Mourning During the Omer, part II

As I wrote in the previous post, there are two events that we are commemorating by mourning during the omer, and they seem to have happened on different dates. Rabbi Aqiva’s students died in the first part of the omer, while the Crusaders reached Ashkenaz in late Iyar. Depending upon which is event you consider primary, I could see justifying observing either part of omer.

Akiva Miller found 12 different methods all told for observing the omer and posted them to mail-jewish (back before Avodah existed). Looking over his sources, I made slight modifications to produce the following.

  1. The Ari, as per the Shaarei Teshuva 493:8, who is quoted by R’ Eider, “Halachos of Persach” vol II, pp 330-331. It’s also mentioned by R’ Blumenkrantz, “The Laws of Pesach – A Digest”, 5753/1993 edition, pp 17-2, 17-3, as custom 4a. All of these use the phrase “ad Erev Shavuos” implying that one may get a haircut erev Shavuos during the day. They make no mention of not having to observe Lag Ba’omer.
  2. Same as A, but ends the morning of the first of the Yemei Hagbala.
  3. Rama 493:2, as per Mishnah Berurah (MB) 493:6 and Bei’ur Halachah “Yeish Nohagim” (BH). In the BH, it is the second custom listed under the first opinion. It’s mentioned in the Igros Moshe (IM; 2nd custom) and R’ Eider (ibid; B), quoting this Rama, Blumenkrantz (ibid; custom 1) and R’ Aharon Fleder in “Moadei Yeshurun”. In the last two sentences of the teshuva, R’ Moshe says that the Rama was giving this opinion for Sepharadim, disagreeing with the Shulchan Arukh (SA; next).
  4. SA 493:2, as explained in the MB (ibid) and BH (ibid; 1st custom in the 1st opinion), the Aruch haShulchan 493:4, Igros Moshe (ibid; 1st custom), R’ Eider (A) and R’ Blumenkranz (custom 2). [R' Ken Bloom added in a comment (below) that this "is also the opinion of R’ Ovadia Yosef, found in Hazon Ovadia Hilchot Yom Tov, and in Yalkut Yosef."]
  5. BH (ibid; second opinion). He takes this as an explanation of K, and not a separate custom. IM (6th minhag), quoting the Magen Avraham (no reference), however, R’ Moshe holds no one follows this custom. Of the 39 days, 6 are going to be Shabbos, leaving 33.
  6. IM (5th minhag), quoting MB 493:15 from Siddur Derech haChaim. This is the custom of Frankfurt.
  7. Magen Avraham, as per Beer Hetev 493:8, MB 493:15 (who also quotes Chayei Adam), AH 493:6, IM (4th minhag), R’ Eider (C, “The is…”), R’ Blumenkrantz (custom 3b), R’ Felder and is the custom in Elizabeth.
  8. Be’eir Heiteiv 493:3, quoting Or Zarua
  9. R’ Blumenkrantz (custom 3a)
  10. IM (3rd Minag) quoting the Rama 3 and MA 5, and R’ Felder.
  11. Rama 493:3, first opinion, as explained by MB 493:14 (2nd half) and 493:15 (1st sentence), Beer Hetev 493:7 (quoting the Bach), Beiur Halachah (ibid; 2nd opinion), R’ Eider (C: first 2 paragraphs).
  12. Akiva lists the first two opinions of the Beiur Halachah as (what I rendered into) D and C above. The BH doesn’t believe anyone holds by the third opinion, so it isn’t listed.

R’ Moshe lists 6 customs, given here as: D, C, J, G, F, and E. R’ Moshe says that the Rama paskened against the first of these (i.e. D), and that in practice, no one follows the last (E). He shows that the other 4 are variations of the same minhag, and therefore one can switch among them without annulling the implied vow of having followed one particular custom.

The two most common minhagim are probably C and either J or K.

(Key: █ – mourning entire day, ▀ – mourning only at night)

Isru Chag
24 – 29 Nissan
1st day R”Ch Iyar
2nd day R”Ch Iyar
2-17 Iyar
Lag Ba’omer
19 Iyar
20-29 Iyar
R”Ch Sivan
2 Sivan
1st Yom Hagbalah
2nd Yom Hagbalah
Erev Shavuos

Mourning During the Omer

א: אלו הימים שבין פסח לעצרת, מוחזק אצל כל ישראל זה שנות מאות רבות לימי דין וימי אבל, מפני שבזמן הקצר הזה מתו שנים עשר אלף זוגות תלמידי חכמים תלמידי רבי עקיבא, כדאיתא ביבמות (סב:), וכולם מתו במיתת אסכרא (שם).ועוד: ראינו שעיקרי ימי הגזירות בשנות מאות שעברו בצרפת ואשכנז הוו בימים אלו, כמבואר מהפיוטים שעשו קדמונינו על שבתות אלו שבין פסח לעצרת. והם מלאים קינים והגה והי. ויש עוד טעמים על ימים אלו שהם ימי דין (עיין ח”י סעיף קטן ג).ב: ולפיכך נהגו כל ישראל מימות הגאונים שלא לישא אשה בין פסח לעצרת. ולא חילקו בין נשואין דמצוה, כגון מי שלא קיים עדיין פריה ורביה, אם לאו. ואף על גב דבאבלות גמורה יש חילוקים, מכל מקום בכאן החמירו על עצמן. ומכל מקום מי שקפץ וכנס – אין עונשין אותו, כיון שעשה מצוה. וכל שכן כשראה שיכול השידוך להתבטל.אבל לארס ולקדש – שפיר דמי. וכן אצלנו לעשות שידוכים ולכתוב תנאים – מותר, שמא יקדמנו אחר. ומותר לעשות סעודה, אך לא בריקודין ומחולות. וכל שכן שאסור לזמר בכלי זמר. וכן סעודת הרשות מותר, כמו סעודות מריעות, ובלבד בלא ריקודין ומחולות.

