Monday, October 31, 2011

Still think you can trust the fish counter?

In my days as a Rav haMachshir [head of a kosher supervision agency], I heard quite a few people say they could buy filleted, skinned fish at the fish counter at their local supermarket, trusting the store management to be honest because of the risk they would run in playing games.

Of course, even if the fish is the right fish, there still are problems from non-kosher fish residue on the equipment, and from the common practice of leaving all of the fish in buckets overnight, leaking brine on each other.

But trusting the fish counter is, itself, problematic. This in from ABC News this past week:

Investigation Uncovers Rampant Fish Fraud

A new investigation provides fresh evidence that restaurants and markets continue to dupe seafood lovers into paying top dollar for low-grade fish.

As part of a special “Fishy Business” series, the Boston Globe spent five months buying fish from dozens of establishments throughout Massachusetts and sending the samples off to a lab in Canada. DNA tests found 48 percent of the fish had been mislabeled as a more expensive type of fish.

Fish samples were gathered from 134 restaurants, grocery stores and seafood markets, and the results were staggering. Every one of 23 white tuna samples tested turned out to be something other than tuna. In most cases the fish labeled tuna was escolar, which the Globe said was “nicknamed the Ex-Lax of fish by some in the industry for the digestion problems it can cause.”

Milk remains unique in its acceptability without kosher supervision in North America, because there is no incentive for milk producers and distributors to cheat - it would be ridiculously counterproductive for them to raise pigs and milk them. But many other products, including products people take for granted, are often adulterated or outright switched with inexpensive substitutes. Hence the need for hashgachah.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


This past summer, I had the opportunity to sit on a Toronto panel of chaplains and religious figures addressing a range of legal/ethical questions – organ transplant, contraception, battlefield ethics and more.

When the discussion turned to the death penalty, another panelist criticized the American use of capital punishment. An Anglican priest took the opportunuty to mock the American practice of giving medical treatment to prisoners on Death Row.

Part of me was upset because her point was morally repugnant – to suggest that prisoners should be allowed to suffer because they are going to be executed anyway is absurd, and would amount to legalized prison cruelty.

But part of me was upset as an American, taking her knock on the government and criminal justice system personally. The setting was wrong for calling her on it [the context was a talk with a group of Canadian, Israeli and Arab medical students – not the time/place to discuss America-bashing], so I had to let it go. But I stewed after that one for a long time.

I'm still surprised by how strongly I reacted. I am proud of much of America, but as someone who has wanted to make aliyah for the past 20 years, and as someone who has a decent degree of cynicism about American government and its system of justice, I would not have expected to take her comment so personally. Go figure.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A sound rebuke from the Chafetz Chaim

I remember one of my rebbeim, Rav Yitzchak Cohen, noting the hypocrisy of saying about the words of Torah "כי הם חיינו ואורך ימינו ובהם נהגה יומם ולילה (These are our life and the length of our days, and we will speak them day and night)" in the daily Maariv prayer, and then not living them and committing serious time to learn Torah. How can we call these "our life", and not treat them that way?

Rav Cohen had similar feelings about the line at the end of the amidah, "יהיו לרצון אמרי פי והגיון לבי לפניך (May the declarations of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart be desirable before You)," a declaration that often comes right after 3-4 minutes of meandering thoughts. Am I asking for my thoughts about exams, sports, and who knows what else to be desirable to Gd?

I was reminded of that the other day, when I read the Chafetz Chaim's words in Shem Olam, Volume 2, Chapter 11:

One comes to shul and stands and declares before Gd that he will sanctify His Name in the world as do the celestial hosts of Heaven. In the course of this he departs the Beit Midrash and someone offends his honor, and fire comes from his mouth and he removes his mind entirely from serving Gd, and he dirties his soul with various prohibitions, harmful speech, gossip, strife, mockery, sometimes also theft and taking by force.

Within some hours he returns to the Beit Midrash to daven minchah with the community before Gd, and he returns and cloaks himself in the sanctity of an angel, saying, 'We will sanctify Your Name in the world, as they sanctify it in the Heavens!'

'Nuff said.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Happy Rabbis!

Several years back I kept an anonyblog for a while, and every once in a while I enjoy looking at those old articles. Here's a fun one from mid-2007, mildly edited. Keep in mind that I wrote it with Pesach's stress fresh in my mind:

I know it's hard to believe, but the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago says it, and they have a long name with catchy initials and lots of researchers researching the opinions of lots of centers, so they must be right.

