Rebbe

Here is another guest post. This time, two biographies. Hopefully be”H work will slow down to the point where I can return to writing.

Today is the 14th yahrzeit of Rav Dovid Lifshitz, a man who tried so hard to be my rebbe despite by inability to really listen to what he was telling me… (Some say he was niftar on the 10th of Tammuz, but the Ezras Torah calendar writes that it was the 9th. As Rav Dovid led Ezras Torah for decades, I am taking their version as correct.)

But the closing lines of this article are ones I can attest to. “Getting mussar” from Rav Dovid meant that he sat close to you, held your arm affectionately, and you really knew that rebbe was expressing the pain of watching someone he cared about go amiss.

By the time I had gotten to rebbe‘s shiur, he had given up on filling a shiur in YU if he were to continue in Yiddish, and so rebbe gave shiur in Modern Israeli Hebrew. At least, once rebbe sat down and replaced his hat with a Lithuanian style hoich-kapl (high yarmulka). Rav Dovid tended to walk in the door greeting us with, “ShaLOIM BUCHrim! Mah NISHmuh?” (caps used to illustrate European-style word stressing), which brought a smile to the face (at least the first few times).

Another memory I feel compelled to share were the first two questions on every final. I think Rav Dovid would have preferred something more traditional, but YU required formal written finals. Before giving out the papers, rebbe would ask us who slept eight hours the night before? If you didn’t, rebbe would send you back to the dorm — you need your sleep even during final week! The second question was who ate breakfast? And if you skipped that under the pressure of finals, rebbe handed you a few dollars and sent you to the cafeteria. One’s grade in shiur was correlated to how rebbe thought you were doing (generally an A), not the final anyway.

This last anecdote is something I since found out that Rav Dovid may have learned from his rebbe, Rav Shimon Shkop. A student arrived at Grodno, obviously tired from the long trip. Rav Shimon told him he could attend the yeshiva only if he correctly answered the two questions of his farhehr (oral test): Does he need a rest? Does he need some food?


And with that I give you two biographies of Rav Dovid Lifshitz. The first is by R’ Chaim Waxman, written And with that, I give you R’ Chaim Waxman’s intimate portrait, written for the August 30th, 2004 issue of The Commentator (the Yeshiva College newspaper). This is rebbe as painted by a talmid and later son-in-law who didn’t share my greater interest in the computer room than the beis medrash.“Reb David – Harav David Lifshitz, z”l: An Intimate Portrait”
Chaim I. Waxman
Issue date: 8/30/04

Rav Dovid at the KotelThis is anything but an objective portrait. Reb David was, after all, my rebbi and my father-in-law with whom I was very, very close. And yet, I hope that what follows is not too far from the mark and will offer some insight into the significant role he played at Yeshiva University for almost 50 years. I begin with a brief biographical sketch.

Harav David Lifshitz was born in Minsk, Russia, in 1906. In 1919, his family moved to Grodno, where he was a student of the famed Rabbi Shimon Shkop at his yeshiva, Sha’arei Torah, there. He later studied in the Mirrer Yeshiva, where he stayed until 1932 and received semikha. In 1933, he married Cipora Joselovitz, the daughter of the renowned rabbi of Suwalk (a provincial capital in northwest Poland/Russia), Rabbi Joseph Joselovitz. Upon the untimely death of his father-in-law, in 1935, Rabbi Lifshitz became chief rabbi of the city and its 27 congregations, where he developed the reputation of being a warm, involved spiritual leader, concerned with not only his own congregants but with all Jews, and until his death he served as president of Suwalki Benevolent Society in the United States.

In the autumn of 1939, when war broke out, and Jews were being rounded up by the Germans, Rav Lifshitz chose to stay with his community even though he had opportunities to leave. After the death of his infant child, however, the city’s Jews compelled him to escape. He, his wife, and surviving daughter ultimately secured a U.S. visa, traveling through the Soviet Union, to Honolulu, then to the U.S. mainland.

From 1941 to 1942, he and his family lived in New York, then moved to Chicago, where he was a rosh yeshiva at the Hebrew Theological College until 1944. During World War II, he was active in Va’ad Hatzalah, the official Jewish rescue organization.

Dr. Samuel Belkin [Ed: second president of Yeshiva] actively sought to have him join the RIETS faculty and, in 1944, he came to RIETS as a rosh yeshiva, occupying a position which his mentor, Rabbi Shimon Shkop, had filled twelve years earlier as a visiting rosh yeshiva. He taught upper-level shiurim, primarily in masekhtot Kidushin, Gitin, Ketubot, Shabat, and Hulin.

In many respects, Reb David, as he was affectionately known, helped preserve the old Eastern European yeshiva tradition at RIETS. He had a full beard, dressed in the traditional garb, spoke in Yiddish, and his shiurim consisted of detailed examinations of the gemara as well as the opinions of the major Rishonim and Ahronim on the topic discussed. He also had a distinct stature to his presence. He was always meticulously dressed and he walked in a princely manner.

He was a constant presence in the yeshiva. He lived nearby and, from the time he moved in, the beit medrash was also where he davened. He was at his regular seat in the corner alongside the Aron Kodesh every morning and evening. Indeed, he was typically among the first to arrive before Shaharit and among the last leave after Ma’ariv.

