Friday, October 31, 2008

"That's Hashem's Cookie!"

(Picture courtesy of

Pointing to the cookie she was holding in her hand, the little girl in the Shabbos dress said, "That's Hashem's cookie!"

I had never thought of it in such simplistic terms, but undoubtedly she was correct and she had just taught me an amazing kavana to keep in mind before making a brocha and eating.

Sometimes the difference between doing something right and doing something wrong is only a few moments; moments in which we stop and focus on the purpose of what we are doing without hurriedly rushing forward.

I guess I should not have been surprised that so much wisdom could come from such a little girl.

Afterall, the little girl's name was Bracha.

Who Are The כת שקרנים ?

In the last piece in Degel Machaneh Ephraim, Parshas Noach, who is the Degel referring to when he writes about the "the sect of liars" who wear white clothing? (הנה התורה מרמזת בכאן על כת שקרנים ומתדמים לשלומי אמוני ישראל ) ?

The Basics

One has to begin from the basics: to be a simple Jew.

(Yehudi HaKadosh of P'shischa)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Rabbi Lazer Brody On Simplicity

As If They Had Never Occurred

Rebbe Shmelke of Nikolsburg taught that at the conclusion of Tishrei every Jew should ask himself where he is now. He must also ask himself how it is that he has already forgotten Rosh Hashana, the Aseres Yemei Teshuva, Yom Kippur, Sukkos, Shemini Atzeres, and Simchas Torah, and it is as if they had never occurred.

Reflecting on this concept, I have to acknowledge the truth in this tzaddik's words since I too have already begun to experience this forgetfulness.

The first words of Avinu Malkeinu after Shachris on the first day of Rosh Hashana hit me like they had never hit me before.

Once I reached these words, I felt myself choking up.

אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ שְׁמַע קולֵנוּ, חוּס וְרַחֵם עָלֵינוּ
אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ קַבֵּל בְּרַחֲמִים וּבְרָצון אֶת תְּפִלָּתֵנוּ
אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ פְּתַח שַׁעֲרֵי שָׁמַיִם לִתְפִלָּתֵנוּ

"Our Father, our King, hear our voice, have pity and compassion upon us."

"Our Father, our King, accept our prayers with mercy and with favor."

"Our Father, our King, open that gates of heaven to our prayer."

And then I reached this line...

אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ תְּהֵא הַשָּׁעָה הַזּאת שְׁעַת רַחֲמִים וְעֵת רָצון מִלְּפָנֶיךָ

"Our Father, our King, may this hour be an hour of mercy and a time of favor before you."

I started crying and tears streamed down my face. Unembarrassed, I did not even try to wipe them away. I felt as if I was so close to Hashem at that very moment; that His complete attention was focused upon me. It was overpowering and comforting all at once.

Since the first day of Rosh Hashana, I have never able to recreate this special experience. While there certainly have been times when I feel that I am davening with a real connection, there have been numerous occasions since Rosh Hashana when I am ashamed to say that I mindlessly mumble words without focusing on the One that I am addressing them to. During these times, it is as if I have forgotten everthing.

As I venture out of month Tishrei and into the rest of the year, I daven that I can once again daven to Hashem with this feeling of closeness and that it may continues to increase with every passing day.

"I Felt That This Was True"

1 Cheshvan Links - א חשון

(Picture by Vonn Murr)

A Fire Burns in Breslov: Transcending Pain

Mystical Paths: Wrong Turn?

A Simple Jew: One Halloween Night In Monsey

In His House

A mathematical axiom tells us that if a = b, then b = a. The Gemara says that one should dwell in the sukkah as one usually dwells in his house. The reverse must also be true: one should dwell in his house with the same kedusha and respectful attitude as one dwells in the sukkah. The sukkah is called "tzila dimehemenusa", a shelter of emuna. At home one lives under the shelter of emuna, and should conduct himself accordingly.

(Divrei Yoel)

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Chumash Meshivas Nafesh

Question & Answer With Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin - Yiddish

A Simple Jew asks:

What made you desire to learn Yiddish? What practical steps did you take to go about learning the language in order to be able to attain a certain level of understanding?

Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin answers:

I have always been interested in learning languages so when I spent my junior year in Oxford, I had the opportunity to have a Yiddish tutorial. I learned a little bit there as well as in my senior year in college (There are a few text books one can get). By the time I went to Eretz Yisroel I had some basic knowledge and was able to understand and communicate in a very simplistic way.

When I was in Eretz Yisroel, I took every opportunity I could to practice. When I stayed by the Koidenover Rebbe, I was able to hear it spoken in his home. We also communicated in Yiddish and his divrei Torah at the tish Friday night or Shalosh Seudos were always in Yiddish. It is a lot easier to understand Divrei Torah in Yiddish as they often incorporate the original sources in lashon hakodesh. I could get the general gist of things.

Finally, there are many meshulachim visiting from Eretz Yisroel who speak Yiddish and I have a lot of shiurim in Yiddish from Rabbi Moshe Wolfson which I listen to. He speaks fairly clear. As with any language, the best way to learn it is immersion. While I definitely would like to improve my fluency, I know enough to get by and to have access to an entire section of Yiddishkeit that would otherwise be inaccessible.

A language is a key into an entire world, it is like trying to learn but not knowing lashon hakodesh.

30 Tishrei Links - ל תשרי

(Picture by Sergey Kovalyov)

A Waxing Wellspring: come home

Mystical Paths: Hanging with the Bad Boys: Big J

A Fire Burns in Breslov: Breaking Free

A Simple Jew: What Is A Kofer?

