Category Archives: Parsha

Spiritual and Material Pain and Gain

The centerpiece of Parashat Ki Tavo is the section of the Rebuke (Toachacha) which details the suffering that could befall the Jewish nation if they would rebel against the Almighty.  One of the terrible misfortunes that it specifies is “you will plant a vineyard, but you will not render it profane.”  This is a reference to the lesser-known mitzvah of Kerem Revai, literally fourth year vineyard.  It is one of the many agricultural commandments that are reflective of the Jewish people’s connection to its land.  As described in Leviticus 19, a vineyard’s fourth year is the first opportunity that the owner can benefit from its fruits, but they have a unique restriction.  They must be imported to Jerusalem and may only be eaten within its walls.  Alternatively, the fruits can be exchanged for money (referred to by the verse as “profaning”) that must then be spent on food in Jerusalem.  The misfortune of “you will plant a vineyard, but you will not render it profane” means that we will not have the opportunity to travel to Jerusalem to buy food there (after transferring the special status of the fruits onto coins).  It is certainly painful to work the land and tend a fledgling vineyard for three years, all the while looking forward to finally benefiting from them in the fourth year and then suddenly being deprived of that benefit.  But what about after the fourth year?  Isn’t being deprived of the fifth year fruits worse?  It’s true that the fourth year is the first opportunity to benefit from the fruits of the new vineyard, but the benefit is limited by the Jerusalem restrictions detailed above.  Regarding the fifth year fruits, however, the owner is invested in them more, due to an additional year of work, and he would have been able to enjoy them even more than the fourth year fruits, in a complete, unfettered way.  The fifth year fruits can be eaten anywhere in the world.  The loss of fifth year fruits therefore seems more grave than the loss of fourth year fruits.  When admonishing the people with this prophetic warning, why did the Torah choose the less severe fruit/vineyard-loss instead of the more devastating one?

It seems that in truth being deprived of the fourth year fruits is actually worse because of the impact of the canceled trip to Jerusalem.  The purpose of the commandments that require taking fruits to Jerusalem is revealed elsewhere in the Torah – regarding the sister-law of fourth year fruits, Ma’aser Sheni the second tithe, in Deuteronomy 14.  There it says that the purpose of bringing the fruits to Jerusalem was so that the owner would have to spend additional time each year absorbing the holy atmosphere of the city.  A visit to Jerusalem of old was a spiritual experience with no contemporary parallel.  It was a city full of scholars and the daily Temple service.  To lose the fifth year fruits is tough.  All of that work for was for nothing.  The runway was wide open – you could eat them anywhere, sell them, or feed them to your livestock if you had wanted to.  Now they are all gone.  But to lose the opportunity for spiritual enhancement that comes with a pilgrimage to Jerusalem is – or should be – even more devastating.  The message of the warning of the fourth year fruits is that sometimes we pretend our uniquely human capacity for spirituality isn’t there.  We live with the illusion that material satisfaction feels just as good as spiritual satisfaction and inspiration.  The calamitous prophesy of the fourth year fruits reminds us that just as a spiritual loss should be more painful than a material one, a material gain can’t compete with the spiritual.

 

This article appears in the September 22 2016 issue of the Jewish News.

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A Little Clarity – Halachic Questions via Text Message

Due to the space limitations of a text message, please note that it is particularly important to read carefully, pay close attention to the context of the question, and use the answers as a springboard for further study.

If you would like my phone number to submit questions, please leave a comment and I will send it to you.

Q: If I got a non kosher bottle of wine as a gift can I re-gift it to a non-Jew?

A:  There is a difference of opinion if one is allowed to benefit from non-kosher wine but Ashkenazim are strict unless a significant monetary loss is involved.  A gift is considered beneficial for the giver since the recipient feels a debt of gratitude towards him.  This would not be an issue with other rabbinically prohibited foods.


 

Q:  How do you kasher a quartz counter top?  Here’s some info: Their primary ingredient is ground quartz (about 94 percent), combined with polyester resins to bind it and pigments to give it color. For some designs, small amounts of recycled glass or metallic flecks are added to the mix. The resins also help make these counters stain and scratch resistant—and nonporous, so they never need to be sealed. Compare that with granite, the reigning king of high-end counter tops, which typically requires a new protective top coat at least once a year.

