Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Rabbi Moshe Capsali 1420-1495

Rabbi Capsali was born in the Island of Crete (today Greece) in 1420.  Not much is known about his early life, except that he went to study Tora in Germany, became a rabbi and then in 1450 he settled in Constantinople (modern day, Istanbul). 

Rabbi Capsali became very prominent thanks to his closeness with the Turkish Sultan Mehmed the Second, also known as "The Conqueror". Mehmed II brought the end of the Byzantine empire and conquered Constantinople in 1453. He was one of the most powerful men on the planet in those days. The Sultan appointed Rabbi Capsali as the Chief Rabbi or Hakham Bashi of the Ottoman empire.    

As the Chief rabbi of the Empire, rabbi Capsali was in charge of appointing other rabbis and supervising the collection of taxes coming from the Jews. He also acted as a civil judge. It is said that the Sultan's respect for the rabbi was because, disguised as a civilian, Mehmed II was present one day while Capsali was rendering his decisions and he assured himself that the rabbi was incorruptible and impartial in his judgments.

The Sultan appreciated so much Rabbi Capsali that he assigned him a seat beside the Mufti, the Muslim highest authority, and above the seat of the Christian patriarch.

One of the most important contribution of Rabbi Capsali to Am Israel is that thanks to his favor with the Sultan, the Sultan opened the gates of his empire to tens of thousands of Jewish refugees who were escaping form the horrors of the Inquisition in Spain and from persecutions they suffered in many Christian countries. The Sultan allowed and even encouraged the Jewish refugees to build homes, synagogues and houses of study (Bate Midrash), and to practice their religion freely.

In 1492, towards the last years of Rabbi Capsali's life, the great tragedy of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain took place. His advanced age notwithstanding, Rabbi Capsali dedicated himself in soul and body to help the victims of the expulsion. Many Sephardic Jews were captured by pirates when escaping from Spain and were sold as slaves. Rabbi Capsali personally traveled to various Jewish communities in his country to collect funds for Pidyon Shebuim, to redeem these Jews.  It was thanks to rabbi Capsali that the most prominent Sephardic communities in those times flourished in Constantinople and other cities of the Ottoman empire.

Rabbi Capsali died in 1495 at the age of 75 he was succeeded as Hakham Bashi by  Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrahi.

SIXTH COMMANDMENT: Killing vs Mudering

There is a difference in English between killing and murdering. While "killing" is a verb than can be applied to causing the death of humans or animals, "murdering" refers exclusively to the act of killing another human being.

Our rabbis explain that the context of the 10 Commandments refers to actions from a person to another person, and not from a person to someone's property. The Eight commandment לא תגנב, for example, usually translated as "You shall not steal" has been explained by our rabbis as "You shall not kidnap" (You shall not steal...a person), an unfortunate practice that leads to forced-labor or slavery. There is another commandment in Vayqra (Lev.  19:11) that uses the same words, לא תגנבו, but the context refers to damages against other people's properties. In Leviticus, therefore, לא תגנבו is translated as: "You shall not steal". This method, the understanding of a word or a law according to its context, is one of the 13 principles of hermeneutics (=legal interpretation of the Bible) known in rabbinic literature as דבר הלמד מענינו, "a law that is deduced by its context".

Going back to the Sixth commandment, we should then translate it as "You shall not murder", referring to the act of killing another human being,  and not "You shall not kill".

This is a short commandment in terms of its length, just six letters, but it is, perhaps, the most comprehensive in terms of its details, scope, applications, etc.

First, Jewish Law, similar to American Law differentiates  between different levels of murder: premeditated murder, murder by negligence, accidental murder, etc. Then, we also have the case of killing as an act of self defense or preemptive murder.  We also need to define the application of this commandment to complex situations, Halakhic scenarios which are very prevalent in our days. For example: is abortion considered murder? Is euthanasia (=killing a person who is suffering) permitted in Jewish law?  Does Jewish law allow organs' donation? These subjects require a clear definition of the moment in which life begins or end; quality of life vs. termination of life, passive vs active euthanasia, etc.   In the following weeks BH we will analyze these matters one by one.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

AMIDA (Berkha 18). Mastering the art of gratitude

מודים אנחנו לך
The eighteenth berakha of the 'amida, Modim, is the longest one and the main blessing of the third section of the 'amida known as hoda-a (gratitude). The Hebrew word modim actually means: "We thank... (You God)".

After having focused in the previous blessings on what we need and want from God, now we turn our attention to all what we have been given by God. Gratitude, Jewish gratitude, consists in the acknowledgment that God is the ultimate source of what we are, of what we have, and of all good things that happen to us.

The psychological effect of this berakha cannot be underestimated. "Modim" educate us. It trains us to feel a sense of endless indebtedness toward God. As if for a moment, we abandon our selfish sense of entitlement and we reassess the blessings that we usually take for granted. By enumerating the multitude of "gifts" we constantly receive from HaShem, this berakha opens our eyes to appreciate. Appreciation is the prerequisite for gratitude.

It is important to notice that we begin by thanking haShem for being our God. In other words, we express our gratitude to God for having chosen us among the nations.

Then, we turn our attention to the fact that we still exist as a nation, despite having so many enemies who wish we were not here. We acknowledge that our physical survival depends on Him.

This is the beginning of Modim

"We thank You,  that You are HaShem, our God,
and the God of our fathers. (You are our God) for ever.
You are the Protector (tsur=rock) of our lives.
You are our Shield and Savior.

This berakha is so important (second only to magen Abraham) that our rabbis instructed us to bow-down at the beginning (modim anahnu lakh) and at the end of this blessing (hatob shimkha...).  

Monday, June 23, 2014

TEHILIM Psalm # 2: Israel, a newborn baby

ה ' אָמַר אֵלַי בְּנִי אַתָּה אֲנִי, הַיּוֹם יְלִדְתִּיךָ

This Mizmor was composed by King David at the beginning of his kingdom. All the kings of Philistines (pelishtim), fearful of the new Jewish King, got together and conspired against David and his people.  The Philistines thought that they could easily defeat David and were singing their own praise.  In verse 2:4 David describes what was happening in heaven while the enemies of Israel were bragging about destroying us. 

יושב בשמים ישחק " [God] the One Who sits in His heavenly [throne] laughs"... at their thoughts.  This powerful literary motif, "HaShem's laughing" is used here to express that the enemies of Israel, when they plan their battles and attacks against us, they are oblivious of Hashem's intervention to protect us.

David haMelekh says that although Hashem intervenes in all areas of our personal life, His oversight is absolutely critical when our enemies conspire against us.

In 2:7 David haMelekh explains "how" HaShem protects Israel.

ה' אמר אלי בני אתה "HaShem told me You are My child". First, we learn that Hashem loves us as a parent loves his or her child.  But then, David haMelekh takes us to a deeper level of understanding of God's love for us.    אני היום ילידתיך  "I gave birth to you today".

Two different motifs are expressed in this verse, a child and a newborn baby. Why?

1. Imagine a mother with her nine years old child in the park. While he would be playing with other kids or on his own, the mother will supervise him. And she will assist him just upon his request. A baby is different than a child.  A newborn baby demands 24/7 attention, supervision and total-care.  The mother would not abandon her newborn child even for single moment. The mother would nurture, help and assist her baby all the time. Even when the baby would not be asking for anything.

2. A nine years old child knows what he needs and recognizes his mother's intervention in helping him. A baby is not conscious of what he needs. The mother feeds him, nurtures him and protects him without him been aware of his mother intervention!

David haMelekh says that HaShem's ultimate level of protection is when He takes care of us like a loving mother takes care of her newborn baby. 

I think about "Israel" as a baby under haShem's constant invisible supervision. We all know that many bad things happen all the time. But think about this: Medinat Israel is in the midst of the most volatile area of the planet. Surrounded by the most violent people on earth. Kamikazes, who don't mind to immolate themselves if they would kill a Jew in the process. People for whom the desire to destroy Israel is the only thing stronger than the desire to destroy each other. And many of those live within Israel. We are all very, very sad for all the bad things happening in Israel right now. But at the same time we need to be in awe, and very grateful to haShem, for all the many tragedies that are not happening in Israel, and we are not even aware of.  Our incredible IDF has a great part in this endeavor, and they are surely acting as agents of HaShem in protecting our people. But above every human effort, it is HaShem who protects us in ways that we, like a newborn baby, can't even begin to realize.

In honor of  Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel ה' ישמרם ויחייהם

אחינו כל בית ישראל, הנתונים בצרה ובשביה, 
העומדים בין בים ובין ביבשה
המקום ירחם עליהם ויוציאם מצרה לרווחה
ומאפילה לאורה ומשעבוד לגאולה
השתא בעגלא ובזמן קריב