Coronavirus and Maintaining Belief in Challenging Times

Many in my large Jewish community have lamented the closure of our Shuls and schools in the face of the devastating Coronavirus cutting a deadly path across our nation. I am among them. Yet I tend to react to difficult situations with what I am sometimes told is ill-advised humor. I first said, in jest, that COVID-19 was a hint that we as a people are showing a lack of respect – “covid” in a certain imprecise Hebrew dialect – for Yom Tov, holidays, as hinted at in the number 19 (יט = יום טוב). A colleague of mine suggested in response that 19 is a hint to the Shemoneh Esrei prayer, and that we are showing a lack of respect in our prayers. (I think she was kidding. I hope so anyway.)

In any event, as I have written here before, I am a habitual Shul-goer, and I try to go every day of the week, twice or three times a day as needed. So the news that I would be Davening from home for a while hit me hard, as it did so many others. The first morning alone in my living room, thinking of all of the Tefillot that we cannot say at home, I said to myself, “Well, at least we can say Keil Melech Ne’eman before Shema.” It started as another of those misplaced jokes – how could a single three-word phrase stand in for Kaddish, Kedusha, and Borchu? Until I realized, the more I thought about it, that it wasn’t a joke at all, and that perhaps it can.

The interpolation of the phrase Keil Melech Ne’eman before Shema when praying without a Minyan is not one to sneeze at, and it may be more critical an addition at this time than any of the Tefillot that we are omitting by Davening at home. Consider the stark language of the Anaf Yosef, a commentary on the Siddur, explaining this phrase in this context before Shema:

אל מלך נאמן – אל – פירוש, תקיף, בעל היכולת והחסדים. מלך – פירוש, משגיח בעמו כמלך בצבאיו. נאמן – פירוש, ליפרע, ונאמן לשלם שכר טוב למתהלכים לפניו. אם כן, נכללו כאן ג’ עיקרים: מציאות השם ויכלתו – אל. והשגחה – מלך. ושכר ועונש – נאמן.

G-d, trustworthy King – Keil (G-d) – Meaning [that He is the] Ruler, the One who has the most ability and the most kindness. Melech (King) – Meaning [that] he watches over His nation like a king watches over his soldiers. Ne’eman (Trustworthy) – Meaning [that He can be trusted] to pay back, and that He can be trusted to pay good reward for those who follow in His ways. If so, this phrase includes three major principles: The existence of G-d and His abilities – Keil (G-d). And that He watches over us – Melech (King). And reward and punishment – Ne’eman (Trustworthy).

Taken this way, it is hard to think of a more evocative three-word phrase, or one more apt for us to say and internalize at this critical juncture. Perhaps at this time, Hashem didn’t view it as a challenge that we say Kedusha, Kaddish, or Borchu with a Minyan. Those are relatively easy. But what a challenge it is for any person of faith to look at the situation unfolding around him and to be able to say these words properly. Can such a person truly say that Hashem is the most kind, when so many families will be without their loved ones as a result of this virus? Can we look around as an invisible enemy perpetrated by Hashem Himself haunts millions and say that He is truly watching over us as a king protects his legions of soldiers? Can we still believe that Hashem pays back those who love Him at the very moment that He has seemingly cut off Tefillah B’tzibbur, public prayer, the most trusted avenue for our communication with Him? What message are we to glean from all of this, if not that He is unkind, uninterested, and unaffectionate? And yet we are presented at this very moment with this unique challenge: set aside your Kedusha, your Kaddish and your Borchu to sit in your home and say – and believe, if you can – that Hashem is kind, interested, and affectionate. That is the challenge of our time.

The origin of adding Keil Melech Ne’eman before the Shema without a minyan is unclear; the Bach in his commentary on the Tur cites the Rokeach and implies that it is an ancient custom equating to an “Amen” response (אל מלך נקמן) to the Beracha before it, thus only necessary when one is without a Chazzan to whom one can answer Amen properly. The Beit Yosef opines that the phrase was originally added universally (with or without a minyan) to bump up the number of words in Shema from 245 to the magical 248, the number of positive Mitzvot and limbs in the body, but was eventually replaced by the Chazzan (except when there isn’t one) repeating “Hashem Elokeichem Emet” at the end of Shema. Rav Soloveitchik is reported to have been opposed to the addition of this phrase (see the Rosh Hashana Machzor with Rav Soloveitchik’s commentary, Hanhagos HaRav, #24, p. xlix). This was surely the result of a Halachic mind concerned with avoiding a hefsek, interruption, between the Beracha before Shema and Shema itself. It is also, perhaps, the product of a 20th-century American mindset in which one would almost never legitimately be cut off from public prayer anyway, besides the occasional plane trip on Lufthansa. Yet what likely made the Anaf Yosef so forceful and evocative in his stirring comment on this phrase is that, as he knew all too well living in 19th-century Poland, the majority of situations in which the faithful Jew would be called upon to pray alone would be ones which would call upon him to dig deep into the reservoir of his faith and challenge him to set aside nagging doubts, instead calling out from his hideaway, attic, or bunker that Hashem is kind, involved, and loving despite all available evidence to the contrary. If there are no avowed atheists in foxholes, there are many silent ones in hidden annexes, as the history of Russian Jewry can well attest.

In our blessed lives, we are rarely called upon to find this same measure of faith within us. We are taught not to judge Holocaust survivors who lost their faith, with the implication being that any one of us may have emerged from that hell the same as they. We pray comfortably in our safe Shuls, rarely needing to truly take the temperature of our faith as so many before us needed to gauge theirs. This moment is an opportunity to do just that. Let us say this phrase with particular concentration – not in spite of its philosophical difficulty, but because of it. And as the world struggles to overcome a bacterial virus, let us struggle to overcome our own spiritual adversaries from the confines of our home, from where we will soon emerge en masse and return to our Shuls, stronger than ever.

