What Is Torah?
The word “Torah” means direction or teaching. However, “Torah” has become an umbrella term for all Jewish learning and, in fact, Rav Yisroel Salanter is quoted as saying that Torah study is the pursuit of understanding what the Almighty wants us to be doing right here, right now.
Practically, Torah can be divided into two major categories: the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. The Written Torah is made up of the Chumash, or 5 Books of Moses, as well as the Prophets (Joshua, Samual, Isaiah, Jeremiah and others) and the Writings (which include Proverbs, Job, Psalms, Book of Esther, and others). The primary Oral Torah is comprised of the Mishnah, Talmud, and Midrash. Judaism teaches that both the Written and Oral Laws were transmitted to Moses divinely on Mount Sinai.
How Is Torah Transmitted?
It is difficult to imagine scholarship before computers and the printing press. Torah needed to be transmitted from teacher to student in an unbroken chain leading back to Moses for most of history without the technological innovations of the last few hundred years. This resulted in a heavy focus on the relationship between Rabbi (teacher) and student, and a rigorous process of debate that would ensure the veracity of the subject matter being taught. It is fascinating to take a step back and envision the history of how Torah has been successfully transmitted and preserved. Dating back from the time that the Torah was given on Mount Sinai more than 3300 years ago, there have been periods where Jewish communities were separated with little communication for over 1000 years. As an example, during the Middle Ages a Jewish community in Morocco would have great difficulty communicating with a community in France, and a community in Yemen would have not have easy means of communication with a community in Spain. Yet, it is a historical fact that there is only one letter difference in the Torah scrolls of the Ashkenazic (Northern European) community and Sephardic (Spanish and Middle Eastern) communities. And that one difference substitutes the letter “hey” for an “aleph” in a manner that does not change the meaning of the word or law. Imagine if the United States Constitution had to be handed down for over 3000 years without a printing press or modern communication: what is the likelihood that the constitution used in Florida would be exactly identical to the copy found in California? That interesting piece of anecdotal evidence is a perfect illustration of the success of how the rigors of Torah study ensures the accuracy of the Torah. It is interesting to note that even today any Torah scholar can tell you who his primary teachers are, who their teachers were, and who their teacher’s teachers were for at least five generations. That knowledge is vital in establishing a teacher's credentials.
How Do We Know That The Torah We Have Is Real?
This is one of the most important questions that every student of Torah needs to explore. Before I commit to serious study and/or observance how do I know that is real? This topic is a bit too complex for a short read, and I strongly encourage you to invest the time to view this
video of a class that our own Rabbi Meth gave on this topic. Nonetheless, I would like to throw out one interesting fact for your consideration and to begin the discussion. The Torah itself teaches that the Almighty communicated directly to the entire Jewish People at Mount Sinai. Judaism teaches that God spoke to everyone together at one time. No other religion has ever made this claim. It is far simpler to convince the masses that you are a prophet of the divine than to convince the masses that the Almighty spoke to all of them!
What Is The Purpose Of Life In This World?
The Talmud teaches us that the world we live in is akin to a lobby or hallway that sits in front of a great ballroom. "Prepare yourself in the hallway so that you can enter the ballroom.” Our goal is to be close to the Almighty in the World To Come, or Heaven. We can earn that closeness through utilizing the tools that the Almighty gives us in this world. Our existence in this world is for one simple purpose: to work hard on self-development and self-improvement and spiritual growth. How do we do that? The Torah gives us 613 mitzvot to grow spiritually. Our purpose is to grow through learning Torah and performing its mitzvot. Want more detail? Reach out to any Kollel rabbi for a customized study schedule to tackle this most vital question.
Do Jews Believe In The Afterlife?
Most definitely yes! Maimonides is clear that it is included in the basic 13 principles of faith. The Torah, Prophets, and Talmud are replete with discussions about, references to, and descriptions of the afterlife. It is important to note that many of the popular ideas about heaven, hell, purgatory, 72 virgins, etc. are most definitely not Jewish. On the most fundamental level, heaven is about being close to the Almighty. Torah and mitzvot are how we achieve that closeness.
Does One Need To Be Jewish To Go To Heaven?
