Posted on

The Thought Worlds of Rabbi Sacks

This essay was published on the website of the TRADITION journal, and is reprinted here with permission.

The Thought Worlds of Rabbi Sacks

by David Shatz

David Shatz and Jonathan Sacks

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ contributions to Jewish thought are massive and breathtaking. They span works of philosophy, parshanut, history, and homiletics, along with commentaries on the Siddur, Mahzor, and Haggada. Countless Jews know his name; many of them, particularly among the Orthodox, have read his works, heard him speak, perused his parasha sheets, regularly used his siddur, and viewed or heard his online conversations. He addressed robustly issues of paramount concern for Jews: anti-Semitism, Jewish identity, the Shoah, Israel, the family, unity, community, and continuity. Here was a man who had little formal Jewish learning until his 20s and yet — by harnessing brilliance, vision, commitment. and stunning eloquence — sensitized hearts, expanded minds, and animated Jewish life. His readers and audiences always emerged edified and inspired. Those who met him were greeted warmly and witnessed his capacity to engage. All are saddened by his passing, which sprang upon us so quickly.

Yet one of the most striking things about Rabbi Sacks’ body of work is how often he spoke not of Judaism but of religion, not of Jewish society but of politics, not of halakha but of morality. This reveals much of who he was — a Jew with a fierce, proud commitment to a particular religion, but whose mind and soul were broad. I do not mean only that he published (particularly in his later years) books on science and religion, politics, economics, and morality aimed at a global audience; nor just that his work is studded by astonishingly erudite insights from literature, world history, psychology, science, and linguistics; nor merely that he engaged extensively with relativism, postmodernism, pluralism, and scientism. I mean also that on the ethical level he preached tolerance, the “dignity of difference,” and love of the stranger, to a degree that is especially striking for an Orthodox writer.

Yet obviously the outlook of this great rabbinic leader was not a commonplace cosmopolitanism or globalism. He understood, first of all, that we Jews are part of humanity, and that the challenges that confront our religion, such as fanaticism, confront religions generally. The more we situate ourselves in a larger human context, the better we comprehend our own problems and predicaments. Hence, his universalist discourse can inform our Jewish self-understanding.

Moreover, he believed that the universalism that prevailed in the West since the Enlightenment was in some ways a menace. It threatened to obliterate traditions. The more the world would appreciate traditions and seek to sustain them, the more it would appreciate what is truly distinctive and valuable about Judaism’s teachings. In fact a leitmotif of his work is the uniqueness, novelty, and greatness of Judaism’s contributions to world history. Ultimately his message in numerous places is that the values of Judaism can speak to modern societies and ideologies, and can improve the world. His extensive use of the Bible adds to the wide appeal of his reasoning.

Rabbi Sacks’ broad vision and his prominence as a public intellectual in the UK earned him accolades — now, alas, in the form of eulogies — from the spheres of politics, royalty, religion, and academia. His projects culminated in his being awarded the $1.5 million Templeton Prize in 2016 for his work in countering religious extremism and religious violence. A look at his awards, honorary degrees, and appointments boggles the mind. To name but one tiny instance of his standing in the larger intellectual universe, Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor, two of the most important philosophers of recent decades, joined twelve Jewish contributors to a festschrift in Rabbi Sacks’ honor, with MacIntyre authoring the lead essay.

R. Sacks’ attainment of both Jewish and global renown reflects a central theme of his thought (better, the central theme): the meeting of the universal and the particular. His worlds were not segregated but rather integrated. I recall vividly the 1997 commencement at Yeshiva University, when Rabbi Sacks received an honorary degree. With his wonderful blend of creativity, eloquence, oratorical power, and humor, he made a pointed argument on behalf of the ideal of Torah ve-Hokhma, one that merges the universal and the particular in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Rabbi Soloveitchik: “Hokhma reminds us that we are humans, we are citizens of the universal enterprise of mankind, and Torah reminds us that we are Jews, heirs of the greatest heritage ever conferred on a people.”

We Jews must not simply receive from the world; we must also give. As he wrote elsewhere, “To be a Jew is to be true to our faith while being a blessing to others regardless of their faith.” Jews must help “heal a fractured world” and live up to the “ethics of responsibility.” With his face to the future, he taught that different groups, Jews included, must “build a home together,” a society for the common good, even while keeping their distinctive characters.

* * *

There is much else to say about R. Sacks’ talents. Apart from works that developed his central themes for a broad audience, he wrote lucid philosophical essays about abstruse technical concepts, as in his review of the Rav’s most challenging work, The Halakhic Mind (which appeared in TRADITION, Spring 1988), and in several books, he offered incisive analyses of individual thinkers. His prose was remarkable. With elegant sentences, often short and pithy, replete with wonderful turns of phrase and bon mots, he made readers as riveted by his writing as by his oratory.

Readers did not always agree with R. Sacks’ views and arguments. He at times endured strident criticism, whether from the left or from the right. But this is exactly what his philosophy urges us to welcome: conversation, disagreement and difference, albeit, decidedly, without the stridency. About one point there should be no disagreement: the world was privileged to receive the riches that R. Sacks offered. He was among the most compelling and inspiring authors, orators, and leaders to have graced the Jewish world in modern times. Yehi zikhro barukh. 

David Shatz, a member of TRADITION’s editorial board, is the Ronald P. Stanton University Professor of Philosophy, Ethics, and Religious Thought at Yeshiva University and editor of The Torah u-Madda Journal.

[Published on November 11, 2020]

Posted on

Birkon Mesorat HaRav: Essay on Birkat HaMazon

Excerpted from Birkon Mesorat HaRav: The Wintman Edition, edited by Rabbi David Hellman with commentary from the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

OU Birkon HaRav front cover


Birkat HaMazon: To Bless the Great and Holy Name


Birkat HaMazon, like our entire liturgy, exists on two planes. On the one hand, it is a standardized text instituted by the rabbis that we are obligated to recite after every meal. However, it is much more than a codified formulation; its specific words and language encapsulate ideas, themes, and concepts that we must extract, define, and elucidate. Fundamentally, we must ask, what is the telos of Birkat HaMazon and what religious experience does it capture? In other words, what is the essence of the mitzva that the Torah itself commands? To address these questions we must turn our attention to a few crucial Talmudic passages.

The Biblical Obligation

Before we can appreciate the theological and religious implications of Birkat HaMazon, we must clarify the different views regarding its halakhic definition. It is quite clear that the Torah requires some sort of blessing after we eat: “You shall eat and be satisfied and shall bless the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you” (Deut. 8:10). However, when it comes to the specific blessings we recite there seem to be two contradictory Talmudic passages regarding their origin and authority. One source, a beraita (Berakhot 48b), sees allusions to the first three blessings of the Birkat HaMazon in the above quoted verse: “Our Rabbis taught: Where is the saying of grace intimated in the Torah? In the verse, ‘You shall eat and be satisfied and shall bless’ – this signifies Birkat HaZan [the first blessing]…‘For the land’ – this signifies Birkat HaAretz [the second blessing]. ‘The good’ – this signifies Boneh Yerushalayim [the third blessing].” This source implies that the first three blessings of Birkat HaMazon are all Biblical obligations. (The last blessing of HaTov VehaMeitiv was established in response to the burial of the victims of the Betar massacre, and is clearly Rabbinic in origin. See Reshimot, p. 209 .) Yet, the Talmud (ibid.) also quotes Rav Naĥman as stating that these same three blessings were instituted by the courts of three different generations: “Moses established for Israel the blessing of HaZan at the time when the manna fell for them; Joshua established for them the blessing of HaAretz when they entered the land; David and Solomon established the blessing of Boneh Yerushalayim.” As opposed to the beraita, this second teaching implies that all of the blessings of Birkat HaMazon are only of Rabbinic origin.

Looking to the Rishonim (medieval authorities), we find two major approaches to harmonizing these sources. Rashba (Berakhot 48b) explains that the Biblical obligation requires expressing thanksgiving for the themes of the first three blessings: for sustenance, for the Land of Israel, and for Jerusalem. Every time one eats, he must acknowledge God who provided him with his food, and who gave the people of Israel the Land of Israel and her capital, Jerusalem. However, the Torah did not mandate a set formulation. Instead, each individual could express these motifs in whichever way he chose, using the language he found most fitting. Later, Moses, Joshua, and then David and Solomon instituted set texts for the nation to recite. Thus, the formulation and phrasing are a Rabbinic institution, but the themes and motifs of the first three blessings are all of Biblical origin.

Ritva and Shita Mekubetzet (ad loc.), following Rashba’s approach, point out a parallel as well as a distinction between Birkat HaMazon and the obligation of tefilla. Like the commandment of Birkat HaMazon, the Biblical obligation to pray also has no required text; originally, one would pray in his own words. Only because of the displacements and chaos of the exile, explains Maimonides (Hilkhot Tefilla 1:4), did the Rabbis compose a standardized text of the Amida to facilitate prayer for those who wouldn’t otherwise have the tools to express themselves properly. However, the difference between these two commandments is that the Biblical mitzva of tefilla does not require reciting any specific praises of God or making any specific requests. A person could recite any prayer to fulfill his obligation. In contrast, the Biblical blessing of Birkat HaMazon has a structure that requires the inclusion of three specific themes: that God has granted us sustenance, the Land of Israel, and the city of Jerusalem.

There is, though, another approach which understands that the Biblical commandment of Birkat HaMazon involves not three themes, but one simple, core idea. Naĥmanides, in his glosses to Maimonides’ Sefer HaMitzvot (Shoresh 1) discusses several different commandments which are Biblical in nature, but for which the Rabbis codified a standardized text. Discussing Birkat HaMazon, Naĥmanides says that although the commandment is clearly Biblical, “its text is not Biblical; rather, the Torah commanded us to recite a blessing after we eat, each person according to his understanding, as in the blessing of Benjamin the Shepherd who recited, ‘Blessed is the Merciful One, Master of this bread’ (Berakhot 40b).” This example of Benjamin the Shepherd proves that one can fulfill the obligation of Birkat HaMazon even with this simple blessing. Benjamin the Shepherd was not a scholar. He was a simple Jew who blessed God as best as he could, according to his meager understanding and capabilities. According to Rashba and his school, the Talmud means to say that Benjamin the Shepherd’s simple blessing would fulfill the first of the three Biblically-mandated blessings, but it would not have fulfilled the Biblical obligation to mention the Land of Israel and Jerusalem. However, Naĥmanides seems to imply that Benjamin the Shepherd’s blessing would fulfill the total Biblical obligation. In other words, according to Naĥmanides, the blessings for the Land of Israel and Jerusalem are Rabbinic in nature.

This opinion of Naĥmanides would also appear to be the position of Maimonides, who opens the first chapter of the Hilkhot Berakhot stating simply, “There is a positive commandment to bless after eating food, as it says, ‘You shall eat and be satisfied and bless the LORD, your God.’” In discussing the Biblical obligation, Maimonides makes no reference to the Land of Israel or Jerusalem; he mentions those ideas only in Chapter Two of Hilkhot Berakhot when he discusses the fixed text of Birkat HaMazon codified by the Rabbis. Like Naĥmanides, according to Maimonides we fulfill the Biblical commandment of Birkat HaMazon by reciting any blessing for the food we have eaten, regardless of its specific form or content.

