Early entry in

I had the privilege of travelling around Israel with my daughter last week. We stopped at a museum shop which sells, among other things, Dead Sea creams and lotions. As we entered, I noticed that there was a kashrut certificate for these products displayed in the window. Apart from assuring me that the various lotions are kosher (in case i planned to eat them), the notice stated that they are fit בפסח למהדרין ללא חשש קטניות – suitable for Pesach to the highest standards, without any concern of kitnios (legumes and rice, which are avoided by Ashkenazim on Pesach). I am so pleased.

A long-awaited trip to Israel

My second daughter, Tehilloh, is very excited, as in about a month, God willing, she and I will be spending eight days together in Israel. She will become Bat Mitzvah at the end of June, and this trip to Israel, her first, is her special birthday present from me and my wife.

I have the privilege of visiting Israel often, but for various reasons, my wife gets there only occasionally, and my children not at all. As such, it is a challenge to ensure that our children share our passion for Israel and remain aware of the fact that Israel lies at the centre of all Jewish religious, political and national aspirations. It is too easy for them to spend their childhood in the comfort of Golders Green without properly understanding the importance of Israel and the focal role that it ought to play in their lives and objectives. How does one convey to children living in a Diaspora that is largely happy and supportive of their religious lives that living outside Israel is not ideal? How does one teach Diaspora children to comprehend the miracle of the Jewish return to the Land, celebrate Israel’s successes, commiserate with her … Read More >>

The place of a non-believing Jew

At a simchah recently, I bumped into the father of an old friend, whom I hadn’t seen for many years. Charlie was always known as a forthright person, and it was good to see that the passage of twenty years hasn’t changed anything. He asked me what I consider to be the place of a Jew who doesn’t believe in God. He also told me that he remains a proud member of the community and of the Jewish people (he is, and always was, a staunch member of an Orthodox synagogue), but doesn’t believe in God. Charlie confided that he had asked his own rabbi and claimed that he had ‘been unable to handle the question’.

I think that while it’s a matter of great regret that Charlie doesn’t believe in God, and it would be desirable to discuss his beliefs with him in detail, his question deserved an answer.

My response (admittedly unprepared and delivered while struggling to hear over blaring music) was simple. I suggested to Charlie that even if he doesn’t believe in God, Judaism can certainly provide him with meaningful ideas, practices, and occasions for inspiration that will enhance his existence immeasurably. By continuing his … Read More >>

Rabbi in Israel – War in Gaza

I am sitting in the National Library at the Hebrew University on the third day of a visit to Israel. I am in here to catch up with young people from my community who are studying at various institutions in Israel, but have dedicated today, the Fast of Tevet, to rest and to some private study. Yet instead, I feel motivated to write a short post about the atmosphere here. In the interests of brevity, here are a few points that have stuck in my mind:

* Every minyan I have visited is saying a ‘Kapitl Tehillim’ – a chapter of psalms – after each service, every day, followed by a prayer for the wellbeing of Jews everywhere. For your interest, so far I have been to a shteibl in Meah Shearim, the minyan of a prominent Chassidic Rebbe, a religious Zionist Shul and the minyan at the Hebrew University library.

* There is a hand-written note pinned to the door of the lift in the building where I am staying, advertising opportunities to send non-perishable food to soldiers in Gaza. Apparently, there are many such notices, as well as those volunteering to deliver the goods.

* I spoke …

Colour Among The Black Hats?

The students of a prominent Eastern-European rabbi were about to join him to light the Chanukah lamp. The rabbi noticed a broom near the window next to his Menorah and asked for it to be removed; apparently, he was concerned that in their zeal to emulate him, his followers would place a broom by the window before lighting their Menorahs too. There is a humorous (and definitely fictitious) end to the story: having visited the rabbi, each of his students went home, placed a broom by the window and then removed it before lighting his candles!

A common perception of a significant part of the Orthodox world is that sometimes it seems monolithic and may stifle individual expression. Detractors often point to the restrictive nature of Jewish law, conformity in dress-style (this criticism is levelled especially at those visible communities with distinctive garb) and the seemingly limited range of educational and other life-choices available to its adherents. There is a sense that the ‘men in black’ all think the same way and live cloned, indistinguishable lives.

