Category Archives: Torah

Guest Shiur by Yael Farkas

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A huge thanks to Yael Farkas for the guest shiur that she gave on Shabbas. It was fascinating!

To remind you all of its contents, I have uploaded the source sheet and provided a brief summary of Yael’s discussion points.

The topic of the shiur was ‘Sara Imeinu: A Misunderstood Matriarch, a Model of Feminine Leadership’.

Yael presented a detailed account of HOW Sara Imeinu is presented in the Chumash. The discussion focussed around the various ways in which Sara is perceived as either a leader or a follower. Naturally this provoked some intense discussion in our group.

1. According to the midrash, Eshet Chayil is Avraham’s eulogy to Sarah. We should note that Eshet Chayil appears in the final chapter of Mishlei, King Shlomo’s Book of Proverbs. The poem extols the virtues of the ideal Jewish woman and some interpret it to be Shlomo’s ode to his mother, Batsheva. A magnificent account of Eshet Chayil can be found in Rebbetzin Heller’s book ‘More Precious Than Pearls’.

2. Sara was known for her prophesy and her beauty. What we didn’t discuss on Shabbat was the fact that when we think of Sara we actually think of the line הִנֵּה בָאֹהֶל – she is in the tent. The implication here (according to Rashi) is that she exemplified modesty and despite her beauty, she was known for always behaving appropriately.

3. What we learn from Sara:

– How to develop a solid relationship with your husband.

– To always see the value in all situations. We are told that all of Sara’s years were equally good … even though it might seem as though being tormented by Hagar, not having children, losing her family might lead one to despair, Sara always approached life by appreciating every aspect of Hashem’s presence. We too should try to do the same. From Sara we learn that a ‘good life’ is not a life of comfort, but something far more valuable.

– To nurture a bond with Hashem. It is this that gave Sara the ultimate comfort and guided her through the challenges which she faced.

Sara Imeinu sourcesheet

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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 2:2

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ב,ב  רבן גמליאל בנו של רבי יהודה הנשיא אומר, יפה תלמוד תורה עם דרך ארץ, שיגיעת שניהם משכחת עוון; וכל תורה שאין עימה מלאכה, סופה בטילה וגוררת עוון.  וכל העמלים עם הציבור, יהיו עמלים עימם לשם שמיים, שזכות אבותן מסייעתן, וצדקתם עומדת לעד. ואתם, מעלה אני עליכם כאילו עשיתם

Rabban Gamliel, the son of Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi, said: It is good to combine the study of Torah with an occupation, for the exertion of both keeps sin forgotten. All Torah study that is not accompanied by work will come to nothing and bring sin in its wake. Everyone who works on behalf of the community should do so for the sake of Heaven; the merit of their forefathers will sustain them, and their righteousness endure forever. And as for you, I [The Almighty] will account you worthy of great reward, as if you had done [everything].

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In this mishna we learn about the connection between Torah learning and derech eretz. In the context of the mishna, the Rabbis define derech eretz as an occupation or trade (Rabbenu Yona argues that the phrase derech eretz means different things in different contexts). They also relate it to one’s behaviour: humility, decency, manners. The message here is that behaviour and one’s general conduct in the world at large should clearly reflect Torah values. What one learns through Torah should permeate every aspect of one’s life.

Rabban Gamliel does not say that to a life of work one must add Torah; a life devoid of Torah study is unthinkable to him. Rather, he is reminding us that we must live through the Torah, with the Torah always in our minds and hearts.

Where the mishna becomes unclear is in how much one should involve oneself in the world outside of Torah. It seems that Rabban Gamliel is telling us that we must have a foot in two opposite worlds – the world of Torah study and the world of work, the world of the land. The preposition ‘im’ is important – ‘with’… does the study of Torah seem more beautiful when we are exposed to some of the challenges of the outside world? (The role of this preposition is debated in Berachot 35b). The crux of the debate is over which term is primary – the one that precedes the im or the one after it, that is, is work or derech eretz more important than Torah? In many ways it seems that this debate is central to two divergent ways of Jewish living as personified by the Modern Orthodox movement in contrast to the Hareidi movement.

Regardless, it is clear that there is a connection between these two worlds that should be nurtured and that the study of Torah should influence our conduct in the wider community. It is perhaps this message which ties the two parts of this mishna together: part 1 which seems to be debating the value of Torah Study and derech eretz and part 2 which discusses those who are involved in the community.

In Pirkei Avot, the only activity which we are told to do ‘for the sake of heaven’ is work on behalf of the community. The mishna is reminding us that our motivation in this type of work must not be dictated by a desire for glory or recognition, rather it must be pure and idealistic in the way that the Torah teaches us to behave.

Interestingly, the word in hebrew for community is ציבור – ‘Tzibur’ – , the root of which is:

צ.ב.ר

As we know, the Hebrew language functions on both a literal and metaphorical level so when studying texts we should always be looking for alternate meanings hidden in words. Here there is a subtext:

צ – stands for tzaddikim (righteous people)

ב – stands for beinonim (middle of the road people)

ר – stands for rasha’im (wicked people)

The implication is that the community is made up of all these types of people and it is our duty to behave as the forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaacov. The mishna teaches us that not occupying ourself fully (both in terms of Torah learning and work) will lead us to sin, to gossip, to idleness. It is not our position in the world to judge others. We are expected to behave ‘betzelem elokim’ (in Hashem’s image) and a central part of Pirkei Avot teaches us what is involved in this pursuit.

Finally, it is interesting to note that this mishna uses two different terms to refer to work or occupation – derech eretz and melocha. The latter is a word that rings with familiarity because of its connection with the 39 prohibited activities relating to Shabbat observance. Melocha clearly refers to work which involves creation and the mishna seems to be leading us to the conclusion that we should ‘make’ something with our Torah learning, that Torah learning should be applied to life. One cannot exist without the other. Thus we are reminded na’ase ve’nishma – we will do and we will listen/heed. This is the essence of Judaism: learning and action and it is this that runs at the heart of the 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.

Pirkei Avot, Chapter 1:17

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א,טז  [יז] שמעון בנו אומר, כל ימיי גדלתי בין החכמים, ולא מצאתי לגוף טוב אלא שתיקה; ולא המדרש הוא העיקר, אלא המעשה; וכל המרבה דברים, מביא חטא.

17. His son, Shimon, would say: All my life I have been raised among the wise, and I have found nothing better for the body than silence. The essential thing is not study, but deed. And one who speaks excessively brings on sin.

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Shimon was the son of Raban Gamliel and Hillel’s great grandson. He grew up surrounded by great Torah scholars and was privileged to learn from them. Shimon’s wisdom here is a warning to those who immersed themselves too much in Torah study to the point that they never have the time to actually perform any of the mitzvot about which they have been learning.

Mentsch.com states that “There is a famous subsequent debate on the issue of which is greater: study or deeds. At the beginning of the debate Rabbi Tarfon held that deeds are greater and Rabbi Akiva that study is greater. In the end all concluded that “Study is greater, for it leads to deeds.” This conclusion resolves the conflict by saying the two are always in harmony. However, Shimon’s saying is contradicts this conclusion: it clearly implies that there are learned people, including in Torah, who don’t act properly. Shimon ben Gamliel’s observation is unfortunately often corroborated today.”

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We are always learning from speech and it is almost impossible to close one’s ears to the idle and sometimes destructive banter which surrounds us. The Western maxim – “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never harm me” – is not a concept that finds its home in Judaism. On the contrary, the laws of lashon hara teach us to always be extremely careful with our speech as once the words are said they cannot be retrieved nor their impact contained.

Here we learn the value of balancing one’s speech with listening. If we are constantly talking then we will surely miss some of the wisdom which those around us can impart, furthermore, we may seen to be foolish if our speech is not properly weighed.

If we have a choice between speech and action we should choose action as often deeds speak louder than words. Clearly, having read some of the laws of lashon hara in a previous shiur, we can appreciate the way that excessive and thoughtless speech can lead to sin.

Rambam divides speech into 5 categories:

(1) Obligatory: speech which the Torah requires us to utter. The primary example of this is Torah study – although not tefillah.

(2) Praiseworthy: speech which is not commanded by the Torah, but which fulfills a positive purpose. This would include complimenting others, praising good people and qualities, and denigrating bad qualities. Also words — as well as song — which inspire, which touch the soul of the listeners and goad them to become greater people would fall under this category.

(3) Permissible: speech which relates to our businesses and our basic needs — food, clothing etc. One is considered praiseworthy if he minimizes his speech in this category.

(4) Undesirable: empty talk, that which the listener gains little from. This would include much of what we hear in the news (if it’s not the juicy stuff which probably belongs in an even lower category). The commentators give such examples as discussing how a person became rich or died (or both), or how a wall was constructed. (It’s almost amusing that scholars such as Maimonides had difficulty even coming up with examples of such talk. One imagines that they could not easily conceive of wasteful talk that would hold anyone’s interest in the first place. Guess they lived in the days before pro ball… 🙂

(5) Forbidden: that which the Torah explicitly forbids — cursing, false testimony, gossip (whether true or false), vulgar language, etc.

Maimonides writes that needless to say, the first two categories should form the bulk of our speech. Even regarding this, however, he adds two qualifying conditions:

(1) We practice what we preach. Learning but not doing, or praising good deeds which we ourselves do not fulfill may very well be worse than not speaking or learning in the first place. In this vein, our mishna stated: “Study is not the primary thing but action.”

