Miracles and The Power of Multiplication


Miracles and the Power of Multiplication

by Ben-Tzion Spitz

Besides the many lessons that the Hagaddah provides, an often overlooked one, is that of the power of multiplication.

The most obvious examples are the three opinions as to the ‘quantity’ of the “Plagues” that afflicted the Egyptians at the parting of the sea. The first opinion is that of Rabbi Yossi the Galilean. He makes the following algebraic comparison based on the biblical verses:

1 “Finger” of God = 10 Egypt plagues

Sea plague = “Hand” of God

Assuming that God’s anthropomorphic limbs are comparable to a humans, solving for Sea plague leads to the following calculation

Sea plague = “Hand” of God = 5 “Fingers” of God = 50 Egypt plagues

The subsequent opinions take the above calculation as a given but add an additional multiplier.

Rabbi Eliezer, the second opinion, states that based on the four qualifiers of “Wrath”, “Fury”, “Trouble”, and “Messengers of Evil”, that are stated regarding the Egyptian plagues, there were 40 plagues in Egypt. Multiplying that by Rabbi Yossi’s original formula provides us with a total of 200 plagues at the sea.

Rabbi Akiva, the third and last opinion in the unusual discussion, adds another qualifier, “Fierce Anger”, to Rabbi Eliezer’s original four. 10 times 5 times 5 equal 250.

Some of the later rabbinic commentators including the Maharal of Prague imply that the simplistic multiplication lesson is really teaching something deeper about the nature of reality and the nature of miracles.

Rabbi Yossi’s initial opinion equates the number ten to the power of a single “Finger” of God. Ten is also compared to holiness and separating the holy from the mundane (i.e. tithes). Similarly, according to the Maharal, anything that intercedes in our world from the more spiritual spheres, in an overt fashion (i.e. miracles) is also a function of the power of ten.

A single finger is a limited tool, and on its own is not particularly powerful. God’s intent with the plagues in Egypt was apparently more educational than outright destructive. Hence his anthropomorphized use of a single finger translated into the power of ten in our world.

However, at the splitting of the sea, God’s intent was to destroy the Egyptian nation in general and its entire armed forces in particular. There God uses his Hand. A hand is a complete tool, and the number five represents a full number. Therefore, according to Rabbi Yossi, the Egyptians suffered the equivalent of 50 plagues at the sea.

The next opinion, Rabbi Eliezer, looks deeper into the makeup of a single “plague” and determines that each plague is really composed of four plagues. There are different explanations besides the textual one quoted above as to why four. The Maharal is a bit esoteric, but he could be interpreted to say that four is the minimum number of points to represent something tangible in space. One point doesn’t do very much. Two points will give you a line. Three points will give you a two-dimensional surface with no thickness. You need at least four coordinates in space to have a three-dimensional object.

[See illustration above]

The Abudarham on the other hand states that each plague encompassed the four elements of earth, wind, fire and water in some fashion. Therefore, in Egypt the plagues were the equivalent of 40, while at sea it was the equivalent of 200.

Rabbi Akiva, presenting the third opinion, builds on Rabbi Eliezer’s theory and adds one more factor to the equation. According to the Maharal, he agrees with Rabbi Eliezer’s four coordinates as defining an object (assuming we understand the Maharal correctly). However, he adds an additional point in space that would bind the four points into one object. Paralleling this thought, the Abudarham states that Rabbi Akiva agrees with the composition of the plagues being formed by the four elements, however he adds, that each plague drew on the power of the four elements separately as well as a combination of all the elements, making each plague a factor of five.

The Maharal states that there is even greater depth and meaning to all of this, but he cannot reveal it to the uninitiated. One point of his discussion though, is to give us an even greater sense of awe. Awe not only for the miracles that occurred, but for the essential reality and functioning of nature, and the miraculous within nature.

Chutzpah, Sin, Loyalty and Rejoicing

Chutzpah, Sin, Loyalty and Rejoicing

By almost all accounts, the greatest sin of the generation of Israelites that left Egypt was the creation of the Golden Calf.

Moses was absconded somewhere in the sky together with God, receiving the Torah for us. The masses and rabble, frightened perhaps by Moses’ delayed return, get anxious. They press his brother, Aharon, the High Priest, to create an idol for them to worship. After collecting all their gold, Aharon puts it together in the fire, and walla! – out comes the Golden Calf.

All of this occurred a mere forty days after the Jews heard the Ten Commandments from the Voice of God Himself. In those selfsame commandments, he states very explicitly: Don’t worship other gods. Don’t make any idols. So it would seem to be the height of rebellion, and outright ‘chutzpah’, to build this idol at the foot of Mt. Sinai, as close as one could physically get to God at that moment in time.

Aharon, in a delaying tactic, after having made the Calf, announces that there will be a general celebration the next day.

Moses finally descends when the party is in full swing, smashes the newly minted Tablets of The Law, destroys the Calf, has the Levite tribe kill the worst offenders and extensively asks God for mercy (busy day).

We are told that if it weren’t for the intervention of Moses, God would have wiped out the fledgling Jewish nation and started anew with Moses as the progenitor of a new Chosen People.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno examines these passages in depth and makes a startling statement: Making the Golden Calf was horrible – but it was the festival surrounding it that really incensed God.

Bad enough to sin and show disloyalty to God. But to rejoice and take pleasure in it, to literally dance around the cause of God’s wrath – that’s really going overboard.

The sages say that every calamity, every punishment, even every minor mishap that happens to every Jew, since that moment until this very day, has a component of punishment from that event.

By the same token, every act of loyalty to God, by every one of us, no matter how small, surely absolves us of some of the damage our ancestors committed.

May we always merit doing acts of loyalty to God, and to know at what events and what occasions to celebrate.

Shabbat Shalom,



To my grandfather, Yechiel (Yakov) Spitz, z”l, whose Yartzheit was this week. He was a loyal and humble servant of God, and a model for his descendents.

God: Up Close and Personal

God: Up Close and Personal

God commands the Children of Israel to build a Sanctuary for Him. He goes into excruciating detail as to the entire minutia of the construction, the sacrifices and the priestly service. In the midst of the divine shopping list, He states that He will dwell amongst us and be for us a God (Exodus 29:45).

The statement seems both obvious and redundant.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno wonders as to the extraneous phrase and offers a theologically important opinion:

And I will be their God: To direct their affairs without an intermediary.”

Sforno is promoting the concept that divine plans and orders are placed upon mankind via a host of angelic middlemen. However, when it comes to the Children of Israel, God takes a personal and direct role. We get His full and undivided attention for good or ill, as it were.

Other peoples and nations suffer through the celestial bureaucratic machinery that has its own rules, regulations and patterns of nature. The Jewish people on the other hand have the ear of the head-honcho himself, who can quickly and easily bypass his own henchmen and intervene, sometimes dramatically, in the lives of His people.

Sforno continues:

“And they will not need fear the heavenly signs, for they will be more honored before Me than the heavens whose movement is directed through the angels.”

Sforno seems to be implying, that the Children of Israel are not only immune or protected from the effects of the “natural” world as directed by his ethereal minions, but in a sense, are even above them.

He ends his comment with the following powerful statement:

“And as a result of all this their eternity is ensured.”

It is not without reason that the Children of Israel have been named by some, the Eternal People. It seems that by being so closely connected and identifying with the Eternal One, by fulfilling our mission as individuals and as a nation, we also join the institution of Eternity.

May we make our homes places where He would be comfortable hanging out, and eternally merit feeling His proximity.


To Isaac Asimov. One of my favorite authors and one of the greatest science fiction writers ever. Though he was a self-avowed atheist/humanist, I believe this Russian-born, Brooklyn-raised, Columbia-educated Jew was an ‘ehrlech yid’ at heart. When writing the word “Eternity” in capital letters, I couldn’t help thinking of one of his great books: “The End of Eternity”.

Flying Lessons

Flying Lessons

After previously denouncing and prohibiting in multiple instances, on pain of death, creation of statues, portrayals of the human form, or anything even remotely resembling idols, God throws an unusual command.