A:  Nonporous makes it sound like meikar hadin (according to the letter of the law) there is no non-kosher flavor transferred to the counter in the first place.  It makes sense to me that at least for non-Pesach use, regular irui would be sufficient (it’s made of rock and plastic, both of which may be kashered).  As I’ve written before, counters technically do not need kashering at all since they don’t intentionally come into contact with hot food.  It is nevertheless customary to kasher them in case hot food does touch the counters.


 

Q: What is the rule regarding pouring hot water from a kli sheni into a cup of freeze dried noodle soup like Tradition or Geffen brand on Shabbos?

A: According to R. Moshe Feinstein who allows making tea in a kli shelishi, it would be allowed to pour from a klei sheni into a soup cup containing freeze dried noodles/vegetables and spices since pouring from a kli sheni is considered a kli shelishi.


 

Q: How ‘dry’ does a piece of cooked chicken need to be when placing on a blech for Shabbos lunch? Most chicken has at least a bit of some kind of congealed sauce on it from the night before after it’s been chilled overnight. That sauce will melt on the blech, so are we prohibited from putting it on to warm?

A: Congealed sauce is considered “dry” for the halacha of reheating cooked foods.  Even if there is actual liquid sauce on a food, as long as it is only a small minority of the total food being reheated, it is also OK even according to some of the stricter poskim (halachic authorities).


Q: Can you cover a stroller with a plastic rain cover on Shabbos?  Is it considered like making a temporary tent-like enclosure?

A: It can be used as long as the stroller sun shade is opened first (which is the normal way of using it anyway).


 

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A Little Clarity – Halachic Questions via Text Message

Due to the space limitations of a text message, please note that it is particularly important to read carefully, pay close attention to the context of the question, and use the answers as a springboard for further study.

If you would like my phone number to submit questions, please leave a comment and I will send it to you.

Q: HELP! I wasn’t in shul today and couldn’t put on tefillin.. when is the latest I could put on and if I did it in the afternoon would I daven mincha?

A: You have to put it on before sunset and yes you can daven mincha with them (that is actually optimal).

Q: We  inadvertently left some labels on when toiveling dishes and glasses and used them.  Do they need to be toiveled again (labels removed)?  If so, toivel with or without a bracha?

A: Unless the stickers are inconspicuous and you would only remove them for toveling, you would need to remove the stickers and tovel them again with a bracha.  It is considered like it was never toveled before since the unwanted stickers prevented the water from reaching part of it.  Just like if the handle of a mug, for example, was not dipped beneath the surface of the water.  

 Q:   Someone gave me some of their kitchen utensils.  Although their house was strictly kosher, they never toiveled anything.  What should I do with them, toiveling-wise?
A: They would have to be immersed, with a bracha.
Q: Can a non Jew drink from the kiddush?
A: Of course!
Q: Is a Jew allowed to visit an Arab country on vacation?
A: Yes as long as it is generally considered a safe vacation spot.
Q: If you want to buy items from Amazon that total less than $35, is it OK to add something to your cart that you will just return afterward to bring the total to > $35 in order to get the free shipping?  If it’s technically OK, it still feels wrong to do this. Is that founded?  I.e. I’m trying to figure out if it’s in the category of “well, it’s technically allowed, but you still shouldn’t do it”
A: I don’t know if it’s OK or not but I would assume not. Even if it is technically OK I do not think it is right. It is definitely founded in my opinion.
Q: If I make something pareve in a plastic lined slow cooker usually used for cholent, can I eat it with dairy?  In case it matters, the cholent is usually made using a plastic liner as well, though there are times that I didn’t use a liner.
A: Is there any condensation or other liquid in between the liner and the inner wall of the pot?
Q: Yes, you need to put water because the plastic is quite thin
A: You wouldn’t be able to cook something pareve in order to eat it with dairy, but something pareve that has already been cooked in it may be eaten with dairy.
Q: Ah ok, so it has the same law of a regular meat pot. I was wondering if the liners made any difference. The water transfers the ta’am (flavor) even though it’s the other side of the liner?  Or is the concern that the liner isn’t leakproof
A: If there is a significant amount of liquid between two hot containers/pots then ta’am is assumed to transfer

 

 

 

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A Little Clarity – Halachic Questions via Text Message

Due to the space limitations of a text message, please note that it is particularly important to read carefully, pay close attention to the context of the question, and use the answers as a springboard for further study.