There is some truth to this, something for which we make no apologies: traditional Judaism is predicated on a belief in the historical … Read More >>

Heady reflections on a Sukkos adventure

I looked in the mirror this morning and realised that the bump on my head hasn’t quite gone away. It’s only a couple of weeks since Sukkos, so I thought I’d share the story and what I learned from it.

On the first day of Chol HaMoed (Thursday) I had planned to join my family for a trip to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew (see here for another article in which I mention Kew Gardens), However, I was exhausted and decided to stay at home, especially as we were hosting a Sukkos party for my community that evening. My wife and children left the house and I decided to rest, so I donned my pyjamas (remember this for later) and dragged my mattress into the Sukkah.

After an hour and a half, I was refreshed and ready to continue with my day. However, my attempts to return to the house were thwarted by the discovery that the back door was mysteriously locked from the inside. I could see the keys in the lock and, frustratingly, my cell phone on a table within, but I couldn’t access either.

As we leave our front door secured only by a … Read More >>

Statues in Montreux

A few days ago, I visited Montreux, a small Swiss town by Lake Geneva. It is picturesque, temperate, and while there are plenty of tourist shops, parts of the town are pretty up-market. It was a lovely place to spend a few hours with the family before driving back into the mountains.

Two significant statues on the lake-front are popular with tourists, both of well-known men who lived good parts of their lives in or near Montreux. One is of Charlie Chaplin, the famous actor and film-director, the other is of Freddie Mercury, a leading pop-star of the 70s and 80s. If we can briefly ignore their private lives (the inscription on the statue of Mercury even mentions the ‘discretion’ of the locals), each of them brought much pleasure to millions of people. Presumably, the residents of Montreux feel honoured that Chaplin and Mercury chose to live in their town and recognised this with lake-side memorials.

I was struck by the lack of a statue of Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, a world-famous posek (Jewish legal authority) who lived in Montreux for a large part of his life until his death in 1966. He was a man of astonishing scholarship, … Read More >>

What’s that for? Musar from a three-year-old

I am enjoying the privilege of holidaying with my family in the French Alps, so I am far from a minyan. While my children rarely see me davening, especially wearing tefillin, this morning my second daughter Tehilloh (10) and younger son Shmuel Yosef (3) were in the room during Shacharis. When I was laying tefillin, my daughter remarked to my son that one day he would have to don them. As I was putting on the head-tefillin, my son asked her, ‘What’s that for – does it hold his kippah on?’ Then, being three, he suggested that I might need one to hold my neck on and another to keep my leg in place!

Other than causing me some amusement as I was trying to concentrate on davening, Shmuel Yosef left me considering something important. How often do I (or any of us) actually think ‘what’s that for’ when putting on tefillin? It’s so easy for regularly-observed mitzvos to become rote performances, devoid of real meaning. I realised that it’s easy to lay tefillin each day, but harder to experience the ritual as a means of connecting with God: a tool of subjugation of the most powerful human capabilities … Read More >>

The Pope and Praying in Hebrew

The London Times reports that the Catholic Church is discussing reintroducing the Latin Mass largely abandoned in the aftermath of Vatican II. See here for details. Apparently, the Pope is writing to every seminary urging them to ensure that priests are trained to conduct the Tridentine Mass, which was replaced in the 1960s by the vernacular liturgy said in most churches today. While before Vatican II, every Catholic Church in the world conducted Mass in Latin, today it is recited in the local language.

Readers may wonder why I’m interested in the Latin Mass, something one can safely assume to be of marginal concern to most Cross-Currents readers! The answer is brief and simple. It helped me to realise how blessed we are to have a Hebrew liturgy, which (with a few minor differences here and there) is the same the world-over. Indeed, among the supportive ultra-conservative remarks appended to the article, are a few thoughtful ones that welcome the return of a universal liturgy, allowing people of every nationality and tongue to celebrate Mass together.