In the building of the sanctuary, in the Holy of Holies, on the very top of the Ark of the Covenant, where the Tablets of the Law are devotedly concealed, God tells us to place, not one, but two human figures.

These two Cherubim, as they are called, have the form of young children with wings on their back.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno wonders as to the seemingly contradictory declaration, by allowing one of the most abhorrent issues in Judaism, in the heart of the most sacred spot of Jewish ritual service.

Sforno claims that it is nothing less than a powerful and overt message. These Cherubim are representations of what today we more commonly refer to as Angels: heavenly ethereal beings that directly fulfill the will of God on earth. In rare occasions they present themselves and allow themselves to be seen by human beings. At times they may appear as unassuming humans, unrecognized in their mission. Most of the time, however, it seems they are invisible to the human eye.

So why are there angels on top of the Ark, and why specifically the winged variety?

I’ll paraphrase from Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz’s notes (the Sforno translator), who draws from Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed (I:49 and I:54):

The act of flying represents the ability to soar to heights as well as swiftness of movement, both of which require wings. Humans also can aspire to develop spiritual and intellectual potential so as to soar to greater heights of apprehension and understanding of God.

This can only be realized by examining God’s ways, as we see from Moses. One can only know Him, through His ways, which is through his 13 attributes, which can only be gained through the Torah. That is why the Cherubim are not only on the cover, but are gazing at the Ark cover – the source of truth and wisdom – the Torah.

Sforno believes that the Cherubim are an implicit message. That at the heart of the Jewish religion is a belief and a demand that we can and must elevate ourselves. That elevation is accomplished through God’s Law. If we keep our eye on the truth – we can soar like the very angels themselves.

Shabbat Shalom,



To my sister and brother-in-law, Ilana and Daniel Epstein, on their 13th Anniversary. Besides the 13 Attributes of God and Bar-Mitzvah, 13 are also the Principals of Faith that Maimonides enumerates, and Kabbalists also refer to the 13 petalled rose, among other uses (i.e. great number). May they continue to grow and elevate themselves and may they soar to health, happiness and success with their beautiful family.

The Purpose of Grandparenthood

The Purpose of Grandparenthood

The nation of Israel has received the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai. The Bible starts enumerating a long list of additional commandments. Then God gives what amounts to a pep talk to the nation of Israel, how He will send his angel ahead of them and destroy the inhabitants of Canaan, to make way for the incoming masses of Israelites.

In the midst of descriptions of enemy destruction and land conquest God states:

“You shall worship God, your God, and He shall bless your bread and your water, and I shall remove illness from your midst. There shall be no woman who loses her young or is infertile in your land; I shall fill the number of your days.” (Exodus 23:25-26)

Instead of paraphrasing or interpreting Rabbi Ovadia Sforno as usual, I’ll just quote him, as his wording is so intriguing (translation courtesy of Artscroll English Sfrono translated by Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz – highly recommended):

“The number of your days I will fulfill: You will live to the (full) measure of oil which is in your lamp of God (the soul of man), i.e., the vitality (or natural force) rooted (in man) from birth. The reverse of this mostly occurs when man dies from (various) illnesses before his basic vitality has ceased. This occurs due to wrong choices (made in life) or due to fate (literally, ‘the order of the planets’) and the elements (literally, ‘foundations’). Now when a man’s numbers of days are fulfilled he will in most cases see children born to his children and he will be able to teach them, as it says: “Make them known to your children and your children’s children” (Deuteronomy 4:9). (In this fashion) the affairs of (new) generations will be remedied in the lifetime of their elders, as we are told happened with Levi, Kehath and Amram (the ancestors of Moses).”

Sforno then directs us to earlier comments about the great-grandfather, grandfather and father of Moses, who all led exceedingly long lives.

“The longevity of these men enabled them to influence their grandsons as well as their sons. The choice fruit of these spiritual plantings were Moses and Aaron. They are the end result of the many years of education and guidance contributed by Levi, Kehath and Amram, and they are worthy to be chosen as leaders and spokesmen.”

May grandparents have the continuing opportunity to teach and guide their grandchildren, and may parents know how to get out of the way or even facilitate these special opportunities.

Shabbat Shalom,



To my grandparents who I learned so much from and to our parents who are such a big influence on our kids (Is it harder for children to listen to the immediately preceding generation? Are we hardwired that way? Is that why Sforno attributes such importance to the grandparents guiding the grandchildren?)

Commandments Express: Meat and Potatoes

Commandments Express: Meat and Potatoes

After giving the Ten Commandments, God relays a whole host of commandments in bullet-like fashion, in a variety of areas.

I’ll divide them into the following four broad categories:

Slavery and Marriage

The Justice System

Be Nice. Be Fair

God: A Jealous Lover

Slavery and Marriage

Having recently freed the Jewish people from slavery and provided them with a basic foundation of commandments, God picks as the very first set of detailed commandments the need to be sensitive to slaves.

While the Torah did not ignore the highly prevalent institution of slavery, it was highly innovative in terms of giving them basic human rights and recognizing their deprived situation. “To fulfill the laws pertaining to a Jewish slave” [Commandment #42] is a broad enactment that infuses this otherwise difficult reality with dignity, care and eventual self-sufficiency for the slave involved.

Slavery for women in the Torah has an entirely different connotation. It is classically relevant for young girls, for the express purpose of leading to bona fide marriage. “For the master of a Jewish maidservant to either take her for a wife or give her to his son for a wife” [Commandment #43] defines female “slavery” as exclusively a prelude to marriage. This would typically be an arranged contract between a poor or destitute father of the bride with a wealthier perspective husband or father-in-law. The Torah however provides two specific clauses that protect and release the girl if a marriage will not be consummated.

“For the master of a Jewish maidservant to redeem her if he or his son will not take her for a wife.” [Commandment #44]

“The master of a Jewish maidservant cannot sell her to another man.” [Commandment #45]

As can be seen, the Jewish version of slavery, especially regarding women (who were the most exploited) is radically different than anything that existed in the ancient world, or even into modern times.

While on the topic of marriage, the Torah provides a broad command that applies to all brides: “Not to withhold food, clothing or marital relations.” [Commandment #46]

Except for this last commandment, the previous slavery-related ones do not apply in current times.


The Justice System

The following long stretch of commandments (from number 47 until 62) presumes the existence of a strong judicial system able to enforce Torah-mandated law. Many of the punishments, especially corporal and capital punishment were only used in a society where court-induced punishment would have a deterrent effect. Even when the Great Sanhedrin or Beit Din (the ancient Jewish Supreme Court) was active, they discontinued many of the harsher punishments when the feeling was that certain crimes were rampant.

There were four different execution methods for different crimes, two of which are included in this section:

“For the Beit Din to execute by strangulation those who deserve it according to the Torah.” [Commandment #47]

“Not to strike one’s father or mother.” [Commandment #48] This still applies today, though formerly was punishable by execution.

“For the Beit Din to penalize with fines one who injures his fellow-man.” [Commandment #49]

“For the Beit Din to execute by decapitation those who deserve it according to the Torah.” [Commandment #50]

“For the Beit Din to judge the case of a damaging ox, whether it injured a man or damaged property.” [Commandment #51]

“Not to eat the meat of an ox sentenced to death, even if it was properly slaughtered.” [Commandment #52]

“For the Beit Din to judge cases of damages or injuries caused by someone who dug a pit, ditch or cave in a hazardous area.” [Commandment #53]

“For the Beit Din to judge cases of a thief who stole from people without their knowing.” [Commandment #54]

“For the Beit Din to judge cases of damages caused by someone’s domestic animal grazing or trampling.” [Commandment #55]

“For the Beit Din to judge cases of damages caused by fire.” [Commandment #56]

“For the Beit Din to judge cases of an unpaid guardian.” [Commandment #57]

“For the Beit Din to judge cases between a plaintiff and a defendant.” [Commandment #58]

“For the Beit Din to judge cases of a paid guardian.” [Commandment #59]

“For the Beit Din to judge cases of the borrower of an item.” [Commandment #60]

“For the Beit Din to judge cases of a seducer.” [Commandment #61]

“Not to allow the practitioner of sorcery or witchcraft to live.” [Commandment #62]

This ends the judicial commandments for now. The progression is interesting, in that it starts with capital crimes, then deals with damages and injuries, theft, negligence, commercial relationships, borrowers, seducers and finally witches, which brings us back to capital punishment.


