Thursday, May 28, 2009

Green Cheesecake at Midnight?

The holiday of Shavuot has three well-known, and well-loved, customs:

Decorating our homes and synagogues with plants and flowers: According to the Midrash, at the time of the giving of the Torah, Mount Sinai burst forth in blossoms of verdant greenery, covered with plants and flowers. This is the basis for the custom of decorating our homes and synagogues with plants and flowers on Shavuot.

Dairy Foods: On Shavuot, it is customary to eat dairy foods – cheesecake and blintzes being particular favorites.

Among the reasons given for this custom are:

Once the Torah was given, the Israelites refrained from eating meat because they needed to learn the laws of kosher slaughter and to properly kasher their utensils. They specifically chose to eat dairy and give themselves the time necessary to learn the laws.

On a more mystical level, the gematria (numeric value of the Hebrew letters) of the word chalav, milk, is 40. Forty, of course, corresponds to the forty days and nights that Moses spent on Mount Sinai learning the Torah.

All-Night Learning: To demonstrate our love for Torah and our appreciation for God's revelation on Mount Sinai, it is customary to stay up all night on the first night of Shavuot either studying Torah, listening to lectures on Torah topics, or simply discussing Jewish ideas.

Another reason given for the custom of learning all night is to atone for the apathy of the Israelites, who actually overslept on the morning that they were to receive the Torah, rather than being wide awake in excited anticipation.

For further explanations of these customs, please visit the National Jewish Outreach Program’s Shavuot website. (The customs are at the bottom of the page.)

Jewish Treats and the National Jewish Outreach Program wishes you a chag samayach (happy holiday). Jewish Treats will return on Monday.

Temptation

Prepare or purchase some delicious cheesecake for Shavuot. Click here for some recipes.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Book of Ruth

Ruth was the Moabite wife of Machlon, one of the sons of Elimelech and Naomi, a wealthy couple who had fled Bethlehem during a bitter famine and settled in Moab, a neighboring country with which Israel had a history of conflict.

When Elimelech and his two sons died, Naomi chose to return to her homeland. Her two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, decided to go with her. When they reached Israel, however, Naomi urged them to go back to their fathers’ homes. Orpah did leave. Ruth refused, declaring: "Where you [Naomi] go, I shall go, your people will be my people, your land will be my land, and your God will be my God."

Upon their return to Bethlehem, Ruth and Naomi lived a lonely and impoverished life. People resented that Naomi’s family had fled the famine, and they did not trust her Moabite daughter-in-law. To keep from starving, Ruth gathered excess barley that fell during the harvest in the field of Boaz, a relative of Elimelech. Boaz noticed Ruth’s unique qualities of modesty, loyalty and humility and encouraged her to continue gleaning in his field until the end of the harvest.

In the meantime, the elders of Bethlehem debated whether Ruth was a true convert and whether she could marry a Jewish man. Naomi, however, knew that Ruth was devout and sincere. She directed Ruth to go to the ceremony at the close of the threshing and seek out Boaz, who had been so kind to them. She told Ruth to present herself to him as a potential mate and assured Ruth that Boaz would take care of her.

That night, Ruth demurely waited at Boaz’s feet, signaling her intentions. Boaz, who was much older, an established landowner and a leader in the community, had not thought of himself as a possible suitor until that night.

Boaz and Ruth married and their son, Oved, was the grandfather of King David.

For a more detailed (an illustrated) outline of the Book of Ruth, please visit the National Jewish Outreach Program's special Shavuot website.

Mind Your Manners

When or if you meet someone who has converted to Judaism, remember that it is inconsiderate and unseemly (not to mention prohibited by Torah law) to interrogate a convert on his/her background.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Preparing for the Torah

Shortly after the Israelites encamped at the base of Mount Sinai, they agreed to accept the Torah and do all that God had commanded. And so, God declared that He would bring Himself, in the form of a thick cloud, close to the people, that they might hear Him speak. First, however, God instructed Moses that the people must prepare themselves.

