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Sukkot 5780-2019

“A Sukkot Story: Devotion to a Festival”
(Updated and revised from Sukkot 5761-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The famed Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin records the unusual story concerning Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev,  the legendary O’heiv Yisrael, the Hassidic leader who could never find fault with another Jew.

It was only a short time before Sukkot and, in all of Berditchev, there could not be found a single etrog. The Tzaddik, Reb Levi Yitzchak, and the entire congregation, were concerned how they would be able to fulfill the very special mitzvah of lulav and etrog. They waited, but no etrog arrived in Berditchev. Finally, the Tzaddik instructed his followers to go to the closest main highway-–perhaps there they would find some Jew who had an etrog. And, so they found a Jew, on his way home after a long journey, who had in his possession a very beautiful etrog. But his home was not Berditchev. He lived in another city, far from Berditchev; he was only passing through on his way home.

The followers of Reb Levi Yitzchak persuaded the traveling Jew to meet with the great Tzaddik, Reb Levi Yitzchak. The Tzaddik tried to convince the Jew to spend Sukkot in Berditchev availing so many Jews to have the merit of properly performing the mitzvah of lulav and etrog. Of course, Reb Levi Yitzchak too would have the privilege of performing the mitzvah. The Jew would not agree. After all, he was traveling home to his family, whom he hadn’t seen for quite some while. How could he deprive them and himself of the simcha of Yom Tov, the joy of the Sukkot holiday?

In order to further persuade the traveler, the Tzaddik, Reb Levi Yitzchak, promised the Jew wealth and great nachat (pleasure) from his children. The Jew responded that he had, thank G-d, both wealth and wonderful children, and was not in need of anything more. Finally, in desperation, Reb Levi Yitzchak told the Jew that if he would fulfill the rabbi’s request, the rabbi would promise him that after 120 years, the traveler would spend eternity together with the rabbi, in the rabbi’s four cubits in the World to Come.

When the Jew who owned the etrog heard this incredible offer from the great Tzaddik, he immediately acceded to the Tzaddik’s request and agreed to remain in Berditchev for the duration of the Sukkot holiday. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak and the entire community were delighted, and the Jew with the etrog was ecstatic.

Unbeknownst to the Jewish traveler, a secret command had been issued by the Tzaddik to all the people of Berditchev, that under no circumstances should they allow this Jew who brought the etrog to Berditchev to enter any of their sukkot during the holiday. No one knew why, but the decree of the Tzaddik was an unalterable decree.

On the first night of Sukkot, after services, the traveling Jew returned from synagogue to the inn where he was staying, and found in his room wine for kiddush, candles, challahs, and a table covered with food. The guest was perplexed…Doesn’t the innkeeper have a sukkah? A righteous Jew like he, no sukkah? He went out to the yard, where he found a sukkah, beautifully built and arrayed, and the owner and all the members of his household sitting around the table. The guest sought to enter, but he was not permitted. Why, why? How could this be? No response. So he went to the neighbors on the street and found them, each one in their own sukkah. He begged them to allow him to enter, to sit in their sukkah–for just a moment. No one answered. Finally, he learned that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak had decreed that he should not be allowed into a single sukkah in the entire city of Berditchev.

In panic, he ran to the Tzaddik’s home. “What is this?” he cried. “What is my trespass? What is my sin?” Said the Tzaddik: “If you will nullify the promise I made to you that you would sit with me in the World to Come, I will immediately instruct my followers to allow you to enter their sukkot. The guest was astonished–outraged–but was silent. “What can I do?” he thought to himself. “After all, is it an insignificant thing to sit together with this great Tzaddik in the World to Come? On the other hand, in my entire life I have never missed performing the mitzvah of sitting in a sukkah. How can I fail now, on the first night of the holiday, to fulfill this wonderful mitzvah?”

Finally, the guest came to a conclusion–in favor of the sukkah. He said to himself: “Is it possible that all of Israel will sit in a sukkah and I will eat in a house, like a non-Jew? G-d forbid!” He then renounced the promise that the Tzaddik had made to him, and at the demand of Reb Levi Yitzchak, extended his hand to confirm the agreement, and proceeded to sit in a sukkah.

When the festival concluded, Reb Levi Yitzchak summoned the Jew to his home. “Now,” said the Tzaddik: “I am returning to you my promise. You see, I did this to teach you, to inform you, that I didn’t want you to merit the World to Come for no reason, as if it were a business deal or a menial bargain. I wanted you to truly earn a place in the World to Come because you were deserving, because of your deeds, and so I caused you to be tested in the mitzvah of sukkah. Now that you have passed the test, and have shown true devotion to the sukkah, you truly deserve to be my partner in the World to Come.”

May you be blessed.

The first days of Sukkot will be observed this year on Sunday evening and all day Monday and Tuesday, October 13,14 and 15, 2019. The intermediary days [Chol HaMoed] are observed through Sunday, October 20th. On Sunday evening, the festival of Shemini Atzeret commences, and is celebrated on Monday, October 21st. The final day of the festival, Simchat Torah, begins on Monday evening, October 21st and continues through Tuesday, October 22nd.

Rosh Hashana 5780-2019

“The Judgment of Ishmael, and its Contemporary Implications for all of G-d’s Creatures”
(Updated and revised from Rosh Hashana 5761-2000)


Because of Rosh Hashana, instead of commenting on the scheduled Shabbat parasha, Nitzavim, we will comment on the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashana, found in Genesis 21, which focuses on the birth of Isaac.

The Torah commentators offer a host of interesting reasons explaining the relevance of this particular portion to Rosh Hashana. The Talmud, in Rosh Hashana 10b, states: “On the new year, Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah were remembered,” meaning that G-d remembered them, and these barren women became pregnant. Genesis 21:1, reads, וַהשׁם פָּקַד אֶת שָׂרָה, כַּאֲשֶׁר אָמָר , And G-d remembered Sarah as He had said. Sarah conceives and bears a son for Abraham in his old age, at the appointed time about which G-d had spoken.

The Hebrew word פָּקַדpa’kad comes from the root of the Hebrew word to count or to remember. In effect, Sarah was taken into account and remembered. Similarly, on Rosh Hashana all of G-d’s creatures pass before G-d to be examined, setting their fate in accordance with the Divine plan.

The child who was born, Isaac, who was named in Hebrew Yitzchak, becomes a paradigm for the Jewish people. Remember, that Sarah had been menopausal and Abraham too was well on in years. Biologically, there really was no hope that they would be capable of bearing a child! But, just as Isaac’s birth was an act of Divine providence, so too is the continued existence of the Jewish people an act of Divine providence. As we say in the Passover Haggadah, שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר עוֹמְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנוּ ,–“In every generation they [our enemies] rise up to destroy us, but the Al-mighty rescues us from their hands.” The great nations of history–the Greeks, the Romans, are gone, the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Chinese have vanished, but the Jews survive. Realistically, the Jewish people should have ceased to exist long ago. After all, in every generation, the Jews have been at the virtual precipice of destruction, yet we survive-––only because of the Al-mighty’s intervention; just as G-d had intervened to ensure the existence of our forefather Yitzchak.

Abraham and Sarah’s child is called Yitzchak, which literally means to laugh. It is an odd and challenging name to give a child. It is as if a father would name his child “Big Joke.” But Abraham understood that while the world would regard Isaac’s birth and continued existence with great skepticism, Abraham and Isaac will prove them all wrong––and the “big joke” will be on them!

In Genesis 21:9, Sarah sees the son of Hagar, Ishmael, מְצַחֵקmitzachek–mocking or “making sport” of her son Yitzchak. She demands that Abraham expel the handmaiden Hagar and her son, so that Ishmael will not inherit with her son Isaac.

According to the famed commentator, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Sarah had hoped that because he was fathered by Abraham, Ishmael would be able to overcome the Hamitic nature that he had inherited from his mother Hagar, but she was mistaken. In fact, our commentators say that the word mitzachek, mocking or making sport, actually implies that Ishmael indeed acted out on that base nature, and attempted to sexually molest Isaac.

