Friday, September 30, 2016

Words Of Wisdom

Nitzavim/Rosh Hashana - Never Despair!!

Shaaaloooooommm sweeeetest friends!!!!

This looks like it will be the last dvar torah that I will send out this year so you can be relaxed....

The foundation of our service of Hashem is gratitude [as the Chovos Helevavos writes about at length] and therefore I feel compelled to express my gratitude. 

I want to thank EVERYONE for their friendship. Solitary confinement is the most brutal and cruel punishment that is employed by various regimes. There is also a form of emotional solitary confinement where a person feels all alone in the world and that nobody cares. Therefore I have tremendous gratitude that I have so many people whom I know and with whom I am close. 

I especially want to thank those special people who enable me to devote my life to spiritual pursuits and free me from the burden of the daily pursuit of the Almighty dollar and instead allow me to focus on the Almighty. This is the 30th year that I merit to sit and learn [while occasionally standing but only to prepare myself a cup of tea] and I can't believe that I have made it to this point with a roof over my head [roofs can be quite expensive because you need walls to hold them up and there have to be lots of things inside those walls], a wife and six well fed children [with one presently in Uman ostensibly eating a seudas mitzva by the kever of Rabbeinu who called בקול גדול that אין שום יאוש בעולם כלל - there is NO ROOM for despair - see further]. The thousands that I have merited to share Torah with and the many sefarim [some published, others waiting to be redeemed] are all credited to the Zevuluns who graciously invest in this project. I bless myself that I can continue for many years to come in good health and that all those who helped me should be rewarded by Hashem a MILLION FOLD in all areas of life - health, prosperity, happiness, emotional and spiritual health and all of their hearts desires li-tova. 

I also thank the sponsors of the my seventy thousand sefer [digital] library who enable the broad research that my heart desires. This labor of love cannot have been accomplished without them and I return my love to them. Thousands and thousands of hours of intense pleasure is due to their largesse and I can't thank them enough. They are R' Chaim Yehoshua Hakohen Austein Shlita, R' Ephraim Abba Gervis Shlita, R' Doniel Yaakov Zweigbaum Shlita, R' Anonymous Shlita from Beit Shemesh and a group of students from Mevaseret [where I spent one year before my employer told me that for shana bet I should find somewhere else to go. Hashem should bless him. He taught me that one need not rely on a monthly paycheck but on Hashem and He will take care of you JUST FINE!! I am not convinced that this was his intention but it achieved the desired results nevertheless....].

I also want to thank the many people who hosted me in my sojourns to the US of A. מי כעמך ישראל!!! Jews are the BEST. I love you all!!  [The kiss is for the guys. The ladies get a smile and a bow].

I also want to thank my parents for EVERYTHING!!! Where would I be without them? For one - not in this world... So I owe them so much it is frightening to think about it. 

And of course to Hashem!!!
עַד הֵנָּה לא עֲזָרוּנוּ רַחֲמֶיךָ וְלֹא עֲזָבוּנוּ חסדיך ואל תטשנו ה' אלקנו לנצח!!

I want to dedicate this dvar torah to my beloved friends:
R' Shmuel Binyamin Stein Shlita
R' Eytan Feldman Shlita
R' Aharon Yisrael Feit Shlita
R' Yehuda Yaacov Splindler Shlita
R' Moshe Yehuda Hanus Shlita
R' Elitzur Agus Shlita
[All close friends from the Yeshiva that is named in honor of the Kotel and its offshoot]. 
May they and their families be blessed with infinite shefa in all areas of life. 

Also לעילוי נשמת my father-in-law R' Chaim Tzvi ben Eliyahu whose yahrtzeit is Erev Rosh Hashana.

This weeks parsha talks about teshuva. לא נפלאת היא ממך ולא רחוקה היא - It is doable, the Torah tells us. 

The gemara in Brachos [10a - those are my upstairs neighbors. I grew up on 9b] relates a story about a dialogue [what is a monologue? One person talking and other people listening. What is a dialogue? Two people talking and nobody listening...] between Chizkiyahu [not the rabbi from the Rova, the son of... but the King from the Rova of 2,500 or so years ago] and Yeshaiyahu Hanavi. Chizkiyahu didn't want to have children because he saw that the children who would come from him would not be ehrliche yidden but sinful people. Who wants sinful children?? 

Yeshaiyahu told him that how his children are going to turn out is Hashem's secret business and not ours. We must do as commanded without reservations [unless we are commanded to go to a hotel in which case we should do as commanded with reservations]. So Chizkiyahu asks Yeshaiyahu for his daughter [from ""]. Yeshaiyahu answered that it is too late. Buzzer sounded and Chizkiyahu can no longer have children. The decree has been sealed. It is over. The fat lady is belting out her nigunim. Finito!!

Chizkiyahu told Yeshaiyahu that he should stop prophesying and leave. There is a family tradition that he has that even when a sharp sword is on a person's neck he should NEVER DESPAIR from Divine mercy. There is ALWAYS hope. As we said before - אין שום יאוש בעולם כלל!!! There is never room for despair. [Daf Yomi learners will soon get to Eilu Metzios where the sugya of יאוש שלא מדעת appears. This can mean that all יאוש - despair, is without true knowledge for if a person really knew the truth he would NEVER give up hope].

The Bach [the rabbi on the margin of the gemara and not the composer] fills in the end of the story. He ended up taking Yeshaiyahu's daughter and had 2 children - Menashe and Ravsheyka. They were both evil.

Ohhhhh. BUMM-MMER! - I was SOOOO hoping that there would be a happy ending. Or as the say in Modern Hebrew "Heppe End". 

But wait!! The pasuk in Divrei Hayomim [2, 33,12] tells us that Menashe was exceedingly submissive before Hashem. The Zohar Hakadosh tells us that Menashe was the quintessential [that is a very rabbinic word] Baal Teshuva. He turned out GREAT. True Yiddishe nachas. [What does a Breslover wish his friend who had a baby? N-Na-Nach-Nacha-Nachas-From-Your-Child].

Wow! "Heppe End" after all! 

What is the lesson? This teaches us, explains Rav Dov Hakohen Kook Shlita in his sefer Ohel Simcha, that teshuva comes from a place of complete despair. When it looks like it is ALL OVER, no chance, THAT is when true deep teshuva kicks in. From Chizkiyahu to whom it seemed that there was no hope [and he was told so by a prophet of Hashem] came the paradigm of teshuva.

This brings to mind a famous story from the gemara:

And does not one die on renouncing sins other [than idolatry]? Surely it has been taught: It was said of R. Eleazar b. Dordaya that he did not leave out any harlot in the world without coming to her. Once, he heard that there was a certain prostitute in one of the towns by the sea who accepted a purse of coins for her hire. He took a purse of coins and crossed seven rivers for her sake. As he was with her, she passed gas and said: 'As this gas will not return to its place, so will Eleazar b. Dordaya never be received in repentance.' He thereupon went, sat between two hills and mountains and exclaimed: 'O, you hills and mountains, plead for mercy for me!' They replied: 'How shall we pray for you? We stand in need of it ourselves, for it is said, "For the mountains shall depart and the hills be removed!" So he exclaimed: 'Heaven and earth, plead for mercy for me!' They, too, replied: How shall we pray for you? We stand in need of it ourselves, for it is said, "For the heavens shall vanish away like smoke, and the earth shall wax old like a garment." He then exclaimed: 'Sun and moon, plead for mercy for me!' But they also replied: 'How shall we pray for you? We stand in need of it ourselves, for it is said, "Then the moon shall be confounded and the sun ashamed." He exclaimed: Stars and constellations plead for mercy for me!' Said they: 'How shall we pray for you? We stand in need of it ourselves, for it is said, "And all the hosts of heaven shall moulder away." 

