Project Genesis

Elijah and Passover

Filed under: Passover

Question: Would you explain the tradition of the empty chair for Elijah at the Passover table?

Answer: The most common tradition is to have a cup for Elijah the Prophet at the table that is usually filled with wine near the end of the Seder. I’ve never seen anyone designate a seat for Elijah, but I have seen the tradition cited in a book of customs called “Minhag Yisrael Torah”. There is a common tradition to designate a seat for Elijah at a circumcision.

There are many reasons given for the cup of Elijah at the Passover table. Many people say that it’s because Elijah visits everyone’s Passover Seder. Now, I have never personally seen Elijah come, nor have I heard of anyone who has. In fact, I’m told that some people shake the table to spill the wine in Elijah’s cup a bit (as a joke, I’m sure) to make it appear as if Elijah came and sipped the wine a bit. I would expect Elijah the Prophet to clean up if he made a mess! This rumor that he visits is actually brought in the same book of customs cited above, but it is understood in a spiritual sense – in terms that I, unfortunately, barely understand.

Here’s a simpler explanation cited for the custom: At this point in the Seder we pour a new cup of wine to carry out, at least symbolically, our announcement at the opening of the Hagadah, “All those who are in need, come and eat!” The new cup is prepared for a guest who would come. At this time when we recount the redemption of the Jews from Egypt in the Hagadah we also express our hope for the future redemption with the coming of the Messiah. The tradition is that Elijah the Prophet will be the one to announce the coming of Messiah. In fact, there’s a tradition that Messiah will come in the month in which Passover occurs – “Nissan” on the Jewish calendar. The cup is called “Elijah’s Cup” to express our hope that our guest will be Elijah himself coming to inform us of Messiah’s coming and the rebuilding of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. This theme of the future redemption rings throughout the Hagadah, and is stated explicitly at the beginning and the end in the words “Next Year in Jerusalem!”

All the Best,
Rabbi Mordechai Dixler

Four Questions and the Youngest Child

Filed under: Passover

Question: Why does the youngest child always ask the 4 questions on Passover?

Answer: Our Rabbis tell us that the reason that it is the youngest who asks the four questions, is so that he/she will remain an active participant in the Seder, for after all – the main idea of this Seder is “Hagada” -  to tell over the story of our heritage to future generations. Indeed, many of the activities done at the Seder, both traditional, and of new traditions, are designed to keep the little ones involved. The Afikomen (eating of the last Matzah), the opportunity given to each child to exhibit his /her projects from school (and to see where all our tuition money goes!) and another activity I have seen as of late, the plastic set of plagues that help re-enact the story. Yes, the Seder is geared around the children, so that we may “Pass” “OVER” our story and heritage to them.

But this is by no means the end of the story. Our rabbis pose the question, what if there are no children present to ask the question. Well then, they say – the adults say it. And even with children present, it need not be only the youngest one reciting, rather everyone gets a turn, with the youngest going first for a change. In my house, we have a United nations session, as the questions are chanted in Hebrew, English, French, Yiddish, and Russian. Because no matter where they are located, all Jews need hear the message.

And what if one has the unfortunate situation where he / she is alone for the Seder. Surely he/she is not going to sleep. There is no one present to answer the question! Nonetheless, it is written that the questions must be asked and answered, even if the questioner and asker are the same person.

The message of the “Hagadah” aka, “the book of telling” is clear: our responsibility is to give over the message to our young ones, to each other, and to ourselves. Perhaps on a deeper level, the idea of the youngest one represents the fact that it is the youth among us who are still willing to hear the new messages imparted to them, while adults are entrenched in their ways, and are often too jaded to make any change. Perhaps the Torah is telling us that we must all find the youth inside of us, the experiences we shared as children, and the fond memories we have of the holiday.

It is no coincidence that in this era of rabid assimilation, the vast majority still attend some form of Seder celebration. Passover, more than any other holiday, carries with it the most traditions and rituals, ones that can be passed down from parent to child. We remember Bubby’s Matzah balls, and how Zaidy stole the Afikomen. The burning of the Chametz (leavened bread), and the fight over who opened the door for Elijah. These are the types of rituals that stick within us, they are “the youngest child within us” and they resonate within us even today. Because without concrete rituals and memories, without a framework by which to transmit our heritage, then all we are left with are “cardiac Jews”, Jews at heart. Our century has proven time and again, that it is not enough to be a Jew at heart. We need to look to the youngest, both externally and internally and make the spark of our nation come alive.

Rabbi Mark Nenner

Maror - Bitter Herbs

Filed under: Passover

Question: Why do we eat the Maror (Bitter Herbs) on Passover?