Posted in Communal Matters, Tefillah | Leave a comment

Jewish Unity and Parshat Shemot

As the young nation unified by its harmony at the end of Sefer Bereishit turns to one enslaved in Sefer Shemot, we are informed that it is in the same spirit of unity that the Jews descend to Egypt:

וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הַבָּאִים מִצְרָיְמָה אֵת יַעֲקֹב אִישׁ וּבֵיתוֹ בָּאוּ׃

These are the names of B’nei Yisrael, as they are coming to Egypt, of Ya’akov, each man came with his household.

Yet a curious thing happens in the ensuing few Pesukim. The names of the sons (eleven out of twelve, sans Yosef) are divided into three separate verses, comprising four, three, and four names respectively. Of further note is the fact that the names are not given in chronological order, as we might have expected.

רְאוּבֵן שִׁמְעוֹן לֵוִי וִיהוּדָה׃

יִשָּׂשכָר זְבוּלֻן וּבְנְיָמִן׃

דָּן וְנַפְתָּלִי גָּד וְאָשֵׁר׃

The first verse, ending with a vav to indicate that it comprises a complete group, is the original sons of Leah. The second, likewise ending with a vav, is the later sons of Leah and the one son of Rachel besides Yosef. Finally, taking up the rear, we have the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, each containing a conjunctive vav to show that each of those two groups is distinct from the other as much as it is isolated from the earlier groups.

Why are these names divided into three Pesukim instead of one, and ordered not by chronology but by their mothers, as if this is still an important distinction when their mothers are so long out of the picture?

Remember that the Parsha began by referring to the Jews as B’nei Yisrael, a unifying name which is undercut by the presentation in the Pesukim which follow, where we meet the Jews not as equal sons of Ya’akov but as children of four different mothers – first Leah, then Rachel, then the maidservants. In fact, in between we are told that the Jews came as “אִישׁ וּבֵיתוֹ,” implying again that the way in which the Jews entered their seminal slavery experience was not one of unity but one in which each family was essentially isolated from the others and viewed itself as a nation unto itself. But in Pasuk 7, we are again told that it was “בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל” who flourished in Egypt and who Pharaoh came to see as a threat to his nation’s existence.

From the perspective of God in Pasuk 1, we are “בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.” From the perspective of Pharaoh in Pasuk 7, we are likewise “בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.” Yet internally, we choose to follow a perilous path by viewing ourselves not as בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, but as members of smaller factions, each of which is powerless to overcome the negative spiritual influences of Egypt or the creeping reality of slavery. The Jews making their way down to Egypt saw themselves not as בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, but as members of a household and as members of tribes ranked higher or lower due to an accident of birth. Lacking the unity required of us and imagined of us by others, we are powerless to overcome the pitfalls placed in our way by the other nations who seek to torment us. The theme is clear, and it has been clear throughout history: Even when we subdivide ourselves into factions – by birth mother in the past, by denomination today – to God above, and to the world around us, we are one nation.

It has been said that there were no Orthodox Jews in the concentration camps, no Conservative Jews, no Reform Jews – only Jews. It has often taken distress and persecution to remind us of this message: If we cannot remember our unity, we will be reminded of it by the rest of the world. The Jews making their way down to Egypt, looking self-consciously over their shoulders to ensure that they were not too close to “those people,” were not in a position to overcome what was about to befall them. We would do well to learn this lesson ourselves as these two destabilizing and parallel forces, factionalism from within and anti-Semitism from without, rear their ugly heads yet again in our society. May we find the strength within us to overcome both before it is too late.

Posted in Parshat Hashavua | Leave a comment

Some Suggestions for Daf Yomi Cycle #14

With the end of Daf Yomi cycle #13 upon us this January and cycle #14 beginning immediately thereafter, we will soon find ourselves awash with celebratory tributes and articles extolling the extraordinary growth of the program and Talmud Torah itself by proxy. We will surely hear again how an idea floated in 1923 by Rabbi Meir Shapiro has transformed the Jewish world, as the Daf Yomi itself has mushroomed over the past few cycles alone from a fledgling start-up to one in which hundreds of thousands participate every day. The purpose of this article is not to cast aspersions on any of these claims or to bolster them either. I would like to call attention not to whether people should participate in Daf Yomi but to how they should do so. And in this, I must admit that I am a victim of my training and my craft; you can take the middle school teacher out of the classroom, but you cannot take the classroom out of the middle school teacher.

I have observed and participated in several Daf Yomi shiurim over the years, in many different locations, but I use the word “participated” loosely. If I taught my middle school classes the way that most Daf Yomi shiurim are taught, I would be fired, and for good reason. Daf Yomi shiurim, by and large, are models of the poorest of pedagogy. They generally consist of one person reading the Daf to everyone else in attendance and accepting their questions if they have any. No one else reads. The teacher does not check for understanding, summarize the Daf orally or with a handout, or emphasize the most salient or important points along the way or at the end. There is no means of accountability on the part of the students, who mostly could not pass a quiz on the day’s Daf – to say nothing of yesterday’s – if they were given one. People can attend a Daf Yomi shiur for many years and, for all we know, not be able to translate the most basic Gemara terminology on their own. Is such a person a successful product of the Daf Yomi movement? I will leave it to others to determine if watching someone else learn counts as Talmud Torah, but it is far from clear what the majority of Daf Yomi attendees are accomplishing, despite their obviously good intentions and those of their teachers.