Most definitely no! The Torah teaches that all righteous people live on eternally in heaven and merit that special closeness with the Almighty. The Torah teaches that to be righteous, a non-jew must observe the 7 Noahide Laws and be of good character. The Torah’s lessons of morality and character refinement apply to Jews and non-Jews alike.
Are The Jewish People Chosen?
Many of us have heard the term “the chosen people.” Is that idea ethnocentric?
The term chosen people finds its earliest roots in Exodus 19:5-9 “And now, if you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure of all peoples...And you shall be to Me a kingdom of princes and a holy nation…And all the people replied in unison and said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we shall do.’”
The classic midivil commentator Rav Ovadia Seforno offers a deeper insight into these verses. the Jewish People were offered a “deal” by G-d: Would you like to accept the Torah, learn the Torah and then model and teach its ideas to the entire human race? If so, you will be “a treasure of all people and a kingdom of princes.” The Jewish People responded in the affirmative.
So...are we the chosen people? Indeed we are.
Chosen for what? To learn, model, and teach others.
I think that a contemporary example of this might be if someone today is born into the royal family in England or perhaps the Kennedy family in America. Do they have tremendous opportunities that others do not have? Absolutely. If they do not work hard to actualize that opportunity do they have anything to be proud of? Absolutely not. I feel that it is safe to say that we should feel “chosen” and “special” to the extent that we are working hard, sacrificing, and modeling proper Torah ideals.
Can Anyone Convert To Judaism?
Firstly, Judaism does not believe in proselytizing and Judaism believes that one does not need to be Jewish to go to heaven. That said, the Jews are not an exclusive club - anyone who wants to follow the commandments can join. It is interesting to note that Abraham and Sarah, the first Jews and first of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, were not born Jewish. They opted in. And so can you.
Practically, converting to Judaism is a long and serious process that requires years of dedication, study, and work. Think of it as a relationship. Marriage is a relationship that requires far more work, dedication, and commitment than friendship or dating. A healthy marriage takes years of work, consistency, and devotion. Converting to Judaism is a commitment to a special relationship with the Almighty (as we highlighted above in “Are The Jewish People Chosen?”) and it must be taken seriously. There is nothing wrong with saying “lets be friends,” but if one commits to marriage one must live up to the responsibility. If you are interested in learning more about converting to Judaism, please reach out to one of our Kollel rabbis to learn more.
Are There More And Less Important Mitzvahs?
Sometimes the best way to answer a question is other questions. Are there more and less precious diamonds? Are there more and less dangerous strains of salmonella? Are there better and worse times for inclement weather?
Now a short answer to all the above: All salmonella should be avoided, I would be happy to take any diamond you have laying around, and would be happy if Las Vegas weather began to mirror San Diego’s. In other words, yes there are more and less “important” mitzvahs, however all positive commandments have awesome positive value and all negative commandments have awesome negative implications.
That said, the Torah gives specific guidelines on how we should act when mitzvahs conflict with each other or our personal needs, and for when we are otherwise hampered in our ability to properly perform them. As an example, there is a mitzvah to keep kosher all the time. What if one is a diabetic with dangerously low blood sugar and the only food around is a cheeseburger? The Torah (Leviticus 18:5) teaches us “you shall live by them;” one should not give up his life to keep kosher. What if one is fasting on Yom Kippur and gets dehydrated to the point that his life is at risk? The Torah teaches us “you shall live by them;” one should not give up his life to fast on Yom Kippur. What if an armed individual approaches you and threatens, “commit adultery or I will kill you?” The law is that you must take a bullet rather than commit adultery—observing the mitzvah of “do not commit adultery” supersedes the mitzvah of “you shall live by them.” Does that mean that adultery is a more serious sin than eating non-kosher or fasting on Yom Kippur? Seems that way, but in no way does that imply that kosher and Yom Kippur are unimportant. Our sages teach us that when considering a “small mitzvah” we should not focus on the “smallness” of the mitzvah, rather we should focus on the greatness of the Almighty who commanded us to observe it. By performing all the mitzvot, we will be successful in being spiritually well-rounded.
What Training Does A Rabbi Have?
In America today being a rabbi is very different from being a doctor, attorney, or accountant. Doctors, attorneys and accountants each must attend nationally accredited schools and pass state or national tests and certifications. Judaism today does not have a unified standard for accrediting rabbis or rabbinical ordination. In order to appreciate what level of training a Rabbi has it is important to know the seminary he attended as well as the rabbi or group of rabbis that awarded his Rabbinic Ordination.
