Tag Archives: Shabbat

Commentary for Emor

19 May

Unlike English, Hebrew is a gendered language. This means that, like in French or Spanish, each noun is assigned a gender, and all pronouns, adjectives or verbs used for that word must be the appropriate form of the verb for that gender. Thus a large cup (masculine) would be a “cos gadol” while a large bed (feminine) would be a “mitah gedolah.” Searching for any special meaning or psychoanalysis for why someone millennia ago decided that a chair is masculine but a door is feminine is a fool’s errand, but this week’s parshah contains a situation so out of the ordinary that one cannot help but look for meaning in it.


In Lev. 23:3 Shabbat is described using the feminine pronoun, while later in the same chapter (Lev. 23:32) it is given a masculine pronoun. Even more strikingly, Lev. 23:32 where Shabbat is given a masculine pronoun, exactly mirrors a phrase we read last week in Lev. 16:31, except there Shabbat was given a feminine pronoun.


Shabbat has always been a bit of an odd one out. It shares the characteristics of a festival but it is not a festival. It is supposed to be separate from the rest of the week, and yet the regularity with which it occurs make it feel like it is part of the week. While the other days of the week have a corresponding partner day of creation, Shabbat’s partner in creation is to be the Jewish People.


Shabbat is, clearly, a bit of a non-conformist. It is a holy day on which work is forbidden, but it is not a festival holiday. It is part of the weekly cycle and yet it is different from the other six days in a way that no other day is. It is an essential piece of creation, but its role is spiritual rather than physical. Shabbat is described in the Torah as both masculine and feminine because it does not fit in to neat little boxes. Unfortunately, we humans like our neat little boxes because they make the world easier to understand, and thus when something doesn’t fit we read into it the things that we want to read into it to   try to cram it into the box we want it to go in, even though it clearly doesn’t fit. We owe it to Shabbat to let Shabbat be what it is rather than trying to bend it to our own ends.

Commentary for Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

12 May

Acharei Mot, the first of this week’s two parshahs, is closely associated with Yom Kippur. The first of its three chapters introduces us to the holiday and describes the Yom Kippur sacrifice and is thus read in synagogue on Yom Kippur morning, while its third chapter is read on Yom Kippur afternoon. Leviticus 16:31 introduces us to the well-known phrase “a sabbath of sabbaths” that is often used to describe the holiday, and it is from this phrase that we learn that activities that are forbidden on Shabbat are also forbidden on Yom Kippur, even if they are permitted on any other holiday (for example, cooking). Due to this phrase Yom Kippur is seen as taking precedence over Shabbat and its laws always win out if there is a conflict. This perception of Yom Kippur as therefore being more “extreme” than Shabbat allows for an interesting Jewish brainteaser that asks, “name one activity that is forbidden on Shabbat but permitted on Yom Kippur?”

The answer, fasting, is often difficult to come by because it is something that is not merely permitted on Yom Kippur but fully required (as we learn for the first time in this week’s parshah in Lev. 16:29) and because fasting on Shabbat is not explicitly forbidden via the standard “thou shalt not” but is rather forbidden because fasting- i.e. not eating and drinking, conflicts with the mitzvah to enjoy Shabbat, of which eating one’s fill of food is considered an important part. While these might seem like minor distinctions that have little practical effect other than happening to make a brainteaser more difficult, understanding them actually helps us learn an important lesson about Shabbat.

While many people assume that the reason we are allowed to fast on Yom Kippur even when it falls on Shabbat is due to Yom Kippur being the “sabbath of sabbaths” and therefore taking precedence, the real reason is because unlike all of the other fasts (aside from the Tenth of Tevet, which only ever overlaps with Shabbat by an hour), on Yom Kippur we are fasting to help pray for a better future rather than to commemorate a past event. The future is inherently a spiritual thing. It has not happened yet and therefore cannot physically affect us. The present can obviously affect us physically, and even the past can do so in some cases (if you fell and cut yourself you might have a scar), but the future exists only in our minds. Shabbat is often seen as a day where we focus on the spiritual over the physical, but in reality it is a day when we focus on both the spiritual and the physical while doing our best to ignore materialistic wants. On Shabbat we are not only encouraged to pray and study, but also required to eat our fill at three different meals and encouraged to engage in marital relations, both things that fall into the category of physical wants more than spiritual ones. Rather, it is on Yom Kippur when we are intended to push aside both the material and the physical in order to focus solely on the spiritual, spending all day in synagogue praying and abstaining from eating, drinking, washing, wearing leather shoes, engaging in marital relations, and using outside substances such as make-up or cologne to make ourselves look and smell nice.

