Monday, August 27, 2012

Between Awe and Joy -Berachot 22b and 30b

A few days ago on Berachot 22b, the Gemara presents an analogy between Torah study and the experience at Har Sinai. The Gemara states that just like we approached the Revelation at Sinai with אימה, יראה, רתת, ובזיע, with dread, fear, trembling, and quacking, so too we should approach daily Torah study with the same reverence and awe. I asked on Twitter how we can reconcile this with the the verses from Tehillim 19: תּוֹרַת ה' תְּמִימָה, מְשִׁיבַת נָפֶשׁ... פִּקּוּדֵי ה’ יְשָׁרִים, מְשַׂמְּחֵי-לֵב. The Torah of Hashem is pure, it calms the soul...  The laws of Hashem are upright, they make the heart happy. In Psalms there is a clear association between Torah study and שמחה, happiness, while the Gemara in Berachot based on verses from Devarim 4 presents one's approach to Torah study to be one of fear and dread.

At first thought, one could explain that this is another example of the 2 different types of יראה, fear and awe which I have blogged about in the past. However, here the יראה experience is coupled with אימה רתת ובזיע, dread, trembling, and quacking. This awe inspiring experience is much closer to "awe"ful than "awe"some and seems to focus on true fear when approaching Torah learning which is hard to reconcile with joy.

After posing this question, I received responses from a number of my fellow #DafChat participants. You can find these responses here, and here, and here. I would like to focus on one response in particular by Shimon Lerner, a frequent guest poster to this blog, who suggested that this is similar to "וגילו ברעדה" in davening which can be found on Berachot 30b.

The Gemara there analyzes the verse from Tehillim 2, עִבְדוּ אֶת-ה’ בְּיִרְאָה; וְגִילוּ, בִּרְעָדָה, serve Hashem with awe and rejoice with trembling. The Gemara explains that in the place of rejoicing there should also be trembling. This Gemara seems to find no contradiction between rejoicing and trembling, between awe and dread on the one hand and happiness on the other.

The Rif on the Ein Yaakov expands this to describe both prayer and Torah study as Shimon Lerner had anticipated. He explains that one should always approach one's service to G-d, whether in the form of prayer, Torah study, or other mitzvot with level headedness and seriousness. This is despite the fact that it also says (Tehillim 100) עִבְדוּ אֶת-ה’ בְּשִׂמְחָה, to serve Hashem with happiness. One should approach G-d with joy but this joy should never get out of hand, leading to levity. It should always be tempered by trembling.

This is perhaps the meaning of Berachot 22b as well. One should approach every day of Torah learning with the same dread and awe as the original revelation at Sinai. However, this does not mean that one cannot and should not take pleasure in learning. Torah was meant to give us joy. However, when approached with an initial level of seriousness, we can be assured that the joy of Torah will always be in a respectful fashion and will never descend to levity and silliness.

This is something to think about especially as we approach the new school year.  As a Rebbe, I want my students to have fun in my class but fun alone is not enough. My students need to gain from the experience. This can only occur when they show a healthy dose of respect and seriousness for what is being studied. 

Happiness without reverence can quickly descend into silliness. At the same time, reverence without joy will rarely create an atmosphere where students will like what they are learning and begin to pursue a path towards life-long Torah study. It is the job of the teacher to strike a healthy balance between these two opposing but important values.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Serving G-d with One's Heart and a Woman's Obligation to Pray -Berachot 20b

Today's daf states that women are obligated in תפילה because דרחמי נינהו, Tefilla is asking Hashem for mercy which women would need to do just like men.The question is what is the halakhic status of this Tefilla asking G-d for mercy? Is this considered to be Torah ordained or merely rabbinic in nature?

The Rambam in ספר המצוות lists as a Torah commandment of עבודה שבלב, to serve G-d with one's heart. He then continues by asking what is this עבודה שבלב? Tefilla.

The Rambam reiterates this idea in Mishneh Torah where he writes:

רמב"ם הלכות תפילה ונשיאת כפים פרק א

הלכה א 

מצות עשה להתפלל בכל יום שנאמר ועבדתם את ה' אלהיכם, מפי השמועה למדו שעבודה זו היא תפלה שנאמר ולעבדו בכל לבבכם אמרו חכמים אי זו היא עבודה שבלב זו תפלה, ואין מנין התפלות מן התורה, ואין משנה התפלה הזאת מן התורה, 
It is a positive Torah commandment to pray every day, as [Exodus 23:25] states: "You shall serve God, your Lord." Tradition teaches us that this service is prayer, as [Deuteronomy 11:13] states: "And serve Him with all your heart" and our Sages said: Which is the service of the heart? This is prayer.
The number of prayers is not prescribed in the Torah, nor does it prescribe a specific formula for prayer. Also, according to Torah law, there are no fixed times for prayers. (Translation courtesy of Mishneh Torah (English)
The Ramban argues on this. He says that daily תפילה is not מדאורייתא at all. Rather it is the kindness of Hashem that he accepts our prayers. The only מצוה is to daven in an עת צרה, a time of distress. In times of trouble, we as a community should turn our hearts towards Hashem in prayers.

The following excerpt on Prayer in the Teachings of Rav Soloveitchik based on a lecture by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein sheds light on this argument.
The Rav's daring comment on this debate ran as follows: the Rambam fundamentally agrees with the Ramban. Indeed, tefilla is obligatory only "in times of trouble," but the Rambam perceives man as existing in a perpetual state of crisis. Were it not for God, he could not exist for a single moment, and there can be no greater trouble imaginable than a person who is, heaven forfend, disconnected from God. Hence, we may deduce that the individual is in a constant state of crisis and needs God's contact and His mercy every day.
This argument between the Rambam and Ramban actually has a practical application a נפקא מינה להלכה in regards to a woman's obligation to pray.

According to Rambam, women are obligated in the Torah obligation of prayer which is to pray once a day. However, women are exempt from the later rabbinic enactments about the time of prayer, number of prayers, and the form and structure that prayer takes since this is all מצוות עשה שהזמן גרמה. However, according to the Ramban the entire obligation of daily prayer is rabbinic. The rabbis who obligated us to pray 3 times a day included the obligation to say שחרית ומנחה for women as well since it is בקשת רחמים.

The Mishna Berurah ( קו:ד) follows the opinion of the Ramban and writes that women should daven שמונה עשרה of שחרית ומנחה daily as well as the first פסוק of שמע, אמת ויציב until שמונה עשרה in order to be סומך גאולה לתפילה. But women do not have to say מעריב because it is a רשות, optional. Women are also obligated to say ברכות השחר ברכות התורה and פסוקי דזמרה. A woman can fulfill her ברכת התורה by saying אהבה רבה.

A woman who is so involved in child rearing that she has no time to daven should recite a short תפילה that includes שבח בקשה והודאה. The son of the חפץ חיים writes about his mother that she hardly ever davened שמונה עשרה when they were little and the חפץ חיים exempted her becasue she was so involved in raising the children. This short תפילה for women could be ברכות השחר and ברכות התורה which both contain these elements. The 3 blessings of ברכות התורה include these:


  ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו לעסוק בדברי תורה
Blessed are you Hashem, our G-d, King of the Universe, who has  made us holy through his commandments, and has commanded us to engage in the study of the words of Torah. 

  הערב נא ה' אלהינו את דברי תורתך בפינו ובפה עמך בית ישראל ובצאצאינו ובצאצאי עמך בית ישראל 
ונהיה כלנו וצאצאינו מלומדי תורתך ויודעי שמך ברוך אתה ה' המלמד תורה לעמו ישראל Please Hashem our G-d, make the words of Your Torah sweet in our mouths and in the mouths of Your people, the house of Israel, so that we, our descendants, and the descendants of Your people, the house of Israel, may all know and study your Torah for its own sake. Blessed are you Hashem who teaches Torah to his nation Israel. 

 ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם אשר בחר בנו מכל העמים ונתן לנו את תורתו. ברוך אתה ה' נותן 

Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the Universe, who has chosen us from all the peoples and given us His Torah. Blessed are you, Hashem, Giver of the Torah. (Translation from the Koren Sacks Siddur.)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Power of the Word -Berachot 19b-20a

Often when I teach Gemara my students quibble with the many Halakhic complexities that our rabbis derive from even one word of the Torah text. For example, on the bottom of yesterday's daf and the top of today's our sages derive that while someone who is going to bring קרבן פסח or to perform ברית מילה on his son cannot be מטמא if he hears that a close relative dies, he can and should be מטמא for a מת מצוה, an unidentified deceased person who has no one to bury him. The topic of מת מצוה and the importance of כבוד הבריות, human dignity, is a fascinating one which I hope to revisit in future postings.

