With Yom Kippur approaching, I used my Ami column to share a cherished erev Yom Kippur interaction I had a number of years ago with my dear father, a”h. You can read it here.
“Propriety” was apparently a theme of the Sadducees, or Tziddukim, one of the camps of Jews during the Second Temple period that rejected the the Torah’s “Oral Law,” the key to understanding the true meaning of the Written one. The former, of course, reveals things like that “An eye for an eye” means monetary compensation, and that “totafos” means what we call tefillin.
And so, the Tziddukim rejected the Oral Law’s direction that “Sabbath” in the phrase “from the day after the Sabbath,” directing the beginning of the Omer-counting period, means the first day of Pesach. They felt, they explained, that having two days in a row of rest and festivity – Shabbos and Shavuos, the fiftieth day of the count – would be a nice and proper thing.
And they advocated, too, a change in the Yom Kippur service described in the parsha, at the very crescendo of the day, when the Kohein Gadol entered the Kodesh Hakadashim. The Oral Law prescribes that the incense offered there be lit only after the Kohen Gadol entered the room. The Tziddukim contended that it be lit beforehand. While they offered Written Law support for their position, their true motivation, the Talmud explains, was the “propriety” of doing things differently.
“Does one bring raw food to a mortal king,” they argued, “and only then cook it before him? No! One brings it in hot and steaming!”
The placing of mortal etiquette – “what seems most appropriate” – above the received truths of the mesorah is the antithesis of Torah, whose foundation is not “you do you” but “you do Me.”
Our very peoplehood was forged by our forebears’ unanimous, unifying declaration at Sinai: “Naaseh v’nishma” — “We will do and we will hear!” – “We will accept the Torah’s laws,” in other words, even amid a lack of ‘hearing,’ or understanding, even if we think we have a better idea.”
“Naaseh v’nishma” stands in stark contrast to society’s fixation on not only having things but having them “our way,” and to Jewish groups that want to bring Torah “in line” with contemporary sensibilities.
But from Avraham Avinu’s “ten trials” to 21st century America, Judaism has never been about comfort, enjoyment or personal fulfillment (though, to be sure, the latter emerges from a holiness-centered life). It has been about Torah and mitzvos – about accepting them not only when they sit well with us but even – in fact, especially – when they don’t.
With apologies to JFK speechwriter Ted Sorenson (Jewish mother’s maiden name: Annis Chaikin), Judaism is not about what we’d like Hakadosh Baruch Hu to do for us, but rather about what we are privileged to do for Him.
© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran
A frisson of fright is sent up the spine of every sensitive Jew when Unesaneh Tokef is intoned on the Yomim Nora’im. Because of the image it conjures of the Dayan uMochiach, the One “Who judges and proves and knows and bears witness; Who writes and seals, counts and calculates, Who remembers all that was forgotten,” opening the Sefer Hazichronos in which “the signature of every man” is inscribed and which “will read itself.”
And because of the scene it paints of the“great shofar” sounding, followed by a “quiet, faint voice”; as the angels themselves are seized by “a trembling and terror” as they declare: “Behold, it is the Day of Judgment.”
The shudder is intensified by the tefillah’s soul-piercing reminder about the coming year—“who will live and who will die… who will be undisturbed, and who in turmoil,” who “will be laid low, and who raised high.”
And by the haunting melody to which it is traditionally sung.
And, finally, by our recollection of the tradition we have of the tefillah’s origin.
A certain Rabbi Amnon, who lived in the 11th century, the account goes, was pressured by the Archbishop of Mainz to convert to Christianity. Rabbi Amnon refused repeatedly, but on one occasion he asked for three days’ time to consider the offer, a stalling tactic he immediately regretted, as he realized he had given the priest hope that his Jewish subject might abandon his ancestral faith.
When Rabbi Amnon didn’t visit the clergyman at the end of the three days, he was forcibly taken to him and again refused the demand of the priest, who had Rabbi Amnon’s fingers and toes amputated one by one, pausing before each drop of the sword to allow the Jew to change his mind. He didn’t, and was returned to his home, along with his amputated limbs.
On Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Amnon asked to be carried, along with his body parts, into the shul, and, before Kedushah, asked the chazan to pause. The silence was then broken by the tortured rav’s intonation of Unesaneh Tokef, after which he died.
Several days later, the leader of the Mainz Jewish community, Kalonymus ben Meshulam (who would later perish in the Worms Massacre), had a dream in which Rabbi Amnon taught him the words of the tefillah.
The account is attributed to the famous 13th century halachic work Ohr Zarua, written by Rav Yitzchok ben Moshe of Vienna. Reading the actual text one year led me to a detail I hadn’t realized before.
When Rabbi Amnon was brought before the archbishop, the rav told the clergyman that he wanted to be punished—not for refusing the Christian’s urging to convert but rather for giving the impression that he had even considered such a thing. “Cut out my tongue,” he told the archbishop. The clergyman, however, refused that request. He saw Rabbi Amnon’s sin as his refusal to come as he had promised, hence he chose his own punishment for the rav, the one that was meted out.
And so the priest, while he cruelly and grievously tortured the Jew, left his victim’s tongue in place.
“The voice is the voice of Yaakov and the hands are the hands of Esav,” said Yitzchak Avinu (Bereishis, 27:22). The use of weaponry, held by hands, is the province of Esav. Yaakov’s power lies in his tongue—in his words, his prayers.
There, I realized, was a point I had always missed. Rabbi Amnon, denied the excision of his tongue he had requested, went on to use it well—to compose the Unesaneh Tokef that marks a most poignant moment in the Musafim of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
The part of his body he regretted having misused he ended up using powerfully, inspiring countless Jews over the generations since—to, as per the tefillah’s final declaration, use their own words, along with teshuvah and tzedakah, to be ma’avir any ro’a hagezeirah.
Gmar chasimah tovah.
You’ve no doubt heard the term “October Surprise.” But have you heard of a “Tishrei Surprise”? Yes, it’s a thing. As you can read here.
A timely Yiddish-themed piece I wrote for Tablet can be read here.
G’mar chasima tova!
A mother and father are notified that their darling little boy broke a neighbor’s window. They feel, and of course are, responsible to right the wrong. They are, after all, where the buck stops in their family.
But they may be responsible in a deeper sense too. If the boy didn’t just accidentally hit a ball through the Feldstein’s picture window but rather carefully aimed a rock at it – and had been influenced in his disregard for the property of others by some remark he heard at home – the responsibility exists on a much deeper level than mere buck-stopping. The parents, in a sense, are complicit in Yankeleh’s act of vandalism.
The concept of “arvus” – the “interdependence” of all Jews – is sometimes understood as akin to the first, simpler, sense of responsibility. Jews are to regard other Jews as family, which they are, and therefore to take responsibility for one another.
But Rav Dessler, in Michtav Me’Eliyohu, teaches that Jews are responsible for one another in the word’s deeper sense too.
When a Jew does something good, it reflects the entire Jewish people’s goodness. And the converse is no less true. Thus, when Achan, one man, misappropriated spoils after the first battle of Yehoshua’s conquest of Canaan, the siege of Yericho, it is described as the aveirah of the entire people (Yehoshua, 7:1). Explains Rav Dessler: Had the people as a whole been sufficiently sensitive to Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s commandment to shun the city’s spoils, Achan would never have been able to commit his sin.
Several weeks ago, we read in the parashas hashavua of the eglah arufah, a ritual that is commanded if a murder victim, presumably a wayfarer, is found outside a city. The procedure, which involves the elders of the city dispatching a calf, is called a kapparah, an atonement, yet there seems to be no sin for which the elders need atone. That’s because part of the ritual is their declaration that they did everything they could to ensure the safety of the visitor. And it certainly isn’t atonement for the killer; if he is ever discovered, he faces a murder charge and its penalty.
Here, too the arvus factor may be the solution. Even if no particular person was directly responsible for the wayfarer’s murder, what could have enabled so terrible an act to happen might have been a “critical mass” of lesser offenses, perhaps things that Chazal likened to murder, such as causing another Jew great embarrassment or indirectly causing a person’s life to be shortened.