Beginning Simply

I heard from my holy teacher, Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Mezhebuz, that all beginnings are difficult; whether in engaging in prayer, or the recitation of the Shema, or any of the mitzvos. Therefore, one should begin in a simple way. One should tell oneself: “I am a simple Jew, just like all the simple Jews. I need to say these words to fulfill the commandment of my Creator.” Just in a simple, small way, and with a broken heart, lowly as the dust. Afterward, G-d will help you come to high levels.

(Komarno Rebbe)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Anticipating His Arrival Every Single Day?

(Painting by Zvi Malnovitzer)

Although it is a fundamental belief and concept in Judaism, I have to admit that I could never truly relate to it on a personal level. Like the lofty idea of world peace, it seemed too abstract to visualize or imagine. Yes, I davened for Moshiach's arrival every day, yet quite honestly, I don't think I ever knew what I was davening for.

It was not until I read Alim LiTerufah #105 that a light finally turned on in my brain and I understood for the first time in my life; it brought down a macro concept into my micro reality.

In this letter dated 13 Nissan 5593 (1833), Reb Nosson of Breslov instructed his son to attempt to remember what happened every day and not to regard anything that happened to him as trivial. He further explained that when Moshiach came that Moshiach would be able to reveal to him the of meaning every single thing that happened to him every day of his life.

Reb Nosson's words instantly resonated deeply within me. Instead of describing the cosmic changes that would take place upon Moshiach's arrival, he described how it would affect me!

Moshiach will be able to reveal the reasons for all of the frustrations that I have experienced, all of the obstacles I have encountered, and all of the events in my life in a way that will give me complete understanding and a recognition that everything was for my ultimate benefit.

With this new understanding of what his arrival will entail, my tefillos regarding Moshiach have suddenly been imbued with a sincerity and honesty that was previously lacking.

A Question On A Science Exam

29 Tishrei Links - כט תשרי

(Picture by R. Hansson)

Breslev Israel: From Airborne Medic to Spiritual Leader

Shturem: Copying the Rebbe

Dixie Yid: Where to Focus When Adults Go Off the Derech

A Simple Jew: "Everyone Does It"

The Difference

The difference between something that is holy and something that is not holy is as follows: when building a physical house, if it is not finished, all efforts have been wasted. But in a holy project, anything that is done is already an accomplishment.

(Reb Nosson of Breslov)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Question & Answer With Rabbi Lazer Brody - Last In A Lifetime

(Painting by Anne Gromat)

A Simple Jew asks:

Before saying a brocha, davening, or performing any other mitzva do you think that it is possible or even advisable for a person to have the intention that this is the last mitzva he will be doing in his lifetime?

Rabbi Lazer Brody answers:

"The last mitzva he will be doing in his lifetime," is the mindset of fatalism and not conducive to serving Hashem with joy. The Breslev attitude is apparently similar, but really quite different in substance. Rebbe Nachman teaches us to focus on the present (see Likutei Moharan I:272). An important principle - both in spiritual and in material endeavors - is to focus on the task before us and to live the current moment to the hilt. People exert so much energy fretting about the past and worrying about the future that they waste or fail to take advantage of the present.

We therefore should focus on the mitzva we're doing right now. When we put on tefillin in the morning, we don't try to enhance kavanna by fantasizing that this is our last day on earth, Heaven forbid. We simply focus on the mitzva we're doing right now, because nothing else is important. At this given moment, all we care about is the mitzva at hand.

By utilizing the present moment as much as we can, we amazingly become much better achievers in every way. That's exactly how our sages accomplished so much in a lifetime.

אֶת-קַשְׁתִּי, נָתַתִּי בֶּעָנָן

(Picture by R. Wangsa)

The "Frightening" Rainbow

"You, Simple?"

Once a simple person who had learnt with the Kotzker Rebbe in his youth came to him and said, "Surely his honor remembers that we learned together; but his honor has become a rebbe and I am a simple person."

The Kotzker Rebbe replied, "You, simple? You are twisted. I am simple."

(Emes v'Emuna)

Sunday, October 26, 2008

וַיֵּשְׁתְּ מִן-הַיַּיִן, וַיִּשְׁכָּר

Friday, October 24, 2008

Question & Answer With Yirmeyahu - Keeping Shabbos

(Painting by Zvi Malnovitzer)

A Simple Jew asks:

The Me'or Einayim taught that a person's closeness to Hashem is commensurate with his observance of Shabbos. A friend of mine once remarked, "Often it happens that we're so busy throughout the week, and when Shabbos comes we just end up "keeping Shabbos" without really experiencing it."

How would you advise a person to keep Shabbos in a way that elevates it to a level above mere observance of halachic detail?

Yirmeyahu responds:

Shabbos is a halachic institution. The Kedusha of Shabbos flows directly from the minutiae of halachic detail. I would rather keep Shabbos than experience it, because while there may be benefit in the later even on a ruchnius level I believe that the ultimate value is in the former. It is the keeping of Shabbos, the observance of Hilchos Shabbos in accordance to halachah, about which I believe the Me’or Einayim spoke as corresponding to one’s closeness to Hashem.

That is not to dismiss the question, but insofar as such a distinction was made it is worthwhile to remember which is the ikkur and which is the taful. In truth it is part of the answer. I believe that a major key in being able to experience Shabbos is to embrace it. One has to want to observe Shabbos, even the details, in order to experience it fully. Changing one’s attitude can be a difficult process but I believe that a significant part of doing so is watching the way one frames discussion about Shabbos. We must guard our self talk and not let any negative feelings go unanswered. And we certainly must be careful about how we actually speak about Shabbos.

