Friday, May 2, 2014


"Many of us have a mistaken idea of what is within the compass or scope of our religious traditions. People know that lighting Hanukah candles is something you talk about with a rabbi, observance of the Shabbat, the laws of Kashrut, etc., but many people have an attitude that if I don't tell the rabbi how to run his business, the rabbi shouldn't tell me how to run mine. Very often, we live fragmented dichotomized lives where what we do in the office from 9 to 5 (or if you're a workaholic from 8 to 7), is our own private affair and then at home we observe the holidays, or the rituals of Judaism, on the weekends, or three-days-a-year, or whatever.

And yet we find in the Talmud a very interesting statement. The Talmud discusses what types of questions people are asked by God after their deaths. They come up to heaven, God asks them a variety of questions. The very first question that we are held accountable for after our deaths is "nasata venetata be-emuna?" which means "did you conduct your business affairs with honesty and with integrity?" This question is were we ethical in the conduct of our business. If you look throughout the Torah, you will see a constant juxtaposition between the ritual commands of Judaism and the ethical obligations between one human being and another. One verse may say, don't eat meat and milk together and the other verse will say, do not cheat in business, do not misrepresent, do not engage in fraud, because these are all part of the same religious structure. The notion of a dichotomy between ritual behavior and social behavior is a division that is totally foreign to Judaism because all of them are part of the same God-given basis of morality."

Adapted from "Jewish Business Ethics: An Introductory Perspective" by Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz


Candle lighting in NYC             7:33 pm
Shabbat ends in NYC                 8:34 pm

Thursday, May 1, 2014

SEPHARDIC RABBIS: Menahem de Lonzano (d.1611)

It is not known when and where Rabbi Menahem ben Judah  de Lonzano was born. Probably in Turkey or Italy. But we do know that at avery young age he settled in Yerushalayim (Jerusalem).   

Rabbi Lonzano had a very difficult life. He lost both his father and mother at a very young age, and throughout his entire life he was haunted by poverty and sickness . He was paralyzed in both feet and with the sight of one eye entirely lost.  He still was a great Talmudist, a poet and a distinguished grammarian.

Or Tora is perhaps his most famous work. This book is about the Masoretic Biblical text.  This deserves a brief explanation. The Sefer Tora, the Torah scroll, is written without vowels and without te'amim (punctuation marks). The Humashim, the printed books of Tora from which we study and follow the Torah reading, include the vowels, te'amim, etc. This is the Masoretic text. Many times there are small variations in the vowels and te'amim, almost irrelevant for beginners but very significant for the expert readers, teachers, rabbis and for those who publish Tora books. In this important work, "The Light of the Tora" rabbi Lonzano goes thru the text of the Pentateuch and clarifies the right Masoretic version. Rabbi Lonzano follows a rigorous method of comparing our texts with old Biblical texts, some of them -he says- were more than 600 years old,  to arrive to the most precise version of the Masoretic text.    

Another important book he wrote is the ma'arikh, a book that clarifies obscure words found in classic Rabbinic texts . The famous Rabbi Hida wrote about this book: "Rabbi Menahem de Lonzano elucidated many unclear words in the Talmud Yerushalmi and the Zohar in a rather scientific way... because he was an expert in the Greek, Arabic and Turkish language... I saw that while many rabbis interpreted those words according to their context, rabbi Lonzano clarified these words based on his solid knowledge [of philology] and the impressive collection of old books and manuscripts which preserved the most accurate version of these words."  
Rabbi De Lonzano died in 1611 and is buried in Har haZetim, Mt Olives Cemetery, Jerusalem.

Click here to download sefer OR TORA ( Amsterdam, 1659).

Click here to download sefer MA'ARIKH (Leipzig, Germany, 1853 ).  

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

PIRQE ABOT 1:7, tell me who your friends are...

ניתאי הארבלי אומר הרחק משכן רע ואל תתחבר לרשע 
ואל תתייאש מן הפורענות 

To prepare ourselves for Shabu'ot, the day we received the Tora, it is customary to study Pirqe Abot, the "Chapters of the Fathers" which is a tractate of the Mishna composed around the Second Century. This Mishna does no deal with the details of the observance of specific Mitzvot, as usually the Mishna does, but with practical Jewish wisdom, values and mores.      

There are many excellent English translations and commentaries of Pirqe Abot. My favorite one is the Me'am Loez, written by rabbi Ytzhaq Magriso, 18th century, Turkey. He wrote his commentary originally in Ladino (Judeo- Spanish. The book was published in 1747 and today we have a beautiful English translation of his book done by rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, z'l.   

Let me share with you a few insights from his book

This Mishna (1:7) talks about neighbors and friends. Exhorting us to be careful when choosing our company. 

