The following was written by Rabbi Pini Dunner, of the Beverly Hills Synagogue. He has given permission for his words to be disseminated:
The controversy over Binyamin Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress on the threat from Iran has been raging for weeks. On the face of it those who oppose his appearance on Capitol Hill seem to have some very valid arguments. In the first instance, everyone in Congress is already fully aware of the threat from Iran. Secondly, the United States and others are currently in the middle of tense and delicate negotiations with Iran – the speech therefore seems, at best, to be imprudently timed – or, at worst, well timed, if the intention is to ruin the talks. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, bipartisan support for Israel in Congress has endured for decades – why would Netanyahu be so reckless and irresponsible as to endanger this unanimous support just to give a speech?
On February 4th, British historian Sir Martin Gilbert died at the age of 78. I remember this gentle man well from my years at University College London, where he taught us a course on the history of the Holocaust. Although his contribution to Holocaust history was broad and deep, his greatest contribution to historical literature was certainly as Winston Churchill’s biographer. His incisive insights into Churchill’s personality and political genius are a testament to his prodigious research and profound understanding of his subject.
The curious thing about Winston Churchill is that our view of him is completely dominated by the focus in popular culture on his wartime leadership. It is therefore generally unknown that in 1929, after falling out with his party over British policy in India, Churchill commenced a decade of political obscurity that to even his greatest admirers appeared to represent a slow but inevitable disappearance from meaningful public life. Sir Martin wrote a book about this period that he called ‘The Wilderness Years.’
During those dreadful years Churchill decried the decline in British spending on the military, and he also repeatedly pointed out the growing threat from Hitler’s Germany. Everybody heard him, but no one was listening. Appeasement and isolationism dominated foreign policy, and Churchill’s prescient speeches and brilliantly written articles were dismissed as the rantings of an irrelevant has-been. But this only spurred him on. “Those Germans are not looking for equal status,” he told the House of Commons in 1933, “they are looking for weapons.” In 1934 he shocked his political colleagues by revealing the true extent of German military production, after foreign office friends fed him secret information. Rather than take him seriously, however, and address the threat posed by Germany, British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin quipped: “the real danger to [Great Britain] is Winston - he is the warmonger, not Hitler.”
Hindsight is, of course, a wonderful thing. Winston Churchill’s warnings are now seen only through the lens of his elevation to the leadership of Great Britain in 1940, and his incredible success as the man who took on and eventually beat the unbeatable Nazi war machine. But what was he thinking in the 1930s as he watched his political career disintegrate ever more with each speech he gave to the House of Commons? His detractors scoffed and derided him as they watched this once great political figure defy the popular political trend and talk about containment, and military action, in an era of conciliation and diplomacy. Churchill was no fool. He knew his message was falling on deaf ears, but he kept going. Why?
In Terumah we are informed for the first time about the Mishkan, the wilderness sanctuary, and how it was to be built. Each piece was constructed in such a way that it could be deconstructed for transportation purposes – except for the poles that held up the Ark of the Covenant: בְטַבְעֹת הָאָרֹן יִהְיוּ הַבַדִים לֹא יָסֻרוּ מִמֶנּוּ - ‘the poles should remain in the rings of the Ark, they may never be removed.’ Ralbag explains that the Ark needed to demonstrate the completeness of the Torah, as it contained the Luchot. Even if everything else could come apart, the Ark could not, to show that the Torah can never be deconstructed. But the Ralbag’s suggestion seems ridiculous. Surely the generation that had encountered the Almighty at Mount Sinai would never question the integrity of the Torah? And if one of them did, why would this non-removal of the poles make the slightest difference?
Rabbi Alter Henoch Leibowitz z”l explains that keeping the Ark intact was decreed by G-d to confirm that which the Jews already knew, but for one reason or another was proving difficult to hold onto in their hearts. The faithful need to be reinforced, particularly when their faith is being challenged, and their world is falling apart. At such a time, seeing the Ark unchanged, unyielding, and undiminished, would reinvigorate the belief they already had, and give them the strength to go on.
Winston Churchill had no way of knowing that he would one day be Prime Minister of Great Britain, much less that he would spearhead the war against Hitler and his evil cohorts. But even though logic militated against this outcome, he knew with great clarity that his understanding of the dangers posed by fascism and expansionism needed to be heard by those who shared his views, but whose spirit was weakened by the appeasement zeitgeist. They needed to see the Ark of the Covenant unchanged, unyielding and undiminished, if there was to be any hope that Hitler would one day be vanquished.
For this same reason Netanyahu must stride into Congress with confidence and conviction, and tell the world what they all already know – that Iran is intent on becoming a nuclear power. Not because he will convince the appeasers, but because he needs to reenergize the spirits of those who are his fellow travelers, but who have all but given up hope in the face of those who insist on placing the world in grave danger, on the basis of skewed foreign policy and diplomatic incompetence. Let us listen to Prime Minister Netanyahu speak to Congress with pride, in the knowledge that when the time comes, he will be acknowledged as the person who, to his own detriment, called it out loud and clear long before anyone else, and who understands best how to deal with Iran’s evil regime.
כח כָּל-אֵלֶּה שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר; וְזֹאת אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר לָהֶם אֲבִיהֶם, וַיְבָרֶךְ אוֹתָם--אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר כְּבִרְכָתוֹ, בֵּרַךְ אֹתָם
49:28 All these are the tribes of Israel, twelve in all, and this is what their father said to them when he blessed them. He gave each one his own blessing.
Sefer Bereishit concludes with Ya’akov’s blessings to his sons. The expression אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר כְּבִרְכָתוֹ, בֵּרַךְ אֹתָם, loosely translated as “He gave each one his own blessing” seems redundant; after all, the Torah had just exhaustively recorded the details of each of the blessings. What new information are we to garner by the additional words?
