Thursday, June 27, 2013

When vitriol is justified

[Note: I don't like the word Chareidi, since I believe it is an overused term that obscures the nuances between certain religious groups, but I don't have a better term for this post. So I'm using it.]

I've been sitting on this post for a couple of weeks, unsure what I want to say and even more unsure how to say it.

In my rabbinic circles and in my Toronto circles, I've heard a lot about "vitriol", "venom" and "hate speech" coming out of Chareidi circles regarding Yesh Atid, Rabbi Dov Lipman, and the much-discussed plans to cut stipends for kollel members and push Chareidi men into the army or the workforce.

Realistically, I know that much of the vitriol/venom/hate speech is aimed at "my kind": RCA-affiliated rabbis with knitted yarmulkas who are open to the idea that:
1. The Chareidi community in Israel has grown past the point where it can be supported at current levels, and
2. The combination of its size, its political and economic demands and its political inflexibility has become unacceptable within an Israeli society that is increasingly fed-up with dealing with it.

However, I don't think it's fair to criticize Israeli Chareidim for the violence of their speech. We are talking about people who are being forced to radically change their lives or face starvation, aside from feeling that they are under ideological siege by a powerful majority. If it was fair for Jews in Gaza facing Disengagement to sharply criticize those who evacuated them - and the term "rasha" is hardly the worst term they used at the time - then it is fair for Chareidim to use such language now. Being wrong does not mean they cannot be upset.

I'm not talking about people who have no personal connection with the situation, for whom the debate is one of ideology; they should be guarding their tongues.

I'm not talking about the battles over whether to compromise with women who want to wear tefillin at the kotel, or whether a restaurant serving treif will open in another neighbourhood. In that matter, too, they should be guarding their tongues.

But when it comes to their livelihood and the existence of their community in the form they desire - This isn't about ideological debate, or delivering tochachah with a positive tone. These are people who feel their lives are being threatened.

As I said above, I've been mulling this post for a couple of weeks now, and I'm still not sure I'm the right person to say this, and I'm not sure this is the way to say it. But my sense is that when it's a matter of life and death, then vitriol is justified.

Is vitriol helpful? No. Understandable? Yes.

Monday, June 24, 2013


This past week, our Beit Midrash held the first dedicated fundraiser we have ever had. Thank Gd, it was a great dinner, and I enjoyed seeing fruit from our Beit Midrash's work, in the way people responded to the cause.

We showed a video at the event, featuring the work of our Beit Midrash:

If you like it, please share it with others!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Overview of Masechet Pesachim

Since Daf Yomi is starting Masechet Pesachim on Shabbos, here is an Overview document that some may find useful. You can also download it here, as a pdf, with better formatting. Suggestions welcome!

Perek 1 – אור לארבעה עשר
  • 2a – 14a         Search and Destroy – When, where and how
  • 14a – 21a       Tumah, terumah and kodashim

Perek 2 – כל שעה
  • 21a – 26b       Chametz on Pesach and other Issurei Hanaah
  • 26b – 27b       Zeh v'zeh goreim
  • 27b – 28a       How to destroy chametz
  • 28a – 31b        Status of chamez during and after Pesach
  • 31b – 35a       Eating Terumah inappropriately
  • 35a – 38b       Matzah Qualifications
  • 39a – 39b       Marror Qualifications
  • 39b – 41a, 42a         Avoiding creating chametz on Pesach
  • 41a – 42a       Roasting the Korban Pesach

Perek 3 – ואלו עוברין
  • 42a – 46a       Types of chametz, including various mixtures
  • 46a – 48b       Baking on Yom Tov and on Pesach, and related issues
  • 49a                Destroying chametz on the 14th of Nisan
  • 49a – 50a       Extended aggadata: Am ha'Aretz, Talmid Chacham, Olam haBa

Perek 4 – מקום שנהגו
  • 50a – 50b       Erev Pesach, Erev Shabbos and Erev Yom Tov
  • 50b – 53a       Following local psak and minhag
  • 53a – 53b       Roast on Pesach night
  • 53b – 54b       The flame of Havdalah; Aggadata
  • 54b – 55a       Melachah on Tishah b'Av; Acting as a Talmid Chacham does
  • 55a – 55b       Melachah on Erev Pesach
  • 55b – 57b       The people of Yericho and the Chachamim

