How do we know this is a Jewish blog?

Why else would there only be questions and no answers on this blog?

Why don’t we speak between netilat yadaim and hamotzi?

Many newcomers to Shabat observance have probably had this experience: You go to wash hands with everybody else, go back to your seat and happily chat up your neighbour until you notice that she/he is not answering and/or you are the only person in the room still speaking. The custom is not to speak from hand washing (netilat yadaim) until the blessing over bread (hamotzi) is said.

Where is the source for that? I just stumbled upon a mention in the Kizzur:

Care should be taken not to have an interruption between washing hands and ”who brings forth bread” [the blessing over bread].
(Kizzur shulchan aruch 41:2)

According to Rabbi Josh Flug at YUTorah the actual basis in the Talmud is in Berachot 42a, I assume he meant this one sentence:

Grace should follow immediately on the washing of hands.
(Berachot 42a)

There seems to be a doubt if this sentence actually refers to washing before the meal or after the meal. Among others, the Rambam actually allows speaking, but the recommended procedure nowadays seems to be that it is preferred not to (Halacha Yomit).

Lev Tahor Documentaries

I don’t usually post on politics, but I wanted to link these documentaries about Lev Tahor:

Under the veil of Lev Tahor by Global’s 16×9, aired on February 22nd, 2014 (you can watch at the link or on youtube).

Rabbi of the Pure Hearts: Inside Lev Tahor by CBC’s The Fifth Estate, aired on February 28, 2014 (you can watch at the link or on youtube)

The Lev Tahor cult (כת לב טהור), by Amnon Levi of True Faces (פנים אמיתיות) on Arutz 10, aired on November 2012 (you can watch on youtube with English subtitles Part 1, Part 2)


All kosher animals are listed in the Tora

Related to the claim that there are only 4 non-kosher animals with one kosher sign and all of them are listed in the Tora is another claim: That all existing kosher animals are listed in the Tora.

In the Tora, we are given the signs of kosher animals (split hooves and chewing the cud). Most people agree that it is enough for an animal to have the two signs and that there is no need to link all animals back to the list, but some disagree (R. Mordecai Kornfeld, Insights into Chullin 59, section 6: The need for a mesora with regard to a chayah). In any case, despite the signs, the Tora does give a list of kosher land animals, but never defines it to be exhaustive. Here are the relevant verses:

These are the beasts which ye may eat:
the ox [shor],
the sheep [seh ksavim],
and the goat [seh izim],
the hart [ayal],
and the gazelle [tzvi],
and the roebuck [yachmur],
and the wild goat [akko],
and the pygarg [dishon],
and the antelope [te'o],
and the mountain-sheep [zamer].
(Deuteronomy 14:4-6)

Ox, sheep and goat are clear. Ayal probably is deer (Dr. Moshe Raanan: Ayalah Sheluchah). There is a discussion if tzvi refers to gazelle or ibex, the consensus seems to be that it is the gazelle (R. Mordecai Kornfeld, Insights into Chullin 59, section 7: The identity of the tzvi). The identity of the last five species (yachmur, akko, dishon, te’o and zamer) is uncertain (Certified Kosher).

Some people say zemer refers to giraffe which is kosher (R. Yirmiyahu Ullman: Kosher Giraffe). Another kosher animal is the American buffalo (or bison) and some people attempt to connect it to the te’o or yachmur (R. Ari Z. Zivotofsky: Kashrut of Exotic Animals: The Buffalo).

Caribou and elk are kosher, but I haven’t found anyone linking it back to any of the ten species on the list. Okapi, pronghorn, musk deer may also be kosher, but there is little information, also no linking to the list. There has been a debate about zebus in Israel. They are unquestionably kosher, but some people wanted to ban the meat because of a missing mesora (tradition) – which would mean it is not on the above list (R. Yehuda Spitz: Buffalo Burgers and the Zebu Controversy, R. Natan Slifkin: The Zebu Controversy).

