Tag Archives: Rosh haShanah

Honey: The Sweetness of the High Holidays (Video)


Are you ready for the sweetness of the high holidays? Want to add a touch of sweetness to your holiday experience? We have previously discussed this during our look at how honey is traditionally used to symbolize the sweetness of this holidays season, we dip our challah in honey from Rosh haShanah through Sukkot.

In preparation for the New Year our friends have asked me to give a brief word about the High Holidays. I wanted to take on this material in a new video, to help us keep this season of celebration and reflection sweet from beginning to end.

Blended Honey: This generally means that it is mixed with Corn Syrup or Sugar. This label shows that an unspecified majority of this product is made of fake sugars.

Blended Honey: This generally means that it is mixed with Corn Syrup or Sugar. This label shows that an unspecified majority of this product is made of fake sugars.

In addition, I would also like to give everyone advice for selecting honey.

In the past couple decades we have been seeing an increase of fake honey flooding the market. Please be aware that in many countries the words “honey” and “syrup” are used interchangeably (example:  miel  and marmelada in Spanish), which is very ambiguous. However for our purposed in performing a mitzvah we want the real stuff.

For cost saving measures and to simplify the processing of table honey, many brands have gone to blending honey with high fructose corn syrup and/or sugar with food coloring. Others have been stripped of their natural, nutrient giving pollen. Even worse yet, in Israel there has even been many cases of fake honey syrup being sold to the public. Make sure to always buy only 100% pure and natural honey with an appropriate kosher certification, and always check the label’s listing of ingredients to make sure it’s not blended. Please see the following articles which give us some good insight into modern issues relating to honey production:

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Parshat V’Zot haBerachah (2013)


Deuteronomy 33 -34

Let’s Choose To Put Our Heads Together This Year

During this time of holiday rest and reflection, let us also try  to put our heads together in unity

During this time of holiday rest and reflection, let us also try to put our heads together in unity

We are just coming through a week of much celebration, having many days of festivity back to back. First we started with the observance of Rosh haShanah – the head of the year, the New Year – and then it extended on with a conjoined Shabbat. But alas here we are at the rosh, (ראש) the head of the year. We have now begun to ready ourselves to head off on another fortuitous journey around the sun. Hopefully all these holidays are helping us recharge for the journey ahead of us.

Here in this final reading of our annual Torah cycle, in this narrative we are coming in right after the start of Moses’ ultimate blessing, just before he dies and the people ride off into the sunset towards the promised land without him.

There are two odd verses that are presented in our text. The first is actually a rather famous verse for religious Jews, but it’s just that it’s oddly dropped into place right here during this speech of Moses. “Torah tzivah lanu Mosheh / The Torah that Moses commanded us…” (Deut. 33:4) We aren’t exactly sure why it changes tone and perspective for just a verse. Why would Moses speak about himself in the third person? It’s hard to know, considering it comes in right after a highly stylized song like we saw in Parshat Haazinu last week (see Parshat Haazinu 2012). Poetic form might have a play in this matter.

The other verse is certainly hard to understand because of its poetic structure. And that is the verse the we are going to take a look at today. Let us continue on with the fifth verse:

He was king in Yeshurun,

when the heads of the people congregated

the tribes of Israel were together.”

| Vayehi viYeshurun melech

| behit’asef rashei am

| yachad shivtei Yisra’el

Deuteronomy 33:5

This verse falls into our text before the blessings of each tribe begins, as part of a poetic introduction of sorts. In the second verse of our parsha we have a speech begun that is traditionally understood to be fully in the voice of Moses. There are two preceding verses where G-d is understood as the “He” in this situation, in which He leads the people of Israel from Sinai and through the desert with a fiery law in hand. (see verses 2-3) From this point of view Moses is relating that G-d is really the one that has led them all along. That it is His words that they are going to eternally utter and at His feet they will now sit. This verse five steps back into the same orientation as verses 2-3. G-d is the “He” here in verse 5 too. He is the King spoken of.

Second problem that arises is this, a lot of people don’t understand the use of the name Yeshurun. This is a unique name that is only used three times in the Torah, with the other two occurrences also found here in Deuteronomy as well. (see Deut. 32:15; 33:26); and once in the book of Isaiah (see Isaiah 44:2). In Isaiah it is Israel (Jacob) that is identified as Yeshurun (or Jeshurun in English). This is a nickname for the people of Israel, which in my observations seems to apply when they are corporately together in one place or in one mindset.

There are a few things that further complicate the understanding of the verse, aside from the odd structure and unique nicknames. There seems to also be an odd use of a recognizable word as well. The word is rashei (ראשי). Rosh (the root of the word) means “head,” in this case of “rashei haAm” they are they “heads of the people,” or more precisely “the leaders of the people.”

Rashi suggests that the oddity of this verse is caused by it uses an idiom, a cultural expression.

We have talked about idiomatic phrases before, interestingly it has actually been about this type of phrase. (see Parshat Bemidbar 2012; Parshat KiTissa 2013) Simply put, we have seen how the Hebrew language of the chumash didn’t have a correct word for “census” for example. The closest they could do was describe the “taking a head count.” (se’u et rosh, see Numbers 1:2) This is done “ki tissa et rosh,” when you lift the heads of each person and count them individually among their ranks. (see Exodus 30:12)

Rashi further suggests that this far in the advancement of the language we are able to use the word “rashei” as a simple term for taking account of the people. The word “rashei” thus means “the sum of.” It applies to a whole congregated body of people. Therefore Rashi tells us to understand this verse to mean that when all the people are gathered together to be accounted for then G-d sits as King among Israel, and thus they are worthy of blessing (ראויין אלו שאברכם).