Therefore, it was not just a benign case of two little boys who could not play nicely together that drove Sarah to insist that Ishmael be expelled. Nevertheless, Abraham, the great, open-hearted, and generous “welcomer” of guests, was heartbroken at the thought of sending away his wife and child. Only the direct dictate of G-d, compelled him to heed the instructions of his wife, Sarah.

Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael to the barren desert of Beersheba, giving Hagar only a few pieces of bread and a small vessel of water-––the equivalent of a death sentence by thirst and starvation. When there is no more water, Hagar casts the lad (who, according to tradition was either 17 or 27 years old), under one of the shrubs. Based on scriptures’ description, Hagar set herself apart from Ishmael so she would not see the death of her child. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in his commentary takes Hagar to task for distancing herself from her stricken son. The Torah tells us that as Hagar sat opposite, but quite a distance away from Ishmael, she lifted up her voice and wept. Asks Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch: How could a mother cast away a child who is dying of thirst? Should she not have held him in her arms, and kept him cool, even if it was painful for her to witness his pain? With great insight, Rabbi Hirsch notes that, “In truly humane people the feelings of duty master the strongest emotions, make one forget one’s own painful feelings and give helpful assistance even if one can do no more than give comfort of one’s participating presence.”

Miraculously, Hagar and Ishmael are saved by an angel, who shows Hagar that there is an oasis of water nearby. Apparently, Hagar was so overwhelmed by grief that she didn’t even make the slightest effort to try to find nourishment for herself or the child, even though it was clearly within reach.

In Genesis 21:17, G-d hears the cry of the child. The Angel of G-d calls out to Hagar and says to her: “What is the matter Hagar, do not be afraid, for G-d has heard the voice of the lad there where he is.”

Let us pay particular attention to the phrase, בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם “there where he is.”

Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf, in his wonderfully enlightening and engaging manual, The Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur Survival Kit, states that it was clear and apparent as Ishmael grew older he would be fated for doing evil. Even as a young boy, Ishmael was already an assaulter–a potential cold-blooded murderer. Of course, G-d knew that Ishmael and his descendants would be bitter oppressors of the Jewish people in the future. So, if G-d knew Ishmael’s evil past and his potential evil future, why did G-d save Ishmael? The reason, says Rabbi Apisdorf, lies in the phrase: “Ba’asher hu sham,”–there where he is. At that very moment that Ishmael was being judged, he was not yet guilty. He might become guilty in the future, but at that very moment he could not be considered culpable.

Rabbi Apisdorf points out that the favorable judgment of Ishmael, which is read on Rosh Hashana, should be a source of great encouragement and promise for every Jew. Yes, G-d surely knows our future, but He chooses not to take it into account. In fact, G-d doesn’t even take our past into account when one seeks forgiveness. Therefore, writes Rabbi Apisdorf, to merit a favorable decree, all we need to do, is to simply get our act together for one single day…. What a bargain: the future doesn’t count, the past is irrelevant, we will only be judged according to who we are, and how we act on the day of Rosh Hashana itself!

Surely, this is a most hopeful and optimistic message. On Rosh Hashana, G-d judges us-––sounds ominous doesn’t it? But, at the same time, G-d does “somersaults” to find every possible reason to judge us favorably.

Consequently, it is absolutely vital, that when G-d looks at us on Rosh Hashana, “Ba’asher hu sham“––-to see where we are at that very moment, we must be certain that we merit His favorable judgment and that we deserve to be blessed and inscribed in the Book of Life.

SHANAH TOVAH. May you and all of your loved ones be inscribed for a healthy, happy and peaceful New Year.

May you be blessed.

Rosh Hashana 5780 is observed this year on Sunday evening and all day Monday and Tuesday, September 29th, 30th and October 1st, 2019. The Fast of Gedaliah will be observed next Wednesday, October 2nd from dawn until nightfall.

Kee Tavo 5779-2019

“Welcoming the Stranger”
(Revised and updated from Kee Tavo 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tavo,opens with the ritual of bringing בִּכּוּרִיםBikkurim, the first fruits of the season, to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Deuteronomy 26:1 records the following declaration: וְהָיָה כִּי תָבוֹא אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה, וִירִשְׁתָּהּ, וְיָשַׁבְתָּ בָּהּ , It shall be, that when you enter the land that the L-rd your G-d gives you as an inheritance, when you possess it and dwell in it, that you shall take the first of every fruit of the ground that you bring in from your land that the L-rd your G-d gives you, and shall put it in a basket, and go to the place that the L-rd your G-d will choose, to make His name rest there.

By bringing the Bikkurim to the Temple and delivering them to the Kohen–the priest, Jews symbolically acknowledge that all their material assets are a gift of G-d. The Jew, therefore, brings this symbolic portion to G-d, as a sign of gratitude for G-d’s goodness.

The Mishnah in Bikkurim 3:1 describes the ritual of selecting the first fruits, recalling how the farmer tied a cord to the stems of the selected offerings and declared: “This is the Bikurim.”

Once the first fruits are harvested, they are brought with great fanfare to Jerusalem for dedication. The farmer would bring his Bikurim in a basket to the Kohen, then take it back temporarily, as he recited a brief summary of Jewish history underscoring how the land of Israel is a gift of G-d. At the conclusion of this declaration, the farmer would place his basket down before the altar, delivering it as a permanent gift to G-d.

Focus for a moment on one practical portion of the farmer’s declaration to the Kohen of those days: Deuteronomy 26:3,הִגַּדְתִּי הַיּוֹם לַהַשׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ, כִּי בָאתִי אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע השׁם לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ, לָתֶת לָנוּ , I declare today to the L-rd, your G-d, that I have come to the land that the L-rd swore to our forefathers to give us.

The rabbis ask the fundamental question: How can later generations of Jews say: “I have come to the land that the L-rd swore to our forefathers to give us”? Wouldn’t it be more precise to say: “Our forefathers came to the land”? A response to this question can be found in the Passover Haggadah where we declare בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם, In every single generation each person must see themselves as if they themselves went out of Egypt. In effect, all Jews have an obligation to see themselves as an inseparable part of the Jewish nation, and everything that occurred to our forefathers in Egypt, happened not only to the ancient Israelites, but to us as well. Thus, the claim of Jewish tradition is that the Land of Israel was given personally to each Jew. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate for contemporary Jews to declare: כִּי בָאתִי אֶל הָאָרֶץ ,-–I personally came to the land.

A fascinating aspect of this question is the issue of whether a ger–a convert to Judaism, is entitled to say this declaration for the Bikkurim. After all, G-d did not give his/her ancestors the land. The Mishnah in Bikkurim (1:4) records this dispute. “The proselyte brings [first fruits], but does not recite [the declaration], since he cannot say: Which the L-rd swore unto our fathers to give to us…(Deuteronomy 26:3), and when he prays in private he says: ‘The G-d of the forefathers of Israel.’ When he prays in the synagogue he says: ‘The G-d of our fathers.’”

This opinion, cited in an anonymous Mishnah, which is usually attributed to Rabbi Meir, indicates that when making a declaration before G-d, one must be absolutely truthful. Therefore, a convert to Judaism may not say “G-d of my fathers,” since it is not true.

However, this practice is not the accepted ruling. In fact, it is explained entirely differently in the Jerusalem Talmud (Bikkurim 1:4): “It was learned in the name of Rabbi Judah–A proselyte himself brings the first fruits and recites the [regular] formula. Why so? ‘For a father of a multitude of nations have I made thee.’” Originally, he [Abraham] was the father of Aram [the country of his birth], from now on he is the father of all humanity. Rabbi Joshua ben Levy said: “The laws are in accordance with Rabbi Judah.”

