Mishpatim: Forever & Ever ~ Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

The Torah (Ex. 21:6) teaches that if a Hebrew bondsman opts to continue with his master after his initial seven-year indenture, then “his master should pierce his (the slave’s) ear with an awl and he will be his slave forever (le’olam).” In general, the term le’olam means “forever”. However, in this case Rashi explains that le’olam is limited to the end of the fifty-year Jubilee cycle, at which time the bondsman is automatically emancipated. Sometimes the word le’olam is accompanied with other, seemingly synonymous words. To be more precise, sometimes the word le’olam is paired with the words netzach, selah, or va’ed. Based on this, the Talmud (Eruvin 54a) asserts that those words also mean “forever”. What is the logic behind the Talmud’s assertion, and are all of these words truly synonyms?

Rashi understands the logic behind this assertion is simply based on the fact that those words appear alongside le’olam,so they must all mean the same thing. Indeed, the early grammarian Rabbi Menachem ibn Saruk (920-970) writes in his lexicon of the Hebrew language, known as Machaberet Menachem, that the words netzach, selah, olam, and va’ed are all synonymous. They all mean “forever.” Rabbi Yosef Kimchi (father of Radak) makes the same assertion in his work Sefer HaGilui, except that he omits the word selah from this list (see below).

However, Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (1555-1631), also known as the Maharsha, takes a different approach. As we saw in the case of the Hebrew bondsman, the word le’olam does not really mean “forever” in the sense of something which continues without limit. Rather, the word le’olam denotes a very long period of time, but nonetheless has an end point. That said, when the word le’olam is paired with the words netzach, selah, or va’ed, those words must add some meaning to the amount of time denoted by the word le’olam (because otherwise the dual wording would be superfluous). From this, the Talmud derives that the words netzach, selah, and va’ed must refer to a greater length of time than the word olam does, concluding that those words mean “forever”. Rabbi Avraham ben Ezriel of Vienna (a 13th century authority on liturgy) confines the Talmud’s assertion to instances where these three words appear alongside the word olam, but the Maharsha understands that the Talmud means to extrapolate the meaning of those words in all instances.

In the blessing recited immediately before the Shema in the mornings, we ask of G-d, “And Your mercy and Your kindness shall not forsake us forever (netzach), forever (selah), and forever (va’ed).” Rabbi Avraham ben Natan HaYarchi (a 12th Provencal scholar) and Abudraham (a 14th century commentator to the Siddur) write that because of the redundancy in this prayer, one should omit the words netzah and selah, and only say the word va’ed. However, Rabbi Yitzchak Abuhab (a 14th century halachic decider) writes that we use synonymous words to convey the concept of “forever” in order to stress that we truly request His mercy and kindness to be everlasting.

Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866-1935) writes that although all four words in question mean “forever,” each emphasizes a slightly different idea. He argues that the word netzach implies something which is continuous (i.e. unchanging permanence), selah denotes something which is continual (i.e. ever-repeating), and ad/va’ed refers to the concept of infinite duration. That is, the word ad literally means “until,” but when left as a hanging preposition implies an ellipsis, as if to say, “until… (a time which cannot be defined).”

Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) explains that the word olam is related to the word al (“on top”), because the entire purpose of existence is for each element of creation to strive to attain the spiritual level above where it is presently holding. To that effect, the entire world (olam) or the entire span of time (olam) serves as the game board upon which this can be played out. In this way, the entire space-time continuum serves as the playing field for rising above one’s current state. (Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) also explains that the word ne’elam (“hidden”) is related to the word al,because it is “above” one’s range of perception, so it is hidden from him.)

Based on this, Rabbi Mecklenburg explains that the Jubilee year is called le’olam because during that year a slave rises above his lower status and attains the same status of his master, that of a freedman. He also explains that the word netzach is also related to this concept because the word netzach is derived from the word tzach (“pristine” or “pure”), which alludes to the ultimate state of being which the soul yearns to achieve. The word selah is related to the word suleh (Job 28:16), which denotes something of higher value, and the word va’ed is related to the word adi’im (“adornments”), which alludes to the eternal ornaments which will adorn the soul in the World-to-Come.

Before we conclude this article, I would like to focus a bit on the word selah. As mentioned above, the Talmud (Eruvin 54a) explains that the word selah denotes something which continues ad infitium. Based on this, Rashi, Meiri, and other classical commentators (to Psalms 3:3) explain that selah means “forever”. Indeed, the earliest translations of the Bible (Targum Yonatan in Aramaic, Aquilas in Greek, and the Peshitta in Syriac) all consistently translate selah as “forever”.

However, there are other ways of looking at the word selah. Radak (to Psalms 3:3 and in Sefer HaShorashim) and Malbim (to Psalms 3:3 and Habakuk 3:3) explain that selah is an interjection which marks the end of an idea (similar to an exclamation point in English!). Radak further explains that selah serves as a musical note and indicates that one reading/chanting/singing the passage in question should raise one’s voice to denote the end of an idea. (Rabbi Aviad Sar-Shalom Basilea (1680-1749) in Emunat Chachamim criticizes Radak for seemingly rejecting the traditional rabbinic interpretation of selah as “forever”. However, Rabbi Yaakov Emden (1697-1776) defends Radak by explaining that there is a difference between the plain meaning, which Radak offered, and the deeper implication, which tradition provides.) Malbim adds that sometimes it also means to separate the main content of a passage from that which is only meant parenthetical. Rabbi Chaim Friedlander (1923-1986) adds that the word selah means that we have just concluded relaying an important idea, and one should pause and contemplate that which he has just said before continuing.

Rabbi Mecklenburg cites one of the earlier commentators who apparently wrote that Selah is actually one of G-d’s names. Ibn Ezra (to Psalms 3:3) writes that the word selah serves to affirm that whatever has been said is true. Accordingly, selah means something like “this is true”, “so it is”, or “it is correct”. True that!

Mishpatim: Terms and Conditions for the Never-ending Story ~ Tzvi Abraham


Terms and Conditions for the Never-ending Story

סֵפֶר: book, scroll, Torah

סִיפּוּר: story

לְסַפֵּר: to recount, to tell a story

מִסְפָּר: number, count

סַפִּיר: sapphire, crystal

סְפִירוֹת: sphere

סְפַר: border

סַפַּר: haircutter

מִסְפָּרַיִם: scissors

סֵפֶר: Book, Scroll, Torah

וַיִּקַּח סֵפֶר הַבְּרִית וַיִּקְרָא בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם וַיֹּאמְרוּ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר ה’נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע
And he took the Book of the Covenant and he called into the ears of the people, and they said, “All that is the word of Hashem we will do and we will listen.”1

נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע/“we will do and we will listen,” is a bit like ticking the Terms and Conditions box without actually reading them. And why do we do this? Either we are too lazy to read the Terms and Conditions, or we trust in the organization that they have our best interests at heart. In the case of נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע,we trusted that Hashem was concerned for our best interests.

What is a סֵפֶר? The very first סֵפֶרwas, of course, the סֵפֶר תּוֹרָה. Even though it did not exist in written form until the time of Moshe Rabbeinu and Har Sinai, itnevertheless existed in form before the universe was created, as Chazal say that Hashem looked into the Torah and created the world.2

The first time the word סֵפֶרappears in the Torah is early on in Bereshis, where it says: זֶה סֵפֶר תּוֹלְדֹת אָדָם/this is the seferof the generations of man.3The Ramban says סֵפֶרhere hints to the Torah, because the whole Torah is a collection of the generations of man. Rabbeinu Bechaya offers another explanation, saying that it is referring to חָכְמָה/wisdom, because the essential generations of man are not just his physical children, but more so the wisdom he passes on from generation to generation. This is the סֵפֶר תּוֹרָה, the wisdom that we pass on from generation to generation, an everlasting inheritance, מוֹרָשָׁה קְהִילַת יַעַקֹב.

סֵפֶרis a written account of a סִיפּוּר, a story or event, which is written down and recorded so that it should not be forgotten — such is its importance. We see this with the mitzvah to remember Amalek, as it is written: וַיֹּאמֶר ה’אֶל מֹשֶׁה כְּתֹב זֹאת זִכָּרוֹן בַּסֵּפֶר וְשִׂים בְּאָזְנֵי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ כִּי מָחֹה אֶמְחֶה אֶת זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם
And Hashem said to Moshe: “Write this as a remembrance in the book and place it in the ears of Joshua, that the mentioning of Amalek should surely be erased from underneath the Heavens.”4And again in Devarimwhere we are told not to forget what happened with Amalek.5

סִיפּוּר: Story

Everyone has a story, but not everyone’s story is written.

The Gemara in Megillahsays that in the times of the Tanach, there were hundreds upon hundreds of prophets, yet only forty-eight prophets were written down.6The reason given is that only the prophecies that were needed for the later generations were recorded for prosperity. Only stories that have a message, those that contain wisdom and value for future generations, are made into סְפָרִים —the authentic list of best-sellers.

לְסַפֵּר: To Recount, To Tell a Story

Like we said above, everyone has a story. The story we like to retell the most is our own story. It is the most interesting of all stories, because we are its author. What we talk about reveals to others, and ourselves, what we value.