Shabbat contrasts with Yom Kippur and with the first six days of the week by helping us to focus on what we have. On the first six days of the week, when we are allowed to focus on the materialistic as well as the physical and spiritual, we are often distracted by the things we want. On Yom Kippur, when we push aside not just the materialistic but also the physical in order to focus solely on the spiritual, we struggle to not be distracted by the thoughts of things we already own but can’t use (such as food). On Shabbat we restrict our focus from the materialistic and a portion of the physical, and as a result instead of focusing on the things we want but can’t have or the things we have but can’t use, allowing us to enjoy the things we have that we either use regularly but do not always give ourselves the chance to appreciate- such as food, or might not otherwise think we have time for, such time for taking care of our spiritual needs.

Commentary for Vayakhel-Pekudei

29 Mar

This week’s (double) parshah begins with God instructing Moses to remind the Israelites that no work is to be done on Shabbat, with the addition of the specific law that “You shall not kindle fire in any of your settlements on the Sabbath Day (Ex. 35:3).” This reminder and expansion of the rules of Shabbat comes just as the Israelites are about to begin building the tabernacle. Rashi comments that the timing of this is no coincidence, theorizing that the Israelites, swept up as they were in their enthusiasm to help build the tabernacle, might have assumed that the mitzvah of building a place to help them connect to God would override the prohibitions of Shabbat when in reality this was not the case, so God decided that this reminder was necessary.

Every time the observance of Shabbat is mentioned in the Torah, a new dimension is added to it. In this case, that new dimension is the prohibition against lighting a fire. The relationship between fire and humanity is a double-edged one. From the time humans appeared on this planet all the way up until today it has been both one of our greatest allies and one of our deadliest adversaries. It provides heat to protect us from the cold, kills off germs and parasites in our food and helps us shape metal into tools so that we can affect the world around us in ways that our human bodies are not naturally capable of doing. We have used fire for everything from staving off predators to launching astronauts into space. And yet fire is also extremely dangerous to us. The moment fire gets out of control it becomes a deadly threat to everyone and everything around it. It burns and consumes and kills and destroys.

Interestingly, fire is often used as a metaphor for passion. An inspirational speaker will be described as having “fire in his/her eyes.” Fire is drive and determination and dedication. The resolve to keep striving no matter how bleak things look is “a fire that won’t go out.”

Though usually portrayed as a positive, it is important to remember that this “fire” can also become dangerous if you lose control of it. God’s warning to the Israelites to remember to observe Shabbat right before they begin construction of the tabernacle is meant to teach them not to let their zeal for one good cause them to trample on another. Although there is no tabernacle currently under construction, this is a lesson that we can still benefit from today. It is good to have fire, but if we allow ourselves to lose control of it- if we focus so much on our fire that we begin to justify spreading it indiscriminately- then no matter how noble our intentions are, the end result will be that everything around us will burn.

Commentary for Noach

21 Nov

In this week’s parshah we read the story of Noah. When people think of this parshah, the first two numbers that often come mind are two (for the number of each animal and bird initially brought onto the ark) and forty (forty days and forty nights of rain, plus Noah waited an additional forty days after the water receded to the point where he could see mountaintops before sending out the raven), but the number that appears most often in the story is the number seven. In most of these instances, the number is referring to a seven-day period, which Rabbi Yehudah Halevi in his popular Shabbat hymn “Yom Shabbaton,” connects the final instance, in which Noah waits a week before sending the dove out for a third time and the dove does not return to the ark, to Shabbat (“on it the dove found rest”).

Following Rabbi Yehudah’s lead, the other occurrences of the number seven in the story of Noah can also be connected to aspects of Shabbat. The most straightforward and simple of these is Gen. 8:4, where we learn that “The ark came to rest in the seventh [month]. We cease journeying on Shabbat, and so did the ark and all of those in it. In Gen. 7:4 God tells Noah that the flood will start in seven days. The Etz Chayim chumash explains that, “presumably, this is the period of time needed for the future occupants of the ark to get aboard and be properly accommodated (p. 44).” In other words, they spend six days doing work and preparing for what was to come on the seventh day, just as we prepare for Shabbat during the week.

The fourth instance of the number seven is the seven-day period that Noah waits in between his initial sending out of the raven and dove (in which both returned empty-beaked and empty-clawed), and the second instance of sending out the dove. This is the famous moment where the dove returns to Noah with a fresh olive branch, indicating that fresh vegetation had begun to grow again.   Just as Noah received this sign that nature was being revitalized on Shabbat (it takes place seven days before the day that Rabbi Yehudah identifies as Shabbat so it, too must be Shabbat), our spirits are also revitalized via Shabbat.

