Tuesday, June 30, 2009

It's All In The Timing

When setting out to conquer the Promised Land, the Israelites' first military confrontation was with Jericho. This battle is famous...Why? Because (now sing aloud to yourself): "Joshua fit the battle of Jericho...and the walls came tumblin’ down!"

Following Divine instructions, Joshua marched the Israelite troops around the city walls once each day for six days (thus making the city inhabitants rather nervous). On the seventh day (by which point the people in Jericho probably thought - oh those Israelites are circling again, no big deal), Joshua and his troops encircled the city seven times, and on the seventh time, at Joshua's signal, the priests blew on seven shofars. Upon hearing the blasts of the shofars, the troops began shouting and yelling and, lo and behold, the walls of Jericho collapsed. Joshua and his people easily captured the city and began their conquest of Canaan.

A miracle? In the 1950s, archeologists discovered the walls of ancient Jericho. Rather than falling inward, it appeared from the archeological evidence that the walls had collapsed outward (exactly as described in the book of Joshua). Not willing to attribute this to a miracle, the archeologists concluded that the walls had obviously collapsed as a result of an earthquake, thus negating evidence of a miracle. However, one sees that, according to Jewish tradition, a miracle rarely involves a complete aberration of nature. Rather, when performing Divine miracles, God often uses nature to change the course of events. Timing, of course, is also part of the miracle. So the Israelites encircled Jericho and blew their shofars. And, just as they let out their great shouts, an earthquake struck the town of Jericho.

I don't know about you, but that sounds pretty miraculous to me!

Small Miracles

Appreciate the small miracles in your life: like the time when a friend calls you just at the exact moment when you are feeling sad and lonely.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Boom! Flash!

There’s nothing quite as spectacular on a hot, humid summer day as a thunderstorm. Thick clouds gather, heavy winds blow and a “show” is presented that stimulates all of our senses.

A thunderstorm is both awe-inspiring and frightening. A person is easily reminded of his/her insignificance and vulnerability when compared to the vast powers of nature. In fact, nature can be so overwhelming that it would be easy for a person to attribute to nature a power unto itself. But nature, like all other forces in the universe, is merely one of God’s many tools.

To remind us of the fact that nature is bounded by definitive rules and governed by Divine laws, the sages declared that one should recite specific blessings upon hearing thunder and seeing lightning.

The blessing upon hearing thunder is:

Baruch Atah Ah’doh’nai Eh’lo’hei’nu Melech ha’olam, sheh'kocho u’gevurato malei olam.
Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the Universe, Whose strength and might fills the world.

The blessing upon seeing lightning is:

Baruch Atah Ah’doh’nai Eh’lo’hei’nu Melech ha’olam, oseh maaseh bereishit.
Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the Universe, Who makes the work of creation.

If one hears the thunder and sees the lightning at the same time (putting that person in the heart of the storm!), then only one of the blessings is recited (usually oseh maaseh bereishit).

While thunderstorms remind human beings of the great forces controlled by God, they also bring with them a blessing - the rain that helps the grass grow, the trees flourish, and brings forth the bounty of the earth.

Raining Kindness

While waiting for the bus in the rain, offer to share your umbrella with someone who doesn't have one.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Challah Is Taken

The Hebrew word "challah" does not actually mean bread, but rather refers to the tithe of the bread that was given as a gift to the ancient priests (Numbers 15:20). Exactly when the term challah began to be applied to the bread eaten on Shabbat is unclear.

Without the Temple, the complete mitzvah of Challah cannot be fulfilled (as the kohain cannot eat the piece unless ritually pure). However, the mitzvah is still maintained in part by separating of a portion of dough during the baking process. Today, therefore, if one is baking a large amount of dough (generally 3 lbs 10 oz. of flour or more), one is obligated to "take challah" with a blessing before baking the dough.

To "take challah," a small ball of dough is taken and wrapped in foil, for once the blessing is said, the separated challah has an elevated status. The following blessing is recited:

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, L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us in His commandments and commanded us to separate the challah from the dough.

If one made dough using less then the amount required for the blessing, but more than 2 lbs 10 oz., one should separate the challah but not make a blessing. (Since there are different opinions regarding the exact amount of flour, please check with your local rabbi.)