But how can Maimonides and Naĥmanides maintain that there is no Biblical obligation to mention the Land of Israel when the verse states, “You shall bless the LORD your God for this good land that He gave you”? Seemingly, we find in this verse an explicit requirement to mention the Land of Israel. In fact, however, a dispute between the ancient translators on how to translate this verse will resolve this question.

Targum Onkelos translates the verse literally, that we are obligated to bless God “for the good land that He gave you.” Accordingly, there is a clear Biblical obligation to thank God for the Land of Israel every time we eat, as is the opinion of Rashba and others. However, Targum Yonatan ben Uziel translates the relevant phrase as “for the fruit of the good land that He gave you.” This reading sees the phrase “the good land” as an elliptical reference to the fruit of the land, and thus the Biblical commandment does not include an obligation to thank God for the land itself, but rather only for its fruit, i.e., the produce one has consumed. Thus the dispute between Rashba and his school, on the one hand, and Maimonides and his school, on the other, revolves around how one translates the words “for this good land.” The halakhic argument was clearly formulated only in the days of the medieval authorities, but the disagreement regarding how to understand the verse dates back to the ancient Aramaic translators.

Remembering God and Recognizing His Mastery

Returning our focus to Naĥmanides’ position, that one can fulfill his Biblical obligation by stating “Blessed is the Merciful One, Master of this bread” – we will recognize that not only does this reduce the number of Biblical themes in Birkat HaMazon from three to one, but it also offers a fundamentally different perspective on the mitzva. Intuitively, we would assume that Birkat HaMazon is a mitzva of hoda’ah, thanksgiving, of offering our appreciation for the food that we have just enjoyed. Yet Benjamin the Shepherd’s formula contains no trace of thanksgiving – his blessing does not thank God for the food at all. Rather, it is a statement of God’s mastery and kingship, that He is the master of this food and that I enjoy it only with His permission. According to Naĥmanides, the Biblical commandment of Birkat HaMazon is not an obligation to praise or thank God for the kindness of providing us with food; it is an idea even more basic, a recognition even more fundamental to Judaism’s worldview. Birkat HaMazon is a declaration of God’s lordship over the world, and in particular, His mastery and ownership over the food we have consumed.

Indeed, if we examine the first blessing of Birkat HaMazon, we come to the same startling conclusion: it too contains no elements of thanksgiving. In the first blessing we recognize God as the creator and sustainer of the natural world, the one who feeds all living creatures. Only with the second blessing, opening with “We thank you LORD, our God…” does the concept of thanksgiving enter Birkat HaMazon. According to Naĥmanides, one fulfills the Biblical obligation of Birkat HaMazon even without expressing any sentiments of thanksgiving. The mitzva requires recognizing God’s sovereignty, and no more. However, according to Rashba and his school, the themes of the first three blessings are all Biblical, and thus Birkat HaMazon includes both concepts, recognition of God’s mastery over the world, and expression of thanksgiving for sustaining us. Targum Yonatan ben Uziel translates the verse as “you shall thank and bless,” reflecting these two concepts, and in this regard, he parallels the position of Rashba.

In truth, when we look at the context of the verse, the approach of Naĥmanides is almost explicit in the Bible itself. The Bible commands, “You will eat and be satisfied and bless the LORD your God.” However, it continues, “Be careful lest you forget the LORD your God and not guard His commandments…Lest you eat and be satisfied…and your heart will grow haughty and you will forget the LORD your God…and you will think in your heart, my strength and the might of my hand made me all this wealth” (Deut. 8:10-17). The Torah doesn’t require man to thank God; rather, the Torah warns man lest he forget God. The purpose of Birkat HaMazon is to prevent the arrogance which creeps into a man’s heart and causes him to forget that God is the Creator. Fundamentally, Birkat HaMazon is not an act of thanksgiving or praise, but an act of remembering God, a fulfillment of the constant command to remember and be cognizant of our Creator in every aspect of our life. As the Torah concludes the section, “Rather you shall remember the LORD your God who gives you the strength to be successful.”

Thus, Birkat HaMazon is not simply a particular commandment regarding food and our satiation; it is instead an expression of the belief and commitment that underpins our entire religious life. Indeed, from the standpoint of the psychology of religion, the telos of Birkat HaMazon, to remember God, is the most important element in one’s religious experience. To offer praise before God is easy; to give thanks, one merely has to become sentimental. However, to remember God and ascribe everything to Him, to attribute the whole cosmic process of creation to God, and to know always that He is the Master, the LORD, and the Owner of everything, requires a mental discipline of the highest order, and it is in truth the fundamental religious experience.

Birkat HaMazon and All Other Blessings

Understanding Birkat HaMazon in this light – not as an expression of thanksgiving, but as an act of recognizing and remembering God’s kingship – also allows us to explain several passages in Maimonides’ Code that would otherwise be difficult to understand. In the beginning of Hilkhot Berakhot, Maimonides, as usual, begins with the Biblical commandment: “There is a positive commandment from the Torah to bless God after eating.” Maimonides then moves on to the Rabbinic obligations: “and there is a Rabbinic obligation to bless before a person enjoys any food…and to bless after anything a person eats or drinks.” Maimonides means to say that these Rabbinic obligations are not independent concepts, but extensions of the Biblical idea of Birkat HaMazon. However, the blessings that we recite before we eat are not expressions of thanksgiving, as they simply state, “Blessed is the LORD…creator of the fruit of the tree.” Moreover, the blessings before we eat couldn’t be expressions of thanksgiving, as thanksgiving is only appropriate after we have benefited from God’s kindness. Rather, the blessings that we recite before we eat are declarations of God’s mastery over this world, recognition that the food before us belongs to Him and that we enjoy it only with His permission. If Birkat HaMazon would have been an act of thanksgiving, it could not have been the conceptual basis for the Rabbinic blessings that we recite before we eat. Only because Birkat HaMazon is an act of recognizing God’s kingship and mastery over our possessions can it serve as the conceptual foundation for all blessings that we recite.

Maimonides continues, “Just as we recite blessings for all physical pleasures, so too we recite blessings before mitzvot and only then perform them. The Rabbis instituted many blessings as expressions of praise, thanksgiving, and request in order to constantly remember the Creator.” Maimonides groups the blessings that we recite before the performance of mitzvot with the blessings that we recite before we eat, and he understands that all blessings are based upon the Biblical blessing of Birkat HaMazon. How does Birkat HaMazon serve as the conceptual source for the blessings recited before performing a mitzva? Based on what we have explained, it is because fundamentally all blessings are statements of God’s authority. With birkot hanehenin we recognize His dominion over the natural order, and with birkot hamitzvot we similarly declare His dominion over the moral order. Just as He is the creator of the physical world and its laws, so too is He the author of the moral norm and the legislator of all religious laws. As Maimonides says explicitly, the common denominator of all blessings is to remember and fear the Creator.

We can now dispel a common misconception. Many believe that to bless God means to praise Him, and in fact, the English translation of berakha, benediction, comes from the Latin root words bene and diction, meaning to speak well of or praise. However, this understanding is simply incorrect. In Genesis we read “God blessed man, saying, ‘You shall be fruitful and multiply.’” God didn’t praise man; He blessed him: He instilled in him the ability to multiply, a new source of goodness and fortune in his life. So too, Rav Ĥayyim Volozhiner (Nefesh HaĤayyim 2:2) and Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the Ba’al HaTanya (Torah Or, Parashat Ĥayyei Sarah), both explain that the word “barukh” means expansion, and to bless God means to expand God’s presence in this world. How can a mortal human being, a frail and finite creature, accomplish such a thing? The answer is that man has the unique ability to recognize and declare God’s authority and mastery. By dispelling the mirage of nature’s independence and declaring the true Creator, the influence of God’s presence thereby increases in this world. Similarly, the Sefer HaĤinnukh (Mitzva 430) writes in his discussion of Birkat HaMazon that when we say God is “blessed,” we declare that all blessing and goodness flow from Him. The prayer that God should be blessed is a wish that all people should recognize God as the source of goodness. All blessings, like Birkat HaMazon, are meant to forestall the natural human arrogance that makes man forget God. Blessing God is not an act of thanksgiving, but an act of remembering God, of declaring Him the true master of our world and its fullness, which is the very essence of Birkat HaMazon.

“His Great and Holy Name”

Finally, we can understand a cryptic phrase that Maimonides uses in the heading to Hilkhot Berakhot, where he writes that the Biblical obligation is “to bless the great (gadol) and holy (kadosh) name after we eat.” What does Maimonides mean when he includes the divine discriptions “great and holy”? Maimonides is known for his precise language, and he should have simply written that we are obligated “to bless the name of God after we eat.” Moreover, elsewhere Maimonides attaches different attributes to the name of God. For example, regarding the prohibition to erase the name of God he writes (Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 6:1) that “anyone who destroys one of the holy and pure names of God is lashed,” and similarly, in another context he writes (Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 2:1) that “there is an imperative to love and fear the honored and exalted God.” Maimonides wrote with extraordinary precision, and he was even more careful in his use of divine attributes, as is evident by his discussions in the Guide for the Perplexed. If he uses “the great and holy name” to describe God in the context of Birkat HaMazon, it is because these two descriptions capture the essence of the commandment. How is this the case?

To understand Maimonides’ choice of words, we must first understand what we mean by describing God as “great.” We find this divine description in the Bible in the following verse: “For the LORD your God is God of gods, and LORD of lords, a great God, a mighty, and a terrible, who favors no person, and takes no bribe” (Deut. 10:17). In this verse we see that God’s greatness flows from His mastery, because He is the master of all other powers. Thus, to recognize God as great is to recognize Him as the authority of our lives, the master of our world. The appellation “holy” means that God is absolutely above and beyond all of creation, that nothing in this world can be compared to Him. Thus, Maimonides defines the commandment of sanctifying God’s name (Kiddush Hashem) as demonstrating our absolute commitment to God even to the point of loss of life – to publicize that we recognize no other authority and that no other person or force in the world could intimidate us to violate His will. It follows that when these two appellations are used together, the phrase “the great and holy God” means the God who is the absolute master and authority of all creation, totally unique and beyond all matters and powers of this world. It is in this sense that the prophet Ezekiel uses these descriptions when he writes that God declares that in the end of days, after the war of Gog and Magog, “I will make Myself great and holy, and I will make Myself known in the eyes of many nations, and they will know that I am the LORD.” God will be great and holy when the whole world recognizes His dominion, that He is master of the world. The Tur (Oraĥ Ĥayyim 56) writes that the opening phrase of Kaddish, “Let His name be made great and holy” (“yitgadel ve’yitkadesh”), is based on this verse in Ezekiel, and he explains that Kaddish is a prayer for that time when all nations will ultimately recognize the authority and kingship of the one true God.

In defining the Biblical commandment as “to bless the great and holy name after eating,” Maimonides underscores that by reciting Birkat HaMazon we acknowledge God’s mastery of the world, and that He is the provider for the food we have just eaten, or as Benjamin the Shepherd put it, “Blessed is the Merciful One, Master of this bread.” The mitzva of Birkat HaMazon is not to praise or offer thanksgiving, but to remove from our hearts the arrogance of material success that leads man to forget God and to declare “my strength and the might of my hand produced this wealth” (Deut. 8:17). By reciting a blessing after we eat and are full and satiated, we affirm that God is the source of our sustenance, of life, and of existence itself. The purpose of the blessing is to declare, as the whole world will in the end of days, that He is the one true “great and holy God.”


