Rabbi Yossi's Blog

Welcome to Rabbi Yossi's Blog; where you can expect to find thoughts on current events, Torah learning and Jewish spirituality. And of course, some good Jewish humor.

10 Things You May Not Know About the Torah


Have you heard of the Torah? Maybe you know a lot about it and it’s a part of your life. Perhaps you’ve heard the word and know it to be a symbol of Judaism but that’s about it. Either way, the following list will boost your Torah trivia quotient to Ninja status.

1. The Torah is what people of the Jewish faith call the Bible. Others call it the Old Testament, but to us it is the Bible in it’s entirety . Bible means “book” and testament means “covenant,” but the word Torah actually means a whole different thing - it means guidance. The Torah is a book of guidance, providing us with a clear directive how to live our lives.

The Jewish mystics explain that the Torah is actually G-d’s blueprint for creation. Therefore, if you want to understand how the world was intended to work, you need only delve into Torah teaching to discover it. This will then provide guidance to the best and most fulfilling way to live.

2. The Torah begins with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Bet. With all the details of the Torah being so precise, why not begin with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Aleph? One explanation is that the Aleph refers to The One who created the world, G-d. That’s the first entity (Aleph is also numerically equal to the number one) in the world and the second is the Torah. The Torah therefore begins with the second letter (and numerically equivalent to two), Bet.

3. The last words of the Torah are a reference to Moses’breaking the Tablets after descending from Mount Sinai and seeing the Jewish people worshiping an idol in the shape of a Golden Calf. I’ll bet you didn’t know that G-d actually commends and thanks him for doing it!

4. The Torah was the first legal document that recognized human rights, and is the precursor to today’s moral and legal codes. It was first introduced to the world 3326 years ago, during the mass revelation at Mount Sinai. This was at a time when human sacrifice was commonplace and idol worship and slave ownership were status symbols.

5. At the very center point of the Torah (in words) are the words “Inquire he inquired.” The word “inquire” is on one side and “he inquired’ is on the other side. It is of no small significance that the very center of the Torah is “inquire he inquired;” when approaching Torah study one must continuously be inquiring and asking questions, always searching to understand the concept in the best and deepest way.

6. All Hebrew letters are consonants, the vowels are separate symbols that appear under (or over) the letter. Only the letters themselves, i.e. only the consonants, are inscribed in the Torah. In addition, many laws found in the Torah are written in the most succinct and precise manner. These two facts make it virtually impossible to study the Torah without being privy to the Oral Torah, an oral tradition that was taught by Moses and transmitted through the generations until eventually being committed to writing by Rabbi Judah Hanassi (135-217 CE). This tradition includes the details of how to pronounce each word, where the verses begin and end, and the specific details of each particular law.

7. Although the word “Torah” most literally refers to what’s sometimes known as The Five Books of Moses, it is used colloquially when referring to the entire corpus of Jewish teaching i.e. the entire Written Law (comprising of the first five books, the books of the prophets and the writings), and Oral Law (comprising of the entire Mishnah and Talmud). The word “Torah” will even sometimes be used in reference to the scholarly works of commentary in later generations.

8. Here’s something that you may find refreshingly honest. The Sages tell us that the Jewish people cried when they were told about about one of the laws. Which do you think it was? Was it the Kosher laws? Was it the laws of Shabbat? No, it actually was the laws prohibiting sexual immorality. That was the biggest temptation then, as it is today.

9. There are exactly 304,805 letters in the Torah. There are 42 lines on each page or column, and there are 248 columns. Roughly 80 sheets of parchment (made from the hide of a Kosher animal) are sewn together to create one long scroll. Each letter has to be individually inscribed by hand by a trained scribe (using a quill made of the feather of a kosher bird, usually a turkey) and it takes roughly one year to complete. If even one letter is deformed or missing, the entire Torah scroll is invalid.

10. Over 3300 years ago, Moses wrote the very first Torah scroll. Actually, he wrote the first 13 Torah scrolls. He distributed one to each of the Twelve Tribes, and one he stored in the Ark in the Temple. This made it difficult to mistakenly (or purposely) alter the text. The meticulous details associated with writing a Torah Scroll are amazing, and contribute in no small part to it’s accuracy today.

In fact, the Torahs of the Jewish community of Yemen, that for over 1000 years was disconnected from the rest of the Jewish world, have only 9 slight differences. And all of them are differences in spelling, which have no effect on the meaning of the words (similar to the different spellings of color in the US and colour in the UK).

And one final point - now that you know a little more about the Torah, go to your local Chabad Rabbi and start to learn it regularly! Oh and of course, if you’re in the Sacramento area on April 6th, join us as we welcome a brand new Torah at the Torah Dedication Ceremony and community procession in Folsom.

Can pigs feet become kosher??


Pigs feet? Become Kosher? Never.