This halakha is derived from the following verse:

ז לְאָבִיו וּלְאִמּוֹ, לְאָחִיו וּלְאַחֹתוֹ--לֹא-יִטַּמָּא לָהֶם, בְּמֹתָם: כִּי נֵזֶר אֱלֹקיו, עַל-רֹאשׁו

He shall not make himself unclean for his father, or for his mother, for his brother, or for his sister, when they die; because his consecration unto God is upon his head.

How do they derive this? From the seemingly extra word וּלְאַחֹתוֹ. The Gemara deduces that since we already know one can't become impure for a brother, the extra word sister must teach us that while for a relative one cannot become impure, one is obligated to make himself impure for the מת מצוה.

These are the types of דרשות that drive many of my students crazy. All this from an extra word? What difference does this word make? Today when I inadvertently made a mistake with one extra word in a Lookjed Listserve posting, I discovered how powerful an extra word can be.

I was commenting about this blog and the move by many to utilize social media for the Daf Yomi using the hashtag #DafChat and #DafYomi. I wrote:

In addition to the various Daf Yomi resources listed, many of us have been working to create a Daf Yomi community online through various social media and Web 2.0 tools. The progressive vision of Rav Meir Schapiro that Jews worldwide should all be on "the same page" and the power of Twitter to allow real-time global discussion seems like a natural shiduch.

I have blogged about using the hashtag #DafChat (#DafYomi is also a natural one) to facilitate this discussion. You can read my blog post here:

One great example of this is the new twitter account Tweet The Daf,, devoted to sending 3-5 to tweets daily about the Daf.

I have also created a new blog devoted to discussion of the Daf. You can access it here: I welcome your comments, constructive feedback, and guest blog posts so that this can truly become a world-wide Daf Chat.

Here's hoping that we can continue to live-tweet the Daf Yomi for the next 7 and 1/2 years (assuming Twitter is still around then).

Note the word "also" that I have placed in bold and italics. I meant to give three examples about using social media for the Daf Yomi: my TechRav blog post, a great twitter account called TweetTheDaf, and this new DafChat blog. I did NOT mean to imply that I created the TweetTheDaf Twitter account. I have not. I merely wanted to publicize this great resource and, since the name of the creator of TweetTheDaf is not listed on the account, I did not think it was appropriate to share it on a public forum.

However, from some emails that I have received in response to my posting, I appear to have caused a misunderstanding by adding the extra word also. This word implied to some that I was saying that in addition to the blog post and new blog, I had also created this TweetTheDaf Twitter account, which is NOT true. (One of the reasons for this post is so I can publicly correct this misunderstanding.)

This has been a humbling lesson for me about the power of the word. Every extra word, especially in a written format has a meaning and one must be VERY careful when composing responses. When speaking one has the benefit of verbal and visual cues like inflexion and body language. All of this is not possible in a written forum. Every word counts so choose your words CAREFULLY. This is especially important when writing on social media whether in blogs, Twitter, or Facebook, since one potentially could be writing for a very large audience.

If this is true for human beings then kal vechomer the same is true for the divinely written words of the Torah. Hashem carefully chose each word in the Torah for a reason. It is only logical that our sages should seek to derive lessons and halakhot from every single word of the Torah.

I would like to publicly thank the creator of TweetTheDaf for the valuable service he has done להגדיל תורה ולהדירה and apologize for any misunderstanding that I might poorly chosen words in my Lookjed posting might have caused.

Monday, August 20, 2012

לועג לרש, Tzitzit and our Sensitivity for the Deceased -Berachot 18a

Today's daf introduces us to the concept of לועג לרש, ridiculing the helpless, that our sensitivity extends to the deceased. The Gemara enjoins Rav Yonatan against walking in the cemetery with his Techeilet, his blue thread from his tzizit, dragging along the floor because this will cause displeasure to the deceased who are no longer can fulfill the mitzva of tzitzit. This is codified in Halakha that even one who normally wears his tzitzit out should cover up his tzitzit in a cemetery (see Mourning in Halacha 10:13 and 42:30).

Ironically, Tosfot points out that the Gemara in מנחות דף מא עמוד א rules that a deceased person should be buried in shrouds that have tzitzit, also for the same reason of לועג לרש. The reason brought is that if the deceased was used to always wearing tzitzit in his lifetime, it would cause him great displeasure to not be wearing tzitzit in his final resting place, as a constant reminder of the fact that he no longer needs tzitzit. Tosfot in Niddah 61b questions why we have a custom nowadays to remove tzitzit from the deceased or at least render them pasul by cutting off one of the fringes. For an excellent discussion of this Tosfot, see Rabbi Gedaliah Hochberg's lengthy treatment here.

It is interesting to note that the Rashba gives a dramatically different reason for the deceased being buried with tzitzit. He says this is based on the dispute in Shabbat 141b whether mitzvot will still be obligated in the future time of תחית המתים, resurrection of the dead. Those who hold that mitzvot will still be in effect at this time obligate one to bury the deceased in his tzitzit so that he should be able to come back to life already performing this mitzva on his garment.

The fascinating lesson of this complex discussion is the great sensitivity we all must have for the deceased. We are sensitive to their feelings so as not to unknowingly taunt them whether by what we are wearing or what we are depriving them of wearing. Likewise, we want to put them into the best position possible to prepare them for the תחית המתים, a time that we all await as a basic tenet of our faith.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Wrong and Right Type of לא לשמה -Berachot 17a

The beginning and the end of the first amud of this last Shabbat's daf focuses on the concept of לשמה, loosely translated as doing something for the right purpose. This is a topic that I already touched upon in my previous post on the 4 Amot of Halakha. However, today's daf especially when learned with Rashi and Tosfot brings up an apparent contradiction which requires its own treatment.

The Gemara begins with a prayer that students involved in Torah learning לא לשמה, not for the right purpose, should eventually be involved in Torah learning לשמה, for the right reason. So far, so good.

Later the Gemara makes a much more shocking statement.

מרגלא בפומיה דרבא תכלית חכמה תשובה ומעשים טובים שלא יהא אדם קורא ושונה ובועט באביו ובאמו וברבו ובמי שהוא גדול ממנו בחכמה ובמנין שנאמר {תהילים קיא-י} ראשית חכמה יראת ה' שכל טוב לכל עושיהם לעושים לא נאמר אלא לעושיהם לעושים לשמה ולא לעושים שלא לשמה וכל העושה שלא לשמה נוח לו שלא נברא

A favourite saying of Raba was: The goal of wisdom is repentance and good deeds, so that a man should not study Torah and Mishnah and then despise15  his father and mother and teacher and his superior in wisdom and rank, as it says, The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, a good understanding have all they that do thereafter.16  It does not say, 'that do',17  but 'that do thereafter', which implies, that do them for their own sake, לשמה, and not for other motives.18  If one does them for other motives, לא לשמה, it were better that he had not been created. (

Rashi and Tosfot both point out that this categorical condemnation of people who learn Torah לא לשמה, for other motives, contradicts another Gemara in פסחים דף נ עמוד ב which contains the famous statement:

לעולם יעסוק אדם בתורה ובמצות אפילו שלא לשמה שמתוך שלא לשמה בא לשמה

A person should always be involved in Torah and mitzvot even not for the right motives because from doing them for the wrong motives, שלא לשמה, one will come to do them for the right motives, לשמה.

Rashi and Tosfot both answer that there are different types of לא לשמה. Sometimes one can do a mitzvah שלא לשמה and it is a positive act that could eventually lead to לשמה. At other times לא לשמה is purely negative and nothing positive could ever come out of it.

The first case of לא לשמה which is discussed in Pesachim is when one learns Torah so that he will receive honor. This is the case of 
מתוך שלא לשמה בא לשמה, doing it for the wrong motive can eventually lead to doing it for the right motive. The second case of לא לשמה which our Gemara in Berachot speaks about (and Taanit 7a, see הגהה on the side of Berachot 17a) is when one learns in order to annoy others or as Tosfot in Pesachim adds to beat down others and lord over them. In this case, one is using Torah as a weapon to humiliate others and no positive outcome can come from it.

Interestingly Tosfot in Pesachim (50b) adds another factor to לא לשמה. He is not ללמוד על מנת לעשות, learning Torah for the sake of doing the mitzvot. Tosfot in Sota (22b) elaborates on this. He says that since such a person is not learning Torah in order to better fulfill the mitzvot either out of love or fear, he is compounding his sins. Because now rather than sinning out of ignorance, a case of שוגג, he has full knowledge of his sins and yet he still cannot hold back from fulfilling his heart's desires.

