Inside Out

This double Torah portion covers ritual impurity, birth, l’shon hora (evil speech) and how to become pure again. I focus on the use of two birds as the Korbanot.

This weeks double Torah portion (Tazri’a-M’Tzora) covers the subject of birth and ritual purity.  M’tzora deals with the theme of purification of a person afflicted with Tzora’at and other conditions that can make them Tamei (impure) as discussed in Tazri’a. Following a regular birth, a woman becomes “ritually unclean”- one week for a boy (who is then circumcised on the 8th day) and two weeks for a girl. This period (called Tum’ah- impurity) is followed by a period of 33 day’s for a boy and 66 for a girl where the mother waits until she can bring a Korbanot of the Yoledet. Vayikra (12:6-7) say’s this: “Upon the completion of the days of her purity for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring a sheep within its first year for an olah-offering, and a young dove or a turtledove for a sin-offering, to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, to the Kohen. He shall offer it before HaShem and atone for her, and she shall become purified from the source of her blood; this is the law for one who gives birth to a male or to a female.” When a couple join together to create a new baby, they make a connection to the divine by bringing down a new soul.

This Torah portion covers another condition of body that comes from the “inside out”. This is called “N’Ga’im” (lesions). The Cohen are designated to inspect the Tzora’at area of a person potentially inflicted with this condition and it is forbidden to cut hair from this area of infection as it could be an indicator as to the actual issue. The parasha itself does offer up an example of a rash with spots that is in fact just a rash and the Torah is not saying that all illness of the body is illness of the mind/soul, but it is saying that the three do work and interplay with each other. In modern day medicine we do find the phenomenon of psychological causes created by physical symptoms. The American Psychological Association state on their website that stress can have an affect on the immune, respiratory and cardiovascular system. Stress has also been associated with hair loss. Baldness is discussed in the parasha and whilst this is mostly a natural phenomenon, it’s stated that when it falls out in certain way’s, it might also indicate Tzora’at. This takes us back to why the person who is possibly affected should not remove the hair.

One of the key concepts behind the of idea of Tzora’at is that the condition on the outside is affected by the persons internal qualities (their psychology basically) and the Cohen will assess the personal life of the afflicted. One of the key things that ties the idea of child birth to external sickness is that when the mother is pregnant she is bringing forth new life and when a person works on their character, they also bring out life. One of the causes for an external affliction is La’Shon Hora (evil speech).

The purification process for the impurity includes bringing two birds that are taken to be used in a ceremony where one is slaughtered and the other set free. Why two birds? The idea of using two birds reminds me of the teaching of the Ben Ish Hai on the Korbanot where he compares the Korbanot to a person’s soul and that when a person returns to becoming to religious they cut away something from their being and replace it with something else. By sacrificing one bird and releasing the other is the Torah teaching us that in losing something, we also gain something? That by making a sacrifice for something that lead to impurity, we gain some kind of freedom? In Tanakh, birds are often associated with positivity. In the book of Jonah (the name Jonah literally means dove) we hear of a story of re-birth, where Jonah in conflict with G-d is cast into the sea by seamen whilst evading a mission sent to him by the divine and he is swallowed by a sea a creature a spat out again. Jonah then completes his mission to help the people of Nineveh to do Teshuva before HaShem destroys the town. Jonah interestingly spends three day’s and three nights in the sea creatures belly and this recalls something else I’ve previously mentioned that comes in threes (from the Ben Ish Hai): “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh”, what we think, what we say and what we do. Basically our internal character as it works it’s way outwards. We also hear of the dove in Bereshit where the dove is sent out from Noah’s Ark to find dry land for seven day periods and the final time the dove is sent out it brings back on Olive branch, which is a symbol of peace in Judaism. Shalom, the word for peace is connected to the word for wholeness and the city of Jerusalem shares the same root in it’s Hebrew spelling and is the place where HaShem’s presence is most felt hinting that by going teshuva and coming back to our good way’s we can come close to that wholeness. By literally changing his journey, Jonah, like a baby in a womb, came back a-new and was able to receive mercy from HaShem.

The Hebrew word for bird is Tzipporah and we hear of a town in the history of Israel called Tzippori and here we find an interesting connection to L’Shon Horah in the midrash. We hear of Rochel who goes from town to town in the area of Tzipppori (the Galilee) selling his wears. Interestingly the name Rochel has a similar root to Rechilus, who is someone that goes from person to person with gossip. Rochel is asking people “who wants the elixir of life, who wants to buy?”. Nobody answers, that is until Rav Yania offers to buy. Rochel, however, tell’s him that he doesn’t need it, I’m not selling it to people like you. Rav Yania is insistent, so Rochel takes out a sefer and it say’s “who is the person who desires life” (from David HaMelech) and it goes on to say “…prevent your mouth from saying bad things and go away and do good things”. That was his elixir of life.

In relation to two birds the Vilna Gaon say’s there are two concepts; din and cheshbon. He say’s that “din” is that you have to pay for all the bad things you do and that you have to pay twice as “cheshvon” is the calculation that while you could of being doing good things, you were doing bad things. When a person is saying bad things, not only are they saying L’Shon Hora but they are losing out on an opportunity to say something good; a divrei Torah, a complement, anything nice.

We hear of the affects of La’Shon Hora with the story of Miriam. Miriam is the sister of Moshe and Aaron. We hear of her story of La’Shon Hora when she speaks against Moshe to their brother Aaron for the dark skinned women he has married and she is punished by HaShem with leprosy (Bamidmar 12:1-10). In the Artscroll Yom Kippur Siddur in the section on Vidduy, there is an expansion on what LaShon Hora actually is: “We have spread gossip and slander. To defame others is a grievous sin, even if the stories are true.” We learn from the psukim that what Miriam said about Moshe’s wife was true, but her sin was talking about her in a derogatory manner to Moshe. The sin of L’Shon Hora even includes saying something about a person which might be true. Miriam was punished for her evil speech with Tzora’at and made to stay outside of the camp for a week, but it wasn’t she alone that was punished. Even though he didn’t speak L’Shon Hora, he listened to it without protesting and Aaron was also punished, but not as severely.  Devarim (24:8) say’s the following: “Be mindful of the Tzaraat affliction, to be very careful and to act accordingly”.

It is the Cohen that can declare an afflicted person M’tzora under certain circumstances and declare them as being tamie (impure). As we see with Miriam, the Cohen might order a person to be outside the camp for a week of quarantine with a seventh day examination (the second examination). If unclean if there is an additional week to stay outside of the camp, until the affliction is gone. The affects of L’Shon Hora can lead the person being spoken about negatively to experience social exclusion and isolation, but the Torah itself punishes the transgressor with this punishment once they are infected.

The affects of L’Shon Hora have been seen throughout Jewish history. When we examine the history of the Jewish nation, we discover that we were exiled to Galut for the very reason of La’Shon Hora and this sin according to the Chofetz Chaim supersedes them all. It was the baseless hatred we had for each other than brought about the destruction of the second temple and our subsequent exile. In Shemot 2:14 it is said “אכן נודע הדבר”- “For the matter is known. Rashi explains that he wondered why Bnei Israel had been committed to such backbreaking labor in Egypt and what did they deserve to receive this, but after hearing them speak L’Shon Hora he understood why. Furthermore, the Gemara (Arachin 15b) say’s that the severity of the sin is such that one who speaks it is literally denying the existence of HaShem. The purpose of the Jew in the world is to serve the divine and therefore how can a person speak L’Shon HaKodesh and speak words of L’Shon Hora? This takes me back to the idea of murder and why it is beyond the physical and related to what we think, say and do; because what we think and say can lead up to the actions of murder and drive a person down to a state of death and it is not healthy for mind, body and soul.