So stop the presses, print banner headlines, notify the long-lost Renegade Rebbetzin and shout it from the rooftops: The happiest profession is CLERGY!

I feel like emailing Dave Barry, the idea is so ridiculous.

Maybe they polled a bunch of rabbis, asking "How do you feel," and the rabbis all said "Thank G-d," which the researchers took to mean they were actually happy.

Happy? As in waking up smiling in the morning, nodding in a friendly way at joggers, drinking the morning coffee with a grin? As in whistling a peppy tune while waiting for the elevator, throwing caution to the wind and going for a walk without a coat, feeling generally satisfied with the way life is going?

What rabbi planet do you live on?

I suppose it could be the priests are really happy, and they just outnumbered the rabbis in the survey... cuz I'm pretty sure it's not the imams saying "I rate my personal happiness, on the scale of 1 to 10, as an 11!"

Roofers, apparently, are not happy at all; they're the absolute bottom of the list. This is interesting; there must be a connection between the dissatisfaction of workers who sit on rooves, and the satisfaction of rabbis who feel like jumping off rooves. Is jumping off a high structure the key to happiness? Or just dreaming of it? Or is it that roofers have the same dream, and are frustrated by living so close to the fantasy and not fulfilling it?

One final note: You know who was Number 2? Firefighters. This actually made a lot of sense to me. Because the next-happiest people, after rabbis, are totally people who run into burning buildings for a living.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Sufi Marriage Counseling

I was privileged to hear an interesting dvar torah over Yom Tov on the meaning of "havdalah [separation]" in biblical Creation, and the application of this "havdalah" to marriage and divorce. One of the speaker's core ideas was that humans who wed become one, and should not, under normal circumstances, be divided.

Then today, in reading a presentation on Public Health planning, I came across the following Sufi saying:

You think that if you understand one, you understand two, because one and one are two. But you must also understand 'and'.

The point regarding Public Health planning related to the way that scale changes our treatment recommendations – we cannot recommend for millions what we would recommend for a single patient in a clinic. One patient plus one patient does not yield multiple patients with a multiple of the same recommendation.

However, I also see applications for marriage counseling. One and One make two, so I might assume that if I know the husband and I know the wife then I know the couple. But we must also understand the "and", the way in which they combine, in order to truly comprehend what this couple becomes when they are together.


Sunday, October 23, 2011

Haveil Havalim #335 - The Gilad is Free! edition

Welcome to Haveil Havalim #335, the Gilad is Free edition!

But first, the boilerplate:
Founded by Soccer Dad, Haveil Havalim is a carnival of Jewish blogs -- a weekly collection of Jewish and Israeli blog highlights, tidbits and points of interest collected from blogs all around the world. It's hosted by different bloggers each week and coordinated by the formidable Jack. And as usual, I include all posts submitted, regardless of my personal opinion on their contents, and I added some from my own browsing.

First, and definitely foremost: Gilad Shalit's release
Batya presents her opinions in Not To Rain on The Shalit "Parade", comparing the deal to a flimsy succah, as well as Gilad Shalit versus Natan Sharansky and Next Time Will Be Worse.

Rabbi Yehoishophot Oliver has a lot to say in The Shalit deal—disgraceful and deadly, and Cosmic-X calls it A Criminal Mistake. The Muqata shows why, with a Freed Terrorist's vow, and Yisrael Medad (who did not submit anything this week?) may have a report of the first victim of the released terrorists.

Sharon A offers a series of photographs of the Shalit tent, and related scenes, in Gilad Shalit Home.

Frume Sarah will exhale, while Esser Agaroth presents Welcome Home, Gilad Shalit!

Mrs. S. presents PM Netanyahu's speech in “And the sons will return to their border”.

Leah-Perl Shollar writes about pregnancy, the Hoshanos prayers and Gilad Shalit's time as a hostage, in "Deliver Us!"

Simply Jews offers us Understanding the Swap, and Treppenwitz offers us Perspective, while Life In Israel presents the view of Rabbi Nir ben Artzi.

As for the media, rickismom doesn't see coverage of the deal for Gilad's release in the international media, in The World Ignores; We Are “Sweet and Sour”. While Jewlicious says the New York Times gets it wrong on Israel yet again.

And who's about to forget that it's been Yom Tov for the past three-plus months weeks?
Susan Barnes talks Community and High Holidays in Were High Holy Day Services Boring? Next Year, Try This.