There is no way to describe the effects of being in the presence of God because there is no human being alive today who has experienced this level of holiness. In fact, Moses was the only prophet who had direct interaction with God, and God’s Presence at Mount Sinai when the Torah was given was a one-time-only event.

However, it is understood that being in the Divine Presence requires preparation, both physical and spiritual. Therefore, the Israelites, under the guidance of Moses, prepared themselves for three days. They washed their clothes and prepared their souls.

It was not just the people who needed to be prepared. God’s presence affected the inanimate earth as well. The Israelites were instructed, under threat of death, not to go up, or even draw close to, the mountain until the shofar was sounded.

The three days preceding Shavuot (Sivan 3, 4 and 5) are known as Sh'loshet Yemei Hagbalah, the three days of boundaries. These three days were, and still are, days of preparation. Today, while we do not stand at the physical base of Mount Sinai, we can, and should, prepare ourselves to ascend to a higher level of spirituality and religious commitment on Shavuot.

Today is the first day of the Sh'loshet Yemei Hagbolah, the three days of preparation. The holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates the receiving of the Torah, begins on Thursday night.

Preparations

Prepare for Shavuot by learning more about the holiday. You can start at the National Jewish Outreach Program's special Shavuot website.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Day of Distinction

On the first day of Sivan in the year 2448 (Jewish calendar), only seven weeks after leaving Egypt, the Israelites reached the Wilderness of Sinai. On the desert plain around the mountain, they set up camp and watched as Moses set off toward the mountain to hear God's will.

The next morning, Moses called for the elders of Israel and transmitted God's message to them (which they then related to the rest of the nation). God had instructed Moses to tell the Israelites:

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings, and brought you to Myself. Now, therefore, if you will listen to My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own treasure from among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation (Exodus 19:4-6).

On that day, 2 Sivan 2448, the Israelites made the most monumental decision in history. They chose to become a people with a distinct and direct relationship with God. They chose to become God's servants, to follow His rules and to faithfully serve Him. They chose to strive for holiness. On the second of Sivan, they chose to be “chosen” when they responded with one voice: “All that God has spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8).

The second day of Sivan is not marked as a holiday, as is the sixth of Sivan (Shavuot), the day on which the Israelites actually received the Torah. However, to honor the agreement that was presented and accepted on this day, the second of Sivan is know as Yom Ha'meyuchas, the Day of Distinction.

Make A Choice

Make a decision to do something special for the upcoming holiday of Shavuot.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Name Jerusalem

Initially, King David ruled from Hebron, but Hebron was not the ideal location for the seat of government. Not only was Hebron in the southern-most part of the Israelite kingdom, but it was deep in the heart of the territory of Judah. When trying to create a united kingdom, ruling from within one’s own tribal stronghold is not particularly astute. The ideal capital for a united kingdom would be a central city that was not yet claimed by any of the tribes (There were still several remaining foreign enclaves within the kingdom).

On the northern border of Judah there existed just such a city. Jerusalem (as we now call it) was a Jebusite city situated on the border of Judah and Benjamin (the tribe from which King Saul had come). So “the king and his men went to Jerusalem [and battled] against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land...Nevertheless David took the stronghold of Zion; the same is the City of David” (II Samuel 5:6-7).

The geographical spot on which Jebusites had built their city had already achieved acclaim in the days of Abraham. According to the sages, this was the place from where Malchizedek, King of Shalem, “brought forth [to Abraham] bread and wine; and he was the priest of God the Most High” (Genesis 14:18). The word “shalem” can be translated as both peace and as wholeness.

This same location is later called Mount Moriah, and was the site of the binding of Isaac. At that time, “Abraham called the name of that place Hashem-Yirah; as it is said to this day: ‘On the mount where God is seen’” (Genesis 22:14).