He manifested a unique combination of Lithuanian yeshiva intellect and the spirituality. In addition to his bekiut, encyclopedic knowledge of Talmud and Halakhic literature, he was a very spiritual person. This manifested itself most clearly in his highly inspiring tefilot in the beit medrash, especially during the Yamim Nora-im. His rendition of Avinu Malkenu on Yom Kippur is unforgettable for its awe. Likewise, in the way his entire body shook as he shook the Lulav and Etrog during the Succot tefilot.

He is probably best-remembered as an incredibly warm individual who was genuinely concerned with the well-being of every talmid in the yeshiva. I recall numerous occasions when he would stop students on the street and tell them that they shouldn’t go out without a jacket in the cold of the winter.

His home was always open to his students, and he concerned himself not only with their performance in his class but with every aspect of their lives. Many would consult with him about every conceivable personal question, and he genuinely shared in their all of their achievements and losses.

On the evenings of Chanuka and Purim, chagigot for students, present and past – once you were his talmid, you were always his talmid – were held in his home. The tables were filled with refreshments prepared by my mother-in-law, and the students would talk and sing together for hours. Reb David would have each student there sing a line from one of the songs he selected, and then he gave an inspiring sicha, a talk which usually lasted for close to an hour.

Though he had his own chagigot, he was always present at those held in the Beit Medrash for the entire student body of the yeshiva, and he would always lead the singing and dancing there.

Every year, on Rosh Chodesh Adar, he would have signs posted in the hall near the beit medrash announcing the annual “Hasmada Drive,” his personal campaign to encourage the talmidim in the yeshiva to learn more. His primary focus was always on sacred learning.

Throughout his years at RIETS, he also played a leadership role in communal affairs, especially in Agudat Harabanim, Union of Orthodox Rabbis, and Ezrat Torah. These activities added further to the presence of the old “yeshivishe world” and RIETS.

At the same time, Reb David was quite progressive, especially for someone with his background. When, in the 1960s, he realized that most of his students did not understand the language, he stopped giving his shiurim in Yiddish. However, in contrast to other rabbeim in RIETS, he gave them in Hebrew. Many were very surprised to learn that he was fluent in Ivrit and, to this day, many are unaware that at the age of 12, he co-authored a commentary on the Mishlei (Proverbs) and Daniel, together with his childhood friend, Avraham Rosenshtein, who later Hebraicized his name as Even-Shoshan and authored the most important Hebrew dictionary of the twentieth century.

Few are aware that Reb David was fluent in Hebrew literature and poetry, and that he was able to engage in conversation with students at TI (now IBC) on material they studied in their classes. I vividly recall one day in the summer of the early 1980s, when I drove him from Yerushalayim, that he burst out in praise of the view by reciting a poem on the subject by none other than Chaim Nachman Bialik.

After the establishment of Medinat Israel, Reb David was active in guiding the relationship of American Orthodoxy to Israel. In the early 1950s, he helped create the movement in Israel for a coalition of all religious elements, both Zionist and non-Zionist. The high esteem which he enjoyed in all religious circles enabled him to help establish the Hazit Datit (United Religious Front) which ran on a single slate for the Israeli parliamentary elections.

Eretz Israel and Medinat Israel were among his greatest loves throughout his adult life. His first visit there was in 1952 and, in later years, he spent almost every summer and more there, and he frequently began his first shiur of the academic year with reminiscences of his latest stay in Israel and with a song of love for the country.

Reb David was the unique embodiment of that very special elite type of leader who was combined or “synthesized,” if you will, the role of rosh yeshiva and the role of rav. Even as rosh yeshiva, he was known as the “the Suvalker Rav.” He never relinquished that title. Nor did he ever relinquish his dedication to the rabbinate and his total dedication in carrying out the duties of a rav.

Although Reb David encouraged students to continue learning and, ideally, to become either rabbeim in yeshivot or shul rabbis, he understood that not everyone was cut out for those positions. When he sensed that a student was not going to enter those sacred positions, he encouraged him to do well in his general studies, to go to graduate school, and to be become the best professional he could while, of course, not forsaking regular sacred learning.

Finally, he was a model of beautiful behavior in his interactions with his neighbors, Jewish and not. Anyone who saw him in his many daily walks from his house to the yeshiva could not but be impressed with his warm greeting of everyone he met along the way, in his building, on the street, and in the yeshiva buildings. His very presence and demeanor were a true kiddush HaShem and a rare model.

How fortunate were we to have known him. To know him was to love him and to be loved by him.

Chaim I. Waxman, YC ’63, is a professor of Sociology and Jewish Studies at Rutgers University.


And here is a more summary, overview, biography sent by R’ Shlomo Katz in the 14 Tammuz 5767 edition of “Hamaayan / The Torah Spring”. Aside from giving an overview rather than R’ Chaim Waxman’s detail, he also includes a thought that I also recall dearly (see my entries “Yom Yerushalyim” and “War” for thoughts based on this theme) and I think R’ Katz found an appropriate quote that characterizes Rav Dovid’s thought.

R’ Lifschitz, known as the “Suvalker Rav,” was a important figure in American Jewish life for nearly five decades, as a rosh yeshiva and as president of the Ezras Torah welfare organization from 1976 until his passing. He was born in Minsk in 1906, but moved to Grodno as a child, where he later studied in Yeshivat Shaar Hatorah of R’ Shimon Shkop z”l. From there he transferred to the Mir yeshiva where he studied under R’ Eliezer Yehuda Finkel z”l and Rav Yerucham Levovitz z”l.

