“Are you Jewish?” – A Breakdown In Communication

On my campus there is an active Chabad “shaliach” who often stands in the public thoroughfares of the university searching for Jews. Now, how one searches for “Jews” is anyone’s guess since, last I checked, being “Jewish” is not a strictly racial affiliation and the irreligious or non-religious Jews that he is looking for do not stand out from all the other students in any meaningful way. They also have tattoos, popular hair styles, clothing, and now even full beards! Some such “shluchim” look for the stereo-typical “Jewish nose” or other such [supposedly] identifying features, but mostly they are at a loss as to the object of their search – and so they stand there looking almost lost themselves.

But one thing is for sure: they are driven by a misguided mystical, racial, and xenophobic definition of Jewishness, even if on the surface they appear as though they have the interest of Torah and the halakhah in mind. They are so worried that they may spend (read “waste”) their time with someone who either isn’t Jewish but is interested in Judaism or identifies as Jewish but only shares patrilineal descent (a situation that most other groups view as a problem worthy of solving), that they often miss Jews who are right in front of their faces.

I know this because while after having approached this “shaliach” wearing a black leather kippah and tzitzit, having spoken to him in fluent Modern Hebrew, having declined to shake his lulav because I told him that I already had done so in shul that morning, and having shared with him that I had made aliyah with my family several years ago – after all this – he looked me in the eye and asked, “So, you’re Jewish, right?”

I was borderline indignant and gave him a polite, but stern piece of my mind. “Rabbi,” I said, “are you serious? Why would you ask me after this entire conversation if I am Jewish?” He responded by saying, “Well, I have to ask because you never know for sure.” I told him, “If we can never be ‘sure’ then you are suspect too, rabbi! How do you make ‘sure’ that someone is Jewish? Is there a blood test that can definitively tell you who is and who isn’t? And why ask? I can tell you whatever I want – what if I’m lying?” I could tell that he saw my point, but he maintained his [decidedly racist] position on the matter, turned away from me, and continued on his snipe-hunt.

I thought about how this type of questioning is not only unnecessary, but is also completely useless. In fact, I came up with a scenario where it could lead to complete error. The following is loosely based on my conversation with this “shaliach” and also other similar conversations had by others (with other Chabad “shluchim”) of which I am aware. I submit it for your amusement and as food for thought.

Rabbi: “Are you Jewish?”

Passerby: “Yes.”

Rabbi: “So, your mother is Jewish?”

Passerby: “No.”

Rabbi: “Ah, so your father is Jewish?”

Passerby: “Yes, of course.”

Rabbi: “You know that no matter how Jewish you may feel, you can only be Jewish if your mother is Jewish. Even if you have a Jewish father, that does not make you Jewish. I’m sorry, my friend, but you are not really Jewish.”

Passerby: “No, I’m Jewish even without a Jewish mother.”

Rabbi: “What are you, then? Reform? Conservative? Reconstructionist? Secular?”

Passerby: “I’m a convert. My mother is a Christian and my father is Avraham Avinu.”

And this, my dear friends, is how a racist, Eurocentric, and xenophobic approach to Judaism and halakhah can mislead someone into breaking 36 mitzvot of the Torah all at once. Yes, I do believe that it is that serious. In fact, this type of elitism is what Orthodox Jews are unfortunately known for throughout the non-Jewish world. In order for this to change, we need to come to grips with the idea that a black man may be born Jewish and a Semitic-looking man may be a convert – but that both are certainly Jews. This is because, like America (le-havdil elef havdalot), Judaism is not a religion per se, but a nation with laws. Those that become citizens of that nation are looking for a better life and believe in its common moral, religious, and political ideals – completely irrespective of their race.

Just some thoughts.

Why Such a World in the First Place? – God & Evil – Part III

This is another installment in a group of posts on the subject of theodicy from a meqori perspective – the other post can be found here (God & the World), here (God & Evil – Part I), and here (God & Evil – Part II).

In my previous post I shared in brief my personal understanding of theodicy, based largely on the writings of Maimonides (Rambam) and Gersonides (Ralbag), as found in their well-known works of Jewish philosophy, the Moreh HaNavokhim and Milhamot HaShem respectively.

I stated there that, like Maimonides, I do not believe that God creates or causes “evil” in the world and I believe that evil can only be attributed to him in an “indirect” way since He created a world in which evil and tragedy have the potential to occur (Gersonides also affirms that God is not the author of evil in the world, but attributes it to the world having been formed from a pre-existing matter – as taught in the Platonic school – the nature of such matter is intrinsically imperfect and thereby gives rise to “evil”). However, this often evokes a further line of questioning: “Why did God choose to make the world with the potential for evil in the first place? What is the purpose of the creation? Why did God make a world at all?” And it is to these questions we now turn.

In my experience, these questions are usually fueled by two basic assumptions: [i] that “evil” is predominant in the world overall, and [ii] that mankind is the pinnacle of creation. There are some additional upsets in the thinking of many people related to the creation, and I will attempt to address these in the course of this post as well.

In the Moreh HaNavokhim (3:12), the Rambam discusses the error – common in his time as well as ours – that the “evils” in the world are more predominant than the “good” when in fact evil and tragedy are, on the whole, in the minority. The Rambam also discusses there how ludicrous it is to assess the amount of evil in the world on the basis of the life experiences of one individual or a small group of people. The same is true today; many people feel that what predominates the daily lives of humanity is evil, tragedy, suffering, etc. when in fact the opposite is the case. This illusion is strengthened due to the media and the internet through which millions of people can choose to make themselves constantly aware of every salacious crime and scandal that happens anywhere in the world. Although this certainly makes it feel as though the level of evil in the world is predominant over good, the reality is that it is not. Humanity and civilization are affected by tragedies and difficulty based on locale, etc. and era – they are not a constant occurrence in every place, in every time, or for every person. If we track various crimes committed in society, we find that these things happen to a minority of people, i.e. most people are not robbed, most people are not assaulted, most people are not murdered, most people are not kidnapped. And notice that everything I have mentioned is a form of person to person evil! And even fewer people are killed or injured in floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes worldwide!

