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Tuesday, April 07, 2020 13 Nisan 5780


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Regarding Tefillin which each male is supposed to put on daily except for the Sabbath and Jewish Holidays, I ask, 1) Why the need for the two boxes, one on the arm and one on the head? Why not just one box?
2) According to the explicit order stated in the Torah, we first wrap the Tefillin on the arm and only afterward don the Tefillin on the head. Why is this order so significant?
           Aaron, Metropolitan Detention Center, Brooklyn NY


In order to understand this better, here is another question. The Tefillin we place on our head is conspicuously divided into four sections. In contrast, the Tefillin we place on our arm is conspicuously made of one chamber, and all the four portions are inscribed on a single piece of parchment placed in one container or box. Why?

The Rebbe offered a beautiful explanation.

Jewish life consists of two aspects—the head and the arm.

The “head” of Judaism represents our love for learning and the workings of the mind. The mitzvah of Torah study is considered one of the greatest mitzvot of the Torah, if not the greatest. This is something unique to Judaism, where learning for the sake of the learning, even without practical relevance, is seen as a Divine commandment, as a way of connecting to G-d. While great Empires and nations were building armies, gymnasiums, cathedrals, and Colosseum, we were sitting in Bet Midrash (synagogues, and yeshivot), studying, arguing, dissecting, and pondering.

We are the people even in times when they lacked all else, never cease to value education as a sacred task.

In the Warsaw Ghetto, there were classes in the Talmud.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Cheif Rabbi of the Commanwealth, tells the story of when he fell deathly ill.

“Many years ago, I was rushed into the hospital with a life-threatening condition. I was rushed straight from my doctor to hospital, had an operation, that saved my life. I was just waking up from Anesthesia when there’s a knock on my hospital door. There an 80-year-old Jew with a volume of Talmud under his arm. “Oh, I heard you were here Rabbi. I thought we could learn Talmud together!”

“I’m trying not to die, and he wants to learn Talmud!”

What a Jewish story! Yes, we live in our brains, sometimes to a fault.

But Judaism has another side to it—its “arm,” representing action and implementation. To be a Jew is not only to exercise the brain but also to be an educated, knowledgeable Jew, a proud member of the “people of the book.” That is important but it’s not all. Judaism’s greatness is that it takes the highest ideals and most exalted visions and turns them into patterns of daily behavior and activities, we call Mitzvot.

Judaism is the dedication of ordinary people to construct, through daily ordinary acts, a fragment of heaven on planet earth. It is a 613-step program toward perfecting ourselves and the world around us—to reflect the image of the Divine.

It is not a coincidence this mitzvah is communicated to us by Moses, on the day we left Egypt, under his leadership.

If there was anyone who understood the power of the “arm” over the “head” it was Moses, and if there was ever a day it was appreciated—it was on the day of Egyptian Exodus, when the long drama between Moses and Pharaoh came to an end.

As we recall, Pharaoh had decreed death for every male Israelite child. Yocheved, Moses’ mother, had a baby boy. Fearing his certain death if she kept him, she set him afloat on the Nile in a basket, hoping that someone might see him and take pity on him. This is what follows:

Pharaoh’s daughter went to bathe in the Nile, while her maids walked along the Nile’s edge. She saw the box in the reeds and sent out her arm to fetch it. Opening it, she saw the boy. The child began to cry, and she had pity on it. “This is one of the Hebrew boys,” she said.

Note the choice of words. “She sent out her arm!” The natural thing for her to do was to save him only in her head. After all, for her to bring him home was absurd and dangerous. Maybe try to strategize in her brain how she might defy her father’s orders, or to try to make sense of Egyptian madness. Had she done that, Moses might have never lived. Thank goodness, she did not live in her head. “She sent out her arm!” She translated a noble and heroic gesture into pragmatic action. She stretched out her arm and saved the baby.

The rest is history.

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At home before coming to prison, we lit all the eight electric blubs for Chanukah. Upon coming to prison I have learned that on the first night of Chanukah, its only one candle and the second night two etc. Why?
           Bernabe, Airpark Unit, Big Spring TX


The Talmud gives two reasons for why we add a candle each night:

1) To indicate which night of Chanukah it is.

2) In matters of holiness, we always want to ascend rather than descend.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that this reflects the uniqueness of the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days. Unlike many other miracles, including the victory over the Syrian-Greeks, the miracle of the oil was seemingly unnecessary (and under the circumstances, they were anyway permitted to light with impure oil). Yet G‑d performed this miracle as an expression of His deep love for His people, who, with great self-sacrifice, had just fought a war in order to perform His mitzvahs.

Thus, in a way, the essence of the holiday is about going above and beyond mere requirements. It is for this reason that the universal custom is to light the menorah in the most meticulous fashion, reflecting our great love for G‑d and His great love for us.

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Why Are Tefillin Square?
           Greg, Federal Medical Center, Rochester MN


The Law of Moses from Sinai, called in Hebrew Halachah leMoshe miSinai, calls for the Teffilin to be square. These laws were transmitted orally by G‑d to Moses and were passed down through the generations.

The Talmud gives no actual reason for the squareness of the Tefillin. In fact, this is sometimes given as an example of a law whose details cannot be understood, even if the general reason for the mitzvah is revealed to us. In this case, we understand that the Tefillin are to function as “a sign upon your hand," etc. but we do not know why the sign must take this particular shape. This tells us that even that which we do understand is only part of the reason for the mitzvah, which is beyond the grasp of our limited, mortal minds.

We are nevertheless instructed to seek as much explanation as possible. Here are some of the classic reasons for Tefillin’s squareness.

A statement in the Jerusalem Talmud says that nothing square was created during the Six Days of Creation. Thus, the square represents that which man refines or processes. Square Tefillin, therefore, symbolize our mission to uplift the material and mundane world and infuse it with holiness, and ultimately make it into a dwelling place for the Divine, which will be fully realized with the coming of the Messianic era. Expect this to happen any day now!

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The Ten Commandments have been around for more than 3,300 years. Why is this especially relevant now?
           Randy, US Penitentiary, Coleman FL


With the news these days of mass shootings and other hateful incidents perpetrated by disenfranchised young people it’s clear that society is suffering from fragmentation and people are desperate to find something they can identify with.

A lot of this has to do with what we can term the “generation gap.” The values and feeling of belonging that personified previous generations are not automatically transferring to the next generation, and this leaves people alone, rudderless and susceptible to online hatemongers.

In addition, Hollywood these days produces movies of shootings, killings and guns all over the place. Video games are about the movies. Young minds are filled with using guns and being a hero.

So the Ten Commandments are extremely relevant in today’s age. The past is a guide for the present. A mitzvah helps to fulfill the emptiness that many have.

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I am a convert to Judaism and I'm very proud of it. I have always felt totally welcomed by the community and in no way an outsider. But I am deeply bothered by the law that says a convert is not allowed to marry a Kohen. If I am a fully fledged Jew like any other, why am I not good enough to marry into the priestly tribe?
           Rachel, Federal Corr Institution, Tallahassee FL


When the Torah forbids a marriage, it is never because one party is not good enough for the other. It is because the parties are not matched to each other. They are simply not soulmates. In the case of the Kohen and the convert, their soul dynamics clash, their spiritual energies contradict, and so they can't marry.

A convert can marry a king. A convert can marry a prophet. A convert can even marry a rabbi, the highest echelon of Jewish society. So it makes no sense to say that a convert can't marry a Kohen because they are second class citizens.

The holiness of a Kohen is hereditary. If your father is a Kohen, then you are a Kohen. Priesthood is a birthright that is not achieved through a person's effort nor deserved through a person's righteousness. It is an honor that is bestowed at birth.

The holiness of a convert is the exact opposite. It is completely earned. The convert was not born Jewish. He or she chose it. They achieve Jewishness of their own initiative and with their own hard work. They are self-made souls.

So these two souls, the Kohen and the convert, are moving in opposite directions. The Kohen receives his power from above. The convert creates his own soul energy from below. The Kohen has the ability to bring down blessings to others, just as his soul was given to him as a blessing. The convert has the power of innovation, of initiative, of creating holiness from the ground up. For this reason, their souls are not a match.

Both the Kohen and the convert have awesome holiness. It is a great privilege to be gifted with the soul of a Kohen. And yet, the self-made soul of a convert has a depth of experience that inherited holiness cannot compete with. Neither are second class souls.

The Kohen is crowned with a legacy from past generations. A convert creates his or her own legacy for future generations. The Jewish people is richer because of each of them.

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Recently a woman came to visit with her child, and it was clear the child was recovering from the measles. As a result, staff closed down the entire camp for two weeks. The men had time to discuss the pro and con about measles. What is the Torah view about vaccinations?
           Michael, Otisville Prison Camp, NY


In a letter from the Rebbe, the Rebbe writes:

I am surprised by your question, since so many individuals from the Land of Israel have asked me about this and I have answered them in the affirmative, since the overwhelming majority of individuals do so here [in the United States] successfully.

Understandably, if there are inoculations that are produced by multiple pharmaceutical companies, you should use the ones whose product has been safely tried and proven.

In the spring of 1956 the Rebbe wrote:

In reply to your letter in which you ask my opinion about the injections that are commonly given to young children:

It is with regard to matters such as these that the axiom “Do not set yourself apart from the community” applies. You should act according to that which is done by [the parents of] the majority of children who are in your children’s classes . . .

Even as the polio vaccine effectively eliminated the dreaded disease, there were instances where faulty shots actually brought about illness. In a letter from the winter of 1957, the Rebbe addressed this issue:

. . The event that occurred in the United States was at the beginning of the use of these vaccines, before the [exact] medical compound was definitively established. This is not the case at present, after months of experience with the vaccine.

Therefore, once a vaccine’s reliability is firmly established, there is no worry. To the contrary .

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Can you explain what are Teffilin?
           Daniel, Blackwater CF, Milton FL


Tefillin are a pair of black leather boxes containing Hebrew parchment scrolls. A set includes two—one for the head and one for the arm. Each consists of three main components: the scrolls, the box and the strap.

All Jewish males over the age of bar mitzvah (13 years old) should perform the mitzvah of tefillin. The Torah commands Jewish men to bind tefillin onto their head and upper arm every weekday, in fulfillment of the verse (Deut. 6:8), “You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for a reminder between your eyes.”

In order for the Teffilin to be kosher according to Jewish law, tefillin must meet thousands of requirements. Think of them as a finely tuned spiritual machine. If one part is out of place, the whole thing won’t work.

The scrolls inside the tefillin are inscribed in black ink with a quill (or reed) pen by a specially trained scribe, known as a sofer. The parchment is handmade, and must be from a kosher animal. The scribe concentrates intensely and writes with special Hebrew characters. There are 1594 letters in each of the tefillin boxes. If one letter is extra, missing, or even incorrectly written, the tefillin are invalid. The boxes and straps are also made of leather from a kosher animal.

One can fulfill the mitzvah of tefillin anytime during the day—from sunrise to nightfall. A blessing is recited, and it is customary to read the Shema prayer. Traditionally, tefillin are worn during weekday morning prayers.

Tefillin are not worn on Shabbat and major Jewish holidays.

Tefillin is an incredibly powerful mitzvah. The experience of putting on tefillin has changed many people’s lives.

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Rabbi, can you tell me what are Chasidic teachings?
           William, Southport Corr Facility, Pine City NY


The Chassidic movement (started in earnest by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov in the 18th century) taught Jews to serve G‑d with love and joy rather than fear and trembling, to sing and dance rather than cry and fast. What concerns G‑d the most, the Baal Shem Tov would preach, is that you serve Him with your heart. Love G‑d, even if you don’t always understand His ways; love His Torah, even if you can barely read the words; and most of all, love one another, even if that “other” doesn’t measure up to the expectations of G‑d and His Torah. And celebrate all of the above.

Chassidim are also known for their meticulousness in the details of Jewish ritual and practice, for extending themselves much further than the strict requirements of halachah, in consonance with the Talmudic dictum, “Who is a chassid? One who goes beyond the letter of the law.”

Through Chassidus, a person can change his natural traits to G-dly traits.

Chassidus innovated that even a simple unrefined person can understand G-dliness

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When washing for bread, I was told not to talk till I eat the bread or Challah. Why?
           Kevin, Federal Corr Institution, Bastrop TX


Washing one's hands before eating bread is one of the seven rabbinic mitzvahs instituted by the sages (the other six are Hallel, Chanukah, Purim, eruv for Shabbat, lighting Shabbat candles, and saying blessings [e.g. before eating]). After washing our hands, we don’t talk until we eat the bread.

The sages of the Talmud find support for washing before bread in the following verse: “You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am the L‑rd, your G‑d.” They expound, “‘You shall sanctify yourselves’—this refers to washing before eating. ‘And be holy’—this refers to washing after eating.” Washing before bread is so important, the sages say, that neglecting it can lead to poverty (or worse).

Since the purpose of washing our hands is to purify them before eating bread, we must be careful not to get involved in any distracting activity or discussion between washing and the meal, lest we inadvertently touch something impure (or filthy).

In practice, we are careful to make the Hamotzi blessing as quickly after washing as possible, and also not to speak or engage in any activities between washing and the Hamotzi.

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In the last issue of Reaching Out, on the back page under the Just a Thought Column, I read the word "gartel" was used and wonder what is this?
           David, Federal Corr Institution


A) Jewish law mandates that the "heart does not see the nakedness" when one recites the Shema and other prayers. This means that the upper body (more specifically the heart) be separated from the lower half, which has a coarser function. In ancient times, when common clothing consisted of a simple, loose robe, it was necessary to tie a belt around one's waist to insure that the nether region was out of view of the heart.

B) We read in Amos, "Prepare yourself toward the L‑rd your G‑d." Our sages infer from here that one must dress himself up before facing his Maker in prayer. Part of this preparation is to gird oneself with a special belt. Hence the custom of wearing the gartel even though modern clothing ensures that that the "heart does not see the nakedness."

C) The gartel is reminiscent of the belt which the priests would wear during their service in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. It is for this reason that many are particular to wear their gartel at elbow height, just as the priests of old did.

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I know that keeping a yartzeit for a departed parent is extremely important. I am going to prison for a few years, what do you suggest I do?
           Richard, Chicago IL


You are absolutely right. The observance of a parent’s yahrzeit is very significant. Reciting Kaddish and commemorating the day will greatly assist your parents soul in its journey through the spiritual realms.

Because you will go to prison and may not have a minyan there, you can hire someone to say Kaddish as your agent. However, you should make every effort to locate a minyan even in the prison and recite Kaddish. Even Kaddish once the entire day is better then no Kaddish at all.

Although the ideal time to observe the yahrzeit is on the actual date of your parents passing, you should not feel that you have missed the opportunity to honor their memory because of your being in prison. You can make up for it by commemorating the yahrzeit on any other day of the year, as any mitzvah, study of Torah, or recital of Kaddish that is done in the memory of a parent at any time of the year brings their soul immeasurable comfort and pleasure.

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In a recent letter you explained that my neshama (soul) has come into this world more then once. If this is the case, can you explain in what body will the soul arrive once Moshiach is revealed, after all, the soul has been in a few bodies?
           Shimon, Federal Corr Institution, Fort Dix NJ


This question was first raised by R' Chizkiyah in the Zohar: "If all bodies will arise and be awakened from the dust, after the arrival of Moshiach, what will happen to the bodies in which a single neshamah was planted?"

The Zohar quotes an answer given by R' Yosi: "Those bodies that did not merit and did not succeed are viewed as if they do not exist. Just as they were 'dry wood' in this world, so will they be at that time. The final body in which the soul was planted, which succeeded...will arise."

It appears from the Zohar that only one body will arise-the one who completed the avodah (full mission) expected of that neshamah, as opposed to all the previous gilgulim, who will not arise. The Mystical codifier known as the Arizal questions this idea. Every Jew is filled with mitzvos, just like a pomegranate is filled with seeds. Why should a body that fulfilled so many mitzvos fail to merit techiyas hameisim (return after Moshiach's arrival)?

The Arizal therefore explains the Zohar a bit differently. Every body that fulfilled mitzvos will certainly arise; the question is only how much of the neshamah it will possess. Those bodies that did not merit will only receive a small portion of the neshamah, while those that did merit will receive more.

How can it be that a body will only possess a part of a neshamah? This is not problematic; even a small portion of the neshamah includes all the other parts and supplies the body with every facet. This is similar to the idea that every neshamah ultimately is sourced in the neshamah of Adam (first man), which subsequently split into numerous neshamos.

This understanding is also evidenced from the fact that many great Rabbi's were gilgulim (e.g., R' Shimon bar Yochai was a spark of Moshe Rabbeinu, and Eliyahu Hanavi shared the neshamah of Pinchas). Obviously, they will all arise at techiyas hameisim when Moshiach is here, each one possessing part of that neshamah.

May we merit to experience all this, immediately!

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The Torah commands us to appoint a king. This is not just a general command on the people as a whole, but a personal commandment. How are we, living in America, supposed to appoint a King?
           Binyamin, US Penitetiary, Coleman FL


Each Jew must take part in the process of appointing a king. As of today we await the revelation of King Moshiach. Each of us has a personal obligation to accept the kingship of Moshiach upon ourselves, to believe in him and be prepared to follow his directives. This readiness in itself will hasten the revelation of Moshiach. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe says, “We have merited that G-d chose and appointed a human being of free will, with qualities that set him apart from his generation… to teach and give advice regarding the service of the Jewish people and all the people of the generation in all matters of Torah and mitzvot and regarding daily life. Each person of the generation has an obligation to accept upon himself to follow the directives and advice of [King Moshiach].”

