Musings

For Those Who Don’t Smell

by R. Gil Student I. No Smell After Shabbos ends, we recite havdalah on wine, a special candle and spices for smelling, each item with its own blessing plus a blessing on separation itself marking the transition from Shabbos to weekday. Technically, if you do not have sufficient flame or spices readily available, you can recite havdalah without them (Shulchan ...

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Do We Say God’s Name Correctly?

by R. Gil Student I. God’s Grammar In the early seventeenth century, scholars who were both grammarians and Kabbalists debated the proper way to pronounce God’s name. The Tetragrammaton (4-letter divine name) is spelled in the Bible but not recited, generally speaking. Instead, we replace that name with the word meaning “master”, commonly pronounced A-do-nai. The disagreement over pronunciation affects ...

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Everyone Needs A Yisro

My comments at my son‘s bar mitzvah party (a few weeks before his actual birthday in the summer): In an easily overlooked passage in Parashas Beha’alosecha, we find a message about the fundamental attitude toward a full Jewish life. In just four verses (Num. 10:29-32), we see Moshe trying to convince his father-in-law, Yisro, to stay with the Jews rather ...

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Is Leisure Kosher?

by R. Gil Student The Jewish attitude to leisure is complex and reveals a fundamental divide over religion. A few years ago, the New York Times reported that a Chasidic camp had ceased sports activities (link). If taken at face value, the article implies that Judaism, or at least the Satmar version, forbids any leisure activity. Is this an accurate ...

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The Heresy of the Ten Commandments

by R. Gil Student I. It’s All Good What is the most important passage in the Torah? The debate over a Shavuos custom teaches that answering this question opens the door to claims that other passages are unimportant. Consider Rambam’s statement in his eighth fundamental principle, based on Sanhedrin (99b), that the entire text of the Pentateuch was written by ...

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Be Normal

by R. Gil Student I. Average Often, we are rightly told to strive for greatness. But that doesn’t mean we have to act like we are better than everyone else. If anything, it means we must strive for normalcy in order to achieve greatness. Rav Ya’akov Kamenetsky used to say that it’s a mitzvah to be normal — of course, ...

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Romantic Robots

by R. Gil Student I. Inhuman Mate Japanese researchers continue making progress in producing lifelike robots that can engage in marital relations. As usual, technology continues to progress without consideration of ethics. From a Torah perspective, there are multiple reasons to oppose the use of these robots. On a marital level, these robots can be seen as spousal betrayal or ...

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The Original Amen Party

by R. Gil Student I. Amen’s Limited Impact In the mid-1500’s, a Rabbi Yisrael in Adrianople initiated a new synagogue practice. On arrival in shul in early morning, a group of men would alternate reciting the morning blessings, the Birkos Ha-Shachar. One man would recite all the blessings while the others answered Amen. Then another man would recite the blessings ...

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Rav Itzeleh Volozhiner and the Bi’ur

Rav Itzeleh (Yitzchak) Volozhiner succeeded his father as rosh yeshiva of the premier yeshiva in Europe. A Torah scholar and famous orator, he also served as a leading representative of the Jews to the Russian Czar. Rav Itzeleh Volozhiner was royalty in the yeshiva world, the son of Rav Chaim Volozhiner with descendants that include the Netziv and the Soloveitchik ...

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Can A Woman Serve As Sandek?

by R. Gil Student The Rema, in his glosses to Shulchan Arukh (Yoreh De’ah 265:11), writes that a woman may not serve as sandek if a man is available for reasons of modesty (“peritzus”). This ruling – which has come under question recently by some in the Jewish community – is related to a larger discussion of the role of women in circumcising boys. I. ...

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