In which case, the atonement would be for Klal Yisrael as a whole, areivim as its members are zeh lazeh.
The idea, in fact, is borne out by the passuk itself, which prescribes what the elders of the closest city are to say at the eglah arufah ceremony: “Atone for Your people Yisrael” (Devarim, 21:8).
So, if a Jew commits a financial crime, it may never have been able to happen had all of us been sufficiently careful to not “steal” in other ways.
Every cheder yingel knows that even a small coin placed in a pushke is the fulfillment of a mitzvah. It should be equally apparent, especially to all us grown-up children, that the misappropriation of even a similarly small amount of money is the opposite.
And so Jews, whoever and wherever they are, who cut corners for financial gain – who underreport their income or avoid taxes illegally or are less than fully honest in their business dealings – contribute thereby to the thievery-matrix. And then there is “thievery” of more subtle sorts, like wasting the time or disturbing the sleep of another. Or misleading someone – which Chazal characterize as “geneivas daas,” or “stealing mind.”
That deeper concept of arvus leaves us to ponder the possibility that some less blatant and less outrageous – but still sinful – actions of other Jews, ourselves perhaps included, may have, little by little, provided a matrix on which greater aveiros subsequently came to grow.
On Yom Kippur, Jews the world over will repeatedly recite “Ashamnu” and “Al Chet Shechatanu.” Both, oddly, are in the first person plural. It is a collective “we” who have sinned. One approach is that if any Jew anywhere is guilty of a sin on the list we recount, the arvus of Klal Yisrael obligates us to confess on his behalf. But, on a deeper plane, that arvus implies something else too: That even with regard to aveiros of which we are personally innocent, we may still be implicated.
May our viduyim and teshuvah be accepted Above.
Gmar chasimah tovah!
© 2018 Hamodia
The drawing of lots in the times of the Beis Hamikdosh for the Yom Kippur ritual of the “shenei se’irim” – the “two goats,” undoubtedly commanded the rapt attention of all present.
Two indistinguishable members of that species were brought before the Kohen Gadol, who placed a randomly-pulled lot on the head of each animal. One lot read “to Hashem” and the other “to Azazel” – the name, according to many meforshim, of a steep cliff in a barren desert.
The first goat, as we all know, was solemnly brought as a korban, attention given to every detail of the offering, as with any other; and the second was taken to the cliff and thrown off, dying unceremoniously before even reaching the bottom.
The law of the shenei se’irim is a chok, its deepest meanings beyond our understanding. But pondering it before Yom Kippur, and as we recall it in the day’s Mussaf, might still yield food for thought and, more important, for inspiration.
Human beings have two choices when it comes to how they view themselves. Some, in the past as in the present, understand that our minds and free will are clear evidence of Divine intent; others choose to see our existence as an accident. The former see human life as meaningful; the latter, as not.
If we’re the product of randomness, there can be no more meaning to good and bad actions than to good or bad weather; no more import to right and wrong than to right and left. Human beings remain but advanced animals, tzaddikim and resha’im alike. Yes, people can create societal expectations and norms, but a social contract is only a practical tool, not a moral imperative; it is, in the end, artificial. Only with a Creator in the larger picture can there be ultimate import to human life, placing it on a plane meaningfully above that of monkeys or mosquitoes.
The Torah, of course, is based on – and in fact begins with an account of – a Divinely directed creation; and its most basic message is the meaningfulness of human life.
Every human being, if his consciousness is unclouded by base desires and cynicism, possesses a similar innate conviction.
Yet many resist that inherent understanding, and adopt the perspective that all that there is in the end is what we can perceive with our physical senses, that how we act makes no ultimate difference. They point to the existence of evil and the Creator’s invisibility as their “proofs.” Their excuses.
Could those diametric worldviews be reflected in the se’irei Yom Kippur?
The sa’ir that becomes a korban on the mizbei’ach might symbolize recognition of the idea that we are beholden to something greater than ourselves. And the counter-goat, which finds its fate in a desolate, unholy place, might allude to the perspective of life as pointless, lacking higher purpose or meaning.
Consider, further, the fact that the Torah, strangely, describes the Azazel-goat as carrying away the sins of the people (Vayikra 16: 22).
