Sefirat Haomer Part II-Joyful Anticipation

31 05 2011

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Eliezar Miller 

Sefirat Haomer Part II: Joyful Anticipation

Sanctity is achieved through immersion in Torah. Rav Pinchus Koritzer writes that the or haganuz (the hidden light) that Hashem concealed during creation, is hidden in the thirty six sections of the Shas. Learning Torah purifies our soul. In fact the Ramchal notes that if a rasha would learn Torah, he would repent, because the Torah awakens us, overtakes the evil inside of us, and brings us back to Hashem. The more effort we invest and the more desire we have to attain purity, the more Hashem will assist us. Rav Auerbach notes that there is a hint in the verse, “Lifnei mi atem mitaherim…. Before whom do you purify yourself and who will purify you….” Mi is the numerical equivalent of fifty. If we purify ourselves during the forty nine days of sefirah, Hashem will sanctity us on the fiftieth day, Shavuot.

After yetziat mitzrayim, the Jews had an awakening to sanctify themselves. Every year, Hashem sends down from above an abundance of purity.  We need only seize the opportunity. The Chafetz Chaim writes that when a Jew does a sin, the limb that performed the sin becomes impure. While some limbs are minor, damage done to the heart is critical and affects the whole body. Similarly, sinat chinam, which stems from the heart, draws impurity to one’s entire being. Sefira is the time to rectify this and work on loving every Jew.

In Devarim the Torah writes, “No impurity should be seen in you or I will depart from you.”  The Shechina leaves where there is immorality and immodesty. Conversely, it rests where there is kedusha. During sefira, a person must think about his moral conduct and dress and consider whether it is driving away the Shechina or bringing it closer.

Maintaining a level of kedusha entails drawing away from anything that is repulsive. This includes keeping one’s person and surroundings clean so the Shechina can dwell among us. Our natural instinct is to recoil from anything repulsive. This is the response of the inner holy spark within each of us that cannot tolerate impurity.

Before performing a mitzva we say, “Asher kidishanu, Who has sanctified us,” because all mitzvot purify us. There are 265 negative commandments and 348 positive commandments, which correspond to the limbs of our body. Every limb that performs a mitzva becomes a chariot for Hashem.

The Malbim says that a person can uplift himself above nature and connect to Hashem through bitachon. Trusting in Hashem causes Him to treat us in a supernatural way. Speaking in a refined manner purifies the heart. Our sages say, “Man is influenced by his actions.” Speaking about the ideas of our holy sages brings kedusha into the hearts of those listening.

In Lecha Dodi, we sing, “Shabbat is the fountainhead of blessing.” The more connected we are to Shabbat, the more sanctity we will imbibe. The Reishit Chochma writes that Shabbat is the source of holiness. We must draw from its kedusha for the rest of the week. The Chidah adds that when a person keeps Shabbat he attains such a holy level that drives away the impurity of his past sins.

May Hashem give us the ability to purify our hearts and souls in preparation for the great day of kabalat hatorah and may we merit to receive our true portion in Torah.

Shabbat Scenarios: Fit To Be Tied – More Applications of the Melacha of Koshair #3

23 05 2011

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Shimon Isaacson 

Shabbat Scenarios: Fit To Be Tied - More Applications of the Melacha of Koshair #3

Can you tie a knot on a Torah belt (gelilah) on Shabbat?

Today most shuls have clips or pre-tied belts, but the question may still come up. On Shabbat morning the knot is by definition temporary, as the Torah will be taken out again later in the day during Mincha. However, after Mincha the Torah will not be read again until Monday morning, thirty six hours later. According to the Rambam and the Rif it is still considered an ordinary temporary knot and it is permitted. According to Rashi, it is a quasi-permanent knot. There is a machloket if a quasi-permanent knot is a knot that is meant to last for more than a day or more than seven days. Therefore, the Mishna Berura advises against tying a knot meant to stay more than a day. However, in cases of need, there is room for leniency.

