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Excerpted from Erica Brown’s Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe Click here to buy the book

Day Three: Discipline

“For the sin we committed before You by eating and drinking.”

In the “Al Het” sin list we read multiple times over Yom Kippur, the appearance of a confession about eating and drinking seems odd; it feels prosaic and trivial next to unwarranted hatred or speaking ill of others. It takes physical strength to fast; it takes mental determination to quell physical desire. To have that determination, you need to know what you’re fasting for and why.

Tzom Gedalia, the fast of Gedalia, always follows Rosh HaShana. Most people are relieved for the break from food but do not necessarily understand why we observe this fast or what its significance is. In the annual words of my grandmother: “Who’s Gedalia, anyway?” So who is Gedalia, anyway, and why is this day significant?

Gedalia was a procurator of Judah, assigned by King Nebuchadnezzar to govern the remaining Jews in Israel after the exile. Nebuchadnezzar decimated our nation and then banished the remaining residents from their land after destroying the Temple; those few who stayed became a straggling remnant of a lost nation. This is recounted in the book of ii Kings: “Thus, Judah was exiled from its land. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon put Gedalia, son of Aĥikam son of Shaphan, in charge of the people whom he left in the land of Judah” (25:21–22). There was a great deal of anxiety about the treatment of this remnant, but Gedalia reassured a group of questioning officers that if the residents stayed in the land and followed the Babylonian authorities, “It will go well with you” (25:24). Seven months later, a day which some believe was actually Rosh HaShana, Ishmael ben Nethania – one of the officers who had initially approached Gedalia and who was himself of royal descent – came with ten men and murdered Gedalia and those with him. The rest of the people left Judah for Egypt, fearing the worst.

The story is recounted in greater detail in Jeremiah 41. The day after Gedalia was killed, when no one yet knew, a group of eighty men from the area came to see him, their garments torn and their bodies gashed. They were vulnerable and beaten, but they still came bearing offerings for the Temple, gifts that would never be given. The murderer Ishmael invited them into the town to see Gedalia and then slaughtered them and threw their bodies into a cistern. Ishmael then carried any remaining stragglers off in the direction of Ammon. A warrior, Johanan ben Karea, who set out to kill Ishmael, intervened and took the rest of the people to Egypt for protection. Ishmael got away. The rabbis declared a fast day to mourn not only the death of Gedalia but the death, in many ways, of the few remaining Jews in the land of Israel, killed essentially by their own, the worst possible way to end the enduring presence of the Jews in their homeland. The destruction of even one righteous person, they believed, was the equivalent of the destruction of the House of God.1 We fast for one – the destruction of the Temple; we must fast for the other – the destruction of a human life that represented the end of Jewish life in the land of Israel at the time. The fast is mentioned in the book of Zechariah with the climax at the end of the verse: “You must love honesty and integrity.”(8:19)

We mourn a righteous leader by fasting, but the fast is also intended to mourn the absence of Jews in the land of Israel long ago. Even when the Temple was destroyed, there was still a population of Jews inhabiting the land. After the exile, that population dwindled. But no Jews remained in their land after the murder of Gedalia. The fast offers us the opportunity, at a time of personal reflection, to think about collective losses of identity and how often we hurt ourselves more than outsiders ever could. Ishmael’s weakness made us all ultimately vulnerable.

We know the saying well. Ethics of the Fathers asks, “Who is strong?” and replies, “One who conquers his desires” (4:1). When we discipline ourselves to achieve our deepest goals, we have mastery over desire instead of its having mastery over us. Acting on impulse and the momentary need for gratification can unravel our best long-term personal objectives into a moral mess that is hard to clean up. It is not easy to face the consequences of our actions, particularly our transgressions. It takes emotional strength and resilience to face the worst of ourselves and improve our attitude and behavior without being overwhelmed by sadness or paralyzed by depression: “I just can’t do it.” And when we articulate those words, we really believe them. We have convinced ourselves that we have no willpower. We are weak, not strong. Personal weaknesses so often appear on a plate. Some commentaries on the Al Het list point to specific religious breaches connected to food. We eat without saying the appropriate blessings before and afterwards. We eat food that we shouldn’t, sneaking a taste of something prohibited for a kosher-only crowd. “I’m a bad Jew,” we might hear from someone who keeps kosher at home but loves a BLT on the road.

We can even get more talmudic and turn to a passage that suggests we are judged by the company we keep. A scholar, the Talmud recommends, should eat only with the wise, lest meals devolve into ribaldry and inappropriate trivialities, and lest others witness the scholar potentially compromising himself. On a similar note, Ethics of the Fathers advises that every meal involving three people be accompanied by a teaching moment to sanctify the food, a dvar Torah. We may confess on Yom Kippur for failing to make an ordinary meal into a time of shared study; we rushed a Shabbat meal to get a nap and did not sanctify that meal by sharing Torah. For that we confess.

And yet, despite all of the potential spiritual infractions possibly hinted at in this confession, there is another larger and looming question: am I eating and drinking the way that I should, the way that optimizes my health and minimizes any addictions or bad habits born of years of socialized behavior? We adopt food-related behaviors very early and may spend a lifetime fighting them or resigning ourselves to them but never quite relinquishing the residual emotional impact that this tension presents. Food is rarely an emotionally neutral subject, and when we speak about it in a prayer for self-improvement we understand that it is part of a larger conversation about self-discipline and achieving objectives incrementally, objectives that must be secured and maintained day after day after day.

