Archive for Shavuot

What does the receiving of the Torah have to do with the name Shavuot?

This article was constructed with the help of either writings, lectures or shiurim of  Rabbi’s  , Yisschar Frand, Noach Isaac Oelbaum,  Akiva Tatz, Paysach Krohn,  Yitzchak Aminov, Jay Shapiro, , Yossi Bilus, Yoav Babachanov, Dr. Abba Goldman

Everywhere one turns, they can smell and see, the breathtaking scent and colorful sight of flowers because this time of the year, which corresponds with the holiday of Shavuot, plant life is in full bloom.

We, humans, identify things through association, the start of the Baseball season with the holiday of Pesach, fresh start of a new year – Rosh Hashana, flowers and cheesecakes are part and parcel with the holiday of Shavuot.
 Aside from the aesthetic beauty and the extra pounds that one enjoys on this holiday, when one focuses on the spiritual part of Shavuot, there is a glaring and obvious question about this Yom Tov. Why is it called Shavuot?
The word – Shavuot – means “weeks.” It marks the completion of the seven-week counting period between Passover and Shavuot.
The main event of the holiday was commemorating the giving of the Torah which was a far-reaching spiritual event-one that touched the essence of the Jewish soul for all times. Our sages have compared it to a wedding between G-d and the Jewish people. Shavuot also means “oaths,” for on this day G-d swore eternal devotion to us, and we in turn pledged everlasting loyalty to Him.
 However, if we had to pick a good name for the holiday of Shavuot, it would seem like there is a much better name for the holiday: Simchat Torah! Why not?  We received the Torah on Shavuot. We celebrate that event — Simchat Torah! What could be a more logical name for this holiday?  “Torah he chayenu-Torah is our life” Hey!! That’s another good name for the holiday. We received the Torah on that day so isn’t it appropriate to have Torah in the heading?
It seems like one is ordering deli at a Chinese restaurant. The main event should be incorporated in the title and here it’s not.
In addition, the Torah never refers to Shavuot by a particular calendar date as it does with all other holidays. Passover is described as the 15th of Nissan, Sukkot – the 15th of Tishrei, and so on. Yet, Shavuot is mentioned as “seven weeks or 49 days after Passover.” The Torah implies that if theoretically no one would count the seven weeks, Shavuot would not take place that year. Shavuot can only exist when and if the counting preparations have occurred. Why is this so?
Intriguingly, the answer lies in what we, the world, perceive as being sacred, and identifies us the most – our name. “Can’t mess with our name” we cry and point to the privacy laws. How dare they?! The name is our essence! We spent much time in naming a child. The name of something – defines it. What interesting is how Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch compares the Hebrew word for ‘name’ (shem) with the Hebrew word for ‘there’ (sham). A name defines an object. It tells us where it is and of what its essence consists.  The name “shem” goes there “sham”; it’s one in the same. We see “shem” is on the move. Where is it going? That depends on its name. Nevertheless it’s in motion till it runs out of gas. Then we die.
 We learn:  Avraham had ten nisyonot – 10 tests based on his name. The root of nissayon – test is “nasa” – to elevate. Apparently, Avraham gradually elevated himself as he was confronted with tests. Man combats these tests – nisyonot, challenges that G-d throws at him by preparing, by working on himself, his entire lifespan. When the nisyonot are over, man is “patur” – exempt from this world; his job is done. For this reason a person who passes away is called a “niftar”, from the root word “patur”.
So it seems, man is constantly on the go and that “go” – “sham” is spent on preparation. What is important is that the preparation should be allocated through the guidelines of the Torah. The holiday of Shavuot and the weeks before defines life’s concept. Life is the embodiment of preparation. We learned the famous Midrash: “we are in a corridor waiting to get in to the grand ball room. Remarkably, we learn: one receives credit not just with accomplishments but also the time spent. His preparation counts. The seven weeks preceding Shavuot is part in parcel with the holiday, for it is the essence of life, similarly to a name, where there is a mission. There are challenges daily and man perfects his name every step of the way. Interestingly, when someone is sick, a name is added, perhaps, because he exhausted his name. With a new name added, he now has a reason to live for he has to work on the challenges that the new name brings.
The highly competitive Jewelry business is such that we often, I say “we” for I was once a part of it, have to run from office to office, building to building to receive the merchandise  that we need or approach clients to “make the sale”.  Manny Polack is one unique individual who allocated his time wisely, leaving not one moment wasted.  It took Manny about seven years to finish the entire six volumes of the Mishna. He accomplished that feat by studying the mishnayot while waiting for the elevators between buildings! There is a considerable amount of down time – waiting for elevators. I often dreamed if we can just beam up or down to our destination like they do in the fantasy science fiction show – Star Trek. Manny was able to take advantage and use that wasted time wisely.
