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Tazria-Metzorah 5777-2017

“Insights to be Gleaned from the Metzorah, the Person Stricken with the Tzaraat Disease”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s double parasha, Tazria-Metzorah, we learn of the symptoms of the Tzaraat disease and the details of the purification ritual for the Metzorah (the person stricken with the disease).

In the first of this week’s two parashiot, parashat Tazria, we learn of the symptoms of Tzaraat, the “spiritual dermatological disease” that is generally attributed to the specific sin of Lashon Harah, of speaking evil.

As we have previously learned (Tazria 5768-2008), the symptoms appear in three forms: שְׂאֵתS’ayt, סַפַּחַתSah’pah’chaht and בַּהֶרֶת Bah’heh’reht. S’ayt is a rising or bump in the skin. The rabbis learn that as a result of hubris or smugness, a person puts another person down in order to raise himself up.

Sah’pah’chat is a spreading skin inflammation. The rabbis suggest that a person who wishes to increase (“spread”) his possessions, belittles his competitor, saying that he is unskilled or not proficient in business.

Bah’heh’ret  means a lightening of color or a white inflammation. The rabbis suggest that it represents a person who attempts to show how bright or smart he is at the expense of the next person.

Rabbi Dr. Hayyim Angel, in his insightful volume Synagogue Companion, points to several important universal lessons to be gleaned from the Tzaraat disease and the ritual cleansing of the stricken person who has healed.

One of the key biblical accounts that serves as a proof-text confirming that Tzaraat is not a simple dermatological disease but a spiritual disease is the saga of Miriam who is afflicted with Tzaraat for speaking against Moses. The Torah, in Numbers 12:11-12, states that when Miriam was stricken, Aaron begged Moses, “Oh my lord, account not to us the sin which we committed in our folly. Let her [Miriam] not be as one dead who emerges from his mother’s womb with half his flesh eaten away.”

The Torah thus implies that a person stricken with Tzaraat whose skin peels away like a stillborn is considered dead. Other parallels to the death experience include that once the Metzorah is declared impure, he tears his clothing, lets his hair go loose and covers his lips, symbolically hiding from the rest of the world, like a person in mourning.

Through the duration of the ailment, the person stricken with Tzaraat is banished from society and is not permitted to live within the city limits. In fact, he is required to stay outside the camp, where the flocks of Israel are penned. It is hard to speak Lashon Harah when there is no audience except sheep and flocks. To keep others away from him, the Metzorah must continuously cry out, טָמֵא טָמֵא”,” “Impure, impure!”

Rabbi Angel points out that the ritual of purification from the disease described in parashat Metzorah closely resembles other key rituals that are recorded in the Torah. For example, once the Tzaraat symptoms are healed, the former gossiper must appear at the Tabernacle and sacrifice two birds. One bird is designated as a sacrifice to G-d, while the other is set free, strongly paralleling the ritual of the scapegoat–the two goats that are brought for atonement on Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16).

During the cleansing ritual, the priest sprinkles the blood of the sacrifices mixed with cedar, hyssop and scarlet wool, which strongly resembles the ritual of the Parah Adumah–the red heifer (Numbers 19), which serves to purify a person who has come into contact with death. In this case, the Metzorah himself is considered symbolically dead.

The final part of the purification process involves the sprinkling of the blood onto the extremities of the healed Metzorah–his ears, fingers and toes (Leviticus 14:14-17). This particular ritual resembles the consecration ceremony of the priests for the Temple service (Leviticus 9).

Rabbi Angel suggests that these three rituals were meant to achieve three critical purposes in the healing of the Metzorah.

The gossiper is not only to achieve Teshuva with the two birds, which is similar to the repentance achieved by Israel through the two goats, he is also to be purified through a ritual that is similar to the Red Heifer. But, Rabbi Angel points out that purifying one’s self is not enough. The Metzorah must strive even higher, and attempt to achieve קְדוּשָׁהKedusha, holiness and sanctity. With the sprinkling of the blood on the different parts of the Metzorah’s body, the sinner who has now been cleansed and purified, rises to a significantly higher level, similar to the sanctified priests who perform the Temple service.

The Metzorah acts like a mourner who, through introspection, mourns for himself. In this way, he not only cleanses and purifies himself, he actually pursues a process that brings him to a better place than he was before the sinful action began, to a place of elevated sanctity and holiness.

We see that the entire concept of Tzaraat appears, at first blush, rather primitive. However, Tzaraat, like many other obscure concepts that appear in the Torah, when studied carefully, is deeply insightful and convey a message of timeless importance to all of humankind.

May you be blessed.

Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day,  was observed this year on Sunday night, April 23rd, and all day Monday, April 24th, 2017.

Shemini 5777-2017

“The Unending Mourning”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shemini, we read of the tragic deaths of Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Abihu. The deaths occurred on the greatest day of Aaron’s life, the day that the Tabernacle was to be consecrated and Aaron and his sons were to be inducted into the priesthood.

The Torah, in Leviticus 10 states, that the Nadav and Abihu took firepans and placed a “strange fire” on them that G-d did not command. Suddenly, a fire came out from heaven and devoured them both alive before G-d. Moses said to his brother, Aaron,(Leviticus 10:3), “This is what G-d meant when He said that ‘I will be sanctified with those who are closest to Me.’” Aaron’s response was total silence.

After Nadav and Abihu’s bodies were removed from the holy sanctuary, Moses instructs Aaron and his remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar, not to display any signs of mourning. Leviticus 10:6 states, רָאשֵׁיכֶם אַל תִּפְרָעוּ וּבִגְדֵיכֶם לֹא תִפְרֹמוּ, וְלֹא תָמֻתוּ וְעַל כָּל הָעֵדָה יִקְצֹף; וַאֲחֵיכֶם כָּל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל, יִבְכּוּ אֶת הַשְּׂרֵפָה אֲשֶׁר שָׂרַף ה׳ , “Do not leave your heads unshorn, do not rend your garments, that you not die and He [G-d] become wrathful with the entire assembly; and your brethren, the entire House of Israel shall bewail the conflagration that the L-rd ignited.”

The commentators are perplexed by the statement that, “Your brethren, the entire House of Israel shall bewail the conflagration that G-d ignited.” The verse seems to indicate that the entire House of Israel, meaning the Jewish people collectively, has a responsibility and obligation to mourn for the sons of Aaron. The verse does not even seem to set limits. Does “the entire House of Israel” mean that the generation of Nadav and Abihu are supposed to mourn, or that all future generations throughout Jewish history are to mourn?