This city therefore came to be called a combination of these two names, Yirah (He will see) and Shalem (peace/wholeness), or Yerushalayim (Jerusalem). (Source Midrash Genesis Rabbah 56.)

Jerusalem Day

Today is Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, commemorating the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967. Learn more about the holiday by clicking here. .

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Feast of Weeks

Shavuot, which we begin celebrating next Thursday night (May 28), is the only holiday not listed in the Torah by the date on which it is to be observed. Rather, the Torah instructed that this festival take place on the day after the 49th day after the first day of Passover (see Counting of the Omer), the day on which the Omer Sacrifice was offered. The name Shavuot, therefore, reflects the fact that this holiday occurs seven complete weeks (shavuot) after Passover. In mystical terms, the number 7 represents the natural order of things, and so, a complete, natural cycle has occurred.

The natural cycle that has been completed is agricultural. Therefore the holiday is also called Chag Ha'bikurim, The Holiday of the First Fruits, and is the time when the offering of the First Fruit of the harvest was brought to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem as a gesture of thanksgiving for the successful yield.

Seven times seven days, the count of 49, expresses the natural cycle, but Shavuot takes place one day after the seven weeks--one step beyond the natural cycle. It is, therefore, also representative of an event beyond nature as well.

When the Israelites left Egypt, the people acted as though they were merely cousins bonded by mutual misery. By the end of seven weeks, however, at the base of Mount Sinai, the former slaves rose above their human limitations and, by accepting the Torah, took upon themselves a total commitment to God, thus creating the Nation of Israel. Shavuot is therefore also known as Z'man Matan Torateinu, the time of the giving of the Torah.

Like all holidays on the Jewish calendar, Shavuot celebrates both the “mundane” and the holy, and, in this way, reminds us that nothing in life is mundane.

Where You Are

Find out what your local synagogue/Jewish center is planning for the holiday.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Scholar and A Playwright

As the epicenter of the Renaissance, Italy was filled with great centers of learning and creativity during the middle centuries of the last millennium. In one of these great centers of learning, Padua, Rabbi Moses Chaim Luzzato (RaMCHaL) was born in 1707.

In his early 20s, Ramchal gained notoriety for writing and teaching about Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. Alas, he lived in the era just after the famous false Messiah, Shab'tai Tzvi, who had built and then destroyed the hopes for redemption of tens of thousands of Jews. Since Shab'tai Tzvi had also been a teacher of Kabbalah, Ramchal was suspected of Sabbetarianism by the leading Italian rabbis of the time.

Fearing excommunication, Ramchal toned down his teachings and eventually moved to Amsterdam. There, Ramchal wrote several books that are now considered masterpieces of Jewish thought. Derech Hashem, The Way of God, discusses the general basis of all existence, God's Divine Providence, prophecy, and religious observance. Mesillat Yesharim, The Path of the Just, his most famous work and a Jewish religious classic, is considered a masterpiece of ethical instruction, teaching how a person may perfect him/herself through a step-by-step process of overcoming the evil inclination.

Ramchal’s work was greatly praised by the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu Kremer, 1720 - 1797), one of the greatest Jewish scholars of all time, who said that there was not one superfluous word in Mesillat Yesharim.

In 1743, Ramchal and his family settled in Israel. In 1746, when Ramchal was 39, he and his entire family perished in a plague. Ramchal was a prolific author, writing numerous poems and at least three plays with secular motifs in addition to his insightful works of Jewish thought.

Today, the 26th of Iyar, is the anniversary of his death.

Share Your thoughts

When you learn something new, share it with others.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Hey Levi

Levi, the third son of Jacob, was a passionate man, whose zeal, when transmitted to his descendants, was focused toward God.

According to the Midrash, unlike the other Israelites, the Levites were exempt from slavery by the Egyptians. They remained at home, studying laws passed down from Jacob and were thus able to inspire and teach their fellow Israelites.

