Parshat Yitro: The Top Ten?

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Shmot, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers


Finally God commences the process of Revelation with the transmission of the Ten Declarations to the Israelites: “I am the Lord your God…; You shall have no other gods before Me…; Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain…; Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy…; Honor your father and your mother…; Do not murder; Do not commit adultery; Do not steal; Do not bear false witness against your friend; Do not covet….”

While the Ten Declarations are clearly singled out as the dramatic opening communication of Revelation, the rabbis in the Talmud debate as to how they were actually communicated. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi and Rabbi Yishmael maintain that the first two declarations (“I am the Lord…” and “You shall have no other gods before Me…”) were spoken by God directly to the nation, while the eight other principles were transmitted through Moshe. Their colleagues disagree, arguing that all ten principles were communicated directly by God to the people.


Whatever position we accept concerning their transmission, the very existence of these Ten Declarations as a unit creates a serious philosophical problem.

In total, God transmits to the Israelites six hundred thirteen commandments over the course of Moshe’s career. While some of these commandments might seem to us more important than others, in reality we have no way of judging the significance of specific mitzvot. Obedience to God demands that we treat all of the commandments with equal seriousness.

Why, then, does God single out ten mitzvot from among the six hundred thirteen for specific emphasis? Does He not, by doing so, create a hierarchical structure within the commandments as a whole? Why, in addition, does the Torah refer to these ten commandments in this context as dibrot (declarations)? Why not use the usual terms mitzvot (commandments), chukim (edicts), or mishpatim (statutes)?

The danger created by the singling out of these ten principles actually becomes evident later in Jewish history. While the Mishna states that the Ten Declarations were recited as part of the daily service in the Temple, the Talmud testifies that their recitation was later abrogated by the rabbis because of the attacks of heretics who claimed that only these ten principles, and not six hundred thirteen, were actually commanded by God.

Once again, therefore, we are forced to ask: why does God single out these principles for emphasis if all the Torah’s laws are divinely ordained?


The amount of literature written concerning the Ten Declarations is vast, and a full analysis is certainly well beyond the scope of our study. We will, instead, choose a few general thoughts from among the myriad of ideas suggested by the rabbis as to why these ten principles are singled out for emphasis.


While the Ten Declarations are mitzvot themselves, they can also be seen as chapter headings for the other six hundred three commandments. Numerous scholars maintain that, properly categorized, all six hundred thirteen commandments of the Torah can be subsumed under the rubric of the Ten Declarations.

This idea may well be reflected in the well-known debate between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva concerning the manner in which the six hundred thirteen mitzvot of the Torah were transmitted. Rabbi Yishmael maintains that the general principles of the law were transmitted at Sinai while the specifics were only given later to Moshe in the Sanctuary. Rabbi Akiva disagrees, arguing that both generalities and particulars were transmitted to Moshe at Sinai.

Both of these scholars, however, agree that the mitzvot were conveyed with distinctions between general principle and specific detail. The Ten Declarations can therefore be understood as an introductory overview to Jewish law which is then followed by detailed analysis.

With deliberate planning, God unveils the Torah step by step, so as to highlight both purpose and procedure. From this point on, His chosen nation will be challenged to blend detailed observance with overarching vision, to make lofty ideals concrete through painstaking ritual practice.

Before revealing the myriad details that will comprise the obligations upon the Israelites, therefore, God grants His people a glimpse of the law’s ultimate objectives. The purpose of the six hundred thirteen mitzvot will be to create a society that truly lives by the fundamental principles outlined in the Ten Declarations. With the vision of these principles before them always, the Israelites will never lose sight of the goals towards which their religious practice must lead.

At the same time, however, God embeds the entirety of the law within the Ten Declarations. The only way to really live by these overarching principles is to bring them to life through concrete, detailed daily observance.

The Midrash goes a step further by suggesting that the inclusion of all six hundred thirteen mitzvot in the Ten Declarations is symbolically referenced in the text itself.

The number of letters in the passage containing these principles equals six hundred thirteen plus seven – representing, says the Midrash, the total number of commandments plus the seven days of creation. Through the text of the Ten Declarations, God hints to the fact that the purpose of creation is now revealed in the unfolding commandments of the Torah.


The structure of the Ten Declarations carries significant lessons as well. According to most authorities, these laws were transmitted by God in two columns of five principles each, as follows:
1. I am the Lord your God…                                              6. Do not murder
2. You shall have no other gods before Me…                   7. Do not commit adultery
3. Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain…   8. Do not steal
4. Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy…               9. Do not bear false witness against your friend
5. Honor your father and your mother…                           10. Do not covet…

Careful study of these columns reveals striking patterns:

1. The principles found in the first column are mitzvot bein adam la’Makom (laws between man and God), while the declarations in the second column are mitzvot bein adam l’chaveiro (laws between man and his fellow man).

This distinction between laws governing our relationship with God and laws governing our relationship with man establishes, from the moment of Revelation, the majestic scope of Jewish law. Halacha governs every aspect of human activity and shapes each of the manifold relationships that we establish throughout our lives. The complete Jew is one who, in the words of King Shlomo, finds “favor and good understanding in the eyes of God and of man.”

One principle, however, seems out of place. Why is “Honor your father and your mother” included in the series of laws governing our relationship with God? Shouldn’t this principle be categorized among the edicts shaping our behavior towards those around us?

By including “Honor your father and mother” in the first set of declarations, the Torah underscores the unique nature of the parent-child bond within the panoply of human relationships. In many ways, our parents are God’s representatives within our world. They partner with God in our physical creation and they are the bearers of the divinely inspired traditions, values and practices that are meant to shape our lives.When we honor our father and mother, we honor the God with Whom they partner and Whose traditions they bear.

2. The first five commandments are specific to the Israelites while the second set is universal in scope.

As His chosen nation is forged at Sinai, God underscores a familiar defining balance first struck centuries earlier. At the dawn of Jewish history, the patriarch Avraham turned to his neighbors and declared: Ger v’toshav anochi imachem, “I am a stranger and a citizen together with you.” With these words the first patriarch delineated the tension essential to his descendents’ self-definition across the ages – a tension which, as we have seen, is reiterated over and over again as Jewish history unfolds (see Bereishit: Chayei Sara 1, Approaches E, F; Bo 3, Approaches H).

The Jew is, at once, “apart from” and “a part of” the society around him.

Echoing across the generations from the dawn of the patriarchal era to the dawn of the national era, this pivotal balance is reflected in the very structure of the Ten Declarations. God’s chosen people will only fulfill their ongoing role as a “light unto the nations” through constant, careful calibration between the exclusive and universal components of their own identity. Throughout their history, they will be challenged to map out a path allowing them to maintain their individuality even as they contribute to the world.

Once again, however, the commandment of “Honor your father and your mother” seems to be in the wrong column. Isn’t respecting one’s parents a universal obligation?

By placing this mitzva among the obligations specific to the Israelites, God underscores the overwhelming importance of the parent-child relationship within Jewish experience. This bond is the singular foundation upon which Jewish continuity rests. Central to the revolution wrought by the patriarchs and matriarchs was the determination that the home, rather than outside society, would raise their progeny. From that time on, the family has been the single most important educational unit in the survival of the Jewish people and the perpetuation of their heritage (see Bereishit: Vayechi 4, Approaches B).

As the Jewish nation is forged through God’s Revelation, the centrality of the home is underscored once again.

3. The Declarations are deliberately arranged into parallel columns of five so as to create pairs, each pair consisting of one mitzva from column A and one from column B. The mitzvot of each pair are thematically connected, each mitzva informing and elaborating upon its mate.

The Midrash offers this analysis:

“I am the Lord your God…” is paired with “Do not murder.” Each man, created in the image of God, is of inestimable value. If one individual murders another, he diminishes God’s presence in the world.

“You shall have no other gods before me…” is paired with “Do not commit adultery.” An individual guilty of idolatry betrays his relationship with God.

“Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain…” is paired with “Do not steal.” Theft is the first step on a path that inevitably leads to denial and false vows.

“Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy…” is paired with “Do not bear false witness against your friend.” By desecrating the Shabbat, an individual renders false testimony. His actions implicitly declare that God neither created the world nor rested on the seventh day.

“Honor your father and your mother…” is paired with “Do not covet…” A child reared in an environment of jealousy and bitterness will eventually denigrate his own parents and covet the parents of others.

Other suggestions concerning the significance of the paired declarations are offered by scholars across the generations.


In summary: the Ten Declarations are, in fact, ten mitzvot out of six hundred thirteen.

In their dramatic context at the moment of Revelation, however, these commandments are invested with heightened significance. They are transformed into “Declarations,” introducing the Israelites to the detailed laws that will follow and establishing fundamental principles that will course through those laws.

Parshat Beshalach: What Makes A Jewish Song Jewish

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Exodus, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books

What Makes a Jewish Song Jewish?¹

In discussing the theme of this sermon, “What Makes a Jewish Song Jewish?,” I speak as a rabbi, not as a musician or connoisseur of the arts. I believe that in addition to the artistic qualities of a song, or any work of art, there are also certain ethical or moral or religious matters which contribute to its greatness and Jewishness. This week, Shabbat Shira – the Sabbath on which the Song of Moses is read – is an opportune time to delve into those other-than-technical matters which make songs like Az Yashir great and Jewish.

There are three prerequisites for, or pragmatic tests of, a great Jewish song. Th e first two of these are universal; that is, they are the marks of greatness which distinguish any truly superior song or chant. The third is the particularly Jewish aspect. And it is the three of these, taken together, which make for a song such as Az Yashir, which is both great from a universal point of view, and invaluably holy from a Jewish point of view.