The Tzora’at does not just afflict the body, we learn that it can also affect a person’s house. However, this relates only to the land of Israel in a house made a specific materials and under specific conditions. The Cohen again is the adjudicator in the situation as to whether the house is affected or not and there are also purification procedures including korbanot involved in purification. This indicates that it’s not just a person’s body that contains spirituality, but also the home. The home itself contains holiness, that like the being of a person, it should be a place for goodness. A home that lacks this, is open to Tzora’at. The home is where each generation of Jew is taught.

It’s a Jewish principle that making someone embarrassed (making them blush is an example as it draws blood to the face) is akin to murder, as is slander, as it tears away at another person’s soul. This double Torah portion teaches us that there is a way to become pure again after falling into a state of impurity, but how does a person do Teshuva for murder? And if murder is defined beyond physical death then should we not take note of the warning from Devarim? What does the Gemara have to say about this. In Mesecet Rosh Hasharah we learn about the risks involved in taking a life. A discussion takes place regarding the gentiles stealing the trees from Jerusalem. It’s stated that one day they will have to return everything they’ve taken. In reference to his murder by the Romans, Rabbi Eliezer say’s “how will they bring back Rabbi Akiva?”.


Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh

Vayekhel through to Vayikra

This weeks Torah portion is Vayakhel.- P’kudei and I’m going to loosely cover those and the first reading of Vayikra.

I’m going to look at this Torah portion beginning with commentary from the Halachah of the Ben Ish Hai. Born Yosef Chaim in 1935 in Baghdad, Iraq, his book “Halachot” moves through each weeks Torah portion, taking a handful of passages and then bringing a number of statements and storytelling about that passage, giving a deeper sense of what’s happening. It has more of a spiritual feel than a ritualistic or legalistic feel, which we find in some texts and commentaries. This Torah portion re-emphasizes (or repeats) the instructions of the building of the Mishcan, the temporary tabernacle which was constructed and carried in the dessert by the Jews where it was a place for HaShem’s presence to dwell.


This week we have a double set of Torah portions, so I will start by looking at Vayakhel first. Ben Ish Hai opens with the pasuk; “והמלאכה היתה דים לכל המלאכה לעשות אתה, והותר”. This roughly translates as “the work was enough for all and the work you will do is permitted”. He also say’s the following; “We need to the understand what work that there is within the heart”. The Ben Ish Chai tells us of the work of Bezalel and his companion Oholihav in building the tools of the Mischan and he states that with the physical work that they performed, came thereafter something spiritual. He describes their physical work in creating these tools for holy use as having a connection to what is above the physical, creating some kind of metaphysical path, and for the heavens having in turn a path back to them, as if there is some type of interaction taking place between the physical and spiritual when engaged in this activity. Even though they are creating objects that will be used for divine purposes which is higher than normal, I interpret this to have a wider meaning; that like when we put words of Torah in our mouth we come closer to the divine, that also in physical actions we can also come close to the divine. He say’s the following “ומעשה הגשמית כפי שרשה למעלה, בזה הורידו אור קדושה על הכלים הגשמיים האלה”, “that according to the roots of the physical actions, that there is an upward motion and that in reverse there is a downward motion of the divine light onto these physical tools“. He goes on to state that these tools have an advantage and he is referring to what will be their use in their service in the Mischcan. The Ben Ish Chai goes on to state that if the physical work we do is empty then it will contain loss and annihilation and will contain no infinity and as the builders of the Mishcan, their activities had a high level and purpose.

The roots of the Mischcan’s building were already in fermentation hundreds of years before, when on his way down to Egypt, Jacob planted Acacia trees, instructing his descendants to take them on their way out of Egypt in the future, knowing that their time there would not be forever. At the time of construction, Bezalel was only 13 and the Torah tells us this about him:

God spoke to Moses saying, ‘See I have called by name Bezalel, son of Uri son of Hur, from the tribe of Judah. And I will fill him with the spirit of Elohim — with wisdom, understanding, and knowledge.” [Exodus 31:1-3, see also, 35:30-31, 38:32]

The first thing we see is the use of his name, denoting it might have special qualities, second we see his heritage. Oholihav on the other hand was from a humble background and from this contrast between the two, we learn from Midrash Tanchuma (Ki Tisa 13) that when it came building a home for HaShem that everyone was equal. What is special about Bezalel’s heritage? In Sh’mot Rabbah (48:3) we learn that his grandfather Hur tried to stop the Israelities from building the Golden Calf and was subsequently killed for this and for this reason, his grandson was selected in this high role. Other midrashim contradict this and say that he was selected from the “dawn of creation” and that his name was already “written in the book of Adama”, indicated he had superior midot from elsewhere.

Aside from the building of the Mischan, what’s also interesting about this Torah portion is that we are reminded of the supremacy of Shabbat. In the opening 3 pasuk portion about Shabbat, there are 40 words (39 plus ‘HaShabbat’). Is this a symbolic reference to the 39 types of Melacha that went into building the Mishcan and which were later forbidden on Shabbat. How do I connect this with what the Ben Ish Chai is telling us? Because G-d commanded us in the practice of Shabbat, we learn from the Baal HaTurim that the word ‘La’asot’ in the phrase “these are the things that G-d commanded us to do” is spelled with a lamed (ל) which is 30 in gematria and is an anagram for ‘teisha’ (the number 9) and 30+9=39, therefore, the act of ‘doing’ is reminding us of Shabbat and even though creation is forbidden on Shabbat, the types of forbidden work are a constant reminder of Shabbat. The Baal HaTurim notes that the vav is not present in La’Asot and this reminds us of the six weekday’s. An example of forbidden Melacha on Shabbat is given in the Torah portion that is not to kindle fire “in all your dwellings on the Shabbat day”, but this is not forbidden in the Mishcan on the command of G-d. The Ben Ish Hai also mentions the heart, referring to an internal organ. The Mishcan itself has several internal layers and the body itself is a vehicle for the Jewish soul. Ashkenazim sing songs in a minor note even though they are about joyful topics, because they come from a profoundly deep place and our actions should also reflect our internal nature. The Torah portion also teaches us of how the hearts of the people were very much into what they were doing and that they were very generous givers when donating materials for the Mishcan.

