A Question of Jewish Law

May 5, 2017

35. Between Day and Night (Part 1)

Filed under: Festivals,Jewish Law,Prayers and Blessings — chaimweiner @ 8:20 am

Question: What is the earliest time for counting the Omer?

Answer: There is a commandment to count the days between the 2nd day of Passover and Shavuot. To fulfil the commandment, each day is counted on the appropriate day. Therefore, the earliest time for counting the Omer is the beginning of the day.

When does a day start? The Babylonian Talmud says that the day starts in the evening, based on the verse: “And there was evening, and there was morning, day one”. [Gen 1:5] Even so, determining when evening falls and the next day starts is not easy.

Day and night are astronomical phenomena. As the earth turns on its axis it appears to us that the sun moves across the sky. As the sun dips beneath the horizon it becomes dark. At some point between the light and darkness lies the border between day and night.

If we were sitting on a boat on still waters at sea level, near the equator, with clear skies, in a remote area with no light pollution – we would be able to discern several stages in the process of day becoming night. First, we would see the sun start to move down towards the horizon, its rays gradually weakening because of its angle in the sky. We would then see the moment that the ball of the sun first touches the horizon followed several minutes later by the moment that the last sliver disappears beneath the horizon. The sky would still be light, but as the sun continues to sink beneath the horizon it gradually darkens until the stars appear.

To further complicate matters many external factors can change our perception. If we are at a higher altitude the sun would appear to go down later. If we are in a valley surrounded by mountains, the sun would appear to have gone down earlier. The length of time it takes for the sun to go beneath the horizon changes according to our position on the globe. And if there are clouds or air pollution or artificial light in the background, we may not see the stars until much later, if at all.

This gradual transition from day to night provides several potential moments that could count as the beginning of the next day; the sun starting to go down, it reaching the horizon, it disappearing beneath the horizon, the appearance of the first stars. In fact, the Rabbis were unable to determine an exact moment for the beginning of the day. Instead, the period of time during the transition from day to night is called twilight [in Hebrew – Bein HaShmashot  בין השמשות – literally, “between the suns”]. Twilight is of doubtful status. The Sages taught: Twilight is a period of uncertainty, [both] day and night, uncertain it is completely day,  uncertain completely night. [Therefore] impose the stringencies of both days upon it. [BT Shabbat 34b]

What is the exact definition of twilight? The Talmud states:

And what is twilight? From when the sun sets, as long as the eastern face is reddened. If the lower has lost its colour, and the upper has not yet lost its colour, twilight. If the upper has lost its colour and equals the lower, it is night; the statement of Rabbi Yehuda. Rabbi Neḥemya says:  The time for a person to walk half a mil after the sun sets. Rabbi Yossi says: Twilight is like the blink of an eye: This enters and that leaves, and it is impossible to calculate it. [BT Shabbat 34b]

Following this, the evening can be divided it into 3 distinct periods. Up to sunset (defined as when the sun disappears beneath the horizon), it is day. After the stars appear (from a halachic point of view this means 3 medium-sized stars) it is night. Twilight falls during the time between sunset and the appearance of the stars. Exactly when it falls depends on the opinions of the various Rabbis.

Therefore, the ideal time to count the Omer is after 3 stars appear in the sky. Then you can be sure that you counted on the right day. If you count between sunset and nightfall you may have filled your obligation, and you can continue counting.

But is it possible to count any earlier? This is a serious question for those living in northern localities. As the counting of the Omer falls near the summer solstice, sunset can be very late – sometimes near midnight. For this reason, Rabbis have tried to stretch the time that counts as being night as much as possible. I will look at some of the ways this can be done in my next post.


Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Iyar 5777











October 31, 2016

34. When Is a Festival not a Festival?

Filed under: Festivals,Jewish Law,Prayers and Blessings,Shabbat — chaimweiner @ 10:17 am

Question:  After reading the Haftorah on the intermediate Shabbat of the festivals, does one recite the blessing for Shabbat or the blessing for the festival?