Be Nice. Be Fair

Having started the en masse redaction of commandments with sensitivity towards slaves and then development of the justice system, the Torah now addresses (commandments 63 until 85) sensitivity towards other oppressed groups – converts, widows, orphans, poor, sinners and even guilty defendants, and those that defend all of them, namely the courts and ultimately God. Most of the following commandments are considered applicable in our day and age:

“Not to oppress a righteous convert with words.” [Commandment #63]

“Not to wrong a righteous convert in matters of monetary value.” [Commandment #64]

“Not to inflict suffering on any widow or orphan.” [Commandment #65]

“To lend money to the poor of Jewry.” [Commandment #66]

“Not to demand a borrower pay his debt when he cannot.” [Commandment #67]

“To have no part in lending at interest.” [Commandment #68]

“Not to curse a judge.” [Commandment #69]

“Not to curse God.” [Commandment #70]

“Not to curse a ruler of Israel.” [Commandment #71]

“Not to alter the order of precedence of separating and giving tithes.” [Commandment #72]

“To eat no animal with a mortal affliction.” [Commandment #73]This would be directed to the poor person himself, who out of desperation would be tempted to eat from substandard meat.

“For a judge not to hear one plaintiff when the other is not present.” [Commandment #74]

“For the court not to accept testimony of a man of sin.” [Commandment #75] – Referring to public sinners of certain categories whose personality is considered less than trustworthy.

“Not to impose the death penalty unless there is a majority of at least two judges who declare a guilty verdict.” [Commandment #76]

“A judge should not merely follow the opinions of others, but should have his own clear understanding in giving a verdict.” [Commandment #77]

“To follow the majority in laws of the Torah.” [Commandment #78]

“Not to pity a poor man in a trial.” [Commandment #79]

“To assist in unloading a domestic animal.” [Commandment #80]

“For a judge not to pervert justice for a sinner because of his wickedness.” [Commandment #81]

“For a Beit Din not to decide a guilty verdict on a capital case based on circumstantial evidence alone.” [Commandment #82]

“For a judge to accept no bribe.” [Commandment #83]

“To leave ownerless everything the land produces in the seventh year.” [Commandment #84]

“To rest from work on the Sabbath”. [Commandment #85] – This is the flip side of Commandment #32: “Not to work on the Sabbath” (one prohibits working, the other commands rest). It also relates to the immediately preceding commandment of resting of the land on the seventh year, and is of greatest value to the poor.


God: A Jealous Lover

Having protected the interests of the downtrodden as well as defined in detail the relationship to and responsibilities of judges, God now defines in more detail (Commandments 86 to 94) additional specific aspects of the Jew’s relationship to God Himself. Almost like a jealous lover, God demands an exclusive worshipful relationship, gifts, visitation, and unique or even puzzling demonstrations of loyalty:

“Not to swear in the name of an idol.” [Commandment #86]

“To entice no one in Jewry to worship an idol.” [Commandment #87]

“To go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Temple for the three festivals.” [Commandment #88]

“Not to bring the Passover sacrifice while there is still leavened bread (chametz) in our possession.” [Commandment #89]As perhaps the most important if not popular of the three festivals, the Torah adds some critical rules as to the Passover sacrifice.

“The kohanim (priests) cannot leave the fats of the Passover sacrifice overnight without being burnt on the altar.” [Commandment #90]

“To bring the first fruit that ripens on a tree (bikurim) to the Holy Temple and give it to the Kohen (priest).” [Commandment #91]This typically coincides with the second of the three yearly pilgrimages, the summer Pentecost holiday (Shavuot).

“To cook no meat with milk.” [Commandment #92]There is no apparent direct link of this commandment to the others, though the meat versus milk command is declared in three different iterations in equally unexpected locations. It seems to be some general ubiquitous type of commandment that applies to our daily necessity to eat and probably defines more than almost anything else our daily and almost constant respect of God and His laws in a most practical and concrete fashion.

“Not to make a treaty with idol worshippers.” [Commandment #93]

“Not to settle idol worshippers in our land.” [Commandment #94]


Now that’s a set of laws

God has covered sensitivity to the weak and oppressed, established a judicial system, the interaction of the two and details as to the type of relationship He expects from the Jewish people. This is certainly a robust basis for the healthy functioning of a society. However God wants much more, and foremost is to be closer to the Jewish people.

The next set of commandments will deal with the setting up, operation and procedures whereby the Jewish people can have the closest physical connection to God – in the service of the Holy Temple.

“Knock, knock”

“Knock, knock”

After the miraculous escape of the Children of Israel from Egypt, Yitro, the father-in-law of Moses, sends word that he is coming to meet them at their encampment in the desert, accompanied by Tzipora, the wife of Moses, and their two sons, Gershom and Eliezer.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno wonders why Yitro needs to send word ahead. Yitro could have spared the expense and effort of sending a messenger through the desert to inform Moses of what was going to happen in any case. Yitro could have even surprised Moses with the welcome sight of the wife and children that he hadn’t seen in some time.

Sforno explains that it is simply good manners. Sending a simple messenger ahead would give Moses sufficient time to prepare for their arrival. Moses can then organize their accommodations so there wouldn’t be an embarrassing wait were they to suddenly appear.

Sforno brings as support for such etiquette the Talmud (Tractate Pesachim 112a):

“Do not enter your house suddenly, even more so to your friend’s house.”

One might think that it would be permissible or even praiseworthy to check in suddenly on the goings-on in ones house. A surprise inspection can confirm that everything is truly in order and keep people on their toes. However Sforno reminds us, that in truth, sudden appearances are rude, startling, and an invasion of privacy. If it’s for inspection purposes they demonstrate a lack of trust or sensitivity.

Sforno and the Talmud don’t mean to dissuade people from making casual and unplanned visits to their friends and family. They just suggest that you call first or at the very least knock.

May we always have the capacity and enjoyment of welcoming friends and family to our homes.


To all of our friends and family who drop by our centrally located home. We love it. Keep visiting, with or without warning. Just knock.

Commandments Express: Beginning with the Basics

Commandments Express: Beginning with the Basics

The Jewish people have been released from the servitude of Egypt. They have begun, with God’s direction to gain independence and form an identity. Now God prepares to meet them in a pyrotechnic sound and light extravaganza, the likes of which have never been experienced before or after. At Mt. Sinai, God presents the famous Ten Commandments, which besides their global notoriety, can be considered a founding or basic set of commandments.

Beyond impressing upon the Jews His awesomeness, God commands it. “I am God, your God that took you out of Egypt”, demands believing there is a God [Commandment #25]. The flip side of belief in God is non-belief in any other divinity, hence a continuation of commandments that demonstrate ones non-belief:

To entertain no thought that there is any other god [Commandment #26].

To make no idol to worship [Commandment #27].

Not to bow down and prostrate oneself to an idol [Commandment #28].

Not to worship an idol in the accepted manner [Commandment #29].

Once we have the belief system in place, both on the positive side of believing in God and on the negative side of not believing or even remotely demonstrating acceptance or respect of false gods, we move on to the realm of action.

Perhaps the most primary aspect of action is actually speech. Here we continue demonstrating both our respect and allegiance to God, by not taking his name in vain [Commandment #30].

Next and still in the realm of speech, is consecrating what is probably the most fundamental and demonstrative exhibition of Judaism: the Sabbath and declaring it holy with words [Commandment #31].

Now that God has broached the subject of the Sabbath, the actual prohibition to work on the Sabbath follows [Commandment #32].

Once the primacy and exclusivity of God has been transmitted and the primacy of the Sabbath is in place, another fundamental commandment is pronounced – honoring ones father and mother [Commandment #33]. This completes the first “half” of the Ten Commandments (which aren’t really ten commandments but rather ten statements that incorporate more than one commandment each in some cases).

