Seminar on Ancient Judaism Features Renowned Biblical Scholar 

by Michael Bettencourt

Dr. Elaine PagelsDr. Elaine Pagels, the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University, gave a talk on Thursday, October 25, titled “Exegesis of Genesis 1 in the Gospel of Thomas,” as part of the Seminar on Ancient Judaism, an initiative co-sponsored by the Office of the Provost, Yeshiva University and the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies.

Dr. Pagels is best known for her research into early Christianity and Gnosticism, explicated in The Gnostic Gospels, published in 1979, which explored conflicts in the early history of the Christian church revealed in the Nag Hammadi library, 13 leather-bound papyrus books discovered near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945.

The Gospel of Thomas, the subject of Pagels’ 2003 book Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, was found among the papyrus volumes. It contains a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus, some of which, according to Pagels, can be found in one or more of the other four official gospels but some of which stand entirely on their own.

The subject of her talk concerned the differing portraits of Jesus that emerge when Thomas’ gospel is weighed against the synoptic gospels, especially the manuscript written by John, which Pagels suggests was drafted as a rebuttal to the picture of Jesus in Thomas, where Jesus is presented not as a divine entity but as a teacher seeking to help people discover the divine light within themselves.

In John, as well as in the other authorized gospels, she noted, the focus is on each person’s duty to know who Jesus is and accept his divinity because only by that knowledge will they will be able to enter the kingdom of heaven.

In Thomas, Jesus’ words enjoin people not to know him but to know themselves, since that is the only sure path to a sure salvation. “The Jesus represented in Thomas’ writing,” said Dr. Pagels, “tasks his disciples and all those who hear him with discovering the light within themselves.” When the disciples ask Jesus to tell them how they will end, he responds by saying, “Have you then discovered the discovered the beginning so that you inquire about the end?”, emphasizing that they will only know their ending  if they do the work of exploring their own beginnings: “If they say to you: ‘From where have you originated?”, say to them: ‘We have come from the Light…’”

Pagels pointed out that coming “from the Light” also meant coming from a place where souls were unified and “not divided by categories, such as your gender or name or passport,” a point she has explored in more depth in Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, written in 1988, where she investigated the views of women presented in Jewish and Christian teachings.

There are three more lectures planned for the Seminar: Shai Secunda (Bard College) on Thursday, February 14, 2019; Loren Stuckenbruck (University of Munich) on Thursday, March 14, 2019; and Sarit Kattan Gribetz (Fordham University) on Thursday, April 4, 2019. For more information, contact Rabbi Ari Mermelstein at


It was nonstop partying, day and night, for days on end.

There was pageantry, with musicians playing countless musical instruments. The greatest rabbis danced before the assembled crowds of men, women, and children. They also juggled torches and performed daring acts of acrobatic prowess.

Our celebrations today are more subdued, but they are no less joyful. We gather family and friends to partake in festive meals al fresco, in the temporary booths — called sukkot — that we’ve erected outdoors. The occasion is an experience of pure joy. There is much for which to be grateful. We’ve prayed, fasted, performed acts of contrition, confessed, repented our sins, and through God’s perennial gift of Yom Kippur, been forgiven.

We survived and have a new lease on life.

Gratitude is a powerful emotion. It may be defined as a person’s recognition that the good he or she experiences is due, at least in part, to something outside of his or her self. It is the subject of a number of scientific studies, which analyzed some of the benefits resulting from expressing and feeling gratitude. They include better physical and mental health; greater mental strength and resiliency; a sense of overall well-being, happiness, and reduced depression; forming and building stronger relationships; and connecting to something larger than the person, like a higher power.

One of the studies found scientific evidence that these positive effects of gratitude are long lasting and sustainable. Interestingly, this required more than just an unexpressed feeling of gratefulness; it had to be combined with some action. The study relied on the act of expressing gratitude by recording it in a journal. It found that repeatedly expressing gratitude and the resulting good feelings experienced, in effect, caused the brain to be rewired. In essence, the more gratitude practiced, the more attuned the person becomes to it; and correspondingly, the more the person could enjoy the psychological benefits it engendered. It became a self-perpetuating feature.

These are extraordinary benefits. Who would have thought that by simply expressing gratitude such overwhelmingly good results could be achieved? Is it any wonder then that we are commanded to begin the new year by showing our gratitude through the joyful celebration of the holiday of Sukkot?

I remember well when we first arrived in New York City, in the late 1950s. We lived in an apartment on Eastern Parkway, in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood. We didn’t have our own sukkah and shared the use of communal sukkot with others. There we would meet members of our extended family, friends, fellow members of the synagogue, and strangers. Everyone was cordial, in keeping with Sukkot’s festive nature. We all became one happy family, enjoying the setting, the holiday atmosphere, and each other’s company.

The simplicity of the setting fostered an informal and relaxed atmosphere. As children, we much appreciated the freedom it afforded. Apartments were small and eating areas even more so. We would feel so constrained when our parents entertained company and we had to sit quietly and not spill or break anything at a formal meal. In the sukkah, there was no wallpaper to stain or fine furniture to scratch. We were encouraged to sing and enjoy the occasion, like everyone else.

Sometimes we visited the great sukkot of the Lubavitcher and Bobover rebbes nearby. These were special occasions. As young children, it was difficult to see above the crowd. My father, of blessed memory, would raise us up above his head to glimpse a peek of the rebbe and take in what was going on around us. The rhythmic swaying and singing of the masses of people gathered to celebrate mesmerized us.

I also remember the presents that my dad, of blessed memory, gave to mom and each of us on Sukkot and the other Jewish holidays. It was only much later when I studied Talmud, that I learned that this was an ancient custom. It was designed to provide a tangible means for sharing the joy and creating a spirit of happiness in the home. It gave everyone a reason to rejoice on the holiday.

The meals also were special and included wine for kiddush, gefilte fish, meat, and a cake mom baked for dessert. On Simchat Torah, during the second day of Sukkot, there was also homemade stuffed cabbage. Mom also stocked up on nuts, dried fruits, chocolates and other store-bought sweets for the holidays. We didn’t get treats like this every day and we were very grateful. It fostered our sense that the holidays were a special time and encouraged our observance. It created an atmosphere of excitement and helped bring joy into the home.

Maimonides discusses the special commandment to be exceedingly joyful on Sukkot. It certainly is about enjoying the festive meals, but he cautions that there is more than just that. It is important to invite the less fortunate to share in the holiday meals. Limiting the experience to the personal pleasure of digesting a good meal is not the joyful observance of the commandment; it’s about sharing the joy with others.

There are also other boundaries on behavior that must be observed. Thus, drunkenness, levity, and foolishness are inappropriate. At the same time, he cautions that a person not be too haughty and dignified to express joy. Each day of the holiday observance should also be divided so that a part is devoted to prayer and Torah study too. The combination of all these wonderful experiences is a part of what makes Sukkot so special.

The Talmud states if you do something wholeheartedly, then God will help you to succeed. The divine presence rests on a person because of his or her joy in performing a commandment. The psychic reward of doing something joyfully, with all your heart, is enormous.

I do believe that this is one of the distinguishing characteristics of Torah observance. It requires that both the mind and body be engaged in doing something. Thinking about it alone doesn’t do the trick. Mindlessly doing something is also not as satisfying. It’s the combination, which yields a wonderful feeling of accomplishment and pure joy. It truly is one of the secrets of life.

