Sunday, February 21, 2016

Understanding Tefilah: Hodu - 8 [Rav Dovid Lessin]



שירו לה' כל הארץ, בשרו מיום ליום ישועתו.

“Sing to Hashem, the entire earth, tell of His salvation daily.”

Dovid HaMelech is not only calling upon all people to sing, but also to the entire earth.  The question is simple: How do plants, rocks, and water sing?  Rav Dessler (Michtav M’Eliyahu 3:152) teaches a yesod that a creation reaches the level of singing when it arrives at the purpose for which it was created.  This is why the gemara in Chullin 91b says that Esav’s angel asked to leave Yaakov in order to say shirah.  It had fulfilled its purpose in assisting Yaakov asend to greatness and therefore was ready to sing.

This is why a person can experience a moment of pristine, other-worldly elevation in the midst of a song, such as at a kumzitz or tisch.  The beauty of a song has the power to lift up a person, so that for a moment he feels no discrepancy between who he is and who he is meant to be.  The harmony of the music brings him into harmony with himself.

In the previous pasuk, Dovid HaMelech explained that Hashem refers to us as “m’shichai,” His anointed ones.  This is a clear reference to the days of Mashiach, a time when the world will be filled with song.  All of creation, humans and non-humans alike, will actualize the purpose for which they were created and will experience sublime harmony as a result.  After alluding to the times of Mashiach, Dovid naturally turns his attention to the entire world and calls for the song that will be sung collectively at that time.

And what will that song be?  The second half of the pasuk tells us.  We will sing about Hashem’s moment-to-moment involvement in our lives.  We will realize that he’s always there with us, always holding us up, always taking care of us.  Imagine how joyous that song will be...

L’refuat Yeshaya ben Chava HaLevi

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Masorah: Later Rishonim of Spain - Rabbenu Yonah [Rav Aryeh Leibowitz]

Rabbenu Yonah (d. 1263)  

R. Yonah is probably best known nowadays for his works on Mussar, but he was also a communal leader, a Rosh Yeshiva (Barcelona and then Toledo), and a Talmud Commentator.

R. Yonah was born in Girona, Catalonia[1] but was appointed Rav in the central Spain city of Toledo in 1244, following the death of Ramah.[2]  R. Yonah is the first major Spanish Talmudist that we know of that travelled to France to study in the Tosafist academies.  In the French city of Evreux (אווירא), R. Yonah studied under R. Moshe of Evreux, and also travelled to Provance and studied under R. Shlomo Min ha-Har (of Montpelier).  R. Yonah brought back to Spain with him the teachings and derech ha-limud that he learned in France, and this had a major influence on Spanish Talmud study. 

Rabbenu Yonah’s major work is the Sefer Aliyos.  It contain a detailed analysis of the sugyah, and then ends with a summary of the halachic conclusion.  This concluding halakhic summary began with the words, “עלה בידינו,” hence, the name works title, Aliyos.[3]  Only the Aliyos on tractate Bava Batra have been printed, although we know that he wrote his sefer on other tractates as well.

The Aliyos quote from three different traditions, The Tosafist tradition of France, the teachings of the masters of Provance, and the classic early Sephardic Rishonim.[4]  These disparate sources result in a sefer that is multi-cultural.  While the sefer has a clear dialectical element that runs through it, the concluding focus on Pesak halacha is clear and present in his work.  In Rabbenu Yonah, we see the furthering of a trend that had begun with Ramah, and would reach a zenith with R. Yonah’s cousin, the Ramban.  That is, R. Yonah reflects the synthesis of the traditional halacha-focused Sephardic style with the dialectical approach of the European Ashkenazim.

In addition to his Talmudic writings, R. Yonah also authored seminal works in Mussar.  His commentary on Pirkei Avos, his Sha’arei Teshuva and Iggeres ha-Teshuva on repentance, and his Sefer ha-Yirah on piety are classic works of mussar and ethical living.

