Lechem Oni

29 03 2012

Based on a Naaleh.com shiur by Rabbi Shimon Isaacson 

The Torah refers to the matzah as lechem oni (the bread of affliction). The Gemara explains that it is lechem she’onim alav dvarim harbeh, bread over which we say many things. Accordingly, Rabbenu Chananel notes that we recite the hagadah over the matzah. Just as on Shabbat we say kiddush on a cupof wine in order to lend formality and significance to the words, the matzot add an aura of importance to the telling of the story of the exodus.

At the seder there are many foods and props we use to help us get into the mindset of re-experiencing the exile of Egypt. It’s not enough to retell the story. We have to feel as if we are living through it. We taste the bitterness of the maror dipped in brick mortar-like charoset, point to the shank bone symbolizing the korban pesach, and drink the wine of freedom. The matzot too help us remember how our forefathers rushed out of Egypt and how the dough did not have time to rise.

While the word oni in lechom oni is pronounced oni, the ktiv is ayin nun yud, which spells ani, a pauper. Just like a poor person cannot always afford a whole loaf of bread, we take the matzah and break it in two.

In hilchot chametz u’matzah, the Rambam rules that we do not make a blessing on two whole matzot as we usually do on yom tov because the law of lechem oni overrides lechem mishna. In practice, we do not follow this opinion. One matzah is broken at yachatz, and the two other complete matzot are used for motzi matzah.


Bringing Torah To Life: Making Pesach Meaningful

19 03 2012
Based on a Naaleh.com shiur by Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller

The essence of Pesach is sipur yetziat miztrayim.

With younger children ages three to six, it’s easy to get distracted with the drama of the story, so it is important to emphasize three main ideas: Hashem is constantly watching over us, He has the ability to transcend nature, and in the end, justice prevails. The wicked ultimately pay for their actions.

The story of the exodus is rich and complex. Although younger children have surely learned all about the plagues in school, they don’t always get the whole picture.

I once overheard one of my grandchildren talking about Avraham Avinu and the tent with four doors.   “I know why it had so many doors. If guests came and you didn’t like them, you could make them leave right away from any room in the house.” Apparently the teacher got across about the four doors but she didn’t quite make the connection about hachnasat orchim (inviting guests).

Tell your children how Yaakov and his children went down to Egypt. Slowly they forgot that they were different from the Mitzriyim. Discuss how we are not like the non-Jews. We know about Hashem and we follow His will. The Mitzriyim forgot how much Yosef had done for them. You can elaborate how a tzaddik is careful to show gratitude while someone who isn’t righteous doesn’t care to remember too much.

The evil Mitzriyim made the Jews work for them. Pharaoh fooled them into thinking it was a mitzvah. Bring the concept of slavery down to your child’s level. “Imagine what life was like for a little boy your age. He would get up in the morning from his bed of straw on the floor. He’d put on his old ugly clothes. He didn’t go to school. He had to work hard and even when he got tired he had to keep on going and sometimes he would get beaten. He’d stop only at night when he’d go home to rest and eat a bit.”

The Mitzriyim enslaved us because they saw that the Jews had so many children and they were afraid that soon there would be only Jews and no Mitzriyim left. We’d be stronger than them. But the real reason they tormented us was because they were evil. You can be dramatic about the suffering, but save the horrific pictures in the Hagadah for older children. It may frighten the younger set.

Pharaoh got worse. He ordered the babies boys thrown into the sea. At this age, kids won’t always understand what death is. You want them to know that killing someone is cruel and that it’s sad for the family. But you can’t be too graphic. Hashem saw how cruel Pharaoh was to the Jews. He heard the Jews’ cries and he selected Moshe to lead them out of Egypt. Moshe was special. When he was born the whole room was full of light. His mother saw that he was righteous, so she attempted to save him.

Talk about some of the tzadikim and tzidkaniyot of the generation. Tell them about Miriam, Yocheved, and Batya. This teaches them that no matter what happens, a person’s innate greatness and nobility can still shine through. Batya didn’t just shrug her shoulders and turn away. She said, “The baby is crying. I must help him.” She stretched out her hand and Hashem enabled her to reach Moshe. Don’t talk about how it got really long. It’s confusing at this age to think that Batya did something good and ended up looking weird.