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Hilchot Tefilla: A Comprehensive Guide to the Laws of Daily Prayer

Excerpted from Rabbi David Brofsky’s Hilchot Tefillah: A Comprehensive Guide to the Laws of Daily Prayer Click here to buy the book

Preparations for Tefillah

The Sages teach that one should prepare oneself, both physically and spiritually, for prayer. One’s appearance and attire should be appropriate for an encounter with God; in addition, one should mentally and spiritually prepare for such a meeting. One should also limit certain activities before praying, in order to emphasize the centrality and significance of prayer in one’s daily religious routine.

Proper Attire

The Gemara (Shabbat 10a) relates that certain Amoraim interpreted the verse hikon likrat elokecha — “Prepare to meet your God” (Amos 4:12) — as instructive, teaching us to prepare ourselves before encountering God.

Rabba son of R. Huna put on stockings and prayed, quoting, “Prepare to meet your God” [Amos 4:12]. Rabba removed his cloak, clasped his hands and prayed, saying, “[I pray] like a slave before his master.”

Similarly, the Rambam (Hilkhot Tefillah 5:5) writes:

How should one prepare his clothes? First, one should adjust one’s clothes, and distinguish and beautify oneself, as it says “You should prostrate yourselves to His holiness in beauty.” One should not stand for Tefillah in an undergarment, with a bare head, or with bare feet, if the local custom is to appear before important people with shoes… The ways of the wise and their students is to pray while they are wrapped [atufin] in a tallit.

The Kitzur Shulchan Arukh (12:1) adds that even one who prays alone in one’s house should dress appropriately.

The Rishonim and Acharonim discuss whether one is merely required to dress as one would dress when meeting an important person, or whether one should do something extra, such as wearing a special belt, or gartel.

This question arises from different understandings of the Talmud’s position regarding wearing a belt during prayer. On the one hand, the Gemara (Berakhot 24b) teaches:

R. Huna said: If a man’s garment is girded round his waist he may recite the Shema. It has been taught similarly: If his garment, whether of cloth or of leather or of sacking, is girded round his waist, he may recite the Shema, but he may not say the Tefillah [Shemoneh Esreh] until he covers his chest.

Apparently, the Gemara requires that one wear a belt in order to create a demarcation between one’s chest and one’s lower body. Seemingly, standing before God in prayer without this demarcation is viewed as inappropriate.

Another Gemara (Shabbat 10a), however, relates:

R. Sheshet demurred: Is it any trouble to remove the girdle [before prayer]! Moreover, let him stand thus [ungirdled] and pray!? — Because it is said, “Prepare to meet your God.”

According to this source, wearing a belt is an expression of preparing to encounter God in prayer.

The above two passages seem to disagree regarding whether one wears a belt in order to separate one’s upper and lower body during prayer, or whether it serves as an additional gesture in preparation for prayer.

Subsequently, the Rishonim debate whether one who does not ordinarily wear a belt must wear one for Shemoneh Esreh. e Ran (Shabbat 4a s.v. u-meha) and the Hagahot Maimoniyyot (Hilkhot Tefillah 5:8) insist that even one who wears pants must wear a belt for the Shemoneh Esreh. On the other hand, Rabbeinu Yerucham writes that only one who is accustomed to wearing a belt daily must wear a belt for Shemoneh Esreh. Seemingly, these opinions disagree as to whether one’s attire for prayer should match, or should exceed, one’s usual standard.

R. Simcha of Vitry, a student of Rashi, records that Rashi would pray without a belt. When questioned about this practice, he responded that the Amoraim’s clothing was similar to our robes, without any demarcation between the upper and lower body. Nowadays, he explained, since it is customary to wear pants, no further separation is required. Rashi, apparently, viewed this halakhah in the context of the requirement to demarcate one’s chest from one’s lower body. Apparently, Rashi did not believe that one must wear a belt to fulfill hikon, preparing to greet God, either because he holds that separating between the upper and lower body fulfills this obligation, or because he believes that one fulfils the obligation through other preparations, such as netilat yadayim.

The Shulchan Arukh (91:1–2) cites both reasons for wearing a belt, in order to demarcate between one’s upper and lower body, and in order to prepare properly for Tefillah. The Magen Avraham (1) and Mishnah Berurah (4), however, cite Rabbeinu Yerucham, who states that only one who normally wears a belt must wear one for Tefillah, but that one who does not ordinarily wear a belt need not wear one for Tefillah. The Mishnah Berurah does add, however, that there may still be a middat chasidut in wearing a belt. In addition, the Mishnah Berurah (5) cites the Zohar, which states that it is appropriate to cover one’s head with a tallit during Shemoneh Esreh.

In modern times, some authorities have revisited this issue, questioning the propriety of wearing short sleeves, or even shorts, during prayer (see R. Ovadyah Yosef in Yechavveh Da’at 4:8). The Shulchan Arukh (90:5), for example, writes “One should not stand up for prayer… with exposed feet, if the accepted practice is to greet important people with shoes.” The Mishnah Berurah (91:11–13) points out that in hot countries where it is customary to stand before important people barefooted, one need not be concerned even if one is wearing “short clothing through which the legs are visible.” He also writes that one should not pray in sleepwear (pajamas), or other clothing that one would not wear to greet “important people.”

The Proper Place in Which to Pray

In Chapters 10 and 11 we discussed those places in which one should not pray, due to the presence of foul odors or substances, or because of the presence of ervah. However, the Gemara also enumerates places in which it may be preferable to pray, whether because of the holiness of the place or because of the effect of the environment on one’s kavvanah.

Chazal strongly suggest praying in a beit kenesset. To begin with, one can usually join a minyan in a beit kenesset, thus participating in tefillah be-tzibbur. Prayer with a minyan affords one the opportunity to hear devarim she-bikedushah (Kaddish, Kedushah, etc). In addition, prayer offered by the community is qualitatively different, and maybe even more “effective” than individual prayer.

