Tuesday, June 26, 2018


During the month of June (2018), I spent about 15 days in Spain, first in Madrid and a longer period in Barcelona, leading religious services and lecturing on Jewish topics at the main two Reform congregations of the country. This is not the first time I went to Spain. In the past, I spent more time in Barcelona, and visited Madrid as a tourist. But now I had the pleasure of meeting the leaders and many members of Madrid’s Reform group.  I was very impressed by what I saw in both places, and am encouraged by the progress that each congregation is making. 

Madrid has a small group of liberal Jews, led by its energetic president, Yael C. Madrid, called “Comunidad Judia Reformista de Madrid” (No Hebrew name yet).  On Friday night, June 1, my wife and I attended the Kabbalat Shabbat service that began at 8 pm. There was a great camaraderie among all the participants. I gave the sermon. The service was followed by a congregational dinner attended and catered by all the participants. There are many Jews in Madrid, and the potential of attracting some of them to the Reform group is great. While in the capital, I also had the opportunity to give a lecture on “Jewish God Concepts” at the prestigious Centro Sefarad, and was interviewed by the local Jewish radio on my activities in Spain.

From Madrid we moved to Barcelona by train, and set ourselves for a longer stay in order to be part of Bet Shalom, the Reform Jewish group ably led by Jai Anguita and Maria Prieto Manzanares. Here we met old friends, and quickly became part of the congregation’s life, teaching and lecturing on Reform Judaism. The high point occurred  at the Friday night service (on June 8) conducted in Hebrew and Spanish by lay people. I gave the sermon. It was followed by a huge congregational dinner that was catered by members. During the week, I met with prospective converts and discussed the future with the leaders of the synagogue. I saw more people at the synagogue this time that I had ever seen before. Jai, the president, is working hard to keep things together, and promised me to get help from others in his enormous job.

Jews were expelled from Spain in1492, and spread all over the Mediterranean basin. But now a newer generation of Spanish Jews is emerging through the return of some North African Jews and the conversion to Judaism by many sympathizers. Right now, most Jews are affiliated with the Orthodox but many are seeking a liberal interpretation of Judaism. Reform Jews of the world need to pay attention to this development and support its growth. (I tried to bring a Torah scroll to the Madrid’s Reform Synagogue that has a temporary one given to them by British Jews, but failed to find one in the States.) Both congregations need a new prayerbook, help setting up youth activities and religious schools. I began the process by contacting my congregation, Beth Shalom of Needham, MA, where I am the Rabbi Emeritus, and put in touch our respective professional staff for consultation and exchange of educational material. This effort should be duplicated by many other synagogues in the States, and I hope it will happen soon. There is also the possibility of “adopting” these two synagogues as “sisters” institutions. 

I left Spain exhilarated by the new energy I felt in a few days in a country that had one of the great Jewish centers of the world. Will you help me?

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D
Rabbi Emeritus, Temple Beth Shalom, Needham, MA 
Framingham State University

Wednesday, May 16, 2018


1.     THE NAME: B'MIDBAR, “In the wilderness.” The Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible, calls it Numeri. Similarly, the Rabbis called it homesh hapikudim, “1/5 part of the Pentateuch that deals with numbers.”
2.     The book begins 13 months after the Exodus from Egypt, and covers the 40 years the Israelites spent in the wilderness of Sinai.
3.     The number 40 in the Bible should not be taken literally. Many events last that long: the Flood during Noah (Gen.7:4), Moses’ time spent upon the Sinai mountain (Ex.34:28), the number of days it took to embalm Joseph (Gen.50:3) etc. It simply means a long period of time.
4.     In chapter 3, Aaron’s sons, the priests, offered “a strange fire” upon the altar. What is it? No one knows. Speculation runs deep: coals from an ordinary place; secular fire; unauthorized fire, etc.
5.     The message of the Book: It seems to encourage people to move forward  when embarking upon a new adventure. Progress often depends on taking the first few steps. Without taking a chance on life, little is accomplished.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

SONSINO'S COMMENTS ON THE TORAH: Lev. 25-27, Behar-Behukotay

SONSINO’S COMMENTS ON THE TORAH: Behar/Behukotay, Lev. 25: 1-27:34, for 5/12/18

1.     This combined Torah portion deals with the Sabbatical year (every 7 years), the Jubilee year (at the end of seven sabbatical cycles) as well as with some humanitarian laws. During these key years the land remains fallow, property in land is restored to the previous owner and slaves are freed. In the ancient Near East, kings often make similar proclamations.
2.     “You shall fear your God” (Lev.25: 17): Another translation for “fear” is “revere or stand in awe.” In our time, when one realizes the beauty of nature, its complexity and harmony, we need to “stand in awe.”
3.     Lev. 26 concludes the section in the book of Leviticus called the “Code of Holiness.” One of the laws reads: “I will grant peace (shalom) in the land” (v 6).” In modern Hebrew shalom is “hello” or “good bye.” In the biblical period, it meant “wholeness” or “completeness.”
4.     The Torah portion ends with rewards and punishments. In fact, the collective responsibility of the earlier times gave way (in Ezekiel) to individual responsibly. In our time, knowing that even the righteous are sometimes punished, we need to stress that we must do what is right, not for its rewards, but because it is the right thing to do.