At age 24, R’ Lifschitz married Zipporah Chava Yoselewitz, daughter of the rabbi of Suvalk. Two years later, in 1935, R’ Lifschitz succeeded his father-in-law as rabbi of Suvalk, a title he carried for the rest of his life.

R’ Lifschitz suffered tremendous persecution at the hands of the Gestapo before the Jews were expelled from Suvalk. One-half of Suvalk’s 6,000 Jews (including the Lifshitz family) escaped to Lithuania. In June 1941, R’ Lifschitz arrived in San Francisco on a boat that carried several other leading sages. R’ Lifschitz’s first position was in Chicago, but he soon moved to Yeshivat Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan (the rabbinical school of what later became Yeshiva University), where he remained for the rest of his life.

R’ Lifschitz passed away on 9 Tammuz 5753 / 1993.

A small number of R’ Lifschitz’s shmuessen / ethical lectures were printed posthumously under the title Tehilah Le’David. Several of these relate to the subject of “shalom,” such as one from Yom Kippur 1974 when he said:

When we say “Shalom aleichem,” we are not merely greeting someone; we are blessing him. “Shalom” is a name of G-d, meaning “completeness.” “Shalom” / “Peace” means that the whole cosmos has achieved a state of completion through uniting to serve G-d. Whereas man was created lacking, it is his job to complete himself . . .

Israel today [one year after the Yom Kippur War] is in a state of truce. There are agreements, but is that peace? Is a cease-fire peace? Real shalom can exist only when Hashem’s awe is over all His handiwork, united to do His will (paraphrasing the Yom Kippur prayers). Shalom cannot be just the absence of war, because peace is completeness, a name of G-d.

Dear Graduate

Reprinted from Am Echad Resources. -mi

DEAR GRADUATES
Rabbi Avi Shafran

[I was recently privileged to address the commencement ceremony of Bais Yaakov of Baltimore, an Orthodox girls school founded in 1942. Below is an edited version of my remarks to the more than 100 high school graduates, their families and friends.]

Back in the day — the day when I was in grade school, that is — we were taught the “3 R’s” — Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmetic (that’s math to you, and yes, we didn’t spell so good back then). Of course, you’ve all learned those things and more. And as students of a school like Bais Yaakov, you have also learned the really important things for meaningful life.

Among them, I think, are another “3 R’s.” At this special moment in your lives, please permit me to briefly review them.

The first one is Recognizing — specifically, recognizing the good, the precise translation of the Hebrew phrase hakarat hatov. Its simple sense — gratitude — is something you graduates surely feel this evening — toward your parents, your teachers and your classmates, for all that they have given you. But the term’s deeper meaning is to recognize — with a capital “R” — the good that is always present in our lives, all the things with which we are constantly blessed. Because everything we have is a Divine gift. We’re called Jews after Judah — so named by our foremother Leah because of her gratitude — hoda’ah — that G-d had given her “more than her share” of sons. We Jews are always to see what we have — whatever it may be — as “more than our share.”

The larger world has a rather different ethic. An advertisement recently asked me “Don’t you deserve a new Lexus?” Well, no, I don’t particularly. I’m not at all sure I even deserve my used Saturn with the manual roll-up windows either.

In fact, every morning when I open its door, I thank G-d for granting it to me. There is a contemporary social disease one might call eskumptmir-itis — from the Yiddish phrase “It’s coming to me.” We have to try mightily not to contract it.

As it happens, there is a vaccine for the disease of entitlement: the blessings we say throughout every day. Each is an expression of hakarat hatov, a recognition of a gift, and of its Source. We do well to say them carefully, and think of what we are saying.

The second “R” is Relating — trying to feel what others are feeling, empathizing. Here, too, a very different atmosphere envelops the world around us. Maybe it’s different in Baltimore, but in New York the roads teach much about empathy — about how things are when there isn’t any. Obviously each of us cares most about himself — that’s why “Love your neighbor like yourself” takes “yourself” as the given — but the law of the jungle is not our law. We are charged to try to see the world through the eyes of the other.

You’ve heard, no doubt, about the new father-to-be who paced the waiting room for hours while his wife was in labor, about how the process went very slowly and he became more and more agitated, until, an eternity later, the nurse finally came in to tell him his wife had delivered a little girl.

“Thank heaven!” he burst out. “A girl! She’ll never have to go through what I just did!”

You will meet people like that, I assure you — although, with G-d’s help, not your future husbands — and they exemplify the self-centeredness we have to strive mightily to shun.

The third “R” is perhaps the most important, since it touches on a Torah commandment and concept of singular status: Kiddush Hashem, or “Sanctifying G-d’s Name.” That imperative, of course, requires a Jew to die rather than commit certain sins, or any sin in certain circumstances. But we’re charged not only with dying, if necessary, in sanctification of G-d’s name but also with living in a state of such sanctification. This “R” is thus “Reflecting” — for, as observant Jews, our actions reflect not only on ourselves, our parents and teachers and schools, but on our Torah — in fact, on our Creator.

Today, perhaps, more than ever. Waiting at a bus stop once, I was approached by a young mother whose little boy was cowering behind her. She approached me and asked politely if I might assure the child that I was not Osama bin Laden. Turban, black hat, whatever, we do both have beards. I managed to convince the young man who I wasn’t, but was struck by the realization that Mr. Bin Laden not only has the blood of countless innocents on his soul but the sin of desecrating G-d’s name. We must counter with the opposite.

