Friday, February 27, 2009
This passage is the basis for Rabbi Shlomo Halevy Alkabetz’s (Israel, c.1500 - 1580) Lecha Dodi, Come My Beloved. This popular liturgical hymn captured the spirit of the Kabbalists in Safed, who would go out into the fields on Friday afternoon to greet Shabbat.
Interestingly, only the first two stanzas and the last stanza of the poem refer directly to Shabbat. (Verse 1: Guarding and Remembering Shabbat. Verse 2: Shabbat as the ancient source of blessing. Verse 9: Greeting Shabbat). The other six verses speak of the Jewish people’s longing for redemption. The connection of Shabbat and redemption is based on the Talmudic dictum (Shabbat 118b) that states: “If all Jews were to observe just two Shabbatot properly, the final redemption would occur.”
It is the refrain, however, that is best-known. Lecha Dodi Likrat Kallah, P’nei Shabbat N’kabbelah - Come my beloved, to greet the bride, let us welcome the arrival of Shabbat. The depiction of the Shabbat as a bride is based on a well-known Midrash: “Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai taught: Shabbat pleaded to the Holy One, blessed be He: ‘All [the other days] have a partner, while I have no partner!’ God responded: ‘The Jewish People will be your partner.’”
Depicting Shabbat as bride to the Jewish people is a beautiful way of describing the people’s relationship to the Seventh Day. Just as a groom goes to great lengths to make his bride feel special, so too, Jews constantly seek to enhance and beautify the celebration of Shabbat.
Lecha Dodi is sung or recited on Friday night in almost every synagogue around the world. Plan ahead and find out which synagogue near you is participating in Shabbat Across America/Canada and join them on Friday evening, March 20, 2009..
Thursday, February 26, 2009
During those hundreds of years of wandering in the wilderness and then conquering and settling the land before the First Temple was built in Jerusalem, the Shechina (Divine Presence) dwelled in the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The Mishkan was built to very exact specifications that are set down in the Torah. It was designed to be portable, so that it could easily be taken apart, carried to a new location and put together once again.
If God, as the children’s song puts it, “ is here, there and everywhere,” then why does God need a specific dwelling place? The answer is that God does not need the Mishkan or the Temple as a place to dwell, but rather that God wishes to grace the Jewish people with the special gift
of His Presence. But since God truly is everywhere, His Presence in the Mishkan /Temple might better be defined as a special concentration of the Divine.
This is a true gift, because human nature is such that a person will focus better and be more aware of his/her actions in the presence of authority--and there is obviously no higher authority than God! When the Shechina dwelt in the midst of the Jewish People, it was easier for them to strive toward holiness.
Alas, today we are without both the Mishkan and the Temple. We can, however, try to grasp an understanding of the spiritual greatness that existed then and look forward to an time when we will once again be able to experience the concentrated holiness of the Shechina.
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
The word segulah might be translated as a spiritual remedy or an auspicious tradition. In the Bible, however, it is used in the phrase Am Segulah, a treasured nation (Exodus 19:5; Deuteronomy 7:6, 14:2, 26:18), and refers to the special relationship God has with the Jewish people.
Perhaps then, a segulah might be understood to be an action that demonstrates a treasured relationship with God by doing something extra. In the case of praying or reciting the Song of Songs for 40 days, this makes immediate sense. But what about the case of the kvatter or the single woman and the bride’s jewelry as mentioned above?
In these cases, the "treasure" that is being dedicated is joy. A person who longs to be married might feel personally sad attending someone else’s wedding. Holding a piece of the bride’s jewelry, however, can help a person refocus thoughts both on the joy of the bride and groom and toward an optimism about her own future (and the same for the kvatter).
One can certainly find an abundance of segulot. And while some have a strong basis in tradition, others are old wives’ tales--and the rest fall somewhere in between. In choosing to do any segulah, be certain to check that it has a source in Jewish tradition, and always remember that the most important purpose of the segulah is drawing closer to the Divine, and not just changing one’s situation.