The Zohar teaches us about Cholech, Hirik and At-Nach. Holech is a cantillation mark over the Hebrew letter and teaches us the character of Abraham and that he went above the normal practices and became spiritual. The Hirik is in the center and teaches us knowledge and wisdom and the general practices that man needs to progress in life. In fact, the Zohar teaches us that wisdom sits in the head where we also have the ego. In his commentary on Vayikra, the Ben Ish Hai tells us that the Chozer B’Teshuva istree acting like a Korbanot by cutting away their old life and characteristics and replacing them with something new and that they are essentially doing this to their heart. However, on the down side, we learn from the Zohar that the Chozer B’Teshuva is also at risk of becoming drunk on this new knowledge and drunkenness is associated with the left side (the Binah). In Judaism we do mitzvah’s with the right hand and the right side is in control of the left. When an individual’s malchut (shecinah) connects with a higher level, it sends up the sum of that person’s characteristics, but how does a person pull the malchut back down from above? The Ben Ish Hai, I believe covers this well in his Vayikra commentary. On Viyikra he discusses the Korbanot and asks ‘What is Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh? (from the repetition of the Amidah)’. Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh is what we think, what we say and what we do. It’s when we do these things that we’re able to connect to the divine. I connect this to the Chozer B’Teshuva (or convert) that the Ben Ish Hai mentions in his commentary on Vayekhel where he say’s that they cut away (or sacrifice) part of themselves in the process of becoming more religious. The Zohar goes on to state that the left side itself is like a sacrifice to HaShem and compares the right and left sides of the brain to Abraham’s journey from Ur Kasdim to Haran. Ur Kasdim representing the left side of the brain and is the place where Avraham gained an understanding of the one G-d and did not leave there until he was ready to do so and he moved onto Harran and then onto Israel. Harran was a caravan city, considered politically stable and flourishing. It was also a place where the moon was worshiped and this may have appealed to his father Terach, an idol worshiper and as a result Avraham may have stayed there until he was able to and ready to leave. The nature of a stable society is an important learning curve in the building of the Mishcan which was designed for the Jews whilst they were in exile and on their way to the land of Israel where they would permanently settle. The Jews of Spain, when expelled on Tisha B’Av 1492, left singing as the only country we should be sad to leave is the land of Israel, the place designated as our permanent home. In the Kabbalastic tree of life Binah is the representation of understanding and appears on the left, whilst Cochmach (wisdom) appears on the rights. In this sense Binah is like the Hirik and through understanding we gain wisdom (Cholech).

Another relationship that these Torah portions have is in relation to the sin of the Golden Calf. The Mishcan was built as a place of divine service and was an act of redemption for building the idol. The Korbanot offered in the Mishcan also act as a form of atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf and a bull offering is often mentioned first in many Jewish texts about sacrifices. We also have another connection here to what the Ben Ish Hai say’s about ‘Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh’. The Olah offering (animal sacrifice) is considered by the Talmud to also be atonement for improper thoughts, showing that it’s not just our actions (or words) that we need to do Teshuva for. From these teachings we also learn that the idea of building a holy place to worship HaShem and draw in his presence and for offering sacrifices are symbolic in everything that we do. The animals used are also related to our characteristics and Daat Z’keinim reminds us that the sacrifices came from domesticated animals and not wild ones, thus preventing us from having to hunt and ensnare wild animals. In terms of our speech, the Chofetz Haim has this to say; “the bitter sin of Lashon Hora reskorbanotults in other negative consequences, such as the terrible trait of cruelty, and the trait of anger- which is a grave sin, as Chazal describe at length in Shabbos (105b). At times it can also bring one to mockery and bad middos”.

From these Torah portions, we can learn to be as the Ben Ish Hai say’s “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh” in everything we do. From the inside out; our thoughts, our speech and our actions.

The House We Build Together

The building of the Mischan by the Hebrew’s following their Exodus

In this weeks Torah portion (T’rumah), the 19th of 54 sedras in the Torah and the 7th of 11 in Shemot is primarily concerned with the building of the Mishcan. With the exception of the incident of the Golden Calf, the book of Exodus is mostly concerned with the preparation and construction of the Mishcan (‘dwelling place’ or ‘tabernacle’). Even the Golden Calf is not unrelated to the tabernacle, as according to Soforno, the very construction of the tabernacle was made necessary because of Israel’s lapse into idolatry.  Soforno say’s that no temple should have been needed after the revelation at Sinai as the entire nation of Israel achieved prophecy and every Jew was worthy of the shecinah (divine presence) to rest upon him as it did on the Mishcan and later the Temple in Jerusalem. The Mishcan housed the stone tablets containing the commandments of Jewish law transmitted at Sinai to Moshe Avinu. The word Mishcan has an interesting root (shoresh). It shares a root with the word for Shecinah, which is the divine presence and the word for neighborhood in Hebrew is Shecunah and a neighbor is a ‘Shacein’. In the first Aliyah we learn that HaShem has commanded Moshe to ask the people of Israel to donate materials in amounts that each person’s “heart wants/volunteers”. The materials that are donated are gold, silver and copper and dyed wool’s (blue, purple and red), fine linen; goat hair fabric and red-dyed sheep skins. Other materials donated are Tachash skins (an animal which we don’t know what it is and assume is extinct); acacia wood; oil for light, spices for anointing oil, the incense offerings; gemstones for the Eifod and the Choshen. There are several interesting points here already. The first is the building of the base of the Mishcan is done using communal funds. It makes me feel that this is very symbolic of building the base of a home and the home that is being built is symbolic of the Shecinah (the divine presence). I once learnt (probably from a midrash) that pieces of G-d broke away into many pieces and these pieces are the Neshama (the spirit that we essentially are) and which are recalled in the morning prayers when we recite the verse that mentions HaShem placing this into us. In my previous blog post (here), I mention the use of the half shekel (which indicates incompleteness) and how when the whole community recite the repetition of the Amidah, they stop and listen together and how when two people are united in a relationship they create a whole and here we learn that the giving of the half shekel unites the community as a whole through the building of the Mishcan. If the Neshama contains a piece of the divine, then when the Jewish people are reunited the Shecinah would also come together. Modern day Zionism, aside from providing a safe home for Jews previously scattered into exile all around the world, also gives the Jewish people an opportunity to reunite in the land of Israel. A teacher of mine (Rabbi Moshe Kaplan) once taught me (from the Rambam) that when the Jewish people are all returned from exile and are in Eretz Israel, that they are reunited with each other and the land (where the Shecinah is the strongest) and that there would be a great flow of energy between Eretz Israel and the Shamayim and this would create a huge upsurge of energy in the world. Taking a look at the title of this Torah portion T’rumah which literally means contribution (or “offering” or “gift”) but is related to the Hebrew word ‘Ram’ which roughly means ‘Ascent/Height’, then we can see there is a spiritual aspect to the contribution the nation gives in order to build the Mishcan. On a physical level we see that people desire something to worship that they can see, even after the experience of prophecy and that the building of the Mischan and later the Temple in Jerusalem  and then Synagogue’s following the destruction of the Temple gave Israel a place to gather together where they could experience the Shecinah. It might be that the prophecy of Sinai, something they experienced as a group was something that Israel continued to need to experience as a group. The Torah portion say’s that HaShem will ‘dwell in you’ (plural) meaning that he will reside in us (the people of Israel). In Sefer Torah Emet we learn that the Gematria for the Hebrew word for cloud (Arafel) is the same for the word shecinah and that Elokim is related to HaShem’s hiddenness in nature. A person is the hiding place of HaShem. We learn that on the 1st of Nissan on the 2nd month of the 2nd year after leaving Egypt that the clouds came to the Mishcan.

There are two Parashot that talk about a soul coming into a national body; these are  “Yitro” and “T’rumah”. The Shecinah could be seen as being the entrance to the nation. Also, in the opening lines of this Torah portion we see the word ‘T’rumah’ used three times and is considered to be connected to the three heave offerings. We see the used of the word Yadneinu which has the same root as good will and portion itself is about Israel giving a voluntary gift in HaShem’s honor. The work that goes into building the tabernacle have become the 39 melachot that we refrain from doing on Shabbat today.