493:1 These days which are between Pesach and Shavuos are held by all of Israel now for many hundreds of years to be days of judgement and mourning. Because in these short days, 12,000 pairs of sages, students of Rabbi Aqiva, died (c.f. Yevavmos 62b). And they all died of askara.

And more, we see that the majority of the days of the decrees in the early hundreds [of the 6th Jewish millennium, ie the Crusades] that were passed in France and Germany were in these days. As is explained in the liturgical poems that our predecessors composed for these Shabbasos between Pesach and Shavuos, which are full of lamentations, contemplations and outcry. And there are other reasons why these are considered days of justice.

493:2 Therefore all of Israel since the days of the geonim adopted the custom of not marrying a woman in the time between Pesach and Shavuos. And they didn’t distinguish between someone who is getting married for a particular mitzvah (such as if he didn’t yet have children) or not. Even though in full mourning there are such distinctions, in this case they were stringent on themselves. In any case, someone who violates this custom and weds is not punished, becuse he did a mitzvah. All the more so if he saw that the engagement could fall apart.

However, to get engaged — this is very good. And so matching couples and writing tana’im [engagement agreement terms; i.e. formally getting engaged] is considered permissible by us “lest someone else will arrive first” [as the Talmud puts it]. And one may make a party, but not with dancing. All the more so it is prohibited to make music with instruments. Any non-mitzvah party is also permissible, such as a meal just for friendship, as long as there isn’t dancing.

- Arukh haShulchan, Orakh Chaim 493:1-2

(Sidenote on askara. Most translate the word to mean diptheria, that Rabbi Aqiva’s students died in an epidemic. According to Rav Hai Gaon, “askara” is a transliteration of the Greek word “sicari”, a dagger, or the class of soldier who were armed with daggers. He understands them to have been killed during the Roman persecutions.)

Notice that the custom of not making weddings dates back to the ge’onim, before the Crusades. The implication here is that not making weddings is a practice that commemorates the loss of Rabbi Akiva’s students in particular.

ג: וכן נהגו במדינות אלו שלא להסתפר בימים אלו, והוא גם כן עניין אבלות. ומי שהסתפר – קונסין אותו על שעבר על המנהג ולא עשה מצוה. ופשוט הוא דאם צריך לבריאותו להסתפר דמותר. וכן כשיש מילה בימים אלו מותרים בעלי הברית, דהיינו המוהל והסנדק ואבי הבן, להסתפר ביום שלפני המילה סמוך לערב, מפני שיום טוב שלהם הוא.

493:3 And similarly they enacted a custom in these countries not to get a haircut during these days, for it too is a concept of mourning. And whomever gets a haircut — we fine him for breaking a custom, not a halachic obligation. It is simple that if he needs to get a haircut for his health, it is permitted. Similarly if there is a beris during these days, the people involved in the beris — the mohel, the sandeq, and the baby’s father — are permitted to get a haircut right before the evening of the day before the beris, because it is a holiday for them.

- Ibid, no. 3

Notice that the custom of not cutting one’s hair is described as later, and particular to the lands R’ Yechiel Michl Epstein (the author) lived in, the lands the Ashkenazim moved to when fleeing the Crusaders.

It would seem to be implied that omer mourning customs grew in two stages:

During the ge’onic period, the custom arose not to make weddings which grew into a ban on all parties that include dancing or musical instruments.

After the Crusades, the communities consequently founded in Eastern Europe intensified the mourning of the omer period by also including a ban on haircuts.

The two events being commemorated, though, apparently happened during different parts of the omer. There is a tradition, recorded in the Qitzur Shulchan Arukh, that part of the celebration of Lag baOmer is that it marks the end of the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students. In other words, Rabbi Akiva’s students died in the first 32 days of the omer. However, the Crusaders arrived at the Rhineland at the beginning of the First Crusade (1096) in the second part of the omer. The Jews of Speyer were attacked on the 23rd day of the omer, the ghetto in Worms (Vermaiza, as Jews called it) was attacked for a period starting on day 38, Mainz on day 45, and Cologne on Shavu’os.

And yet, each became associated with the concept of sefiras haOmer as a whole not with their specific dates. How did that arise?

Rabbi Aqiva was a survivor. He was killed in the Hadrianic persecutions sometime around 135 CE, which means he was alive during the fall of Yerushalayim, the destruction of the second Beis haMiqdash and the Roman conquest of Judea.

An entire world destroyed because of sin’as chinam — hatred that had no basis, or perhaps that had no productive purpose. The Judaism they knew, centered on the Beis haMiqdash, was gone. Rabbi Aqiva heard of some people who refused to ever sing again, to ever eat meat again. “How can we have meat on our tables, when His is bare? How can we sing for ourselves, when the levi’im have stopped singing His praises?” And Rabbi Akiva had to teach them that life goes on. As Bereishis Rabba puts it — before He created this world, “hayah borei olamos umacharivam — He was creating worlds and destroying them.” Rabbi Aqiva imitated this quality, out to rebuild the destroyed world.

Of all the special times at the Beis haMiqdash, most of the special worship was on holidays. That’s when we had the qorban mussaf, when people were obligated to travel to Yerushalayim with their shelamim and todos, with their bikurim. All of these days carry a biblical obligation to be happy. All but one period — the omer. The omer is a time when that lost world was felt, and there is no countermanding obligation to celebrate the day.

But Rabbi Akiva was determined to go on. To build a new world. And so he built an education system, 24,000 students strong. But they too hadn’t fully purged themselves of the problem. While they didn’t outright hate each other, they failed to accord their peers the proper respect. And Hashem then destroyed that world he was building.

When did He do so? During the omer, the time when everyone was already feeling particularly homesick for Hashem’s presence among us.

But Rabbi Aqiva started again, building a third world. This time he only had five students to work with. And this time his world flourished, and still survives. He handed the mishnah compilation project to Rav Meir, who in turn passed it to Rav Yehudah haNasi, and from it all of our halakhah flows. Rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai similarly became the founTainhead for Qabbalah. It is no coincidence that Rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai’s day of celebration is also during the omer.

