Category Archives: Bechor Shor

Ritual Distancing (Shmini)

Ritual Distancing (Shmini)

Distance has the same effect on the mind as on the eye. -Samuel Johnson

The Torah provides a substantial amount of detail regarding the laws of what animals we’re allowed to eat as well as those we are commanded to stay far away from. No insects or shellfish are allowed. The only seafood we’re allowed is those fish that have scales and fins.

The Torah also gives a long list of all the birds we’re not allowed to eat. The number of kosher birds we can partake of is relatively limited and are exclusively non-predatory.

In the mammal category, there is the general guideline of only being allowed to eat animals who both chew their cud and have split hooves. Beyond that general guideline, the Torah also specifies mammals who have one or the other of those attributes which are not kosher. Having split hooves or chewing its cud is not enough; the animal is only kosher if it has both attributes. The prime and notorious example of a non-kosher mammal is the pig, which even though it has split hooves, doesn’t chew its cud.

The verse immediately after the one that singles out the pig and its other non-kosher mammal friends states that not only should you not eat these animals, but you shouldn’t even touch their carcass.

The Bechor Shor on the verse (Leviticus 11:8) wonders about the seeming redundancy. If you’re not allowed to even touch the dead meat, then how would one come to eat it?

He explains that while the prohibition regarding non-kosher food is quite strict, the statement regarding not touching the non-kosher item is just some good advice and not a legal obligation according to Jewish law.

He elaborates that there is something intrinsically filthy and disgusting about non-kosher food that even touching it could somehow contaminate us. It possesses an impurity and foulness that can somehow be conveyed not only into our bodies but to our very souls. However, if one were to find a dead carcass of non-kosher meat in one’s home, one would be obliged to remove it, even though it would entail touching it. The slight contact with the contaminating food in order to remove it is justified in comparison to keeping the putrid item in your home.

May we always remain far away from items that may contaminate us and only partake of clean, healthful food.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the opening up of venues in general, and Yeshiva in particular.

We don’t wait on soup (Tzav)

We don’t wait on soup (Tzav)

Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use. -Emily Post

Once upon a time there was a concept called “etiquette” which one was expected to demonstrate, beyond the politeness of “please” and “thank you,” particularly in dining situations. One learned how to sit and how not to sit, how to handle cutlery, how to eat, how to drink, how to excuse oneself, and much more.

One of those rules of etiquette was the idea of waiting to eat, even if the food was on the plate in front of you, until the host started eating. An exception to that, however, was if the food being served was soup. By the time everyone would have been served their soup, the first person’s soup would be at best lukewarm or cold. Therefore, etiquette dictates that you may have your soup as soon as it is served.

The Bechor Shor on the Torah reading of Tzav comes to a similar conclusion regarding the etiquette of the Kohens who partook of the sacrificial meals at the Temple.

The descendants of Aaron, the High Priest, were tasked with the eternal responsibility of serving as priests (Kohens) in the Tabernacle, and thereafter in the Temple. Part of that service included the sharing of sacrificial meals. During Temple times the Kohens served in rotations that were apportioned to a roster of Kohanic families. Each Kohanic family would serve together in the Temple, performing the various ritual duties required in the Temple.

The Bechor Shor on Exodus 7:10 explains the different etiquette that accompanied different types of sacrificial meals or foods. In particular, he focuses on two types of grain “Mincha” offerings. One was a simple, uncooked, grain and oil mixture. For this offering, the Kohens needed to wait for the entire family to come together and eat it at the same time. However, the baked offerings were eaten primarily by the Kohens who were responsible and present for the preparation and baking of that particular offering, without having to wait for the entire family to assemble. They were allowed to eat it while it was still hot and not miss out on the pleasure of the hot food by waiting for everyone else to show up.

May we always be considerate of others, and may we not demand consideration from others when it needlessly harms or detracts from their experiences.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher Ve’sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Suez Canal.