Said he: The matter then depends upon me alone! He placed his head between his knees, he wept aloud until his soul departed. Then a bat-kol was heard proclaiming: 'Rabbi Eleazar b. Dordaya is destined for the life of the world to come!' Now, here was a case of a sin [other than idolatry] and yet he did die! - In that case, too, since he was so much addicted to immorality it is as [if he had been guilty of] idolatry. Rabbi [on hearing of it] wept and said: One may acquire eternal life after many years, another in one hour! Rabbi also said: Not only are penitents accepted, they are even called 'Rabbi'! [Avoda Zara 17a].

He was an ADDICT. An addict to immoral behavior for which he was willing to spend a fortune of money and trouble himself to travel overseas! This woman was a messenger from Above to tell him that there is no hope for him. He is a goner. So he might as well just enjoy himself and not have any guilt feelings [see the Sefer Mei Marom Ori Vi-yishi and the Sefer Sifsei Chaim who explain this story very beautifully]. He grabbed himself and refused to accept her "psak". He turned to various forces of nature to help him but was rebuffed. He then realized that it is up to him and if he really wants it then NOTHING can stop him. 

True teshuva comes from a place of hopelessness. A person just hits bottom, maybe he finds himself in a church basement at an AA meeting and realizes how low he stooped [so low that he can play handball on the curb]. At that point he can elevate himself to a place where he instantaneously becomes a Tzadik and goes STRAIGHT to the good place. 

Maybe that is the meaning of the heavenly voice that emanated and told Acher [Elisha Ben Avuyah] that שובו בנים שובבים - return my naughty children EXCEPT for Acher. This Bas Kol was intended to give him a schuckle, shake him up, and thereby return to the path of goodness. 

In this weeeks parsha the pasuk tells us that we are sent to galus. ויתשם מעל אדמתם - there will be exiled from their Land. Rashi says that ויתשם means וטלטלינון - They were SHAKEN UP. That is why we are sent to galus. To wake us up. That is why we are not supposed to sleep on Rosh Hashana day. Rosh Hashana is a time to WAKE UP. We blow the shofar which is a WAKEUP CALL according to the Rambam.

[Guy asks his friend why he has no clocks in his house - how does he know what time it is? He says he figures it out. His friend asks - what if you wake up in the middle of the night, how can you figure out the time? He replies - I just use a shofar. How can you use a shofar to tell time? The fellow explains - I lean out the window and blow the shofar and someone inevitably screams - what are you nuts!?! - It's 2:45 in the morning!]

That is why we are all suffering from what we are suffering. It could be problems with children, shalom bayis [although we don't like to admit it - so we keep our voices down when arguing], financial problems [I can't find a bank to hold all of my trillions], health issues, being a Cubs fan [it has been a LOOOONG TIME since the last world series victory], a job we don't like, spiritual doubts and instability, emotional distress, stress [you don't get ulcers from what you eat but from what eats you..] etc. etc. We are ALL suffering from something.  

It is all to shake us up, often to the point where we just want to give up. It is from THIS POINT that true teshuva kicks in. 


May we all merit to never lose hope and to know that NO MATTER WHAT we can transform any situation into something positive - if only by changing our perspective and often even making concrete changes. It takes a lot of hope, intestinal fortitude and belief. If we remain strong then it can happen. With the help of KB"H!!!

May we all see a personal redemption from our individual difficulties and ultimately a cosmic redemption where the Glory of Hashem is revealed in the world and we see with our very own eyes that all of our struggles were intended to bring us to a better place.

Bi-ahava rabba,


Listen And Live

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Roshei Teivos Elul

אבא לאומן ואמא לבד.

Thanks to R' C.Y. who shared

Is Hillary A Man ?

I don't write about politics because that I know little about it. I have opinions like everyone else but they are based more on what I imagine and speculate than what I understand. Sad that people like me decide who will be the President of the United States....

A thought about Hillary. She is apparently no great lover of Torah and Am Yisrael [or of Bill for that matter:-)]. But I feel badly for her. She is a woman. Politics is a man's world. Most Presidents, Prime Ministers, Senators, Congressmen, Governers, Mayors etc. etc. are men. It is a tough dog-eat-dog world where you have to be a tiger [or dog] in order to hold your own. You are criticized no matter what you do and the criticism is seen, heard and read by hundreds of millions of people.

Woman by nature are more sensitive than men [as Chazal make clear as does the metzius that any married man will attest to] which means that a woman in the public eye like Hillary suffers more than men in her position. She also must repress her softer more feminine qualities in order to display a front of power and fearlessness. She must be a man among men. I strongly suspect that it takes a toll on her because she is really not a man. 

What has this to do with us?

Men should cultivate their male qualities and women should cultivate their female qualities [despite the post modern attempt to blur the lines between gender differences]. We should also be busy trying to cultivate our personal strengths and bolstering our personal weaknesses. Life very often doesn't allow us to be our TRUE SELVES and that is the tragedy. 

Are we always really ourselves or are we just acting because we perceive that society has certain expectations of us?

Food for thought and time compels me to stop here....     

Love And Faith

אין האדם מוכשר לשום כח רוחני שבעולם בשלמות גדולה כזאת שהוא מוכשר לאמונה ולאהבה, וזהו האות, שבכחות אלו מונחים כל יסודות הויית מהותיותו.

[א' רכ"ב]

There is no spiritual power in the world that brings to as much perfection as faith and love. The sign is that these capacities are at the root of the essence of our being. 


..... To all mesayimei Meseches Bava Kamma!

Huge accomplishment! 珞

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Going Deeper

לע"נ ר' חיים צבי בן אליהו
ולע"נ שיינדל פייגה בת עקיבא

The gemara famously says that Baalei Teshuva are greater than people who are tzadikim from birth.

There are many explanations of this gemara. One is that it is simply harder for the Baal Teshuva to be religious and observant because he was previously immersed in sin. The Tzadikim from birth are already habituated to being good. Another explanation is that Baalei Teshuva have a greater thirst for closeness to Hashem. A third explanation is that a sinner channels all of his passions for sin towards mitzvos. The passion for תאוה and the like is generally greater than the passion people have for mitzvos. [Let us see how many people see a "good time" as a six course meal in a restaurant as opposed to people who fantasize about learning a gemara with Rashi and Tosfos and Pnei Yehoshua and Minchas Chinuch and Rav Chaim. ALSO a six course meal but not as exciting for most people]. 

The Rav ztz"l has a surprising explanation.

האור הפנימי הזורח בכל הויה מוכרח הוא לבנות לו את עולמו. רץ הוא במסלולו מבלי לשום לב אל התקשרותו הכללית באור המקיף שחוץ ממנו, שהוא מלא עולמים, גם לפי אותה המדה שיוכל הוא בפנימיותו להבחין. אמנם בפנימיותו עריגה עליונה קבועה, להתחבר באור המקיף הגדול ורב ממנו באין ערוך. כשהיא מתגברת, מגלה היא את אור התשובה במעלתה העליונה, העולה על הצדקות הגמורה, שלא נשקעה בהוייתה הפנימית מעולם, כ"א הסתגלה תמיד למה שגדול ממנה, המקיף אותה בעוזו.

If I understand him correctly [עי' קובץ האסיף ג' עמ' 816 שהבין בערך כך] he is saying that Tzadikim are always living on such a high plane [אור המקיף] that they never focused on their internal world in the same way that a Baal Teshuva is. A Baal Teshuva goes through a process where he intensely and painfully introspects about who he is, why he is that way, what are the causes of his behavior, how can he remain who he is while altering his behavior, what is his special niche in the world, what is unique about his neshama and personal qualities etc. etc. etc. He lives with his אור פנימי. 

People who went through crises and went through therapy are often much deeper than people who didn't. Take a person who was suicidal. He questioned WHY HE HAS TO BE HERE? That is a great question we should ALL be asking ourselves [without the attendant desire to stop being here]. For many, Elul-Tishrei is a time to say some selichos, work on speaking a bit less lashon hara and maybe coming to shul on time or early. 