Want some great Succos pictures? Check out Sharon A's unique 'Occupy' demonstration in Occupied on Sukkot, and then see My Shtub's A Simple Sukkah in the Fall.

Rabbi Yehoishophot Oliver presents The four kinds: Individuality, complementarity, and unity and Sukkah: Unity through transcending all divisions.

Mrs. S. suggests The latest hiddur for preserving your arba minim, while Adventures in Mama-Land takes the kids on a Chol haMoed trip.

Rivkah Lambert Adler discusses, describes and dissects her Simchat Torah in Simchat Torah Redux.

Jacob Richman presents Good News from Israel: New Video: The Jerusalem Sukkot March and Photos of Second Hakafot.

Next, here are some personal posts
Ki Yachol Nuchal offers some great photos and a chain of reminiscences in 4 years. 22 years. 1941 days.

Chaviva mourns Professor Gerald Shapiro.

The estimable Jack has musings on fatherhood and the dad blogosphere in The Media Does Not Define Me, while Crazy Jewish Convert reflects on One Year of Blogging.

Ima Bima (and David) review The Princess and the Peanut, while Elle muses on the passing of a year, and the changes it brings.

And some Israel News, beyond Gilad
Bibi has a meme! See it in The First Israeli Meme.

Joel Katz presents Religion and State in Israel - October 17, 2011 (Section 1) and Religion and State in Israel - October 17, 2011 (Section 2).

Fun Joel is starting a series with Top 10 Things to Do in Jerusalem – Part 1.

Steve Ornstein offers Israel's BIRA 2011 – Beer Festival, while Kosher Beers reviews New Belgium Belgo.

Yosef gives us a pareve dessert recipe in Chocolate Avocado Mousse with Fresh Raspberries (Dairy Free).

Okay, not really under "Food", but Modern Uberdox has an observation on the relative kashrut of Starbucks and Hulu.

And to close this issue, let's have some Judaism, please
R' Gil Student has an interesting bit of history in The Chazon Ish vs. Rav Soloveitchik.

Harry Maryles discusses Gadol criteria in A Gadol in Name Only?

Susan Barnes talks about a key mitzvah in Visiting the Sick: Lesser Standing and Greater Stature.

Esser Agaroth is none too happy in Rashi's Daughters. [For my own critique of the scholarship in the Rashi's Daughters series, click here and here.]

And in reading Baruch she'Amar closely, I realize that Life is a Verb.

And that’s it for this week; the next hosted listed is for two weeks hence, at The Velveteen Rabbi! Submit your posts here.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Life is a Verb

No, this isn't a self-help column or a motivational speech; it's just a brief note on "Baruch she'Amar", the opening blessing of the "psukei d'zimra" collection of psalms and passages from Tanach recited each morning.

The blessing's first half reads:
Blessed is the One who spoke and the world existed
Blessed is He.
Blessed is the One who performs "In the beginning"
Blessed is the One who speaks and performs
Blessed is the One who decrees and fulfills
Blessed is the One who acts with mercy upon the land
Blessed is the One who acts with mercy upon the creatures
Blessed is the One who pays good reward to those who are in awe of Him
Blessed is the One who lives forever and exists eternally
Blessed is the One who redeems and rescues
Blessed is His Name.

As is true for much of psukei d'zimra, I find it easy to become numb to the meaning of each individual line – but picking out a line and focussing on it can help me find new meaning each day. Some time back, the 9th line, "Blessed is the One who lives forever and exists eternally", caught my eye, because it doesn’t fit the overall structure.

I have two questions:
1. The rest of the lines describe Divine actions; is "lives" really an action?
2. The rest of the lines describe things Gd does on behalf of the universe; how is Divine existence an action taken on behalf of the universe?

Here's what I have come up with (and, of course, a note in my siddur hints to this, as a reminder when I say Baruch she'Amar each day):

Life implies action. To live is not merely to exist, to inhale and exhale (for us air-breathers, anyway). To live is to act. So, for example, Torah is described as עץ חיים, a Tree of Life, not in that it provides continued existence but in the sense that it fuels (positive) action. This answers the first question.

And then answering the second question: For Gd to live means for Gd to act – on our behalf, in all of the ways listed here, creating life and decreeing and acting with mercy and rewarding. And the emphasis is upon the eternity of it because this immortality guarantees that all of these actions will persist in the future, throughout human existence.

Blessed is the One who lives forever and exists eternally – who acts, and will continue to act, for us all.

