Category Archives: Leviticus

Mate for Life

Leviticus Hizkuni: Vayikra

Mate for Life

Humans are apparently not the only species that can be disloyal to their mates. Throughout the animal kingdom there are examples of numerous species that have no feelings towards their mate beyond the urge to reproduce. However there are a number of exceptions.

“And if his offering to the Lord be a burnt-offering of fowls, then he shall bring his offering of turtle-doves, or of young pigeons.” Leviticus 1:14

The only two types of birds that are ever allowed to be brought as a sacrifice are what are commonly translated as the turtle-doves and young pigeons. Apparently, according to modern taxonomy, there is no real difference between the two (which leads me to the conclusion that these may be erroneous translations).

Rabbi Hizkiyahu ben Manoach (Hizkuni) inquires as to why it is acceptable to bring the turtle-dove as a mature bird, but one is only permitted to bring a pigeon while it is still young.

Hizkuni claims that this is a direct result of their mating habits. He explains that once turtle-doves mate they will never be with a different bird, even after the death of their mate. Pigeons however are apparently a more frolicsome breed. As such, they are only permitted on the altar when they are still young and innocent, and when mating is still not an issue in their aviary lives.

The Bible is fairly direct and repetitive regarding the punishment and curse laid in store for the adulterer. It is curious that it would also choose to send an indirect message as well by making a comparison to animals.

May we find joy in the embrace of our soul-mates, and for those who have not found them yet – may they find them soon.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To my dove, Tamara. May her wing heal quickly.

Faith, Famine, Feast, Food

Faith, Famine, Feast, Food

Every seven years, God asks of the Jewish people to commit what conventionally would amount to economic and national suicide. In the land of Israel, farmers must let the land lay fallow (Shmittah). In our modern industrial era, with less than 5% of the population dealing with agriculture, we can’t necessarily appreciate the significance.

However in the pre-industrial world, where as much as 95% of the population was consumed with growing food out of the ground, this sabbatical was the equivalent to telling modern-day man not to use any electronic devices for a year (cars, phones, computers, microwaves, etc – just try to imagine that for a moment).

Actually, it was worse. We could survive, though highly ineffectively, without our electronic gadgets. We would literally starve to death without agriculture.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno draws out some interesting nuances in his analysis of the text as to how we survive the Sabbatical year.

Sforno splits the text into two different demonstrations of faith and their results.

Leviticus 25:19 states:

“The land will give its fruit and you will eat your fill; you will dwell securely upon it.”

According to Sforno, this is the primary and highest level of faith. You are sure that God will nurture you. As a result of this faith, God performs a physiological miracle, and the little food you’ve eaten ends up satisfying you for an abnormally long period of time.

However the text continues:

“If you will say: What will we eat in the seventh year? – behold! We will not sow and not gather in our crops! I will ordain My blessing on you in the sixth year and it will yield a crop sufficient for the three-year period. You will sow in the eighth year, but you will eat from the old crop; until the ninth year, until the arrival of (the new) crop, you will eat the old.”

By not planting or gathering in the seventh year and only planting in the eighth year, with the resulting crop arriving in the ninth year, Shmittah is the equivalent of a self-inflicted three year famine.

Sforno explains that a more overt external miracle will be performed for those with lesser faith. For the more nervous souls who start to panic as to what they will have for the seventh, eighth and ninth years, God provides a “down-payment” of a three-fold crop in the sixth year, so that anxious farmers can with greater confidence adhere to the sabbatical ordinance.

May we always merit miracles of either variety; being sated and/or having enough, and may God always give us the strength and confidence to do His will despite our fears.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To our neighbors, Kobi and Adi, and their new gourmet chocolate venture “Bluma”. As an honorary taste-tester I have partaken of miraculously filling and scrumptious chocolates that would be satisfying for years if they weren’t so addictive.

For orders contact them at bluma.chocolate@gmail.com or 052-8348071 and 052-8767147.

Meat+Wine=Happiness

Meat+Wine=Happiness

I had the great fortune this week, while in Istanbul on business, to discover a pleasant and previously unknown secret of the Turkish Jewish community.

They make the best ‘shawarma’ in the world.