For those who are TRUE Bnei Aliyah, those who are really deep, it is a time to go DEEEEPPPP into the psyche and to ask basic questions [in addition to the ones I mentioned earlier]. "What story am I telling myself about the world?" "What story am I telling myself about MYSELF?" "What is my self definition?" "How are my behaviors damaging to myself and those around me?" "How are other behaviors of mine healthy and beneficial?" "How are my relationships?" "Am I the father/mother/brother/sister  /son/  daughter/ friend I should be?"

The reason that people are the same in Cheshvan as they are in Av is because this work hasn't been done. Just a little chest banging, singing the Yud Gimmel Middos and few extra mitzvos [which are all great and necessary] but no "root canal", no plumbing the depth of their souls. 

Do you want to be different?

To use the Rav's language - look to the אור הפנימי!


The Two Stages Of Geula - National And Personal

לזכות ידי"נ הר"ר שמואל בנימין בן תשנה רחל לאה וכל בני ביתו לברכה והצלחה וכל טוב סלה!!

The geulah comes in two stages. Stage one is to reveal the hidden abilities and talents of the Jewish people. To develop technology, medicine, the State, to build the economy etc. etc.

Then comes stage two - To call out the name of Hashem and to realize that He is the True Power behind everything.

In the meantime many of the Jewish people have succeeded in fulfilling stage one and all that is left is to carry out stage two. Our Avodah is to publicize stage two to the world. We must make it known that all of our power comes from Above and that אין עוד מלבדו. 

Says the Rav ztz"l:

אופיה של הגאולה הבאה לפנינו, שראשית צעדיה הננו חשים ומרגישים, הוא בתוכיותה של כנסת-ישראל. מתפתחת היא האומה, בכל כחותיה, מגדלת היא את רוחה, את טבעה ואת עצמיותה, אינה מכרת עדיין את עומק הישות העליונה שהיא כל יסוד תקומתה. עינה לארץ, ולשמים עדנה לא תביט. היא אינה שבה עדיין אל אישה הראשון בפועל, היא מעבדת את חייה בכחותיה הנמצאים בשרשי נשמתה. אמנם בלא קריאת שם, בלא מגמה מבוררת הכל הוא אור ד' וכבודו, אבל לא היא ולא העולם מכיר זה בבליטה, שם שמים לא שגור בפיה, אומץ וגבורה רודפת היא, אבל באמת הכל קודש ואלהי הוא. ורק בהגמר התוכן, בהעלות האומה למרום מצבה, אז יוחל אור אלהי נקרא בשם המפורש להגלות, יגלה ויראה, שכל מה שהאיר וכל מה שיאיר, כל שחי וכל שיחיה בה, הכל אור אלהי עולם אלהי ישראל הוא, וזה שמו אשר יקראו ד' צדקנו, ושם העיר מיום ד' שמה. מצב הגאולה זהו יסוד החזון של הרזים, שכנסת-ישראל לא תשוב למקומה לעתיד כי אם קודשא בריך הוא וכל חייליו יבואו אליה, ויקימו אותה מן עפרא ביקר סגי, אשרי עין ראתה כל אלה, ולמשמע אזן ותקוה תשמח נפשנו. והמשך הזמן, העובר בין ההופעות המיחדות המרוכזות בכנסת-ישראל, עד שיופיע אור תפארת ישראל, לדעת כי שם ד' נקרא עליה, הוא זמן חבלי משיח, שרק אמיץ אונים כרב יוסף היה אומר עליו ייתי ואזכה דאיתיב בטוא דכופתא דחמריה.

[קובץ ג' רכ"ה] 

On a personal level this is true as well. We cannot find our own redemption until we have actualized our potential and revealed all of the capabilities that lay dormant in our souls. As we reveal these talents, we must always attribute them to their Source [we don't have to wait until after they have been revealed but can appreciate Hashem's help all the way through]. Then we have achieved redemption. 

Why Are People Angry?

Because they haven't actualized their spiritual potential. That explains EVERYTHING. 

What a remarkable claim:

יסוד הכעס בא מצד חסרון היצירה הרוחנית. קיבוץ כחות רוחניים, העומדים לצאת אל הפועל בציור ובתפארת מובלט, דוחקים את הנשמה ומצערים אותה בקצפון פנימי. כל מלחמות גויים, וכל רצח ושוד שבבני אדם, עד כל רוגז שבבעלי חיים, מארס הנחש עד עקיצת קטן שברמשים, בכונה של היזק, בא מצד הכעס הכללי, האצור בעולם, שמצד עצור כח היצירה. וכל מה שהיצירה הרוחנית מתרחבת, כל מה שהפלגים של הדעה הרחבה מסתעפים בעזוז מרוצתם, כל מה שהתורה תתגדל ותתאדר, השלום מתרבה בעולם, אז יחזק במעוזי יעשה שלום לי, שלום יעשה לי.

[קובץ ח' רנ"א] 

This means pratically that in order to diminish our feelings of our and bitterness we must introspect, see what dormant creative powers lay inside of ourselves and then make a plan to actualize them. 

The Nazir Must Complete The Cycle And How That Impacts A Nazir She-nitztareya

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Tzedaka In Eretz Yisrael And Chutz Laaretz

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein zt"l

The section of the Torah dealing with the mitzva of tzedaka concludes with the clause, "Open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land" (Devarim 15:11). The Ramban notes: "It now says that there very well may be found a poor person at some point in some place where you will live; for the meaning of 'in your land' resembles the meaning of 'in all your settlements' – both in the land, and outside the land." The Ramban appears to have found it difficult that the Torah would mention Eretz Yisrael – "be-artzekha" (in your land) – in the context of the mitzva of tzedaka, which undoubtedly applies everywhere, including in the Diaspora. He therefore clarifies that the term "be-artzekha" refers not to Eretz Yisrael, but rather to Jewish communities in any geographic location.[1] Rabbenu Bechayei elaborates further on this issue, and after expressing the difficulty in understanding the word "be-artzekha," he suggests two interpretations:

According to the famous principle established elsewhere by the Ramban[2], that even "chovot ha-guf" – personal obligations cast purely upon the individual, without any connection to the land – are performed outside Eretz Yisrael solely for the purpose of preparing one for their ultimate fulfillment in the land, this concept is clearly exemplified in this verse. Rabbenu Bechayei writes:

"Primarily, tzedaka applies only in the land, although it is a personal obligation everywhere. This is true of all other mitzvot, that their obligation applies mainly in the land, as it is mentioned at the beginning of the parasha, 'These are the statutes and laws you must carefully observe in the land' – for all the mitzvot are the law of the God of the land."

Alternatively, Rabbenu Bechayei suggests that that verse's conclusion relates to the promise of blessing for giving tzedaka mentioned towards the end of the previous verse, which speaks of the agricultural shemitta laws, which apply only in Eretz Yisrael. He writes:

"Or, 'be-artzekha' would mean 'even in your land'… The parasha means, take care not to say that as the seventh year, the shemitta year, approaches, and I will have to leave alone my money [debts] or my fields in the land, how can I give tzedaka then? I will thus incur a loss from every side. It therefore says: 'Have no regrets when giving to him, for in return the Lord your God will bless you… I therefore command you, saying: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman even in your land, where you leave alone what is yours, be it leaving alone fields or leaving alone money – there I also command you with regard to tzedaka, because God will bless you for this and add onto what is yours. Not to mention that you must give charity outside the land where there is no shemitta of fields. We learn from here that when it mentions 'be-artzekha,' it does not come to exclude the Diaspora, for if 'ba-aretz' meant specifically [the land], the verse would have mentioned, 'When you come into the land' or 'When you enter the land' as we find regarding the mitzvot dependent upon the land."

