Thursday, December 31, 2009


A day is divided into 24 equal units of time (hours). Different cultures, however, define the beginning (and end) of a day differently. For instance, while a day on the Gregorian calendar begins at 12 midnight, a day on the Jewish calendar begins at sunset.

“Jewish” midnight varies each day, occurring at the moment that truly is, mathematically, the middle of the night--exactly half the hours between sunset and sunrise. Precise moments like midnight, however, are difficult to define, especially as it changes from day to day based on the position of the sun.

Even the ancient sages questioned the ability of humans to calculate exact midnight (Talmud Berachot 3b), pointing out that even Moses was uncertain and citing Exodus 11:4, when Moses relayed God’s final plans to Pharaoh and stated: “About midnight, I will go out into the midst of Egypt” (Exodus 11:4).

On the other hand, the sages noted that King David stated in Psalm 119:62: “At midnight I will rise to give thanks unto You.” According to Rabbi Simeon the Pious, “A harp was hanging above David's bed. As soon as midnight arrived, a North wind came and blew upon it and it played of itself. He [King David] arose immediately and studied the Torah till the break of dawn” (Talmud Berachot 3b).

After the destruction of the Holy Temple, a custom arose among the very pious to recite a special midnight service of mourning, Tikkun Chatzot. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (the Chofetz Chaim, Poland 1838-1933) noted in his Mishnah Berurah that “The Kabbalists have discussed at great length the importance of rising at midnight and how great this is” (Mishnah Berurah 1:3). This custom is not very widespread now, except in certain Sephardi and Chassidic communities.

Your Midnight

If you plan on being out tonight, check the time given for chatzot and pause to think about the Jewish significance of the moment. (Check out for local times.)

The Blessings of the Amidah: Rebuilding Jerusalem

The nineteen blessings of the Amidah make up the core of the Jewish prayer service. The fourteenth blessing begins a new focus on the time of redemption, beginning with the restoration of Jerusalem. This rebuilding is about more than a physical presence. It is rather about a spiritual center in which there is once again a Holy Temple.

Vlee’ru’sha’layim eer’cha b’rachamim ta’shuv, v’tish’kohn b’tocha ka’asher dee’barta, oov’nay oh’tah b’kah’rov b’yah’maynu binyan olam, v’chee’say David m’hay’rah l’toh’cha tah’cheen. Ba’ruch Ah’tah Ah’doh’nai bonay Y’rushalayim.

To Jerusalem, Your city, may You return in compassion, and may You dwell in it as You promised. May You rebuild it rapidly in our days as an everlasting structure, and install within it soon the throne of David. Blessed are You, Lord, who builds Jerusalem.

--Translation reproduced with permission from The Koren Sacks Siddur, © Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Lullaby Blessing

In the Talmud (Berachot 5a), Rabbi Yitzchak is quoted saying: "Whoever recites the Bedtime Shema is as though he held a two-edged sword in his hand [to protect him against demons]...” While it is a Torah commandment to say the Shema (Hear O’ Israel the Lord Our God the Lord is One) twice a day, it is also customary to recite it before retiring in the evening.

In addition to the Shema and the V’ahavta paragraph that follows it, the complete “Bedtime Shema” includes additional prayers that focus on asking for God’s protection during the hours of sleep. One of the best known of these prayers is Hamalach Hago’el:

“May the angel who redeems me from all evil, bless the youths, and may my name be declared upon them--and the names of my forefathers, Abraham and Isaac--and may they proliferate like fish within the land” (Genesis 48:16).

This verse is a direct quote of what the dying Jacob said when he blessed his Egyptian born grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe. Jacob foresaw through prophecy that they would be the prototypes of so many of his descendants, born in exile. He therefore called on God to give them a special angel (divine messenger) to protect them.

While there is no official reason given that explains why the prayer “Hamalach” was added to the Bedtime Shema, perhaps one could conjecture that it has to do with how vulnerable people are when they sleep. Sleep could, in fact, be seen as a time when the soul is in “exile.”

Because of its reference to youth, this particular prayer is a popular children’s lullaby, as well. Many parents put their children to sleep by reciting the Shema to them or with them, followed by this soothing petition for Divine protection.

Nighty Night

Add Hamalach to your nightly bedtime routine. (It's not just for kids!)

The Morning Blessings-Blessing #12: Every Step

Every morning, a set of 15 blessings is recited to express our thanks to God for all the things that we, as healthy human beings, are capable of doing.

Ba’ruch Ah’tah Ah’doh’nai Eh’lo’hay’nu Melech ha’o’lam ha’maychin mitz’a’day ga’ver.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who makes firm the steps of man.

This blessing could be seen in two ways. On a basic level, we need to thank God for our ability to walk. From a more philosophical viewpoint, we need to thank God for helping us live our lives, make choices, and move toward success.

--Translation reproduced with permission from The Koren Sacks Siddur,
© Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

More Than Just Trees

Thousands of blue boxes and a dream that encompassed a nation...that was the foundation of the Jewish National Fund (JNF or Keren Kayemet L'Israel). Today, JNF is best known for its commitment to environmentalism and its dogged campaign to reforest the land of Israel (you know, plant a tree in honor/memory of a loved one).

One might say, however, that JNF was founded as a giant real estate conglomerate whose sole client was the Jewish people. At the Fifth Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1901, the assembled delegates discussed (as they had at previous congresses) the establishment of a national fund to purchase land in Palestine. When the Congress tabled the motion, Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, stepped forward and called upon his colleagues to reconsider their hesitations. After his passionate speech, a new vote was held and the Fund was established.

The Zionist Congress resolved to raise 200,000 pounds sterling...and so it began, donation by donation, much of it collected in little blue charity boxes from around the world. In fact, these blue charity boxes (or pushkahs) became a symbol of the Zionist movement.

When JNF acquired its first parcel of land in Hadera, it immediately began planting trees, an act vital to the development of the land. Much of what had once been arable land had been overworked or neglected. The topsoil had been eroded. The trees helped revitalize the land.

In time, after the creation of the State of Israel, JNF was transformed into an organization that dealt with a wide variety of Israel’s needs, from environmental to employment for new immigrants. Today, JNF is principally focused on the Negev desert, investing in new and innovative ways to bring life to the harsh desert climate, and dealing with Israel’s critical water resource issues.

Guardian of the Earth

As all humans are guardians of the earth, support environmental movements, both local and in Israel.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Weights and Measures

The last century has seen the rise, fall and transformation of several major economic-political philosophies (socialism, communism, capitalism). The primary economic philosophy of the Torah is, fundamentally, ethical fairness. If one works hard and becomes rich, wonderful--just don’t forget those less fortunate.

Jewish business ethics are derived directly from the Torah. For instance, “You shall do no injustice in judgment, in length, in weight, or in measure” (Leviticus 19:35). Common sense would certainly assume that every society abides by a rule such as this. After all, no one wants to be cheated. And yet the desire to cheat is quite tantalizing. We read about crooked business dealings all the time.

In fact, in the 14th century, Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher (“Ba’al Ha’turim,” Spain, 1270 -c.1340) wrote, in the business section of his legal code Arba’ah Turim, that a community is required to appoint people to examine all public scales and measures and to oversee the community’s businesses. These officials, he instructed, must have the ability to fine or punish (Choshen Mishpat 231:2).

People will always look for ways to “get ahead.” But, in truth, any success they have through such immoral measures is counter-balanced on the heavenly scale. In fact, the sages in the Talmud Baba Batra (88b), declared that “Punishment for [false] measures is more severe than the punishment for illicit sexual relations." Why? Because you can cease doing and repent from illicit relations. In order to fully repent from false measures, however, one must be able to make financial restitution to those who were cheated, and that is often very hard to do, especially when stealing from the public.

Talking Shop

When discussing business, weigh your words carefully so as not to mislead the other person/people.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Tenth of Tevet

And it was in the ninth year of [King Zeddekiah’s] reign, in the tenth month, on the tenth (day) of the month, that Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, came, he and all his legions, upon Jerusalem, and encamped upon it and built forts around it. And the city came under siege until the eleventh year of King Zeddekiah. On the ninth of the month [of Tammuz] the famine was intense in the city, the people had no bread, and the city was breached. (The Second Book of Kings 25:1-4)

Siege! The word itself resonates with pain and suffering. In the case of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in (587 B.C.E.), siege was also the beginning of the end.

Having just vanquished the great Assyrian empire, the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, sent his troops to quell any rebellion in the land of Judea, whose heart was the city of Jerusalem. The siege lasted for a year and a half. During this time, the city suffered immensely. Starvation, thirst, disease...all the horrors of siege were borne out, just as it had been predicted by the prophet Jeremiah.

The siege of Jerusalem was the first step in what would become the Babylonian exile. When the Babylonians finally broke through the walls of the city, they destroyed the Holy Temple built by King Solomon. Adding to this great tragedy was the fact that the majority of the Jewish people were then exiled to Babylon.

The great sages declared the Tenth of Tevet, the day that the fateful siege began, as a fast day from sunrise to nightfall, to provide a time for people to reflect on their actions and do teshuva (repentance).

This year, the Tenth of Tevet is Sunday, December 27, 2009. For more information on the fast, please visit

*This Treat was originally published on January 5, 2009. It is being re-Treated to help us better understand the Fast of the Tenth of Tevet.

Break Fast With Meaning

During dinner, after the fast, discuss with family or friends how fasting impacts the way you think about the day.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Nittel Nacht

Jews of the 21st century may comment, or even grumble, about the pervasiveness of Christmas in our society, but, let’s be honest, in this day and age, the effects of the holiday season are rather benign. Of course, we must still deal with frequent questions from our children about festive trees and the jolly guy in the red suit. But, nowadays, people do their own thing.