Answer: God commanded us to eat 3 foods on the first night of Passover to remember 3 aspects of the miraculous way we were freed from Egyptian slavery. The Matzah reminds us of the instantaneous way hundreds of thousands of slaves were freed. The roasted lamb (which we do not eat nowadays since the lamb must be slaughtered on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem) reminds us that our freedom was in order to serve God, and the Marror reminds us of the bitter days of slavery.

All the Best,
Rabbi Azriel Schreiber

Constructive Slander

Question: In a meeting yesterday in trying to explain my husbands mentality, I’m afraid I spoke Loshon Hara (slanderous speech) on people I never knew and are no longer alive. If my husband would know it would be a disaster…. What can I do to correct what I’ve done (Teshuva)? 

Answer: Thank you for your question. The prohibition of Loshon Hara is specifically when you are spreading negative information for no constructive purpose. If there was a purpose in sharing that information, even if only to seek advice from others, it is allowed, and no Teshuvah is necessary. If this is not the case, then appropriate acts of Teshuvah would be to donate more charity than usual, to study the laws of Shemiras HaLashon (guarding your speech), and to help familiarize others regarding these laws.

Take care,
Rabbi Aaron Tendler

Leprosy in the Bible

Filed under: Jewish Texts

Question: Where is leprosy mentioned in the Bible?

Answer: “Leprosy” is mentioned in the Bible in many places. The principal place in the Torah is Lev.13-14, but see also Ex.4:6, Num.5:2 and 12:10, and 2 Kings 5:1, 7:3 and 15:5. The people specifically mentioned are Moses (Ex.4:6), Miriam (Num. 12:10), Na’aman (a Syrian general; 2 Kings 5:1), Gehazi (Elisha’s servant; 2 Kings 5:27 [the Rabbis say that the four lepers in 2 Kings 7:3 were Gehazi and his three sons.]), and Azariah (King of Judah; 2 Kings 15:5).

All the Best,

Rabbi Azriel Schreiber

The Obligation to Pray in Scriptures

Filed under: Prayer and Blessings

Question: Where in the tanakh does G-d tell us that we should pray? Where is the institution of prayer? I would like any and all references to prayer in the scriptures as possible.

Answer: I’m afraid I can’t go through the whole Tanakh (the Bible, the Torah, Prophets/nevi’im and Writings/ketuvim), but let me remind you of a couple of prayers:

1) Moses to HaShem regarding the tzaaras or “leprosy” which popped out on his sister Miriam. He cried to HaShem, “Heal her now, O G’d, I beseech You.” Numbers 12:13.

2) The Prayer of Yabeez or Jabeez, as it may be transliterated, 1 Chronicles 4:10 et seq.

We do some outreach to non-Jews and I often find myself having to discuss the nature of prayer: HaShem already knows what you’ve got in mind but by addressing the invisible, ineffable, infinite Master of the Universe and humbly submitting your will to His, recognizing His mastery and your own – shall we say limited? – role in Creation, you refine yourself, educate yourself, and make yourself more worthy of His kind attention. To ask Him for something worthy, too, is elevating. To associate yourself w/ the larger community in your prayer, w/ the good of others and not just your own good, is also enriching.

In general, the more you make your will G’d’s will, the more likely He will make your will His will. Proper prayer puts you on the side of the underlying metaphysical principles that underlie all reality; please believe me when I tell you that you’re a lot more likely to win G’d’s favor and get Him to answer your petitions to Him when you deliberately put yourself on G’d’s side, than when you stand opposed to His will or remain heedless of the spiritual principles at the root of Creation and expect Him to rush to YOUR side simply because you’re supposedly so deserving.

We get people to study the Hebrew prayers – that is, the ancient prayers/liturgy found in the Hebrew prayerbook, or siddur (literally, the “order” or arrangement – to learn great moral, spiritual and philosophical truths, about where one “stands w/ G’d,” because the siddur’s prayers, which have, mostly, been accepted for millenia by the whole community of observant Israel, are designed and serve to teach you exactly where you stand vis-a-vis HaShem. They’re designed for your enlightenment and for your spiritual, emotional, philosophical and mental growth.

HaShem affirmatively desires the prayers of His creatures, the Torah teaches….

