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Commandments Express: Beginning with the Basics

Commandments Express: Beginning with the Basics

The Jewish people have been released from the servitude of Egypt. They have begun, with God’s direction to gain independence and form an identity. Now God prepares to meet them in a pyrotechnic sound and light extravaganza, the likes of which have never been experienced before or after. At Mt. Sinai, God presents the famous Ten Commandments, which besides their global notoriety, can be considered a founding or basic set of commandments.

Beyond impressing upon the Jews His awesomeness, God commands it. “I am God, your God that took you out of Egypt”, demands believing there is a God [Commandment #25]. The flip side of belief in God is non-belief in any other divinity, hence a continuation of commandments that demonstrate ones non-belief:

To entertain no thought that there is any other god [Commandment #26].

To make no idol to worship [Commandment #27].

Not to bow down and prostrate oneself to an idol [Commandment #28].

Not to worship an idol in the accepted manner [Commandment #29].

Once we have the belief system in place, both on the positive side of believing in God and on the negative side of not believing or even remotely demonstrating acceptance or respect of false gods, we move on to the realm of action.

Perhaps the most primary aspect of action is actually speech. Here we continue demonstrating both our respect and allegiance to God, by not taking his name in vain [Commandment #30].

Next and still in the realm of speech, is consecrating what is probably the most fundamental and demonstrative exhibition of Judaism: the Sabbath and declaring it holy with words [Commandment #31].

Now that God has broached the subject of the Sabbath, the actual prohibition to work on the Sabbath follows [Commandment #32].

Once the primacy and exclusivity of God has been transmitted and the primacy of the Sabbath is in place, another fundamental commandment is pronounced – honoring ones father and mother [Commandment #33]. This completes the first “half” of the Ten Commandments (which aren’t really ten commandments but rather ten statements that incorporate more than one commandment each in some cases).

The first half of the Ten Commandments are traditionally considered those between Man and God (even honoring ones parents, as they are considered in a sense partners with God in creating their child). The second half deals with very basic concrete issues between Man and his fellow Man.

In terms of relationships between men, things don’t get more direct or basic than “Don’t kill” [Commandment #34].

Right after the commandment that deals with breaking the bonds of life, is the commandment that deals with breaking the bonds of family life: “Do not commit adultery” [Commandment #35]. This is perhaps the first commandment that introduces an obvious higher ethic in interpersonal relationships.

Another primal crime that leads to the breakdown of society is the heinous “Do not kidnap” [Commandment #36]. Society is broken down, not only by violent actions, but also by a violation of speech. “To give no false testimony” [Commandment #37] reflects such an issue.

The last of the Ten Commandments gets to perhaps the root of many societal ills. “Do not covet anything belonging to one’s fellow man” [Commandment #38].

Once the pivotal Ten Commandments have been imparted, God continues with commandments that are still somewhat related, but are now perhaps more nuanced and sophisticated.

Drawing on the commandment against idol worship, God commands “To make no image of a human being, even for ornamentation” [Commandment #39].

The main religious conduit of the day was the use of the altar for sacrificial offerings. As metal was used for sculpting stone, there is an aversion to using metal on altar stones to add any images. Simple unadulterated stones needed to be used. The command is fairly strict and prohibits building an altar out of stones that have even been touched by a metal instrument [Commandment #40].

While discussing the topic of the altar, the command of not ascending the Altar by steps is introduced [Commandment #41]. A ramp had to be built. Once God has revealed Himself to the Children of Israel in all His glory a resulting humility is a consequence. Ascending via smaller footsteps on a ramp rather than by striding on stairs, which might show more of ones legs (they wore flowing robes back then), would be a more appropriate sign of modesty and humility when approaching and encountering God.

God has now laid the foundation with this set of commandments. In the following section He gets in gear with a broad, long and detailed list of a range of commandments.


Beginning with the Basics -- Commandments
Beginning with the Basics -- Commandments

Torah and Careers: A Practical Approach

This article was printed in the English journal of Yeshivat Har Etzion many moons ago…

Torah and Careers: A Practical Approach[1]

by Ben-Tzion Spitz

The question whether a Torah-observant Jew may or ought to pursue a secular career has been debated since, at latest, the time of the Mishna. In this article we will look at some sources for the debate, focusing mainly on Pirkei Avot and the Rambam, analyze the prevalent approaches today, and develop some practical tools to help guide an individual toward his own solution to the issue.

The Mishnaic Tractate Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers), is a compilation of moral advice dictating what daily behavior ought to be like for everyone.[2] It also represents the ideal that all should aim to achieve.[3] However, in carefully reviewing the various statements in the Mishna, it becomes apparent that there is a dispute about the issue of making a livelihood:

Do not say, “When I am free I will study;” perhaps you will not become free.[4]

Anyone excessively involved in business cannot become a scholar.[5]

Whoever takes upon himself the yoke of Torah, the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly responsibilities are removed from him. But whoever throws off the yoke of Torah from himself, the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly responsibilities are placed upon him.[6]

Reduce your business activities and occupy yourself with Torah. Be of humble spirit before every man. If you should neglect the Torah, there will be many other neglectors opposite you; but if you labor in Torah, He has ample reward to give you.[7]

On the other hand:

Beautiful is the study of Torah, together with an occupation, for the exertion of them both makes sin forgotten.[8]

If there is no Torah, there is no worldly occupation; if there is no worldly occupation, there is no Torah. If there is no wisdom, there is no fear of God; if there is no fear of God, there is no wisdom. If there is no knowledge, there is no understanding; if there is no understanding, there is no knowledge. If there is no flour (sustenance), there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no flour (sustenance).[9]

The sages who composed these sources lived as they taught; whereas many sages earned a livelihood in non-clerical professions, others distanced themselves as much as possible from the secular world. On one hand, there are many examples of Torah giants and leaders throughout the generations that pursued careers alongside their Torah life:[10] Among Talmudic sages, Rav Huna was a water drawer,[11] Rabbi Meir a barber,[12] Rabbi Yehuda a porter,[13] Rav Yosef a miller, and Rav Sheshet a porter.[14] Among later sages, Rav Shlomo Yitzhaki (Rashi, the famous commentator on Chumash and Talmud) was a wine maker, and never accepted any position or payment for his Torah activities. Even in modern times, Rav Baruch Halevi Epstein, the author of the Torah Temima, was a banker. Rambam is perhaps the best known secular career person and we will discuss him in more detail below.

On the other hand, a paradigm of non-secular existence is represented by Rav Shimon Bar Yochai. The Talmud relates that he lived as he preached – in a cave, immersed completely in his Torah meditations, totally divorced from the world around him.[15] Thus, one group contends that men[16] should shun worldly pursuits for the exclusive study of Torah, whereas the other group seems to say that there must be a balance, a coexistence, between making a livelihood and studying Torah. This debate has continued, and one can identify the different views throughout the Talmud, Geonim, Rishonim, Acharonim and modern-day poskim.

At first glance, it appears that this dispute involves clearly defined and inflexible positions, i.e., a halakhic dispute. However, it may be more accurate to say that this debate is about philosophical preference and not about normative practice, i.e., each side emphasizes one opinion from among several, but does not decide between them.[17]

As opposed to other areas of halakha where unequivocal decisions are rendered, no authoritative decision has ever been recorded for this debate. Yes, there are many suggestions and views; but that is all they are, and should only be taken as such. Furthermore, sages from both ends of this philosophical debate very much respected each other’s positions, views, and ways of life.However, while most might agree with the above positions, some do not – especially in our generation.

It seems that the sages realized that one’s approach to secular activity is a highly personal issue, and offered encouragement and specific guidance as to the best resolution of this life-defining concern.

Some Qualifications

From the days of the Mishna to our own time, many people have become overly concerned with the pursuit of their career and material wealth. This trend is frowned upon in no uncertain terms by the full spectrum of Jewish thinkers.[18] All agree that learning Torah and thereby becoming closer to God is of prime importance. Anything that detracts from this goal is against the Jewish ideal. Beyond this, however, there are various opinions as to the best way to proceed with one’s activities on the practical level, and it is this debate we wish to address.

To my mind, it is inconceivable that the entire Jewish people was meant to exclusively learn Torah (at least at this stage of our history[19]). It is otherwise difficult to explain the reason behind all of the materialistic laws and commandments. Someone has to work the fields. Someone has to heal the sick and wounded. Someone has to build the homes, provide the food, generate the electricity, make the clothing, manufacture goods and do everything else that a society needs done. The majority of the population is expected to have some type of gainful employment. In ancient times, the Kohanim and Levi’im were designated from among Israel to provide guidance, while the rest of Israel was expected to make a living.[20] In our times, Orthodox Jewry has spawned a community with an ideology that promotes full-time Torah learning for all men. In this essay, we are concerned with helping the individual to choose between the Torah-only lifestyle and an integrated lifestyle, and providing some tools to help him decide.