Talmidei R. Yonah
The students of R. Yonah also composed a commentary based on his lectures. It is printed in the margins of the Rif’s Halachos in tractate Berachos in standard editions of the Talmud, and is quoted often in the Shitah Mekubetzes.  While it is reflective of R. Yonah’s teachings, it is not his own writing, and there are even occasions where it contradicts things R. Yonah himself wrote. 




[1] Catalonia – The Province of Catalonia, especially its capitol city Barcelona, was a major Torah center in Christian Spain during the period of the later Rishonim.  The region had been conquered by the Muslim Moors in the early 8th century, but Muslim rule only lasted until the end of the century.  By the year 801, Catalonia returned to Christian hands and served as the southern border of Christian Europe. 

[2] Note that Ramah was a major figure in his life, and Rabbenu Yonah’s commentary on Pirkei Avos quotes from Rabbenu Meir often.

[3] The summary, is representative of the Spanish tradition of learning of אליבא דהלכתא, and in this way was like that of the Ramah.  However, it was also different, and its language was a pure hebrew. 

[4] Interestingly the perush does not address issues of agadah, even though R. Yonah himself was so heavily involved in such areas.  Unlike the Aliyos, the perush of Talmidei Rabbenu Yonah in Berachos does address issues of agadah, and includes musar passages.  The presence of such material indicates that in his shiurim, R. Yonah did speak about such issues, just didn’t include them in his commentary.  There are three sources that appear more prominently in the Talmidei RY than in the Aliyos:  The Ba’alei Tosefos, The Ramah, and the Rambam.  While we only have the aliyos on Bava Basra, we know he wrote it on other mesechtos as well.  

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Tefilah: Hodu 7 [Rav Dovid Lessin]

לא הניח לאיש לעשקם ויוכח עליהם מלכים. אל תגעו במשיחי ובנביאי אל תרעו.



“He let no man oppress them, and He rebuked kings for their sake: ‘Do not touch my annointed ones, and do not harm my prophets.’”
The word “hini’ach,” or “let,” can also be translated as “to put down.”  The key to our divine protection is Hashem’s decision to pick up Avraham Avinu and the entire Jewish nation after him, and to never put us down.  Hashem carried us above kings such as Pharoah and Avimelech and warned them not to touch or harm us in any way.  This can be compared to the word we use to describe marriage in Judaism, “nisuin,” which literally means “carryings.”  One who marries is making the decision to carry the other person no matter how difficult it becomes and to never put them down.  Hashem made that commitment to us when we first became his anointed ones.  “M’shichai” in this verse can also be understood as “my designated ones.”  Avraham Avinu earned our chosenness as Hashem’s designated partners in this world, and as such we have merited to be held and carried in a way no other nation enjoys.

The famous metaphor tells of a boy being carried on his father’s shoulders, who eventually forgets that his father is holding him up.  The boy asks the person next to him, “Have you seen my father?”  The father realizes his son has lost an awareness of his fortunate situation, and decides to put the boy down so that he can experience the dangers of being small in such a big world.  Immediately the boy is afraid asks to be held once more, now understanding that his father had been protecting him all along.  We must not forget that we are always being carried, collectively and personally, and that is the source of our divine protection.

L’refuat Yeshaya ben Chava HaLevi

Friday, February 5, 2016

The Masorah: Later Rishonim of Spain - Intro and Ramah [Rav Aryeh Leibowitz]

From Al – Andalus to the Reconquista: The Reemergence of Torah in Spain

During the period of the Early Rishonim, the Sephardic Torah center of North Africa and Southern Spain came to a premature end when Muslims tribes overran North Africa and eventually extended their rule into Spain.  In response, many of the Jews fleeing persecution, resettled in the regions of Northern Spain.  For this reason, we know of little Torah learning in Spain during the latter period of the Early Rishonim.      

However, towards the middle of the 12th century, the Christians of northern Spain began to retake control of Central and Southern Spain in a series of military campaigns known as the Reconquista.  With the successful reconquest of Spain by Christian forces, Torah also returned to the Iberian Peninsula. 

