Monday, August 31, 2009

What's In The Book: Joshua

The Book of Joshua (Yehoshua) is the first of the ten books known as Nevi'im, the Books of the Prophets. It begins after Moses’ death, when Joshua bin Nun assumed the leadership of the Children of Israel and led the people into the promised land.

Joshua not only led the Children of Israel in their upcoming military expedition, but also served as their spiritual guide. In this new stage of the Jewish people’s experience, they would no longer have the everyday miracles (manna, water, protective cloud) of the wilderness to sustain them.

Their entry into the Land of Canaan (Chapter 3) began with a miracle. As the Ark of the Covenant was brought into the Jordan River, the waters of the Jordan stopped flowing and, as with the Red Sea, the Children of Israel crossed on dry land.

After crossing the Jordan, four days before celebrating Passover, all the men of Israel underwent circumcision, which they had been unable to perform in the wilderness due to medical considerations. They were then ready to begin conquering the Holy Land.

Much of the Book of Joshua is a detailed account of the conquest and distribution of the land to the Tribes. This includes the famous Battle of Jericho (Chapters 5 and 6). Joshua and the army of Israel circled the city seven times before sounding the shofar and watching the walls come tumbling down.

The war with the 31 Canaanite city-states lasted for 7 years. While not all cities were conquered, the Israelites became the dominant force in the land.

Once the conquest concluded, Joshua allotted the land to the various tribes. Reuben, Gad and half of the tribe of Menashe, however, settled east of the Jordan River.

Sharing

New school year...new school clothes. Give a family in need the school clothes your children have outgrown.

Friday, August 28, 2009

A Controversial Prayer

The final prayer recited at all three daily prayer services is Aleinu, a beautiful poem expressing the greatness of God, the only God. The prayer begins with the phrase: “Aleinu l'shabay’ach la’don hakol... It is our duty to praise the Master of all...” And while this seems like a common prayer theme, Aleinu was the cause of great controversy.

There are two opinions regarding the origin of Aleinu. Many sages are of the opinion that Aleinu was composed by Joshua after his victory over Jericho. Others, however, believe that it was written by Rav (a Talmudic sage).

The trouble began around the fifth century (C.E.) When an apostate Jew told the church that within Aleinu there are words that slander Christianity. The verse in question was: "Sheh’haym mishtachavim l’hevel va’rik, u’mitpall’lim el ayl lo yo’she'ah. For they bow to vanity and emptiness and pray to a god who helps not." The verse is actually a reflection of ideas found in Isaiah regarding idolatry, written hundreds of years before Christianity. However, the church was led to believe that va’rik (and emptiness) referred to Jesus, because both words have the same numeric value (when adding the value of the Hebrew letters together) of 316.

This claim was repeated over and over again throughout the centuries until, finally, in the early 1700s, Prussian Jews were physically attacked for reciting Aleinu. On August 28, 1703, the Prussian government banned the recitation of this verse and insisted that the prayer be recited by the prayer leader out loud so that government inspectors could make certain that the offending line was omitted.

The line, however, was never censored from Sephardi prayerbooks, and in the last few decades it has been reintegrated into many Ashkenazi prayerbooks as well.

Click here for a complete translation and transliteration of Aleinu.

Toast To Shabbat

Try a new kosher wine in honor of Shabbat.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Getting Married Again

Pharaoh, fearing the birth of the predicted “saviour” of the Israelites, decreed that all male Israelite babies must be cast into the Nile. Yocheved, the daughter of Levi, and her husband Amram, already the parents of Miriam and Aaron, divorced because they worried about the safety of additional children. As they were leaders in the community, the rest of the Children of Israel also separated from their spouses.

One person, however, disagreed with Amram’s logic. Miriam, possessing great wisdom for her young age (she was 5 years old), said to her father: “Father, your decree [meaning the act of divorcing Yocheved] is more severe than Pharaoh's; because Pharaoh decreed only against males whereas you have decreed against both males and females...” (Talmud Sotah 12a). Amram then remarried Yocheved, and all of the other couples remarried as well.

Tradition has it that the date of the remarriage of Amram and Yocheved was the 7th of Elul (today). As a result of their reunion, Moses was born.

In the usual "quirks" of the Jewish calendar, 7 Elul coincides with the weekly Torah reading of Ki Teitzei, in which the question of remarriage is addressed--only the question here is a much more complicated relationship: A man marries a woman but he finds in her something “unseemly” (immoral habits, according to the great commentator Rashi), so he divorces her. After she leaves her first husband’s house, the woman remarries and this second marriage also ends in a divorce (or in his death). The first husband may not, according to Torah law, remarry his previous wife after her marriage to another man.

The Torah prohibts such remarriages, knowing that whatever troubles this couple had in the past will always haunt their renewed relationship, as will the memories-good or bad-of the second marriage.