* This essay is based primarily upon a shiur delivered by the Rav in Boston in 1961, as well as Shiurei HaRav al Inyanei Tefilla, pp. 269-287, and Reshimot Shiurim, Berakhot, pp. 516-519. The essay also incorporates material from a shiur delivered in 1969.

Posted on

Parshat Ekev: Anatomy of a Blessing

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’sUnlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Devarim’, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers




Towards the beginning of Parshat Ekev Moshe describes the land of Canaan’s physical bounty and warns the nation against taking God’s role in that bounty for granted:

“For the Lord your God is bringing you to a good land: a land of streams of water, of springs and underground pools emerging forth in the valley and in the mountain; a land of wheat and barley and grapes and figs and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey; a land where you will eat bread without scarceness; you will lack nothing within it; a land whose stones are iron and from whose mountains you will mine copper. And you will eat, and you will be satisfied, and you will bless the Lord your God upon the good land that He has given you. Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not observing His commandments, His laws and His statutes, which I command you today…and your hearts will become haughty, and you will forget the Lord your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery… And you will say in your heart: “My strength and the might of my hand has made me all this wealth!”

The Talmudic authorities identify one sentence from this passage as the source of a fundamental biblical commandment: “From where do we learn a Torah obligation to bless God? As it is said: ‘And you will eat, and you will be satisfied, and you will bless the Lord your God, concerning the good land that He has given you.’” Aside from the Priestly Blessing, this blessing, known as Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals), is the only blessing of uncontested biblical origin in Jewish tradition. Some authorities maintain that the recitation of Birkat HaTorah, the blessing recited before Torah study, is also commanded in the Torah text; while others consider the Bracha me’ein Shalosh, the blessing recited after foods containing at least one of the seven species associated with the Land of Israel, to be of Torah origin, as well. A myriad of other brachot are mandated by the rabbis, regularly punctuating the daily life of the Jew.


At first glance, the phrase “and you will bless” seems descriptive in nature, part and parcel of Moshe’s prediction concerning the nation’s eventual reaction to the bounty of the land. What, then, compels the Talmudic authorities to interpret the phrase “and you will bless” as an imperative, mandating a biblical obligation of Birkat Hamazon?

What is the nature of this commandment? Why would man be commanded to bless God? Clearly, man requires God’s blessing; God does
not require man’s. As Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher emphatically declares, “Given that God is the source of all blessing…were [man] to bless Him all day and all night, how would God benefit at all?”

How did the multi-paragraph Grace after Meals regularly recited by Jews today emerge from the vague commandment “and you will bless…”?



Immediately sensing the objections that might be raised to the derivation of a mitzva from this text, the Ramban refers the reader to other commandments derived from parallel phrases in the book of Devarim: “and you will make a fence for your roof,” “and you will perform the Pesach offering for your God,” “and you will take of the first of every fruit of the ground.”

At the same time, this scholar notes that the Torah is not consistent in its application of the formula “and you will…” While the phrase “and you will bless the Lord your God” constitutes a mitzva, the preceding phrases, “and you will eat, and you will become satisfied,” are clearly not meant to be seen as distinct imperatives themselves, but as helping to define the obligation to bless.


In spite of the Ramban’s observations, the question of context in our case still remains. Given the descriptive nature of the preceding text, why are the rabbis insistent upon interpreting the phrase “and you will bless…” not simply as part of Moshe’s narrative, but as a separate, distinct biblical imperative?

A rereading of the passage before us may provide an answer. This is a carefully structured presentation in which Moshe describes both the benefits and dangers presented by the natural resources of the land of Canaan. The very bounty meant to sustain you , Moshe warns the Israelites, could well prove to be your undoing.

The paragraph pivots on an apparent “cause-and-effect” structure established by the transition between three sentences:

A land where you will eat bread without scarceness; you will lack nothing within it; a land whose stones are iron and from whose mountains you will mine copper.

And you will eat, and you will be satisfied, and you will bless the Lord your God upon the good land that He has given you.

Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not observing His commandments, His laws and His statutes, which I command you today.

Sated and satisfied by the wondrous natural wealth of the land, and filled with pride over your own accomplishments, Moshe warns, you could easily forget your dependence upon God for the countless gifts that you have received.

A problem, however, emerges from the text. One phrase does not fit the otherwise seamless “cause-and-effect” structure presented by Moshe. The insertion of the words “and you will bless the Lord your God” in the second sentence strikes an incongruous note. Blessing God can hardly be seen as a step along the path towards abandonment of our dependence upon Him. In fact, the opposite would seem to be true. If upon reaching a point of comfort and satiation, we bless God for the bounty that we have received, we will be less likely to forget His role in our good fortune.

Perhaps that is exactly the point recognized by the rabbis. In their eyes, “and you shall bless the Lord your God” cannot be understood as part of Moshe’s description of the potential problem facing the nation, but instead must be seen as a corrective for that problem. In the words of the Meshech Chochma, “When one eats and is satisfied, one is likely to rebel. God, therefore, commands the nation to recall His name and to bless Him, specifically at the point of satiation, and to remember that He is the One Who gives man power to succeed.” Precisely because of the context in which it is found, the rabbis interpret the phrase “and you shall bless the Lord your God” as a commandment.



The above interpretation suggests an answer to another of our questions. Why does the Torah command man to “bless” God? What possible purpose could there be in such an act?

According to the approach of the Meshech Chochma and others, man blesses God for man’s sake, in order to enable man to achieve and maintain proper life perspective. The recitation of Birkat Hamazon, specifically at a point of contentment and satiation, serves as a critical reminder of man’s dependence upon God for sustenance and success. Similarly, all brachot, recited at various points during the daily life of the Jew, are designed to help an individual maintain proper spiritual balance.

Other authorities take this approach one step further. Brachot, these authorities maintain, do not only serve man’s spiritual needs, but his physical requirements, as well. When an individual, through the act of blessing God, testifies to God’s personal care for all life forms, God responds by increasing the bounty provided.14 This phenomenon, Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher maintains, explains the Talmudic assertion that if an individual eats without a prior blessing, “it is as if he steals from God and from the assembly of Israel.” He steals from God by denying the Almighty’s Providence over all living things, and he steals from the Assembly of Israel by denying them the physical benefit that would have accrued as a result of his blessing.


Swimming against the tide, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch argues that man actually possesses the power to bless God. As the only creature granted free will by his Creator, man is capable of furthering God’s purposes and wishes in this world or of retarding and thwarting them. Man blesses God when, through his actions, he increases God’s sanctified presence in the world around him. The bracha recited after eating, Hirsch continues, is to be understood as a verbal commitment, or even a vow, to bless God through action. “As often as you strengthen yourself with that which God has granted you…,” this scholar asserts, “you are to dedicate the whole of your being to His service, to [the fulfillment of] His purposes and to the realization of His Will on earth. And this promise of dedication you are to pronounce in the words of bracha, of blessing Him.”


Having established that the phrase “and you will bless the Lord your God” serves as the source of the mitzva of Birkat Hamazon, the rabbis proceed to derive basic details of this mitzva from the surrounding text.

1. Two positions emerge in the Mishna, for example, as to how much food must be consumed to obligate the recitation of Birkat Hamazon. These opinions, the Talmud explains, reflect a fundamental disagreement as to where the emphasis should be placed in the sentence “And you will eat, and you will be satisfied, and you will bless the Lord your God.”

The opinion of Rabbi Meir, recorded anonymously in the Mishna,18 emphasizes the word v’achalta (and you will eat). As the Torah clearly bases the mitzva of Birkat Hamazon on food consumption, Rabbi Meir maintains, the obligation should be gauged by the normative minimum food measurement throughout Jewish law: the amount equivalent to the bulk of an olive.

Rabbi Yehuda, however, disagrees. Focusing on the word v’savata (and you will be satisfied), this scholar maintains that the key condition governing the mitzva of Birkat Hamazon is not food consumption, but, instead, satiation. The minimum standard for this mitzva must therefore be higher than the normative halachic minimum. An individual must eat food equivalent to the bulk of an egg, Rabbi Yehuda insists, in order to incur the obligation to recite Birkat Hamazon.

Later halachic authorities disagree as to the parameters of the dispute between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda.

According to some, these Mishnaic scholars are not debating the Torah law at all. Both Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda agree that, on a biblical level, no objective minimum standard for the mitzva of Birkat Hamazon exists. The Torah obligation of Birkat Hamazon is literally delineated by the term v’savata (and you will be satisfied). Biblically, an individual is only obligated to recite the blessing after a meal that leads to his own personal satiation. The amount that must be consumed to trigger this obligation varies, dependent upon the person and the situation. Uncomfortable with this lack of practical definition, the rabbis later issue an edict designed to create a uniform minimum standard. Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda argue about the scope of this edict. Rabbi Meir maintains that the rabbinic obligation to recite Birkat Hamazon takes effect once an individual consumes food equivalent to the bulk of an olive. Rabbi Yehuda, in contrast, argues that the rabbinic obligation only “kicks in” upon the consumption of an egg-sized portion. The textual proofs from the Torah derived by these scholars in support of their respective positions fall into the category of asmachtot, biblical hints used by the rabbis to support later mandated rabbinic laws.

Other scholars adamantly disagree and insist that Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda disagree about biblical, not rabbinic, law. Their debate is straightforward, focusing on the minimum standard required for the biblical obligation of Birkat Hamazon.

2. The question of which foods give rise to the biblical obligation of Birkat Hamazon generates three opinions recorded in the Mishna and Gemara. Basing his position on the word v’achalta (and you will eat), Rabbi Akiva maintains that the Torah requires the recitation of Birkat Hamazon after the consumption of any food that an individual considers a meal. Rabbi Gamliel chooses a different path by noting that the biblical passage containing this mitzva specifically mentions the seven species associated with the Land of Israel, “a land of wheat and barley and grapes and figs and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey.” The blessing is obligatory, Rabbi Gamliel therefore argues, only after the consumption of a meal containing at least one of these seven species.

Finally, the majority rabbinic opinion insists that the obligation to recite the full Grace after Meals is limited to a meal containing bread. This opinion is based on the fact that bread is the foodstuff listed in closest proximity to the commandment itself: “a land where you will eat bread without scarceness…”

3. On a practical level, the law concerning these issues is codified according to the majority rabbinic opinion, that Birkat Hamazon must be recited after consumption of an olive-sized portion of bread or after a meal containing that amount of bread.


Moving into the area of the mitzva’s structure, the Talmudic scholars also discern references in the text to the number and content of the individual blessings meant to be incorporated into Birkat Hamazon.

The word u’veirachta (and you will bless), the Talmudists maintain, indicates that Birkat Hamazon must include a blessing referring to the physical sustenance provided by God to all living creatures; the phrase al ha’aretz (upon the land) mandates the inclusion of a blessing concerning the Land of Israel; and the reference to ha’aretz hatova (the good land) indicates that a blessing should be recited concerning Jerusalem.

According to some scholars, these biblical references indicate that the thematic structure and content of Birkat Hamazon are actually of biblical origin. Other scholars, however, maintain that the quoted textual allusions fall into the category of asmachtot (see above) and that the thematic structure of Birkat Hamazon is rabbinically rather than biblically mandated.


Even those scholars who view the structure and general content of Birkat Hamazon to be of biblical origin acknowledge that the actual texts of the blessings recited today are of later prophetic derivation.