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
One might think that this increase in joy is because Adar is the first month of spring. While winter is not completely gone, it is certainly on its way out. That may be enough reason for others to rejoice, but the Jews have the wonderful holiday of Purim to make our spirits joyful.
Celebrated on the 14th day of the month of Adar, Purim is the holiday that commemorates good overcoming evil. In a nutshell, the story of Purim revolves around the plot, launched in the year 518 BCE by Haman (the wicked viceroy of the Persian-Median King Achashverosh), to kill all the Jews in Achashverosh’s kingdom. Haman’s hatred of the Jews reached a psychotic level when Mordechai, the leader of the Jewish community, refused to bow to him. Haman requested and was granted permission by Achashverosh to issue a decree calling for the death of all the Jews. Haman, however, was unaware that Achashverosh’s new queen, Esther, was actually Jewish and was Mordechai’s niece. With significant courage (and tremendous faith in God), Esther revealed Haman’s wicked plot to the king, thus saving the Jewish people. To read the full story of Purim, click here.
In celebration of their salvation, the Jews feasted, gave charity and exchanged gift baskets with each other. They celebrated being alive with tremendous joy and rejoiced at being part of a wonderful nation. It is the energy of their joy that permeates the entire month of Adar so that even now, 2,500 years later, when Adar begins, rejoicing is increased.
Monday, February 23, 2009
Certainly many a grandparent relishes the carefree abandon with which they may spoil a grandchild. More than that, however, grandchildren are an assurance of the future. For instance, when Jacob sees Joseph’s children (his grandchildren) he feels assured of God’s blessing that his descendants will become a great nation. Only then does Jacob request that henceforth all of Israel should bless their children through the names of these grandsons: “May God make you as Ephraim and Menashe.” A third generation insures that there will be continuity.
Despite the rumors of hassle-free enjoyment, Jewish grandparents have an important role to play in the lives of their grandchildren. As it says in Deuteronomy (4:9), “And you will teach them [the miracles of Egypt and the wilderness] to your children and to your children’s children.”
Grandparents are often able to communicate with a grandchild in a way that the child’s own parents cannot. Grandparents often show grandchildren a new perspective on both the importance and the beauty of their Jewish heritage. That is why the Torah also directs the younger generation to seek out answers from their elders (Deuteronomy 32:7): “Ask your father and he will recount it to you, your grandparents and they will tell you.”
Friday, February 20, 2009
Fish: Considered both a reminder of the creation of life (since fish were the first animals created) and of the Messianic Age (when it is said that the righteous will feast upon the Leviathan, a giant fish), fish has almost always held a special place of honor at the Shabbat table. In the Talmud (Shabbat 118b), fish is specifically mentioned as a way in which one can show delight in Shabbat, even if it is simply a bit of chopped up (gefilte) fish. Generally served as an appetizer, fish, which is never eaten together with meat, is served on separate plates and eaten with separate “fish forks” in accordance with the prescription of Maimonides.
Soup: While there is no specific source for serving chicken soup on Shabbat, it is a Friday night staple in most traditional homes.
Meat/Chicken: It is a mitzvah to enjoy Shabbat. The sages often relate the feeling of oneg (enjoyment and pleasure) to eating meat. Since meat was often financially prohibitive, chicken became a frequent substitute.
Rice/Kugel: In Sephardic homes, it is customary to have a dish that is made with rice. In Ashkenazic homes, one is often served kugel, traditionally lokshin (noodle) or potato. Kugel, similar to “pudding,” is a dish that varies greatly in its ingredients, depending upon family preferences.
“Better than your Bubby’s Chicken Soup Challenge”
Start your stovetops! NJOP is looking for the best chicken soup in America. It’s time to give some recognition to the soup maker in your life.
Visit betterthanyourbubbys.blogspot.com to check out the celebrity food experts who will choose the best chicken soup recipe and award the winner a trip to Israel. Submit your recipe now to firstname.lastname@example.org
Thursday, February 19, 2009
The most significant aspect of this half-shekel census was that it was blind to wealth. Rich or poor, each man* above the age of 20 was required to give a half-shekel coin. Exodus 30:15 states: “The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less...”