The Ohr HaHayim HaKadosh explains:
אשר כברכתו. פי' הראוי לו כפי בחינת נשמתו וכפי מעשיו, כי יש לך לדעת כי הנפשות כל אחת יש לה בחינת המעלה יש שמעלתה כהונה ויש מלכות ויש כתר תורה ויש גבורה ויש עושר ויש הצלחה, ונתכוין יעקב בנבואה לברך כל אחד כפי ברכתו הראוי לה המלך במלכות והכהן בכהונה וכן על זה הדרך ולא הפך המסילות
Each according to his blessing: That is, the blessing that was fit for him according to his specific spiritual make-up and his actions. You should know that souls each have their own special quality: there are some whose level is Kehuna/priesthood, others who are characterized by Malchut/kingship; those with Keter Torah/Torah knowledge…those oriented towards courage, wealth…Ya’akov had in mind in his prophetic state to bless each one according to the blessing fit for him…and not according to an opposite path…All too often, we commit ourselves to a sweeping vision of what our children must achieve. Though it comes from a good place – there are certain behaviors, academic and religious standards which, as parents and grandparents, we feel it’s our obligation to transmit to our kids….. In our zeal to be role models and educate those entrusted to us, we sometimes overlook the unique qualities of each child. We end up trying to fit a square peg into a round hole and thereby unwittingly deny the child the opportunity to reach his or her full potential. In the words of the Ohr HaHayim, we should make it possible for a child to tap into the blessing that was fit for him according to his specific spiritual make-up.
The same is true of community. The verse in Tehilm 136 says, “He sliced Yam Suf into segments, His kindness endures forever.”The midrash explains that Hashem carved out twelve unique paths in the sea through which the Jewish people were to travel on their way to their redemption from Egyptian slavery. The message is clear: to be redeemed as a collective, it would have been sufficient to forge one path in the midst of the sea; after all, isn’t this narrative all about being saved from the clutches of Pharoah and his army- from being killed or relegated to continued slavery? Apparently, though, such a plan would not have engendered a complete liberation from Mizraim. The root word for Egypt in Hebrew is the word מצר, connoting restriction and limitation. Geula, redemption, to be ultimately meaningful and sustainable, had to address both the needs of the collective and the needs of the specific tribes that together form our people. Traversing Yam Suf had to both be physically and spiritually redemptive.
The same midrash continues: though “sea-walls” separated the respective paths, those walls were transparent; each tribe saw that his fellow tribe, too, had a legitimate path through the sea on the road to redemption.
Over the last several years, it’s clear that our community is moving in a similar direction. Within the larger framework of a Torah-based life, various initiatives have begun that give expression to the orientation of respective members of our community. It’s our duty to respect these differences and not, G-d forbid, feel threatened by them. Lest anyone think that encouraging others to follow their own spiritual path within Torah is a threat to the כלל, to the community, the Ohr HaHayim’s closing words provide guidance:ברך אותם וגו'. אמר "אותם" לשון רבים להיות כי ברכת כל אחד ואחד תועיל לעצמו ולכל אחיו -Â He blessed THEM…it says “them” in the plural, because the blessing to each one will benefit not only himself, but also his brothers….
The American Cancer Society needs drivers! Amy Dzisenu, a representative of the King County branch, notes that getting to and from cancer treatments is one of the toughest challenges that cancer patients face. If you are interested in doing some wonderful Gemilut Hasadim work, you can call the Society at 1 800 227 2345 to get involved.
(Published in this week's Vaad newsletter)
This has been a very tough week for the Jewish people. With the images and reports that came to us almost instantaneously from across the world, we experienced the horrific events in Har Nof in "real time." Many of us here in Seattle even have close personal connections with the victims and their families....Unfathomable, the barbarism - the cruelty!
No doubt, serious questions arise in the minds of many of us. Yitzhak, unable to see, is confused:
הַקֹּל קוֹל יַעֲקֹב וְהַיָּדַיִם יְדֵי עֵשָׂו
The voice is the voice of Ya'akov and the hands are the hands of Esav.
Our sages declare: "When the voice (of the Jewish people) is the voice of Ya'akov in the synagogues and Batei Midrash, then the hands are not the hands of Esav."Seemingly, a promise that the more we Jews commit ourselves to Torah and Tefilah, we will not fall victim to the violent actions of our enemies…..
And yet Rabbi Moshe Twersky, Rabbi Kalman Levine, Rabbi Aryeh Kopinsky, and Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Goldberg -- devout Jews, true Torah scholars -- engaged in those very activities of Torah study and fervent prayer, enwrapped in their tefilin and talitot, the sweet song of Jacob on their lips – are butchered by loathsome terrorists!No words can do justice to the deep sadness we feel for the families left behind , and the victims, who died al Kiddush Hashem.
At a time when it would be natural and fully understandable to become self-absorbed, the widows and their families sent the following message to Jews around the world. It reads, in part:
"Our hearts are broken and melting amidst tears over the spilling of the blood of the martyred heads of our families…..
"We turn to you, our fellow Jewish brethren wherever you may be! Let us all unite in order that we receive Hashem's mercy. Let us take upon ourselves to increase love and brotherhood between people, communities, and diverse groups.
"We implore each person to take upon himself at the onset of Shabbat, to sanctify this Holy Shabbat, Parshat Toldot (the eve of the Rosh Chodesh Kislev), to make this Shabbat a day of unconditional love - a day of refraining from divisiveness and arguments, gossip and tale-bearing. This act will bring about a great elevation of our husbands' souls, slaughtered in sanctification of God's Name, may He be blessed.
Signed with a broken and crushed heart:
Chayah Levine and family
Breina Goldberg and family
Yaakovah Kupinsky and family
Bashi Twersky and family
Disbelief, denial, fury, calls for unbridled revenge?
Just the opposite: these families radiate deep faith, acceptance of their harsh personal reality...and immediately issue a call for Jewish unity!
