Do We Make a Blessing/Berocha When Giving Charity/Tzedaka?

Do We Make a Blessing/Berocha When Giving Charity/Tzedaka?

This morning after I gave some charity I thought about this. Normally we make a blessing on any mitzvah we do. Like making a blessing/berocha on lighting the menorah, eating matzah, and blowing the shofar. So if giving charity is a mitzvah, why than no blessing?

The Rashba, who is a commentator on the Talmud, says that in order to make a blessing/berocha a on a mitzvah it must be entirely 100% in our hands. When we give tzedaka it is not totally up to us. We can make the blessing, and then try and hand over the money but there is no guarantee that the person we are giving to will take it. True that this is highly unlikely as most people collecting charity will gladly accept it from you, but nevertheless we can only make a blessing/berocha on that which is 100% in our hands to complete.

For example when we make a blessing on food, the food should be in our hand and at the least in front of us. More than once, when I was younger, I recall making a blessing on water and then pushing the water fountain button and no water came out. With a water fountain it is important to first push the button so we see the water and then make the berocha.

A Blessing for rain in Shmoneh Esrei

Riding a scooter in the rain around Bali. My back pack is in the plastic bag in the front. It was an amzing trip but it rained a alot and made the roads slippery. I stayed sometimes in guesthouses and other times in villages. Bali is a beautiful place if you can get away form the main tourist spots.

A Blessing for rain in Shmoneh Esrei

The shmoneh esrei, also known as the Amidah, is recited three times daily. In one of the blessings we ask Hashem to bless the year along with the produce of the land. Because the blessing refers to things growing from the ground we change the blessing slightly from winter season to summer season to reflect what the ground needs.

In Israel starting on the seventh day of the month of Cheshvan (this year Nov 2011) they begin to say ‘V’sein Tal Umatar’ (asking for rain).  However we only begin to say this insertion outside of Israel on December 4th or 5th.

Say one is in Israel now but plans on flying outside of Israel. What should he or she say?

There are two main opinions. 1) Say it like wherever you are according to the custom of the place. 2) If you are planning to return to Israel within the year, continue saying like they do in Israel even if you have left the country.

It is best to ask your local Rabbi to find out what you should do in this situation.

Parshas Vayera: When Avraham Teaches us that True Self-Sacrifice is Sacrificing your Ego

A street in Delhi, India, where people sleep on the streets without even a sheet

In India I learned to let go of my ego. Do you think any of these people cared about my job, my clothes, or what I own? Nobody was judging me based on those things. I had to learn to recognize within myself what is truly valuable. It is only by letting go of this ego that we can finally open up to true self-sacrifice for G-d.

We all have egos.  In fact, most of us have very big egos.  Sometimes our egos are so huge that they block out the “real” us.

When I went to India for the first time, it was the first time in my life that I really had to throw my ego away.  Up until then, if you asked me who I was, I would say, “I am an attorney. I work in one of the best law firms in downtown Miami. I have an apartment and a car and two cats. I wear nice clothes and I use an iPhone and I like photography so I have a fancy camera.”  Of course, all of that is ego speaking.  But nobody ever pointed this out to me – I don’t even think anyone noticed.  Why? Because everyone was speaking the same way. “My name is XYZ. I work for ABCorp.  I just got a new car.  Look at my nice new phone and my new laptop.”  But wait… that person didn’t tell me anything about themselves except their name!

In India, none of that external stuff mattered.  I was unemployed, so I didn’t have a job I could brag about. In fact, nobody cared whether I was an attorney or a street sweeper.  I gave up my apartment and my car and have a friend (bless her) watching my cats, so none of that stuff is with me. In India, nobody gives two hoots if I’m wearing nice clothes or even if my clothes are dirty – I am lucky that I have clothes at all.  And I lost my camera and my phone, so I couldn’t even fixate on either of those things.  Heck, I didn’t even have my family or friends around, so I couldn’t even exercise ego by association.  I had to strip all that away and come face to face with… myself.

Which is kind of what Avraham has to do in this week’s parsha.  I heard in a shiur this week given by Rabbi Shmueli Feldman on one of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s sichas all about it.  This week Avraham is asked by G-d to go sacrifice Yitzchak (Isaac), his beloved son.  The Talmud says that if it were not for this last one of Avraham’s 10 tests, then the first 9 would mean nothing.  What on earth does this mean? Being thrown in a fiery furnace counts for nothing? Leaving your home and your world behind and venturing out into the unknown means nothing? The answer to all of these questions is the same: ego.