Originally, each individual fulfilled the mitzva of Birkat Hamazon through his own blessings, in his own words. As time went on, however, the paragraphs of Birkat Hamazon were standardized by pivotal Jewish leaders at critical moments in Jewish history:

Moshe established the blessing concerning sustenance when the manna began to descend [for the Israelites in the wilderness]; Yehoshua established the blessing concerning the land upon the [Israelites’] entry into the land; David and Shlomo established the blessing concerning the building of Jerusalem, with David authoring the words “upon Israel Your nation and Jerusalem, Your city” [reflecting the conquest of Jerusalem during David’s reign] and Shlomo authoring the words “upon the great and sanctified House” [reflecting the construction of the Holy Temple during Shlomo’s rule].

The Talmud explains that a fourth blessing, over and above those alluded to in the Torah, was added to Birkat Hamazon in response to a series of dramatic events roughly fifty years after the destruction of the Second Temple. At that time, Shimon Bar Kosiba, renamed Shimon Bar Kochba by Rabbi Akiva, led an ultimately unsuccessful and costly revolt against continuing Roman rule. So devastating were the results of this failed rebellion that many authorities mark Bar Kochba’s final defeat, the fall of the city of Beitar, as the true onset of the Jewish nation’s exile from their land. For a period of time following the fall of Beitar, the Roman authorities prohibited the Judeans from burying those killed in the city’s siege. When this ban was finally lifted, the sages of Yavneh (see Vayikra: Emor 5, Approaches E–H) established the fourth blessing of Birkat Hamazon, Hatov v’Hameitiv, “He Who is good and bestows goodness.” This blessing was instituted in gratitude to God for the lifting of the Roman ban and for the miraculous preservation of the bodies of the victims, allowing for their proper burial.

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk explains that the events surrounding the fall of Beitar delivered a profound message to a shattered people: God’s providence will extend to the nation even during tragedy and exile. This message, Rabbi Meir Simcha explains, warranted the addition of a fourth blessing to Birkat Hamazon, a prayer built entirely upon the concept of God’s providence towards man.


The mitzva of Birkat Hamazon emerges from Moshe’s farewell messages to his people, only to accrue a myriad of halachic, philosophical and historical subtexts as it travels across the generations. The richness of Jewish experience is thus mirrored in the blessing that a Jew offers to his God.

Posted on

Parshat Tetzaveh: Channeling Change

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages — Exodus, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Publishers


One of the main and most fundamental contentions of all moralists of all ages is that human nature is not basically unchangeable.Ask any teacher of religion whether change is possible in Man, and his answer is inevitably “certainly.” And yet, my friends, if you were to ask me that same question I would have to qualify that assertion. Is change possible? Yes and no. If by “change” you mean the transformation of the entire character essentials, the metamorphosis of the basic qualities of the soul, the God-given talents and personality attributes, the answer is “no.” there are certain properties of the soul with which you were born, and which you cannot change, willy nilly.

Yet that is not the end of the matter. Because if by “change” you mean not the basic change of the koĥot hanefesh, the powers of the soul, but the salvaging of them; not the scrapping and subduing of the fundamental drives of Man, but their redirection and channeling, the answer is a resounding and wholesome “yes.” A man may not be able to rid himself of the trait of stubbornness, but he can certainly direct his stubbornness to desired and beneficial directions. Simpler still, a man may not be able to cure himself of insomnia. But he can himself determine whether these waking hours be spent counting sheep or studying Torah.

The Jewish ethical literature has two names corresponding to these two types of change, and there are two schools propounding these opposing theses. One group claims that the highest goal is shevirat hamidot, the breaking and crushing of the evil drives of man. The objectionable trait must be broken and destroyed. The other group believes this unnecessary and impractical. Rather, it proposes tikun hamidot, the correction and redirection of these dark forces, the channeling of them from the destructive ends for which they had been employed to new and constructive ends. Redirection, not breaking and destruction, is the highest aim of ethical development. And Hasidim, who were great believers in tikun hamidot, used to object to the other school’s theory and say that shevirat hamida, the breaking of one evil trait, often results in two new evil traits.

It is a remarkable fact that considering the contemporary emphasis on education, our parents and grandparents, who were probably more successful than us in this field, rarely mentioned that word. Education in Hebrew is “ĥinukh.” And that word was uncommon in the homes and academies of the most learned and devoted elements of European Jewry. Rather, the emphasis was always on “hadrakha.” That word comes from “derekh,” which means “way,” and “hadrakha” therefore means direction, guidance, and channeling. Take, for instance, that characteristic known as kina – jealousy, or envy. In its usual manifestations it is a terribly destructive and antisocial expression. How many homes have been broken and how many reputations ruined all because of jealousy! And Solomon properly exclaims “kasha khiShe’ol kina,” “jealousy is as hard and cold as the grave.” And yet, surprisingly, the Talmud exclaims with equal conviction “kinat sofrim tarbeh ĥokhma,” “The jealousy of scribes increaseth wisdom.” Well, which one is it – leading to the grave or leading to wisdom? Obviously, it is a matter of direction. If you express it by envying your friend’s Cadillac or his home or his wife’s mink coat – then it is “kasha khiShe’ol.” If, however, you envy his learning, his piety, his sincerity, or honesty, then “tarbeh ĥokhma.” The same jealousy, the same envy. Only the direction has changed.

The Talmud tells a remarkable story which is a sharp illustration of our theme. The great sage Rabbi Yochanan was bathing in the Jordan one day when there suddenly appeared a man known and feared, by the name of Resh Lakish, a man who was the head of a gang of robbers. He was a man of uncommon strength and determination. With one huge leap he spanned the Jordan and came to the side of Rabbi Yochanan intent upon either robbing or kidnapping him. When the sage witnessed this remarkable demonstration of power, he exclaimed “ĥelekh le’orayta,” meaning, “O, if only such power were used for the study of Torah.” This Herculean bandit subsequently turned to Torah and, as the student and later the brother-in-law of Rabbi Yochanan, redirected and rechanneled this extraordinary might so that he ultimately became the great and beloved sage Resh Lakish, second only to Rabbi Yochanan himself. You see, Resh Lakish originally knew that he could never rid himself of this extreme expression of power, and thought himself doomed to a life of banditry. It was Rabbi Yochanan who introduced him to the idea of tikun hamidot, direction and channeling.

In more recent times there is also such a case. My teacher of Talmud at the Yeshiva, the great scholar Rabbi Soloveitchik, recently told of an interesting conversation between his grandfather, the worldfamous sage and eminent talmudist, Rabbi Chaim Brisker, and his son, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s father, Reb Moshe. Said Reb Chaim to Reb Moshe, “My son, I was not always the person you know me to be. I was born with mean and destructive tendencies. I was granted diabolic powers, and I have had to struggle all my life to turn these very powers to constructive ends, to redirect these urges and drives from the evil to the good.”

And in a way, my friends, the holiday of Purim commemorates this very element of tikun hamidot. Mordecai, the hero of the Megilla, was not heir to pink-cheeked angelic qualities. He was a hard, practical man, a man who had tasted exile, who was intimately familiar with the intrigues of the court of Ahaseurus and who had a staunch, unbreakable spirit. Mordecai’s refusal to bow to Haman, his brilliant execution of the plan to ensnare the anti-Semitic tyrant and his adamant refusal to concede defeat mark him a bold spirit. Now boldness is a thing which is not always good. Mordecai’s boldness was an inheritance from his ancestor, Shimi. Shimi was the bold and disrespectful insurrectionist who disparaged King David to his face and publicly accused him of being a bloody murderer. It was boldness indeed, and a libelous, false, evil type of boldness, for he besmirched the good name of the saintly author of the Divine Psalms. Yet this same boldness which he transmitted genetically to his descendant Mordecai was used by Mordecai for entirely different purposes. It was used to vanquish a Haman, not to insult a David. It was not the boldness of empty invectives, not the effrontery of disrespectful vituperation; but it was nevertheless boldness. Only it was used in the service of God, in the saving of a persecuted people, in the altruistic service of a high and glorious ideal. No wonder the Rabbis applied to him the verse from Job, “mi yitein tahor mitameh,” “who can bring a clean thing from an unclean thing?” Mordecai was the clean one who came from the unclean. He inherited a certain set of dynamic qualities which had been used for evil, but which he redirected and channeled to holiness.

Our national scene today could learn a bit from Mordecai’s determined boldness in the right direction. The two paramount issues in our national capitol these days are the issues of Communism in government and corruption in government. The main ire of our elected representatives has been spent trying to dig up incontrovertible proof that certain individuals, who once were distantly related to the government, wrote poison pen letters of a leftist nature when they were in knee pants. The witch-hunt has been marked by the parallel features of uncontrolled boldness and increasing stupidity. Meanwhile, the search into vital matters of national morals and ethics has gone unattended except for occasional blasts of publicity. What is needed is a shift in emphasis, a redirection. We must switch our emphasis from the silly boldness of the McCarthys and the McCarrans² to the boldness of seeking out corruption, or, if I be permitted the pun, a new boldness supporting Mr. Newbold Morris in his determined drive to seek out the sources of ethical degeneration in our government.

And, my friends, not only destructive urges, but also talents and gifts wasted unnecessarily must also be channeled, must also experience tikun hamidot. Many of us, thank God, are not possessed of exceptionally destructive tendencies. But many of us have been blessed with natural abilities which we often allow to go to waste. These two must be captured and harnessed to productive ends. To our talents we must also say, as Rabbi Yochanan said, “ĥelekh le’orayta,” let this strength be for Torah. Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher and social critic, tells that he never plays chess, because when he was a child he was fanatically devoted to the game, and he came to realize that if he were to pursue it he would eventually become the world’s greatest chess-player. But then he pondered, and saw that his life would thus be wasted, for chess is, no matter how respectful a game, only a game. Harmless – but of no great benefit to humanity. And so Russell stopped playing chess and instead went into mathematics and logic and philosophy and so was ultimately able to become the co-author of Principia Mathematica. Modern man, because of his increased leisure time, has taken to hobbies on a grand scale. There is no doubt a criminal negligence involved in the human genius utterly wasted on golf, football, crossword puzzles, and bridge. A hobby is good up to a certain point. Then it becomes waste. Athletics is wonderful, hygienic. But after a certain limit it becomes a travesty. We must learn to channel and direct these forces and use them profitably and constructively.

The experience of Mordecai from Shimi is a universal one and an eternal one. Its message transcends the provincial borders of ancient Persia of that century and like a beacon whose rays are a blessing to those in the distance, we of today bask in the enlightening thoughts of yesteryear which prove an inspiration and lesson to us.

Posted on

Chet Hameraglim: A Tale of Two Sins

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Bamidbarco-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers 

This week we read Parashat Devarim which recounts the story of the spies, and precedes the fast of Tisha B’Av. In this excerpt from Unlocking the Torah Text: Bamidbar, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin discusses the link between the two similar fasts, Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur.  



The Jewish calendar contains two extraordinary fast days that are, at once, powerfully similar, yet vastly different.

These occasions, Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, share fundamental characteristics as the only full twenty-five-hour fast days in Jewish tradition and as the only fasts that include the five halachic inuyim (afflictions): the prohibitions on eating and drinking, washing, anointing, the wearing of leather shoes and marital relations.

Yet as similar as these days are, they are also poles apart. Yom Kippur is a biblical fast day; Tisha B’Av, of rabbinic origin. Tisha B’Av remains immersed in sorrow while Yom Kippur is cautiously, solemnly optimistic.