The difference between these two approaches is clear, though both run counter to the approach taken by the Ramban, who, as we saw, understands "be-artzekha" as referring to Jewish communities in all geographic locations, even outside Eretz Yisrael. According to both interpretations of Rabbenu Bechayei, "be-artzekha" indeed refers specifically to Eretz Yisrael, only from this verse we may extend the obligation to the Diaspora, as well. All three interpretations, however, require explanation. Although the Ramban's approach satisfactorily explains the term "be-artzekha" at the end of the parasha, it does not justify its appearance at the parasha's introduction: "If there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements, in your land ['be-artzekha'] that the Lord your God is giving you."[3] Here, "be-artzekha" clearly refers to Eretz Yisrael. A similar difficulty may be raised regarding Rabbenu Bechayei's second interpretation, which, as we saw, builds upon the absence in the verse of any mention of entering the land. After all, the verse does, indeed, explicitly mention "in your land that the Lord your God is giving you," which appears to specify Eretz Yisrael no less than it would if it had mentioned entering the land. This undoubtedly refers to Eretz Yisrael, as emerges clearly from the discussion towards the end of the first chapter of Makkot, in the context of the appointment of judges.[4] Presumably, then, we must conclude that the verse limits this obligation to Eretz Yisrael. Several difficulties arise according to Rabbenu Bechayei's first approach, as well. Beyond the questions raised by the Ramban's theory itself, a full analysis of which lies beyond the scope of our discussion, why did the Torah choose to exemplify this general principle concerning mitzva fulfillment in the Diaspora, if only incidentally, specifically in the context of the mitzva of tzedaka?

The "Peirush Ha-Tur Ha-arokh" on this verse does not cite these earlier commentators and writes:

"We must ask, why does it say, 'be-artzekha' - this is not a mitzva dependent upon the land! And similarly in the beginning of the section [it says,] 'in any of your settlements in your land'! Perhaps it comes to afford precedence to the poor of Eretz Yisrael, as they [Chazal] expound on the verse, 'the poor man among you' – that it affords precedence to 'your poor' over the poor of a different city."

The basis the Tur suggests for granting precedence to the poor of Eretz Yisrael is a Gemara in Masekhet Bava Metzia (71a), which interprets the verse, "If you lend money to my people, to the poor man among you" as requiring lending first to the poor in one's own locale. This verse, however, makes no mention of Eretz Yisrael, and thus provides only a parallel for the Tur's theory, rather than a source.

In truth, however, the halakha of precedence established by the Tur appears explicitly in the Sifrei's comments on this section of tzedaka, only not at the end of the parasha, but towards the beginning. Commenting on the clause, "in any of your settlements, in your land," the Sifrei writes, "In any of your settlements – the residents of your city take precedence over the residents of a different city; in your land – the residents of the land take precedence over the residents of the Diaspora." Clearly, then, according to the Sifrei, "be-artzekha" indeed refers to Eretz Yisrael, as opposed to the Ramban's interpretation, unless he distinguishes between the Torah's use of the term at the beginning of this section and at the end. Additionally, the Sifrei explicitly states that the mitzva of tzedaka applies equally in Eretz Yisrael and the Diaspora, and the difference between them relates only to the issue of precedence.

The Poor of Eretz Yisrael

Though the issue itself seems clear and straightforward, there remains room to discuss the nature and root of the precedence afforded to the poor of Eretz Yisrael, and the relationship between the mitzva of tzedaka itself to Eretz Yisrael. 

The halakha granting precedence to the poor of Eretz Yisrael is cited by the Semag (mitzvat asei 162) and codified by the Shulchan Arukh (Y.D. 251:3). The Rambam, however, in Hilkhot Matenot Aniyim (7:13), writes: "A poor person who is one's relative precedes all other people; the poor of one's family precede the poor of his city; the poor of one's city precede the poor of a different city, as it says, 'to the poor and needy kinsman in your land'." The Rambam establishes the priority scale based on the Sifrei, but makes no mention of granting precedence to the poor of Eretz Yisrael over those of the Diaspora. Several Acharonim have already addressed the question as to why the Rambam omitted this halakha of the Sifrei.[5]

In resolving this question, let us first consider the question addressed by the early Acharonim regarding a situation of a poor resident of Eretz Yisrael and a poor resident of one's town in the Diaspora. To whom does one grant precedence with regard to tzedaka – the resident of Eretz Yisrael, or the resident of his own city in Chutz La-aretz? The Bach (Y.D. 251) writes, "It would appear that [specifically] when they are both from a different city it says that the residents of Eretz Yisrael precede the residents of Chutz La-aretz. But the poor of one's town in Chutz La-aretz clearly precede the poor of a different city, even if they are from Eretz Yisrael."[6] The Shakh (Y.D. 251:6) rules accordingly. Seemingly, one can raise the same question as to whether one's relative from a different city precedes local residents who are not relatives. The Netziv, in his commentary to the Sifrei, writes based on his own intuition and a careful reading of a passage in the Tana De-bei Eliyahu that "it would seem that one's family members take precedence, even if they live in a different city."

This ruling clearly emerges from the comments of the Rambam, who establishes definitively, "A poor person who is one's relative precedes all other people," even before he outlines the priority scale, and this is indeed how we would logically assume. Nevertheless, it seems puzzling that this question has earned virtually no discussion in the earlier works, as did the question of the residents of one's own city versus the residents of Eretz Yisrael. True, the Bach thought the answer was simple, but he nevertheless found it necessary to raise the issue for discussion.

The answer to this question is clear and lies in a fundamental difference between the precedence granted to relatives and local townspeople on the one hand, and that afforded to the poor of Eretz Yisrael, on the other. When it comes to one's relatives and townspeople, the precedence given is grounded in the relationship between the giver and the recipient, and the obligation that emerges from this relationship. This applies to both relatives and neighbors, such that any conflict between the two groups involves a clash between different levels of the same phenomenon. In such a conflict, clearly the obligation towards relatives, which adds onto "It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him" the dimension of, "and do not ignore your own flesh [kin]," triumphs. And although the verse cries out, "Better a close neighbor than a distant brother" (Mishlei 27:10), this is said only with regard to the benefit – and even that, as implied by the verse and commentators, applies only under certain circumstances. But regarding the level of obligation that flows from the existential connection, which extends beyond practical association and its results, undoubtedly family kinship exceeds neighborly commitments, and there was therefore no need to bring this question up for discussion. By contrast, the preference granted to the poor of Eretz Yisrael need not be interpreted as rooted in their connection to the donors, for were this to be the case, this connection would depend upon the identity of the donors. Additionally, a Diaspora resident's primary connection and attachment would appear to be with his circle of peers in his own community, rather than with the residents of Eretz Yisrael.

This precedence, therefore, evolves from the stature of the residents of Eretz Yisrael, either the individual stature of each person by virtue of his residence in the land, or the collective standing of the Jewish population in Eretz Yisrael, about which the Gemara writes, "These are the ones referred to as 'kahal'" (Horiyot 3). The Chatam Sofer (Responsa, Y.D. 33-4) discusses at length the question of affording preference to the residents of Jerusalem over the population of the rest of Eretz Yisrael. He focuses his discussion on the single issue of whether or not we consider the inhabitants of the holy city greater "ba'alei ma'aseh" ("people of good deeds") than the rest of Eretz Yisrael's residents. He thus introduces into this discussion an analysis of the halakhic sanctity of Jerusalem nowadays, whether or not it earns unique distinction even after the Temple's destruction, and so forth.