At the foot of Mount Sinai, however, their zealousness truly distinguished them from all other Israelites. Upon seeing the Golden Calf, Moses called out “Whoever is on God's side, [come] to me” (Exodus 32:26). Only Levites responded and, following Moses’ instructions, punished the idol worshipers. For their extraordinary loyalty, the Levites were specially consecrated to God.

Before his death, Moses blessed the entire nation and each of the tribes independently. Moses praised the Levites for their devotion to God, which was later transformed into the drive to educate the Children of Israel about how to serve God.

The Levites had already been designated to serve as ministers in the Tabernacle (and later in the Holy Temple). While the priests (Kohanim) performed the actual sacrifices and rituals, the Levites guarded and maintained the Tabernacle/Temple. They also served as the choir and orchestra whose songs and music accompanied the sacrifices throughout the day.

Because of their ongoing involvement with the Tabernacle/Temple and Jewish education, the Levites were not given a portion of the land. In return for their services, they received a special tithe of 10% donated from all agricultural produce of Israel.

Today, when there is no Temple in which they might serve, the Levites retain a minor role in the synagogue, receiving the second aliyah (the honor of reciting the blessings) at the Torah reading and washing the hands of the Kohanim before they recite the Priestly blessing.

Volunteer

Call your local synagogue or community organization and see if they need any volunteers.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Audio Wander

Download some of the fascinating Jewish audio classes available on the internet. Here's a link to Rabbi Buchwald's Crash Course in Basic Judaism online:

In The Wilderness

The Torah was given to the Jewish nation in the midst of the wilderness on a tiny mountain called Sinai. Throughout the Torah, however, there is much focus on the “Promised Land” and the mitzvot that can only be performed when the Israelites settle the land.
There are two significant ideas that one may learn from the fact that the Torah was given in the desert:

1) The Torah is not only for those who live in the Land of Israel. Its laws and precepts are meant to be practiced by the Jewish People no matter where they may live. (It must, of course, be noted that there are a significant number of mitzvot that can only be observed in the Land of Israel itself.)

2) Attaining possession of the Holy Land is a great reward. The Israelites spent their time in the wilderness preparing themselves, studying and practicing the laws of the Torah. The books of the Prophets, which record the history of the Jewish people following their entry into the Promised Land, teach that whenever the people strayed from the Torah, the land was conquered and the people subjugated until they mended their ways.

There is no question that the Jews are bound to the Land of Israel. This fact is evident throughout the Bible, the Talmud, the liturgy, and the extensive canon of Jewish writing. Judaism, however, is bigger than a particular location. Judaism is a way of living wherever a Jew may be.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Third Meal

“Eat [the manna] today, for today is Shabbat to God, today you will not find it in the field” (Exodus 16:25). The language Moses used to instruct the Israelites to collect enough manna for Shabbat appears, and indeed is, repetitive.

The repetition three times of the the Hebrew word “Hayom” (today) is seen as an allusion to the three meals of Shabbat. Friday dinner and Shabbat lunch are the well-known feasts of the weekly holiday. But what is the third meal?

Seudah Shlishit and Shalosh Seudot are the two Hebrew names given to the third meal of Shabbat. Seudah Shlishit should be started before sunset on Saturday afternoon. There is no formal kiddush recited at Seudah Shlishit, and there are varying opinions whether two complete loaves of bread are absolutely necessary for this meal. The actual fare of Seudah Shlishit varies depending on custom and personal taste, but often it is a simpler meal than the other two Shabbat meals.

It is customary to continue this meal into Saturday night as a means of extending Shabbat, and it is often eaten in the synagogue between the afternoon and evening service.

Seudah Shlishit is followed by the evening service (Maariv) and by Havdallah (concluding Shabbat ceremony). Zemirot (songs) sung at Seudah Shlishit are usually slow tunes that demonstrate a longing for a continued communion with holiness.Two of the best known songs are:

1) Mizmor L’David - Psalm 23, Mizmor L’David, is generally repeated 3 times during Seudah Shlishit. This psalm expresses our love for God as the Shepherd of the Jewish people.