The Value of a Poor Man’s Gift (Vayikra)

The Value of a Poor Man’s Gift (Vayikra)

The best loved by God are those that are rich, yet have the humility of the poor, and those that are poor and have the magnanimity of the rich. -Sa’di

The Book of Leviticus is replete with a multiplicity of sacrifices which could be brought in the desert Tabernacle (and later on in the Temple of Jerusalem). The Torah lists various details and protocols of a wide variety of sacrifices. There are different types of sacrifices to absolve one from different types of inadvertent sins. There are sacrifices of purification, of thanksgiving, and more. There are sacrifices for individuals, and sacrifices for the community at large. The sacrifices can be animals, big or small, birds, and even just grain.

The Bechor Shor on Leviticus 1:17 cites the often quoted Talmudic dictum that the phrase “pleasant aroma” (Re’ah Nichoach) is mentioned by both the simplest offering as well as by the most lavish sacrifice. The repetition of the phrase comes to show that the important part of a sacrifice is not how grand or humble it is, but rather that one’s heart should be focused upon Heaven.

However, in the Bechor Shor’s very next commentary on Leviticus 2:1, he highlights the simple grain “Mincha” offering which is designated as Kodesh Kodashim (Holy of holies).

The Bechor Shor explains that because of the cheapness of a Mincha offering, it was most common for the poor to bring it and this made it especially dear to God who has a special love for the downtrodden. When one of limited means takes from his meager resources and gives freely from his precious little, that is the apex of giving and sacrifice which makes the act even more beloved by God.

May our giving be commensurate with our ability to do so and may we always be among those generous of spirit, soul, and means.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of my colleague, Eric Rosen. A great man and mentor.

The Meaning of Work (Vayakhel-Pekudai)

The Meaning of Work (Vayakhel-Pekudai)

My share of the work may be limited, but the fact that it is work makes it precious. -Helen Keller

Perhaps one of the commandments that are most repeated throughout the Torah is regarding observing the Sabbath. It has proven to be a central pillar of Jewish practice and tradition. The poet, Ahad Ha’am, famously stated that “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” The Sabbath has undoubtedly been a major factor in keeping the Jewish people as an unbroken, cohesive entity throughout generations and millennia.

The Torah, in each mention of the Sabbath, adds another detail, another nuance, to flesh out what the Sabbath experience is meant to entail. The Bechor Shor on Exodus 35:2-3 teases out additional clues as to what the Torah is prescribing regarding Sabbath observance.

The verse states: “Six days shall you work and on the seventh day it shall be holy for you.”

The Bechor Shor explains that during the six days of the week we are commanded to do the work that God has ordered (in this context the work of building the Tabernacle). However, on the seventh day, on the Sabbath, you shall perform no labor, even sacred, divinely commanded labor that God Himself ordered is forbidden to be performed on this day of rest, much less any labor that was not directly ordained by God.

The next verse provides additional detail: “You shall not kindle a fire in all your dwellings on the Sabbath.”

The Bechor Shor explains that the act of transferring fire may not seem arduous. To move a flame from an existing fire and let it take hold someplace else cannot be considered strenuous and involves almost no exertion. Nevertheless, the Torah considers it a form of labor. The many prohibited labors of the Sabbath may not seem to be “work” nor would we classify them as toil by any stretch of the imagination. Nonetheless, it is not only “work” in the modern sense of the word that is prohibited on the Sabbath but any type of creative action which changes or transforms the world around us. The Sabbath is not only a day to hold back from affecting the world, but a day to recharge our physical, emotional, and spiritual beings by retreating from creative activities for a day. If we’re constantly busy, constantly active, constantly absorbing and transmitting bits and bytes, our souls will never know inner peace or quiet. Especially in our era, the sounds of modernity threaten to drown out what is left of our humanity.

May we each achieve the next level of peace that a Sabbath respite offers.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Pesach Haggadah. It boggles the mind how every year there seems to be an exponential number of commentaries on it being published.

What Was Aaron Thinking!? (Ki Tisa)

What Was Aaron Thinking!? (Ki Tisa)

I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere to go. My own wisdom, and that of all about me, seemed insufficient for the day. -Abraham Lincoln

Aaron, Moses’ brother, is presented with a nigh-impossible dilemma. Moses has ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Tablets of the Law from God, but he is apparently delayed in returning. The people are highly agitated by Moses’ delay and start clamoring for a new god. According to the Midrash, Hur, Aaron’s brother-in-law and co-leader during Moses’ absence refuses to give in to the demands of the crowd. He is subsequently killed by the enraged mob. Aaron fears he may be the next victim of the unruly crowd.