I would also suggest that one area where it pays great dividends, throughout the week, to be particular about observing the details is Shalosh Seudos about which the Shulchan Aruch says to be “extremely careful to fulfill” (O.C. 291:1). Wash and say Homotzi (O.C. 291:5, M.B. 295:23) and hold it after davening minchah (Rama O.C. 291:2). I am very grateful that I have had two friends who, at different times, have welcomed me into their homes and instilled into me the importance of Shalosh Seudos. It has sustained me when I’ve otherwise been struggling in my avodas Hashem.

Going further I would suggest that one try’s to have Shalosh Seudos with chaverim. In addition to the additional chizuk one gets from gathering together with chaverim, it can serve as an apprenticeship for a more positive outlook when one sees others acting on such a positive outlook (even if they themselves are only elevated to such an outlook because of your presence as well).

And don’t be afraid to extend Shalosh Seudos or otherwise delay concluding Shabbos a while. It can take some adjustment but acting with patience goes a long way. If possible do not turn motzei Shabbos in a time to catch up on melachah…or entertainment, doing so just trains you to look forward to Shabbos being over.

There are many particulars to Shamiras Shabbos and it is an area where we all have more to learn. Many of those details can directly help us experience Shabbos rather than simply not desecrating Shabbos. We must be willing to approach it with a willingness to do what the halachah says we should do rather than doing what the halachah says we must do.

Into One Word

When the Moshiach comes, may it be speedily in our days, he will expound upon the letter combinations of each word in the Torah, from beginning to end. Then he will combine the entire Torah into one word, so that the letter permutations will be infinite. Then he will expound upon all the combinations.

(Rebbe Gedaliah of Linitz)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

"You're Not Sick. Go To School!"

(Picture by aussiegal)

I was never pampered growing up in a home with a father who was a doctor, who in turn was also the son of a doctor. I was often told that I didn't need to take any medicine because I would simply get over any discomfort or illness I felt.

Unless I had something extremely contagious or was throwing up in front of him, my father - like his father before him - would say, "You're not sick. Go to school!".

And go to school is just what I did.

Just as I rarely missed a day of school, today I almost never miss a day of work due to illness. I go to work unless I physically cannot stand up. I almost never go see a doctor and I rarely take medicine when I am sick because it has been so ingrained in me that I'll just get over it.

During Rosh Hashana this year, I came down with bronchitis. Unfazed, I went to work after yom tov with laryngitis and had to whisper to my co-workers to communicate. I continued fits of coughing throughout Aseres Yemei Teshuva and would spend more than an hour each night coughing on the couch downstairs before I fell asleep exhausted, sweaty, and with tears in my eyes. Nevertheless, I thanked Hashem for all the coughing and asked Him to consider it as a kapara; understanding that this sickness was for my ultimate best.

Throughout Kol Nidrei and Yom Kippur I continued to experience fits of coughing and numerous people told me that I needed to go see a doctor so that I didn't catch pneumonia.

Finally, after yom tov was over, I called my father and he diagnosed me over the phone. He called in a prescription for me for some antibiotics and cough syrup, and by Sukkos I felt better.

Although my propensity not to take medicine is based solely on my upbringing, I have noticed that both the Degel Machaneh Ephraim and Rebbe Nachman of Breslov advised others not to rely on medicine and to stay away from doctors. Rabbi Chaim Kramer even wrote,

"You can tell a Breslover Chassid by his medicine cabinet. Unlike the rest of the world, his medicine cabinet is not full."

On the very first page of his sefer in Parshas Bereishis, the Degel Machaneh Ephraim taught that if a person has real emuna he would never need to take medicines or use any other cures. He would be able to rely on arousing Hashem's compassion to heal him solely by means of davening and learning Torah.

Similarly, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught,

"It is best to rely only on Hashem. Someone who does not, has no option but to devise all kinds of complicated methods of trying to get what he needs. If he is sick, for example, he may have to look for all kinds of special drugs and medicines, and often the ones he needs are not available where he lives, while those which are available are useless for his condition. But the goodness of Hashem reaches everywhere. Hashem has the power to cure all wounds and illnesses. He is always available. If you are ill, you should rely only on prayers and supplications. They are always available, and they will certainly help. If you depend on doctors and medicines you will have to do a lot of searching because you will have to look for the right doctor with the right medicines. And it is usually impossible to find them, because doctors do more harm than good."

With these two teachings in mind, do you think that the approach I take towards sickness and healing is extreme and misguided, or does it somewhat conform with the approach of the Degel and Rebbe Nachman?

When Not Learning

Grant me to know when I need to rest a little. Let me never rest except when necessary. Even when I do need to take a break from Torah study, help me not lose everything, G-d forbid. Grant me the knowledge and understanding and inspire me with the wisdom to be inwardly attached to You and to the holy Torah even at times when I am not studying. Even when I have to interrupt my studies, let the eyes of my mind shine with the trace of the light of the wisdom of the holy Torah that still remains from what I was studying.

(Reb Nosson of Breslov)

Monday, October 20, 2008

Guest Posting By Shoshannah Brombacher - Simchat Torah

Simchat Torah

Oil on canvas, 48 X 60 inches

Artist: Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.

New York, 2008

Commissioned by Glenn Goldblum Ph.D. (South Africa) to present to her husband Eric (Aryeh) for their anniversary

Simchat Torah

The painting reflects the communal joyfulness of the autumnal festival Simchat Torah. The men in the shul conspicuously sing and dance with all the Torah scrolls in the possession of the community. The children wave little Torah flags, sometimes with apples stuck on top. They get sweets and dance with their fathers, big brothers and friends in a circle while their mothers observe from the women’s section. The whole atmosphere of this Yom Tov, which is the last one in a month filled with holy days, is happy and joyous.