Probably the most interesting source on this topic is from Nazir 23b. The Gemara brings an example of מתוך שלא לשמה בא לשמה, positive לא לשמה, from Balak the King of Moav who brought 42 sacrifices to G-d for the wrong reasons, and therefore merited that one of his descendants was Ruth the convert who sired the Davidic line of Jewish kings (and Moshiach). What is amazing about this example is that Balak was not just bringing these sacrifices for less than lofty motives. He was bringing them in order to try to convince G-d to allow Bilaam to curse the Children of Israel. Isn't this the worst possible example of using mitzvot as a weapon which can never be a positive לא לשמה? I welcome your answers to this question in the comments section of this blog.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Some thoughts on the Mitzvah of אבילות, Mourning -Berachot 16b

On Sunday, I asked why an אבל on the first day of שבע after the קבורה is obligated in שמע. Based on the conclusion of the Gemara both there and on our daf, a חתן marrying a בתולה is exempt from שמע because he has טירדה, distress, and the distress is due to a mitzvah. This is contrasted to a חתן marrying an אלמנה who has a mitzvah but less distress and one whose ship sunk who has distress but no mitzvah. The Gemara puts the אבל in the same category as one whose ship sunk since he has distress but no mitzvah. But is this really the case? Doesn't the אבל have a mitzvah to feel distress over the מת that has died? So he too should be exempt due to his distress with is related to a mitzvah.

I asked my question once again at the Daf Yomi shiur that I give every Thursday night in Congregation Ahavas Achim B'nai Jacob and David in West Orange, NJ. (There is a rotation so a different person gives the shiur each night of the week.) I argued that the mitzvah of אבילות should be analogous to the mitzvah of שמחה, joy, on Yom Tov, or the mitzvah of כוונה, intent, when one prays. 

In each of these mitzvot one has a מעשה המצוה, an action one does to fulfill the mitzvah, and a separate קיום המצוה, what causes the mitzvah to actually be fulfilled. For example, by the joy of Yom Tov, the Rambam (הלכות שביתת יום טוב פרק ו' הלכה יח) lists many actions for this mitzvah including eating meat and drinking wine, buying new clothes or jewelry, or giving sweets to children. However, each of these actions is supposed to lead to a קיום המצוה, the feeling of happiness on the Yom Tov. The actions are a means to this end but the mitzvah is to fell joy NOT to eat meat. A vegetarian, for example, who does not enjoy meat would not have a mitzvah to eat meat on Yom Tov.

Likewise, in prayer, the reciting of the words is merely a מעשה המצוה. The קיום המצוה is in the כוונה שבלב, the feeling engendered in one's heart. As the Gemara says often, while by other mitzvot like קריאת שמע, there might be a dispute whether the mitzvah requires כוונה, by תפילה everyone agrees that without the כוונה שבלב, the prayer is meaningless. The קיום המצוה is in the כוונה.

I always thought that אבילות, mourning, worked the same way. The tearing of קריעה, the accepting of consolation, ניחום אבלים, the sitting of שבע near the floor, the abstaining from bathing etc. were merely the מעשה המצוה. While the קיום המצוה was in the feeling of sadness and distress. 

In my shiur, some of the participants argued that I might be wrong. Perhaps the actual mitzvah by אבילות are these actions. One fulfills אבילות even without the feeling of distress and sadness. This would explain the distinction in our Gemara. The sadness of the אבל is not considered to be the mitzvah and therefore the אבל is obligated in קריאת שמע. 

The better way to understand אבילות is that these actions are designed to give us the space and time to mourn, to feel the loss. But this feeling is completely subjective and cannot be legislated by the Torah. The Torah in its wisdom understands that אבילות is a profoundly personal experience. The actions are there to help each person get through this experience but ultimately each experience is up to the individual.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The 2 Types of Fear - Berachot 16b

Today's daf concludes with a series of voluntary supplications that some of our greatest Tannaim and Amoraim added after completing their שמונה עשרה. Many of these תחינות have made it into our liturgy either to be recited on a voluntary basis immediately following the שמונה עשרה before taking 3 steps back and saying עשה שלום or an integral part of other prayers. One of the most famous has become a part of the special Tefilla we say the last Shabbat of every month to inaugurate Rosh Chadash. This prayer appears in the Talmud as follows:

 רב בתר צלותיה אמר הכי יהי רצון מלפניך ה' אלהינו שתתן לנו חיים ארוכים חיים של שלום חיים של טובה חיים של ברכה חיים של פרנסה חיים של חלוץ עצמות חיים שיש בהם יראת חטא חיים שאין בהם בושה וכלימה חיים של עושר וכבוד חיים שתהא בנו אהבת תורה ויראת שמים חיים שתמלא לנו את כל משאלות לבנו לטובה 

Rab on concluding his prayer added the following: May it be Thy will, O Lord our God, to grant us long life, a life of peace, a life of good, a life of blessing, a life of sustenance, a life of bodily vigour, a life in which there is fear of sin, a life free from shame and confusion, a life of riches and honour, a life in which we may be filled with the love of Torah and the fear of heaven, a life in which Thou shalt fulfil all the desires of our heart for good!

This beautiful Tefilla seems to beseech G-d for a life full of fear of G-d twice, once when we ask for "fear of sin" and a second time when we ask G-d for the "fear of heaven". The Eitz Yosef commentary on the Ein Yaakov explains that this teaches us a profound distinction between 2 different types of fear of G-d, what in English we might call the fear of G-d vs. the awe of G-d.

He explains that the first type of fear described here as a fear of sin is a low level fear which involves יראת העונש, a fear of punishment. I am afraid to sin because if I do, I am afraid that G-d will punish me. While obviously this type of fear is better than no fear at all, a religious experience predicated on this type of relationship with G-d, who is the "big cop in the sky" who will catch me if I am sinning is not something that is exemplary. It cannot possibly be that great people in Tanach like Avraham, Ovadiah, and Iyyov who are described as fearing G-d merely had this level of fear of sin.

He then explains that the second type of fear, described in this prayer as " fear of heaven" is actually awe of G-d, described in Hebrew as יראת הרוממות, awe of G-d's loftiness. This is a very lofty level of fear where in one's religious experience one becomes so enameled with the greatness of the Master of the Universe that he lives in constant awe of his greatness. This is the awe experienced by our great people throughout history. It is an experience that although hard to reach should be an aspiration for us all.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Summing up Berachot Perek Aleph – Finding Kedusha in the Mundane World by Shimon Lerner @slerner

Since I am unable to keep up with @TechRav's furious pace of a post a day, I am going instead to try and give a bit of birds-eye-view insight into the first perek (mostly relating to the Mishna, but perhaps worth reexamining some of the Gemara upon obtaining this new perspective).

Before receiving the Torah (at the very point in time when Am Yisroel was about to accept the yoke of Heaven for the very first time) Hashem tells Am Yisroel that they are to become a "Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation". As astutely pointed out in the #dafchat:

This is indeed hinted at in the first two mishnayos.

However I think that the message goes even deeper. There are many moments in our daily routine where we actually try to perform acts in a similar fashion to the Kohanim. This starts with washing our hands when we wake which according to the Rashba is reminiscent of the Kohanim preparing to do the Avoda:

ולפיכך אנו צריכין להתקדש בקדושתו וליטול ידינו מן הכלי ככהן שמקדש ידיו מן הכיור קודם עבודתו
שו"ת הרשב"א חלק א סימן קצא-

It continues with a number of Halachos brought in the Tur comparing us while we pray to a Kohen while doing the Avoda:

ומעומד דומיא דעבודה דכתיב לעמוד לשרת, והשוואת הרגלים ככוהנים בשעת העבודה... וראוי לו שיהיו לו מלבושים נאים ומיוחדים לתפילה כגון בגדי כהונה" -טור או"ח סימן צ"ח

A third example is Friday night when every father blesses his children with the blessing of Bircas Kohanim. (I used to have more examples, but seem to have misplaced my list. Contributions from readers in the comments are welcome!)

The Mishna is thus implying that when we say the Shema and accept the yoke of Heaven we should once again picture ourselves as Kohanim entering to eat Terumah. Why eating Terumah? (and why indeed so many examples of eating as @TechRav asked?)

This example of eating Terumah concisely summarizes our job in this world - to impart even onto the most simple and mundane tasks an element of Kedusha. All of our interactions in this world can and should be elevated to a status of holiness through our actions and intentions. This is the ideal to which we must aspire.

But there is a danger when we all consider ourselves Kohanim. This is the trap that Korach fell into when he claimed "the whole nation is holy!". Korach was unable to distinguish between techeiles and lavan (as according to the medrash he and his followers wore garments of only techeiles). He could not see that each person has a specific task and falls onto a specific shade within the spectrum. He did not differentiate between the ideal (tachlis) and the practical implementation.

So as the night comes to an end our time of contemplation and dreaming about our place in the world is superseded by our need to get up, act, and implement these ideals in the real world. At this point, when we begin to distinguish between techeiles and lavan, we must once again say the Shema this time focusing on our own unique specific day-to-day tasks.