In addition, the Rabbis also teach (Berakhot 6a):

A person’s prayer is heard [by God] only in the synagogue… Rabin bar R. Adda says in the name of R. Yitzchak: How do you know that the Holy One, blessed be He, is to be found in the synagogue? For it is said: “God stands in the congregation of God” [Tehillim 82:1].

The Shulchan Arukh (90:9) rules that even if one must pray without a minyan, it is still preferable to pray in a beit ha-kenesset. In addition, the Gemara (Berakhot 6b) teaches that one should preferably pray in a fixed place:

R. Chelbo, in the name of R. Huna, says: Whosoever has a fixed place for his prayer has the God of Avraham as his helper. And when he dies, people will say of him: Where is the pious man, where is the humble man, one of the disciples of our father Avraham! How do we know that our father Avraham had a fixed place [for his prayer]? For it is written: “And Avraham got up early in the morning to the place where he had stood” [Bereishit 26:7]. And “standing” means nothing else but prayer. For it is said: “Then stood up Pinchas and prayed” [Tehillim 106:30].

The Shulchan Arukh (90:19) rules accordingly, and the Mishnah Berurah adds (59) that even when one prays in one’s house, one should preferably designate a specific place for prayer.

Finally, the Gemara (Berakhot 34b) also teaches:

R. Chiyya bar Abba said in the name of R. Yochanan: A person should only pray in a house with windows, as it says: “And the windows of his upper chamber were open toward Jerusalem” [Daniel 6:11]. R. Kahana says: A person who prays in a valley is brazen.

The commentators disagree as to why one should pray in a room with windows.

Rashi explains that “the [windows] cause him to direct his prayers, to focus one’s thoughts to the heavens, and his heart is humbled.”

The Talmidei Rabbeinu Yonah (24b) also explain that the outside light will help “settle his thoughts”, allowing him to pray with greater kavvanah.

The Talmidei Rabbeinu Yonah offer another interpretation. They suggest that the windows should be open towards the east, towards Jerusalem, and “through gazing in this direction he will direct his prayers more accurately towards God, and his prayer will be desirable and accepted.”

R. Avraham Yitzchak Ha-Kohen Kook (1865–1935), in his commentary on the aggadic sections of the Talmud, Ain Aiyah, provides a further explanation as to why one should pray in a room with windows:

Prayer is an intensely introspective activity, but it should not lead us to belittle the value of being part of the world around us. If meditation and private prayer lead us to break our ties with the outside world, then we have missed the highest goal of prayer… For this reason, the Sages taught that the room in which we pray should have windows, thus indicating our ties and moral obligations to the greater world.

Prayer, by its very definition, must face outwards, relating to the broader world and its needs and concerns.

With regard to Chazal’s objection to praying in an open valley, Rashi explains that an enclosed, modest place is more conducive to feeling fear of God. Interestingly, Tosafot (s.v. chatzif) ask why Yitzchak went out to the field to converse with God (Bereishit 24). They suggest that Yitzchak prayed on Har Ha-Moriah, implying that at times the sanctity of a place may override the injunction to pray in an enclosed area. This is certainly relevant to those who pray at the Kotel Ha-Ma’aravi. They add that the Gemara refers to a “valley” through which many people traverse. Seemingly, according to Tosafot, it is difficult to concentrate in such a valley, due to the ongoing traffic of people.

The Mishnah Berurah (90:11–12) writes that one may pray in a place which is enclosed, even if there is no roof. He then cites the Zohar, however, which writes that one should always pray in a “house” (with a roof).

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Coming of Age: An Anthology of Divrei Torah for Bar and Bat Mitzvah – Parshat Eikev

Excerpted from Dr. Mandell Ganchow Coming of Age: An Anthology of Divrei Torah for Bar and Bat Mitzvah Click here to buy the book

Parashat Ekev

by Rabbi Cary A. Friedman

In Parashat Naso, the third verse of the Birkat Kohanim reads, “May Hashem lift (yisa) His face (panav) toward you and give you peace” (Bemidbar 6:26). The Hebrew phrase nesi’ut panim, according to one view in Chazal, means that God grants special favor to Israel.

The idea that Hashem demonstrates favoritism, however, appears to directly contradict another verse in the Torah, a verse in Parashat Ekev (Devarim 10:17): “For Hashem your God is the God of all powers, and Lord of all lords, the great, mighty and awesome God who shows no favoritism (lo yisa panim) and takes no bribes.”

The Gemara (Berachot 20b) notes this apparent contradiction and records the following dialogue:

The ministering angels said before the Holy One, Blessed be He,
“Master of the Universe! It is written in your Torah, ‘[He] shows no favoritism and takes no bribes,’ yet, behold, You favor Israel, as it is written, ‘May Hashem lift His face toward you!’” He answered them, “Should I not favor Israel, for whom I wrote in the Torah, ‘You shall
eat and be satisfied and bless Hashem your God,’ yet they are careful about themselves for a kezayit and a kebeitzah [i.e., they bless even after eating less than is necessary to be satiated]?!”

The Gemara’s explanation seems to be that God’s ability to demonstrate favoritism and go beyond the demands of strict justice is built into the legal system. God certainly does favor the Jewish people, but only because they deserve it—through their willingness to do more than the law demands. The verse that states that God does not show favoritism is speaking about a normal case of a person who acts according to the letter of the law.

But what is the nature of this “going beyond” the letter of the law? In what way do the Jewish people do this? What does the case of Birkat Ha-Mazon represent?