Discuss how tzadikim do the right thing even when it’s hard. Have them give them examples from their own lives such as sharing their toys with their cousins or offering some of their snack to a friend.

Maggid: A Blueprint For Self

11 04 2011

Based on a Naaleh.com shiur by Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller

Maggid: A Blueprint For SelfMagid begins with the words “Ha lachma anya, This is the bread of poverty.” In what sense is matza the bread of poverty?  The Maharal explains that matzah is a simple food. It contains only two ingredients: flour and water. We should approach Pesach with simplicity.  Simplicity implies bitul hayesh, self-nullification. Self-discovery entails going back to being ourselves, which is what liberation is about.  Animals have no ambition and no yearnings. This kind of passivity is our enemy. In our hearts we have a whole menagerie which keeps us from discovering ourselves. The more we focus on our failures and disappointments, the more paralyzed we become.

We have to believe in ourselves. A person can make a decision to improve himself and Hashem will help him. This is contingent on telling Hashem, “I am who I am. I want to approach You with simplicity. Help me.” Receiving this level of siyata d’shmaya at the seder is encapsulated in “Ha lachma anya,” our statement of simplicity. At the end of this hymn, we invite all those in need to join our seder.  Although it is only a ceremonial statement, it teaches us an important lesson. Our goal should be to imitate the ways of Hashem. The animal self is passive. The spiritual self is active and wants to give. That is why we begin Magid with a declaration of kindness.

We proceed to Mah Nishtana. One of the mystic names of Hashem is Mah, the one who brings forth questions. Mah Nishtana questions a series of contrasting pairs: chametz and matzah, dipping out of pain and dipping as a sign of freedom, reclining as kings and eating the bitter marror. Although we live lives that are in some ways paradoxical, we must search with open hearts and admit that sometimes we do not know.

We then recite Avadim Hayinu, which tells how we were enslaved to Pharoh. Pharoh comes from the root word paruah, wild. The same letters spell oref, the back of the neck, the source of involuntary motion. Pharoh took us to the world of subconscious, where rational thinking was irrelevant and where there were no moral choices to make.  In Kabala, galut mitzrayim is called the exile of daat because we did not know who we were and what we were meant to accomplish.

If Hashem had not redeemed us we would still be enslaved to everything Pharoh stood for. Mitzrayim comes from the root word metzar, narrow straits. Egypt was a wide open place with no moral strictures to hold a person down. In truth, there is nothing more constricting than a wide open place. The endless possibilities paralyze a person from pursuing a life of growth. When we left Egypt and received the Torah, the strictures of the Torah opened us up to a life of purpose.

The Maharal notes that the enslavement was a step towards redemption. We often do not discover who we are until we figure out who we are not and who we do not want to be. In Egypt, the Jews learned that they did not want to be Egyptians. They did not desire broadness that was really narrow, or freedom of thought that was really enslavement to the subconscious. This rejection made the Jews free, together with the inspiration that came from above.

We continue the Hagadah with a discussion of the four sons. The four sons live within each of us at different times in our life. There are four different levels of awareness. The wise sonasks, What are all these mitzvos? What do the paths look like? He wants to know how to get from where he is to where he wants to be. Chochma comes from the words koach mah, the potential that lies in essence, rather than how it can be used or how it feels. Ultimately we have to come to a level of not speaking. We have to look for a higher awareness and channel it. That is what makes someone a chacham.

The rasha asks, “What is this service to you?” He calls Judaism avodah (service) and not halacha (Jewish law) because he does not see himself as going from one place to another. He has no destination, but lives in the present. It seems senseless to him to burden himself with seeking. The difference between a tzaddik and a rasha is that while the rasha sees only the top of the mountain, the tzaddik sees the path. He is willing to live in the world of process. The rasha lives only in the world of product. People become reshaim by being reactive and losing themselves. They allow their emotions to control them.

The Hagadah says that you should “grind the teeth” of the rasha. Teeth break large pieces into smaller pieces. Similarly, reshaim take ideas that are grand and trivialize them into nothing. We answer him with “Ba’avur zeh.” These halachot are important because they redeemed us from Egypt. They transformed us from living a life of constraint to one of walking with Hashem. Judaism is not avodah. Halacha, from the root word ‘halach‘, to go, takes us where we want to be. We have to learn to silence the rasha within us.

