Friday, April 30, 2021

Mourning Restrictions during the Omer


by Rabbi Benjy Simons

This week my wife asked me what I wanted for dinner tonight. 
I responded, well, last night we had… 

As we find ourselves during the period of Pesach to Shavuos commonly known as Sefiras HaOmer, and as this Parsha mentions the Mitzvah of counting the Omer, I thought it would be prudent to understand the historical context of why there are certain restrictions during this time and how we curtail our joy throughout this period. 

The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (120:6, 10) writes that during the first 33 days of Sefira the disciples of Rabbi Akiva passed away. We thus observe a partial state of mourning, whereby we avoid marriages, haircuts and customarily avoid listening to music. As many of the students of Rabbi Akiva passed away, their Jewish brethren were busy with burying their colleagues and thus it is also written to not do any work from sunset until one counts the Omer (Tur). 

The Talmud (Yevamos 62b) provides the backdrop as to why this occurred, namely that the 12,000 pairs of students lacked an element of respect between each other. Despite Rabbi Akiva’s efforts to match up his students and the importance of loving one’s fellow (Yerushalmi Nedarim 9:4), there was discord and resentment found among his students. According to the Gemara they died of diphtheria, which affects the respiratory system and connected to the spreading of Lashon Hora (Shabbos 33a). 

Another suggestion often cited by Rav Sherira Gaon is that Rabbi Akiva’s students passed away during the Bar Kochba revolt, but this was censored from the Gemara to avoid the political ramifications. This would connect with the above mentioned Gemara in that there were 12,000 pairs of students, as each soldier had a partner who was learning in his merit, but they were unable to get along as each felt that they were contributing more to the cause which led their annihilation. It was perhaps this malicious speech, which the Talmud Yerushalmi (Peah 1:1) identifies as the cause of diphtheria and the casualties of warfare. At a deeper level is it known that Rabbi Akiva supported wholeheartedly the cause of Bar Kochba (Eichah Rabbah 2:4) and that he would be the Moshiach and hence the tragedy of this time represents a Messianic hope that was unfortunately lost. 

May we therefore merit through our observances at this time to usher in the Messianic redemptions, where there will be a flourishing of Torah study and death will be swallowed away forever (Isaiah 25:8).

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Tuesday, April 27, 2021

The Reward

Art: Boris Dubrov

''And you shall take for yourselves on the first day, the fruit of the hadar tree...'' [Emor 23:40]

The Vilna Gaon had a great love for the mitzvah of the four species.  Year after year, Vilna's vendors streamed to the Gaon's house with choice etrogim, and he would select the one he thought was the nicest.

One year, a vendor showed the Gaon an exquisite etrog.   The Gaon was very impressed and was willing to pay its full price.

''I do not wish to sell the etrog for money''  responded the vendor.  ''Rather, I desire the reward that you will garner for performing the mitzvah of the four species.''

''I readily agree'' said the Gaon.  ''I will take the etrog, and you will receive my reward.''

All those who visited the Gaon that Sukkot saw him savoring his beautiful etrog to a far greater degree than in previous years.

To calm their curiousity, the Gaon explained: '''Throughout my entire life, I have yearned to fulfill the words of our Sages [Pirkei Avot 1:3] ''Be like servants who serve their master, not for the sake of receiving a reward.''  A person must not serve Hashem simply in order to receive a reward.  This is extremely difficult, however, as we are constantly aware that we will receive a reward each time we perform a mitzvah,  But this year I was given the opportunity to perform a mitzvah with the knowledge that I would not be receiving any reward for doing so!''

''I am so fortunate to have merited such an opportunity.  This is why you find me so overjoyed.''

Source: Rabbi Yisroel Bronstein

Friday, April 23, 2021

Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac of Komarna


Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Yehudah Yechiel Michel Safrin of Komarna was born on the 25th of Shevat 5566 (1806). His father passed away when he was 12 years old, and he was raised by his uncle, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch of Ziditchov. After he married, he moved to Pintchov, his father-in-law’s town, and became a rebbe. Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac also served as a dayan (judge) in Ziditchov. Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac suffered disdain and poverty. Later, he said that he achieved his lofty spiritual level in the merit of the persecution, which he suffered with love and joy. Later, he moved back to Komarna and remained there until the end of his life. 

Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac was the first and most important rebbe of the Komarna Chassidut and had thousands of chassidim. He was a prolific writer on an array of Torah topics, particularly on Kabbalah, in which he was an expert and a great innovator. He delved into the writings of the Ba’al Shem Tov and into the stories about him and his disciples. Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac passed away on the 10th of Iyar, 5634 (1874), at the age of 68.