The first half of the Ten Commandments are traditionally considered those between Man and God (even honoring ones parents, as they are considered in a sense partners with God in creating their child). The second half deals with very basic concrete issues between Man and his fellow Man.

In terms of relationships between men, things don’t get more direct or basic than “Don’t kill” [Commandment #34].

Right after the commandment that deals with breaking the bonds of life, is the commandment that deals with breaking the bonds of family life: “Do not commit adultery” [Commandment #35]. This is perhaps the first commandment that introduces an obvious higher ethic in interpersonal relationships.

Another primal crime that leads to the breakdown of society is the heinous “Do not kidnap” [Commandment #36]. Society is broken down, not only by violent actions, but also by a violation of speech. “To give no false testimony” [Commandment #37] reflects such an issue.

The last of the Ten Commandments gets to perhaps the root of many societal ills. “Do not covet anything belonging to one’s fellow man” [Commandment #38].

Once the pivotal Ten Commandments have been imparted, God continues with commandments that are still somewhat related, but are now perhaps more nuanced and sophisticated.

Drawing on the commandment against idol worship, God commands “To make no image of a human being, even for ornamentation” [Commandment #39].

The main religious conduit of the day was the use of the altar for sacrificial offerings. As metal was used for sculpting stone, there is an aversion to using metal on altar stones to add any images. Simple unadulterated stones needed to be used. The command is fairly strict and prohibits building an altar out of stones that have even been touched by a metal instrument [Commandment #40].

While discussing the topic of the altar, the command of not ascending the Altar by steps is introduced [Commandment #41]. A ramp had to be built. Once God has revealed Himself to the Children of Israel in all His glory a resulting humility is a consequence. Ascending via smaller footsteps on a ramp rather than by striding on stairs, which might show more of ones legs (they wore flowing robes back then), would be a more appropriate sign of modesty and humility when approaching and encountering God.

God has now laid the foundation with this set of commandments. In the following section He gets in gear with a broad, long and detailed list of a range of commandments.


Beginning with the Basics -- Commandments
Beginning with the Basics -- Commandments

Torah and Careers: A Practical Approach

This article was printed in the English journal of Yeshivat Har Etzion many moons ago…

Torah and Careers: A Practical Approach[1]

by Ben-Tzion Spitz

The question whether a Torah-observant Jew may or ought to pursue a secular career has been debated since, at latest, the time of the Mishna. In this article we will look at some sources for the debate, focusing mainly on Pirkei Avot and the Rambam, analyze the prevalent approaches today, and develop some practical tools to help guide an individual toward his own solution to the issue.

The Mishnaic Tractate Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers), is a compilation of moral advice dictating what daily behavior ought to be like for everyone.[2] It also represents the ideal that all should aim to achieve.[3] However, in carefully reviewing the various statements in the Mishna, it becomes apparent that there is a dispute about the issue of making a livelihood:

Do not say, “When I am free I will study;” perhaps you will not become free.[4]

Anyone excessively involved in business cannot become a scholar.[5]

Whoever takes upon himself the yoke of Torah, the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly responsibilities are removed from him. But whoever throws off the yoke of Torah from himself, the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly responsibilities are placed upon him.[6]

Reduce your business activities and occupy yourself with Torah. Be of humble spirit before every man. If you should neglect the Torah, there will be many other neglectors opposite you; but if you labor in Torah, He has ample reward to give you.[7]

On the other hand:

Beautiful is the study of Torah, together with an occupation, for the exertion of them both makes sin forgotten.[8]

If there is no Torah, there is no worldly occupation; if there is no worldly occupation, there is no Torah. If there is no wisdom, there is no fear of God; if there is no fear of God, there is no wisdom. If there is no knowledge, there is no understanding; if there is no understanding, there is no knowledge. If there is no flour (sustenance), there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no flour (sustenance).[9]

The sages who composed these sources lived as they taught; whereas many sages earned a livelihood in non-clerical professions, others distanced themselves as much as possible from the secular world. On one hand, there are many examples of Torah giants and leaders throughout the generations that pursued careers alongside their Torah life:[10] Among Talmudic sages, Rav Huna was a water drawer,[11] Rabbi Meir a barber,[12] Rabbi Yehuda a porter,[13] Rav Yosef a miller, and Rav Sheshet a porter.[14] Among later sages, Rav Shlomo Yitzhaki (Rashi, the famous commentator on Chumash and Talmud) was a wine maker, and never accepted any position or payment for his Torah activities. Even in modern times, Rav Baruch Halevi Epstein, the author of the Torah Temima, was a banker. Rambam is perhaps the best known secular career person and we will discuss him in more detail below.

On the other hand, a paradigm of non-secular existence is represented by Rav Shimon Bar Yochai. The Talmud relates that he lived as he preached – in a cave, immersed completely in his Torah meditations, totally divorced from the world around him.[15] Thus, one group contends that men[16] should shun worldly pursuits for the exclusive study of Torah, whereas the other group seems to say that there must be a balance, a coexistence, between making a livelihood and studying Torah. This debate has continued, and one can identify the different views throughout the Talmud, Geonim, Rishonim, Acharonim and modern-day poskim.

At first glance, it appears that this dispute involves clearly defined and inflexible positions, i.e., a halakhic dispute. However, it may be more accurate to say that this debate is about philosophical preference and not about normative practice, i.e., each side emphasizes one opinion from among several, but does not decide between them.[17]

As opposed to other areas of halakha where unequivocal decisions are rendered, no authoritative decision has ever been recorded for this debate. Yes, there are many suggestions and views; but that is all they are, and should only be taken as such. Furthermore, sages from both ends of this philosophical debate very much respected each other’s positions, views, and ways of life.However, while most might agree with the above positions, some do not – especially in our generation.

It seems that the sages realized that one’s approach to secular activity is a highly personal issue, and offered encouragement and specific guidance as to the best resolution of this life-defining concern.

Some Qualifications

From the days of the Mishna to our own time, many people have become overly concerned with the pursuit of their career and material wealth. This trend is frowned upon in no uncertain terms by the full spectrum of Jewish thinkers.[18] All agree that learning Torah and thereby becoming closer to God is of prime importance. Anything that detracts from this goal is against the Jewish ideal. Beyond this, however, there are various opinions as to the best way to proceed with one’s activities on the practical level, and it is this debate we wish to address.

To my mind, it is inconceivable that the entire Jewish people was meant to exclusively learn Torah (at least at this stage of our history[19]). It is otherwise difficult to explain the reason behind all of the materialistic laws and commandments. Someone has to work the fields. Someone has to heal the sick and wounded. Someone has to build the homes, provide the food, generate the electricity, make the clothing, manufacture goods and do everything else that a society needs done. The majority of the population is expected to have some type of gainful employment. In ancient times, the Kohanim and Levi’im were designated from among Israel to provide guidance, while the rest of Israel was expected to make a living.[20] In our times, Orthodox Jewry has spawned a community with an ideology that promotes full-time Torah learning for all men. In this essay, we are concerned with helping the individual to choose between the Torah-only lifestyle and an integrated lifestyle, and providing some tools to help him decide.

Avoiding the Problem Creates New Ones

Some people do not have to confront the choice directly because they work in a Torah-oriented field. Not that their intention is to avoid tackling the issue; on the contrary, usually for the most idealistic and noble of reasons they become pulpit Rabbis or Torah educators. They are constantly learning and disseminating words of Torah. This is a great solution to the dilemma, for the Rabbi does not have to leave the world of Torah even while earning a living. However, this only works for the select few that take that route – not everyone can be a teacher.

Additionally, this route is not without its price. Rambam prohibits Torah being taught for pay:

It is forbidden to take a wage for teaching the Oral Law, as it is stated (Deuteronomy 4:5): “Behold, I have taught you laws and statutes, as God commanded me.” Just as I (Moses) learned at no cost, so too, you have been taught from me at no cost. Teach the coming generations in a like manner. Teach them at no cost as you have learned from me.[21]

Unfortunately, such a guideline could very well destroy today’s entire Orthodox educational system. Thus, Halakhic authorities allow Torah educators to be compensated for their time. However, this is far from the ideal way to teach Torah.

