Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Short Takes: Kotel Siddurim, Kosher for Pesach, and Bad Translations

I love looking at old siddurim at the Kotel. Each one is a mystery. Where's Jennie now? Did she lose her siddur, or intentionally leave it at the Kotel? Her Bat Chayil (Bat Mitzvah) was over 15 years ago. Where is she now? And how are Pat, Tony, Jordan and Harriet? I wonder...

Saw the following pot at the grocery store. Had to share. It's not a multi-function pot. It's a multiply-function pot. And they spelled that wrong too.


I find it very reassuring that my seltzer water is Kosher for Pesach. But what does it mean that it's only Kosher for Pesach during the year 5772. After this year, will the seltzer suddenly, miraculously turn into chametz? Is there some kind of fermentation in seltzer that I'm not aware of? It could be that after Rosh Hashanah the soda water will be flat. But does that make it chametz?

Sunday, March 25, 2012

My Mother's Visit to Rav Scheinberg, zt"l - A Portrait of a Gadol

Often as a rabbi, the easiest thing you can do is tell someone what they want to hear. It alleviates their pain (if only temporarily), makes you look better, and to some degree, allows them to take leave of you in a better mood than when they arrived. Yet, while that's almost always the easiest path, it's not necessarily the correct one.
A conversation my mother last week turned to the topic of the passing of Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg last week. My mother explained that while she's not one who often visits gedolim in  search of brachot, she once accompanied my brother to go visit Rav Scheinberg and to receive a brachah from him.
When they arrived at his apartment and met the rav, my mother asked for a brachah that she find a shidduch. (She's been a widow for a long time now, and has long wanted to remarry.) Rav Scheinberg looked at my mother who had come with her son and grandsons and said, "I give you a brachah that you have nachas from your children."
My mother got the picture. She didn't press. Rav Scheinberg didn't want to tell her what she wanted to hear, but offered her a meaningful blessing nonetheless. Why didn't he bless her that she should find a shidduch? Either:
1. He had a level of ruach hakodesh and didn't see remarriage in her future
2. Forget ruach hakodesh. Finding a second husband is quite rare and he didn't want to raise my mother's hopes on something that would be a long shot.
Either way, while it must have been hard for my mother to hear the blessing at the time, she now views his brachah as a symbol of kindness. Rav Scheinberg could have easily given her the blessing that she wanted. And then, when his grandson solicited her for a donation when she came back down the steps (as he did), she would probably have given him a great deal more money.
But he didn't want to tell her what she wanted to hear. He told her what he thought was best for her. That's real greatness.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


My wife's grandfather, or "Grandpa" as we call him (may he live and be well!), loved to tell a particular story about one of the few trips that he took to Israel during his lifetime. As he tells it, arriving in Israel for a tour, he and his wife (Savta a"h) got settled on the tour bus, when the guide stood up in the front to address the American tourists for the first time.
"Over the course of our time together, we're going to learn a number of Hebrew words," he told them. "But the first word I'm going to teach you is also one of the most important ones. Sav-la-noot. Patience. Here in Israel, you need a lot of savlanut. If you've got that word, we'll have a great trip together."
Grandpa loved to tell that story because it articulated a core belief of his: Slow down. Stop being in such a rush. Patience. Things will come in their proper time.
If only things were that easy.
In recent years, we've become nothing if not more impatient. I want my dinner right now. I want my education instantly (a couple of online courses, a clep or two, and viola! A degree!). I recently heard a talk about internet habits which stated that we won't even wait two seconds for a slow-loading web page. (Actually, that is kind of annoying).  And yet, Grandpa's story still resonates. The things that we won't wait for aren't really worth very much.
How did that instant soup you had for lunch taste? How healthy was it?
How much did you learn and grow from that instant degree you "earned"?
We won't wait for websites to load because we don't really care about what's in them. After all, on average, we'll only spend somewhere between nine and twelve seconds scanning the page anyway. (If you've gotten this far reading this post, you're way beyond the average reader.)
Moreover, sometimes the things that we want the most demand patience. My mind often reflects on a short piece from the Gemara (Brachot 64a) that I recently learned that resonates strongly with me.
אמר ר' אבין הלוי כל הדוחק את השעה שעה דוחקתו וכל הנדחה מפני השעה שעה נדחת מפניו מדרבה ורב יוסף דרב יוסף סיני ורבה עוקר הרים אצטריכא להו שעתא שלחו להתם סיני ועוקר הרים איזה מהם קודם שלחו להו סיני קודם שהכל צריכין למרי חטיא אף על פי כן לא קבל עליו ר' יוסף דאמרי ליה כלדאי מלכת תרתין שנין מלך רבה עשרין ותרתין שנין מלך רב יוסף תרתין שנין ופלגא כל הנך שני דמלך רבה אפילו אומנא לביתיה לא קרא:  
Said Rav Avin the Levi: Anyone who forces the hour - the hour pushes him away. And one who is pushed away by the hour - the hour is pushed away from before him. [We derive this lesson] from Rabbah and Rav Yosef. For Rav Yosef was a Sinai (a man of broad knowledge) and Rabbah was an Uprooter of Mountains (a man of deep intellect). They were needed at a particular moment (to lead the Jewish community), and a message was sent to them [asking], 'Which takes precedence: A "Sinai" or an "Uprooter of Mountains"?' They answered, a Sinai (Rav Yosef) takes precedence, for all need the one who gathers the grain. Nonetheless, Rav Yosef refused to accept upon himself [the appointment], for the Caldeans had told him that he would only rule (lead) for two years (and then he would die). Rabbah ruled for twenty-two years, and afterwards (when Rabbah died), Rav Yosef ruled to two and a half years. And all the years that Rabbah ruled, [Rav Yosef] did not even need to call the doctor to his home.