These two ideas, of finding Kedusha in this world, while each person finds their own place on the spectrum are both in sync with the opinion of Beis Hillel in Mishna Gimmel. As expressed in their words: "Every person recites Shema as he is, and he may do so in whatever position is most comfortable for him". This statement contains both of these sentiments. On the one hand it clearly outlines the need for each person to find his/her own unique expression. On the other it underlines the fact that even when engaging in Holy tasks and pursuits, they should feel natural, as it is indeed the goal to bring these Holy elements even into our mundane world. (As pointed out by I. Knohl ['A Parasha Concerned with Accepting the Kingdom of Heaven', Tarbiz, 53 (1983), pp. 11-32 (Heb.) and Rabbi Y. Nagen [Nishmat Hamishna] this is very much in line with Beis Hillel's general approach especially as seen in Avos De'rabbi Nosson where Hillel Hazaken declares taking care of one's hygiene to be a Mitzva. [see also]

Finally we get to Mishna Dalet which introduces us to the world of Berachos. Brachos (blessings) are one of our most powerful tools which can be used exactly for the purpose of bringing sanctity into mundane activities. Instead of just sitting down to eat we first make a Beracha contemplating from where we got the food, giving thanks to Hashem and thus elevating the entire experience. In juxtaposition with the previous mishna, this one dictates very strict precise rules regarding the Beracha. Everyone agrees that when it comes attention must be paid even to the smallest of details.

This encapsulates our mission from the moment of Yetzias Mitzrayim when we were given this task, and until the Yemos ha'moshiach, at last connecting us to Mishna Hei. (there is room for some improvements regarding the framework, and I'm open suggestions from the audience.)

To sum it all up, one of the hidden lessons of the first perek:

  • As we say the Shema we should be aware of our mission to bring Kedusha into this world.
  • We must realize this on the ideal level (night),
  • as well as the practical level (day).
  • Each person has their own unique part in this mission,
  • All the time being careful and sticking to the formula, especially when applying the powerful tool of Berachos.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Your Loving-Kindness in the Morning and Your Faithfulness at Night -Berachot 12a

Today's daf contains an astonishing statement.

אמר רבה בר חיננא סבא משמיה דרב כל שלא אמר אמת ויציב שחרית ואמת ואמונה ערבית לא יצא ידי חובתו שנאמר {תהילים: צב-ג} להגיד בבקר חסדך ואמונתך בלילות

Rabba Bar Chinana Saba says in the name of Rav: Whoever does not say Emet Veyasiv (Is true and firm) at Shacharit and Emet VeEmuna (Is true and faithful) at Arvit has not fulfilled his obligation. At it is written: To tell Your loving-kindness in the morning and Your faithfulness at night. (Psalms 92:3)

This statement comes after the Gemara has already decided that ברכות אין מעכבות זו את זו, the Berachot of Shema do not restrict each other, meaning one can fulfill one of the Berachot of Shema without reciting the other.

The Tur seeks to greatly limit this statement by saying that the Gemara does not mean to say that one will not fulfill his obligation of Shema of day or night without saying the proper phrasing. Rather, one will not fulfill the mitzva fully as it was intended but really one will fulfill Shema even without the Berachot.

However, the Beit Yosef cites Rav Yosef Isserles, the Terumat Hadeshen, who quotes in the name of Rav Hai Gaon that one would not even fulfill Shema at all if he recited the wrong phraseology. (This is based on Rav Hai Gaon's opinion that the Berachot in fact do restrict each other and only the order of the Berachot אין מעכבות זו את זו do not restrict one from fulfilling the mitzva.)

The Ben Yehoyada tries to learn the Gemara literally but still follow the Halachic decision of the Tur. He interprets the Gemara as saying that if one has not recited Emet VeYasiv at Shacharit and Emet VeEmuna at Arvit he might have fulfilled the obligation of Shema but he has not fulfilled ether of these two berachot. Based on this interpretation, these two blessings are intimately intertwined and one cannot fulfill one without the other.

Why are these two phrases so important? Rashi and Tosfot both explain that the Beracha of Emet VeYasiv focuses on the kindness and open miracles that G-d did for us during the Exodus while Emet VeEmuna focuses on our faith that G-d will perform similar miracles in the future redemption, bimehera beyamenu. Tosfot gives a second explanation that Emet VeEmuna focuses on our daily faith that G-d will return our soul to us after a night of sleep.

I believe that one can truly understand the importance of this blessing by focusing on the proof-text. The full context which comes from the Mizmor we say on Shabbat is:

ב  טוֹב, לְהֹדוֹת לה';    וּלְזַמֵּר לְשִׁמְךָ עֶלְיוֹן.
ג  לְהַגִּיד בַּבֹּקֶר חַסְדֶּךָ;    וֶאֱמוּנָתְךָ, בַּלֵּילוֹת.

It is good to give thanks to G-d, and sing of Your exalted name.
To tell in the morning Your acts of living-kindness, and Your faithfulness at night.

These verses explain the nature of miracles. In reality, miracles occur every day. The sun rising is a miracle. Childbirth is a miracle. But these miracles are within natural events. G-d כביכול is hiding behind a curtain as he runs the world. However, there are brief moments in time where G-d removes the curtain and shows that he is really there. These are the open miracles like the miracles of the 10 plagues and the splitting of the Sea. It is in these moments that G-d's presence in the world is a clear as בקר, the day, and all we have to do is give thanks and sing songs to G-d as the Children of Israel did by reciting Az Yashir.

I like to compare this to a scene from the classic film, the Wizard of Oz. The wizard appears with great fire and circumstance and then Toto the dog runs to the back to reveal the man behind the curtain controlling everything. After that moment, even as Dorothy and her friends gazed at the image of the great wizard they were no longer afraid. They knew there was really someone controlling everything behind the curtain.

Similarly, when we experience G-d כביכול peaking out from behind his curtain when he does open miracles, we should sing his praises. We should tell in the morning of his loving-kindness. But this is not enough. It should also lead us to faith in G-d even during the times where he appears to be hidden. During the long nights of the exile we keep our faith in the G-d who we glimpsed once in the morning of our redemption. This is why as Ben Yehoyada pointed out these two blessings of the morning and evening are so intertwined. If our אמת ויציב in Shacharit does not lead to אמת ואמונה at Arvit then there is something kacking in both Berachit. It is the true and established fact of G-d's open presence in the world illustrated by the redemption from Egypt which keeps us faithful in a final and future redemption during the long night of our exile.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Why isn't the mourner exempt from saying Shema? -Berachot 11a

Today's daf contains the complicated topic of when one involved in a mitzva is exempt from Shema. Within this discussion, the Gemara deduces that a Chatan on his wedding night if he is marrying a Betula is exempt from the Shema because he is טריד, usually translated as burdened or agitated, with the burden of the mitzva he is about to perform. The Gemara contrasts this with a person whose ship has sunk at sea or a person in Aveilut, mourning, who is burdened and yet is obligated to say Shema anyways since the burden is not a burden brought about due to a mitzva.

This distinction between the mourner who is טריד and the Chatan on his wedding night who is טריד has always puzzled me. Isn't the mourner also burdened due to a mitzva, namely the mitzva of Aveilut, so shouldn't he ALSO be exempt from Shema like the Chatan? I looked through many Rishonim and Acharonim to see if they address this question and have yet to find one who does. Am I missing something obvious here?

The closest anyone comes to dealing with this question is the פני יהושע who points out that the fact that the verse excluded the mourner on the first day of mourning specifically from the mitzva of Tefillin indicates that he is obligated in all of the other mitzvot. However, this seems like circular reasoning to me when applied to my question. The mourner is obligated in Shema because the Torah did not specifically say he is exempt? Maybe it was obvious that the mourner should be exempt from Shema based on the same logic as the Chatan on the night of his wedding to a Betula! Namely, that he is burdened and the burden is a mitzva burden, the mitzva of mourning, and not a רשות, a non-mitzva burden, like the one who is bothered by the fact his ship has sunk in the sea! I would appreciate anyone who could provide me with an answer to tis question (in the comments below or on Twitter) or at least point me in the right direction.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Thoughts on Berachot 10a: Condemn the Sin, NOT the Sinner

This past Shabbat's daf, introduces us to Bruriah, the sagacious wife of Rabbi Meir. In the story recorded in the Talmud, Rabbi Meir was being harassed by a Biryoni, some type of outlaw, so he prayed that this man should die. Bruriah retorted with an interpretation of the concluding verse from Tehillim Chapter 104. She pointed out that the verse does not say, "Let hot'im (sinners) cease". Rather it is written, "Let hatta'im (sins) cease". Furthermore, the verse continues, "and let the wicked men be no more" which is superfluous. Bruriah asked that if there will no longer be sinners then of course the wicked would be no more! Rather Bruriah deduced that instead of praying for the death of sinners, the verse is teaching us that we should pray that they do Teshuva so that sin is removed from the world and there will be no more wickedness.

This brilliant interpretation teaches us a profound distinction. We are enjoined to hate the sin but not the sinner. The sinner does not need to be defined by his bad deeds. Rather, he is inherently a good person who has made bad choices and fallen into sin. This is confirmed later in the daf when we learn that every person has a Neshama Tehora, a pure soul, within him or her. This soul remains pure for the entire lifespan of a person even if the person has fallen into impure sinful actions.

