Wednesday, July 16, 2014


This is generally a topic for Ellul and Tishrei , but some incidents that have just come to light made me think of their current application. When it comes to making an account of our sins, we talk about din v'cheshbon. Why the double language? There are various interpretations, including one attributed to the Vilna Gaon  that offers an economic term to understand it. The din is for the wrong that was done, and the cheshbon is the opportunity cost -- the time lost to accomplishing something positive because it was put into a negative action.

 That interpretations makes sense for understanding how zdonos  can turn into zchuyos, merits. If one accomplishes teshuva, then the bad action actually led to a good one, and so both the action and the time spent on are transformed into a positive force. As for the lower level of teshuva, the zdonos become shgagos, unintentional actions, mistakes. One erases the bad but hasn't turned it all to the good, so the cheshbon, the time spent becomes neutral and still has not become a positive use. 

Today, as I was thinking of some of the scandals in the frum community that have come to light,  I thought of another possible take on the double language. The person who has acted wrongly and hurt others directly is culpable for the din. However, those who knew about it and swept it under the rug would have to give a cheshbon.  I'm sure they can give a list of reasons for why they contributed to the cover-up, ranging from not quite believing to trying to avoid a scandal that would cause harm to the spouses and children of the person who had done wrong. 

 Nevertheless, they thereby exacerbated the pain of the victims, particularly those who bravely came forward in order to prevent other from falling prey to people who were considered beyond reproach. I'm certain that there many more victims than those who spoke up; they remained silent because they knew that they would bring upon themselves vicious attacks from those who refuse to believe that a person they have placed on a pedestal not only had feet of clay but a complete disregard for betraying others' trust. 

If there's one lesson we should all take from Pinchas, it's that you cannot let a person's position blind you to what is morally right. Obviously, we can't all lay claim to being kanaim, but we still have the obligation to remove those who pose a threat. I would go further and say they should receive a punishment beyond removal from their posts of authority, but even that first step seems to be more than some are willing to take. 

Follow me on Twitter @AriellaBrown and circle me at Google+

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Blueberry cake

It's blueberry season. Pick up an extra pint of these to use in this cake,  like this recipe, not only because it is easy, but because it is oil rather than butter or margarine based -- even for the crumbs. That means less saturated fat. The following recipes serves 8, for more people, simply double the recipe and bake in a 9 x 13" pan.

Crumb topped blueberry cake
1 c. flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
 1 egg
1/3 c. canola oil

1/3 c. granulated sugar
1/2 c. milk (for a pareve cake substitute soy or almond milk, or 1/4 c non-dairy creamer and 1/4 c. water)

1 c. fresh blueberries 
1 tbsp. lemon juice

Crumb topping

1/8 tsp. salt
1/4 c. flour
1/3 c. sugar 
2 tbsp. canola oil
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Sift dry ingredients together. Beat egg. Add milk and oil. Pour into flour mixture and stir until batter is smooth. Turn into oiled 8 x 8 x 2 inch square pan or 8 x 1 1/2 inch round pan. Add lemon juice to blueberries. Scatter over batter.
Prepare crumb topping by working ingredients into crumbly mixture. Sprinkle over blueberries. Bake about 40 minutes.

Follow me on Twitter @AriellaBrown and circle me at Google+ For  more recipes, see What's Cooking

Monday, June 02, 2014

Decking the bride

The terms used to describe the veiling of the bride is most often spelled  bedeken, but also occasionally spelled badeken,  badecken, or even badekin,   as 
there are no hard and fast rules about the English spelling of Yiddish words. 
 The Ashkenazic custom is for the groom, accompanied by friends and relatives who sing and dance around him, to approach the bride and pull the veil down over her face.    This is one of the key moments that any Jewish wedding photographer knows is a must-have shot.  Remember, the bride and groom have not seen each other for some time now.   They are usually quite happy to meet up, and their joy is reflected in their faces.  The veiling is traditionally followed by the bride getting blessed by her father, mother, and, possibly, grandparents who lay their hands over her head -- another great picture moment.
The question is: why go through this public veiling, and why make the groom responsible for it?  The practice goes back to really ancient history.  Brides would cover their faces out of modesty.  We see that in the Bible when Rivka [Rebecca] is brought over to her groom, Yitzchak [Issac], she covers her face.  
In the next generation, the cover of the bridal veil prevented Yaakov [Jacob] from realizing that he was, in fact, marrying Rachel, for his duplicitous father-in-law put her sister, Leah, in her place.  To avoid such bridal switches, the groom ascertains that the woman behind the veil is the woman he means to marry by putting it on himself.   Some also suggest that putting on the veil points to the groom's obligation to provide for his wife's clothing and other essentials, as stipulated in the kethuba.
In his book Beyom ChasunasoAn Explanation and Analysis of of the Laws and Customs of a Jewish Wedding(2007)Rabbi Zev Cinamon gives another reason for the groom's role in the veiling.  According to some opinions, the bedeken, in spreading a covering over the bride constitutes the chuppah.  Consequently, they would suggest that the groom be the one who owns the veil that he spreads  over his bride.  Some would even designate witnesses for the bedeken as an actual act of marriage (Cinamon 37).