The good news is that we can do better. Just as ArtScroll is credited with enhancing Daf Yomi when they published their set serially two cycles ago, we can make cycle #14 one in which we begin to rethink what is going on pedagogically in Daf Yomi shiurim and begin to improve the learning experience for those in attendance. As we say in my field, it is time to “turn students into learners.” Here are some specific suggestions:

(1) Give ten minutes at the beginning for chevruta time on the beginning of what will be learned that day, or ten minutes at the end for chevruta time to review some of what was learned, or ten minutes at the beginning to review the end of yesterday’s Daf. Hearing oneself read enhances engagement and forces the learner to grapple honestly with whether he can credibly translate key terms and phrases that will invariably come up even in the first several lines of the Gemara. If he is slightly confused by what he reads, that frustration becomes the grist for what he is looking to sharpen as the public part of the shiur proceeds. The teacher (or perhaps we can begin to use the more in-vogue term “facilitator”) can supply a short glossary of key terms to keep the learners on track during this short chevruta exercise.

(2) Strategically, particularly after a short or easy sugya, have a member of the group re-read what was just learned to the group. Alternatively, if the next few lines are not as challenging, have an attendee (perhaps one with a bit more learning experience) read them for the group instead of the teacher reading them, or break up into chevrutot again for a few minutes before coming back together and reading the sugya to the group, or have a member of the group read after the chavruta time is finished. Pedagogically, these are suggestions which shift the balance of power from the teacher to the learners, and which change the mission of the shiur from supplying free information to crafting better and more independent learners. They are also examples of what we call “mixed modalities.” Mixing modalities – ten minutes of chevruta, fifteen minutes of frontal presentation, a one-minute discussion with someone near you about the Gemara’s question, back to frontal, back to chevruta, and so on – keeps the learner on his toes and stimulated, much like a basketball team keeps its opponents alert by running different plays. Finally, hearing different voices besides the teacher’s own helps maintain engagement.

(3) In the classroom, I do not wait for learners to ask me questions. I give what we in the biz call formative assessments in the form of occasional questions to check for understanding as I proceed. This prevents learners from losing their focus, as they may be called on at any time to answer a question. It also gives the teacher clarity on whether it is safe to continue because he knows if the learners are on track. If questions are generated entirely by the attendees, there is little to ensure that that learner understands at any other time than when he is asking the question, and the majority of the learners who do not ask questions have given us no reason to believe they understand the material. The classic call-and-response of “Got it?” “Mmm-hmm” is another example of extremely poor pedagogy. No one is going to admit at that moment that they do not understand what was just taught. Replace “Got it?” with specific questions that can only be answered if the learner truly understands what was just learned. Even if you do not feel comfortable putting adult learners on the spot by addressing questions to them personally, you can at least throw such questions into the air and see who, if anyone, can answer them. If the answer is no one, you must reteach.

(4) Optional daily, weekly, or by-Perek quizzes would help learners to maintain their focus in class so that they perform well on the next quiz, giving them something to shoot for and some accountability. Even if you cannot require such summative assessments, you can offer them and encourage learners to take them as a means for them to check for their own understanding. A short three or five question quiz on the way out the door, what we in the biz call an “exit card,” can similarly give the learner and you feedback on whether they understood what was taught that day, and may perhaps serve to guide a learner through an independent review of the Daf later that day.

(5) Handouts can add a dimension to your Daf Yomi shiur. If a handout is to be learner-focused, it would include some of the key terms that you would like to draw attention to in that day’s Daf (think תא שמע, הכא במאי עסקינן), an outline to bring the often disparate organization into sharper relief, and perhaps a chart if one is necessary at some point in the Daf. A good handout can keep the learners focused while providing the means for them to grow as independent learners both during and after the shiur. If a particular Daf contains, say, four or five sugyot, the handout can correspond to that, allowing learners who may drift off occasionally to regroup when a new sugya begins while bringing the Daf’s organizational structure into focus. If the Daf contains something which can be the basis for further enrichment, such as a practical Halacha, the handout can contain the actual source reference or a guide to how the enterprising learner can find it themselves later in the day. Keep in mind that a very large segment of the Daf Yomi world are retired people who may not mind a little homework to keep them occupied during the rest of the day. For them, the Daf Yomi shiur can serve in part as an introduction to further learning, rather than as the entire learning experience in toto.

And now, an exit card for my readers: Have you seen any of these or other methods implemented in a Daf Yomi shiur somewhere? Did you find it helpful, or was it gratuitous and unnecessary? Tell us about it in the comments, and together we can upgrade the learning experience and help Daf Yomi facilitators shift the balance of power by turning their students into learners.

Posted in Classroom Experiences, Communal Matters, Jewish Education (meta), Talmud / Daf Yomi | Leave a comment

Love Interrupted: When Ya’akov Finally Fell for Leah (Vayishlach)

Parshat Vayishlach opens with Ya’akov’s multi-pronged preparation for meeting his estranged brother Eisav. Famously, he sends gifts to his brother, prepares for war, and prays. When it comes time to meet Eisav, we find this final bit of preparation:

ספר בראשית פרק לב פסוק א
וַיִּשָּׂא יַעֲקֹב עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה עֵשָׂו בָּא וְעִמּוֹ אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת אִישׁ וַיַּחַץ אֶת־הַיְלָדִים עַל־לֵאָה וְעַל־רָחֵל וְעַל שְׁתֵּי הַשְּׁפָחוֹת׃

Ya’akov lifted his eyes and behold – Eisav was coming, and with him 400 men. He divided the children among Leah, among Rachel, and among the two maidservants (Bilhah and Zilpah).