Up until now, Avraham could have been doing the mitzvot for himself, in one way or another.  He stood to gain some benefit, even if it was just in being proved right.  He didn’t have a lot of choice about being thrown in the furnace, for example, and he could have left home to travel just because he had a midlife crisis involving too much wanderlust. But being asked to sacrifice his son? Nobody could say that was selfish, nobody could say that was ego!  It wasn’t just that he would have to sacrifice his son, when killing your own child is difficult enough, but it was that he would be sacrificing the child that G-d had told him would give him grandchildren.  He was sacrificing generations as numerous as the stars in the sky.  He was also flying in the face of everything he had spent the last 100 or so years teaching.  He had taught that human sacrifices and child sacrifices were wrong.  He had taught that murder is wrong.  He had taught so much from the Torah that was the exact opposite of what he was about to do.  So how could he possibly do it?

Avraham let go of his ego.  Publicly, in a way that everyone could see, he showed that he was willing to do whatever G-d wanted, even if he did not understand it. Without arguments, without questions, without ego, he went to do G-d’s will.  And when G-d made it clear that He did not want Avraham to sacrifice Yitzchak after all, he complied with that, too.  Avraham made it clear, in his thoughts, his speech, and his actions, that he was giving of himself.  Self-sacrifice for G-d!

In Pune, India a man lives among the garbage heaps and spends his time picking through them looking for something valuable

In India, you can't look around at daily life and remain self-absorbed. If the poverty doesn't touch you, there is really something wrong. This was my wakeup call to start letting go of my ego so I would have more room within me for G-d to dwell. Avraham teaches us just how important it is to let your ego go. Where your ego exists, G-d cannot be. There is only enough space for one or the other.

This is how we must be in our lives.  If we strip away all those ego-driven externals, we can begin to see our true selves.  We can begin to see that what really matters are the mitzvot (good deeds/commandments) that we do and the middot (good character traits) that we cultivate.  How much more meaningful would it be, if you were able to introduce yourself saying, “Who am I? I help collect and deliver food to the poor. I play music to cheer up elderly and ill people.  I enjoy learning Torah.  I practice every day on controlling my anger and on being more patient.  I am very busy all the time because I am trying to say tehillim (psalms) in my free time.  I am working on smiling more, even at complete strangers.”  Meeting someone and hearing that, you can really say, “Wow! This person sounds like a great person! I want to get to know them better. I want to spend more time with them.”  The first examples, working in a fancy job, owning a nice house or car or phone, wearing fancy clothing… well, none of that really tells you anything about a person.

Avraham’s job in doing G-d’s will and taking his son as a sacrifice opened up the channels of self-sacrifice for us.  We can tap into the heavenly gates he opened for us and take advantage of them.  It is possible to let go of our own egos and dedicate ourselves to serving G-d.  We don’t even have to travel to India to do it.  We can do it right now, in our own lives.  We only have to try.

Shabbat shalom.

And I’m learning as I go,
Don’t you know there are days when it hurts so bad
Everybody changes with a chance,
And I came around…
Amie Miriello, “I Came Around”

Mendoza, Argentina: Visiting a Winery

Grape vines in winter in Mendoza, ArgentinaWine plays a big role in Judaism… it features prominently in Jewish festivals from the weekly Shabbat celebration to wedding ceremonies and, of course, the rowdy Purim parties.  One of my favorite wines is called Malbec and the most delicious Malbec wines in the world come from Mendoza, Argentina.  So during my time in Argentina, I took a trip to Mendoza to ride horses, go white water rafting, and, of course, to check out the wineries!

Anybody who’s been to a wine store has seen that there are many more non-kosher wines than kosher wines.  However, if you look into your foreign kosher wines (basically any of those not produced in Israel), you’ll find that those same wineries are producing non-kosher wines also.  How is this possible?  Most wineries will do a “run” of kosher wines once a year.  When those bottles are ready, they’re sent to the distributor who stores them for sales throughout the year.  This saves wineries a lot of money because since only Sabbath-observant Jews can handle the grapes and wine in order for the wine to be kosher. In places like Mendoza, where the small Jewish population is reform only, this means they have to import employees specially.

An idol in one of the rooms of a Mendoza, Argentina wineryIt happened that when I went to Mendoza there were still snow flurries, so it wasn’t exactly wine-making season.  When I did the rounds of the wineries, none of them had kosher wines on hand and so I wasn’t able to taste-test any.  Which makes me want to ask the next question: Why is it so important for wine to be kosher?

The laws regarding kosher wines are in place to prevent Jews from deriving any benefit from idolatry. Wines are often used in religious ceremonies for idol-worshiping religions and often a blessing is made over them or they are made for this purpose specifically.  I used to think this sounded ridiculous because, looking at the secular American society around me, I couldn’t imagine anyone using wine for idol worship.  But when I went to Mendoza, I noticed a giant life-sized statue of an idol sitting among the barrels in one winery.  And in another place, I saw lots of painting of non-Jewish dieties on the casks of wine themselves.  So next time you’re thinking of drinking a non-Kosher wine, please keep this in mind!

Kosher McDonald’s in Argentina

Kosher McDonalds Buenos Aires Argentina

My first visit to the Kosher McDonald's in Buenos Aires, Argentina was immediately after Shabbos on my first Saturday night in the country. It wasn't opened yet, but it opened soon after!

