27 May 2020

Chag Shavuot Sameach!

Sivan 5780
Erev Chag Shavuot
Day 49 of the Omer

In case you missed it the first time around...

What is the Story of Shavuot?

The "stories" of many things, their background and purpose, can be told by explaining what they are called. To a great extent, this is true in general of the Jewish holidays and, in particular, it is true of the holiday of Shavuot. The names of this holiday are:

"Chag Shavuot" - The Feast (or Holiday) of Weeks

"Z'man Matan Torateinu" - The Time of the Giving of Our Torah
"Chag HaBikkurim" - The Holiday of the First Fruits
"Atzeret" - The Holiday of "Being Held Back, or Restrained, Close to Hashem, in the Temple"
"Chag HaKatzir" - The Holiday of the Cutting of the Crop

The holiday is given this name because it is the climax of the Counting of Days and Weeks which make up the Sefirat HaOmerSefirat HaOmer connects Passover and Shavuot. Passover is the holiday on which we commemorate our Redemption from slavery in Egypt. That was our "Physical Redemption."

But physical redemption is not enough. It would have left us "free" people, but with no purpose to our lives. The purpose of the Jewish People is to serve G-d. The way we serve G-d is by studying and practicing his Torah. On Shavuot, G-d Himself appeared to us on Mt. Sinai to give us the Torah. By accepting it, we earned the title of "A Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation."

Thus, Shavuot is the purpose of the Exodus from Egypt. Seven weeks had to pass before we were able to shake off the feeling of being subject to our Egyptian taskmasters. The Jewish Religion believes that there is no legitimate master for a human being other than G-d. This is probably the most important lesson of Shavuot.

"Z'man Matan Torateinu" - The Time of the Giving of Our Torah

The Jewish People arrived in the vicinity of Har Sinai (Mt. Sinai) on Rosh Chodesh Sivan. The purpose of their assembling there was to receive the Torah from Hashem. Three days passed before the Jewish People recovered from their six-week sojourn in the desert. Moshe was instructed by Hashem that the Jewish People would have to prepare themselves for another three days before they would be ready to receive the Torah.

Before giving the Torah to the Jewish People, Hashem had, so to speak, "shopped it around" to the various nations of the world, but there were no takers.

Moshe "Rabbeinu," Moses our Teacher, according to another Midrash, had to overcome the objection of the Angels, who claimed that the Jewish People weren't sufficiently deserving to receive the Torah. But, fortunately for the Jewish People, and for the world, Moshe won that debate.

"Chag HaBikkurim" - The Holiday of the First Fruits

This name commemorates the New Grain Offering, which was brought at this time; its offering made it permissible to bring Grain Offerings from the "Chadash," the New Grain.

This was also the time that the first fruits of all the Seven Types of Produce with which the Land of Israel is Blessed (wheat, barley, wine, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates) were brought to the Temple. This procedure is described in the Talmud in Masechet Bikkurim.

"Atzeret" - The Holiday of "Being Held Back, Close to Hashem"

This is the name used exclusively for this Holiday in the Talmud. It suggests a similarity to Shemini Atzeret. The latter comes at the end of Sukkot, while this "Atzeret" comes at the conclusion of a process which began on "Pesach," or Passover.

One way of understanding the idea of "Atzeret" is that Hashem wants the Jewish People to feel close to Him at all times. But to have them come back to the Temple in Jerusalem several weeks after Sukkot would have required difficult travel in the winter. So Hashem just held them back for one day after Sukkot, to show his special love for them.

Whereas, Shavuot and Pesach have a special relationship which makes them really, in a sense, almost like one holiday, namely, the Holiday of Redemption, Physical and Spiritual, of the Jewish People.

"Chag HaKatzir" - The Holiday of the Cutting of the Crop

This refers to the wheat crop, which is the latest of the crops to be harvested, which took place at this time. There is also a reference here to Megillat Ruth, which places the time of the events described in the Megillah as "at the beginning of the cutting of the barley crop."

26 May 2020

"Shavuot: A Lesson From The Torah"

Sivan 5780
Day 48 of the Omer

Shavuot: A lesson from the Torah
by Daniel Pinner

Of all the Festivals in our calendar, Shavuot can easily seem like the “unloved child”. Each of the other Festivals has its own special mitzvot: dwelling in the Sukkah and waving the Four Species on Sukkot, the Seder Night and the distinctive chametz-free foods on Pesach, blowing the Shofar on Rosh ha-Shanah, fasting on Yom Kippur. Even the post-Torah Festivals have their own special mitzvot: lighting the candles on Chanukah, and reading the Megillah on Purim.

