Musings of an Orthodox Jew

Thoughts on Torah and the Jewish world today.

Rosh Hashanah 5775: Shmittah Year!

As we go into Rosh Hashanah this year we need to be aware that this year is shmittah year. What is the shmittah year? In the Torah the it was commanded that the land would be worked for 6 years and in the 7th year it must be left alone, hefker, ownerless! Anyone was allowed to come and pick from what gre whtere. The owner could not cultivate it or fence it off to prevent others from entering. What grew in the field that year was there for anyone to come and take.

Think about what a massive act of faith this entailed! A farmer has to accept that when he grew in year 6 must sustain him and his family not only in year 6, but also in year 7 and also in year 1 of the next cycle until new food was grown! If there was insufficient the farmer would have to buy from non-Jews or from those outside of the area in which the law applied (the land given to the Jews when leaving Israel) or ask others to sustain him and his family until he had his own food. For us in the modern era we do not really appreciate the sacrifice involved. Modern farmers have fertilisers, machines and the yield of their farms is far in excess of their needs. In the times of the Temple the majority of farmers were subsistence farmers, their land small and yields barely large enough to sustain them over the period.

For many years these laws were like the other agricultural laws and laws relating to the Temple- held in abeyance until a majority of Jews dwelled in Israel (the laws for sacrifices and the Temple needing the additional condition that the Temple needs to be rebuilt.) Now, we have reached thathret shold and the lenient rulings of past years that allowed us to not have to observe this and other agricultural laws are a subject of debate: are they back in force or can we rely on the heterim of previous generations?

To the great merit of some farmers in Israel, they have chosen to let their fields lie fallow and to observe this incredible mitzvah! They put themselves and their livelihoods at risk in order to observe this mitzvah! Organisations have grown up to help sustain them over this period, but how great it is that once again we are seeing the laws of shmittah being observed in Israel!

We need to look at ourselves, examine ourselves as we prepare to go into Rosh Hashanah and ask ourselves if we are able to show the same leap of faith that G-d will sustain us! Its easy for us to say it, easy for us to think we would, but how many of us would really take that step and put our businesses and livelihoods on hold for a year because the Torah commands us?

We can take this a step further and look at it in a more esoteric way: Many people know the oft cited teaching that the seve days of creation are a remez (hint) to the world to come, the six days referring to the creation of the world, Shabbat to the world to come. The SHLAH (Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz) in his book Shnei Luchot HaBris (Toldos Adam) teaches that on the first six days the Torah states “It was evening it was morning, day X”, not so for Shabbos- it just refers to the Seventh day and Shabbos- Shabbos is a complete unit, something complete, not in parts, not referred to except as a single unit. He applies the same idea to the years- comparing the six years to the six days of creation and thus to this world, with the shmittah year being about the world to come, about connecting to G-d, putting work aside and relying on G-d to sustain us. The farmers in Israel today choosing to rely on G-d, choosing to follow the Torah commandments show this commitment and elevate us all by this!

I challenge everyogn to think on this as they prepare for Rosh Hashnah, as they consider their deeds and actions of the last year. Where do you stand? With the farmers who put aside the year and trust in G-d to provide a parnassah or with those who choose to rather rely on their machines and fertilsers, those who stick by sound business principles and ignore the spiritual call of the shmittah?

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September 23, 2014 Posted by | Chagim, Torah | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yom Kippur 5772

Yom Kippur is a time when we stand here in shul asking for forgiveness. We come, we stand face to face with G-d, and we beg him to grant us a good year, to seal us for good thing. But sometimes we feel that we do not know how to communicate with G-d, how do we convey to him out inner hearts and feelings, our true repentance. D we have to look into the Machzor, understand every nuance and thereby convey our wishes? What if we cannot? What if we do not have the time or the ability for such an examination? Do we need to study the Talmud, peruse Mishneh Torah and Hilchos teshuvah to find the formulae that MUST be used?

The above might be fantastic, for those who can it might be seen as the only way, but for many of us, that is not the case. What do we do, throw our hands up in despair and give up?

