There, or: Here?


  Some day, 
 I'll die, 
and this,

 will be 
my parting kiss
          to those alive, 
        to those not yet,
          to fulfilled hopes,
        to worn regrets;

  and you,
 I think,
will live

 you've yet
so much to give
          to dearest friends,
        to family,
          to unmet dreams,
        to memories


  and then,
 a day
will come -

  your time
 to part
for Where all's from
          to the Unknown
        to Where there is no time,
          no rhyme, 
          no yours and mine,
        to Where all goes, but no one knows
        'til he's arrived


It's all a mess here;
There? Who knows? Where
where can be described in tastes and colors
sensations -
that's not There. Where
where can be conveyed in lines and stanzas
images -
that's not There. Where
where can be perceived by mind and senses
faculties -
that's not There. Where -

Where indeed?  

IV. There once was a great rabbi who taught that the Place can only be described in the negative because He would otherwise be limited. In Jewish tradition, those who are mourning their loved ones are told: May the Place comfort you among the rest of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem –

Where indeed?

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 44


Days before my father’s unveiling, my wife and I were taking our 4-year-old to see her first fireworks display on Yom HaAtzmaut at the Haas Promenade (Tayelet) in Jerusalem; she was skipping with excitement. Thankfully, she had napped that afternoon and could enjoy the late night entertainment. I was also impressed; the fireworks were bursting just overhead, impossibly close to us.

As we walked along the Promenade, we recalled how much my Papa had enjoyed strolling there with his camera equipment, capturing the renowned, panoramic view with his steady hands and patient eyes. Despite the festivities, I was somber, remembering him and contemplating my upcoming trip to New Jersey. It struck me that I should bring a chunk of Jerusalem stone from his beloved Tayelet to lay on Papa’s tombstone.

Pleased with myself, I sent a picture of the stone to my mother, who responded: “Beautiful! Wonderful idea! Bring one for each of you.” The next day, at my wife’s suggestion, we found four additional pieces of Jerusalem stone: a total of three for myself, my wife, and our daughter in Jerusalem, and two more for my mother and brother in America.


Afterwards, my curiosity led me to Rabbi David Golinkin’s (b. 1955) research [link] into the origins of this particular custom, and I learned that its earliest mention in our sources can be found in a halakhic work by Rabbi Shalom Ben Yiẓḥak Of Neustadt (1350-1413):

… they pluck grass from a grave or they take a pebble and put it on the grave, it is because of kevod hamet [respect for the deceased] to show him that he had visited his grave.

The fundamentality of stone challenges my romanticization. It is permanent; solid; simple. Rabbi David Wolpe (b. 1958) writes poignantly [link]:

While flowers may be a good metaphor for the brevity of existence, stones are better suited to the durability of memory. In moments when we are reminded of the fragility of life, Judaism reminds us that there is permanence amid the pain. While other things fade, stones and souls endure.

Now our five Jerusalem stones rest atop the uneven surface of Papa’s tombstone; in my mind’s eye I can see them being blown off in a storm gust, landing at its base along with other memory stones. Mama has told me that the many pebbles she’d laid over the course of this year before the setting of the headstone were left undisturbed by the workmen, out of respect.


* * *

In modern Hebrew, the word for gravestone is matzeivah (מצבה), which harkens back to the Bible. Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein explains [link]:

The common word for a tombstone in spoken Hebrew is a matzeivah (literally, ‘monument’), and, indeed, when Yaakov buried his wife Rachel, the Torah reports that he erected a matzeivah at her grave (Gen. 35:20). Elsewhere (Yechezkel 39:15 and II Kings 23:17), the Bible refers to graves that are marked with a tziyun (‘marker’).

However, these ‘monuments’ and ‘markers’ of the biblical era were not what we think of today as tombstones. Joseph Jacobs (1854-1916) and Isaac Broydé (1867-1922) unpack this in the Jewish Encyclopedia [link]:

The custom of marking a grave by a stone which bore an inscription describing the qualities of the deceased and giving his age and the date of his death was foreign to the ancient Hebrews. Stones were indeed used to mark the sites of graves… but they were not intended as monuments and bore no inscriptions. Even in the geonic period the custom seems to have been unknown to the Jews of the East, and it can not, therefore, have been current in Talmudic times.

So how, then, does rabbinic literature refer to tombstones? I wonder. The answer can be found in the Mishnah. In Tractate Shekalim the rabbis discuss the ancient tax, which went towards the maintenance of the Temple in Jerusalem.

There arises a question: what should be done with funds that one set aside for the Temple, which exceed a half-shekel of silver? On this, Rabbi Nathan the Babylonian gets the final word (Shekalim 2:5):

רבי נתן אומר, בונין לו נפש על גבי קברו Rabbi Nathan says: They [use the extra funds to] place a nefesh over his grave.


It’s true; Maimonides (1135-1204) uses the same terminology in his seminal halakhic opus – the Mishneh Torah (Book of Judges 4:4):

ומציינין את כל בית הקברות ובונין נפש על הקבר והצדיקים אין בונים להם נפש על קברותיהם שדבריהם הם זכרונם ולא יפנה אדם לבקר הקברות … and markings are made on the graves; and a nefesh is placed on the grave; and for the righteous, by contrast, a nefesh is not placed, for their words will cause them to be remembered; a person will not [need to] turn to visit [their] graves.

I am stunned. The word nefesh has come up before in my research (blog #28), but I never expected this. In modern Hebrew, the word nefesh has come to mean soul, and in biblical Hebrew it was “understood in a unitive way as the totality of being – ‘man does not have nefesh, he is nefesh, he lives as nefesh’” (Jewish Views of the Afterlife, p. 54).

… oh.
Perhaps I understand this.