There are many stories of Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac and the books that he wrote. Once, he was a guest in someone’s home, and he slept in the study. On Shabbat night, he saw that one of the books on the shelves was shining. At first, he thought that he was imagining things, but when he saw that the book was indeed shining, he got up to see which book it was. It was none other than his own book, Netiv Mitzvotecha. The next day, on his way to the mikveh, Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac slipped and broke his leg. He later said that he deserved this, for he felt a bit of pride over the fact that the book he had authored was shining.

On a different occasion, he couldn’t fall asleep because his book, Notzer Chesed, was shining from the shelves. 

In the introduction to Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac’s commentary on the Zohar, Zohar Chai, his son describes the long process of writing it: The tzaddik began writing after Pesach 5617 (1857). After writing four pages on the two opening lines of the Zohar, he saw that it was an “endless fountain,” and he decided to stop writing. At that time, some people came to ask him to pray for an ill Jew, and when the tzaddik said that he would gift him his innovations on the Zohar, the Jew recovered). 

Ten years later, a ninety-year-old Jew who looked young and healthy came to visit Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac. Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac decided that if a person could live to such a ripe old age in good health in his generation, then he may be able to complete a book on the Zohar despite his relatively advanced age (59). That night, he saw the Ba’al Shem Tov, who approved his commentary, and Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac began to write again. 

He wrote continuously for several weeks, without speaking to anyone. He would eat and drink only at nightfall. He continued with this practice until he finished the introduction to the Zohar. When Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac saw that his health was suffering, he set aside specific times for writing. He continued with this writing schedule until the last Pesach of his life. 

The last section upon which Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac wrote commentary was the Zohar on God’s words to Moses, “Enough. Do not continue to speak to Me of this matter” (Deuteronomy 3:26). The Zohar writes, “‘Enough’ – with the light of the sun that you had – ‘do not continue’ – for the time of the moon has come, and the moon cannot illuminate until the sun sets. Instead, [the Torah continues], ‘Command Joshua and strengthen him and encourage him’ (Deuteronomy 3:28). You, who are the sun, must shine for the moon, who is Joshua.” 

After Pesach, Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac became ill. He asked for his manuscript to be brought to him so that he could continue writing and not stop at this section. It did not transpire, however, and he passed away.  

Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac lived for 68 years, the numerical value of “life” (חַיִּים). He passed away on the 10th day of Iyar, the day of netzach (victory) within netzach in the Counting of the Omer. In this story, we see how much the triumph of life was necessary to enable him to write his overflowing Torah commentary.

Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac’s commentary on the Zohar can be considered the pinnacle of his Torah works. How does one merit such a length of days? From the verse “Length of days in her right hand” (Proverbs 3:16), we can learn that Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac merited length of life in netzach due to his “right hand” of love and kindness. He radiated this love and kindness to the world through his books, in order to bring his fellow Jews close to their Father in heaven. (Interestingly, writing with the intent of bringing others close to God is generally done with the right hand). 

Besides writing many books, Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac also liked gematria and “numbers” (מִסְפָּרִים), which in Hebrew shares a root with “books” (סְפָרִים). Interestingly, his last name, Safrin (סָאפְרִין), shares the same root and is cognate to the word sofer (סוֹפֵר), meaning a scribe. The light that shines from his books is reminiscent of the shining light of the sappir (סַפִּיר), or sapphire. Thus, the words for number, story and sapphire all stem from the same three-letter root ס.פ.ר. and, in Kabbalah, they correspond to the three aspects of every vessel. 

Of the many beautiful descriptions of writing in the Bible, the one that seems to best describe Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac is, “[My tongue is] the pen of a quick writer”[1] ( עֵט סוֹפֵר מָהִיר[לְשׁוֹנִי]). This description is also numerically related to him since its value is 680 and it consists of 10 letters, which means that the average value of each letter is 68, Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac’s lifespan. The reduced value of these words is 50, the age at which Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac began writing his commentary on the Zohar. The word for “pen” (עֵט) is the initials for “good advice” (עֵצָה טוֹבָה). Thus, with the pen that he holds in his right hand when writing, he is giving others good advice through his books. Indeed, the sages say[2] that age 50 is the age at which one is best suited to start giving advice. The word “pen” can also be seen as the initials for “important and unimportant” (עִקָּר טָפֵל); knowing the difference between the two is vital to good writing and authoring books that are illuminating. 

The age at which Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac began writing his commentary on the Zohar is connected to how the writing ended—his passing in the middle of sefirat ha’omer (the Counting of the Omer) on the day of netzach in netzach, the attribute of Moses, while writing about the passing of Moses. Moses attained the 50th gate of understanding and gave the Torah on the 50th day of the Counting of the Omer. 