The Tam says, “Mah zot? What is this?” According to the Zohar, zot is the Shechina. The Tam asks, “Where is Hashem?” He wants a religious experience without having to keep halacha. We answer, “B’yad chazakah…” Hashem displayed miracles and took us out of Egypt. However, he did all this because he wanted us to take it further. Tam also means straightforward. Yaakov was an “ish tam,” he was the same inside and outside. Our simple self tells Hashem, “All I really want is to know you.”

The fourth son does not know how to ask. In today’s society, most people are incapable or unwilling to ask about Hashem. The biggest enemy in kiruv is apathy. Telling about our personal experiences and what has given us meaning can kindle a spark within the hearts of our lost brethren.

Pesach Inspiration

5 04 2011

Based on a Naaleh.com shiur by Mrs. Shira Smiles

Pesach: 4 minutes of Inspiration

Our Rabbis teach us that Yaakov received the brachot from Yitzchak on the night of Pesach. Yitzchak specifically chose this time because on this night the heavenly vaults of blessing are open. On the outside we may appear like Esav, we may feel very far from Hashem, yet the night of Pesach gives us the strength to transform ourselves into Yaakov. We can tap into the profound, inherent, power of the Seder night and reach unimaginable levels.

Yitzchak gave Yaakov the blessing of hakol kol Yaakov, the power of expression. On this night, we can use our ability of speech to connect with Hashem.  In the Hagadah, we recite, “V’chol hamarbe l’saper.” The more we recount at the Seder night, the more uplifted we become. It is not only an opportunity to tell over the story of the Exodus, but a unique time to pray. In particular, since the Seder focuses primarily on the children, it is a night to daven for them and for future generations.

When Yaakov entered the chamber of Yitzchak, the fragrance of Gan Eden accompanied him. A vestige of this otherworldly scent returns to us on the evening of Pesach. Hashem descends to each of our seders. There is a custom to wear a kittel on this holy night. Like the Kohen Gadol who entered the Holies of Holies, we too can enter into an experience of Kodesh Kodoshim. This night, when Yaakov received the brachot, when the heavens are open, is an opportunity for each of us to soar to greater heights, no matter what our external trappings may be. It is a night when we can rededicate our voices to Torah and tefilah. We have the ability to ask Hashem for whatever our hearts truly desire. May we merit abundant blessings from above.

Parshat Tazria: Fresh Beginnings

1 04 2011

Based on Rabbi Hershel Reichman’s shiur  on Chassidut on Naaleh.com

Parshat Tazriah: Fresh Beginnings

In his essay on Parshat Tazriah, the Shem MiShmuel cites a verse from Tehilim, “Achor v’kedem tzartani. You have created me back and front.” Rav Yochanan explains that this refers to two worlds, olam hazeh and olam habah. This world is kedem, the first world. The next world is achor, the final world. If a person lives his life in a way that gains him entrance from this world to the next, he has fulfilled his purpose. If he does not, he will need to answer for why he failed in his mission.

Olam hazeh is about overcoming challenges. It is the preparation for olam habah, the ultimate goal. Unfortunately many of us are under the influence of the non-Jewish world, which espouses the view that this world is the only world and that you should “enjoy life while you have it.” In reality, olam hazeh is finite. Its pleasures are nothing but a fleeting shadow. Our focus in this world should really be on acquiring eternity, the next world.

Life is comprised of struggles. It takes effort to make progress. The Shem Mishmuel notes  that beginnings are usually filled with excitement and enthusiasm. There is a special burst of energy at the start of a new school year, the early months of marriage, and the commencement of a new job. This is built into the human psyche. Our challenge is to maintain this spirit, not only at the outset, but throughout the process.

Hashem gave us two special days, Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh. The days of the week are olam hazeh, kedem, a preparation. Shabbat is olam habah, achor, the ultimate purpose.

Rosh Chodesh is chiddush, a new beginning. We do not concern ourselves with past failures and disappointments. We start afresh with renewed vigor and excitement. King David is the soul of Rosh Chodesh. The central point of his personality was teshuva, for with the power of repentance we can change and achieve greatness. On Rosh Chodesh, when the new moon appears, we re-experience the joy of renewal and teshuva.