Maimonides, in his epistle to Obadiah, the proselyte, concurs: “Behold that has made clear to you that you should say, ‘Which the L-rd swore to our forefathers.’ And that Abraham is your father, and that of all the righteous who follow his ways. This applies to all benedictions and prayers. You should not alter anything.”

Maimonides, as the rabbis before him, proves clearly that Judaism is not a biological or racial tradition, it is rather a spiritual inheritance. Consequently, anyone who adopts the spiritual teachings of Judaism is entitled to say that he/she is the disciple of Abraham, who introduced monotheism to the world.

It is no coincidence that parashat Kee Tavo is read in the month of Elul, prior to the High Holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the Days of Repentance and introspection. Parashat Kee Tavo includes the terribly ominous תּוֹכֵחָה To’chay’cha, the warning of the retribution that G-d will visit upon those who do not follow G-d’s words. This shrill message, shakes us to the core, reminding us that it is time for self-evaluation and repentance. But, how does the ritual of bringing of Bikkurim, the first fruits, dovetail with the theme of the Days of Awe and Repentance? Perhaps the question that was previously raised serves as the connection. After all, each of us is a גֵרger, each of us is in some way a stranger to Judaism.

During the month of Elul and the High Holidays, it is incumbent upon all Jews, whether man or woman, to look inside themselves, to check their deeds, to find the “stranger,” the “alien” in themselves that has allowed them to succumb to forbidden actions. We are not Canaanites, we are not Jebusites–we are all the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. We have boldly and proudly declared that the L-rd is our G-d. There is no room for the alien in us, because there is no alien. The stranger within us needs to be welcomed, and become an integral part of ourselves, dominated by good deeds and superior morality.

It is in this spirit that we enter the month of Elul, the time of Teshuvah, and the Days of Repentance.

May you be blessed.

Kee Teitzei 5779-2019

“Polygamy, Illegitimacy and Punishing the Innocent”
(Revised and updated from Kee Teitzei 5760-2000)


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


This week’s parasha, parashat Kee Teitzei, is the parasha that contains more mitzvot than any other parasha in the Torah. Kee Teitzei contains a total of 74 mitzvot, 27 positive, and 47 negative commandments, outranking Emor, the second most numerous parasha, that contains 63 mitzvot.

Parashat Kee Teitzei contains a broad array of laws: family laws, laws of kindness, laws dealing with proper clothing, kindness to animals, parapets for roofs, the prohibition against mixing various seeds and materials, laws regarding the holiness of marriage, the holiness of the Israelite camp, laws concerning vows, divorce, equity, and humanity.

The laws of the family play a particularly prominent role in parashat Kee Teitzei, and they are broad and quite varied in scope.

As most know, the practice of polygamy was quite widespread in ancient times. While the Torah legally countenanced polygamy for men, the Torah was not inherently sympathetic to its practice. In fact, parashat Kee Teitzei underscores the Torah’s not-too-subtle antipathy toward polygamy.

We read in parashat Kee Teitzei, Deuteronomy 21:15, כִּי תִהְיֶיןָ לְאִישׁ שְׁתֵּי נָשִׁים, הָאַחַת אֲהוּבָה וְהָאַחַת שְׂנוּאָה, וְיָלְדוּ לוֹ בָנִים הָאֲהוּבָה וְהַשְּׂנוּאָה , When a man has two wives, one beloved and one hated, and they have children, one may not favor the beloved wife’s children over the other wife’s children. Aside from the issue of favoritism, the Torah clearly implies that when a man has more than one wife, one wife is bound to be more favored than the other. In fact, upon review of every single case of polygamy in the Bible, we will find that in each case there is competition which leads to considerable turmoil in the home: Sarah and Hagar, Rachel and Leah, Elkanah’s wives, P’ninah and Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel. In fact, as we have mentioned previously, the Hebrew word for the second, competitive wife, is צָרָהTz’ara, (Samuel I,1) which is the origin of the Hebrew/Yiddish word צָרוֹתTzuris, meaning pain and travail. While the Torah does permit a king to have multiple wives for apparent political reasons, even in such circumstances, the Biblical narratives in each case is filled with intrigue, turmoil, and Tzuris in the royal palace, leading, in many instances, to total corruption and even murder.

Why then does the Torah allow polygamy? Moreover, why does the Torah forbid women from having multiple husbands, while permitting men to have multiple wives?

Even in antiquity, the practice of polygamy in Jewish society was quite rare, and was clearly frowned upon. While practiced infrequently, polygamy was formally forbidden in Ashkenazic Jewish communities by Rabbeinu Gershom (960-1040 AC), with the issuance of his חֵרֶםcherem, a special prohibiting decree. Sephardic Jewry never accepted that decree, and consequently, in 1948, Yemenite Jews arrived with their multiple wives to the newly-formed State of Israel. The State permitted them to keep their wives, but forbade any future polygamist relationships. Oh yes, the decree of Rabbeinu Gershom was intended to be in force until the Hebrew year 5000–1240 AC. When it expired, it was immediately renewed.

Now back to the basic questions. Apparently, the reason that the Torah allowed a man to have multiple wives while forbidding a woman to have multiple husbands, was rather straightforward and logical. Every child is entitled to know the identity of both his/her biological parents. When a man has multiple wives, both the biological mother and father are known. However, until the recent advent of DNA testing, it was impossible for the child of a woman who has multiple husbands to know who was his/her biological father.

An additional aspect of this issue arises in our Torah portion, in Deuteronomy 23, where the Torah lists certain forbidden marriages. The Torah states that Amonite and Moabite men may not marry into the Jewish people. Egyptians may not marry into the Jewish people for three generations. Deuteronomy 23:3 reads, לֹא יָבֹא מַמְזֵר בִּקְהַל השׁם , a bastard–an illegitimate child, may not enter into the Assembly of the L-rd. גַּם דּוֹר עֲשִׁירִי לֹא יָבֹא לוֹ בִּקְהַל השׁם , even to the tenth generation shall none of them enter into the Assembly of the L-rd. In Jewish law, children born out of wedlock are not illegitimate, only those who are born of an adulterous or an incestuous relationship are considered bastards, מַמְזְרִים“mam’z’rim” and are forbidden to marry a “legitimate” Jewish person.

This, of course, is quite problematic. After all, the Torah boldly declares, (Deuteronomy 24:16) אִישׁ בְּחֶטְאוֹ יוּמָתוּ , Every person is responsible for his/her own sin. Yet the Torah visits the sins of the parents on the unfortunate illegitimate child. This innocent child, through no fault of his/her own, is unable to marry a Jewish person because his/her parents committed a grievous sin. How is this justified?

There are numerous laws in the Torah (36), the violation of which are punishable by death. In accordance with Jewish law pertaining to capital crimes, witnesses were required to approach the perpetrator, let’s say the murderer, and warn the would-be perpetrator that murder is prohibited. The witnesses had to inform the perpetrator of the penalty, and the exact form of execution that applied to the crime. This too must be acknowledged by the would-be murderer. Then, they, or two other witnesses, had to see the perpetrator commit the actual murder. While this scenario is indeed unlikely, it is possible that despite these rigorous requirements, in a moment of passion and anger, all these conditions will be met, and the murderer will be convicted, and sentenced to death. In such cases, the act of execution is seen as an effective deterrent to these crimes.

However, the nature of adultery and incest is entirely different. One does not commit adultery or incest in front of witnesses, even in a moment of passion. Consequently, the likelihood of the death penalty acting as a deterrent for adultery is extremely remote, infinitesimal, in fact non-existent. Since the threat of punishment is not effective, the Torah declares that a child born of this incestuous or adulterous relationship will be subject to a grievous disability, in the hope that this will stop the perpetrators from committing this violation.

One may say, “I will commit adultery, they will never catch me! And if they do, so they’ll kill me!” But, few would be callous enough to risk an act that has such serious consequences for a third innocent party–the child born of this forbidden relationship. Whereas threat of death would not serve as a deterrent since there are no public witnesses, fear of bastardy might, for their innocent child.