The first requirement is that it have meaning for all times. It must be as appropriate for any future generation as it is for the one in which it was written. It must outgrow local character and provincial significance and overflow into the stream of time, the stream of eternity. For a truly great song to be immortal, it must be eternal. The phrase “az yashir,” “Then they sang” (Exodus 15:1) is interpreted by the Midrash Tanĥuma (Beshalaĥ 13) as meaning that they sang so that future generations would sing – “le’atid” – a song for all time to come. It is a song which will be as valid for this century as it was for 3,000 years before this century. Do we not repeat the Az Yashir daily? Do we not read it from the Torah twice every year? You see, this song was not restricted to particular events and was not circumscribed by definite personalities – in essence it transcends all these. For, as the song of liberation, sung after the Exodus from Egypt, it is the hymn of freedom for all time, the eternal anthem of the Jew which commemorates and references the beginning of his history. And even more than historical or political motifs were here detected by the Jewish mystics. They saw in it, too, a song of the liberation of the soul from the Egyptian qualities of man which drag it down. Every man must leave his own Egypt and must sing of this Exodus proudly and sweetly. If a man be dragged down to misery because he is by nature vindictive, then vindictiveness is his Egypt in which his soul is in exile. If he can overpower that banal quality, then he has personally experienced the Exodus from Egypt, and though he lives in the year 5712, he must sing an Az Yashir, the song of liberation from an Egypt all his own. So then, Az Yashir from the historical point of view and from the personal aspect, is a song with as much meaning for our day and every day as it was when it was first composed. Its overtones have not been silenced, and it is, in this way, indicative of the first important quality of a great song – value for all time, the power to survive the vicissitudes of ages in which values and ideas change ever so severely.

The second important characteristic of a great Jewish song is that, more than being repeated by future generations, it must also be able to inspire them. It is sometimes possible to read an ancient text and find meaning in it, without necessarily being inspired by it. A great song, however, is more than a curiosity lifted out of the musical notes of an age gone by. Th e musical overtones of a great song must not only be heard by some future generation, it must drive it and fire it and detonate it. It must contain the power to awaken men from their spiritual slumber. “Song” in a Jewish sense is more than a melodious combination of sounds. It is a song that can stir a person to create a response. It is that song which can, even centuries later, cause people to change themselves. It must be eternal and effective. Furthermore, a great song can inspire only by getting those who hear it to finish it. Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” has challenged men for many years – challenged them to finish it and complete it and perfect it. In a similar vein, every great song is an unfinished song. The listener must finish it by a soul-stirring response. After listening passively, he must digest actively and create a noble reaction of his soul. Emotionally and intellectually, he must complete a great song by changing himself. A great song, any great work of art, is great because it elicits a reaction – and that is the secret of its powers of inspiration. Th e crescendo or climax is internal.

Our Rabbis (Sanhedrin 91b) saw the kernel of this idea, this second standard for a great Jewish song, in the first two words of Moses’ lofty song by the Sea. “Amar Rabbi Meir, minayin leteĥiyat hameitim min haTorah? Shene’emar ‘az yashir.’ ‘Shar’ lo ne’emar, ela ‘yashir.’” Idiomatic or poetic Hebrew, in its biblical construction, writes “az yashir,” “then [Moses and Israel] will sing,” not, as it should be, “az shar,” “they did sing.” From this unusual grammatical construction, Rabbi Meir deduces a principle of faith – the Resurrection of the Dead. Since Moses will sing in the future, that must mean he will first be resurrected. Of course, what Rabbi Meir meant was more than proof of resurrection from the Song of Moses. He meant, too, proof of the quality of the song from the fact of resurrection. Where⋅from does Az Yashir derive its sublime and ethereal powers? From teĥiyat hameitim, from the resurrection of the dead – because it has the power to breathe the breath of life into dead souls. A great song must be able to penetrate the heart of man, get within the dead tinder wood and driftwood piled up about his heart and set them afire. Th e dead souls and slumbering spirits must be resurrected, revivified. Only that song is worthy of Moses and Israel, who can, millennia later, kindle the flame of faith in men and women to the point where they rise unanimously and proclaim for a lifetime “mi khamokha baEilim Hashem, mi kamokha ne’edar bakodesh,” “who is like You among the mighty, Hashem, who is like You, glorious in Holiness” (Exodus 15:11).Only such a song is deserving of the epithet “great” – that which can galvanize an apathetic people to resurrect its homeland and proclaim “tevi’eimo vetita’emo behar naĥalatkha,” that the time has come when Jews, slumbering in resignation, will arise to rebuild the Promised Land. The song of the Exodus of Egypt has been re-sung, finished, in our own day, by those who participated in the exodus of Europe. Certainly, a great song must be able to effect teĥiyat hameitim – the resurrection of the indolent, slothful, languid souls. Our Rabbis (Sanhedrin 92b) even say that the dead who were resurrected in Ezekiel’s Vision of the Dry Bones (ch. 37) also “amru shira,” sang a song in that same vision. For their resurrection was proof of the quality of the Song of Hope of all Jews for all time.

Take, for instance, a modern song which has gained prominence among Jews in recent years. It is a song of the ghetto, the Song of Hope of those doomed to crematoria and gas chambers – “Ani Ma’amin” – I believe, in perfect faith, in the coming of the Messiah, in the imminent redemption of Israel. Do you remember how that song gained its fame? It was reported in the press during the war – emaciated Jews, while being led to a crematorium in a cattle truck, were singing a haunting melody, whose words, strangely, expressed an irrational hope in the Messiah, in a better life and a fresh hope. Was that a new song? Indeed not. The melody, perhaps, was new. The words are ancient. They were written eight centuries ago by Moses Maimonides, who himself had to travel over the entire Near and Middle East as an exile from his home. So, on this count, then, “Ani Ma’amin” is a great song. For, more than lasting into the future, it quickened the spirits of men. And even more than becoming an instrument which infused life into desperate, dying souls, it gave them the courage to defy death to its teeth.

But there is yet a third requirement for a Jewish song, and this is the critically Jewish element; it is this which makes a Jewish song Jewish. And that is, that this song, which has meaning for the future, and which can inspire men in the future, must be able to inspire them toward specific goals. Specifically, it must be able to shock them into an awareness of God, it must be able to electrify them into the sort of introspection which leads to great religious achievement. In a word, it must lead to teshuva, repentance. If a song has moved people to repent and towards a new understanding and new practice of Jewishness, then it has proved its basic Jewishness. After all, what is Az Yashir if not a tribute to the omnipotence of the Almighty God, and hence an imperative to do immediate penance?

The Hasidim used to picture the spiritual world as a great divine palace someplace in heaven and in this symbolic structure all concepts were represented as different rooms or gates. By placing one room or gate next to another, the Hasidim were able to present their view of the relation of different ideas. And these Hasidim, who, as you no doubt know, were great believers in singing and happiness and sanguineness, assigned the Sha’ar HaNegina, the Gate of Song, right next to one of the most important gates in the entire palace, the Sha’ar HaTeshuva (quoted in the name of Rabbi Israel of Modzitz). Now, what did they mean by that? They meant, simply, that the function of song is that it must open for you the Gates of Penitence. No song is a divine song unless its vibrations can cause a little explosion in the inner chambers of teshuva. From the Gate of True Song, you must be able to walk right in through the Gates of Penitence.

The shofar is the oldest and most venerated of Jewish musical instruments. It is as ancient as the Jewish people. Yet it has survived the test of time, and is sounded faithfully every year. It thus fulfills the first requirement. It inspires people – let each of you testify to that yourself. That meets the second test. And it fulfills the third requirement by urging people on to teshuva. Listen to Maimonides as he describes the meaning of the song of the shofar (Hilkhot Teshuva 3:4): “uru yesheinim mishinatkhem,” “Wake up, ye who sleep, from your sleep; and arise, ye who slumber, from your slumber. Search your ways, return in penitence and remember your Creator. Ye who forget the truth in the vanities of time, and waste their years in nonsense which is of no avail, look deep into your souls and do good henceforth.” So, then, the song of the shofar is a great Jewish song.

And according to these three standards, my friends, if we will but forget the technical element of music and permit ourselves the privilege of subtraction, then even a word can qualify as a great Jewish song. Even a hand placed encouragingly on the shoulder of a faltering friend can be a great Jewish song. An exemplary life can be a great Jewish song. Anything beautiful, in short, that can fulfill these three requirements, is a great Jewish song.

A rebuke, for instance, can qualify. The Torah records as a special commandment, “hokhei’aĥ tokhiaĥ et amitekha,” “thou shalt rebuke thy fellow” (Leviticus 19:17). Th at is, if your friend errs and veers from the right path, you must reproach him. Now, reproach can be administered in many ways – some very crude and vulgar. But that great ethical thinker, Rabbenu Yonah, gives us the prescription for the correct type of rebuke (Commentary on Avot 4:12). “Don’t tell the wrongdoer,” says Rabbenu Yonah, “‘now look, you are a horrible sinner and will pay for your sins,’” but rather say, “‘now I think that you are a wonderful fellow, you are a pious man but you don’t know it. Of course you have weaknesses, but a man of your stature will certainly overcome them.’” Here is a rebuke which is a Jewish song! It will live with that wrong-doer for many a year. It will inspire him – he will himself finish that rebuke and, while mulling over your words, tell himself what you dared not tell him. And those words will most certainly be as effective as can be in directing him to teshuva, a new and fresh outlook upon life.

The great Jewish songs of all ages, those which conform to the standards and criteria we outlined, shall never be silenced. And the first Jewish song, the Song of Moses and the Israelites by the shores of the Red Sea, the song concluding with “Hashem yimlokh le’olam va’ed,” the eternal reign of God, shall itself be eternally re-sung by all Jews. The echoes of the Song of Moses resound in the chambers of the Jewish soul and pluck its heartstrings forever. All Jews, themselves finishing that song, must rise to new heights, and gain entry into the coveted and lofty Gates of Penitence.

  1. February 9, 1952

Parshat Va’eira: Belated Introductions

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text-Shmot, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers


When Moshe’s birth was chronicled in Parshat Shmot, the text deliberately omitted any description of his lineage, choosing instead to preface his birth with the mysterious sentence “And a man went from the House of Levi and he took a daughter of Levi.”

This omission of Moshe’s bona fides is now addressed in Parshat Va’eira.

God commands Moshe to return to Pharaoh and again demand the release of the Israelite slaves. When Moshe objects, citing his speech impediment, God repeats the directive, this time to both Moshe and Aharon.