Avoiding the Problem Creates New Ones

Some people do not have to confront the choice directly because they work in a Torah-oriented field. Not that their intention is to avoid tackling the issue; on the contrary, usually for the most idealistic and noble of reasons they become pulpit Rabbis or Torah educators. They are constantly learning and disseminating words of Torah. This is a great solution to the dilemma, for the Rabbi does not have to leave the world of Torah even while earning a living. However, this only works for the select few that take that route – not everyone can be a teacher.

Additionally, this route is not without its price. Rambam prohibits Torah being taught for pay:

It is forbidden to take a wage for teaching the Oral Law, as it is stated (Deuteronomy 4:5): “Behold, I have taught you laws and statutes, as God commanded me.” Just as I (Moses) learned at no cost, so too, you have been taught from me at no cost. Teach the coming generations in a like manner. Teach them at no cost as you have learned from me.[21]

Unfortunately, such a guideline could very well destroy today’s entire Orthodox educational system. Thus, Halakhic authorities allow Torah educators to be compensated for their time. However, this is far from the ideal way to teach Torah.

Another reason why this may be problematic is that the educator or Rabbi is at the mercy of his financial supporters. He must be careful not to upset or alienate them too much or he will lose his job and, hence, his livelihood. This would, at times, tie the hands of such people when it is most important for them to take a stand. This weakens the Torah in the eyes of the community. Sometimes, Rabbis may give in to financial expediency rather than stand on principle, especially in borderline cases.

The Torah-Only Choice

For the purposes of our discussion and to avoid blanket statements, we will refer to communities that frown upon non-Torah livelihood as Anti-work communities.[22] Unfortunately, among non-religious Jews, members of these communities, have often been labeled “parasites.” They are seen as pure consumers, contributing nothing to society except for progeny, and that at an alarming rate.

Torah followers, however, believe that a person dedicated to Torah is on a high spiritual level, and although they may not be contributing to society in a material sense, they are contributing to the spiritual entity of the entire people of Israel. This is a fundamental belief of Judaism. [23]

Nevertheless, every community has some people of low moral character, and the anti-work communities are no exception. There are members of these communities who do contribute to society, neither materially nor spiritually. Their low character magnifies an existing problem because the community in question represents a higher moral ideal. Such rotten apples besmirch the name of the entire community.[24]For example, there have been incidents both in Israel and in the U.S. of members of the an anti-work community falsifying records in order to embezzle government funds. Other more crude and terrible incidents have occurred recently but do not bear repeating. These horrible “chilulei Hashem” (desecrations of the God’s name), are perpetrated by slackers, but defame the entire community. These wayward members may appear highly spiritual, praying with special intensity and keeping the ritualistic halakhot beyond the letter of the law, but it would be difficult to say that they are followers of Torah.

Another sad phenomenon involves relationship of some institutions, their representatives, and students, towards their financial contributors. When the time comes to fundraise, the contributing laymen are honored as great righteous leaders and scholars, called “tzadikim,” and given a variety of honors. The rest of the time, though, they are considered “amaratzim” (boors) and contacted only to keep the money flowing. This manipulative, elitist, and cynical attitude is a dangerous message for the students and for the community at large. Unfortunately, a number of “bad apples” are guilty of such thinking to some extent or another. Leaders and institutions would be well served by exorcising any hint of this attitude from their midst.

The Rambam’s Approach

Rambam had strong words to say about people not interested in working:

Whoever decides to engage in Torah studies, and not work, and plans to support himself from charity – he desecrates (God’s) Name, abuses the Torah, extinguishes the light of Faith, causes evil to himself, and removes himself from the life of the World to Come. Because it is forbidden to derive benefit from words of Torah in this world.

Our sages declared: “Whoever benefits from the words of Torah forfeits his life in the world.”Also, they commanded and declared: “Do not make them a crown to magnify oneself, nor an ax to chop with.”Also, they commanded and declared: “Love work and despise Rabbinic positions.” “And all Torah study that is not joined by work, the outcome is that it will be negated and leads to sin.” Ultimately such a person will steal from others.[25]

It is a great attribute for a person to derive his livelihood from his own efforts, and a trait of the pious of the early generations. In this manner, he will merit all honor and good in this world, and in the world to come, as it (Psalms 128:2) states: “If you eat the toil of your hands, you will be happy and it will be good for you.” “You will be happy” – in this world. “It will be good for you” – in the world to come, which is entirely good.[26]

Who is Complete?

The Rambam[27]defines four areas where man should develop himself in order to achieve “Shleimut” (Perfection/Wholeness):[28]

1. Perfection in one’s possessions;

2. Perfection of one’s physical attributes or health;

3. Perfection of one’s moral and spiritual character;

4. Perfection of one’s intellect.

The Rambam felt that the quest for perfection should correspond to a pyramid structure, with one level forming a natural foundation for the next. This can be illustrated by the graphic below:balhabayitpyramid11

He felt that one’s first responsibility is to ensure financial stability. After that to improve one’s health. Without the proper funds, it is logical that a person will not be able to feed himself properly or improve ones physical condition. Once these basic elements have been addressed, one can develop religiously. Finally, after all of these areas are in proper order, one should develop and perfect one’s intellect. To quote Rabbi Lamm:

The final shleimut is that of intellectual perfection, which expresses itself in the grasping of truth, especially the true perception or knowledge of God. It is this last shleimut, the rational or cognitive one, that represents the highest state of ideal man.[29]

Obviously the arrangement described is oversimplified – life cannot be lived one compartment at a time. All of the areas are generally dealt with contemporaneously. However, the above illustration does point to a certain logical precedence. After all, it would be foolish to investigate esoteric musings before investigating where the next meal is coming from.

The Rambam sees the ideal combination of activity in a holistic manner and not as merely a focus on the spiritual. Dealing exclusively with the spiritual is seen not as a neutral position, but as a negative activity; we are humans, not angels.

The following diagram illustrates what Rambam’s pyramid might look like from the eyes of some in the anti-work world:[30]


This world-view is incomplete, unstable, and far from ideal.

Rabbi Lamm reiterates what shleimut should be:

Shleimut thus implies a wide net: the amassing of all one’s attributes – intellectual and psychological, spiritual and esthetic, practical and moral – and all one’s experiences – sacred and profane, profound and superficial, positive and negative – and their actualization and elevation toward the Holy One, as we worship Him both through our spirituality and our corporeality.[31]

The Yeshiva Experience

The emphasis on the spiritual is appropriate when applied as a balance for those that may be overly materialistic. However, in our opinion, being entirely spiritual and disregarding the material should never be mistaken for a complete philosophy that can guide people through every facet of their complex lives. If we once again turn to the contemporary scene, this is the message that, unfortunately, some yeshivot give over, either consciously or unconsciously. This may not be a problem for those who remain in a pure Torah or yeshiva environment. However, for the rest of the world, which does not live within the four walls of the yeshiva, it is an insufficient guiding philosophy and ideal. Instead of infusing students with feelings of guilt, yeshivot should encourage students to excel in their secular careers while remaining strong in their devotion to Torah.

The classical structure and curriculum of yeshivot contribute significantly to the predominant educational message. Many yeshivot spend the majority of the day studying Talmud, certainly a fundamental area of study. The Rambam himself states that an advanced student should spend the majority of his time delving into the Talmud. However, he assumes that a basic foundation in Jewish law and literature should precede the almost exclusive commitment to Talmud. It is becoming apparent that a growing number of yeshiva high-school graduates lack a solid foundation in Tanakh, Halakha, Ethics, and preparation for real-life issues that will confront them when they leave yeshiva. Unfortunately, these students are not well versed in these basics while they strive to become great Talmudic analysts. For most of them, the great intellectual Talmudic exercises will not continue after yeshiva, and they will be sorely lacking in the basics. This is an issue that would benefit by being addressed in many yeshivot. But the problem is especially acute for students who will not remain lifelong in yeshiva, rather one, two, or even five years. Perhaps their time can be more efficiently spent, and the philosophical message imparted can better reflect the integrative approach that they espouse.[32]

The Rambam has some thoughts that relate to a poor educational structure and its relationship to poor character:

Torah should only be taught to a proper student – one whose deeds are pleasant – or to a simpleton. However, if the student follows a bad path, he should first be influenced to correct his behavior and follow a straight path. After he repents, his deeds are examined and only then is he allowed to enter the house of study to be instructed.[33]

The above is not always the case in today’s schools. Educators continue teaching advanced Talmudic concepts to students whose moral fiber requires much strengthening. The intricacies of Talmudic debates are being taught to students that have no problem stealing, lying, cheating, or committing other ethical crimes. If half the time that these students spent on Talmud were spent on ethical improvement, perhaps institutions could justify teaching Talmud to such students. It is clear, however, that the Rambam would not allow such students to attend his Torah classes – not because of a lack of background or poor analytical skills, but because of poor character. Improvement of character is sorely lacking from many curricula. This failing, coupled with a general lack of other basic knowledge, leaves a major educational gap for many students.[34]

The classical yeshivot are good for students that wish to remain predominantly in that world and have a solid educational and philosophical foundation. We need to cultivate such people that will be immersed in such an environment with few worldly distractions. They are our spiritual leaders and should be as close as possible to the spiritual ideal. For those that will interact and engage the world more fully, an adapted program is needed – one that will give them a solid foundation in the basics of Jewish tradition, law, history, and ethics, and prepare them to be Bnei Torah in our increasingly challenging times.

