Friday, October 31, 2008

What Goes Bump In The Night

Many are familiar with the fact that angels play a significant role in Judaism, like the angels who tell Abraham that his 90 year old wife was going to give birth to a boy (Genesis 18). But did you know that rabbinic literature also mentions demons?

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.

Greetings

Tonight, greet your fellow Jews with a hearty "Shabbat Shalom!"

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Over The Rainbow

Somewhere over the rainbow...Well, we all know that there is no real place over the rainbow! After all, a rainbow is caused by the refraction of light during the rain. But when you see a rainbow arching across the sky, its awesome beauty takes your breath away.

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.

The Biggest Blessing

Rather than grumble about the weather turning colder, make a list of all the blessings that come from the seasons of fall and winter. Remember, the "rainy season," as it is called in many places, is critical to the growth of crops and trees.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Why We Pray In Hebrew

How, it is often asked, can a person pray if he or she does not understand Hebrew? What is the purpose of the prayer service if it is merely a sequence of hard to pronounce and unintelligible syllables?

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.

Learn

Learn to read Hebrew. Find a class near you during November's Read Hebrew America/Canada Campaign.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Today I Am A Man, Sort Of

In today’s day and age, it is difficult to fathom how the rabbis could deem a twelve or thirteen year old child even remotely mature enough to be considered an adult. In truth, however, reaching the age of Bar or Bat Mitzvah has never meant that one was a full-fledged grown-up, but simply that one was now responsible for his/her own actions. Becoming "responsible" is an important part of human development.

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.

Care to Share

Take the time to have a real conversation with a young adult, whether your child, grandchild, niece/nephew, or the child of a friend.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Someone's Been Sitting In My Chair

In some families, dinner time is a helter-skelter affair where everyone grabs what they want on their way to their next event. In other families, dinner is a set time when everyone gathers together and shares a meal.

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.

Give Thanks

Before you dig into your lunch, or any meal, take a moment and acknowledge God's role in providing such enjoyable food!

Friday, October 24, 2008

If Shabbat Is Saturday, Why Does It Begin On Friday Night?

There Was Evening, And There Was Morning...

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.

Set the Time

Set the alarm on your cell phone or blackberry to alert you one hour before sunset, so that you can begin the Sabbath on time.

For candle lighting times in your area, click here.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

No Stumbling Blocks, Please

The prohibition “Do not put a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14) seems like an odd commandment. After all, who but a truly mischievous, mean-spirited prankster would put something in the way of the blind to cause them to trip and fall? Surely, common human decency requires that one not do this (and it certainly must be forbidden by the Americans with Disabilities Act).

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.

Make the Offer

Offer to assist someone with disabilities in everyday tasks such as grocery shopping.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah

Tonight starts the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, literally the Gathering of the Eighth, a separate and independent holiday that immediately follows Sukkot.

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.

Dancing for Joy

Attend the Simchat Torah celebrations at your local synagogue or Jewish center, wave a flag and join the circle of dancers celebrating the Torah.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Water, Water Everywhere

Sukkot is considered the holiday on which God determines the world’s water allotment for the year to come. During the time of the Temple, the week of Sukkot was highlighted by the water libation ceremony, during which water was poured over the altar after the morning offering. The ceremony actually lasted all night and was known as the Simchat Beit Hashoevah, the Celebration of the House of the Water Drawing.

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.

Reflections

When passing a body of water such as a lake, a river or even a spring, take a moment and reflect upon the critical role water plays in our lives.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Ushpezin (oo’shpee’zin)

During the festival of Sukkot, the sukkah is intended to be our second home. For example, since one would normally dine in the house, on Sukkot one dines in the sukkah. Because the sukkah is temporary, however, moving into the sukkah requires leaving behind some of our material comforts, settling for rather basic necessities, thus creating a more spiritual environment.

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.

Invite

If you have a sukkah, invite a friend to come and eat in it. If you don't have a sukkah, invite a friend to join you at a community sukkah event or at a Sukkot Across America location.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Everyone Does The Wave

One of the main mitzvot of the holiday of Sukkot is the waving of the four species: citron (etrog), palm, myrtle and willow. Trying to understand this mitzvah metaphorically, our sages compared the four species to four different types of Jews:

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.

Sukkot Prep

Find out which synagogues and Jewish centers in your area have sukkot activities during the next week.

Perhaps there is a Sukkot Across America location in your neck of the woods: Sukkot Across America.

Friday, October 10, 2008

But Wait...There's More

Now that the Jewish people have repented on Yom Kippur and, hopefully, received Divine forgiveness, it is time to sit back and relax...

Just kidding!

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

Fall Harvest

Visit an apple orchard or pumpkin patch to get in touch with the wonders of the Fall harvest season. It is an ideal time to recognize the wonders of God's world and the miracle of the food we eat daily.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Post-Labor Day Whites

When is it fashionably acceptable to wear white after Labor Day? On Yom Kippur!

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.

Slip On

Slip on some non-leather shoes in observance of Yom Kippur, starting tonight at sundown and lasting 25 hours.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Four Steps of Repentance

In order to fully understand Yom Kippur, it is important to look deeper at the Jewish concept of teshuva, “repentance.”

Teshuva is actually a process of self-evaluation and self-improvement. The Rambam enumerated four primary steps to the teshuva process:

1. Recognize and discontinue the improper action.

2. Verbally confess the action, thus giving the action a concrete form in your own mind.

3. Regret the action. Evaluate the negative impact this action may have had on yourself or on others.

4. Determine never to repeat the action. Picture a better way to handle it. There are two different types of transgressions: those between a person and God and those between one person and another.

Teshuva for a sin between a person and God: When one has transgressed a mitzvah that does not affect another person, the teshuva is purely between the person and God; and the four steps listed above are all that are necessary for the repentance process.

Teshuva for a sin between one person and another: When one has caused harm to others, whether by stealing from them, embarrassing them or anything else, then teshuva requires that restitution and reconciliation be arranged between the parties involved. The damaged party must forgive the perpetrator before Divine forgiveness is granted.

However, a person is only obligated to ask for forgiveness three times. After three refusals, the person is no longer held accountable for that action, as he/she has proven their true regret. The person who will not accept a sincere apology after three requests for forgiveness, however, is guilty of bearing a grudge.

One Day More

Tomorrow night is Yom Kippur...anything you want to say sorry for?

Monday, October 6, 2008

For God's Ears Only

Ever wonder why everyone in the synagogue appears to be mumbling? Why are we so quiet in our conversations with God?

The answer goes way back in history to a woman named Hannah.

Hannah, the beloved wife of Elkanah, longed to have a child. Elkanah already had ten sons with his second wife, Penina, and believed that the love he had for Hannah should have been sufficient to make her happy. But Hannah desperately wanted a child.

At the Tabernacle at Shilo, Hannah made her way to the sanctuary, where she poured out her soul to God. The prayer, as described by the Midrash, was a heart-wrenching plea questioning the definition of her own existence (ex: What purpose are my breasts if I cannot nurse?). But not a word of her prayer was uttered above a whisper.

Having watched her enter the sanctuary and seen her lips move silently, Eli, the High Priest, assumed that Hannah was drunk.

“How long will you be drunk?” he demanded. When Eli was corrected and informed that she was praying, he bestowed a blessing on her that her prayers should be answered. Within a year, Hannah bore a son, whom she named Shmuel (Samuel the Prophet), for God had heard her prayers.

The sages learned from Hannah’s prayers that quiet prayer is truly powerful. It is for that reason that the silent Amidah (central prayer) is recited just loud enough for a person to hear him/herself.

So next time you feel the need to pour out your soul to God, don’t worry, He’s listening, even if you simply whisper your prayer into your bluetooth!

It's There For The Asking

During the time between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, God pays special attention to our prayers. Go ahead, talk to God; He wants to hear you!

Friday, October 3, 2008

Whosoever is Wise

“Return, O Israel, for you have stumbled in your sin.” (Hosea 14:2)

Um, who has the remote control? Can someone please change the channel?!

Let’s face it, none of us really want to hear a fire-and-brimstone reproof of all of the things we’ve done wrong and how we must mend our ways. This is basic human psychology and is obviously the great challenge facing all rabbis in the preparation of their Shabbat Shuva sermons. Shabbat Shuva, which is so called because of the first word “Shuva,” return, in the week’s haftarah reading (Hoshea 14:2 -10), is the Shabbat between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

Traditionally, it is this Shabbat sermon that is regarded as the highlight of the year, the premier opportunity for rabbis to inspire their congregants to work harder on becoming better Jews. The goal, as with all things in the 10 days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, is teshuva, repentance. (It is interesting to note that in many communities in pre-war Europe, the Shabbat Shuva sermon was one of only two sermons that the rabbi delivered during the year - the other being just before Passover.)

But what is the source of inspiration, and what motivates change? There are those who want to be humored into self-improvement, while others wish to hear inspiring stories of triumph over challenge.

Perhaps the prophet Hosea said it best (14:10): “Whosoever is wise, let him understand these things, whosoever is prudent, let him know them. For the ways of God are right, and the just walk in them; but transgressors do stumble therein.”

Kudos

Tell the rabbi something specific that you liked, appreciated, or wanted to understand better from the sermon.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Will I Forgive You for What!?

An ancient Jewish proverb declares: “Loose tongues are worse than wicked hands.”

Truth is, people do the most damage to each other with their mouths. Things done with our hands, such as injuries, thefts, etc, can be repaired. Words, however, are like feathers in the wind – they fly too fast to catch them and can never be taken back. Jewish law regards loshon harah, wicked speech such as gossip and slander, as the worst of the transgressions that one commits against fellow humans.

Here is the dilemma: During the months of Elul and Tishrei (before and during the High Holidays), repentance must be our top priority. Repentance for hurting another person requires that we personally ask that person’s forgiveness. What do I do if I spoke badly about someone, in a fit of anger? Now that we are friends once again, how do I ask properly for forgiveness for talking about them?

The answer to this dilemma depends on the extent of the “damage.” If the gossip itself created negative consequences, then the person must be asked directly for forgiveness. If no harm was done, and it is known that the person will be understanding about the incident, then forgiveness should still be asked.

However, if informing a person that you spoke about them would result in embarrassment or hurt, it is acceptable to ask for general forgiveness, without going into detail. Indeed, causing additional embarrassment to the person would actually necessitate asking for mechila (forgiveness) once again. Need to ask someone's forgiveness and not sure how?

Check out Project Forgiveness

Just Ask

This is the week for asking forgiveness from others. Go ahead and say you are sorry for the little things you've swept under the rug.