Accepting the kingship of Moshiach is expressed through the declaration of “Yechi Hamelech,” Long Live the King. When King Solomon was anointed, the people announced, “Long live King Solomon,” and we will use a similar phrase for Moshiach.

The relationship between the king and the people is manifested in two opposite ways. On the one hand, the king is totally exalted above the people which inspires awe and fear of the king. On the other hand, the relationship between the nation and the king is one of absolute connection. As the Rambam says, the king is the heart of the Jewish people. We are the limbs. Just like the body receives its life-force from the heart, the Jewish nation receives its life from the king.

Not only does the nation receive its life from the king, but the entire existence of the king is dependent on the nation, as is written, "There is no king without a nation." Therefore, the Rebbe continues, when the nation announces yechi hamelech, as was done in connection to King Solomon and King David, his affects not only the existence of the king, but the life of the king as well.

.פירוש המשניות לרמב"ם הקדמה לפרק חלק, היסוד השנים עשר
.ספר המצוות לרמב"ם מצווה קעג
.הרבי מליובאוויטש מלך המשיח: ליקוטי שיחות חלק כג עמוד
.שיחת ב' ניסן תשמ"ח
.ושיחת שבת פרשת שופטים תנש"א.

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Can you please share with me the Rebbe's opinion regarding homosexuals, is it approved or not? After all, I may have been born this way.
           Mark, Taft CI, CA


Here is a letter written by the Rebbe MHM on this subject:

...While all blessings come from HaShem [G‑d], a Jew is expected to do what is necessary in the natural order. In the matter of the said problem, you surely know that there are doctors and psychiatrists who treat it, and have been successful in many cases. I know of a number of cases of people who had this problem but eventually overcame it, married and raised a family.

While on this topic, I would like to clear up a misconception that has led some individuals into confusion and wrong conclusions. The misconception stems from the argument that since some individuals are born with this problem, it must be a "natural" thing; hence it cannot be designated as a wrong, or a sin, and there is therefore no need to do anything to change it, or at any rate, it is not a serious problem at all.

That this approach is entirely without foundation can be seen from the fact that the Torah (called Toras Chaim and Toras Emes because it is our true guide in the everyday life) declares that to indulge in it, or even to dwell on it mentally, is a grave transgression of HaShem's commandment. Hence, it is also clear that the problem is controllable, for if it were beyond human control, HaShem would not have made it a sin.

The fact that the problem may largely be congenital does not alter the situation. Every day children are born with particular natures and innate tendencies or drives, some of them good and some of them bad. This is why human beings have to be trained and educated, so as to develop and strengthen the positive characteristics and eliminate the bad ones. The Creator endowed human beings with the capacity to improve, indeed even to change, their "natural" (i.e. innate) traits. A case in point is kleptomania. It is generally recognized that kleptomania is a very compulsive drive. But no one will suggests that because it is probably inborn and extremely difficult to resist, the kleptomaniac should be told that it is okay for him to steal, or that there is nothing he can, or should, do about it, and so on. Similarly in the case of one who is born with a drive to destroy things or with a quarrelsome or aggressive nature, with a propensity to cheat or lie, or any other innate trait that is considered reprehensible. No normal society would declare that since one was born that way, one should be allowed to go through life according to his natural desires and tendencies. Such an attitude will help neither the individual, nor the society. On the contrary, everything should be, and is, done to help individuals to overcome their neurological problems, whatever they may be.

Needless to say, the person who is afflicted with this or other neurological problems, may well ask, "Why has HaShem created such a compulsive drive, which is in direct contradiction to His moral Code? Why has He afflicted me, who desires to comply fully with His commandments?"

No human being can answer such questions, which only HaShem, the Creator, can answer. One observation that can be suggested in relation to the question, "Why me?" If an individual experiences a particularly difficult, or trying, situation, it may be assumed that HaShem has given him extraordinary powers to overcome the extraordinary difficulty. The individual concerned is probably unaware of his real inner strength; the trial may therefore be designed for the sole purpose of bringing out in the individual his hidden strength, which, after overcoming his problem, can be added henceforth to the arsenal of his revealed capacities, in order to utilize both for infinitely greater achievements for the benefit of himself, and others.

Maimonides, the "Guide of the Perplexed" of his generation and of all subsequent generations, who was also acclaimed as the greatest physician of his times, declares in a well known passage in his famous Code, Mishneh Torah (Yad Hachazaka): "Every person has the option (power), if he so desires, to direct himself to do only good and be a Tzaddik, or, if he chooses, to fellow the bad road and be a Rasha. Do not ever think that a person is predestined from birth to be a Tzaddik or Rasha. Nor is there any inner compulsion to make a choice, but one has the capacity to choose the right behavior, and it is entirely a matter of one's own will and determination" (Free translation from Hil. Teshuva, ch. 5. See it there at length).

A final remark from the scientific viewpoint.

To say that the human mind and neural system are unimaginably intricate, is to say the obvious. Only the Creator knows His handiwork. But the Creator has endowed the human mind with wonderful qualities to probe the mysteries of nature, to research and experiment and steadily gain more knowledge about himself and his physical and mental capacities. Considerable progress has been made by scientists in their studies of the brain cells and hormones. It is now clear that a wide range of human emotions and sensations can be stimulated artificially with the aid of electronic and biochemical techniques. It is now generally agreed that most, if not all, neurological disorders, including deviant sexual behavior, probably proceed from chemical (hormone) deficiencies or irregularities during the period of youth. Some neurological disorders are already being treated successfully in certain areas involving the neural system" and it is to be hoped that the range will expand and eventually include the whole spectrum of neurological disorders, both of individuals and of nations.

In the meantime, we can only put our trust in HaShem, and strengthen our adherence to the Torah and Mitzvoth, of which it is written, "'They are our life and the length of our days."

With blessing,

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I am not a religious person. In fact, I never went to a synagogue except for a few hours on Yom Kippur. But upon arriving in prison, attending Jewish services on Friday evenings, I see that Jews make Kiddush on Grape Juice. Isn't wine addictive? Does the Jewish religion encourage to become alcoholics? Can you please explain?
           Michael, Federal Corr Institution, Sheridan OR


Each of us has a body and a soul. Our body is usually only interested in the material pleasures that this world has to offer - a good meal, an entertaining show, comfort and gratification. The soul has higher aspirations - it seeks true love, meaning, inspiration and a connection to what's holy.

As long as the body continues to chase the mundane, the soul is trapped. Judaism teaches not to suppress the body but to refine it. Don't fast all day - but only eat foods that are spiritually pure. Don't be celibate - but save sexuality for marriage. Work with the body, not against it. Kiddush consists of only a cup.

The path of refinement is a challenging one, but it is possible.

Wine or Grape Juice has a unique property that demonstrates the fact that we need not afflict our bodies in order to tap in to our souls. Wine represents what Judaism is all about: the fusing of the holy and the mundane, the spiritual and physical, the body and soul.

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Being in prison has given me a tremendous opportunity to learn so much about our religion. I religiously attend all services and Jewish instruction classes and read numerous books many of which Reaching Out has provided to me and others. I try to do as many mitzvahs as I possibly can, always learning more and more. But before my return, I am now ashamed to say that I have sinned even on the most holiest day of Yom Kippur. Does this mean that I have lost my Jewish soul forever?
           Keith, Federal Corr Low, Butner NC


We are connected to G-d and we achieve the connection with G-d through our observance of the mitzvot, the divine commandments (indeed, the word mitzvah also means “connection”). The mitzvot embody the will of G-d; by fulfilling the mitzvot, we make the divine will the substance and aim of our lives. Our souls and bodies become vehicles of the supernal will.

But what happens when a Jew violates the divine will, G-d forbid, he uncovers an even deeper dimension of his bond with G-d. The connection created by the mitzvah is exactly that—a connection created between two separate entities. Taken on its own, this connection does not point to any intrinsic bond between the two. In fact, it implies that the natural state of the observer of the mitzvah is one of separateness and distinction—a state which is overcome by the act of the mitzvah, which bridges the gulf between the mortal and the divine. But when a Jew transgresses a divine command, a more innate bond with G-d comes to light. His inner equilibrium is disturbed; his soul finds no peace and is driven to compensate for its ravaged identity by profane spiritual quests, material excesses, or both. His transgressions highlight the fact that there is nothing more unnatural than a Jew estranged from his G-d.

Teshuvah [Return] is a soul’s experience of the agony of disconnection and its channeling of this agony to drive its return to G-d. Thus, our sages have said that through teshuvah, “sins are transformed into merits,” since the sin itself becomes the impetus for connection with G-d. Indeed, the baal teshuvah (penitent or “returnee”) attains a level of relationship with G-d on which “even the perfectly righteous cannot stand.” His sins have provoked—and his teshuvah has actualized—a dimension of his soul’s connection to G-d which a perfectly righteous life never touches.

For it is the process of teshuvah (“return”) from sin that yields the greatest “profits” of the endeavor of life. There is no greater love than the love experienced from afar, and no greater passion than the quest to return to a forsaken home and an alienated self. When a soul’s bond to G-d is stretched to the breaking point, the force with which it rebounds to its Source is greater than anything that can be generated by the soul that never leaves the divine orbit. And when a soul wanders off to the most alien corners of life, and exploits the very negativity and evil of its environment as the impetus to return to G-d, it redeems those parts of G-d’s creation that lie beyond the pale of a righteous life.

This is G-d’s “fearsome plot” upon the children of man: to create man with free choice, knowing man will fail. After all, G-d didn’t create robots, but created human beings with an inclination to do evil, so that when he succumbs to it, he should rebound with a greater love for G-d, and with a greater harvest of transformed and redeemed resources, than is generated by a life lived in conformity with the divine will.

Surely, however, it cannot be said that G-d wanted that man should sin: a sin, by definition, is an act that G-d does not want done.

Thus, the baal teshuvah, relates to G-d Himself. He accesses a divine potential that, by Torah’s standards, is inaccessible. Because his relationship with G-d is on a level that precedes and supersedes the divine will—a level on which one “still does not know which of them He desires”—there are no “bound” elements, nothing to inhibit the actualization of the divine potential in any of G-d’s creations. So when the baal teshuvah sublimates his negative deeds and experiences to fuel his yearning and passion for good, he brings to light the sparks of G-dliness they hold.

Whatever took place before you returned, before you started the tshuva process is no longer relevant today. In fact, the sins have transformed into merits,” since the sin itself becomes the impetus for connection with G-d.

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How is it that our generation will be worthy of Moshiach? How are we any greater than past generations?
           Mendel, Federal Corr Institution, Fort Dix NJ


This question provides its own answer. Only from ultimate concealment can one arrive at ultimate revelation. Light, for example, is at its most resplendent when it shines forth from dim obscurity. In the same way, it is the initial distance from the light of G-dliness that empowers teshuvah to transform darkness into light - since, for the penitent, "his sins become like virtues." Our generation's very distance from G-dliness inspires in us the sublime, inner power of the soul. (The righteous individual, by contrast, repels evil, rather than transforming it into good.)

Furthermore, goodness and holiness are eternal. Hence, when a Jew fulfills a mitzvah, "in the upper spheres this union [between the soul and G-d] is eternal."

Evil, by contrast, has no true existence; it is no more than a concealment of the Divine light. Hence, when the blemish of the sin is cleansed, such as when the person repents, the evil ceases to exist.

Since good is eternal, all the accumulated good of all the past generations still exists. This is why now, specifically, we will soon be privileged to witness the coming of Moshiach, even though superficial appearances might indicate that "the generation seems unworthy."

We see how many impurities are coming to the surface now: evil is being exposed in order for people to banish it, do teshuvah and change the world. So, what may appear negative is actually part of the process to usher in the redemption, to perfect and fix the world. Each of us must look within our souls to correct things that need correcting and to make ourselves, our families and our surroundings ready for redemption.

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My husband was just sentenced to five years in prison. Can he ask for Kosher food or for other religious rights?
           N.S. New Orleans LA


The US Constitution allows for religious rights and freedom even in prison. One goes to prison and loses the freedom to be a free person, but never loses his/her religious rights. Prisons across America serve kosher food, provide religious services, and one can put on Teffilin and pray, etc.

From a Jewish perspective, just because a person committed a grievous sin for which he is being punished doesn't mean that we, as a society, have a right to force him to commit other transgressions. On the contrary, since this person has fallen so low, it is doubly important for him to be able to rehabilitate himself. Reconnecting to his Jewish faith can only help in this curative process.

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Can you explain what is the Oral Law?
           Beryl, Pondville CC, Norfolk MA


The Torah has two parts:

- The Written Law ("Torah Shebichsav"), which is composed of the twenty-four books of the Tanach
- The Oral Law ("Torah Sheba'al Peh").

G‑d told Moses that he will give him "the Torah and the commandments." Why did G‑d add the word "commandments?" Are there any commandments which are not included in the Torah? This verse (amongst others) is a clear inference to the existence of the Oral Torah.

Originally the Oral Law was not transcribed. Instead it was transmitted from father to son and from teacher to disciple (thus the name "Oral" Law). Approximately 1800 years ago, Rabbi Judah the Prince concluded that because of all the travails of Exile, the Oral Law would be forgotten if it would not be recorded on paper. He, therefore, assembled the leading scholars of his generation and compiled the Mishnah, a (shorthanded) written collection of all the oral teachings that preceded him. Since then, the Oral Law has ceased to be "oral" and as time passed more and more of the previously oral tradition was recorded.

The Oral Law consists of three components:

1. Laws Given to Moses at Sinai (Halachah L'Moshe M'Sinai):

When Moses went up to heaven to receive the Torah, G‑d gave him the Written Torah together with many instructions. These instructions are called "Halachah L'Moshe M'Sinai" -the Law that was given to Moses on Sinai. Maimonides writes that it is impossible for there to be an argument or disagreement concerning a Halachah L'Moshe M'Sinai, for the Jews who heard the instructions from Moses implemented them into their daily lives and passed it on to their children, who passed it on to their children, etc.

Some examples of Halachah L'Moshe M'Sinai are: tefillin straps must be black, a sukkah must have at least two and a half walls, and all the different Halachic measurements and sizes.

2. The Thirteen Principles of Torah Exegesis (Shlosh Esreh Middos ShehaTorah Nidreshes Bahem):

When G‑d gave the Written Law to Moses he also instructed him how one is to study and understand the Torah. Every word and letter in the Torah is exact, and many laws can be extrapolated from an extra (or missing) word or letter, or a particular sequence which the Torah chooses to use. The thirteen principles which are the keys to uncovering the secrets of the Torah are called the "Shlosh Esreh Middot ShehaTorah Nidreshet Bahem."

For instance: One of the rules is: "Anything that was included in a general statement, but was removed from the general statement in order to teach something, was not removed to teach only about itself, but to apply its teaching to the entire generality."

An example for the usage of this rule is: In Exodus 35:3 the Torah says "You shall not light fire in any of your dwellings on the Shabbat day." Now, kindling a fire was already included in the general statement that prohibits work on Shabbat (Exodus 20:10). It was removed from the general rule and stated independently in this verse to teach us that it is a distinct form of work and, as such, carries a distinct penalty. Moreover, this lesson applies to each of the 39 categories of work included in the general statement. Thus, there isn't a broad category called "work," rather each type of work is to be viewed as distinct. Therefore, if someone should do several kinds of work while unaware that they are forbidden on Shabbat, he must bring a separate sin-offering to atone for each type of work that he did.

A full list of the thirteen principles can be found in the prayer-book.

3. Edicts (G'zayros):

Torah authorizes the rabbis to protect the word of the Torah through making "G'zayros" (edicts).

For example:
The Torah prohibition of eating or possessing chametz (leavened products) on Passover begins at midday of the fourteenth day of Nissan. Our sages added two hours to this prohibition, for they feared that on a cloudy day people would err and eat chametz after noon.

Just like the Congress is constantly enacting new laws and regulations, for the old laws are not always adequate for modern trends and tendencies, so too, the leading rabbical authorities constantly added g'zayros according to the needs of their times.

Although the Torah commands us to follow these g'zayros, there are distinctions between a rabbinic decree and a Torah law. One of the distinctions is that when there is a doubt concerning a Torah law one must be stringent, whereas if there is a doubt in a rabbinic decree one may be lenient. [In case of an actual dilemma, always make sure to ask a rabbi what to do.]

Until the end of the Talmudic Era (approx. 1500 years ago) there was a central rabbinic authority which issued g'zayros which were accepted by all the Jews. Since that time, different communities have assumed upon themselves various stringencies, some are universally accepted g'zayros.

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How does ordinary matzah differ from Shmura Matzah?
           Steven, New Haven CC, CT

The wheat for ordinary Passover matzah is guarded from the time of grinding. A few authorities maintain that the wheat must be guarded from the time of reaping. Because the mitzvah (commandment) of not eating any chametz (leaven) on Passover is so stringent, many people observe the mitzvos of Passover with greater caution and only eat matzah that is acceptable by the strictest opinions. Many people make a point of eating Shmura Matzah at least at both Seders, when eating matzah is a positive commandment of the Torah.

