Tisha Be’Av: Crying Ourselves to Awakeness, by Rabbi Elchanan Poupko

jerusalem tisha beav

I vividly remember walking into the sanctuary of a synagogue on Tish Be’Av night, upon hearing a horrible sound. Looking at the source of the sound, I saw a fully grown man, laying down on a thin mattress on the floor. He was not crying; he was sobbing. So powerfully was he crying that his entire body was moving back and forth, as if in a seizure. It shocked me. I knew that today, we were mourning the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash– two thousand years ago. The way this man was crying made it seem like something terrible was happening right now. What was making him so sad?

The Talmud (Bava Batra 60b) relays the following account, an account portraying just quite how serious the issue at hand is:


“When the Temple was destroyed, there multiplied in Israel those who separated themselves from eating meat and drinking wine. Rabbi Yehoshua addressed them.


He said to them: My children, why are you not eating meat, and why are you not drinking wine?


They said to him: How can we eat meat, which we would offer sacrifices on the altar, and now is desolate? How can we drink wine, which was poured out on altar, and now is desolate?


He said to them: If so, we shouldn’t eat bread, for grain offerings have ceased.


[They responded] we can eat produce.


[Rabbi Yehoshua said]: We should not eat produce, for the first fruits offering has ceased.

[They responded]: We can eat other fruits.


[Rabbi Yehoshua said]: We should not drink water, for the water libations have ceased.


They were silent.


He said to them: My children, come hear and I will say to you: It is not possible to not mourn at all, for the decree has already been decreed. But it is also impossible to mourn too much, for we do not decree a law on the community that most of the community cannot live with…Rather this is what the sages said: A person plasters his house with plaster, but he leaves a little bit unfinished…A person makes all the needs of his meal, but he leaves a little bit out…. A woman makes all of her jewelry, but she leaves a little bit off…As it says, “If I forget you Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten, If I don’t remember you, let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth. If I do not set Jerusalem at the head of my celebration.”


Living in the generation of destruction, many felt religious expression was no longer possible. After all, the Temple in Jerusalem epitomized religious ritual; without it, what was left?

However, the sense of loss was not just a ritual one; it was a sense of impending doom. At this point, there over one hundred thousand Jews were killed, and more than one hundred thousand taken as slaves to Rome. Religious observance of any kind, including the observance of the Sabbath, circumcision, the study of Torah, and other sacrosanct aspects of Jewish life were made illegal. Anyone caught doing any of these can be put to death immediately. Heavy taxes imposed on the Jews who remained in Israel and the economy was not the most competitive one. It did seem like the end. This is the only way to understand the Talmudic statement that follows:

“Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha said: From the day that the evil empire[Rome], which makes evil and harsh decrees against us, took over, and forces us to stop learning Torah and observing commandments, and does not allow us to celebrate the week of the son[circumcision], it would make sense for [the rabbis] to decree that we should not marry women and have children, and the descendants of Abraham would desist on their own. [But since we cannot do this] leave Israel alone, better they act without intention than with intention.”



Rabbi Yishmael Ben Elisha, who served as the high priest at the tail end of the second Temple, saw its destruction and felt the persecution, thought it was time for national suicide.

He sincerely believed that all Jews would either be killed or be sent as slaves to Rome. Having children at this time made no sense to him. Why raise Jewish children who would never be able to live as Jews or who would be taken to Rome as slaves?!

The destruction of the Temple came to symbolize not only the destruction of ritual in Jerusalem but the destruction of the entirety of Jewish identity. Mourning that Temple, came to mean hope in the restoration of that very same identity.


In the early 1800s, it suddenly became difficult to observe Tisha Be’Av, it started in Germany of all places. Young Jews felt an increasing difficulty mourning on Tisha Be’Av. Accultured, assimilated, and enjoyed good lives, young Jews in Germany felt it was difficult to mourn a Temple which was in a land they no longer saw as their own.  Rabbi Samson Hirsch, addresses these young people[1] and tells them that if indeed Tisha Be’Av marks an event of the past, of the loss of a foregone form of ritual, there is indeed no reason for any meaningful mourning. Indeed we can truly move beyond the past, and anticipate our collective loss, but that is not what Tisha Be’Av is about.


Tisha Be’av is about recognizing we have a lost present and a potential future. It is the recognition that what we lost is impacting us today, more than yesterday. Crying on Tisha Be’Av is a wake-up call for us, a reminder that we are missing something. Today. Now. Crying on Tisha Be’Av is the recognition that worshiping God in any way that is less than at its fullest, is missing something. It recognizes our deep dissatisfaction with constant dispersion and persecution. Crying today means waking ourselves up to being able to live up to a better potential, believing that the world can be better than it is today.


As we approach Tisha Be’Av let us cry ourselves awake. Let us remind ourselves not to be content with the status quo. We must make sure not to accept the rampant antisemitism we live with, the way Jews are treated differently than others, our spiritual distance from Hashem, our inability to fulfill all the mitzvot the way the Torah wants us to fulfill them, and the lack of Hashem’s open and clear presence in this world. As we pray on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur:” our father our King, reign over the whole world with your glory, and be uplifted above the whole world with your honor, and appear in the splendor of your Majestic might on all the inhabitants of earth, so that everyone with a soul says:” Hashem the king of Israel, is the King and his reign is on the whole world.”

May we see the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash speedily in our days and see comfort for all that we have been through in the past two thousand years.


Shavuot As a Journey of Self-Transformation, By Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein

Mount sinai3

How can Shavuot transform us? If the mitzvot were given to refine, uplift and transform us into better people, as the Ramban (in his commentary on Devarim 22:6 based on Midrashei Chazal) says they do, then we need to probe and understand how the festival of Shavuot can provide us with such an opportunity for self-creation and self-transformation. Shavuot is the anniversary of the giving of the Torah, which took place exactly 3 331 years ago. The question is, how does the knowledge that the Torah was given by G-d at Mount Sinai more than three millennia ago change who we are today?