Many commentators see this as an obligation for all future generations to mourn the death of Aaron’s sons. The Netziv,  in his commentary on the Bible, Ha’amek Davar, asks how is it possible to expect the People of Israel to mourn for thousands of years for Aaron’s sons? After all, there is a great ongoing debate regarding whether, because of their actions, Nadav and Abihu deserved to die a premature death (see Shemini 5776-2016).

The Ha’amek Davar avers that during periods of national mourning and sadness, people may recall their own personal losses and use those moments of national mourning to mourn for them.

The Torah Temimah suggests that the participation of all of Israel in Aaron’s pain will make it easier for him to endure, and eventually achieve consolation for his great loss.

Rabbi Shimshon Dovid Pincus in his commentary on the Torah, Tiferet Shimshon, develops these thoughts, poignantly and with great insight.

Rabbi Pincus points to the introduction that is often found in the traditional High Holiday Machzor to the Torah reading on Yom Kippur, which indicates that כָּל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל , the entire House of Israel, every Jew, until the end of generations, must mourn for the death of Aaron’s sons.

Yet, notes Rabbi Pincus, this requirement seems to go against normative Jewish tradition. Referring to the interpretation of the rabbis (Talmud, Moed Katan 27b) on Jeremiah 22:10, “Do not weep for the dead king,” the sages state that one should not cry exceedingly for the dead or overly wail their loss. The rabbis even set limits: three days for crying, seven days for eulogizing, thirty days for not cutting ones’ hair and not wearing freshly laundered garments. Beyond that period of mourning, the Al-mighty declares, “Are you more compassionate than I am?”

Rabbi Pincus points to the traditional custom of giving the mourners their first meal of eggs and lentils, foods that are round-shaped, underscoring that the circle of life is repetitive and that while the sun sets it also rises again. The new generation somehow makes up for the losses suffered in the previous generations. Therefore, one must not overly mourn the losses.

Why then, do the rabbis seem to say regarding Nadav and Abihu that there are to be no limits to the Jewish peoples’ mourning?

Rabbi Pincus points out that limits are set for mourning for those who pass away in a normal manner. However, those who pass away prematurely are forever missed because they were unable to achieve their potential or their greatness, and hence become irreplaceable. One who loses a hand, will always feel the loss of that hand.

Rabbi Pincus points out that there are certain types of losses for which mourning is never-ending, such as for the myriad lost in the destructions of the Temples, lives that were uprooted, never to be replaced. Therefore, even though many centuries have passed, mourning will always continue. The small numbers of Jews worldwide is an indication that those who perished for the sanctification of G-d’s name can never be replaced.

Some of the losses are not only irreplaceable, they have also unfortunately opened the floodgates of evil against the Jewish People. The mourning for the broken tablets and the burning of the Torah by Apostomus on Shiva Asar B’Tammuz, made the Torah more vulnerable than ever before. The sanctity of the Torah was breached, and the dread of harming it by the enemies of the Torah was much reduced.

Once again, we see eternal lessons that are found in the seemingly insignificant nuances of the Torah text. These lessons are powerful and relevant, and are truly eternal lessons for all ages and for all generations.

May you be blessed.

Passover 5777-2017

“לֶחֶם עֹנִי –Lechem Oni: The Bread of Affliction

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Two primary scriptural verses provide reasons for eating matzah, unleavened bread, on Passover night at the seder.

The first source in the Torah is found in parashat Bo (Exodus 12:33-34) which states, וַתֶּחֱזַק מִצְרַיִם עַל הָעָם לְמַהֵר לְשַׁלְּחָם מִן הָאָרֶץ, כִּי אָמְרוּ כֻּלָּנוּ מֵתִים. וַיִּשָּׂא הָעָם אֶת בְּצֵקוֹ טֶרֶם יֶחְמָץ, מִשְׁאֲרֹתָם צְרֻרֹת בְּשִׂמְלֹתָם עַל שִׁכְמָם . Egypt imposed itself strongly upon the [Israelite] people to hasten, to send them out of the land, for they said, “We are all dying!” The people picked up their dough before it could become leavened, their kneading troughs being bound up in their garments upon their shoulders.

In this citation, scripture emphasizes that Jews eat matzah on the night of the seder to commemorate the initial stages of redemption in Egypt, underscoring that the Israelite slaves were being forced and rushed out of Egypt.

A second source for eating matzah is found in parashat Re’eh, Deuteronomy 16:3, לֹא תֹאכַל עָלָיו חָמֵץ, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תֹּאכַל עָלָיו מַצּוֹת לֶחֶם עֹנִי, כִּי בְחִפָּזוֹן יָצָאתָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ . You shall not eat leavened bread with it [the Pascal lamb], for a seven day period, you shall eat it with the bread of affliction, for you departed from the land of Egypt in haste–so that you will remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt all the days of your life.

Rashi explains the phrase, לֶחֶם עֹנִי –“Lechem Oni”–bread of affliction, to mean bread that brings to mind the affliction which the Israelites suffered in Egypt. Eating this unflavored mixture of water and flour, serves to remind contemporary Jews of the suffering that their forefathers endured in Egypt.

The Sforno explains that because the hectic pace of the Jewish slave’s life did not allow time for the dough to rise, matzah was the peoples’ food during their years of slavery.

Rabbi Amiram Domovitz, a teacher at Michlelet Herzog, in Israel expands on the concept of Lechem Oni–the bread of affliction. He notes that in Exodus 12:15, before the Israelites left Egypt, the Torah already commands: שִׁבְעַת יָמִים מַצּוֹת תֹּאכֵלוּ , matzah must be eaten for seven days. Supporting the position of the Sforno, this was even before the peoples’ dough at the time of the exodus did not have the time to rise.

Rabbi Domowitz points out that Maror (the bitter herb) represents enslavement and persecution, whereas the Pascal sacrifice represents redemption. Matzoh, however, has a dual purpose–at times it represents enslavement, on other occasions it represents redemption.

The Talmud, in Pesachim 36a, points out that the word עֹנִיOni in Hebrew is written oni, without a vav, but is read עוֹנִי (from the Hebrew verb to speak). Shmuel says that this implies that it is bread about which many have words to speak. This of course, refers to retelling the story of the Exodus from Egypt, singing the Hallel psalms and songs, and reciting the final blessings over the matzah.

