Friday, April 28, 2006

Guest Posting From Chabakuk Elisha - Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk

This Shabbos, the second day of Rosh Chodesh Iyar, we remember the passing of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk. Interestingly, R’ Mendel seems to be somewhat overlooked among the great early Chassidic Rebbes; as a student of the Baal Shem Tov and his successor the Maggid, as well as being the appointed Rebbe for White Russian/Lithuanian Chassidim (by the Maggid), and according to many, the Maggid’s subsequent successor until his ultimate departure for the Holy Land, one would think that R’ Mendel would be spoken of as often, if not more often, than many of his contemporaries or later Chassidic leaders.

There are a number of reasons why this is not the case, but we can leave that for another time. For some reason, R’ Mendel has always been different for me. As a young ice-cream-and-apple-pie-eating American boy growing up in New England, Eastern Europe was not a place that I easily felt connected to. My parents & grandparents were American, and almost everything I knew was American. However, my great-grandparents were immigrants - and one city that I had heard mentioned on various occasions was my grandmother’s mother’s hometown of Vitebsk. Therefore (yes, I realize this is a somewhat weak connection), when I heard of Reb Mendel Vitebsker, I instantly felt connected.

Admittedly, this is an oversimplification, and I’ve left out all the details and ancillary bits of information that go with it, but as the years of my youth flew by, I was exposed to a number of - often quite different - lifestyles, groups and denominations, each with their own variant claims and beliefs. I was never sure how a simple human being was supposed to be capable of sorting it all out, and concluding which path was the "right path." After a while I concluded I didn’t have to do so at all; instead, I just had to decide which path was right for me, and leave the decision of right vs. wrong to the ideologues.

That’s not to say that this is always easy, but generally it seems that the "right path" is either the path that we inherit, or that feel most attracted to - and since I felt a inherited connection to Reb Mendel, and was attracted to him, I found Reb Mendel to be the most qualified for the job, which incidentally solidified my already preexistent exposure to Chabad Chassidus: Although there is no "Vitebsker" Chassidic dynasty, with Rebbes descending from Reb Mendel, he was not without spiritual heirs. His influence among the Maggid’s students was quite significant, and for Chassidim of White Russia, especially so. More than any other specific group (as the Baal HaTanya was devoted to Reb Mendel) Chabad Chassidus has carried on Reb Mendel’s path (albeit, with many subsequent developments).

Perhaps a lot of it is in my head, but Reb Mendel has had a significant influence on my life. As his Yahrzeit approaches (not to mention that my son’s birthday (Menachem Mendel, of course) is this Sunday) I hope that his light will continue to shine for me, and for an ever growing number of people. Although at various time I have attempted to learn (at least something) from R’ Mendel every week, I hope that I will understand R’ Mendel better this year. But since the idea of this posting was not supposed to be about me, I guess the real post begins here:

Reb Mendel was born in Turchin (outside of Cherson) to R’ Moshe and his wife Esther. His father was a student and chossid of the Baal Shem Tov, and R’ Mendel’s childhood teacher was none other than the Baal Shem Tov’s successor, R’ Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch. Therefore, he grew up with and among Chassidim, even visiting the Baal Shem Tov on two occasions (stories of their own). Many years later, while living in Vitebsk, he was appointed by the Maggid as Rebbe for all Chassidim in White Russia, due to the danger and hardship that the journey to the Maggid in Mezritch entailed.

He was incredibly humble; in fact, it is this trait that he is best known for. As Rebbe, he was the image of nobility. He wore fine clothing and had a stately presence; yet, he was the most humble and modest of men. Regardless of the external opulence, his heart was torn, his ego non-existent, and his humility unparalleled; he considered himself the lowest of all beings. Once, he was questioned about his custom of signing his name followed by the words, "hashafal b’emes (the truly lowly)," to which he replied, "One cannot call himself ‘truly lowly’ if he is even slightly impressed by the entourage that accompanies him."

He is credited as the source of Chabad Chassidus, as many of the concepts elaborated on by the Baal HaTanya can be found in short in Reb Mendel’s seforim. He tried unsuccessfully to make peace with the early opponents of Chassidus, and even led and directed various attempts to sit down with opposition leaders to bring about peace - famously, the Vilna Gaon refused to meet with him (and the Baal HaTanya), dooming any hopes of acceptance in their lifetime.