The antithesis of allocating our time correctly is Eisav, the twin brother of our forefather Yaacov. He represents evil and is the stumbling block, the thorn in the side, throughout history, of our success.
The Torah quotes an interesting dialogue between Yaakov and the Angel of Eisav, whom he fought with. The Angel asked to be released because it was morning and he had to go back to heaven. Yaakov responded that he would not release the Angel until he gave Yaakov a blessing. The Angel asked Yaakov what his name was and, when Yaakov answered, then told him that he would no longer be known as Yaakov, he would from here on be called Yisrael. Then Yaakov turned the tables, and asked the Angel what his name was. The Angel responded, “Why are you asking me what my name is?”
This is a very strange dialogue, to say the least. The Angel’s response was not “I do not need to tell you my name” or “I am not allowed to tell you my name.” Nor was it “I do not have a name.” The Angel merely turned the tables and asked Yaakov, “How will you benefit from knowing my name?”
Why does Yaakov want to know his name? And what does the Guardian Angel of Eisav mean when he says “Why are you asking my name?”
Rashi alludes to these questions. Rashi explains the Angel’s response as “we Angels have no set names — our names are dependent on the current mission for which we are being sent.”
This answer, however, does not fully suffice. The Angel in question DID have a definite mission. He must have had a name associated with that mission. We in fact know who he was. He was Sama-el, the archangel of Eisav. We continue to deal with him up until this very day. He has one function — he is the instigator against the Jewish people. He is the embodiment of the Satan. He has one task in which he has been engaged in throughout the millennia. So why did he refuse to reveal his name to Yaakov? What did he mean when he asked, “Why are you asking my name?”
  Yaakov told the Angel “We have had a battle and I know that this will be an ongoing battle. Explain your essence to me. What are you all about? Let me know your “name” – Yaakov was looking for the key to pass on to his children and grandchildren throughout the generations — information regarding how to deal with the archangel of Eisav in this ongoing struggle. “Tell me the nature of our fight,” Yaakov asked. By disclosing his name, Yaakov would be able to learn the essence of the angel. What would make him tic?
The Angel’s answer to this question was “it does not help to know my name, because I am not just one thing that you will have to conquer.” The Angel alluded to the fact that throughout the generations he would be changing. Sometimes, he would be Hellenism. Sometimes, he would be Socialism. Sometimes, he would be Communism. All the tests and all the philosophies and all the battles that we have had to fight throughout the generations are embodied in this one Angel. He could, in fact, not define his essence for Yaakov because the nature of his essence (which represents our struggle with Eisav) keeps changing. Sometimes, it pushes us from one direction; sometimes it pushes us from the opposite direction. It is always a different fight.
There is a dispute in the Talmud [Chullin 91a] whether the Angel appeared to Yaakov like an idolater or like a Torah scholar. Which is it? A Torah scholar looks a lot different than an idolater! What did he look like?
The answer is that he could be both. There is no one definition and there is no one battle plan. We can never say that we have conquered the archangel of Eisav because he can always rear his ugly head in a totally different manifestation in the future.
This is the archangel of Eisav. “It does not help for me to tell you my name. There is no battle plan. I cannot tell you this is who I am because I am ever changing.”
Perhaps, he did not disclose the name for he knew Yaakov would indeed discover his true essence and prevent him from infiltrating the Jewish nation. Eisav’s Angel, no matter how complex can be defined because every name, its essence, has a destination.
 Many years ago, I read an interesting article regarding Governor John Connolly’s wife – Nellie, who was one of the passengers in the car where President John F Kennedy was assassinated. Kennedy instilled a vibrant fresh energy in the American people. He inspired the nation to become doers not takers.
“We were all in our 40’s,” she recalled of the events leading to the assassination “We didn’t think the world owed us a living. We thought we owed the world, and we were ready to charge.”
Nellie Connolly
We, Jews, have the Torah that is G-d’s gift to us and through its guidance we’ll be able to use our valuable gift of taking charge and go through, not just the seven weeks of preparation, but also life’s challenges, making use of our wonderful name properly.