Let’s spread the good vibrations by inviting one and all to share in festive meals in the sukkah. Spice it up with a pithy d’var Torah and the singing of upbeat holiday tunes. When we were young, we participated in sukkah hops, walking from sukkah to sukkah to bring the exultation of song and good cheer to everyone. Don’t miss the opportunity to experience the joy of Sukkot.


Leonard Grunstein, a retired attorney and banker, founded and served as Chairman of Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of NY. He also founded Project Ezrah and serves on the Board of Revel at Yeshiva University and the AIPAC National Council. He has published articles in the Banking Law Journal, Real Estate Finance Journal and other fine publications.

Academic Prize For Scholarly Form Of Blood Libel: Scholar maintains IDF seeks to maim Palestinians to exploit them more easily.

by David Berger for the Jewish Week

At a week-long conference on anti-Semitism held in Vienna in February, I presented a paper addressing responses to the blood libel through the ages and assessing modern historiography on its origins and impact. The final section, which dealt with contemporary accusations against Jews and/or Israel that some observers have labeled blood libels, highlighted The Right to Maim,[1] a recent book by Prof. Jasbir Puar of Rutgers University published by Duke University Press. The book has now been awarded the National Women’s Studies Association’s Alison Piepmeier Book Prize for scholarship focusing on feminist disability studies.  Even amidst the moral and intellectual wreckage that litters the academic landscape with respect to Israel, this award stands out.  I consequently present a slightly revised version of the final section of that presentation.

At the current historical juncture, the relevance of the blood libel transcends the renewed historiographical interest that marked the last four decades.  First, the libel itself persists in the statements and writings of some far from marginal figures in Arab countries and to a lesser degree even elsewhere.  Second, it has become such a paradigmatic specter for Jews that some accusations leveled at Israel are reflexively characterized as blood libels.

Many hundreds of academics signed a statement before and shortly after the outbreak of the first Gulf War alerting the world to the possibility that Israel would take advantage of the distraction caused by the fog of war to take action against the population of the West Bank “up to full-fledged ethnic cleansing.”[2] The authors cite support by elements of the Israeli coalition for “transfer” of the Palestinian population, identify two members of parliament who allegedly advocate forcible expulsion, and assert that politicians regularly suggest such expulsion.

In fact, support for such action in the Israeli government was vanishingly negligible, and there was nothing remotely resembling a government plan to carry out such a policy.  Even had there been substantial support, the notion that millions—or at least hundreds of thousands–of West Bank Palestinians could have been expelled (to Jordan? to Lebanon? to the Sinai? to Syria?) during the course of a war when Israel was preoccupied with defending its civilian population against missile attacks, and this would go more or less unnoticed because the fog of war would distract world attention, is beyond risible.  The historian Gavin Langmuir proposed a term to characterize the blood libel, the host desecration charge, and the well poisoning accusation.  These figments of the anti-Jewish imagination should, he said, be termed “chimerical anti-Semitism.”  Here we encounter chimerical anti-Israelism.

Most recently, Duke University Press has published Jasbir Puar’s The Right to Maim, whose thesis has been described as a blood libel.  Puar asserts that Israel’s policy of shooting dangerous demonstrators or attackers in a manner that avoids killing them should be seen as a strategy of maiming the Palestinian population in order to create a debilitated people more easily subject to exploitation.  Written in the highly sophisticated language of theoretical discourse current in certain historical and social scientific circles, it has led a significant number of academics to shower the author with extravagant praise.

At the very beginning of the volume, the reader encounters a preface entitled “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” a slogan of the Black Lives Matter movement based on the alleged cry of the unarmed black man killed by a police officer in Ferguson.  While the author, whose support for the movement suffuses the entire preface, does not tell us that the victim actually said this, neither does she tell us that two investigations concluded that the assertion that he did is unequivocally false.  Thus, the attentive reader knows immediately that this author suppresses truth in the interest of political/ideological commitments.

Here are a few examples of the level of argument in this book.

“For many on both sides of the occupation, it is better to ‘die for your country’…than to face a life with a body that is deemed disabled.”  The last part of the sentence is a formulation that would not occur to anyone on either side of the conflict.  Puar invents it to lay the groundwork for the continuation, to wit, “‘Not killing’ Palestinians while rendering them systematically and utterly debilitated is not humanitarian sparing of death.  It is instead a biopolitical usage and articulation of the right to maim.”[3]

Even Puar cannot easily depict the roof knocks and phone calls intended to warn civilians before bombings in Gaza as part of a campaign to maim, but she is undaunted.  Such measures provided very short notice, they were useless for residents who are not mobile, and in the case of phone calls, they appear more like a “’reminder of how powerless [the Gazans] are’ given the control that Israel has over the telecommunication networks.” [4] These arguments do not even begin to address the undeniable reality that these tactics constituted efforts to avoid civilian deaths (and maiming), and they underscore the lengths to which Puar will go in pursuing her imaginary thesis.

Similarly, she presents Israeli attacks on Palestinian medical facilities, ambulances, and health workers as part of an intentional policy to debilitate.[5] There is not even a gesture toward finding a member of the IDF who indicates awareness of a policy of deliberate targeting of medical infrastructure and services because they treat the ill, disabled and wounded.  Since some Israeli soldiers have made vigorous, public assertions of unethical behavior by members of the IDF, and it is virtually impossible that this purported policy could have been kept secret from all soldiers and officers with such inclinations, the absence of such a reference speaks volumes.

Building on a hyperbolic statement by a Gazan Water Utilities official that it would be better if Israel would just drop a nuclear bomb on Gaza, she asserts with evident agreement that he is essentially saying that “it is as if withholding death—will not let or make die—becomes an act of dehumanization: the Palestinians are not even human enough for death.”[6]

It is by no means improper to classify this book as the rough equivalent of the blood libel.  Moreover, its publication and reception point to a development that is no less troubling, namely, the corruption of the academy.  During the Beilis ritual murder trial of 1913, the prosecution was hard pressed to find an academic who would testify that the blood accusation is true, and it had to mobilize a priest from Tashkent who was easily, if cleverly, discredited under cross-examination.  The Right to Maim was not only published by a respected university press.  It bears an effusive blurb from the prominent academic Judith Butler, and when a talk that Puar delivered at Vassar College on this theme was attacked in a Wall Street Journal article, nearly 1,000 academics ranging from distinguished professors like Rashid Khalidi of Columbia to graduate students–most of whom have no expertise in relevant fields– wrote a letter to the president of the university containing a similarly effusive declaration of the quality of her work and her standing as a scholar. [7] Thus, my instinct that a book like this, for all its footnotes and hyper-sophisticated jargon, should be ignored because of its manifest absurdity is, I am afraid, misguided.  Academics who care about Jews and Israel, and even those who care only about the academy itself, face a daunting challenge.

[1] Durham and London, 2017.

[2] See

[3] P. 108.

[4] P. 129.

[5] Pp. 133-134.

[6] Pp. 140-141.


David Berger is Ruth and I. Lewis Gordon Professor of Jewish History and Dean, Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, Yeshiva University.



Mr. Leonard Grunstein

By Mr. Leonard Grunstein

All you need in life is balance; haven’t we all received this advice, at one time or another? But, is this sentiment anything more than an endearing platitude?

When I was younger, hearing this guidance sympathetically expressed was often annoying. We had little time for such wisdom. Most of us were busy juggling school, work and family responsibilities and trying to excel at all of them. Besides, the lesson we were taught at home, by Holocaust survivor parents, was we had to be better in order to succeed. That meant studying and working harder, not sloughing off. Excuses like not feeling well or needing me-time were unacceptable. They earned a rebuke not a plaudit. Our orientation and charge was to achieve success in this wonderful land of America, never mind the personal sacrifice required. It was the least we could do to honor the sacrifices of our own parents, who afforded us this opportunity.

When we were children, my father regaled us with stories about when he first came to this country. He told us how, at the beginning, he had to find new employment regularly, because he would not work on the Sabbath. It was a time when Saturday was a regular part of the workweek and not coming to work on Saturday usually resulted in being fired. The common refrain was: don’t come to work Saturday then don’t come Monday. This continued until he obtained a job at Westinghouse, which was more forgiving and allowed him to work on Sunday, instead. Eventually, he opened up his own business and became his own boss. He was always closed on the Sabbath and, as required, on the Jewish Holidays. This meant having to deal with Blue Laws and all sorts of other challenges, but he was unwavering in his observance of the commandments. His poignant message of not being a slave to a slave and only a slave to G-d took on a level of immediacy, as we worked in the business beside him.

When we later faced our own challenges in the professions and business concerning the Sabbath and other religious observances, his example and message resonated and strengthened our resolve. Observance of our traditions kept us grounded, despite working long hours and the pressures and stresses of life. It didn’t always seem that way at the time. Sundays were usually workdays and we missed sharing in the popular custom of Sundays being set aside for family or entertainment and leisure. Vacations were often cancelled or cut short because of some client’s emergency. However, with the benefit of hindsight, it is much clearer now how the Sabbath and Jewish Holidays functioned to provide us with balance in our lives. It was a time when family and friends regularly joined together and enjoyed each other’s company, without any outside distractions like work, phones or computers. There was ample time for reflection and study. It was pure bliss.

As I grew older, I began to appreciate this more fully and that there was more to life than just work. However, yearning for a more balanced life doesn’t make it so. The quest for true balance can be elusive. It is not just about expressing the slogan, like a mantra. How then is balance achieved in practice? Is there a handbook that can be followed, beyond you’ll know when you feel it? Is the Torah such a manual and its observance a formula for achieving balance?

Maimonides[i] explores the matter and his profound insights are bracing. He introduces his analysis with the declaration that the Torah is complete[ii] and it provides for the greatest equilibrium possible. This is no empty superlative; Maimonides posits that the balance it enables is perfection. Therefore, the Bible[iii] enjoins us only to observe and do as G-d instructed. It proscribes adding to or subtracting from those instructions[iv] or veering left or right[v]. As Maimonides notes, any excess or deficiency unbalances the perfect equilibrium. He doesn’t mince words. Whether it’s a life of overindulgence or the deprivation of a monastic existence, both these lifestyle choices are not the solution; they are a part of the problem. They are self-imposed extremes, which are inconsistent with the balanced approach of a Torah prescribed lifestyle.

There are many layers and nuances to this approach to life. One cogent example is not overdoing even the performance of a commandment. This is because notwithstanding the best of intentions, it often undermines the very observance of the commandment[vi]. Coming from a world where overdoing most things is the norm this is not intuitively obvious. Another example is not performing the commandments precisely as prescribed, which could also result in unintended consequences[vii]. It is much like a life-saving medicine, which can become a poisonous drug if not taken properly. In this regard I can’t help but note, the Talmud records even excessive devotion to the abstract study of Torah, without attention to its purpose of performing the commandments[viii], can become a deadly drug[ix]. Indeed, the Talmud[x] disparages those addicted to this practice, declaring it would have been better if they were never born.

The Talmud also cautions against the all too human tendency to add prohibitions. As Rav Dimi[xi] somewhat caustically remarked, isn’t it enough what the Torah prohibits; does a person have to go and prohibit other things? The Talmud illustrates[xii] this principle with the example of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They were commanded by G-d not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge[xiii]. Eve, though, unilaterally added an additional stricture against touching it, as well[xiv]. This enabled the snake to importune Eve into eating the prohibited fruit. The snake pushed her against the tree and demonstrated that nothing untoward occurred by touching the tree. Eve was thus induced to eat the prohibited fruit too. The Talmud succinctly summarizes this concept as whoever adds, subtracts[xv].

Rashi[xvi] also focuses on the human predilection to pick and choose among things that must be done and to favor some over others. He advises that a seemingly slight commandment must be as beloved as a weighty one. All too often, when a great deal of attention is devoted to one commandment, perceived to be particularly important or virtuous, it inevitably leads to non-performance of others. Who hasn’t heard or tendered the excuse I was too busy to do something, because I was involved in work, community affairs, doing good deeds or charitable matters? The Torah, like the life it is intended to govern, is a finely balanced machine. Whether the commandments appear rational or not, we like them or don’t or they seem onerous or too easy, it’s about doing them all, precisely as prescribed. Any excess, deficiency or deviation can upset the balance and cause the machine to self-destruct. By properly embracing the entirety[xvii], a genuine balance can be achieved.

Interestingly, the Talmud[xviii] does cite four particular commandments, which require strengthening constantly and the utmost exertion[xix], to wit: (a) Torah study; (b) prayer; (c) doing good deeds; and (d) a worldly occupation[xx]. However, if this were literally so, then complying with this dictum in respect of any one activity would necessarily negate the practicability of doing so with regard to the others. Yet, the Talmud enjoins a person to engage in all four activities with the same kind of intensity. How is this possible?

It is humbly suggested the juxtaposition is not coincidental. The exuberant performance any one of these commandments can readily occupy the entire day and the perceived virtue of the cause can negate any sense of time or other commitments[xxi]. However, the Torah requires all of these, as well as, the other commandments to be observed; not just some of them.

What then is the formula for balancing the performance of these and the other commandments to achieve equilibrium and the perfection that is the object of the Torah? Perhaps the answer lies in the nature of the quality of the commitment. This, as opposed to the quantity of time actually spent on the performance of a commandment, which may vary as it relates to a particular person and circumstance. This concept underlies how the Talmud and sages reconcile the commandments of studying Torah with pursuing a worldly occupation, which appear to be in direct opposition to each other. The analysis may help inform the search for how to achieve balance.

The Talmud records that Torah study[xxii] and having a worldly occupation[xxiii] are both commandments derived from the Bible. It analyzes the nature of these commandments and its conclusions are refreshing and every bit as relevant today as they were in ancient times.

Torah study is a fundamental part of Jewish life. It is not some abstract academic activity that cannot be embraced by everyone. It’s all about learning for the purpose of doing[xxiv]. Study takes precedence only because it leads to performance[xxv]. A person must know what is commanded and how properly to fulfill the commandments, before he or she can set about performing them. Ultimately, though, performance is the key[xxvi]. While, Torah study should be a priority, it is not required to be all consuming to the exclusion of all else in life. In line with the foregoing, the Mishna[xxvii] reports a person whose learning exceeds his actions is like a rootless tree that is blown over by the wind.

The Talmud is replete with examples when other matters take precedence over Torah study. For instance, Rabbi Akiva dismissed classes at the Academy on the day of the eve of Passover to enable fathers to arrange for the children to nap, so they would be able to stay awake at the Seder that evening[xxviii]. This was similarly the case before Yom Kippur, to enable the children to be fed before the fast[xxix]. Torah studies may also be interrupted to participate in a funeral procession or wedding procession[xxx] or to visit the sick and attend to their needs[xxxi]. This includes sweeping their room to assure their comfort and cleanliness. In general, when the opportunity to perform a time sensitive commandment presents itself[xxxii], then that’s the priority.

Work is also an essential requirement of life. The Talmud[xxxiii] actually derives the commandment to have a worldly occupation from the Biblical[xxxiv] use of the word ‘life’ in the phrase ‘and you shall choose life’[xxxv]. The concept of men and women having to work begins with the very origination of humankind. The Bible[xxxvi] describes how G-d created Adam and Eve, placed them in the Garden of Eden and commanded them to work it and guard it[xxxvii]. Even in this idyllic setting, they had to work[xxxviii]. Being self-sufficient is a great refinement[xxxix]. It is beneficial both physically and spiritually[xl]. It is so fundamental to life, that the Talmud[xli] reports, Moses not only taught the people of Israel the Torah, he also advised them on the trade or profession each should pursue, to enable them to earn a living. The Bible also states six days shall you work[xlii] and on the seventh day rest[xliii]. Is it any wonder, given this tradition and work ethic commanded by G-d, that the Patriarchs, Abraham[xliv], Isaac[xlv] and Jacob[xlvi] were such accomplished and wealthy businessmen[xlvii]?

The Talmud[xlviii] also records a parent is obligated, among other things, to teach a child both Torah and a craft (i.e.: a means of earning a living)[xlix]. It goes on to report failing to teach the child a means of earning a living inevitably results in the child learning banditry. Torah study and a worldly occupation are both fundamental and critically important to life[l]. The Talmud[li] even permits a father to arrange for a teacher, to teach a young child Torah or a craft, on the Sabbath[lii].

Torah study has no defined time period within which it must be performed and, often, as a practical matter, neither does the pursuit of a worldly occupation. Torah is to be studied during the day and night and it has no fixed measure[liii]. In my own experience, work can be every bit as demanding. What then are the parameters? Are there any limits on what must be done to perform these commandments, properly? Furthermore, someone involved in the performance of a commandment is generally exempt from performing another commandment[liv]? Wouldn’t that principle apply to the commandments to study Torah study and earn a living, as well? Does studying Torah, therefore, preclude working to earn a living or vice versa?

It is suggested the Torah prescribed balance is a dynamic one. It is not a fixed formulation that is unmindful of the disparate needs of various individuals and their changing circumstances over a lifetime.

During the early formative years, education takes precedence, until a basic level of Torah knowledge and proficiency[lv] is achieved. Ideally, this begins at age 6, in accordance with the pedagogical program laid out in the Talmud[lvi].

Thereafter, there are the other considerations of life that can and do intervene. Thus, when called upon to meet the needs of a spouse and growing family, it is not about making them suffer materially[lvii]; work may take precedence over studying Torah to meet their needs. Evading this personal responsibility by studying Torah and becoming a public charge are not a legitimate option. Maimonides decries anyone who determines that he will only be involved in Torah, not do work to support himself and, instead, obtain his livelihood from charity. Torah study is incumbent on everyone, including the rich and poor[lviii]. Maimonides also cautions[lix]a person should not say he will first make money and then devote himself to learning Torah. Rather, it is critical that Torah be studied at regularly fixed times. The key is lessening the time devoted to work or business and enforcing a commitment to regular study of Torah on a priority basis. How much time must actually be devoted to Torah study is variable, depending on the circumstances.

A very hard working soul, barely able to earn a subsistence living and with little or no time for anything else, might be able to rely on Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s view[lx] that the minimum amount of Torah study can be as little as reciting the Shema twice daily[lxi]. However, what about a wealthier individual, who can afford some leisure time? What about those who are fortunate enough to retire in good health; does the minimum standard suffice or is more required? Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai would likely require more time be devoted to Torah study under these circumstances[lxii].

This Talmud[lxiii] reports the model of integrating Torah with a worldly occupation is a sustainable one. The many who followed this paradigm succeeded in both endeavors. Others who devoted themselves exclusively to the study of Torah and were not involved at all in earning a living failed at both. This theme is echoed in Avot[lxiv], which extols the virtue of integrating Torah and a worldly occupation. It goes on to say that exertion in both of these activities in tandem causes sin to be forgotten. Study of Torah in the absence of a worldly occupation is ultimately fruitless and leads to sin. Just working is also an aimless pursuit. There has got to be more to life to give it meaning. Avot[lxv] encapsulates the notion that a good life requires both the pursuit of Torah study and a worldly occupation in a pithy remark. It posits if there is no Torah then there is no worldly occupation and if there is no worldly occupation then there is no Torah. Without a worldly occupation, as a regular source of livelihood, the individual will be forced constantly to scrounge around or beg door to door to just to earn bare sustenance. The person will perforce have no time for the regular study of Torah. On the other hand without Torah there is no purpose[lxvi] to the worldly occupation.

This symbiotic relationship between Torah and a worldly occupation is at the heart of the search for balance. If these two fundamental aspects of life cannot be balanced, then the perfection of equilibrium is unachievable, in practice. Hence, the focus on how to integrate the two is critical.

The decision to lessen involvement in a business is a very difficult one; but it’s a necessary one to acquire Torah[lxvii]. Making this kind of choice is an essential part of the refinement process that leads to genuine enlightenment[lxviii]. Establishing boundaries, which allow for the creation of time slots away from work and its triggers of non-stop action is the beginning of this process. The freed up time can be used for the maintenance and restoration of physical and mental health. This includes Torah study and other good deeds. It doesn’t mean golf, tennis and other recreational activities are off the table. It’s about integrating them all in a balanced package.

Rav Yosef Karo, in his Shulchan Aruch[lxix], offers practical suggestions about how a person might order his day to accomplish this purpose. He advises that after morning prayers in the Synagogue, the person should next visit the Study Hall to study some Torah[lxx]. Having a regular and fixed time to study Torah, before going to work can potentially change a person’s entire perspective on life; it did for me.

Free time is one of the ultimate luxuries of life and devoting it to Torah and good deeds are one of the least costly and gainful ways to make use of it. They are also among the most rewarding ones. The psychic reward, feeling of accomplishment and pure joy they engender help improve both mental and physical health. Perhaps this is how the soul is nourished and, in turn, it is a part of the spiritual reward it yields. As a recovering workaholic, I remember sometimes feeling guilty about taking time off. Work was also an extremely heady activity. Disconnecting, while extremely important, was difficult to do, even during holidays and vacations. However, by choosing to control these powerful urges and impulses, in favor of other vitally important activities like Torah study and other good deeds, we develop into more refined individuals.

Over the course of a lifetime, there may be times when there can be greater devotion to Torah study. Now that I’ve retired, I am experiencing first hand this compelling need to rebalance. It’s not as easy as I thought. It begins with establishing a new structure for the day and programming in a set of priorities. The comfort of having full-time employment and knowing there was a place to be everyday and during certain times that was virtually sacrosanct is gone. So is the automatic social and mental engagement of full-time work. A void is created which is not easily filled with gainful activities. The shock can be unnerving. Staying home all day is not an attractive option. It can be lonely and full of diversions that are not at all satisfying.

However, going to a Yeshiva study hall opens up new vistas. I have found not just solace, but fulfillment in the study hall. It is a place where social and mental engagement is the rule. Rigorously studying original sources on a particular subject, with one or more study partners, in preparation for and to enable active participation in the daily seminar, given by a genuine Torah scholar on the subject, is a dream. The atmosphere of academic freedom, intellectual honesty demanded of all participants and the in-depth understanding achieved through this intense process is amazing. Frankly, it’s exhilarating and, dare I say, every bit as addictive an experience as the very best of times at work. In this regard, I can’t help but note, Rabbi Nehorai’s dictum in the Talmud[lxxi] that a trade or other profession serves a person well in the days of his youth, when he has enough strength to work. However, in the days of his old age, it is as if he were stuck in a state of famine. Torah, however, is not like this. It serves a person in the time of his youth and provides him with a future and hope in the time of his old age.

Don’t for a moment think that this means we retirees are exempt from the need to do some work. The Mishna[lxxii] stresses there are important psychological aspects to work that make it critical that everyone have some level of involvement in this fundamental human activity. It records that idleness leads to licentiousness or mental illness. Avot[lxxiii] reports Shemaya said love work. Work is not just a necessary evil needed to make a living. It is a part of what makes life meaningful and productive.

Avot D’Rav Natan[lxxiv] provides excellent advice for the independently wealthy or retired person, who does not have to work to earn a living. It counsels doing some property renovations or gardening. Idleness is extremely unhealthy. Being involved in some form of work activity is extremely important and so is keeping physically fit. Whether it’s working out at the gym, walking outdoors, bicycling or other forms of vigorous activity, a regular exercise regimen is vitally important.

A healthy portion of the day can be devoted to Torah study and especially at a Study Hall with others. The environment enables a combination of mental and social engagement that is good for the mind, body and soul. Doing good deeds is also an essential part of life. Helping others in need not only improves their lives, it enhances ours as well.

Bachya ibn Paquda, in his seminal work, the Duties of the Heart[lxxv], cites King Solomon’s statement in Ecclesiastes[lxxvi], which succinctly expresses the concept of balance. A person should not be overly righteous nor overly wicked or a fool. Rav Paquda explains a person should not separate himself from the world. Rather, he should love to do for his neighbor that which he would love happen to himself [lxxvii]. He urges us to help each other in Torah and worldly matters. He notes this includes helping with the plowing and harvesting, buying and selling and other societal matters. Well, at least we can inspire each other regularly to Hey, were retired, but we still have to keep physical fit.

Maimonides[lxxviii] also advises it is beneficial to listen to music, look at art and stroll in beautiful gardens or other venues. This summer we were privileged to enjoy so many wonderful free outdoor concerts in Bergen County and stroll through the NY Botanical Gardens and other beautiful and inspirational venues.

All of these wonderful activities nourish the mind, body and soul, but they must be integrated and balanced so as to maintain a beneficial equilibrium. The Torah offers a means of achieving this dynamic balance in life, provided that, don’t add or subtract or veer left or right. Let’s not miss the opportunity to achieve the perfected equilibrium it promises.


[i] Guide for the Perplexed II: 39.

[ii] See Deuteronomy 4:8, as well as, the Ralbag’s commentary thereon, which notes the Torah as an entirety is a formulation designed to yield good and wisdom. See also Psalms 19:8, as well as, Psalms 4:27 and Rashi’s commentary thereon.

[iii] Deuteronomy 13:1.

[iv] See also Deuteronomy 4:2.

[v] Deuteronomy 17:11 and 5:29. See also Joshua 1:7 and Proverbs 4:27.

[vi] See Rashi’s commentary on Deuteronomy 4:2, as well as, Sifre Deuteronomy 82.

[vii] Such as those who intended to defile the idol Ba’al Peor; not realizing their unseemly actions were the method by which it was worshiped. See Alshich commentary on Deuteronomy 4:2 and Haemek Davar commentary on the next verse, Deuteronomy 4:3.

[viii] Encapsulated by the Hebrew term, ‘Lishma’.

[ix] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Taanit, at page 7a. See also Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma, at page 72b, which condemns Torah scholars who immerse themselves in Torah and have no fear of Heaven. The Maharsha explains it is studying Torah Lishma (i.e.: for the sake of performing the Mitzvot) that is deemed to be for the sake of heaven, because this is what G-d commanded us to do.

[x] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot, at page 17a and Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Shabbos 1:2, at pages 4a-b (of Zhitomer edition).

[xi] Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Nedarim 9:1 (page 25a of Zhitomer edition).

[xii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, at page 29a.

[xiii] Genesis 2:17.

[xiv] Genesis 3:3.

[xv] See also commentaries on Deuteronomy 4:2 of Rabbeinu Bachya, Kli Yakar and Daat Zekanim. Reference may also be made to the Sefer Yereim 371:1 and the Sefer HaChinuch 454:3.

[xvi] See Rashi’s commentary on Deuteronomy 13:1, as well as, Sifre Deuteronomy 82.

[xvii] Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 9:1.

[xviii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot, at page 32b.

[xix] Ibid and see Rashi commentary thereon.

[xx] Rashi, in his commentary on this Talmudic text, notes this includes the striving of a craftsman to improve his craftsmanship, businessman to perfect his business acumen and soldier to hone his skill in the military arts.

[xxi] While there is a general principle that a person’s involvement in the performance of one Mitzva exempts the person from performance of another, there are limitations on this principle. See, for example, Babylonian Talmud, Tractates Brachot (page 16a) and Shabbos (page 11a), as well as, Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Bikkurim 3:3 (page 8a of Zhitomer edition). Cf. Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Brachot 1:2 (page 8a of Zhitomer edition) as to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai not interrupting Torah study to recite the Shema (which functionally is the equivalent of Torah study). The Talmudic text goes on to describe that this did not mean he would not interrupt Torah study to build a Succah and prepare a Lulav. See a similar discussion in Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Shabbos 1:2 (page 4a of Zhitomer edition).

[xxii] The Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin (at page 29b), derives this obligation from Deuteronomy 11:19. It specifies a father is obligated to teach Torah to his sons. In analyzing this verse, the Talmud poses the question of what if the father didn’t teach the son Torah, then is the son obligated to teach himself? The Talmud answers in the affirmative. It focuses on the letters of the word “v’limaditem”, which, like the whole text of the Bible scroll, is handwritten without vowels. It derives this teaching by, in effect, reading the same consonant letters as the word “u’limaditem. There is no difference in the way each of these words are written in the Torah scroll, but the way they are each vocalized results in a different meaning. The former means “and you shall teach”; the later means “and you shall study”. Hence, if the child grows up without being taught Torah by the father, then it is incumbent on the child to study the Torah, on his or her own. The Sefer Mitzvot Gadol (SM’G) notes (in Mitzvah Number 12) the obligation extends to grandchildren based on Deuteronomy 4:9, which states that shall make it known to children and children of children. The Mitzvah to teach children is also set forth in Deuteronomy 6:7. The SM’G explains that this also includes students, citing Kings II 2:3 (which states that the children of the prophets went out to meet Elisha, the prophet). The term children as used in this context means students. The Sefer Yeraim (Section 26) cites Chronicles II, 29:11, because King Chiziyahu taught Torah to Israel and they were called his sons. The Yeraim also interprets the requirement in Deuteronomy 6:12, to ‘guard them, so that don’t forget’, to mean perform the Mitzvot; not just study them (as provided in Deuteronomy 5:1, 6:7 and 29:8).

[xxiii] See Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Sota, Chapter 9, Halacha 15 (page 45a of the Zhitomer edition), which records that Rabbi Yishmael derives the commandment to have a means of earning a living from Deuteronomy 30:19. It states: “and you shall choose life”. He interprets this to mean you shall choose a trade so as to earn a living and be self-sufficient. The Talmudic discussion concludes with the observation that this trumps the seeming requirement that Torah be studied all day and night as implied in Joshua 1:8. See also the Babylonian Talmud, Tractates Kesubot (at page 5a) and Kiddushin (at page 30b). The Talmud reports that Chizkiah derives the commandment to have a trade or profession from Ecclesiastes 9:9. It states that a person should ‘see life with his wife, whom he loves’. It interprets the term ‘life’ to mean having a trade or profession (i.e.: a means of earning a living). It enables life, because the person can support himself, a spouse and family. It also notes that the term ‘life’ is juxtaposed with the term ‘wife’. Thus, the Talmud reasons, just as a father is obligated to see to it that his son has a wife to marry so too is he obligated to teach his son a craft. If the term wife is interpreted allegorically to mean Torah, then just as the father is obligated to teach his son Torah so is he obligated to teach his son a means of earning a living. See also Rashi’s commentary on Ecclesiastes 9:9, where he says that life means a combination of Torah and an occupation. Rashi makes a somewhat similar point in reference to the discussion in Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kesubot (at page 5a). He notes Ecclesiastes 9:9 refers to having an occupation that is self-supporting together with the Torah. Cf. Rashi in his commentary on Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Kamma, at page 100a, where he states that ‘life’ means Torah. However, in his commentary on Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Metzia, at page 30b, he takes the position that ‘life’ means a worldly occupation. Rashi’s commentary on the actual verse in Ecclesiastes (and in Kesubot, at page 5a) seems to reconcile these two thoughts. Rav Yehoshua Falk (an 18th Century Halachic authority), in his Talmudic commentary, the Pnei Yehoshua (on Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Kamma, page 100a) also reconciles the apparent contradiction between Rashi’s commentary on the Talmudic text in Bava Kamma and Bava Metzia. He explains that they are two aspects of life. While it is extremely important to study Torah, it is also important to acquire a worldly occupation. This is consistent with the statement in Avot 2:2 that Torah not accompanied by a worldly occupation is destined to fail.

[xxiv] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin, at page 40b. See also Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Pesachim, 3:7 (page 22a of Zhitomer edition).

[xxv] However, performance is the object of study. Thus, the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yevamot, at page 109b, states that if don’t actually do the Mitzvot then lose the reward for Torah study. Along the same lines, Simon, the son of Rabban Gamliel said (Avot 1:17) that study is not the primary thing; it is all about performance of the Mitzvot.

[xxvi] See, for example, Shu”t Maharit, Responsa Number 100. He states that learning itself is not primary; it’s the action (performance of the Mitzvot). The practical application of the Torah is doing good deeds and repentance. See also Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zara, at page 17b, which reports that Rabbi Huna said, he who occupies himself only in studying Torah acts as if he has no G-d. Reference may also be made to the HaEmek Davar commentary on Deuteronomy 4:14.

[xxvii] Avot 3:17.

[xxviii] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Pesachim, at page 109a, which reports Rabbi Akiva would generally not announce that it was time to leave the Academy; but he did so on these occasions.

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] Ibid.

[xxxi] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Nedarim, at page 40a, which also involved Rabbi Akiva.

[xxxii] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Moed Katan, at page 9a-b. See also Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:4 and Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 246:8. It should be noted that this is the case so long as the Mitzvah cannot be adequately performed by another.

[xxxiii] Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Sota, Chapter 9, Halacha 15 (page 45a of the Zhitomer edition).

[xxxiv] Deuteronomy 30:19.

[xxxv] Cf. Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin, at page 30b. See also a similar discussion in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Kamma, at page 99b-100a, but based on another Biblical verse (Ecclesiastes 9:9), which states that a person should ‘see life with his wife, whom he loves’. The Talmud interprets the term ‘life’ to mean to have a trade or profession (i.e.: a means of earning a living). It enables life, because the person can support himself, a spouse and family.

[xxxvi] Genesis 2:15

[xxxvii] See Avot D’Rav Natan 11:1, where Shemaya and Abtalyon are recorded as saying love work (as they do in Avot 1:10). It goes on to explain that a person should love work and not hate it, because just as the Torah was given by a covenant so too was work given by a covenant. It then cites the Verse from Genesis, noted below, that six days shall you labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is Sabbath unto the Lord, your G-d.

[xxxviii] See Ibn Ezra commentary on Genesis 2:15, which describes the work as watering the Garden of Eden. Guarding it meant against animals entering and ruining it. See also the Radak commentary on Genesis 2:15, which describes the work in the Garden of Eden as cultivating the land to yield vegetables, tending the trees to eat the fruit. Guarding it meant against the animals and birds. Reference may also be made to Avot D’Rav Natan 11:1, which reports Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said Adam did not taste any food until he had first done work.

[xxxix] Psalms 128:2.

[xl] See Hagaot Maimoniyot commentary on Maimonides’ Mishne Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:11, in Note 2.

[xli] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Metzia, at page 30b. It cites Exodus 18:20, which provides for Moses to inform them of the path that they shall pursue and the things they should do. This is interpreted to refer to showing each person how they should earn their livelihood. See also Rashi commentary thereon. He explains that the requirement that Moses caution them regarding observance of the laws of the Torah is already adequately covered at the beginning of the verse. Thus, the reference to teaching them the path in which they shall walk and the things they should do must mean something other than Torah. Therefore, the Talmud concludes it means a trade or profession by which a living can be earned. Reference may also be made a similar discussion in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Kamma, at page 99b-100a.

[xlii] Rabbeinu Bachya offers a marvelous insight on these verses in Exodus. He states that during six days of the week, it is possible to serve G-d by doing work. This is how our forefathers served G-d, through their cattle and other physical matters. The seventh day, though, was the Sabbath, a day of rest. It was when no form of work was done and it was wholly devoted to G-d.

[xliii] Exodus 20:9-10. See also the discussion in the Zohar Chadash (Volume I on Genesis, pages 156-160 of the Matok M’Dvash edition). It records that as G-d worked for six days creating the world and then rested on the seventh day, the Sabbath, so too must man. This Zohar text begins with Rabbi Yochanan discussing the meaning of the Verse in Proverbs (24:3) that a person should build his house with wisdom. He interprets the Verse to mean that there are three things a person should do in the following order: (1) build a house to live in; (2) plant a vineyard so as to be able to sustain himself financially; and (3) marry a woman, have kids and support them. The Zohar states that having a means of earning a living will enable a person to support his wife and family and still have time to serve G-d and be involved in Torah. As the Sages said, if there is no flour (i.e.: means of earning a living) there is no Torah (Avot 3:17). The Zohar then cites as proof, the order of creation by G-d of the world. First, G-d created the world as a home for man. Then, G-d prepared a source for feeding and sustaining man (i.e.: earning a living), in the form of the animals, birds, plants and trees, which could be harnessed by man for this purpose. Finally, G-d created a wife for Adam, brought her to him, they married and had children. Following this model, a man must apply himself to earning a living and make times for Torah. He must work hard at both, because by doing so he forgets sin. The Zohar quips that should someone say he’s too highborn or good to work, tell him he’s an idiot. The Zohar goes on to say that G-d did the work of creating the world before man came into existence. G-d rested on the 7th day and, hence, the concept of Shabbos. Rabbi Yochanan says this is why, in the order of creation, mankind was created last. It was to teach man that just as G-d works every day, but the Sabbath, so too must man. G-d also provided an exemplar for man who was created in G-d’s image. Thus, just as G-d created the world and what’s in it, so too must man do the work of developing the world. This responsibility was delegated by G-d to man. The obligation is to do what the world needs and to repair it, as G-d did before man. Interestingly, the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin (at page 29a) suggests a somewhat different order than the Zohar noted above. It advises that the first order of priority is securing a means to earn a living and then secondly obtaining a house. Both sources agree that should only marry after satisfy both the first two threshold requirements. Maimonides is critical of anyone who marries first saying that only a fool would do so (Mishne Torah, Hilchot Deot 5:11). (See Mishne Torah, Hilchot Ishut 12:2 as to a husband’s obligation to support his spouse.

[xliv] Genesis 24:1.

[xlv] Genesis 26:14.

[xlvi] Genesis 31:1.

[xlvii] See The Camel in the Patriarchal Narrative, by Shnayer Z. Leiman, in the Yavneh Review 6:16-26 (1967), which describes how domesticated camels in the time of the Patriarchs were a luxury afforded only by the very wealthy trader. See also The Wealth of the Biblical Patriarchs, by Stephen Caesar, in the Biblical Archeology Review (10/14/09). Example in the Bible of the wealth and business interests of the Patriarchs include the reference to Abraham having abundant cattle, sheep, donkeys and camels, as well as, servants, when he went to Egypt (Genesis 12:16) and that G-d blessed Abraham with everything (Genesis 24:1). There is also the matter of Abraham paying an outrageous price for the field of Ephron, in order to inter Sara in the Machpelah burial cave under the property. He paid the price in the silver coinage that was acceptable negotiable currency for traders at the time (Genesis 23:16). Isaac was a landowner and successful businessman. He seeded the land and reaped a hundredfold yield. He became rich and continued to grow until he became very wealthy (Genesis 26:12-13). Jacob was an astute businessman, who outwitted the wily Lavan (Genesis Chapters 30-31). In the climactic encounter between them, Jacob recounted how hard he worked for Lavan for 20 years to achieve his success. This was despite Lavan changing the deal 10 times. Jacob told Laban that he suffered in the heat of the day and the cold at night and went without sleep. Yet Lavan would have taken it all and left him penniless, were it not for the blessings of G-d, who witnessed his hardship and the toil of his hands (Genesis 31:38). When Jacob encounters Esau, upon his return home to the Land of Israel, he has abundant cattle, donkeys, sheep and goats, as well as, numerous servants (Genesis 32:5). Jacob, his wives and children are all also riding on camels (Genesis 31:17-18);

[xlviii] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin, at page 29a. See also page 30b, beginning with the introductory phrase “To teach him a craft”.

[xlix] See also Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Makkos, at page 8b.

[l] See the discussion in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin, at page 30b, which relates how one implies the other. By combining Torah and a trade or profession, a person can earn life in the world to come because toiling in both causes a person to avoid sin. See also Avot2:2. Maimonides has an interesting way of phrasing a similar concept in his Mishne Torah, Hilchot Gezela V’Aveida 6:11. In the context of avoiding games of chance that are akin to theft, he states that a person should rather spend his time engaged in two things, matters of wisdom and development of the world. It is the combination of mental and physical engagement that is the secret to avoiding sin.

[li] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kesubot 5a. See also Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, Hilchot Shabbos, 306:7. The Magen Avraham and Mishna Brurah on this text explain that this is because this too is a Mitzvah.

[lii] See Babylonia Talmud, Tractate Shabbos 150a and Rashi commentary thereon. See also Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Shabbos, 24:5 and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 306:6.

[liii] Mishna Peah 1:1.

[liv] Ibid. See also Babylonian Talmud, Tractates Sukkah (pages 25a-b), Brachot (page 11a) and Bava Kamma (page 56b).

[lv] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin, at page 30a, as well as, Ran commentary on Tractate Nedarim, at page 8a. The standard of proficiency is based on the interpretation of the word “V’Shinantem” in the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:7) as meaning it must be sharply honed (i.e.: clear-cut) in your mouth, so that if anyone asks, you will be able to answer with alacrity.

[lvi] See Babylonian Talmud in Tractate Bava Batra, at page 21a. Interestingly, the Yeshiva program was first instituted with students at the ages of 16-17. However, that effort proved to be a failure. The Talmud reports that in response to discipline by a teacher, students were known to rebel and just leave. This problem was not cured until Yehoshua ben Gamla reformed the system by establishing Yeshivot in each district for children beginning at the age of 6-7. The Talmud also prescribed methods of discipline that were not harsh. If the problem was a child not studying, then it advised just letting the child remain in the company of his classmates. It notes that eventually he will pay attention to his studies (because of peer pressure). Rashi on the text states that should not reject the child or punish him excessively. The Talmud cautions that children under the age of 6 should not be accepted in Yeshiva. They were presumably too young to be subjected to the intensive program of study, referred to as stuffing the children with Torah, (See Rashi commentary on the text.)

[lvii] Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Deot 5:10.

[lviii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma, at page 35b.

[lix] Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:7.

[lx] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Menachot, at page 99b. See also Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Nedarim, at page 8a. The Vilna Gaon, in his commentary on Peah 1:1, goes even further and asserts just saying one word of the Shema is sufficient.

[lxi] See also Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Brachot 1:5 (page 9a of Zhitomer edition). It states Rabbi Nachman said, in the name of Rebbe, that anyone who reads the Shema in the morning and at night is deemed to have fulfilled the obligation of meditating on the Torah day and night, as prescribed in Joshua 1:8.

[lxii] See Tzlach commentary on Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot (page 35b), under the heading V’osfata.

[lxiii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot, at page 35b.

[lxiv] Avot 2:2.

[lxv] Avot 3:17.

[lxvi] See Commentary of Rabbenu Yonah on the text of this Mishna (Avot 3:17), Notes (7) & (8). Rabbeinu Yonah ascribes a psychological aspect to this dictum. He notes that not being self-supporting has a devastating effect on the person. It destroys his self-esteem. As King Solomon wrote: one who hates gifts will live (Proverbs 15:27). As Avot 1:10 urges, love work. It provides a sense of dignity and self-worth. Rav Ovadiah Bartenura (a 15th Century Rabbi and commentator on the Mishna) in his commentary on this Mishna in Avot, explains loving work means a person is obligated to be involved in work, even if economically self-sufficient and doesn’t need to do so, financially.

[lxvii] See Avot 6:6

[lxviii] See Chovot HaLevavot (literally, Duties of the Heart), Gate of Belief, Chapter 3, Introduction-5. See also Lekutey Moharan 60:1.

[lxix] Orach Chaim, Sections 155-156.

[lxx] Although both Rav Yosef Karo and the Tur note that if he is hungry, then he can first eat something.

[lxxi] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin, at page 82b.

[lxxii] Mishna Kesubot 5:5, also found in Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kesubot, at page 59b.

[lxxiii] Avot 1:10.

[lxxiv] Chapter 11.

[lxxv] In his introduction to this wok and in the Eighth Treatise, Examining the Soul.

[lxxvi] Ecclesiastes 7:16.

[lxxvii] Leviticus 19:18.

[lxxviii] See Maimonides, Shemonah Perakim, Chapter 5.


Wake up! Don’t just stand there. The crying sounds of the Shofar shake our complacency. It’s a call to action during the ten-day period, beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending on Yom Kippur, known as the Days of Awe or the Ten Days of Repentance.

Rosh Hashanah is the time when the world is judged for the ensuing New Year. It is also a time for introspection, reckoning, heartfelt prayers and tears. Even the most pious can’t help feeling some trepidation. After all, no one is perfect. Rosh Hashanah is also a joyful holiday that we celebrate with family and friends, even as we pray for our lives and a good year. We eat special foods to raise our consciousness about what is at stake. This includes dipping an apple in honey to symbolize our yearning for a sweet New Year.