It’s certainly an important ideological principle. Belief in the Divine authorship of the Torah is one of the Rambam’s thirteen principles of faith, the foundational tenets of Jewish belief. The belief in the Divine origin of the Torah is so important, in fact, the Rambam (Hilchot Tefillin 1:13) writes, based on the Gemara (Gittin 45b), that if a person writing a Torah scroll does not believe that G-d dictated each and every single word to Moshe, then that Torah is invalid, and indeed, should be burnt. It has no inherent sanctity. So Shavuot establishes the Divine origin of the Torah. But, what does this ideological principle mean for our daily lives?

It means in the most profound sense that our lives have a nucleus around which everything we do, think and say, revolves. In the same way that the planets circle the sun and are drawn to it through the powerful physical forces of the universe, so too the Torah is the centre point of our universe. It sheds light on who we are, what our purpose is, how we should live life to optimum effect. Like the sun, it provides light and warmth and energy. It infuses everything we do with sanctity and meaning.

The only factor that could justify the Torah’s place at the centre of our universe is the fact that it was designed and designated by G-d, Himself. Nothing less than that could make a claim on our time and our energies and our identity. Without its Divine origin, the Torah would make no greater claim on our lives than any other of the world’s belief systems.

It’s important to note that the Midrash (Eichah Rabbah 2:13) itself maintains there is wisdom outside of the Torah, among the nations of the world. There is much valuable insight and understanding out there in the world, and many compelling ideas of how to live – but, the Midrash makes the point that there is only one Torah, which is to be found exclusively among Klal Yisrael, and it is a complete, inalienable blueprint for life that we were privileged to receive from G-d, on Mount Sinai, on 6 Sivan, the date of the festival of Shavuot.

That’s why the belief in the Divine origin of the Torah is central to us. It gives us clarity and direction, a map of our existence. Of all existence. Without it, we are adrift in a world of noise, with endless ideas clamouring for our attention, all with competing claims of truth. What sets the Torah apart is that it was designed by the Creator, Himself.

The Torah occupies the centre of our universe because it has been authored by G-d, who is the centre of our universe. This is reflected in one of G-d’s names, HaMakom – literally, “The Place”. What does it mean when we call G-d, “The Place”? The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 68:9) explains that the world is not G-d’s place, but that G-d is the place of the world. In other words, we don’t look at G-d as part of our universe; rather, G-d contains the universe. There is nothing besides Him.

This idea can be quite a paradigm shift for those who compartmentalise their faith; who see G-d as just one aspect of their lives. The designation of HaMakom means G-d is front and centre of our existence, he encompasses our lives. This extends to His Torah. Our relationship to Torah is not one which is a wisdom and an offering among the many endeavours that we have in life, but rather the central one around which our entire own personal universe revolves. We live a Torah life.

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (in his article ‘Kodesh and Chol’) takes this idea one step further. Exploring a person’s relationship with G-d through the lens of Kedushat HaMakom – “sanctity of place”, Rav Soloveitchik delves into the difference between a nomad and a settled person. In early human civilisation, people were typically nomadic, wandering from place to place, often with their flocks, remaining where the grazing was good and circumstances supportive, moving on when they were not. Eventually, as civilisation advanced, human beings began settling en masse, establishing villages, and then towns and cities.

What is the psychology of a nomad in relation to a settled person? Rav Soloveitchik explains that the nomad is purely selfish, taking what they can while circumstances are in their favour. Because of this mindset, the nomad cannot form an emotional bond with a place because they are only there temporarily, while it serves their needs. In contrast, a settled person forms part of a community, and helps build, that community. That person’s attachment to place is more solid and they will remain there, committed, even under adverse circumstances.

Rav Soloveitchik explains that our relationship with G-d and with Torah functions in much the same way. We can relate to Torah as spiritual nomads looking for a dose of inspiration, a dash of wisdom, here and there, but abandoning it when challenges emerge, when it suits us to look elsewhere. Under this self-serving mindset, real attachment – with G-d and with Torah – is beyond our reach.

On the other hand, we can relate to Torah as someone who is settled, as someone not just connected to a place, but connected to HaMakomthe Place. This is the concept of Kedushat HaMakom – “sanctity of place”. Out of this commitment, this detachment from the narrow demands of the self, a true, deep connection emerges; an emotional and spiritual bond with G-d and with the Torah that is deeply satisfying. This is the personal transformation that Shavuot can help us realise if we are open to its message.

An analogy that helps us to understand the difference in worldview of the nomad versus a person who is settled is that of a relationship between a man and woman. The nomadic philosophy is that while the relationship is good, you stay in it, and as soon as there is any challenge, you move out. But the Torah has created the idea of marriage in which the couples commit to one another in a way that is idealistic and self-transcendent. They commit to building a home together and creating a relationship together, and they commit to making each other the centre of their lives. They commit to working through all of the challenges without moving on to another relationship whenever there is anything difficult to deal with. Marriage is about commitment, but it is also about a deep emotional bond.

Our relationship with G-d and the Torah is compared by our sages to that of marriage. The Mishna (Taanit 4:8) compares the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai to a wedding, where a bond and a deep relationship was entered into between G-d and the Jewish people. At that moment, G-d and Torah moved from a mere diversion, something at the periphery of our lives, to become the core of who we are. This year, on 6 Sivan, 3 331 years later, by relating to Shavuot correctly – by re-experiencing and re-igniting the energies under that marriage canopy in the Sinai wilderness – we, too, can change everything. The process of self-creation and self-transformation of Shavuot is for us to move G-d and the Torah from the periphery of our vision and lives into the very centre. This will change everything.



Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein is the Chief Rabbi of South Africa. In his twelve years in office, he has launched and lead a number of revolutionary initiatives that have changed the landscape of both his own community and indeed world Jewry. Locally these include The Bill of Responsibilities which has been adopted by the Department of Education in schools nationwide, CAP, a radical crime-fighting initiative proactively protecting more than 250,000 South Africans and Sinai Indaba, perhaps the largest annual Torah convention of its kind in the world. Two of his local projects have been embraced and implemented by world-Jewry: Generation Sinai, a quarterly Torah learning experience between parents and children and more recently, The Shabbos Project which has united Jews in over 1152 cities and 95 countries through the keeping of one Shabbat together. A qualified Dayan, Rabbi Goldstein has published several books including Sefer Mishpat Tzedek, Defending the Human Spirit and The Legacy. The Chief Rabbi has a Ph.D. in human rights and constitutional law and is a regular columnist for the Jerusalem Post.



Shavuot: The Power of Unity, By Rabbi Elchanan Poupko


From Cheesecake to special Challah, meat to dairy, sweet to savory, the differing customs of the holiday of Shavuot vary greatly. Ashkenazic custom is to have more dairy—and often sweet—food. Sephardic custom is more inclined to meat foods during this time, Tunisian Jews have the custom to eat Matzah, Libyan Jews eat ladder-like cookies remembering the ascent to Sinai, Moroccan Jews eat honey resembling the sweetness of the Torah, Persian Jews eat fruit, and so on with many more customs. The beauty of our traditions is best expressed through the multitude of diverse customs, each representing another side of the holiday. And yet, one of the beauties of Sinai was the Jewish people’s ability to stand united. When is unity a blessing and when must we embrace our diversity?

The Torah says: (Shemot 19:1-2)” In the third month of the children of Israel’s departure from Egypt, on this day they arrived in the desert of Sinai. They journeyed from Rephidim, and they arrived in the desert of Sinai, and they encamped in the desert, and Israel encamped there opposite the mountain.”

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki(1040-1105), the greatest medieval commentator from Troyes, France, notes a discrepancy in the verse. When speaking of the arrival at the dessert of Sinai, the Torah speaks in plural “Vayavo’u, Vayachanu”, yet when the Torah is speaking about the encampment of the Jews around Har Sinai it speaks in singular terms, “vayichan”, and Israel encamped itself around the mountain.

Rashi, noticing this difference, explains in a terms that has since been coined for generations to be ”ke’ish echad be’elev echad”, the Jews were like one person, with one heart.” A foundational element of the Jewish people receiving the Torah at Sinai was the Jewish people being united.

The Midrash highlights the power of unity with a powerful analogy. “God has created the heavens on the earth, this is like a king who built his palace on several rafts. As long as the rafts are connected the palace can stand, so too, it is as if God’s throne is standing on all of the Jewish people, as long as they stand together the throne can stand as well.” ( Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah, 15).  This powerful statement introduces an unequivocal theological imperative; for God’s presence to be complete in this world, we must all stand united.

Reiterating this very point, the Midrash in Deuteronomy (18), makes the following radical statement:” as long as Israel stand united in one group, even if there is idol worship among them, they will not be inflicted with judgment, and so too you find that the Jewish people will not be redeemed until they are united as one group.”(Tanchuma to Deuteronomy, Parshat Nitzavim, 1).

Why is a religion which is so much about individual responsibility, individual integrity, and personal commitment, so centered with communal unity? How did unity become such an integral part of who we are?

Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague (1512-1609), explains[1] that a nation coming to represent the unity of God—monotheism—must make sure that they too are united. Standing divided strongly diminishes the power of the message of one God. If God is one, we must also be united. Unity does not need to mean conformity, or being single minded. What it does mean is that we must dwell in harmony and unity with each other.

Rabbi Avraham Borenstein, the Sochatchover Rebbe (1838-1910) also known as the Avnei Nezer,  points out that a very similar term to “Ke’ish Echad Be’lev Echad”,  appears earlier in the book of Shemot (14:10), yet with a slight difference. Shortly after the Exodus, when the Egyptians go to chase the Jews, Rashi comments they did that “Be’lev Echad, Ke’ish echad”. The Avnei Nezer explains that the Jewish people are naturally one unit. The bond keeping us all together is so natural strong, and powerful. Before we even unite around any idea, we are naturally bound together. This is why when we stood at Sinai, we did so “Ke’ish Echad”, like one man—first we are one body—and then “be’lev echad” also united at heart.

The Egyptians, on the other hand, did not have much bringing them together. Short of their hate for the Jews, there was not much binding them together. This is why when it comes to the Egyptian, Rashi reverses the order and writes:”Belev Echad, Ke’Ish Echad”.

The Jewish people are bound together in unity. For us to receive the Torah, we must make sure we stand united. When we stand together there is nothing that can stop us. When we are divided, there is nothing we can achieve. May the holiday of Shavuot being with it the blessings of unity, leading us to a full and complete Kabalat Hatorah.


Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a rabbi and educator. He is the editor in chief of the Lamdan.

We Are All Converts, By Rabbi Alon Meltzer


The idea of the convert is as old as the Jewish people’s birth itself. The outsider joining into the Jewish people is found in Shemot, “And also, a great mixed multitude went up with them, and flocks and cattle, very much livestock.” (12:38). Rashi quoting the Zohar, says this mixed multitude was a mixture of nations who converted in their awe and fear of the Almighty.

Perhaps the most famous of all of these mixtures of multitudes, was the conversion of Yitro, the Father in Law of Moshe. “Now Moses’ father in law, Jethro, the chieftain of Midian, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel, His people that the Lord had taken Israel out of Egypt.” (ibid. 18:1) Rashi in his commentary on the verse explains that Yitro had seven names, one of which was Yeter. The Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, explains why the letter vav, and not any other Hebrew letter, was added to Yitro’s name after his conversion to Judaism. He writes that the gematria, or numerical value, of the name Yeter is 610, while the name Yitro (which contains the added letter vav which equals 6) has a numerical value of 616 (Gur Aryeh).

