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    Life is like a book – Tazria

    March 31st, 2019

    Great detail is given in the sidra about the subject of childbirth.

    The Talmud asks a shrewd question (Niddah 30b), “What does the embryo resemble when it is in the mother’s womb?”

    These days the answer is available by means of medical technology, and sometimes the pregnant woman and her husband discover the gender of the child though they don’t have to reveal it.

    In those times there was little way of being certain what an embryo looked like, but it is significant that the sages thought that the unborn child had the shape and appearance of folded writing tablets.

    From this notion developed a great moral lesson.

    When the child was born the tablets were opened and as the years progressed, the pages were filled in.

    At the beginning there was no way of predicting in advance what would be on the tablets of a person’s life. That judgment was only possible when one died and people summed up what the erstwhile baby had made of itself and its opportunities.

    The pages would record triumphs and tragedies, achievements and omissions.

    Is there really no way to prophesy what the future will bring? Only the early education which the child receives. Here lies the key to human personality and to one’s moral CV.

    What a responsibility you have if you’re a parent!


    Calendrical complexities

    March 31st, 2019

    The portion of HaChodesh, from Exodus chapter 12, is read each year just before the commencement of the month of Nisan.

    It designates this as rosh chodashim – “the head of the months”, with the result that Jewish children learn to recite the months of the year beginning with Nisan, when Pesach occurs.

    The counting of the years, however, begins with Tishri, the month of Rosh HaShanah.

    The result is that we have two systems – months and years, two calculations of the passing of time, and two extra complexities for a Jewish child to master.

    The difference between Nisan and Tishri shows the type of history that each month represents. Nisan stands for Jewish national history, inaugurated by the Exodus from Egypt and the emergence of the people of Israel.

    Tishri (though some have a different view) is the time of Divine Creation and thus the beginning of the history of the world.

    The moral is that a Jew is at one and the same time a member of a specific people and a member of universal humanity.

    The double identity is spelled out in the Alenu prayer with which every Jewish service concludes. The first paragraph of Alenu is nationalistic, the second universalistic. The first represents the Jew as Jew, the second the Jew as man.

    Which identity is the chief one? They both are.


    Vegans on Pesach – Ask the Rabbi

    March 31st, 2019

    Q. What should vegans do on Pesach?

    A. Since vegans consume no meat, fish, eggs, honey, butter or cow’s milk, their cuisine is already limited, and if they are Ashkenazim the rabbinic prohibition of kitniyot is a further complication.

    The Torah prohibits as chametz anything containing wheat, rye, oats, spelt or barley.

    Amongst Ashkenazim this prohibition is extended to kitniyot, “little things”: grain-like items like rice and legumes. Some communities put peanuts in this category; others allow peanut oil and also kitniyot derivatives.

    Hence many vegan foods such as nuts, potatoes and vegetables (including quinoa) are kosher for Pesach.

    Sephardim do not accept the kitniyot rule, so that, especially in Israel, many foods are acceptable for Sephardim but not Ashkenazim.

    However, there are lenient opinions in relation to kitniyot that can be relied upon by the Ashkenazi vegan in cases of need (in consultation with a rabbi).

    It should be added that regardless of one’s attitude to kitniyot, individuals should not decide for themselves what to eat on Pesach, as food technology is so complex that there can be admixtures which render an apparently innocent item chametz.


    The eighth day – Sh’mini

    March 24th, 2019

    After the Tabernacle was erected it was not until the eighth day that the Divine Presence was officially there (Rashi on Lev. 9:23).

    What about the previous seven days? Surely there were daily offerings, implying that God was present?

    The Lubavitcher Rebbe said that there was something lacking, i.e. the element of chesed, Divine pleasure.

    God gave the people of Israel seven days to get used to worshipping Him. After the initial week the people were ready for a higher level of Shechinah (God’s indwelling). It was not simply the people’s sacrifices that brought about this reward. Moses said, “May it be God’s will that the Shechinah reside in the actions performed by your hands” (Rashi).

    What expressed Israel’s love of God was more than ritual but ethics. The way they lived their lives was shown not only in their offerings but in the quality of their relationships with one another. Being good to each other was the first step in showing love for God.

    Some prayer books convey this message on page one, when they say “Love your neighbour as yourself” is the preface to “Love the Lord your God”.


    Leaving out the letters – Sh’mini

    March 24th, 2019

    This sidra spells out the details of many of the Jewish dietary laws.

    It is clear from the relevant verses that every aspect of kashrut requires close attention. Naturally, if one is going to eat meat, the shochet has to be very carefully trained and must be scrupulous and conscientious in the way he carries out his task.

    A similar rule applies to every Jewish profession. An example is given in the Talmud (Eruvin 13a) where Rabbi Me’ir is asked by Rabbi Yishma’el what his occupation is. When Rabbi Me’ir replies that he is a scribe (a sofer), Rabbi Yishma’el says, “Be exceedingly careful with your work because it is the work of Heaven. You might add a letter or delete a letter and bring destruction to the world.”

    Rashi gives an example. He says that if the scribe leaves out the aleph of emet in the phrase HaShem E-lohechem Emet (“The Lord your God is true”) he might end up by writing met (“dead”) which would be shockingly blasphemous, sinful and highly reprehensible.

    Look at other Jewish professions and you see the how broadly the duty of care operates.

    An important example is the shadchan, the matchmaker. Though shadchanim are sometimes – in the hands of writers and caricaturists – mere figures of fun, they have a very great and sacred responsibility. Deciding that two people are right for each other requires scrupulous care. Without it a marriage can be doomed before it starts or destroyed at any point in its history.