You should know that Moses wasn’t somehow magically limited to a written text – the text of the Five Books that make up the core of the Bible – when he tried to pass His Torah knowledge down to Israel. He also had the power of the spoken word. He also had the power of show-and-tell, as you might put it. He did all he could and used every conceivable medium to convey his Torah-knowledge to the People of Israel, so that the People of Israel would keep the Torah alive and vital FOREVER… you should understand that the Written Scripture serves only like an outline to the much, much larger so-called Oral Torah, or the Torah and the Talmud and the Midrashim, including the collective historical, spiritual, moral, ethical, and cosmological knowledge of the People of Israel… it’s pretty ridiculous to think that the Written Torah is the only Torah, the only part of the holy Way or Teaching that Moses left to Israel, that Moses for some reason limited himself in his Torah conveyances…

But, you know, this should be enough to hold you for now. Thanks for your attention!


Tzaraas, the Biblical Skin Blemish

Question: Is the Torah’s description of Tzaraas, skin blemishes, related to our own negative impurities, pertaining to our character and behavior, in which we need to purge from our soul, in preparation for following the Torah?

Answer: It’s an interesting thought. The spiritual affliction of Tzaraas, according to the Talmud, is associated with the following sins: evil speech, murder, taking an oath in vain, forbidden sexual relations, haughtiness, stealing, and miserly behavior. This affliction does not occur nowadays due to our collective fall in spiritual level. When it did occur, though, it was more than just a preparation for Torah. The afflicted was kept out of all communal life. Tzaraas, therefore, can be seen as a means to warn us from doing those things which would keep us from being an Am Kadosh, a holy nation.

All the Best,
R’ Daniel Fleksher

Jewish Ritual for the Skeptical

Question:  A friend of mine is disgruntled with organized religions. He believes that all the festivals and rituals and holidays are antiquated nonsense. When asked why Jews needed the rituals and festivals and what relevance they held in order to be able to commune with G-d, I was stumped. I thought of many reasons why but could not put it simply for him. How would/should I approach this question?

Answer: Judaism encourages questioning, but the reason for a question is to receive an answer. If someone is asking, but is not willing to listen to an answer, for some other reason, no answer will satisfy them. There is a story told about one of the students of the great Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman, (one of the holy martyrs of the Holocaust, Dean of Baranovitch Yeshiva in Poland, and leading student of Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, revered author of Chafetz Chaim). This student had left the fold of Judaism and married a non-Jewish woman, and came back to his former teacher to ask some philosophical questions, hoping to undermine the Torah. Rabbi Wasserman answered with another question, “did you have these questions before or after you fell in love with this woman?” The former disciple was seeking only questions, not answers, and no answer would satisfy him because he was blinded by his lust. Thus, questions are encouraged, but only when they are actually seeking an answer.

However, hearing such questions are valuable for us who do seek answers, because it makes us think and delve deeper into the Torah, the word of G-d.

To begin, the reason we fulfill the Torah’s commandments is because G-d said so. The experience at Sinai was unique in the annals of both history and lore. Whereas other faiths claim a starting point with the revelation to an individual or a small group, the Torah religion had its start at Mount Sinai, with millions of people simultaneously experiencing prophecy. When one contemplates this, he realizes that such an event could not have been falsified logically and accepted subsequently. The fact that this claim was accepted as true by the decedents of those who were present attests to its validity. To put it simply, if someone claimed to see a “flying saucer” when he was alone in the wilderness, the listener could take it or leave it, because logic neither affirms nor dismisses his claim. However, if someone claimed millions of people saw a “flying saucer” and heard a message from its pilot, you would say “I would have heard about it from more than one person, not just you; I would have heard about it in the media, from my friends, etc., just as when I hear about any major event”. Then, if someone said “don’t you remember seeing it just now”, or “your parents saw it”, etc., then for sure you would only believe it if it really happened. Therefore, the fact that the claim was made in the Torah that millions of people experienced prophecy at Sinai, and the fact that it has been believed and accepted for over three millennia, by people all over the world, of many different faiths and traditions, seems to indicate that indeed the unique claim of national revelation at Sinai is true. Furthermore, the Torah predicts that this event is unique in both history and lore, which indicates that not only did this event actually happen, but it was actually G-d Himself Who made it happen and authored the Torah.

Thus, whatever the Torah says is logical to accept, because it is logical that the Torah is truly the word of G-d.

