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Posted March 31, 2017 - 6:38am

As we finish the book of Shemot (Exodus) we now turn to the book of Vayikra (Leviticus). When most people begin a study of the book of Leviticus, they probably don’t get that excited. It’s almost entirely focused on animal sacrifices, various sprinklings of blood, bodily discharges, and purification rituals. The modern reader finds a study of Leviticus more repulsive than edifying. This is because these rituals are foreign to the modern reader in a time when animal sacrifice is considered more barbaric than spiritual. 

But in the days of the Master, these issues would have been extremely relevant to those wanting to draw near to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Their significance would not have been lost, nor reduced to “types and shadows” as they are often understood today. For Israelites living in a time when the Holy Temple in Jerusalem stood, sacrifices and purification rituals occupied sacred space originating from their Redeemer.

They learned this from a very early age. At the age of five Jewish children begin their Torah studies with the book of Leviticus. Why Leviticus? The midrash explains:

Why do young children commence with The Law of the Priests (i.e. Leviticus), and not with Genesis? Surely it is because young children are pure, and the sacrifices are pure; so let the pure come and engage in the study of the pure. (Midrash Rabbah 7:3)

Paul makes a similar statement in his instruction to Titus that might help us understand this concept:

To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled. (Titus 1:15)

Posted March 27, 2017 - 10:31am

Rabbi Shimon said: If three have eaten at one table and have not spoken over it words of Torah, it is as though they had eaten of the sacrifices of the dead, for it is written (Isaiah 28:8) “All tables are covered with filthy vomit; no place is clean.” But if three have eaten at one table and have spoken over it words of Torah, it is as if they had eaten from the table of God, for it is written (Ezekiel 41:22) “He said to me, ‘This is the table that stands before the LORD.’ ” (m.Avot 3:4)

In our previous mishnah, we learned a lesson from Rabbi Chananiah ben Teradion regarding the necessity to speak words of Torah when two people are conversing. In this mishnah, Rabbi Shimon uses the teaching of Rabbi Chananiah as a springboard to lead into his teaching. He said that “if three have eaten at one table and have not spoken over it words of Torah, it is as though they had eaten of the sacrifices of the dead.” As we brought out in our previous mishnah, for some this statement will be immediately written off as extreme. However, if we peer deeper into it we will see the wisdom waiting for us under the surface.

First, why does Rabbi Shimon increase the number of people from two to three? To begin answering this question, we need to think about the difference between a random event and an intentional one. Sometimes two people may eat together simply because they are in public and either happen to run into one another or happen to sit at the same table. Three people, on the other hand, is usually the result of a more intentional act. When three people sit to eat together, it is usually because they have something in common. Therefore, Torah should be a common, uniting factor between them. Also, with three people (versus only two) there is a higher possibility that one of them will be learned and able to bring a word of Torah with them to the table.

Posted March 17, 2017 - 9:12am

Your Rules or Mine?

For the last few Torah portions we have been reading and learning about the construction of the Tabernacle and everything that needed to be done for it to function properly. Over the last several chapters Hashem has been dictating to Moses the exact instructions for the Tabernacle and its furnishings, as well as the garments for the kohanim (priests). This week’s parashah concludes these instructions. However, immediately upon giving the last instruction regarding who was to be in charge of all of the craftsmanship, Hashem gives the Children of Israel a stern and detailed warning that none of these things were to be done on Shabbat:

Speak to the Israelite people and say: Nevertheless, you must keep My sabbaths, for this is a sign between Me and you throughout the ages, that you may know that I the LORD have consecrated you. You shall keep the sabbath, for it is holy for you. He who profanes it shall be put to death: whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his kin. Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does work on the sabbath day shall be put to death. The Israelite people shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and was refreshed. (Exodus 31:12–17)

This admonition is the first time we learn of the severe consequences of breaking the Sabbath. Willful transgression of the Sabbath day while living within a theocratic, Torah-based community results in the death penalty.

Posted March 16, 2017 - 6:53am

I was recently listening to a lecture on "The Origins of Jewish Prayer" by Rabbi Adam Mintz, and it was amazing to hear him work to piece together multiple rabbinic texts such as the Mishnah, Talmud, and even Ben Sira in an attempt to build a case that corporate Jewish prayer (particularly liturgical prayer) existed prior to the Middle Ages when the first siddurim were made available. He does an excellent job sifting through the various texts and building his case to show that communal prayer goes back to at least the middle to late Second Temple period, but as he rightly states, there is no absolute proof of this from Jewish sources. All we can do is infer from these sources that things functioned similarly to how they do today. However, if we include the Apostolic Scriptures (the New Testament) in the corpus of early Jewish literature, then we have de facto evidence that at least by the first century C.E., corporate Jewish prayer existed and had considerable participation. In the Gospel of Luke we learn of the events that transpired when Zachariah, the father of John the Immerser, was performing his duties of burning incense in the Holy Temple. We read:

And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside. (Luke 1:10)

In this one verse, we have concrete evidence that communal prayer was connected with the Temple service. And if we include a secondary text from Luke found in the Acts of the Apostles, then we also see that liturgy was also a component of communal prayer:

 And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42)

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Latest Book Review

The Magerman Edition

Author: Daniel Rose & Jay Goldmintz
Publisher: Koren Publishers
Year: 2014

The Koren Ani Tefilla Siddur is one of the latest in Koren’s growing collection of siddurim (prayer books) geared towards a specific demographic. Koren describes Ani Tefilla as “an engaging and thought-provoking siddur for the inquiring high school student and thoughtful adult.” Koren says that Ani Tefillah has been developed in order “to help the user create their own meaning and connection during the Tefilla [prayer] experience.” The name of the siddur is connected with its objective. Ani Tefilla means “I pray.” 

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