Another interpretation of Lechem Oni, based on the root of the Hebrew word עָנִי –“poor,” is cited in Talmud Pesachim 116a. There, the Talmud states that just as it is the custom for a poor person to eat just a little piece of matzah, so should it be our custom to eat a little piece of matzah. The poor person who collects charity will not be given a full matzah to eat, just some broken pieces. Similarly, an impoverished slave will receive only the leftovers from his master’s food. In addition, when a poor person does have a full matzah he will break what he has in half to save some for a second meal, since he doesn’t know where his next meal will come from. Therefore, we have the deeply-entrenched custom early in the seder of breaking the middle matzah in half.

Another interpretation that is mentioned in the Talmud, Pesachim 116a, is that Lechem Oni recalls the practice of the husband of a poor family to light the fire of the oven, and instruct his wife to quickly bake the bread. Similarly on Passover, the matzah must be baked quickly so that it doesn’t ferment and become chametz.

As noted above, the term Lechem Oni has many interpretations and implications. Several of these reasons are even woven into the rituals of the Passover Seder and included in the Haggadah. Breaking the middle matzah, removing the matzah from the table, covering and uncovering the matzah, are all related to the varied meanings of Lechem Oni.

The many reasons that are enumerated for having matzah on Passover and calling it Lechem Oni, should remain at the forefront of our consciousness when we ourselves celebrate at our seders.

For a more meaningful Passover seder, we who live in significant comfort and abundance today, should recall the haste with which our ancestors, the Israelites, were forced to leave Egypt. We should remember the troubles that the impoverished slaves endured when they made and baked their bread, and the challenges that poor people experience when they are forced to collect charity.

This is the true meaning of what we declare in the Haggadah, בְּכָל־דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת־עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרָיִם , In every generation, every person must see himself as if he personally went out of Egypt.

Have a wonderful Pesach.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The first two days of the joyous festival of Passover will be observed this year on Monday night, April 10th and all day Tuesday and Wednesday, April 11th and 12th. The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Sunday night, April 16th, and continue through Monday and Tuesday, April 17th and 18th.

Chag Kasher V’samayach.

Wishing all our friends a wonderful, joyous and meaningful Passover.

 

 

Tzav 5777-2017

“Lessons from the Ceremony of the Consecration of the כֹּהֲנִים
the Priests”

 

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

A good part of this week’s parasha, parashat Tzav, describes the consecration ceremony of the כֹּהֲנִים , the Priests. Through this ceremony, Aaron and his sons were officially invested into the office of the כְּהֻנָּה , the Priesthood, so that they could begin to minister in the Tabernacle as the people’s representatives to G-d.

The elaborate ceremony of consecration was conducted by Moses, who acted as the High Priest, because there were no priests at that time. Moses dressed Aaron in the vestments of the High Priest, and anointed the Tabernacle and all its furnishings with the sacred anointing oil. He then poured anointing oil upon Aaron’s head and sanctified him, and dressed the sons of Aaron in the garments of the Lay Priests, as G-d had commanded him.

Moses then began the sacrificial rite of the consecration ceremony, which consisted of a bull, two rams and a basket of matzot.

In Leviticus 8:14 the Torah states that Moses brought the bull for a sin-offering and that Aaron and his sons placed their hands on the head of the bull. In Leviticus 8:15, the Torah tells us, וַיִּשְׁחָט, וַיִּקַּח מֹשֶׁה אֶת הַדָּם וַיִּתֵּן עַל קַרְנוֹת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ סָבִיב בְּאֶצְבָּעוֹ, וַיְחַטֵּא אֶת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, וְאֶת הַדָּם יָצַק אֶל יְסוֹד הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, וַיְקַדְּשֵׁהוּ, לְכַפֵּר עָלָיו , and he [Moses] slaughtered it [the bull] and Moses took the blood and placed it on the corners of the altar, all around, with his finger, and he purified the altar; he poured the blood upon the base of the altar and he sanctified it [the altar] to provide atonement for it.

The Midrash Sifra clarifies that Moses acted in lieu of the priests. During the seven days of consecration, from the 23rd of Adar until the first of Nissan, Moses served as the Kohen Gadol, performing the entire consecration service.

Rashi, in his comments on Leviticus 8:28, cites the Talmud Avodah Zarah 34a, stating that Moses was dressed in a white tunic during this seven day period when he acted as the High Priest. Apparently, Moses’ extreme modesty did not allow him to dress in the actual vestments of the High Priest.

Both the Midrash Sifra and the Yalkut Shimoni cite the parable comparing the consecration ceremony to a newly-married princess, whose mother accompanied her daughter to her new home to teach her how to act, until the princess mastered the act of being a wife. Since Aaron was not yet a priest, but only a Levite, the Al-mighty told Moses to serve until Aaron mastered the art of the priesthood. Moses would slaughter the offering and show Aaron what needs to be done. Similarly, with the sprinkling of the blood and all the intricate parts of the blood service, Moses demonstrated as Aaron watched and learned.

The Midrash asks why the verse says, וַיְקַדְּשֵׁהוּ, לְכַפֵּר עָלָיו , that Moses sanctified the altar to provide atonement for it? What atonement was needed? The Midrash suggests that Moses said to himself that when G-d commanded the people to donate to the Tabernacle, the people pressured one another to give. He concluded that if that is the case, then the people really did not give with a full heart, as G-d had commanded. Perhaps because the gifts were brought under duress and not given willingly with a full heart, they might actually be considered as stolen in G-d’s eyes.

Rabbi A.L. Scheinbaum,  in his Peninim on the Torah, cites Rabbi Aharon Kotler who concluded from the issues raised regarding the propriety of the peoples’ gifts, that in order to fulfill a mitzvah properly, and achieve proper sanctification, a mitzvah must be done with full willingness and joy. A mitzvah that is not performed with a full heart is lacking in sanctity, because it shows that the donor lacks respect for the mitzvah.

The Talmud, in Shabbat 130a, states that those mitzvot that the ancient People of Israel performed and accepted with joy, are still being performed today with joy.

Apparently, Jews today benefit from the full-hearted devotion of our ancient ancestors. The hope is that our descendants will similarly benefit from our own full-hearted devotion to the mitzvot that we perform today.

The benefits of sincerity are truly infinite. They are gifts that keep on giving.

May you be blessed.

Please note: This Shabbat, the Shabbat that immediately precedes Passover, is known as Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Shabbat. On this Shabbat, we read a special Haftarah from the prophet Malachi 3:4-24, in which we find the verse: “Behold I send to you Elijah the Prophet, before the great and awesome day of G-d.” For more information on Shabbat Hagadol, see parashat Tzav 5762-2002.

The first two days of the joyous festival of Passover will be observed this year on Monday night, April 10th and all day Tuesday and Wednesday, April 11th and 12th.