Beside the illusion of evil’s predominance in the world, another erroneous assumption that causes people to wonder why God created the world as it exists is the idea that mankind is the pinnacle of the created world. Although it is true that Rav Saadiah Gaon in his HaNivhar Emunot Ve-De`ot holds that humanity is the center and pinnacle of the entire creation, the Rambam in the Moreh (ibid.) explains that the world was not created for man and that mankind is a lowly creature in the overall schema of the creation, albeit of great importance. He further explains that only “fools” interpret the words בשבילי נברא העולם (“for my sake was the world created” – b.Sanhedrin 27a) in their literal sense (cf. Rashi there) and he brings proofs from Tanakh, Hazal, and logic for his position. This misconception often leads people to feel “entitled” to argue with God over their lot in life, if however the world was not created “for us” then we have little to argue about since we are a species in the Creator’s world that enjoys quite a bit more prosperity and opportunities than do other species. Add to this our ability to have a spiritual relationship with God, and I would say that people should feel privileged to be human (i.e., “What is man that You are mindful of him?…etc.” cf. Tehillim 8:5).

This line of questioning is brought on by a self-centered and myopic view of the world. Each person feels justified in condemning the way in which God ordered the creation because of his own circumstances. The fact is that God gave us a good world (cf. “…it was good” – Bereshit 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, and 31) and to us he gave the potential to be successful and happy, living peaceful and productive lives, but humanity has historically chosen a world full of war, economic disputes, and tragedy. God is not doing those things, people are. One of the most difficult things for most people to accept is that humanity as a whole lives in the state of the world that they have collectively chosen through their own choices. The innocent victims affected by those choices are our victims, not God’s. The problems in the world are our mess and God had nothing to do with them. And none of us are purely innocent; we all make choices that are wrong and negatively affect others. This means that we are all a part of the problem, but in repairing our own lives we will eventually repair the world that the Creator gifted to us.

So the question of “why” God made the creation in the way that He did still remains. I think that the answer to this question is best related to in the following way. The Rambam, in the same section of the Moreh, discusses the purpose of creation (i.e. the question of “why”) and answers that we are meant to understand that the world as it is could theoretically have been different, but it’s not – and it exists in its current manner simply because of the will of the Creator; that His infinite wisdom dictated that it be so (see there). Further, I think that just as we are only able to describe God by way of negation (i.e. stating what He is not, versus what He is – which is not possible) and metaphor (i.e. drawing comparisons between His perceptible actions and familiar objects or phenomena), I think that we must relate to this question in a similar manner. The Rambam explains that everything in the universe exists for its own purpose; the purpose for which the Creator brought it into existence. The end. Anything much beyond this is a mystery, the answer to which is currently unavailable to us. I personally believe that the simpler question of “Why did God create the world?” has no perceptible answer.

It is also my view that asking these questions ultimately leads to absurdity. What I mean is this: while the question may sound reasonable when asked in general terms – so apparently reasonable that on its basis many complain – but when asked specifically, the questions (and complaints) become nonsensical. Why do we have five fingers on each hand instead of six or nine or twenty? Why do trees grow up? Why is grass green and not pink? Why is sugar sweet and not sour? The answer to all of these and similar questions is: because that’s the way the world is! And it is no different with regard to our capacity to make free choices, our intellectual abilities, the resources afforded by the planet, etc.

The world is the way that the world is. And we can complain about it, but it isn’t going to change. The fact is that we know that we have the power of choice and that the world is set up so that we generally suffer the consequences of poor choices and reap the benefits of good ones. We also know that our choices can negatively or positively affect others. We know that certain foods will make us healthy while others will slowly kill us. We know all of this – yet we want to blame God for giving us the space to fail? This is no different from a child’s complaint that it is someone else’s fault that they make a mistake – their self-centered and immature outlook makes them want to shirk responsibility onto others for what they have either done or not done. Humanity as a whole is apparently no different.

Bottom line is: we are here in this world and have a job to do. Why the world is set up this way is because the Creator willed it to be that way (obviously, or it would be different!) We need to face up to that reality and deal with it. God made a good world and gave us the choice to keep it that way or not. We chose not and have been trying to fix that mistake ever since.

Does God Create Evil? – A Mekori Perspective – Part II

In Part I we discussed two major issues: [i] That God is not the direct cause of evil and [ii] that many times people blame God for “evil” and suffering in the world that most often originates with either human action or inaction. In this post, I want to clarify and expand on these views and share my personal philosophical view of theodicy.

[i] Saying that God is not the direct cause of evil, but can only be credited indirectly, is to say that God has given us the capacity of free choice, a “space” in which we are allowed to make either good or bad choices. These choices affect us and others and are coupled with a world structured by a natural order – an order that sometimes results in catastrophic events. In other words, God is the indirect “cause” of evil in that he has created a world wherein it is possible for evil choices and tragic things to take place.

The Rambam and the Ramban (Maimonides and Nahmanides, respectively), among other prominent Rishonim, present this as the proper explanation of the statement in Shemot 4:11 that God makes man “blind or seeing.” According to this view, God does not actively pick people to deprive of sight, rather he can be said to have “made” people blind only in that He created a world in which it is possible for a body to be formed that lacks sight (ibid., see there – and Moreh HaNavokhim 3:10). But when babies are (has ve-shalom) born blind or otherwise disabled, this is simply the aggregate of natural laws and external factors in the created order taking their course – as God designed it to work. And it is important to note that just because God designed nature in His perfect wisdom, that does not mean that it will always work out in an ideal way. After all, being subject to imperfections is the nature of matter. If the universe did not have this potential, then God would have simply created another God, not a world, something which is impossible.

[ii] As I attempted to express in the story about my answer to the question “Where is God when people suffer?” (as if God is to blame) it is my opinion that the vast majority of suffering is due to evil human actions, human ignorance (i.e. about the natural world), and/or human stupidity (i.e. about how to interact with the natural world). This is the most honest and practically productive assessment of all evil that happens in the world. This is also the view of both Rambam (Maimonides – cf. Moreh HaNavokhim 3:10-12) and Ralbag (Gersonides – cf. Milhamot HaShem 4:6). Alongside these considerations is that in the natural order there is a concept of “chance.”