As a conclusion, the claim that the Tora list contains all kosher animals is questionable and is not very convincing.

There are only 4 non-kosher animals with one kosher sign – UNTRUE!

Again and again you hear the kiruv argument that there are only four animals that display one of the kosher signs and no other has ever been found (e.g., Aish, Torahportion,, KCA, …)

First, what is the scriptural basis? There are two instances where the Tora lists the signs kosher land animals have to have: split hooves and chewing the cud. After stating this, the Tora says again that animals that have only one of these signs are nonkosher and lists four animals: camel [gamal], hyrax/rock-badger [shafan], hare [arnevet] and swine/pig [chazir].

Nevertheless these shall ye not eat of them that only chew the cud, or of them that only part the hoof: the camel, because he cheweth the cud but parteth not the hoof, he is unclean unto you. And the rock-badger, because he cheweth the cud but parteth not the hoof, he is unclean unto you. And the hare, because she cheweth the cud but parteth not the hoof, she is unclean unto you. And the swine, because he parteth the hoof, and is cloven-footed, but cheweth not the cud, he is unclean unto you.
(Leviticus 11:4-7)
Nevertheless these ye shall not eat of them that only chew the cud, or of them that only have the hoof cloven: the camel, and the hare, and the rock-badger, because they chew the cud but part not the hoof, they are unclean unto you; and the swine, because he parteth the hoof but cheweth not the cud, he is unclean unto you; of their flesh ye shall not eat, and their carcasses ye shall not touch.
(Deuteronomy 14:7-8)

Note first that the plain Tora text never makes any claim that this list of four animals (gamal, shafan, arnevet and chazir) is exhaustive. This claim is only made later by the rabbis:

The Ruler of the universe knows that there is no other beast that chews the cud and is unclean except the camel [and the other animals listed]; [...] The Ruler of the universe knows that there is no other beast that parts the hoof and is unclean except the swine; [...]
(Talmud, Chullin 59a)

Unfortunately, there are many problems with this claim. It is not certain to which species exactly the animal names refer to, especially in the case of shafan and arnevet (e.g., R. Natan Slifkin: There Are No Kangaroos In Tehillim). The hyrax and the hare seem to be the most likely candidates. But both animals do not chew their cud in the traditional sense of the word. If we include what they do in the definition of chewing the cud, we would have to include many other animals (e.g., Rabbi Natan Slifkin The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, Chapter on Hyrax). And there are other animals more similar to the camel that chew their cud like the llama (e.g., Rabbi Yaakov Menken: Shemini).

I am not a zoologist and know little about animals, but I have tried to find out what other animals have only one of the kosher signs. It turns out to be a surprisingly difficult task, but here is my attempt. I have found some animals that might belong into the same category than the camel, i.e., ruminant without split hooves (actually Wikipedia lists all of them as pseudo-ruminants with 3-chambered stomaches instead of 4-chambered, just like the camel), I’ve found the llama, alpaca, vicuña, guanaco, dromedar, bactrian camel and the kangaroo. If we broaden the definition of ruminant to include ruminant-like chewing or similar (as for the hyrax and the hare), koala, proboscis monkey, capybara and rabbit have been proposed as possible candidates. As for the last category, animals with split hooves that don’t chew the cud, there are warthog, hippopotamus, aardvark and peccary.

Some links for further reading:
Natan Slifkin: The Camel, the Hare and the Hyrax (there is also a book by that name, this is a link to a blog article with a summary)
Ultimate ungulate, Your Guide to the World’s Hoofed Mammals
Alter Cocker: Proof of God from Kosher Animals
David Goldstein: Of Hare and Hyrax, of Torah and Science

Where are we commanded to rejoice on shabat?

You often read that we are commanded to enjoy shabat and the festivals and because of that we must do X – e.g., drink wine, eat meat. What is the source for this commandment?

