Wednesday, December 18, 2013


First, cavemen drew pictures on the wall...
Then came the Mesopotamians, Egyptians and Mayans who wrote on stone and pieces of clay….

Then letters were written on animal hives….

This was followed by notes scribbled on papyrus (didn’t last long)….

People then started to write messages on paper by hand….

Type-writers replaced hand writing….

Emails put an end to long communications….

Now, it is texting, or Skyping or talking on Face Time.
And among the young, it is sending pictures through Instagram. 
We started with pictures and came around to pictures...a big circle.

What will be next? Idk!!!!

Rifat Sonsino

Thursday, November 21, 2013


The Decalogue (lit. “Ten Words”) is often viewed as embodying some of the high values of the Western civilization. It appears in the Bible in two parallel but conflicting versions, Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. Yet, it is amazing to read what many people think the Ten Commandments say or include. Here below I wish to identify some of the most popular erroneous assumptions about this famous text:

1: Everyone agrees on the number of injunctions in the Decalogue. This is wrong because the text contains more than ten instructions formulated in the imperatives (that is, Do this…Do not do that). In order to arrive at “ten,” some injunctions need to be combined. In the Bible, ”ten” most likely represents a quorum (cf. “ten” judges in Ruth 4:2). Someone suggested that we have “ten” commandments, because we have “ten” fingers with which to count! Who knows? 

2: Everyone agrees on the division of the Ten Commandments. This too is wrong, because the traditional Jewish division is different from the many Christian divisions. Thus, for example, whereas in the Jewish tradition the very first statement, “I am the Lord your God…” is considered as the first commandment, in many Christian traditions, this is viewed only as an introduction to the following commandment that reads, “You shall not have other gods…”

3: The meaning of the Ten Commandments is clear. This is also not true, because there is an ongoing scholarly dispute on the correct understanding of many of the injunctions. For example, it is not clear whether the original Hebrew meant, “You shall not kill” or “You shall not murder.” 

4: The Ten Commandments are the essence of Judaism. This is not correct either, because, even though the Decalogue is considered important in Jewish lore, the Rabbis of old purposely removed them from the liturgy when “heretics” (early Christians?) claimed that only these commandments were revealed by God (BT Ber. 12a). Most Sephardic Jews do not even stand up when the Ten Commandments are recited. Many Reform Jews do.

5. The Decalogue represents ten “commandments.” This is not so clear. The word “commandment” (mitzvah) does not appear in the text. In the Bible they are simply called aseret ha-diberot, “ten words” (Deut. 10: 4; cf. Ex. 34: 28). The Rabbis referred to them as aseret ha-debarim  (“ten words.”). In time, they were viewed as commandments because the term dibber became a technical term for divine speech (see, Jer. 5: 13). If God said them, they must be commandments!

6: Because many people assume the Decalogue is important in the Judeo-Christian tradition, they attribute to it injunctions that do not appear in the text, such as “You shall not lie,” or “Do not do to others what you don’t want them to do to you.”  Sorry, these are not part of the Ten Commandments.

These major popular but misleading claims led to me to do an in-depth study of the Ten Commandments for many years, which culminates in the publication of my new book, And God Spoke These Words; the Ten Commandments and Contemporary Ethics, by the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Press. Please check it out for other details to see how the Decalogue was interpreted historically and how it is applied to modern ethical situations. The link is:

Rifat Sonsino, PhD
Nov. 2013

Sunday, October 27, 2013


Mid October, my granddaughter, Ariella, became a Bat Mitzvah in California, and made us very proud and happy. 

There are moments in life which define us. There is a before and an after that particular event. In the present Jewish practice, a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is one of those cutting moments. A thirteen year old boy (a Bar Mitzvah) or a girl (a Bat Mitzvah) marks a significant transitional period in life by celebrating it with family and friends during a religious ceremony and often with a big party afterwards. 

In Hebrew the expression Bar/Bat Mitzvah, usually translated as “son/daughter of the Mitzvah,” really means youngsters who are now “responsible for the performance of the Mitzvot (commandments/good deeds).” It takes about two years to get a date from the synagogue and six months to learn how to lead the service in Hebrew and English. In most Reform synagogues in the USA, during a Sabbath morning service, which often includes the celebration of a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, the high point is reached when the candidate chants a section of the Torah portion of the week taken from the Pentateuch and part of the prophetic portion (Haftarah) that follows it. Also, a Bar/Mitzvah usually reads a short commentary of the biblical passages and a message of gratitude to parents, relatives and friends. Ariella did all that. She was nervous but went through the whole thing with poise and a great smile. We were delighted. 

In my granddaughter’s temple, they have a lovely custom of invoking God’s blessings upon the Bar/Bat Mitzvah while standing under a prayer shawl (tallit) held by close friends. As a grandfather, it was my pleasure and honor to recite the priestly blessing there as I prayed for Ariella to have a good and long life, contentment and peace.

However, what moved me the most was a moment just before the Torah service when the Rabbi asked us to pass the Torah scroll from one generation to another, as a reminder that we, as Jews, are all connected by tradition, cultural as well as ethnic ties, from our ancestors in biblical times to the present generation and beyond. As I handed the scroll to my wife, and as she passed it on to my son and daughter-in-law, and they gave it to Ariella, I thought of my own Bar Mitzvah in Istanbul in 1951, of my deceased parents and grandparents, and forward to my son and his daughter, with a sense of gratitude and connectedness that can only be described as magical. I was overwhelmed by emotions, my eyes became teary and I had a hard time breathing. Yes, our Jewish tradition is being handed down to a new generation, and I hope they will be proud of it, keep it and enrich it with their own creativity.  

Ines and I still have the Bar/t Mitzvah of three more grandchildren to go, and I hope God will grant us the opportunity to witness their own celebration.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, PhD
Oct. 2013

Friday, October 4, 2013


Many people read consumer reports before buying an article, such as a car or a TV, and even about a restaurant. I often do. However, recently I was shocked to read that some individuals are getting paid to write favorable reviews for products in respectable periodicals. That is outrageous. Can you trust anyone today?

Our religious literature cautions us not to put our faith in someone else. The model is set by the patriarch Abraham: “Because he put his trust in the Eternal, He reckoned it to his merit” (Gen. 15: 6). The prophet Jeremiah says, “Blessed is the man who trusts in God and who makes God his refuge” (17: 7), and, conversely, “Cursed is he who trusts in man” (17: 5). Similarly, the psalmists states, “Happy is the man who makes the Lord his trust” (40: 5), and “Do not put your trust…in mortal man who cannot save” (146:3). In the early rabbinic period, Hillel is reported to have warned people against overconfidence: “Do not trust yourself until the day of your death” (Pirke Avot, 2: 5; the Talmud gives a few examples in Ber.29a). In medieval times, the Jewish philosopher, Bahya ibn Pakuda (11th cent., Spain) spent an entire chapter on the idea of trust (see, his chapter 7, in The Duties of the Heart), and, even though he thought that it was possible to trust human beings who have compassion, empathy and love, he added that these qualities are often wanting in everyone except God. He then concluded by saying that “whoever trusts in what is other than God, God removes His providence from him and leaves him in the hands of whatever he trusted in.”

Non-Jewish literature on this subject is not more comforting either. The Roman philosopher Seneca (I cent CE) put forward a balanced viewpoint: “It is a vice to trust all, and equally a vice to trust none.” Most writers were more cautious. Thus, for instance, Shakespeare stated, “Love all, trust a few” (All’s Well That Ends Well). Ronald Reagan insisted, “Trust but verify.” Some thinkers even said that we need to put our faith only in ourselves, not on others. And Joseph Stalin went to the other extreme allegedly saying, “I do not trust anyone, not even myself.”

I maintain otherwise. I am not na├»ve but I do tend to be a trusting individual. I often take people at their word. Before a purchase, I do read one or two reviews and then proceed. How can you live in a society where no one relies on another? A student trusts his/her teacher. Children trust their parents, and vice-versa. We rely on a variety of experts. Personal friendship or a good marriage is possible only when there is mutual trust. When we read a book, a research paper, a magazine article etc., unless the claim is preposterous, we all tend to accept the facts cited in them as reliable and true. 

Yes, some people do lie; some people cheat. And it is getting more difficult to trust others. One needs to be skeptical of unusual, strange and outrageous claims. But I don’t think the dishonest are in the majority. I will continue to rely on my guts and depend on others. That is what we need to work on, and make individuals responsible for what they say and do. Society cannot survive on falsehood and suspicion.

As for me, I will start to read many more reviews than before buying anything, and then decide. What a shame!

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, PhD
October, 2013

Sunday, September 22, 2013


Recently I learned the real value of life--my own. 

On Wednesday, Sept. 11, I was in a major car accident. My Nissan Altima was severely damaged but I walked away unscathed. Not even a scratch in my body. I guess it was not my day to go. Or, as someone said to me, it was in fact my day to survive.

This is what happened: That afternoon, after teaching my regular class at Boston College, I heard that there was a lot of traffic on Mass Pike (Boston) going West. So I decided to take another route. At the intersections of Rt. 30 and 95, I waited for the green arrow, and carefully made a left turn onto a ramp leading to 95 South. Half way through, a car materialized from nowhere driving East at full speed, and struck my car with a loud noise. I spun around and began to go backwards until I ended up in an embankment (See picture of car above). 

I did not know what had hit me, but quickly realized that I had been in a major accident. I expected the worst. When the car stopped, I immediately checked myself and found that I was not hurt. I slowly emerged from my car, surveyed the damaged and ran to see if the other driver was OK. He was. The front of his car was torn apart, but the rest of his car was intact. 

Even though I was not physically hurt, I was an emotional wreck. After my car was towed to a body shop nearby, my wife came to pick me up at the Weston police station. The first few nights I could hardly sleep. I kept reviewing in my mind what had happened, and eventually came to the realization that I had survived an ordeal, the first of its kind for me.

The fleeting state of human life is hinted at in the Bible: “My days fly swifter than a runner” (Job 9: 25). Similarly, the Talmud (BT Ber. 28b) points to the sobering reality that often “human beings are here today, but gone tomorrow” (lit. in the grave). That is, one moment you are breathing and moving, and, in an instant, the flame of your life can be extinguished forever. I was fortunate that this did not happen to me on Sept. 11.

What is the lesson? As the psalmists teaches us, “Teach us to count our days” (Ps. 90:12). Life is a gift and we need to be grateful for every moment of our daily existence. 

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.

Sept.22, 2013

PS. If you wish to follow my postings please sign up at