The meforshim all wonder at that concept. Some, including the Rambam, interpret it to mean that the people will be stirred by the dispatching of the Azazel-goat to repent (Moreh Nevuchim 3:46).
How the Azazel-goat’s being “laden with the sins” of the people could serve as an inspiration might be understandable, though, if it indeed subtly alludes to the mindset of meaninglessness.
Because chet ultimately stems from insufficient recognition of how meaningful our lives are. Reish Lakish in fact said as much when he observed (Sotah 3a) that “A person does not sin unless a spirit of madness enters him.” The madness, perhaps, of seeing himself as ultimately meaningless. That meaninglessness certainly provides ample reason to not care about one’s actions.
And so the sending forth of the Azazel-goat to its haphazard death could be seen as an acknowledgement of the idea that the roots of chet lie in that madness born of self-doubt. And those who witnessed its dispatching might well then have been spurred by that thought to consider the goat’s counterpart, the animal brought on the mizbe’ach in dedication to Hashem. And, so moved on the holiest day of the year, they might then have been spurred to re-embrace the grand meaningfulness that is a life of bechirah bachaim.
By recounting that scene, and picturing the se’irim on Yom Kippur, we, too, might access the same eternally timely thought. And resolve thereby to merit a gmar chasimah tovah.
© 2017 Hamodia
I had always thought that I knew the story of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz (or Mayence), whose poignant prayer-poem “U’nsaneh Tokef” is solemnly recited on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Several years ago, though, I discovered something about the account that I had overlooked, and was struck by the irony it holds.
The liturgical poem, of course, pictures the scene of the new year’s Divine judgment of all mortals, with the Ultimate Judge opening the book of their deeds, in which “the signature of every man” is inscribed and which “will read itself.” The judgment is pronounced: “who will live and who will die,” and how; who will “live undisturbed, and who in turmoil”; “who will be laid low, and who raised high.” It is a chilling passage to recite – and the haunting melody to which it is traditionally sung only adds to its poignancy, sending chills down any spine connected to a functioning head. And the prayer’s final words, “But repentance, prayer and charity remove the evil of the decree,” chanted loudly by the entire congregation, are a font of inspiration to be better in the coming days of the year just arrived.
The story behind the composition, as I had known it from the old machzor I had used as a teenager, was that a certain Rabbi Amnon, who lived in the 11th century, was pressured by the Archbishop of Mainz to convert to Christianity. The rabbi refused repeatedly but on one occasion asked for three days’ time to consider the offer, a stalling tactic he immediately regretted, as he realized he had given the clergyman hope that he might abandon his ancestral faith.
When Rabbi Amnon didn’t visit the clergyman at the end of the three days, he was forcibly taken to him. When it was clear that he would not waiver from his faith, the archbishop, deeply disappointed, had Rabbi Amnon’s fingers and toes amputated one by one, pausing before each drop of the sword to allow the rabbi to change his mind. He didn’t, and was returned to his home, along with his twenty amputated limbs.
On Rosh Hashana, Rabbi Amnon asked to be carried, along with his body parts, into the synagogue, and at an important point in the service, before Kedusha, asked the cantor to pause. The silent lull was broken by the tortured man’s intonation of U’nsaneh Tokef, after which he died. Several days later, another rabbi, Kalonymus ben Meshulam, had a dream in which Rabbi Amnon taught him the words of the prayer.
The account comes to us from the famous 13th century halachic work Ohr Zarua, written by Rabbi Yitzchok ben Moshe of Vienna. Several years ago I took the trouble to read the Ohr Zarua’s actual words recounting the event.
What I hadn’t known was that when Rabbi Amnon was brought before the archbishop, the rabbi told the clergyman that he wanted to be punished – not for refusing the Christian’s urging to convert but rather for giving the impression that he had even considered such a thing. “Cut out my tongue,” he told the archbishop. The clergyman, however, saw Rabbi Amnon’s sin as his refusal to come as he had promised, hence he chose his own punishment for the rabbi, the one that was meted out.
And so the priest, while he tortured the Jew grievously, left his victim’s tongue in place.