Shabbat is the achor, the goal.  Shabbat envelops (makif) the entire week. It contains the energy of all the holidays. Rosh Chodesh is the kedem, the power of renewal and inspiration.

Zachor and shamor represent two aspects of Shabbat. Shamor is the kedem, the preparation for a higher level. Zachor is the achor, the energy of Shabbat. Shabbat contains the spark to begin anew, but it is also the ultimate goal and the resting place of the Jewish soul. The start of Shabbat is shamor, we depart from olam hazeh and ascend to a level of olam habah. Kiddush is zachor, when we soar to heights beyond where angels can reach. Shabbat is an intense otherworldly light.

Rosh Chodesh is this world. It tells us we can begin again. In Nissan, when the Jewish nation was reborn, Hashem commanded them, “Hachodesh hazeh lachem.” It was the first mitzva given to a comatose nation sunk in the forty nine levels of impurity. It was the impetus that transformed them into a fiery ball of spiritual energy willing to take the paschal lamb at the risk of death and following Hashem into a barren desert.

When we commemorate Rosh Chodesh Nissan we re-experience tremendous renewal. Adam was created on Rosh Chodesh Nissan. On the verse, “Vayehi adam l’nefesh chaya, He breathed into man a living spirit,” the Targum translates a living spirit as ruach m’malela, a talking soul. The essence of man is the ability to express himself. The Ari Hakadosh writes that the Exodus of Egypt redeemed our power of speech.

The seder night is an evening of song, praise, and thanks to Hashem. As free men we recount the story of our redemption and use our ability of expression to connect with Hashem.

In Tehilim, King David asks Hashem, “Create for me a pure heart and renew within me a proper spirit.” The first step is to purify our hearts from all the accumulated blockages and impurities. Only then can we merit a proper spirit. Parshat Parah purifies our unresponsive hearts. Parshat Hachodesh, which follows directly after, is the excitement of renewal.

On the Seder night we re-experience the exhilaration of yetziat Mitzrayim, the beginning of the journey of marriage between Klal Yisrael and Hashem. That was the time when we set out on the road to Sinai to accept the Torah.

May we hold on to the joy and energy of Pesach and may it carry us onward through the year as we work to accomplish the achor, the goal of creation.

Parshat Beshalach: Emancipation of the Mind and Heart

14 01 2011

Based on a Naaleh.com shiur by Rabbi Hershel Reichman

Parshat Beshalach: Emancipation of the Mind and Heart

The Midrash writes, Hashem tells Israel, “Remember the day of Shabbat as you should remember the Exodus of Egypt.” Just as the seven days of creation culminate with Shabbat, so too the first and last of the seven days of Pesach are compared to Shabbat. How do we understand this? Additionally, we see that the redemption was accomplished by both Moshe and Aharon.  However, once the Jews left Egypt, only Moshe remained as the sole leader. What happened to Aharon? Thirdly, why is Moshe praised as a  “chacham lev,” for performing the mitzvah of taking Yosef’s bones out of Egypt, while the Jews who were also involved with the mitzvah of taking gold and silver from their Egyptian neighbors, are not called so.


To answer this, the Avnei Nezer notes that when the Jews took the gold and silver, they received a certain level of holiness for performing the deed.  In contrast, Moshe’s mitzvah did not generate any additional kedusha and therefore it was considered a greater act of divine service. This teaches us that doing a simple mitzvah with alacrity and enthusiasm is more beloved to Hashem than a mitzvah that comes with an automatic spiritual high.


The Shem Mishmuel explains that the souls of the Jews in Egypt were a reincarnation of the souls of the dor hamabul (generation of the Flood) and the dor haflaga (tower of Bavel.)  Dor hamabul faltered with sins of the heart-immorality and theft.  Dor haflaga sinned with the mind-they rebelled against Hashem. In Egypt, the Jews rectified the sins of the heart. They exemplified themselves in areas of morality.  Moshe represented the power of the mind while Aharon symbolized the heart.  The Exodus was in a sense taking the Egyptian mentality out of the Jews. For that, both Moshe and Aharon were needed to liberate both the corruption of lev and moach. However, the redemption came too early. The Jews had not managed to rectify their idolatrous mindset. Once they were already freed, Aharon’s role in the Egyptian exile was completed as the hearts of the Jews were already pure.    At the splitting of the sea, when the Jews saw the downfall of Pharaoh and his henchmen, their idolatrous mentality collapsed. “And they believed in Hashem and in Moshe his servant.”  In a sense, Moshe engineered this and the Jewish people only participated in Moshe’s mindset and knowledge of Hashem. The Shem MiShmuel explains that sometimes a person needs the elevated connection of a tzaddik to inspire him to greater heights. However in order for the tzaddik’s inspiration to have lasting power, the person himself must toil and sweat to acquire these levels. And indeed we see that although the Jewish people reached enormous heights at the Yam Suf, it was not a tikkun gamor (a complete fixing) and they sinned with the Golden Calf shortly after.

