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Ask the Aish Rabbi a Question

Recent Questions:

The Name "Eliezer"

My Bar Mitzvah is coming up in a few months, and I have to prepare a speech to say in front of the whole congregation. The rabbi suggested that I talk about the meaning of my Hebrew name, Eliezer. Can you help?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

The first biblical record of the name Eliezer is in reference to Abraham's servant (Genesis 15:2). It is a beautiful name, meaning “God is my helper.”

Here is an inspiring Talmudic story about Rabbi Eliezer Ben Hurkenas, which you may enjoy incorporating into your Bar Mitzvah speech.

One day, Eliezer was plowing on the mountain, and began to cry. Eliezer's father, Hurkenas, a leading rabbi of his generation, said to him, "Why are you crying? If it's hot up on the mountain, I'll move you down to the plain." So Eliezer began to plow in the plain and cried there too.

"My son, why are you crying?" Hurkenas asked.

"I want to learn Torah."

"Study Torah? Come on Eliezer, you're 28 years old! It's time to get married and start a family!"

But Eliezer would not stop crying. He cried until Elijah the Prophet came to him and asked, "Eliezer, why are you crying?"

"I want to learn Torah."

"Very well. Go to Jerusalem and seek out Rebbe Yochanan Ben Zakkai."

So Eliezer went to Rebbe Yochanan Ben Zakkai, the greatest sage of his generation. And you guessed it – Eliezer was crying.

"Why are you crying?" Rebbe Yochanan asked.

"I want to learn Torah."

"Didn't they teach you to say the Shema, the Amidah and Grace After Meals?"

"No."

"Come, I'll teach you."

And so the great sage, Rebbe Yochanan Ben Zakkai, taught Eliezer the ABC's of Judaism. Then he said, "Very good, Eliezer. We were successful. Now it's time for you to go."

When Eliezer heard this, he cried.

"Why are you crying?"

"I want to learn Torah."

"Alright, I'll teach you more Torah."

(Meanwhile, since Eliezer had failed to return home, Hurkenas got angry and cut off his inheritance.)

Rebbe Yochanan taught Eliezer the Five Books of Moses and the Oral Law. After this, Rebbe Yochanan said, "Eliezer, it is time for you to go."

Eliezer cried: "I want to learn Torah!"

And so it went, until one day... Eliezer was learning in the back of the yeshiva study hall, when unexpectedly, his father Hurkenas walked in. At which point, Rebbe Yochanan Ben Zakkai told Eliezer to move to the front and recite his Torah aloud.

After Eliezer had finished, Hurkenas stood up, and beaming with pride, said: "Eliezer, at first I wanted to give my property to all of my sons but you. Now I am going to give everything I have to you and you alone!"

Eliezer replied, "My father, if I wanted gold and silver, I would have stayed working on the farm. All I want is Torah." And Rabbi Eliezer Ben Hurkenas went on to become the leader of his generation, and the teacher of the great Rebbe Akiva.

There are many difficulties with this story:

1) How could it be that Hurkanas, a great rabbi himself, did not teach his son Torah? Even the simplest Jew teaches his son the Shema, the Amidah and Grace After Meals. Furthermore, Hurkanas was a wealthy man. He could have hired the best teachers in the world for his son!

2) Why did Hurkanas make his son do the menial labor of plowing? He could have hired 100 workers to plow, and given his son a supervisory position.

3) Why did Elijah the Prophet tell Eliezer to go learn basic Judaism from such an esteemed rabbi as Rebbe Yochanan ben Zakkai? Any intermediate yeshiva student could have done that!

4) And finally, why was Eliezer crying all the time?!

There is only one answer that explains all of these difficulties. Rabbi Eliezer Ben Hurkanas had a head made of straw. He was extremely slow.

Of course, Hurkanas had hired a teacher for his son. He got him the best teacher there was. He was rich and could afford anything. But even the best teacher could not get Shema into the thick head of Eliezer. So what should his father do – make him a foreman? No way! Give him a plow. At least he'll be productive.

But Eliezer cried. He wanted to learn! His father told him, "We've tried everything, son. Forget it." The only option left was the leader of the generation. Only someone with such genius could stand a chance of getting through to Eliezer. That was why Elijah sent him to Rebbe Yochanan Ben Zakkai.

Rebbe Yochanan struggled and achieved a major accomplishment: He taught Eliezer the basics and was then ready to send him home. But Eliezer cried for more, and Rebbe Yochanan decided to take a chance. It had worked once, maybe he could teach him more. And so it went, until Eliezer Ben Hurkanas became one of the greatest scholars of his generation.

From all of this we see that even the slowest of the slow can achieve greatness. The secret? You have to want it so badly that you will cry for it. This was the merit of Eliezer Ben Hurkanas.

So remember: Reaching great heights does not depend upon our natural talents and capabilities. Everyone can become great. Everything we accomplish is a gift from God, and God will give us whatever we need to succeed. He is just waiting for us to make the effort.

Mazel tov on your Bar Mitzvah. I am certain that with the trait of persistence, you can become as great as the Talmudic sage whose name you bear.

Second Class Converts?