Did Rav Yosef want to the be the leader of the Jewish community when the first asked him? I'm sure he did. But, for whatever reason, he recognized that the time just wasn't right. He'd rather live in health for twenty-two years first, and then take the job. (Actually, one wonder why he didn't refuse the job the second time around also.)
Ironically, the more we want something, and the more meaningful it is, the harder it is to be patient and wait for the right moment. And yet, according to the Gemara, the more we may press to bring the hour closer, the more we push that thing away.
What's the answer? That word that Gradpa learned on a tour bus so long ago: Sav-la-noot.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Audio Shiur: Hagadah Shel Pesach - Dayeinu - Is it Really Enough?

Audio Shiur:
Hagadah Shel Pesach - Dayeinu - Is it Really Enough?

For some, it's their favorite part of the Seder - the food is coming! But the famous poem begs an equally famous question. We'll analyze the question, and offer four different answers to enhance your Seder discussion.
You can access the thought mentioned by Rabbi Lamm in his Royal Table Hagaddah here. Or, better yet, you can buy his Hagaddah here.

Click here to download the shiur, or here to navigate to the shiur on

Now you can subscribe to this shiur as a podcast, directly from iTunes! To subscribe, click here.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Halachic Prenups: Why Rabbis Should Insist on Them

A terrific pic of Rav Gedalia Dov Scwartz from the NY Times
The issue of halachic prenuptual agreements has been a source of debate (a while back), and media coverage more recently, including a recent NY Times article which basically tells much of the story without painting Orthodoxy as barbaric (for once). If you want to know a great deal more about halachic prenups, you can listen to the shiur that I gave on it here. Source sheets and audio shiur)

Controversy in Israel
On a private rabbinic (Israeli) listserv to which I subscribe (but never post - too much Hebrew!), the rabbis got into a heated discussion about whether the group should advocate that rabbis "insist" that the couple sign a halachic prenuptial agreement as a condition of performing the wedding ceremony. Some rabbis were strongly in favor of such a clause (for obvious reasons), while others recoil at the notion of "forcing" anyone to do anything. In this country, the words כפייה דתית - "religious coercion" are met with derision, so the notion of trying to force someone to do anything religious - as good for him or her as it may be - is often rejected out of hand. Personally, I think that the documents, while good, are less critical here in Israel, where the beit din has real jurisdiction to "convince" a recalcitrant husband to give his wife a get. In America, where the rabbis have no legal recourse, the only tool they have is the halachic prenup.