A Friend In Need

Lend an ear to a friend in need, but be careful that any advice you give is without ulterior motives.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Finders Keepers

After a visit from a close friend, a woman finds a gold bracelet on her couch. Immediately, she calls her friend and returns the bracelet. That’s a “no brainer.”

After a large luncheon at which she was a guest, a woman finds a gold bracelet on the ground in the parking lot. There is no lost and found. Should she keep it?

The Jewish laws of hashavat aveida, returning a lost object, are based on several verses in the Torah. One reference to this law is found in Deuteronomy 22:1-3:

You shall not see your brother’s ox or sheep wandering, and ignore them; you shall surely bring them back to your brother. And if your brother is far away, or you do not know him, you will bring it home to your house, and it will be with you until your brother asks for it, and then you shall give it back to him. And so shall you do with his donkey; and so shall you do with his garment; and so shall you do with every lost thing of your brother's, which he has lost, and you have found; you may not ignore it.

While the laws of hashavat aveida are quite intricate, one thing is certainly clear, “finders keepers” is not a Torah mind-set. However, neither is allowing yourself to be duped. In the case of the woman above, she would need to let it be known to those in attendance that a piece of jewelry was found, deliberately omitting specific details so that the owner could only claim the object by providing an accurate description of the lost article.

Because each case of a lost object has many nuances, Jewish Treats recommends that those who find lost objects consult with their local rabbi about the proper actions to take.

Attention to Detail

Pay attention to the objects you pick up from your desk; make sure they are actually yours.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Seeking God in Elul

Psalm 27 is read twice daily from the beginning of the month of Elul through the holiday of Sukkot in order to help each Jew connect to the beautiful relationship that one can have with the Divine.

“One thing have I asked of God, one thing do I desire: that I may dwell in the house of God all the days of my life, to behold the graciousness of God, and to visit in His temple” (27:4). This poignant phrase is an expression of the true longing that is reflected in this Psalm. While one may look to God as a protector and a savior (which, indeed, is how God is referred to through much of this Psalm), it is critical to also seek out God and to try to be close to Him:

Psalm 27 was written by King David, who certainly did not have an easy life (King Saul wanted him dead, his sons rebelled...), and yet King David remained steadfast in his faith in God. With all his troubles, David had the incredible gift of being able to look at the world and recognize the ways in which God constantly protected him. “Had I not believed that I would look upon the goodness of God in the land of the living!--Hope in the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; yea, hope in the Lord."

The month of Elul, which leads into Rosh Hashana, is a time for reflecting on the wonderful gift of having a relationship with the Divine--and how one can work to achieve that relationship.

Early Morning Reading

Take two minutes each morning (until the end of the holiday of Sukkot, October 9) and read Psalm 27.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Three Prayers

Our sages teach us that each of the three daily prayer services were established by one of the patriarchs and reflect the foremost character trait of that patriarch:

Shacharit, the morning service, was introduced by Abraham. Characterized by the trait of chesed, loving kindness, Abraham, who was deeply inspired by God, reflected the zeal and freshness of the morning. The trait of chesed is filled with emotional outpouring and inspiration. Abraham so loved serving God that as soon as he awoke he wanted to share his thanks and praise. The morning service is our attempt to mimic this zeal.

Mincha, the afternoon service, was introduced by Abraham’s son, Isaac. Isaac’s dominant character trait was gevurah, inner-strength. While Abraham was inspired and externally motivated by the world he saw around him, Isaac’s trait is internal. The business of the day, the mundane activities of life, all had the potential to distract him, thus forcing him to stop and relate to God from within. Isaac, therefore, is linked to the prayer said in the midst of the day, when it is most likely that one would overlook a relationship with God.

Maariv, the evening service, was introduced by Jacob, Isaac’s son. Jacob’s dominant character trait was emet, truth. Jacob is the fusion of the external chesed and the internal gevurah –the combination of zeal and inspiration with strength and physical reality. He is the bridge to the future because he combines the two initial character traits. Jacob sought to serve God at the end of the day, when he had experienced both moments of inspired understanding and moments of deep concentration. The evening service is an opportunity to review the day and look to the future.

Thank You, Thank You, Thank You

Find time throughout the day to connect with God.

Friday, August 21, 2009

I Am To My Beloved...

The Torah verse that epitomizes the emotions of love is: “Anee l’dodi v’dodi lee” - I am to my beloved, and my beloved is to me (Song of Songs 6:3). The ideal love relationship according to the Torah is one in which both parties are willing to give themselves to their chosen partner (in a healthy way, of course). The Hebrew acronym for the verse Anee l’dodi v’dodi lee is “Elul,” the name of the Hebrew month that precedes Rosh Hashana.

When speaking of Rosh Hashana, the sages discuss the great sense of awe that one must feel. They do not, however, mean awe as in fear. Rather, they mean awe as in a sense of being overwhelmed by the greatness of God. The purpose of Rosh Hashana is not simply to make people feel guilty for their mistakes or promise to do better (although that too is important), but, as with much of Jewish life, it is to help develop each individual’s relationship with God.