This approach to humanity is profoundly different from the approach of other religions, lehavdil. We do not believe that man is born inherently sinful. Rather, man is created with a pure soul that remains pure. It is his actions that can become sinful but this does not need to define him as a person.

This has an important halakhic application. Maimonides in Mishne Torah Hilkhot Gerushin, Chapter 2, Halakha 20 describes the Halakha that although a forced Get, divorce document, is pasul, Beit Din can threaten a recalcitrant man who refuses to give his wife a Get with physical harm until he consents to give her the Get. How could such a Get given under duress possibly be kosher?

Rambam explains:
With regard to this person who [outwardly] refuses to divorce [his wife] - he wants to be part of the Jewish people, and he wants to perform all the mitzvot and eschew all the transgressions; it is only his evil inclination that presses him. Therefore, when he is beaten until his [evil] inclination has been weakened, and he consents [to the divorce], he is considered to have performed the divorce willfully.

This Rambam reflects the idea that every Jewish person is considered to be inherently a good and pure person with the best of intentions. Really such a person would of course want to do the right thing. It is only his yetzer hara, his evil inclination, which compels him to act otherwise. So by Beit Din threatening harm, they are merely helping this Jew do what he really deep down wants to do. They are helping him do the right thing.

This is a very important lesson to realize in parenting and teaching. One should never call a child a bad child. Rather one should say that he might have done a bad thing, but that does not mean that he is a bad person. I have heard many stories of great rabbis who disciplined their children when necessary while reflecting this essential understanding. They would say to their child something like "You are better than that" or "That is not like a mensch like you".

This is not just a good parenting strategy. It is the Emet. Every Jew is born with a pure soul. We might sin and do the wrong thing sometimes but we should never let this define us as a person. Like Bruriah who took David Hamelech's example from Tehillim, let us pray that sins should be removed from the world so that there will no longer be wickedness and we will all reach the full potential that Hashem has in store for us.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Thoughts on Berachot 9: Connecting Geula to Tefilla for Vatikin

Berachot 9b revisits the topic of סמיכת גאולה לתפילה, connecting the blessing of גאל ישראל which speaks of our redemption from the bondage of Egypt with the שמונה עשרה which had already been discussed on Berachot 4b. In Berachot 4b it said that anyone who connects גאולה and תפילה is inherits World to Come. Our Gemara goes one step further saying that one who connects גאולה and תפילה will have to harm befall him all day. Tosfot comments based on the context of the Gemara that our Gemara must not be referring to a regular person but one who prays ותיקין, timing Shema and Geal Yisrael immediately preceding the sunrise so they can start their Tefilla, שמונה עשרה, exactly at sunrise.

Rav Ezra Bick in a wonderful shiur on שמונה עשרה for the Gush Virtual Beit Midrash quotes the two approaches from Rabbenu Yonah on the benefits of סמיכת גאולה לתפילה. In summary, in the first approach Rabbenu Yonah says that by connecting the two, we are first acknowledging the Exodus from Egypt which makes us slaves to G-d and then immediately expressing our service to G-d through שמונה עשרה. Why שמונה עשרה? Because the שמונה עשרה expresses the fact that we are totally dependent on G-d for all of our needs. The second similar approach of Rabbenu Yonah is that after acknowledging the Exodus which was the basis for the total faith of the Children of Israel in G-d, we ourselves show our total בטחון in Hashem to fulfill all of our needs by reciting שמונה עשרה.

What is the extra added benefit from our Gemara of סמיכת גאולה לתפילה for ותיקין? I believe the answer can be found by looking at the verse that is quoted as a proof-text: יִירָאוּךָ עִם-שָׁמֶשׁ; וְלִפְנֵי יָרֵחַ, דּוֹר דּוֹרִים, They fear you (Hashem) with the Sun, and before the Moon for all generations. (Tehillim 72:5). One could explain that the ותיקין expressed their total servitude and בטחון in Hashem at the very first moment that we were redeemed and became G-d's slaves, which was the beginning of the day of the Exodus. It is this total devotion of the ותיקין which warrants its own special extra reward.

It is interesting to note that Rashi actually understands a similar concept by Mincha based on the second part of this verse. He says אף תפלת המנחה מצותה עם דמדומי חמה, even by Mincha there is a Mitzvah to recite it with the twilight. This is the source for the minhag that some Chasidim have to daven mincha very late even after sunset. According to this understanding, ותיקין express their total devotion to Hashem by serving and trusting G-d for the entire day, from the first moment of the day, exactly at sunrise, until the last moment of the day, which is more difficult to determine, which corresponds with twilight.

This could also explain why we only have a concept of סמיכת גאולה לתפילה for ותיקין in the morning and, according to Rashi, later during the daytime at Mincha but no similar concept at Maariv. We can only express his total servitude and trust in G-d at the moment that we completely left the yoke of our Egyptian masters and became totally devoted to Hashem. This only occurred in the morning after the מכת בכורות which occurred the night before. Only with the light of day did the Benay Yisrael begin to leave the bondage Egypt and enter their new relationship of exclusive service and trust in Hashem.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Thoughts on Berachot 8a: The 4 Amot of Halakha

Today's Daf describes the importance of davening where you learn.

אמר אביי מריש הוה גריסנא בגו ביתא ומצלינא בבי כנישתא כיון דשמענא להא דאמר רבי חייא בר אמי משמיה דעולא מיום שחרב בית המקדש אין לו להקב''ה בעולמו אלא ארבע אמות של הלכה בלבד לא הוה מצלינא אלא היכא דגריסנא

Abbaye says: At first I would love in the house and pray in the shul. Since I heard the statement of Rabbi Chiya Bar Ami in the name of Ula, "From the day that the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed The Holy One Blessed Be He only has in this world the 4 Amot (cubits) of Halakha", I only davened where I learned.

This idea is fundamental both in terms of Halakha and Hashkafa.

In terms of Halakha, I remember when I was in Rabbi Yehuda Parnes' shiur in YU he was always careful that we davened mincha after shiur in our classroom even though it was taking place at the same time as a larger mincha minyan next door in the Beit Midrash. I believe that was the practice of my rebbe's rebbe, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik as well. It seems that the idea of davening where we learned took precedence over ברוב עם הדרת מלך, the larger nation gives more glory to the king, that we would get from Davening in the Beit Midrash.

Rav Herschel Shachter also brings down in Mipnenay HaRav (page 37) in the name of Rav Soloveitchik that this is the basis for the idea earlier in the Gemara that one should stand for Shemoney Esray after saying Divrei Torah which is the basis for preceding the Mincha Amida with Ashrei. He explains that the Beit HaMikdash was a place of prayer since it was a place for the Shechina, the Divine Presence, to dwell in this world. Our place of learning is the place where Hashem now dwells since "From the day that the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed The Holy One Blessed Be He only has in this world the 4 Amot (cubits) of Halakha". Therefore one who davens after being involved in words of Torah it is as if he has davened in the Beit HaMikdash.

This idea is important in Hashkafa as well. The following is excerpted from an article that I wrote in Ten Daat a few years ago entitled: THE ROLE OF TEACHER AND STUDENT IN JEWISH EDUCATION ACCORDING TO RABBI JOSEPH B. SOLOVEITCHIK.

Rabbi Soloveitchik says that the act of Limud Torah should lead the Torah learner into a rendezvous with God. The learning of Torah unites human beings with God. This is due to the fact that both God and the Jewish people concentrate their minds on one object, the Torah. As it is written, "From the day that the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed The Holy One Blessed Be He only has in this world the 4 Amot (cubits) of Halakha". Since both God and the Jewish people are united in the Torah, by studying Torah the Jewish people are united with the Almighty. In Rabbi Soloveitchik’s words, “if the knower and the object known are merged into one, then two knowers whose minds are concentrated on the same object are also united.”10 He explains this using the axiom, if “a=c” and “b=c” then “a=b”. In this case, “a” represents God, “b” represents the Jewish people, and “c” represents the Torah. Since both God and the Jewish people know the Torah, then it is through the Torah that the Jewish people can know God.

It is interesting to note that Rabbi Soloveitchik uses the devotional definition of Torah lishmah, with its emphasis on devekut advanced by Rav Shneur Zalman of Ladi and other kabbalists, rather than using the cognitive definition of Torah lishmah advanced by Rabbi Soloveitchik’s progenitor and spiritual antecedent, Rav Hayyim of Volozhin. This is despite the fact that Rabbi Soloveitchik himself quotes Rav Hayyim’s cognitive definition of Torah lishmah verbatim in Halakhic Man, 87-89. See Torah Lishmah: Torah for Torah’s Sakes by Norman Lamm (Hoboken, 1989), 190-253, for a complete discussion of these two definitions.

