Category Archives: Shalom

Taking Challah, Sara Yocheved Rigler

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I am reading a BOOK. And I don’t just mean any sort of book. I am reading something unbelievably inspiring and motivating and soul stirring. I have written elsewhere about Sara Yocheved Rigler’s book Holy Woman and it inspired me to read further – anything by this incredible woman whose life story is so vivid and striking. So, I am reading Lights from Jerusalem and I just had to share:

TAKING CHALLAH

I have been religiously observant for 18 years. Three months ago, a woman started giving a course in our neighborhood on the mitzvah of taking challah. In the Torah, God commands that once we enter the Land of Israel, when we bake bread, we should separate off a small piece of the dough and put it aside. This is one of the three mitzvot that are considered specifically given to women.

Not being the earthy type, I have never felt inclined to bake bread from scratch. With my bread maker, yes. With my husband (a pianist who loves to exercise his fingers by kneading) making the dough, and me just saying the blessing and breaking off a piece of dough, yes. But to take a ten-week course in the single mitzvah of separating challah, no thanks.

When a friend asked me why I wasn’t taking the challah course, I replied glibly that I’m all air signs, and I’m not the earthy, bread-baking type. My friend looked at me aghast. “Don’t you know that all the blessings of physical abundance come down into the world through the performance of the mitzvah of taking challah? The mitzvah also brings blessings of health and healing, emunah and protection.”

I enrolled in the course, wondering how there could be so much to say about a single mitzvah.

“The mitzvah of challah is cosmic in its effect,” the teacher proclaimed. Every week my jaw dropped lower as she expatiated on the mystic ramifications of this one mitzvah.

Then she announced that the following week a Rabbi Elozor Barclay would be coming in to teach us about the mitzvah’s specific requirements in Jewish law. This would take two hours.

Two hours? I couldn’t imagine how he could fill up two hours. And, of course, I already knew how to do the mitzvah.

I went to the class anyway. I discovered that I had been doing the mitzvah wrong.

The following week, our teacher announced, she would be demonstrating how to make challah. I came prepared for a Pillsbury lesson that I didn’t need because my husband has the world’s best recipe for whole wheat challah.

The demonstration was a life-changing event.

Now I make challah once a month, and it’s the spiritual highpoint of my month. I start by turning off the phone and announcing that no one is permitted into the kitchen until I’ve finished; this mitzvah requires total concentration.

Then I give tzedakah, so that all my prayers will be favorably accepted. Then I say a chapter of Tehillim, to open up the gates of heaven.

While sifting the flour, I sing, because joy is the foundation of all spiritual success. Then I add each ingredient consciously: sugar for the sweetness I hope to see in my family’s life; yeast so that each member of my family will grow and expand; water represents Torah; when measuring salt, which represents rebuke, I fill two tablespoons, then shake some back into the salt container because we should always give less rebuke than we think we should; and as I slowly pour in the oil, I “anoint” each member of my family by name, praying for his or her specific needs.

Kneading is the time to pray. My teenage daughter and I take turns, each of us thinking of people to pray for by name: single friends that they should get married; childless friends that they should have babies; sick people and terror victims that they should have a speedy and complete recovery; people struggling financially that they should have livelihood. My daughter reminds me to add the names of Israel’s missing soldiers and of Jonathan Pollard. On and on we knead and pray, with such spiritual focus and intensity, that the kitchen becomes charged.

Now the dough is ready to take the hallah, but the spiritual preparations to perform the mitzvah properly continue. Reading from a laminated sheet prepared and distributed by two Israeli sisters, I pray fervently that my performance of the mitzvah of hallah will repair the primeval sin of Eve. That just as she brought death into the world, I will bring life into the world, nullifying death, erasing the tears from every face.

Now the dough is ready to for challah to be taken, but the spiritual preparations to perform the mitzvah properly continue. Reading from a laminated sheet prepared and distributed by two Israeli sisters, I pray fervently that my performance of the mitzvah of challah will repair the sin of Eve. That just as she bought death into the world, my intention in the performance of this mitzvah is to bring life into the world, nullifying death, erasing the tears from every face.

Now I am ready to perform the mitzvah. I break off a small piece of dough, recite the blessing over the mitzvah, and with both hands lift the piece of dough above my head and proclaim: “Behold, this is challah!”

