Author: chaimweiner

Rabbi. Talmud Teacher. Director and Av Bet Din of the European Masorti Bet i

28. חבר [Haver] – Kol Yisrael Haverim – We are all Friends.

The word חבר [Haver] means a member of a group, a comrade or a friend. The verb לחבר  [LeHaber] means to attach things together. The noun form of this root is therefore used to indicate the people we are attached to. A member of Parliament is a חבר כנסת [Haver Knesset]. A study partner is a חברותא [Havruta].

I am surprised that the word Haver comes so high on our frequency list. It’s not uncommon, but I doubt that it’s amongst the 30 most used words in the language. Its high rating betrays the history of this frequency table, which was composed in the early days of the state using literature from pre-state times. Here we see the communist leanings of Israeli society at the time. I imagine that the word “comrade” was much more frequently used then than it is today.

In Rabbinic Hebrew, Haver took on an additional meaning. Jewish society was fragmented between many sects and religious orders. The early rabbis, known as the Pharisees, were very strict in their adherence to laws of ritual purity. Anyone who is part of their club was known as a Haver. People on the outside were known עם הארץ [Am Ha’aretz]. There were many rules and regulations to limit the social contact between the Haver and the Am HaAretz. This was because Amay HaAretz were not be trusted in matters of ritual purity and could end up defiling the food and utensils of the Haverim.

One of my favourite suggiot in the Talmud deals with this. There was a problem with offerings brought to the Temple in Jerusalem. If an Am HaAretz brought an offering, it might not be ritually pure and could defile the Temple. But if the temple was not open to everyone it would undermine the unity of the Jewish people. The Rabbis declared that all people would be trusted regarding the offerings that they brought to the temple. The Temple needed to be open to all.

The subsequent discussion in the Talmud and the halachic literature tries to understand how the Rabbis could have permitted this. Many theories were put forward. But my favourite explanation is that of the Bach – Rabbi Joel Sirkis [17th Century Krakow]. He says that indeed, the offerings the Am HaAretz were probably impure and should have been forbidden. But the consideration of the Unity of the Jewish people overrides that. The Rabbis permitted the forbidden, in order to keep the Jewish people together. In the eyes of the early rabbis, Kol Yisrael Haverim.

The word Haver once again became famous at the funeral of former Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. Bill Clinton famously concluded his moving eulogy to Rabin with the words – Shalom Haver. The murder of Rabin was the tragic result of Jewish infighting. The word ‘Haver’ is a reminder or how important it is that we stay together. Kol Yisrael Haverim

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

 

Shevat 5778

 

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27. מה [Ma] – How is this night different?

The Hebrew word מה means ‘what’. It is what is called an ‘interrogative pronoun’, which is a word used to elicit information. It is related to other information seeking words, such as מי which means ‘who’, איזה which means ‘which’ and Lama which means ‘why’. Since information stands at the centre of our quest to understand the world around us, you find these words everywhere.

The word מה has other meanings. It can mean something little or small – such as in the phrase דבר מה [something inconsequential] or מה בכך [of no consequence]. Ma can also be simply an exclamation, indicating something surprising or different. The challenge when reading מה in a sentence is deciding which ma you have in front of you.

Perhaps the most familiar use of the word מה comes in the Hagada. For many of us, it was the first sentence they learned in Hebrew as young children. מה נשתנה הלילה הזה מכל הלילות? – usually translated as, ‘Why is this night different than all other nights’?

There are several problems with this translation. The word מה doesn’t mean ‘how’ it means ‘what’! Furthermore, in Rabbinic literature this passage is known as ארבע קושיות – “the for questions”. But what follows aren’t questions – they are answers! מה קורה כאן   – What’s going on here?