The Torah then abruptly digresses to present a genealogical table listing the descendents of Yaakov’s oldest sons, Reuven, Shimon and Levi. The listing concludes with a detailed description of the lineage of Moshe and Aharon’s family within the tribe of Levi.

Upon completion of this genealogical record, the Torah returns to the narrative of the Exodus with the words “This was Aharon and  Moshe…. They were the ones who spoke to Pharaoh…. This was Moshe and Aharon.”


Once again we are confronted with a strange and abrupt digression within the Torah text.

Why does the Torah specifically choose this dramatic moment to detail the lineage of Moshe and Aharon? Why interrupt the historical narrative midstream? This genealogical table wo uld clearly have been more appropriate at the beginning of the story, when Moshe is first introduced.

Amram and Yocheved, the parents of Aharon and Moshe, are mentioned here for the first time by name. Given the reasons for the omission of their identities when Moshe is born (see Shmot 2, Approaches B, C), why does the Torah see fit to reveal those identities now?


Most of the classical commentaries are strangely silent concerning the most perplexing aspects of this passage, choosing to comment only briefly.

Rashi, for example, states that because the Torah mentions Aharon and Moshe at this time, the text feels compelled to tell us more fully of their birth and lineage. He fails to explain, however, why this information was not given in conjunction with the earlier appearances of Moshe and Aharon in the text.

The Sforno and Abravanel both maintain that the genealogical table is presented to show that the choice of Aharon and Moshe was not arbitrary. God begins His search for worthy leadership with the descendents of Yaakov’s first- and second-born, Reuven and Shimon. Only when He proceeds to Levi, the third tribe, does God find the quality He is searching for in Moshe and Aharon.

Once again, however, neither of these scholars explains why this information must be shared with us abruptly, at this point in the text.

The Malbim, in contrast, does offer a solution concerning the placement of the genealogical record. He explains that the passage in Va’eira marks the first time that Moshe and Aharon are clearly appointed by God as full partners concerning all aspects of the Exodus. Only once this partnership of brothers is firmly established does the Torah digress to chronicle their familial credentials.

Rashi finally notes that, as the Torah closes the genealogical table and returns to the historical narrative, the text identifies Moshe and Aharon twice and reverses the order of their names: “This was Aharon and Moshe…. They were the ones who spoke to Pharaoh…. This was Moshe and Aharon.”

Quoting the Mechilta, Rashi explains that, throughout the text, the Torah will variably list each brother first in order to demonstrate that Aharon and Moshe were equivalent to each other in greatness.

The premier halachic authority of the nineteenth century, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (known throughout the Jewish world simply as Reb Moshe), objects, however, to the Mechilta’s explanation: “Moshe was the greatest of the prophets, the teacher of the world, and the Torah was given by his hand. How can it be claimed that Aharon was his equal?”

Reb Moshe answers that at this juncture in the text, even as the public leadership of Moshe and Aharon is firmly established, the Torah conveys an essential truth concerning the worth of every human life. Moshe and Aharon each fulfilled his personal role to the greatest extent possible. They are, therefore, in the eyes of God, considered equal. God judges each of us against ourselves and not against anyone else. Someone of lesser ability, who reaches his full life potential, towers over someone of greater talent who does not – even if, on an objective scale, the latter’s accomplishments seem grander.

How telling that one of the most brilliant, accomplished leaders in recent Jewish memory views this text as conveying the value inherent in each individual – skilled or unskilled, public or private!

The most extensive treatment of the genealogical passage at the beginning of Parshat Va’eira, however, is offered by Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch. Hirsch insists that the placement of this section specifically conveys a critical lesson concerning the nature of leadership throughout the Torah.

At this moment in the text, says Hirsch, we confront a major turning point in the careers of Moshe and Aharon. Until now, their efforts have been marked by frustration and failure. From this point onward, however, their triumphal mission – marked by powerful miracles and supernatural events – begins. The Torah, therefore, feels compelled at this juncture to make one fact abundantly clear for all time. Moshe and Aharon are of “absolutely human origin and the absolute ordinary human nature of their beings should be firmly established.” So important is this message that the Torah abruptly interrupts the historical narrative midstream to clearly delineate the ancestry of Moshe and Aharon.

As we have noted before (see Bereishit: Lech Lecha 2, Approaches), whereas pagans deified their heroes, and Christians returned to such deification, Judaism insists upon seeing its heroes as human beings. When your heroes are gods you can worship them, but you cannot emulate them. As long as we see the characters of our Torah as human beings, their greatness may be beyond our reach, but we can, nonetheless, aspire to that greatness.

On the other hand, Hirsch continues, a critical balance is struck in the passage before us. While the genealogical record clearly establishes the mortal origins of Moshe and Aharon, it also serves to counter the notion that every human being is suitable to prophecy. God’s choices are far from arbitrary. Aharon and Moshe were men, but they were “picked, chosen men.” God could have chosen from any tribe and any family. His specific selection of Aharon and Moshe serves to underscore that one who serves in a divinely ordained leadership role merits the appointment because of his own innate character.

The text thus captures the exquisite tension between the mortal origins of our biblical heroes and their overarching character and accomplishments.

Finally, the passage before us, with its extensive genealogical information, clearly serves as a contrasting companion piece to the earlier section in Parshat Shmot which chronicled the birth of Moshe. There, as noted in an earlier study (Shmot 2), the narrative is singular in its lack of information. Even the names of Moshe’s parents are deliberately omitted.

This omission is now apparently addressed and rectified in Parshat Va’eira.

Why, however, when all is said and done, are these two sections necessary? If the Torah eventually reveals the genealogy of Aharon and Moshe, why not do so immediately as soon as Moshe is first introduced in the text?

An approach can be suggested if we view these two passages as delineating a balance that shapes the life of every human being.

On the one hand, the glaring omission of Moshe’s ancestry in Parshat Shmot serves to remind us that the most important aspects of our lives are self-determined. While God decides to whom we are born, when and where we are born, our genetic makeup, etc., we determine, through our own free will, who we will become (see Bereishit: Bereishit 4, Approaches A).

Moshe ascends to leadership because of the choices he makes. The Torah, therefore, omits his parentage at the moment of his birth. Yichus (pedigree) does not determine the quality of Moshe’s life.

On the other hand, while pedigree is neither the sole nor the most important determinant of a person’s character, an individual’s family background certainly contributes to the formation of that character. Our ancestry creates the backdrop against which we weave the tapestry of our lives. Moshe’s story would have been incomplete if his family had not been mentioned. The genealogical table presented at the beginning of Parshat Va’eira is provided to fill in the gaps.

The omission of the names of Moshe’s parents and relatives on the occasion of his birth reminds us that Moshe achieves greatness on his own. The inclusion of those names in Parshat Va’eira reminds us of the role his family background plays in enabling him to succeed in his quest.


Parshat Shemot: Menschlichkeit

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Exodus, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books

In Yiddish, the word for “man,” mensch, represents more than a biological species, the Homo sapiens. A mensch is also one who has a mature personality, a fully developed character, a sense of finesse and savoir-faire – one who is courteous, well-mannered, and amply endowed with the qualities of patience and self-restraint. One of the greatest compliments we can pay a person is to say of him that “he is a mensch.” Conversely, to say that “he is not a mensch” is an indictment of him.

Interestingly, the Hebrew word for man, “ish,” implies the same shade of meaning. Thus, when David, on his death-bed, gives Solomon his last instructions (— I Kings 2:2), and tells him “vehazakta vehayita le’ish,” be strong and be an “ish,” he does not mean “be a man” in the usual sense, but rather, be a mensch!

Our Rabbis evidently rated menschlichkeit very high on the list of virtues. Thus, they taught in Ethics of the Fathers (2:6) that “ein boor yerei ĥet,” an empty-headed person cannot be sin-fearing; an “am ha’aretz” or ignoramus cannot be a “hasid” or pious man; the shy person cannot become a “lomed” or student; the quick tempered cannot be a “melamed” or teacher. There is here an ascending scale of values: from the “yerei het” or sin-fearing individual, to the “hasid,” the pious one, to the student, to the teacher. The last, and thus the highest of all, is given as: “bemakom she’ein anashim, hishtadel lihiyot ish” – where there are no menschen, you must try to be an “ish” or mensch. Menschlichkeit, therefore, is higher than sin-fearing, piety, studying, or even teaching Torah!

What is a mensch? A single comprehensive definition is too difficult and too elusive. Let us, rather, list some of the ingredients of menschlichkeit and analyze some of the problems that are, in fact, crucial to the philosophy and religious outlook of the modern Jew.

First, a mensch is one who does not shrink from a difficult task which his conscience requires of him. He does not invent little excuses for his moral laziness. When Moses, as today’s sidra reports (Exodus 2:12), saw a terrible injustice committed by an Egyptian against a Hebrew, “vayifen ko vakhoh vayar ki ein ish,” he looked about him and saw that there was no “ish,” no true mensch, one who would rise to the occasion and rescue the oppressed from his persecutor – therefore, he himself smote the Egyptian. In a place where there were no menschen, Moses was the mensch, the “ish.” Maimonides (Guide for the Perplexed, 3:45) incorporated this teaching into his philosophy of prophecy: Before a man can receive the divine inspiration of nevu’a, he must first show the moral heroism that is reflected in great acts of social justice and humanitarianism.

Yet this is not as simple and clear cut as it may seem. Actually, it requires a wealth of common sense and not-so-common intuitive judgment to be able to walk the tightrope between two extremes – impulsiveness on the one hand, and procrastination on the other.

A child, an immature person, will also respond to a sense of duty – but precipitously, thoughtlessly, and prematurely. He will impatiently leap to conclusions without thinking. As a result, he will one day decide one way, the other day he will take off in a different direction. A mensch, however, is more responsible and more consistent. One commentator (HaKetav VeHaKabbala) sees the root of ish as “yesh” or “yeshiut” – the quality of being substantial, consistent, settled, or lasting. A mensch does not vacillate. His impulsiveness is moderated by yeshiut, by constancy and thoughtfulness.