According to Jewish law, if a Jewish child is born of such a relationship, the child is declared a mamzer and is technically prohibited from marrying a Jewish person. While this is the letter of the law, the rabbis have tried desperately to mitigate this frightening disability. So, for instance if a husband were imprisoned for many years, or lived across the sea in another land, and his wife is seen to be pregnant, we do not declare the woman an adulteress. Rather, Tosafot, commenting on the Talmud Kiddushin 73a, suggests that perhaps the husband flew in on a magic carpet so that he could impregnate his wife. This, of course, is done in order to prevent an innocent child from being declared a mamzer, illegitimate!

The concept of מַמְזְרוּתmam’z’rut, illegitimacy, is a very painful topic in Jewish life, but underscores the intense sanctity with which Judaism views the family. Once the sanctity of the family is compromised, Jewish society is compromised.

So we see, that even from the most challenging, and at least on the surface, seemingly “primitive” statutes, the Torah has much to teach regarding conduct and compassion in the face of difficult societal issues.

May you be blessed.

Shoftim 5779-2019

War, the Jewish Community and Jewish Family Life
(Revised and updated from Shoftim 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shoftim, we learn, in great detail, about the extensive preparations required of the Jewish army before going out to war. While the Torah shares the utopian vision where total peace prevails throughout the world, the reality for the Jewish people 3300 years ago was that there was virtual certainty that upon entering the land of Canaan the people of Israel would encounter war as they confronted the local residents.

For the Jewish people, even today, success in battle is never primarily a factor of military preparedness or talent, but more a factor of proper spiritual preparedness. The Torah in Deuteronomy 20:1, reads: כִּי תֵצֵא לַמִּלְחָמָה עַל אֹיְבֶךָ, וְרָאִיתָ סוּס וָרֶכֶב עַם רַב מִמְּךָ, לֹא תִירָא מֵהֶם , When you go out to battle against your enemy and see horse and chariot–a people more numerous than you–you shall not fear them. כִּי השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ עִמָּךְ, הַמַּעַלְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם , because the L-rd your G-d is with you Who brought you up from the land of Egypt. While soldiers do the actual fighting, it is G-d who wages the war. That is why in Jewish tradition it is not the Chief of Staff or the Four Star General who speaks to the troops before battle, but rather a Cohen, a priest, who is especially anointed for the task to encourage the soldiers not to fear their enemies. As Deuteronomy 20:4 clearly declares: כִּי השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵיכֶם הַהֹלֵךְ עִמָּכֶם לְהִלָּחֵם לָכֶם עִם אֹיְבֵיכֶם לְהוֹשִׁיעַ אֶתְכֶם , for the L-rd your G-d is the one Who goes with you to fight for you with your enemies, to save you.

In our parasha, we read that in preparation for battle, the officers of the people gather the prospective soldiers together and declare: “Who is the man who has built a new house and has not inaugurated it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in war and another man will inaugurate it. Who is the man who has planted a vineyard and not redeemed it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die and another man will redeem it. Who is the man who is betrothed to a woman and has not married her? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man will marry her.” Finally, the officers say, “Who is the man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house, so that he not melt the heart of his fellows.”

The Talmud, in Sotah 44a, records two rationales for this procedure: According to Rabbi Akiva, these soldiers were sent home in order to eliminate cowardly people from the battlefield, because if the army included those who lacked faith, the people would be unworthy to merit victory. According to Rabbi Yose Ha’Gelili, those who are fearful and fainthearted were sinners who knew they were unworthy of G-d’s help, and therefore needed to leave the battlefield. In order to protect the dignity of the sinners, the Torah also dismissed those with new homes and new brides so that when the sinners left, the sinners would not be identified since they were sent home with the others.

The commentators note that while these people were excused from battle, they were required to perform non-combatant military duties, such as providing water and food and working to repair the roads for the army. According to Maimonides, in the Laws of Kings 7, these exemptions applied only in optional wars, but in a war that is required by the Torah, such as wars to conquer the land, everyone must remain and serve.

After what appear to be these clear instructions in parashat Shoftim, it is quite surprising to find in next week’s parasha, parashat Ki Teitzei, in Deuteronomy 24:5, a verse that seems to contradict the verses in parashat Shoftim. כִּי יִקַּח אִישׁ אִשָּׁה חֲדָשָׁה, לֹא יֵצֵא בַּצָּבָא, וְלֹא יַעֲבֹר עָלָיו לְכָל דָּבָר, נָקִי יִהְיֶה לְבֵיתוֹ שָׁנָה אֶחָת, וְשִׂמַּח אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר לָקָח , When a man marries a new wife, he shall not go out to the army, nor shall it obligate him in any manner. He shall be free for his home for one year, and he shall gladden his wife whom he has married. The rabbis resolve this contradiction by pointing out the difference between the betrothed man and the newlywed. In an optional war, the newlywed is completely free of any responsibilities, and must remain with his newly wed wife. However, the betrothed man (he who is not yet married), must perform non-combatant military duty.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary to the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy 24:5, writes:

The Torah looks upon this duty of husband for the happiness of marriage as being such a high one, and lays such importance to it, not only for its individual happiness but also for the national well-being that, for a whole year after marrying a wife, it frees him from all public services and duties, yet actually forbids him to undertake any of them so that he can give himself up entirely to his home life and to laying the foundation of his wife’s happiness.

The rabbis in the Talmud, Sotah 44a, point out that the exemption from service for the newly married in the first year also applies to one who has already dedicated a new house or a new vineyard.

Rabbi Hirsch brilliantly concludes:

Clearly at the root of these laws lies the point of view that a state, the concept of the state as a whole, has only reality in the actual numbers of all its individual members, but apart from them, or next to them, one cannot consider the existence of a state as a concept in itself. So that the national welfare can only be sought in the well-being and happiness of all the single individuals, hence every flourishing and happy home is a contribution to the realization of the goal set for the nation, hence has to be met by the nation with careful and encouraging and promoting consideration.

What a wonderful insight! Only when individual citizens feel that the state is concerned with their personal well-being, are individual citizens happy. This then leads to a community as a whole that is healthy and happy. With all due respect to the social philosophy of John Stuart Mill, the Torah was right on the money 3300 years ago!

May you be blessed.

Re’eh 5779-2019

“Charity! The Investment That Keeps Giving
(Revised and updated from Re’eh 5760-2001)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Re’eh, is a truly edifying Torah portion, filled with many interesting themes. Among them are: the prohibition of idolatrous worship, Jewish dietary laws, false prophets, religious seducers, laws of holiness, and the fundamentals of Jewish holidays. The opening verse of parashat Re’eh, Deuteronomy 11:26, sums up the Al-mighty’s message to His Jewish people, רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה, Behold I set before you this day, blessing and curse. G-d declares that all blessing derives from following His law.

A major theme of this week’s parasha concerns the issue of poverty, how to deal with caring for the poor, who are an essential part of the community. In Deuteronomy 15:7-8, the Torah declares: כִּי יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן מֵאַחַד אַחֶיךָ בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ בְּאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ, If there be among you a poor person, one of thy brethren, within any of thy gates in your land which the L-rd thy G-d gives thee, לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת לְבָבְךָ, וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת יָדְךָ מֵאָחִיךָ הָאֶבְיוֹן, You shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother. Deuteronomy 15:8, continues כִּי פָתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת יָדְךָ לוֹ, You shall surely open your hand wide to him, וְהַעֲבֵט תַּעֲבִיטֶנּוּ דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לוֹ, You shall certainly lend him that which is sufficient for his needs.