The second thing which is remarkable is that the Torah portion implies that the garment worn by the Cohen Gadol will be made of mixed materials; wool and linen and there is also the addition of two Cherubim to the top of the ark and the lighting of fire within the Mishcan on Shabbat; all seemingly against Jewish law. In their weekly publication and commentary on the Torah portion, the Orthodox Union state that this is “not contradictory. This is recognizing G-d’s mastery of the world and our commitment to follow His commands”. I’m not sure how I feel about this as a suitable explanation. Something I learnt recently was that each person is born with a status in life and that they cannot always change it. Some people are born a Cohen, others a Levi and others Israel. Our status sometimes gives us a role (and privilege’s) and from this complete switch of how we perform the mitzvah’s given in this Torah portion, I learn that the running of the Mishcan (and later the Beit HaMikdash) requires people who are allotted with a special role in life and the rules related to them are different. In the quest for equality in the western sense, many Jewish movements and organisations are breaking down these roles and traditions in order to be more inclusive, that it’s discriminatory for people to have specific roles but they forgot that these specific roles actually represent diversity and differences. Rabbi Chezikah wrote: “It is written ‘As a rose among the thorns, so is my beloved amongst the daughters'”. And who is the rose? The rose is ‘Knesset Israel’- the collective soul roots of Israel. The rose itself is the unity of all the different petals. The Zohar states that the divine presence, otherwise known as the “shecina” referred to the community of Israel.

Another reference to the home is made in this portion. The Mishcan is to contain a table (shulchan) and the table is to contain twelve specially baked loaves of bread doubled up on six shelves and placed into dishes (they are called the LeChem HaPanim) and they replace the previous weeks Shabbat bread each Friday. The one week old bread was eaten by the Kohanim having been found miraculously fresh. This sounds pretty esoteric and it could be reminding us that eating is not just a physical activity, but a spiritual one. The concept of the table with food on it reminds us of the earlier Torah portion of Be’Shelach where the Israelite’s were commanded with the Mitzvah of keeping Shabbat and the introduction to eating double portions on Shabbat was shown to us through the giving of the manna which fell from the sky and was said to be enough to give all of Israel their needs. It also recalls the Midrash that say’s that the Israelite’s did not need to go the toilet after eating the manna as it contained everything they needed and their bodies did not produce any waste as a side product. We are also brought to the concept of the Shabbat table and the opportunity it provides us to host people and give them food. Providing hospitality is a strong Jewish concept and we are also introduced to the Menorah, the Ark and the Table in this Torah portion which are part of the first house of worship (the Mishcan). These three items are in the Beit Knesset and homes today, with the Ark containing the Torah in the Beit Knesset, whilst our homes contain book cases of text and maybe even the home itself can be seen as a symbolic ark. The Mishcan contained the table for the bread, the Beit Knesset has the Bima and the home has the Shabbat table and words of Torah come from all three and the Shabbat table takes us back to the spirituality of food. The Beit Knesset very often contains a menorah, as do most Jewish homes, but they also contain Shabbat candles which are connected to the Menorah through light.

The Haftara for this Torah portion from Melachim describes the preparation of the building of the Beit HaMikdash. There is a great difference in how the Beit HaMikdash was built compared to the Mischan. The Mishcan was built with great enthusiasm and with the contribution of the community, whereas the Beit HaMikdash was built with contracted labor to bring in the contributions. In today’s sense we can see the nation’s enthusiasm for Torah and nation building in their willingness to contribute to organisations that forward our learning and development.

Other interesting tidbits from the Torah portion include the poles used to carry to Mishcan which cannot be removed (negative commandment) and which are seemingly unable to carry it (implying some kind of metaphysical event). The Cherubim placed atop the Mishcan are said to have had the faces of babies. The Rashbam say’s they were like birds and elsewhere it is said they were like female and male; symbolic of Jewish marriage. We also have the Tamid (public sacrifice) which we do today through reciting Hallel (we don’t recite it on Purim, as the reading of the Megillah is considered to be the equivalent of).


What we also learn from the Mishcan is that it has several inner layers: three boxes in total. Two are made of gold and one of wood. The Ibn Ezra asks why not of pure gold and what is the wood for? A midrash (Vayakhel 7) states it’s because the Torah calls it a “tree of life”. The three boxes also represent the three levels of Torah. The first is ‘nigla’, revealed to everyone, The second is ‘nistar’, hidden from all but the wise and the third part teaches of the world to come. We also wonder where the wood came from in the wildnerness? Rav Tachuma states that Yaakov foresaw the building of the tabernacle and brought cedars to Egypt and from there his children were bade to take them out when they leave (as an side the cedar is a signature of Lebanaon and appears on the Lebanese flag. Cedars still grow in Israel today. In Jerusalem there is a street with an art school called Bezalel named after the creator of the Mishcan). There is interestingly a tree that grows in Israel’s Negev dessert and the Sinai today that has a similar name to Shittim. There is also a curtain covering the Ark in the Mishcan and today this is symbolized in the Synagogue by covering the Ark.

The insides are very interesting as they seem to be related to transmission. It was said that every Jew has a teacher and as the founder of prophecy, Moshe Avinu’s teacher was said to be his kidney’s (as they are from within). There is a Midrash which say’s the nation were scared and in awe when they received the Torah at Sinai and that they stood afar and that was because they were so far (on a personal level) from what was being presented. The Midrash say’s that people died when hearing the words and that their Neshama had to be put back into them repeatedly. When Haman from the story of Purim decided to kill the Jews of Persia he did a lottery and came up with the day of the 9th of Adar in which to carry out his enactment, the day that Moshe Rabeinu was born and died.This is because Moshe lived through his students. Haman understood that as long as there was prophecy, then there are students of Moshe Rabeinu. The Purim story took place close to the time of the destruction of the second Temple and although the Jewish people survived, prophecy ceased and it is said as if HaShem had become hidden from us, like in the Purim story itself where he is not mentioned once. Earlier I mentioned that the Israelites were expected to contribute that which their “heart wants” to the building of the Mishcan. In his book Mesillat Yeshiarim, Rabbi Chaim Luzarto talks about qualities such as humility affecting ones inner self. He say’s “By accustoming himself (to a humble mode) to this conduct he will cause humility to enter his heart and to inhabit it little by little until it has securely embedded itself there”.The portion say’s  “Mi’Beit and Mi’Toch” (from within and from without). This arrangement is consistent with the Talmud dictum that a Torah scholar must be consistent; his inner character must match his public demeanor (Rav Chananel). In English, the word face reminds us of the outside, a ‘facade’, but the Hebrew ‘Panim’ is recalling the interior and like qualities that become embedded in our heart with humbleness and humility the Mishcan like the human face hosts an outer layer with an inner spirituality.

Does an Eye for an Eye make the world blind?

Mishpatim details the legal system of Jewish justice, covering an “eye for an eye’ and what it really means.

In this post I will review the Torah portion of Mispatim (laws).

‘Mishpatim’ is the 6th Sedra (order) of the the book of Sh’mot (Book of Exodus). Mishpatim opens with “And these are the laws you shall place before them (the people of Israel”. Rashi say’s that the word “and” contains a lot of meaning and is implying that the laws in last weeks Torah portion were not just the ten commandments given at Sinai, but also the laws we read about this week. If last week’s Torah portion gave us the “chapter headings” (the general), here we get some of the contents (“the details”).