I was embarrassed to admit that Israeli shawarma did not come close to the delicacies I was savoring. My hosts assured me that Turkish restaurants in Israel have even better shawarma than what I was enjoying (any friends that want to join me in discovering these places, please be in touch).

The Talmud states that there is no true celebration without meat and wine (apologies to my vegetarian friends), and both were flowing in high quality at the community dinner I attended.

In Leviticus, Chapter 23, the Torah provides a description of the various Festivals the Jewish people are commanded to celebrate. These Festivals were primarily involved (in Temple times) with sacrifices (a lot of meat), wine libations (though I’m sure participants got their fair share), and a major portion of the Jewish people getting together in Jerusalem (huge social event – great for matchmaking too).

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno inquires as to why God uses the term “My Festivals”, in the first person and repeats that the Festivals are “Holy”.

Sforno explains that while we are ordered to be happy, and are encouraged to enjoy ourselves, we can never forget God or divine service in our partying. As the Talmud states (Tractate Pesachim 68b):

“(celebration of) Festivals (should be) half for you and half for God”

If the festival is exclusively about fun and self-indulgence, then it is actually detested by God:

“For your Festivals my Spirit hated” [Isaiah 1:14]

However, if our Festivals become a community event, where we bond with our fellows, demonstrate kindness and generosity to those less fortunate, give thanks to God for all of His blessings, and dedicate ourselves, our time and our lives to doing His will, then God says, it is “My Festival” that you are celebrating in joy and He indeed blesses us further for this.

May we always have opportunities to celebrate and remember how to do it right.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To the charming young Ms. Levi-Guzcu who sat next to me at the dinner. She explained to me the many challenges of young committed Jews in Turkey. I am sure that together with her boyfriend in Izmir, they will successfully navigate the issues of life, community and Jewish continuity.

Demonology

Demonology

In the last several centuries, demonology has not been a popular Jewish subject, though belief in them by the general public had been widespread until modern times. The Talmud has numerous demon stories and there are various references throughout the Bible.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno however seems to have been a strong believer in their reality and this usually succinct commentator goes to great lengths to describe the habits and nature of what we generally today believe to be mythical creatures.

In Leviticus 17:7 it states:

“And they shall slaughter no longer their offerings to the “sheerim” (demons) that they stray after…”

Sforno explains that while Israelites typically did not worship demons, they did seek them out for some of the unique services they could provide, such as messengers to far off lands (precursor to modern telecommunications?).

Sforno exhorts us to actually be knowledgeable about these “mezikim” (injurers), as paraphrased below from the Talmud (Tractate Chagiga 16a):

“Demons can fly from one side of the world to the other, can tell the future, they eat, drink, reproduce and die.”

The scientist and doctor that was Sforno attempts to give a rational explanation for how they function:

“They can see, but are not visible. This cannot be unless they are composed of an extremely fine substance which is invisible. Since they eat and drink, their food must be of a substance composed of something extremely fine which is assimilated into the organism consuming it. Now there are no compositions known to us more refined than the ‘vapor’ of blood (oxygen!!) from which the spirit, which carries the life force, exists. This force being carried is the soul of life through which every creature lives…as it says “For the blood is the life” (Deuteronomy 12:23).

Sforno continues to explain that the demons live off blood but cannot take it unless someone spills it for them and are then in that persons debt. Demons also like the company of people who consume blood themselves, as they will have similar dispositions (antecedent to vampires?).

He ends with a warning that demons are really bad news, and the Torah obviously knowing this, order various preventive measures (including covering the blood of a slaughtered animal) to keep us away from them.

Chasidic lore has it that the Baal Shem Tov, in the 1700s, arranged via divine intervention for the removal of all demons from the earthly plane, which may be one reason why we really haven’t heard from them lately.

In any case, may all our demons, whether real or imagined be banished, or at least safely tucked away where they will do no harm.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

No dedication this week. I had a few candidates to compare to blood-sucking demons, but decided that “discretion is the better part of valor.”

Al Hanisim report

Thank you to everyone for the warm words of interest and appreciation for the Al Hanisim. We received great feedback from people from a spectrum of Judaism from all over the world, many of which had apparently chosen to use our text.

