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Hag Shavuot


On Shavuot, we decorate the Sifrei Torah, Batei Kenesset and our homes with fragrant plants and flowers, commemorating the fact that after each statement uttered by the Almighty at Har Sinai, the entire world was filled with fragrant spices (Shabbat 88b). What an exalted concept emerges from this Gemara! We simply have no idea how much content, wealth, depth and scope lies within each word of Torah. Each statement contains enough to fill the entire world with a pleasant aroma! In this generation we have been privileged to see the publication of many works devoted to a single halachah. We find entire books in the laws of "borrer" (separating) on Shabbat, others on the laws of "nesi'at kapayim," the laws of honoring parents, and so many others. Indeed, "Its measurement is longer than the earth, and more expansive than the sea!"

The Gemara, however, continues, and the continuation is of no less import:

"But if from the first statement it was filled with spices, then where did the second statement go? The Almighty took out wind from His treasures and would blow each one away." The Gemara's question seems strange. Why not answer that after each statement Hashem introduced spices of a different scent? Apparently, Hashem did not want to mix two different spices, or two different commandments. The Gemara here teaches us that one may not mix different areas. Division lines must be drawn and an organized arrangement established: the time for tefilah, for example, cannot be combined with the time for Torah study. Each field of study must be focused upon independently, each period of time must be used for its appropriate purpose, and no two topics may be confused. Only in this way can we succeed and properly clarify each issue to its fullest, and in this manner we can extract the unique fragrance from each utterance of the Divine Word.


The widespread custom throughout the Jewish people is to remain awake all of Shavuot night engrossed in Torah study. The Zohar (vol. 3, 91a)

writes, "The early pious ones would not sleep on this night, and they would rather occupy themselves in Torah study and say, 'Let us inherit the heritage that is sacred to us and our children, in two worlds.' They are all listed and inscribed in the Book of Memories, and the Almighty blesses them with seventy blessings and crowns of the Upper World. About them it is said, 'Then those who revere Hashem have spoken with one another; Hashem has heard and noted it, and it has been written in the scroll of remembrance before Him concerning those who revere Hashem and esteem His Name.'"

Some explained the reason for this custom as based upon the following Midrash: "Yisrael slept that entire night, for the sleep of Shavuot is pleasant and the night is short; even a mosquito didn't sting them. The Almighty came and found them sleeping, and thus began waking them, as it says, 'It was on the third day, when morning came, there were sounds and lightening.' Mosheh woke up Yisrael and took them out to greet the King of kings, as it is written, 'Mosheh took the nation out to greet Elokim.'

The Almighty was walking before them until He reached Har Sinai, as it says, 'And Har Sinai was entirely in smoke.'" We therefore stay awake to atone, as it were, for that sleep of Benei Yisrael.

However, one of the great Jewish philosophers of the previous generations, the saintly Rav Ssadok Hakohen zs"l, notes that a careful reading of the Midrash indicates that Hazal here do not condemn Benei Yisrael for this sleep. To the contrary, "The sleep of Shavuot is pleasant," and they merited special affection from the Almighty, that even insects did not disturb their slumber. Additionally, they had no choice but to sleep.

After all, they spent three days intensely preparing themselves spiritually, purifying and elevating themselves in sanctity day and night. Whereas no one can remain awake for three days (Nedarim 15a), their bodies simply collapsed, and they fell asleep.

Thus, nowhere in this Midrash do Hazal criticize our forefathers, the "generation of knowledge" that prepared itself with awe and reverence for receiving the Torah. One question, however, calls our attention. Why did Hashem conduct Matan Torah in such a manner? Why did He arrange it that He would have to wake them from their sleep in order to receive the Torah?

Certainly the Almighty could have waited two or three hours for them to wake up, pray, and prepare themselves properly before the Divine Revelation!

The answer emerges from a beautiful parable by the Maggid of Duvna zs"l.

Once a flu epidemic broke out and steam machines were in high demand. A man went to a distribution center and asked the man at the desk for a machine.

The man told him, "Go look in the next room." The patient went to the other room and searched in every corner for a machine. He looked and looked, but did not find one. He returned to the man and informed him that he did not find what he was looking for in the adjacent room. The man at the desk sighed, leaned over, pulled a machine out from underneath his desk and handed it to the customer. The man was astonished and asked, "If the machine was within reach the whole time, why did you make me go through the trouble of searching in the other room?" He answered, "As you know, so many people come asking for these machines. Only few of them, however, actually need them. Most of them are healthy and want a machine just in case something happens. How am I to know which people really need them? The ones who search everywhere and eventually come back to me - those are the ones who really need it, and to them I give machines."

This parable accurately captures the essence of Torah study. "For Hashem grants wisdom, from His mouth knowledge and understanding." But to whom is the Torah given? To those who work for it and long for its knowledge: "If you seek it like silver, and like hidden treasures you search for it - then you will understand the fear of Hashem, and you will find the knowledge of Elokim." If you labored and met with success - then you will be believed.

If you exert yourself, then will attain this invaluable gift: "Torah was given to us as a gift."

The Creator taught us this lesson through the manner in which He conducted Matan Torah. We must undergo the intensive preparations, purify and sanctify ourselves, and grow to higher and higher levels. Then Hashem will reveal Himself to us, then He will come to greet us and walk before us.

In truth, this is how things work in all walks of life, both the spiritual and the physical. All we can do is the preparation, to create for ourselves the utensils to collect the blessings. The berachah itself, however, is bestowed upon us only from the heavens, and many times this occurs even regardless of our preparation. Often, it comes from the least expected direction. How remarkable are the words of the Midrash towards the end of Megilat Rut: "Boaz did what he had to, Rut did what she had to, and Naomi did what she had to. The Almighty then said, 'I, too, will do what I have to.'" Let us therefore do our job and carry out our responsibilities, preparing ourselves to receive the divine blessing, and then it will be bestowed upon us in plenty.


"May Hashem bless you and protect you"

The Midrash Lekah Tov explains "yevarechecha" ("bless you") as referring to the blessings of children, life and food. The application to children emerges from the similar usage of the word in the pasuk, "For such will a God-fearing man be blessed," in the context of the blessing of children.

Similarly, in reference to food the pasuk says, "He has blessed the work of you hands," and regarding Avraham's longevity the pasuk states, "And Avraham was old, aged in days, and Hashem blessed Avraham with everything."

The berachah then continues, "and protect you." The Midrash Rabbah presents a parable of a Roman king who sent for his servant in Syria. The king gave him one hundred gold coins, but as he was traveling vagabonds came and stole everything he had, including what the king had given him. Could the king have protected his servant from bandits? By contrast, Hashem promises us wealth and protection from harm.

"Hashem shall shine His face upon you." This refers to Hashem's enlightening us with the light of Torah wisdom, as the pasuk states, "For missvah is a candle, and Torah is light." It also refers to the light of redemption, as it is written, "With Your light we will see light." The Almighty serves as our guiding light, as the pasuk says, "Hashem is my light and salvation, from whom am I afraid?"; "In the light of the face of the living God"; "Hashem is powerful and He has given us light"; "His face shall shine for us, Selah!" (Midrash Aggadah).

". and He shall offer you grace." This means that Hashem will favor one wherever he goes, as it says, "she carried grace and kindness" (Midrash Tanhuma). Additionally, it refers to the fulfillment of our wishes, as it is written, "The Compassionate One will give you grace at the sound of your cries, when He hears He answers you." It also means that Hashem will give us the wisdom to deal compassionately and graciously with one another, as the pasuk says, "He shall give you mercy, and will be merciful towards you."

Furthermore, this pasuk connotes our deliverance from exile, as it is written, "Hashem be gracious to us, for You we have waited, be their strong arm in the morning, as well as our salvation in times of distress." "He shall offer you grace" also means that He should grant us wisdom. Rav Hiyya Hagadol explained this pasuk as meaning, "Hashem shall encamp near you" (Midrash Tanhuma).

"Hashem shall lift His face towards you." Meaning, He shall turn His anger away from you." The term "yisa" (shall lift) means turning away, as the pasuk states regarding Pharaoh's execution of the royal baker, "Pharaoh shall lift your head from upon you," referring to the removal of his head.

"His face" refers to anger, as the pasuk states, "I will turn My face towards that soul," meaning that Hashem will direct His wrath towards the sinner. Thus, this blessing means that Hashem will remove from us His "face of wrath" that we deserve (Midrash Rabbah).

". and shall give you peace." How great is peace! All the blessings, goodness and consolations that the Almighty brings upon Yisrael conclude with the ultimate blessing of peace. The evening birchot keri'at shema end with "Who spreads a canopy of peace"; we conclude Shemonah Esreih with, "He Who make peace in His upper worlds"; and birkat kohanim ends with the blessing of peace - "and shall give you peace" (Vayikra Rabbah). Peace is greater than the previous elements mentioned in the birchat kohanim - blessing, protection, enlightenment, grace, and the turning of Hashem's face towards us. Peace, the final blessing offered in birchat kohanim, is the most important of them all (Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer). Hashem then promises, "and I will bless them." Indeed, the primary blessing of the Almighty is peace, as it says, "Hashem will bless His nation with peace" (Megilah 18).


Rav Yaakov zs"l of Baghdad

A remarkable story is told by Rav Menasheh Ssalah a"h of Baghdad, an incident he personally witnessed when tending to the great Rav Yaakov, the son of the head of the exile, the Ben Ish Hai zs"l. One day, as he stood before the great rabbi, the community leaders came and gathered to seek advice how to handle a difficult situation that had arisen. A girl in the community discarded the rules of modesty and led young men astray with her words and pleasant voice. The rabbi issued a warning, demanding that if she does not stop she will be sent away. The community would not tolerate a sinner who led others astray, as well. She ignored the warning, and even hurled insults against the rabbi. The community leaders now came to report to the rabbi of the unfortunate situation.

The rabbi said, "I tried everything, but she still refuses to listen. Do you agree that she should suffer the same consequences of the sotah described in the Torah?" They were astounded, and, after thinking the matter over, expressed their consent.

Early the next morning, the rabbi wrote the parashah of sotah on a piece of paper, turned to his attendant, Rav Menasheh, and said, "Go put this piece of paper in the girl's pocket. Do not worry, nothing will happen to you."

He went to her home and found many young men gathered there. He placed the paper in her jacket pocket and quickly left. The girl put on the jacket and went to the bathhouse. Suddenly, the attendant at the bathhouse cried in horror - the girl's body had swelled, such that she could not pass through the bathhouse door. Workers were summoned to expand the door and allow the girl to get through. They then carried her to her home, where she breathed her last breaths. The breach of modesty was closed, and Hashem's Name was sanctified even before the gentiles!


A Series of Halachot According to the Order of the Shulhan Aruch, Based on the Rulings of Rav Ovadia Yossef shlit"a

Taken from the work, "Osserot Yossef," Masechet Avot by Rav David Yossef shlit"a, based on the rulings of Rav Ovadia Yossef shlit"a

The Tefilot of Shavuot

At daybreak Shavuot morning, after an entire night of learning, one washes his hands three times in alternating fashion, like every morning, but no berachah is recited. The reason is that the requirement for "netilat yadayim" in this instance is in doubt, and we never recite a berachah whose obligation is uncertain. If one performed his bodily functions before washing his hands, he recites only the blessing of "asher yassar."

After "netilat yadayim," one recites "birchot hashahar" and "birchot haTorah," just as he would every other morning. Even those who did not sleep at all throughout the night recite all the berachot with Hashem's Name. This is the prevalent custom among Sefardic and Eastern communities.

(When there is an established custom, we do not employ the principle of "safek berachot lehakel.") The Ashkenazim, however, have the practice of hearing these berachot from someone who slept during the night. Those who did not sleep respond "amen" to the berachot and thereby fulfill their obligation.

One should not recite birchot hashahar or birchot haTorah before daybreak.

(If, however, one did take a nap in bed, he may recite these berachot when he wakes up, even before daybreak.) One should ensure not to put on ssissit until at least six minutes after daybreak.

One must muster energy to properly recite shaharit on Shavuot morning, and one may not allow himself to fall asleep during the tefilah. If he does, then his reward has been lost. Furthermore, very often when one begins falling asleep during tefilah, pesukei dezimra or birchot keri'at shema, he does not remember where he was in the tefilah. One must also be careful not to fall asleep during the Torah reading, which is the reading of the parashah of the Ten Commandments.

Shaharit on Shavuot is similar to that of other yamim tovim. Full hallel is recited - with a berachah - following the repetition of the Shemonah Esreih. After hallel, the sheli'ah ssibur recites "kaddish titkabal" and two Sifrei Torah are taken from the ark. Five aliyot are read from the first sefer, from the pasuk "Bahodesh hashelishi" in Parashat Yitro until the end of the parashah. Half kaddish is recited, and then the maftir is read from the second sefer, the section "uvyom habikkurim" in Parashat Pinhas, which deals with the mussaf sacrifice offered on Shavuot. Half kaddish is again recited after the final berachah, and then the "Ma'aseh Merkavah" is read for the haftorah, concluding with the pasuk, "Vatisa'eni ru'ah."

Some have the custom of standing during the reading of the Ten Commandments. The Rambam writes that this practice is incorrect according to halachah, as heretics will see this practice as an indication that only these commandments were commanded by Hashem, Heaven forbid. Therefore, those following this practice should be politely told not to do so. If they refuse to comply, they should be instructed to stand throughout the entire Torah reading on Shavuot, or at least from the beginning of the aliyah containing the Ten Commandments, which begins several pesukim before the commandments themselves. Since they are not standing solely for the Ten Commandments, it is permissible. (Similarly, one whose father or rav receives the aliyah of the Ten Commandments stands from the beginning of the aliyah, several pesukim before the commandments.)

If one is praying in a Bet Kenesset where the custom is to stand for the Ten Commandments, and he does not have the authority to change their practice but does not wish to sit while everyone stands, as this is improper, then he should make sure to stand from the beginning of the Torah reading or at least from the beginning of that aliyah.

The custom among the Ashkenazim is to read "Akdamut" before mussaf on Shavuot, and some Sefaradim are accustomed to reciting "Azharot" on Shavuot. The custom among Ashkenazim is to read Megilat Rut on Shavuot from a proper scroll. Some Ashkenazim have the custom of reciting a berachah on this reading: "asher kideshanu. vessivanu al mikra megilah." (They similarly have the practice of reading Shir Hashirim from a proper scroll with a berachah on Shabbat Hol Hamoed Pesah.) The Sefaradim, however, do not have this custom at all. A Sefaradi who reads Megilat Rut on behalf of Ashkenazim from a scroll may not recite a berachah on the reading.


"Live" Storage of Honey

In certain areas in the United States, Mexico, Australia and other a few other countries, in high, dry places, live honey-ants. These insects are nourished from the sweet liquid collected from the bark of the oak tree.

Certain flies lay their eggs on the bark, and the insects emerging from the eggs penetrate to the area underneath the bark, where they grow. In the spot where these tiny flies broke through there remains a "wound" in the bark. Over the course of time, these tiny crevices are filled with a type of sweet nectar that drips and ultimately dries when it comes in contact with air. The ants climb up the trees and collect these pockets of dried nectar. The ants bring the liquid back to their nest and hand it over for safekeeping to special ants. These ants serve as live storage-houses for the nectar. They store the sweet liquid in their stomachs, which expand until they appear as a barrel full of honey. This flexible belly stores a quantity weighing eight times the weight of the ant itself. When the stomach has been filled to the point where it may soon explode, it cannot move at all. This is why these storage-ants always reside in special underground cells, and they are suspended from the ceiling with their front legs that look like small tongs. A "barrel" of honey of this sort that falls from the ceiling obviously cannot move. Therefore, other ants come to help it stand it up and suspend itself once again from the ceiling. In the long winter months, when ants do not go outside, they are nourished from the quantities of food stored in these live storage bins. When an ant feels hungry, it enters the special storage cell, approaches one of the "barrels" hanging from the ceiling, and, in a motion that appears like mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, receives several drops of sweet liquid. Scientists who study the lifestyle of these ants found in one underground cell no fewer than three hundred living storage bins!

At first glance, one may consider the service provided by these storage ants as remarkable self-sacrifice. In truth, however, this is not the case, for they have no choice in the matter. The situation is far different when it comes to the human being, and certainly with regard to the Jew. The Jewish people have demonstrated limitless self-sacrifice for the sake of the fulfillment of the missvot, Torah education for children, and Torah study itself. The goal has remained constant throughout - to declare the singularity of the Almighty: "Hear, Israel, Hashem our God, Hashem is one!"


The Espionage Case (16)

In Tevet 5677 began the trial of Efrayim Leboviss, the German student in the Hafess Hayyim's yeshivah in Radin, Russia. The trial was conducted before the military court in the city of Vitebsk. Efrayim was accused of spying on behalf of the German enemy during wartime. As evidence, the architectural plans of the fortresses of Kovno, which were hidden in the boy's pocket by a Russian provocateur, were presented to the court. Three general sat as judges to oversee the hearings. The Hafess Hayyim had issued messages to all the yeshivot that they should pray and recite Tehillim on behalf of the innocent defendant, and in his own yeshivah the Hafess Hayyim declared a fast day. He himself traveled to Vitebsk to testify on the boy's behalf.

The defense attorney, Kapitan Zebyanik, explained to the judges who stood before them. He told them of the individual who turned to the Hafess Hayyim on a street in Warsaw and asked him for change a five-ruble bill. Just as the ssadik took out his wallet to grant the man's request, the man grabbed the wallet and ran. As he ran, the Hafess Hayyim's voice ran after him, informing him that he forgave the thief completely. His escorts wanted to chase after the thief, but the Hafess Hayyim restrained them, saying, "There can be no doubt that hunger and poverty brought him to such a state of desperation, and it is a missvah to help him. I have no doubt that when he returns to his senses he will feel very bad about what he did. Why should he eat stolen goods? Better that he use the money lawfully".

The generals heard the story in utter disbelief. The head of the court turned to the defense lawyer and asked, "Counsel, do you yourself really believe such a story?"

The lawyer responded, "No, Sir. In my mind, this is just legend."

The judge asked in bewilderment, "Then what are you trying to prove from an improbable legend?"

The lawyer replied, "Forgive me, your honor, but perhaps you can tell me why no such stories are told about you. Don't you think that the very emergence of these stories specifically regarding one person constitutes infallible confirmation of his credentials and stature?"

After this introduction, the Hafess Hayyim stood up on the witness stand to testify: "There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the defendant is perfectly innocent, and the accusation results from an intentional attempt to frame him."

"Is the rabbi prepared to swear to that effect?" he was asked. The Hafess Hayyim responded, "I have never taken an oath in my life, even in telling the truth; but in all my life, I never uttered anything false." The absolute, confident declaration amazed the judges even more than the remarkable story!

to be continued.


"The custom is to spread branches of trees in the Batei Kenesset and homes, in commemoration of what Hazal say (Rosh Hashanah 16a), that on the festival of Shavuot we are judged for the fruits of the tree." Although some have questioned this custom, the Rishon L'ssiyon shlit"a has ruled that it should be followed, the custom of Yisrael is, indeed, Torah.

The "Divrei Yoel" zs"l wondered, Hazal teach us that Tu B'shevat is the new year for trees, and Shavuot is the new year of fruits (Megilah 31b). It would therefore seem more logical to spread out branches of trees on Tu B'Shevat, the new year for trees, and eat fruits on Shavuot, the new year of fruits. Yet, we do precisely the opposite: we eat fruit on Tu B'Shevat and decorate our homes and synagogues with branches on Shavuot!

In truth, however, the customs of Yisrael are Torah, even in their sequence and arrangement.

When we want to assess the quality of a given tree, we examine its fruits.

When we want to assess the quality of given fruits, we examine the tree from whence they came.

True, the quality of our fruits are determined on Shavuot. However, we assess the quality of fruits by looking at their origin. "For from the top of mountains I see it - this refers to the patriarchs; and from the hills I gaze at it - this refers to the matriarchs." If we are heirs to the sacred forefathers and the tribes of Hashem, if we are descendants of the generation that received the Torah and subsequent generations that sanctified the Name of Hashem, who were rich in Torah and good deeds, pillars of Torah, scholars and glorious communities of missvah observers, then we realize that we are deeply rooted in their heritage. Our hearts must therefore be confident that the fountain will never run dry and the tree will never be chopped. The bark, too, will be as tasty as the fruits, and the glory will yet be restored to its rightful place and splendor of former years; the golden chain will continue in all its grandeur.

True, on Tu B'Shevat the trees are judged. But the quality of tree is determined by examining its fruits. If we see parents sending their children to Torah educational systems, concerned that their children attain a knowledge of their heritage, familiarity with the siddur, that they learn Torah, Mishnah, halachah and Midrash, that they are connected to the golden chain that continues to grow from Ma'amad Har Sinai to this very day, that they attach themselves to the generations of such a rich heritage and tradition - then we know that the parents are themselves attached to the tradition, they possess a deep-rooted connection with the pure faith. By contrast, if parents send their children to schools detached from Judaism and its spirit, where permissiveness and heresy abound, where children are taught to reject tradition and belittle our ancestral tradition and customs - this testifies first and foremost about the parents themselves, about their connection to their wondrous heritage.

Let us therefore decorate our homes with beautiful, green branches, let us testify to our connection to our national roots and the glorious tree of which we are the fruits, and let us proudly declare, the chain has continued and will continue, until the arrival of the redeemer!

Eliyahu Ben Masudah & Yaakov ben Senyar

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