In Megillas Ruth, the heroine of the story tells Boaz, "uparashta knafecha al amatecha" [you should spread your wings over your handmaiden] (3:9) Rashi elucidates that term to mean, spreading the wings of the garment, that is to cover her in a tallith in the terms of nesuin - marriage.   
Some people like to ascribe further meaning to the veil, by declaring it a symbol of  the fact that what's inside is the real measure of a person rather than physical beauty.  But I haven't seen that reason in historical written sources.  It also does not completely fit the custom of declaring the bride to beautiful and kind.  According to the ruling of Hillel, which trumped the ruling of Shamai, the proper thing to say at a wedding is,  "kallah na'ah vechasuda," regardless of the objective assessment of the bride in question. We literally sing the bride's praises by declaring her to be beautiful, as well as good.
 As everyone watches the bride walk down the aisle, the veil gives her some small measure of privacy.  Nevertheless, at a standard Orthodox Jewish wedding, the wedding veil will be made of the standard tulle or illusion fabric, which is very close to sheer.  Hasidic brides, on the other hand, do wear opaque veils that completely obscure their faces.  Happily, the bride is not left to make her way on her own, so her blocked vision should not result in any missteps.

Follow me on Twitter @AriellaBrown and circle me at Google+ For wedding tips and insight, as well as recipes and practical advice, visit

Flowers for Shavuoth and weddings

Whether you spell it chuppah, chupah, chupa, huppa, huppah, or hupa, it all refers to the wedding  canopy.  The chuppah  represents a home that the new couple enter into for the nesuin aspect of the wedding ceremony. The chuppah may be constructed of a tallith or other cloth held spread over poles. The poles may be held by four people or mounted in place. It is the custom of some Sephardim and Yekkes (Jews of German extractions) to lay a tallith over the couple during the chuppah. That practice appears consistent with the view of chuppah being constituted by draping an article of clothing referred to in the section on badekin
                    Roses now in bloom in the Cranford Rose Garden of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

When the chuppah used is a permanent structure, it is often decorated with floral arrangements. I haven’t seen an authoritative source referring to placing flowers on the chuppah, but it would fit with the wedding ceremony’s evocation of the experience of Israel at Mount Sinai.
The Sages learn from the verse vayithyatzvu bethachtith hahar (Exodus 19:17) describing the people of Israel as encamped at the foot of the mountain that they were , in fact , under the mountain: chapa aleyhem har kegigis [G-d held the mountain over their heads like a roof or canopy] (Tractate Shabbath 88a). Though the mountain was located in the desert, it is said to have miraculously bloomed with grass and flowers when it was honored as the place where the Torah was given. This Midrash, which I’ve found ascribed to Medrash Talpiyos Os Dodoim , is often quoted as the explanation for the custom of decorating the home and synagogue with flowers on the holiday of Shavuouth. But it is possible that decorating our chuppahs with flowers reminds us of the blossoming Mount Sinai at the wedding, as well.
Follow me on Twitter @AriellaBrown and circle me at Google+  For more on Jewish weddings, see

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The ideal age for marriage

Sweeping generalizations are served up by Guy Kawasaki in "If I Were 22: Don't Get Married Too Soon (And Always Make Your Boss Look Good)" Let's just deal with the marriage part. Here's what it says:
Don't get married too soon. I got married when I was thirty-two. That's about the right age. Until you're about that age, you may not know who you are. You also may not know who you're marrying. I don't know anyone who got married too late. I know many people who got married too young.
There really is not a one-age-fits-all for marriage, and as his justification for the age is knowing who you are, well, some of us reach that at 19, while others may not do do even at 35. It all depends on the individual.   So settling on a magic number for marriage is absurd, and it as absurd to make it 32 as it is to make it 20. If you click over to the article, you'll find that quite a number of the comments make a similar point, and many report having married in their early 20s and being very happy to have found their life partners that early.