 

Vayikra 5777-2017

“רֵיחַ נִיחוֹחַ –A Sweet Savor unto the L-rd”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

With this week’s parasha, parashat Vayikra, we begin reading the third book of the Torah, Vayikra, which is also known as Leviticus. In Rabbinic literature, Vayikra is referred to as תּוֹרַת כֹּהֲנִים , laws regulating the rituals of the priests.

A good portion of the book of Leviticus focuses on the sacrificial rituals presided over by the priests and the Levites that took place in the portable Tabernacle and later in the Temple in Jerusalem.

The book of Leviticus opens with the general rules regulating the offerings and animal sacrifices. It not only records the kind of animals that are brought, but also the various types of sacrifices. The first sacrifice that is presented is the עֹלָה , Olah, known as the “elevation offering” or “burnt offering.” The opening chapter of Leviticus goes into particular detail regarding the preparation of the burnt offering, its slaughter, the sprinkling of its blood around the altar, flaying of its hide, quartering its flesh and offering the Olah up on the sacrificial altar.

The Torah, in Leviticus 1:9, instructs the priest to wash the innards of the animal and its feet with water. וְהִקְטִיר הַכֹּהֵן אֶת הַכֹּל הַמִּזְבֵּחָה, עֹלָה אִשֵּׁה רֵיחַ נִיחוֹחַ לַה׳ , and the priest shall cause it [the sacrifice] to go up in smoke on the altar–-an elevation offering, a fire offering, a satisfying aroma to the L-rd.

Rashi explains that what is meant by a pleasant or satisfying aroma to G-d is that it causes G-d to have a spirit of contentment, because He spoke and His will was carried out.

The Siftei Chachamim explains that Rashi is troubled by the fact that the Torah seems to suggest that G-d enjoys the physical aroma of the sacrifice. Rashi therefore clarifies that it is not the actual scent that G-d enjoys, but rather the spirit of satisfaction that arises from the Jews’ observance of this mitzvah.

The Devek Tov, another supercommentary on Rashi, explains that Rashi was troubled by the fact that the sacrifices actually give off a foul odor, not a pleasant aroma. That is why Rashi was forced to interpret the verse metaphorically. Hence, the aroma is not a smell, but rather a “spirit of contentment.”

The expression אִשֵּׁה רֵיחַ נִיחוֹחַ לַה׳ , a fire offering, a pleasant aroma to G-d, is found in parashat Vayikra on six occasions. These exact or similar words, are repeated more than ten times in other parashiot.

Onkelos translates אִשֵּׁה רֵיחַ נִיחוֹחַ לַה׳ , to mean an offering that is accepted with favor before G-d.

The Da’at Sofrim maintains that the aroma of the offering is the only spiritual element that remains after the sacrifice is burnt. It rises and connects with the spiritual worlds.

The author of Haketav Vehakabbala, explains, movingly, that the person offering the sacrifice must not mistakenly think that his sacrifice alone will gain forgiveness for his sins and trespasses. The donor of the sacrifice should rather have in mind that as a result of his/her future good deeds the sweet savor is yet to come. Sinners, who bring offerings, but do not mend their ways, are condemned by the prophet Isaiah, who asks, Isaiah 1:11, “Who needs your sacrifices?” It is therefore hoped that the “sweet savor,” which comes from afar, will serve as a messenger, bringing favorable tidings of good deeds that the donor will perform henceforth.

Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth provides a meaningful exposition of the phrase רֵיחַ נִיחוֹחַ לַה׳ , a satisfying aroma to G-d. The expression first appears in the book of Genesis, when Noah brings animal offerings as a sign of gratitude for surviving the flood. The Torah, in Genesis 8:21, states that G-d smelled the pleasant smell and promised Himself that He would not continue to curse the earth because of the evil inclinations of the human being.

What is the importance and purpose of the sweet aroma? Does G-d need it? Does a sweet smell really have the ability to appease G-d’s anger?

The sense of smell, notes Rabbi Neuwirth, is regarded with particular importance by the sages. The Talmud in Brachot 43b, states in the name of Rav, that people must make a blessing over the sense of smell or favorable aromas, based on the verse, in Psalms 150:6, כֹּל הַנְּשָׁמָה תְּהַלֵּל יָ־הּ , every soul shall praise G-d. Of the five human senses, only the sense of smell gives direct pleasure to the soul. This is why spices are sniffed after Shabbat on Saturday night, to restore the loss of the additional soul, which we reputedly receive for Shabbat.

Rabbi Neuwirth points out that the Talmud in Sanhedrin 93b, teaches that the ultimate judge, the Messiah, will be inspirited (literally, be made to smell) with reverence for G-d. As it says in Isaiah 11:3, וַהֲרִיחוֹ בְּיִרְאַת ה׳ .

There is compelling logic to the contention that the sense of smell is the most spiritual of all human senses, penetrating the souls of human beings. The Torah in Genesis 2:7 states, “And the L-rd, G-d, formed the man of the dust of the earth, and breathed into his nostrils a living breath, and man became a living soul.”

Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Charlop points out that when they ate of the forbidden fruit, the first humans sinned with four of their five senses. They used their sense of hearing to heed the blandishments of the serpent rather than the words of G-d. Eve used the sense of touch to touch the tree of Knowledge and Good and Evil, and sinned with the sense of sight when she beheld the forbidden fruit-tree and saw that it was a delight to her eyes. Both Adam and Eve failed with the sense of taste when they ate the forbidden fruit.

The Al-mighty had warned the primordial inhabitants that the punishment for defying G-d and for eating the forbidden fruit would be that on the day it is eaten, they would surely die. The rabbis say that once the humans sinned, four of their five senses were disconnected from the human soul, leaving them only as purely physical senses. Only the sense of smell remained connected directly to the human soul, and continued as both a physical and a spiritual sense.

It is the sense of smell, says Rabbi Neuwirth, which reminds us of the human experience in the Garden of Eden, and recalls the lost childhood of humanity, when the body and the soul were melded together in harmony. It is the sense of smell that reminds us to try to recapture the spiritual elements that have been removed from our physical bodies.

That, says Rabbi Neuwirth, is the purpose of the sacrificial rituals. Sin creates a vast distance between the human soul and the Creator. Through the pleasant smell and the sweet fragrance,
the sacrificial offerings (קָרְבָּן ) bring us close (קָרוֹב ) to the Al-mighty, and renew our attachment to G-d.

May you be blessed.

 

Vayakhel-Pekudei 5777-2017

“Bezalel–Master Craftsman, Master Teacher”

 

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Vayakhel, the first of this week’s two parashiot, Vayakhel-Pekudei, Moses designates Bezalel and Oholiab, to serve as the architects of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.