The source from scripture that is mostly cited is in the Tora:

And thou shalt rejoice in thy feast, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy man-servant, and thy maid-servant, and the Levite, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are within thy gates. Seven days shalt thou keep a feast unto the LORD thy God in the place which the LORD shall choose; because the LORD thy God shall bless thee in all thine increase, and in all the work of thy hands, and thou shalt be altogether joyful.
(Deuteronomy Chapter 16, 14-15)

In these verses "feast" refers to the "feast of the tabernacle", i.e., Succot. But the verse is often recited as a reminder to rejoice in other festivals as well, e.g., Maimonides cites it as a proof text for the commandment of simcha on all holidays in his Mishne Tora (Hilchot Yom Tov, 6:17). Note that the Hebrew word for "joy" that is used is "simcha".

The above applies to holidays, but not to the shabat. The source text cited for shabat is from the prophets:

If thou turn away thy foot because of the sabbath, from pursuing thy business on My holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, and the holy of the LORD honourable; and shalt honour it, not doing thy wonted ways, nor pursuing thy business, nor speaking thereof; Then shalt thou delight thyself in the LORD, and I will make thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and I will feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father; for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.
(Isaiah 58, 13-14)

The Hebrew word used in Isaia for "delight" is "oneg". Rejoicing on shabat is therefor the mitzva of oneg shabat (Mishne Tora, Hilchot Shabat, 30:1) and it is different from the mitzva of simcha.

The mitzva of oneg applies to the holidays as well as shabat (Hilchot Yom Tov, 6:16), but the mitzva of simcha applies only to holidays, not to shabat. Of course, shabat is still by its very nature a joyous occasion, so you shouldn’t start to be sad on shabat!

Havdala symbolism

On saturday evening the departure of shabat is marked with the havdala ceremony. It involves candles, spices and wine. I have looked for explaination of the symbolisms and have found several explanations (as usual):

Choose the symbolism you like most!

Symbols on Friday evening

There are a lot of symbols we use on a typical shabat dinner and I am always asked what they symbolize, so here’s the list:

  • Candles: Because light brings joy and we should rejoice on shabat.
  • Two candles: Because we are commanded to keep (shamor) and remember (zachor) the shabat.
  • Kiddush: To fulfill the commandment to remember the shabat.
  • Drinking wine: Because wine is a source of joy and we should rejoice on shabat.
  • Not speaking after washing hands: I don’t know why, that’s just how it’s done.
  • Two challot (loaves of bread): Because on Fridays the Israelites in the desert got a double portion of manna (see also Why do we have two challot on Shabat?).
  • Covered challa: There are several explainations, among them that the manna in the desert was enveloped by dew to keep it fresh (see also Why do we cover the bread for kiddush?).
  • Salt on challa: Maybe be because sacrifices at the temple always had some salt associated or because salt makes sure it tastes good (see also Salt and Challa).

Washing hands and praying birkat haMazon after eating are not special for shabat, but done for every meal that involves bread.

Why does it say we are commanded to light candles on shabat?

As a follow-up on yesterday’s post on the blessing over candles on shabat, here is another curious detail about that blessing. Again, for the record, the blessing goes like this:

Blessed are You, God, our Lord who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to light the Sabbath lamp.

It says G-d commanded us to light candles. Where? There is no such commandment anywhere. There are many commandments about shabat, but no commandment to light candles. There just isn’t. Not in the Tora, not in the Talmud.

Most people say the candles are included in the commandment to "rejoice" on shabat (derived afaik from Isaiah 58:13: "call the sabbath a delight"). The rabbis in the Talmud discuss among other things "rejoicing" means that we are to wear special garments on shabat (Talmud Shabat 113a: "thy Sabbath garments should not be like thy weekday garments") and eat nice food (Talmud Shabat 118b: "Wherewith does one show his delight therein? [...] With a dish of beets, large fish, and heads of garlic.") – but no candles in the Talmud.