Our Kollel rabbis attended Rabbinical Seminary of America (RSA) where they graduated from an intense 13 year course of university- and then graduate-level program. RSA is unique in its focus on mussar (ethics and character development) alongside its primary track of Talmudic Law.
What Is Halacha?
Halacha is a term used to describe the entire body of instructions for living and Jewish Law. Halacha teaches us how to properly interface with everything in the Almighty’s creation. I like to think of halacha as what the Almighty would do if he were human.
What Areas Does Halacha Cover?
What to eat and what not to eat. What to wear and what not to wear. How to pray and when to pray. Halacha addresses the most seemingly trivial matters and the most seemingly spiritual matters. Some examples of “seemingly trivial” include which shoe should one put on first and the rules of reciting a special blessing after using the bathroom. Some examples of “seemingly spiritual'' include the rules of fasting on Yom Kippur and blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. It is interesting to note that even the “seemingly spiritual” will have aspects that are seemingly trivial. For example, when blowing the shofar we may use a ram’s horn but not a cows horn. When writing a Torah we must use black ink and not blue ink.
Why Does Halacha Have So Much Detail?
The Torah teaches that nothing is trivial. A quick story might help explain this: I was studying with an architect who was working on a new high-rise building in Manhattan. He told me that he was feeling burnt out while working on what I assumed would be a very exciting project. When I told him I was surprised, he explained that his current role on the project was to decide which door knobs would be going on each of the 1,100 doors. One door at a time. Each had building code, fire code, as well as design considerations. The work was extremely tedious—yet very important if there was ever a fire or any emergency. In a well planned and designed building, no detail is overlooked. The Almighty’s creation is infinitely more complex than a high rise in Manhattan, and there are no random doorknobs in his world. The Almighty was completely intentional in creating the world, and each detail is a key to spiritual growth. Although we may not understand the significance of the many details in mitzvahs, we believe that no detail is “mundane.” Halacha teaches us how to get the maximum spiritual benefit from every piece of creation.
Breaking down a seemingly trivial mitzvah:
Earlier, we mentioned the mitzvah of putting one’s right shoe on first as an example of a seemingly trivial mitzvah. Let’s dig into that a little deeper. A friend told me a story about growing up in the business world as a young investor. After working for the firm for a few months he was called into the boss’s office and was given a strange gift: three pairs of very expensive socks. The boss then explained the gift. He said typically socks are of the first article of clothing that a person puts on and of the last to take off. “These socks” he explained “likely cost more than the suit you are wearing, and I want you to feel like you are worth a million bucks all day.” The boss found a memorable and impactful way of teaching a lesson on creating a positive self image which helped this young man grow into a successful entrepreneur.
In the Torah we find a pattern that right comes before left. There are many reasons for this, but for the sake of illustrating our point let's take one. The Kabbalah teaches us that the right side represents mercy and the left side represents strict justice. By putting the right shoe on first we are creating a daily personal lesson in the importance of focusing on the trait of mercy.
As you progress your learning and mitzvah observance, keep hunting for the meaning and significance—you will be pleasantly surprised and incalculably enriched by what you discover.
What Makes Food Kosher?
The word Kosher means “fit” or “prepared.” In the context of eating it refers to food which is spiritually fit to eat.
A great way to organize the laws of kosher is identifying three categories: Always Kosher. Never Kosher. Requires Kosher Certification.
Raw fruits and vegetables that have not been further processed. (Important note: while the fruits and vegetables themselves are always kosher, some are subject to infestation by insects which need to be removed before eating. You can learn more here http://www.crcweb.org/vegetablepolicyoverview.php)
Insects, shellfish, fish without both fins & scales, certain birds (typically birds of prey), pig or any other animal that is non-ruminant and does not have split hooves.
Requires Kosher Certification
These foods are kosher when produced under proper Kosher guidelines supervised by a Kosher certifying agency. Commercial food production is incredibly complex and often there are processes or non-kosher derivatives or chemicals that must be avoided. My favorite example is ruby-red grapefruit juice. It is typically enhanced by carmine or natural red 4. Sounds harmless! It is actually an extract from the cochineal beetle—most definitely not kosher. The role of kosher supervision is not to make a product kosher, rather it is to certify for consumers that a product is indeed kosher.