Answer: The Haftorah is a passage from the prophets which is read after the Torah reading on Shabbat and Yom Tov. There is no Haftorah reading on the intermediate days of the festivals. For this reason, our first instinct would be to say that since the Haftorah is being read only because of Shabbat, it is a ‘Shabbat Haftorah’ and therefore only the blessings for Shabbat should be recited. However, although the Haftorah is definitely a ‘Shabbat Haftorah’ the day is still a ‘festival day’! Why shouldn’t the festival also be mentioned? Shouldn’t the festival be acknowledged wherever the day is mentioned in a blessing, regardless of whether the activity specifically belongs to the festival or not?

Although the Talmud does not discuss this question directly, it does discuss a related question. In Tractate Shabbat [24 A and B] the Talmud asks whether the special addition for Hanukkah [Al HaNissim] should be added during the Musaf prayer of Rosh Hodesh Hannukah. There is no Musaf for Hanukkah and the prayer is only a ‘Rosh Hodesh prayer’. After some discussion, the Talmud concludes that the Hannukah paragraph is added. We also mention Shabbat in the Neila prayer on Yom Kippur. Although there is no Neila prayer for Shabbat, the day is still Shabbat. Shabbat is mentioned on all the prayers of Yom Kippur whether they are Shabbat prayers or not. This suggests that the Haftorah blessings of the intermediate days of festivals should mention the festival regardless of whether we consider this to be a ‘festival Haftorah’ or not.

But does an intermediate day of a festival count as being enough of a festival for the purpose of mentioning it in the Haftorah blessing. Although the intermediate days have some features of festivals, they are essentially weekdays. It is possible that they are simply not ‘festival’ enough to justify changing blessings.

Surprisingly, in normative Ashkenazi practice, there is a difference between Pesach and Succot. Our practice is that on intermediate Shabbat of Pesach we recite the Shabbat blessing but on the intermediate Shabbat of Succot we recite the festival blessing. The intermediate days of Succot are considered more of a festival than the intermediate days of Pesach.

The roots of this can be found in the Torah. When describing the festival of Succot the Torah dedicates a full paragraph to each of the days of the festival. For this reason, each day is considered a festival in and of itself, and therefore the festival blessing is recited. However, when describing the festival of Pesach, the Torah simply states “you shall eat unleavened bread for seven days” [Lev 23:6] including the intermediate days in this general statement. For this reason, the intermediate days of Pesach are not considered to be separate festivals. Therefore, we use the festival blessing for the Haftorah on Succot but for not for Passover.

This perhaps explains another difference between the two festivals. During the festival of Succot, we recite the full Hallel on each of the days of the festival. But during Pesach, we recite the full Hallel on the Yom Tov at the beginning of the festival, but not on the intermediate days.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Tishre 5777

May 18, 2016

Keeping in Sync

Filed under: Festivals,Jewish Law,Prayers and Blessings,Shabbat — chaimweiner @ 7:54 am

Question: This year the 8th day of Pesach in the Diaspora landed on Shabbat. This caused the reading of the Torah in Israel (which doesn’t have an 8th day) and the Diaspora to go out of sync. Why didn’t Diaspora Jews catch up with the reading in Israel on the following week by combining the readings of ‘Achrei-Mot’ and ‘Kedoshim’, which are frequently read together? Why do we wait almost 2 months, when we combine the readings of ‘Matot’ and ‘Masay’, before coming back together?


Answer: Keeping the reading in Israel and the Diaspora in sync was not a priority for the Rabbis. Over much of history most Jews would not have been aware that the Torah readings in Israel and in the diaspora are sometimes different. In both Israel and the Diaspora we follow the same set of rules for deciding when to combine readings, but because the festival calendars are not the same, the readings are sometimes different.

The Torah is divided into 54 different sections known as Parashot. Each week we read a different section from the Torah. Only one Parasha, VeZot HaBracha, is not read on a Shabbat, rather it is reserved as the reading for the festival of Simchat Torah.