And the take-away beyond davening, for me, goes into traditional "self-help" territory but it still worthwhile – Is my life a verb? Am I cycling air, or am I doing?...

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Yom Tov: When Family and Religion Clash

Yom Tov [the 'holiday' season] brings family reunions, and along with family reunions can come strife of all kinds, including religious strife. What shul rabbi or yeshiva rebbe hasn't heard these questions:

"My parents' succah isn't really kosher. How can I get them to change it?"

"Our son came home from college for Yom Tov, but he doesn't want to go to shul with us; he'd prefer to lie in bed all morning. What are we supposed to do with him?"

"My family doesn't understand that a Yom Tov meal should be all about Torah. How am I supposed to maintain my intensity around them?"

The problem is complex, of course; it combines personality, stress, insecurity and history with the personal and deep nature of religious conviction, and the resulting clashes can be disastrous.

The best overarching advice I've heard is really just common sense; I wouldn't post it at all, except that sometimes we benefit even from the obvious:

1. Ask: Are you obligated to say anything?
Does the issue affect your own observance, or only theirs?
Do you think the obligation of 'tochachah' [educating others] requires you to speak up? Have you clarified that with a halachic authority?

2. Do your homework
If you are about to ask someone to change his time-honored tradition ("You must stop using horseradish for marror!"), make sure you know what you're talking about.
Prepare the source material, so you can explain the issue well.
And give plenty of notice in advance of the situation.

3. Always tell the truth... although not necessarily all of it
Using mis-direction in explaining yourself ("I don't feel like eating" in a kashrus situation) is a poor strategy, and quite likely to lead to disaster in the long term. Better to speak truthfully.
On the other hand, one doesn't need to say everything that's on his mind ("You will burn in Gehennom for skipping Shalom Aleichem on Friday night after a Yom Tov"); a gentle explanation of the problem, worded in a positive way, can go far.

4. Remember: People are fundamentally good
For the most part, when parents welcome home a child whose religious observance has changed, angst is present on both sides. The less stringent one wants the more stringent one to be comfortable. The more stringent one is nervous about imposing on the less stringent one.
Everyone means well, and no one is trying to make someone else look bad or feel bad – and keeping that in mind, and using it as a basis for approaching situations, can soften disagreements.

Disagree? Or do you have other tips?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

On studying History: Rav Hirsch and the Netziv

I used the following two sources in a recent class on History and Memory.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, early 19th century Germany, The Relevance of Secular Studies, Collected Writings 7:97 (From an essay available on-line at

Here, then, we have a people that emerged from the course of world history, that was placed into the midst of the nations to advance the goals of world history, and that was endowed with historical vision. Should not the sons of such a people understand that historical studies of the development of nations are truly not superfluous, but that they are, in fact, virtually indispensable? Will the sons of the Jewish people even begin to understand that ancient vision defining the missions of the three basic national prototypes of mankind if they know nothing about the influence of the Yaphetic-Hellenic spirit on the civilization of other nations, an influence that endures to this day?

And then here is Rabbi Chaim Berlin, late 19th century Russia, writing in the foreword to his father the Netziv's Meromei Sadeh regarding his father's approach to biography (not the same as history, perhaps, but I think close enough for our purposes):

באזני שמעתי מפיו הקדוש, בעת שהגיע לעיניו תולדות רע״א ז״ל... שנדפס בברלין בשנת תרכ״ב, לא רצה להביט עליו אף במעוף קל, ואמר שכל זה בכלל האמור בירושלמי אין עושין נפשות לצדיקים שדבריהם הן זכרונם, ומה מני יהלוך לדעת יום הולדתו או יום פטירתו, או תואר פרצוף תמונתו אם כה היה או כה, והעיקר לשום עין ולב על דברי תורתו
With my own ears I heard from his holy mouth, when the biography of Rabbi Akiva Eiger was brought before his eyes, published for the first time in Berlin in 1862: He did not want to look at it for so much as an instant, saying, "All of this is within the Jerusalem Talmud's statement, 'We do not construct monuments for the righteous; their words are their memorial.' What will come of my knowing the day of his birth or death, or whether his face looked thus or thus? The essence is to put our eye and heart to the words of his teachings."

I think Rav Hirsch (source 1) views the study of world history as important to the fulfillment of the Jew's mission as Jew. But what do you make of the Netziv's view (source 2) - Is it a rejection of the study of history, or is it simply a different derech in studying history? And is it depersonalizing, or more personalizing?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Of Wikileaks and Gilad Schalit

Two brief thoughts this morning:

Wikileaks: An Arm of US government policy?
That's a little sensationalist, but here's my point: The US government has a new pretext for measures against Iran, because Iranian agents sought to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US, and Saudi royal advisor, Adel al-Jubeir.