Similarly, the Crusaders destroyed a world. Ashkenazic Torah centers move from Ashkenaz to Easter Europe, with a relatively small number of “Yekkes” remaining. We held onto that old world nostalgically; even as we rebuilt new communities in Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Rumania, Galicia, etc… we held onto Yiddish, a Germanic language, as part of our tie to that past. Destroying worlds and rebuilding them.

The omer, it would seem, became a time for mourning those lost worlds. That’s the unifying theme of these tragedies. The custom of mourning on omer began with a halt on weddings. Who can think of building a bayis ne’eman beYisrael, an everlasting home in Israel, in this period?

Even today, as we rebuild after the greatest tragedy to befall the Jewish nation since the destruction of the Temple and the consequent loss of life — a tragedy that underlies and enabled every calamity of this exile.

The famous seder in Benei Beraq mentioned in the seider happened during Rabbi Aqiva’s “third world”. Rabbi JB Soloveitchikzt”l asked about it: Why would the students interrupt the teachers’ seider to tell them it was time for Shema? Here were 5 of the greatest rabbis in Torah history, and they had the chutzpah to think they needed help on a basic point like when to say Shema? Did they think that they weren’t sufficiently cautious in this mitzvah?

Rabbi Soloveitchik explained that that was the point of the story. Not that the teachers needed teaching, but they needed to be reminded that there was a new generation. As long as there are people carrying on, saying Shema each morning and evening, the world will be rebuilt.

Rabbi Soloveitchik too saw the old world before it was destroyed, and strived to build a new one in America. He once caught himself overjoyed listening to some children in Maimonides learning a mishnah: For this, I get excited? Children in Chaslovitch would have known such things far younger. Would have known more. Would have lived in a world where they don’t need school to be taught basics like tzitzis and yarmulka.

But R’ Soloveitchik tied it to this idea. You take what you have, and you build anew.

We must build again. Step by step, day by day. And that too is a message of this period; in fact, it’s part of the original biblical message. “With 48 qualities the Torah is acquired…” and one day of review.

Today is the 38th day of the omer.

Another’s Gashmiyus is my Ruchnius

יענעמס גשמיות איז בא מיר רוחניות.

Another’s physical needs/wants are for me, spiritual.

I first heard this sentiment from R’ Shaul Margoliszt”l, the Chassidishe rav of the shul of my childhood, The Lubavitcher Rebbezt”l describes it as an old Chassidic saying (Igros vol. 13, 27 Iyyar 5716). I think the earliest source is Rav Yisrael Salanter, as quoted in the list of epigrams of Rav Yirael’s in R’ Dov Katz’s Tenu’as haMussar vol. 1. Similarly, this quote from the same chapter:

A pious Jew is not one who worries about his fellow man’s soul and his own stomach; a pious Jew worries about his own soul and his fellow man’s stomach.

It’s a pretty notion as it stands. I used to be one of those people who would answer someone’s “Have an easy fast!” with “Have a meaningful one!” But my attraction to this greeting waned (when not dealing with my children, whose spiritual development is my business) when I realized it was distracting from what to me should be the more fundamental calling — their physical discomfort of fasting.

It ties into a basic notion (one that I made a category of this blog), that there is a use for every middah (UFEM). In the entry that opened this topic I wrote:

When the Brisker Rav taught this idea, a student challenged him with some middos that seem the antithesis of Jewish worship.

Apiqursus (heresy). How can it be used positively? As we’ve been saying — for me and mine, I can have bitachon (trust [in the A-lmighty]) that everything that happens is as it should be. On another’s account, one needs to be an “apiqoreis” and not rely on Hashem’s help.

Krumkeit (warped reasoning). The person who thinks farkumkt has the ability to fulfill “dan likaf zekhus”, judging others favorably, no matter how open-and-shut the story seems to the rest of us. Somehow, we only employ it for self-justification, and hold others to a higher standard.

The notion that his stomach is a fundamental priority for me ties in to this kind of “apiqursus“.

Someone emailed me the following story, from an article by R’ Yakov Horowitz for Mishpachah Magazine (© 2008):

Rabbi Moshe Weinbergershlit”a, the dynamic Rav of Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, New York, tells a remarkable story that he personally heard from Rabbi Binyamin Liftonz”l, who served as a rebbi in the Yeshiva of Central Queens for decades.

When Reb Binyomin was in his late teens, his parents decided to send him to the famed Yeshiva in Grodno, headed by the legendary gaon, HaRav Shimon Shkopzt”l. As it was common practice for all applicants to recite a ‘shtikel Torah’ to Reb Shimon upon arrival, Binyomin’s parents hired a rebbi to properly prepare their son for his farher.

Binyomin endured many days of grueling travel to get to the Yeshiva. When he finally arrived late one evening, exhausted and famished, he was startled to be greeted by Reb Shimon. Binyomin introduced himself and said that he was prepared to recite his ‘shtikel Torah’ to the Rosh Yeshiva. Reb Shimon informed Binyomin that before he recited his Torah portion, he would like to ask Binyomin two questions.

Binyomin froze in fear, as he had only prepared himself to recite a portion of gemara, not to be subjected to a full-blown ‘farher! His fear dissipated when Rav Shkop asked him, “When was your last hot meal?” and “When was the last time that you slept in a bed?”

When Binyomin informed the Rosh Yeshiva that he had not properly eaten or slept since he began travelling, Reb Shimon took him home, personally cooked supper for him, and attended to his needs, until he was sleeping comfortably in Reb Shimon’s house.

Reb Binyomin told Rabbi Weinberger that he had forgotten a great deal of the Torah that he learned in Reb Shimon’s shiurim, but he never forgot the two questions that the Rosh Yeshiva asked him that night. He also told Rav Weinberger that throughout the terrible war years, it was the warm memory of Reb Shimon’s devotion to his needs that sustained his faith in Hashem and his will to remain alive.