Their piety recalls the words of Rachel Frenkel, mother of Naftali, who declared before Rosh Hashanah, "We went out searching for the boys and we discovered ourselves…We had days and days of lightning. . . . [W]e saw about ourselves that we are part of something huge, a people, a true family. That’s for real.”
As Jews living outside of Israel, we continue to unconditionally support the Israeli government's efforts to tighten security, foil terrorist plots, and prevent atrocities.
But equally important as our show of political support is that we derive lessons from the faith and inner strength of the victims' families. We owe it to them, and we owe it to ourselves - to heed their call for a recommitment to Jewish unity and all that entails, here in Seattle and beyond.
Here's the link to see the trailer:
Join Ezra Bessaroth and a number of great community institutions for "Body and Soul". Body and Soul – The State of the Jewish Nation presents a comprehensive examination of the broad and deep connections between the Jewish People and the Land of Israel. World-renowned historians, archaeologists, political scientists, religious leaders, and international law and media experts trace the evocative evolution of the relationship between the Jewish People and their homeland that is over 3,000 years old.
"Jewish identity is born in a journey to the Land of Israel", declares Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of the United Kingdom. That journey moves through the First and Second Temple periods and the Middle Ages, then to modernity, where the development of political Zionism catalyzed the blossoming of a new Jewish spirit. That renewal of Jewish spirit resulted in the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty in the Land, an event that Harvard University Professor Ruth Wisse declares "a miracle of truly Biblical proportions."
This powerful documentary, produced and directed by award-winning Gloria Z. Greenfield, conveys eloquent messages of determination, focus, and calls to action.
Registration is free and donations are always accepted. Register by clicking here:Â http://www.eventbrite.com/e/seattle-premiere-body-and-soul-the-state-of-the-jewish-nation-tickets-14405512275?aff=efbnen
RCA Announces Committee To Review Conversion Process
Committee Reflects Cross Section of Community, Including Women and Men, Converts, Mental Health Professionals, Rabbis and Other Professionals
Oct 29, 2014 -- The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) today announced the members of a committee that will review its current Geirus Protocol and Standards (GPS) conversion process and suggest safeguards against possible abuses. The RCA committed to forming this committee following the recent arrest of Rabbi Barry Freundel, of Washington, DC, which brought to light the need for a thorough review of GPS to identify changes that will ensure a more effective and appropriate conversion process.
Rabbi Leonard Matanky, President of the RCA, named the following individuals to the committee:
Mrs. Evelyn Fruchter, a convert to Judaism and an attorney specializing in litigation;
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin (chair), Honorary President of the RCA and Rabbi of Ahavath Torah, Englewood, NJ;
Mrs. Abby Lerner, educator and teacher of family purity laws;
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, New York, NY;
Mrs. Bethany Mandel, a convert to Judaism, former staff member at Commentary Magazine, and freelance writer who recently authored a column entitled, “A Convert’s Bill of Rights”;
Rabbi Yona Reiss, Av Beit Din, Chicago Rabbinical Council; Dayan, Beth Din of America; and Chairman, GPS;
Mrs. Bracha Rutner, Yoetzet Halacha (advisor in Jewish law) for the Riverdale, NY and Washington, DC communities;
Mrs. Shana Yocheved Schacter, CSW, a psychotherapist in private practice;
Rabbi Yaakov Shulman, Rabbi of Congregation Talmud Torah, Brooklyn, NY who is an experienced member of a rabbinic tribunal for conversions;
Rabbi Adam Starr, Rabbi of Young Israel of Toco Hills, Atlanta, GA;
Rabbi Kalman Topp, Rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation, Beverly Hills, CA.
“Our hearts continue to go out to those victimized by the unconscionable actions of a Rabbi they trusted in the conversion process,” said Rabbi Matanky “The RCA recognizes the inherent sensitivities and vulnerabilities involved in the conversion process and will do all it can to ensure that such victimization will never be repeated. We believe the formation of this committee, reflecting a cross section of our community, is an important first step in this regard.”
Rabbi Goldin commented on the committee’s mandate, “The RCA continues to believe that a national network of conversion courts remains in the best interests of the Jewish community in general and potential converts in particular. It is clear, however, that the current structure of GPS requires a thorough review and enhancements to avoid future abuses. Our committee will look carefully at a wide range of matters including: the standardization of conversion procedures, the intake system, safe processes for potential converts to voice complaints and discomfort with their experiences, communications of Bet Dins’ expectations of potential converts and oversight of Bet Din operations, among others. We are determined to be clear of vision and bold in action in order to properly serve the important community of converts.”
Rabbi Mark Dratch, Executive Vice President of the RCA, added, “The Torah repeatedly commands us to love the convert. Individuals who choose to join the Jewish community are to be admired and treated with the utmost respect. The RCA will not rest until we fulfill that commandment to its fullest extent.”
The committee will begin its deliberations immediately, will report its findings to the RCA Executive Committee by January 31, 2015, and will make its recommendations public thereafter.
By now, many of you have read the reports of a prominent Orthodox rabbi on the east coast who has just been arrested on voyeurism charges. Although everyone is innocent until proven guilty, these accusations are very grave, and our hearts and thoughts are with victims of such activity and with the rabbi's family and community.The Hilul Hashem/desecration of G-d's name brought about by the charges themselves is also very severe. All of us, as committed Jews, should feel the pain.
Despite the somber turn of events, I would like to wish the EB and entire Seattle Jewish community - Mo'adim Lesimha. Let us rejoice in Sukkot as it draws to a close and welcome in Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah!
Members of the Sephardic community greet one another with the expression תזכו לשנים רבות - "may you merit many years" from Rosh Hashana to Yom Hakippurim.