It emerges, then, that the precedence afforded to the poor of Eretz Yisrael does not lie on the same continuum as that granted to one's kin and local residents. One might have therefore concluded that since a conflict between the two involves a conflict between two distinct systems, perhaps the stature and importance of the recipient would warrant giving preference to the poor of Eretz Yisrael. The Bach and Shakh thus found it necessary to clarify that in truth, this is not the case, that the factor of relationship overrides the consideration of the recipient's stature. This is true for one of two reasons: either because generally this system, of personal connection, takes precedence over the other, an issue that deserves independent treatment, or because in this case, the specific consideration of dwelling in the land does not override the donor's connection to the recipient, though other merits may, indeed, warrant granting this preference.

Translated by Rabbi David Silverberg
From VBM of Yeshivat Hat Etzion

[1] Compare with the Rambam's comments in Hilkhot Shemita Ve-yovel (10:10): "A shofar is sounded in every 'gevul Yisrael' [Jewish area]." Although the verse specifically adds in the context of this mitzva "be-khol artzekhem," the Minchat Chinukh (331) holds that the shofar for the jubilee is sounded even in Chutz La-aretz (as opposed to the view of the Or Samei'ach).

We should mention as well the comments of the Netziv in his "Ha'amek Davar," explaining the words, "evyonekha be-artzekha" ("your poor in your land"): "In the place where you live and know how to deal with them."

[2] Bereishit 26:5; Vayikra 18:25; Devarim 11:18.

[3] The common interpretation of the term "be-artzekha" understands it as a reference to Eretz Yisrael. See, for example, the Gemara's comment in Bava Batra 81a regarding the obligation of bikkurim: "'That you bring from your land [me-artzekha]' – this comes to exclude the Diaspora."

[4] See Makkot 7a; Rambam, Hilkhot Sanhedrin 1:2.

[5] See the Acharonim cited in the "Sefer Ha-maftei'ach" in R. Frankel's edition of the Rambam.

[6] Incidentally, we should note that the Rambam also omits the halakha granting precedence to relatives and one's fellow townspeople when it comes to lending, despite its unanimity in the Gemara; this is halakha is codified in the Shulchan Arukh – C.M. 97:1.

Halacha And Custom

R' Chaim Navon

As is well known, Halakha attaches great significance to custom. Many halakhic authorities regard general custom as a crucial factor when they come to decide Halakha. In this lecture, we shall investigate the source of the legal authority of custom. Why are we obligated to follow custom? Jewish customs were certainly not given at Sinai, as were the mitzvot of the Torah, nor did they issue from the mouth of God. Why, then, are they endowed with binding force?


According to one approach – conceptually, perhaps, the simplest – the validity of custom derives from Halakha itself. With regard to customs pertaining to Choshen Mishpat, i.e., civil law, the matter is simple: the halakhic validity of general custom stems from the fact that, presumably, the two parties to the transaction agreed to be bound by that custom. Halakha states that in civil matters, "a person may make stipulations on what is written in the Torah," or one may contract agreements outside the parameters of what is laid down by the Torah. In other words, the two parties may determine for themselves the business model that they wish to follow. For example, a person may accept a bailment under conditions different from those mentioned in Halakha. If two people, therefore, agree that the one will buy a car from the other, and according to local custom, the buyer bears the cost of having the car tested, this too is implicit in their agreement. Thus, we understand why custom is binding in civil matters.

The problem arises with regard to customs pertaining to other areas of Halakha. Even in these areas, however, the simplest approach is that the validity of custom is based upon clear halakhic foundations.


R. Yitzchak Alfasi (Rif) argues that the force of custom stems from the fact that custom reflects an ancient takkana (enactment).

"This is the source of customs that we follow: a majority of the community consults with the elders of the community, and they enact a takkana as they decide, and observe it. This is custom. Even after many years, when they no longer remember the source, as long as it had been maintained, it stands on its presumption." (Responsa Rif, no. 11)

According to Rif, the validity of a custom stems from the fact that we presume that the custom reflects a takkana enacted by the community in accordance with the strict halakhic criteria for enacting takkanot. A custom is an enactment whose rationale has been forgotten, and we continue to observe it only because we presume that when it had been first established, it was a valid halakhic takkana.

R. Asher ben Yechiel (Rosh) writes in a similar vein:

"Where Halakha wavers in your hand, follow custom. This means: If there is vacillation regarding the law, it being unclear to you according to whom the Halakha was decided, and you see that people conduct themselves [in a certain way] – follow the custom, for one may presume that the authorities who established the custom thought that this was the law." (Responsa Rosh, no. 55, sec. 10)

Like Rif before him, Rosh also argues that the validity of a custom stems from the fact that we assume that it reflects ancient Halakha. Rif presumes that custom reflects an ancient takkana, whereas Rosh presumes that it reflects an earlier determination of a law that had been the subject of a difference of opinion. Rosh narrows the area in which custom has force. Even according to Rif, however, we appear to be dealing with a rather limited area: custom is only binding in an area where a takkana would be relevant. Both seem to agree that there is no room to speak of custom in an area that is clearly non-halakhic, e.g., the color of the ark-covering used on the High Holidays, or the apple dipped in honey eaten on Rosh Ha-shana. It should be pointed out that this approach is quite prevalent among the Acharonim.[1]


The Chatam Sofer raises another possibility regarding the source of the validity of custom. He too bases custom on clear halakhic foundations.

"The Sages attached great importance to this custom [= the second day of Yom Tov observed in the Diaspora], for it is indeed great. How great is the force of this custom, that we say in Kiddush, 'this festival of Atzeret,' and similarly in the Amida prayer … Would it be a light matter for our Rabbis, the Tosafists, to mention falsely, 'this festival,' unless this custom were strong and severe? 

I am close to saying that it involves a Torah prohibition, created through a vow taken by the community and spreading to all of Israel. All the leniencies regarding its observance and the punishment [for its violation] … are due to the fact that, from the outset, they accepted [the custom] as a Rabbinic prohibition. But that which they accepted, and the manner in which they accepted it, involves the Torah prohibition, 'He shall not break his word' (Bamidbar 30:3). Acceptance [of the custom] is regarded as a vow…

I have spoken about this at length because, as a result of our many sins, the lawless in our nation have now grown in number. They present a false vision, ridiculing the second day of Yom Tov, that it is merely a custom. They do not wish to follow in the footsteps of the Sages of Israel; they speak against their own lives; they know not, nor do they understand; they walk on in darkness." (Responsa Chatam Sofer I, OC, no. 145)

The Chatam Sofer argues that a custom has the force of a vow that is binding by Torah law: once the members of a community observe a custom, it is regarded as if they had accepted it upon themselves by way of a vow. He, too, finds the source of custom's validity in Halakha, though obviously in a manner very different from that of Rif and Rosh. It should be pointed out that the Chatam Sofer's assertion that the violation of a custom involves a breach of a Biblical vow is a bit extreme. He himself testifies that his ruling was issued in the context of his public struggle with the proponents of religious reform, who treated custom with disdain.


We have seen that the Chatam Sofer may have been influenced by social considerations. There is, however, another authority who was quite explicit in relating to such considerations in this connection:

"No established custom should be changed … This is the Torah of the perfect man, to hold fast to the deeds of his fathers, without deviating to the right or the left. For were every individual to rely on his own discretion and judgment, instituting practices as he sees fit, without regard to those who came before him – one custom would be abolished today, a second tomorrow, and similarly the next day. All customs would disappear, and a new Torah would be established in every generation. This would spread even to matters that people treated as forbidden following the Torah authorities of their day. One transgression would lead to another." (R. Chayyim Palagi, Masa Chayyim, Minhagim, no. 213)

R. Chayyim Palagi (Turkey, 19th century) understood the social dynamics that custom creates. A person who treats customs with disdain will come to scorn the mitzvot proper as well. He too maintains that the validity of custom stems from Halakha, but in a different sense: observance of custom acts as a social guarantee for the observance of Halakha. 