Rav Dovid LifshitzWhen I read this story it made me feel truly privileged to have experienced what it means to be part of this tradition. For two years I sat in the shi’ur of Rav Dovid Lifshitzzt”l, the Suvalker Rav, a student of Rav Shimon’s. And Rav Dovid’s notion of a test was similar to his rebbe’s.

YU required written finals. I think Rav Dovid once told me that he wouldn’t have given them otherwise. In any case, the morning of the final, rebbe would ask us two questions that echo Rav Shimon’s “fahrher“:

First, he would want to know who had eight hours of sleep the previous night.

Second, he would ask who had breakfast that morning.

Rav Dovid’s primary concern was for the welfare of his talmidim who were often overextended during final week. How can he worry about how we would test when he wasn’t yet sure we were fully equipped to succeed at our learning?

Those who didn’t get a full night’s sleep were sent back to bed. Those who skipped breakfast were given $5 and sent to the cafeteria. (At least, those who addmitted to it. Few people would raise their hands the second time around, and I know for sure at least some of us were just avoiding taking rebbe‘s money…)

To Rav Shimon and Rav Dovid, a talmid‘s gashmius was truly their ruchnius.

But I realized this morning there is another layer to this concept.

Why is there a gashmius to begin with?

Because the Creator wanted to provide us with a venue where we can interact with other people. Where things aren’t perfect, and we must step in and take partnership with Him in completing their creation. A place where we can be givers, not just recipients.

In other words, the sole reason for this world is so that my ruach, my soul-as-will (ruach also means wind — the unseen power that moves the seen) can step in and provide for others their physical needs. This is why we were created such that sexual intimacy is of the greatest bonding forces. A the Torah says “Therefore man will leave his father and mother and bond with his wife, and they will become one flesh.” (Bereishis 2:24) This is why we associate sharing a celebration with sharing a meal (such as the qorban Todah, for giving thanks, which was of a size too large for any one person to eat).

Another’s gashmius is thus the reason for my soul being extended into this world. Beyond simply calling it a religious duty, it truly is my ruchnius.

In the Name of the One Who Said It

(I think this will be the last post in this series on ge’ulah.)

גדולה תורה יותר מן הכהונה ומן המלכות, שהמלכות נקנית בשלשים מעלות, והכהונה בעשרים וארבע, והתורה נקנית בארבעים ושמונה דברים, ואלו הן:… והאומר דבר בשם אומרו. הא למדת: כל האומר דבר בשם אומרו מביא גאולה לעולם, שנאמר “ותאמר אסתר למלך בשם מרדכי.”

Torah is greater than the priesthood or sovereignty, for sovereignty is acquired with thirty virtues, the priesthood with twenty-four, and Torah is acquired with forty-eight qualities. These are: … and (#48) saying something in the name of its speaker. Thus we have learned: One who says something in the name of its speaker brings ge’ulah to the world, as is stated (Esther 2:22), “And Esther told the king in the name of Mordechai.”

- Beraisa, Avos 6:6

What is it about giving credit when repeating something that it alone is singled out for mention as the final item on the beraisa‘s list, as though it was the loftiest of the qualities necessary to acquire Torah? And more startling – this is the means to bring the ge’ulah? Right. Yes. Proper. Of course. But what does giving credit for a thought have to do with redemption?

This conclusion is drawn from verse about Esther. Somehow this trait shows why Esther had what it took to not only spiritually cause the redemption from Haman’s plan, but to merit to be the aegis by which Hashem impemented that ge’ulah. We can go beyond that “somehow”, though. Because the Torah give us an archetype of a person in a redemptive role, and even focuses our attention on the qualities that were the key to his uniqueness. Moshe Rabeinu, who is described as being the world’s greatest in three domains: anavah, as an eved Hashem, and in his prophecy.

Here are some of the conclusions about anavah that we have explored in the past:

  • Anavah is the emulation of Hashem’s tzimtzum (“constricting” Himself to make “room” for us, so to speak). It is this constriction that made Moshe the greatest of all prophets — both in his making “room” in his soul for Hashem’s word, but also in Moshe Rabbeinu’s greater insight into what Hashem is all about.
  • Anavah is the middle path between ga’avah (egotism) and shefeilus (lowliness). This might be why the Rambam recommends the Middle Path with respect to all middos (Dei’os ch 1) but advises going to the extreme with respect to anavah (2:3). It’s the ultimate pursuit of a blend of the dei’ah‘s actual extremes.
  • Because of this, anavah motivates. It doesn’t lead me to believe I am too puny to get anything done, nor have me complacent in my accomplishments, real or imagined. We looked at a number of figures from history who erred in either direction, and portrayed Esther as an example of someone who found the proper balance. She accepts Mordechai’s “perhaps it was just for a moment like this that you came to royalty” as well as being willing to say “if I am to be lost, I will be lost”.
  • In the same essay I suggested that anavah therefore also brings happiness, contentment with one’s lot, one’s role to play in history. Thus Esther’s anavah leads to “when Adar enters, we increase in joy.”
  • This is why an enigmatic gemara defines an anav as someone who always prays in his maqom qavu’ah (permanent, established, location). Anavah is having one place in the big whole.
  • Rav SR Hirsch links anavah to the word “anah“, to respond (the thesis of the same essay as the previous point). This ties together the notion of tzimtzum, leaving room for the other, with the notion of finding my place and role in the big picture (which in turn requires the balance between knowing the significance of my place and knowing that it’s not everything).
  • And last, I suggested that this is how one gains permanence to one’s accomplishments. By acting toward Hashem’s plan, lesheim Shamayim, one is promised permanence. This is why Moshe couldn’t bring us into Israel, because exile was inevitable. And why “a congregation” — and “a dispute” — “which is for the sake of heaven, it’s end is to be eternal.”

“Listen” to how well the emerging picture dovetails to Rav Shimon Shkop’s words:

The entire “I” of a coarse and lowly person is restricted only to his substance and body. Above him is someone who feels that his “I” is a synthesis of body and soul. And above him is someone who can include in his “I” all of his household and family. Someone who walks according to the way of the Torah, his “I” includes the whole Jewish people, since in truth every Jewish person is only like a limb of the body of the nation of Israel. And there are more levels in this of a person who is whole, who can connect his soul to feel that all of the world and worlds are his “I”, and he himself is only one small limb in all of creation. Then, his self-love helps him love all of the Jewish people and [even] all of creation.