Torah is About Love and Fear

The scripture (Parshat Yitro 19:1-25) describes in detail the monumental event of the Jewish people receiving the Torah. But one may raise his eyebrow as to where our ancestors were camped when the revelation occurred. The literal translation of where they were standing was, under the mountain. We assumed the Torah is indicating they were near the mountain, but Rashi, the mainstream commentary on the Torah, seems to believe that G-d raised the mountain over the heads of the Israelites and threatened them ‘if you do not except the Torah I’m going to drop the mountain and kill you now!’


Presumably, this seems to be contradicting to what we were led to believe, so proudly,’NA’ASSE VE NISHMA’; meaning we will accept the Torah so blindly that we will do the commandments first, and receive the explanations later. All the other nations probed ‘what’s in it?’ and then rejected it; however, our ancestors embraced it. ‘Hey! We agreed on the conditions without even looking at the contract, so why is G- d forcing us for no reason? ‘


Rabbi Jay Shapiro, one of my mentors, quotes Rav Eliyahu Lapian’s parable and explanation on the contradiction. I think this parable is really cool. Back in the days, there was a king that was very popular and loved by all. He had an important meeting cross-country and the optimal form of transportation was the royal train. It was a three-day trip, with planned designated stops all throughout the country. Towards the end of his route to the meeting, the royal train pulls into this town. It seemed like the townspeople were hungrily ready for his arrival. Banners were hanging on the rafters of the train station with the words ‘WE LOVE YOU KING’; the band was playing his favorite song in between a presentation by the second grade choir of its prestigious school; the clowns were juggling; the hot dog stand was full.


All were waiting to see the Majesty King; the enthusiastic noise was getting more intense. After fifteen minutes, a guard emerges and made an announcement. ‘The King loves you all but he had a long day and he’s trying to get some sleep; he has a major conference tomorrow and he would appreciate some quiet.’ After he returned back to the train the crowd continued the noise. ‘WE LOVE YOU KING!’ they proclaimed showing more of their intense love. The band played louder; the juggler added another ball; more hotdogs and Marino’s ices were added. A little while later, a guard emerged from the train, this time slightly agitated and a bit more firm, ‘We ask you nicely, the King has a very important meeting tomorrow and needs his sleep. Please refrain from noise’. The guard disappeared back into the train presumably satisfied that his words made an impression. But that did not stop the crowd; they anticipated this day for a while and were eager to show their love and affection to the king.


Ten minutes later six guards appeared on the high platform next to the locomotive, carrying submachine guns (they had machine guns in those days? No, I actually altered the story a bit to bring home the point). The head goon with the dark sunglasses spoke up, ‘Whoever makes another sound will be shot’. As a result of these frightening words, one can hear a pin drop among the three thousand well-wishers.


Rav Lapian asks, ‘Do they still love their king?’ The answer is yes, but now they fear him as well as love him. If there would be no fear, the important mission would not have been accomplished properly, even though the right intentions were at heart.


In order for us to function as proper Jews and to adhere to his laws correctly, progressively and efficiently, one has to incorporate a little fear as well as the love that one dearly possesses for Him, or else there will be total chaos. A person may eat pig and say ‘I appreciate the food G d has giving me’. There is an expression, which is used frequently ‘I love G d in my heart and I’ll show it my way’. This is considered inappropriate; there has to be rules and they have to be followed. For example, if one violates Shabbat he will pay the consequences. Logically, it makes sense to have law and order, or religion will be a free for all.


This is what G-d wanted to show the Israelites by picking up the mountain and threatening them – that love and fear are part and parcel. This is also the lesson that G-d is trying to convey to us.  One needs both to be a proper Jew.


Shavuot- A Deeper Understanding

          There are some pressing questions about the holiday of Shavuot and it would be wise to address and hopefully answer them.
          One of the famous statements we say/sing on Pesach in the passage of DAYENU is a very peculiar one. We say: “if we didn’t receive the Torah but just stood at Mount Sinai that would be enough”.