The Torah is very big on צְדָקָה–tzedakah, charity, a word which derives from the root of the Hebrew word צֶדֶק–tzedek -“righteousness.” The Midrash Rabbah, Ruth 5:9, declares, that, contrary to popular beliefs, it’s not the generous person who does a kindness to the poor person, but rather the poor person who does kindness to the donor. In fact, in Jewish tradition, those who give are not benefactors, but rather the recipients! Since everything belongs to G-d, G-d has the right to tell those whom He has benefitted how to use His wherewithal. So critical is this responsibility, that the Torah tells us in Exodus 22:21-23, that those who oppress the widow or the orphan, G-d will hear their anguished cry and be angry, and those who are not responsive will suffer a fate similar to the widows and orphans.

The Torah expects the Jew to respond immediately to the needs of the poor without hesitation. The Talmud, in Ta’anit 21a, recalls the story of Nachum Ish Gamzu, who was blind in both eyes, had lost both his hands and his feet, and his entire body was covered with boils. His students asked him, “How could it be that such a righteous person as you suffers so?” “I brought it upon myself,” he explained. Once, while traveling on the road to his father-in-law’s house with a large caravan of three donkeys laden with all sorts of wonderful foods and appetizers, a poor person came, stood on the road, and said, “My master, give me something.” “I responded,” said Nachum Ish Gamzu, “Wait a moment until I unload the donkey.” Before Nachum had a chance to do anything, the man expired. Nachum fell on his face and prayed. “May my eyes that had no compassion on your eyes, be blinded. May my hands that had no mercy on your hands, and my feet that had no compassion on your feet, let them loose their cunning.” Nachum still was not satisfied until he said, “Let all my body be covered with boils.”

This is the message of the very meaningful and subtle verse that Jews read every Friday night in the Ode to the Woman of Valor, אֵשֶׁת חַיִל–Ayshet Chayil, from Proverbs 31:20: כַּפָּהּ פָּרְשָׂה לֶעָנִי, וְיָדֶיהָ שִׁלְּחָה לָאֶבְיוֹן, The Woman of Valor opens her palm to the poor and sends forth her hand to the needy. When a poor person approaches the Woman of Valor, she opens her pocket and her pocketbook. But when she beholds a truly needy person, one who is languishing, she does not wait, she extends her hand.

As already noted, our Torah, in Deuteronomy 15:8, states: וְהַעֲבֵט תַּעֲבִיטֶנּוּ דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לוֹ, Be sure to give the poor person sufficiently, according to his or her needs. The Talmud, in Ketubot 67b, reports that Hillel the Elder, felt particularly obliged to care for a formerly wealthy person who had lost his fortune and was now poor. In order to fulfil the biblical obligation of caring for his brother “according to his need,” Rabbi Hillel made certain that the former wealthy person was properly cared for, even to the extent that he had a horse on which to ride and a servant to run before him. Once, when Hillel could not find a servant, Hillel the Elder himself, ran before the poor man for three miles.

Our Torah has a highly developed sense of propriety, and a heightened sensitivity to ensure for the proper distribution of charitable funds. Deuteronomy 15:10, says: נָתוֹן תִּתֵּן לוֹ, You shall surely give the poor person.Rashi emphasizes the word “lo”–to him, interpreting the words בֵּינוֹ וּבֵנֶיךָ, to teach that charity must be given privately and sensitively in order not to embarrass the recipient.

The Mishnah in Shekalim 5:4, reports that the Holy Temple in Jerusalem had two offices. One was known as לִשְׁכַּת הַכֵּלִים, the office of utensils, and the other was known as לִשְׁכַּת חֲשָׁאִים, the secret office. The office of utensils was used for people to dedicate their used utensils, and once a month the monies would be gathered to be used to make repairs in the Temple. The secret office was a place where G-d-fearing people who wanted to give charity secretly would make their deposits, and the poor who might be embarrassed to take from public funds, would enter and discreetly remove money necessary for their needs.

Similarly, the Talmud, in Ketubot 67b, relates the story of Mar Uk’ba who used to throw four coins each day into the living space of a poor person who lived nearby. Once, the poor person decided to find out who was his generous benefactor. In order to do so, he hid behind the door. Once he heard the money being left, he flung open the door and ran after his anonymous benefactor. When Mar Uk’ba and his wife saw the poor man coming after them, they ran to hide and jumped into an oven whose coals had recently been removed, and in the process burned their feet. The Talmud explains that they acted in such an extreme manner, in order to fulfill the dictum that, “It is preferable to cast oneself into a fiery furnace, rather than embarrass a person publicly.

One of the many great contributions of Maimonides, was listing the sequential degrees of charity in his Code of Jewish Law, the Mishnah Torah, in the 10th chapter of the section dealing with gifts to the poor. The lowest level of giving, says Maimonides, is to give to the poor begrudgingly. The second level is to give insufficiently to the needy, but at least pleasantly. The third level is to give to the needy upon request. The fourth level is to voluntarily give to the needy before they even ask. The fifth level is when the donor is aware of the recipient, but the recipient, the poor person, is unaware of the donor. The sixth level is that the recipient, the poor person, is aware of the donor, but the donor is unaware of the recipient. In the seventh level neither the donor nor the recipient are aware of each other’s identity. The highest level, says Maimonides, is to give a gift or loan or establish a business partnership with the poor person so that the poor will no longer be dependent upon charity.

As is often the case, the Torah, once again, revolutionizes our understanding of the fundamental concepts of life and morality. Now it is our duty to convey these precepts to the rest of the world.

May you be blessed.


Eikev 5779-2019

Eikev 5779-2019
“Feast or Famine–What Judaism Says About Food”
(Revised and updated from Eikev 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Eikev, the Torah dwells, in part, on the specialness of food.

In Deuteronomy 8:3, G-d recalls that, in the wilderness, He gave the Jewish people manna from heaven to eat: לְמַעַן הוֹדִיעֲךָ כִּי לֹא עַל הַלֶּחֶם לְבַדּוֹ יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם כִּי עַל כָּל מוֹצָא פִי השׁם יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם All this, says G-d, was done in order to make you [Israel] aware that man does not live on bread alone, but by whatever G-d decrees.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 8:7-10, movingly describes G-d’s intention to bring the Jewish people to a good land–a land of streams of waters, springs, and deep wells flowing forth from the valleys and the mountains. The Torah goes on to say that the land where G-d promises to bring the people is a most fruitful land of wheat, barley, vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of oil-producing olives and date nectar. In the new land in which the people will dwell, the people will not eat bread in poverty, nor will they lack anything…to the contrary, they will eat and be satisfied, and then shall bless G-d the L-rd, the eternal G-d, for the good land that He gave the people.

There is a rather amusing saying that has been circulating for years that declares: All of Jewish history can probably be subsumed in one simple statement: “Our enemies tried to destroy us. They failed. Let’s eat!”

There is a perception out there, true or false, that Jews like to eat. Yes, food does play a special role in Judaism. The Talmud in Brachot 58a, quotes Ben Zoma, who said: “Look how many labors Adam had to perform before he obtained bread to eat. He plowed, he sowed, he reaped, he bound (sheaves), he threshed and winnowed, and selected the ears, he ground (them) and sifted the (flour), he kneaded, and baked, and then, at last, he ate. Whereas, I get up in the morning and find all these things done for me!”

As Rabbi Joseph Hertz, the late Chief Rabbi of England, has written, “Judaism spiritualized the act of eating as part of the process of hallowing daily life.” Furthermore, Rabbi Hertz points out, the laws of food are a major religious practice in Judaism and constitute an invaluable training in self-mastery. The ultimate reason for this emphasis, is so that Jews may sanctify themselves and be holy, for, says the Torah in Leviticus 11:44, I, G-d, am holy.”

Surely, the dietary laws of Israel have proven to be an important factor in the survival of the Jewish people. Jews abstain from forbidden foods, not because of personal aversions, but because our Father in Heaven ordained it. When Jews eat, they offer thanksgiving to G-d before and after every meal. This raises a meal from a mere gratification of a physical craving, to a spiritual experience and religious act. Since a meal is like a sacred offering brought on the altar, Jews, like the priests and Levites of old, always wash their hands before eating bread, the staple of the meal.