As if to further highlight the connection and contrast between these two fast days, the calendar links them in a multi-week spiritual journey. Beginning with the three mournful weeks preceding Tisha B’Av, this passage continues through the Shiva D’nechemta, the seven weeks of consolation that lead to the high holidays, culminating with Yom Kippur.



Clearly, our tradition sees Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av as connected, but how? What can be learned from the comparison and contrast of these two fast days?




The answer may well emerge from the mists of history. Intriguingly, the rabbis draw yet another link between Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av. Each of these occasions, they say, originates in a seminal sin committed at the dawn of Jewish history.


Yom Kippur is born as a result of the chet ha’egel, the sin of the golden calf.

In the shadow of Revelation at Mount Sinai, the nation, frightened by the specter of abandonment by Moshe, creates and worships a golden calf. Moshe, upon descending the mountain, witnesses the nation’s backsliding and smashes the divinely given Tablets of Testimony. God, upon forgiving the nation at Moshe’s behest, commands Moshe to once again ascend the mountain and receive a second set of tablets (see Shmot: Ki Tissa 2).

The rabbis relate that Moshe descends with the second tablets on Yom Kippur.This biblical fast day, the holiest day of the Jewish year, thus rises out of the forgiveness granted by God for the sin of the golden calf.


Tisha B’Av emerges as a consequence of the chet hameraglim, the sin of the spies.

As we have seen (see the two previous studies), a short time after their departure from Sinai, the Israelites find themselves at the southern border of the Promised Land of Canaan. Twelve spies are sent to observe the land and its inhabitants preparatory to the nation’s entry. Upon their return, ten of the twelve spies deliver a pessimistic report, citing the Israelites’ inability to conquer the land through battle. In reaction to the account of the spies, the nation despairs, weeping through the night and rising up in rebellion against Moshe and Aharon.

Based upon calendar computation, the rabbis maintain: “That very night [when the Israelites wept in response to the report of the spies] was the eve of Tisha B’Av. Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to them [the Israelites]: ‘You have cried for naught – and I shall establish for you crying across the generations.’ ”

Rooted in the nation’s despair over the report of the spies is the tragedy and sorrow that will visit their descendents, over and over again, throughout the ages, on the mournful day of Tisha B’Av.


Although the rabbis support their contentions concerning the origins of Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av through calendar computation, their intended message obviously strikes deeper. There are no coincidences on the Jewish calendar. To the rabbinic mind, concrete philosophical bonds link these two fast days, respectively, to tragic transgressions deep in our nation’s past. What are these connecting links and how can they help deepen our understanding of two of the most important observances in Jewish tradition?


We have suggested in the past that the sin of the golden calf reflects the Israelites’ desperate desire for distance from the demands of an omnipotent God.

From the outset, the Israelites are unable and/or unwilling to face the new responsibilities thrust upon them at Sinai, and they respond with immediate retreat: “And the entire people saw the thunder and lightning and the sound of the shofar and a smoking mountain and they trembled and stood from afar. And they said to Moshe, ‘You speak with us and we will listen; and let not God speak with us, lest we die.’ ”

And when, forty days later, Moshe apparently fails to return from the summit of the mountain at the expected time, and the people face the fact that they will now be required to interact with God directly, without the benefit of Moshe as their intermediary, their desperate desire for distance from God becomes an overwhelming fear. The Israelites create a golden calf to take Moshe’s place, to stand between them and their Creator.

In the aftermath of the sin, after punishing those most directly involved, God moves to educate the nation to the ramifications of their crime. Threatening to distance Himself from the people, as per their expressed desire, He forces them to glimpse the emptiness that would result from such distance. The nation, in response, falls into mourning.

God thus reminds the Israelites of a fundamental truth that courses through all human relationships. While safety can be found in emotional distance, the desire for such distance produces a life of emptiness. Only those willing to risk the pain and heartache that can result from nearness to others will ultimately experience the potential beauty of friendship and love.

God’s message to the people in the aftermath of the chet ha’egel is powerful and clear: If I am absent from your lives you will be safe, as through distance you avoid the vulnerability that would accompany My close connection with you.

You will also miss out, however, on the grandeur that would have resulted from our closeness.


We can now begin to understand why the rabbis perceive a fundamental connection between the sin of the golden calf and Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.

Yom Kippur is the day when, yearly, we move to repair the inevitable distance that has developed between us and our Creator. We mourn our loss of perspective, explore our missteps and admit our failings. We atone for our consistent tendency to pull away from God through our practice of comfortable rather than confrontational Judaism (see Shmot: Ki Tissa 2, Points to Ponder). We pledge to move close again – close enough to allow divine law to challenge our lives and test our commitments.

The message of this holiest of days is clear. The distance that develops between man and God can be repaired. Just as God ultimately forgives the Jewish nation at Sinai and invites them, once again, fully into His presence; so, too, through the process of tshuva on Yom Kippur we can reconnect intimately with our Creator.


At the core of the chet hameraglim, on the other hand, lies a profoundly different failing, yielding a profoundly different divine response (see previous two studies).

Ultimately the spies and the nation are guilty of a loss of faith in themselves. Not only do they doubt God’s ability to bring them into the land, but, even more importantly, they lose trust in their own capacity for change. They see themselves still as the slaves who toiled under Egyptian rule, and they negate the transformative impact of all that has occurred during and after the Exodus.

To this failing, God responds with harsh judgment. Intergenerationally, the nation is forgiven and will ultimately enter the land. The generation of the Exodus, however, remains irredeemable. When man loses sight of his own majestic potential, he simply cannot achieve.


The connection drawn by rabbinic thought between the sin of the spies and the mournful day of Tisha B’Av now becomes abundantly clear.

In stark contrast to the ultimately optimistic, reparative day of Yom Kippur, Tisha B’Av remains, each year, an occasion rooted in mourning and sorrow. We bemoan our own replication of the sin of the spies, our loss of personal and national vision, our inability to rise above our pettiness and spite, our failure to glimpse the majestic potential in others and in ourselves.

Because of these continued failings, Tisha B’Av rings, over and over again, to the divine decree that, according to the rabbis, was delivered as the Jews wept over the report of the spies: You have cried for naught, and I shall establish for you crying across the generations.


When you draw away from Me, God says on Yom Kippur, the anniversary of the chet ha’egel, our relationship can yet be repaired.

When you lose faith in yourselves, however, He decrees on Tisha B’Av, the anniversary of the chet hameraglim, you and your generation will fail to achieve your potential, and the realization of your dreams will be further delayed.


Points to Ponder

A strange liturgical anomaly emerges in light of the rabbinic association of the sin of the spies with Tisha B’Av and the sin of the golden calf with Yom Kippur.

Each year, a powerful and poignant body of prayers known as Selichot, Prayers of Forgiveness, is recited on the days leading to and during the Days of Awe (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur).

Central to these prayers is a section containing Moshe’s plea to God for forgiveness: “Forgive please the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of Your kindness and as You have borne this nation from Egypt until now.”

And God’s response: Salachti ki’dvarecha, “I have forgiven, according to your words.”

The problem is, however, that this interchange is found in the Torah in conjunction with the sin of the spies, not the sin of the golden calf. Given the vastly different nature of these two fast days, why would our tradition choose a source connected to the origin of Tisha B’Av as a central piece of the Yom Kippur liturgy?

The answer may well lie in the universal application of God’s words in this interchange with Moshe (see Shelach 2).

Salachti ki’dvarecha, “I have forgiven, according to your words.” My forgiveness, Moshe, is shaped by your own vision of the people’s potential. Given that your own words reflect recognition of their inability to change, My forgiveness will reflect that reality, as well.

Each year, as we approach the holiest season of our calendar, God turns to each of us and proclaims: Salachti ki’dvarecha, “I have forgiven, according to your words.” My judgment of you will be based upon your own vision of yourself. The higher you reach, the greater you see your own potential, the greater My capacity for forgiveness, the greater the promise for the coming year.

Each year, we, together with God, determine the parameters of God’s forgiveness.

Posted on

Parshat Masei — In Retrospect: A Troubling Travelogue

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Bamidbar: An In-depth Journey into the Weekly Parsha


Parshat Masei, the final parsha in the book of Bamidbar, opens with a retrospective listing of the forty-two stations that marked the Israelites’ wilderness wanderings.


What is the purpose of this after-the-fact travelogue? Why is this dry, technical information included in the eternal Torah text?

What possible lessons can be derived from this forty-nine-sentence itinerary?



The severity of these questions is, apparently, so deeply felt by the Ibn Ezra that he feels compelled to offer a revolutionary suggestion. The inclusion of the itinerary in the Torah was not “God’s idea.” Commenting on the passage’s introductory statement, “And Moshe wrote their goings forth, stage by stage, by the commandment of the Lord,”the Ibn Ezra explains that the phrase “by the commandment of the Lord” refers to the travels themselves (and not to their recording in the text by Moshe).

Towards the end of the Israelites’ forty-year period of wilderness wandering, this scholar maintains, the Israelites encamp for a number of months in the plains of Moab, departing only upon Aharon’s death. During that time, apparently of his own volition and for his own unstated purposes, Moshe records in retrospect the details of the Israelites’ wilderness journeys, which had all taken place “by the commandment of the Lord.”


The vast majority of scholars, including the Rambanand the Abravanel,however, take serious issue with the Ibn Ezra’s approach. Moshe, these authorities maintain, would never have recorded this detailed travelogue in the Torah of his own initiative. The very idea that Moshe could independently amend the text undermines our understanding of the Torah as “God’s word.” Additionally, the Torah does not need to tell us that the Israelites’ wilderness journeys took place by God’s commandment. This fact has already been clearly established in the text (see Beha’alotcha 2).

These scholars insist, therefore, in direct opposition to the Ibn Ezra, that the Torah specifically informs us that Moshe recorded the itinerary at God’s behest. Representing this viewpoint, the Rambam asserts that the phrase “by the commandment of the Lord” is designed to emphasize the divine origin of a passage that we might have otherwise found “useless.”

Like every other section of the Torah, these scholars maintain, the retrospective travelogue at the beginning of Parshat Masei is part of God’s message to His people. Confronted with this puzzling textual passage, we are tasked to uncover its divinely determined purpose.


Rising to this challenge, the authorities suggest a number of approaches to this section of text.

To cite a few…

In an opinion quoted in Rashi, Rabbi Moshe Hadarshan notes that the recorded route attests to God’s benevolence even in the realm of punishment. Although God, in response to the sin of the spies, had condemned the nation to forty years of wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites’ “wandering” was actually severely curtailed. Only forty-two stations are listed in the itinerary. Of these stations, fourteen served as stopping points during the first year after the Exodus, before the divine decree, while another eight stations were visited during the final year, before entry into the land. Over the span of thirty-eight years, therefore, a total of only twenty journeys took place. The Israelites’ wilderness experience was remarkably stable in spite of its tragic origins.

Like Rabbi Moshe HaDarshan, the Ba’al Akeida discerns indications of God’s compassion within the retrospective itinerary. This scholar maintains, however, that the considerations described are specific, rather than general. Each station listed in the text references a particular divine act of kindness bestowed on the people, from the elaborate details of the Exodus to the many miracles that sustained the nation during its wanderings.

Going one step further, the Tosafists detect a halachic purpose to this section of text. Jewish law obligates an individual, upon encountering a location where divine miracles occurred, to recite the blessing “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who performed a miracle for my forebears at this place.”In order to facilitate the fulfillment of this obligation, the Torah now records the locations in the wilderness where such miracles transpired.

