Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Oy Vey Sina

As the summer is here, I have been spending every Shabbos in the country. Like almost every other person in Boro Park, I have been making the trek on Friday afternoons from Brooklyn to various bungalow colonies in the Catskills. The particular bungalow colony where I have been spending my time is located a short 15 minutes walking distance from the village of Kiryas Yoel, which is a village of more than 25,000 Chasidic Jews (primarily Satmar) at the base of the Catskills.

This Sunday, after having a particularly warm Shabbos in the bungalow colony, I made the trip further into the mountains to visit the Aleksander Rebbe. Whenever I got to his bungalow colony and camp, I was greeted by the Aleksander Rebbe’s brother, Rav Burech Zinger, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Tiferes Shmiel d’Aleksander. During the summer, the yeshiva continues to operate on the grounds of the rebbe’s bungalow colony. After walking around the grounds of the camp, I made it to the rebbe’s bungalow.

The rebbe came and met me in the side room of his bungalow, which houses his summer library. Because most people who don’t work in the city have been in the country for the past four weeks, I haven’t seen the rebbe and his family for more than a month. It was nice to be able to sit and talk with him about various topics of interest for both of us.

The conversation between the rebbe and me started out on the topic of respecting differences between varying groups in the Jewish community. In recent years, sizable numbers of Teimani Jews have come to America, seeking refuge from the Islamic extremism of many in their home country. Upon coming to America, they interesting often take up residence among the various Chasidic centers of the New York area. Because of the striking difference of their dress, many pressure them to dress like the Chasidim around them. The rebbe said that he makes sure the Teimanim in his yeshiva and at his camp are able to dress in their traditional clothes if they choose, allowing them a free and open environment to be themselves. The fathers of the boys have commented to him that this is the first place where they have seen someone so open to making sure that the boys are comfortable being exactly who they are. In addition to opening up ourselves to making sure that the Teimanim are comfortable being themselves, the rebbe also said that he would like to see all frum (religious) families in Boro Park and elsewhere open their doors to at least one non-frum family, draw them close, and show them what true Yiddishkeit is all about. He said that if every family were able to do this, it would show results beyond our wildest dreams.

After discussing various issues regarding kiruv and Jewish diversity, we began to discuss the various requirements of kibbud av, or bringing honor to one’s parents. We talked about the requirement, and whether or not it is different from the general requirement of respecting and showing appreciation to one who has done good things for you or taken care of you. We also talked about the issues surrounding adoption in the Jewish community. Because there are strict rules regarding touch between non-related members of the opposite gender, as well as restrictions on how and when people of the opposite gender may be secluded with one another, adoption creations many problems. Reb Moshe Feinstein zt”l, the leading American Jewish legal decider, was very much against adoption in the Jewish community due to the complications and possible laxities in halacha (Jewish law) that could result.

The day that I visited the rebbe happened to be the yortzeit (anniversary of the death) of the Nesivos Sholom, the previous Slonimer Rebbe. The Nesivos Sholom, in addition to many things, was very much into chinuch (education), and the general derech halimud in yeshivas and other Jewish schools. Because one learns the works of deceased tzadikim (righteous people) on their yortzeits, the rebbe had been learning various works of the Nesivos Sholom since the night before. It is not a secret among those in the Chasidish community that many educational institutions have serious problems with imparting critical thinking and intellectualism to their students. Also, many of those that succeed in doing this limit their student base to only the best and brightest students. The rebbe said that we must remember, especially in a time of such crisis as today, that those with the greatest struggle in learning are the ones with the most to offer, and that giving up on a single child is to give up on an entire future of fruitful years and descendents from that person.

The discussion with the rebbe led to very important lessons for today, as today is Tisha B’av, the day of mourning for the destruction of the beis hamikdosh (temple). The second temple was destroyed because of sinas chinam, or baseless hatred, between one Jew and another. Furthermore, the Gemara says that if we do not see the active rebuilding of the temple in our lifetime, it is as if we have destroyed it ourselves. If we as a people continue to allow sectors amongst us to treat other groups of Jews as inferior because of their practices and customs, and sit by while our children suffer in a failing education system, we fail at pushing our world to new heights to reach its potential. On this important day, may we truly move beyond our gashmius (physicality) so that we may soar to new heights, culminating with the rebuilding of the beis hamikdosh.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Doesn't Make Sense

In this weeks parsha, Parshas Chukas, we are introduced to the laws regarding the para adumah, or the red heifer. The complex, seemingly strange ritual surrounding the process of killing and burning the para adumah include using various types of branches and wool to burn with the animal. The example of the para adumah is generally used as the classic chok, a commandment that transcends any understanding or logic that humans might attempt to attach to it.