Aaron then commands that the crowd gather all the gold in their families’ possession and bring it to him. The crowd obliges. Aaron throws the gold into the fire and out comes the infamous Golden Calf, which members of the crowd rapidly announce to be Israel’s new god, just a number of weeks after they had heard the voice of God commanding them not to worship anybody or anything else.

Aaron, not missing a beat, builds an altar and declares that the next day will be a festival. God is furious with the development, threatens to destroy the entire nation and rebuild a new one from Moses and his descendants. Moses defends the nation of Israel, God relents and disaster is averted.

One of the fundamental questions is what was Aaron thinking? How could he facilitate the creation and worship of an idol? He must have known this was wrong.

The Bechor Shor on Exodus 30:2 explains that the people of Israel weren’t asking for a new “god” but rather for a new leader to replace Moses. (The word Elohim in Hebrew can carry both meanings). Aaron wanted to stall the process in the hope that Moses’ return would make the request mute. Aaron was hesitant to name some other distinguished personage as the new leader, for when Moses would return, the new leader may not want to relinquish his new appointment, which in turn would lead to fighting and bloodshed. Likewise, if Aaron did nothing, the people themselves would appoint a leader, leading to the same situation. If Aaron were to appoint himself, Moses might think he was illegitimately usurping power.

Whatever path he might have chosen would have ended in disaster. Therefore, Aaron came up with the idea of asking for the peoples’ gold as a delaying tactic. He was hoping they wouldn’t be so eager to part with their riches. When they did, he used it to construct an empty symbol, and even then he continued to delay things announcing that the celebration will be held the next day. His hope was that if he stalled, occupying the mob with empty and worthless pursuits instead of creating a leadership battle when Moses would return, the situation would then be defused more easily. He may have been right and that might have been the best path he could have taken from a variety of unsavory choices.

May we only be challenged with a variety of good choices.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Pesach cleaning. Now it begins.

Freshly Laundered Souls (Tetzave)

Freshly Laundered Souls (Tetzave)

 Better keep yourself clean and bright; you are the window through which you must see the world. -George Bernard Shaw

The Torah reading of Tetzava continues to elaborate the details of the construction and operation of the Tabernacle, what in a sense is meant to host a concentrated presence of God within our material world. The Bechor Shor on Exodus 30:1 explains that God doesn’t need such a domicile, nor the sacrifices, nor any of the Tabernacle activities at all. All of the rituals are meant exclusively for our benefit.

While it is difficult for us in our modern era to understand the power and effect of the sacrifices, the Bechor Shor implies that not only was the appropriate offering of a sacrifice somehow redeeming and effected forgiveness, but the penitent was able to also feel and know that he was forgiven. The feeling of forgiveness had a powerful cathartic effect on the penitent.

The Bechor Shor explains the impact of understanding that one was forgiven and how achieving some type of spiritual purity, as a result, gave tremendous encouragement to continue to align oneself with God’s commands. He compares such spiritual cleanliness to wearing white garments, quoting King Solomon who stated (Ecclesiastes 9:8) “Your clothing should always be white.”

When one’s garments are soiled, then the filthy person will rarely have objections to getting dirtier. Similarly, a sinner, believing himself to still be mired in sin, will be less hesitant to continue to sin, as the Talmud states “if a person sins and then does so again, it will then seem in his eyes as permissible” (Tractate Yoma 86b). However, a person wearing fine, freshly laundered clothing will be averse to getting them dirty. So too, a person who has sought forgiveness, a person who knows that they have gone through a spiritual cleansing process will hesitate before sullying himself again.

That was part of the purpose of the sacrifices; to cleanse our souls; to burn away the dross and filth of our actions and our spiritual beings and bring us closer to God. To give us freshly laundered souls that we will keep clean for as long as possible.

