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Chanukah Gelt

Filed under: Chanukah

Question: I know that the Dreidel game originated with children pretending to play with their spinning top, so the Greeks wouldn’t know that the adults inside were learning Torah. But, why do we give Chanukah Gelt (money)? What is the significance? How did it originate?

Answer: Chanuka is known as the holiday of Torah study – as it celebrates the victory of traditional Jewish living over the forces of modernizing and bringing Judaism in line with current trends. Therefore, it became a custom of supporting and encouraging Torah study by giving gifts to those who spend time in study. This evolved into Chanuka gelt.

All the Best, Rabbi Azriel Schreiber

The History of Potato Latkes

Filed under: Chanukah

Question: What is the history behind the custom of eating Potato Latkes [pancakes] on Chanuka? Were potatoes eaten by the Jews of the second Temple era?

Answer: Potatoes latkes [pancakes] are not involved in the story of Chanukah, and have only been part of the Chanukah scene for the past few hundred years. In fact, the potato was not even known to most of the world until the 16th Century. It is the oil that the latkes are fried in that is part of the Chanuka story. On Chanuka, Jews celebrate the open miracle of a one-day supply of consecrated, temple oil burning for eight days. The main commemoration of this wondrous event is to be found in the commandment to light the Chanuka candles. However, it is also customary to eat food fried in oil. Ergo, many eat the latke fried in oil.

All the Best,
Rabbi Azriel Schreiber

Jacob and Israel

Question: After Abraham’s and Sarah’s names were changed from “Abram” and “Sarai” to “Abraham” and “Sarah”, their old names are never used again in the Bible or in our literature. However, When Jacob’s name was changed to Israel why do both the Torah and our liturgy use both names (e.g. “Shema Yisrael” and “Beit Yaakov Lechu v’nelcha”) even after the name has been changed? Is there a rationale behind the different treatment of the names of Abraham and Sarah, and that of Jacob? Thank you.

Answer: The Rabbis draw a distinction between the two, that Abraham and Sarah’s names referred to their unfulfilled nature. Abram means he was “a father in Aram”, of the Arameans. Abraham means that he became “a father to all the nations”, after his circumcision. Sarai, likewise, means “my princess.” Sarah means a “princess of the world.” Thus, after their name change there was no reason to call them by their old names, and the Talmud says they should not be referred to by these names because it is demeaning.

Jacob, on the other hand, refers to one dimension of his nature- the more physical dimension. Jacob comes from the word “ekev,” or “heel,” meaning the lower part of his existence. Israel referes to an “officer of G-d,” or that “you fought against angels and were victorious,” the more spiritual side of his nature. These do not contradict one another; they are merely different dimensions. That is why he, and his children, are referred to by both names, depending on the context.

Take care,
Rabbi Ephraim Nisenbaum

Jacob’s fight with the Angel

Question: All of these questions bothered me for years. I tried looking in the commentaries with no great success…

Answer: I think your questions are wonderful, and I have struggled with (some of) them too. All I can do is to share some of my own thoughts; maybe you have more of your own. I’ve rearranged some of the questions.

Question:Why did Yaakov (Jacob) call the angel ‘elohim’? We don’t believe Gd would be incarnated in a human body Why did Yaakov name the place Peniel? If this is only a revelation of certain particular aspect of Gdliness, which aspect was it?

Answer: Elohim is a generic term in the Torah and Tanach for someone very powerful (see, for instance, Genesis 6(2) for princes and Exodus 22(7-8) for judges). So too for the name El.

Question: Did Yaakov know that the “man” he was fighting was an angel? Why is he called a man if clearly he is not?

Answer: I think this is the norm. Throughout Tanach (scripture), angels appear as human beings in prophetic visions, and are called “men”. Given that the Rambam (Maimonides) says that they are non-physical, this must be part of how the vision is presented to the prophet. Maybe it’s because as human beings, we expect to speak with other human beings.

Question: What lessons are we supposed to draw from Yaakov’s struggle if we aren’t told the purpose or the reason this fight took place? Did Yaakov know what the fight was about? Why aren’t we told what was the purpose of this fight?

Answer: He seems to have understood the fight better than I do! But it’s again very normal for prophetic visions in Tanach that the prophet doesn’t understand clearly what’s happening, at least at the beginning. Part of the vision is sorting this out. A very clear example is the story of Samson’s parents in Judges 13; they don’t seem to realize that it’s a prophetic vision till it’s all over. See also the meeting of Yosef and “the man” who sends him on the way to his brothers.

The truth is that there is a class of parts of the Torah which are very hard to read. Exodus 4, the story of the attack on Moshe as he returns to Egypt, is a really extreme example. I find it close to unreadable, and I can testify that my Rosh Yeshiva Rav Yaakov Weinberg z”l said that it is the hardest section in the Torah. But see also Exodus 33-34, where G-d reveals himself to Moshe, and tells him that “His face cannot be seen”. Rashi’s commentary explanations of the dialogue there are very difficult, with some questions following their answers. And the Ramban’s commentary says that that section has no simple reading.