Natural disasters, famine, economic downfall, slavery, genocide, murder, theft, war, etc. – all of them can be traced to either inadequacies of either human morality and intelligence or the wiles of the natural order that are sometimes expressed in the world around us. If we are are honest with our self-assessment as people, and especially as Jews, this conclusion is, le-aniyut da’ati, unavoidable. The related question of why God would create a world in which all of these potentialities exist will be addressed in the next section.

Theodicy – A Summary of My Personal View

Theodicy, the defense and/or maintaining the belief in the goodness of the Divine in view of the existence of evil (in other words, “How can a good and all-powerful God permit the existence of evil?”), has been a major concern since almost the beginning of human religious discourse and was a central theme particularly for the Jewish and Islamic philosophers of medieval times. Drawing mainly from Aristotle and his expositors, these philosophers sought to answer the two basic questions of theodic inquiry: “Why do good things happen to bad people?” (i.e. רשע וטוב לו, in Jewish parlance) and “Why do bad things happen to good people?” (i.e. צדיק ורע לו). Jewish prophets, sages, and thinkers have been seriously examining these questions for millennia (cf. Kohelet 7:15, 8:11; Iyov 21:7; Tehillim 73:3, 12, 14; Yirmeyahu 12:1; b.Berakhot 7a; Moreh HaNavokhim III; Milhamot HaShem IV, et al) and the discussion continues today.

My view of Divine Providence is that only humans, since they alone possess a tzelem elohim (a human rational faculty), can merit particular providence (hashgahah peratit). However, such providence is only the benefit of certain special individuals who have perfected themselves to become completely united with God’s will. In this way they can usually be said to have achieved a level of prophecy. Because of both the exceeding willingness and availability to carry out the Divine will on the part of such individuals, God invests His particular providence in them (e.g. the Avot, Yosef HaTzadik, Mosheh Rabbenu, etc.) The rest of us are under mostly general providence (hashgahah kelalit) and need to use the tools of free will, critical thinking, technology, understanding of nature, harnessing the resources and power of the planet, and our moral compass to succeed in life – particular providence being not constant; an “act of God,” if you will. The more we perfect ourselves, the more God invests His providence in us. The key to understanding this process is to realize that the operation of the human rational faculty (the tzelem elohim) in consonance with Divine wisdom is identical to, not a result of, hashgahah peratit.

Cataclysms are just a part of the natural order and are not actively performed by God. Rather, as Hazal state in b.Avodah Zarah 54b “olam ke-minhago noheg – the world operates according to its natural order.” In the natural course of the world, things like tsumanis, floods, and earthquakes happen – its just part of the world we live in. According to Maimonides, when the Tana”kh attributes these things to “God” it is only doing so because that is the style of the Scripture and because God is the ultimate cause of everything – being the Creator. It is not the intention of Scripture that we should thereby adopt the view that God is exercising His will to cause such events in every moment. The details of this view are many, but this – in brief – is my understanding of the world and God’s interaction with it from a Jewish philosophical perspective. Believe it or not, this does not necessarily invalidate the idea of prayer or “miracles” – although it does rather limit them – as there are explanations for these concepts as well that fit with this view of Divine providence and theodicy, but they will have to be for another time.

For now, suffice it to say that human beings have been equipped by the Creator with what they need to make peace in the world, engender moral societies, and avoid most instances of tragedy and pain. Like I said before, “Where are we?” – we are here, together, and are expected by the Creator, blessed be he, to do our job.

Mekori Q & A: Do Tefillin Need to Be Painted With a “Special” Black Paint?

Q: Do tefillin need to be painted with a certain type of black paint?

A: According to halakhah, there is actually no need for the tefillin themselves to be painted black at all. The requirement to be black is for the straps only (cf. Rambam, Hilkhot Tefillin 3:1,13), and even then only the outer surface (cf. ibid).

The halakhah at 3:14 actually concludes by saying: “And it is an ornamentation to the tefillin that they are black, their case and the entire strap [i.e. the front and the back].” This is also the opinion of the Tur and the Shulhan Arukh.

[See also Arokh HaShulhan, Hilkhot Tefillin, Siman 32:5 for a discussion of the opinions regarding the blackness of the batim and the straps.]

I assume that what ever is “kosher” for the straps is “kosher” for the tefillin themselves. I say “kosher” in quotes because there is no discussion in the Mishneh Torah or Hazal about what specific material is necessary for a proper blackening either. All of this discussion comes from latter-day authorities and usually stems from concerns based on the “kabbalah.” 

So, le-aniyut da’ati, it would seem that according to all opinions it is enough to use something derived from either kosher or synthetic sources, and the blackening should be done by a Jew.


Does God Create Evil? – A Mekori Perspective – Part I

[NOTE: The implications of what is expressed below are vast. It is a singular, albeit central, concept in an entire position of hashkafah. As such, it will most likely beg more questions than it answers. However, it is simply not possible in the space of an answer here to express it all adequately – to do so could fill volumes…and many have. So, please relate to following as a piece of a much larger whole.]

It is important, first of all, to understand that when the word ra (רע) is used in Hebrew, it is not always indicative of malicious or wicked “evil.” Rather, it is often used as a general term for all levels of negativity (e.g. “bad”, “evil”, “wrong”, “trouble”, et al). I make this qualification only to prevent the common misconception that if God is the “Creator” of evil, that this necessarily implies that He is the author of cruelty, barbarism, and travesty committed by human beings throughout the course of history (has ve-shalom). This, of course, is completely absurd, as it is a foundational principle on which the entire Torah rests that man is endowed with an absolutely free will, completely without Divine coercion of any kind (cf. Hilkhot Teshuvah 5:5). As Rabbi Akiva said, “ha-kol tzafui wa-reshut netunah – Everything is foreseen and [yet] free will has been given” (cf. Pirkei Avot 3:18). God is neither responsible nor the source of human choices, whether good or bad.

