Tuesday, January 31, 2006

On The Day Of His Yahrzeit - 2 Shevat

Anapol, Ukraine (July 2001)

Kever of Rebbe Zusia of Anapol

Story: Zusia is very hungry and desires to eat something!


The inner core of every Jew is essentially good, and in the depth of his being every Jew yearns to do mitzvos. It is his thick shell of materialism and the darkness of his yetzer hara, his evil inclination, that obscure the Divine Light within him. This inner light cannot overpower the massive darkness and the evil of the outer shell.

There are people who respond to an admonition by a tzaddik. His reproach will crack their crust of corporeality and cause them to repent. But there are others whose outer layer of materialism is so thick that no rebuke can penetrate it. The only way to reach these people is to approach them with love and kindness, appealing to their inner core of goodness. This will kindle the spark of morality within them.

(Rebbe Zusia of Anapol)

Monday, January 30, 2006

Building The Beis HaMikdash With A Three Year-Old

Last Tuesday night while my wife was out at a dentist appointment, my three year-old daughter walked over to me with a plastic toy hammer in her hand and asked, "Daddy, do you wanna build the Beis HaMikdash with me?"

Me: Who lives in the Beis HaMikdash?

Her: Kids

Me: And who else?

Her: Woody

Me: And who else?

Her: Dora

Me: Anyone else?

Her: Elmo

Me: Is that all?

Her: Yes

(Cross Posted on Our Kids Speak)

Note: My first posting on Our Kids Speak can be read here.


One who is slow to anger is better than a mighty man, and one who rules over his spirit is better than one who conquers a city.

(Mislei 16:32)

Friday, January 27, 2006

Wednesday Night Meeting With Rabbi Lazer Brody

In his lecture at the Passaic Torah Institute, Rabbi Lazer Brody related how the Melitzer Rebbe humbles himself before he meets with his Rav, the Vizhnitzer Rebbe. It was with similar feelings that that I anticipated Wednesday night when I was scheduled to meet with Rabbi Brody during his visit to the United States. Before our first meeting a year ago, I did not realize how brightly his neshoma burned. I have never met a person whose emuna was as tangible as Rabbi Brody's. He is an extremely special person and I am convinced that one day people will look back on his life and say that indeed he was a tzaddik.

During our meeting last year, Rabbi Brody successfully helped me rearrange and revitalize my daily learning seder. My neshoma instantly responded to this new seder and I felt like a sick person whose medications were properly readjusted. The new learning seder, coupled with reading his book and using the tefillin that he wrote for me, did wonders for me over the past year.

I was thrilled when I received the e-mail from him last month that inquired about getting together during his visit. At the same time, unexplainably, I also anticipated our meeting with a bit of trepidation.

On Wednesday night after work, I went over to meet with Rabbi Brody in his mother's nearby apartment and quickly realized that all my worries were in vain. Rabbi Brody welcomed me in with a huge smile and a friendly "Shalom Aleichem!".

Although the time I spent with him flew by quickly, every single second was precious. Unlike my last visit, I did not have any particular problem or question to ask him so our conversation crossed over many topics.

Shortly before we finished, I showed him a small section in Degel Machaneh Ephraim (Parshas Pekudei) that I had trouble understanding. We reviewed it and Rabbi Brody explained that in this section, the Degel taught that there were great secrets of the Torah hidden in the description of the Mishkan and its keilim. While a person who relies solely on his intellect would never comprehend these secrets, a person who attaches himself to a Rav who received these teachings from his Rav has the possibility of being able to understand these secrets.

Rabbi Brody explained that the Degel was specifically referring to the paramount importance of having a guide in learning to Torah, since a person who arrogantly believes that he can make his own way will remain lost and never be able to comprehend the Torah’s teachings. It is impossible to properly learn Torah without humility and attachment to a tzaddik.

At the end of our meeting, Rabbi Brody gave me a wonderful brocha and encouraged me to write a letter to the Melitzer Rebbe, a descendent of the Degel, at times when I find that I need guidance or have questions about my learning.

Rabbi Brody helped me put my jacket on and escorted me out to the elevators where he gave me a big hug and another brocha before I left. As I drove home, my mind raced and tried to review all our discussions.

I will always treasure the moments I was able to spend with Rabbi Brody. G-d willing, I will have the opportunity again in the future.

Guest Posting From Rabbi Naftali Citron - Faith vs. Mystical Understanding

I would like to respond to some of the misunderstandings and criticism by Rabbi Dovid Sears of my article, in which I contrast Chabad and Breslov.

I am sorry that Rabbi Sears was so critical of the article I wrote. The point of my article is not to give a comprehensve evaluation of Breslav and Chabad and defintly not to critisize Breslav. Rather it was to bring out some strong points of three of the Chassidic movements as relating to the Carlebach chevra.

Although I did quote the late Joseph Weiss, whose study on Mystical Hasidism and Hasidism of Faith should not just be rejected off hand because he "is a secular academic", I have been learning Likutei Maharan on a regular basis, for some time. Reb Shlomo ZL turned me on to Reb Nachman and although I may be more at home in Ishbitz or more familiar with Chabad, I try to learn Likkutai Maharan every week. I am in touch with Breslover Chassidim, some of whose orbit are connected to the Carlebach world.

Rabbi Sears further objects About my statement about the Alter Rebbe's philosophy of finding G-d in everything, he states that I should have started with the Bal Shem Tov, and included numerous Chassidic schools. Obviously this started with the Bal Shem and in fact even earlier, and Chabad is not the only school that developed this theme, however for the narrow focus of my article (I wrote it for my Shul's newsletter, where I can't go on and on), I felt it was better to keep it simple and focus on these two movements and not every possible school that has similar philosophies.

Furthermore I chose Chabad because Chabad Chassidus developed a much more articulated comprehensive philosophy in this area than any other Chassidic path, to represent the Mochin (intellect) and contemplative understanding that focuses on comprehension of the Divine. Choosing Chabad, in addition to narrowing the focus, is also a good representation of this type of Chassidus

I chose Breslav as the path that has more emotions, also realizing that to a certain extent, some characteristics I described in Breslav are contained within other Chassidic schools. All in all, Breslav has a unique texture that allows it to be singled out for this comparison. By the way, my article is based on a lecture I gave at the Second Annual Carlebach Conference and contains many more details, such as acknowledging that I am using Chabad and Breslav as an examples of these types of Chassidus (you can order the tape from Glen K audio if you are really interested in this subject)

In addition when I talk about the verse Ain Od Milvado (There is nothing but Him) and a mystical philosophy that comprehends G-d in everything, it is not merely a Pasuk which everyone agrees with (Chasidm in particular) or that G-d is everywhere, but rather a question of emphasis of how far the mind can take you in comprehending the Divine. Of course, both these schools acknowledge the importance of understanding the Divine and also the limitations of intellect. I am contrasting the degree and emphasis of Understanding vs. Faith. Does Reb Nachman have the same conceptualization of understanding Elokus (G-dliness) as something we can primarily get close to with our minds as Chabad does? I think not. I think faith and longing and therfore the awareness of how far we are from G-d that helps to create a longing to be closer are more emphasized than understanding and comprehension. I think Reb Nachman uses many tools to get us to bridge the gap, not just Hisbodedus or talking to G-d but also, most importantly connecting to a Tzaddik, forms of Vidui and the singing, dancing, clapping and on and on.

My point isn’t that Chabad and Breslov are diametrically opposed (which is closer to what Weiss says) but that in a many ways they emphasize different paths that start to diverge on higher levels. I will put it into simple words because Ailu Vaailu ... (Both are the words of the living G-d). When I want to know about G-d, I think Chabad is exceptionally qualified to take me there. If I need an emotional voice to deal with the crisis in my life, Reb Nachman is my master of prayer who I use to help me connect.

This is all a matter of course of emphasis, which Sears seems to not understand. There are many emotive Chabadnicks and many Maskil (intellectual) oriented Breslovers. I am rather talking about a general sense of differing emphasis. It would also seem that Rabbi Sears and I do agree on a lot of the distinctions between these two schools and a large part of his troubles boils down to semantics. I have seen writing where Reb Nachman sounds very similar to Tanya or Likkutai Torah, in terms of G-d pervading all of creation and that in a higher level of truth, only G-d exists. Nonetheless there is a distinct feeling that Sin is more real and the struggling with sadness is more of an issue, all pointing to the fact that Reb Nachman’s faith is in a G-d that we don’t understand, that stands way above us.

Reb Dovid Sears has an issue with how I seemed to say that Reb Shlomo only turned to Breslov when he wanted to reach out to an alienated generation and needed the emotional impact of Reb Nachman. I was not trying to imply that Reb Shlomo was not deeply involved with this approach. I was simply quoting Reb Shlomo's own words. Or maybe I should say that if you are not a Carlebach Chasid, you have no place to talk about Shlomo (just kidding, we don’t take ourselves so seriously). By the way the Mitzvah of studying Torah is part of the Mitzvah of teaching Torah and as the Carlebach Chevra say (echoed in the Mishnah), we learn more from our students then we teach them.

Last but not least, Rabbi Sears takes issue with my comparisons between of the Niggunim (songs) in these two great Chassidic ways. This was hard for me to write because in truth, a lot of the Breslover Niggunim that I know are not just the happy tunes of simply Tzfat. Nevertheless, in painting with broad strokes, I still feel that in a comparative way, more of the Chabbad Niggunim (with many exceptions) have a contemplative element and Breslov Niggunim (with many exceptions) have more of sense of the emotions.

In addition to the discussion on Chabad and Breslov, my article focused on the Chasidic school of Ishbitz and situating Carlebach in the Chasidic world. Unfortunately, this part was not posted with your response and I think it is important to understand this issue in the context of the whole article. You can find it at www.carlebachshul.org.

In conclusion, I am inviting the top Breslov Teachers to talk about Reb Nachman for a Day of Breslov at the JCC in Manhattan. This was all just a marketing ploy that Reb Dovid and I concocted to get people ready for the catfight we might have on our panel discussion on Breslov and Chabad (just kidding !) But we will be having a Day of Learning in May and if this Blog or whatever you call it, increases awareness of the Light of Chassidus, it’s a good thing. I just want you to know that I don’t think I will have the time to write a rebuttal to the rebuttal of the rebuttal.

Reb Dovid, you too or invited to pack up your kids and spend a Shabbos at the Carlebach Shul and find out what type of learning of Reb Nachmans Torah's goes on here (My High Holiday Newsletter message was based mostly on Likkutai Moharan).


Brother Naftali

Giving Tzedakah Without Giving Money

Giving words of comfort is an even greater mitzvah than giving money.

(Talmud- Bava Basra 9b)

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Question & Answer With Chabakuk Elisha - Bar Mitzvah

A Simple Jew asks:

What were your thoughts when you said the brocha "baruch she-petarani" at your son's recent bar mitzvah?

Chabakuk Elisha answers:

When a boy becomes a Bar Mitzvah he is called up to the Torah, and subsequently the father recites "Baruch Shepetarani Mehaonesh Halozeh" - loosely translated to mean "Bless You for freeing me from punishment for this one's actions." I always found this "brocha" (although it is not actually a brocha since G-d's name is not mentioned) strange. Indeed, is this a great joy - that I am "off-the-hook" and no longer responsible for the actions of "this one"?

There are many drushim on this, but the explanations that I saw or heard struck me as nice, but contrived. I looked at it from the simple meaning of the words, and so, when saying the blessing, I imagined myself as one who nurses a bird to health and finally sets it free, or an inventor who finally sets his invention into action, perhaps selling it to others for their use. The idea being that the child is no longer in my realm, he is now a fully functional being that must fly and function on his own.

For his own good I must take a step back for him to achieve his goals; I can no longer take full responsibility for him - for it is time that he take responsibility for himself so that he will rise to the next level. Although 13 years old is a bit young in our society, the next stage of process has begun as his life shifts into the next gear.

We can easily see that adolescents do not respond to parental authority as small children do - and as a result, parents must change their approach. I think this is what the blessing means. As I stood next to my son and in front of the Torah, I bless G-d. I bless Him for His wisdom in creation. I bless Him for giving me the opportunity to play a vital role in raising an entire world. I bless Him for giving me a road map to follow, and to show to the next generation. And I bless Him for telling me that my next responsibility is to realize that my part has now changed. I must let my son fly a little freer, and he will be a man.

Why Moshiach Has Not Come

It is written, "Why has the son of Yishai not come, either today or yesterday?"

Why not? You can find the answer in the question. Because we are today just as we were yesterday.

(Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kosov)

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Guest Posting From Rabbi Dovid Sears - Comparing Chabad and Breslov: A Response to Rabbi Naftali Citron

The diversity of approaches to divine service in the Chassidic word provides a range of options for people on different spiritual wavelengths. But this diversity has also led to many misconceptions about what these various paths have and do not have in common. One misunderstanding that keeps getting recycled caught my eye in an email I received about a recent conference in Manhattan on Jewish spirituality. Rabbi Naftali Citron of the Carlebach Shul, who organized the event, writes:

"Different streams within the Chassidic community emphasize different aspects of Divine service. Some emphasize faith in tzaddikim, others, mystical contemplation. In Kotsk, the truth was the most important goal; in Vurka, it was loving people.

Two Chassidic schools with distinct approaches to Divine service are Chabad and Breslov. Chabad, whose name indicates wisdom, understanding, and knowledge, is primarily focused on a mystical understanding of G-d and of the spiritual and physical universe inhabited by the Divine. The ultimate awareness is "Ein Od Milvado:" there is nothing but G-d. One is nothing, but is totally part of G-d. The Alter Rebbe of Chabad developed the teachings of the Arizal into a philosophy that finds G-d in everything and comprehends that everything flows from G-d's Oneness.

These idea of G-d's oneness was given a new emphasis over the last fifty years by the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, z'l. He stressed the concept of "deera b'tachtonim," the Divine desire to dwell even in the lowest of places. This concept was actualized in the creation of thousands of Chabad houses, with Chabad trained emissaries of the Rebbe traveling to the most challenging areas of the world to spread Judaism. Their philosophy and mission is that G-d is everywhere, even in places that don't recognize Him.

In Breslov, the teachings of Reb Nachman -- faith and distance from G-d -- play a significant role. The ideas of Reb Nachman (while also grounded in Kabbalah) do not emphasize the importance of mystical comprehension as put forth by Chabad. Rather, the connection to the Divine is based not on G-d's immanence but on the great distance that exists between oneself and G-d. The shortcomings of human experience are both an obstacle and an impetus towards faith, hope, and, ultimately, redemption. This is epitomized in the words of Rav Nachman's song, "the whole world is just a narrow bridge, the main principle is not to have any fear." We live in a challenging world. G-d is far from us, but don't despair; G-d will be there when you call out to Him. This approach, which acknowledges our flaws, appeals to the brokenness of our generation. (Reb Shlomo moved from Chabad.) Reb Shlomo frequently invoked the Breslov paradigm once he realized how responsive the Hippie generation was to Reb Nachman's teachings.

The two schools Chabad and Breslov also have differing ways of prayer. In Chabad, the prayer is contemplative and inward; it finds G-d everywhere. The Siddur, combined with hours of meditation, can lead the supplicant into a sublime state. In Breslov, one goes out into the field, and talks to G-d. In a sense, G-d is outside the individual and there is the need to talk to Him, as if to a friend. The emotional intensity of speaking to G-d is both raw and powerful in a way that the more silent meditative approach of Chabad is not. To have a conversation with G-d can be difficult to do while following the prescribed prayers of the Siddur.

There is a lot of joy in both movements, which is perceived in the music of Breslov and Chabad. With some exceptions, Chabad niggunim have a very contemplative aspect while it is easier to access joy in a Breslov niggun. Tanya, Chabad's primary text, describes its form of praying as a "long shorter way." In Breslov and other Chassidic schools, the distance from G-d creates a call of extreme yearning. It emphasizes the value of emotions over intellectual understanding.

Although Reb Shlomo had his Chassidic training in Chabad, once he tried reaching an alienated generation, with no knowledge of Judaism, he turned to Breslov and Ishbitz to offer the needed emotional impact. Today, the Carlebach philosophy is most identified with the Ishbitz Chassidic stream, which -- like Reb Nachman -- emphasizes faith..."

Bibliography: Mystical Hasidism and Hasidism of Faith, a Typological Analysis by Joseph Weiss.


As a born and bred Lubavitcher Chassid, Rabbi Naftoli Citron would probably take a dim view of any analysis of Chabad written by someone who never "tasted the kasha in Tomchei Temimim," regardless of that individual’s scholarly qualifications. If not, he is an unusually open-minded man; but certainly the average Lubavitcher would have greater confidence in a member of the Chabad community expert in its philosophy and way of divine service. This is not because you have to be a "member of the club" to have an opinion, but simply because if you don’t live and breathe there, inevitably you will be relegated to peering through a keyhole. Therefore, it is surprising that Rabbi Citron bases his knowledge of Rabbi Nachman’s teachings and path of divine service on the analysis of a secular academic, the late Joseph Weiss. One would have expected Rabbi Citron to base his remarks on firsthand knowledge, gleaned from Breslover Chassidim. Unfortunately, he did not. Thus he did a disservice (albeit unwittingly) to Breslov, his readers, and himself.

I wouldn’t venture any criticism of Rabbi Citron’s presentation of Chabad, since this is his area of expertise -- aside from voicing my surprise that he does not mention the Baal Shem Tov in describing the roots of the Alter Rebbe’s philosophy. I am also compelled to mention this glaring omission because it touches on the misrepresentation of Breslov in his subsequent remarks.

Mystical Philosophies: Rabbi Citron sees the difference between Chabad and Breslov as primarily that of a contemplative mysticism, which conceives G-d to be immanent within all things, versus a spiritual path based on faith in a remote G-d, combined the imperative to seek G-d through longing. Let us take a closer look at this dichotomy.

First, the concept of "Ein Ode Milvado," in the mystical sense that nothing but G-d truly exists, is not unique to Chabad, but pervades Chassidic literature. (Scholars find precedents for this theology in the Shelah Ha-kadosh, Maharal, Ramak, and Tikkunei Zohar, among other pre-Chassidic sources.) This doctrine is the cornerstone of the spiritual edifice of the Baal Shem Tov. It appears again and again in the writings of his holy disciples, including the Maggid of Mezeritch, Toldos Yaakov Yosef, Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz, Chernobyler Maggid, and Kedushas Levi, among many others. This belief in G-d’s omnipresence is a legacy of the Baal Shem Tov common to all Chassidim - including Breslov.

Rabbi Nachman discusses this issue in a number of lessons in Likkutei Moharan. One example is Torah 64 ("Bo El Paroh"), where he delves into the mystery of how G-d is present even in His seeming absence. We traverse the terrifying void of divine self-concealment through faith. Compare this to the words of the Baal Shem Tov: "As soon as one realizes that G-d is hidden, there is no longer any concealment and all negativity disappears" (Toldos Yaakov Yosef, Bereshis).

Rabbi Nachman’s foremost disciple and scribe, Reb Noson, also affirms this concept: "When the verse states ‘ein ode milvado,’ it means to say that nothing exists but G-d. Above and below, in heaven and on earth, everything is absolutely naught and without substance - although this is impossible to explain, but can only be grasped according to the intuition of each person" (Likkutei Halakhos, Matnas Sh’chiv me-Ra’ 2:2). Thus, there does not seem to be any significant theological difference here between Breslov and the Baal Shem Tov, and by implication, the school of Chabad.

This is borne out by an oral tradition. Once a Chassid met the Tzemach Tzedek of Lubavitch, who was passing through his village. Upon hearing that he was a Breslover, the Tzemach Tzedek commented: "Benei ish echad anachnu . . . We are sons of the same man!" (Genesis 42:11) (cited in Sefer Shivcho shel Tzaddik). This remark probably referred to the issue of the Baal Shem Tov’s immanentism, among many other common points shared by Chabad and Breslov.

Yet the intellectual instincts of Joseph Weiss (and by default, Rabbi Citron) are not entirely off the mark. It is undeniable that the mood of the Breslover teachings is not the same as that of the Chabad teachings, or for that matter, those of the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid.

One thing that is readily apparent is that Rabbi Nachman repeatedly addresses human struggle, and uses more personal and experiential language, as does Reb Noson in Likkutei Halakhos. Perhaps it is the empathetic quality of Breslov and the deep chizuk of Rabbi Nachman’s declaration "Ein shum ye’ush ba-‘olam klal . . . Nothing in the world is hopeless" that appeals to so many spiritually seekers -- hippies and non-hippies alike. Rabbi Citron rightly acknowledges this.

However, the reason behind Rabbi Nachman’s motto of "no despair" is the very omnipresence of Hashem that Rabbi Citron takes to be foreign to Breslov. This is evident from many discourses, among them Likkutei Moharan II, 78, known to Breslover Chassidim as "Prostock" (meaning something like "peasant" or "commoner"). One of the central concepts of this awesome lesson is that everything in the universe is animated by the Torah, either in a revealed way or a hidden way; and by connecting to both aspects - that is, the sacred and the mundane -- the tzaddik enables the rest of us to make these connections, as well. Therefore, no place or situation exists in which one cannot connect to G-d.

Hisbodedus: In Likkutei Moharan I, 52 ("Ha-ne’or ba-Laylah"), Rabbi Nachman outlines his practice of hisbodedus, going out to the fields and forests to commune with G-d and pray in one’s native tongue. There, he explains how through hisbodedus, one can eradicate all unholy desires and negative traits, until one uproots the very root of ego - enabling one to realize the "Imperative Existent." This is the transforming realization that nothing truly exists but Divinity. Speaking to G-d in the night is an inner workshop to attain this illumination. The forest or field in which one stands is actually the "forest" or "field" within each person. Thus, we find that hisbodedus is not the antithesis of contemplative prayer. It is just another way of "getting there."

In this spirit, Rabbi Nachman Goldstein of Tcherin, the foremost Breslover teacher of the third generation, wrote: "The word hisbodedus is a construct of badad, meaning either ‘seclusion’ or ‘oneness,’ as in the phrase ‘they shall be bad be-vad, one with one [i.e. of equal weight]’ (Rashi on Exodus 30:34). That is, you must become "one" with G-d to the extent that all sensory awareness ceases and the only reality you perceive is Godliness. This is the mystical meaning of ‘ein ode milvado . . . There is nothing but G-d alone’ " (Zimras Ha’aretz, 52).

Hisbodedus is also mentioned in the Chabad literature. In his introduction to the Mittler Rebbe’s "Poke’ach ‘Ivrim," Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, tells how he was walking with his father, the Rebbe Rashab, early in the morning, and how they encountered his teacher, Rabbi Shmuel Bezalel, returning from hisbodedus in the forest, where he regularly poured out his heart to G-d. It is apparent from the author’s description that this sort of hisbodedus was no contradiction to the Chabad method of contemplative prayer. In fact, the previous Rebbe has much to say in praise of hisbodedus in the first volume (toward the end) of Likkutei Dibburim, his collected talks. Friends in the Chabad community have also told me that the Lubavitcher Rebbe once gave a sichah about hisbodedus in 770 on Rabbi Nachman’s yahrtzeit, the second day of Chol HaMoed Sukkos.

Another thing that is distinctive of Breslov is that Rabbi Nachman goes down "into the trenches" with us. To paraphrase the English novelist Eric Ambler, he is not just a "non-swimmer working as a lifeguard." This quality is associated with the sefirah of Netzach, meaning either "victory" or "eternity." In the writings of the Arizal, Netzach is represented by the chirik, the vowel point represented by a single dot. Symbolically, this dot represents the descent of wisdom from the heights of creation to the lowest depths, thus to accomplish the rectification of all souls and holy "sparks." (Incidently, the Hebrew word "netzach" has the same numerical value as "Nachman" (148). And Rabbi Nachman habitually took the fourth ‘aliyah to the Torah, corresponding to Netzach. And he left the world on the fourth day of Sukkos, corresponding to Netzach.)

Yet, as the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe pointed out in his last epic discourse, "Basi le-Gani," Netzach receives its power to overcome obstacles from the sefirah of Keser, the "Divine Crown." Keser alludes to the loftiest transcendental realm, where "somethingness" pours forth from "nothingness," and Creator and creation meet. Thus its innermost point is associated with the quality of oneg, delight. This is the sweetness and peace that prevails on the plane beyond all dualism and strife, where all opposites dissolve. The outer aspect of Keser, the "face" directed toward the unborn world that is destined to come into existence, is associated with ratzon, meaning "will" or "desire." This indicates G-d’s utterly mysterious and unknowable predilection to create the universe. Both of these qualities figure prominently in Rabbi Nachman’s teachings.

Rabbi Nachman and the Cosmic Paradox:

Another factor that conditions this difference in mood is the pervasive sense of paradox in Rabbi Nachman’s thought. I have often described this aspect of the Breslover teachings as being like taking a shower in hot and cold water at the same time. (This comparison may not work for everybody, but I don’t know how else to describe it.)

This sense of paradox conditions the way Rabbi Nachman discusses immanence, too. For example, in Likkutei Moharan II, 7, he speaks of two perceptions: "Ayeh makom kevodo . . . Where is the place of His Glory?" indicating G-d’s utter transcendence; and "M’lo kol ha’aretz kevodo . . . The entire earth is full of His Glory," indicating G-d’s immanence. Both perceptions are true - which is a paradox. Moreover, each needs the other. Each perception must be tempered by its opposite in order to produce yirah, meaning fear or awe. (It is self-understood that we are talking about yiras ha-romemus, religious awe, not yiras ha-onesh, fear of punishment.) This produces the distance from G-d that makes it possible to engage in divine service and not disappear from the radar screen. This distance is necessary if we are to serve G-d in this world, according to His will. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe also used to say repeatedly "Ha-ma’aseh hu ha-‘ikkar . . . The main thing is action" (Avos 1:17).

Philosophy or Spiritual Wavelength: I would not venture to say anything about where Rabbi Nachman or any tzaddik received his illuminations. Rabbi Nachman is so far beyond our grasp - we don’t even begin to know how much we don’t know! However, I believe that this is where the real answers lie: in the inner world of each master. Rather than search for differences in philosophy or theology or kabbalistic metaphysics to explain the diversity of Chassidic approaches - and the very inclination to do so reflects the philosophical sensibility of Chabad - perhaps it would be more fruitful to ascribe them to shoresh neshamah. By this, I mean the innate spiritual characteristics of the tzaddikim and axiomatically the souls ancillary to them. To be sure, these differences defy the perception of ordinary people. But the tzaddikim themselves have given us a few clues that we may be permitted to follow. If the teachings of the Alter Rebbe and his successors are, by their own assertion, an expression of Chokhmah-Binah-Da’as (Chabad), those of Rabbi Nachman and his school seem to be more aligned with the sefiros of Keser and Netzach, for the reasons given above. Thus, we need not discuss philosophy but the nature of mystical perception, and the need for each seeker to find the right guide, according to his own inner imperatives. Each tzaddik has his own neshamos, and each neshamah is uniquely connected to a certain tzaddik.

Chabad and ChaGaS: Rabbi Citron proposes that his maternal grand-uncle, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, of blessed memory, turned to the teachings of Breslov and Ishbitz in response to the plight of his followers. By implication, he suggests that Reb Shlomo set aside the rarified teachings of Chabad in order to supply a fallen generation with a message that had more "emotional impact," as Rabbi Citron calls it. Emotionalism is often associated with the sefiros of Chesed-Gevurah-Tiferes, known by the acronym "ChaGaS." Thus, Rabbi Citron suggests that what Reb Shlomo tried to supply was the ChaGaS that had been somewhat lacking in the world of Chabad he left behind.

Rabbi Citron may be right about this. However, I suspect that this is not the whole story. Reb Shlomo was not only packaging Yiddishkeit according to the needs of his audience, but was personally involved in the exploration of the Breslov and Ishbitz literature. This was evident from his shiurim, and from the other Chassidic teachers he sought out. (One such master was Rabbi Gedaliah Kenig, zatzal, my teacher’s father, and a prominent Breslover leader in Jerusalem.) If the exalted intellectualism of Chabad was the only problem, Reb Shlomo could have limited himself to simple teachings of a purely emotional nature. But we see that he did not. Instead he delved deeply into Breslov, Ishbitz, Piacetzna, and other extremely profound schools of Chassidism. There was surely a good reason for this. Rabbi Citron should give his uncle a little more credit!

Moreover, Breslov and Ishbitz cannot be so conveniently rolled up and stuffed into the same drawer. The numerous other branches of Chassidism are not all the same, mere variants on the theme of "ChaGaS," as certain members of the Chabad community mistakenly think. Breslov is an entire world, Ishbitz is another world, Komarno is another, Slonim is still another. They are not identical! Therefore, we must reject this simplistic dichotomy.

Music: This subtle bias also colors Rabbi Citron’s remarks on the differences between the musical traditions of Chabad and Breslov. It is true that Chabad possesses a rich musical legacy, which includes many contemplative works of a deeply stirring nature. And it is also true that many Breslover niggunim are extremely joyous (as anyone who has ever attended a "Simply Tsfat" concert will attest). However, from Rabbi Citron’s description, one might conclude that Breslover niggunim are little more than happy ditties, the musical equivalent of those pictures of dancing Chassidim that adorn so many Jewish dining room walls. This is easily refuted by anyone who has heard a group of "real life" Breslover Chassidim sing deveykus niggunim, such as those composed by Rabbi Nachman, or the powerful melodies of third-generation Breslover Reb Meir Leib Blecher, or the many bittersweet lyrical gems of anonymous Breslover composers.

In conclusion, the only tikkun I can suggest is for Rabbi Citron to pack up his family and spend a Shabbos in a Breslov community such as Tsfat, where he can hear the music for himself, and see what a Breslover chaburah looks like without binoculars. Whichever Shabbos he picks, I’m sure he won’t be the only "Carlebach Chassid" in the circle of dancers after davenning on Friday night!

Rabbi Sears's last posting can be read here.

Ending Up With Nothing

Some people are so anxious to perform a certain mitzvah in a grand manner that they end up not doing it at all.

(Reb Noson of Breslov)

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

A Picture From My Family's Shtetl - Week 26

The Invisible Wall Between Fathers And Sons

My father followed in the footsteps of his father in many ways. However, unlike my grandfather who enlisted in the army, my father was drafted after he completed medical school and served in Vietnam in 1972 when my mother gave birth to me.

My father, like his father, and his father before him, shared a similar parenting style. While all were certainly warm and kind people, they were fathers who maintained the traditional distance from their sons; more likely to speak about current events than sharing their feelings or speaking about deeper matters.

Growing up, I was always amazed when I heard my father speaking with one of his friends or colleagues on a different level than how he spoke to me. I always wished that he would relate to me in a similar manner, and that I could talk to him in the way which I talked with my mother.

Since fathers tried to raise their sons to be men, perhaps he was raised with the belief that sharing emotions was a feminine activity. Perhaps he was just being the father that his father was to him; devoted yet somewhat detached.

I have only seen my father cry two times in my entire life; once on the day his father passed away, and once on the day his mother passed away. I was told, however, that he also cried on the day he that he left for Vietnam; leaving his pregnant wife behind.

While I cannot change the way my father relates to me, I can change the way I relate to my son. I strive to be the kind of father who is always accessible and willing to talk about deeper issues. I pray that one day my son will view me this way.

As for my father, I am not sure if I truly know the person he is on the inside. Despite the fact that I have made numerous attempts to speak to him on a deeper level, I am rarely successful. I love him dearly and hope that one day I will be able to break through this invisible wall separating father and son.

Eroding Mountains

Don't say, "Since speech is merely modulation of air, it is of no consequence." Just consider that G-d forms mountains - a very concrete and solid entity - and creates the wind - an ethereal and intangible phenomenon. Yet we see that the wind has the power to erode a mighty mountain. The phenomenon of erosion should tell you that although speech may be ethereal and fleeting, it wields enormous power.

(Rebbe Yisroel of Rizhin)

Monday, January 23, 2006

To The Company Who Loves Misery

Why is it that people we see on a regular basis often do not accept the fact that we change? Although our stagnation should be a cause of concern, they expect us to stay the same people we have always been.

Why must we remain broken down on the side of the road while they continue on their journey?

They change; why can't we?

Maybe they are uncomfortable because our change makes them aware of their complacency.

Perhaps it highlights the fact that they too are not living up to their potential.

More thoughts on this subject can be found in Second Guessing Yourself Into Inaction.

A Metal Oven

Most people are like a metal oven. Burning one minute like a flame, but a short time later - as cold as ice.

(Maggid of Trisk)

Friday, January 20, 2006

In This Week's Parsha: Not a Man of Words

UPDATE: Jewish Press Article: Rabbi Nachman's Poetry

At Home Sick Today

When you go out on the street, you should think of yourself as having been handed over to a policeman to be taken for trial. If you have a headache, you should think of yourself as having had your neck put in chains. If you fall ill and have to go to bed, you should look on yourself as if you've been brought up to the execution block. Anyone on the execution block can be saved if he has sufficiently powerful advocates. If not, there's no escape. And who are a person's advocates? Repentance and good deeds. Even if a person has nine hundred and ninety-nine accusers and only one defender, he will be saved, as it is written (Iyov 33:23-4): "If he had one defending angel out of a thousand to vouch for his righteousness, than G-d will show him favor and say, 'Save him from the pit, I have found a ransom.'"

(Talmud - Shabbos 32a)

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Nachas From My Lil' Tzaddik - Part II

Back in September, I wrote about my lil' tzaddik's display of sensitivity towards a young man with Down Syndrome. Now 19 months-old, he continues to carry his baby doll everywhere he goes and spontaneously hugs other children and sometimes even their parents. While there are beginning to be signs that he is reaching the "terrible twos", he is still an adorable little blonde marshmallow, who constantly repeats the words, "Baybeee, baybeeeeee!"

My wife told me that other mothers in her moms' group have remarked how kind he is. It is not uncommon for him to walk over to a grown-up who is holding a bag of snacks and put his hand out in request. As soon as he is given the snack, he walks over to another child and hands it to them; making sure that the other children have something to eat before he eats.

A Parent's Reward

There can be no greater nachas for parents than seeing all their children devoted to each other, and there can be no greater distress than seeing them torn asunder.

(Bamidbar Rabbah 11:16)

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Guest Posting From Rabbi Dovid Sears: The Authenticity of the Zohar

Rabbi Dovid Sears, author of many books on Chassidic thought including The Path of the Baal Shem Tov and the newly-released Shir Na'im/Song of Delight, provided the material for the posting below. It is excerpted from an e-mail interchange between himself and a person studying Breslover Chassidus.


Over the last year, I have been coming closer to Breslover Chassidus, baruch Hashem. I learn different Sifrei Breslov, including Likkutei Moharan. Certain of Rebbe Nachman's writings refer to the Zohar or are based on the Zohar in part. I however have serious doubts whether the Zohar is authentic, i.e., written by Reb Shimon Bar Yochai and his school, versus written by Rabbi Moses de Leon of Granada. I still believe that even if the Zohar is not authentic, there is much in Rabbi Nachman's works that stand independent of the Zohar, and therefore that people such as myself can still justifiably follow Reb Nachman's ways. Do you have any thoughts on this?


Rabbi Nachman (Sichos ha-Ran 278) explains the anachronisms in the Zohar by saying that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai continued to teach his school of talmidim even after his death. (So did the ARI zal continue to teach his talmid, Rav Chaim Vital, in his dreams for more than twenty years. So did the spirit-teacher of the Beis Yosef teach him from the "next world." There are other examples of this phenomenon, as well.)

I seem to remember that the Komarno Rebbe took a similar position on the Zohar as Rabbi Nachman. Other tzaddikim believed that the core of the Zoharic books comes from the immediate circle of Rabbi Shimon, while later accretions were eventually added to the manuscript. Still others speculated that Rabbi Moshe De Leon contacted the soul of Rabbi Shimon through a Divine Name and thus received the teachings.

However, whatever the explanation, our greatest tzaddikim and sages accepted the Zohar despite these questions, including the RaMBaN, Rabbi Yitzchok min-Acco (see what Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan says about the latter's investigation of the Zohar's authenticity in "Meditation and the Kabbalah"), Rabbi Moshe Zaccuto, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, the Beis Yosef, RAMA, Baal Shem Tov, Maggid of Mezeritch, RaMCHaL, Chasam Sofer, Baal ha-Tanya, Vilna Gaon, Rav Chaim of Volozhin, Chayei Adam, Magen Avraham, Be'er Heitiv, Malbim, RaSHaSH, CHIDA, Ben Ish Chai, Chofetz Chaim, Aruch ha-Shulchan, Baal ha-Sulam, Rav Kook, Rav Sonnenfeld, the Darkei Teshuvah, Imrei Yosef, Reb Ahreleh Roth, Baba Sali -- the list goes on and on. Personally, I defer to these sages, and assume that they are better qualified than I am to evaluate this.

Rabbi Nachman's writings are suffused with Zoharic ideas and teachings, so much so that Reb Noson added the Rebbe's teaching about Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai ("Lechu chazu") prior to the first lesson in Likkutei Moharan. According to Breslover oral tradition, when he was on his way to Uman the Rebbe remarked, "Our entire mission is to be mamshikh kedushas Reb Shimon -- to draw into the world the holiness of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai" (see Rabbi Noson of Tiveria's Netziv Tzaddik). So I can't imagine how you could subtract the Zohar from the derech and hashkofah of Breslev.

HOWEVER... even if you cannot accept the Zohar as the work of Rabbi Shimon and his school, I don't see why you have to negate its truth. Whoever wrote it must have been a very awesome tzaddik for his work to change the face of Yiddishkeit and revolutionize the entire kabbalistic tradition!


A soldier has to work hard before being promoted. It can take years and years until a private becomes a general. The same is true in serving G-d. It takes time to reach higher levels. But sometimes, when the battle is very desperate, a lowly soldier shows outstanding courage, breaks through the enemy ranks, and is made a general right away. Likewise there are times when a Jew stands up to difficult tests and rises to very great heights in a short time.

(Reb Noson of Breslov)

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

A Picture From My Family's Shtetl - Week 25

Silver Candlesticks

The Degel Machaneh Ephraim lived much of his life in poverty. However, as time passed and his reputation became known in the world, Chassidim began to travel great distances visit him. When his shtetl finally appointed him as rabbi, the people from the shtetl even purchased silver candlesticks for him to replace his crude earthenware candlesticks.

Upon using the new silver candlesticks for the first time, the Degel noticed how much his wife enjoyed them. After she finished making the brocha, the Degel looked over at her and said, "Dir iz yetzt lechtig, un mir iz frier gevezen lechtig!" ["For you it is light now, but for me it was light before."]

Fear & Sight

The word Yirah (fear) shares the same letters as the word Ra'eah (sight). This is because when one sees the greatness of the Creator, he will come to fear and feel shame before Him.

(Degel Machaneh Ephraim)

Monday, January 16, 2006

A New Book Every Simple Jew Will Enjoy

(Click on picture for more information)

From The Archives: Neshomas and blogs


A person who uses obscenities reveals that in his heart he has been thinking sinful thoughts.

(Rebbe Nachman of Breslov)

Friday, January 13, 2006

Photo Essay: Remains Of A Shtetl's Shul

The shul in my family's shtetl before the Holocaust.

A kiosk built after the war standing in its place.

Remains of the shul's original foundation.
immediately to the right of the newly laid bricks

A piece of brick chiseled from the shul's original foundation.

Picture of the shtetl's shul hanging on a wall in my home.

Going To Shul

Hashem rewards a person for each and every step he takes as he walks to shul.

(Talmud - Sotah 22a)

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Three Categories Of Friendship

It appears there are three categories of friendship:

Category 1: Friendship based on proximity

Category 2: Friendship based on circumstance

Category 3: True friendship

Many times we think that our friendships are true friendships but time proves that they were merely based on proximity or circumstance. Category 1 and Category 2 friendships often dissolve when one person moves.

Category 3 friendships may initially be based on proximity or circumstance, however there is another element to these friendship that allows them continue for years and sometimes decades with very little contact between the two parties.

What is the element that separates a friendship from a "true friendship"? Is it shared interests or worldview? Not necessarily. Some friendships are a combination of shared interest/world view and proximity/circumstance and yet they still do not last.

Is it possible to simply define what the one element in a true lasting friendship is?

Love That Depends On A Specific Cause

Any love that depends on a specific cause, when that cause is gone, the love is gone; but if it does not depend on a specific cause, it will never cease.

(Pirkei Avos 5:19)

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Two Simple Jews On The Subway

Last Wednesday morning, I found a seat on public transportation and took out a sefer Tehillim from my bag. As I looked up across the aisle from me, I noticed a man from my shul saying Tehillim. I watched him for a few moments and then opened my sefer.

I have always found this Persian man to be so gentle and kind that I feel like a like a coarse human being in his presence. I am not surprised that he never noticed me sitting behind him. He was so engrossed in his Tehillim that it was as if the whole world did not exist.

I would like to imagine the words of Tehillim that I said became intertwined with his as they ascended from the depths of the subway tunnel; the sincerity of his recitation propelling mine higher.

Caffeine Detox - Part III

Yesterday's fast was extremely easy since I gave up caffeine on Rosh Chodesh Av.

After smelling its strong aroma, I have been tempted to buy a cup of coffee at times during the past month. Thanks to my willpower, I was able to resist the urge.

While I don't think I am going to give coffee and up forever, I am going try to go a little while longer. The benefits of not drinking it far outweigh the negative side effects.

Separation Anxiety

Do you know the meaning of fear of sin? It means that you are more afraid of the sin itself than of the punishment that will follow in its wake.

(Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk)

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

A Picture From My Family's Shtetl - Week 24

The Quintessential Simple Jew - Reb Noson

Today, besides being the fast day of Asara B'Teves, it is also the yahrzeit of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov's main disciple, Reb Noson.

A story about his passing can be read here.

More on his life can be read in this article from Tzaddik Magazine (.pdf)

Selections of the prayers he composed for Likutey Tefilos were translated into English by Rabbi Dovid Sears and be can read here.

Finally, be sure to read 'laizer's blog posting about his visit to Reb Noson's kever in Breslov in October 2005.

For more information on Reb Noson, I highly recommend this excellent biography.

Working To Be A Simple Jew

A person has to work very hard on his devotions when he is young so that in his twilight years he can remain a simple religious Jew.

(Reb Noson of Breslov)

Monday, January 09, 2006

Guest Posting From Chabakuk Elisha - A 33 Word Complaint

In this past week's Torah portion we read about Yaakov's arrival in Egypt and his conversation with Pharaoh.

Pharaoh asked Yaakov, "How many years are the days of the years of your life?" (Bereishis 47:8). To this Yaakov replied to Pharaoh, "The days of the years of my sojourns have been a hundred and thirty years. Few and bad have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not reached the life spans of my forefathers in the days of their sojourns." (Bereishis 47:9)

Yaakov's life turns out to be 33 years shorter than his father Yitzchok since Yaakov lives to the age of 147, while Yitzchok lived to be 180. Chazal tell us that he lost 33 years from his life precisely because of the conversation above - one year for each of the thirty-three words of his complaint. [counted from the Hebrew words in the Chumash]

If Yaakov was punished for complaining about his hard life, why were 33 years deducted, when, if you count the words, in actuality only 25 words were spoken by Yaakov and the other 8 words were spoken by Pharaoh?

The question is really the answer. Pharaoh was not making idle chit-chat; he inquired about Yaakov's age out of shock. For, when Yaakov arrived, Pharaoh saw a man who looked to be ancient! Pharaoh was astounded; he thought Yaakov must be hundreds of years old, which prompted his question. Yaakov then answers to say, "No, I'm not so old, I only look old because my life has been so hard." And this is why Yaakov was punished - had he accepted G-d's will with joy, he would not have looked so haggard, and Pharaoh wouldn't even have asked him his age.

If we accept G-d's will with joy, we look it. Yaakov was the greatest of tzaddikim; he should have accepted G-d's plan in a way that would not have prompted Pharaoh's question in the first place. That's why the lost 33 years of his life. We are certainly not on his level, but if we internalize the lesson perhaps it can help us deal with our hardships a little better.

Choosing A Profession

Whoever discovers within his personality and nature an attraction to a particular trade that his body is fit for and can endure its difficulty, should pursue it and make it his means of earning a livelihood, accepting its sweetness and bitterness. Let him not be discouraged if his income is denied him on some occasion; rather let him trust in G-d , that He will provide him with his livelihood all his life.

(Chovos HaLevavos, Shaar HaBitachon, Perek Gimmel)

Friday, January 06, 2006

A Shtetl Mystery Yet To Be Solved

A mass grave hidden in my family's shtetl has a small memorial plaque marking the spot where Jews where buried alive by the Germans and Ukrainian collaborators during the Holocaust.

