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Recent Questions

Completing a Book of the Torah

I am a lay leader at my temple. Since our rabbi is away, I will be leading this week’s Shabbat service. I have beginner-intermediate skills for chanting Torah. Your pasha page was very helpful. Could you define the words "Chazak Chazak Venis-chazeik,” so that I can explain it to the congregation?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Upon completing a public reading of one of the Five Books of Moses, everybody stands up and shouts "Chazak! Chazak! Venis-chazeik!" which translate as "Be strong! Be strong! And may we be strengthened!"

This Shabbos, we will be completing the book of Exodus in the synagogue and saying these words.

Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin (in "To Pray as a Jew") explains that this is a cry of encouragement to continue with the reading of the next book, and to return to this one again in due course. The triple use of the word "Chazak" may symbolize past, present and future.

Be strong and may you be strengthened!


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.


Pop Music

For the past few months, my colleague at work has been listening to Christian pop music. Over time, I have grown to enjoy it very much and even sing along! My conscious is telling me this is not okay. Any advice would be appreciated.

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

In Judaism, music and song is considered one of the most powerful forces that exist to affect the hearts of human beings. The entirety of Torah is referred to as a song. When Moses was commanded to write the first Torah scroll, he was told "So now, write this song…" (Deut. 31:19). This literally is referring to Deuteronomy chapter 32 which is an actual song, but is further referring to the entirety of Torah. This is part of the reason why the Torah scroll is not read in the synagogue like a book, rather the reader chants the Torah like a song. Every word of the Torah is accompanied by a note to be sung.

This is for a number of reasons. Firstly, the entirety of Torah comprises a giant symphony. Every detail represents a type of musical instrument, each one necessary for the wholeness of the great concerto.

Another reason is that music goes straight to the heart. In Judaism the heart is the place where the physical and spiritual aspects of a human being fuse into one existence. The expression of that dual existence is in the power of speech, which was launched at the moment of the combination of soul to body. The zenith of speech is song, which draws upon the deepest connection of body and soul within the heart.

We learn this from the classical commentary of Rashi, explaining the profound, prophetic song sung by Moses and the Jews upon witnessing the splitting of the sea. "Then Moses and the Children of Israel sang this song…" (Exodus 15:1) "Then," says Rashi, means they harnessed a wellspring of emotion and thoughts from their hearts to sing this song. The theme of that song is the fusion of God's presence and providence to the mundane world, which is the cosmic mirror of the same fusion within the heart of man, the microcosm of the universe. The source for such a song is within the depths of the heart, and hence goes directly into the hearts of the listeners; heart to heart.

The Kabbalistic teachings are the most profound explanation of the deepest connection between the Shechina, Divine Presence, and the physical world, the "heart" of the universe. This is why Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna (18th century), one of the greatest Kabbalists of all time, proclaimed that only one who has the deepest understanding of music can truly understand the Kabbalah.

Maimonides explains that the prophets, to reach the level of connection necessary to reach prophecy, would play or listen to music. David played for King Saul to bring him to those levels, and later King David himself wrote an entire book of Psalms, prayers through music. The sages teach that Messsiah will teach us the "eighth tone," which will radically change music to become a Divine connection.

This explains why nations have national anthems, and armies march into battle amid musical accompaniments. Music has a profoundly influential as well as defining affect. Rock music, with its heavy emphasis on base notes, actually brings out the baser, more physical side of a person.

You should not underestimate the affect the Christian music can a will have upon your Jewish soul. I would not attribute this to "guilt," rather to a recognition your soul has that it is being watered by a source that doesn't jive with its essence, and will probably, if continued, have an effect you don't desire.


Due to limited resources, the Ask the Rabbi service is intended for Jews of little background with nowhere else to turn. People with questions in Jewish law should consult their local rabbi. Note that this is not a homework service!

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