The parallel between Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac and Moses is apparent in this story and is expressed in many places in his books. It would be interesting to guess the identity of Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac’s Joshua, the “face of the moon” that he illuminated. 

Moses was the great scribe of Israel[3] as well as its faithful shepherd.[4] For Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac, leadership and teaching Torah did not come together easily. The Yeitiv Lev[5] once remarked that the Komarna Rebbe had many chassidim, and then their number dwindled. But uncharacteristically, when he would go on a journey, the crowds would flock to him. He explained that in heaven, there was great satisfaction from his writings. Thus, heaven ensured that chassidim would not come to him when he was at home, which would have distracted him from his writing. But, when he was out on a journey, and could not write anyway, the crowds returned.

[1]. Psalms 45:2. [2]. Avot 5:22. [3]. Sotah 13b. [4]. Moses’ connotation in the Zohar, רָעֲיָא מְהֵימְנָא. [5]. Rabbi Yekuthiel Yehudah Teitelbaum (1808 to 1883), grandson of the Yismach Moshe.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Genetically Modified Organisms

by Rabbi Benjy Simons 

A customer asks the shopkeeper, ‘Are these strawberries genetically modified’? 

The shopkeeper responds, ‘of course not’. 

The strawberries say, ‘oh yes we are’. 

In this week’s Parsha we are commanded against crossbreeding across different species, such as interbreeding livestock or mixing seeds (Kilayim) or certain clothing fibres (Shatnez). Rashi explains that these are super-rational laws which cannot be understood, though other commentators try to give partial reasons for avoiding these mixtures. The Ibn Ezra suggests that we are commanded to not alter the work of G-d and thus we are commanded to preserve the species and not interbreed them. The Ramban echoes this idea in that one who grafts two species undermines the work of creation, as if to say that Hashem did not complete the needs of this world and that we can further perfect what G-d already created. 

Yet at the same time we find the Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 11:6) mentions that everything Hashem created during the six days of creation require further processing to bring them to their ultimate state, such as mustard seeds which require sweetening or wheat requiring grinding. Similarly, we find in the Talmud (Pesachim 54a) that Adam after the first Shabbos created fire and mated a donkey and horse to produce a mule, symbolic of man’s creative abilities in enhancing creation. 

The above concepts are often a starting point for the important discussion of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) which refers to an organism that has had its DNA altered or modified through genetic engineering. The OU has given its stamp of approval to salmon that were genetically altered with the DNA of eels (which are non-kosher) to enable them to grow twice as fast as they still contain fins and scales. In 2012 spider genes were added to goats, so their milk contained gossamer to produce silk and the goat milk was still deemed kosher. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach permitted this is it didn’t fall under the category of crossbreeding which the Torah prohibits and the Aruch HaShulchan similarly allowed the idea, as since such actions can’t be seen by the naked eye, Halachically it is deemed insignificant. 

Could one genetically modify a pig to make it Halachically acceptable were it to chew its cud? 

The Mishna (Bechoros 1:2) mentions that the offspring of kosher animals are deemed kosher, even when they lack kosher signs. Similarly, the offspring of non-kosher animals are forbidden, even were they to exhibit kosher signs. This idea may even be extended to surrogacy in that the surrogate mother is considered the mother of the child in a Halachic sense, even when they are not connected to the biological material (see Targum Yonasan to Bereishis 30:21). Therefore, perhaps it is possible that if the foetus of a modified pig was to be placed into a kosher animal artificially, it would be deemed acceptable. As discussed previously, the concept of the pig becoming kosher will usher a return to Zion and the Messianic age. May our efforts in making this a reality bring us closer to that goal.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Sefira and the Redemption Pt 1

 Rabbi Mendel Kessin audio, shiur given 4/19/21

and this one given last week

The Third Temple

Tuesday, April 20, 2021


Text by Rabbi Yisroel Bronstein

''Hashem spoke to Moshe after the death of Aharon's two sons'' [Acharei 1:1]

Why, asks Rashi, does the verse state ''Hashem spoke to Moshe after the death of Aharon's two sons''? Why not simply say ''Hashem spoke to Moshe''?

To answer the question, Rashi quotes R' Elazar ben Azaryah's parable:  A sick man called for a doctor.  The doctor instructed him ''Do not eat cold food, and do not lie in a damp chilly place.''

Then a second doctor came and told the man ''Do not eat cold food, and do not lie in a damp chilly place, so that you will not die like so-and-so did.''

By alluding to somebody who died as a result of not taking these precautions, the second doctor was more successful than the first in rousing the man to take care of himself.

This is why, explains Rashi, the verse states ''after the death of Aharon's two sons''.  It was in order to give Aharon an extra measure of motivation to keep the laws enumerated in this portion.