The separated challah must now be either burned in an empty oven or buried. Once the challah has been burned, it should be disposed of in a respectful manner.

Surprise a Neighbor

If you're making challah, make an extra one to give to an elderly neighbor.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

What Is Chabad?

Chabad-Lubavitch is a chassidic movement founded by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) in the White Russian town of Lubavitch. Chabad is an acronym for chochma (wisdom), binah (comprehension), and da'at (knowledge), the three intellectual facets needed to comprehend the ways of God.

Lubavitch outreach actually began with the activities of the sixth Lubavitch Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson (1880-1950) to counter the anti-religious activities of the Soviets. When he passed away in 1950, in Brooklyn, N.Y., his son-in-law Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994) led his chassidim in forming what would become the world's largest Jewish outreach effort. Chassidim were dispatched by the Rebbe (and, since his passing in 1994, by the Chabad organization) to the four corners of the world and everywhere in-between as sh'luchim (messengers), where they set up Chabad Houses to teach Jews about Judaism.

Innovative in their outreach techniques, Chabad is well known for their "Mitzvah Tanks" (redesigned RVs) and for standing on city streets asking strangers if they are Jewish and if they might want to put on tefillin (phylacteries) or light Shabbat candles. With over 2,700 institutions around the world, Chabad-Lubavitch is dedicated to offering every Jew the opportunity to make a Jewish connection.

Today, 3 Tammuz, is the yahrtzeit (anniversary of the death) of the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, z”l.

Please Say A Prayer

Please say a special prayer today for Gilad Shalit. Today is the third anniversary of his captivity.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Pidyon Ha'ben - Redeeming the Firstborn

“You must redeem the firstborn of a person ... when he is one month old, for the value of five silver shekels” (Numbers 18:15-16).

God sanctified the firstborn male Israelites when He protected them from the plague of the Death of the Firstborn in Egypt. Therefore, God commanded: “Sanctify for me every firstborn, the one that first opens any womb among the children of Israel...he is mine” (Exodus 13:1-2).

It was originally intended that the firstborn would serve as the Jewish priesthood. However, when Moses saw the Golden Calf, he smashed the Ten Commandments and called out: “Whoever is for God, [come] to me!” When only the tribe of Levi stepped forward, the firstborn lost their exalted position. Henceforth, the priesthood was transferred to the Kohanim (who are Levites). However, since the firstborn had already been “sanctified,” each firstborn('s father) has to pay a Kohain to take his child's place in the priesthood (this is referred to as redemption of the firstborn, Pidyon Haben.)

The following condition have to be met to celebrate a Pidyon Ha’ben, making it a relatively uncommon ceremony:

a. It’s a boy.
b. The mother had a natural birth with no previous pregnancies/miscarriages, since the Torah refers to a firstborn who “opens the womb.”
c. The father is not a Kohain or Levi, nor is the maternal grandfather a Kohain or Levi.

The Pidyon Ha’ben is performed when the baby is 31 days old. The child is brought by the parents (often on a silver tray decorated with jewelry) to the Kohain who has been invited to be part of the ceremony.

The Kohain asks: “Which do you prefer, to give me your firstborn or to redeem him?” The father replies, "To redeem him" and recites a blessing on the mitzvah of redeeming one’s son followed by the Sheh’heh’cheh’yanu blessing. He then gives five silver coins (U.S. silver dollars are often used) to the Kohain, who blesses the child.

Even A Grown Up

If you are a firstborn male (as qualified above), ask your parents if you had a Pidyon Ha'ben. If the answer is no, contact your local rabbi to help you organize a ceremony and celebration.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Wise As Solomon

King Solomon is best known for his brilliance and wisdom, attributes that were actually a requested gift from God. It happened this way:

One night, God spoke to Solomon in a dream and told him to ask for whatever he desired. The adolescent Solomon responded that he was “but a little child; I know not how to go out or come in” (Kings I 3:7). He therefore requested that God “give Your servant an understanding heart to judge Your people, that I may discern between good and evil; for who is able to judge Your great people?” (Kings I 3:9).

In the dream, God grants him his wish, greatly pleased that Solomon had not requested riches or vengeance upon Israel’s enemies (or his own).

Solomon’s new found wisdom is quickly tested by the famous “Case of the Two Mothers.”