Yet, he harbored no ill-will towards those who opposed and persecuted him (he was forced from his position as Rav in Minsk among many other tribulations at the hands of his enemies), and although he preached a path of Chassidus, he didn’t attack the (harsher) path of his opponents, cautioning: "Do not belittle those preachers who speak harshly. They are legitimate, and come from the spirit of the Prophet Yirmiyahu who spoke words of rebuke and punishment. It is only that now, at this time, our generation suffers so greatly and lives amid such hardship that they need to hear words of consolation and encouragement instead."

Once it was clear that the opposition against Reb Mendel and Chassidim was not to weaken any time soon, he and 300 fellow Chassidim set out to live in the Holy Land in the year 1777, ultimately settling in Tiveria until his passing on the second day of Rosh Chodesh Iyar in 1788.

I have always found the directives left in Reb Mendel’s will to be fascinating, so I include them here:

R’ Mendel’s first Last Will & Testament (Tzefat, 5 Elul 1777, upon arrival from Europe):

1. Upon my passing I beseech of the burial society not to allow my body to remain unburied for more than one hour, no matter what.

2. The clothing that I am to be dressed in should specifically be my clothing that I brought from Europe.

3. I should not be placed in a coffin.

4. Those who carry me to burial should not speak at all - even words of Torah. They should only think thoughts of true repentance, and I will be in a place where even the perfectly righteous cannot stand, and therefore there are no evil forces (G-d forbid).

5. At the burial site do not place me in the ground while on the cot as is customary; rather, carry me on the cot by hand and remove my body from it, placing me in the burial plot. There should be no wooden planks (G-d forbid), only my body against the holy earth.

6. When my eyes are closed by means of a pottery shard, as is customary, and when forks are placed in my hand, as is customary, mention the holy names of our master the Baal Shem Tov, and the holy name of the Maggid of Mezritch, OB"M.

7. Immerse in a kosher Mikva, and it should specifically be a fresh Mikva.

8. Don’t perform hakafos with my body (carrying the body in circles around the gravesite) for this will lengthen the time and exceed the hour that I requested (see item#1) not to remain unburied.

9. All of my clothing, both Shabbos finery and weekday clothing, including my Zupitze with silver buttons, should be used to help the poor.

Signed, and witnessed by:

R’ Avrhom son of Alexander Katz of Kalisk
R’ Yisroel of Polotzk

The second Last Will & Testament, left for his son R’ Moshe prior to his passing:

1. Never accept any appointed positions.

2. Never quarrel with the Sephardic (local) Jews - for whatever reason - or criticize their actions, whatever they may be.

3. Never take part in any feast, such as a wedding feast or circumcision - neither with the Sephardim or the Ashkenazim (Europeans) - except for once a year, with very close friends. And even then, only if all those close friends and seekers of truth agree.

4. Never drink during the week, neither spirits nor wine, whatsoever - only do so when you have a guest or if there is a specific reason, then you should only drink one cup. On Shabbos it is permitted to drink an ounce of Arak, and two or three ounces of wine - not more.

5. Never become intoxicated, even on Purim or Simchas Torah - drink only two or three cups of wine.

6. Don’t waste money inviting many guests - rather, invite one guest and treat him properly, and Hashem will bless you.

7. Do not dress up in fine clothing - wear average clothing.

8. Keep away from honor.

9. Keep away from frivolity - take pleasure in Hashem and in serving Him.

10. Study ethical works every day (Musar - obviously this refers to what was considered Musar at that time, not be confused with the later ‘Musar movement").

11. Befriend those who seek truth.

12. Love even the lowest of Jews.

13. Keep away from falsehood with all your might - even for the sake of Heaven.

14. Don’t sign you name with the title Rabbi - rather use the common usage of, "Son of our master and teacher."

15. Do not repeat words of Torah in my name.

16. Sell all my valuables, i.e. all vessels of silver or gold, all ornaments of silver or gold, all watches, tables, beds, benches, valuable kilmesh (?), bedding, Shabbos clothing, including my Shabbos Talis, earthenware containers, glass containers, extra wine, oil & wheat - all for 1000 grush to sustain my widow, my son’s mother. It is up to her to take …(unclear) if she so desires.

17. Lend the entire 1000 grush to the Ashkenazic Kollel for the members to invest, and they should in-turn give my widow three grush a week.