So who do you ask for a spiritual answer? Chabad. Always an article at hand about everything. Chabad claims that people always knew candles were part of the shabat-package:

Now you can see that the Shabbat lamp, even though it is technically a rabbinic institution, has always been an integral part of the Shabbat.
Sarah lit the Shabbat lamp, as did Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. It’s reasonable to believe that at no time in our history did a Friday night pass without that light.
(Chabad: Where Does the Torah Say to Light Shabbat Candles?).

Yeah. And Moses wore a shtreimel. While you can think about Chabad argumentation whatever you want, I would say that technically we might not be commanded from Sinai, but now after minimum a thousand years of candle lighting we certainly are commanded, if only by tradition. And a high-profile and nice tradition at that.

Where does the blessing over shabat candles come from?

A while ago I read that the blessing over the shabat candles is not in the Talmud (where you can find the other blessings, e.g., the one for bread), so I have tried to find out where the blessing comes from. For the record, the blessing goes like this:

Blessed are You, God, our Lord who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to light the Sabbath lamp.

You can find it in any book on Judaism and also in the halacha codes, for example in the Mishne Tora (R. Moshe ben Maimon, published between 1170 and 1180; Hilchot Shabat 5:1) or the Shulchan Aruch (R. Yosef Karo, published 1565; Orach Chaim 263:5) to name two.

Wikipedia along with some other webpages says that the blessing is from the 11th century, first described by Rashi’s granddaughter:

In Europe, Jewish women lit Shabbat lamps without a blessing until the 11th century. At that time, a blessing was introduced based on the blessing over the Chanukah menorah, which is many centuries older. The earliest mention of the ritual is by Rashi’s granddaughter, Hannah, who describes her mother lighting candles and reciting the blessing.
(Wikipedia: Shabbat candles, see also here, here or here)

Unfortunately there is no clear source given for where to find the description.

There is also a blog post by The Rebbetzin’s Husband that refutes the attribution to Rashi’s granddaughters:

Example 1: The candle-lighting controversy
Ms. Anton writes in her Afterword:
At this time there was a great controversy over whether a woman should say a blessing over the Sabbath lights, which was settled only after Rashi’s death when one of his granddaughters wrote responsa explaining how the ritual was performed in her mother’s home.

The Responsum in question was written by Rabbeinu Tam, Rashi’s grandson (Sefer haYashar Teshuvah 45), and it simply says to recite the blessing:
I have also heard that they have uprooted the blessing on the Shabbat lamp and desecrated the sacred and the love of the mitzvah. Many obligations require blessings. This is not like mayim acharonim…

There is no mention of any controversy, or even debate.


Example 3: Rashi’s daughter writing a responsum on how candle-lighting was done in her home
The responsum is noted above in Example 1. It was written by Rabbeinu Tam rather than a granddaughter, and it included no reminiscences about how lighting was done at home.

So where does it really come from? I don’t know.

The power of education

Just another quote by Rabbi Sacks, from the ‘Covenant & Conversation’ parasha commentary series, part Bo (5774) – The Far Horizon:

There is only one way to change the world, and that is by education. You have to teach children the importance of justice, righteousness, kindness and compassion. You have to teach them that freedom can only be sustained by the laws and habits of self-restraint. You have continually to remind them of the lessons of history, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt,” because those who forget the bitterness of slavery eventually lose the commitment and courage to fight for freedom. And you have to empower children to ask, challenge and argue. You have to respect them if they are to respect the values you wish them to embrace.

For a long time, I have been convinced that education is the only power that can truly change the world. And education is also the foundation on which to build a living, thriving Jewish community. Where I live, nearly my complete generation has been lost to Judaism and I attribute a lot of it to missing education. In my community, 90% of my generation came here from the former Soviet Union as children of parents who had no education in Judaism. The communities welcomed the growth, helped the families integrate into their new home country, helped with the paperwork, medical aid, etc. But due to the very small size of the original communities, no time and energy was left for religious education. The children who grew up here have as little attachement and knowledge of the religion as their parents who were forced to abandon it by the communists. The only young people in my community you see at services are converts or people who move here from other countries. This is so sad and I hope we can somehow reclaim at least part of them or their children!