Two harlots who lived together gave birth within a few days of each other. Harlot A claimed that Harlot B had accidentally lain on her own child and killed him, and then exchanged the dead baby for Harlot A's living baby. The defendant's response was, "No! The living one is mine!" Solomon listened to them and, unable to clarify the case without witnesses, he surprised everyone by ordering that the child be cut in two, giving each mother half.

Solomon knew the true mother (and awarded her the baby) when she called out a plea to retract his cruel order, offering to waive her claim to save the baby's life. The other woman, however, insisted on letting the sword do its grisly work. (Kings I 3:16-27).

Seek Wisdom

If you are uncertain of what to do in a certain situation, seek the advice of someone who has an unbiased view of the matter.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Importance of Dad

Where does a child learn to be a mentsch? From his/her parents! Indeed, in the Talmud (Sukkot 56b) it even notes that a child repeats in the streets what he/she hears at home.

According to Dr. David Pelcovitz (author of Balanced Parenting), a number of research studies have found that the active involvement of both parents in a child’s moral education is the strongest predictor of children's moral reasoning and empathy as they grow older.

In the traditional family model, in which mom tends to have the central role in parenting (i.e. spends a lot more time with the kids), it is important to note that these studies have found particular importance in dad’s involvement.

The father is often seen as the enforcer of the rules laid down by the mother. However, far more important than being involved in discipline is dad’s actual involvement in teaching his child(ren) how to live a Jewish life (i.e. being a mentsch, a good person), which has an incredibly positive influence on the child’s future. As King Solomon wrote in Proverbs (22:6) “Educate a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

According to the sages of the Talmud, after circumcision and Pidyon Haben (redemption of the first born son), a father’s primary responsibilities are to teach the child Torah, to find him/her a spouse, and to teach the child a trade (Kiddushin 29a). At the bare minimum, his fatherly obligations mean making certain that the basic necessities of child-rearing are attended to (by a third party if necessary). But, the best child-rearing includes dad sharing his time, knowledge and wisdom, and truly leaving a lasting and meaningful impression on his children.

Thanks Again, Pop!

Father's Day is over, but the Torah teaches us that we should respect and be grateful to our parents every day.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Reward of Honoring Shabbat

According to the wisdom of the sages, there is no way to “over-spend” on Shabbat. As it is said, “One who lends to Shabbat, Shabbat repays him!”(Shabbat 119a). “Lending to Shabbat” does not mean going into debt to purchase fancy foods or decor, but rather that one should borrow from his/her weekday budget in order to make Shabbat more beautiful.

How does Shabbat repay those who honor it? Primarily, there is the spiritual and physical recharge of “the batteries.” Sometimes, however, the reward is tangible, as in the story of Joseph Mokir-Shabbat, whose dedication to honoring Shabbat was richly rewarded (Shabbat 119a):

Joseph Mokir-Shabbat was known for his largess when preparing for Shabbat. One day, his neighbor was told by fortune tellers that “Joseph Mokir-Shabbat has eaten all your wealth.” Assuming that this meant that Joseph would take over his lands, the man sold all his property, and bought a precious jewel with the proceeds. He hid the jewel in his hat. One day, however, a wind blew his hat into the river, and he watched, devastated, as a fish swallowed the jewel.

Not long thereafter, the fish was caught by some Jewish fishermen. However, it was almost Shabbat and they did not know to whom they could sell it.

“Take it to Joseph Mokir-Shabbat,” they were told, “who always buys delicacies in honor of Shabbat.” Although Joseph had already prepared his Shabbat meal, he was happy to spend the extra money for the special fish. (And this in the days without freezers!)

When Joseph went to prepare his fish he found the jewel, which he sold for a princely sum (Shabbat 119a).

Know Your Kosher Fish

When buying fresh fish, make sure it comes from a species with both fins and scales.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Battle For Burial

Do you know who is buried in the Cave of the Patriarchs (Meh'arat Ha'machpelah) in Hebron? Actually, 8 ½ people are interred there. They are: Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah, and Esau’s head.

According to the Midrash, here’s what happened:

There were eight burial plots in the cave, and Adam, Eve, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca and Leah were already buried there, leaving only a single available grave.

