A New Person

Unfortunately, the rumors are true. A lady in our community has been pronounced by the Beis Din to be a sotah. She was sent to the Beis Hamikdash and is due to drink the special water tomorrow. What a disgrace; a public humiliation.

Her korban mincha is made of barley which used to be primarily animal food reflecting her animal-like behavior and because of her sin, it does not include levona (frankincence) or oil. But what could have led her to such reprehensible behavior? She was a fine woman from a fine family. The answer must be wine. She drank too much wine and was induced to sin. But if too much wine can bring a person to do what they normally never do do, could it happen to me? I’d better become a nazir who may not drink wine. This is what Chazal say concerning our parsha: “Why is the section about a nazir immediately after the section about a sotah? Because one who sees a sotah in her disgrace will become a nazir and forbid himself to drink wine.” (Sotah 2a).

The posuk says, “If a woman makes a vow and her husband annuls it, it is annulled and Hashem will forgive her.” (Bamidbar 30:8). If the vow was annulled why does Hashem have to forgive her? Nazir 23a explains that the posuk is talking about a lady who made a vow to be a nazira. Her husband, in the next room, heard her vow but did not agree that his wife should become a nazira. He annulled her vow, which the Torah allows him to do. His wife did not hear his annulment and presumed she was a nazira. However, she came across a bottle of sweet wine which she drank. Since she was not, in fact, a nazira she will not be punished for breaking her vow but the Torah says that she still requires Hashem to forgive her. When Rebbe Akiva heard this explanation he cried. “If someone who didn’t actually sin requires Hashem’s forgiveness, how much more so if they did sin.” (Nazir 23a) Why did Rebbe Akiva cry? Was this such an illuminating explanation? Did he not realise the gravity of sinning till now?

The Chafetz Chaim once heard about an earthquake in a faraway country, killing hundreds. Most people paused for a moment when they heard the news and then carried on with their lives as before. The Chofetz Chaim stopped what he was doing and meditated on the disaster. The earth had suddenly shifted causing buildings to collapse on top of the residents. Some died instantly. Some were trapped and later died. Tens of thousands of people were homeless. “What a tragedy!” the Chafetz Chaim groaned. And then he shouted to all who could hear him, “Vus vill der Tatte?” What is Hashem trying to tell us with this earthquake?

Undeterred by the sound of the heavy rain which was falling in Bnei Brak, Rav Aaron Leib Steinman was concentrating on his learning as usual. Suddenly he stopped and his face turned a deathly white. He stood up and slowly said the bracha  Boruch….shekocho ugevuraso molei olom. Blessed be the One whose strength and power fill the world.” – the brocho on hearing thunder. Then he returned to his learning with increased enthusiasm. “Why did the Rebbe go so white just before?” his pupils, who had also said the brocho but had quickly gone back to what they were doing, asked him. “Why does Hashem make thunder?” he asked them. “To straighten the crookedness of our hearts,” he answered, quoting Brochos 59a. “When I heard the thunder, I thought that Hashem is obviously talking to me. “ ‘Straighten the crookedness of your heart, Leibele, before it’s too late.’ Should I not turn pale after such a rebuke from Hashem?” Rav Steinman asked.[1]

One of the regulars at the shiur became suddenly ill and was niftar shortly afterwards. The other members of the shiur went to the levaya and tried their best to comfort the bereaved family at the shiva. The shiur resumed afterwards as normal. But out of all the shiur, Mr Schwarz became a changed person, getting up early to prepare for the shiur, asking good questions and spending time after the shiur reviewing. He explained that Chazal say, (Shabbos 106a) that if one of a group is niftar, the whole group has to worry. “How do we know how much time we have left?” he asked the fellow-members of the shiur.

What do all these people have in common? They have all seen or heard about something which others have all but ignored and used that event as a springbord to elevate their yiras shomayim. They have all taken to heart the statement of Chazal in our parsha. When we see a sotah and we are disgusted by her behavior and we are inspired to improve, we should not let it be just a fleeting thought. We can use it to learn how to behave or how not to behave. A volcano in Hawaii, a local thunderstorm, the sudden illness of a friend or even an acquaintance, something we hear in a shiur can be a life‑changing experience for us, if we choose.

It doesn’t have to be a sad event. If we have a new child or grandchild, we feel a surge of happiness and appreciation to Hashem. Instead of just thinking temporally about this new blessing, we can resolve to concentrate better when we say Modim, – not just today but every day. When we hear that somebody has made a Siyum Hashas, we shouldn’t just wish him a mazal tov. We can think that if he can do it, so can I. It might take years more effort but if we try our best, we also might be granted the years we require to reach that target. A hashgacha pratis story which we may have read can be forgotten by the time we put down the book or it can used to help us grow in bitachon. Our cups can become half-full.  Our simchas chayim can be revitalised. We can truly become ‘a new person.’



[1] I have just made up this story but it could well be true.

A Double Simcha

“You shall count seven weeks from the beginning of the reaping and then you shall observe the Festival of Shevuos for Hashem your G-d….and you shall rejoice before Hashem your G-d, you, your son, your daughter, your slave, your maidservant, the Levite, stranger, orphan and widow who are among you.” (Devarim 16:9-12). But why should we rejoice on Shevuos? The Torah doesn’t say.  The next pasuk says, “Remember that you were slaves in Mitzrayim,” but this surely is connected to Pesach and not Shevuos. Even stranger, is that the previous pasukim mention the festival of Pesach but don’t mention an obligation to rejoice.

We could also ask why the Torah mentions precisely here a long list of people we must bring simcha to. We know that we have to be hospitable and kind to others. What is the connection between hospitality and Shevuos? The same question arises in Parshas Emor. In the middle of all the technical details of the Yomim Tovim the Torah tells us to give the corner of our fields to the poor. (Vayikra 23:22) All the meforshim ask why the Torah inserts this obligation to give to the poor in the middle of Hilchos Yom Tov. Rashi explains that “it teaches that anyone who gives to the poor is as if he built the Beis Hamikdash and brought korbonos in it.” We know that we have to remember the poor particularly on Yom Tov but why does the Torah emphasize it so many times? And why it is comparable to building the Beis Hamikdash and bringing korbonos?

We all know that there are leniencies on Yom Tov which don’t apply to Shabbos. “Whatever is necessary for eating may be done for you.” (Shemos 12:16). We are allowed to cook food on Yom Tov if it will taste better than the same food cooked on Erev Yom Tov. There are certain other melachos we may also do, subject to numerous conditions which are not the subject of this essay. But nowhere is there a reason given for this leniency. We manage to avoid all 39 melachos on Shabbos. So what is different about Yom Tov? (The sefer Derech Hashem gives an explanation al pi kabala).

Pesachim 68b tells us that on most Yomim Tovim there is a dispute whether we have to rejoice through eating and drinking but on Shevuos everybody agrees that it is required. Why? “Because it is the day the Torah was given.” Rav Yosef said he ate meat of the highest quality on Shevuos because “If not for that day, I would be like all the other Yosefs in the street.”

The Rambam (Hilchos Yom Tov 6:17) writes that we have an obligation throughout Yom Tov to be “Same’ach v’tov lev – to rejoice and feel good in our heart.” Rav Nissim Karelitz understands this to be a separate and more encompassing obligation that eating meat and drinking wine. Why should we be more b’simcha on Yom Tov than on Shabbos? Shabbos is essentially an expression of our emuna that Hashem created the world. It is appropriate to be b’simcha but it is not an obligation. On Yom Tov we remember specific miracles which Hashem has done for us, like taking us out of slavery in Mitzrayim and looking after us in the wilderness. We are naturally very grateful to Him for these tremendous miracles. The Torah gives us a mitzva to be b’simcha  because that is the appropriate behaviour for a recipient of wonderful kindnesses. And it could be that to enable us to rejoice fully, Hashem allowed us to enjoy the best, freshly cooked foods.