My Rabbinic Experience: Make Sure that It's Just Business
As a rabbi, I insisted that the couples for whom I performed their marriage signed a prenup. I felt that the document represented a modern-day, halachic solution to a problem that no one ever wanted to face (or thought they would). But I insisted on the document for another reason, that derived from a more personal, emotional source.
Objectively, when a couple prepares for marriage, no one reasonably thinks that the marriage will dissolve, and that the husband might withhold a get from his wife. (If you do think that about your future spouse, don't marry him!) This being the case, asking for a prenup (and it's the female who'd usually be asking) is, in a very real way, an affront. After all, what kind of person do you think that he is? Do you really think that he's capable of acting like a monster? Why are you marrying him if you think so, and why are you asking for a prenup if you don't? And, all the claims that, "I just want to be sure," and "We'll never need it anyway, so why not just sign it?" ring hollow.
Asking for a halachic prenup is an affront - and probably even more of one than asking for a normal financial prenup. It's insulting to suggest that your future life partner should sign a document just in case he ends up acting in such a spiteful and disgusting manner that the entire community will disassociate itself from him and demonstrate publicly outside his office. It's that bad.
That's why I think that the rabbi should insist on it. Then, neither member in the loving couple suspects anything. They really aren't worried about it. It's just a formality that the rabbi demands that no one thinks they'll ever need (and hopefully won't). The rabbi removes the prenup from the personal, relegating it back to the technical, where it can be filed away and forgotten. (Unless it's needed, and the woman will thank God that the rabbi insisted upon them signing one.)

To sum up:
1. I believe that every rabbi should insist on the couple signing a halachic prenuptial agreement (most do, but I wish it wasn't most, but "all")
2. If you're getting married, make sure that the rabbi who performs the wedding insists on a halachic prenup. It won't be personal, just business. And then everyone can move on to the business at hand, of building a beautiful, loving and happy marriage.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei - Falling Rockets and the Presence of God

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei: Falling Rockets and the Presence of God

A Facebook status from my mom reminded me just how great a role Hakadosh Baruch Hu played in the recent rocket barrage which rained rockets and mortars on the south of Israel - and less than a mile from my home. And yet, it's easier to see an Iron Dome than the Hand of God. What are we missing when we fail to enjoy the Shechinah in our jmidst in a direct manner? And what would it take to get it back?

Click here to download the shiur, or here to navigate to the shiur on

Now you can subscribe to this shiur as a podcast, directly from iTunes! To subscribe, click here.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Short Takes on Falling Rockets

Once again we find ourselves the targets of rockets falling from the sky, lovingly launched by a legion of lunatics directly to our south. A few random thoughts:

A Strong Reaction Must Be Good
You can always tell how high up the victim was by the strength of the reaction. The IDF must have gotten a pretty important guy. Otherwise, they would have just bid him well with his 72 virgins and moved on. The fact that they're shooting rockets in "revenge" must mean that he was important.

Israelis Aren't All Macho. And That's Good.
On Friday night we had two azakot (alarms) in Yad Binyamin, one at 12:30am and another at 7:20. Doing an informal poll, I was surprised to discover that those who did enter their protected rooms (called a Mamad) and those who did not did not fall along Israeli/Anglo lines. Some Israelis were freaked out by the sirens, and some Anglos were just taking it in stride, preferring not to freak out their kids. My uncle was in shul during the second alarm (actually davening Amidah) and he said that no one moved.
Truthfully, I'm not that moved by the sirens. The odds of a direct hit are really, really low. But we still did go to the Mamad because it just seems like the prudent thing to do. I often wonder about the macho group dynamics that would cause people to hear the siren, look at one-another, and just ignore it. It seems to me that we wear our bravado on our sleeves at our own peril, God forbid.

No School Today. Which is Worse.
They cancelled school today for pretty much everyone, which only makes things worse for the kids who have to ponder why they don't have school while they're bored all day. Thankfully, the local Matnas (that's Israeli for JCC) quickly organized buses to the Safari in Ramat Gan. And, since we're victims of the rockets, everything is discounted for us! 25 shekel for the Safari? Half price! You knew the rockets were worth something!

Warning Technology is Amazing
The sirens don't actually go off all the time. In fact, you can often hear a siren in an adjacent area, while yours is quiet. Ten years ago, we'd have been running to the Mamad all the time. Now, it's much less. Also, they reported that the Iron Dome missile battery shot down 27 out of 30 rockets, (the numbers keep changing) which is amazing, but that altogether, the Loony Loons to the South shot over 130. All of this means that as soon as a rocket goes up, the IDF:
  • Identifies the trajectory of the rocket and possible hit area
  • Determines if there's even a possibility that the projectile will strike a populated area
  • Decides whether the fire an Iron Dome rocket (after all, those things are expensive)
  • Alerts the projected target area - and that area only - of the incoming rocket
That's some pretty awesome defense tech, if you ask me. And, they're soon going to roll out a cellphone SMS system where anyone who's physically in the projected rocket strike zone will get a text message warning him to take cover. (I've also read that the company that developed this technology is working on expanding it to warn of an incoming tsunami around the world.)

