Thursday, July 31, 2008

What Is Kosher

Kosher (Hebrew) literally means “fit.” Kosher food is food that conforms to the dietary rules as laid out in the Torah (Hebrew Bible) and in the Talmud. Rabbis do not bless food to make it kosher. When dealing with food, the only thing rabbis bless is God, the Provider of food, as should every person who appreciates God’s role in bringing the food to our tables.

Otherwise, rabbis certify that the food is prepared according to Jewish law. In fact, any trustworthy Jew who is an expert in the laws of kashruth can certify the kosher status of food, even without being an ordained rabbi.

Kosher food is prepared according to specific rules. It must be made of only kosher ingredients, and may only be cooked in exclusively kosher pots, pans and ovens. A non-kosher oven can be made kosher by thoroughly cleaning and heating it to a very high temperature for several hours - but this needs to be done or supervised by a person well-versed in the laws of “koshering.”

Copyright © 2008 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Defining Giving - actions that count

How can a person be a giver?

The most obvious way is through giving money. But giving is not just about money - it's about time, energy, sincerity, etc. A great example is giving a sincere compliment.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008


The Bible commands the owner of a home with a flat roof to put up a ma’akeh - a fence - around the roof, so that blood will not be on the owner’s hands (Deuteronomy 22:8). Sefer Hachinukh , an anonymously written book about the 613 commandments (13th century) explains the underlying principle of the command to build a ma'akeh (Commandment 546): In our lives it is imperative that we take nothing for granted as far as safety goes. Some people are blessed with nine lives like the proverbial cat. Nevertheless, relying on miracles is not the Jewish way, so we must do our part to secure our lives by putting up safety barriers and not taking any unnecessary risks.

To cite two examples, the Chinukh warns against drinking directly from a lake or river because of the danger of drinking a leech. (Nowadays we are concerned with pollution as well, so we, the well informed, may not need such a warning.) We are also cautioned against putting money into one's mouth, simply because one never knows who has come in contact with the money (or what kind of bacteria).

While most people today no longer have flat roofs or homes with roof access that would require a ma’akeh, the modern day equivalent of this mitzvah might be putting bars or safety locks on upper story windows and erecting fences with locked gates around swimming pools.

The spirit of this law warns against damaging and doing harm to our bodies and to others.

Save a Life - an action

Learn CPR or take an EMT course.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Saving Grace - an action

Put money in someone's expired parking meter.

Important Principles

The Talmud records a discussion between Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azai over the relative importance of two principles in Judaism (Jerusalem Talmud Nedarim 9:4): “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “This is the Book of Generations.”

Rabbi Akiva famously says, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) is a very important principle. This so-called “Golden Rule” is difficult to reach, yet attainable.

Ben Azai, however, asserts that the phrase introducing the generations from Adam to Noah - "This is the Book of the Generations of Humankind" (Genesis 5:1) - is an even greater principle. Sforno* explains that this verse refers to the human capacity to be a “mentsch.” Nachmanides** says “The Book” refers to the Torah.

Ben Azai’s perspective is that his preferred principle requires a person to understand, first and foremost, the origins of humanity.

Ben Azai never married and chose to devote his life to his Torah studies, and his perception of what is most important in life focuses on self-perfection. We gain the skills to work on self-perfection by studying “The Book,” as identified by Nachmanides. Once we’ve worked on ourselves and strengthened our humanness, our “mentschlichkeit,” we will automatically know how to treat others.

*Sforno-Rabbi Obadiah Sforno (Italy - 1475-1550)

**Nachmanides-R' Moshe ben Nachman, Ramban, (Spain - 1194-1270)

Monday, July 28, 2008

Live Each Day As If It’s Your Last

A Jewish interpretation of this phrase (it may be Jewish in origin!) starts with a Mishnah in Avot D'Rabi Natan 2:29. There, a story is told of Rabbi Eliezer son of Hyrkanus who said to his students, "Repent one day before you die." They rhetorically asked, "Does a person know when he'll die so he can repent the day before?" He then amended his statement, "A person should say daily 'I will repent today, for tomorrow I may die.' In this way a person spends his lifetime in a state of repentance."

This is not to say we need to live our lives as if each day is Yom Kippur.

Rather, it is a charge to live a positive and meaningful life in which we have a meritorious effect on others’ lives, brightening their days and bringing light into their lives. It is a life of doing for others and caring for others, staying focused on personal success, but not at the expense of others. We live sensitively so no one need be hurt by our actions, so that at the end of our lives we have no regrets about our interpersonal relationships and our relationship with God. (We can still regret never having visited New Zealand - they say it’s beautiful!)

