“The Yeshiva of Cambridge, the Tower of London and 17th Century England”

Transcript of the talk I gave at Seudah Shlishit at EAYC Shabbat 21 October 2017


I would to thank the Rav for tolerating me speaking at seudah over these past 7 years, I have yet to be banned from speaking at the EAYC which either means I am not trying hard enough or that I am doing some thing right! To be serious for a moment I want to express my thanks to the Rav and Rebbetzin for everything he has done for me and my family over these years. When we moved to Edgware, there was and still is, only one Kehilla and one Rabbi and Rebbetzin that we could call our own. I hope we can continue to be friends and see each other in Eretz Yisrael.

As this may be my last seudah shiur at the EAYC for some time, it took me quite some time to decide what to speak about. I should really go all out Tzioni and talk about a topic inspired by a visit to the Stockwood discovery centre over the summer. There they had a display about bee honey and correctly identified its importance to Jews around Rosh Hashanah but then incorrectly quoted the pasuk saying that Israel was a land “Zavat Chalav uDevash – flowing with milk and honey, which we all know is not referring to bee honey! I decided to break the cliché and to do something completely unrelated to Israel or Aliyah– however for the sake of tradition I will say as follows: you all should be making Aliyah and feeling really guilty for being so comfortable in lovely Edgware and enough said about that.

So what is this mysterious title all about? The focus of the shiur will be an important historical figure call John Selden who lived in 17th Century England. However, before we talk about him as a brief detour, I thought I would give a short overview of the history of the Jews of Britain, which when researching I found rather fascinating and hope you do to.

According to Mordechai Lewittes’ “Highlights of Jewish History” there is reason to believe that the first Jews to arrive on Britain’s shores may have been refugees with the Roman armies following the unsuccessful Bar Kochba revolt. A Bar Kochba coin found in England may indicate that refugees may have fled to England after the defeat of Judea in 136.


The official settlement of Jews in Britain is generally accepted to have begun 1000 years later when William the Conqueror crossed from France to England in 1066, when many Jews (during the life time of Rashi) followed the French movement of people during this relatively prosperous period. In 1096 more fled to England to escape the crusades.


Jews lived happily under the special protection and service of the king for about a century. Often contracts of the time were drawn up in Hebrew and would be registered in a special chest guarded by royal officials. When a loan was repaid to a Jew a shtar was drawn up as a record and some say that this is what is believed to have given the name to the famous “Star Chamber” which was an English court of law which sat at the royal Palace of Westminster, where such documents were kept. However most accept the explanation that the ceiling was decorated with a starry pattern and thus acquired its name. Maybe the stars were stars of David?


This all came to an end in 1199 following the death of Richard the Lionheart (who tried, ultimately unsuccessfully to protect the Jews, before his eventual capture by the King of Austria). In 1218, Jews had to wear a special badge to differentiate themselves. By 1290, the Jews had been expelled and about 16,000 Jews made their way to France, Germany and Spain.


It was not until 1657 that Oliver Cromwell would encourage Jews to resettle in Britain. Credit for this this can be attributed to one man, Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel. Menasseh Ben Israel was the son of a Marrano Jew, Yosef (his brother was fittingly called Ephraim) they had escaped the inquisitions of Portugal by moving to Amsterdam, then a place of free worship and prosperous trade. Menasseh excelled in his studies and by 18 years old was asked to be the Rav of the Amsterdam congregations. Menasseh married a Marrano girl called Rachel Abarbanel a descendant of Don Isaac Abarbanel. One of Rabbi Israel’s most famous students was Baruch Spinoza, who as we know, was subsequently excommunicated whilst the Rav was in England. Menasseh set up his own printing press and rolled out book after book, spreading Torah knowledge far and wide. Rembrandt was proud to proclaim Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel as a friend and even etched a sketch of him on display in museums around the world.


Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel wrote a book called ‘The Hope of Israel” in it he responds to reports of the ten lost tribes being spotted in South America, and details his view of how the prophecy of redemption will come true. In this book he tried to prove that the Mashiach could not be expected as long as the Jews were excluded from England.


“Did the Torah not say, ‘and the Lord shall scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to another’? Before the redemption could come Jews must be found in England and in all other parts of the world.“


If England admitted the Jews the coming of the Mashiach would be quickened. British supporters and friends convinced Menasseh to write to Oliver Cromwell (a Puritan, sympathetic to the Jews and the Bible, who had just won a civil war) to petition him to formally readmit the Jews and was subsequently invited to Britain (in 1655) to make his case in person. Ultimately, Cromwell made no formal proclamation and Menasseh went back to Amsterdam broken hearted and ill (he died in November 1657) however the right for Jews to settle was granted, thus modern British Jewish history began.


On to Morenu Harav Rav Seldenus otherwise known as John Selden…


I first discovered the story of John Selden in an Oxford University Press book called ‘Renaissance England’s’ Chief Rabbi – John Selden’ by Jason Rosenblatt. I was intrigued by the title seeing it on someones shelf and decided to buy it. So who was John Selden? John Selden was born in Sussex England in 1584 and died in 1654, based on the above we now know that in his lifetime, there would have been no Jews (officially) living in Britain (I believe there was a tiny S & P community at the time including relatives of my good friend Rabbi Garry Wayland). Although not alive to see it, it is clear that his writings had a positive influence on the question of readmission of the Jews and also on the Jewish Naturalisation Act or the Jew Bill of 1753.


John Selden was an English jurist and a scholar of England’s ancient laws and constitution. He was a polymath and wrote extensively, and here is the big surprise – half a dozen of his works were Rabbinic works! He was without a doubt the most learned ‘Rabbi’ in England at the time (admittedly there was little competition). Uxor Ebraica analyses the theory and practice of the Jewish laws of marriage and divorce. On the very last page he suggests that the canon law of divorce still in effect in England be reformed and brought more closely into conformity with Jewish law. He wrote a work on the laws of the Kohanim – De Successione in Pontifacatum Ebraeorum. In De Synedriis et Praefacturis Juridicis Veterum Ebraeorum, he deals primarily with the constitution of Jewish courts, including the Sanhedrin, which Seldon notes is not priestly in composition. It’s understated argument demonstrates that matters which are at present under the jurisdiction of ecclesiastical courts in England, in ancient times were decided by Jewish courts that could well be called secular. The implicit argument is that the Sanhedrin might serve as a positive model for Parliament. These are just a few examples. But the question is – how did he write all these and why?


On March 4, 1629, John Selden, the most learned man in England, was imprisoned in the Tower of London. He had been arrested on charges of conspiracy and sedition against King Charles I. From prison Selden wrote the following letter:

Seldon 2


Whilst imprisoned he was to embark on a course of study lasting for the next 25 years, that was to define his mature scholarship in later life and lasting legacy. The Westminster copy was a combination of the first and second editions of the Talmud published in Venice by Daniel Bomberg between 1520 and 1539. Fourty four tractates, 2.5m words on 5,894 pages, without any vowels or punctuation. (as a side note – Rabbi Lieberman has in fact studied from this very same copy of Talmud that John Selden used and there is an interesting legend about how this copy came to Westminster!)


At this time in history, there was a flourishing Christian Hebraic movement, evident in the early history of America and the subject of a talk of its own. In a beautifully written Hebrew letter found in the Beinecke Library in Yale (dated 29/09/1641) from Christian Hebraist, Joannes Stephanus Rittangel, he writes to Selden referring to him as Morenu Harav Rav Seldenus and adds that he is writing from Cantabrigia – Ir VeYeshiva Hamehulla, Cambridge – The Esteemed City and Yeshiva. In reference to Selden sitting as a member of Parliament he refers to him as b’Shevet ha’Gazit – sitting in the chamber of hewn stones where the Sanhedrin sat. It is incredible to think how this was all going on in a country that had kicked out its Jews over 300 years earlier.


Selden’s attraction to Rabbinic law already existed prior to his study of the Talmud. Selden was well aware of the problems of legal innovation and its justification. The common law’s (the part of English law that is derived from custom and judicial precedent) continual development through re-interpretation of previous cases, relying upon “artificial reason,” was precisely what so offended the universal right reason of King James and Hobbes. For Selden, at the origin of every state were those natural laws that allowed for the existence of civil society. At their basis was fides est servanda; but that “first being” is “increased, altered, interpreted” so much so that like a “ship that by often mending had no piece of the first materials or as the house that is so often repaired, ut nihil ex pristina materia supersit,” so said Selden of 1616 in his note to Chapter 17 of Fortescue’s De Laudibus Legum Angliae. Thus, Selden likely saw the rabbinic, adversarial “oral law” of the Mishnah and Talmud as resembling common law. Selden was not scared to use the Rabbinic law to fight against the clerical power of his time, often getting himself into trouble with the Church and the Crown. Selden even developed a theory of international law based on the seven Noachide laws. A full coverage of his Rabbinic works is probably the subject of years long PHD, and possibly a good follow up shiur by some of our lawyers here however if you are really up for the challenge pick up the book! I was also made aware of the following work written by the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine (and of Ireland), Rabbi Yitzchak Halevi Herzog titled: John Selden and Jewish Law, Journal of Comparative Legislation and International Law (1931) but have not yet been able to find a copy (any librarians able to assist I would be very grateful).

Selden had a huge influence on the next generation of great thinkers, John Milton, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke among others and made his stamp on the development of English law and thought. Before this study, I was totally unaware of the very Jewish foundations of modern society. Interestingly, the Rabbinic roots of John Selden and not often highlighted and in academia are often overlooked despite them representing the fruit of his most mature labours in later life. Thanks to Jason Rosenblatt’s work, this topic  has been brought back into the limelight.

One final thought.