Maimonides, in his Code of Jewish Law, Laws of Kings, 6:10, speaks of the prohibition of בַּל תַּשְׁחִיתBal  Tash’chitwanton wastefulness, clearly stating that it is not only strictly forbidden to destroy fruit trees, but whoever breaks vessels, tears clothes, demolishes a building, stops up a fountain or wastes food in a destructive way, commits an offense against the Torah law of “Thou shall not destroy,” (Deuteronomy 20:19).

The Code of Jewish Law underscores the importance of food by declaring that feeding the hungry takes precedence over clothing the naked. When a naked person claims to need clothes, the truthfulness of the claim must first be verified. However, one doesn’t inspect the veracity of a person who comes and says, “feed me.” Those who claim hunger are fed instantly, says the Code of Jewish Law.

The Code continues,

A city with Jewish inhabitants must establish a charity fund of known and reliable people who will collect from all those [residents] capable of giving, to properly assess the amount they must give. Each week, from Shabbat to Shabbat the charity committee distributes the monies and give to each poor person enough to suffice for seven days. This is called kupah (charity fund).

Similarly, officials are appointed to collect daily from each courtyard and neighborhood, bread, assorted food stuffs, fruit, or cash, from those who donate spontaneously. At night the collection is distributed among the poor, and each poor person is given a single day’s sustenance. This is called תַּמְחוּי –Tamchui (soup kitchen). The Code even testifies that, “we have never seen or heard of a single Jewish community without a charity fund.”

There is a remarkable law, one that is not well known in Jewish life. The Code of Jewish Law, 169:1, records, that any food that has an aroma and arouses one’s appetite that is brought by a servant or waiter before a person, must be served to the servant immediately, and it is considered meritorious to serve the servant of all foods. The Mishnah Berurah  cites a gloss that says that latter authorities have ruled that even if a condition of the hiring was that the master be free of the requirement to feed the servant first, the clause has no efficacy.

Now we can truly see why food is so central in Jewish life and Jewish law. It is not only a staple of life, it is a staple of Jewish faith and a key element in developing sensitivity and proper moral and ethical behavior.

May you be blessed.

Va’etchanan 5779-2019

“The Torah’s Radical Approach to Parenting
(Revised and updated from Va’etchanan 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


This past Saturday evening (August 10th) and Sunday (August 11th) we observed Tish’ah B’Av, the Fast of the 9th of Av, commemorating the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. How fortuitous it is then, that in this week’s parasha, parashat Va’etchanan, we encounter a basic law of the Torah that, if properly observed, may actually result in the rebuilding of the Temple.

In parashat Va’etchanan, the Decalogue, the so-called “Ten Commandments,” are recorded in the Torah for a second time. The Ten Commandments first appear in Exodus 20, and are repeated in Deuteronomy 5.

The name, “Ten Commandments,” is a well-known misnomer, which is why traditional Jews refer to these verses as עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדִּבְּרוֹת “Aseret Ha’dibrot” or the Decalogue. Decalogue, which means “ten words” or “ten statements,” is more correct than “commandments,” since not all of the ten “statements” are actual “commandments.” In fact, according to some commentators, there may even be many more than ten commandments in the Ten Commandments.

The fifth commandment, as it appears in Deuteronomy 5:16 reads: כַּבֵּד אֶת אָבִיךָ וְאֶת אִמֶּךָ , Honor thy father and thy mother, that your days may be lengthened. The fifth commandment is often referred to as the “swing commandment,” since it is the statement which relates both to the first set of five statements and the second set of five statements. The first five “commandments,” concern human relationships with G-d, while the second five “commandments” concern human relationships with their fellow human beings. However, the fifth commandment does not really fit with the first four commandments, since it deals with the inter-human relationship of parents and children. The rabbis, however, say that since parents are “Loco Deus”–G-d’s representatives in this world, it is entirely appropriate for the fifth commandment to bind or meld the first set of five statements with the second five, hence the appellation, “swing commandment.”

In Leviticus 19:3, we find another verse describing child-parent relationships: אִישׁ אִמּוֹ וְאָבִיו תִּירָאוּ , every person should fear his mother and his father. The Torah there introduces the concept of יִרְאָה“Yir’ah,” generally translated as “fear.” The rabbis explain that fear in this context does not really mean to be afraid in the conventional sense, but rather to express awe or reverence. Children are expected to be in awe of their parents and revere them, meaning that they should never do anything that will hurt them. This is what is meant by the Talmudic expression, יִרְאָה מִתּוֹך אַהֲבָה , reverence resulting from great love–not fear of punishment, but rather great love that results in a reluctance to do anything that might hurt a parent’s feelings.

Code of Jewish Law, in Yoreh De’ah 250, deals extensively with the laws of both honoring and fearing parents. “Honor” is interpreted to be the positive actions that children must perform on behalf of their parents, while “Yir’ah,” reverence, are negative behaviors to avoid.

According to Jewish law, every child has an obligation to feed, clothe, shelter, and transport one’s parents. If parents have their own money, then children may use their parents’ funds to ensure that these services are properly provided. If the parents are impoverished, and the children have the wherewithal, the children are expected to support their parents from their own resources. If both the children and the parents are impoverished, then children are not required to collect for their parents, but should rather take care of their own needs first.

“Yir’ah,” reverence, according to Jewish law, means that a child must show utmost respect. Thus, children are not permitted to stand in the place where parents stand during prayer, or sit in the seat that is usually occupied by a parent. Children are prohibited from calling parents by their first names. They are not permitted to disagree with their parent’s words, or even say, “It appears to me that what you are saying leads to the following conclusion.”

The Code of Jewish Law offers a hypothetical Talmudic example, expressing the extent of a child’s obligation of “Yir’ah,” fear. Even if a child were a famous rabbi, sitting in his finest clothes, delivering a Torah lecture to a huge congregation, and his mother and father come, rip his garments, hit him on his head and spit in his face, the child is not permitted to embarrass his parents, but must remain silent, because that is what the Al-mighty, King of Kings, has commanded. Another version has the parents taking the child’s life savings and throwing the savings into the sea. Once again, the child is not permitted to embarrass his parents. However, the child does have the right to sue them for the losses.

Interestingly, the amount of money expended in service of a parent is often not the decisive factor in determining whether one has properly honored one’s parents. Often, “attitude” is the determining factor! Even if a child finds a menial job for one’s poor parent, but does it with the clear intent of benefitting the parent, then the act is considered favorable. However, if a child feeds one’s parents the finest foods every single day, but does it begrudgingly, it is not considered meritorious, and may even be deserving of punishment.

What emerges from this brief survey of the laws of honoring parents, is that according to the Jewish understanding, parents are G-d’s mortal representatives on earth, period! Parents have all the rights, while children seem to have no rights. Thus, there are very few instances cited from the Talmud, or in the Code of Jewish Law, which permit a child to disagree with a parent–one may choose a mate to marry or go to study in a particular yeshiva in a city, even over one’s parents’ objections. However, in almost all other instances, it seems as if the child has no rights, while parents have absolute authority.

This radical formula for parenting espoused by Judaism requires careful review and analysis. Apparently, the Torah wants to, first and foremost, set down the law, a priori, that father and mother, who biologically bore the child, deserve ultimate respect, simply because parents have “created” their children’s lives. They may be miscreants or scoundrels, but they are still entitled to the respect and honor of their children.

Consequently, the Code of Jewish Law suggests that in circumstances where parents are crazed and the child cannot possibly be respectful, the child may move away, making certain that the parents are cared for properly by hired help. However, under normal circumstances, since parents represent G-d in this world, children owe their parents total and unconditional allegiance and respect.

Sounds pretty harsh and unrealistic!

Now here comes the clincher!