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My Hebrew name is Reuven, can you explain what it means?
           Reuven, Five Points CF, Romulus NY

Reuven was the name of the oldest of Jacob's twelve sons, father of the twelve tribes. The Torah records when he was given this name and as well as its meaning.

But first a little background information: Jacob had intended to marry Rachel, but was tricked by his father-in-law into first marrying Leah – Reuven's mother. When she gave birth to her oldest, she chose the name Reuven, saying, "Because the L‑rd has seen my affliction, for now my husband will love me." The name is made up of two halves; "re'u" means "look" or "see," and "ben" means "son." Thus, the name Reuben expresses the fact that "re'u" - G‑d saw my needs, and therefore blessed me with "ben" - a son.

The Chassidic masters teach that the name Reuben refers to "sight," a highly tuned level of G‑dly awareness that is so real that it is as if the person actually perceives G‑d with his own eyes. No amount of argument will convince a person that he did not see something when he did. This experience is unambiguous and definite. The name Reuben expresses certainty and immediacy in our awareness of G‑d.

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What is Torah?
           William, Metropolitan Detention Center, S Diego CA

If you are confused by usage of the word Torah, you’re probably on the right track. Grammatically, the word Torah should mean any instruction, but in actual usage:

The title Torah often refers specifically to the Five Books of Moses. A parchment scroll version of the Torah, carefully written by an expert scribe, is kept in the ark of the synagogue and taken out to be read during services.

Torah can also refer to the entire Written Torah, meaning the entire canonized scripture.

Torah can also refer to the above plus the Oral Torah, which includes: the compilation of laws and rulings known as Mishnah, along with other accepted compilations; the discussion and debate of that material, known as Talmud; the stories and their lessons that are collected in the Talmud and Midrashic works; any other teaching that has been accepted by a long-term consensus of the observant Jewish community, because it is based firmly on some precedent, or because it has been demonstrated to emerge by accepted means from previous texts and opinions.

“If someone tells you there is wisdom among other peoples, believe him . . . If someone tells you there is Torah among other peoples, do not believe him . . .” —Midrash

Torah, it seems, is distinct from what we generally call wisdom. Our sages go so far as to say that Torah precedes all existence, that it contains the blueprint for the cosmos, and that the very existence of the cosmos is contingent upon Torah.

Even the term “divine wisdom” is insufficient. Our universe, after all, is composed of divine wisdom. Our environment, our bodies and the very psyche with which we observe all of these are of unfathomable design. “How wondrous are Your works, O G‑d,” the Psalmist declares. “You made all of them with wisdom!”6 Yet the laws of nature are not the laws of Torah.

Human wisdom can be described as the ability to predict the outcomes of this wondrous design. We take note of its patterns and extrapolate into the future. We strive to know enough about what is to predict what will be—and therefore, what could be if we make informed choices. Nevertheless, what should be is decided by means that are not related to knowledge or wisdom.

For example, wisdom tells you that how you treat others is bound to come back to you. It’s up to you to decide whether you want that coming back or not. Possessing property that doesn’t belong to you might not be a good idea—for you or for the people around you. It’s up to you to decide whether or not to suffer the consequences for the sake of the immediate benefits.

Torah, on the other hand, doesn’t simply inform, it instructs, “Don’t steal.” It’s nice to know that respect of private property benefits you and the society in which you live, but that’s not the reason you refrain from stealing. You don’t steal because that is your Creator’s will.

A construction worker looks at a blueprint and sees a building; an architect listens to the builder and understands what he really wants. The Torah is like the architect—which is why studying it tells us not only what is, but what should be. Torah is the Creator sharing His innermost desire with us, the created.

The seed of Torah was planted with the experience at Sinai, recorded in the Five Books of Moses. But the voice of Sinai continues to be heard in each generation as students of the Torah unfold the DNA of that seed, discovering new meanings that were always meant, new applications that had always lay dormant.7 After all, the ultimate instruction is that which lifts the student to a vantage point from which he can discern his own evaluation, using the same tools as the teacher.

When you immerse yourself in Torah, your goal is not simply to amass information, but to gain a sense of how the Creator of the Universe relates to His creations. To think in a G‑dly way. It is a sharing of spirit, until the same preferences and desires breathe within the two of you. His thoughts are your thoughts and your thoughts are His. There is no comparable union to be found in any other wisdom.

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In prison, staff and inmates alike speak profanity. What is your opinion?
           Donald, Valley State Prison, Chowchilla CA

“Watch your mouth.” “Watch my mouth? Every time I try, my nose gets in the way!” Bad language shleps you down. Many of us are careful to only put healthy or organic or the latest gourmet food into our mouths but cavalier about what comes out of them.

And bit by bit, we callous our souls. Bit by bit, we diminish our self-respect and, contrary to our avowed purposes, actually lose the respect of others. We may be able to cow people into submission through screaming and cursing, but fear is not respect. The profanity masks a lack of real power.

The Talmud speaks very harshly about one who speaks in a vulgar way. Although we generally think of speech as just a superficial act, in truth it has a strong impact on your inner self. The words that leave your mouth make an imprint on your mind and heart. No matter how high up you are the rope of fine, noble character, a few rotten words can throw you back down to the ground.

And the flip side is also true. A crude person can become more refined if he improves the way he speaks. This is why shemirat halashon, “guarding one’s tongue,” is considered one of the first steps that need to be taken before correcting more serious character flaws.

“If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it all” -- Certainly silence is preferable to a barrage of vulgarity assaulting our ears or the ears of those around us.

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A Rabbi visited me during my short stay in prison, and told me, after I told him that my grandmother, mothers mother was Jewish, that I too am Jewish. I’m forty years old, never had a bar mitzvah and don't consider myself Jewish. My dad’s not Jewish. My mom believes she is not Jewish. Besides, I really don’t look Jewish. Now no longer in prison, I am not sure what to do, am I or am I not Jewish?
           Louis, Bexer County Jail, San Antonio TX

Indeed, for any religion besides the Jewish religion, if you don’t believe in it, you are not part of it.

If your grandmother was Irish, you would not be Irish and if she was Buddhist, you can choose anything and need not also be Buddhist.

Being Jewish is not about religion, or about nationality. It’s more like being born into a tribe. And this tribe is heavily matriarchal. That’s how the rules of the tribe work: Since your mother’s mother was a member of the tribe, that makes her Jewish, too. Which, in turn, makes you Jewish.

So you want out of the tribe but you can’t. It started off as a family of descendants of a man named Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham, some three and a half thousand years ago. But then, the people gathered at Mount Sinai and made an eternal covenant.

From that point on, it became a one-way street. You can get in, if you join the pact. Or just by being born into it. But there’s no way out.

That may not make much sense to you, but there’s deeper stuff going on here. A person is not just a bag of meat wired together with neurons and programmed by DNA. There’s something more inside, something mysterious and unpredictable. Something we often call a soul. And souls come in different flavors. You may not look Jewish from the outside, but on the inside, you have a Jewish soul.

What does that mean? Think of it as something like being told that your poor old grandma left you a hefty trust fund, and all you need to do is drop into the bank and take out the cash. Lots of cash. If that happened, you might say, “Well, I don’t really believe that my grandmother had any cash to leave me, so I’ll pass, thank you.” Right? We doubt it. My guess is that you would at least risk a visit or two to the bank to ask some relevant questions.

In this case, your grandmother has left you a heritage of timeless wisdom, a great history, and a lifetime membership in the oldest and most amazing worldwide tribe, spread over the entire globe. And a Jewish soul.

There’s a good chance your Jewish soul will resonate with that wisdom. There’s a good chance the history will be meaningful to you. There’s a good chance the rituals and holidays will enrich your life. And you might find it cool to be a bonafide member of a global community that accepts you unconditionally, just because you’re a member of the tribe.

It sure is worth a try.

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Why do we put on Teffilin on the left arm?
           Eric, Federal Corr Institution, Littleton CO

The sages of the Talmud take it as a given that tefillin are put on the left arm (or the right arm of a lefty) and offer several reasons: According to one tradition, whenever the Torah uses the word yad (“hand”) without defining which one, it refers to the left hand.

The Talmud tells us that the hand tefillin need to be placed “facing the heart.” Although some interpret this as merely telling us that the tefillin need to be placed on the bicep, which is level with the heart, others explain this to be an additional reason for placing the tefillin on the left arm, which is nearer to the heart.

Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah (13th century), known for his commentary on the Torah, explains that since the right hand is the more active hand, used for mundane, menial tasks, it isn’t fitting that the tefillin, which contain G‑d’s holy name, be strapped to it. Instead, we place them on the left hand, which isn’t used as often.

The fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Dovber, known as the Rebbe Rashab, explains that through putting the tefillin on the left arm next to the heart, one subjugates his animal soul to the G‑dly soul, transforming the negative desires into positive. Thus, bit by bit, we transform negativity into positivity, until we reach the state in which, as the mystics put it, “there will only be a right (i.e., positive) side.” This will come to fruition and be revealed in the messianic era—may we see this very soon!

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Before going to prison, I never really attended synagogue and even if I did, never really saw or cared about all the traditions. Prison allows me to see things I never knew. Can you please explain why is the Torah scroll opened and raised aloft at the end of Torah reading?
           Daniel, Federal Corr Institution, Fort Dix NJ

The Talmud mentions raising the Torah scroll adjacent to its reading, "It is a commandment for all the men and women to see the writing, and bow, and say, 'And this is the Torah which Moses placed before the children of Israel' (Deut. 4:44)"

During "hagbah" (the raising of the Torah) - at the beginning of the Torah reading for Sefardim and at the end for Ashkenazim - the words are carefully shown to all to emphasize that all Jews are able to understand that the Torah is our common heritage. Some have the custom to point to the words of the Torah while it is being raised up.

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My son recently died in an accident. I would like to know if he can see or hear us here on earth. Is he still aware of us now that he is in heaven? Your comments would be appreciated.
           Mark, Federal Corr Institution, Miami FL

The mystery of death is one that we cannot truly comprehend. Why some souls are with us so briefly is beyond our understanding.

But we know that only the body dies, not the soul. And it is the soul of a person that we love. Our connection with a loved one is not with their physical presence, but their personality, their love, their energy, their spirit. And that relationship never goes away. It just takes another form.

The Rebbe, (Chabad Lubavitch), once spoke to a mother who was inconsolable after the loss of her son. He asked her, “What if I told you that your son isn’t dead? Rather, he has gone to a place where he is safe and happy. He feels no pain; he has no fear and no regrets. You can’t see him. But you can send him love packages, and he will receive them and enjoy them. If I told you this, would things be different?”

She thought about it and answered, “Well, I guess the pain would not be quite so unbearable if I knew he was safe, and I could tell him that I love him.”

“Well,” the Rebbe told her, “this is in fact the case. Your son is in heaven, where he is at peace. And he can still feel your love. The love packages you send to him are the mitzvahs, the good deeds you do in his memory and in his honor. When you give a coin to charity, say a prayer, light the Shabbat Candles, learn and study some Jewish texts, or show kindness to those in need, and you have him in mind, he receives a flow of love from you. His soul is elevated when you perform good deeds in his memory. Channel your grief into a positive force. Let the vacuum caused by your loss draw more light into the world.”

Nothing can replace the physical touch of a hug, the pleasure of seeing your child grow and learn and play. But he is still with you. And he knows that he is blessed with a loving mother who will always think of him.

We don’t know why it has to be this way. But one day, with the revelation of Moshiach, we will be reunited with the souls of our loved ones, and we will understand it all.

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Will our daily prayers and blessings change when Moshiach comes?
           Moshe, Federal Prison Camp, Otisville NY

Today we pray three daily prayers: morning, afternoon and evening. Our prayers are a combination of praise to G-d, humbling ourselves before Him and serving Him, and requests for our daily needs. Will we continue to ask for our daily bread when all our needs will be provided for in the days of Moshiach?

Being that most of our prayers nowadays are requests for Redemption, it is obvious that in the era of Moshiach they will change to prayers of thanksgiving to G-d for having brought the Redemption.

Also, many of our prayers were instituted as substitutes for the sacrifices that were offered in the Holy Temple. Once the Temple is rebuilt, there will be no need for these prayers.

Another major difference will be the tone. While in exile we pray the Amidah silently, in the era of Moshiach the prayer will be said aloud (see Zohar on Parshat Vayigash).

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that in the time of exile we are very aware of our own existence. It is our job and obligation to nullify our ego and worldly desires, subjugating ourselves to G-d. This is symbolized by praying quietly.

In the times of Moshiach, however, the true reality of our existence will be revealed. The truth of creation will be revealed—that it exists only to serve as a dwelling place for G-d. We will no longer feel our corporeal selves. We will feel only our oneness with our Creator. This is the ultimate self-nullification. Therefore we will pray out loud, symbolizing and emphasizing that G-d is our only source of existence in a revealed way.

(Reference: Likutei Sichot vol. 35, p. 197)

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I’ve often heard the argument that there must be a G‑d, because creation is so well designed that there must be a designer. For example, the human brain is so complex, it must have a creator, so G‑d must exist. That makes sense, but by using the same logic, I can ask the question: Who created G‑d?
           Jason, Federal Corr institution, Jesup GA

Your question can be answered by following a few logical steps.

Before creation, there was nothing but G‑d. Nothing. When we say that G‑d is the Creator, we don’t just mean He created solid objects, like planets, trees and aardvarks. We mean He created everything. Any thing you can think of, every single existence on every plane and in every dimension, was once not, and G‑d made it be.

That means that even concepts were created by G‑d. G‑d not only created the concrete universe, made up of gases, solids and liquids; He also created all of the abstract realities, such as love, goodness, purpose and logic. These concepts did not exist before He created them.

One concept G‑d introduced is the very concept of creation. G‑d came up with the idea that you can have nothing, and make something out of it. The very notion that something has a beginning, a point at which it comes into existence—that notion itself was created by G‑d. The concept didn’t exist before. Just like there were no trees before G‑d created the first tree, so too there were no beginnings before G‑d created the first beginning.

So your question is based on a false premise. You can’t ask “Who created G‑d?” because the whole concept of creating was G‑d’s idea in the first place. There was no such thing as creation before G‑d came up with it. Just as it is obvious that the person who made the first cartoon was not himself a cartoon, so too G‑d, who invented the concept of creation, is not Himself a creation.

G‑d, the Creator, never changes. He is always the same; He always was and always will be. Humans, created beings that we are, do not remain the same. We once were not, were brought into being, and will one day be no longer. And that is why humans are so special. Because as creations, we—you and I—​have the power to change. That’s the gift of being human.

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I am having some difficulty understanding G‑d's presence in the world. First, I heard that Jerusalem is a place where the spiritual is connected to the physical in a way that does not happen anywhere else in the world: Then I read that every time someone does a good deed (Mitzvah) G‑d's presence in the world is clearer. And finally I was told that G‑d is everywhere; meaning that He is in the synagogue, in the street and even in prison. Each seems to contradict the other. Can you help me, please?
           Michael, Federal Detention Center, Seattle WA

Lets try to explain it with a little analogy: When a radio station broadcasts, it sends radio waves through the air. Some stations send out stronger signals, some send out weaker signals. We are always surrounded and bombarded with radio waves. So why aren't we deaf from all the noise? Because we can't hear the sounds unless we have a radio which is tuned to the proper frequency.

G‑d's presence is not only everywhere but within everything. G‑d's name in Hebrew is a contraction of the Hebrew words for "was," "is," and "will be," because He is the G‑d of creation, and G‑d's constant presence is what perpetually keeps all of creation in existence.

However, just like our ears don't hear radio waves, we generally do not sense G‑d's presence in this world. But when a mitzvah is done, this "strengthens" the signal of G‑d's presence and fine tunes our receptors, making us more aware of it. In a place where many mitzvot are done—for instance, in a synagogue, it is much easier to sense G‑d's presence in the world. Similarly, when a home has a mezuzah on the door, or a prison has Jewish books, etc.—we are more aware of G‑d's presence there.

Jerusalem is the holiest city in the world. The site of the Holy Temple for so many years, it is consecrated by so many acts of service, so many mitzvahs that have been, and continue to be, performed there. G‑d's presence is so much clearer there, and it is easier to connect to Him.

If, G‑d forbid, someone does a negative deed, thereby implicitly proclaiming that there is no G‑d, then the signal of G‑d's presence becomes more faint and harder for us to pick up...

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In this prison we have a mixed crowd. Some are very orthodox and have beard and never shave, why?
           David, Federal Prison Camp, Otisville NY

It is actually a command that comes from the Torah, (Bible). The Torah forbids "destruction" of the hair in five places on the face. The Talmud interprets “destruction” as shaving with a razor.This prohibition also includes shaving with any implement which completely removes all the facial hair, but does not include trimming with scissors or any other tool which does not provide the smooth shave provided by a razor.

In addition to the issue of destroying the beard, there are halachic authorities (including the Tzemach Tzedek, third Chabad Rebbe) who opine that cutting any part of the beard, even without a razor-like implement, has the additional problem of cross-dressing, which is forbidden by the Torah.