The early 19th-century German-Jewish and later reformers genuinely meant well when they replaced certain Hebrew prayers with vernacular equivalents: they … Read More >>

Pesach Questions 5768

Most communal rabbis find that Pesach is the time of year that generates more questions from congregants than any other. This year, amid the usual (important, but easily answered) ‘how do I kasher my oven?’, ‘may I take my regular medication?’ and ‘is product x reliable?’, three questions stood out in my mind, each for different reasons. For light Chol HaMoed reading, I thought that I would share them with the readers of Cross-Currents.

1) The Pesach Shabbos kettle (amusement value)

Two days before Pesach, someone approached me to say that she had decided to boil out her Pesach Shabbos kettle to check that it was working and to clean it ahead of Yom Tov. Having done this, she opened the lid to empty the water and discovered a piece of bread inside it. Yes, you are reading this correctly, she had actually boiled bread in her Pesach kettle.

2) The Pesach utensils (disorganisation award)

After Yom Tov, a man phoned to say that he couldn’t remember which of his Pesach utensils were designated for meat and which for dairy. This Passover-amnesia apparently applied to all his silverware, cooking pots, serving dishes and other utensils. Fortunately, he knew which … Read More >>

Haggadah – Two Views

The very word הגדה (Haggadah) conjures up wonderful memories of Sedarim past, reliving the story of the Exodus with family, friends and students. It’s used to refer colloquially to the booklet — a compilation of texts and commentaries — read at the Seder, but the word itself actually contains a wealth of information about the way in which a truly memorable and effective Seder should be conducted. Allow me to share some ideas:

According to Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen, the way to discover the core meaning of a Biblical word is to look at the first time it appears in the Torah. In the case of הגדה, the root word first occurs in the story of Adam and Eve. When God addressed Adam after the Sin, we find the following dialogue:

The Lord God called to Adam and said to Him, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I heard your voice in the Garden and I was afraid because I am naked, so I hid.’ [God] said, ‘Who told (הגיד) you that you are naked? Have you eaten from the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?’ (BeReishis 3:9-11)

Rashi explains that God’s question is to be understood … Read More >>

Means and ends (part 2) – Mazal Tov edition

In one of my first posts to Cross-Currents I discussed the pros and cons of attending singles events on Shabbos and Yom Tov. I suggested that Shabbos and Yom Tov need to be ends in themselves and not just means to some other end, even the laudable objective of finding a life-partner. Those who use most Shabbosos as dating opportunities risk depleting their spiritual reserves and robbing their religious lives of transformative power. Interested readers will find the original post here.

In that post, I offered a specific (true) example:

A woman approached me recently for advice about attending a Purim party. She knew that there was only a slim chance of meeting someone suitable there, yet she felt that not going would leave her wracked with guilt. She took my advice and didn’t attend, instead devoting the evening to Purim pursuits: she later mentioned that focusing on the day alone enabled her to experience her most meaningful Purim for years.

Well, I am delighted to report that last Purim turned out to be more remarkable for the woman concerned than any of us could possibly have hoped (I am writing this at her request). Very late that … Read More >>

If you prick us, do we not bleed?

Some pupils at the Yesodey Hatorah girls’ high school not too far from where I live have attracted UK and international news coverage (see, for example, here, here, here and here) over their refusal to answer examination questions about Shakespeare. Apparently, the pupils declined even to write their names on the papers, in protest at Shakespeare’s ‘anti-Semitism’, despite the fact that they had not even been studying ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and that by doing so they would forfeit the entire examination. As a result, the school has fallen drastically in the performance tables (it was, quite remarkably, first in the entire country last year and is now 274th albeit out of over 3000).

I should interject a word here about the school system in the UK. Many Jewish schools here have what is known as voluntary aided status, which entitles them to state funding for buildings, general studies teaching and a host of other things, leaving the parents to pick up the tab for the Torah curriculum. Of course, this requires the school to meet government educational standards in all relevant areas. The examination in question was a standard government … Read More >>

Of Tu BiShevat And Esrogim

In many circles, it is common to daven on Tu BiShevat for a beautiful esrog to use during the coming Sukkos. There is even a special tefillah composed just for this purpose.