Another reason why this may be problematic is that the educator or Rabbi is at the mercy of his financial supporters. He must be careful not to upset or alienate them too much or he will lose his job and, hence, his livelihood. This would, at times, tie the hands of such people when it is most important for them to take a stand. This weakens the Torah in the eyes of the community. Sometimes, Rabbis may give in to financial expediency rather than stand on principle, especially in borderline cases.

The Torah-Only Choice

For the purposes of our discussion and to avoid blanket statements, we will refer to communities that frown upon non-Torah livelihood as Anti-work communities.[22] Unfortunately, among non-religious Jews, members of these communities, have often been labeled “parasites.” They are seen as pure consumers, contributing nothing to society except for progeny, and that at an alarming rate.

Torah followers, however, believe that a person dedicated to Torah is on a high spiritual level, and although they may not be contributing to society in a material sense, they are contributing to the spiritual entity of the entire people of Israel. This is a fundamental belief of Judaism. [23]

Nevertheless, every community has some people of low moral character, and the anti-work communities are no exception. There are members of these communities who do contribute to society, neither materially nor spiritually. Their low character magnifies an existing problem because the community in question represents a higher moral ideal. Such rotten apples besmirch the name of the entire community.[24]For example, there have been incidents both in Israel and in the U.S. of members of the an anti-work community falsifying records in order to embezzle government funds. Other more crude and terrible incidents have occurred recently but do not bear repeating. These horrible “chilulei Hashem” (desecrations of the God’s name), are perpetrated by slackers, but defame the entire community. These wayward members may appear highly spiritual, praying with special intensity and keeping the ritualistic halakhot beyond the letter of the law, but it would be difficult to say that they are followers of Torah.

Another sad phenomenon involves relationship of some institutions, their representatives, and students, towards their financial contributors. When the time comes to fundraise, the contributing laymen are honored as great righteous leaders and scholars, called “tzadikim,” and given a variety of honors. The rest of the time, though, they are considered “amaratzim” (boors) and contacted only to keep the money flowing. This manipulative, elitist, and cynical attitude is a dangerous message for the students and for the community at large. Unfortunately, a number of “bad apples” are guilty of such thinking to some extent or another. Leaders and institutions would be well served by exorcising any hint of this attitude from their midst.

The Rambam’s Approach

Rambam had strong words to say about people not interested in working:

Whoever decides to engage in Torah studies, and not work, and plans to support himself from charity – he desecrates (God’s) Name, abuses the Torah, extinguishes the light of Faith, causes evil to himself, and removes himself from the life of the World to Come. Because it is forbidden to derive benefit from words of Torah in this world.

Our sages declared: “Whoever benefits from the words of Torah forfeits his life in the world.”Also, they commanded and declared: “Do not make them a crown to magnify oneself, nor an ax to chop with.”Also, they commanded and declared: “Love work and despise Rabbinic positions.” “And all Torah study that is not joined by work, the outcome is that it will be negated and leads to sin.” Ultimately such a person will steal from others.[25]

It is a great attribute for a person to derive his livelihood from his own efforts, and a trait of the pious of the early generations. In this manner, he will merit all honor and good in this world, and in the world to come, as it (Psalms 128:2) states: “If you eat the toil of your hands, you will be happy and it will be good for you.” “You will be happy” – in this world. “It will be good for you” – in the world to come, which is entirely good.[26]

Who is Complete?

The Rambam[27]defines four areas where man should develop himself in order to achieve “Shleimut” (Perfection/Wholeness):[28]

1. Perfection in one’s possessions;

2. Perfection of one’s physical attributes or health;

3. Perfection of one’s moral and spiritual character;

4. Perfection of one’s intellect.

The Rambam felt that the quest for perfection should correspond to a pyramid structure, with one level forming a natural foundation for the next. This can be illustrated by the graphic below:balhabayitpyramid11

He felt that one’s first responsibility is to ensure financial stability. After that to improve one’s health. Without the proper funds, it is logical that a person will not be able to feed himself properly or improve ones physical condition. Once these basic elements have been addressed, one can develop religiously. Finally, after all of these areas are in proper order, one should develop and perfect one’s intellect. To quote Rabbi Lamm:

The final shleimut is that of intellectual perfection, which expresses itself in the grasping of truth, especially the true perception or knowledge of God. It is this last shleimut, the rational or cognitive one, that represents the highest state of ideal man.[29]

Obviously the arrangement described is oversimplified – life cannot be lived one compartment at a time. All of the areas are generally dealt with contemporaneously. However, the above illustration does point to a certain logical precedence. After all, it would be foolish to investigate esoteric musings before investigating where the next meal is coming from.

The Rambam sees the ideal combination of activity in a holistic manner and not as merely a focus on the spiritual. Dealing exclusively with the spiritual is seen not as a neutral position, but as a negative activity; we are humans, not angels.

The following diagram illustrates what Rambam’s pyramid might look like from the eyes of some in the anti-work world:[30]


This world-view is incomplete, unstable, and far from ideal.

Rabbi Lamm reiterates what shleimut should be:

Shleimut thus implies a wide net: the amassing of all one’s attributes – intellectual and psychological, spiritual and esthetic, practical and moral – and all one’s experiences – sacred and profane, profound and superficial, positive and negative – and their actualization and elevation toward the Holy One, as we worship Him both through our spirituality and our corporeality.[31]

The Yeshiva Experience

The emphasis on the spiritual is appropriate when applied as a balance for those that may be overly materialistic. However, in our opinion, being entirely spiritual and disregarding the material should never be mistaken for a complete philosophy that can guide people through every facet of their complex lives. If we once again turn to the contemporary scene, this is the message that, unfortunately, some yeshivot give over, either consciously or unconsciously. This may not be a problem for those who remain in a pure Torah or yeshiva environment. However, for the rest of the world, which does not live within the four walls of the yeshiva, it is an insufficient guiding philosophy and ideal. Instead of infusing students with feelings of guilt, yeshivot should encourage students to excel in their secular careers while remaining strong in their devotion to Torah.

The classical structure and curriculum of yeshivot contribute significantly to the predominant educational message. Many yeshivot spend the majority of the day studying Talmud, certainly a fundamental area of study. The Rambam himself states that an advanced student should spend the majority of his time delving into the Talmud. However, he assumes that a basic foundation in Jewish law and literature should precede the almost exclusive commitment to Talmud. It is becoming apparent that a growing number of yeshiva high-school graduates lack a solid foundation in Tanakh, Halakha, Ethics, and preparation for real-life issues that will confront them when they leave yeshiva. Unfortunately, these students are not well versed in these basics while they strive to become great Talmudic analysts. For most of them, the great intellectual Talmudic exercises will not continue after yeshiva, and they will be sorely lacking in the basics. This is an issue that would benefit by being addressed in many yeshivot. But the problem is especially acute for students who will not remain lifelong in yeshiva, rather one, two, or even five years. Perhaps their time can be more efficiently spent, and the philosophical message imparted can better reflect the integrative approach that they espouse.[32]

The Rambam has some thoughts that relate to a poor educational structure and its relationship to poor character:

Torah should only be taught to a proper student – one whose deeds are pleasant – or to a simpleton. However, if the student follows a bad path, he should first be influenced to correct his behavior and follow a straight path. After he repents, his deeds are examined and only then is he allowed to enter the house of study to be instructed.[33]

The above is not always the case in today’s schools. Educators continue teaching advanced Talmudic concepts to students whose moral fiber requires much strengthening. The intricacies of Talmudic debates are being taught to students that have no problem stealing, lying, cheating, or committing other ethical crimes. If half the time that these students spent on Talmud were spent on ethical improvement, perhaps institutions could justify teaching Talmud to such students. It is clear, however, that the Rambam would not allow such students to attend his Torah classes – not because of a lack of background or poor analytical skills, but because of poor character. Improvement of character is sorely lacking from many curricula. This failing, coupled with a general lack of other basic knowledge, leaves a major educational gap for many students.[34]

The classical yeshivot are good for students that wish to remain predominantly in that world and have a solid educational and philosophical foundation. We need to cultivate such people that will be immersed in such an environment with few worldly distractions. They are our spiritual leaders and should be as close as possible to the spiritual ideal. For those that will interact and engage the world more fully, an adapted program is needed – one that will give them a solid foundation in the basics of Jewish tradition, law, history, and ethics, and prepare them to be Bnei Torah in our increasingly challenging times.