מִסְפָּר: Number, Count

Not only do we recount what we value, we also count what we value. My young daughter of nine has recently begun to value money. She has a purse where she saves all her coins, and every other day she counts them. Money obviously has value, and so too the Jewish Nation has value, which is why Hashem counts us on numerous occasions. We are innumerable like the stars, yet compared to the billions of people in the world, we are few in number. Why? Because the Torah states that the Jewish Nation will remain few in number. The fact that we are few in number is not a minus but a plus. Anyone who has been a stamp or coin collector knows that the rarer an item is, the more valuable it becomes. We are Hashem’s treasured nation and are therefore very precious in His eyes.

Each and every one of us is connected to an individual letter in the sefer Torah, and just like each letter has a corresponding numerical value (gematria), so too we have intrinsic value, and just like a sefer Torah isposul/invalidated if it is missing one letter, so too every one of us counts.

סַפִיר: Sapphire, Crystal

וַיִּרְאוּ אֵת אֱ-לֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְתַחַת רַגְלָיו כְּמַעֲשֵׂה לִבְנַת הַסַּפִּיר וּכְעֶצֶם הַשָּׁמַיִם לָטֹהַר
And they saw the G-d of Israel, and underneath His legs it was like gems of sapphire, the essence of Heaven, with clarity.7

The elders were later punished for looking into an aspect of Hashem that they were not on a level to receive. Instead of looking away, they were drawn to the light. Yechezkeldescribes how the throne of Hashem is made of sapphire,8which is why the blue of the techelesdye on the tzitzisreminds us of the sea, which in turn reminds us of the Heavens, which connects to theכִסֵא הַכָּבוֹד/Hashem’s throne. Sapphire is from the family of precious gemstones that have this mesmerizing aspect of reflecting light through its crystal surface. The blue of תְּכֵלֶת/techeles, which comes from the word תַּכְלִית/purpose, signifies to us that our purpose is to connect to that heavenly aspect of sapphire and reflect Hashem’s light into the world, infusing it with an aspect of crystal clarity.


Any novice to Kabbalah knows that there are ten sefiros, which correspond to ten aspects of Hashem, which ultimately filter Hashem’s light from the Heavenly spheres down to our earthly domain. When we count sefiras ha’omer, we are in essence tapping into these different levels of sefiros, and each day we are drawing the light down to the point where, on the fiftieth day, Shavuos, we are able to receive Hashem’s light in the form of Kabbalas HaTorah.

סְפַר: Border

Every sphere has a defining edge, the border, which gives it shape and identity. When it comes to the judgment of obliterating an עִיר הַנִידַחַת/wayward city, the Torah states that this does not apply to the border towns, or to two or three towns in the same district, because it would create a bald spot, causing a susceptibility to enemy invasion. The borders are therefore very significant in conserving national identity.

סַפַּר: Haircutter

Based on our above definitions, we can now solve the conundrum of why a hairdresser is called a סַפַּר. Just like the סְפַר/border gives shape and identity to the sphere, so too the hair, which is situated at the edge of the body, gives shape and identity. If left to grow, it makes one’s appearance wild, which is why the hairdresser is fittingly called a סַפַּר,because by cutting the hair, he reshapes and redefines the way we look. Just like the סְפַר/border offers protection, so too the hair has an aspect of protection; for example, the eyelashes protecting the eyes, and the hair in the nose.

Perhaps we could also say that the hairdresser is so called because he is the one who is constantly telling stories to amuse his customers — a truly captive audience!

מִסְפָּרַיִם: Scissors

Scissors are the tools of his trade. Life is a story where we are constantly growing. Even though we reach a point where physically we stop growing, our hair nonetheless continues to grow, and so too inwardly we are growing. However, just like we don’t allow our hair to become wild, so too we need to shape and reshape ourselves, to define who we are.

The Torah, like the מִסְפָּרַיִם/scissors, is the tool of the trade that allows us to shape and give ourselves the cutting edge.

It takes a diamond to cut a diamond; so too we need to cut through the Torah in order for the Torah to cut through us. If we succeed, it will give us a sapphire-like quality of shape and definition with a crystal-clear perspective of the reality of who we are. 

Just as a surgeon has to make very fine incisions, so too the Torah sometimes has to be cut as fine as a hairsbreadth. The more we count and recount the pages of the story, i.e., the Torah, the more we come to value it. So too, the more we are able to be דַק וּמְדוּיַק/fine and exacting with its content, the more we are able to refine and define who we are.

So, we have the cutting edge (the Torah), but do we make the cut? I.e., do we allow the Torah to cut through us?

In conclusion, the סֵפֶר תּורָהcombines all of the above aspects: not only is it the סִיפּוּר/story of the generations of man and the passing down of wisdom, it is also a series of מִסְפָּרִים/numbers (gematria), where we סוֹפֶר/count toward the giving of the Torah because we value what we count. Theסֵפֶר תּוֹרָה is the tachlis, the hidden light that enables us to connect to the aspect of clarity, to the סַפִּיר/sapphire ofHashem’s throne and bring down Hashem’s light into the world. It is a Torah scroll, whose shape is round like a סְפִירָה/sphere, and even though a story has a beginning, middle, and end, the סֵפֶר תּוֹרָה is like a sphere that is continuous, because just like a year that has a beginning, middle, and end nevertheless continues to go around, so too on Simchas Torah, as soon as we finish we begin again the never-ending story. Like theסְפַר/borders, which offer us protection, so too the theסֵפֶר תּוֹרָהis the tavlin/spice that protects us from our enemy — the yetzer hara.The Torah is also like the מִסְפָּרַיִם, being a tool that shapes and defines our lives, giving the Jewish People the cutting edge.

We are the people of נַעַשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע, who accept the terms and conditions of the never-ending story without question, because we trust the Author.


2Bereishis Rabbah 1:1.

3Bereishis 5:1.

4Shemos 17:14.

5Devarim 25:19.

6Megillah 14a.

7Shemos 24:10.

8Yechezkel 1:26.

Mishpatim: Rabbi of Robbers ~ Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein


Rabbi of Robbers

The Amoraic sage Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, also known as Reish Lakish, serves as the quintessential baal teshuvah, as he transformed from being a highway robber to becoming a master Torah Scholar. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 84a) relates that one time, Reish Lakish insinuated to his teacher and brother-in-law Rabbi Yochanan that the latter did not truly do him any service in bringing him to teshuvah because, “There [amongst my robber friends], they called me ‘Rabbi’ and here [in the Beit Midrash], they call me ‘Rabbi’.” This cryptic statement begs the question: In what way can the leader of bandits be called a “Rabbi”? And what does the word “Rabbi” even mean?

When the Bible refers to the master of a slave, the word commonly used is adon (and its various derivatives). A special form of that word (Adonai) is also used in reference to G-d, for He serves as the Master of the Universe and all of creation are His slaves. Targum Onkelos consistently translates the common noun adon into Aramaic as ribbon. That Aramaic word is an honorific form of the Aramaic word rav, which, again also means “master”. Indeed, the Mishnah typically uses the word rav to refer to the master of a slave, so we have now come a full-circle.

Interestingly, the word rav actually appears several times in the Bible, but always in construct form and hyphenated to other words, such as rav-tabachim (Master Executioner, i.e. an army’s general), rav-hachovel (Master of the Rope, i.e. a ship’s captain), and ravei-hamelech (Masters of the King, i.e. a king’s officers).

The word Rabbi is the Anglicized form of the word Rebbi which means “my Rav” or, in pure English, “my master”. In the context of a Torah Scholar or even a lay observant Jew, his “master” is his teacher of Torah. On the other hand, a thief’s “master” is the leader of his delinquent gang.

The Talmud (Brachot 60b) records the words to a blessing which we recite daily in the morning prayers. In that prayer, we thank G-d for returning to us our soul which had temporarily exited our bodies, as we slumbered through the night. We refer to G-d in that prayer as ribbon kol ha-maasim, adon kol ha-nishamot which means, “Master (ribbon) of all creation, Master (adon) of all souls”.

The Vilna Gaon points out that in this context, we use two different words to refer to G-d being a “master”. In the first clause, we call Him a ribbon and in the second, an adon. What is the difference between these two usages? The Vilna Gaon explains that the first clause refers to G-d’s eminence in the realm of the physical, action-oriented existence. Therefore, in that clause, we use the Aramaic word for “master” because the Aramaic language is connected to the outer, surface-level of existence. In the second clause, however, we refer to G-d’s dominion over the spiritual, transcendental realm of existence. That deeper plane of reality is epitomized by the Hebrew language because both penetrate the essence of creation. For this reason, in the second clause, we refer to G-d’s mastery of creation using the Hebrew word for master—adon. (Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, a leader of contemporary Jewry, notes that in this context, the Aramaic clause precedes the Hebrew one, but he does not elaborate on the significance of this observation.)

Until now, we have worked with the assumption that although the words adon and ribbon/rav both mean “master”, the elementary difference between the two is that the former is Hebrew, while the latter is Aramaic. Rabbi Baruch Aryeh ha-Levi Fischer of Yeshivas Chasan Sofer in Brooklyn, however, suggests another, thematic way of differentiating between these two words. The word adon is a title borne by anyone who is a master—once someone becomes a master he can always be called an adon. In contrast, the word ribbon/rav is specifically used when referring to the relationship between a master and the protégé in his charge (be him a slave, a student, or an apprentice). Thus, the word adon is all-encompassing and serves as an epithet assumed by a master in all contexts, while rav/ribbon is only used under specific conditions.

Based on this, Rabbi Fischer explains that Adonai—which is derived from adon—is considered a name of G-d, who is the all-encompassing Master of the Universe, while ribbon/rav is not His name, per se, but only a description of His role vis-à-vis specific elements of creation.