This Pasuk requires explanation: What was Ya’akov’s novel idea in “dividing up the children” among their mothers? Wouldn’t each child naturally have gravitated to its mother at this tense moment in any event? What was Ya’akov trying to accomplish? Furthermore, even if Ya’akov had something in mind here, why does this detail require relating to us at this critical moment in the story?

Continuing on to the next Pasuk, we find the order of Ya’akov’s camp:

ספר בראשית פרק לב פסוק ב
וַיָּשֶׂם אֶת־הַשְּׁפָחוֹת וְאֶת־יַלְדֵיהֶן רִאשֹׁנָה וְאֶת־לֵאָה וִילָדֶיהָ אַחֲרֹנִים וְאֶת־רָחֵל וְאֶת־יוֹסֵף אַחֲרֹנִים׃

He put the maidservants and their children first, and Leah and her children last, and Rachel and Yosef last.

Commenting on this Pasuk, Rashi makes the following pithy observation:

רש”י לספר בראשית פרק לב פסוק ב
אַחֲרוֹן אַחֲרוֹן חָבִיב:

Whatever comes last is (the most) beloved.

This is a reasonable explanation for how Ya’akov is not neglecting his two wives, as it might seem at first glance. The problem is the location of Rashi’s comment in his commentary. It would have made sense for Rashi to say this at the part of the Pasuk discussing Rachel, who was both last and the most beloved. It may also have made sense for Rashi to make this comment earlier in the Pasuk, when the maidservants are mentioned, as this is when the listing of names is beginning. In fact, this is essentially the approach taken by the Midrash:

ספר בראשית פרק לב פסוק ב
וישם את השפחות ואת ילדיהן ראשנה (בראשית לג, ב), הדא אמרה אחרון אחרון חביב.

“He put the maidservants and their children first” (Bereishit 32:2) – This is like what people say, “Whatever comes last is (the most) beloved.”

Rashi, however, takes the least likely approach, inserting his comment at the part of the Pasuk dealing with Leah:

רש”י לספר בראשית פרק לב פסוק ב
ואת לאה וילדיה אחרנים.
 אַחֲרוֹן אַחֲרוֹן חָבִיב:

“And Leah and her children last” – Whatever comes last is (the most) beloved.

Rashi’s placement of this comment requires explanation. After all, Leah was neither the last of the first group (אחרון), or the last altogether (אחרון אחרון), or beloved (חביב)! As we well know, Ya’akov loved Rachel far more than he loved Leah. Why does Rashi choose to comment specifically on Leah that אחרון אחרון חביב, whatever comes last is (the most) beloved?

Let us offer the following approach to answering the two questions we have laid out so far. Perhaps Ya’akov did not place the children with their own actual mothers, such that Leah would have stood with seven children (six sons and Dinah), Bilhah and Zilpah with two each, and Rachel with one. Instead he divided them up evenly (ויחץ implying an even division), three mothers ending up with three children each and one mother with two. Leah’s abundance of children could thus not be easily discerned by Eisav upon his approaching the camp. Ya’akov’s next step was to mix up the order of the mothers so that Leah was third, rather than first (she was, after all, the oldest, the first one married, and the one with the most kids) or last (as she was the least beloved). Her spot at #3 further obscured her identification, again making it difficult for Eisav to spot her.

Upon approaching Ya’akov’s camp, Eisav had a legitimate claim to take Leah away with him as his wife, as Leah was intended to be Eisav’s bride, a proposition that was deeply troubling to her (see Rashi to 29:17). Both of Ya’akov’s actions described in the Pesukim mitigate the possibility of Eisav spiriting Leah away. Ya’akov divides up the children evenly (33:1), so that Eisav cannot easily discern which of the women is Leah based on her larger number of children. Ya’akov then puts Leah in a nondescript location within the camp (33:2), again obscuring which of the women Eisav could legitimately take as a bride. Eisav asks two times for Ya’akov to identify the members of his party (33:5 and 33:8), but each time Ya’akov demurs rather than identify each of the people, including Leah, by name. Eisav leaves without being able to take Leah away with him.

Now we can understand why Rashi places his comment that אחרון אחרון חביב (“the later, the more beloved”) on the part of the Pasuk discussing Leah rather than the part discussing Rachel. The words אחרון אחרון חביב could alternatively be explained as “in the final analysis, she was beloved.” Leah has waited fruitlessly for thirty years to be treated as beloved by Ya’akov, to be given his love and attention. And in this final moment of the story – אחרון אחרון – he shows his love for Leah by shielding her from the gaze of the libidinous Eisav. When all is said and done, אחרון אחרון, Ya’akov did indeed show חביבות, love, to Leah.