A Practical Approach – Definitions

Let us now try to approach the issue of integrating Torah and careers, by first defining what appears to be the acceptable range of activity. The limits of the range are set by the extreme approaches at each end of the following spectrum:


On one end you have a person that is wholly materialistic and has divorced himself from preoccupation with Torah and Godly matters. At the other end stands a person that does not give enough concern to material concerns such as food, clothing, and shelter. Seeing the lack of consensus or clear definition by our sages, it is fair to say that no particular point on our spectrum represents the ideal that all people should strive towards. Our spectrum is not necessarily a gauge of one’s religious dedication. It may be an indication of the quantity of time made available for learning as opposed to working. Perhaps quantity is often correlated to the quality and seriousness of the learning, but it is not necessarily so.

From personal conversations, I understood that Rav Yehuda Amital (Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion) and Rav Adin Steinsalz (world-renowned Torah scholar and author) believe that the 15 minutes that a career-person learns daily may be of more meaningful than many hours that full-time students learn. The self-sacrifice involved makes all the difference. In addition, career-people strive that their livelihood be made “le-sheim Shamayim” (for the sake of Heaven),[35] thereby sanctifying one’s entire day.[36]Of course, they stressed that Torah is the “ikar” (of prime importance); however, Iikar is defined qualitatively and not quantitatively.

Rambam as a Model?

The Rambam is unique in many respects. His monumental legal work (Mishneh Torah) forms much of the basis for subsequent halakhic literature. He was a pioneer in refining and formulating Jewish philosophy, both in the Mishneh Torah and in his Guide to the Perplexed. His “Thirteen Principles of Faith” signal a turning point in the history of Jewish thought and has served to anchor the faith of the Jewish ever since. It is worthwhile to remember that initially his works were blacklisted and even burned by many leading sages. Eventually, though, the brilliance of the Rambam’s works shone through and they were universally accepted.

The Rambam also pursued a secular career. He was considered one of the premier physicians of his time, and was appointed personal physician to the Sultan of Egypt.[37]It is clear that, even in the Rambam’s time, to become a doctor required many years of studying and training.[38] The Rambam was also well versed in other secular areas such as philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, physics, and literature.[39]

The Rambam suggested what he considered a good balance between the study of Torah and the pursuit of a livelihood: work three hours a day and learn nine hours a day.[40] The Rambam himself did not keep these schedules. We know from autobiographical records he both worked as a doctor and was involved in Torah much more than the hours he suggested; he barely slept.[41]

In most professions it is extremely difficult to work only three hours a day. It is difficult both to find such a job and to support one’s self from what one might earn in so few hours. However, there is a small and growing movement of individuals that are pursuing this ideal – and achieving it. In the age of computers, Internet, flex-time and telecommuting, such opportunities are growing. I personally know a graphic artist who learns Torah for a major part of his day and makes a successful living during his limited business hours. I likewise know a highly dedicated Kollel student who in his few available afternoon hours built up his own Internet services company. There are many other stories of people who have managed to live the Rambam’s ideal. However, these examples are few and far between, and are not easily imitated.

Livelihood versus Career

Careers in fields such as medicine, law, engineering, and accounting require years of specialized training during which time otherwise available for Torah study will be limited. Similarly, when the time comes to enter the workforce, the hours open for Torah study will probably be diminished further. How can one justify this apparent “Bittul Torah” (stoppage of Torah study) when one could earn a livelihood with less training and, therefore, have more time for Torah study? In other words, should one invest time preparing for a full-time career that one may have an inclination for, or should one only pursue work that requires little training? Additionally, should one only do enough work to live from hand to mouth, as some sources advise, or can one, to a greater or lesser degree, plan ahead?

These are not simple or trivial questions. Just as there is no consensus regarding the “learning versus working” question,[42] there is no consensus as to the “livelihood versus career” question.[43] However, the search for an answer leads to the most critical element of the puzzle – the person himself.

Halakhot do not always distinguish between different people’s personalities, characteristics and desires.In our questions, however, individual qualities play an essential role in determining the proper path for each person.

Maximizing Personal Tikun Olam

Tikun Olam” (fixing of the world) is Judaism’s way of expressing the universal idea that we are placed on this Earth to improve it.Rav Soloveitchik was quoted as saying:”Man is enjoined to leave his imprint on this world, to go beyond nature and transcend it, not simply imitating it.”[44]This applies on a national as well as individual level.[45]Keeping this idea in mind can help steer us right in answering some of the questions that were raised. To reiterate these questions:

vHow does one choose between full-time learning and full-time work?

vDoes one pursue a professional career or just try to make a living?

vHow far ahead should one be concerned about their finances?

The answer is not only based on one’s strengths and abilities vis-a-vis learning Torah, but revolves around what type of impact one can have on both the world at large and one’s immediate circle.

Part of the answer will depend on the individual’s capabilities, inclinations, and circumstances. There is a tale about Rav Zusha: R’ Zusha stated that when he dies and ascends to Heaven, he will not be asked why he was not Abraham, but why he wasn’t Zusha. Every person has his own unique personality and potential and must seek to fulfill that destiny – not somebody else’s. No formula applies to all.

Rav Yehuda Halevi, in his book “HaKuzari,” describes how a prince ruling a city must make use of all of his talents, leanings and interests. All parts and strengths must be used in a cooperative fashion. None must be allowed to overextend. Each must assist the others in order for the entire organism to function efficiently. Similarly, on an individual level, the same type of balance must be achieved.

If a person is particularly suited for a Torah career and circumstances allow him to pursue it in a dignified manner, he should certainly pursue it. However, if a person has other leanings, he may justifiably pursue a secular career. Not that, God forbid, he should neglect Torah. Torah is always primary. Torah must be a part of every single day. However, it need not occupy the whole day. It is equally legitimate to serve God through one’s work and profession, keeping in mind that one’s activities should be “for the sake of Heaven,” an example of what a God-fearing Jew should be like, and a “light onto the nations.”[46]


The extent that one advances a career or is involved in one’s work is related to the strength of one’s faith. Logically, the more one invests in a profession and in work, the higher the chances of success. Mathematically, the more hours one works, the more money one can make. For a person seeking to secure oneself financially, this thinking can leave little time for Torah. What’s the proper balance?

There are stories of people of tremendous faith, whose physical needs are taken care of miraculously. On the other hand, there are plenty of people who expend tremendous effort and barely make ends meet. Some would argue that the amount of money that one makes is not in proportion to the amount of effort,[47] and that therefore minimum effort is required.[48]However, it is also a well-known tenet that one cannot rely on miracles.[49]

Thus, should a person believe that wealth will just fall into his hand, or should he slave away, spending every waking moment insuring financial security? Ultimately, the question every person must ask himself is, “How much faith should I have?”

I received a satisfying answer from Rabbi Shimon Green (of Yeshivat Bircat Hatorah in the Old City of Jerusalem). He said, “You should have just a little more faith than you currently have.”This answer has tremendous practical appeal and would seem to be in sync with a solid approach to improving one’s character, devotion, and efforts. Instead of traumatically jumping to a new way of life, one should gradually work on one’s self. A person should constantly reflect upon and analyze their present condition and its direction.[50]Always seeking to improve a little bit is one of the most successful and long-lasting methods of character development.

