The Hoop and the Drum – How to be a Good Neighbor


Each of the following shaylos is an actual case of inter-neighbor altercations that I was asked about or over which I presided. All these cases deal with shaylos about neighbors’ rights within the framework of halacha. What may I do or not do on my property that may infringe on my neighbor’s right to gain full benefit and enjoyment from his property?

Question #1: After moving into a new apartment, my grandmother discovered that her next-door neighbor practices his drums every day. On some days he even has band practice in his house. When we asked the drummer to limit his hours or decrease the volume, he insisted that he has been doing this for years and that this is his livelihood. Grandma finds the noise blasting through the walls highly distressing. Can we force the neighbor to drum elsewhere?

Question #2: Yehudah and Tamar dwell in a semi-detached house. Levi purchased the other side of the house as an investment, and rented it out. A few weeks later, Tamar calls Levi to complain about the volume and late hours of noise emanating from the new tenants and asks Levi to have them shape up or ship out. Levi meets with his tenants, attempting to explain that their behavior is inappropriate for the neighborhood, but they insist that their behavior is normative. If this continues, do Yehudah and Tamar have the halachic right to insist that Levi terminate the tenants’ lease?

Question #3: There is always such a racket upstairs! I am certain that their kids are rollerblading or playing basketball right over my head, but their mother insists that they are just normal, active children. What may I do to improve the situation that is halachically acceptable and will not land me in jail?

Question #4: Several years ago, Reuven (who lives on the ground floor) affixed a basketball hoop to the wall of the apartment building and laid out a regulation-sized half-court. Shimon, who now lives directly above Reuven, would like to hang a clothesline outside his window, but as any large item hanging from the clothesline will lie on the hoop and become dirty, he would like Reuven to remove the hoop to a different location. This, of course, will ruin the basketball court.


Unless local custom dictates otherwise (a concept I will explain shortly), one may use one’s house for normal household use, provided that the activity does not damage my neighbor’s person or property. “Typical domestic use” includes work done in one’s house to earn a livelihood. For this reason, at the time of the Mishnah, one could use one’s house for simple manufacturing, and a neighbor could not object to a residence being used as a bakery or to dye clothing, even if the neighbor’s house became uncomfortably warm as a result (Mishnah Bava Basra 20b).


There is an exception to this general principle: a neighbor may prevent a store from opening in a residential property. Why is a store different from other livelihoods? Because a store generates a lot of foot traffic, a neighbor has the halachic right to prevent the noise and bustle.

But do people entering and leaving a small household store create more discomfort for the neighbor than the heat of a baker’s oven or a dyeing operation? Why does the Mishnah rule that one can prevent the neighbor running a store, but not a bakery?

The reason is that, although the discomfort generated by the store may sometimes be less than the heat of the oven, the Mishnah forbade the store because its proprietor can sell his wares in the marketplace, which, in that era, was the primary business location in town. Since it was unnecessary to sell merchandise in one’s house, insisting that a neighbor sell his wares elsewhere did not jeopardize his livelihood. Manufacturing, on the other hand, was generally done in people’s homes (Shu’t Chasam Sofer #92).


Of course, we then need to clarify the next issue: What is the halacha when two permissible domestic uses preclude one another? For example, Upstairs wants to use his house as a warehouse to store grain, whereas Downstairs wants to use his house as a bakery. Both of these uses are considered “typical domestic use,” since each is using his domicile as a means of earning his livelihood. However, the two uses are mutually exclusive, since the heat rising from the bakery will ruin the grain. May Upstairs prevent his neighbor from baking?

The Mishnah rules that whoever began his operation first has the right to continue. If Upstairs began storing grain before Downstairs opened his bakery, the bakery may not be opened. However, if Upstairs has not yet begun to store grain, Downstairs may open a bakery in his house. Once one neighbor begins using his house for a certain purpose, a second neighbor using his part for an incompatible purpose is considered as creating damage.


In earlier times, most people making a living from crafts, small manufacturing, other cottage industries or trading used their house as their base of operation. Thus, using your house as a bakery, factory, or warehouse was normal household use.


Indeed they do. In general, halachos that involve financial arrangements between two parties are governed by the prevalent local practice. This is called, hakol keminhag ha’medinah, “everything follows local custom.” The rationale is that the parties assume that local custom governs their relationships, and includes that people buy or rent a house or apartment assuming that they and the neighbors will follow the accepted local norm. Therefore, today one may not open a bakery or dyeing operation in a residential building since it violates common practice.

Everything depends on contemporary local custom. Thus, examining the different responsa discussing these issues provides an interesting glimpse into our forebears’ livelihoods and lives. For example, a nineteenth-century responsum discusses the following situation:

A man passed on, leaving his large house to his three sons, who divided it into three apartments for themselves. One son opened a bar in his apartment, which was apparently an accepted practice in those days. However, the other brothers wanted him to close it because of the quantity and type of traffic it generated (Shu’t Chasam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat #92). On the other hand, the bartender brother contended that this was his livelihood and as such he is permitted to operate his livelihood in his residence.

When the rav who was ruling this issue referred the shaylah to the Chasam Sofer, the rav discussed whether using your house as a tavern is considered a legitimate domestic use. Superficially, it would appear that it is not, just as one may not use one’s house as a store, since it is not considered normal household use when many customers visit a residence. However, the rav who referred the shaylah noted that it was common practice (in those times) to sell sugar or coffee out of one’s house because this was necessary for people’s livelihood. Even though these situations should also be prohibited according to the Gemara, nonetheless, minhag hamedinah permitted it, and perhaps this same custom could justify opening a tavern in one’s house. Furthermore, the rav contended that a tavern is not a business that one can carry out in the town’s marketplace, because a bar has to be a place conducive for people to sit together and relax.

The Chasam Sofer suggests a reason to require the closing of the tavern, based on the type of clientele it generates, but does not rule conclusively that this would provide a legitimate claim to close it. Thus, we see that what would seem highly obvious to us – that it is forbidden to open a tavern in your residence against the wishes of your neighbors – was not obvious to the great poskim who ruled on this issue two hundred years ago. This demonstrates how times change.


We can now try to apply the principles we have learned to the cases we mentioned at the beginning of the article. In our first shaylah, Grandma’s neighbor practices his drums, thus disturbing her. Grandma would like him to limit his hours or decrease the sound, but he insists that he has been doing this for years and that this is his livelihood. Can we force the neighbor to drum elsewhere?

Is drumming in your house an accepted practice? Can one claim that this is a permitted hobby in a residential neighborhood? In addition, can one claim that this is necessary for one’s livelihood?

This would primarily depend on the accepted local custom. If, indeed, drumming is permitted during daytime hours and the drummer’s activities are legal and accepted according to local ordinance, then Grandma may have no right to prevent him from continuing his activity. However if local custom precludes this activity, one could prevent him from drumming even though it is his livelihood.

Thus, if Grandma moved into a retirement community where one would assume that everything will be nice and quiet, she can certainly insist that her neighbor drum elsewhere.


In this particular case, the parties involved lived in an area where there is no established practice prohibiting drumming during daytime hours. Grandma’s family wanted to know whether there were halachic grounds to prevent her neighbor from drumming when it greatly distressed her.

From what we have mentioned above, it appears that the drummer has a legitimate claim to use his home for his livelihood. However, this is not always the case, as the following 14th century responsum indicates:

A weaver had a home-operated business, which utilized a large and noisy loom. Although he had been operating this business for a number of years, his neighbor sued him in beis din to remove the loom from the property because of two claims:

1. The loom was causing damage to their common wall.

2. The wife of the neighbor was ill, and the noise disturbed her.

The Rivash (Shu’t #196) ruled that both claims were legitimate, and that the weaver must remove the loom even though it had been operating for years. He contended that, although most people can tolerate this amount of noise, someone who is highly sensitive or ill can legitimately claim that noise injures them, thereby requiring the neighbor to cease the operation (Rama, Choshen Mishpat 156:2; see also Rama, Choshen Mishpat 155:39).

It is historically noteworthy that the Rivash did not prohibit having a large loom operating in one’s house under all circumstances. On the contrary, the Rivash implies that one could operate such a loom if it did not damage the property nor injure one’s neighbor.

Thus according to the Rivash’s psak, in the case of Grandma’s neighborly drummer, if her health is fragile and she would be ill-effected by the drumming, one could prevent him from drumming.


We can now examine the background behind Questions #2 and #3 above: In question #3, the downstairs neighbor finds the noise from the active family above them to be quite intolerable. The upstairs neighbor insists that this is the standard noise of normal, active children. Can downstairs ask beis din to force upstairs to relocate?

Aside from the questions of local custom (minhag ha’medinah) discussed above, we need to clarify something else in this case: Is the upstairs noise unusual, or is it simply the usual bustle produced by a large household, particularly one with children, but the downstairs neighbor is extremely sensitive to noise? Does the downstairs neighbor have a valid claim that the upstairs neighbor should be quieter, and if he does, must the upstairs neighbor relocate?

Similarly, question #2 also hinges on whether the neighbor’s noise is abnormal, regardless of who lives next door. If the neighbor is a bit noisy, and the complaining neighbor is merely more sensitive than most people, there are no grounds to require the termination of the lease. On the other hand, if the neighbor is really objectionable, the landlord should terminate their lease on this basis.

The Chazon Ish (Bava Basra 13:11) points out that the Rivash’s case involved use of a loom, which, although suited to household use according to Chazal’s definition, is not a typical household use. He contends that one may not prevent someone from using his house for a typical household use, even if a neighbor finds the noise level distressful. Thus, someone whose family makes a great deal of noise may continue to do so. Even if a neighbor becomes ill and is intolerable of such noise, he still cannot force the noisy neighbor to move. Therefore, one cannot force a neighbor whose children cry in the middle of the night to move, even if you lived there first. However, you can prevent them from having the kids play ball or rollerblading in the house since these are not typical household uses when you live above someone else.

Rav Tzvi Spitz, a dayan in Yerushalayim, discusses the following case: A family adopted a foster child, and the neighbors complain that the child makes loud noises at all hours of the night, disturbing their rest. The neighbors contend that, although it is a mitzvah to take care of a foster child, the foster parents have no right to perform their mitzvah at the neighbors’ expense. The neighbors contend that they have a right to enjoy peace and quiet in their apartments. Can the neighbors force the foster parents to relinquish the foster child or move?

Rav Spitz ruled that since taking care of children is considered the major purpose of a house, the neighbors cannot claim that their rights preclude the rights of someone to raise a child in their house, and furthermore, one cannot distinguish between raising one’s own child or raising someone else’s (Minchas Tzvi 1:10).


In many places it is standard domestic use to have a clothesline hanging outside your window. In these locations, one has a right to hang a clothesline. On the other hand, is it normal domestic use to hang a basketball hoop? If this is a location where both uses are considered normal, then whoever was there first would have the claim, similar to the Gemara’s case of the bakery and the storage area. If the right to a laundry line is considered normal house use, and the basketball hoop is not, one could argue that the hoop should be taken down to make way for the laundry line.

With a healthy dose of mutual good will, most people should manage to live with their neighbors in peace and tranquility. And in cases of conflict, we must not hesitate to use halacha as our guide, just as we do in all other aspects of our lives.


Curious Kiddush Shaylos

The Torah commands us to declare the sanctity of Shabbos, a mitzvah we fulfill when we recite Kiddush before beginning the meal. Notwithstanding that this mitzvah appears very clear cut, it sometimes involves interesting shaylos.

We recite Kiddush before the seudah at night and also Shabbos morning. The Torah mitzvah of Kiddush is fulfilled at night and has two brachos, one is on the wine and the other is the special Kiddush bracha. The daytime Kiddush was instituted by Chazal to demonstrate the specialness of Shabbos meals – therefore, we drink a cup of wine immediately before the meals begin. (The pesukim that we recite before this Kiddush are a later minhag, presumably to emphasize that we are reciting Kiddush.)

One is forbidden to eat or drink before reciting Kiddush. The poskim dispute whether an ill or weak person who eats before davening should make Kiddush before doing so. There is also a dispute whether a woman makes Kiddush before eating breakfast on Shabbos morning, or whether she does not need to make Kiddush until she eats later with her husband.

Someone who failed to recite the full Kiddush at night, for whatever reason, must recite it before or during one of the Shabbos day meals (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 271:8). We will discuss later an interesting application of this rule.

You can fulfill the mitzvah of Kiddush either by reciting it yourself or hearing it from someone who is reciting it. When the head of household recites Kiddush, he does so for everyone at the table. Everyone is yotzei Kiddush, he by reciting it and, everyone else, by hearing it. This is referred to as the baal habayis being “motzi” the others in their mitzvah.

Several requirements must be met in order to fulfill the mitzvah through hearing someone else’s Kiddush. One of the requirements is that the person reciting Kiddush must be obligated in the mitzvah. For this reason, only an adult can be motzi other adults.

When I was twelve years old, I once spent Shabbos with my widowed grandmother, a”h. She wanted me, as the “man” of the house, to recite Kiddush, and I was happy to oblige. Years later, it occurred to me that my recital did not fulfill her obligation to fulfill the mitzvah of Kiddush, since I was under bar mitzvah at the time.


The people fulfilling the mitzvah must hear the Kiddush. Therefore, if the baal habayis mumbles inaudibly, they do not fulfill the mitzvah. Trying to solve this problem can sometimes create shalom bayis issues or hurt someone’s feelings. A rav’s direction may be very helpful.

Someone once asked me the following shaylah. His father-in-law recited Kiddush in a very garbled manner. Even if his father-in-law, indeed, recited a full Kiddush, he (the son-in-law) did not hear enough to be yotzei. How could he fulfill the mitzvah of Kiddush without hurting anyone’s feelings?

I proposed two possible suggestions. One was to find some practical excuse why he (the son-in-law) should recite his own Kiddush after his father-in-law (such as, this is his personal custom). Alternatively, if this is not a practical solution, he and his wife could discreetly make Kiddush in their own room, beforehand. (Of course, this solution will not help when their children get older.) Later in this article, we will discuss whether one can recite Kiddush in one room and eat in another.


It is necessary that the person making Kiddush intend to be motzi those who want to fulfill the mitzvah, and they must have intent to fulfill the mitzvah with his recital. This leads us to a curious situation that once happened to me.

The hosts where we were eating honored me to recite Kiddush first – or so I thought. I assumed that I was reciting Kiddush for myself, and that the baal habayis would then recite Kiddush for his family. However, upon completing my Kiddush, it became clear that the family had assumed that I had made Kiddush for them, as well. But since this was not my intention, they were not yotzei.

It turned out that the head of household was embarrassed to recite Kiddush in my presence. Under the unusual circumstances, I may well have ended up reciting Kiddush twice, one right after the other, because the family still needed someone to be motzi them in Kiddush. Thus, if the baal habayis was still reluctant to recite Kiddush, I could have recited it a second time for them, because of the concept “Yatza motzi,” “someone who has already fulfilled the mitzvah may recite Kiddush, another time, for someone who has not yet fulfilled it.”


One may recite a birkas hamitzvah (a bracha on a mitzvah) on behalf of another person (presuming that we are both obligated to fulfill this mitzvah), even if one is not presently fulfilling this mitzvah, because of the principle “kol Yisroel areivim zeh lazeh,” “all Jews are responsible for one another,” (Rosh Hashanah 29a). This concept of “areivus” means that, since I am responsible to help another Jew observe mitzvos, his responsibility to fulfill a particular mitzvah is also my mitzvah. Since I am responsible to see that my fellow Jew makes Kiddush, I can recite the Kiddush bracha on his behalf. For this same reason, I may blow shofar in a shul and recite the brachos for other people, even if I fulfilled the mitzvah of shofar earlier.


I was once asked the following shaylah. Mr. Hirsch was hospitalized, and his wife was unable to make Kiddush for her family. Mr. Goldberg, one of the Hirsch’s neighbors, asked whether he could make Kiddush for the Hirsch family on his way home from shul, and then go home and make Kiddush for his own family. I told him that this was perfectly acceptable. However, if he was not planning to eat anything at the Hirsch residence, he should not drink the Kiddush wine but, instead, ask one of the Hirsch adults to drink most of a revi’is (about one-and-a-half ounces) from the cup (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 273:4; 271:13). I will explain, shortly, why Mr. Goldberg should not drink from the Hirsch goblet.