Why conservative Judaism?

I have been asked this at my "interview" with the local Jewish community leaders and didn’t have a particularily good answer. So I’ll be collecting some answers here from around the net and next time I’ll be prepared and have a more convincing answer. Here’s the first one:

It’s what I love. It’s the way I’ve been given this meaning of my life. I can’t imagine life without the Torah and I can’t imagine living with the Tora any other way than having totally free, honest, open, passionate discussions about Tora that seem to me to be very distinctive to conservative Jewish life.
(Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen of The Jewish Theological Seminary, starting at 1:10)

And another one:

We are called, I believe, as Conservative/Masorti Jews, to bring Sinai and Torah with us everywhere we go. We stand on the shoulders of giants and are called to be giants of yiddishkeit ourselves, mitzvah heroes [...] who care about Torah with open eyes and actual decisions. We challenge the inherited halacha and embrace the tension of holding onto ideals without rejecting new authentic possibilities. We retranslate the triumphalist Aleinu’s "literal" meaning and still sing it. (Rabbi Menachem Creditor)

A secular father explains chanuka (satire, translation)

This is my attempt at translating the second part of this Hebrew piece of satire about chanuka. I apalogize for any mistakess, neither English nor Hebrew is my native language. You can read the first part here.

The secular father explains:
- Dad, why did the Maccabees fight the Greek?
- Not now.
- Why not now?
- I’m watching basketball.
- But Dad!
- Ah… what does it matter. The important thing is that they won.
- Dad, in the Encyclopedia is written that they fought because they didn’t want to eat pork.
- That’s possible.
- And because of that there was that big a war?
- Look, pork has lots and lots of cholesterol, maybe the Maccabees were from the health crowd and all that.
- And because of that there was a war?
- These Maccabees of health, they can be pretty extreme.
- Why did the Greeks force them to eat pork?
- Because the religious make a big deal out of everything.
- The Maccabees were religious?
- What do you mean, no, the religious don’t go to the army.
- So how did they beat the Greeks?
- G-d helped them.
- But you said there is no G-d.
- There really isn’t.
- So, is there, or is there not?
- There isn’t. But they thought there is.
- Dad, I didn’t understand.
- What did you not understand?
- Whether there is a G-d.
- Go and ask Mum.
- Every time you don’t know something you send me to Mum.
- I know the important things. Whether there is a G-d, that’s not important.
- It is written that Yehuda Maccabi beat the Greeks in Beit Cholon.
- If that’s written, it’s written.
- Where is Beit Cholon?
- Far. It’s not in Israel, in America.
- Dad, Columbus only discovered America in the year 1492.
- You know that you are a nudnik [a person who's bothering others]? It’s in the territories.
- But, dad, were the Maccabees settlers?
- I knew it. Why don’t you go and play with Shon? [שון?]
- Dad, next time we are at the Tiv Ta’am, will they force me to eat pork?
- If you continue with these questions, there will be no Festigal for you this year!
- But Dad, I am scared, I only have one sister.
- So what?
- The Maccabees were five brothers that fought together.
- Maybe you want to go and see Dora?
- I want to see Maccabi.
- Ok, we’ll see Maccabi.
- Dad, where are Maccabi / the Maccabees?
- The yellow ones.
- They are the Maccabi / the Maccabees?
- Yes.
- How are they called?
- Pfizer, Binum, Batista, Blothental and Cummings. [פייזר, ביינום, באטיסטה, בלות'נטאל וקאמינגס]
- Dad, you are annoying. That’s not the names of the Maccabees!
- Where are you going?
- To fight Greeks!
- You are not going anywhere!
- I want to be Maccabi, religious and a settler!
- Are you crazy?? You are not leaving the house! Did you hear?!!
- I’m joking Dad, relax. I’ll go with Shon to McDonald’s.
- Ah, good. Bring me a cheeseburger!