A Practical Approach – Definitions

Let us now try to approach the issue of integrating Torah and careers, by first defining what appears to be the acceptable range of activity. The limits of the range are set by the extreme approaches at each end of the following spectrum:


On one end you have a person that is wholly materialistic and has divorced himself from preoccupation with Torah and Godly matters. At the other end stands a person that does not give enough concern to material concerns such as food, clothing, and shelter. Seeing the lack of consensus or clear definition by our sages, it is fair to say that no particular point on our spectrum represents the ideal that all people should strive towards. Our spectrum is not necessarily a gauge of one’s religious dedication. It may be an indication of the quantity of time made available for learning as opposed to working. Perhaps quantity is often correlated to the quality and seriousness of the learning, but it is not necessarily so.

From personal conversations, I understood that Rav Yehuda Amital (Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion) and Rav Adin Steinsalz (world-renowned Torah scholar and author) believe that the 15 minutes that a career-person learns daily may be of more meaningful than many hours that full-time students learn. The self-sacrifice involved makes all the difference. In addition, career-people strive that their livelihood be made “le-sheim Shamayim” (for the sake of Heaven),[35] thereby sanctifying one’s entire day.[36]Of course, they stressed that Torah is the “ikar” (of prime importance); however, Iikar is defined qualitatively and not quantitatively.

Rambam as a Model?

The Rambam is unique in many respects. His monumental legal work (Mishneh Torah) forms much of the basis for subsequent halakhic literature. He was a pioneer in refining and formulating Jewish philosophy, both in the Mishneh Torah and in his Guide to the Perplexed. His “Thirteen Principles of Faith” signal a turning point in the history of Jewish thought and has served to anchor the faith of the Jewish ever since. It is worthwhile to remember that initially his works were blacklisted and even burned by many leading sages. Eventually, though, the brilliance of the Rambam’s works shone through and they were universally accepted.

The Rambam also pursued a secular career. He was considered one of the premier physicians of his time, and was appointed personal physician to the Sultan of Egypt.[37]It is clear that, even in the Rambam’s time, to become a doctor required many years of studying and training.[38] The Rambam was also well versed in other secular areas such as philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, physics, and literature.[39]

The Rambam suggested what he considered a good balance between the study of Torah and the pursuit of a livelihood: work three hours a day and learn nine hours a day.[40] The Rambam himself did not keep these schedules. We know from autobiographical records he both worked as a doctor and was involved in Torah much more than the hours he suggested; he barely slept.[41]

In most professions it is extremely difficult to work only three hours a day. It is difficult both to find such a job and to support one’s self from what one might earn in so few hours. However, there is a small and growing movement of individuals that are pursuing this ideal – and achieving it. In the age of computers, Internet, flex-time and telecommuting, such opportunities are growing. I personally know a graphic artist who learns Torah for a major part of his day and makes a successful living during his limited business hours. I likewise know a highly dedicated Kollel student who in his few available afternoon hours built up his own Internet services company. There are many other stories of people who have managed to live the Rambam’s ideal. However, these examples are few and far between, and are not easily imitated.

Livelihood versus Career

Careers in fields such as medicine, law, engineering, and accounting require years of specialized training during which time otherwise available for Torah study will be limited. Similarly, when the time comes to enter the workforce, the hours open for Torah study will probably be diminished further. How can one justify this apparent “Bittul Torah” (stoppage of Torah study) when one could earn a livelihood with less training and, therefore, have more time for Torah study? In other words, should one invest time preparing for a full-time career that one may have an inclination for, or should one only pursue work that requires little training? Additionally, should one only do enough work to live from hand to mouth, as some sources advise, or can one, to a greater or lesser degree, plan ahead?

These are not simple or trivial questions. Just as there is no consensus regarding the “learning versus working” question,[42] there is no consensus as to the “livelihood versus career” question.[43] However, the search for an answer leads to the most critical element of the puzzle – the person himself.

Halakhot do not always distinguish between different people’s personalities, characteristics and desires.In our questions, however, individual qualities play an essential role in determining the proper path for each person.

Maximizing Personal Tikun Olam

Tikun Olam” (fixing of the world) is Judaism’s way of expressing the universal idea that we are placed on this Earth to improve it.Rav Soloveitchik was quoted as saying:”Man is enjoined to leave his imprint on this world, to go beyond nature and transcend it, not simply imitating it.”[44]This applies on a national as well as individual level.[45]Keeping this idea in mind can help steer us right in answering some of the questions that were raised. To reiterate these questions:

vHow does one choose between full-time learning and full-time work?

vDoes one pursue a professional career or just try to make a living?

vHow far ahead should one be concerned about their finances?

The answer is not only based on one’s strengths and abilities vis-a-vis learning Torah, but revolves around what type of impact one can have on both the world at large and one’s immediate circle.

Part of the answer will depend on the individual’s capabilities, inclinations, and circumstances. There is a tale about Rav Zusha: R’ Zusha stated that when he dies and ascends to Heaven, he will not be asked why he was not Abraham, but why he wasn’t Zusha. Every person has his own unique personality and potential and must seek to fulfill that destiny – not somebody else’s. No formula applies to all.

Rav Yehuda Halevi, in his book “HaKuzari,” describes how a prince ruling a city must make use of all of his talents, leanings and interests. All parts and strengths must be used in a cooperative fashion. None must be allowed to overextend. Each must assist the others in order for the entire organism to function efficiently. Similarly, on an individual level, the same type of balance must be achieved.

If a person is particularly suited for a Torah career and circumstances allow him to pursue it in a dignified manner, he should certainly pursue it. However, if a person has other leanings, he may justifiably pursue a secular career. Not that, God forbid, he should neglect Torah. Torah is always primary. Torah must be a part of every single day. However, it need not occupy the whole day. It is equally legitimate to serve God through one’s work and profession, keeping in mind that one’s activities should be “for the sake of Heaven,” an example of what a God-fearing Jew should be like, and a “light onto the nations.”[46]


The extent that one advances a career or is involved in one’s work is related to the strength of one’s faith. Logically, the more one invests in a profession and in work, the higher the chances of success. Mathematically, the more hours one works, the more money one can make. For a person seeking to secure oneself financially, this thinking can leave little time for Torah. What’s the proper balance?

There are stories of people of tremendous faith, whose physical needs are taken care of miraculously. On the other hand, there are plenty of people who expend tremendous effort and barely make ends meet. Some would argue that the amount of money that one makes is not in proportion to the amount of effort,[47] and that therefore minimum effort is required.[48]However, it is also a well-known tenet that one cannot rely on miracles.[49]

Thus, should a person believe that wealth will just fall into his hand, or should he slave away, spending every waking moment insuring financial security? Ultimately, the question every person must ask himself is, “How much faith should I have?”

I received a satisfying answer from Rabbi Shimon Green (of Yeshivat Bircat Hatorah in the Old City of Jerusalem). He said, “You should have just a little more faith than you currently have.”This answer has tremendous practical appeal and would seem to be in sync with a solid approach to improving one’s character, devotion, and efforts. Instead of traumatically jumping to a new way of life, one should gradually work on one’s self. A person should constantly reflect upon and analyze their present condition and its direction.[50]Always seeking to improve a little bit is one of the most successful and long-lasting methods of character development.

Dynamic Process

The answer to many of our questions is a frustrating “it depends” – not only on the unique qualities of the person, but also on his stage of life. The answer can and does change over time. If a person is at a stage of his life where it is socially and financially acceptable for him to be engrossed in Torah, as many pre-college men are, it would be foolhardy to pass up the opportunity. It would also be a shame not to extend it for as long as possible. On the other hand, for an older man, supporting a family, to suddenly quit his job and take up full-time learning without the means to provide for himself and his family would be irresponsible. It may be hazardous (to health and career) for a sleep-deprived medical resident to have a four-hour Torah study session every single day. But for someone in a less intense liberal arts program it may be more practical.

What remains constant, however, is the requirement to reflect and take personal inventory. On a regular basis, people should examine their activities and see what needs adjustment to maximize what they are doing, including the time they can spend on Torah.

One of the most acclaimed books on choosing a career and what to do with one’s life is What Color is Your Parachute? by Richard Nelson Bolles.[51]He claims that even career choice is a dynamic process, and that nowadays, on average, people change to a totally different career every 10 years.

This would imply that, throughout life, people are questioning what they are doing and moving toward more interesting activity. One needs to take into account one’s constantly growing and changing experience, skill set, religious commitment, community involvement, and financial, family and social obligations. An honest look at these factors is crucial in the attempt to be self-aware, and the self-knowledge achieved will be the key to determine each individual’s path.

Decision Logic

The following graphic is an attempt to illustrate the thinking and parameters involved in the decision-making process:


In the above diagram, “Learn” refers to full-time Torah learning, “Career” to the full-time pursuit of a career (with as much free time as possible devoted to Torah). The “Rambam Combination” is a combination of less-than-full-time work with several hours of Torah learning each day. All of these options are legitimate and do not close off excelling in Torah. I know someone that works full-time, is one of the top people in his profession and manages not only to learn Torah extensively and at a high level, but also to give a daily Daf Yomi class. There are many examples of this in our own day and throughout our history. Obviously, the entire range should be within an “Acceptable Halakhic Lifestyle.” One unacceptable extreme is to pursue a career and forget Torah. On the other extreme, someone can pursue the study of Torah, but be lacking in certain minimum aspects of proper halakhic behavior.

Ideally, before a decision can be made, a basic level of Torah learning should be attained. If it has not, then efforts should be made to strengthen the areas that are lacking.

The self-examination process should be a regular one. Circumstances change. People get into a pattern and don’t think whether it’s the right one. One needs to ask the right questions to start seeing the answers. Only by constantly pushing and exerting oneself can one’s potential be approached.

In summary, the pursuit of a career is certainly a positive, legitimate and “lekhatchila” option for an observant Jew. One should seek to follow a reasonable and practical course that fits one as an individual. However, to do it properly and successfully requires a rigorous and regular process of self-assessment and – evaluation.

Such questioning is a highly personal activity and demands extensive self-understanding. Goals, ideals and dreams must be defined and redefined. One’s individuality must be discovered. All of these things can be extremely difficult, and made worse by the fact that the process is constant. Every single moment of every single day, a person has the opportunity to redefine himself. For some it is a horrifying burden. For many it is an issue that doesn’t even rise to their consciousness and they go through life taking the path of least resistance. But for some, it is a blessing; and those that make and grab the opportunities – they light up the world.

[1]This article is dedicated to the memory of my grandparents: Tzvi Dov Rosenthal and Eta Spitz.

Special thanks to Rav Doniel Schreiber, Rav Menachem Weinberg, and Rav Ronnie Ziegler for their help. Extra special thanks to my wife and parents for their constant support.Comments can be directed to

[2]Rashi, last Mishna of Ethics of our Fathers, Chapter 6, Mishna 11.

[3]Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Baba Kama, page 30a.

[4]Hillel, Ethics of our Fathers, Chapter 2, Mishna 5.

[5]Ibid, Chapter 2, Mishna 6.

[6]Rabbi Nachuniah Ben Hakana, Ibid, Chapter 3, Mishna 6.

[7]Rabbi Meir, Ibid, Chapter 4, Mishna 12.

[8]Rabban Gamliel, son of Rabbi Judah the Prince, Ibid, Chapter 2, Mishna 2.

[9]Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah, Ibid, Chapter 3, Mishna 21.

[10]Maimonides states in his Laws of Torah Study, Chapter 1, Law 9: “The great sages of Israel included wood choppers, water drawers, and blind men; and even so, they were occupied in Torah study day and night, and were among those who transmitted the Torah’s teachings from master to student in the chain stretching back to Moses, our teacher.”

[11]Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ketubot, page 105a. The list of Talmudic names as well as some of the translations and insights on Maimonides are from Rabbi Eliyahu Touger’s excellent translation and commentary on The Laws of Torah Study, by Moznaim Publishing Corp. 1989. Permission to use received from publisher, Moshe Shternlicht, 12/13/98.

[12]Ibid, Tractate Eruvin, page 13a.

[13]Ibid, Tractate Nedarim, page 49b.

[14]Ibid, Tractate Gittin, page 67b.

[15]Tractate Shabbat 33b.

[16]There are other issues related to women. The focus here is on men and the issues surrounding their obligations and directives.

[17]In the spirit of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (The Lonely Man of Faith, page 9): “…in modern theological and philosophical categories.My interpretive gesture is completely subjective and lays no claim to representing a definitive Halakhic philosophy.”

[18]For example, see R. Dessler in Michtav Me’Eliyahu, Section 1, Chapter 1.

[19]There are a number of sources that indicate that after the coming of the Messiah all of Israel will be exclusively involved in Torah and will provide spiritual leadership to the nations of the world. See, for example, Maimonides’ Laws of Kings, Chapter 12, Law 5.

[20]Laws of Shemita and Yovel, Chapter 13, Law 12.

[21]Laws of Torah Study, Chapter 1, Law 7.

[22]The whole topic of social classification, labeling and the problems with different communities and groups will just be touched upon briefly here.No offense of any group is meant.While the use of labels is distasteful, it has become a popular and convenient handle and is employed here just to illustrate the point.

[23]Nefesh Ha’Chayim, Rav Chayim Volozhin, Part 4, Chapter 10, “If Torah study were to stop, Heaven and Earth would cease to exist.”Also Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Nedarim, page 32a.The spiritual has a direct effect on the material (i.e. doing the mitzvot leads to God providing rain as we affirm in the Shema).

[24]Rav S. Groineman in his book Chazon Ish: Belief & Faith (published by Sifraiti Ltd., Bnei Brak, 5757 (1997), Chapter 2, Section 4, complains about what he calls “fakers”: “people will say: so-and-so that learned ethics, how disgraceful are his actions, and how disgusting are his schemes.”

[25]Laws of Torah Study, Chapter 3, Law 10. The source for the last statement is given as Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin, page 29a: “Whoever does not teach his son a profession is as if he taught him to steal.”

[26]Laws of Torah Study, Chapter 3, Law 11.

[27]This section draws heavily from concepts in the book, Torah Umadda – The Encounter of Religious Learning and Worldly Knowledge in the Jewish Tradition, by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm (President of Yeshiva University), Jason Aronson Inc., NJ 1990.

[28]As discussed in the last chapter of his Guide to the Perplexed, Part III, Chapter 54, and his Introduction to the Mishna, Section 6, Chapter 2.

[29]Ibid, page 213.

[30]Ibid, page 214: “The lowest of Maimonides’ four types, that of possessions, was, of course, dropped – both because of economic conditions throughout much of Jewish history, and, even more, because this was posited as a form of shleimut for analytic or morphological reasons only, and certainly had little else to commend it. The second, physical perfection, similarly fell into desuetude. Whether this happened because conditions in exile made good nutrition inaccessible and hence ignored, or because of the medieval and mystical penchant for seeing the spiritual and the physical as fundamentally antagonistic, its omission was most unfortunate. The third, moral perfection, was both intensified and broadened, with piety (“fear of Heaven”) and punctiliousness in the performance of the mitzvot included along with refinement of character as a most desirable level of human-Jewish perfection. The highest level, that of intellectual perfection, was narrowed to the knowledge and understanding of Torah, with a concomitant downgrading of the knowledge of God and the philosophical, and especially metaphysical, infrastructure that such knowledge presupposed.

Hence, the conventional concept of shleimut and religious growth to which we are heir today consists largely of piety, moral character, and the study of Torah.”

[31]Ibid, page 219.

[32]Established yeshivot are responding slowly to this problem. The need is growing, the vacuum is expanding and if the yeshivot do not take concrete steps to remedy the situation “salvation shall come from elsewhere” [Paraphrase of Megillat Esther: “For if you remain silent during this time, then relief and salvation shall arise to the Jews from elsewhere, and you and your father’s house shall perish; and who knows if you have not come to this royal position for such an occasion?”] – most probably new yeshivot and programs that will cater more to the true needs of such clientele.

Rabbi Berel Wein (renowned Torah scholar, historian and orator) had this to say in a recent interview: “We need a revolution in Jewish education. I see it. There has to be 100 yeshiva high schools and each one of them has to be different.” [Voices, Vol. 2 Issue 12, 15 Kislev 5759 / Dec. 4, 1998.]

New and more “lines of communication” [this phrase, as well as many of the ideas in this article, stem from my father and teacher, Mr. Elliot Spitz] need to be established between the various groups involved in the providing and receiving of Jewish education. Institutions need to adapt and grow within the acceptable boundaries to better serve the community. This is true for our issue specifically as well as for many of the challenges facing the Jewish community. Good communication is essential.

[33]Laws of Torah Study, Chapter 4, Law 1.

[34]My brother, Mr. Kalman Spitz, told over to me a “vort” by the Admor of the Shomer Emunim: “Some people, if they are learning 100% of the time, don’t have time or room for God.”

[35]Rabbi Yossi, Ethics of our Fathers, Chapter 2, Mishna 17: “Let all your actions be for the sake of Heaven.”

[36]See Rav Ronnie Ziegler’s adaptation of a shiur by HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein on the subject of one’s secular career activity being more in sync with Divine service/purpose. The article can be found on the Internet at: .

[37]It should be noted that Rambam did start his career solely learning while being supported by his brother. When that ceased, he was forced to make a living as a doctor.

[38]A Maimonides Reader, Isadore Twersky, Behrman House, Inc. 1972.Page 1.

[39]Ibid, page 8.

[40]Laws of Torah Study, Chapter 1, Law 12.

[41]Letter from Rambam to Yosef Ben Yehuda Ibn Tibbon, 1191.

[42]This poignant problem is illustrated by the Talmud: “Over three the Holy One, blessed be He, weeps every day: over him who is able to occupy himself with the study of Torah and does not; and over him that is unable to occupy himself with the study of Torah and does…” Tractate Chagiga 5b.

[43]One side of the argument is taken up in the last Mishna of Kiddushin, that a father should only teach his son an easy and clean trade, while the last Mishna of Avot is interpreted that every inclination in a person is for a purpose and they should be directed towards positive activities and goals (i.e. a bloodthirsty person should become a Shochet or a Mohel, Tractate Shabbat 156a).

[44]Shiur by HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein, Nov. 24, 1986, “The Growth of a Ben-Torah.”

[45]This is a recurring theme among our sages. Rav Kook gives deep insight into the idea, especially as it relates to the concept of repentance, in the fourth chapter of Orot Ha-teshuva.

[46]Isaiah 49:6

[47]“On Rosh Hashana, God establishes how much every person will earn for the year.”Tractate Beitza 16a. Also, last Mishna of Kiddushin.

[48]See Rav Dessler in Michtav Me-Eliyahu,Vol 1, Five levels of Torah and Derekh Eretz, pp. 197-203.

[49]Ein Somkhin al ha-neis. Pesachim 64b.

[50]This philosophy is highly relevant in Ba’al Teshuva movements. There are some people that preach a rapid change of life – taking on all of the components of what may be a totally alien lifestyle in a very short period of time. Experience has shown that the majority of people adopting such a course bounce right back to their previous lifestyle, or take on their new one in a very shallow fashion. Groups with more long-term success push for a more deliberate and gradual change of lifestyle. This thinking can be adopted for the daily improvements and repentance obligated by all.

[51]“What Color Is Your Parachute: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers,”Richard Nelson Bolles, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, California.

Tactical Deception and Clueless Pawns

Tactical Deception and Clueless Pawns

While God performs awesome miracles, He apparently also balances them with as many “natural” causes as possible. This is fairly evident in the Splitting of the Sea and the subsequent drowning of the entire Egyptian Armed Forces in one of the most dramatic events in our history.

God could have simply disintegrated the entire Egyptian Army with their Cavalry and Chariots and at the same time teleported the fleeing Israelites to their destination.

Apparently God wanted everyone to sweat a bit, have time to absorb the fantastic events, and appreciate the incredible process that was occurring. God guides the ensuing military maneuvers in a fashion that would have earned the admiration of Sun-Tzu.

“And when Pharaoh sent the nation, and God did not lead them by the Philistine route, for it was close; for God said, lest the nation regret when they see war and return to Egypt. And God turned the nation on the desert route, the Suf Sea, and the Children of Israel ascended armed from the Land of Egypt.” (Exodus 13:17-18)

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno says something that may sound surprising upon first inspection. Sforno explains that God wanted to take the Jews to Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah and then subsequently to the land of Israel. Sforno claims that the Suf Sea didn’t lead to either of these places.

The sole reason the Jews were led to the sea, was for the express purpose of baiting the Egyptians and drowning them in the miraculous trap God was setting for them.

Furthermore, it seems that the fastest route to the Suf Sea was actually via the Philistine route that God diverted the Jews away from.

Sforno explains that tactically, God wanted his Jewish pawns to be unaware of the pursuing Egyptians until it was too late. Apparently, the Philistine route was a well traveled road that was inhabited along its path. Once Pharaoh would have started his chase, the Jews would have gotten wind of it very quickly and in fear would have returned to Egypt and beg for a merciful return to their enslavement. God wanted his bait to be unaware of the impending attack in the radio-silence of the uninhabited desert. That way, when the Egyptian attack on the escaping Jews was imminent, the Jews would have no option of returning to their Egyptian masters.

The strategy, of course, works. The Jews with their backs to the sea, witness the charging Egyptian army. The Egyptians believe they have the frightened Jews trapped. The frightened Jews believe they are trapped and lament their having left Egypt.

The two protagonist nations are in place. God places some cloud cover to protect the Jews from immediate attack and blows a strong wind (more “natural” causes) to split the sea. The Jews take this surprising escape route and the Egyptians, once the cloud cover has been removed, follow in rapid pursuit.

The trap is sprung and the Egyptian army is annihilated.

I don’t know if Sun-Tzu was inspired by or even knew of the Biblical story, but following is a quote from his famous “Art of War”:

“The Power of Surprise”

“Generally, in a conflict,
The Straightforward will lead to engagement and
The Surprising will lead to triumph.”

“Those who are skilled in producing surprises
Are as infinitely varied as heaven and earth,
And as inexhaustible as the great rivers.”

When Moses and the Children of Israel subsequently sing the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1-19), it’s not by chance that they praise “God, Man of War; God is His Name.” (Exodus 15:3).

May God always guide us in the tactics and strategies we need for success – even if at times we are clueless!

Shabbat Shalom,



To the IDF.

Unfamiliar Terms?

From Wikipedia

The Art of War is a Chinese military treatise that was written during the 6th century BC by Sun Tzu. Composed of 13 chapters, each of which is devoted to one aspect of warfare, it has long been praised as the definitive work on military strategies and tactics of its time.

The Art of War is one of the oldest and most successful books on military strategy in the world. It has had a huge influence on Eastern military thinking, business tactics, and beyond. Sun Tzu recognized the importance of positioning in strategy and that position is affected both by objective conditions in the physical environment and the subjective opinions of competitive actors in that environment. He taught that strategy was not planning in the sense of working through a to-do list, but rather that it requires quick and appropriate responses to changing conditions. Planning works in a controlled environment, but in a competitive environment, competing plans collide, creating unexpected situations.

The Inescapability of Destiny

Something About Sforno  — A Short Dvar Torah on the Parsha — Bo 5769

The Inescapability of Destiny

Free will versus pre-destination is a classic Jewish paradox.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno adds a new twist to the philosophical issue in this week’s Torah reading (Exodus 11:1):

“God said to Moses: One more plague shall I bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; after that he shall send you forth from here. When he sends you forth, it shall be complete – he shall drive you out of here.”

Sforno comments on this verse:

“But previously he expelled just the two of you (Moses and Aharon) from just his presence. Now he will expel all of you from the entire area.”

Now Sforno’s follows with his theological gem:

“For this is the measure of righteousness of the Almighty. For when a man stubbornly refuses to do the right thing, to do the will of his Creator, he will end up doing what he ran away from, with trouble and grief, against his desire.”

After stating this startling thesis, that we will end up doing what we were meant to do, and suffer doing so if we don’t pursue it willingly, Sforno brings three very different and ominous sources to back up his thesis:

“Because you did not serve God, your God, amid gladness and goodness of heart, when everything was abundant. So you will serve your enemies whom God will send against you, in hunger and in thirst in nakedness and without anything…” (Deuteronomy 28:47-48).

