Monthly Archives: October 2016

Sukkot 5777: Building it is Better than Being Inside

sukkah-5777Sunday was a day of frenzied construction for my friends and me on a farm in upstate NY. Thirty-two of us were gathering to celebrate the first days of Sukkot together, but that meant intense activity among the early arrivals to build and decorate our Sukkah. Ours is a rustic project—no metal, plastic or even milled lumber allowed, only tree limbs, twine and cornstalks for the walls. Fortunately we were able to store the biggest logs from last year under the barn, but even so, knotting all of the joints into walls, lifting them, cladding them with corn and covering them with birch required a sustained surge of energy.

The pay-off was tremendous, and we enjoyed our first dinner in the Sukkah before the rains arrived and soaked us thoroughly. By Tuesday we basked in the glorious combination of fall colors and summer sun that have bathed the Northeast this holiday, delighting in dappled light that slipped between green and golden leaves into our temporary home. Too soon it was Tuesday night, and cars were loaded for New York and Boston, leaving our glorious Sukkah empty for the rest of the week. How terribly sad! I am fortunate to have the beautiful JTS and Ansche Chesed Sukkot available for the rest of the festival, but in hindsight it seems insane to invest so much effort into building the Sukkah, only to abandon it a few days later.

There is another way to regard the matter, however. In Isaiah 12:3 we read, “Joyfully you shall draw water from the fountains of triumph,” ושאבתם מים בששון ממעיני הישועה. Rabbi Avraham Mordecai Alter of Gur, son of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter, the “Sefat Emet,” connected this verse to the Sukkot custom of ניסוך המים, the water libation on the altar. Is it not strange, he asked, that the focus of joy in this verse is on the drawing of water, which is after all, only a preparation for the activity of pouring the water out on the altar? Why does the verse emphasize the joy of drawing water, and not the culminating act of pouring it out? His response indicates an entire worldview: ולמה תלה השמחה בשאיבה? מכאן שההכנה למצוה גדולה מהמצוה, “Why was the joy associated with the drawing of water? This shows that the preparation for a mitzvah is greater than is performing the mitzvah itself.”   Continue reading

Sukkot 5777: Do You Wear Tefillin on Hol HaMo’ed?


Given the great quantity and complexity of halakhot leading up to the festivals of Pesah and Sukkot, we seldom focus on the question of whether to wear Tefillin during the middle days of hol hamo’ed until it is actually upon us. The observant Jewish community is literally all over the map on this subject, with some feeling that it is forbidden to wear Tefillin on these days, others saying that it is mandatory, and yet others adopting the middle position of permitting them but not saying the blessings, saying them quietly, or saying them with the mindset that they may not be a mitzvah on these days. Generally speaking Sephardim, Hasidim and most Israeli Jews (among those generally inclined to wear them) do not wear Tefillin on hol hamo’ed, while many other Ashkenazim do wear them through the Amidah of Shaharit, but without a blessing, or with a quiet or compromised blessing. Where does this confusion come from, and what should we do? (See Hebrew sources below)

The subject is not discussed directly on the Talmud, but there are some relevant overtones in Bavli Moed Katan 19a and in the Yerushalmi there at 3:4. In the thirteenth century, Rabbi Shlomo b. Aderet (Rashba, Responsa I, #690) rules that Tefillin are not to be worn on hol hamo’ed, citing the 12th century precedents of Tos’fot and also Rabbi Avraham b. David (Rabad).

Rabbi Asher b. Yehiel (Rosh) discusses the subject at length in his Laws of Tefillin #16, ambiguously concluding, “There are those who wear Tefillin on hol hamo’ed without reciting the blessing, but one who blesses does not lose out.” His son, Rabbi Yakov b. Asher (Tur, OH 31), states, “There are those who doubt whether hol hamo’ed is the proper time for Tefillin, wearing them without a blessing, but my father and master of blessed memory would wear them and bless over them.” The Tur does not specifically endorse his father’s custom, leaving the question in doubt.

Rabbi Yosef Karo in Beit Yosef (OH 31:2) reviews and expands the discussion presented by the Rosh and reports that a Geon actually forbade the wearing of Tefillin on hol hamo’ed, and that the Rosh was arguing against this established prohibition. The source of the debate goes back to why Tefillin are not worn on the festivals themselves. If the prohibition of wearing Tefillin on Shabbat and festivals is because these days are themselves a “sign” (אות) between God and Israel, then it would seem that hol hamo’ed is also a sign. After all, the most visible aspects of the festivals are the ban on eating hametz on Pesah, and the command to dwell in the Sukkah on Sukkot, and these laws apply equally on hol hamo’ed. Alternatively, the practice of not wearing Tefillin on Shabbat and Yom Tov could be related to the ban on labor, in which case it would not apply to hol hamo’ed when “necessary” work is permitted. These positions are discussed by the commentaries to the Shulhan Arukh (see Magen Avraham to 31:2, sk3 and Mishnah B’rurah there). Continue reading