The half-shekel collection was specifically designed to be egalitarian, so that no person would stand out as an individual. Every person was (and still is) an equal part of the whole.
Parashat Shekalim is always read on Shabbat Rosh Chodesh Adar (the first day of the month of Adar) or on the Shabbat immediately preceding Rosh Chodesh. In the time of the Temple, the half-shekel was contributed by the people during the month of Adar, and the reading of Shekalim served as an announcement of the upcoming obligation.
Additionally, the section of Shekalim reminds us that Purim is soon at hand (Adar 14-this year, March 9/10). The wicked Haman offered Achashverosh 10,000 silver pieces for the right to destroy the Jews, assuming that his silver pieces would off-set the sum total of the Jews' half-shekel donations in the wilderness. Thankfully, he was wrong!
* The census counted every male over the age of 20, under the assumption that every male over the age of 20 had already established a household. Thus, the census, in effect, counted all Jewish households.
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Just as we rely on scientists and doctors to understand and explain how these micro-organisms interact with our environment, Jews rely on specialists (sages) to understand the unseen forces of the spiritual world.
For instance, the sages instruct us that before we eat a piece of food on which there is liquid, one’s hands must by ritually washed (like the washing before bread). The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (Abridged Code of Jewish Law) states: “If one eats some food which has been dipped in a liquid, or if a liquid has been poured on the food, even though one does not touch that part of the food where the liquid is, yet one must wash the hands first” without reciting a blessing. In the Talmud (Pesachim 115a), the sages discuss this law in relation to the idea that liquid on food becomes a conductor of spiritual impurities from the hand to the food.
Today, most consumers are careful to wash fruit and vegetables to rid them of any remaining pesticide residue. These chemicals are invisible to the naked eye, and yet we recognize that their dangerous residue often remains on the fruit. So too, the spiritual impurities on wet fruit are invisible to the naked eye. Since the experts (rabbis) tell us that they are dangerous, we dry the produce after washing it, as this is important for our spiritual well-being.
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
However, the mitzvah of saving a life (pikuach nefesh) is so great that it precedes most other mitzvot. So what should one do if asked to donate a kidney or part of a liver -- both forms of transplant surgery that can save a life without necessarily threatening the donor’s life?
As organ transplant procedures only began to meet with regular success in the middle of the 20th century, this is a fairly recent question for Jewish law. After ascertaining that transplant surgeries have a low rate of danger to the donor, most Jewish legal authorities determined that such procedures, while voluntary, are permissible.
Since a transplant is only done in dire circumstances, usually to save a person’s life, would one then be obligated to donate one’s organs if found compatible? The answer to this question is a resounding "No." While the medical statistics have shown that transplant procedures usually present low risk to donors, they are not risk free and Jewish law does not, and will not, require it.
Monday, February 16, 2009
In honor of Presidents’ Day, Jewish Treats presents a brief summary of how George Washington and Abraham Lincoln interacted with, and impacted on, the Jewish community.
There are no specific instances of direct interaction between George Washington and the Jews that stand out in history (although he certainly interacted with Haym Solomon, who financed the revolution). However, Washington’s letter to the Jews of Newport, RI, (written in response to their salutation to him) has become a well-known statement regarding religious freedom for all:
“...For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens....May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
There are two particular situations in which Abraham Lincoln showed himself to be a friend of the Jews:
1) In 1861, Congress passed a law that all army chaplains had to be ordained Christian ministers. When, shortly thereafter, Rev. (Rabbi) Dr. Arnold Fischer was denied a position, he brought his case before the President. Lincoln immediately acknowledged the injustice of the law. Rather than issue a specific exemption for Rabbi Fischer, Lincoln asked Congress to amend the law -- which it did.