However, the Torah realizes that this may be sufficient for our intellect, yet G-d created us as complex beings, and emotion and enjoyment is valuable to us as well as human beings. We know that we need to eat for nutrition, however we also enjoy the food we eat, whether it be the taste, texture, appearance, fragrance, etc. If we would swallow nutritious pills, we would survive, but we would lack a vital enjoyment that our psyche requires. However, if we would eat delicious items that had no nutritious value we might enjoy the experience, but we would not gain anything out of it—the main reason for eating. Therefore, we need both aspects of food, the nutrition and the enjoyment, however the main reason is the nutrition. There is a genre of Torah literature known as “Taamei HaMitzvos”, which is usually translated as “reasons for the commandments”. However, there are additional words in Hebrew which mean “reason” or “cause”. The word “taam” has another connotation – “taste” or “flavor”. Therefore, these books explain to us the emotional aspect of the commandments, similar to the flavor of food, because the “cause” or “reason” is simply that G-d said so, similar to the nutrition of the food. The Torah says, the reason is for our own good, because G-d wants to reward us with the greatest reward, which can only come through effort, rather than free gifts, and thus the fact that G-d said so is sufficient.

One of the classic volumes on “Taamei HaMitzvos” is a book entitled “Sefer HaChinuch”, the “Book of Education”, first published in 13th Century Spain by Rabbi Aaron HaLevi. This book goes through the 613 commandments in the order they appear in the Bible, and explains the “taam” for each one. (The book is also available in English).

The Chinuch separately discusses each of the 613 commandments, both from a legal and a moral perspective. For each, the discussion starts by linking the mitzvah to its Biblical source, and then addresses the philosophical underpinnings of the commandment (termed the “Shoresh“, or “root”). Following this, the Chinuch presents a brief overview of the practical Jewish law governing its observance – usually based on Maimonides – and closes with a summary as to the commandment’s applicability.

Concerning the commandment to rejoice on the holiday of Sukkos (Tabernacles), the Chinuch explains that just as human beings have a need to eat, drink, marry, have shelter, etc. so too all human beings have a need for fun and enjoyment. Therefore, the Torah commands us at certain intervals to find this fun and enjoyment with G-d, as the Psalmist exhorts us to “Serve the Lord with joy”, and explains that “Joy and strength are in His Place”.

However, ultimately, there are some things that can not be captured in the written word. I could write forever, both in prose as above or even in the higher level of poetry as well, but never capture the actual experience of celebrating the Sabbath and Holidays according to the Torah, or the actual experience of prayer, with *tallis* and *tefillin, or the experience of immersing in a *mikveh. I could write about it, talk about it, even think about it, but never actually capture it. These can only be ultimately captured in their actual experience and practice. Therefore it was natural that you were stumped when trying to “put it simply”, because the only way to do so is by actually living the experience, as these are things that far, far transcend the confines of words. Words are only the boxes the Torah, and thus life, comes in (in Hebrew, the word *”teivah*” means both “word” and “box”). But we need to receive the package that comes in the box and open them up with actual experience, following the instructions of course, to even begin to understand.

With blessings of “living outside of the box”,
J. Kolakowski

Humility vs. Responsibility

Question: Two Jewish values are humility on the one hand, and taking responsibility on the other. While it may be important to shy away from honors and the limelight, it’s also important to take responsibility when duty calls. Moses is known as the humblest of all men. When G-d asks him to go to Pharaoh to ask that he let the Jews free, he’s reluctant to take the responsibility. Isn’t this misplaced humility – considering the physical lives of the Jewish slaves that are at stake and the spiritual dimension of bringing them to Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah?

Answer: True humility has little to do with the concept in the secular world. I guess the secular version of humility means something like “lying so as not to appear vain”. Both the speaker and the listeners understand that he doesn’t really mean it, that he can’t, because his humble words are not true – but it’s polite. The ideal is if the person actually convinces himself of what he’s saying; otherwise it’s called “false humility”.

The Torah concept is entirely different. The person can be fully cognizant of his special abilities. The only thing is, he understands that all those abilities are given to him by Hashem (G-d). He is a vessel for them; his goal is to use what Hashem gave him in his service. This is why the classic work Chovas Hal’vovos, in his chapter on Humility, says an amazing thing: that one of the characteristics of humility is to act strongly and fiercely in defense of G-d’s values. If a person doesn’t do that, he’s not really humble at all – he’s just feeble!

Given all this, I think that your question is really excellent. Why would Moses try to refuse the job of leading the redemption of Israel? He was the best man for the job. Once he took the job, he was very tough when he needed to be. He stood up for G-d’s honor, and he fought his wars.

I think this is why our Sages understood that Moses had a very different motivation. During their discussion, G-d says to Moses that his brother Aaron is coming out to meet him, and will “see him and be happy in his heart”. Why mention that? The Sages explain that Aaron had been the leader of the people, and Moses was very concerned that his brother not feel upstaged (as so many older brothers had felt throughout the book of Genesis). Once Hashem reassured him that there was nothing to worry about, he resisted no more.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

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