In the Gemara, the para adumah is brought up in an interesting context. When giving the example of the person who most perfectly honored their parents, the Gemara presents a non-Jew named Dama ben Nessina. According to the Gemara, he was so dedicated to kibud av v'eim (honoring one's father and mother) that his refusal to wake his father from sleep caused him to lose a great fortune. The Gemara says that because of this high level in honoring his parents, Dama ben Nissa was rewarded by receiving a perfect, unblemished red heifer, which was purchased by his Jewish neighbors for a price that far exceeded any profit he would have made in the missed business deal.

The first Gerrer rebbe, the Chidushei HaRim, asks why Dama ben Nissa was rewarded by receiving a para adumah to sell to Jews. Surely the reward could have come in any form, as G-d is not limited, and the lost income could have been made up in any number of ways. The Chidushei HaRim explains that whenever the perfect example of Dama ben Nissa was shown, the malachim (angels) in shamayim (Heaven) began to criticize the Jewish people. They wondered how it could be that a non-Jew, who does not even have the requirement to fulfill the commandment of honoring his parents, could have achieved a higher perfection in the area than a Jew, who is required to observe the commandment. In response to this criticism from the malachim, G-d provided Dama ben Nissa with the red heifer, which was bought for a very high price by Jewish neighbors. The example showed that while the non-Jew Dama ben Nissa was prepared to sacrifice a large sum of money to honor his father (a commandment which is logical), the Jewish people are prepared to sacrifice an even larger amount of money to buy a para adumah, which is a mitzvah (commandment) that completely defies any human comprehension.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Shin & Tav: The End

Shin is for...

Shabbos: The Sabbath is the seventh day, a day of rest commanded by G-d in the Torah, starting at sundown Friday evening and ending the the appearance of three stars Saturday night. From start to finish, we are forbidden from doing activities contained within the "49 melachos", or 49 major categories of activity used to build the mishkon (tabernacle) in the wilderness. These acts include such things as cooking, lighting fires, putting out fires, carrying between a private and public domain, handling money, and putting the finishing touch on a project (which forbids the modern act of completing a circuit to use electricity).

Shofar: A shofar is a hallowed animal horn that is shaped, hardened, and then used during specific times of the year in services that are mean to awaken the soul to overpower the body and push for repentance.

Shavuos: Meaning "weeks" in English, Shavuos is the holiday celebrating Matan Torah, or the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people at Har Sinai. On the first night, men stay awake until the morning service, studying and learning all night in preparation for the spiritual re-deliverance of the Torah.

Shalom: Generally translated as "peace", the root of the word "shalom" means "whole", showing us that it is only when something is complete and at one with itself that there can be peace.

Tav is for...

Torah: The word "Torah" generally refers to the five books given to and/or written by Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses), but can refer to the entirety of Jewish literature, as all of the works are based on words in the Written or Oral Torah, and therefore truly contain within them whatever is expounded from them.

Tefillah: Tefillah is commonly thought of as prayer, but is truly much deeper. The Hebrew word "tefillah" is from a reflexive verb, meaning that the object of the action is the person doing the action. Tefillah, therefore, is a deep contemplation and process of thought meant to inspire, change, and arouse to action the person who is engaged in tefillah. In the three daily services in the synagogue, tefillah is done in a set order with set words from scripture dictated by ancient sages.

Teshuvah: Similar to the western idea of "repentance", teshuvah is the process by which we reflect on our deeds and resolve to return to the correct course of action.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Reish is for…

Rosh HaShana: Generally known as the “Jewish New Year,” Rosh HaShana is the time of renewal for people, animals, and legal contracts, and opens the ten day period of introspection and repentance ending on Yom Kippur.

Rav: A “rav” is a religious leader of a community who is able to give specific instruction and assistance with regard to issues of religious law. A “rebbe” is the spiritual leader of a Chasidic group, generally serving as more of a spiritual advisor than a legal authority, though many times a rebbe may also serve as the rav of his group. The term “rabbi” is a general term, usually not used in the more right-wing sectors of the Orthodox community, and can refer to any person who serves as a religious leader of a community, whether he has specific rabbinic ordination or not.

Rashi: A scholar and linguistics expert in 11th century France, Rashi wrote the first comprehensive commentary on the Talmud, and is the standard commentator on the Torah, with his work being an exhaustive compilation of ancient knowledge and modern understanding.


