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Rosh Hashana

Monday, 18th September 2017

Why isn’t Yom Kippur before Rosh Hashana?

On Yom Kippur we wipe away our sins. On Rosh HaShono we proclaim HaShem (G-d) as King (no sin-mention). Surely Yom Kippur should go first so we can proclaim HaShem as King in a state of sin-free purity?

One can answer based on Gemorro (Talmud) Sukkah (52b) that says that the yetzer hara (evil inclination) is too strong for us - and we can only overcome it with the help of HaShem. This means that essentially it is not in our hands solely to overcome the yetzer hara. Thus, we must have a Rosh HaShana first, for that is the way of ensuring that HaShem will help us so we can cleanse ourselves of sin culminating on Yom Kipur. 

Another answer is based on a lovely comparison. The Rambam (Maimonides) (hil melachim 1;1) comments that we were commanded 3 mitzvos (commandments) upon entry to the land of Israel; 1st to appoint a king, then wipe out amalek, and finally to build a beis hamikdash (Temple). [and that is the order that they occurred in nach (Scriptures).] 

The order is very precise here. So too, Rosh HaShono is compared to appointing a king (we 'appoint' HaShem as King), Yom Kippur to the removal of amalek (amalek is the embodiment of sin), and Sukkos to the beis hamikdash (a surrounding sanctuary of HaShem's Presence).

Nitzavim-Vayelech

Thursday, 14th September 2017

Whenever we are given blessings and curses for following HaShem’s (G-d’s) Mitzvos (commandments) or not, the blessings are always put first. In our sedra of this week,  this is apparent in the pasuk/verse (30;15) ‘See, I have placed before you today life and good, and death and evil.’ When the Torah is informing us that we have a choice of how to live our lives, we are given the good and positive options first. Similarly, the next two psukim (verses) follow this pattern - they first describe that if we ‘cling’ to HaShem and His Commandments we will prosper, and only then do they briefly describe our (not so positive) fate if we betray HaShem. Perhaps the best example of this is something the Midrash picks up on in Parshas (Torah portion of) Shmini.

The Torah gives the signs of a Kosher animals as split hooves and chews the cud. The Torah then gives four animals which only have one of the two signs and are thus non-Kosher. In each of these four cases the Torah first mentions the positive sign that the animal does have, and only then mentions that it does not have the other sign and is thus not Kosher. Thus, even the epitome of ‘treifness (non-kosher),’ the pig, is described in the following light: ‘And the pig, for its hoof is split…but it does not chew the cud - it is unclean to you’ (Vayikra 11;7). From the fact that the Torah goes out of its way to first mention the positive qualities of even the pig before prohibiting it, we can see the importance of finding the positive in others even if we might think they possess much negative characteristics.

The Chofetz Chaim quotes a midrash, that if one speaks good and positively of other people, the angels will speak good of you to HaShem. We said that this is a great way to build up towards Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, when we are looking for HaShem to show mercy and good favour to us in judgment.

Ki Savo

Thursday, 7th September 2017

Our sedra (Torah portion) opens with the simcha (happiness) of bikkurim (the taking of the first fruits), ‘and you shall rejoice at all the good that HaShem (G-d) has given to you… (26;11) ’Later on in the sedra, however, we have the curses on Har (Mount) Eival. And Chapter 28 tells both of the blessings that we will enjoy should we follow HaShem, and the converse that we will suffer if we are not loyal to Him.

The outline is that if we follow HaShem, then us and our material possessions will be blessed with security and prosperity, and other nations will fear harming us. If, however, we do not follow HaShem, there are bitter consequences (poverty, disease, war, etc.) - it does not take an historian to see that these consequences have come true over time. A searching question can be asked here: There seem to be only two alternatives here; prosperity or suffering. What about all the middle possibilities between these two extremes? The same can be asked of the second paragraph of the Shema prayer. If we are good then we get rain, etc. and if we are not good then no rain, etc. What about any middle, ‘non-extreme,’ circumstances?

The answer is as follows, there is no middle-ground. We are either doing HaShem’s will or we are not. If we are doing HaShem’s will, we get brocha (blessing), and if we are not, then we suffer. [That does not mean that everyone who is suffering is not doing HaShem’s Will. There can be other reasons for suffering].