Dynamic Process

The answer to many of our questions is a frustrating “it depends” – not only on the unique qualities of the person, but also on his stage of life. The answer can and does change over time. If a person is at a stage of his life where it is socially and financially acceptable for him to be engrossed in Torah, as many pre-college men are, it would be foolhardy to pass up the opportunity. It would also be a shame not to extend it for as long as possible. On the other hand, for an older man, supporting a family, to suddenly quit his job and take up full-time learning without the means to provide for himself and his family would be irresponsible. It may be hazardous (to health and career) for a sleep-deprived medical resident to have a four-hour Torah study session every single day. But for someone in a less intense liberal arts program it may be more practical.

What remains constant, however, is the requirement to reflect and take personal inventory. On a regular basis, people should examine their activities and see what needs adjustment to maximize what they are doing, including the time they can spend on Torah.

One of the most acclaimed books on choosing a career and what to do with one’s life is What Color is Your Parachute? by Richard Nelson Bolles.[51]He claims that even career choice is a dynamic process, and that nowadays, on average, people change to a totally different career every 10 years.

This would imply that, throughout life, people are questioning what they are doing and moving toward more interesting activity. One needs to take into account one’s constantly growing and changing experience, skill set, religious commitment, community involvement, and financial, family and social obligations. An honest look at these factors is crucial in the attempt to be self-aware, and the self-knowledge achieved will be the key to determine each individual’s path.

Decision Logic

The following graphic is an attempt to illustrate the thinking and parameters involved in the decision-making process:


In the above diagram, “Learn” refers to full-time Torah learning, “Career” to the full-time pursuit of a career (with as much free time as possible devoted to Torah). The “Rambam Combination” is a combination of less-than-full-time work with several hours of Torah learning each day. All of these options are legitimate and do not close off excelling in Torah. I know someone that works full-time, is one of the top people in his profession and manages not only to learn Torah extensively and at a high level, but also to give a daily Daf Yomi class. There are many examples of this in our own day and throughout our history. Obviously, the entire range should be within an “Acceptable Halakhic Lifestyle.” One unacceptable extreme is to pursue a career and forget Torah. On the other extreme, someone can pursue the study of Torah, but be lacking in certain minimum aspects of proper halakhic behavior.

Ideally, before a decision can be made, a basic level of Torah learning should be attained. If it has not, then efforts should be made to strengthen the areas that are lacking.

The self-examination process should be a regular one. Circumstances change. People get into a pattern and don’t think whether it’s the right one. One needs to ask the right questions to start seeing the answers. Only by constantly pushing and exerting oneself can one’s potential be approached.

In summary, the pursuit of a career is certainly a positive, legitimate and “lekhatchila” option for an observant Jew. One should seek to follow a reasonable and practical course that fits one as an individual. However, to do it properly and successfully requires a rigorous and regular process of self-assessment and – evaluation.

Such questioning is a highly personal activity and demands extensive self-understanding. Goals, ideals and dreams must be defined and redefined. One’s individuality must be discovered. All of these things can be extremely difficult, and made worse by the fact that the process is constant. Every single moment of every single day, a person has the opportunity to redefine himself. For some it is a horrifying burden. For many it is an issue that doesn’t even rise to their consciousness and they go through life taking the path of least resistance. But for some, it is a blessing; and those that make and grab the opportunities – they light up the world.

[1]This article is dedicated to the memory of my grandparents: Tzvi Dov Rosenthal and Eta Spitz.

Special thanks to Rav Doniel Schreiber, Rav Menachem Weinberg, and Rav Ronnie Ziegler for their help. Extra special thanks to my wife and parents for their constant support.Comments can be directed to bentzis@aol.com.

[2]Rashi, last Mishna of Ethics of our Fathers, Chapter 6, Mishna 11.

[3]Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Baba Kama, page 30a.

[4]Hillel, Ethics of our Fathers, Chapter 2, Mishna 5.

[5]Ibid, Chapter 2, Mishna 6.

[6]Rabbi Nachuniah Ben Hakana, Ibid, Chapter 3, Mishna 6.

[7]Rabbi Meir, Ibid, Chapter 4, Mishna 12.

[8]Rabban Gamliel, son of Rabbi Judah the Prince, Ibid, Chapter 2, Mishna 2.

[9]Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah, Ibid, Chapter 3, Mishna 21.

[10]Maimonides states in his Laws of Torah Study, Chapter 1, Law 9: “The great sages of Israel included wood choppers, water drawers, and blind men; and even so, they were occupied in Torah study day and night, and were among those who transmitted the Torah’s teachings from master to student in the chain stretching back to Moses, our teacher.”

[11]Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ketubot, page 105a. The list of Talmudic names as well as some of the translations and insights on Maimonides are from Rabbi Eliyahu Touger’s excellent translation and commentary on The Laws of Torah Study, by Moznaim Publishing Corp. 1989. Permission to use received from publisher, Moshe Shternlicht, 12/13/98.

[12]Ibid, Tractate Eruvin, page 13a.

[13]Ibid, Tractate Nedarim, page 49b.

[14]Ibid, Tractate Gittin, page 67b.

[15]Tractate Shabbat 33b.

[16]There are other issues related to women. The focus here is on men and the issues surrounding their obligations and directives.

[17]In the spirit of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (The Lonely Man of Faith, page 9): “…in modern theological and philosophical categories.My interpretive gesture is completely subjective and lays no claim to representing a definitive Halakhic philosophy.”

[18]For example, see R. Dessler in Michtav Me’Eliyahu, Section 1, Chapter 1.

[19]There are a number of sources that indicate that after the coming of the Messiah all of Israel will be exclusively involved in Torah and will provide spiritual leadership to the nations of the world. See, for example, Maimonides’ Laws of Kings, Chapter 12, Law 5.

[20]Laws of Shemita and Yovel, Chapter 13, Law 12.

[21]Laws of Torah Study, Chapter 1, Law 7.

[22]The whole topic of social classification, labeling and the problems with different communities and groups will just be touched upon briefly here.No offense of any group is meant.While the use of labels is distasteful, it has become a popular and convenient handle and is employed here just to illustrate the point.

[23]Nefesh Ha’Chayim, Rav Chayim Volozhin, Part 4, Chapter 10, “If Torah study were to stop, Heaven and Earth would cease to exist.”Also Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Nedarim, page 32a.The spiritual has a direct effect on the material (i.e. doing the mitzvot leads to God providing rain as we affirm in the Shema).

[24]Rav S. Groineman in his book Chazon Ish: Belief & Faith (published by Sifraiti Ltd., Bnei Brak, 5757 (1997), Chapter 2, Section 4, complains about what he calls “fakers”: “people will say: so-and-so that learned ethics, how disgraceful are his actions, and how disgusting are his schemes.”

[25]Laws of Torah Study, Chapter 3, Law 10. The source for the last statement is given as Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin, page 29a: “Whoever does not teach his son a profession is as if he taught him to steal.”

[26]Laws of Torah Study, Chapter 3, Law 11.

[27]This section draws heavily from concepts in the book, Torah Umadda – The Encounter of Religious Learning and Worldly Knowledge in the Jewish Tradition, by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm (President of Yeshiva University), Jason Aronson Inc., NJ 1990.

[28]As discussed in the last chapter of his Guide to the Perplexed, Part III, Chapter 54, and his Introduction to the Mishna, Section 6, Chapter 2.

[29]Ibid, page 213.

[30]Ibid, page 214: “The lowest of Maimonides’ four types, that of possessions, was, of course, dropped – both because of economic conditions throughout much of Jewish history, and, even more, because this was posited as a form of shleimut for analytic or morphological reasons only, and certainly had little else to commend it. The second, physical perfection, similarly fell into desuetude. Whether this happened because conditions in exile made good nutrition inaccessible and hence ignored, or because of the medieval and mystical penchant for seeing the spiritual and the physical as fundamentally antagonistic, its omission was most unfortunate. The third, moral perfection, was both intensified and broadened, with piety (“fear of Heaven”) and punctiliousness in the performance of the mitzvot included along with refinement of character as a most desirable level of human-Jewish perfection. The highest level, that of intellectual perfection, was narrowed to the knowledge and understanding of Torah, with a concomitant downgrading of the knowledge of God and the philosophical, and especially metaphysical, infrastructure that such knowledge presupposed.