The standard turn of phrase used in shul (shul’ish) when partaking of a kiddush sponsored in memory of somebody’s loved one is (blog #24): ‘L’ilui neshama’ (לעילוי נשמה – for the lifting up of [their] soul). The operative word for ‘soul’ here is neshama, rather than nefesh.

Certainly I’m disinclined towards mysticism, but I recall learning that the Kabbalah distinguishes between five levels of the soul, the most basic and earthly of which is the nefesh. It would seem that tradition is suggesting that this aspect of Papa rests forever in the earthly realm, represented by his tombstone. The mourner’s kaddish, it would seem, is not traditionally recited for the redemption of a parent’s nefesh.

* * *

Following three days of rain, the weather at the unveiling is lovely. The sun is shining; ghost white clouds billow softly on azure. Some twenty of us are gathered below the heavens at Papa’s grave; family and friends have arrived here out of love.

My mother addresses the gathered; she passes out packets containing seven of my father’s photographs (one for each letter of his name), the stanzas of Psalm 119 corresponding to ‘Alexander son of Mosheh – Neshama’ (אלכסנדר בן משה – נשמה), which I’ve studied in memory of Papa (blogs #31 thru #41), and the El Malei Rachamim prayer (blog #43) for my father’s soul.

Self-consciously, I read the 128 verses (16 stanzas) of Psalm 119 from the packet slowly, stumblingly. It takes forever. Hauntingly, my father’s friend Yossi chants El Malei Rachamim. Mama speaks. She reads letters from her sister Dina (in Hebrew) and Papa’s childhood friend Sasha (in Russian). She explains the inscription at the top of the Nefesh:

והנצח זו ירושלים
And the Eternity is Jerusalem

I am moved to provide further context for these words and read aloud the letter that I wrote to my father for his birthday – blog #23 – in which I explored the original source text and parsed the language. Then I share aloud a letter written by my wife for Papa; with a twinge, I feel that the heartfelt words of others are less onerous than my Psalm 119 recitation and blog post(s). Am I making mourning too complicated?

My brother then shares another of his clear-eyed reflections, and I recite the mourner’s kaddish along with Yossi who lost his wife quite recently. We pass little pebbles collected by Mama to each attendee, inviting everyone to place these atop the nefesh. I take to resting our five Jerusalem stones among the pebbles, shifting them around, so as to minimize their wobbling on the rugged surface.

All are invited back to our home for a beautiful meal lovingly prepared by my mother. She really poured her heart into it. She says that my father would have been pleased with the array of dishes set out for our guests, and I agree. On top of my father’s favorite Olivier Salad and countless other dishes, our cousin Lyonya has brought an enormous Napoleon Torte all the way from Boston, loving prepared by his wife Tanya. My father, my brother and I always, always relished Tanya’s Napoleons.

Eventually, the guests begin to say their goodbyes, and everybody disperses. I am left with warm feelings and memories. The event for me was perfect.

* * *

The following day is Thursday, and I join my third Virtual Mourner’s Kaddish (blog #42) conference call, this time led by Naomi from lab/shul. She shares with us a poem written by Jack Gilbert, in which he likens his grief over the death of his wife to the physically trying experience of carrying a heavy box:

Michiko Dead

He manages like somebody carrying a box
that is too heavy, first with his arms
underneath. When their strength gives out,
he moves the hands forward, hooking them
on the corners, pulling the weight against
his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly
when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes
different muscles take over. Afterward,
he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood
drains out of the arm that is stretched up
to steady the box and the arm goes numb. But now
the man can hold underneath again, so that
he can go on without ever putting the box down.

What do you think of his words? She asks. Do you find Gilbert’s simile relatable? Would anybody like to share a reflection?

My mind is still at the unveiling, struggling through the biblical Hebrew of Psalm 119 at Papa’s graveside. I had worked so hard to prepare for that reading, delving week after week into the verses and commentaries, searching for myself and my Papa in its words, pushing to find personal relevance and meaning in a tradition that I would otherwise have found meaningless. I remember my relief upon completing my analysis (blog #41); I’m done with 119, I’d thought.

I’d tired of carrying 119 all those weeks, and so I’d shifted, “pulling the weight against my chest” in that sunlight; but this too proved to be both relief and burden.

I realize that I will carry this forever.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 43

Given my dazedness and state of shock last July, I had no preconceived assumptions nor expectations of my sudden, unanticipated status as a mourner. Then, abruptly, in the middle of Papa’s funeral, I found myself stung sharply with tenderness towards the friends and family who had been closest to him.

Papa lived a rather solitary life due to his hearing impairment (blog #19), but he resided in proximity to several friends and would go out with each of them every month or so; he used to mention his lunch dates to me with fondness. While sitting shiva, I recall being particularly moved to learn that one friend had always brought a notebook and pen whenever getting together with Papa- that way they could be sure to understand one another over the restaurant din.

30 days after the burial, when I was back in Jerusalem, another of Papa’s friends was moved to read those stanzas of Psalm 119 corresponding to my father’s name (אלכסנדר) at his graveside. I hadn’t yet learned then of this tradition, but now, as ‘Daddy Pig’ would say, “I’m an expert at 119.”

With the unveiling soon upon us, that same friend was kind enough to check in with me regarding my thoughts on what prayers and Psalms I might like to recite at Papa’s grave. In addition to Psalm 119, we both naturally thought of El Malei Rachamim (EMR), the traditional Jewish prayer for the soul of the departed. It is among the many Jewish mourning traditions that I have discovered this year.

At some point after my return to Israel from the shiva, the gabbai of my regular minyan asked me if I would like to have EMR recited at the synagogue to mark the first 30 days of mourning. At that time, I was battling back feelings of frustration and resentment towards shul norms and shook my head ‘no’ immediately, even grimacing involuntarily, which I immediately regretted. I didn’t know what EMR entailed, other than standing in front of the congregation while holding a Torah scroll, but I knew that my comfort zone did not extend much beyond the back wall of the synagogue.

Since my reluctant return to shul this year for kaddish, I’ve taken in many EMR recitations, which take place during public Torah reading days: Mondays, Thursdays, Saturdays. In fact, my observations led me to make a false assumption (one in a line of many*): Since Torah readings are only held at shul in the presence of a minyan, I assumed that one could only recite EMR with a prayer quorum.

In any case, this isn’t true.

Unlike the recitation of kaddish, EMR does not require the presence of a minyan, and it is often intoned by solitary Jews at their loved ones’ gravesites. I won’t be on my own at Papa’s unveiling, but I could recite it even if I were.

*A tangent:
One of the reasons that I feel myself a perennial outsider in the Orthodox community is that my discovery of Jewish religious rituals is simply endless (and I’ve been at this for upwards of two decades). Untold numbers of traditions remain unfamiliar to me, including some that I’ve seen practiced countless times and assume I know.
An example: based upon years of observing Orthodox social norms, I had once assumed that only men may recite kiddush on Shabbat for their families. Imagine my shock when I began to delve into the halakha and learned that women can recite kiddush for men as well! 
(Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 271:2)

* * *

It doesn’t take much to pique my curiosity these days. What can we find out about El Malei Rachamim (EMR)?

The Hebrew volume Sefer Kol Bo al Aveilus (‘The Book Containing Everything on Mourning’) was written by Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Greenwald (1889–1955). Regarding EMR Greenwald makes the following observation (p. 211):

תפלת אל מלא רחמים. תפלה זו שנשפשטה מאד בחוגי ישראל לכל המינים, לא נודע מתי נתחברה… ״אל מלא רחמים״ לא נזכרה בשום ספר בספרי ראשונים… הראשון שמזכירה בשם ״אל מלא רחמים״ הוא המחבר מעבר יבק The prayer of EMR. This prayer -which has become very normative in Jewish circles of all kinds- it is not known when it became part of [Jewish tradition]… “EMR” is not mentioned in any book of the books of the Rishonim (the rabbinic leadership of the ~11th to ~15th centuries)… The first to mention it by the name “EMR” is the author of ‘Ma’abar Yabboḳ’ (Rabbi Aaron Berechiah of Modena).

Rabbi Aaron Berechiah of Modena died in 1639; and his Ma’abar Yabboḳ was published in 1626. We may assume, then, that the recitation of EMR only became popularly accepted in the 16th century, which is later than the origins of our mourner’s kaddish tradition. As I recall, the earliest text to mention the mourner’s kaddish is the Maḥzor Vitry, which was published in the twelfth century (blog #24). That was some four centuries before EMR was even a twinkle in the rabbis’ eyes.

In Dr. Ronald Eisenberg’s ‘Jewish Traditions: JPS Guide’, he explains the timing of this development (p. 87):

The prayer originated in the Jewish communities of Western and Eastern Europe, where it was recited for the martyrs of the Crusades and of the Chmielnicki massacres.


* * *

Historical developments in Jewish mourning practices such as El Malei Rachamim (EMR) were signs of the ongoing democratization of Judaism, which, according to Rabbi A. J. Heschel (1907-1972), began in the twelfth century, when the mourner’s kaddish tradition originated (see: blog #29).

It’s really quite fascinating. Consider that while we most often think of the mourner’s kaddish as the Jewish prayer for the dead, it actually makes no mention of death whatsoever. Clearly, the Jewish community needed something more explicit:

El Malei Rachamim

אֵל מָלֵא רַחֲמִים, שׁוֹכֵן בַּמְּרוֹמִים God, full of mercy, who dwells in the heights,
הַמְצֵא מְנוּחָה נְכוֹנָה, עַל כַּנְפֵי הַשְּׁכִינָה provide a true rest on the Divine Presence’s wings,
בְּמַעֲלוֹת קְדוֹשִׁים וּטְהוֹרִים, כְּזוֹהַר הָרָקִיעַ מַזְהִירִים in the holy and pure heights, like the brilliance of the sky do they radiate,
אֶת נִשְׁמַת אלכסנדר בן משה שֶׁהָלַךְ לְעוֹלָמוֹ, בַּעֲבוּר שֶׁנָּדְבוּ צְדָקָה בְּעַד הַזְכָּרַת נִשְׁמָתוֹ on behalf of the soul of Alexander son of Mosheh who left for His world, charity was given in memory of his soul.
בְּגַן עֵדֶן תְּהֵא מְנוּחָתו the Garden of Eden shall be his rest
לָכֵן בַּעַל הָרַחֲמִים יַסְתִּירֵהוּ בְּסֵתֶר כְּנָפָיו לְעוֹלָמִים Therefore, the Master of Mercy will hide him forever, in the hiding of his wings,
וְיִצְרֹר בִּצְרוֹר הַחַיִּים אֶת נִשְׁמָתוֹ and will bind his soul in the bond of life.
יְיָ הוּא נַחֲלָתוֹ God is his inheritance,
וְיָנוּחַ בְּשָׁלוֹם עַל מִשְׁכָּבוֹ, וְנֹאמַר אָמֵן and he shall rest peacefully upon his lying place, and let us say: Amen.

Such beautiful imagery; and I know just the right charity to donate to in memory of Papa’s soul.

* * *

Now that I’ve read through and translated the full prayer, I recall that Dr. Eisenberg highlights an evocative textual nuance (ibid.):

El Maleh Rahamim includes the phrase on the wings of the Divine Presence,’ rather than the more common under the wings of the Divine Presence.’

The latter phrase implies heavenly protection from danger by using the analogy of a bird spreading its protective wings over its young. The analogy is reversed when speaking of spiritual elevation–God’s presence is compared to a soaring eagle that puts its young on top of its wings and carries them aloft.