There is a famous Chasidishe story of an uneducated shepherd boy who spent his days looking after the sheep and rarely coming down into the city. One day he decided to come down and found the city deserted. Perplexed, he wandered through the town until he come to the synagogue. It was late on Yom Kippur, the sun going down, and the entire community sat there as the Rabbi prayed his Neilah Amidah. He finished it, then started again, ad then again a third time! The community was perplexed, but all were united, together, praying for forgiveness, looking to hashem to seal them for a good year. Into the shul at this time wandered the shepherd boy. He could not understand what was being said, all he could was to stare In awe at the packed synagogue, the men standing I their taleisim. He could feel the intense atmosphere, the yearning, the way the people were united. He longed to be part of it, yet he could not read a machzor, he could not understand the Hebrew, he felt cut off and alone. Then, moved by what he was experiencing, he stuck is fingers to his lips and let out a piercing whistle, the one he used to call out across the mountains. Horror struck, the community turned to him, unable to believe that someone would desecrate the shul in such a way, to whistle while their rabbi prayed and sought a way for them to all achieve atonement. As they would have reached out, to expel him, the Rabbi spoke “Stop! Do you not realize what this boy has done? I have stood here praying that G-d would open the gates of mercy to us, but I could feel them shut. I cried and pleaded at the gates, but still they remained shut. When that whistle went out, when that pure and open whistle went out, the gates opened. Because of this boy’s whistle, the gates of mercy were opened for the entire community.
The story illustrates a few extremely important principles. The first relates to the answer of the question above: How do I communicate with G-d? Does it have to be through a means I do nto understand? The answer to that is “No, we should always strive to communicate and join with G-d in a manner meaningful to us.” Of course we should do it in a manner that is respectful and does not disrupt others, but how we communicate with G-d is not just an academic exercise of ticking off the prayers said in the Machzor, but a personal experience that should talk to us and bring us closer to G-d.

Another message is the importance of the community. The boy did not feel inspired until he was immersed within the community, until he saw the community. A community elevates us all, provides a means for all of us to achieve atonement, even when we are not deserving. Rabbi Moshe Cordovero makes the point in the book “Tomer Devorah” that there are sins which as individuals we cannot be forgiven for. Not because G-d is unable to forgive us, but because as human beings we tend to have a stubborn streak and we tend to find ways to justify bad behavior even though we are aware it is wrong. So how do we repent such sins? We, on our own initiative, are too stubborn to do teshuvah for these sins, so how do we overcome this barrier? One way is through a community. When we pray with a community, we achieve a level of forgiveness that we cannot achieve on our own. As part of a community, G-d forgives us completely, for every sin regardless of whether we have repented it, regardless of if we are even aware if it. This is brought as another aspect of the thirteen principles of mercy by Rabbi Cordovero in Tomer Devorah, that G-d forgives even when it is not deserved. This is especially true of a person who is part of a community, who has made himself part of something larger. We can be forgiven, and in a far more complete manner than otherwise, just because we are joined with the community.

And everyone has the right to be part of the community. Everyone, regardless of their personal standing, knowledge, merits and ability is part of the community. Before Kol Nidre we make the statement “With the permission of the Heavenly court, and the permission of the earthbound court, we declare it lawful to pray with the sinners”, the incense used in the temple contained the spice Galbonim, whose fragrance was unpleasant- in order to illustrate this same understanding. Similarly, the lulav is made up of four species, including one with no fragrance or taste, one with fragrance and no taste, one with taste and no fragrance and one with fragrance and taste- these represent all people, some with good deeds, some with knowledge, some with neither- but all are part of the community. And just as all are part of the community, all can communicate with G-d.

Judaism does not encourage us to be individuals at the expense of the community. There is a saying “You cannot be frum at someone elses expense.” In other words, you do not get to say that because you want to do some mitzvah, you will do it regardless of the consequences to others. In Judaism our family, our community, the Jewish people as a whole are a single unit. Judaism does not call for us to be monks, cutting ourselves off from the world and the community in order to be holy- on the contrary, we are expected to immerse ourselves in the community, in the place we are. In Parshas Nitzavim Moshe makes the famous statement that the Torah is not in the heavens and unreachable, nor is it over the seas and distance from us, but right here, right where we are. Close to us, close to the entire community.