Maimonides teaches that the reason the Torah forbade the destruction of the beard is because shaving was a practice of ancient idol-worshippers.

In addition, Kabbalah attaches great importance to the beard, teaching that the “thirteen locks” of the beard are representative of G‑d’s thirteen supernal Attributes of Mercy. Growing a beard makes one a beneficiary of the bounty which originates from G‑d’s compassion.

Traditionally, Jews throughout the ages wore beards in order to not even come close to destroying the forbidden parts of their beards.

As the winds of “enlightenment” spread to Eastern Europe, many people felt that wearing a beard labeled them as backwards and old-fashioned. Many Torah leaders, including the Chafetz Chaim, protested this change.

Chassidim were in general less swayed by the modernization taking place around them, as is evident in their dress. Therefore, they—for the most part—did not feel compelled to shave their beards. In addition, the Kabbalistic reason mentioned above made the practice of growing a beard much more precious to them.

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I am truly moved by the prayers at Friday night services. But the little skeptic within me has one niggling question. There is something very important to me that for many years I have been praying for, and it has still not materialized. Are my tears wasted? Can I believe in the power of prayer?
           Michael, CIM, Chino CA

No prayer is ignored and no tear goes unnoticed. But the response is not always in the form we expect it to be.

At the high point of Yom Kippur, toward the end of the day in the Neilah prayer, we address G‑d with the following plea: “You who hears the sound of weeping, store our tears in Your flask, and save us from all cruel decrees.”

This seems to be a strange expression. Why would G‑d store our tears? It doesn’t seem to be of any use to keep our tears in a flask.

The meaning behind this is profound. Not always are our prayers answered in the way we want them to be. Sometimes, in His wisdom, G‑d does not grant us our wishes at the time we demand them. Instead, He stores away our tears and files away our prayers, to be taken out and answered at another time.

We are not privy to G‑d’s timetable, and we don’t get His system. But every word and every tear is accounted for, and makes an impact. When and how that impact is felt by us is up to G‑d. A prayer said today for someone’s health may take effect only many years later. We are depositing our request, but we don’t know when it will be withdrawn.

In physics, the law of conservation of energy states that energy can never be destroyed, it just changes from one form to another. There is a similar law in metaphysics. No prayer is ever lost; no tear is ever wasted. Your request will be granted; it just may be in an unexpected form. So keep praying, because every word is stored away. It will rebound back to you when you need it most.

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How does one handle feelings of anxiety and guilt? How does one let go of the past?
           David, Federal Corr Institution, Petersburg VA

The Baal Shem Tov advises that essential in overcoming negative emotions linked to one's past is forgiveness. It is well-known the importance of forgiveness in reference to others; but what about forgiving oneself? This tends to be overlooked, as it is easy to be overly critical and to forget to extend that much-needed forgiveness to oneself.

Self-forgiveness does not mean self-governing, G-d forbid. A Jew is governed by the Torah, and self-forgiveness is not a free pass to transgress or neglect one's service of Him. For this, every person is granted free choice - every Jew does his or her best to live in accordance with Hashem's will. But when the Jew has erred, and made the wrong choice, gone in the wrong direction, G-d forbid -he needs to accept responsibility and show remorse, but not become despondent or upset with the situation he has brought upon himself.

Yes, remorse for choosing to go in the wrong direction is crucial to getting back on track. With positive resolutions, the person needs to move on, now stronger and more knowledgeable, with firm resolve to make better decisions in the future. But grieving over the situation one has brought upon himself is a different story. For finding oneself in this situation, too, is ultimately Hashem's will. Everything is for the best, and everything is from Hashem.

One mustn't think, "If only I had known better...", because there are no "ifs" and Hashem makes no mistakes. Here is where self-forgiveness comes into the picture. With this in mind, one can move on with joy and fortitude, realizing that Hashem is with him every step of the way.

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Before coming to prison, I led a lay back religious lifestyle. It almost seemed like nothing mattered. But since coming to prison, I can't understand it, but I am in a challenging mood and don't let the chaplain get away with anything. Why have I changed like this?
           Daniel, Federal Corr Institution, Jessup GA

Each of us has a Divine soul and The soul thrives on adversity—nothing revs its engines like an attack on its beliefs and principles. Indeed this is an age-old phenomenon: our history is replete with men and women who demonstrated incredible courage when confronted with decrees restricting the observance of Torah and mitzvot. More often than not, these heroes were "run-of-the-mill" simple folk who led otherwise non-heroic lives. But every Jew has a Divine soul, a soul which possesses staggering powers. In many a Jew this soul is in hibernation. A little opposition and friction is needed in order to awaken and startle it into action.

There is a well-known chassidic adage: "An olive must be crushed to release its oils."

The final challenge of the Jewish galut (exile) is to awaken the soul without the "benefit" of outside incitement. Today we must "crush" ourselves to release our "soul oils."

A Jew's yearning to connect to G‑d, his burning desire for the Creator to be overtly manifest in His creation, and his frustration with the current state of affairs – when galut places obstacles at every junction of our spiritual journey, when the Divine reality is concealed in a world which instead brims with materialism and falseness – shakes him to the core of his soul, crushing it into action. At that point the soul becomes consumed with one goal—doing whatever necessary to bring an end to galut - Exile.

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Here I am in a prison camp and found out that some orthodox men sleep with Tzitzit. I thought this was a requirement only for the daytime?
           Barry, Federal Prison Camp, Otisville NY

Let’s first clarify the basic Jewish law regarding tzitzit at night. The verse states regarding tzitzit, “This shall be fringes for you, and you will see them . . .” The Talmud infers that a “nighttime garment”—worn at a time when things aren’t normally “seen”—is exempt from tzitzit.

Now, what is a “nighttime garment”? Some authorities, most notably Maimonides, maintain that the Torah’s exemption focuses on the time the garment is worn. Therefore, any garment worn at night, even if it is a garment designated to be worn by day, is not required to have tzitzit attached to it.

Conversely, any garment worn by day, even if it is a garment designated for the night, is required to have tzitzit attached to it before it is worn, because the tzitzit can be seen at the time the garment is worn.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, author of the Tanya, in his Siddur, lists three reasons why one should wear tzitzit to bed: As soon as the day begins, while still asleep, the tzitzit you are wearing provide you with a mitzvah.

The mystics, most notably Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (the Arizal), cautioned that for mystical reasons, although a tallit should only be worn during the daytime, one should always wear tzitzit (tallit katan) even when he goes to sleep at night (only taking it off to bathe) since it helps to protect from negative spiritual forces.

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I have had even before coming to prison an interest in sex with men. I grew up in a home in which religion did not play a role, except for attending services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In prison, being a homosexual can be dangerous, but I am pulled in that direction. Can you give me some religious advice?
           Michael, CCCF, Olney Springs CO

Part of our development from childhood to adulthood is creating for ourselves a moral compass. Something that's internal. That which tells us right from wrong. And that moral compass is comprised of myriad components, but must be firmly grounded, always, in a system of values.

For Jews, the all-encompassing system is Torah law. Torah law governs every single part of living. And from the body of Torah law emerges a system of values - general, societal and personal. Sometimes, it's easy; we feel an affinity, for example, to the laws of tzedaka, or we feel a strong connection to the laws of Shabbat or kosher food. And sometimes, we feel something quite the opposite - we feel estranged or disconnected or personally deeply at odds with a law.

We feel what we feel. Some feelings are very hard to change, and some we can't. Sometimes what we feel is subject to modification, and sometimes it's not. Totally and unequivocally not. And yet, the law is absolute. As much as we know about human sexuality, we don't yet know enough. We're all, as individuals and as a society, still learning. In the last half century, we've come a long way in our understanding of human sexuality, and in redefining a cultural moral code. Some of what we've come to accept as a society is long, long overdue. And some of what we've come to accept undermines the very dignity of human sexuality. But, we're learning.

We do know this, though: we know that among other sexual behaviors, Torah law expressly forbids the specific act of male homosexuality. And we do know this: Torah law forbids bigotry; homophobia is prohibited.

And we do know this: too many Jewish girls and boys, Jewish women and men, have suffered too much for too long. And we know that most of that suffering is caused by the environment around them. We do know this: when we become judges of another person, we behave contrary to Torah law.

And we do know: A Jew belongs in a Jewish environment. Each of us, struggling or not, needs to be in a truly Torah-observant environment. And each of us is responsible for that environment - each of us is responsible for what we bring to that environment. When we bring ignorance, or cruelty or self-righteous judgment of others, we contribute to the sullying of a true Torah environment. When we bring the most ideal principles of ahavat Yisrael, respect for every individual, recognition of each individual's personal relationship with G‑d...when we bring the best of our humanity, as expected by Torah ideals, we contribute to a Torah environment that is healthy and wholesome.

The classic work known as the Tanya provides strong advice: Consider what it means to have such burning passions for forbidden fruit. Consider the day to day fierce and relentless battle demanded to conquer such passions. And then ask yourself, "Do I ever fight such a battle on my own ground?"

The Tanya continues to illustrate the many areas in which all of us can improve by waging at least a small battle on our own ground. The Tanya is available at any Chabad House all over the world and in many fine Book stores. Man can change but you need the right tools.

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In olden times when there was no DNA testing, we followed the religion of the mother to know if we are Jewish. But today, why do we need that as proof, when a simple DNA test can resolve the entire matter?
           Mark, SCI Greene, Waynesburg PA

Jewishness is not in our DNA. It is in our soul. The reason it is passed down through the maternal line is not just because it is easier to identify who your mother is. It is because the soul identity is more directly shaped by the mother than the father.

Jewishness is not in our DNA From a purely physical perspective, a child is more directly connected to their mother. The father's contribution to the production of a child is instantaneous and remote. The mother, on the other hand, gives her very self to the child . The child is conceived inside the mother, develops inside the mother, is sustained and nourished by the mother, and is born from the mother.

This is not to say that a father and child are not intimately attached. Of course they are. But as deep and essential as the bond between father and child may be, the child's actual body was never a part of her father's body. But she was a part of her mother. Every child begins as an extension of their mother's body.

This is a simple fact. It doesn't mean that a child will be closer to a mother, or even follow in the mother's ways. We are not discussing the emotional bond between parent and child, but rather the natural physical bond. There is a more direct physical link between mother and child, because a child starts off as a part of her mother.

The body and its workings are a mirror image of the workings of the soul. The physical world is a parallel of the spiritual world. And so, the direct physical link between mother and child is a reflection of a soul link between them. While the father's soul contributes to the identity of the child's soul, it is the mother's soul that actually defines it. If the mother has a Jewish soul, the child does too.

If the mother is not Jewish but the father is, his Jewish soul will not be extended to the child. There may be a spark of Jewishness there, but if it was not gestated in a Jewish mother, the child will have to go through conversion for their Jewishness to be activated.

Jewishness is passed down by the mother because being Jewish is a spiritual identity, it defines our very being. And our very being we get from our mother, both in body and in soul.

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As a former alcoholic and having taken the RDAP class while in a federal prison, how should I conduct myself at the Passover Seder, with the obligation of drinking four cups of wine?
           Michael, Los Angeles CA

The sacramental consumption of wine is commonplace in Judaism, used to mark the beginning of nearly every major holiday and the weekly Sabbath dinner.

On the Passover seder night, tradition calls for the drinking of four cups as a sign of liberation. Wine also figures in other seder-night rituals: Many Jews have the tradition of removing drops of wine from their cup for each of the plagues visited upon the Egyptians, and a cup of wine traditionally is set aside for Elijah. Naturally, the ubiquity of drink poses problems for alcoholics and addicts of other substances. Jewish law says everyone has to drink wine during the seder, but for an alcoholic, it's a danger of death.

Participants in sober seders say the absence of wine not only doesn't detract from their enjoyment of the event, but can even enhance it. They connect the struggles of recovering from addiction to Passover's theme of breaking free from servitude.

"Pikuach nefesh," the Jewish principle that saving a life takes precedence over other religious strictures, in skipping the wine-drinking in Jewish rituals.

Hundreds of recovering addicts are expected to attend a seder, they will be raising a glass of grape juice in celebration not only of the liberation of the Jewish people from bondage in ancient Egypt, but of their own sobriety.

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I have hurt so many people, it gives me no rest. I sit in my cell and have been contemplating suicide.
           Michael, State Prison, Canon City CO

The idea that "my body belongs to me" and therefore I can do with it as I please, has been an important factor in making modern life more secular and libertine. "My body belongs to me," some people say, "as long as I do not harm other people, I can do as I please." It sounds logical enough. We live with our bodies all the time. We can understand that there should be rules about what we do to other people. But my body is "me", so why should anyone else care? Why should the Torah care? Why should the Torah give rules for how I treat my own body? In fact, many of the rules and teachings of the Torah are precisely about our own bodies. The laws of kosher concern what kind of food we feed to our bodies. There are special blessings to be said before and after eating. There are laws and ideals of modesty and of personal morality. There are laws against physically damaging our bodies. There is even a law against tattooing.

Now, we understand that G‑d is the Master of the whole universe and therefore He is able to give us rules through His Torah which affect every detail of our lives. G‑d created the world, and our bodies are part of the world, and therefore it makes good sense that there are Torah teachings and rules about what we do or do not do with our physical bodies. However, there is a further step.

The Torah perspective is that our body in fact does not belong to us, it is totally Divine property. In this it is different from the possessions that we own, our money, computer, house, car. It is true that in general terms "the whole world belongs to G‑d" but nonetheless, G‑d has given us material possessions which we actually possess, although of course we have to use them in the right way, as guided by the Torah. By contrast, our physical bodies do not actually belong to us. The Sages tell us they are lent to us by G‑d, and they retain their spiritual quality all the time.

Our bodies remain Divine property, lent to us by G‑d, and are for us to keep in best health till G-d takes our soul from the body and one dies. We do not have a right to commit suicide.

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In prison, the Passover Seder was very important, everyone tried to attend, but now that I am out of prison, why is it still so important?
           Scott, Philadelphia PA

Passover is when the Jew comes out of Egypt and out of hiding as well. Hiding from the Jew within.

According to the people at Pew, somewhere around 7.5 out of 10 Jews will be sitting at a Passover Seder this year. There are Jews that may not fast on Yom Kippur — but Passover? It just pulls. Because it’s an identity thing. It is not just any another night. It is who we are as Jews.

A Jew lives inside a story. When does the Jew go back to that story? On the night of Passover, when we sit together, tasting the bitterness of oppression as we bite into the bitter herbs, sinking our teeth into the bread of poverty called matzah, drinking the four cups of wine of freedom, and retelling our story of liberation through wonders to our children and friends.

It is not just any another night. It is who we are. It is a story that never really ends. Oppression verses freedom. Tyranny versus Covenant. Destruction verses tikun etc.

So a Jew comes to the Seder. And the Jew is there in one of four modalities of Jewishness—described in the Haggadah as “The Four Sons.”

There’s the wise, know-it-all Jew. The kicking, screaming Jew. The just plain Jew. And the apathetic Jew.

But they all have one thing in common: They’ve all been chosen in this story.

Without the Jew, there is no story.

Without the story, each Jew is just another grain of sand on the beach.

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Friday evenings after the prayer, we sing Shalom Aleichem- "Peace unto you, angels" before Kiddush, why?
           Joseph, Two Rivers CI, Umatilla, OR

The Mystics explain that because of the hustle and bustle of Shabbat preparations, members of the household might irritate one another, so the angels are called upon to restore peace.

Also, according to the Midrash, when returning home from the synagogue, we are escorted by two angels, one good and one evil. When they enter the home and see everything beautiful and serene, the good angel blesses the family, and the evil one must answer "amen."

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I am quite excited to see in the last Reaching Out that you are giving birthday gifts to our children, so that even while in prison and we can't afford it, you will provide the gift. But I would like to know, is there a Jewish way for me to celebrate my birthday?
           Richard, US Penitentiary, Coleman FL

Sure, there's a Jewish way for everything! But first it is important to know your real birthday, your Hebrew date and if you write us your English birthday, we will tell you what the Hebrew/Jewish birthday is.

Here are some ideas (culled from the teachings of the Rebbe shlita MHM):

  1. Giving charity should be a daily event. On your special day increase the amount of your contribution, especially before the day's morning and afternoon prayers. If your birthday falls on Shabbat or a Jewish holiday when handling money is forbidden, give the added charity beforehand and afterwards.
  2. Spend some extra time praying, focusing on meditating and concentrating on the words of the prayers.
  3. Say as many Psalms as possible. Ideally you should complete at least one of its five books (Psalms is divided into five books).
  4. Study the Psalm which corresponds to your new year. This is your age plus one -- e.g. Psalm 25 if this is your 24th birthday. This is also the Psalm which you should try to say daily until your next birthday.
  5. Take some time out to contemplate on your past year. Consider which areas require improvement, and resolve to do so.
  6. Learn some extra Torah on this day.
  7. Study a Chassidic idea and repeat it at a gathering in honor of your birthday.
  8. Partake of a new fruit which you did not yet taste during this season and recite the Shehecheyanu blessing.
  9. Take the time to teach another something about Torah and Judaism.
  10. Commit yourself to doing a particular good deed. Choose something practical and doable!
  11. Men and boys over the age of thirteen: On the Shabbat beforehand, get an aliyah at the Torah. If the birthday falls on a day when the Torah is read, be sure to receive an aliyah on that day too.
Have a happy and meaningful birthday!