2) Yedid Nefesh - This song was written by Rabbi Eliezer Azikri (16th century). The first letters of each paragraph are in acrostic form and spell out the Hebrew name for God. This zemer underscores the Jew’s intense yearning to attain a spiritual relationship with God.

Simple Supper

Prepare some tuna salad and egg salad and invite some neighbors over for Saturday supper.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Henna

While all Jewish weddings are centered around the chuppah (wedding canopy), the ketubah (wedding contract) and the ring, each Jewish community has its own unique customs. Of all the varying customs, few compare in beauty and spirit to the Henna ceremonies of the Yemenite and North African Jewish communities.

The Henna ceremony is held a week or so before the actual wedding. During the ceremony, the hands and feet of the bride and her guests (and, in some communities, the groom as well) are decorated in intricate designs with henna, a red dye made from crushed henna leaves.

In the Moroccan tradition, the bride wears a Traje de Berberisca - an intricately designed gown. She also wears a magnificent foot high crown embellished with beads and jewels. During the Yemenite Henna ceremony, the bride wears up to three different traditional costumes, each distinct and elaborate, and decorated with coins and beads (making the dresses quite heavy, as well.) In Yemenite ceremonies, the groom also dons an elaborate costume (but only one). The customs in other communities are similar.

During the ceremony, the guests and relatives sing and make the ululations [wailing noises] to express their happiness about the bride’s imminent marriage. There is much music and dancing, as well as an elaborate feast.

According to tradition, the Henna ceremony is a way of preparing the bride for her departure from her family, and the Henna, pronounced in Hebrew Chenah, represents the three mitzvot specifically connected to women: Challah (separating the challah), Nida (family purity) and Hadlakat Nayrot (lighting Shabbat candles).

Henna, the plant, is mentioned several times in the Bible. In particular, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, France, 11th century) commented that clusters of Henna flowers are a metaphor for forgiveness and absolution, showing that God forgave those who tested Him in the wilderness. So too the bride and groom are given a clean slate with which to begin their lives together.

Happy Here, Happy There

Join in community celebrations such as weddings. Your joy increases the joy of the celebrant(s).

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Littlest Mountain

When the Israelites were gathered at Mount Sinai, God gave them the Torah.

Scholars and academics have spent lifetimes debating the exact location of Mount Sinai. The Sinai peninsula is covered with mountains, some wide and flat, others tall and rugged. Trying to establish which mountain is actually Sinai based on the fact that the Jews converged on Mount Sinai just short of 7 weeks after leaving Egypt, is almost impossible given the many different factors such as speed, route taken and stops made.

There is a mountain on the Sinai peninsula that is called Mount Sinai (in Arabic Jebel Musa, the mountain of Moses), but many doubt that this is the true location.

What do you picture when you think of Mount Sinai? Given the important event that occurred there, most would assume that it was a tall, grand mountain when, in fact, it was just the opposite: The Midrash relates that all of the tall mountains fought to be chosen as the location for the giving of the Torah. Mount Sinai, knowing that it was the smallest of the mountains, remained silent, and God chose Sinai because of its simple humility.

The allegories of the Midrash are not whimsical fancies, but are an important means of teaching critical life lessons. Judaism considers humility to be a most important character trait. Moses is described as the most humble human who walked the earth. However, being humble, according to the Torah, does not mean making one’s self a doormat. Rather, a humble person will know his/her own strengths and self-worth (as well as his/her weaknesses), and will not need others to acknowledge his/her significance.

Self-Esteem

Write a list of things about yourself of which you are proud. When you have a bad day, refer to the list to help you remember how important you are.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

"The Splendor"

While the study of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) has always been a part of Torah study, it only gained public prominence in the early 14th century when a Spanish rabbi, Moses de Leon, published the Midrash de Shimon bar Yochai, better known today as the Zohar.

