Memorial Evening 2010

5770/2010 Memorial Evening
marking the 15th Yahrzeit of Etta Ehrman Kossowsky z.l.

The Memorial Evening marking the 15th Yahrzeit of Etta Ehrman Kossowsky z.l. was held on 6 February 2010 in Bet Shemesh. Etta's family and friends, some forty people, came from far and near to remember her and learn in her name.

As in previous years, a guest speaker was invited. Aliza Segal is a distinguished educationist as well as a yoetzet halacha, one of the few women recognised by the Rabbinate as qualified to advise women with halacha-related problems. Aliza spoke about women's halachic obligations in "The Making of History and Community".

Eli Ehrman gave a devar Torah on our ability to reverse the curses of Gan Eden: Geula and the Three Curses in Gan Eden.


Introduction by Esther Ehrman


Aliza Segal: The Making of History and Community


The following is a short summary of Aliza Segal's talk, written by Aliza.

Af hen hayu be'oto hanes: The Making of History and Community

In three different places in the Gemara, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi uses the same principle to obligate women in particular mitzvot. The mitzvot in question are: reading the Megillah on Purim; drinking four cups of wine at the Pesach Seder; and lighting Chanukah candles. These mitzvot have two important things in common: they are all positive, time-bound commandments, from which women are generally exempt, and they are all derabbanan/Rabbinic obligations.

The principle articulated by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi is "af hen hayu be'oto hanes / even they were in that miracle." There is a disagreement among Rishonim as to the meaning of this principle. The position that appears in Rashi in two of the places, and is attributed to Rashbam as well in the Tosafot, maintains that the miracles associated with these three holidays were in some way brought about by women (Esther on Purim, Judith on Chanukah, and all of the "righteous women" in Egypt). "Af hen" indicates a female protagonist, in whose commemoration women of subsequent generations are obligated in the mitzvot. The position attributed to Rabbenu Tam disagrees on textual grounds. First, the terminology "af / even" implies inclusion, but not primary involvement, and second, the Palestinian Talmud features the phrase "oto safek / the same danger," and not "nes / miracle." Rather, Rabbenu Tam's opinion maintains that the women were equally endangered, and therefore the salvation applied equally to them, and so they are equally obligated in the mitzvot.

In the Etta Ehrman Kossowsky Yahrzeit Lecture, we focused on three arenas upon which the interpretive argument surrounding af hen hayu be'oto hanes may impact. The first is a look to the past. What do the halakhic positions reflect about how we read our history? What narrative is constructed, and what does this say about the position of women in Jewish history? On the one hand, we tend to value active over passive participation in historical events, and the notion of a female protagonist indeed sounds appealingly heroic. Our history is short on women featured prominently in leadership positions, and opportunities to focus upon such women perhaps should be maximized. On the other hand, if we require truly heroic women in order to be inclusive of women, then women are written out of more than into history. Rabbenu Tam's view then seems to be the more inclusive, the one that views women as part of the national history not by dint of outstanding actions, but by dint of sharing in the national destiny.

The second arena of impact is that of halakhah. If af hen is restricted to miracles involving a female protagonist, its application beyond the three particular cases is indeed limited. (The creation and application of such a principle may also be related, we have suggested, to Rashi's position regarding the rules governing mitzvot miderabbanan.) If, however, af hen may be applied to mitzvot commemorating any event in which women were also involved, perhaps there are other mitzvot that are implicitly affected by this principle. Tosafot (in the position that later Rishonim associate with Rabbenu Tam) restrict the application of the principle to mitzvot miderabbanan. One possible application would be the obligation of women in the third Shabbat meal, commemorating the miracle of the manna in the desert. Others would disagree, restricting the principle's application further to the specific types of situations represented in the Purim, Pesach and Chanukah stories: the Jews are in clear and present danger, and/or the mitzvah is one of pirsum hanes / publicizing the miracle.

