Shavuos at Congregation Beth Jacob

Shavuos at Congregation Beth Jacob

What it’s like to listen to lectures on Judaism from midnight to 6 a.m.

Congregation Beth Jacob hosted an all-night study marathon to celebrate Shavuos.
Congregation Beth Jacob hosted an all-night study marathon to celebrate Shavuos.

On Thursday night, May 25, the first night of Shavuos, Congregation Beth Jacob presented a night of Jewish learning. It began at midnight and continued all night long until about 6 a.m. It is traditional to do this on the first night of Shavuos. This AJT writer attended the Torah classes, but there were other group sessions at the Kollel attached to the synagogue, and a 90-minute study group. This is but a brief summary of what was shared:

12:00 am — Rabbi Ilan D. Feldman spoke about Jewish observance. He said the shul stands for Shabbos observance, keeping kosher and other Jewish observances, but its members need not commit to that. The shul does not invite you to imitate any observance. You come to that on your own. The rabbi suggested that observance should be creative, building a relationship with G-d, and not following observance as a slave. He indicated that there are five areas of observance where a Jew can be a slave. The first is Torah study. You don’t study it because you are required to as a slave, but because you want to. The second area is prayer. Don’t mouth the words in rote fashion. Pray slowly as though you are talking to G-d. The third area is Shabbos. Don’t do it as a slave because you have to do it without enjoying it but do it as a source of inspiration. The fourth area is that we should not be satisfied with only ourselves. We need to reach out to other people. to be a nation so the world will know that there is a G-d. The fifth area is the Jewish family. Do we live in a house or a home? As a house, it is just to recharge our batteries for the outside world. As a home, it is a place to become a sanctuary, a source of strength to build a relationship with G-d. Rabbi Feldman observed that even though the Torah was received at Mt. Sinai, whenever you study the Torah, it is as though you are directly receiving it from Sinai. Mt. Sinai was a single event, but the shul is dedicated for continuously speaking to G-d. When you study Torah, you are at Mt. Sinai, so your study should be with awe and reverence. Finally, the study of Torah is not only to learn it, but to teach it to others.

12:45 a.m. — Rabbi Mark Goldfeder spoke about Jewish decision making. He quoted Justice Felix Frankfurter, a member of the U.S. Supreme Court, who said, “As a member of the Court, I am not justified in writing my private opinions of policy into the Constitution…It should be emphasized that one’s own opinion about the wisdom or evil of a law should be excluded altogether when one is doing one’s duty on the bench.” With regard to Judaism, the Torah is our Constitution, and it should guide us regarding our Judaism. Rabbi Goldfeder referred to a statement by Rashi who said that if two Jews argue about Jewish law or forbidden or permitted matters, and each explains their logic honestly, then there is no falsehood. One argument can be more lenient, while the other can be more strict, and, at times, one perspective can be more relevant, and at other times, the other will be because times can change. Rabbi Goldfeder provided one picture that can be seen as the side view of a young woman or the face of an old woman. Both pictures are right. In the end, the majority opinion is the one that prevails for the time being, but the minority opinion should also be presented.

1:30 am — Rabbi Aryeh Holzer spoke about whether you are allowed to drink milk. For kosher meat from a cow, the cow has to be checked if it has adhesions in its lungs, which, if there, makes the cow treifah. He said that in one U.S. recent study, 80 percent of cows on dairy farms had adhesions and are considered treifah. That occurs because of the way in which U.S. cows are raised – in barns, force fed and not allowed to roam freely. The question then is whether observant Jews should drink milk from cows. He pointed out a question asked by R. Schachter — how can we rely on the presumption of kashrut for milk obtained from multiple animals since some of the cows are not acceptable for kashrut? The answer is — if you know the specific cow where the milk came from and the cow once slaughtered had adhesions, then you should not drink that cow’s milk or eat any cheese from that cow going back three days, although some argue as long as three years. However, in the U.S., milk is a mixture of hundreds or thousands of cows and we cannot know from which cows the milk comes from, so we act as if all of the milk is kosher.

2:15 a.m. — R. Meir Brecher spoke of how the day and night are defined according to halachah. The day and night are defined based on astronomical times. The day occurs when the first light appears over the horizon, or the time when there is light visible across the entire eastern horizon. It also has to be the time when there is enough light to recognize a person at a short distance. The day can also be defined as “when the sun begins to appear over the horizon.”
The more difficult time is defining when night occurs, which is important in deciding when Shabbos is over. According to the Gemara, the explanation of the Torah, one rabbi argues that it should be 72 minutes after the sun sets below the horizon, while another rabbi argues that it should be 13.5 minutes after the sunset. Others argue that night occurs when you can see three stars in the sky. It is clear that night varies according to the geographical location. The closer you are to the equator, the faster the sunset. In Lyuban, Russia, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein argued that night occurs 72 minutes after sunset, and 50 minutes in New York. In Atlanta, it is about 30-35 minutes after sunset.
Finally, different synagogues have set nighttime differently on their calendars dependent upon who they consider the authority.

3:00 am — Rabbi Michael Berger spoke about why it took 49 days after the Jews left Egypt to reach Mt. Sinai and receive the Torah. He said that the Jews could have reached Mt. Sinai in three days, but G-d saw that they were not ready for the Torah. The Jews left Egypt with an Egyptian mentality as slaves, and they needed to go through a transition of change to be ready to accept the Torah as Jews, and not as slaves. The Jews complained at the Red Sea that the Egyptians were coming after them to kill them, so G-d saved them. They then complained that they had no water, so G-d provided them with water. They then complained that they had no food, so G-d gave them manna. And then the Jews battled with Amalek and G-d allowed them to prevail.
The point that Rabbi Berger made is that personal change takes time and cannot occur quickly. This is true not just for the Jews receiving the Torah, but for any change we desire to make.

4:30 a.m. — Rabbi Nachi Friedman discussed the occasions when we say the Shehechiyanu prayer, the prayer that means “we are alive,” that G-d has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.” It is said to express gratitude to G-d for new and unusual experiences or possessions.  The blessing of Shehecheyanu is recited in thanks or commemoration of doing or experiencing something that occurs infrequently from which one derives pleasure or benefit, for example: the beginning of a Jewish holiday; eating a new fruit for the first time since the Jewish New Year; seeing a friend who has not been seen in 30 days; or acquiring a new home or other significant possessions, and on other very special occasions.

5:00 a.m. –Rabbi Michol Friedman discussed when and how the Jewish Kohanim give their Divine Blessing to the congregation. The Torah says that G-d said, “I will cause a tribe to descend from among your sons that will bless Israel, and it will be called the tribe of Levi.” The Kohanim make their blessing to the congregation near the conclusion of various Jewish holiday prayers by taking off their shoes and going up to the platform at the front of the synagogue. The reason is that Moses was told to take his shoes off when he spoke with G-d at the burning bush because it was a holy area.
Congregants do not watch the Kohanim during their blessing. The Kohanim place their fingers in a five point position, similar to what Leonard Nimoy did in “Star Trek,” and the Kohanim give their famous blessing that can be summarized as, “May G-d suppress his anger, may the kohanim bless in the name of G-d, and may G-d give approval to the priests’ blessings.

At 6 a.m., after so many wonderful presentations, it was time to get some sleep.

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