Kuf is for…

Korban: Often translated into English as “sacrifice”, the root of the word korban means “near”, as the offering of a korban is meant to bring the person to introspection that will draw their desires and actions closer to their true essence, and thus closer to G-d.

Kiddushin: Kiddushin is the first of the two parts of a marriage ceremony. It takes place by the groom giving an object of value (today generally a ring) to the bride, and her accepting the item. Through this, the groom acquires the bride as set aside specifically for him.

Kaballah: The mystical teaching of Judaism meant to explain the details of the relationship between the physical and spiritual worlds, kaballah is based on the intricacies of numerology, specific phrase and word usage, and underlying concepts of the text of the Torah.

Monday, April 26, 2010


Tzaddi is for...

Tzedakah: Unlike the word “charity,” which is associated with giving something beyond what is required, “tzedakah” is rooted in the Hebrew word for righteousness, and is considered a great and necessary mitzvah (commandment) at all times.

Tzadik: A tzadik is a person who, after working on themselves and dedicating their avodah (holy work) to bring themselves to a higher level, is able to achieve continued awareness of the Divine presence in the world, and is therefore much more aware of the interactions of the Divine on the physical plane, using this to help his/her students or followers.


Peh is for…

Pesach: Pesach is the holiday that commemorates the exodus from Egypt. The first two nights (first night in Israel) focus around the retelling of the event during the seder, and the entire holiday is characterized by extra-strict regulations on kashrus (kosher laws) and chometz (levened bread), which cannot even be found anywhere inside Jewish property.

Pinteleh Yid: The pinteleh Yid is Yiddish, and refers to the smallest piece of a Jewish soul that remains connected to the Divine Source, no matter how far a person is removed from the path of Torah.

Peyos: Peyos are the sides of the head near the temple, where hair is left uncut (sometimes called “sidesurls”), and then styled in various ways, with various lengths, depending upon the religious group to which the wearer belongs.


Ayin is for…

Ezras Nashim: Named after the place in the beis hamikdosh (temple) where the women congregated, the ezras nashim is the portion of the synagogue where the women sit during prayer.

Ezer Kenegdo: In Bereishis (Genesis 2:18), the role of a woman is listed as being an “ezer kenegdo,” or a strength that is set across from a man to balance him.

Ayin Hara: Known in English as the “evil eye,” the ayin hara is used to describe the process by which pride, jealousy, and showing off negatively impact the positive aspects of a person’s life.

Ivrit: Ivrit is the Hebrew word for “Hebrew,” and the root verb (avar) means “to cross over”.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Out of this World

It is obvious from the Torah, and from life experience in general, that human beings are not the only conscious, thinking beings on the planet. The Torah shows great concern for the feelings of animals, with calls to understand the nature of animals and have compassion upon them by feeding them before we feed ourselves, and also by not forcing animals of various types to work together. However, are living beings on this planet the only conscious entities in the universe?

Malachim (angels) are spoken of in the Torah and elsewhere in Jewish writing as having an awareness of the happenings in various spheres of existence. This includes both our level of physical existence, as well as planes beyond our limited human comprehension. In this way, then malachim (angels in the real Jewish understanding, not in the Western idea of beings with wings that hop around) are superconscious. The Rambam, as well as other Jewish sages, writes that heavenly bodies (including stars and planets) also have a form of consciousness.

When dealing with the issue of conscious life on planets other than Earth, it is completely incorrect to assert that there is “no Biblical support for life outside of our own planet.” The fact is that the Torah does give support to the idea of extraterrestrial life. In Sefer Shoftim (Judges 5:20-23), Devorah HaNeviah (Deborah) speaks about particular stars and planets, and the life on the stars and planets, and the assistance they gave to the Israelites. Specifically named is Meroz, which the Talmud says is a star, and it is stated in the text itself that this star has inhabitants (“Cursed be Meroz, cursed! And cursed be its inhabitants.”). While there is no specific discussion regarding what form the inhabitants take, and how exactly their role in the world, consciousness of locations outside of their home, and countless other questions work, it is clear that to believe in life outside of Earth is not a non-Biblical idea.

In more recent years, a scientist involved in a space research program that attempted to find life on other planets in our solar system asked the Lubavitcher rebbe zt”l whether or not looking for life on other planets was appropriate. The rebbe responded that he should continue to look for life outside of our planet, because to sit and say that there is no life other than life on Earth would be to put limitations on G-d, and that is something that is completely forbidden for creations to do.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Samech is for...

Sukkos: One of the “shalosh regalim” (a pilgrimage festival), Sukkos commemorates the travel from Egypt to Israel, as commanded in Vayikra (Leviticus 23:42). During the holiday, all meals are eaten inside of a Sukkah (the required hut-like temporary dwelling), and many also sleep inside of the Sukkah.