But there is the other extreme that a mensch must equally avoid. That is the tendency to dawdle endlessly and so never rise to the challenges of life. There are people who are so thoughtful that they can never come to a decision – even when life demands it. The American critic Lionel Trilling speaks of people who are so open-minded that their brains fall out! They always contemplate what is right, expect and hope to do it – but never get around to it. When Moses looked about for an “ish” to take up the cudgels on behalf of the oppressed Jews, he never found any. No doubt there were many who knew what had to be done – but they were busy making up their minds if this was the right time. They probably considered the effects on good Egyptian-Jewish relations. Will it make the Egyptians worse? Was the Egyptian possibly justified in his own mind? There were probably those who shook their heads and said “something ought to be done” – but never did anything, until Moses came along. Th is endless procrastination, this paralysis of will in the face of overriding duty, is incompatible with menschlichkeit.

David says, in Psalms (90:9), “kilinu shanenu kemo hegeh,” “we have spent our years like hegeh.” That last word is usually translated as “a tale that is told,” or “a sigh” – from the word “lehegot,” to speak or utter. But the Gaon of Vilna has a far more acute insight: “hegeh” is related to the phrase “higayon bekhinor,” to play on a harp or lyre. Thus, “we have spent our years tuning up” – always preparing, practicing, expecting, waiting – but never accomplishing. What a tragedy – spending a life tuning up, but never quite producing a single clear note or melody. Some of us suffer from that – and it is a defect in our menschlichkeit. We want to study and use our heads, learn some Torah. So we prepare, inquire about classes, set the alarm, look about for babysitters, buy notebooks – we tune up, but never quite get around to the actual learning. We would like to be as charitable in a significant way as we know we should. So we think and question, discuss it with our accountants, partners, wives, children – and then we discover that life is past – “kilinu shanenu” – and we still have done none of those things we deemed so precious and so wanted to do! “Kemo hegeh” – those who only tune up are not yet menschen. No wonder the ancients said that a man is an “olam katan,” a microcosm or small world. For just as a world has to be delicately balanced,so a mensch must be harmonious and balanced between impulsiveness and procrastination. Then he is an “ish.”

The second ingredient of menschlichkeit is meekness – the awareness of one’s own limitations. No man who thinks he knows everything can be a mensch. Of Moses, we are told (Numbers 12:3), “veha’ish Moshe anav me’od,” “the man Moses was exceedingly meek.” Meekness is what made Moses an “ish,” a mensch.

In a cynical comment, the American humorist Ambrose Bierce (The Devil’s Dictionary) defined “Man” as “an animal so lost in rapturous contemplation of what he thinks he is as to overlook what he indubitably ought to be.” That, of course, is the definition of man as an animal, and is the very opposite of a mensch. Menschlichkeit is the civility that comes to a man when he realizes how great he can become and ought to become, and how little of that greatness he has achieved. This sense of limitation and inadequacy makes us more tolerant of the failings of others, and endows us with forgiveness and forbearance. The best criterion of a true mensch is one who always has a healthy respect for other human beings – even those who aren’t menschen!

Finally, a mensch is one who has a spiritual dimension to his personality. A man becomes a mensch when he recognizes his obligations to God. On that famous statement that Moses looked about him “vayar ki ein ish,” and he saw that there was no “ish,” the usual interpretation is that there was no one else to be an “ish” and smite the Egyptian. But the Rabbis of the Midrash (Exodus Rabba, Shemot 1:29) offer a more novel insight – the “ish” referred to is the Egyptian himself! “Ra’a she’en toĥelet shel tzaddikim omdot heimenu velo mizaro ad sof kol hadorot” – Moses invoked the divine spirit and looked with deep insight into this Egyptian and perceived that there was no hope that either he or any of his descendants to the end of time would ever be tzaddikim, righteous. Therefore, he felt it proper to slay him for his wickedness. In other words, he saw that the Egyptian was not an “ish.” Menschlichkeit implies at least the possibility of tzidkut, of a spiritual dimension.

For the Jew, this spiritual element is Torah Judaism. For our people, menschlichkeit is inseparable from Yiddishkeit. If there is anything that modern Jews have suffered from, it is the cultural schizophrenia that keeps menschlichkeit – the full, participating, blossoming, worldly personality – apart from Yiddishkeit, the specifically religious element. We have made the tragic error of imagining that you can be a true mensch without being a Jew, or a good Jew without being a mensch.

As a matter of fact, this was the philosophy of the Haskala, the movement of Jewish “Enlightenment” which to such a great extent was responsible for our contemporary assimilation. Yehudah Leib Gordon cried out his famous slogan “heyeh Yehudi bevetekha ve’ish betzetekha,” “be a Jew at home and a mensch outside your home.” The result was that without Yiddishkeit, there was no menschlichkeit – neither at home nor abroad! If you do not have a Jewish office and Jewish vacation and Jewish lecture-hall, in the sense of the spirit of Torah, then you cannot have a Jewish home and you cannot be a full, integrated mensch in any real sense. The true answer to the Haskala’s split personality came from Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch who presented his Torah concept of Yisroel-mensch – the integration of one personality of true Yiddishkeit, the finest of Israel with comprehensive menschlichkeit in the cultural and personal sense.

This indeed was the greatness of Moses, the finest example of a Jewish mensch. He fulfilled the first requirement – he responded to the call of conscience, neither too impetuously nor too tardily, by protecting the Hebrew and slaying the Egyptian. Secondly, he was a man of meekness and fully cognizant of his all too human limitations. And, above all else, he was a spiritual person.

One of the great Psalms (ch. 90) begins, “Tefilla leMoshe ish haElohim, Adonai ma’on ata hayita lanu bedor vador,” “a prayer by Moses, the man of God: My Lord, you were a dwelling place for us from generation to generation.” Moses was an “ish haElohim,” “a man of God,” one who combined menschlichkeit and Göttlichkeit, Godliness – marvelously blended into one personality. This kind of person knows that you can be a full mensch – a political leader, a general, a diplomat, a legislator – and yet the fullness of menschlichkeit comes only when you know that the “ma’on” or dwelling place of your menschlichkeit is God Himself, and that the address of your destiny and residence of your heart and soul is God and His Torah.

It is this luminous personality of Moses, the personification of Jewish menschlichkeit, which remains our undying, inspiring example – “bedor vador,” “from generation to generation.”

Parshat Vayechi: Rising to Leadership

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s “Unlocking the Torah Text – Bereishit,” co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers


A hidden struggle courses beneath the surface of the Yosef story as, unknowingly, each of Yaakov’s sons strives for a prize of overwhelming responsibility and inestimable value.

By the time the narrative reaches its conclusion a fundamental question is answered: Who, from among the sons of Yaakov, will rise to leadership within the Jewish nation?

Three possible candidates emerge from a crowded field, each a complex figure with strong positive credentials.

1. Reuven – firstborn to Yaakov; the leadership role is Reuven’s birthright and, thus, his to lose. He, alone among the brothers, attempts to save Yosef and return him to his father’s home.

2. Yosef – a born leader; Yosef rises to the top of any environment into which he is placed (see Vayeishev 1). He becomes a powerful figure who is able to manipulate circumstances and the behavior of others in order to achieve his goals.

3. Yehuda – powerfully persuasive; Yehuda convinces his brothers to sell Yosef into slavery, rather than allow him to perish in the pit. Yehuda rises to protect his youngest brother, Binyamin, when Binyamin is threatened by Yosef with imprisonment.

When Yaakov blesses his sons from his deathbed in Parshat Vayechi, the patriarch clearly indicates God’s verdict. Yehuda is to be the progenitor of leadership within the people of Israel: “The scepter shall not pass from Yehuda nor legislation from among his descendents until Shilo (the Mashiach) arrives and his will be a gathering of nations.”


By what criteria is Yehuda selected for leadership over his brothers?

Are there any specific characteristics or qualities that disqualify Reuven and Yosef from this leadership role?



At first glance, Reuven seems to merit the leadership role which, by birthright, is naturally his.

When the brothers openly plot to murder Yosef, Reuven alone rises to his younger brother’s defense. He convinces the others to throw Yosef into a pit rather than kill him directly. The Torah clearly testifies that Reuven intended to later return and “rescue him [Yosef] from their hands, to return him to his father.”

Why, then, is Reuven passed over in favor of Yehuda?

A clue emerges from the message that Yaakov, on his deathbed, delivers to Reuven in Parshat Vayechi: “Unstable as water, you shall not lead…”

A careful review of Reuven’s behavior at critical moments reveals that while Yaakov’s firstborn often has the best of intentions, he “rushes like water,” reacting impetuously, without thought for the ramifications of his actions. Three episodes clearly underscore this point.

1. After the death of Rachel, the Torah states that Reuven has relations with Bilha, his father’s concubine (and the mother of two of Yaakov’s children).

The rabbis debate the actual details of this event.

Some suggest that Reuven felt that Bilha was permitted to him because he viewed her only as his father’s concubine.

The Talmud, however, maintains that Reuven did not actually sleep with Bilha at all. Instead, the rabbis say, Reuven acted to protect the honor of his mother, Leah. After Rachel died, Yaakov established his primary residence in the tent of Bilha, who had been Rachel’s maidservant. Reuven interpreted this act as an affront to his mother. Without his father’s knowledge, he took matters in his own hands and moved his father’s bed to his mother, Leah’s, tent. While Reuven’s motives were understandable, his actions were precipitous and impulsive, earning him the reprimand from his father’s deathbed, in which Yaakov rebukes him for this incident: “Unstable as water, you shall not lead, for you mounted your father’s bed…”

2. At the scene of Yosef’s sale into slavery Reuven does attempt to save his brother. His efforts, however, fall painfully short. Instead of openly challenging his brothers’ horrific plan, Yaakov’s oldest son convinces his siblings that their own design can be more easily achieved by throwing Yosef into a pit. Reuven, however, apparently gives no thought to the dangers potentially lurking in the darkness of that pit, which, according to rabbinic tradition, was actually filled with “snakes and scorpions.”