The giving of the Torah to the Jewish People, however, was and is the greatest kindness that has ever been. As we say every morning, “Ashreinu, ma tov chelkeinu, uma no’im goraleinu, uma yofo yerushoseinu. “Our yerusha – our inheritance – is the Torah. As the posuk says, “Torah tziva lonu Moshe morasha kehilas Yaakov. The Torah is, among many other things, our blueprint for life, our source of happiness and the antidote to our yetzer hora. Eating the best quality meat shows how happy we are to have the Torah. We recognize that without the Torah, we would be just like all the lost souls who roam the secular world until they die, physical and spiritual wrecks, unfulfilled and depressed. Without the Torah, Yetzias Mitzrayim would have been an exercise in futility. Yes, Hashem has redeemed us from slavery in Mitzrayim and brought us out into the wilderness. Now what? The raison d’être of yetzias Mitzrayim was the giving of the Torah. That is why the Torah does not tell us to be b’simcha in the section about Pesach –  merely leaving Mitzrayim was no reason to be b’simcha. Only after we received the Torah, yetzias Mitzrayim retrospectively became a simcha because it was the first step in our receiving the Torah. That is why the mitzva of simcha on Pesach is only learned from a comparison from Shevuos to Pesach.(Tosfos, Chagiga 8a). Our simcha, therefore on Shevuos is actually a double simcha; one for Shevuos and one retrospectively for Pesach.

Our simcha on all Yomim Tovim but especially on Shevuos is encapsulated by the words of the machzor. “Atoh vechartonu mikol ho’amim – You chose us from all peoples, You loved us, desired us and elevated us from all nations. You sanctified us with Your mitzvos, You brought us close, our King, to Your service and You proclaimed Your holy and awesome Name over us.”

The interpolation of the words “our King” can help us answer our original question. Why is there such emphasis on Yom Tov on providing for the needy that it is compared with building the Beis Hamikdash? The answer is that we are not dealing with a mitzva of hospitality or charity, but much more. Our simcha on Yom Tov is not merely a personal feeling. It is the building block of a national kabolas ol Malchus Shomayim. With our simcha, we our voting in our hearts to accept Hashem as our King, to remain part of His Chosen People. But if it’s just us, there is a problem. Have you ever noticed that when dictators arrange elections, they always manage to win with 99.9% of the votes? Why do they insist on such near unamity? With 60% they could also claim victory. The explanation us is that a 60% vote may be a majority but it lacks the honour of a unanimous vote.

If even 90% of the Jewish People accept Malchus Shomayim but 10% are unhappy with Hashem’s rule, there is a lack in kovod Malchus. To complete Kovod Malchus, there needs to be a unanimous acceptance of Malchus Shomayim. There needs to be Ish echod b’leiv echod. We all need to say, “Na’aseh venishma.

Some people will naturally tend to be lacking in simcha, all for different reasons. The orphan has no parents, the widow misses her late husband, the stranger has no social structure, the Levite has no fields, the poor have no money. If they will not join with the rest of the Jewish People in accepting b’simcha Hashem’s Torah and His Kingdom, there will be a lack in kovod malchus. Therefore we have a special obligation to show kindness to them, each one in the appropriate way, to bring them simcha so that they too will join in accepting the Torah b’simcha with everybody else. Our efforts to give simcha to those in need, thus promoting Kovod Shomayim, is equivalent to rebuilding the Beis Hamikdash, the absence of which also causes a diminution of Kovod Shomayim.

Shevuos, therefore, is not just ‘another’ Yom Tov but a day of cosmic implications. The Heavens and Earth waited for this day. It is the day we can rise from our mundane lives to connect with eternity; a day when, together with all other Jews and with double simcha we can accept the Torah and re-affirm our membership of Hashem’s eternal Kingdom.


The Good News And The Good News

“If you follow My laws and keep My mitzvos and do them, I shall give you rain in its season, the land will give its produce and the tree will give its fruit…” (Vayikra 26:3). That’s certainly good news. Hashem, the Creator of the Universe has given us the key to success. In fact there are 613 keys to success. It seems a tall order, but with determination we can do the necessary and we will receive all the blessings mentioned here and many more besides; a veritable paradise on Earth. But then, apparently, the bad news. “If you don’t listen to Me and don’t do all these mitzvos … I will cause you to panic, make you ill in various ways, you will sow your seeds for nothing and your enemies will eat the fruit. You will be struck down before your enemies. You will flee but no-one will be pursuing you. And it gets worse. “If you still won’t listen to me but consider it all chance, I will increase your punishment. I will make your heavens like iron and your land like copper…I will send the wildlife of the field against you which will kill your children, exterminate your cattle and your roads will become desolate.” The pesukim continue in this vein warning us of more and more punishments if we remain obstinate and treat everything as chance. There is a bright point when posuk 32 says that the land will remain desolate even though we will have been exiled which the Ramban understands as a promise that throughout our long exile, other nations will never populated the land. It will remain empty ready for us to return as the British politician Lord Shaftsbury said in 1853 that “Eretz Yisroel is a land without a people waiting for a people without a land.”  However, most of the parsha seems to be doom and gloom. But is it?

The Rambam (Hilchos Taanis 1:1-3) writes, “When a tzoro happens to a community, we should know that it is because of our wrong deeds. We should do teshuva and this will remove the tzoro. But if we say that the tzoro is a chance happening or natural and is nothing to do with our behavior, this is cruel, because this attitude will cause us to continue our wrong ways and the tzoros will just increase. This is what it says in the Torah, “If you consider what has happened as ‘chance’ I will increase my anger.” (ibid). This should change our understanding of our parsha. It is true that we are being warned about possible punishments but at the same time the pesukim tell us how to avoid those punishments. Don’t treat what happens as chance or natural. Consider possible reasons for a tzoro, do teshuva and the tzoro will go away. This doesn’t seem like bad news. It’s good news, giving us an escape from the tzoro we are suffering from..

In England, at the moment, there is a crisis in that OFSTED is insisting that our schools teach our children about “alternative life styles” and their belief that the world just happens to be; no-one created it. Our Rabbonim and askonim are doing their hishtadlus to convince OFSTED and the Government not to interfere in our system of education. But are we supposed to stand by passively, or is there something we can do? The answer is that there is plenty we can do. Tzoros don’t just happen, as the Rambam said. We have to think what might possibly be the cause of this gezeira.  OFSTED are Hashem’s messengers to awaken us to do teshuva. But what might we be guilty of? Do we have any clues?

It is well known that the Baal Shem Tov once saw some chillul Shabbos which distressed him greatly. He wondered why he should have been punished in this way. He came to the conclusion that it was because someone had once not shown respect to a Talmid Chochom in his presence and he had not objected vociferously enough. Since a Talmid Chochom is sometimes compared to Shabbos, concluded the Baal Shem Tov, this must be the reason for his being punished by seeing chillul Shabbos. A person has to look for a midda keneged midda, an aveira which is in some way connected to the punishment, albeit on a much higher level, as a clue what he must do teshuva from.

Since the first problem with OFSTED, is matters to do with kedusha, it seems logical to consider that Hashem is trying to encourage us to rectify matters of kedusha; particularly since we know that “wherever there is immorality, androlomusia comes and smites the good and the bad.” (Yerushalmi Sota 1:5). Our generation has more challenges in this regard than previous generations, even more than a few years ago. Perhaps twenty or thirty years ago there were fewer women in the workplace. And those who were, were always Mrs So and So. Today, women are in every possible position. Women are lawyers, accountants, bank managers, business representatives etc where they interrelate with their customers. And, almost without exception, they introduce themselves by their first name and expect to be told our first name. Sue and Moshe has a different ring than Mrs Jones and Mr Cohen.  And listen how often she repeats your name. Welcome to the world of modern business techniques to weaken our defences and make us more likely to buy their product. By the end of the first conversation we feel like old friends. This is already a big nisoyon for Moshe who has been brought up in b’kedusha vetahara. Pesachim 113a says that Hashem makes a special announcement about three people every day. One of them is a bachelor who lives in a city and does not sin. He faces great nisoyonos and if he is successful, Hashem rewards him greatly. Today, we all face such nisoyonos and in order to be successful we have to be prepared to respond to Sue’s warm introduction by saying, at a polite distance, “Good morning. I am Mr Cohen.” And the reward the Gemoro talked about will be ours. This is one example in the area of kedusha where we all need chizuk, which Hashem, through OFSTED, is possibly trying to communicate to us.