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What is Gehinnom (Hell) in Jewish teachings? Can a Person avoid going to Hell?
           Joseph, MCI Norfolk, MA

What happens after a person passes? Gehinnom is similar to the way our clothes are cleansed in a washing machine. Put yourself in your socks’ shoes, so to speak. If you were to be thrown into boiling hot water and flung around for half an hour, you might start to feel that someone doesn’t like you. However, the fact is that it is only after going through a wash cycle that the socks can be worn again.

We don’t put our socks in the washing machine to punish them. We put them through what seems like a rough and painful procedure only to make them clean and wearable again. The intense heat of the water loosens the dirt, and the force of being swirled around shakes it off completely. Far from hurting your socks, you are doing them a favor by putting them through this process.

So too with the soul. Every act we do in our lifetime leaves an imprint on our soul. The good we do brightens and elevates our soul, and every wrongdoing leaves a stain that needs to be cleansed.

If, at the end of our life, we leave this world without fixing the wrongs we have done, our soul is unable to reach its place of rest on high.It must go through a cycle of deep cleansing. The soul is flung around at an intense spiritual heat to rid it of any residue it may have gathered, and to prepare it for entry into Heaven.

Of course, this whole process can be avoided. If we truly regret the wrong we have done and make amends with the people we have hurt, we can leave this world with “clean socks.”

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My memories are heavy, I try to stay in prayer to overcome depression. My childhood was a painful one, growing up was not better. I have let everyone down and can't figure a way out. Help!
           Boruch Yisroel, Somerset County Jail, Madison Maine

One day a farmer’s donkey fell into a well. The animal cried piteously for hours as the farmer tried to figure out what to do. Finally, he decided the animal was old and the well needed to be covered up anyway, and it just wasn’t worth it to retrieve the donkey. He invited all his neighbors to come over and help him shovel dirt into the well. At first, the donkey realized what was happening and cried horribly. Then, to everyone’s amazement, he quieted down. A few shovel loads later, the farmer looked down the well and was astonished at what he saw. With every shovel of dirt that fell on his back, the donkey was doing something amazing. As the farmer’s neighbors continued to shovel dirt on top of the animal, he would shake it off and take a step up. Pretty soon, everyone was amazed as the donkey stepped up over the edge of the well and trotted off!

The moral of this story is that life is going to shovel dirt on you, all kinds of dirt. The trick is to not get bogged down by it. We can get out of the deepest wells by not stopping and never giving up! Just shake off the dirt and take a step up!

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My siddur tells me to start saying the prayer for rain in the Amidah on the night preceding December 5 or 6. Why does it use a secular date rather than a Jewish one?
           Hananel, Northern Nevada Corr Facility, Carson City NV

A good question! As a rule of thumb, Jewish holidays and customs always follow the Jewish calendar, which is linked to the phases of the moon. One exception to this rule is the special prayer requesting rain, which Jews in the Diaspora begin saying on the night preceding December 5 (or 6). To understand why, let’s take a look at the history and significance of this small but important prayer.

Jews have been praying for rain for millennia. In the land of Israel, rain is a life-and-death concern. A good rainy season meant a good harvest and ample drinking water, while a drought could be fatal to livestock and cripple the economy. So when the Men of the Great Assembly set out to codify the prayers, they made sure to add a prayer for rain to the daily Amidah (silent prayer).

In fact, rain appears twice in the Amidah. It is first mentioned in the second blessing, as one of a string of natural and supernatural wonders that G‑d performs. Not least among them is that “He causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.”

Here we are praising G‑d, who brings rain, but we are not actually asking for rain. It is only later, in the blessing requesting a bountiful year, that we ask G‑d to “bestow dew and rain for blessing upon the face of the earth . . .”

In both instances, the rain-related phrase is said only during the winter (Israel’s rainy season). However, the two prayers follow slightly different schedules. We begin to say “He causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall” on Shemini Atzeret. But, as you point out, we start saying the second prayer, the actual request for rain, only at the beginning of December.

Why the differing start dates? It’s an interesting story . . .

The Jews of ancient Israel made three pilgrimages to Jerusalem each year, for the holidays of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. The official rainy season begins on Shemini Atzeret, when the Jews were about to start their journey back home after the festival of Sukkot. As much as they wanted the rain, they chose to delay their supplications in the interests of a safer and easier trip.

That is how the practice of delaying the prayer for rain began. In Israel, the prayer was begun only 15 days after Shemini Atzeret (the 7th of Cheshvan), allowing enough time for even the Jews living near the Euphrates to return home. This custom is followed by Jews living in Israel until today.

Outside of Israel, however, a more complicated calculation became necessary. For much of our history, the primary Jewish community in the Diaspora was in Babylonia (modern-day Iraq), where the climate is much hotter than Israel’s, and the autumn rains do not begin until much later. Therefore, the sages instituted that Jews living in the Diaspora should start praying for rain only 60 days after the start of the halachic autumn, which is known as tekufat Tishrei.

Nowadays very few Jews live in Babylonia, and the Jews of North America need rain at a different time than the Jews of Singapore. Nevertheless, we all start asking for rain on the day established for the Jews in Babylonia, regardless of when rains are actually needed in our respective locales.

The Chabad/Lubavitch Rebbe, explains that even Jews living in the Southern Hemisphere, where the seasons are reversed, should follow the schedule established for the Jews of Babylonia, because we pray for the needs of the Jewish people as a whole, most of whom reside in the Northern Hemisphere.

Obviously, this does not preclude us from praying for rain at other times. An individual or community that needs rain at a different time may add a personal prayer into the sixteenth blessing of the Amidah, “Shomei’a Tefillah,” where we add our unique requests.

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Now that I will soon be released from prison, it seems that my career is at a dead end. Before going to prison I was training to be an actor and struggling to get my first break, but every time I come close to a significant role something went wrong. I believe I have talent (this has been confirmed to me by others too). But should I now consider going the same path?
           David, Federal Corr Institution, Sandstone MN

It seems that you are not an actor. You may be good at acting, but that is not who you are. Stop calling it your career. You need to discover an identity that is beyond your work. That way, success and failure in your career will not spell success or failure in your life.

In our world of inverted values, a man is called successful because he has made a lot of money. He may have abandoned his third wife, be estranged from his children, have no friends and his dog ran away from him. But he's done well at his "career," and people say, "I wish I had his luck."

We achieve true success when we succeed in our relationships. If you are a caring friend in times of need, if you treat your parents well, if you are a supportive and understanding spouse, a devoted and caring parent, then you are a success. Those who contribute to the community, not just money but time and effort, those who have developed happy relationships with G‑d and man, they are real success stories.

As long as we identify ourselves with our profession - an actor, a sales person, an IT technician - then we are pinning our success as a person on our career success. But it's not true. We are not defined by our job. What we do to make a living is different to what we do to make a life. We work to make a living. But to make a life we must love, connect, serve a purpose and find meaning.

You may be great at doing your job. Or maybe not. But it's more important to be good at being human. When it comes to being human, also a failed businessman can be the greatest success story, and a struggling actor can be a star.

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Can you provide to me a brief explanation why Teffilin is important? The chaplain is refusing its use, arguing he has never heard of Teffilin.
           Aaron, Niagara County Jail, Lockport NY

Tefillin is one of the most important Mitzvot (precepts) of the Torah. It has been observed and treasured for thousands of years, right down to the present day. The Torah (Bible) mentions it more than once, but most explicitly in Deut. 6:8 "You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they should be for a reminder between your eyes."

The Teffilin consist of two boxes and are placed onto the hand and head by Jews starting from the age of 13, Bar Mitzvah. It teaches us to dedicate ourselves to the service of G-d in all that we think, feel and do. It is also to teach us not to be governed solely by the impulse of the heart, lest that lead us into error and transgression. Nor are we to be governed by reason alone, for that may lead to harsh materialism.

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I never really thought about it before coming to prison, but now that I am in prison, the thought that I might be Jewish has come into my mind. How can I know if I am truly Jewish, when my parents never acted as Jews?
           Bryan, United States Penitentiary, Atlanta GA

There are many that wonder if they are Jewish. It may be that they feel an inner pull toward Judaism and Jewish people. So how are we to determine who is Jewish?

Judaism is passed on exclusively through the biological female line. This means that if you trace your Jewish lineage through your mother’s mother’s mother’s mother (etc.), you are Jewish, even if all other branches of your family are not Jewish.

But Judaism is not only conferred by blood. If you convert to Judaism under the auspices of a bona fide Orthodox beit din (ecclesiastical court), you are 100% Jewish, and so are all offspring born to you after your conversion (if you are female).

If you have been living as a Jew as part of the Jewish community for your whole life (as has your biological family for as long as anyone knows), it is safe to assume that you are Jewish. The same would apply to someone who either converted or is the direct descendant of a (female) convert.

If you have been living as a non-Jew and wish to establish your maternal Jewish heritage, you may need to provide more evidence than “I once asked my grandmother if we were Jewish and she stared back at me blankly,” or "my mother has a Jewish sounding maiden name." For a host of reasons beyond the scope of this article, genetic testing would not be sufficient either.

It’s not that the Jewish community is hostile toward people who’ve dropped their tribal affiliation for a generation or two. It’s just that they want to make sure that you are indeed a member of the tribe before establishing you as such.

Chances are that you’ll need to dig for old documents (or a Jewish person who can actually testify about your ancestor’s Jewishness). There are rabbis and rabbinical documents that specialize in documentation from various parts of the world. Rabbis who have experience in this field may often be skeptical. Experience has taught them that documents can be forged, and they have learned to ask hard questions and dig deeply before conclusively identifying a person as Jewish.

If you discover Jewish ancestry deep in maternal past, but have been living as a non-Jew, it is customary for you to dip in the mikvah, not as a conversion (since you already are Jewish), but to symbolize a clean break from your non-Jewish past.

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The Western Wall is one of the four walls that is a part of the Temple Mount. Why is it so special and to date so many visit and pray near it?
           Joel, Federal Corr Institution, Fort Dix NJ

The Western Wall (or Kotel), is actually the only surviving wall of the Temple Mount. Much of the structure we see today was rebuilt during the 2,000 years since the Temple was destroyed. How did the Western Wall survive? The Midrash tells a fascinating tale:

When Vespasian conquered Jerusalem, he assigned the destruction of the four ramparts of the Temple to four generals. The western wall was allotted to Pangar of Arabia. Now, it had been decreed by Heaven that this should never be destroyed, because the Shechinah (Divine Presence) resides in the west.

The others demolished their sections, but Pangar did not demolish his. Vespasian sent for him and asked, “Why did you not destroy your section?” He replied, “By your life, I acted so for the honor of the kingdom. For if I had demolished it, nobody would [in time to come] know what it was you destroyed. But when people look [at the surviving wall], they will exclaim, ‘From the great building he destroyed, you can tell the might of Vespasian!’”

Vespasian said to him, “Enough! You have spoken well. But since you disobeyed my command, you shall ascend to the roof and throw yourself down. If you live, you will live, and if you die, you will die.”’ Pangar ascended, threw himself down and died.

“Behold, He is standing behind our wall, looking from the windows, peering from the lattices.” we read in Song of Songs. The Midrash explains that this refers to the Western Wall. “Why is this so? Because the Holy One, Blessed be He, has taken an oath that it will never be destroyed.”

Based on this verse, the Zohar states: “The Divine Presence never departed from the Western Wall of the Temple.” This is seen as a manifestation of G‑d’s promise to Solomon when the Temple was first built, that “My eyes and heart will be there at all times.”

The Zohar explains that this idea is hinted to in the word kotel (כותל), which can be broken into two words, כו תל. The word כו is the numeric value of 26, the value of the Tetragrammaton. And the word תל means “hill” or “mountain.” Thus, the Kotel’s very name hints to the fact that G‑d’s Divine Presence is still to be found on the Temple Mount.

Some say that the current Western Wall is a part of the Temple itself. However, most maintain that the Western Wall is actually a part of the retaining wall that surrounded the Temple Mount.

Although the intention of the enemies of Israel in leaving the wall intact was to show the glory of Rome and the subjection of the Jewish nation, the opposite transpired. Rome is long buried in the dustbin of history, but the Western Wall has remained as a beacon of hope, signifying G‑d’s eternal promise that His children will ultimately return to the land and that the Temple will be rebuilt.

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Since coming out of prison, having served time in which I felt I was not entitled to the privilege, it seems that I am angry at the world. Of course I try to hide it when socializing with friends, but I feel that my kids are suffering. It seems I become angry when they do something wrong. I don’t like myself at those moments, and know it is wrong. And yet I haven’t been able to control it.
           Alex, Federal Prison Camp, Otisville NY

We all have our weak moments, when a combination of lack of sleep, pressures of life and our imperfect hearts conspire to make us lose it. And who are the poor victims of our fury? Those we love most, our children.

Of course if it is happening frequently or if you are really harming your kids, you need urgent professional help. But if its just a once in a while burst, you’re human. That doesn’t excuse your behavior; it just means you need to work on yourself, like everybody does.

Here are some wise words the Rebbe offered to a father who had problems in the way he behaved with his children.

The Rebbe asked, “If your neighbor dropped off his kids at your house to look after while he went out, and during that time the neighbor’s kids misbehaved, would you lose your temper with them?”

The father had to admit that no, when it is someone else’s kids misbehaving, we don’t allow ourselves to lose control, because they are not our kids. How could we face our neighbor when he returns to pick up his kids, only to find them crying and hurt? We don’t feel free to lose ourselves when the kids aren’t ours.

“Well,” continued the Rebbe, “your children are not yours either. They are G‑d’s children. He has entrusted them to you for a while to take care of. And you are answerable to G‑d for how you treat them.”

Children are not our property; they do not belong to us. They belong to G‑d, and we have been honored with the heavy responsibility of caring for them in their young years and guiding them for their future. If we’d be embarrassed to return our neighbor’s children having hurt them, then how much more should we recoil from the thought of hurting G‑d’s children.

Of course as parents, we need to discipline our kids—that is an essential part of our role. But that must come from a place of love, not anger. It must be deliberate and thought-out, not impulsive and reactive.

This is all easy to say when we are calm and well-rested. But what do you do when you haven’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks, and you feel a pressure? What do you do then?

You say two words to yourself: G‑d’s kids.

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In light of the terror lately all over the world against Jews and all mankind, why do Jews not also do Jihad?
           David, Federal Corr Institution, Manchester KY

There are a number of reasons that come to mind why Jews don't do Jihad. However, to spare you a long thesis, I will just focus on one reason:

Judaism discourages people from taking the law into their own hands.

On the most basic level, a Jihadist feels authorized to kill.

Once a Jihadist feels empowered by the authorization to kill, all they must do is find someone deserving of death simply by opening up a holy book of their religion and identifying those condemned with capital punishment.

A Jew, however, cannot do this. For Judaism is a religion based on a Jewish court system. Anyone condemned to die in the Torah must appear before a court, and it is the court that must hear the case and actually sentence the person to a death penalty. It is Jewishly illegal to take the law into your own hands and condemn people to death on one's own.

What's more, only the most prestigious of courts, the Jewish Supreme Court called the "Sanhedrin", had the power to sentence a person to death. And it was so hard to prove liability with witnesses and evidence that the "bloodiest" of courts only sentenced to death but one person every 70 years!

And to top it off, once King Solomon's rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans 2000 years ago, the "Sanhedrin" no longer had the power to hand out death sentences.

Therefore, from all of this, a Jewish culture has emerged that rejects all types of vigilantism and religiously sanctioned sentencing of people to death.

Indeed, the Jewish attitude is that we are not the judge of other people. We may have very strong opinions how people should act based on Torah morality, but nevertheless, we are not the judge. For judgement is something solely in the hands of G-d.

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Why did G-d create evil if not to allow us to do it?
           Victor, United States Penitentiary, Jonesville VA

What is the difference between a book that brings joy and enlightenment to its readers and a work that espouses prejudice and hate? Both are comprised of the very same letters and punctuation marks. It is only their configuration that is different. The same characters that, lined up one way, make a work of art, are a boorish scribble when arranged differently. The same words might form a celebration of goodness or a diatribe of utter virulence, depending on the sequence in which they are placed.

With this analogy, the Kabala explains the mystery of evil. If everything comes from G-d, and G-d is the essence of good, where does evil come from? But evil is a non-entity, explain the Kabbalists, devoid of any reality or substance. What we know as "evil" is merely a corruption of good - the same letters differently configured. This explains how we have the power to "transform darkness into light and bitterness into sweetness."

When confronted with the enormity of evil in our world, we should remember that evil is not itself evil - it is goodness in the form of evil. We need not vanquish the darkness and generate light in its place; we need not eradicate the bitterness and manufacture the sweetness to replace it; we need only rearrange the letters. All the world needs is a good editing.

For thousands of years, the writer who did not "get it right" the first time had to start all over again. Whether engraving in clay or stone, inscribing on papyrus or parchment, or banging away at a typewriter, the writer's first efforts usually ended up being discarded. He or she could erase, apply white-out fluid, cross out words and insert others between the lines or in the margins - up to a point. In the end, a fresh, new sheet would invariably be rolled into the typewriter for a "clean" (and hopefully) final copy.