According to Rabbi de Leon, the Zohar was a compilation of the teachings of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi) that were recorded by his son Elazar and his disciples shortly before the great sage’s death. Jewish tradition believes that these teachings were given to him by the prophet Elijah while Rashbi and his son lived in a cave for 13 years, hiding from the Romans.

The origin of the Zohar was, and remains, a controversy. Many believe that it was actually written by Moses de Leon, while others firmly accept de Leon’s attribution of the text to an ancient manuscript by Rashbi.

The Zohar, which means "The Splendor" or "The Brilliance," contains a mystical discussion of God, the structure of the universe, the nature of souls, sin, redemption, good and evil and related topics. It is written in Aramaic and Hebrew, and is structured around the weekly Torah portions. Numerous commentaries have been written that are studied alongside it.

Kabbalah, and thus the Zohar, views the world from a spiritually-oriented perspective. Every action in the world has an equal spiritual reaction that affects the world. Each person has the ability to bring the Divine closer, or to push the Divine away. The mystical allegory in the Zohar is based on the principle that all visible things, including natural phenomena, have both an exoteric reality and an esoteric reality. (If you cannot understand the last few sentences, not to worry, you’re in good company - after all, it’s mystical!)

Celebrate

Turn on some music and enjoy the happiness of Lag Ba'omer.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Lag Ba'omer

The period of mourning (for the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva who died of plague) associated with Sefirat Ha’omer ends on the 33rd day of the Omer, a day known as Lag Ba’omer. In Hebrew, every letter has a numerical value. "Lamed" equals 30, and "Gimmel" equals 3, thus Lag (spelled Lamed Gimmel) Ba'omer, literally means 33 (days) in the Omer.

Because the mourning period is now over, Lag Ba’omer is a popular date for weddings (which are not held during Sefirat Ha’omer) and haircuts. Many have the custom not to cut a boy's hair until he is three years old, the age at which the child first begins to learn Torah. Since haircuts are delayed until after the period of mourning, and because there is Kabbalistic significance to hair, many put off the hair-cutting ceremony, called an Upsherin, until Lag B'Omer.

Lag Ba’Omer is also the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the famed Kabbalist who revealed his teachings in the Zohar. In Israel, tens of thousands of people travel to Mount Meron (near Safed) to observe his yahrtzeit near the cave in which he was buried. Per his deathbed request, his death is celebrated, rather than mourned.

It is also common for families and friends to gather together for a bonfire and/or picnic on Lag B'Omer, often on Mount Meron. There are several reasons given for this custom. One is that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s Zohar translates to “shining light,” and bonfires bring light to the world.

A Log For The Omer

If you can't get to a bonfire tonight in honor of Lag Ba'omer, light a fire in your fireplace or plan on making a barbeque for dinner tomorrow evening.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Thank You, Mom

Don’t forget to call your mother on Sunday, or send her flowers or a card. For those very, very out of the loop, Sunday is Mother’s Day. Mother’s Day is a day set aside to show the moms in our lives how much we appreciate them. It’s a sweet and wonderful idea...but according to the Torah, every day is Mother’s Day.

The very first commandment that God gave to Adam was to “be fruitful and multiply.” Traditionally, this mitzvah is only considered obligatory upon men, not women.

This seems strange. After all, women are the ones who carry the children in the womb, nourish the infants from their breasts, and, traditionally, take the brunt of the child-rearing responsibility. If anything, p’ru u’rvu,” be fruitful and multiply, should be a woman’s mitzvah!

According to the sages, however, the mitzvah of p’ru u’rvu is not obligatory on a woman because of the inherent dangers in childbirth. It has only been in the last 100 years or so that the number of fatalities during birth has become minimal, and Torah law does not command people to put themselves in life-threatening situations.

Perhaps, however, the danger inherent in motherhood is not just physical. Motherhood changes a person, restricts her and demands that she sacrifice many of the things she most values in life (sleep, independence, etc.). At the same time, through motherhood, a woman has the chance to not only experience the immense power of creation, but also to emulate God's endless ability to give.