Reuven then mysteriously disappears from the scene, only to return after Yosef’s sale is complete. Whatever the cause for Reuven’s departure (the rabbis offer numerous suggestions as to why he left), nothing should have been more important than remaining and ensuring his brother’s safety.

The text, in brilliant yet indirect fashion, hints at the incompleteness of Reuven’s attempts to save Yosef by openly stating that Reuven acts “in order to save him [Yosef], to return him to his father.”

The Torah does not generally comment on the intentions of characters in the narrative, but rather, allows people’s actions to speak for them. In this case, however, Reuven’s actions are so inconclusive that we would have no way of knowing that he planned to save his brother. The text must, therefore, openly testify as to Reuven’s good intentions.

3. Years later, the brothers return to Canaan after their journey to Egypt to procure food in the face of famine. Yosef, who is by now the Egyptian viceroy, has imprisoned Shimon and declared that the brothers may not return to Egypt unless they bring their youngest brother, Binyamin, with them.

Reuven attempts to convince his reluctant father to allow Binyamin to make the journey to Egypt by offering the following bargain: “You may slay my two sons if I fail to bring him [Binyamin] back to you. Put him in my care and I will return him to you.”

Yaakov, understandably, remains adamant in his refusal. What grandfather, after all, would trust the judgment of a son who, even in an attempt to do what is right, impulsively offers the lives of his own children as collateral for his success or failure?

While a leader certainly must be able to act decisively at a moment’s notice, he cannot afford to be reckless or blind to the consequences of his actions. Reuven, while well-meaning, is simply too impulsive to inherit the critical mantle of leadership.


Yosef seems to possess all of the traits necessary for successful leadership. Personally attractive, naturally adept, politically savvy, he rises to the top of each and every environment into which he is placed, often against great odds. By the end of the narrative Yosef is viceroy in Egypt, second-in-command only to Pharaoh and the architect of his family’s survival and descent to Egypt.

Yosef also possesses a deep, abiding faith in God and in Divine Providence. (See Vayeishev 1 for a fuller discussion of Yosef’s leadership skills and personal belief system.)

Why then is Yosef not chosen for leadership within the Jewish nation?

The answer lies, perhaps, in a fundamental flaw in the nature of Yosef’s leadership. Yosef always seems to lead from “without.” There is no group to which he fully belongs: he remains throughout his life the ultimate outsider. Yosef never gains the trust of his brothers, who suspect his intentions until the end. In Egypt, he is regarded with suspicion and is considered a foreigner even after his rise to power (See Vayigash 1, Approaches c). Yosef certainly leads but his leadership is that of a puppeteer, who remains at a distance, manipulating events and people to achieve his ends.

The true Jewish leader emerges from “within” the nation and remains connected always to the people he leads.

Moshe’s journey to prominence begins when he “goes out to his brethren to observe their burdens.” David begins life as a common shepherd and remains, even after ascending to the monarchy, a poet whose songs resonate to the chords of universal personal struggle.

In contrast, Yosef, the ultimate outsider, cannot be chosen for permanent leadership of the Jewish nation.


From the outset, Yehuda seems an unlikely candidate for lasting leadership.

He is fully implicated by the text in the sale of Yosef and is, in fact, the one who suggests the sale. Immediately after that tragic episode, Yehuda fails to fulfill his responsibilities to his daughter-in-law, Tamar, and only corrects his errors when she openly confronts him.

Closer study, however, reveals two powerful currents coursing through Yehuda’s life and development, as he overcomes his own shortcomings and avoids the mistakes of his other brothers.

1. Yehuda remains one with his brothers. Unlike Yosef, Yehuda rises from within. A persuasive leader at the time of Yosef’s sale into slavery, Yehuda separates temporarily from his brothers only to return to their company. His leadership is cemented when he convinces his father to allow Binyamin’s journey to Egypt and when he rises to argue with Yosef on Binyamin’s behalf.

Immediately before Yehuda’s defense of Binyamin, the text subtly foreshadows Yehuda’s rise to prominence from among his brothers by singling him out with the phrase “and Yehuda and his brothers arrived to Joseph’s house.”

Finally, Yaakov, on his deathbed, acknowledges Yehuda’s journey to popular leadership: “Yehuda – you, your brothers shall acknowledge.”

2. Yehuda learns to take full responsibility for his actions. The incident with Tamar marks the beginning of Yehuda’s journey towards personal responsibility. Confronted with Tamar’s claim that he is the father of her unborn child, Yehuda openly states, “She [Tamar] is right; it [the child] is from me.”

Years later, Yehuda’s successful attempt to convince his father to allow Binyamin to travel to Egypt stands in stark contrast to Reuven’s earlier, clumsy effort (see Approaches A, above). Yehuda declares: “Anochi e’ervenu, I will personally guarantee him; of my own hand you can demand him. If I do not bring him back to you and stand him before you, then I would have sinned to you for all time.”

Finally, Yehuda emerges as the prototype for the process of tshuva (personal repentance and change) when he rises to fight for Binyamin’s safe return. The very individual who suggested the sale of Yosef now stands before Yosef arguing on behalf of their youngest brother!

There are no coincidences in Jewish history. Yehuda’s journey has brought him to this point, recorded at the beginning of Parshat Vayigash. Faced with the same circumstances which previously led to failure, Yehuda courageously rises to leadership as he addresses the past and accepts full responsibility for his brother’s fate.

Yaakov’s deathbed blessing to Yehuda, within which he assigns leadership to Yehuda and his descendents, is specific as to the criteria by which God’s choice is made:

“Yehuda – you your brothers shall acknowledge…your father’s sons will bow down to you.” Yehuda, you have risen from within. You serve as a model to your brothers and have earned, through their acclaim, the mantle of leadership.

“A lion cub is Yehuda; from the prey, my son, you have elevated yourself.” You have moved past your earlier tragic failures, elevating yourself through the full acceptance of personal responsibility for your actions and deeds.

“The scepter shall not depart from Yehuda nor legislation from among his descendents until Shiloh (the Mashiach) arrives and his will be a gathering of nations.” Leadership is yours and will continue, across the ages, among your descendants. Your wrenching personal journey has earned you this honor and responsibility.

Points to Ponder

During his journey towards personal responsibility, Yehuda makes powerful use of one of the most picturesque words in the Hebrew language: “Anochi e’ervenu,” he says, as he convinces his father to allow Binyamin to travel to Egypt, “I will personally guarantee him.”

And, again, as he confronts Yosef concerning the safety of Binyamin, Yehuda declares: “Ki avdecha arav et hana’ar, for your servant took responsibility for the youth.”

The root word arev, which lies at the heart of Yehuda’s statements, literally means mixture and enjoys a wide variety of applications throughout Jewish thought:

  1. Erev, evening. Evening is a mixture of day and night.
  2. Ta’arovet, a physical mixture. This term is often used in the halachic delineation of permitted and prohibited mixtures of food.
  3. Eruv, a legal concept with numerous applications. For example: an eruv chatzeirot allows members of a community to carry on Shabbat from a private to a public area and within a public area. Contrary to popular opinion, the term does not refer to the physical enclosure built around the community (technically that enclosure is known as a mechitza) but to a portion of food which is set aside as communally owned. The eruv thus symbolically joins the community together.
  4. Arov, the plague of a mixture of wild beasts. This is one of the plagues that afflicted Egypt.
  5. Arev, a guarantor. This is the most important meaning, for it encompasses the obligation to be responsible for another. When Yehuda “guarantees” Binyamin’s safety, he declares his connection to his brother. “We are bound together,” he effectively argues, “ with a tie that cannot be broken.”

Similarly, the rabbinic proclamation “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba’zeh,”usually translated to mean “All within Israel are responsible one for the other,” actually means much more. On a deeper level, the phrase indicates that we are inextricably bound to one another, connected heart to heart.

Yehuda introduces the concept of areivut into Jewish history. He rises to leadership when he truly grasps the ties that bind the family of Israel, ties which join us to each other to this day.

Half the Hanukkah Story

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Festivals of Faith


Two themes are central to the festival of Hanukkah which we welcome this week. They are, first, the nes milhamah, the miraculous victory of the few over the many and the weak over the strong as the Jews repulsed the Syrian-Greeks and reestablished their independence. The second theme is nes shemen, the miracle of the oil, which burned in the Temple for eight days although the supply was sufficient for only one day. The nes milhamah represents the success of the military and political enterprise of the Maccabees, whilst the nes shemen, the miracle of the oil, symbolizes the victory of the eternal Jewish spirit. Which of these is emphasized is usually an index to one’s Weltanschauung. Thus, for instance, secular Zionism spoke only of the nes milhamah, the military victory, because it was interested in establishing the nationalistic base of modern Jewry. The Talmud, however, asking “What is Hanukkah?” answered with the nes shemen, with the story of the miracle of the oil (Shabbat 21b). In this way, the Rabbis demonstrated their unhappiness with the whole Hasmonean dynasty, descendants of the original Maccabees who became Sadducees, denied the Oral Law, and persecuted the Pharisees.

Yet it cannot be denied that both of these themes are integral parts of Judaism. Unlike Christianity, we never relegated religion to a realm apart from life, we never assented to the bifurcation between that which belongs to God and that which belongs to Caesar. Religion was a crucial part, indeed the very motive, of the war against the Syrian-Greeks. And unlike the purely nationalistic interpretation of Hanukkah, we proclaim with the prophet (whose words we shall read next Sabbath), “For not by power nor by might, but by My spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts” (Zech. 4:6). In fact, the Maccabean war was, to a large extent, not a revolution against alien invaders as much as a civil war against Hellenistic Jews who wanted to strip Israel of its Jewish heritage. Hence, Hanukkah symbolizes a victory through military means for spiritual ends. That is why Rabbinic sources tell of both themes, the Pesikta speaking of the nes milhamah (Pesikta Rabbati 6) and the gemara speaking of the nes shemen.