Then came the computer and, with it, the word processor. Now the writer could juggle words, move sentences from one page to another, salvage lines from failed paragraphs and save them for use in another context.

Across the globe, the sound of balled-up pages being thrown into the wastebasket began to die out.

Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism, taught that, "Everything that a person sees or hears should teach him/her a lesson in his/her service of the Alm-ghty." Everything - whether it is a natural phenomenon, a quirk of human nature, a technological development or a news story - can tell us something about our life's purpose. Because the world in which we live - our own everyday, mundane world - is a mirror of the spiritual cosmos.

We know that history is a process - a process by which the whole of creation advances toward the fulfillment of its function as a home for G-d. The climax of history is the era of Moshiach - a time when all ignorance, animosity, suffering and want will be eliminated from the face of the earth. A time when the letters of creation will be perfectly configured, so that the very forces that formerly spelled "evil" will now be channeled as forces for good.

The evolution of writing reflects our world's progression toward this ideal. In earlier generations, the task of "editing" the forces of creation was beset with false starts, abandoned efforts and wasted resources. But today we live in the age of electronic writing; today, the task of aligning the letters of our lives in their proper configuration is more accessible and more "user friendly" than it has ever been.

So too when doing evil, with one delete, a person can start all over again.

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Why do we eat dairy products, like blintzes, on Shavuos?
           Jerome, Attica CF, Attica NY

Until the Torah was given, the Jews were permitted to eat non-kosher meat. After the giving of the Torah, the Jews became the Jewish Nation and received the laws of kashrus and they were therefore not permitted to use any of their cooking utensils. They ate dairy food which needed no preparation.

Another explanation is that Moses, as a baby, was drawn out of the water on the sixth of Sivan (Shavuos) and refused to be nursed by anyone but a Jewish woman.

Also, milk is one of the main parts of an infant's diet. By eating milk products we intimate that no matter how much one has studied the Torah, he is like an infant who has not even begun to fathom its depth.

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I always thought Mazel Tov meant “congratulations.” I recently heard that it actually means “good luck.” But I thought Jews don’t believe in luck ... ?
           Stuart, Federal Corr Institution, Fort Worth, TX

That is a good question and your confusion is understandable. The Talmud—the ancient encyclopedia of Jewish wisdom—seems to contradict itself on the issue. In one place it states, “On your birthday, your mazel is strong.” Elsewhere the Talmud reports, “The Jewish people are not subject to mazel”!

The word mazel literally means “a drip from above.” Mazel can have different connotations depending on its context, but they are all connected to this basic definition—something trickling down from above.

There is another meaning of the word mazel that is more relevant to the phrase Mazel Tov. Mazel is the term used in Jewish mysticism to describe the root of the soul. The mystics say that only a ray of our soul actually inhabits our body. The main part of the soul, our mazel, remains above, shining down on us from a distance.

Have you ever experienced a sense of spontaneous intuition, where out of the blue you suddenly feel at peace with yourself and the universe? Or a sudden flash of inspiration that makes you see life in a new light? Occasionally we may receive an extra flux of energy from our soul above. It can happen at any time, but is most common at a time of celebration—a birthday, bar/bat mitzvah or wedding. It is especially at these times of joy that we are able to see beyond the mundane and the petty, and to sense the deeper truths of life.

When we tell someone Mazel Tov, we are giving them a blessing: May this drip of inspiration from your soul above not dissipate, but rather have a positive and lasting effect, that from this event onwards you should live your life with higher consciousness. You should be aware of the blessings in your life, and be ready to receive more and more. In other words: Good Mazel!

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Prison has kept me away from my Passover family meal, but has also opened me up to a new life. The Passover Seder was run by some orthodox Jews, and I found very interesting the need to have an egg on the Seder plate, and we eat it without any ceremony during the Seder. Why an egg?
           Richard, Federal Corr Institution, Ashland KY

Let’s start with the Seder plate. On each of the three festivals—Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot—there was a mitzvah to go to Jerusalem and celebrate in the Beis Hamikdosh (Holy Temple). Since it would be inappropriate for one to come empty handed, there was a special mitzvah to bring a festival offering to be enjoyed during the holiday.

In commemoration of the special offering for Passover, the sages instituted that there be a cooked dish (egg) at the Seder.

We use an egg, which has no opening, for on this Passover day “the mouths of our enemies became sealed shut” like the smooth, closed egg. When witnessing the miracles of Exodus, it became clear to all that G‑d was protecting the Israelites, His favored people.

The egg also symbolizes our hope and prayer for the future. When a chicken lays an egg, the egg appears to be a completed object. Yet in truth it isn’t complete, and the egg is just a preparation for the live creature that will emerge from it later. So too the Exodus from Egypt, while at first appearing to be an end in itself, in truth is only a preparation for the Final Redemption, with the coming of Moshiach—may it be speedily in our days!

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They have a custom here, that if someone is unsure of the Omer count and ask what count is tonight, to respond with yesterdays count. This is the first time I have encountered anything like it, can you please explain?
           Zev, South Bay CF, FL

One is only to say a blessing mentioning the holy name of G-d when absolutely necessary. In the case where one says that tonight is this and this count of the Omer, than technically he has already counted and therefore can no longer say the blessing. The solution is to mention what yesterdays count was, and wait until after the blessing to mention the number for tonight.

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My father, since coming out of prison, seems to be in a state of loss all the time. He told me that he has lost his will to live and sees no sense in it anymore. I would like to help, do you have any suggestions?
           Linda, S. Cloud, Florida

We all need a reason to live. We all need to feel needed. We all need to have a sense of purpose. Having a purpose is far more important than having money or a comfortable life. It is even more important than our health. A life that is healthy but purposeless is like a blunt pencil. It has no point.

Purpose comes from serving others. When we know that we are giving, that we are contributing to the world, that we can make other people happy and help make their lives better, then life is worth living because we feel we need to be here.

Make sure your father feels appreciated. And if he isn’t currently doing anything purposeful in life, then you need to find avenues for him to be productive. Think of something that he is able to do to serve others, and if that need doesn’t exist yet, create it. Find an organization that needs volunteer drivers.

One thing he has is time. Find people with health problems, people who are even more lonely than he is. If he gives of his time to others—even just to be with them—he will very quickly find a reason to live.

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Reaching Out, the excellent monthly publication tells us that the Sabbath begins at sunset on Friday. There are some religious men at this prison who say, and have shown this to me in the calendar, that candle lighting should actually take place about 18 minutes before sunset. Why?
           Mordechai, Federal Corr Institution, Fort Dix NJ

The Sabbath begins at sundown, and from sundown it is forbidden to perform certain activities (including lighting Shabbat candles). However, based on the language the Torah employs, the sages of the Talmud learned that there is actually a mitzvah to add a few minutes to the Shabbat, both before it starts and after it ends.

Not only does bringing in Shabbat early ensure that we will not accidentally miss the start time and perform forbidden work on Shabbat, it also demonstrates our affection for the Shabbat. We go out to receive the Shabbat even before she arrives, and accompany her out when it comes time for her to leave.

Different Jewish communities have different customs as to how much time to add on to Shabbat, ranging from about 15 to 40 minutes. The most prevalent custom is to light the Shabbat candles 18 minutes before sunset.

When we add to Shabbat, we are essentially taking time from the mundane workweek and transforming it into something that is holy. This reflects the entire purpose of creation—making the mundane world into a more spiritual and holy place.

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Can you please explain the Jewish calendar vs. the regular calendar regarding the Jewish Leap Year in which an extra month is added?
           Albert, Federal Medical Center, Ayer MA

Specifically, this is how it works. The Jewish calendar follows a 19-year cycle. Seven out of these 19 years—years 3, 6, 8, 11, 14, 17 and 19—consist of 13, instead of 12, months.

Let us take a journey through this 19-year cycle: During the first two years of the cycle, the lunar year falls behind the solar year 22 days. Therefore, by the third year of the cycle, when 36 lunar months (three lunar years) would have set it back almost 34 days in relation to the annual seasonal solar cycle, we add a 13th month to the lunar year. Now, we are only four days behind.

Three years later, now some 38 days behind (almost 34 from three lunar years plus four days behind from before), we repeat the process. Now we are eight days behind.

Two years later, the lunar year accumulates a deficit of 29 days, so we add once again a month of 30 days to the lunar year. This actually places the lunar year ahead of the solar year, and now the solar year needs to do the catching up.

And so it goes: every two to three years, an extra month is added to the Jewish lunar year. At the conclusion of each 19-year cycle, the solar and lunar years will be perfectly aligned with each other. Which is why once in 19 years your English and Hebrew birthdays will finally be on the same day. Then we once again resume the cycle.

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I found your letter very interesting. I have turned to Kabalah and have learned many interesting things on how to control my emotional state. Since I do not have a Rabbi, I turn to Buddhism for educational direction and although the Buddhist teacher is not Jewish, he tells me that Kabalah and Buddhism are not faiths, so its ok.
           Kevin, Mule Creek State Prison, Ione CA

Many Jews began their spiritual trek with the path of Buddha and continued by discovering their own heritage in Torah. Many of the Buddhist practices and world-concepts are in direct opposition to the Torah concept of singular Divine providence. When it comes to Tibetan rites, for example, Shamanism abounds. Even if the intellectual Buddhist conceives of these notions in a highly abstract fashion, they are still the notions of idolatry against which our father Abraham struggled. For a Jew to burn incense in front of a statue is horrifying, no matter what he will say are his inner intents. Similarly, the proclamation, "In Buddha I find refuge" is a catastrophe for the Jewish soul.

On the other hand, the mental rigor and personal discipline of these practices have proven of great benefit to many in their praying and meditation (both of which are organic to Judaism). Furthermore, it is likely that the essential teachings of the original teacher who is now called Buddha contain much of the ancient wisdom that was lost. Buddha lived at the time of the Babylonian Exile, as did Lao Tse (according to some historians) and Pythagoras. At that time, the Jews were deliberately transported to the frontiers of the Persian Empire. Along with them, they took their Torah knowledge and undoubtedly spread it to others. Perhaps we are now only sifting Solomon's lost jewels out of the mud in which they have been buried for two and a half millennia. On this, read The Palace & the Pigeons.

Over time, Buddhism has evolved more in the past thirty years than in all its history before, to the point that what is presented today in America as Buddhism is already more Jewish than it is Buddhist. And, secondly, when those practicing "Jubus" return to Jewish practice, they reject those aspects that are anathematic to Torah, while making good use of those aspects that are complimentary.

As for those who were born into Buddhist culture, I believe that they will find a particular path within the framework of the Noahide guidelines that leads them to the truth within their own heritage. In fact, I see at least one group in Japan quite close to this already. But for a Jew, I suggest you stay away from Buddhism.

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Thank you for Reaching Out. Each month it brings Torah, information and other goodies which I never heard of before coming to prison.
This one had an article about celebrating the New Year for Trees. You write that Jews celebrate it on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shevat, which happens to be in the middle of January. I don’t know about where you live, but where I live, it’s freezing, with plenty of snow covering the trees. If you want to celebrate the trees, do it in spring. Why now, right in the middle of winter?
           Howard, Eastern CF, Napanoch NY

The New Year for Trees, called in Hebrew Tu B’Shevat, the 15th day of the Jewish month of Shevat is not the Jewish version of Arbor Day. As is the case with many Torah laws, the halachah (Jewish Law) is based on what happens in the Land of Israel. So, since most of Israel’s rainy season is over by the 15th of Shevat, this date is considered the New Year for Trees. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) explains that at this point the ground has become saturated with the rains of the new year, causing the sap to start rising in the trees, which means that the fruit can begin to bud.

Regarding your complaint of the sub-zero weather, you may find the most comfort in the explanation of Rabbi Menachem Meiri (1249–c. 1310), who points out that the winter season extends from the month of Tevet until the month of Nissan. The 15th of Shevat is the midpoint between fall and spring. Once half the winter has passed, its strength is weakened, the cold is not as intense, and the budding process begins.

So take heart. Yes, it may be smack in the middle of winter, but the 15th of Shevat marks a turning point, a time when under all that cold and snow the sap of the trees is rising, readying for spring. In a sense, the 15th of Shevat signifies that sometimes it is precisely from within the darkest and coldest moments of our lives that the new blossoms burst forth!

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Someone very close to me did horrible things to me, even turning me into the Feds. I don't know how to forgive him, where do I start?
           Andrew, Federal Corr Institution, Coleman FL

Forgiveness is a multi-layered process and a long journey where we slowly progress and move towards the goal. It is not a single action that you begin and complete in a short time.

In an essay on the topic, the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that there are three levels of forgiveness:

1) We don't wish the person any harm and we even pray for their well being. At this basic level of forgiveness we might still be upset, feel hurt or even angry. Yet we find it within ourselves not to hope for the person's downfall and not feel the need for revenge.

2) We stop being angry. At this second stage we might not be ready to relate to the person as we did before, but we are able to move on and let go to the point where we no longer carry feelings of anger and resentment on any level.

3) Restoring the relationship. At this final stage the forgiveness is complete. Not only have we forgiven the individual but we have totally understood and re-accepted him or her. We are now ready to be as close to the offending person as before.

The Talmud explains that even if someone has hurt us terribly, it is expected of us to find the strength to forgive them at least on the first level. Absence of any forgiveness whatsoever is a sign of cruelty. Wishing badly on someone and the desire for revenge represents a weakness of personality that requires rectification.

A more difficult form of forgiveness is the second stage, where we cease to feel hurt or anger. If we have been hurt or betrayed we might need time and hard work to rid ourselves of negative feelings. It could be a long process of healing and soul searching, until the feelings of resentment actually disappear from our heart and soul.

The ideal form of forgiveness is the third level where we restore the relationship. However, it must be pointed out that this is not always possible. Some relationships are so toxic that the responsible thing is to walk away from them. But we don't need to take an "all or nothing" approach. If restoring the relationship is impossible it is not always necessary to terminate all contact or become antagonistic. We can still achieve a more basic level of forgiveness by wishing them well. We can still cease being angry and give them basic respect. We can still greet them when we see them and give them the dignity that every human being deserves.

Every small improvement in our relationship is significant, has a profound effect and generates happiness. We suggest that you take the first step and others will follow.

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When is the next Jubilee year?
           Phil, Tomoka Corr Institution, Daytona Beach FL

According to biblical law, the Jubilee is only observed when all twelve tribes of the Jewish nation are living in Israel, as is derived from the verse, “And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim freedom throughout the land for all who live on it,” which implies that the Jubilee is only sanctified when “all who live on it”—meaning, all who are meant to be living there—are in the Land of Israel. Furthermore, the Jubilee is only observed when every tribe is living in the specific part of the land which was it was allotted when the Land of Israel was divided.

In the 6th century BCE, the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel and sent the majority of its population into exile. Those who were deported are historically known as the Ten Lost Tribes.

We are certain that before that point in time the Jubilee was regularly observed. We also know that, with the destruction of the Second Temple and the disbandment of the Sanhedrin (supreme rabbinical court), we ceased to mark the Jubilee year in any form. The periods about which there is a question are the remaining years between the exile of the Ten Tribes and the destruction of the First Temple, and the Second Temple Era.

Some are of the opinion that the Jubilee is observed as long as there is a partial representation of each tribe, even if most of the tribe is not in Israel. According to the opinion that partial representation of each tribe is sufficient to fulfill the scriptural requirement, biblically mandated Jubilees were fully observed throughout the periods in question, because there remained a small representation of each tribe in Israel.

However, according to the first opinion mentioned above, with the exile of the Northern Kingdom the required condition for the Jubilee to be sanctified was lost. Thus, the last time there was a biblical requirement to observe the Jubilee was about 150 years before the destruction of the First Temple.

As mentioned above, today the Jubilee year is neither designated nor observed. Although there was no biblical requirement to observe the Jubilee year after the Ten Tribes were exiled, the observance of the shemittah (Sabbatical year) remained a biblical obligation. Although the laws of shemittah are observed in Israel to this very day, the Jubilee year is not designated or observed.

So now for the answer to your question: “When is the next Jubilee year?”

We eagerly await the day when G‑d will bring our entire nation back to our homeland—including the ten “lost” tribes—and we will again resume observing the Jubilee year, as well as so many other mitzvot which we are incapable of performing until that awaited day.There are many reasons for this.
Some of them:
a) The Jubilee only affected the shemittah cycle when the shemittah was established and declared by the Sanhedrin, (supreme rabbinical court) as opposed to today when it is automatically programmed into the perpetual Jewish calendar.
b) The observance of shemittah today is only a rabbinic decree, and therefore the Jubilee year does not affect its cycle.
c) No commemoration is in order when there is no Sanhedrin, whose participation in the declaration of the Jubilee year was integral. In fact, it was the Sanhedrin’s blast of the shofar (ram's horn) on Yom Kippur which signaled the entry of the Jubilee year.

The information in this response is taken from Encyclopedia Talmudit, vol. XXII.

We will merit to celebrate the Jubilee year again as soon as Moshiach is revealed, may we see it soonest.