Certain prayers can only be said in a minyan, thus showing that for these prayers we have to have a community! A Torah scholar who refuses to teach the Talmud teaches us in masechta Sanhedrin that such a person is cursed- as he is effectively denying other members of the community access to their inheritance, the Torah. In the times of the Temple, three times a year the entire nation was expected to come to Jerusalem as a community, to congregate, to be as one. Thus when we act as one, when we are a community, we elevate ourselves, we elevate the entire nation to a new level of holiness, and thus G-d sees, acknowledges and forgives. When all of Israel is as one, when we support each other as one, G-d treats us as one and thus the burden of doing Teshuvah is shifted and made lighter, for a load carried by many is lighter than a load carried by one.

As we enter Yom Kippur, let this be our focus, to try and feel that connection, to a community, to G-d. Let us find what is meaningful to us which allows us to create that connection and thus join with a greater whole and achieve that Teshuvah Shelemah, complete repentance, that we all desire.

October 7, 2011 Posted by | Chagim, Torah | , , , , | Leave a comment

Who is a Jew?

For those unaware of it, I recently started a blog related to exposing the tactics of “messianics jews” called Messianics Exposed (thus the link amongst those in the frame on the right). I made a post there recently which I have decided is relevant here, though slightly expanded on in terms of making it more universal though it is still very much focussed on what the “messianic jews” try to claim.

So, here is the question: Who is a Jew? On the surface, it would seem that it should be easy- surely a Jew is one who thinks he is a Jew? After all- some argue that if someone chooses to identify with, and take on the behaviours of, a group, they have the right to identify with that group. Others might be more restrictive and say- anyone that is going to be prosecuted for being a part of the group is surely part of the group and thus include anyone the Nazis would have prosecuted. The problem with both these simplistic approaches is that it ignores one very important factor, that of the definition from group itself! So, what is the Jewish definition?

Halachicly, Judaism defines someone as Jewish if their MOTHER (matrilineal descent) is Jewish or if they have a halachicly (according to Jewish law) valid conversion. Reform Judaism in the USA (outside of the USA most congregations follow the law of matrilineality) extends this definition a bit to include patrilineal descent to a limited extent- in other words, they only accept patrilineal descent combined with living a Jewish life and identification with the Jewish community (by Reform definitions, not Orthodox.) Thus the individual should observe life cycle events, be a member of community and such though there is no requirement for kashrut, tzitzit, tefillin etc). Since I am Orthodox, and this is an Orthodox blog, I am going to put aside the Reform in the USA’s recognition of patrilineal descent and just state that it is not accepted by Orthodox and leave it there (and if I have misstated it in anyway, I will welcome clarification from Reform readers and fix what I have stated. I do not pretend to be an expert on Reform or Conservative Judaism).

So, within Orthodox Judaism we have two definitions of a Jew- the one with a Jewish mother and the convert. Where do we learn this from? Matrilineal descent is learned from the Torah and we see it being explictly applied in the Tanakh. We learn it from the Torah in Devarim (Deuterenomy) Chapter 7

. You shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughter to his son, and you shall not take his daughter for your son. ג. וְלֹא תִתְחַתֵּן בָּם בִּתְּךָ לֹא תִתֵּן לִבְנוֹ וּבִתּוֹ לֹא תִקַּח לִבְנֶךָ:
4. For he will turn away your son from following Me, and they will worship the gods of others, and the wrath of the Lord will be kindled against you, and He will quickly destroy you. ד. כִּי יָסִיר אֶת בִּנְךָ מֵאַחֲרַי וְעָבְדוּ אֱ־לֹהִים אֲחֵרִים וְחָרָה אַף יְ־הֹוָ־ה בָּכֶם וְהִשְׁמִידְךָ מַהֵר:

Now, verse 3 explictly states that neither Jewish men or women can marry non-Jews. However, in verse 4 there is a concern that the husband of the Jewish woman will entice the children into leaving Judaism, but there is no reciprocal concern that the wife of a Jewish man will entice the children out of Judaism- why not? The children are not Jewish. Rashi addresses this here in his commentary on the Torah and it is discussed in the Talmud in masechta Kiddushin daf 68b.