What is the double Shabbat referred to on Pesach? The first day is a celebration of the heart which was rectified in Egypt. The second Shabbat signifies the mind of Moshe, absolute belief in Hashem, which was  temporarily achieved at the Yam Suf.  The third Shabbat will be when Mashiach will come and we will celebrate the final rectification.  Jewish faith and belief in Hashem will then be rooted deeply in the heart of every Jew, acquired through thousands of years of their own toil, effort, and suffering. It is then that the Jewish nation will reach the level of chaya and yechida-the ultimate point where both mind and heart, now completely rectified, will merge in an overwhelming  symphony and ode to Hashem.

Adding to Shabbat

14 01 2011

Based on a Naaleh.com shiur by Rabbi Michael Taubes

Adding to Shabbat

In Parshat Vayakhel, the Torah tells us, “Six days you shall work and on the seventh day you shall rest.” When does the seventh day actually begin? Can one accept Shabbat early? The earliest time when one can voluntary accept Shabbat is plag mincha, approximately one and half hours before sunset.  It has become accepted in many communities to have an early minyan for Kabbalat Shabbat, especially during the long summer days when nightfall is very late. If the Torah specifically says that Shabbat begins on the seventh day, and since in Jewish law the next day is only counted from nightfall, how can one accept Shabbat when it is still day?


The origin of accepting Shabbat early is a verse in Parshat Emor that relates to Yom Kippur. “V’initem et nafshoteichem… You shall afflict your soul on the ninth of the month in the evening.” The Gemara asks, if Yom Kippur begins on the ninth day at night then shouldn’t the Torah refer to it as the tenth day. Why mention the ninth? The Gemara answers, “Mosifin m’chol al kodesh. The weekday is added to the holy day.” We begin fasting while it is still day. Indeed, most shuls commence Kol Nidrei before sunset. The Gemara adds that all holy days during which we refrain from work fall under the category of mosifin, we begin early and end late.


The Rambam, however, records this law with regard to Yom Kippur only and does not mention it in relation to Shabbat and Yom Tov. The Kesef Mishna explains that the Rambam held that tosefet Shabbat was neither a d’oraita nor a d’rabanan obligation.  The Radvaz disagrees and explains that the Rambam did hold that this law applied to Shabbat. He only mentions it in relation to Yom Kippur because it is implicit that since Shabbat is holier than Yom Kippur it would most certainly apply to Shabbat. L’halacha, there are significant opinions that hold that one should add on to Shabbat and one may certainly do so if one wants to.


The Maharshal asks, if one davened Maariv on Friday night while it was still daylight, can one still count the Omer? He answers that something related to Shabbat can be done after accepting Shabbat even though it is still daylight. However, something dependent on actual nightfall like Sefirat Haomer, must be done after tzeit hakochavim.  Similarly, if one davened Maariv while it was still day, he is obligated to repeat Shema after nightfall.


The Maharshal rules that one should not accept Shemini Atzeret early, since the two competing days would raise a problem of whether to recite a bracha before eating in the Sukkah.


The general consensus among many poskim is not to accept Shavuot early as the verse specifically states, “sheva shabotot temimot,” seven complete weeks. However, the Taz disagrees and counters that once one accepts the Yom Tov it automatically becomes seven complete weeks.