This seems strange. How can Mr. Goldberg recite “borei pri hagafen” and not drink any wine?


The answer to this question needs an introduction. It is true that one cannot recite a bracha on food or fragrance (birkas ha’ne’henin) for someone else’s benefit, unless he is anyway making that bracha for himself. This is because the other person is not fulfilling any obligatory mitzvah by reciting these brachos. He needs to recite a bracha because he is gaining benefit, not because he is obligated to perform a mitzvah. Therefore, the rule of areivus does not apply in this case. Because the other person has no obligation to recite a bracha, someone else does not share in his mitzvah and cannot make the bracha on his behalf.

However, the bracha on Kiddush wine is different, because it is considered part of the obligatory mitzvah of Kiddush (Rosh Hashanah 29a). Therefore, Mr. Goldberg can make borei pri hagafen for the Hirsches, even though he is not drinking any wine. (It should be noted that it is disputed whether this halacha is true for the daytime Kiddush.)


Sometimes one has guests for a Shabbos daytime meal who have not yet fulfilled the mitzvah of Kiddush this Shabbos. (A common application is when a guest is not yet observant.) This provides one with an opportunity to perform the additional mitzvah (in addition to exposing one’s guests to Shabbos) of Kiddush. As explained above, the normal daytime Kiddush is not a replacement for the night Kiddush. Therefore, reciting the daytime Kiddush will not help our not-yet-observant lunch guests fulfill the mitzvah of Kiddush this Shabbos. How can one alleviate the situation?

Since Kiddush can be recited the entire Shabbos day, one should recite both brachos of the Friday night Kiddush before the daytime meal, on behalf of his guests. Although he has already fulfilled the mitzvah, he can still be motzi his guests. However, in order to do so, he must explain to them that hearing Kiddush is a mitzvah, and that they should listen to him with the intent to fulfill the mitzvah. (It is always a good idea to do this, so that one’s guests know to fulfill the mitzvah.)


Before answering this question, we need to explain the concept of Ein Kiddush ela bimkom seudah, “Kiddush must be recited in the place that one will be eating a meal” (Pesachim 101a).

The Gemara relates the following story. One Friday evening, Rabba made Kiddush. Although his disciple Abaye was present, Abaye planned to eat his Shabbos meal in his own lodgings. Rabba urged Abaye to “taste something” before he left, voicing concern that the light in Abaye’s lodging might extinguish before his arrival, making it impossible to make Kiddush there. (I presume that Abaye was unable to locate his wine in the dark.) Rabba pointed out that Abaye would not be yotzei with the Kiddush he just heard unless he ate something at Rabba’s house because of Ein Kiddush ela bimakom seudah (Pesachim 101a).

This halacha is derived from the pasuk, Vekarasa laShabbos oneg (Yeshayahu 58:13), which Chazal midrashically interpret to mean, “In the place where you declare the Kiddush of Shabbos, you should also celebrate your Shabbos meal” (Rashbam and Tosafos ad loc.). From this we derive that one must eat a meal in the place that one recites Kiddush.


The Gemara rules that someone fulfills the mitzvah of Kiddush if he recited (or heard) Kiddush in one part of a large room and ate in a different part of the room, since the entire room is considered the same place. Some poskim contend that one should not move to a different part of the house between making Kiddush and eating, unless he knew at the time of Kiddush that he might do this (Magen Avraham 273:1; Mishnah Berurah 273:3). Even this should be done only under extenuating circumstances (see Biur Halacha 273:1). However, if one recited Kiddush in one building and then went to a different building without eating, one certainly did not fulfill the mitzvah of Kiddush and must recite (or hear) it again. This is why Mr. Goldberg could not drink the Hirsch’s wine. Since he had no intent to eat at the Hirsch’s house, he could not fulfill the mitzvah of Kiddush there. Therefore, he also couldn’t drink the wine, since one cannot drink before fulfilling the mitzvah of Kiddush. (According to most, but not all, poskim, Mr. Goldberg has another option: he could drink the Kiddush and then another cup of wine. This would be considered Kiddush bimkom seudah.)


These two concepts (areivus and ein Kiddush ela bimkom seudah) are the basis of the custom that the chazzan recites Kiddush in shul Friday evening, without drinking the cup of wine.

Why is Kiddush recited in shul at the end of Friday evening davening?

The Gemara mentions that, in its time, guests often stayed and ate their Shabbos meals in rooms attached to the shul, and someone recited Kiddush in shul on their behalf. Since the guests were eating in the same building, it was considered Kiddush bimkom seudah and they fulfilled their mitzvah.

However, the chazzan who makes Kiddush does not fulfill his mitzvah, since he is eating his meal at his house, which is in a different building. Therefore, he should not drink the Kiddush wine. Instead, it should be drunk by a guest eating in the building, and, if there are no guests, the cup is drunk by children who are permitted to drink or eat before Kiddush. (Although, in general, children should be taught to keep mitzvos like adults, there is no requirement of chinuch in this case, a topic to discuss in a different article.)


I was once asked the following question by someone who was a guest at a Shabbos bar mitzvah:

“The baal simcha made Kiddush in the shul immediately after davening, but the reception was conducted in the shul’s social hall. Is this an acceptable way to fulfill the mitzvah?”

Based on the above discussion, we can answer this question. If the social hall was in a different building, they would need to recite Kiddush again in the social hall. Assuming the social hall where they would be eating was in the same building as the Kiddush, this was acceptable, under extenuating circumstances. It would be preferable that they follow a different procedure, such as having Kiddush made in the social hall.


Rabba’s words (“taste something”) imply that one fulfills Kiddush without necessarily eating a full meal, notwithstanding the Gemara’s statement that one must eat a meal where he recites Kiddush. The Geonim explain that one must begin his meal where he said Kiddush, either by eating some bread or drinking wine, and this is quoted in Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 273:5). The Geonim explicitly state that one does not fulfill Kiddush bimkom seudah by eating only fruit. Although some poskim disagree, arguing that one fulfills Kiddush bimkom seudah by eating fruit (Shiltei Hagiborim, Pesachim 20a:1, quoting Riaz, as explained by Magen Avraham 273:11), the accepted practice does not follow this opinion (Magen Avraham 273:11; Shu”t Ein Yitzchak #12).

Magen Avraham rules that one fulfills Kiddush bimkom seudah by eating a kezayis-sized piece of mezonos (the same size piece that requires an “al hamichyah” blessing afterwards), and this is the prevalent practice followed on Shabbos morning, when people often make Kiddush and then eat pastry or crackers. The poskim dispute whether drinking wine fulfills Kiddush bimkom seudah (see Rabbi Akiva Eiger to 273:5 and Mishnah Berurah 273:26).

Some people follow the practice of the Vilna Gaon to recite Kiddush only immediately before the meal they are eating for the Shabbos seudah (see Biur Halacha and Rabbi Akiva Eiger to 273:5). In his opinion, the concept of Vekarasa laShabbos oneg means that one should declare the Kiddush of Shabbos, specifically, at the time that one celebrates the Shabbos meal.


Kiddush sets the tone of the whole Shabbos meal. In the midst of remembering the details and requirements of this mitzvah, we should never forget to focus, also, on the beauty of Shabbos and the wonderful opportunity we are given to sanctify it verbally, day and night!


Brachos on Good Tidings

After the wondrous splitting of the Yam Suf, Bnei Yisroel recited a brocha of thanks to Hashem.

close up photography of wet leaves
Photo by Sitthan Kutty on

Question #1: Raining brachos

What brocha do we recite when it rains?

Question #2: Grandson?

Do we recite a brocha upon hearing of the birth of a new grandson?


Rashi, in parshas Lech Lecha (Bereishis 12:7), notes that Avraham Avinu built a mizbei’ach to commemorate the two wonderful messages he had just received, that he would have children and that his descendants would receive Eretz Yisroel. This provides another source for the brachos that Chazal instituted when someone hears good news, including, the brachos of shehecheyanu and hatov vehameitiv. The sources in the Mishnah and the Gemara for most of these halachos are in the ninth chapter of Brachos. The Mishnah (Brachos 54a) states, “On the rains and on good news one recites [Boruch Attah Hashem Elokeinu Melech ha’olam] hatov vehameitiv… Someone who built a new house or purchased new items recites shehecheyanu vekiyemanu vehigi’anu lazman hazeh.”

Brocha on rain

Chazal instituted a brocha to be recited when it begins to rain heavily (Brachos 59b; Rambam, Hilchos Brachos 10:5; Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 221). Those of us who live in North America, where rain is not seasonal, may find the idea of “the beginning of the rains” to be strange, since, in most of North America, it rains at all times of the year. However, much, if not most, of the world has seasonal rainfall. In Eretz Yisroel, for example, it does not rain in the summer. All rain begins in the late fall, hopefully, and it rains, occasionally, during the winter. By mid-spring, it stops raining for the next six to eight months.

When living in such a climate, it is, quite literally, vitally important that it rain during the correct season. Chazal instituted a brocha to be recited when the first significant rain falls (Brachos 59b). The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 221:1) adds a requirement that this brocha be recited only when the populace has been concerned regarding the lack of rainfall, a condition to which the Biur Halacha agrees.

The Rema, who lived in Poland, notes “that the reason we do not recite this brocha is because in our areas, rain is frequent, and it is rare that there is a drought.” However, those who live in Eretz Yisroel or other places where droughts are, unfortunately, not uncommon should recite this brocha (Mishnah Berurah 221:2). In addition, the Mishnah Berurah notes that, even in a land in which rain is usually plentiful, should there be a drought, this brocha is recited when it finally rains.

What brocha?

The Gemara has a discussion as to which brocha a person should recite when it begins to rain. The halachic authorities understand that the Gemara’s conclusion which brocha is recited depends on an individual’s circumstances. However, there is a dispute between the Rif and the Rosh regarding some of the details of these laws. The Rambam’s understanding of the topic appears to be very similar to the Rif’s.

According to the Rif:

(1) Someone who owns agricultural land, and has partners who also benefit from the rain, recites hatov vehameitiv.

(2) Someone who owns agricultural land, but has no partners who also benefit from the rain, recites shehecheyanu.

(3) Someone who does not have any agricultural land recites a special brocha established for the occasion of the rain falling. The Gemara asks what brocha is recited on the rains and quotes a dispute between Rav Yehudah and Rabbi Yochanan. Rav Yehudah cites the following brief text, “[Boruch Attah Hashem Elokeinu Melech ha’olam] modim anachnu loch al kol tipah u’tipah shehoradta lanu, we thank You for each and every drop that you brought us.” Rabbi Yochanan adds to this an extensive passage and then adds a closing to the brocha. Among the rishonim, we find at least four different opinions as to how Rabbi Yochanan rules that this brocha should be concluded.

As I mentioned above in (3), this is the text of the brocha recited only when someone does not own a piece of agricultural property. Someone who has a field that benefits directly from the rain recites hatov vehameitiv upon witnessing the rain [(1) above]. If he has no partners in his land, the Rif rules that he recites shehecheyanu (2) whereas the Rosh rules that he recites hatov vehameitiv. I will explain shortly why these two authorities dispute this matter.

Seeing is believing!

Are there any other halachic distinctions between reciting hatov vehameitiv or shehecheyanu for the new rain and reciting the special brocha on rain?

Indeed, there are. By way of introduction: The Sefer Chassidim (#844) instructs that, when we hear good news, we should immediately recite the brocha, either hatov vehameitiv or shehecheyanu, in order to make the brocha as close as possible to hearing the welcome news, and then thank the person who told us the good tidings. The Pri Megadim notes that you should recite the brocha only when you know that the source of your information is reliable. In today’s world, if your source is not necessarily reliable, you can try to verify the information relatively quickly.

All authorities agree that the brachos of hatov vehameitiv and shehecheyanu may be recited, whether you saw the gift that Hashem has now provided, or a reliable source verifies the good news. However, regarding the special brocha recited for rain, the halachic authorities dispute as to whether this brocha is recited only when you actually see it rain, or even if you only heard that it rained. The Magen Avraham contends that you do not recite this brocha if you heard that it rained, but did not see it, whereas the Shitah Mekubetzes rules that you do. The Mishnah Berurah (221:7) concludes that, because of the rule of safek brachos lehakeil, the special brocha is recited only if you actually see it raining.

New house

As we mentioned above, the Mishnah instructs someone who built a new house or purchased new items to recite shehecheyanu vekiyemanu vehigi’anu lazman hazeh.

If someone’s house burnt down, and he is now able to rebuild it, he recites hatov vehameitiv, notwithstanding that he would have preferred to have his original house and avoid all the aggravation and grief that transpired (Pri Chadash; Mishnah Berurah 223:12). If he tore down his house and rebuilt it, he does not make a brocha. However, if he enlarged it in the process, he recites a brocha.

Shehecheyanu or hatov vehameitiv

The Gemara (Brachos 59b) asks what criterion determines whether we recite shehecheyanu or hatov vehameitiv. The Gemara concludes that, when the benefits are shared with someone else, we recite hatov vehameitiv, whereas when only one person receives direct benefit, he recites shehecheyanu. Therefore, if a married couple purchases or receives something from which both will benefit, they recite hatov vehameitiv, whereas upon acquiring an item that only one of them uses, such as a garment, the brocha is shehecheyanu (see Brachos 59b). In the first case, one of them may be motzi the other in the brocha, or they may, each, recite the brocha separately.

Upon this basis, the Rosh explains the dispute between himself and the Rif, germane to which brocha is recited for rain by someone who owns agricultural property. The Rif and Rosh agree that if the field owner has partners in the land he owns, he recites hatov vehameitiv. If he does not have partners, the Rif rules that he recites shehecheyanu, whereas the Rosh rules that he recites hatov vehameitiv. The Rif understands that the appropriate brocha is shehecheyanu, since he has no partners who directly benefit from his field receiving rain. The Rosh contends that the determinant is not whether you have partners in your field, but whether you have partners in the chesed that Hashem did, and you were not the only one for whom it rained. Since the entire local population benefits directly from the rain, he has partners in the chesed, and therefore recites hatov vehameitiv.

Since the Rambam agrees with the Rif, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 221:2) follows his usual approach of ruling according to the majority opinion among these three luminaries, the Rif, the Rambam and the Rosh.

Friends and family

There are many other instances in which you recite shehecheyanu or hatov vehameitiv. The Gemara (Brachos 58b) and the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 225:1) rule that seeing a close friend or family member whom you have not seen for thirty days is cause to recite shehecheyanu. The Shulchan Aruch explains that this brocha is recited only upon seeing a friend “who is very dear to him and he is happy to see.” The Mishnah Berurah (225:1) explains that a “close family member” means a sibling, spouse, parent or child. The Gemara teaches that hatov vehameitiv is recited upon the birth of a son, and the Shulchan Aruch rules that both parents are equally obligated. The Mishnah Berurah rules that a brocha is also recited on the birth of a daughter.


At this point, we have enough background to discuss the second of our opening questions: “Do we recite a brocha upon hearing of the birth of a new grandson?”

The Gemara mentions reciting a brocha only on the birth of a son, but does not mention a grandson, although this event certainly generates a huge amount of simcha. For this reason, the Sefer Chassidim (#843) rules that we recite a brocha upon the birth of a grandson.

However, not all rishonim agree. The Rashba rallies proof that reciting shehecheyanu or hatov vehameitiv is not only because of the happiness of the event, but also because there is some physical benefit from the event. In the case of a child being born, he contends that only parents recite the brocha, because of the long-term benefits of having someone who can assist parents in their senior years. This particular benefit is more certain of a child than of a grandchild; therefore, the Rashba contends that, since Chazal never mentioned reciting a brocha upon the birth of a grandchild, there is no brocha on this occasion (Shu’t Harashba 4:77). The Biur Halacha (223:1 s.v. yaldah) concludes that since he found no early authority other than the Sefer Chassidim who requires a brocha upon hearing of the birth of a grandchild, he advises refraining.


What is the halacha if your correspondence with someone has caused you to form a very close friendship, but you have never met him in person? Do you recite a brocha of shehecheyanu when meeting for the first time? Based on a responsum authored by the Rashba (4:76), the Shulchan Aruch rules that you do not recite shehecheyanu when meeting him for the first time in person (Orach Chayim 225:2). In my opinion, the same thing is true if you have met virtually, via Zoom or Skype, but will now meet in person for the first time.


The Mishnah Berurah (222:2) rules that someone who heard several good tidings at the same time makes only one brocha on all the good news. Therefore, the birth of twins generates only one brocha.

Too much of a good thing

The Kaf Hachayim (222:10) points out the following: if the person hearing the good news may become overly excited, and this excitement might endanger his health, tell it to him gradually, just as you would tell him bad news gradually so as not to shock him.

New clothes

The Mishnah quoted above says, “Someone who built a new house or purchased new items says shehecheyanu vekiyemanu vehigi’anu lazman hazeh.” This halacha is true whether the new item is clothing or anything else that makes this particular individual happy (Mishnah Berurah 223:13). Obviously, this will depend on the personality of the individual and on how wealthy he is.

The halacha states that shehecheyanu is recited, even if the item is not brand new, as long as this person has never owned it before. If he is happy to now own this item, there is enough reason to recite shehecheyanu (Shulchan Aruch). This may be true, even if it is a garment and someone else wore it already.

New socks?

The rishonim dispute whether we recite shehecheyanu when acquiring new items that most people consider of less significance. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 223:6) rules not to recite a brocha on an item that people consider less significant, such as a robe, shoes or socks. However, he adds that a poor person, who is happy about the acquisition of the item, does recite shehecheyanu. The Rema disagrees, quoting several sources that even a poor person does not recite shehecheyanu on the acquisition of simple garments, and notes that this is the accepted practice.

New shul

When a new shul is built or purchased, the chazzan should recite hatov vehameitiv for everyone in the congregation (Magen Avraham; Mishnah Berurah 223:11).

What about a new sefer?

Some acharonim mention that you may recite a brocha of shehecheyanu when acquiring a new sefer (Mor Uketziyah 223; Chayei Adam). Others contend that shehecheyanu on new items is restricted to those from which one gets personal benefit or pleasure, whereas the “benefit” of seforim is categorized as mitzvos lav lehenos nitnu, mitzvos are not intended for physical benefit.” The Mishnah Berurah (223:13) concludes that someone who has been hunting for a specific sefer and has finally succeeded to acquire it should not be rebuked for reciting shehecheyanu for his achievement, but it is clear that the Mishnah Berurah feels it is better not to recite shehecheyanu, even in this instance.


According to the Gemara (Bava Kama 30a), someone who desires to become exemplary in his behavior should make certain to fulfill the laws of brachos correctly. By investing energy in understanding the details of how we praise Hashem, we realize the importance of each aspect of that praise and how we must recognize that everything we have is a gift from Hashem.


Can We Identify the True Eizov?

Question #1: Hyssop

Is eizov hyssop?

Question #2: Multi-use Eizov

May an eizov be used more than once?


Parshas Bo includes the first reference in the Torah to eizov, in the following posuk:

And you shall take a bundle of eizov and dip it in the blood (of the korban Pesach) that is in the basin and touch it to the lintel and the two doorposts (Shemos 12:22).

The Bnei Yisroel were to take a bundle that contained at least three stalks of eizov (Sifrei, Parshas Chukas; Rambam, Peirush Hamishnayos Parah 11:9), although be’di’eved, if they found only two stalks, this would be sufficient to fulfill the mitzvah (see Parah 11:9). This requirement of using eizov stalk for the korban Pesach existed only that first Pesach, when the Bnei Yisroel were still in Egypt. Future korbanos Pesach did not require any eizov, nor was the blood touched to the lintel and doorposts, as stated in the Mishnah (Pesachim 96a).

Other mitzvos

Eizov is also essential for the performance of several other mitzvos, including:

1. Making a metzora tahor.

2. Purifying a house that is tamei tzaraas.

3. Processing the ashes of parah adumah.

4. Becoming tahor from tum’as meis.

To fulfill any of these mitzvos, it is required to use the specific species that the Torah calls eizov. Let us analyze and understand each of these instances.


There are two types of metzora who are tamei, one called a metzora musgar and the other called a metzora muchlat. There are several differences between them, but, for our purposes, we will focus on only two: how long they remain tamei, and how they become tahor (Mishnah Megillah 8b). A metzora musgar is tamei for a maximum of fourteen days, after which, depending on his symptoms, he either immerses himself in a mikveh and becomes tahor, or he becomes a metzora muchlat. On the other hand, a metzora muchlat will remain tamei for the rest of his life unless his tzaraas symptoms heal.

When a metzora muchlat’s symptoms heal, becoming tahor requires a complicated procedure described in the Torah in the beginning of parshas Metzora (Vayikra Chapter 14). One of the steps in this procedure requires the use of an eizov stalk, which is tied to a detached cedar branch with a thread of crimson red wool. The piece of eizov must be at least the length of a tefach (Niddah 26a; Rambam, Tum’as Tzaraas 11:1), which is approximately 3-4 inches, and the piece of cedar wood must be the length of one ammah (Nega’im 14:6), approximately 18-24 inches. This branch is then used as part of a very unusual dipping and sprinkling procedure, in which a specific kind of blood is applied seven times, either to the back of the metzora’s hand or to his forehead (Nega’im, 14:1). The tanna’im dispute which of these two places is correct, and the halachic conclusion is that it is the back of his hand (Nega’im, 14:1). This sprinkling is the first step in a long purification process necessary to make a metzora tahor again. Without an eizov branch, he cannot become tahor (Tosefta, Menachos 6:11).

Tumah on houses

There are several different stages of tum’as Nega’im that can affect a house, see Vayikra 14:33-53 and Mishnah Nega’im, Chapters 12-13. For some of these stages, the method of making the house tahor again involves the same process, utilizing eizov, cedar wood and crimson-red wool that I have just described. In this instance, the blood is applied to the lintel of the house (Nega’im, 14:1), since it is uncommon for a house to have either a forehead or a hand.

Processing parah adumah

One of the steps in processing the parah adumah is throwing into the burning pyre the same three items tied together that were used to make the metzora and the tamei house tahor – that is, an eizov stalk tied to a cedar branch with a piece of crimson-red wool (Bamidbar 19:6; see also Parah 3:10).

Becoming tahor from tum’as meis

Someone or something that became tamei from contact with a corpse requires the following procedure to become tahor: ashes of the properly processed parah adumah are sprinkled into spring water and then a tahor person takes an eizov stalk, dips it into the parah adumah/spring water mixture and sprinkles this water onto the utensil or person that needs to become tahor. This procedure needs to be performed twice; the first sprinkling is at least two days after the person or utensil became tamei, and the second at least four days later (Bamidbar 19:18-19). These are referred to as the third and seventh day of the purification process.To be kosher, the sprinkling must be performed with a stalk of eizov.

With a vov or without?

This author has noted that the word “eizov” is spelled in all places in Tanach with four letters, including the vov, with the exception of parshas metzora, where it is always three letters, missing the vov. I have searched, but thus far not found, any commentator who explains a reason for this curiosity. I have also thought about this question, without any satisfactory answer. If any of our readers locates an answer to this question, I will be grateful to hear it.

Multi-use eizov

At this point, we can discuss the second of our opening questions: May an eizov be used more than once?

Of course, this question requires clarification: used more than once for what? Obviously, the eizov used in processing the parah adumah cannot be used more than once, since it was burned in the pyre of the slaughtered red cow. (Although it is popular to translate parah adumah as “red heifer,” I have written in other articles why “red cow” is a more accurate translation.)

The Mishnah states that an eizov used to sprinkle someone and thereby make him tahor from tum’as meis may still be used to make a metzora tahor (Parah 11:8), so we know that, in this situation at least, an eizov may be used for more than one type of purification. In addition, the Tosefta (Nega’im 8:2) states that an eizov may be used to make more than one metzora tahor. So, it would seem that an eizov may be used as many times as possible.

Is eizov muktzah?

As we will see shortly, the eizov was harvested sometimes for food, sometimes for (animal) feed and sometimes as firewood. The purpose for which it was harvested determines whether it is muktzah on Shabbos. If it was harvested for food or feed, it is not muktzah, but if it was harvested for firewood it is (Shabbos 128a).

What species is eizov?

All of this previous discussion does not explain what an eizov is. The word is always translated in English as hyssop, which, according to my desktop dictionary, has the following meanings:

1. “A woody plant, Hyssopus officinalis, native to Asia, having spikes of small blue flowers and aromatic leaves used in perfumery and as a condiment.”

2. “Any of several similar or related plants.

3. “An unidentified plant mentioned in the Bible as the source of twigs used for sprinkling in certain Hebraic purificatory rites.”

The word purificatory means “something used in an act of purifying,” which means that dictionary definition #3 is a perfect translation for the word eizov, except that I would use the word “stalks,” rather than “twigs,” as we will soon see. I suspect that the contributor to the dictionary has not spent as much time analyzing Talmudic sources on this topic as I have.

The dictionary itself notes that we do not know if Hyssopus officinalis is the original eizov that the Torah meant. The English word “hyssop” was derived from the Hebrew word eizov, via Greek, Latin and possibly French.

Readily available in Egypt and Eretz Yisroel

The exact identification of eizov was well known from the time of the Exodus from Egypt through the time of the Mishnah, a period of almost 1600 years. This we know because the Mishnah in several places refers to “eizov” without any need to explain what is intended by the term. At the time and place of the Mishnah, its identity was still widely known, but sometime during the time and/or place of the Gemara, uncertainty regarding its identity developed. This might mean that eizov grew commonly from Egypt through the area of Eretz Yisroel, but was less commonly available in Mesopotamia, a section of which we call Bavel, 550 miles further east, and with a very different climate.

Hints of eizov

The Tanach and the writings of Chazal contain the following hints that might help us identify which species is the true eizov:

Very short

Several midrashim mention that eizov was a very low-growing plant. The midrash states that Shelomoh Hamelech explained why purifying the metzora requires the use of the tallest among tall trees (a cedar) and the shortest of the short plants (the eizov). Since this individual may have been as haughty as the cedar is tall, he was humbled by being smitten with tzaraas. When he learns to humble himself as the eizov is short, he will be cured by the eizov (Bamidbar Rabbah, Chukas 19; see also Shemos Rabbah 12:7).

From a Mishnah we see that, occasionally, an eizov was so small that it was difficult to dip into the water containing the ashes of the parah adumah, but it was still large enough to use for sprinkling. To quote the Mishnah: “A short eizov can be extended with a string or a stick and immersed this way. Then the eizov itself must be grasped when used for sprinkling” (Parah 12:1).

How small?

Short is a relative term. Are we able to quantify the size of an average eizov plant?

Indeed, we can, because the Mishnah permits using an eizov for sprinkling, even if it was as small as the volume of an egg, as we see in the following Mishnah: “Someone who used a tamei eizov to sprinkle, if the eizov was the size of an egg, it made the water of the parah adumah tamei, and the sprinkling does not make the person tahor. If it was smaller than the size of an egg, it does not make the water tamei” (Parah 12:6). Thus, this information will help us identify  potential eizov candidates.


We also know that the eizov was considered inexpensive (see Yalkut Shimoni, Shir Hashirim #986).

Grows on walls

From the pasuk in Melachim I 5, 13, we see that eizov sometimes grows out of walls, as it says that Shelomoh spoke about the eizov that grows out of the wall. Many plants can grow from the cracks between the stones of a wall; however most will not sustain themselves this way.

It is edible

Several Mishnayos indicate that the eizov, or some part of it, was commonly eaten. We also see that eizov was not harvested exclusively for food, but was often gathered or cultivated for feed or for firewood (Shvi’is 8:1; Parah 11:8; Tosefta, Shabbos 8:31). These usages of the eizov are reiterated in a Gemara (Shabbos 128a). We also know that it was eaten either raw or cooked (see rishonim to Shevi’is 8:1), implying that it was not eaten exclusively as a salad green.

A Mishnah implies that only part of the eizov plant is edible – there are parts too hard to be considered food, but are useful for holding the edible part of the eizov (Uktzin 2:2).

We also know that it had a medicinal use (see Shabbos 109b; rishonim to Shevi’is 8:1), since the Gemara states that shumshik was used to treat kukiyani. (See below for the identification of shumshik as a suggestion for eizov.) The Gemara mentions that kukiyani was caused by eating barley flour that had remained in storage for forty days (Shabbos 109b). Rashi explains that kukiyani was some type of intestinal worm.


From other Mishnayos we know that some type of berry grows on the eizov (Parah 11:7). There are varieties of marjoram, oregano and hyssop that have some type of cluster that grows on the stem, in addition to the leaves, and this is probably what is intended.

Different types of eizov

We see from the mishnayos (Nega’im 14:6; Parah 11:7) that there were various types of eizov, but most were identified by an adjective, such as “Roman eizov,” “blue eizov” and “desert eizov.” These other varieties were not kosher for use for any of the above-mentioned mitzvos, all of which required a species or variety that was widely known simply as “eizov,” without any adjective. To quote the Mishnah, “that which was called the Greek eizov (or eizovyon, there are two different texts to this Mishnah), the blue eizov, the Roman eizov, the desert eizov, and any other variety with a qualifying description is not kosher as eizov” (Nega’im 14:6; Parah 11:7). Dr. Yehuda Feliks, who devoted much research to identify various species mentioned in Tanach and Mishnah, suggested that “blue eizov” is Hyssopus officinalis, a variety of hyssop whose flowers are usually blue.

Does it have branches?

Regarding the requirement to use the eizov for making someone tahor from tum’as meis, the Mishnah (Parah 11:9) cites a dispute between the Tanna Kamma and Rabbi Yehudah, wherein the Tanna Kamma holds that one uses a bundle containing three harvested eizov plants each complete with its root. Rabbi Yehudah adds that each should have a main stalk and two side shoots. On the other hand, the Tanna Kamma rules that a single eizov plant containing a main stalk and two side shoots can be separated into three stalks and then bound together, and it is kosher, lechatchilah, as “three, bound eizov stalks.”

Tying three eizov stalks together is lechatchilah, but not essential, bedi’eved. It is also acceptable to use an eizov plant that contains two or three eizov stalks or branches, without separating the stalks. Furthermore, the stalks may be held together, rather than tied. It is even acceptable to use only two, rather than three, eizov branches. In all of these instances, a tamei meis who was sprinkled with spring water containing parah adumah ashes by someone using these lesser quality eizov stalks has satisfied the requirement of one sprinkling that is part of the process of becoming tahor.

Usually three branches

Since the Tanna Kamma and Rabbi Yehudah are not disputing what type of plant is an eizov, we know the eizov plant must commonly have branches. This factor is mentioned in the Gemara that I will quote, momentarily, as the basis for a dispute identifying the eizov.

Available in Egypt and Israel but not in Mesopotamia

As mentioned above, at the time of the Mishnah, identity of the eizov appears to have been common knowledge. However, by the time of the Gemara, its correct identification was uncertain, as demonstrated in the following passage (Shabbos 109b): “Rav Yosef said: ‘Eizov is what we call avarsah bar hamag, whereas the eizovyon of the Mishnah is what we call avarsa bar hineg.’ (Rashi mentions that the first type is a plant that commonly grows near reeds, and the second type is a variety that commonly grows near thorn bushes.) Ula explained eizov to be what was known in his day as ‘white marva’ (which some translate to be a variety of sage). Rav Pappi explained that it was shumshik (some identify this as marjoram). Rav Yirmiya of Difti ruled that this last approach was most likely correct, since the (above-quoted) Mishnah stated that an eizov should ideally have three stalks, each of which has three flowers, and shumshik is a species that grows this way commonly.”

Which one?

Among rishonim, I found the following candidates suggested to identify the three differing opinions cited in this passage of Gemara: oregano, sage, marjoram, thyme and, indeed, the species today called hyssop, Hyssopus officinalis (see Rashi ad loc; Rambam, Commentary to Shevi’is 8:1 and to Nega’im 14:1; Aruch s.v. Shimshek; Ibn Ezra, Shemos 12:22).

(To correct a common error, marjoram and oregano are not two names for the same species. Marjoram’s botanical name is Origanum majorana, whereas common oregano is Origanum vulgare. The error comes from the fact that, in some places, oregano is called “wild marjoram.” Both oregano and marjoram are commonly used today as spices and herbs, and as natural herbal medicines for a variety of ailments.)

Another candidate is what is called today zatar, a commonly used spice that seems to fit the various descriptions mentioned above. Its scientific name is Origanum syriacum.

All of these candidates are small plants in the mint family that grow in the Middle East.

As with other mitzvos that require identification, there is a good chance that we will have to wait for Eliyahu Hanavi to provide definitive identification of this plant that has such halachic and hashkafic significance.


The midrash teaches that there are items in Hashem’s creation that look unimportant, and yet, Hashem commanded that they be used to fulfill many mitzvos (Shemos Rabbah, parshas Bo, 17:2,3). To quote the continuation of the midrash, “The eizov appears like nothing to man, yet its power is very significant to Hashem… this teaches us that small and large are viewed by Hashem with the same amount of significance. He makes miracles out of small items, and He redeemed the Jews with their use of the smallest of the tree family. …

“When the eizov is bundled, (Hashem says) I make you a bundle, just for Me, even if you are as seemingly unimportant as the eizov, as the posuk says, you will be My special treasure from among all the nations.”


Staining Matters

Question #1: Stains

On Shabbos, must I try not to stain my clothes?

Question #2:  Lipstick

May I freshen my lipstick on Shabbos?

Question #3: Bleaching

Does bleaching out color violate the melacha of dyeing?


One of the 39 melachos listed in the Mishnah (Shabbos 73a) is tzovei’a, dyeing. This is derived from the fact that many of the textiles and hides used in the Mishkan required dyeing; for example, the ram skins used to cover the Mishkan were dyed red (Yerushalmi, Shabbos 7:2).

Painting metal or the walls of a house are other examples that violate the Torah prohibition of tzovei’a (Rambam, Hilchos Shabbos 9:13; Tiferes Yisroel, Kalkeles Shabbos; Minchas Chinuch).

Non-permanent dyeing

The prohibition of tzovei’a is violated min haTorah only when the dyeing is permanent (Rambam, Hilchos Shabbos 9:13). Non-permanent dyeing does not violate the law min haTorah, but was prohibited by Chazal.

There are several ways that dyeing or coloring something could be non-permanent. It could be that the colorant you used is not fast – meaning it does not absorb sufficiently into the cloth to remain (Tosefta, Shabbos 12:6). It also could be that the material to which you applied the dye will soon decompose (Tosefta, Shabbos 12:6). Yet another possibility is that the material you are dyeing is permanent, and so is the dye when used for coloring cloth, but the colorant will not set on this particular material. The Rambam picks such an example, when he rules that one does not violate tzovei’a min haTorah by smearing makeup onto metal, since the metal will not remain colored for very long (Hilchos Shabbos 9:13). Each of these non-permanent examples of dyeing is prohibited on Shabbos, but none involves a Torah prohibition.

The halachic authorities dispute concerning the length of time that a color must lastin order to qualify as permanent. According to the Rambam (Hilchos Shabbos 9:13), a dye that will remain for a day is long enough to be considered permanent — thus, someone using a colorant that will disappear a day after use desecrates Shabbos min haTorah (Shaar Hatziyun 303:68; see also Chayei Odom who appears to agree with this ruling). However, other authorities contend that violating the melacha of tzovei’a min haTorah requires a more permanent act of coloring, defined as something that lasts for a “long time” (Tiferes Yisroel in Kalkeles Shabbos).

Staining your clothes

The Shulchan Aruch rules that, because of the melacha of tzovei’a, when eating foods like beets and cherries, you should be careful not to stain your clothes (Orach Chayim 320:20). Notwithstanding that most of us are not interested in having our clothes stained by these foods, it is still prohibited miderabbanan to do so deliberately; for example, to wipe one’s hands on clothing after eating cherries. There are halachic authorities who rule that the laws of Shabbos do not require you to be concerned about staining your clothes, because doing so is considered dirtying your clothes, not dyeing them (Darchei Moshe 320:2, quoting Agur). However, the Shulchan Aruch rules strictly, and the consensus of later authorities accepts this opinion.

We can, therefore, now address our opening question: “On Shabbos, must I try not to stain my clothes?”

The answer is that it is forbidden to wipe my hands on my clothes if my hands have something that might be considered a dye, even though, from my perspective, I am dirtying the garment.

Two melachos

We see from the Gemara (see below) that a particular activity can be forbidden both because of tzovei’a and because of another melacha, at the same time (Shabbos 75a). Although in our day, there is no practical halachic difference whether an activity violates one melacha or two, when the Beis Hamikdash is rebuilt, speedily and in our days, there will be different halachic practices that result.

Lipstick on Shabbos

According to some authorities, applying lipstick is prohibited, both because of tzovei’a and because of memarei’ach, the melacha involved when one smoothes or files down a surface (Nimla Tal, Tzovei’a, note 31).

At this point, we can address the second of our opening questions: “May I freshen my lipstick on Shabbos?”

The answer is that applying lipstick may potentially involve two different melachos of Shabbos, tzovei’a and memarei’ach, and that both violations may be min haTorah.  There are possibilities why the violation of tzovei’a, in this instance, may be only rabbinic. One reason is because the lipstick may not remain on the lips for a full day, and the second reason, because the lips are already colored. However, notwithstanding these reasons, it is still, definitely prohibited miderabbanan as tzovei’a and is probably prohibited min haTorah as memarei’ach.

Is squeezing dyeing?

One rishon,the Ramban (Shabbos 111a), contends that squeezing liquid out of a soaked piece of cloth violates the melacha of dyeing, because the squeezing changes the current color of the cloth. (This is how his opinion is understood by the Magen Avraham,end of chapter 302, and Shu”t Avnei Neizer, Orach Chayim #159:20; however, the Lechem Mishneh [Hilchos Shabbos 9:11] understands that the Ramban agrees with the other rishonim that squeezing is prohibited because of melabein, laundering and not because of dyeing.)

Creating a dye

The rishonim dispute whether creating a dye violates dyeing. According to the Rambam, blending together ingredients that, together, create a dye is a toladah of the melacha of tzovei’a, meaning that this is a sub-category of dyeing that is prohibited min haTorah (Hilchos Shabbos 9:14). However, the Ra’avad disagrees, contending that someone who creates a vat dye, which means that he heats raw materials intending to dye cloth by submerging it in the heated liquid, violates the melacha of “cooking” when he creates the dye. According to the Ra’avad, the melacha of dyeing is not violated until the cloth is placed in the vat to absorb the dye, and creating a dye without use of heat is not a Torah violation at all. This is because tzovei’a is violated min haTorah only when the result is a finished product; since creating a dye is only a preliminary step, it does not constitute a Torah violation of the melacha.

It seems that this identical dispute is a contention between other early rishonim. The Mishnah explains that it is prohibited min haTorah to stir a pot of vat dye on Shabbos. The question is — which melacha does this act violate? Tosafos (Shabbos 18b s. v. dilma) explains that this stirring violates tzovei’a, whereas Rashi (ad loc.) implies that it violates bishul, cooking. It would appear that the Ra’avad and Rashi have a similar approach, both contending that preparing a vat dye violates cooking, but not dyeing, whereas the Rambam agrees with Tosafos that manufacturing the dye violates tzovei’a.

Intensifying color

If a cloth or another textile already has a shade of color, but it is not dyed as deeply as you want, is it prohibited min haTorah to dye it to a deeper hue? According to most authorities, intensifying the shade of a pigment that already exists violates tzovei’a min haTorah. If the additional dyeing does not make a significant difference in the color, the violation is rabbinic, not min haTorah (Mor Uketziyah, end of 328; cf., however, see Shu”t Avnei Neizer, Orach Chayim #172, who contends that once the fabric has been dyed a certain color, adding to that color does not involve a Torah prohibition. This is a minority opinion.).

Bleaching or dyeing?

At this point, we can ask whether dyeing is defined as changing the color of an item, or adding color to an item. A difference in practical halacha between the two approaches is whether bleaching an item, which changes the color by removing pigment, violates the melacha of tzovei’a.

According to most authorities, tzovei’a means applying pigment or colorant to the surface of an item that thereby changes its color. For example, the Rambam defines a different one of the 39 melachos, melabein, to be bleaching. He seems to understand that laundering is a sub-category of melabein. The question is why bleaching is not considered the same melacha as tzovei’a, dyeing, which is also concerned with changing the color of a fiber. The answer appears to be that, whereas tzovei’a adds color to the fiber, bleach removes color from the fiber. In the Rambam’s opinion, adding color to an item constitutes tzovei’a, whereas bleaching it and removing impurities that detract from the appearance of the cloth constitute melabein.

However, a minority opinion contends that any color change, including bleaching out the color, violates tzovei’a (see Tosafos, Bava Kama 93b, s. v. ha).

Painting white

“If someone whitewashes his wall or paints something white, what melacha has he performed?”

The answer is that he violated the melacha of tzovei’a,dyeing, not of melabein, even though the word melabein could be translated as “he makes something white.” This is true, even according to those who contend that bleaching does not qualify as tzovei’a. The reason is that bleaching removescolor, whereas in these cases a white color is added to the surface of the wall or other item.

The Rogatchover’s position

Rav Yosef Rosen — early 20th century rav of the Chassidishe community of Dvinsk, Latvia (for much of this period, part of the Russian empire), known colloquially as “the Rogatchover,” for his place of birth — was known for his original approaches to halachic issues. Often, these approaches produced interesting strict or lenient conclusions. In one of his essays, the Rogatchover concludes that mixing a dye into a liquid does not constitute the melacha of tzovei’a. His logic is that tzovei’a requires changing an item’s color. When mixing a dye base into a liquid, the liquid’s color is not changed. What has happened is that two colors are blending together to appear as one consistent color.

Regarding tzovei’a, the Rogatchover will permit several instances that are prohibited by other authorities. An example is if someone diluted a dye with water to create an art display. According to the Pri Megadim and the Tiferes Yisroel, this act is prohibited on Shabbos min haTorah. However, the Rogatchover will dispute their conclusion, since the color is created by mixing and not by coating an item with color.

Staining your hands

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 320:20) implies that there is no halachic problem with getting your hands or face stained while eating. The Mishnah Berurah (320:58) asks: since we prohibit women from applying makeup on Shabbos because of tzovei’a, applying color to human skin violates tzovei’a. If this is true, just as staining clothes violates tzovei’a, shouldn’t someone be required not to stain his hands and face? The Mishnah Berurah answers that since men do not usually apply makeup to their faces, it is permitted for them to eat foods that might stain their faces.


Shabbos is a day which is called “mei’ein olam haba” – a day that is a small taste of the World to Come; a day when we are given a neshamah yeseirah – a special Shabbosdik neshamah;  a day when Hashem’s Shechinah resides with us. The sefarim hakedoshim discuss these ideas and how much we need to prepare ourselves, every week, in order to properly relate to Shabbos Kodesh and to receive all of the benefit and bracha that Shabbos brings us.

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (Shemos 20:10) notes that people mistakenly think that work is prohibited on Shabbos, in order to provide a day of rest. This is incorrect, he points out, because the Torah does not prohibit doing avodah, which connotes hard work, but melacha, which implies work with purpose and accomplishment. On Shabbos, we refrain from altering the world with our own creative acts and, instead, emphasize Hashem’s role (Shemos 20:11). We thereby acknowledge the true Builder and Creator of the world and all that it contains, and focus on our relationship with Him.


Reviewing the Parsha

Question #1: When do I start?

When do I begin my weekly reading of the parsha?

Question #2: Which commentary?

Which Torah commentary is the most important to study every week?

Question #3: Which system?

Is it better to read each posuk of the Torah twice, followed by its translation, and then proceed to the next posuk? Or perhaps, it is preferable to follow the stops that are in the Torah itself, the sesumos and pesuchos, and read the pesukim as a group, repeat them, and then read their translation? Or, perhaps, it is even better to read the entire parsha from beginning to end, repeat it, and then read the translation of the entire parsha?


The Gemara (Brachos 8a) teaches that every man is required to read through the entire parsha every week, twice, and also to study its translation. This is called shenayim mikra ve’echad targum, whose abbreviation is the same four letters that spell the word Shemos, the name of this week’s parsha. Some authorities expand this into a longer mnemonic based on the roshei teivos, an abbreviation that is a play on the first two words of this week’s parsha, “ve’eileh shemos”, these are the names [of the Children of Israel who arrived in Egypt], as “Vechayov adam likros haparsha shenayim mikra ve’echad targum (Levush, Orach Chayim 285:1).

The original passage of this Gemara includes many innuendoes. “A person must always complete his parshi’os — twice the Scripture and once its translation — together with the community [im hatzibur], even Ataros and Divon [names of places in Eretz Yisrael, see Bamidbar 32:3], since whoever completes his parshi’os with the community has his days and years lengthened” (Brachos 8a-b).

There are numerous questions on this short passage of Gemara. Among them are:

Must always

Why emphasize that a person “must always” do this? Were we not told that he must “always” do this, would we think that sometimes you may ignore this mitzvah? Something dependent on our preference to perform it or not is, by definition, not an obligation. Perhaps the Gemara’s phrase,“must always,” is coming to exclude the idea that shenayim mikra ve’echad targum is not an absolute obligation, but dependent on circumstances, comparable to mitzvos such as mezuzah, which is required only if you live in a house with doors, but does not require living in a house with doors to observe the mitzvah. Someone who lives in a tent or an igloo is not obligated to build himself a house in order to fulfill the mitzvah of mezuzah.


The Gemara expresses the obligation of shenayim mikra ve’echad targum as le’olam yashlim adam parshi’osav. There are many words in Hebrew for reading or studying. Yet, the Gemara ignores all these choices and, instead, uses the Hebrew word yashlim, “he should complete.” What are Chazal emphasizing with this verb that we would not understand should it have written instead “yikra,” “yilmod,” “yeshanein” or any of several other choices?

With the community

The Gemara explains that the requirement is to complete parshi’osav im hatzibur, literally, “his passages (or Torah reading) together with the community.” This appears to be redundant – are not the weekly Torah readings what the community will be reading this week?

Rav Bibi

The passage of Gemara in which the mitzvah of shenayim mikra ve’echad targum is taught adds to its discussion. It continues by telling two anecdotes of Rav Bibi (this is a real name, not a nickname for Binyamin Netanyahu), the son of the famous Abaya (as in Abaya and Rava). The first story is that Rav Bibi had fallen behind in his weekly reading and wanted to catch up what he had missed on Erev Yom Kippur. He was stymied in his attempt to do so, upon discovering that there is a mitzvah min haTorah to celebrate Erev Yom Kippur with festive meals, thus taking away from the time he needed to finish up all his missing parshi’os.

The acharonim, the later commentators, suggest several reasons why Rav Bibi wanted to finish before Yom Kippur. Some suggest the following: Rav Bibi was Abaya’s son, and therefore he was of the descendants of Eili Hakohen, upon whom there is a curse that they not live long. Therefore, he wanted to accomplish the mitzvah of shenayim mikra ve’echad targum, which includes a special blessing that it lengthens one’s years, so that he would be granted on Yom Kippur many extra years (Iyun Yaakov; see also notes of Ya’avetz on this passage of Gemara).

Others demonstrate from Rav Bibi’s approach that it is perfectly acceptable to complete shenayim mikra ve’echad targum anytime before Simchas Torah, when the annual cycle of reading the Torah is completed (Hagahos Maimoniyos, Hilchos Tefillah, end of Chapter 13). We will soon see that this position is disputed.

Continuing the passage of Gemara: Having discovered that this solution of completing shenayim mikra ve’echad targum on Erev Yom Kippur was not practical, Rav Bibi decided that next year he would get ahead of the game and prepare the parshi’os a few weeks in advance. This approach was rejected when Rav Bibi was told that this is not an acceptable way to observe the mitzvah. An elderly scholar quoted Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, who commanded his own sons that the mitzvah requires “completing your parshi’os with the tzibur,” and “neither earlier nor later” (Brachos 8b).

Which commentary?

The Gemara states that one must recite “targum,” usually assumed to mean the specific Aramaic translation of the Torah authored by Onkelos. However, the word targum can also mean “translation,” and is occasionally used to mean what we would call a commentary. Even Targum Onkelos is, at times, closer to a commentary than a translation; this is certainly true regarding the other two Aramaic targumim to the Torah that have survived, Targum Yonasan and Targum Yerushalmi.