*Rabbi Magriso explains the dangers of bad influences, via friendship. Influence, positive or negative, is not perceived while taking place. Bad company is like second-hand smoking. The harmful consequences are virtually inevitable, and we might realize those effects on us or on our children when it is already too late. 

* Rabbi Magriso offers his insights on real friendship.  He writes that "a good friend" is defined primarily by his or her character. A good friend is an individual who is able to be happy for your happiness. A person who is not jealous of your success.  A bad neighbor, on the contrary, is the one that somehow suffers or is envious of your blessings.  Find neighbors and be among friends who are not jealous of you, and save yourself from a lot of trouble. This is a big lesson, not just for identifying who is a good friend (which is not a simple task, because jealousy is not always easy to detect) but it is also a very important idea for ourselves, to improve our own character: We must learn to be genuinely happy, and never resentful, for the success of our friends. 

*Rabbi Magriso also wrote: What is the best way to assess someone's character? What is the way to see if our children are in a good path? Look at his or her circle of friends. Who your friends are is the best indicator of who you are, or who you are about to be.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

MAIMONIDES on ABODA ZARA (11:12): Can we use the Tora to heal our bodies?

                       ויהיו חיים לנפשך
 משלי ג' כ"ב

In Halakha 11:10 Maimonides writes about the enchanter or  hober,a person who uses magic spells or chants as a way of healing, etc. We explained that spells were extensively used by idol-worshippers, who attributed magic powers to non-sensical words.  In 11:11 Maimonides explains that there is an exception to the prohibition of using spells: when a person was bitten by a snake or a scorpion it is permitted to say or recite for him a non-sensical chant.  Maimonides clarifies: this chant does not have any medicinal powers, but it can help a person, who is in a state of shock to come-down and relax, delaying therefore the effects of the poison (see here) .
In Halakha 11:12 Maimonides makes clear that not every chant is approved to be used for relaxation. He writes that if the person assisting the patient bitten by a snake uses a verse from the Tora as a calming chant, that person is committing a great sin. Why? Because he is using a verse from the Tora as if it was effective for curing the body and the words of Tora cannot be used for medical purposes.

In the Mishna (Sanhedrin Chapter 10) Rabbi Aqiba brings as an illustration of this serious prohibition, someone who uses the verse from Exodus 15:26  "If you listen to HaShem your God... I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, who heals you."

For Maimonides, using a pasuq from the Tora for material purposes, even for something as noble as curing a person, is considered a very serious sin and a desecration of the Tora, since the Tora is the remedy and cure for one's soul, as Shelomo haMelekh said: "and they [the words of Tora] will be life for your soul", i.e., not of your body.  
When we have a health problem, we should seek the assistance of a physician and in addition pray to haShem to cure us, and to guide the minds and hands of those who are healing us.  For Maimonides, using the Tora as a medicine for our body would be demeaning to its true essence.


Monday, April 28, 2014

YOM HASHOAH: Even the one Jew in Albania

"Those who endured the horrors of the camps are not the only Holocaust survivors. That group includes a wide range of Jews from all over the world. At the beginning of the 1980s, Ed Koch, mayor of New York City, invited me to his office. He is  a warm Jew, sensitive and emotional, a great lover of Israel and the Jewish people.

At our first meeting, he introduced himself to me and declared that he was also a Holocaust survivor. Out of politeness, I refrained from asking him what exactly he survived and where he had been during the Second World War. I wanted to give him a chance to tell his story himself. He said that he had been born in the Bronx and had lived his whole life in New York, but insisted that he was a real survivor. Smiling, I dared to ask how that could be- and Ed Koch began to explain.
Years earlier, he had traveled to Germany for an educational trip. At one of the stops, the guide showed the group the globe that had sat on Hitler's desk. "It reminded me of Charlie Chaplain's movie about the great dictator. But unlike the one in Chaplain's movie," Koch recounted, "that big globe had lots of numbers written on it in black marker. When the guide spun the globe, Europe blackened with numbers. Other continents had far fewer black marks. The guide explained that when World War II broke out, Hitler recorded the Jewish population of each country. After all, they represented his life's goal. Albania, for example, bore the number 1 for the single Jew living there. Our enemy decided that he would not rest as long as that one Jew from Albania, a total stranger to him, remained alive. The territory of the United States bore the number six million. [The population statistics are slightly inaccurate] That includes me," said Ed Koch with undisguised anger. "So I am also a Holocaust survivor-if the Allies hadn't stopped the Nazi beast, no doubt I would have been destroyed."
I shook his hand warmly and said, "Today I have learned an important lesson from you, and I will carry it home with me to Israel. I've heard that not all Jewish communities feel a connection to Holocaust Day. From now on, I'll tell them about the Jew born in New York who lived all his life in an American city, but who feels like a Holocaust survivor..."
A story From Rabbi Israel Meir Lau's book "Out of the Depths" (p. 241-242)