Here Sforno implies the issue of servitude and not just servitude, but a happy one at that. If we will not serve God with joy, then we will serve others in unpleasant circumstances.

The second source:

“Say to them: As I live – the word of God — if I shall not do to you as you have spoken in My ears. In this wilderness shall your carcasses drop…” (Number 14:28).

God castigates the complaining Israelites in the desert after their despair from the negative report of the Spies who reconnoitered the Land of Canaan. One of the cries that came from the despairing Israelites was that God intended for them to die in the desert. God was apparently so incensed with the Israelite loss of faith, that he doomed them with the very fate they declared for themselves. Lesson: we have to watch very carefully what we say – because God might very well decide to deliver on it.

Third source:

“Whoever neglects the Torah because of wealth, will ultimately neglect it in poverty.” (Tractate Avot, 4:11).

In this last and somewhat known dictum from Pirkei Avot (the Chapters of our Fathers), Sforno quotes only the negative part of the instruction. He focuses on the fact that if one is determined to be negligent in his Torah-related responsibilities he will indeed succeed in maintaining his negligence, though perhaps not in the style or comfort he wanted to continue.

Each of Sforno’s sources teaches a different lesson. However, the common thread, with which he wanted to highlight Pharoah’s fate is that a negative attitude towards ones responsibilities and relationship with God, will come back to haunt us in a most exacting and parallel way to the area of our failing.

While we may certainly exercise free will, and our destiny may be known to God, according to Sforno, the path to that destiny will depend on how wisely we use that free will.

May we figure out our personal paths and may they be as happy as possible.

Shabbat Shalom,



To my mother, Nira Spitz, whose free will has always been harnessed to a glorious destiny. Amongst many accomplishments, 40 years ago she gave birth to a bouncing baby boy, who still tries to amuse her. Thanks for everything.

Commandments Express: Independence and Identity

New column on the Commandments

Several years ago, I put together what I thought was a really cool and interesting chart about the commandments. Everyone I showed it to was very impressed with it. I showed it to a couple of publishers. They also liked it very much, but didn’t know what to do with it: “It’s not a book” they explained.

After sitting in my drawer for a couple of years I decided to dust it off and start converting it into a book format, and slowly add a few comments to each section of the chart. Any and all input is appreciated.

Following is my initial effort which deals with the commandments of this weeks Torah reading:

Commandments Express – Independence and Identity

The very first commandment given to the fledgling Jewish nation, still in the clutches of Egyptian servitude is that of consecrating the New Moon and establishing their own independent calendar system [Commandment #4].

This is symbolic on many levels. The simplest explanation for this commandment’s prominence may be as a declaration of independence. The most direct implication of slavery, besides the obvious lack of freedom, is that time is not yours. Every second, every moment, must be accounted to one’s supervisors. God then instructs the children of Israel to make time their own. By determining and declaring the start of the new month, the Jewish people take possession of Time itself.

Having grounded the soon-to-be-freed nation in time, and with the Jews having made a metaphysical declaration of independence, the next step is a demonstration of freedom in an outright, very physical act of destructive and bloody rebellion.

The Jews are commanded to take the very animals that the Egyptians worship as Gods and slaughter them in an extremely public display of contempt, fearlessness and even superiority to their Egyptian masters [Commandment #5] – which became the Passover sacrifice.

The next series of commandments continue to deal with two different aspects of the Passover sacrifice. How to eat it [Commandments #6, 7, 8, 15, 16] and who may eat it [Commandments #13, 14, 17].

Now that the Jews have very symbolically declared freedom (God will soon do the practical emancipation), God is making two critical points.

One is that there is still the rule of law. In this case, divine law. Freedom from tyranny does not mean one can do whatever they want. Jews were freed for a purpose beyond their own ease and comfort. They were freed to serve God and become a beacon of light (whatever that entails) to the world. Serving God means following the commandments no matter how esoteric or detailed they may be.

The second point is one of definition. Who is a Jew? Who is a member of this newly identified tribe? Who can participate in this prototypical commandment? The answer is dependent on two different components. It is dependent on ones personal theological allegiance (a Jewish apostate is out), and on being circumcised (if you’re a man).

The next grouping of commandments order the consumption of Matzah on the first night of Passover [Commandment #10], but more extensively prohibits the eating, seeing or possession of any Hametz (leavened bread) throughout the entire Passover holiday [Commandments #9, 11, 12, 19, 20].

These commandments also contain a high level of symbolism. The Matzah is both to commemorate the night of Exodus, but it is also the antithesis of the fat, bloated leavened bread that we consume throughout the year.

During the celebration of our nations birth and independence, the elements of gastronomic comfort and even gluttony are spiritually poisonous to us. God is of the opinion that even seeing Hametz is harmful to a Jew during Passover.

Continuing nationhood is empty without a national memory. As such the highlight of the Passover Seder is the recounting of the Exodus [Commandment #21].

Directly connected to the Exodus, the final plague of the Death of the Egyptian firstborns, and to further highlight God’s unique relationship to Jewish people are the commandments of the firstborn [Commandments #18, 22, 23].

By all rights, apparently all firstborns should have been killed during the plague, including Jewish ones. By God actively protecting them during the plague, he in a sense “acquired” Jewish firstborns for His exclusive service. Jewish animals are also included. Typical sacrificial animals are brought as sacrifices, however for some reason the non-sacrificial donkey is included in the firstborn commandments. However, being non-sacrificial it needs to either be “swapped” for a lamb or killed if a swap is not affected.

All sacrificial commandments (and there are a lot) only apply when there is an active Temple in Jerusalem.

There is another commandment that is given after the night of Exodus but before the next series of commandments that start with the famous Ten Commandments.

The commandment is to restrict the distance one walks beyond a residential area on the Sabbath [Commandment #24].

One reason might be for practical considerations. The freed Jewish tribes were now on the march and camping in an orderly almost military-like organization. On the day of rest, God wanted to reinforce the need to stay together and the sense of community. It’s not the time for traveling or exploring beyond the boundaries. The Jewish people would need to stay close to each other in order to grow as a cohesive unit and be able to receive the next series of commandments as a unified nation.


Independence and Identity -- Commandments
Independence and Identity -- Commandments

Aerodynamics of Egyptian Hail

Something About Sforno  — A Short Dvar Torah on the Parsha — Va’era 5769

Aerodynamics of Egyptian Hail

US Air Force test pilot, Chuck Yeager, is credited as being the first person to break the sound barrier on October 14, 1947, in the Bell X-1. Many pilots before him died trying. It took test pilots and engineers many years to understand and overcome the many issues surrounding traveling faster than the speed of sound. Some scientists thought it was impossible and aircraft would break apart from the extreme pressure and vibrations as they approached the sound barrier.

In the early days of the cold war, the one critical element lacking in the development of nuclear missiles was known as “atmospheric reentry technology”. Scientists discovered that anything they sent into space or even the upper atmosphere would burn up on reentry. As such they needed to develop proper shielding technology to protect the “payload”.

Sonic booms and atmospheric reentry burnout were technological issues that were not even dreamed off until a few decades ago.

As such, it is outright incredible that Rabbi Ovadia Sforno describes both of these phenomena in his commentary about half a millennium ago.

In Exodus 9:23-24 the Bible recounts:

“And Moses outstretched his staff to the heavens, and God gave sounds and hail, and fire descended earthward, and God rained down hail upon the land of Egypt. And there was hail and fire together in the hail, very heavy, the like of which was not in Egypt since it’s becoming a nation.”

Sforno comments on the “fire descended”:

“The flaming air descended to the earth with the force of the movement of the hail that pressed on it (the air) during its descent.”

Sforno basically and accurately described atmospheric reentry during the same period of time when Leonardo Da Vinci was playing with his water engine.

Sforno continues:

“In the force of the movement of the hail during its descent, the air was flamed and produced sound.”

He’s talking about sonic booms!

Imagine an ongoing downpour of burning hailstones accompanied by continuous sonic booms. It’s no wonder Pharaoh is frightened out of his wits and begs for the noise to stop before mentioning the hail.

The fact that Sforno was able to describe scientific concepts that we think of as exclusively from our modern era simply leaves me awestruck.

May plagues continue to hail down on our enemies, and may we be spared, and like our ancestors may we witness redemption.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the memory of Dr. Irwin Rochwarger, a beloved mentor and teacher. As an engineer who designed and built satellites for NASA, amongst many other amazing technological feats, he would have appreciated very much Sforno’s insight.

Unfamiliar Terms?

The term sonic boom is commonly used to refer to the shocks caused by the supersonic flight of an aircraft. Sonic booms generate enormous amounts of sound energy, sounding much like an explosion. Thunder is a type of natural sonic boom, created by the rapid heating and expansion of air in a lightning discharge.[1]


When an object passes through the air, it creates a series of pressure waves in front of it and behind it, similar to the bow and stern waves created by a boat. These waves travel at the speed of sound, and as the speed of the object increases, the waves are forced together, or compressed, because they cannot “get out of the way” of each other, eventually merging into a single shock wave at the speed of sound. This critical speed is known as Mach 1 and is approximately 1,225 kilometers per hour (761 mph) at sea level.


The cracking sound a bullwhip makes when properly wielded is, in fact, a small sonic boom. The end of the whip, known as the “cracker”, moves faster than the speed of sound, thus resulting in the sonic boom.[3] The whip was the first human invention to break the sound barrier.[citation needed]

A bullwhip tapers down from the handle section to the cracker. The cracker has much less mass than the handle section. When the whip is sharply swung, the energy is transferred down the length of the tapering whip. In accordance with the formula for kinetic energy, the velocity of the whip increases with the decrease in mass, which is how the whip reaches the speed of sound and causes a sonic boom.

Einstein’s Shmitta: Theories and Divine Calculus

Einstein’s Shmitta: Theories and Divine Calculus

by Ben-Tzion Spitz


I was running, walking, crawling, jumping, through a constantly changing landscape of desert, mountains, forests, caves, beaches, and snow covered slopes of what could only have been Israel.

“Mr. Spitz. Mr. Spitz! Please wake up.” exclaimed Prof. Komar in our Modern Physics lecture.

“I’m sorry Prof. Komar. I must have dozed off” I apologized quickly as he continued deriving yet another of Einstein’s equations on relativity.

The place was Yeshiva University’s Science Building. It must have been around 6pm on a Thursday night in the winter of 1989/90. I was in a class with only two other students, so it was uncomfortably easy to be spotted doing anything else, especially my favorite classroom effort of catching up on some sleep.

Prof. Komar had a very distinctive personality and appearance as anyone who was in YU at that time might remember. He always wore black; black shoes, black pants and a black button down shirt. What was even more distinctive was that though at the time he must have been in his fifties, he had very thick snow white hair on his head that stood straight up and a neatly trimmed white beard that framed his pale face. The contrast of the constant black garments versus the sharp almost albino features made Prof. Komar memorable even to those that weren’t in his class.

One of Prof. Komar’s claims to fame was that he was a student of Einstein’s during his tenure in Princeton University. My classmates and I (though I was probably the leader in this effort) would often question Prof. Komar about Einstein and would elicit stories about him to pass the time and distract him from going through more equations. I think Prof. Komar also enjoyed reminiscing. To this day I proudly proclaim that I have good ‘Yichus’ (pedigree) when it comes to my physics education (I can’t claim much else), as I am a student of a student of Einstein.

Einstein is of course renown for thinking of, popularizing and formalizing the “Theory of Relativity” and the most famous equation of conservation of mass and energy: E=mc2.

I believe though that these principles were well known to Chazal (the Rabbis) millennia before Einstein and that they form a founding basis for many Biblical and Talmudic accounts. Furthermore, the Rabbis added a further dimension (which mathematicians have theorized mathematically, but have not named). Besides the spatial and temporal dimensions, the Rabbis always considered the spiritual dimension.

Spatial & Temporal Distortion

The first place I came across the concept that spirituality or holiness has an effect on physical reality was in an article by Stephen Greenman in the book “Encounter: Essays on Torah and modern life” (a companion volume to Challenge), edited by H. Chaim Schimmel and Aryeh Carmell, Feldheim Publishers 1989. This was a perception altering article for me.

One of the effects that the equations of relativity predict is that the closer one gets to the speed of light the shorter dimensions become to an observer. Just to illustrate: if Harry Potter was flying on a broomstick and he was approaching the speed of light, his broomstick would appear shorter (he’d get thin too and would probably not survive flying at such speeds – but this didn’t trouble Einstein – so I won’t worry either).

Taken to its logical and mathematical extreme, anything traveling at the speed of light would be reduced to a dimension of zero. For those of you thinking that this would be a fantastic weight-loss program, there is unfortunately a converse but parallel effect. The closer one gets to the speed of light, the heavier one gets and at the speed of light ones weight would become mathematically infinite. A better known angle to these equations is that the faster one moves the slower time passes, and at the speed of light, time would stand still.

I used to think to that if I walked faster I would age slower, but this only works at velocities approaching the speed of light. Needless to say, these laws have little practical day-to-day relevance and Sir Isaac Newton’s more simplistic view of the universe still serves us quite well centuries later.

Rabbi Greenman, however suggests in his article a novel concept and the consideration of another factor or dimension – that of holiness. He demonstrates in his article, based on a discrepancy in the measurements of articles in the Temple, that there was a relativity effect occurring. The closer one got to the epicenter of the Holy of Holies (in this case the spiritual equivalent of the speed of light) the shorter dimensions in the Temple become. His proof is that the same utensils that are closer to the Holy of Holies are indeed recorded as being shorter. The jackpot of his proof is that in the Holy of Holies itself, there is a tradition that the Ark took up no space whatsoever – in exact agreement with his interpretation of Einstein’s equations.

From this vantage point we can then better understand multiple other cases of spatial distortion throughout the Bible and the Talmud. While there are traditionally considered miracles, we can now better understand the method to these ‘miracles’.

Commentators claim that when our Patriarch Jacob went to sleep in the town of Bet-El the entire land of Israel compressed itself and his body encompassed an area that was previously thousands of square miles. While on the surface, this may not seem to make any sense, or may be attributed to some other underlying symbolic reason, according to what we might call the “Spiritual Laws of Relativity”, it makes perfect sense.

Jacob had his first divine revelation; he was at a heightened state of prophecy and spirituality. It is therefore entirely logical that a relativistic effective such as shorted spatial distances should occur.

I’m sure that the reader, armed now with this viewpoint can identify multiple other ‘miracles’ that are recounted by Rabbinic commentaries, that can link the relativistic effect to the recipients spiritual state.

“Dune”, the best-selling science-fiction classic by Frank Herbert, has as one of its central themes the search for the “Kvisatz Haderach”. According to Herbert the “Kvitsatz Haderach” is the man that will be able, with his mind, to jump through and bridge the dimensions of time and space and therefore enable interstellar travel. Rashi uses almost the exact same phrase when explaining what happens to Jacob on his journey to Haran where he transverses a mutli-day journey in the space of a single day.

This is yet another example of the intertwining of the ‘miraculous’ with the “Spiritual Laws of Relativity” and how these concepts have already entered popular culture to an extent.

To Einstein and mathematicians, time was just another dimension; the fourth to be precise. We have shown so far that there is a relativistic connection between space, time and holiness. This connection is not more apparent than in the land of Israel.

Israel as a Holiness Gauge

Countless Biblical, Talmudic and Rabbinic sources speak about the holiness of the land of Israel. This holiness, besides for the relativistic effects we discussed above, is demonstrated by its relationship to the inhabitants. The Bible speaks about the land of Israel having to “kick out” the previous Canaanite inhabitants because of their sins and immorality. The land of Israel is meant for the children of Israel because of their shared holiness. However, when the children of Israel sin overmuch, the land can’t “handle” them either, and the result is exile. Some commentators discuss how the commandments cannot be completely fulfilled outside of the land of Israel and that Israel is the only place where a Jew can be complete. On the flip side there is a higher level of spiritual accountability.

In Beit Hannassi (The President’s Residence) in Jerusalem, one can see the original correspondence between Ben Gurion and Einstein when they requested he serve as the first President of the State of Israel. Einstein declined, but I wonder if one of the reasons might have been out of concern for the Spiritual Relativistic Laws that are most pertinent in Israel and the responsibility they engender.

Perhaps the clearest connection between holiness and the land of Israel are the laws of Shmitta (the agricultural sabbatical year).

The Bible commands the children of Israel a number of times to let the land lie fallow on the seventh year. Besides being good agricultural practice in terms of letting the soil regain lost nutrients and providing for better productivity, there are also a host of social and economic benefits for the broader community.

An interesting facet of Shmitta is that the year and its resulting produce are considered ‘Holy’, comparable to the holiness of the seventh day of the week. The spiritual accounting that occurs with Shmitta and its correlation between the people of Israel and the land of Israel seems quite stringent. The prophets themselves berate the people when they don’t adhere to the precepts of Shmitta and describe exile from the land as its punishment. The punishment is calculated with mathematical precision, where the exile apparently lasts for as many years as the Shmitta went unheeded.