What an incredible obligation — and what an incredible opportunity.

Maimonides, in his laws about sanctification of G-d’s name, adds that great Torah-scholars have a particular mandate to act in an exemplary way — for they are perceived as the most powerful reflections of the Torah. I don’t think it’s a stretch to understand those words to apply today to all who are perceived to be reflections of Torah. In a world like ours, all identifiably Jewish Jews are “great Torah scholars” regarding this law — and we must all endeavor to act the part.

The opportunities are ubiquitous. Receiving change from a cashier, a smile — not to mention a “thank you” — leaves an impression. On the road, where politeness is at a premium, driving politely leaves an impression. The way we speak, the way we interact with others, all leave an impression. We must leave the right one.

So, dear graduates, remember always, above all else, just who you are: reflections of G-d on earth.

Reflect well.

And may your reflections be clear and brilliant, and help merit a fourth “R” — the ultimate Redemption.

(C) 2007 AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

Synthesis and Dialectic

Rav Shimon Gershon Rosenbergzt”l passed away. He was more commonly known as Rav Shagar, a nickname he picked up when a friend starting calling him by the initials on the corner of his tallis. Rav Shagar was Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat Siach Yitzhak, staunchly Religious Zionist, with a mystical, spiritualist bent. Rav Shagar was 57 years old when he lost the battle against pancreatic cancer.

In looking for a thought of his to write, I found the following quote in Haaretz (11 Jan 2005):

One can say that it is a difference that can already be found in Rabbi Kook compared to Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. Rabbi Kook presents the goal as being harmony among all the various values, whereas Rabbi Nachman viewed contradictions as a source of religious ecstasy. When you try to live simultaneously in all the worlds, there is a danger that you will end up living simplistically and superficially, or that you will try to force harmony. I identify with harmony as a goal, but in the real world, one must learn to live with contradictions. From this respect, one of the original sins of the religious-Zionists was their enslavement to the vision of Ben-Gurion’s ‘melting pot.’ Instead of creating a uniform prayer service, each community should have been allowed to foster its own identity, and what they would all share would be the very feeling of Jewish brotherhood.

To Rav Kook, the concept of unity is fundamental. Everything flows from Hashem Echad, and therefore all distinctions are, at the deepest level, illusory. The “secular” Zionist is in reality doing sacred work. In fact, the notion of secular can be defined as that in which we can not perceive the underlying sanctity — even though it’s no less there. Rav Nachman doesn’t write from the perspective of ultimate realities. Given that we are human beings living under a condition of tzimtzum (a “constriction” of [the perceptability of] Divine Presence), we do face contradictions. It is in how we face them that provides us with challenge and growth experiences.

Rav Shagar suggests that one can divide their statements in terms of context — Rav Kook discussing the ultimate goal and Rav Nachman describing how to live through the reality that we are always “only” trying to get there. Therefore one can fully believe both, but it would be Rav Nachman’s perspective that is more useful in defining a lifestyle.

This reminded me of a thought about one of the differences between Rav Hirsch’s “Torah im Derekh Eretz” (TIDE) and Rav JB Soloveitchik’s notion of Modern Orthodoxy, which YU dubbed “Torah uMadda” (TuM). I am tempted to apply the same observation, about differences in context, here.

Rav Hirsch sought synthesis. To him, the ideal person was one who was ennobled by Torah and refined by high culture (Derekh Eretz). My favorite formulation of the TIDE position is that of the Seridei Eish:

The Torah, according to Rav Hirsch, is the force that gives form. Form, to Aristotle’s thought, means a thing’s essential nature in distinction to the substance from which it is embodied. Derekh Eretz is merely the matter on which Torah works.

- Essay in “Shimshon Rephael Hirsch: Mishnaso Vishitaso”

TIDE is a lifestyle that is wholly Torah and wholly derekh eretz, in that the Torah is what gives form and function to a cultured life, and culture is the substance to which one applies Torah.

Rabbi JB Soloveitchik, on the other hand, spoke in terms of unresolvable dialectics. In an earlier blog entry I noted his use of contrasting archetypes of cognitive man vs. homo religiosus (in Halachic Man), Adam I vs. Adam II (in the Lonely Man of Faith), the community of destiny and the community of fate (Community, Qol Dodi Dofeiq, the SCA responsum), etc..

This is also true in his formulation of TuM. (Despite Rabbi Lamm’s frequent use of the word “synthesis” in describing TuM, I do not believe that this meaning of the word “synthesis” was R’ Soloveitchik’s goal.) One of his few talks on TuM is commonly referred to as “Ramatayim Tzofim” — two peaks from which to look out over the landscape, using a phrase from Shemu’el I 1:1. Man is torn between two peaks, which stand distinct. And in fact, it is the free will that emerges from choosing between these alternatives that is man’s “image of G-d”, our entire calling.

In true neo-Kantian fashion, Rav Soloveitchik argues that human nature is characterized by antinomies, equally true but conflicting models of reality. They present philosophical tensions. Halakhah gives us the tools to navigate these conflicts of values, but they are not to be resolved.

Notice that here too, Rav Hirsch speaks in terms of theory, defining the ideal human being as one living a life that is entirely Torah and yet composed of Derekh Eretz, whereas Rav Soloveitchik describes the reality, and living with the conflicts that we actually confront. The ideal may be one of unity, but life is a process of reaching for an ideal; not actually ever getting there. Thus, the two perspectives need not be taken as contradicting.