The number of Shabbat readings that are required in any given year varies according to the calendar from a minimum of 46 to a maximum of 53. The number of readings that are needed depends on 2 factors; whether it is a leap year (which adds an extra 4 weeks to the year) and on how many festivals during the year land on Shabbat (thus displacing the normal Torah reading and reducing the number of readings that are needed). Altogether there are 14 readings that can potentially be combined, resulting in a maximum of 7 double parashot.

The division of the Torah into weekly readings and the system for combining them to match the calendar is not mentioned in the Talmud. It emerged over time. At the time of the Mishna the weekly reading of the Torah was fluid. There weren’t set readings for each week but rather, there were rules that were followed to make sure that the reading was finished at the appropriate time. For example:

‘Rabbi Simeon ben Elazar says: Ezra established that the curses in the Book of Leviticus should be read before the festival of Shavuot and the curses in the book of Deuteronomy before Rosh Hashanah.’ [BT, Megillah 31b]

Over time these rules became more complicated. Maimonides writes in his code:

“The common custom is that the portion ‘Bamidbar’ is read before Shavuot, ‘Va’etchanan’ after Tisha b’Av, ‘Niztavim’ before Rosh Hashanah. In a regular year (i.e. not a leap year) ‘Tzav’ is read before Pesach. [MT Laws of Prayer 13:2]

The system we now follow for deciding when to combine the readings follows the guidelines set out by Maimonides. The general rule is that we read one portion each week until we come to one of the signposts for correcting the reading. If at that point we are too far ahead in our reading, we double the nearest pair of potential parashot that come before that signpost in order to keep on schedule.

This is how it works. The first 4 double portions [‘Vayakhel’ – ‘Pekuday’ / ‘Tazria’ – ‘Metzora’ / ‘Acharei-Mot’ – ‘Kedoshim’ / ‘Behar’ – ‘Behukotai’] are reserved to adjust the reading for a leap year. They are doubled in a regular year and read separately in a leap year. The remaining 3 potential doubles [‘Hukkat’ – ‘Balak’ / ‘Matot’ – ‘Masay’ / ‘Nitzavim’ – ‘Vayelech’] are reserved for years where a festival lands on Shabbat and the reading gets out of sync with the calendar. There are corrections before Shavuot, before Tisha b’Av and Rosh Hashanah to keep everything on track.

Diaspora communities celebrate an extra day of Yom Tov for each festival. Therefore, in the diaspora it is more common for a Yom Tov to land on Shabbat and more doubles are required.  As a matter of fact, in Israel it never happens that all 53 parashot are read separately over the course of a year. Also, the portions of ‘Hukkat’ and ‘Balak’ are never combined in Israel.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Iyar 5776

[Note: there are some unique years when, for a variety of factors, the reading is slightly different from that stated above. These are very rare and there isn’t room to address all of the possible variations in this post.]


Based on: Parsha Management, – Doubling, Halving Accuracy, Shekldon Epstein, Bernard Dickman and Yonah Wilamowsky


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April 28, 2016

As Sweet as Honey

Filed under: Festivals,Jewish Law,Kashrut — chaimweiner @ 9:11 am

Question: Do I need to buy special Kosher for Passover honey?

Answer: It is well known that the kosher requirements are Passover are very strict. Special supervision is required for most items that are to be consumed during the festival. However, honey is an example of an item which is pure, undergoes minimal processing and does not have any obviously non-Passover ingredients. So it is legitimate to ask whether special supervision is required.

This question is discussed in the Talmud.

Raba said: The law is: Leaven, in its time, whether [mixed] with its own kind or with a different kind, is forbidden even when there is only a minute quantity, in accordance with Rav; when not in its time, whether [mixed] with its own kind or with a different kind, it is permitted, in accordance with R. Simeon. [BT Pesachim 30a]

This statement establishes an important principle. During the week of Passover even the smallest amount of Hametz can render an entire dish unsuitable. Therefore, if there is any doubt regarding the standards of its preparation, it cannot be used during the festival. However, before the beginning of the festival, small amounts of hametz that may have inadvertently been mixed into a product are lost in the mixture. And as long as the vast majority of the mixture is suitable [less than 1 in 60], it can be regarded as kosher.

