Friday, February 27, 2015

The Sabbath of Remembering

This Shabbat is Shabbat Parashat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembering.

The Torah portion that is read as the Maftir (additional) portion, after the conclusion of the regular weekly Torah reading, commands the Jewish people to remember that the nation of Amalek attacked our weak, tired and elderly shortly after the Jews crossed the Red Sea (Deuteronomy 25:17-19). Therefore, there is a mitzvah to destroy Amalek. Parashat Zachor is always read on the Shabbat before Purim.

The Amalekites traveled many miles in order to attack the Jewish people from behind, attacking the weak and the stragglers. Miraculously, the Jewish people defeated the Amalekites in a one day war. This attack underscored the evil character of the Amalekites. God had just performed great miracles for the Israelites and no nation dared attack them, except Amalek, who hit them from the rear.

The nation of Amalek is known for its all-consuming love of self, and reliance on violence to prove its superiority. The Midrash (Sifrei 296) tells us that the wording in Deuteronomy 25:18, "Asher kar'cha ba'derech," literally means that Amalek "happened" upon the Jews. This, the rabbis explain, is a description of the personality of Amalek: Amalek represents the belief in chance, of the haphazard dictates of "fate," which opposes the Jewish belief in Divine providence. Amalek's philosophy negates the concept that there is a purpose to humanity or to creation itself--again the antithesis of Jewish philosophy.

Parashat Zachor is read on the Shabbat before Purim because Haman was a direct descendant of Amalek. Like his forefathers, Haman was the archenemy of the Jews. He wanted to wipe them out. Neither begging, bribery nor debate would have changed Haman's mind because the Jewish nation represented a spiritual force which he abhorred.

This Treat was last posted on March 14, 2014.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Aishet Chayil and Esther

On Friday nights it is customary to sing a selection of verses from the final chapter of the Book of Proverbs (31:10-31) known as Aishet Chayil, A Woman of Valor. At this time of year [pre-Purim], one particular Jewish heroine stands out: Queen Esther.

Which verse of Aishet Chayil best defines Esther? Here are a few selections:

1) Proverbs 31:17
She girds herself with strength / and invigorates her arms.
Even after hearing of Haman's plan to kill the Jews, Esther was hesitant to appear unbidden before the king (an action punishable by death) and beg for mercy. But Esther girded herself with strength...the strength of both the Jewish people (whom she asked to fast and pray) and of her own prayers.

2) Proverbs 31:11
His heart trusts in her / and lacks no treasure.
Achashverosh, however, is pleased to see Esther and offers her anything that she wishes, "even half his kingdom." But all she requests is that the King and Haman join her for a feast.

3) Proverbs 31:12
She does him good, never bad / all the days of her life.
When Esther reveals Haman's plan, she puts all of the blame on Haman. In truth, Achashverosh, like Haman, also had evil intentions. But since Achashverosh was both the king and her husband, Esther allowed him to make the decision to overrule the plan, rather than embarrass him.

4) Proverbs 31:30
Grace is false, beauty is fleeting / it is for her fear of God that a woman is to be praised.
Had Esther only been a beautiful Jewess chosen to be queen by Achashverosh, an entire book of Scripture would not be named for her. Esther's true glory was that she overcame her circumstances, remained devout to her faith, and risked her life to save her people.

This Treat was last posted on March 7, 2014.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Hearing It

Try to hear the portion of Parashat Zachor read this Shabbat.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Haman's History

According to the narrative in the Book of Esther, Haman’s plot to destroy the Jewish people appears to have been instigated by the fact that Mordechai refused to bow down to Haman. Talk about an extreme reaction! What was it about Mordechai that so angered Haman?

The sages asked a similar question and noted that “the explanation is in the dictum of Rabbi Hisda, for Rabbi Hisda said: The one came [to the court] as a counselor and the other as an envoy. Rabbi Papa said: They also called him [Haman], ‘The slave who was sold for loaves of bread.’” (Megillah 14b/15a).

To understand the statement of Rabbi Hisda, it is necessary to review the story as recorded in Aggadat Esther 5:9. Mordechai was among the Jews who joined Ezra to begin rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Unhappy with the idea that the rightful owners of the land might return, the neighboring nations sought to stop them by claiming that the Jews did not have royal permission to rebuild. (They did, from King Cyrus.) It was determined that representatives from each side would be sent to King Cyrus. The Jews sent Mordechai, while the neighbors sent Haman, who “was the barber in the village of Kartzum for 22 years” (Megillah 16).

As they were traveling together to the king, Mordechai ate his food conservatively, whereas Haman gluttonously consumed his entire supply at the outset of his journey. Virtually famished, Haman asked Mordechai to lend him a loaf of bread. Mordechai agreed to provide the food if Haman would agree to enslave himself. When Haman agreed, the “bill of sale” was written on the sole of Mordechai’s shoe. “Subsequently, when Mordechai was sitting at the gate of the king and Haman passed, [Mordechai] extended his foot with the shoe on which the deed of sale was inscribed. Thereupon ‘Haman was filled with rage’ (Esther 3:5)” (Aggadat Esther 5:9).

Haman’s history with Mordechai only added to Haman’s deep animosity against the Jews that he had acquired from his own family, since he was a descendant of Agag, the last king of the Amalekites. (Click here for the story of the Amalekites.)

This Treat was last posted on February 29, 2012

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

One Week Until Purim

Mark your calendars and plan a Purim celebration.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Tribe of Menashe

As descendants of the original 12 sons of Israel, the lives and personalities of the descendants of Jacob significantly impacted on the history and behavior of the future tribe members who were to descend from them. While Menashe and Ephraim were grandsons rather than sons of Jacob, once the Children of Israel left Egypt, the descendants of Menashe and Ephraim became unique tribes of their own (instead of there being a single Tribe of Joseph).

Among the descendants of the Tribe of Menashe were Zelophchad and his daughters, Mach’lah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirza. The orphaned daughters of Zelophchad are noted in the Torah (Numbers 27:8) for coming to Moses and requesting to inherit their father’s portion of land in Canaan, since he had no sons . Their request was ultimately granted. (Click here to read more.)