The Yiddish inscription on the plaque reads as follows:

To Remember the Casualties of Hitler’s Murderers

Chaim Master
Zvi Mendel
Ze’ev Milman
Todrus the shochet
Shalom Yosef Yarovitch
Leizer Lemberg
Shimon the tailor and his wife

Upon close study of the inscription, I noticed misspellings and crude formation of the Hebrew letters. For this reason, some people whom I have shown the pictures to believe that the person who chiseled this memorial plaque was not Jewish. Rather, they suggested that perhaps a Jewish person commissioned it and provided a non-Jew with a written copy of what he wanted inscribed.

Since the language on the memorial plaque is intimately familiar, it is believed that the Jewish person giving the words for the plaque either witnessed the events or knew these people. This would explain the listings "Todrus the shochet" and "Shimon the tailor and his wife". While only eight people are listed on this plaque, it is believed, given the testimony of a Ukrainian woman who witnessed the events, that many more people were buried alive in this location.

I matched the eight names on the plaque with the Pages of Testimony in the Yad Vashem's database and found two matching names:

1) Chaim Master

2) Ze’ev Milman [Recorded as "Volf" MILMAN in the Yad Vashem records]

Attached above the memorial plaque is a picture of an elderly man with a hat and beard. I don’t know who this man is, however, I believe he might have been the man who commissioned the plaque and had his picture attached as a symbol to others that he survived. Needless to say, this is only a hypothesis.

I am at brick wall in my research on this and do not know how to proceed.


Rabbi Zalman Alpert, Reference Librarian at the Gottesman Library of Yeshiva University responded:

Very interesting. Obviously one can never know who did the actual work. I presume the text was written by a simple Jew. In my experience reading Yiddish letters in cursive, many Jews could not spell especially when it came to lashon kodesh words. They spelled them phonetically rather than they are spelled in Hebrew (no vowels). Under Communist rule things got more confused . White Russian and Ukrainian Jewry had an extensive system of Yiddish schools and newspapers, etc. The orthography of Yiddish was again phonetic in regards to Hebrew words. No final letters like NUN or MEM were used. This was the case in the USSR until 1990. The "Sovetish Heimland" and the "Shtern" all used this spelling. In our case the inscription reflects this. The spellings are wrong , the spellings of the Hebrew words are wrong. In addition look closely its Todrus the shochet as many of the letters were not accurately carved by the workman.

The Jew in the photo is dressed in a cap that few Jews wore in Russia after the 1930's and even fewer after WW2 (Reb Mendel Futerfas and some very hard core Chabad people did wear these caps) I doubt that he was the person who put up the monument after 1945. Maybe he is Todrus the shochet? In Russia under the Communists it was common practice for Jews to put up pictures of the niftarim on the tombstone (against the halacha, but what can you do, and this practice continues in the United States among Russian refugees and I have tried to stop this in New Haven, but alas to no avail) So I think its a picture of one of the kedoshim. In summary, many Jews could not spell especially Hebrew, confusion reigned also because of the Soviet Yiddish influence using vowel letters. My hunch is that the letters are a result of this and that they were written by Jews and even carved by Jews.


If any Jew, in any generation, ever forgets what Hitler has done to the Jewish people and does not thirst for revenge, may his name be wiped off the face of the earth.

(Konstantinover Rebbe)

Thursday, January 05, 2006

In This Week's Parsha: You Can Speak Lashon Kodesh Without Speaking Hebrew

The Simplicity Of A Tzaddik

No epitaphs are to be inscribed on my gravestone; it should be inscribed simply: Rabbi Menachem Mendel.

(Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk)

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

My First Name

Like Psychotoddler, I too go by my given name; a name that certainly is not Jewish.

I am called by my Hebrew name when I get an aliya in shul and sometimes by people who insist that this is my true name. Nevertheless, I prefer to be called by my given name because I was never given a Hebrew name by my parents.

Recognizing the fact that I needed a Hebrew name in shul, I picked one for myself when I was a teenager. Since all my grandparents were still alive at this time, I did not choose a name of a deceased relative. Rather, I picked the name of a soldier from the Irgun Zvai Leumi who was hanged by the British in 1947 whom I admired. While I continue to use this Hebrew name to this day, I only use it for "religious" matters.

I am sometimes asked whom I am named for when people hear my given name. The answer is quite easy: no one. When my father was growing up, people added a "y" to his name as a diminutive. This bothered him some much that when I was born his only stipulation in naming me was that I be given a name that did not have a diminutive. He did not want a son who people would refer to as Johnny, Bobby, Mikey, etc.

Although my given name has absolutely no significance, it is my name; the name I prefer to be known by; the name I have answered to for the past thirty-three years.


Personal names are not acquired accidentally or simply because the parents wish to confer a certain name. The Holy One, blessed is He, inspires the parents with a spirit of wisdom and knowledge to call their child by that name which corresponds to the very root of its soul.

(Maggid of Mezeritch)

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

A Picture From My Family's Shtetl - Week 23

My Surname

My whole life has been a process of trying to discover the meaning and history behind my names.

When my great-grandfather's brother immigrated to the United States in 1890 he changed his surname. My great-grandfather followed him eight years later and changed his surname to the one his older brother selected.

While both Asher and a great aunt in Baltimore told me that a non-Jewish customs official at the port of New York changed the family name, I know that the idea of forced name change at Ellis Island is myth.

So why did my family adopt this surname upon immigration? Why did they change their Jewish surname to a more recognizably Jewish surname?

I have always been interested in this question since my middle name is also a surname; the surname our family had in the shtetl. In an attempt to keep the memory of the original surname name alive, my great-grandfather gave this surname to my grandfather as a middle name. My grandfather then gave it to my father, my father gave it to me, and I gave it to my son.

After years of research, I understand the history behind my middle name. The history behind my surname continues to allude me.

The Crown Of A Good Name

Rabbi Shimon used to say: There are three crowns--the crown of the Torah, the crown of the priesthood, and the crown of kingship, but the crown of a good name surpasses them all.

(Pirkei Avos 4:17)

Monday, January 02, 2006

Learning From Past Mistakes - Chanukah Presents

Whereas in past years my wife and I gave presents out to our children after lighting the menorah, this year we decided against continuing this practice after last year's experience.

In order to prevent lighting the menorah from becoming a rushed formality before the "main event", we gave out presents during the day, long before sunset, so they would not automatically associate lighting the menorah with getting something. This tactic worked wonderfully and now the kids enjoy watching the menorah being lit without any other expectations.


When a person is depressed, he brings suffering upon himself.

(Rebbe Nachman of Breslov)

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Eighth Night