The commentators suggest that this is a problem of mistranslation. The word מה here is to be understood as an exclamation. It should be translated as, ‘How different this night is from all other nights!’ Following it are four different reasons for the surprise. We only eat Matza, we recline, we eat bitter herbs etc …

The phrase has now become part of the Jewish psyche. A few thousand years after the Hagada, the modern Hebrew poet Natan Alterman, writing about the Jezreel Valley, writes מה לילה מליל . ‘How different this night is from other nights!’? It’s a piece of poetry – playing on our familiarity with the hagadah.

It is a beautiful poem and I particularly like the rendition by Arik Einstein. Click on the link below to hear. On that note, I will finish my post today.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tbs8VFNdFpU

 

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

26. עד [Ad] – To Infinity and Beyond …

The word עד [Ad] is a proposition that means ‘as far as’, ‘up to’, ‘until’. It is about reaching the end, the limit, a goal or an aspiration. It suggests that you know where you’re going. It holds out the promise of accomplishment and achievement.

It is used in many different contexts. For example, it can be used for reaching a geographical location as in the verse:

Ad1

or for reaching an abstract concept, such as time.

Ad2

But that’s just the beginning! By combining several עד’s together you can indicate a higher level of comprehensiveness and completeness. There are many different ways of doing this.

Take, for example, the story of the flood in the book of Genesis. The Bible wants to say that God has decided to destroy absolutely everything.

The verse reads:

Ad3

Repeating עד  multiple times gives the sense that the destruction is complete.

A real sense of comprehensiveness is achieved by including the two extremes – from X to Y. In Genesis 19:4 we read
Ad4

By stressing both the young and the old we know that everyone was included. Or when the Bible wants to tell us that it includes the whole land of Israel, it uses the phrase from Dan to Beer Sheva.

But it is possible to be even more comprehensive than this. When Abraham comes back from a war against the 4 Kings, he declares

Ad5

Both a thread and a sandal strap are small worthless things. So Abram doesn’t say from small to large, but from small to similarly small. Why is this?

If you view the world in a linear way, you would say from small to large. But that’s still only 180° of the circle. With a more comprehensive view, you would say from small to small, it is as if you have gone around a full 360°. Now you have really included everything.

So the word עד takes us up to the very borders of our possibilities. I hope that if you have enjoyed my blog thus far עד כאן [Ad Kan], and you will continue to enjoy it to the end of time עדי עד [Adei Ad].

 

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Tammuz 5777

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25. שנה [Sha-na]– What a Year!

The 3-letter root   ש.נ.ה has several different meanings but the most common in everyday speech is “year”. A year is the time it takes the Earth to go around the sun. Because this is a natural occurrence, it is known as a natural unit of time. Months (based on the moon) and days (earth’s rotation) are other examples of natural units. Weeks, hours, minutes and seconds are not connected to any natural event and are arbitrary units.

The problem with natural units of time is that they are hard to work with. A year is just over 365 days; around 12 months and 11 days. It is very difficult to synchronise months and years because the relationship is so awkward. In our secular calendar, we use solar years and have given up on trying to link between months and the cycles of the moon. The Muslim calendar is based on lunar months but has lost its link with the sun. Muslim festivals fall in a different season every year. The Jewish calendar maintains a connection with both the sun and the moon – very difficult feat. This is based on a verse in the book of Exodus which refers to the month in which the festival of Passover occurs as חודש האביב [Hodesh HaAviv] – the month of spring, indicating that Hebrew months need to maintain their link both to the moon and to the seasons of the year.

1

The Hebrew calendar uses some complicated calculations. Months are always connected to the new moon, but in order to stay in sync with the seasons an extra month is added 7 times during a 19-year cycle. The Hebrew year can have either 12 or 13 lunar months. In early times a new month started whenever the new moon was sighted. Today this is a simple calculation; each month has 29 days, 12 hours, and 793 “parts”. [= around 2650 seconds]. Once you know where you are in the 19-year cycle, and whether it is at 12 or 13-month year, you simply add the appropriate number of days, hours and seconds to determine the exact moment when the following New Year will occur.