This ten-day period is a particularly propitious time for engaging in repentance. How then to repent? It’s not as easy as it sounds. Change is not as simple as making a resolution to do so. We are born with certain character traits and we are also nurtured to be creatures of habit. Habitual behavior is exceedingly difficult to change. Neuroscientists have written[i]about how a goal directed decision might come into conflict with the habitual behavior circuitry imprinted in the brain. It helps explain why trying to change our behavior can be a very frustrating process. By exercising our freewill to improve ourselves, we are, in effect, fighting our own accumulated experience of both nature and nurture.

The Talmud[ii] reflects on the problem and provides some comfort that the struggle can be successful. It notes that the letter ‘Heh’ in G-d’s name provides a clue. The letter is both open at the bottom and on the upper left side. It resembles a portico where anyone who wishes can leave. Humankind is endowed with freewill and anyone who wishes can either do right or wrong. We are not under compulsion one-way or the other. The Talmud goes on to say that G-d does actively help those who seek to do good and return. However, the entrance on the way back is not the same as the exit on the way out and, hence, the opening at the upper left.

Rabbi Shmuel Eidels[iii], a 16th century Talmudist, explains the Talmud’s metaphor in real terms. There are no real barriers that prevent someone from dropping out of the protective envelop of G-d and the performance of the commandments. Life happens and, absent the discipline of the commandments, new habits develop as the person evolves. Re-engaging and conforming to the Torah’s normative system might require sublimating inborn character traits, as well as, overcoming habitual behavior. Each person has their own subjective challenges to overcome, to re-orient themselves. There is, therefore, no coming back the same way as a person left. Re-access can only be obtained through a more circuitous route that figuratively leads to the opening at the upper left. R’ Eidels refers to Maimonides, who analyzed the subject[iv], for a further explanation of the process of rectification.

Maimonides generally counsels that perfection is about achieving moderation in all things. However, once a person inculcates bad habits, it is extremely difficult to shake them. Maimonides explains virtues or vices are acquired by the frequent repetition of acts that are associated with these qualities, over a long period of time. The person thereby becomes accustomed to them. If the acts performed are good ones, then the person gains a virtue. However, if they are bad ones, then the person acquires a vice. Once inclined towards an extreme, the soul becomes diseased.

Maimonides’ diagnosis of the human condition and habitual behavior is every bit as fresh today as it was more than eight hundred years ago. We now take for granted the link between a physical malady like substance abuse and the mind. The only difference between this and  Maimonides’ holistic approach is that he would likely view the condition as not only as a disease of the body and mind, but also of the soul.

Maimonides’ cure for an illness of the soul is analogous to his treatment of a person suffering from a physical ailment. When the equilibrium of physical health is disturbed, the treatment involves temporarily forcing it to go in exactly the opposite direction until it returns to its proper balanced condition. Once the necessary adjustment is achieved, the more aggressive treatment is ceased, with careful monitoring to assure there’s no relapse.

Resetting moral equilibrium requires a similar process. Maimonides provides the illustrative example of a person, who has developed a disposition of great avarice. Merely requiring the person to practice ordinary deeds of generosity is not curative. Maimonides prescribes that the person be induced to give exceedingly generously and to repeat this often and continuously until the propensity, which was the cause of his avarice, totally disappears. Then, when the person reaches the point where he or she is about to become a spendthrift, the person must be taught to moderate his or her propensity to spend. Thereafter, the person must continue with appropriate deeds of generosity and be vigilant so that there is no relapse into either extreme of avaricious or miserly behavior. Maintenance requires proper training and the repetition of good deeds, which conform to the standard of moderation[v].

It is well neigh impossible to proceed directly to a state of moderation and balance from any extreme of virtue or vice. Few can wake up one day after leading a mostly self-centered and indifferent existence and just proceed to change the way they are or how they relate to family or others. There are too many deeply ingrained habits, other encumbrances like work or cherished activities that get in the way. Thinking about it or expressing the need to change may sound nice, but it’s not a substitute for reforming our behavior. It does take determination; but more important is good practice. Indeed, Maimonides posits that our psyche is affected by what we do. Thus, performing acts of kindness and good deeds is an essential component in the cure, because it is how our brain is rewired. We can also truly benefit from a healthy dose of G-d’s help and that opening in a different direction.

Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, a 16th century Kaballist, considers the same issue from a somewhat different perspective[vi]. His focus is on avoiding the triggers that precipitate habitual behavior. His solution is to avoid situations that would result in triggering a conditioned response. Ordinary boundaries are insufficient to contain the sinful impulses and urges of someone well schooled and experienced in satisfying them. He, therefore, suggests erecting multiple barriers to distance the person from sin. Hence, the Talmudic reference to the small opening on the upper left.

I asked my grandchildren and others at one of the festive meals we attended this Rosh Hashanah to reflect on how they might shake it up. The answers were wonderful. The kids loved how everyone expressed concerns about their less than constructive habits and thought about ways to shake it up in a positive fashion. It was infectious and everyone was inspired by the discussion. The kid’s responses were precious. They included coming home and avoiding the habit of immediately opening the TV, checking the smart-phone or playing a video game, in order to do homework or a good deed. Some of the adults took up this theme and said they would refrain from staring at their smart-phone after they arrived home and give their spouse and family their undivided attention. Being mindful of others and helping those in need was a pervasive theme. The catch phrase of the evening was let’s shake it up.

Whether one of the methods noted above or some combination or other method of repentance is chosen, it’s a very personal and subjective process. One thing for sure, though, thinking about it is insufficient; it’s about doing something different and shaking it up. This ten-day period is a particularly good time to do so and G-d is there to help us complete the cure, once we’ve started the process. We’re down to less than a week and counting down.

Pick a good deed to perform or bad deed to avoid during the next few days until Yom Kippur. Reach out and mend fences with a family member, friend or neighbor you’ve tangled with this year. Hey, just hug it out. Show your spouse and children that you appreciate them and mean it with all your heart. Don’t be afraid to shed a tear of happiness and show them you are proud of them and truly care. It’s a time for forgiveness and overcompensating with graciousness and kindness[vii]. Wish everyone well; it’s thrilling to be able to bring people together and secure the blessings of peace.

It’s time to shake it up. May everyone’s journey of repentance be blessed with success and may we all be inscribed with a happy, healthy and blessed New Year.

[i] See, for example, Endocannabinoid Modulation of Orbitostriatal Circuits Gates Habit Formation, by Christina M. GremelJessica H. ChanceyBrady K. AtwoodGuoxiang LuoRachael NeveCharu RamakrishnanKarl DeisserothDavid M. Lovinger and Rui M. Costa, in Neuron, Volume 90, ISSUE 6 ( June 15, 2016).

[ii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Menachot, at page 29b.

[iii] In his Maharsha commentary on the foregoing Talmudic text.

[iv] Maimonides, Shemonah Perakim, Chapter 4.

[v] Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Deot 1:7.

[vi] In his Tomer Devorah, Chapter 1:8.

[vii] A person, who emulates G-d’s ways of mercy and graciousness in relation to others, benefits from these same qualities being invoked on his or her behalf . See Tomer Devorah, Chapter 1:1.

Leonard Grunstein, a retired attorney and banker, founded and served as Chairman of Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of NY. He also founded Project Ezrah and serves on the Board of Revel at Yeshiva University and the AIPAC National Council. He has published articles in the Banking Law Journal, Real Estate Finance Journal and other fine publications.