While those four instances of the number seven connect to the more physical and spiritual aspects of Shabbat, the remaining instance connects to an aspect of Shabbat that is more psychological in nature. At first God only told Noah to collect two of each bird and animal. Then, in Gen. 7:2-3, God tells Noah to collect seven male-female pairs of each “pure” bird and animal. Many midrashim envision pre-flood human society as having been vegetarian. If that were the case than the prospect of a long flood would be extremely disturbing to Noah and his family because they knew that after a certain point their vegetables and fruits would go bad and they would have no way to replenish them. To assuage these fears, God lets them know that there are some animals that it is okay for them to eat, and that they should bring along extras of those so that their own need to survive doesn’t cause them to wipe out another species.

Many times on Shabbat we feel anxious. We worry that we are wasting a day that we could be working to earn extra money to sure up our financial situation, or we feel cut off form the outside world because we don’t know what’s going on because we can’t use the TV, radio, or internet to get the news. With this gesture, God reassured Noah’s family that their needs would be met during this time when they were cut off from their usual mode of living, and we can help settle our anxieties by understanding that that reassurance extends to us today. Shabbat is a day of rest for the body, the mind, and the spirit. It was so for the passengers in the ark and it can be for us as well if we are willing to let it.

Commentary for Ki Tisa

17 Feb

This week’s parshah contains the story of the golden calf, God’s anger at the Israelites for this grave sin, and Moses’ intercession on behalf of the Israelites and God’s eventual forgiveness of them.  These last two parts are chanted as the Torah reading for minor fast days and for the afternoon service of Tisha B’Av.  This section contains a few odd features, one of which is that it is the only time where we pause the Torah reading for the congregation to read certain verses before the reader repeats them.


We do this three times, first at “Turn from Your fierce wrath and renounce this plan to do evil to Your people (Ex. 32:12)”, “Lord, Lord, God of compassion and graciousness, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness.  Extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin (Ex. 34: 7-8),” and “pardon our iniquity and our sin and invest us as Your own.”  All three verses plead God for forgiveness and appeal to God’s attribute of mercy.  We chant them aloud and repeat them to both emphasize what we hope to achieve by fasting all day and to help get the congregation in the right mindset for the somber day.


Normally, when the weekly Shabbat Torah reading includes a section that is read specially at other times of the year, we include those special changes into the weekly Torah reading.  When the Song of the Sea (7th Day of Passover) or the Ten Commandments in Exodus (1st Day of Shavuot) are read during the weekly cycle, we rise as we would on those days and we read them with their special cantillation.  When these verses are read in shul on Shabbat, however, we read them as normal, with no repetitions.  Shabbat is supposed to be a day of joy and merriment, and it is difficult to be merry when you are spending all day worrying that you aren’t doing your part to help show God that we want Him to be merciful and forgive our sins.


In a similar vein, if Tisha B’Av or one of the minor fast days fall on Shabbat, they are (with one rare exception) moved to either the next day or, in the case of the Fast of Esther, the preceding Thursday. This is done because Shabbat is a time of rest not just for the body, but for the soul as well. As we learn in this week’s parshah, God id not simply stop doing work, but rather God “ceased from doing work and was refreshed (Ex 31:17).”

Commentary for Vayechi and Asara B’Tevet

13 Dec

Today on the Hebrew calendar was the Fast of the Tenth of Tevet, one of four fast days that commemorate tragedies that befell the Jewish people in ancient times.  The Tenth of Tevet is unique among these fasts, though, in that it is the only one of them that can override the prohibition against fasting on Shabbat.  When one of the other historical fast days falls on Shabbat, we postpone our fasting and mourning until Sunday.  We even do this for Tisha B’Av, one of the two full-length twenty-five hour fasts, but the Tenth of Tevet, which is only a dawn to nightfall fast, overrides Shabbat.  While the calendar works out in such a way that the Tenth of Tevet cannot fall on a Saturday, it is the only fast that can fall on a Friday, and because Shabbat starts at sunset but the fast doesn’t end until nightfall (the emergence of three stars in the sky), we have this short period of about an hour during which we are fasting on Shabbat.


The specific event marked by Fast of the Tenth of Tevet is the beginning of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem that led to the destruction of the First Temple.  To explain why this fast overrides the prohibition against fasting on Shabbat, many scholars note that, when talking about the event, God commands Ezekiel to take note of “this exact day (Ez. 24:2)” on which the siege began.  This same phrase is used in Lev. 23:29 to describe the requirement to fast on Yom Kippur, which is the only other fast day which overrides the prohibition against fasting on Shabbat.


While Halachicly sound, this explanation still seems lacking.  After all, would it not be just as important to make sure that we observe the exact day when multiple major tragedies have befallen the Jewish people, such as on the Seventeen of Tammuz and on Tisha B’Av?  Shouldn’t those fasts override the prohibition against fasting on Shabbat, too?