The Vilna Gaon describes the case of a man who has an amount of food sufficient for one hearty meal. If he eats the entire amount of food himself, he will certainly have eaten enough to reach the biblical level of “satisfaction,” and be required to recite Birkat Ha-Mazon on a Torah level. However, if he finds two other people and shares his food with them, each will have eaten a kebeitzah, enough to attain the rabbinic threshold of “satisfaction” and, together, all three will be able to recite the Birkat Ha-Mazon together as a zimmun, enabling them to praise God in an enhanced way.

Further, if the owner of the food identifies nine other people with whom to share his food, and divides it equally among them, each will receive a kezayit, enough to satisfy the smallest rabbinic parameter for “satisfaction” and, together, all ten will form a minyan and recite Birkat Ha-Mazon with even greater praise for God.

Thus, a Jew’s willingness to bless over a kezayit represents his desire to share his meal with nine others and to praise God at the highest level. Barring that, he would settle for a kebeitzah—sharing his meal with two others in order to offer up an enhanced blessing. The Gemara describes one who is willing to eat as little of his food as possible in pursuit of greater degrees of praising God. Surely this desire to forgo one’s personal comfort and enjoyment in exchange for this opportunity merits special consideration from God.

Rav Chayyim of Volozhin understands the case of Birkat Ha-Mazon to represent another type of extraordinary service of God that earns the Jewish people special consideration. He explains that the case reveals a special kind of inconsistency of which the Jewish people is “guilty.” Most of the time when people act inconsistently, they do so to their own advantage. The Jewish people, however, are inconsistent to their own disadvantage—specifically, Rav Chayyim points out, through their interpretation of the word sevi’ah: satisfaction.

When the Torah commands tithing so that the poor will be “satisfied” (Devarim 26:12) the Jewish people err on the side of generosity and interpret the term to mean a large quantity. But when they consider the definition of “satisfaction” as it relates to their own eating and subsequent requirement to recite Birkat Ha-Mazon, they adopt the much smaller measures of kebeitzah and kezayit. This selfless decision to forgo personal comfort and enjoyment in exchange for the opportunity to care for the poor merits special consideration from God.

As a newly-minted adult, take these interpretations to heart, and apply them to your observance of the Torah. Forgo fleeting physical comfort in order to enhance your praise of God (bein adam la-Makom) and err in the disbursement of your resources on the side of providing generously for the poor (bein adam la-chavero), and you will surely merit, God willing, His special consideration and care. “May Hashem lift His face toward you and give you peace.”

Rabbi Friedman is Associate Editor, OU Press. His newest book, Wisdom from the Batcave, is available at

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Coming of Age: An Anthology of Divrei Torah for Bar and Bat Mitzvah – Parshat Va’etchanan

Excerpted from Dr. Mandell Ganchow Coming of Age: An Anthology of Divrei Torah for Bar and Bat Mitzvah

Coming Of Age3

Parashat Va’etchanan

by Jack Prince, Ph.D.

You will forever associate this portion of the Torah with your bar mitzvah.

This parashah, which is always read on the Shabbat after Tishah be-Av, Shabbat Nachamu, contains material which speaks directly to the foundations of our faith. We find here the review of the Ten Commandments, originally
recorded in Parashat Yitro, as well as the first of the three paragraphs of the
Keri’at Shema, which we are commanded to recite twice daily, once in the
morning and again in the evening.

Within the Shema we find two references to the mitzvah of tefillin which you, as a new bar mitzvah, are now required to observe. In both the first portion of the Shema, which was read today, and the second portion, which we will read next week, Hashem commands Bnei Yisrael to “bind them as a sign upon your arm, and let them be ‘totafot’ between your eyes.” That Hashem saw fit to mention this mitzvah twice in the Shema suggests that this mitzvah carries with it a special message, a message which bears upon all the other mitzvoth that you are now required to observe.

Rashi may be guiding us to an understanding of this point when he comments on the phrase introducing the mitzvah of tefillin: “…that I command you today.” He explains, “The mitzvoth should not be in your eyes like an old statute which has ceased to have meaning and relevance. Rather, they should be like a new law which everyone is eager to learn and perform.”

The word “today” is not to be taken literally. It is unlikely that it refers to the day this parashah was given, since the giving of the Torah was an ongoing process for the 40 years our ancestors traveled through the desert. “Today” refers to any day that we approach the performance of a mitzvah. We should show the same interest and enthusiasm that we would display if, in fact, the mitzvah were first given to us on that day.

Anyone who has watched a young man put on his tefillin for the first time recognizes the care and enthusiasm with which he approaches the mitzvah. How he carefully removes the shel yad from the carrying case, reverently unwraps the strap, slips the shel yad on his arm, locating the correct spot on his muscle and, just before tightening it on his arm, recites the blessing with love and fervor. He then repeats the process while donning the shel rosh— carefully finding the right position above the forehead, making the berachah, tightening the straps around his head, and perhaps even checking the position with a mirror.

That level of care, devotion and love is the way we should approach the performance of every mitzvah, every day—just as we certainly would do if the Revelation at Sinai were repeated for us by Hashem every day. This is one of the lessons we can learn from the inclusion of the commandment to wear tefillin in the first two sections of Keri’at Shema.

There is, however, a second mitzvah that is repeated in these first two sections: the command to place a mezuzah on the right side of the doorway leading into one’s house and courtyard. The mezuzah contains the two sections of the Shema written on a piece of parchment. The combination of the mitzvoth of tefillin and mezuzah has a special message for you, and for all new bnei mitzvah.

How does a young man learn to fulfill the themes of the Shema—to love Hashem and accept His absolute sovereignty (the first paragraph), and to accept the obligation to perform all the other commandments (the second paragraph)?