(At least, not on this point. TIDE and TuM differ in other ways. A topic for another entry.)

Rather, one must know when to use each perspective. I think that seeking unity where there is none is no less fraught with danger on this front than in Rav Shagar’s original case. The TIDE seminary did not succeed at producing its own leadership; the Torah study in such a school was always lighter than that of the full-time Torah study of the Lithuanian yeshiva. It also failed to produce secular education of the quality of Germany’s universities.

Many complain about some of the material taught at Yeshiva University; classes that include Greek mythology, or teachers that espouse heresy. However, Rabbi Soloveitchik (according to vol. II of R’ Rakeffet’s book) lauded YU’s independence, running a full yeshiva and a full university totally unconnected from each other but under the same roof. In Lander College, the rashei yeshiva have veto power over what is taught in the university. The YU experience allows a student to deal with the confrontation of the two unadulterated worlds in a safe context, rather than provide a fused experience that will provide less preparation for living according to the Torah in the “real” world. To my mind, Rav Soloveitchik’s perspective is more appropriate. The only question is whether there is sufficient rebbe-student connection for the exposure to the more questionable parts of the secular world to truly be safe. A pragmatic problem. But if this side issue were addressed, I would conclude that we do live in a world of dialectic, not synthesis, and that is what a school must prepare its students to face. We need to learn harmonious coexistence, and realize life is a never ending struggle for a unification only achieved at history’s culmination.

Note that without the resolution of that pragmatic problem, though, YU runs the risk of presenting students with questions they are ill prepared to answer. Dialectic is a way to live, but we can’t focus on it as though it were also the goal toward which we are striving — or else we run the risk of winning the battle by losing the war.

The Blessing of a Commoner

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 וקמ”ל שלא תהא ברכת הדיוט קלה בעיניך: -ברכות ז.

ואמר רבי אלעזר אמר רבי חנינא לעולם אל תהי ברכת הדיוט קלה בעיניך שהרי שני גדולי הדור ברכום שני הדיוטות ונתקיימה בהן ואלו הן דוד ודניאל דוד דברכיה ארונה דכתיב (שמואל ב כד) ויאמר ארונה אל המלך וגו’ דניאל דברכיה דריוש דכתיב (דניאל ו) אלהך די אנת פלח ליה בתדירא הוא ישיזבינך -מגילה טו.

It was repeated [in a Beraisa]: Rav Yishma’el ben Alisha [the Kohein Gadol] said, “One time I entered to bring the Qetores before Hashem and inside the Holy of Holies [on Yom Kippur]. I saw the Enthrowned G-d, Master of all forces, as though He were sitting on a high and exalted throne.
“He said to me ‘Yishma’el My son, bless me.’
“I said to Him, ‘May it be the Will before You that Your Mercy should conquer Your Anger, and Your Mercy will be revealed over all Your Attributes, and May You conduct with your children in the attribute of Mercy, and bring them in beyond the limits of the law.’
“He nodded to me with his head. From this we can learn that the blessing of a commoner should not be trivial in your eyes.”

- Berakhos 7a

Rabbi Eliezer also said in the name of Rabbi Chanina, “Always make sure that the blessing of a commoner not be trivial in your eyes. For two greats of their respective generations were blessed by two commoners, and they were fulfilled. They were David and Daniel.
David, who was blessed by Arvenah, as it says “… and Arvenah said to the king, ['May Hashem your G-d accept you.']” (Shmuel II 24:23)
Daniel, who was blessed by Darius, as it says “[Then the king commanded, and they brought Daniel, and threw him into the den of lions. The king declared and said to Daniel,] ‘Your G-d, Whom you continually serve, May He deliver you.’ (Daniel 6:17)”

-Megillah 15a

Sidenote: The word hedyot comes to Aramaic from the Greek. “Iδιώτης, idiōtēs (“person lacking professional skill,” “a private citizen,” “individual”), from ἴδιος, idios (“private,” “one’s own”). Similarly in Latin, an idiota is a private person, a layman. Someone in an Athenian democracy who didn’t involve themselves in public affairs were looked down upon, particularly by the sort of people whose writings were preserved for the ages. From that derogatory connotation evolved the English word “idiot”. However, the Aramaic usage is more literal.

Usually we take this saying “do not let a common person’s blessing be trivial in your eyes” as a statement about how we should treasure getting a blessing from anyone. If G-d could beg a human being for a blessing, or Avrenah or the gentile king Darius could save a David or Daniel with their blessings, who knows what the words of someone you pass on the street might do for you?

The thought crossed my mind that it also has a second implication: We must be more free in wishing good upon others! No one can say, “What difference does it make? Who am I, that my blessing should matter?”

You are a child of the Infinite Creator, made in His Image. Even the lowliest person carries tremendous power.

The Baal Shem Tov notes that Hashem created the world through speech. (See this essay on the various models used for understanding creation for more on this topic.) It is not that Hashem said “Let there be light!” and POOF! there was light. Rather, the very words “let there be light” as Hashem utters them, are what we call light. Dibbur, speech, and davar, object are different perceptions of the same thing. This is also why the”Breath” that the Creator breathed into man is called by the Targum “ru’ach memalela a speaking spirit.”

This gives us an idea of the incredible potential of words. We often discuss this fact when exhorting people to watch what they say for lashon hara, slander and gossip.