The miracles of Hanukkah are sequential: first there was the nes milhamah, and then later came the nes shemen. This is reflected in our Al HaNissim prayer which we recite all through Hanukkah. We thank God for the miracle of our victory, for having given over gibborim beyad halashim, rabbim be-yad me‘attim, “the strong in the hands of the weak, and the many in the hands of the few,” veahar ken, “and afterwards,” ba’u banekha lidevir beitekha, “Thy children came into Thy holy habitation,” cleansed Thy Temple, purified Thy sanctuary, and kindled lights in Thy holy courts.

I submit that those two little words veahar ken, “and afterwards,” define the position of world Jewry today. We have finished one half the Hanukkah story. We have accomplished the nes milhamah, the miracle of military victory, and now we must proceed to the nes shemen, the miracle of the conquest of the Jewish spirit. We have realized the dream of the alummim; next we must proceed to the inspiring vision of the shemesh vekokhavim.

Variations on the Hanukkah Theme

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Festivals of Faith: Reflections on the Jewish Holidays


Tonight, immediately after the Sabbath is over, we shall be confronted with the observance of two precious mitzvot: the kindling of the Hanukkah candles, for Hanukkah begins tonight; and the Havdalah, which marks the end of Sabbath. The question of which shall be performed first is one which engaged the attention of some of the most illustrious latter-day talmudic sages, and the solution most Jews have accepted is one which, implicitly and indirectly, expresses a great idea in Jewish ethics and moral philosophy.

The Shulhan Arukh and Rama (R. Mosheh Isserles, the chief commentator on it) record with approval the custom of kindling the Hanukkah light first, and only then reciting the Havdalah (Orah Hayyim 681:2). Other authorities, such as the author of Turei Zahav (Taz), and many others, emphatically disagree. They insist that we ought to recite the Havdalah first and only afterwards light the Hanukkah candles.

While the controversy involves a large number of proofs and counter-proofs of halakhic dialectic, which are too involved to present completely at this time, it will, however, be worth our while to examine the basic ideas involved in this controversy.

The Shulhan Arukh, Rama, and all those who insist upon the precedence of Hanukkah candles over Havdalah base their verdict largely upon the principle of pirsumei nissa, the “publicizing of the miracle.” The Hanukkah candles, after all, are reminders of the miracles God performed for our ancestors ba-yamim ha-hem ba-zeman ha-zeh—“in those days, at this time”: the cruse of oil that lasted eight days, the victory of the sainted few over the diabolical many, and so on. Basic to the mitzvah of ner Hanukkah is this concept of pirsumei nissa—to make the divine miracle known amongst all peoples. That is why we are to place the Hanukkah candles in a conspicuous place—windows, doorways, and so on. Therefore, since pirsumei nissa is basic to the whole festival of Hanukkah, it requires of us to proclaim the miracle of Hanukkah as soon as the holiday begins—before any other activity, sacred or profane, is undertaken. Before eating or drinking, or even Havdalah, we are to light the Hanukkah candles, and by this act of performing the mitzvah before any other, we achieve pirsumei nissa. We let everyone know the greatness of the miracle, one which causes us to hurry and rush to perform the commandment.

The Taz and other posekim, however, require Havdalah before kindling the Hanukkah lights because they make use of a different and, they maintain, more fundamental principle, and that is the talmudic rule of tadir ve-she-eino tadir, tadir kodem: if I have before me two mitzvot to perform, and one is tadir, or constant, namely a frequent mitzvah—salient, observed regularly and periodically at set intervals, while the other is eino tadir, an irregular mitzvah, performed infrequently, at only rare times, then tadir kodem—the usual, regular, more frequent mitzvah comes first. Hence, since Havdalah is tadir, because it is observed every single week of the year, whereas kindling the Hanukkah lights is eino tadir, for it is observed only during the eight-day period of the year, Havdalah takes priority over Ner Hanukkah.

Reduced to its essentials, then, this halakhic controversy is based upon a clash of two principles: pirsumei nissa, the dramatization and publication of the unusual, the supernatural; and tadir kodem, the precedence of the regular, the constant, the usual, and the well-known.

It is remarkable that in our current practice we reflect both contradictory opinions. Faced with these two opposing decisions, the great majority of observant Jews have reconciled the two views by distinguishing between the synagogue and the home. In the synagogue we follow the practice of the Shulhan Arukh and Rama, and we light the Hanukkah lights first, thus emphasizing the principle of pirsumei nissa; and at home we usually follow the verdict of the Taz, making Havdalah first, and thus giving greater weight to the rule of tadir ve-she-eino tadir, tadir kodem (that is, the usual, the regular, the periodic is more important and thus comes first).

It is amazing how, in deciding between two technical halakhic opinions, the Jewish masses of men, women, and children have indirectly and perhaps unconsciously expressed a whole view of life, a substantial philosophy of Judaism in its public and private aspects. For the concepts of pirsumei nissa and tadir kodem are two fundamental approaches to life—on the one hand, the need for pirsum, for publicizing, for the demonstration of the unusual, the dramatic, and the record-shattering; and on the other hand, the transcendent importance of constancy, of tadir, of the prosaic, regular, and bland routine of the religious life. What our people did by its reconciliation of these two opposing views is to say that each one is valid, each one has its importance, but each has its own place: in the synagogue, in the public domain, in the open arena of Jewish life, there we kindle Hanukkah lights before Havdalah; there we recognize the value of pirsumei nissa, of emphasizing the dramatic, the unusual, the outstanding, the miraculous. But at home, be-tzin‘ah, in the privacy of one’s hearth and family, there, while pirsum is recognized as important, the value of tadir is far more significant and necessary. There we must first be sure that our daily lives, in both ritual and ethics—bein adam laMakom and bein adam lahavero—are regulated by the divine word through the wisdom of Torah. There we need not and ought not play up the spectacular and the dramatic; that can wait for later. First, one must be a good Jew in the daily, ordinary, and therefore realistic and reliable sense.


This is a rewarding thought that Hanukkah teaches us by taking second place to Havdalah in our homes tonight. It reminds us that we ought not to feel disappointed if we do not experience the kind of unusual sensation or uplift at home that we do when we attend rallies. It encourages us to continue on our modest paths of tadir, quietly observing God’s Torah, of developing nobility of character, of building a family and serving our fellow man, of bringing even a little light into the lives of our loved ones and into the heart of the stranger. It reminds us that if we dedicate ourselves to the sacred pattern of the Torah’s mitzvot, then surely the pirsumei nissa will come eventually, for there is a heroism in this modesty of daily Jewish life, a heroism and a poetry and a dramatic quality that makes itself felt not in a momentary clap of thunder, not as an extraordinary revelation, but as a long and slow but beautiful symphony that we first begin to appreciate as we go on with the accumulation of years of such harmonious living tadir in the service of God and man. Then, when Havdalah gives way to Hanukkah, does the miracle of the commonplace become evident, then do we realize that there is a heroism in modesty, that the ordinary possesses its own kind of extraordinary music of the soul, and that silence can be more meaningful than the most persuasive oratory.

“Not by power nor by might, but by the spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts” (Zech. 4:6).

Then we discover that ultimately Havdalah yields to Hanukkah.

Parshat Vayishlach: Under the Terebinth

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages — Genesis, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books


Derashot Ledorot front coverA strange ceremony is enacted by Jacob in this sidra. After the unhappy incident of the violation of Dina by Shechem, and the destruction of the city by Dina’s brothers, the sons of Jacob, Jacob calls his family together roundabout him. He scolds his sons for their excessive zeal and impetuousness in raiding Shechem, and they defend their actions. Then he turns to them, and commands them to put away all the “strange gods,” the various idols that they had accumulated as spoils and souvenirs in the course of plundering the city. Put them away, he says, and purify yourselves and change your garments. They then give him all the strange gods they had in their hands and all their earrings (which contained figurines of various idols), “and Jacob hid them under the terebinth which was by Shechem” (Genesis 35:4).

What a dramatic scene that must have been! Jacob forces his family to purge itself of every vestige of idolatry. Here they stand around a muddy pit near a terebinth, or oak tree, near Shechem, and each member of the family tosses into the pit another figurine or idol or piece of sculpture, another token of the evil which had befallen them. And then the patriarch covers all these repulsive objects with earth, and they are forgotten, and the family is purified once again – ready to proceed on their great mission as the teachers of God’s word, and to their destiny as the people of the Lord.

Now imagine if we were to do that, if we were to reenact Jacob’s disposal of the tokens of evil under a terebinth now, in 1962. Imagine if we were all standing around a muddy pit, invited to toss into it all the tokens of what is undesirable, evil, and repulsive in our lives. The imagination is staggered by the implications. The possibilities are almost limitless! What a variety of objects, modern idols, would be thrown into that pit! Each one would be a symbol of another source of unhappiness in our lives. No doubt, someone would throw in a television antenna – symbol of that totalitarian machine which monopolizes the attention of our selves and our children to the exclusion of every form of real edification. Another might throw in a neon light – a token of sham, of the kind of bluster that preys on the gullible. Perhaps somebody would cast in a telephone, the one modern instrument which, above all else, has mechanized lashon hara and made of rekhilut a vocation rather than a mere diversion. Another person might toss in a watch, that little instrument which represents the tyranny of rigid schedules over our lives, preventing us from exercising freedom and spontaneity, and which casts its spell even over prayer, so that we engage in clock-watching during the services. There might come falling in a transistor radio, a symbol of all the ubiquitous noise that afflicts our ears and peace, and disturbs the silence so necessary for the creativity of the mind; the nose cone of a missile, which represents the perversion of values of those who concentrate on the conquest of outer space while so many insurmountable problems distress mankind here on earth; a mimeo stencil, the insignia of the public relations man and his artificial “image making”; a pair of theater stubs, tokens of respectable smut; a driver’s license, the threat of the eventual atrophy of human feet. It requires no great stretch of the imagination to be able to add, here and there, a few status symbols of modern man. Bekhol dor vador, in every generation, people ought to take time out for a reenactment of that ancient scene under the terebinth by the city of Shechem. For our generation, no less and perhaps more than for any other, the reading of this sidra is the challenge to a spiritual housecleaning, to a cleansing of the soul from all the dross that life has accumulated over the years.

However, does this imply a rejection of modernity, a total condemnation of all its concepts as evil and its discoveries as infernal? It would seem so. And yet that is hardly the case.