There’s much more to this. In the 17th volume of the Ḥakirah Journal, a journal of Jewish law and thoughtRabbi Yaakov Jaffe has an article titled “Upon the Wings of Eagles” and “Under the Wings of the Shekhinah”: Poetry, Conversion and the Memorial Prayer, in which he makes this point (pp. 195-6):

There are numerous scriptural passages that… convey the poetic image of being ‘under the wings’ of a stronger and more powerful Divine Being in the context of protection from danger. Psalm 17:8… ‘Hide me away in the shadow of Your wings’ … Psalm 61:4-5 conveys similar sentiments: ‘… I will be covered by being hidden by Your wings, selah.’ Other Psalms also speak about refuge, shelter, or concealment under God’s wings in difficult times… In contrast, there are no scriptural precedents for the image of being upon the wings of the Deity per se.

According to Rabbi Jaffe’s article, it’s not only that scripture doesn’t provide a basis for the imagery of “being on the wings (כנפיים – knafaim) of God”. In the 43rd chapter of his seminal Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides (1135-1204) comes down hard on the implication of God’s “wings” in Scripture (Jaffe, p. 200):

According to Maimonides, whenever the word ‘wing’ is used in reference to the Deity, it must be translated as ‘that which conceals’ or ‘that which covers.’ … Maimonides here indicates that the very translation of the word kanaf is ‘tool of covering or concealment.’ …

Despite all of this, Jaffe notes (p. 192-4) that:

Increasingly, [Modern Orthodox] congregations in the United States have begun turning to the text ‘al kanfei ha-Shekhinah’ … The dominance of this version in modern siddurim and modern communities is particularly striking in light of the practice of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik to use the ‘taḥat kanfei ha-Shekhinah’ formula. Soloveitchik, the leader of Modern Orthodox American Jewry for decades, preferred one version, although today, increasingly, congregations and prayer books that purport to represent the Modern Orthodox ideology prefer the other version.

Jaffe explains that the original shift from ‘under’ (תחת – taḥat) to ‘on’ (על – al) is attributed to the mystic Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (1555-1630), and made its way into the Zohar, the foundational work of Jewish mystical thought: Kabbalah. This is intriguing on its own merits, but also: did Modern Orthodoxy start slipping towards mysticism in the mid-20th century, or do people simply find the imagery of “true rest on the Divine Presence’s wings” more compelling? I’d wager that it’s the latter.

* * *

The very notion of God hiding my father’s soul under his protective metaphorical wings leaves me cold. Firstly, I don’t believe in postmortem metaphysical punishment in the slightest (ask: what would God be protecting Papa’s soul from?). Secondly, as regards Papa in particular:

This is unrelatable. My father was an incredibly kind and unassuming man, and the person he most hurt was himself. I am certain that my father punished himself more than enough during his lifetime.

– me, blog #11

In fact, Papa, strong and courageous spirit that he was, was much more a protector than one who sought protection from others. When I was born during a wet Jerusalem winter and it came time to bring me home from Hadassah Hospital, my father, anxious at the fragility and vulnerability of the tiny bundle that had been entrusted to him, cradled his newborn son in his arms and ran to the dormitory, shielding me from the rain with his broad, muscular torso. This was quintessentially Papa.

When he did need saving, it was always Papa’s boldness and boundless curiosity that got him into trouble. Whether it was getting stung by a rockfish while diving off the coast of Sharm El Sheikh or one of his misadventures in alpinism in the USSR, his eagerness and sense of adventure were most to blame.

In my mind’s eye, I envisage my father soaring ever higher on his new adventure, one from which he needs no saving. If Papa could soar upon God’s wings and come back to tell us of it, the photographs he surely would have taken would be absolutely epic.

Photo by Alexander Bogomolny z”l, 2016: Agamon HaHula, Israel


The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 34

Spring has arrived, as my allergies attest, but the last few weeks of Winter in Israel were cold and rainy. The season did not go quietly, but idiosyncratic as I am, I wore my waterproof Source sandals despite the weather – even when schlepping to shul through rain torrents in trench coat and rain pants.

At one point, the gabbai (beadle) came up to me and said, “You look like a Franciscan monk in black with those sandals and trench coat.”

Amused, I quipped, “Perhaps that’s why I’m so uncomfortable at services.”

* * *

My blogging makes shul-going more tolerable. Herein, I don’t pretend. My doubts, my discomforts, my misgivings – these are all part of my process and identity no less than my daily kaddish recitations. I am grieving traditionally and also honestly.

* * *

As the seasons change, more mourners complete their years of kaddish. The gentleman who had been most regularly leading shacharit (morning) services at Kehillat Yedidya completed his journey more than a week ago. I’ve led shacharit several times since, but not on Mondays or Thursdays – those are Torah reading days, when the service is longer and beyond the cusp of my spiritual comfort zone.

There are two other male regulars reciting kaddish. One of them shows up every day; the other shows up fairly often. I’ve noticed that the first is never interested in leading services, and the other noted to me last week that it’s not a requisite – he doesn’t want to lead either. Despite having learned that it’s not obligatory, I’ve unexpectedly come to prefer that a mourner lead the prayers so that he might recite the half kaddishes and full kaddish, which are not exclusive to mourners. After all, these do hold special significance for those who live from kaddish to kaddish.

Nonetheless, I strongly empathize with my two fellow petitioners – I prefer to stand at the back by myself and daven at my own pace. It’s actually liberating to be one of several mourners who aren’t leading services – I’m not alone in avoiding the limelight.

For now, I’ll maintain my new balance: I will lead shacharit on Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays when Torah is not read, assuming that no other mourner takes the initiative.

* * *

As for my ‘Skeptic’s kaddish’ series, I’ve recently settled into posting new entries once a week. Not a day goes by, however, that my writing doesn’t occupy me.