There are those who argue that kosher is about eating healthy. For example, they would claim that bacon is prohibited out of fear of trichinosis. This is not a new argument, and in fact is soundly debunked by the Twelfth Century sage Rav Avraham Ibn Ezra. Ibn Ezra points out that there are many non-jews who have never followed the rules of kashrut yet seem to be completely healthy. Fun fact: how many great ancient Greek wrestlers kept kosher kitchens? Ibn Ezra explains that the Torah is identifying that kosher is not more physically healthy, it is more spiritually healthy. The Jewish People are commanded to be and accepted the role of being a “nation of priests and a holy people” (see above, Are Jewish People Chosen?) and that role requires them to hold themselves to a higher spiritual standard. You are what you eat.
What Is The Shema?
If there has been one national anthem of the Jewish people throughout history it is the Shema. The Shema is found in every Jewish prayer book (siddur) as well as in the Torah itself. The first verse (Deuteronomy 6:4) is loosely translated as “Hear, O Israel, G‑d is our L‑rd, G‑d is one.” It is the ultimate proclamation of monotheism. The verses that immediately follow cover many of the basic ideas of Torah Judaism, including primacy of Torah study, teffilin, mezuzah, reward and punishment, and much more. In fact, commentators show that all of the Ten Commandments are alluded to in the Shema.
When Is The Shema Recited?
There is a Torah mitzvah to recite the Shema twice daily, in the morning and in the evening. It is also considered to be a great merit for the Shema be the last words a person utters before they leave this world.
What Is Mussar?
The term “mussar” is of biblical Hebrew origin and can be used to describe “discipline" or “rebuke.” It has become an umbrella term for the study of human nature, psychology, spirituality, and the Torah’s path to personal growth. Mussar teaches us to understand our strengths and frailties and how to harness them for personal Torah growth. The study of mussar is connected to all Torah study and can be used as method to more deeply understand each episode in the Torah narrative as well as to properly observe each mitzvah. As an example of how mussar is connected with understanding mitzvot, the Tenth Commandment in the Ten Commandments is “lo sachmod—thou shall not covet.” How does one observe that commandment? If I feel jealous and desire my neighbor's house or car, how do I restrain that jealousy? The process of understanding our nature towards jealousy as well as the proper antidotes for coveting would fall under mussar.
In addition to the knowledge, there is a second aspect of mussar. By learning, and then reviewing, and then reviewing again, we bridge the long distance between what our heart desires and what our intellect knows is correct.
The “Mussar Movement” was founded by Rav Yisroel Salanter in the 19th Century as an antidote to what Rav Salanter felt was lacking in Torah observant Jewry. Rav Yisroel observed that although mitzvahs like Shabbat and kosher were being scrupulously observed, other mitzvahs such as “loving your neighbor (Leviticus 19:18)” and “walking in the Almighty’s ways (Deuteronomy 28:9)” were being somewhat neglected. He felt that the neglect was not due to an intellectual decision to prioritize other mitzvahs, but simply due to a lack of understanding and appreciation of these mitzvahs. Rav Yisroel taught that through mussar one could properly appreciate and observe these and all the mitzvahs. Rav Yisroel's impact on traditional Jewish thought and observance is felt in almost every institution of higher Jewish education to this day. To learn more about mussar we encourage you to reach out to one any Kollel rabbi and attend one of the many Kollel mussar classes.
Classic mussar texts include The Path Of The Just by Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato and Duties Of The Heart by Rabbeinu Bachya. An example of a book that connects all the mitzvahs to mussar is Sefer Hachinuch.
Why Study Torah?
I like to think that Torah study is the way that a human being can be most like God, or most godly. God is fundamentally good and therefore Torah study is the study of what it means to be good.
Rav Yisroel Salanter explained that there are two primary ways that intensive Torah study impacts a person’s mitzvah observance.
1. Rationally: When you spend time studying a mitzvah more deeply and see its innate truth, beauty, and meaning, you will naturally be more careful about observing that mitzvah.
2. Mystically: Torah is "God's wisdom." When our soul connects with that wisdom through intellectual study, we are spiritually enriched and our observance will be elevated.