If you would like my phone number to submit questions, please leave a comment and I will send it to you.


Q: What do you do if you can only daven before the earliest time?

A: Ideally one should don Talis and Tefilin and recite Shema no earlier than Misheyakir (approximately 50 minutes before sunrise) and recite the Shemoneh Esrei at sunrise.  If that is too late, one may don Talis and Tefilin recite Shema and the Shemoneh Esrei after Alot Hashachar (72 minutes before sunrise) (Shulachan Aruch O.C. 58:3).   If even that will not be possible and one will not have an opportunity to put on Tefilin the entire day, they should be put on even earlier after waking up ( even when it is still night) with a bracha but Shema and Shemoneh Esrei cannot be recited until after Alot (Iggrot Moshe O.C. I:10).


Q: Hi Rabbi, would you agree with this article [that says that there is no source for “bouncing” after taking the three steps back at the conclusion of the Shemoneh Esrei]?  I see people doing this all the time, but I’ve never seen anything about it

A: It is correct there is no source for bouncing at the end of the shemona esrei


Q: My wife baked eggplant in the oven at the same time we were baking our Thanksgiving turkey. The turkey was closed in a roaster. She now wants melt cheese over the eggplant to make eggplant parmesan. Is that allowed?

A:  Since the turkey was covered the eggplant is not affected and it would be at least be permitted once the eggplant was already cooked (S.A. Y.D. 108).


Q: I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night, can’t fall asleep immediately but intend to go back to sleep before morning. In the meantime, I want to learn. Should I say birchat HaTorah or not? If I do, do I repeat it by shacharit?

A: You would definitely recite Birkat Hatorah upon waking up in the middle of the night before studying Torah (S.A. 47:13 and M.B. 28), and you would only repeat the bracha in the morning if you really went back to sleep again (but not if you just took a short nap.  R. A. Nebenzal in the name of RSZA on M.B. ibid, and R. Chaim Kaniefsky in Sheilat Rav Part II 3: 21).


Q: Does Sushi have to be eaten in a succah?
A: If it doesn’t contain any flour it would only be an optional/praiseworthy mitzvah to do so rather than an obligatory mitzvah.  If it is a variety that does contain flour (e.g. tempura) it is likely that it doesn’t contain enough to change its halacha.

 

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Parasha Nuggets: Ha’azinu

Of all Biblical poetry, the verses of Parashat Ha’azinu that contain some of Moshe’s last words to the Bnei Yisrael are among the most beautiful and meaning laden. Often this Parasha is not focused on as often as others due to its proximity to Yom Kippur and Sukkot. Let us cherry-pick some nuggets of wisdom and insight that have relevance to our experiences and our era.

“May my teaching drop like rain” (32:2) – Rashi explains the simile of rain to be an indication of the life-giving properties of the Torah that he is teaching them. Just as physical activity is advantageous to our physical health, spiritual activity is advantageous to our spiritual and emotional health. Human beings are hard-wired with unique capacities. We can learn the lessons of history, we can make virtuous choices, and we can think about what gives our life purpose and meaning – all abilities that contribute to our spirituality. If we become preoccupied with and distracted by the mundane and the ephemeral to the extent that we neglect to exercise these special capacities, our peace of mind and happiness are adversely affected. Without that happiness and peace of mind we cannot live life to the fullest. The Torah is the spiritual foundation stone of the Jewish people. Perhaps it is this ability of the Torah to fulfil the spiritual needs essential for an emotionally and spiritually full life that led Moshe to refer to the Torah as life giving rain.