          Isn’t receiving the Torah the main reason the Jews, and for that matter the world, is in existence? So how would it be enough to not receive the Torah- that would be missing the whole point. It seems like a tease, close but no cigar. It’s as if someone is the best man at a wedding, but he’s not the groom!! Another puzzling problem is why do we put branches/flowers in the Synagogues?
           Another question: there is an argument in the Talmud as to how we should celebrate holidays in general. Many opine that it should be spent half for our physical enjoyment and the other half dedicated to G-d, pursuing spirituality. However, all seemingly agree that on Shavuot, the holiday should be spent entirely for us, for our physical enjoyment. This is most perplexing for out of all the holidays, the most spiritual should be Shavuot as we are commemorating the receiving of the Torah. It should be spent in a spiritual quest, after all we received the Torah, which is from Hashem. So why do indulge more in physical pleasures on Shavuot?
          In our quest to resolve these questions, some background is necessary. Many commentaries agree that before the sin of Adam, the tree’s branches tasted like the fruit itself. There was also another aspect of the tree; bread grew on it. Yes, that’s right, Adam would grab a croissant on his way to the other side of heaven!
          When the Jews reached Mount Sinai and were about to receive the Torah, they seemingly crossed one of the finish lines. It wasn’t the ultimate achievement for one more was yet to come, however it was still significant. The sin of Adam was atoned for and the outcome was that there would be no more death. In what way? It was decreed that the trees would taste like the fruit. No more hard work and food preparations, ” by the sweat of your brow” was null.
          For this reason we hang branches in the Shuls on the holiday to commemorate the high level we reached at that moment.
          In the time of the Temple, we ate special bread on Shavuot, bread that was different from any other time of the year. It was the only time that bread which was Chametz was eaten in the Temple. Symbolically, we want to bring back those precious moments where we reached that high level of before the sin of Adam, when the bread grew on the trees.
          Now we must address another question. Why should Shavuot be dedicated to our physical pleasure consisting of good foods, like chocolate cheesecake etc.?
          The answer lies in the fact that there is a constant fight raging in us humans. We are sort of in between the Angels and the animals. Well, are we animals or angels?  We know that when Moshe went up to receive the Torah on our behalf, the angels wanted to kill him. They asked, “what are you doing here?  the Torah is not for humans- it’s heavenly”.  He answered back, “can you make a bracha on a fruit and enjoy it? Can you smell and make a blessing on mints? Can you perform the commandment of honoring your parents? NO! Only man can perform these Torah commandments”.
          Torah is a guiding map of the world. The whole idea is to take the physical and elevate it to spiritual. The cheesecake, with the proper thought and  blessing of appreciation to G-d, should, not could, should be eaten!! WHY NOT!! WE ARE HERE TO ENJOY THE WORLD! The angels cannot enjoy it and the animals cannot appreciate it. We should not abstain from physical pleasures like some religions command. We should enjoy it as long as it’s in the proper guidelines of Jewish law.
    For this reason, Shavuot is for us. It’s using our hearts to direct our earthly pleasures. Incidentally, that’s also the meaning of NA’ASEH VEH NISHMA-we will do and then listen (comprehend). It should be done instinctively; all the pleasures should automatically be enjoyed, as we are human beings and that is part of our nature. Still, they must be done with G-d in mind. Thus, Shavuot is not really for us to simply gorge and indulge, rather it is for us to enjoy properly, thereby enjoying it spiritually as well. Enjoy!

Shavuot 101


          The word Shavuot means “weeks.” It marks the completion of the seven-week counting period between Passover and Shavuot .Agriculturally, it commemorates the time when the first fruits were harvested and brought to the Temple, and is known as Hag ha-Bikkurim (the Festival of the First Fruits).
          WHAT IS TORAH:
          The Torah is composed of two parts: the Written Law and the Oral Law. The written Torah contains the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets and the Writings. Together with the Written Torah, Moses was also given the Oral Law, which explains and clarifies the Written Law. It was transmitted orally from generation to generation, and eventually transcribed in the Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, and the entire corpus of Torah literature that was developed over the millennia.
The word Torah means “instruction” or “guide.” The Torah guides our every step and move through its 613 mitzvahs. The word mitzvah means both “commandment” and “connection.” Through the study of Torah and fulfillment of mitzvahs, we connect ourselves and our environment to G-d. G-d’s purpose in creating the world is that we sanctify all of creation, imbuing it with holiness and spirituality.
On the holiday of Shavuot, the entire Jewish nation heard from G-d the Ten Commandments. The next day Moses went up to Mount Sinai, where he was taught by G-d the rest of the Torah-both the Written and Oral Laws-which he then transmitted to the entire nation.
          It is customary to eat a dairy meal at least once during Shavu’ot. There are varying opinions as to why this is done. Some say it is a reminder of the promise regarding the land of Israel, a land flowing with “milk and honey.” According to another view, it is because our ancestors had just received the Torah (and the dietary laws therein), and did not have both meat and dairy dishes available.