The other area that OFSTED is trying force on us, is teaching our children that, according to science, we know that the world came about by itself. This is not true. Even Richard Dawkins said, “How did the whole process start? We do not know.”(Climbing Mt Impossible p.282). So why do they want us to teach lies? Perhaps we are being reminded to ask ourselves whether our honesty always impeccable. Are we always careful that every document we sign is authentic? Do we always admit to our spouse when we have made a mistake? And davening in a way that indicates that we are having a heartful talk with Hashem, whilst our minds are thinking about our business, our holidays or local politics, is also a form of falsehood.

No, the tochacho is not all doom and gloom. It is Hashem’s way of encouraging us to do what is right. Yissurim start with taking the wrong coin out of our pocket and increase gradually until the nightmare scenario written in the pesukim. But He hopes it won’t come to that. He gives us reminders of one sort or another and we are supposed to understand the message and rectify our mistakes. Then we will be able to receive all the blessings mentioned in the previous section. The parsha is not good news and bad news but good news and good news! 

A Journey with a Destination

Most of us have been on an aeroplane. We book our tickets, arrive at the airport and queue for check-in. Once on the plane we look for our designated seats and try to fit our hand luggage into the overhead compartment. We have either booked our kosher meal or we have our own provisions. We like a bit of leg room and if the person in front doesn’t lean his seat too far back, it is usually moderately comfortable. Of course the privileged few don’t sit among the plebs, but in Business Class or better still, First Class. There they have plenty of leg room, daily newspapers provided and a hot meal, no doubt, “on the house.” Stewards and stewardesses bring drinks and duty-free items for sale and generally help all the passengers feel as comfortable as possible. Despite this lengthy description of a typical plane flight, I have not mentioned the most important detail. What have we not said?

This week we read about the mitzva of shemitta. It is not an easy mitzva to keep. For a nearly a whole year  all work on the land is forbidden. Nothing may be planted. Fruit which grows by itself is available for anybody to take. Vegetables which grow by themselves are forbidden. Even in the eighth year, it takes a few months for crops to grow and become edible. As the verse says, the people will ask, “What are we going to eat in the seventh year if we may not sow or gather in our produce?” Farmers need to have very strong faith and trust in Hashem to keep all the laws of shemitta. This year I heard an interesting question on this mitzva.

One would have thought that if a mitzva is easy to keep, the punishment for non-compliance should be severe. If the mitzva is hard to keep, the punishment for non-compliance should be light. Why then, is the punishment for non-compliance with this difficult mitzva so severe – expulsion from Eretz Yisroel, as we read in Parshas Bechukosai (26:32-35)? And we could ask the same question in respect of our weekly Shabbos.

The Ramban on Vayikro (25:2) hints at the answer. The weekly Shabbos and the shemitta cycle are not ordinary mitzvos. They are the very basis of our faith. They testify to the fact that there is a Creator, who created the world for us to live in, for us to keep His mitzvos and to move on, in the course of time, to the World to Come. The six years of the shemitta cycle represent the six millenia when there will be a certain hester panim – hiding of Hashem’s existence. The seventh year in the cycle represent the seventh millenium in which there will be a total revelation of Hashem’s existence and His dominion over the whole world.

There are many other important mitzvos. We observe kashrus. We celebrate Yomim Tovim. We do acts of kindness etc. However, it is most essential for us to know Who created us and what for— what is the purpose of life, where do we go after this life? It is these concepts which we are reminded of by these mitzvos of Shabbos and Shemitta. The punishment for not keeping Shabbos and Shemitta is severe, even though these mitzvos are difficult to keep, because they represent our raison d’être as Jews. Without belief in the concepts that these mitzvos represent, Torah is merely a pleasant life-style, a moral but meaningless existence.

The Mesilas Yesharim starts his classic work with the following words; “The foundation of true piety and the root of perfect service of Hashem is that we should have a clear knowledge of what is our obligation on this world and what we are hoping to achieve during the days of our life.” The Torah is not just a manual of how to live but why we are living. The Mesilas Yesharim goes on to say, “We have been created to enjoy the radiance of Hashem’s Divine Presence, which is the greatest pleasure that can possibly exist. The place where this pleasure is available is in the World to Come, but the way to be able to reach this destination is this world. As it says in Pirkei Avos “This world is just a vestibule to reach the next world.”

Let’s get back to our plane flight. We have discussed with our neighbor the view from the window, the efficiency of the staff and the comfort of the seats. Now we feel emboldened to probe somewhat. We ask, “Where is your final destination? Why are you going to wherever the plane is going.” We don’t mean to be inquisitive, we’re just making conversation. However your fellow passenger’s response is very surprising. “To be quite honest, I don’t know where I am going. I’m just…on the plane.” “What do you mean, you don’t know where you are going?” you reply in disbelief. “Everyone is on the plane because they have a destination. The purpose of being on the plane is to get to the place where the plane is flying to.” Your fellow passenger is unrepentant. “No, I’m just enjoying the flight. I have no destination.”

This was the vital detail about the plane flight that we didn’t mention before. That it takes you to your destination.Without a destination, the whole flight is a waste of time. And anyone on the plane without a destination is similarly wasting his time. However there is one exception. There is one group of people whose task it is to be on the plane although they have no destination. That is the cabin crew. Their job is to make things as comfortable as possible for the passengers. They just go and come back. And if they have succeeded in providing the passengers with their needs they have done a good job. They have no destination but that’s fine.

Over 3,000 years ago we were offered a choice. Do we want to listen to the voice of Hashem, to keep His covenant, to become His treasured people — a kingdom of priests and a holy nation? We were being asked whether we wanted to travel on a journey as directed by Hashem with the pleasures of the World to Come as our destination — or a someone who merely exists in this world with no destination. All this second group worry about is how comfortable the seats are, how much leg-room there is and whether the food is good. The select few make it into ‘first class’with more comfortable seats, more leg-room. But they are also just there for the flight. They have no destination. There are stewards and stewardesses, Prime Ministers and other politicians whose job it is to look after the passengers. Relatively speaking, their job is important but for the passengers with a destination, it is of passing significance who the steward is. True, in our lives, we also enjoy a ‘comfortable seat’, some even make it into ‘first class’, but that’s is not what should excite us. Our main focus is preparing for our Destination and the pleasure we hope to have there, enjoying the radiance of Hashem’s Divine Prescence. As the Gemara says, (Kesuvos 111b), leven shina’im meicholov, we enjoy milk, especially when it is with our favourite cereal, but much more important and enjoyable is Hashem’s smile. In Tehillim (82:6,7) Hashem rebukes the people — I offered you the choice of being like angels…but you will die like ordinary men.

In just over two weeks, like every Shevuos, which is the time of the giving of the Torah, we are again offered a choice. We can be like passengers without a destination, living a meaningless existence eventually dying like ordinary people. Or we can be like angels, a treasured people and a holy nation. True, we have many mitzvos to keep and we sometimes face difficult challenges but if we are determined, we can be amongst those who will reach a most beautiful destination, where the greatest possible pleasure awaits us. The choice is ours.

Yismechu B’Malchusecho

What would you say is the theme of this week’s parsha of Emor? You would remember that the parsha discusses the laws of the kohanim that they may not approach a deceased person and the physical blemishes which render a Kohen unfit to participate in the service of the Beis Hamikdash. Other halochos of ritual impurity follow and after that, details of Shabbos and all the Yomim Tovim. You would probably say that there is no single theme, but a wide range of topics which happen to be in the same parsha. Perhaps, though, we are missing something … the theme which ties everything in the parsha together.