However, the potential can also not be neglected when considering the importance of speaking positively.

Tzitzis: Advance and Retreat, part II

I discussed the role of tzitzis and the various roles we have for clothing in a number of earlier posts in this topic.

The following is a different take on the idea from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the UK. He is closest in topic to my “Tzitzis: Advance and Retreat“. I wrote about two aspects to the mitzvah based on the differences between its two appearances in the Torah, Rabbi Sacks does so on the basis of the two manners in which we wear it. Also, I took the distinction in a Soloveitchikian way, advance vs. retreat. Rabbi Sacks uses a related but somewhat different distinction, public vs. private.

Our sedra ends with one of the great commands of Judaism – tsitsit, the fringes we wear on the corner of our garments as a perennial reminder of our identity as Jews and our obligation to keep the Torah’s commands:

“G-d spoke to Moses, telling him to speak to the Israelites and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments for all generations. Let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe: look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not stray after your heart and eyes which in the past have led you to immorality. You will thus remember and keep all my commandments and be holy to your G-d.”

So central is this command, that it became the third paragraph of the Shema, the supreme declaration of Jewish faith. I once heard the following commentary from my teacher, Rabbi Dr Nahum Rabinovitch.

He began by pointing out some of the strange features of the command. On the one hand the sages said that the command of tsitsit is equal to all the other commands together, as it is said: “Look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them.” It is thus of fundamental significance.

On the other hand, it is not absolutely obligatory. It is possible to avoid the command of fringes altogether by never wearing a garment of four or more corners. Maimonides rules: “Even though one is not obligated to acquire a robe and wrap oneself in it in order to tsitsit, it is not fitting for a pious individual to exempt himself from this command” (Laws of Tsitsit, 3: 11). It is important and praiseworthy but not categorical. It is conditional: if you have such a garment, then you must put fringes on it. Why so? Surely it should be obligatory, in the way that tefillin (phylacteries) are.

There is another unusual phenomenon. In the course of time, the custom has evolved to fulfil the command in two quite different ways: the first, in the form of a tallit (robe, shawl) which is worn over our other clothes, specifically while we pray; the second in the form of an undergarment, worn beneath our outer clothing throughout the day.

Not only do we keep the one command in two different ways. We also make different blessings over the two forms. Over the tallit, we say: “who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to wrap ourselves in a fringed garment.” Over the undergarment, we say, “who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us concerning the precept of the fringed garment.” Why is one command split into two in this way?

He gave this answer: there are two kinds of clothing. There are the clothes we wear to project an image. A king, a judge, a soldier, all wear clothing that conceals the individual and instead proclaims a role, an office, a rank. As such, clothes, especially uniforms, can be misleading. A king dressed as a beggar will not (or would not, before television) be recognised as royalty. A beggar dressed as a king may find himself honoured. A policeman dressed as a policeman carries with him a certain authority, an aura of power, even though he may feel nervous and insecure. Clothes disguise. They are like a mask. They hide the person beneath. Such are the clothes we wear in public when we want to create a certain impression.

But there are other clothes we wear when we are alone, that may convey more powerfully than anything else the kind of person we really are: the artist in his studio, the writer at his desk, the gardener tending the roses. They do not dress to create an impression. To the contrary: they dress as they do because of what they are, not because of what they wish to seem.

The two kinds of tsitsit represent these different forms of dress. When we engage in prayer, we sense in our heart how unworthy we may be of the high demands G-d has made of us. We feel the need to come before G-d as something more than just ourselves. We wrap ourselves in the robe, the tallit, the great symbol of the Jewish people at prayer. We conceal our individuality – in the language of the blessing over the tallit, we “wrap ourselves in a fringed garment.” It is as if we were saying to G-d: I may only be a beggar, but I am wearing a royal robe, the robe of your people Israel who prayed to You throughout the centuries, to whom You showed a special love and took as Your own. The tallit hides the person we are and represents the person we would like to be, because in prayer we ask G-d to judge us, not for what we are, but for what we wish to be.

The deeper symbolism of tsitsit, however, is that it represents the commandments as a whole (“look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord”) – and these becomes part of what and who we are only when we accept them without coercion, of our own free will. That is why the command of tsitsit is not categorical. We do not have to keep it. We are not obligated to buy a four-cornered garment. When we do so, it is because we chose to do so. We obligate ourselves. That is why opting to wear tsitsit symbolises the free acceptance of all the duties of Jewish life.

This is the most inward, intimate, intensely personal aspect of faith whereby in our innermost soul we dedicate ourselves to G-d and His commands. There is nothing public about this. It is not for outer show. It is who we are when we are alone, not trying to impress anyone, not wishing to seem what we are not. This is the command of tsitsit as undergarment, beneath, not on top of, our clothing. Over this we make a different blessing. We do not talk about “wrapping ourselves in a fringed garment” – because this form of fringes is not for outward show. We are not trying to hide ourselves beneath a uniform. Instead, we are expressing our innermost commitment to G-d’s word and call to us. Over this we say the blessing, “who has commanded us concerning the precept of tsitsit” because what matters is not the mask but the reality, not what we wish to seem but what we really are.

In this striking way tsitsit represent the dual nature of Judaism. On the one hand it is a way of life that is public, communal, shared with others across the world and through the ages. We keep Shabbat, celebrate the festivals, observe the dietary laws and the laws of family purity in a way that has hardly varied for many centuries. That is the public face of Judaism – the tallit we wear, the cloak woven out of the 613 threads, each a command.