 

Ki Seitze

Thursday, 31st August 2017

In this week’s Torah portion, the Torah prohibits marrying an Ammonite or a Moabite for all generations even after conversion. LO YAVO AMONI UMO’AVI BIKHAL HASHEM, “An Ammonite or a Moabite may not enter into the assembly of Hashem (G-d)”. (Deut. 23,4) The reason given is that when the children of Israel were on their way to the Promised Land these two nations refused to provide them with bread and water, the two greatest necessities for sustaining life.

There were nations who enslaved Jews and nations who went to war against Jews. Some were not forbidden to be married by Jews and some were forbidden only for a number of generations. But none were forbidden forever as were the Ammonites and Moabites. Why? 

The Sages tell us that there are three important distinguishing characteristics of Jews. Jews are merciful, bashful and charitable. The Ammonites and Moabites demonstrated that they are neither merciful nor charitable. While other people who convert to Judaism may eventually become part of the Jewish fold, individuals of these two nations lack the basic characteristics needed to fit into our people. Conversion will not transform them into true Jews.

Jews have these beautiful traits. They have demonstrated throughout history their desire to help others in need. They have been the greatest contributors to charity. They have always felt for the underdog. They have always demonstrated these traits and never sought credit for doing so. This distinguishes Jews above other people. 

Shoftim

Thursday, 24th August 2017

In our parsha (Torah reading for this week) we are commanded (18:13) ‘be complete (tamim) with HaShem (G-d), your God.’ What does this mean and involve? 

Rashi writes that we are not to go looking into what the future will hold, but rather just accept everything with full trust and faith in HaShem; He takes care of us. 

This explains the connection to the next few psukim (verses), which deplores the use of magic (something often used to predict or find out the future). 

The Chofetz Chaim highlights that it only says that one must fully trust HaShem - it does not extend the same level of trust to fellow humans. This means, as the Chofetz Chaim explains, that one is not to be naïve in trusting everyone; before relying on someone, make sure they are trustworthy - one cannot merely fully assume so from the outset. 

Re'eh

Thursday, 17th August 2017

In this weeks Torah portion we are told that G-d gives us reward for every good deed and curses for bad deeds – “see I am placing before you blessing and curse”

A closer look at the first verse in this week's portion forces us to ask a fundamental question. The Torah seems to be talking to the individual.  It uses the word “See” in the singular tense, and then continues a few words later in the plural tense with the word “before you" - plural.  Why does the Torah change tense, surely it should have finished the sentence in the singular tense as it started?
 
The Chassam Sofer directs us to the Talmud (Kiddushin) where it states that one should live his or her life as if their life is in a complete balance between good and evil. If they were to perform even one more Mitzvah - Good deed, their personal scales would be tipped and they would be guaranteed life. However, the opposite effect holds true as well. By using this mind set, an individual will learn the power of even one of his or her actions on their own life.

Rabbi Akiva later in the same tractate of the Talmud takes this idea a bit further. He says that not only should one have the mindset that their life is  their own personal scale, but one should view the entire world as being in complete balance.  Rabbi Akiva is trying to explain that every person should view themselves as being able to individually affect the entire world.
We can now understand why the Torah starts by referring to the individual, “See” in the singular, and then moves on to the plural “before you”.  We should "see" as individuals the power that we have on the world around us.  When we do Mitzvos - good deeds, we need to know that G-d promises to place “before you” (plural) "Lifneichem" blessings.  Those blessings will affect the entire world and will affect history.

Ekev

Wednesday, 9th August 2017

Have you ever met someone who knew right from wrong but was still a bad person?
Sure you have. We all have. And it's hard to understand sometimes. If they knew what is right, why did they do the wrong thing? It seems illogical! It just doesn't add up. 
But the truth is, we are all exactly like this person, even if only to a smaller degree. We often know that we should be acting differently than we actually are, whether in the way we treat our friends and family, or in our financial affairs, or in our relationship with Hashem and Torah observance. We all know that there are things we should be working on and improving on.... but often, it just doesn't happen. And somehow, just like our friend we spoke about earlier, we land up living a life that is different than the way we know it should be . 