A Lithuanian charedi father explains chanuka (satire, translation)

This is my attempt at translating the first part of this Hebrew piece of satire about chanuka. I apalogize for any mistakess, neither English nor Hebrew is my native language.

The Lithuanian charedi father explains:
- Dad, how did we beat the Greek?
- With the help of G-d.
- So why the Maccabees?
- They have just been the soldiers. G-d helped them and with his help they won, thanks to G-d.
- The Maccabees were soldiers?
- Ah… soldiers of G-d. The army of G-d.
- So they were Chabadniks?
- No! No! Chas veChalila!! They were Lithuanian!
- Did Yehuda Maccabi have a weapon?
- Yes.
- So Yehuda Maccabi was secular or a non-Jew?
- Chas veShalom, what do you mean secular or non-Jew?
- But only seculars and non-Jews go to the army.
- Formerly also the religious went to the army.
- Why did the Maccabees go to the army and we don’t?
- Because today the Torah is protecting us.
- At that time the Torah did not protect them?
- Why don’t you go and read some mishnayot with Moishe?
- Did the Maccabees learn mishnayot?
- They learned Torah, a lot of Torah.
- And they didn’t work?
- No, chas veShalom!
- So Antiochos gave them money?
- No. They worked and earned money here and there.
- Illegally, like uncle Yanki? [יענקי?]
- Yanki doesn’t work illegally!
- So what did Matityahu work?
- He was a farmer.
- Matityahu was Thai?
- G-d have mercy, what do you mean, why Thai?
- So how did he work in the field with a white shirt?
- On what basis do you say that he wore a white shirt?
- Moishe told me that a real Jew wears only white shirts.
- You spend too much time with this Moishe. But he is right.
- What did the Maccabees want?
- They wanted an independent Jewish state, that they themselves managed.
- Is that also what we want?
- Yes, but it is forbidden to say that. We are not zionists.
- Dad, I want to be a Maccabee, zionist and a soldier!!!
- Gevalt! What happened to you??
- I am joking, Dad, I will go to the performance of Shvaki (שוואקי?).
- Ah, good. Give my regards to Moishe’s family.

Confused about Rain

I found this curious article from Chabad in my inbox that attempts to answer the question Why Is the Prayer for Rain Based on the Civil Calendar? I’ve had this question numerous times, basically every time I read the line "say ‘tal uMatar’ starting from September 5th" (‘tal uMatar’ refers to a small insertion to pray for rain to fall in the Amida). Why this strange date? Why not a Hebrew date.

You can read the calendar details in the Chabad article or in some other article on this topic (e.g., Arnold A. Lasker and Daniel J. Lasker: The Strange Case of December 4: A Liturgical Problem). Basically, the rabbis in Babylonia determined that the Jews (of Babylonia) should start to pray for rain starting on the sixtieth day after the tekufah (Ta’anit 10a, Rambam Hilchot Tefilah 2:16). The tekufah refers to the halachic start of autumn. This should coincide with the the equinox, September 22nd, based on some issues with the assumed length of the year, the Julian calender and so on, we end up with September 24th in the Julian calender. 60 days later would make the start of saying ‘tal uMatar’ November 22nd.

But the Julian calender has some problems (the year is a tiny bit, .0078 days, too long) and the Gregorian calender was introduced. If we translate September 24th of the Julian calendar into the Gregorian calendar, we end up with the date of October 7th (for this century roughly). Adding the 60 days, we get December 5th for starting to say ‘tal uMatar’. As the day starts the night before, start at Ma’ariv of December 4th to say the blessing. This is what most of the Jews outside of Israel on the northern hemisphere do.

So, to sum up, we start to add the prayer of rain on December 5th because it’s when rain is needed in Babylonia, based on incorrect calculations. Why don’t we just pray for rain when it is needed in the country we live in? I just don’t get the point.