The mitzvoth of tefillin and mezuzah suggest a two-part plan.

The mezuzah, which is affixed to the doorpost of your house, represents your environment: the influence of your family, your school, your friends. Your parents and grandparents provide the nurturing and the examples of how an observant ben Torah conducts himself. Your parents have raised you to understand and appreciate the responsibility that you must now accept and begin to fulfill.

But those lessons are just the beginning. You now include the influence of the tefillin, which represent your personal contribution to your own growth. The tefillin, which you bind to your arm near your heart, and which you place on your head, atop your brain, reflect your commitment of heart and mind to avodat Hashem.

We are confident that you will use the years of education that you have had and those that lie ahead to develop your talents and become a ben Torah, to maintain your link in the everlasting chain that connects us to our past and to our future, and to be a source of nachat to your family, friends and all of Israel.

Dr. Prince is a retired professor of physics (BCC, CUNY) residing in Boca Raton, Florida.

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The Rav’s Thoughts on the Tisha B’Av Kinot – Kina 22

Excerpted from the Koren Mesorat HaRav Kinot: Lookstein Edition. Edited by Rabbi Simon Posner, Kinot translated by Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb

Kina 22

The Rav discusses what we mourn for on Tisha B’Av. It is not only the Hurban Beit HaMikdash in the material sense, but also the Hurban Beit HaMikdash in the spiritual sense, the destruction of centers of Torah and the thousands of towns and villages over the ages where Jews lived a sacred life.

After shifting from kinot for the Hurban Beit HaMikdash to a kina for the Ten Martyrs, there is now a further shift in the subject matter of the kinot. This kina (Hacharishu Mimeni Va’adabera) is the first of several commemorating the massacres in Speyer, Mainz and Worms, and other related tragedies during the Crusades in Germany at the end of the eleventh century. These kinot recount the Hurban Batei Mikdash of the Hakhmei Ashkenaz, the slaughter of the Torah scholars and the destruction of the Jewish communities.

In a sense, however, this kina is a continuation of the kina “ארזי הלבנון.” In both kinot, the deaths that are described represent a double catastrophe. Thousands of Jews were killed during the Crusades. But the tragedy was not just the murder of ten people during the Roman times or the myriads during the Crusades. The tragedy was also the fact that the greatest scholars of the Jewish people were killed. In this kina, the mourning that is expressed is not just for the inhuman act of the massacre. Rather, the principal emphasis is on the destruction of the Torah centers in Germany.

The dates of these massacres are known to us. The Crusaders generally started out on their journey in the spring, and the massacres took place in the months of Iyar and Sivan, around the time of Shavuot. Even though these events did not occur on Tisha B’Av, they are included in the kinot and are commemorated on Tisha B’Av because of the principle, already noted in connection with other kinot, that the death of the righteous is equivalent to the burning of the Beit HaMikdash. If the Beit HaMikdash was sacred, how much more sacred were entire Jewish communities which consisted of thousands of scholars. These communities were also, collectively, a Beit HaMikdash in the spiritual sense. If the kinot speak about the Hurban Beit HaMikdash in the material sense, they also mourn the Hurban Beit HaMikdash in the spiritual sense, the destruction of centers of Torah and the killing of great Torah scholars.
In fact, sometimes the death of the righteous is even a greater catastrophe than the destruction of the physical Beit HaMikdash.

There is an additional reason for including these kinot dealing with the massacres in Germany in the Tisha B’Av service. Hurban Beit HaMikdash is an all-inclusive concept. All disasters, tragedies and sufferings that befell the Jewish people should be mentioned on Tisha B’Av. Rashi says (II Chronicles 35:25, s.v. vayitnum lehok) that when one has to mourn for an event, it should be done on Tisha B’Av. When these kinot relating to the Crusades are recited, one should remember that the tragedies being described happened not only in 1096 but in the 1940s as well. These kinot are not only a eulogy for those murdered in Mainz, Speyer and Worms, but also for those murdered in Warsaw and Vilna and in the hundreds and thousands of towns and villages where Jews lived a sacred and committed life. The kinot are a eulogy not only for the Ten Martyrs and those killed in the Crusades, but for the martyrdom of millions of Jews throughout Jewish history.

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Day Twelve – 28 Tammuz: Teaching God to Cry

Excerpted from In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks, by Erica Brown, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books

Day Twelve: 28 Tammuz

Teaching God to Cry

“Ours is an age which has forgotten how to cry.” Rabbi Norman Lamm, chancellor of Yeshiva University, offered this observation in a sermon he gave on Rosh HaShana called “Three Who Cried.” Rosh HaShana is a time when many of us cry over ourselves and our wrongs, and sometimes over the state of the world. Rabbi Lamm speaks of three types of tears: the tears that come when our myths of absolute security and certainty are shattered; the tears of those who resign themselves to hopelessness; and the tears of those who cry over reality, not from frustration or resignation, but from a determination to change and renew that reality. Jewish crying fits the last of these categories: the act of crying, according to Rabbi Lamm, is the beginning of transformation – the tears are those of protest and resolute purpose.