The Chatam Sofer (1762-1839, Hungary) provides an explanation for this.  He says that it was on the Tenth of Tevet at God decided that the Temple would be destroyed and that the Jews would be exiled.  Now, every year on the Tenth of Tevet, God decides whether or not the Temple will be rebuilt this year, fulfilling God’s promise in Zachariah 8:19 to turn all of the fast days of tragedy such as Tisha B’Av and the Tenth of Tevet into days of joy.  Thus, while on other fasts we fast to commemorate the past, on the Tenth of Tevet, we fast in hope for the future.  Just as we fast on Yom Kippur to show our piety by forgoing our worldly needs to show our dedication to examining our behaviors and sincerely repenting in the hope that God will judge us favorably for the coming year, we fast on the Tenth of Tevet in the hope that God will judge us favorably and turn these days of sadness into days of joy.  Because we are fasting in hope for a better future, the fast is allowed to override the prohibition against fasting on Shabbat.


Just like with Yom Kippur, though, simply fasting is not enough.  If we want to bring about a better world, we need to do so through our actions.  Coming exactly three months after Yom Kippur, the Tenth of Tevet is a good time to examine how we are doing so far this year.  How well have we kept all of those promises of self-improvement that we made to ourselves and to God on Yom Kippur?  Is there anything we should be doing that we aren’t?


In this week’s parshah, Joseph’s brothers realize that despite living peacefully together in Egypt for seventeen years, they have never actually apologized to Joseph for selling him into slavery (which a midrash says actually happened on the Tenth of Tevet).  When they do so, Joseph tells them that he has already forgiven them, and assures them that he will make sure that they and their descendants are sustained, and together they become one group again.  On Yom Kippur we pray for ourselves and focus on how we can improve ourselves, but on the Tenth of Tevet, we focus on what we can do for the whole of the Jewish people.  Just as Joseph and his brothers do their parts to restore the family to oneness, so too do we need to do make sure we are doing our part to work towards a better future.

Commentary for Miketz, Shabbat Chanukah

29 Nov

This week’s parshah begins with Pharaoh having a dream. In his dream seven fat, well-fed cows are devoured by seven gaunt, skinny, sickly-looking cows, but despite eating the fat cows, the skinny cows do get any fatter and remain sickly-looking. Pharaoh asks his advisors to interpret this dream, but none of them is able to do so. Finally, Pharaoh’s cupbearer remembers Joseph, who is sitting in prison and suggests that Pharaoh see if Joseph can interpret the dream.
When Pharaoh repeats his dream to Joseph, the healthy cows are simply described as “of healthy meat and well-formed, (Gen. 41:18)” while the skinny cows are described as looking so skinny and sickly-looking “so bad they were that I had never seen their like in the land of Egypt (Gen. 41:20).” Pharaoh places this emphasis on how out of place the skinny cows were because the human mind remembers the abnormal much more than it does the normal. To Pharaoh, these cows were abnormal, so they stuck out in his mind more.
Similarly, when the cupbearer is describing Joseph to Pharaoh in 41:12, the first thing that comes to his mind is that Joseph is a Hebrew, member of a strange clan from a far away land that only worships one God as opposed to the standard polytheism. Only after he describes Joseph as such does he give the relevant information of whose custody Joseph was being held under and why he might be able to interpret Pharaoh’s dream.
Throughout time people have always tried to hide the abnormal aspects of themselves, and in many cases this has meant Jews needing to hide their Jewishness. Despite the fact that his Judaism appears to be an open secret in Pharaoh’s court, Joseph, the second most powerful man in all of Egypt and the man who now only interpreted Pharaoh’s dream when no one else could, but also developed the plan that saved Egypt from famine, feels the need to hide his Jewishness from everyone. In next week’s parshah, he first sends all of the servants out of the room before revealing his true identity to his brothers in an attempt to hide the fact that he is part of this foreign tribe from the Egyptians, despite the fact that that the Egyptians seem to already be well aware of it.
This parshah is almost always read on Chanukah, which provides a very sharp contrast to Joseph’s behavior. At a time when Jews were forbidden from practicing Judaism and when many Jews were abandoning the religion and assimilating into Hellenistic culture, the Maccabees stood up and declared their Judaism proudly. Because of them, on Chanukah, we too display our Judaism proudly by placing our Chanukiyot in places where they are clearly visible to all passers-by to declare “A JEW LIVES HERE!” We have no need to hide who we are from our society. Our religion might be the minority in almost every place on Earth. We might me the odd ones out who don’t eat the food everyone else does and who don’t celebrate the holidays you see on TV, but it is ours and we are proud of it.