Watershed of Knowledge


          The Torah which we received at Mount Sinai, and who’s giving/receiving we commemorate with the holiday of Shavuot this coming Tuesday night, is sometimes compared to water. There are various reasons given. I guess this is as good as any time to explore the obvious, why?

          There are many Jews all over the world that participate in daily learning sessions, whether on their lunch hour brake or after morning prayers etc. Some study on the subway while others read material on the Internet (like this wonderful publication) or hear Torah lectures online. Torah is everywhere.
          Torah has been around a long time. It’s like an everlasting battery- it goes on and on and on….
          Our Sages teach us that after a rain storm, if one notices, the fish float to the top of the pond or sea etc. As a matter of fact, the fishermen know this little fact and cleverly rush with their fishing gear right after a rainstorm, as that’s the best time to catch fish.
          Why do the fish ascend to the top?  Don’t they have enough water where they are? The reason for this phenomenon is that they crave the fresh rain water. All living beings have an attraction for new and fresh things.
          When my son was 3 years old, I witnessed him getting excited by his first time experiences, sometimes activities as simple as running in the back yard. I was reminded of when I was a kid and got excited by the same things. My heart would start to pump and this energetic rush would fill my entire body. Unfortunately, those feeling are very remote these days. Yeah, yeah life can be dull as one gets older. So many people try new things to spice up their lives. However, the reason why Torah is so successful throughout thousands of years is because the same subject or discussion can appeal to many people on different levels. That’s what makes it unique. One can always find a new creative thought on a story in the Chumash or a novel approach to a case in the Talmud. The freshness is electrifying. Creativity is an essential part of Torah. A new thought is exciting.
          This is the reason why Torah is compared to water. It’s our thirsty nature and our relentless desire to quench our souls with fresh water, a.k.a, a creative Torah thought.

The Greatest Scheme



          Trying to make a buck was difficult in Israel, back in the mid/late seventies. Nevertheless, there were those who had very good mazal. For some, however, making a small profit wasn’t enough; they had their eyes on the “gold” and their ambition knew no boundaries. Such was the case of a young entrepreneur who conceived of the scheme of a life time. He wanted to import Italian shoes for ladies to Israel. There was, however, one major obstacle: the Israeli government had imposed very high tariffs. The government wanted Israel’s shoe industry to grow and therefor imposed pricey tariffs, thereby discouraging foreign imports.

          These Italian shoes were beautiful and very stylish. It was a sure bet and he anticipated making lots of money. The demand for these name brand shoes would be astronomical. So he devised a plan. What was it? 500 “right” shoes were to be sent to the port of Haifa and 500 left shoes were to be sent to the port of Netanya with the intention of not claiming them. After the 60 day period, they automatically get placed for auction as unclaimed merchandise. He then would be the only one “crazy” enough to claim them. WHO WOULD CLAIM 500 RIGHT SHOES?!!
          A few days later, he would claim the left shoes from the other port. His workers would then match them up and….WALLA…HE HAD ITALIAN SHOES AT A INCREDIBLE PRICE. The entrepreneur figured out how to avoid the high tariff.
          His scheme continued uninterrupted for a number of years. However, human weakness is inevitable. He began to be careless and brag about how he beat the system. As time passed, his story reached the wrong ears… and the incident prompted the government to act. A new system was implemented where all imports would be reported into a central system where they would check, compare, and examine all packages and claims. He eventually was caught.
          Although his scheme was not illegal, it wasn’t morally correct.
          During the 6 week period between the holidays of Pesach and Shevuot, we read Pirkai Avot with the goal of refining one’s character. The idea is to make one sensitive to his fellow man and his needs. This is also the reason why we count the Omer. Loving one’s friend is a prerequisite for receiving the Torah.
          Our sages teach us in Parshat Bereshit that on the first day G-d created the trees and all the minerals. When iron was created, though, the trees trembled in fear, anticipating that they would be cut down by it. G-d said to them “don’t worry, the iron ax which has a wooden handle, would never harm you if all the trees are united. Since if you all are united, the wooden handle would not participate and go against its own”.
          When the Israelites received the Torah, there was tremendous camaraderie and love among them. This is the frame of mind one should be in, approaching Matan Torah-the receiving of the Torah.