Alone among the Festivals, Shavuot has no unique mitzvot.

Each of the Festivals has a complete tractate of the Talmud dedicated to it – Rosh ha-ShanahYoma (for Yom Kippur), SukkahPesachim. Even Purim has its own dedicated tractate, Megillah.

Shavuot has no tractate of its own. In the absence of a Tractate Shavuot, the custom has arisen to study Tractate Bikkurim (“First-Fruits”), which is appropriate to the season.

Our legal codes – the Mishneh Torah of the Rambam, the Shulchan Aruch of Rabbi Yosef Karo four centuries later, the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch of Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried 130 years ago, the Aruch ha-Shulchan of Rabbi Yechiel Epstein a decade later – each contains a section which lays forth the general laws of Festivals, and then separate sections for the specific mitzvot of each individual Festival.

But since Shavuot has no special mitzvot of its own, it does not merit any individual section in any of our legal codes: it is subsumed under the general laws of Festivals.

The Rambam begins the Mishneh Torah with a listing of all 613 mitzvot, including: “#161: To count 49 days of the Omer… #162: To rest on the fiftieth day”. In the Introduction to the Laws of Festivals, the Rambam writes: “There are twelve mitzvot of Festivals, six positive mitzvot and six negative mitzvot… (5) To rest on the Festival of Shavuot; (6) not to do any work thereon”.

He then lists “six days on which the Torah forbids any work to be done. These are the first and seventh days of Pesach, the first and eighth days of the Festival of Sukkot, the day of the Festival of Shavuot, and the first of the seventh month [i.e. Rosh ha-Shanah], which are called Yamim Tovim [“Good Days”, i.e. Festivals]. And the cessation from labour on all these days is the same – all labour other than that which is needed to prepare food for that day is forbidden” (Laws of Festivals 1:1).

That’s all the mention of Shavuot in the Mishneh Torah. All its laws are subsumed under the general Laws of Festivals.

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim chapter 494) covers Shavuot in three brief halachot:

“(1) The fiftieth day of Counting the Omer is Shavuot, and the prayers are the same as on Pesach except that we say ‘this day of the Festival of Shavuot, the Season of the Giving of our Torah’ and we say the complete Hallel. We take two Torah-scrolls out of the Ark; we read from the first starting with ‘In the third month’ (Exodus 19:1) until the end of the chapter, and the Maftir reads from the second Torah-scroll ‘On the day of the first-fruits…’ (Numbers 28:26), then reads the Haftarah [Reading from the prophets] from Ezekiel’s vision of the Heavenly Chariot (Ezekiel Chapter 1), then adds the verse ‘Then a wind lifted me…’ (Ezekiel 3:12)”

The second halachah specifies the Torah-reading for the second day (which of course applies only in the Diaspora).

The third halachah says simply that “it is forbidden to fast at night after Shavuot has concluded”.

That’s all that the Shulchan Aruch has to say on the Festival of Shavuot.

For the Festival that commemorates the Giving of the Torah, there is a surprising paucity of mitzvot. Would we not have expected Shavuot, of all the Festivals in our calendar, to be replete with impressive rituals?

Indeed the custom of staying awake and learning Torah through the night may well have gained popularity over the last three-and-a-half centuries or so precisely because Shavuot has no other unique customs to distinguish it.

Let us add another question. The Torah itself gives two reasons for Shavuot. First, it is the season when the first fruits ripen and are ready to be offered in the Holy Temple (Numbers 28:26). Second, it is the end of the grain harvest, referring to the reaping of the wheat, which is the last grain of the year to ripen (Exodus 23:16, Deuteronomy 16:9-10).

Nowhere does the Torah itself tell us explicitly that Shavuot celebrates the day when God gave it to Israel; the Talmud (Shabbat 86b and Yoma 4b) derives this from the chronology that the Torah relates in Exodus Chapter 19. Is this omission not at least as puzzling as the paucity of rituals connected with Shavuot? Would we not have expected the Torah to command the Festival which celebrates its own Giving by telling us directly what we are celebrating?