Thus, in order to attribute neither outright evil and wickedness nor absurdity to the Creator of All, blessed be He, we must seek an explanation for the seemingly explicit statement made by Yeshayahu HaNavi (45:7) – i.e. that God is the creator of “evil” – that accords with both Hazal and the Tanakh.

In the Moreh HaNavokhim, the Rambam addresses both the origin(s) of evil and the meaning behind the pasuk in Yeshayahu 45:7.

In III:10, the Rambam explains that the meaning of Yeshayahu 45:7 [yotzer or uvore hoshekh oseh shalom uvore ra, ani Adhonoy oseh khol eleh – “Forms light and creates darkness, makes peace and creates evil. I, HaShem, do all these things.”] is that evil – expressed in connection with the word bore – “creates” – is not something with a positive existence [i.e. a “thing” by itself], but is merely a privation, or the absence of properties. Therefore, it can only be “created” indirectly, like when someone directly extinguishes a lamp and indirectly “produces” darkness – the absence of the positive attribute of light (Rambam, ibid). In the pasuk, light and darkness are used as a comparative metaphor for good and evil, and should probably not be understood as a reference to the original act of creation. However, since it says in the Torah that the primordial “light” that was created was called “good” (Bereshit 1:4), and this light is equated by Hazal to cosmic goodness (b.Sotah 12a; b.Hagigah 12a), one could say that anything which lacks this “light” is necessarily “evil” – evil being merely the absence of properties, as already stated.

In other words, we can attribute evil to the Creator only in the way that He created a world in which evil could potentially exist and He fashioned mankind with the capacity to commit wrong. However, the reality of evil is that it exists in the negative choices of human beings that fill the “void” of our capscity to make free choices.

In conclusion, I would like to share a personal story.

I once had a discussion with an older [secular] Jewish psychologist about the classic accusation of God: “Where is He when children suffer?” Now, any demographic could be inserted to replace “children” in that question. After all, suffering is suffering. However, the suffering of innocent children cuts directly to the point. This doctor asserted that if God were a truly loving God, then He wouldn’t have caused it or allowed it to happen.

My answer to him – in standard Jewish form – was another question. Actually, it was a series of questions:

“Where are we? Where is mankind when children suffer? Where are we when we make wars for money, control, and prestige? Where are we when we encourage free sexuality and immorality, causing thousands of unwanted children to be born to mothers who will not properly care for them? Where are we when we use chemicals, plastics, radiation, and food additives to feed our people? Where are we when we feed people GMO produce that even stock animals refuse to eat when given a choice in trials? Where are we when we pump pollution into the water and air? Is God to blame for all the nonsense that mankind is collectively responsible for when we know better? Can you walk into the cancer ward of a children’s hospital and honestly tell me that God is directly responsible for the suffering of all those children, as if He just decided one day to hurt some children?”

He was silent and then admitted that these were very good questions that he had never before considered.

As the Rambam explains in volume III of the Moreh HaNavokhim, the majority of the evil in the world may be categorized as man to man and man to himself. Very little comes from above, and when it does, they are calamities of nature and not God “causing” certain people to make evil choices. No moral evil comes down from Heaven – so say Hazal, as the Rambam explains.

And if anyone is tempted to take issue with this understanding of Divine Providence (hashgahah peratit/kelalit), then I ask them to answer the difficult questions raised by the opposite view, such as: When a religious Beis Yaakov girl is raped while walking home (has ve-halilah), did God pre-ordain both her to be raped and the rapist to commit his disgusting act? Does God starve children? Does God cause men and women to commit adultery through His Divine Will? The answer to all of these – and similar – questions is an unequivocal and resounding “NO.” And if anyone persists in their position that such things are directly caused by God, then it is, in my experience, a near certainty that such a person has never truly suffered or been a victim such as that they have had to seriously ask such questions. To the comfortable and happy, everything seems to obviously be “God’s will” – that is, until something happens to them.

HaShem created a good world, He created man with free will, knowledge, and the capability to live on earth in peace. He expects us to do our job. And we will, bi-siyata di-shmaya (with Divine assistance).

Becoming Mekori – Stones in the Path – Part 2: The One Way of Truth, NOT the One True Way

One of the very common mistakes made by those who head down the path of mekoriut is that they begin to search for “the one true path” of Torah to the exclusion of all else. Such people begin to display a harsh intolerance for diversity within halakhic practice and will often arrogantly villainize all who disagree with their particular position.

Perhaps the most common form of this phenomenon is the [largely] American English-speaking “Rambamist” community. My reference to “Rambamists” in this context excludes the רמב”םיים and Dar Da`im found almost entirely in Israel among various Yemenite communities. These authentically “Rambamist” individuals are generally not actively seeking to ridicule or invalidate the practices of other groups and are much more tolerant of diversity, although they do ardently hold that the Mishneh Torah of the Rambam is the best and purest codification of halakhah while rejecting the Zoharic system of “kabbalah” as well.

The predominantly English-speaking, non-Yemenite “Rambamists,” by contrast, are dogmatic about the Mishneh Torah, but often do not know why. This is largely due to their inability to adequately interact with the Hebrew text of the sources – or even the Mishneh Torah itself. Taking a “Karaite” approach to the text of the Mishneh Torah, they almost completely ignore the opinions of the Rambam expressed in his Pirush HaMishnayot, his letters, and his many responsa. Instead, they opt to grant themselves permission to interpret the text and apply it as they see fit. The halakhic errors espoused by them are often numerous and careless. Yemenite rabbis, posekim, and commentaries on the Rambam are usually dismissed by them as being “impure,” and great rabbanim such as Mori Yusef Qafih z”l and Rav Ratson Arussi shlit”a are criticized for being “hadshanim” and “sell-outs” – since even Yemenite “Rambamists” are not “Rambamist” enough for these types. However, most of their dismissal is just a cover for their inability to actually read any of it and their desire to be ruggedly independent and find an allowance for anything they desire either to do or not do.