On the basis of this statement Rashi rules that salted meat and cheese that were prepared before the festival without supervision are permitted. The Tur and the Shulchan Aruch [Orech Hayyim 447] rule that certain items that were prepared before Passover without adequate supervision may be consumed during the festival. Joseph Caro, quoting earlier authorities, mentions fresh meat, cheese and honey as examples. This is the accepted halacha amongst the Sephardi rabbis.

However, Rabbi Moses Isserles [Poland, 16th cent.], adds that it is not ‘our’ custom [i.e. in Ashkenaz] to eat cheese, salted fish or salted meat that haven’t been specifically supervised for Passover. Presumably this is because the salt hasn’t been checked for possible hametz. But there are still some items that Ashkenazi authorities allow without supervision as long as they were bought before the festival. The most common of these is milk. Many Ashkenazi Jews buy the milk they need for the entire week before festival begins, relying on the fact that if anything unsuitable inadvertently mixed in the milk would become void.

The difference between ‘salted meat’ and ‘milk’ is that it is perhaps possible that salted meat and fish could inadvertently have hametz mixed in the salting mixture, whereas the presence of hametz in the production of milk is so uncommon that one does not even need to take this into account. We find this consideration amongst the authorities. R. Simeon ben Zemah Duran [ Tashbetz, Algeria 14-15th cent.] writes that it is permitted to use butter that was prepared by non-Jews without supervision as long as it was purchased before Passover because “… our eyes see that there is no mixture of hametz in it, and even if hametz was mixed in before Passover, it would be annulled by 1 in 60 like all other prohibitions”. And Rabeinu Asher [Germany and Spain, 13th and 14th cent.], a leading Ashkenazi authority, writes: “Concerning honey, I have not seen anyone who considers this forbidden during Passover because of the possibility that flour may inadvertently have been mixed in it, for this is a very uncommon occurrence, and if it happened it would have been annulled before the festival.” [Klal 24:4-5]

In our days, health-and-safety precautions that govern the production of food make the chance of a foreign object accidentally being introduced in the production of honey even more remote. For that reason, unsupervised honey should be permitted.

This raises the question of the suitability of many other non-supervised items. Modern production techniques mean that we can be more sure than ever about the hygienic conditions in which factory produced food is prepared. But, on the other hand, there are many additives and production aids that may be introduced to foods without our knowledge, and in many cases it is impossible to know everything that is in the food that we are eating.

For this reason, Ashkenazi Jews should follow the Ashkenazi custom of being strict in the production of Passover foods. We generally seek reliable Kosher supervision of Passover food. However, pure food items that undergo minimal processing can be consumed during Passover on condition that they have been bought before the beginning of the festival, so that anything that inadvertently mixed in them is nullified.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Nissan 5776

Based on Ovadia Yosef, Yechve Daat 1:11


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March 11, 2012

A Sabbath Blessing

Filed under: Festivals,Prayers and Blessings,Shabbat — chaimweiner @ 6:26 pm

Question: Should the Priestly Blessing (Birkat Kohanim) be recited on a festival that falls on Shabbat?

Answer:  The obligation to recite the Priestly Blessing is found in the Torah. “Speak to the sons of Aaron: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them …” [Num. 6:22-23]. Of all of the positive commandments directed at the priests, it is the only one that is not dependent on the existence of the Temple – and therefore the only one that is still practised today.

According to the Shulchan Aruch, [OC 128] the Priestly Blessing is recited daily during the repetition of the Amidah in the morning service – corresponding to the time it was recited in the Temple. It is also said during the Musaf prayers on the Sabbath and Festivals.