As a potential convert, Yitro needed to accept upon himself 616 commandments. This is because, in addition to accepting upon himself the 613 commandments that all other born Jews are duty-bound to observe, a convert has to perform 3 additional mitzvos in order to become Jewish – circumcision (for males), ritual immersion in a mikvah, and (in the times when he had a Temple) bringing a sacrificial offering to Hashem. Yeter therefore had a vav added to his name after he converted, bringing the total numerical value of his new name Yitro to 616, symbolizing the 616 commandments he now took upon himself in the process of becoming a Jew.

The story of Yitro’s conversion directly correlates to the development of the Jewish people. The Rambam writes, “Israel entered the covenant [with God] with three acts: circumcision, immersion, and offering a sacrifice.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Isurei Biah 13:1).

He goes on to say that the circumcision occurred as the Jewish people undertook the first Pesach offering. Immersion occurred prior to receiving the Torah, when the Jewish people immersed themselves three days prior to the revelation at Sinai. And the offering was when all of Israel brought an elevation offering.

The Rambam then states, all those who want to enter the covenant must, in his words, “Accept upon himself the yoke of the Torah” (ibid. 13:4).

What is this extra condition? The Torah recounts an interesting event within our history, “And he took the Book of the Covenant and read it within the hearing of the people, and they said, “All that the Lord spoke we will do, and we will hear.” (Shemot 24:7). The Jewish people heard what Moshe read to them, and they accepted upon themselves the yoke of Torah. And thus, all the requirements of a convert were fulfilled by those Jews who stood at the base of the mountain, some 3300 years ago.

This idea of the Jewish people undergoing a conversion, links us with countless people across the generations who gave up so much to become part of people, and Shavuot is intrinsically linked to this idea. We read from the book of Ruth, and those famous lines, where without any apparent motive or personal benefit, Ruth placed her lot with the Jewish people. Ruth’s persistence in staying with Naomi and her proclamation;

“And Ruth said, “Do not entreat me to leave you, to return from following you, for wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. So may the Lord do to me and so may He continue, if anything but death separate me and you.” (Ruth 1:16-17)

Ruth accepted the yoke of our people, and in turn becomes the direct maternal line of King David.

Each of us is the product of conversion, and each of us has a constant obligation to renew our acceptance of the Torah as we discussed yesterday. The Midrash Tanchuma states, “Dearer to God than all the Israelites who stood at Mt Sinai is the convert. Had the Israelites not witnessed the lightning, thunder, and trembling mountain, and had they not listened to the sounds of the shofar, they would not have accepted the Torah. But the convert, who did not see or hear any of these things, surrendered to God and accepted the yoke of Heaven. Can anyone be dearer to God than that?” (Lech Lecha 6:32)

The Midrash comes as an interesting connector to us sitting in the present day – Dearer than all of us standing at Sinai with the bells and whistles, is the person who accepts the Torah without the fanfare. Directed at the typical convert, it is relevant to all of us.

Those of us who are born Jewish, or those who become Jewish, are Jewish through and through and there is no going back. However, being part of a people gives us no more than an abstract connection to one another. Actively choosing to be Jewish, actively choosing to engage with our laws, traditions and texts, renewing our connection to the yoke of the Torah, endears us to the Almighty.



Rabbi Alon Meltzer is the rabbi of Congregation Or Chadash and director of programs at Shalom, in Sydney, Austrailia. Rabbi Meltzer also served as chaplain at the Canberra Hospital and the Australian National University. 



Shavuot: Why the Jews Slept Before Getting the Torah, By Rabbi Abe Weschler

mt sinai

Moshe brought the people forth from the camp towards God (Shmot 20:17). Why is it that Moshe had to bring them out? Why did they not come out on their own? For sure, the simplest interpretation is that they were scared to come out, as the verse (16) itself says (commentary of 12th century Tosafist, Rav Yosef Bekhor Shor). However, interestingly enough, a midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabbah to 1:12) suggests that they did not come out because they were asleep; so asleep that God needed to set off an alarm clock (as per v.16) to wake them up. Rabbi Chakhinai even offers (in another midrash, Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer 40 (41)) that Moshe needed to run around to wake them up in the late morning, telling them the groom is waiting for the bride!

But why were they sleeping until late morning? Had they not been told that God would be appearing to them all this very day (v.11)? Shouldn’t they have made efforts to get up extra early so that they would be ready, waiting for God, rather than the other way around? Had they forgotten? The great defender of the Jews, Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809), says that was hardly the case. Clearly, their intent to go and sleep was lesheim shamayim. After days of preparing themselves to receive God in their midst and the Torah God was going to impart to them, they were exhausted. Wanting to be bright and clear-headed when being in the presence of God, they went to rest (cited in Avodat Yisrael by Rav Yisrael Hoffstein of Koznitz (1736-1814) on Shavuot).

Rav Shmuel Borenstein (Shem MiShmuel; 1856-1926) sees different purpose in their going to sleep. The midrash has already taken note that sleep has the power to transform the person into a new being by the time he or she wakes up in the morning. It is this thinking that lies behind the midrash describing the Israelites as going to sleep – wishing to be a totally new creation when receiving the Torah, they purposefully went to sleep the night before.

The positive approach to the Israelites’ sleep the night before matan Torah (the Revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai) presented up till now seems to be in opposition to the view of Rabbi Yitzchak (Shir HaShirim Rabbah). In his opinion, God was not pleased to have to come and wake them up. Why did I come and no one is here? I called and no one answered (using the language of Yeshayah 50:2)?

On the one hand, one could leave the various midrashim in conflict, as they do often present opposing points of view (Tosafot, Chullin 60a, s.v. pasuk). Rav Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (1903-1994; Sha’arei HaMoadim, Chag Shavuot, p. 356), though, does an admirable job of reconciling the different ideas into one cohesive thought (this thought appears on the website of Yeshivat HaHesder Ma’alot Ya’akov here and elsewhere), and even turning Rabbi Yitzchak’s negative perspective into positive constructive criticism. Basing himself on the writings of Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812; Tanya, Likutei Amarim 37), he argues that the soul is capable of achieving a higher level of understanding when not clothed in its earthly garb. In sleep, when the soul separates from its earthly garb and rises to the upper realms, it has a greater ability to achieve understanding. In advance of receiving the Torah, the Israelites thought to prepare themselves in just such a way to achieve higher levels of understanding. It was their goal to separate themselves from physical reality, and this they would do by going to sleep, giving freedom to the soul. God, although appreciating their intentions—God even went to the length of keeping the bugs away from them so that they could continue in their sleep (as per Rabbi Yudan, cited in Shir HaShirim Rabbah)—wished to teach them that God’s Torah is not meant to be used in this way. On the contrary, the Torah finds its ultimate purpose when operating in and on the real world in which we live. Thus, the best way to prepare ourselves for engaging with this Torah is not by distancing ourselves from the elements of this world, but rather by remaining fully engaged and awake.

While all these insights into the midrash leave one with much to think about, what compelled it to interpret the verse in this way, to suggest the Israelites were sleeping? I believe an answer might lie in the verse in Shir HaShirim (1:12) serving as the midrash’s launch point. I suggest it is reading the verse like this – “before the king was at his wedding celebration (see Rashi), the influence of spikenard was wafting in the air,” meaning, before matan Torah, it was as if spikenard had been spread around the camp of the Israelites. Of all the uses this plant has been put to through the years in its various forms, the most relevant here is its use as a sedative and calming agent. While I have admittedly not found any mention of this use in the works of chazal, I must wonder if this property of the plant was known to the rabbis of the midrash when they suggested that as the smell of spikenard was wafting in the air, as per the verse, the Israelites were sleeping.



Rabbi Abe Weschler served as the rabbi of the Old Broadway Synagogue in New York, and as chaplain in the US Air Force.

He is currently serving as the long-time editor for the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning, and is also an Assistant to the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force on the Golan Heights, Israel, where he lives with his wife and family.

Shavuot And The Death Of King David, By Rabbi Avraham Bronstein

king david

A well-known tradition has it that King David died on the festival of Shavuot. The story of his death is discussed by amoraim in both Israel and Babylon, though in significantly different ways. While only the sources in the Talmud Yerushalmi record this specific tradition, the Talmud Bavli’s sources shape the story of David’s death in ways significant to Shavuot in their own right[1].


The death of King David is described by Ruth Rabbah (3:2), in the context of an imagined conversation between David and God. The conversation is based on Psalms (39:5): “Tell me, Lord, what my term is, what is the measure of my days; I would know how fleeting my life is.” The Midrash understands this verse as David asking God when he will die. After a back-and-forth, God informs David that he will die on Shabbat. David requests that his death be moved to the next day but is denied, because his son’s reign was already decreed to have begun. He then requests an earlier death but is again denied, this time because God would not miss a day of David’s songs, which God prefers to the sacrifices that Solomon would offer. His petitions rejected; David dies on a Shabbat that is also Shavuot[2].

The Bavli contains a parallel tradition, recorded in a derashah by Rabbi Tanhuma bar Abba, differing from Ruth Rabbah in several ways[3]. In particular, David’s petition to die a day earlier is now rejected not because God prefers his songs to Solomon’s sacrifices, but because God prefers the Torah that Solomon studies.


In addition, David’s death occurring on Shabbat takes on added significance; Rabbi Tanhuma describes how the Angel of Death was at first unable to harm David, who was protected by the Torah he constantly studied every Shabbat. Finally, the Angel of Death figures out how to generate a distraction that interrupted David long enough to take his life. Rabbi Tanhuma’s version of the story connects David with an already familiar motif in the Bavli, according to which certain rabbis were protected from death because of the torah they constantly studied[4].

These changes fit the substance of Rabbi Tanhuma’s discourse, which centers around Ecclesiastics 9:4, “for a living dog is better than a dead king.” His overall thesis is that this is so because the living have the ability to study Torah, while the dead do not, and his story of King David’s death is only one part of his argument. That said, both the Bavli and Yerushalmi describe King David as a dedicated Torah scholar – for example, by waking up in the middle of the night to devote the early morning hours to the study of Torah[5]. They both also describe David teaching Torah to the people, ruling on halakhic questions, and performing other characteristically rabbinic activities[6].


Interestingly, it is the Palestinian sources – the Yerushalmi  and Ruth Rabbah – that do not emphasize David’s Torah study, especially since they are the ones who identify the day of his death as Shavuot. Rabbi Tanhuma who does emphasize his study of Torah, merely places his death on Shabbat, not Shavuot. This seems a bit counterintuitive – from a literary perspective, it would make sense to associate David’s dedication to Torah study to Shavuot.


In this context, though, we should remember that the Bavli records an unresolved dispute as to whether the revelation at Sinai actually took place on the 6th or 7th of Sivan – and whether, therefore, Shavuot actually commemorates the anniversary of the giving of the Torah.[7] In fact, Shavuot is first formally described as “Z’man Matan Toratenu” in the 9th century Siddur of Rav Amram Goan. However, in the same sugya, Rava teaches that the consensus position is that, whatever the day of the month, the giving of the Torah certainly took place on Shabbat. In other words, the giving of the Torah – and certainly the public teaching of Torah – was associated by Chazal with Shabbat before it was associated with Shavuot[8].


It is certainly plausible, therefore, that the traditions that frame David as a Torah scholar as well as the traditions that place his death on Shabbat developed together. At the same time, a somewhat independent tradition might have associated the birth (and therefore death) of David around Shavuot – not based on David’s identity as a Torah scholar, but based on the Shavuot tradition of reading of the Book of Ruth, which concludes with the tracing of David’s lineage.[9] Over time, as Shavuot became less about the agricultural cycle of the land of Israel following the Roman destruction and occupation of Jerusalem, and more about celebrating the giving of the Torah at Sinai, these overlapping traditions could well have merged into each other.


Indeed, it is even possible that the motif of King David as Torah scholar, itself a creative rabbinic development, could have helped facilitate the rabbinic understanding of Shavuot itself from Yom HaBikkurim into Z’man Matan Toratenu. As the rabbis redefined the focus of the festival in the wake of the cessation of the Temple service and the national life that revolved around it, their conception of King David, who already loomed large over Shavuot, led the way.


Rabbi Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue (Westhampton Beach, NY)


[1] Yerushalmi sources of this tradition, Betzah 2:4, Chagigah 2:3

[2]  As the Midrash continues, it becomes clear that the reason David did not want to die on Shabbat, even proposing an earlier death for himself, is that dying on Shabbat would awkward halakhic questions regarding the care of his body, which could not, despite the inherent indignity, be moved until nightfall.

[3] Joseph Heinemann (“On Life and Death – Anatomy of a Rabbinc Sermon,” Scripta Hierosolymitana 27 (1978), 52-65) assumes that the story in Ruth Rabba came first, while Gilead Sasson (“King David, the Dogs, and the Lions,” Bar Ilan University’s Parashat Hashavua Study Center, May 23, 2007) assumes that the story in the Bavli came first.

[4]  See Bava Metzia 86a (Rabba bar Rav Nachman) and Moed Katan 28a (Rav Chisda)

[5] Berakhot, Bavli 3b, Yerushalmi 5b

[6]  For a review of these sources and an exploration of some of the motivation behind this motif, see Itamar Wahrhaftig (“King David, Sovereignty, and Torah,” Bar Ilan University’s Parashat Hashavua Study Center, May 29-30, 2009).


[7]  Shabbat 86b. Though Pesachim 68b does cite Rabbi Elazar who does state affirmatively that the Torah was given on Atzeret (Shavuot).

[8] See David Glasner, “Was the Torah Really Given on Shavuot?,” http://www.jewishideasdaily.com/6492/features/was-the-torah-really-given-on-shavuot/

[9] Rabbi Shlomo Zevin (“Moadim BaHalakhah”) cites Tevu’ot Shor, who explains that we read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot because of the tradition that the righteous are born and pass away on the same day. Since we know that David died on Shavuot, we read of the backstory of his birth, which would have taken place on the same day. In contrast, I am arguing the opposite – since the Book of Ruth, which is read on Shavuot because it is set during the time of the wheat harvest, mentions the birth of David, the Yerushalmi assumes he died on that day as well.


Shavuot, Humility, and Rav Yosef, By Rabbi Mordechai Wecker 

Torah person

In the Gemara (Pesachim 68b) we are taught: Every year, on the day of Atzeres/ Shavuos, Rav Yosef would say to his servants: “Prepare for me (for my Yom Tov seudah) a third- born calf.

(Rashi: A calf that is the third issue of its mother’s womb, which is more tasty than those that preceded it because the mother is still developing during her first two births.

(Alternate explanation of Rashi: A calf that has lived a third of its years, having thus reached its full growth and tastiness.)

פסחים ס”ח ע”ב

רב יוסף ביומא דעצרתא אמר עבדי לי עגלא תלתא אמר אי לא האי יומא דקא גרים כמה יוסף איכא בשוקא.

רב יוסף ביומא דעצרתא אמר עבדי לי עגלא תלתא אמר אי לא האי יומא דקא גרים כמה יוסף איכא בשוקא.


He explained his reason for the lavish feast: If this day had not caused me to learn Torah and thereby become spiritually elevated, how many “Yosefs” are there in the market place and I would have been indistinguishable from them. (Rashi).

סוטה מ”ט ע”ב:

משמת רבי בטלה ענוה ויראת חטא אמר ליה רב יוסף לתנא לא תיתני ענוה דאיכא אנא.

Furthermore, it is stated (Sotah 49b): Once Rebbe died, humility ceased as well as dread of sin. Rav Yosef said to the Tanna:

(Leading Amoraim would retain a Tanna whose function it was to memorize Mishnayos and Baraisos and recite them for the assembled students as though reading from a scroll.)

“Do not recite that ‘humility’ ceased upon the death of Rebbe, for I am humble.”

(Meforshim note that Rav Yosef expressed himself in this manner in order to teach that the halachic/ hashkafic category of a humble person was still operative.  He was by no means lauding himself for his humility!)

באר היטב, סי’ תצ”ד, ס”ק א’:

ועוד אחרי שהיה רב יוסף עניו מכל אדם כדאמרינן  בסוף סוטה: משמת רבי בטלה ענוה, אמר ליה רב יוסף: לא תיתני ענוה דאיכא אנא ע”ש. וכאן התפאר דמחמת נתינת התורה הוא עדיף משאר אינשי ואין זה מגדר ענוה.

In light of Rav Yosef’s superlative humility, his rationale for a lavish Shavuos repast appears surprising. He appears to engage in self- praise, lauding himself as a talmid chacham of note. He did not appear to be conducting himself with due humility.

How, then, are we to understand his rationale for his Shavuos celebration?


Harav Betzalel Hachoen of Vilna zt”l offers the following explanation (see Sefer Kehillas Yitzchak).

שמות ל”ב, י”ט:

וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר קָרַב אֶל הַמַּחֲנֶה וַיַּרְא אֶת הָעֵגֶל וּמְחֹלֹת וַיִּחַר אַף משֶׁה וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ מִיָּדָו אֶת הַלֻּחֹת וַיְשַׁבֵּר אֹתָם תַּחַת הָהָר:

The Torah records that the first set of luchos that were presented by HaSh-m to Moshe on Shavuos were eventually broken in the aftermath of the chet haegel.

רש”י שמות ל”ד, כ”ט:

ויהי ברדת משה – כשהביא לוחות אחרונות ביום הכפורים.

The second enduring set of luchos was presented by HaSh-m to Moshe on Yom HaKippurim.

The question then arises: why do we celebrate Shavuos as zman matan Toraseinu and not Yom HaKippurim? The answer must be that the original, broken set of luchos were precious in their own right and symbolize of something vitally important.

נדרים מ”א ע”א:

רב יוסף חלש איעקר ליה למודיה אהדריה אביי קמיה היינו דבכל דוכתא אמרינן אמר רב יוסף לא שמיע לי הדא שמעתא אמר ליה אביי את אמריתה ניהלן ומהא מתניתא אמריתה ניהלן.

The Talmud (Nedarim 41a) relates the following biographical information about Rav Yosef. Rav Yosef took ill. As a result, his learning was purged from his memory

(Ran has a slightly different version: אייקר ליה, his learning became too heavy for him to bear and he forgot it. The basic meaning is the same.)

Abaye reviewed everything Rav Yosef had taught him in front of Rav Yosef and thus restored his learning to him. That is the explanation for every place in the Talmud where we say, “Rav Yosef said: ‘I have never heard this teaching,’ and then: Abaye said to him, ‘You said this teaching to us and it was based on this Baraisa that you said it to us.’”

Rav Yosef was needless to say quite distraught over his misfortune. In modern parlance, his self-esteem was adversely affected by his experience. When he analyzed the celebration of Shavuos as zman matan Toraseinu, however, he rebounded from his state of depression. The broken luchos were precious in their own right and symbolic of something vitally important. In effect, Shavuos celebrates these very broken luchos. Rav Yosef ordered the preparation of an especially sumptuous feast, above and beyond his standard Yom Tov fare, to commemorate and underscore this very message.

ברכות ח’ ע”ב:

כדאמר להו רבי יהושע בן לוי לבניה: …והזהרו בזקן ששכח תלמודו מחמת אונסו דאמרינן לוחות ושברי לוחות מונחות בארון

(This is the third of R. Yehoshua ben Levi’s instructions to his sons.)

And be careful with the honor of an elderly scholar who has involuntarily forgotten his Torah learning.

(Rashi: either due to infirmity or because he was distracted by the hardship of earning a living.)

For we say that the second set of luchos and the broken pieces of the first luchos both rest in the Aron.

HaRif in Ein Yaakov comments that the writing on the first set of luchos flew away when they were broken (Pesachim 87b). Nevertheless, they were accorded the honor of being housed in the Aron. A scholar who has forgotten his Torah knowledge is analogous to those broken fragments of the first luchos. Thus, he too should be honored as he was previously.

Rav Yosef could empathize with this message. He could thus truly claim that without the Torah that this day commemorates, even Torah that has been forgotten or in a certain sense destroyed or withheld, he would be indistinguishable from any other Yosef in the market place.


Rabbi Mordechai Wecker studied in yeshiva for many years and was awarded Yoreh Yoreh Yadin Yadin semichahby Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l. He has served as a Jewish educator for over forty years. In addition, he has served as head of school at Jewish day schools in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. He has given shiurim on the weekly parashah and the siddur throughout his career.



Dairy Food and the Power of Permission by Rabbi Moshe Rube

It seems that with every Shavuos that comes around, the same arguments repeat themselves.  Jews start dreaming about the cheesecake and blintzes they will feast on and various rabbis raise the alarm that according to halacha, meat remains the only legitimate form of Simchas Yom Tov.  The opinions fly back and forth, but at the end of the day, everybody does what they wish.  I have eaten at many meals of my rabbis during Shavuos and have experienced dairy meals, meat meals, and of course meals that have faithfully followed the Rama where they serve dairy first, clear the table and then serve meat.  With the argument settled and the minhag of eating dairy on Shavuos so well entrenched among the Jewish people, the best reason I can think of for continuing these arguments is that it makes our dairy at our Yom Tov meals taste sweeter knowing there are some rabbis who forbid.  “The inclination only desires that which is forbidden” (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9:1).


Since people will follow their custom anyway, I seek here not to give a reason why we eat dairy meals, but to offer a meditation as to what our dairy foods can signify to us on the night we receive the Torah, whether you have it as nosh, or as a part of your meals.


Although we don’t usually think about it, milk occupies a special place as the most purely kosher food there is.  Unlike plants that we must separate Terumos and Maasros and meat that must have proper Shechita, the milk needs neither to be kosher.  There never is a time that milk milked from a kosher animal is not kosher.[1]


This observation may be the explaination of a famous Gemara (Ketubot 111b) that states “One who shows his friend the whites of his teeth, is like giving him a cup of milk to drink.”  I’m sure the Gemara knows that people have varied dietary preferences so why the emphasis on milk?  Perhaps because milk signifies permission and freedom from worries about Kashrus.


Now to people who (like me) study or who have studied in Yeshiva such a conjecture may fill you with utter horror.  Why would the Talmud hint to joy when we receive a lenient ruling?  We must reflect the cool and collected attitude of Reb Nechunia Ben Hakaneh who prayed before every learning session “That I do not declare what is impure, pure and not what is pure, impure”.  The truth of the Torah is simply the truth and we should strive to eliminate from ourselves any inclination to enjoy going lekula.