There is a disagreement among the Baalei Hatosfot if one can accept Pesach while it is still day. One opinion allows it. Others disagree based on the verse, “V’yochlu et hapesach b’layla hazeh.” The sacrifice must be eaten at night. Since matzot and marror have the same halacha as korban Pesach it must be eaten after dark. Can one still accept Pesach early if he argues that it will take untill nightfall to eat the matzot and marror? According to the Terumat Hadeshen anything unique to Pesach must be performed in the evening. This would include Kiddush and the four cups of wine. Technically, one can daven earlier, but the Seder must begin when it is definitely nightfall. Similarly, one cannot accept Sukkot early because the Gemara draws a correlation between the first night of Sukkot and Pesach.


The Taz notes that the obligation to eat three meals on Shabbat is derived from the verse that repeats the word hayom, this day, three times. The question then arises, does tosefet Shabbat allow a person to eat the Shabbat meal when it is still day, or does it only permit one to pray the Shabbat davening? Some opinions hold that one can eat the meal and others disagree. The Mishna Berura suggests that one extend the meal into the night and eat a kzayit after dark.


To summarize, one can accept kedushat Shabbat and Yom Tov earlier, as tosefet Shabbat has the power to transform a mundane weekday into a sanctified day. However, it does not transform the astronomical aspect of the day and therefore, any mitzva that is connected to nightfall must be performed after the stars emerge.

On Yom Kippur Hashem Welcomes Us Back as His Children

13 09 2010

The following inspiring Yom Kippur article is based on a Naaleh.com class by Rabbi Michael Taubes

One of the most moving and inspiring highlights of the Yom Kippur davening is Kol Nidrei. We preface this prayer with the words, “Al daas Hamakom, v’al daas hakahal. With the approval of the Omnipresent and with the approval of the congregation.” “Hamakom” is one of the names of Hashem, which connotes that He is found in every place. Why do we specifically refer to Hashem here as “Hamakom?”

Rav Soloveitchik explains that we find the name “Hamakom” used in situations where we might think that Hashem is far away. We comfort mourners with the verse “Hamakom yinachem eschem.” We remind a person grieving over a loved one that Hashem is right there with him, feeling his pain, and that he will help him through this tragedy. Similarly, in our prayers on Monday and Thursday we say, “Hamakom yirachem aleheihem,” where we pray for people who are suffering. In times of affliction one can very easily succumb to feelings of abandonment. Therefore we emphasize that Hashem never leaves us and
that He will always stand by us come what may. During the Pesach seder we recite, “Baruch Hamokom baruch hu.” Here too, while we recount the torment of our forefathers in the midst of Egyptian enslavement, we refer to Hashem as Hamakom.

On Yom Kippur we may think that our many sins have formed a barrier between us and Hashem and that He is now far away from us. Therefore we use the name Hamakom. We inject that element of chizuk and accentuate that He is still here with us waiting patiently for our return as a loving father welcoming his wayward son back home.

Lag Ba’omer

3 05 2010

Based on a Naaleh.com shiur by Mrs. Shira Smiles

Lag B'aomer

What is it the unique power inherent in Lag Ba’omer and how can we utilize this special day to grow in our avodat Hashem?

Rav Schwab in Maarchei Lev notes that there are two verses that mention the mitzva of sefira. One verse commands us to begin counting seven weeks when the barley sacrifice is offered. The second verse tells us to count forty nine days towards Shavuot.

Rav Schwab explains a significant difference between these two verses. Weeks refer to the physical world of nature, in which Hashem dictates reality. Days refer to spiritual realm, which is dependent on the actions of man.

The korban omer was brought on Pesach. The central motif of Pesach is emuna in Hashem and belief in Divine Providence. We need to do our hishtadlut but ultimately, Hashem is the one who gives us everything. Pesach is also the time when the mahn stopped falling. We can endeavor to collect a little or a lot of mahn, but ultimately a person will only receive what is divinely destined for him. Rav Schwab explains that the omer was a tenth of an eifa, a tiny amount of the most basic type of barley.  This also intimates that man is puny, as is his offering, and we do not have the ability to give Hashem anything.

In the physical realm, the world of weeks, Hashem is in charge. However, the spiritual realm, the world of days, is dependent on the avoda of man’s soul. The Baal Shem Tov explained the maxim in Pirkei Avot, “Da ma l’maaleh mimcha” to mean that whatever happens is really a direct repercussion of man’s actions. What exists above is from you, from your actions. Just as giving tzedaka provides sustenance to needy people, it also activates a flow of Divine sustenance onto this earth. Man has tremendous power and his mitzvot can leave an indelible impact on the world.