I suggest that the answer to these two questions can both be derived from the Midrash. “A man’s pride will humble him, but one of humble spirit will attain honour” said King Solomon (Proverbs 29:23), and the Midrash expounds: “‘A man’s pride will humble him’ – this refers to Mount Tabor and Mount Carmel which came from the ends of the world, proudly saying: We are tall, so upon us God will give the Torah! ‘One of humble spirit will attain honour’ – this is Mount Sinai which humbled itself, saying: I am low. And because of that God bestowed His honour upon it, by giving the Torah upon it” (Bamidbar Rabbah 13:3, and compare Bereishit Rabbah 99:1).

By choosing Mount Sinai, the lowest and humblest of mountains, as the place to give us the Torah, God taught us the attribute of humility. Don’t look for honour and glory amid the loftiest peaks; rather find the greatest glory in the world on the humblest peak.

The Torah itself teaches us this same attribute with Shavuot. It does not demand honour and glory for itself. Though the Torah commands us to celebrate Shavuot, it self-effacingly does not even mention that what we are celebrating is the Torah itself! It humbly leaves all the honour of Shavuot for the Land of Israel and its produce (fruits and grains). It keeps the celebration of its own Giving in the shadows, and makes its own celebration the humblest and simplest of all the Festivals.

As the Talmud tells us, “the glory of Torah is wisdom, the glory of wisdom is humility, the glory of humility is fear [of God], the glory of fear [of God] is [obedience to] mitzvot, the glory of [obedience to] mitzvot is modesty” (Derech Eretz Zuta 5:4).

And the Midrash expounds, “The Sages taught: Be long-suffering and modest to all people – and to the people of your family more than any. Where do we learn this from? – Go out and learn this from God Himself, Who was long-suffering and modest with His nation in all places; He did not go with them in their ways, neither did He judge them according to their sins, but rather He was for them in His attribute of modesty. From where do we learn this? – From the 120 days from the day that the Torah was given to Israel until Yom Kippur, which were the 120 days from when Moshe first ascended Mount Sinai to bring the Torah to Israel his nation until he descended from Mount Sinai for the third and last time. And had God not dealt with them with His attribute of modesty, the Torah would not have been given to Israel” (Tanna de-Vey Eliyahu, Seder Eliyahu Zuta 4).

The true leader leads by example. The Torah, the truest Leader of all, teaches us modesty by its own example. Shavuot, the Torah’s own celebration, the one-day Festival with no special rituals of its own, is the outstanding lesson of modesty and humility.

Slow Train Wreck - Economy Off the Rails

3 Sivan 5780
Day 47 of the Omer

25 May 2020

Not Your Grandma's Vaccine

2 Sivan 5780
Day 46 of the Omer

As explained before (My Experience With and Thoughts on Vaccination), I've never been an "anti-vaxxer." However, that might be changing and that's because vaccines themselves are changing.

To put it the simplest way possible, the vaccines we have had up until now depended on a natural process whereby the body would be purposely exposed to a dead or weakened strain of a virus or bacteria prompting the immune system to create antibodies to it, preventing a more serious and debilitating infection in the future.

Scientists are now experimenting with a brand new vaccine delivery system which is much more invasive and manipulative of the body at the cellular level. It's important for us to try to understand this new system because the so-called COVID-19 vaccine will be the first of this kind to be given to human beings. Until now it has been used on "humanized mice."
The race for a vaccine against the novel coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2, is on, with 54 different vaccines under development, two of which are already being tested in humans, according to the World Health Organization. And among the different candidates is a new player on the scene – mRNA vaccines.

...If an mRNA vaccine was approved for coronavirus, it would be the first of its type. ‘It's a very unique way of making a vaccine and, so far, no (such) vaccine has been licenced for infectious disease,’ said Prof. Bekeredjian-Ding.

Vaccines work by training the body to recognise and respond to the proteins produced by disease-causing organisms, such as a virus or bacteria. Traditional vaccines are made up of small or inactivated doses of the whole disease-causing organism, or the proteins that it produces, which are introduced into the body to provoke the immune system into mounting a response.

mRNA vaccines, in contrast, trick the body into producing some of the viral proteins itself. They work by using mRNA, or messenger RNA, which is the molecule that essentially puts DNA instructions into action. Inside a cell, mRNA is used as a template to build a protein. ‘An mRNA is basically like a pre-form of a protein and its (sequence encodes) what the protein is basically made of later on,’ said Prof. Bekeredjian-Ding.