Motherhood, therefore, is both a choice and an opportunity. And it is because of this choice, and the sacrifices inherent therein, that one must give his/her mother honor, respect and even gratitude, not just on Mother’s Day, but everyday.

The Giving Gift

Give back to your mother in a special way by making a charitable donation in her honor (or memory). Jewish Treats/National Jewish Outreach Program is happy to help, of course: www.njop.org.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Second Passover

On the first anniversary of the exodus from Egypt, the Children of Israel prepared to celebrate their first Passover as free people. God decreed that they should eat matzah and maror (bitter herbs) in commemoration of the great event, and, most importantly, that the Israelites should all partake of the Passover sacrifice (lamb).

On the eve of the second Passover, Moses was approached by a group of distraught men. “We are unclean because of the dead body of a man; why are we being held back so that we cannot bring the offering of God in its appointed time among the children of Israel” (Numbers 9:7)?

Contact with the dead rendered a person tamei, spiritually impure, and any person who was tamei was forbidden to partake of the Passover lamb.

In response to their plea, Moses sought instruction from God. God responded that anyone who was tamei due to contact with death or who was on a distant journey at the time of the Passover offering (14th of Nisan), was then obligated to offer the Passover lamb one month later, on the 14th of Iyar. Those celebrating “Pesach Shaynee” (the Second Passover) must eat the meat of the sacrifice together with matzah and maror, exactly as on a regular Passover.

Today, without a Temple, no one is able to bring a Passover sacrifice and everyone is in some state of tumah (ritual impurity). Thus the laws of Pesach Shaynee have little practical effect in day to day Jewish life. However, there is a custom to eat some matzah on the 14th of Iyar to mark the date of Pesach Shaynee for ourselves and for future generations.

More Matzah

Tomorrow, bring a box of matzah to work to share with your Jewish co-workers in honor of Pesach Shaynee.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

When Funerals Are Forbidden

Any man who is a patrilineal descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses, is deemed to be a kohain, a member of the priestly family of Israel. Aaron and his sons were called upon by God to take charge of the service in the Tabernacle, and later the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. In exchange for this great honor, however, the priests were also given more restrictions in their day-to-day lives than the other Children of Israel.

Because the kohanim (priests) worked in the Temple, it was necessary that they avoid carrying any spiritual uncleanliness into the Temple boundaries. While it is virtually impossible to explain the concept of spiritual cleanliness or uncleanliness within the limits of a Jewish Treat, it can be stated that association with death and dead bodies is one way to acquire spiritual impurity (tumah). A kohain is therefore forbidden from touching a corpse or being in an enclosed area where a dead body is present.

At first glance, this seems to be a rather simple rule. After all, not many people are excited about dead bodies. But what about funerals? A kohain may not attend any funerals, with the exception of: his mother, father, son, daughter, brother; unmarried sister and wife. And, in the times of the Holy Temple, the Kohain Gadol (High Priest) was not permitted to attend any funerals at all.

While we no longer have the Temple service, the prohibition still remains in effect, as does the elevated status of the kohain (who is often given special honors during rituals and services).

For possible reasons for these priestly restrictions, read Rabbi Buchwald’s parasha analysis in the following articles:
”Death, and the Kohanim--the Children of Aaron"
"Priests and Death: An Unusual Relationship"

Deepest Condolences

When someone you know suffers the loss of a relative, pay a shiva call, or, at the very least, send an expression of your condolences.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Who Was Rabbi Akiva

Akiva ben Yosef was once an ignorant and illiterate shepherd. So poor and downtrodden a figure was Akiva that his extremely wealthy father-in-law disinherited Akiva’s wife, Rachel, for marrying him.

At the age of forty, Akiva's life changed. While tending his flocks, he noticed a rock with a hole going straight through it. This hole was created by constantly dripping water. Akiva decided then and there to go and study Torah. If dripping water could bore a hole into solid rock, then even he, a forty year old man, could learn Torah through constant effort. He had to start from scratch, for Akiva ben Yosef did not even know the aleph-bet!

