Judaism has a complex and detailed ritual of mourning that serves to acclimatise the surviving relatives to their loss, as well as offering them support and consolation. The Torah, however, prohibits certain mourning rituals that it views as destructive and counter-productive. One such practice is discussed in our parsha (Devarim 14:1): “You are children of Hashem your God, do not make welts in your skin and do not pull out hair from your forehead for the dead.” In the ancient world, and still in some societies today, it was common for mourners to gouge their skin until it bled to express their pain and loss. Others would pull out their hair in grief and anguish. Judaism finds such practices repugnant, a fact made clear by the introductory words to this prohibition: “You are children to Hashem your God,” which Rashi explains as an expression of love: “Since you are children of the Almighty it is proper that you be beautiful and not gouged or hairless.” Although mourning is encouraged and indeed obligatory, it may not be taken to unacceptable levels. It cannot be denied that a mourner often feels pain and anger and needs to vent his feelings, but this is accomplished through the practice of kriah, the rending of a garment, and not through self-flagellation.


The Sages of the Talmud saw in the words of this prohibition another important law that if disobeyed could be much more destructive than the cutting of flesh, and that is the “cutting up” of communities. The phrase “lo titgodadu”, translated as “do not cut yourself,” can also mean, “do not splinter into groups (agudot).”  Hence, the Torah is warning the Jewish people: “You are children of Hashem your God, do not break up into many groups.” Rashi (Yevamot 13B) explains the danger of forming different groups: “For it looks as if there are two Torahs.” The Rambam (Hilchot Avoda Zara 12:14) gives a concrete example based on the discussion in the Talmud: “There should not be two Beth Dins in one city, one ruling this way and the other ruling that way for this leads to great division…” This does not mean that there should be universal rulings on all cases of Jewish Law and that there is no room for differences of opinion or varied customs. That is almost an impossible task as each and every case has its own subjective peculiarities. Moreover, the Torah, itself, mandates a system of district courts that must rule as they see fit. Only if they cannot decide on a matter are they obliged to take it for adjudication to the Sanhedrin (Supreme Court) in Jerusalem. However, within one community, there should be a standardisation of Halachic practices and customs to prevent fragmentation and splintering.


One such example appears in the laws relating to the wearing of tefillin on festivals. It is clear from the Talmud that tefillin are not worn on Shabbat or Yom Tov. However, there are various opinions regarding the wearing of tefillin on the intermediary days (chol hamo’ed) of Pesach and Sukkot. The Sephardic and Chassidic custom is not to wear tefillin, whereas Ashkenazi Jews do wear tefillin during the morning services of chol hamo’ed.  Furthermore, in the land of Israel, tefillin are not worn by Sephardim or Ashkenazim. These differences in custom can often lead to a dilemma – what happens when one who does wear tefillin on chol hamo’ed finds himself at a shul where they do not, or vice versa? The Chofetz Chaim (Mishna Berura 31:8) rules: “It is not correct that in one shul some of the men wear tefillin and the others do not because of the prohibition of lo titgodadu, do not break up into many groups.”


Before the Holocaust, every town, city or even country rigorously followed the customs they received from their forebears. This is no longer the case as it is not uncommon to find hundreds of different customs in one city. This is because communities that, for centuries had been situated in a fixed location, were transplanted to new shores together with Jews from many other countries. Naturally, every community wanted to continue the ways of their ancestors, and indeed, Jewish Law does accommodate such a situation. However, when this leads to friction, the Torah is not quite so tolerant. Of course, one may follow the ways of one’s ancestors but not when one finds oneself a visitor in another community where their customs differ. In such instances, the individual must carefully ascertain the customs of the place and endeavour to follow them diligently to prevent the inevitable squabbling, arguments and disputes that will occur.


Unfortunately, in many places with large religious communities, there is very little tolerance for different customs and viewpoints, even when they have a solid Torah base. Each group claims that “their way” of practising mitzvoth is the “correct” way. This leads to splintering, arguments, and often, to a desecration of God’s Name. This week, I experienced the complete opposite of this. Lee and I were privileged to attend the annual Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris Rabbinical Conference, which took place this year, in Zimbali, KZN. The Rabbinical Conference has been running for some thirty years and is quite unique in the world because rabbis (and, since 2022, rebbetzins too!) from different “brands” of Orthodox Judaism gather together for three days in an atmosphere of brotherhood, friendship and camaraderie. The delegates hailed from a number of disparate “camps” including Chabad, Charedi, Sephardi and National Religious (Mizrachi). These groups have different siddurim, customs regarding how to put on tefillin, dress codes etc. And yet, we all learned together, prayed together and ate together. There was no sense that the delegates were uncomfortable or ‘compelled’ to get on with one another for the sake of expediency. On the contrary, we all enjoyed each other’s company. I believe this is what the Torah envisioned: twelve Tribes, each with its own distinct style and customs, united under the banner of Am Yisrael, the Nation of Israel.  


Lee, Chani Merryl and Naomi join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom! Rabbi Liebenberg


Link to Rabbi’s YouTube message for the parsha: https://youtu.be/Uq3msNZ_YY8


*Thursday 17 and Friday 18 August – Rosh Chodesh Elul

The month of Elul is a time of Divine Favour. In the first year after the Exodus, Moshe spent forty days on Mt Sinai receiving the Torah. When he descended, he discovered the betrayal of the golden calf. He broke the Tablets and returned to seek forgiveness for a further forty days. Hashem then informed him that He would forgive the Israelites. Moshe descended, fashioned a new set of Tablets for Hashem to engrave and ascended for a third period of forty days. He went up on Rosh Chodesh Elul and remained on the mountain for forty days, descending with the new Tablets on the 10th of Tishrei – Yom Kippur (see Rashi Shmot 33:11). During Elul, we sound the shofar daily; we add Psalm 27 at Shacharit and Maariv and, towards the end of the month, we recite Selichot, prayers for forgiveness.  The Molad (appearance of the new moon) for Elul is on Wednesday 16 August at 17h04 and 17 chalakim (a chelek, literally a “portion”, is a Talmudic measure of time equal to one-eighteenth of a minute, or 3 and 1/3 seconds).











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