Moving in a totally different direction, the Sforno argues that the wilderness itinerary does not extol God’s allegiance to the Israelites but, instead, the Israelites’ allegiance to God. For four decades, the people traveled at God’s behest, through stark, barren terrain, moving from station to station without prior knowledge of their immediate destination. This loyalty to God’s wishes now earns the nation the right to enter the Promised Land.


The most direct explanation for the inclusion of the Israelites’ wilderness itinerary in the text, however, is suggested by the Rambam in his Guide to the Perplexed. The Rambam maintains that this passage plays a critical role in establishing the veracity of the Torah’s narrative. With the passage of time, the Rambam suggests, doubts could easily develop concerning the authenticity of the miracles that marked the nation’s travels:

Miracles are only convincing to those who witnessed them, while coming generations, who know of them only from the account given by others, may consider them as untrue….

The greatest of the miracles described in the Law is the stay of the Israelites in the wilderness for forty years, sustained by the daily supply of [the heaven-sent] manna….

God, however, knew that, in the future, people might doubt the veracity of these miracles…they might think that the Israelites remained in the wilderness in a place not far from inhabited land, where it was possible to live [in the ordinary way]…or that they could plow, sow and reap, or live on vegetation [naturally growing along the route]; or that the manna came down regularly in those locations as an ordinary natural product; or that there were wells of water [along the route]….

In order to remove all these doubts, and to firmly establish the accuracy of the account of these miracles, Scripture enumerates all the stations [that marked the journey of the Israelites], so that the coming generations may see them and learn the greatness of the miracle[s] that enabled human beings to live in these places for forty years.

By carefully describing the route followed by the nation during their extended wilderness travels, a passage through barren wasteland that could only be survived through miraculous intervention, the Torah buttresses its own narrative concerning God’s miraculous care for the nation during their wilderness wanderings.


A striking observation offered by the Malbim grants a final perspective on the wilderness itinerary recorded at the beginning of Parshat Masei. This scholar notes that the parsha opens with the statement “These are the journeys of the children of Israel who went out of the land of Egypt according to their legions….”

As a rule, the Malbim maintains, a journey is defined by its destination, not by its point of departure. Why, then, does the Torah describe the Israelites’ journey by the fact that they “went out of the land of Egypt” and not as a journey “towards the land of Canaan.”

Incisively, the Malbim argues that the wilderness journey of the Israelites could not be defined as a journey towards Canaan. Arrival at the border of Canaan could have been, and initially had been, accomplished without passage along this tortuous route. Instead, the lengthy wilderness sojourn was specifically designed to “take the Israelites out of Egypt,” to purify the people from the defiling effects of centuries of servitude and immersion in Egyptian culture.

For this reason, He caused them [the Israelites] to wander in the wilderness; and they underwent numerous tribulations and were tested with numerous trials and experienced refinement after refinement, until they were purified and exchanged their “soiled garments” for “sanctified vestments” of pure and holy character….

Each step of the Israelites’ carefully recorded journey is designed to move the nation one step further from Egypt, to further complete their transformation from servile slaves into a nation worthy of its destiny. It is this journey of the spirit, described in a detailed itinerary as the book of Bamidbar begins to close, that defines the entire book in retrospect.

Posted on

Parshat Matot: Changing World, Unchanging Law

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Bamidbar’, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers



As Parshat Matot opens, Moshe outlines the laws governing nedarim, personal vows. These edicts underscore the seriousness with which such verbal commitments are to be treated.

In contrast to men, who remain personally responsible for all vows taken, a woman’s vows can be summarily rescinded by her father or her husband, depending upon her status.

In general terms: A father is granted the right to rescind the nedarim of a single daughter until she reaches the status of a bogeret (six months after puberty), while a husband is granted the right to revoke his wife’s vows. The vows of an underage betrothed woman can only be canceled by her father and her husband-to-be, acting jointly.


In our “liberated society,” some aspects of the laws of vows seem difficult to accept.

Why should the Torah draw a distinction between the vows of men and women? Is a woman any less capable of responsibly committing herself to specific behaviors than a man?

How should the woman of today view laws that seem to place her in a subservient position to the male figures in her life? Aren’t such edicts proof positive of the Torah’s bias against women?



We find ourselves, once again, entering turbulent waters….

On the one hand, we could well ask from the outset: Do we even have the right to ask these questions, to assume that the laws of the Torah must always conform to our modern sensibilities? Almost every society in human experience feels that it has finally arrived at a communal structure that most closely reflects the desired social reality. And yet, how many such societies and their structures have come and gone, while Torah law has endured? God clearly has His reasons for distinguishing between men and women in halachic areas such as the laws of vows. Perhaps those reasons are destined to remain elusive to the “modern mind.”

On the other hand, should the natural limitations of our perspective cause us to shy away from confrontation with any aspect of the Torah text? Many authorities, as we have seen, are even willing to delve into the mysteries of chukim, ritual laws for which no apparent reason is evident in the text. Certainly societal laws, such as the laws of vows, should be fair game for our philosophical exploration. All laws of the Torah, after all, are meant to inform and shape our lives. If we can succeed in better understanding those edicts that, at first glance, seem foreign to us, we may well uncover new life lessons that we have missed before. And, if we fail, we will be no worse off. We can always back away, accepting the existence of mysteries that lie beyond our ken.


As a first step, we might be tempted to approach the laws of vows as we have approached other issues in the text before, by noting the tension between eternality and temporal context in the study of the Torah text. While our tradition clearly maintains both the divine origin and the eternal applicability of Torah thought and law, we cannot deny that the Torah was revealed to a specific people in a specific era.

Noting this double-edged reality, we have wondered aloud whether or not we can understand specific phenomena in the Torah, such as the biblical allowance for slavery, as products of the times. We have also seen that historical context serves as the basis for such classical approaches to the text as the Rambam’s explanation of the origin of korbanot (in his Guide to the Perplexed) and the Ramban’s understanding of the character of the priestly garments.

Attempts to apply the approach of historical context to the laws of vows prove, however, to be less satisfying. The laws of slavery have fallen into disuse with the disappearance of the institution itself from our society. Even the laws of korbanot and the priestly garments, which we expect to be reinstated at some point in our history, are distant from our current experience and make no apparent comment on the status of any group within the community.

The laws of vows, however, while seldom applied, remain on the books to this day. With the continuing drive towards women’s equality in so many spheres of the society surrounding us, we confront the challenge of explaining these and similar laws to an increasingly sophisticated audience. Failure to do so adds fuel to the accusations that such edicts are either outdated or unfairly prejudicial.


A review of the halachic literature regarding the laws of nedarim reveals that, from the outset, the rabbis derive severe limitations from the text over the rights of a husband or a father to revoke a woman’s vows.

Based on the Torah’s statement “Any vow and any oath-prohibition to cause affliction of the soul, her husband may let it stand and her husband may revoke it,” the Mishna maintains that a husband may only rescind vows that would deny his wife one of life’s permitted pleasures. The Talmud, noting a second defining phrase, “These are the statutes that God commanded Moshe, between a man and his wife…,” expands the rights of the husband to include the cancellation of any vow that can affect the marital relationship.

While the Rambam maintains that a father’s rights over his daughter’s vows extends to all vows taken, numerous other authorities disagree and restrict the father’s rights, as well, only to those vows that would deny his daughter one of life’s permitted pleasures. Furthermore, the biblical phrase “in her youth, in her father’s house” is understood by the rabbis as limiting a father’s rights over his daughter’s vows to the six-month period following the onset of puberty. Before that point, the young woman is considered underage and any vows she takes are automatically nonbinding. After the six-month period following puberty, she is considered to be mature enough to be responsible for her own commitments.

The rights of a father or a husband over a woman’s vows are limited to the day that he first hears of the vow. This period of time is not defined as a twenty-four-hour period but is determined by the day itself. If a father, for example, hears of his daughter’s vow late in the day and wishes to revoke that vow, he must respond immediately, before that day ends.

These and other technical boundaries, rooted in the text and discussed extensively in the Talmud and later halachic works, severely restrict the rights of a father or a husband to rescind a woman’s vows. Clearly, the Torah is not granting open-ended control over a woman’s verbal commitments to the male figures in her life. Instead, the text constructs a narrowly targeted allowance, restricted to specific types of vows and carefully regulated by a detailed network of laws.


In sharp contrast to the extensive halachic literature dealing with the technical boundaries of these laws, almost no information is found in the classical commentaries concerning their rationale. Why does the Torah grant a woman’s father or husband the right of repeal over even a limited category of her vows? What explanation can be offered for the clear asymmetry between the roles of men and women reflected in these laws?

The silence of the classical commentaries concerning these issues can, of course, be interpreted in a number of ways. Perhaps the scholars did not see these edicts as troubling at all and were comfortable accepting them, without question, as God’s will. Perhaps the commentaries felt no discordance between these laws and the societies of their day, which were marked by a myriad of clear public differentiations between men and women.


It is not surprising that the first real attempt (at least that I could find) to explain the rationale behind these laws is made by Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch; the towering nineteenth-century German scholar whose religious philosophy envisions a relationship between traditional observant Judaism and the modern world. Hirsch, as might be expected, bases his interpretation of the laws of nedarim on the distinct roles that, in his view, are mandated by Jewish tradition for men and for women.

A man, this scholar explains, “is the independent maker of his position in life.” If, therefore, a man vows to take abnormal restrictions upon himself, he, alone, must make the necessary arrangements to allow these conditions to be met.

The greatness of a woman’s calling in life, however, lies in her entering and assuming a position that is not of her own creation. “The woman herself does not provide the house. She enters the home provided by the man and rules in it as the happiness-bringing administrator of all that is to be found there, in the sanctity of manners, the morals and feelings directed towards God.”

As the spiritual guardian of the Jewish home, the woman occupies a central role upon which others become clearly dependent. To fulfill her responsibilities, a woman must be free of external constraints that could “permanently stand in the way of the fulfillment of her calling.”13 The Torah, therefore, grants limited veto rights to a woman’s father or husband over any vows that might prevent her from fulfilling her primary religious role.


Recognizing that Rabbi Hirsch’s approach might not resonate with some modern readers and failing to find other serious attempts in the literature to explain these laws, I decided to try something different. Through the listserv of the Rabbinical Council of America I asked my colleagues whether any of them had either encountered or independently arrived at a rational approach to the laws of vows. The thoughtful, varied answers I received served to reinforce ideas that I had been considering on my own.

Some of my colleagues maintained that, in a general sense, these laws can only be understood against the backdrop of the Torah’s general resistance to vows. The potential sources of this resistance are manifold, and include a rejection of asceticism; a belief in the transformative power of Torah law without the need for added constraints; a recognition that Torah values can be distorted through the addition of individually authored rules; and an aversion to the creation of situations where, due to the acceptance of supplemental restrictions, individuals are increasingly likely to fail.

Nonetheless, the Torah does acknowledge that certain vows can enhance an individual’s religious and spiritual growth. Instead of mandating, therefore, a blanket prohibition on vows, the Torah institutes a selective process of annulment or revocation under very specific conditions. The prerogatives of the father and the husband are part of this selective process.

While this approach grants us context, however, it fails to address the asymmetry between men and women in the area of nedarim.


Confronting this issue squarely, a number of my colleagues readily opened the door to an obvious, potentially explosive area of consideration that I, myself, had been approaching with caution. Perhaps the asymmetry in Torah law concerning vows, they suggested, reflects naturally existing perceptual and behavioral differences between men and women (à la Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus).