As a matter of fact, Jacob seems to have been indirectly criticized for not engaging in a more vigorous annihilation of the tokens of evil. You will note that Jacob did not completely destroy these earrings and statuettes. He only buried them under the terebinth. The famed commentator, Nachmanides, protests that Jacob was not following the law strictly. Thus he writes, “All idols and auxiliary objects should not be merely interred, but must be ground and cast to the wind or into the sea.”

The halakha demands complete destruction and not merely burial of idolatrous images. Nachmanides’s criticism seems to be confirmed by the Jerusalem Talmud, where we read that Rabbi Ishmael went to Nablus [which is today the name for Shechem], and noticed some non-Jews bowing to the mountain. Rabbi Ishmael told them, you may not realize it, but you are not really worshiping the mountain but the images that lie buried underneath, as it is written, “And Jacob hid them under the terebinth which was by Shechem.” So the Jerusalem Talmud also implies that Jacob was not sufficiently zealous in destroying the idols his family had gathered from Shechem; he should have ground them to dust and not merely buried them, where they might at some later age again become the objects of veneration by foolish pagans.

What was Jacob’s opinion? And why may we feel sure that, indeed, he was right in what he did? Besides a halakhic justification, which the commentators present, what other, larger vindication of Jacob do we find?

What Jacob rejected was not earrings and sculptures, but the attitude that one brings to them. Had he completely annihilated these objects, he would have demonstrated his feeling that these articles are objectively evil. But when Jacob merely buried them, he showed that it is not they themselves that are evil – they are neutral, meaningless – but the human propensity for idolizing an image, the corrupt mentality of a person who venerates them; that is to be condemned. Of course, the sons of Jacob did not worship these things. The fact, however, that the people of Shechem did was sufficient to warrant their interment. Jacob thus taught his sons, and generations after them, that mute objects, the creations of man’s ingenuity, can become things of exquisite beauty or great ugliness, objects of usefulness or abominations – all depending on whether the mind and heart of the one who uses them is pure or impure.

The Torah itself, in this sidra, indicates clearly though indirectly the approach of Jacob to this problem. Notice that before committing the tokens of idolatry to burial, he commands his family, “Put away the strange gods that are in your midst”; the idols that are perfected by man’s hands are far less pernicious than the potent poison that spews from a perverse spirit, a wicked heart, and a twisted mind. The true culprit, the effective cause of idolatry, is: “the strange gods that are betokhekhem, in your midst.”

And as if to emphasize this, the story is interrupted: after his command to remove the strange gods from their midst, and before his act of burying these gods under the terebinth, Jacob announces to his children that they will all arise and go up to Bethel and there build an altar “to God who answered me in the day of my distress, and was with me baderekh, in the way which I went.” Jacob is here explaining his action. What is important is “the way which I went.” The way, the approach, the attitude – that is what is decisive. Whether an engraving on a piece of jewelry is an ornament or an idol depends on the “way” which you adopt. If it is the way of God, then your life is pure and the artifacts are functional; if it is not, then these same artifacts are idolatrous and destructive. “And they gave to Jacob all the strange gods that were in their hands and the rings which were in their ears, and Jacob hid them under the terebinth which is by Shechem.” All Jacob could bury physically were the physical objects – the ornaments “in their hands” and “in their ears” – the inner idolatry, the poisoned attitude, the corrupt approach – that each individual must purge by himself, from “betokhekhem,” “your midst.”

So it is with us. What we must protest is not the inventions of science and technology which have caused us, in so many various ways, unhappiness and even grief. Certainly we ought not to object to the insights and methods of science. Rather, we must fear and beware their misuse by dull hearts and narrow minds. Orthodox Jews sometimes rue and bemoan the advances of technology and yearn for “the good old days”; but that is as irrelevant and silly as the overzealous enthusiast of scientism who naïvely proclaims man’s divinity and his imminent arrival at Utopia because of science. Both these attitudes attribute more power – whether good or bad – to the instruments of science than they deserve. The determination of whether science will lead us to a golden age or to a futureless age depends not upon what man’s mind discovers in Nature, but what Nature will discover when it uncovers man’s heart.

There is no doubt that the same objects which may cause us moral distress and psychological tension can be the agents of moral bliss and psychological relief. The same television screen which distracts a child with trite nonsense, and worse, can become the channel for education, a decent respite for a hardworking person, or a blessing for the shut-in. The watch can become the symbol of an ordered and hence efficient life. The same telephone which can be misused for malicious gossip and idle talk can be used for words of significance and exchanges of meaning. All modern inventions can spare people from a life of grind and allow them the leisure for creative personal activity. Above all else, nuclear power which threatens to destroy the world can also, as we read recently, be used as a new source of power to move mountains and make life more livable for man.

There are those who are amazed there exist such strange beings as religious scientists. They are astounded into disbelief when they hear of the existence and thriving activities of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists. Yet there should be no surprise at all. On the words of Deuteronomy (4:6), that this Torah is our “wisdom and understanding before the eyes of the nations of the world,” the Talmud (Shabbat 75a) comments that this “wisdom” refers to the study of astronomy. So important is this, the Talmud adds, that one who has scientific ability and does not use it for scientific purposes is not a worthy individual.

But what does Jewish excellence in the natural sciences have to do with “before the eyes of the nations”? Rabbi Jonathan of Lunel explains that the Talmud urges Jews to study astronomy in order to show the glory and regularity of God’s creation, and thereby refute the superstitious notions of the pagans for whom the constellations are the signs of fate and destiny. When the Jew engages in astronomy, he discovers the truth, and denies thereby the falsehood of astrology.

So must it be in our day. Today, it is not astrology that is the problem, but a superstition far more pernicious because it sounds more sophisticated: the deification of science, the abandonment of God, the assumption that the world is a meaningless accident and history a cruel joke. When Orthodox Jews excel in science and remain not only confirmed but strengthened in their faith, it is the assertion of wisdom and understanding that issues from Torah; a proclamation that the greater man’s knowledge, the greater his reverence for Almighty God; a declaration that all science – wisdom and understanding – is a hymn of glory to God. When the entire Jewish community lives in and with the modern world, when we do not allow modernity to distract us from divinity, and do not allow our countless gadgets to rule over us, but we remain in control, our personalities uncrushed, our aspirations noble, our goals sacred, and our derekh the way of Torah; then we purge the world and ourselves of the “strange gods” in our midst.

The Torah Jew, therefore, cannot and should not abandon the modern world. He seeks, rather, to master it while avoiding being enslaved by it. Just as Jacob taught by burying rather than destroying the ornaments of Shechem that they are mere tools that can be misused or used depending upon the “way” or attitude you bring to them, so must our approach be to the various inventions of modern science and to all of modern life. We must retain our moral freedom and our spiritual eminence, learning to master the implements devised by technology in order to further humane goals, to advance our spiritual purposes, to glorify our Creator from whom we derived the wisdom, in the first place, to conquer Nature.

It is in this sense that every now and then we ought to reenact the scene of Jacob disposing of the tokens of evil under the terebinth by Shechem. Let us purge ourselves of the strange gods which disturb our inner life. Let us, without seeking to escape from modern life and the responsibilities it places upon us, condemn to the pit of oblivion the various symbols of our moral distress that, because of our wrong attitudes, have been the cause of our ethical failings. Let us, then, rededicate ourselves to the God who answers us in the time of our distress and is with us in the “way” which we go, so that our ways will be blessed and we shall learn to live in the world as free men, created in the image of God, not manipulated by brute, mechanized objects.

For only by being truly the servants of God can we become the masters of our own destiny.

1.  December 15, 1962.

Parshat Vayishlach: Growing Pains

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Genesis, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books


Derashot Ledorot front cover

In one chapter of our sidra, the Torah mentions no less than four times the relationship between Esau and Edom (“Esav hu Edom” – “Esau is Edom”) – either describing their mutual identity, or pointing out that Esau is the ancestor of Edom. The commentators seem not to have noticed this repetition.

Is there any special significance to it? I believe there is, and that it lies in the fact that these references follow the chapter in which God affirms that Jacob’s name shall be changed to “Israel.” In this juxtaposition of Esau = Edom to Jacob = Israel, I believe we find a most important Jewish insight. Esau was born precociously mature: “Full of hair” (Genesis 25:25), and, as Rashi points out, the newborn infant was, in his covering of hair, as mature as a young man. Rashbam indicates that this is the significance of the name Esav (Esau): “adam asuy [from the same root as Esav, meaning, “made” or “done”] venigmar.” He was mature, developed, complete. And what does “Edom” mean? According to the Torah, the name was given to Esau when he approached Jacob, who was preparing a meal of red lentils, and said to him, “Haliteini na min ha’adom ha’adom hazeh,” let me have some of this adom, red, food. The food was processed, cooked, done. Edom thus implies the same idea: completion, maturity, finished development. Therefore the equation of Esau and Edom is symbolic of the static, of one who has arrived, who experiences no development or growth, who has no place further to go.

The exact opposite is true of Jacob. He is born as a straggler: “And afterwards his brother came out” (Genesis 25:26). He follows Esau out of the womb and into life. He hangs on to his brother’s coattails, or, to use the original biblical idiom, his hand holds the akeiv, the heel, of Esau: hence his name Yaakov (Jacob). He is hesitant, diffident, backward. His insecurity and weakness plague him all his life. And therefore he must always struggle. And struggle he does! We read of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel, a crucial incident in his life. As a result of this encounter, his name is changed to “Israel,” as we read: “Ki sarita im elohim ve’im anashim vatukhal,” “Because you fought with angels and men and you prevailed” (Genesis 32:29). Notice that the name Yisrael does not incorporate the word “vatukhal,” the concept of triumph and victory, important as it is, but rather “sarita,” the concept of struggle. The identification of Jacob and Israel symbolizes development, growth, progress, the good fight to grow and transcend oneself.