Sefiras HaOmer: Known generally as “sefira” (“counting”), Sefiras HaOmer is the verbal counting of the days from Pesach (Passover) to Shavuos (Feast of Weeks) as commanded in Vayikra (Leviticus 23:15-16). The forty-nine days are counted at night, generally at the end of the evening service, and follow the days from when the first barley offering was brought to the Beis HaMikdosh (temple) until the wave offering was delivered.

Sofer: A sofer is a professional scribe who writes Torahs, inserts for mezzuzos and tefillin, and other items that are required to be written with special writing and on special klaf (processed leather).

Siddur: The book containing the set of daily, or weekly (weekday and Sabbath) prayers, as well as blessings, special prayer services for Rosh Chodesh (the first day of a new month), and often general interpretation and laws is called a “siddur”.

Seder: Meaning “order” (the word is also the root of “siddur”), a seder is the ordered meal conducted on the first two nights of Pesach (Passover).

Monday, April 19, 2010


Nun is for...

Nistar: Nistar means “concealed,” and refers to mystical aspects of Judaism that are studied and known from kabalistic texts.

Nigleh: As opposed to nistar, nigleh is the “revealed” aspects of Judaism, known from the Written Torah and other more concrete areas of Judaism.

Niddah: In the realm of Taharas Mishpacha (Family Purity), niddah refers to a woman who is in the time period of menstruation, or immediately after completing menstruation prior to undergoing the rituals that finish the period of separation between the woman and her husband.

Neshama: The highest level of the soul which is closest to the Divine Origin from which it came, neshama is a cognate of the Hebrew word for “breath”.

Nefesh: The lowest level of the soul, which actually animates living beings. The word is a cognate of the Hebrew for “rest,” and is impacted by action.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


Mem is for...

Mikveh: A mikveh is a ritual bath used for immersion.

Mishnah: Grouped into six major sections, the Mishnah is the first major record of the Oral Torah, containing discussions by the early rabbis regarding interpretation and tradition.

Minyan: A minyan is a group of at least ten men needed to recite specific portions of each of the various daily prayer services.

Mitzvah: A mitzvah is a commandment proscribed in the Torah, which form the foundation of Jewish obligation, and serve as avenues to reveal the Divine presence in physical life.

Monday, April 12, 2010


Lammed is for...

Levi'im: Levi'im (Levites) are members of the tribe of Levi who are not descendants of Aharon. They assisted the Kohanim (priests) in their service in the temple, and are today used in ceremonial roles in the synagogue and Jewish life.

Lulav: The largest part of the arba minim (four species) used during the holiday of Sukkos, a lulav is a closed date palm fond mentioned in Vayikra (Leviticus) 23:40.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Ches, Tes, Yud, Kof

Ches is for...

Chesed: Chesed is loving-kindness, which is meant to be the outgrowth and signal of true inner piety.

Chochma: The intellectual power of the soul, chochma is generally translated as "wisdom", though the letters that make up the word also spelle the two words "koach ma", meaning "the power/potential of what is".

Chasidus: A movement which began as a mystical revival, it stresses the importance of interpersonal relations (which are meant to be the outgrowth of intense Torah learning) over intellectual pursuits in Jewish thought. Because of the stress put on the heightened joy and Divinity found in treating others as you would treat yourself, the movement's name is rooted in the word "chesed".

Tes is for...

Teva: Teva is Hebrew for "nature", and is often used when looking at the miracles that occur in our lives everyday, especially when not perceived by the human eye.

Tuma: Ritual impurity, as contracted through various interactions with prohibited and limited materials and situations, is called "tuma".

Tevilah: Whenever a person becomes tamei (encounters tuma), one of the steps in become pure again is to immerse themselves in a mikvah (ritual bath). Tevilah is also used for a person converting to Judaism, as well as by many men before Shabbos and holidays.

Tallis: A tallis is a large, four-cornered garment used by married men during morning prayers. By wearing such a garment that requires tzitzis (fringes), we fulfill the mitzvah in Bamidbar (Numbers) 15:38. During all times, not only prayer, smaller versions, called a tallis katan, is worn either underneath or on top of the shirt.

Yud is for...

Yehudi: The Hebrew word for "Jew", Yehudi means "from the tribe of Judah". Because of the root of the word Yehudah (Judah), the word also means, "one who acknowledges (G-d's existence)".

Yiddish: A mixture of Hebrew, German, and other Eastern European languages, Yiddish was the common language of European Jews, and is today still the common language amongst those in the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi (European) community in the United States, Israel, and elsewhere.