Despite not meeting each other – Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel and John Selden were intimately linked and played a truly miraculous role in the history of the Jewish people. Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel’s theory that the redemption could not come until Jews were living in Britain, leading to the petition of Oliver Cromwell and acceptance of Jewish settlement. John Selden’s independent Judeophillic writings and Rabbinic influence on British law and the legal readmission of Jews into Britain. Had Jews not been allowed back into Britain, there would have been no Moses Montefiore, no Balfour declaration, no State of Israel and no Jonathan Levy standing here today on the verge of joining our peoples destiny in Eretz Yisrael.

People say it is hard to believe today. I think, if we look for the yad Hashem in history, with a megillat Esther style overview, its not as hard as you think.

May Hashem bring the redemption quickly and may we all join together next year in Jerusalem or even Mitzpe Netofa! Amen amen amen.

POSTSCRIPT: According to Adam Gersch QC the expulsion order of the Jews of Britain has not infact been revoked! Adam wrote directly to the Queen on this matter some years ago and was referred to the Prime Minister and then the head of the Legal Commission (I think that’s what he said). He received assurances that the Jews were safe in Britain and that the expulsion order will not be actioned. To be continued….




Ten Things You Definitely Didn’t Know About Rambam

Here are the notes of a shiur I gave on Rambam two years ago. The shiur relied heavily on the following excellent books that I had read at that time: Maimonides by Moshe Halbertal; Maimonides by Joel Kraemer: Studies in Maimonides by Marc Shapiro. This was a topic that I had a great passion for and really enjoyed sharing my findings with others. I hope these notes inspire others to learn about the great Rambam – today 20th Tevet is his 813th Yahrzeit.


[JRL – what is so unique is the gift of the looking glass into him/his society in great detail that was bequeathed to us via the Cairo Geniza (a storage place of old books and documents kept intact by the dry climate). Compare with Dr Marc Shapiro translated a letter of the Sridei Aish to Samuel Atlas]

  1. Where he lived

[JRL – Rambam travelled a fair distance over his lifetime. Interestingly, he did not remain in Israel (assume to do with parnasa) and in fact finally settled in Egypt. Muslim persecution led to emigration, Q as to why he did not move to safer Christian Spain in the north?]


Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef cites the Ritva (Novella, Yoma 38B), who explains that the prohibition only applies to the geography and infrastructure of biblical Egypt. With the destruction of the Egyptian cities, this was nullified. In other words, the present day cities where Jewish communities were more recently established are not considered the ‘Egypt’ of the prohibition. Rav Yosef thus concluded that one can dwell in Egypt and he himself lived in Egypt for two years (1947-1949).

Rabeinu Bechaya also commentated that this only applied when the people of Egypt were particularly immoral, but it is not a prohibition for all times. Ritva commented that the prohibition was not applicable after the destruction of the temple and the exiles that followed. The Radvaz (Commentary of Rambam, Laws of Kings 5,7,8) says that the actual Torah prohibition would be violated only if a person moved to Egypt with the intention of living there but a person may move there for temporary asylum or while he does some business. Once a person is there, if he decides to stay it is still forbidden but not as severe, as it involves no physical action. Therefore if the economic situation is difficult or the Jews are being persecuted in other lands it is permitted to stay. Rabbi Eliezer of Metz states that the prohibition applies only returning to Egypt from Israel, Rabbi Yosef Shaul Halevi Nathansohn adds that this is only via the same route of the 42 encampments that the Jews followed in the desert.

Despite all of this, there is a tradition that the Rambam signed his letters saying that he is one who ‘transgresses three commandments every single day’ (as the prohibition to live there is mentioned in the three biblical sources)

  1. His Name

Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon HaSefardi

al Ra’is Abu Imran Musa ibn Maymun Ibn Abdallah al Qurtubi al-Andalusi al-Isra’ili

[JRL – Rambam was honoured in Muslim and Jewish circles. When referring to himself in Hebrew, despite his travels always saw himself as HaSefardi, maintaining a strong emotional and intellectual connection to the culture of Spainish Jewry]

  1. Attitude to Islam


Q: whether one should profess the shahada to avoid being slain and having one’s orphaned children become Muslims, or whether should refuse it and be slain, as the Torah requires, since uttering the shahada leads to abandoning all the commandments.

A: whoever attests the mission of Muhammad thereby renounces the Lord God of Israel. One should rather be killed than profess the shahada, even if remaining alive would prevent one’s children from becoming Muslims.  Responsa from a widely circulated unknown halachist – Rambam responded to via his Epistle on Forced Conversion (Igerret hashmad arabic– Morroco c1160-1165, more famous is his epistle to Yemen 1172)

[JRL – Rambam makes three a number of arguments against this responsa. 1) compulsion different to voluntary 2) observing Jewish law secretly has value 3) praying to Allah in mosque and praying at home to God is not idolatry 4) acknowledging Mohamad as prophet doesn’t make you pasul ledut 5) just because Kairites/Christians prefer to die, doesn’t mean we should look to them as examples. Practical halachic ruling 1) accept Islam provisionally (do not die) 2) observe the mitzvot as far as you can 3) emigrate]

Role in the Messianic story

“Nevertheless, the intent of the Creator of the world is not within the power of man to comprehend, for His ways are not our ways, nor are His thoughts, our thoughts. Ultimately, all the deeds of Jesus of Nazareth and that Ishmaelite who arose after him will only serve to prepare the way for Mashiach’s coming and the improvement of the entire world, motivating the nations to serve God together..” Hilchot Melachim 11:4

[JRL – positive appraisal of both religions in the macro scale of world history – censorship removed these references for many years/versions of MT, now returned to the original. Interestingly the from Rambam’s perspective Islam was monotheistic but rejected the chumash as a forgery, Christianity was idolatrous but respected the veracity of the text. Practically this meant one could teach Torah to a Christian but would suffer a martyrs death if asked to convert and the opposite regarding a Islam.]

Did Rambam Convert?

“…we observe the commandments of the Torah while the edge of the sword is upon us, certainly this forced conversion of ours, may God annul it, when we nevertheless, as is known, engage in study of the Torah. A proof of our assertion is the appearance of the great sage our Master Moses, son of his honour Rabbi Maimon, in Fez, who is without equal in the extent of his knowledge” Joseph Ibn Judah Ibn ‘Aqnin commentary on Shir Hashirim.

“when the order came into force, those with little property departed, while those with much property remained…professing Islam openly while harbouring unbelief. Musa ibn Maymun was one of those who did this, remaining in his country..he also adhered to specific rituals, including study of the Qur’an and prayer” Ibn al-Qifti’s ‘History of the Sages’ , contemporary of Rambam.

[JRL – This appears to be open to scholarly debate. Kramer vs. Halbertal. Based on his halachic ruling, this does not make me uncomfortable]

  1. Controversial rulings

One of the more daring enactments issued by Maimonides was eliminating the worshipers’ silent recitation of the amidah while counting solely on the cantor’s loud recitation of the amidah. This enactment was motivated by the fact that during the loud recitation of the cantor after the silent prayer by each individual member of the synagogue, the community that had already silently recited the amidah behaved in a disrespectful manner, causing desecration of God’s name in the eyes of the Muslim environment. Responsa 256; 258

For every woman is entitled to go to her father’s house to visit him, or to a house of mourning or a wedding feast as an act of kindness to her friends and relatives, in order that they in turn might visit her on similar occasions, for she is not in a prison where she cannot come and go. On the other hand, it is unseemly for a woman to be constantly going out abroad and into the streets, and the husband should prevent his wife from doing this and should not let her go out, except once or twice a month, as the need may arise. Rather, the seemly thing for a woman is to sit in the corner of her house, for so it is written, All glorious is the king’s daughter within the palace. (Ps. 45, 15) Law of Marriage 13, 10

 A wife who refuses to perform any kind of work that she is obligated to do, may be compelled to perform it, even by scourging her with a rod” Laws of Marriage 21, 10.

“I have never heard of afflicting women with rods” Ra’avad ad loc

[JRL – no basis in the Talmud and appears to be influenced by Islamic culture]

…it was taught: If a woman was married to one husband who died, and to a second one who also died, she must not be married to a third…What, however, is the reason in the case of marriage? R. Mordecai answered R. Ashi: Thus said Abimi from Hagronia in the name of R. Huna, ‘The fountain is the cause’.  But R. Ashi stated: ‘The stars are the cause’ BT Yevamot 64b

With regard to marriage, [even if] a man wants to marry a lethal woman and cause harm to himself, we do not enable him to do so, for it is forbidden and within the rubric of bloodshed [that is, suicide]; and the court bans him until he divorces her. And so I have seen as the opinion of [Nahmanides], of blessed memory, who so acted. Novellae of Ritva on Yevamot 64b, s.v. “ nesu ʾ in

“If a woman had been successively married to two husbands and both died, she should not marry for a third time, but if she does so, she need not be divorced. Even if only the betrothal has taken place, the third husband may consummate the marriage” “Laws Concerning Forbidden Intercourse,” 21:31.

The practical halakhah that we have always applied in all the cities of Andalusia is that if a woman is repeatedly widowed, she should not be prevented from remarrying, especially if she is young, for there is concern about the detriments that may result … How can we put the daughters of Israel at risk of going astray? What the God- fearing and pious people among us did was to refrain from arranging a marriage for a multiple widow but to say to her explicitly: if you are able to find someone to marry you, we will not require him to divorce you. Iggerot haRambam

[JRL – a great example of Rambam the rationalist ruling against the Talmud’s superstitious]

  1. Secular writings

  • Maqala fi sina’at al-mantiq – Treatise on the Art of Logic apprx age 16
  • Maamar haIbbur – Primer on the Calendar apprx age 20

The great mathematician and historian Otto E Neugebauer (1899-1990) commented favourably on Rambams’ mastery of astronomy

  • On Hemorrhoids, On Cohabitation, On Asthma, On Poisons and Their Antidotes, Regimen of Health, On the Cause of Symptoms, and (prepared for fellow physicians) Extracts from Galen (The Art of Cure), Medical Aphorisms, Commentary on Hippocrates’ Aphorisms, and Glossary of Drug Names.