Due to the strong interest (and debate) that our text has engendered, we will continue to work on it. For some of the public discussion (in Hebrew) check out the comments at: alhanisim.blogspot.com

Strategy for China’s Female Infanticide

Strategy for China’s Female Infanticide

China and other countries in the region are known to have a deep and long-standing cultural preference for the birth of boys. In China, for the last few decades, the issue has been more pronounced because of the “one-child policy” that limits the majority of families to only having one offspring.

China has reached a disparity of approximately 117 boys for every 100 girls born, while the world average is around 105 boys for every 100 girls. Abortion of the female fetus is believed to be the main culprit in the disproportion between boys and girls born.

Leviticus 12:2 starts the discussion of the issue of male births and the subsequent purification process that the Torah requires as follows:

“If a woman caused fructification of seed and gives birth to a male…”

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno quotes a Talmudic commentary on this line from Tractate Niddah 31a:

“If a woman emits seed first, she bears a male.”

Sforno, who was a doctor, amongst many other qualifications, explains that the partner who emits “seed” last will be the more dominant gender. Meaning if the woman ovulates after the man emits seed, the child is more likely to be a girl.

Modern medical studies have supported Sforno’s theory. The timing of ovulation can have a strong effect on the acid/alkaline balance in the vaginal canal, thereby either preserving or destroying the male Y chromosome. If ovulation occurs first, the alkaline neutralizes the acid, saving the Y chromosome, and significantly increasing the odds of a boy. If ovulation occurs later, the acid is likely to get rid of the Y chromosome, resulting in a girl.

If the Chinese would just follow Sforno’s prescription they could probably produce more boys naturally as opposed to murderously skewing the gender balance.

May all parents cherish their children no matter what the gender and may we successfully see them producing future generations.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To Nachshon Chagai Lustig, the newborn son of Debbie and Mark Lusting of Alon Shvut and the fifth boy of five. Mazal Tov on the basketball team and the new house!

The Eternal Life Diet

The Eternal Life Diet

After eating too much Matzah, potatoes, eggs and all the new Kosher for Pesach foods that weren’t even kosher in the past during the rest of the year, it certainly seems time for a diet. The Torah obliges with what is perhaps the main list of eating restrictions that God commands.

While it’s hard enough to stick to one of the more recent popular diets, the Torah’s diet can be fairly limiting. However, while the Torah doesn’t promise a slim figure, reduced calorie intake or feeling full, it has other rewards in store.

Leviticus 11:43-44 states regarding eating non-kosher items:

“…do not defile yourselves with them, and do not become impure, for I am the Lord, your God, and you will make yourselves Holy; and you will be Holy, for I am Holy…”

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno is intrigued by the repeated mention of “Holy” regarding our eating habits. He explains that the first aspect of holiness by refraining from eating “contaminating” foods is to prepare ourselves and our bodies for holiness and a closer relationship with God.

The second mention of holiness refers to the fact that those who adhere to the laws of eating kosher are granted the possibility of nothing less than eternal life. (That beats any diet I know hands down!)

Sforno adds the caveat that one needs to “walk in God’s ways” as well, but the Kosher diet seems to be a prerequisite of sorts for an everlasting spiritual relationship with God.

Sforno further explains that God also offers to become a coach for anyone who embarks on this diet, quoting the dictum from the Talmud (Tractate Yoma 39a) that if a person makes himself Holy a bit, he is made Holy a lot (with divine help).

In this post-eating holiday period may we all return/start/continue with better eating habits and may a reasonable concern for the laws of eating properly guide our gastronomic decisions.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To the memory of Sylvia Jaffe Feigenbaum (Chana Sara bat Mirtza) of Efrat/Cleveland. The mother of my aunt Eudice Spitz and the Matriarch of the extensive Feigenbaum tribe.

While much has and will be said and written about this remarkable woman, one recollection from the many that I found noteworthy is that this was the only family I knew that under her leadership published a regular newspaper about and for the family, to keep her clan connected in a way that is amazing and enviable and I am certain will be felt for many generations to come.

Scouring Our Souls

Scouring Our Souls

In the preparations for Passover, there is an inordinate focus on cleaning. We clean the bedrooms, the floors, the windows, the refrigerator, the cabinets, the drawers, the counters, the oven, and every nook and cranny that is accessible and even some not so easily accessible.

This tradition has been attributed as the source for the popular term and activity of Spring Cleaning amongst the general population. Many Rabbis however, have taken the arduous task of cleaning our physical home and transposed it as an opportunity to get our spiritual homes in order.