As I study the stanzas of Psalm 119 corresponding to the letters of my father’s name, I am simultaneously vitalized by the creative process of engagement with the text and challenged by the Psalmist’s traditional faith language.

This week, I turn to stanza ס (samech), the fourth letter of Papa’s name. The Artscroll Book of Psalms (published just last year!) provides the following tasty tidbit:

The letter ס, samach, literally means support; i.e., Hashem [God] supports all those who rely on Him. The very shape of this letter, which is in the form of a circle, represents protection and support from all sides… When a person is resolute in his faith and recognizes God’s Presence everywhere, he is protected from all sides. The wicked who are oblivious to God are סעפים (seiafim), irresolute, and do not merit Divine Protection.

I respond to this below.

* * *

















PSALM 119:ס (verses 113-120)

[CLICK for glossary]

קיג סֵעֲפִים שָׂנֵאתִי; וְתוֹרָתְךָ אָהָבְתִּי 113 I hate them that are of multiple thoughts; but Thy Torah do I love.
קיד סִתְרִי וּמָגִנִּי אָתָּה; לִדְבָרְךָ יִחָלְתִּי 114 Thou art my cover and my shield; in Thy dvar do I hope.
קטו סוּרוּ-מִמֶּנִּי מְרֵעִים; וְאֶצְּרָה, מִצְוֺת אֱלֹהָי 115 Depart from me, ye evildoers; and I may keep the mitzvot of my God.
קטז סָמְכֵנִי כְאִמְרָתְךָ וְאֶחְיֶה; וְאַל-תְּבִישֵׁנִי, מִשִּׂבְרִי 116 Support me according unto Thy amirah, and I may live; and put me not to shame in my hope.
קיז סְעָדֵנִי וְאִוָּשֵׁעָה; וְאֶשְׁעָה בְחֻקֶּיךָ תָמִיד 117 Care Thou for me, and I shall be saved; and I will occupy myself with Thy hukim always.
קיח סָלִיתָ, כָּל-שׁוֹגִים מֵחֻקֶּיךָ: כִּי-שֶׁקֶר, תַּרְמִיתָם 118 Thou trampled all who stray from Thy hukim; for their deceit is false.
קיט סִגִים–הִשְׁבַּתָּ כָל-רִשְׁעֵי-אָרֶץ; לָכֵן, אָהַבְתִּי עֵדֹתֶיךָ 119 Thou removed all the wicked of the earth like dross; therefore I love Thy eidot.
קכ סָמַר מִפַּחְדְּךָ בְשָׂרִי; וּמִמִּשְׁפָּטֶיךָ יָרֵאתִי 120 My flesh stiffens for fear of Thee; and I fear Thy mishpatim.

* * *

I see a juxtaposition between the first two verses (113-114) of stanza ס and its last two verses (119-120). The word אָהָבְתִּי (ahavti), which means ‘I love’ occurs in both 113 and 119.

In the first instance, the Psalmist expresses love for God’s Torah, whereas the second use of ‘I love’ is in relation to God’s eidot. In the first instance, the Psalmist describes God as his ‘shield’ (verse 114), hoping for God’s dvar, whereas at the end of the stanza (verse 120) we find his very flesh stiffening in dread of God and his mishpatim.

Let us make use of the glossary that Radak (1160–1235) provides for greater clarity:

In verses 113-114, the Psalmist expresses love for God’s Torah, referring to the details of how God’s commandments are to be carried out. This is followed by an acknowledgement of God’s protection and an expression of hope for God’s dvar, which refers to God’s promise.

In verses 119-120, the Psalmist expresses his love for God’s eidot, which are commandments that testify to God’s supremacy and the revelation of Torah (in the general sense). This is followed by his fear of God and His mishpatim, which Radak understands as the the Divine laws that govern human interactions.

The first love is a love for the intricacies of God’s Law, which traditionally religious Jews face every day. This love of the commitment to Divine strictures leads the Psalmist to feel protected and to hope for the fulfillment of God’s promise. I’ve been there; an intensive focus on the subtleties of our own behaviors may create a sense of control in an otherwise chaotic reality.

The second love is a love for the collective Jewish memory, enshrined in our tradition, testifying to God’s sovereignty. Today this is unimaginable, and it would overwhelm humankind if realized. How would we live if we actually experienced God’s dominion? Such an awareness leads the Psalmist to fear God. The Almighty rules, aware of every action, and so the Psalmist is most concerned with the mishpatim – the Divine Laws governing his interactions with other human beings. (I’d like to think that God cares most about these.)

* * *

There is more to the story. What leads the Psalmist to love God’s eidot?

119 Thou removed all the wicked of the earth like dross; therefore I love Thy eidot.

According to the Psalmist, God has taken tangible action against the wicked – He has “removed” them. This is something that flies in the face of my life experience, but it is the Psalmist’s context. For him, it is true. Certainly, if God were to “remove” the wicked I too would likely love and fear Him.

On the other hand, what is the context for the Psalmist’s love for God’s Torah?

113 I hate them that are of multiple thoughts; but Thy Torah do I love.

Those hated by the Psalmist are the סעפים (seiafim), the “irresolute”, which the Artscroll Book of Psalms describes as “wicked”.

As always, there is Rashi (1040-1105):

סעיפים שנאתי. חושבי מחשבות און, כמו ׳לכן שעפי ישיבוני׳ (איוב כ:ב), ׳על שתי הסעפים׳ (מלכים-א יח:כא) I hate סעפים: Those who think thoughts of iniquity, like (Job 20:2): “Therefore, my thoughts (סעפי) answer me” [and] (I Kings 18:21): “between two ideas (הסעפים).”

Rashi has made things worse for me.
I must take issue with the Psalmist and the rabbi both.

* * *

Where to begin?

