Friday, February 26, 2016

The power of the half shekel

The half shekel defeated Haman
About 8 years ago, I posted this piece, which has the same idea my grandfather presents in his first comment on this week's parsha:

"Reish Lakish said, 'It is revealed and known to He who created the world that Haman was destined to measure shkalim on Yisrael; therfore, He brought their shkalim before his, as we learn that on the first of Adar we read Shkaim'" [Megillah 13b]. So the shkalim given by Yisrael counterbalanced those of their adversary. Haman could have made the case that he was offering the same sum as Yisrael, so his money should count just as much as theirs.

But one of the key lessons is that the whole -- the entity of klal Yisrael -- so much exceeds the sum of its parts. The 1/2 shekel illustrates the point that the parts have to combine to make a whole. It's not just a matter of "no man is an island" but an interconnectedness that brings together the separate strands to form something that is more than just a gathering of pieces -- like the reeds woven together to form a basket. 

[My grandfather stressed that this was the counter to Haman's argument against the Jews, depicting them as scattered and therefore not connected among the nations of Achashverosh's  kingdom.]

In the post I originally wrote, I continued: 
 And each Jew has an equally important part in making up the whole, which is why all must give the same 1/2 shekel -- neither more nor less -- whether you are wealthy enough to endow the building or poor enough to have to fit this amount into your budget for the month.
That is what makes this particular contribution so pure. It is given with no hope of personal distinction. It does not augment one's status to say, "I gave 1/2 shekel," for the rejoinder would perforce be, "Well, so did everyone else!" One does not get any recognition like a plaque or journal ad for this yearly contribution, in which everyone counts equally. There is no contest to prove one's worth by giving an impressive amount. That is not an option for the 1/2 shekel offering. It is a reflection of each individual's worth becoming great as an indispensable component of klal Yisrael.

That is something Haman was completely unaware of. He sought self-aggrandizement by showing how he alone could match the amount of money offered by all the Jews together. But he completely missed the greatness of the forest by only seeing separate trees. It is not the money but the cohesiveness of the people it represents that makes the 1/2 shekel so valuable in Hashem's eyes.

The coin of fire

My grandfather quotes Rashi's explanation on the word ze yitnu [this they will give] as indicating that Hashem showed Moshe a coin of fire with the weight of half a shekel, saying, that is what they are to give. 

It seems difficult to accept that Moshe needed that illustration of the coin that parallels the demonstration of the menorah.  In the case of the menorah, we can understand that intricate workmanship was required for a solid bar of gold to take on the specified shape, but this was just a simple coin. 

In answer, my grandfather quotes Tosfos on Chullin 42b that says  Moshe's difficulty was not with the coin itself but that it would be possible for a person to give kofer nafsho.  He explains that Moshe's amazement was in using money, which typically serves as the motivation for sin, as the atonement. That doesn't jibe with the principle of ayn kategor na'aseh saneygor which is invoked in explaining why the Kohen Gadol does not enter the Kodesh Kedoshim in his golden clothes so as not to evoke an association with the Golden Calf. 

It is for that very reason that Hashem showed him a coin of fire to show that in this case a destructive force is being channeled for a positive end. Fire consumes and destroys, but it can also be a blessing for person who uses it to warm a home and cook.  The same can be said of money.

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Thursday, February 18, 2016

Oil and priorities

Among the items associated with the services in the mishkan accounted for in Parashas Tetzveh is oil. The type used for the menorah is described as "zach katit lemaor" clear  of pressed [olives] to illuminate. My grandfather quotes Menachos 86a "zach katit lemaor ve'eyn ze katit leminchos." The stipulation for pressed oil was only for the oil used to light and not for the oil used for meal offerings. Then he cites Midrash Tanchumah 6 that says what a person who has both better and worse oil typically does is use the lower quality one for light and the better one for food, but in the Tent of Meeting and in the Temple, they did the opposite, using the clear beaten oil for the menorah and the inferior one for minchos

The reasoning is this, my grandfather explains. The menorah symbolizes chochma- as Chazal indicate in the reccommendation for one who wishes lehachkim to be yadrim, that is to face the south where the menorah stood. The idea is to bring the Divine light into the world. The minchos were for eating and to raise the physical, which is also a good thing, but not the main thing. One has to distinguish between the essential and the secondary, and that's the lesson of the quality of the oil used for the two.

Friday, February 12, 2016


The comman for truma is presented in the phrase veyikchu li truma [You should take an offering for Me } (28:2). Rashi explains the li here means lishmi. 
My grandfather asks thwy was the Torah insistent in this case that the offering be given with a though lishma? He explains  the mishkan servd to make up for the sin of the Golden Calf. When it come to the sin of idolatry, Hashem does count the though along with the deed. As they then had a sin of thought on their account, the mitzvah that serves as a kapara has to also encompass thought.

What of the principle presented in Pesachim 8B that someone who offers a coin for charity in order to save heis son or that he should have a portion in the Next World is considered completely righteous? That only pertains to other forms of charity. However, with respect to the mishkan, the principle is "li hakesef veli hazahav eyzo bayis asher tivnu li. [The silver and the gold are for Me for the house that you build me]

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Marble cake with mocha frosting

Here's an adaption of a recipe I recently tried out that proved a hit. To keep it pareve, I substituted oil for some of the butter and margarine for the frosting. I use almond, coconut, or soy milk. The picture is of an unfrosted cake.

Marble Cake

1 cup canola oil
1 3/4 cups sugar, divided
large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (pareve) milk
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
3 tablespoons hot water

1. Preheat oven to 350°. Beat oil and 1 1/2 cups sugar at medium speed in a Kitchen-Aid type  stand mixer creamy (4 or 5 minutes). Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating just until blended after each addition. Beat in vanilla extract.

2. Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Add to batter alternately with milk, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Beat at low speed just until blended after each addition, stopping to scrape bowl as needed.

3. Spoon 1 1/4 cups batter into a 2-qt. bowl, and stir in cocoa, 3 Tbsp. hot water, and remaining 1/4 cup sugar until well blended.

4. Spread remaining vanilla batter into a greased and floured 9- x 13 pan. Spoon chocolate batter onto vanilla batter in pan; gently swirl with a knife or small spatula.

5. Bake at 325° for about 30- 40 minutes -- until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool completely in pan on a wire rack (at least  1 hour) before putting on the frosting.

Mocha Frosting

3 cups powdered sugar
2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa
3 tablespoons hot brewed coffee
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup margariner, softened
to 4 Tbsp. pareve milk
1. Whisk together sugar and cocoa in a medium bowl. Combine coffee and vanilla.
2. Beat margarine at medium speed with a heavy-duty electric stand mixer until creamy; gradually add sugar mixture alternately with coffee mixture, beating at low speed until blended. Beat in pareve milk until smooth and mixture has reached desired consistency.
3. Spread on cooled cake

Monday, February 08, 2016

A double leap year

Mention that it's a leap year, and most people will assume you're referring to the fact that this February will number 29 days. However, it is also a Jewish leap year, one in which we have 2 Adars. That way Nissan will always correspond to the beginnig of spring in the northern hemisphere. The first Adar will start this Wednesday.

An intereseting thing about lunar calendars: if they don't have some way to catch up with the solar calendars, the dates move around the seasons. That's the case for the Islamic lunar calendar, which accounts for the fact that Ramadan does not always fall out at the same time of year.  In the Jewish calendar, a leap year of 13 months  occurs 7 times in every 19 year cycle, which is why one's Hebrew birthday corresponds to one's legal birthday every 19 years, though it may be off by a single day.

 However, the Jewish calendar is not the only one to solve the problem with a leap month. The Chinese calendar also adds in a month every 3 years. According to,  "the name of a leap month is the same as the previous lunar month" rather like our two Adars. But there is a difference in that it's not always the same month or at the same point in the year. 

We celebrate the holiday of Purim in the second Adar, so that it remains 30 days before the holiday of Pesach [Passover]. That may indicate that we regard the second Adar as the "real" one, but that is not so cut-and-dried. This question was addressed in an earlier when wewe had such a leap year in
Yesterday I posted the safeik of the Yerushalmi whether which month, Adar I or Adar II, is the “real” and which is the addition. There is more to be said on the halachic issue, but for today I want to focus on what the debate might teach us for our avodas Hashem. The Shem m’Shmuel writes that the number 12 is symbolic of the natural order, teva; e.g. 12 constellations in the sky, 12 months in a regular year, 12 hours in a halachic day. The number 13 is symbolic of transcending the natural order; e.g. 13 middos harachamim are used to ask G-d to extend his mercy beyond what we deserve. There is something to be said for living within natural boundaries – go to work, have a regular seder in learning, take care of chores around the house, repeat. This is the world of the number 12. But sometimes a person needs to make a jump into the world of 13, a world without limits or boundaries, a world where a person can be inspired by ideas that transcend the practical routine even while knowing that the world of 12 will ultimately pull one back to reality. The world of 13 provides the boost, the vision, without which a person could not sustain himself day after day in the world of 12.
So which is the ikkar and which is the tafeil, which is the “real” world and which is the “tosefes” [added element]? The world of 13 is inspiring, but unless it impacts the day to day world of 12, its platitudes are meaningless. On the other hand, the world of 12 has no meaning without the goal and vision of the world of 13 to sustain it. Which Adar is the “real” Adar – the 12th month, or the 13th?

One other interesting note about having 13 months: 

Though we think of the zodiac as corresponding to the 12 months, scientists actually identify 13 constellations in the earth's orbit around the sun (see The signs of the zodiac correspond to the 12 months of the year, but the additional constellation matches up to the number 13. Those number match up with the variations in the lunar calendar and to the number of the tribes of Israel. Though they are traditionally regarded as 12, when the tribe of Levi is added, the number comes out to 13.

Friday, February 05, 2016

The angels' secret

In Parshas Mishpatim (24:7)  we have the famous pronouncement made by the children of Israel: kol asher diber Hashem na'ase venishma [everything that G-d has spoke, we will do and we will listen to]. In Shabbos 88a R. Eleazar is quoted:
When the Israelites gave precedence to 'we will do' over 'we will listen,' a Heavenly Voice went forth and called out: "Who revealed to My children this secret, which is employed by the Ministering Angels, as it is written, "Bless the Lord, His angels. Your who are mighty in strength fulfil his word, to listen to the voice of his word.  First they fulfil and then they listen."
Rashi explains that they are ready to fullfil even before they hear.

My gradnfather say that the matter here needs some elucidation. Why is this called the raz [secret] of the angels that arouses astonishment in the exclamation of "Who revealed to My children this secret?" Isn't it logical that the smaller one would do waht the greater one commands even if he doesn't understand, all the more so when the command comes from Hakodesh Baruch Hu?

What Bnay Yisrarel revealed here in saying they will do before they will listen is that they recognized not just the need to accept the commandments but that the only way they could understand them is by accepting them only through fulfilling them.  That's the secret of the ministering angels. It corresponds to what Chazal say (Avos 3:17)  "If there is no fear, there is no wisom." Likewise in evamos 109b kol sheyeshno beasiya yeshno belemida, kol she'eyno beasiya eyno belemida"

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