In “Al Ahavat Hatorah Ugeulat Nefesh Hador”, 410, Rabbi Soloveitchik reconciles the cognitive definition of Torah lishmah formulated by his forebears with the devotional definition explicated by the Tanya, for whose philosophy Rabbi Soloveitchik clearly has an affinity. He creates synthesis where on the one hand one studies Torah for the Torah’s sake like the philosophy of Rav Hayyim of Volozhin while on the other hand through this act of study one meets God who also involves himself in the four cubits of Halakhah similar to Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi.

We hope and pray that the Beit HaMikdash will be rebuilt soon so Hashem once again has his house for the Shechina to dwell. Until then, we will continue our rendezvous with the Almighty through the act of learning Torah as Hashem always dwells in the 4 Amot of Halakha.

Thoughts on Berachot 7a: Just a Moment by Shimon Lerner @slerner

The following guest posting is by Shimon Lerner.

The Gemara states that every day Hashem is angry for just one "רגע", literally 'a moment'. How long is a moment? The Gemara attempts to calculate this entity but ultimately it is a relative calculation and does not tell us much since we can never know when it starts.

We find this 'moment' reappearing prominently in the upcoming haftorah for Parshat Ki Teizei:
ברגע קטון עזבתיך וברחמים גדולים אקבצך
בשצף קצף הסתרתי פני רגע ממך ובחסד עולם ריחמתיך
For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great compassion will I gather thee
In a little wrath I hid My face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have compassion on thee (Isaiah 54, ישעיה נ"ד)

The fact that our lack of divine protection/supervision only lasted a short 'moment' is supposed to be consoling.

However, this is not necessarily self evident. The amount of destruction that can be inflicted in just a 'moment' can be downright horrifying. Just think of a nuclear explosion, or a giant comet colliding into Earth. Theoretically the whole world can be destroyed in practically one instant. It is so much easier to destroy than to build. Years of toil and hard work can be obliterated in the blink of an eye. These were just some of the thoughts I remember racing through my mind as I watched the Twin Towers collapse on the mind numbingly tragic 9/11.

How then is this supposed to be reassuring?

I think the key to the answer lies in the two pesukim brought by the Gemara to prove this concept. Starting with the second one which reads:
לך עמי בא בחדריך וסגור דלתיך בעדיך חבי כמעט רגע עד יעבור זעם
"Come, my people, enter thou into thy chambers, and shut thy doors about thee; hide thyself for a little moment, until the indignation be overpast" (Isaia 26, ישעיה כ"ו)

What this passuk shows is that it is possible to 'hide' from God's wrath. It doesn't matter if we are talking about hiding literally or figuratively, the point is that the possibility exists. This is true because the 'moment' is finite. God's love on the other hand is not.

כי רגע באפו חיים ברצונו
For His anger is but for a moment, His favour is for a life-time (Psalms 30, תהילים ל')

This first proof-text brought by the Gemara, one we say every day at the beginning of our davening, expresses just that. Hashem's will is everlasting and in favor of life. His wrath is 'only a moment'.

It doesn’t really matter exactly how long the 'moment' lasts, the important thing is that it is always finite. Much may be lost and there may be an enormous hole in our heart, but as long as we are sure that the 'moment' is finite, we know that the destruction will never be complete. There will always be a ray of hope ready to spring up from an unexpected hideout. This may not be comforting on a personal level, but on a national level it holds a great promise, upholding the everlasting covenant between God and mankind.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Thoughts on Berachot 7: Hashem's Prayer, Our Blessing

תניא א"ר ישמעאל בן אלישע פעם אחת נכנסתי להקטיר קטורת לפני ולפנים וראיתי אכתריאל יה ה' צבאות שהוא יושב על כסא רם ונשא ואמר לי ישמעאל בני ברכני אמרתי לו יה"ר מלפניך שיכבשו רחמיך את כעסך ויגולו רחמיך על מדותיך ותתנהג עם בניך במדת הרחמים ותכנס להם לפנים משורת הדין ונענע לי בראשו

It was taught: R. Yishmael b. Elisha says: I once entered into the innermost part [of the Sanctuary] to offer incense and saw Akathriel Kah, the Lord of Hosts, seated upon a high and exalted throne. He said to me: Yishmael, My son, bless Me! I replied: May it be Your will that Your mercy may suppress Your anger and Your mercy may prevail over Your other attributes, so that You may deal with Your children according to the attribute of mercy and may, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice! And He nodded to me with His head.
Translation courtesy of

Many people view prayer in very simplistic terms. We are lacking something. We want it. So we ask G-d for it. Perhaps we first "butter him up" with praises first, make promises for the future, and end by giving thanks. Then hopefully, G-d answers us and gives us what we want. The incredible stories on today's Daf illustrate the incompleteness of such a naive approach.

Our Gemara begins with a statement that G-d himself prays. If G-d is perfect and lacks nothing then why would he possibly need to pray? Furthermore, the prayer he says is startling. He says: May it my will that my mercy may suppress my anger and may my mercy prevail over all my other attributes so I can act towards my children with mercy and not with strict justice. Why would G-d need such a prayer? If he wants to act in a merciful manner towards us, he just can.

The Gemara then continues with a complementary story of Rabbi Yishmael Kohain Gadol's heavenly vision from the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur in which G-d asks R. Yishmael to bless him and R. Yishmael's blessing closely mirrors G-d's prayer. This story has been immortalized in Avraham Fried's beautiful song that you can watch in the video embedded above.

Similar questions occur from this story. Why would G-d need lowly man to bless him. If a blessing means a flowing of goodness, illustrated by the word ברכה, blessing, which is closely related to the word, בריכה, a spring, then why would G-d need our ברכה. He is the source of all goodness and we cannot possibly bestow goodness on him.

I believe that to begin to unlock this Aggadah one first must clarify the true meaning of prayer. Prayer is not just about asking G-d for things we lack. It is an act of introspection, of setting priorities for ourselves on what is truly important. The word פלל, the same root as the word for prayer, means to judge and the word להתפלל, which is translated as to pray, really is the reflexive form of פלל and literally means to judge oneself. When we pray, we are sitting in self judgement. By stating our wants and needs to G-d, we are also evaluating what is truly important to us and deciding whether we think we deserve it. It is for this reason, Rabbi Elefant explains in his Daf Yomi shiur, that even if someone was lacking nothing, he would still be obligated to pray. The process of prayer is tremendously beneficial to our body and soul. The chiddush of our Gemara is that not only do us mortals have to pray but even Hashem chooses to pray as a reflection of his priorities in the world. And what are these priorities?

The commentary HaKotev to Ein Yaakov explains this with a parable, יותר משהעגל רוצה לינק פרה רוצה להניק, more than the baby calf wants to be nursed, the mother cow wants to nurse.  G-d our mother and father in heaven wishes to bestow his goodness on us. He prays that his attribute of mercy should suppress his anger and he should always relate to us, his children, with mercy and not with strict justice. But in order for G-d to nurse us with his goodness, he needs us to want to nurse.

Hashem needs us, כביכול. He needs us to act towards him in a spirit of introspection and self reflection. He needs us to pray. Only after we show that we are deserving will G-d choose to bestow his goodness on us. For this reason, G-d asks R. Yishmael to bless him. R. Yishmael's blessing that G-d should bestow his mercy was an act on our part mirroring G-d's prayer in the heavens. Therefore, G-d כביכול nodded his head in agreement. Just as in the previous Daf, Man and G-d are bound together כביכול in the matching sets of Tefillin that we wear; in this Daf, Man and G-d are joined in prayer.

This esoteric story reflects one of the greatest mysteries of the divine. G-d is perfect. He lacks nothing. However, he allows lowly finite man to speak before him. Not only does he allow this, he desires our prayer. He chooses to use our prayer and the act of introspection that it entails as the vehicle for him to bestow his goodness and mercy on us. G-d wants to nurse us with his goodness, but first we have to pray.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Thoughts On Berachot 6: Demons, Divine Tefillin and other tales from the Aggadah

The Rambam in his introduction to Helek describes three different groups of people in reference to the Agaddah, the non-halakhic portions of the Talmud.

The first group, which is the largest group, believes all the tales in the Aggaddah to be literally true even if they are quite fanciful and contradict any knowledge of science or common sense. Maimonides describes how these people think they are are honoring the rabbis when in fact they are degrading them. Others, when they hear these tales, rather than proclaiming what an intelligent and understanding people the Jews are will say what a foolish and confused people this little nation is.

The second group, which is also numerous, also interprets all the stories in the Gemara literally but reject these stories based on common sense, using them as proof to belittle our Sages. These people think they are smarter than our great rabbis. The Rambam describes this group as being even more foolish than the first and much more dangerous since they argue with our great scholars. If these people would only learn true philosophy, they would grow to appreciate the wisdom of our Sages.

The third group which is the smallest, barely a group at all, are the people who recognize the greatness of our Sages. They also understand that the rabbis are speaking truth which is often hidden in riddles. Our job as learners is to try to solve these riddles and unlock the hidden truth embedded within the fanciful stories in the Aggadah.