But it is not so simple. When setting the date of the New Year there are several additional factors that need to be taken into consideration. Sometimes an extra day is added to the year to avoid complications. Although there are several potential difficulties, I will mention the 2 most frequent reasons for adding an extra day.

The first reason for adding a day is known as מולד זקן [Molad Zaken] – an Old Moon. If the precise moment of Rosh Hashanah occurs after midday then an extra day is added. The reason for this is that a New Moon appearing at the end of the day is considered to belong to the next night rather than the night before. This happens about 25% of the time.

The second reason for adding an extra day is when Rosh Hashanah lands at an awkward time. Rosh Hashanah is not allowed to occur on Sunday, Wednesday or Friday. Wednesday and Friday are not allowed because this would cause Yom Kippur to land adjacent to Shabbat. It is almost impossible to observe Shabbat and Yom Kippur without preparation time in-between, and therefore the calendar is engineered to prevent this from happening. The New Year cannot start on a Sunday to prevent Hoshana Raba from landing on Shabbat. Were this to happen it would not be possible to observe the special rituals of Hoshana Raba. This rule means that an extra day is added to a year almost 50% of the time.

Finally, if both of these events occur in the same year, then 2 extra days are added to the calendar!

In short, a year is simply the amount of time it takes for the earth to go around the sun. But calculating when that will be is not a simple thing at all.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Marcheshvan 5777

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24. שלח [Sha-lach] – Watch your step …

שלח [Sha-lach]. The word ‘shalach’ means to send. It appears in many forms. In the transitive form שילח [Shi-lach] means ‘to cause something to go’. As a noun   שליח [Sha-li-ach] means ‘a messenger’. With so many different meanings it is no surprise that it is such a common word.

In my post today I will focus on one of the commandments of the Torah that contains this word – שילוח הקן [Shi-lu-ach HaKen] – which literally means, ‘the sending of the nest’.


shiluch-haken

If, along road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life. Deuteronomy [22, 8-9]


 

The reward for obeying this commandment is a long life. It is rare for the Torah to offer a specific reward for obeying a commandment. Indeed, the reward long of life is only offered in one other place in the Torah. It is the reward for honouring one’s parents.

But is fulfilling these commandments a guarantee of a long life?

The Talmud [Kiddushin 39b] relates that story of Rabbi Yakov. He witnessed a man call his son and ask him bring him some eggs from a nest on the roof. The boy immediately went to fulfil his father’s request. He climbed a ladder to the roof and found a nest full of eggs with a mother bird sitting on them. He sent the mother away, following commandment of the Torah, and took the eggs. On his way down from the roof, the ladder broke and the boy fell to his death.

How, Rabbi Yakov asks, could this be?! The boy is fulfilling the two commandments that promise a long life, and at that very moment he met his death! The conclusion Rabbi Yakov reached was that there is no reward for observing commandments in this world! This is a very pessimistic conclusion.

The Talmud doesn’t buy into this idea. The Talmud believes that שליחי מצוה אינם ניזוקין – [Messengers sent to do a Mitzva will not be harmed]. It suggests that the boy was coming down a shaky ladder, and that the promise of a long life doesn’t apply to shaky ladders!

I understand this as meaning that, in general, if people obey the commandments – particularly with regard to honouring parents who have a specific concern with taking care of the well-being of their children – then they will create a society in which individuals thrive. This will lead to living a longer life. However, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take care in places of clear and present danger. Yes, you should respect your father. But don’t use that as an excuse to be climbing on a broken ladder!

These are questions of deep philosophy. People have struggled with the seeming lack of reward and punishment in our world since the beginning of time. I won’t solve this question in a short post.

It is enough for us to know that being sent to do a Mitzva is a great honour. And that even when you are doing a good deed, you should still be careful.

 

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Tishre 5777

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23.אחד [E-had] – One and All

The word אחד  means ‘one’. In the Jewish tradition ‘one’ is more than just a number. ‘One’ is the core of our religious tradition.  The observant Jew recites the verse of שמע ישראל twice each day to affirm our belief in the oneness of God.