Follow me on Twitter @AriellaBrown and circle me at Google+

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Counting by 12s and Lag B'Omer

I'm sure there are many wedding set for this Sunday, as it is Lag B'Omer For a deeper look at this holiday, see this essay that Rabbi Brown wrote:
Sefira, the number 12, and Lag BaOmer by Rabbi Chaim Brown
12,000 pairs of students die during a brief two month period, students of the greatest sage of Torah who studied for two pairs of 12 years, and all that is left is a single great scholar who paired with his son hides in a cave for 12 years. We all recognize the story of Rabbi Akiva and the loss of his students which we mark during the Omer period, the story of his greatest student, R’ Shimon bar Yochai, who was forced to flee Roman persecution and hide in a case for twelve years and whose death we mark on Lag B’Omer, but what of the number twelve? Why is this such a central focus of the events of this period?
The Bnei Yisaschar (Chodesh Tishrei Ma’amar #7 as well as other places) explains that the 13 middot of Rabbi Yishmael used to darshen the Torah correspond to the 13 middot harachamim which we invoke when we recite selichos. Yet, these thirteen are not a single unit, but actually are divided into a group of twelve middot of chessed and one middah of din. The single middah of din, which is described by the name “K-l”, corresponds to the middah of kal v’chomer. The Talmud in fact uses the simple term “din” as a reference to kal v’chomer, e.g. the mishna in Bava Kamma uses the expression “dayo l’ba min HaDin”. Halachically, there is a fundamental difference that exists between kal v’chomer and all the other middot used to explain the Torah. Only kal v’chomer can be derived purely on the basis ofsevara, logical inference, while all the other middot require a tradition handed down from one’s teacher. The greatest chessed in the world is Hashem giving of himself to us. 
The middot of rachamim cause Hashem to reveal more of his presence in the world, and correspondingly, the middot we use to explain the Torah reveal how much more of Hashem’s presence is with us that we see through a superficial reading of the Torah. Yet, even at a time of din when Hashem’s presence is hidden, we must trust that he is with us and seek him out; even when there is no mesorah and tradition to explain a text of Torah, we are free to use kal v’chomer to seek and find that meaning ourselves. ‘Piha pascha b’chochma’, explains the Bnei Yisaschar, refers to themiddah of kal v’chomer which requires human intellect to reveal; ‘v’Toras chessed al leshona’ refers to the laws explicitly stated in the Torah which fall under the rubric of chessed.
The dichotomy between twelve and thirteen perhaps reflects on the relationship between the personalities of Rabbi Akiva and his student Rabbi Shomon bar Yochai. The gemara in Menachos tells us that Moshe Rabeinu was given a glimpse of Rabbi Akiva teaching Torah and he was confounded by the depths of the shiur. Moshe was despondent until he heard Rabbi Akiva asked the source for a halacha, to which he replied, “halacha l’Moshe m’Sinai”, it is a law which was revealed to Moshe on Sinai. Rabbi Akiva was the father of all Torah sheBa’al Peh, but like the twelve middot of chessed and twelve middot of derush, ultimately his teaching was a revelation of what was already contained within the depths and profundity of the written Torah which was revealed by Moshe.
When Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai emerged from his cave after twelve years of study everything he set his eyes on was consumed by flame. Rashb”I could not tolerate a mundane world divorced from the revelation of G-d’s holiness. Where was G-d’s presence felt in the bustling marketplace, in the day to day activities of most people’s lives – where was the chessed of Hashem apparent? Rashb”I was missing the extra year, the thirteenthmiddah, the kal v’chomer. G-d’s presence is found not just where he reveals it, but is found where we choose to discover it through our own efforts and intelligence. Din is but a mask which awaits the revelation of kal v’chomer. After one more year, the thirteenth year, in the cave, Rashb"I emerges and sees that man running home from the marketplace is not just a last minute shopper on some trivial errand, but is preparing for Shabbos. Man’s efforts may appear mundane, but they are a necessary preparation to reveal G-d’s presence in the world.
The Shev Shamytza in his introduction quotes from the Yerushalmi that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said that had he been at Sinai he would have asked G-d for two mouths – one mouth to speak mundane matters, and a second mouth to dedicate only to Torah. Surely, asks the Shev Shamytza, it is not prohibited to engage in necessary mundane speech – why was a second mouth needed?! He answers that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai saw that the relationship between one’s mouth and Torah sheBa’al Peh is the same as the relationship between written Torah and its scroll. Not only are the words of Torah holy, but the container for their transmission is sanctified as well. While the words of written Torah sanctify the parchment the text is written on, the words of Torah sheBa’al Peh sanctify the mouth of man which utters them. It is not just the twelve middot of chessed which are Hashem’s revealed presence which are holy, but the mouth of mundane, physical man is holy as well, for it can reveal and discover the presence of Hashem even where not previously apparent.
In a sense, this teaching of Rashb”I is an extension of his Rebbe, Rabbi Akiva’s teaching that “Es Hashem Elokecha tirah” , the command to fear Hashem, also includes a mitzvah to respect talmidei chachamim who are not just transmitters of law, but who embody the holiness of Hashem’s presence by virtue of that role. Perhaps this idea sheds light on the tragic death of Rabbi Akiva’s students who, the Talmud records, failed in some way to properly honor each other. I doubt that these students did not recognize their role in transmitting the teaching their Rebbe revealed, yet perhaps each one did not recognize that the nuance and subtlety of their different personalities which added to color that transmission was like thekal v’chomer, a further revelvation, rather than a mundane obstacle to be overcome.
The power of man to create and reveal greater levels of kedusha is captured in the halachic dispute regarding when to start the entire process of sefira. The Talmud records a debate between the Sages and the Tzedukim over how to interpret the words “M’macharas haShabbos”, the day after Shabbos, when we begin counting. The Tzedukim held that the count must begin only on Sunday, but Chazal taught that Shabbos here refers to the night after the first day of Pesach, irrespective of which day of the week it falls on. Aside from the hermeneutical issue, there was an unstated philosophical disagreement underlying the dispute. Shabbos is inherently a day which is kadosh based on Hashem declaring and revealing it to be so from the first week of creation – it is a day of chessed. Yom Tov, on the other hand, depends of Bais Din’s declaration of the month on a specific date – it requires an act of din, an act of declaration and discovery by man. Shabbos is the Shechina imposing itself onto the world; Yom Tov is the day where we draw the Shechina into the world. The Chachamim understood that kedusha is not only that which descends from above, but kedusha can also come about by man rising up to draw it down into our lives through the power of Torah sheBa’al Peh.
To emulate Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Shimon bar Yoachi involves more than a trip to Meron and lighting a bonfire. It involves recognizing the inherent sanctity of all aspects of our life, of not relegating holiness to the cave and the mundane to the marketplace, but of realizing Torah as an all encompassing vision.