After Jacob’s death in Egypt, his sons brought him back to the land of Canaan for burial in the Cave of the Patriarchs. Esau awaited them, accompanied by a well armed retinue. It was Esau’s contention that Jacob had already given his allotted plot to Leah and that the only remaining plot belonged to him, Esau. While acknowledging that he had sold his birthright to Jacob, he maintained that he had not given up his right to be buried in the Cave. He therefore used his armed men to prevent Jacob's burial.

While waiting for Naphtali to bring the proof of ownership, the brothers continued to argue with Esau. Chushim, Dan ben Jacob's deaf son who was unable to hear the discussion with Esau, was mystified by the delay. From his perspective, Esau was not only dishonoring Jacob, but threatening the family as well. Incensed Chushim took matters into his own hands and beheaded Esau.

It thus came to pass that Jacob was buried in his rightful place in the Cave of the Patriarchs, as was the head of Esau, which rolled into the cave.

Honor the Dead

There is an old Jewish custom to visit the grave of a loved one on the date of their passing (yahrtzeit).

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Did You Say Satan?

The word Satan derives from the Hebrew ha’satan, literally “the hinderer.” However, the common Christian belief that Satan is a fallen angel who opposes God by tempting humans to sin is quite different from the Jewish concept of ha’satan.

To understand the concept of Satan in Judaism, one must first understand that angels, malachim, are regarded as Divine messengers, each assigned a specific task, from which the angel cannot deviate because it has no free-will. Angels are simply energy emanations of God and extensions of God’s will. Satan is also an angel, albeit one whose job is to test a person’s resolve to follow the righteous path.

To understand better, let’s look at the well-known Biblical conversation between Satan and God (paraphrased from the Book of Job):

God: "Have you seen My servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a whole-hearted and an upright man, who fears God and shuns evil?"
Satan: "Does Job fear God for no reason? Haven’t You protected him and all that he has? You’ve blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions are many. If You were to destroy all that he has, surely he will blaspheme You to Your face."
God: "All that he has is in your power; only upon himself do no harm" (Job 1:9-12).

While it might appear from the above conversation that Satan is free to harm Job, that is not the case. Each human soul has a goal, “something” that each person must perfect in the course of his/her life. A person who is never challenged has no opportunities to perfect what must be perfected. It is not Satan’s role to harm a person, but to help people perfect themselves.

Self Analysis

A person should try to understand his/her own motivations as well as the outside forces influence his/her decisions.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Celebrating A Daughter

On his 8th day of life, a baby boy has his brit mila (circumcision) and is given a Jewish name. But how do Jews celebrate the birth of a girl? While there are no mandatory rituals in honor of a Jewish girl’s birth, it is customary to name her at the first Torah reading after her birth (Shabbat, Monday or Thursday).

There are additional customs of celebration, as well, depending on one’s background or community.

In traditional Ashkenazic society, there is a strong custom that the parents sponsor a special kiddush (refreshments for the congregation or community) after services on a Shabbat within one year of the girl's birth. In this way, the parents not only publicly celebrate the great gift they have been given, but also give their friends and neighbors the opportunity to offer their blessings to the child and to the family.

There is a Sephardic custom called the Zeved Ha'bat (The Gift of a Daughter), which is a combination of both a formal feast and baby naming. Over the last few decades, many non-Sephardic North American communities have also begun to celebrate what is called a Shalom Bat (Welcoming a Daughter) similar to the Zeved Ha'bat.

Girl Power

When congratulating someone on the birth of a daughter, say more than mazal tov. Give the parents a blessing that they should succeed in raising her to a life full of Torah and good deeds, and to see her happily wed.

Monday, June 15, 2009

War In The Torah

The Torah’s protocols of war begin with the following verse: "When you go out to battle against your enemies, and see horses, chariots and a nation greater than you..." (Deuteronomy 20).

While there are certain situations in which war is commanded by the Torah (e.g. the commandment to fight and destroy Amalek), this introduction assumes war to be defensive. Why else would an army go out to face forces greater than itself?

God assures the Israelites that He will be with them, a promise that is publicly restated to the soldiers just before battle by a designated Kohain (priest), who declares: "Hear, O Israel, you are about to battle against your enemies. Do not be faint-of-heart, fear not, nor be alarmed or frightened by them, for the Lord, your God, goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you" (Deuteronomy 20:3-4).