In my opinion, this idea is hinted at in Hillel’s words, as he used to say, “If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I?” (Pirqei Avos 1:14) It is fitting for each person to strive to be concerned for himself. But with this, he must also strive to understand that “I for myself, what am I?” If he constricts his “I” to a narrow domain, limited to what the eye can see [is him], then his “I” – what is it? Vanity and ignorable. But if his feelings are broader and include [all of] creation, that he is a great person and also like a small limb in this great body, then he is lofty and of great worth. In a great engine even the smallest screw is important if it even serves the smallest role in the engine. For the whole is made of parts, and no more than the sum of its parts.

This notion of an engine running the process we call history is also a theme I touched on before.

When you drop a drop of ink into a cup of water, the ink spirals around in some chaotic pattern and eventually diffuses until the entire liquid is a uniform light blue. Even though each time you repeat the experiment the dance and spiral is different, something about it in the general is predictable. If you had different snapshots of the sequence that were significantly far enough apart in time, you could place them in historical order. Entropy always increases until it reaches the maximum. The system runs a certain way, reaching equilibrium.History also has a known final state — the Messianic Era. The colorless, pure potential of this world will be eventually assigned a meaning represented by the sky-blue of techeiles, of the vision of sapphire paving stones under the heavenly throne during the revelation at Sinai (Exodus 24:10). Even though people have free will, and therefore how the process unfolds is not fixed, the general parameters are known. And, like the ink in the water, it’s hard to understand the purpose of any particular dance or spiral in the process of history. But, we are tending toward an equilibrium.

And that means anything not in the equilibrium state will eventually cease to exist. At the end, there is no clear water. And, at the end, there is no evil. Evil must inherently destroy itself, or else there could be no guarantee of that Messianic equilibrium.

To the extent that we work with Hashem’s process, our actions are part of the final end-state, and thus gain permanence. The only way we can make an eternal contribution to the universe is buy signing on to that process. This is akin to the words of Great Britain’s Chief Rabbi, R’ Sir Jonathan Sacks (A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World’s Oldest Religion, pp. 39-41, 47, as quoted recently by R’ Gil Student):

[T]he Baal Shem Tov–founder of the Hassidic movement in the eighteenth century–said that the Jewish people is a living Sefer Torah, and every Jew is one of its letters. I am moved by that image, and it invites a question–the question: Will we, in our lifetime, be letters in the scroll of the Jewish people?

At some stage, each of us must decide how to live our lives. We have many options, and no generation in history has had a wider choice. We can live for work or success or fame or power. We can have a whole series of lifestyles and relationships. We can explore any of a myriad of faiths, mysticisms, or therapies. There is only one constraint–namely, that however much of anything else we have, we have only one life, and it is short. How we live and what we live for are the most fateful decisions we ever make.

We can see life as a succession of moments spent, like coins, in return for pleasures of various kinds. Or we can see our life as though it were a letter of the alphabet. A letter on its own has no meaning, yet when letters are joined to others they make a word, words combine with others to make a sentence, sentences connect to make a paragraph, and paragraphs join to make a story. That is how the Baal Shem Tov understood life. Every Jew is a letter. Each Jewish family is a word, every community a sentence and the Jewish people through time constitutes a story, the strangest and most moving story in the annals of mankind.

That metaphor is for me the key to understanding our ancestors’ decision to remain Jewish even in times of great trial and tribulation. I suspect they knew that they were letters in this story, a story of great risk and courage. Their ancestors had taken the risk of pledging themselves to a covenant with God and thus undertaking a very special role in history. They had undertaken a journey, begun in the distant past and continued by every successive generation. At the heart of the covenant is the idea of emunah, which means faithfulness or loyalty. And Jews felt a loyalty to generations past and generations yet unborn to continue the narrative. A Torah scroll that has a missing letter is rendered invalid, defective. I think that most Jews did not want theirs to be that missing letter…

I am a Jew because, knowing the story of my people, I hear their call to write the next chapter. I did not come from nowhere; I have a past, and if any past commands anyone, this past commands me. I am a Jew because only if I remain a Jew will the story of a hundred generations live on in me. I continue their journey because, having come this far, I may not let it and them fail. I cannot be the missing letter in the scroll. I can give no simpler answer, nor do I know of a more powerful one.

Anavah: knowing that one is only one letter, but that anyone could make oneself critical to the kashrus of the entire scroll.

This series on ge’ulah started with the Qetzos haChoshen’s analysis of a medrash. To quote myself:

R. Shimon said: When the Holy One, blessed be He [-- HQBH], came to create Adam, the ministering angels formed themselves into groups and parties. Some said, “Let him be created,” while others urged, “Let him not be created.” … Love said, “Let him be created, because he will dispense acts of love”; Truth said, “Let him not be created, because he is compounded of falsehood”; Righteousness said, “Let him be created, because he will perform righteous deeds”; Peace said, “Let him not be created because he is full of strife.” What did Hashem do? He took Truth and cast it to the ground. Said the ministering angels before HQBH, “Sovereign of the Universe! Why do You despise Your seal? Let Truth arise from the earth!” As it is written [in the continuing words], “אֱ֭מֶת מֵאֶ֣רֶץ תִּצְמָ֑ח — Let truth bloom up from the earth.” [v. 12]

-Bereishis Rabba 8:5

Man was created with Hashem’s knowledge that with the existence of free-willed beings, Truth would be submerged and have to emerge over time through the process we call history.

The Qetzos haChoshen has a beautiful comment on this medrash. He noted that here truth is described as tatzmiach, blooming. When we make the berakhah after an aliyah, we say “vechayei olam nata besocheinu — eternal life [or perhaps: life of the world{-to-come}] was planted within us.” The Qetzos explains: Torah is the seed from which our medrash tell us Truth blooms.