The Shul

The shul in this painting does not represent an existing building, but rather a creation of the mind of the artist based on memories of various European shuls she has known. The building style is eclectic, which is rather common for European synagogues that have been renovated or partially rebuilt and with additions added over centuries. The arches and thick Romanesque asymmetric pillars made of stone with capitals adorned with leaves are found in Germany and in parts of Middle and Eastern Europe.

The same applies to the beautiful wooden Aron Kodesh, the shrine for the Torah scrolls in the middle, with its elaborate carved pilasters and little lions with the Luchos (Tablets of the Law) on top. They are flanked by classical pinnacles reminiscent of the engravings on the front page of a volume of the Talmud. Steps leading to the Aron Kodesh are quite common, they are usually adorned with a brass or silver Chanukiah and candlesticks. A simple brass Ner Tamid (‘eternal light’) hangs from the ceiling in front of the open Aron. To the right of the Aron is a framed Shiviti, a combination of verses from Tehillim (Psalms) and the Divine Name, to indicate the direction of prayer and to intensify one’s intentions during prayer. It does not hang completely straight, which everyone who visits old shuls will recognize with a smile. The chairs for the Rabbi and office holders of the synagogue situated next to the Aron Kodes, vaguely remind us of the famous Alt Neu Shul in Prague, which also inspired the artist to add the Hebrew letters d’l’m’a’

The artist has seen similar decorations, which are frequently old and faded, with moldy stains, and make a slightly primitive impression.

Many shuls in Southern Germany and Middle Europe have light blue, light green, ochre or pinkish walls. If the paint flakes and they are repainted in new colors, and if this process is repeated a few times over several centuries, the walls develop the mixed cloudy pastel patina they have in this painting. In the front of the shul sconces and big brass chandeliers inundate the room in a golden light. All of the candles have been lit in honor of the Yom Tov. A huge brass chandelier with many arms, suspended from the arches and often found in the center of big shuls, has been omitted in this painting, however, since it would block the view of the dancing men.

Women’s galleries with carved wooden banisters like those in the painting are often seen in Germany and Holland, the artist’s native country. They are reached by (winding) staircases. A tympanum with grapevines, which the artist included over the side entrance to the sanctuary at the eastern wall of the shul, just to the left of the Aron Kodesh, can be seen in the Alt Neu Shul in Prague. The main entrance to a shul is usually opposite the Aron Kodesh and can’t be seen in this painting, it is hidden out of sight under the women’s balconies. The artist fondly remembered the old patched wooden floors from Holland. At several places, e.g. near the steps leading to the women’s section, clocks and heavy metal tzedakah (charity) boxes have been attached to the wall. As is often the case in such old shuls, not all the clocks work.

There are several bookcases with prayer books and religious tomes at the eastern wall, the most important wall in the synagogue and usually the spot near the Aron Kodesh, so people can pray facing the direction of Jerusalem. In the right corner are benches and tables, a place to sit and to study. The festival of Sukkos precedes Simchat Torah, and a couple of lulavim and esrogim in little boxes, used during the Chag, have been left by the members of the shul between the books, talesses and bottles of ‘schnapps’ (liquor) which were placed on the table to celebrate Simchat Torah. The furniture of the shul has been pushed to the side to make room for the dancers. The bimah, which in this painting is covered with a red velvet covering, is usually aligned with the Aron, but has apparently been dragged out of the way. The benches are out of sight under the women’s balconies, and a few forgotten rickety chairs with bent backs and an old lectern that is bent out of shape, are left scattered on the floor.

The Names

Individuals who make important contributions or major donations to a shul, or do something worthwhile for their community, frequently have their own names, and more often, the names of beloved family members who passed away, memorialized on plaques or in other prominent areas (the curtain in front of the Aron Kodesh, the velvet covering of the bimah, Torah mantles or on ceremonial shields). There are three memorial boards in the shul in this painting: a marble one - at the right next to the entrance of the women’s balcony -which is too small for the viewer to read; an old, wooden painted one with slightly faded letters, next to the door in the eastern wall; and a painted wooden one next to the chairs for the rabbi and the important shul members.

In honor of Doctor Goldblum and the zchus (merit) of her family, the memorial next to the door is inscribed with the names of the beloved departed relatives (and one addition of a spouse still alive) of the Goldblum family:

zekher nishmat (in memory of the soul of)

R(eb) Chayyim b’(en) Yisrael (her husband’s father)

M(arat) Rivkah bas Sarah (her husband’s mother, may she live, who is still with us)

R’ Zavell ben Abba Zalman (her father)

T’n’tz’b’h’ (tehee nafsham tzerurim bi-tzror ha-chayyim, may their souls be bundled in the bundle of life, 1 Sam.25:29)

The large board next to the Rabbi’s chair is dedicated to members of the Chevra Maskil el Dal (the aptly named organization: “He who Considers the Poor’). Organizations for the benefit of specific categories of people in need (the poor, orphans, penniless brides etc.) or dedicated to do special good deeds (mitzvoth) such as providing a burial, are ubiquitous in Jewish Communities, and boards to honor their members can be found in many shuls. There is a special reason, however, why the board in the painting is dedicated specifically to an organization with the name Chevra Maskil el Dal. Every Hebrew name of a person is connected with a pasuk, a verse in Tenakh. The name and the verse begin and end with identical letters. The name of Dr.Goldblum's husband is Aryeh, and his verse is: ashray maskil el dal be-yom ra.

