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In all intellectual pursuits, in all religious philosophies, we see only an expansion of the inner point of faith. Clear, natural awe of heaven, in order to expand its natural boundaries, to open the power that is stored in it, requires many branches of study: actions and introspection, intellect and emotions.

Therefore, this is what the success of these pursuits depend on: that they be well connected to the living, natural point of faith in the soul of a person, which lightens the courageous souls of Israel in particular; this is the holy point of faith in God, the true foundation for awe of heaven. It is to this inner point of faith, in this inner drive, with alive and clear feeling, majestic and focused by all the strongest laws of life, that all the soul, with all its feelings, powers, ways, inclinations, be tied and clung with it.

Rav Avraham Yitschak HaKohen Kook

13 October in History

In 1796, censorship of Jewish books in Russia became official policy today

In 1843, B’nai Brith was founded under the leadership of Henry Jones at Sinsheimer’s cafe on Essex Street in New York. Its original mission was the maintenance of orphanages and homes for the elderly and widows. It extended its work to many spheres of American Jewish life, including combating anti-Semitism. (A.D.L.) and working with students on campus (Hillel).

5 Cheshvan in History

Today marks the passing of Rav Moshe Birdogo, son of Rav Avraham. Rav Moshe resided in western Morocco and was known as the Rosh Mashbir (1730)

Rava would say to his students, “I beg of you, do not inherit two portions of Gehinom (hell).”

Rashi: Two portions of Gehinom: to be involved in studying Torah in this world and not fulfilling it will cause you to inherit Gehinom at death; and in your life you did not get pleasure from your toil.

Yoma Chapter 7
22 July in History

Birthdate of the poet Emma Lazarus 1849. She became famous as the author of “The New Colossus” written in 1883, four years before her death. This poem appears at the base of the Statue of Liberty and is a celebration of America as the land of the immigrant. The poem read:

The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Emma Lazarus, 1883

To give one a sense of the times in which she lived the New York Times described her not as a Jew, but as who belonged “to one of the best known and oldest Hebrew families of the city…”

10 Av in History

Rav Don Yitzchak Abarbanel (1437-1508). Abrabanel was born in Lisbon, Portugal, to an illustrious Sephardic family which traced its lineage back to David Hamelech. His grandfather, Rav Shmuel, escaped from Seville, Spain, when the Catolics destroyed the Jewish quarter, mudering many Jews.

When Rav Yitzchak was only 20, he completed his first book, Ateres Zekeinim, and began to work on his famous commentary on the Torah. In the Summer of 1471, following the victory of King Alfonso V over Morocco, an emissary of the Moroccan Jewish community, Emmanuel ben Yitzchak, approached Don Yitzchak Abrabanel with a plea to assist in the ransom of 250 Jewish would-be slaves. The Abarbavnel was not only successful, he added his own funds to supply food and medicine.

Abarbanel served as treasurer to King Alfonso until he was forced to move to Castile (Spain) and eventually entered the service of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1484. In March 1492, an edict was issued expelling the Jews from Spain, after the conquest of Granade. Despite his political influence he was unable to prevent the expulsion in 1492 and refused the king’s offer to remain at his post, choosing instead to throw in his lot with his people. On Tisha B’Av, he led 300,000 Jews out of the country. Only 10% reached safe shores.

Rav Yitzchak found asylum in Naples, where he remained for seven years, until the French invaded. He then fled to Corfu and finally – in 1503 – to Venice, where he died. Most of his writings were composed in his later years when he was free of governmental responsibilities.

Rav Yannai would remark, “What a waste to one who builds a gate to a court yard but has no court yard!”

Rashi: The Torah is like a gate that one needs to enter into having awe of heaven. A person must have some measure of awe of heaven prior to studying Torah.

Yoma Chapter 7


19 July in History

The Roman Emperor Julian, known to Christians as Julian the Apostate, left Constantinople and arrived in Antioch to prepare for the invasion of Persia. While preparing for the invasion he met Jewish leaders to whom he promised he would re-build the Temple. Julian’s short reign would come to an end in the following year and nothing came of his plans for the Third Temple.

8 Av in History

In 1312 BCE, the Spies dispatched 40 days earlier by Moses to tour the Promised Land return to Israel’s encampment in the desert, bearing a huge cluster of grapes and other lush fruits. But even as they praise the land’s fertility, they terrify the people with tales of mighty giant warriors dwelling there and assert that the land is unconquerable.

In 67 CE, fighting breaks out inside the besieged city of Jerusalem between Jewish factions divided on the question of whether or not to fight the Roman armies encircling the city from without. One group sets fire to the city’s considerable food stores, consigning its population to starvation until the fall of Jerusalem three years later.

Today marks the passing of Rav Shimon Agasi who was born in Baghdad (1852-1914). His family originated in Persia. In Persian, his name Agasi, means “commissioner,” a position some of his forebears, who were very wealthy and influential, had occupied in their native land.

Rav Shimon’s father, Rav Aharon, had been a very successful businessman who imported paint from India. At the age of eleven, Shimon began to study in Baghdad’s Medrash Talmud Torah, founded by Rav Abdallah Somech.

It developed rapidly to become the top Torah institution in the city, where over three thousand students studied free-of-charge. Among those who learned there were Rav Eliyahu Mani (the chief rav of Chevron), the Ben Ish Chai and Rav Salman Mutzafi.

In 1865, a man, named Yitzchak Luria, came to Baghdad and attempted to open an Alliance school, which offered secular studies and tried to modernize the lifestyles of its students. However, Baghdad’s sages placed a cheirem (banishment) on the school and thwarted his efforts.

From Medrash Talmud Torah, Rav Shimon proceeded to its adult division, Beit Zilcha, where he became one of its finest students. His main mentors in Beit Zilcha were Rav Abdallah Somech’s two best students, Rav Shmuel Majled and Rav Nissim HaLevi. At the age of 17, Rav Shimon began to study Kabbalah from Rav Chaim Vital’s Eitz Chaim. A number of years later, he joined the Chacham Yitzchak yeshivah, founded by Rav Yitzchak Berabi Mordechai Sasson, another of Baghdad’s great sages.

Among its illustrious students were Rav Yehuda Petaya, Rav David Sofer, Rav Rafael Shlomo Laniado, Rav Nissim Kadouri and Rav Yitzchak Nissim. In 1898, his oldest son, Aharon, passed away on Purim of that year.

Rav Agasi was the author of Shem MiShimon.

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November 2020