Once this door is opened, the possibilities before us are manifold and understandably controversial. To suggest a few…

Can it be, for example, that these laws are partially necessary, not because of a woman’s limitations, but specifically because of the emphasis that men place upon physical attraction? Clearly, neither men nor women can completely see their relationship through the eyes of the other. A woman might, therefore, take upon herself specific restrictions in the quest for greater spirituality without fully understanding how those restrictions could make her less attractive to a potential suitor or a mate. In order to forestall the damage possibly caused to crucial relationships by such an act, the Torah grants a woman’s father and/or husband a limited opportunity to rescind such vows.

Perhaps, by granting a father the right to cancel his daughter’s vows during the six-month period following the onset of puberty, the Torah provides him with a unique opportunity to exercise parental control and direction during a particularly turbulent time in her life. Buffeted by the physical and psychological changes that mark her emergence into womanhood, the young woman confronts her inner conflicts and begins to develop the worldview and the personal skills that will carry her through life. Specifically at this time, the Torah grants significance to the young woman’s verbal commitments, but only with parental oversight, enabling her to safely and securely test her limits under a watchful eye.

Some of my colleagues suggested that a woman’s greater emotionality, compounded by her historically vulnerable status in society, makes her more prone to extreme threats and vows. While there are certainly exceptions to this rule, the Torah operates in general categories. The woman must recognize that, even under duress, her verbal commitments will be treated seriously. She is offered, however, the safeguard of limited oversight.

Finally, there are times when the father or husband’s very act of canceling a daughter or wife’s vow can itself be constructive. Given the nature of the vows that can be revoked, the cancellation conveys to the woman the ongoing concern of a “significant other” in her life for her continuing welfare and/or his desire to maintain a healthy, unburdened relationship between them. Such assurances can be particularly significant to a woman, young or old, at various stages in her life.

There may be those who feel that, with suggestions such as these, we have crossed the line of “political correctness.” And, certainly, we can offer no proof that any of these explanations, or any others that we might offer in this vein, actually form the basis of the laws of nedarim found at the beginning of Parshat Matot. Even those individuals, however, who adamantly insist on equality between men and women must admit to natural differences between the sexes. Is it not conceivable that those differences may play a role in the formulation of God’s law?


In the final analysis, answers to our questions concerning the laws of nedarim may be found in all, some or none of the above explanations. Perhaps other sources that we have not cited at all contain keys to understanding. When the Torah itself provides no explanation for its laws, we are left with possibilities, rather than certainty.

We return, therefore, full circle, to where we stood as our study opened. The eternal law of the Torah has withstood the test of centuries and will, we believe, withstand that test until the end of days. While there will certainly be those, in each generation, who will demand that its edicts conform to the thinking of the time, there can be no guarantee of such correlation. Our task is to remain loyal to the law, even as we struggle with its meaning.

Points to Ponder

While the asymmetry between men and women reflected in the laws of nedarim has little practical impact on our daily lives, other social distinctions drawn in the Torah between men and women can have major effect. The tragic plight of the aguna (lit.: the chained woman), a woman unable to obtain a get (Jewish decree of divorce), results from one such distinction.

At the core of the issue lies the one sentence in the book of Devarim that serves as the basis for divorce proceedings in Jewish law: “And he [the husband] wrote her [the wife] a bill of divorce, presented it to her and sent her from his house.”

As clearly indicated by this passage, the husband is the active party in the halachic events that effect a Jewish divorce. He (or his agent) must initiate the proceedings by writing the document of divorce and he (or his agent) must deliver that document to his wife. She, in contrast, plays a passive role as the recipient of the divorce decree. So passive is her role, in fact, that she need not even be a willing participant in the process. According to biblical law, as long as a man delivers a get to his wife’s personal domain, she is automatically divorced, even absent her agreement.

By the time we reach the Middle Ages, however, Rabbeinu Gershom, one of the greatest luminaries of the Ashkenazic community, issues a takana, a rabbinic decree, designed to even the playing field somewhat in the area of divorce. He prohibits, upon pain of excommunication, the divorce of women against their will. This takana does allow for exceptions in cases of great exigency, as determined by the decision of one hundred rabbis.

The Torah-mandated centerpiece of Jewish divorce, however, remains inviolate, beyond the reach of Rabbeinu Gershom’s takana or any other. The husband must, of his own free will, initiate and participate in the divorce process. This fact gives rise to a tragic possibility. If a husband is unable or unwilling to effect divorce proceedings, in spite of the clear need for severance, his wife becomes an aguna. She remains “chained” to her husband, still married and thus prohibited from moving on to another relationship.

In the past, this tragic eventuality usually resulted from a man’s disappearance due to accident, war or the like. To avoid the creation of agunot in such cases, Talmudic authorities adopted halachic leniencies, wherever possible, in their acceptance of evidence concerning the husband’s death.

A different type of igun (aguna status) however, has also always existed, created by recalcitrant husbands who deliberately refuse to grant a get to their wives. These women remain trapped in a state of limbo, held hostage, often for financial ransom, by bitter, angry, manipulative men. By all accounts, such agunot have become more prevalent in recent times.

Cognizant of the deep personal pain caused by this situation, halachists have struggled to develop halachically acceptable ways to counteract the actions of recalcitrant husbands. The stakes, the authorities understand, cannot be higher, and the balance that needs to be struck cannot be more delicate. On one side lies the personal pain of the aguna, chained to an unloving partner, unable to move forward with her life. On the other side lies allegiance to the halachic system in one of the most critical areas of Jewish law, defining the nature of the marital bond and of the Jewish family itself.

Faced with the challenge of striking this balance, the solutions proposed by the rabbis are varied and imaginative. They consider, for example, the possibility of “unfriendly persuasion.” While all agree that a get must be granted willingly by the husband, sources as early as the Mishna allow for a certain degree of “pressure”: “We coerce him [the recalcitrant husband] until he says, ‘I am willing.’ ”

Few halachic statements, however, are as open to interpretation as this one. How much coercion is allowed? At what point does a get become invalid because the pressure applied has crossed over the line? No less an authority than the Rambam maintains that in a situation where a get is clearly warranted, a husband can even be physically pressured into becoming a “willing participant” in divorce proceedings. Other coercive steps, such as social pressure, communal ostracism, public humiliation and, where possible, even imprisonment have been used effectively in convincing recalcitrant husbands to relent.

Recent years have seen other proposed solutions. In certain cases, authorities such as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein have invalidated marriage ceremonies retroactively and allowed women to remarry, on the basis of halachic defects (such as unacceptable witnesses) in the original ceremonies. The Rabbinical Council of America and other groups have taken a proactive step, advocating the signing of a halachic prenuptial agreement. This agreement, a legal document designed to pass muster in civil court, obligates both the bride and groom to appear before a beit din (Jewish court) in the sad eventuality of a decision to divorce.

The document further obligates the husband to a fixed sum of daily support from the time the beit din determines that a get should be given until the time the divorce proceedings actually take place. This payment is not constructed as a fine, which would create an invalid “forced get,” but as a continuation of the customary support a husband is obligated to provide for his wife throughout marriage. The authors and proponents of the halachic prenuptial agreement hope that its widespread use will greatly minimize the incidence of igun throughout the Jewish community.

In spite of these and other rabbinic attempts to mitigate the phenomenon of igun, the problem understandably remains a vexing one for the Jewish community. One case of igun is one case too many; and, if anything, as we have noted, the number of cases in the Jewish community seems to be increasing. Given the deep pain that marks each instance, many observers feel frustrated with what they perceive as the inability of the rabbinate to simply “solve the problem.” Why can’t Jewish law find a way, they ask, to equalize the process of divorce?

While such protestations are certainly understandable, the move towards solutions at all costs can prove damaging, even to the agunot themselves. As a case in point, in 1996, a number of rabbis, including one of the leading thinkers of the Modern Orthodox movement, established an independent beit din, Beit Din Zedek L’Ba’ayot Agunot, specifically designed to deal with the plight of agunot. The centerpiece of this beit din’s approach to the problem was the halachic concept of mekach ta’ut, false sale.

Marriage, these rabbis reasoned, is fundamentally a contract between two individuals, and, like any other contract, must be marked by full disclosure at the time of the “deal.” According to Jewish law, if a participant in an agreement discovers that a critical detail was not shared with him at the time of a contract’s formalization, that individual may claim his rights as the victim of a false sale and abrogate the contract retroactively. A woman victimized by a recalcitrant husband, reasoned the founders of this beit din, can easily claim that at the time of her marriage, the true character of her husband to be was hidden from her. Had she known his true nature, as an individual who could now, consciously and sadistically, cause her such pain, she never would have married him. Under the laws of contracts, this claim alone should be enough to annul her marriage and render a get unnecessary.

As attractive as this solution seemed, however, it failed to garner support even in the most liberal corners of the Orthodox community. The activities of the Beit Din Zedek L’Ba’ayot Agunot were roundly condemned by a myriad of halachic authorities and by major Orthodox organizations including the Beit Din of America, affiliated with the Rabbinical Council of America and the Orthodox Union; Agudath Israel of America; the National Council of Young Israel and many others. In 1998, a petition signed by scores of Modern Orthodox rabbis warned that women remarrying on the basis of divorces obtained by this court would be considered adulterers according to Jewish law and that their children would be considered halachically illegitimate. “We are certain that virtually no Orthodox rabbi would be willing to officiate at weddings of women who wish to remarry based upon [the court’s annulments],” the authors of the petition proclaimed.

The strenuous and nearly unanimous criticism of the actions of the Beit Din Zedek L’Ba’ayot Agunot was based on the conviction that, although in selected cases the argument of mekach ta’ut can be used to annul a marriage, the criteria applied by this court for the revocation of marriages failed to approach even the most minimal legal standards for the determination of mekach ta’ut.

Of even greater concern was the potential impact of these decisions on the legality of future marriages. If a woman could cancel her nuptials retroactively in such facile fashion, the critics reasoned, what would prevent cancellation of marriages for a myriad other reasons, as well? Literally any husband or wife could seek an annulment on the basis of newly discovered “damaging” information concerning his/her spouse not known at the time of their marriage. “Had I only known…I never would have married him/her.” The very sanctity of the marital bond was at stake, and the battle had to be waged.

In hindsight, the argument can well be made that, in spite of the best of intentions, the Beit Din Zedek L’Ba’ayot Agunot performed a real disservice to the hundreds of women who obtained divorces under its auspices. Few, if any, authorities within the Orthodox community accepted the divorced status of these women and, consequently, their ability to remarry either in Israel or the diaspora was severely curtailed. So controversial were the actions of this beit din that even a leading Orthodox feminist and activist for agunot proclaimed that the actions of the Beit Din Zedek L’Ba’ayot Agunot had actually made the situation worse for the women involved. The efforts of the Beit Din Zedek L’Ba’ayot Agunot proved to be, at best, a classic case of good intentions gone awry.

The controversy surrounding the actions of the Beit Din Zedek L’Ba’ayot Agunot underscores the complexities that the Orthodox world faces as it struggles to ease the plight of agunot. Without question more can be done to address this tragic problem. Communities should certainly unite behind the efforts to identify and socially ostracize each individual who refuses to grant his wife a get. The use of proactive techniques such as the halachic prenuptial agreement should be made universal. Continued exploration of imaginative new approaches within the law to resolve the tragedy of every aguna should take place.