The Torah, in Exodus 35:30, records that Moses said to the children of Israel: רְאוּ קָרָא השׁם בְּשֵׁם בְּצַלְאֵל בֶּן אוּרִי בֶן חוּר לְמַטֵּה יְהוּדָה , See, the L-rd has proclaimed by name, Bezalel, the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. The Torah then clarifies that Bezalel, together with his assistant, Oholiab, son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, would be joined by other wise-hearted men, whom G-d has endowed with wisdom and insight, to do all the work for the labor of the sanctuary.

Most artists and artisans have specialized skills that are limited to a particular field of art. The Torah tells us that Bezalel was unique, and that the Al-mighty had filled him with a G-dly spirit–with wisdom, insight and knowledge, and the skills to master every craft, including weaving, working with gold, silver and copper, cutting precious stones, and wood carving.
According to tradition (Pekudei 5765-2005), Bezalel was only thirteen years old when he assumed this important role.

Apparently, choosing Bezalel and Oholiab to serve as the chief architects of the Tabernacle, was not an easy choice. Although there were many skilled workmen, their only specialty was working with bricks and mortar. Even though there were many volunteers, none of them had the particular skills that were necessary to build the Tabernacle.

Some of the people were unhappy with the fact that Moses chose Bezalel, who was the great-grandson of Moses’ sister, Miriam. That is why Moses had to clearly announce that it was not he who chose Bezalel, but rather that the L-rd had proclaimed Bezalel by name to serve as the chief architect.

Despite his many talents, according to the Midrash Rabbah, G-d’s choice of Bezalel was not due to his extraordinary skills. The Midrash maintains that Bezalel was chosen on the merits of the self-sacrifice of his grandfather, Hur, who lost his life trying to stop the people from worshiping the Golden Calf.

The sages compare the choice of Bezalel to the case of a king who was abandoned by his troops, and only one top general remained loyal. When the rebellion was suppressed, the king rewarded the general’s children, appointing them to serve as dukes and governors. Apparently, the passion that Hur showed when defending G-d’s honor, inspirited his grandson’s heart, and enabled Bezalel to perform the work in the Mishkan.

Rabbi Yehudah Nachshoni  suggests that Bezalel drew his talents and holiness from two parts of his family. Not only did Hur, give his life to defend G-d’s name, it was, after all, the tribe of Judah and Bezalel’s great-grandfather, Nachshon the son of Aminadav, who jumped into the waters of the Red Sea before any of other tribes.

The Ya’avetz suggests that just as Hur sacrificed himself to achieve atonement for the Golden Calf, so did his grandson, Bezalel, achieve atonement for the Golden Calf, by building the Tabernacle.

The Torah describes Bezalel, not only as a master craftsman, but also as a master teacher/educator. Scripture, in Exodus 35:34 states, וּלְהוֹרֹת נָתַן בְּלִבּוֹ: הוּא, וְאָהֳלִיאָב בֶּן אֲחִיסָמָךְ לְמַטֵּה דָן , And G-d put in his [Bezalel’s] heart the ability to teach, him and Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan.

The Da’at Sofrim explains what it means when the Torah states that G-d put in Bezalel’s heart the ability to teach. There are wise people, says the Da’at Sofrim, who with all their wisdom, are unable to impart their knowledge to others. Bezalel and Oholiab had a special gift of being able to transmit their wisdom to others. There are others who know how to instruct and even criticize others, but do not have the actual skills themselves to build anything. Bezalel and Oholiab had both the ability to master the crafts themselves, and the ability to teach others.

While we often don’t realize, there are really only a few professions that are completely selfless–teaching, social services and practicing medicine.

Among the greatest challenges in life is the challenge to lead a moral and sanctified life. Perhaps an even greater challenge is to transmit that commitment to live a moral and sanctified life to the next generation. That is why it is often regarded as a truly special gift from heaven to successfully inspire others to live a G-dly life. Some individuals are able to do that by example, by serving as walking and living models of virtue and goodness. The evident holiness that these special people exude can be contagious.

Others are not natural Tzadikim, and need to work hard to become virtuous. They must struggle all the time to improve every day. Those models can sometimes be even more effective than those who are naturally noble and righteous, because they provide a more realistic paradigm for the average person to imitate.

Interestingly, according to tradition, Bezalel lost his ability to teach immediately after the Tabernacle was completed. It was left to Oholiab to continue educating the people, and help them master the crafts that he had mastered. Could this be seen as a sign that inspiration and charisma only go so far, and what is truly necessary for continuity is hard work?

Whether the model be Bezalel or Oholiab, both of them served as an inspiration for others, to help humanity build the holy Mishkan, the house in which G-d’s presence dwells, that will serve as a source of sanctity for the entire world.

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat, also known as Shabbat HaChodesh, is the last of the four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion concerning the new month, Nissan, is read from Exodus 12:1-20.  This year, Rosh Chodesh Nissan, which marks the first day of the month of redemption, will take place on Monday evening and Tuesday, March 27 and 28, 2017.

 

Kee Tisah 5777-2017

The Gift of Torah”

 

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tisah, the Torah reports that G-d gave Moses two stone Tablets of Testimony that were inscribed by the finger of G-d.

The verse in Exodus 31:18 states, וַיִּתֵּן אֶל מֹשֶׁה כְּכַלֹּתוֹ לְדַבֵּר אִתּוֹ בְּהַר סִינַי שְׁנֵי לֻחֹת הָעֵדֻת, לֻחֹת אֶבֶן כְּתֻבִים בְּאֶצְבַּע אֱ־לֹקִים . When G-d finished speaking to him [Moses] on Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two Tablets of Testimony, stone tablets inscribed by the finger of G-d.

There is a dispute among the commentators regarding when the instructions to build the Tabernacle were given. Were they given before or after the Ten Commandments?   Rashi, citing the Talmud in Pesachim 6b, maintains that the instructions to build the Tabernacle were given after the Ten Commandments. According to Rashi’s calculations, Moses originally intended to deliver the Tablets on the 17th of Tammuz. When he saw the people joyously worshiping the Golden calf he broke the original Tablets. Moses then went up Mount Sinai and remained there for 2 -40 day periods. Thus, 80 days after the tablets had been broken, on Yom Kippur, G-d forgave the people. On the next day (11th of Tishrei) the people began collecting the materials for the Tabernacle, which was finally erected many months lateron the first day of Nissan.