I don’t wish to casually cite various go to Talmudic guidelines for a ruling that seem to encourage us to rule leniently like Torah Chas Al Mamonan Shel Yisrael (The Torah takes pity on Israel’s money) or “Koach Diheteira Adif” (The Power to give permission is stronger).  They don’t bode well for making sweeping generalizations about psak.


But one inarguable truth I can say is that it takes more knowledge to permit than to forbid.  As a communal Rav, I can testify to the truth on the ground that Jews who wish to keep the Torah tend to forbid more on themselves than they need to.  Thus they spend money and cause themselves stress unnecessarily.  It has been my job more to assure people that something is permitted more than forbidden.  For instance, not seeing an official hechsher on cut fruit in a grocery store can be enough to send someone into a worrisome frenzy and declare Assur (forbidden).  It then becomes my distinct pleasure to teach them that not everything requires a hechsher and they can permit many of the items that they forbade on themselves.  And although this is frequently over the phone, I can tell that I’ve given them their proverbial cup of milk.


Milk is something the Torah explicitly permits when it calls the Land of Israel “A Land flowing with milk and honey”.  So it’s not just a plain heter that makes a person smile, it’s the permissibility and the fact that we know that it’s valid and based on God’s word.  Apparently, this was the motivation for Rav Ovadia Yosef’s long responsas full of every opinion under the sun.  One of his guiding principles of halachic rulings which he stated often was Koach Diheteira Adif, so it seems he was reluctant to forbid anything without foraging through the vastness of Torah knowledge.


So with all that in mind, let me propose a new prayer for Torah teachers, rabbis, and poskim, to say during the year and especially on Shavuos as we behold milk in all its forms.


“May it be your will, God, the God of our forefathers, that we merit to know your Torah and make it our own in all its vastness, beauty and light.  May we learn so much of your Torah that whenever a Jew asks us to declare something pure or impure, we may have the knowledge to grant him a heter that will cause him the happiness of milk to drink if that’s where the truth guides us.  And if we must forbid something and cause a Jew loss of money or emotional burden, may it never be based on ignorance but on knowledge.”


[1] Excluding Rabbinic Gezeiros of Chalav Yisroel

Rabbi Moshe Rube is the Rav of Knesseth Israel of Birmingham, Alabama, the only Orthodox synagogue in the state.  He received his Semicha from Yeshiva University and also holds a Master’s degree in Music Education from Lehman College.

The Missing Festive Meal of Chanukah, By Rabbi Elisha Friedman

Maimonides describes the Biblical character Job thus: “But when he knew God with a certain knowledge, he admitted that true happiness, which is the knowledge of the deity, is guaranteed to all who know Him and that a human being cannot be troubled in it by any of all the misfortunes in question. While he had known God only through the traditional stories and not by the way of speculation, Job had imagined that the things thought to be happiness, such as health, wealth, and children, are the ultimate goal. For this reason he fell into such perplexity and said such things as he did.” (Guide for the Perplexed 3:23)

In my interactions with Rabbi Dr. Chaim Schertz I was always struck by how he was the living embodiment of this passage and the Maimonidean ideal of one who treasures knowledge of God above all else. I have read many lovely sentences describing this idea, but with Rabbi Schertz I saw it lived. He valued the study of Torah above all else and that learning in turn sustained him and comforted him through many difficulties. It is my hope that the learning in these articles brings his neshama merit and satisfaction; and meets his high standards.

One of the big conundrums regarding Chanukah is the lack of any obligation to have what is a basic staple of every other Jewish holy day: a festive meal. According to the Shulchan Aruch’s rulings, Shabbos, festivals and even Purim, necessitate a festive meal to accompany them; only Chanukah does not (O.C. 670:2). Why should Chanukah be different from all other holidays?

One might further expand the scope of this question. All other special days on the Jewish calendar are hybrid days, some of the commanded rituals are spiritual (shofar, succah, megillah), others are physical (eating, enjoyment, resting). On Chanukah all of the rituals, all the obligatory practices (Menorah, Al Hanisim and Hallel), are spiritual. Why is only Chanukah a totally spiritual day?

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Chanukkah: How Fire Silently Changes Everything, By Rabbi Elchanan Poupko

Nothing marks the holiday of Chanukkah as much as the flickering flame of the Menorah. Despite the fact that this holiday marks a notable military victory too, it is the miracle of the Menorah that dominates the day. Why? Contrasting this holiday with Purim it seems like they have many similarities while at the same time Chanukkah takes on a much quieter tone[1]. No noise, loud singing, or Megillah reading. Just a candle. Considering the outstanding military victory the Maccabees experienced on Chanukkah one would expect more celebratory rituals boasting the great victories that took place during that holiday.

The great 16thcentury philosopher and Kabbalist Rabbi Yehuda Loew—the Maharal of Prague—argues that the essence of this holiday can be captured in the words of King Solomon: ”Ki ner mitzvah v’Torah ohr, the mitzvah is a lamp and Torah is the light” (Proverbs 6:23). Any mitzvah we do is likened to a candle and the Torah in its entirety is likened to light. Why a candle? A candle represents the non-tangible connecting to the tangible. The flame exists through its connection to the candle and the candle only has meaning if it is sustaining a flame. Similarly in our own human experience, the spiritual connects to the physical.

This is the exact opposite of what Greek cloture championed[2]. Greek culture was the epitome of physicality; the body was to be worshiped, physical strength idolized, Greek gods represented various aspects of the physical world, and anything different was to be shunned. Alexander the Great charmed the world with the beauty of Greek culture and by its compelling logic. Indeed, there was a lot to be impressed by; the compelling logic and philosophy, the architecture, and the military strength were overwhelming.

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