Rav Hayim David HaLevy, late Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, was asked to identify the original source of this greeting. In the course of his response in his book, "Aseh Leha Rav", Rav HaLevy cites Rav Hayim Palagi, who identifies the source as the verse in Devarim 16:13
ז,יג חַ֧ג הַסֻּכֹּ֛ת תַּֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה לְךָ֖ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֑ים בְּאָ֨סְפְּךָ֔ מִֽגָּרְנְךָ֖ וּמִיִּקְבֶֽךָ׃
When you bring in the products of your threshing floor and wine vat, you shall celebrate the festival of Sukkot for seven days.
The verse uses the future tense, "you shall celebrate"; and so we wish our fellow Jews, "If you celebrated Sukkot this year, may you merit doing so for many years to come…."
This source is perplexing: Even if we see the hint in the language, what is there about Sukkot that makes it fit to be the basis of this greeting? And why did Sephardic custom develop along different lines, namely, to greet others with תזכו לשנים רבות until the end of Yom Kippur, but "Moadim Lesimcha" –on Sukkot?
I would like to propose an answer based on an excerpt from Rav Shlomo Aviner's book, עם כלביא. Rav Aviner notes the odd phenomenon of two opposite themes during the month of Tishri: both the High Holydays, the "Days of Awe", and Sukkot, "Zeman Simhatenu - the time of our joy"! The Rishonim also note that there seems to be no intrinsic connection between Sukkot and the month of Tishri; after all, Sukkot recalls the divine protection afforded the Children of Israel the entire stretch of 40 years in the desert!
Rav Aviner quotes Peleh Yo'etz, who explains: "[Sukkot is right after the Days of Awe] to cause us to rejoice from our anguish and sadness of the days of repentance." Sefat Emet notes: "…After the Days of Awe, there is a special need for joy, because a person is not complete if he is only exposed to awe and fear."
In other words, we need to be emotionally "healed" from the impact of the High Holydays. During Elul, we gradually detach more and more from this world, and turn our attention to spiritual pursuits – with the climax – Yom Kippur. Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook says that, of necessity, this process triggers a "disconnect" with the sanctity of this world. "But, in truth, this world and the next hug each other; they are intertwined, and the cultivation of one serves as the basis for elevation in the next. True, during the days of repentance, we need to intensify our spiritual pursuits; that is why the days of joy arrive – to return ourselves to (normative) life."
Unfortunately, many American Jews, including our own congregations, make the most concerted effort to attend services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Often, their last Jewish religious experience for the year is the exhausting 25-hour Yom Kippur fast.
With this in mind, let us return to the source of תזכו לשנים רבות – may you merit many years, the verse in Devarim Ch. 16 mandating the observance of Sukkot:
ז,יג חַ֧ג הַסֻּכֹּ֛ת תַּֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה לְךָ֖ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֑ים בְּאָ֨סְפְּךָ֔ מִֽגָּרְנְךָ֖ וּמִיִּקְבֶֽךָ׃
When you bring in the products of your threshing floor and wine vat, you shall celebrate the festival of Sukkot for seven days
When we wish someone תזכו לשנים רבות, we are not just wishing him a long life; quality of life is also important! We want our fellow Jews to live long, happy, fulfilled lives. As Sefat Emet notes, one whose relationship with G-d is built only on awe and fear, does not become spiritually whole. With the verse in Devarim as the backdrop, we can be understood as wishing another a long, quality life of joy and closeness to the Creator!
True, the custom is to issue תזכו לשנים רבות as a greeting between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, because that is when our lives are literally hanging in the balance; embedded in our good wishes is a beracha for a joyous fulfilling life, the kind of life we begin to taste from with the arrival of Sukkot, זמן שמחתינו.
(originally published in the Vaad of Seattle newsletter)
A few decades ago, Tradition Magazine published a wonderful article by Prof. Yehuda Gellman entitled “Teshuva and Authenticity”. Whenever I have the opportunity, I enjoy giving a class using this article as a springboard for discussion.
Essentially, Prof. Gellman argues that doing “teshuva” is especially complex in our day and age. If a person were to be lost on a desert island, it would be challenging to respond authentically to the predicament – because of the many movies and books we have all read about people getting shipwrecked on desert islands. As human beings, we naturally refer to the models we’ve seen or read about – as we respond to our own personal predicaments.
Back in the 1980’s, at the height of the Ba’al Teshuva movement in Israel, it became suddenly possible for someone with little or no background in Torah learning to attend a yeshiva or seminary. No longer only the domain of great scholars, yeshivot opened up with the goal of teaching the religious novice the depths of Torah in an authentic and inspiring way. This had major impact on Jews the world over; in fact, many of us greatly benefited from this watershed development!
That said, it also became a greater challenge to forge one’s own religious personality. Having a role model is essential for religious growth; after all, who does one learn from if not from one’s rebbe and one’s peers? At the same time, we all have a tendency to cut corners, to adopt the form and approach of others – “copying and pasting” their experience and approach, and applying it to ourselves. This tendency can often lead to unintentionally negative results. For, since we are all individuals, each of us must confront, head-on, our own personal deficiencies. Although a religious framework – including Rambam’s laws of Teshuva – is helpful in that process, it cannot replace an honest reflection on one’s own particular challenges.
Prof. Gellman beautifully illustrates this in his closing passage:
“Several years ago, when I was in graduate school, the calendar of studies allowed a month's vacation to study at a famous yeshivah in the greater New York area. The intensity of the learning contributed to a mounting sense of the seriousness of the day of judgment. By the time Rosh Hashanah came this feeling was very strong. The experience of Rosh Hashanah increased it to the point where at Yom Kippur I was completely gripped by the awesomeness of the day of judgment. My davening on that day expanded the experience of being judged more and more; until I got to the words Yodea mahashavot be-yom din, "He knows my very thoughts on this day of judgment. " At that moment the utter simplicity of those words aroused within me the absolute conviction of their truth. For the first time in my life I actually believed that He knows my thoughts. As a result I couldn't continue to daven. I was paralyzed. All about me people were throwing themselves around, waving their hands in remorse and pleading. I couldn't go on. Since He knows my thoughts, He knows that what I am doing is a fake. He knows my true feelings, what I really believe and what really is important to me. The external signs mean nothing to Him. He knows the truth. It's no use. I sat down, paralyzed. Finally, I went out for a walk in the neighborhood. Gradually the feeling wore off. The absolute conviction that He sees through me faded away. Then, when I no longer believed it, only then was I able to return to the beit midrash and daven, shaking, waving my hands, contorting my face, with the rest of them. I had returned, from the “I” to the “they”. The disorientation of being torn out of context was replaced by the feeling of the beauty and the pleasure of castigating oneself in fellowship. The fear of being alone gave way to the strength of community.”