The Shulchan Aruch writes, based on the Rambam and the Rif, that tying a temporary knot for a mitzva is permitted. However, if the Torah will not be used again for more than six months, one should not tie such a knot on Shabbat.


Adjusting a necktie

Making a Half Windsor slip knot in a tie is permitted.  A Double Windsor knot could pose a problem as it is considered a more professional type of knot. There may be room for leniency based on a comment of Sharei Teshuva that discusses belts. A double knot on a raincoat belt is permitted because it is a loose, ordinary, temporary knot that is undone regularly. Both a belt and a tie are made of thick material which is usually tied loosely. However, tying a tight double knot on a women’s thin dress belt should be avoided.

Is it permitted to make a tight double knot on Shabbat with the intent to untie it that day?

Can you tie tzizit knots on Shabbat with the intent to untie it immediately after Shabbat?      According to the Pri Megadim, it is permitted as the knot is temporary. However, the Mishna Berura disagrees. Normally, people do not undo tzizit or tefillin knots.  If the nature of the knot is permanent, then an individual’s intent cannot nullify the intent of the masses. Therefore, such permanent kinds of knots should not be made on Shabbat even if they will be untied that day.


The Rambam writes that twisting twine together to make a thick rope is a derivative (tolda) of Koshair and is Biblically prohibited. Are twist-ties analogous to this? Rav Auerbach and Rav Elyashiv rule that it is prohibited, certainly if one does not intend to untie it. Other poskim disagree and permit it. In general one should avoid using twist-ties on Shabbat. However twisting the tie once is permitted.

Parshat Bechukotai: Blessings of the Torah

20 05 2011
Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hershel Reichman  

Parshat Bechukotai: Blessings of Torah

Parshat Bechukotai begins, “If you will walk in my statutes to keep my commandments and perform them.” We learn from this that there are three parts to Torah: l’amol, to work at it and study it; lishmor, to know it and protect it within ourselves through consistent review; and v’asitem, to practice it by actually living it. Many people suffer from a form of disconnect. They think that if they are already doing one of the three aspects of Torah then they do not need to do the rest. For instance, if they are practicing Torah, they do not need to study it, or if they are already studying, then review is unnecessary. The yetzer hara tries his best to throw us off.  We must not give in to these incorrect rationalizations. Instead, we must work to achieve a balance between all three aspects. Then we will merit the copious blessings enumerated further in the parsha.

The Shem Mishmuel explains that these three aspects of the Torah correspond to the three parts of the human soul: nefesh, ruach, neshama, the biological, emotional, and intellectual levels of our soul. Practicing Torah, v’asitem, rectifies our nefesh, our physical bodies. We put tefilin on our head and arm, we eat matzah, and we sit in the sukka. Our bodies are elevated through the mitzvot.

Aristotle viewed the physical side of man as sordid and the soul as noble. In contrast, the Rambam argued that man has the responsibility to turn this base side into something holy. Our physical selves are a receptacle for the Divine Image. We value life as holy. Doing good deeds with our bodies is the ultimate form of fulfilling Hashem’s will.

Ruach, emotion, is the second level. This corresponds to “Im bechukotai teleichu,” the work involved in keeping Torah. By devoting every extra moment of our time to the sacred obligation of learning Torah we emotionally invest in something precious to us. This is tikun ha’ ruach, rectifying our emotional soul. The highest level is yediat hatorah, knowledge of Torah. Our knowledge of Torah remedies the flaws of our neshama, the highest level of soul.

There are three categories of blessings in this parsha, physical bounty, emotional peace, and Hashem’s presence dwelling among us. These too correspond to the three components: nefesh, ruach, and neshama. If we perform mitzvot, we will merit children, life, and sustenance. If we invest our emotions in Torah, Hashem will bless us with emotional tranquility. Finally, if we know Torah, if we rectify our intellectual souls, Hashem will bless us with His presence. As we focus on the tikun of the three parts of the soul we achieve the purpose of our existence.