2) In late 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant issued an order expelling all Jews from his theater of action (Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi). The cause of the order was Grant’s desire to stop the black market smuggling and selling of cotton, which he blamed on Jews. Cesar Kaskel of Paducah, KY, traveled to Washington and petitioned Lincoln, who immediately canceled Grant’s order of expulsion.
Friday, February 13, 2009
While this statement is the source of many of the customs that are practiced by those attending to a bride and groom (as to how they are treated like royalty, particularly at the wedding, and during the week after the wedding), it is also a key idea in the Jewish attitude toward marriage.
Ideally, marriage is a union in which two people become one. This does not mean that either person is subsumed into the other, but that they together form one complete unit. And yet, at the same time, this often feels contrary to human nature. That is because marriage, like all things valuable, requires work--working together and working on improving one’s self.
One of the most important tools in this process is gaining the understanding that, according to Jewish tradition, one can only come to love another by giving to them. And it takes the right attitude to be able to give in a marriage (especially when things don’t always go the way one wants).
So one might ask: For how long after the wedding is a groom equal to a king? The answer, of course, depends upon how long the husband treats his wife like a queen! Jewish wisdom teaches that if a man treats his wife like a queen--puts her ahead of himself, seeks out ways to make her life easier, buys her little presents to show that he is thinking of her--then she will naturally desire to do the same for him. And vice versa is certainly true.
Thursday, February 12, 2009
According to the sages, the first five commandments concern one’s relationship with God. The second five are concerned with interpersonal relationships. Strikingly enough, these two sets of five parallel each other:
1) I am the Lord your God and 6) Do not murder: When someone murders another person, the perpetrator, in effect, denies that the victim is created b’tzelem Eh-lokim, made in the image of G-d. A murderer assumes that there is no higher power who will either punish him/her or who will punish the person whom he/she feels has wronged him/her.
2) You shall have no idols and 7) Do not commit adultery: Just as adultery is being unfaithful to one’s spouse, worshiping idols is tantamount to being unfaithful to God.
3) Do not make a false oath and 8) Do not steal: One who swears falsely in God’s name distorts the trust that people place in God to uphold justice. One who steals twists the trust another person puts in him/her.
4) Sanctify the Sabbath and 9) Do not bear false witness: By sanctifying the Sabbath day, one bears testimony that God created the world and redeemed the Jews from Egypt. Violating the Sabbath denies both.
5) Honor your mother and father and 10) Do not covet your neighbor's possessions: By honoring our parents, we recognize God as our Creator, thereby honoring Him as well. When we covet our neighbor's possessions we deny God as the Ruler of the world and believe that we have been denied something that we deserve.
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
And yet, giving tzedakah might actually be just what is needed for self-preservation. The Talmud (Gittin 7a) says: In the yeshiva of Rabbi Yishmael it was taught: Whoever “shears” off part of his wealth and gives it to charity will be delivered from the judgment of Gehinnom. This may be compared to two sheep crossing a river, one sheared and the other not sheared; the sheared one makes it across, the unsheared one does not.
Why was the unsheared sheep unable to successfully cross the river? Because the untrimmed wool became waterlogged and weighed the sheep down.
This idea is articulated in modern terms by the statement, “You can’t take it with you.” At the end of the day, hoarding one’s wealth provides no benefit or protection for a person. Stinginess weighs a person down, and inhibits one from becoming a better person.
Giving tzedakah, on the other hand, offers a person a chance to go beyond him/herself and to recognize that helping someone else is the true wealth of life.
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
The Hora, however, is not a purely Jewish form of dance. It became a Jewish folk dance only after being adopted culturally by the Jewish communities of the Balkans (such as Romania) from the dance common to that region. In fact, the word Hora is derived from the same Greek root as the word “choreography.”
While the Hora was known in the larger Jewish community in the early 20th century, it became an authentic “Jewish dance” when the first chalutzim (pioneers) in Israel claimed it as their own. The young chalutzim found that the music of the Hora (there are many songs written for Horas) was a joyful way to release the emotions of their chosen life--which was filled with physical hardship.