First of all, according to the BDB Dictionary, the root ס-ע-פ has *nothing* to do with iniquity. It can refer to any of the following concepts: “cleave, divide; cleft; branches; divided, half-hearted, divided opinion”. In Biblical Hebrew, the singular סָעֵף (sa’eif) is simply: “a thought”.

In fact, neither of Rashi’s examples support the case for reading ‘iniquity’ into verse 113. The verse in the Book of Job is neutral: ‘Therefore do my thoughts answer me’ (Job 20:2). Verse 18:21 in the first book of Kings comes closer, but Rashi’s comparison still falls short:

כא וַיִּגַּשׁ אֵלִיָּהוּ אֶל-כָּל-הָעָם, וַיֹּאמֶר עַד-מָתַי אַתֶּם פֹּסְחִים עַל-שְׁתֵּי הַסְּעִפִּים–אִם-יְהוָה הָאֱלֹהִים לְכוּ אַחֲרָיו, וְאִם-הַבַּעַל לְכוּ אַחֲרָיו; וְלֹא-עָנוּ הָעָם אֹתוֹ, דָּבָר 21 And Elijah came near unto all the people, and said: ‘How long limp ye between two thoughts? If A) the Lord be God, follow Him; but if B) Baal, follow him.’ And the people answered him not a word.

Here, the people’s סְּעִפִּים (thoughts) can be faithful to either A) God or B) Baal. The people have agency of choice; their thoughts are not inherently iniquitous! 


What else does the Psalmist attribute to the “wicked”?

118 Thou trampled all who stray from Thy hukim; for their deceit is false.

The word שׁוֹגִים – shogim (those who stray) has the root ש-ג-ג, as Rabbi David Altschuler (1687-1769) explicitly underscores in his ‘Metzudat Zion’ commentary: שׁוֹגִים is “מלשון שגגה”. 

Back to the BDB Dictionary: what can this root mean? The possibilities include: “go astray; commit sin or error; sin ignorantly, inadvertently; sin of error.” This root clearly connotes ‘error’; the Talmudic term שוגג (shogeg) refers specifically to one who commits a sin by accident, as opposed to one who does so deliberately. Of all the ways in which one might transgress God’s law, this is the most innocent.

And… which category of Divine commandments are these “wicked” people inadvertently breaking? The hukim! These, as we know from Radak’s glossary for Psalm 119, are the mitzvot whose reasons have not been revealed – the most impenetrable of all of God’s commandments!

It would seem that the Psalmist hates those who have multiple, potentially conflicting thoughts and believes that God actively punishes those who accidentally break His most inscrutable demands.

I cannot recite these words and mean them.

* * *

It was not my intention to pick fights with Rashi and the Psalmist, but what am I to do? Perhaps I would be less frustrated with the thrust of stanza ס if this strain of judgmentalism were only a biblical phenomenon.

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983), the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, validates my sentiment in his book Basic Values in Jewish Religion, which includes a chapter on ‘Creative Doubt’. He writes (pp. 96-98):

The attitude of traditional religion towards those who doubt its tenets has been one of unqualified condemnation…

[However,] our Bible is not lacking in expressions of religious doubt… Notable is the fact that the Torah pictures Abraham, who is always taken as the exemplar of religious faith, whose faith, tested by ten trials, withstood them all, as nevertheless questioning the justice of God…

[Abraham’s] doubt wrings from him an exclamation of horror, but he expresses it interrogatively… His was ‘a faith that inquires’…

There is… a doubt that is an inseparable accompaniment of religious faith… [There is] a constructive doubt arising from the eternal refusal of the human spirit to acquiesce in evil.

It would be absurd for me to post Rabbi Kaplan’s chapter on ‘Creative Doubt’ in its entirety, but it’s tempting. Truer words have never been written.

* * *

Going back to Rashi, the great rabbi makes one subsequent point in his commentary on verse 113 (continued from above):

כשאתה קורא סְעִפִים הוא שם המחשבה, וכשאתה קורא סֵעֲפִים נופל הלשון על החושבים אותה When you read סְעִפִים (se’ifim), it concerns the thought, but when you read סֵעֲפִים (seiafim), the language refers to those who think it.

In other words, according to the language of the Bible, which does not include any vowels, the Psalmist may not hate anyone at all – he might find hateful only those *thoughts* that challenge the Torah’s veracity.

The rabbi is making a deliberate interpretive choice here, and let’s not forget the two biblical examples of סעיפים, which Rashi cites himself: Job 20:2 and I Kings 18:21. Both examples are referring *only* to people’s thoughts, rather than to those who think them.

I think this is a crucial distinction because the Psalmist is writing about *hate*.

‘Hate’ is a strong word.

* * *

As often happens, my learning brings me back to memories of Papa.

My father was a man of deeply rooted morality and intensely firm convictions, he was incredibly passionate and at times even fiery in debate, but he never harbored hate for any person. Certainly, he had disdain for particular ideas and schools of thought, but he would engage with those that he disagreed with – because ideas mattered to him.

Furthermore, Papa was genuinely curious to understand the people he differed with. I remember him proactively engaging ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem with questions while they were protesting against traffic on the Sabbath, querying animal rights activists in Tel Aviv as they campaigned for veganism, and sincerely wondering aloud at how otherwise intelligent family members could vote for the Labor party. He didn’t hate people for thinking differently than him; he simply found it perplexing.

The Psalmist felt threatened by complexity.
My father, confident in his morals and reasoning, wished to understand.

Papa would certainly have agreed with Maimonides (1135-1204) in his foreword to his ‘Eight Chapters On Ethics’:

One should accept the truth from whatever source it comes.


The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 20

I heard something beautiful this week.