A number of mefarshim find it difficult to understand the rationale of tumas meis. A Kohen may not approach a corpse except that of a close relative. If he is in a house where somebody dies he becomes tomei. The ramifications of these halochos are quite significant. A Kohen may not participate in a funeral unless he stands under a different roof or outside, well away from the niftar. As a Kohen about whom the posuk says, “They will seek the Torah from his mouth,” (Malachi 2:7) he is just the person to direct the tzibbur how to give the correct kovod to the niftar by quoting the Chazal that “The loss of even one neshomo is like the burning of a Sefer Torah” (Moed Koton 25a) but he is excluded. As the head of the community, he should be giving the all-important hesped in honour of the deceased and the bereaved, but he is relegated to a side room, if he is there at all. Also, the concern that a person might suddenly be niftar prevents the kohen from visiting a patient who, in his last moments, may be in need of spiritual guidance and encouragement which the Kohen might be the most qualified to give. How can we understand this?

It is also difficult to understand the prohibition of the Kohen with a physical defect from participating in the service in the Beis Hamikdash. It seems unfair. He is already suffering from his defect and now he receives another blow, disqualification from performing the avoda. Despite his broken heart or perhaps because of it, he yearns for closeness to Hashem and longs to participate in the avoda in the Beis Hamikdash. There, in the holiest place on Earth, he would be able to plead with Hashem to heal him. His tearful tefilos would surely reach the kisei hakavod but his path is blocked. “Kohanim with blemishes must stop here.” He can only look from the distance. Where is Hashem’s mercy for this person in need?

“My income does not cover my expenses. I struggle to make a parnoso six days a week. What could be a better idea than taking advantage of a long Shabbos or Yom Tov afternoon to say Tehilim that my situation should improve? Or an obituary of a good friend is printed in the paper and Shabbos is the only time I have to read it. What could be wrong?” And yet the halocho does not allow it. Why?

In the Book of Ezra ( due to non-Jewish influence, it is found in Nechemia Chapter Two) we read, “It happened in the month of Nissan of the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes that wine was brought before him and I carried the wine and gave it to the king. I had never before appeared downcast in his presence. And the king said to me, why is your face downcast?” Why was Nechemia always careful to appear happy in the king’s presence until that day?

A king was visiting different provinces in his kingdom. In the first province the people took advantage of the king’s presence to cry out to him about their woes and plead for help. Although there was justice in their claims and the king truly wanted to help, he did not enjoy his visit. A second province heard that the king was coming. They decided to say nothing about their problems but rather prepared a banquet in the king’s honour. The food was excellent and a band played joyful music throughout. The king enjoyed his visit very much and when the people of this province later wrote to the king asking for his help in certain matters, he was only too pleased to respond generously.

Nechemia was always careful to appear happy in the king’s presence in honour of the king. A king wants his subjects to be happy. It is a sign of his success. There is a time and place for requesting his help but except for those occasions, it is kovod malchus to be joyful in the king’s presence.

Hashem gives us six days a week to attend to our needs and request His help but on Shabbos, when Hashem’s Shechina comes to our homes, the halocho requires us to radiate happiness. On Shabbos we must show kovod malchus by expressing our thanks to Him for all His help and by rejoicing in His presence with three sumptuous meals, singing and joy. We are not allowed to daven for our earthly needs or read something which might make us upset. The same applies on Yom Tov when we have a specific mitzva to be besimcha.

“Hashem is close to the broken-hearted” and hears their cries from wherever they come. No-one is more merciful than Hashem. But just as it is not appropriate to cry at someone’s simcha, it is not appropriate to cry in the Beis Hamikdash. There the Levi’im sang, accompanied by live music (Succah 50b). This created an atmosphere of simcha to enhance the kovod malchus . Were those with physical disabilities allowed to participate in the Avoda, they might well be tempted to cry out in prayer at a crucial point, disturbing the simcha and detracting from the kovod malchus.

Certainly a kohen’s presence would be helpful and educational at a funeral but more important for the tzibbur is to associate Hashem’s earthly representative only with simcha which creates kovod malchus. Unless it is a moed, a Kohen does not do the Avoda when he is an onen, on the day his close relative is niftar, because he is lacking in simcha. The Kohen Godol, who should be on the highest level of emuna, has the status of moed  the whole year and even if he is an onen he continues to do the avoda because he should always be besimcha. (Moed Koton 14b)

This, then, is the theme of the parsha; to be besimcha because it increases kovod Malchus. Now, unfortunately, we have no Beis Hamikdash. But we have our mikdash me’at, our shuls and our homes. There we can honour Hashem by being besimcha, enjoying our Shabbos seudos, speaking about our many blessings and singing songs of thanks and praise to Hashem. As we say in Shabbos Musaf, “Yismechu b’malchusecho shomrei Shabbos.

Home Sweet Home

In the parshios of Acharei Mos and Kedoshim we were warned several times not to follow the customs of the Canaanites. They were guilty of the worst immorality and it would seem unnecessary to warn us so many times not to follow their example. We, the descendants of Avrohom, Yitzchak and Yaakov, should stoop to such depths? Surely not. So why does the Torah keep repeating this warning?

In the parsha of Metzora we read that if certain white blemishes were found on the wall of our house we had to destroy the wall. And if the blemishes returned or spread further we might have to destroy our whole house. The meforshim say that these blemishes, and similar blemishes on our clothes or body were a punishment for speaking loshon hora and transgressing other mitzvos of the Torah. Rashi brings a very surprising medrash that when the Jews destroyed their houses following inspection by the kohanim, they would find treasures left behind by the Canaanites, when they fled from the invading Jewish army. Thus  Jews, who were guilty of serious aveiros, became enriched by their find. Does this seem fair or just? As the Gemara often says, “vechi hachotei nischar?” “Should a sinner be rewarded?”

One of the most mysterious epochs in Jewish history was in the days of Ezra shortly after the second Beis Hamikdash was established. The Babylonian Emperor Koresh and later the Persian Emperor Darius, son of Achashveirosh and Esther, gave permission for all the Jews in their empire to return to Eretz Yisroel and rebuild the Beis Hamikdash. These amazing proclamations by the most powerful rulers of their day should have been greeted with tremendous joy by the Jewish exiles. A mere seventy years after the destruction of the first Beis Hamikdash and subsequent exile to Babylon, the Jews were given the opportunity of returning to their homeland, rebuilding the Beis Hamikdash and starting afresh. Both these kings gave the Jews all the money they needed to rebuild the Beis Hamikdash and even promised that those Jews who could not afford travelling expenses would be subsidized by the non-Jews from whichever town they lived in. Surely it was an opportunity to be seized with both hands. Yet the Book of Ezra tells us that a paltry forty-two thousand three hundred and sixty decided to go. Why so few? How can we understand this?

To add to the mystery, we have to know that two hundred years earlier, Yeshaya Hanovi had prophesied explicitly that a king by the name of Koresh would be aroused by Hashem to allow the Jews back from their golus in Babylon to rebuild the Beis Hamikdash (44:28). So it should not have been a surprise. Furthermore Yirmiya Hanavi (29:10) had also said explicitly that after seventy years in Bovel they would be allowed to return. He even told them that Hashem told him to buy a field but to be sure to keep the relevant documents because he would need them when everyone returns. Surely the Jews would have been counting their years in Bovel – sixty years to go, fifty years to go … just as we count the days of the Sefira as we look forward to the giving of the Torah. With five years to go, surely they would have already packed their suitcases ready for the big day. But apparently this didn’t happen. Ezra appealed for more to come but the people didn’t respond. He punished the Levi’im (Yevomos 86b) who wouldn’t come by denying them maaser rishon which the Torah says is to go only to them, with little effect. How can we understand this? Only seventy years before, the first exiles, with superhuman courage, refused to sing in front of Nebuchadnezzar and bit off their thumbs so that they could not play their harps, saying, “How can we sing in a strange land?” Now their children and grandchildren preferred to stay in Bovel! And let us remember that the time of Darius was after the Purim story when the Jews all accepted the Torah anew. Reish Lachish (Yuma 9b) said that if the Jews had responded and come with Ezra, we would never again have gone into galus, the second Beis Hamikdash would have been permanent and this would have been the final redemption. Why didn’t they go?