Perek 5 – תמיד נשחט
  • 58a – 59b       Timing of the avodah on the 14th of Nisan
  • 59b – 63a       A Korban Pesach processed with improper intent
  • 63a – 64a       A Korban Pesach processed while one possesses chametz
  • 64a – 65b       The procedure for bringing the Korban Pesach in the Beit haMikdash

Perek 6 – אלו דברים
  • 65b – 69b       Overriding Shabbat and tumah for the Korban Pesach
  • 69b – 71b       The korban chagigah brought with the Korban Pesach
  • 71b – 73b       A Korban Pesach processed improperly [on Shabbat]

Perek 7 – כיצד צולין
  • 74a – 75b       Roasting the Korban Pesach
  • 75b – 76b       Halachot of absorption
  • 76b – 83a       Tumah and Korbanot; Tumah of a Tzibbur and Korban Pesach
  • 83a – 84a       Burning the remains of the Korban Pesach
  • 84a – 85a       Bones of the Korban Pesach
  • 85a – 86a       A Korban Pesach which leaves its space
  • 86a – 86b       Chaburot eating the Korban Pesach
Perek 8 – האשה
  • 87a – 88a       Extended Aggadata
  • 88a – 92b       Membership on the Korban Pesach

Perek 9 – מי שהיה
  • 92b – 94b      Who brings a Pesach Sheni?
  • 95a – 95b      Laws of Pesach Sheni
  • 95b – 96a      Bringing the Korban Pesach while tamei
  • 96a – 96b      Differences between the Egyptian Pesach and Ours
  • 96b – 97b      Temurah and Lost Korban Pesach
  • 97b – 99a      Miscellaneous Problems with the Korban Pesach

Perek 10 – ערבי פסחים
  • 99b – 99b, 107b-108a Eating on Erev Pesach, Erev Shabbos and Erev Yom Tov
  • 99b – 107b         Laws of Kiddush and Havdalah
  • 108a                 Leaning and the Four Cups
  • 108b – 109a       Women, the Four Cups, and Simchat Yom Tov
  • 109a – 109b       Shiurim
  • 109b – 114a       Zugot, Sheidim, Hazards and more
  • 114a                 The First Cup
  • 114a – 116a       Karpas, the Kearah, Charoset
  • 116a – 116b       Maggid
  • 116b – 119b       Hallel
  • 119b – 120b       Afikoman, and leftovers of the Korban Pesach
  • 121a – 121b       Berachah on Korban Pesach, and Pidyon haBen

Rambam Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Chametz uMatzah / Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim
  • Perek 1 / Orach Chaim 443 / Prohibitions involving chametz   
  • Perakim 2-3 / Orach Chaim 431-439, 444-446 / Mitzvah of destroying chametz
  • Perek 4 / Orach Chaim 440-441, 449-450 / Chametz of a non-Jew
  • Perakim 4-5 / Orach Chaim 442, 447-448 / Chametz mixtures
  • Perek 5 / Orach Chaim 451-452 / Chametz kelim       
  • Perek 6 / Orach Chaim 453-467, 471 / Eating matzah
  • Perakim 7-8 / Orach Chaim 472-486 / Mitzvot of the Seder     
  • Note: Laws of the Korban Pesach are discussed in Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Korban Pesach

Useful Summaries found in a standard Masechet Pesachim
  • סדר והלכות קרבן פסח       Printed on 57b
  • פסקי הלכות פסח שני        Printed on 99a
  • הלכות פסחים בקצרה        Printed at the end of the Rosh
  • הא לך הסדר בקצרה          Printed in the Mordechai after the fourth perek
  • סדר של פסח                  Printed in the Mordechai to Pesachim 114a

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Chocolate Chip Pizza

Even though our Beit Midrash publishes a weekly dvar torah bulletin, which we make as interest-grabbing as we can with a range of special features, nonetheless, I am against learning Torah, reading parshah sheets and otherwise engaging in study during davening. During the breaks between aliyot, perhaps [for what is kriat haTorah if not communal Torah study], but not during davening.

This is not about halachic issues related to learning Torah during the repetition of the amidah; my point is spiritual, not technical, and it's about the entirety of davening, from Modeh Ani to Adon Olam.