Adi Ran – There is Only God (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zyVCOr1jDnw)

For an idea that is so central to our tradition, it is surprising how little time we spend as a religious community thinking about ‘One’. It is hardly ever mentioned in traditional Jewish education and it would be a rare topic for a Rabbi’s sermon. So what do we mean when we say that God is ‘one’?

The ‘oneness’ of God means many different things. First and foremost it is our belief in the unity of all existence. This is obvious in science. We accept that the laws of nature are the same everywhere. When an astronomer studies the universe, he or she assumes that gravity works the same way on other planets, that light still travels at the same speed, and the fundamentally the laws of nature are universal. That is the basis of all science.

Our tradition takes that unity one step further. We believe that not only the laws of nature but also moral principles are universal. We believe that not only if you drop something on Mars will it fall, but if you murder someone on Mars it will be wrong. There are fundamental moral principles that are embedded in the very nature of the universe.

The second concept of oneness has to do with the interconnectedness of all being. That is also something that we are more aware of today than in the past. We have no problem accepting that if someone destroys the rainforest in Brazil, it will affect the weather in Europe. The unity of the universe assumes that all parts of existence are interconnected in strange and mysterious ways.

Our belief in oneness goes even further. There is a famous Midrash found in Bereishit Rabbah (39):

Rabbi Yitzhak said: it is a parable about a man who would wander from place to place, and saw a Palace burning. He said: can it be that this place has no overseer? The owner of the palace glanced at him and said: I am the owner of the palace.

So it was that Abram said: can it be said that the world has no overseer? The Holy One glanced at him and said to him: I am the owner of the world.

This parable highlights a third aspect of our monotheistic belief. We believe not only that the world exists but that there is a purpose, a design and a meaning to this existence. And this meaning is ‘One’ throughout time and across space. And ultimately, this meaning is good. Abraham, who looks at the world in all its glory and cannot accept that our world is only a set of random coincidences, is the prototype of the Person of Faith throughout the generations.

I am not sure where this faith comes from. For Abraham it was just obvious. The Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel believes that religious faith is intuitive. For some people the majesty of the world is just obvious, for others, it is a figment of the imagination. This insight is something that we don’t talk about much, but it is the basis of everything that we do in the Jewish tradition.

The number one is very small, but the idea of “one” isn’t a small thing at all. It’s what the world is all about.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Nissan 5776

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22. אם [Im] – What if …

The word אם [Im] means ‘if’. It is used to introduce a condition into a sentence. You use it to say that something will happen only if a predetermined condition is met. Conditions are part of everyday life and we make conditions all the time.

The word אם is particularly useful in contract law. Many contracts include conditions. The contract states that ‘If a person does X there will be fine; if a person does Y they will be entitled to compensation.” Conditions are what contracts are about.

In Jewish law a contract is only valid if a condition is written in a special format. This is known as the ‘Condition of the Sons of Gad and Reuben’. The source of this law is in the Torah. At the end of the book of Numbers the Children of Israel are just outside of the Land of Israel and are preparing to enter the land. At that point, that leaders of the tribes of Gad, Reuben, Ephraim and part of Menasha come to Moses and say to him that they do not want to cross the Jordan with their families. They wish to remain in the Transjordan; ideal territory for flocks and herds. At first Moses is appalled by this request, but the tribes assure him that they are not trying to shirk their responsibilities towards the other tribes. They promise that they will send their men into battle and continue to do so until all the other tribes have taken possession of the territories that have been allocated to them.

Eventually Moses accepts their argument. He agrees that the women and children can remain behind in the Transjordan while the men with the rest of the people of Israel. Only then, can they return to their families. The Torah says:

1

Moses said to them, “If you do this, if you go to battle as troops at the instance of the Lord… But if you do not do so, you will have sinned against the Lord; and know that your sin will overtake you.” [Num. 32:20-23]

Note that this is a double condition. He doesn’t say if you do X then you will get Y. Rather, he says if you do X then this is what will happen but if you do not do it, then this is what will happen. This way of spelling out a condition, which explains what will happen in all of the different circumstances, is ‘the condition of the sons of Gad and Reuben’. In Jewish law, all contracts need to be worded in this manner.