This argument should not be treated lightly. A society that honors its deeply rooted customs, even when in and of themselves they appear to lack all rationale, instills in its members a respect for tradition, as well as the sense that they still have much to learn. People often tend to despise, with no apparent justification, anything that was created in the past. Faced with the choice between unfounded scorn for the past and unjustified respect, I would opt for unjustified respect.

According to all three views that have been mentioned, the validity of custom stems from Halakha. Clearly, then, according to the proponents of these theories, there is no room to consider customs that are contrary to Halakha:

"You also wrote that one should not deviate from accepted custom because of what people may say. The word minhag (m-n-h-g, 'custom'), however, is the same as Gehinom (g-h-n-m) spelled backwards. For if fools acted in a certain manner, the Sages did not do so. Even a fitting custom does not override the law, unless the law is in doubt." (Responsa of the Ba'alei Ha-tosafot, no. 14, in the name of Rabbenu Tam)


In contrast to the aforementioned views, which see Halakha as the source of custom's validity, other approaches emphasize the independent value of custom as an expression of the Jewish way of life. This is what Rav Hai Gaon, for example, wrote in a classic ruling. 

Rav Hai was asked about a custom pertaining to the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Ha-shana. In Rav Hai's day, and for a long time afterwards, it was customary to blow a single TShRT (tekiya, shevarim, teru'a, tekiya) during the Malkhuyot blessing, a single TShT (tekiya, shevarim, tekiya) during the Zikhronot blessing, and a single TRT (tekiya, teru'a, tekiya) during the Shofarot blessing, or in other words, a sum total of ten shofar blasts during the Amida. This custom seems to contradict halakhic logic, for the TShRT, TShT, and TRT combinations represent three alternatives for the teru'a blast, only one of which can be correct. It would appear, therefore, that in order to properly fulfill one's obligation, one would have to blow each alternative three times.[2] Rav Hai addresses this difficulty:

"The way we fulfill our obligation and perform the will of our Creator is correct and clear to us, a three-fold inheritance, faithfully copied and transmitted from father to son, generation after generation in Israel … The law has spread throughout all of Israel. And since we conduct ourselves in this manner, it is correct and a law to Moshe at Sinai that we have already fulfilled our obligation, so that any objection has already been removed. 

One might argue: If TShT is correct, then surely TRT is null, and if TRT is correct, then TShRT is null! Our response to him begins: How do we know that there is a mitzva to blow the shofar on this day? And regarding the Written Torah itself, how do know that it is the Torah of Moshe dictated to him by the Almighty? Surely it is on the word of the people of Israel who testify to it. They also testify that we fulfill our obligation in this manner, and that thus they have received by tradition from the prophets a law to Moshe at Sinai. 

What the community says serves as proof for the entire Mishna and the entire Gemara. More than any other proof, go out and see what the people are doing. This is the essence and the basis. Only afterwards do we consider all that was said in the Mishna or in the Gemara concerning the matter. If whatever follows from them can be reconciled with our established practice, fine. And if they contain anything that does not match what is in our hearts [i.e., what we practice] and cannot be clarified with proof, it will not override the essential thing." (Rav Hai Gaon, Temim De'im, 119)

Rav Hai then continues to explain why his customary manner of blowing the shofar does not contradict halakhic logic. The essence of what he has to say (which some have understood in the context of Rav Hai's anti-Karaite polemics), however, remains: objections raised against custom from the Talmudic passages are invalid, for custom is the foundation and basis for Jewish practice. According to Rav Hai, Halakha does not give custom its validity, but rather the testimony of the people of Israel is what validates Halakha. The essence, according to Rav Hai, is not the written tradition of Halakha, but rather the living tradition of the Jewish way of life. 

When Rav Hai argues that custom represents a tradition which is also "law given to Moshe at Sinai," he does not mean to say that custom restores ancient Halakha. Rather, he means that just as the theoretical laws were transmitted at Sinai, so too were the practical customs given there. The halakhic tradition is paralleled by a tradition of custom, the latter superior to the former. Prof. Israel Ta-Shema has outlined this approach as follows: 

"According to the point of view described above, 'practice' precedes 'law' not only in importance, but in logic as well. This is not like the question, which came first – the chicken or the egg. For we know with certainty that the practices existed first, and only later were the halakhot formulated. The relationship between Halakha, that is to say, the Talmud, and actual conduct may thus be compared to the relationship between the rules of grammar and a living language. Our ancestors started with actual talk, and not with learning the grammatical rules, which are nothing but an a posteriori description of 'standard' linguistic practice. Halakha is nothing but an attempt to generalize in an abstract manner the wealth of diversified practices." (I. Ta-Shema, Minhag Ashkenaz Ha-kadmon, p. 69)

A practical application of this approach may be found in the Talmud Yerushalmi:

"Were the prophet Eliyahu to come and say that chalitza may be performed with a shoe, we listen to him. [But were he to come and say] that chalitza may not be performed with a sandal, we do not listen to him. For it is the general practice to perform chalitza with a sandal, and custom overrides Halakha." (Yerushalmi, Yevamot 12:1)

Modern scholars have already noted,[3] however, that in this instance there is no direct clash between custom and Halakha, for the classical Halakha as it has come down to us correlates well with the common custom. The Yerushalmi's formulation implies, however, that there are circumstances in which custom is, indeed, given priority over Halakha. This position cannot be explained according to the approaches presented at the beginning of this lecture. Indeed, this is the way the Jewish community living in Eretz Israel understand the Yerushalmi's position:

"He [= Rav Yehudai Gaon] also sent a letter to Eretz Israel concerning … mitzvot regarding which they conduct themselves in a manner that is contrary to Halakha, and in accordance with customs they adopted during periods of persecution. But they rejected what he said, and sent him in reply: Custom overrides Halakha." (Ginzei Shechter, II, p. 559)

According to the view that assigns priority to custom over Halakha, it is clear that custom is not restricted to the realm of Halakha. According to this approach, we are not surprised to read the following:

"Halakha does not become fixed until it has become customary practice." (Tractate Soferim 14:16)

Upon this view, it is not Halakha that grants validity to custom, but rather custom that grants validity to Halakha.

Ideologically, how is it possible to justify the priority given to custom over Halakha? The justification may be based on the fact that a practical tradition exists, handed down from one generation to the next, which relates to actual practice as opposed to theoretical Halakha (as argued by Rav Hai Gaon). Alternatively, it may be argued that the authority to decide halakhic issues was handed over to the Jewish people, perhaps because they have healthy intuition, a developed spiritual sense, or even the holy spirit. This is what is implied in the words of Hillel:

"They said to him: 'O Master, what is the law if one forgot to bring the slaughtering knife on the eve of the Sabbath?' He said to them: 'I received this Halakha, but have forgotten it. Leave it to Israel. Even if they are not prophets, they are still the children of prophets.' The next day, he whose paschal sacrifice was a lamb, stuck [the knife] in its wool, and he whose sacrifice was a goat, stuck it between its horns. [Hillel] saw the act and recalled the Halakha, saying: 'Thus I have received the tradition from Shemaya and Avtalyon.'" (Pesachim 66a)

Following Hillel, the author of the Yad Eliyahu wrote as follows:

"It is clear to us that the fact that all of Israel agree about a custom stems from the holy spirit. The Holy One, blessed be He, appeared among them, and instituted the practice as if through a prophet. For through their will and conduct that was directed to Heaven, God, may He be blessed, illumines to all of Israel by way of the holy spirit how to behave." (Yad Eliyahu, pesakim, no. 25)

Whatever the ideological justification may be, we are dealing here with an approach that prefers "way of life" to "law." Such an approach perforce creates service of God that is based upon the Jewish people's way of life in actual practice, rather than upon speculative Halakha. 