From this point forward, Torah flourished in Spain for many generations.  However, it is important to realize that the Talmudists of Spain that we will be discussing lived under Christian rule and not under Muslim rule.  For this reason, the Later Spanish Rishonim were more connected to the Ashkenazic communities of France and Germany than the earlier Sephardic sages who flourished under Muslim rule.  While many of them saw themselves as the heirs to the rich Sephardic masters - the Rif, Ri Migash, Rambam, etc. – and their tradition, many of them also looked to the Ashkenazic masters and their style of learning for direction and inspiration.  This phenomenon was especially true of the sages who operated in the Catalonian region of North Eastern Spain, abutting Southern France and Provance.[1]

R. Meir ha-Levi Abulafia (Ramah, d. 1244) 

The Ramah was the first major figure to emerge in Christian Spain from the Torah vacuum created by the Muslim conquests of Spain.  He lived in Toledo (טוליטולא), an important Spanish city in central Spain and a major Torah center.[3]  Ramah was a celebrated posek and kabbalist, and was revered by his contemporaries and all later rabbinic figures in Spain.


Ramah wrote a commentary on the Gemara called the “Pratei Pratin (The Fine Details),” although it was later named “Yad Ramah” by the 18th century printers.  In the Pratei Pratinthe Ramah starts with a general discussion of the halacha that emerges from the sugyah and then addresses the fine details of the sugyah.[4]

His style is like the Rif in the sense that he uses a lot of Aramaic and interject his own additions into quotations from the Gemara.  Like Rif he also quotes few people by name, even though he draws from the teachings of the Rif, R. Hannanel, Rambam,[5] and others.

Ramah’s focus on pesak halacha and the similarity of his writing style to that of the Rif leads us to view Ramah as a true heir to the “old school” of Sephardic talmudics.  But Ramah’s writings also contain the Ashkenazic focus on dialectic analysis.  His commentary raises questions from other sugyos, includes cross-references to parallel Talmudic discussions, and features creative resolutions.   His explicit inclusion of Tosafist teachings, his utilization of their methods, and his focus on the specific issues raised in their works is the beginning of a trend that will eventually dominate the Talmudic culture in Christian Spain.  In this sense, Ramah was a figure who bridged the traditional Sephardic style of learning with the newer style that was dominant in Ashkenazic lands.




[1] It is noteworthy that the Ramban, whose academy was in Catalonia, refers to the Rambam as “Rav Moshe ha-Sephardi.”  From the Ramban’s vantage point it was the Rambam who was truly “Sephardic.”

[2] Ramah came from a well-known family of Rabbis and community leaders.  At a very young age he sat on the Beis Din with one of the great older rabbinic figures of the time, R. Avraham b. Nasan HaYarchei (d. 1215).

[3] The Toledo Yeshiva - When Ri Migash died his children moved the yeshiva of Lucena to Toledo.  The Sefer Ha-Manhig tells us that in 1196 there were over 10,000 Jews in Toledo (most communities numbered in the hundreds).  Ramah assumed leadership of the yeshiva in Toldeo.  He was succeeded by Rabbenu Yonah and then the Ra’ah. When the Rosh arrived in Spain, he also settled in Toledo and ran a yeshiva.  It is interesting to note that he refers to the Ramah as the “master of the region (מורה דאתרא).” 

[4] In the end of the 18th century his commentary on tractates Bava Basra and Sanhedrin were published.  We now know that Ramah wrote on at least fourteen tractates.  The Ramah’ teachings were seemingly popular in the Catalonian academies, as we find them quoted by the students of the Ramban.  His writings are also quoted in the Shita Mekubetzes.  However, it appears that not until the Rosh and Tur was his commentary known or studied in France and Germany.  From then on, his Torah occupied a very central position, especially in the Tur. 

