Monday, February 17, 2020

Celebrating Chanukah at the White House

When the Founding Fathers of the United States created the role of President, they created a chief executive who functions as both head of state and commander of the armed forces. In the role of head of state, the president invites foreign leaders and visitors to the White House. On this Presidents Day, Jewish Treats presents a brief history of the celebration of Chanukah among U.S. presidents, and in the White House.

During the bitter winter in Valley Forge, PA, General George Washington saw a soldier huddling over two tiny flames. The soldier explained to Washington that Chanukah commemorates how a small band of Jews fought for their freedoms against tyranny. The following winter, General Washington visited Michael Hart, a Jewish merchant in Easton, PA. When the Harts lit Chanukah candles in the presence of their august guest, Washington informed them that a Polish Jewish immigrant soldier had already enlightened him about Chanukah. Michael Hart’s daughter Louisa wrote the first-hand story down in her diary.

In 1951, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, during an official visit to the United States, presented a Chanukah Menorah to President Truman and the people of the United States. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter lit the new National Menorah in Lafayette Park, erected by Chabad. In 1983, President Reagan visited a local JCC in the DC suburbs on Chanukah and a year later, he invited a delegation from American Friends of Lubavitch to celebrate Chanukah in the White House. President George H.W. Bush proudly displayed the chanukiah he received from the Synagogue Council of America and, in 1991, attended a Chanukah party for White House staff held at the Old Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House.

In 1993, President Bill Clinton became the first sitting president to host a menorah-lighting ceremony in the Oval Office. The event became newsworthy when 6-year old Ilana Kattan’s ponytail began smoking, and the president snuffed out the smoke with his hand.

The first official White House Chanukah party was convened and hosted by President George W. Bush in 2001. President Bush noted that while there had been candle-lightings in the White House previously, this was the first official celebration in the White House, and the first time a Chanukiah was lit in the president’s private residence at the White House. The official Chanukah party in 2005 began the tradition of “kashering” the White House kitchen, so all food would be under rabbinic supervision. In that year, President Bush became the first president to actually light a flame on the Chanukiah. Prior to that, members of the Jewish faith lit in the presence of the president.

Presidents Obama and Trump have continued the practice. In 2017, President Donald Trump became the first president with Jewish grandchildren who lit the Chanukiah.

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Study U.S. Presidents and their Relationship to American Jews

The United States has been a beacon of kindness for Jews. It behooves American Jews to appreciate the country and its presidents who ensure religious rights and the freedom of religious practice.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Ignominy in Italy

During the long course of Jewish history, one of the multiple tools used to harass and persecute Jews was public humiliation. One such disgraceful public humiliation was the practice of “Black Monday” in Rome, which was also called the “Jews Race” or palio degli Ebrei, “the Jews’ competition” in Latin.

“Carnival” is celebrated in Catholic cities and countries, as a period of levity prior to the onset of “Lent,” which is a time of “penitential austerities” prior to the solemn Christian observances of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. In Rome, Carnival dates back to the mid-15th century, where races were conducted during the eight days leading up to Lent. Lent begins on “Ash Wednesday.” Many are familiar with “Mardi Gras,” which means “Fat Tuesday,” a carnival that occurs on the day prior to Ash Wednesday.

The Carnival in Rome was popularized under the papacy of Paul II (who served as Pope from 1464-1471). Pope Paul II organized a different race each day with the palio degli Ebrei, the Jews’ competition, also called Black Monday. Subsequent days featured races of children, young Christians, the elderly, donkeys and buffalos. By the time the practice of “Black Monday” was terminated, the path of the Jews’ run took place in central Rome, on what today is known as the Corso, beginning at Piazza San Marco (today’s Piazza Venezia) and ended at the Santa Maria del Popolo church, a distance of about 1 mile.

Contemporaneous testimony about the palio degli Ebrei describes the events. On Monday, four trumpeters arrived at the synagogue in Rome to summon the Jews to the contest. Eight, or by some accounts 12, contestants, were forced to run through Rome, wearing only a loincloth with the letters “SPQR, a Latin acronym for the official title of the municipality in Rome, painted on their foreheads. Some accounts claim that at one point in the history of Black Monday, Christian jockeys rode the Jews as they would horses. The race was held in February when the climate in Rome was cold, and often, wet and muddy. The contestants were forced to stuff themselves with food prior to the Race, which resulted in contestants vomiting and collapsing – sometimes even dying - which was a source of great entertainment for the spectators, who were permitted to throw rotten oranges and mud at the runners.

In 1668, Pope Clement IX, (who served as pope from 1667-1669) discontinued the palio degli Ebrei, but not on moral grounds. He stopped it because of the “little convenience that comes from seeing these Jews run.” The Pope substituted a tax on the Jewish community to pay 300 scudi (Papal currency) toward the expenses of Carnival.


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Fight Against the Humiliation of Others

Causing humiliation to others can be worse than inflicting bodily harm. Make sure to stand up for anyone who is being degraded or abused, physically or mentally.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

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. 


This Treat was last posted on February 6, 2015. 


Copyright © 2020 NJOP. All rights reserved.

“Taking a Bullet”

Convene a discussion concerning the topic for whom you would “take a bullet?” For whom or for what values would you be willing to sacrifice?

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Penny Lane

While the well-known adage requests, “A penny for your thoughts,” perhaps those coins should be sought, instead, in between the cushions of sofas and car seats, in washing machines, and in decorative fountains in shopping malls.

“Lost Penny Day” coincides with the February 12th birthday of President Abraham Lincoln, whose image has adorned the U.S. penny since its institution in the U.S. currency on February 12, 1909, the centennial of the birth of “Honest Abe.” “Eventologist” Adrienne Sioux Koopersmith founded “Lost Penny Day” to demonstrate that petty change can make a big difference, especially when donated to a worthy charity. Other “coin” activities include flipping a coin to make a decision, giving someone “a penny for their thoughts” and throwing pennies into a fountain as a wish is made.

So, for “two cents,” here are two pertinent Torah thoughts that are relevant to pennies.

Jewish marriage is facilitated when the groom gives the bride an object worth a “perutah” with an implied matrimonial intent. One is obliged Biblically to return a lost object that is worth a perutah. One ought to provide a minimum of a perutah to a legitimately impoverished individual when they ask for alms. There are other rituals, which use the value of a perutah as a legal criterion. So how much is a perutah actually worth? Halacha deemed a perutah to be the smallest denomination in one’s currency (see Talmud Bava Metzia 55a and Kiddushin 12a). In the United States and Canada, that would be a penny. (Please note that while a Jewish wedding can be considered valid with the transfer of an object worth only a single penny from the groom to the bride, long-standing Jewish tradition has the groom give the bride a simple ring to legally effect a Jewish marriage).

Second, relating to the insignificance of pennies that “Lost Penny Day” attempts to rectify, an observation in Rashi’s commentary of the Bible is particularly pertinent. When Jacob returned from the house of Laban with his large family, he is told that his estranged brother Esau was approaching with a large army. The Torah then relates: “Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn” (Genesis 32:25). Why was Jacob “left alone?” Citing a Talmudic passage (Chulin 91a), Rashi relates that Jacob returned to cross the Yabok river in order to retrieve small jugs that he had left on the other side. Rashi concludes that the lesson taught by this action is that the righteous are judicious regarding even the most insignificant items of their personal belongings, even disposable jugs. This too pertains to the limited value of pennies.