These kinds of sections refer to connections between man and the divine, and all of them are really tough. Could be most of us “don’t know the math to follow nuclear physics”, if you know what I mean.

Here too in our story. My friend Rabbi David Fohrman had a very interesting observation: This section has almost no indications of which side is which. “He saw that he wasn’t able against him, and he touched him on the hollow of the thigh;” – who? “And the hollow of Yaakov’s thigh was wrenched” – Oh! Now we backtrack – So that means that the angel was the one who wasn’t able, and Yaakov was winning…

“He said to him, ‘Let me go, for the morning has risen.’ He answered, ‘I will not let you go, until you bless me.’ He said to him, ‘What is your name?” – who? “He said, Yaakov”. – Oh! So that means that the angel was the one who asked to be let go, and Yaakov is the one who asked for the blessing…

It’s all very remarkable. The identities of the two participants are blurred for most of the story. Perhaps that is why our sages saw this as principally a struggle between Yaakov and part of himself, against the yetzer hara. He was proving himself spiritually worthy to build the nation of Israel.

Question: Why would Yaakov accept a new name – Yisrael – from his enemy? Perhaps it wasn’t an enemy after all? How do the commentaries know it was Esau’s angel? Why did he ask an enemy for a blessing? What exactly was the blessing?

Answer: Maybe I should just stay with what I wrote already – these are good questions. But briefly: our sages say that Yaakov and Esav divided the universe in the womb – Esav got this world, Yaakov got the next. That says to me that Yaakov on some level represents the spiritual, and Esav (man of the field) represents the physical. I assume that the same is true for Esav’s “guardian angel”. This blessing, which Yaakov has been working to get and to earn his whole life, somehow represents Esav’s buy-in to the way the world is supposed to be run: the physical in service to the spiritual. And Yaakov is worthy to represent that. G-d will give Yaakov the same name a little bit later, but Esav needs to acknowledge it for the blessing to be complete.

Question: How come the angel didn’t know Yaakov’s name? Wasnt he sent by Gd test Yaakov?

Answer: I thought the question was rhetorical: he needed Yaakov to give his old name, and he would give him an upgrade.

Question: Can an angel bless anyone without being commanded by Hashem? Why would it matter to an angel if the night ends? Especially if he was Gd’s messenger?

Answer: Rashi says that the angel had to “sing shirah”, songs to Gd, in the morning. Rav Gedalia Schorr z”l has a fascinating explanation of this. He asks, was it just bad luck for the angel that his turn came up just as Yaakov was holding him prisoner? Seems kind of silly. But what’s actually happening is that this angel fulfilled his purpose for the first time in history. His job is to test mankind, to help us grow to greatness by struggling against him. Yaakov was the first person who won. That’s why the angel wanted to sing shirah: for the first time, he had fulfilled his purpose and his destiny.

And of course the angel could never bless anyone without Hashem’s command. It’s just that he has an unusual job: he’s the one who tests us. Occasionally, he gets to give out a diploma. (See also the first chapter of Job, where the Heavenly Hosts assemble before G-d – and the Accusing Angel is among them.)

Question: Why is the word “tzela” understood as a vein? or a tendon while in the portion of Bereishis its translated as “rib”?

Answer: This question is a little confusing. The vein or tendon is called “gid”, which always means something like tendon. “Tzoleya” here refers to Yaakov limping on his side, and indeed “tzela” always means “side”. See, for instance, numerous references in Exodus 26 to “tzela hamishkan”, the side of the mishkan.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

Praying for the Impossible

Filed under: Prayer and Blessings

Question: Having read the touching story of Abraham and Sarah’s, faith in G-d’s promise of a child, I must ask you: Can a woman above fifty years old, with a complete hysterectomy, who never gave birth, resign to renounce to pray for a child, and give up hope that G-d may decide, one day, to grant her prayer, without necessarily being exactly a Sarah, Rebbeca, Leah, Rachel, or Hannah?

Answer: Generally, our prayers should be for that which is within the range of possible. Prayer is like rain. It can cause the tree to grow, but it does not create a tree where there was none. There is a famous question regarding the blessing that Jacob gave to his grandsons, Menashe and Ephraim. He gives the greater blessing to Ephraim, the younger brother, over Menashe, the firstborn. Jacob explains that he is doing so because there will be a greater descendant from Ephraim (Joshua) than from Menashe (Yiftach). The question is why didn’t he bless Menashe that Joshua should be his descendant, or that Yiftach should be greater than Joshua? The answer is that blessings, like prayers, are meant to bring to fruition that which exists in potential, but it is not designed to change potential. He blessed Ephraim so that Joshua could emerge and become reality, but he did not approach reality as though reality needed to be changed.

My blessing and prayer for you is that you leave this world after 120 filled with the good deeds that you will be creating during your life for. As our Rabbis teach us: the real legacy of a person are the deeds that he or she has done during their lifetime. May you see the fulfillment of the verse in Isaiah 56:5.

With Blessings,
Rabbi Ephraim Becker

What does Esau’s blessing mean?

Question: What is is meant by the blessing Issac grants to Esau when he says, “The fat places of the earth can still be your dwelling, and [you can still have] the dew of heaven.”