While not keeping Shmitta can lead to a mathematically precise divine retribution, adherence to Shmitta, we are told in the Bible itself, will lead to a clear yet ‘miraculous’ multiplication of benefit. A farmer who refrains from working the land for one year, but is concerned about his income, is promised that his produce will be guaranteed, for not one, not two, but for three years.

E=mc2 as a formula for reward and punishment

In Einstein’s formulation, E stands for Energy, m stands for Mass and c is the speed of light, which is a constant.

One of the realizations that came out from this formula which is what helped usher in the nuclear age is that the conversion of Mass to Energy is an incredibly powerful phenomenon.The most powerful energy is when mass is completely converted into energy, such as in an antimatter reaction (this is real stuff, though Star Trek popularized it). In an antimatter reaction there is complete annihilation of the matter and complete conversion to energy. Multiplying mass by c2 leads to a lot of energy. Just for comparison, let’s look at how much energy is produced by these different processes:

Burning Petrol:9.1 million joules/kg

Nuclear fission of Uranium:82 million million joules/kg

Antimatter reaction:90,000 million million joules/kg

The same mass can give very different energy levels depending on the type of mass and the efficiency of the conversion process.

If we attempt to use the E=mc2 formulation in the spiritual realm, we could propose as follows:

c would stand for closeness to God, doing what’s right, or being Holy. In this realm approaching (the speed of) light would be parallel to approaching God (except that in our formula it would not be a constant.

m would stand for the material, the resources, the intentions and the effort that go into any particular activity and parallels the mass that is invested into any process.

Finally, E would stand for the results. It is not only the Energy that is created as in the physical world, but rather all of the positive (or negative) effects that occur in this world and the next. The point is that the reward (or punishment) is a geometric function (multiplication of a square) and not a linear one.

Einstein once explained relativity as follows: “Put your hand on a stove for a minute and it seems like an hour. Sit with that special girl for an hour and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.”

Our Rabbis understood relativity and geometric reward quite well, when they stated millennia ago: “Greater is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world, than the entire life of the World to Come; and greater is one hour of spiritual bliss in the World to Come than the entire life of this world.”


The Bible, Talmud and later Rabbis all understood the concept that we modernly call ‘relativity’. Einstein, the man who popularized it, applied it and his famous equations to a strictly physical world. We have seen ample evidence that these can be applied in the spiritual world, where one strives for holiness and closeness to God. Shmitta, the original agricultural Sabbatical year in Israel is a particularly concrete manifestation of the divine operating via the physical. The commandments in general and this one in particular call for our attention and understanding and to appreciate them beyond the obvious aspects of their performance. A scientific view of the Torah can only enhance a deeper connection to its precepts.

Einstein himself would have participated in the effort. At a symposium on the topic of Science and Religion, he succinctly summarized his philosophy: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

The Diamond in the Cesspool

Something About Sforno  — A Short Dvar Torah on the Parsha — Shmot 5769

The Diamond in the Cesspool

The Egypt of our ancestors was apparently one of great moral depravity. Egyptian culture was submerged in a superficial, materialistic, hedonistic, idol worshipping, incestuous reality. A by-product of such a society was many unwanted births and a cheapening of life.

In the beginning of the Book of Exodus, the Children of Israel have evolved from honored guests and royal protégés, to feared enemies and eventually downtrodden slaves. The low point of this progression is perhaps the draconian edict to kill all newborn Jewish boys.

Into this environment Moses is born. Fearing for his life, the mother of Moses takes the desperate measure of placing the three-month old into a basket to float on the river. Moses’ sister, not without hope, keeps an eye on the basket (Exodus 2).

Pharaoh’s daughter spots Moses’ basket while bathing in the Nile. She investigates and is surprised to find baby Moses within.

At this point Rabbi Ovadia Sforno asks as to why Pharaoh’s daughter would claim Moses. Sforno explains that it was apparently common practice for Egyptians to discard unwanted children into the river, and there would be a plethora of abandoned children to be claimed.

Sforno answers that the “goodness” of Moses was “shinning” and was clearly visible for anyone to see. Pharaoh’s daughter said to herself: “This is not some bastard or unwanted child. This is a beautiful Israelite child. He is so stunningly gorgeous that I must claim him for myself.”

Sforno continues to explain that Moses was visibly outstanding because of the “ingredients” put into him. Following is a translation of Sforno’s comment regarding the reaction to the birth of Moses by his mother, that “he was good”:

“She noted that he was more beautiful than normal, and thought that this was for an intended purpose from his Creator, for the beauty of the form indicates the quality of the ingredients and the complete power of the Designer.”

As we all know, Moses was indeed intended for supreme greatness, even amidst the decadence and immorality of Egyptian culture.

May we all transcend the negative environments around us, and like Moses, take the great ingredients that are a part of us – and shine.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the recovery of 2nd Lieutenant Aharon Karov of the IDF Paratrooper Brigade. Aharon is from the community of Karnei Shomron. He left to Gaza the morning after his wedding to lead his soldiers. He was critically injured from a blast within a booby trapped home in Northern Gaza. Please pray for him – Aharon Yehoshua ben Chaya Shoshana. May our soldiers be safe, may the wounded recover and may the mourners be comforted.

Unfamiliar terms?

Drawn from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Nile is a major north-flowing river in Africa, generally regarded as the longest river in the world.[1]

The northern section of the river flows almost entirely through desert, from Sudan into Egypt, a country whose civilization has depended on the river since ancient times. Most of the population of Egypt and all of its cities, with the exception of those near the coast, lie along those parts of the Nile valley north of Aswan; and nearly all the cultural and historical sites of Ancient Egypt are found along the banks of the river. The Nile ends in a large delta that empties into the Mediterranean Sea.

The Nile (iteru in Ancient Egyptian) was the lifeline of the ancient Egyptian civilization, with most of the population and all of the cities of Egypt resting along those parts of the Nile valley lying north of Aswan. The Nile has been the lifeline for Egyptian culture since the Stone Age. Climate change, or perhaps overgrazing, desiccated the pastoral lands of Egypt to form the Sahara desert, possibly as long ago as 8000 BC, and the inhabitants then presumably migrated to the river, where they developed a settled agricultural economy and a more centralized society.

Sustenance played a crucial role in the founding of Egyptian civilization. The Nile is an unending source of sustenance. The Nile made the land surrounding it extremely fertile when it flooded or was inundated annually. The Egyptians were able to cultivate wheat and crops around the Nile, providing food for the general population. Also, the Nile’s water attracted game such as water buffalo; and after the Persians introduced them in the 7th century BC, camels. These animals could be killed for meat, or could be captured, tamed and used for ploughing — or in the camels’ case, travelling. Water was vital to both people and livestock. The Nile was also a convenient and efficient way of transportation for people and goods.

The structure of Egypt’s society made it one of the most stable in history. In fact, it might easily have surpassed many modern societies. This stability was an immediate result of the Nile’s fertility. The Nile also provided flax for trade. Wheat was also traded, a crucial crop in the Middle East where famine was very common. This trading system secured the diplomatic relationship Egypt had with other countries, and often contributed to Egypt’s economic stability. Also, the Nile provided the resources such as food or money, to quickly and efficiently raise an army for offensive or defensive roles.

The Nile played a major role in politics and social life. The pharaoh would supposedly flood the Nile, and in return for the life-giving water and crops, the peasants would cultivate the fertile soil and send a portion of the resources they had reaped to the Pharaoh. He or she would in turn use it for the well-being of Egyptian society.

The Nile was a source of spiritual dimension. The Nile was so significant to the lifestyle of the Egyptians, that they created a god dedicated to the welfare of the Nile’s annual inundation. The god’s name was Hapy, and both he and the pharaoh were thought to control the flooding of the Nile River. Also, the Nile was considered as a causeway from life to death and afterlife. The east was thought of as a place of birth and growth, and the west was considered the place of death, as the god Ra, the sun, underwent birth, death, and resurrection each time he crossed the sky. Thus, all tombs were located west of the Nile, because the Egyptians believed that in order to enter the afterlife, they must be buried on the side that symbolized death.

The Greek historian, Herodotus, wrote that ‘Egypt was the gift of the Nile’, and in a sense that is correct. Without the waters of the Nile River for irrigation, Egyptian civilization would probably have been short-lived. The Nile provided the elements that make a vigorous civilization, and contributed much to its lasting three thousand years.