Melachim II (2:19-22) tells us that Elisha was once in Yericho. The residents told him, “This is a very good place to live, but the water is poisonous and it causes people to die. Elisha then put some salt in the water which miraculously purified it, (to the annoyance of local youth who were making money bringing clean water to the city!) Chazal ask “If the water was killing people, why was it such a good place to live?” They answer that people like the place where they live. (Sotah 47a). Rashi says that even a bad place seems good to those who live there.

Kesuvos (110a) says that there are three parts of Eretz Yisroel and a man cannot force his wife to move from one section to another even if the new place is very similar to the old place. People like the place they know. They are used to its customs. They are comfortable with the climate and the people. Why move to a new place which they don’t know? “Home Sweet Home” is not a new concept.

Rashi (Kiddushin 69b) says that the residents of Bovel were living in peace and they were reluctant to lose that security (this was just before Homon came on the scene!) to move to Eretz Yisroel with all the challenges such a move could bring. They were happy where they lived.

(This could be why the Anshei Knesset Hagedola who wrote down the text of the Shemone Esre shortly after this time, inserted many references to the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash to try to maintain our connection with Eretz Yisroel and to keep in our hearts the desire to return so that we won’t squander future opportunities.)

Before the Jews moved into the land of Canaan they had to be warned time and time again not to follow in the ways of the Canaanim even though most of them would not be there any more. It is easy to be influenced. Don’t English Jews like their cup of tea and their Marmite? Don’t French Jews wear berets and American Jews love their apple pie?

The one who had to destroy his home but found treasures left behind was not being given a reward but was being warned that if the Jews continue the customs of the Canaanites and don’t follow the Torah they too will exiled, leaving everything behind just like the Canaanites who fled, leaving their treasures behind.

Our homes should be sweet. With Torah they are even sweeter.

Yisgadal Veyiskadesh Shemei Rabboh

We come again to the parshos of Tazriah and Metzorah with their descriptions of white blemishes of various shapes and sizes on people, clothes and houses. We listen respectfully to the baal koreh who tries valiantly to remember whether the word is supposed to be hu or hi (easier for Chassidim) and return home to eat our cholent usually none the wiser. Is there no way we can be inspired by these parshos? Or is this our annual kaporoh for enjoying our Pesach matzos smothered with eingemachts too much?

In the Shacharis Kedusha of Shabbos and Yom Tov, we implore Hashem to rule over us. This is a very strange request. Haven’t we all already accepted Hashem as our King? When we say the Shema we affirm that Hashem is our King. He is, was and always will be our King, as we repeat many times especially on Rosh Hashono when we crown Him as we hear the resounding tekios? What do we mean when we say and often sing ‘Vesimloch oleinu ki mechakim anachnu loch – Rule over us because we are waiting for You’?

Three times a day we say the two paragraphs of Oleinu. The first paragraph emphasizes how much we must thank Hashem that He has chosen us to be His People, mentioning also that He rules over Heaven and Earth. We can never thank Hashem enough for our beautiful inheritance. But why do we say the second paragraph, that the all idol worshippers should acknowledge Him, so often? Of course we want Moshiach to come. But why do we repeat this request every time we say Oleinu?

The Rambam writes that it is a mitzvas asei to build a house for Hashem, ready for us to visit three times a year and bring korbonos in it. If possible it should be overlaid with gold. (Hilchos Beis Habechira 1:1 and 11) Later he writes that it is a mitzvas asei for the Beis Hamikdash to be guarded even though there is no fear of enemies. (ibid 8:1) The Rambam explains that guarding the Beis Hamikdash is a way of showing honour to Hashem: “One cannot compare a palace with guards to a palace without guards.”

All this is the minimum honour we can give to Hashem our King. Any powerful king has a resplendent palace which is a symbol of his power. His subjects will visit him regularly to pay homage to him and do there whatever he commands them to do. How much more so should we honour Hashem who is the King of Heaven and Earth.

This is indeed how things were in the time of the Beis Hamikdash, especially the first one. Shlomo Hamelech built a beautiful Beis Hamikdash in Hashem’s honour. Kohanim, Hashem’s hand-picked representatives, served there doing the prescribed Avoda. Three times a year all the People left their farms across Eretz Yisroel to come and pay homage to Hashem, bringing with them a sample of the blessings Hashem had granted them during the year.

During Pesach, my wife and I visited our family who live in various communities in England and we saw new shuls, new mikvaos and many Yidden davening, learning and living like loyal Jews. We were impressed. There are other beautiful communities in America, Australia, South Africa and many other places over the world. We are apt to be happy and proud of all these different communities in the “four corners of the world.”

However we may be forgetting our true lowly position or more accurately the terrible chillul Hashem in today’s situation. We have become used to Jews living mefuzar umeforad bein ho’amim – scattered among the nations. This is, for us, normal. But Hashem is King of the Heaven and Earth and His People should be living in honour in the special land which He gave us. Anything else is a chillul Hashem (Sotah 49a). Where is Hashem’s Beis Hamikdash, the symbol of His Kingship? In ruins. As the prophets bemoaned, “Where is His strength, where is His might?” Instead of doing His Avoda we have to suffice with learning what used to be done. As the malachim ask, “Where is the place of His glory?”

This is a shocking, intolerable chillul Hashem. We believe that Hashem is all-powerful but the facts on the ground seem to indicate otherwise. Modern idol-worshippers abound. Atheists invade our schools and tell us how to educate our children. We say that we are in golus but we forget about the golus of the Shechina. Our lives continue as though all is well. Where are the signs of our shock, our disgust and our misery at this spiritual catastrophe?

Fortunately, however, the siddur, reminds us not to be satisfied. We speak of Hashem’s glory and might in the first half of Oleinu. But then, in response to our realization that the world which we see hardly reflects Hashem’s glory, we immediately express our hope that this horrible contradiction will soon be rectified; that all these ancient and modern idol-worshippers, will soon “bend their knees to Hashem” in an acknowledgement of their error. In Kedusha after proclaiming Hashem’s great Holiness we immediately plead, Mimkomecho Malkeinu sofia, eineinu sir’eno malchusecho.” Of course we believe that You are the King of Heaven and Earth, but ’eineinu sireno malchusecho’ – we want to see Your Kingship and we want the whole world to see Your Glory. As we say in Yom Tov Musaf, “Galei kevod malchusecho – Reveal the honour of your Kingdom in the eyes of all humanity, bring in our scattered ones and enable us to perform Your service. This is not because we are tired of golus but because we want Your Name to be glorified and sanctified – Yisgadal veyiskadash Shemei Rabbo. Our Oleinu should not be said as we take off our talis or as we walk out of shul but in a way which shows our heartfelt desire to see imminently “the glory of Your strength.” Our mimkomecho should be said or sang with great passion as we implore Hashem to reveal His greatness and sanctity.

As we listen to the details of Tazriah and Metzora we should ponder how Hashem’s glory once revealed itself through special signs which reminded each individual that he has sinned, as an encouragement to better behavior, Sadly, as the Seforno (13:47) says, now we do not merit such an open display of Hashem’s love for us. Instead of wishing that the krias HaTorah would end already, we can silently yearn for a return to such wonderful times, when Hashem’s glory will be revealed to all and He will be publicly and universally acknowledged as the King of Heaven and Earth.