18. If the entire amount comes out to be less than 1000 grush, let the difference be made up with the amount of funds that are to come in my name the following year.

19. All additional funds and extra profit from my son’s business (estimated by average expectations) should be lent to the Ashkenazic Kollel to invest.

20. My son should not reside in one home together with his mother even for a single hour; rather, she should be given her own apartment below.

21. Give 100 grush for my orphans.

22. Pay 30 grush every year towards the upkeep of the Ashkenazic synagogue in my name, for as long as possible.

23. Do not engrave any praise on my tombstone; simply write "MOH"R (our master and teacher) Menachem Mendel"

Witnessed by:
R’ Avrohom son of Alexander Katz of Kalisk
(The second witness did not sign for he was afraid to include himself with R’ Avrohom of Kalisk)


Manners are the introduction to Torah. (Vayikra Rabbah 9:3) From its introduction, one can know the contents of a book. Likewise, from a person's manners, one can gauge the quality of his attitude towards Torah.

(Kotzker Rebbe)

Thursday, April 27, 2006

A Conversation On Niggunim - Part II

A Conversation On Niggunim continues here and here on Blog in Dm.

Doctors & Engineers

During his recent visit, my father told me of an interesting phenomenon that he observed at work. He noted that of all his patients, the patients who worked in engineering professions were the most difficult.

Since an engineer desires to understand how everything works, he cannot believe that sometimes there is no "real" reason for his ailment, and often becomes frustrated when unsuccessfully attempting to reverse engineer the diagnosis

In thinking about this phenomenon later, I realized that most of us approach the area of healing as if we were engineers. We fixate on the details and reason why we are sick, and fail to realize that ultimately sickness and health comes from Hashem.

Tzedakah Recommendation - The Melitzer Institutions

Tzedakah checks for the Melitzer Institutions can be sent to:

The Melitzer Institutions
Rehov HaTzivoni 7
Rova Het, Ashdod

The Melitzer Rebbe, shlit'a
(Picture courtesy of Lazer Beams)

Losing Hope

If a man gives up hope of recovering what he lost and another subsequently finds the object, it belongs to the finder. That rule was intended as a penalty to the one who gives up hope. This teaches us that a Jew must never give up hope.

(Rebbe Yisroel of Rizhin)

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Discipline With An Orangutan

A few weeks ago, I wrote about using the vacuum cleaner as a learning tool to teach my twenty-two month-old son not to pull books of the shelves. Now, I have discovered a new tool to use as a last resort when he gets overly rambunctious and jumps on the furniture or hits his sister.

What is the this new tool?

The feared stuffed orangutan!

Whenever my son sees this orange-haired beheima he immediately stops what he is doing, gets a look of terror on his face, and his hands and arms start shaking.

Is using the orangutan to discipline mean? Perhaps a little bit.

Is it effective? Certainly.

Now the mere mention of the orangutan is enough to get his immediate attention. As returned home from work one evening, I overheard my wife asking our son, "Do you want me to get the orangutan?" Apparently he was jumping up and down on the leather sofa and this question stopped him in his tracks.

My mother has always strongly disagreed with me about using the orangutan technique. However, after visiting for four nights she finally realized that her ideas of "simply telling him to stop" only worked in theory. Before she left I asked her once again what she thought about the orangutan technique and she conceded, "I think I am starting to understand."

Colic In Koretz

Tears are the waste matter of the brain; the more a baby cries, the brighter it will be.

(Rebbe Pinchas of Koretz)

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Pirkei Avos For The Displaced Persons Camps (1947)

A Picture From My Family's Shtetl - Week 35

Looking For An Out Of Print Sefer

Does anyone know where I can purchase a copy Kesem Paz by Rabbi Tzvi Hersh of Smotritch [a talmid of the Degel Machaneh Ephraim]?

I have tried searching for it at many of the seforim stores in Brooklyn but no one seems to carry it since it is out of print.

A Conversation On Niggunim

At the end of January, my friend Yitz of Heichal HaNegina sent me two scanned pages from the sefer HaNiggun v'HaRikud B'Chassidus that referenced a discussion in Degel Machaneh Ephraim (Parshas Vayeira) about niggunim.