But Rosh HaShana is not the only crying time of the year where we have perhaps forgotten the meaning and the power of tears. Eikha returns to the motif of crying again and again. We can visualize Jeremiah, its attributed author, weeping ceaselessly as he writes. He tells us as much:

My eyes are spent with tears, my heart is in tumult; my being
melts away over the ruin of my poor people. (Lam. 2:11)

When I cry and plead, He shuts out my prayer. (Ibid. 3:8)

My eyes shed streams of water over the ruin of my poor people.
(Ibid. 3:48)

My eyes shall flow without cease, without respite until the Lord
looks down and beholds from heaven. (Ibid. 3:49)

Do not shut your ear to my groan, my cry. (Ibid. 3:56)

We hear a familiar refrain in Jeremiah’s words: God is ignoring our tears. We sense multiple levels of pain in these verses. There is the anguish of destruction which prompts tears and then there is the additional weeping that occurs when God ignores the tears. Perhaps there is no pain greater than ignored pain. Just watch a child fall in a playground. The child in pain looks up to see if a parent is watching. With no parent to watch, he holds back the tears and continues to play. But when he sees that his mother is indeed watching, he bursts into tears, waiting for a nurturing embrace and someone to brush them away. Tears are one of the most powerful, wordless ways we communicate our feelings to others. To know that someone hears those tears and ignores them adds an additional element of suffering: “Do not shut your ear to my groan, my cry.”

But what about God’s tears? Does God ever cry about us? Do we ever ignore His cries? In the opening to Eikha Raba, an ancient rabbinic commentary on the book of Lamentations, there is an interpretation of the verse, “And God, the Lord of Hosts, called the day for crying and eulogizing” (Proem/Petiĥta 24). When our enemies broke into the Mikdash and conquered it, God said, “I no longer have a place in this world and will remove My Presence from it, back to its original resting place.” And at that same time, God cried and said, “What have I done? I placed My Divine Presence in the lower world for the sake of Israel and now that they have sinned, I have returned to My original dwelling.” In the midrash, God then goes with the ministering angels to see the destruction of the Mikdash from up close, and He cries again, “Woe is Me over My House. My children, where are you? My priests, where are you? My loved ones, where are you?”

At this point, God speaks to Jeremiah of what He is experiencing. “Today I am like a man who made his only son a wedding canopy, and he died in the middle of the ceremony.” God then tells Jeremiah to go and call upon his ancestors Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses at their burial places since “they know how to cry.” Jeremiah says that he does not know where Moses is buried (since we are told in Deuteronomy 34:6 that no one knows the location of Moses’ grave). God tells him to go to the edge of the Jordan River and call out “Son of Amram, son of Amram.” Jeremiah does this and asks Moses to petition God on behalf of Israel.

Moses asks Jeremiah why, but Jeremiah does not know (this midrash positions Jeremiah before the destruction. Here, the prophet has been denied the power to see the future). Moses then asks one of the ministering angels whom he knew from the time of Sinai to explain Jeremiah’s request and is told of the upcoming destruction: “The Temple has been destroyed and Israel has been exiled.” At that moment Moses begins to cry and petition so that his tears wake the patriarchs, and the angels rend their garments, put their hands on their heads, and scream and cry so that their tears reach the gates of the Temple. When God sees this spectacle, He declares a day of mourning.

This midrash explains the etiology of Tisha B’Av in an imaginative rendering of how tears prompted God to declare a day of mourning – and also describes how Jeremiah had to learn how to cry. He needed to take lessons from a master, Moses. And Moses needed the angels to cry with him so that the tears would reach the Temple. Finally, looking at all of this emotional unraveling, God Himself was also moved to tears.

Tisha B’Av is Jewish crying-time. It is a day when we look back at persecution and shed tears over the mess. Once a year we have to revisit a painful past where persecutions meld and merge into a continuous timeline of tragedy. We fast. We pray. We think. We cry.

What if we have forgotten how to cry? Though we may feel like crying, we so often hold back tears. Rabbi Lamm reflects on this in relation to Rosh HaShana, but his words are easily transferable to Tisha B’Av:

Once upon a time the Maĥzor [High Holy Day prayer-book] was
stained with tears; today it is so white and clean – and cold. Not,
unfortunately, that there is nothing to cry about…It is rather that
we have embarrassed ourselves into silence…And so the unwept
tears and unexpressed emotions and the unarticulated cries well
up within us and seek release. What insight the Kotzker Rebbe
had when he said that when a man needs to cry, and wants to
cry, but cannot cry – that is the most heart-rending cry of all.

For us to feel the impact of the Three Weeks deeply, we have to allow ourselves the full range of sadness: grief, loss, remorse, guilt and confusion. We don’t have to teach ourselves to cry. We just have to give ourselves permission.

Kavana for the Day

Has there ever been a time when you cried over the Jewish people? Think of that moment and what prompted it. What was the trigger that pushed you over the invisible emotional boundary line? Open up the book of Eikha and skim its verses. Identify the one that pains you the most. On Tisha B’Av, go back to that verse and read it several times until you feel that you have taken it in fully.

If you cannot cry over it, but want to learn how to cry, think of someone you could turn to in order to learn how to cry. What prompted that choice of person? What makes some people “good criers” and others less able to express emotion fully? When we give ourselves permission to cry and to experience the full range of pain that Jeremiah expresses, we also learn how to experience the intensity of joy.

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The Rav’s Thoughts on the Tisha B’Av Kinot — Kina 25

Excerpted from the Koren Mesorat HaRav Kinot: Lookstein Edition. Edited by Rabbi Simon Posner, Kinot translated by Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb

This kina (25), by Rabbi Kalonymos ben Yehuda of Speyer, laments the massacres perpetrated by the Crusaders in 1096, which destroyed the most prominent Jewish communities of the Rhineland. The main motif of this kina (מי יתן ראשי מים, Mi Yiten Roshi Mayim), a motif found in some of the prior kinot, is that the death of the righteous is equivalent to the burning of the Beit HaMikdash.