Sincerely Yours

Give a sincere compliment.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Inquisitive Mind

There’s an old joke that a Jew always answers a question with a question. While this could be a source for that fun “only questions” game from “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” it says something about the inquisitive nature of the Jewish people.

The Talmud, as an example, is filled with questions and rhetorical questions in response.

The Hebrew word for ‘answer’ is ‘teshuvah’ - which literally means ‘response’ or ‘return’ (it is also the word for ‘repentance’!). Sometimes the best response to a question is one that gets the original questioner to seek an answer for him/herself, i.e. through an interrogative response such as a question.

It can be annoying if done insensitively (don’t dodge questions to avoid them), but it can lead to great conversations if done with class!

Beauty Rose

Buy flowers for someone and say, "I saw something beautiful and thought of you" when you deliver them.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Taking Time Off

In the day-to-day hubbub of our 21st century world, we are wired and wireless. With free wi-fi at Starbucks we can transport our offices to the coffee shop and save on rental space. ($100 per month on coffee versus a few thousand dollars to rent office-space should be a no-brainer. How come it hasn’t caught on?) Through our cellphones and Blackberrys we are now available 24/7. Bluetooth wearers have one ear dedicated to their cellphone and the other to the rest of the world. Like van Gogh, but different. Even on vacation, we are likely to be accessible. It seems like there is no break.

Sabbath. (25 hours, starting a little before sunset on Friday) Ah! The sheer simplicity of the idea. All electrical devices are preset or turned off. No phones or email. We actually sit down with our families and friends and enjoy each other’s company. We relax. We talk. We visit. It’s a relief not to be bound to others, to actually have a day, once a week, when we answer to no person.

Sabbath as a break from everything, from the hectic nature of life as we know it, is the first step toward achieving true freedom and genuine spiritual bliss.

Start small. Think big. Experience “heaven” on earth.

Bookworm - an action

Carry a Jewish book with you when you're going to have to wait on line. (Avot 2:4)

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

"That's Nice"

Much of Judaism focuses on the sharing of ideas and the discussion involved in implementing these ideas and practices.

A person who goes to a conference for professional development, who attends lectures and roundtables aimed at inspiring a person to be an aggressive go-getter, a better salesperson, a bigger success in business, will hardly experience much self-improvement if the new methods are not employed, if the new lessons are not implemented, and the new network of acquaintances is not used.

Judaism is more than a culture and a curiosity. It is a religion. It is an identifying mark of a people who share a national bond. If we just read ideas and say, “That’s nice,” that’s nice. But when we read ideas and become inspired to learn more about our heritage and do Jewish things, to implement the teachings, it becomes more than “just nice.” It becomes real.

Get from what you give

Using some hard earned money for someone else's benefit can also be to our benefit.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


“He has told you, O man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you: only to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly/modestly with your God.”

Did you know that this famous passage subscribed to in many religions was first spoken by the Jewish prophet Micah (6:8) in the mid-eighth century B.C.E.?

An open society tolerates and encourages the stretching of personal limitations in all matters of behavior. Some are in line with the advice of the prophet, while others are arguably or clearly not.

The rules of modesty apply equally to both women and men.

The ideal of modesty advocated by the prophet takes place on several different fronts, all aimed at helping humans rise above our animalistic tendencies and see the spiritual essence of every human being. Modesty in Judaism means not doing anything that draws unnecessary attention to oneself. Although teaching or making a business presentation certainly draws attention - this is not regarded to be immodest as it is a necessary component of an honorable profession.

On the behavior front, it means not being loud, obnoxious, a gossip, unhygienic, obscene or inappropriate. When it comes to dress, modesty requires us to present ourselves in such a manner so that our most prominent feature, which represents each person’s unique individuality and humanity, is our face.

While the laws of modesty apply to both men and women, the guidelines of modest dress for women are more detailed. To learn more, click here.

Copyright © 2008 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Guess Who's Coming for Dinner - an action

Invite someone living alone - single, divorced, widowed - to come for dinner.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Thrill the Ill - an action

Call (or visit) someone who is sick at home or in a hospital. (Based on Sabbath 127a and Sotah 14a)

Raise With Praise - an action

Praise colleagues accordingly for a job well-done.

Jewish Law Minutiae

Jewish law stems from the Torah (Five Books of Moses and the rest of the Bible) and the Talmud. While much of the latter has been transcribed in the form of debates and discussion, practical law was codified over the centuries by rabbinic scholars who sensed the need for people to have easy access to the law - much like a US citizen wanting to know the law without having to read every court decision and emendation to the Constitution.

Much of Jewish law is meant to create a lifestyle. Some of it is meant to show how Judaism has something to say - and to point out symbolism - in every aspect of our lives.

Two examples follow:

A. One who is called to the bimah in the synagogue for Torah reading should take the shortest route to get there, but the longer route when returning to one’s seat. By taking these routes to and from the bimah, one demonstrates excitement about going to the Torah, and a sense of longing to stay.

B. There is a commandment called “orlah,” not to eat or remove the produce of a new tree for the tree’s first three years. One of the byproducts of this practice is that the tree has a chance to grow strong and become an even better source of nourishment as it bears superior fruit the fourth time around.

Sharing is Caring - an action

Share with a loved one a positive thing that happened to you during the day. (Avot 4:1)

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Fast of the 17th of Tammuz

Everyone knows of Yom Kippur.

There are, however, several other fast days in the Jewish calendar that are not nearly as well known. This Sunday (July 20), the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz will be observed.

As mentioned in the Talmud, five events are commemorated on this solemn day:

1. Moses smashed the Ten Commandments when he found the Jews worshiping the Golden Calf
2. The daily sacrifices ceased during the first Temple due to a shortage of sacrificial animals
3. The walls of Jerusalem were breached leading to the destruction of the first and second Temples
4. An idol was placed in the Temple during the first Temple era
5. Apostomos (a Roman general) publicly burned a Torah scroll

Based on the biblical verses found in Zachariah Chapters 7 and 8, it is our practice to fast on the 17th of Tammuz from dawn to nightfall.

For more information, click here
For more events on these dates in later history, click here

The Best Policy - an action

Try going a day without telling even the smallest untruth.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Measuring Achievement

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said, “If you haven’t grown as a person since yesterday, what need have you for today?” This thought provoking comment lends itself to a number of possible interpretations or responses.

1. Mind your own business, Rabbi Nachman.
2. Daily personal growth is something to which one should aspire.
3. Personal growth is relative.
4. Each day affords us a new opportunity to develop, create, and open new fronts in work, family life, and in all human relationships.

Some people say, “I learn something new every day on the job.” That works.

But simple ‘growth-oriented’ daily actions could include greeting people warmly, learning the names of people we see every day, smiling at the Starbucks person who gives us coffee (and saying “Good morning” instead of just grunting!), being a good listener for friends and co-workers, and calling loved ones randomly during the day. All kinds of little things can be done to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, a simple action into one that encourages human beings to become better people.

Maybe Rabbi Nachman was on to something...

Notice the Homeless - an action

If you go out for lunch, purchase an extra item for a needy person you pass on the way. (Deuteronomy 15:11, Isaiah 58:7)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

When Inanimate Objects Have Feelings

In rabbinic literature, inanimate objects are sometimes deemed to have "feelings" so we might learn lessons from their "behavior."

According to the Bible, both the sun and moon were created 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 and rendering it capable of only reflecting the light of the sun.

Mt. Sinai, a small mountain, did not see itself as particularly special. The Almighty rewarded Sinai for its humility, designating it as the location where Moses received the Torah and the location where the special relationship of God and the Jewish people was established.

Moses was not permitted to strike the Nile to initiate the plagues of Blood and Frogs because the waters of the Nile protected him as a baby when he was in a basket in its waters. Lesson: Gratitude.

See also: Covering the Hallah

Keeping Your Eyes Open - an action

Help someone struggling with a child in a stroller go up/down stairs.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Covering the Challah

Why do we cover the challah (braided loaf of bread) on Friday night, Sabbath morning, and on holidays during the Kiddush?

1. As a reminder of the manna in the wilderness that fell with an extra protective coating of dew.

2. So that the "feelings" of the bread not be hurt while all the attention is focused on the wine during the kiddush. In the standard priority in which food is eaten, bread is always first, based on the order of foods as presented in Deuteronomy 8:8.

However, since kiddush over wine is recited first on the Sabbath in order to sanctify the day, the bread is covered so as not to "slight its feelings" by skipping over it and stripping it of its exalted status.

This ritual teaches sensitivity to the "feelings" even of an inanimate object. Of course its ultimate purpose is to teach us to be more sensitive when we interface with our friends and acquaintances.

See also: When Inanimate Objects Have 'Feelings'

Sensitive Soul - an action

Be careful of others' sensitivities when joking around.

Monday, July 14, 2008


Six times the Bible commands the Jewish people to "remember" either an event that took place or to observe something. All are in Deuteronomy except the first.

1. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy (Ex 20:8)
2. Remember the day you received the word of God on Sinai (Dt 4:9-10)
3. Remember how the Jewish people tested God in the wilderness (Dt 9:7)
4. Remember the day of the Exodus (Dt 16:3)
5. Remember how Miriam gossiped about Moses (Dt 24:9), and
6. Remember how Amalek attacked a fledgling nation (Dt. 25:17-19)

Each one speaks of actions of Israelites in the wilderness. Each is a reminder for Jews through the millenia to learn lessons, save for the final one which recalls an action of an enemy people against an exhausted and untrained Israelite army. Perhaps the reason for this remembrance is to remind Jewish people to never forget that there are always anti-Semites in this world who want nothing less than to reduce or eliminate the Jewish people.

As a collective voice and source of strength in this post-Holocaust era, we can never allow that to take place again. We must always be alert, we must always remember.

Permission granted? - an action

Ask permission before giving unsolicited advice.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Couldn't You Choose Someone Else?

The Bible describes how Abraham rejected paganism and decided to be a monotheist. In turn, God chose Abraham's descendants to receive the Torah on Mt. Sinai.

"Chosenness" is not a mark of superiority or of ethnic or racial arrogance. The Jewish people are comprised of representatives of every race. Rather, "chosenness" means the Jewish people were chosen for a purpose - to study, teach and model a lifestyle as prescribed by the Torah.

Chosenness requires a specific standard of behavior to which the Jewish people are often held accountable.

Patience Patience - an action

Be slow to anger and quick to forgive - especially family members. (Avot 5:11 and Genesis 45:4-5)

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Mitzvahs and good deeds

What is a mitzvah? While some will say that a mitzvah is simply a "good deed," the truth is that the Hebrew word "mitzvah" literally means "commandment."

Why do people associate "mitzvah" with good deeds? Because in many contexts in which people talk about "doing a mitzvah" it often refers to an act of kindness done between humans. Showing kindness toward fellow humans, such as helping, doing favors, visiting the ill, sharing a kind word, are all actions that fit in the category of "Hesed" - kindness - commandments. They happen to be good deeds as well.

Other mitzvahs commanded in the Torah are not necessarily "good deeds" - such as reciting blessings or the Shema, wearing tzitzit, eating kosher, observing the Sabbath. There are also "negative commandments" such as not stealing, murder, committing adultery, worshipping idols. These mitzvahs are fulfilled by avoiding such actions when the opportunity arises.

No sip of gossip - an action

Try to go the whole workday without gossiping about other people. (based on Leviticus 19:16)

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Jewish Beards (2 of 2)

The Torah states in Leviticus 19:27: "Do not cut the hair on the corners of your head; Do not cut the corners of your beard."

We discussed the first half of this verse here.

The Talmud teaches us the latter half of this verse prohibits using a razor to remove hair from five points on the face. Due to the difficulty of shaving around the five points, Jewish men commonly wore beards for many hundreds of years. With the introduction of depilatory powders, Jews who did not apply razors to their faces now had the possibility to be clean shaven, or to sport a goatee or moustache. The electric shaver has made the clean-shaven look accepted in non-Hassidic circles (Hassidim do not shave) as the shaver acts like scissors when the razor in the shaver cuts against the shaver's guard (metal against metal) instead of against the skin.

Trimming the facial hair with scissors was always permissible but not very aesthetically pleasing since it left an unseemly stubble, until the newly designed scissors of the electric shaver were invented.

Copyright © 2008 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Smile for a While - an action

Put a smile on an old friend's face! Call someone you haven't spoken to in a while.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Of Ringlets, Sidecurls, "Payos" and Beards (1 of 2)

Why do some Jewish men (mostly Hassidic) have curly ringlets of hair?

The commandment in Leviticus 19:27 states: "Do not cut the hair on the corners ("payot/s") of your head; Do not cut the corners of your beard."

This is one of the rare "do not"s in the Torah that only applies to men.

The Talmud and commentaries explain the first part of the verse to mean that hair may not be completely removed from the sideburn area, at least from the cheekbone and up around the ear. The latter half of this verse is discussed in a different posting - click here.

Hassidic Jews take upon themselves a kabbalistic stringency to not cut the sideburn hairs at all, leaving them long enough to either curl (to keep out of the way), wrap behind their ears, or tie behind their heads (often hidden underneath a 'yarmulka'). There is no rule that the hair needs to be curled - it is simply a matter of convenience.

Non-Hassidic Jews fulfill this commandment in one of two ways: by allowing the sideburns to grow down to the cheekbone, or by not shaving above the cheekbone. (Thinning the hair is fine, as long as it is recognizable that there is hair there.)

Copyright © 2008 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Unloading - an action

Charities can benefit from clothes and furniture you no longer use.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Of Kippahs and "Yarmulkes"

Why do some Jews wear a kippah/skullcap/yarmulke? Either for religious, cultural or socio-political reasons.

Religious Jews wear one as per the precept to cover one’s head minimally when praying, studying religious texts and eating, but ideally all the time - except when swimming or bathing, sleeping, and when engaged in physical activities (such as sports) during which the kippah might constantly fall off (though a hat can be worn or the kippah can be clipped on!). The kippah sits on the top of the head as a reminder to the wearer that God’s presence (though everywhere) is symbolically above us (Kiddushin 31a).

Culturally, it is often worn in a context in which "everyone else is wearing it" - such as in a synagogue, at a "Jewish event" such as a Bris, Bar Mitzvah, or wedding ceremony, all of which are religious events.

Socio-politically, kippot of different materials (suede, velvet, knitted) are worn by Jews who identify with a particular level of observance or cultural or religious movements. But most people who wear a kippah regularly have one thing in common - a constant identity marker that declares "I am a proud Jew."

Copyright © 2008 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Love Thy Neighbor - an action!

Support a Mom&Pop store, even if it costs a little more than the big franchise.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Like a Tyke - An Action

Acknowledge the accomplishments of children.

The Greatest Kindness of All

Most nice, good-hearted people do for others with a slight ulterior motive - we hope that when we are in need, our friends will come through for us as we did for them. Some people can transcend this quality and are selfless, completely giving. There is, however, one situation when every person has the chance to display this true altruism, expecting nothing in return. This is called a "chesed shel emet" - pure kindness - marked by its genuineness.

Attending a funeral, serving as a pallbearer, participating in covering the grave are all examples of kindness and respect one can render to the deceased without expecting anything in return.

While all of these behaviors may be noted and appreciated by the deceased’s family, ultimately the act of kindness is for the benefit of the person who has died.

If we can demonstrate selfless behavior in one context, surely we can do it elsewhere as well.

Copyright © 2008 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Going Green - A Jewish Way

The great 20th century Talmudic scholar and thinker, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, described different aspects of human life as a “dialectic” (e.g. longing and withdrawing, love and awe, creativity and humility); this is his approach to how we are meant to treat the environment as well.

In Genesis 1, verse 28, the newly created humans are instructed to populate the earth and subdue it. In Genesis 2, verse 15, God places Adam in the Garden of Eden, “to cultivate it and to guard it.” On the one hand, dominion, and on the other hand, safekeeping.

Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests this dialectic as the ultimate tension of human existence. Humans indeed utilize nature for their benefit in many ways. But we also have the duty to act towards nature in a trustworthy manner - we have the responsibility to preserve the world for ourselves and for future generations.

The world is here for our use and our benefit, not for our misuse and abuse. For more information, click here and here.

Copyright © 2008 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Jewish Education

Film actor Kirk Douglas has said, “No rational adult would make a business decision based on what they knew when they were 14. You wouldn't decide who to marry based on what you knew about love and relationships when you were 14. But lots of us seem satisfied to dismiss religion based on what we learned at 14.”

The prophet Jonah landed in a (possibly metaphorical) big fish because he did not want to tell the people of Nineveh of their sins and need for repentance to be spared of God’s wrath. In the last verse of the Book of Jonah, God chastises the prophet for his insensitivity to a people who “do not know the difference between their right and left.” In other words, they lacked acquired education and were unable to distinguish between good and evil.

Unfortunately, education about Judaism is not a luxury enjoyed by all. With the explosion of the internet making available numerous venues to rediscover the beauty of Judaism and Torah values, we now have the power to take the driver seat to get out and explore our tradition, heritage and culture. Who knows? With a little knowledge, our lives may change forever - for the better. Kirk Douglas’s speech, in its entirety, may be found here:

Copyright © 2008 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.