Vayidom Aharon

After the simcha of Pesach come the weeks of the Omer. We look forward joyfully to Shevuos but can’t ignore past tragedies – the deaths of Rebbe Akiva’s talmidim, the massacres perpetrated by the Crusaders and others in more recent history. The contrast between the rejoicing of Yom Tov and the mourning of the sefira makes parshas Shemini which is read this year on this first Shabbos after Pesach, particularly appropriate.

It was supposed to be a tremendous simcha. The Mishkan, which represented Hashem’s forgiveness of the Jewish People’s sin of the golden calf and His willingness to allow His Shechina to dwell amongst the Bnei Yisroel, was to be inaugurated. And that’s how the day began. Fire descended from the sky to the mizbe’ach and consumed the korban olah. The people saw, rejoiced and fell on their faces.

But then, tragedy.  Nodov and Avihu, two of Aharon’s sons, offered unauthorized incense and another fire blazed down from Hashem, killing both. “And Moshe said to Aharon. This is what Hashem said, that I shall be sanctified by those close to Me and honoured in front of the people and “Vayidom Aharon” Aharon was silent.” (Vayikra 10:3). No wailing or protesting such harsh judgement, just a silent acceptance of Hashem’s justice.

When the late Rav Betzalel Rakov was told that his beloved youngest son, Nosson Zvi, had drowned in a swimming accident one fateful erev Shabbos about thirty years ago, he immediately stood up and exclaimed Hashem hu Ho’elokim, Hashem hu Ho’elokim seven times before sitting down to find out more details. The deeply ingrained emuna and spontaneous acceptance of Hashem’s will shown by our great leaders is an inspiration for all of us even if, thankfully, we don’t suffer such tragedies ourselves.

But is there something besides acceptance of Hashem’s justice which can help a person at such a horrific moment? Is there an aspect of our emuna which can be an extra source of comfort not only for those who have suffered tragedy but can help to give all of us a new direction in the way we view life?  A new insight into familiar words of Hallel may provide us with just such help.

Dovid Hamelech said, “Lo amus ki echye va’asaper maaseh Koh. (Tehilim 118: ). “I shall not die but live and I shall speak of the deeds of Hashem….zeh hashaar L’Hashem tzadikim yovo’u vo. This is the gate to Hashem, Tzadikim will come through it.” What did Dovid Hamelech mean that “he won’t die?” Everybody dies at some point. And which gate was Dovid referring to?

Tomid (32b) relates that Alexander the Great was once sitting by a river and smelt a wonderfully fragrant odour. He thought that it must be the smell of Gan Eden and walked towards its source. He finally reached a gate behind which seemed to be the source of the odour and concluded that this must be the door to Gan Eden itself. He asked to be allowed in. A voice from behind the door said, “Zeh hashaar l’Hashem tzadikim yovo’u vo. This is the gate to Hashem. Only tzaddikim may enter.” Alexander was not a tzaddik and was denied entry. Without going into the deeper meaning of this Gemoro, we see that the gate mentioned in the posuk is understood by Chazal to be the gate to Gan Eden.

With this in mind perhaps we can understand the deeper meaning of Dovid Hamelech’s words. The previous pesukim portray Dovid’s full trust in Hashem. “The nations surround me; with the Name of Hashem I will destroy them.” They increase their attack. “They surround me more and more…like bees….they are so close that they try to push me but Hashem will still help me.” The danger intensifies but Dovid maintains his trust in Hashem. As Chazal say (Brachos 10a) “Even if the sword is on your neck, do not give up hope.”

But does trust in Hashem mean that one will definitely survive?  Sadly not. Many have died through illness and al Kiddush Hashem. Trust in Hashem means that we believe that everything is in Hashem’s hands, not that we will always get the outcome we want. (Chazon Ish: Emuna Vebitachon). What comfort can we cling to in the face of tragedy?  Dovid Hamelech tells us, “I will not die, for I shall live.” Leaving this world is not death. It is not the end. We live on in another, better world. “Zeh hashaar L’Hashem… If we have lived our lives as we should, we, unlike Alexander, will be allowed to enter the gates of Gan Eden. We will live on, enjoying a much greater closeness to Hashem than is possible in this world. And “I will speak of the great deeds of Hashem.” we will continue to praise Hashem as we say three times daily in Ashrei.  “I will bless You every day and praise Your Name for ever.”

Dovid Hamelech said, “Even if I walk in the shadow of the valley of death, I will fear no evil because You are with me. Your rod and your staff will comfort me.” (Tehilim 23: 4) A staff supports but how can a rod, an instrument of punishment, be a source of comfort? Perhaps Dovid is hinting to this same principle. In the valley of the shadow of death – survival is not assured. Whether Hashem helps me and I survive or even if the Divine justice is that I do not survive, I will not fear because “You are with me,” whether in this world or the next.

The Seforno (Devarim 14:1) writes that Jews do not cut their skin or pull their hair out when their loved one dies because, although we miss them, “We are the children of Hashem, we are a holy nation” and those who have left this world will be enjoying rewards greater than any pleasure we could experience in this world.

Like the unborn baby who thinks that his mother’s womb is the whole world and knows nothing of the big wide world outside, some think that our world is the whole world and don’t realise that there is a great world beyond ours. In that world, those who suffered in this world will even praise Hashem for their difficulties because it will be as a result of their maintaining their emuna despite their suffering that they will merit supreme pleasure which will far outweigh the pain they experienced whilst they were alive. Even those kedoshim who have died al Kiddush Hashem will praise Hashem when they receive their tremendous reward in olam haba as is written in the Shemone Esre, “The kedoshim will praise You every day.”

Without a belief in the World to Come, this world can seem unjust; the righteous sometimes suffer, the wicked sometimes prosper. With a belief in the World to Come, our emuna is strong, our incentive to achieve spiritually is enhanced and our acceptance of Hashem’s justice will be complete.

Ho Lachmo Anya

One of the most famous questions on the Hagada is why we invite “all those who are hungry to come in and eat” after our seder has already begun. We also wonder why this invitation follows the statement, “Ha lachma anya, this is the bread of our affliction which our forefathers eat in the Land of Egypt.” Is there any connection between these two sentences that they are placed next to each other? Perhaps we can use a theme which we started a few weeks ago to answer these questions.

Dovid Hamelech has taught us the correct response when, with Hashem’s help, we are victorious against our enemies. “How can I repay Hashem for all His kindness to me? I will lift up the cup of salvations and call out in the name of Hashem. I will bring korbonos to Hashem in front of all the people.” (Tehilim 116). Calling out in the name of Hashem means announcing that Hashem has done this miracle which will bring glory to Hashem and sanctify His name. Bringing korbonos  is another way of publicising Hashem’s  role in the victory over  our enemies which will sanctify His name. Hashem doesn’t want us merely to say “Thank You” but actively bring honour to Him.

The Novi Micha, however, seems to say that the way to show hakoras hatov to Hashem is not the way Dovid Hamelech taught us. He implies that, on the contrary, bringing korbonos is a mistaken approach. “Hashem brought us out of Mitzrayim, redeemed us from the House of bondage. He gave us Moshe, Aharon and Miriam. How shall we show thanks? Shall we approach Him with burnt offerings, with calves in their first year? Does Hashem want thousands of rams or tens of thousands of streams of oil? Hashem has told us what He wants from us; do justice, love kindness and walk humbly before Him.” (6:1-6). Do we see here a fundamentally different approach between Micha and Dovid? Micha says that practicing justice, love and humility is the way to respond to Hashem’s kindnesses. Dovid favoured korbonos.

In Ahavas Chessed the Chofetz Chaim explains why practicing chessed is so vital. Firstly, he says, we all need it. We may be sick, a mourner, in need of a loan, a baal simcha or on a journey in need of hospitality. And even if we were in none of those situations, eventually we will all need chessed shel emes. Secondly, he says that in the World to Come our source of life and pleasure will be our proximity to Hashem. We cannot be close to Hashem unless we are in some small way like Him. Seeing that He is the ultimate Baal Chessed, if we did not practise chessed during our lifetime, we will have no similarity with Him at all and it will be impossible for us to be nehene miziv HaShechina.