Yeshiva: Literally meaning "sitting", the yeshiva is the Jewish religious school.

Yom Kippur: Filled with themes of repentance and atonement, Yom Kippur is one of the most solemn days in the Jewish calendar.

Kof is for...

Kosher: Meaning "fit", kosher food is food that is permitted under the heavy restrictions of the Torah, as explained by the Oral Torah, as well as occasional stringencies based on customs of particular religious groups and ethnic divisions.

Kollel: As there is a yeshiva for younger students, married men who continue to learn in religious school attend a kollel, where they are generally given a stipend for learning subsidized by wealthy members of the community.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Pesach Overview in Pictures

Pesach Cleaning

Mayim Shelanu (Drawing Water to Bake Matzos)

Matzoh Baking

Biur Chametz (Burning Chametz)

Chol HaMoed (Intermediate Days)

End of Pesach


Zayin is for...

Zohar: Meaning "radiance", the Zohar is the central book of kaballah (Jewish mysticism). It speaks of the origins of the universe, the nature of the soul, and the composition of the Divine.

Zivug: A zivug is a marriage partner, who, according to Judaism, represents the other half of a person's spiritual being.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Hei and Vav

Hei is for...

Havdallah: At the end of Shabbos and every holiday, the havdallah service is recited over wine (and spaices and a candle at the end of Shabbos) and marks the separation between the holy day and the rest of the week.

Halacha: Meaning "the way to go", halacha is the complex system of Jewish law, derived from the Written Torah, as put forth by the Oral Torah, as well as unique traditions held by varying ethnic and ideological communities within Judaism.

Vav is for...

Vidui: Vidui is the set of daily confession said after the silent prayer portions of the shacharis and mincha (the morning and afternoon services).

V'ahavata: The second portion of the Shema, the central prayer in Judaism, the V'ahavta spells out the commandments to love G-d, teach our children, to put mezzuzos on our doors, and wear tefillin.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

April Alef-Bet

In an attempt to give my own person spin on the current April A-Z posts, and also as a way to give myself specific guidelines of things to write on for a while, I will spend April going through the Hebrew alef-bet, letters alef through tov. In order to catch myself up...

Alef is for...

Emes: The Hebrew word for "truth", emes is made up of the first, middle, and last letters in the Hebrew alef-bet, symbolizing that truth is something that is all encompassing.

Ahavas Yisroel: Meaning "love of Jews", Ahavas Yisroel is the tikkun (correction) for the cause of galus (exile), which was sinas chinam (baseless hatred). In order to completely do teshuvah (repentance) for such a great aveirah (misdeed), we must now have ahavas chinam (baseless love), loving each and every Jew simply because we are all one.

Aggadata: Aggadata refers to the metamorphical homiletic tales from Chazal (ancient sages) that offer perspectives and understandings of Jewish belief and lessons from the Torah and elsewhere.

Avodah: Avodah is the Jewish concept of using each and every act of our physical lives, each holy task and assignment, and even seemingly mundane exchanges, as a means of worshiping G-d.

Beis/Beit is for...

Bris Milah: When a Jewish boy is eight days old, his father has the requirement to have him circumcised.

Bracha: A bracha is a blessing, and each day a Jew should recite 100 blessings, thanking G-d for food, beauty, and pleasure, as well as acknowledging the power and benevolence found in varying forms of creation, including mountains, oceans, and lightning.

Beis HaMikdosh: The rebuilding of the beis hamikdosh (temple) is something that Jews pray for three times a day.

Baal Shem Tov: Rav Yisroel Baal Shem Tov, ztvk"l, (1698-1760) was the founder of the Chasidic movement. His teachings and focus in Judaism have completely changed the face of Judaism.

Gimmel is for...

Galus: The Jewish people are currently in the fourth galus, or exile, known as Galus Edom. Previous exiles have been the Babylonian, Persian, and Greek exiles, which were each brought about for unique reasons and had specific negative spiritual impacts on the Jewish people, which is also true of the current exile.

Gevurah: Usually symbolizing the judgement of G-d, gevurah (strength) is the attribute that allows us in our physical form to fight off our own personal yetzer hara (evil inclination).

Geulah: Geulah is the final redemption, which is the final goal of our life's work, and something for which we yearn each day.

Daled is for...

Daas Torah: Daas Torah is the concept whereby Jews seek the input of rabbinic advisors in each and every area of their life, not only in matters of halacha (Jewish law).

Deveykus: Deveykus is the mystical state in which one completely cleaves totally to G-d.