Where do we learn this from in the Tanakh? In Sefer Ezra (the Book of Ezra) in Ketuvim, we read the following in chapter 10 (see the chapter further for details):

3. And now, let us make a covenant with our God to cast out all the wives and their offspring, by the counsel of the Lord and those who hasten to [perform] the commandment of our God, and according to the Law it shall be done.

AND

10. And Ezra the priest arose and said to them, “You have dealt treacherously, and you have taken in foreign wives to add to Israel’s guilt. י.
11. And now, confess to the Lord, the God of your forefathers, and do His will, and separate from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.” יא.
12. Then the entire congregation replied and said in a loud voice: “Yes! We must do as you say!

AND

16. The people of the exile did so. Ezra the priest [and certain] men, heads of the fathers’ houses after the house of their fathers, separated themselves, all of them [known] by name, and they convened on the first day of the tenth month to investigate the matter. טז.
17. And they completed everything concerning the men who had brought in foreign women, until the first day of the first month.

Now, we read that the men put the wives AND their children from those wives aside. The wives it can be easily understood that they were not Jewish- after all, it was only the non-Jewish women they were required to seperate from. The children are not explicitly stated. So why would the men seperate from them? If they were Jewish, they would be obligated to educate them as Jews, something that would be difficult to impossible if the children were put aside! The answer to that, is that these children were not Jewish and thus there was no obligation to educate them, or to bring them up as Jews!

Another less direct source goes even further back- to the time of Avraham! Where do we see that? Avraham had three wives and eight children. Hagar was an Egyptian and idol worshiper- Ishmael is not seen as Jewish. Keturah is not seen as being a complete follower of Avraham’s religious views and her children are not Jewish. Sarah is the only one of the three wives who completely absorbs Avraham’s faith and worships G-d in the same manner as he does- her son Yitzchak IS Jewish. Now, all eight children have the same father – but only one mother is considered Jewish, and only her son and his descendants are considered Jewish! Thus we can see that even in the time of Avraham, the father did not dictate the religion of the child, but the mother. If it had been the father, then all eight would have been amongst the patriarchs of the Jewish faith!

We see this with the two children of Yitzchak as well. Esav marries women that are not acceptable, that are idol worshippers – Ya’akov marries righteous women who takes up his beliefs and worships G-d as a Jewess. None of the children of Esav are considered Jewish- the children of Ya’akov are considered Jewish since his wives had all converted to Judaism! Again- it is the status of the mother that confers Jewishness to the children- not the status of the father!

Thus we have shown the first of these requirements is satisfied from the Torah and Tanakh. How about a convert? From where do we know that the convert is Jewish? Simply put- the Torah frequently includes the convert as a Jew- emphasising that they are part of the community (see below). Probably one of the earliest mentions of the convert as a member of the community is found in Shemot (exodus) Chapter 12

47. The entire community of Israel shall make it. מז. כָּל עֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל יַעֲשׂוּ אֹתוֹ:
48. And should a proselyte reside with you, he shall make a Passover sacrifice to the Lord. All his males shall be circumcised, and then he may approach to make it, and he will be like the native of the land, but no uncircumcised male may partake of it. מח. וְכִי יָגוּר אִתְּךָ גֵּר וְעָשָׂה פֶסַח לַי־הֹוָ־ה הִמּוֹל לוֹ כָל זָכָר וְאָז יִקְרַב לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ וְהָיָה כְּאֶזְרַח הָאָרֶץ וְכָל עָרֵל לֹא יֹאכַל בּוֹ:
49. There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who resides in your midst.” מט. תּוֹרָה אַחַת יִהְיֶה לָאֶזְרָח וְלַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכְכֶם:

Verse 47 states the entire community of Bnei Yisrael makes the the Korban Pesach (and the prior verses enumerated those excluded). In verse 48 it explictly expands the community to include the convert and verse 48 then again combines the two into a single unit by statiung that the law for a born Jew and a convert are identical- we do not differntiate.