To produce an mRNA vaccine, scientists produce a synthetic version of the mRNA that a virus uses to build its infectious proteins. This mRNA is delivered into the human body, whose cells read it as instructions to build that viral protein, and therefore create some of the virus’s molecules themselves. These proteins are solitary, so they do not assemble to form a virus. The immune system then detects these viral proteins and starts to produce a defensive response to them.

...There is still a lot of work to be done to understand this response, the length of the protection it could give and whether there are any downsides. (Source)
If the old tried and true system worked so well for so long, why change it?  Good question.  Every site I looked at agreed that "RNA vaccines are faster and cheaper to produce than traditional vaccines,...."  And there is something else they all agreed upon: "...we need a better understanding of their potential side effects, and more evidence of their long term efficacy."
Important challenges
The methods to make mRNA vaccines can be very effective. However, there are technical challenges to overcome to ensure these vaccines work appropriately:

Unintended effects: the mRNA strand in the vaccine may elicit an unintended immune reaction. To minimise this the mRNA vaccine sequences are designed to mimic those produced by mammalian cells.
Delivery: delivering the vaccine effectively to cells is challenging since free RNA in the body is quickly broken down. To help achieve delivery, the RNA strand is incorporated into a larger molecule [what would that be?] to help stabilise it and/or packaged into particles or liposomes. (Source)
The rush (Operation Warp Speed) to get this COVID-19 vaccine to market may excuse shortcuts in testing that could have unexpected and even tragic consequences.  No one should be forced to take this vaccine against their will.

RELATED: The Top Twelve Lies about Covid19

Masks Don't Work: A review of science relevant to COVID-19 social policy

Unmasking the Truth: Studies Show Dehumanizing Masks Weaken You and Don’t Protect You

23 May 2020

What Will Rosh Chodesh Sivan Bring Us?

1 Sivan 5780
Rosh Chodesh
Day 45 of the Omer

Before we get into the subject of this blog post, I'd like to share an idea that occurred to me today.  Israel just experienced a record-setting six straight days over 100 degrees.  We were told early on that "the virus does not like heat."  (See the official announcement.)  I was reminded of the prophecy in Malachi 3.20: "And the sun of mercy shall rise with healing in its wings for you who fear My Name."  I think one day soon we will look back on the last week of Iyyar as the ending of the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak in Israel and it will be thanks to the awesome heat Hashem sent to be a blessing.

Currently, in Israel, there have been no deaths reported from the coronavirus since last Wednesday - May 20, 2020.

[Of further interest: Most people we lost to COVID were already near death — Jerusalem hospital chief]


Were you aware that Israel and Iran are at war and have been for the past month?

For the entire month of Iyyar, Iran and Israel have been openly engaged in a major cyber war.

It was Rosh Chodesh Iyyar I and II (April 24-25) when Iran attacked Israel's water system...
6 facilities said hit in Iran’s cyber attack on Israel’s water system in April

Six facilities were hit in an Iranian cyber attack last month on the country’s water infrastructure that succeeded in impacting some systems but did not cause any disruption in the water supply or waste management, the Ynet news site reported on Tuesday.
It was the 15 Iyyar (May 9), the day after Pesach Sheini, when Israel made a counterattack against the Shahid Rajaee port facility in the Iranian coastal city of Bandar Abbas...
Israel reportedly responded to the incident with a sophisticated cyber attack on an Iranian port facility, causing widespread chaos in the Islamic Republic.
On Thursday last, 27 Iyyar, Al Quds Day in Iran and celebrated as Yom Yerushalayim in Israel, Iran attacked again...
Israeli Websites Hacked in Cyberattack: ‘Be ready for a big surprise’

300 sites defaced with clip of Tel Aviv burning; security agencies have been bracing for Iran-linked attack for Quds Day, after port hack blamed on Israel
Yesterday, Debka reported this exchange between Khameinei and Netanyahu/Gantz:
In another poisonous speech marking Al Qods (Jerusalem) Day. Iran’s supreme leader declared on Friday, “The Zionist regime will not survive and will be obliterated.” Israel, he said, “is a cancerous growth in the Middle East.” He spoke after an upsurge of cyberwarfare between the two enemies.