Buenos Aires, Argentina – a city famous for so many things: tango, beef, gauchos, Paris style, and, of course, the Kosher McDonald’s.

What? Did you say ‘Kosher McDonald’s?!’

Yes, yes I did.  I spent 6 months living in Argentina – all of them directly across the street from the famous Abasto Mall, which houses the only kosher McDonald’s outside of Israel.

It’s such an interesting and unusual find that it’s mentioned in the food section of all the major Argentina guidebooks, including those that almost never think to cover the kosher traveler (which is basically all of them!).

Because I lived pretty much across the street, the Abasto was one of my favorite hangouts.  There was always something interesting going on there, whether it was a gigantic in-mall playground or the ‘Bodies’ exhibit on tour.  Plus, with its two kosher restaurants (next to the meaty McDonald’s was a cute little dairy restaurant), it was a great place to meet up with friends to just munch, hang out, and watch the world go by.

And watch the world go by we did!  In fact, it seemed like just about everyone in the world went by that kosher McDonald’s.  Even if they weren’t coming to eat from it, they were coming by to take photos of it, just to prove it exists.  People who have never been to Israel (and thus never seen the even more exciting kosher McDonald’s express in the main Jerusalem bus station) are fascinated to find their first kosher Micky D’s.

Kosher McDonalds Buenos Aires Argentina

The kashrus certificate that proves you aren't dreaming - the McDonald's in Buenos Aires, Argentina really IS kosher!

I never actually ate in the Kosher McDonald’s… I gave up fast food 10 years ago after reading “Fast Food Nation.”  But many, many of my friends did eat there, and the verdict was that it was pretty good!  Of course, the flavors are slightly different, imbued with an Argentinean flair, but that famous Argentinean beef does those burgers good.  No overly processed factory-farmed beef here!  In Buenos Aires, the legendary gauchos of the pampas are the ones responsible for the cows, who feed on the endless grassy plains.

Next time you’re in Argentina, it’s worth a visit to the Kosher McDonald’s in the Abasto Mall (Abasto has its own metro stop, so it’s easy to reach).  But don’t limit yourself.  Buenos Aires has a wealth of kosher places, from pizza joints famous in Jewish communities across the southern cone to the cutest little sandwich and empanada shop Wafflemania to bakeries selling the famous Argentinean alfajores, chocolate-covered cookies filled with sticky-sweet dulce de leche.  For the kosher traveler, Argentina is a culinary delight!

A Traditional Jewish Wedding in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Jewish Wedding Buenos Aires, Argentina - Bride (Kallah)One of the things that is unique about the Jewish people is the way we hold onto our traditions.   Although some slight aspects of styles change in different communities, Jews across the world manage to hold onto their traditions in ways that prevent them from simply blending into – and disappearing into – their host cultures.

I spent six months living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in a neighborhood called Once (pronounced ‘ohn-say’), which is the neighborhood in Argentina with the highest concentration of Jews.  While there, I made new friends, went to new synagogues, and even attended lectures at a seminary (Majon Or Jaia).  One of my favorite experiences there was to attend the traditional Jewish wedding of one of my new friends.

My friend, Paula, showed up to her wedding on Latino time – almost an hour late – but looked as pretty as a princess.  Like some other major religions, women in Judaism wear white at their weddings to symbolize their spiritual purity, as all your sins are wiped away on your wedding day.  During the first part of the wedding, Paula sat in a special chair and gave blessings to visitors and said prayers for people who need them.  Because a bride (kallah) and groom (chattan) are on such a high spiritual level on their wedding day, their prayers go directly to G-d.

Chuppah at Jewish Wedding in Bueno Aires, Argentina

The chuppah at my friend Paula's wedding in Buenos Aires, Argentina, reminded me of other Jewish weddings I'd attended in other countries. It was beautiful!

The next part of the wedding took place outside.  The seasons in Argentina are the reverse of what they are in the USA, so even though it was September, it was still freezing!  This part of the wedding takes place under a special marriage canopy called the chuppah.  All Jewish weddings have some sort of chuppah, no matter whether they are reform, conservative, or orthodox, no matter where they are in the world.  It’s a very special tradition representing the new home the couple will build together.

Finally, while Paula and her new husband went to a special room to spend their first time alone as husband and wife, the rest of us went to a hall to start the party.  When Paula and her husband came in, we were all very excited!  We cheered for them and then danced with them – men on one side of a divider and women on the other – according to orthodox Jewish tradition.   It was a really fun party!  The wedding started at noon and went on all day and all night!

Maybe you’ve attended a similar Jewish wedding at some point in your life.  I’ve gone to Jewish weddings in the US, Canada, and Israel, in addition to this one in Argentina.  Next time you get a chance, you should go – it’s a mitzvah to increase the joy of the bride and groom!  Plus, it’s neat to see how similar the weddings are all over the world.