Mishpatim follows on from Yitro (I’ve yet to my post my review on that which will appear here) where a righteous convert to Judaism, Yitro (Jethro) creates a legal system. In this portion, we receive the particulars of that system. The portion starts to discuss the laws relating to the slave of a Jew. A Jewish slave differs from what society knows as a slave today as there are reasons why a person enters servitude and how they are to be treated when in servitude. The first thing we learn is that he is to leave as he entered, so if he came with a wife and child, then he leaves with his wife and child. He is a slave for 6 years and then on the 7th year he is to leave his servitude. This recalls the structure of the 7 day week, as laid down by G-d at the beginning of the Torah where he rests after 6 day’s of creation. A non Jewish slave takes on the religion of his owner, so a non-Jewish slave becomes, in the servitude of a Jew, a sort of “demi-Jew” who takes on the customs of the house he works for and has an obligation to continue with these customs if set free. The treatment of a slave is of up-most importance: if there is one blanket and the weather is cold, then the Eved (slave) gets the blanket. If after 6 years of work, the slave does not want to leave, then we are commanded to nail his ear to the doorpost and then “he will be his servant for life” (21: 2-6). This is apparently because the ear was what heard the giving of the Torah at Sinai and having experienced slavery in Egypt, the Hebrew now puts a high value on freedom. There’s a famous midrash which say’s the Hebrews at Sinai, following the Exodus from Egypt, were forced to receive Torah by having a mountain held over their heads. On a deeper level I understand this to mean that they were forced to accept Torah on a spiritual level and that the giving of the Torah was a metaphysical event, where the information was forced to their souls. In Judaism there is a concept of all converts having been at Sinai and that would imply that they were not there on a physical level. The idea of being nailed to a door also reminds me of someone reacting in pain; to screaming out and ear piercing has been a sign of slavery since the day’s of Adam. The concept of screaming reminds me of the idea of “Teshuva” (return/repentance) where in history we learn that Ishmael, Avraham’s son with his maidservant Hagar, was spared death as he cried out when dying in the wilderness, this despite the fact that it was known that his descendants would kill many Jews (his descendants are considered to be the Arab peoplewhich later gave birth to the Islamic faith (Bereshit/Genesis 21:17)). In Mesecet Rosh Hashanah (Gemara), a Roman noble woman advised the Jews of Rome, having been on the receiving ends of many harsh decrees to cry out in the streets “why are you doing this to us, aren’t we brothers?” This is referring to Yaakov, a Jewish patriarch being the brother of Esau, who is considered to be the forerunner of the Romans (and later the Christian culture). Both these stores are examples of how descendants branched off from the same family of Jewish patriarchs end up becoming  cruel enemy’s.

(note: what I don’t understand about the slave is what happens if the work he does in six years is not equal to the damage he did, how does he pay it back when the 7th year comes?)

We previously learnt in “Bo” that the Hebrews left their slavery in Egypt with gold and silver, therefore when a slave is set free, he is to be given something at the end of his service. Some people relate this to the concept of severance pay today and in Israel it’s common to receive “pitzuim”, a pay-off of money collected by both the employee and employer during the employment and handed as a lump sum to a person when leaving a job. The slave is also released on the 7th day, reminding us of the 7th day when creation ceased. However, there are differences between the Jewish and non-Jewish slave of a Jew. A non-Jewish slave does not have to be set free after 7 years, can be sold to another owner who must be Jewish and can only marry a person of the same status as them (slave to a Jewish owner). If they are set free they do not receive the financial compensation.

We also receive the Mitzvah of giving Tzedakah (charity/justice). Rashi say’s that God’s four letter name (Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey) denotes the Attribute of Mercy. It is said that when giving Tzedakah, we are literally ‘building the name of HaShem’. When holding the money in a clenched hand it represents the letter Yud, when we open our hand to give, it represents the letter Hey, when we stretch our arm out it represents the letter Vav and when the benefactor opens his hand to receive the money it represents the final letter Hey. Rosh say’s that G-d can see the future and knows if a person is going to sin and nevertheless treats that person with mercy, as we see with Ishmael. We also discover that parents are expected to finance their children until the age of six and this also comes from the concept of a master caring for his charge for six years and therefore any money the child receives in support from his parents after this age is considered Tzedakah.

Another mitzvah revealed in Mishpatim is on how to treat the Ger (convert) and how to treat leaders. We are commanded to treat Gerim (which is interpreted to mean both a stranger and a dweller) with great respect as the Hebrews were strangers in Egypt (Shemot 22:20)  and “Do not oppress the soul of the Ger because you know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt ” (23:9). The Ibn Ezra explains that we are to understand that just as we were helpless in Mitzrayim (Egypt) and Hashem rescued us, so Hashem will always be there for the underprivileged, even if we abuse our speech by scorning a previous unbeliever. We are also told that it s forbidden to publicly criticize a leader. We see how much this is violated today in regards to Donald Trump and even the Jews of Persia, facing possible extermination at the hands of Haman did not go about criticizing him in public. Essentially, these mitzvot deal with the most vulnerable and the most powerful in society.

Three of the themes I mention here are the convert, screaming and the ear (which gets nailed to the doorpost). How do I combine these things? We learn in Bereshit (Genesis) that G-d cried out and that Avraham heard him and the convert to Judaism like Avraham and, whose name they take as their own on conversion hear the Torah without force, unlike the Hebrews at Sinai.

So what about an ‘eye for an eye’? This doesn’t mean that when someone takes someone’s eye out, that they in turn get their eye taken out? Why not? Here is an example of why this doesn’t work; what if the original victim was able to recover reasonably well from losing his eye, but his attacker, now also without an eye, get’s an infection and can no longer work? The damage is not equal and therefore Jewish law stipulates that an ‘eye for an eye’ is monetary and each situation must be investigated, with the intention of the criminal being taken into consideration. This is covered in depth in Bava Kama and Rashi puts great emphasis on the loss of a limb as an example of this. We also again find emphasis placed on the status of the people involved and it’s discussed whether there is greater humiliation involved for a rich person being on the receiving end of damages from a poor person. The Gemara finds that this is not the case and also does not exempt a poor person from giving the correct monetary compensation for damages he committed to a wealthy person, giving an ‘eye for an eye’ a sense of equality and personal responsibility.  A non-fatal injury inflicted on another, must be paid via compensation based on five factors: damage, pain, insult, expenses, and lost earning potential. The Gemara also puts forward a case of a wealthy person who has the ability to forego compensation. Mishpatim seems to instill a sense of compassion alongside a legal system not ruled by emotions. When Ghandi said ” an eye for an eye makes the world blind”, he was incorrect; he didn’t know what he was talking about. Ghandi, who in a 1938 essay, showed no empathy for the plight of Jews in Europe was also crude in his opinion of the:  “…cry for the national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me.” Jews, he said, should “make… their home where they are born.” It is, moreover, he went on, “inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs.” He’s either ignorant to the reasons why international Jewry would want to re-establish their home in Israel or is as ignorant about Torah as he was to the plight of Jews in Christian and Islamic countries.

We find that intentional killing is met by the death penalty but unintentional killers have the option of going to six cities of refuge; three on the western side of the Jordan and three on the eastern side. The cities of refuge provide a place of safety for the accidental killer in case he be killed in revenge by blood relatives of the victim. The courts would send messengers to these cities to bring the accused to a hearing and to also act as bodyguards. He would be judged accordingly if it was discovered he had killed intentionally and if he hand’t then he would be returned to the city of refuge. The three cities on the western side of the Jordan were Kedesh (in the Galilee), Shechem in the center and Hevron to the South, making them easy to reach by many people. The treatment of parents is also mentioned with ‘striking one’s parents’ listed as a capital offence, as well as cursing them. The context of murder is covered widely in Judaism and it’s said elsewhere that embarrassing a person and causing them to blush is like drawing blood (murder), carelessly spilling seed (from masturbation) is akin to murder (destroying the potential for life) and speaking slander and gossiping, as you are murdering a persons reputation.