The other day, I found the following metaphor to explain this to my children:

Imagine that you are a chef, and you prepare dough for pizza, and you slather on tomato sauce.

Then you decide that it would be wonderful to have chocolate chip cookies, and so you add chocolate chips.

Then, reverting to pizza-making mode, you put on cheese, but then you add the vanilla needed for cookies, and you mix it all together.

Then you cut it into small balls and put it on trays in the oven.

The result: Chocolate Chip Pizza. And while I love pizza, and I love chocolate chip cookies, I'm not having any chocolate chip pizza.

The same is true during davening. Davening to HaShem is great. Learning Torah is great. But mixing them together is self-destructive; the davening lacks emotional commitment, and the learning lacks focus and concentration. Neither is successful; the result is trash, a waste of time and resources.

I admit that I will look to learn something if the chazan is dragging on for so long that I cannot focus on davening anyway. Absent that, though, learning plus davening equals Chocolate Chip Pizza, and I'm not interested.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Cardboard Leining

Please note: I am not writing this about any particular leining or baal keriah I have ever heard. That's not an empty disclaimer; it's serious.

People who listen to kriat haTorah [the public reading of the Torah in the synagogue] value different elements:

Some listen for ivra, the proper pronunciation and accenting of letters and words.
Others listen for accurate and pleasant musical renditions of the notes.
Some look for a pace and an enunciation that will allow them to hear each word clearly.
And still others listen for a pattern of emphasis that indicates an understanding of the words being read.

For me, the most important aesthetic [as opposed to halachic] element of leining is Passion.

I am disappointed when I hear "Cardboard Leining", when the words are pronounced and sung properly, according to halachah, but without heart. Torah should be exciting, emotional!

I want to hear a baal keriah who reads the words in a way that shows the emotion behind them – the anger, the joy, the fear, the humour of a particular passage.

This is not confined to the "story" parts of the chumash, either; many of the Torah's laws can also be read with emotion. Think, for example, of Shemot 28:29, "And Aharon will carry the names of the children of Israel upon his choshen hamishpat breastplate when he enters the sanctuary, as a memorial before Gd." Or Shemot 29:45-46, "And I will dwell among the Children of Israel, and I will be their Gd. And they will know that I am HaShem their Gd, who took them out of Egypt to dwell in midst; I am HaShem their Gd."

Perhaps if we had a more emotive leining, the Torah reading would be less of an opportunity for people to read articles or step outside.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Rabbi Yehoshua Neuwirth zt"l

I've been too busy to blog this week, but I just learned of the passing of HaRav Yehoshua Neuwirth zt"l. I am heartbroken.

To many people, Rav Neuwirth is known simply for his Shemiras Shabbos k'Hilchasah, a well-designed, well-written, well-footnoted guide to the laws of Shabbos. The work's style has spawned many imitators in other areas of Jewish law, although its clarity, attention to detail, and no-nonsense approach to offering leniencies as well as stringencies has rarely been matched.

Personally, I send many medical halachah questions to authorities in Israel, who in turn consulted closely with Rav Neuwirth. He answered with care, with sensitivity, and with clear guidance. Now, I have lost someone I did not know directly, but who was the indirect source of so much for me.

נפלה עטרת ראשנו.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Korach, Tzaraat, and Life Without a Mission

A thought on Parshat Korach and tzaraat, from this week's Toronto Torah:

After Korach's rebellion is put down, Aharon instructs his son, Elazar, to create a memorial for the incinerated followers of this misguided revolt. As the Torah describes it, the purpose is "so that no outsider, who is not of the seed of Aharon, will draw near to bring incense before G-d, and there shall not be like Korach and his group, as G-d spoke, via the hand of Moshe, to him." (Bamidbar17:5)

The Sages were troubled by the references to G-d speaking and the hand of Moshe; these difficulties led the Talmud to state:
Rav said: One who perpetuates division violates a prohibition, as it is written, "And there shall not be like Korach and his group."
Rav Ashi said: Such a person deserves tzaraat. Here it says, "Via the hand of Moshe," and Shemot 4:6 says, "And G-d said to him, 'Bring your hand into your bosom [and he brought his hand into his bosom, and he withdrew it, and behold, it displayed tzaraat, like snow].'"

