Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Years x 4

We are about to celebrate the New Year on the Gregorian Calendar. But, did you know that the Jewish calendar actually has FOUR New Years!

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.

Family Time

Spend tomorrow's day off with a family member with whom you don't often spend time.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Are Your Drunk?

The end of December is a most festive time of year. Regardless of religious beliefs, most people in North America are swept up into the celebrations of the season, if only because of the legal holidays and the days off from work.

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?

Community Time

Find out what fun things your Jewish community has planned in January. Plan to go out and join in the fun!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Putting Chanukah in Perspective

Last night we lit the final Chanukah candles, and today is the last day of the holiday. Let us now take just a few more moments to make Chanukah real in our minds. We’ve talked about the miraculous victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian-Greeks and the miracle of the oil lasting eight days. Let us look at Chanukah in its historical context:

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!

Think Ahead

Today is the last day of Chanukah. Prepare for next year by cleaning the menorah of wax drippings or spilled oil before you store it away. (You'll thank yourself next year.)

Friday, December 26, 2008

Cycles of Wealth

While we look on with dismay, disbelief and even horror at the grand reversals being played out across the global economy, it is interesting to ponder the biblical echos of just such an event.

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.

Silence is Golden

Try not to talk about business or finances from sundown tonight until night fall Saturday night.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Chanukah Heroine

Have you ever heard of Yehudit (Judith), the daughter of Yochanan the High Priest, who saved her city, Bethulia, from destruction at the hands of the Syrian-Greek general Holofernes?

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.

Food For All

Make a donation to one of the many worthy organizations that provide food to the hungry.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Spin the Dreidel

I have a little dreidel
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

Get Together

Looking for an evening of fun? Invite some friends over for a dreidel spinning contest.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Story of Chanukah

Around the year 167 BCE, the Syrian-Greek rulers of Judea tried to force the Jews to assimilate into Hellenic culture. They summoned the Jews to the town squares where they were forced to worship idols or to sacrifice a pig before the idol.

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

Story Telling

Share the story of Chanukah with a Jewish child in your life. (Tell it in your most animated voice!)

Monday, December 22, 2008

Giving Gifts

“One who is diligent in lighting Chanukah candles will have children who are scholars” (Talmud Shabbat 23b).

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

The Gift That Gives

Give someone a gift every day by forwarding them Jewish Treats, or help us continue to provide you with a juicy bit of Judaism daily by making an end-of-the-year donation to NJOP. (Thank you.)

Friday, December 19, 2008

It's A Chanukiah!

The menorah, the symbol of the holiday of Chanukah, is actually a misnomer! “Menorah” is the name of the great seven-branched candelabra that was built in the wilderness following explicit Divine directions. It was used first in the Tabernacle and later stood in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

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

Arts N Crafts

Looking for a Saturday night activity? Gather together some friends, invite your "inner children" and make your own chanukiot. Here are some ideas: Menorah Making Guide.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Chanukah-What's The Mitzvah?

Here’s a quiz:
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.

Getting Ready

Take your menorah out of the closet so that you may clean or polish it as needed.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Dream A Little Dream

What is a dream? The vast majority of dreams are simply the brain’s way of understanding all the different thoughts and activities of the day. Other dreams, however, are more significant.

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.

A Simple Thing

Say "Thank you" to your local police officers, fire fighters, crossing guards, postal carriers and other civil servants who make your life easier.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Working for a Living

It often seems as if people today, especially in Western societies, are defined, and define themselves, by their work or their profession. When people meet for the first time, one of the initial questions is often, “So, what do you do?”

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.

Share A Lead

If your office has a job opening, spread the word among family and friends.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Praying In Many Ways

Many nutritionists recommend that a person should have three square meals a day to maintain his/her physical well-being. Spiritual nutritionists (our sages) recommend that for the utmost in spiritual well-being, a Jew should pray three times a day (Shacharit, the morning service, Mincha, the afternoon service, and Maariv, the evening service).

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!

Set A Time

Schedule a daily time for yourself to say a prayer, whatever type of prayer you want. Perhaps a good time is right after your morning coffee!

Friday, December 12, 2008

What Are We Reading?

Those familiar with synagogue ritual know that there is a weekly Torah reading cycle. In the Fall, there are the inspiring stories of creation and the history of the origins of the Jewish people (Genesis). With winter comes the enslavement, freedom, and the journey in the wilderness (Exodus). Winter thawing into spring brings the laws of the Temple (Leviticus), followed by additional Temple laws and more of the wilderness history (Numbers). Finally, as summer fades into fall, there is a summation of the entire history of Israel as seen through the eyes of our great leader Moses (Deuteronomy).

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.

Reading Matter

Check out this week's Torah portion (Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4-36:43, according to the annual cycle) or read an online d'var Torah (commentary on the Torah).

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Honoring Those Who Have Passed

Sometimes the world seems a bit like alphabet soup. There are organizations that function by acronym alone (such as NJOP -- the National Jewish Outreach Program, not to be confused with AJOP the Association for Jewish Outreach Programs). There are also the ever increasing abbreviations that are being made popular via texting (e.g. “ttyl”-talk to you later, and “imho”-in my humble opinion). And one can hardly ignore the various titles that appear in abbreviated form following a person’s name (e.g. PhD, MD, JD, MBA).

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.


Visit the grave of a deceased relative and place a stone on the tombstone as a sign that this person is loved and remembered.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

With Your Permission

Dear Miss Manners: Yesterday, a friend knocked on my door. I invited him in and he proceeded to grab a snack out of the fridge, watch a movie on my TV and then hopped on to my exercise bike. I wasn’t asked even once if any of this was ok! In truth, I had no problem with him using my home, but I was astounded by the lack of manners, by the fact that I was never asked if it was ok!

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.

May I Please

It's a nice touch to ask permission from a co-worker or friend before you borrow something mundane, like a pencil, even when you know they wouldn't care.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

God Helps Those Who...

Looking for a new job? A special someone? A change of fortune in your life? Did you do your hishtadlut?

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.

Pick Up The Phone

Take the initiative and call that old friend with whom you've been hoping to reconnect.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Star Symbol

Looking for a nice piece of Judaica? Why not go for something really Jewish, like a Star of David. This ancient symbol of Judaism is...well, actually, although the Star of David is a popular Jewish symbol today, it isn’t an ancient Jewish symbol at all

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.

In From The Cold

On a cold morning, bring some extra coffee or hot chocolate for your co-workers.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Saying Hello

The Jewish calendar, unlike the secular/Gregorian calendar, is a lunar calendar.

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.

A Good Week

On Saturday night, after Shabbat has ended, it is customary to greet one's fellow by wishing him/her a "Shavua Tov" (Hebrew) or a "Gut Voch" (Yiddish), which means a "Good week."

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Tithe Means Tenth

Ideally, people would have no qualms about supporting those in need. The Torah, however, recognized that charity is not necessarily a person’s first instinct and therefore specifies a mandatory giving of tzedaka (charity) of 10% of a person’s income.

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.

That Old Thing

If you have old coats that never get worn hanging in the closet, donate them to charity.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

So Where Are You From?

When reading about Judaism, one often comes across the terms “Ashkenazim” and “Sephardim.” While these names are ethnic subdivisions of the Jewish world, they are actually based on geographic distinctions.

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.

Family Roots

Call your grandparents or oldest living relative and see how much you can learn about your family's history.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Frequent Flyer Miles

As far back as the mid-1800s, rabbis wrestled with the question of the growing mobility of the populace. Since there were no new lands to be discovered, those of an exploring nature were drawn north, to the great white unknown.

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.

Travel Plan

When going to an organized business conference, call ahead and see if you can order kosher food. Many conference centers are happy to accommodate you.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Hear O Israel

"Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one!"

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.

A Quiet Place

Choose a quiet spot in your home or office where you can spend a daily moment of prayer or reflection without interruption.