This Rambam comes to mind when trying to understand two main stories in today's daf. The Gemara describes Shedim, demons, which are invisible but number in the thousands to our right and to our left and cause many types of bodily harm. How can a person knowledgable in modern science understand these stories? Rav Aharon Soloveitchik provides an answer in his book, Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind (pages 50-52). He explains that these invisible demons are germs. Once one understands this basic point, the wisdom of the Gemara becomes readily apparent. How could rabbis before the age of microscopes and modern medicine explain microscoptic creatures that cause us harm? They describe them as invisible demons numbering in the thousands who, if we could only see them, would make us crazy. Imagine if we could see the thousands of germs all around us at all times. I think we would go crazy. They advise us because of these demons to wash our hands three times when we wake up in the morning, sound medical advice indeed.

Furthermore, Rav Aharon Soloveitchik explains that at times these Shedim do not refer to germs but other forms of invisible destructive forces in our world like mental illness, hallucinations and the like. The common denominator of these descriptions is rather than portraying our Sages as backwards superstitious people chas veshalom, they unlock the brilliant insight that our rabbis are providing.

Later, the Gemara continues with a lengthy description of Hashem's Tefillin. In contrast to our Tefillin which contain verses speaking of the oneness and uniqueness of the Almighty, Hashem's Tefillin contain verses attesting to the singular and unique nature of the Jewish people. Once again, the wise approach is not to take these stories at face value and assume G-d has a physical form on which he can wear Tefillin Shel Rosh and Tefillin Shel Yad, something that the Rambam would hold is heresy. Rather, as the commentators Meharsha, HaRashba, and HaKotev on the Ein Yaakov explain, this Gemara is beautifully and figuratively portraying the unique relationship between Hashem and the Jewish people. As we say in Shir HaShirim, I am to my beloved as my beloved is to me. Just as we wrap Tefillin which is like our wedding band proclaiming our singular devotion to G-d both on our heart, for our own personal testimony, and on our head for the world to see; so too Hashem, KeBeyachol, wraps his own Tefillin which proclaim his singular devotion to us, his only chosen nation, for all the world to see. This Gemara rather than becoming a seemingly anachronistic tale of the corporeality of G-d, is transformed into a beautifully romantic story of G-d’s love for us, his people.

Our job as learners of Aggaddah even in the rush of the Daf Yomi is to seek to unlock the truth of the brilliance of our Sages so we can appreciate the great philosophical ideas and timeless messages that they have embedded in the some of their most fanciful stories.

Questions on Berachot 5

For today's Daf, I only have questions, no answers.

Here is my relatively easier question. The Gemara contrasts the ways of flesh and blood with the ways of Hashem. With a human being, when a seller sells something, the seller is upset because he had to give up something of value while the buyer is happy. With Hashem it is not so, when Hashem gave us to the Torah, he was happy. This comparison does not seem to be an accurate one. Obviously, in a business dealing, the seller does not want to part with something of value even if he will get something in return. The Torah on the other hand is described as a gift and with gifts it is quite common that the giver is as happy as the receiver even though he receives nothing tangible in return. The very act of giving is its own reward.

The various commentaries in Ein Yaakov struggle with this. The Rif on Ein Yaakov, not to be confused with the Rif in the back of the standard Vilna Shas, learns a Kal Vechomer. If a human seller is upset to give up something even though he receives payment in return, how much more so would the human be upset to give a gift and get nothing in return. This is as opposed to Hashem who is happy to give us the Torah as a gift. I find this answer to be unsatisfactory since often it is the case with gifts that the giver derives joy just from giving the gift even if he receives no tangible compensation. The Meharsha explains that a seller would rather that the recipient give up his item so he can get it back while Hashem wants us to keep his gift the Torah. This is also unsatisfactory for similar reasons. I believe even a human giver wants the receiver to keep the gift and is upset if he chooses not to. My question therefore stands. How is this contrast between a human who sells something and Hashem who gives us the Torah as a gift a valid one? I welcome your feedback.

The Gemara continues with a very difficult philosophical concept, Yissurim Shel Ahava. The Gemara says that if bad things befall a person, he should make a cheschbon hanefesh, an introspection. If he cannot find a sin great enough to warrant his suffering, he can assume that he is suffering due to Yissurim Shel Ahava, chastenings of love.

The rationale for this is explained differently according to Rashi and the Meharsha. According to Rashi, Hashem will cause a good person to suffer in this world so he can get an even greater reward than his mitzvot alone would have warranted in the World To Come. According to Meharsha, Yissurim Shel Ahava can be a form of vicarious atonement. The righteous person might suffer in this world as a form of atonement for his entire community. (I know this does not sound like a Jewish concept, but it is. It just is not a central focus of our faith as it might be in other religions.)

This concept is a difficult one for me but one I am ready to accept. As in the story of Iyov, sometimes a person can suffer for no apparent reason. The friends of Iyov who tell him that his suffering is on account of his sins do not do him any favors or serve as any solace. Perhaps he is merely suffering due to Yissurim Shel Ahava, chastenings of love.

However, the Gemara continues with examples that are hard for me to even write down here let alone accept at face value. After some back and forth, the Gemara establishes that sometimes a person can lose his children chas veshalom due to Yissurim Shel Ahava. I struggle to understand this. Why should apparently innocent children suffer as Yissurim Shel Ahava for the parent? I have not found any answer that is remotely satisfactory to me. It is my hope that some of my readers can at least point me to a commentary to serve as a guide for approaching this difficult question.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Thoughts on Berachot 4

My Rebbeim always taught me not to judge the greatest poskim, halakhic deciders, by their Chumrot, their stringencies, but rather by their kulot, their leniencies. This is because any Am Haaretz can be strict. It takes a great Talmid Chacham to find the areas where one can be lenient utilizing the halakhic process to help people in need.

One can see the source for this from today's Daf. The Gemara says: כך אמר דוד לפני הקב"ה רבונו של עולם לא חסיד אני שכל מלכי מזרח ומערב יושבים אגודות אגודות בכבודם ואני ידי מלוכלכות בדם ובשפיר ובשליא כדי לטהר אשה לבעלה. David says to Hashem, Master of the World, am I not saintly? All the kings of the East and the West sit with all their pomp among their company, whereas my hands are soiled with the blood [of Niddah], with the foetus and the placenta, in order to declare a woman clean for her husband. (Translation courtesy of

What this statement is saying is that David was willing to literally get his hand's dirty in order to permit a woman to her husband regarding the laws of niddah and zavah. The emphasis here is clearly on the importance of halakhic deciders finding leniencies whenever possible, obviously while still working within the halakic process.

Many people view Rav Moshe Feinstein Zatzal for example, the great posek of the previous generation, as a machmir when in fact the opposite is true. One notable example is concerning the status of milk in the United States. According to the Shulchan Aruch, milk is only kosher if a Yisroel watches the milking. However, Rav Moshe in a famous teshuva permitted all milk in the US based on the fact that the government inspection is tantamount to a Yisroel watching. One can read a modern day revisiting of this pask on the OU's website.

What an incredible leniency without which how many thousands of Jews would not be keeping kosher today! This is the power of great halakhic authorities. They are willing to get their "hands dirty" in order to find leniencies whenever possible.

One very important proviso is in order here. While great poskim are known for their leniencies, at the same time, they always act with a great deal of intellectual humility, operating within the halakhic framework and not distorting it to serve their purposes.

We see this from the continuation of the Gemara which says: ולא עוד אלא כל מה שאני עושה אני נמלך במפיבשת רבי ואומר לו מפיבשת רבי יפה דנתי יפה חייבתי יפה זכיתי יפה טהרתי יפה טמאתי ולא בושתי. And what is more, in all that I do I consult my teacher, Mephibosheth, and I say to him: My teacher Mephibosheth, is my decision right? Did I correctly convict, correctly acquit, correctly declare clean, correctly declare unclean? And I am not ashamed [to ask].

While King David strove to find halakhic leniencies, he did not take this as a source of intellectual arrogance Chas VeShalom. He constantly consulted with his Rebbe, Mepiboshet, whose very name indicates that he was willing to humiliate David his student in matters of Halakha. Our great sages in their striving for halakhic truth, while striving for leniency whenever possible, are not afraid to be wrong and readily admit when they are wrong even it means embarrassing themselves in front of their teacher.

This also is a hallmark of our great gedolim today. There are numerous stories of their humility and ability to admit when they are wrong. For example, there is a famous story told by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin about how the great Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik, known affectionally as the Rav to his thousands of students, once snapped at a student who challenged him in shiur. After the shiur was over, the Rav thought for a few minutes and realized that the student had been correct and it was his analysis that had been faulty. He proceeded to walk to a restaurant across the street where the student was eating lunch in order to publicly admit that he was wrong and the student was in fact right.