Rabbi Tal Zwecker, who is working on a project to translate Degel Machaneh Ephraim into English, was kind enough to provide me with a translation of the section of Degel Machaneh Ephraim that was referenced in HaNiggun v'HaRikud B'Chassidus:

"Sometimes a tzaddik sits among others and engages them in conversation including stories about life and this physical word that seem on the outside to be idle and trivial matters. The truth is however, that the tzaddik's thoughts are connected through dveykus to Hashem on high, and that which he is saying although it appears to them as simple idle conversation regarding this physical world, is in truth the tzaddik's thinking about deep holy, spiritual matters.

This is true in all worldly matters that people discuss with the tzaddik, whatever topic they speak to him about he will always perceive in those discussions holy matters. This is akin to what I heard from my master and grandfather, may his merit shield us [The Holy Baal Shem Tov] that which the nations of the world sing songs all contain fear, awe, and love of Hashem, which is found unclothed in them from above to below in all the lower levels."

Interestingly, the sefer HaNiggun v'HaRikud B'Chassidus adds a sentence and implies that the Degel taught "the ability to refine and uplift these sparks from songs and stories is the domain of only truly righteous Tzaddikim." This teaching, however, does not seem to come directly from the text.

When I asked Rabbi Zwecker why this clause was added, he responded:

"I think that its probably true. The author felt that it was important to emphasize this point and that we shouldn't delude ourselves into thinking (as some do) that we could all take goyish music and make it holy and take idle conversation and gossip and transform that into kedusha.

Many early Chassidic teachings like this one were misused by people who tried to portray the Baal Shem Tov, Chassidus and his Tzadikim and Chassidim as rebels, romantics and hippies.

The author probably felt that it was important for this teaching to be taken into the right context.

Similar concepts are even argued about by the Rebbes themselves (although this one about music I have not seen a counter argument.)

For example the Alter Rebbe of Chabad in Tanya teaches that even though the Baal Shem Tov taught that extraneous thoughts during prayer are seeking to be redeemed by uplifting them and rectifying their tikkun, he felt that Tzadikim only could do this and all others who try are fools. Whereas the Meor Einayim of Chernobyl clearly says that this can be accomplished by anyone even beynonim (i.e. the average Jew."

Commenting on Rabbi Zwecker's thoughts, Yitz added:

"I believe I have mentioned this numerous times, not specifically to you [although I've at least hinted at it], but on various blogs including Beyond BT. There seems to be an attitude "out there" that we can just take "goyishe" music, put Hebrew words to it, add a little Jewish-sounding musical background instumentation, and presto! you have "authentic Jewish music." I know that this is not YOUR attitude, but many out there seem to feel this way.

And I would say that nothing could be further from the truth. That is not to say that Jewish music over the generations did not "borrow" or adapt music from its host culture and bring it into its sphere. My wife once asked Rabbi Nachman Bulman ZT"L [dean of Yeshivas Ohr Sameach in Yerushalayim] what makes Jewish music Jewish, per se. His answer was: "If it's been through the crucible of Jewish experience."

In the words of R. Velvel Pasternak, a contempory Jewish musicologist, "Those who opposed chassidism, and many music scholars who made little effort to understand the soul of chassidic music, never failed to emphasize that foreign elements can be found within its melodies. However, even the borrowed motifs never remained as they had originally been. They were worked and reshaped into a new form, the form of the Chassid. From this a new melody resulted, born of spiritual Judaism, which became the individualistic melody known as the chassidic niggun."

And later he says, "The surprising and interesting thing about chassidic music is that it could take the foreign elements of the surrounding cultures, and create a unique body of song with its own definite characteristics."

The father of the first Modzitzer Rebbe, Rebbe Shmuel Eliyahu of Zvolin, said: "When someone presents a song/tune [Rina is the word he used], he takes on a heavy responsibility. For the rise and descent of the soul are in the mouth of a niggun - it all depends of the menagen [the singer or instrumentalist] - what he plays and how he plays it. A niggun can bring one up to the highest heights, or, chas v'shalom to Sheol Tachtis - the Depths."

Additionally, it is interesting to look at the source for the Lubavitch attitude to music found in the beginning of Sefer Haniggunim. There introduction to this sefer is a Sicha of the Frierdike Rebbe that explains that the composer of a song puts his Nefesh in to the song. So that when we listen to a song, we are affected by the Nefesh of the composer.