Strongly encouraged by Rachel, he went to study Torah for 12 years. When he returned he overheard his wife saying that she would gladly let him learn for another 12 years. And he did. When he finally returned, he had become Rabbi Akiva, the great sage, and had acquired 24,000 students. (The majority of whom died of plague during Sefirat Ha'omer.)

Sadly, Rabbi Akiva was one 10 sages whom the Romans brutally executed for teaching Judaism. They tortured him by scraping his flesh with a large iron comb. Yet, Rabbi Akiva called out joyfully: "All my life I've been waiting to fulfill the concept, 'You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your resources.' Now I finally have the chance to fulfill those words.” With his last breath, he cried out the words of Shema (Talmud - Brachot 61b).

Like Moses, Rabbi Akiva started as a shepherd. He became one of the greatest sages of the Jewish people with enough wisdom to unravel the intricacies of the law, guide the populace and inspire future generations.

Getting Started

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Monday, May 4, 2009

Put On A Happy Face

"When one shows his teeth [smiles] to his fellow man, it is better than giving him milk to drink" (Talmud Ketubot 111b).

How does the song go? “When you’re smiling the whole world smiles with you.” And it’s true. On the whole, smiling at another person makes them smile too (unless they are in a really bad mood).

Imagine passing a smile down a street, "infecting" one person and then another. Unlike a virus, smiling is believed to have great health benefits! A wide range of professionals now believe that smiling not only makes you look better, but actually makes you feel better, perhaps even releasing a small dose of helpful endorphins.

The sages, however, were not focused on the effect that smiling had on the one who smiled, but rather on the one who received the smile.

Aside from the fact that both a toothy smile and milk are “white,” one could say that they are both nourishing. Everyone knows the health benefits of milk – how our bodies need milk's calcium and vitamins. A smile, on the other hand, is most beneficial to the soul.

Receiving a smile can change a person’s entire perspective. More than just changing a passing mood, smiles (sincerely, as is implied by the reference of showing one’s teeth) build self esteem, they change how a person views the world and how a person feels that he/she is viewed by the world.

While a cup of milk is a temporary pleasure, a sincere smile can actually change the world!

Pass It On

"Send" a smile to someone you haven't seen in a while. :)

Friday, May 1, 2009

Ethics of the Fathers

Ethics - it’s a big word in our day and age. Between political corruption and financial misdeeds, it is easy to wonder what ever happened to even the most basic ethical standards.

Although superficially it seems that the Torah’s primary focus is on civil, religious and ritual law, in actuality, the entire Torah is a blueprint for ethical living. The Mishnaic tractate of Avot (Fathers) is dedicated to the moral and practical teachings of the great sages. Because of its homespun approach and penetrating wisdom, it is probably the best known and most widely studied section of the Oral Law.

Pirkei Avot (literally, Chapter of the Fathers, but better known as Ethics of the Fathers) begins with a simple but important idea: “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, the elders to the prophets, the prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly...” While, within the Mishna itself, different rabbis are given credit for their specific comments and thoughts about life, this opening statement delineates the flow of transmission to emphasize that these statements are very much part of Torah. One cannot pick and choose to observe only certain morals and ethics. It is all part of Torah, part of the “total package” that Jews must observe.

Since the time of the Gaonim (circa 8th-10th century, Babylon), Jews have studied one chapter of Pirkei Avot each Shabbat during the six Shabbatot between Passover and Shavuot. In many communities, this custom has been extended so that Pirkei Avot is studied from Passover until Rosh Hashana. Since many synagogues study Pirkei Avot communally each Shabbat after the afternoon service, the six chapters of Avot may be found in most Shabbat prayerbooks after the Mincha service.

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A Chapter A Day

Pick up a copy of Pirkei Avot at your local library or bookstore.