This weeks’ Torah reading also reflects a similar theme.

The Torah gives a detailed list of further types of sacrifices that are brought at the Temple. A fairly common variety is the “chatat” offering, known also as the sin-offering. This category of sacrifice is utilized as a tool of repentance for a spectrum of transgressions – from seeking forgiveness for the entire people of Israel, down to the penitence of an individual.

The list of sacrifices also includes the “olah” offering group, or the elevation-offering. The “olah” is less remorseful and more commemorative, and is apparently meant to “elevate” our connection with God.

In Leviticus 8:2, Rabbi Ovadia Sforno inquires as to the mention of the “chatat” first. He says that the precedence is important. The law requires that the “chatat” is sacrificed before an “olah”.

Sforno explains that there is no sense or rationale to bring the elevation-offering before the sin-offering. Seeking to elevate ourselves and come closer to God will be difficult if there are still unrepentant or unaddressed sins on our psyche.

Sforno seems to indicate that we need to clean up our act first, or at least take concrete steps towards redeeming ourselves before seeking to rise further in our spiritual stature, and that is mirrored by the order of the sacrifices.

May we succeed in cleaning both our homes and our spirits, and may the upcoming Holiday help elevate us further.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher Ve’sameach,

Bentzi

Dedication

In memory of Mr. Ben Genauer of Seattle/Jerusalem, patriarch and grandfather of a large and wonderful clan, including my sister-in-law, Nechama Spitz. Though I only met him recently I was so struck by how a man of his very advanced years was brimming with zest for life, happiness and love of family.

At the shiva this week I learned much more about him and it seems clear that his life was one of constant elevations, kindness, generosity and achieving closeness to God in his own unique way. May he be a “melitz yosher” for his entire family and the people of Israel.

The Crime of Ignorance

scientiapotentiaThe Crime of Ignorance

After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, Admiral John Poindexter, the former US National Security Advisor to Ronald Reagan, formulated the concept of an “Information Awareness Program” to better gather intelligence from the public at large. For a short time, he ran this new division within the Department of Defense. There was however a media backlash to the idea of public surveillance and congress stopped funding it about a year later.

Poindexter’s ill-fated idea gave rise to at least two notable items. The first is a slew of Hollywood movies and TV shows featuring some take-off of his concept either with a secret do-good mass-intelligence gathering group, or the more interesting ones is with such a system gone bad (either corruption, off-track idealism and/or technology take-over), which brings all the fears of “Big Brother” to life.

The second and more relevant point for us is the motto he promoted. According to a friend of mine from the defense/intelligence community, Poindexter had the phrase “Knowledge is Power” on his desk and this became the de facto slogan for his division, though in the fancier Latin: “Scentia Est Potentia” (see ominous logo).

“Scentia Potentia Est” (“For also knowledge itself is power”) was originally mentioned by Francis Bacon in Meditationes Sacrae (1597). Bacon apparently took it from our own Mishlei (Proverbs) 24:5:

“A wise man has great power, and a man of knowledge increases strength.”

If knowledge is indeed power then the converse, ignorance should equal weakness or feebleness.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno takes the issue of ignorance further.

Starting in the book of Leviticus (Vayikra), the Torah goes into much depth and detail as to the different sacrifices that are brought to the Temple.

One interesting sacrifice that is demanded is for a sin that one “might” have done. If someone is not sure if he committed a sin, the Torah still demands that the maybe perpetrator bring a sacrifice as an act of contrition and repentance.

Sforno explains that the problem is not just the uncertainty of having performed a sin, but rather the potential sinner having put himself in the position in the first place. Sforno accuses the sinner (the Torah considers him so, whether he did the feared act or not) of ignorance.

By not knowing the laws of the Torah, a person is more likely to fall into error. According to Sforno, in Judaism, “I didn’t know” is not an excuse. Ignorance is not only helplessness or infirmity. Ignorance is a crime.

May we constantly cure our many points of ignorance, especially in the realm of Jewish law, and may our storehouses of knowledge always be used to keep us out of trouble.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To all Jewish womenfolk, who are so diligently preparing for the Passover holiday, with vast erudition as to the many and often intricate laws of having a Kosher Pesach.