Tosafos (Brachos 8a, s.v. Shenayim) quotes, but disagrees with, those who understood that someone unfamiliar with Aramaic can fulfill this mitzvah by reading a translation of the Torah in a language with which he is familiar. Tosafos objects, because there are aspects of understanding the Torah that we would never know without the Targum’s commentary, and that fulfilling the mitzvah of shenayim mikra ve’echad Targum requires reading, specifically, the targum and not any translation of the Torah portion in a familiar vernacular.

This dispute is recorded among halachic authorities, regarding whether one fulfills the mitzvah of shenayim mikra ve’echad targum by reading the parsha twice and then studying it with Rashi, particularly if an individual does not understand the pesukim any better by reading an Aramaic translation. The Tur (Orach Chayim 185) rules that one fulfills the mitzvah by reading either Targum Onkelos or Rashi, since both explain the verses according to Chazal, and this approach is followed by the Shulchan Aruch. I once heard from Rav Shimon Schwab that reading the chumash translation of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, similarly, fulfills the “targum” part of the mitzvah, since it is a translation of the pesukim that follows Chazal.

The Shulchan Aruch and most later authorities conclude that it is preferable to read both the Targum Onkelos and Rashi. Other authorities rule that when Targum Onkelos does not translate a posuk, but only repeats the Torah’s words, the posuk should be studied with one of the other targumim (Yonasan or Yerushalmi) that do translate those pesukim (see Tosafos, Brachos 8b s.v. Va’afilu). When available targumim simply repeat the words of the Torah, the early authorities dispute whether one is required to repeat the posuk three times.


What is the goal of the mitzvah of shenayim mikra ve’echad targum? This appears to be a dispute between early halachic authorities.


Is this a takanah whose purpose is to insure that every member of the Jewish people be fully familiar with the Torah she’biksav, the Written Torah? Some authorities contend that, indeed, the goal is for every Jew to be fully familiar with the parsha and know what it means.

An introduction is required to explain what appears to be a different reason for the mitzvahof shenayim mikra ve’echad targum. After the Jews had erred in Refidim (Shemos 15:22-25), Chazal deduced that the cause for this backsliding had been the lack of study of Torah for three consecutive days. To guarantee that this not recur, Moshe Rabbeinu required reading the Torah every Monday, Thursday and Shabbos, to insure that three days not go by without the Torah being read in public. Thus, our practice of reading the Torah constitutes the earliest takanas chachamim of Jewish leadership.

Chazal also established that the entire Torah be completed on a regular basis by reading consecutive portions on Shabbos. Initially, the readings of the Torah did not require, or even allow for, a baal keri’ah (often mistakenly called baal korei). Each individual was expected to be so well-versed in the written Torah that he would be able to read it, without any preparation. Thousands of years after the takanas chachamim of reading the Torah was instituted, in the era of the rishonim, the custom of having a prepared baal keri’ah developed. According to the Rosh, the problem was that the community was not fulfilling its mitzvah when people who were unprepared read the Torah in a completely unacceptable fashion. This forced the community to designate someone to prepare the Torah reading in advance.

Thus, many authorities maintain that the original takanah of Shabbos Torah reading included, or was later expanded to include, a requirement that everyone be prepared to read any part of the Torah that he might be called upon to read. This takanah is the mitzvah of shenayim mikra ve’echad targum, which included a requirement to review the targum of the weekly reading.

Are there any halachic differences between these two approaches? It appears that there are. According to the second approach, it is required to complete shenayim mikra ve’echad targum before the Torah is read, so that you are prepared, should you be called up for an aliyah.

However, we see that Tosafos disputes this ruling, since he states that it is preferable to complete shenayim mikra ve’echad targum before you begin your Shabbos meal, although, if not completed by that time, it can be completed afterward. Tosafos bases this opinion on a Midrash in which Rebbe (Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi) instructed his sons, prior to his passing, not to eat bread before completing shenayim mikra ve’echad targum. Obviously, Tosafos has no concerns that you must complete shenayim mikra ve’echad targum before the Torah reading begins. In his opinion, the mitzvah of shenayim mikra ve’echad targum is to encourage ongoing adult self-education, by requiring each individual to study the weekly Torah reading, on his own time.

Always complete

Perhaps this will explain why the Gemara writes that a person “must always” study shenayim mikra ve’echad targum during the week that the community is reading the parsha. Since the goal is Torah study, what difference does it make when an individual completes his annual study of the Torah? Perhaps he can study the entire year’s reading once a year, as Rav Bibi was initially planning? Or, perhaps, he can prepare the parsha well in advance, as Rav Bibi later thought to do? Therefore, the Gemara stresses that, notwithstanding that the goal of the mitzvah is to review the Written Torah annually, you must review it during the week that the community is reading it.

On the other hand, we find another approach tothe takanah of shenayim mikra ve’echad targum. The Hagahos Maimoniyos (Hilchos Tefillah, end of chapter 13) quotes from the Ra’avan (#88), an early rishon, that the entire mitzvah of shenayim mikra ve’echad targum applies onlyto someone who will not be able to hear the reading of the Torah on Shabbos. Obviously, the Ra’avan understands the words of Chazal,le’olam yashlim,” to mean “a person should always make sure to complete” the parsha, even when there are extenuating circumstances preventing him from completing it the way he usually does, by hearing the reading of the Torah.

The Hagahos Maimoniyos, the Beis Yosef and others (Rambam, Mahari Bruno, Mahari Weil, She’yarei Keneses Hagedolah) dispute the halachic conclusion of the Raavan, contending that the obligation of shenayim mikra ve’echad targum devolves upon everyone, even those who will be able to hear the weekly reading. Nevertheless, they may agree that the emphasis “a person should always make sure to complete” includes those who will not hear a Torah reading. This explains the peculiar wording that a person should complete his parshios together with the tzibur. I will present shortly yet another possible explanation of this wording.

With the community

The Gemara required that shenayim mikra ve’echad targum be performed “together with the community [im hatzibur].” We see from the story of Rav Bibi and the teaching of Rav Yehoshua ben Levi that this means during the week that the tzibur is reading this parsha, and we see further that, according to one opinion, it should be completed before the kerias haTorah of that week begins. But, exactly, when can we start? Tosafos rules that once the Torah of the next week’s parsha was read at mincha, on Shabbos, it is considered im hatzibur to begin the next parsha. The Radbaz agrees with Tosafos, and is inclined to rule that it is better to begin shenayim mikra ve’echad targum immediately after mincha on Shabbos. This demonstrates that, when one week’s parsha ends, we focus immediately on the next week’s reading, similar to what we do on Simchas Torah when we begin reading Bereishis immediately after completing Devarim (Shu’t Haradbaz #288). For the same reason, the custom at a siyum is to begin the next learning project immediately upon completion of the mesechta or other learning project that generates the siyum.

The Radbaz also quotes an opinion not to begin shenayim mikra ve’echad targum until Sunday morning. In his conclusion, he defers to this approach.

Other authorities prefer that shenayim mikra ve’echad targum be read on Erev Shabbos, after midday (Magen Avraham quoting Shelah). It is interesting to note that some authorities contend that the optimal way to fulfill shenayim mikra ve’echad targum is to read the two times of the parsha from a sefer Torah, on Friday morning (Arizal and Taz, see Sha’arei Teshuvah 285:1). These opinions may hold that the primary reason for the mitzvah is to prepare the leining, should you be called to the Torah.

Which system?

Is it better to read each posuk of the Torah twice, then its translation, and then proceed to the next posuk? Or, perhaps, it is better to follow the stops that are in the Torah itself, the sesumos and pesuchos, and read the pesukim as a group, repeat them, and then read their translation? Or perhaps it is preferable to read the entire parsha from beginning to end, repeat it, and then read the translation of the entire parsha?

Among the earlier authorities, we find each of these three approaches mentioned. The Vilna Gaon, who contends that you should read from one pesucha or sesumah to the next, also accepts stopping where the topic changes, even when it is not a pesucha or sesumah. Apparently, he divided the parsha and read parts of it each day after davening, completing it on Friday (Ma’aseh Rav #59).

The Arizal, apparently, followed the third opinion to read the entire parsha twice and then the entire targum.

The Mishnah Berurah concludes that you may follow any of the three opinions. However, it is unclear whether he holds that you may switch from one opinion to a different one. He may hold that you should always follow one opinion, consistently, although the Aruch Hashulchan (285:7) expressly rules that you may switch from one approach to another.

I want to note that I know of no opinion that holds that you should observe shenayim mikra ve’echad targum by reading the parsha aliyah by aliyah or by stopping at the chapter stops (unless it is a pesucha or sesumah or where the topic changes). The reasons why these are not considered proper stopping places are obvious. The chapter stops are not Jewish in origin. When the Christians appropriated our Tanach for their purposes, they instituted chapter breaks (and also devised many new divisions among the seforim), for their convenience. Although most poskim find no prohibition in using these chapter breaks as a convenient way to locate and refer to pesukim, many gedolei Yisroel were opposed to using them at all. They are often clearly in the wrong place and certainly have no halachic significance.

The breaks between aliyos, also, do not constitute halachic stops, for any purpose. Originally, there were few standardized stops (other than parshas Haazinu, the reading on Rosh Chodesh and some yomim tovim,and a few other places). There are halachic rules as to how long each aliyah must be, and where it is and is not permitted to stop. Other than those rules, the individual receiving an aliyah decided where he chose to stop, as long as he allowed enough parsha for the number of aliyos to be called up that day.

However, this system created a lot of havoc and machlokes. In response, a few hundred years ago, an individual printed chumashim in which he chose where each aliyah should end and distributed them for free; his goal being to curtail the machlokes that the previous system engendered. Most of our “commonly held” practices for aliyos start from this time, but they do not have halachic significance. As a matter of fact, the Vilna Gaon was opposed to using them (Maaseh Rav #132).


Germane to explaining why Chazal required a translation as part of shenayim mikra ve’echad targum, I want to share an insight that I discovered while preparing this article. Stopping to think through the correct translation of a posuk makes us focus on all the nuances of the original. Thus, not only does shenayim mikra ve’echad targum force us to review the Torah regularly, it expands our horizons, because we study it in a vernacular with which we are more familiar.


Minyan Matters

The Talmud Yerushalmi (Megillah 4:4) cites a Biblical allusion regarding the requirements for a minyan, based on the ten sons of Yaakov who traveled to Mitzrayim together.

Question #1: Ten for Haftarah?

“I know that a child may recite the haftarah. Does this require a minyan?”

Question #2: Ten for Kaddish

“We had a minyan when we began saying Aleinu, but when we finished, we were short. Can I still say kaddish?”

Question #3: Lost our Minyan

“In the middle of the sheva brachos, we lost our minyan. What can we do?”


The Mishnah teaches that communal davening (tefillah betzibur), duchening, sheva brachos, reading of the Torah and the haftarah, and various other practices all require ten adult male Jews (Megillah 23b).

A different passage of Gemara explains that, at times, the mitzvah of kiddush Hashem also requires a minyan (Sanhedrin 74b). The situation is when an evil person coerces a Jew to violate the Torah only because he wants the Jew to violate the Torah, but not because he has any personal benefit from the prohibited activity. If this is done in public, the Jew is required to give up his life, rather than violate the Torah. This commitment to observing the Torah fulfills the mitzvah of sanctifying Hashem’s Name in public, kiddush Hashem (see Rambam, Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 5:2). However, this halacha is true only if ten Jews are present. To quote this passage: Rabbi Yaakov quoted Rabbi Yochanan, “‘In public’ means that there are at least ten people.”

The Gemara continues: “It goes without saying that these ten people must be Jews, since the Torah states, ‘and I shall be sanctified among the Jewish people.’ Rav Yirmiyah inquired: ‘What is the law if there are nine Jews and one non-Jew?’” The Gemara concludes that the mitzvos of kiddush Hashem in public, and its opposite, chillul Hashem, should the Jew not be willing to give up his life, apply only when there are at least ten Jews present (Sanhedrin 74b). Based on evidence within the Gemara, the consensus of halachic opinion is that the mitzvos of kiddush Hashem and chillul Hashem in public apply when there are ten Jews aware of the situation, even if they are not present at the time of the coercion (Shach, Yoreh Deah 157:4; Darchei Teshuvah 157:23; cf. Or Ne’elam, cited in Darchei Teshuvah). (There are other situations in which the mitzvah of kiddush Hashem and chillul Hashem apply, which we will leave for a different article.)

The prayers of a minyan

Similarly, we are aware that prayers recited together with a minyan accomplish more than when one prays by himself. To quote the Rambam: “The prayer of the community is always heard. Even when there are sinners among them, the Holy One, Blessed is He, does not despise the prayer of a group of people. Therefore, everyone is required to make himself part of the tzibur. One should not pray in private any time that one is able to pray with a community” (Hilchos Tefillah 8:1).

Number of minyan

How do we know that a minyan consists of ten people? Although the definition of a minyan as ten adult men is part of the oral Torah that Moshe received on Har Sinai, there are several Biblical and hermeneutic sources, in addition to the source from this week’s parsha that I cited above. For example, prior to Boaz arranging his betrothal of Rus, he gathered ten men (Rus 4:2). According to the Gemara (Kesubos 7a), this is the source that sheva brachos require a minyan.

Other Biblical sources for a minyan include the ten spies that the Torah refers to as an eidah,a community, which the Gemara (Megillah 21a) uses as a source for a minyan to be required for a davar she’bikedusha, such as for reciting kaddish or kedusha, repeating the shemoneh esrei (chazaras hashatz) and similar such communal prayer requirements.

Davar she’bikedusha

The Mishnah mentioned above requires a minyan for repeating shemoneh esrei. However, this presents a question. Since many halachic authorities rule that the requirement to pray daily is only rabbinic in origin, how can the laws of davar she’bikedusha, which are an aspect of this mitzvah, require a minyan min haTorah? This question is asked by the Ran, who explains that the requirement for davar she’bikedusha is certainly only rabbinic, and that each of the Biblical sources is only an allusion, what is called asmachta in halachic literature.


At this point, let us address our opening question: “I know that a child may recite the haftarah. Does this require a minyan?”

It is true that the haftarah may be read by a boy who is not yet bar mitzvah (Mishnah Megillah 24a), a topic beyond the scope of this article. Nevertheless, the Mishnah (Megillah 23b) requires a minyan of adult men for the haftarah to be read.

Disappearing minyan

What is the halacha if you begin your davar she’bikedusha with a proper minyan, but someone leaves, and you now have less than a minyan? For example, in the middle of the repetition of the shemoneh esrei, some men left, which they are not permitted to do, but, as a result, you no longer have ten men in attendance. Must you stop the communal prayers in mid-brocha?

This question is raised by the Talmud Yerushalmi, which answers that one may complete the section of prayer that was begun. The poskim conclude that this is true, provided one still has at least six adult men, which comprise the majority of a minyan (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 55:2).

Five and someone new

What is the halacha if you started chazaras hashatz with ten people, then five left, and subsequently one of the original ten who had left now returned, so that you have a majority of the original minyan, but, at one point, the minyan had been interrupted. Did the minyan effectively end when its number dwindled to only five, the return of an individual being unable to resuscitate it, or not?

In his notes on the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Akiva Eiger discusses this exact question, suggesting that once the minyan’s number had dwindled to five or less, the original minyan is considered to have dissipated, and adding people does not reconstitute it, unless one reestablishes a full minyan of ten. In conclusion, Rabbi Akiva Eiger leaves this matter as an unresolved halachic inquiry.

May not leave

Returning to our earlier question, notwithstanding that, if individuals leave so that the minyan has less than ten, one may complete the section at hand, the Yerushalmi states in no uncertain terms that these people may not leave, even for an extenuating reason. The Yerushalmi explains that the posuk in Yeshayahu (1:28), “Those who forsake Hashem will be consumed,” refers to those who walk out in the middle of the services, leaving less than a minyan behind.

This curse applies only if someone left them without a minyan. However, someone with an extenuating reason to leave shul will not receive this curse if there is a minyan without him (Rema, Orach Chayim 55:2). The Mishnah Berurah notes that, even under these circumstances, he is permitted to leave only if he has already heard kedusha and kaddish.

Already shorthanded

The Biur Halacha asks the following question: What is the law if one of the ten already left, and the minyan is proceeding shorthanded, as mentioned above, with only nine people, and one of the remaining people has an extenuating reason to leave? May he do so, notwithstanding the words of Yeshayahu, since they already are short of a full, proper minyan? The Biur Halacha leaves this question unresolved.

New section

The rishonim note that, although the Yerushalmi rules that one may continue the davening, even though the minyan is no longer intact, one may complete only the section of prayer that one has started, but one may not begin a new section of the davening. Of course, this ruling spawns a whole literature of halachic discussion: What is considered a different section?

The Terumas Hadeshen (#15) rules that if a minyan was assembled at the time that the chazzan recited borchu, they may complete through the birchos kerias shma, but may not proceed with anything requiring a minyan past that point. This means that should this happen at maariv, one is permitted to recite the half-kaddish that the chazzan says immediately prior to the shemoneh esrei, which is considered part of the birchos kerias shma section. However, one is not permitted to recite the full kaddish (kaddish tiskabeil) or any of the mourner’s kaddeishim at the end of davening.

If this should happen during shacharis, meaning that the minyan dissipates sometime between borchu and the beginning of the repetition of the shemoneh esrei, the chazzan cannot begin the chazaras hashatz, since that comprises a new section for which there is no requisite minyan. Since birchos kerias shma (between borchu and ga’alYisrael) and tefillah are two different mitzvos, they are treated as distinct prayer sections.

A new “section” has another halachic ramification. The Mishnah Berurah (55:12) explains that, if there are nine people, and a tenth person, who has davened already, joins them, so that they now have a minyan, he is required to stay until they complete the section, but he is not obligated to stay for a new section. Thus, should nine people be saying pesukei dezimra together and a tenth person joins them for kaddish and borchu, he is not required to remain with them once they said borchu, since chazaras hashatz is a different mitzvah. However, should he join them for chazaras hashatz, he may be required to remain with them until they complete the full kaddish at the end of davening.

By the way, pesukei dezimra is considered a section of its own and, therefore, if you had a minyan for part of pesukei dezimra that then dissipated, one may recite the kaddish before borchu, which is considered part of pesukei dezimra, but not borchu, which is part of a new section, that of the birchos kerias shma (see Aruch Hashulchan 55:7).

Started chazaras hashatz

What is the law should your minyan dissipate after the chazzan began the repetition of the shemoneh esrei?

The halacha is that one may complete the repetition of shemoneh esrei, recite the half kaddish said after tachanun (Levush, Orach Chayim 55:2) and also recite the full kaddish at the end of davening (Terumas Hadeshen #15; Levush, Orach Chayim 55:2). This is because the prayer beginning with the words tiskabeil tzelose’hon, accept our prayers, which is recited only as part of the full kaddish, refers back to the shemoneh esrei.

However, this shorthanded group may not take out a sefer Torah to read, which is a new mitzvah section, even though it is recited in the davening before the kaddish tiskabeil. The Terumas Hadeshen demonstrates that the full kaddish is part of the shemoneh esrei section, since, on Rosh Chodesh and Chol Hamo’ed, we recite full kaddish immediately after shacharis, rather than at the end of davening as we usually do. This is because on  Rosh Chodesh and Chol Hamo’ed there will yet be a musaf tefillah for which there is its own full kaddish.

Kerias haTorah

The Terumas Hadeshen explains that kerias haTorah is its own, independent section. Therefore, if the minyan dissipated during kerias haTorah, one can complete the required reading and recite the half kaddish that follows. If one was reading the Torah at mincha on Shabbos or a fast day and the minyan dissipated, he may complete the reading of the Torah and then recite the half-kaddish that precedes the quiet shemoneh esrei, but one may not continue with the chazaras hashatz. On a fast day, one would not be permitted to recite the haftarah (Aruch Hashulchan 55:8), since this is considered a separate section.

The Magen Avraham explains that, if the minyan dissipates during Shabbos morning davening, one should call up only seven people for their proper aliyos, but not add any extra aliyos, nor call up maftir.

One might ask: When you have less than ten people still attending your Shabbosminyan,” virtually everyone is getting an aliyah. Why would you want to add aliyos?

Here is a situation where you might want to. A family of kohanim or levi’im is celebrating a bar mitzvah and making their own minyan. The father of the bar mitzvah received the Kohen or Levi aliyah. The plan is for zeide to receive the acharon aliyah immediately before maftir, and the bar mitzvah bochur to receive maftir. In the middle of kerias haTorah, some people leave and they no longer have a minyan. What are they allowed to do?

The halacha is that they can complete the kerias haTorah and recite the half kaddish after the reading of the Torah, but they can call up only seven aliyos, excluding maftir. (What to do about the haftarah will be discussed in the next paragraph.) This would certainly mess up the family’s plans, since both the grandfather and the bar mitzvah bochur would be left without aliyos! Moral of the story: If you are invited to a bar mitzvah, don’t leave earlier than you should!

Torah and haftarah

Is reading the Torah and reading the haftarah considered the same section? The difference in halacha is in the following situation: Some time during the reading of the Torah, the minyan dissipates. As we have learned, one can complete the Torah reading and even recite the kaddish afterwards. The question is whether one may read the haftarah. The Magen Avraham (143:1) rules that one may complete the entire reading of the Torah, and implies that the seventh person (if it is Shabbos) should read the haftarah. The Elyah Rabbah disagrees, explaining that reading the Torah and reading the haftarah are two different mitzvos, created at different times for different reasons. The Mishnah Berurah and the Aruch Hashulchan both conclude like the Elyah Rabbah; the Mishnah Berurah does not even mention the opinion of the Magen Avraham, which is very unusual for him.

Ten for kaddish

At this point, let us examine the second of our opening questions: “We had a minyan when we began saying, but when we finished, we had less. Can I still say kaddish?”

This actual question is addressed by an early halachic authority, Rav Mordechai Yaffe, author of the multi-volume work called Levush Malchus. He rules that, even if they started Aleinu with a minyan and the minyan disappeared while they were reciting Aleinu, they may not recite kaddish (Levush, Orach Chayim 55:3). The beginning of this section is the actual reciting of kaddish. Thus, if they began kaddish with a minyan, and then the minyan disappeared, they may complete the kaddish (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 55:2).

Lost our minyan

At this point, we can discuss the last of our opening questions: “In the middle of the sheva brachos, we lost our minyan. What can we do?”

We first need to understand what is meant by, “in the middle of the sheva brachos?” The answer is that once someone recites the words, Boruch Attah Hashem Elokeinu…, of the first of the sheva brachos (shehakol bara lich’vodo), it is considered that the section called sheva brachos has begun, and all the sheva brachos, including borei pri hagafen, may be completed, even though the minyan has dissipated (Sova Semachos 4:36, quoted by Hanisuin Kehilchasam pg. 272, footnote 121, based on Aruch Hashulchan, Even Ha’ezer 62:13 and Pischei Teshuvah, Even Ha’ezer 62:14). However, if the minyan dissipated prior to the actual reciting of this brocha, they will be unable to recite the sheva brachos, even if they have already begun reciting birkas hamazon and said Dvei haseir and baruch Elokeinu at the beginning of bensching. In other words, birkas hamazon and sheva brachos are two different sections.


Understanding how much concern Chazal placed in the relatively minor aspects of davening should make us more aware of the fact that davening is our attempt at building a relationship with Hashem. As the Kuzari notes, every day should have three very high points — the three times that we daven. We should gain our strength and inspiration for the rest of the day from these three prayers.


A Haftarah from Yechezkel

We will soon see why I chose this topic for this week’s article.

Question #1: Which Haftarah?

Who chose which haftaros we read?

Question #2: Why is Yechezkel different?

In what ways is the book of Yechezkel unusual?

Question #3: Rarely Yechezkel?

Why is the haftarah on Shabbos seldom from Yechezkel?


On certain Shabbosos and most Yomim Tovim, Chazal established specific haftaros to be read (Megillah 29b-31b). On other Shabbosos,no specific haftarah was instituted, but an appropriate section of the prophets is read. When no specific section of Navi was indicated by Chazal, each community would choose a selection of Navi suggestive of the parsha. Indeed, if one looks at old Chumashim, books of community minhagim and seforim that discuss these topics, one finds many variant practices.

Today, which haftaros are read on specific Shabbosos has become standardized, and our Chumashim mention only the selections that are commonly used. There are still many weeks when Sephardic and Ashkenazic practices differ, especially regarding minor variances, such as exactly where to begin or end the haftarah, whether to skip certain verses, and whether and where to skip to a more pleasant ending.

Almost unique Vayigash

Parshas Vayigash is almost unique, in that it is one of only two regular Shabbosos during the entire year in which the haftarah is always from the prophet Yechezkel. In Ashkenazic practice, we have relatively few haftaros on regular Shabbosos that are from Yechezkel. In addition to parshas Vayigash, the customary haftaros of Ashkenazim for Va’eira (28:55), Tetzaveh (43:27), Kedoshim (22:1) and Emor (44:15) are also from Yechezkel, but, of these, only on Emor do we always read from Yechezkel. Shabbos Va’eira occasionally falls on Rosh Chodesh, in which case we read a special haftarah, Hashamayim Kis’i from the book of Yeshayahu; Tetzaveh sometimes falls on Shabbos Shekalim, in which case the haftarah is from the book of Melachim (Megillah 29b; 30a). And, in practice, Ashkenazim rarely read the haftarah printed in the chumashim for Kedoshim. When Acharei and Kedoshim are combined, as they are in all common years, the haftarah is from Amos, which is printed in the chumashim as the haftarah for Acharei. (We should note that the Levush, Orach Chayim 493:4, disagrees with this practice. However, the other authorities, both before him and after, accept that we read on that Shabbos from Amos.)

Even in leap years, when the parshi’os of Acharei and Kedoshim are read on separate weeks, if Shabbos Acharei falls on erev Rosh Chodesh, most Ashkenazim read Mochor Chodesh on parshas Acharei and the haftarah from Amos on Kedoshim. And, even when Acharei and Kedoshim are read on separate weeks and Acharei is not erev Rosh Chodesh, there are years in which Kedoshim falls on Rosh Chodesh, and we read Hashamayim Kis’i.

Thus, the only time we read a haftarah for Kedoshim from Yechezkel is in a leap year in which neither parshas Acharei nor parshas Kedoshim falls on either erev Rosh Chodesh or on Rosh Chodesh. The next time this will happen under our current calendar is in 5784, although we hope that Moshiach will come soon and that our calendar will once again be established by the Sanhedrin, in which case the pattern may be different.

Special haftaros

Although Yechezkel is the source for the haftarah on relatively few regular Shabbosos, there are five special haftaros during the year from the book of Yechezkel. The haftaros for parshas Parah (36:16) and parshas Hachodesh (48:18) are both from Yechezkel, as are the haftaros for Shabbos Chol Hamoed Pesach (37:1), for Shabbos Chol Hamoed Sukkos (38:18) and for Shavuos (1:1).

Reading these haftaros on these special Shabbosos is already recorded by the Gemara (Megillah 30a; 31a). The haftarah read on Shabbos Chol Hamoed Pesach, referred to as the haftarah of the atzamos hayeveishos (literally, the dry bones), is about the bones of the Bnei Efrayim, who were annihilated when they attempted to escape from Egypt, many years before the time of yetzi’as Mitzrayim.

The haftarah read on Shabbos Chol Hamoed Sukkos discusses the wars of Gog and Magog. According to Rashi (Megillah 31a), this haftarah is read then because it continues the theme of the haftarah of the first day of Sukkos, which is the passage discussing the wars of Gog and Magog in the book of Zecharyah.

The Tur (Orach Chayim 490), quoting Rav Hai Gaon, cites the following reason for reciting these two special haftaros on Chol Hamoed: “I heard from wise men that techiyas hameisim will occur in Nissan and the victory of Gog and Magog will transpire in Tishrei, and, for this reason, we recite the haftarah of the dry bones (that, in the haftarah, come back to life) in Nissan and the haftarah beginning with the words Beyom ba Gog in Tishrei.”

So, indeed, we do read haftaros from Yechezkel about eight times a year, but relatively rarely on a “regular” Shabbos.


Before addressing the rest of our opening questions, let us spend some time appreciating the book of Yechezkel and its author. Of the three major prophets of Nevi’im Acharonim, Yechezkel is the latest, although his lifetime and era of prophecy overlap that of Yirmiyahu. Yechezkel began prophesying shortly before the destruction of the first Beis Hamikdash. Yeshayahu had been assassinated a century before; the elderly Yirmiyahu was in Eretz Yisroel, admonishing the people; and the much younger Yechezkel had been exiled to Bavel as a member of the young leadership of the Jewish people, including such great future leaders as Mordechai, Ezra and Daniel, during the expulsion of King Yehoyachin (Yechonyah).

Yechezkel, the Torah scholar

We are aware that, among the many attributes necessary for someone to attain prophecy, Torah scholarship and meticulousness in halacha are included (Rambam, Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 7:1). And yet, even among this very elite group of halachically-concerned individuals, the Gemara demonstrates that Yechezkel stood out as one who was exceptionally careful, particularly in areas of kashrus and tzeniyus (Chullin 44b). He did not eat any food on which a shaylah had been raised, even when a posek subsequently ruled it to be kosher, a meticulousness that the Gemara views as worthy of emulation.

Yechezkel was a qualified member of the Sanhedrin and perhaps its head. The Gemara mentions that, not only was he authorized to create a leap year, a power reserved for the special beis din appointed by the nasi of the Sanhedrin, but he once did so, when he was in chutz la’aretz (Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin 1:2). This is unusual, since ruling and declaring the new month must be performed in Eretz Yisroel, and can only be performed in chutz la’aretz when there is no equal in stature in Eretz Yisroel to those leaders in chutz la’aretz (Brachos 63a). This implies that Yechezkel was, at least at this point in his life, the greatest Torah scholar among the Jewish people.

We also know that Yechezkel had received from his teachers the ongoing tradition of specific halachos that had been related to Moshe at Har Sinai as a mesorah, called halacha leMoshe miSinai. Yechezkel took care to record these rulings, so that they would not be lost to the Jewish people (Taanis 17b).

Yechezkel, the man

“Rava said: ‘Whatever Yechezkel saw, Yeshayahu had seen. To whom can Yechezkel be compared? To a villager who saw the king. And to whom can Yeshayahu be compared? To a city dweller who saw the king’” (Chagigah 13b).

The question the Gemara is bothered by is that both Yeshayahu and Yechezkel describe their visions of the Heavenly array of angels, yet Yechezkel’s descriptions are much more vivid and detailed than those of Yeshayahu.

Rashi explains that Yechezkel shares with us all the details he saw in the angels, because he was unfamiliar with seeing “royalty.” Yeshayahu, on the other hand, was of the royal family and was not as astounded by what he saw. For this reason, he did not record as much specific detail when he saw Hashem’s royal retinue.

Yechezkel, the persecuted

Being a prophet was often not a pleasant occupation, perhaps as bad as being a congregational rabbi. Yechezkel underwent intense suffering as part of his role. In addition, the midrash reports that people said very nasty and untrue things about his yichus (Yalkut Shimoni, Pinchas 771).

Yechezkel, the book

Who wrote the Book of Yechezkel? The Gemara (Bava Basra 15a) reports that it was written by the Anshei Keneses Hagedolah, who also wrote Trei Asar, Daniel and Esther. Why did Yechezkel, himself, not write it? Rashi explains that since he was in chutz la’aretz, he was not permitted to write down the prophecies. Therefore, writing it down required awaiting the return of the Anshei Keneses Hagedolah to Eretz Yisroel. Rashi notes that this also explains why Daniel and Esther, both of whom lived in chutz la’aretz, did not write their own books.

Nevi’im Acharonim

Although we are all familiar with the division of the works of the nevi’im into Nevi’im Rishonim (Yehoshua, Shoftim, Shmuel, Melachim) and Nevi’im Acharonim (Yeshayahu, Yirmiyahu, Yechezkel, Trei Asar), this distinction does not show up anywhere in the Gemara or in the early commentaries. The earliest source that I know who mentions this distinction is the Abarbanel, but all he writes is that Nevi’im Rishonim are predominantly historical in style, whereas Nevi’im Acharonim are closer to what we usually think of when we talk about prophecy. This does not tell us anything about why these two terms, Nevi’im Rishonim and Nevi’im Acharonim, are used to describe the two subdivisions, since many of the events of the Nevi’im Acharonim predate those of the Nevi’im Rishonim.

Rav Tzadok Hakohein points out that the Nevi’im Rishonim are written in third person, similar to the way the Torah is written, whereas Nevi’im Acharonim are written in first person. For example, the opening words of Yechezkel read: And it was in the thirtieth year in the fourth (month) on the fifth of the month, and I was in the midst of the exile on the River Kefar. As Rashi notes, this is an interesting literary device whereby the prophet does not identify who is speaking, and requires that his words be interrupted two pesukim later to tell us who this prophet is. Presumably, the interceding pasuk that identifies Yechezkel was supplied by the Anshei Keneses Hagedolah, when they edited his prophecies into a written work, as the Gemara explains (Bava Basra 15a).

Again, this approach of Rav Tzadok Hakohein does not teach us why the terms Nevi’im Rishonim and Nevi’im Acharonim are used to describe them.

I found an answer to this question in a relatively recent work, Ohel Rivkah by Rabbi Isaac Sender (page 140), who quotes a novel insight from Nevi’ei Emes by Rabbi Avraham Wolf (page 173), a work with which I am unfamiliar. The earlier prophets, such as Eliyahu, warn of difficulties that will befall the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael, but never warn them that their misdeeds may lead to their being exiled. The first prophet to do this is Hoshea, who, according to the Gemara (Bava Basra 14b), was an older contemporary of Yeshayahu. Thus, Hoshea, who is the first of the twelve prophets of Trei Asar, was chronologically the earliest of the prophets to admonish the Jewish people that their misdeeds may lead to their being exiled from the Holy Land, and is the earliest prophet whose works are included in Nevi’im Acharonim. This may provide an explanation as to why the works dating before Hoshea are called Nevi’im Rishonim, and he begins an era called Nevi’im Acharonim.

Yechezkel in chutz la’aretz

At this point, we can address one of our opening questions:

In what ways is the book of Yechezkel unusual?

Well, for one important aspect, the entire book transpired in chutz la’aretz. Although this is true, also, of the books of Esther and Daniel, and possibly Iyov, they are in Kesuvim, rather than being books of prophecy. To quote the midrash (Yalkut Shemoni 336:1), “Until Eretz Yisroel was chosen, all lands were appropriate for prophecy. Once Eretz Yisroel was chosen, the other lands were excluded.”

So, how can the book of Yechezkel open with a statement that he received prophecy while in chutz la’aretz? The answer is that, prior to being exiled to Bavel, Yechezkel had received a prophecy in Eretz Yisroel (Moed Katan 25a, according to the second approach cited by Rashi). This enabled Yechezkel to become a prophet and continue prophesying after he was exiled.

An interesting aspect about Yechezkel is that it is the only book of the prophets of which we are told not to read parts of it as haftarah. This requires clarification.

The Mishnah (Megillah 25a) states:“We do not read, as haftarah, from the passage of Yechezkel called the merkavah, in which he describes the appearance of the Heavenly ‘Chariots’ (Yechezkel 1). However, Rabbi Yehudah permits doing so. Rabbi Eliezer rules that we do not read as haftarah the passage of Yechezkel that begins with the words, Hoda es Yerushalayim” (Yechezkel 16:1).

Let us explain these two disputes among the tanna’im. First the Mishnah records a dispute between the tanna kamma and Rabbi Yehudah. The Rambam explains that the tanna kamma objects to reading the merkavah as a haftarah because people will attempt to understand it in depth, and its subject matter is beyond the ken of mortal man. Rabbi Yehudah is not concerned about this.

How do we rule?

The rishonim note that the Gemara rules that this haftarah should be read on Shavuos. Obviously, the Gemara accepted Rabbi Yehudah’s approach, although we usually follow the tanna kamma (Tosafos; Rambam), and this is the accepted halacha.

Hoda es Yerushalayim

The Mishnah also cited a dispute in which the tanna, Rabbi Eliezer, ruled that the passage in Yechezkel 16 should not be read as a haftarah. Rabbi Eliezer’s reason is either because the passage speaks extremely negatively about the populace of Yerushalayim (Rashi) or because, in the course of its rebuke of Klal Yisroel, it also makes pejorative comments about our forebears (Levush, Orach Chayim 493:4). The halachic authorities all conclude that we rule according to the tanna kamma against Rabbi Eliezer, and that one may recite the haftarah of Hoda es Yerushalayim.

In practice, however, Ashkenazim do not read this haftarah, and the Levush (note to Orach Chayim 493:4) contends that this decision is deliberate. However, there are edot hamizrach communities that do read this passage as the haftarah for Shemos, a practice mentioned by both the Rambam and the Avudraham. Reading these words of Yechezkel, one can readily see why this was chosen for that week’s haftarah, since it describes the bleak origins of the Jewish people. Some of its verses have found their way into the Hagadah that we recite at the Seder on Pesach night, for the same reason.

In conclusion:

Two passages of the Book of Yechezkel are “controversial;” in both of those instances we rule that one may use them for the haftarah.

Although Yechezkel is not a frequent choice for haftarahs on regular Shabbosos, there are several readings from it that we use during the year, each one with a powerful message.

Parchas Vayigash haftarah

This week’s haftarah begins exactly where the haftarah of chol hamoed Pesach ends, and discusses how Yechezkel sees two pieces of wood, one marked “for Judah and his associates,” and the other marked “for Yosef, the tree of Efrayim, and his associates.” Yechezkel describes how Hashem told him to bring the two sticks together and that they would become one in his hands. As Dr. Mendel Hirsch notes, when Yechezkel had this prophecy, the ten tribes, symbolized by Yosef and Efrayim, had long been exiled, and the southern kingdom of Judea was about to fall. Yet, the disunion among the descendants of Yaakov had continued long after the dissolution of their two competing monarchies and long after their feud should have ended. Judea and Efrayim continue their separate ways into the exile, and require the involvement of Yechezkel to bring them together again. Yechezkel is called upon to rebuke the Jewish people for this misbehavior – there is no place for internal divisions within Hashem’s people!


The Halachos of Book, Wine, and Restaurant Reviews

The entire story of Yosef being sold to Egypt was a result of a “critical review…”

Photo by EmZed from FreeImages

Someone once sent me the following email with the following series of shaylos:

Dear Rabbi Kaganoff,

1. Is a person allowed to write balanced reviews of books? This question concerns hashkafah-type works, halachic works, self-help books, as well as novels.

Obviously, there are many halachic ramifications, including lashon hora, etc. I would specifically like to know if one is allowed to review unfavorably a work that the reviewer finds seriously lacking.

2. May one write reviews of other products, such as wine or restaurants?

3. If a person asks my opinion of a book, a wine, or a restaurant, may I answer truthfully, even if my personal negative opinion may result in the person choosing another product?

With much thanks in advance, Aaron Bernstein

Before I answer Aaron’s question, I must first present the halachos of lashon hora that apply here.

Saying something true that may damage someone’s professional or business reputation, or causes him financial harm, constitutes lashon hora, even when nothing negative is intended.[1] Thus, random schmoozing about the quality of different workmen’s skills, the halachic prowess of different talmidei chachomim, or the quality of education provided by a certain school constitutes lashon hora.

However, when I need certain information, I may ask people who might know. For example, if I need to have some home repairs performed, I may “ask around” what experience other people have had with various professionals. I should tell them why I need to know, and they should tell me only what is relevant to my needs.


1. Gilah hired a home-improvement contractor who was skilled and efficient, but inexperienced in certain plumbing work. Ahuva asks Gilah whether the contractor was good. Gilah should reply that he was skilled and efficient, but does Ahuva intend to include any plumbing? If the reply is negative, Gilah should say nothing, since Ahuva understands that if she changes her mind and decides to include plumbing, she should discuss it with Gilah first. If the reply is that there is plumbing to be done, Gilah should tell her that the contractor’s work was excellent and efficient, but that he seemed somewhat inexperienced in plumbing. Gilah should suggest that, perhaps, by now he has the experience, and Ahuva also has the option to ask him to subcontract the plumbing.

2. Yaakov moves to a new neighborhood and asks Michael who the local poskim are. Michael can mention one, some, or all of the local available poskim, but should not mention any disqualifying factors about them, such as, Rabbi X is curt, Rabbi Y is very machmir, or Rabbi Z’s shiurim are unclear. Michael may ask Yaakov what qualities he is looking for in a rav and then make recommendations, based on Yaakov’s answer.

What if I know that the mechanic is dishonest?

Yitzchok and Esther just moved to my neighborhood and mention to me that they are planning to bring their car, which is making an unusual noise, to Gonif’s Service Station. I have found the proprietor of Gonif’s to be very dishonest. May I say something to Yitzchok and Esther?

The halacha is that not only may I say something to them, but I am obligated to do so.[2] This is because I am responsible to make sure that Yitzchok and Esther are not hurt financially by the crooked repair shop. This is included in the mitzvah of lo saamod al dam rei’echa, do not stand by idly while your friend becomes injured.[3]

However, exactly how I impart this information to Yitzchok and Esther depends on the circumstances.

Why is this so?

In any situation where I must protect someone from harm, whether it is a potentially harmful shidduch, damaging chinuch or a bad business deal, there are five rules that govern what I may say:

1. Is it bad?

Be certain that what may transpire (if I do not intercede) is, indeed, bad. Often, one assumes that something is worse than it really is. Later in this article, I will describe a case that appears bad, while halachically it is not considered so. In the case at hand, I am responsible to see that Yitzchok and Esther are not deceived by the repair shop. By warning them, I have fulfilled the first rule.

2. No exaggerating

Do not exaggerate, describing the situation as worse than it is. In this case, even if I need to describe Gonif’s dishonesty (which I can probably avoid, as we will explain later), I should describe only what I personally know, and I must be careful not to embellish or include hearsay.

3. Appropriate motivation

One’s motivation must be to protect the innocent person from harm, not to bring retribution on the person responsible for causing the harm. In our case, this means that my goal is to protect Yitzchok and Esther from harm, not to “get back” at Gonif’s. The reason for this condition is that one violates the prohibition of saying lashon hora if one has evil intent, even in a case when one may otherwise transmit the information.[4]

4. No other choice

Can I accomplish what I need to without saying lashon hora? The answer to this question depends on the situation. What do I need to accomplish? In the case of the crooked repair shop, my goal is that Yitzchok and Esther not be victimized by the shop. I can accomplish this in several different ways, some of which do not require tarnishing the repair shop’s reputation. For example, if Yitzchok and Esther will heed my advice to take their car to “Careful and Honest Repairs” instead, I have no need to tell them that Gonif’s is a dishonest shop. In this instance, I have accomplished my purpose, without mentioning the dishonest acts I have witnessed.

5. Too damaging

Will the result of my sharing the negative information be more harmful to the perpetrator than what he should suffer according to halacha? For example, I know that Reuven’s professional work is sometimes substandard, and I discover that Shimon, who is known to back out on deals he has committed to, contracted Reuven to do work. Although under other circumstances I would not only be permitted, but even required, to notify someone of Reuven’s lack of professional skill, in this situation, I may not notify Shimon, because he may back out on Reuven in a way that contravenes halacha.

When is something not really bad?

In condition #1 above, I mentioned that there are situations that someone considers bad, but which are not considered bad, according to halacha. The background behind this shaylah will impact directly on our original shaylah about reviewing books, wines, and restaurants.

What is an example of this situation?

Chani sees Miriam, who is new in the neighborhood, about to enter a grocery store that Chani knows is expensive. May Chani tell Miriam that groceries in this store might cost more than at the competition? The Chafetz Chayim rules that one may not reveal this information.[5]

Why is it not permitted to save Miriam from overpaying?

The Chafetz Chayim rules that overpaying slightly for an item is not considered a “bad thing,” provided the storekeeper is within the halachic range of what he may charge. (A full explanation of how much the storekeeper may charge is beyond the focus of this article.)

Why is being overcharged not considered being harmed?

Since the storekeeper who charges higher prices is not doing anything halachically wrong, one may not hurt his livelihood by encouraging someone to purchase elsewhere. And if one does, this is lashon hora, which includes hurting someone’s livelihood.

Thus, there is a major difference between a dishonest repair shop and one that is more expensive. It is a mitzvah to steer someone away from a dishonest store, but it is forbidden to steer him away from a Jewish store that charges more, when the store is halachically permitted to do so.

What happens if someone moves to town and asks me where he can find kosher groceries?

You should tell him which local groceries sell kosher products that have the hechsherim he wants. You do not need to supply a complete list of the stores in the neighborhood, but it is permissible to mention only the stores that are less expensive. However, you may not tell him which stores are more expensive.

If someone knows that a third party plans to purchase an item from a store that tends to be expensive, do not say anything. Even though the purchaser could save money by buying elsewhere, the storekeeper is losing from your actions. One should not get involved in saving one person’s money at someone else’s expense.[6] However, if the proprietor of the store is not an observant Jew or not Jewish, you may tell the purchaser that there is a less expensive place to make his purchase.

On the other hand, if the storekeeper is doing something that is halachically prohibited, such as selling defective or misrepresented products, you should warn a person intending to make a purchase there.

Book reviews

With this background, we can now discuss Aaron Bernstein’s first shaylah: “Is a person allowed to write balanced reviews of books?”

What does the review accomplish?

This depends on the type of book being reviewed. Let us begin with one category: Jewish novels.

Why do secular sources review books?

So that people can decide whether they will enjoy the book, and whether they should spend the money to purchase it.

May I do this? What “harm” am I protecting someone from by telling him to avoid purchasing this book? On the other hand, by warning people away from the book, I am hurting the livelihood of those who have invested time and money, intending that this book will provide them parnasah.

This is parallel to the case where one Jewish storeowner, in his desire to make a living, charges a bit more than his competitors. The halacha there is that I may not tell someone to avoid his store, since I am harming the storekeeper. Similarly, I may not tell people to save money by avoiding the purchase of a book. One may, however, publish a review that describes the positive aspects of a book.

Of course, this means that the most standard book reviews and other reviews common in secular circles contravene halachic guidelines. One may include a book review column only if it merely informs people of new publications, but does not provide negative critical review.

However, if a work contains flaws in hashkafah, one is required to refute the author’s mistakes.

Similarly, if a halacha work is flawed, one should write a review to clarify that the work contains errors.


Many years ago, I was asked by a well-known Jewish publication to review a particular halachic work. When I read the work, I felt it sorely lacking in certain areas — particularly hashkafah, and that it could easily be used as a resource for someone who would then behave in a questionable or non-halachic fashion. I pointed out these concerns of mine in the review, because, in this situation, it was very important to avoid serious halachic mishaps.

If the work reflects an approach to halacha different from one’s own, then it depends: if the halacha quoted is reliable, one may draw the reader’s attention to the fact that it reflects a different halachic approach.

Now we can look at the second question:

“2. May one write reviews of other products, such as wine or restaurants?”

We already know the answer to this question. If the purpose of the review is to discourage people from buying a product or eating in a restaurant, one may not write the review. But one may publish a review that contains the positive aspects of the product.

What if someone asks me my opinion of a certain wine or restaurant?

If you have a poor opinion of the wine, restaurant or book, you should inquire, “What are you looking for?” Then, when the questioner clarifies what he wants, direct him to the product that most satisfies his needs and interests. If the wine or restaurant in question may not be what he wants, explain to him what aspects would meet his needs, and what might not. This is permitted, because they have come to you to ask for information about the item. However, one may not simply put this information in the media for everyone, including readers who have no need of, or interest in, the information.

For example, you do not have a positive opinion of a restaurant. Why? You think the service is poor. Would that be a factor to this person? If you are not certain, but you think there are other redeeming reasons why this person may want to eat there anyway, say it in a way that does not reflect too negatively upon the restaurant, such as, “Once, when I was there, the service was a bit slow. But I don’t dine there very often.”

One of the rabbonim to whom I sent this article for his opinion wrote me the following: “I don’t agree with what you wrote about restaurants. If one has a criticism that doesn’t necessarily make it an undesirable place for the one asking, I think that it is better to just say that ‘I don’t go there too often.’ The person won’t suffer by trying, and he will decide if he is happy with it.”