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Can you explain, wherever I go, this or that prison, there is so much hate for the Jew. Why all the hate when we never did anything bad to them?
           Malka, Southern Nevada Detention Center, Pahrump, NV

Hebrew is a unique language in that the words convey the essence of what they stand for. “Sinai” is of the same etymological root as sinah, the Hebrew word for hatred. The Talmud says that since the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, a hatred for the Jews developed.

Social scientists say that jealousy is a basis for hatred. The fact is that the Jews are and always have been morally and intellectually superior in the world. The Jewish people were scattered all over the world to disseminate goodness, decency, morality, and social responsibility to mankind, because ultimately, everything is derived from Torah. For all the contributions which the Jews gave society, instead of appreciation, the reaction is one of envy, which breeds hatred.

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I am in a NY State Prison and was told by another lady that orthodox women have a certain dress code. They have to cover their bodies. Is there something shameful or evil about a woman’s body? If men can’t control their urges, then it’s their problem, not women’s. Why should a woman have to hide herself just so others shouldn’t be tempted?
           Rachel, Albion Corr Facility, Albion NY

You are assuming that the only reason for modest dress is to avoid temptation. While this may be the case in other religions, for Judaism this is not true. The Jewish way of modest dress is not merely about how other people view women, but more about how women view themselves.

Covering something doesn’t always mean being ashamed of it. Have you ever noticed how we treat a Torah scroll? We never leave it lying around open. It is hidden behind many layers. The Torah is kept inside a synagogue, in the Ark, behind a curtain, wrapped in a mantle, held tightly closed with a belt. It is taken out only when it is to be used for its holy purpose, to be read during the prayer service. For those special times we carefully draw the curtain, open the doors of the ark, bring out the Torah, uncover it and unwrap it. As soon as we have finished, we immediately wrap it up again and put it away.

Why do we do all this? Why do we go to such trouble to conceal the Torah? Are we ashamed of it? Is there something to hide? Is there something ugly about the Torah?

Of course not. The opposite is true.

Because the Torah is our holiest object, because it is so sacred and special and precious, we never leave it exposed unnecessarily. We keep it under wraps because we don’t want to treat it lightly; we don’t want to become too casual with it. Were the Torah to be always open and visible, it might become too familiar and its sanctity minimized. By keeping it away from sight, and bringing it out only for the appropriate times, we maintain our reverence and respect for the Torah.

The same is with our bodies. The body is the holy creation of G‑d. It is the sacred house of the soul. The way we maintain our respect for the body is by keeping it covered. Not because it is shameful, but because it is so beautiful and precious.

This is true for men’s bodies too, and laws of modest dress apply to men too. But it is even more so for women. The feminine body has a beauty and a power that far surpasses the masculine. The Kabbalists teach that a woman’s body has a deeper beauty because her soul comes from a higher place. For this reason, her body must be kept discreetly covered.

In a world where the woman’s body has been reduced to a cheap advertising gimmick, we need no proof for the truth of this wisdom. Where all is exposed, nothing is sacred. But that which is truly precious to us, we keep under wraps.

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When I was younger I attended Hebrew school and learned the Hebrew letters and the vowels. But upon coming to prison I realize that the Siddur (Prayer Book) has vowels and the Torah which we use every Sabbath, has no vowels. We had a discussion about it and no one was able to explain it.
           Paul, Federal Corr Institution, Danbury CT

Although there are no vowels actually written in the Torah, it is not accurate to say that the Torah has no vowels. The vowels, or in Hebrew called nekudot, were never actually marked in the Torah itself, they are of divine origin just as the letters are. The vowels were given by G‑d to Moses on Mount Sinai and were passed down orally from leader to leader as part of the Oral Torah, until they reached Ezra the Scribe, who revealed and taught them to the Jewish nation. Up until that point, Hebrew was never written down with vowels.

As with many early Semitic alphabets, one who is fluent in Hebrew can, for the most part, read it without vowels, which is why even nowadays the overwhelming majority of Hebrew literature is written without vowels.

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My father passed away recently. Our relationship was never the best. Maybe he didn't like me for the choices I took but I now understand what he was going through and how wrong I was to be so hard on him. How can I make amends to a deceased person? What can I do to obtain forgiveness?
           Jonathan, Wabash Valley Corr Facility, Carlisle, IN

Unfortunately we cannot turn the clock back; we can only move ahead. First good stem is that you admit your mistake and you wish to make amends for it. Your father is now in the World of Truth, and as such can see beyond the pettiness of our world.

I suggest that you do on his behalf things that he no longer can do. I am referring to mitzvot, which—no matter what his attitude was while alive—in the World of Truth he appreciates their real value. He can no longer do good deeds on his own behalf, but you can do it in his merit, and he will greatly appreciate this. You can choose any good deed, whether it be putting on Teffilin more then only once in a while, or giving extra charity in his merit, or being extra careful in any of the mitzvot—kosher, Shabbat candles, family purity, or whatever it is that you choose. You might choose something that might have been especially meaningful to him during his lifetime.

I also suggest if at all possible, that you visit his grave and ask him for forgiveness for your past conduct. Speak openly and honestly and with a humbled heart. Ask for him to pray on your behalf and on behalf of your family.

But doing extra Mitzvahs is something that he will eternally appreciate and will be meaningful for him, and can atone for your past behavior.

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We have someone here who when only nine people show up for the minyan, he says we can include the Torah or Holy Ark as the tenth. Is this what Jewish law states?
           David, Low Security Federal Prison, Butner NC

There is a statement in Talmud Brachos 47b regarding using a Torah to make up the Minyan, however it is rejected. And therefore it is not acceptable to utilize this method under any circumstance.

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Seems some orthodox men at our prison insist to have salt at the meal in order to dip the Challah into it before eating. Can you please explain?
           Fred, Federal Prison Camp, Otisville NY

The Talmud explains: When the Temple stood, the sacrifices brought on the altar would atone for Israel. But now, when there is no Temple, a person’s table—upon which he feeds the poor—atones for him.

If the table is like the altar, the food eaten upon it is like the offerings. With regard to the offerings, the verse states, “You shall not omit the salt of your G‑d’s covenant from [being placed] upon your meal offerings. You shall offer salt on all your sacrifices.” Hence, we add salt to our staple food, bread.

According to Kabbalah, salt, which is bitter, represents divine severity, and bread, the staff of life, represents divine kindness. Both the Hebrew word for bread, lechem (לחם), and the word for salt, melach (מלח), contain the same letters. However, we wish to overpower the severity of the salt with the kindness of the bread. Therefore, the common custom is not to sprinkle the salt (severity) atop the bread (kindness), but instead to dip the bread into the salt—kindness atop severity.

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Why are Teffilin black?
           Arthur, Washington CF, Comstock NY

We wear two tefillin boxes. One box is placed upon the head, the seat of our intellect, and the other is placed upon the left arm, resting against the heart, the seat of our emotions and desires. Thus, tefillin signify the submission of one’s mind, heart and actions to the Almighty, as well as the rule of intellect over emotion.

The Kabbalist explain that the reason the Tefillin are colored black is because unlike all the other colors, “black is not receptive to any other color,” for when you have a black surface (as opposed to a white surface), other colors don’t show on it, and black does not mix with any other color.

This idea may perhaps also be understood by exploring the unique qualities of the color black. According to physics, black is not actually a color; it is the absence of light that appears black. From the standpoint of dyes and pigments, black absorbs all light and doesn’t reflect any colors back (in other words, again, you aren’t seeing any color). White, on the other hand, contains all colors and reflects all colors back, while blue for example, absorbs all colors and reflects just the color blue.

This unique property of the color black symbolizes G‑d’s absolute unity, oneness that does not lend itself to any additional attributes or parts.

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We are going to start a Havdalah service and I would like to understand what we need to do and also why we do it so tat we can explain it to the chaplain?
           Jason, United States Penitentiary, Pine Knot KY

Shabbat begins before sunset on Friday evening, and ends after nightfall the following night. (The time varies by location and time of year.) After the holy day has ended, we mark its departure with a special multisensory ceremony that involves a cup of grape juice (wine), sweet spices and a flame.

The person leading the Havdalah will pick up a brimming cup of grape juice, which signifies our wish for a week overflowing with blessing, and will recite a number of faith-themed verses from the Prayer Book. One of these verses, a quote from the Book of Esther that “The Jews had light, gladness, joy and honor--so let it be with us,” is said aloud by everyone else as well. (Here is the transliteration: La-Yehudim ha-yeta orah vesimchah vesimcha ve-sason viyekar, kayn tih-yeh la-nu. If you do not know the Hebrew, it’s okay just to listen.)

Next, he will pick up something sweet-smelling (typically cloves and/or myrtle), say a blessing (to which you respond “amen”), take a sniff and pass it around. When it comes to you, just take a sniff and pass it along to the next person. We do this to “revive” our souls, which have been saddened by the departure of the holy day of Sabbath rest.

After everyone has had their turn, he will recite another brief blessing (again warranting an “amen” from everyone else) and then lift up his fingers close to the flame and look at his fingernails in the candle’s glow. This is reminiscent of the first time Adam and Eve used fire, on the night following the first, brilliant, Shabbat of history.

The one fellow with the grape juice cup then picks up the cup and recites a final blessing, the actual havdalah, marking the division from holy and the ordinary. After he finishes everyone says “amen” he will sit down, drink the grape juice, and extinguish the flame in the grape juice in his saucer.

Sometimes, you may observe people dipping their pinkies into the grape juice and brushing their wine-stained fingers above their eyebrows (to express their appreciation of the mitzvah) or even shoving them into their pockets (expressing their wish for a successful week). Others may pick up the extinguished candle and give it a sniff (expressing their wish for improved memory for Torah study). These are among the interesting customs that have arisen around this ceremony—and there are many more. If you wonder about something you see, just ask.

Even though night has fallen on Saturday night, Shabbat does not leave us until we usher it out through Havdalah.

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We have another inmate here who teaches us great things from the Talmud etc and he said that the Beis Hamikdosh (Holy Temple) will first be build when Moshiach comes. My question, why do we have to wait, after all, Israel is now in Jewish hands?
           Jacob, Federal Corr Institution, Coleman FL

As anyone who has been to Israel knows, the country is nothing short of a modern-day miracle. At the same time, there are very real political and security issues—issues that get even more heated when there is any discussion about the Temple Mount, where the Beis Hamikdosh (Holy Temple) needs to be built, let alone actually building anything there. That being the case, this entire conversation is purely theoretical, with no relation to the current sociopolitical state of affairs. Additionally, there is much rabbinic debate surrounding the building of the Third Temple. To keep things short and simple, we’ll just touch on some of the issues that may be involved.

When discussing the question of rebuilding the Holy Temple, it is important to keep in mind that, in general, this mitzvah is not an individual obligation, like the mitzvah of Tefillin or Shabbat. Rather, it is a communal obligation. One of the obligations are that rebuilding can happen only when there is a Jewish king or prophet.

Even if we’re not obligated, should we build the Temple anyway, restoring G‑d’s home one earth? Truthfully, we don’t even know how to construct it. The dimensions of the Third Temple are somewhat described in the book of Ezekiel, but the interpretation of many verses is subject to debate. In fact, when it came time to build the Second Temple, the Jews built it according to the dimensions of the First Temple, and included only certain aspects that are explicitly stated in Ezekiel. It is only the third and final Temple that will be built entirely according to the prophecy of Ezekiel.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of all is the placement of the altar, which must be in a very specific location, as the verse states, “This is the altar for the burnt offerings of Israel.” According to tradition, the altar is to be placed on the exact spot from which the earth to create Adam was taken and where he later offered sacrifices to G‑d, and where Abraham built the altar to sacrifice Isaac. The altar’s location is so essential that when they built the Second Temple, they needed three prophets to vouch for the location they had planned. Accordingly, we’d need at least one prophet to help us in our construction project, and prophets seem to be in short supply nowadays.

Assuming that somehow we did get the exact dimensions figured out, there is still one big issue: It is forbidden to enter the Temple area in a state of ritual impurity. The only way to become ritually pure is with the ashes of a red heifer, which presents its own set of challenges.

The Temple was (and will be) staffed by kohanim, descendants of Aaron through a direct line of males. In order for a kohen to actually work in the Holy Temple, his genealogy would need to be verified with certainty, a test very few of today’s kohanim would pass. Additionally, they would need to wear the priestly garments, made of materials such as threads dyed with the special techeilet (blue) dye, and a selection of precious stones for the high priest’s breastplate—but the specifics of both are a matter of great debate.

As for how the Temple will ultimately get rebuilt, it is a matter of dispute between the classic commentators. Maimonides teaches that the Temple will be built by Moshiach himself, and in fact its construction will be one of the signs that he is indeed the Moshiach. One of the Moshiach's first orders will be to use his spirit of prophecy to discern who is a priest, as well as the tribal affiliation of each Israelite. Additionally, we will have the ashes of the red heifer to purify those who are impure.

Others are of the opinion that in the messianic era, the Holy Temple will descend ready-built from heaven. Despite the above complications, without even lifting a trowel, we can actually fulfill the mitzvah of building G‑d’s home. How so?

Our sages tells us that after G‑d revealed the dimensions of the future Temple to the prophet Ezekiel, Ezekiel turned to G‑d and asked, “Why should I tell this to the Jewish people, if they are in exile and will not build the Holy Temple now? Let me wait until they are redeemed, and then I will tell them this prophecy.”

G‑d replied: “Just because My children are in exile, should there be no building of My house?! Learning about the description of My house is as great as the building of it. Go and tell the Jewish people to occupy themselves in learning about the Holy Temple, and in that merit I will consider it as if they engaged in building it.”

Based on this, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, strongly encouraged learning the laws of the Holy Temple, especially during the period known as the “Three Weeks,” during which we mourn the destruction of the Temple. For through this learning, not only do we fulfill the commandment to build the Holy Temple (even during the exile), but we actually weaken the concept of its destruction—and we ultimately merit its rebuilding with the coming of the messianic era, any day now!

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I have been following the path of the Noahide as you have instructed and guided me. But once out of prison, I’m planning to convert to Judaism. This has been something I’ve been considering and mulling over for years, and I’ve made my decision. What I should expect? What will the process look like?
           Marc, Metropolitan Detention Center, Los Angeles CA

You need to know that the most important thing is that when you convert you will be Jewish. This is something that you will carry with you for the rest of your life. It is important to note that conversion to Judaism is a one-way street. Once you take the plunge (literally and figuratively), you’re a full-fledged member of the tribe forever.

Another important thing to take note of is that conversion is something that can be done only under the auspices of a bona fide beit din (Jewish court) made up of three G‑d-fearing, fully observant rabbis. When looking for a beit din to do your conversion, do your homework, and make sure the rabbis are indeed Torah- observant (Orthodox) and recognized as such by others.

The actual Conversion to Judaism has a few components, which are undertaken under the supervision of an established beit din:

Accepting the yoke of the commandments. When you convert, you must verbalize your commitment to live in accordance with all of the Torah’s commandments as they are explained in Torah law. It is not enough to commit to some or even most of the precepts; a convert must commit to every single one of them. Also, this needs to be done out of a sincere desire to serve G‑d as a Jew, not because of any other motive, such as the desire to marry a Jewish man or woman.

Immersion in the mikvah. A mikvah is a pool of natural water, usually rainwater. At your conversion, you will dunk into this spiritually cleansing bath. It is at this moment that you will accept the Torah upon yourself.

Circumcision. If you are a male, you will need to be circumcised. If you were circumcised as a baby, a symbolic drawing of blood is all that will be done at this point.

When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, a convert would bring a special sacrifice to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. When the Temple is rebuilt—which we expect will happen very soon—converts will again bring sacrifices.

Why Does It Take So Long? Because conversion is a lifetime commitment. This means that you really need to know what you’re getting into, and the Jewish community, as represented by the beit din, needs to know whom they are embracing as the newest member of the Jewish family. In order to make sure that everyone is on the same page, many beit dins have a regimen of study and observance they require potential converts to undertake before they will perform a conversion. You’ll often be required to live immersed within the Jewish community, observing all the mitzvahs, so that you get a firsthand feel of every aspect of a committed Jewish life.

In some cases this process might be overseen by a rabbi vouching for your sincerity, knowledge and commitment. Other beit dins may actually set a course of study and practice spread out over the several months or years, to make sure that you are really ready to convert.

The laws concerning conversion are derived from the instructions the children of Israel were given to prepare for receiving the Torah at Sinai. As the verse states, “One rule applies to the assembly, for yourselves and for the proselyte who resides [with you]; one rule applies throughout your generations—just as [it is] for you, so [it is] for the proselyte, before the L‑rd.”

Take a careful look at our nation’s conversion process at Sinai, and you will see all the elements there:

Circumcision: The children of Israel had to circumcise themselves in Egypt before partaking of the paschal lamb, as is clear from the verse in Exodus, “All uncircumcised males may not eat from it [the paschal lamb].”

Immersion: Later, at the foot of Mt. Sinai, we are told that Moses sprinkled the blood of the sacrifice upon the Jewish people as a preparation for receiving the Torah and becoming the Jewish nation. The rabbis received a tradition, “There is never a sprinkling without immersion.” Furthermore, we find that G‑d tells Moses that in preparation for receiving the Torah he should tell the Jewish people to “sanctify them today and tomorrow, and have them wash their garments.” According to tradition, “washing” is a reference to immersing in the mikvah.