One logical explanation for the Iranian move: The fact that Adel al-Jubeir is on record telling US government officials, "He [the king of Saudi Arabia] told you to cut off the head of the snake," and more. Those statements only became public because Wikileaks disclosed it - triggering Iranian outrage and, quite plausibly, the botched assassination attempt.

And now the US and the Saudis are contemplating action...

The release of Gilad Schalit
We've been praying for Gilad Schalit's continued health, and ultimate release, for five years, and it looks like our prayers for his health have been answered, and our prayers for his ultimate release are about to come to fruition as well, thank Gd.

Of course, much human effort went into both of those - but the fact that we pray for these results is evidence of our belief that all comes from Gd.

If so: Perhaps our shuls, schools and community organizations should plan "thanksgiving" events of some kind, sort of a "birkat hagomeil", in honor of Gilad Schalit's release? If we ask, do not also say Thank You?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Write in your siddur

I always write in my sefarim, all of them. I recently suggested to a class that they write in their Tanach's, and was rewarded with expressions of shock – but I believe that most of us need to write in order to remember, and what better place than in the sefer from which we learn?

But that's not the subject of this post. Here, I'm expanding on a suggestion I made in the derashah here, that we should write in our siddurim, to help ourselves focus.

It's a way to corral ourselves during our distracted moments, and draw ourselves back.
It's a way to personalize our davening, by highlighting elements that matter to us.
It's a way to remember the items that catch our eye or ear and inspire us once, for the next time we daven.

So here's what I do:

I underline key words and phrases that I want to have special meaning, to ensure that I think when I get there.
Example: The word ואהבת ("And you shall love HaShem your Gd") in Shma. בכל יום אברכך ("I will praise You daily") in Ashrei. והשב את העבודה לדביר ביתך ("Return the service to Your home") in the amidah. The verbs in Psalm 100 (Mizmor l'Todah).

I make notations to call attention to interesting structural/poetic elements.
Examples: The Heaven/Earth contrast in Psalm 148 (aka "the third Hallelukah"), the thematic sets of lines in Avinu Malkeinu, and the Personal/Communal/Global sets in Ashrei.

I add reminders.
Examples: "מצות עשה (This fulfills a commandment)" before Shma, or circling רפאנו (the first word of the blessing for healing in the amidah).

I write in food for thought.
Examples: In תקע בשופר (the blessing for redemption in the Amidah) I have a question mark which reminds me to think about the difference between the roles of a שופר and a נס. In the first pre-Shma blessing in Shacharit, I note Rav Kook's thought from Orot on the link between Gd as "master of wars" and "seeder of justice".

I'm sure there's a lot more people could do with this. What would you add? Or are you horrified by the whole concept?

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Taking Shul: The Challenge of Shul Fundraising

Yom Kippur ended a few hours ago, and I'm giddy. This is no surprise – I'm always giddy after Yom Kippur. Sugar and forgiveness are a potent combination.

But I've been mulling a serious topic for a while now, and I want to put some preliminary thoughts down on 'paper'. The topic is Shuls: Giving and Taking.

Story #1 – At one point early in my rabbinate, I needed to raise funds for a community project. I approached someone for help, and was surprised to be turned down flat. Why? As he explained it, he was saving up for a particularly large expense – but, more, he had never been in my office before. He had learned at dozens of classes, davened at plenty of minyanim, but he had never been in my office, and so he didn't feel our relationship was at a point at which I could ask him for help. [Yes, I learned a lot from this encounter.]

Story #2 – A woman in our shul received a tzedakah box from Chabad, to be used for any tzedakah she chose. She commented to me something along the lines of, "See, they aren't always taking. Why can't our shul also give sometimes?" [Of course, we regularly raised funds for ARMDI and other Israeli causes, as well as our local Federation campaigns, Jewish Family Service, Jewish Day School, and Benevolent Fund... sigh.]

The parties involved were regular recipients of the shul's "giving" through davening and classes and aliyos and shul-sponsored kiddushes, but they saw the shul as a Taker rather than a Giver. This makes life difficult for synagogue fundraisers, since one of the most basic rules of fundraising is to make even the Taking feel like Giving [as in "We're giving you an opportunity to do something great"]. Instead, even the shul's Giving doesn't feel like Giving!