In place of sacrifices, today we have prayer. May we use the gift of prayer effectively.

Purim Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my sister Zahava (JJ) Kahen for her inspired newsletter/blog/website venture for Jewish elementary school girls:  https://www.homescool.info/ Especially suited for Grades 3-6, but can be enjoyed by all.

Lighting God’s House (Trumah)

Lighting God’s House (Trumah)

Light is the first of painters. There is no object so foul that intense light will not make it beautiful. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Torah portion of Trumah deals primarily with the building components of the Tabernacle. It first lists all of the raw materials: gold, silver, copper, various colored yarns, linens, skins, and wood. It mentions precious stones, of which we receive a detailed listing later on. The portion also specifies all of the construction details, every article of the Tabernacle including the Ark, the Table of the Showbread, the Candelabrum, as well as the exact construction of the walls of the Tabernacle. Afterward, we get details of the ritual vestments of the Kohens, especially those of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, who among other items wore the Breastplate embedded with twelve different precious stones.

Nestled in between these very concrete, architectural, and sartorial elements and descriptions are two notable and unusual exceptions.

The Torah also lists:

“Oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense.”

The Bechor Shor on Exodus 25:6 wonders why these specific non-building or vestment components are itemized in the middle in what was otherwise a shopping list for the constructors and tailors. He further wonders, that if indeed the Torah felt the need to digress into some of the operations of the Tabernacle such as oil for lighting and anointing and spices for the incense, why then doesn’t it also list the other operations such as baking bread or offering sacrifices?

The Bechor Shor answers that the anointing oil was required for anointing the Tabernacle implements and therefore could be considered part of the building process. The spices also required specialized artisans to prepare them and the ingredients needed to be specially itemized and assembled beforehand. However, that doesn’t answer the need for “oil for lighting.”

The Bechor Shor further elaborates that it is not the way of a king to enter his home before the place has been illuminated for him. It is not proper for a king to enter a darkened abode. Similarly, the spices are required so that the home should have a pleasant fragrance. It would be inappropriate for the king to enter a home that is dark and malodorous. Therefore, the oil and the spice, the light and incense are indeed building requirements. They are vital components for building the Tabernacle, to light it, and to perfume it.

May we ever be in bright and sweet-smelling abodes, and if not, make them so.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To beautiful and gentle snowfall.

Party God (Mishpatim)

Party God (Mishpatim)

Celebrate what you want to see more of. -Thomas J. Peters

In one of the more legislative portions of the Torah, God declares:

“Three times a year you shall celebrate for Me.”

Then we get the details of what these celebrations are:

  1. The Feast of Unleavened Bread (Chag Hamatzot), what we commonly refer to as Pesach (Passover), commemorating our Exodus from the bondage of Egypt.
  2. The Feast of the Harvest, what we know as Shavuot, falls in the summer when the first fruits and crops are harvested.
  3. The Feast of the Ingathering, what we know as Sukkot, occurs in the autumn, the end of the agricultural year when all of the produce is gathered from the fields.

The Bechor Shor on Exodus 23:14 examines why God wants us to celebrate at these times and specifically why those celebrations should be for Him. He explains that these three periods of the year are times of particular joy and that God wants to be part of our joy and for us to include Him in our festivities.

During Pesach, we are forever enjoined to commemorate how God liberated us from the slavery of Egypt, and therefore it is extremely appropriate to remember, involve, and incorporate God in the festivities.

Shavuot, in the summer, is the period when we begin to harvest. It is when we start to reap the efforts of all the previous months. A good harvest is a time of great joy and the first fruits of the promise of spring. We need to remember that the harvest comes from God and it is befitting for us to acknowledge God’s role and give Him thanks for what we’ve received so far, as well as to continue to pray for the good we hope He will continue to provide. He wants to be part of that too.

Finally, Sukkot, in the autumn, is when the agricultural potential of the entire year is completely fulfilled. The entire bounty is gathered. It is a period of extreme joy when our material wealth for the year is at its height right in front of us. We cannot help but be joyous. Especially then, when we may not have anything else on our mind than to be happy, is when we need to remember God. We need to be happy WITH Him. We need to perceive that He is happy WITH us. It is a partnership. Our divine partner wants to celebrate with us. He wants to be a tangible, important, meaningful part of our lives and our celebrations. That means including Him, not only during trying times but also in our happiest moments.