Saladin’s nephew, Taqi al-Din al-Malik al-Muzzafar, beset by a bevy of young maidens, desired to have his ardour enhanced, his overexertion having drained him to the point of febrile emaciation. Maimonides wrote a medical work for the prince, On Sexual Intercourse (Fi ’l-jima‘), prescribing aphrodisiac concoctions yet counselling temperance in erotic pursuits.

Maimonides ended his brief treatise with a blessing: “And may the Lord lengthen his days with pleasures, and may those delights be attached to eternal delights for the sake of God’s kindness and goodness.”

[JRL – the last decade of Rambam’s life appears to be filled by his secular/medical writings and research. The works we know him for now, were all completed by the time he was 50]

  1. His family

 “He [David] went abroad to trade that I might remain at home and continue my studies.” Letters of Maimonides

“For almost a year after receiving the sad news I lay on my couch stricken with fever, despair, and on the brink of destruction”  Letters of Maimonides

“Close to eight years have now elapsed and I still mourn for him for there can be no consolation. What can possibly comfort me? He grew up on my knees, he was my brother, my pupil. He went abroad to trade that I might remain at home and continue my studies. He was well versed in Talmud and Bible and an accomplished grammarian. My greatest joy was to see him. Now every joy has been dimmed. He has departed to his eternal life and left me confounded in a strange land. Whenever I come across his handwriting on one of his books my heart turns within me and my grief reawakens.” Letters of Maimonides

[JRL – 48 years old when he has his only son, Abraham. Had a daughter that died when he was young. No mention of wife or mothers names, we know his wife’s family were influential in the court of the Muslim ruler. One of his sisters was married to Uzziel- Abu al –Ma’ali, senior officer in the Sultans court and secretary to the mother of al-Afdal, son of Saladin. David’s trading allowed Rambam the time to write MT over ten years.]

  1. Work-life balance

In interpreting the Mishnaic teaching “make of them neither a crown of which to boast nor a pickaxe with which to dig,” Pirkei Avot

“I had thought to say nothing about this provision, because it is clear but also because I know that what I have to say about it will displease most, if not all, great Torah scholars. But I will have my say and not pay attention to [them]. Know that it says “make not of the Torah a pickaxe with which to dig”; that is, do not consider it a means for earning a living. This means that one who obtains this- worldly benefit from the honour of the Torah has cut off his soul from the life of the world to come…. For when we consider the practice of the sages of blessed memory, we find that none of them raised funds from people or sought contributions for the exalted and distinguished yeshivas or for the Exilarch or for judges or teachers or any appointees or other people.”

In a letter written to his beloved student, Joseph ben Judah:

I tell you that I have become known as a physician among the mighty, such as the chief judge, the emirs, and the house of al- Faḍil and the other princes of the land, those who lack nothing. But as for the masses, I am beyond their reach, and they have no way to approach me. And this causes me to spend the entire day in Cairo, tending to the sick, and when I get back to Fustat, all I can do for the rest of the day and into the night is to examine the medical texts that I need to consult…. As a result, I do not have a moment to study Torah except on the Sabbath, and as for other sciences, I do not have a moment to study any of them, and this harms me greatly.

In a letter to one of his admirers in Egypt who wanted to learn Torah from him:

 “Without doubt he has already seen and heard some of the state I am in, a state of betwixt morning and evening they are shattered [Job 4:20]. And when night comes … I am ill, filled with sighs, unable because of my tiredness to sit up, able only to lie supinely”

The sages of Lunel asked him to translate the Guide into Hebrew:

“Alas, my honoured friends, I do not even have the leisure to write a small chapter and it is only out of respect for your congregation that I have painfully exerted myself to write this epistle with my own hand”

“Compounding my physical condition, I am burdened with a multitude of patients, who exhaust me and give me no respite day and night. Alas, one has to pay a price for a reputation that has spread to even neighbouring countries” (ibid., p. 161).

[JRL – Rambam produced an incredible number of complex, and revolutionary works in his life time. MT taking 10 years of work. Without the help of his brother, we may have never seen the incredible works that are in every Jewish library today. However, true to his word, once this support was gone Rambam engaged in the world and succeeded.]

  1. Scholarly output

  • Commentary on the Mishnah 25-30 years old (Morroco)
  • Sefer HaMitzvot /Mishnah Torah 30-40 years old
  • Guide for the Perplexed 47-53 years old
  • Teshuvot and Epistles
  • 10 Medical works and various earlier compositions
  1. Revisions and Amendments

“What I wrote in the work [Mishneh Torah] is doubtlessly correct, and so I wrote in the Commentary on the Mishnah [in a revision of the first version]. What you have is the first edition, which I published before close scrutiny, following, in this passage, what R. Hafetz wrote in Sefer ha- Mitzvot . The mistake is his, and I followed it without verifying. But when I examined and scrutinized these passages, it became clear that what I wrote in the work is correct, and I revised the commentary. “ Iggerot, pp. 647–649

The original, authorised version of the work, in Maimonides’ own hand, was kept in his home. From that editio princeps , corrected on occasion by Maimonides himself, additional copies were made. Those manuscripts were certified as authoritative by Maimonides’ signed statement that he had examined and approved the copy. These copies were sent to various communities, and, during Maimonides’ lifetime, the treatise reached all parts of the Jewish Diaspora, all the way to India. Maimonides was following carefully and attentively the fate of Mishneh Torah and could provide a detailed account of its dissemination, in times when manuscripts and letters moved in slow motion.


  1. View of science/philosophy

“This honored and awesome God commands that we love Him….  What is the way to love Him?

When a person contemplates His wondrous, great actions and creations, and perceives in them His immeasurable and infinite wisdom, Then he immediately loves and praises and exalts and experiences a great desire to know the great God, as David said: ‘My soul thirsts for the living God….’ As our Sages taught, concerning love: ‘For thus you recognize Him Who spoke and the world came into existence.'” Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 2:1-2

“When a person considers these things and recognizes all of the creations… and perceives God’s wisdom in all creatures and all creations, he loves God even more and his soul will thirst and his flesh long to love the blessed God.” Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 4:12

[JRL – it is clear from Rambam’s writing that the height of human relationship with God, love of God in this world can only  be fulfilled via learning/studying/meditating on mitzvot, science and philosophy. His philosophy of Halacha strictly through the prism of a legal philosophy and basis for society runs in contradistinction to the yeshiva hashkafa that prevails today. Most of the philosophy of Aristotle, who so impressed Rambam, was learnt via Arabic translations of the major Greek works. Without Rambam’s non-corporeal approach to religion and other rational matters of belief, it is impossible to think or understand how in the past anyone could have thought any differently].



“Hand Shaking, Mezuzah Kissing, and Double Dipping – time for a public health announcement”

So how did this shiur title come about? I was standing at Kiddush observing what I am sure many of you have observed, the art of double dipping. For those that do not know, this is when one takes an object (usually a cracker) and dips it in the hummus (or other dip) bites the object and then proceeds to dip that object (bitten side) back into the dip (thus the double dip). Maybe this time was the time that broke the camels back, as I was so angry and disgusted, I thought to myself there must be some sources on this that I can research and make into a shiur. I am not sure if we can call this a shiur proper, but more a collection of random sources and hopefully some food for thought.

1) The Life Of Poo by Professor Adam Hart

“Observations in 2003 found 39 per cent of women and 63 per cent of men did not wash their hands after using a public toilet.

As a result Professor Hart, from Gloucestershire University, warned that we should think twice about shaking people’s hands, to avoid the spread of germs.

He said: “Poor hand hygiene is a major cause of all food-borne illness outbreak, yet very few of us wash our hands properly, while almost none of us do so on a regular basis.

From a young age I was taught (by my mum) that people do not wash their hands when they leave the toilet – which I can confirm I personally witnessed on many an occasion myself. I think this is where the ‘minhag’ of having ‘builders mugs’ comes from (hands up guilty people). This always left me with a fear regarding the hygiene of people’s hands, especially after a Shabbat morning shaking 150 hands in shul after which you find yourself eating finger foods at the Kiddush. Whatever happened to that excellent reputation for hygiene that served the Jewish people so well during the bubonic plague in the middle ages?


In 2002 my Zaida passed away in the Royal London Hospital. He had fallen over at home and broken a bone. Whilst in hospital he contracted MRSA and died after a short illness. This death was entirely preventable.

Hand hygiene campaign ‘cut superbug infections’

4 May 2012

The campaign to improve hand hygiene in hospitals in England and Wales contributed to a significant fall in the rates of superbug infections, according to a report.

The study published on the BMJ website showed the amount of soap and hand gel being used tripled during the campaign.

At the same time, levels of MRSA and C. difficile infections in hospitals fell.

The government has since dropped the campaign, but said its ambition was to “wipe out” such infections.

Hospital superbugs were once a real fear for many patients. In response the Clean Your Hands campaign , funded by the Department of Health, was introduced in all hospitals by June 2005.

Alcohol gels were put by bedsides, posters reminded staff to wash their hands and there were regular checks to ensure hands were kept clean.

By 2008, the total amount of soap and alcohol gel being purchased by hospitals trebled, going from 22ml per patient per day to 60ml per patient per day.

Rates of MRSA more than halved in the same time period and C. diff infections fell by more than 40%.

‘Success story’

One of the report’s authors, Dr Sheldon Stone from the Royal Free University College London Medical School, estimated that around 10,000 lives were saved because of the campaign.

He told the BBC: “It’s been a real British success story, we’ve gone from being the dirty man of Europe to being world leaders.

“What we need to do is keep up the momentum and stay at the forefront of world hand hygiene.”

A spokesman from the Department of Health said: “The Clean Your Hands campaign was successful in its aim to highlight the importance of good hand hygiene practice across the NHS. We know this has been successful.

“The challenge now is to ensure the NHS embeds the good practice highlighted in the campaign to achieve our ambition to wipe out avoidable healthcare-associated infection.

  • “We know real progress has been made in this area as MRSA bloodstream infections have dropped by 41% and C. difficile by 30% across the NHS in England since 2009/10.”


Which brings me to my next source. An email sent to a community in Israel in 2015.

The context of this email is actually quite sad as it related to one particular member who was undergoing a treatment that left their immune system weakened and it would be dangerous for them to catch flu or winter bug. On this particular Friday night the queue to fist bump the Rav was rather large on the Friday night and was followed by lots of laugher. The email request went unheeded.


Date: 2 November 2015 11:39:19 am GMT+2

Subject: Special – A recommendation regarding handshaking from some healthcare professionals

We would like to make a recommendation to refrain from handshaking.

It’s known and PROVEN  that germs travel quickly through hand to hand transmission. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 80 percent of all infections are transmitted by hands.

People are already infected with viruses, and it is only going to get worse as the winter progresses. For some individuals that could mean catching a bothersome cold that may linger for days; for others (elderly, immune compromised), it could be quite serious and lead to (ch”v) serious illness.

It is wonderful that we have customs that engender camaraderie such as shaking hands (for greeting ‘shabbat shalom’, acknowledging ‘yasher koach’), but we can find creative ways to express friendship and warmth without spreading (potentially dangerous) germs. For example, replacing handshakes with “fist bumps” showed 90% reduction in hand-to-hand bacterial transmission.*.

Raising awareness regarding transmission of disease will help. Frequent hand washing can help curb the spread of flu and other conditions (we should always have antibacterial soap available at washing stations, and possibly investigate installing purell-type gel dispensers)

By having people refrain from handshaking, we can at the very least be a part of the solution to prevent spread of illness, and at best, actually improve public health in our community.

Thank you

Concerned members and health professionals


Mela and Whitworth*, “The fist bump: A more hygienic alternative to the handshake.” American Journal of Infection Control, August 2014.

The non-members of our shul do not feel it is appropriate to be signees, but all of the following people have reviewed, agreed with, and encouraged this position.

Dr. M B

Dr. M G

Dr. S G



Dr. H A

Dr. R S

4) Ilan Youngster et al, “Can religious icons be vectors of infectious diseases in hospital settings?” American Journal of Infection Control 37 (2009): 861-3.

Nosocomial infections are of great concern in hospital settings. Health professionals and their medical equipment have long been known to act as vectors of infectious diseases. Even though tremendous resources are allocated to infection control, an estimated 5% to 10% of hospitalized patients acquire a nosocomial infection, resulting in approximately 120,000 deaths yearly in the United States alone, totaling 4.5 to 5.7 billion US dollars in additional patient care costs. A recent report estimated that 25% of patients on the pediatric ward acquire a nosocomial viral infection during their hospital stay. Numerous studies have been published trying to assess the relative importance of different objects in the hospital environment as vectors of infectious diseases. Cultures taken from stethoscopes, othoscopes, blood pressure cuffs, hands, and even physician’s ties have all revealed highly pathogenic flora. Accordingly, most medical personnel are aware of the importance of disinfecting these items. Even though the Mezuzah is touched and even kissed by a large part of -patients and visitors in Israeli hospitals, to the best of our knowledge, its role as a fomite has never been evaluated.


Of the 10 members of the cleaning staff interviewed, only 1 reported ever cleaning the Mezu- zah prior to the interventional program. The most common explanation for avoiding the Mezuzah during the daily cleaning routine was that, being a religious artifact, the staff believed they were not allowed to clean it, or they were afraid of ruining it.

5) Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky on OU.org Jewish Action Reader “Tzarich Iyun: Kissing the Mezuzah”

First a random story about mezuzah that I found quite funny:

During a shiur he once gave in Beit Shemesh, Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski quipped, “I see people enter a room, kiss the mezuzah and then watch TV for a half hour. I would rather they kissed the TV and then watched the mezuzah for a half hour.”

FACT: There is no Talmudic source obligating one to kiss the mezuzah, although there may be a source for touching the mezuzah. Kissing the mezuzah seems to have been introduced by the Arizal (sixteenth century), and is thus a relatively recent custom

(BT Avodah Zarah 11a)

Onkelos the son of Kalonymus became a proselyte. The emperor sent a contingent of Roman [soldiers] to pursue him, but he enticed them by [citing] Scriptural verses, and they converted to Judaism…. The Emperor then sent another Roman cohort….they seized him and were walking, Onkelos saw the mezuzah affixed to the doorway. He placed his hand on it and asked them, “What is this?” They said, “You tell us.” Onkelos replied, “The universal custom is a mortal king dwells within and his servants keep guard over him from without; but with the Holy One, Blessed be He, His servants dwell within while He keeps guard over them from without, as it says, ‘Hashem yishmor tzetcha u’vo’echa me’atah v’ad olam’ (Psalms 121:8). They too converted to Judaism. He [the emperor] sent for him no more.

The Rema in Darkei Moshe (YD 285), citing the Maharil, mentions the Onkelos story as the basis for the custom of touching the mezuzah. Note that while Onkelos touches the mezuzah, there is no mention of him kissing it.

There are many 20th century sources quoting this minhag of kissing the mezuzah. Chovat Hadar—citing the Chida who quotes the Arizal—states that one should kiss the mezuzah by placing one’s middle finger over the word Shakai, then kiss that finger and pray to God to be protected from the yetzer hara (Rabbi Yaakov Yeshaya Blau, 1976; p. 14)

Despite the wide spread custom, many authorities disagree with it Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin in Eidut Le’Yisrael (p. 159) objects to kissing the mezuzah (and sefer Torah) with one’s mouth or even with a cloth (and most likely with one’s hand as well). Instead he prefers the Sephardic, or more accurately, the Georgian (Soviet) custom of pointing and “blowing” a kiss. He offers two reasons for this. Firstly, he feels that kissing implies too much familiarity, a level of closeness that one cannot purport to have with a Torah or a mezuzah. Secondly, he opines that kissing a mezuzah even via one’s fingers or hand spreads germs, a hygienic-based halachic problem mentioned in Shulchan Aruch, OC 170:15.

6) Voz Iz Neias Website: Bnei Brak – Fearing Germs, Ger Rabbi Discontinues Mouth to Mouth Drinking from Rebbe’s Cup

 Here is a news source that confirms a practical application of the above discussions regarding handshaking and hygiene.

Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter, current rabbi of the Hasidic dynasty of Ger, instructed his disciples in Jerusalem a few weeks ago to toast with individual and disposable plastic cups containing a few drops of wine from the rabbi’s own glass.

Hasidic Jews have toasted from the same cup at events and meals for at least 200 years.

Yeshiva students who recently came from the United States and sought to meet the rabbi were asked by his aides not to shake the rabbi’s hand when they see him in his Bnei Brak home.

A popular story about the rabbi’s grandfather, Abraham Mordechai Alter – the dynasty’s second head and a prominent writer and authority – says that when he visited Israel in the early 1900s, he rebuked a man who hesitated about drinking from the communal glass of wine.

“A hundred Jews sipped from this glass, and yet you think the wine isn’t clean enough,” the popular legend quotes him as saying

7) Shmiras Shabbas 48:11 vs Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach on Kiddush cup sharing

On a related subject, I remembered studying some years ago in the Ben Ish Chai that when making Kiddush if the guests round the table would be disgusted by sharing a cup then the baal habayit should pour out the wine into smaller cups before tasting from the cup. Unfortunately, I could not pin point that source however Rabbi Solomon found me these:


Yalkut Yosef 271:38



I think there is a degree of sensitivity here, obviously these issues will bother some of us more than others. However I think we can work towards improving hygiene in general, such as having anti-bacterial gels at Kiddush tables. When you think about a community as a whole, there are vulnerable groups within it such as the elderly and little babies who are more susceptible and perhaps we could do more to ensure they are protected as best can be. Let’s make sure our cleaners are cleaning the mezuzot. Let’s make sure we wash our hands after the toilet and train our children too also. Coming back to double dipping, in Pirkei Avot we are enjoined to do things that are perceived by others in a positive light, let’s try and be more sensitive to each other and try not to do things that may disgust others.

postscript – I found this source tonight whilst reading with my son the book “our sages showed the way”

On another one of the many occasions that Rabbi Akiva was invited to someone’s house to eat, he brought along his student, Ben Azai. The host wanted to honour Rabbi Akiva with a cup of wine. He poured the cup, sipped it to make sure it tasted good, and handed the cup to Rabbi Akiva. But rather than taking the cup, Rabbi Akiva said to the host, “please drink it yourself”.

The host was flattered by Rabbi Akiva’s comment, mistaking it for an honour rather than a rebuke. He gladly gulped down the wine. Then he poured another cup for Rabbi Akiva. Again, the host sipped it first before handing it to Rabbi Akiva.
“Please,” responded Rabbi Akiva again. “Why don’t you drink it yourself.” By now the host was confused. He didn’t understand why Rabbi Akiva wasn’t interested in drinking his wine.
Finally, Ben Azai whispered to him, “When are you going to stop drinking from Rabbi Akiva’s cup? Don’t you know you are never supposed to give someone a cup that you took a sip from? There are some people who find that disgusting, and would rather die of thirst than drink out of someone else’s cup. Not only that, but even if they would overcome their revulsion and drink out of your cup, it could pose some serious health risks.”
That host, too, certainly learned a lesson that day.
Derech Eretz Rabbah chapters 7/9

Apple Kippah

Three Lessons We Can Learn From the Apple Watch for the High Holy Days

This post is not sponsored by Apple.

  1. Fitness First – This year will be different


In his book, “Orot Ha’Teshuvah,” Rav Kook explains that:

“When one forgets the essence of one’s soul; when one distracts his mind from seeing the true nature of his own inner life, everything becomes doubtful and confused. The principle Teshuvah, which immediately lights up the darkness, is for a person to return to himself, to the root of his soul. Then he will immediately return to G-d, to the Souls of all souls. And he will continue to stride higher and higher in holiness and purity. This is true for an individual, a nation, for all of mankind, and for the perfection of all existence.”

In his explanation of the Teshuvah process, Rav Kook outlines the various stages involved in this ‘return to himself’. I was surprised to learn that the first step on the way to Teshuvah is getting one’s body into physical shape! Rav Kook calls this ‘Teshuvah of the body’.

To return to a state of inner harmony and Divine connection, a person must first have a healthy body.

Health tracking and digital fitness have now become mainstream, the worlds brightest and best are putting their minds together to help people live healthier lives. There are so many products to choose from at all price points and some insurance companies are even offering rewards and incentives to keep fit. I have been really impressed with the latest Apple Watch, it is fun, intuitive and genuinely useful. In addition to fun watch faces, games and discrete notification alerts from your phone during the day, you also get reminders to stand up during the day, updates on your daily movement/exercise goals and achievements, you can track your calories burnt, heart rate, hydration and a whole plethora of third party devices that can measure your blood glucose to arterial stiffness. If every year you have promised yourself to get fitter, live a little better, perhaps this year really is the year to make a difference, with a little digital help, and perhaps you can tick off box number one on Rav Kook’s Teshuvah plan.


  1. Breathe – We are all Buddhists now!


Someone lent me a really fascinating book recently called ‘One God Clapping – The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi’. It describes the life journey of Rabbi Alan Lew from Eastern philosophy to Judaism and his integration of the two leading him to form a Jewish meditation movement. From reading the popular Kabbalistic works of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (specifically Jewish Meditation) it is clear that we have lost touch with a method of relating to God that was common place in the times of the Temple and even earlier than this we find references to meditation by the Forefathers. The tefillah service we have today is not set up to facilitate this original spiritual practice, and for those looking for something transcendental unfortunately it is not to be found in a contemporary Beit HaKnesset.

How can Apple Watch help with tefillah? Apple Watch wants to bring breathing exercises – the cornerstone of meditation – to everyone. This clever app reminds you at various intervals during the day to take a minute out to focus on your breathe and to inhale and exhale in tandem with the graphic of a flower  expanding and contracting as well as vibrations tickling your arm if you are closing your eyes. For those suffering from stress this may provide that time out relief to help get them through the day. For those looking to improve their tefillah, I would recommend running a ‘Breathe’ session on the Apple Watch before each tefillah (before the Amidah prayer). It is fully programmable in lengths of 1-5 minutes, how many times per day you wish to do it and as you progress you can adjust how many breathes per minute (7 is default). It’s a small start, but I believe this may just change the way you pray – today!

  1. Humility – ‘be exceedingly humble’


We read on Rosh Hashanah about the naming of Yitzchak which means ‘he will laugh’. What relevance has laughter to do with Rosh Hashanah? Rav Matis Weinberg explains that this laughter is the laugher of the ultimate unexpected – existence itself. Why is there existence at all? On Rosh Hashanah, we commemorate the conception of the world (the birth is considered to be in Nissan where we also celebrate the new year –  for months). The reality of finite existence compared to the Infinite will always remain a paradox. This thought should bring us ‘down to earth’ and help us with the difficult task of humbling ourselves before the King of Kings as we weigh up our deeds before the day of judgement.

Humility is one of the character traits we are told to be extremists about, to be very humble, it is the trait Moshe Rabbeinu is praised for directly in the Chumash – yet it is also the most elusive.

I have always found the study of the stars and astronomy to be immensely helpful when it comes to humility. One of the most fun elements of the Apple Watch are the incredible Watch Faces, Mickey Mouse is a personal favourite however there is one (image above) that really blew me away. It starts off with a green dot marking your current GPS location on the globe, which you can rotate in 3D on its axis to see what the rest of the world looks like right now (night/day). You can also turn the dial on the watch to see how the sun moves around the earth over the course of the next 24hrs. You can then click on the moon, rotate to see the surface of the moon and turn the watch dial to see the movements of the moon over the coming month (new moon is Friday apparently). You can then click on the solar system and turn the dial to see how all the planets rotate around the sun over the course of the year; the watch face then ends with a listing of the planets. Here on my wrist is a daily reminder of how small we are compared to the solar system let alone the universe, if we meditate on this each day then perhaps the world will have a little less hot air floating about causing catastrophe.

Wishing you all a very sweet Shana Tova

Poke what? Lessons we can learn from Pokémon GO

If you have been following the news, using social media or even walking in a park in the past month you would have found it difficult not to notice the latest craze taking the world by storm – Pokémon GO! You may also have read some of the strangest headlines:

Man jumps into traffic playing smartphone game

Teenager shot dead while searching for creatures in Pokémon Go

Cleric flags fatwa against Pokémon

US holocaust museum asks players to stay away

Pokémon Go player finds a dead body

Man walks equivalent to 23 marathons searching for Pokémon

 For those of you that may have watched (animated films and series) or played Pokémon games (on various Nintendo game consoles) in their youth, the chance to embark on an adventure to search and catch one of the 700+ Pokémon creatures is a dream come true. Utilising features on your mobile phone such as the camera, GPS and maps the creators have managed to overlay the Pokémon concept onto the real world to create a real world Pokémon adventure. In terms of computer gaming, this is every parent’s dream, the first game that involves getting off the sofa and getting kids active outside. In terms of technology, this is the first time augmented reality has been successfully deployed in the real world and gives us a taste of what augmented reality can bring to the world of technology (link), education (link) and gaming.

Is there a Jewish message in all this?

Well some Pokemon creatures apparently have a Biblical source such as Groudon and Kyogre based on the Leviathan and the Behemoth in the book of Iyov – Job.


And this Pokemon, Golurk, has a Kabbalistic source based on the famous Golem of Prague the mystical clay creature created with the name of God to defend the Jews of the city. I would like to suggest another connection.


In Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s book ‘Inner Space – Introduction to Kabbalah, Meditation and Prophecy’ he explains two fundamental Kabbalistic concepts known as ‘Shevirat haKeilim – the shattering of the vessels’ and ‘Nitzotzot Kedusha – sparks of holiness’. To simplify some very complex Kabbalistic topics here is a very brief crash course in Kabbalah.

According to the Kabbalah the building blocks God used in creating the universe(s) were the Ten Sefirot (often graphically depicted as inter-connected circles). These Sefirot form the inner structure and makeup of the universe, and they are the bridge between the Infinite Light of God and His finite creation. The Sefirot act as filters, garments or vessels for the light of the Ein Sof – The Infinite, that fills them. Essentially allowing the light of the Ein Sof to shine to ‘make space’ for finite creation. Although we refer to them as Ten Sefirot, at the highest spiritual level they are actually a complete unity as they represent Infinity in all its shining glory, however as they filter this light down towards creation, they go through a process of shattering and diffuse into ten distinct concepts. This is because the light that the vessels were holding was too much to contain. The Midrash states that, “God created universes and destroyed them”, other than the intriguing idea that this universe is not the only one that existed which is not the subject of this short article, according to the kabbalists this statement alludes to the concept just explained of ‘Shevirat haKeilim – the shattering of the vessels’. The now shattered vessels still retain a small amount of holiness. Nitzozot – sparks of the original light accompanied the vessels as they descended, these are the sparks of holiness in all things that must be elevated and brought back to the realm of the holy. There is something mysterious and magical when thinking about this process of creation and the existence of these sparks all around us. Our job, as taught in the Kabbalah and reinforced through Chasidut is to search for these Nitzotzot all around us, to become partners in creation in fixing these broken vessels.

In Aleinu we read “And you shall know today, and take to heart, that Hashem is the only God, in the heavens above and on Earth below. There is no other.”  The hardest journey and perhaps the longest one, is the one from our minds to our hearts, from what we know to be true to making that truth something we act on. We need to take the spiritual message of Pokémon to heart that indeed right before our eyes is a spiritual universe overlaid on the physical one. On every street corner, at work, in the home, all around us are opportunities to capture the sparks of kedusha – Nitzotzot, to fix the vessels. What an awesome task, what an incredible responsibility. Let’s wake up in the morning with renewed enthusiasm and full of desire to ‘catch ‘em all’. Most importantly let that excitement rub off on our children and our peers around us so that the next big headlines are about incredible mitzvot we caught today and the light of Ein Sof filling the world with light to dispel the darkness all around us.



‘Chochma BaGoyim, Taamin’ – Lessons we can learn from Batman

In this article I am going to take a selection of quotes from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy (Batman) and see what chochma we can glean from this movie masterpiece. This article has been adapted from a Forbes Tech article entitled “Five Leadership Lessons From Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy” by Alex Knapp


“People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man I’m flesh and blood. I can be ignored. I can be destroyed. But as a symbol, as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.”


In Batman Begins, one key aspect of Bruce Wayne’s desire to become Batman is so that he can be a symbol of something. A beacon of hope so that people can aspire to do better. This is what we see in The Dark Knight Rises, where Batman is honored as the savior of the city, not Bruce Wayne or any one person.


Sometimes we encounter a leader that becomes something more than just a leader, like the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l, they become a symbol around which the community can rally and draw inspiration from, even after their death they continue to inspire movements. However, we often see upon the passing of great leaders, the community struggling to function normally. What we can learn from Batman is that communities should not be dependent on any one particular individual, but should rather be founded on ideas and ideals. In this way we ground our religious life in a lasting and enduring way, giving us meaning and also leaving a lasting legacy to those that come after us.


“It’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.”


During one scene in Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne is exiting an expensive restaurant and getting into an expensive sports car. It’s all part of his act to maintain a wealthy bachelor image so that nobody suspects he’s Batman. On his way out, he runs across his childhood friend Rachel Dawes, who looks at him condescendingly as Bruce tries to defend himself, “It’s not who I am underneath.” Rachel’s response is pointed: “Deep down you may still be that same great kid you used to be. But it’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.”


Mitzvot are the fundamental currency of yiddishkeit, physical deeds are the foundation of our religious life. In halacha there is a famous debate about whether mitzvot tzrichot kavana, do our good deeds need to have the correct intentions to count as a mitzvah? Do we need to understand the words we pray to fulfill the mitzvah of tefilla? Is there any value in actions without their meanings? Judaism has always placed an emphasis on doing the right actions, as opposed to thinking the right thoughts (although the halacha does mandate kavana ideally). As Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits puts it eloquently regarding tefilla:


 “it is no small achievement to have taught the lips to “pray” on their own, without the conscious participation of the heart and mind. It shows that the human organism, from whose own nature hardly anything could be further removed than the wish to pray, has actually submitted to direction by the will to prayer…. Automatically “praying” lips may count for little in comparison with kavana, the directedness of the praying soul toward God in ecstatic submission; yet, they too represent a form of submission of the organic self to the will to pray”.  


We sometimes belittle our avodah when we do not think the right thoughts or have the proper intentions but we should appreciate the deed itself and the value of doing the right actions as an important part of that lifelong journey of growing closer to Hashem.

“You have been supplied with a false idol to stop you from tearing down this corrupt city. Let me tell you the truth about Harvey Dent.” 


At the end of The Dark Knight, Gotham’s District Attorney, Harvey Dent, had gone on a murderous rampage as the super villain Two-Face. Confronted with this fact, Commissioner Gordon and Batman agreed to tell the people of Gotham a lie. Gordon would tell the City that Batman had committed the murders that Dent had. This would allow Dent’s memory to go untarnished. It was upon that memory that the City built up a new Gotham. But not one that truly dealt with crime – one that merely pushed it underground. In The Dark Knight Rises, the truth about Batman and Dent is revealed to be a lie that corroded the foundation of Gotham’s institutions. At the end of the film, a new Gotham is built on a truth – that Batman is a hero. And that “a hero can be anyone.”


What was refreshing about the ba’al teshuva movement (in its early days) was its intellectual honesty and quest for the truth. It was this openness that tempted scientists (Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz), philosophers (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks), and various intellectuals to engage with the Torah honestly, and spread its light to others, this created a not so insignificant movement of returnees. Unfortunately, times have changed and this openness is now seen as a threat to Orthodoxy. As we have seen with the continued libels against sincere Orthodox scholars like Rabbi Natan Slifkin, truth is now perceived to be a threat to the status quo of Orthodox Jewish life. Sincere and honest engagement with Torah sources is now replaced with censorship and works of propaganda and pseudoscience. Leaders often trick themselves into thinking that people can’t be trusted with the truth, and that if they learn it, bad things will happen, this is a fundamental mistake. Education at its core has to be truth seeking, people need to be treated as adults and trusted with the truth. If we believe that the Torah is a Toras emes then what are we afraid of? As the yiddish saying goes “Man starbt nicht von a kasheOne does not die from a question”.


“You do not fear death. You think this makes you strong. It makes you weak …  How can you move faster than possible, fight longer than possible without the most powerful impulse of the spirit: the fear of death?”


During the mid-point of The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne is trapped in a hellish prison. It’s a prison made terrible, says his enemy Bane, because it offers hope. There is a pit leading to the surface that the inmates can try to escape from. The only problem? Only one prisoner ever made it – a child. Wayne makes two escape attempts and fails both times at the same point – a point where he has to make a jump that seems impossible for a person to make. In discussing the jump, Wayne reveals to a fellow prisoner that he isn’t afraid of death. His fellow prisoner chastises him for this – pointing out that it’s the fear of death that will drive you to “move faster than possible, fight longer than possible.”


Shlomo Hamelech taught: It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for that is the end of every man, and the living shall lay it to his heart. (Kohelet 7:2)

I have heard of party crashers, but not so many Shiva crashers. Fear of death is a common human fear and in some cases can lead to various medical conditions ranging from hypochondria, anxiety, depression, panic attacks etc. What we learn from Shlomo Hamelech (and Batman of course), is that fear can in fact be used for the good. How differently would we live on a daily basis, if we lived with the knowledge that each day could be our last. How differently would we talk, behave?  A bit of fear of death, like when visiting a Shiva house, can be a catalyst to act differently and be better people in our day to day lives. Life really is too short, so make the most of every day and use that fear of death to drive you to do the things that you would regret not doing.


“And why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”


One running theme of Nolan’s Batman trilogy is the idea of failing. It first appears at the beginning of Batman Begins, when a young Bruce Wayne falls into a well full of bats. Upon rescuing him, his father simply notes that the reason we fall is “so we can learn to pick ourselves up.” This is the entire story of The Dark Knight Rises after Batman’s defeat at the hands of Bane. Rather than destroy himself, Bruce Wayne escapes from the prison that he’s put in and reclaims the mantle of Batman and vanquishes the threat to Gotham.


Judaism is very comfortable with failure, says Shlomo Hamelech “For there is not a righteous man upon earth, that does good, and sins not” (Kohelet 7:20). In fact the flip side of the mishnah we read after Pirkei Avos ratza Hakadosh Baruch hu lezakot et Yisrael lefichach hirba lahem Torah uMitzvot Hashem desired to grant merit to Israel therefore he multiplied for them Torah and mitzvot (Makkot 3:16), is that in fact there are just as many opportunities to fail! Our holiest prayer service of the year, on Yom Kippur, describes the elaborate and inspirational service of the Kohen Gadol in the Temple to cleanse the nation of their sins and the relief of the people to be granted another year to try and live up to their ideals. The Torah teaches us that failure is never final, it is never too late for teshuva, in fact it is hardwired into how we have been programmed since Odom left the Garden of Eden. Shlomo Hamelech teaches us “The tzaddik will fall seven times and will rise.”(Mishlei 24:16). Here is the guarantee that despite us falling, with Hashem’s help, we pick ourselves up again and will ultimately rise to the challenge. Maybe deep inside everyone of us is a ‘Dark Knight’ just waiting to rise!


A Story Told By Menachem Begin – The Power of Shofar


(story as quoted in Yehuda Avner A”H ‘The Prime Ministers’ purchase here)

The story really began on the Yom Kippur of 1928, when a mechitza, an improvised, collapsible screen to separate male and female worshippers, was set up in front of the Western Wall for prayers. This, to the Arabs, was an act of provocation, and they went wild. “Jihad! Jihad!” flashed through the bazaars. “The Jews are trying to rebuild their Temple and destroy our al-Aksa Mosque.”

Eyewitness accounts told of a white-bearded Chasid in a black caftan running for his life, chased by a mob through an alleyway leading to the Western Wall. The pursuers brandished clubs, sabers, and daggers, and howled: “Save our holy places from the Jews!” and, “Death to the Jewish dogs!” and, “Allahu Akhbar! God is great!” The fleeing Chasid, his bony face chalk white, stumbling through the narrow tunnel passages, was losing ground. He fell, sprang up again, and then inexplicably turned and, head-first, drove straight into the phalanx of the chasing mob, hollering hysterically, “Shema Yisrael,” as they cut him down.

As the riots escalated the British set up an inquiry commission and, stirred by Muslim sensitivities, decreed that the Arabs were the sole owners of the Western Wall and that, henceforth, Jews would be forbidden to even blow the shofar in its precinct. Members of the Jewish community sat up and gasped. What are we, a myth? Do you claim that there never was a holy Temple on the Temple Mount? Our sacred texts are legends? Is it all a fairytale? Some bravehearts defied the ban.

Each year, as Yom Kippur approached its climax with the Ne’ilah service, a member of Betar, the youth movement of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Revisionists, would surreptitiously sound the shofar; whereupon the British police would move in and hit out in all directions.

Menachem Begin was witness to one such Ne’ilah service, on the Yom Kippur of 1943. What he saw was a battalion of British policemen, armed with rifles and batons, trying to pick out who might turn out to be the shofar blower. And when the sun went down and the shadows lengthened, they squeezed in among the pious, elbowing their way towards the Wall, weapons angled and primed. And then they heard it, and it drove them into a frenzy. A ruddy-faced sergeant, livid at the insolence, dashed toward a short figure clutching a shofar to his lips and, slapping the lad hard across the face, bellowed, “Stop blowing that thing.” Other policemen set upon worshippers trying to defend him, clobbering them with their batons. The young blower kicked the sergeant away and burrowed through the crush, spurting his way up the stairs, trying to reach the murky warrens adjacent to the Wall. “Kill him, Stop him! Kill him! Stop him,” cried the Arabs. “Keep going! Run! Run! Run!” cried the Jews. The boy dodged and leaped through the alleyways, until an officer felled him and pinned him to the ground. Seeing the outrage for himself, Menachem Begin decided that the Irgun had to respond, to confound the low tricks of his people’s enemies, who defiled this most sacred of sites. Thus it was that on the following Rosh Hashanah, in 1944 –ten days before Yom Kippur –he instructed his Irgun pamphleteers and poster-stickers to let it be known that any British policeman disturbing the service at the Western Wall “will be regarded as a criminal and be punished accordingly.” As the Day of Atonement drew nearer his warnings grew increasingly more strident, generating ever more grisly rumors as to what punishment Begin’s Irgun men would mete out to the British policemen.

“Criminal lunacy!” cried the left-wing Hebrew press, fearful of innocent casualties at the Wall. “The blowing of the ram’s horn at the close of the fast is a mere custom, not an obligatory act,” declared a tremulous rabbinate. And British Intelligence speculated as to what casualties their police at the Wall might sustain if fired upon from unseen directions. Came the culmination of Yom Kippur and the end of the Ne’ilah service, and in the deepening twilight the white-clad cantor, facing the gigantic shadowy blocks of ancient stones, chanted in a voice that swelled and soared, “Shema Yisrael…Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” And the whole congregation affirmed this declaration with single-minded intensity. And then, thrice, he trilled: “Baruch shem kavod…Blessed be the name of His Glorious Majesty for ever and ever,” and thrice the assembly responded in passionate confirmation. Seven times, the cantor intoned with trembling fervor, “The Lord is God. The Lord is God” and seven times the congregants avowed this invocation. And as the cantor concluded the service with the final words of the Kaddish –“Oseh shalom bimromav…He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen,” –the British policemen looked on, tense, edgy, crouched in confrontation, waiting for the order to pounce at the sound of the shofar. And the shofar sounded. Rising on tiptoe, arms stiffened, eyes closed, hands trembling in excitement, the boy who had blown the shofar blew again; a sustained, robust, soaring, exalted, single blast, reaching the heights of pure perfection –and not a policeman stirred. “Fall out,” barked the ruddy-faced sergeant to his men. “Return to barracks. At the double –one, two, one, two, one two…” “L’shanah haba’ah b’Yerushalayim habenuyah,” hollered the crowd. “Next year in rebuilt Jerusalem!” And they danced their way triumphantly to their homes in the Jewish Quarter.

My Recommended Jewish Book List

This is a list I Imagecompiled for some friends and students. The list covers most areas of Jewish learning/knowledge; Kabbalah, Hasidut, History, Philosophy, Science, Holocaust, Mitzvot, Modern Jewish Life, Israel and General Jewish knowledge.

Investing in books is possibly the greatest investment one can make, and you will never regret it. (I certainly do not, this is a lesson imparted to me by my father, who apparently learnt it from his father too).

Please contact me if you would like further details about any of the books or authors, and obviously as you read them I would love to hear your thoughts and impressions.

NB. listing is in no particular order.

1. Israel: Martin Gilbert (for a more condensed read and lots of amazing pull outs and recreated documents buy the Story of Israel: Martin Gilbert)

The establishment of the State of Israel is the most seminal event in Jewish history since the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70AD. For those of us born post 1948, Israel’s existence can often be taken for granted and knowledge of the sacrifices made to get here is sorely lacking. This book puts Israel’s history, warts and all, into its broader context. It highlights the individual stories of some heard of (Moshe Dayan) and unheard of heroes (Esther Cailingold). Like all of Martin Gilbert’s works, this reads like an action packed, gripping story and by the time the book has been through you, you will not be the same again.

2. A History of the Jews: Paul Johnson (easier alternative Letters to Aunt Fori: Martin Gilbert)

The Jewish people have lived practically in every country and encountered every civilisation, which makes reading a Jewish history a good introduction to world history. They have been through unspeakable tragedies but somehow have found their way through. There are episodes in this history, that will shock you. There are people in this history that will inspire you. The history of the Jewish people has lessons for everyone, as Rabbi Sacks often explains, the Jewish people or the treatment of Jewish people is the litmus test for a society. People tend to have short memories, or in the religious community, selective memories. I believe that to the extent we can, we should seek out the truth, specifically through history to teach us about how to live in the present and build a better future for our children.

3. One People: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

4. Arguments for the Sake of Heaven: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

I first discovered this little gem in the library of Yeshivat Hakotel in 2005. The book opens with a really excellent description of a contemporary Jewish family with  5 different children. Rabbi Sacks describes each childs story in detail, with each child representing a different Jewish path one of which you are guaranteed to either relate to or recognise in someone else. There is the religious Zionist Bnei Akiva-nik, the newly frum Baal Teshuva, the uninterested atheist, the traditional secular Jew (if I recall correctly). In a way, it feels like a contemporary four sons. What Rabbi Sacks does so beautifully is sketch out, how did each of these children get here. What was the historical background and circumstances that led to this particular path, what are the key ideas and influences. The genius of Rabbi Sacks is in the wealth of sources and knowledge that he draws from, as in many of his many works, Rabbi Sacks here puts the ideas in context, whether historical, religious, philosophical or sociological, laying it all out in a clear and precise way. Essentially, Rabbi Sacks does all the hard work for us. All we need to do is to act on his analysis.

5. Aryeh Kaplan Anthology Vols 1 & 2 : Aryeh Kaplan

6. Masterplan: Aryeh Carmel

7. Challenge of Creation: Natan Slifkin

8. 19 Letters: Samson Rafael Hirsh

9. We Jews: Adin Steinsaltz

10. If this is man: Primo Levi

11. Judaism on trial: R Nathan Cordozo

12. Tanya vol 1: R Adin Steinsaltz

13. Living Inspired: Rabbi Akiva Tatz

14. Souls on Fire: Elie Wiesel

15. Faith After the Holocaust: Eliezer Berkovitz

16. Strive for Truth: Volume 1/2: R Dessler

17. Night: Elie Wiesel

18. Patterns in Time Rosh Hashanah/Chanukah: R Matis Weinberg

You have never understood the festivals of Chanukah/Rosh Hoshanah until you have read these two books. In a telling approbation, one of the gedolim stated that Rav Matis reveals secrets in these books that should not usually be revealed in English books. Mind blowing ideas – kabbalah mixed with philosophy – very difficult concepts, these books provide one of the best examples in English of the real depth underlying our most sacred practices. Not easy to digest, but if you manage to work your way through it, your yom tov will never be the same again. There is nothing else like this out there.

19. Fate and Destiny: R Soloveitchik

20. The Sages (Vol 1-4): R Binyamin Lau

21. Biblical Images: R Adin Steinsaltz

22. The Prime Ministers: Yehuda Avner


23. The Revolt: Menachem Begin

Menachem Begin was the 6th Prime Minister of Israel and before the state was established was the leader of the Irgun Tzvia Leumi (Etzel), a pre-Israel Defence Forces military group fighting for Jewish independence and self government in Palestine. Drawn to this book following the heartening and inspiring “The Prime Minsters by Yehuda Avner”, this account written by Menachem Begin in his own words, details ‘The Revolt’ led by Menachem Begin against the British (and Arabs) in pre-state Palestine in the 1940’s. Menachem Begin provides a fascinating example for us of how powerful the media can be in influencing peoples perceptions and judgements. Menachem Begin, was painted as terrorist number one, villain, despot, bigot, extremist, right-wing hawk to name a few of the accolades that persist to this day (in the Jewish community also). However, a short perusal of his deeds, his own words and stories told about him quickly dissipate such ill informed trollop. I am filled with awe when I contemplate that Begin, then only in his 30’s was leading a paramilitary uprising against a world power and succeeded – it really is like a modern Chanukah story. Menachem Begin is a true Jewish role model in every sense, a product of galut (raised in Brisk and lost many family members in the Holocaust) forward thinking, principled, rooted in Biblical tradition, an incredible orator (very similar to Churchill) and someone who fought for, lived and breathed Jewish unity. Particularly sad are the sections where he describes how the Haganah (led by David Ben Gurion) treated the Irgun and Menachem Begin – the Altalena incident being the principle incident, but there were various others such as the bombing of the King David Hotel incident and also the ‘Saison’ when Begin had to go into hiding due to the Haganah hunting down Irgun members handing them over to the British some for hanging others for imprisonment. This is a truly inspiring account by a remarkable man of the struggles our grandparents generation made to achieve our modern day miracle called Israel. This book should be on the curriculum of every Jewish school and it is a tragedy that so few have even heard of it.

24. The Great Partnership: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

25. Leaves of Faith Vols 1&2: R Aharon Lichtenstein

26. Mans search for Meaning: Viktor Frankl

27. Created Equal: Joshua Berman

My first encounter with ancient mythology, such as the Gilgamesh story came from a Shabbat morning perusal of our synagogue’s dated Hertz Chumashim. At that time, I just thought they were old Chumashim and welcomed the new, shiny Artscroll Stone Chumash when it came out (1994-95). Little did I know, what a gem of scholarship those Chumashim were – including essays dealing with Evolution and Creation, responding to Biblical Criticism, utilising and quoting Bible scholars of all faiths.  Joshua Berman’s book continues where the Hertz Chumash left off. This unique book places the Torah and its ideas in the context of the surrounding societies of the time, surveying their texts, laws, origin stories comparing and contrasting with the Torah text. Some of the essays deal with the Biblical stories as portrayed in art and offer insight into art as parshanut of which I was completely unaware of. Essentially, the Torah in contrast to the texts and traditions of the societies of the time, comes across as radical and revolutionary at the time. The similarities of the Moshe origin story to other similar stories is remarkable, as are the other similarities. This is an important book that puts Chumash in its historical context without denigrating or secularising Torah as just another text. You will never read Chumash in the same way again after reading this.

28. Maimonides: Life and Thought : Moshe Halbertal

A perusal of Jewish history and its famous personalities will reveal huge gaps in our knowledge of even some of the most famous stars like Rashi who left a legacy of Torah commentary and writings. These gaps in the biographies of many of our household names, start in the Chumash (sometimes filled in by Midrash) and continues all the way up to the 16/17th centuries. Not only do we not know much about their biographies but we have little appreciation for what daily life would have been like, what people were thinking or feeling or what it was like to live in that time. Due to the discovery of the Cairo Geniza (18/19th century), which contained 300,000 Jewish manuscript fragments preserved in the storeroom (geniza) of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat (Egypt), we have unprecendented insights into the life and times of this part of the world during the Middle Ages. Specifically, preserved in the Geniza, are many of the personal writings, works and letters of correspondence of the Rambam the greatest Jewish halachic authority, doctor and medival philosopher. Moshe Halbertal brings all of these sources together in a very  readable volume (it is amazing how much he condenses into this one volume) and paints a comprehensive picture of the Rambam – as the title implies – his life story and his accomplishments as greatest scholar.

29. Rebbe – Joseph Telushkin

The greatest leader of our generation, Rabbi Menachem Mendal Schneerson, or the Rebbe as he is affectionately known was beloved by thousands. This very personal biography by Joseph Telushkin is informative, intimate, heart warming and inspiring. The Rebbe’s influence on Judaism and the Jewish world as we live in it today is unquantifiable, so much of what we do has been shaped by his visionary leadership, it is hard to think about what the world would look like in his absence. His powerful Chasidic ideas and unique worldview and perspectives offer a refreshing perspective on seeing the spiritual in our increasingly physical focused world.

30. Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy: The Life and Works of Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg, 1884-1966 – Marc Shapiro

The orthodox biography genre usually is lite on the biography/history and heavy on the hagiography. As Berel Wein opines, whether the story is historically true or not is of little consequence to the truth of the values being imparted to the reader through the story. Unfortunately, after reading one or two such biographies they become predictable, unbelievable and in most cases present unattainable models for aspiration. This biography, written by the greatest orthodox historian of our time, is unique. Dr Shapiro here brings the reader on a journey into the life and mind of this rabbinic “gadol”, revealing intimate details into the life of this remarkable posek. The writings, personal letters, and human complexities intertwined with incredible (and tragic) world events, makes this biography one of a kind and an essential read to understand the Rabbinic world and the struggles of its leaders in making difficult decisions.

31. Speeches that Changed the World – Simon Sebag Montefiore

Although not a specifically Jewish book, this book with audio CD/DVD accompaniment has plenty of Jewish speeches – Golda Meir, Elie Wiesel, Chaim Weitzman, Jesus, Moshes to name a few, but I would also argue it has many more Biblically influenced speeches such as Martin Luther King’s ‘Dream’ speech. One can argue about what speeches made the cut and which didn’t, but this introduction to several of the most monumental speeches set in incredible historic circumstances is a great starting point for someone with a keen interest in history and the influence that ‘words’ can have in shaping the ideas and aspirations of a generation. I think a follow on from this book for a Jewish audience with the best Jewish speeches would be an excellent idea. It is particularly inspiring to listen to some of the originals here included on the audio CD – from Churchill’s ‘our greatest moment’ to Chaim Weizman ripping the paper at the UN.

32. Letters to my Grandchildren – Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

From Jephthah to Rashi to Menachem Begin


“Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty man of valor, and he was the son of a woman harlot…” (Judges 11:1)

Yiftach (Jephthah) a renowned warrior is summoned to Gilead by his half brothers, to lead the attack against the Ammonites. He agrees to come back and fight if they agree to make him leader of the Israelites, to which they agree.

Yiftach tries at first to make peace with the Ammonite King by asking him why he wants to go to war with Israel. Yiftach tells him we only want to live in peace with our neighbours. The King tells him that Israel has stolen their land and they want it back. Yiftach tells the King

“So said Jephthah, Israel did not take the land of Moab and the land of the children of Ammon…the Lord, the God of Israel, delivered Sichon and all his people into the hand of Israel, and they struck them; and Israel possessed all the land of the Amorites, the inhabitants of that land. And they possessed all the border of the Amorites, from the Arnon up to the Jabbok, and from the wilderness up to the Jordan. And now the Lord, the God of Israel, has driven out the Amorites from before His people Israel, and you want to possess it?”

This is our land. The God of Israel told us to come and live here, He gave this Land to us.  If your god gave you a land, that would be yours to possess.

The King refuses to listen to him. They do battle and the Ammonites are heavily defeated.

The simple message in this Haftorah is as relevant to today as it was then. We are not living in Israel because of the atrocities of the Holocaust or the Balfour Declaration and certainly not because of the U.N. partition. We are there (and yearn to be there) because Hashem gave the land to us, the Jewish people.

When the Jews did not live in Israel for about 1900 years it was just an abandoned wasteland. It was always just a part of another empire, another land, without its own language or currency. When the Jews came home in the late 1800’s the land responded and it was again a land flowing with milk and honey.

A lot of people including myself are thinking about moving to Israel because of the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. The lesson I learn from this weeks Haftorah is a reminder for every Jewish person, we do not have to leave Europe because of anti-Semitism, we need to leave and return to our homeland, Erez Yisrael, because this is the land that Hashem has given to us. A Land where we collectively as a nation fulfil our destiny.

This is a lesson repeated in the first Rashi on the Torah which is well known by all primary school aged children:

In the beginning: Said Rabbi Isaac: The Torah should have begin with “This month is to you,” (Exod. 12:2) which is the first commandment that the Israelites were commanded. For what reason did He commence with “In the beginning?” Because of [the verse] “The strength of His works He related to His people, to give them the inheritance of the nations” (Ps. 111:6). For if the nations of the world should say to Israel, “You are robbers, for you conquered by force the lands of the seven nations [of Canaan],” they will reply, “The entire earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it and gave it to whomever He deemed proper When He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us.

In more recent times, in June 1977 Menachem Begin in an address to Knesset to approve his newly formed government said:

“Let the world know that we were granted our right to exist by the God of our fathers at the glimmer of the dawn of human civilization 4,000 years ago. The Jewish people have a historic, eternal and inalienable right to the whole of the land of our forefathers. And for that right, which has been sanctified in Jewish blood from generation to generation, we have paid a price unprecedented in the annals of nations.”

This was the argument all those years ago of Yiftach to the King of the Ammonites.

There is no coincidence that this is the Haftorah we read for Parashat Chukkat where we read about the Red Heifer. We do not understand the laws of the Red Heifer. King Solomon didn’t understand the laws of the Red Heifer but we obey them because Hashem told us to.

Why this particular strip of land? Just as with the Red Heifer, only Hashem has the answer.


Letter to the Economist Editor


To the Editor,

The methods described in your article that Israel employs hardly seem revolutionary; monitoring social media activity for keywords and phrases indicating terrorism. Israel’s “ubiquitous electronic surveillance” as far as I am aware lags behind that of GCHQ and the NSA as evidenced in the Snowden leaks and repeated hacks of Israeli intelligence drones. Social media monitoring is the minimum that our security services should be doing and keywords and phrases related to terrorism do not imply ethnic profiling. The fact that Israel monitors Palestinian social media for clues is not ethnic profiling.

Is it the fact that Shin Bet (Israel’s MI5) follow up on key suspects by contacting their parents/relatives or passing on relevant information to the Palestinian security forces? In January 2016 according to Palestinian intelligence their officers had prevented an estimated 200 terrorist attacks against Israel. Israel’s security cooperation with the Palestinian authority has been described as “sacred” by PA President Mahmoud Abbas himself. Maybe MI5 can learn from Israel here and monitor key suspects closer and reach out to those connected to them more effectively.

You stated that “not much of this can be applied in the West”. I beg to differ. In the second Intifada Israel suffered 1,137 murders at the hands of terrorists and learnt that the safety of their civilian population demands a strong intelligence service and practical response from government and security officials. One civilian death is too many as we have seen in Britain these past three months. Israel quickly realised that it must control its border with the West Bank (where most Palestinians live and the land that will be the future Palestinian state), this control in the form of a physical barrier and checkpoints meant that terrorists no longer could just cross over into Israeli cities unbeknown and murder innocent civilians sleeping in their beds or using public transport. There is no doubt it has worked. The UK has found itself in a position in recent years where it is virtually paralysed from expelling terrorists, and is seemingly not in control of its own border as to who can and cannot come in.

Unfortunately what appears to be repeatedly implied in articles I have read in the Economist is the lie that Israel somehow is already or is on its way to becoming an Apartheid state, a claim made by the anti-semitic BDS movement. The fact that your readers need to be reminded of is that Israel is a democratic country made up of 75% Jews, 18% Muslims, 2% Christians and Druze, a society in which a supreme court judge is an Israeli Arab and the anchor for Channel 2 News is also an Israeli Arab. The unique and tragic status of the Palestinian population in the West Bank is the result of the wars fought between 1948 and 1967, in which the Palestinians, used as a pawn by the surrounding Arab countries, were the ultimate losers. The fact that there is no Palestinian state again goes back to 1947 with the original rejected offer at partition and the many instances following that in which a Palestinian state could have repeatedly come into existence.

I petition the Economist to take the time to do a special report on Israel starting from 1888-1948-1967-2017, you can even go back to Roman times if you want to 70 AD with the destruction of the second Temple. Please give your readers the full story and facts, instead of starting the story half way at 1967 and continuing the accusation of Apartheid Israel, it does nothing for peace.

An avid Economist reader
Jonathan Levy
Edgware, UK

Mamlechect Kohanim – Did God Change his Mind?

Summary of my shiur given in February 2014

Before revelation (Shemot 19:3-6), God defines the nature of our special relationship with him in that we will be an:
Am Segula (treasured people)
Goy Kadosh (a holy nation)
Mamlechet Kohanim (Kingdom of priests).

On the last of these three definitions, Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom points out three questions:
1. What does Kohen mean here (as applied to the entire nation)
2. Was this promise ever realised?
3. Why does the term ‘Mamlechet Kohanim’ never appear again in Tanakh, despite the other two terms featuring many times during the prophets chastising/encouraging the people?

To answer questions one/two, obviously there are three opinions:

Rashi – Kohen=Princely/Nobility. This was fulfilled as the Jewish people were described as the children of God – the King of kings.
Nachmanides – Kohen=Servants. Again this was fulfilled post Sinai through our acceptance of the law.
Seforno – Kohen=future teachers of the nations of the world in Messianic times. Not yet fulfilled then…

According to all three interpretations, we are still left with question three above – why is this concept never mentioned again in the rest of Tanakh.

Did God change his mind?

According Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom, the answer is that ultimately the task of every single Jew as a descendent of Avraham, was to be a blessing to all people, bringing Godliness into a Godless world. Originally, this was to be achieved via every single person becoming a prophet – each person being a conduit and connection to God directly. How would this be possible? This would have been achieved via mass revelation at Sinai, had it not been that the Jewish people rejected revelation ‘lest we die’ and relied on Moshe instead.

It was as a result of this, with God’s acquiescence, that the Jewish people were relegated to being an am segula/goy kadosh, but the mamlechet kohanim status was reserved for the future, as Isaiah says

“Kohanei Hashem Tikareiu – Kohanim of Hashem you will be called”.