Hence, the conventional concept of shleimut and religious growth to which we are heir today consists largely of piety, moral character, and the study of Torah.”

[31]Ibid, page 219.

[32]Established yeshivot are responding slowly to this problem. The need is growing, the vacuum is expanding and if the yeshivot do not take concrete steps to remedy the situation “salvation shall come from elsewhere” [Paraphrase of Megillat Esther: “For if you remain silent during this time, then relief and salvation shall arise to the Jews from elsewhere, and you and your father’s house shall perish; and who knows if you have not come to this royal position for such an occasion?”] – most probably new yeshivot and programs that will cater more to the true needs of such clientele.

Rabbi Berel Wein (renowned Torah scholar, historian and orator) had this to say in a recent interview: “We need a revolution in Jewish education. I see it. There has to be 100 yeshiva high schools and each one of them has to be different.” [Voices, Vol. 2 Issue 12, 15 Kislev 5759 / Dec. 4, 1998.]

New and more “lines of communication” [this phrase, as well as many of the ideas in this article, stem from my father and teacher, Mr. Elliot Spitz] need to be established between the various groups involved in the providing and receiving of Jewish education. Institutions need to adapt and grow within the acceptable boundaries to better serve the community. This is true for our issue specifically as well as for many of the challenges facing the Jewish community. Good communication is essential.

[33]Laws of Torah Study, Chapter 4, Law 1.

[34]My brother, Mr. Kalman Spitz, told over to me a “vort” by the Admor of the Shomer Emunim: “Some people, if they are learning 100% of the time, don’t have time or room for God.”

[35]Rabbi Yossi, Ethics of our Fathers, Chapter 2, Mishna 17: “Let all your actions be for the sake of Heaven.”

[36]See Rav Ronnie Ziegler’s adaptation of a shiur by HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein on the subject of one’s secular career activity being more in sync with Divine service/purpose. The article can be found on the Internet at: http://www.vbm-torah.org .

[37]It should be noted that Rambam did start his career solely learning while being supported by his brother. When that ceased, he was forced to make a living as a doctor.

[38]A Maimonides Reader, Isadore Twersky, Behrman House, Inc. 1972.Page 1.

[39]Ibid, page 8.

[40]Laws of Torah Study, Chapter 1, Law 12.

[41]Letter from Rambam to Yosef Ben Yehuda Ibn Tibbon, 1191.

[42]This poignant problem is illustrated by the Talmud: “Over three the Holy One, blessed be He, weeps every day: over him who is able to occupy himself with the study of Torah and does not; and over him that is unable to occupy himself with the study of Torah and does…” Tractate Chagiga 5b.

[43]One side of the argument is taken up in the last Mishna of Kiddushin, that a father should only teach his son an easy and clean trade, while the last Mishna of Avot is interpreted that every inclination in a person is for a purpose and they should be directed towards positive activities and goals (i.e. a bloodthirsty person should become a Shochet or a Mohel, Tractate Shabbat 156a).

[44]Shiur by HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein, Nov. 24, 1986, “The Growth of a Ben-Torah.”

[45]This is a recurring theme among our sages. Rav Kook gives deep insight into the idea, especially as it relates to the concept of repentance, in the fourth chapter of Orot Ha-teshuva.

[46]Isaiah 49:6

[47]“On Rosh Hashana, God establishes how much every person will earn for the year.”Tractate Beitza 16a. Also, last Mishna of Kiddushin.

[48]See Rav Dessler in Michtav Me-Eliyahu,Vol 1, Five levels of Torah and Derekh Eretz, pp. 197-203.

[49]Ein Somkhin al ha-neis. Pesachim 64b.

[50]This philosophy is highly relevant in Ba’al Teshuva movements. There are some people that preach a rapid change of life – taking on all of the components of what may be a totally alien lifestyle in a very short period of time. Experience has shown that the majority of people adopting such a course bounce right back to their previous lifestyle, or take on their new one in a very shallow fashion. Groups with more long-term success push for a more deliberate and gradual change of lifestyle. This thinking can be adopted for the daily improvements and repentance obligated by all.

[51]“What Color Is Your Parachute: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers,”Richard Nelson Bolles, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, California.

Tactical Deception and Clueless Pawns

Tactical Deception and Clueless Pawns

While God performs awesome miracles, He apparently also balances them with as many “natural” causes as possible. This is fairly evident in the Splitting of the Sea and the subsequent drowning of the entire Egyptian Armed Forces in one of the most dramatic events in our history.

God could have simply disintegrated the entire Egyptian Army with their Cavalry and Chariots and at the same time teleported the fleeing Israelites to their destination.

Apparently God wanted everyone to sweat a bit, have time to absorb the fantastic events, and appreciate the incredible process that was occurring. God guides the ensuing military maneuvers in a fashion that would have earned the admiration of Sun-Tzu.

“And when Pharaoh sent the nation, and God did not lead them by the Philistine route, for it was close; for God said, lest the nation regret when they see war and return to Egypt. And God turned the nation on the desert route, the Suf Sea, and the Children of Israel ascended armed from the Land of Egypt.” (Exodus 13:17-18)

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno says something that may sound surprising upon first inspection. Sforno explains that God wanted to take the Jews to Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah and then subsequently to the land of Israel. Sforno claims that the Suf Sea didn’t lead to either of these places.

The sole reason the Jews were led to the sea, was for the express purpose of baiting the Egyptians and drowning them in the miraculous trap God was setting for them.

Furthermore, it seems that the fastest route to the Suf Sea was actually via the Philistine route that God diverted the Jews away from.

Sforno explains that tactically, God wanted his Jewish pawns to be unaware of the pursuing Egyptians until it was too late. Apparently, the Philistine route was a well traveled road that was inhabited along its path. Once Pharaoh would have started his chase, the Jews would have gotten wind of it very quickly and in fear would have returned to Egypt and beg for a merciful return to their enslavement. God wanted his bait to be unaware of the impending attack in the radio-silence of the uninhabited desert. That way, when the Egyptian attack on the escaping Jews was imminent, the Jews would have no option of returning to their Egyptian masters.

The strategy, of course, works. The Jews with their backs to the sea, witness the charging Egyptian army. The Egyptians believe they have the frightened Jews trapped. The frightened Jews believe they are trapped and lament their having left Egypt.

The two protagonist nations are in place. God places some cloud cover to protect the Jews from immediate attack and blows a strong wind (more “natural” causes) to split the sea. The Jews take this surprising escape route and the Egyptians, once the cloud cover has been removed, follow in rapid pursuit.

The trap is sprung and the Egyptian army is annihilated.

I don’t know if Sun-Tzu was inspired by or even knew of the Biblical story, but following is a quote from his famous “Art of War”:

“The Power of Surprise”

“Generally, in a conflict,
The Straightforward will lead to engagement and
The Surprising will lead to triumph.”

“Those who are skilled in producing surprises
Are as infinitely varied as heaven and earth,
And as inexhaustible as the great rivers.”

When Moses and the Children of Israel subsequently sing the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1-19), it’s not by chance that they praise “God, Man of War; God is His Name.” (Exodus 15:3).

May God always guide us in the tactics and strategies we need for success – even if at times we are clueless!

Shabbat Shalom,



To the IDF.

Unfamiliar Terms?

From Wikipedia


The Art of War is a Chinese military treatise that was written during the 6th century BC by Sun Tzu. Composed of 13 chapters, each of which is devoted to one aspect of warfare, it has long been praised as the definitive work on military strategies and tactics of its time.

The Art of War is one of the oldest and most successful books on military strategy in the world. It has had a huge influence on Eastern military thinking, business tactics, and beyond. Sun Tzu recognized the importance of positioning in strategy and that position is affected both by objective conditions in the physical environment and the subjective opinions of competitive actors in that environment. He taught that strategy was not planning in the sense of working through a to-do list, but rather that it requires quick and appropriate responses to changing conditions. Planning works in a controlled environment, but in a competitive environment, competing plans collide, creating unexpected situations.

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