The red velvet covering over the bimah is embroidered with the names of the family of Dr.Goldblum:

Aryeh ben Chayyim, (her husband),

Goldah bas Frayda (herself),

Shirah we-Channah (their daughters)

The Aron Kodesh is open and empty, because all the Torah scrolls have been removed to be carried around by the dancers. In the back of the Aron one sees the letters k t, keter torah, the Crown of the Torah. Sometimes the name of an important member of the Community is inscribed in this most honored place, as in this case: Aryeh ben Chayyim, the name of the beloved husband to whom this painting is dedicated.

The People

The main theme of this painting is the joyous dancing with the Torah scrolls in honor of the Festival, and the main focus is on the group of dancers in the middle. For artistic reasons, a realistic perspective has been substituted for the medieval concept of representing more important figures (much) larger than the other characters, independent of their position in the composition. This means, that the procession of men in the middle is much bigger than the women on the balcony, which are actually ‘closer’ to the spectator, and the jumping and whirling little groups on the side are smaller then the men in the center, and that the Aron Kodesh is relatively much bigger than the table and the benches at the right side of the painting and the entrances to the women’s balconies.

We see the dancing circle from above, as if one is looking inside the shul from a high window, but the circle seems to jump forward to catch the eye, and realistic perspective proportions of the individuals have been subjugated to aesthetical artistic demands.

The Kehillah (Community) in this painting looks like one of the archetypical small town (shtetl) shuls in Middle Europe at the beginning of the 20th century.

The women wear beautiful silken, embroidered shawls with fringes, flowery dresses, beautiful aprons and white lace bonnets if they are affluent, and simple ‘tichels’ (head kerchiefs) and plain dresses and shawls if they are less affluent. Some look “important”. They are the wives of the wealthy merchants and other prominent members of the community; while others appear rather modest –such as the wives of the talmiday chochomim, the scholars, and the Rebbetzin.

Girls walk around proudly in their new Holiday lace trimmed gowns, or their new caps and ribbons. A little girl stands on a high stool to have a better view. The ladies watch their husbands and sons dance like all women did over the centuries on Simchat Torah. They cuddle their babies and talk with their children and each other, and wave to their little boys who join the dancing, and their little girls who look for tateh (daddy) with their flags and apples. In the front, a bubah (grandmother) ‘shmoozes’ with her ayniklakh (granddaughters).

At the right, a tiny, bent widow, all in black, stands behind two stately matrons with their daughters. Women come and go on the steps to the balconies, children play on the floor. Some crane their necks to see what’s happening downstairs.

The men are a very mixed group. At this joyous Yom Tov all the Jews of the shtetl gather in the big shul. There are a couple of young and old Chassidim with shtraymels (fur hats), portly and important ‘baleboses’ (house fathers) with hats, married men with a tallis (prayer shawl), young men, lean bokhurs (students), ‘nebachs’ (pitiful souls), wild young boys and serious kids, a boy with a limp and a bad leg next to the yeshiva bokhur (student) in the blue kapota (coat) at the right, proud fathers and grandfathers with their (grand-)children on their shoulders. They carry their two assets which are most dear to them: their Torah and their offspring. There are even some ‘modern’ people who might not be very religious, but enjoy being with the community on such a holy day.

In most shuls some of the young men leave the circle to do some wild dancing, and perform stunts such as somersaults at the side. A nice, simple, poor man sits on a chair and watches, and of course such groups have the full attention of the little boys.

There are usually also some octogenarians present, who enjoy to sit and look, (like the one in the front next to the Aron), and ‘shlufers’ (sleepers), like the man who dozed off at the table in the back, who presumably drank or studied too much the previous evening?

Next to the Aron we see the important son of a Rebbe, with a white shtraymel and a long coat and a smile on his face. The Torah Scrolls all have beautiful velvet mantles, rimmonim (silver ‘turrets’ on top of the holding sticks), crowns and shields, and are embroidered with trees and leaves (the Etz Chayyim, the Tree of Life).

How was the painting made? A few words from the artist.

It all started with emails and a visit from Dr.Goldblum, resulting in a commission for a Simchat Torah painting for her husband, in honor of his birthday. Soon afterwards I went to a symposium. One of the lectures was slow and boring, and my thoughts wandered to that large empty canvas that was looming in my studio. I had been thinking about it a lot the last few days. I set up a quick composition sketch in pencil on the back of the program for the lectures: the proportions, the balcony, the Aron Kodesh in the middle and the tentative position of the dancing group. Most of that work had already been done in my head. Usually one small element of a painting starts the whole composition it evolves around. That element in my head is often the reason I actually make the painting. That one line or dab of color, or face or just one hand comes in a flash, and is the beginning of the whole composition. In this case it started with the boy in the front with a raised arm and knee, looking backwards, and the two men behind him, one with a child on his arm, one with a Sefer Torah. Their expression is the same on the canvas as it was in my head. The rest, the shul and all the people, came later. I knew immediately how their face and pose should be, and that they should carry a child that looks straight at the spectator. The boy was inspired vaguely by the pose of a statue which I have seen on the Arc de Triomph in Paris, admittedly an unlikely connection with Simchat Torah, but that is how the human mind works.

I brought the big canvas for this work to my studio in Brooklyn with the help of my husband, by subway, from an art store in Manhattan, in the rain. Putting the big white surface on my easel is a very festive moment for an artist! The actual painting can begin!