However, amongst the Ashkenzi communities in the Diaspora, it is a long established custom to limit this observance exclusively to the Musaf prayers of the festivals. Rabbi Moshe Isserlis [Poland, 16th century], the major codifier of Ashkenazi practice, writes:   “It is the custom in these countries to only recite the Priestly Blessing on festivals, for that is when one is immersed in the joy of the festival. … and they recite it in the Musaf prayer, before they leave the synagogue engrossed in the joy of the festival.”

Isserlis connects the Priestly Blessing to the concept of joy. There is a special joy on festivals which is different from weekdays and Shabbat. In the Shabbat Amidah, Shabbat is described as a time of love – in the equivalent Amidah for the festivals they are described as a time of joy. The Birkat Kohanim is recited at the end of Musaf, because the joy of Yom Tov is greatest at the end of the service – when one is about to go home to partake in the festive meal.

There are other explanations for the Ashkenazi custom. Some commentators connect the recitation of the Priestly Blessing to the service of the Priests in the Temple. Although the Priests no longer serve in the Temple – the closest we come to Temple service are the Musaf prayers which recount the offerings on the altar, so this is the most appropriate time for reciting the blessing.

Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein [Aruch Hashulchan, 128] [Lithuania, 19th century] rejected this custom. He writes: In our countries we do not recite the Birkat Hakohanim [daily] but there is no good reason for this. He goes on to say that ‘it is a bad custom’. מנהג גרוע הוא There is anecdotal evidence that Rabbi Elijah of Vilna [the Vilna Gaon] wished to reintroduce the daily recitation of the Priestly Blessing – but was prevented from doing so.

Although the custom in the Diaspora is to only recite the blessing on festivals, the custom in Israel is to recite it daily. The reason is probably historical. Amongst the earliest settlers in Israel in the modern period were the students of the Vilna Gaon. They probably brought the Gaon’s practice with them when they came to Israel, and it has remained the custom there to this day.

Many communities refrain from reciting the blessing when a Yom Tov falls on the Sabbath. Rabbi J. Soloveichik challenged the custom. It is reported that when he was a young Rabbi, he sought to introduce it in his synagogue and was subsequently dismissed from his pulpit. [Nefesh Harav]

In summary, although the Ashkenazi custom is to limit the recitation of the Priestly Blessing in the diaspora to Yom Tov, there is no good reason not to recite it when a festival lands on Shabbat. If an Ashkenazi community wishes to reintroduce it, there is nothing to prevent them from doing so.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

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April 12, 2011

A Searching Question …

Filed under: Festivals — chaimweiner @ 4:19 pm

Question: There is a widely observed custom to hide pieces of bread around the house on the eve of Passover, before searching for the hametz. What is the source of this custom? Is it a proper custom?

Answer: Searching for hametz on the eve of Passover is one of the legal requirements of the festival. The Mishnah at the beginning of tractate Pesachim states: On the evening of the fourteenth [of Nisan] a search is made for leaven by the light of a candle… [Mishnah, Pesachim 1:1] Originally, this search, in which all the hametz was removed from the house and burnt, was the way the house was prepared for Passover. No other cleaning was required.  In time, houses became bigger, cleaning became more sophisticated and the lengthy cleaning process before Passover that we have today became the norm. The result was that by the time we come to search for the hametz on the 14 th of Nisan, the house is already clean and there is (hopefully) no longer any hametz to be found.

This new situation gave rise to an interesting halachic problem: – Can one say a blessing for removing hametz when there is no hametz to remove? There were those who maintained that as there was no longer any hametz in the home, it was no longer possible to say the blessing. In order to remove any doubt as to the validity of the blessing, they instituted the custom of hiding some hametz to be ‘found’ during the search. Opposing them were those who said that the essence of the ‘removing of the hametz’ was the actual search. It didn’t make any difference whether there was any hametz to be found or not. They strongly opposed the idea of scattering new hametz, which they felt was based on a misunderstanding of what the blessing was about. The Rabad of Posquières [Provence, 12 th Century] wrote, “[Concerning] those who put hametz in the cracks and grooves at the time of searching for the hametz, [this] is the custom of women and has no root.”

