, that’s not what I’m here to talk about. 😉

I write all this to say that within Judaism it has long been well established as a fact of law that our brothers and sisters who are converts are completely equal. We are not to distinguished between ourselves and them at all. After all we are all children of a convert, his name is Avram Aveinu – Abraham our father; the “av hamon goyim / the father of many nations.” He is the father of all who to dwell among the people and Presence of the G-d of Israel.

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