Sometimes we perform acts of chesed because we love someone, while at other times we love someone because we have performed acts of chesed for them. It is not a coincidence that Ya’akov only truly begins to love Leah at this late stage in the story, because it is now that he has performed an act of chesed for her, protecting her from Eisav by divvying out the children evenly and hiding her among the other wives. We make a mistake in thinking that Ya’akov’s love for Rachel was what led to his working for her; in fact the chesed that he did for her was what inspired that love. Consider their first meeting:

ספר בראשית פרק כט פסוקים י-יא
וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר רָאָה יַעֲקֹב אֶת־רָחֵל בַּת־לָבָן אֲחִי אִמּוֹ וְאֶת־צֹאן לָבָן אֲחִי אִמּוֹ וַיִּגַּשׁ יַעֲקֹב וַיָּגֶל אֶת־הָאֶבֶן מֵעַל פִּי הַבְּאֵר וַיַּשְׁקְ אֶת־צֹאן לָבָן אֲחִי אִמּוֹ׃
וַיִּשַּׁק יַעֲקֹב לְרָחֵל וַיִּשָּׂא אֶת־קֹלוֹ וַיֵּבְךְּ׃

And it was when Ya’akov saw Rachel, the daughter of Lavan, the brother of his mother – and the sheep of Lavan, the brother of his mother – that Ya’akov approached and rolled the stone from the top of the well; and he gave water to the sheep of Lavan, the brother of his mother.
Ya’akov then kissed Rachel, and he lifted his voice and cried.

What was it about Rachel that so infatuated Ya’akov? Surely he was attracted to her, as we find out later. Yet it was not until he had performed an act of chesed for her, rolling the stone and watering her sheep, that he loved her. Then he worked for her for seven years, and then for another seven years, but in all this time we never see Ya’akov perform an act of chesed for Leah, and so there is no love. But now, at this late stage of the story, אחרון אחרון, when he has performed the chesed of saving Leah from being taken away by Eisav, she too is חביב, beloved, to him. The timing is fortuitous, because Rachel will soon die in childbirth, leaving Leah as Ya’akov’s only remaining wife. It is intriguing that the Torah never tells us when Leah dies, unlike every other major character in Bereishit (and some minor ones), but this is the final moment that we see Leah alive; any references to her after this are hidden within references to her progeny (for example, 46:15). Scenes involving Ya’akov for the duration of the book always place him living alone; Leah is never to be seen again. And it is at this final moment, אחרון אחרון, that Ya’akov discovers in Leah the love that he could have felt for her all along.

A final word: Sometimes our love for someone is eternal, realized from the outset and stretching beyond the reaches of time. Other people gallop through our lives nearly unnoticed and unloved. Ya’akov captured the moment just before the clock expired on his time with his wives, at long last feeling Leah’s pain and coming to love her through a final act of chesed on her behalf. We always have the opportunity to reset the relationships we have with those around us, even at the last minute. It is never too late to view an old friend with fresh eyes. There is no better way to seize the day than to view it as our last, or as the last of someone around us. Seize the day.

Posted in Parshat Hashavua, The Week in Rashi | Leave a comment

19th Century Torah Commentaries Series

This past summer I had the privilege of sharing a five-week series on the rebirth of Torah commentary in the 19th Century, exploring the historical context, personal biographies, and literary styles of four giants of 19th Century Jewish life – The Netziv, the Malbim, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, and Rav Dovid Zvi Hoffmann. There is no audio because the series was given on Shabbat afternoons, but I am posting the handouts below for anyone out there who may find them to be of interest.

It could be that at a later date I will add more to this post in terms of some of the notes and conclusions that we reached in our discussions, but I would urge those taking advantage of the handouts to consider whether and to what extent each of the subjects under discussion was influenced in his life decisions and writings by the rise of nationalism, the Enlightenment, and secular learning and culture. The series sweeps westward both geographically and religiously, from the relatively conservative Netziv, who, at least in the 1850’s and 60’s, expelled students from Volozhin for possessing Antiquities of the Jews, to the relatively liberal Hoffmann, who incorporated into his Torah commentary – wait for it – Antiquities of the Jews. Yet each of the subjects was influenced, albeit in different ways and to varying degrees, by the rapidly changing Jewish and secular world around them.

Introductory homework for the course: The 19th Century Commentaries on the Same Pasuk

Subject 1: The Netziv

Subject 2: The Malbim

Subject 3: Rav S. R. Hirsch

Subject 4: Rav D. Z. Hoffmann

Video conclusion of the Hoffmann class:



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Sukkah, Beit Hamikdash, and Eternal Love

I had the opportunity the other day to have my middle school students over in my sukkah, and I shared the D’var Torah below. I am sharing it now for any larger benefit it may serve.

There is a curious addition to the Birkat Hamazon of Sukkot which finds little parallel among the other holidays of the year. Near the end of Birkat Hamazon, we add the line הרחמן, הוא יקים לנו את סוכת דוד הנופלת; “May He Who is merciful raise up for us the sukkah of King David that has fallen.” This brief addition begs several questions. 1) Why the need for an addition to the Birkat Hamazon of Sukkot, when no parallel addition is made on Pesach or Shavuot? One can imagine a similar line for Pesach, for example, asking the Merciful One to redeem us speedily or something of that nature, but it is in fact only on Sukkot that a line particular to the holiday is added near the end of Birkat Hamazon. 2) If a line is to be added for Sukkot, why connect Sukkot with the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash? Is this a common motif, a common theme of Sukkot? Of course we always hope for the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash, and the Mussaf Tefillot of every holiday drive home this desire, but it does not seem to be a wish that is relevant to Sukkot in particular. 3) In this brief Tefillah, the Beit Hamikdash is referred to as a “sukkah.” This is certainly convenient given the holiday that we are celebrating, but it still needs to be true in order to be a part of the Tefillot. I am not aware of anywhere in Tanach or elsewhere in the Tefillot that the Beit Hamikdash is referred to as a sukkah. Why is this comparison being made? How is the Beit Hamikdash similar to a sukkah?