While the Code of Jewish Law and the Talmud unequivocally record that parents have all the rights, the Code of Jewish Law clearly and strongly suggests that parents should not be too onerous or overly didactic in exercising those rights. In fact, there is a fundamental principle of Jewish Law that totally mitigates unilateral parental authority: parents who renounce respect due them, may do so! This means that although the positive obligations may never be canceled: feeding, clothing, sheltering, and transporting–children may indeed call their parents by their first names if the parent explicitly allows it. A child may sit in a parent’s place or stand in the parent’s place of prayer, and a child may even disagree with a parent, if the parent is so disposed.

We see here that Judaism attempts to create a very delicate balance. Initially, every child must know and learn, that without doubt, parents are the ultimate authority, and total respect is due to parents. Parents are to lay down the law, set up firm parameters, and let children know precisely the rules of the game. However, once a sense of respect and reverence is established, a parent may, in fact should, be lenient. Of course, the cards are always in the hands of the parents, and if things get out of hand, they may once again choose to enforce the stricter rules.

These radical regulations of parenting, that are set down in our Talmud and in our Code of Jewish Law, are based on the insights of our Torah. While they’re ancient, they are extremely insightful–and they work!

May we all merit to see the rebuilding of the Temple in our days, soon in our lifetime!

May you be blessed.

Postscript: It must be noted that the Code of Jewish Law strongly condemns any form of physical or emotional abuse. Hitting a child, while permitted in limited instances, is considered extremely counterproductive.

The Shabbat after Tisha B’av is traditionally known as Shabbat Nachamu, in deference to the first of a series of seven Haftarot (prophetic messages) of consolation, drawn from the book of Isaiah, and read between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashana.“Nachamu, nachamu amee,” be comforted My nation, are the opening words of Isaiah 40.
Please note: This year, the joyous festival of Tu B’Av, the fifteenth of Av, is celebrated on Thursday night and Friday, August 15th and 16th, 2019. Happy Tu B’Av (for more information, please click here)

Devarim 5779-2019

“Judaism’s Unique View of Justice and the Judicial System”
(Revised and updated from Devarim 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


This week, we begin reading the Book of Devarim–Deuteronomy, the last of the five books of the Torah. Deuteronomy is also known as מִשְׁנֶה תּוֹרָהMishneh Torah, a repetition of the Torah, since much of the book reviews the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the forty years that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness. However, the book also contains many new and novel laws and directives that were not included in the previous four books of the Torah.

In this week’s parasha, Moses delivers his valedictory admonition to the Jewish people, reviewing for them the events of the past forty years and strongly urging the people to remain loyal to G-d. Reminding the people how difficult it was for him to lead them, Moses recalls how he selected 70 elders to help him judge the nation, and how he established, on the basis of his father-in-law Jethro’s advice, a judicial system that would allow the Israelites to be judged fairly and equitably.

In Deuteronomy 1:16, Moses recalls: וָאֲצַוֶּה אֶת שֹׁפְטֵיכֶם בָּעֵת הַהִוא, לֵאמֹר , I instructed the judges at that time, saying: Listen among your brethren and judge righteously between the man and his brother or a resident alien. You shall not show favoritism in judgment, small and great alike shall you hear; you shall not tremble before any man, for judgment is G-d’s; any matter that is too difficult for you, you shall bring to me and I shall hear it.

In this first chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses lays out the foundations of Jewish jurisprudence, a legal system that was without parallel in the ancient world. It is a Jewish justice system established on the principle of צֶדֶקTzedek, a word that is related to the Hebrew word צַדִּיקTzadik–a righteous person. Clearly, the purpose of the Jewish justice system is to do the right thing, the correct thing.

The Hebrew legal system is significantly different from other secular and national systems. Western jurisprudence frequently invokes the well-known principle that a person is regarded as innocent until proven guilty. However, in Avot, Ethics of the Fathers (1:8) we learn that in Jewish courts of law litigants should be considered guilty before they are judged, but when they leave and accept the judge’s decision, they should be considered righteous.

Although these statements are often looked upon as mere metaphors, it does seem to underscore the fact that in Western civilization the purpose of the justice system is to prove a person guilty, whereas the purpose of Jewish jurisprudence is that even the guilty person shall eventually emerge innocent.

Moses’ admonition to the judges, Deuteronomy 1:16, begins with the words: שָׁמֹעַ בֵּין אֲחֵיכֶם וּשְׁפַטְתֶּם צֶדֶק , Hear the causes between your brethren and judge righteously between one another. In this verse, the Torah lays down a fundamental principle of Jewish law, positing that a judge may not listen to one side of the argument without the other litigant being present. Furthermore, שָׁמֹעַ“Shamoa” means not only to “listen,” but also to “understand”–to find out the truth, so that one may judge faithfully and truthfully. A judge might say, since I am so wise and so insightful I don’t need to listen. In fact, I am so wise, that I should be heard, and it is for the people over whom I am appointed to listen. Says the Torah, שָׁמֹעַ בֵּין אֲחֵיכֶם , it makes no difference whether large or small, important or insignificant, listen! You don’t necessarily have to believe what you hear from the people, or the voices of the significant or insignificant, but listen! Listen to what they say, so that you will know them and be in a position to assess their inner character. Even if their arguments are not truthful, listen!

Another instance that underscores Judaism’s remarkable insight in matters pertaining to justice is recorded in the verse in Deuteronomy 1:16, וּשְׁפַטְתֶּם צֶדֶק, בֵּין אִישׁ וּבֵין אָחִיו וּבֵין גֵּרוֹ , And you should judge righteously between a person and his brother and the stranger that lives with him. There is to be no difference between an Israelite and a resident non-Jew in matters involving justice and equity. It is rather amazing that this highly progressive concept was pronounced thousands of years before any other judicial system granted equality to aliens or strangers.

Some legal systems argue that justice must be “blind.” Judaism sees it slightly differently. Our Torah declares, in Deuteronomy 1:17, לֹא תַכִּירוּ פָנִים בַּמִּשְׁפָּט , Do not show favoritism in judgment, small and great alike shall you hear. Judaism also instructs a judge not to judge according to what he/she sees, since sight is often misleading. Visual deception is difficult to detect, making it easy for a litigant to change forms and change facts. Don’t be deaf. Listen, says the Torah! Focus on human voice, which emanates from the inner parts of a person’s soul, making it much more difficult to deceive. Remember, Jacob was able to visually deceive his father by putting on lamb skins, but his voice gave him away. Through the voice, a judge can often penetrate the inner recesses of the person who is standing before him/her.

The prescience of Torah law becomes especially apparent in the verse found in Deuteronomy 1:17, לֹא תָגוּרוּ מִפְּנֵי אִישׁ, כִּי הַמִּשְׁפָּט לֵא־לֹקִים הוּא , Do not be afraid of any person, for judgment is G-d’s. This verse is directed specifically to judges, warning them not to be afraid of any person, and is also intended to serve as an injunction against the corruption of judges. The verse “for judgment is G-d’s,” is intended to serve as an injunction against the hubris of judges. On the one hand, the fear of flesh and blood of other humans perverts the Divine image of the judge and lowers his/her stature. The fear of G-d, on the other hand, straightens the judge’s stature, and reinvigorates the image of G-d in the judge’s most inner being.

Rabbi Joseph Hertz, in his popular Bible commentary, tells of the wife of a Hassidic Rabbi who had quarreled with her maid, and had set out to take the maid to court. As she was leaving the house, she noticed that her husband was apparently accompanying her, and asked him where he was going. “To the judge,” he said. The wife said that it was beneath her husband’s dignity for him to take any part in her quarrel with a servant, and that she could deal with the matter well enough herself. The holy man replied, “That may be, but I intend to represent your maid, who, when accused by you, will find no one willing to take her part.”

This is Jewish law! These very special legal insights reflect the remarkable heritage which G-d has given us. May we embrace it so that it strengthens us.