The third arena that we considered in discussing the af hen principle is that of the present with a look towards the future. What is our construction of community? To what degree do we seek to be inclusive? Being counted among the mitzvah-observers is, within the halakhic system, a means of being counted. While women are not literally counted, as in for a minyan / quorum, we can seek ways of having people "count" as part of the community. Exceptional and heroic actions, akin to those undertaken by Rashbam's female protagonists, need not be the entry requirement into the community. Rather, it should be sufficient to share the fate, or the way of life, of that community, as in Rabbenu Tam's model. In seeking balance between the viewpoints represented by these positions, perhaps the individual can strive for whichever greatness in service he or she can achieve, while the community includes all by the mere fact of their belonging.

Memorial Evening 2009

5769/2009 Memorial Evening
marking the 14th Yahrzeit of Etta Ehrman Kossowsky z.l.

Wind and rain and thunder did not keep Etta’s friends away and a highly interesting Evening of Torah Learning was shared by over forty-five people. They came to remember Etta, they came to learn.


Devar Torah by Michi Kossowsky


Dr Rachel Adelman: Elijah, the Wandering Jew


Eli Ehrman: The Divine Gardener


Michi Kossowsky opened the proceedings with a devar Torah on the Meraglim, the spies and their very negative report on the land that the Children of Israel were about to enter. How could these men, who had witnessed the Divine protection, entertain such doubts? Did they fear a future without Divine protection? Did they worry that they would still need that help to conquer the land? Michi likened our generation to that of the Meraglim. We, too, have questions about the Land that we are re-entering, its challenges and level of spirituality. We should, Michi suggested, take on board the message of Caleb, -alo, na’alei, let us go up now. Etta, a passionate Zionist, would have agreed.

The guest speaker was Dr Rachel Adelman. Her topic was ‘Elijah, the Wandering Jew’. Dr Adelman took us on a fascinating journey, showing how the figure of Elijah was transformed from the judgemental zealot of the Tenach to the harbinger of the Redemption, the figure we welcome at the Seder and at every Brit Mila. Was Elijah the figure in a non-Jewish source, cursed to wander the earth, as was Cain? In the Book of Kings G-d rebukes Elijah, jealous for G-d, for his judgemental stand and sends him to Damascus to appoint a prophet to replace him. Elijah is rejected, fired by G-d, says the Midrash. Pirkei de R.Eliezer identifies Elijah with Pinchas, who is also ‘jealous’ on behalf of G-d and kills the sexual sinners in the camp. Pinchas is rewarded by G-d with the ‘brit shalom.’, a covenant of peace and with the Priesthood. He will ultimately bring peace between parents and children and witness our Repentance that needs to precede the Redemption. In the Midrash, Elijah is identified as the ‘malach ha brit’, G-d’s Covenant Messenger, and brit is identified with brit mila, circumcision. He returns to bear witness to the Covenant being kept by the people of Israel. Elijah is then identified with the Jewish people and they are certainly not the accursed wanderers, since there is Zion, a G-d given homeland, a homeland very dear to Etta, as we know.

Eli Ehrman held the audience with an original suggestion that we should change our view of G-d as the Great Engineer and Designer to one of a Divine Cosmic Gardener. The cosmic Gardener creates and guides in response to a course of events determined by the laws of nature (that He created and respects). Eli explained the Divine guidance by showing how random events can be ‘guided’. His basic example was one where one thousand coins can be flipped and a desirable outcome can be achieved by excluding at each throw those coins that were already ‘positive’. The engineer would expect no surprises. The Gardener would. G-d shows us His goals in the Torah, but again and again ‘responds’ to our actions and prayers to change the course of history. Eli saw the death of his sister Etta, not as part of a plan, but due to the fact of illnesses that we are not yet sufficiently skilled to overcome. You can read Eli's article on this subject here: The Divine Gardener

The evening ended, as always, with refreshments, when people could discuss the ideas presented and speak about Etta,z.l.

Memorial Evening 2008

5768/2008 Memorial Evening
marking the 13th Yahrzeit of Etta Ehrman Kossowsky z.l.

True to form, on Shevat 23rd, the Yahrzeit of Etta Yonit bat moreinu ha Rav Zvi Ehrman, the snow arrived in Israel. Notwithstanding, some fifty people came to remember Etta on this, the annual Memorial Evening held in Bet Shemesh. It was particularly appreciated that Nechama Barash, our guest speaker, made it, risking the imminent weather problems.

Esther Ehrman welcomed everyone. Noting that Etta's Yahrzeit always falls on Parashat Yithro or Mishpatim, she considered one of the many links between these two sedras. The Israelite slaves were brought out of Egypt, not in order to be free but in order to 'serve' G-d and, at the Revelation at Mount Sinai, in Yithro, their 'new' Master states what kind of person He wishes for His service: one who does not murder or steal, who honours his parents, one who is mindful of his new Master by enjoying Shabbat and giving Him his undivided loyalty. In Mishpatim, we are instructed in some of the obligations that will regulate the society envisaged. To start with, the ex-slaves are shown the limitation of any future slavery, one which will never take up all, or even much of a lifetime. Applying these commandments will help us on the way to deserving the highest honorific, given to Moses, eved HaShem. Esther saw the function of the Etta Kossowsky Study Groups to be learning in depth those Torah instructions

Esther reported on the fairly healthy state of the finances of the Etta Kossowsky Fund, then welcomed the Guest Speaker, Nechama Barash, a scholar, versed in Talmud and dedicated to teaching its values.

Michi Kossowsky opened the learning with a 'devar Torah' on tefilla, prayer. Basing his thoughts on Rav Soloveitchik's Worship of the Heart and an essay by Rabbi Joshua Amaru, Michi raised the question: what is it that we are doing when we pray? We understand from Biblical and Rabbinic sources that the Almighty wants us to pray - as witness the repeated occasions when our 'mothers' were unable to have children until prayers by or for them were answered by G-d. Prayer, Michi said, is the process of prophecy in reverse, in that the conduit, the escalator, as it were, here leads up from below, from man. Michi noted the danger inherent in rigid models of prayer and the value of dialogue as Chassidut understands it.

The subject of the Guest Speaker's talk was 'Brurya, - setting the record straight'. Nechama showed Brurya, the learned, authoritative halachist, as e.g giving an opinion on an impure oven (Messechet Kelim), a compassionate wife, as in the story where her two sons die and she has to break the news to the father (Midrash Mishlei) and the aggressive defender of textual understanding, intolerant of those who fail to see her point ("you fool…" Mesechet Berakhot). Was Brurya really the wife of Rabbi Meir and the daughter of Rabbi Hananya Ben Teradyon, as tradition, based on sources in the Babylonian Talmud has it? Nechama showed that this is not as unequivocal as is usually thought. There are texts that speak of 'the wife' of R.Meir (e.g., Midrash Mishlei),'the daughter' of R.Hananya b.Teradyon. There is even a source (Talmud Yerushalmi, Mesechet Demai), that speaks of R.Meir having a different father-in law, not Brurya's father. It is the Babylonian Talmud that mostly mentions Brurya by name and also names her husband and father. Without these sources, the record is open to question.

In his 'devar Torah', Rabbi Dr Ekstein stressed the difference in the tenor of the two sedras, Yithro and Mishpatim. In Yithro, when The Almighty reveals Himself at Mount Sinai, the atmosphere is overwhelming. The response of the Israelites is given in fear and awe. The tone in Mishpatim is very different. Since the commandments here largely determine the relations of human beings to one another, dealing with matters such as social equality, the people need to relate to these mishpatim with calm understanding. It is this same concern, to make the Torah accessible, that determines the tone used here, as it determined the advice given at the beginning of Yithro to Moses by his father-in-law.

A final devar Torah was given by Eli Ehrman, who took as his subject the story of Joseph and his brothers. Why, Eli asked, did the Torah tell this particular tale? Is the favouritism shown to Joseph by his father there to tell us that Jacob saw the line of Judaism continuing through Joseph? Is it a matter of lack of communication ? Why is the teshuva, the reform of Joseph's brothers here? Did Joseph simply want to ensure that Benjamin came to him? Eli did not offer answers to these questions. We are in the dark because, throughout the account, G-d does not speak, as earlier he had done to the patriarchs. The generation of Joseph, like our own generation, was left to figure things out. Given human nature and failing a direct communication, the Jewish people needs to face the challenge of behaving in accordance with the brit, the covenant that we are committed to. Etta, z.l., her brother recalled, was always very clear about what she thought was required and wholly committed to it.

The evening ended with friends chatting about Etta and about the learning while enjoying refreshments in the home of Lauri and Michi Kossowsky.