Before proceeding, I should clarify that I do not mean to imply that every English-speaking/American “Rambamist” is arrogant or disrespectful, has ve-shalom. To the contrary, I know many of them who are wonderful, dedicated, and reasonable Jews who try to exclusively follow the opinion of the Rambam the best that they can. However, what marks them as different is that they do not engage in disrespect of the Yemenite community and tend to have a more holistic approach to the Mishneh Torah found also among Israeli רמב”םיים and Dar Da`im. Essentially, everyone deserves a chance and should not be automatically subject to prejudice. Nevertheless, these ideas are out there claiming to be mekori and it is important to be able to recognize those who detract from the beauty of the Torah through their behavior – it is the advice of Hazal to avoid such people (MT, Hilkhot Deot 6:1-3).

Although they tend to be the usual culprits, they are not the only ones. I have met mekori Jews of all types who feel strongly about their various halakhic positions who just can’t seem to fathom that other Jews may be just as sincere and well thought-out as they are – or even that they themselves may, perhaps, be wrong.

The intensity by which they feel that they need to find “the one true way” or the “ultimate truth” in Judaism is largely based on error. It is no coincidence that many of these “one true way” types are from a Christianized/Western cultural context. The religious outlook of the majority of cults, denominations, and religious movements in the West have this same mentality. For them, truth is singularly apparent from either their holy books, their leaders, or both and everyone must abide by the exact same “truth” in their belief, outlook, practices, and reasoning as they do. Hazal tell us, however, that the truth of the Torah is not always so apparent or black-and-white.

One of the greatest halakhic hakdamot – in my humble opinion – is the hakdamah of Rav Mosheh Feinstein z”l to his Iggerot Mosheh. In it he discusses the partially subjective nature of pesak halakhah, especially those rulings which are made without the benefit of a Sanhedrin. I have translated a portion of it below, but I encourage anyone who is able to engage its [fairly elementary] Hebrew to do so.

Rav Mosheh writes:

“…le-aniyut daati, …the hakhamim of the latter generations were worthy and obligated to render practical halakhic rulings, even though they were not considered higia le-hora’ah in the same way as were the hakhamim in the generations of the Gemara. And there is certainly place to suspect that perhaps their rulings are not in the strict accordance with the truth with respect to Heaven’s view, but it has already been said about the truth of practical halakhic instruction that ‘lo bashamayim hi‘ (“it [the Torah] is not in Heaven,” i.e. it is not within the strict purview of God) and it is rather supposed to be in accordance to how it appears to the individual hakham – after he has spent the proper time looking into the matter in order to clarify what is the halakhah in the talmud and the posekim – according to his ability and with all due seriousness and yirat HaShem yitborakh. And if it so appears to him that the true practical ruling is such-and-such, he is obligated by halakhah to rule according to his honest view – even if it could be that the truth with respect to Heaven’s view is not thus. And in such a situation it is said that his words are ‘divrei Elohim hayim‘…”

Notice that Rav Feinstein z”l does not promote a carte blanche authority to the rabbis and Torah scholars of every generation to make halakhah and Judaism into whatever they see fit irrespective of the sources. Rather, he specifically limits their ability to rule to what is written in the “talmud and the posekim.” Nevertheless, when a hakham has reached a point of being able to understand and apply the sources of Hazal and their expositors, he is not only able, but obligated to help those who come to him clarify their halakhic duty. Of course, this is a broad and detailed subject, but nevertheless we see here that there are going to be different opinions when determining situational halakhah and each hakham may come to his honest conclusion and those who so desire may rely on his opinion.

This idea is also to be found in the Mishneh Torah of the Rambam. In his hakdamah, the Rambam writes as follows:


וכן אם למד אחד מן הגאונים שדרך המשפט כך הוא ונתבאר לבית דין אחר שעמד אחריו שאין זה דרך המשפט הכתוב בתלמוד אין שומעין לראשון אלא למי שהדעת נוטה לדבריו בין ראשון בין אחרון


“And so if one of the Geonim taught that the way of justice is thus and it became clear to another beit din which arose after him that the opinion he expressed is not the way of justice that is written in the talmud, we not [necessarily] listen to the first opinion [i.e. just because it came first]. Rather, we listen he whose words are most logical, whether he was first or last.”

It is made abundantly clear in context that the Rambam here is speaking strictly of post-talmudic halakhic decisions. The posekim are limited in the view of the Rambam to what is “written in the talmud.” However, I wonder if any “Rambamists” have ever asked themselves the questions “Why are there are opinions being expressed after the close of the talmud? Can anyone give a practical ruling not explicitly found in the words of Hazal? Isn’t everything we need to be found simply within the talmud?” The answers to these questions are: because that is the nature of halakhah, apparently so, and apparently not.

Another very telling passage is in Hilkhot Mamrim 1:9, where the Rambam states the following about post-Sanhedrin/Talmudic rulings:


משבטל בית דין הגדול רבתה מחלוקת בישראל זה מטמא ונותן טעם לדבריו וזה מטהר ונותן טעם לדבריו זה אוסר וזה מתיר שני חכמים או שני בתי דינין שנחלקו שלא בזמן הסנהדרין אם עד שלא הגיע הדבר להן בין בזמן אחד בין בזה אחר זה אחד מטמא ואחד מטהר אחד אוסר ואחד מתיר אם אין אתה יודע להיכן הדין נוטה בשל תורה הלוך אחר המחמיר ובשל דברי סופרים הלוך אחר המקל


“Ever since the beit din ha-gadol was disbanded mahloket has increased in Yisra’el, with this one declaring something tamei and giving reason for his opinion, and this one declaring the same thing tahor and giving reason for his opinion; this one forbidding and this one permitting. Two batei dinin who are divided over an issue at a time when their is no active Sanhedrin – if this particular issue had not yet been ruled on by them when they were active [i.e. if no definite ruling has been recorded already in the talmud or sifrei Hazal] – whether these two courts were contemporaries or whether they existed at different times, with one ruling tamei and one ruling tahor, one forbidding and one permitting, if you do not know to which opinion the law inclines – one acts in accordance with the stricter of the two opinions with regard to a Torah law and in accordance with the more lenient of the two opinions in the case of a rabbinic law.”