Invoking compassion even in war, the Jewish army was commanded to call out to their enemies in peace. Maimonides (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon) noted that even the seven native Canaanite nations whom God commanded the Jews to annihilate--man, woman, child, and cattle--must first be given the opportunity to surrender and accept Jewish dominion. If they refuse, only then may they be attacked (Maimonides: Kings, Chapter 6:1 and 4).

The command to annihilate the Canaanite nations was as much an issue of survival as winning the war. The Canaanites did not abide by the seven Noahide commandments, which Judaism considers to be the minimum level of civilization. They were thus a constant physical and spiritual threat. And yet, even when battling the Canaanites, Jewish law mandates that their cities may not be completely surrounded in battle, so that at least one escape route is left open for those who wish to flee.

Let It Go

Try to avoid arguments by seeing the other person's point of view.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Bread of the Sabbath

Challah, known to some as "Jewish bread," is one of the essential elements of the Shabbat table. Each of the three Shabbat meals begins with the blessing over two loaves of Challah, which are then cut and shared with all present.

Bread has special significance in Judaism. It represents the great potential that God put in the world. Bread begins as a seed, grows into wheat (which is still inedible), is winnowed and ground before it is transformed into flour and dough, which is then baked into bread. All this from a small kernel of wheat! Because of its stature as the “staple” food, the blessing over bread is recited at the beginning of the meal and "covers" all further foods eaten during the meal*.

There is, however, special significance to the blessing of ha’mo’tzee (the bread blessing) when recited over two loaves at the Shabbat table. The two loaves serve as a reminder that in the wilderness God provided manna (the heavenly bread) every day except on Shabbat. Throughout the week, the Israelites collected only enough manna for a single day, but on Fridays they collected a double portion to last through Shabbat. The requirement to have two complete loaves is known as lechem mishneh (double bread).

While the word challah brings to mind distinctive braided loaves, the shape is not a requirement. As long as the two loaves of bread are whole (they could even be two uncut rolls or two pieces of matzah), then the mitzvah of lechem mishneh is fulfilled. The braiding of the challah, however, has taken on symbolic significance. For instance, making the ha’mo’tzee blessing on two loaves of six-strand challah is a beautiful symbol of the unity of the Jewish people. Each challah strand is representative of one of the tribes of Israel. When the two loaves are held together, all twelve tribes are represented at the Shabbat table.

*At a meal without kiddush at which one has eaten bread, a separate blessing is made on wine consumed during the meal. If one does not eat bread, separate blessings are recited on each of the items eaten, such as fruit, vegetables, grains etc.

Easy Braid

Try your hand at braiding your own challah.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

An Act of True Kindness

Death is one of the unquestionable facts of life. Yet, most people would admit being uncomfortable with the idea of being in a room with a dead body. Seeing a corpse is a “too close” reminder of our own mortality and that we mere mortals do not have control over our own fate. Ask any therapist, and they will agree that the death of a loved one arouses a wide range of negative emotions--from anger to depression, and everything in-between.

However, as uncomfortable as people may be with death and dead bodies, escorting a body to its final resting place is considered a very important mitzvah. And those who volunteer for the chevra kadisha, the holy society that prepares the dead for burial, are performing what is known as chesed shel emet, an act of ultimate kindness.

The chevra kadisha's primary responsibility is the tahara (purification), the preparation of the body for burial. This solemn act is performed with the utmost care for both the body and the soul, which, according to tradition, remains near the body until burial. During the cleansing process, the body is never fully exposed, only that area that is being washed. The tahara is done in silence, so that idle chatter not take away from the dignity of the deceased. Indeed, nothing is even passed over the deceased, lest one forget that here lies a vessel that once held a holy soul, not just a body.

Additionally, before and after the tahara, members of the chevra kadisha recite a prayer asking the departed to forgive any inadvertent offense or disrespect.

The tahara concludes with the dressing of the body in a clean white shroud. The body is now ready for burial, which is also often conducted by the chevra kadisha.

Jewish Treats honors the memory of Stephen Tyrone Johns, who sacrificed his life to protect people of all faiths and races while guarding the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. May his memory serve as a reminder of how malicious and destructive hate can be.