(2) Our speech should be concise and to the point. We should always be wary that our words are proper and carefully chosen. Too much speech is counterproductive in almost every area. Even regarding Torah study the Talmud writes that one should teach his students in as concise a manner as possible (Pesachim 3b). And likewise, our mishna concludes: “Whoever talks excessively brings about sin.”

Pirkei Avot, Chapter 1:15

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מסכת אבות פרק א

א,[טו] שמאי אומר, עשה תורתך קבע, אמור מעט ועשה הרבה; והוי מקביל את כל האדם, בסבר פנים יפות.

1:15. Shammai would say: Make your Torah study a permanent fixture of your life. Say little and do much. And receive every man with a pleasant countenance.

  • Make your Torah a priority: We should make our study of Torah a part of our daily or weekly routine. The implication here is not that we should study all the time, for if everyone in the world was studying full time society would cease to function. However, we are instructed to ensure that we make a regular time to study and that it should be something to which we commit. It is interesting that the word ‘aseh‘ is used here – ‘la’asot‘ means ‘to do’ – is it possible that the mishna is telling us that we mustn’t just study the Torah but we must ensure that we actually put our learning into practise as well?
  • Say little and do much: Be careful with your words. There are many ways of interpreting this mishna… Don’t be outspoken, don’t boast, don’t promise to do more than you are going to, rather speak in terms of your actions. This covers all things from our interactions with others, our commitment to tzedakah and chesed to the promises that we make to ourselves!
  • Greet every person with a cheerful face: It is so easy to become immersed in our own internal turmoil and to forget the impact that our outer demeanour has on those around us – we noted particularly our families! What a difference it makes when you smile at someone, greet them cheerfully rather than scowl or frown.

There is some fabulous commentary on this mishna which you can read here, here and here.

Pirkei Avot, Chapter 1:2

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מסכת אבות פרק א

א,ב  שמעון הצדיק היה משיירי אנשי כנסת הגדולה.  הוא היה אומר, על שלושה דברים העולם עומד–על התורה, ועל העבודה, ועל גמילות החסדים.

2. Shimon the Righteous was among the last surviving members of the Great assembly. He would say: The world stands on three things: Torah, the service of G-d, and deeds of kindness.

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The Anshei Knesset never replaced itself so as the 120 members died so the Knesset dwindled. Shimon Hatzadik was one of the last surviving members of the Knesset Hagedolah.

Who was Shimon Hatzadik?

  • One of the earliest and most famous high priests of the Second Temple
  • Shimon Hatzadik greeted Alexander the Great – the Talmud relates a story where the Emperor dismounted and kneeled before Shimon Hatzadik, saying that he had seen his face in a dream and it was that face which guided him to win a battle.
  • He became the Cohen Hagadol after Ezra.
  • Shimon Hatzadik’s tomb is in East Jerusalem

Shimon Hatzadik’s tomb circa 1900

Shimon Hatazadik’s tomb in Jerusalem.

What is the meaning of these three pillars?

Trying to decipher the meaning of the three pillars is very challenging. Does Torah mean the actual Torah itself or the entire corpus of Jewish texts or does it simply refer to the Jewish people’s belief in Hashem, is it related to the studying of the Torah, its acceptance or is there something more in this single word?

However, before even evaluating the implications of these three terms, it is probably worth considering why there are only three terms listed here. Does the mishna imply that Shimon Hatzadik considered these three elements to be the most central to Jewish practise or are they representative of a range of other things which are connected, do they function as an umbrella for all the Shimon Hatzadik represented? Clearly each approach has value.

In discussion, we agreed that three elements – Torah, Avodah (tefillah, prayer), acts of kindness –  represent areas which we need to focus on when trying to improve our commitment to Judaism: Torah is representative of our relationship with ourselves and our need to continuously strive to grow through Torah learning, Avodah signifies our relationship with Hashem and Gemilut Chassidim, our connections with others – individuals and communities alike. Each of these categories requires constant attention and development, and, in order for us to be whole we need to build ourselves in each area. Furthermore, each is connected to the other. For example, through our study of Torah we come to realise the importance of our acts of chesed and the over-arching value of our relationship with Hashem.

It is interesting that the three elements each build on the preceding ones. When you study Torah you realise the centrality of Hashem in our world and once you realise this you can appreciate the challenges involved in performing true chesed. Chesed is built on developing sensitivity towards others, caring about the feelings and needs of others. One has to step out of one’s self in order to do chesed and give chizuk or strength to those in need. Acts of Kindness can be as simple smiling at someone or saying thank you. We are easily overwhelmed by our own needs and can be quick to overlook the needs of those around us.

The essential message of this mishna is that each of these elements is equally important – helping others is as relevant as learning Torah – and each is required for us to grow as individuals. However, the mishna also implies the need for balance between each of these commitments.