Let’s begin with the final question, and in so doing let us consider a paradox in the mitzvah of sukkah. On the one hand, the sukkah is meant to remind us of Hashem’s protection of our ancestors in the Wilderness and of us as well. Yet if this were the intended symbolism of the sukkah, it would make more sense to build it in a way that we do not feel so acutely the forces of his occasional apparent displeasure with us – driving rain, harsh wind, buzzing bees. And yet the sukkah is deliberately built in a way in which we do feel these forces and are affected by them, which may occasionally make us wonder, while we are escaping to our warmer or drier home, whether Hashem indeed does care about us, love us, or protect us at all.

This presents a philosophical challenge for us, but one that we can overcome by remembering that Hashem’s love for us is not only evident at the times that He appears most to express that love. Mishna Megillah 4:9 teaches that one who expresses a belief that Hashem is only present at the times in which good things seem to be happening should be silenced (ועל טוב יזכר שמך, משתקין אותו). One could similarly but wrongly feel Hashem’s protection only when the weather in the sukkah is nice and the bees are in abeyance, but this would be the wrong belief – משתקין אותו, we would silence such a person as well.

In this sense, our sukkah and the Beit Hamikdash have something important in common. When the Beit Hamikdash was standing, with all of its concomitant miracles and wonders, one could not help but feel Hashem’s protection, much as one sitting in the sukkah in nice weather cannot help but feel the warmth of Hashem’s radiant glow upon him. But when the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed, the smoke no longer rising straight up to Heaven and the lechem hapanim no longer staying fresh from week to week, we entered a long period of national confusion about whether Hashem truly still loved us or cared about us. The nations surrounding us were only too happy to seize upon this insecurity and craft ideologies built to exploit the lack of comfort felt by the wandering, Temple-less Jew. But history has shown that this belief was wrong from its inception. Hashem loved us when we had the Beit Hamikdash, He loved us after its destruction, and He loves us in the period of partial renewal we have experienced over the past 70 years.

The prayer that Hashem “raise up for us the fallen sukkah of Dovid” was written at a time before this renewal, when it was of particular urgency to remind ourselves and our brethren that despite our being prone to feel insecure as national wanderers without a central home, we are as much Hashem’s children today as we were when we had the Beit Hamikdash. Like our own sukkah that we may occasionally escape even while we know that Hashem’s love for us is still real, we should feel that way about the “sukkah of Dovid” which, despite having fallen, does not represent evidence of Hashem’s abandonment of His people. The brief prayer in Birkat Hamazon is a call to remember that our national confusion over Hashem’s apparent abstentia is no more valid than the feeling of abandonment we might feel as we sit in our unprotected sukkah or run away from it with hands over our heads.

To return to our first two questions, which we have really already answered: Sukkot, more than any other holiday, is programmed to allow us to feel comfort despite the loss of the Beit Hamikdash, and it may be for this reason that a line is added to Birkat Hamazon specifically on Sukkot. And because the sukkah affords us the protection of knowing that Hashem loves us even when that love is not evident, we compare the Beit Hamikdash to a sukkah in this brief Tefillah. All in all, in this Tefillah we are invited to remember that Hashem’s love for us, whether in the historical sense of the Beit Hamikdash or in the localized sense of our own sukkah, is universal, eternal, and non-negotiable. May we merit to feel this way throughout Sukkot, throughout the year, and until our long national exile reaches its conclusion with the rebuilding of the third and final Beit Hamikdash and Hashem’s love and protection are felt in abundance once more.

Posted in Holidays, Succot, Tefillah | Leave a comment

Musings On the Beracha of Leishev BaSukkah

I was fortunate to be able to learn about the beracha of “Leishev BaSukkah” with a group at my Shul over Yom Tov. Below are some of the salient points, with references to the sources, which are linked to here. In our usual style, the numbers in the notes below correspond to the numbers of the sources linked to above, which can be learned alongside the notes to create a full learning experience. As an added bonus, all of the sources have English translation alongside the Hebrew.

1) The Gemara (Source 1) presents a three-way argument regarding how many times a person should make the berachot on the sukkah (“Leishev BaSukkah”) and the lulav (“Al Netillat Lulav”) over the course of Sukkot. Shmuel says that the beracha on the sukkah should be made only once each year; because the mitzvah continues uninterrupted for seven straight days, night and day, there is never an opportunity or a need to make any additional berachot of “Leishev.” (Shmuel expresses this as לא מפסקי לילות מימים – there is no [meaningful] separation between night and day.) Lulav, on the other hand, which is not taken at night, requires a new beracha when the mitzvah is renewed each morning (מספקי לילות מימים). The Gemara then presents two versions of Rabbi Yochanan’s opinion, the first by Rabba bar bar Chana and the second by Ravin. According to the first version, Rabbi Yochanan felt that the beracha on sukkah should be made all seven days, because it is a Torah commandment even outside of the Beit Hamikdash. Lulav, on the other hand, which is only a Rabbinic commandment outside of the Beit Hamikdash on the second through seventh days of the holiday, should have a beracha made only on the first day, when it is a Torah commandment. (This is difficult given that we say many berachot on Rabbinic mitzvot; Chanukah and Megillah come to mind.) The second version of Rabbi Yochanan has it that the berachot on both sukkah and lulav should be made all seven days. No reason is given for this final opinion, and the Gemara concludes that we should follow the first version of Rabbi Yochanan. (See the chart at the end of Source 1.)