In other words, community is both a beautiful and helpful component in the teshuva process – but it cannot replace personal reflection and an internal “accounting.”
Let us all use the upcoming fast to experience a profound re-encounter with our true selves.
Gemar Hatima Tova & Tizku Leshanim Rabbot!
I hope everyone had a meaningful Rosh Hashana and I want to wish you all a Gemar Hatima Tova this Yom Kippur.
It has come to my attention that not everyone is clear on the proper, halachic way to purchase fish. I am writing this brief blog post to clarify the halacha.
As you know, a kosher fish must have fins and kaskeset, ie kosher scales. The test for kosher scales is if they can be removed without damaging the flesh of the fish.
Some may think that purchasing a fish fillet marked “cod” or “whitefish”, for example, from a grocery store is permissible, since the store has labelled the fish with a name that you know to be a kosher species. This is incorrect! The non-Jewish person in the fish department cannot be relied upon halachically to identify the species. The exception is salmon, which is identifiable as salmon even without a skin tab.
The other issue involved in purchasing fish involves the use of non-kosher knives and cutting boards. In such a case, residue from non-kosher species cut with the same knife and on the same cutting boards is problematic.
At our local stores under Va’ad hashgacha, the words of the hechsher are clear:
• Customer must verify at time of cutting that the fish is of a kosher species by seeing fish raw with skin on. Pre-cut fillets with a skin tab and salmon may be purchased without further supervision. A Vaad mashgiach is available upon request for supervision of cutting.
• Customer should request that fish cut to order be processed with kosher knives on the kosher boards.
• Fish should be weighed on clean paper (not touching the scale).
• Ground Fish: Ground fish is only available in Va’ad sealed packaging (each package must have two seals with the Va’ad symbol, or through special arrangement with the Va’ad.)
If you would like to read a helpful F & Q’s on this issue, see http://www.kashrut.com/articles/fishfaq/
In memoriam of Rabbi Avraham Shalem z”l, spiritual leader of Ezra Bessaroth 1959-1962. The following is a translation of an article published in the Iyar 5723  edition of the Sephardic Torah journal Kol Sinai. At the time, Rabbi Shalem had visited Eretz Yisrael to place his son in Yeshiva, and expressed his desire to return to the Holy Land during that visit. In an effort to help him find a new position, the editors of Kol Sinai decided to write-up and publish a short summary of his accomplishments up to that point.
[Avraham Shalem] was born in Jerusalem in the year 5688 (1928) to his father Rabbi David Shalem (may G-d protect him and grant him life), a beloved figure in Jerusalem who served as a soldier in the first Judean battalion in WWI, and who took an active part in the defense of Jerusalem during the riots of 5685. He was known as an active public advocate to promote Torah and its students. He was very active for Yeshivat Shaare Zion, which was founded by Chief Rabbi Uziel, of blessed memory. The Shalem family was well known for generations as a family of famous rabbis and lay leaders in the great Jewish community of Salonika, Greece.
After young Avram completed his studies in the Mizrahi (Zionist) Talmud Torah, his teachers recommended that he continue his studies at the “Seminar leMorim Mizrahi” (Zionist Teacher’s Seminary). But his father opposed this and brought him to Chief Rabbi Uziel, of blessed memory, and told him that his wish was that his son should continue in the rabbinic tradition of his family and fill the dwindling ranks of Sephardic rabbis.
The Chief Rabbi happily accepted the child and admitted him into Yeshivat Shaare Zion, at whose helm stood Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, one of the great rabbis of Jerusalem.
With sacrifice and dedication he devoted himself to his studies, and was conferred rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Waldenberg, the chief rabbinate and Rabbi Uziel, and Rabbis Hizqiyah Shabbetai, Shalom Azulai and Yaakov Ades. After a year of exams and service at the Sephardic high court of Jerusalem, he was conferred as a judge by the Chief Rabbi. At that time he was also ordained at the institute of supplement for yeshiva graduates under the auspices of the World Zionist Organization headed by Rabbi I. Berman. At the same time, he served as a teacher of Talmud and professional religious service at the Talmud Torah Or Hahayim in Jerusalem. During the War of Independence, he enlisted in the field corps and helped defend the Holy City [of Jerusalem].
The Sephardic congregations of Peru turned to the chief rabbinate and the Jewish agencies to send them a rabbi that would lead these congregations that stood at the verge of acculturation and assimilation. Chief Rabbi Uziel selected the young, dynamic Rabbi Avram Shalem for this position and rescue mission. In those days, the Sephardic lay leaders in Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv arose to choose a Sephardic rabbi for the emerging community of Ramat Gan. This choice fell upon Rabbi Avram Shalem, and a struggle ensued between Peru and Ramat Gan as to which would claim Rabbi Shalem. The primary advocate to bring Rabbi Shalem [to Ramat Gan] was Mr. Avraham Recanti, an MK of the first Kenesset and a leader of the Sephardic community. However, Chief Rabbi Uziel stressed the importance of mission work in the Diaspora and combatting assimilation over that of being a rabbi in Ramat Gan, and also that a Hillul Hashem should not be caused in the eyes of the community leaders in Peru, who chose the venerable Rabbi Avram Shalem.
And so the Chief Rabbi told him as follows, “You should embark on this mission for the sake of the Jews who cry out to be saved from acculturation. And when your contract ends in five years, you can return to Israel and choose any number of positions”.