And, While All of This Continues...
The State of Israel has kept the border crossings open, allowing aid and other goods to pass into Gaza. After all, a terrorist has to eat. How else will he have the energy to shoot rockets at us?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Shades of Grey in the Purim Story

When we were young, we viewed the events surrounding us in black and white. Looking to categorize the confusion surrounding us, we searched for some level of simplicity in order to make some sense of the world. Our children are no different.
And yet, as we grow older we recognize that life is not always (actually almost never) black and white. We are often forced to decide between two competing values, both of which are good, or bad.
To my mind, Megillat Esther represents a perfect example of this phenomenon. At first glance, when we read the story of the Megillah, everything seems straightforward. There are heroes (Mordechai and Esther) and a villain (Haman). The "good" people do the right things, while the evil ones come dangerously close to genocide. Yet, when we take a deeper look at the Purim story with the assistance of the Midrash, we find that often the choices our heroes made were not at all clear at the time, and that they were forced to make difficult and agonizing decisions. I'd like to one example from the Megillah that I believe represents a good springboard for a broader discussion with our children about the choices that Mordechai and Esther face, and how not everything is as black and white as it seems.

Esther's Challenge
When Mordechai learns of Haman's plot to destroy the Jewish people, he rushes to the palace instructing Esther to approach the king and beg him to save the Jewish people. Esther demurs, suggesting that she wait until Achashverosh calls her himself. After all, everyone knows that anyone who appears before the king uninvited is subject to immediate execution. Mordechai insists that she not delay at all, telling her,
אַל-תְּדַמִּי בְנַפְשֵׁךְ, לְהִמָּלֵט בֵּית-הַמֶּלֶךְ מִכָּל-הַיְּהוּדִים. כִּי אִם-הַחֲרֵשׁ תַּחֲרִישִׁי, בָּעֵת הַזֹּאת--רֶוַח וְהַצָּלָה יַעֲמוֹד לַיְּהוּדִים מִמָּקוֹם אַחֵר, וְאַתְּ וּבֵית-אָבִיךְ תֹּאבֵדוּ; וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ--אִם-לְעֵת כָּזֹאת, הִגַּעַתְּ לַמַּלְכוּת.
Think not that you shall escape in the king's house, more than all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, then will relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place, but you and your father's house will perish; and who knows whether you did not come to royal estate for such a time as this?
In other words, "Go now. Don't delay, even for a moment."
And yet, was Esther's request so strange? Why indeed should she risk her life if the king was scheduled to call her soon? After all, Haman's plan was scheduled for almost a year later (it was Nissan, and the slaughter was scheduled for the following Adar). What's the rush? Moreover, the question grows even more complicated when we consider the relationship between Mordechai and Esther. Megillat Esther describes the relationship between Mordechai and Esther as אשר לקח לו לבת – "whom he took as a daughter". In essence, he adopted her. Yet, the Gemara (Megillah 13a) famously notes that, אל תקרי "לבת" אלא "לבית" – "Don't read it [that he took her as] 'a daughter'; rather [he took her as] 'a home'". According to the Gemara, Mordechai didn't just adopt Esther; he married her.
Until this point, every interaction that she had with the king was involuntary. Halachically, she was not responsible for the events that were beyond her control. If so, to approach the king on her own meant that she was voluntarily breaking the strictest laws of Judaism against immorality and adultery.
Considered from this angle, what indeed was the rush? Would it be so bad for her to wait a few more days? Even if we agreed that it was proper and appropriate to commit the worst types of sinful behavior to save the entire Jewish people, would that still be true if it was just a question of scheduling? After all, Esther would have eventually met with the king. Was it so important that she do so immediately?
Mordechai certainly thought so, and pressured her to act without delay, despite the halachic ramifications. I wonder whether a modern-day Esther, had she sent a quick hidden text message to a Gadol today, would have gotten the same message.