Although we all know experientially that we follow the second version of Rabbi Yochanan and make a beracha on both lulav and sukkah all seven days of Sukkot, it is fascinating how this Halacha has (or has not) come down to us. The Ein Mishpat on the Gemara, which notes whose opinion is accepted as the Halacha and sends us to the right location in the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch to learn more, puts the relevant superscript letter before the second version of Rabbi Yochanan (seven days for both mitzvot). However, the place where it tells us to go in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim סימן תרלט – 639; below but not in the sources) not only doesn’t mention the beracha at all but seems suspiciously to sympathize with Shmuel’s opinion (a beracha for sukkah only on the first day):

,כיצד מצות ישיבה בסוכה? שיהיה אוכל ושותה [וישן ומטייל] [טור] ודר בסוכה כל שבעת הימים, בין ביום ובין בלילה כדרך שהוא דר בביתו בשאר ימות השנה. וכל שבעת ימים עושה אדם את ביתו עראי, ואת סוכתו קבע …

What is the mitzvah of living in the sukkah? That a person should eat and drink (and sleep and spend time – Tur) and live in the sukkah all seven days, both in the day and in the night, in the same way that he lives in his house the rest of the days of the year. And all seven days, he should make his house his temporary abode, and his sukkah his main abode.

The seemingly extraneous verbiage that a person should live for “seven days, day and night” in the sukkah seems to mirror Shmuel in the Gemara that “לא מפסקי לילות מימים” – “there is no meaningful separation between night and day” when it comes to the mitzvah of sukkah. If the mitzvah continues uninterrupted for seven days, why indeed should we make more than one “Leishev?”

There is further evidence that the Shulchan Aruch has an affinity for the opinion of Shmuel. Later on in סימן תרסב (Siman 662) the Shulchan Aruch has this to say about the beracha on the lulav:

ביום שני מברך על נטילת לולב וכן בכל שאר ימים:

On the second day of Yom Tov, a beracha is made on the lulav, and the same is true for all of the rest of the days (of Sukkot).

And yet just one siman before that, the Shulchan Aruch says this about the beracha of “Leishev” on the sukkah:

בליל יום טוב שני אומר קידוש וזמן אחריו מיד ואחר כך ברכת סוכה [זו דעת הרא”ש וכן ראוי לנהוג]:

On the second night of Yom Tov, one says Kiddush, and She’hechiyanu immediately afterward, and then the beracha on the sukkah.

Naturally one makes the beracha of “Leishev” on the second night, because the second night of Yom Tov always mirrors the first night outside of Israel. But this would have been an excellent opportunity for the Shulchan Aruch to say that we make a “Leishev” every day of Sukkot, just as he goes on to say about the beracha on the lulav one page later. After all, both are subject to the same Talmudic dispute! Yet the Shulchan Aruch never informs us of this fact. Further complicating matters is the fact that the Tur says clearly (Source 9) that we make a beracha of “Leishev” every time we enter the sukkah, and the Beit Yosef (Source 10) appears to agree. Yet in the Shulchan Aruch, the Beit Yosef himself is silent on the matter. He only mentions “Leishev” one other place (Source 11), but again not in the context of how many days it is said.

It is hard to believe that the Shulchan Aruch would have taken as a given something that the Tur (and many other Rishonim; see Sources 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8) needed to state explicitly and that the Gemara leaves open to dispute. Could the Shulchan Aruch perhaps be partial to Shmuel’s opinion? After all, Shmuel’s reasoning (which, as we saw, the Shulchan Aruch seems to reference in 662) is more compelling than Rabbi Yochanan’s distinction between Torah and Rabbinic commandments, since we make many berachot on Rabbinic mitzvot. And the second version of Rabbi Yochanan doesn’t come with any reasons at all. Shmuel’s reasoning about the continuance of the mitzvah for seven complete days is air-tight by comparison. צריך עיון.

2) Based on the Gemara, the beracha of “Leishev” would only be said either once (Shmuel) or seven times (Rabbi Yochanan) over Sukkot. Tosafot (Source 2) is the first to extend the recitation of the beracha to the nearly limitless times that one may enter his sukkah over the course of the holiday. They take this leap based on a comparison to Tefillin, which, although a daily mitzvah, nonetheless require a new beracha each time they are put on over the course of the day. Likewise, reasons Tosafot, although the beracha of “Leishev” is a daily beracha, it can and should be said as many times as one does the mitzvah of entering the sukkah for virtually any reason during the day – eating, drinking, sleeping, learning, spending time. I find this comparison, which other Rishonim adopt as well (see Sources 4 and 10), to be wanting. First of all, the need to extend the beracha on sukkah from once to multiple times per day is based on the assumption that Shmuel and Rabbi Yochanan meant to require the beracha on sukkah once per day in the first place. This would be true if Shmuel had indeed meant that the beracha should be said once on the first day of the holiday and Rabbi Yochanan had either agreed or felt that it should be said once every day. In reality, though, Shmuel may have meant that the beracha should be said multiple times on the first day, while Rabbi Yochanan (in his second version) felt that the beracha should be said multiple times every day of the holiday. Or Shmuel may have felt that the beracha should be said only once on the first day, but Rabbi Yochanan felt that it should be said multiple times on the first day (as not saying it at all on the later days would not preclude its being said multiple times on the first day), or multiple times every day. Either way, we may not need this comparison to Tefillin altogether, because that comparison is based on what may be a faulty assumption, namely that Shmuel and Rabbi Yochanan are discussing not merely the number of days that the beracha on sukkah should be said, but also the number of times per day that it should be said. Moreover, why choose Tefillin? A comparison could just as easily be made to the mitzvah of learning Torah, which is said only once per day even if a large amount of time separates instances of fulfilling the mitzvah, and in that case the beracha on the sukkah would similarly be made only once per day, even if Shmuel and Rabbi Yochanan really had meant to express the number of times per day (one) that the beracha is said! צריך עיון.