The process then, is the sprouting of truth. The anav knows to contribute to it, that he may be a mere screw, a single letter, that will not be famous or recorded in the annals of history. But he can make himself critical to reaching the end. Part of eternity.

Now we can finally answer my opening question. Why is Esther’s citing Mordechai as her source when telling the king of the plot to kill him so critical to redemption, and the final skill necessary to acquire Torah? It combines all these elements. It’s an anav‘s acknowledgment of her role in history. By giving credit she declares herself part of a greater whole, she has her own place in a bigger picture. And she does so with respect to the revelation of truth.

To close with another medrash (with thanks to MBD for turning it into song lyrics, and to Nachum Segal for playing them on the radio last week):

שנו רבותינו בשעה שמלך המשיח נגלה, בא ועומד על הגג של בית המקדש והוא משמיע להם לישראל ואומר: “ענוים הגיע זמן גאולתכם, ואם אין אתם מאמינים ראו באורי שזרח עליכם.” שנאמר: “קומי אורי כי בא אורך וכבוד ה’ עליך זרח… והלכו גוים לאורך, ומלכים לנגה זרחך” (ישעיהו ס:א,ג).

The Rabbis taught: As the time that the messianic (i.e. annointed) king is revealed, he will come and stand on the roof of the Beis haMiqdash. And he makes himself heard to Israel and says, “Anavim – Modest Ones! The time for your redemption has arrived. And if you do not believe, look with my light that is dawning upon you.” As it says “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of Hashem has dawned upon you…. And nations shall walk by your light, and kings by the brightness of your dawning.” (Yeshaiah 60:1,3)

- Pesiqta Rabasi 31

At the time of redemption, how does the mashiach refer to us? As anavim.

Ben Shishim leZiqnah

I found I couldn’t let the day go without comment, so here are two old posts of mine written originally for other fora on the subject of the meaning of Zionism.

R’ Aharon Soloveitchikzt”l gave the following parable, to explain his position on the sanctity of “secular” Zionism.

During WWII, a family raised just enough money to get one son out of Europe. They gave him the family heirloom pocket-watch, contacted the Jewish Agency in NY, and put the young boy on a boat. The boy makes it to Ellis Island, and the Agency finds a home to raise the child.

He grows up, and in time, forgot his original family’s faces. But he still held onto the watch, and loved it for the attachment it represented.

Time marches on. He no longer even remembers how many siblings he had, or anything about his parents. But he still lovingly polishes his watch, keeps it wound, cares for it. You always saw him pull it from his pocket.

The man (no longer a boy) hits on hard times. He was forced to sell the watch. But still, he held onto the fob at the end of the chain. He was very attached to that watch-fob even though he remembered almost nothing of what it represented.

40 years later, a brother who survived the war finds him. The reunion is awkward, the man doesn’t remember any of that. The brother is frustrated. But during that reunion, he takes the fob out of his pocket. The brother cries, realizing that even though he doesn’t consciously remember his family, the feelings are still there, expressed on a piece of gold.

I was in Israel for the end of December 2002, mostly visiting my grandfathera”h. I therefore could only grab in short windows of “tourist” time. Much of that time I spent just walking the streets and experiencing its life. Some of it was a quick cab-ride to and from.

One such ride I hopped into a cab with a sticker on the dashboard, a metallic picture of a marijuana leaf. Had I not been rushed, I don’t think I would have sat down and buckled up before noticing. I believe that a pot habit is not conducive to safe driving — especially when the driving in question is taxi-style.

Looking at the little formica sign on the inside of the cab between the front and back doors, I got the driver’s name, and gave Yosef my grandfather’s address and asked for a fixed fare. He wanted to put it on the meter. I told him I’d prefer a flat rate, as I’m on a fixed budget. Yosef was surprised — an American tourist worried about a couple of shekels extra on a cab ride?

In short, being two Jews, we got to shmoozing. I explained that I was unemployed, and was there that week because I couldn’t job hunt during the Christian holidays anyway. That I was there seeing my older grandfather, whose health was poor. Yosef — who remember is a pot-head for all I know — quotes “Do not send us away when we are elderly; when our strength fails, do not leave us.” (Al tashlicheinu le’eis ziqnah… — a well known verse to people used to traditional liturgy.) The rest of the cab ride we spent discussing this verse of Psalms, it’s meaning, the grammar, the emotions, his own wishes for such a relationship with G-d…

Had Yosef been an American secular Jew, he’d probably still be a pot addict. But would he quote Tehillim or even recognize the verse? The love of Judaism that brought his teachers to teach him Tehillim when you and I were learning Orwell or Shakespeare, that gave him the care that goes into discussing it with a stranger, that sense of unity with other Jews that lead him not to treat me as a stranger to begin with… They’re all based in this concept of what Israel is.

Yosef still plays with his watch-fob, motivated by a love despite being unaware of its source.

… THAT is Zionism.

Ge’ulah and Accepting Hashem as King

(Significantly expanded May 6th.)

When someone hears bad news, such as a death, the gemara (Pesachim 50a) tells them to say the berakhah of “Dayan haEmes“. This phrase is often translated “the True Judge” as though it were a noun-adjective pair. But that would have a hei hayedi’ah (a leading “ha-” prefix meaning “the”) on both words. If “emes” were an adjective, it would be “haDayan haEmes“, figuring that “amiti” is a newer construction for “true” as an adjective than the berakhah. (Or perhaps the commonly said “Dayan Emes“, but that might have the heretical implication ch”v that Hashem is “a”, not the only, true Judge.)

Here, the form is that of a semichut (literally: attached form), used to mean “the A of B”. Such as Benei Yisrael, the Children of Israel. This form takes the hei hayedi’ah on only on the second word. A head of Pharoah’s executioners would be “sar tabachim”, but in Bereishis 39:1 the head is called “sar hatabachim” — prefix only on the second word. This is possibly because the noun doesn’t require more specification than being told it’s of something else. In English we say “the Children of Israel”, but in Hebrew it would appear that since the children are being specified as being Israel’s, we don’t need a “the”.