Further arguments were brought both for and against scattering hametz before the search. The Pri Etz Hayyim 21:5: Chaim Vittal, [Safed, 16 th century] writes in the name of  Isaac Luria, one of the fathers of the Kabbalah, that the custom has its roots in ancient Jewish mysticism. He also says that there is mystical significance in hiding 10 pieces of bread, a custom followed by many today.

On the other hand, R. Moshe HaCohen [Brit Kehuna 2:15b, Djerba, 20 th Century] writes that this custom undermines the original intention of the Mishnah. The fact that people ‘hide’ bread before searching for the hametz results in people searching only for the bread they have hidden rather than properly checking the house for hametz that has been missed. This does not count as a search at all!

Moses Isserlis [Poland, 16 th century] records the custom in his commentary on the Shulhan Aruch which is authoritative for Ashkenazi communities. Sefardi communities have adopted it because it is a Kabbalistic practice. Although there have been some Poskim who have challenged the custom, there is also the fear that should the custom of hiding bread be abolished, people might neglect the actual search which is a legal obligation,[Rabbi Matzliach Mazuz, the Ish Matzliach, Tunisia, 20 th century]. Therefore, the custom should be maintained and accepted practice as it is in all of Israel.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Based on Ovadiah Yosef, Yachve Da’at 5:31

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November 29, 2010

The Extra Day

Filed under: Festivals — chaimweiner @ 3:58 pm

Question: Does a tourist from abroad who visits Israel during a festival observe the second day of the festival?

Answer: Jewish festivals are celebrated for one day in Israel and two days in the Diaspora. This goes back to the time when the beginning of each Jewish month was determined by the appearance of the new moon and its consecration by the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. Since it took time to communicate the beginning of the month to the Diaspora, these communities frequently did not know exactly when the festival would start. As the start of the new month could vary by a maximum of one day, Diaspora communities observed the festivals over two days, to make sure that they had it right.

The Jewish calendar was already fixed by the time of the Talmud, and this made adding a second day to the festivals unnecessary. The Talmud asks: [BT Beitza 4b] But now that we are well acquainted with the fixing of the new moon, why do we observe two days? — Because they sent [word] from there [Palestine]: Give heed to the customs of your ancestors; for it might happen that the government might issue a decree and it and the custom will be lost. Thus, we have continued to observe one day for a festival in Israel and two in the Diaspora.

When there is a difference of custom between two communities, and someone travels from one community to the other, the rule is [Mishna Pesachim 4:1]: we lay upon him the restrictions of the place whence he departed and the restrictions of the place whither he has gone. Following this, we would expect both a person who goes from the Diaspora to Israel, or vice versa, to observe the more strict custom. Thus, in any case where a person travels, we would expect the norm to be two days observance.

R. Tzvi Ashkenzi [Germany, Holland; 17th Century] known as the Chacham Tzvi, has a novel approach to the problem. He considered the question of two day festivals as different from other customs, where in principle one may choose whether to observe the custom or not. Celebrating two days for a festival is not just a strict observance if there is no reason to do so; it is actually forbidden because it involves saying the wrong prayers and transgressing the biblical prohibition of not adding new commandments to the Torah. He therefore claims that the second day of the festival is not a local custom and that the rules governing local customs do not apply to it.

In other words, at the time the custom was established, anyone who was in the Diaspora [whether they were residents or tourists] was unsure of the date, and therefore had to observe two days. Anyone in Israel knew the correct date and only observed one day. That was the custom of all Jews. Therefore today, anyone who comes to Israel should only observe one day of the festival, but Israelis travelling abroad should observe two, together with the local Jewish community.

Most Rabbis follow the traditional interpretation that each person carries their local customs with them when they travel. The Chacham Tzvi has a unique position, which is both coherent and compelling.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Based on Responsa of the Chacham Tzvi 167

Rabbi Chaim Weiner – Based on Responsa of the Chacham Tzvi 167

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