In Mishpatim we hear that a thief who turns himself in must return what he’s sold and where a false oath compounded a theft, there can be an added penalty of a fifth (25%). If a thief is caught he pays double or 4 or 5 times in the case of an animal. A thief (male or female) who cannot make full restitution can be sold by the court as an Eved Ivri (Jewish slave) in order to pay off his debts. Animals grazing on someone else’s property is also considered theft and the owner of the land must be reimbursed. We hear of the stray animal that must be returned and returning lost property is a big thing in Judaism. Since living in Israel I’ve had several lost items returned to me including a mobile phone that I’d left on a bus.

Other mitzvah’s covered include: a man who seduces an unmarried women (is required to pay punitive damages and/or marries her. In those days an unmarried women may not have been able to support herself without her father or husband and may not have been able to marry someone else, already having had relations with someone. Today this is unlikely), sorcery (capital offence), sacrificing to another G-d (idolatry and capital offence), taking an animal for  Korban from it’s mother when it’s too young (invalid), inciting others to idolatry (forbidden), the conduct of Judges and courts (must hear both sides of dispute, must not accept testimony from unworthy witnesses, be careful not do anything that might pervert the course of justice and go on the vote of the majority) and giving testimony and several mitzvah’s relating to land of Israel: bringing offerings to the Mikdash on the Shalosh regalim (Pesach, Shavuot and Succot), that we will live full satisfying lives and our enemies will be panic before us and be driven out of the land so that the people of Israel will populate it, forbidden to allow idolaters to have a foothold in the land. I have not covered this portion extensively  as it contains so much.

Shekalim is also read on the same week as we enter the month of Adar and the half shekel is mentioned, which was taken in the census of the people of Israel and used in the building of the Mishcan. The half shekel indicates something that is not complete and we learn from Mystic Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz that every human being is half empty until they unify with another. One example of when we are unified is during the repetition of the Amidah when we all stand still and listen as a group. Giving half shekels as a community also implies we need other to make a whole. On the afternoon of Purim, the half Shekel is given as Tzedakah (to the poor) before the reading of the Megillah and is given in memory of the half shekel given when the Beit HaMikdash stood and whose forthcoming collection was announced on Rosh Chodesh Adar.It was he who said concerning Israel: “There is a certain people scattered and spread out among all the nationalities” (Ester 3:8). The precedence of Israel’s half-shekels therefore serves to rectify this allegation, for they unify the nation. When we’re living in the land of Israel we increase the unity. On the subject of completion I recently heard a story from a Rabbi who had a friend who had 9 children and who wanted a 10th and was very insistent on this (10 implies completion in Judaism). His wife kept miscarrying and didn’t know why. This reminds me of how I feel about Jewish texts regarding personality building; books like the Chofetz Chaims work on L’Shon Hora and the Rambam’s Mishna Tora. If point A is the least optimal point of a persons behavior and point C the most optimal and point B is  the realistic expectations of the person then why are these books written at point C? Because the only thing that is considered perfect is G-d and mankind always has something new to learn, to work towards and room for self improvement. By seeking a 10th child to be fulfilled, the Rabbi’s friend was seeking perfection, something only obtainable by one.

A New Soul is Born


As we’re coming up to Shavuot (and will read part of Yitro again), I thought I’d do a post that covers this Torah reading.

In the previous parasha we learn that the Israelite’s leave Egypt. Yitro seems genuinely happy over their good fortune. One of his interesting characteristics is revealed to us when Moshe first meets him: Moshe rescues his daughter’s from harassment from local shepherds whilst they’re collecting water from a well. Moshe chooses the well as his dwelling place and finds that it’s a place where the strong oppress the weak. This incident is not the first time that Moshe has fought against this imbalance. In Egypt, he killed an Egyptian attacking a fellow Hebrew and buried his body in the sand and subsequently fled to Midian when Pharoad heard what he had done.

The Torah portion itself opens with a statement that tells us the following: “Yitro, the minister of Midian, the father-in-law of Moses, heard everything that G-d did to Moshe and to Israel….”. It goes on to further state that Yitro had heard that G-d had taken the Hebrews out of Egypt. The first thing that arises is that Yitro is a minister of Midian, indicating that he might have some other type of faith other than Judaism. The second interesting point is that Yitro heard all that HaShem did for Israel, giving rise to the question; what did he hear about Israel and how did he eventually enter the Israel camp; before or after Sinai?

Moses takes one of Yitro’s daughter’s (Tzipporah) to be his wife and becomes Yitro’s son-in-law. Whereas Moses was a homeless wanderer when he encountered Yitro and his family, the roles reversed and Yitro chose instead to wander with Moshe. Rashi say’s that Yitro turned his back on idol worship and this is why the local people were harassing his daughters when Moshe came to the rescue. When the Torah say’s that Moshe heard all that Yitro heard everything that G-d did to Moshe, I wonder whether he’s referring to Sinai itself and the giving of the Torah. Did he stand there and hear the giving of the Torah?  Is that what HaShem told Moshe and is that what Yitro heard? Parasha Yitro say’s that all the people at Sinai “heard the sounds” leading me to consider that the Parasha alludes to Yitro actually being present for the giving of the Torah at Sinai.

Another interesting point is that the presence of the nation of Israel at Sinai tells us that this event was witnessed, unlike, say, Islam whose prophecy was witnessed by nobody.

Also, how was the Torah “forced” at Sinai and how did Yitro become Jewish? Is it not considered that all of Israel was at Sinai and part of the event of the giving of the Torah included all future converts? How is this the case if Yitro joined the Jewish people before Sinai? There is a question about the sequence of events in Torah here. There is a Talmudic debate about whether he entered the camp before the Torah because he heard the news of the Splitting of the Sea and the Amelakite attack on the weak of travelling Israelite’s. There is a differing opinion in Zevachim (116a) that gives us the opinion that he came after the giving of Torah and hearing that the Ten Commandments had been given.

There is a Midrash that say’s the Jewish people died at Har Sinai, that their souls had to revived within them and the great fire they would see would force them not to accept the Torah at Sinai as they would see the grandeur of HaShem, retract their agreement of Torah and go back on their word and therefore they were forced to accept it (Tosefot). We don’t here about the giving of the Torah until the next parasha. Ibn Ezra gives the following opinion, that Jethro came after the Torah was given, but the Torah wanted to draw parallels between Jethro and Amalek; Jethro was an outsider who was of major benefit to Israel, and Amalek was an outsider whose  who launched an unprovoked attack on Israel.

One interesting piece of Halacha I recently read regarding a Jewish convert, is that of Dayan Toledano, a Sephardi Rabbi who is currently Chief Rabbi of Holland, who states in his compendium of Jewish law that in the morning blessings, a convert to Judaism must omit the blessing “thank G-d, that he did not make me a goy”, which is interesting in that, although a convert to Judaism was not physically born Jewish, it’s considered his soul was and was at Sinai. Chacham Chaim David HaLevi of blessed memory and former Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, say’s something different in Mekor Chaim, his volume of Jewish law and states that these blessings should not be changed. It is likely that Toledano took his approach as there is a doubt about about a blessing, then it’s best to admit it, but I also wonder whether the doubt is whether Yitro was at Sinai or not?