1. One part of the problem is that the synagogue does spend so much time Taking: Taking the time, effort and stress of volunteers, in addition to the money required to run a shul.

2. Another part of the problem is that people view the shul's Giving as automatic, since anyone can enjoy the benefits without paying for them.

3. Another part of the problem is that even when a shul Gives, it does it in the form of Taking. Shuls recruit would-be recipients, advertising their 'gifts' and campaigning to get people to take advantage of these wonderful opportunities. "Please come to minyan!" "Come to a shiur!" "Participate in our youth programs!" "Hear this speaker!"

Tell me this: If you need to sell me on your gifts, are they really gifts? The result is that people feel the shul is Taking even when it's Giving.

4. Yet another part of the problem is that when the shul rewards a member's Giving, as in a Thank You call/note/meeting by the Rabbi and/or Synagogue President, it's more likely to be seen as an individual doing the the thanking, rather than the shul as an institution. The result is that the institution Takes, while individuals offer reward.

5. And yet another part of the problem is that shuls don't have products to sell for fundraising, so that fundraising often involves selling what should be their gifts. Schools are forever generating projects to endow. Various types of tzedakah-based organizations perpetually acquire and dedicate new equipment in honor of donors. Shuls, on the other hand, can only raise dues, or charge for their 'gifts' – aliyos, classes and programs. [Cookbook fundraisers and the like don't count; they raise a tiny percentage of the funds a shul needs.]

The upshot: The shul is not seen as a giver, because 1) It takes so much, 2) Its gifts are taken for granted, 3) Its gifts are seen as just another way the shul takes, 4) The institution takes, while its individual leaders are the ones who give back, and 5) it ends up selling its gifts, instead of giving them away.

This is the problem. Solutions will need to wait for another post…

Thursday, October 6, 2011

In memory of Steve Jobs

[This week's Haveil Havalim is up early, here]

This came to me from a friend and chavrusa, Craig Guttmann; reprinted here with permission:

This is what Steve Jobs meant to me. I can’t even believe that I feel the urge to write this, so it gives you an idea of how profound an impact Steve had on my life.

Just before we had moved to Israel for the year in August of 2002, Apple had released its second generation of the iPod. In October 2003, Apple launched iTunes for Windows which essentially married the iPod for Windows based users. I will never forget the day that my tekki showed me the release on my trip back to Canada. I ran downtown and bought my first iPod. I figured I would have music in my ears for those 10 and 13 hours journeys to China and Israel, and many in between. (In August of 2011, Air Canada sent me a welcome letter into their “Million Mile Club”) How wonderful is that?

On a flight in December, 2002 from Toronto to Israel, I bumped into a friend who had discovered the iPod too. Except, he had figured out, that not only could you load music on your iPod, but you could load comedy! Brilliant! So I began loading some of my most cherished comedians. Bob Newhart, Eddie Murphy, George Carlin. Now flying was funny! Have you ever heard Carlin’s piece about flying and stewardesses (that’s what they were called in the old days) while flying?

Living in Israel and having time on my hands in the morning in particular because of the time difference with my office in Toronto, allowed me to surf the internet. And one day, I happened across the site The daf yomi shiurim were posted and free to download. If I could load music and comedy, how cool would it be to be able to travel the world and have my maggid shir with me at all times. I would never have an excuse to not be able to do Daf Yomi. I downloaded the mesachet of the day, Horayos. Not the easiest gemara to start out with, and I quickly realized that I needed the Artscroll Gemara. So, I ran into town and picked up the Gemara and eagerly whisked home to try learning Daf Yomi. The rest is history.

I have learned Daf Yomi all over the world the first time around.
Thornhill • Jerusalem • Ramot • New York • Los Angeles • Rochester • St.Maarten • Pittsburgh • Miami • Boca Raton • St.Thomas • Vancouver • Cincinnati • Boston • San Francisco • Cabo San Lucas • Mazatlan • Honolulu • Maui • Frankfurt • Munich • Venice • Bellagio • Freeport • Puerto Plata • San Jose • Aruba • Puerta Vallarta • Englewood • Mumbai • Delhi • Ludhiana • Qingdao • Guangzhou • Seoul • Taipei • Hong Kong • Shenzhen • Shanghai • Beijing • Tokyo • Pusan • Incheon • Taichung • Paris • Honfleur • Bordeaux • Uzes • Tainan • Koahsiung • Jiagmin • Shanghai • Bangkok

11.3 GB • 5,406 Files • 97,308 Minutes • 1,621 Hours • 3 iPods • 1 iPad • 1 iPhone
May 29, 2003-October 29, 2010 • 2,716 Days

Seven and half years later, on October 29, 2010, I completed my first cycle of Shas!

