Al Netilas Yadayim

The audio recording (b”H, much clearer than my first attempt at recording a shiur) attached is from the “Tefillah: Beyond the Words” class, a discussion of the berakhah of “Al Netilas Yadayim“.

  • The class starts with a discussion of berakhos in general:
    • Various opinions of the meaning of the word “barukh”,
    • the structure,
    • three conceptions of how to make a berakahah.
  • Approaches to doing mitzvos:
    • To obtain holiness
    • to fulfill the commandment of G-d
    • Perspectives on the reason for morning hand-washing, and how it relates to holiness.

Asher Yatzer

This week’s shiur began with a continuation of last week‘s discussion of qedushah (as in “asher qidishanu vemitzvosav”) and taharah (“al netilas yadayim”).The discussion of qedushah’s “separation for” and taharah’s “separation from” was used to flow into discussing the various vectors of human personality — with a detour into the Beis haMiqdash. (That parallel between man and miqdash actually comes up later in the shiur.) These three vectors can be seen as addressing the next triad of berakhos: Asher Yatzar, E-lokai Neshamah and Birkhos haTorah. (Other reasons for the structure were also given.)The rest of the shiur was a textual study of Asher Yatzar in light of the themes that recur in the various rishonim — often the same theme is associated by different rishonim to different parts of the text. Themes of birth, the wisdom of creation as a whole, Torah and human wisdom, maintenance of health vs being cured, and the wonderous fact that an intangible soul can be associated with a body. The major issues were:
  • Is the berakhah one of praise? If so, why do we sayor one of action?
  • What is the chokhmah being referred to in “who formed man with/of chokhmah”?
  • How do chalulim differ from neqavim, that the berakhah lists both? Does Hashem create holes, or does He allow them to exist by creating around them?
  • Why do we say “before Your throne of honor”, rather than “before You”?
  • Why do we speak of opening and closing holes in particular?
  • What’s the debate over wnether one should say “afilu sha’ah echas” (even one moment/hour)?
  • If the closing of a berakhah must always address one theme, how do “afilu sha’ah achas”, “rofei khol basar” and “umafli la’asos”?

With berakhos for the best of health and an enjoyable Shavu’os!

E-lokai Neshamah

This week’s class was on E-lokai Neshamah. Some of the topics discussed:
  • Different opinions about why the berakhah doesn’t begin with the word “barukh”
  • The berakhah’s possible connection to Hamapil said before going to bed or Asher Yatzar
  • Is the berakhah primarily about waking up, or the resurrection?
  • Who is the “me” saying “the soul which You put within me”? Aren’t I my soul — how can it be placed within “me”?
  • More on the “anatomy” of the soul
  • The connection between the soul and the body
  • Different opinions on the nature and role of the resurrection.

Birchos haTorah

This week’s shiur (audio recording) concludes a series on aspects of the soul. With Asher Yatzar we looked at man’s ability to exist in and relate to the physical world. This is followed by E-lokai Neshamah, and our connection to heaven and man’s higher calling. Now we look at the universe we hold within our heads, our ability to change and grow, and become better at existence on all three planes.

Some topics:

  • Who is holier: people or angels? Who is loftier?
  • Being and becoming
  • Hislamdus — self awareness, life as a learning experience
  • The ruach
  • On empty cups: cleaving to G-d and self improvement
  • The importance of saying birkhos haTorah
  • How many berakhos are there (is ha’Arev its own berakhah), and what kinds of learning require the berakhos?
  • Is the berakhos on learning Torah, or on the Torah lifestyle as a whole?
  • Meaning of the words and phrases.
  • The progression from learning, “sweetening”, remembering, carrying to future generations, and getting protection by being the Torah’s guarantor.
  • Torah as a means of growth — a tool for “becoming”.

Nishmas. part I

This week’s shiur skips to Nishmas, under the assumption that davening in shul runs too quickly for slow and careful recitation, and it would be more practical to skip to around the point where we switch Chazanim and assume a more contemplative pace.Just some of the discussed subjects:

  • Who wrote Nishmas? The Peter connection and what it says about the content of Nishmas.
  • Why do we speak of Nishmas kol chai, veru’ach kol basar, but say nothing about the nefesh? (see previous three weeks’ shiurim for discussion of these three aspects of the soul.)
  • The symbology of Shabbos, tefillin and tzitzis according to the Maharal and R’ Samson Raphael Hirch.
  • The moral duty to praise Hashem, and the mention of those things for which we must say Birkhos haGomeil. Being saved in and of itself vs being saved by reexperiencing an aspect of yetzi’as Mitzrayim.
  • The need to thank Hashem for giving us challenges in measures that we can handle, and moreso, from which to grow.
  • The impossibility of expressing His praise and therefore of the need to praise Hashem implicitly through action and ontologically, since we embodying His Wisdom.