Could there be a frum kosher wine review?

Possibly, but only if its readership was limited to people who are shopping for wines and looking for advice.

Consumer Reports

According to halacha, may one publish a magazine like Consumer Reports?

Although the editors of this magazine have not sought my opinion, I think that they may publish the results of their research, if it is read only by people interested in purchasing these items and not by a general audience.

In conclusion, we see that the halachic approach to this entire issue is very different from that of contemporary society. We must remember that we examine our behavior through the prism of halacha and not from that of society.

[1] Rambam, Hilchos Dei’os 7:5

[2] Chofetz Chayim, Hilchos Rechilus 9:1

[3] See Be’er Mayim Chayim ad loc.

[4] See Be’er Mayim Chayim, Hilchos Rechilus 9:3

[5] Be’er Mayim Chayim, Hilchos Rechilus, 9:27

[6] See Be’er Mayim Chayim, Hilchos Rechilus 9:27 and commentaries


Using Hashem’s Name

The posuk in parshas Vayeishev (Bereishis 39:3) says that Yosef’s master, Potifar, recognized that Hashem was with Yosef. Rashi, quoting the Bereishis Rabbah, explains that this means that Yosef frequently referred to Hashem, thus introducing our topic for this week.

Question #1: Nasty Neighbor

Mrs. Goodhearted asks: “I have a disturbed neighbor who often spews out abusive invective. I am concerned that her cursing may bring evil things upon me. What should I do?”

Question #2: A Friend in Vain

Mr. Closefriend inquires: “A close friend of mine often makes comments like ‘for G-d’s sake,’ which I know are things that we should avoid saying. I wanted my friend to be one of the witnesses at my wedding, but an acquaintance mentioned that my friend may not be a kosher witness because he uses G-d’s name in vain. Is this really true?”


Although both words “swear” and “curse” are often used to mean “speaking vulgar language,” for this entire article, I will not be using these words in this sense, but “swear” in the sense of “taking an oath,” and “curse” to mean “expressing desire that misfortune befall someone.”

Ten prohibitions

The Rambam counts a total of thirteen different mitzvos, ten mitzvos Lo Sa’aseh and three mitzvos Aseh, which are included within the context of our discussion. The ten Lo Sa’aseh prohibitions are:

  1. Not to break an oath or commitment that one has made. The Torah’s commandment concerning this law is located at the beginning of parshas Matos. It is counted and discussed in the Rambam’s Sefer Hamitzvos as Lo Sa’aseh #157 and in the Sefer Hachinuch as Mitzvah #407.
  2. Not to swear falsely (Sefer Hamitzvos, Lo Sa’aseh #61; Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah #227). This is derived from the words, lo sishav’u bishmi lashaker, “you shall not swear falsely in My Name,” which appear in parshas Kedoshim.
  3. Not to deny, with an oath, that one owes money. This mitzvah is also located in parshas Kedoshim and is derived from the words lo seshakru ish ba’amiso, “do not lie to your fellowman,” which Chazal interpret as a prohibition against swearing a false oath denying that one owes money (Bava Kama 105b; Sefer Hamitzvos, Lo Sa’aseh #249; Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah #226).
  4. Not to swear an oath that has no purpose (Sefer Hamitzvos, Lo Sa’aseh #62; Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah #30). This mitzvah is derived from the words of the Aseres Hadibros: You shall not take the Name of Hashem, your G-d, in vain.
  5. Not to cause someone to swear in the name of an idol (Sefer Hamitzvos, Lo Sa’aseh #14; Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah #86). This mitzvah is derived from the words, vesheim elohim acheirim… lo yishama al picha, “You should not cause the names of other gods to be used in an oath” in parshas Mishpatim (23:13; see Sanhedrin 63b).
  6. Not to curse Hashem (Sefer Hamitzvos, Lo Sa’aseh #60; Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah #70).
  7. Not to curse one’s parents (Sefer Hamitzvos, Lo Sa’aseh #318).
  8. Not to curse the king of the Jewish people or the head of the Sanhedrin, who is called the Nasi (Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 26:1; Sefer Hamitzvos 316; Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah #71). This mitzvah is derived from the words, venasi be’amecha lo sa’or in parshas Mishpatim.
  9. Not to curse a dayan, a judge presiding over a beis din proceeding (Sefer Hamitzvos, Lo Sa’aseh #315; Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah #69; Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 26:1). This mitzvah is derived from the words, Elohim lo sekaleil in parshas Mishpatim.
  10. Not to curse any Jew (Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 26:1; Sefer Hamitzvos 317; Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah #231). This mitzvah is also derived from a verse in parshas Kedoshim, since it is included under the Torah prohibition do not curse someone deaf. As the Sefer Hachinuch explains the mitzvah, “do not curse any Jewish man or woman, even one who cannot hear the curse.”

Four in one

We should note that the above-mentioned mitzvos are not mutually exclusive, and one could violate several of them at the same time. For example, the son of the Nasi of the Sanhedrin who curses his father violates four different Lo Sa’aseh prohibitions: for cursing (1) a Jew, (2) his father, (3) a dayan, (4) the head of the Sanhedrin (Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah #231).

As we will see shortly, violating most of these prohibitions is punishable by 39 malkus, lashes (Temurah 3b). This is highly surprising, since usually violating a Torah mitzvah through speech does not lead to this sentence (Temurah 3a). However, these laws are exceptions to the usual rule, which demonstrates the severity of these prohibitions.

Three positive mitzvos

In addition to the ten Lo Sa’aseh mitzvos that this topic covers, there are also three positive mitzvos involved:

1. A mitzvah to fulfill something that one has accepted to do, located at the beginning of parshas Matos (Sefer Hamitzvos, Mitzvas Aseh #94; Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah # 406).

2. Fearing Hashem, which includes treating His Name with respect (see Temurah 4a).

3. The Rambam counts a positive mitzvah of taking an oath (Sefer Hamitzvos #7).

What does a curse accomplish?

At this point, I would like to explain a very important and often misunderstood concept. When someone curses an innocent person, the curse causes no harm. To quote Rav Moshe Feinstein, “when someone curses his fellowman, the prohibition is not because it causes harm to the other person. First of all, Heaven will ignore a curse that was performed in violation of the Torah. Second of all, a curse without basis does not bring harm.” Rav Moshe refers to the verse in Mishlei (26:2): an unjustified curse affects only the one who uttered it. a curse of this nature causes no harm.”

Furthermore, even the curses and evil intended by sorcerers (kishuf) do not affect Jews, since we are directly connected to Hashem, and therefore not affected by kishuf (Ramban, Bamidbar 24:23).

Rav Moshe concludes that although a curse of this nature does no harm to its intended target, the one who cursed a fellow Jew is punished because he embarrassed someone, and because he acted with disdain for Hashem’s Holy Name.

Based on this, Rav Moshe explains that there is a difference in halacha between cursing someone else and cursing oneself. When the Gemara (Shavuos 35a) states that cursing oneself is prohibited min HaTorah, Rav Moshe explains that, in this instance, the sinful act of cursing will bring upon himself punishment and harm (Shu”t Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 3:78).

Based on Rav Moshe’s analysis of the mitzvah, we can now understand several other halachos of cursing. Cursing a child old enough to understand what was said is liable to the same level of punishment as cursing an adult. This is because it is prohibited to hurt a child’s feelings, just as it is forbidden to insult an adult. However, cursing a dead person is exemptfrom the punishment of malkus (Toras Kohanim on Parshas Kedoshim; Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 26:1-2). This is because the dead feel no pain when someone curses them.

In one situation, cursing a dead person is indeed punished — cursing one’s parents after their demise is a fully culpable crime (Sanhedrin 85b, quoted by Kesef Mishneh, Hilchos Sanhedrin 26:2).

Cursing without using Hashem’s Name

Cursing a person without using G-d’s Name does not incur the punishment of malkus. However, the beis din has the halachic right and responsibility to punish the offender in a way that they feel is appropriate (Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 26:5).

Having seen Rav Moshe’s explanation of the mitzvah, we can now explain why someone who curses without using Hashem’s name is not liable. The most severe violation, which incurs the punishment of malkus, is violated only if one committed both aspects of the sin – he demonstrated total disregard both for G-d and for man, by desecrating G-d’s Name and by offending someone. However, one who cursed without desecrating Hashem’s Name is spared from receiving corporeal chastisement, because his infringement was not of the highest level.  This is similar to cursing a dead person, as explained above.  Although Hashem’s Name has been desecrated, no living person is offended; hence, there is no malkus.

At this point, we can address our first question above. Mrs. Goodhearted asks: “I have a disturbed neighbor who often spews out abusive invective. I am concerned that her cursing may bring evil things upon me. What should I do?”

I would advise her to avoid her neighbor when she can, but for a different reason. Mrs. Goodhearted is concerned that she will be damaged by the neighbor’s curses – but according to Rav Moshe, there is no cause for concern. However, if her neighbor is sane enough to be responsible for her actions, the neighbor will be punished for cursing and for hurting people’s feelings. Mrs. Goodhearted should try to avoid giving her neighbor an opportunity to sin.

Cursing in English

Does cursing using G-d’s Name in a language other than Hebrew violate this prohibition? The Rambam rules that cursing someone using a vernacular Name of G-d is also prohibited min haTorah and is chayov malkus (Hilchos Sanhedrin 26:3; see also Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 27:1).

What type of oath?

Having discussed the prohibitions against cursing one’s fellow Jew, let us now discuss the prohibitions against swearing in vain. What type of oath did the Torah prohibit taking?

In general, the Torah prohibits taking any type of oath, even when the oath is true, because it is an oath that has no purpose (Temurah 3b). For example, someone who swears truthfully that he did not eat anything today violates the Lo Sa’aseh, You shall not take Hashem’s Name in vain, since this oath accomplishes nothing.

Someone who swears an oath that is false, such as one who falsely swears that he did not eat breakfast that day, violates both the proscription for swearing a false oath and also for swearing a vain oath, since it serves no purpose.

Two exceptions

There are two instances when the Torah permits someone to swear a truthful oath (Temurah 3b). This is derived from the fact that the Torah says in two different places (Devarim 6:13; 10:20), uvishmo tishavei’a. We will see shortly that the halachic authorities dispute whether the words uvishmo tishavei’a should be translated as “in His Name you shall swear” or as “in His Name you may swear.”

Encouraging mitzvah observance

What are the two exceptional instances in which the Torah permits swearing?

(1) The first is when someone swears an oath as an incentive to support his efforts at growth and self-improvement. One may take an oath to encourage himself to perform a mitzvah that he might otherwise not perform (Temurah 3b). For example, one may swear to donate to tzedakah or to say a chapter of Tehillim every day.

Bear in mind that in general, although permitted, it is not a good idea to create oaths or vows upon oneself (see Nedarim 22a). Someone who takes an oath or a vow is now bound to observe it, and failure to do so is a grievous sin. Therefore, although reciting such an oath (that has a purpose) does not violate the Torah’s prohibition against taking Hashem’s Name in vain, it is usually recommended not to do so.

A better approach is to accept the new practice bli neder, which means that one is hoping and planning on it, but without the obligation and inherent problem of making it an obligation on the level of a shavua or a neder, a vow.

When required in litigation

(2) The second situation in which the Torah permits swearing an oath is within the framework of halachic litigation. There are instances in which the psak halacha, the final ruling of a beis din, requires a litigant to take an oath in order to avoid paying or to receive payment. When the beis din rules that one is required to take an oath, the Gemara (Temurah 3b) concludes that the person swearing does not violate the Torah’s prohibition against swearing unnecessarily.

Permitted or a mitzvah?

It is important to note that in this last situation, the authorities dispute whether the halacha is that one may take an oath, but there is no mitzvah to do so, and we would discourage the oath, or whether, in this situation, it is a mitzvah to swear an oath. The Rambam (Hilchos Shavuos 11:1 and Sefer Hamitzvos, Positive Mitzvah #7) contends that someone who swears because of a din Torah fulfills a positive mitzvah of the Torah, uvishmo tishavei’a, “in His Name you shall swear.” Others contend that this verse means simply “in His Name you may swear,” but that there is never a mitzvah of taking an oath (Ramban, Sefer Hamitzvos, Positive Mitzvah #7). Still others contend that even though the verse says, “in His Name you may swear,” this does not mean it is permitted to swear, but that one who swears is not punished for taking an oath (Shu”t Chasam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat #90). However, this last authority contends that one should avoid taking an oath even under these circumstances, and thereby explains why the custom is to pay large fees or fines rather than swear an oath that is fully truthful.

Testimony without oaths

It is worthwhile to note that testimony in halacha does not require one to swear an oath. This can be juxtaposed to the secular legal system, in which one must take an oath or pledge; otherwise, one’s testimony cannot be considered perjury. This is not true in halacha. A Jew’s word is sacrosanct, and any time he testifies or makes a claim in court, whether as a litigant, a witness or an attorney, he is halachically bound to tell only the truth. It is therefore a serious infraction of the Torah for someone to file a legal brief that includes false statements. In addition, filing these statements may involve many other violations, including loshon hora, rechilus, motzi shem ra, machlokes and arka’os.

Oath without G-d

Does swearing an oath without mentioning Hashem’s Name qualify as an oath? This question is discussed extensively by the rishonim, who conclude that someone who commits himself to doing (or refraining from doing) something, using terminology that implies an oath, is now bound to observe the pledge, whether or not he mentioned Hashem’s Name (Rambam, Hilchos Shavuos 2:4; Rashba, Shavuos 36a; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 137:1). Nevertheless, according to most authorities, swearing an oath that mentions Hashem’s Name is a more serious Torah violation (Rambam, Hilchos Shavuos 2:4).

Taking Hashem’s Name in vain

It is also prohibited min haTorah to use Hashem’s Name unnecessarily, even when one is not taking an oath. This is prohibited as a mitzvas Aseh, since it violates the words of the Torah, es Hashem Elokecha tira, “You shall fear Hashem your G-d” (Devarim 6:13). Thus, it is prohibited min haTorah for someone to say as an expletive, “For G-d’s sake,” “Oh, my G-d in Heaven” or similar exclamations.

In this context, the following halachic question is raised:

“Is there anything wrong with saying: ‘Just as G-d is True, so this is true!’ Does halacha consider this to be an oath?”

This question is discussed almost five hundred years ago by the Radbaz (Shu”t #17), who writes that these types of declarations are serious infractions of the Torah and are considered blasphemous. Anyone who makes such statements should be severely reprimanded and punished, so that he realizes how sinful this is and will take it upon himself to do teshuvah on his crime. The Radbaz states that it is very wrong to compare the existence and truth of anything else to Hashem’s existence and truth. Furthermore, someone who makes such a declaration about a falsehood denies the Creator and forfeits his share in the World to Come.

A friend in vain

At this point, we have enough information to examine Mr. Closefriend’s question posed above:

“A close friend of mine often makes comments like ‘for G-d’s sake,’ which I know are things we should avoid saying. I wanted my friend to be one of the witnesses at my wedding, but an acquaintance mentioned that my friend may not be a kosher witness, because he uses G-d’s name in vain. Is this really true?”

Although Mr. Closefriend should convince his close friend that this irreverent referring to Hashem and His holy Name is prohibited, this use does not qualify as making an oath in vain, but as a violation of the mitzvas Aseh of fearing Hashem (Temurah 4a). As such, there is a difference in halacha:

Two categories of people are disqualified as witnesses because they are sinners.

One is someone who has demonstrated that he will compromise halacha for monetary benefit (Rambam, Hilchos Edus 10:4).

The other category is someone who violates a sin so severe that, during the time of the Sanhedrin, he could be punished with malkus (Rambam, Hilchos Edus 10:1-3; Sefer Hamitzvos, Lo Sa’aseh 286; Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah 75). Therefore, someone who curses people using G-d’s Name or one who swears is not a valid witness at a wedding ceremony. However, although it is highly sinful to violate mitzvos Aseh, one who violates them is not invalidated as a witness.


In addition to the above-mentioned reasons why one should be careful how and when one uses Hashem’s Name, the Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzvah 231) mentions other reasons not to curse people. Cursing creates conflict, something we certainly want to avoid.  Furthermore, we want to learn to develop our self-control.