This might seem to us like a strange and superfluous requirement. It is obvious that if you do not do what you have promised you will not get anything. But the relationship between people is complicated. Any agreement is open to interpretation and reinterpretation and anyone who has worked in the courts knows how much anguish can be caused by poorly worded contracts. A contract can never be specific enough. That is the reason that it is worth taking the extra time to spell out the consequences of all the different possibilities that could develop in the future. All this from a seemingly random conversation in the Torah.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Adar 1, 5776

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21. דבר [daber] – The Way We Speak

The word דבר [daber] means ‘to speak’. It frequently comes together with the word אמר [AMAR], which means “to say”. The most frequent phrase in the Torah is וידבר ה’ אל משה לאמר … – and the Lord spoke [Daber] to Moses saying [AMAR] which uses both of these words together.

Although there is a clear difference between ‘speaking’ and ‘saying’, the way that Torah uses them raises the question of how they differ from each other. I will address this conundrum in this post.

Let’s start with an example. The Torah usually prefaces its commandments with the word DABER, וידבר ה’ – and the Lord spoke. But not always. At the beginning of Parshat Emor, in a section dealing with commandments addressed to the priests, the paragraph not only starts with the word AMAR – it uses AMAR three times in the same verse!

Amor Text

Why does God address Priests with the word AMAR and normal Israelites with DABER?

Even traditional commentators were challenged by the seeming randomness with which the Torah uses the two words. For instance, Rabbi Abraham, the son of the Rambam, said “I do not know what’s the difference between VaYomer and VaYedaber, and why sometimes the Torah uses one, and sometimes the other, and if it seems meaningless, it’s your shortcoming.”[Commentary to Va’era, 7:8]

That did not stop rabbis from trying to find a distinction.

The Midrash (Deut. Rabba 42, Tanchuma Tzav) says the difference between the two is mainly a difference of tone. It considers DABER a harsh way of speaking and AMAR as being softer. Others say that DABER is used for elaborate or detailed explanations which AMAR is more direct and to the point. Rabbi Elijah of Vilna (Aderet Eliyahu) suggests that DABER is used for commandments that are spelled out in the written Torah whereas AMAR is used for those commandments found in the oral Torah. There is a sense that DABER suggests that there is a distance between the speakers and AMAR communicates closeness and intimacy. Perhaps God feels closer to his priests then to the man on the street.

The Ten Commandments are called עשרת הדברות –  [Aseret HaDibrot] – the 10 utterances, which derives from the word DABER. They are short, concise and to the point. According to the Mishna, the world was created with 10 statements  עשרה מאמרות [Asara Ma’amarot] – using AMAR. Perhaps the world in all its complexity cannot be contained in DABER. It needs the detail, the fullness and the personal connection suggested by the word AMAR. You choose DABER if you only need to tell people what to do, but AMAR if the task is so complex that it requires a partnership and people working together. According to the Rabbis, we are considered God’s partners in the act of creation!

So the relationship between DABER and AMAR is indeed very complicated. This is not surprising. Communication is complicated and our relationships complex. It’s not surprising that we need a range of words to describe the different types of communication and the relationships that they reveal.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Shevat 5776

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20. כבוד [Kavod] – In the shadow of Infinity

The word כבוד [Kavod] means ‘honour’ or ‘respect’.  There are many uses for this word in everyday life.  When we congratulate someone we say כל הכבוד – ‘all the honour’.  Or we close a letter with the word בכבוד which means ‘with respect’.  The word Kavod is also important in Jewish mysticism where it refers to God.  When used in this context it is usually translated as ‘Glory’.

In Jewish theology, God is both near and far; part of our world and completely removed from it.  The mystics have developed their own vocabulary to talk about God.  The word Kavod is part of this vocabulary.