NOTE: As with all Treats dealing with issues of halacha (points of Jewish law), one should consult one's local rabbi for practical application.

Copyright © 2020 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Find Value in Everything

Everything, living and inanimate, has inherent worth. Acknowledging and celebrating that value goes a long way.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

The Samurai Who Saved Thousands of Jews from the Nazis

Often, when tragedy strikes, many seek to uncover a silver lining by searching for heroes and their selflessness. On the pantheon of such heroes during the Shoah (the Holocaust) is Chiune Sugihara, who served as Japanese Consul-General to the Lithuanian city of Kaunas (also known as Kovno). Sugihara assumed his post in March 1939, six months prior to the German invasion of neighboring Poland. Polish and German Jews flooded into Lithuania. But Lithuania’s status as a haven ended abruptly on June 15, 1940, when the Soviet Union invaded Lithuania. The Soviets did allow Polish Jews to leave Lithuania through the Soviet Union. However, in July, 1940, with the Germans advancing on Lithuania, the Soviets ordered all foreign diplomatic posts to leave Kaunas. Sugihara requested and received an extension. The only other diplomat left in Kaunas was Jan Zwartendijk, the acting consul of the Netherlands.

Some astute Jewish refugees noticed that two Dutch islands in the Caribbean, Curacao and Dutch Guiana (now known as Suriname), did not require formal entrance visas. Consul Zwartendijk was authorized to stamp passports with entrance permits. In order to get to the Caribbean, however, passage through the U.S.S.R. was required. As a condition to obtain Soviet exit visas, the Soviet consul required Japanese transit visas, since passage through Japan would be required in order to arrive in the Dutch Islands a world away.

Upon learning this news, desperate Jewish refugees arrived at the gate of Kaunas’ Japanese consulate. Chiune Sugihara’s request to the Japanese foreign ministry to dispatch transit visas was unconditionally rejected. Sugihara had to make a gut-wrenching decision. He had to balance his disciplined traditional Japanese obedience with his Samurai calling to help those in need. Sugihara and his family chose to defy their government and help as many people as humanly possible.

For the next 29 days, from July 31 to August 28, 1940, the Sugiharas spent all their waking hours writing visas by hand, averaging 300 visas per day, which equaled the monthly average for the Kaunas consulate. Chiune himself refused to take lunch breaks, subsisting on sandwiches, and Yukiko, Mrs. Sugihara, would massage her husband’s aching hands each evening. Even during his last moments as Japanese consul in Kaunas, while aboard the Berlin-bound train on September 1, 1940, Chiune was writing visas and handing them to those pleading for them outside his train window. As the train was pulling away, he threw the consul visa stamp to a refugee who was able to “write” even more transit visas. As a direct result of Sugihara’s heroism, 6,000 refugees’ lives were spared from Nazi barbarism, as they were able to board the Trans-Siberian railroad bound for Kobe, Japan.

After World War II, Sugihara was fired from the Japanese diplomatic corps for his insubordination. He attempted to support his family by functioning as a translator, or an interpreter, and eventually worked as a businessman. It was not until 1969 that Sugihara’s incredible heroism and sacrifice was discovered by a survivor whom he saved. Chiune never spoke of his selfless actions. Chiune Sugihara died on July 31, 1986, at the age of 86.

According to tradition, Japan was founded in 660 BCE on February 11. How appropriate to learn about one of its greatest sons, one who was acclaimed as “Righteous Among the Gentiles” by Yad Vashem.


This Treat was last posted on February 11, 2019. 


Copyright © 2020 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Attitude of Gratitude

When anyone does anything for your personal benefit, your loved ones, your ancestors, or your outer social circle, no matter when it occurred, it is always appropriate to offer gratitude.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Tu B'Shevat is Coming

While it may seem as if winter has just begun, 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 (halachic) 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 click here.

This Treat is posted annually in honor of Tu B'Shevat.




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Demonstrate Your Respect for the Environment

Tu B’shevat, the Jewish new year for trees, is a great opportunity for Jews to devote themselves to environmental causes.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Jews and Bubble Gum

The first Friday in February is celebrated as “Bubble Gum Day.” Ruth Spiro, an author of children’s books who chews gum as an avocation, proposed the day in 2006 to enable children to bring money to school and donate the funds to pre-selected causes. In exchange, the students would be permitted to chew gum in school. Ms. Spiro also hoped that libraries, clubs and community groups could participate as well. “Bubble Gum Day” is fixed on a Friday, so it would always fall on a school day. People have chewed “gum” for thousands of years. In ancient Greece, people chewed a gummy substance called mastiche, which came from the mastic tree. “Mastik” is the Hebrew word for chewing gum and the word “masticate” in the Romance languages denotes chewing. Others chewed on resins from trees, leaves and waxes. Native Americans were known to chew on the sap from spruce trees. Today the chewing gum industry is estimated to be a 19 billion dollar-a-year business. 

Because bubble gum is meant to be chewed only, and not swallowed, the question is asked whether a blessing is required prior to chewing the gum. After all, it’s not “eaten.”

The Code of Jewish Law rules that one would recite the she’ha’kol blessing when eating sugar or sweet sticks (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 202:15). Most contemporary halachic authorities agree that gum would fall under this category. However, a minority view argues that the taste of the gum is absorbed into one’s saliva, and one does not utter a blessing over spittle, even when flavored. One rabbi even differentiated between gum with a hard shell, for which he would require a blessing, and soft gum, which would not. Others claim that since sugar-free gum contains very little caloric intake, it would also not require a blessing. Some also suggest that since gum is not meant to be swallowed, it would fall under the rule that no blessing is recited for tasting without swallowing (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 210:2). Furthermore, Rabbi Moshe Isserlis concludes that no blessing is recited over cinnamon sticks, which are sucked.

Please note that bubble gum requires kosher certification. One should not chew gum on a fast day. Rabbinic authorities prohibit chewing gum while walking outdoors on Shabbat, in a situation where carrying would be forbidden. This would only apply to “Bubble Gum Day” after sunset.

NOTE: As with all Treats dealing with issues of halacha (points of Jewish law), one should consult one's local rabbi for practical application.

Copyright © 2020 NJOP. All rights reserved.

All Human Benefit Must Be Appreciated

Any benefit we receive in this world, even the tiniest amount, must be acknowledged and we must thank God for it.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

The Royal Family and the Jews

On February 6, 1952, Queen Elizabeth II assumed the throne of “the United Kingdom and her other realms and Territories” upon the death of her father, King George VI. While the Queen is much beloved by all of her subjects, Jewish Treats presents some data specifically connecting England’s long-serving monarch with the Jews and the Jewish state.

In an article by journalist Anshel Pfeffer, he quotes writer Simon Sebag Montefiore, scion of Sir Moses Montefiore, stating that, “historically the British royal family has had a very friendly relationship with the Jewish community…. This tradition endures ever since the 19th century, and right up to Britain today. Members of the royal family routinely attend many, many Jewish events and support Jewish causes and charities. Something regarded as totally normal here. And rightly so.” Prince Charles even has his own blue velvet yarmulke with a silver royal crest on it, that he wears when he attends Jewish ritual events.

On the 60th anniversary of the Allied liberation of Auschwitz, Queen Elizabeth met with Holocaust survivors at St. James’ Palace in London. While Queen Elizabeth II is very punctual and rarely diverts from her precise schedule, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the U.K. noted, at that time, that the queen stood with each survivor “until they had finished telling their personal story. It was an act of kindness that almost had me in tears.” One survivor quipped, “I did not know whether I would be alive tomorrow, and here I am today talking to the Queen.”

Prince Charles, Queen Elizabeth’s oldest son, and heir to the throne, despite not being Jewish, was circumcised by Rabbi Dr. Jacob Snowman, the leading mohel in London. Male babies, born to the House of Windsor, have been circumcised by a mohel dating back to George I (1660-1727), who brought this tradition from his native Hanover, Germany.

The Queen has a pro-Jewish family history to rely on. Queen Victoria (1819-1901) was known to be partial to many Jews and Victoria’s son Edward VII (1841-1910) was also known to have a very warm relationship with Jews. Queen Elizabeth’s mother-in-law, Princess Alice of Battenberg is buried on the Mountain of Olives, in Jerusalem, and sheltered Jews in her home in Greece during the Holocaust. She was recognized by Yad Vashem as a “Righteous Among the Nations.”

While Queen Elizabeth II has never made an official visit to the State of Israel (remember that prior to Israeli statehood, mandatory Palestine was under the British Crown), Prince William made an official visit in June of 2018, and Prince Charles, attended in an official state capacity, the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem in January 2020. Prince Charles attended the funerals of Yitzchak Rabin and Shimon Peres as private visits.


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Pray for the Welfare of the Head of State

Jewish tradition teaches that one ought to pray for the welfare of the head of their state, whether that individual is a king or queen, Prime Minister or president.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Does God Experience Difficulty?

In the middle of parashat B’shalach, we encounter the great miracle of God splitting the Red Sea. The sages in the Talmud (Sotah 2a) used this great supernatural phenomenon to declare that matching men and women for the purpose of matrimony is as difficult “as splitting the Red Sea.” The Talmud states that God Himself is the ultimate shadchan (matchmaker)!

This begs the question: Why, from a theological perspective, is anything difficult for God? Would not a component of Divine omnipotence be that no task is too difficult for the Almighty?

This very question is often posed in the presence of a bride and groom, whether at the wedding, or during the subsequent festive week of Sheva Berachot. The Maharal of Prague understands this “difficulty” as altering the laws of nature, which were put into place during Creation. What was difficult was not facilitating the miracle, but justifying it in a world God set up governed by the laws of nature and physics.

Others suggest that the “difficulty” described is not splitting the Sea, per se, but keeping it split so the timing worked out. When God split the Red Sea, He did so for the sake of the Jews who passed through it on dry land. God waited until only Egyptian soldiers were in the dry land within the sea, before returning the waters to their rightful place. Knowing when to split and when to return the waters was the “difficulty.” The lesson imparted to the bride and groom is that while the wedding itself is magical, the “challenges” will come afterwards, and often, they are about properly managing timing.

Others point to a different “difficulty,” offering another message for brides and grooms. The Midrash (Yalkut Reuveni, B’shalach 82: 89) relates that when God prepared to cross the Jews through dry land and drown the Egyptian militia, the angels challenged God: “These (the Egyptians) are idolaters and these (the Children of Israel) are idolaters. Why are you saving these (the Children of Israel) and drowning these (the Egyptians)? There is no difference between them!” After all, Jewish tradition teaches that the Jews had almost totally assimilated into Egyptian society, as reflected in this Midrash. The “difficulty” of splitting the sea was not the breach of the natural order, but the justification. God responded that he saved the Children of Israel solely because of the covenant He forged with the forefathers. The salvation of the Jews was not merit-based. In the context of a marriage, the support and fidelity husbands and wives have for one another is not earned or even justified logically. It’s part of the covenantal nature of marriage, where love and support must be unconditional.

Copyright © 2020 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Be Godly: Help Jews Get Married!

Enabling Jewish men and women to marry is a great and Godly effort. Anything that can be done to facilitate Jewish marriage is laudable and commendable.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Rabbi Eliezer Silver

Historians have noted the seemingly underwhelming response of the American Jewish community to the Holocaust as it unfolded in Europe. Among the few who were prominent activists was Rabbi Eliezer Silver (1882-1968).

Born in Lithuania, Rabbi Silver came to the United States in 1907, shortly after receiving rabbinic ordination. After a brief period in New York, the Silvers moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where Rabbi Silver accepted a rabbinical position.

An early political activist, Rabbi Silver helped circulate a petition against a U.S. treaty with Russia (as a protest against persecution of the Jews) and was active in World War I relief efforts. Between the two World Wars, Rabbi Silver first took a position in Springfield, Massachusetts, and then Cincinnati, Ohio, where he remained for the rest of his life.

In the 1930s, Rabbi Silver started the first American branch of the Agudath Israel, a non-Zionist, Orthodox political organization founded in 1912 in Europe. Agudath Israel became the organization through which Rabbi Silver attempted to organize rescue efforts for European Jewry. In 1939, he formed the Vaad Hatzalah (Rescue Committee). The Vaad Hatzalah raised over $5 million for rescue efforts and organized synagogues to secure 2,000 contracts for rabbinic positions, resulting in numerous emergency visas being issued. The Vaad Hatzalah used all means (preferably legal but if necessary, illegal) to rescue Jews.

One poignant story frequently repeated about Rabbi Silver describes how he and Dayan Grunfeld of England came to a Christian orphanage in Europe after the war looking for hidden Jewish children. The head priest denied knowing whether any of the children were actually Jewish. The rabbis decided to return at bedtime, and, when all the children were gathered together to recite their bedtime prayers, the rabbis loudly recited the Shema in front of the children. Remembering the prayer that had once been part of their bedtime ritual, many children in the room started crying and calling out for their mothers.

Rabbi Silver passed away on February 7, 1968, corresponding to the 9th of Shevat.

This Treat was last posted on January 15, 2019. 

Copyright © 2020 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Support Survivors

There are still survivors of the Holocaust alive, many of whom are in need of assistance. While those still in Europe received help in Europe immediately after the war, let us not forget that many still need aid, whether in the United States, Israel or in Europe. We must do what we can to help this very special group of people.

Monday, February 3, 2020

A Jewish Income Tax?

On February 3, 1913, the Sixteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified. “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.”

Prior to the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment, the U.S. government received revenue only from tariffs and excise taxes, but not from income. Congress had imposed a temporary income tax to fund the Civil War when it passed the Revenue Act of 1861, which was a flat 3% tax on incomes over $800 annually. A year later, the “Revenue Act of 1862” levied a 3% - 5% tax on incomes above $600 and included a sunset provision that the levy would end in 1866. In 1894, an amendment attached to the Wilson-Gorman Tariff Act provided for a 2% tax on annual incomes over $4,000 (equal to about $119,000 in 2019 dollars). The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, struck down the income tax component of the Wilson-Gorman Tariff Act as an un-apportioned direct tax (Pollock vs. Farmers’ Loan & Trust Company, 157 U.S. 429 (1895)). The Sixteenth Amendment established a Federal income tax as the law of the land.

Maimonides (Laws of Kings 4:4-6) rules that a king has the right to levy a tax upon the nation for his needs, or for a war, and the king alone can set the rate of the tax. The king can also establish a punishment for non-compliance, which may even include execution.

While the king has the power to tax, there is a debate if the Jews are required to appoint a king, or if a king is merely permitted to serve with conditions. When the Jews entered the Land of Israel, they were led by Joshua, the Judges, and then the prophet Samuel. When Samuel grew old and it became clear that his sons were not going to follow in his footsteps, the nation approached Samuel with the request for a king. Although Samuel was distressed by the request, God instructed Samuel to listen to the people (Samuel I 8:6-7) and comforted him that the nation’s desire was a rejection not of Samuel, but rather, of God Himself. Samuel even warns the nation of the unbridled and capricious power their requested king would have. He warns the people about the future king commandeering their sons and taking their fields, yet the nation doubled down and insisted on a king.

Although there is currently no king of Israel, for thousands of years Jews have prayed for the Messiah (anointed one – i.e. king) to reign over the nation of Israel.

Copyright © 2020 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Income Tax Pays for Vital Services

No one likes paying their taxes, but if we recognize that taxes pay for vital services and patriotic endeavors, perhaps it will be easier to part with our hard-earned money.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Under Cover of Darkness

Of the ten plagues that devastated the land of Egypt, the plague of darkness appears to be the most benign. Certainly being trapped in the dark is frightening (sensory deprivation is a recognized form of torture), but is it as devastating as rivers of blood, ravaging beasts or painful boils?

While the plague is simply known as darkness, the Torah actually refers to it as “thick darkness” (Exodus 10:22). In normal darkness, a person’s eyes slowly adjust to the darkness around them. This did not happen in Egypt. The Bible, in Exodus 10:21, calls it a “darkness that may be felt,” which, according to tradition, means that the darkness was so thick that it was physically tangible. The Midrash states: “one who sat could not stand up, one who stood up could not sit down...” (Exodus Rabbah 14:3).

This thick darkness served several purposes. The first had to do with the spiritual state of some of the Israelites. During the next and final plague, the death of the firstborn, any Israelite who did not mark their door (meaning: who did not choose God) suffered the same fate as the Egyptians. There were, however, some Israelites who were such vile transgressors that they did not even merit this choice. During the plague of darkness, these Israelites perished and were buried. Because these burials were obscured by the darkness, the Egyptians could not absolve themselves of responsibility for the plagues by pointing out that Israelites had also died.

The exceptional darkness did not affect the Israelites, as it says: “but all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings” (Exodus 10:23).The significance of this is explained in the Midrash, which notes that during the darkness, the Jews inspected the homes of the Egyptians to know where their valuables were hidden so that, before leaving Egypt, they could claim the valuables as remuneration for the many terrible years of slavery (Exodus Rabbah 14:3).



This Treat was last posted on December 30, 2013. 


Copyright © 2020 NJOP. All rights reserved.


Appreciate Sight

Jews thank God every morning for giving humankind the gift of sight. Never neglect to appreciate that invaluable gift.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Forced Closing of the “Ivy League” Yeshiva

The idea of a school with a dual curriculum, teaching both Judaic and general subjects is not too farfetched. Dozens, if not hundreds, of such private schools can be found around the globe today. Mixing Judaic studies with a western civilization curriculum, however, was not always as popular as it is in contemporary times.

The Etz Chaim (Tree of Life) Yeshiva in Volozhin, Russia (located today in Belarus), founded by Rabbi Chaim Volozhin, a student of the Vilna Gaon (the great sage of Vilna, Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, 1720-1797), was established in 1806. Known as “the Mother of all Yeshivas,” Volozhin served as an incubator for elite students, serving, by some accounts, 500 young Torah scholars in its heyday, many of whom became great and influential rabbis. Rabbi Chaim died in 1821, and the yeshiva underwent several leadership changes. First Rav Chaim’s son Rabbi Isaac (known as Rav Itzeleh) took over, until eventually, Rav Itzeleh’s younger son-in-law, Rabbi Naftali Z.Y. Berlin led the yeshiva into its glory days, with Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, Rabbi Chaim Volozhin’s great-grandson, as his assistant (not to be confused with Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik’s great grandson of the same name, who is associated with Yeshiva University).

On March 1, 1887, Russian governmental authorities and rabbinic leaders, including Rabbi Berlin, agreed that in order to accommodate contemporary educational developments, yeshivas would need to hire special instructors to teach written and spoken Russian, with the rabbis approving the textbooks. At first, the students refused to attend, citing the secular studies as a diversion from their Torah studies. Rabbi Berlin begged them to attend, noting that the teacher was sitting in an empty room for half an hour.

In 1892, the government instituted further educational stipulations, which would effectively strip Volozhin of its identity. The new rules stipulated that all faculty were required to have earned college degrees; only secular studies could be taught between 9:00 am and 3:00 pm; no studies of any kind could take place at night, and the total amount of hours of study per day could not exceed 10. Rabbi Berlin reluctantly decided to close the yeshiva. The yeshiva closed for good on February 3, 1892, corresponding to the 4th of Shevat.

Rabbi Rafael Shapiro, Rabbi Berlin’s son-in-law, reopened a much scaled down version of the Volozhin Yeshiva in 1899, which also closed with the advent of World War II, and re-opened once again in Israel after the Holocaust. In 2007, the original site of the yeshiva was returned to the Jewish community of Belarus, but seven years later, the Belarus government threatened to repossess the building unless the Jewish community raised $20,000 for renovations. Agudath Israel of America raised the money, and the building was saved.

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Balancing Torah and General Studies

While different Jewish schools offer different amounts of study hours devoted to secular studies, all schools subscribe to value of studying Torah and Jewish studies. Everyone can find a bit more time to learn Torah and seek knowledge about Jewish history and heritage.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

In a South American City

On January 18, 1535, the city of Lima, Peru, was founded to serve as the capital of the Peruvian Viceroyalty. The region’s mining riches drew, among others, a large number of Crypto-Jews (Conversos, Jews who lived as Christians in public) who lived in relative peace until January 9, 1570, corresponding to the 3rd of Shevat, when King Phillip II of Spain ordered the establishment of the Inquisition in Lima.

Please see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peruvian_Inquisition.

Early Peruvian Jewish history is not a happy one. The first auto-da-fe occurred in December 1595. These grim trials of pre-determined guilt were repeated in 1600 and 1605. In 1639, the largest auto-da-fe (ever) occurred in Lima. Over 60 people, accused of being part of La Complicidad Grande (The Great Congregation), were tried for practicing and/or preaching Judaism.

The end of the Inquisition in Lima in 1806 meant Jews could come to Peru and live openly. 
Moroccan Jews came as trappers and traders in the early nineteenth century. In the 1870s, there was an influx of Jews from Alsace, France. While they assimilated into the general populace, they established the Sociedad de Beneficenci Israelita, which still exists today. Around this same time there was a boom in the demand for rubber, drawing adventurous businessmen into the interior of the country. A smaller Jewish community developed in the interior region in Iquitos, and while that community was not sustained, it left a mark on the region such that a surprising number of their descendants have come forward today looking to rejoin the Jewish people.

World War I brought Jews from the fallen Ottoman Empire - from Turkey, Syria and North Africa. It is interesting to note that there are particular references to the immigration to Lima and other South American cities of a large group of Jews from the town of Novoselitsa on the Romanian border.

The Jewish population of Lima has never been large. Today there are still several active synagogues and the Leon Pinelo school to serve that community of a little more than 2,500 members.


By Reproducción (Museo de la Inquisición (Lima)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This Treat was last posted on January 9, 2019. 

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Learn the Jewish History of Your Travel Destinations

Due to the extensive Jewish diaspora, most spots on earth have a history of Jewish communal life. Before traveling, be sure to learn the local history.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Data Privacy: Yesterday and Today

The Council of Europe’s Convention for the Protection of Individuals with Regard to Automatic Processing of Personal Data was passed on January 28, 1981. “Data Privacy Day,” established in 2007, is celebrated in the United States, the U.K. and other European countries. In 2009, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution creating the “Data Privacy Day”.

Judaism has a similar policy that was established over a millennium ago. Rabbi Gershom ben Judah (960-1040) of Mainz, Germany, known as the “Light of the Diaspora,” led the most prestigious Torah academy in Germany. He also enacted a number of important communal decrees which had more bearing communally than legally. The Hebrew word for decree is takanah and the Hebrew word for ban is chay’rehm. It was Rabbi Gershom whose court banned bigamy (the Torah permits it), and it was Rabbi Gershom’s court that insisted that although Biblical law allowed a woman to be divorced against her will, assent from both the husband and wife was required before a divorce could be granted. Another one of his famous takanot was a ban on reading other people’s mail. While some suggest that Rabbi Gershom’s decrees would expire at the end of the fifth millennium (the Jewish year 5,000 corresponds to the secular year 1240), others see no reason he would have included a sunset clause.

Further, there are arguments to be made that reading someone else’s mail was already prohibited according to Jewish law and Rabbi Gershom’s cherem is unnecessary. Reading mail intended for another could fall under the prohibition of using someone else’s property without permission, as well as commandments such as “love your fellow as yourself,” do not act as a tale-bearer, and potentially causing damage to another person.

Contemporary rabbis see no reason to distinguish between reading someone else’s letter, and reading an email addressed to someone else. They are both prohibited.

Here is an example of potentially competing considerations. Saving a life, or potentially saving a life, overrides all Biblical laws, and certainly rabbinic laws, and decrees. In a situation where reading someone else’s mail could potentially save specific people’s lives that are potentially endangered, it would seem clear from a Jewish legal point of view, that it would be permitted. But, this would need to be weighed against all the reasons described above and the Jewish virtue of following the law of the land (dina d’malchuta), as the U.S. Constitution offers citizens an assumed right of privacy. 

NOTE: As with all Treats dealing with issues of halacha (points of Jewish law), one should consult one's local rabbi for practical application.

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Protect Your Privacy and Everyone Else’s

Human nature gave people instincts to protect themselves. Morality and Torah insist that we protect other people.

Monday, January 27, 2020

75 Years since the Liberation of Auschwitz

Today, January 27th, which marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz Death Camp by Soviet troops, falls out on the first of the Hebrew month of Shevat, which, according to one opinion in the Mishnah, is the beginning of the spring season. How appropriate! The Red Army arrived on this day and liberated the 7,000 prisoners who were still in the camp. Another 60,000 prisoners had been removed from the camp by the Nazis and sent on the infamous death march.

Auschwitz included a concentration camp, a killing center, and forced-labor camps. It was located 37 miles west of Krakow (Cracow), near the prewar German-Polish border. It is estimated that a minimum of 1.3 million people were deported to Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945; of these, at least 1.1 million were murdered.

The horrors of the depravity that Jews experienced at Auschwitz is described simply as “Night” by renowned survivor and historian, Elie Wiesel. The odyssey from this depravity, to the successful emergence of the State of Israel and the rebuilding of strong Jewish communities world-wide, including some in Eastern Europe, is nothing short of miraculous. As a result, this historically significant day, January 27th, has been designated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day,* a proposal that was put forth by the State of Israel 15 years ago.

Given the significance of this year’s anniversary, the Israeli government hosted the Fifth World Holocaust Forum at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. This year’s forum includes over 40 world leaders, representing top level officials from the protagonists of both sides of World War II, including the United States, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, Italy, and of course, an Israeli delegation headed by president Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The meeting, titled, “Remembering the Holocaust, Fighting Anti-Semitism,” is expected to be the biggest political event that has ever taken place in Israel. Holocaust survivor and Chairman of the Yad Vashem Council, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, the former Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel and currently the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, will be among the speakers.

*It should be noted that since 1953, Jews have observed a special Holocaust memorial day on the 27th of Nissan, which has been designated by the State of Israel as Yom Hashoah. Many traditional Jews mourn those who perished in the Holocaust on Tisha B’Av, the ninth of Av.

This Jewish Treat includes materials previously published in the following Jewish Treats: http://www.jewishtreats.org/2015/01/uprising-at-auschwitz.html
http://www.jewishtreats.org/2014/01/international-holocaust-memorial-day.html

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Remember the Horrors of the Holocaust

It is not enough to devote a few days a year to remembering the horrors of the Shoah. Make an effort to think about the Holocaust, its victims and survivors every day.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Beyond Boils

When the Torah was translated into English, the Hebrew word makkah was translated as plague. In the modern lexicon, however, the term plague often brings to mind the hideous Black Plague that decimated Europe in the Middle Ages. While the ten makkot spread across Egypt with the speed of a devastating contagion, the only plague to manifest as a medical condition was the sixth plague: boils. Of course, it would only be fair to note that the "plagues" of frogs and the lice (plagues 2 and 3) were extremely physically uncomfortable for the Egyptians.

The plague of boils is unique in other ways, for it appears to have also been the final blow to the once powerful Egyptian magicians:

"And they [Moses and Aaron] took soot from the furnace, and stood before Pharaoh; and Moses threw it heavenward; and it became boils breaking out into blisters upon man and upon beast. And the magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils; for the boils were upon the magicians, and upon all the Egyptians" (Exodus 9:10-11).

During the makkah of lice, the magicians had finally admitted that this particular plague was a magical feat that they could not replicate and had even acknowledged God's power: "And the magicians did so with their enchantments to bring forth lice, but they could not: so there were lice upon man, and upon beast. Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, 'This is the finger of God'" (Exodus 8:14-15).

During the plague of boils, the magicians were so personally affected by the boils that they could not even stand in Moses' presence when he appeared before Pharaoh. It is interesting to note that now, with the complete and total defeat of the magicians, it was God who "hardened the heart of Pharaoh" (Exodus 9:12).


This Treat was last posted on January 7, 2016.


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Illusions and Magic

Make sure to distinguish between an illusion and actual “magic” which is a problematic issue in Jewish law.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Maryland’s Jews

While the mid-Atlantic State of Maryland is often associated with un-kosher seafood, Maryland has a vibrant history of Jewish settlement. The state of Maryland’s “Act to Extend to the Sect of People Professing the Jewish Religion the Same Rights and Privileges enjoyed by Christians,” colloquially known as the “Jew Bill,” was passed on January 5, 1826, corresponding to the 26th of Tevet, by the Maryland General Assembly, allowing Jews to hold public office statewide so long as they affirmed their belief in “reward and punishment” and the “hereafter.”

The colony of Maryland was established in 1634 as an asylum for Catholics. Denying the validity of Christianity was a crime punishable by death. While Jews mostly avoided Maryland since its economy was driven by tobacco and Maryland boasted few cities, there were exceptions. David Fereira, a tobacco trader from New Amsterdam (current day New York City) appeared in Maryland in 1657, and Dr. Jacob Lumbrozo, a physician engaged in trade, was recorded to have been in Maryland that very same year. A year later Dr. Lumbrozo, known to be somewhat colorful and provocative, was arrested for blasphemy after offending neighboring Christians during a conversation about religion and theology. He was released before trial as part of a general amnesty. Despite the virtual ban on the practice of Judaism, Jews began moving to Annapolis and Fredericktown (now Frederick) prior to the American Revolution. The practice of Judaism was legalized in 1776, which is also around the time when Baltimore became a significant port city. The existence of a Jewish cemetery in Baltimore in 1786 indicates that a community existed there at that time. The state of Maryland was established on April 28, 1788. By 1825, prior to the passage of the “Jew Bill,” there were about 150 Jews in Maryland.

Between 1830 and 1870, more than 10,000 Jews, mostly from Germany and Central Europe, immigrated to Maryland. Jews from Eastern Europe began settling in Maryland in the 1850s, and those numbers grew exponentially from the 1880s, with most opting to live in Baltimore. Baltimore synagogues were established in the 1820s and 1830s. The first synagogue outside of Baltimore was established in 1853 in Cumberland. When immigration quotas were tightened in the 1920s, synagogues were built in Frederick, Hagerstown, Annapolis, Frostburg, Brunswick and Salisbury. Approximately 65,000 Jews resided in Maryland at that time.

After World War II (Baltimore was a ship-building center during the War), the numbers of Jews in Maryland grew, and many Jews entered the political realm. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw Marvin Mandel, a Jewish Baltimore native, elected governor of Maryland. Currently, one of Maryland’s senators, Ben Cardin is Jewish and a known member of a Baltimore synagogue. The late 60s and 70s also saw many of the Jews living in the District of Columbia moving to the Maryland suburbs of Washington, such as Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties. In 1998, the Jewish population of those two MD counties surrounding Washington D.C. was 104,500. The Baltimore area was home to 94,500 Jews.

As of 2017, Maryland’s Jewish population was approximately 240,000 people.

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Jewish Maryland

When traveling, try to learn the Jewish history of the places you plan to visit.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Pungency of Peppers

While some people love adding “heat” to everything that they eat, January 22 has been designated as “Hot Sauce Day.” Hot sauce is made by crushing or pureeing raw, cooked, smoked, or pickled chili peppers with spices. The heat of a pepper derives from chemical compounds called capsaicinoids. While a heat index relates to the weather outside, the pungency of peppers is measured in the Scoville Scale: the higher the rating, the greater the heat.

Pungency of vegetables has halachic (Jewish legal) ramifications as well, which are most appropriate to be reviewed on “Hot Sauce Day.” According to Jewish law, the ta'am (literally, flavor or taste) of a food (milk and meat, kosher and non-kosher) is transferred through heat, with heat meaning a high temperature above 110 degrees Fahrenheit. However, transference can also take place where foods have a certain level of natural heat (spicy, pungent or sharp foods).

Heat causes transfer: For instance, if one melts a stick of butter in a new pan, that pan becomes dairy because of the hot butter. Similarly, a bowl that contains hot clam chowder cannot be used to serve kosher food without first being made kosher. So while a pot used for meat may be scrubbed clean from any meat residue, be’liyot (the absorbed flavor of meat) still remain within the walls of the utensil for 24 hours after the meat was heated above a temperature where one would reflexively remove their hand from the heat. Since heat plays a role in the transfer of the ta'am (taste), heat is also necessary for the kashering process. In fact, the rule is that an item is kashered by the same process by which it absorbs. Thus, a pot that was used to cook non-kosher liquids can be kashered by boiling it in water.

If one cut a carrot (a non-davar charif – an item that is not considered spicy or sharp) with a meat knife that had cut extremely hot meat within 24 hours, the carrot does not absorb by the ta’am of meat. While Ashkenazic Jews would not eat that carrot together with diary, all Ashkenazim would agree that the carrot remains pareve. One would not need to endure the waiting period between eating meat and dairy after eating that carrot. Sephardic Jews would eat that “meat-flavored” carrot even with dairy.

Pungent and spicy foods are the equivalent to hot. Using an onion as the paradigmatic davar charif, a meat knife that was used to cut extremely hot meat within 24 hours was used when cold to cut an onion, that onion becomes imbued with the ta’am of meat and is considered a meat onion. Eating that onion with milk products would thus violate the prohibition of mixing meat and milk. The reason this onion becomes meat while the carrot does not (despite rabbinic stringencies among Ashkenazim) is because the pungency of the onion absorbs the meat ta’am (flavor) from the cold knife. Although the cold knife cut a cold onion, the heat of pungency transfers the meat ta’am from within the onion.

So enjoy “Hot Sauce Day” and keep in mind the power of heat!

NOTE: As with all Treats dealing with issues of halacha (points of Jewish law), one should consult one's local rabbi for practical application.

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Take Extra Precautions to Maintain Kosher Standards

Make sure your kitchen at home is properly set up to keep all the kosher laws, which includes proper labeling and separation of meat and dairy pots, pans and silverware.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Unsung Hero

War heroes are not always soldiers in arms. Often they are the men and women who work behind the scenes. Such was the role of Haym Salomon, an unsung hero of the American Revolution.

Born in 1740 in Poland, Salomon immigrated to New York in the early 1770s, where he established himself as a financial broker for merchants engaged in overseas trade and became a member of the Sons of Liberty (a secret organization of American patriots).

Salomon was quite successful in business and put his business acumen to work for the colonials. He was arrested as a spy in 1776, but was pardoned and put to work by the British as a translator for their Hessian mercenaries (whom he covertly encouraged to desert). When he was arrested again in 1778, he received a death sentence but managed to escape. Salomon fled to Philadelphia, penniless.

Re-establishing his brokerage business, Salomon resumed his work for the revolution. When George Washington found himself on the verge of victory but with an empty war chest, Haym Salomon managed to raise the $20,000 needed. Washington was thus able to complete the Yorktown campaign--and win independence for the United States. Salomon also negotiated with France and Holland for war aid and helped members of the Continental Congress support themselves in Philadelphia. His financial genius was also put in service to the new federal government, which lacked financial stability.

Unfortunately, Salomon also involved himself in considerable financial speculation. When he died on January 6th 1785, corresponding to the 24th of Tevet, his unexpected debts left his family penniless.


This Treat was last posted on May 5, 2010.

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Financially Support Important Causes

If you are unable to personally help important and worthy organizations personally, you can always help with your checkbook.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Inauguration Oil

Elected U.S. presidents are inaugurated on January 20th. But, it wasn’t always that way.

The Congress of the Confederation set March 4, 1789, as the date for “commencing proceedings” of the new government that the Constitution described. George Washington took the oath of office in New York City on April 30th, 1789 due to a difficult winter. His second inauguration occurred on March 4th, 1793 in Philadelphia. While presidential elections occur in November, time was needed to count ballots, assert the victor and travel to Washington for the inauguration. When technology allowed for easier tabulation and travel, the 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, that was ratified on January 23, 1933, set the inauguration of subsequent presidents for January 20th. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first U.S. president sworn in to office on the new date in 1937, launching FDR’s second term.

In Biblical times, the term of Jewish leaders began by anointing their heads with special oil (Exodus 30:30). This act symbolically consecrated an individual, or even an object (see Exodus 30:26, 29). The Bible mandates that the priests and the objects in the Tabernacle were inaugurated by pouring oil upon them. Eventually Jewish kings were also anointed with this special oil (Samuel I 10:1). The special oil was concocted by mixing pure myrrh, sweet cinnamon, sweet calamus, cassia and olive oil. Only Jewish kings of the Davidic dynasty were anointed with this special oil, as will the future king of Israel, known as the “Messiah,” which means anointed one. The Greek term for anointed is “Christos.”

Moses made the anointing oil by using the ingredients listed in the Torah and cooking it all together. According to tradition, no other oil may be used (see Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Temple Vessels 1:1). Prior to the Babylonian sacking of the Temple, the Judean King Josiah ordered that the Ark of the Covenant, Aaron’s staff, the jar of manna, and the anointment oil be concealed. All of these have yet to be found since that time. Therefore, priests during the Second Commonwealth were not anointed with the oil.

Happy Inauguration Day!

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Be a Jewish Leader

You too can help lead the Jewish people by assuming volunteer positions in almost any synagogue or Jewish organization.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Anatomy of a Jewish Leader

This week’s Torah portion re-introduces us to one of the most seminal characters of Jewish history: Moses. Known as Moshe Rabbeinu, Hebrew for Moses our teacher, Moses was unique among all rabbis, teachers, prophets and human beings. As the individual chosen by God to serve as His emissary to deliver the Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt and to be the great giver and teacher of the Torah to the Jewish people, Moses experienced God in ways that no other human being ever did. The Torah relates, that Moses spoke to God, “Face-to-Face” (see Exodus 33:11 and Deuteronomy 34:10) and Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Fundamentals of the Torah 7:6) asserts that the prophecy of Moses differed from that of all other prophets. Moses’ relationship with God was far more intimate than any other prophets.

Why did God choose Moses?

20th century Biblical scholar, Nehama Leibowitz, looks at the scant stories about Moses’ early life to answer this question. There are three episodes the Torah shares. First, Moses sees an Egyptian harshly beating a Jew. Moses saves the Hebrew slave by striking and killing the tormentor (Exodus 2:11-12). In the very next verses (Exodus 2:13-14), Moses sees two fellow Jews fighting with one another and asks the provocateur why he was striking his “brother.” Essentially, the men tell Moses, to mind his own business and ask if he plans to smite them as he killed the Egyptian? Realizing the Egyptian authorities would execute him for killing a taskmaster, Moses relocates to the desert oasis of Midian. When he arrives, the local priest’s seven daughters were preparing water to quench the thirst of their flocks (Exodus 2:16-17.) When the local shepherds chased the young women away, Moses arose to save them and provided water to the sheep.” Why are these three stories shared?

Professor Leibowitz explained that the Torah included these three episodes because they demonstrate that Moses showed interest and initiative in three different types of conflicts. The first conflict was between a Jew and a non-Jew, the second featured a quarrel between two Jews and the third involved a dispute between two non-Jews. Moses addressed each case. He felt compelled to take an active role and stand for justice and aid a victim, whether personally connected to him or not. Moses’ reflex was to help the victim, whether an internal matter between two co-religionists, or a matter outside of his purview such as a skirmish between two strangers. The Torah thus identifies “the ultimate leader” as one who cares about others for no reason other than empathy, justice and love.

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Stand Up for Justice

No matter what the circumstances, always assert all of your influence and power to make sure no one is bullied, taken advantage of or unfairly diminished in any way.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Judah Touro

Unlike many of the great philanthropists recorded in history, Judah Touro (1775-1854) was neither the scion of old money nor a man famed for his incredible business talents. His philanthropic activities were so important to him that his tombstone was inscribed: "The last of his name, he inscribed it in the Book of Philanthropy to be remembered forever." 

Judah Touro moved to New Orleans in 1802, where he demonstrated his business acumen. During the War of 1812, Touro enlisted in the military under the command of Andrew Jackson. During the Battle of New Orleans, Touro was severely wounded (a presumed fatal injury). He was rescued and nursed back to health by a close friend. 


Touro's philanthropic activities began on a civic level. He provided the funds, nearly $10,000, for the completion of the Bunker Hill Monument in Boston as well as significant support for the Massachusetts General Hospital. 


Late in his life, Touro befriended Gershom Kursheedt, who is credited with having renewed Touro's interest in Jewish life. Not only did Touro begin attending services on a regular basis, but he was also one of the founders and the key supporter of the Nefuzoth Yehuda synagogue in New Orleans (which became part of what is today the Touro Synagogue). 


In addition to supporting the New Orleans' Jewish community, Touro took a particular interest in the Newport (R.I.) synagogue where his father had once served as the chazzan (cantor). Jeshuat Israel, as it was then called, was founded in 1658 and is most famous for the congregation's correspondence with George Washington. Today, it is also known as the Touro synagogue in honor of the financial support it received from both Judah Touro and his brother Abraham. 


Judah Touro passed away on the 19th of Tevet (today), 1854. His will contained an incredibly diverse list of donations to a long list of Jewish and non-Jewish causes. One of the most sizable bequests was $50,000 for Sir Moses Montefiore to distribute among the needy Jews of Palestine.


This Treat was last posted on January 1, 2013.

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Supporting Jewish Causes

While many worthy causes such as hospitals and museums were built as a result of Jewish philanthropy, make certain to also support other Jewish causes, such as Jewish education, helping the Jewish needy, and the State of Israel.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Always (Kosher) Coca Cola!

I’d bet you never heard of the Pemberton Medicine Company! Perhaps you have heard of the company into which it was incorporated on January 15th, 1889? That would be the Coca Cola Company of Atlanta, GA.

As Coke became a household name nationwide, those who keep kosher sought to learn if they too could enjoy the refreshing taste of Coca Cola. Enter Rabbi Tobias Geffen (1870-1970), the rabbi of the Orthodox Congregation Shearith Israel in Atlanta, who, in the early 1930s, innocently called the Coca Cola Company requesting a list of their ingredients. Rabbi Geffen, born in Kovno, Lithuania, was unaware of the fact that the ingredients of Coca Cola are one of the most closely guarded industrial secrets in American history. Rabbi Geffen’s inquiry, however, was discussed at the highest levels of the beverage company and, despite the fact that only a handful of the company’s executives knew the ingredients, they agreed to disclose the ingredients to him, as long as he would keep them confidential. Rabbi Geffen agreed, and was given the list, without knowing the amount of each component of “the formula.” One of the items in Coca Cola, although only included in one part per ten thousand) was glycerin made from (non-kosher) beef tallow. Since the glycerin was added on purpose, under Jewish law, one could not rely on nullifying it even when it was present in a ratio equaling 1/60 or less, and Rabbi Geffen informed the Coca Cola company that kosher observant Jews could not drink Coke. The company however endeavored to find a suitable substitute and learned that Proctor and Gamble sold a glycerin from cottonseed or coconut oil, which was kosher. Once the change was made, Rabbi Geffen certified Coca Cola as kosher, however, due to traces of alcohol that were a byproduct of grain kernels, he was unable to certify it during Passover when grains are prohibited. Coke’s chemists learned that they could substitute sweeteners produced from beet sugar and cane sugar with those made from grains. The company agreed to begin using the alternative “sugars” weeks before Passover.

Decades later, it became clear that Proctor and Gamble’s pipes that were used to manufacture the kosher glycerin, were also being used to manufacture its non-kosher parallel version. Proctor and Gamble spent $30,000 to create a second piping system so that the kosher glycerin would not pass through the pipes used for the non-kosher version. As industrial kashrut grew in the United States, with kosher supervising agencies, such as the OU (Orthodox Union), certifying millions of products, teams of experts with years of experience are able to ensure that large and small factories and products are fully kosher. This all began with individuals, such as Rabbi Geffen, who blazed the kosher trail.

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Kosher Supervision

Hundreds of thousands of items are under kosher supervision in the United States. Make sure all the food you eat is certified kosher.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

America’s First Synagogue

In 1656, Shearith Israel, the first synagogue was established in the territory that came to be known as the United States. The synagogue, also known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, was founded in New Amsterdam (today known as New York City) by 23 Jews who immigrated to the New World from Dutch Brazil. Despite, the anti-Semitic governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant’s attempts to bar the Jews from settling in the colony, official permission was granted in 1655. A cemetery society was established in 1656 and the congregation was organized the same year, although securing a building would only come decades later.

Congregation Shearith Israel of New York, purchased a lot on Mill St. in Lower Manhattan, on December 17, 1728, corresponding to the 17th of Tevet, for the purpose of erecting the first synagogue structure in New York. They dedicated the synagogue on April 8, 1730, corresponding to the 21st of Nissan. The Spanish Portuguese Synagogue is the first of six synagogues dedicated during the Colonial period. The others were: Mickve Israel in Savannah, GA (1735); Beth Elohim in Charleston, SC (1749); Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI (1763); Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, PA (1773) and Beth Shalome in Richmond, VA (1789).

Eventually Congregation Shearith Israel was rebuilt and expanded in 1818 and moving from location to location. The congregation first moved to 60 Cosby Street in 1834, to 19th Street in 1860 and finally to West 70th Street (the current location) in 1897.

In the 19th century, before the immigration of thousands of East European Jews at the end of the century, most Jews arriving in the United States came from Germany and were interested in the Reform movement. The Spanish Portuguese synagogue always conducted a traditional service. Shearith Israel’s rabbi, Henry Pereira Mendes, helped found a rabbinic seminary to counterbalance the progressive ways of the Reform Movement. The American Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) was founded in 1886 to train traditional rabbis and its classes initially met in Shearith Israel. He was also integral in founding a traditional synagogue umbrella group and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (known as the Orthodox Union, or OU, as an alternative to the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC). In 1896 Rabbi Mendes was elected president of JTS. As the U.S. Conservative movement slid further away from tradition, Shearith Israel disassociated from JTS. The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue remains a member of the Orthodox Union.

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Historical Synagogues

Make an effort to learn the history of houses of worship in the United States.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Skeptic’s Day: Or is It?

Happy “Skeptics Day,” is the annual opportunity to acknowledge those who need absolute evidence before believing anything.

What does Jewish wisdom teach about skepticism?

In a Jewish court, verifiable evidence is certainly needed to convict. Two witnesses, who must comport to high standards, must testify to having seen the alleged crime committed first-hand. Circumstantial evidence is not tolerated. Establishing courts of law to adjudicate cases is not only a Jewish mandate, but considered to be obligatory upon all of humanity, Jew and non-Jew alike. Jews understand that human courts may not be the source of ultimate justice: the heavenly courtroom of the Almighty is. So, if a human court is unable to convict due to a lack of witnessed facts, it is assumed that God will ultimately mete out judgment.

But, in life outside the courtroom, a balance is needed between fairness and avoiding naiveté. A story is told (Derech Eretz Rabbah chapter 5) about Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah who invited a man to his home and fed him. As his guest climbed to the loft to go to sleep, Rabbi Joshua removed the ladder. Alas, in the middle of the night, the guest robbed the host of many of his valuables and wrapped them in his coat. He sought to make his getaway, but when he attempted to climb down, he fell and broke his collarbone. When Rabbi Joshua arose the next morning and saw his guest sprawled on the floor, he told him that while he suspected him of being dishonest, he still treated him respectfully. In the end, the Mishnah states, citing Rabbi Joshua, “One should always view people as thieves, but honor them like the leader of the Jews.” Many centuries later, the phrase kabdeihu v’chash’deihu, was born, which means to simultaneously show esteem but maintain skepticism.

A verse in Jeremiah (41:9) attributes to Gedaliah, to some degree, the murder of 80 men, and the disposal of their remains into a pit. The Talmud (Nidah 61a) asks why Gedaliah would be responsible for such a mass murder. After all, the crime was committed by Yishmael the son of Netanyah, who had assassinated Gedaliah the previous day? The Talmud answers that Gedaliah was warned by Yochanan the son of Kar’ei’ach that the king of Ammon was sending Yishmael to murder him. Not only did Gedaliah refuse to believe the information, but he invited Yishmael to dinner, where Yishmael killed him. Because he refused to accept credible information, he is considered somewhat responsible, for all the deaths that resulted from his assassination.

The Talmud concludes, that although one should not fully accept negative speech (lashon hara) as fact, one should be mindful of it.

Happy Skeptic’s Day.

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Righteous Skepticism

Every subject deserves the presumption of innocence, but that does not imply that one should throw caution to the wind.

Friday, January 10, 2020

How Many Tribes?

The challenge to name the number of tribes of Israel would fall into the category of  “easy” by trivia fans. However, the term “The Twelve Tribes of Israel” can be enumerated in different ways at different times.  Let’s clarify:

The Twelve Tribes of Israel began with the twelve sons of Jacob (also known as Israel): ReubenSimeonLeviJudahDanNaphtaliGadAsherIssacharZebulunJoseph and Benjamin.  While Reuben was the first born, his act of moving his father’s bed into his mother’s tent after the death of Rachel (Genesis 35:22) lost him his natural firstborn right. The rights of the firstborn were transferred to Rachel’s firstborn son, Joseph.

In Egypt, where the family of Jacob migrated to escape a famine in Canaan, Jacob met Joseph’s two sons Ephraim and Menashe. He told Joseph “Your two sons who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you, to Egypt, shall be considered mine, like Reuben and Simon” (Genesis 48:5).

When, after years of enslavement, the Children of Israel left Egypt, the descendants of Joseph were regarded as two tribes in one. In some situations, such as when Moses blessed the tribes, both tribes together are referred to as the Children of Joseph. But, in other situations, they are addressed as the Tribe of Ephraim and the Tribe of Menashe. They each had their own princes and their own encampments in the wilderness, which, though adjacent, were distinct.

The double portion (a firstborn right) of Joseph’s descendants was a counterbalance to the status change of the Tribe of Levi. When the Levites were designated as the caretakers of the Tabernacle and as the teachers of the people, they yielded ownership of a portion of the Promised Land that all other tribes received. As a result of the division of the children of Joseph into two tribes, the balance of twelve tribal areas of the Promised Land was maintained.


This Treat was last posted on June 20, 2014.

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