It might surprise some to know that Christmas Eve actually has a name in Ashkenazi Jewish tradition: Nittel Nacht. In many Ashkenazi communities, particularly in Chassidic communities, it is customary NOT to learn any Torah on Nittel Nacht from sundown until midnight. After midnight, however, one is encouraged to study.

Nittel (which may mean either hanged/crucified or birth) Nacht (night) is a custom whose origins are, unfortunately, lost. Many believe that the custom of not studying Torah on December 24th arose as a pragmatic act of protection. On a night of religious fervor among their Christian neighbors, and during days when one needed no real excuse to start a murderous pogrom, it was safest, perhaps, for Jews to stay inside their darkened homes rather than venture out to study collectively in a hall/synagogue. Other opinions believe it may be a custom that was established to minimize any feeling of holiness on that night. Still others opine that it is an act of mourning, commemorating the suffering of the Jewish people during various periods of the “Christian Age.”

In Jewish life, customs have a strength of their own. Whatever the reason for Nittel Nacht, it is a custom that is still followed in various Ashkenazi communities around the world.

Smells Good

Bake challah for tomorrow night.
(see below for recipe)

Challah Recipe

From NJOP's Gourmet Shabbat:
Miriam Weinrib: CHALLAH (yields 5 medium challahs)
5 pounds flour
1 cup oil
3 tbsp. salt
5 eggs
4 ounces fresh yeast,
4 cups warm water
1½ cups sugar

1) Put flour, salt and sugar in a bowl, form a well in the flour.

2) Dissolve yeast into 2 cups of the warm water with 1 tbsp. sugar.

3) Pour into the well — let sit for five minutes until yeast bubbles.

4) Add oil, 4 eggs and the rest of the water.

5) Knead well until the dough becomes smooth and elastic. It should spring
back when pressed with the fingertips.

6) When dough rises (approx. 2 hrs.), separate an olive-sized piece, and thoroughly burn it. (If 5 or more lbs. of flour are used, recite the blessing--Ba’ruch Ah’tah Ah’doh’nai Eh’lo’hay’nu Melech ha’o’lam ah’sher kidishanu b’mitz’vo’tav v’tzee’vanu l’haph’reesh challah min ha’eesah Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us in His commandments and commanded us to separate the challah from the dough--before burning).

7) Form loaves. Brush lightly with 1 egg beaten with 1 tsp. of sugar.

8) Bake at 350 F for 45-50 minutes until golden brown.

The Blessings of the Amidah: On Behalf of the Righteous

The nineteen blessings of the Amidah make up the core of the Jewish prayer service. The thirteenth blessing is the opposite of the one before; it is a prayer for the righteous, with the hopes that their righteousness will influence the rest of the people and the fate of those around them.

Ahl ha’tza’dee’kim v’ahl ha’cha’see’dim, v’ahl zik’nay am’cha bet Yisrael, v’ahl play’tat sof’ray’hem, v’ahl gay’ray ha’tzedek v’ah’laynu, yeh’hem’noo rah’cha’meh’cha Ah’doh’nai Eh’lo’hay’nu, v’ten sah’char tov l’chol ha’bot’chim b’shimcha beh’eh’met, v’seem chel’kaynu ee’mah’hem l’olam, v’lo nay’vosh kee v’cha vah’tachnu. Ba’ruch Ah’tah Ah’doh’nai mish’an oo’miv’tach la’tzah’dee’kim.

To the righteous, the pious, the elders of Your people the house of Israel, the remnant of their scholars, the righteous converts, and to us, may Your compassion be aroused, Lord our God. Grant a good reward to all who sincerely trust in Your name. Set our lot with them, so that we may never be ashamed, for in You we trust. Blessed are You, Lord, who is the support and trust of the righteous.

--Translation reproduced with permission from The Koren Sacks Siddur,
© Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What's In The Book: II Samuel

The Second Book of Samuel chronicles the reign of King David.

After the death of King Saul, Ish-boshet, Saul’s only surviving son, declared himself king. The Tribe of Judah seceded from the kingdom and declared David their king. After a short civil war, the crown of Israel went to David, who eventually established Jerusalem as the capital of his kingdom.

The kingdom of Israel was not yet viewed as an independent power, and so David, like his predecessor, spent much of his reign at war with varying neighbors. The Israelites made many of their enemies into their vassals.

One of the most famous (and complicated) stories from the Book of II Samuel is that of David and Bathsheba. David fell in love with Batsheba when he noticed her from his rooftop. Her husband, who was at war, was eventually killed after David ordered him placed in the most dangerous battle zone. David and Bathsheba married, but their first son died. Solomon was a later son of David and Bathsheba.

David’s family life takes up a large part of the narrative. He had eight wives (Michal, Ahinoam, Abigail, Maachah, Haggith, Abital, Eglah, and Bathsheba - each with her own story). The sons named in the Tanach are: Amnon, Daniel, Absalom, Adonijah, Shephatiah, Ithream, Shimea, Shobab, Nathan, Solomon, Ibhar, Elishama, Elishua, Eliphelet, Nogah, Nepheg, Japhia, and Eliada. He had other children who were born to concubines, as well. Only one daughter, Tamar, is named.

David had troubles with his older sons: Amnon raped his half-sister, Tamar, and was slain by her brother Absalom. Absalom and Adonijah each led a rebellion against their father.

David reigned over Israel for 40 years, during which time the kingdom was unified and its territory expanded.

Snow Days

If your city has a major snowstorm, check on any elderly or housebound neighbors to make certain that they have everything they need.

The Morning Blessings-Blessing #11: Your Every Need

Every morning, a set of 15 blessings is recited to express our thanks to God for all the things that we, as healthy human beings, are capable of doing.

Ba’ruch Ah’tah Ah’doh’nai Eh’lo’hay’nu Melech ha’o’lam sheh’asah lee kol tzar’kee.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has provided me with all I need.

What are our absolute necessities? Food, water, clothing and shelter...and yet look at how much more most of us have!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Dreyfus Affair

The Dreyfus Affair is a story of intrigue and espionage, false accusations and hidden biases. It was also a demonstration that the so-called “enlightened” world of the late 19th century was not yet ready to accept a Jew as an equal.

In 1894, evidence that a French military officer was providing secret information to the German government was discovered in a wastebasket in the office of a German military attaché.

The real spy, Ferdinand Esterhazy, a member of the French General Staff, took advantage of rising anti-Semitism by forging some letters and accusing Captain Alfred Dreyfus (the only Jew on the General Staff) of spying for Germany.

Dreyfus was put on trial and convicted, based on fabricated evidence. Stripped of his rank, he was sent to Devil’s Island, where he remained from 1895 until 1899.

Only a few years after the Dreyfus trial, evidence came to light pointing the finger at Esterhazy, but, due to additional forged documents, an incredibly short trial, and the desire of the French army not to tarnish its reputation, Esterhazy was acquitted.

The lack of propriety in the proceedings was so obvious that Emile Zola, the noted French journalist, essayist and novelist, was inspired to write his famous essay J’Accuse, “I Accuse,” accusing the French government of injustice.

In 1899, Dreyfus was returned to the mainland for a second court-martial. And even though the court recognized that some of the documents were forgeries, they condemned Dreyfus to continued detention in prison. Unquestionably, they were influenced by the crowds running through the streets of Paris yelling, “Death to the Jews!”

Shortly thereafter, however, the President of the Republic of France, Émile Loubet, pardoned Dreyfus. It was not until 1906, however, that a civilian court of appeals actually exonerated Dreyfus of all charges.

Food, Glorious Food

Participate in your local seasonal food drive.

Monday, December 21, 2009


December 21, 1968/30 Kislev 5729 was the day on which the world held its breath as American astronauts set out for the moon. On this day, Apollo 8, with its three member crew, was launched and soon became the first manned spacecraft to successfully orbit the moon and return to earth.

Some ancient cultures once believed the moon to be a god (a form of idol worship). Judaism has its own traditions about the moon. According to the Talmud Chullin 60b, both the sun and moon were created the same size. However, the moon questioned God, asking how two great luminaries could rule the sky side-by-side, so God diminished its size. The moon’s new role was to mark time, waxing and waning through the course of the month.

The Apollo 8 astronauts, as the first humans to see the far side of the moon, might have seen themselves as bold pioneers, deserving of superior status. Yet history tells us that, rather than boasting of their triumph, William Anders, Jim Lovell, and Frank Borman read the first ten verses of Genesis (“In the beginning...”) to those listening back on earth.

The three astronauts recognized that, incredible as their accomplishment was, they were only a reflection of the brilliance of God. And while none of the astronauts were Jewish, their actions were in effect a true kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God’s name.

Family Affair

Take a moment and contemplate how you are a reflection of the family in which you were raised. Call and thank family members who had a positive impact on your life.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Challenge of Fitting In

The weekly Torah reading of Miketz (Genesis 41:1-44:17), which always coincides with Chanukah, tells the story of the rise of Joseph the son of Jacob from slave to viceroy. And while Miketz contains no Jewish oppression, no battles, and no outright miracles, Joseph’s story could well be viewed as a stark contrast to the story of Chanukah.

The story of Joseph is an affirmation of how to remain true to one’s faith while still succeeding in non-Jewish society. He spoke Egyptian without an accent and pretended not to understand Hebrew. He dressed in royal robes. The people called him Zaphenath Pa'neach. Joseph was so well disguised by his Egyptian identity that even his own brothers could not recognize him.