There are many different ways to think about God.  In Kabbalah the distinction is made between ‘God as he is’ and ‘God as he manifests himself on earth’. ‘God as he is’ is known as  אין סוף [Ein Sof – lit. infinity] the real actual God, something that we cannot perceive or understand. ‘God as he manifests himself on earth’ – is our perception of God and how we see Him in our reality –a shadow of the real God but the only way that we can perceive and understand.  The God which is accessible to us isכבוד  – ‘Kavod’.  This is in Biblical Hebrew. In Rabbinic Hebrew the word שכינה  ‘shechina’ means the same thing.

One of the sources of this idea is found in the Torah.  After Moses builds the tabernacle God enters it.

So Moses finished the work. Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD [Kavod HaShem] filled the tabernacle.    And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of meeting, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.—    And whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the children of Israel went onward … [Ex 40:34]

The presence of God in the tabernacle is symbolised by the ‘Kavod’ and the ‘cloud’.  When they are both present, it is impossible for a human being to draw near, for the presence of God is overwhelming. Once the ‘cloud’ departs it is possible to draw near into God’s presence.  It is the Kavod that makes proximity to God possible.

These are very difficult concepts.  It is impossible for us to really understand God.  Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that one of the big difficulties we have when thinking about God is that we can only understand things when have words to think about them.  We cannot think about things when we have no words.

Words are created when we talk about our shared experiences. But God is abstract and we have no shared experience of Him.  As a result we have no shared vocabulary.

The Jewish mystics have tried to overcome this.  They have developed the vocabulary so we can start to think about these very difficult ideas.  Although we struggle to understand, we owe a great debt to them for providing the means to start on this journey.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

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19. בית [Bayit] – There is no Place Like Home

We come to the word בית [Bayit].  This is usually translated as ‘house’ or ‘home’.  But the word בית has a much larger range of meanings than this. Although talk about homes and houses is very much part of our everyday speech, the reason that the word בית is so frequent in our vocabulary is the many meanings that it has.  The root meaning of בית is ‘receptacle’ or ‘a defined space’.  Indeed, the word  בית קיבול means a ‘receptacle’.  Even parts of the body can use the word ‘bayit’- such as the term בית השחי which means an ‘armpit’.

The word בית can also be used to describe a room or a part of a building.  For instance, the word בית הכסא means the ‘bathroom’ or ‘toilet’.  This probably dates to the time when the toilet was an out-building and not part of the main house.

The main use of the word בית is a building, and it is frequently used to describe different kinds of buildings.  A בית משפט [House of Judgment] is a ‘courthouse’ and a בית מדרש is a ‘house of study’ or an academy. A בית חולים  [House for the sick] is a hospital.  You can create the name of almost any building by adding the word בית before the way that the building is being used.  The בית המקדש [house of Holiness] was the name given to the holy temple in Jerusalem.  This was such a central building in the life of the Jewish people that it is frequently referred to simply as הבית – ‘the house’.

The use of the word בית is even broader than this.  A whole country can be referred to as a בית – for instance the State of Israel – which is known as the בית לאומי – the national home of the Jewish people.

Finally, the word בית does not even need to refer to a concrete space.  It is sometimes used to describe an abstract concept.  For instance, the term בית ישראל means the House of Israel – and refers to the Jewish people as a whole.  With so many different uses, it is not surprising that the word בית is one of the most frequently used words in the Hebrew language.

There is something special about a home.  It is a safe protected space and something that we all yearn for.  Indeed we say אין כמו בבית  – there is no place like home.  But, as the way the word  בית is used in the Hebrew language shows, that’s not entirely true.  The huge range of meanings of the word בית shows that lots of places can be home; indeed almost anywhere can be home.  A home isn’t about space; a home is a state of mind.  And with the right attitude, almost anywhere can be our בית.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

My Hebrew Word thanks the World Zionist Organisation and Masorti Olami for their support of this Project.