But there is also our inner life as people of faith. There are things we can say to G-d that we can say to no one else. He knows our thoughts, hopes, fears, better than we know them ourselves. We speak to Him in the privacy of the soul, and He listens. That internal conversation – the opening of our heart to Him who brought us into existence in love – is not for public show. Like the fringed undergarment, it stays hidden. But it is no less real an aspect of Jewish spirituality. The two types of fringed garment represent the two dimensions of the life of faith – the outer persona and the inner person, the image we present to the world and the face we show only to G-d.

One nit, though. Rabbi Sacks is weaving the above out of custom, not halakhah. There is no duty to wear two kinds of tzitzis, one public, one private. Rabbi Seth Mandel posted the following to Avodah:

The facts of the matter are that a tales koton is an article of clothing invented in Ashk’naz, that was apparently not known to S’faradim in the time of the early rishonim. All of the references to it (as I said in my post discussing why it is tales — talesim and tales koton, not k’tanno) that the Beis Yosef and the R’Mo bring are from people like the Mordekhai, the T’rumas haDeshen, the Or Zarua’, whereas the Ba’al ha’Ittur, who is the source of much of what the Tur writes, makes no mention of them. By the time of the M’habber, however, S’faradim were also wearing them; he says “tales qoton shelonu.” Everyone understands that in the time of Hazal, there was no such thing; their tales was their outside garment, not a toga, but another garment of the Roman times called the peristyle, which was a rectangular piece of cloth that they wrapped themselves in sort of like Indian women wrap themselves in a sari.

We have some idea of what the Ashk’naz garment looked like, some had straps over the shoulders (not a hole cut for the head, like nowadays), and some buttoned (i.e. fastened with hooks) at the sides. It was worn under the clothing, with no tzitzis out: that we know from pictures depicting Jews throughout the medieval period that show all sorts of distinctive Jewish clothing — but NO tzitzis showing. NEVER. Unless the pictures showed the Jews at prayer with a tales godol; in those cases, the artists showed the tzitzis.

Because this beged did not conform to what Hazal say about a talles, neither in terms of size nor in the way it was worn, many rishonim in fact doubted that it really fulfills the mitzva d’orayso of tzitzis. To quote a few: the Mordekhai says “hanei talesos q’tannim shelanu einam min hamuvhar” [our talis qatan's are not of the choicest] because you cannot cover yourself in them. The Orhos Hayyim says that someone who makes a b’rokho of l’his’attef on them “over b’lo tissa [violated 'do not take Hashem's name in vain].” The R’Mo in Darkhe Moshe says that the b’rokho is ‘al mitzvas tzitzisv’hata’am nir’eh li ki ‘hash’shu l’divrei hposqim she’ein yotz’in b’tales qoton kozeh v’lakhen lo m’var’khin l’hit’attef d’az havei mashma’ d’akhshav m’aqayy’min hamitzva [the reason seems to me that they were concerned for the words of those who rule you do not fulfill your obligation with a tallis qatan like this. Therefore we do not bless ‘Who commanded to us wrap ourself’ for that would sound like we are now doing the mitzvah.” IOW, you are not yotze the mitzva with a tales qoton. Other rishonim defended the use of a talles kotos as fulfilling the mitzva at least partially, primarily basing themselves of the minhog of all Jews to wear them.

So if you are not yotze the mitzva, why wear it? As the Tur says in siman 24, in his pep talk “even though a person is not obligated to buy a tales with four corners to become obligated in tzitzis… nevertheless, it is good and proper for every man to be zahir and zariz in the mitzva, and have a small garment with tzitzis that he will wear all the day, because the ‘iqar of the mitzva is remembering the mitzvos…”

This custom of wearing the tales koton totally under one’s clothing continued in Ashk’naz throughout the generations, up until modern times when we have photographs, not pictures. I could point to the many street photographs of Poylin and Lita, of Warsaw and Vilna, of Hungary and Galitzia, before the war, of streets crowded with Jews and no tzitzis visible. To be sure, some were wearing long coats, so we wouldn’t see them anyway, but enough children and Jews without coats or short coats are visible to prove that tzitzis of a tales koton were not worn out. Lest someone claim that these might be the amaratzim and the g’dolim wore, let us look at the pictures of R. Chayim Ozer and R. Boruch Ber and R. Shimon Shkop accompanied by their talmidim, all of whom wore short coats….

Interestingly, Rabbi Sacks gives a solid motivation for making a point of not wearing the strings of one’s tallis qatan outside one’s pants.

Angels and Idols

What exactly was the sin involved in the making of the Eigel haZahav, the Golden Calf?

Rashi (Ex 32:1 “asher yeilekhu“, “asher he’elanu“) says it was actual idolatry.

The Kuzari (1:97) says it was a representation to be used as a conduit between man and G-d. A Moses replacement. Not so much a violation against the second and third of the Rambam’s articles of faith (Divine Uniqueness and Divine Incorporeality), but a violation of the fifth — that we are not to worship anything in the role of middleman between G-d and ourselves.
The distinction between the two may boil down to choosing which phrase in the Torah is the primary motivation given by the Jews.

The people saw that Moshe was late to come down from the mountain; the people ganged up on Aharon, and they said to him: “Arise, make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this man Moshe who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what happened to him.”