Two of the regulars at my morning minyan completed their eleven months of kaddish, just days apart, each reciting a prayer written by Jerusalem’s esteemed Rabbi Benny Lau (b. 1961) in memory of his own father. The first petitioner read softly through barely stifled sobs, but I managed to catch the words two days later during the second mourner’s recitation and then found the text online:

אבינו שבשמים
זכיתי להשלים אמירת קדיש לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי, מאז עלייתו לגנזי מרומים ועד עתה
השתדלתי לכבד את אבי בשנה זו בכל כוחי ובכל מאודי
ועתה אני עומד לפניך נרגש ואומר: עשיתי ככל אשר ציוותנו
כעת הזאת, בעומדי לפניך בזמן מנחה
אשא תחינה לפני כסא כבודך שיעלו כל תפילותיי לפניך לרצון
ותיטיב לאבי, הריני כפרת משכבו, את מקומו בעולם שכולו טוב
בקרב כל הברואים שהאירו את פניך בעולמך

לָכֵן בַּעַל הָרַחֲמִים
יַסְתִּירֵהוּ בְּסֵתֶר כְּנָפָיו לְעוֹלָמִים
וְיִצְרֹר בִּצְרוֹר הַחַיִּים אֶת נִשְׁמָתוֹ
ה’ הוּא נַחֲלָתוֹ
וְיָנוּחַ בְּשָׁלוֹם עַל מִשְׁכָּבוֹ, וְנֹאמַר אָמֵן

I also took the liberty of translating it:

Our Heavenly Father,
I was privileged to complete the recitation of Kaddish for the raising up of the soul of my father, my teacher, from his rising to the troves of the highest heavens until this moment.
I strove to honor my father this year with all my strength and all my might.
Now I stand before You emotionally and say: I have done as You commanded us.
At this moment, standing before You at mincha time,
I shall raise a plea before Your throne of glory, that all my prayers shall be brought before You and are acceptable to You for the good of my father, for I am the atonement for his resting-place, his place in a world that is all good,
Among all the creatures who illuminated Your face in Your world.

Therefore, may the All-Merciful One
Shelter him with the cover of His wings forever,
And bind his soul in the bond of life.
God is his heritage;
May he rest in his resting-place in peace; and let us say: Amen.

One’s kaddish journey must necessarily end. Inspired by Rabbi Lau, a tentative, personal prayer has cautiously started taking shape in my mind… perhaps I would recite some of it in Russian or English.

* * *

The final essay in Kaddish: Women’s Voices is titled ‘Ten Plus One, Two, Three…’ by Chana Reifman Zweiter who describes reciting kaddish for her father only three months after her final kaddish for her mother. At shul, I’ve met others who have recited kaddish almost consecutively for two or even three years… an endless, aching blur of grief.

The traditional Jewish mourning process has a designated end, and mourning must be kept in proportion; on these matters, Maimonides’ (1135-1204) Mishneh Torah is clear (Book of Judges, The Laws of Mourning 13:10-11):

אין מספידין יתר על שנים עשר חדש We do not eulogize for more than twelve months.
אל יתקשה אדם על מתו יתר מדאי שנאמר אל תבכו למת ואל תנודו לו כלומר יתר מדאי שזהו מנהגו של עולם A person should not become excessively broken hearted because of a person’s death, as Jeremiah 22:10 states: “Do not weep for a dead man and do not shake your head because of him.” That means not to weep excessively. For death is the way of the world.


I fear the end of this year, but
I can’t keep this up forever.

* * *

Anyway, Zweiter alludes to a Mishnah in her essay, which now springs out in my mind (Brachot 4:4):

רבי אליעזר אומר, העושה תפילתו קבע, אין תפילתו תחנונים Rabbi Eliezer says: If a man makes his prayers keva, it is not a [genuine] supplication.


One of the classic dichotomies occupying Jewish educators the world over is the tension between keva-קבע (fixed religious requirements) and kavanah-כוונה (intention). I posit that if not for our People’s ages-old commitment to our Law (keva), no Jewish educators would be around for such a conversation. Yet it remains that I and countless others chafe at arbitrary and anachronistic restrictions and commandments, which are meaningless at their best and immoral at their worst. Ancient keva needs relevant, modern kavanah. The issue cannot be ignored, lest you lose us.

The Talmud, of course, seeks to understand the Mishnah’s use of the term keva. The rabbis do tend to aim for precision (Brachot 29b):

מאי קבע? א”ר יעקב בר אידי אמר רבי אושעיא כל שתפלתו דומה עליו כמשוי ורבנן אמרי כל מי שאינו אומרה בלשון תחנונים רבה ורב יוסף דאמרי תרוייהו כל שאינו יכול לחדש בה דבר What is meant by keva? — R. Jacob b. Idi said in the name of R. Oshaiah: Anyone whose prayer is like a heavy burden on him. The Rabbis say: Whoever is not able to say it in the manner of supplication. Rabbah and R. Joseph both say: Whoever is not able to insert something fresh in it.


Indeed, what do we mean by keva? As we see above, the Talmud presents us with three possibilities, and Rashi’s (1040-1105) dependable commentary awaits us on inner edge of the Talmud:

כמשוי. והיינו לשון קבע חוק קבוע הוא עלי להתפלל וצריך אני לצאת ידי חובתי 1 Like a heavy burden. And this is the language of “fixedness.” There is a “fixed” law upon me to pray. And I must fulfill my obligation.
מי שאינו יכול. לכוין לבו לשאול צרכיו 2 Whoever is not able to. To direct his heart to ask for his needs.
לחדש בה דבר. בבקשתו והיינו לשון קבע כיום כן אתמול כן מחר 3 Insert something fresh in it – in his request. And this is the language of “fixedness” – as today is, so was yesterday, so will be tomorrow.