That means, that when you listen to a song composed by the Rebbe, you are affected by the Rebbe's Neshama. When you listen to a song composed by a Chassid, you are affected by that Chassid's Neshama. And on the other side, when you listen to music composed by a non-Jew, even a classical composer, and even if a Jewish band is playing that music, you are affected by that non-Jew's soul, which is probably not very beneficial to a Tayere Yiddishe Neshama. [a precious Jewish soul].

Sefer Haniggunim also notes,

"It is appropriate to emphasize that with all the importance and positive attitude of the Jewish teachings to Shira and Zimra, and with all its ma'alos, in Judaism, music was never considered an end in itself. That is, music for the mere beauty of music, as the other [non-Jewish] nations did. Jews regarded music as important in regards to uplifting the spirit, to rise up in levels of prophecy, or for the uplifting & outpouring of the soul in fervent service of Hashem. From the religious point of view, music did not reach its apex and its true import except as a means for transporting a person, from stage to stage, in the scale of Kedusha, of uplifting and raising the soul; and only then did it receive its true form and essence. Not so is the realm of secular music, plain songs meant for man's pleasure. These are devoid of all spark or sound of Kedusha. These songs, on the contrary, were denigrated and despised by our Prophets." (see Yeshayahu 5:12; Amos 5:23 and 6:5)

Finally, after reading Yitz's thoughts above, I recalled an e-mail discussion that I had with Rabbi Lazer Brody in January 2005 when I asked him for his thoughts on my posting on Jewish music. Rabbi Brody replied,

"Rebbe Nachman of Breslev writes that it's important to listen to music played by a G-d fearing musician, otherwise, a person will have problems in emuna. These problems are often subtle, but the higher you go, the more you must take things into consideration."

Indeed, it appears that the issue of Jewish music is quite complex. Hopefully the points raised above will lead to yet further discussion on this topic.

A Requirement For Understanding

He who does not appreciate and understand song, can really never understand Chassidus.

(Rabbi Hillel of Paritch)

Monday, April 24, 2006

Photo Essay: Remembering Dov Gruner

Dov Gruner HY"D

Historical marker outside the Ramat Gan police station

The gallows in Acco Prison

Poster from the Irgun Zvai Leumi

Monument to Dov Gruner in Ramat Gan (1991)

Another view of the monument (1991)

1984 Israeli postage stamp

Gravesite of Dov Gruner in Tsfat

1982 Israeli postage stamp

Today, the 26th of Nissan, is his yahrzeit.

A Tzaddik's Words About Dov Gruner, Moshe Barazani, and Meir Feinstein

None of us has any idea how high is the spiritual rank of these martyrs.

(Rabbi Aryeh Levin)

Friday, April 21, 2006

One Day Closer

During Chol Hamoed Pesach I spent some time reflecting on how Pesach might be the last yom tov that I celebrate together with my family of four. Sometime between now and Shavuos we are expecting our third child, and life as we know it will never be the same. Soon our children will outnumber us.

Unlike her first two pregnancies, this pregnancy has been extremely difficult for my wife. Once the morning sickness began, it never stopped. At the beginning during Tishrei, she vomited 10 to 15 times a day and even had trouble keeping down popsicles, her sole means of nourishment. Her weight dropped a pound each day until reaching a low of 115. At this point, a doctor diagnosed her with hyperemesis and prescribed Zofran for her. While taking the Zofran greatly helped in relieving her hyperemesis, my wife suffered through weeks of painful sciatica, and also had to be hospitalized on two occasions in March after experiencing labor contractions.

With these trying days behind her, my wife is now in the "nesting" stage and it is evident that her days of discomfort will soon be coming to an end. Each night as I count the Omer, I am also mindful that I am counting the final days of my wife's pregnancy; one day closer to Shavuos and one day closer to the new baby.

Each Day Of The Omer

Each day of the Omer period is associated with a different aspect of the Sefiros. And on that day everything which everyone in the whole world is talking about is purely an expression of the particular aspect with which that day is associated. A person with understanding can hear and recognize this if he pays attention to what people are saying.

(Rebbe Nachman of Breslov)

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Chag Kasher V'Sameach!

Note: I will be taking a break from blogging until after Pesach. I will resume posting on Monday, April 24th.

Read an excellent posting from Akiva here.