Similarly, the three parts of the soul correspond to Shabbat, Yom Tov, and Rosh Chodesh. Yom Tov is nefesh. Pesach is sustenance, Shavuot is the Torah which is called life, and Sukkot is the holiday of the family.

Rosh Chodesh is the power of ruach. The beginning of the moon’s renewal, it is the holiday of King David. King David suffered so much. He was driven away, forced to wander lost and alone, harassed and persecuted. Yet he merited to come back and to become the king of Israel. This is the power of the moon, its waxing and waning symbolizes the strength of ruach. Our faith and passion for Torah gives us the impetus to carry on through the travails and sufferings of exile.

Shabbat is neshama. It is a day of knowledge of Torah, when we come close to Hashem by studying His holy words. Our neshama senses the sanctity of the day as it unites with its source through the Torah.

Let us recommit ourselves to be ameilim b’Torah, to be passionate for Torah. Let us invest our time and effort to study His words and to practice what we’ve learned. In this way we will attain the ultimate blessing of neshama – that Hashem’s presence will dwell among us.

Lag B’aomer-Balancing The Individual And The Nation

16 05 2011
Based on a shiur by Rabbi Herschel Reichman

Lag BaOmer: Balancing the Individual and the Nation

During the weeks between Pesach and Shavuot we mourn the passing of the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva who were decimated in a plague. Why did they die? What caused the plague to cease on Lag B’aomer? What can we learn from this tragic episode?

The Gemara tells us that the students died because they did not give each other sufficient respect. The Shem Mishmuel discusses two contrasting approaches to understand this puzzling statement.

While the written Torah is limited, the oral Torah continues to evolve. Great Torah scholars with their own unique thinking continuously delve into the intricacies of Shas (the entire corpus of Talmudic teachings) and develop new and original Torah thoughts. Since this process involves the individual, it can lend itself easily to pride. Continuous disputes between scholars may lead to selfish vested interest. Developing one’s independent thinking, yet at the same time valuing another scholar’s view, is a challenge all Torah scholars have to grapple with.  Rabbi Akiva’s students became so enthralled in their own learning that they would not consider each other’s view. Each thought his own way was best. This may have been their flaw and why they were punished.

The Zohar writes that the students of Rabbi Akiva were a reincarnation of the 24,000 Jews of the tribe of Shimon who died in a plague in the desert. They were punished for rebelling against Moshe and for thinking that they understood Jewish law better than he did. Their self-centeredness drove them to their death. This same sin of egoism and pride spelled the death sentence for Rabbi Akiva’s students. Unfortunately, after being tested a second time they failed again. Similarly, the areas in which we see ourselves sinning time and time again are usually what we are on this world to correct. Hashem gives us the ability to conquer our urges and correct our failings. Sefira is an opportune time to rectify what needs fixing.

Shem MiShmuel offers an alternative, second explanation. Every Jew has a double role, to be an individual and to be a part of the collective nation. At Matan Torah, there was a total unification. Klal Yisrael was as one man with one heart. While receiving the Torah was a national event, the actual fulfillment of the mitzvot depends on each individual. Just as our body has many parts, but remains one integrated whole, we must see ourselves as a part of one national unit. Then there is no place for pride. The students of Rabbi Akiva understood this concept of unity incorrectly. They loved each other so much that they fused into a single entity. They did not see it necessary to give each other honor, just as a person would not give any extra respect to his own legs or hand. This may have been their sin.

The month of Nissan represents klal, the community. In this month, the nation’s Exodus from Egypt occurred. Iyar symbolizes the prat, the individual. In this month each Jew counts his own Omer. On Pesach Sheini, every person brings his individual sacrifice. Sivan is the resolution of prat and klal. The sign of Iyar is twins. Though the Torah was given to the Jewish nation, it was also given to every individual. Every Jew has his own personal share in Torah. As one universal whole, there is no room for pride. Yet on the individual level, we need to give each other honor. Rabbi Akiva’s students did not understand this delicate balance and therefore they were decimated.