- Shemos 32:1

Rashi comments on the words “a god who shall go before us”, and the Kuzari writes about their worrying about Moshe’s non-return.
I could make a historical argument for the Kuzari’s position. In Egyptian mythology, the minor deity that purportedly pulled the cart of prayers up to heaven and blessings down to mankind was Apis, a bull (or man with a bull head). Oxen were towing animals in their society. In Egypt, Apis was the courier of prayers to the other gods, and of blessings to man. It is quite plausible that they thought that without Moshe, they needed a new conduit to G-d, and therefore turned to Apis.

Apis’s holiday was on the 15th of the 8th month. There were two temples at the far sides of Egypt, Memphis and Heliopolis, that had representations of Apis, golden bulls, in front of them.

Yerav’am, when he founded the Malkhus Yisrael, needed to establish a new religion that would free them from being tied to Yehudah and the Temple in Yerushalayim. Among his changes were that he shifted Sukkos from the seventh month to the eighth, and he built temples in Beis-El and Dan with bulls in front of them. It would seem that a pretty conscious imitation of Apis worship was still around.

Thus, the notion that the golden calf was a product of the same mentality, and thus an attempt to replace Moses would explain why they chose the animal they did. The connection between Yerav’am’s religion and the eigel is made explicitly by Tanakh. Yerav’am’s language on consecrating his bulls even parallels that of the Jews when the eigel was completed:

And he [Aharon] received it [the gold] from their hands, and shaped it with a graving tool, and made it a molten calf; and they said: “These are your gods, Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt.”

- Ibid. v. 4

The king [Yirav’am took counsel, and made two golden calves; and he said unto them: ‘You have gone up to Yerushalaim too much, here are your gods, Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt.”

- Melakhim I 12:28

Lehavdil, the keruvim on the aron, that the golden calf as well as the Northern Kingdom’s bulls are the product of a false understanding of the keruv concept.

The keruvim had the faces of children, either one boy and one girl or two boys, and a pair of long bird-like wings that arced over the ark. We do not know what else — if anything — they had. Could have been just a pair of busts, heads with wings and nothing else; or perhaps an entire body. When the Jews got along with each other, they faced each other. When they did not, the keruvim turned away from each other. This would only be seen by the Kohein Gadol on Yom Kippur and by soldiers who saw the ark during war. I assume, therefore, that it served as a call to repentance on Yom Kippur or when preparing for battle.

These are different than the keruv as discussed in Bereishis, who guards the entrance to Eden while holding a sword of revolving fire.

It is also different than the keruv as implied by Yechezqeil. In 1:10, the angels called chayos (Living Beings) present at the Divine Chariot are described as having four faces: that of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. However, in 10:15 we’re told that a chayah is a keruv, in the two visions he them saw identically (10:22) and the keruv has the faces of a keruv, a man, a lion and an eagle. The face of the keruv replaces that of the ox. This implies that a keruv is an ox-like thing, that being the corresponding face. (Even though “chayos” has a more common meaning of “wild animal” to the exclusion of “beheimos”, domesticated ones like oxen. Then again, people aren’t chayos either, and one of the faces of the chayah is human.)

The Chaldeans worshiped a god called Kirub, who was a bull with a human face. So the linguistics point to this interpretation as well. (It also supports Maimonides’ assumption that idolatry began with the worship of G-d’s “entourage” as a way to honor Him.)

I would therefore suggest that this middleman god is a single thread of pagan thought — be it Apis, Kirub, the eigel, or bulls at Malkhus Yisrael. They are a misunderstanding of the notion of keruvim.

Yerav’am’s sin therefore carries an echo of Korach’s. The medrash tells us that Korach brought Moshe a garment entirely made of techeiles (blue wool) and asked whether it needed tzitzis. When Moshe replied that it did, Korach scoffed. If the whole garment being blue is insufficient, what difference would one thread make? Korach tried to declare the whole world holy and thereby leave nothing sacred.

Yerav’am took the two keruvim and placed them at opposite sides of his country. The Divine Presence would appear in a pillar of smoke from between the keruvim in the Mishkan and Beis haMiqdash. Now, Yerav’am declares, that holiness is everywhere.

There were two utensils in the first Beis haMidash that had images on them — the aron had keruvim and the legs to the laver that Shelomo made. Both share a law — they were not made of a separate piece welded on. The keruvim had to be of the same gold, part of the lid of the aron; not welded, but of the same piece. Thus making it clear that they were secondary to the Torah and not worship-worthy gods in their own right.

As the Rambam explains the birth of idolatry:

“In the days of Enosh, the people fell into gross error, and the counsel of the wise men of the generation became foolish. Enosh himself was among those who erred. Their error was as follows: “Since God”, they said, “created these stars and spheres to guide the world, set them on high and allotted unto them honor, and since they are ministers who minister before Him, they deserve to be praised and glorified, and honor should be rendered them; and it is the will of God, blessed be He, that men should aggrandise and honor those whom He aggrandised and honored – just as a king desires that respect should be shown to the officers who stand before Him, and thus honor is shown to the king.” When this idea arose in their minds, they began to erect temples to the stars, offered up sacrifices to them, praised and glorified them in speech, and prostrated themselves before them – their purpose, according to their perverse notions, being to obtain the Creator’s favor. This was the root of idolatry, and this was what the idolators, who knew its fundamentals, said….

- Laws of Idolatry 1:1