The New Year for trees first appears in the Mishnah in the context of agricultural Mitzvos that are observed in Eretz Yisroel. One needs to know the dividing line between one growing season and the next, so ensure that the correct tithes are taken in any particular year. The New Year for trees is this dividing line. The Mishnah tells us:

The first of Shevat is the New Year for the tree, according to Beis Sham’ai. Beis Hillel say that it is on the fifteenth of Shevat. (Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 1:1)

Although much of the winter is still to come, since the majority of the rain has already fallen by this time (Rosh HaShanah 14b), the fifteenth of Shevat (the halachah is decided accorded to Beis Hillel) is chosen as the New Year for trees. At this time, at least in Israel, the sap begins to rise in the trees and the first formation of the buds commences (Rashi to Rosh HaShanah 14b).

Beney Yissochor notes an …

Modern Orthodox or Chassidic?

Last week, I was asked to make a shidduch (dating) enquiry, something that occurs on a very regular basis. For the uninitiated, a shidduch enquiry happens after someone I advise has been proposed a date by a friend or matchmaker. Before helping the person to decide whether to proceed, I contact the ‘suggestee’s’ references to check that he or she is stable, pleasant, solvent, etc.

The particular man under consideration (who had been suggested for a woman I know well) had declared his outlook as ‘Modern Orthodox’ on a dating website for religious singles. In the course of my phone conversation with a very helpful rabbi, I asked him to describe the fellow’s religious outlook. Without hesitating, he said ‘Chassidic’. Assuming that I’d misheard, I asked him again; this time he said, ‘well quite open and engaged in the modern world, but definitely ultra-Orthodox’. I continued the enquiries for a while and then steered the conversation back to his outlook. I asked him again, ‘when you say that he is Chassidic, is he affiliated with group X?’ to which he responded in the affirmative, noting that he had also studied in their educational institutions.

As an aside, the entire …

Leading From Behind

This week’s Torah reading sees Yaakov at the end of his life dispensing blessings to each of his sons. There is a comparable passage right at the end of the Torah, in which Moshe blesses the tribes soon before he dies. While these two poetic sections are quite similar, I want to focus on a difference:

A lion’s whelp is Yehudah… (BeReishis 49:9)

…Dan is a lion’s whelp… (Devorim 33:22)

Here the lion, as in other forms of literature, refers to the leader. While we would expect Yehudah, the ancestor of the kings of Israel, to be portrayed as a lion, why is Dan described in the same way?

Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen explains that there are two models of leadership, which he refers to as ‘head of the lion’ and ‘tail of the lion’. We might call them in modern parlance ‘leading from the front’ and ‘leading from behind’.

Yehudah’s role is to lead the Jewish people from the front, setting the spiritual pace for the nation that will follow his example. The Jewish king marches ahead of his people, constantly raising the standards of observance and morality demanded of the nation. This is an indispensable role, one that … Read More >>

Un-hijacking Hanukah

Many of us will have come across presentations of Hanukah that portray it as the anniversary of the ultimate victory of Jewish history – that of Judaism over the secular culture of the time. In this depiction, a pure, unadulterated Judaism, untainted by any non-Jewish influence, prevailed over an engagement with the surrounding society, its aspirations and intellectual activity.

This portrayal may be at odds with a number of ancient Jewish sources. In an allegorical reading of the laws governing the parah adumah (red cow, the ashes of which were used for spiritual purification), the holy Zohar learns:

‘Unblemished’ – this refers to the Greek kingdom, for they are close to the path of truth. (Zohar HaKodosh 2:237a)

In the same vein (although in reality, this has no modern application), one may write certain holy texts in Greek as the sole alternative to Hebrew. The Sages find a source for this ruling in the post-diluvian blessings given by Noah to his sons: Shem, the progenitor of the Jewish people and Yefes, the ancestor of Greece. The usual translation of the verse is:

God shall give beauty (usual translation is ‘broaden’) to Yefes, yet He shall reside in the tents … Read More >>

Yippee: a Journey to Jewish Mazursky

‘Yippee: a Journey to Jewish Joy’ premiered at a special showing in London last week.