Yom Kippur 5777: Open the Gates of Mercy


לשנה הבאה בירושלים Next year in Jerusalem! This enthusiastic declaration concludes the most important home ritual in Judaism, the Passover Seder. After hours filled with scripture, songs and symbolic foods designed to reenact the passage from slavery to freedom, we end with the prayer that next year we will celebrate in Jerusalem. The same declaration concludes the most important public ritual in Judaism on this very day of Yom Kippur. After 25 hours of prayer and confession marking the passage from sin to atonement, we will sound תקיעה גדולה on the shofar and sing out, Next year in Jerusalem.
Returning to Jerusalem is linked to our aspirations for freedom and for atonement, but that is not all. In our saddest hour, when as mourners we step away from the grave, our friends line up in two rows and greet us with traditional words of consolation: May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. Thinking about Jerusalem is meant to soften the blow of our most painful loss, and yet we also refer to Jerusalem to temper our most exuberant joy. At the end of the wedding ceremony it is customary to recite Psalm 137, אִם אֶשְׁכָּחֵךְ יְרוּשָׁלִָם, If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither, let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour. We then break the glass, recalling the destruction of our ancient Temples, even as we establish a new family and pray that God will dwell with them and bless their home.
Jerusalem serves as an intensifier of Jewish emotions—our greatest joys and sorrows, our individual and collective aspirations, our most keen memories of loss, and our fondest hopes for renewal are all linked to our ancient capital. And although the modern city of Jerusalem confounds any simple description, Jewish imagination still treasures the image of a faithful city, the קריה נאמנה, and even more, of the heavenly city, supernal Jerusalem, ירושלים של מעלה. This idea of a double-decker city, with the blemished urban reality below linked to its ideal ized potential above, is associated with Psalm 121 which speaks of rebuilt Jerusalem as a city that has been linked together, יְרוּשָׁלִַם הַבְּנוּיָה כְּעִיר שֶׁחֻבְּרָה לָּהּ יַחְדָּו:. Early traditions found in the Aramaic translation of Psalms and then later Midrash and commentary speak of ירושלם דמתבניא ברקיעא, a Jerusalem built in the sky to match the one on earth. Continue reading

Rosh HaShanah 5777 Day 2: We Have Sacrificed Nothing

“You have sacrificed nothing, and no one!” This powerful statement came from Khizr Khan, a patriotic American immigrant from Pakistan who reveres the US Constitution, and who with his wife stood up in a national forum as grieving parents whose 27-year old son Captain Humayun Khan was killed in action in Iraq defending his unit. Mr. Khan’s anguish was matched by his righteous indignation, and his words reverberated for days. They may have been the most enduring political words uttered all summer, in a season of stump speeches and political conventions.

Mr. Khan declaration was directed at Donald Trump, but in fact, it also stands as a challenge to many of us. What have we sacrificed? What do we owe to those who have sacrificed more?

Here in this room there are many people who have sacrificed for others. I don’t want to ask people to raise their hands or make a statement, but I expect that among us are those who have taken great risks for others—in the military, as police and fire fighters, or as spontaneous volunteers who with no warning or training, simply jumped into action to protect others. Beyond such dramatic actions, many of us have willingly sacrificed time, effort, comfort, money and even safety in order to protect family, neighbors and strangers. Still, for many of us, Mr. Khan’s question remains personally challenging. I have not served in the military—even as our country has been at war for the past 15 years. Worse, in our daily lives we can often forget that battles are being fought, and lives destroyed, while we worry about the minor dramas of our lives. On this second day of Rosh HaShanah, we look at the example of Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah, and we hear once again the words of Khizr Khan. What have I sacrificed? Continue reading

Rosh Hashanah 5777 Day 1: Practicing Judaism


When I was a kid we had a set of toys from my father that was pretty special, because my dad was pretty special, and still is. As a physician who trained in the sixties, he had one of those old-time doctor’s bags at home and he let us play with the tools. There were tongue depressors to look down the throat, an otoscope to examine our ears, a reflex hammer that gave us the excuse to kick each other, and of course the all-important stethoscope to listen to our hearts. My siblings and I enjoyed pretending to be doctors, examining each other and our friends with the tools from his bag.

However, I got a shock one day when my mother mentioned in passing something about my father “practicing medicine.” Practicing medicine?! He’s just practicing? Do his patients know? As a 5-year old, I knew what practicing meant—doing something badly. I had taken violin lessons for a short while, and though I did like to rub the rosin on the bow, the screeching sounds it made when I touched the strings were horrible. Practicing is what beginners do, isn’t it?

As I grew older I learned that even accomplished professionals practice, and that referring to one’s medical or legal practice was an indication of humility—even a great artist or expert needs to practice and improve. When it comes to our most important tasks in life, perfection is not a realistic goal. Instead, we seek to identify our strengths and weaknesses, amplifying the former and addressing the latter. Continue reading