Throughout his stunning career, however, Joseph never forgot who he was. When Joseph finally revealed himself, he declared: “. . .for it was to preserve life that God sent me before you” (Genesis 45:5).

Joseph recognized that his ability to maintain his faith, while living as an Egyptian, was beyond most people. That is why, when his entire family came to settle in Egypt, he asked Pharaoh to allow them to settle in Goshen as shepherds, separated from the Egyptian people by land and profession.

Chanukah celebrates Jewish identity and the determination of the people to fight assimilation. When the Syrian-Greeks conquered the land of Israel, they presented their Hellenistic lifestyle as one that was exalted and universal. But as Jews took on the external affectations of the Greeks--their dress, their language, their names--they did not have Joseph’s strength to eschew the heathen practices that were integral to the Hellenistic lifestyle.

Assimilation into surrounding cultures with a corresponding loss of Jewish identity has always been a challenge for the Jewish people. Joseph met the challenge successfully, can we?

Bright Lights

Tonight, light your eight Chanukah candles before you light your Shabbat candles.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Chanukah and Divine Order

Chanukah always overlaps with at least one Shabbat (if not two), and since Chanukah begins on the 25th of Kislev and lasts for eight days, the holiday always coincides with the celebration of Rosh Chodesh Tevet. (Today, 30 Kislev, and tomorrow, 1 Tevet, are both Rosh Chodesh.) This is significant, because both Rosh Chodesh and Shabbat were loathed by the Syrian-Greeks and their observances were outlawed.

The very first commandment that the Jewish people received as a nation was, "This month shall be yours as the first of months" (Exodus 12:1-2), instructing the Jews to sanctify the beginning of each new month. The Syrian-Greeks felt threatened by the Jewish concept of Divinely ordained time, since the sanctification of the month was based on the sighting of the new moon, rather than by a humanly calculated number of days.

The Syrian-Greeks were against the observance of Shabbat, not because it sanctified time, but because it was a day of rest, a day of no creative labor. "Six days shall you work and do all your labor, but the seventh day is Shabbat for the Lord your God. On it, you shall do no [creative] work" (Exodus 20:9-10). This contradicted the essence of Hellenistic culture, through which the Syrian-Greeks proclaimed their control over the world. The Jewish idea of taking one day off to demonstrate belief in God’s control of the world, negated the Syrian-Greek belief in the ultimate power of the individual.

That the Jews held fast to their belief in one unseen God who knows and controls the entire world infuriated the Syrian-Greeks, who wished to show that humankind was in control of nature. The Syrian-Greeks therefore prohibited the Jews, under penalty of death, from sanctifying the new moon (Rosh Chodesh) and keeping the Sabbath.

Double Festival

Refrain from household chores, such as laundry, in honor of both Chanukah and Rosh Chodesh.

The Blessings of the Amidah: Destruction of Our Enemies

The nineteen blessings of the Amidah make up the core of the Jewish prayer service. The twelfth blessing was actually added after the destruction of the Second Temple. This blessing calls for the destruction of the enemies of Torah and Israel.

V’la’mal’shee’nim al t’hee tikvah, v’chol ha’rish’ah k’rega to’vayd, v’chol oy’vay am’cha m’hay’ra ye’kah’ray’too, v’ha’zay’deem m’hayra t’akair oot’sha’bayr oot’ma’gayr v’tach’nee’ah bim’hay’ra v’yah’may’nu. Ba'ruch Ah’tah Ah’doh’nai shoh’vayr oy’veem oo’mach’nee’ah zay’dim.

For the slanderers let there be no hope, and may all wickedness perish in an instant. May all Your people’s enemies swiftly be cut down. May You swiftly uproot, crush, cast down and humble the arrogant swiftly in our days. Blessed are You, Lord, who destroys enemies and humbles the arrogant.

--Translation reproduced with permission from The Koren Sacks Siddur,
© Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Hannah and Her Sons

The story of Hannah and her seven sons is the story of the Jewish resistance to Antiochus’ attempts to Hellenize the Jewish people around 175 B.C.E.

When Antiochus demanded that Hannah’s sons bow down to an idol before him, Hannah’s eldest son stepped forward and said: “What do you wish from us? We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our fathers.”

The king had him tortured to death and demanded the same of the second son. He, too, and each of his brothers after him, refused and was summarily executed. Finally only Hannah and her youngest son remained.

Antiochus begged the child not to be a martyr. He beseeched Hannah to convince her son to bow to the idol.

Hannah, however, said to her son, “I carried you for nine months, nourished you for two years, and have provided you with everything until now. Look upon the heaven and the earth--God is the Creator of it all. Do not fear this tormentor, but be worthy of being with your brothers."

When the young boy refused to yield, he too was put to death. As her child lay dying, Hannah asked him that, when he arrived in heaven, he say to Abraham that he, Abraham, had been willing to sacrifice one son to prove his loyalty to God, while she had sacrificed seven, for Abraham it had been a test, for her it was reality. Pleading with God that she should be considered worthy to join her children in the World to Come, Hannah, fearing torture, jumped from a roof and died.

By teaching her sons that there are times one must give up even life itself for the sake of one's beliefs, Hannah made a stand that resonates with all who hear her story.

For last year’s treat on Yehudit, the other “Chanukah Heroine,” click here.

Fun For All

Bring donuts to the office and share them with your co-workers. When they ask why, explain that donuts are a Chanukah food because their deep-fried preparation reminds us of the miracle of the oil.

The Morning Blessings-Blessing #10: The Ground Beneath

Every morning, a set of 15 blessings is recited to express our thanks to God for all the things that we, as healthy human beings, are capable of doing.

Ba’ruch Ah’tah Ah’doh’nai Eh’lo’hay’nu Melech ha’o’lam rokah ha’aretz al ha’mayim.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who spreads the earth above the waters.

When the world was created, it was all water. God split the water and made the heavens. Then God created land in the midst of the water, forcing the oceans to recede. The very fact that we have land on which to live is something for which we must be grateful.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

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 been replaced by 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.

*This Treat was originally published on December 22, 2008. It is being re-Treated to help us better understand Chanukah.

Book Store

Give a gift that has a Jewish educational element--check out your local or online Jewish bookstores.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Story of Chanukah

Around the year 167 B.C.E., 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 volunteered. Mattitiyahu, together with his sons, also 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 God's presence had returned to the Temple.

*This Treat was originally published on December 23, 2008. It is being re-Treated to help us better understand Chanukah.

To learn about the actual mitzvah of Chanukah, please click here.

Share The Tale

Tell the Chanukah story to your children, your nieces/nephews, grandchildren or the children of friends.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Light One Candle

“Light one candle for the Maccabee children, with thanks that their light didn’t die...”

Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary wrote these words in a song that cried out for the pain of his ancestors. He could not have drawn upon a more beautiful or pride-enhancing symbol.

Tonight, the first night of Chanukah, Jews around the world will light one candle on their menorahs to commemorate the Maccabee victory over the Syrian-Greek Hellenists and the miracle that occurred with the rededication of the Temple (one day’s worth of oil lasted eight days). And while publicizing the miracle through the light of the Menorah is the definitive mitzvah of Chanukah, lighting candles has far greater significance in Jewish life than just this holiday.

Tonight, as on every Friday night, Jewish homes worldwide will be illuminated with the beautiful light of the Shabbat candles. The Hellenists tried to prevent the Jews from sanctifying Shabbat. But, as Hellenization (read assimilation) became an increasingly greater threat, some of the Jews (Maccabees) fought back.

On Chanukah we place the menorah in a window facing the street, to announce to the world that not only have we survived as a nation (a miracle of history, in and of itself), but that our beliefs and our values have survived as well.

As the Hebrew writer Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginsberg 1856-1927) famously wrote: “More than the Jews have kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept the Jews.” Tonight, on the first night of Chanukah, three lights will be lit: one for Chanukah and two for Shabbat--for our past, our present and our future!

Special For Chanukah: The Chanukah Blessings

On the first night of Chanukah, one light is placed on the far right of the menorah. Each succeeding night, one light is added to the left of the previous night's candle(s). The newest light is always lit first.

Before lighting, the following blessings are recited:

Ba’ruch ah’tah Ah’do’nai, Eh’lo’hay’nu melech ha’o’lam, ah’sher kidishanu b’mitz’vo’tav v’tzee’vanu l’hahd’leek nayr shel Chanukah.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has made us holy through His commandments, and has commanded us to light the Chanukah light.

Ba’ruch ah’tah Ah’do’nai, Eh’lo’hay’nu melech ha’o’lam, sheh'asah neesim la'avotaynu, bayamim hahem bazman hazeh.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who wrought miracles for our ancestors in those days at this season.

The third blessing is recited on the first night only.

Ba’ruch ah’tah Ah’do’nai, Eh’lo’hay’nu melech ha’o’lam, sheh'heh'cheh'yanu v'kee'manu v'hee'gee'anu la'zman ha'zeh.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.

Light Bright

Place your Shabbat candles next to your menorah in the window. Twice the light, twice the Jewish pride.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Hey Handsome

Religion is about spirituality, morals and becoming a better person. One might, therefore, assume that physical beauty is beyond the Torah’s spectrum of interest. But the Torah makes a point of stating that Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel were all beautiful. Physical female beauty, of course, could be seen as having importance within the scriptural narrative (arrangement of marriages, interactions with royalty, etc.). But, the Torah also goes out of its way to state that Joseph, Rachel’s first-born, was handsome.