Lag Ba’omer begins the last third of the Sefira period.  It corresponds to the last ashmora (third) of the evening, when light begins to filter into the world. Whether the students died because of too much prat or too much klal as they misinterpreted them, on Lag Ba’omer the perfect paradigm of Shavuot begins to be felt.

In many ways a husband and wife symbolize this symbiotic relationship. While they are two parts of one soul, they are still two separate individuals. Being as one is a powerful state, but runs the risk of not giving one’s spouse the proper respect. We need to realize that though we are meant to unite, we each have a unique contribution to make to our families and to the world.

This Lag Ba’omer, may we attain the perfect balance of prat and klal, not losing sight of each Jew’s precious individual worth, while uniting as one to serve Hashem.

Parshat Behar-The Earth’s Inner Reality

12 05 2011

Based on shiur by Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller

Parshat Behar discusses the mitzva of shemitta. What is the deeper meaning behind this unusual commandment?

Earth is finite and physical, while heaven is infinite and transcendental.  Because we are so involved in physicality, it is easy to get lost in it.  Somehow our material existence becomes real to us, while our spiritual essence remains vague and distant. Other religions preach that earth is the enemy and heaven is where your heart should be. In contrast, Judaism teaches that the earth was created to be the agent of our spiritual expression. This is especially true in the land of Israel. Indeed, Hashem chose to define us as a nation specifically there.

Everything physical has six sides: left, right, front, back, up, and down. The surface of reality is symbolized by six. The word six in Hebrew is shesh, two letter shin and atop the letters, six crowns – exactly the picture of six. Seven is inner reality, the part you don’t see. It is what gives something purpose and what makes it real and eternal.

In the seventh year, the farmers don’t work their land. They basically stop their daily business activities. By letting go of the cycle of earning and spending, one year out of seven, we can come to terms with the fact that there is something deeper and more purposeful than external reality. We become attuned to the Divine Providence that is specific to the land.

Many years ago I lived on a moshav in the north of Israel. There was a secular moshav nearby that employed Arabs to grow their flowers. The year before Shemitta, the Arab chief asked the non-religious moshav secretary to move their resources to something else other than flowers. The man refused and the next year they planted as always.  At first the rains were late in coming. This destroyed their first crop. After they replanted, the rain began falling in torrents and the seeds were swept downhill to the valley. They lost everything again.

When they asked the Arab chief how he had known, he answered, “Don’t you know? For Jews nothing really grows well in the seventh year.” He thought it was self-understood. In fact, the promise that this is how it will be is dependent on many factors including our collective level. Still it is something we can all see, at least to some degree.  Shemitta opens us up to the idea that there is an inner reality. During the year this reality becomes experiential, instead of just intellectual. Even those of us living out of Israel know it and learn it. By sensitizing ourselves to the intricate Divine Providence prevalent in our every-day life, the message of Shemitta will live on in our hearts.

Sefirat Haomer- Part II- Joyful Anticipation

9 05 2011

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Eliezar Miller 

Sefirat Haomer- Part II- Joyful Anticipation

The period of sefirat haomer leading up to Shavuot is an opportune time for self-rectification. The Zohar writes that we must purify our hearts to receive the Torah. In Sifsei Chaim, Rav Friedlander notes that success in Torah is not so much dependent on the ability of the mind, but rather on the heart. We ask Hashem, “Hu yiftach libeinu..” open our hearts to know your Torah. The heart is the seat of man’s desires. Yearning to grow in Torah stems from the heart. Purifying oneself leads to elevated desires.