At the end of the film, the middle-aged Jewish woman sitting a few seats away turned to me and asked, ‘What did you think of it, then?’ When I suggested that I needed a while to digest my experience (code for: I don’t want to tell you), she launched into her disapproval of the Breslovers (‘They’re nothing like any Hassidim I’ve ever come across’), the fact that there was filming on Rosh HaShanah (untrue: the cameras stopped at sunset and resumed after Yom Tov, although there did seem to be footage from the previous Shabbos), and, finally, of me, for failing to express an opinion of the film (I would have thought that someone like you – i.e. bearded – would know much more about it). Going to see Yippee: a Journey to Jewish Joy’, was, like the film itself, an extremely Jewish experience!

The film, a trailer for which can be viewed here, records the participation of Hollywood director Paul Mazursky in the Rosh HaShanah 2005 pilgrimage of Breslover Hassidim and ‘fellow-travellers’ to the grave-site of Rebbe Nahman (founder … Read More >>

A Week In Jerusalem

My wife and I have just spent a magnificent week in Jerusalem. It was, as always, spiritually uplifting to visit the Old City, daven at the Kotel, absorb the incredible atmosphere of the eternal locus of Jewish physical and spiritual life, all the while sampling a degree of religious intensity that one can easily forget exists.

This time, we were also inspired by the growth of the new city: it was tremendous to see the huge number of building projects, the expansion of residential areas, the streets filled with young people. We were overwhelmed with a sense that without any question, the Jewish future lies in Israel, not elsewhere.

And, we have decided that Israel is the best place in the world for kosher restaurants. While we assiduously avoided mehadrin buses, we had the pleasure of dining at some really great mehadrin restaurants. They offer superb cuisine from across the globe at reasonable prices (by London standards, anyway) and despite what everyone says about Israelis, excellent service. (Click here for a version of this article that includes a list.)

With all this to recommend, my wife and I asked ourselves several times during our trip: why exactly do … Read More >>

A visit to Sochaczew

Last week, I fulfilled a long-held desire – to visit the ruins of the Jewish cemetery in Sochaczew, a town some 40 miles west of Warsaw. With a Jewish population of over 3000 prior to its destruction by the Nazis during the Holocaust, Sochaczew was known as a centre of Hassidic thought in the 19th and early 20th centuries (as well as being very close to the birth-place of the composer Frederic Chopin).

The Rebbes of Sochaczew were world-renowned thinkers: the first was the son-in-law of the Kotzker Rebbe, Rabbi Avraham Bornstein (d. 1910), known as the ‘Avney Nezer’ after his monumental collection of halachic responsa; he was succeeded by his son, Rabbi Shmuel (d. 1926), known as the ‘Shem MiShmuel’ after his nine-volume collection of discourses on the Torah and festivals. Representing a rare blend of intellectual, psychological, esoteric and inspirational material, the Shem MiShmuel rigorously analyses Midrashic sources, which are used to offer a creative approach to understanding Biblical narratives.

Around fifteen years ago, I was introduced to the writings of the Shem MiShmuel by a friend in Gateshead, and I have been a devotee ever since: his ideas have heavily influenced my own thoughts. My younger … Read More >>

Our lives in our hands on Sukkos

A little-known rabbinical source explores the relationship between Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkos:

Said Rebbi El’ozor ben Meriom: why do we make a sukkah after Yom Kippur? To teach that since on Rosh HaShanah, God sits in judgement upon everyone alive and on Yom Kippur, He seals the judgement, it is possible that the Jewish people are deserving of exile. As such, they make the sukkah and exile themselves from their homes to the sukkah and God considers it as though they have been exiled to Babylon…. (Pesikta DeRav Kehana 2:7)

This thought is expressed in a prayer that some people say when entering the Sukkah:

And in the merit of my exit from my house to go outside…. may it be considered as though I had been sent far away as a wanderer….

It is hard to conceive of the modern sukkah as a form of banishment. Many sukkos are comfortable, even luxurious, close to the house, and, in some cases, inside the house. Even writing this from my sukkah in cold, wet England, with light drizzle settling on my computer screen, hardly seems like an exilic experience!