On Pesach we are obligated to see ourselves as if we left Mitzrayim. Mitzrayim symbolizes meitzarim, narrow straits. Sefira is about leaving our natural confines. It’s about finding ourselves and discovering the unique aspect within each of us. Allowing our spiritual selves to grow corresponds to days.

“Avraham ba bayim.” Our forefather Avraham came with his days. The Zohar explains that he took each of his days and offered it up to Hashem. Man creates his life by virtue of the accomplishments of each of his days. This is why we count days during sefira. Each day is important as it gradually builds towards Shavuot.
The Kozhnitzer Maggid notes that the first three weeks of sefira correspond to the three matzot at the seder, and the last four weeks relate to the four cups of wine. The fifth week, the week of Lag Ba’omer, symbolizes the second cup of wine, which is poured at Mah Nishtana. There we say, “Kan haben shoel,” here the son asks. We are all children of Hashem, and Lag Ba’omer is an auspicious time to daven. It is a day when Hashem’s intense love for us burns passionately, and when the gates of heaven are flung open to accept our supplications. May we merit to tap into the greatness of this day and may Hashem respond to all of our prayers.

Sefirat Haomer: Joy & Mourning

16 04 2010

Sefirat Haomer: Joy & Mourning

Based on a Naaleh.com shiur by Rabbi Beinush Ginsburg

The seven weeks of sefira connect Pesach to Shavuot. The central goal of Yetziat Mitzrayim was to receive the Torah. We were taken out of Egypt so we would be free to serve Hashem. This is expressed with the mitzva of sefira.

Rav Hirsch explains that on Pesach the Jews primarily experienced physical freedom, which is symbolized by the korban omer. Barley, commonly used as animal fodder, signifies physicality. The shtei halechem, the wheat bread sacrifice offered on Shavuot, symbolizes spiritual freedom. The Jews did not achieve complete freedom until they received the Torah. On the fiftieth day, when they finally attained the pinnacle of spiritual purity, they approach Hashem with human food. Rav Hirsch writes that the day after the Jews left Egypt they began to count sefira. This further demonstrates that the Exodus was only the beginning. It was not the goal.

The Orchot Chaim explains that we do not recite shehechiyanu on the mitzva of sefira because the shechiyanu on Shavuot covers it. The whole purpose of sefira is to count towards Shavuot. Therefore, no separate bracha is required.

Additionally, although there is a special mitzva to rejoice on the shalosh regalim, the Torah does not mention it in relation to Pesach. This is because the simcha of Pesach isn’t complete until Shavuot. The entire goal of Pesach is Matan Torah. The Ramban in Vayikra refers to sefira as chol hamoed. These seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot link the two holidays together. Chazal refer to Shavuot as “atzeret.” Atzeret means to stop and hold on. It is usually used in connection to the closure of Yom Tov where we are exhorted to hold on to the holiness that was gained during the holiday. Shavuot is atzeret because it is the end of the period of Pesach and sefira.

Sefira is both a joyous and mournful time. As we happily anticipate Matan Torah, we mourn the passing of the students of Rabbi Akiva. Why did they die specifically during this time period? The Hegyonei Halacha explains that to properly prepare for receiving the Torah, a person must work on his middot. Indeed there is a custom to study Pirkei Avot during sefira. We need to think about why we are in aveilut, internalize the reason, and work to rectify our failings. The Gemara writes that the students died because they did not properly respect each other. These seven weeks are an opportune time to work on our relationships bein adam l’chavero.

We can learn from the death of the students of Rabbi Akiva the importance of mesora and how we have to be careful to keep it perfectly intact. Rav Aharon explains that if these students would have lived they would have been the future Tannaim and the baalei mesora. Respecting our friends means having objectivity to accept the truth of another opinion even if you did not think of that idea first. Rav Aharon explains that the students had a problem with their learning. They could not put aside their personal ego to concede their friend’s position even if it was true. If they would have lived, their mesora would have been corrupted because they were lacking in middot. Instead of passing on a corrupted tradition, they died.

The lofty weeks of sefira are meant to help us gradually ascend the ladder of self development so that ultimately we can reach the holy day of Shavuot with pure hearts ready to receive the Torah anew.