The rabbis make two important exegetical observations. One is that the Torah states, וַיִּתֵּן אֶל מֹשֶׁה , that G-d “gave” Moshe the tablets. From this, the rabbis derive that the Torah was given as a gift. The theme of a gift is also reinforced from the word כְּכַלֹּתוֹ , written without a “vav,” implying that the Torah was like a gift that a groom gives to his bride, the kallah. 

The Midrash Tanchuma 18, states, that it would have been impossible for the mortal Moses to master the entire Torah in such a short time (during the original 40-day ascent) and therefore, G-d gave Moses the Torah as a gift. Rashi, interestingly, notes, this time from the Tanchuma 16, that just as a bride dresses up with 24 ornaments, so must a Torah scholar prepare himself for learning Torah by mastering all 24 books of the Bible.

The Talmud in Nedarim 38, also reports that Moses had a hard time mastering the Torah. Each time he began learning the Torah, he would learn and forget, until G-d gave it to him as a gift.  As the verse states (Exodus 31:18): “And G-d gave to Moses two Tablets of Testimony when He finished speaking to him on Mount Sinai.”

Another version found in Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 41, attributed to Rabbi Avahu, says that during the 40 days Moses was in heaven, he would study the Torah and forget it. Moses then said to the Al-mighty, “G-d, I’ve already studied for 40 days and I don’t know one thing!”  When the 40 days were over, the Al-mighty gave Moses the Torah as a gift, confirming the Talmudic adage (Brachot 12a), that “everything is judged by the conclusion.” Had Moses not labored for 40 days, he would not have merited the gift.

The Chiddushei HaRim comments on the suggestion regarding the inability of Moses to master the Torah.  If even the great Moses was unable to master the Torah, why didn’t G-d simply give him the Torah immediately rather than wait until Moses had completed studying for 40 days and 40 nights?

The Chiddushei HaRim notes that Torah can only be mastered with the help of G-d. But, G-d will help only those who make an attempt to master Torah themselves. It was through the great efforts that Moses invested in trying to master the Torah that he finally earned the right to receive the gift of Torah from the Al-mighty. So, says the Chiddushei HaRim, everyone can qualify to receive the gift of Torah if they truly and sincerely invest the effort to master it.

The grandeur of this concept cannot be overemphasized. Obviously, it is impossible for a mortal to comprehend Torah on the level of the Al-mighty. Yet, the Al-mighty makes it possible for mortals to comprehend the Torah on the human level. Thus, we see, that Torah study is far different from normal academic achievement through study and diligence. The experience of learning Torah is the equivalent of having a “virtual study experience” with the Al-mighty Himself as a study partner.

Prof. Louis Finkelstein is reputed to have said: “When I pray, I talk to G-d. When I learn Torah, I feel G-d talking to me!”

This is this gift that Moses received from G-d at Sinai. It is a gift that keeps on giving, to those in our generation, and to all future generations who invest the effort to master Torah.

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat is also known as “Shabbat Parashat Parah.” It is the third of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion concerning the Red Heifer is read from Numbers 19:1-22.

 

Tetzaveh/Purim 5777-2017

“Transformations”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Almost half of this week’s entire parasha, fully 43 verses of parashat Tetzaveh, are devoted to the detailed description of the priestly garments–the vestments that the Kohanim wore. Only the priests wore special garments, none of the other twelve tribes (the tribe of Joseph is divided into Ephraim and Menashe) are honored with a special wardrobe.

At first, the tribe of Levi was just another one of the tribes who descended from the twelve sons of Jacob. However, when the Levites refused to worship the Golden Calf, and, in fact, stood to defend the honor of G-d with their lives and displayed their loyalty to both G-d and Moses, they became the special tribe. They then replaced the firstborn male children, who were originally intended to be the selected servants of G-d.

As the ministers of the People of Israel in the holy chambers of the Tabernacle and Temple, the Levites were given certain gifts, tithes, and were also bequeathed 42 cities along with their surrounding fields for them to work and support themselves.

There was, however, one special family of Levites, descendants of Moses’ brother Aaron, who became the priests, the Kohanim. The Kohanim were charged with actually performing the sacred duties in the Tabernacle, with the Levites assisting them.

Originally there were about 22,000 Levites, and only four Kohanim (priests)–Aaron, Elazar, Itamar and Aaron’s grandson, Pinchas.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 83b) states that when the priests wore their holy garments, their Kehunah, their priesthood, was upon them. When they were not wearing those garments, they were like common members of other tribes. The lay priests wore four garments, while the High Priests wore eight. The clothes, in effect, made the man. Without the clothes the priests could not serve or perform any of their duties.

Thus, the priestly vestments represent the uniform of duty. The garments articulated the preparedness of the Kohanim to serve the people, in effect declaring: “I am wearing my uniform, I am ready to serve!” Thus, through their garments, a tribe of Israel was transformed into a sacred sect, devoted thoroughly and completely to the service of the Al-mighty and the People of Israel.

The story of Purim is also a chronicle of transformations. The nation of Israel, who was at the point of annihilation at the hands of wicked Haman, was suddenly transformed into a heroic people admired by all the citizens of Persia and Media. The hated nation of Israel, suddenly became the most admired.

Rabbi Nosson Telushkin in his erudite volume Ha’Torah V’haOlam, points to two revealing verses in the book of Esther. In Esther 3:15, the Megillah states, וְהַדָּת נִתְּנָה בְּשׁוּשַׁן הַבִּירָה, וְהַמֶּלֶךְ וְהָמָן יָשְׁבוּ לִשְׁתּוֹת, וְהָעִיר שׁוּשָׁן נָבוֹכָה , when the edict was issued in Shushan the capital, the King and Haman sat down to drink, and the entire city of Shushan was confounded.

The second verse cited by Rabbi Telushkin, Esther 8:15, describes the rise of Mordechai: וּמָרְדֳּכַי יָצָא מִלִּפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ בִּלְבוּשׁ מַלְכוּת…וְהָעִיר שׁוּשָׁן צָהֲלָה וְשָׂמֵחָה , After Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews was foiled, the book of Esther states that Mordechai was elevated to the highest position in the land, and came out publicly before the king wearing royal garb, and the entire city of Shushan rejoiced and was happy.

The Midrash Rabbah, Esther 3:15, quotes these verses, stating that the two verses in Esther may be explained by the verse in Proverbs 29:2, בִּרְבוֹת צַדִּיקִים יִשְׂמַח הָעָם, וּבִמְשֹׁל רָשָׁע יֵאָנַח עָם ,When the righteous increase, the nation rejoices, when the wicked rule, the nation groans.