Hence, the proximity of the two portions (i.e. the identification of Esau with Edom and the renaming of Jacob after his fight with the angel) presents the student of Torah with a study in contrasts between the one brother who arrives on the scene already finished, and leaves it in the same manner, experiencing no change or growth; and the other brother, who begins very low indeed and then, by sheer will, resolve, and determination, struggles to superiority and triumph.

I mention this not only as the explanation of a number of biblical verses, but because it incorporates a major insight of Judaism. Judaism is predicated on man’s self-transformation. The concept of teshuva or repentance does not merely mean to experience regret and mend one’s ways, as much as it implies the concept of spiritual movement, of growing, of changing for the better. Scholars have already pointed out that whereas Judaism emphasizes becoming, the Greek philosophers, from Parmenides to Plato and beyond, have idealized the concept of being, the perfect state in which no change occurs.

In the Jewish tradition, angels are referred to as omdim, as those who stand, or are static; whereas man is called a mehalekh, one who goes and progresses. Thus, in the vision of the prophet Zechariah, God promises Joshua the high priest that if he obeys the will of the Lord, “Venatati lekha mahlekhim bein ha’omdim ha’eleh,” I will give you the capacity for going, for moving, walking, progressing among these (angels) who stay in one place (3:7).

There is an interesting if quaint controversy among great Jewish authorities about the relationship between angels and humans. Maimonides and Ibn Ezra maintain that angels are at a higher level than man, because angels are purely spiritual whereas man is subject to all the weaknesses of the flesh. Sa’adia Gaon maintains, on the contrary, that man is superior because he is possessed of freedom of the will. Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin offers a compromise in an attempt to resolve this controversy. Angels, he maintains, are initially on a higher level than man. But man, if he properly exercises his free will, can grow from a much lower station to a much higher one. By virtue of spiritual struggle he can achieve an eminence that is greater than that of the angels.

This capacity for growth, for emerging from “Jacob” to “Israel,” should be the source of great encouragement for parents. As one who often listens to parents unburden themselves of worries concerning their children, I strongly recommend the biblical figure of Jacob to your attention. Parents sometimes are concerned that children show no motivation, that they seem to be limited in their talents and in their will. Certainly we must do whatever we can to help them. But there is often a danger of over-intervention, with the resultant resistance and conflict that it engenders. But, after having done all we can and should, parents also should have a measure of confidence that as human beings, and especially Jewish human beings, it is possible and even probable that our young people will eventually struggle, transform themselves, and grow. They will reenact the adventure of Jacob-Israel.

Of all the things we must give thanks for in this great country, it is that growth has been characteristic of America as well. It is true that in recent years the counterculture has vigorously objected to this country’s lack of sufficiently rapid growth. Of course, in its violence and its extremism, this counterculture often was destructive rather than constructive. But now that the movement seems to have spent itself, and America is getting back on an even keel, it is well to remember that if we stop growing and changing and moving in the right direction, we will be false to our own heritage.

The same principle reminds us of the Jewish community that we must not be satisfied with what we have. Any organization or institution that refuses to look upon itself critically and to experience change, thereby condemns itself to paralysis, and dooms itself to enshrine its faults and failings as a permanent part of its constitution. The survival of the Jewish community can take place only if there is viability, if there is the capability and the will for institutional change.

Of course, all this is not simple, not effortless, and not painless. Spiritual growth is always accompanied by anguish. That is why the Torah in this portion tells us that Jews are not permitted to eat the gid hanasheh, the thigh-vein or sciatic nerve which is situated on the “hollow of the thigh,” because the angel struck Jacob on the hollow of the thigh in the thigh-vein. In other words, because in their struggle Jacob was wounded by the angel and suffered a dislocated hip, therefore we are not permitted to eat the sciatic nerve of animals.

Now, that sounds more redundant than explanatory. So what if the angel struck Jacob? Is it out of sympathy with Jacob as a victim that we refrain from eating the gid hanasheh? Is it out of a sense of celebration of his triumph?

I believe it is neither. Rather, we are commanded this halakha out of admiration for Jacob’s struggle, because we are proud of his growing pains. It is a commitment to embrace such growing pains for ourselves as we attempt to emulate his adventure of growth from Jacob to Israel. Similarly, the Netziv in his commentary tells us that the gid hanasheh is associated with the hip – it is situated at the top of the organ which moves as man walks. What he means to say, I believe, is that the thigh-vein is related to motion, going, progress, growth. It is a symbol of dynamism and the price one must pay for such struggle. Judaism has taught us through Jacob to be a mehalekh, even if it hurts, unlike Esau.


Nov. 25, 1972

Concise Code: Lighting Shabbat Candles

Excerpted from “The Concise Code of Jewish Law – Vol. 2: A Guide to the Observance of Shabbat by Rabbi Gersion Appel, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books

Concise Code_Shabbat_Appel_3d high res


2. It is a mitzvah to light many candles in the home in honor of Shabbat. Some are accustomed to light ten candles, others seven candles. One of the most common customs is to light one candle for every member of the family. In any case, you should light no less than two candles*, symbolizing shamor and zachor, the words that the Torah uses to introduce the commandment of Shabbat in the two accounts of the Ten Commandments, respectively. (In Sefer Shemot, the verse says, “Remember—zachor—the Shabbat day to keep it holy” (Shemot 20:8) and in Sefer Devarim, the verse says, “Observe—shamor—the Shabbat day to keep it holy” (Devarim 5:12)**. If necessary, though, one candle suffices. The candles should be of sufficient size so that they will burn at least until after the meal. You should try to obtain fine candles that will give a good light.

Rav Huna said, “One who regularly lights Shabbat candles will merit children who are learned in Torah” (Shabbat 23b). This is hinted to in the verse, “For the commandment (mitzvah) is a candle, and Torah is light” (Mishlei 6:23), that is to say, through the mitzvah of lighting the Shabbat candles will come the light of Torah (Rashi to Shabbat 23b, s.v. banim).

You should give some charity before lighting the candles.***

  • * A Woman Who Forgot to Light Shabbat Candles: The custom is that if a woman forgets to light the Shabbat candles, she lights an extra candle every week from then on. If she didn’t light, however, because she was prevented from doing so for some compelling reason, she does not need to light an additional candle. If a woman could not light the candles, but someone else lit candles for her, she likewise does not need to light an additional candle. Our traditional minhagim are to be taken seriously and cherished, as they are passed down from generation to generation. A person should never think that a minhag can be treated lightly, as minhagim form the bedrock of our experience as Jews. This minhag is no exception. Since, however, the purpose of Shabbat candles is to introduce tranquility and shalom bayit into the home, it would be both ironic and wrong to impose the penalty of having to light an extra candle on a woman, as in many cases forgetting to light Shabbat candles is part of a more complex dynamic in the home. In the event that the Shabbat candles were not lit, a family would be best advised to seek the counsel of a rabbi who will sensitively direct them towards the proper conduct in the future.
  • ** Number of Shabbat Candles: Seven candles are taken to correspond to the seven days of the week and the seven lights of the Menorah in the Sanctuary, while ten candles would correspond to the Ten Commandments. The prevalent custom is to light two candles and an additional candle for each child in the family. However, the extra candles over and above the two that are traditional in every home do not have to be on the table where the meal is eaten. If you are away from home, the custom is to light only the minimum two candles, regardless of your practice at home.
  • *** Prayers at Candle Lighting: Candle lighting is traditionally a time of prayer as well. Many women have the custom to pray for their children and families at this holy time (see Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 75:2)


6. The duty to light Shabbat candles applies to men as well as to women,* except that women take precedence with respect to this mitzvah, and when a woman is home, she is accorded the privilege of lighting the Shabbat candles.** The husband may assist in performing the mitzvah by preparing the candles, and by lighting the wicks and then snuffing them out, as this will make them easier to kindle. In the case of a woman who has given birth, although the husband lights the candles at home if the wife is still in the hospital, she may light in her room, where she eats, and make the berachah as well. ***

  • * Who is Obligated to Light Candles?: There is often a bit of confusion regarding who is obligated to light Shabbat candles. Casual observation might lead a person to conclude that only married women are obligated to light. This is not so. In order to understand who has to light and when, it might be helpful to organize the halachah into the following levels of obligation: The first level is the formal obligation to light candles with a berachah every week. This level is generally kept by married women only (see following note). Married women light candles with a berachah no matter where they are, and even if many other women are lighting. The second level of obligation is for each individual to ensure that he or she is in a place with light, as everyone is obligated to have lights for the Shabbat meal. The difference between this level and the previous one is that not everyone is actually obligated to light the candles and say the berachah. For example, a student who is away from home is obligated in the mitzvah of Shabbat candles, but he or she fulfills that obligation if someone else is lighting. A yeshiva student thus does not have to light candles in the dining room because, generally, one of the faculty or his wife will light there. If no one else lights, one of the students must light for all. Similarly, if a young woman who lives in her own apartment is a guest for Shabbat, she does not need to light candles, as her hosts will provide the lights on her behalf. However, if she is hosting the meal, she would need to light her own candles, as no one else is going to do so. The third level is to avoid being completely in the dark even if it is not during the meal. This would impact someone who would not ordinarily need to light for any of the reasons found above, yet finds himself or herself sleeping in a room that is pitch black. In that case, there is an obligation to light candles with a berachah. However, if there is a light from the outside which helps the person to see in his or her room, no additional light is needed. In truth, this third level is much less common in our day and age
    with street, hall, and house lights as ubiquitous as they are.
  • ** The Custom for Girls to Light Shabbat Candles: It is customary in most communities that a woman begins lighting Shabbat candles on the Shabbat following her wedding. A girl who lives at home is not obliged to light Shabbat candles. However, if she wishes, she may light candles without reciting the berachah, but listen to her mother’s blessing and then say Amen. An unmarried woman, as well as a man, who lives independently or away from home, should light candles. Some, such as the Hasidim of Lubavitch, have adopted the custom that girls from three years of age light candles for Shabbat. This is intended to acquaint them with the mitzvah and to inspire them for its observance. Others, however, particularly Sefardim, do not follow this practice.
  • *** Lighting Candles After Childbirth: In the view of some poskim, women should not light the candles on the first Shabbat following childbirth. However, the general custom is for women to light them if they are able.