[5] Ramah was involved in the first stages of the controversies regarding the Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim and Sefer Ha-Madah.  He wrote letters to the community in Luniel, which was led by R. Yehonason, and the exchange was then sent to R. Shimshon of Shantz for a decision.  Although he expressed criticism of the Rambam in issues of faith and philosophy, he revered him in halacha. Rambam is one of the few people he quotes by name, and he even wrote a kinah upon the death of the Rambam. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Tefilah: Hodu 6 [Rav Dovid Lessin]


בהיותכם מתי מספר, כמעט וגרים בה. ויתהלכו מגוי אל גוי, ומממלכה אל עם אחר.


“When you were a numbered people, few and strangers in it (Israel).  And you traveled from people to people, and from one kingdom to another nation.”



Rashi explains that Dovid HaMelech is highlighting the difference between our attachment to Eretz Yisrael and any other nation's attachment to their homeland.  Under ordinary circumstances, a nation's connection to their homeland develops after conquering and inhabiting the land for a period of time as an entire people.  By contrast, our relationship with Eretz Yisrael began when we were few in number - only two (Avraham and Sarah).  Furthermore, we did not live in Eretz Yisrael at the time it was given to us; we were strangers in a land not our own.  We were not even rooted in the land when we received it; we were constantly traveling in and out of it, to Mitzrayim, Grar, and Charan.  Rav Kook explains that our story is different than all other nations because our attachment to Eretz Yisrael is a different kind of attachment.  It is supernatural, granted to us by Hashem, and cannot be explained by ordinary rules.  We have a relationship with Eretz Yisrael that is deep and profound, and is woven into the fabric of the Jewish People, regardless of how many we are and where we happen to be located.



The Siach Yitzchak adds that traveling through peoples and kingdoms poses different threats.  "People" (“goy”) connotes a group without a leader that exhibits thievery and lawlessness, and which loots those who pass through.  "Kingdom" (“mamlacha”) connotes a united group under a leader, which can band together against a common enemy, especially one like Avraham who openly denied their gods.  Yet, despite our wanderings in such dangerous lands, Hashem’s promise of Eretz Yisrael granted us special protection that ensured we would survive all attacks and eventually come home.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

IThink - Law and Order (Avos 3:2) [Rav Binyamin Hutt]

It is all too often that we are subjected to a disturbing report relating another offense or felony.  It is right there on the front page or smart-phone, alongside your coffee, as you roll out of bed.  We are neither oblivious to the world around us, nor ignorant of all the pervasive dangers.  Why don't we care?  How can we move on to the sports page as if nothing happened?  We might not be lawyers, judges, or law enforcement agents, but there is something we can do.  We are members of society who should care enough to take a moment to pray for the general wellbeing of our fellow citizens.  Never underestimate the power of prayer.  They may be called headlines, but each news flash must penetrate our hearts.  Additionally, while we should always hope to live in a more perfected world, we must simultaneously thank Hashem for allowing the governing nations to facilitate real life law and order

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

iThink - Your Final Destination (Avos 3:1) [Rav Binyamin Hutt]

 דע מאין באת ולאן אתה הולך ולפני מי אתה עתיד ליתן דין וחשבון

Remember when an airport used to be just an airport with a few news stands?  Now most airports could practically double as shopping malls, food courts and art museums.  All of these amenities offer convenience and entertainment to the modern traveler.  Now imagine the embarrassment of the everyday passenger who missed his connecting flight due to his window shopping in the central terminal!  This world in which we live is strikingly akin to a bustling airport.  Everyday there are countless exciting new arrivals as well as departures that are difficult to deal with.  Amidst all of the people coming and going, we find newer and more sophisticated innovations that constantly grace our lives; providing opportunities for efficiency, pleasure, and ease.  If these temporal attractions become distractions, then you might not arrive at your potentially glorious final destination.  Do not get diverted by a culture of 'duty free,' and remember to proudly fulfill each incumbent obligation to earn your place in sublime eternity.  All passengers for flight 120, this is your final boarding call.