May we always have things to celebrate and include God in those moments.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

In memory of Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski z”tl.

The Sin of Waiting (Yitro)

The Sin of Waiting (Yitro)

How much of human life is lost in waiting. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

The nation of Israel, under the leadership of Moses, after their mind-boggling Exodus from Egypt, after their miraculous crossing of the Sea, after their successful defeat of the Amalekite attack, finally enter a more tranquil existence at the foot of Mount Sinai.

Jethro, High Priest of the nation of Midyan and the father-in-law of Moses is reunited with Moses during this period of tranquility. The next day, Jethro sees Moses at work. Moses sits from morning until night, singlehandedly judging the entire Jewish population. People are waiting in line the entire day to see Moses, to seek his council, or have him adjudicate their case. Jethro is incensed and reprimands Moses:

“What you’re doing isn’t good. You will wear yourself away as well as this nation that is with you.”

Jethro, perhaps the first management consultant in history, goes on to recommend to Moses how to set up a judicial system. He includes a description of the character of the judges to appoint, the number of judges, and the entire structure of the system, which Moses goes on to implement.

The Bechor Shor on Exodus 18:14 wonders as to why Jethro was so disturbed by Moses’ initial attempt to singlehandedly judge the entire nation himself. He answers that the main problem was that Moses was forcing all the people who were seeking help to wait. He mentions that some people would end up waiting in line the entire day and were still not be able to see Moses. There were probably uncounted thousands of man-hours that were lost by hordes of Jews just waiting in line, unable to do anything else at that time, with time and energy completely wasted.

That is what upset Jethro so much: the needless waiting, the wasted time, especially when it was possible to set up a significantly more efficient system whereby every plaintiff could have their case heard rapidly and effectively. This system also freed up Moses from his self-imposed burden, allowing him to do higher-value functions and at the same time empowering an entire community of judges to practice Torah law, leadership, and justice.

May we respect other people’s time, and they ours.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the marriage of our son Elchanan to Zavi Lava. Mazal Tov!

Preventative Spiritual Medicine (Beshalach)

Preventative Spiritual Medicine (Beshalach)

By two wings a man is lifted up from things earthly: by simplicity and purity. -Thomas Kempis

After the Ten Plagues, after the miraculous parting of the Sea of Reeds and crossing on dry land within the sea, after the drowning and destruction of the Egyptian forces, Moses leads the freed Jewish nation into the desert. They walk for three days without finding water. On the third day, they find a stream, but its waters are bitter. Then, the Jewish people start what is to become an ongoing occurrence throughout their desert journey: they complain. Under God’s direction, Moses places a nearby piece of wood into the water, thereby sweetening the water and making it drinkable for the Jewish nation.

Immediately after this incident, God makes the following statement:

“If you will heed the Lord your God diligently, doing what is upright in His sight, giving ear to His commandments and keeping all His laws, then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I the Lord am your healer.”

The Bechor Shor on Exodus 15:26 tries to dig deeper into what God is referring to regarding the contrast between the diseases brought upon Egypt and preventing those same diseases from afflicting the Jewish nation, as well as the relationship between health and observance of the commandments.

He explains that it has to do with what we often call ritual purity. There are certain foods, creatures, situations, and people that we are commanded to avoid. The Egyptians paid no heed to such things and the Jewish nation got to witness firsthand the plethora of plagues and diseases that struck Egypt.

It seems that the many ritual commands, among other things, can also provide some measure of protection against those diseases. The Bechor Shor explains that the foods we are prohibited from eating are intrinsically foul and have the potential to corrupt not only our spiritual being but also to harm our physical bodies. All the laws of ritual purity, of the need to physically distance ourselves from those who are even temporarily ritually impure, are meant to prevent the transmission of some disease, that we currently can’t perceive nor understand.

May we take appropriate precautions to safeguard our health and that of those around us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Tu B’Shvat, our annual tree holiday.