It follows that this approach creates a way of serving God based upon intimacy rather than commitment, upon love rather than fear. When a person performs a mitzva, he does not feel himself obeying a law that has been forced upon him from Heaven. Rather, he sees himself as continuing the traditions of his forebears, as well as the accepted way of life of his people and community. The more we view Halakha as absolute Divine law, as the embodiment of the approach of fear in the worship of God – the less we will take customs into consideration, or else we will explain our reliance on custom according to the approaches mentioned earlier, with the help of clear halakhic considerations.

The issue of the relationship between Halakha and custom is of great consequence regarding the way we view Halakha. It is significant on the practical level as well. In this context, there are striking differences between the different authorities. Across the generations, Sephardic authorities have assigned less importance to custom than did their Ashkenazic counterparts. This distinction finds expression in our day as well. Rav Ovadia Yosef, for example, assigns very little, if any, halakhic value to custom. It is difficult, however, to set iron-clad rules and distinguish between Sephardim and Ashkenazim. The Vilna Gaon, for example, also assigned very little value to custom. Let each person follow in the path of his forefathers.

(Translated by Rav David Strauss)
From the VBM of Yeshivat Har Etzion 


[1] Chatam Sofer, YD, 327; Iggerot Moshe, YD, I, 136; and elsewhere.

[2] It was on account of this weighty objection that Rabbenu Tam instituted the practice of blowing TShRT three times. Our custom dates from a later period, when it was instituted – following the position of the Arukh – to blow thirty blasts during the Amida. In that way, we fulfill our obligation according to all opinions.

[3] Menahem Elon, Ha-mishpat Ha-ivri, vol. 1, p. 736; see also I. Ta-Shema, Minhag Ashkenaz Ha-kadmon, p. 65.

May One Divine?

Rabbi Kaganoff

Question #1: Skipping the Thirteenth Floor

“May a frum builder skip the number 13 when naming the floors of a building?”

Question #2: Snakes and Ladders

“Is there a halachic source that one should change his plans if he sees a snake when he leaves on a trip?”

Question #3: Monkey Business

As I was preparing this article, Reuvein asked me the following question: “I am in the middle of negotiating the acquisition of a business. On the way to the meeting, a quirk accident happened. Should I interpret this as a reason to avoid the deal?”


Several mitzvos of the Torah prohibit different practices used to predict the future. Many of these are mentioned in parshas Kedoshim, including the prohibitions against ov and yide’oni, both ancient methods of necromancy (Vayikra 20:27), and the commandments: Lo senachashu velo se’oneinu (Vayikra 19:26), which I will translate as Do not make use of omens and do not divine times. These four prohibitions are repeated together with three similar others in parshas Shoftim(Devorim 18:10-11): Lo yimatza’ei becha… koseim kesamim, me’onein, umenacheish umechasheif… vesho’eil ov veyide’oni vedoreish el hameisim, “There shall not be found among you… a soothsayer, a diviner of times, an interpreter of omens or a sorcerer… or one who asks of ov or of yide’oni or one who consults the dead. Subsequently, in parshas Shoftim, the Torah commands Tamim tih’yeh im Hashem Elokecha, “You shall be whole-hearted with Hashem, your G-d” (Devorim 18:13). This means that we should not allow our relationship with Hashem to become diffused by placing confidence or decision-making in the hands of superstitions or worse.

Practicing omens, in Hebrew, nichush or nachash, includes taking action or avoiding taking action because of superstitious reasons. Divination, me’onein, can be defined as “attempting to foretell future events by use of supernatural powers,” although, as we will soon see, the Torah’s prohibition is more inclusive. According to the Rambam(Moreh Nevuchim 3:37), all of these practices are forbidden because they are similar to idol worship.

The basics of the prohibition of nichush are that one should not use methods that are outside of Torah to try to determine whether one should pursue a particular course of action. What exactly is included within these prohibitions? As we will see shortly, the rules here are not at all obvious and, indeed, are often disputed by the rishonim.

First source

A beraisa, quoted by the Gemara (Sanhedrin 65b-66a), presents the following list of situations that are prohibited because of nichush. In each of these, someone was planning a course of action, perhaps leaving on a business trip or similar mission, and then, because something occurred, he changed his plans. The situations listed are:

His bread fell out of his mouth.

He dropped his walking stick.

His son called him from behind (presumably as he was leaving the house).

He heard the call of a raven.

A deer crossed his path.

He saw a snake on his right side or a fox on his left.

Apparently, during the time of the Gemara, there were superstitious beliefs that any of these events bode poorly for the results of the trip. One can compare this to contemporary superstitions about black cats or the number thirteen. This Gemara teaches that one may not base a decision on an omen or other factor that bears no rational influence on the planned course of action. In all of the above cases, someone who changes his plans because he feels that he has just seen a bad omen violates a Torah law.

Snakes and ladders

At this point, we can answer one of our opening questions: “Is there ahalachic source that one should change his plans if he sees a snake when he leaves on a trip?”

Quite the contrary, there is a halachic source that prohibits changing one’s plans under these circumstances.

Should I pay my taxes?

The above-quoted passage of Gemara continues with several other applications of this prohibition:

Someone requests from the tax collector, “Don’t begin your collecting with me,” because he feels that this is a bad omen. Similarly, someone who postpones paying a debt at the beginning of the week or the month because of a belief that this will portend a bad week or month also violates the prohibition of nichush.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 66a) concludes its discussion there by quoting a different beraisa: The Rabbis taught: Do not use omens or lucky times – such as those who use omens of weasels (in Hebrew, chuldos), birds or stars. (Although our text of the Gemara says fish, theRambam, Commentary to Mishnah, Avodah Zarah 4:7, and otherrishonim cite stars as the correct version.) Similarly, a person who changed his plans because a black cat crossed his path violated a prohibition of the Torah. Someone who knowledgeably does this would be invalid as a witness for a wedding, because he has violated a lo saaseh of the Torah.

No causal connection

The Ran (Sanhedrin ad loc.) explains that nichush is prohibited when there is no logical causal connection between the event that transpired and the plans that one is changing. The only reason one is changing his plans is because of a belief that the events (the bread falling, the deer crossing the path etc.) are meant to foretell something.

On the other hand, it is permitted to change your plans because of a logical reason. For example, someone planning a trip who sees thunderclouds on the horizon may change his travel plans for the day, because it appears that it will rain, making the traveling unpleasant or even potentially dangerous. Since this is a logical reason to postpone his trip, it has nothing to do with the prohibition againstnichush (Ran). Similarly, it is permitted to follow a procedure that can be shown to have medical benefit, as we will now explain (Moreh Nevuchim; Meiri, Shabbos 67a).

Locust eggs and fox teeth

The Mishnah (Shabbos 60a) rules that an ill person who has a need to, may wear a ke’meia, an amulet, whose efficacy is established, into or through a reshus harabim, a public area on Shabbos. For someone ill, this is considered the halachic equivalent to wearing an ornament or a garment (Rashi ad loc.). A later Mishnah (Shabbos 67a) cites a dispute whether one is permitted to walk through a public area onShabbos while wearing the egg of a grasshopper, the tooth of a fox or the nail used to hang someone from a gallows. The tanna who permits this considers these items halachically the same as an amulet whose efficacy is established. The tanna who forbids wearing these items prohibits doing so even on a weekday, because he considers this to be a form of nichush (see Rashi). The Gemara concludes that, since the medical value of this treatment is demonstrable, wearing it does not violate the laws prohibiting nichush. We rule according to this tanna.