The Talmud teaches us that the Jew’s power lies not in his hands – that is Esav’s domain – but rather in his words, his prayer.
And, indeed, Rabbi Amnon, denied the excision of his tongue he had requested, went on to utilize it well – the result being U’nsaneh Tokef. The irony is striking. The part of his body he regretted having misused became the holy instrument of his contribution to Jewish liturgy, to Jewish life, to the inspiration of millions of Jews over the generations since.
And so all of us who, as we read the words Rabbi Amnon composed, are moved by them to make even some small change for the better in our lives in the new Jewish year are thereby contributing, across the centuries, to Rabbi Amnon’s personal repentance. And are joining, in small but real ways, in his sanctification of the name of G-d.
© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran
One of the most remarkable elements of Yom Kippur in ancient times, when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, was the ritual of “the Two Goats.”
Two indistinguishable members of that species were brought before the High Priest, who placed a randomly-pulled lot on the head of each animal. One lot read “to G-d” and the other “to Azazel” – the name of a steep cliff in a barren desert.
As the Torah prescribes, the first goat was solemnly sacrificed in the Temple, attention given to every detail of the offering; the second was taken to the cliff and thrown off, dying unceremoniously before even reaching the bottom.
Some moderns might find the fates of both goats troubling, but there are depths to Jewish rituals of which they don’t dream.
I lay no claim to conversance with those truly deep meanings. But pondering the “two goats” ritual before Yom Kippur (and anticipating its recollection during the day’s prayer-service), a thought occurs, and it may bear particular import for our times.
There are two ways to view human life, as mutually exclusive as they are fundamental. Our existence is either a result of intent, or of accident. And a corollary follows directly: Either our lives are meaningful, or they are not.
If the roots of our existence ultimately lie in pure randomness, there can be no more meaning to good and bad actions than to good or bad movies; no more import to right and wrong than to right and left. Human beings remain but evolved animals, their Mother Theresas and Adolf Hitlers alike. To be sure, we might conceive a rationale for establishing societal norms, but a social contract is only a practical tool, not a moral imperative; it is, in the end, artificial. Only if there is a Creator in the larger picture can there be ultimate import to human life, placing it on a plane meaningfully above that of mosquitoes.
The Torah, of course, is based on the foundation – and in fact begins with an account – of a Divinely directed creation; and its most basic message is the meaningfulness of human life. Most of us harbor a similar, innate conviction.
Yet some resist that innate feeling, and adopt the perspective that what we can perceive with our physical senses is all that there is in the end. The apparent randomness of nature, in that approach, leaves no place for Divinity. It is not a difficult position to maintain; the Creator may be well evident to those of us primed to perceive Him, but He has not left clear fingerprints on His Creation.
Might those two diametric worldviews be somehow reflected in the Yom Kippur ritual?
The goat that becomes a sacrifice on the Temple altar might symbolize recognition of the idea that humans are beholden to something greater. And the counter-goat, which finds its fate in a desolate, unholy place, would then allude to the perspective of life as pointless, lacking higher purpose or meaning.
It’s not an unthinkable speculation, especially in light of how the Azazel-goat seems to be described by the Torah – so strangely – as carrying away the sins of the people.
The traditional Jewish commentaries all wonder at that concept. Some, including Maimonides, interpret it to mean that the people will be spurred by the dispatching of the Azazel-goat to repent.
If, indeed, the Azazel-goat alludes to the mindset of meaninglessness, we might approach an understanding of the inspiration born of its dispatching. The animal’s being “laden with the sins” of the people might refer to the recognition that sin stems from insufficient recognition of how meaningful in fact are our lives. The Talmudic rabbi Resh Lakish in fact said as much when he observed [Sotah 3a] that “A person does not sin unless a spirit of madness enters him.”
And so the sending off of the Azazel-goat could be seen as an acknowledgement of the idea that sin’s roots lie in the madness born of our self-doubt. And those who witnessed its dispatchment might well have been spurred by that thought to then turn and consider the other goat, the one sacrificed in dedication to G-d. So stirred on the holiest day of the Jewish year, they might then have been able to better commit themselves to re-embracing the grand meaningfulness that is a human life.