These reflect three successive spiritual challenges on my journey [this year]:

  1. If prayer is but a heavy, fixed burden, the weight of endless, repetitive meaninglessness will suffocate my will. My resentment and sense of estrangement from tradition will render the kaddish journey intolerable. The aspiration: measured doses of keva; a balance between regular daily recitations and room for breath and thought.
  2. If I am unable to find and express myself in [any of] the prayers, I am reduced to the function of a cog in the machinery of Jewish tradition. The aspiration: understand myself; relate to [some of] the prayers; weave self and prayer together in my heart.
  3. If my kaddish journey is not dynamically self-aware, if my daily words are never my own, then this is not truly my process. The well-intentioned life of pure keva ultimately remains one of alienation from the self. I am a Jew; it’s true, but I am also this Jew (just as my father was).

* * *

Often, my father and I did not communicate well. He would accuse me of nitpicking at his words and missing his broader points, and I would accuse him of the same. Once, in a pleasant mood, I told him that I was content with my life and received a lecture on lacking for ambition. “You’re content? That is worrying. You shouldn’t be content – you should always be striving for something.”

Is peace an appropriate ambition for the soul? Peace can be a means or an end, a condition of activity or a condition of stillness. If peace is a means, then it is desirable so that the soul can work freely, without interference, and expend its energies only on what is significant to itself; but then the soul is not peaceful, the soul bustles and strains. Such peace is an external peace. But dare one aspire also to an internal peace, to peace as an end, to a peaceful soul? Or is the end of activity also the end of meaning?

– Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 318

I’ve caught myself on the thought recently that kaddish is not a peaceful process. My soul is not content; my mind is perpetually occupied, straining for understanding. I cull stories of my father from relatives, sifting through my memories, putting them to word and context. An “advantage” of dying before your time: people yet live who remember you.

At the recommendation of a dear cousin, I have reached out to my father’s close friend from his youth who lives still in Moscow. His name is also Alexander, but he goes by Sasha, rather than Shurik (like my father). Hopefully, we will speak soon. Once again, I’m thankful to be fluent in Russian.

* * *

A Loose End
(a tangent)

I found a quote (while reading in shul this morning) from Rabbi Soloveitchik (1903-1993), which I would have liked to include in blog post #18:

[Halakhic man’s] approach begins with an ideal construction and finishes with a real one. To whom may he be compared? – To a mathematician who fashions an ideal world and then uses it in order to establish a relation between it and the real world… There is no phenomenon, being or creature to which the a priori Halakhah does not truly apply its ideal standard.

– “Ish HaHalakhah,” Talpiot 1, no. 3-4 (1944): 665.


Yevgenia Baron Probst

She was born with a congenital heart defect, which has always impacted the quality of her life. Last Sunday, a week ago, I was not entirely surprised to learn that she had been hospitalized.

Yevgenia inspires me to believe that we can all achieve more than we may believe possible if only we push ourselves to succeed and live our lives to the fullest. She has certainly done so herself.

Traditional Jews use the term hashkafa to refer to their religious worldviews, and many are  particularly committed to their own. The root of this word in Hebrew is ‘ש-ק-פ’, which means ‘to reflect’, as every hashkafa is essentially a reflection of Torah tradition – a lens through which we interpret our daily existence. Our hashkafot (pl.) guide us in making mundane decisions, as well as in forming our loftier ‘big picture’ understandings of life, the universe, and everything.

Not so long ago, a fellow guest at a friend’s Shabbat table voiced the idea that the Jews of Israel have a responsibility to begin building the Third Temple in Jerusalem today. I balked at this, immediately cringing at the idea of instigating a conflict with the Islamic Waqf that manages the Temple Mount, but had to acknowledge that his view was well within our shared tradition – in MaimonidesMishneh Torah, Sefer Avodah, Hilchot Beit Habechira 1:1 he explicitly wrote the following:

הלכה א: צות עשה לעשות בית ליי’ מוכן להיות מקריבים בו הקרבנות, וחוגגין אליו שלש פעמים בשנה שנאמר ועשו לי מקדש, וגו’. Halacha 1: It is a positive commandment to construct a House for God, prepared for sacrifices to be offered within. We [must] celebrate there three times a year, as [Exodus 25:8] states: “And you shall make Me a sanctuary” …

In contrast, in Rashi‘s commentary on the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashana 30a, he arrived at the following conclusion:

…הני מילי בנין בידי אדם, אבל בנין העתיד לבא – בידי שמים הוא. … These words [relate to] the Building (Temple) [built by] the hands of man, but the Building (Temple) of the future to come – [will be built] by the hands of Heaven.

In this discussion, my inclination is to favor Rashi, but reflecting upon these texts with my friend Yevgenia in mind has led me down a somewhat different trail of thought.

One could study the contexts & underlying reasons for Rambam’s and Rashi’s rulings on this issue (Rambam reflecting a rational, grounded approach, and Rashi representing a more G!d oriented, mystical perspective). Still, it strikes me that neither hashkafa is necessarily most appropriate in every context.

Some Jews in Israel believe that army service and other human contributions to our society are unnecessary, as all works out according to G!d’s will. Some others believe that it is incumbent upon them to settle the West Bank, in order to fulfill the Jewish nation’s destiny in the Land of Israel. Both approaches are supported by traditional Jewish texts – is either necessarily the most appropriate today?

My friend Yevgenia is a lovely, brilliant, warm and compassionate person whose dreams have sometimes bumped up against limitations that most of us have never had to contend with. On one hand, her talents and passion drive her aspirations; on the other, her choices are grounded by circumstances beyond human control. Life requires a dynamic, engaged approach – different hashkafot are appropriate for different situations.

Still, the truly beautiful thing about this conversation between Rambam and Rashi (and others) is that neither great rabbi doubted the coming of the Mashiach (Messiah) – neither doubted the eventual construction of the Third Temple. So too, Y’s optimistic attitude glows about her, and her loving, happy smile is simply uplifting. Her hashkafa navigates among the diverging and converging words of our heritage, ever faithful to G!d, living and loving life to the fullest.

For this, I love her.