Gebrokhts & Breslov

(Photo courtesy of API)

Below is an excerpt from the Breslov Center's website: Pesach Customs (.pdf)

"Like his saintly great-grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Nachman did not eat gebrokhts (matzoh or matzoh products cooked or dipped in water). However, in the Breslov community this chumrah is not taken to extremes. This is due to Rabbi Nachman's remarks in Sichos ha-Ran (English: "Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom," Breslov Research Institute), section 235, cautioning against chumros yeseiros (excessive stringencies). Reb Gedaliah Kenig and other prominent Breslover teachers were lenient with their families about eating matzoh with butter or cheese, as long as they do not contain water. Most Breslovers are not concerned if a few crumbs fall on the table, as long as they do not fall into liquid, or onto one’s plates, etc."

Focusing On The Physical

A Thought For Erev Pesach

I saw in a sefer that it may be humanly impossible to avoid a mashehu of chametz, but that if a person does everything that the Shulchan Aruch requires, Hashem will see to it that every mashehu of chametz is eliminated. So we must do what the Shulchan Aruch requires and be mispallel for siyatta diShmaya to protect us from anything that is beyond our means to control. That is what you should do, and enjoy Pesach with menuchas hada'as.

(Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski)

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

A Picture From My Family's Shtetl - Week 34

Anger - Part II

Back in December 2004, I wrote, "I am generally not an angry person. Before having children I used to think that anger was a problem other people had to overcome. So misguided was my thinking that I would even skip over chapters on the subject of anger in mussar seforim."

At times when my family and I are together and I find myself becoming angry with one of my children for misbehaving, I try to walk out of the room instead of displaying my anger in front of them. Although I try, unfortunately I am rarely successful.

Tonight, as we prepare to rid our homes of chometz, I am also going to make a renewed effort to rid all traces of this anger in my heart. As the Vizhnitzer Rebbe said, "The smallest quantity of anger is even worse than the smallest quantity of chometz."

In Likutey Moharan I:49, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught that these days of Nissan are days of teshuva, just like the days of Tishrei.

I am now going to resolve them to make them such.

Links For Bedikas Chometz

A Candle, a Feather, and a Spoon

Rebbe Baruch of Medzhebuz's Kol Chamira

Test Of A Tzaddik

The true test of a tzaddik is how he behaves when he is angry.

(Rabbi Simcha Groffman)

Monday, April 10, 2006

A Seder In Auschwitz

Below is Israel Cohen's account of a seder in Auschwitz from his book "Destined to Survive":

"On the night before the first night of Pesach, I ate my portion of bread very late. In the morning I did not eat anything but "soup". I was determined that at least on the first night I would not eat any chametz. That evening we talked about Passover before the war, and how we all celebrated the holiday with our families. We remembered the kneidlach that our mothers had prepared and all the treats that came with the festival. When the light on our block went out, and everyone turned over on their sides to sleep, I said to my friend Yossel, "Well, we can't fulfill the commandments of eating matzah and bitter herbs - but we really don't need any bitter herbs to remind us of the bitterness the Jews suffered in Egypt. Could theirs have been worse than ours? Impossible! Let us at least say the Haggadah, whatever we remember by heart."

So we recited "Ma Nishtanah" and "Avadim Hayinu" and everything else that came into our memories. Even though we chanted in very low voices, we seemed to be disturbing our neighbors. "What are you crazy chassidim doing, saying the Haggadah? Do you have matzos, do you have wine and all the necessary food to make a seder? Sheer stupidity!"

I remembered that I answered them, "We aren't doing it just for the fun of it. We are fulfilling the commandment of the Almighty to relate tonight the story of the Exodus from Egypt. If we don't have all the necessary accompaniments, it is not our fault, and we are not commanded to do the impossible. And who knows which seder is more welcome in Heaven, our seder in the dark and on empty stomachs, in pain and suffering and under duress, or the seder of our brothers in the United States and other countries that are not under the German's boots, who have matzos, wine, fish and chicken, and have big chandeliers lighting their tables, and are free to do what they want."

At this they became silent, and we felt afterwards that they showed us more respect."

Remembering Last Year...

The Essential Truth

The essential truth of the whole universe is ultimately simple.