The Siach Yitzchok points out another very important reason for us to do chessed. The first of the sheva berochos  is shehakol boro lichvodo – He created everything to honour Him. What has this to do with a chuppa? Rashi explains (Kesuvos 8a) that when all the guests assemble around a chuppa to be mesame’ach choson vekallo they are following the example of Hashem who was mesame’ach the first choson and kallo. By imitating the actions of Hashem we are giving Him honour as the saying goes, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” Hence the brocho, shehakol boro lichvodo.

Hashem is the ultimate Baal Chessed. Even as He is involved with waging war against His enemies, (Hashem Ish milchomo), He is still mercifully providing for the rest of the world, (Hashem Shemo). (Rashi, Shemos 15:3). When we follow in His ways, even at our low level, when, we practice mishpat and chessed, by imitating Hashem, we are giving Him honour. Micha was saying that when we are the recipients of Hashem’s miracles and kindness, we should not merely bring korbonos to publicise those miracles and bring honour that way. “Does Hashem want thousands of rams or tens of thousands of streams of oil?” He wasn’t disagreeing with Dovid Hamelech that we need to “lift up the cup of salvations, call out in the name of Hashem and bring korbonos in His honour.” Micha was just saying that it is not enough. We must also bring honour to Hashem by imitating His ways, trying our best to “practise justice, kindness and walking with humility before Hashem.” In fact both Dovid and Micha are telling us that the correct way to respond to Hashem’s kindnesses to Him is to honour Him. They just give two different ways of honouring Hashem and both are correct.

On Purim we remember the kindnesses of Hashem when He saved us from Homon, Amolek’s descendant. And we show our hakoras hatov both in the way taught to us by Dovid Hamelech –  reading  the megila and publicizing the miracle (kriosa zu halila) – and  in the way of Micha by practicing chessed when we do the mitzvos of mishloach monos and matonos l’ovyonim. In fact we place great emphasis on these two mitzvos on Purim. We try to fulfil the words of the Rambam (Hilchos Megilla 2:17) “There is no greater and more honourable simcha than bringing simcha to the poor, orphans, widows and strangers. Because one who brings simcha to these less blessed members of our community is comparable to the Shechina about Whom it is said, “lehachayos ruach shefolim ulehachayos lev nidkaim.

Our Seuda too will ideally be an embodiment of the two ways of our showing hakoras hatov. We lift up our cup of salvation and drink wine in the honour of the miracle of Purim. And we invite to our tables family, friends and others, as the Rambam instructed us.

We will now extend this theme into Pesach to answer the questions we started with. We begin the story of our exodus from Egypt with Ha lachma Anya, by showing to those round the table a piece of matzo – an example of what our ancestors ate whilst they were slaves in Egypt. By this we are showing the contrast between the very basic, tasteless food which was our sole nourishment then and the delicacies we eat today. We are so thankful to Hashem for having improved our situation so radically. We do not suffice with a mere mention of our former nourishment but, for greater effect, we show the food itself to our families, friends and guests. By doing this we are following the example of Dovid Hamelech and publicizing Hashem’s miracles which He has done for us. We are also following the example of Yanai Hamelech (Kiddushin 66a) who, after conquering sixty towns in the South invited all the Chachomim to a festive meal to publicise the miracle of his victories and to give Him thanks. He served simple vegetables as the first course as an example of the type of simple food the Jews who had participated in building the second Beis Hamikdash were forced to eat because of their poverty. However the food was served on golden tables to show how much Hashem had blessed the people since that time. Yannai’s whole intention was to thank Hashem and sanctify His Name. (Rashi ibid).

In our Hagada we follow this by inviting any guests who might still be in need of a festive meal. This is not intended as a real invitation because we invited people before we said Kiddush which was the correct time to invite people. It was rather a statement showing how we want to honor Hashem by following the path of Micha by going in Hashem’s ways of showing kindness just like He shows us kindness all the time. We are thus continuing the theme of Purim by honoring Hashem both in the way of Dovid Hamelech and also in the way of the prophet Micha. And in this merit we hope that although this year we are still slaves, we hope that next year we will be free. And although this year we are here, we hope that next year we will be in the rebuilt city of Yerusholayim.

Do You Know Hilchos Chol Hamoed?

Chapter One Introduction

1.      Q.  How many days of Chol Hamoed are there in a year?

A.      In Eretz Yisroel there are five days Chol Hamoed Pesach and six days Chol Hamoed Succos. In Chutz Lo’oretz because of the second day of Yom Tov there are four and five days respectively. When Shabbos is one of the days of Chol Hamoed, the halachos of Shabbos apply.

2.      Q. Is there a special greeting for Chol Hamoed?

A.      Yes; Moadim lesimcha or A Gutten Moed and we should use these greetings rather than our normal weekday greeting.[1]

3.      Q. Why did the Torah make these days to be Chol Hamoed?

A.      This is a very good question because if we understand the reason for the days of Chol Hamoed  we won’t waste them. The purpose of Pesach and Succos is to remember the miracles Hashem did for us when He brought us out of Egypt and during the forty years we were travelling through the wilderness. We should be thinking of these miracles and Hashem’s love for us, eating festive seudos, singing Hallel and other praises of Hashem for all the days of these two Yomim Tovim. On the other hand, it is difficult not to do melachos for a whole week. Therefore the Torah made just the first and last days into full Yomim Tovim with the days in between having the status of Chol Hamoed. During Chol Hamoed certain melachos are not allowed whilst others are allowed. Therefore we can continue with the Yom Tov atmosphere but are able to do certain necessary things which cannot wait until after Yom Tov.[2]

4.         Q. Are the prohibitions of Chol Hamoed from the Torah or rabbinic?

A.      Your question implies that if the prohibitions are rabbinic they are somehow less important. This is big mistake because we have to respect rabbinic laws as we respect Torah laws. In fact the Torah itself tells us to listen to rabbinic law. (Devarim 17:11). If you are a rav and want to know how to answer questions of doubt, I will tell you. There are different opinions in the Rishonim. Some say they are from the Torah.[3] Some say they are rabbinic.[4] Some say a melacha which is forbidden because it is not necessary, is forbidden from the Torah but melachos which are forbidden because they involve too much effort or special skills etc are only forbidden rabbinically. [5] The Biur Halacha (530) concludes that in questions of doubt one should not be lenient unless there is a great need.[6]

5.        Q.  All my life I have kept the first and last days of Yom Tov but I have always considered the days in between to be like a weekday with just a longer davening in the morning. Isn’t avoiding melachos on Chol Hamoed midas chasidus, something which extra pious people keep, not regular Jews like me?

A.      Unfortunately many people think the same way as you about chol hamoed. The reasons for this are possibly historical because a few decades ago avoiding work on Shabbos and Yom Tov was enough of a challenge. Therefore to work only on Chol Hamoed was regarded as a great achievement. Other reasons are possibly because often we may work if not working would cause us a loss (davar aved )and the loss of one’s job or losing customers in business is a davad aved. Therefore people began to treat the days of chol hamoed as regular days. However “where there is a will there is often a way” and as people have become more knowledgable and have realized that it is not correct to treat chol hamoed as a weekday, more and more people cut down or completely avoid working and what they thought at first couldn’t be avoided, can sometimes indeed be avoided, especially if they are self- employed. Sometimes, children inherited businesses from their father who felt that the business needed to stay open to remain solvent. But now the business is well established and won’t suffer from being closed for the whole week of Yom Tov. So now, perhaps, is the time to re-examine our chol hamoed with a view to improving our observance of it. Indeed, this is one of the purposes of this sefer. So read on and try to keep chol hamoed as the Torah intended. Remember, “According to the effort is the reward.” (Pirkei Avos).

6.      Q. I like Chol Hamoed because my Mum and Dad take us on outings. Are you saying that going on outings is not really keeping Chol Hamoed properly?