I am 28 years old, born in Italy to a Catholic family with Jewish origins on my father's side. I decided to become Jewish, and after a long process, I converted in Israel three years ago. To this day, those who know me call me the "Ger Tzedek" (righteous convert).

This is my problem! I hate this word "Ger!" I am Jewish just like any other Jew. I believe in every letter of my beloved Torah but I cannot understand how the Torah permits me to suffer so much. I even read that there are restrictions in appointing converts to certain leadership positions – just like in America where only someone born in the USA can become president. What does this mean? Is this proof that other Jews consider me a second class citizen?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

First of all, the Torah does not view you in any way whatsoever as a second class Jew. You are as much a Jew as Abraham, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah – who were all converts!

As for leadership positions, the fact is that I am also restricted, because – although I was born Jewish – I am not a priest (kohen), and am not descended from the royal line of King David.

Maimonides (Laws of Torah Study 3:1) explains:

Three crowns were conferred upon the Jewish People: the Crown of Torah, the Crown of Priesthood, and the Crown of Royalty. Aaron merited the Crown of Priesthood, as it says (Numbers 25:13), "And it will be an eternal covenant of priesthood for [Aaron] and his descendants after him." David merited the Crown of Royalty, as it says (Psalms 89:37), "His seed will continue forever, and his throne will be as the sun before Me." But the Crown of Torah is set aside, waiting and ready for each Jew, as it says (Deut. 33:4), "Moses taught us the Torah, it is an inheritance for the entire congregation of Jacob."

As proof of this principle, the great rabbis Shemaya and Avtalyon were converts. The greatest Talmudic sage, Rebbe Akiva, was descended from converts. And Onkelos, who wrote the Aramaic translation which is printed in virtually every Hebrew Bible, was himself a convert.

As for people calling you "Ger Tzedek," the Talmud clearly states (under the mitzvah of "onat devarim" – hurting others with words) that it is forbidden to remind a convert of his past. If somebody does so, you can gently point them to the sources, as recorded in the Sefer HaChinuch (mitzvah 63).

May your Jewish life be forever rich and sweet.

READERS' COMMENT

From: RobbyCicco@cs.com

Regarding the convert who complained about being called "Ger Tzedek" (righteous convert).

I too am a "Jew by Choice" and my greatest dream is to be regarded as a "Ger Tzedek." Rather than bemoan one's fate, one should consider what an inspiration being a Ger can be to others who maybe take their heritage for granted. I now teach Hebrew school in addition to my regular job and I always tell my students that I "chose" to be a Jew. I hope a lifetime of learning and deeds will someday truly qualify me for the title of "Ger Tzedek!"

Blue Techelet Thread

I was in Israel recently and saw some religious men wearing tzitzit strings with a blue thread. I thought the strings were supposed to be white. What was this blue?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

The Torah prescribes a blue dye called "techelet" to be used as one of the strings on the Tzitzit, and also used for dying priestly garments. (see Exodus 25:4 and Numbers 15:38)

However, Tzitzit are still fit for use even if they lack the blue string.

Techelet was a bluish color, obtained from the fluid of a sea creature called the chilazon (Tosefta Menachot 9:6). It is found on the coast of northern Israel, though there is a disagreement among scholars regarding what the chilazon actually is. Some say it is a snail, others say a squid, and some claim it is another type of mollusk.

At any rate, this particular dye was very precious and because of its value, the Romans (who conquered Israel in 63 BCE) seized control of its usage. This caused the Jewish dyers to go underground. By 639 CE, at the time of the Arab conquest, the secret of techelet was lost all together.

In the 1850s, Rabbi Gershon Henoch Leiner, the Radzyner Rebbe, began to search for the long lost chilazon. What he came up with was a type of squid that fit the Talmud's description. Within a few years, thousands of the rebbe's followers were wearing techelet.

However, in 1913 Rabbi Isaac Herzog (the Chief Rabbi of Ireland and later the Chief Rabbi of Israel) discovered that the techelet dye of the Radzyner Rebbe included iron fillings in the process. Rabbi Herzog ruled that this makes the dye synthetic – and thus unfit for use. Nevertheless, there are still people today who wear the Techelet of the Radzyner Rebbe.

As Rabbi Herzog continued his research, he found that the French zoologist Henri de Lacase-Duthiers had discovered a mollusk called murex trunculus that could create a blue dye. Subsequent research has prompted other Jews to use Rabbi Herzog's techelet.

Today, however, the majority of Jews still do not wear Techelet because we don't have a bona fide tradition coming from the time of the Sages of exactly which animal is used.

Next time you are in Israel, you can stop by the "Temple Institute" located in the Old City of Jerusalem to see examples of wool dyed from the various sea creatures thought to be the Chilazon. To learn more, go to www.temple.org.il and www.tekhelet.co.il.

There are many esoteric meanings to the techelet thread. The Midrash says, "Whoever observes the mitzvah of tzitzit is considered as if he greeted the Divine Presence, for techelet resembles the sea, and the sea resembles the sky, and the sky resembles God's holy throne." (Sifrei – Shelach) Thus the techelet thread is a method of gaining the highest levels of spirituality.

May the Almighty reveal the secret of the chilazon, speedily in our days!