If we are to mourn for the Beit HaMikdash, we must also mourn the death of the great Torah scholars. Since the tragedy of the destruction of the Torah centers in Germany is equivalent to the Hurban Beit HaMikdash, we are justified in thinking that a special fast day should have been established to mourn for the martyrs of those massacres. However, the kina declares, we are not to add any fast day beyond Tisha B’Av to commemorate any other catastrophe, massacre, or destruction.

The phrase in the kina “אי תורה ותלמוד והלומדה, Where are Torah, Talmud, and students?” has a message. The message of this phrase of the kina is that it is important to mourn not only for the great scholars but for the ordinary Jews as well. One does not have to be a genius or a great teacher of Torah. All one has to do is study, at any level. This itself is part of mesora, the chain of tradition. Our mesora consists not only of brilliant scholars, but also of simple Jews who study even if they do not understand what they study.

The phrase “Where are Torah, Talmud, and students?” was the phrase used by a Holocaust survivor to describe to me his feelings at visiting Vilna on Kol Nidrei night in 1945. Shortly after he was liberated, he returned to Vilna where he had lived before the War, for the High Holidays. It is difficult to describe what Vilna looked like on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur before the War. In one neighborhood there were eight or nine synagogues, including the Beit Knesset HaGra and a synagogue that dated back to the Middle Ages. This person remembered what the Vilna shulhoif, the neighborhood where the synagogues were located, was like on Kol Nidrei night when tens of thousands of Jews would congregate. On that Kol Nidrei night in 1945, he returned to the synagogue where his mother used to pray, and it was deserted. He used the phrase from this kina to describe his feelings, “Where is the Torah and those who study it? Her place is desolate, with none to dwell therein.”

This survivor continued with a haunting story. His mother was a pious Jewess and of course attended shul on Yom Kippur. When it came time for Maftir Yonah, she used to leave the shul for half an hour and feed her cat at home. The cat would wait for her, and after feeding the cat she would return to shul. This man, who knew the cat, spent Yom Kippur of 1945 at the home where his parents had lived, and at 4:30 in the afternoon, there was a scratching at the door. It was the same cat waiting for him to feed her the way his mother had. This visit had a traumatic effect on him. At that moment, he felt the full magnitude of the Holocaust. Indescribable despair and bleakness overwhelmed him.

This story also illustrates how accurately Lamentations captures the devastation of the Ĥurban. When a place is desolate and devoid of human beings, it is tragic; but when animals prowl there, the pain is almost unbearable. As the verse in Lamentations (5:18) says, “For Mount Zion is desolate.” It is tragic that Mount Zion is desolate and deserted; but, not only are people absent, the verse continues, “foxes prowl over it.” The fox and the cat walk around. All he saw was the ruins of the synagogues and the cat prowling amidst the ruins. The only link between the past and present was the cat.

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OU MANUAL for Checking Fruits & Vegetables

Excerpted from OU MANUAL for Checking Fruits & Vegetables, Click here to buy the book

Halachic Introduction

After delineating the various forbidden שרצים—vermin, the Torah makes clear that adherence to this stringency preserves the קדשוה of the Jewish people. Our spiritual¬ity and our nobility seem to be predicated upon refraining from their consumption. ‘‘For I am Hashem who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God, and you shall be holy as I am Holy’’ (ויקרא י”א ,מ”ה) . Rashi cites תורת כהנים where the term ‘‘who brought you up from the land of Egypt’’ is analyzed. So often in the Torah Hashem speaks of having brought us out of Egypt. Why with regard to forbidden שרצים does the Torah deviate from its usual phraseology? Based upon this inference, the school of Rabbi Yishmael taught the following lesson: ‘‘Says Hashem, ‘Had I brought the Jewish people up from Egypt for no other reason than that they should not defile themselves by eating שרצים as the other nations do, that would have been reason enough.’ ’’ In other words, by virtue of this mitzva the Jewish people have been raised to a unique status. Therefore the terminology, ‘‘Hashem, who brought you up’’ is used.

It is well known that the consumption of a single שרץ can be a violation of as many as six לאוין . As noted above, the consumption of a שרץ can also have a detrimental effect on a person, diminishing his or her spirituality.

What is a שרץ?

A terrestrial שרץ is defined as any living creature that is visible to the naked eye yet so small that its legs cannot be seen moving when it runs. When a mouse runs across the floor, one typically cannot make out its features well enough to recognize mov¬ing appendages, as would be the case with a dog or cat. Rather, it slithers—שורץ; the entire creature seems to move in unison. Though mammalian שרצים do not pose a threat to the salad-eating public, תולעים—insects and worms—do and often cling to the vegetables we eat.

In this guide, we will point out the most frequently used vegetables that require special preparation.

Method for checking Lettuce, Open Leaf:

1. Cut off the lettuce base and separate the leaves from one another.

2. Soak leaves in a solution of cold water and vegetable wash. The proper amount of vegetable wash has been added when some bubbles are observed in the water. (In the absence of vegetable wash, several drops of concentrated non-scented liquid detergent may be used. However, for health reasons, care must be taken to thoroughly rinse off the soapy solution.)

3. Agitate lettuce leaves in the soapy solution.

4. Spread each leaf, taking care to expose all its curls and crevices. Using a powerful stream of water or a power hose, remove all foreign matter and soap from both sides of each leaf. Alternatively, a vegetable brush may be used on both sides of the leaf.

5. Leaves should be checked over a light box or under strong overhead lighting to verify that the washing procedure has been effective. Pay careful attention to the folds and crevices in the leaf where insects have been known to hold tightly through several washings. Check both sides of each leaf.

6. In a commercial setting, a vegetable spinner is recommended. (The advantages of spin-drying are: (1) you will not risk an electrical shock when placing the leaves on the light box; and (2) the leaves will stay fresh and moist for a longer period of time.)