(Reb Noson of Breslov)

Friday, April 07, 2006

Slave To The Details - Pesach Stringencies

Machine Matzos vs. Hand-Made Matzos

19th Century Matzo Machine - Lvov
(Photo courtesy of "Treasures of Jewish Culture in Ukraine")

Below is an excerpt from the Breslov Center's website: Pesach Customs (.pdf)

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Bender once remarked: "I knew people who ate machine matzos who are in Gan Eden today; and I knew people who ate hand matzos who are in Gehenna today. Ober mir fieren zach az meh est handt matzos… However, our custom is to eat hand matzos."

The Futility Of Forcing Matters

I have seen and realized that it is not worth striving, in order to attain a position, to force matters importunately. You will be called by your name and will be seated in your place; you will be given your due.

(Rabbi Aryeh Levin)

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Question & Answer With Rabbi Lazer Brody - "A Small Shtickel Of Zohar"

A Simple Jew asks:

In my learning of Degel Machaneh Ephraim, I came across a teaching in the Likkutim section where the Degel wrote that it is beneficial for the neshoma to recite the words of the Holy Zohar even if one does not understand the words. This seems to be right in line with what you told me about the Melitzer Rebbe who said that a small shtickel of Zohar - even simply said in girsa - serves to purify the soul and is wonderful for kedusha and yiras shamayim.

Additionally, in Parshas Ki Sissa, the Degel recommended learning immediately after one finishes davening. Given these two teachings, would you recommend that I try to learn a small shtickel of Zohar after I daven each day? Or would this be problematic since even though I am married and have children, I am not 40 years-old and have not mastered all of Shas?

If you believe that I should take on this practice, perhaps I could use the volume of Zohar with the Sulam's commentary that I bought on Lag B'Omer in Meron in 1994. What do you think?

Rabbi Lazer Brody answers:

It's best to learn Zohar after midnight, but if you can't, try learning it in the morning early before davening. If that's not possible, do it after davening. The more you immerse in a mikva, the better. You don't need to be 40 for Zohar; Rabbi Raphael Abu Chatzira shlit'a told me that his memorable father - Baba Meir zatza'l - taught him and his brothers Zohar from age 8. Indeed, the Melitzer says in the name of his great grandfathers the Degel and the Baal Shem Tov that even simple recitation of the Zohar is conducive to purifying the soul. The Zohar with the Sulam is superb, SJ. With blessings for a wonderful Pesach, LB

A New Documentary On Ukrainian Jews

Kyiv Post reports:

"Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation for Visual History and Education has joined forces with Ukrainian tycoon and outgoing lawmaker Viktor Pinchuk to make what they hope will be "an exceptionally powerful and emotional" documentary on the Holocaust in Ukraine.

The premiere of the film is scheduled for this September, to coincide with the 65th anniversary of the massacre at Babi Yar, a large ravine near Kyiv, where approximately 34,000 Jews were murdered by the German SS over the course of two days, beginning on Sept. 28, 1941."

Left Alone

If a person does not put his trust in G-d, he places his trust in what is other than G-d; and whoever trusts in what is other than G-d, G-d removes His providence from him and leaves him in the hands of whatever he trusted in.

(Chovos HaLevavos, Shaar HaBitachon, Psicha)

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Guest Posting From "Space Cadet" - Shadows

As I hurry to shul in the morning (usually a little late), I’m distracted by the shadows on the wall of the neighbor’s house -- especially during the months when there are leaves on the trees. Like oriental calligraphy, these shadows of trees that line the avenue are painted each day anew by the sun. Even the stucco wall looks like watercolor paper, yellowed by age, disrupted by windows. But don’t pay attention to the windows. Just the shadows.

What’s so fascinating about shadows? Mysterious, incorporeal, attached to every object or building or creature under the sun.

Not those Jungian dream shadows that populate the underworld of consciousness, but shadows you walk into when the light is at your back, and they keep receding until you turn the corner and they’re gone; diffident shadows darkening the twisted inner branches of hedges and bushes as you walk by, pretending that you don’t notice them, so they won’t be embarrassed.

The Baal Shem Tov says that Hashem is like a shadow that goes wherever we go, reciprocating everything we do (Sefer Baal Shem Tov, Kedoshim 21). Shadows of cosmic justice! Hashem is concealed in the shadows.

And there are the shadows of Rebbe Nachman’s "Tree That Stands Beyond Space." The Tree hovers in mid-air, tantalizingly inaccessible to those who seek transcendence. "In the shadow of its branches, all creatures takes refuge, living in peace and delight forever" ("The Seven Beggars," Fifth Day). Rebbe Nachman’s shadows bear the secret of action and repose, being and nothingness, manifestation and dissolution.

