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    Blessings & curses – Re’eh

    August 21st, 2022

    The Torah reading commences with the principle of free will. It says, Re’eh – “See, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse” (Deut. 11:26). The blessing is specified in the following verse. It is, “if you heed the command of the Lord your God”.

    There are at least two ways of understanding these words. One way is that if you heed God’s word you will receive a blessing.

    The second, which is the interpretation put forward by Rashi on the basis of earlier rabbinic teaching, is that the blessing is the fact that you choose to hearken to and obey the command of the Almighty – i.e. the blessing is that you make the choice to accept the mitzvot, and the curse is that you choose to reject them.

    The innocent swept along by the guilty – Re’eh

    August 21st, 2022

    There is a moral problem with the harsh punishment of a city that has turned to idolatry (Deut. 13:13-17).

    Even if most residents are guilty, there is surely a minority that is not swept along by the forces of sin.

    Tractate Sanhedrin argues that there never was such a city, but even if it is only hypothetical the moral problem remains. We know it from Sodom and Gomorrah, where God will only save the city if there is a visible minority of righteous people. In its own interest, the minority might find the pressure to conform just too strong.

    Painful as it is to leave home, they should leave, to save themselves from bad influences and from being punished for something they did not personally do.

    Surnames – Ask the Rabbi

    August 21st, 2022

    Q. How did Jews get surnames?

    A. The Austria/Hungarian emperor made Jews have surnames. The names often chose themselves by being distinctively Jewish, e.g. Cohen, Levi, Levin, Israel, Rabbinovitch, Kantor, Shechter, Shammash and Katz (from “Kohen Tzedek”, righteous priest) or linked with lineage, e.g. Jacobs, Isaacs, Abrahams, Solomon, Hyamson, Mirkin (from Miriam). There were abbreviations such as Bard (“Ben Rabbi David”) or Brasch (“Ben Rabbi Shimon”).

    Some names came from places (Moskovitch, Wiener, Berlin, Brody, Katzenelenbogen), occupations (Schneider, Schuster, Becker, Lehrer, Drucker), animals (Adler, Baer, Wolf, Fox), appearance (Gross, Klein, Hochstein, Unterman), or wealth (Reich, Gold, Silber, Diamant). Some names reflected colours (Schwarz, Weiss, Green, Gelb).

    Before houses had numbers they often bore signs which became the residents’ surnames (Rothschild, red shield; Kahn, a boat; Vogel, a bird; Baum, a tree).

    Gentile authorities gave nice names for a large bribe (Roseman, Lilienthal) or offensive names for a poor bribe (Eiselkopf, donkey-head; Spielvogel, gambler; Gans, goose; Froschwaig, frog’s spawn).

    The month of waiting

    August 21st, 2022

    Ellul is the lead-up to the High Holydays.

    Each day until Sh’mini Atzeret we add Psalm 27 to the service. We greet people with words that evoke the rarefied atmosphere of the festive season.

    Whatever we can do or say during Ellul has a tinge of the Days of Awe. The closer we get to the end of the month, the more our spirits are aroused. Ellul is the month of waiting, knowing that any day now we will reach the year’s peak.

    The imminence of the new year moves us and excites us. Indeed the whole of Judaism is a spiritual waiting room, though it isn’t a train we are waiting for. We are waiting for history to reach its culmination in the coming of Mashi’ach, when the world will be (as Alenu says) “perfected under the Kingdom of the Almighty”.

    The words of the Ten Commandments – Ekev

    August 14th, 2022

    Moses broke the tablets of the Ten Commandments when he saw the people misbehaving (Deut. 9:17). The tablets shattered to pieces though there is a tradition that the broken fragments were collected and kept in the Ark with the new tablets.

    This applies to the stone pieces of the tablets, but what about the words themselves?

    There is a Midrash that the letters of the words all flew off the tablets; none of the writing survived, except for the command, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy”.

    It is for this reason, says the Sadigura Rebbe, that we say in Shacharit on Shabbat, “Two tablets of stone he (Moses) brought down in his hand, and written on them was the observance of Shabbat” – i.e. of the first set of tablets all that remained intact was the Fourth Commandment.

    What we learn from this Midrash is that whatever happens in Jewish life, nothing can destroy the principle of Shabbat. Or rather, no external act can uproot Shabbat, but the Jewish people by its neglect can. And without Shabbat we not only lose a day which takes us out of our “normal” routine. We also lose the opportunity of recreating ourselves and our civilisation.