Sacrifice: The third thing that the Jewish people did before fully converting was to offer a sacrifice at Mt. Sinai.

Beit Din: Additionally, the children of Israel were overseen by a rabbinical court, as the verse states, “I charged your judges at that time, saying: ‘Hear the causes between your brethren, and judge righteously between a man and his brother, and the stranger [ger, “convert”] that is with him.’”

Our sages say that a convert is someone who has always had a Jewish soul. That is why the Talmud refers to the convert as “a convert who comes to convert” rather than as “a gentile who comes to convert.” In other words, the convert was always a Jewish soul at his or her core.

Additionally, our sages compare a convert to a newborn child. The process of birth is the closest human beings can come to touching the divine. At the same time, it is a painful experience that sometimes seems like it is stretching on forever. Like a birthing mother, hang in there. The results are well worth it.

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I understand that the Torah tells us that you are not supposed to eat meat and dairy together, but why can’t I have a dairy dessert after I already finished eating my meat? What’s up with the six-hour buffer zone, and why is there no six-hour break between dairy and meat?
           Yosef, Metropolitan Detention Center, Los Angeles CA

In a somewhat cryptic discussion on this topic, the Talmud relates that the Babylonian sage Mar Ukva stated, “I am like vinegar, the son of wine. My father, if he would eat meat today, would wait until tomorrow to eat cheese. I, however, will not eat them during the same meal, but at another meal I will eat cheese.”

While this statement makes it clear that one can’t eat meat and dairy at the same meal, the Talmud itself does not actually explain the reason why we need to wait six hours. However, the commentaries offer a number of reasons:

Maimonides explains that we are concerned that meat may get stuck between the teeth. However, after six hours, it would deteriorate to the degree that it would not be considered meat. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as Rashi, explains that due to the fatty nature of meat, the meaty taste can remain in a person’s mouth for an extended period of time. If a person would eat dairy during this time, he would have the combined flavor of milk and meat in his mouth, which is prohibited. Some explain that it takes up to six hours to fully digest meat.

So why don’t we wait an equally long time after eating dairy products before eating meat? If we look at the reasons above, it makes sense: the taste of dairy is not as strong, and pieces of dairy food do not generally get stuck in one’s mouth. According to the Talmud, it’s sufficient if one eats or drinks something else in order to cleanse the mouth of any residual dairy foods before eating meat.

However, according to the Zohar, one should be careful to refrain from eating milk and meat not only in the same meal, and but also in the same hour. For this reason, it is the Chabad custom to refrain from eating meat for a full hour after eating dairy; other communities have a custom of waiting a half hour before eating meat.

This is true for the majority of dairy products. When it comes to eating hard cheeses, or cheeses with a very strong taste (e.g., parmesan and Swiss cheese), the custom is to wait six hours before eating meat.

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A friend of mine recently shared that when he was visiting the gravesite of my relative in a Jewish cemetery, he noticed that some tombstones had small rocks or pebbles on top of them. What is the reason for this?
           David, Federal Correction Institution, Danbury CT

There are a number of reasons given for this custom, both on a basic as well as a more esoteric level: By placing a rock or a pebble on top of the tombstone, we honor the deceased by letting people know that the gravesite has recently been visited. When others notice the rocks, they will see that this is a grave visitors frequent, and they, too, will take an interest in who is buried there and perhaps will visit the gravesite themselves.

On a more mystical level, the Talmud tells us that reading the inscription on a gravestone can adversely affect one’s Torah learning. While the Kabbalists explain that, in general, this warning only applies to inscriptions that protrude from the tombstone and not words engraved into it.

Rabbi Yosef Yuzpah (1570-1637) cites a tradition that placing a stone on the tombstone also helps to avoid any undesirable consequences that would result from reading a tombstone.

The placement of the stone serves as an invitation of sorts for a spark of the departed to come down and rest upon the tombstone for the duration of the visit.

While placing a rock on a tombstone is an old Jewish custom, placing flowers at a gravesite is not. In life, people may enjoy the beauty of their physical surroundings, but when they die, all of their material possessions and beauty are meaningless and left behind. It is only their accumulated spiritual wealth that remains immortal, just like a rock, which stays forever.

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If G-d will gather in all the exiles and bring them back to Israel, does it matter where one is living when Moshiach comes?
           Ilya, Wakulla Corr Institution, Crawfordville FL

As a rule, it will make no difference where a Jew is living at the time of Redemption. G-d will gather up all Jews, one by one, from the most distant and remote locations, and bring them to Israel with the Redemption. As the verse states in Isaiah, "And you will be gathered up one by one." Rashi in his commentary explains that G-d Himself will come to collect His children, wherever they might be found.

However, the manner of the ingathering will not be the same for all places. The Maharshal (Rabbi Shmuel Eiezer), in his commentary on Tractate Megillah, writes: "In the rebuilt Jerusalem of the future, all synagogues of the world will be joined to the Holy Temple." In other words, all the synagogues will miraculously be transported to Jerusalem, where they will be attached to the Temple. The Lubavitcher Rebbe adds: "The private homes... that have become permeated with the light of Chassidus and the holiness of the soul," they, too will be transported to Jerusalem.

In other words, one who is found in a synagogue or home that is suffused with holiness will not be uprooted, but will be transported to Israel inside his home or synagogue. However, one who is found somewhere else--in the street or other public place--will leave that area to go to Jerusalem.

What is the practical difference? In Jewish Law known as halachah, this distinction has certain practical ramifications. For example, halachah mandates that one who goes from one house to another in middle of eating must recite a new blessing after arriving at the second place, since moving from place to place constitutes an interruption.

Therefore, should the ingathering of the exiles transpire while you're in middle of eating, there is a difference in whether you will need to repeat the blessing. If you are in a synagogue or a home imbued with holiness, there will be no need to repeat the blessing, but otherwise you will need to do so.

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I have learned so much since arriving in prison. Being in contact with you and with other inmate who know more then me, has opened my eyes to the teachings of the Torah. Can you explain though why is there a ritual way of slaughtering and preparing all kosher animals except for fish? No one here seems to know.
           Michael, Federal Corr Institution, Maxwell AL

Thank you for your interest. When the Jews were in the desert and started complaining about the lack of meat, Moses turned to G‑d saying, “If sheep and cattle were slaughtered for them, would it suffice for them? If all the fish of the sea were gathered for them, would it suffice for them?”

From the fact that the verse specifies slaughter in reference to sheep and cattle, but gathering in reference to fish, we learn that it is enough to simply gather fish out of water without slaughtering them.

However, the question remains. What is the reason that fish are treated differently than other animals?

A somewhat cryptic Talmudic passage seems to address this question:

A Galilean lecturer expounded: Cattle were created out of the dry earth, and are rendered kosher by the severing of both organs [of the neck]; fish were created out of the water, and are rendered fit without any ritual slaughtering; birds were created out of mud and are therefore rendered fit by the cutting of just one organ.

There are a number of explanations for this fascinating piece of Talmud. Here is one of them:

In Jewish teachings, as well as in ancient philosophy, all of creation is divided into four elemental categories: fire, air, water and earth. The earth is considered to be the lowest of the elements. Then comes water, which is more refined; followed by air, which hovers above the water; and finally fire, which constantly strives to reach higher.

The Talmud seems to be saying that the kosher requirements depend on how an animal was created. Cattle (and to a lesser degree birds) were created from the “earth,” and therefore require slaughter. Fish were created from the more elevated element of “water,” and therefore don’t require any type of slaughter.

The great Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (the Ari, 1534–1572) taught that every creation possesses a “spark” of divine energy that constitutes its essence and soul. When a person utilizes something toward a G‑dly end, he or she releases this divine spark, realizing the purpose for which it was created. Thus, one who makes a blessing, eats, and then uses the energy from the food to perform a mitzvah elevates the spark of divinity that is the essence of the food.

But some divine sparks are harder to get to than others. Because cattle were created from earth—which is considered the coarsest of the elements—they require more preparation to be elevated, and must be slaughtered according to Jewish ritual. Fish, on the other hand, were created from the more refined element of water. Therefore, merely gathering them (drawing them out of the water) suffices, and all one needs to do in order to elevate the G‑dly spark in fish is to make a blessing, and then use the energy from what you have eaten for G‑dly pursuits.

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Why do you leave the "O" out of G-d in your writings?
           Peter, Federal Corr Institution, Morgantown, WV

The third of the Ten Commandments states: One shall not take the name of G-d in vain. Therefore, writing the name of G-d in any form (including English) is not allowed. Also, being that there is a problem with someone disposing of or desecrating in any way a document that has the name of G-d written on it, we use a dash in the middle so as not to write the full name of G-d.

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Someone pointed out to me that the Talis I am wearing, and the same with everyone's Talis, that it has to have four corners, why?
           Maxwell, Federal Corr Institution Med, Coleman FL

The simplest answer is that the verse states, “You shall make yourself twisted threads, on the four corners of your garment with which you cover yourself.” You ask a good question, why four?

Immediately following the commandment of the tallit, the Torah states, “I am the L‑rd, your G‑d, who took you out of the land of Egypt to be your G‑d . . . ,” thereby linking this mitzvah to the Exodus.

The great Torah commentator known as Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) quotes a teaching that the corners of the tallit are alluded to in a verse describing the Exodus: “I carried you on the wings (כַּנְפֵי) of eagles.” The word kanaf, “wing,” can also mean “corner.” As for why there are specifically four corners, Rashi goes on to explain that they correspond to the four expressions of redemption associated with the Exodus: “I will take you out . . . I will save you . . . I will redeem you . . . I will take you . . .”

But what does the tallit have to do with the Exodus? The Torah tells us that the purpose of the tallit is to remind us of all the mitzvahs. The Midrash shares a fascinating insight into why this is so. Each letter in the Hebrew alphabet has a corresponding numerical value. The numerical values of the five letters that comprise the Hebrew word tzitzit (the tassels on the corners of the tallit) add up to 600:

‮09 = צ‭‭ ‮01 = י‭‭
‮09 = צ‭
‭ ‮01 = י‭
‭‭ ‮004 = ת‭
‭‭ ‭
Add the eight strings and five knots of each tassel, and the total is 613, the exact number of mitzvahs there are in the Torah.

Additionally, our sages tell us that affixing and wearing tzitzit on the tallit is equal, in a certain sense, to all of the mitzvahs of the Torah (similar to what is said regarding idolatry and Shabbat).

G‑d introduced the Ten Commandments (and by extension, all of the commandments) with the words "I am the L‑rd, your G‑d, who took you out of the land of Egypt.” G‑d is not some distant creator of the universe who is giving us commands. Rather, He gives us the mitzvahs as our personal and caring G‑d, the G‑d who took us out of Egyptian bondage and claimed us as His nation. Furthermore, G‑d is telling us that our bond is a supra-natural bond, forged by the miracles He performed for us in Egypt.

It is for this reason that a tallit must have four corners, corresponding to the four promises of Exodus. As a representative of the 613 mitzvahs, the tallit is inherently connected to the Exodus that gave birth to all the mitzvahs.

On a more mystical plane, the Kabalah book known as Tikkunei Zohar explains at length that the four tassels of the tallit correspond to the four “beasts” that carry the supernal chariot described by the prophet Ezekiel. By fulfilling this mitzvah, we are building a throne for G‑d, as it were.

The four corners of the tallit don’t connect us just to our past redemption, but to our future redemption as well. In the messianic era G‑d will gather us from the “four corners (kanfot) of the world,” corresponding to the four corners of the tallit.

May we merit the revelation of Moshiach any day soon!

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I am from a small town and work not far. But since arriving to this prison, I have encountered Chassidic Jews that wear long sidelocks (also knows as Peyot), why not the shorter version which most have?
           Michael, Federal Correction Institution, Fort Dix, NJ

First, I should mention that leaving peyote (sideburns) is a Jewish thing and has nothing to do with Chassidim. The Torah states, “Do not round off [the hair] at the edges of your heads.” The Talmud explains that the term “edges” refers to the hair between the ears and the temples. “Rounding out the edges” refers to removing the sideburns so that there is a straight hairline from the forehead to behind the ears. This prohibition applies only to men.

Like many laws in the Torah, the verse does not spell out the exact reason for this prohibition. Nevertheless, some commentaries explain that since this mitzvah is placed among other prohibitions related to idolatry, and since many idol-worshipers used to cut off the hair on the sides of their heads while leaving the hair on top to grow, we are required to maintain a physical appearance that distinguishes us from idol-worshipers.

Others, however, are of the opinion that the prohibition of shaving off the sideburns is included in the category of mitzvahs called chukim, decrees, and the exact reason for this mitzvah has not been revealed to us.

Now that we’ve established that fact that not shaving off one’s sideburns is a mitzvah, we can turn to what prompted your question to begin with—the various lengths and styles of peyot.

It is generally accepted that the width of the peyot area extends from the forehead to behind the ear, including the temple. As for the length of the peyot area, it is a matter of dispute. Some hold that it extends until below the ear, while others hold that it extends to the side of the ear, i.e., “the place where the upper and lower jawbones meet.”

Although one is permitted to trim the peyot, some, especially certain chassidic people, have the custom of never cutting their peyot. One of the sources for this custom is a directive that the chassidic master Rabbi Meir of Premishlan gave to Rabbi Sholom Mordechai ha-Kohen Schwadron (Maharsham) when he was a young boy: that he should never cut his peyot, and would thereby merit long life.

However, it is not clear that this instruction was ever meant to be anything more than a personal directive. Additionally, it is known that for Kabbalistic reasons, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (Arizal) would make sure to trim his peyot with scissors so that the hairs of the peyot not mix with those of the beard, since they correspond to different mystical attributes. In light of this, many—including Chabad—have the custom specifically to trim the peyot.

Throughout the ages, and most recently by the Nazis during the Holocaust, much animosity and torture was directed specifically at the Jewish peyot—for the peyot are a sign that differentiates and clearly marks the Jew. However, instead of being embarrassed by them, many Jews literally gave their lives for their peyot, staying proud Jews even to the last moment of their lives. Indeed, Yemenite Jews, instead of calling them peyot, call them simanim, “signs,” for they are signs that we proudly wear, proclaiming to all that we are Jewish.

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Some of the Rabbis when they visit us, amongst each other speak in Yiddish, which I know is a form of German. Why are Jewish people living in the United States speaking German? Can’t they speak in Hebrew?
           Michael, Federal Prison Camp, Otisville NY

While you ask about Yiddish, it should be noted that Jews speaking their own special, non-Hebrew language extends far beyond Yiddish. There is Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Jewish Aramaic, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-French, Judeo-Provençal, Judeo-Persian, Jewish Malayalam and many others. But it is true that Yiddish is the most common one, and is somewhat unique in that it has outlasted many of these now extinct languages.

In order to understand why Jewish people tenaciously hold on to Yiddish, let me first share some history.

Historical Perspective: While the exact origins of the Yiddish language are still shrouded in some uncertainty, all agree that it has its origins in the 9th–10th centuries, when the first Jews settled in the Rhineland and the Palatinate (in present-day Germany). While Hebrew, the “holy tongue,” was reserved for spiritual purposes, for common speech the Jews at that time had been using Aramaic mixed with other languages. After settling in the Rhineland, where Germanic languages were developing, the Jews concurrently developed their own unique language, variably called Ashkenaz and Jargon, but most commonly called Yiddish (“Jewish”). So, although Yiddish is linguistically similar to German, it is not German any more than German is Yiddish.

When Jewish people migrated eastward, they carried Yiddish along with them. By the onset of World War II, there were about 11-13 million Yiddish speakers.

In 1981, the Lubavitcher Rebbe gave a fascinating address in honor of the first publication of the Tanya with a Yiddish translation and commentary.

The Rebbe explained that on the one hand the very reason that Yiddish, as opposed to ancient or biblical Hebrew, became the common spoken language was because Jews generally refrained from using Hebrew, the “holy tongue,” for common, non-holy, everyday speech.

Unlike other languages, the very words and letters of biblical Hebrew are holy. Hebrew is the language used for creating the world, and it is the language of choice that G‑d uses to reveal himself to the prophets. It is for this reason that, according to Jewish law, one shouldn’t use biblical Hebrew when speaking in jest. Additionally, although strictly speaking there is no prohibition to do so, Jewish law advises that one who is pious should be careful to not talk in biblical Hebrew, even regarding everyday matters, in a bathhouse or an unclean place.

So Jews over the ages usually reserved Hebrew for holy, spiritual speech, and they chose a secondary language for common speech.

Yet, on the other hand, said the Rebbe, the Yiddish language was used for Torah study and mitzvah observance for over a thousand years, giving it a measure of sanctity beyond other non-Hebrew languages, similar to the holiness conferred to a physical object used for a mitzvah.

The concept of Jews sticking to their own unique language is not new (if we can call something millennia-old “new”); after all, the Midrash relates that the Jews were redeemed from Egypt in the merit of three things, one of which was that they didn’t change their unique spoken language.

So when you hear Jews speaking Yiddish, know that they are doing something that we’ve been doing long before there was a country called Germany, and will continue to do long into the future.

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I was never orthodox and upon going to prison, Fort Dix in this case, I am given for the Sabbath challah bread braided and would like to know the reason. No one here knew.
           Elliot, Federal C