Perhaps this concept can be given a modern interpretation. … Read More >>

The Avinu-Malkenu Paradox, Resolved

Since Rosh HaShanah, we have said the beautiful prayer Avinu Malkenu – our Father, our King – numerous times. Painfully aware of our inadequacies, we approach God, our benevolent father and ruler, and beg Him to bless us in every possible material and spiritual way. Its first and last lines read:

Our Father, our King, we have sinned before You….

Our Father, Our King, show us grace and answer us, for we have no [good] deeds. Perform acts of benevolence and kindness for us and save us.

The text is familiar, yet the opening phrase of each line expresses a surprising reality about our perception of God, touching on what is sometimes called the ‘immanence-transcendence paradox’. It is axiomatic that God is distinct from everything in creation, perfect and unbounded in every way – as the ruler of the universe, He transcends it. Yet we also perceive Him as our Father, concerned and intimately involved with the affairs of each of us, our constant support and rock. Struggling with this contradiction is a feature of any meaningful religious life.

In the Avinu Malkenu prayer, the paradox is simply stated: it is acknowledged in every line, but not resolved. When … Read More >>

Hard Questions About Kiruv

I have been involved with formal and informal outreach for more than 15 years but have only recently started to ask myself a few pointed questions, which I share, anticipating that they will be of value to others.

How do we ensure that those we help to become involved in Jewish observance stay tolerant of others who have not taken the same bold steps as they? Surely we don’t want Ba’aley Teshuvah (the newly observant) to regard their family members as sinful failures. It is likely that their childhood homes were the incubators within which they learned a sense of social justice, the pursuit of truth and the dedication to family values and were therefore indispensable to their ultimate discovery of a Torah lifestyle. Do we, as the facilitators of religious seekers’ spiritual growth constantly emphasise this, or do we see their families as opponents to be defeated?

Perhaps worse, it seems that the newly-religious sometimes maintain their relationships with non-observant friends simply to try to make them religious. It seems improbable, but is it just possible that we encourage it? Picture, if you will, Bob and Jenny, old friends of John (now Yochanan) and Sheila (now Sheindy). Bob … Read More >>

Remembrances of Tisha B’Av Past

Certain key occasions in the Jewish calendar invoke strong memories of my seven years in Gateshead Yeshivah. One of my teachers assured me that by spending Yomim Tovim and other special moments in the Yeshivah, I would have a store of powerful experiences on which to draw in later years: I am truly grateful for that advice. I constantly try to recreate those powerful moments in my community, something from which I know my congregants have benefited, perhaps without realising. And even when that isn’t possible, I can retreat into the realm of inspirational memory and lift almost any occasion for myself and my family.

Tisha B’Av is one such day: each year, from Rosh Chodesh Av, two memories are especially vivid, each associated with Kinnos (dirges read on Tisha B’Av lamenting the destruction of the Temples and other Jewish calamities). The Kinnos are perhaps the most demanding texts of our entire liturgy: many of them are written in difficult Hebrew, and are replete with obscure scholarly references that require considerable Talmudic and Midrashic background to appreciate fully. Indeed, rather than plough through all of them, many Shuls (including my own) elect to read only a selection of the … Read More >>

The Most Annoying Phrases

A while ago, a feature article published on the website of the UK Telegraph newspaper asked, ‘what is the most annoying phrase in the English language?’ Suggestions included ‘chill out’ and the replacement of ‘now’ with ‘at this moment in time’. The posting, before it disappeared, elicited over 2000 comments from readers, each of whom mentioned a pet hate. A random glance at them yielded such expressions as ‘all intensive purposes’, ‘fell pregnant’, ‘blue-sky thinking’ tautologies such as ‘potential risk’ and the use of the soccer-player’s favourite phrase ‘at the end of the day’, which, it was claimed, actually means nothing at all.

The observant world is blessed with a number of eloquent speakers and writers who are outstanding advocates for Judaism. Their sensitive and lucid writings have drawn many hearts towards authentic Judaism and, when necessary, they articulately defend the Torah from outside attack: we would be a poorer community without them.

Yet the standard of their written and spoken English is scarcely reflective of the majority within the observant community; even in English-speaking countries, low standards abound. À la Telegraph, one could prepare a list of the most annoying phrases used by members of the religious community. … Read More >>