The palette is prepared with the right hues and shades, like sienna brown and a bit of cobalt blue, a lot of ochre, cadmium red and zinc white. I use mostly basic colors, which I mix very carefully; that is much more interesting than using all the colors in your artist case, and it promotes unity in all the tones. I had my favorite classical music ready in the studio, tapes with Vivaldi, Mendelssohn, the cello sonatas of Bach, Breslover Niggunim, and a classical radio station.
The composition is set up in basic lines and colors, and a few colors are filled in to get an idea:

In the meantime I was thinking day and night about this work, and started filling in some details in the group of dancers while working on the general composition. Every time you work at a surface it has to dry before you can add other colors or shades, and continue working. Some details, however, are painted ‘wet in wet’, like the faces. This must be done quickly, in one day, to get the original expressions. Darker lines, shades and details are added later, but if the expression is not correct right away it won’t look good later, no matter how many layers you add. All the faces are different, and it was a pleasure to remember all those characters I met over the years and observed in shuls, which I could unceremoniously put into my work. Being an artist gives a lot of freedom! In an early stage the work became very alive!

The Aron gets more detailed

Although I have a general idea, of course, about which people are going to be where (the running boys in the front were in my head from the beginning!), there is always room for improvisation: you look at the floor of the shul in the painting, and you get a strong feeling that in a certain spot you just have to put that toddler on the floor with a flag and an apple next to her:

Memories of your own children and the many Simchat Torah celebrations you have attended in New York and in Europe come up. The people who provided me with my studio have three boys and an extremely cute little girl, watching them is inspiring for this kind of painting. Then the artist has to make choices, like an architect: will the pillars be made out of stone, like those in German Romanesque buildings, or out of wood which is painted in a faux marble, like in many Dutch shuls? Arches or a flat ceiling? A square building or interesting angles? Banisters of wood, many decorations, or an austere sanctuary? Will the floor be wooden, or stone flags? Floors are often a problem. Someone who visited my studio when I had just added the brown ground tones found the floor ‘dull’. Of course it was dull, then; it took more than 20 layers and whiffs and little brush strokes before it even started looking passable. I do not like to show a half finished painting to many people, unless they have a vision of how it will look when it is finished.

I like windows with shimmering greenish glass, which I saw a lot in Leyden (Holland), where I lived for more than 10 years. So the shul got a few classicist windows with round tops. While you are painting them you realize you have to make consoles, and hang up pictures next to them, like the 'shiviti', which does not hang straight. The painting ‘grows’ every day with every brush stroke, and the artist is as curious as anybody else how this will end, although she has more insight and ideas about that. More details are filled in. When you lock your studio in the evening you think already about what must be done the next morning. Sometimes there is an emergency you have to take care of (e.g., we live in an old, badly worn out house where things break all the time), and you cannot paint that day, that really bothered me. I knew from the beginning there would be a door in the east wall, but the idea for the Prague style tympanum I got later, while at work. I have moved a lot in my life, so the question where to put bookcases etc. is not new for me, not in real life and not on canvas. For artistic reasons you have to decide whether the parokhet (the curtain in front of the Aron Kodesh) will be white, like many shuls prefer during the High Holydays, or red, like in many old shuls with an antique interior. Red enhances the composition! Most shuls I visited have some old, rickety chairs standing around, so they were added during a cold afternoon. An artist uses her imagination, to strew around tallesim (prayer shawls) left on a bench, and gets flashes of characters she met in various shuls, like the bent old man resting near the Aron Kodesh (his real life counterparts are from the Lower East Side in New York and from The Hague, Holland) and the boy with the white shtraymel: such a boy lives on our block, we have a shtibel (small Chassidic shul) a few houses down, in an early stage:

And in a later stage:

The boy with a limp is based on somebody we know, too. We often see him hobble by with a book under his arm, on his way to shul.

The perspective choices which have been explained above came naturally; it belongs to my personal style. I prefer this way over a photographic image with a ‘correct’ perspective!

Painting the women’s balconies was a joy, I imagined all types of women I had met or observed at similar balconies in Holland, in Venice, in Berlin and in Williamsburg, New York, and in other places, and I added them and arranged them. It was a lot of patient work. You have to wait between every layer of paint on an embroidered shawl, come back, put in a few lines for a shade or a floral motive, wait again, do the little flowers, highlight the fringes, then the hearts of the flowers etc. It grows under your hands like real embroidery. I thought of my mother, who loves to embroider and is fond of flowery dresses and silken shawls.

There were also set backs during the work. My studio is not heated. I have a little room heater, but certain days it was so cold that this and my fur boots weren’t nearly enough, and the paint became hard and unmanageable on my palette. I had to wait. Then Pesach arrived, with all the cleaning and preparing and some other issues going on which absorbed much more time and energy then I had anticipated, and a nasty flu epidemic hit New York. Then, after the Yom Tov of Shavuos in June, it became hot and humid, and that is also not a pleasant condition to work in. In the summer months I travel, so the work was regularly interrupted. It is a pleasure when you can add the finishing touches. It is like a real house: first you finish the walls, and then the lamps and little details can be added. The chandeliers were added last, the candle flames and the halos. Shadows and extra transparent layers of shadows were led over the walls and the furniture. A last stroke was added to a bench; a red dot on the cheek of a child, and finally the painting was signed. After that it has to dry, the canvas will be taken down from the wooden frame, rolled up, and shipped to Dr. Goldblum, who will hang it in her house and I hope ‘shep nachas’ (get pleasure) of this work which was such a joy to create. During the process I corresponded regularly with Dr.Goldblum, to let her know how it was going, to show photos of progress, and to talk. She provided me the names of her relatives, I started thinking about a good spot to put them in the painting, and one late night got the idea of the Chevra Maskil el Dal. She sent me an email once, asking if it would be a good idea to put in a ‘shlufer’, a man who had fallen asleep, and I just happened to have added such a detail. It was a real pleasure to correspond with her!