3) The רא”ש (Source 3) presents a fascinating dichotomy between the Halachic ideal and reality in regard to the issue of this beracha. Ideally one should say the beracha every time he enters the sukkah for any reason, with the further implication that the beracha be said before one sits down, since once one has sat down he has done the mitzvah and it is now too late to say the beracha. (Berachot must be made prior to the fulfillment of a mitzvah – עובר לעשייתן; hence if one has fulfilled his mitzvah simply by sitting down, it is now too late to say the beracha.) However, the Rash tempers this ideal with the reality that most people associate the mitzvah not with entering the sukkah but with eating in it, and thus it is not too late to make the beracha once one has sat down, as long as he has not yet eaten. This is an extraordinary example of Halacha being shaped by common perception rather than by the strictest of Halachic ideals, and it resurfaces in an argument between the Rambam and Ra’avad (Source 5). The Rambam feels that it is very important to say the beracha of “Leishev” before one sits down – he emphasizes this point twice in the Halacha before us on the page. The Ra’avad, however, feels that הישיבה אינה אלא על דעת האכילה, וכל זמן שאינו אוכל, הברכה עובר למצוה היא באמת – “The sitting down is only with the intention to eat; so as long as he has not yet eaten, the beracha is still considered to be ‘prior to the mitzvah.'” Again, the popular misconception that the mitzvah is not to enter or sit down but rather to eat in the sukkah shapes both the recitation of the beracha at all, as well as its timing.

Interestingly, the Shibolei Haleket (Source 8) presents another reason to allow one to make the beracha even after sitting down. He explains that the rule requiring one to make a beracha prior to the fulfillment of the mitzvah – עובר לעשייתן – mandates only that one not make the beracha after he has done the mitzvah. However, the beracha may be made during the mitzvah, as with one who has already sat down but is now still sitting and thus still fulfilling his mitzvah. In our case, then, one could theoretically only not say the beracha once he has gotten up to leave the sukkah. See Mishna Berurah (Source 12, final paragraph) regarding one who realizes as late as after Birkat Hamazon that he neglected to say “Leishev” being able to say the beracha anyway because he is still fulfilling a mitzvah by sitting in the sukkah. This reverts to the original perception of the mitzvah as more than simply eating, so the Rash would be pleased.

4) Rav Hai Gaon (quoted in Sources 3, 7, and 10) assumes that one who visits his friend’s sukkah makes a beracha of “Leishev” whether he is planning to eat there or not. It is tempting to believe that this is simply a case of Rav Hai’s having lived at an earlier time in history when the beracha was made whether one was entering a sukkah to eat or to do any other activity. However, this would make Rav Hai’s statement regarding a friend’s sukkah in particular superfluous, since it would be true even in one’s own sukkah. Thus Rav Hai must have felt that ordinarily the beracha is said only when one will be eating, but that this case is different for some reason. I would submit that the difference is that in one’s own sukkah, the (mis)perception is that the overarching primary function is one of eating; if our subject does not eat now, he will eat at some point later. But in his friend’s sukkah which he is only entering temporarily and without any desire to eat, the entire period of residency will come and go without eating ever having been on the agenda, and we thus revert to the original law that entering for any reason at all necessitates a beracha of “Leishev.” The friend’s sukkah exists for the visitor only in the realm of spending time, but entirely outside the realm of eating. The case of the friend’s sukkah is essentially a case study in what would happen if one’s own sukkah were not in any way planned to be used for eating. The Mishna Berurah (Source 12, beginning of paragraph #48) picks up on this theme by discussing the case of a person who plans to fast for an entire day of Sukkot: דדוקא כשאוכל פת, סבירא ליה להנהו פוסקים שמברך על עיקר חיוב הסוכה ופוטר כל הדברים הטפלים. אבל כשאינו אוכל, לא שייך זה. “Yet it is only when he eats bread that … this central aspect of being in the sukkah exempts the secondary aspects. But when he is not eating, this is not relevant!” In other words, in a situation where eating will not take place – either because he is fasting or, in Rav Hai’s case, because he is visiting a friend with no intention to eat – there is no eating to exempt sleeping or spending time. In such a case we revert to the original law (preferred by the Rash in Source 3) that one’s entering for any reason warrants a beracha. We can only honor the perception of eating being primary if eating is to take place at some point. If it is not on the agenda, a “Leishev” should be made upon entering, and perhaps even before sitting down.

5) If one built two sukkot, one for eating and one for sleeping (more common in Israel than abroad), it would appear based on what we have said until now that he should make a “Leishev” before sleeping in the sleeping sukkah, since the sleeping sukkah exists for him entirely outside of the realm of eating, and there is thus no eating to exempt his sleeping from the beracha. However, this may not be the case. The Rash (Source 3) presents an additional reason to exempt sleeping from the beracha, namely that one may not actually fall asleep and his beracha will then be a beracha le’vatalah, an unnecessary beracha. This is hard to understand. The beracha of “Leishev” does not mention sleeping specifically, so the beracha would seem to be relevant even if he merely spent time resting the entire night without ever falling asleep. Recall that according to all Rishonim, the theoretical construct of the beracha is to be said even just for entering the sukkah with the intention of spending some time, which would certainly be accomplished by our restless insomniac. The usual beracha of “Hamapil,” on the other hand, which mentions falling asleep explicitly, seems more nearly to pertain to the problem of having been a beracha le’vatalah if one does not fall asleep at all or even for more than just a few moments. צריך עיון on both counts.

There is more to explore in the sources – ואידך זיל גמור. Chag Sameach, and may be zocheh to be יושבים in the fallen sukkah of Dovid very soon.

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