We concluded at the beginning of haKeil, and should pick up at that point.

Nishmas, part II

This week’s shiur picks up from “HaKel besa’atzumos uzekha”, the point where the Chazan begins on Yamim Tovim.Some of the key topics raised:
  • The impossibility of understanding Hashem, and the resulting consequence of tending to describe Him in conflicting dialectics. Immanence — Hashem is everywhere; Trancendence — Hashem is in shamayim. The impersonal G-d of nature, and the G-d of miracles. Etc…
  • How are we permitted to praise Hashem in just four words?
  • Gevurah and nitzchon (eternal in time). Man’s ability to bring nitzachon to Hashem’s will because Hashem’s gevurah gives “room” for us to act. The creative partnership in history and in halakhah.
  • What is means to be a Melekh (king) as opposed to a Mosheil (dictator). What is Hashem’s “Throne”?
  • Idealism and happiness: The concepts of simkhah, yesharim, tehillah (hallel), avodas Hashem (serving Hashem), aveilus and even humor according to Rav Saadia Gaon.
We then started discussing Barekhu, discussing the source for needing a minyan for devarim shebiqdushah (declarations of His sanctity, including Barekhu, Qaddish and Qedushah.

Yotzeir Or, part I

(I was on vacation and so there was no shiur last week.)This week’s shiur picks up with Borkhu and the question of what makes it, or any other prayer (including at least Qaddish and Qedushuah) a davar shebiqdushah (a declaration of holiness).The majority of the shiur was dedicated to opening of the berakhah of Yotzeir Or. We discussed the structure and topics of the berakhos that surround Shema and their relationship to Shema itself, some of the basic thrust of this particular berakhah, and the history behind its opening sentence. The opening of the berakhah was explained in relationship to the pasuq which it paraphrases, a message Hashem gave the prophet Yeshaiah to record for King Cyrus of Persia to eventually receive.

The bulk of the shiur was a discussion of evil, the nature of evil — both as the tragedy in people lives and the evil people do, the question of what defines evil (one Jewish resolution to Plato’s Euthyphro’s Dilemma), and finally four different ways in which tragedy forces us to respond. (The last point is expressed also in my essay “The Four Sons Confront Tragedy“, relating these responses to the responses each of the four sons of the Hagaddah have to the seider.)

Yotzeir Or, part II

In this second of three parts on the berakhah of Yotzeir Or we continued our look at the problem of evil. (The shiur was given during the Three Weeks.) The previous shiur focused on tragedy, the evil that we experience. This week we look at the interplay of the sun, and what it symbolizes, and the moon, and its symbology, and how the story of creation includes a naarative of how evil became a component of human nature.We also looked at the first half of the berakhah, the themes of creation flowing throught the letters of the Torah, of the future state when everyone will acknowledge that flow of creation (mentioned in the Shabbos version of the berakhah), the notion of being unique in quantity (ke’erqekha) vs unique in quality (ve’ein zulasekha).Next shiur we will be”H conclude the berakhah, as well as the series of classes until after the yamim tovim.

Yotzeir Or, part III

See the previous discussions of Yotzeir Or here (part I) and here (part II).

This week we concluded our discussion of the berakhah of Yotzeir Or, as well as the shiur’s run until after the yamim tovim.

Some highlights:

  • The process of creation is continual, and thus the berakhah is about the end of evil more than evil itself. There will always be more opportunities tomorrow even if all is bleak today.
  • The structure of the berakhah.
  • The angels’ Qedushah, and man’s role in it.
  • Creation continuing through today and into the future. Things continue to exist through His Will.
  • Does this concept necessarily mean that individual Divine Providence (hashgachah peratis) need apply to every event?
  • Various opinions on the subject of Providence, and a modern take on the idea.
  • A tiny review of the 10 shiur series, taking some points from each shiur and tying them into a single picture.