The painting is finished, and I have another shul in my memory for Simchat Torah.

21 Tishrei Links - כא תשרי

(Picture by A. Darin)

A Fire Burns in Breslov: Shemini Atzeres and the Sukkah

Mystical Paths: Hanging with the Bad Boys: Moshe

A Simple Jew: Sacrificing His Hiddur Mitzvah

After These Days Have Passed

On Shemini Atzeres every person should examine his inner self and search his heart to evaluate his spiritual state, now that they holy days have passed. He should weigh whether he has changed for the better and mended his ways.

(Beis Avraham)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Even Without Understanding

Sanctify us on Hoshana Rabbah and Simchas Torah which correspond to the paradigms of speech without da'as and speech imbued with da'as. Grant us the privilege to study Your holy Torah constantly. Even when we fail to understand the words of Your Torah clearly and correctly, may we nevertheless exert ourselves to read them and keep studying, even without understanding. In Your mercy, accept this effort as well and rejoice in our words of Torah, even when they lack comprehension.

(Likutey Tefillos 1, 93)

Simchas Beis Hashoeivah In Breslov Tsfas

Friday, October 17, 2008

Question & Answer With Yossi Katz - The Rebbe-Chassid Relationship

(Picture by Blue Joel)

A Simple Jew asks:

What has Reb Nosson of Breslov taught you about the dynamics of the Rebbe-Chassid relationship and how to be a true chassid?

Yossi Katz answers:

To me the first thing that comes to mind when discussing Reb Noson was his total and absolute bittul to Rebbe Nachman. Reb Noson who was not brought up in a chassidic home and only later decided that Chassidus was the correct path for him. He went from rebbe to rebbe searching for where he would find what he believed to be the ultimate truth. Along the journey he met and learned from many of the greats becoming a student of Reb Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, of whom he would always continue to hold of in the highest esteem. However, later upon becoming the main disciple of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov he "forgot" everything he had known until then and so to speak asked Rebbe Nachman to teach him everything anew starting from the aleph bais.

Just as light of the moon is only a reflection of the sun, so too Reb Noson's Torah light was only a reflection of what he received from his rebbe. Rebbe Nachman had many great students, some in certain ways were even greater (and older) then Reb Noson, notably Reb Yudel and Reb Shmuel Isaac. The question can therefore be asked, why have Breslover Chassidim unanimously accepted Reb Noson to be the one who truly understood Rebbe Nachman's message. It is said that when Reb Yudel, who was already a famous talmid chacham, came to Rebbe Nachman he asked to be taught a "derech in Avodas HaShem", however Reb Noson didn't even stipulate that. Reb Noson was a total reflection of his rebbe, not someone who in even the smallest way used his rebbe's teachings to fulfill what he thought was important. This is also why Reb Nosson refused to be considered a rebbe himself, for he would always be the talmid.

This lesson is simple and fundamental, the more room we make in our minds to accept the tzaddik's teachings, the more we are able to gain. If we limit ourselves and only accept what we think fits nicely, then we will never completely understand the tzaddik's true message. Although it is wonderful and possible to gather advice from many tzadikim, without picking one to be our rebbe will limit our ability to ever grasp one derech to the best of our ability.

May we all be Zoche to truly be mekabel from the true tzaddik.

18 Tishrei Links - יח תשרי

(Picture courtesy of

Dixie Yid: Judaism DOES Have a Place for Attracting Converts

Chossid: Mainly Haditch

A Four-Year Old's Concept Of Keeping Kosher

Before going to sleep one night this week, my four-year old son told me a story about a little boy and his family who went into a store where they sold food.

I asked him what they ate at the store.

He responded, "They didn't eat anything there. They brought their own food."


Why did Hashem choose Tishrei has the month in which He judges the world? Choosing Tishrei demonstrates Hashem's great compassion. He judges the entire world at the time when He is favorably disposed and full of mercy. For in Tishrei, the Jewish people are busy doing a great many mitzvos: shofar, Yom Kippur, sukkah, and lulav, all of which arouse Hashem's abundant compassion.


Thursday, October 16, 2008

Sukkah & Taharas HaLev - A Question

I spent much of yom tov contemplating a statement in Likutey Eitzos, Moadim - Sukkos, B that states,

"Through the mitzva of sukkah a person merits taharas halev (purity of heart)."

Can anyone explain what Rebbe Nachman of Breslov meant by this? Exactly how does the mitvza of sukkah purify a person's heart?


Rabbi Micha Golshevsky commented:

The Zohar Hakadosh states that there is no holiness without preparation.

We prepare by learning about the greatness of the mitzvah and begging Hashem to help us feel the holiness and purity of it.
For example, you can feel the purity of the sukkah by thinking about the fact that sukkah imparts purity and yearning to access it. This naturally leads one to beg Hashem for help attaining this.

But the more you learn about and internalize the holiness of the sukkah, the more you will feel how much you can gain through it and the more you will yearn and beg Hashem to allow you to feel the bliss of the sukkah. Of course, the more you yearn and daven the more you will feel it.

Sometimes this takes time, but if you persevere and do what you can, you will "get it." Even if you can't do much, every little bit adds up. Even just a prayer before you enter the sukkah can be very efficacious.

You are already on the right track since you are thinking about what you have learn in context of fulfilling it. If we learn something as a "vort" and not as relating to our personal avodah, it will not effect how we feel all, as discussed at very great length in sifrei mussar / machshavah / chasidus.