The Naharei Eish points out that the way a person learns, depends on his heart. A pure heart will draw a person to learn lishma (for the sake of Heaven). He will not be influenced by other people. Rather he will cleave to Hashem and invest all his effort to fulfill His will. The Chazon Ish writes that if a person does not work to eradicate his ingrained evil middot, then even if he has a great mind, he will not grow in learning. This is because sinful traits close the gates of knowledge and understanding. One needs a refined eye and heart to truly understand Torah. The Meor Enayim adds that someone who is very materialistic will view Torah as divided between good and bad. Therefore we must purify ourselves during these weeks of sefira so that materialism will not blind us from seeing the clarity of Torah.

The Gemara writes about one who learns Torah, “Zoche sam hachaim, lo zoche sam hamaves“-If he is meritorious, then Torah is the elixir of life, if he is not meritorious, it becomes the potion of death. Zoche can also be translated as refined. A refined person who learns Torah tastes life, an unrefined person samples death.  The Gra compares Torah to rain. Rain will make both good and bad vegetation grow, depending on what was sown. Similarly, when a person studies Torah, if deep inside of him, he is pure, more good will result. If he is not, crookedness will emerge.

During Sefira, as we prepare to receive our portion in Torah, we ask v’ten chelkeinu-Give us our portion. Shavuot is a day of judgment, when it is determined how much Torah we will receive for the year. If a person works to purify himself before Kabalat Hatorah, he will receive a much greater portion.

Next week we will continue discussing the proper preparation for receiving the Torah.

Sefirat Haomer- The Inner Count Part 2

9 05 2011
Based on shiur by Mrs. Shira Smiles

Sefirat HaOmer - The Inner Count

What should our focus be during sefirah? Every individual must introspect and find the points that are lacking in his own individual avodat Hashem. It may be different for every person. Yet there are three approaches we can all take.

The first approach is the Mishna which tells us that Torah is acquired through forty eight ways. The Baalei Mussar recommend that a person work on a different middah every day. The forty ninth day is chazara (review).

The Bnei Yissachor offers a second approach. The Mishna in Avot tells us – Rav Elazar teaches that a lev tov is the most important middah. Lev is equivalent to thirty two. The first thirty two days of sefirah should be devoted to rectifying mitzvot ben adom l’chavero (between man and man). The last seventeen days corresponding to tov should be dedicated to mitzvoth ben adam l’makom (between man and man).

The third approach is based on a maxim by Rav Elazar Hakefar, “Jealousy, desire, and honor, remove a person from this world.” Just as we must repent for evil actions, we must repent for evil thoughts. The Beer Yosef writes that the korbon omer was brought at the very point when the mann ceased falling. The mann teaches us an important lesson connected to sefirah. Everyone received the exact portion of mann that they needed. From this we can deduce that there is no room for jealousy. If a person believes that what is meant for him he will receive and that no one can take what is his without Hashem’s consent, he will never suffer from envy. The second aspect is desire. Rav Shwab points out that when we count we must see ourselves as the barley being cut from the ground. We must lift ourselves off our materialism so that we can become a chariot for Hashem. The third dimension is respect. If we sensitize ourselves to our Divine image, our own internal aspect of kedusha, we will in turn recognize it within others and treat them with the proper kavod.

We begin with mashcheini – Hashem takes the lead. We then immediately move to narutza-we work towards coming back to the spiritual high of Pesach. Only then can we experience heve’ani-the lofty level of kabbalat ha’Torah. Yet we still need another Shabbat-an outpouring from Hashem, to raise us to the final pinnacle. That is why mi’macharat hashabbat is written twice. The first Shabbat hints to Pesach and the second Shabbat alludes to Shavuot.

Sefirat haomer is a mini paradigm of life- inspiration, hard work, and then inspiration again. We need not finish anything, but we must invest effort. Then Hashem will lift us up and help us finish the task.  Whether it is working on the forty eight ways, acquiring a lev tov, or uprooting jealousy, desire, and honor, we must toil and never give up. Then we will be blessed doubly with “mimacharat hashabbat,” with the siyata d’shmaya (divine support) to complete our destined mission.