Answer: Jacob was given the great blessing of being the leader of the Jewish people. Esau was also given a blessing; he would lead a nation as well. According to Jewish tradition, Esau’s offspring ended up creating the “western civilization” known as Rome. Esau represented the physical world, and Western Civilization have become the masters of that world. He stood for and put his stock in the physical, the here and now, instead of the spiritual and the mystical. This is evidenced by his selling of the birthright for what he called the “red stuff” – the lentil soup. I hope that this puts Esau into perspective for you.

Rabbi Litt

Importance of the First Born

Question: What is the importance of the first born?

Answer:  The first born have been important since earliest times; Abel sacrificed the first born of his flock (Gen.4:4), G-d smote the Egyptian first born (Ex.11:4ff), and we are commanded to sanctify the first born of both people and animals (Ex.13:1). But most of the key Biblical figures were younger sons: Isaac, who was Ishmael’s younger brother; Jacob, who was Esau’s younger (twin) brother; Joseph, who was Jacob’s second youngest son; and Ephrayim, who was Menasheh’s younger brother (Gen.:48). Apparently, in spite of the fact that the first born were traditionally important, and they still require redemption and inherit a double portion (Deut. 21:17), they often don’t become the leaders.

All the Best,
Rabbi Azriel Schreiber 

How Could Jacob Steal the Blessings?

Question: What is the rational for the means justifying the ends with regard to Jacob stealing Esau’s blessing from their father Isaac. Why does the conspiracy between Jacob and Rebekah toward Isaac, and Esau, succeed?

Answer: Your question looks simple, but it is in reality quite complex, and could easily consume the pages of a large book. I’m not going to write that much but I’ll give you a few basics. G-d’s plan for the world was that Esau support Yaacov (Jacob) so that Yaacov could be free to study and undertake G-d’s priestly duties. To do this Esau and Yaacov would each receive the appropriate blessing. These are serious blessings through which necessary G-dly assistance would be received.Esau however was not going to adhere to his end of the bargain. Yaacov would not be able to survive over the long run without the assistance of Esau, UNLESS he had that Bracha (blessing). The fact of the matter is that Esau offered to sell the Bracha for a cheap price, because Esau did not see spiritual value, and Yaacov’s purchase makes the idea of theft merely philosophical discussion material. When Yaacov switched places with Esau it was to make sure Esau did not prevent him from receiving the Bracha he had already purchased.

In all of this G-d was orchestrating the sequence of events. Rivka (Rebecca) and Yaacov both had high prophetic abilities and understood Esau. Yitzchak (Isaac) was also a Navi (prophet) but was blinded by his son’s demeanor, as Esau’s greatest attribute was the honor in which he held his parents. In the world outside that honor however, he was a different person. Rivka and Yaacov knew this; Yitzchak did not, or would not accept it.

It was therefore a conspiracy of right over evil. Nevertheless, G-d runs the world on the basis of “Middah Knegged Middah,” more commonly known as, “what goes around comes around.” Since Yaacov committed this conspiracy, other conspiracies would be committed against him later on

And there you have an introduction,
Eliahu Levenson

Rabbi Avraham Danzig

Question: Who was Rabbi Avraham Danzig?

Answer: Rabbi Avraham Danzig was born in Danzig, Poland (which today is known as Gdansk). He studied in Prague. It appears that he lived in Vilna for most of his life where he served as a dayan – judge. However, until very late in his life he never accepted money for his religious activities but earned his livelihood as a merchant.

He was the author of several works. The most famous of his works are the Chayei Adam and the Chochmas Adam. Chayei Adam deals with the laws of daily conduct, prayer, Sabbath, and holidays, the laws discussed in the Orech Chaim section of the Shulchan Aruch. Together with the Chayei Adam he published Nishmas Adam, in which he discusses the halachic issues in greater depth. Chochmas Adam discusses the laws of kashrus and other issues discussed in the Yoreh Deah section of the Shulchan Aruch. Together with Chochmas Adam he published Binas Adam, which parallels the Nishmas Adam published with the Chayei Adam.

Both of these works gained very widespread popularity and have become standard sources for halachic study. In fact, throughout Europe groups began to form called Chevros Chayei Adam which were devoted to the study of Chayei Adam. (There were many such chevros – associations. For example, practically every town had a Chevra Shas – devoted to the study of the Talmud.)

While today the Chayei Adam has been somewhat superseded as a general standard later works, like Kitzur Shulchan Aruch and Mishna Berurah, the Chayei Adam and Chochmas Adam remain important works which are widely studied.

In addition to these two works for which he is best known, Rabbi Danzig also wrote other books. Among these: Zichru Toras Moshe – an introduction to the laws of Shabbos, Kitzur Sefer Chareidim – an abridgment of the classic Sefer Chareidim by Rabbi Elazar Ezkari, Toldos Adam – a commentary on the Passover Hagadah.

He also mentions a work titled Shaarei Tzedek in his introduction to Zichru Toras Moshe, but I have not yet been able to determine what this book is about.

All the Best,
Rabbi Azriel Schreiber

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