Even the Rambam himself understood that a form of halakhic ruling would continue even after the close of the talmud. Perhaps so-called “Rambamists” should take these words of Rav Mosheh ben Maimon z”l more seriously instead of making attempts to somehow prove that the halakhic system either shut down or was supposed to shut down after the publication of the Mishneh Torah.

For those with the “one true way” mindset, the idea that there have always been different practices among religious Jews and that there has been divergence on even the seemingly most simple of religious practices from the most ancient times is very unsettling.

For instance, there are ancient and authentic sources for each method of performing netilat yadayim – with the blessing either before or after pouring a revi`it of water on the hands. And it goes further than this, with some opinions requiring that water be poured on the hands from the wrist down and others requiring only up to the second joint of the fingers need be washed. Even further, there are also those who maintained that netilat yadayim with water poured over the hands from a vessel was only strictly required for kohanim when eating their terumah and that yisra’elim need only immerse their fingers in a container of clean water. And the differences continue.

So which is “right”? Which is “true”? That is not a simple question. And the general conclusion appears to be that any of them are valid when they can be “proven” cogently from the texts of Hazal (all of which can be). Wild ideas that are clear departures from Hazalic precedent may be dismissed as erroneous and incorrect, but those that have sufficient basis may be relied upon. And those who rely on them – even if we disagree, however strongly – are not “sinners” and should not be condemned as such. Rather, each one should follow the best advice of his trusted rabbanim. Our attitude toward others should always be one of “yesh lahem mishehu al lismokh – they have someone on whom to rely.”

This idea is not the mindset of the “one true way,” but is instead the “one way of truth” – the way of the Torah.

May HaShem give us the wisdom to avoid such mistakes and look upon each other with eyes of love that appreciate diversity within orthodoxy. In our current circumstances, this is the only way forward.

Doing Melakhah Before Havdalah: Is It Preparing on Shabbat for a Weekday?

Q: If someone does melakhah while making preparations for the weekday after tzeis, but before they have said havdalah, does this violate the rule against preparing on Shabbos for a weekday since it’s still technically Shabbos?

A: Preparations for the weekday made after the time of Tzet HaKokhavim (“the appearance of three stars”) on Motza’ei Shabbat does not fall under the prohibition of making preparations on Shabbat for the weekday since it is no longer Shabbat, but the first day of the week. There is no such thing as “technically Shabbos” (as some like to call any time after the end of Shabbat but before havdalah is recited) since it is either before or after Tzet HaKokhavim – which is itself the deciding factor in determining which day it is and NOT the havdalah service. Therefore, if it is before tzet then it is for sure Shabbat, and if it is after tzet then it is for sure no longer Shabbat.

However, it is assur le-khatehilah mi-de-rabbanan to do melakhah before one has said havdalah either during the Aravit prayer or on a kos (i.e. recites havdalah over a cup).

So, to directly answer the question: Yes, there is a problem with doing melakhah (or presumably making preparations for the following day) before one recites havdalah. It is not, however, a problem because of the prohibition of preparing on Shabbat for a weekday since it is no longer Shabbat, but falls under the general rabbinic prohibition of resuming melakhah before the havdalah is recited.

However, if you have already recited “Barukh...ha-Mavdil ben kodesh le-hol” in your Aravit prayer, then you are allowed to do melakhah, as long as you do not eat or drink (with the exception of water) until you also recite havdalah on a kos.

See: Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Shabbat 29:5-7; Arokh HaShulhan OH 299:19

God’s Involvement In The World: A Mekori Approach

The way in which the Creator runs the world is termed in classical Jewish sources as hashgahah (השגחה) which means “supervision.” The concept of “supervision” is subdivided into the categories of hashgahah peratit (השגחה פרטית), “direct (or, specific) supervision,” and hashgahah kelalit (השגחה כללית), “indirect (or, general) supervision.” The former being a direct intervention by HaShem into the events of the world, and the latter being that HaShem has pre-programmed the world – and its various components – to function a certain way and thus they continue in their created path.

It is important to understand that hashgahah peratit does not indicate “[something] within God’s control/knowledge/domain” and hashgahah kelalit does not indicate “[something] outside of God’s control/knowlege/domain” (has va-shalom). Rather, the entire world is under HaShem’s hashgahah – some things being directly effected and/or managed and others being effected and/or managed indirectly, or it is possible to say “actively” and “passively.” However, these are terms used by us in order to facilitate understanding and cannot in their fullness apply to the One Transcendent Creator, may his name be blessed.

Some common examples of hashgahah kelalit would be leaves falling from trees, spiders catching flies, bigger fish eating smaller fish, et al. While the Creator is certainly aware of these events and has designed the nature inherent in each of them, He does not actively determine which leaf will fall or where it will land, which fly will be caught by which spider, or which fish will be swallowed by another. These are natural events that are a part of the world which He has designed to function in this way. Inherent also in hashgahah kelalit is the idea of “chance” – which is essentially nature taking its course with the scientific variables being too far beyond conscious human perception for us to know with certainty what will happen next. This concept is expressed by Hazal where it states: “olam ke-minhago noheg – the world continues on its natural course.” (b.Avodah Zarah 54b).

The cognate to this is when the Creator specifically intervenes in the lives of certain humans, “bending” the course of the natural world to accommodate them in various ways according to His will. The condition for this type of hashgahah is that the individual draw close to HaShem’s will in thought, word, and deed. To the extent that a person trusts in and aligns himself with the Creator at any given moment, he is able to “draw” – as it were – the Creator’s specific supervising influence into the events of his life. A common example of this is the life of Yosef HaTzadik in the Torah. Other such individuals on this level, like Avraham Avinu, were granted special hashgahah peratit for the sake of HaShem’s overall plan for mankind.