Beyond the Mask- B’Shelach and Purim

In the Torah portion of B’Shelach we learn about the Jews and the miracle of the parting of the sea of reeds and the song they song is contrasted against the survival of the Jews of Spain & Portugal and the song their descendants sing before or after Birkat HaMazon.

I’m combining my review of ‘B’Shelach’ with the Jewish holiday of Purim as the last 9 psukim of this Torah portion are also read on Purim. In B’Shelach we learn more about the miracles of the exodus from Egypt. This is the 16th of 54 sedras and 4/11 in Shemot. It contains only 1 mitzvah of the 613 found in the Torah and that is the one of leaving one’s Shabbat boundary (T’chum Shabbat). The Hebrews depart in the morning so they can be seen by the people of Mitzrayim (Egypt) and not hidden in the darkness of night and leave armed. They leave on the 15th of the Hebrew month Nisan and spend 3 day’s walking in the dessert. What we learn from the Parasha is not that Pharaoh let us go, but that HaShem took us out of Egypt. This is part of the experiential relationship between the Jewish people and G-d and how the whole nation were part of and witness to the event.

The Hebrews are led out of slavery in Egypt on a circuitous route on their way to “Yam Ha Suf” (the Red Sea), apparently to stop them from panicking and returning to Egypt; after a long time in slavery they were not used to this freedom. Despite leaving with the clothes and jewelry of the Egyptians, the Hebrews left with no food, confusing the Egyptians into thinking that they would return (making them fear that they would receive more punishment from G-d). We also learn (as I mention here in the previous week) that a Midrash states that Yosef’s bones were hidden in the Nile and miraculously rose to the surface in time to be taken for proper burial in Egypt. Yosef had buried his own father in Israel, and merited his own burial in the land. In fact, it was the burial of Yaakov that may have caused initial resentment to the Hebrews in Egyptian society as when the Hebrews escorted the body of Yaakov up to Israel, Egypt’s neighbors attacked them as they were weaker with so many armed personal away from home. Yaakov had to be embalmed in the manner of the Egyptians as when he left his body, it was as if he was still alive (such was his spiritual level) and it is said that the body of a Tzaddik does not decay like a regular body. By mummifying him, it would have prevented idol worship of his body by the Egyptians. All the sons of Yaakov are brought up to Israel for burial with the exodus.

There are two interesting points in regards to their journey through the dessert. In regards to the circuitous journey they took, they could have been avoiding the lands where they may be forced to fight as they still had a submissive slave mentality. It could also be interpreted that the route they took was not a normal route, as they were part of something miraculous. It would confuse Pharoah who had inserted spies into the Hebrews as to what they were doing. We also hear that they were guided by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. This is so they could travel by day and night and the clouds have a crossover time; they are never described as disappearing in the Torah portion. A cloud is something that sits in the sky and contains water, something that we also find in the earth and which sustains life. We learn that the water in the dessert came from below a rock and from a miraculous well that accompanied the Hebrews on their journey, thanks to Miriam. According to the Tosefta, the people were granted three miracles in order to survive in the dessert; the Manna by the merit of the Moses, the cloud by the Merit of Aaron and the water by the merit of Miriam.

When the Hebrews arrive at the sea, they see the Egyptian army coming after them (countering the idea that Pharaoh let them go; he in fact changed his mind once they were gone and the spies he’d sent among them reported to him that the Hebrews were not coming back). G-d commands Moshe to raise his hand over the sea and to split it and that the people will be able to pass through it on dry land. We learn that G-d will harden Pharaoh’s heart again so he will continue with his pursuit of the Hebrews. We hear now the cloud’s are positioned so that they separate the Hebrews from the Egyptians. A strong wind comes and divides the water, giving the Hebrews a sign that something physical is also involved in the event, as we learnt in Egypt that their faith was weak.

From the Gemara we learn that it’s the tribe of Yehudah who enter the sea first. Nachshon, the military leader of Yehuda, is the first to enter the water and walks into it until it reaches his chin before the seas open up.  The Hebrews walk into the parted water and a midrash states that their were 12 tracks through the water (one for each tribe), showing that everyone has their own way in life. The walls of water at the side of each track had fruit that could be picked, that the water could be seen through like glass and that each tribe could see each other. This idea is hearkening back to the trees of the garden of Eden which were supposed to have been edible, with the trunk and branches tasting like fruit (Rashi, Midrash Bereshit Rabbah). This meant that the trees were immediately edible (and thus easy to destroy) but also reminds us of the concept of sustainability and protecting what we have so it can keep on producing life-sustaining food. The path through the sea was as unconventional as the journey to the sea: the Hebrews semi-circled through the waters and came out on the same side as they entered. G-d commands Moshe to raise his hands and the water crashes down behind the Hebrews and onto the pursuing Egyptians, with the wheels of the chariots becoming stuck in the mud and this gives the Hebrews the opportunity to see them lying dead when they emerge on the shore again. A midrash also states that the plagues of Egypt were repeated against them again but 5 times worse. Today in Jewish prayer, the full Hallel is not said on the last six day’s of Pesach because on the 7th day the Egyptians drowned so we don’t rejoice. We also don’t rejoice of the 70,000 enemies of the Jews of Persia who are killed in the Purim story.

What comes next is the ‘Song at Sea’ which in itself is a direct quote from the Hebrews that ended up in the Torah. This part is their composition and is incorporated into daily prayer. It is here in which I would like to tie the story of the exodus to Purim. In later history we hear of the Exodus of the Jews of Spain escaping the Spanish inquisition and the Alhambra decree (1492) with as many as 120,000 moving to Portugal (before being expelled from there 3 years later in 1495). Many thousands remained in Spain and converted to Christianity but remained Jews on the inside trying to retain their culture and faith. The Jewish culture of Spain, or in Hebrew “Sepharad” was so great that it gave Judaism many of it’s greatest Jewish thinkers and bodies of work: the Rambam, the Ramban, the Rif, Ibn Ezra, Isaac Avranel, Shmuel HaNagid, Yehuda HaLevi and many more. Jews across North Africa and the Middle East call themselves Sephardim now because they took the Jewish law of Rambam which he developed whilst living in Spain. In the book of Esther, read on Purim, we hear the story of a Queen, secretly Jewish and married to the Gentile King, whose people are at risk of destruction by the King of the Persian Empire and his adviser, Haman. Her name “Esther” comes from the Hebrew word for hidden and in the book of Esther we do not see G-d’s name mentioned once. Esther and her uncle Mordechai’s plan to save the Jews is successful and is as miraculous as the opening of the sea for the Hebrews in Egypt. We also see a miracle in the Jews of Spain and Portugal aside from their miraculous culture, but in the incredible way in which the forcibly converted Jews, often referred to as Converso’s, Anusim, Crypto Jew’s and Marrano’s; despite the 400 year inquisition, that many of them (and their descendants) held onto as much of their Jewish culture as they possibly could despite the outward dangers of doing so. Through their hidden life, they were able to take their traditions outside of Iberia.