The dance itself is rather simple. Hands held, the dancers form a circle. The dancers then step forward toward the right, crossing the left foot over the right. The right foot sweeps around to the right while the left foot moves back a little. The steps pick up speed and the circle begins to move. Often there will be break away groups of faster dancers who move to the middle, forming concentric circles of dancers.
While the Hora may not have begun as a Jewish dance, it is now. Performed at most Jewish weddings and celebrations, the Hora is a spirited way of expressing the joy of life.
Monday, February 9, 2009
1) In the second chapter of Genesis, humankind is instructed to not only "work" the land, but to carefully "guard" it. "And G-d put the human being in the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and to protect it"(Genesis 2:15).
2) The Bible sets as a foremost priority caring for the land by properly seeding and planting it. "When you will come into the land, and you will plant any tree for food..." (Leviticus 19:23). Planting trees is regarded as the first step in building an ecologically sound environment.
3) The Bible insists that newly planted trees must be properly protected so they may thrive--"For three years [the fruit] shall be restricted to you, it shall not be eaten" (Leviticus 19:23). In Hebrew, this mitzvah is known as orlah.
4) Even in times of war, when human lives are at stake, the Bible forbids wanton ecological destruction. Jewish armies were strictly enjoined from destroying the fruit-bearing trees of cities under siege: "When you lay siege to a city for many days to wage war against it and to capture it, you must not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them" (Deuteronomy 20:19). The rabbis warned that when a tree is cut down for no purpose its cry extends from one end of the world to another! (Me’am Loez)
For more information on Tu B'Shevat or for an outline of a Tu B'Shevat Seder, please visit www.njop.org.
Friday, February 6, 2009
Tu B'Shevat, literally, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, marks the official start of spring in Israel, even though the weather is still cold. According to Jewish tradition, this is the day on which the long dormant sap in the trees begins to flow again.
Why is Tu B'Shevat even celebrated as a holiday and elevated to the status of being one of the four New Years on the Jewish calendar? In Judaism, a holiday usually marks a day on which there is a unique connection between the spiritual and physical worlds and signals an event from which we can learn and grow.
Because of Tu B'Shevat, Jews around the world are given a moment to stop and think about the trees and the greenery around them. Spiritually, there is much that one can learn from a tree. For instance, almost every person goes through a “spiritual winter,” a time in which it is hard to connect to God or to follow religious beliefs. According to tradition, deep within each Jew there is a pintele yid (Yiddish for a "little bit of Jewish spirit"). Like the frozen sap that is thawed by the coming of spring and brings new life to the tree, the pintele yid can be ignited by a spark of inspiration and revitalize the Jewish soul.
This year, Tu B'Shevat begins on Sunday, February 8, at nightfall and ends after sunset on Monday, February 9. Some people follow the custom of eating special Israeli foods and conduct a special Tu B'Shevat Seder.
For more information on Tu B'Shevat or for an outline of a Tu B'Shevat Seder, please visit www.njop.org
Thursday, February 5, 2009
As a legislative body, the Great Sanhedrin played a critical role in interpreting Jewish law. In fact, the Torah scholarship of the 71 sages was considered so great that the members of the Great Sanhedrin were empowered to enact new laws, if necessary.
The judicial system of ancient Israel revolved around the testimony of witnesses. In order to convict a person of theft or of a physical crime, a minimum of two witnesses was necessary. To disprove his accusers, the defendant could also bring witnesses.
In capital cases, the Sanhedrin appointed different judges to investigate the evidence of both sides and report their findings to the assemblage. One interesting provision of the Sanhedrin's procedures was that if a person in a capital case was convicted unanimously, the conviction was overturned and the person was acquitted on the grounds that the defense had not been properly and thoroughly presented, as evidenced by the unanimous guilty verdict.
After the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., the Great Sanhedrin reconvened in Yavneh and afterwards in various cities in the Galilee, before being disbanded in 425 C.E.