In this week's parsha (Torah portion), Parshas Eikev, Hashem (G-d) actually describes the Jewish people this way. He calls us a "stiff-knecked nation". The Sforno, one of our most famous commentators on the Torah, says that to be "stiff necked" means that someone could logically prove to you that you are wrong and it wouldn't make a difference. You still wouldn't listen. That's the way Hashem described the Jewish people.... So clearly the problem didn't start yesterday. It's been going on for thousands of years! 

Why does this happen? If it is so illogical, then why do people so often live in ways that are different than what they believe to be true?! 

There was a whole movement in Europe a few hundred years ago called the Mussar (Ethics), which wrote a lot about this phenomenon. One of the main rabbis who thought and wrote about it was named Rabbi Yisroel Salanter. He worked out why people do this and he summed it up in a sentence: 

"The greatest distance in the world is between a person's mind and their heart." 

Someone can believe in one thing intellectually, but unless they find a way to return that to their heart, to internalise it, to know it with every fibre of their being, it won't affect their actions. This is what the verse in last week's parsha meant when it said: 
"You should know today and return it to your hearts that Hashem is God, there is none other besides Him." 

We see here that Hashem knew all along: It's not enough to know what's right and wrong. It's not enough to believe in something. We then have to return it to our hearts. We have to work out how to internalise those facts. That's what the sages of the Mussar Movement discussed.... techniques on just how to do that. Once we internalise what we know is true, then they can affect our actions and we can begin to start perfecting ourselves and living lives that are steeped with great and noble ideals. Then we can achieve greatness. 

 

Vaeschanan

Tuesday, 1st August 2017

The posuk (verse) (6:5) commands that you shall love HaShem (G-d) with "all" your heart (be’chol levavcha), which Rashi reveals refers to loving HaShem with both your inclinations; the yezter hatov (good inclination) and the yetzer hara (evil inclination). How can one possibly use the yetzer hara - that force which attempts to hijack one’s spirituality and pull one away from HaShem - for good? 
In Alei Shur (page 35), Rabbi Wolbe quotes Rabbi Tzaddok HaKohen who writes that the area with which the yetzer hara tests/entices a person is that same area where we have the greatest potential for growth in serving HaShem. 

For example, one might have a big yetzer hara test to say brochos (blessings over food) really quickly and get on to eating the food - here Rabbi Tzaddok is telling us that since the yetzer hara is attacking your area of brochos, it must be that you have great potential to say brochos properly and with the correct intentions and mindset. 

It is much like war; the enemy will focus their attention on attacking the area most potent and useful to the other side. So too will the yetzer hara attack each person’s individual strength and area of growth - and this area will be different for each individual for each person has their own unique strengths. 

Rabbi Wolbe comments on this that we learn from here that one is not to merely ignore one’s yetzer hara, but to confront it and realise one’s area of greatest potential. Thus, this is one way we can use our yetzer haras for the positive - by noticing which area they attack and thus using it to identify our strongest area of growth.  

Alternatively, one can use the yetzer hara to fuel one’s performance of mitzvos (positive commandments). For example, if you are competitive by nature then use this to become better at learning Torah than the next person. Or, if you are stingy then use this to motivate you to commit to give a certain sum of money to charity. 

Each bad middah (character trait) can be turned round to spur on and promote the development of a positive middah or mitzvos.

Devorim

Thursday, 27th July 2017

Moshe (Moses) had battled Sichon and won. Now he faced a war against the mighty Og. The Commentaries says that the Giants Og and Sichon were more formidable adversaries than Pharaoh and his army.

Before this war, Moshe seems to be worried. Hashem (G-d) had to reassure him (3:2) – do not fear him, for I (Hashem) will place him and his people in your hand.

What was bothering Moshe? Surely a man of the spiritual status of Moshe should not fear Og?
Og was not a normal adversary. He was a Giant with a formidable history. Og was called "Hapalit" - the escapee. He escaped from the Mabul - great flood, from the war of the four kings against the five kings, and from the war waged by the Ammonites against his people. To understand the fear of Moshe we must understand the secret of Og's longevity?

Rashi cites the commentaries, that Moshe was concerned because Og had a special merit for doing a kindness to Abraham hundreds of years earlier. At that time, Abraham's nephew Lot was taken captive. Og ran to Abraham to relate to him the news. Og had intended that Abraham should go to battle against the Four mightiest Kings, where he would be killed, opening the way for Og to take Sarah (Abraham's wife) for himself. Whilst Og had the worst of intentions, nevertheless this relating of news caused Abraham to save Lot’s life and sanctify Hashem's name in the world.