Aside from the point that the name Esther comes from the word hidden and that G-d is overtly missing from the Book of Esther, we learn that at the time of the Purim story in Iran,  was close to the time of the destruction of the 2nd Temple when prophecy ceased for the Jewish people. Passing on tradition is a big thing for the Jewish people and Haman apparently knew that Moshe was the founder of this tradition and that by destroying the entire Jewish people that this tradition would be destroyed. We hear in the story of the Exodus that Hebrews were offered a compromise; they could leave Egypt but without the elderly and the children and in effect which damage the passing down of traditions from generation to generation. The hidden nature of Esther is also alluded to in the Torah from the verse “I will hide my presence on that day”.

On the Spanish island of Mallorca there are until this day 18,000 descendants of the forcibly converted called ‘Chueta’ (local name for pig), many of whom share only 15 surnames, having married within their community and who contain a distinct genetic marker that’s only found in the Jewish population. Why only 15 names? It’s related to the the surnames of 35 people who tried to escape the island, but a storm forced their ship back to the harbor where the inquisition arrested and tried them. Three, including a Rabbi, were burnt at the stake, whereas the rest renounced their Judaism and were instead strangled before being burnt. All were marched through the streets wearing robes announcing their crime. The 15 surnames were then hung from the exterior walls of a local church for over a hundred and thirty years so everyone would know who the families of these people were and would persecute them.

A once great British author called George Elliot said;

“..for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

In her 1876 novel, Elliot introduces us to a young Sephardi Jewess, rescued from drowning in a rural English river. She’s in England searching for her brother having escaped the tyrannical clutches of her father. Through the course of the book we learn how the title character, Daniel, whose rescued her, searches for his own mother, having only known his English father. His fascination with Mirah, the Jewess is not unfounded, as he too discovers that he is Jewish and that is mother is alive and well and living in Italy. The novels ends with the two characters marrying and setting off to Israel to work on building a Jewish state where they can live without prejudice. Elliott said

“that once established, the Jewish state will shine like a bright star of freedom amid the despotism of the East.”

This was a radical novel in it’s time, when antisemitism was peaking across Eastern Europe and in which Jews were rarely portrayed as humans. It was also a Zionist novel, one in which the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel was promoted.

The Jews of Spain and Portugal that were able to escape and reclaim their heritage brought with them a song sung in Spanish and allegedly sung when in hiding to avoid the suspicion of Christians who might report them to the inquisition for singing in Hebrew (though there are counter arguments to this). The song is called ‘Bendigamos’ and was sang in place of Birkat HaMazon (blessing after meals). The song traveled from Bordeaux in France to the Spanish & Portuguese exiles living in Amsterdam, Holland and from there to North America and to the Dutch colonies in the south and arrived in England sometime in the late 1960’s or 1970’s. It became a tradition in those communities to sing this either just before or after Birkat HaMazon and many people sing it to this day. The song is connected to the Exodus as in the Spanish & Portuguese tradition the Song at Sea is sung all the way through by the congregation to the same tune. It’s also connected to hiddenness due to the hidden Jews tradition of singing songs in Spanish in order to retain their traditions and thus connected to the story of Purim. It is said that when the Jews left Spain on Tisha B’Av that they took musical instruments and sang as they left Spain, as this was not a sad thing; only leaving Israel is a sad thing. I reproduce Bendigamos here, alongside the Song at Sea in the Spanish & Portuguese tradition:


Az Yashir Moshe

In regards to the one Mitzvah that we see, travelling outside of a boundary on Shabbat, there is an interesting story about this in Mesecet Rosh Hashana related to the new moon. There was once a tradition of declaring the new month to communities in the diaspora by lighting fires from hilltop to hilltop. When these would be sabotaged, messengers would be sent out instead and Shabbat could be violated for this purpose, but only by 2,000 amot. Announcing the date of the new moon was especially important for the months of Nisan and Tishrei in order for the holiday’s in those months to be in their correct time. Midwives and anyone rescuing lives was also permitted to travel this distance. Erev Techumin enables an observant Jew to travel on foot beyond the one biblical mile limited by Rabbinic restriction. It’s related to the giving of the Manna; the food that would drop from the sky and sustain the Hebrew’s in the wilderness. On Shabbat they were prohibited for going out to search for more food: The Manna was enough to sustain them and they should not question this by seeking out more. After three day’s of journeying the Hebrew’s find water but complain about their inability to drink it. Moshe throws a piece of wood into it and it becomes sweet. We learn from this that both water and Torah sustain life- both physical and spiritual. We also read Torah in the mornings three day’s apart: on a Monday and Thursday. The Manna that fell also fell with a layer of dew which is why we cover Challah on Shabbat even when there is no wine present. A Rabbi recently told me that if people are hiding things it’s because they’re ashamed and know that it’s wrong. And although we hide the Challah, to spare it the shame of saying the blessing over the wine first, we learn with Seudah Shlishit that it’s not always shameful to hide things.


Assimilation, Exodus and Redemption

In the Torah portion of “Bo” we learn about the 12 plagues of Egypt and the Jewish exodus from that country. I contrast the Jews from that time to the characters in Aaron Applefeld’s books ‘Baddenheim 1939’ who were living at the time of the second world war.

Torah portion “Bo”

3rd Chapter of Shemot

I’ve been wanting to write something Torah related for a long time and haven’t found enough time to do so, so in this post I hope to do a mash-up of the most recent readings of the Torah related to Egypt.

In “bo” we learn of how Moshe and Aharon seek to release the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery. They are both sent to Pharaoh at G-d’s request and as a punishment for not letting the Hebrews go, Egypt is punished with a series of plagues. Pharaoh receives warnings for two plagues, but every third plagues comes without warning. For the middle plague of each 3-plague set, Turim points out that when G-d sends Moshe to Pharaoh at the Royal Palace, he uses the term “bo” (come) and when he sends him to Pharaoh at the river he uses the term “lech”. We also find through this portion that G-d hardens Pharaoh’s heart. In previous learning I’ve heard it mentioned that maybe Pharaoh’s heart was such that it could be hardened (insinuating that Pharaoh was of poor character). I’ve also read commentary that states that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened in order for him to be stubborn enough for extra punishment to be meted out to Egypt in order to make the Hebrew’s believe in the miracles and return them from their decline.

One of the things we learn in this portion are the 12 plagues. 1 Dam (turning water into blood) 2. Tz’far’da (frogs) 3. C’nim (Lice) 4. Arov (flies/pestilence) 5. Dever (diseased livestock) 6. Sh’cin (boils) 7. Barad (hail) 8. Arbe (locusts) 9. Chosech (darkness) 10. Macat B’corot (firstborn). We see here a phenomenon of HaShem attacking the Egyptians from the bottom up, starting with the water (beneath the level of the land) and frogs and then moving up to lowly landed creatures, moving up onto the land, into the sky and into the Shamayim (heavens). If this is true then why do we end with the first born as the final plague? Because each baby contains something we can only receive from our creator; the Neshama and that is higher than the physical universe which was attacked in the previous plagues. In our morning prayers we say thank you for this with the phrase “Elohai N’shama Sh’natat bi T’horah”. The Neshama is our connection to the creator on a personal level and the city of Chevron is our connection on the national level .Chevron from the word Chever ‘friend’ and the word for ‘to connect’ is L’Chitchaber’ are from the same root. Chevron, the alleged gateway to the Garden of Eden, is our connection to the Shamayim. Chevron is the burial place of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs and we learn that Yosef’s bones rise from their burial place in the Nile ready to be returned for rightful burial in Israel where he buried his own father Yaakov.