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
While many of the other major religions of the world insist that their way of life is the only way to live, Judaism expresses a very different opinion. According to the Torah, Jewish law is the ideal way for a JEW to live, and by living that way a Jew will receive great reward in the next world. However, a non-Jew may also receive reward in the next world by faithfully following the Seven Laws of the Sons of Noah (Sheva Mitzvot Bnei Noach).
The seven laws are:
1. Prohibition of idolatry.
2. Prohibition of murder.
3. Prohibition of theft.
4. Prohibition of sexual immorality.
5. Prohibition of blasphemy.
6. Prohibition of eating flesh taken from an animal while it is still alive.
7. Requirement to have an effective judiciary to establish civil laws and enforce the preceding six laws fairly.
In recent years there has been a small, but growing, movement of non-Jewish people who observe these seven laws and have formed “Noahide” communities. They are dedicated to living their lives according the path set out by the Torah for non-Jews. These groups often associate with their local Jewish community, which supports the Noahides and gives them strength and encouragement to face the challenges of living a lifestyle that differs from the majority culture.
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
Is there any question that a woman's hair is an essential element of her beauty? Think about all those shampoo commercials where a woman seductively whips her hair about--no doubt they are playing on the attractiveness of luxurious locks.
The sages recognized the significance of hair to a woman's beauty and the role that beauty plays in married life. In the Talmud (Berachot 24a), a married woman's hair is defined as ehrva, those parts of the body that are kept covered for reasons of modesty.
The practice of women covering their hair was once a societal norm (as it still is in many non-Western countries). With the changing standards of fashion and modesty, however, different forms of hair covering are seen in the Jewish community.
In some communities, women only cover their hair in synagogue or during times of prayer/ritual, while other women may wear a hat or bandana with their own hair flowing out.
In other communities, women will wear hats or scarves with all of their hair carefully tucked out of sight. Wigs (called sheitels) are also common in such communities.
Among some sects of Chassidim, women keep their hair extremely short and wear both a wig and a hat.
The mitzvah of covering one's hair is known as kisui rosh.
Monday, February 2, 2009
This seems to be a rather limited list of therapeutic foods, especially when today we know about the phenomenal healing powers of the many vitamins and minerals that are found in foods. Blueberries have antioxidants, carrots are packed with beta-carotene and so on.
But perhaps the most surprising therapeutic food missing from the list is chicken soup. After all, isn’t chicken soup regarded as “Jewish penicillin”?
Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides/Rambam), who was both a leading 12th century Torah scholar and a renowned physician, mentioned in several of his treatises on health that chicken soup has the therapeutic virtue of balancing humors. He also recommended chicken soup to convalescents. Modern scientific studies have shown that chicken soup’s curative power is not a legend -- people really do feel better after a bowl or two.
Chicken soup’s place in Jewish life, however, is rooted in Shabbat. Ashkenazi Jews in the shtetls of Europe were often impoverished, and a chicken (or part of a chicken) boiled together with vegetables or noodles and made into soup was a special delight that could be shared with the entire family. While chicken soup does not enjoy the same status in Sephardic culture as it does in Ashkenazic homes, Sephardic cuisine also has many delicious chicken soup recipes.
Regardless of how effective chicken soup is as a cure, or exactly when chicken soup became “Jewish,” it is now a traditional food that links us to our mothers, our “bubbies” (grandmothers) and the generations of Jewish mothers who came before them, sweetly whispering “Ess, ess mayn khind!” (Eat, eat my child!).
“Better than your Bubby’s Chicken Soup Challenge”
Start your stovetops! NJOP is looking for the best chicken soup in America. It’s time to give some recognition to the soup maker in your life.
Whether you are a high school student or an investment banker, a bubby or a savvy auntie, show us what you’ve been cooking up in your kitchen. We are especially interested in a fresh twist on the traditional, so don’t be shy. Visit betterthanyourbubbys.blogspot.com for contest details and rules. Contest is open for just one month, so don’t delay. Send your recipe to email@example.com.