In any case, “Dayan haemes“, being a semichut, would mean “the Judge of Truth”. Semantically, one is accepting the tragedy as an expression of His Justice (which is true), the other is an acknowledgment that Hashem is the One Who judges which truths to reveal, and which to keep hidden from us. I therefore prefer “Dayan ha’Emes“, which acknowledges the reality that I am not capable of coming to terms with the death, even if I intellectually know in theory that He has good reasons. Aside from it simply being more correct since it’s the original form as found in the gemara.

Rav Hutner gives a related thought, that I was holding on to to use closer to Rosh haShanah. But I found that Kollel Iyun haDaf (no name given, I’m guessing it’s from the Rosh Kollel, R’ Mordechai Kornfeld) did a better job than what I had started doing last Elul. So, rather than hold onto it. I will just share the relevant part of the kollel’s Insights into the Daf email for Rosh haShanah 32b.


QUESTION: The Gemara discusses a dispute whether the verse, “Shema Yisrael Hashem E-lokeinu Hashem Echad,” is considered a verse of Malchiyos such that it counts as one of the ten verses which must be recited in the Musaf Shemoneh Esreh of Rosh Hashanah.

RAV YITZCHAK HUTNERzt”l (in PACHAD YITZCHAK, Rosh Hashanah, Ma’amar 11) asks that the Gemara earlier (32a) says that “Ani Hashem E-lokeichem” is the source for reciting verses of Malchiyos. Why, then, is there any argument whether the verse of Shema Yisrael counts as an expression of Malchiyos? The words “Hashem E-lokeinu” in the verse of Shema Yisrael should be the ideal expression of Malchiyos, because the verse of “Ani Hashem E-lokeichem” is the undisputed source for Malchiyos!

Conversely, when one recites Keri’as Shema he must recite the verse in its entirety, including the words “Hashem Echad,” in order to properly fulfill the Mitzvah to accept Hashem’s Kingship upon oneself. If he omits the words “Hashem Echad,” he has not properly expressed his acceptance of Hashem’s Kingship; the words “Hashem E-lokeinu” are not sufficient. Why, then, is “Ani Hashem E-lokeichem” a valid source for reciting Malchiyos if those words do not fully express Hashem’s Kingship?

Another difference exists between the acceptance of Malchus Shamayim of Keri’as Shema and the acceptance of Malchus Shamayim in the blessing of Malchiyos on Rosh Hashanah. In Keri’as Shema, one accepts upon himself the Kingship of Hashem with an emphasis on the love of Hashem, “v’Ahavta Es Hashem.” On Rosh Hashanah, in contrast, one accepts upon himself the Kingship of Hashem with an emphasis on the fear of Hashem (as Rosh Hashanah is the first day of the “Yamim Nora’im,” the Days of Awe). What is the basis for this difference?

ANSWER: RAV HUTNERzt”l cites the words of Rashi on the verse of Shema Yisrael. Rashi explains that the verse means, “Listen, O Israel: Hashem, Who is our G-d now in this world, will be One G-d [accepted by all people] in the World to Come.” This principle is expressed in the Gemara in Pesachim (50a) which says that in this world Hashem is not recognized by all as One. The Gemara adds that in this world man does not recognize the singular goodness behind all that happens. Consequently, in this world a person recites one blessing for bad tidings (“Dayan ha’Emes“) and a different blessing for good tidings (“ha’Tov veha’Metiv“). Times of suffering appear to be times of strict judgment and punishment, while times of prosperity appear to be times of mercy and goodness. Olam ha’Ba will be different; there, one will recite one blessing, “ha’Tov veha’Metiv,” on all that happens, because “on that day Hashem will be One and His Name will be One” (Zecharyah 14:9). (See Insights to Pesachim 50a.)

Rav Hutner explains that man’s mission on Rosh Hashanah is to accept Hashem as King in this world according to the limits of his perception in this world. A person in this world cannot fathom the concept of Hashem’s Kingship the way it will be revealed in the World to Come when “Hashem will be One and His Name will be One.” In this world, we do not see Hashem as Echad, but rather as both “Dayan ha’Emes” and “ha’Tov veha’Metiv.” Therefore, when we accept upon ourselves Hashem’s sovereignty on Rosh Hashanah, we must do so with the expression of “Ani Hashem E-lokeichem” — without the additional “Hashem Echad” — “Hashem is One.” This verse expresses the way we perceive Hashem as King in this world. The acceptance of Hashem as King the way He will be perceived in the future is not part of our present experience, and thus such an acceptance cannot comprise a full-hearted acceptance of Malchus Shamayim.

In contrast, in our acceptance of Hashem’s sovereignty in Keri’as Shema, we proclaim our belief in the way Hashem will be recognized in the future when His true Oneness will be revealed to and perceived by all. Accordingly, one does not fulfill his obligation properly if he recites Shema Yisrael without the words “Hashem Echad,” for he omits the essential component of the future acceptance of Hashem’s sovereignty, that Hashem will be recognized as One. On Rosh Hashanah, however, these words are not an ideal expression of the this-worldly Kingship of Hashem which we proclaim in Malchiyos. (Even though the verse “Shema Yisrael” also contains the words “Hashem E-lokeinu,” that phrase is not the main point of the verse and thus “Shema Yisrael” does not count as a verse of Malchiyos. Alternatively, the phrase “Hashem E-lokeinu” in the verse is not an expression of our acceptance of Hashem as King, but it is a statement of fact: “Hashem, Who right now is our G-d….” In order to be considered a verse of Malchiyos, the verse must contain an acceptance of Hashem as King and not merely be a statement of the fact that Hashem is our G-d. See PACHAD YITZCHAK, ibid. #22.)