“You ignored the Rock that gave birth to you” (32:18). The type of ignorance that is referred to in this passage is a type of patently absurd ingratitude. “The Duties of the Mind,” the medieval work of Jewish theology and ethics, writes that the best motivation one may have to observe the Torah is gratitude. The gratitude that we should feel towards the Almighty who created us and constantly sustains us should motivate us to wish to never deviate from His vision for humanity. It’s the very least we could do. We don’t want to live according to that vision out of a primitive, self-interested fear of Divine wrath or punishment if we don’t. We want to live in consonance with the Divine mandate because we are afraid of committing the cardinal sin and unsophisticated folly of ingratitude. We don’t want to use the gift of life in a way that is an insensitive and crass slap in the face of the generous Giver.

“They would slaughter to demons which are [in reality] not gods, [and also slaughter to] gods whom they knew not, newcomer [gods], recently arrived, whom your ancestors did not dread” (32:17). This passage prophetically criticizes Jews that will have strayed from the Torah to pagan worship. It emphasizes the contrast between the two options. Whereas the Torah and the Creator that it introduces to mankind are well-known to the Bnei Yisrael and part of a long national tradition, the pagan alternative was something that they had no experience or acquaintance with whatsoever. It is remarkable and unfortunate that today for too many of our youth the opposite is true. Only a few generations ago the basics of Judaism were imbibed by merely growing up as part of the shtetel. In today’s society it appears to be natural to know more about other philosophies of life instead. In this playing field, Judaism itself could be described as the “newcomer, recently arrived.” It is interesting to note that the Dali Lama, who is an address for many spiritual seekers, has reportedly told many Jews to study their own tradition before investigating others. As a community we must find a way to restore the historical balance by educating and engaging our youth.

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Zero Rage Tolerance

messy kitchenNote: This article was originally published in April of 2013, but I recently added the passage regarding positive uses of anger.  It appears in the May 8th, 2015 edition of the Jewish News.

Breaking someone’s left index finger in a brawl doesn’t have an obvious connection to defiantly blaspheming the name of the Almighty.  Yet, the Torah lumps together the laws and consequences of these two actions in one Torah passage as part of a series of sins also including murder and property damage as well.  It is often difficult, admittedly, to determine the underlying order and organization of the Torah in many places.  But the grouping of these seemingly unrelated topics into one unified lineup is particularly puzzling.

angry womanR. Avigdor Miller (1908 – 2001), the prolific author and popular rabbinic speaker and educator, points out a common root that all of these sins share that serves as a basic ethical reminder. They are all typically committed in anger.  This passage makes clear that there is responsibility and culpability even for deeds committed in a moment of wrath.  In a fit of anger, a person can do anything – damage another’s property, assault and injure someone, commit the blasphemy of cursing the Almighty Himself, and even commit murder.  The Talmud, based on the verse “An angry person has many transgressions” (Proverbs 29:22), elaborates on the dangers of anger in some detail.  One observation that it makes is that it is certain that a mercurial individual’s sins outweigh his merits.  It is well known that although Maimonides (1135 – 1204) advocates moderation and balance in all character traits by following the golden mean, anger is one of the only two exceptions that he makes to this principle.  Instead, from the perspective of good character, anger is never justified and one should self-enforce a zero-tolerance policy.

But isn’t anger sometimes positive and necessary to convey a message and a point? According to the Mussarites all character traits, including even those that seem overtly negative, have some context in which they can be used positively, benevolently, and beneficially. Does Maimonides, with his zero-tolerance policy disagree with that viewpoint? Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato also writes about anger in his Mesilat Yesharim and, like Maimonides, writes that one should not get angry in any circumstances but adds that one should not even get angry when it is necessary for educational purposes. Lest the reader conclude that he advocates a permissive pedagogical style with no limits, consequences, or rebuke, he is careful to specify that a teacher should discipline his student and a parent must reprimand her child – even with anger. But it must only be a superficial demonstration of anger, in his words: “anger of the face, not anger of the heart.”