We must, however, also recognize the dangers of precipitous action. As deeply painful as the plight of each aguna may be, and as difficult as the law that gives rise to these situations may be to understand, the divinely inspired legal system that has preserved us as a people must, itself, be respected and preserved. An inauthentic approach, however appealing, can undermine that very system and cause unexpected, damaging consequences.


Posted on

Bernard Revel Arrested for Socialist Agitation

Excerpted from “Bernard Revel: Builder of American Jewish Orthodoxy” by By Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff

Bernard RevelThe ideals of social justice and human betterment were of paramount concern even within the yeshiva world. Many yeshiva students abandoned their studies and completely cast their lot with the revolutionary groups. Others envisioned plans whereby these secular ideologies could be merged with the Torah outlook. Dov [Revel] was caught up in these crosscurrents and debates which dominated the conversations of many yeshiva and kloyz students… Dov became an idealistic follower of the social justice for labor that was preached by Bund leaders, and he joined this movement. Years later his son was to write in a eulogy: “He possessed a many-faceted personality; he had a profound grasp of historical events, and while yet in Lithuania he contributed to the ideology of the movement for social betterment which later turned to Leninism.”

During the Russian Revolution of 1905, when general strikes and demonstrations—more political than economic—partially paralyzed the empire, many arrests were made by the czarist government. In Kovno thousands of reform agitators were detained. Dov Revel was among those arrested following his printed contributions to the political and social unrest of his time. The Kovno jail for political prisoners, a large building behind a high wall, was filled with defendants during the unrest of 1905. Revel found himself in a large, crowded, dimly lit cell. Boards to sleep on ran the length of the whole rear wall of the cell. In the middle of the cell there were also boards which were cut in the middle to allow passage. Dirty hot water and bread served as the main sustenance of the inmates, while the lavatory facilities were even more miserable. One small receptacle, which was cleaned only once a day, served the needs of all the tens of prisoners in one cell.

Here in prison Revel began to give serious thought to his future. He realized that his idealistic plans for universal social justice and improvement would not come to fruition in Lithuania in the immediate future… Released from prison, Dov Revel, using the name Bernard Revel, arrived in the United States in 1906 at the age of twenty-one.


Posted on

Rabbi Eliezer Silver Meets President Taft

Excerpt from the new OU Press book, The Silver Era: Rabbi  Eliezer Silver and His Generation, by Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff


The Silver Era

On June 12, 1912, [Rabbi Eliezer Silver] was part of a delegation which called upon William Howard Taft, the twenty-seventh president of the United States. It was the first time that such a group of rabbis was received by a president. Their intent was to encourage the president to pursue a more vigorous policy of protest against Russia because of its intense persecution and discrimination of its Jewish citizens… After meeting at the Union Station terminal, the group headed for the White House. On the way, they debated whether they should keep their hats on in the presence of the president. Silver insisted that they leave them on so they could honor the president with the recitation of the blessing, “Who hast given of Thy glory to mortal man.” When the rabbis finally were received by the president, Taft quickly donned his hat out of respect to his guests. Greatly relieved at the president’s gesture, they recited the blessing and translated it into English. Rabbi Silver then blessed the president in Hebrew, and the cantor of a local Washington congregation translated his words into English. Their meeting with President Taft continued in a cordial and relaxed atmosphere. This visit began a warm relationship between Silver and the Taft family which later found expression in his kinship with the president’s son, Senator Robert A. Taft, “Mr. Republican” of Cincinnati.

Posted on

Parshat Kedoshim: The Meaning of Holiness

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Leviticus, co published by OU Press, YU Press & Maggid Books

Derashot Ledorot - Leviticus

Kedusha, holiness, is by all means the most important principle of Judaism. The highest ideal to which any person can aspire is that of holiness. All the commandments of the Torah were given so that Israel could become a “goy kadosh,” “a holy Nation” (Exodus 19:6). And if holiness is really this important, if it is incumbent upon every person to try for holiness – “kedoshim tihyu,” “thou shalt be holy,” as the Bible puts it in today’s portion (Leviticus 19:2) – then it is important for us to understand the meaning of holiness.

The first thing to be said about holiness is that it means something higher and nobler. Our Rabbis (Sifra, Kedoshim 1:2) explained “kedoshim tihyu” as “perushim yihyu,” “thou shalt be separated,” above, higher. Holiness means rising above the commonplace and the vulgar, being exalted above the everyday and the secular. It means taking the soul off to a side and purifying it from the dross which it gathers in the rough and tumble of daily existence. An idea is holy when it is above other ideas. A human being is holy when he or she is separated from and higher than other human beings.

A corollary of this idea is that we are not to tamper with that which is holy if we are to keep it holy. A sefer Torah is not sacred in and of itself, but only because of what we get from it and the attitude we take towards it. No wonder therefore that Jewish law prevents us from touching the scroll with our hands. Take too free and liberal an attitude with what is sacred and it becomes profane. The first of today’s portions records a commandment to the High Priest himself to keep that which is holy above everyday use and common handling – God told Moses to speak to his brother Aaron and tell him not to enter the Holy Temple whenever he so wished at any time (Leviticus 16:2). That which is holy is to be approached with reverence, it must be “perushim” – above, separated, and isolated.

The story is told of a young girl who had been studying at an American college and came from a wealthy home. One summer her father took her on a tour of famous European cities and came to the home where Beethoven lived and composed his great music. When the young lady noticed the piano which the guide told her was Beethoven’s, she approached it with ecstasy and began playing the finest score she had learned in school. After she was finished she asked the guide, “I suppose all the greatest pianists of Europe come here to play on the piano of Beethoven.” “No,” said the guide, “just last week Paderewski

was here and he refused to play on it, because he said that he was not worthy enough to touch Beethoven’s piano.” Indeed that which is holy to a person must be respected and revered, and never dealt with casually. It must be kept above and be holy. If a synagogue is holy it must be entered not with boisterous good-fellowship, but with hushed reverence. If tefillin are holy they must not be dismissed as an extra burden, but put on with the deepest respect. What is holy must be kept aloft and from a distance – and the distance is up, not down.

Now the question is how does one attain this holiness, this state of being exalted and higher? Does it just “happen” to you? The answer is decidedly, no. You cannot just sit around, wish for it, and have it descend upon you. Our second point is that you have got to act, and act hard, in order to obtain this most cherished of all feelings.

A good illustration at this point would be a comparison of two mountains which are famous in Jewish history. They are Mount Sinai in the Sahara Desert and Mount Moriah in the middle of Jerusalem. Mount Sinai was that mountain about which the Israelites gathered and waited for three days until, in the words of the Bible, God descended upon the mountain in a pillar of fire. In a breathtakingly dramatic scene God came down upon Mount Sinai and delivered a Torah to a waiting people. The excitement was great, the atmosphere tense, and the event historic.

Such is the importance of Mount Sinai. The history of Mount Moriah revolves around Abraham and his son Isaac. Here God did not come down to give greatness to mankind. It was Abraham who was commanded to sacrifice his beloved Isaac atop this mountain, and it was a three day journey – not three days of waiting around – but a three day struggle with his conscience, three days of wrestling with himself, three days of thunderous conflicts between his mind, his heart and his soul. And Abraham came to the top of the mountain and lifted his hand ready to slaughter his son in accordance with God’s wish – until the angel stopped him just in time, saying that he had proven his loyalty to God. Here God did not come down to man, but man rose up to meet God. This is the story of Mount Moriah. No wonder therefore that Mount Sinai was never holy to the Jews and today atop that mountain there is not a Temple but a Christian monastery. But Mount Moriah remains the holy center of Zion atop which there rose the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple itself.

So holiness means a state of being higher and nobler and detached, and such holiness does not come automatically; it requires hard labor.

But the third point to consider is: Just how does one “rise” to kedusha? What is it that can make a man determine to work hard in order to obtain holiness? And the answer is: challenge. When the Torah tells us “kedoshim tihyu,” it means not to be a hermit or recluse, not to escape from life; quite the contrary, to accept life as a challenge, meet it on its own grounds, face it and rise above it – not escape but involvement is the technique for attaining holiness.

Our Rabbis (Leviticus Rabba, Kedoshim 24:8) meant just that when they observed that in the book of Daniel, heaven is referred to only once as being possessed of kedusha (4:5), whereas concerning this world in the here-and-now, we are twice told to be holy: “kedoshim tihyu” and “vehitkadishtem” (Leviticus 11:44). And they explain that in heaven, where there is no Evil Urge, kedusha is mentioned only once, whereas on Earth, where man is faced with the challenge of the Evil Urge, the challenge of temptation and ambition and greed, kedusha is mentioned twice. For not only is holiness necessary to combat the Evil Urge, but the Evil Urge itself is the challenge which spurs us onto greater holiness, much as a crass stone will sharpen the blade of an expensive knife. And in order to illustrate this point, our Rabbis tell the story of a king who appointed guards for his wine-cellar – half of them nezirim, people who never drink alcoholic beverages, and the other half shikorim, chronic alcoholics. After the day’s work, the king paid the shikorim twice as much as the nezirim – because it required twice the energy, twice the perseverance, and twice the will-power for the shikorim to resist the temptation to taste the wine.

It certainly is easy for a person of wealth and substance to observe the Sabbath. If such an individual does so, he is a good Jew – but not necessarily a holy one. But let a poor person, who would go hungry if he did not work on Shabbat, observe the Sabbath – such a person is holy. Such an individual has met the yetzer hara and conquered it. Such an individual has two measures of holiness, and is therefore holier than others.

This congregation knows how I feel about people who center their entire religious lives about the saying of kadish. And yet I cannot help but see a spark of kedusha in a man who has not visited a synagogue in years, or perhaps even in decades, a man who has forgotten his Ivrit (Hebrew) and can read only with the greatest difficulty, come to shul to recite the kadish despite the stares that greet his faltering recitation and perhaps the sneer and ridicule of those who are more accustomed to prayer. It is a challenge for a man of that sort to rise to the saying of kadish – and if he does, more power to him – twice the kedusha!

And this matter of accepting the challenge to holiness is not restricted to only Shabbat or kadish. It covers the entire world of human endeavor. In all phases of life – whether personal or communal, individual or collective – it holds true that the greater the challenge, the greater the holiness.

The simplest answer to our quest for the meaning of holiness, the one which includes our three points of being above, requiring action, and rising to challenges, lies in the entire portion we just read. Would you like to know how to be holy, “kedoshim tihyu”? Then read on as the Torah teaches us: Revere parents and treat them with respect; observe the Sabbath, no matter what the cost; do not worship the idols of our day, whether they be profit and money, or science and quack cures for the spirit; be charitable and philanthropic, not miserly and parsimonious; do not steal; do not be treacherous and two-faced, do not be a fence-sitter; do not lie or otherwise conceal the truth; pay your laborers on time, cut out the sweat-shops and do not exploit the less fortunate; do not put a stumbling block under the blind man; do not obstruct justice; do not slander one another and talk evil of a man behind his back; do not hate another person; and, finally, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” All of these sound everyday-ish and ordinary. Yet holiness is their result. Meet the challenges of life in these matters and you will have risen to the ethereal heights of holiness.

Such, then, is the eminently practical meaning of holiness in Judaism. Respect it, work for it, accept it as a challenge – and it will give you that uplift which spells the difference between a life boring in its monotony and one thrilling in its adventurous elevation.