My hands are quivering with the spiritual intensity of the moment. With my hands still raised, I utter two more prayers — one that my taking challah should be considered as if I had brought an offering in the Holy Temple, that it should atone for all my sins and be as if I am born anew, and the other for the complete and final redemption of the whole world.

After all the prayers and intentions, it has taken me over an hour to perform this one mitzvah. I feel exalted, tremulous, ecstatic as I used to feel after hours of meditation.

For 17 years, I sporadically (and incorrectly) performed the mitzvah of challah, while having no idea of the profundity and spiritual potential of the mitzvah. I slid into second base, recited the blessing, broke off a piece of dough — and felt nothing. It did not connect me to God, except on the most rudimentary level.

The lack was not in the mitzvah. The lack was not in Judaism. The lack was in me.

The mitzvot are an unparalleled spiritual feast. Most Jews have barely tasted their sumptuousness. Connoisseurs know the difference between eating and dining. The latter takes time — and concentration on the taste of every bite. A connoisseur dining in a five-star restaurant will not complain at how long the food takes to prepare. Nor will he assess the quality of the restaurant by how full he feels when he leaves.

Connecting to Hashem through the mitzvot takes time, constant learning, and a commitment to moving ever deeper. Judaism is not a fast-food religion.

Pirkei Avot, Chapter 3:1

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ג,א  עקביה בן מהללאל אומר, הסתכל בשלושה דברים, ואין אתה בא לידי עבירה–דע מאיין באת, ולאיין אתה הולך, ולפני מי אתה עתיד ליתן דין וחשבון:  מאיין באת, מליחה סרוחה.  ולאיין אתה הולך, למקום רימה ותולעה.  ולפני מי אתה עתיד ליתן דין וחשבון, לפני מלך מלכי המלכים הקדוש ברוך הוא

Akavya ben Machalelel would say: Reflect upon three things and you will not come to sin. Know from whence you came, and to where you are going, and before whom you will give an accounting. Form where did you come? From a putrid drop. To where are you going? To a place of dust, maggots, and worms. Before whom will you give an accounting? Before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He. (Avot 3:1)

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The focus of this mishna is to REFLECT on the things that we do in our lives and what leads us to do them.  If we cannot stop and reflect then we cannot grow or develop, nor can we begin to understand and appreciate this mishna. By always reflecting on ourselves, our behaviour, our past, present and future, we always perceive our lives within a certain context and perspective. If we live in this way then we will always stay on the right path and not veer (even unknowingly) toward sin.

Rabbi Moshe Bogomilsky asks: Why does it list the three things to reflect upon first and then repeat each with elaboration?

The answer according to Rabbi Bogomilsky: “it is related in the Gemara that Antonius said to Rebbe, “the body and soul are able to excuse themselves from judgement. The body says, ‘It is the soul that has sinned, for from the day it has departed from me I have been lying silent like a rock in the grave.’ The soul says, ‘It is the body that has sinned, for from the day that I have departed from it, I have been flying in the air like a bird and not doing any sin.’

Rebbe said to him, “I will give you a parable to what this can be compared. A king had an orchard with beautiful figs. He appointed two guards, one lame and the other blind. The lame one said to the blind one, ‘I see beautiful figs in the orchard. Mount me on your shoulda and together we will be able to enjoy them’. The king once came to the orchard and said to the guards, ‘where are all my figs?’ The lame one said, ‘do I have any feet with which to travel to the figs?’ And the blind one said, ‘Do I have any eyes to see the figs?’ The king mounted the lame one on the back of the blind one and judged them as a unit. So, too, on the day of judgement, Hashem brings the soul and injects it into the body and judges them together as unit for the sins they committed together while upon this earth.”

Akvaya Ben Mahalaleil is addressing both the physical body and the neshama in this mishna. It is this stark remind about the need to differentiate between gashmiut (materialism) and ruchniut (spiritualism) that makes this a very confronting mishna.

Pirkei Avot, Chapter 1:12

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א,יב  הלל ושמאי קיבלו מהם.  הלל אומר, הוי כתלמידיו של אהרון–אוהב שלום ורודף שלום, אוהב את הברייות ומקרבן לתורה

Hillel and Shamai received it from them. Hillel said: Be of the students/disciples of Aaron – Love peace and chase peace, Love the creatures and bring them close to Torah.