At the end of the year 5710 , Rabbi Avram Shalem left to administer as the rabbi of the Sephardic community of Peru. In the capital city of Lima he accepted the responsibility of the spiritual leadership of all communities, both Sephardic and Ashkenazic. After some months, a unified community was organized for all matters of shehita, mikva’ot, burials, etc. The Rabbi [Shalem] was in constant contact with Chief Rabbis Herzog, Uziel and Rabbi Zvi Pesach Frank to inquire about some of the more pressing questions that arose. As well, the Rabbi took the entire responsibility of Jewish education in the community schools, and his success was great, as many of his students were accepted to yeshivot, and many were sent to the large yeshivot in New York, among them Yeshivat Torah Vodaath, Yeshiva University, and others. He also brought back many families to Judaism and prevented intermarriage and assimilation and did much for the sake of Torah and Israel. For a number of years he served as an associate director of the World Zionist Organization, and traveled to the outer suburbs on behalf of the UJA. In those days, before there was an Israeli embassy in Lima but rather just an honorary consulate, the Rabbi contributed to diplomatic efforts and was in correspondence with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem.
When he came to Lima, an epidemic of intermarriage plagued the community and it was in danger of acculturation and assimilation. The Rabbi succeeded in saving dozens of families from acculturation and brought them back to leading faithful lived of Torah and mitzvot. He led a forceful campaign for Torah education, mikva’ot and family purity and kashrut. There were a number of parnassim of the community who were angry about this. But the Rabbi, with his personality and skillful direction, succeeded in his efforts, and after seven years of work, he left the community on a solid and robust Jewish footing and he left his position to a graduate of Yeshivat Shaare Zion, Rabbi David Dayan, who continued with force and dedication to strengthen Torah and mitzvot in Peru.
In response to an offer from the great Sephardic synagogue “Yehuda Halevi” in Mexico, he left to lead that congregation. But because of differences of opinions involving fundamental Torah issues, as he saw that this congregation had strayed completely from Jewish law and tradition and was unwilling to correct its crooked ways, he resolved to leave them and went to Congreagtion Ezra Bessaroth in Seattle, WA in the US. There he joined the work of the rabbis of that place, and at his initiative, a Bet Din comprising the four Orthodox congregations was founded, a va’ad of kashrut, a special va’ad of education and others. In the year 1961, when a crisis [concerning the legality] of ritual slaughter arose throughout the US and it was in danger of being harmed, it was the State of Washington that scuttled this effort, thanks to the organized efforts of the rabbinate there, under the diligence of the dynamic Rabbi Avram Shalem, who succeeded in influencing important politicians, chief of whom was the governor of Washington who granted Rabbi Shalem the privilege of presenting before the Senate an argument for the defense of Jewish law. This achievement also encouraged other communities and states to continue to fight this, and the proposal was abolished. Messages of encouragement came in from all rabbinic organizations, as well as from Rabbi Soloveitchik and others. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, the grand rabbi of all Chabad chassidim throughout the world, endeared him and one of his meetings with him lasted a number of hours. A rare thing that demonstrated the appreciation that the great leader of Chabad had for Rabbi Shalem was the fact that he continued his correspondence with him and advised him in congregational matters.
The Sephardic Jewry in Mexico previously was led by Rabbi Mordekhai Atiyah as head rabbi of the community, and he did much toward its Jewish education, but he returned to Israel after some years in the rabbinate. These communities were thus left without a spiritual pastor, so they searched for a prominent spiritual guide and they sought out Rabbi Shalem.
Some time passed and a request came from the prominent “Congregacion Monte Sinai” of Mexico to become their head rabbi. A pointed and difficult struggle erupted between Seattle, WA and Monte Sinai, Mexico. In this pitched battle, the Mexicans won the upper hand and they gained the privilege of Rabbi Shalem, and in the month of Shevat, 5722  he became the head rabbi of the Monte Sinai Sephardic congregation in Mexico. In short time, he worked in cooperation with the Ashkenazic community of the place and formed a central rabbinate in Latin America, under the guidance of Rabbi Mordechai Hershberg, and Rabbi Shalem was chosen as its Vice President. This organization joined and coordinated the services of the communities of Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica, Columbia, Venezuela, Peru and Mexico. This center oversaw the rabbinic and educational efforts throughout Central America and Caribbean, and in the past year, they sent certified shohetim to Guatemala and Venezuela. In Mexico itself, the center took care of issues with kashrut and established a unified bet din for the three congregations that judged on matters of kashrut and marriage.
The school of the Monte Sinai congregation counts almost 600 students, and here too the rabbi assumed responsibility for educational matters, and he raised its Torah and educational grounding to a very high level. In addition to this, there is a Talmud Torah and Yeshiva in the evening where close to 30 students learn under the guidance of Rabbi Shalem.
Throughout the years of his rabbinic service in the Diaspora, he did much to aid the Torah and charitable institutions in Israel. Chief among them is our great Yeshiva, Midrash Porat Yosef, Yeshivat Shaare Zion, Chinuch Atzmai, Torah U’mlacha Shel Hamizrachi, orphanages, the educational network Chanoch Lena’ar, Torah Vodaath and tens of other institutions and yeshivot. In the past year, he became the president of Israel Bonds in Mexico, the rabbi’s house being the address for all emissaries.
The rabbi is proud that after years of hard work and toil, he merited helping his esteemed congregations to be free of intermarriage, to love Torah and its students, and whose generous hands are extended to strengthening and supporting the bastions of Torah in Israel. These are the congregations of Monte Sinai and Zedek Umarpe, where prominent men stand at their helm and greatly help in outreach efforts in their congregation, to teach them about Torah, their faith, and mitzvot.