I firmly believe that the iPod was created for me to learn Daf Yomi. That’s what so special about Steve Jobs. Every product that he has developed, feels like it was made for them.

With much gratitude Steve Jobs! Thank You and Yishar Koach!
Craig Guttmann
Thornhill, ON, CA

P.S. Yes, I’m on my second cycle!

Take a tank to the mikvah

First, to follow up on my Rosh HaShanah derashah about paying attention, a suggestion: Take your Yom Kippur machzor now, and write in it. An asterisk next to an important line. A note reminding you that saying מקדש השבת וישראל ויום הכיפורים counts as Kiddush. An underline of a sentence so that it will catch your eye when your concentration flags. A quick commentary on something you've noticed in the davening.

I want to put up a post, How to Write in a Siddur, but I haven't made the time yet; let this suffice for now.

I'm always unsure how to approach speaking at Kol Nidrei, a time when people are so tense and tired and exhausted and full of food. This year I'm going to center my remarks on a story which I heard in the name of Rav Simcha haKohen Kook several years ago. Here's the story; I'll save the remarks for Kol Nidrei night itself.

My basic theme: When was the last time I took a tank to the mikvah, moving heaven and earth for a mitzvah?

A young soldier, an American named Motti, called me from a town in Aza called Netzarim… At first I questioned the soldier. "You don't mean you are in Netzarim, you mean you are in an army base near Netzarim."

"No," came the reply, “I am in Netzarim.”

I knew that there were only two ways to reach Netzarim: By tank, or by helicopter at night. So I asked him: "How did you get there?"

"I told my commander that it was my custom to go to the Mikvah before Yom Kippur, and the only Mikvah around was in the Jewish community of Netzarim. So he let me use a tank."

Now came the reason for the young soldier's call: "I am borrowing a Torah scroll from the community synagogue to take back to the base. The Jews of Netzarim have donated enough Tzitziot for my whole platoon. My question is, what kind of Yom Kippur Tefillah can I conduct. Besides myself there is only one other observant soldier on the base. Most of the other soldiers have, believe it or not, never attended a Yom Kippur service in their lives."

"Don't worry," I assured him. "You just conduct the service and you instruct them to say "Amen" to your blessing and it will be as if they were praying themselves."

That night, Rav Simcha Kook got up in shul before Kol Nidrei and said:
“Dear Gd, there are many countries in this great world of yours who have armies. And many of these armies have tanks. Some have many tanks and some have fewer tanks. But Gd, is there another country in this world that used a tank to help someone go to the Mikvah before Yom Kippur? Is there another country that used a tank to bring a Torah to an army base so they could have a Minyan for Yom Kippur? Gd, only in Israel are tanks used this way so you must protect your country Israel.”

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Working hard doesn't mean you're doing a good job

Our culture emphasizes effort, and the Torah does likewise. We are taught in the Talmud, "Whether you do a lot or a little, the key is that your heart should be for heaven," "Gd desires the heart," and so on.

This is religious truth, certainly. We would never want to reward laziness, and we believe in the value of the heart. Nonetheless, a culture that honors effort runs the risk of accidentally encouraging mediocrity.

Case in point: Some time back, I had my WebShas website critiqued by someone who told me, "The front end stinks." It stung - getting slapped in the face hurts - but he was right. (And he remains right; I don't have the time to work on improving it.)

More recently, I had another on-line project of mine ridiculed by an observer. Granted, the observer didn’t really understand the goal and emphasis of the project, and his version of mussar was so vintage technogeek kaltkeit that I couldn't take it seriously, but his remarks, combined with the remarks about WebShas, reminded me of a basic principle: The fact that you worked hard on something doesn't mean you did a good job.

Another example of this lesson: I loaded my schedule with shiurim and programs during Elul, including a five-day stretch from September 20-24 when I completely overloaded. I worked hard and made it through - but to be frank, by the end the shiurim were not my best, and I felt terrible for letting people down.

The fact that you worked hard on something doesn't mean you did a good job.

I'm reminded of that now as I work through my pre-Yom Kippur cheshbon hanefesh, my accounting of what I have done and what I have not done, of what I have accomplished and what I have failed to accomplish. I work hard. By the standards of effort, I'm doing all right. But effort is not the same as achievement.