Rabbi Telushkin points out insightfully that in Shushan, when the power of the wicked Haman and King Ahasuerus was ascendant, and the two sat to drink in the city after issuing the decree to murder all the Jews, the entire city, indeed the entire empire, all 127 states of Persia and Media, sighed in pain. However, when the evil was defeated and Mordechai ascended, appearing publicly in royal garb, the entire city of Shushan and the entire empire rejoiced and was jubilant.

The priestly vestments do not make the priests sanctified. The garments simply serve as a reminder of the important and sacred role that the priests are to fulfill. The priestly garments aid the priests to rise up and transform themselves from being just another one of the tribes, into leaders who inspire myriads.

Similarly, the ascendant power of evil and wickedness is so great, that it has the ability to transform empires–127 states with millions of people, into rabid anti-Semites, willing to destroy an innocent nation.

When the priests, who are dressed to serve as leaders, assume their sacred role, they can inspire a nation for good, for justice and for kindness. As a result, all the people rejoice, will be content and fulfilled.

Rabbi Telushkin points out specifically that when righteousness and goodness ascended to power in Shushan, not only the entire city, the entire state, the entire nation, not only Jews, but non-Jews as well, rejoiced and were happy.

Let us hope, that just as the clothes transformed the descendants of Aaron into priests, and just as righteousness and goodness transformed an entire nation of would-be killers into sympathizers, so shall our people, our country, our nation also witness transformations, in which all evil will vanish, goodness will ascend, and G-d’s blessings will be showered on all peoples and all nations.

May you be blessed.

This coming Shabbat is known as Shabbat Zachor. It is the second of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion is read from Deuteronomy 25:17-19 about remembering Amalek. Most authorities consider it a positive commandment for both men and women to hear this particular Torah reading.

Please note: The Fast of Esther is observed on Thursday, March 9th, 2017 from dawn to nightfall. Purim is observed this year on Saturday night, and Sunday, March 11th-12th, 2017.

The festival of Purim marks the celebration of the great salvation of the Jews of the Persian empire from the hands of the evil Haman in the year 520-519 BCE. For more information about Purim and its special observances, click here.

Terumah 5777-2017

“ זִיכּוּי הָרַבִּים – Meriting the Broader Jewish Community”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Terumah, we read of the commandment to build a Tabernacle, a dwelling place for the Divine Presence.

The Torah, in Exodus 25:8 states, וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ, וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם , and they shall make for Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them.

The verse does not say, “Make for Me a sanctuary so that I will dwell in it.” After all, G-d does not need a sanctuary since His Divine Presence fills the entire world. As the author of the Sefer Ha’Chinuch explains, the sanctuary was not intended to serve as a dwelling place for G-d, but as a setting where human beings might receive the spiritual inspiration conducive to the proper worship of G-d. The ancient Tabernacle, thus served as a place for the Israelites to focus their spirituality.

The Tabernacle, known in Hebrew as the מִּשְׁכָּן –“Mishkan,” a dwelling place, was a temporary portable sanctuary that the Children of Israel built from wood, cloth and precious metals, which could be set up and dismantled as they traveled for forty years through the wilderness.

After entering the Promised Land, a more permanent Tabernacle was built in Gilgal, which lasted for 14 years. Later, a structure partly built of stone was erected at Shilo, which served as the sanctuary for a period of 369 years. For the last 57 years before Solomon’s permanent Temple was erected on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, the Ark was moved first to Nob and then to Gibeon.

The commandment to build a Temple in Jerusalem is derived directly from the commandment to erect a temporary Tabernacle in the wilderness (Exodus 25:8). There is, however, no direct commandment to build synagogues or local houses of worship. Yet, because of the striking similarity between the temporary sanctuary, the permanent sanctuary in Jerusalem and the local synagogues and houses of worship, the rabbis derived the requirement to build local houses of worship. The proof-text for all houses of worship is the verse from parashat Terumah, “And they shall make for Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them.”

The Zohar in parashat Naso 4, states that every synagogue in the world is known as a מִקְדָּשׁ Mikdash,” a sanctuary.

The Talmud, in Megillah 29a, cites the verse in Ezekiel 11:16, in which G-d states that He, G-d, would serves as a מִקְדָּשׁ מְעַטMikdash M’at, a miniature Temple in the lands where they, the Israelites, dwell. Rabbi Isaac explains that these “miniature Temples” are houses of prayer and houses of study.

Because of the distinct parallel between the Tabernacle and synagogues, many rules governing proper behavior in the great Jerusalem Temple, also apply to local synagogues and houses of study to ensure their sanctity. The Jerusalem Talmud in B’rachot 5:1 cites Rabbi Pinchus in the name of Rabbi Hoshaya, who says that one who prays in a synagogue is likened to one who brings a pure מִנְחָהMincha sacrifice.

It is specifically because of the heightened sanctity of the synagogue that Jewish tradition considered it a deed of great merit to help build or support the building of synagogues. Rabbeinu Bachya, in his book Kad Ha’kemach goes so far as to state that one who builds a tiny part of the synagogue structure, even a single wall in a synagogue, or even bangs in a single nail for the sake of the synagogue, achieves great merit.

Aside from the obvious similarities between building a local synagogue and building the great Temple in Jerusalem, another factor plays a key role in the mitzvah of building a synagogue. This factor is known in rabbinic literature as זִיכּוּי הָרַבִּים “Zee’kuy ha’Rah’bim,” bringing merit to the masses.

The principle of זִיכּוּי הָרַבִּים plays an important role in Jewish life. So great is the regard for communal activists that congregations throughout the Jewish world declare weekly in their Sabbath prayers, כָל מִי שֶׁעוֹסְקִים בְּצָרְכֵי צִבּוּר בֶּאֱמוּנָה , blessed are those who render service for the community in good faith, may the Al-mighty give them their just rewards.

Many mitzvot fall under the rubric of זִיכּוּי הָרַבִּים (meriting the masses).Not only building synagogues, houses of study and schools, but also building mikvaot–ritual purification pools, making Kosher food available to all, and establishing Jewish libraries.

Many volunteer charitable organizations today render services to the Jewish community that are of inestimable value. Volunteer organizations today such as Hatzolah, provide private ambulance service for the community, Misaskim, provides special services to mourners, Chaverim, provides help for those who have emergencies in their homes or are locked out of their cars. Zaka, collects the body parts of those killed in terror attacks and brings the victims to proper burial.

The remarkable growth of Gemachs (private charity funds) in recent times underscores how great is the mitzvah of bringing merit to the masses. There are Gemachs that provide baby carriages and bridal gowns, diapers for newborns, provide crutches, wheelchairs, walkers to the infirm, lend artificial flowers for Bar Mitzvahs and weddings.

