Thursday, April 18, 2019


Erev Shabbos Kodesh/Pesach
             14 Nissan 5779/April 19, 2019

So, when did “thing” become a thing?
Our expressions are constantly evolving, especially in our society of constant new and exciting technology, where new words are frequently introduced to describe new apps and programs. But even within our everyday talk, especially among the younger generation, there’s new jargon that becomes part of our everyday speech. One of those phrases is “thing”.
When I was growing up, people spoke about “something” and having “things”, and of course Dr. Suess’s Cat in the Hat had “Thing 1” and “Thing 2”. But, people didn’t ask “is that a thing?”, “when did that become a thing?”, or “how is that even a thing?”
(In the Yeshiva world, bochurim often talk about “that Kav”. It’s the same as saying “thing” but in yeshivish talk...)
People used to talk about fads, rages, styles, and trends. Now all of that is compacted into “thing”.
I don’t remember when that way of talk began, but I’m pretty sure it was only in the twenty-first century. In our culture, being “a thing” has become the basic unit of cultural ontology.
In 2012 there was a tremendous event in CitiField, known as the CitiField asifa (gathering) to generate awareness about the potential pitfalls and dangers involved in internet usage. (A friend pointed out that it was the only time CitiField was sold out for an event that season...) The main driving forces behind the asifa were the late Skulener Rebbe zt”l and Rav Matisyahu Salomon shlita.
At a pre-asifa meeting with rabbonim and community leaders, Rav Salomon explained that the purpose of the event was not to rail against, and flatly outlaw internet usage. Rather, it was to create an awareness among the Torah faithful that this is a significant challenge. The internet is not just another issue we have to contend with, but we need to recognize that as a generation, it is our most formidable challenge and we need to take it seriously.
In a sense, his point was that the asifa was to generate awareness that vigilance about internet and the dangers it can present if not used responsibly is “a thing”.
In a similar vein, every morning after shachris in our Yeshiva, Heichal HaTorah, there is voluntary chabura (group) that meets in front of the Bais Medrash with Rabbi Pesach Skulnik for a five-minute lecture about the laws of loshon hora. That chabura has a positive effect upon the entire Yeshiva, eve the boys who don’t attend. The mere fact that such a chabura exists, generates awareness that being vigilant about not speaking loshon hora is “a thing”.
On Seder night, our goal is to make sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim “a thing”. However, that is not the ultimate goal. Our ultimate goal is to make emunah and awareness of Hashem in our lives “a thing”.
How do we make something into “a thing”?
Just a few weeks ago, the baseball season began. One morning my students asked me which team I root for. When I replied that the Staums are Yankees fans, one of my students asked me to name the starting players for the Yankees. When I admitted that I couldn’t, he heatedly replied that I wasn’t really a fan. He was emphatic that a real fan knows every player on his team and their stats. He told me that if I was really a passionate fan, I’d at least know their names and positions. I asked him if I have to get special permission to cheer for the Yankees even though I am not a bona-fide fan.
I’m still waiting to find out what my status and fate as a Yankees fan will be.
Some people come to the Seder with a passive demeanor. They fulfill all the mitzvos of the evening according to halacha and undoubtedly are enriched by the experience. But that can not compare to someone who approaches the Seder with passion and excitement. Such people prepare beforehand and can’t wait for the exalted evening. Each mitzvah performed adds to his excitement and he relishes every moment of the regal night. That experience will undoubtedly endure far longer, because to that second person the Seder was far more of “a thing”. Quite simply, something becomes “a thing” when it is exciting and captivating.
A night that ends with hallel and nirtza, songs of yearning and love for more, inevitably elevates all its adherents.
With that, I wish all of my loyal readers a legit epic Seder, which unquestionably is “a thing”.

Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos
Chag Kasher v’samayach & Freilichen Yom Tov,
R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

Thursday, April 11, 2019


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Meztora
Shabbos Hagaol
             7 Nissan 5779/April 12, 2019

It’s just one of those things that everyone knows. Golden Blossom makes honey, Tenuva produces milk and cheese, and Maxwell House publishes the Haggadah.
I always wondered what the connection is between Maxwell House Coffee and the Haggadah. I’m sure I’m not the only one. With a little research (read G-O-O-G-L-E) I finally found out the answer.
During the 1920s, Maxwell House realized that Jews weren’t purchasing their coffee during Pesach. As Ashkenazic law prohibits eating kitniyos - loosely translated as beans and legumes – on Pesach, they wouldn’t buy coffee which is produced from coffee beans. The truth is that coffee is permitted on Pesach because the coffee bean is actually not a bean, but the pit of a fruit. However, because the word bean is part of its title, Jews were keeping their distance from coffee during Pesach.
The Maxwell House company reached out to Joseph Jacobs, the head of an advertising firm that specializes in marketing to Jewish customers, who got a rabbi to certify that the coffee was indeed permitted on Pesach.
            In 1932, the company decided to ratchet up its marketing campaign by giving out a free Haggadah with every can of coffee purchased.
Since then, the Maxwell House Haggadah has become the standard Haggadah in most Jewish homes. It’s an inexpensive way to provide all of one’s Seder guests with a side by side Hebrew-English text. Over 55 million Maxwell House Haggados have been published since the 1930s.
In 2011 the Maxwell House Haggadah translation underwent its first significant update since its original publishing. “Art, thou, and hast” were replaced with more conversant contemporary English.
            Every year multiple, beautiful new haggados are printed with originals insights and perspectives. I personally don’t know too many people who use the Maxwell House Haggadah during their Seder. (Maybe next year they’ll print a Maxwell House Haggadah with the halachic rulings and commentary of Reb Chaim Kanievsky shlita.)
            Still it’s intriguing that the Maxwell House printing has gained such notoriety in the Jewish world generally.
            It got me thinking about other possible connections between coffee and the Seder. Here’s a few possibilities:
1.       During the Seder we recount the famous Seder in B’nei Brak when five distinguished Tanaim reclined together while discussing the exodus throughout the night until their students informed them that it was time to recite the morning Shema. It seems that the conversation was so intriguing that they didn’t require any coffee to keep the conversation flowing all night. (Think about how much coffee we consume on Shavuos night as we struggle to stay awake engaged in Torah study...) These great rabbis were so stimulated by their discussion that they didn’t require any external foods to keep their attention.
2.       Coffee itself is actually quite bitter. Very few people enjoy drinking black coffee. Everyone seems to have their own specifications of how much milk, sugar, and creamer they like in their coffee. It is only when we have the right blend of those added components that we truly enjoy our coffee.
The great sage Hillel would eat “Korech”, a sandwich which consisted of a of matzah (which in those days was more lafa-like), marror (perhaps both lettuce and some grated horseradish) and the freshly roasted meat of the Korbon Pesach (what a delicious sandwich!). When marror is eaten as part of such a sandwich, it is not only not distasteful, but also enhances the taste of the meat.
Marror symbolizes the challenging parts of life. When viewed/experienced unto themselves they are arduous and painful. But when they are understood as part of a greater context which includes matzah and Pesach, symbols of redemption, it becomes an integral component of one’s growth and identity.
No one wants challenges and painful times, but amazingly, often after people have endured such situations, they will assert that now that it happened, they wouldn’t trade the experience. In retrospect they recognize the incredible growth, spiritual, and emotional maturity, they experienced because of the challenging situation. On Seder night we don’t only celebrate redemption, we recall and recognize the exile and the perpetual effect it had upon our national identity and conscience. Like a cup of coffee that combines different foods to give it the perfect taste, Pesach is the celebration of the culmination and result of all the experiences we had in Egypt.
3.       My mother used to have a mug which she used for her morning coffee which had a picture of a bear and the caption “bear with me until I’ve had my coffee.” It was a pleasant way of saying that the day’s stresses and pressures could not be dealt with until she had her morning dose of caffeine. I can relate.
Pesach is the first holiday of the year (see Rosh Hashana 1:1). In a sense we do not confront the spiritual challenges and vagaries that life invariably presents us, until we have had our ‘dose of Pesach’ with its vital message of subjugation, faith, and trust in G-d. We cannot deal with anything without that initial spiritual dose.
4.       Finally, halacha dictates that we do not eat anything after we have eaten the afikomen, to ensure that the its taste lingers in our mouths. This is symbolic of our desire that the spiritual elevation we experienced during, and as a result of, the Seder remain with us, long after the Seder has ended. In addition, many people don’t appreciate the concluding sections of the Seder. In the late hours of the night, after a long Seder and a delicious meal, many people have a hard time reciting the magnificent words of hallel and the moving and stunning songs of nirtzah.
But for those who have really been inspired they even continue beyond the actual text and recite Shir Hashirim as the only possible means to express their deep feelings of elevation and exaltedness.
The Seder is truly good to the last drop!
Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos HaGadol,
R’ Dani and Chani Staum       

Thursday, April 4, 2019


Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Tazria - Hachodesh
Shabbos Rosh Chodesh Nissan
             1 Nissan 5779/April 6, 2019

Everyone in the Staum family knows that Uncle Yitz is 38 years old and is turning 39 on his birthday. 
Uncle Yitz is my father’s older brother. He and my Aunt Chaya are blessed with many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In my youth I couldn’t quite figure out how it was possible for my father’s older brother to be 38, especially when my father became older than that, but I just assumed it was another one of those mysteries of life.
It’s happened more than once that someone has told Uncle Yitz that he looks quite old for his age.
By now, Uncle Yitz’s children have well surpassed his age (though some of them may deny it...) and he even has grandchildren who are not too far behind.
In fact, Uncle Yitz has been turning 39 for over forty years now.
I have been thinking about this recently because I just celebrated my 39th birthday. After all these years I finally caught up to Uncle Yitz.
I recently was informed that the source of the never-getting-older-than-thirty-nine-years-old idea is not Uncle Yitz’s. It actually dates back to a Jewish fellow named Benjamin Kubelsky, who was the son of immigrants. During the early to mid-1900s he was known to the world as the popular comedian, Jack Benny.
It was well known that Jack Benny celebrated his thirty-ninth birthday every year. When Benny died in 1974, he had turned thirty-nine a total of forty-one times.
The question is why 39? If he wanted to be in denial about his age, why not choose 29 or 34?
The Mishna (Avos 5:21) tells us the significance of forty years old as being the age of wisdom.
At the end of their forty-year sojourn in the desert, Moshe tells B’nai Yisroel, “G-d did not grant you a heart of knowledge, and eyes that see, and ears that hear until this day” (Devorim 29:3). The gemara (Avoda Zara 5b) understands from this verse that a person doesn’t fully grasp the depth of the lessons of his rebbe until forty years have elapsed.
Some commentaries explain that the arduous experiences of daily living help a person view life from a different perspective and vantage point. That allows him to understand the depth of the lessons his teachers sought to convey to him decades earlier, which in his callowness he may not have grasped, or was convinced that he knew better.
It seems that forty years old is a dividing line between adult youth and adult-adulthood. Often, we are too jaded or biased to properly contemplate the messages of life or to think about our mortality and the legacy we wish to leave behind. Turning forty seems to do wonders in helping cure those youthful illusions of immortality. 
I think hitting 40 also gives you permission to drone on and on to the younger generation about how things were different back when you were a kid, and how kids today have no respect.
Added responsibility and wisdom are intimidating and anxiety provoking. No wonder Peter Pan never wanted to grow up. And no wonder Jack Benny never wanted to hit the big 4-0.
Meanwhile I’m going to enjoy my last year below the summit, but I do look forward to becoming wise.
I should conclude by noting that Uncle Yitz is, and has always been, wise beyond his years and has always been an inspiration to all of us. No one can quite tell a story or a joke like he does. He is the true personification of the word avuncular. It’s just so sad that he turned all white before forty.
Hashem should grant him many more wonderful and healthy thirty-eight-years-old years.

Chodesh Tov & Good Chodesh
Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,
R’ Dani and Chani Staum