Most Rishonim – if not all – limit the scope of hashgahah peratit in some way. And according to the majority of those do, the world and the various creatures which it contains, are governed mainly by hashgahah kelalit and hashgahah peratit is limited in scope to human beings – specifically the righteous among the Jewish nation. This view is expressed by the Rambam (Moreh HaNavokhim III:17-18), the Ralbag (“Gersonides,” Sefer Milhamot HaShem IV), the Rihal (Sefer Kuzari 1:109), the Ramban (“Nahmanides,” Pirush Al HaTorahShemot 13:15), and those Rishonim who are essentially Maimonidean in their philosophical orientation (e.g. Radak, Ibn Tibbon, Seforno, Me’iri, et al).

In fact, the Sefer HaHinukh (attributed to the Spanish Rishon, Rav Aharon Levi HaBartziloni) states this limitation quite succinctly:


שיש כתות בני אדם יחשבו כי השגחת הש״י על כל ענייני העולם בין בעלי חיים או כל שאר הדברים כלומר שלא יתנועע דבר אחד קטן בעולם הזה רק בחפצו ב״ה ובגזרתו עד שיחשבו כי בנפול עלה אחד מן האילן הוא גזר עליו שיפול וא״א שיתאחר או יקדם זמן נפילתה אפי׳ רגע וזה דעת רחוק הרבה מן השכל


“There are sects of people who think that the hashgahah of HaShem yitborakh is upon all matters of the world, whether animals or other things, that is to say that not even one small thing in the world moves except by His will, blessed be He, and by His decree, to the point that they think that with regard to the falling of one leaf from a tree that it is [Divinely] decreed upon it that it should fall and that it is impossible that it could have fallen either earlier or later than the [Divinely decreed] time of its falling even by a single moment. Such an understanding is very far from intelligent.” (Parashat Tazria, Mitzvah 169)

The idea commonly espoused by many in the Jewish world today (described as incorrect by the Sefer HaHinukh), namely that everything in the world and everything that happens in the world is subject to and governed by hashgahah peratit, was virtually unknown until the mysticism of Isaac Luria (16th century) the preaching of the Baal Shem Tov (17th-18th centuries). The adages [apparently] spoken by Baal Shem Tov vary depending on the source retelling them, but at times he said to have attributed hashgahah peratit to the turning of a leaf, a blade of grass in the wind, or to grains of sand falling into a hole. In their estimation, the concept of hashgahah kelalit either did not exist or was an illusion – a blatant departure and re-invention of standard hashkafah that threw the doors wide open for all manner of divination and avodah zarah in the name of “kabbalah.”

The reasoning is that if God actively wills the occurrence of every detail in the physical world, then those details must have some sort of meaning, and this meaning (the “omen”) can be “decoded” through mystical means. This error led to the widespread engagement in “readings” by mystics and rebbes: the flight patterns of birds (ornithomancy), the shape of smoke as it rises (capnomancy), the letters of a person’s name (onomancy), the palms (cheiromancy), the face (schematomancy), and others – all of which are expressly forbidden by the Torah (Devarim 18:10-15).

In my humble opinion, such a stance is in stark contradiction to centuries, comprising more than a millennium, of consistent Torah teaching on the subject (not to mention that such a view leads inevitably to the attribution of absurdity – has va-halilah – to the Creator, may he be blessed, and a host of other philosophical errors). Therefore, it seems that it must be rejected like any other latter-day teaching that sets aside the Torah and Hazal in favor of “new revelations” (see Devarim 12-13).

Giving The Rabbanit Her Credit

Original title page of the `Arukh HaShulkhan crediting the daughter of Rav Epshtein as the editor and compiler

A little-known fact about the emergence of the Arokh HaShulhan is that it was largely published after the author’s death by none other than his own daughter. In fact, the original title page properly credited her as the editor and compiler of her father’s halakhic work.

The colophon on the attached image reads:





הובא לבית הדפוס בהוצאת הרבנית המפרסמת מרת

בריינע וואלברינסקא

 בת ויורשת הגאון המחבר כל ספרי ערוך השולחן הנ”ל


Brought to print by the efforts of the well-known Rabanit, Marat

Breina Wolbrinska

Daughter and heir to HaGaon, the author of all the books of the Arokh HaShulhan mentioned above.

I think, like many others, that this integral effort on the part of HaRav Epshtein’s [obviously] bright and educated daughter should be known. The fact that it has been removed in subsequent printings (the attached image is from the fifth printing) is sad indeed. The Torah world has many such women to thank for their efforts. The valuable and potentially sagacious place of Jewish women has been all but forgotten in our times.

The Arokh HaShulhan: Solving the “Problems” of the Shulhan Arukh

[Note: The below is for information purposes only, as is everything on this site. The decision to act upon any of it or not is the personal decision of the reader and any details regarding the observance of any halakhah – especially those laws which are intricate, complicated, and/or severe – should be discussed with a competent rav.]

`Arokh HaShulhan - Title Page 1

Introductory Remarks

Before World War II and the horrors of the sho’ah, the Mishnah Berurah – the now standard halakhic compendium championed by the Haredi-Hasidic world, authored by Rabbi Yisra’el Me’ir Kagan, popularly known as the Hafetz Hayim z”l – was not considered a major halakhic work. After the war, there was a sort of campaign by the Hazon Ish z”l of Benei Verak (pop. “Bnei Brak”), Israel and Rav Aharon Kotler z”l of Lakewood, NJ – and the Agudah as a whole – to make the Mishnah Berurah (MB) the touchstone work of their new invention – the Haredi world.

In the words of Rabbi Haim Ovadia, may he live and be well, this adoption of the MB “turned back the wheels of halakhic history” due to its highly complicated methodology and theoretical style. Instead of using the available sources to come to a singular, final decision for the common Jew, the MB aggregated various opinions into “layers” – sometimes as many as four or five – of pesak, beginning with a le-khatehilah (a priori – i.e. at the outset) position followed by several “options” which are considered bedi`avad (post facto – i.e. after the fact; “less than ideal”).

The construction of the MB is complex and the text is generally inaccessible, leaving the student constantly unsure of what exactly is required by halakhah. It represents the obsessive fear of European yeshivot and their refusal to make a choice between opinions, opting instead to “cover all the bases” – an approach that stands in opposition to the historic tradition of rabbis who learn all of the relevant material and come to a decision – singular in nature – which is then communicated to those under their care and direction. Add to this that the author of the Mishnah Berurah was NOT a community rav, but a halakhic theoretician, and it becomes clear that the work was likely never even intended to be used the way it is now. Almost without exception, the end pesak of the MB is le-humrah (strict).