This also explains the emphasis in Keri’as Shema on the love of Hashem (“v’Ahavta“). Keri’as Shema refers to the time in the future when we will perceive Hashem as “ha’Tov veha’Metiv” and we will be drawn to Hashem through our love for Him. In this world, in contrast, when we accept Hashem as our King as we perceive Him now — as the judge of mankind, “Dayan ha’Emes,” and as “ha’Tov veha’Metiv” — we accept His Kingship through an expression of awe and fear.

Rav Hutner sees the split in our perception of Hashem between “Dayan haEmes” and “Tov uMetiv” as being a consequence of what we have been identifying with the casting down of Truth for the creation of man. And thus resolved in the World to Come.

We see something similar in the opening chapters of the Chumash. In chapter 1, describing the creation of the world, man appears only as the pinnacle of that process. And G-d is called simply “E-lokim”. When the Torah switches in chapter 2 to tell the story of the creation of man as a decision-maker, with a mental life of his own, He is described as “Hashem E-lokim“. A split but integrated perception of G-d. (I wrote on this topic in the Mesukim miDevash for Parashas Bereishis.) After the first sin, the names start being used alone, with some exceptions, which call for treatment. Notably, in the Merkavah, beyond the olam – elem, Yechezqeil haNavi speaks to “Hashem E-lokim” (albeit spelled A-dny Y-HV-H).

As Rav Hutner writes, history progresses until ge’ulah. “On that day, Hashem will be one, and His name will be one.”

Returning to our opening gemara, R’ Achar bar Chanina says that on that day there will only be one berakhah. We would understand the Truth, and there would be no unpleasant news. On all events we will bless haTov vehaMeitiv — that Hashem is “Good and the Bestower of good”. Similarly, Rav Nachman writes that we will no longer need to use the name Ad-nai where the quote has the tetragrammaton. The four letter name, representing Divine Mercy, will not be occluded by the tragedies of history, and can be said with proper comprehension.

Ge’ulah and the Halachic Process

Last week I drew the conclusion from the Qetzos haChoshen that Torah is not Truth, it — combined with the Jewish People — is the process by which “Truth will bloom from the earth”. As I wrote then:

One wonders if this is related to the Maharal’s explanation of machloqes (disputes in halakhah). In an earlier entry, I described his position as follows:

The Maharal’s position is that “divrei E-lokim Chaim — the word of the ‘Living’ G-d” is simply too rich and too complex to exist in this world. Therefore they are mapped to oversimplified models, related to Hashem’s words the way a shadow is a flattened representation of the original. And thus, different people looking at the problem from different directions will get different shadows — even though they are all accurate representations of the same thing.

It is possible to say that history is the process of closing the gap between Truth in its full richness, and Torah as our ability to make it manifest. Or, as the mequbalim would say, “Lesheim yichud Qudshah berikh Hu uShechintei – For the sake of the unity of the Holy” — i.e. Remote — “One and His Presence” — i.e. as we Perceive her amongst us.

I want to make explicit what this says about the case of the Tanur shel Achnai. This tanur is a kind of oven where the parts are just fitted together. Is it a single oven and can become tamei, or not? (I discussed this a while back in a post titled “The Legislative Authority of Bas Qol“, a summary of the Encyclopedia Talmudica entry. It should be noted again here that there is a clear dispute as to whether this story describes the norm for revelation and halakhah, or if our accepting the Bas Qol authorization to hold like Beis Hillel is an example the norm. Here we will just avoid the question, and assume like most do that it is indicative of the norm.)

An Achna’i-style oven was made from pieces of pottery that were not cemented together. So, the question arose: Can it, like any other oven, become tamei? Or, is it like shards of pottery which can not? Rabbi Yehoshua and the other sages ruled stringently. Rabbi Yehoshua ruled leniently.

When the vote was taken, Rabbi Eliezer disputed the result. “If I am right, let the carob tree prove it.” The tree flew through the air. But the chakhamim replied that we don’t accept halachic rulings from trees. He similarly makes a stream flowed backwards, and even the walls of the beis medrash started to buckle. All three times, the miracles back Rabbi Eliezer, but the sages insist the law follows the majority. Rabbi Eliezer then appeals to heaven, and a bas qol declares, “Why are you disputing with R. Eliezar, for the Halakhah is according to him everywhere”. Rabbi Yehoshua rose to his feet and said, “It is not in Heaven.” (Devarim 30:12)

Several generations later, Rav Noson asked Eliyahu haNavi what happened in heaven during that story. He is told that G-d “smiled” and said, “Nitzchuni banai – My children have defeated me!”

In light of the idea we’re currently developing, we can say as follows. Rav Eliezer may have even been closer to Emes than the final ruling was. But the purpose of halakhah isn’t directly to obtain the Truth. It’s to make the Truth bloom within us and be manifest in the world. Thus, the essence is our working the process. And thus, by implementing it, “nitzchuni banai!

Rav Moshe Feinstein discusses the halachic process and the role of poseiq in his introduction to Igros Mosheh. (The introduction itself deserves serious study.)  He writes about “ha’emes lehora’ah umichuyav lehoros kein af al pi im be’etzem galyah kelapei shemaya galya she’eino kein hapeirush – the true ruling, and one is obligated to teach accordingly, even if in essence is it revealed in heaven that this isn’t the correct eplanation!” The ideal is following the pesaq as according to the process.

As proof, Rav Moshe brings the gemara in Shabbos 130. We rule that only the milah itself overrules Shabbos. All preparation before the milah must be done in advance. Rabbi Eliezer ruled that anything necessary for the milah, even cutting wood to make the fire to make the knife, etc… could also be done on Shabbos. There was a town in Israel that followed Rabbi Eliezer. The gemara says that Hashem rewarded them for their tenacity for the mitzvah of milah. No one in that town died an early death. And when the Romans passed a law in Israel against milah, they exempted that one town from the law!

Who was right — this town, which was rewarded for their position, or we, who rule differently? If we understand that the essence of halakhah is that it and the Jewish People become one in a process to make truth bloom in this world, we can understand how the answer could be “both”.

Torah, like life, is about becoming, not being.