Deception a Way of Life

We are approaching the holiday of Shavuot. As one is familiar with the counting of the Omer, every day we refine a different character trait. So by the time we reach matan Torah – the receiving of the Torah – we will be in a perfect state, although nobody’s perfect but you know what I mean – perfect as can be.  Baruch Hashem, we are all good Jews that have worked on ourselves to a great extent. We do not lie, cheat, talk bad about other people; we do not hurt people’s feelings, lose our patience, etc. We just have to fine tune our character just a bit and we’ll be okay.


However, some of us have a perception that if one does not lie, they’re free and clear to pursue their goals ruthlessly. Some of their ways of getting what they want is done through deception. They are clever and are careful to follow everything according to halacha – the letter of the law – without violating one’s iota.

Rabbi Akiva Grunblatt, one of the Rosh Yeshiva’s of the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva, conveyed these two stories which will bring home the point of deception.


The Gemara relates a story where one Jew sues another for money in which he never paid back. The defendant comes to court limping with a cane. The judge calls the two up to his chambers where he asks the defendant, “Did you return the money that you owe?” The defendant, who was grimacing and clearly in pain, asked the person standing closest to him – who happened to be the accuser – to hold his cane while he make an adjustment in his brace. Then he proceeded to tell the Judge, “Your Honor, maybe the accuser had a lapse of memory, but I swear I returned the money I owe him.” Upon hearing the defendant’s testimony, the Judge turns to the accuser and says, “He swore he returned the money. Unless, you have substantial proof, which apparently you don’t, this case is closed.” The accuser was so upset, he took the defendant’s cane, which he was still holding, and banged it against the railing in the chambers where it cracked open. Lo and behold, the money that he owed was placed in the cane. It seems like the defendant deliberately gave the cane with the owed money to the accuser when asked if he returned it. In actuality he did, for a moment. This is a clear case of deception.

Rabbi Grunblatt, who was at one point a high school principal in a Chofetz Chaim branch in Miami, Florida, relates a story involving construction work in the front of the building of the Yeshiva, in which they finally were able to scrape some money together. The workers placed a sign, ‘do not enter’ where they had just put the finishing touches of the wet tender cement. They assumed that by the morning, the cement will be dry and the sign will be removed. However, boys will be boys and with high school boys never-the-less, some mishap is inevitable. Apparently, there were some students who decided to carve their initials on the wet pavement. The accused students were called to the principal’s office the next day where all but one confessed to the mishap. The one student, like the others, was asked if he carved his initials on the pavement. The student paused briefly before answering, “No, I did not put my initials on the pavement.” Rabbi Grunblatt who caught the pause, realized there was a technicality issue, but played along and let him go. He figured he would let the issue simmer a bit for a few days as the other students were doing their after school punishment assignment. A few days later, the boy was called back to Rabbi Grunblatt’s office after complaints arose from the other boys as to why he didn’t get his punishment. “Apparently, the other boys seem to think you’re getting off the hook. Did you carve you initials in the pavement?” The boy answered back “No.” Rabbi Grunblatt then asked him, “Did you carve someone else’s initials?” The boy didn’t answer. “Whose initials did you carve into the pavement?” The boy answered, “Rabbi Mandel.”

People can go on their entire life deceiving others. In many incidents, though, they might not have transgressed any laws. However, there is a moral and higher standard that we Jews should live by. After all, the world looks at us as we are G-d’s chosen people. So we have some big shoes to fill, especially, when we have the Torah. Perhaps if we would be a little more sensitive about deception, we might clear our hearts and feel pure and not feel, “Hey man, I pulled the wool over him.” That feeling taints the heart.