Modern Day Ramifications
The issue isn't that foreign to us, even today. The State of Israel faces adversaries and enemies who harbor the same desires as Haman to end the existence of the Jewish people. While we don't often think about it, our country asks young men and women to hide their true identities and commit sinful acts to protect and defend the Jewish people. Would we agree with Mordechai's psak today if it meant preventing a terrorist attack?
And, on a far more personal level, what if the Mossad knocked on our door, claiming that our daughter was the perfect candidate for a dangerous covert operation. Would we, as Mordechai did, agree to allow our beloved children – or even our wives – to engage in such behavior?
Things really are not as black and white as they often seem.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Shortening Shabbat Davening - What Are We Praying For? (Second in a Short Series)

Continued from this post.

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of the Boca Raton synagogue recently asked on his Twitter feed (which I follow via Facebook):
How would u shorten shabbos morning davening within halachik boundaries in an effort to make it more enjoyable and meaningful?
In my last post, I addressed the challenge of adehering to frum culture, which prevents us from making substantive changes to the format of davening, no matter how legitimate or critical they may be. In this post, I'd like to address the problem underlying the question. What's wrong with Shabbat davening, and why should we want to shorten it?
Of course, the real question isn't how to shorten Shabbat morning davening. Everyone knows how to do that. Just look at every hashkamah minyan in the world. If you cut out all the singing, every misheberach, and all the speeches, you can cut davening down to a nice and tidy hour and forty five minutes. It's not rocket science.
What I believe that Rabbi Goldberg means is: how can we change the main minyan so that it's shorter, without paring it down to a bare-bones minyan that lacks resonance for many people. Are people really looking for hashkamah at 9am instead of 7am? That's not that hard to supply. Many shuls already have an 8am "beis medrash" minyan. Yet, I suspect that they're looking for a "main minyan" feel, without it going on for three hours. That's harder. Where do you cut and still maintain a sense of community, majesty and meaning?
But before we can really cut anything, the issue of shortening davening on Shabbat raises a deeper, more perplexing question that goes to the heart of Orthodox communal prayer. On some deep level, Shabbat davening doesn't resonate with many of us. Sure, we say the words. But given the choice, would we pray for the things that Chazal tell us to pray for exclusively on Shabbat? Are we really yearning for the "eternal Shabbat" that we pray for so fervently? To me, the problem of Shabbat davening reflects a deeper problem we struggle with surrounding the content of Shabbat prayer as Chazal designed it.
I have long felt that the Shabbat davening isn't really the best venue for a truly meaningful communal prayer the way that most American Jews expect it. Most people want to come to shul to grapple with the issues that they're struggling with. They want to pray to God for a good job and the ability to support their family. They want to pray for safety and security for the people of Israel. They want to pray for health and well-being. All of those things exist in traditional prayer, but not on Shabbat. They're right in the Amidah - of the weekday.
Three times daily throughout the week we communicate with God, asking for that which we need to live more meaningful lives: wisdom, Torah, forgiveness, redemption, health, well-being, sustenance. You name it, it's in the Amidah.
Perhaps ironically, on Shabbat, we specifically do not pray for our daily needs. We don't really daven for health, sustenance, parnassah - all the things that concern us during the week. On Shabbat we're supposed to let go of our daily worries, and focus on the more eternal issues. Even when we add the misheberach for the sick, we conclude the prayer by saying, שבת היא מלזעוק, וישועה קרובה לבוא - "on Shabbat we are prohibited from crying out, and salvation is near to come." It's almost as if we say, "Really, we know that we're supposed to ask for health today, but we're all here, and so we're going to do it anyway."
If anything, a careful examination of the Shabbat morning davening reveals efforts to try and insert meaning into the davening "between the lines" - in the spaces between the established parts of davening set by Chazal. The Misheberachs (that everyone hates - until it's time for their Bar Mitzvah) cater to the personal needs and joys of the individual. The yearning and power of the first paragraph of birchat Hachodesh express all of the elements normally missing from the Shabbat davening, as we pray for God's blessings during the coming month. Finally, the addition prayers for the State of Israel, the IDF and the United States of America, all reflect efforts to add necessary meaning and depth to the established davening that we find lacking.
If I was designing the davening today to reflect the needs of the members of a Western-cultured Orthodox community, who by and large does not assemble on a daily basis for prayer but only assembles communally on Shabbat morning, highlighting these elements would have to play a major role in the davening.

In my last post on this issue, I'll (finally) make some suggestions, reflecting the needs and desires of the people who still attend the Shabbat morning main minyan.