7. Three heads or handfuls of leaves from different areas of the bin should be checked over a light box or under direct light. Our experience has shown that if the leaves are washed properly, no insects will be found.

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The Rav’s Thoughts on the Tisha B’Av Kinot – Kina 10

Excerpted from the Koren Mesorat HaRav Kinot: Lookstein Edition. Edited by Rabbi Simon Posner, Kinot translated by Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb

An excerpt from the Rav’s commentary on Kina 10, Eikha Yashva Havatzelet HaSharon. Why is it that the stringency of our observance of mourning decreases in the afternoon of Tisha B’Av, at precisely the time that the flames of destruction began to engulf the Beit HaMikdash?

כי כליה חיבתי כדור המבול For we deserved extinction no less than the generation of the Flood. This passage sounds the recurring theme found in the kinot that the Beit HaMikdash served as a substitute, as collateral, for the Jewish people, and the physical structure of the Beit HaMikdash suffered the destruction that rightfully should have been visited upon the entire nation. The kina says that the Jewish people are responsible and are deserving of punishment; we are guilty, and we should have been destroyed as was the generation of the Flood. God, however, in His mercy and grace, subjected His throne, the Beit HaMikdash, rather than the Jewish people, to disgrace, abuse and destruction. It is for this reason that Tisha B’Av contains an element of mo’ed, a festival – God rendered His decision on Tisha B’Av that Knesset Yisrael is an eternal people and will continue to exist. The Beit HaMikdash was humiliated, profaned and destroyed in order to save the people.

This concept is expressed halakhically in the character of Tisha B’Av afternoon. The second half of the day has a contradictory nature in halakha. On the one hand, the avelut, the mourning, is intensified because the actual burning of the Beit HaMikdash commenced in the late afternoon of the ninth day of Av, and the flames continued throughout the tenth (Ta’anit 29a). On the other hand, Nahem, the prayer of consolation, is recited in the Amida for Minha in the afternoon, and not in Shaharit of Tisha B’Av morning or Ma’ariv of the preceding evening (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim, Rama 557:1). Similarly, tefillin are put on in the afternoon, not the morning (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 555:1), and sitting on chairs rather than on the ground is permitted in the afternoon, not the morning (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 559:3).

In Minha, one re-inserts in Kaddish the phrase תתקבל צלותהון ובעותהון”, accept our prayers and entreaties” (see Beit Yosef, Tur Orah Hayyim 559 s.v. ve’omer kaddish belo titkabal, with respect to the recitation of Titkabal in Shaharit). This phrase is removed from Kaddish earlier on Tisha B’Av because the assertion that “satam tefillati, my prayer is rejected” (Lamentations 3:8), which prevails on Tisha B’Av, comes to an end at midday. Paradoxically, the moment the Beit HaMikdash was set ablaze was a moment of relief. At that moment, it became clear that God decided to take the collateral, the Beit HaMikdash, instead of pursuing the real debtor, the Jewish people. Paradoxically, once He took away the Beit HaMikdash in the afternoon of Tisha B’Av, the nehama, the consolation, could begin. Tisha B’Av is a day of limitless despair and boundless hope and faith.

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Day One – 17 Tammuz: Seeking God

Excerpted from In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks, by Erica Brown

In the Narrow Places

Day One: 17 Tammuz
Seeking God

Do we achieve holiness, kedusha, through seeking God or through finding God? To answer this question, we turn to one of our sacred texts. The haftara for Minha, the afternoon service, on a fast day is an excerpt from Isaiah 55. It begins mid-chapter, at verse six and closes in the next chapter, verse eight.  It contains some of the most religiously inspiring language in all of prophetic literature.

“Seek God where He can be found. Call to Him while He is near” (Isaiah 55:6). Isaiah offers wise, spiritual advice that is no less applicable to God than it is to all of our relationships. Reach out to God in a place where holiness can be found, when God feels near. Use the fast day as a mechanism for the contraction of the material and physical to create a greater space for the Shekhina, the Divine Presence. The tone of the day invites greater awareness of God. But Isaiah did not utter these words for a fast day; its incorporation into the service was a later adaptation of a text to enhance the day’s emotional demands.

What did the prophet mean when he pronounced these words? Perhaps Isaiah spoke from his awareness that God’s presence was not always apparent during the average working day of an Israelite. Busy with harvesting fields, winnowing on the threshing floor or finding a fertile place to graze sheep, our ancestors could have spent their days preoccupied with the demands of family and making a living, not making a place for God. If this was a challenge for those who worked outside in nature every day, imagine how much greater an obstacle today’s work environment presents to those of us who sit in offices all day. Without creating a clearing for God, a time and place for thinking above and beyond life’s prosaic cares, how can we expect to find Him? If we are not searching, then that which we do not look for can hardly be expected to make itself known. It is like playing hide-and-seek and then not looking. The Kotzker Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgensztern (1787–1859) once poignantly remarked, “God is where you let Him in.”

Kavana for the Day:

Seeking is about discovery. Isaiah tells us to seek God where God is to be found. Think about where you might find God. People have a custom to pray and study in a “makom kavua,” a fixed location or place, every day. The idea is that we create spaces that are receptive to spiritual activities, where we have all that we need: the right light, the right balance of privacy and companionship, the right amount of noise or silence to induce spiritual behaviors. Think hard. Where does God seem most apparent in your life? What times and places seem more open and receptive to spiritual seeking and finding? Recreate those times and spaces and make your own makom kavua.

To read the full chapter, see pages 27 through 31 in ‘The Narrow Places’.