Dispute among rishonim

At this point, we need to introduce a dispute concerning the extent of what the Torah prohibited. The precise question is whether the Torah prohibits being influenced only by prevalent superstitious practices, or whether any method of foretelling the future not firmly grounded in Torah is forbidden. In other words, we know that the Torah provided methods to foretell the future by consulting the urim vetumim worn by the kohen gadol or via information gained from a prophet. These are certainly permitted. There is, however, a dispute regarding whether one may create one’s own method as a basis to decide whether to proceed with a specific course of action. In theRambam’s opinion, anything that one would rely upon to base one’s decision or plan of action is prohibited (Hilchos Avodas Kochavim11:5). However, according to the Radak (Shmuel I 14:9), only practices that are based on superstition, sorcery, idol worship or similar nefarious bases are prohibited. It is permitted to do something as a sign or symbol, because this strengthens one’s resolve. (See alsoRa’avad, Hilchos Avodas Kochavim 11:4, 5, who also follows this approach). Shortly, I will show a few examples of this dispute.

Dependent on this dispute will be two very different ways of understanding the following passage of Gemara (Chullin 95b), quoting the great amora, Rav: “Any nachash that is unlike what was performed by Eliezer, the slave of Avraham, and unlike that performed by Yonasan, the son of Shaul, is not a nachash.” Prior to presenting the two approaches to understanding this Gemara, let us examine the two events quoted.

The story of Eliezer

When Eliezer was on his mission to find a wife for Yitzchak, the Torah describes that upon his arrival in the city of Nachor, he asked Hashemfor a specific sign to identify the woman that he was seeking. Eliezer prayed for G-d to send him the chosen woman on the following basis: Should he ask her to provide him with a bit of water, and she would respond, “I will also provide water for your camels,” this girl is to be Yitzchak’s bride, without any other questions or research (Bereishis24:14). According to some rishonim, what Eliezer did qualifies as an act of nichush, since he made his action totally dependent on an outside factor.

The story of Yonasan

The other example mentioned by the Gemara is that of Yonasan, the crown prince son of King Shaul. At a time when the Jews had almost no weapons and were the underdog in an incredibly lopsided war against the Pelishtim, Yonasan, accompanied only by his armor-bearer, advanced towards a garrison of Pelishtim soldiers. Yonasan told his armor-bearer, “If they say to us, ‘wait until we reach you,’ we should remain in our place and not advance towards them. However, if they say, ‘come forward to us,’ then we should attack, because this is our sign that Hashem has given them over to our hands (Shmuel I 14:8-10).” This, not withstanding that Yonasan and his armor-bearer were only two attacking an entire garrison!

Why did the Gemara refer to what Yonasan did as an act of nachash, divining?

We find a major dispute among the rishonim how to interpret the words of the Gemara, “Any nachash that is unlike what was performed by Eliezer, the slave of Avraham, and unlike that performed by Yonasan, the son of Shaul, is not a nachash.”

Most early rishonim (Rashi, Rambam, Tosafos) understand the Gemarato mean that anyone who follows an approach similar to what Eliezer or Yonasan did has violated the prohibition of nichush. This approach contends that other than prophecy or the use of the urim vetumim, using events over which I have no control to determine my course of action is included under the prohibition of nichush.

Of course, the obvious problem with this approach is that if these actions indeed violate the prohibition of nichush, why were Eliezer and Yonasan permitted to perform them? Here are some of the answers provided for this question.

Eliezer’s heter

The prohibition against nichush applies only to Jews and not to bnei Noach, and Eliezer had the status of a ben Noach (Tosafos, Chullin 95b s.v. Ke’eliezer).

According to this approach, the story of Yonasan is difficult to explain, since he certainly did not qualify as a ben noach.

Another problem with this answer is that the Gemara (Sanhedrin 56b) records a dispute whether the prohibition against nichush applies to gentiles. Should one hold that the prohibition against nichush does apply to gentiles, one would answer that Eliezer did not rely on Rivkah’s offering the water to propose the marriage to her, but waited until he had verified that she was indeed family of Avraham’s (Tosafos, Chullin 95b s.v. Ke’eliezer).

Yonasan’s heter

Tosafos and the Ran (ad loc.) explain that Yonasan was planning to attack and was not using the nichush to make a decision. He used thenichush only so that his armor bearer would be more confident that their attack would be successful. Since Yonasan was planning to proceed regardless of the outcome of his test, it was permitted to make the sign.

The Radak’s approach

On the other hand, other rishonim dispute the understanding of the mitzvah of nichush and, furthermore, understand the passage ofGemara in a very different way. In their opinion, the prohibition ofnichush applies only to things that are commonly perceived to have value, either because of superstition, sorcery, idolatry or other similar reason. However, to base a decision on a sign that has no superstitious or clairvoyant basis is permitted. Therefore, neither Eliezer nor Yonasan was in violation of any halachic issue by using their signs to divine. The Gemara’s purpose, when referring to Eliezer and Yonasan as examples of nichush, has nothing to do with the prohibition of the Torah banning nichush, but is teaching us that thesimanim used by Eliezer and by Yonasan were both effective (Ra’avad, Hilchos Avodah Zarah, 11:4). This opinion holds that proper use ofsimanim is halachically permitted, but, as a matter of advice, should not be used, unless one can be reasonably certain that the siman is effective.

The entire passage

Having explained the dispute defining what is included within the prohibition of nichush, I’ll now present the entire passage of Gemarain which we find this quote. Rav was traveling to the house of his daughter and son-in-law, Rav Chanan. The trip required crossing a river, which usually meant getting to the riverbank and waiting until appropriate transport showed up. As Rav approached the river, he saw that a ferry was approaching; this would shorten the time for him considerably. Rav then said: “The ferry came in my direction; we will have a celebration as a result!”

When Rav arrived at his daughter’s house, they were in the process of butchering an animal. With the meat of that animal, Rav’s family made a lavish meal in his honor, yet Rav did not partake in any of the meat. The Gemara suggests that Rav did not eat any of the meat because, since Rav had declared that the ferry’s proximity had indicated a good omen which would be a reason for celebration, this would violate the Torah’s law against nichush. The Gemara retorts that Rav himself had defined nichush as something similar to what was done by Eliezer, Avraham’s slave, or by Yonasan the son of Shaul; any other practice does not constitute nichush. The Gemara’s conclusion is that Rav did not eat meat for a completely unrelated reason — because he never participated in a festive meal unless it was a seudas mitzvah (Chullin 95b).

According to the Radak, Rav’s original statement would never be a prohibited nichush practice, since the proximity of the ferry was not commonly used as a superstitious omen. Therefore, one may use such a sign as a means of deciding on a future course of action.

How do we rule?

The Rema (Yoreh Deah 179:4) cites both opinions without reaching a clear conclusion, and then closes by saying that one who lives his life sincerely and is confident in Hashem’s ways will be surrounded by kindness, thus implying that it is better not to follow such signs.

The pesukim of children

The Gemara (Chullin 95b) shares with us that Shmuel “checked withseforim” and Rabbi Yochanan “checked with children.” What does this mean? According to most authorities, this means that when planning what to do, Shmuel used some method of having the words of seforimassist him in his decision what to do. This is probably similar to, or identical with, the famous goral haGra, literally, the Gra’s lottery, which involves turning pages a certain way for divine direction as to what to do in difficult circumstances. Rabbi Yochanan relied on a different approach, in which he would ask children what verses of the Torah they had just learned and would rely on their answer for direction. Some early authorities explain that relying on a pasuk of a child is like relying on the answer of a prophet, which is permitted (Semag; Ran; Shach, Yoreh Deah 179:5). Notwithstanding this approach, the Rambam still feels that one should not use either holy books or children’s verses to choose what to do, and Shmuel and Rabbi Yochanan also did not do so. They would simply note, after the fact, that what resulted could have been foretold on the basis of these methods, but they would not use these methods to plan in advance what to do.


As Rav Hirsch, explains, serving Hashem is something that we must do in a whole-hearted way, and includes understanding that all thatHashem does is for the good. Hashem alone decides our future, directs and guides our actions. The sole criterion to decide whether we should or should not do something is Hashem’s Will. The goal of the truly sincere person is to perform what Hashem wants from him at the moment, and he will thus be impervious to worry (Commentary, Devorim 18:13).