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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

We Need Heroes!

To make your Chanukah more meaningful this year we at TorahLab have worked very hard translating anew and annotating the Megillas Antiochus - The Scroll of Antiochus.  This ancient scroll which dates back to the first century B.C.E. is read on Chanukah in many Yemenite and Italian synagogues. It retells the story of the heroic Maccabees and brings to life one of the true lessons of Chanukah; the power of heroism in faith.

Please be our guest in downloading the scroll. Read it with your children and share it with your friends. May this wonderful story of the Jewish people cause your candles to burn brighter than they ever have before.

From My FOREWORD To The Scroll of Antiochus

Like the story of Esther, The Scroll of Antiochus is a story about heroes. In it we learn of individuals who, with their great dedication and conviction, were able to save the Jewish community in Israel, delay the destruction of Yerushalayim by 200 years, and topple the powerful Greek army. The sons of Mattisyahu, grandsons of Yochanan the Kohein Gadol, waged war against Antiochus and his governors and eventually succeeded in toppling the Greek forces.

On Chanukah we celebrate the miracle of quality over quantity. The Talmud (Shabbos 21b), emphasizes the miracle of the oil. After the Greek invasion and defilement of the Second Beis HaMikdash, the victorious Maccabees discovered only a small amount of pure olive oil, sealed with the distinctive seal of purity of the Kohein Gadol. Even though there was only enough oil to light the Menorah in the Beis HaMikdash for one day, the oil miraculously lasted for eight days. The codifiers of the Siddur, in the Al HaNissim prayer, emphasized the miracle of the armed rebellion which is also the subject of Megillas Antiochus.

The lesson of these two main stories is that a little bit of purity can go a very long way. It is not the quantity of the oil that matters; it is the quality of its purity.

The greatest developments in world history did not take place because of large armies or mega corporations. Change for the better is effected by individuals with courage and by heroes of faith. It is not the fire power of an army that wins the battle, but the purity, power and conviction of its cause.

This is the story of the Jewish people. “Not because you are larger than all the nations did God desire you and choose you, for you are the minority of the nations.” (Devarim 7:7). Our ability to be a ‘light unto the nations’ is in direct proportion to the purity of that light.

The scroll that we put before you in this short volume is an ancient historical account of the Chanukah story. The Scroll of Antiochus was originally written in Aramaic. Rabbi Saadia Gaon (ninth century) claimed that the earliest written copy of this scroll can be traced back to the period of Bais Hillel and Bais Shamai, Talmudic scholars who lived one hundred years before the destruction of the Second Beis HaMikdash; approximately 30 BCE. However, in his opinion, the scroll originated one hundred years before that and was originally written by the Maccabees themselves.

For generations it was the custom of communities in Italy and in Yemen to read the Scroll of Antiochus in the synagogue on Chanukah. (see thirteenth century Tosfos Rid; commentary on Talmud Bavli, Sukkah 42) . It is printed in many Siddurim, including Otzar HaTefillos.

The Maccabees, like the oil found in the Beis HaMikdash, were a small drop of purity amongst an enormous amount of contamination.

We need heroes in order to survive as a people. The story of Chanukah is a story of pure spiritual heroism. It is our hope that the republishing of this story with a new and modern translation will serve to inspire purity, integrity and the heroism which we so direly need.

Rabbi Yaacov Haber
Rosh Chodesh Kislev 5768

Posted on 11/21 at 06:13 PM • Permalink
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Friday, October 19, 2007

Our Latest and Greatest! Rabeinu Yonah on Avos

TorahLab has just published the first ever translation of Rabbeinu Yonah’s commentary on Avos. The TorahLab team, headed by Rabbi David Sedley, has done a remarkable job at adding a significant contribution to Jewish literature and understanding.

A little about the book and its history.

“There were many great Torah authors and many styles of mussar. Not every author can speak to every soul; there are after all so many different types of souls. The exception to this is Rabbeinu Yonah Girondi (and specifically his book on teshuvah). His writings are appropriate to every Jew in every time.” (Rabbi Chaim of Velozhin as quoted by the Chofetz Chaim])

Rabbeinu Yonah came from Girona, in Catalonia. He lived in the thirteenth century, was a grandson and student of the Ramban and the teacher of the Rashba. He is mentioned several times in the commentary of the Tosafos on the Talmud, referred to there as Rabbi Yonah.

He was also considered the most prominent pupil of Rabbi Shlomoh Min HaHor who was the leader of the opponents of Rambam’s philosophical works. As such, he was one of the signers of the infamous ban proclaimed against the Moreh Nevuchim and the Sefer HaMadda in 1233. According to his pupil, Hillel of Verona, Rabbeinu Yonah felt that these editions were philosophically dangerous to the masses and was the instigator of the public burning of Maimonides’ writings by the church in 1233.