Follow me on Twitter @AriellaBrown and circle me at Google+

Thursday, May 01, 2014


Someone recently brought up the issue of kallah classes because of an article that related a very bad experience one bride had. I'm sure there are excellent kallah teachers out there, but there are also some who do the kallahs a disservice --- even if they mean well.

I found a most eloquent description of the problem in the the comment left by "Mom" on March 30, 2014 puts things in perspective. I can't top her words. (the article focused on a real physical condiiton that was not diagnosed correctly for a long time, a common occurence). I'll just quote the last part of the key comment here:
I had always been proud of my daughter for being a “good girl” who didn’t talk to boys and was careful with tsnius. Of course I’m still all for that, but we also have to find a way to send a more calibrated message to our daughters. I think too many of them suppress their natural desires because it feels “bad”. We can’t undo 20 years of condition with a few weeks of Kallah classes, where we talk about the holiness of intimacy. So we send them into marriage with many a combination of lofty thoughts about soul mates connecting and some apprehension of the “first night” pain, and assume it will all work out. We need to find a way to maintain our daughters’ tsnius while helping them stay in touch with their physicality. Without this, we’re setting them up for serious pain — emotional as well as physical. When there is no devek holding the new couple together (who in our circles only know each other for a few months at most)and something that is supposed to unite them is pushing them far apart in every way, we run the risk of divorce, G-d forbid — and that is certainly not holy!
Thoughts? Suggestions?

Related posts: