Wednesday, December 31, 2008
1) The first of Nissan, the month in which Passover is celebrated, is regarded as the new year for months. The first commandment that God gave to the Jewish people was to sanctify the new year, beginning with the month of Nissan. It is this date which we use to calculate the Jewish festivals. As the beginning of the political year in ancient Israel, it was also the date used for defining the reigns of the Kings of Israel.
2) The first of Elul, the sixth month of the year, is the new year for tithing animals. Whether an animal qualifies for the tithe for year "A" or year "B" is determined by whether the animal was born before or after the first of Elul.
3) The first of Tishrei, the seventh month of the year, is the beginning of the calendar year for produce and for the Jubilee. This is the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, when a person's behavior for the previous year is judged by the Heavenly courts. On Rosh Hashanah we calculate the date of the new calendar year, based on the number of years since the creation of Adam (currently 5769).
4) The fifteenth of Shevat, the eleventh month of the year, is the new year for trees, when the sap starts running and life begins its slow return.
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Included in the festivities are, of course, the parties, both social and the not-to-be-missed office holiday party. As we know from the abundant ads and warnings at this time of year, drinks are often free-flowing.
Drinking is one of humankind’s oldest pleasures, or one of its oldest vices – depending on your perspective. Indeed, Noah had barely set foot on the newly dried earth after the flood when he planted a vineyard (a fact that the Torah does not consider to be to his credit). Yet, while drunkenness, which was Noah’s goal, is frowned upon, the consumption of wine is a basic fact of Jewish life. Almost every celebration or festival is sanctified by a blessing over a full cup of wine.
As in most things, moderation is the appropriate path. For those, however, who would like specific guidelines, it may surprise you to know that this too is a subject discussed in the Talmud (Eruvin 64b):
When are people considered slightly intoxicated and when are they considered drunk? They are considered slightly intoxicated if they are capable of speaking before a king [able to speak coherently to a person who is held in awe]. People are considered drunk if they are unable to speak before a king.
Of course, most of us have little contact with royalty. Nevertheless, we can understand it clearly from a more mundane perspective: How would a person behave in front of his/her boss?
Monday, December 29, 2008
The events of Chanukah took place about 150 years after the death of Alexander the Great (323 BCE), whose death brought 40 years of civil war to his empire. Eventually, the empire was divided into 3 smaller empires: the Antigonid Empire in Greece, the Selucid Empire in Mesopotamia and Persia, and the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt, Judea and Cyrenaica (Libya). By the time Antiochus IV Epiphanes assumed the throne of the Selucid empire in 175 BCE, Judea was under Selucid control. He began his oppression of the Jewish people in 167 BCE, after his attempt to conquer Egypt was thwarted by threats from Rome. Antiochus’s initial anger at the Judeans was for the ousting of Menelaus from the office of High Priest, to which Antiochus had appointed him.
The Maccabees redeemed Jerusalem and re-dedicated the Holy Temple in 165 BCE. While they won religious freedom, the Jews never completely regained their political independence. Jewish kings reigned, but were often vassals to greater political empires. Sadly, the era following the great Maccabean uprising is one known for corruption and treachery.
The Maccabeans began their reign just as a powerful new empire was emerging: Rome. Julius Caeser was born in the year 100 BCE. Just 100 years after the Maccabean victory, Pompey brought the Roman army into Judea at the invitation of Hyrcanus and Aristobolus, the two Hasmonean brothers who were vying for the throne. It was the beginning of a very sad ending to an inspiring victory!
Friday, December 26, 2008
In biblical times, the superpower of the world was Egypt. Like all civilizations, Egypt went through times of great power and wealth and times of uncommon weakness and poverty. The Egyptians were, after all, completely dependent on the waters of the Nile.
Genesis (Chapter 40) relates that in the time of Joseph, the land of Egypt, and in fact the entire Middle East, suffered a great boom and bust cycle. Seven years of abundance were followed by seven years of famine. Throughout the region, people suffered from the famine, except in Egypt where they tightened their belts and lowered their standard of living. Because of the provisions in Egypt, everyone else came there to buy food.
Egypt was no more blessed than any other country except for the fact that a brilliant young man named Joseph had understood Pharoah’s dream and planned for the future. During the seven years of plenty, as the viceroy, Joseph forced the Egyptians to store all excess grain in anticipation of the famine to come.
Chassidic parables speak of life as a wheel of fortune. One who is rich today may be poor next year...and may return to wealth again in the future. No doubt the years of famine were difficult. But, it was over after only seven years, and fortunately did not last for an eternity.
Thursday, December 25, 2008
As the Jews in the town neared starvation due to the enemy siege, Yehudit told the elders that she had a plan to deliver the enemies into their hands, but they must not ask her about it. They must simply have faith in her. Knowing her reputation for wisdom and piety, they agreed.
Accompanied by one maidservant, Yehudit managed to gain an audience with Holofernes and told him that, for the sake of those suffering from the siege, she wanted the city to fall. She proposed to report to him, daily, on the town’s supplies and let him know when was best to strike.
After several days, Yehudit felt that she and her maidservant had gained the trust of the enemy. They came and went as they pleased.
When she told Holofernes that the city had no food left and that it would be good time to strike, he invited her to come alone to his tent to celebrate. She agreed, insisting that he partake of her ‘renowned’ goat-cheese. As he ate the salty cheese, Yehudit quenched his thirst with the heavy wine that she had brought with her. When Holofernes finally fell into a stupor from too much food and drink, Yehudit cut off his head with his own sword. The two women wrapped the head in a cloth and returned to Bethulia.
Yehudit instructed the Jewish elders to attack the Syrian-Greeks immediately.
The Syrian-Greeks soldiers awoke to find the Judeans attacking and their leader mysteriously dead. The Syrian-Greek army fled in confusion and panic.
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
I made it out of clay
and when it’s dry and ready
With dreidel I shall play!
The Dreidel is a four sided top, with a single Hebrew letter on each of its sides. Before the game begins, all players are given an equal number of coins or candies. Each player makes an initial deposit of coins or candies to the middle of the circle and then takes a turn spinning the Dreidel. When it falls, depending on the Hebrew letter that is facing up, the following occurs:
Nun: Nothing happens, on to the next player.
Gimmel: The player wins the pot.
Hey: The player takes half the pot.
Shin: The player must put a coin/candy in the pot.
Gambling?! On a Jewish holiday?
When the Syrian-Greeks ruled Judea (c. 167 BCE), they banned the study of Torah. The Jewish people defiantly continued to study and to teach their children. Under the threat of death, the children and their teachers met in secret, with a lookout to watch for soldiers. When the enemy approached, the books were quickly hidden and the Jews pretended to be gambling.
The letters on the Chanukah dreidel spell out Neis Gadol Hayah Sham, A Great Miracle Happened There (referring to Israel). In Israel, therefore, dreidels have a Pey instead of a Shin, representing the word Poh, which means Here, since the miracle actually occurred in the land of Israel.
So go ahead, gather a few friends, spend a few pennies and spin the dreidel without any guilt.
To learn more about Chanukah in general, please visit www.njop.org.
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
When the Syrian-Greek soldiers demanded that the Jews of Modiin sacrifice a swine to one of their gods, Mattitiyahu, a priest from the Hasmonean family, refused to allow this desecration to take place and slew the Jewish heretic who had volunteered. Mattitiyahu, together with his sons, attacked the Syrian-Greek soldiers. They won that battle, but they were forced to take refuge in the hills. Mattitiyahu's sons became known as the Maccabees.
Under the leadership of Judah the Maccabee, the Jews launched a guerilla war for freedom. In 165 B.C.E., the Maccabees finally succeeded in routing the vastly superior Syrian-Greeks forces and retook the Temple, but by then the Syrian-Greeks had thoroughly desecrated the holy site. The Jews immediately set to work removing the alien idols, scrubbing the altar and performing the many tasks necessary to rededicate the Temple.
Unfortunately, there was no undefiled oil left with which to light the golden menorah. The Jews searched for sealed jars of pure oil, and finally found a single flask with its seal intact. They rejoiced and hurried to light the Menorah and rededicate the Temple.
But it was only one flask of oil, good for only one day. It would take at least another week for fresh pure olive oil to be prepared. Not wanting to postpone performing the mitzvah, they decided to light the Menorah with what they had--and the miracle of Chanukah occurred. Despite the small quantity of oil, the menorah remained lit for the entire eight days, announcing to the world that G-d's presence had returned to the Temple.
To learn more about Chanukah in general, please visit www.njop.org.
Monday, December 22, 2008
The desire for scholarly children was actually one of the motivations for the custom of giving Chanukah gelt (money). In modern times, money has become Chanukah presents. What is the connection between Chanukah lights, intelligent children and gelt?
Publicizing the miracle of Chanukah is so important that even a pauper, who has no money at all, is required to borrow money in order to buy oil for lighting. People therefore began to give a little money (gelt) to the poor so that they would not be embarrassed or forced to ask for assistance. Because the idea of “being diligent in lighting the Chanukah lights” is primary in both giving to the poor and meriting wise children, it became the custom to give children gelt as a reward for studying. Children who were diligent in their studies were rewarded with a shiny coin.
While gifts are an offshoot of the holiday, they represent an important element of Chanukah – chinuch, Jewish education.
The Maccabees fought so that their children and their children's children would be able to study Torah freely and be knowledgeable about their Jewish heritage. Jewish children are taught about Judaism not only for today, but for posterity as well, as it says in Proverbs 22:6: "Educate a young person in his/her own way, even when he/she grows old he/she will not turn from it."
Over time, the simple practice of giving gelt (coins or presents) became a Chanukah custom – and not just for children. In truth, however, it is not surprising that gift giving has moved beyond just children. In our own day and age, we, the adults, also need encouragement to learn about who we are and what our Jewish heritage means.
To learn more about Chanukah in general, please visit www.njop.org.
Friday, December 19, 2008
The Chanukah candelabra that we light is actually called a chanukiah. It has nine branches - eight lights for Chanukah and a shamash, a "helper" candle to light the other candles.
In preparation for the holiday and to make Chanukah truly shine, Jewish Treats presents some “things to know” about the chanukiah:
1) You really don’t need a chanukiah (or a menorah)! That’s right, one could technically light a series of tea lights (for example) one next to the other and still properly fulfill the mitzvah of Chanukah lights.
2) The lights should be in a straight line without any difference in height between any of the Chanukah lights. They may be in a semi-circle as long as all the lights are visible at the same time. The place for the shamash on the chanukiah, however, should be differentiated from the other lights. Usually it is higher, lower or out of line with the others.
3) There should be enough space between lights so that the none of the flames merge with their neighbor. Also the candles must be far enough apart that one candle does not cause the candle next to it to melt.
4) It is preferable to use olive oil for the Chanukah lights since the miracle took place with olive oil. One may, nevertheless, use wax or paraffin candles or other types of oils as long as they produce a steady, clean light.
Jewish Treats, in conjunction with Jewish Tweets, wants to see your menorah/chanukiah. Upload pictures to our JewishTweets Menorah Showcase on Flickr for a chance at great prizes! We hope to see yours there!
To learn more about Chanukah in general, please visit www.njop.org.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
What is the primary mitzvah of Chanukah?
a) Eating latkes (potato pancakes)
b) Giving Chanukah gifts or gelt (money)
c) Publicizing the miracle of the oil that lasted 8 days
d) Playing Dreidel
The correct answer is C. While the customs of Chanukah include eating latkes, giving monetary and other gifts and playing dreidel, the only actual mitzvah of Chanukah is to light the menorah and display the lights, thus publicizing the miracle of the lights in the Holy Temple burning for 8 days.
In order to fulfill this mitzvah of publicizing the miracle, the menorah/chanukiah should be lit where it can be seen by the public. Chanukah lights were originally lit in the doorway of the home, opposite the mezuzah, facing the street. However, it is now common practice to place the menorah in a window facing the street.
In order to make certain that the lights are visible, the menorah is lit after sunset. (There are two opinions regarding the correct time to light, so please consult your local rabbi.)
If one is unable to light at the appropriate time, one may light later in the night, as long as there is someone else in the house who is awake (thus fulfilling the requirements of publicizing the miracle).
If it is very late and no one is awake, one should light the menorah without the blessings
If there are still people in the street or in the apartments of a facing building who would see the lit menorah, it is also permitted to light and say the blessings.
If the menorah was not lit at all during the night, there is no "make-up" lighting during the day.
NOTE: Please be sure to review fire safety procedures with your family.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Throughout the Bible, dreams are often the vehicle for prophecy. Today, unfortunately, we are no longer the beneficiaries of outright prophecy. Dreams, however, can still have significance – but only if we have a way of understanding them.
The most important aspect of dream interpretation is that the interpretation should actually be based on the dream. This was the significance of Joseph’s different interpretations of the dreams of the butler and the baker (Genesis 40). The two dreams are strangely similar, and yet Joseph sees life in one (the butler) and death in the other (the baker).
The Talmud (Berachot 55a-56a) warns us that all dreams follow the interpreter’s interpretation. For this reason, Rabbi Chisda said: “A dream that is not interpreted is like a letter that is not read.” The interpretation of the dream gives it power. Thus Rabbi Chisda recommended that it is better not to delve into a dream’s meaning.
Nevertheless, the dream should still affect one’s actions. A bad dream should lead to teshuva (repentance) and the pleasure of a good dream is a reward in and of itself.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
While today’s blue-toothed, internet connected era has made it easier to accomplish more, it has also made it more difficult to divide our lives between work and home. Thus, in many ways, humankind in the 21st century has it no easier than the 18th century farmer–only different.
Yet, at the end of a day, or a year, or a decade, or a lifetime, many people often find themselves identifying closely with the mournful message of Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” More and more people feel that after all their work and effort, they have not gained very much. After all, you can’t take it with you!
Why do we work? Humankind works because after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, God told Adam “By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread, until you return to the ground...” (Genesis 3:19). And truly, many of us in the 21st century do work by the sweat of our brows--meaning that although we are not sweating in the fields, we are busy with complex computations and other strenuous mental work.
But was the curse really a curse? Think of the satisfaction we feel from a job done well. Think of the sense of pride we have when we know we’ve given our all. And think about how much more we appreciate the good things around us after a long hard day.
Monday, December 15, 2008
Assuming that prayer is, in effect, an individual’s conversation with God, should we not pray as the prophet Jeremiah recommends in the Book of Lamentations (2:19), “Pour out your heart like water before the face of the Lord”? How can we pour out our hearts when the rabbis have mandated fixed times for prayer? Must we feel inspired just because it’s time for prayer?
The Jewish people have a special relationship with God. King David captured that relationship when he wrote (Psalms 148): "Praise God from the heavens, praise Him in the heights...Praise God from the earth...Young men and also maidens, old men together with youths. Let them praise the Name of God, for His Name alone will have been exalted." No matter where we are, or when it is or what inspired us, we can always open a dialogue with God. Whether we want to thank God for the goodness He has bestowed upon us, ask Him for help, or to just simply connect, God is always there for us.
But what happens when we become indifferent to the glory of God’s world, when our daily routines become rote? When we walk past the beautiful field twice a day for 365 days a year...when we stop being thankful for the world around us. It becomes a little harder to see God’s hand in the world.
So the sages made set prayers at fixed times, not to limit one's conversations with God, but rather, to ensure a minimum time in dialogue per day. After all, the flowers blossom whether we acknowledge them or not!
Friday, December 12, 2008
But this was not always the Torah reading cycle shared by all Jews. In some Jewish communities, the reading of the Torah was spread out over a three year period, rather than one year.
Both reading cycles have historical roots. While the reading of the Torah on a weekly basis was mandated by the Torah, the exact amount to be read was not originally specified, and two different traditions emerged.
In the cities of ancient Israel, the custom was to divide the Torah into 155 parts, which spread the reading over a three year period. This tradition is still followed in some Reform and Conservative synagogues today.
In the cities dominated by the Jewish leaders of Babylon (post-Roman exile), it became the custom to divide the Torah into 54 portions (parashiot). Depending on whether the year was a leap year or not, certain parashiot were combined. The divisions in this annual cycle ensured the fulfilment of the instructions of Ezra the Scribe: that the section of “curses” in Leviticus (parashat B’chukotai) be read just before Shavuot and that the great rebuke in Deuteronomy (parashat Kee Tavo) be read just before Rosh Hashana.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
Judaism also has a range of abbreviations that follow a name. Many see these abbreviations all their lives without ever knowing exactly what they mean. Perhaps the most common are those abbreviations that are used to honor the dead.
The three most frequent honorific abbreviations are: Z”L, O.B.M. and A”H. Z”L is an acronym for the Hebrew words zichrono/zichrona liv’racha (male/female), most often translated as “May his/her memory be blessed.” “Of Blessed Memory” is succinctly abbreviated as O.B.M. A”H is the abbreviation for alav/aleha hashalom, which is translated as “May peace be upon him/her.”
For righteous individuals, such as great rabbis and leaders, the abbreviation ZT”L, zecher tzaddik liv'racha, is often used. It means, “May the memory of this righteous person be a blessing.”
These terms are added both when writing and/or talking about an individual. Not only does it inform people that the person is no longer living, but is also a way of bringing blessing upon the memory and the soul of the deceased.
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
It is obvious that even friends should ask their host’s permission before partaking of a host’s generosity. After all, most humans are rather possessive over their “things.” But do we always ask permission?
That beautiful apple that you ate this morning? Did you truly own it? Sure, you paid for it. But was it you who sent the rain to water it and the sun to warm the soil? Think of the planet as God’s home. After all, He is the Creator. Everything is really His, and it is our responsibility to ask His permission and give Him our thanks, just as we would ask permission of a human host.
Our sages therefore taught that one must always say a blessing before eating. Blessings, in effect, are our way of “purchasing” the food from God and acknowledging His role as creator.
The formula for the blessings are based on the different ways food grows. There are 6 blessing categories: Breads-Hamotzie, Wine/Grape Juice-Hagafen, Baked goods-Mezonot, Fruit-Ha’eitz, Vegetables-Ha’adama and everything else-Sheh’ha’kohl.
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
Hishtadlut is the Hebrew term for making a personal effort, for doing the legwork.
Having faith that “God will provide,” does not mean that one may sit around waiting for God to make things happen. If a person is looking for a new job, it is that person’s responsibility to send out resumes, network with friends and relatives and look through the want ads. Sitting at a desk, day in and day out just asking God for a better job without actually doing anything does not leave God any openings, short of a miracle, to fulfill that request.
The need for hishtadlut is demonstrated by our forefather Jacob (Genesis 32). When returning home to Canaan from his Uncle Laban’s home, Jacob, married with children and possessing great wealth, prepared to confront his brother Esau, who would have liked nothing better than to see him dead and was coming to meet him with 400 heavily armed soldiers.
Since God had previously promised him the inheritance of Abraham and Isaac, Jacob could logically have assumed that God would protect him. Jacob, however, prepared his camp for all eventualities because he did not feel that he could depend on his merits alone for Divine protection. He sent a lavish gift to his brother while, at the same time, he divided his camp in half to guarantee that at least some of his family would survive if things went badly. Over and above these physical preparations, Jacob prayed to God for Divine assistance and protection.
This was Jacob’s hishtadlut! And, obviously, it worked.
Monday, December 8, 2008
The Star of David, also known as the Magen David (Shield of David), is supposedly the shape of the shield that was carried by King David. However, there are no Biblical descriptions of King David’s shield, nor have any archeological artifacts of such a shield ever been found. While there have been some ancient Jewish sites discovered with designs similar to a modern day Star of David, interlocked triangles were not an uncommon symbol in the ancient Middle East and North Africa.
It was not until some time in the 17th century that the Star of David began to appear as a Jewish symbol, particularly outside synagogues, possibly in contrast to the cross placed on the doors of a church.
The 1600s were also a time when kabbalistic (mystical) study flourished. As the Magen David became common, the kabbalists saw great meaning in its design. For instance, the six points represent six directions (East, West, South, North, Up and Down) while the empty space created in the middle represents the world as a whole.
Because this six-pointed star was associated with King David, the famed warrior who greatly expanded the borders of ancient Israel, it is not at all surprising that it was quickly adopted as a symbol by the early Zionist movement and is today the central symbol on the Israeli flag.
While the history of the Jewish star may surprise us, today it is almost universally accepted as a symbol of Judaism.
Friday, December 5, 2008
The first commandment given to the Israelites in Egypt (Exodus 12) is to count and begin the months with the new moon (Rosh Chodesh in Hebrew). One ancient custom is to recite kiddush levana - a sanctification of the newness of the moon - on the first Saturday night in the new month when the moon is visible. Kiddush levana is recited outdoors, standing underneath the open sky.
While sanctification is generally accomplished with just a blessing, there is quite an extensive text that is recited as part of the kiddush levana ceremony. One of the strangest rituals of this ceremony is the custom to greet three individuals by saying “Shalom aleikhem” - Peace unto you. They respond “Aleikhem shalom” - peace is upon you. Why?
1. Having greeted God in the original blessing, we wish the blessing of peace upon each other. Our religion emphasizes that our relationship with God must not be at the expense of our relations with fellow humans.
2. According to the Midrash (Biblical legend), the sun and the moon were created to be the same size. However, the moon "wished" to dominate the heavens and suggested to God that He designate the moon as the primary authority of the heavens. God punished the moon for its haughtiness, diminishing its size. The sun nevertheless shares its light with the moon, and thus teaches us not to bear a grudge against those who may have wronged us. Wishing peace upon others is a way to express this idea this sense of forgiveness.
Thursday, December 4, 2008
Maaser, which means a tenth (often translated as “tithe”), is the specific name for the allocation of one’s tzedaka. In ancient times, each Jew was required to give one tenth of the produce of the fields to the Levite and an additional tenth to the poor or to support Jerusalem. Today, maaser is generally given from both one’s regular income and from any additional monies that come to a person, such as bank interest, an inheritance or a monetary gift. Because of the intricacies of the laws and differences in situations, it is recommended that one seek the help of a rabbi to properly allocate one’s maaser.
Ideally, maaser money is used specifically to support those in need--whether through direct hand-outs or by supporting a local food shelter (as an example). However, the money may also be used to support schools of Jewish learning, hospitals and other worthwhile causes.
In Genesis 28, we learn that on his way to a foreign land, Jacob vowed that if God protected him on his journey and brought him back to his father’s house in peace, “of all that You [God] will give me, I will surely give the tenth to you.”
How is giving tzedaka actually giving to God? Obviously, God does not need our money. Giving tzedaka, however, makes a person more aware of the needs of people around him/her and also reminds a person that all that he/she owns is a gift from God. That recognition is the payment that God seeks.
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
Ashkenazim (the Hebrew name for Germany is Ashkenaz, hence Ashkenazim) refers to those Jews whose ancestors settled in the communities of the Rhineland in the west of Germany in the early 4th century. It was not until the 10th century, however, that these communities became more substantial and spread into Northern, Central and Eastern Europe (France, Poland, Russia, etc).
Ashkenazi communities interpreted Jewish laws in similar ways, shared Torah leaders and adopted similar customs. For the most part, the common language of the Ashkenazim was (until WWII) Yiddish, a language combination of German and Hebrew written with Hebrew characters.
Among the Ashkenazim there are many sub-groups: Litvaks, Galitzianers, Chassidim and Yekkes (Germans), to name a few.
Sephardim (the Hebrew name for Spain is Sepharad, hence Sephardim), on the other hand, refers to Jews whose ancestors settled in Spain or Portugal. Jews are known to have lived on the Iberian Peninsula since early Roman times. They experienced a Golden Age (10th through 12th centuries) that came to an astounding end with pogroms, forced conversion, expulsion and the Inquisition. Because of the Spanish exile (1492), Sephardi culture spread throughout the Mediterranean, as well as to cities in Central Europe and the New World.
Today, the term Sephardi often refers to any Jewish tradition that is not Ashkenazi. However, further distinction must be made between Sephardim and Mizrachim, a term referring to Jews of Africa/Asia who are not descended from Sephardim (such as the Jews of Syria, Yemen, Morocco, Iran, Iraq, etc.).
Of course, the bottom line is that a Jew is a Jew - whether Ashkenazi, Sephardi or Mizrachi. These distinctions are relevant, however, in order to understand certain laws and customs that evolved in these countries and were transmitted from generation to generation.
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
The closer to the north or south poles one travels, the more difficult it is to distinguish day and night. There are parts of the world where the sun does not set for months on end, followed by months in which the sun does not rise at all.
For the average traveler, this would have no consequences beyond creating confusion in his/her internal sleep mechanism. However, for the Jew concerned with observing the proper times for prayer, or when to observe Shabbat, it presents quite a conundrum.
Opinions vary, as one might imagine. Some authorities rule that the travelers must base their daily schedule on the time in the place where they started their journey. Others, however, rule that the timing depends on when the sun is at its physically lowest point (when it doesn’t set) or physically highest point (when it doesn’t rise). Still other authorities believe that it depends on the closest geographical location where there is both sunrise and sunset.
The answer will not be presented here, as Jewish Treats is not intended to be an authority on Jewish law. We present this treat to give you something to think about. Next time you consider an Alaskan vacation, think about when you would celebrate Shabbat. (For further information, ask your rabbi, who might have to consult with another rabbi who is an authority on such matters.)
For a more complete look at the issues of travel, time zones and halacha, check out this article.
Monday, December 1, 2008
Articulate it please! Say it out loud - slowly, deliberately...ahh, now, that’s the way to say the Shema.
This first line of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4) is the basic creed of Judaism: the belief in one God who takes an active role in our lives. The sages therefore declared that the recitation of this line of the Shema prayer fulfills the Torah commandment of “speaking of them [these words] when sitting in your house or when going on the road, when you lie down and when you rise up” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7).
According to Rabbi Judah the Prince (second century Jewish leader, sage and editor of the Mishnah), by reciting this one verse, one accepts upon one’s self the yoke of the kingship of heaven – the recognition of an omnipotent God who cares about humanity and, consequently, the mandate to live by God’s laws.
Because the Shema is such an important statement, the Talmud stresses the fact that these words, which are recited at least twice a day, must be enunciated clearly and said with a special level of kavanah, awareness and concentration. In fact, Rabbi Judah the Prince instituted the practice of covering one’s eyes with the right hand during the recitation of the Shema in order to fully concentrate on the words and to avoid distraction.
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
When you go to pick up your kosher turkey, take a moment to understand the significance of your purchase. Did you know that a vast amount of rabbinic ink has been expended in discussing the kosher status of turkey?!
While the Torah specifically identifies those features that make animals and fish kosher (chews cud and split hooves for animals, scales and fins for fish), it does not specify the signs of a kosher bird. Instead it states that one may eat “all the clean birds,” and then lists only the birds which one may not eat (Deuteronomy 14:11-18).
A problem arose because not all the birds identified in the Torah’s prohibited list are known today. The Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch completed in 1563) therefore ruled that only those birds traditionally known to be eaten by Jewish communities were allowed. This included chicken and ducks.
The turkey, however, was not a traditional bird. Turkeys are indigenous to the “New World” and were not seen by European Jews until explorers brought them back from America. As turkeys became more common fare in the general European community, the rabbis began to receive questions about the bird’s kosher status.
The turkey, which shared many similarities to the other known kosher birds – the nature of their stomach, the shape of their beak, the structure of their feet, and that they were not predatory – was deemed kosher by almost all authorities.
So go ahead. Stuff the bird!
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Because a journey is not an everyday event, the sages created "tefillat haderech,” the wayfarer’s prayer. In English, the prayer is:
May it be Your will, Lord, our God and the God of our ancestors, that You lead us to peace, guide our footsteps to peace, and enable us to reach our desired destination for life, happiness, and peace. May You rescue us from the hand of every foe, ambush, robbers, or vicious animals along the way, and from all manner of punishments that rage on the earth. May You send blessing in everything we do, and grant us grace, kindness, and mercy in Your eyes and in the eyes of all who see us. May You hear the sound of our supplications because You are God Who hears prayer and supplications. Blessed are You, God, Who hears prayer.
But what is the definition of a journey? Driving from New York to Boston takes approximately 4 hours. Flying between the same two cities takes less than an hour and a half (from take-off to landing, not counting check-in, security and waiting around time!). According to the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), tefillat haderech is only required for a journey of more than 72 minutes.
So next time you are off to visit grandma or heading to your dream vacation, take a moment for a little extra traveler’s insurance.
For tefillat haderech in Hebrew and transliteration, please click here.
Monday, November 24, 2008
The permissibility of hunting according to Jewish law is not as straight-forward as one might imagine. Actually, there are cogent arguments for and against hunting and trapping in Jewish tradition.
In Genesis (1:26), God explicitly gives human beings dominion over the entire planet - meaning all animals, vegetables and minerals. Dominion, however, does not mean tyranny or abuse, but rather responsibility. In fact, this verse is one that is at the heart of Judaism’s sensitive environmental philosophy.
While humans have dominion over animals, Judaism prohibits “tza’ar ba’alei chayim,” causing undo suffering to living creatures. For this reason, hunting for pleasure is strictly prohibited.
And while humankind has Divine permission to be omnivorous, Jewish law deems any animal not properly slaughtered to be "not kosher" (unfit) for Jewish consumption. Animals with life-threatening wounds, such as those resulting from guns, arrows or traps, are not kosher.
So if animals may not be hunted for either food and pleasure, when might hunting be permitted? One may hunt only for a legitimate need, such as collecting fur and leather for clothes or shoes or to obtain animal products that are used for medicine. Even then, the animal must be killed in a manner that ensures the least possible pain.
JewishTreats leaves you with this question: Would hunting to thin out a herd in danger of starvation be prohibited as tza’ar ba’alei chayim or would it be permitted in order to make certain that fewer animals starve to death? Let us know your opinion by leaving a comment below.
Friday, November 21, 2008
1) The blessing over wine (or grape juice): While the blessing over wine is the first blessing recited, the wine is not drunk until after the fourth and final blessing. If wine or grape juice is not available, other liquids such as beer or whiskey may be used.
2) The blessing over spices: A container of spices, often cloves, is taken in hand and the appropriate blessing is recited. The spices are passed around for all present to smell. The smelling of spices is done in order to revive the soul, which otherwise might be depressed over the departure of Shabbat.
3) The blessing over fire: This blessing is recited over a special, multi-wick havdalah candle. By making the blessing over fire, one is establishing the distinction between Shabbat, when one may not use fire, and the remainder of the week, when one may. Additionally, according to tradition, Adam was given fire at the conclusion of the first Shabbat.
4) The blessing over distinctions: The final blessing praises God for distinguishing between holy and secular, light and dark, Israel and other nations, and Shabbat and weekdays.
After the four blessings have been recited, the person reciting them drinks the wine or grape juice. Many people have the custom of then extinguishing the havdalah candle in the wine or grape juice.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
The advice, based on the 3,300-year-old Jewish tradition, is timeless and applicable to modern couples of all backgrounds.
1. Marriage unplugged -- Set aside a night each week to tune out the world, tune into each other and focus on the reality of your own lives. (Might we suggest Shabbat.)
2. United we stand -- The chuppah, or canopy, that a couple stands under during a Jewish wedding ceremony signifies the home they will build together -- symbolically reminding all present that the couple is becoming a unit.
3. Marriage is not all wine and roses -- During a Jewish wedding ceremony, wine is sipped to symbolize joy; later, the ceremony concludes with the breaking of a glass calling attention to the fact that life is not always joyful. Yes, your wedding day should be one of the happiest of your life, but keep in mind that you're sure to face tough times, both big and small -- from lost jobs to clogged toilets.
4. Save it for your spouse -- Ever notice that religious Jews dress very modestly? It's not because they're ashamed of their bodies, but rather because they save their sensual side for their spouses. Keep that in mind the next time you dress for a night out with your pals. Yes, you should look your best, but reserve the seductive stuff for those nights you stay at home alone with your spouse.
5. Thou shalt not embarrass thy spouse -- Treat your spouse with respect and admiration in public, as well as in private, and you can expect the same in return. For the complete article, please click here
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
The question of respect continues even beyond life. The Jewish laws concerning death, burial and mourning, all center on the importance of preserving the dignity of the person who has passed away.
It is for this reason that a Jewish funeral will most often be performed as soon as possible following a person’s death, ideally on the same day. The injunction to bury the dead quickly is based on a verse from Deuteronomy (21:23) that states: “His body shall not remain all night...but you shall surely bury him the same day.”
If the Torah states that a person should be buried on the same day as his/her death, one might rightly ask why burials are at times delayed, even more than one day. Apparently, according respect to the dead is so important, it is permissible to delay a burial so that proper funeral arrangements may be made, or to accommodate close relatives who need to travel from afar. One may even delay the burial to wait for the arrival of an important speaker - all in order to show respect for and honor to the deceased.
If the Torah teaches that we must show this much respect to the deceased, how much more careful must we be with how we treat our living family, friends, and neighbors.
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
This all changed, however, when four great rabbis from Babylon were captured by pirates on the Mediterranean. The pirates then ransomed them off to different Jewish communities who were willing to pay great amounts of money to free the rabbis. Thus one rabbi (Shemariah ben Elhanan) was taken to Alexandria in Egypt, one (Hushiel) to Morocco and Tunisia, another (Moses ben Hanoch) to Cordova in Spain, and another (Nathan ben Isaac Ha’Kohen) to Narbonne in France. In one fell swoop, the pirates decentralized Torah and Jewish learning.
Decentralizing Jewish scholarship certainly wasn’t the pirates’ intention, but the tragic capture of these four rabbis turned into a major blessing, as Jewish learning blossomed and flourished in France, Spain, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, under their guidance and inspiration.
This tale (whose source is in the writings of Abraham ben David, “Ibn Daud,” also known as the RaVad, 1110-1180 C.E.) may be legend. However, it reflects the true evolution of Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean during the 9th-12th centuries, when the center of Jewish life and scholarship shifted from the Near East to North Africa and Europe.
Monday, November 17, 2008
Rolling one’s eyes is often meant to demean others, to hold them in contempt for their inability to understand, and to embarrass them. Jewish law, however, considers embarrassing another person as a form of murder! Rather extreme, wouldn’t you say? Actually, no. The sages of the Talmud teach that there is a physiological comparison to murder since when a person is embarrassed, blood rushes to his cheeks in a blush and then drains away, leaving a pale white face, not unlike the appearance of a murder victim.
More important, however, is the fact that one’s self-esteem is integral to one’s emotional welfare. Let’s face it, we all want to feel that others like us, respect us and want to be our friends. That’s human nature.
Rolling one’s eyes when someone else is speaking, or when speaking about someone else, can often say more than words. Body language is a unique and highly effective means of communication. Whether one nods or shakes one’s head during a speech reveals as much, if not more, than a person’s direct comments.
Such actions are included in what is known in Jewish legal literature as “avak lashon ha’rah,” the dust of evil speech. Even if one is not gossiping directly about someone or slandering them, one's body language, or other form of innuendo, can lead to lashon ha’rah and result in demeaning or embarrassing that person.
Friday, November 14, 2008
During the time of the Greeks and the Romans, there was a sect of Jews called Saduccees who denied the authority of the Oral Law. While the Saduccees, as a group, did not survive the Roman exile, their belief in the literal interpretation of the Bible, without the instruction and explanation of the oral law, was revived during the Gaonic period (8th - 10th centuries) by the Karaites.
The Oral Law explains that a Jew is permitted to have a fire burning on Shabbat, it just can’t be lit, transferred or enhanced on Shabbat. The literalists, such as the Saduccees and the Karaites, maintained that the prohibition of fire on Shabbat was total, i.e. that “Thou shalt not burn fire in all your houses” (Exodus 35:3) excluded allowing even a fire lit before Shabbat to continue burning. They therefore sat in the dark, ate cold food, and froze in the winter.
Whereas hot food on Friday night could remain warm from before Shabbat, having hot food at Shabbat lunch signifies the use of a fire that existed from before Shabbat. That is why Jews all over the world developed a dish which some call chamin, meaning hot, and others call cholent (which is a combination of two Old French words for hot and slow). What unites these dishes is not the ingredients, but the purpose, which is to enjoy the Sabbath and to confirm our belief in the Oral Tradition.
Thursday, November 13, 2008
There is, however, a lesser known part of the mitzvah of welcoming guests that requires the hosts to escort their guests part of the way out when they leave. According to the sages, a person should walk their guests at least daled amot (approximately 8 feet) beyond the front door. By escorting someone out, the host accords the guests an extra measure of courtesy and expresses the host’s desire that the visit not end. Additionally, it shows the host’s wish to ensure the security of his/her guests.
The mitzvah of escorting a guest is derived from two separate narratives in the Torah. In Genesis 18, Abraham was visited by three men (angels according to the Midrash). After finishing the meal, the men rose to leave for the city of Sodom. Scripture informs us that “Abraham went with them to send them on their way." Thus, Abraham, the epitome of the perfect host, teaches us this important aspect of the mitzvah of hachnassat orchim.
Escorting guests and ensuring their safety is derived as well from Deuteronomy 21, which describes the repercussions of finding a dead body in an open area between two cities. The city to which the body is closest is held responsible for the murder since it is suspected that the city did not provide an escort for the safety of its guests, thus indirectly causing the murder.
In this way, as in so many others, Torah law demonstrates the importance of treating others with respect and dignity.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Washing - In order to be eaten, all vegetables and fruits must be washed and checked to ensure that there are no bugs and worms hiding within them. (Bugs and worms are not kosher, not even the tiny ones.) There are even authorities who recommend that all drinking water be filtered in case there are bugs in the water!
Internal Inspection - After an animal is slaughtered, the organs are inspected for irregularities and holes that would render the animal “treif” (literally ‘torn') , making it inedible to the kosher consumer. Indiscernible diseases may be discovered in this inspection, unique to the kosher industry.
Salting and Soaking - Raw meats must be salted to remove all blood and soaked in water to remove other external impurities.
Checks and Balances - In order to be certified as kosher, the plant and the process of preparation must undergo thorough supervision. A kosher consumer may therefore have confidence that nothing "extra" was added to the product.
While there is nothing uniquely healthier or cleaner about kosher food, kashruth supervision raises the bar on the final product before it reaches the consumer.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Mishpatim are basic laws. In fact, mishpatim are generally translated as those laws which are necessary and logical for the conduct of society. Don’t steal, don’t murder, set up courts of law...statutes that are all necessary for civilization to function and could be deduced through basic common sense.
Edot are commandments which testify to an idea or mark an occasion, like a holiday. The actual performance of the mitzvah is meant as a reminder of an event or a concept. For instance, Americans celebrate the 4th of July and commemorate their independence from Britain with picnics, parties and fireworks. Jews celebrate their freedom from the slavery of Egypt by thanking God, participating in a seder filled with actions directly related to the Exodus and by eliminating bread and leavened products, just as our ancestors did. The edot, the testimonies, do not just mark days or items as part of our history, but enable us to make the spiritual connection that bonds all Jews - past, present and future.
Chukim are those laws which generally cannot be logically explained, such as keeping kosher. These laws are usually the first to be cast aside because they are often difficult to understand. Yet chukim are very important in Judaism. Indeed, chukim go hand-in-hand with the very first commandment of the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God.” Since belief in God is a fundamental principle of Judaism, observing those laws known as chukim expresses our commitment to this fundamental principle of belief. Thus observant Jews keep kosher not because they believe it is a healthier diet, but because God commanded the Jewish people to live by these dietary laws.
Monday, November 10, 2008
In Ethics of the Fathers (5:20), Judah the son of Taima says: Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer and strong as a lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven.” Using animals as examples, Judah the son of Taima sought to encourage people to be strong in their devotion to Torah even when it is difficult.
In the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (an abridged compendium of Jewish law, published in 1870) Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried defines these particular character traits:
1) Bold as a leopard refers to feeling proud about worshiping God. Too often we allow the opinions of friends and colleagues to get in our way when striving to do what we know is right.
2) Light as an eagle refers to what one sees. An eagle flies fast, taking in great expances of land but only focusing on prey that will nourish its body. So too, a person must focus only on that which nourishes the soul.
3) Swift as a deer refers to hurrying to do good things. Don’t delay in performing a mitzvah; run to do it!
4) Strong as a lion refers to being strong of heart. It is easy to be diverted from the path of good deeds.
Friday, November 7, 2008
Pikuach Nefesh is the mitzvah of saving a person's life. Needless to say, it is one of the most important mitzvot one can do. In fact, one is obligated to break Shabbat in order to save a life.
One of the subcategories of the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh is saving one's own life, which requires that a person takes care of him/herself. In this vein, the National Jewish Outreach Program has been involved in a campaign encouraging people not to smoke on Shabbat. While intended for smokers, the recommendations apply to all:
12 Things To Do While Not Smoking On Shabbat.
1. Rest those weary bones – Catch up on your sleep.
2. Smother your family and friends with love. Have a nice long conversation with your spouse/children/parents/friends...whom you practically ignore all week.
3. Exhale the mundane cares and concerns of the workday week by saying a little prayer in synagogue for anything or everything.
4. Chill out with some wine (for Kiddush). Eat three gourmet Shabbat meals (and actually taste the food).
5. Wear your nicest clothes without worrying about ashes and smoke.
6. Clear your mind. Enjoy one day when even non-smokers love you.
7. Sing up a storm at the top of your lungs.
8. Savor a good - Jewish - book without interruption, or sneak a peek at the Torah portion of the week when nobody’s looking.
9. Get to know someone really important a whole lot better -- yourself.
10. Make your cardiologist happy. Air out your lungs -- go for a nice, long, leisurely walk.
11. Review the week’s Jewish news with family and friends.
12. Volunteer to visit patients in the hospital.
Thursday, November 6, 2008
BERECH: The word berech refers to a bend in the body, usually referring to the knee joint. In ancient times it was common to pray on one’s knees, demonstrating humility and an acknowledgment that we mortals are not the source of our own achievements. Bowing reminds us to recognize that there is a Higher Power.
BRAICHA: A braicha is a well, a natural source of water. Water is the fundamental ingredient of life. On a spiritual level, the Torah is likened to water because tapping into the spiritual power of the Torah is essential for the soul. And what is the wellspring of the Torah, the source of this great spiritual energy? God.When you dip your hand in a pool of water, it ripples and radiates outward from the point of impact. No bracha is without its “ripple affect.”From these related words, we learn that a bracha is an act of reaching out to the Source of all energy (God). A bracha enables both the giver and the receiver to see beyond themselves to that Divine Source.
To learn more about Hebrew words, try a Hebrew Reading Crash Course! November is Hebrew reading month with Read Hebrew America/Canada!
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
What, you might ask, does the Federal privacy statute have to do with Judaism? In point of fact, Judaism is probably the only religion in the world that shares this law.
Around the year 1000 C.E., Rabbeinu Gershom of Mainz, the Ashkenazic legal authority at the time, issued a takanah, a legal decree, for all Ashkenazic Jews (which was eventually accepted by Jews worldwide) forbidding a person from reading the private correspondence of another.
The purpose of this ruling was twofold. First and foremost, it reflected the prevailing business ethic. In an era without telephones or fast modes of travel, business was often transacted through couriers and messengers. However, the takanah was also issued to protect Jews from loshon harah and re’chee’lut - two forms of gossip. If you mind your own business, you won’t have any juicy “news” to share with the world.
Most people today would never think of reading another person’s mail – it breaks many of our accepted social mores. Ahh, but what about reading your friend’s e-mail over his shoulder...
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
However, it is also true that God took Abraham and all of his descendants and placed them outside the workings of such metaphysical mysteries.
In Genesis, Abraham cried out to God that he had looked at the constellations and saw that he was not destined to beget a son. God then took Abraham outside and said: “Look toward the heavens and count the stars. If you are able to count them...so will be your descendants (Genesis 15:5). Go beyond your astrology. Your children are not governed by the planets alone...” (Talmud Shabbat 156a).
What does it mean that the Children of Abraham are not governed by the planets alone? It means the every Jew has the ability to alter his/her fate through prayer and mitzvot.
The Talmud (Shabbat 156b) relates the following story: Shmuel [a great Torah sage] and Avlat [a gentile astrologer named] were sitting together watching people pass toward a swamp. Avlat said, "That man is going, but won’t come back. A snake will bite him, and he will die."
"If he is a Jew," Shmuel asserted, "he will go and come back." The man returned alive, but in his backpack was a snake cut in two. Upon being asked what good deed he had done, the man explained how he had saved a friend from embarrassment at lunch. Shmuel declared that this mitzvah had saved his life.
The stars do not dictate our fate. We control our fate. As we said on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur: “Repentance, prayer and charity remove the evil decree!”
Monday, November 3, 2008
According to the Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet has its own meaning and power. The 22 letters are regarded as the building blocks of the world. In fact, the Biblical artisan Betzalel, who created all the vessels for the Tabernacle, was said to have been able to carry out God’s will in such perfect detail because he “knew how to combine the letters with which heaven and earth were created” (Talmud Berachot 55a).
Take, for example, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, "aleph." (To see an image of the aleph, please click here .) The aleph is made up of one diagonal line with a leg and an arm - the aleph therefore has two ends that touch the "ground" and two ends that reach toward "heaven." Since it stretches between the two, aleph is regarded as the letter that unites heaven and earth. The aleph is also a symbol of strength because its form resembles the shape of an ox.
Each letter’s underlying meaning and power adds nuances to the word which it helps to shape and build. For instance, aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew word for truth, emet. One could say that it takes a considerable amount of inner strength to always follow the truth, and that one is judged for truthfulness both by fellow human beings and by God.
Join the National Jewish Outreach Program’s Read Hebrew America/Canada campaign today and learn the Aleph-Bet!
Friday, October 31, 2008
For example (Talmud Berachot 6a): Abba Binyamin says: ‘If permission were granted for the eye to see, no creature would be able to stand before the demons.’ Abaye said: ‘They [the demons] are more numerous than us and they stand around us like a ditch around a mound...If a person wants to be aware of them, let him take sifted ashes and spread them around his bed. In the morning he will see [markings] like the footprints of a rooster.’
What are demons? It is hard for us today to understand the concept. Many of the forces that influenced the lives of our ancestors no longer influence us today – for instance the power of prophecy is no longer available.
Some sources explain that demons are created by a person’s wicked deeds and thoughts, and that they may be counter-balanced by angels that are created by a person’s good deeds and Torah learning. Other authorities see demons as physical, menacing creatures that were created at the beginning of time.
Upon examining the sources, one may recognize a pattern in the way demons operate. For example, demons are most often found when a person is alone or in the dark of the night! Whether the concept of demons refers to actual beings, to manifestations of a person’s inner fears or was an ancient way of explaining the unknown remains a continuing subject of scholarly rabbinic discussion.
Thursday, October 30, 2008
A rainbow, however, is more than a passing beauty. It is the symbol of a promise. After the waters of the flood receded and Noah knew that it was safe to emerge from the ark (Genesis 9:12-17), God set a rainbow in the sky and declared it the sign of a promise between Himself and humankind. Never again would God bring flood waters to destroy the world.
Indeed, the sages ordained that when a person sees a rainbow a special blessing should be recited: Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who remembers the covenant and is faithful to His covenant, and upholds His words. (Ba’ruch Ah’tah Ah’doh’nai Eh’lo’hay’nu Meh’lech ha’o’lam zocher ha’brit, v’neh’ehman biv’ree’toh, v’ka’yam b’mah’ah’maro.)
What is so significant about a rainbow? The Hebrew word for rainbow is “keshet.” Keshet also means a bow, as in a bow and arrow. God had His bow drawn, His arrow nocked, and He was ready to destroy all of the world. In His great mercy, God withheld His wrath and saved a few of the earthly inhabitants, both human and animal.
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
While Hebrew prayer is the preferred language of Jewish worship, it is not mandatory to pray in Hebrew. A Jew who does not know Hebrew may certainly pray in the language in which he/she is most comfortable.
There are, however, several advantages to praying in Hebrew, and therefore one should strive to learn to read the prayers in the original.
First and foremost is that no matter how talented the translator, the precise meaning of the translated words can never be captured. From the conjugation of verbs to the placement of the subject, Hebrew structures itself in a manner completely unlike English (which we will assume is the vernacular of our readers). Hebrew words also always have additional meanings because they are built on 3-letter roots that relate to other words.
Another important aspect of Hebrew prayer is that, with the exception of a few minor alterations and some variations in tune and pronunciation, the core prayers are almost exactly the same around the world. One cannot emphasize enough how the homogeneity of Jewish prayer contributes to Jewish unity. Knowing that one can walk into a synagogue in London, Moscow, Hong Kong, or Los Angeles and the prayers will be virtually the same underscores that, despite our differences, we are truly one people.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
In laying out the course of a man’s life, particularly in relation to study, Rabbi Judah ben Tema said (Ethics of the Fathers 5:25): "A 5 year old begins [learning] Scriptures, a 10 year old begins Mishna, a 13 year old becomes obliged to observe the commandments, an 18 year old goes to the marriage canopy, a 20 year old begins earning a livelihood, a 30 year old attains full strength, a 40 year old attains understanding, a 50 year old can offer counsel..." Rabbi Judah’s statement continues until 100 years old, noting the characteristics of different ages.
As Rabbi Judah ben Tema pointed out, there is an appropriate order of development. A boy/girl must learn to be responsible for his/her own actions in his/her parents’ home before becoming fully independent (around age 18 or 20). This process begins, in earnest, at the age of Bar and Bat Mitzvah.
Perhaps the classic celebration speech should more correctly read: Today, I am learning to be a man/woman.
Monday, October 27, 2008
No matter what your family’s mealtimes look like, one custom that seems universal is dad or mom’s seat. While it may seem logical that the father or the mother sit at the head of the table, there is actually a Torah ruling concerning the status of the parental seat.
Everyone is familiar with the Fifth Commandment to honor one's father and mother. But just how are children expected to show honor to their parents?
One way is by not sitting in a parent’s designated chair without his or her permission. A seat at the head of the table or a parent’s special chair in the living room is one way to honor parents, who work hard to support the family and run the household. Be it a rocking chair or a lazyboy, mom and dad deserve that special seat.
The laws of honoring our parents are surprisingly broad. They range from the obvious, like helping them when they are sick, to the subtle, such as standing up when a parent walks into the room. It is even considered a breach of honor for a child to call or refer to, a parent by the parent’s first name.
So next time the dinner bell rings in your family, Goldilocks, remember it’s not just papa and mama bear who have designated seats.
Friday, October 24, 2008
When following the Gregorian (secular) calendar, it is natural to think of the days of the week as Sunday, Monday....Friday, Saturday, each day beginning at midnight and ending at midnight. In the Jewish calendar, however, the names of the days are given as a count toward Shabbat: Day One, Day Two....Day Six, Shabbat, and each day begins and ends at sunset.
In the first chapter of the book of Genesis, the description of each day of creation is noted with the same language: Va'yehee erev va'yehee voker - There was evening and there was morning. It is therefore understood that according to the order of creation, evening precedes morning. Thus, each day begins at sunset. Shabbat and all Jewish holidays, therefore, begin at sunset, the evening before the day of the holiday marked on a secular calendar.
Since the precise time of sunset is difficult to determine (whether sunset means the beginning of the setting of the sun or once the sun has completely set), Shabbat is observed from the beginning of sunset on Friday through the end of sunset on Saturday - a time period that works out to just about 25 hours.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
Since the Torah does not waste words on the obvious, what is the purpose of this prohibition? Metaphorically, blindness also refers to someone lacking knowledge, whether general information or a specific fact. Do not put a stumbling block before the blind is also understood to be a prohibition against deliberately giving bad advice – like telling someone to invest in a stock that you know is not going to do well.
The sages took this commandment one step further and understood that this biblical statement required people to go out of their way to help others not violate the Torah. For instance, offering non-kosher food to another Jew, even if they don’t observe the laws of kashruth, would be considered a stumbling block.
Through this prohibition against misleading others, the sages emphasize the importance of carefully considering each of our actions. Where we put things (like allowing a trash can to roll into the street), how we say things (that might be misconstrued as advice) and the impression that our actions make on others (leading them to do things improperly) should always be at the forefront of our thoughts.
Monday, October 20, 2008
During the seven days of Sukkot, when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, 70 oxen were sacrificed representing the original 70 nations of the world. The priests offered sin offerings for the nations, invoking a desire for universal atonement, peace and harmony.
Because of Sukkot’s focus on all nations, God ordained Shemini Atzeret to demonstrate God’s special love for the Jewish people--comparable to a host asking his/her best friend to stay after everyone else has left, in order to share a private moment and relish the time spent together.
Shemini Atzeret also doubles as the holiday of Simchat Torah (Rejoicing in the Torah), which marks the conclusion of the yearly cycle of the reading of the Torah. On the same day that the Torah is completed, it is begun again, to show that Torah is always new and fresh and that our mitzvah to study Torah is never-ending.
On the night of Simchat Torah, all the Torah scrolls are removed from the ark. The bimah (platform or table on which Torah is read) is circled seven times by those holding the Torah scrolls as the congregation dances around them. Each encirclement, called hakafa, begins with a responsive prayer.
During the morning service, all the Torahs are again taken from the ark and the hakafot, the joyous circling of the night before, are repeated. The final parasha (weekly portion) of the Torah, V’zot Ha’bracha (And this is the blessing...) is read. The final parasha is read over and over until everyone has been called to the Torah. In some congregations, several Torah readings take place simultaneously.
For more information on Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, click here.
Friday, October 17, 2008
The Simchat Beit Hashoevah was such a joyous and wonderful event that the sages wrote of it in the Talmud, (Sukkot 51a) "Whoever did not see this celebration [the Simchat Beit Hashoevah] never saw a celebration in his day."
Here is a description of the how it was celebrated in the Temple: The Temple was set up for the Simchat Beit Hashoevah. Three balconies were erected in the women’s section and the men would stand in a courtyard below, allowing more people to attend. Golden lamps were placed in the courtyard that gave off enough light to illuminate the entire city. In the courtyard, men would dance as the Levites played instruments and sang praises to God. The kohanim, the priests, would then go to the Gichon Spring and draw the water to be used.
It is customary today, during the week of Sukkot, to attend or host a Simchat Beit Hashoevah celebration, which generally takes place in the sukkah.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
In our spiritually enhanced “mini-homes,” the Jewish tradition of hospitality and inviting guests takes on an entirely new dimension! Not only do we invite friends and neighbors to join us, but there is also the custom of inviting the great historic Jewish personages who shaped our people.
This custom is known as Ushpezin (guests).
According to the kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, the Divine Presence (Shechina) accompanies every Jew into the sukkah. The Shechina is accompanied by the seven shepherds of Israel: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David.
Each evening, the host welcomes the seven ushpizin (guests) into his sukkah by saying: “I invite to my meal the exalted guests: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David. May it please you, Abraham, my exalted guest, that all the other exalted guests dwell here with me and with you - Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David.”
Each night, another one of the ushpezin is welcomed, in a specific order. Thus on the second night, one says: May it please you, Isaac, my exalted...On the third night: May it please you, Jacob, my exalted...and so on throughout the week.
Monday, October 13, 2008
The fruit of a "beautiful tree" (etrog) has both taste and scent, and is symbolic of those Jews who are well-versed in Torah and who have performed many good deeds.
The branch of the palm tree (lulav) has taste but no scent, and is symbolic of those Jews who are well-versed in Torah but have not performed good deeds.
The boughs of myrtle (hadassim) have scent but no taste, and are symbolic of those Jews who have performed many good deeds, but have not studied Torah.
The willows of the stream (aravot) have no taste and no scent, and are symbolic of those Jews who have neither studied Torah nor performed good deeds.
When the four species are brought together, they represent the complete spectrum of the Jewish people. Acknowledging our different strengths and weaknesses is critical not only in creating harmony among people, but in creating a unified nation.
Creating a unified nation represents the ideal state of the Jewish people. It was in a state of true unity, as one body, that the Jewish people camped at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, and it can only be as a unified whole that we reach our full potential once again.
For more information on the four species (lulav and etrog) of Sukkot, click here.
Friday, October 10, 2008
It is time to celebrate! Just four days after Yom Kippur, the festival of Sukkot begins. On this most festive of holidays (it is known as “z’man simchataynu,” the time of our rejoicing), Jews live in temporary dwellings called sukkot, (singular-sukkah), with a roof of branches or wooden boards. This temporary “hut” becomes the Jew’s home for seven days and, therefore (weather permitting) everything that we would do in our homes, such as eat, sleep or study, is done in the sukkah.
The sukkot are a reminder of our origins, of our wandering in the wilderness after being redeemed from slavery. In fact, this reminder is both of the physical state in which we lived and the spiritual environment in which we sojourned. Symbolically, the sukkah represents the Ananei HaKavod, the Clouds of Glory, in which God enveloped and protected the wandering nation after the Exodus from Egypt.
A strange holiday? Perhaps, but by moving out of our permanent domiciles, especially at the beginning of the rainy/cold season, we demonstrate our faith in God as the provider and sustainer of all life.
So if you thought you had nothing to do next week, take a look around and find the nearest sukkah in which to dwell Or, of course, you can always build your own!
For more information on the holiday of Sukkot, click here
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Many people have the custom of wearing white on Yom Kippur. In the synagogue you will often see women dressed in white suits or dresses and men bedecked in a white garment known as a kittel (Yiddish for robe).
There are several reasons for this custom:
1) Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the day on which we ask God to overlook all of our mistakes. Consequently, it is customary to wear white as a way of emulating the angels, who stand before God in purity. In Hebrew, angels are known as “malachim” (singular-mal’ach) which means messenger(s). The malachim were created as God’s spiritual messengers and are pure, totally spiritual creatures. Human beings, on the other hand, were created of both earth and spirit. It is this combination that gives us “Free Will,” enabling us to make choices that, unfortunately, are not always the best. These unwise choices are what require us to engage in teshuva (repentance). On Yom Kippur, one wishes to emulate the malachim, the pure spirits who exist only to serve the Creator.
2) White garments, especially the kittel, are also reminiscent of the burial shroud. On Yom Kippur, one’s life is held in balance by the greatest Judge of all. When one is reminded of one’s mortality, a person is more likely to engage in honest introspection...Did I really act properly? Was there anything I could have done better? etc.
3) And of course, on Yom Kippur you don’t have to worry about food stains!
Jewish Treats and the National Jewish Outreach Program want to wish you a meaningful and successful Yom Kippur.