Nine years later, in 1242, twenty-four wagon-loads of the Talmud were burned by the church at the very same place where the philosophical writings of Rambam had been destroyed. Rabbeinu Yonah, realized that he made a mistake and publicly admitted in the synagogue of Montpellier that he had been wrong in all his acts against the works and fame of Maimonides.

In his repentance he vowed to travel to Eretz Yisroel and prostrate himself on the grave of the Rambam and implore his pardon in the presence of ten men for seven consecutive days. He left France with that intention, but was detained, first in Barcelona and later in Toledo. He remained in Toledo, and became one of the great Talmudical teachers of his time.

In all his lectures and in his writings he made a point of quoting from Rambam; always mentioning his name with great reverence. Rabbeinu Yonah’s sudden death from a rare disease was considered by many as a consequence of failure to fulfil his vow to journey to the grave of Rambam. He died in Toledo, Spain in November of 1263.

Rabbeinu Yonah wrote a number of works; it is surmised, to atone for his earlier attacks on Rambam and to emphasize his repentance. His Iggeres HaTeshuvah, Shaarei Teshuvah, and Sefer HaYirah are among the most popular ethical treatises in the Judaic library. The Shaarie Teshuvah first appeared in Fano (1505) with the Sefer HaYirah, while the Iggeres HaTeshuvah was first published in Cracow (1586). All have been reprinted many times, separately and together, as well as numerous extracts from them. Rabbeinu Yonah actually wrote many more treatises which were compiled together and published as Shaarei Tzedek; unfortunately most of these writings have been lost.

Rabbi Akiva Eiger commented that he was particularly moved by the mussar works of Rabbeinu Yonah because aside from being a great ethicist, Rabbeinu Yonah was one of the greatest Talmudic scholars of all time as well as a authority on Jewish law. Rabbi Akiva Eiger viewed Rabbeinu Yonah’s mussar comments as legally binding.

Rabbeinu Yonah on Pirkei Avos, presents this exact blend of his abilities. In contrast to the hundreds of commentaries on Pirkei Avos that use the text of Avos as a springboard for homiletic and ethical preaching, Rabbeinu Yonah explains the simple meaning of each Mishnah. This creates a new possibility for inspiration, where one is struck by the beauty and awesome timelessness of the words of the Sages.

We have a very limited number of copies of Rabbeinu Yonah on Pirkei Avos for sale. I strongly recommend you order yours from Torahlab today.

Posted on 10/19 at 09:18 PM • Permalink
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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Sweet Dream

It’s always fun to read a story about yourself. This is a true story as it appears in a new Artscroll book called “Stories For the Jewish Heart” by Rabbi B. Pruzansky. 

I thought I would share it.

Sweet Dreams

One special, golden Shabbos lay ahead on the horizon like a bright little ball of light. Rabbi Yaakov Haber loved the yearly Shabboton that his kollel hosted for the Jews of Melbourne Australia, and as it approached, his anticipation mounted. He loved the opportunity to share this gift of Shabbos with the many Jews who had never experienced it—to watch them slowly unwrap this gift and marvel at its beauty. Each facet of it - candle-lighting, Kiddush, blessing the children, davening, zemiros—brought renewed wonder to their eyes, and often, tears of joy as well.

Indeed, Shabbos itself was enough to move their hearts. But to penetrate their minds, to arouse an understanding of the Torah’s truth and perfection - that was another task entirely. And that task fell to Rabbi Haber. This year, as in years past, he would choose one topic and explore different aspects of it in the six seminars he would give throughout Shabbos. It had to be just right - an inspiring topic, illuminating sources and a crystal clear presentation. He dared not squander this brief, wide-open window of opportunity to inspire the audience that would be sitting before him, their souls silently longing to be reconnected with Hashem.

In this particular year, Rabbi Haber chose the topic of kedusha - living a life of holiness - as his theme. As the date of the Shabbaton approached, he began to research the topic and prepare his material for the seminar. Gradually, however, a sense of frustration began to build in him. Certainly, kedushah was explored and expounded upon in many sources, but something crucial was missing. There was the kind of insight that would make a person nod his head and say, “Oh, I see.” And then there was the kind that is like a ray of light—penetrates a person’s being and illuminates everything within him. That was the kind of insight Rabbi Haber needed to find, and he doggedly pursued it day after day.

Finally, time had nearly run out. It was the Shabbos before the Shabbaton, and he still hadn’t found what he was seeking. Inside him, he churned with anxiety, like an actor who had failed to learn his lines and was now awaiting his cue to step onto the stage. What would he have to offer these people who had come to be inspired by him?

He knew that this problem would not let him to sleep. He needed help, and he sought it. Before he went to bed that night, he unburdened his heart to Hashem, begging Him to please give him the wisdom and understanding to properly understand the meaning of kedusah. Having removed the load from his own shoulders, he finally felt he could relax. For the first time in several nights, he went right to sleep.

There, in the mysterious realm of dreams, he met an old man whose face was framed by a long, silky white beard. “What is wrong?” he gently asked.

Rabbi Haber explained that he was scheduled to give a seminar next week on kedusha, and yet, despite his diligent efforts, he still did not fully grasp the concept. He was terribly worried that his seminar would not be successful, and his chance to inspire all of these fellow Jews would be lost.

“Don’t worry,” the old rabbi reassured him. “I will help you. I will teach you all that you need to know.”

The rabbi began to expound upon kedusha. He patiently explained to his student six profound aspects of the topic, each with complete clarity.

When Rabbi Haber awoke the next morning, he nearly bounded from his bed. His entire being was charged with joy. Hashem had answered his tefillah, depositing the wisdom he longed for directly into his head. Except - what was it the rabbi had told him? The intricately woven threads of logic began to unravel in his hands and—like the dream itself—to dissipate into thin air. The more he tried to grasp the shreds of what remained, the farther away they receded.

He left for Shacharis. It was his custom as he entered the shul to take a sefer from the bookcase to keep with him during davening. In the time between Torah readings, he would open it and learn. On this morning, the sefer he happened to choose was called “Nesivos Sholom,” which was written by Rav Shalom Noach Berzovsky, the renowned Slonimer Rebbe.

The davening progressed, and the time came when there was a brief lull. Rabbi Haber opened the sefer like someone opening a letter, eager to find out what it has to say. To his amazement, the topic before him was none other than kedusha. As he scanned the words before his eyes, he felt a shock of recognition. This was it - the elusive dream, the six intricate explanations that had flooded him with joy and then receded beyond reach. They were here, in this sefer that was written by the Slonimer Rebbe and placed in his hand by Hashem Himself.

Rabbi Haber’s seminar was a tremendous success. Through his beautiful presentation, the audience had their eyes open to the soaring insights of the Slominer Rebbe and the complex subject of kedushah. But the most remarkable part of the whole event, in Rabbi Haber’s eyes, was Hashem’s direct answer to his tefillah.

Some time later, Rabbi Haber traveled to Eretz Yisrael, and high on his agenda was a visit to the holy Slonimer Rebbe whose Torah had illuminated his eyes. In fact, the Rebbe had already heard the story of Rabbi Haber’s dream from one of his chassidim who had visited Melbourne. He was eager to meet Rabbi Haber, and so a meeting was set.

“Tell me all the details of your dream,” the Rebbe urged when Rabbi Haber arrived at their meeting.

Rabbi Haber repeated everything he remembered, and as he spoke, a great smile spread across the Rebbe’s face.

“When I wrote the sefer *Nesivos Shalom,* I expended all of my energy to produce a fine work,” the Rebbe explained. “I had considered whether or not I should get a haskamah (a letter of endorsement). In the end I decided not to pursue it because I realized that I wouldn’t be able to find someone who was studying the topics in my sefer in as much depth as I had gone. But I have always felt distress that I did not get the customary haskamah. Now you have told me about your dream, and I see that Shomayim has chosen to answer your tefillah with my insights into kedusha. I see that Shomayim has agreed to the truth of my insights, and you have relieved me of all of my worries. Thank you so much.

As he left his meeting with this holy Jew, enveloped by his warmth and inspired by his ways, Rabbi Haber knew he had now completed his study of kedushah.

It sounds like a story of the Gedolim of old, but this is a miracle that happened in our own times. It reaffirms our belief that Hashem can answer any prayer at any time.

Posted on 09/12 at 04:19 AM • Permalink
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Meet Rabbi Yaacov Haber

Rabbi Yaacov HaberRabbi Haber has been a leading force in Jewish Outreach for the past 25 years. A founding trustee of AJOP, the Association of Jewish Outreach Professionals, he was the founder and director of the Torah Center of Buffalo from 1980-1990 while serving as a community rabbi in Buffalo. From Buffalo he and his family traveled to Melbourne, Australia where as a project of Kollel Bais HaTalmud he founded the Australian Institute of Torah, a national outreach and adult education program. He directed that program from 1990-1995, at which time he was sought out as National Director of Jewish Education for the Orthodox Union in the United States where he created the Internationally acclaimed and highly successful "Pardes Project."

In addition to his duties at the OU, in 1996 he replaced Rabbi Berel Wein as the spiritual leader of Congregation Bais Torah in Monsey, NY. In keeping with the position of Congregation Bais Torah in the Monsey community, Rabbi Haber was involved in issues involving the greater Monsey community, and counseled hundreds of individuals in the surrounding area.

Rabbi Yaacov Haber is the founder and driving force behind TorahLab. Through TorahLab, Rabbi Haber is bringing together educational and media specialists to create dynamic learning experiences which will be accessible to adults of all backgrounds and levels. Rabbi Haber has published numerous articles and books and is a sought after international lecturer.

Rabbi Haber and his family are presently living in Ramat Beit Shemesh where he is the Rabbi of Kehillas Shivtei Yeshurun.

Rabbi Haber can be contacted at