For this Hashem rewarded Og with an additional 500 years of life, hence escaping numerous dangers!
Now Moshe faced this formidable foe, and was worried, perhaps this merit was still standing in Og’s favour.

Let us focus a moment on what is happening here.  Og the despicable giant, has a bad intention, yet nevertheless is rewarded for his good actions?  Has he not been rewarded enough?  How much reward does a man like this really deserve for a seemingly small and unintentional good deed?  And surely Moshe the greatest prophet that ever lived, the True Servant of Hashem should not fear such a giant?  Before we answer let us turn for a moment to our current exile.

Chazal tell us that we find ourselves in the "exile of Eisav". This exile has lasted for two thousand years. It is the longest exile of our people. But when will this exile end? The prophet Zechariya tells us (2:12) Achar Kavod Shelachani. Rashi explains that the time will come only once the merit of Eisav has been removed. Which merit are we talking about? Eisav was well known to honour his father Yitzchak (Isaac). The Zohar (1:146b) states that it is that honour showed to his father, that gave him the merit to rule over us for thousands of years! Hence Zecharia states only after that merit has ended will Hashem defeat the wicked. We see that the ramifications of a good deed are long lasting.
Have you ever heard of Nebuchadnezzar?  He was the mightiest Leader Babylon ever saw. The Talmud relates that in his early days Nebuchadnezzar served as a secretary and scribe for a previous Babylonian monarch. Once, when Nebuchadnezzar was absent from work, other royal secretaries of the king drafted a letter to be sent to the Jewish king of Judah, Chizkiah. The letter began: "Greetings to King Chizkiah! Greetings to the city of Jerusalem! Greetings to the great G-d!"

When Nebuchadnezzar returned to work and discovered how the letter was written, he was furious. "You call Him 'the Great G-d,' Nebuchadnezzar protested, "and you mention Him last?!" 

In an isolated moment of moral conduct, Nebuchadnezzar insisted that the letter be redone, and written as follows: "Greetings to the Great G-d! Greetings to the city of Jerusalem! Greetings to king Chizkiah!"

The problem was that the messenger had already been dispatched to Jerusalem with the first version of the letter in his hand. So Nebuchadnezzar ran out to call the messenger back and redo the letter. How far did he need to run? Merely three steps before he caught the messenger to give him a second version of the letter. Our sages see this episode as the ultimate cause for Nebuchadnezzar's royal success. In the merit of his taking three steps to honour G-d, Nebuchadnezzar received the crown of royalty for three generations!

Moshe understood that there is a reward for acts of good; he was worried that Og’s merit still warranted him being alive. Therefore Hashem had to tell him, do not worry, his time has come, he has enjoyed enough reward for his actions.

The reward granted to these wicked people for their good actions in this world seems massive.  Og the giant gets long life, lives as a mighty ruler; Nebuchadnezzar receives the monarchy for generations. Wow all that for such a small action? Yes! Even small actions count. Yet we must note that the real reward for our deeds is in the next world. We must realise that Hashem guards each and every mitzvah we do, every Amen we say, every Shabbat we keep, every act of kindness, it is all there in front of Hashem. 

From the reward these wicked people received for their seemingly small acts of good, we can fathom the reward that we will receive for every Mitzvah – Ah how lucky we are!

Mattos-Masei

Wednesday, 19th July 2017

At the beginning of Chapter 32, the Torah tells us that the Tribes of Reuven and Gad desired to settle not in Eretz Yisrael (Israel), but on the side of the River Jordan that they stood on. These two Shevatim (Tribes) had an abundance of cattle and believed that this was good grazing land. 

They went to Moshe (Moses) and asked his permission to settle there, promising that they would join the other Shevatim in conquering Eretz Yisrael before they settled down. 

The Chumash tells us that they asked permission to build holdings for their cattle and cities for their families. When Moshe responds to them he reverses the order and tells them to build cities for their families and holdings for their cattle . 

Why did Moshe reverse the order of their words? Moshe was teaching the Shevatim and us a life lesson. He told them that their families must come before their businesses. First, set up cities for your families and then set up boundaries for your businesses. 

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