In these days of mourning for the Temple which was lost on account of corruption, let us scrupulously follow G-d’s will and wisdom. For if we do so, we shall surely merit to see the rebuilding of the Temple in our times.

May we soon see the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah as recorded in the final verse of this week’s Haftara, (Isaiah 1:27): צִיּוֹן, בְּמִשְׁפָּט תִּפָּדֶה , Zion shall be redeemed with justice, וְשָׁבֶיהָ, בִּצְדָקָה , and those who return to her shall be redeemed through righteousness.

May you be blessed.

The observance of the fast of Tisha B’Av, marking the destruction of both Jerusalem Temples, starts on Saturday night, August 10 and continues through Sunday night, August 11, 2019. Have a meaningful fast.


Matot-Masei 5779-2019

“Jeremiah’s Prophecy: An Ancient Message for Contemporary Times”
(Revised and updated from Matot-Masei 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


This Shabbat, when parashiot Matot and Masei will both be read in diaspora communities throughout the world, the diaspora communities will finally catch up to the Torah portion that is read in Israel. Both Israel and the diaspora will conclude the fourth book of the Torah—Bamidbar-Numbers. On Shabbat, when the final verse of parashat Masei is read, the Torah reader will call out: חֲזַק חֲזַק וְנִתְחַזֵּק , “Let us be strong, let us be strong, and let us be strengthened!”

One week ago, on Sunday, the Fast of שִׁבְעָה־עָשָׂר בְּתַמּוּז , the 17th of Tammuz was observed by Jews worldwide to commemorate the day when the besieged walls of Jerusalem were first breached by the Babylonians and the Romans. This fast marks the beginning of the 21 day period known as the “Three Weeks,” the tragic days which precede תִּשְׁעָה בְּאָב , the Fast of the Ninth of Av, that commemorates the destruction of the two Temples. During these three weeks, it is customary for synagogues throughout the world to read what has come to be known as תְּלָת דְפֻרְעָנוּתָא , the three Haftarot (prophetic messages) of destruction, from the Books of Jeremiah and Isaiah.

Since this will be the second Shabbat of the Three Weeks, selections from Jeremiah 2:4-28, 3:4 and 4:1-2 are read. The prophet Jeremiah lived both before and after the destruction of the Temple. Approximately two thirds of his prophecies concern destruction, while one third contain words of consolation.

The ringing messages of Jeremiah contain many contemporary implications. Jeremiah is distraught over the fact that the people have forsaken G-d and gone after “nothingness.” In Jeremiah 2, the prophet, in the name of G-d, calls out to the Jewish people, saying: “What unrighteousness have your fathers found in Me that they have gone far from Me, and have walked after things of naught, and are become naught?”

As a result of abandoning G-d, the prophet declares, the people themselves have become nothingness, and their lives have been rendered meaningless. Furthermore, continues Jeremiah, “Neither said they: Where is the L-rd Who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, that led us through the wilderness, through a land of deserts and pits, through a land of drought, and the shadow of death, through a land that no man passed through, and where no man has dwelt?” How, the prophet asks, can the Jews have forgotten so quickly the miraculous exodus from Egypt, and the unprecedented survival of the Jewish people during their forty-year sojourn in the wilderness?

“And I [G-d] brought you into the land of fruitful fields, to eat the fruit thereof and of the good thereof.” G-d says, I gave you this wonderful land, and what did you do to it? “When you entered,” says the prophet, “you defiled My land, and made My heritage an abomination.” The Jews quickly forgot G-d, says Jeremiah. “The priest said not: ‘Where is the L-rd?’ and those who handle the Torah, knew Me not.” Even those involved in Torah learning, says the prophet, only held on to the Torah, they didn’t truly imbibe it, and allow the message of the Torah to penetrate and impact on them.

“And the shepherds transgressed against Me, the prophets also prophesied in the name of Baal, and walked after things that do not profit.” When the shepherds are lost, asks the prophet, what can we expect of the flock? When the leaders, who lead the people, go astray, can there be any hope?

G-d therefore implores, “Wherefore will I yet plead with you, and with your children’s children will I plead. For pass over to the isles of the Kittites, and see, and send to Kedar, and consider diligently, and see if there has been such a thing. Has a nation changed its gods, which are yet no G-ds? But My people have changed its glory, for that which does not profit.”

The prophet is dismayed by the fact that, in the entire history of humankind, nations have been praying to the most senseless and meaningless “gods,” and yet the people remain loyal to them, but Israel, who worships the true G-d, switches its G-d.

The prophet continues, “Be astonished, O heavens, at this, and be horribly afraid, be exceedingly amazed, says the L-rd. For My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.” Says G-d, I know that you have switched Me. But, if you’re going to switch, at least switch Me for something that appears to be useful. Instead, you have switched quality cisterns that hold water, for broken cisterns that leak and hold no water. You Jewish people, when you stray from G-d, you pick the most irrational, most senseless, most distant ideas to replace G-d.

Asks the prophet, “Is Israel a servant? Is he a home-born slave? Why is he become a prey?” How could the Jewish people have strayed so far? Do they come from an ignoble background that has led them astray?

Declares the Al-mighty, “For from old time have I broken your yoke, and burst your bands, and you [Israel] said: ‘I will not transgress.’ Yet, upon every high hill and under every leafy tree you did recline, playing the harlot.” I was always there for you, says G-d. I was always there to rescue you. You promised to be loyal to Me, but I always find you unfaithful.

How can it be? says G-d. “Yet I had planted you a noble vine, a wholly righteous seed. How then did you turn into a degenerate plant of a strange vine to Me?” You come from the most noble of origins. You are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the offspring of King David and Elijah the Prophet, a kingdom of Priests and a Holy People, how could you have gone so far astray, how could you forsake Me?

Continues the prophet: “Who says to a tree: ‘You are my father,’ and to a stone: ‘You have brought us forth.’ For they have turned their backs unto Me, and not their face. But in the time of their trouble they return to Me and say: ‘Arise, and save us!’ But where are your gods that you have made for yourselves? Let them arise, if they can, and save you in the time of trouble. For according to the number of your cities are your gods, O Judah.” Since you have so many substitute gods, why not just call on them to help you in your time of need? Suddenly, in the foxhole, you rediscover G-d? It doesn’t work that way!

These are the words that G-d conveyed to the great prophet Jeremiah over 2500 years ago. Could these prophesies possibly have relevance to our generation as well? Could Jeremiah be directing his words to us, the most successful and most highly educated generation of Jews in history? To us, the generation of opportunity, the Jews of the Golden Era, of the 20th and 21st centuries…and, yet, a generation that has perhaps become the generation of the greatest Jewish apostasy in all of Jewish history, one of the most illiterate generations in all of Jewish history. How could this be?

The message of Jeremiah is loud and clear. The words may have been spoken yesterday, but they resonate directly with us today. We must heed the words of the prophet Jeremiah, and take his message to heart. Let us give G-d a chance.

In Jeremiah 4, Jeremiah concludes his message to the Jewish people on an upbeat note, pleading with them, beseeching them: “If you will return O Israel says the L-rd, return unto Me, and if you will put your detestable things out of My sight, and will not waver, and will swear as the L-rd lives in truth, in justice, and in righteousness, then shall the nations bless themselves by Him and in Him shall they glory.” If only the Jewish people recognize G-d as their Father and Guide, then all humanity will recognize G-d, and this recognition will bring about the ultimate spiritual redemption for all.

It is in our hands now. Let us, during these special and propitious times, the “Three Weeks,” reaffirm our commitment to G-d. Let us spare the world and ourselves the experiences of sorrow and mourning. Let us embrace Jeremiah’s message, and bring much happiness to the world.

May you be blessed.

Please remember: Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month of Av, will be observed from Thursday evening, August 1st,  until Friday night, August 2nd. It marks the beginning of the “Nine Days,” a period of intense mourning leading to the fast of Tisha B’Av.