Joseph’s looks were both a help and a hindrance. One of the reasons his father favored him was because of his resemblance to Rachel his mother, and his good looks certainly helped him find favor both with Potiphar and Pharaoh. But it also contributed to his brothers’ enmity and resulted in Potiphar’s wife’s attraction to him.

The sages praise Joseph by noting that he overcame the seductive overtures of Potiphar’s wife despite his looks and his vanity (see Talmud Yoma 35b). Indeed, the Torah’s description of him as a “youth” is meant to imply that Joseph was vain, a weakness fortunately balanced by his inner righteousness.

Strength of character was not the case with another Biblical figure noted for his looks, “In all Israel there was not a man so highly praised for his handsome appearance as Absalom” (II Samuel14:25). Perhaps his physical beauty led Absalom to believe himself to be above everyone else, and led him to rise in rebellion against his father, King David.

According to the Talmud (Brachot 58b), when one sees a person of exceptional beauty one should recite a blessing that concludes: “...Who has this [beauty] in His world.” When one is dazzled by the looks of another, or by one's own appearance, this blessing is serves as a reminder that all beauty is a gift from God.

Yoma 35b

...A sensuous person will be asked, "What stopped you from learning Torah?"

"What should I have done?" he will excuse himself. "I love life - it is full of pleasure and beauty. I was unable to control my passions, because I was given this nature. How could I spend time cooped up in some room studying Torah?"

He will be told, "Your excuse is not acceptable. Are you more handsome than Joseph? Potiphar’s wife tempted him daily, yet he overcame his evil inclination. Were you more surrounded by material temptations? He was second in command over all of Egypt, a civilization of wealth, beauty, and sensuousness. Yet he devoted himself only to God’s will. Why couldn’t you take an example from him?"

Even On Difficult Days

Try to greet others with a smile, particularly your spouse. . .even if you have had a particularly difficult day.

The Blessings of the Amidah: Destruction of Our Enemies

The nineteen blessings of the Amidah make up the core of the Jewish prayer service. The twelfth blessing was actually added to the prayer after the destruction of the Second Temple. This blessing calls for the destruction of the enemies of Torah and Israel.

V’la’mal’shee’nim al t’hee tikvah, v’chol ha’rish’ah k’rega to’vayd, v’chol oy’vay am’cha m’hay’ra ye’kah’ray’too, v’ha’zay’deem m’hayra t’ahkair oot’sha’bayr oot’ma’gayr v’tach’nee’ah bim’hay’ra v’yah’may’nu. Ba’ruch Ah’tah Ah’doh’nai shoh’vayr oy’veem oo’mach’nee’ah zay’dim.

For the slanderers let there be no hope, and may all wickedness perish in an instant. May all Your people’s enemies swiftly be cut down. May You uproot, crush, cast down and humble the arrogant, swiftly, in our days. Blessed are You, Lord, who destroys enemies and humbles the arrogant.

--Translation reproduced with permission from The Koren Sacks Siddur, © Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Levi, Son of Jacob

When Levi was born, less than a year after Simeon, Leah was still struggling to win the affections of Jacob. She named her third son Levi, saying, “This time my husband will become attached to me, for I have borne him three sons" (Genesis 29:34).

Like Simeon, Levi’s youth is marked by impetuosity. When their sister Dinah was kidnaped by the prince of Shechem, the two brothers slaughtered the men of the city, ignoring the fact that Dina’s other brothers had already convinced the residents of Shechem to circumcise themselves and live in peace with Jacob’s family (Genesis 34).

Jacob scolded their reckless behavior, saying, “You have brought trouble upon me, making me odious among the land’s inhabitants . . . I am few in number and should they band together and attack me, I will be annihilated--I and my household!” Simeon and Levi, however, challenged their father, demanding: “Should he treat our sister like a harlot?!”

While the Torah notes no further incidents involving Levi, he still is rebuked, together with Simeon, when Jacob, on his death bed, offers his sons blessings that reflect their personalities and their futures:

“Simeon and Levi are brothers; instruments of cruelty are their swords. In their secret counsel let my soul not come and may my honor not be included in their congregation, for in their anger they killed a man, and deliberately crippled an ox. Cursed is their anger, for it is powerful, and their rage, for it is callous. I shall separate them within Jacob and disperse them among Israel” (Genesis 49:5 -7).

The descendants of Levi, the Kohanim and Levites, served in the Temple, acted as rabbis and teachers and owned no territory in the Land of Israel. With their ancestor's combination of zealotry and passion for God, is it any wonder that the Chanukah uprising against Hellenism was led by the Maccabees, a family of Kohanim?


If you have a passion for a certain activity, explore ways to bring out that activity's Jewish aspect. For instance, paint Jewish themed paintings.

The Morning Blessings-Blessing #9: Standing Tall

Every morning, a set of 15 blessings is recited to express our thanks to God for all the things that we, as healthy human beings, are capable of doing.

Ba’ruch Ah’tah Ah’doh’nai Eh’lo’hay’nu Melech ha’o’lam zokaif k’foo'fim.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who raises those bowed down.

Stretch! Reach your hands to the sky and feel your muscles tighten and relax? Our physical abilities are certainly not to be taken for granted! Also remember those who are spiritually “bent over,” those who are unable to celebrate their heritage.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Book(s) of Maccabees

Chanukah is neither directly ordained in the Torah (like Rosh Hashana, Passover, etc.) nor mentioned in any other biblical text (as Purim is in the Book of Esther). The Books of Maccabees are not included in the Biblical canon, because these events occurred after the sages had declared the Tanach (complete Hebrew bible) closed to further additions (around 250 BCE). Writings, such as the Book of Maccabees, which have historical import but are not included in the Tanach, are often referred to as Sfarim Chitzonim (external books) or by the Greek term Apocrypha (hidden books).

While Maccabees I was originally written in Hebrew, only the Greek translation survives (although it has been re-translated from Greek into Hebrew). Maccabees I is a historical work that describes Antiochus Epiphanes’ assumption of the Selucid throne (175 B.C.E.), the actions of the Jewish Hellenizers, and in detail, the revolt of the Maccabees. The book concludes with the death of Simon the Hasmonean (Maccabee) and the appointment of his eldest son John Hyrcanus, as ruler (135 B.C.E.).

Maccabees II was written in Greek, and, in the style of Greek historians, is full of drama and rhetoric. Focusing mainly on the deeds of Judah Maccabee, the leader of the rebellion after the death of Mattitiyahu, Maccabees II also includes details of the actions of the Hellenizers (power-plays and bribery were a serious problem in the priesthood at the time) and acts of sacrifice and martyrdom by those dedicated to keeping the Jewish faith.

While Maccabees III and Maccabees IV are sometimes grouped together with the first and second books mentioned above, neither of them are accounts of the events of Chanukah, nor are they accorded the same historical veracity as Maccabees I and II.

Who Am I

Write down a list of five reasons the Chanukah story is relevant today. Keep it for private inspiration or post it in the comments' section.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Great Sea Monster

For most of history, sea monsters were considered among the greatest perils of sea travel. Most probably, the “monsters” that they feared were simply whales, sharks and giant squid that have now been thoroughly researched by modern science and are no longer considered “sea monsters.” However, the Midrash (Jewish legend) does record the existence of one “sea monster,” the mighty Leviathan.

On the fifth day of creation, the Torah states in Genesis 1:21, “Va’yivra Eh’loh’him et ha’taneeneem ha’g’doleem,” “God created the giant sea creatures.” The meaning of taneeneem has been much debated (sea monster, whale, crocodile, etc.). In the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan said (Baba Batra 74b): “This refers to Leviathan the flying serpent [male] and to Leviathan the twisted serpent [female], for it is written: ‘In that day God . . . will punish Leviathan the flying serpent, and Leviathan the twisted serpent; and He will slay the dragon that is in the sea’ (Isaiah 27:2).”

So why have scientists not found Leviathan? According to the Midrash, only a single Leviathan still exists: “Rabbi Judah said in the name of Rav: All that the Holy One, blessed be He, created in his world he created male and female . . . and had [the male and female Leviathan] mated with one another they would have destroyed the entire world. . . . What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He castrated the male and killed the female, preserving it in salt for the righteous [to eat] in the world to come . . .” (Baba Batra 74b). Additionally, Rabbi Yochanan points out that God “will, in the ‘time to come,’ make a tabernacle for the righteous from the skin of Leviathan” (Baba Batra 75a).

There are numerous other places in rabbinic literature where Leviathan is mentioned and described as enormous, multi-headed, fire-breathing . . . apparently Leviathan is the original sea monster.

Something Fishy

At the fish market, make sure the fish you choose has both fins and scales (the signs of a kosher fish).

Friday, December 4, 2009

Shabbat Kallah

One of the greatest mitzvot, and one of the most enjoyable, is that of “Simchat Chatan v’Kallah,” bringing joy to a bride and groom. One way in which this is accomplished is through the institution of “Shabbat Kallah.”

In the traditional Ashkenazi community, the bride and groom do not see each other during the week before the wedding. The Shabbat before the wedding* is particularly exhilarating and, at the same time, anxiety filled. To calm the bride and make her joyous on Shabbat afternoon, her female family and friends host a small gathering for her -- usually at the time of Seuda Shlishit (the third Sabbath meal).

While the Shabbat Kallah is a fairly new tradition and there are no set customs or ceremonies, it could perhaps be seen as a religious “bachelorette” party. In addition to divrei Torah (words of Torah), the women share with the bride words of wisdom (about marriage) and their blessings for a beautiful wedding and a happy future.

Even though there are no sources for this particular tradition, a celebration for the bride on Shabbat seems appropriate, since Shabbat itself is often referred to as a “kallah.” According to the Midrash (Jewish legend) cited in Bereishit Rabbah (11:8), the Sabbath declared: “Master of the Universe, every day of the week has a mate except for me!” The Almighty answered: “The People of Israel will be your mate.” Thus, Shabbat and the Jewish people were brought together in a holy union, just as a bride and groom form a holy union on the day of their wedding.

*On Shabbat morning, the groom celebrates his “aufruf,” when he is honored with an aliyah (being called up) to the Torah.

Behold the Bride

Make every effort to attend events for brides (and grooms) in your community. Rejoicing with them is a wonderful mitzvah.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Meat of the Matter

There are few more specific kashrut laws in the Torah than the prohibition known as the “gid ha’nasheh” (the sciatic nerve). The Torah states “. . . a man wrestled with him [Jacob] until the break of dawn. When he saw that he could not prevail against him, he touched the socket of his hip, and the socket of Jacob's hip became dislocated as he wrestled with him. . . Therefore, the Children of Israel may not eat the gid ha’nasheh, which is on the socket of the hip, until this day, for he touched the socket of Jacob's hip, in the gid ha’nasheh." (Genesis 32:25-33).

For connoisseurs of the finer things in life, filet mignon is a food to be savored. And yet, for the kosher consumer, it is rare that one has the opportunity to enjoy such a steak. The part of the animal from which filet mignon is cut, the tenderloin, runs along the spine of the animal, close to its sciatic nerve. Since the sciatic nerve of any animal is prohibited, the meat must be carefully separated (a process referred to either as nikkur or treibor), an extremely difficult and delicate process. In America, there is a gezerah (rabbinic decree) not to process the gid ha’nasheh, but it is done in other parts of the world, such as Israel.

According to kabbalistic interpretations, the sciatic nerve is referred to as the gid ha’nasheh because nasheh is related to the Aramaic word for forgetting or becoming disconnected. Those who eat the gid ha’nasheh risk becoming disconnected from the ways of the Children of Israel.

Family Food

Think about how the foods you eat are associated with your heritage.

The Blessings of the Amidah: God Loves Us

The nineteen blessings of the Amidah make up the core of the Jewish prayer service. The eleventh blessing focuses on God’s love of justice and requests a return to judges such as we had in the days of old.

Ha’sheevah shof’taynu k’vah’ree’shoh’na v’yo’ah’tzaynu k’vat’cheela, v’ha’ser mee’meh’nu yagon vah’anacha, um’loch ah’lay’nu Ah’tah Ah’doh’nai l’vad’cha b’chesed oov’rachamim, v’tzad’kaynu ba’mish’pat. Ba’ruch Ah’tah Ah’doh’nai melech ohayv tz’da’ka oo’mish’pat.

Restore our judges as at first and our counselors as at the beginning, and remove from us sorrow and sighing. May You alone, Lord, reign over us with loving-kindness and compassion, and vindicate us in justice. Blessed are You, Lord, the King who loves righteousness and justice.

--Translation reproduced with permission from The Koren Sacks Siddur, © Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Piece of U.S. History

As much as the United States prides itself on its religious freedom, each of the original 13 colonies had different policies in this regard. Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island (1644), was the first to guarantee religious freedom to all settlers.

In 1658, fifteen Jewish families settled in Newport, RI. Most of these families were Sephardim who came via Curacao and South America, where they had still been threatened by the Inquisition.

They established Congregation Jeshuat Israel (Salvation of Israel), but it took another century for the Jews of Newport to be able to finance the building of a synagogue. Under the leadership of Chazzan Isaac Touro, Peter Harrison, the leading colonial architect, was hired. The synagogue was completed in 1763, and was dedicated on December 2nd of that year. It became known as the Touro Synagogue in recognition of the financial support it received from Isaac Touro’s son, Abraham Touro, who left the synagogue $10,000 in his will. (His other son, Judah, was also a famous philanthropist.) The Touro Synagogue is the oldest existing synagogue in North America and is a National Historic Site.

While the Jewish community of Newport did not flourish--at one point the keys to the synagogue were given to a Quaker family--the synagogue has an independently vibrant history. It was used as a meeting place for the Rhode Island General Assembly, Rhode Island Supreme Court and the town of Newport. It is most famous for the letter written in 1790 by President George Washington to the congregation declaring that America would " ...give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."

Since 1883, when the synagogue was reopened on a regular basis, it has supported a small but loyal community that is supplemented each summer by numerous Jewish tourists.

In The Records

The local synagogues in your area may have an interesting and/or unique history. Take the time to learn about your own town's Jewish history.

The Morning Blessings-Blessing #8: Freedom

Every morning, a set of 15 blessings is recited to express our thanks to God for all the things that we, as healthy human beings, are capable of doing.

Ba’ruch Ah’tah Ah’doh’nai Eh’lo’hay’nu Melech ha’o’lam mateer asurim.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who sets captives free.

Have you ever stopped to Thank God for the little details such as getting out of bed in the morning? (This blessing is often understood as referring to the fact that when we are asleep we are, in a sense, captives who cannot move. We are freed when we wake up and can get out of bed.)

--Translation reproduced with permission from The Koren Sacks Siddur,
© Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Operation Magic Carpet

Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported on the involvement of the United States’ government in a mission that brought approximately 100 Yemenite Jews to America, a little less than half the remaining Jewish population of Yemen. While Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh tried to protect this small remnant of a community, growing unrest made this nearly impossible. Harassment and outright violence have risen dramatically.

This mission may be the final step of “Operation Magic Carpet,” which began in the summer of 1949...

The history of the Jews of Yemen predates the Muslim religion by many centuries. But, when Yemen became a Muslim country, in the early 10th century, Jews became second-class citizens. Persecution and forced conversions were often governmentally approved (except during the period of Ottoman Rule, 1872-1918).

After the U.N. agreed to partition Palestine in 1947, anti-Semitic attacks became common. Miraculously, the Imam of Yemen allowed the Jews to emigrate. Between June 1949 and September 1950, approximately 49,000 Jews were transported on 380 secret flights to Israel. The flights were not made public until several months after the operation.

“Operation Magic Carpet,” as it was known, was a culture shock to most Yemenite Jews. Many had lived without electricity or running water, had never sat on furniture and certainly had never envisioned an airplane. In fact, many had to be convinced that the airplanes were safe (and they were quoted the Biblical verses referring to the redemption in Messianic times coming on the “wings of eagles” - Exodus 19:4, Isaiah 40:31).

It took a great deal of effort on the part of the Yemenites to assimilate into the modern world. Today, however, the Yemenite community is an integral part of both the Israeli and the worldwide Jewish community.

Fine Manners

Hold the door for the person behind you, and if someone holds the door for you, make certain to say thank you.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Babylonian Talmud Completed

Around 200 C.E., Rabbi Judah Ha’Nasi (Judah the Prince) completed his great work of Jewish law, the Mishnah. Although Jewish tradition, for close to 1,500 years, forbade the writing of the oral code, Rabbi Judah decided that oral tradition was in danger of being lost due to fierce Roman persecution. This first written compilation of Jewish oral law was also a reaction to the growing diaspora in which Jews lived farther and farther apart, and knowledge of the oral law was rapidly fading.

Over the next three hundred years, this great compilation was studied, analyzed and discussed in the great learning academies that arose both in Israel and in Babylon, where there was a very large Jewish community. The great sages of this era were known as Amoraim, because they "said" or "told over" the teachings of the Oral law. (As opposed to their predecessors, the Tannaim, who were direct transmitters of the uncodified oral tradition.)

In the fifth century, two of the great Amoraim, Rav Ashi and Ravina I, realized that the discussions of these Babylonian scholars would be lost if it were not written down. They therefore began the redaction known today as the Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli). In order to create the Talmud, the sages had to collect all the known discussions and legal rulings from the previous 200-300 years (known as the Gemara).

While neither Rav Ashi nor Ravina I lived to see their work completed, it was on the 13th of Kislev 4236 (475 C.E.) with the death of the last great Amora, Ravina ben Huna (known as Ravina II), the nephew of Ravina I, that the redaction of the Talmud was “closed” (meaning that, in general, nothing further was added*).

*There were some brief comments by the Saboraic rabbis a century later, but that is a topic for another day.

Study Zone

If you're curious about the contents of the Talmud, which can seem overwhelming at first glance, contact a local rabbi or Jewish educator for guidance.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Twice the Tithe

Charity (tzedakah) is an integral part of both Jewish life and Jewish law. And while giving charity is most certainly a value that goes beyond the bounds of any specific religion, in Jewish law charity is mandated via maaser (tithing one’s income).

So great is the act of giving charity that the sages even noted that it protects a person from death (Talmud Shabbat 156b). Knowing that tzedakah has such incredible powers of protection, one might be tempted to give away everything except for one’s most basic necessities. The sages recognized humankind’s tendency toward zealousness and therefore quotes Rabbi Elai in Talmud Ketubot (50a): “If a man desires to spend liberally [for charity], he should not spend more than a fifth [of his wealth], lest he might himself come to be in need of people....What [is the proof from] the Torah? ‘And of all that You will give me, I will surely give the tenth to You’” (Genesis 28:22).

In Hebrew, “I will surely give the tenth to You” is written aser ah’ahsrenu lach, repeating the root word for tenth, which led the sages to conclude that one may give two tenths, or 20% (with the second equal to the first).

From this discussion it is understood that at a bare minimum, one should give ten percent to charity. One who wishes to be generous should give another 5 percent to charity, and even possibly an additional 5%. Twenty percent, however, is the line that is drawn between true charity and irresponsibility. Even then, giving twenty percent to charity is reserved for truly wealthy folks for whom such generosity will not endanger their own financial well-being.

A Little More

When giving money to someone in need or to a charitable organization, err on the side of generosity.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

It's Not A Big Chicken

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.

As you put the turkey into the oven, take a moment to think about the significance of that bird. 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 identifying features 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 14:11-20).

This has created a problem 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 shares many similarities to 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!

*This Treat was originally published on Wednesday, November 26, 2008.

Express Your Thanks

Wherever you are, take a moment to thank the people around you.

The Blessings of the Amidah: Ingathering of Exiles

The nineteen blessings of the Amidah make up the core of the Jewish prayer service. The tenth blessing focuses on the redemption of the Jewish people and ending the diaspora.

T’kah b’shofar ga’dol l’chay’roo’taynu, v’sa nase l’kabaytz ga’loo’yo’taynu, v’kab’tzaynu yachad may’arba kan’phot ha’aretz. Ba’ruch Ah’tah Ah’doh’nai m’kabaytz nid’chay ahmo Yisrael.

Sound the great shofar for our freedom, raise high the banner to gather our exiles, and gather us together from the four quarters of the earth. Blessed are You, Lord, who gathers the dispersed of His people Israel.

--Translation reproduced with permission from The Koren Sacks Siddur,
© Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Feast of Gratitude

While the majority of the sacrifices enumerated in the Torah are related to atonement for sins or to celebrate feast days, the sh'lamim, peace offerings, were unique because they were not brought for either reason. And among the different peace offerings, the korban todah, the thanks offering, is set apart because it had to be eaten the same day on which it was offered. In this short span of time, a large portion of food had to be consumed: In addition to the meat of the offering, 30 loaves of unleavened bread and 10 loaves of leavened bread were offered and consumed by the kohanim, leviim and those involved in the offering itself.

In his book The Call of the Torah*, Rabbi Elie Munk suggests that the quantity of food and the relatively brief amount of time in which it had to be consumed, required that the person who brought the offering invite guests to join in publicly giving thanks to God.

While only four types of people were required to bring a korban todah (a freed captive, one who traveled by sea; one who had crossed the desert, and one who recovered from an illness), in this day and age, when there is no Temple and thus no sacrifices, people who survive any life-threatening situation will often make a seudat hodaah, a feast of thanksgiving, after having survived a life-threatening incident or illness and on the anniversary of their survival.

There is no set ceremony for a seudat hodaah. To be considered a proper seudah (feast), however, bread should be served so that birkat hamazon may be recited. It is also customary to listen to words of Torah spoken either by the survivor or in the survivor's honor.

*Volume 3, page 59

Thank You For

If someone special in your life has survived a life threatening situation, make a seudat hodaah, feast of gratitude, in his/her honor.

The Morning Blessings-Blessing #7: Clothing

Every morning, a set of 15 blessings is recited to express our thanks to God for all the things that we, as healthy human beings, are capable of doing.

Ba'ruch Ah'tah Ah'doh'nai Eh'lo'hay'nu Melech ha'o'lam malbeesh arumim.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who clothes the naked.

Do you have a complete wardrobe that keeps you warm in the winter but not too hot in the summer? Do you have the ability to dress with dignity for every occasion? This blessing is your opportunity to say “Thank You God.”

--Translation reproduced with permission from The Koren Sacks Siddur,
© Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Any student of philosophy will be able to tell you about Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza, and indeed, the name probably seems vaguely familiar to non-scholars as well. Yet, as is the case with other renowned philosophers, most lay-people don’t know much about these famed thinkers, other than their names.

Spinoza was born in Amsterdam on November 24, 1632, to Manuel and Ana Débora Spinoza, Spanish/Portuguese conversos, Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity but secretly practiced Judaism. When the family settled in Amsterdam, they were able, once again, to resume living as Jews, and young Spinoza received a proper Jewish education. As a youth, he studied Talmud, Jewish philosophy, and kabbalah, as well as a full range of secular studies.

Spinoza soon began espousing radical theories on God, discrediting Divine revelation and organized religion while embracing the doctrine of pantheism, in which God and nature are identical. As a pantheist, he believed that there was no Divine intervention and that all events were pure chance. Spinoza is also considered the father of Biblical criticism, maintaining that the Bible is to be read only as an allegory.

At the age of 24, Spinoza was asked by the Jewish community to withdraw his writings and to cease any further publication. When he declined, he was put in cherem, excommunication. The excommunication was meant to not only block his heretical thoughts from spreading within the Jewish community, but to also protect the community from the reaction of the church to his radical thoughts. As it is, Spinoza also angered many government and church leaders by emphasizing the need for the state to encourage free thought.

While Spinoza did some teaching and publishing, he earned his living as a lens grinder and died at the age of 44. Spinoza is considered the father of modern philosophy.

Lets Get Philosophical

For an interesting taste of Jewish philosophy, try Maimonides' Guide To The Perplexed.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Community Ties

Recently, several news outlets have made human interest stories out of the growing trend of E-Worship--online religious communities. With video services and active chat rooms, these “electronic churches” are servicing people who might not otherwise attend a church.

Jews have been no less active in using the internet. There are a growing number of e-communities, as well as a significant amount of Jewish educational resources. What is the role of an e-community in Jewish life?

In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), the sages note that the world stands on three things: Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Chasadim (Torah, prayer and acts of kindness). Certainly one can learn Torah through online study. Indeed, the full spectrum of the Jewish community is already providing a feast of Jewish knowledge online.

Avodah, prayer, is not quite so simple. While the Jewish concept of prayer is introspective (l’hit’pallel to pray, actually means to judge oneself), the act of prayer itself is mandated into the public domain by the need to pray with a minyan (prayer quorum of 10). And while all 10 people do not, according to Jewish law, have to pray (some may have prayed earlier), they must all be together in the same room (not an internet chat-room). However, education websites are an excellent way for one to familiarize themselves with the prayers.

Gemilut Chasadim, acts of kindness, have most certainly been enhanced by the internet. Opportunities for charitable giving have increased, and people are exploring new ways to “do for others.” But, what about “facetime?” Judaism places great significance on a physical community, on people actually being together and interacting with each other. In fact, the great sage Hillel said (Ethics of the Fathers 2:5) “Do not separate yourself from the community.”

Maintaining Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Chasadim (Torah, prayer and acts of kindness) takes a physical community. Religious laws such as minyan and eiruv, in combination with gemilut chasadim, create a natural fabric of interactions between people. Through today's technology, however, Jews have a wonderful opportunity of discovering new ways to enhance themselves and their own communities.

(Jewish Treats supports online interaction and learning. Through our Twitterfeed @JewishTweets, Jewish Treats is proud to be the sponsor of Twebrew School, a virtual Hebrew school that encourages real-life interactions via Tweetups.)

Get Involved

Join in local Jewish community activities. Your participation strengthens not only your connection to Judaism, but the community as a whole.

Friday, November 20, 2009

North American Shtetl

The word shtetl, invokes images of the pre-Holocaust Eastern European Jewish community. It might come as a surprise, therefore, that there actually are shtetlach in North America! Here are two:

New Square, New York - When Rabbi Jacob Joseph Twersky, z”l, the third Skverer Rebbe (the leader of the Skverer Chasiddim, originally from the town of Skver, Ukraine), arrived in America in 1948, he and his followers settled in Brooklyn, NY, but dreamed of a home away from the urban atmosphere. In 1954, the community purchased land in Rockland County, and so began the community of New Square (a bureaucratic typo resulted in the anglicized name).

But this was the 1950s, when discriminatory measures still existed and neighborhoods were often segregated by ethnicity. The idea of a large ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood upset many in Ramapo Township, and there were a host of legal battles. Zoning laws, roads, sewage...time and again the community was accused of not maintaining proper standards.

On November 21, 1961, after a battle to incorporate itself and be free of the Town Board’s control, New Square elected its first mayor, thus becoming the first independent Chasidic town in the United States.

The current Skverer Rebbe is Rabbi David Twersky. New Square now has 7,830 (as of 2005) residents.

Tosh, Quebec - The same desire to avoid secular temptations, led Rabbi Meshulim Feish (Ferencz) Lowy, the Tosher Rebbe (orginally from Tosh, Hungary) to move his Chasidim from the city of Montreal, where they had arrived in 1951. In 1963, with federal assistance, the Tosher community moved to an isolated neighborhood in Boisbriand, Quebec. While technically not a village of its own, Tosh manages to maintain its independence, with its own shopping, doctors, and schools. The community, which began with 18 families, today has over 250 families.


Explore a community with which you are unfamiliar. (New Square and Tash are both renowned for their hospitality.)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Population Question

The Malthusian theory of overpopulation is a popular doomsday prediction. Thomas Malthus (1766 -1834) proposed that population increases due to improved standards of living would lead to overpopulation, famine, disease and terrifying death rates. Yet, many countries that achieve the status of “developed nation” have falling birthrates–sometimes less than necessary to “replace” the parents, which could, in the future, create a very different population problem.

The first commandment found in the Torah is “p’ru u’rvu, be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). The Gemara (Yevamot 61b) states: “A man shall not abstain from the act of propagation unless he already has children.” (The commandment of p’ru u’rvu applies to men, not women, because a woman cannot be commanded to perform a mitzvah that is life threatening, such as giving birth).

While the Torah commandment of p’ru u’rvu means trying for self-replacement, that is one son and one daughter, it is the rabbinic opinion that one should strive for more than the minimum, stating: “If a man married in his youth, he should marry again in his old age; if he had children in his youth, he should also have children in his old age; as it says (Ecclesiastes 11:6), “In the morning, sow your seed and in the evening do not withhold your hand; for you do not know which shall prosper...’” (Yevamot 62b).

The Prophet Isaiah declared: “He [God] formed [the world] to be inhabited" (Isaiah 45:18). God runs the world. When the Judean King Hezekiah refused to have children because he foresaw that one of his descendants would be exceedingly wicked, the Prophet Isaiah said: “What have you to do with the secrets of the All-Merciful? You should have done what you were commanded [i.e. have children], and let the Holy One, blessed be He, do that which pleases Him” (Talmud Berachot 10a).

*Note: Judaism does not suggest that one should have more children than is healthy for the parent(s). Therefore, Judaism allow for the use of birth control in certain limited circumstances, but that is a topic for another discussion.

The Funniest Questions

For a fresh perspective on life, ask a child you know (your own, a niece/nephew, grandchild, friend's child, etc) about their opinion on life, God, Judaism, etc...The answers may surprise you.

The Blessings of the Amidah: Livelihood

The nineteen blessings of the Amidah make up the core of the Jewish prayer service. The ninth blessing is a request for sustenance and economic success.

Ba’raych a’lay’nu Ah’doh’nai Eh'loh'aynu et ha’shana hazoat v’et kol me’nay t’voo’atah l’tova,
(said in winter: v’tain tal u’matar liv’racha)
(said in other seasons: v’tain b’racha)
ahl pnay ha’ah’dama v’sabaynu me’too’vah, oo’varaych sh’nah’taynu ka’sha’nim ha’tovot. Ba’ruch Ah’tah Ah’doh’nai m’varaych ha’shanim.

Bless this year for us, Lord our God, and all its types of produce for good and
(said in winter: grant dew and rain as a blessing)
(said in other seasons: grant blessing)
on the face of the earth, and from its goodness satisfy us, blessing our year as the best of years. Blessed are You, Lord, who blesses the years.

--Translation reproduced with permission from The Koren Sacks Siddur,
© Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Keshet of Kislev

It was during the month of Cheshvan that God sent the heavy rains to cover the world and destroy all but those in Noah’s pitch-covered ark. Just over a year later, at the end of the month of Cheshvan, the land finally dried out. Noah’s family, and all the animals, left the ark. During those first days on land, Noah built an altar and brought sacrifices from the “clean” (kosher) animals.

The Torah notes that the savory scent of the sacrifices pleased God, indicating that God recognized Noah’s appreciation for all that He had done. Not long after, God made the covenant of the rainbow with Noah and with all creatures:

“It shall come to pass, when I bring clouds over the earth, and the (rain)bow is seen in the cloud, that I will remember My covenant, which is between Me and you and every living creature... and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh” (Genesis 9:14-15).

The covenant of the rainbow took place during the first days of the month of Kislev, and so the keshet, the bow, became the symbol of that month.

The word keshet, however, also refers to the bow of a bow and arrow, and this, too, is appropriate for the month of Kislev. In just 25 days Jews the world over will celebrate one of our people’s greatest military victories, the Maccabees’ rout of the Syrian-Greek forces (Chanukah). The Maccabees were, in truth, a small band of citizens who took up arms to fight for their right to be Jews, and there is little doubt that the bow and arrow was one of their most important weapons.

Rosh Chodesh Delight

Enjoy a donut in honor of Rosh Chodesh (the new month of) Kislev.

The Morning Blessings-Blessing #6: Sight

Every morning, a set of 15 blessings is recited to express our thanks to God for all the things that we, as healthy human beings, are capable of doing.

Ba’ruch Ah’tah Ah’doh’nai Eh’lo’hay’nu Melech ha’o’lam pokay’ach ivreem.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who gives sight to the blind.

Did you open your eyes this morning and see the beauty of the world? If so, take a moment to say, “Thank God.”

--Translation reproduced with permission from The Koren Sacks Siddur,
© Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Friendly Emperor

On November 17, in the year 331 C.E., Flavius Claudius Julianus was born. He was the son of the half-brother of Constantine, the first Roman Emperor to recognize Christianity as the state religion. While raised nominally as a Christian, by the time Julian became emperor in 360 C.E., he was an affirmed neo-Platonist with a strong dislike for the Christian religion (which he viewed as being partly responsible for the weakening of Rome). Not long after becoming emperor, Julian revoked numerous pro-Christian laws, thus earning himself the designation “Julian the Apostate.”

Julian’s dislike of the Christians turned out to be a surprising boon for the Jews. Not only did he abolish special Jewish taxes, but he actively encouraged plans to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. According to Salamanius Hermias Sozomenus’ (Sozomen, c. 400 - c. 450 C.E.) Ecclesiastical History, the Jews “entered so earnestly upon the task, that even the women carried heaps of earth...”

Not long after the ground had been cleared, however, disaster struck the building plans. According to the writings of Ammianus Marcellinus (c.330 - c.391 C.E.), a friend of Julian: “Alypius of Antioch set vigorously to work...when fearful balls of fire, breaking out near the foundations, continued their attacks, till the workmen, after repeated scorching, could approach no more, and he gave up the attempt [to rebuild the Temple].”

While this dramatic description is quite probably based on the hyperbolic accounts spread by Gregory Nazienzus, an early church hero, some scholars believe that the building efforts were affected by the Galilee earthquake of 363.

Unfortunately, that same year, Julian was killed during a campaign against the Persians and his successor, Flavius Iovianus (Jovian), was a loyal Christian.

Rosh Chodesh Club

Arrange with a group of friends to get together for lunch or drinks each Rosh Chodesh (New Month). Rosh Chodesh Kislev is observed both today and tomorrow.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Sigd, The Ethiopian Holiday

While most of the Jews of Ethiopia--the Beta Israel, as the Ethiopian community is properly called--have made aliyah and rejoined the global Jewish community, they have their own unique customs and traditions.

One of the most important of these traditions is the holiday of Sigd, which is celebrated on the 29th of Cheshvan (today). Sigd is an Amharic (a Semitic language spoken in Ethiopia) word meaning “to prostrate oneself,” but it is also related to the Amharic word for Temple.

Sigd celebrates the acceptance of the Torah. There are some who believe that it began in the 15th century, when the Kessim (priests) gathered the Beta Israel in order to strengthen their faith after they had suffered a period of great persecution. The Kessim were inspired by the Book of Nehemiah’s description of how the people who had returned from Babylon after 70 years of exile dedicated themselves to follow the ways of God: “All the people gathered themselves together as one man into the broad place that was before the Water Gate [of the Temple]; and they spoke to Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the Law of Moses, which God had commanded to Israel” (Nehemiah 8:1).

In Ethiopia, the Beta Israel would gather on mountaintops outside their villages. In Israel today (where Sigd is a recognized legal holiday), they gather in Jerusalem in a place from where the Temple Mount can be seen. The day begins with fasting but ends in feasting. During the day, Psalms are recited, the Orit (the Torah and holy books written in ancient Geez, an ancient Semitic language used exclusively in prayer) is read publicly, monetary pledges are fulfilled, and a general celebration takes place.

Keep It In The House

If you do not already own a Chumash, the Five Books of Moses, make an effort to acquire one to keep in your house.

Friday, November 13, 2009


God is probably one of the most powerful nouns in the dictionary. In the Torah and other holy writings, God’s name is usually spelled out “yud-hey-vav-hey” (the four letter name of God that is never pronounced but rather read “Ah’doh’nai” - my Master, often translated as “the Lord”). Otherwise, God is referred to by a number of other names, such as Eh’lohim.

Because the name of God is holy, it is customary to avoid pronouncing it unless one is studying Torah or praying. Therefore, God is most often referred to as Hashem, which means “the Name.”

The question, however, often arises about writing God’s name. Deuteronomy 12:3-4 states: “[In the land of Israel] you shall break down their [the idolaters’] altars, smash their shall cut down the graven images of their gods, and you shall erase their [the idols’] names from that place. You shall not do so to Hashem your God.” It is derived from this verse that one should not erase the name of God.

When writing Hebrew, an abbreviation (often a hey with an apostrophe or two yuds) or a substitution (such as the letter kuf in the place of the letter hey in Eh’lohim) is used in order to avoid the issue of eventual erasure. But how should one approach this question when writing in a different language? Just as substitutions are made in Hebrew, many people will write the word God or Lord with a hyphen (G-d, L-rd). And while most Jewish legal authorities agree that the English words for God do not have the same innate holiness as Hebrew and therefore can be erased even if written out completely, nevertheless, it is common practice to show respect by using the aforementioned abbreviations.

Tongue Guard

Train yourself to always refer to God in a respectful manner (Is "Oh my God!" really the proper response to surprising news?).

Sabbath Prayers: The Candle Lighting Blessing

Before reciting this blessing, light the Shabbat candles and then cover your eyes with your hands.

Ba’ruch ah’tah Ah’do’nai, Eh’lo’hay’nu melech ha’o’lam, ah’sher kidishanu b’mitz’vo’tav v’tzee’vanu l’hahd’leek nayr shel Shabbat.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has made us holy through His commandments, and has commanded us to light the Sabbath light.

To learn more about Shabbat candle lighting and for the private prayer that follows candle lighting, please see NJOP’s Spirituality At Your Fingertips.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Rain, Rain...

“Rain, rain, go away. Come again another day...”

This cute ditty must have been written in a northern country–someplace like England–where they have the luxury of wishing rain away. In Israel, however, for the last few years, environmentalists have gathered to observe the shrinking of the Sea of Galilee (a.k.a. Kineret) as a result of a lengthy drought.

The Talmud records that water, more specifically rain, was foremost on the sages' minds. In Ta'anit 7b-8a, numerous sages weigh in on the importance of rain:

“A day when rain falls is as great as the day when the Torah was given.”

“A day when rain falls is as great as the day on which heaven and earth were created.”

“Great is the day when rain falls, for even a small coin in one's hand is blessed by it.”

Of course, agriculture played a much more prominent role in people's lives during the Talmudic period. Yet, even in the industrialized society of Israel today there is a constant fear of drought. And since the Land of Israel is an integral part of our Jewish heritage, our daily prayers reflect the need for rain.

>From the end of the holiday of Sukkot until the beginning of the holiday of Passover, a small prayer is added to the second blessing of the Amidah (silent prayer) addressing God as: “Mashiv ha'ruach u'morid ha'geshem, Who causes the wind to blow, and the rain to fall.” In this way, Jews throughout the world pray that the rains should fall in their proper season.(The latest weather reports from Israel report record rains so far this season–so please keep praying!)

Thanks So Much

On the next rainy day, take a few moments to contemplate how rain makes your life better, and then thank God for those blessings.

The Blessings of the Amidah: Healing

The nineteen blessings of the Amidah make up the core of the Jewish prayer service. The eighth blessing is a request for healing.

R'fa'aynu Ah'doh'nai v'nay'rah'fay, ho'shee'aynu v'nee'vah'shay'ah, kee t'hee'lah'taynu Ah'tah, v'ha'a'lay r'fuah sh'layma l'chol ma'ko'taynu, kee E'hl melech rofay neh'eh'man v'rah'chah'man Ah'tah. Ba'ruch Ah'tah Ah'doh'nai roh'phay cholay amo Yisrael.

Heal us, Lord, and we shall be healed. Save us and we shall be saved, for You are our praise. Bring complete recovery for all our ailments, for You, God, King, are a faithful and compassionate Healer. Blessed are You, Lord, Healer of the sick of His people Israel.

--Translation reproduced with permission from The Koren Sacks Siddur,
© Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

In Honor of Armistice Day: A Jewish War Hero Remembered

Sammy Dreben, “The Fighting Jew,” (1878-1925) was a new immigrant to the United States when he enlisted in the U.S. Army. It’s ironic that one of the main reasons that Dreben fled from his native Kiev was to avoid conscription of Jewish boys who were forced to serve for 20 years in the Russian army. But, then again, the U.S. Army was not the Czar’s army.

During Dreben’s first 3-year term of service, he fought against an insurgent uprising in the Philippines (then a U.S. Territory) and also helped rescue hostages during the infamous Boxer Rebellion in China. In 1902, he was honorably discharged, but re-enlisted from 1904-1907, and was stationed in El Paso, Texas.

After his second honorable discharge, Dreben became a mercenary. While he wanted to fight against the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War, he ended up in the Panama Canal Zone. From there he became involved with the liberation armies of Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico and Guatemala.

In 1917, Dreben re-enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight in World War I. At 39 years of age, he was sent to France. He distinguished himself in numerous engagements, especially with his machine gun prowess, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Croix de Guerre and the Medaille Militaire, the highest French honor.

In 1921, the retired Dreben was asked by General Pershing to be an honorary pall bearer for the burial of the Unknown Solider at Arlington National Cemetery on November 11.

On March 14, 1925, a nurse accidentally gave Dreben a lethal injection. Newspapers around the country paid glowing tribute to First Sergeant Sam Dreben and the Texas Legislature adjourned for the day in his honor. As per his widow’s wishes, Dreben, an observant Jew, was buried in the Jewish section of a California cemetery rather than in a military cemetery.

Honor A Hero

Ask a Jewish war veteran about his/her experiences.

The Morning Blessings: Blessing #5: For Men

Every morning, a set of 15 blessings are recited to express our thanks to God for all the things that we, as healthy human beings, are capable of doing.

Ba’ruch Ah’tah Ah’doh’nai Eh’lo’hay’nu Melech ha’o’lam sheh lo asani eesha.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has not made me a woman.

Obviously this blessing is for men only. If you are shocked, please read on.

The previous two blessings stated: "Who did not make me a non-Jew" and "Who did not make me a slave." Neither a non-Jew nor a slave have the same level of Torah obligation as a freeborn Jew does. A non-Jew has 7 mitzvot, a slave is exempt from time-bound mitzvot and also does not have the freedom to study and worship God as he desires. A woman is exempt from time-bound positive mitzvotA free Jewish man, however, has the largest number of possible mitzvot. This blessing is a way of expressing gratitude every day for all the wonderful opportunity to fulfill mitzvot that many other people do not have!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Kindness To Animals

Animals are one of the most important “educational tools” God provided to humanity in order to teach them to be “givers.” While animals can’t communicate with the same ability as humans, they are God’s creations and express basic feelings such as pain, hunger, satisfaction and, many would argue, loyalty and love.

Jewish law teaches us that when a person assumes responsibility for an animal, whether a pet or a farm-animal, care of the animal becomes a top priority. In Talmud Berachot 40a, Rabbi Judah quotes Rav as saying: “It is forbidden for a person to eat until one has fed one's animals, since the verse states, ‘and I will provide grass in your field for your cattle,’ and only then does it say, ‘and you will eat and you will be satisfied’” (Deuteronomy 11:15).

It is from the matriarch Rebecca that we learn about kindness to animals. When Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, who is seeking a wife for Isaac, meets Rebecca at her town well, she gives him a drink of water and then says: “I will draw for your camels as well, until they have done drinking” (Genesis 24:19). She ran to the well numerous times to ensure that the camels were properly satiated. (The reason she did not offer to water the camels first was because they were not hers. Additionally, there is an opinion that water, unlike food, should first be given to humans for the sake of pikuach nefesh, saving a life.)

While the obligation does not include animals at large (such as stray cats), the principle itself is intended to make one much more aware of the ways in which he/she can be kinder to all animals and, indeed, to all people.

To All Animals

If you have a pet, serve his/her meal before you serve yourself.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Beyond Their Means

It goes without saying that life would be simpler if all things were black and white. Alas, however, we live in a world filled with many shades of grey.

An excellent example of this is the idea of avak gezel, the “dust of robbery.” Avak gezel refers to situations in which one had no intention of stealing and, in truth, did not actually steal something, but yet caused a loss to someone else.

In his magnificent compilation of Jewish law known as the Mishneh Torah, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Rambam--Spain/Egypt 12th century) notes that a person who eats a meal with a host who cannot afford to serve that meal has committed avak gezel. The Rambam clearly points out that this is not technically “legal robbery” but is forbidden because there is some element of robbery within this action. (Hilchot Teshuva 4:4)

The laws of avak gezel can be particularly challenging to follow without embarrassing other people. The concept, however, is worth keeping in mind. Many people are in tough financial situations, and many of those people don’t want others to know about their financial reversals.

Avoiding avak gezel may be only a matter of simple consideration. If you have a friend with a history of being a shopaholic who is currently out of work, don’t invite her to go to the mall with you. If you have a friend with whom you enjoy sharing a meal, choose a restaurant that fits into everybody’s budget, so that no one is embarrassed into paying for something he/she cannot really afford.

Not only will such considerate behavior allow one to avoid avak gezel, it will also be a way of fulfilling the positive Torah commandment of “V’ah’havta l’ray’ah’cha ka’mocha,” love your fellow as yourself.

No Free Coffee

If you ask a co-worker to bring you a coffee when they go out to get one for themselves, make sure to pay them for the coffee, even if it does only cost $1.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Torah Service

The Torah Service is central to the Saturday morning synagogue service and has much ceremony and fanfare.

It begins with the opening of the aron ha’kodesh (holy ark - the cabinet housing the Torah scrolls). The Torah scroll is brought to the bimah (central table where the Torah is read) in a procession, while prayers are recited by the chazzan (prayer leader) and by the congregation.

On a typical Shabbat, the Torah portion is divided into seven parts. Seven people are called, one at a time, to the bimah for an aliyah (literally: going up). They recite the blessings before and after the reading of each section. An eighth person is called up to make the blessings over the maftir (extra) portion, which is either a repetition of the last few lines or a separate section of the Torah. Traditionally, the first aliyah is given to a Kohain, the second to a Levi, and the remaining aliyot to those descended from the other tribes.

Another important part of the Torah service is the ritual of hagbaha, the raising of the Torah scroll, open, for all to see. Sephardim do hagbaha before reading the Torah. Ashkenazim do hagbaha afterward.

While the scroll is open, the congregation says: V’zot ha’Torah ah’sher sahm Moshe lif’nai b’nai Yisrael--al pee Ah’doh’nai b’yad Moshe / This is the Torah that Moses placed before the Children of Israel--at God's commandment by the hand of Moses” (Deuteronomy 4:44/Numbers 9:23 - note that the section from Numbers is not recited in Sephardi congregations).

The honor of rolling the Torah closed after its reading is known as g’lila. The return of the Torah to the ark occurs in the reverse order of the original processional (from the bimah to the ark) after the reading of the Haftarah (reading from the prophets).