zero toleranceIt seems trite to discuss the negativity of a behavior like anger. That may only be due to the fact that we have not contrasted the zero-tolerance view expressed above with any other perspective.  Although most people would agree that many of the pitfalls and potential dangers of anger are obvious, it nevertheless seems to be nearly universally widespread in our society.  It is often glorified on the big screen.  Because it is so common, we may unknowingly relate to it not as a harmful feeling and potentially dangerous basis for unwise or dangerous behavior, but rather as an emotion and motivation that is actually fully justified, legitimate, and respectable.  We may think that it is healthy to express anger and unhealthy to suppress it and not act on it or show it.  This stands in stark contrast to the Maimonidean approach mentioned above that anger is rooted a character flaw and can easily result in immature, irrational, and irresponsible thinking and behavior and ruined relationships.  The Torah passage that begins with the blasphemer challenges us to rethink this attitude and recognize that anger is anything but prudent and respectable.

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Utilizing the Contrast

The distinguishing feature of Parashat Bechukotai is the tochacha, a Torah passage describing in harrowing detail the suffering that will befall the Jewish people if they stray from the path of righteousness.  This is the first of two such passages in the Torah; the second is in Parashat Ki Tavo in the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy).  After a long and detailed list of mishaps and misfortunes in that latter passage, the Torah says: “All of these curses will come upon you and pursue you and overtake you…because you did not serve the Lord your God amid gladness and goodness of heart, when everything was abundant” (Devarim 28).  Remarkably, this statement implies a causal relationship between a Judaism that lacks joy and happiness and the dreadful calamities that fill the two passages of chastisement.  If we would only serve God with joy in a time of prosperity, we would, somehow, be able to avoid the painful rebuke.  Lack of this joy is evidently so dangerous that it can enable some sort of eventual severe spiritual ruin.  If happiness plays such a crucial role in Judaism and Torah, it is important to explore, practically speaking, how one may acquire this important trait.  It is interesting that a powerful technique that leads to joyful living emerges from the very predictions of calamity and suffering themselves.

If happiness comes from appreciating everything that we have (as Ben Zoma says in the beginning of the fourth chapter of Ethics of Our Fathers) then it is valuable to understand the basis of the human tendency to take everything for granted.  Rabbi M.C. Luzatto writes in Mesilat Yesharim (The Path of the Just) that sometimes the ideas and truths that are most obvious and self-evident are those that are least lived-by –  and most neglected and forgotten.  Perhaps it is so obvious to us how fortunate we are that we think no effort is needed to appreciate the simple things.  In fact, without special effort and without forming new habits, the myriad day-to-day, simple pleasures that we enjoy will pass us by unnoticed.  If one is to take the acquisition of a joyful demeanor seriously, techniques or tools are necessary to overcome the natural hurdles that make this character change challenging.  One such tool is contrasting.  We often don’t appreciate something until it is contrasted with a lesser alternative or an opposite – like the feeling of entering a cool room after spending time in the hot summer sun.  The Torah itself utilizes the tool of contrasting in this passage to strengthen its point.  Before discussing the consequences of disregarding the path of Torah, it discusses the sanguine outcomes of heeding it – many of which are the positive and bright mirror-images of the tragedies that follow.  By extending this method of highlighting the good by contrasting it with the bad, the nightmares of the passage of the tochacha themselves can become a great light.  If our study of these passages is a process of recognizing our own good fortune that we do NOT suffer from each of the tragedies that we read about, we will be able to open our eyes to many things that habit makes us take for granted.  Instead of “Your land will not give its produce and your trees will not yield their fruit,” (26:20) we enjoy prosperity.  Instead of being threatened by the sword and forced to become refugees (26:25), we live in our own homes and in safe neighborhoods.  Today our challenge is not “You shall eat and never be satiated” but rather the threat of obesity that comes from being satiated and never stopping the “You shall eat” part!  Our cities are not “desolate;” they are centers of every convenience and social and economic opportunity.  Thus the passage of rebuke itself can be part of the process of re-training ourselves to appreciate everything that we do have and, and to ultimately achieve true joy and spiritual greatness.

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