When it comes to seeing this in the Tanakh, the most famous example is that of Rut, the ancestress of King David. How much more proof do you need than an explicit declaration that the ancestress of the line from which the mashiach will ultimately come is a convert! Even more, the Talmud in masechta Yevamos uses the speech by Rut to Naomi to derive the laws and requirements for a Kosher conversion! And thus the second way of being Jewish is enumerated and proven through the Torah and Tanakh.

Are there any other ways in which a person could be considered Jewish? From the Orthodox POV – NO. Thats it, these are the two only ways and no one else is considered to be Jewish (the recognition of Karaites as Jews is not a contradiction to this- but rather seen from the following angle- the original Karaites were Jews and until very recently did not allow conversion. Thus even though they recignise patrilineal descent, by default all Karaites also had matrilineal descent satisfying the Orthodox requirements. With the recent decision by Karaites to allow conversion, this stance may need to be relooked at since it raises two questions: One the validity of their conversions and the issue of patrilineal descent when the mother is the convert)

One often sees “messianic jews” making the claim that since they were born Jewish, they remain Jewish regardless of what religion they follow. They claim that regardless of what they do, they cannot loose their Jewishness. In essence, they insist Jews are a race, and one cannot loose ones race through converting to a new religion. Of course, the vast majority of people in “messianic jewish” communities have zero connection to Judaism- the estimates of people that are actually halachicly Jewish within their communities ranges from between 1% at the bottom end, to 9% at the top end. As always, there are a few communities with a majority of former Jews in their ranks, and others where no members have any real connection to Judaism. But what about that 1-9% of members that used to be classified as Jews? Are they members of a “Jewish race”?

You have to wonder where they get this idea of a Jewish race from. It is not from the Torah which has many stories of converts- from the time of Avraham where Eleizer his servant had converted, as had the hundreds of men and their families that served as Avraham’s battle with the five kings, to the leaving of Egypt where the eruv rav (“mixed multitude”) left Egypt with the Jews, but they had disappeared by the time the Jews entered Israel 40 years later. Where did they go? They either left the nation during the travels in the desert or converted to Judaism and joined with the tribes of those they converted under. The Tanakh has examples as well; the most famous being the conversion of Ruth (and which is used as the Talmud, in masechta Yevamos, as the template to teach us what a valid conversion entails). We even see that Moshe married a convert- Miriam complains about his Black wife, for which Miriam is punished with tzora’as; but we see that Tziporah had obviously converted and had been taught by Moshe as when G-d came to kill Moshe for not circumcising his sons Tziporah knew what to do (Shemot (Exodus) Chapter 4 v24-27).

The status of converts and their descendants as being the equal of every Jew is probably exemplified by the first verse of Torah that a child learns and which is sung joyfully at his upshiernes (a custom many have of only cutting a boy’s hair for the first time at age 3) from Devarim (Deuteronomy) chapter 33:

4. The Torah that Moshe commanded us is a legacy for the congregation of Ya’akov. ד. תּוֹרָה צִוָּה לָנוּ מֹשֶׁה מוֹרָשָׁה קְהִלַּת יַעֲקֹב

Why does it talk about the “congregation of Ya’akov (Jacob aka Yisrael aka Israel)? Simple- it is an all inclusive term for all that believe in G-d, convert and born Jew alike. It is not Bnei Yisrael that some could argue would be only those descended from Ya’akov! Similarly, we read in Devarim (Deuteronomy) Chapter 6 the most fundamental declaration of the Jewish faith

4. Hear, O Yisrael: The Lord is our God; the Lord is one. ד. שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֶחָד:

Again, it is Yisrael, the nation, not Bnei Yisrael, just those descended from Ya’akov. It is all inclusive, the entire nation is addressed; we are all equally required to recognise the uniqueness, indivisibility and singularity that is G-d.