This is the greatness of our gedolim from King David to the present. On the one hand, they possess the brazenness to "get their hands dirty", to seek out leniencies within the framework of halakha whenever possible. On the other hand, they balance this with the bashfulness to constantly question their own analysis with both their teachers and students. They are not afraid to humiliate themselves in the path to seeking the halakhic truth.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Thoughts on Berachot 3

Every translation by definition is an interpretation. We learn this from a fascinating Tosfot on this Shabbat's daf which derives Halalakha Lemaaseh based on a one word paraphrase in the Gemara of the seminal line from the Kaddish: יְהֵא שְׁמֵיהּ רַבָּא מְבָרַךְ which the Gemara paraphrases as follows: יהא שמיה הגדול מבורך.

Tosfot notes that the Gemara substitutes the word הגדול, literally "the great", for the word רַבָּא in our Kaddish. Using this one word, Tosfot rejects the interpretation of Kaddish posited by the Machzor Vitri. The Machzor Vitri translates יְהֵא שְׁמֵיהּ רַבָּא מְבָרַךְ as 2 separate requests. "May the name of G-d become great [in this world], and may his name be blessed [in the world to come]". Machzor Vitri's explanation is based on the Midrash on יד על כס קה, note the abbreviated name for G-d קה rather than the full name יקוק. The Midrash explains that as long as Amalek exists, representing an evil counterforce to all that is good, G-d's name is incomplete. Likewise, according to Machzor Vitri, we beseech G-d in the Kaddush "May שם–קה" the abbreviated name for G-d "become רבא great and complete" in this world.

Tosfot however rejects this based on the Gemara's translation of רבא as הגדול. This means that the word רבא is as an adjective modifying שמיה. It is not a verb. שמיה רבא therefore must be translated as "his great name" NOT "may his name become great".

I looked in two translations today, the Artscroll Siddur and the Koren Sacks Siddur, and both follow Tosfot's translation of this line from the Kaddish and for good reason. The Rema actually cites this in Darchei Moshe as the source for an important Halakha. Rema says that one is not supposed to pause between the words רבא and מברך when reciting Kaddish. The reason is that this is one long praise of G-d, "May his great name be blessed". According to Machzor Vitri's interpretation, not only would one be allowed to pause between the words רבא and מברך, one SHOULD pause between these words since they are actually two different prayers, "May G-d's name become great" and "May G-d's name be blessed".

I heard one other possible halakhic application to this dispute from Rabbi Moshe Elefant who gives the Daf Yomi shiur on the Orthodox Union's website. He posited that this might be the source for the argument between Ashkenazim and Sephardim concerning whether one needs to stand for the Kaddish. Ashkenazim require one to always stand for Kaddish while according to Sephardim one can remain seated during the Kaddish. Rabbi Elefant explains that this is dependent on whether one views the Kaddish as a prayer of praise to G-d, שבח, or as a request, בקשה. For a public praise of G-d one would stand, for a request one does not have to. Ashkenazim would follow the interpretation of Tosfot that יְהֵא שְׁמֵיהּ רַבָּא מְבָרַךְ means "May his great name be blessed". It is a praise of G-d since when we bless G-d we are praising him. Therefore, one would have to stand. Sephardim would follow the interpretation of Machzor Vitri, "May his name be great and may his name be blessed". This is clearly a form of request and for a petitionary prayer one would not need to stand.

What is so fascinating about this discussion is that Tosfot's entire line of reasoning and the halakhic applications stemming from it, all come from a one word paraphrase in the Gemara, הגדול. This is just another example of how careful and exacting the Gemara is in its use of language and how careful we should aspire to be following our sage's model.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Thoughts on Berachot 2

The Gemara starts with the question תנא היכא קאי דקתני מאימתי which loosely explained means, why does the Mishna start with "From when do we read the Shema" which already assumes that there is in fact a Mitzvah to read Shem? It should have started with the source for this Mitzvah? One can ask a more basic question, why does the first Mishna in Shas start with Shema? It is not the first mitzvah in the Torah. The gloss on Rambam's Introduction to his Commentary on Mishna explains that this is based on the idea ראשית חכמ יראת ה, the beginning of wisdom is fearing of G-d. Therefore Rav Yehudah Hanasi and his colleagues chose to begin Mishna with the most basic Mitzvah expressing our fear of G-d which is the Shema. This teaches us that an overarching theme of Berachot is the fear of G-d. Look for this as you learn through the tractate in both the Halakic and Aggadic sections.

The Gemara answers why we start with Shema at night and day and then switch the order to the Berachot of Shema of day followed the the Berachot of night with תנא פתח בערבית והדר תני בשחרית עד דקאי בשחרית פריש מילי דשחרית והדר פריש מילי דערבית, the Tanna started with the night [Shema] and then explained day [Shema]. While he was in the morning he then explained other things in the morning prayer [namely the morning Berachot of Shema] and then he went back to explaining the night again. This explanation could be due to a mnemonic reason for the structure of the Mishna. It could be an example of chiastic structure which in most basic form is characterized as ABBA. This structure would have been used since the Mishnayot were meant to be studied by rote and a chiastic structure which greatly improve oral retention of the material.

One final question on the second Amud. How come all of the examples the Gemara gives for Shema revolve around food? It uses the eating time of the Kohain, poor man, regular person on Shabbat, regular person on weekdays etc. I have no good answer for this and I welcome responses which you can provide in the comments section to this posting.

The #SiyumHashas, #140Edu and the importance of creating our own #PLN (personal learning network).

Kaddish on the Siyum by Mr. Jay Schottenstein
Dancing after the Siyum.

These last two days, I had the privilege to go to two events that on the surface seem to have no connection whatsoever, the Siyum Hashas at Met Life Stadium in New Jersey and the #140Edu Conference at the 92nd Street Y, in New York City. The Siyum Hashas was a gathering of over 90,000 people to celebrate the completion of the Daf Yomi, the daily study of a page of Talmud that thousands of Jews participate in throughout the world. The #140Edu Conference was a gathering of hundreds of teachers and social media enthusiasts to discuss the role of Twitter and other social media platforms to transform education.

Some of the themes of the Siyum Hashas were the primacy in Jewish life of the Torah and more specifically the Torah SheBeal Peh, the Oral Law, whose backbone is the Talmud; the resurgence of Torah Jewry after the devastation of the Holocaust; and act of Achdut, Jewish togetherness in gathering almost one hundred thousand Jews of many different stripes for one purpose in the largest Jewish celebration in two thousand years. Some of the themes the #140Edu Conference were the primacy of Twitter to connect teachers throughout the world; the importance of making student learning matter to them through self directed and inquiry based learning; and the role of technology in transforming the teacher into a facilitator of learning rather than the primary source of knowledge.

However, both these events shared one common thread, the importance of building a personal learning network. One film shown at the Siyum about the history of the Daf Yomi was particularly noteworthy. It described the progressive vision of Rav Meir Shapiro, who at the age of thirty six first proposed the idea of learning Daf Yomi some 80+ years ago. Rav Shapiro imagined a person traveling by boat from Eretz Yisrael to the United States, a twenty day journey at that time. He takes with him his trusting Gemara and studies each day one page of Talmud as he travels. When he arrives, he walks into a synagogue and attends a Gemara shiur where they are up to the same page that he is. This is the vision of the Daf Yomi. Jews throughout the world all learning individually or in groups but all connected to each other since they are all literally on the same page (and all doing this without the aid of the Internet and other modern communication devices). This is what I call every Jew's personal learning network. By learning the same page on the same date he creates a global network with his fellow Jews.

In many ways, this was also the vision of the #140Edu conference. Just the way the conference was presented illustrates this. It was attended by hundreds who gathered face to face in New York City but live streamed to thousands more online. The message of this conference was quite similar to the message of the Daf Yomi. Teachers need to network with each other even when they cannot be physically connected. They need to create online communities to share and learn together. These communities are known as PLNs, personal learning networks, in educational technology circles.

Ironically, it was a rabbi who lived over fifty years prior to the Internet who developed one of the first of these learning networks through the Daf Yomi. Today, as noted in a Washington Post article on the Siyum, technology is being used to assist in amplifying this network as it is being used similarly by networks of teachers from the #140Edu community. Daf Yomi learners watch and listen to shiurim streamed online, they download podcasts to listen while they commute, they participate in online forums, and now are even starting to use iPad apps.

There is one thing that I think the Daf Yomi learners can still learn from the #140Edu community, the value of Twitter. Currently, there are online teacher communities on Twitter who converse for one hour a week using hashtags like #edchat, #jedchat, and #pblchat. Maybe it's time to make a #DafChat where Daf Yomi learners can get together in this virtual world one night a week to discuss topics stemming from the week's Daf. In this way, we can marry Rav Meir Shapiro's global vision of the Torah learning network with the modern Twitter vision of the #PLN. Anyone else interested in helping to start one? I would be eager to become a participant in this next step in the Daf Yomi.