A.      Obviously children need a variety of activities to enable them to enjoy Yom Tov and Chol Hamoed. Going out as a family is a good way of strengthening the family relationships, which is very important. However parents should still consider how the atmosphere of the Yom Tov can be maintained. In Eretz Yisroel a family can visit the Kosel together, visit places where events of Tanach took place or just to see the beauty of Eretz Yisroel. In Chutz Lo’oretz a family can also go beautiful places where they can admire the beauties of Hashem’s creation. Sometimes communities or groups of schools come together for activities which are kosher and educational. Having said this, outings don’t have to take up the whole time. There can still be time for a Avos Ubanim (Banos?) session before going out or an enjoyable festive brunch. One day perhaps Dad and the boys can prepare a nice Chol Hamoed seuda giving Mum and the girls a well earned rest! Also an unrushed Chol Hamoed davening should be a vital part of each day, not to be squeezed out because we’re “too busy.” From what we have said, it is clear that visiting non-Jewish playgrounds with loud secular music and immodestly dressed boys and girls and adults is not an appropriate way of spending the very special days of Chol Hamoed and of fulfilling Simchas Yom Tov.

7.       Q. Could you give me a brief overview of which melachos are permitted on Chol Hamoed .

A.      There are four main categories of melachos which are permitted. A. Those which are necessary for preparation of food or other personal needs. B. Those which are necessary for something we need during the rest of Yom Tov. C. Those which, if we wouldn’t do them, we would suffer a loss. D. Those which a worker who is severely short of food may do. Each of these categories has sub-categories and details which we need to study together over the next few chapters in order to have everything clear.

8.      Q. Do you mean that anything that doesn’t fall into these categories is not allowed?

A.      There is a dispute amongst the Poskim whether a melacha which does not involve any effort like turning on an electric light if there is no need or carrying something unnecessary in one’s pocket in the street where there is no eiruv is allowed on Chol Hamoed. I would say that someone who has been treating Chol Hamoed as more or less a weekday up until now, should improve his observance to avoiding doing those melachos which are clearly not allowed, in the meantime.[7] However somebody who has been keeping the halachos carefully and wants to raise his standards should avoid anything which is not allowed on Shabbos unless there is a halachic reason to be lenient.[8] Certain rabbinic prohibitions certainly do not apply on Chol Hamoed  e.g. not going outside the techum,[9] muktza[10] and the halachos restricting us from speaking about business matters etc[11]

9.       Q. Are the halachos of not asking a non-Jew the same as for Shabbos?

A   In principle yes but there are occasional differences, sometimes more lenient,[12] sometimes stricter. [13] If it is for the purpose of a mitzvah to be done during Yom Tov we may ask a non-Jew.[14] If a non-Jew does a melacha for us we may benefit from it immediately.[15] Before Yom Tov we are allowed to give work to a non-Jew as long as we don’t ask him to work specifically on Chol Hamoed. This is permitted even if the work is eventually done over Chol Hamoed, as long as we are paying him for the complete job and not by the hour and as long as it is a movable item. For instance we can hand in clothes to a dry cleaner before Yom Tov without telling him to have it ready by a certain day.[16] If the clothes are needed for Yom Tov we may go to the dry cleaners on Chol Hamoed to pick them up.[17]

10.  Q. As far as I knew, we don’t put tefilin on on Chol Hamoed so I was quite shocked when some visitors to our shul were wearing tefilin. Is there an argument about tefilin on Chol Hamoed?

A.      Indeed there is and no-one is right or wrong. It’s a machlokes rishonim hundreds of years old.

Ideally those who do wear tefilin should daven together and those who don’t should daven in a different place together. In practice[18] there are many places where some wear tefilin and some don’t and people understand that there are two customs and everyone should just keep his own custom.[19] Of those who put on tefilin, some do not say a bracha on the tefilin because of the doubt and some say before they put them on, “If I should be putting tefilin on, I am putting them on to do the mitzva, if not, I do not intend to do the mitzvah.[20]

11.  Q. I heard that in Eretz Yisroel they don’t put tefilin on on Chol Hamoed. Is that so?

A.      Yes, that is the universal custom, so somebody who is just visting Eretz Yisroel who normally puts tefilin on on Chol Hamoed should not wear tefilin in shul but should put them on later in private.[21]

12.       Q. That’s great. The contract for our new house has come through and the date is in the middle of Chol Hamoed. Moving into a new big house will really give us simchas Yom Tov

A.      Not so quick. Generally speaking, we are not allowed to move home on Chol Hamoed. Chazal deemed such a major operation as incompatible with the purpose of these important days.[22]

13.       Q.  Are there no exceptions?

A.      If you are presently renting and now you are acquiring your own home could be one exception[23], moving to a different apartment within one building could be another, moving from a shared apartment to a private one another[24] and where not moving would cause a financial loss[25] yet another but as these situations are not as black and white as they used to be, a shaala should be asked.[26]

[1] Piskei Rav Eliashev 86

[2] Chazal say about Chol Hamoed, “They forbad melachos on Chol Hamoed in order that we should eat, drink, rejoice and learn Torah.” (Yerushami Moed Katan Chapter 2 Halacha 3). “The intention of Hashem when He gave us the Festivals was in order for us to cling to fearing Him, loving Him and learning His Torah.” (Mishna Berura 530:2 in the name of the Kolbo). “Those who keep the Festivals as required are is if they are partners with Hashem in the creation of the world.” (Pesikta Shemos 34:18). “Those who show disrespect the Festivals, it is as if they have served idols.” (Pesachim 118a)

[3] Rif, Rashi, Rashbam and others.

[4] Rambam (Hilchos Yom Tov 7:1), Rosh, Mordechai and others.

[5] Ramban, Rashba, Ritva

[6] I know personally of a case of somebody who refused to work on Chol Hamoed and he lost his job. However shortly afterwards he was offered another job with much better pay and conditions.

[7] He has certain authorities to rely on such the Aruch Hashulchan 545:12 and others. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was also reported to be lenient.

[8] The Chazon Ish is quoted as saying that since people are generally too lenient about Hilchos Chol Hamoed , the Poskim should be strict on this point. Chut Shoni 530:1 is also strict and says that one should be careful not to telephone a friend on Chol Hamoed unless there is a Yom Tov need. Even according to this stricter opinion there is room to be more lenient in certain cases like eini miskavein, melacha she’eina tzricha legufa etc.

[9] Mishna Berura 543:4

[10] Darchei Moshe 544:2

[11] Mishna Berura 543:8***

[12] Rather than paying a Jew to do a permitted melacha, it is preferable to pay a non-Jew. (Mishna Berura 542:5)

[13][13] A non-Jew may do work for a Jew berkablonus (where he is paid for the job, not by hour) on Shabbos and Yom Tov outside the techum because he will not be seen by Jews who are not allowed to go outside the techum (unless they made an eiruv techumim). However on Chol Hamoed when we are allowed to go outside the techum people might suspect that he is being paid by the hour. Shulchan Aruch O.C 543:2.

[14] Mishna Berura  543:1

[15] Shemiras Shabbos Kehilchasa 68:38

[16] Shulchan Aruch 543:2

[17] Ibid 534:3

[18] Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe 5:34.6) writes that in communities with a large number of shuls with different customs and people on a weekday or Chol Hamoed often just go the nearest minyan, it is accepted that all who come follow their own custom concerning Tefilin.

[19] See Daas Torah 31

[20] Not saying the bracha and making this statement, “If I…” is what Mishna Berura (31:8) says should be done.

[21] Piskei Rav Eliashev 87 Igros Moshe (ibid) adds that a person in this situation should say the shema wearing his tefilin.

[22] Shulchan Aruch O.C.535:1

[23]Ibid :2

[24] Shaar Hatziun 535:5

[25] Ibid

[26] Aruch Hashulchan 335:4.   Be’er Moshe 7:28 writes that unless not moving would cause a heavy financial loss, moving nowadays is such a major operation that it is unbefitting for Chol Hamoed.