Honor The Dead

Inquire if there is a way you can help your local chevra kadisha.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Rabban Gamliel II

The old joke “2 Jews -- 3 opinions” is true now, and it was true in the era of the sages as well. In the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE), however, Rabban Gamliel II (aka Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh), the first Post-Temple Nasi (President) of the Sanhedrin, understood that such discord hurt the Jewish people. With this in mind, he ruled his fellow sages with a strong hand.

Rabban Gamliel’s great-great-grandfather was the famed sage Hillel, his grandfather was the first Rabban Gamliel and his father was Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, a leader in the uprising against Rome. Interestingly, Rabban Gamliel II was the first head of the Sanhedrin to be recognized by Rome. In fact, around the turn of the first century C.E., Rabban Gamliel II and several other scholars journeyed to Rome, where Rabban Gamliel II had several interesting interactions with pagans and with the first followers of Christianity (as recorded in Talmud Shabbat 116a/b).

One of Rabban Gamliel II’s most significant achievements was the establishment of the text of the Amidah, the central prayer recited three times a day. As the head of the Sanhedrin, he commissioned the sages to prepare a text for the specific 18 desired blessings. However, he later asked Rabbi Shmuel HaKatan to write an additional 19th blessing regarding informers and heretics.

Rabban Gamliel II was also praised for his humility. In fact, his death (the anniversary of which is today) led to a re-definition of funeral services. It had become customary to have lavish funerals, but Rabban Gamliel II, seeing the burden this placed on the overall community, requested and received a simple burial, thus reversing the trend and setting a precedent that is still followed today.

Read It

Read through the Amidah, the central prayer of each prayer service, with commentary.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Shabbetai Zvi, False Messiah

Born in Smyrna, Turkey, in 1626, Shabbetai Zvi was considered a promising Talmudic scholar who showed strong skills in the study of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism). However, he was noted early on for somewhat erratic behavior, such as staging a “wedding” with himself as bridegroom and the Torah as bride (for which he was expelled from Salonica, Greece).

After making his way to Israel, Shabbetai Zvi met his great “prophet,” Nathan of Gaza. In 1665, Shabbetai Zvi “revealed” himself as the long awaited Messiah.

Extremely charismatic, Shabbetai Zvi drew a large following (mainly in Turkey but there were followers as far away as Amsterdam). Having declared himself Messiah, Shabbetai Zvi abolished the fast of the Ninth of Av (commemorating the destruction of the Temples) and announced that he would take back Jerusalem and re-establish the dynasty of King David.

The Land of Israel, at the time, was controlled by the Ottoman Turks, and the Sultan was not happy with Shabbetai Zvi’s declarations. The Sultan arrested Shabbetai Zvi and demanded that he either recant and convert to Islam or die. Shabbetai Zvi chose conversion.

Strangely, there were still Jews who believed that he was the Messiah. They said that Shabbetai Zvi had to enter into the depths of darkness in order to extract the sparks of good. It was only after the Sultan actually had Shabbetai Zvi beheaded that most Jews were finally convinced that he was not the Messiah. Some Jews, sadly, could not be dissuaded from their belief in Shabbetai Zvi , no matter how great the proof.

Unfortunately, many of Shabbetai Zvi’s followers had already given up their money and their homes and had gone into exile to follow him. His betrayal was devastating.

The Truth Is

Take special note to speak truthfully. Even when you worry that it will reflect poorly on something you have done, people appreciate honesty.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Ezer K'negdo

Today’s Treat begins with a short, sweet story about the great Zaddik of Jerusalem, Rabbi Aryeh Levine, and his wife, Hannah. One day, Mrs. Levine hurt her foot and needed to see a doctor. Her husband escorted her to the doctor’ s office, where they waited patiently for their turn. When they went into the exam room, the doctor asked what was the problem. Rabbi Levine looked up and said, “My wife’s foot hurts us.”

Rabbi Levine truly saw his wife as an extension of himself, and vice-versa. This is the ultimate understanding of the marriage partnership.

When God decided that it was not good for Adam to be alone, He stated: “It is not good that the human being should be alone; I will make a help-meet for him” (Genesis 2:18). What exactly is a help-meet? In Hebrew the term used is ezer-k’negdo, which is literally translated as helper-against him, seemingly a term that contradicts itself.

No one would argue against the formulation that marriage is a partnership. The Jewish perspective on this partnership, however, sheds an important light on just how that partnership works. For most people, the idea of ezer, helper, is obvious. Of course spouses are supposed to assist one another, to be there for each other in times of need.

It is, however, equally important for a spouse to be k’neged--in opposition--when it is in the other person’s best interest. After all, “helping” does not mean always agreeing. Sometimes a spouse has to force an issue, be critical, and push the partner to do the right thing. This may mean simply discouraging a spouse from wasting time/money, or something far more significant, such as confronting substance abuse. This is what a partnership is all about.

Positive Feedback

Thank your spouse for something he/she did to challenge you to be a better person.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Shtreimels and Spodiks

One of the most distinctive pieces of clothing in the diverse world of Jewish life is the shtreimel, the round fur hat worn by Chassidic men. In the modern world, where the vast majority of men go about without any head covering at all, the shtreimel is a unique symbol of the Chassidic world.

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, lived in the mid-eighteenth century in what is now the Ukraine. His followers, who became the first generation of Chassidic Rebbes, spread out across the world of Eastern European Jewry (Russia, Poland, Hungary, etc.).

The Baal Shem Tov lived in the aftermath of the Chmielnicki massacres (1648-1649) and the false Messiah, Shabbetai Tzvi, (1676), two cataclysmic events that shook the Jewish community to its core. At the heart of the Chassidic movement was the belief that the Jewish people needed to be spiritually and emotionally uplifted. The Jews of Eastern Europe needed to be reminded of their special and joyous relationship with God.

Chassidism focused on the understanding that the Jewish people were the “firstborn” children of God, and of special royal status. One method of feeling special was to honor Shabbat by wearing the finest clothes possible. In 18th century Poland, the Polish nobility wore fur hats, and so the Chassidim began to wear fur hats, shtreimels, to honor Shabbat. (Some Chassidic groups wear a taller version of a shtreimel known as a spodik, other Chassidic groups wear black, felt fedoras, instead.)

Centuries passed and fashions changed, but the shtreimel remains a distinctive feature of Chassidic dress.

Shtreimels are almost always made of real fur (sable, marten, fox, etc.) and are generally worn by Chassidic men only after marriage.

Fabric Feelings

To honor Shabbat, wear something that makes you feel like royalty.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Majority Rules

After the Torah was given, Moses served as the sole judge of the Jewish people until a judicial hierarchy was established at the suggestion of Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law. One judge was assigned to every hundred men. This judge could appeal, if necessary, to a higher court (a judge over a thousand). Only the most difficult disputes were brought to Moses for adjudication.

While this system was an improvement, it was only the first step in the development of the halachic judicial system. Eventually, the Jewish courts were constructed of three levels:

The Great Sanhedrin was composed of 71 sages and served as both a judicial court and a legislative body.

Little Sanhedrins, each composed of 23 judges, handled capital cases.

The Batei Din (plural for Bet Din, House of Judgement), however, were the most common courts. They dealt with both civil law and religious law. A bet din is composed of three judges and is the only halachic judicial system that still functions today.

The Jewish legal system was an improvement over the common ancient system that consisted of single judges, because it recognizes human fallibility. As Rabbi Ishmael ben Yosi noted (Ethics of the Fathers 4:8): “Do not judge on your own, for there is none qualified to judge alone, only the One [God]. And do not say, ‘You must accept my view,’ for this is their [the majority's] right, not yours.”

Human beings are far too easily swayed: by the tears in a litigant's eyes, by the clothing of the accuser or the title of the defendant, or, God forbid, by outright bribery. Therefore, under the bet din system, even in minor cases, a majority decision is necessary.

Summertime Safety

Teach someone to swim.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A Vow Like No Other

Jews are not ascetics. In fact, according to Jewish philosophy, the Jew’s job is to take the physical and draw out its spiritual nature. One can’t do that when trying to avoid the physical.

And yet, for some people, the physical is too great a challenge. Desire as they might to connect with God and the Divine, they find themselves brought down by the physicality around them. This feeling is at the heart of asceticism, when one tries to cut one’s self off from the physical world in order to connect more forcefully with the spiritual.

Recognizing these human impulses, God commanded Moses to instruct the people regarding the laws of the Nazarite.

Any man or woman who vows to consecrate him/herself as a Nazarite must abstain from:

1) All fruit of the vine (wine, grapes, raisins, even wine vinegar): While often used for sanctification (kiddush), wine also has the power to unleash a person’s baser instincts.

2) Allowing a razor to touch his/her head (no haircuts): Hair, for both men a women, is a symbol of vanity.

3) Contact with (or physical closeness to) a dead body: Seeing death can be an emotional liability that may lead one to focus on one’s own mortality, and thus one’s own physicality.

The time frame of this vow must be a maintained for a minimum of 30 days, but can be extended for months and years. When a Nazarite completes his/her designated time, he/she must bring a sin offering to the Holy Temple (in addition to some other offerings). One opinion as to why this is so is that it is necessary for the Nazarite to recognize that his/her desire for asceticism and for adding prohibitions that deny the physical side of life, is unhealthy and antithetical to Torah living.

Uplifting The World

Choose a physical activity that you enjoy and try to transform it into something spiritual by recognizing the Godliness in it. For instance, when eating, keep in mind that the food is going to nourish you so that you are able to do more good in the world.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Orchard

The Talmud (Chagiga 14b) tells the story of four rabbis who entered the Pardes (literally, the orchard), which is understood to be a metaphor for entering heaven through intense meditation on God’s name.

Ben Azzai gazed [at the Divine Presence - Rashi] and died. Regarding him the verse states, "Precious in the eyes of God is the death of His pious ones" (Psalms 116:15).

Ben Zoma gazed and was harmed [he lost his sanity - Rashi]. Regarding him the verse states, "Did you find honey? Eat only as much as you need, lest you be overfilled and vomit it up" (Proverbs 25:16).

Elisha ben Abuya “cut down the plantings,” which is explained to mean that he became a heretic.

Rabbi Akiva entered in peace and departed in peace.

Pardes is also an acronym for the four levels of interpreting the Torah: P’shat (literal meaning), Remez (allusions in the text), Derush (homilies that can be derived from the text) and Sohd (the mystical level) = PaRDeS.

The story of these rabbis is often considered a warning to those who wish to delve into the mystical depths of Judaism without proper preparation. According to tradition, one should not even consider studying Kaballah (mysticism) until one has learned all of Torah and is at least 40 years of age.

One would never consider studying calculus without a fundamental knowledge of algebra, nor could one understand algebra without mastering basic arithmetic. Similarly, one must be thoroughly versed in Torah knowledge before engaging in the study of Sohd, lest one misunderstand and be led astray.

Interesting Insights

Read a section of this week's Torah portion (Nasso: Numbers 4:21 - 7:89) along with some commentaries. You might be amazed at the different insights offered by the various commentators.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Abraham ben Abraham

Legend has it that Valentine Pototski, the son of a Polish nobleman, met an old Jew at a tavern and promised to convert to Judaism if the Jew convincingly argued the superiority of Judaism. Some say that the young count became interested in Judaism while studying at the University of Paris. Whatever the inspiration, Valentine went to Amsterdam, where he converted to Judaism and changed his name to Abraham ben Abraham.

Returning to Vilna (Poland), Abraham ben Abraham took up an active Jewish life of Torah study. Unfortunately, his furious father, Count Pototski, informed the Church of his son's heresy. The Church found him and demanded, under threat of death, that he forsake his Judaism and return to the Church. But, Abraham ben Abraham would have none of it.

While awaiting his execution, Abraham ben Abraham was visited by the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797, the greatest scholar of his generation), who was deeply impressed by the ger tzedek's (righteous convert) declaration that he was not afraid to die and was, in fact, proud to have the opportunity to publicly proclaim his belief in God.

On Shavuot 1749, the ger tzedek was burned at the stake. That night, several Vilna Jews, dressed as Polish peasants, slipped into the churchyard and gathered his ashes for proper Jewish burial.

The martyrdom of Abraham ben Abraham had a powerful impact on the Jews of Vilna. The Vilna Gaon requested that, upon his own death, he be buried next to Abraham ben Abraham. In fact, until his grave was desecrated and almost all of the Jews of Vilna were murdered during World War II, the Jewish community maintained the tradition, established by the Gaon, of visiting Abraham ben Abraham's grave on the anniversary of his death, the second day of Shavuot.

Waste Not, Want Not

Avoid wasting food by using leftovers creatively. For instance, leftover hamburger or meatloaf can be transformed into shepherds pie.