So where does this idea of a Jewish race originate? It is not an old one, it did not exist in the times of the Temples or even through most of history. In fact, we can trace its origins mainly to the 19th century, and the works of the early proponents of racial theories in which different groups of people had different values due to their “race”. It was developed from here by the Nazi’s, and had the inevitable consequence of the holocaust. Why do I state that it was inevitable? There is an excellent chapter in the book “Hitler’s willing executioner’s” by Daniel Goldenhagen in which he traces the development of anti-Semitism from its early roots where it was based on religion, fear of the unknown and politics to racial anti-Semitism. In his book, Daniel Goldenhagen makes the point that in the past genocide was not the aim of anti-Semitism, the aim was conversion- getting them to be the same, to convert to the religion, to accept the ruling authorities (who frequently claimed divine right to rule). A person was seen as a human being first- their Jewishness something they could change. Racial anti-Semitism altered this equation- one cannot change ones race, thus merely converting the Jews was no longer an option, and if they were an inferior race bringing the entire of humanity down, the inevitable solution had to be genocide. Note: I am NOT calling “messianic jews” Nazis, merely stating that their seeing Judaism as being racial originated with Nazis.

So, if the “messianic jews” do not utilise the Nazi’s justification, what do they use? Here we see how they abuse Jewish sources to try and support their claim. They take a comment in the Talmud masechta Sanhedrin out of context- in reference to a passage in Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah)- the sages state that even when Israel sins, it remains Israel and does not loose its covenant with G-d. Their simplistic understanding of the text, and ignoring context and the rest of the law on this matter, leads them into a serious error here. How so? Yes- they remain Jewish- and if they do not repent they are PUNISHED! We see this clearly- the Jews were punished for their sinning by the Temple being destroyed, so an individual who sins and does not repent is punished. The last chapter of masechta Sanhedrin, Chapter 11 called chapter Chelek, starts with a Mishnah listing those who are punished with kares (in other words, are seperated from the community in this world and from G-d in the world to come, the worst possible punishment). This list includes a Jew who takes on any foreign beliefs as part of his serving G-d! It includes those who read the books of other religions to serve G-d, it includes those who deliberately misuse a knowledge of Torah to lead others into sin. In other words, there are multiple reasons why a member of “messianic judaism” would suffer from kares. The Rishonim (the Rabbis in the generation after the Talmud was sealed until the time the Shuklkhan Aruch was written) vary in how strictly we separate the people from the community. All place them outside of the community and unable to participate in the community in any manner whatsoever- but the ease with which they are allowed to rejoin the community is debated. Some allow them to return with a simple declaration and public acceptance of Judaism, some require mikvah and a declaration before a Beis Din (court) of at least three judges. The Rema in Shulkhan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 268:12) and the Rambam in Hilchos Avodas Kochavim rule the person completely separated from Judaism and thus needing a full conversion including mikvah and Beis Din before the person can return. In the modern era we generally rule according to HaRav Moshe Feinstein that in the modern era the vast majority of converts come from backgrounds devoid of proper Jewish education and thus we treat them as a “captured child” i.e. a child that was captured by non-Jews and grew up with no knowledge of Torah and is thus deemed innocent of transgressions of the law. Some still require mikveh and declaration before a Beis Din (though not a full conversion), but most just allow the person to repent and return to Judaism.

So, here is the crux of the matter- a Jew who converts to ANY other religion ceases to be a part of the Jewish community, ceases to be seen as Jewish and ceases to have any meaningfull connection to Judaism and the Torah. What does the verse in Yirmiyahu and the Talmud in masechta Sanhedrin teach? That the person retains a connection to the fact that they were Jewish- and are thus always JUDGED and PUNISHED as a Jew! Even if their new religion is 100% compliant with the seven laws of Bnei Noach and a non-Jew would be considered a ger tzedek, a former Jew in the other religion would be punished with Kares and not considered Jewish while alive! So, when “messianic jews” try to claim ‘once a Jew, always a Jew’, they neglect to mention the full extent of this law- and that they remain Jews only for the purposes of judgement and punishment!

July 5, 2010 Posted by | Current affairs, Messianic, Other Torah, Talmud, Torah | , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments