"The Laws of Elul and Selichot"

1. The Month of Elul
2. At what point do we begin saying “Selichot”?
3. The Time for “Selichot”

The Month of Elul

Elul is the month of repentance. With the end of the year fast
approaching, the time to make a personal accounting has arrived. It is
time to cast off all those bad habits we have become accustomed to
over the course of the year and to make a new start. On Rosh Hashana
God sits on His Throne of Justice and considers all of the actions,
words, and thoughts of the entire year. According to this He dispenses
life to the entire human race, and determines what sort of year it
will be – a year of blessing, or, heaven forbid, the opposite. All of
the prayers and acts of repentance performed in month of Elul are
intended to serve as a sort of preventative measure – a “medicine
before the illness.” For, so long as a Divine judgment has not yet
been decreed, one still has the ability to nullify it very easily;
yet, after the decree has been established, it is much more difficult
to annul. Therefore, the entire month of Elul, because it precedes the
judgment of Rosh HaShana, is set aside for the purpose of improvement
in Torah and faith, prayer and charity. Such preparation allows us to
come before God for judgment in a state of purity and cleanliness.
This results in His blessing us and the entire world with a good New

That these days are capable of bringing Divine forgiveness and pardon
is also evidenced by the atonement granted the Jewish people after the
Sin of the Golden Calf. For forty days after this transgression Moses
and the Jews were rejected by God and their prayers went unanswered,
yet, when the first of Elul arrived, God’s compassion poured forth and
forty days of pardon began. This lasted until Yom Kippur, when God
said to Moses: “I forgive according to your request.”

Therefore, the Shulchan Arukh writes that from the first of Elul until
Yom Kippur it is customary to recite Selichot (penitential prayers)
and Tachanunim (supplications), and this, in fact, is the practice of
Sephardic Jewry. According to Ashkenazi tradition, though, the custom
is to recite Selichot from about the week before Rosh HaShannah. The
Shofar, because it stirs people to repentance, is blown already from
the beginning of Elul after each Morning Prayer service. After the
blowing of the Shofar, Psalm 27 is read by the congregation. Sephardic
Jews are not accustomed to blowing the Shofar after Morning Prayers;
rather, they blow it during the Selichot. In this manner, all
traditions blow the Shofar during the month of Elul.

At what point do we begin reciting Selichot?

There are two customs when it comes to reciting Selichot. According to
Rabbi Yosef Karo, Jews begin reciting Selichot from the second day of
Elul. Sephardic Jewry follows this custom. Rabbi Moshe Isserles, the
“Rema,” writes that the custom of the Ashkenazi Jews is to begin
reciting them from the Sunday before Rosh HaShannah, on the condition
that there remain at least four days of Selichot before Rosh Hashana.
In any case, we begin reciting the Selichot on Sunday, or, more
correctly, on Saturday night: If there remain more than four days
between Saturday night and Rosh HaShana – for example, where Rosh
HaShana falls on a Thursday or Sabbath – we begin reciting Selichot on
the Saturday night closest to Rosh HaShana; but, if there are fewer
than four days separating Saturday night and Rosh HaShana – for
example, where Rosh HaShana falls on a Monday or Tuesday – then we
begin reciting Selichot on the preceding Saturday night.

The reason that Ashkenazi Jews recite Selichot for at least four days
before Rosh HaShana is that there is a custom to observe ten days of
fasting before Yom Kippur for the purpose of repentance. And since
during the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur
there are four days on which it is impossible to fast – i.e., the two
days of Rosh HaShana, one Sabbath, and Yom Kippur eve on which one is
obliged to eat – four days are set aside before Rosh HaShana for
fasting. This being the case, Selichot are recited on these days. And
even though today most people do not actually fast on these ten days,
it none the less remains customary to get up early for Selichot for at
least ten days – i.e., the four days before Rosh HaShana, and six days
during the Ten Days of Repentance. An additional reason for this
practice is that on Rosh HaShana a person must “sacrifice himself”
before God, and since we find that sacrifices had to be prepared and
checked for blemishes four days before being offered up, it was
decided that Selichot be recited four days before Rosh HaShana. In
order that people not become confused, it was established that the
first reading of Selichot take place on Saturday night. Furthermore,
it is only fitting that an individual begin to request God’s mercy
from the first day of the week.

The Time for Selichot

The best time for reciting Selichot is at “Ashmoret HaBoker” – i.e.,
the very end of the nighttime. At this time people are still asleep,
and the world is peaceful and uncontaminated by evil thoughts and
deeds. At this hour prayer issues from the depths of the heart,
shatters all barriers, and is received in Heaven.

Most people, though, find it difficult to get up at such an early
hour. The normal time today for waking up in the morning is six
o’clock, and “Ashmoret HaBoker” is about two hours before this. Rising
two hours earlier than normal results in drowsiness and can effect a
person’s entire day. Therefore, the accepted practice has become to
rise for Selichot about an hour or a half-hour before morning prayers.
Though it is no longer dark outside it is still permissible to recite
Selichot. Hence, if a person feels that by rising early his work will
suffer, it is preferable that he rise for Selichot a half-hour before
the normal time.

According to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, in a situation where one has no
alternative, it is even possible to recite Selichot before midnight.
If a community is unable to manage getting up early in the morning for
Selichot, its members are permitted, as an emergence measure, to
gather for Selichot at ten o’clock in the evening. By arranging
Selichot at such an hour, everybody is able to come, and their sleep
hours remain unaffected. Yet, according to many Kabbalists and
authorities in Jewish law, such practice is completely unacceptable.
According to them, the time for reciting Selichot is only after
midnight, for this is the time of Divine mercy. Before midnight the
world is still infested by evil thoughts and actions, and God’s
attribute of judgment remains present. Therefore, this is not a
fitting time for Selichot.

"Our Own Flesh and Blood" Part 2 of 2

Not “Why?” but “For what purpose?”
The main lesson to be learned from the above words of Rabbi Tzvi
Yehudah is that the Holocaust was not a chance event; God presides
over the world, and we, for our part, fall short of understanding
everything that transpires therein. Simply put, we have not yet
reached a level which makes it possible to grasp the Holocaust, to
study the Holocaust and to understand it, to ask the so-pressing
question, “Why?” This is generally the initial response of one who
experiences some tragedy – to ask, “Why did this happen to me?” But,
in truth, it impossible to deal with experiences of this sort in such
a manner. The question “Why?” is not relevant, at least not initially.
And even if there is an answer – and there is one – it is impossible
to understand it in the midst of the storm of emotions that continues
to rage. It is deeper than man’s intellect. To such a person we say,
“Do not ask ‘Why?’ but, ‘For what purpose did this tragedy occur?'”
When something devastating happens we are called upon to learn a
lesson from it about ourselves. This, then, is the real question: What
can be gathered from the tragic event? And when an individual
discovers how to learn from what happens to him – to improve, to
ascend – he arrives at a level which allows him to understand “why” it
happened. The reason for this is that now, as a result of the energy
he has invested because of the push that the tragedy gave him, his
point of view is altogether different. Now he understands that these
deaths were not “deaths” as such, but life: death, through which we
received life.

“A generation comes, and a generation goes…” Every generation, after
it has provided its share, must make room for that which follows, for,
were this not the case, life would be stagnant; history would come to
a halt. Therefore, we bear the duty to continue and to advance, to
ascend one more level in relation to the preceding generations. And
even if our progress be tiny compared to what the previous generation
achieved, our donation is nonetheless important. If we were worthy we
would be able to see the complete and all-encompassing picture, but,
because this is not the case, we must gather together all of the
individual pieces generation after generation; therefore, the next
generation is also necessary. This is the sort of explanation which
can be given when one looks at things from a distance, with an all-
encompassing view of history.

Regarding advice for an individual who is suffering from either
personal or national trauma, it must be remembered that tragedy is not
punishment. In essence it is not punishment. People generally fear
Divine punishment for their actions. This is what is known as
“reverence of God’s punishment.” While this is a correct notion, it is
not the most desirable approach. The healthiest approach is that which
calls for “reverence of God’s majesty,” and this should be seen as the
fundamental approach. Things happen in order that we are able to learn
from them. Sometimes the learning process is of a speedy nature, via
the intellect, the consciousness. Sometimes a person merits
internalizing the lesson, and understanding with the help of his
intellect why all of this has happened, and how, in a very real sense,
through these painful deaths, additional life was created. Yet, even
if it takes some time to understand such things, one necessarily
matures as a result of the tragedy he has been exposed to – even if he
is not aware of it. It takes root in his heart and will be handed down
to future generations. They will inherit the recognition that this
world harbors difficult and painful events. In this manner their world-
view will be richer, and their lives will receive a more responsible
and serious dimension. When all is said and done, then, these
tragedies can be said to have had a positive effect, even though they
were not fully understood.

“When a person experiences hardships, he should examine his
actions” (Tractate Berakhoth 5a). The true goal of self-examination is
not to answer the question, “Why?” – i.e., to discover the cause of
the punishment, but, “For what purpose?” – to discover what sort of
rectification this punishment was intended to prompt. Such a person
may perhaps not have previously been on the sort of spiritual level
which would have made his actions deserving of such serious scrutiny.
Having ascended to a higher spiritual level, hardships have come upon
him. This has happened in order that, as a result, he is caused to
reflect upon his behavior and hence continue to grow. This, then, is
the true meaning of examining one’s actions. It is not the sort of
analysis which is aimed at uncovering the underlying cause of the
tragedy, leading one to moan about not having been awakened to it in
time so as to be spared of the wrath of God. Examining one’s deeds
should be done in a constructive manner, with an eye to the future in
an attempt to decide in which manner to advance. By adopting such a
philosophy one changes his way of viewing hardships; his approach to
them and to God becomes completely different – mature, more positive
and joyful. The more a person manages to advance as a result of what
happens to him in life, the more his hardships become hardships with a
lesson, and hardships of love, the kind that involve no interruption
of Torah study or prayer.

This approach is, on the whole, applicable to any sort of tragedy. It
is true regarding the Holocaust: The most important question is not
“Why?” it happened but “What” can we gain from its having happened?
What lesson can we learn from it insofar as our own lives are
concerned? To what sort of new plane are we being called upon to lift
ourselves as a result of it? We are familiar with the common claim
that it is difficult to imagine the State of Israel having come into
existence without the Holocaust. I once mentioned this in a talk I
gave on the Holocaust. Afterward, an old man who had lost his entire
family in the Holocaust approached me and asked, “Is the state really
worth all of those who died? After all, our state lacks the sort of
Jews who were killed in the Holocaust.” He continued to ask me,
weeping, “Do you even know what sorts of Jews were killed in the
Holocaust? So pious, so holy – impossible to describe!” True,
comparing the punishment of the Holocaust with what came in its wake –
the State of Israel – does not always appear “fair,” and the old man
was to a large degree justified in his claims. In some of the towns
where Jews resided there were literally roads upon roads of pious and
holy Jews, genuine Torah scholars. In Poland, in Galicia. In the city
of Warsaw alone there were a million Jews! This is even more than the
amount of Jews who live in Jerusalem today. In smaller towns, like
Bialystok, there were 150,000 Jews. In Boisk there were 50,000 Jews.
And there were plenty more like towns which were not considered
particularly large. Is it possible to even think about forfeiting all
this for the State of Israel with all of its problems?

Indeed, when one looks at the “Why” – the reason – it is difficult to
accept that these millions of Jews had to die for the sake of the
birth of the State of Israel. But when one considers to what end,
toward what goal the Holocaust was meant to propel us, it is possible
to accept such a viewpoint. Everybody acknowledges that the Holocaust
shook the Jewish world to its very foundations. The question of Jewish
identity changed completely after the Holocaust. Every Jew, no matter
how religious, became a living sanctification of God in the world as a
result of his very existence. The intention had been to wipe out the
entire nation, every one of us, regardless of religiosity. If prior to
the Holocaust it had been widely accepted that only observant Jews
were capable of sanctifying God, today it is clear that the very
survival of the Jew as a Jew is regarded as an act of sanctification.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, has written words to this
effect as has Rabbi Chaim Druckman: “Every Jew is an expression of the
immutability of Israel.” This is without a doubt a completely new
level of understanding with regard to Jewish identity.

In a more general sense, a revolution in Jewish consciousness was
affected, and every Jew, no matter where he was, began to clarify who
we are as a people and what is our purpose. We must continue this
process. We are still in the midst of this first stage — still in the
midst of the trauma. The more relevant question continues to be “For
what purpose?” and not “Why?”

The Holocaust is not a personal, individual issue. It is very
difficult for a lone individual to arrive at any kind of estimate of
what the Holocaust means to him personally, no matter how much time he
invests considering it. It is a large, all-embracing, national issue
which has left its mark on a deep inner layer of each one of us, such
that even we are not always aware of it. Accordingly, it finds
expression in a more general, national level, and relates to the
public as a whole. Hence, one hears important voices in the non-Jewish
world making statements to the effect that the behavior of the Jewish
people must be understood in light of the fact that they have a
“Holocaust complex.” It is easier for one who looks upon the Jews from
the outside to sense that something in us changed as a result of the
Holocaust. Yet, it is possible to discern clearly enough by examining
the attitude of the public that the concept of the Holocaust, like the
Exodus, has been permanently etched upon the Jewish soul. If we
understand the term “redemption” to mean a spiritual world revolution
of the sort which results in life being seen in an entirely different
light, it is possible that the Holocaust has in fact laid the
foundation for such a thing. Such an approach can be discerned in the
words of the verse, “As I live, says the Lord God, surely with a
mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with anger poured out,
will I be king over you” (Ezekiel 20:33). It clears the path for a
period of searching for something else. And though it begins in a
rather harsh manner, it must nonetheless be considered a new and
higher level. It is impossible at present to look for the cause of the
Holocaust. Such a search yields no practical fruits and is not the
correct approach to dealing with tragedy at this early stage. We are
still in a state of mourning – an all-encompassing understanding is
still far from us.

And while it is true that in the Talmud we find Sages searching for
the cause of Israelite bondage in Egypt, and concluding that it was
the result of Abraham’s having made use of Torah scholars in his war
with the four kings (cf. Deuteronomy 32a), even so, neither the Torah
nor the Sages present us with plain historical facts. The reason for
this is that they were aiming more in the direction of answering the
question: “For what purpose?” – i.e., what needed to be rectified as a
result of this tragedy? Tosefoth Yom Tov’s claim that the Chmelnitzki
pogroms erupted because Jews made a practice of prattling about
mundane affairs in the Synagogue must be understood in a similar
light. What this eminent rabbi desired was for people to abandon this
practice; that this be the lesson that they gather from the tragedy –
or one of the lessons at any rate.

It is possible to understand this idea on an even deeper level if we
take a look at the course of Jewish history: One thousand years ago,
in the time of Rashi, Sephardic Jewry was ten times the size of
Ashkenazi Jewry. Then, Ashkenazi Jewry was almost completely destroyed
as a result of the Crusades; of the one- or two-hundred thousand
Ashkenazi Jews, fifty thousand were ruthlessly killed. What was the
result? The result was a very strong awareness of the importance of
sanctifying God’s name through self-sacrifice. Within five or six
hundred years the Sephardic population was only three times as large
as the Ashkenazi. At the outbreak of the Chmelnitzki pogroms the
number of Ashkenazi Jews had reached almost a million. Once again this
Jewish community was struck by a devastating slaughter. Entire
communities of pure and holy Jews were wiped out with great cruelty.
And once again, in the wake of this disaster, it became clear to just
what extent the Jewish faith is a question of life or death, and to
just what extent the Jews as a people were willing to sacrifice their
lives for their religious convictions. This left a great imprint on
the generations that followed, and within a span of no more than three
hundred years, reaching up to the period just prior to the Holocaust,
the Jews as a whole had swollen in number to between 15-16 million. In
retrospect, it is possible to see quite clearly how the act of
sanctification of God’s name through death provided a great impetus to
the generations that followed, pushing them a number of levels higher.
Who amongst us is really capable of coming to accurate conclusions
regarding long-term effects based upon the present? We might interpret
the words of the Tosafoth Yom Tov “that they not chatter in the
Synagogue” to mean that they should appreciate the sanctity of the
synagogue, the “miniature Holy Temple” that it is, and recognize the
value of prayer. In addition to the above we can say that the shock of
these tragic events caused a sense of added responsibility regarding
the study of Torah. Because so many Jews were willing to literally
give their lives for the Torah, the generations that followed felt a
great desire to attain new heights of strengthened Jewish identity.
Now the value of Torah study was understood, now it was clear why they
hate us. The same is true of the Holocaust; only that this time we are
talking about the entire Jewish people as opposed to a particular
community. The Holocaust is also meant to provide added consciousness
of just how much our lives as Jews must be full of meaning. We must be
made aware of just how much responsibility rests on our shoulders – we
who survived and carry on after the destruction of that generation.

There are numerous tales about the first waves of settlers to arrive
in the Land of Israel and the sort of self-sacrifice that they
demonstrated in order to reach and settle Israel. We ought to emulate
these builders and carry on their work.

The first wave of immigrants, what was called the “Aliya HaRishona” in
Hebrew, for example, was composed for the most part of pious Jews
whose coming to Israel was the outgrowth of what they had absorbed in
the Yeshiva study halls. The founders of Zikhron Yaakov made their way
to Israel after having already purchased a portion of land, but the
Turkish administration did not allow these new arrivals to disembark
at any port in the area from Alexandria to Beirut. Finally, after
great effort, they managed to land at Haifa, and from there they made
their way in carriages pulled by oxen until eventually arriving at
their destination. So difficult was the way that the travelers were
forced to send the oxen on ahead of themselves in order to render the
path travelable. Their allotted plot of land was full of snakes and
scorpions and far from any other Jewish settlement (two days journey
from Yaffo, and a day and half from Haifa). From where would they
receive their necessities? To where would they deliver their products?
When the officials of Baron Rothschild arrived they demanded to know
who was responsible for the injustice that had been done to these
settlers by having them sent to such a horrid location. Yet, despite
all this, when the officials offered to have them relocated in a more
central site, the settlers’ response was notably straightforward: We
are not budging from this place, even if it means eating the stones

Large waves of Jewish immigration to Israel did not necessarily begin
as a result of the First Zionist Congresses in Basel (in the manner
that secular Zionism has attempted to portray). Long before this, in
5637 (1878), Jews of the Old Settlement began to set out beyond the
walls of Jerusalem. One such pioneer was Yoel Moshe Solomon. He
belonged to the third generation of a family of pioneers. His
grandfather, Rabbi Zalman Tzoref, was murdered in a skirmish with
Arabs while trying to reestablish the Churvah Synagogue in Jerusalem’s
Old City. In his remembrance the family name was changed to Solomon.
His son was the “first Jewish ‘Fellah’ (field laborer) since the days
of the second Temple,” or at least so he was called. It was in such a
home that Rabbi Yoel Moshe grew up. He presented Moses Montefiore with
a detailed plan for creating a Jewish agricultural settlement. He was
also a serious Torah scholar, the editor of a newspaper, a journalist,
and completely steeped in Torah. He left his newspaper work in order
to establish Petach Tikvah. This young settlement too had its share of
difficulties; there was a period in which it was completely destroyed
due to the great hardships that came upon it. The settlers left and
went to Yahudiyeh, and only later did there arrive a group of Jews
from Bialystok (the hometown of Rabbi Mohilever, the leader of the
Zionist organization “Chovevei Tzion”) and reestablish the settlement.

In the city of Hadera there was a very green area, and the local Arabs
warned the Jewish settlers that the place was infested with malaria.
During the course of the first seven years, 230 of Hadera’s  512
settlers died of this disease. It is told that on Yom Kippur, there
were just enough settlers present for the prayer services to take
place in the room adjacent to the hospital room. During the course of
the day one of the members fell ill and expired leaving the settlers
short of their quorum. They were uncertain as to whether or not they
should continue, yet, in the end they decided that God Himself would
be counted in order to complete their quorum. When the fast was over
it was announced that before eating it was necessary to bury the
deceased. In order to overcome the near-unbearable sadness which
accompanied the loss, one of those present, himself a Torah scholar,
advised the people to rejoice in the burial. And they did just that –
they danced by the grave of the deceased. At a later date, the very
same individual, who had always said that joy is the cure for
everything, also died of malaria. Today, when traveling along Israel’s
coastal road, which runs between Haifa and Tel Aviv, we must remember
the great self-sacrifice of the early settlers which gave birth to
such settlement, all by virtue of a love for the land which they
passed down to the generations to come. Such self-sacrifice shakes all
existence and sets the machine in motion. They initiated it all.

This, then, is an example of a “for what purpose” lesson which we must
carry with us. There is a principle here which must be remembered: The
world is a unified whole, and the actions of one individual make waves
which shake the entire community. Torah is the heart of the world and
fills existence with vibrancy and meaning. When an individual attaches
himself to the Torah, studies with all of his might, and applies his
studies in all spheres of his life, his behavior has a great and
powerful impact. This, then, is the chief lesson one should gather
from the Holocaust: to be a thousand times more serious; to know how
to appreciate eternal values, such as Torah and settlement, and to be
ready to sacrifice oneself for such things. This is what the previous
generations handed down to us through their demonstration of courage.

Could the Holocaust ever be Forgotten?

No. This could never happen. No doubt there is a need to educate
toward awareness, to study the facts and to retell what happened. But
such steps are carried out on an individual basis, in relation to
specific individuals or groups. As far as the collective memory of the
nation of Israel is concerned, there is no chance of forgetting. As we
have noted, the Holocaust is deeply etched into our memory and
influences our national behavior in ways that we are not always aware
of. Once again, the emphasis is not to be placed on understanding
things – we are still at too early a stage. The true goal is
recognizing those values which are important to us as a nation, and
reinforcing them. The Holocaust was an attack upon Israel’s eternal
nature; its victory will find expression in a strengthening of our
eternal Israeli values.

The Exodus from Egypt

An example of a difficult event that has been completely internalized
and is today understood by us is the Exodus from Egypt. Here too we
find horrific acts: enslavement, slave labor with bricks and cement,
the male newborns being cast into the Nile or plastered into the walls
of buildings. Appalling; yet, enough time has passed in order to
understand why all of this happened, and today the enslavement is not
so painful. We are now able to look back at it and to recount the
various events therein and to confidently state why this had to be the
foundation upon which the Jewish people would be built. We have
managed to digest this.

The Midrash teaches us that when the Egyptians threw the Jewish babies
into the Nile, God commanded the ministering angels to look after
them. “The children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are being thrown into
the Nile and all you do is stand by and watch?” God accused the
angels. They immediately came to their senses and went down upon their
knees on the banks of the Nile to receive the babies. They placed them
on the stones, which turned into kinds of breasts from which the
babies then nurtured” (Shir HaShirim Rabbah).

It appears to me that the message of this Midrash is that the babies
were received by the angels on these rocks, not in this world, but in
the World to Come. They were received. They did not die in vain. They
entered into the eternal consciousness of the Jewish people and pushed
it a number of levels forward. Without a doubt, all of the innocent
babies who were killed in the Holocaust were also received by angels
who made sure that they be nurtured upon honey from the rock – not in
this world, but in the eternal world. We, the Jewish people, are like
this. We are an eternal people. In the true and absolute world
everything works out and everything is clear. In this temporal world
of ours there are complications and troubles. Regarding the Exodus
from Egypt we were first of all called upon to understand for what
purpose – i.e., what is demanded of us as a people who suffered such a
brutal enslavement and was redeemed through miracles and wonders.
Later we also merited understanding the why which accompanies all of
this. Our goal is to attain a similar level of understanding with
regard to the Holocaust, to the point where it provides us with
stories similar in nature to those of the Exodus from Egypt. We must
strive to understand such stories in the most profound manner
possible, the way we do at Passover when the bitter herbs, or ‘maror’
in Hebrew, which serves to remind us of Egyptian enslavement, is eaten
together with the Matzah, which represents freedom.

"A Look at the 15th of the Hebrew Month of Av" Special Article

The Ancient Tu B’Av Custom
The Attractive and the Noble
The Unattractive Ones
Sound Advice for Singles
The Unique Power of Tu B’Av

The Ancient Tu B’Av Custom

Israel never knew such wonderful holidays as Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur.
On these days the daughters of Israel would go out and dance in the
vineyards and offer themselves joyfully for the purpose of
establishing Jewish families. And despite the fact that all
individuals are different – some are rich and some are poor; some are
more beautiful and some less; some are of noble birth and some are not
– all the same, on these days, special effort was made to try and
bridge the gap, at least as far as wealth was concerned. The young
women would therefore go out wearing white borrowed outfits in order
not to embarrass one who did not herself posses such a gown.

Most likely, the young men were already acquainted to some extent with
the families of the girls in the area and had consulted their parents
regarding an appropriate match. The final decision, however, would
take place on these days. Perhaps these days were meant for those boys
or girls who were not successful in finding a mate in the conventional

The Attractive and the Noble
The Talmud (Taanit 31a) informs us as to the manner in which these
daughters of Israel would try to make themselves desirable: “The
attractive ones would exclaim: Search out beauty, for this is the
purpose of a wife; the ones of noble birth would say: Search out
family, for family is the purpose of wife; the unattractive ones would
say: choose your mate for the sake of Heaven, so long as you adorn her
with gold.”

That the attractive girls would draw attention to their beauty is
understandable. Many boys choose their wives based upon beauty. Beauty
presents itself as a kind of guarantee to a good and happy life, a
life filled with vitality. Reality, though, does not confirm this.
There is no indication whatsoever that men who married so-called
attractive women ended up more content than those who married “less
attractive” women. When beauty comes in addition to good character it
can indeed add to life – but, often, it can be misleading.

Those of noble birth say just that: The main thing is character. A
good family is one in which many of its members have been successful
in obtaining a proper education and good livelihood. One can safely
assume that a woman who comes from such a family will possess a
pleasant and kind character, and agreeable educational habits. In
addition, it is highly probable that the children resulting from such
a matrimony will also possess such traits. We indeed find that the
sages (Baba Batra 110a) advise examining the brothers of the
prospective bride, for it often happens that the children turn out
like the brothers of the bride. The sages also advise marrying the
daughter of a Torah scholar (Pesachim 49a). This is the reason that
the Mishna in Taanit 26b only quotes the girls from good families; in
the eyes of the sages, their words were the most true.

The Unattractive Ones

The most surprising of the three groups is the unattractive one:
“Choose your mate for the sake of Heaven, so long as you adorn her
with gold.” A simple interpretation of these words tells us that these
young women are appealing to the unattractive, untalented boys who
would run after the attractive and distinguished girls only to be
turned away. To these boys they would say: “If you keep running after
the attractive and distinguished girls, you will remain single and
frustrated forever. Be realistic and marry one of us who are ready to
marry you. After all, the Torah commands you to marry – come, marry
for the sake of fulfilling God’s will.” And because marriage must
possess an element of affection they added: “So long as you adorn us
with gold,” for such behavior gives expression to your love for us.

But this is not all. There is a more profound way of understanding the
words of the unattractive girls. Sometimes a person who has merited
neither beauty nor desirable lineage, succeeds, by virtue of
exceptional faith in God, to perfect his or her character traits and
attain great personal achievement. The level such a person reaches is
even higher than that of the attractive and distinguished. A shared
life with such a person is sure to be full of beauty and happiness.
This is what they meant: “Choose your mate for the sake of Heaven and
by so doing we will ascend together and surpass the level of all the
attractive and distinguished couples – and our children will be
distinguished by virtue of us.” And they added, “So long as you adorn
us with gold.” This last statement can be understood best in light of
the words of R’ Yishmael (Nedarim 9:10): “The daughters of Israel are
all beautiful, only that poverty makes them unbecoming.” If you
decorate us with gold you will uncover our true unique beauty. And so,
though in practice the most desired girls are the generally the
attractive ones, and they are followed by the distinguished ones, in
truth the distinguished are preferable to attractive and, sometimes,
the unattractive are the most desirable of all.

Sound Advice for Singles

Here, then, is a bit of advice for single men: Often, girls who are
actually quite pretty appear to be unattractive. This, though, is
simply the result of the man’s level of maturity. God created humans
such that they enter the world as babies and grow and develop until
old age. Each stage in life has its own purpose. At the age of twenty,
the desire to marry is very strong: “Twenty is the age for
chasing” (Avot 5:18). At that stage in life the heart is full of
enthusiasm and courage. The boy sees all that is good in his
prospective match and is ready to leap happily into married life. This
period is followed by a more restrained stage, the purpose of which is
to build and prepare the next layer of life. When an older single man
anticipates to be swept up by youthful enthusiasm when dating, he is
usually disappointed. Yet, instead of attributing this to his age, he
finds fault in the girl. He might admit that she is pleasant and
bright, but – he disappointedly explains to his close friends – she is
not attractive and exciting enough. Such bachelors must be informed:
If the girl is pleasant and smart in your eyes, and you enjoy being
together with her, and the only problem is that the excitement element
is lacking, “Choose your mate for the sake of Heaven.” And do not
worry, for, if you invest energy in your relationship and “decorate
her with gold,” you can be sure that you will be blessed with true
love. The enthusiasm which accompanies falling in love is actually
meant to help a person take the monumental step of entering into the
covenant of marriage. Such emotion, however, does not guarantee a
happy marriage. Good traits and shared goals are much more important.
True, ripe, deep love which reaches the inner layers of the soul is
dependent upon these ingredients.

The Unique Power of Tu B’Av

The author of the work “Bnei Yissachar” explains that Tu B’Av is a day
of deep-rooted significance because it falls forty days before the
date of the world’s creation. The sixth day of creation was Rosh
HaShannah. On that day God formed man. Six days prior to this is the
Twenty-fifth of Elul, and forty days prior to this is Tu B’Av (the
Fifteenth of Av). The sages tell us, “Forty days before the formation
of the infant an announcement is made in heaven: “The daughter of so-
and-so is matched up with so-and-so.” Tu B’Av, too, because it falls
forty days before the formation of the world, is a day of fatal
importance with a unique capacity to initiate life – especially for a
bride and groom who wish to establish a family.

"Our Own Flesh and Blood" (Part 1 of 2)

Overwhelming Tragedy

Rabbi Teichtal: The End of an Era

Rabbi Kook: Time For Action

Overwhelming Tragedy

An individual possesses the ability to grasp the short range
significance of events and to understand those aspects which affect
his own personal life. Yet, even this process takes time. Only after
enough time has passed is one able to analyze properly what has
befallen him. When a massive, sweeping event occurs – a tragedy so
overwhelming that the mere thought of it causes one to recoil in
horror – one must not lose sight of the fact that the world possesses
a creator and provider, and that, as dreadful and terrifying as things
might seem to be, there is pattern and purpose in the world’s

When tragedy befalls an individual – the death of a loved one, for
example – the feeling is so painful and so sharp that at first one is
unable to bare it. Because one lacks the strength to confront what has
happened to him, he “forgets” the event, as it were, attempting to
divert his attention from it. Thoughts attempt to comprehend the
tragedy yet are forced to recoil for it is beyond contemplation. It is
simply too difficult. Only after some time has passed – after one has
adjusted somewhat to the pain – does a person begin to accustom
himself to what has happened, to internalize the experience and to
consider it at greater depth. This process acts as a sort of defense
mechanism preventing one from facing the experience so long as he does
not possess the necessary strength. And, as noted, only when the pain
finally dissipates does the true confrontation, as difficult as it may
be, begin.

All this holds true with the “Shoah” (Holocaust) as well. It appears
that we have not yet reached the stage at which we can attempt to
understand what happened. As much as we may desire to earnestly
understand the Holocaust, we are unable. True, constant emphasis is
placed upon the importance of being “informed” about the Holocaust and
recalling what befell us, and perhaps for a portion of the public this
is necessary. Yet, my experience with the public leads me to believe
that the Holocaust was so enormous and so painful that true reflection
implies nothing less than crying. It is simply impossible to sit and
listen to all of the recollections which are broadcast on Holocaust
Day without crying. Such a horrifying tragedy; our own flesh and
blood. We ourselves were murdered along with the six million. The
deaths of the Holocaust confront us in such monstrous proportions that
the mind is overwhelmed. Therefore, it is impossible to consider the
Shoah without tears. We are still unable to give it proper meaning.

Rabbi Teichtal: The End of an Era

Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook used to point to the fact that Rabbi Yisachar
Shlomo Teichtal, may God avenge his blood, the author of “Em HaBanim
Semechah,” reached the conclusion that the Holocaust came about
because Jews did not immigrate to Israel. Rabbi Kook did not present
this opinion as the final word on the subject, claiming that this was
undeniably the reason for the Shoah. He made clear, rather, that it
was the opinion of Rabbi Teichtal. He, who was there in the midst of
the Shoah and whose death served as a sanctification of God’s name, is
permitted to say such things. We, who were not there, are not
permitted to claim to know the reason for the Holocaust.

Many ask, “How is it possible that the Almighty allowed such a
terrible calamity to befall His people? How is it possible that such a
thing could have happened?” We might answer this question with a
question from an entirely different direction: How is it possible that
such an event did not befall the Jewish people earlier? After all,
throughout the generations the nations expressed their hatred for the
Jews in such a sharp manner, portraying the Jews as leaders of a world
conspiracy and the murderers of God. How is it possible that the
nations did not rise up and destroy the Jews on such a large scale
hundreds of years earlier? The survival of the Jewish people in the
Exile was no doubt a phenomenon which defied the laws of nature, a
miracle, for “were it not for the fear of God,” say the Sages, “how
would it is possible for one nation to survive among the
nations?” (Tractate Yoma 69b). So long as we managed to survive among
the nations the miracle persisted – the miraculous phenomenon of one
lamb which, despite seventy wolves surrounding her, is not torn to
pieces. And so it was, that even when one king enacted difficult
decrees, it remained possible to flee to a neighboring kingdom which
was willing to show favor upon the Jews, such that the People of
Israel were never completely erased. With the arrival of the Shoah the
miracle of Jewish survival in the Exile came to an end, and the force
which protected us because of our task in the Exile (the “elevation of
sparks”; the clarification of the minute details of the Torah) stopped
its functioning; with its disappearance, persecution and destruction
on a scale previously unknown began.

Rabbi Kook: Time For Action

It is possible to discern such a concept in the writings of Rabbi
Avraham Yitzchak Kook. In his book “Orot” Rabbi Kook explains that
when the Judaism of the Diaspora is detached from that of the Land of
Israel, its strength weakens. All of Exilic Judaism’s strength derives
from its desire to come to Israel – a desire which in the past,
because of factors beyond its control, could not be realized. This
longing had no choice but to find alternate ways of expressing itself,
on a restricted and individual level. The moment that the barriers
were removed, the gates opened, and the possibility to immigrate
granted – the life force which sustained Exilic Judaism ceased to
function. It was no longer enough to talk about Israel – the time for
action had come. The miracle ended. Even in the case of Jews who
managed to escape death in Europe, fleeing to other countries –
America for example – their plight and the plight of the generations
which followed deteriorated with the passage of years. This, despite
the fact that numerous Torah scholars fled to America; despite the
fact that observant Jews reached her shores in larger numbers than
those who reached the shores of Israel. Today it is possible to see
quite clearly that Yeshivas (rabbinic academies) in the United States
are not able to reach the level of an average Yeshiva in Israel. The
fact of the matter is that today American students are sent to Israel
to study Torah despite the fact that initially there were greater
numbers of observant Jews there. What’s more, assimilation has reached
such frightening numbers in the United States that it is referred to
as the “Quiet Holocaust.” In light of all this it is possible to say
with some confidence that the miracle of the survival of Jews in the
Exile came to an end some sixty years ago, and this found expression
in a number of ways: the Holocaust, the decline of the spiritual level
in the Diaspora, and the unprecedented assimilation there.

"The prohibition against Smoking" by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed (final segment)

5. Educating Against Smoking
Having learned that the Torah forbids smoking because it is
detrimental to health and endangers the lives of both the smoker and
those in his proximity, it is obvious that we must educate every
individual not to begin smoking, for before one picks up this bad
habit it is easy enough to refrain from it. But, after having become
addicted to the habit and the nicotine, it becomes extremely difficult
to stop.
All the same, one who is already addicted to cigarettes is obligated
by the Torah to stop smoking. Indeed, once one has stopped smoking,
the danger of cancer or heart disease gradually decreases, to the
point where, after ten years, the chances of contracting heart disease
are no different than those of someone who never smoked. The
heightened danger of cancer disappears after fifteen years (Asya vol.
5, pgs. 224 & 235).
And, in truth, though the impression is that it is very difficult to
stop smoking, experience shows that via information and education even
one who is addicted to smoking is capable of stopping. For example, in
the year that studies proving the dangers of smoking were publicized
64% of doctors smoked, and when they were asked if they felt that it
was possible to stop smoking, they answered in the negative. Yet, ten
years later, only 16% of doctors continued smoking. From here, the
conclusion is that a clear understanding of the dangers of smoking is
an extremely effective way of putting an end to the habit. Hence,
smokers are obligated to study about the dangers of smoking, and to do
all that is in their power to kick the habit.

True, sometimes the mental state of the smoker, or the environmental
pressures that he faces don’t permit him to take upon himself the task
of quitting, and in such a situation we might consider him a victim of
circumstances beyond his control – force majeure. Sometimes it is even
better to suggest that such an individual not even attempt to stop
smoking, for such an endeavor is liable to take its toll on his entire
being and disturb his mental balance. But, the great majority of
people are capable of taking the steps necessary to quit smoking.

As a side note, it is also important to point out that habitual
smoking constitutes a great waste of money. A person who smokes two
boxes of regular cigarettes every day for fifty years, has spent
almost 150,000 shekels. If he had saved that same amount of money, he
would have in hand at the age of seventy, more than 300,000 shekels.

"The Prohibition Against Smoking" (Cont'd)

3. The Prohibition Against Smoking in Other Peoples’ Presence
Another Halakhic question which concerns the problem of smoking is,
“Is it permissible for a non-smoker to demand of a smoker to refrain
from smoking on the grounds that the smoke bothers him. It goes
without saying that in the house of the non-smoker, the right to
decide whether or not one smokes therein is his own. Hence, a guest
cannot demand that his host refrain from smoking in his presence, just
as he cannot himself smoke if the host if desires that he not.
The question is, what is the rule in public places, or in places which
are jointly owned. Can, in such circumstances, a non-smoker demand of
a smoker to refrain from smoking on the grounds that the smoke bothers

The Talmud (Baba Batra 23a) teaches us that even in a private domain
one must be careful not to cause damage to his fellow. For example, it
is forbidden for a homeowner to create a stench or smoke in his own
domain if it will be carried over into the domain of another causing
him discomfort. This is a clear proof that smoke is considered by
Jewish law as substance which damages and causes discomfort and that a
person can demand of his neighbor that he not create smoke which will
enter his domain and cause him uneasiness. This rule is true of a
public place as well: One can demand that his fellow refrain from
smoking. And if there are two office workers together in the same
room, one can tell the other not to smoke.
And even if over a long period of time one worker demonstrated no
opposition to his neighbor’s smoking, he still reserves the right to
demand that his coworker refrain from smoking. And if the smoker, in
such a situation, claims that because he has been smoking in this
place for years and nobody ever asked him to stop before, and since
this has become the established custom he ought to be able to continue
in his ways, it is, all the same, permissible according to Jewish law
to demand that the worker stop smoking. This is due to the fact that
it is well known that smoking greatly irritates certain people, and
nobody has the right to rely upon established custom where such a
custom involves discomfort to his neighbor.

All of the above is true even if we say that smoking does not affect
the health of those who inhale cigarette smoke, but merely causes
discomfort and unpleasantness; but today, with all that we know about
the health hazards involved in smoking even to those who only happen
to be in the smoker’s vicinity, the prohibition is all the more
severe. For example, studies have shown that when one of the members
of a couple smoke, the chances of the partner’s contracting cancer as
a result of cigarette smoke is three times greater than in couples
where neither smoke.
It is worth mentioning, in this light, that our beloved mentor, Rabbi
Tzvi Yehudah HaCohen Kook, zt”l, instructed his students in the Mercaz
HaRav Yeshiva not to smoke in the study-hall of the Yeshiva. Rabbi
Moshe Feinstein also forbade smoking in yeshiva study-halls and
synagogues because smoking causes damage even to passive bystanders.

"The Prohibition against Smoking" by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed (Cont'd)

Scientific Facts

Let us consider the scientific facts (as they appear in vol. 2 of
“Asya,” in the articles written by Dr. Meltzer, Dr. Hershkowitz, and
Prof. Katan) which served as the foundation for the Halakhic ruling
which forbids smoking.
There are three main diseases caused by smoking. The first affects the
lungs directly in the form of bronchitis and deterioration of the
lungs. These sicknesses attack the lungs’ immune system which stands
guard against elements which are dangerous to the body and they affect
the lungs’ ability to receive oxygen. In most cases, such ailments
damage an individual’s physical fitness and operational capacity,
while in rare instances they may even lead to death.

The second type of disease that may be caused by smoking is heart
disease: On the average, one in every four people who die from heart
disease received it as a result of smoking.
The third category is that of cancer. Comprehensive studies show that
smoking is the major environmental cause of cancer. The chances that a
man who smokes will contract cancer are twice as great as a man who
does not smoke. Smoking leads generally to lung cancer, to the point
that among smokers the rate of lung cancer is seven times higher than
among non-smokers. According to statistical calculations, then, we
find that more than 500 people die each year from lung cancer as a
result of smoking.

In summary, the death rate is much higher among smokers than among non-
smokers. For example, in a massive study carried out by American
insurance companies, it was discovered that the death rate of smokers
up to the age of forty-five is 80% higher than the death rate of non-
smokers of the same age group, while the death rate of smokers up to
the age of sixty is 125% higher than the death rate of non-smokers
belonging to the same age group.

In an interesting study carried out by one insurance company, it was
discovered that even the rate of traffic accidents for smokers is
higher than that of non-smokers. 6.59% smokers were involved in such
accidents while the rate among non-smokers was only 3.75%. The reason
for this difference is that smoking affects the hemoglobin, lessening
the amount of oxygen in the blood, which in turn damages the driver’s
concentration and judgment.
As a result of these studies many insurance companies raised the
prices of smokers’ policies.
At any rate, as concerns our discussion, as a result of these studies,
it was ruled that smoking is a severe violation of the Torah law.

"The Prohibition against Smoking"

1. The Prohibition against Smoking
A question that many people ask is, “What does Jewish law have to say
about smoking? Is it permissible or forbidden?”
Hundreds of years ago, there were doctors who believed that smoking
was actually a healthy practice, to the point where they would even
advise smoking to those suffering from certain types of sicknesses.
But, as time passed, it became increasingly clear that smoking is in
fact very bad for one’s health. Already some sixty years ago, in the
days of Rabbi Yisrael Meir from the city of Radin, or as he was better-
known as the “Chofetz Chaim,” the opinion of a number of doctors was
made public which stated that a frail person should not become
accustomed to smoking. These doctors explained that smoking saps a
person’s strength and might even cause death. Basing himself upon this
report, the “Chofetz Chaim” wrote that it is forbidden for a person to
accustom himself to smoking.
Despite this, though, because it was not clear to just what degree
smoking was dangerous, the majority of rabbis held that smoking was
not absolutely prohibited; only that it was not advisable to smoke.
They therefore did not object to Yeshiva students who had a practice
of smoking.
But, during the last few decades, it has become undeniably clear
through comprehensive studies that smoking is very dangerous to one’s
health. This being the case, it is clearly forbidden according to the
Torah to smoke. For, the Torah commands us to guard our lives, as it
says, “Only be careful and guard your soul greatly” (Deuteronomy 4:9),
and “You must guard your souls greatly (Ibid. 4:15). And the Torah has
commanded us to stay away from anything which might endanger life.
Therefore, if one builds a roof or a balcony, there is a Torah
obligation to build a guard-rail around it in order that nobody falls
from it. Hence we can see to just what degree a Jew is obligated to
maintain his health. It follows that the Torah prohibits smoking
(“Aseh Lekha Rav” vol. 2, 1; Tzitz Eliezer 15, 39).
As a side note it is worth mentioning here that Rabbi Dr. Mordechai
Halprin writes that it is possible that the prohibition against
smoking does not stem merely from the commandment to protect one’s
health. It may very well be that the Torah prohibition against
murdering also becomes an issue here. This is because with every
inhalation the smoker causes direct damage to his lungs and, in a
sense, brings his own death a bit closer. If this is the case, such a
person violates a severe negative commandment, “Thou shall not kill,”
which is one of the Ten Commandments.

PPrisoner Exchange in Jewish Law" Part 4

Israel’s Security Policy

We might liken Israel and its security policy to a person who
maintains a continuous $3,000 dollar overdraft in his bank account.
Over the course of fifty years he loses almost $30,000 in interest.
Yet, because he is unable to take control of himself, he lags months
behind schedule, forever in the debt.
The State of Israel maintains a constant state of overdraft, in both
its economy and its security. Israel’s economic problems are well
known to all. The national treasury spends money that it has not yet
received from community funds. As a result, we are forced to loan
money from the United States, and this, in turn, increases our
dependence upon America. No less a problem is the fact that we
maintain “overdraft” in the sphere of our defense policy. We do
everything when it is already too late. If the State of Israel had
waged a war on terrorist organizations two years ago our security
situation would be remarkably better today, and many Jewish lives
would have been spared.

Instead of carrying out “Operation Defensive Shield” after the large
terrorist attacks, it should have been carried out beforehand. Instead
of eliminating terrorist leaders after costly suicide bombings, they
should have been targeted beforehand, when they began to threaten us.
Instead of waiting another year or two to declare war upon the
Hezbollah, Israel should declare war upon them now. If we had
initiated the Yom Kippur War a few of hours earlier, the results would
have been immeasurably better.

May we merit witnessing the fulfillment of our prayers that “all
wickedness will disappear like smoke when You remove evil’s domination
from the earth. Then You, God, will reign alone over all Your works,
on Mount Zion, the resting place of your glory, and in Jerusalem, Your
holy city.”

"Prisoner Exchange in Jewish Law" Part 3

3. The Law Regarding Prisoners in Wartime

Though, as we have said, there are opinions that when the captive’s
life is at stake it is permissible to pay even more than the generally
accepted amount, in wartime it is forbidden to give in to any such
extortion whatsoever. The rule is that in times of war one does not
submit to any of the enemies demands. In fact, even in a case when the
enemy only stole some straw and hey from a border village, the
response must be a strong military one. For, as soon as one gives in
to them regarding a small matter, they will gain confidence and
increase their efforts to strike at us (see Eruvin 45a).

Therefore, if an enemy of Israel takes even a single hostage, we must
go to battle against them in order to save the captive, for if we
allow them to succeed in taking one hostage they will gain incentive
and step up their efforts to strike at us. To this effect we find in
the Torah (Numbers 21:1): “And when the Canaanites, the King of Arad,
who dwelt in the Negev, heard tell that Israel came by the way of
Atarim, he fought against Israel and took prisoner.” According to the
sages, they took only a single maidservant. Yet, in order to retrieve
her Israel did not suggest negotiations, but went to battle against
the Canaanites. An additional example can be brought from king David:
When the Amalekites attacked the town of Ziklag, taking the women
captive, David did not sit down at the negotiating table, but went to
war against them and saved the prisoners (Samuel 1:30).

In a case where Israel lacks the military capacity to engage the enemy
in battle it is permissible to exchange prisoners in the generally
accepted fashion, but any more than that is forbidden. This is all the
more true considering that we are today in an ongoing state of war
with surrounding countries and terrorist organizations and that every
concession is interpreted by them as an sign of weakness. Such
submission merely leads to more attacks and more attempts to take
hostages. What’s more, as a result of our willingness to free large
numbers of prisoners for one or two Israeli hostages, the terrorists
fear us less, for they figure that even if they do get caught, they
will most likely be freed before long in a prisoner exchange deal. It
should also be noted that many of the terrorists who have been
released by Israel in the past simply returned to their terrorist
activities, murdering, in turn, hundreds of Israelis. Hence, as a
result of our receiving one Israeli hostage, tens and perhaps even
hundreds of other innocent Israelis have been murdered.

It is important to realize, though, that at the end of the war, when a
final cease-fire agreement is reached between the sides, it is
permissible for Israel to release all of the enemy prisoners in its
possession in turn for all of our own captives being held by the enemy
– even if we have taken many captives. The reason for this is that
such exchanges are recognized as accepted practice at the end of the
war and are hence not considered acts of extortion. Unfortunately,
though, we do not foresee such an end to war and terrorism arriving
anytime in Israel’s near future.

by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed