Wednesday, November 26, 2008

It's Not A Big Chicken

It is now November, and if there is one thing that is guaranteed to be in supermarkets in November, it’s turkey! In fact, many supermarkets even give them away to promote large purchases of other groceries.

When you go to pick up your kosher turkey, take a moment to understand the significance of your purchase. Did you know that a vast amount of rabbinic ink has been expended in discussing the kosher status of turkey?!

While the Torah specifically identifies those features that make animals and fish kosher (chews cud and split hooves for animals, scales and fins for fish), it does not specify the signs of a kosher bird. Instead it states that one may eat “all the clean birds,” and then lists only the birds which one may not eat (Deuteronomy 14:11-18).

A problem arose because not all the birds identified in the Torah’s prohibited list are known today. The Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch completed in 1563) therefore ruled that only those birds traditionally known to be eaten by Jewish communities were allowed. This included chicken and ducks.

The turkey, however, was not a traditional bird. Turkeys are indigenous to the “New World” and were not seen by European Jews until explorers brought them back from America. As turkeys became more common fare in the general European community, the rabbis began to receive questions about the bird’s kosher status.

The turkey, which shared many similarities to the other known kosher birds – the nature of their stomach, the shape of their beak, the structure of their feet, and that they were not predatory – was deemed kosher by almost all authorities.

So go ahead. Stuff the bird!

To Be Shared

Giving to those in need is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. Please participate in one of the many local food drives that occur at this time of the year.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Travelin'

Ever feel nervous just before the start of a trip? Ever have sleepless nights before boarding an airplane? Perhaps these hesitations connect back to a time when travel, whether by road or sea, was particularly perilous. Today, traveling is so common that we often think nothing of it, even if there are modern dangers.

Because a journey is not an everyday event, the sages created "tefillat haderech,” the wayfarer’s prayer. In English, the prayer is:

May it be Your will, Lord, our God and the God of our ancestors, that You lead us to peace, guide our footsteps to peace, and enable us to reach our desired destination for life, happiness, and peace. May You rescue us from the hand of every foe, ambush, robbers, or vicious animals along the way, and from all manner of punishments that rage on the earth. May You send blessing in everything we do, and grant us grace, kindness, and mercy in Your eyes and in the eyes of all who see us. May You hear the sound of our supplications because You are God Who hears prayer and supplications. Blessed are You, God, Who hears prayer.

But what is the definition of a journey? Driving from New York to Boston takes approximately 4 hours. Flying between the same two cities takes less than an hour and a half (from take-off to landing, not counting check-in, security and waiting around time!). According to the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), tefillat haderech is only required for a journey of more than 72 minutes.

So next time you are off to visit grandma or heading to your dream vacation, take a moment for a little extra traveler’s insurance.

For tefillat haderech in Hebrew and transliteration, please click here.

Road Watch

If you see another driver in distress (i.e. flat tire), offer to help or to call for help.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A-Hunting We Won't Go

Ah, Fall. The crisp air, the beautiful foliage and, for those who live in rural areas, the hunting season! Yes, this is the time of year when, permit in hand, hunters take to the woods for sport.

The permissibility of hunting according to Jewish law is not as straight-forward as one might imagine. Actually, there are cogent arguments for and against hunting and trapping in Jewish tradition.

In Genesis (1:26), God explicitly gives human beings dominion over the entire planet - meaning all animals, vegetables and minerals. Dominion, however, does not mean tyranny or abuse, but rather responsibility. In fact, this verse is one that is at the heart of Judaism’s sensitive environmental philosophy.

While humans have dominion over animals, Judaism prohibits “tza’ar ba’alei chayim,” causing undo suffering to living creatures. For this reason, hunting for pleasure is strictly prohibited.

And while humankind has Divine permission to be omnivorous, Jewish law deems any animal not properly slaughtered to be "not kosher" (unfit) for Jewish consumption. Animals with life-threatening wounds, such as those resulting from guns, arrows or traps, are not kosher.

So if animals may not be hunted for either food and pleasure, when might hunting be permitted? One may hunt only for a legitimate need, such as collecting fur and leather for clothes or shoes or to obtain animal products that are used for medicine. Even then, the animal must be killed in a manner that ensures the least possible pain.

JewishTreats leaves you with this question: Would hunting to thin out a herd in danger of starvation be prohibited as tza’ar ba’alei chayim or would it be permitted in order to make certain that fewer animals starve to death? Let us know your opinion by leaving a comment below.

The Good Master

The Torah teaches that one who owns a pet should feed the animal first (before one's self) so that the animal is not watching hungrily as the person eats.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Saying Goodbye To Shabbat

Shabbat ends when three stars appear in the sky, a little more than an hour after candle lighting time. Maariv, the evening service, is recited in the synagogue and, upon returning home, havdalah is chanted. Havdalah, which means separation, is a set of four blessings.

1) The blessing over wine (or grape juice): While the blessing over wine is the first blessing recited, the wine is not drunk until after the fourth and final blessing. If wine or grape juice is not available, other liquids such as beer or whiskey may be used.

2) The blessing over spices: A container of spices, often cloves, is taken in hand and the appropriate blessing is recited. The spices are passed around for all present to smell. The smelling of spices is done in order to revive the soul, which otherwise might be depressed over the departure of Shabbat.

3) The blessing over fire: This blessing is recited over a special, multi-wick havdalah candle. By making the blessing over fire, one is establishing the distinction between Shabbat, when one may not use fire, and the remainder of the week, when one may. Additionally, according to tradition, Adam was given fire at the conclusion of the first Shabbat.

4) The blessing over distinctions: The final blessing praises God for distinguishing between holy and secular, light and dark, Israel and other nations, and Shabbat and weekdays.

After the four blessings have been recited, the person reciting them drinks the wine or grape juice. Many people have the custom of then extinguishing the havdalah candle in the wine or grape juice.

The Sound of Silence

Spend an evening without any electronic noise (no television, radio, internet, ipod, etc) and connect with the sounds of the world around you.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Keys To A Happy Marriage

This week the Torah celebrates the marriage of Yitzchak and Rivkah (Isaac and Rebecca). In their honor, Jewish Treats presents to you an excerpt from Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald’s “Keys to a Happy Marriage.”

The advice, based on the 3,300-year-old Jewish tradition, is timeless and applicable to modern couples of all backgrounds.

1. Marriage unplugged -- Set aside a night each week to tune out the world, tune into each other and focus on the reality of your own lives. (Might we suggest Shabbat.)

2. United we stand -- The chuppah, or canopy, that a couple stands under during a Jewish wedding ceremony signifies the home they will build together -- symbolically reminding all present that the couple is becoming a unit.

3. Marriage is not all wine and roses -- During a Jewish wedding ceremony, wine is sipped to symbolize joy; later, the ceremony concludes with the breaking of a glass calling attention to the fact that life is not always joyful. Yes, your wedding day should be one of the happiest of your life, but keep in mind that you're sure to face tough times, both big and small -- from lost jobs to clogged toilets.

4. Save it for your spouse -- Ever notice that religious Jews dress very modestly? It's not because they're ashamed of their bodies, but rather because they save their sensual side for their spouses. Keep that in mind the next time you dress for a night out with your pals. Yes, you should look your best, but reserve the seductive stuff for those nights you stay at home alone with your spouse.

5. Thou shalt not embarrass thy spouse -- Treat your spouse with respect and admiration in public, as well as in private, and you can expect the same in return. For the complete article, please click here

The Perfect Response

When you hear someone say a blessing, say "Amen."

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Burying The Dead

An unusually large body of Jewish law is concerned with interpersonal relationships, teaching how to properly respect each person, since all of humankind is created b’tzelem Eh-lokim, in the image of God.

The question of respect continues even beyond life. The Jewish laws concerning death, burial and mourning, all center on the importance of preserving the dignity of the person who has passed away.

It is for this reason that a Jewish funeral will most often be performed as soon as possible following a person’s death, ideally on the same day. The injunction to bury the dead quickly is based on a verse from Deuteronomy (21:23) that states: “His body shall not remain all night...but you shall surely bury him the same day.”

If the Torah states that a person should be buried on the same day as his/her death, one might rightly ask why burials are at times delayed, even more than one day. Apparently, according respect to the dead is so important, it is permissible to delay a burial so that proper funeral arrangements may be made, or to accommodate close relatives who need to travel from afar. One may even delay the burial to wait for the arrival of an important speaker - all in order to show respect for and honor to the deceased.

If the Torah teaches that we must show this much respect to the deceased, how much more careful must we be with how we treat our living family, friends, and neighbors.

Hitching

If you see a friend at the store who doesn't have a car, offer them a lift home.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

How Pirates Spread Torah

From the 6th to the 11th century, the center of Jewish life was in Babylon under Persian rule. The Jewish community was headed politically by the Exilarch and religiously by a sage known as the Gaon. Jewish communities that existed outside of Babylon were usually small and isolated and were therefore dependant on the Babylonian leaders for their legal rulings and advice.

This all changed, however, when four great rabbis from Babylon were captured by pirates on the Mediterranean. The pirates then ransomed them off to different Jewish communities who were willing to pay great amounts of money to free the rabbis. Thus one rabbi (Shemariah ben Elhanan) was taken to Alexandria in Egypt, one (Hushiel) to Morocco and Tunisia, another (Moses ben Hanoch) to Cordova in Spain, and another (Nathan ben Isaac Ha’Kohen) to Narbonne in France. In one fell swoop, the pirates decentralized Torah and Jewish learning.

Decentralizing Jewish scholarship certainly wasn’t the pirates’ intention, but the tragic capture of these four rabbis turned into a major blessing, as Jewish learning blossomed and flourished in France, Spain, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, under their guidance and inspiration.

This tale (whose source is in the writings of Abraham ben David, “Ibn Daud,” also known as the RaVad, 1110-1180 C.E.) may be legend. However, it reflects the true evolution of Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean during the 9th-12th centuries, when the center of Jewish life and scholarship shifted from the Near East to North Africa and Europe.

For The Love Of Lore

Next time you're at the library, pick up a book of Jewish history or Jewish folktales. You might be surprised by the things you learn!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Don't Roll Your Eyes At Me

The plaintive cry of exasperation, “Don’t roll your eyes at me!” that parents often address to their children is one that each person should consider saying to him/herself, omitting, of course, the concluding words “at me.”

Rolling one’s eyes is often meant to demean others, to hold them in contempt for their inability to understand, and to embarrass them. Jewish law, however, considers embarrassing another person as a form of murder! Rather extreme, wouldn’t you say? Actually, no. The sages of the Talmud teach that there is a physiological comparison to murder since when a person is embarrassed, blood rushes to his cheeks in a blush and then drains away, leaving a pale white face, not unlike the appearance of a murder victim.

More important, however, is the fact that one’s self-esteem is integral to one’s emotional welfare. Let’s face it, we all want to feel that others like us, respect us and want to be our friends. That’s human nature.

Rolling one’s eyes when someone else is speaking, or when speaking about someone else, can often say more than words. Body language is a unique and highly effective means of communication. Whether one nods or shakes one’s head during a speech reveals as much, if not more, than a person’s direct comments.

Such actions are included in what is known in Jewish legal literature as “avak lashon ha’rah,” the dust of evil speech. Even if one is not gossiping directly about someone or slandering them, one's body language, or other form of innuendo, can lead to lashon ha’rah and result in demeaning or embarrassing that person.

Judging For Merit

If you are in an argument with someone, take a moment to see their side of the story.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Ahh...Cholent!

The highlight of many Shabbat lunch tables is cholent, a hot stew which simmers overnight in a crockpot, on the stove or in the oven. Known also as chamim by many Sephardim, cholent is the original "protest" food -- the purpose of having a hot stew on Shabbat day, as mentioned by tenth century Jewish scholars, is to underscore and emphasize our belief in the Oral Tradition of the Mishna and the Talmud.

During the time of the Greeks and the Romans, there was a sect of Jews called Saduccees who denied the authority of the Oral Law. While the Saduccees, as a group, did not survive the Roman exile, their belief in the literal interpretation of the Bible, without the instruction and explanation of the oral law, was revived during the Gaonic period (8th - 10th centuries) by the Karaites.

The Oral Law explains that a Jew is permitted to have a fire burning on Shabbat, it just can’t be lit, transferred or enhanced on Shabbat. The literalists, such as the Saduccees and the Karaites, maintained that the prohibition of fire on Shabbat was total, i.e. that “Thou shalt not burn fire in all your houses” (Exodus 35:3) excluded allowing even a fire lit before Shabbat to continue burning. They therefore sat in the dark, ate cold food, and froze in the winter.

Whereas hot food on Friday night could remain warm from before Shabbat, having hot food at Shabbat lunch signifies the use of a fire that existed from before Shabbat. That is why Jews all over the world developed a dish which some call chamin, meaning hot, and others call cholent (which is a combination of two Old French words for hot and slow). What unites these dishes is not the ingredients, but the purpose, which is to enjoy the Sabbath and to confirm our belief in the Oral Tradition.

Invitation Please

Invite a friend over for cholent or chamim.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Send Them On Their Way

Hachnassat Orchim, welcoming guests, is one of the better known mitzvot. For many, this is also one of the easiest. After all, who doesn’t enjoy having people over, acting as host, and sharing a hearty meal.

There is, however, a lesser known part of the mitzvah of welcoming guests that requires the hosts to escort their guests part of the way out when they leave. According to the sages, a person should walk their guests at least daled amot (approximately 8 feet) beyond the front door. By escorting someone out, the host accords the guests an extra measure of courtesy and expresses the host’s desire that the visit not end. Additionally, it shows the host’s wish to ensure the security of his/her guests.

The mitzvah of escorting a guest is derived from two separate narratives in the Torah. In Genesis 18, Abraham was visited by three men (angels according to the Midrash). After finishing the meal, the men rose to leave for the city of Sodom. Scripture informs us that “Abraham went with them to send them on their way." Thus, Abraham, the epitome of the perfect host, teaches us this important aspect of the mitzvah of hachnassat orchim.

Escorting guests and ensuring their safety is derived as well from Deuteronomy 21, which describes the repercussions of finding a dead body in an open area between two cities. The city to which the body is closest is held responsible for the murder since it is suspected that the city did not provide an escort for the safety of its guests, thus indirectly causing the murder.

In this way, as in so many others, Torah law demonstrates the importance of treating others with respect and dignity.

Travelers' Insurance

When driving a long distance, be prepared with whatever you need to help you stay awake and alert. Your safety ensures the safety of others.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Are Kosher Foods Cleaner Or Healthier

Kosher food has enjoyed a reputation for being “clean” and “healthy.” Is this true? Certain standards of kosher food processing might suggest it. Consider the following:

Washing - In order to be eaten, all vegetables and fruits must be washed and checked to ensure that there are no bugs and worms hiding within them. (Bugs and worms are not kosher, not even the tiny ones.) There are even authorities who recommend that all drinking water be filtered in case there are bugs in the water!

Internal Inspection - After an animal is slaughtered, the organs are inspected for irregularities and holes that would render the animal “treif” (literally ‘torn') , making it inedible to the kosher consumer. Indiscernible diseases may be discovered in this inspection, unique to the kosher industry.

Salting and Soaking - Raw meats must be salted to remove all blood and soaked in water to remove other external impurities.

Checks and Balances - In order to be certified as kosher, the plant and the process of preparation must undergo thorough supervision. A kosher consumer may therefore have confidence that nothing "extra" was added to the product.

While there is nothing uniquely healthier or cleaner about kosher food, kashruth supervision raises the bar on the final product before it reaches the consumer.

Surprise Yourself

Next time you are at the supermarket, notice just how many common, household staples (e.g. ketchup, mayonnaise, cereal) are kosher.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Look At The Law

There are three types of laws in the Torah...mishpatim, edot and chukim:

Mishpatim are basic laws. In fact, mishpatim are generally translated as those laws which are necessary and logical for the conduct of society. Don’t steal, don’t murder, set up courts of law...statutes that are all necessary for civilization to function and could be deduced through basic common sense.

Edot are commandments which testify to an idea or mark an occasion, like a holiday. The actual performance of the mitzvah is meant as a reminder of an event or a concept. For instance, Americans celebrate the 4th of July and commemorate their independence from Britain with picnics, parties and fireworks. Jews celebrate their freedom from the slavery of Egypt by thanking God, participating in a seder filled with actions directly related to the Exodus and by eliminating bread and leavened products, just as our ancestors did. The edot, the testimonies, do not just mark days or items as part of our history, but enable us to make the spiritual connection that bonds all Jews - past, present and future.

Chukim are those laws which generally cannot be logically explained, such as keeping kosher. These laws are usually the first to be cast aside because they are often difficult to understand. Yet chukim are very important in Judaism. Indeed, chukim go hand-in-hand with the very first commandment of the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God.” Since belief in God is a fundamental principle of Judaism, observing those laws known as chukim expresses our commitment to this fundamental principle of belief. Thus observant Jews keep kosher not because they believe it is a healthier diet, but because God commanded the Jewish people to live by these dietary laws.

A Good Deed

Volunteer your time at a local soup kitchen.

Monday, November 10, 2008

World Care

Help protect the world, recycle your water or soda bottle instead of throwing it in the closest trash can.

Animal Instincts

In their natural habitats, every creature on earth helps create a balance that allows the environment to flourish. This biological fact is part of the mechanics of Planet Earth. But the animal world offers humankind another benefit, for animals can be powerful examples of behavior.

In Ethics of the Fathers (5:20), Judah the son of Taima says: Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer and strong as a lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven.” Using animals as examples, Judah the son of Taima sought to encourage people to be strong in their devotion to Torah even when it is difficult.

In the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (an abridged compendium of Jewish law, published in 1870) Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried defines these particular character traits:

1) Bold as a leopard refers to feeling proud about worshiping God. Too often we allow the opinions of friends and colleagues to get in our way when striving to do what we know is right.

2) Light as an eagle refers to what one sees. An eagle flies fast, taking in great expances of land but only focusing on prey that will nourish its body. So too, a person must focus only on that which nourishes the soul.

3) Swift as a deer refers to hurrying to do good things. Don’t delay in performing a mitzvah; run to do it!

4) Strong as a lion refers to being strong of heart. It is easy to be diverted from the path of good deeds.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Try These

Pikuach Nefesh is the mitzvah of saving a person's life. Needless to say, it is one of the most important mitzvot one can do. In fact, one is obligated to break Shabbat in order to save a life.

One of the subcategories of the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh is saving one's own life, which requires that a person takes care of him/herself. In this vein, the National Jewish Outreach Program has been involved in a campaign encouraging people not to smoke on Shabbat. While intended for smokers, the recommendations apply to all:

12 Things To Do While Not Smoking On Shabbat.

1. Rest those weary bones – Catch up on your sleep.

2. Smother your family and friends with love. Have a nice long conversation with your spouse/children/parents/friends...whom you practically ignore all week.

3. Exhale the mundane cares and concerns of the workday week by saying a little prayer in synagogue for anything or everything.

4. Chill out with some wine (for Kiddush). Eat three gourmet Shabbat meals (and actually taste the food).

5. Wear your nicest clothes without worrying about ashes and smoke.

6. Clear your mind. Enjoy one day when even non-smokers love you.

7. Sing up a storm at the top of your lungs.

8. Savor a good - Jewish - book without interruption, or sneak a peek at the Torah portion of the week when nobody’s looking.

9. Get to know someone really important a whole lot better -- yourself.

10. Make your cardiologist happy. Air out your lungs -- go for a nice, long, leisurely walk.

11. Review the week’s Jewish news with family and friends.

12. Volunteer to visit patients in the hospital.

A Little Exercise

Take the stairs instead of the elevator. You'll be getting in shape and honoring Shabbat.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Blessings

The Hebrew word for blessing is bracha. People are most familiar with this term from the formulation of Jewish prayers that start with the word: Baruch, Blessed. Those who are familiar with Hebrew will recall that almost every Hebrew word is derived from a 3 letter root. By looking at other words that share the root letters of bracha - Beit, Reish and Chaf - a deeper understanding of a bracha may be gained.

BERECH: The word berech refers to a bend in the body, usually referring to the knee joint. In ancient times it was common to pray on one’s knees, demonstrating humility and an acknowledgment that we mortals are not the source of our own achievements. Bowing reminds us to recognize that there is a Higher Power.

BRAICHA: A braicha is a well, a natural source of water. Water is the fundamental ingredient of life. On a spiritual level, the Torah is likened to water because tapping into the spiritual power of the Torah is essential for the soul. And what is the wellspring of the Torah, the source of this great spiritual energy? God.When you dip your hand in a pool of water, it ripples and radiates outward from the point of impact. No bracha is without its “ripple affect.”From these related words, we learn that a bracha is an act of reaching out to the Source of all energy (God). A bracha enables both the giver and the receiver to see beyond themselves to that Divine Source.

To learn more about Hebrew words, try a Hebrew Reading Crash Course! November is Hebrew reading month with Read Hebrew America/Canada!

Well Wishes

When someone gives you a blessing, such as wishing something good to happen to you, say amen.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

For Your Eyes Only

Did you know that according to the U.S. Postal Service, willfully and knowingly reading someone else's mail is a Federal offense. That’s right, even that department store bill addressed to your spouse! If it isn’t addressed to you, it isn’t yours to open. (Of course, most families have an understanding that either spouse may open such mail.)

What, you might ask, does the Federal privacy statute have to do with Judaism? In point of fact, Judaism is probably the only religion in the world that shares this law.

Around the year 1000 C.E., Rabbeinu Gershom of Mainz, the Ashkenazic legal authority at the time, issued a takanah, a legal decree, for all Ashkenazic Jews (which was eventually accepted by Jews worldwide) forbidding a person from reading the private correspondence of another.

The purpose of this ruling was twofold. First and foremost, it reflected the prevailing business ethic. In an era without telephones or fast modes of travel, business was often transacted through couriers and messengers. However, the takanah was also issued to protect Jews from loshon harah and re’chee’lut - two forms of gossip. If you mind your own business, you won’t have any juicy “news” to share with the world.

Most people today would never think of reading another person’s mail – it breaks many of our accepted social mores. Ahh, but what about reading your friend’s e-mail over his shoulder...

Mind Your Own

When someone approaches you with a nice juicy story about a fellow co-worker, smile politely and say that you would rather not know.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Judaism and Astrology

Did you know that some Jewish philosophers maintain that there is truth to the idea of astrology, to reading the future from the alignment of the stars?

However, it is also true that God took Abraham and all of his descendants and placed them outside the workings of such metaphysical mysteries.

In Genesis, Abraham cried out to God that he had looked at the constellations and saw that he was not destined to beget a son. God then took Abraham outside and said: “Look toward the heavens and count the stars. If you are able to count them...so will be your descendants (Genesis 15:5). Go beyond your astrology. Your children are not governed by the planets alone...” (Talmud Shabbat 156a).

What does it mean that the Children of Abraham are not governed by the planets alone? It means the every Jew has the ability to alter his/her fate through prayer and mitzvot.

The Talmud (Shabbat 156b) relates the following story: Shmuel [a great Torah sage] and Avlat [a gentile astrologer named] were sitting together watching people pass toward a swamp. Avlat said, "That man is going, but won’t come back. A snake will bite him, and he will die."

"If he is a Jew," Shmuel asserted, "he will go and come back." The man returned alive, but in his backpack was a snake cut in two. Upon being asked what good deed he had done, the man explained how he had saved a friend from embarrassment at lunch. Shmuel declared that this mitzvah had saved his life.

The stars do not dictate our fate. We control our fate. As we said on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur: “Repentance, prayer and charity remove the evil decree!”

Fate of the World

Take a moment and reflect on the great historical events of the world. Were all of them expected and logical, or can you see God's hand in history?

Monday, November 3, 2008

It's The Hebrew Alphabet

Aleph - Bet - Gimmel - Daled - Hey...it’s the Hebrew alphabet!

According to the Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet has its own meaning and power. The 22 letters are regarded as the building blocks of the world. In fact, the Biblical artisan Betzalel, who created all the vessels for the Tabernacle, was said to have been able to carry out God’s will in such perfect detail because he “knew how to combine the letters with which heaven and earth were created” (Talmud Berachot 55a).

Take, for example, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, "aleph." (To see an image of the aleph, please click here .) The aleph is made up of one diagonal line with a leg and an arm - the aleph therefore has two ends that touch the "ground" and two ends that reach toward "heaven." Since it stretches between the two, aleph is regarded as the letter that unites heaven and earth. The aleph is also a symbol of strength because its form resembles the shape of an ox.

Each letter’s underlying meaning and power adds nuances to the word which it helps to shape and build. For instance, aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew word for truth, emet. One could say that it takes a considerable amount of inner strength to always follow the truth, and that one is judged for truthfulness both by fellow human beings and by God.

Join the National Jewish Outreach Program’s Read Hebrew America/Canada campaign today and learn the Aleph-Bet!

Don't Worry, Be Happy

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov declared that it is a great mitzvah to always be in a state of happiness, so go ahead and smile.