Here is one story that I always tell in the sukkah since it inspires me personally to yearn for the holiness of sukkah: On the first night of Sukkos, Rav Moshe of Kobrin zt”l was standing in his sukkah, profoundly moved by the holiness of the day and this special mitzvah.

He said, “The walls of the sukkah appear to be of wood, and the s’chach looks like a bunch of branches. But the truth is that every part of the sukkah embodies holy names of Hashem. Every element of the sukkah has deep kabbalistic meaning! My own Rebbe said: 'With this mitzvah we enter into holiness with our shoes on!' He meant that even the mundane human needs of the simplest Jew are transformed into lofty mitzvos through the sukkah. We eat and drink and sleep, and it is all a mitzvah!”

Hashem should help us internalize the preciousness of the sukah and remember, that even if we are far from feeling this (or had it and lost it,) we can easily access it through a little yearning and prayer. All you need to do is say with as much feeling as you can muster: "Hashem! Please grant me a taste of the sweetness of my holy and pure sukkah!"

Sukkos In Tsfat

The Esrog & The Heart

The esrog symbolizes the heart, which is the most important organ in the human body, for it sustains life. Just as the heart must be beautiful and flawless, the esrog must be beautiful and flawless.

(Rebbe Naftali of Ropshitz)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Mezonos & Coffee Before Davening?

(Picture by Chundru)

A Simple Jew commenting on Artificial Kavana?:

I recently asked the Sudilkover Rebbe whether I may eat mezonos and drink a cup of coffee with milk and sugar on Shabbos morning before Shachris. I also asked him whether he knew what people did in Sudilkov.

The Rebbe responded that all of the Talmidei HaBaal Shem Tov and their children would absolutely not drink or eat before davening.

Given the fact that our generation is much weaker, the Rebbe advised that if truly found it to be extremely difficult to daven without eating mezonos or drinking coffee that I may do so. That said, the Rebbe advised that is definitely preferable for me to only drink coffee with milk and sugar. However, he mentioned as a final note that if it was absolutely clear to me that my strength and concentration would not be lacking during davening, that I should not drink anything beforehand.

Given the Rebbe's response, today I only drink a cup of coffee with milk and sugar on Shabbos morning before going to shul and do not eat anything at all along with it.

Meir Solomon & The Skverer Rebbe

The Most Difficult Mitzva

The most difficult mitzva of the 613 mitzvos is "You shall rejoice on your festival," because it entails being joyful for eight days of yom tov, avoiding worrisome and sorrowful thoughts, and allowing nothing to interfere with the simcha of yom tov.

(Vilna Gaon)

Friday, October 10, 2008

Question & Answer With Dixie Yid - Artificial Kavana?

(Picture courtesy of

A Simple Jew asks:

Do you think there is anything wrong with drinking a cup of coffee before davening Shachris to attempt to improve kavana, or would you consider the use of an artificial stimulant to be less than ideal?

Dixie Yid answers:

I will answer your question the way you asked it, from the perspective of my thoughts and feelings, and not as a halachic answer. There are opinions on both sides of this. The Mishnah Berura holds that only black coffee or plain tea is permitted before davening, while the Aruch Hashulchan holds that coffee with milk and sugar are okay if they are there to make it more filling and palatable so that one can concentrate better during davening. However, you also pointed out to me that it's brought down in Sichos HaRan #277 that "The Rebbe said that he never as much as drank water before his morning prayers. He was greatly opposed to those who drank coffee and other beverages before davening." The bottom line is that there are opinions on all sides of the issues but if anything I say conflicts which someone's rebbe's psak for them, that person should follow that approach, irrespective of anything I or he, himself, thinks.

I personally don't like the idea of being so dependent on injecting a certain chemical into my body if I cannot function without it. Therefore, personally, I do have coffee at seder in the mornings 2-3 hours before Shacharis, but I get decaf coffee so I don't become dependent on the caffeine to wake me up. My main reason for drinking it is to avoid being hungry during learning and davening so I do put (lowfat) milk and Splenda in the coffee to make it taste good as well.

One time, based on something written in Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh, I tried drinking the coffee without any sweetener. The idea is to do little things once in a while differently from what one wants to do in order to break the body's hold over the neshama. The problem is that if one lives his life on a daily basis in a way that reflects the unspoken attitude that everything must be done in the most comfortable and physically pleasing way, this can lead to an attitude that could lead one not to choose to keep halachos that one doesn't find comfortable since he's in the habit of only doing what's comfortable. By occasionally breaking one's pattern of doing what's comfortable, he can break this habit and live with the attitude that ruchnius, spirituality, is his standard way of life regardless of his comfort in gashmius, physicality.

However, this attempt at periodic unsweetened coffee was not too successful. It was so unpleasant to me that I must have gagged for about an hour from the taste! Perhaps I gave up too quickly and I didn't daven for success so it might be worth trying again!

My rebbe once pointed out another manifestation of people's dependence on their creature comforts, which have the effect of making one's physical world more permanent and important. He pointed out that people have these favorite mugs that they always have with them every morning and they hang onto them like children hang onto like a security blanket.

The common denominator is that we should remember the lessons of the Yuntif of Sukkos, which is coming up. We must do little things to remind ourselves that our world is only a Diras Arai, a temporary dwelling, a Sukkah. While our true, permanent world, our Diras Keva, is the spiritual world, the world to come. Whether it be with caffeine, coffee, mugs or any other manifestation of our connection to the physical world as our true and real life, it's important to do little things in order to remind ourselves that these are not what life is about.