At the same time, prior to WWII, another ravRabbi Yehi’el Mikhel HaLevi Epshtein z”l – wrote another halakhic compendium known as the Arokh HaShulhan. This work is arranged according to the orders and chapters of the Shulhan Arukh, but his approach is to examine all of the relevant sources, beginning with Hazal, and then to come to a practical decision that can be sustained by the common Jew.

Usually, the methodology of the Arokh HaShulhan (AhS) was to respect the common practice of the people, famously finding justifications for things which many viewed as being incorrect. Whereas the MB covered only the material in Orah Hayim, the AhS covered all four sections of the Shulhan Arukh and beyond. In a supplementary work known as the Arokh HaShulhan He-Atid (“The AhS of the Future [Era]”), Rav Epshtein dealt with all of the laws that will come back into play in the Land under mashiah, much of which has even become relevant since the re-establishment of the State.

Rav Epshtein was community rav who regularly dealt with the common situations and problems that arise in the daily life of the common Jew. Additionally, he continued in the original course of halakhic development and did not worry about “all the bases,” but only about “home base,” as it were – the simple, singular, and practical pesak of halakhah. As a result, his rulings are almost without exception le-kulah (lenient) and tend toward ikkar ha-din (the basic demand of the law).

Although the AhS is a work stemming from the realities of Europe, it has great relevance to our modern Jewish lives in the West and its methodology stands as a shining example of rabbinic service to the people, rather than a rabbinic service to themselves.

With this, let’s look a particular part that the Arokh HaShulhan plays in the unfolding drama of the halakhah.


Two Problems

There are two general misunderstandings when it comes to the purpose behind the various codifications of halakhah:

[1] That the authors/compilers meant to communicate that their understanding of talmud were supreme (i.e. “immutable”) and that one should not deviate from the de`ot which they hand down, and

[2] That it was the intent of the authors/compilers that rabbinic leaders might be able to render pesak halakhah from a mere reading their works without having to study the sugyot in talmud for themselves.

Problem #1 – The Immutability Of The Author(s)

One of the many misconceptions regarding the Shulhan Arukh is that the halakhic decisions found in it were to somehow be meant to be “immutable” – i.e. that no one at the time or at any time afterward may disagree with it rulings. Although there are those who felt this way, there were many who felt that, while Shulhan Arukh is not immutable per se, it is nevertheless a suitable foundation from which to reference halakhic rulings and discussions. Such talmidei hakhamim regularly disagreed with its rulings and rendered piskei din from other Rishonim, from one of the Beit Yosef’s “big three” (i.e. the Rambam, Rif, and the Rosh), or even from the Gemara itself. These posekim routinely came to decisions that were in opposition to the view adopted by the Shulhan Arukh, and many of them ignored the view of the Shulhan Arukh altogether. Among them were such figures as the Maharal Mi-Prag, the Gra, and Rav Mosheh Feinstein z”l. In fact, there has scarcely been a rabbinic authority or commentary on the Shulhan Arukh since its publication that has agreed with all of its rulings. Instead, disagreement with either the Rema or the Beit Yosef has been the hallmark and occasion of later commentators.

Unfortunately, the misconception of the supposed inviolability of the rulings of the Shulhan Arukh has taken hold in much of the Jewish world today, especially since the post-war popularity of the MB.

Problem #2 – Not Deciding Halakhah From The Sugya

Like all other codifiers of the halakhah, the Shulhan Arukh (being mostly a shortened version of the Beit Yosef and the Darkhei Mosheh, commentaries by Rav Karo and Rav Isserles on the Tur) sought to create a user-friendly guide – mainly for the educated – as a way to easily reference a halakhah le-ma`aseh for all areas of Torah life outside of Eretz Yisra’el. Never did anyone intend that rabbinic authorities and/or posekim would simply read their summations without studying all of the relevant and requisite texts, beginning with the talmud. Halakhic codes like this were intended as commentaries or quick reference guides to the din of the various and complex discussions of the Gemara. The only exception to this is the Mishneh Torah of the Rambam, who felt that his work could replace the talmud for the purposes of practical halakhot, leaving the original literature for a deep and more comprehensive study.

Many rabbinic authorities strongly condemned this type of “short cut” approach in very strong terms, stating that every talmid hakhamim must decide for himself from the sources, and not simply rely on a re-statement of someone else’s learning in coming to a pesak. Among them were the Maharal Mi-Prag [1], the Maharsha [2], and the Ba”H [3]. One of the main concerns was that such a shallow understanding of the sugyot in talmud would surely lead to eventual error.

Arokh HaShulhan: Solving The Problems

Although Rav Epshtein z”l was fairly convinced of the correctness of the rulings on the Shulhan Arukh, he nevertheless was willing to entertain the positions of other Rishonim, and to develop and present his own views based on a direct study of the sources. Additionally, the Gemara, Tur, Shulhan Arukh, et al are brought right within the text, placing a particular emphasis on the Rambam and the Talmud Yerushalmi. He also makes a regular practice of quoting the halakhic sections of the Zohar, but in a unique way, strongly re-interpreting its statements to be in line with normative halakhah and not as some sort of mahmir usurpation of it.

Thus, the student of the Arokh HaShulhan is able to learn both the sources and the legal concepts behind them. Additionally, one is presented with the varying views present in the writings of the Rishonim and the process of how the halakhah was understood by various authorities is presented to the reader.

And herein lies the greatness of this early 20th Century work. Never before have both the sources for each halakhah, an explanation of their meaning(s), and the final rulings been given in a single book. What the Rambam in his Mishneh Torah did for Hazal, Rav Epshtein in the Arokh HaShulhan may well have done for the Rishonim.

Notes: [1] Netivot Olam – Netiv HaTorah 15, [2] Hidushe Agadot, Sotah 22a, [3] Shu”T HaBa”H 80 (Hadashot 42)