According to Rambam (Sefer haMitzvot, Shoresh 8 and Lo Taaseh 45), the Talmud is not saying that the biblical declaration, "there shall not be like Korach and his group," is intended as a formal prohibition against strife. Rather, it is a warning that those who challenge the validity of the authorized kohanim, as Korach did, will experience the tzaraat which Moshe experienced when he refused his Divine mission. (Shemot 3-4) Moshe rejected his own status as the Divine agent, and Korach rejected Aharon's status as the Divine agent. One who rejects the Divine agent, as Korach and Moshe did, will suffer tzaraat. Rambam also notes an additional incident of tzaraat, which supports this warning; see Divrei haYamim II 26, in which Uziahu, King of Yehudah sought to usurp the role of the kohanim and was punished with tzaraat.

We might add to the list of those who experienced tzaraat for rebellion against G-d's authorized agents: Miriam and Aharon. Miriam and Aharon spoke against Moshe's unique status and closeness to G-d – granted that he was not a kohen, but he was still the agent of G-d – and they experienced tzaraat. (Bamidbar 12, Shabbat 97a)

These associations between Moshe, Korach, Uziahu and Miriam do identify stories with common denominators, but why is tzaraat an appropriate punishment for rebellion against authorized kohanim?

It may be contended that the Divine charge to the kohen is an extension of that first mission given to mankind in the Garden of Eden, with the words, "And G-d commanded the man." (Bereishit 2:16) As Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explained (The Emergence of Ethical Man, pg. 5), "G-d takes man-animal into His confidence, addresses him and reveals to him His moral will." From that point on, the meaning in Man's life lies in freely channelling his spirit into that which is Divinely declared to be right. This is the goal and purpose of human life.

Tzaraat, on the other hand, is a shadow of death; it is dying without dying, the body's vigour replaced by the snowy pallor associated with a corpse. The individual who experiences tzaraat is separated from the society of Man, cast out of the camp and condemned to declare, "Impure! Impure!" to warn off human traffic. (Vayikra 13:45-46) This individual is removed from the society of G-d, too, banned from entry into holy places or contact with sanctified property. (ibid. 13:46; Bamidbar 5:2) This individual acts as a mourner, his clothing torn and his hair unshaven, bereft and grieving. (Vayikra 13:45)

Perhaps tzaraat, this form of living death and bereavement, is an ideal consequence for a person who rejects the authorized representative of G-d – for rejection of G-d's ability to appoint someone as His agent is also rejection of that first, "And G-d commanded the man," and that purpose for which we live. Such a person is doomed to a meaningless, mission-less, pallid life, a living death, a perpetual mourner set apart from the community of Man and the community of G-d. [Perhaps this is also why Korach does not actually suffer tzaraat. Korach does not rebel against G-d's ability to select His agents; rather, he insists that G-d never selected Aharon at all.]

We might think that we would not have made Korach's mistake, but we often fall into the trap of rejecting our own selection, living lives of self-satisfaction instead of mission-satisfaction. This begins as we structure our lives – our homes, our careers, our hobbies - in the way we find most appealing. The self-centred approach can come to dominate our identities to the point that the mission is gone, and what remains is a pallid, corpse-like, tzaraat-marked existence. The imperative, "there shall not be like Korach and his group," demands more of us – to embrace the Divine command, to embrace our status as its agents, and so to embark upon lives of mission and purpose.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The New Bentcher is Here!

As I discussed in my post here, my Rebbetzin and I decided to compose a new bentcher (birkon, if you prefer) in honour of our son's Bar Mitzvah, almost a year ago.

Our goals with that bentcher included:

* Presenting the Hebrew text in the poetic form it was intended to have, instead of the paragraphs which make appreciation of its beauty difficult;

* To offer a legible text;

* To build on the existing English translations, and offer commentary on the songs as well as birkat hamazon;

* To present background on some of the practices of the Shabbat table.

We published that edition at the time, and received some helpful feedback.

Over the past several months, in honour of my daughter's Bat Mitzvah this week, we made some changes to that addition. We added components like al hamichyah and Havdalah, and added many songs. We also edited some of the commentary and translations we had used in the original edition.

The experience, again, was an enlightening one; I hope you will enjoy the result, the second edition of Z'morta T'hei, which is now available for free download, in pdf, here. It is meant to be printed on paper which is 7 inches tall, and 6.7 inches wide. Please send feedback!