PM Binyamin Netanyahu said on Friday: “Let us repeat – those who threaten Israel with destruction will bring the same peril on themselves.” Defense Minister Benny Gantz warned: “Don’t try and test us. Israel and the Zionist dream are an accomplished fact, unlike the Iranian pawns attempting to destabilize the region,”: he said. “The boasts of our enemies betoken weakness. We will deal with every threat by every means.” Khamenei’s depiction of Israel as “a cancerous growth in the Mid East” destined for destruction was condemned by the European Union
Each Rosh Chodesh since the beginning of the year has heralded a major shift in our reality...
Rosh Chodesh Shevat  (Jan 27) - 
  • Dow posts worst day since October and turns negative for the year as coronavirus fears grow
  • Netanyahu and Gantz in Washington to Meet with Trump Ahead of Release of  'Deal of the Century' the Following Day
  • Gantz Hails Trump Peace Plan
Rosh Chodesh Adar  (Feb 25-26) –
Rosh Chodesh Nissan  (March 26) –
  • Number of jobless Israelis nears 1 million
  • Mandatory stay at quarantine hotels finally imposed on all arrivals from abroad
  • Police begin handing out fines for lockdown breakers
I can't help wondering what Rosh Chodesh Sivan might bring. 

~ Shavua Tov!  Chodesh Tov!! ~

PS: My profoundest apologies to anyone who was offended by a website for "Hebrew-speakers" which I recommended without properly vetting it first.  It has been removed.

22 May 2020

Da'at Torah Has Spoken

28 Iyyar 5780
Erev Shabbat Kodesh
Yom Yerushalayim
Day 43 of the Omer

Clearly this investigation and its outcome were undertaken with the utmost seriousness and yirat Shamayim.
Three Chareidi Batei Dinim Rule that Eliezer Berland is Guilty and Should be Ostracized
... A few hours ago, in Eretz Yisroel three separate Chareidi Batei Dinim, after 18 months of (two of them) meticulously collecting evidence and testimony, issued a devastating ruling and declaration against R. Eliezer Berland. One such Beis Din was Zichron Meir Tzedek (Rav Shmuel Vosner’s Beis Din) which included Rabbi Shriel Rosenberg. Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Stern, and Rabbi Yehuda Fisher, from the Eida HaChareidis Beis Din in Yerushalayim.

The Batei Dinim described the content of the testimonies that they had heard as “untoward acts” and “very serious behaviors.” They concluded that according to the opinion of our holy Torah everyone must stay away from him.

After describing the content of the testimonies in plain language as “acts that are not done and most serious acts”, the judges state: “It is clear that according to the opinion of our holy teachings, anyone who violates the three cardinal sins and their derivatives, someone who values his soul must stay away from him and one is obligated to act in this way.”

The second Beis Din was Rabbi Yitzchak Tuvia Weiss, the head of the Eida Chareidis, Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, and Rabbi Chaim Meir Halevi Vozner. The third Beis Din that signed onto the conclusions of the other two were Rabbi Shevach Tzvi Rosenblatt, Rabbi Yehuda Silman, and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Lubin.

They further accused Berland’s followers of heresy for claiming in public and in writing that the crimes and sins he committed were permitted.

In the past, Rav Chaim Kanievsky advised people that Rabbi Berland was a rasha. Berland has also told cancer patients not to proceed with medical treatment and that if they donate vast amounts of money to him and take certain pills (later found to be Mentos) they will be cured.

...The matter is very serious since some of his students and followers have Heaven forbid rationalized that it is permitted for a Tzaddik to perform any matter of sin, and this has even been publicized in published works. These matters are to considered complete heresy in the fundamentals of our religion. We must uproot and remove this apikorsus from within us.
Baruch Hashem that these rabbanim found the courage to make a stand and issue this ruling.


21 May 2020

Awaiting the Day

28 Iyyar 5780
Erev Shabbat Kodesh
Yom Yerushalayim
Day 43 of the Omer

In honor of Shabbat...

Parashat Bamidbar by Rabbi Pinchas Winston

And in honor of Yom Yerushalayim,...

Holy Jerusalem as you've never seen her - shops shuttered, streets empty.

Thank You, Hashem, for returning Yerushalayim to us.  Now, we await the day that Your Holy Shechinah will return to Your Holy Temple.