Many stories abound of the deeds and efforts of this young and dynamic rabbi, and it has been 13 years that he has wandered throughout the streets of the Diaspora to save Jews from apostasy and assimilation. The time has come for the young rabbis of Eretz Yisrael to take the place of this great rabbi so that he could return to his home, his family and the land to which his soul is drawn, where last month he came to Israel to enroll his eldest son in yeshiva; at which time he strengthened his resolve to return to his heart’s desire – to the sacred air of our Holy Land. Is it not fitting that the Chief Rabbinate and Office of Religious Affairs and mayors of Israel, whose Sephardic congregations are vacant without a spiritual leader, should choose this dynamic and active rabbi that he should return to lead as a chief rabbi of one of the cities of Israel? Indeed it is proper that those who have power to decide should give precedence for these positions to those rabbis who fulfilled their service and missions in the Diaspora. By doing so, it would encourage and strengthen the will of our young rabbis to leave to the Diaspora and save our scattered, acculturated and assimilated [brethren].
There is not enough space to contain all the details of the deeds and qualities Rabbi Avram Shalem, who is an erudite speaker, whose audiences include speakers of a number of languages including, English, Spanish, Castilian [Ladino] and others. He is a man of learning and deed, of pleasant manner; a man of the people who knows how to chastise them and raise them upon the pedestal of faith Torah and mitzvot. Most of all, “his fear [of Heaven] precedes his wisdom”.
It is our hope for Rabbi Avream Shalem, that G-d should grant him health and long life to continue his wonderful work in the Diaspora, and soon he should return to Israel to assume the leadership as a rabbi of one of the cities in Israel. Well done!
Our sense of appreciation for the Jewish people has grown exponentially over the past month. The pure gevura, spiritual might, of the citizens of the State of Israel, the IDF soldiers, the bereaved families, is truly something to behold!
Both from a halachic and common sense perspective, it is clear that Israel had not only a right, but an obligation to defend its citizens from the cruel Hamas attacks and horrific plans. It is now well-known that Hamas was planning on releasing 200 terrorists to carry out a massacre of soldiers and civilians on Rosh Hashana, G-d forbid! A former colleague of mine, Ariel Kahane, broke that story on Maariv...
I found it particularly troubling how both American and British journalists pressed Israeli officials on the morality of IDF conduct during the height of the war. Naftali Bennett, among others, asked his interviewer how she would respond were she to be faced with a similar threat.
In a matter of weeks, the United States has been thrust into a parallel situation in its conflict with ISIS. President Obama spoke very articulately last night on the sheer moral necessity for America to act.
It is imperative that we, as a Jewish community, continue to unequivocally support the State of Israel. Sunday's "Standing Together" Solidarity Rally, coordinated by Keith at the Jewish Federation, is also co-sponsored by EB, along with a host of other important Jewish institutions. I implore you to attend the rally and show your support for Eretz Yisrael, Medinat Yisrael, and Am Yisrael.
Rabbi Benjy Owen delivered the following Derasha at Ezra Bessaroth last week, Perashat Pinchas; I want to thank him very much for his thoughtful and pertinent words:
This past week our community's children returned from Sephardic Adventure Camp – over 50 teenagers and children were led by an extraordinary cadre of counselors, directors, volunteer lay leaders and rabbis.
This past week war has broken out in Israel. The situation is the culmination of over one month of tension and anguish for the Jewish People and specifically our brothers and sisters on the front line in Eretz Yisrael. Earlier this week, I was on the phone with an Israeli who was in Gush Etzion. We were speaking and all of a sudden he said that the siren had gone off and that he had to go to take shelter. He later told me that the rocket that had been fired from Gaza had been intercepted by the Iron Dome system.
Many of us check the internet multiple times daily. We see pictures of Israeli children reading in bomb shelters. We read about layers upon layers of expensive technology to safeguard the Israeli citizens including our children. Israel’s concern for civilians extends to Gaza. As we know, Israel sends notification of upcoming attacks and takes extraordinary care to avoid civilian casualties. But I have been so disturbed to read reports from Gaza, in some cases, civilians, including children, have run to the rooftops as human shields.
This week’s perasha recounts the incident of Zimri – a leader of the tribe of Shimon – and Cosbi – the daughter of a Midianite prince. Pinchas sees Zimri and Cosbi in flagrante delicto – in an immoral act in public – and executes them both on the spot. For his zealotry in defense of the integrity of the Torah community, Hashem rewards Pinchas with a covenant of peace and the Priesthood.
The Torah then outlines a Mitzvah that only relates to the nation of Midian.
צרור את המדינים והכיתם אותם – Be hostile to the Midianites and strike them.
Normally, the Torah demands Bnei Yisrael to offer peace to an enemy that you are about to go to war with. Midian – no. Be hostile to the Midianim.
Normally, when besieging an enemy, allow an escape path. Midian – no. Besiege them on all four sides. Strike all of them.
Why Midian? What did they do to deserve this hostile treatment?
Malbim explains that the answer emerges from a close reading of this and last week’s Perasha. Cosbi, princess of Midian, was caught with Zimri the Shimonite leader. How did they get themselves into this situation? Malbim explains that there was a context to this entire episode. Bilam had unsuccessfully tried to curse the Jewish people. He knew that the Jewish people could only be cursed if they strayed from Hashem. He tried to convince Moav to entice the Jewish people to stray from Hashem. Moav was not interested in this plan. Bilam returned home. On his way home he travelled through Midian and shared with them his idea of how to successfully curse the Jewish people. With this knowledge, the leader of Midian hatched a plan. Use his daughter, Cosbi, to lure Zimri, the leader of Shimon, into an immoral act and bring down the Jewish People through the spreading of immorality.
Returning to the question: Why Midian? What did they do to deserve this hostile treatment?
One measure of a society is its philosophy. At the core of America’s philosophy is the primacy of the individual and his rights. The Jewish People are at a permanent state of war with Amalek because it glorifies a human-centered and violent philosophy. Canaan and the other six nations exemplified the philosophy of idolatry.