The Mah’ah’say l’Melech in parashat Bechukotai suggests that King Solomon built the permanent Temple in Jerusalem using cypress and cedar trees, building materials that with time rot and spoil, so that every generation would have the opportunity to rebuild the Temple.

May we too have the opportunity to rebuild the Temple soon in our days.

May you be blessed.

 

Mishpatim 5777-2017

“Majority Rule “

This week’s parasha, parashat Mishpatim, is one of the most content-rich parashiot in the entire Torah. Mishpatim, which literally means “laws” or “rules,” serves as the basis of the Jewish judicial system.

Parashat Mishpatim ranks fourth among the Torah portions, containing 53 commandments of the 613 commandments in the Torah–30 negative and 23 positive.

Many fascinating ancient rules are found in parashat Mishpatim that underscore how advanced the ancient judicial system of Israel was and its relevance to contemporary times. Those who wish to gain an appreciation of the scope of these insightful rules are encouraged to visit the archive and review the weekly messages on parashat Mishpatim from previous years.

Among the most fascinating and insightful laws are those that apply specifically to capital crimes.

Many scholars claim that the concept of “majority rule” emanates from the legal practices of ancient Greece and Rome. Students of classical history know that the practice of majority rule in Greece consisted of citizen-gatherings in the ancient Agora together with their slaves and sheep, and that those who made the loudest noise prevailed by voice vote. This is hardly democracy-in-action or “majority rule” as we understand it today.

The Torah, however, articulated a principle of “majority rule” many hundreds of years before the Greeks and Romans. The Torah in Exodus 23:2 clearly states, לֹא תִהְיֶה אַחֲרֵי רַבִּים לְרָעֹת, וְלֹא תַעֲנֶה עַל רִב, לִנְטֹת אַחֲרֵי רַבִּים לְהַטֹּת , Do not be a follower of the majority for evil, and do not respond to a grievance by yielding to the majority to pervert the law. (The literal meaning of the second part of the verse is “follow the majority.”)

As we have often noted, the most important value in Judaism is the sanctity of human life. Therefore, the rabbis often perform all sorts of legal somersaults in order to preserve life.

In ancient Israel, capital crimes had to be adjudicated before tribunals of either 23 or 71 judges, and as expressed in the Torah verses, majority ruled. Thus, in a court consisting of 23 judges, if 12 judges voted to exonerate the defendant and 11 to convict, the defendant was exonerated. Similarly, in the large court of 71 judges, if 36 judges voted not guilty, and 35 voted guilty, the majority ruled and the defendant was found not guilty. In order to exonerate a defendant, all that was needed was a simple majority of one.

However, as Rashi, explains the verse as interpreted in the Talmud, one must not follow the majority to do evil. Consequently, Jewish law demands that a majority of 2 is required in order to convict, while a majority of only one is required to exonerate. Obviously, with an odd number of judges, a majority of 3 is needed. So, if 12 judges voted guilty and 11 voted innocent, or, in the large court, 36 voted guilty and 35 voted not guilty, the defendant could not be found guilty. A majority of 2 is required, or in reality, a majority of 3. The vote necessary to convict would have to be 13 to 10, or 37 to 34.

Another fascinating rule, apparently based on the above-mentioned verses that is found in the Talmud Sanhedrin 17a, is that if the entire court unanimously finds the defendant guilty, 23 to 0 or 71 to 0, the defendant cannot be found guilty. The lack of a single dissenting vote is seen as an indication that the judges did not take their juridical responsibility seriously. Rabbi Akiva said that had he been alive during the time that courts adjudicated capital cases, no one would ever have been convicted because he would have found a legal way for the defendants to be exonerated.

Another fascinating rule is that if a student sitting in court following the trial procedures, suggested a way to exonerate a defendant, that student was immediately elevated to become a member of the court, in order to possibly save the defendant’s life.

In court, the younger judges always expressed their opinions first, so that they would not be intimidated by the older judges, and be able to express their opinions freely.

There is no double jeopardy in Judaism. Therefore, if a defendant was pronounced guiltless and new evidence is presented indicating the defendant guilty, that new evidence is inadmissible, because the trial, once concluded, cannot be reopened. However, if a defendant was found guilty, new evidence to exonerate can always be introduced.

Rules of evidence in capital cases are extremely rigorous and complex. In order to convict a person of a capital crime, two “kosher” witnesses must warn the would-be perpetrator that the crime that he is about to commit is punishable by death, and specifically indicate what form the death penalty might take. Witnesses to capital crimes in Judaism need to be male, people of positive reputation, unrelated to the victim, defendant or the other witnesses and fully observant. Women are excluded from testimony in capital cases because the execution of those found guilty was generally performed by the witnesses, and the rabbis wished to spare women the trauma of having to execute a criminal. Thus, 50% of eligible witnesses were automatically eliminated, underscoring how greatly Judaism values life. Even if 100 witnesses testify to a crime, but among them were a father and son, all 100 witnesses are disqualified, because of the two relatives among them.

Not only must witnesses warn the perpetrator, and specify what the death penalty will be, the would-be perpetrator needs to immediately acknowledge the warning and the punishment. However, circumstantial evidence is not admissible. So for example, even though the witnesses saw the alleged perpetrator holding a knife over the heart of the victim, but because of a momentary distraction the witnesses did not actually see when the knife was plunged into the breast of the victim, but only saw the bloody weapon afterwards, the perpetrator could not be convicted, since the evidence is circumstantial.

The place of execution had to be at least a day’s journey from the courts, so that there would be time for new witnesses to arrive who may testify for exoneration.

According to some, a convicted capital offender could not be put to death, unless he willingly agreed to be executed. Some rabbis see the death penalty not as a punishment, but as a catharsis, a cleansing of the killer’s soul, allowing the convicted murderer to achieve a place in the World to Come.

These rules, which are all based on majority rule, shed profound meaning upon the value of the sanctity of life, which is at the core of every mitzvah and the basis of our Jewish faith.

May you be blessed.

Please Note: This Shabbat is Shabbat Parashat Shekalim. On this Shabbat, an additional Torah portion, known as Parashat Shekalim, is read. It is the first portion of four additional thematic Torah portions that are read on the Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim.

This week’s supplementary Torah reading is found in Exodus 30:11-16 and speaks of the requirement for all the men of Israel, aged 20 and above, to bring a half-shekel in order to be counted as a member of the People of Israel. In later years, these shekels were donated to the Temple in anticipation of the festival of Passover, when funding for the daily sacrifice had to be renewed.