Who were Hillel and Shammai?

That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation. (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat 31a). — Hillel

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Aharon loved peace and he actively chased after it. According to the midrash, if Aharon HaCohen saw a sinner he would be extra nice to the sinner so that the sinner felt guilty and sought to change his actions. Aharon loved others and sought to bring them close  to Hashem.

Examine the punctuation of the verse: it seems to indicate that there are three separate sections or statements. 1. Be like the students of Aharon, 2. Love peace and chase peace, 3. Love the creatures and bring them close to Torah.

2. and 3. are clearly similar in structure and syntax, there is clear balance in these two statements implied by the use of the word ‘love’ and by the ‘vav’ which links them. (Both have two verbs and two nouns). But the first part of the mishna does not seem to fit with the style of its latter part.

In exploring this notion, Rabbi Bailey refers us to the shoresh of the words and the grammatical structure of the mishna: What is ‘ohev‘, ‘ahava‘ or ‘love’? What is the shoresh of ‘ahava‘? ‘heh’ ‘vet’ – ‘hav’ = give. This is not just a regular giving like ‘natan‘, rather it is a full giving or full dedication – ahavat Hashem means to fully give oneself to Hashem.

The mishna tells us to fully dedicate ourselves to peace (ohev Shalom). This should be our goal, our life philosophy. It then tells us that we should also actively pursue peace (rodef Shalom). We shouldn’t just be dedicated, we should also actively pursue. You need more than just the philosophy, you have to actualise it. Both parts of the equation are necessary. Chasing peace without the philosophy is hollow.

The last part of the mishna tells us to dedicate ourselves fully to people. Again, this should be our life philosophy. If you are truly dedicated to people and their well-being then you want to bring them closer to Torah. This does not just mean bringing them to do things like lay tefillin; rather Torah means instruction about how we get closer to Hashem. Bringing people to the understanding of what Hashem wants us to understand. Bringing them to a state of Godliness. [‘mikarvan‘ = connected to ‘kurban‘ (sacrifice) the process of sacrificing – coming closer to Hashem.]

Why is it be like the students of Aharon rather than be like Aharon? Why is the first part of the mishna not structured in the same way as the second and third parts?

Why Aharon? What do we know from the Torah about him? The most profound piece of information that we glean from the Torah is that Aharon was the Cohen Hagadol, the High priest. Implicit in the role of the High Priest is dedication to Hashem or ‘ahavat Hashem‘. Aharon loved Hashem, this was his philosophy, and he had students which was where he put his philosophy into action …The syntax is this way because we are supposed to appreciate the way that Aharon’s students tried to emulate him.

Unlike the second two categories, loving and serving Hashem are not an action and a philosophy which are connected. In the context of Hashem one cannot do one first and then the other, it is simultaneous – we have to have the philosophy and do the action at the same time. This is why the first part of the mishna is written in this way. Aharon represents the duality and the constancy of Ahavat Hashem and Avodat Hashem. Each is essential to strengthen the other. This is the reason that the first part of is structured differently.

Rabbi Bailey goes on to explore a deeper meaning of this mishna:

“What does Shalom really mean? Peace — completeness — when you reach completeness you are at peace … The first step to a true relationship with Hashem is to understand Hashem and to act upon that understanding. Then, one has to dedicate oneself to completeness and chase after it. Then one has to work on one’s own completeness – on yourself to reach inner peace. Then you can dedicate yourself to others and bring them to Torah which will in turn bring them to do their own chasing after peace and completeness (cycle).”

In considering Rabbi Bailey’s interpretation is seems that the various parts of this mishna are clearly connected. Aharon was dedicated to the service of Hashem, he developed himself to the point where he could put that in practise by bringing his students closer to Torah. His students (us), once they had found their inner peace and actively developed themselves to the point where they could appreciate it, were then able to appreciate, value and commit themselves to the people around them and to help them come closer to Torah and in turn, to Hashem.

According to Hillel, we are charged with this mission: to find our inner peace, come closer to Torah, commit ourselves to others and help them on their journeys toward Hashem and Torah.