We may lack the Two Goats ritual today, but we can certainly try all the same to absorb that eternally timely thought.
© 2010 Rabbi Avi Shafran
Your child damages a neighbor’s property, you feel responsible.
But that can mean two distinct things. Either, simply, that as the child’s parent you consider yourself where the buck stops.
Or it may mean something deeper. If the boy didn’t just accidentally hit a ball through the Jones’ picture window but rather aimed a rock at it – and had been influenced in his disregard for the property of others by some remarks you made – you should feel responsible in much more than the buck-stopping sense.
The Jewish concept of “arvus,” – the “interdependence” of all Jews – is sometimes understood as akin to the first, simple, sense of responsibility. Jews are to regard other Jews as family, and therefore to feel responsible for one another.
But, the celebrated Jewish thinker Rabbi E.E. Dessler teaches, Jews are responsible for one another in the word’s deeper sense too. When a Jew does something good, it reflects the entire Jewish people’s goodness. And the converse is no less true. Thus, when Achan, one man, misappropriated spoils after the first battle of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, the siege of Jericho, it is described as the sin of the entire people (Joshua, 7:1). Explains Rabbi Dessler: Had the people as a whole been sufficiently sensitive to the Divine commandment to shun the city’s spoils, Achan would never have been able to commit his sin.
The much publicized arrests last month of several Jews, amid a larger group, on a variety of financial charges caused all sensitive Jews acute embarrassment. But the vivid image of Jews – religious ones, no less – being carted off by federal agents needs to do something more than embarrass us. It needs to spur us.
Not because we have any right to assume the worst about the accused; we don’t. And if in fact there were violations of the law, we don’t know the circumstances, the motivations of the accused or even if they were aware of the pertinent laws (which might not make a difference to a trial judge but should to the rest of us). Trial by Tabloid is not Jewish jurisprudence.
But the images themselves must make us think. In particular about other, confirmed, cases of Jews – including religiously observant ones – who have in fact engaged in “white collar” crime. Not to mention several identifiably Jewish, if not particularly religious, Jews who have even achieved broad notoriety for their societal sins.
And so, the deeper concept of arvus leaves us to ponder the possibility that some less blatant and less outrageous – but still sinful – actions of other Jews, ourselves perhaps included, may have, little by little, provided a matrix on which greater sins subsequently came to grow.
Every child who received a Jewish education knows that even a small coin placed in a pushke, or charity box, is the fulfillment of a mitzvah, the commandment to give charity. It should be equally apparent, especially to all us grown-up children, that the misappropriation of even a similarly small amount of money is a sin.
And so Jews, whoever and wherever they are, who cut corners for financial gain – who underreport their income or avoid taxes illegally or are less than fully honest in their business dealings – contribute thereby to the thievery-matrix. And they bear responsibility, in however small the ways, for larger crimes committed by their fellows.
What is more, even those of us who are innocent of any financial indiscretions might also be unwitting contributors to the critical criminal mass. Because things other than money can also be “stolen.”
The Torah speaks, for example, about two forms of oppressive practices (ona’ah): financial (as in overcharging) and personal (as in causing pain to others with words). The Talmud also calls the act of misleading another person “stealing knowledge” (g’neivas da’as); and considers it “robbery” to not return another’s greeting. Halachic decisors, moreover, note the forbiddance to “steal sleep” – to wake someone unnecessarily or to keep him up when he wants to retire.
So even those of us whose financial ledgers are in order would do well to introspect. Are we sufficiently careful not to use words in hurtful ways, entirely meticulous in advice we offer, fully responsive to the good will of others, truly cautious about not disturbing their peace? If not, then we are – in a subtle but real way – part of the perp-walk picture ourselves.
Yom Kippur approaches. Jews the world over will repeatedly recite two confessional prayers, “Ashamnu” and “Al Chet Shechatanu.” Both, oddly, are in the first person plural. It is a collective “we” who have sinned. As the commentaries explain, that is because, among Jews, even sins of which the individual supplicant may be personally innocent, implicate us all.
© 2009 Rabbi Avi Shafran