Take the slap in the face. The fact that you worked hard on something doesn't mean you did a good job.

Monday, October 3, 2011

My grandmother's tefillin bag

[Interesting development in an on-going saga: Have tzedakah organizations crossed the line?]

My grandmother made the above-pictured tefillin bag for me, for my bar mitzvah, more than 25 years ago. At the time there was a trend for custom-embroidered zeklach; I see them often among others my age. Thank Gd, it has held up very well; the zipper isn't great, but the rest is intact.

I still remember when my grandmother asked me about the design, and about the colors. I remember when I first held it. {Side note: I have no idea why I wanted red, green and silver on the crown. I think I remember my parents asking me, "Are you sure?" and me not knowing why they were asking. Now, when I put my tefillin bag down among strangers, I know they are wondering what the deal is with those colors.}

My bag is important for me, independent of the tefillin it holds. I don't get to see my grandmother very often, so this is like having her with me wherever I go. I am connected to my tefillin, of course, but this bag is emotionally irreplaceable.

Do you have a mitzvah-peripheral item like that, which carries meaning independent of the mitzvah object itself?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Questions from Rosh HaShanah

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here]

While we wait for post-Yom Tov "Derashah Reviews"...

As we have discussed, I keep a hard and fast rule: I don't answer halachic questions that require anything more than "See this note in the Mishneh Berurah/Aruch haShulchan", referring them instead to the Rabbi of whichever shul is involved. I have a few reasons for this, including respect for the shul Rav, necessity for consistency in communal psak, and a feeling that psak should be rendered by the one who is responsible for communal needs and fallout.

Nonetheless, I am sometimes the first stop on the way to the Rabbi of the shul. Here are some of the interesting questions I was involved with over Yom Tov; some of them may come up for you, too:

• May I braid challah on Yom Tov?

This is actually more complex than it may sound. On the one hand, acts from kneading and onward in the bread-making process are permitted on Yom Tov. On the other hand, the reason we don't braid dough is because it is "construction", and construction is prohibited on Yom Tov. Indeed, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach is cited in Shemiras Shabbos k'Hilchasah, Chapter 11 foonote 43 as opposing the practice, although he does offer a potential halachic justification.

• Why do we recite Shehechiyanu on shofar on the second day of Yom Tov, but not on lulav for the second day of Succos?

For shofar we recite Shechiyanu, but the reason is not clear (indeed, the tokeia may wear an appropriate new garment in order to remove doubt regarding the Shehechiyanu). For lulav, though, I see less reason to recite Shehechiyanu. One could argue that we must recite Shehechiyanu for shofar, since the only way we should blow shofar is if it's Day 1. For lulav, though, we pick up the lulav even for days 2-7.

• If the kitchen sink stops up on the first night of a three-day Yom Tov, may we plunge it?

If there is a great need, one may use a plunger for a sink, ideally in an unusual way. See Shemirat Shabbat k'Hilchatah Chapter 12, footnote 50, for more on this.

• May one change the orientation of a ceiling light in shul, to aid davening?

The answer seems to be Yes; we generally permit moving a lamp altogether on Shabbos and Yom Tov.

• We say (see Igrot Moshe Orach Chaim 2:36) that one should not interrupt between the berachah on the shofar and the end of the blasts blown in the repetition of the Amidah. What if one interrupted after the first 30?

It seems that there is nothing to do at this point. The reason to be silent through the second set of 30 is in order to tie the berachos of the repetition of the amidah to the shofar blowing; if that doesn't happen, one certainly doesn't daven musaf a second time.

• What melachah has one performed, if one cuts a worm in half (without moving it) on Shabbos or Yom Tov, and both halves of the worm live?

Okay, this one is weird, fine. It was my own, sparked when I saw someone step on a worm in a park on Yom Tov. It's interesting, though:

One is not guilty of netilas neshamah, taking a life, since the worm lives.
One may help an animal give birth on Shabbos, but one may not physically pull the young out (Shabbos 128b); what is the status of the cutting action?
Should we contend that this is an act of tearing for a constructive purpose, if it is done intentionally?
One didn't move a muktzeh entity.
Would it bleed? But even if so, would the blood be coming from inside the flesh, or from a cavity? (mifkad pakid vs chiburei michbar, in Kesuvos-speak)
Is one guilty of molid, creating something new, as in creation of a spark or investment of scent in a garment?
Dunno. Ask the Rabbi.