Being is colorful and exciting, nothingness, unchanging and peaceful. Yet they are inextricably bound together. Like sound and silence.

Like a groom and bride. Being proposes marriage to nothingness -- the "nothingness" above all limitation and form, the fertile void, the womb of creation -- and nothingness accepts immediately, without saying a word.

As Chazal declare: "The world is a wedding…"

Read this posting from The Lab Rabbi.

A Golden Dinar

A Jew must be treated as a golden dinar: his light shines even when he is found in mud or dung. All you have to do is lift him up, wash him, and he will shine as he used to.

(Rabbi Mordechai of Lechovitz)

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

A Picture From My Family's Shtetl - Week 33

Kimcha d'Pischa / Maos Chittim

The Rema taught, "Before Pesach it is customary to collect funds for Kimcha d'Pischa [flour for Pesach] or for Maos Chittim [money for wheat] to distribute to the needy and the indigent to purchase matzah and other necessary festival provisions."

In Sefer HaToda'ah, Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov added, "Moreover, were he not to come to their assistance, how could he ever make the statement, 'Let all who are hungry come and eat' at his seder table, knowing that there are hungry people in his community? However, if he has made attempts to provide the hungry with food before the festival, he can sincerely say as he begins his seder, 'If there are still hungry people who I was unable to help because I did not know of their need, let them come and join with me.'"

This year, Eizer L'Shabbos will be delivering Pesach food packages and food vouchers to needy families in Tsfat before the holiday so any donation, no what matter the size would be greatly appreciated. A generous donation of $180 will help sponsor a needy family for all of Pesach.

In an e-mail this week, Rabbi Binyonim Rosenberg, Director of Eizer L'Shabbos, wrote me, "There are people knocking on my door, calling me to my phones, day and night. My answer to many of them are my list is full. I'm short of funds $30,000 - maybe a miracle will take place, and hopefully before Pesach, I'll have vouchers to distribute to the hundreds of families that are lacking basic funds. It hurts me to turn anyone down, and hopefully with the help of our brethren, no one will be turned down."

Please remember Eizer L'Shabbos when you give tzedakah this year.

You can send your tax-deductible donation to:

Eizer L'Shabbos
5014 16th Avenue
Suite 319
Brooklyn, NY 11204

An Eizer L'Shabbos food package left at someone's door
(Photo courtesy of Eizer L'Shabbos)

When The Poor Come To You

When the poor come to you and tell you that they do not have food for Shabbos, and you deign yourself in faith and tell them to trust in G-d - that is true heresy.

(Rebbe Dov of Liaba)

Monday, April 03, 2006

Here is something that I wrote for Pesach back in 2001....

Words, A Painting, And A Photograph - Interpretations Of Tehillim 101:2

One of my favorite verses in Tehillim comes from Tehillim 101:2:

"I contemplate the way of the simple. When will it come to me? I shall walk with the simplicity of my heart within my house."

Malbim explains, "The way to simplicity starts with the improvement of one's deeds. They should be performed with simplicity and emuna, and they should be motivated solely for the desire to please Hashem. The man of perfect simplicity is consistent and does not devote from his manner and way."

Rashi comments that once one finds the way of the simple, he will act with the same pure devotion and sincerity in his house as he does in public. Similarly, the Melitzer Rebbe writes in his commentary on Tehillim, Nefesh Chaya, that one will only attain the quality of simplicity though modesty. Since simplicity and modesty are bound together, a person must act in a modest manner when he is alone in his home; knowing that his deeds can still be seen by the One above.

Aside from the written commentaries, I noticed that Moshe Tzvi Berger of the Museum of Psalms in Jerusalem produced a painting based on this verse. In his painting, the house mentioned in the verse is represented as Jerusalem, the home of the Jewish people. The way of the simple is represented by the alleyway which is a combination of old and new; past and future.

I, however, imagine the way of the simple differently than the portrayal in Berger's painting. In my mind's eye, the way of the simple looks like this path in my family's shtetl in Ukraine.

אַשְׂכִּילָה בְּדֶרֶךְ תָּמִים

Morashaka Heelasyaakov

Higher Than Everything

Wholeness and simplicity are higher than everything.

(Otzar HaYirah, Temimus 2)