Although it is not mentioned where Zelophchad’s portion of land was to be, it should be noted that the Tribe of Menashe had the distinction of being divided into two separate areas on either side of the Jordan River. When the leaders of the Tribes of Reuben and Gad asked to settle on the land east of the Jordan, Moses allocated some of that land to half the Tribe of Menashe as well (Numbers 32:16-17).  (Click here to read more.)

Once the Israelites settled in the Promised Land, there were a number of Menashites among the Judges who led the people: Gideon and his son Avimelech, Yair the Gileadite, and Japhethah the Gileadite.

When the unified kingdom divided, Menashe became part of the Northen Kingdom of Israel. In fact, the Kingdom of Israel’s first capital, Shechem, was in the territory of Menashe.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.


Share blessings and positive thoughts with all of the loved ones in your life. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

In Uniform

The role played by dress codes is a topic that, every few years, sparks discussion and debate. Whether the question is school uniforms or the influence of “casual Friday,” people usually have strong opinions. One aspect of the debate focuses on the impact of clothing choices on a person’s mind-set and work performance. Many proponents of uniforms and dress codes believe that being dressed appropriately for work/school allows a person to focus more on the task at hand.

This opinion may be supported by the rules that applied to the ancient kohanim (priests).

The Torah defines a very specific “uniform” for the kohanim - tunic, pants, hat and belt, all made of specific materials (with additional special clothing for the kohain gadol - high priest). The uniform itself is not unexpected. Around the world, clergy figures often dress distinctively from the rest of society. What is interesting, however, is the level of importance placed on the priestly garments.

A priest who performed his duties without the proper dress is one of several categories of priests listed as being “liable to death [at the hands of heaven]” (Talmud Sanhedrin 83a). The sages explained that this was understood from Exodus 29:9: “And you shall gird them with girdles, Aaron and his sons, and bind headdresses on them; and they shall have the priesthood by a perpetual statute” - since Aaron and his sons had to wear the special garments for their induction into the priesthood, it follows that they could not function without the priestly garments.

The sages further explain, “When wearing the appointed garments, they [the priests] are invested in their priesthood. When not [wearing the garments], they lack their priesthood and are considered zarim (a non kohein)” (ibid 83b).

The fact that there was the possibility of such severe repercussions for a priest performing the service without the proper garb demonstrates support of the belief that dress sets a tone.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Your Clothes

Be aware of the image that you project with the clothing that you choose.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Founder of the House of Rothschild

The name Rothschild echoes with a sense of wealth and fame. The House of Rothschild was one of the most powerful financial forces in 19th century Europe, and several members of the family even attained titles of nobility.

The story of the Rothschilds began with Meyer Amschel Rothschild, who was born on February 23, 1743* in Frankfurt-am-Main. His father, Amschel Moses, was a trader and currency exchanger. The family had gone by the name Rothschild for several generations and were named such because they had, at one point, lived in a home marked by a red shield.

In 1755, Meyer Rothschild was orphaned. After finishing his education at the Jewish school in Furth, Rothschild went to Hanover and found a position in the firm of Oppenheim. He trained in banking and finance through the firm, but when he started out on his own he returned to an interest that he had learned from his father - coin trading. In the many municipalities of Germany, there was a great need for money changers, since each municipality had its own coins. Rothschild, however, specialized in rare coins and developed such an excellent reputation that he attracted the attention and the business of Crown Prince Wilhelm of Hesse. After the prince became Wilhelm IX, Landgrave of Hesse-Cessel, Rothschild began assisting him with many of his large banking needs, a lucrative business given Hesse-Cessel’s export of Hessian mercenaries.

Rothschild’s greatest asset, however, was his progeny. He established his five sons in five important European cities. His eldest, Amschel Meyer, stayed in Frankfurt-am-Main. Saloman went to Vienna, Nathan to London, Calmann (Carl) to Naples, and Jacob (James) to Paris. Rothschild also had five daughters who survived to adulthood.

As both family and business associates, the Rothschilds were able to move their couriers in and out of countries expeditiously. Their international spread allowed them to act both together and independently, which was particularly useful during the Napoleonic Wars.

Meyer Amschel Rothschild, whom some have dubbed “The Father of International Finance” passed away in September 1812.

*According to Wikipedia and other sources, however, there are conflicting reports of 1744.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

All Around the World

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Friday, February 20, 2015

When Adar Begins

The month of Adar, the twelfth month of the Jewish calendar year, begins today. The Talmud (Ta’anith 29a) states: “Mee'sheh'nichnas Adar, marbin b'simchah," With the beginning of Adar, rejoicing is increased.

One might think that this increase in joy is because spring is not far away. While winter is not completely gone, it is certainly on its way out. That may be enough reason for others to rejoice, but the Jews have the wonderful holiday of Purim to make our spirits joyful.

Celebrated on the 14th day of the month of Adar,* Purim is the holiday that commemorates God overturning evil. In a nutshell, the story of Purim revolves around the plot, launched in the year 518 BCE by Haman (the wicked viceroy of the Persian-Median King Achashverosh), to kill all the Jews in Achashverosh’s kingdom. Haman’s hatred of the Jews reached a psychotic level when Mordechai, the leader of the Jewish community, refused to bow to him. Haman requested and was granted permission by Achashverosh to issue a decree calling for the death of all the Jews. Haman, however, was unaware that Achashverosh’s new queen, Esther, was actually Jewish and was Mordechai’s niece. With significant courage (and tremendous faith in God), Esther revealed Haman’s wicked plot to the king, thus saving the Jewish people.

In celebration of their salvation, the Jews feasted, gave charity and exchanged gift baskets with each other. They celebrated being alive with tremendous joy and rejoiced at being part of a wonderful nation. It is the energy of their joy that permeates the entire month of Adar so that even now, 2,500 years later, when Adar begins, rejoicing is increased.

* Some ancient walled cities, including Jerusalem, celebrate on the 15th of Adar.

This Treat was last posted on February 11, 2013.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.


Infuse your Shabbat celebration with the joy of today's Rosh Chodesh Adar.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

What Wood

A large portion of the Book of Exodus describes the lengthy instructions for the building of the Mishkan/portable Tabernacle and its actual construction. Among the many fascinating materials required for the Mishkan was atzei shittim, acacia wood. This specific wood was required for the Ark of the Testament, the inner and outer altars, the table for the showbreads and the walls of the Tabernacle. 

One of the first questions that one might ask is: Where did the Israelites get acacia wood while wandering in the desert? The medieval commentator Rashi cites the Midrash Tanchuma: “Our father Jacob foresaw through the Holy Spirit that the Israelites would build a Mishkan in the wilderness, so he brought cedars* to Egypt and planted them. He commanded his sons to take them with them when they left Egypt.”

The sages derived two particularly interesting lessons from the acacia wood, specifically from the fact that the acacia is not a fruit tree. The first is an understanding of Pharaoh. The Midrash compares Pharaoh to an acacia tree from which benefit cannot be derived unless it is cut down. So too, Pharaoh could only be made to yield (and thus benefit the Children of Israel) if he was cut down by the plagues (Exodus Rabbah 6:5).

A more utilitarian understanding of the meaning of the acacia wood is as follows: “God set an example for all time, that when a man is about to build his house from a fruit-producing tree, he should be reminded: If, when the supreme King of kings commanded the Temple to be erected, His instructions were to use only such trees as are not fruit-bearing-- though all things belong to Him;--how much more should this be so in your case?” (Exodus Rabbah 35:2).

*Acacia are considered a subset of cedars in Jewish tradition.

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Careful Shopping

Be aware of the origins of the products you buy.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Little Terror

While some athletes are known to be Jewish only because of their Jewish-sounding last names, others wear their Jewish identity on their shirtsleeves - or, in the case of Alphonse Halimi, on his boxing shorts. 

Born in Constantine, Algeria, on February 18, 1932, Halimi was the World Bantamweight* Boxing Champion from 1957-59 and 1960-61. He was the youngest son of a postal worker, and the family was extremely poor. A childhood runaway at the age of 10, Halimi ended up in Algiers and was eventually adopted (and apprenticed) by a tailor. His first fights were on the street with other boys. His natural talent was noticed, and he began to train at the Mouloudia Gymnasium.

When Halimi began competing in amateur matches, he was noted for the shorts on which he had sewn a red and green Star of David. His amateur successes gained him notice that brought him to France, where he won the amateur title in 1953, 1954 and 1955 (when he also won the title Champion of the Mediterranean Games). It was time to “turn pro.”

Nicknamed “la Petite Terreur” (little terror), Halimi won many championship matches across Europe and in America. In June 1962, Halimi participated in the first professional boxing match in Israel, when he fought and defeated Italian boxer Piero Rollo.

At the time of his retirement in 1964, Halimi had 41 recorded wins (21 by knockout), 8 losses and 1 draw. After concluding his professional career, he worked as a trainer and as a swimming instructor. He was awarded the Legion of Honor by Charles de Gaulle, and was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

Halimi died of pneumonia on November 12, 2006.

*115 - 118 lbs

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Eyes on the Prize

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Kindness Without Fanfare

There is a fascinating story in the Talmud that demonstrates the importance of being conscientious in the way one does something for another person:

Mar Ukba had a poor man in his neighborhood into whose door-socket he used to throw four zuz every day. Once [the poor man] thought: ‘I will go and see who does me this kindness’. On that day [it happened] that Mar Ukba was late at the house of study and his wife was coming home with him. As soon as [the poor man] saw them moving the door he went out after them, but they fled from him and ran into a furnace from which the fire had just been swept (Talmud Ketubot 67b).

The commentators derive many valuable lessons from this story. Throughout halacha (Jewish law) there are dire warnings against embarrassing another person. In fact, it is compared to murder. The Rambam (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon/Maimonides) specifically lists anonymous giving as the ideal form of giving tzedakah/charity. 

The lessons of Mar Ukba’s story are just as important today as they were in the time of the Talmud. In a world where television personalities often turn acts of kindness into public spectacles, it is best to remember that the most important aspect of an act of kindness is the kindness itself - not the recognition. This idea applies to all types of acts of kindness, from giving charity to praising a co-worker’s efforts to the boss. 

Today’s treat is in honor of Random Acts of Kindness Day. 

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

All the Time

Make a conscious effort to include random acts of kindness into your everyday life.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Theodore Roosevelt and the Jews

This year’s Presidents Day Treat presents a brief overview of the positive interactions of the 26th president and the Jewish people.

The record of President Theodore Roosevelt’s relationship with the Jewish community pre-dates his presidency. There is a unique story of note from the time when he served as the New York City police Commissioner: Rather than ban the speaking engagement of a noted anti-Semite, which Roosevelt felt would be a violation of the rights of free speech, he chose to show the man what he thought of discrimination by assigning him a security detail of Jewish policeman.

As president, Roosevelt is noted for his outspoken defense of the Jews of Russia. As details of the horrific Kishinev pogroms of 1903 became known, the American Jewish community rallied to support their Jewish brethren. They prepared a petition of protest and asked the President to present it to the Czar. When Roosevelt did so through diplomatic channels, he also added his own letter denouncing the pogrom.  While the Czar refused to receive the petition, Roosevelt’s letter was made public. It began: “I need not dwell upon a fact so patent as the widespread indignation with which the Americans heard of the dreadful outrages up on the Jews in Kishineff (sic).”

President Roosevelt also appointed the first Jew to a cabinet level position when, in 1906, he named Oscar Straus as United States Secretary of Commerce and Labor. (Straus’ brothers, Nathan and Isidor, owned Macys.)

Roosevelt also supported the concept of a Jewish state in Palestine. At the end of World War I, he stated that peace could only be real when the Armenians and the Arabs were given their independence “and the Jews given control of Palestine.”

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Proud to Be

Celebrate your American-Jewish heritage!

Friday, February 13, 2015

Just a Half Shekel

This Shabbat is Parashat Shekalim (shekels). The Torah portion that speaks of Shekalim (Exodus 30:11-16) is read as the Maftir portion after the regular weekly Torah reading has concluded. It refers to God's commandment that a census of the Jewish people be taken by the donation of a half-shekel coin, rather than by a head count.

The most significant aspect of this half-shekel census was that it was blind to wealth. Rich or poor, each man* above the age of 20 was required to give a half-shekel coin. Exodus 30:15 states: "The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less..."

The half-shekel collection was specifically designed to be egalitarian, so that no person would stand out as an individual. Every person was (and still is) an equal part of the whole.

Parashat Shekalim is always read on Shabbat Rosh Chodesh Adar (the first day of the month of Adar) or on the Shabbat immediately preceding Rosh Chodesh. (This year, Rosh Chodesh is celebrated on Thursday and Friday.) In the time of the Temple, the half-shekel was contributed by the people during the month of Adar, and the reading of Shekalim served as an announcement of the upcoming obligation.

Additionally, the section of Shekalim reminds us that Purim is soon at hand (Adar 14-this year, March 4/5). The wicked Haman offered Achashverosh 10,000 silver pieces for the right to destroy the Jews, assuming that his silver pieces would off-set the sum total of the Jews' half-shekel donations in the wilderness. Thankfully, he was wrong!

*The census counted every male over the age of 20, under the assumption that every male over the age of 20 had already established a household. Thus, the census, in effect, counted all Jewish households.

This Treat was last published on February 28, 2014.

Related Treats:
Parashat Parah
Parashat Zachor
Parashat HaChodesh

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

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Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Tribe of Ephraim

As descendants of the original 12 sons of Israel, the lives and personalities of the descendants of Jacob significantly impacted on the history and behavior of the future tribe members who were to descend from them. While Ephraim and Menashe were grandsons rather than sons of Jacob, once the Children of Israel left Egypt the descendants of Ephraim and Menashe became unique tribes of their own (instead of there being a single Tribe of Joseph).

Numerous well-known personalities descended from the Tribe of Ephraim: Joshua bin Nun, Deborah the Prophetess, Abdon the Judge (who is noted in Judges 12:13-15 for having 40 sons and 30 grandsons), and Jereboam, the first ruler of the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

Several biblical narratives focus on the Tribe of Ephraim. The earliest (chronologically) is a Midrash based on I Chronicles 7:20-22, "And the sons of Ephraim...and Ezer and Elad, whom the men of Gath who were born in the land slew, because they came to take away their cattle. And Ephraim their father mourned many days, and his brethren came to comfort him." The Midrash explains this esoteric reference by suggesting that 3,000 Ephraimites left Egypt 30 years before Moses led the Israelites to freedom. These Ephraimites were slaughtered by Philistines and their bones lay in piles by the side of the road (Exodus Rabbah 20:11).

Another interesting narrative about Ephraim indicated that the Ephraimites had their own unique accent. After Jephthah the Judge successfully led a battle against the Ammonites, a conflict arose between Jephthah and his Gileadite soldiers and the Ephraimites, who felt slighted that they had not been included in the battle (even though they had not responded to the initial call). In response to the violent behavior of the Ephraimites, the Gileadites, who held the Ford over the Jordan River, let no man pass who said "Sibboleth" (like an Ephraimites) rather then "Shibboleth" (Judges 12:1-7).

When the unified kingdom divided, Ephraim became part of the Northen Kingdom of Israel. In fact, the Kingdom of Israel’s first king, Jereboam, was from the Tribe of Ephraim. 

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Peace Man

Go out of your way to foster peace among your colleagues and co-workers.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Remote Inventor

In honor of National Inventor’s Day, Jewish Treats presents a short biography of a Jewish inventor whose work transformed the world of home entertainment. Robert Adler, who received a PhD in physics in 1937, is credited with the creation of the first wireless remote control.

Adler was employed by the Zenith Radio Corporation, which hired him in 1941, shortly after his arrival in America. Born in Vienna in 1913, Adler left his homeland at the urging of many of his friends and colleagues, when Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1939.

Adler’s wireless remote control was not the first one developed in the Zenith research lab. That was created by Adler’s colleague Eugene Polley, but it was unsuccessful since the design was based on light technology allowing sunlight to cause the television to change channels. Adler’s invention used soundwaves (and later ultrasound).

The early remotes enabled simple commands only: Channel up and down and Volume up and down. Adler’s “Zenith Space Command” remotes were used for over two decades (until the development of infrared-based remotes), and over 9 million such remotes were sold. In 1997, Adler and Polley were given an Emmy Award by the National Academy of Television, Arts and Science.

By the time Adler retired in 1982, he was the Vice President of Zenith, the company that gave him a place when he first came to America. He continued consulting with them until 1999.

Adler worked on many other advancements for Zenith, and the technology he developed was used in numerous other applications (he submitted almost 200 patent applications). He received the Edison Award in 1980. Continuing his work until the end of his life, Adler filed for a patent for Touchscreen Technology in 2006. He passed away less than a year later.

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Be Creative

Don't hesitate to follow your creative instincts. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015


Judaism subscribes to the belief in an after-life and reward and punishment, but is there a concept of Hell in Judaism?

Hell as commonly depicted--fire, brimstone, devils with pitchforks--is not so different from the Jewish concept of Gehinnom, minus the devils. Like Hell, Gehinnom is hot, very hot. The sages write that “Fire is one sixtieth of Gehinnom” (Talmud Berachot 57b) meaning that Gehinnom is sixty times as hot as a regular fire.

Gehinnom, however, is more akin to the Christian “purgatory,” a cleansing process before one goes to “heaven.” Upon leaving the human body, many souls go to Gehinnom before being elevated to olam habah, the world to come. Excepting the few truly evil, most souls remain in Gehinnom no longer than 11 months.

The existence of Gehinnom is an assumed fact by the sages. In Talmud Nedarim 39b, it is stated that Raba expounded that “... seven things were created before the world: the Torah, repentance, the Garden of Eden, Gehinnom, the Throne of Glory, the Temple, and the name of the Messiah.”

The sages also discuss specific actions that result in a person being placed in Gehinnom. For example:

“Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said: Whoever scoffs will fall into Gehinnom. Rabbi Oshaia said: He who is arrogant will fall into Gehinnom” (Avoda Zarah 18b).

“Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Whoever makes derogatory remarks about Torah scholars after their death, will end up in Gehinnom” (Berachot 19a).

The actual word Gehinnom is not mentioned in the Torah but is derived from an actual place, the Valley of Ben Hinnom, just outside Jerusalem. The bible recounts that, in this valley, the worshipers of the idol Molech lit fires upon altars and sacrificed their children. The Talmud (Succah 32b) records an opinion that this valley serves as the gateway to hell.

This Treat was last posted on January 27, 2010.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

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If someone asks you a question about Judaism, and you are uncertain of the answer, ask Jewish Treats for help.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Oh My Achin’ Tooth

On some lists of quaint holidays celebrated in the month of February, today is marked as National Toothache Day. Anyone who has ever suffered the trauma of an aching tooth may wonder why anyone would want to dedicate a day to toothaches. Alas, that question remains a mystery. It does, however, provide an opportunity for Jewish Treats to examine the Talmud’s sage advice about how to handle dental pain.

It appears that, in the days of the Talmud, vinegar was a commonly used remedy for a toothache. This is understood from the fact that the sages discuss the permissibility of sipping vinegar on Shabbat: “Said Abaye, ‘Come and hear: One who is troubled with his teeth must not rinse them with vinegar [on Shabbat, which means that] if he is only troubled, he must not [rinse them], but if they hurt him very much it is proper [for him to rinse with vinegar]’” (Talmud Avodah Zarah 28a).

The sages further define the type of vinegar that should be used: “Rabbi Ahab Papa pointed out a contradiction to Rabbi Abbahu...Shall we say that vinegar is beneficial to the teeth, but it is written (Proverbs 10:26), ‘As vinegar to the teeth and as smoke to the eyes’ [implying that vinegar is painful to one’s teeth]. There is no difficulty [because] the one refers to vinegar of fruit and the other to acid” (Talmud Shabbat 111a).

An alternate remedy cited in the Talmud: “For a toothache, Rabbah ben Rabbi Huna says that he should take the top of a garlic with one stalk only and grind it with oil and salt and put it on his thumb nail on the side where the tooth aches and put a rim of dough round it, taking care that it does not touch his flesh, as it may cause leprosy” (Talmud Gittin 69a).

These remedies may not compare to the over-the-counter medicines of the modern age. However, it is fascinating to note what people did before acetaminophen.

No Dental Denial

Visit the dentist as part of maintaining your overall health.

Friday, February 6, 2015

On the Wings of Eagles

In Exodus 19, God instructs Moses to address the Children of Israel and to say to them: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself.” (19:4). “On eagles’ wings” is a beautifully descriptive phrase, but nowhere in the Torah text concerning the exodus from Egypt is there a description of flying or eagles. So why did God choose this language?

The great biblical commentator Rashi (France 1040-1105) cites a fascinating Midrash from the Mechilta of Rabbi Ishmael to explain this phrase:

Like an eagle, which carries its young on its wings - whereas all other birds place their young between their feet because they fear other birds that are flying above them. The eagle is afraid of none except humankind, who might shoot an arrow at it, because there is no other bird that flies higher than it [the eagle]. Therefore, it places [its young] on its wings, saying “Better that an arrow pierces me and not my offspring.”

In other words, the idea of bearing the Israelites on eagles’ wings is meant to reflect how God protects the Jewish people. The Midrash continues to explain how, like the eagle, God shielded His children by placing a barrier between the Israelites and the Egyptians (a column of smoke by day, a pillar of fire at night), which absorbed all of the arrows that the Egyptians shot at them. 

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Shabbat Security

This Shabbat, turn off your personal electronic devices and enjoy uninterrupted tranquility.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Reluctant Rabbi

Rabbi Sholom Mordechai Schwadron (1835-1911) learned modesty and dedication to Torah study from his special father, Reb Moshe, who constantly reviewed different sefarim (holy books) while running a winery in Zlototchov, Galicia. 

Recognized as an exceptional student from an early age, Rabbi Sholom Mordechai Schwadron married his wife Yenta when he was only 16 years old and spent the early years of his marriage being supported by his father-in-law while he continued his Torah studies (a common arrangement at the time). When his father-in-law passed away, Rabbi Schwadron declined numerous offers of rabbinic positions and, instead, followed his father’s mercantile ways. For the next several years, Rabbi Schwadron ran a timber business while pursuing his Torah studies. It was not until he was in his 30s, and war between Austria and Germany (in 1867) resulted in the loss of his business, that Rabbi Schwadron finally accepted a rabbinic position. 

Rabbi Schwadron held rabbinic posts in several different towns before accepting a post in Berzhany (today Ukraine). As his reputation for answering questions on Jewish law grew, he became known as the Gaon (genius) of Brezhan. He is also referred to by the acronym “Maharsham.”

During his over 40 years serving in the rabbinate, Rabbi Schwadron answered thousands of shailot (questions on religious law) from all over the Jewish world. His collected correspondances on these matters were printed in the multi-volume Shailot u’teshuvot Maharsham. He published several other halachic (legal) works as well. 

In addition to his scholastic activities, Rabbi Schwadron was noted for his involvement in communal affairs and for his daily custom of stepping outside to feed the birds. 

Rabbi Schwadron’s yahrtzeit is 16 Shevat. 

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Good Giving

Be generous by doing little acts of charity. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

What Is the Tree of Life?

In the Garden of Eden, which was teeming with all the wonderful flora of creation, God placed two special trees: Etz Hada’at (the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil) and Etz Hachaim (the Tree of Life). Humankind ate from the Tree of Knowledge and was expelled from the Garden of Eden, cut off from the Tree of Life.

It is interesting then that this same term, “tree of life” (minus the definite article), is used as a metaphor for Torah, as it says in Proverbs 3:18, “It is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it, those who support it are happy.” Is there a connection between the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden and the Torah? 

According to the biblical text, if humankind had eaten from the Tree of Life, they would have gained immortality: “And the Lord God said: 'Behold, the human is become as one of us, to know good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also from the Tree of Life, and eat, and live forever.' Therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken (Genesis 3:22-23). While involving oneself with Torah does not gain a person actual immortality, it does earn a person eternal life in the world to come.

The life force of Torah, however, is mitzvot, often translated as good deeds or commandments. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany 1808-1888) commented on Proverbs 3:18: “For the righteous person, everything he does is a tree of life. Out of his every deed grows something beneficial and lifegiving to his surroundings.”

Tradition says that one mitzvah begets another (Ethics of the Fathers 4:2). Following the mitzvot of the Torah brings continual reward to its followers, just like a fruit tree that constantly replants itself through its seeds and thus continues to provide fresh air and nourishment to the world.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

More Than Just Trees

Thousands of blue boxes and a dream that encompassed a nation...that was the foundation of the Jewish National Fund (JNF or Keren Kayemet L'Israel). Today, JNF is best known for its commitment to environmentalism and its dogged campaign to reforest the land of Israel (you know, plant a tree in honor/memory of a loved one). 

One might say, however, that JNF was founded as a giant real estate conglomerate whose sole client was the Jewish people. At the Fifth Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1901, the assembled delegates discussed (as they had at previous congresses) the establishment of a national fund to purchase land in Palestine. When the Congress tabled the motion, Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, stepped forward and called upon his colleagues to reconsider their hesitations. After his passionate speech, a new vote was held and the Fund was established.

The Zionist Congress resolved to raise 200,000 pounds sterling...and so it began, donation by donation, much of it collected in little blue charity boxes from around the world. In fact, these blue charity boxes (or pushkahs) became a symbol of the Zionist movement.

When JNF acquired its first parcel of land in Hadera, it immediately began planting trees, an act vital to the development of the land. Much of what had once been arable land had been overworked or neglected. The topsoil had been eroded. The trees helped revitalize the land.

In time, after the creation of the State of Israel, JNF was transformed into an organization that dealt with a wide variety of Israel’s needs, from environmental to employment for new immigrants. JNF has focused on the Negev desert, investing in new and innovative ways to bring life to the harsh desert climate, and dealing with Israel’s critical water resource issues. This year, however, in light of the terrible and tragic fires that swept across the Carmel Mountains just outside of Haifa this past December, JNF is taking an active role in the reforestation effort.

This Treat was originally posted on January 18, 2011.

A Tree For The Year

Create your own forest of knowledge by building up a library of Jewish books. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Tu B'Shevat is Coming

While it has been a difficult winter for many of us, it may be time to look beyond the turbulent weather and see that spring is just around the corner. You might wonder how one can possibly think of spring at the present time, but, according to Jewish wisdom, now is precisely the time because Tu B'Shevat is the New Year for trees.

Tu B'Shevat, literally, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, marks the official start of spring in Israel, even though the weather is still cold. According to Jewish tradition, this is the day on which the long dormant sap in the trees begins to flow again.

Why is Tu B'Shevat celebrated as a holiday and elevated to the status of being one of the four New Years on the Jewish calendar? In Judaism, a holiday usually marks a day on which there is a unique connection between the spiritual and physical worlds and signals an event from which we can learn and grow.

Because of Tu B'Shevat, Jews around the world are given a moment to stop and think about the trees and the greenery around them. Spiritually, there is much that one can learn from a tree. For instance, almost every person goes through a “spiritual winter,” a time in which it is hard to connect to God or to follow religious beliefs. According to tradition, deep within each Jew there is a pintele yid (Yiddish for a "little bit of Jewish spirit"). Like the frozen sap that is thawed by the coming of spring and brings new life to the tree, the pintele yid can be ignited by a spark of inspiration and revitalize the Jewish soul.

Some people follow the custom of eating special Israeli foods and conduct a special Tu B'Shevat Seder. For more information on Tu B'Shevat or for an outline of a Tu B'Shevat Seder, please visit

This Treat was previously posted on January 15, 2014.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Prepare for Tu B'Shevat

Celebrate Tu B'Shevat with a nice bottle of kosher wine.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Foreign Fruit?

 elxeneize / Via

In two days time, the Jewish people will celebrate Tu B’Shevat, the 15th of Shevat, which is often referred to as the Jewish New Year of trees. Tu B’Shevat celebrations often focus on the seven species that the Torah associates with the land of Israel (wheat, barley, pomegranates, figs, dates, grapes and olives) or on fruits in general.

This year, those preparing for Tu B’Shevat must keep in mind one extra consideration - the question of shmittah. Shmittah refers to the sabbatical year during which the Torah commands the people that the land of Israel must lie fallow for the year. Since the commandment is particular to the land of Israel, one might wonder how shmittah would affect the Jews in North America. 

While the commandment of shmittah most directly affects farmers in Israel, who lay aside their plows for the year, it is the responsibility of the Jewish consumer to ensure that the food from Israel they purchase outside of Israel is not in violation of the laws of shmittah

Modern day labelling laws make it fairly easy to be careful about shmittah observance. Fresh produce usually bears a sticker noting its country of origin. If not, this information is often posted in the supermarket. Slightly more complicated, however, are processed foods such as a jar of pickles, as the produce used therein may be from the previous year or may be a concern even for the year to come. Most reliable kosher certifications try to ensure that these issues are dealt with in advance.

While it seems counter-intuitive to avoid buying produce from Israel, one should remember that shmittah depends on emunah (faith). Within the Torah text instructing the observance of shmittah, God promises that those who show care and concern for the laws of shmittah will prosper in the year that follows (see Exodus 25:20-22).

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Friday, January 30, 2015

History for Everyone

Barbara Tuchman (January 30, 1912 - February 6, 1989) never earned a doctorate in history, but the books that she authored injected new life into the layman’s study and understanding of history. While Tuchman herself credited her interest in history to the books she read as a child, it would be remiss to dismiss the experiences and life opportunities made accessible by her influential family. Tuchman’s father, Maurice Wertheim, was a wealthy banker, owner of The Nation, founder of the Theater Guild, who was the President of the American Jewish Congress, and held a host of other important positions. Her grandfather was Henry Morgenthau, Sr., President Woodrow Wilson’s ambassador to Turkey and Mexico and her uncle was Henry Morgenthau Jr., President Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Treasury. 

After Tuchman graduated from Radcliffe College (where she studied history and literature), she traveled with her grandfather Morgenthau to the World Economic Conference in London, did research and editorial work at the American Council of the Institute of Pacific Relations and contributed to the journal Foreign Affairs. She also worked as a correspondent for The Nation, during which time she reported on the Spanish Civil War. Tuchman also spent time in Tokyo, Peking, Moscow and Paris. During World War II, she worked for the Office of War Information. 

Tuchman’s first book, The Lost British Policy: Britain and Spain Since 1700, was published in 1938. In 1940, she married Dr. Lester Reginald Tuchman, and spent the next decade and a half raising their three daughters while researching for her next book. In 1956, she released Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour. This was followed by nine more books over the next 30 years. For her work, Tuchman received two Pulitzer Prizes (Guns of August and Stillwell) and numerous honors (including several honorary degrees).

Barbara Tuchman died in Connecticut, from complications of a stroke, on February 6, 1989.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

The Shabbat of Song

Music speaks to the heart, and, not surprisingly, the heart often speaks through music. Thus, when the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds (aka the Red Sea) and witnessed the destruction of the pursuing Egyptian army, they burst into spontaneous song (led by Moses). 

Az Yashir Moshe U’v’nei Yisrael... Then sang Moses and the Children of Israel...(Exodus 15:1). The song, which is recorded in Exodus 15:1-19, is known as the Shirah (the song). The Shabbat on which this Shirah is chanted in the synagogue (Parashat B'shalach) is known as Shabbat Shirah.

The lyrics of the Shirah constitute exalted praises of God, Who saves the Jewish people. Recounting the miraculous event, the Shirah calls out: “For the horses of Pharaoh went into the sea with his chariots and his horsemen, and God brought back the waters of the sea upon them; but the Children of Israel walked on dry land in the midst of the sea.” (15:19).

Why is a special name given to this Shabbat? Because the Shirah inspires us to remember the heights that our people can reach.

Those who have read Bible cannot help but notice that such spontaneous praise and gratitude from the Israelites was rare. The Israelites spent much time complaining. They wanted meat (Exodus 16), worshiped the golden calf (Exodus 32), sinned with the Moabite women (Numbers 25), etc. But when the Israelites reached the far side of the Sea of Reeds, their faith in God and in their own significance was at an all time high. There was no restraint in their praise of God.

This Treat was last posted on January 10, 2014.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Read Up

This Shabbat, relax with a nice book about Jewish history.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Jar of Manna

While the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, there were few things more miraculous than the manna, the food from heaven that fell like dew so that each morning, except for Shabbat, the Jews could collect their sustenance for the day. (For more on the miraculous nature of manna, click here.)

Many are unaware that one container of manna was preserved per God’s instruction. The Torah reports: “And Moses said: ‘This is the thing which God has commanded: Let an omerful of it [manna] be kept throughout your generations; that they may see the bread wherewith I fed you in the wilderness, when I brought you forth from the land of Egypt.’” Aaron collected the manna, put it in a jar and “As God commanded Moses, so Aaron laid it up before the Testimony, to be kept” (Exodus 16:32-34).

This unopened jar of manna was placed inside the Ark of Testament and remained there throughout the travels in the wilderness, the period of the Judges and the era of the First Temple. The Midrash Mechilta (as quoted by Rashi on Exodus 16:32) notes that “In the days of Jeremiah, when Jeremiah rebuked them [the people, saying] ‘Why do you not engage in the Torah?’ They would say, ‘Shall we leave our work and engage in the Torah? From what will we support ourselves?’ He brought out to them the jar of manna. He said to them, ‘You see the word of the Lord’ (Jeremiah 2:31). It does not say ‘hear’ but ‘see.’ With this, your ancestors supported themselves. The Omnipresent has many agents to prepare food for those who fear Him."

What ultimately happened to the jar of manna? Just before the Babylonian conquest, the Midrash reports that the Ark was hidden in a secret cave under the Temple and that “hidden with it were the bottle containing the manna, the bottle containing the sprinkling water, the staff of Aaron, with its almonds and blossoms, and the chest which the Philistines had sent as a gift to the God of Israel” (Talmud Yoma 52b).

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Common Miracles

Look at the world around you and appreciate common miracles.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Blood is Life

January has been labeled National Blood Donor Month, making it an ideal time for Jewish Treats to reflect upon Judaism’s special attitude toward blood.

God called the very first human being Adam (aleph-daled-mem). While the most obvious connection is to the Hebrew word adama (ground -aleph-daled-mem-hey), it cannot be ignored that Adam is also connected to dam (blood - daled-mem). When the Torah states (Deuteronomy 12:23) that “Blood is life,” one cannot help but reflect on how clearly this is implied in the very name of humankind.

The technology of blood transfusions was not available at the time of the Talmud. However, the sages did live in the era when bloodletting was considered an effective treatment, both as a cure and for prevention. In fact, a large portion of page 129 of tractate Shabbat is dedicated to the care one must take when being bled. In these dictums, one can already find many of the practices that are commonly used by blood donors today. For instance:

“Rav and Samuel both say: ‘One who has been bled should wait awhile and then rise’...Samuel said: ‘The correct interval for bloodletting is every 30 days.’”

Jewish thought makes very clear that blood is life and that people must recognize the life-affirming power of blood. For instance, one is not allowed to consume blood as food or drink, and if one deliberately sheds the blood of wild animals or fowl when slaughtering for food, the blood must be covered as a sign of respect.

Since human blood cannot be consumed, one might ask whether blood transfusions are permitted. The answer, simply, is yes. One may both give and receive blood transfusions because Judaism puts the utmost importance on preserving life. For those who need it, Ezekiel’s words: “By your blood shall you live” (Ezekiel 16:6) has some very literal implications.

This Treat was last posted on January 23, 2012.

Sign Up

Discover your nearest blood donation center and, if you are able to, register to give blood.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Uprising at Auschwitz

January 27th, which has been designated International Holocaust Remembrance Day, was the day on which Auschwitz was liberated 70 years ago. The Auschwitz-Birkenau complex was a place of great terror. In the course of its far-too-long existence, there was only one armed attempt at a revolt.

The uprising, which took place only three months before Auschwitz was liberated, was organized by the Sonderkommandos, special units of (mostly Jewish) prisoners designated to work within the Nazi killing machine. They worked in the selection area, the gas chambers, the crematoriums, etc. The Sonderkommandos not only suffered the psychological horror of assisting the Nazi genocide plan, but being a Sonderkommando was a guarantee of their ultimate non-survival. To ensure that their forced assistants would never be able to bear witness to the atrocities, each Sonderkommandos unit was killed when they outlived their usefulness to the Nazis.

By the summer of 1944, the number of prisoners arriving in Auschwitz slowed, so the Nazis decided that it was time to thin the number of Sonderkommandos. That September, 200 members of Sonderkommando Unit 12 were executed. However, the organization of the revolt had already begun and the remaining Sonderkommandos of the unit proceeded to revolt. Several women working in the munitions factory had been smuggling tiny amounts of gunpowder to the Sonderkommandos, and outside rebels passed in small weapons and instruments such as insulated wire-cutters.

On the afternoon of October 7th, the uprising began at Crematorium 1, and the overseer was disarmed and pushed into the oven. A gun fight ensued, and the Sonderkommandos in Crematorium 3 and 4 joined the fighting. The rebels of Crematorium 2 began cutting through the wire fences, allowing prisoners to escape. While the revolt was quickly subdued, the Sonderkommandos had managed to irreparably destroy Crematorium 4, and some prisoners had managed to escape.

The Nazi vengeance was intense and brutal. The Sonderkommandos who survived the initial firefight approximately 200 - were summarily executed. Five of the gunpowder smugglers were captured and tortured. Three weeks before liberation, the women were hanged. Twelve days later, the Nazis forced around sixty thousand prisoners on the infamous Death March, less than two weeks before the Soviets arrived to liberate the camp. Fifteen thousand prisoners died on this march, just a few days before liberation.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.


If there are Holocaust survivors in your family, make sure to take down their stories for posterity.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Before Michigan

The foundations of Michigan’s Jewish community were laid by the German Jews who came to America in the 1840s and spread out across the continent. Jewish history in Michigan, which became the 26th state on January 26, 1837, began, however, with some hearty frontiersmen who traversed the territory for trade.

Credit for being the first Jewish settler in Michigan is given to Berlin-born Ezekiel Solomon, who arrived in Montreal during the French and Indian War. After the 1760 British victory, which gave England control of Canada, Solomon obtained a license to trade with the native population. In 1761, he set up shop in the area of the Straits of Mackinaw near Fort Michilinackinac. It is believed that he partnered with five other Jewish men - Benjamin Lyon, Chapman Abraham, Levi Solomons and Gershom Levy, each of whom took a trading territory.

Living a frontier life was not easy. It is recorded, however, that several of these Jews maintained a strong connection to the Montreal Jewish community. In fact, Chapman Abraham, who is considered the first Jewish settler of Detroit, and Benjamin Lyon are mentioned in the membership regulations of Shearith Israel, the first synagogue in Montreal. (They were given extra time to fulfil certain obligations due to their great distance.)

A few years after the British took control over the territory and the Jewish traders arrived, Chief Pontiac lead the native Indian tribes in an uprising. Ezekiel Solomon, Chapman Abraham and Levi Solomons were captured (separately) in the uprising. Ezekiel Solomon escaped captivity and little is known about Levi Solomons. Abraham, it is reported, escaped his captors by pretending to be a madman.

Following the Pontiac uprising, the Jewish traders appear to have continued their trading. There are historical markers in Michigan honoring both Ezekiel Solomon and Chapman Abraham.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Stay Connected

Even when you are living far from other Jews, stay connected to a Jewish community.

Friday, January 23, 2015


In honor of National Handwriting Day, Jewish Treats explores the unique calligraphy practiced by a Jewish sofer (scribe). The Hebrew letters used in a Torah scroll, as well as on other sacred parchment scrolls such as those in mezuzot and tefillin, look different than the letters in printed Hebrew texts, even though both are the block letters known as ktav Ashuri. The differences are in the extra flourishes on top of certain letters. These ornaments or crowns, called taggin in Hebrew, are as much a part of the mesorah (tradition) as the pronunciation of the unvowelled words.

Not all letters receive crowns. “Raba said there are seven letters which require three strokes, and these are shin, ayin, tet, nun, zayin, gimmel and tzadi”  (Talmud Menachot 29b). Other letters, the bet, daled, hey, chet, yud and kuf, have one tag.

According to tradition, the taggin represent kabbalistic (mystical) concepts that provide another dimension of meaning to the words of the Torah. Tradition further attributes the knowledge of taggin to a manuscript, Sefer Hataggin, that is reputed to have been transcribed by Joshua the son of Nun and passed down throughout the generations.

Many of the interpretations of the taggin were brought to light by Rabbi Akiva - a fact highlighted by a beautiful Midrash in the Talmud that states: “Rab Judah said in the name of Rab, ‘When Moses ascended on high he found the Holy One, blessed be He, engaged in affixing crowns to the letters. Said Moses, ‘Lord of the Universe, Who stays Your hand? [What the point? No one will understand their meaning!]’ He answered, ‘There will arise a man, at the end of many generations, Akiva ben Joseph by name, who will expound upon each crown, heaps and heaps of laws’” (ibid).

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.