Another measure of a society is the value that it places in its children and in the diligence that it exercises in securing their well-being. The Torah commands us to educate our children to become Jewish adults. In most cases, we even prioritize our children’s learning over our own learning. We are responsible for our children like a lender is responsible to safeguard a pledged object. Sephardic Camp is so inspiring because through the camp we exercise this responsibility. At this unique camp, where, for two and a half weeks, a mini-Seattle Sephardic Community is created, we transmit our community’s minhagim and we foster relationships between campers, counselors and leaders that will last forever. The campers have fun together boating, swimming, being creative and playing sports all while praying three times a day, learning Torah and making berachot. We are ensuring a Jewish future for our community.
In Midian, children were possessions. The leader of Midian viewed his daughter as a pawn – an object through which to destroy the Jewish People, he offered his daughter as a tool to entrap the Jewish People. In this type of society, all tactics will be used. The society will even destroy its most prized possessions to beat the object of its hatred. Dealing with this type of society requires a high level of hostility. Therefore, the Torah commands us to be hostile to Midian and to strike them.
Needless to say, the situation in Israel is complicated and highly nuanced. The story of Midian teaches us that in going to war our leaders must first make a vital calculation about the enemy – how much value does that society place on its children? That calculation should guide the strategy that our leaders adopt. If the hatred of Israel is so deep as to contort the society’s responsibility to its children, it must be treated with great hostility. Prime Minister Golda Meir made the calculation in her generation. She said, “Peace will come when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us”. Our leaders must make this vital calculation for our generation.
May Hashem grant wise counsel to our leaders and true peace to Israel.
I received the following email from our good friend Eugene Normand after the publication of my article in the Va'ad newsletter (the previous post) Reprinted with Eugene's permission:
I just read your Dvar Torah on the Vaad page, “A Rededication is in Order” and want to complement you on it. I like the way you wove in some of the underlying ideas of the Pittsburgh Platform of the Reform Jewish movement in the US with parshat Hukat. I am familiar with the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, but didn’t know about the amended version of it that came out more than 110 years later.
At SBH I have made it a practice on the jahrzeit of one of my parents to give a biographical sketch of a prominent Jewish personality, one who most people may not know too much about. My father’s meldado is two days after Shavuot and this year, just a few weeks ago, I spoke on Rev. Henry Pereira Mendes, minister of Shearith Israel in New York from about 1878-1918.
Rev. Mendes was very much aware of the Pittsburgh Platform and the challenge it represented, which was one of the reasons that led him to found two important Jewish institutions, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations (OU). The JTS was established in 1888, and it opened up as an institution for training Orthodox rabbis, its first graduate was Rabbi Joseph Hertz. However, within ten years it veered off (especially after Solomon Schechter arrived) and so Rev. Mendes dropped his support of it. You might say the Yeshiva Universality was a more successful follow-on institution to JTS that got it right and kept to its original principles.
In about 1898 Rev. Mendes, along with his cousin, Rev. de Sola, the rabbi in Montreal, was instrumental in founding the OU and Rev. Mendes was the President of the OU for its first 10-15 years. Although born in the UK, he viewed the Pittsburgh Platform as a great threat to the continuity of Orthodox Judaism in the US, and so he sought ways of strengthening traditional Judaism through new but necessary institutions.
What this shows is that at least one rabbi of a Sephardic synagogue in the US, living through the era of the Pittsburgh Platform, recognized its dangers and did something about it. You use the philosophical side of the Platform to show how to avoid its rejection of traditional values and at the same time strengthen those traditional values.
For some time now, I have been outspoken about my aversion to the whole concept of "denominations" within the Jewish world. Opposition to the labels "Orthodox, Conservative and Reform" does not imply a monolithic view of the Jewish world. Far from it: Not only do differences in custom exist between Asheknazim and Sephardim, but the Jewish world is replete with different levels of observance, personal stringencies, and the like.
Perashat Hukat dwells at length on the mitzvah of the Red Heifer. Of all the laws of the Torah, the Red Heifer is the one that Shelomo Hamelech, King Solomon, could not totally wrap his mind around:"I said I will become wise, but it is beyond me." (Kohelet 7:23)
Para Aduma is a Hok, a law whose rational basis is unclear.
Rav Yosef Levinson writes that when a person observes a mitzva that he understands, as sincerely dedicated as that person is, the observance itself does not necessarily indicate that he has become an "Oved Hashem" - one who serves G-d. The litmus test of whether one is performing mitzvot as part of service of Hashem - is the Hok. When a practice lacks a degree of rational appeal, and we nevertheless commit ourselves to its observance, we exhibit faith in a source of wisdom beyond our understanding.
One of the first formal breeches in the Jewish people's national acceptance of Torah and mitzvot was the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885. Its drafters recognized "in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine." In other words, the Torah's laws had some value at the time. "....and today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization."
So the rule to determine what would remain binding Jewish practice was, "the views and habits of modern civilization."
The implications were clear: Kashrut - a classic Hok - was summarily erased with the fourth clause of the Platform, as were all laws governing the status of Kohanim: "We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation."
In 1999, a sequel to the original Platform was drafted. It was less radical, and represented a turn towards tradition, expressing more openness to learning: "We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community."
The message was less direct than in 1885, but it clearly implied: We will learn all the mitzvot, but we will not fulfill those mitzvot that fail to fully "speak to us."
Instead of dwelling on the perasha of the Red Heifer and accepting the challenge of becoming an "Oved Hashem" - much of the Jewish world sadly bought into a new system in which mitzvah fulfillment became conditional upon the mitzvah's ability to strike either a spiritual or logical chord in the heart and mind of the Jew.
It is from this change of course that we have never fully recovered, and from which we plummeted into the fallacy of "denominations".
Let us all use Perashat Hukat 5774 as an opportunity to recommit ourselves to the concept of a Hok, of a lofty Divine Mind that transcends our own.