Never, you say? Well, consider this: the Hebrew term for this unkosher omnivore is Chazer. This Hebrew name that it carries, says the Talmud, indicates that in the future, in the time of Moshiach, Hashem will yachzirena (return it) to the Jewish people and it will become Kosher.

How does that make sense? Well, I don’t know the literal explanation, or if it is even supposed to be taken literally; but here’s a nice insight that I will share with you:

Kosher animals must chew their cud and have split hooves. Chassidic teachings identify the kosher signs in animals as reflecting spiritual accomplishment, and the lack of kosher signs as spiritual deficiencies.

An animal that has both kosher signs reflects a person whose personal character is refined and holy, and whose actions and interactions with others reflect this internal refinement.

So just to clarify:

Chews its cud = refined character

Has split hooves = many good deeds

Now, an animal that is lacking in one or the other sign reflects an individual who is lacking either in character refinement or is lacking in interaction with others and good deeds. This means that the pig, an animal that has split hooves but doesn’t chew its cud, reflects a person who has many good deeds but whose character is not so refined.

When Moshiach comes and the world will be cleansed of all negative elements and is elevated to a higher state of purity, the lack of character refinement will be rectified. But, the missing good deeds cannot be added.

Therefore, our sages say, the pig will “return”; i.e. the person whose personal spiritual character is lacking will become refined.

However, if ones personal spiritual character is well developed but the good deeds are lacking, this cannot be fixed or retrieved retroactively.

In other words, as the sages said, a pig will become purified.

This is not about "putting lipstick on a pig"; it is about recognizing the high value placed on positive actions and mitzvot. So when in doubt, do a mitzvah! 

Is nuclear energy good?

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons 

Is nuclear energy good or bad? Are guns good or bad? Is something as basic as food, good or bad?

Anything in this world is neither purely good nor purely bad; it all depends on how it is used. If nuclear energy is used to provide electricity, it can be good; but if it’s used in the form of a bomb to destroy and kill, then it’s bad. The same is true for guns and even food; if they’re used in a positive and constructive way, they can be catalysts for good, and if not, they can be destructive.

This is also true regarding emotions, they can be positive and they can be negative. When we hear terrible news, we can either react by allowing ourselves the comforting selfishness of dealing with it, or we can react by using the emotion in a positive way, for example as a catalyst for growth.

This does not mean to ignore the reality of the loss or to retreat into some disconnected cocoon. This means to channel the emotion so that it has a positive expression. It’s just the other side of the same emotional reaction.

This past week was a difficult one in the Chabad world, as a young woman, a Chabad representative in Georgia, suddenly and unexpectedly passed away. (And this is barely a week after the head Chabad representative in Illinois passed away).

The first automatic response is a deep sense of loss and a feeling of pain and concern for the family. But the real work lies not in feeling sad but rather in channeling the emotion into action. Using this energy, currently associated with negative emotion, and transforming it into fuel for positive action. This is what truly brings comfort.

May we share good news and may we succeed in appreciating and focusing on the good and positive and constructive side of all the experiences in our lives!

Click here to read Goldie's thoughts on this, from her blog 

Sacrifices? Really?!

Image: Wikimedia Commons 

Sacrifices? Really?!

How can something as anachronistic as sacrifices have relevance in this modern era? Good question.

But don’t just state the question and walk off, wait a minute and give some thought to an answer. (Aside from my thoughts below, there are many explanations, see here and here and here for just a few).

This week we begin the third book of the Torah, Vayikrah, or Leviticus as it’s referred to; the book that pertains to the laws of the Levites. In other words, the book that discusses the offering of sacrifices and other Temple-era worship practices.

Now, while we don’t have the ability to bring sacrifices today, there is much we can learn just by paying attention to the way these details are recounted.

The very first set of sacrifices that are discussed are voluntary offerings that one would bring as a sign of dedication and connection to G-d. Only later does it recount the mandatory offerings, the ones that had to be brought as atonement and those that are obligatory parts of the daily Temple ritual.

Think about it for a second; isn’t it strange that the first laws mentioned are not the basic obligation but rather the “advanced” offerings, those brought as a symbol of additional and deeper commitment? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

Perhaps there is an important message embedded in this sacrificial narrative. You see, anyone can follow an order; you don’t have to take “ownership” to follow instructions. Yet unless you are truly committed, you won’t voluntarily spend your own time and money on something. And although following instructions is important, without the enthusiasm and personal motivation it will not be sustainable.

In Judaism, we don’t have clergy - it’s not a Jewish thing. Rather, we have rabbis and teachers. And there’s a big difference. Clergy are the religious functionaries. They are representatives of their particular faith and their job is to represent the people. But living a Jewishly empowered and inspired life is not about the responsibility of the rabbi or the synagogue, it’s about each person's individual connection.

So whether you relate to the sacrifices idea or not, listen to the message included in the narrative and take control of your Jewish life; it’s not about synagogue membership or even mitzvah projects, it’s about a truly personal and empowered relationship with G-d that translates into daily meaningful mitzvah practice.

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