In these intermediate days between Rosh haShanah and Yom haKippurim we have been gathering for so many religious services dedicated to our annual accounting for our deeds and souls. This started with our selichot (penitential prayers) and will continue on until Yom haKippur. (this year Yom Kippur coincides with Shabbat) At this time we corporately atone and seek to have our deed to a good year sealed for us.

I must say that I’ve really been enjoying the holidays, worshiping with the people for whom I feel deeply for. As in most suburban cities, the congregations by me have a very diverse attendance. It’s wonderful to see so many people together for the solemn task of teshuvah (repentance). It is even more awesome when one sees all the people of different backgrounds and affiliations celebrating in peace and joy. People of all walks of Jewish life doing some soul-searching. This is very praise worthy! Truly we are worthy of the holiday birkat kohanim (the priestly blessing) when we determine to come together (b’yachad) as a people.

Rashi also offers us another insight. One that I think is very timely for this season. He suggests that in order to understand this verse it might be helpful if we change the key focus to the word “yachad” (together) and rebuild the verse from that position. His commentary thus reads:

Another explanation: When Israel is gathered together in a unified group, and there is peace among them, G-d is their King-but not when there is strife among them.”

דבר אחר, בהתאסף, בהתאספם יחד באגודה אחת ושלום ביניהם הוא מלכם, ולא כשיש מחלוקת ביניהם:

Deuteronomy 33:5

Rashi speaks a lesson to us that I hope all of us are considering as we approach these holidays. It is not enough that we just get together, though that is certainly praiseworthy in and of itself. (see Parshat Haazinu 2013) But in order for us to truly be worthy of a blessing, and in order for G-d to truly take His role as King over us, we need to be an “agudah echat / a unified society.” Rashi defines this as being a people who are at peace with each other. Only when there is peace among G-d’s people can He truly rule over us as King. This cannot be so when we are divided by “macholket / arguments.” If we want G-d to rule as King over us, and we want to be sealed for blessing, we need to start first with becoming a united people.

This year we have many more opportunities to congregate. Over the next couple weeks we also have Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Simchat Torah, etc. As we come together for our celebrations we should not just be content to be a nice sized group of people congregated together. It’s not about just getting together as a group, to stick our heads into shul and be counted. It’s also important that as we gather together in unity. With a determination to be a unified people, not divided by strife and bickering. That we put our heads together and be counted as one people.

This year I would like us to try to follow the advice of Rashi. We need to not just strive to be more active in communal life, but to also determine to help the Jewish community be an agudah echat, a single union.


Parshat Haazinu (2013)


Deuteronomy 32:1 – 32:52

Rosh haShanah as a Day of Remembrance

Jewish Learning with two boysI write this lesson after a full week of celebration, only now getting around to write out the lesson for this past week’s parsha. But its message has been working in my heart. This is one of our last Torah portions for the year, as we are getting close to completing Sefer Devarim – the Book of Deuteronomy. We will soon end our Torah cycle again, and renew our studies after the High Holy days with Sefer Bereishit – the Book of Genesis, the start of our scriptures. Our week was cut short by the coming of Rosh haShanah, with our weekly readings seeming to be taking second fiddle to holiday readings for now. But even this gives us a great chance to reflect more upon our lessons.

I would like us to begin, starting with our second aliyah – the second section of our Torah reading:

“Remember the days

of the age long gone by,

ponder the years of each generation;

ask your father,

and he will declare unto you,

your elders and they will tell you.”

| Zechor yemot

| olam

| binu shnot dor-vador

| she’al avicha

| veyagedcha

| zekeneicha veyomru lach

Deuteronomy 32:7

As we begin to go about our activities of the holiday season, with all its festivities and visiting with our loved ones, it can be a bit overwhelming. Of course I love the season. But some people get a bit tuckered out by all the services and family events. Sometimes its a bit overwhelming for some people. For some it is because it is the only time of year they are religious, it comes quickly and hits them like a tidal-wave. I don’t judge anyone, I just know how awkward it can be when you are out of practice. I’ve been there.

This year I’ve been so happy to see how many of my friends have been going out of their way to observe the holidays. Many returning to shul after some time of being away. But for as many people as I’ve complimented for coming out of their comfort zone and engaging the holiday, I have also heard people modestly downplay their observance as them merely using the occasion to visit their family. I have to tell you, even this alone is praiseworthy according to our Torah.

The Torah tells us that we are to zechor – to remember – the distant and far off past, the days of ages gone by. This stands out to me as a poignant call during this season of Rosh haShanah – the head of the year, the Jewish civil New Year.

This holidays we call by the classical name Yom haZikaron haZeh – or This Day of Remembrance, or “this memorial day.” Though we do have a modern Israeli holiday called Yom haZikaron (Memorial Day), in our classical prayers and siddurim this only refers to Rosh haShanah. This is because the bible first identifies it this way, a day of rest called a “zikeron teruah / a memorial of the sound of the shofar.” (Leviticus 23:24) This is because the ram’s horn is continuously blown to call us to attention and teshuvah (repentance) during this season, that part we understand. But why do we call it a “zikaron,” a memorial day? How does one make it a mikra kodesh – a holy convocation?

I believe one of the best ways of doing that is by visiting our family and loved ones, because it fulfills a very special mitzvah that we can see revealed here in this Torah portion.

I have always loved spending time with my grandparents. As a matter of fact, in my childhood I always had a tendency to prefer the company of my older relatives and their senior citizen friends. Hanging around their events they would teach me their hobbies, dances and sayings. I even learned to Jitterbug and play cards this way. But what I always loved most was hearing their stories. Their upbringing and youth, the war that shattered it all apart, then the rebuilding and the prosperity that came to follow. They taught me how to remember, they brought the past to life for me in the most vivid ways they could. Just spending time with them I would step back into their experience, playing their records, seeing their pictures, sharing their memories, and relating to their hopes.

When we talk about remembering most often we think of G-d remembering things during this season. We consider how G-d calls to remembrance our deeds and words, which He weighs on this Day of Judgment that we annually observe on Rosh haShanah. Likewise we also appeal to G-d that He remember our ancestors and extend mercy and blessing to us in their merit, we do this during the saying of the Zichronot (remembrances) of the Rosh haShanah Mussaf Amidah. In this piece of liturgy we remind G-d that our ancestors were remarkable people whom He showed mercy for, so may He do so towards us.

We rarely give much credit to the level of remembrance that us people can and should also be engaging ourselves in during this season. In this verse above that we are looking at from our parsha, we see another special way that zichronot can be observed. By reflecting on the years and seasons past, and by engaging our ancestors and elders in this reflecting.

That’s not to say that all our interactions with our kinsfolk are always the neatest and most uplifting experience. Sometimes visits come with pain as we see how our loved ones age and struggle with new challenges in their lives. Sometimes the difficulty comes from us running into those naturally crotchety family members that always have tragic history and scars to exhibit. That is just the realities and composition of any family. But in all these things, be they joyful or misty-eyed chronicles, we have something to glean from their stories and experiences

Actually according to Rashi this is precisely why we should take the time talk to our elders, because they can enlighten the path of life for us with their observations and accounts. And yes, sometimes it will be negative and hard to handle the truth of the past. Rashi points out in his commentary that he believes that zechor means to remember what G-d did to past generations to those who provoked Him. Rashi calls to remembrance the generations of Enosh and Noah that were destroyed by the waters as an act of divine judgment. About the times when people did wrong and they caused destruction for themselves and others. The words of wisdom of our elders helps us prevent tragedies to come and also readies us to face those for which we cannot avoid.

We take their stories in stride as we hear about the past and their reflections of life’s journey, because we recognize that those who have gone before are truly extraordinary people. That their lessons of their experiences ought to be recognized. Often our challenges pale in comparison to anything they experienced, and yet they survived with a fortitude and wisdom that we should also hope to be able to display under pressure.

I find the alternative explanation by Rashi to also be fascinating. He also offers us a suggestion for what we should do if we are not able to, for what ever reason, reflect on these ancestral lessons of the terrible past. His continuing commentary reads:

“Another explanation is: [If] you have not set your hearts to the past, then ‘reflect upon the years of generations,’ i.e., to recognize the future, that He has a better future for you; and to give you as an inheritance the days of Mashiach (the Messiah) and the world-to-come.” [Sifrei 32:6]

דבר אחר לא נתתם לבבכם על שעבר. בינו שנות דור ודור להכיר להבא שיש בידו להיטיב לכם ולהנחיל לכם ימות המשיח והעולם הבא:

Rashi on Deuteronomy 32:7

Rashi seems to be aware that there are many people, who for reason of sensitivity or trauma, find it hard to reflect on the past. It stirs up all kinds of issues for some of us. However, Rashi says that if this is not possible for us to take the past to heart, we should instead set our hearts upon future hopes. Listen to our fathers and elders for their words of promise. Engross ourselves in their stories of great feats and pioneering that will feed our vision for the future and offer us guidance for embarking on new frontiers. Rashi says but if our hearts can’t handle the past, then we should set our sights on the messianic-age; on the goal of a rectified planet and society, and the hopes a world-to-come. There is a better future for us!

I understand that for many people, there are other emotional hardships that might come to mind during this holiday season. Some of us may have moved far from our families, or our parents might have passed away, or for what ever reason we don’t have the benefit of familial ties to rely upon. There aren’t always those guiding and inspiring voices present in our lives. And sometimes this reality and the pain of it comes to mind during the holiday seasons more noticeably.

Rashi contends that we do not have to feel alone. We are not fatherless, we are not without the benefit of strong paternal guidance for those who need it. Rashi says that just as the young Elisha followed the words of the prophet Elijah and therefore called him “avi, avi / my father, my father,” (2 Kings 2:12) the prophets are paternal voices for us. And in the absence of our clan elders, who else can we turn to? Rashi declares that even yet the chachamim – our sages, scholars and rabbis – they are our elders and mentors. We can find comfort in the written heritage of our people, and we can find guidance through the teachings of those masters of Torah that help give these lessons a life application for our own lives. No matter how deprived we might feel at times when left on our own, we need to take heart the reality that we are still inheritors of a great tradition that does not abandon us. It’s always as close as a memory and as accessible as a folk saying.

During these weeks I would like you to consider the lessons that your grandmother would touch your heart with, and the words of courage that your grandfather would embolden you with. Draw close to your relatives, and your spiritual family as well. Don’t downplay, and thus dismiss and neglect, the merit in connecting to other people who understand you and whose lessons will ring true in your own heart. Let us spend these days of awe and celebration engaging in remembering the stores of years gone by, and telling hopeful tales of better days to come. Regarding the extraordinary people from which we come and the potential we have inherited.

Our getting together with people we love and respect is not just quaint congregating. It is a mikra kodesh, a holy convocation. In this way we fulfill a mitzvah and also bring fullness to Yom haZikaron haZeh – This Day of Remembrance.

Shavah tova!


Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech (2013)


Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30

True Repentance Is Not About Being Sorry

This week’s double parsha is the last reading we have before we observe Rosh haShanah – the Jewish New Year. We consider it a day of justice and reckoning.

doggie shame

During this time of year a lot of people add New Year resolutions to their annual teshuvah (repentance) checklist. Many people choose to battle their addictions. But have you ever noticed how shamming and humiliating recovery programs can be sometimes? What does the Torah say about repentance and recovery?

As we come upon this season we begin to reflect and consider all the areas in our lives in which we need to make teshuvah – repentance, were we need to make the turn-around and take right fork in the road. This is a theme that has run through-out the entire month of Elul and the Days of Awe.

Normally people don’t really like to consider the topic of teshuvah. It can be intimidating to some, and even shamming to others who are not so religiously inclined. That is why I would like us to explore just how empowering this spirit of repentance can truly be.

First off, it would help if we demystify what teshuvah – what “repentance” – really is.

It is true that repentance does come with a sense of regret and remorse for what one has done. It can certainly mean to rethink the actions that we have done in the past. We have a specific word for that in the scriptures – nacheim (נחם), to change one’s wrong and calamitous mindset, to repent; interestingly it is generally a term that is only used to appeal to G-d’s higher nature in the chumash (the five books of Moses) itself. (see Exodus 32:12, where G-d is said to repent.)

Instead for people, throughout the Torah, the word used for repentance is much more plain; it is simply teshuvah – to return. This is something that is continuously mentioned through out this parsha. That is what we will explore today. What does “repentance” essentially mean when stripped down from all the religiously charged jargon and lingo?

I would like us to pick up at the top of the third reading, beginning with our second verse:

“And you will return

and listen to the voice of Hashem,

and fulfill all His commandments,

which I command you today.”

| Ve’atah tashuv

| veshamata bekol Hashem

| ve’asita et-kol-mitzvotav

| asher anochi metzavecha hayom

Deuteronomy 30:8

One of the things that I find so interesting about the Torah is its optimism. Our previous readings for this parsha talk in detail about how people do go astray and end up regretting their wrongs from a place of distress. This is a reality of human nature. But the Torah isn’t just cynical, it responds to this with great optimism. It tell us “you will return.”

Our parsha begins with a promise that G-d will eventually deal with all our enemies and foes, and all who pursue us. (Deut. 30:7) It promises that after we return and we begin to fulfill the commandments of G-d, (v. 8) then G-d will bless us with all forms of abundance and fertility. G-d will rejoice over the good fortunes in our lives, just as G-d rejoiced over the successes of our forefathers. (v. 9) This will happen when we observe His mitzvot and statutes written in this Sefer Torah (Torah Scroll), and return with all our heart and soul. (v. 10) Our Torah calls us to return to G-d not just with an emotional response, but also to respond with “kol nafshecha” – with all our living soul, our being, to deeply identify with this call to just and righteous living. Not just to feel repentant, but to live it out.

The truth is that teshuvah is done more with the hands and feet than it is with the eyes. It’s not simple reflection and shedding of tears, it’s about starting over and reconstructing the situation. Repentance is not about continuously being sorry.

The topic of teshuvah is one that I think is best understood by people who have dealt with addictions. Often times the world’s message about repentance and redemption is about groveling over what we have done, admitting we are powerless, and that something needs to save us. I believe a lot of the pain and stagnancy in the lives of people is caused by this message. It is reinforced by a culture in recovery groups to praise the “rock bottom.” The message is one of constantly being a helpless wretch in need of saving. Someone who just can’t do it in life, so they got to “let go and let G-d.”

Much of this attitude is reflective of the Protestant Christian mentality, which is pervasive in many recovery groups and the similar. Many are fully built on the idea of total depravity, of irredeemability (you are always an alcoholic), and the need of a higher power to help you along. This is a very humbling Christian concept that keeps those so inclined in-line, but it is not helpful for the Jewish soul.

The message of Christianity regarding this is clearly contrary to the message of the Torah. Christianity tells people that they need a vicarious atonement because they are incorrigible lawbreakers according to the Bible. That they are helpless and unable to redeem themselves, that’s why somebody else needs to do it for them. In fact they would claim that the mitzvot of the Torah are only given so that people would know what charges G-d has against them. That the laws and statutes of Torah are just intended to show people that they could never actually keep them.

The foolishness of such false humility is revealed to us by the simplicity of the Torah. It tells us why it charges us to start over again, to return to the mitzvot another time:

“For this commandment

which I command you today

is not concealed from you

nor is it far off.

It is not in the heavens

so that you say:

‘Who can go up to heaven

and bring it to us,

so that we can hear it and do it?’

It is not across the sea

so [that you should] say:

‘Who will cross over the sea

and bring it us,

so that we can hear and do it?’”

| Ki hamitzvah hazot

| asher anochi metzavecha hayom

| lo-niflet hi mimecha

| velo-rechokah hi

| Lo vashamayim

| hi lemor

| mi ya’aleh-lanu hashamaymah

| veyikacheha lanu

| veyashmi’enu otah vena’asenah

| Velo-me’ever layam

| hi lemor

| mi ya’avor-lanu el-ever hayam

| veyikacheha lanu

| veyashmi’enu otah vena’asenah

Deueronomy 30:11

Our Torah does offer some profound answers for life, even if they are not as mystical as people would like them to be. The Torah does not call for any real epiphany, or the grasping of any particular mystery. The Torah is not a hidden truth, nor it is too hard to comprehend on ones own.

The Torah contends that we do not need any messengers to go up to heaven and bring down the truth for us. We don’t require someone to ascend to the heavens in order for us understand what G-d wants from us, and what we should do in this life! It’s not that hard to comprehend, as it speaks from the inside of us.

The Torah challenges us to recognize that we do not need exotic gurus and teachers, people in far-off and foreign places to deliver the answers of life to us. These truths are not so hidden and distant that someone needs to bring them back to us from afar. This truth is very close and easy to grasp.

The problem for many people who deal with the struggles of addiction, sin and their base desires is that they often want someone else to do it all for them. They rather be told what to do, rather than think for themselves. They rather consider sin and addiction a mere disease, that they just need G-d to cure or aid them through. They rather have someone else to rely upon – and blame – for the outcomes in their lives.

Our Torah teaches us something very different, by forcing us to take full responsibility. It contrasts the call of our G-d against the world view of those who prefer to build their spirituality completely around sages, shamans, all forms of novel religion, and even other people’s experiences. It stands against our complacency and self-pity. It empowers us with these words:

“Rather, this is something

that is very close to you;

[it is] in your mouth and in your heart

so that you can do it.”

| Ki karov eleycha

| hadavar me’od

| beficha uvilvavcha

| la’asoto

Deuteronomy 30:14

We need to protect our mindset from people who exaggerate a sense of helplessness, and that foster a mentality of inability that leads to dependence. People who encourage dependence on their program or religion, instead of re-empowering you for your own path. Our Torah stands against asking people to grovel in helplessness and shame. Instead of telling us what we are unworthy and incapable of on our own, the message of the Torah as revealed to Israel is, “You can do it!”

Rather than telling us what we can’t do and offering a list of commandments to convict us with guilt, the Torah lays out the mitzvot as a road map for how we can live a life of prosperity and success. It’s not hard to understand. It tells us that if we want this type of success all we really need to do is shuvreturn and try again – because we can do it!

Rehab and recovery programs that I can recommend:

  • Beit T’Shuvah – (Venice Beach/Santa Monica) Southern California’s inspiring Jewish rehab and congregation. Serving the Jewish and non-Jewish community alike to help people rebuild a life after addiction.

  • Chabad Residential Treatment Center – (Los Angeles) Since 1972 thousands of men from every imaginable background have successfully received treatment at Chabad Rehabilitation Center, based on criteria established by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Washington DC.

  • The A.L.I.Y.A. Institute  – A Brooklyn Heights program that is specially geared for young adults from chassidish families but that that are out of yeshiva, that are dealing with homelessness and addiction issues. This program pairs a working beit midrash for individualized Torah learning half the day, with the structure the classroom for English and Math studies in preparation for the GED.

Parshat Ki Tavo (2013)


Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8

Tithing and Tzedakah: Charity during the Holiday Season

handstzedakahcharityThere is never a polite enough way of saying to people, “You need to do more to help the down-and-out!” However, it’s something we face this week as the Torah makes us admit that “I forgot” really isn’t an excuse.

As we enter our study this week the holiday appeals for charity are already ringing out from our congregations and favorite Jewish programs. We consider Rosh haShanah the start of our civil year, and with its arrival we begin to regard our civic concerns. We consider our finances, and most often begin to set aside money for membership dues, children’s education and tzedakah; figuratively meaning “charity,” but literally meaning to do justice (tzedek) for the poor and the needy.

As if the coming season doesn’t remind us of this already, the Torah portion for the week also brings attention to our giving. I normally don’t like to harp on the message of monetary contributions of charity, feeling the spirit of giving has been grossly distorted by some greedy religious leaders. But we cannot be dissuaded from discussing what is right simply because others might do wrong with its message. For Jewish people, the giving of charity is something we all tend to hold with high regard and have positive feelings about. Understanding the meaning of the word tzedakah we see that charity is synonymous with social justice.

Among all the things that Jews become introspective about during this season of repentance, Jews also pay special attention to our charitable contributions. One expects to be judged for their ways on Rosh haShanah, one doesn’t want to be found neglecting their ethical responsibility as we go into this season. Have we given this year? Have we set aside a tithe for charity?

But from where does this custom of giving derive? Is it a biblical commandment? That is what we are going to look at today as we study our parsha. We will pick up with the text at the top of the second aliya:

“When you have finished tithing

all of the tithes

of your produce in the third year,

the year of the tithes,

you shall give them to the Levite,

the foreigner,

the orphan,

and the widow

so they can eat until they are full

within your gates.”

| Ki techaleh laser

| et-kol-masar

| tevu’atcha bashanah hashlishit

| shnat hama’aser

| venatatah la-Levi

| lager

| layatom

| vela’almanah

| ve’achlu vish’areicha

| vesave’u.

Deuteronomy 26:12

Last time we looked at this parsha we talked about the celebrations and ritual requirements for the settlers of Israel as they go into the land. (see Parshat Ki Tavo 2011) After their first harvest the Israelites are to bring bikkurim – the first of all the produce – which are to be presented to the priests in the Temple. This is the first of such offerings that is set down by Torah, which takes up the whole of the first aliyah to discuss.

Now in our second aliyah we are getting beyond the general terumah (priestly offerings) and begin to discuss ma’aser – the ten percent portion (from eser, Hebrew for “ten”) – which we call the tithe.

From a straight forward approach it seems clear. In the third year of the seven-year shmitah cycle (the agricultural year and fallow cycle), after all the different tithes are separated one is to take out the tithes and give them to the Levites and the needy of the community.

The rabbis, as you would see from Rashi’s commentary, seems to complicate the matter a bit by further breaking this down into first and second tithes. However, these are merely practical considerations for how one would actually apply these principles in an agrarian society that centers around a Temple.

However I would bring out attention back, and let us take notice that we are talking about separating a portion of our produce (tevuah) that is grown in the occupied land of Israel. In a literal sense, the tithe is only offered of crops and grains from the holy land.

For this reason there is a machlochet as to whether or not we are biblically required to give tithes in diaspora. We have no Temple and active Levitic priesthood to bring our offerings to. Furthermore, most of us are not farmers. We no longer live in a primarily agrarian society, the system of giving no longer matches our economy.

Though the most accepted religious view is that we are not halachically required to give a tithe in galut, it has still become the custom of Jews to give ten percent of their net income (the amount left after all deductions) towards tzedakah – for charity. There is a reason we don’t harshly apply the full weight of rabbinic laws regarding tithing, because with a first and second tithe given consideration one can be required to give as much as 20% of one’s earnings. However today we go with the simple view, and in keeping with the spirit of the Torah we give a straight tithe of 10% of our earnings after deductions.

The reason I have to stress all of this is because the biblical way of applying tithing is not at all like the practice we actually have today. Jews in the biblical age had to give a lot of offerings. Think about it. The first of all our harvests, a portion of each successive harvest of crops, and then a second tithe given for the poor. Not money, but crops. That’s a lot of giving! This is what we mean by “kol maaser / all the tithes.”

I also stress this because in the English language the term tithe also comes with some negative Anglo connotations. When people hear “tithe” we generally understand that as meaning a church tax. That is the mental picture of the English speaker, of preachers calling out to the masses to give them their 10% to help keep their “ministry” going. But this is not the correct understanding of tithing either. A tithe is not a payment for being a member of a congregation.

Sure there is a portion that is set aside for the Levitic priests and their descendants. However, the Torah here in our parsha also lumps giving to them up in a tithe which is also set aside for the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows.

At first it might not seem apparent why these people are all lumped together here. What do they have in common that we are to separate a tithe for them?

Simply put, they are all people who have no true income because they have no land to farm. Levites, as priests and civil servants, are given no permanent settlement of land. The priests are instead sustained off the tithes of the people. The foreigner, orphan and widows are also people with no land or way to provide for themselves. They too must be sustained from tithes.

Our Torah calls us to give as part of a religious obligation. However it does not call us to give for merely religious purposes. It puts our giving for spiritual endeavors on the same level as giving for the destitute.

This truth cannot be avoided, when it is summed up that the reason that we are to give is so that the needy within the gates of our cities will be able to eat until they are satisfied.

Here in this parsha our Torah calls out to people to give. It doesn’t just theoretically call for us to be generous and charitable people. It identifies people who are needy, and then tells us we need to give so that they will not go hungry. Not just so they will not starve, but we should give generously so that they can eat well and be satiated.

Our Torah plays hardball with us by giving names to the needy, and then demanding that we provide for them.

The Torah stresses this point again by naming these people a second time, as part of a confession that is to be made by a person presenting their tithe. Our text continues:

“And you shall say before

Hashem, your G-d,

‘I have removed the sacred portion

from the house

and I have also given it to the Levite,

and the immigrant,

and the orphan,

and the widow,

according to all the commandments

you have commanded me;

I have not violated your commandments,

nor have I forgotten [them].”

| Ve’amarta lifnei

| Hashem Eloheicha

| bi’arti hakodesh

| min-habayit

| vegam netativ la-Levi

| velager

| layatom

| vela’almanah

| kechol-mitzvatcha

| asher tzivitani

| lo-avarti mimitzvoteicha

| velo shachachti.

Deuteronomy 26:13

As one gives their tithes they are made to confess this. They vow that they have separated all the tithes. And then like we are following a check list, the Torah once again reminds of all the people who need our assistance. It calls them out by name to us.

We are told to confess in more than one way that we have properly tithed: we confess that we have followed the laws, that we have not tried to avoid these commandments, and that nor have we forgotten them.

Our Torah tells here in this parsha that we are commanded to give to people in need, we are not to avoid giving to them, nor are we to forget to give to them. Not only does our Torah point out the needy in our communities, but it gives a name to them and tells us that using an excuse that you forgot about them is not an excuse at all.

Giving Tithes for the Financially Challenged

I am a person that is physically disabled. I live off of social security, and assistance from generous friends and family. The amount of money that a disabled or retired person collects is often very little. How can a person with limited resources do their part for charity?

Our Torah is quite practical. It does not demand that we endanger ourselves by extravagant giving. There is no form of piousness in giving more money for charity than one can afford. In fact, our Torah even puts a cap on how much we are able to give.

As previously discussed above, biblically we can interpret the tithe system to go as high as 20%. There are indeed some great poskim that believed that one should regularly give 20% of their net income to charity and did so (the GR”A, the Vilna Gaon; and the Chasam Sofer being among them). This is as far as we can extend the laws of tithing rabbinically, and this is the cap to which we are allowed to give.

The Talmudic text for this also reveals the reason why we are to be levelheaded about our tithing:

“Rabbi Elai stated: It was ordained at Usha that if a man wants to scatter money lavishly, he should not squander more than a fifth (chamesh), or else he will also become one in need.”

אילעא באושא התקינו המבזבז אל יבזבז יותר מחומש תניא נמי הכי המבזבז אל יבזבז יותר מחומש שמא יצטרך לבריות ומעשה באחד שבקש

Talmud Bavli, Ketubot 50a

The reason, per the gemara, that one cannot separate more than a chamesh – a fifth, or 20% of one’s money for tithes – is because if one gave more than this they may be putting themselves at risk. If we instead give sensibly we will be able to keep ourselves and our future resources to give sustainable.

One thing a person on a fixed income needs to consider first is what their net earnings are. That is important and is not as obvious as it seems. Most consider their earning what they make after taxes. This would make sense, because if you are paying say 20% in taxes on a $1,000 dollars, you only bring home $800. All your check is really only worth $800. Thus we use the net earnings.

Furthermore, for most of us our real “earnings” can be even smaller than that. Often times there are reoccurring monthly expenses like paying for your Medicare insurance plan, transportation costs and all kinds of expenses that eat up your paycheck even before you get home. Those expenditure need to be taken into consideration, as those also cut back our true take-home pay.

The halacha is also very receptive to special needs. For example, in the case of people with small children the halacha allows us to take special deductions if we need to in order to help us meet their needs. Some things like babysitting expenses cut into our income. Sometimes children’s tuition is just too hard to manage. We are also allowed to deduct those expenses from our tithable income figure up to a certain age (6 yeas old per halacha, but extended up to 16 years old per the law of the State of Israel). Simply put, charity starts at home.

For any person on a fixed income we need to ask ourselves how much is left in our pocket as spending money? From that we can consider giving a 10% portion, that is reasonable if we can afford it. That amount is a sacrifice that is proportional to our own financial state, and still allows us the pride of also doing a mitzvah.

Programs I can recommend:

  • Beit T’Shuvah – Southern California’s inspiring Jewish rehab and congregation. Serving the Jewish and non-Jewish community alike to help people build a life after addiction.

  • Chabad of California – Among all the many programs that Chabad offers, the least well-known are their many rehabilitation and social service programs that are non-sectarian and open to all.

  • Mazon – a Jewish response to hunger.
  • Open Siddur Project– One of the finest projects on the Internet, helping transcribe and develop Jewish liturgy as a free and Open Source library.

  • World ORT – Empowering Jewish communities in Latin America and the former Soviet Union, and 60 other countries around the world. Using state of the art technology to provide education and vocational training, enabling people to make their own way in the world.


Selichot: The Penitential Prayers for Rosh HaShanah


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“Getting Down During the High Holidays”


“Getting Down During the High Holidays” – Musings of the Season
The Tradition of Ritual Prostration

A couple of weeks ago my friend Brad sent me a lovely article by Rav Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of United Hebrew Synagogue of the Commonwealth of the United Kingdom titled “Holy days are an annual check to mission drift.” On this note I started the new year. 

Jehu son of Omri bowing, on an obelisk from the year 842 BCE

As with most Jewish people, the coming of the High Holidays are profoundly important to me. Thoughts of years past come rushing to the forefront of my mind. There are so many memories to sort through. Each year unique, each memory cherished in their own way.

It is especially so for me, as someone who has returned to observance from secularism; a baal teshuvah. Like many people, it was during the awesomeness of this time of year that I one again found myself and returned home to yiddishkeit (Jewishness). I celebrate this season as my homecoming.

As I began to reminisce I was taken back to a conversation I had over a decade ago with a friend of mine. At the time I was a young secretary working for the Reform movement, who had made friends with a Conservative cantor that also work in the same office. We would often discuss the upcoming liturgy and holidays. One day as we were discussing the uniqueness of the High Holiday liturgy he asked me what I thought was the most profound moment of the services. Without questions I blurted out “the kneeling.” As I related this to him he smirked and we discussed dozens of unique stories we had for ritual prostration.

The story that stuck in my mind at the time was that of me being dragged to High Holiday services at the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles during the mid-1990s by my partner at the time. I myself had mostly been educated in an Conservative background, but already heavily leaned to Orthodox tradition and thought since the services were mostly orthodox in approach it would be nice to do something that kept his interest and still respected my sensibilities. The services were beautiful and hamish. All went well until at one point in the service, seeing what was coming next I got up and walked over to the front and facing wall of the hall that had a picture of a chassidic rebbe on it, took it down off the wall, turned it around, then proceeded to take the position of prostration. The dirty looks for my embarrassed partner ended when I got pats on the back from the rabbis and various celebrities for my actions. My cantor friend laughed and said, “but at least you did it!”

Most of you will only get the punchline of this if you understand the tradition… so here it goes…

Of all the positions I can think of, the position of kneeling is one that is the most uncomfortable for the Jew; but not so much a physical discomfort, but an internal discomfort. Unlike other religions, the position of kneeling is uncommon and unfamiliar in Judaism. And even when present, kneeling is not an end in and of itself. It leads to the rare occurrence of prostration.

Only once during the Rosh haShanah liturgy and four times in the Yom Kippur services do Jews follow the formula as described in the Alenu prayer, “v’anachnu korim u’mishatachavim u’modim / but we bend our knee, bown down, and offer praise.”

The tradition of prostration goes back all the way to the Holy Temple itself, when the Divine Name of Havayah – YHVH, the Name of Hashem – was said in the most Holy of Hollies; as the Name was pronounced the people would fall down on their faces, touch their head completely to the ground and say in response, “Baruch shem kavod malchuto l’olam vaed / blessed is His sovereign Name forever and ever!” (Talmud Bavli Yoma 6b)

After the destruction on the Temple the ritual of prostration was incorporated into the Alenu prayer as early as the third century C.E. Now the Alenu prayer, being so old and well known has had several revisions to it. Not all of them, however, were consensual. Under both Muslim and Christian rule the Alenu prayer was often fiercely attacked as blasphemy because of the lines that preceded the mentioning of kneeling:

He has not made us |

like the nations of the world |

nor caused us to be like the families |

of the earth |

nor has He assigned us a portion like theirs |

nor a lot like that of all their multitudes |

for they bow to vanity and nothingness” |

שֶׁלֹּא עָשַָׂנוּ

כְּגוֹיֵי הָאֲרָצוֹת

וְלֹא שָׂמָנוּ כְּמִשְׁפְּחוֹת

הָאֲדָמָה,

שֶֹׁלּא שָֹם חֶלְקֵנוּ כָּהֶם,

וְגוֹרָלֵנוּ כְּכָל הֲמוֹנָם.

שֶׁהֵם מִשְׁתַּחֲוִים לְהֶבֶל וְלָרִיק

Alenu” prayer, Nusush haAri z”l

Under persecution the key words of bowing to vanity and nothingness disappeared from the liturgy at several times through out history.

Ironically as these words disappeared in the European liturgy, the tradition of bowing also fell into disuse independently of this liturgical imposition. It has been assumed the reason kneeling fell into disuse was in order to avoid the appearance of following practices of Christians and Muslims.

It would not be until the Chassidic movement, which incorporated the Nusach Sephard into the Ashkenazi tradition, that the full Alenu would be restored and the tradition of prostration would also once again be incorporated into the High Holiday services. But naturally this impact was first limited to the realm of Chassidut and not to Eastern Europe at large.

With the incorporation of prostration into the liturgy it was understood that it would follow the general halachic premises (Jewish laws) regarding prayer; when bowing one should only bow facing the eastern wall towards the Aron haKodesh (Ark of the Torah Scrolls), towards the direction of Jerusalem, and one should not bow facing any object. Legal discourse is rich with statements to avoid even the appearance of bowing towards any object or image. So much so that the tradition for many orthodox is not to even bend down to tie ones shoe; if one needs to tie their shoe, one lifts up on something like a stool or such to tie their shoe.

Through persecution there also became and unwillingness to bow. Our unwillingness grew to be a resistance. As Jews our protest to idolatry begins even before the thought of praying to another god, in that we cannot even take the position necessary to show sincerity. It became ingrained into us to bear an unwillingness to bow to another oppressor, because we bow to no man, just G-d. It grew to be a symbol of confidence before our G-d, and pride as individuals.

As liberal Judaism grew, being an outgrowth of the Eastern European tradition, it did not see necessary to take on the tradition of prostration. Only later would it be discussed and rejected as an unnecessary ritual of Temple origins we no longer follow, and secondly some objected to it as a demeaning position. Kneeling and unnecessary bowing thus in American Judaism became a faux pas to always be avoided.

One of the stories my cantor friend related to me was once being at a service at a distinguished Conservative shul in West Los Angeles, he described the chaos that ensued because two Jewish men from Yemen (where ritual prostration is known daily) fell on their faces flat out on the floor when the Torah was taken from the Ark and passed before them. We both laughed in hysteria because we both knew, without stating it, the type of tongue lashing they would receive. It would go something to the tune of, “We don’t do that, we worship with dignity! When Jews worship we stand. Think about it, our most central prayer is the Amidah, which means to stand!” Though the castigating individuals would be right in principal, they would be wrong in that the position of submission is not forbidden, its just rare and allowed only with cautious use.

I guess for this reason it is so awesome an experience for me when it happens. I have found that every years, the single act of bowing, kneeling and laying my head to the ground comes with great emotion. When everyone, small and great, comes and bows before Hashem. It is done with carefulness, purposefully, one bows exaggeratedly long bearing in mind that they are fulfilling a great and rare mitzvah (commandment). For a moment we step back into a Temple era tradition that is both humbling and uplifting at the same time. We bow to recognize two things; G-d as our King on Rosh haShannah, and our need for sincere repentance on Yom Kippur.

It is reminiscent of the age honored tradition in constitutional monarchies of Kissing Hands. It was the tradition that the Prime Minister at the start of their government would come before the sovereign and they would kneel, to be commanded that upon arising they are to go about the task of opening parliament. Though today there is most likely no kneeling, or actual kissing of hands, this ceremonial first meeting still takes place in the United Kingdom. Tony Blair has stated in the past that he found the tradition to be inspiring, in that it reinforces the concept that one is accountable to someone other than themselves.

I think it is wholly appropriate that at the Jewish New Year we are called as our first act after after offering up our worship to G-d, to bow down and acknowledge Hashem as King, and only then do we get up to go about all our other tasks.

For me it has become a moment of pure reverence, and secretly inside my heart a relieving moment in which I get to show my weakness before an all enabling G-d. My strength is shown not in how fiercely to attention I stand, but by my ability to compose my unruly self and show submission to godliness.

It would do us well as Jews to seek to keep this traditional form of submission to G-d. That once a year we refocus ourselves, with the holiday seasons coming again to remind us of where we are at in our year, and pointing us joyfully towards the blessings of a renewed year. And during this most holy season we not only bring ourselves in line with the seasons, in this call of submission to G-d we are collecting ourselves to make sure our hearts are in line, focused on proliferating the greatness of the Name of Hashem our G-d. It would do us all well to bow down, and not arise until we are sure that our hearts are focused “lifnei melech, malachei hamalchim, hakadosh, baruch hu / towards the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.” More than just reminiscing on the past years, lost in memories of where we have been and have far we have come, we should focus on the directions of our hearts.


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