To have a relationship with God, a person must recognize all of God’s roles--including King and Judge, as is the focus of Rosh Hashana. During Elul, however, we focus on God as the Beloved of the Jewish people.

In many rabbinic allegories, the Jewish people are likened to a bride while God is portrayed as the waiting groom. The Jewish people (both as individuals and as a nation) can gain the most by recognizing that God loves His people and wishes to bring blessing upon their home.

I am to my beloved, and my beloved is to me. When “I,” meaning the Jewish people, can truly give to “my beloved”, meaning God, then God will become ours in a beautiful and divine partnership.

Time for "Us"

Spend the evening celebrating your relationship with God...and have a wonderful Shabbat.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Rosh Chodesh

The very first commandment that was given to the entire Jewish nation was the commandment to celebrate the appearance of the new moon. “This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you” (Exodus 12:2). That first month was the month of Nisan, the month of Passover.

The commandment of celebrating the appearance of the new moon was the first step in the Divine plan to teach the Jewish people to be free and to be holy. By instructing the Children of Israel to mark the start of each month, to take charge of their calendars, God gave them a sense of controlling time--something that they had lacked as slaves.

Originally, Rosh Chodesh (the "head" of the month) was determined by the testimony before the Sanhedrin of witnesses that had seen the new moon. Once the testimony was accepted, hilltop fires were lit to announce the new month to neighboring communities, who spread the word in the same manner. In the year 358 C.E., however, a set lunar calendar, integrated with the solar calendar, was introduced and accepted in lieu of witnesses.

Rosh Chodesh is celebrated with the addition of Hallel (Psalms of praise), ya’aleh v’ya’vo and musaf to the prayers, as well as a general acknowledgment of it being a festive day (nicer clothes, nicer food, etc). In the times of the Temple, the day began with the sound of the shofar, and special sacrifices were offered in the Temple.

Rosh Chodesh is either one day or two, depending on the month. Rosh Chodesh Elul is celebrated for two days, the first of which is today.

In Honor of the New Month

Do something special in honor of Rosh Chodesh: have a special dinner, get together with friends, etc.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Jewish Kings For 200

It is normal for people to desire a structured government. In ancient times a monarchy was the only form of government that existed. God understood this desire and told the people of Israel, even before they entered the Promised Land, that they would want a king as well.

The king of Israel, however, had rules quite different from kings of other nations, for the ideal king of Israel would be both a spiritual and a political ruler. Therefore, God gave Israel "royal rules" (Deuteronomy 17:14-20):

First and foremost, a king of Israel had to be an Israelite, no matter how attractive a foreign candidate might seem.

Regardless of the king's fortune, God also declared that he may not own a multitude of horses. Nor was he to have a multitude of wives, no matter how politically helpful the alliances might be. In these two laws, perhaps God was trying to warn the future King Solomon of his downfall. But Solomon for all his wisdom, did not heed this advice (see Second Book of Kings).

God also directed that the king, once enthroned, must write two copies of the Torah, one to be placed in his treasury and one to have with him at all times. The constant presence of the Torah was intended to teach the king to fear God, “to keep all the words of this law and these statutes ... that his heart not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he not turn aside from the commandment, to the right hand, or to the left; to the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he and his children, in the midst of Israel" (Deuteronomy 17:20)

Act Like Royalty

Every Jew is considered the son or daughter of the King and should try behave as such.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Simeon, the Son of Jacob

Leah named her second son Simeon (ben Jacob), saying “Because God has heard that I am unloved, He has given me this one also.”

Simeon, a “hot-blooded youth,” often reacted quickly and physically, especially when paired with his brother Levi. When their sister Dinah was kidnaped by the prince of Shechem, Simeon and Levi slaughtered the men of the city, ignoring the fact that Dina’s other brothers had already convinced the residents of Shechem to circumcise themselves and live in peace with Jacob’s family (Genesis 34).

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

This “righteous temper” remained with Simeon. The Midrash identifies Simeon as the one who calls out “That dreamer is coming!” when the brothers see Joseph approaching (Genesis 37:19) and also as the one who threw Joseph into the pit. Many years later, when the brothers went down to Egypt, Joseph demanded that Simeon be imprisoned while the others returned home to get Benjamin (Genesis 42:18-24).

“Simeon and Levi are brothers; instruments of cruelty are their swords. In their secret counsel let my soul not come and my honor not be included in their congregation, for in their anger they killed a man, and deliberately crippled an ox. Cursed is their anger, for it is powerful, and their rage, for it is callous. I shall separate them within Jacob and disperse them among Israel” (Genesis 49:5 -7). On his deathbed, Jacob rebuked the brothers so that their descendants would learn that outright cruelty is a behavior foreign to our people.

Think First

Before acting on a major decision, think about how your actions will effect other people.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Heard About the Jews in Suriname?

Located on the north-east coast of South America, Suriname has a small Jewish community with a long history. Today, this smallest of South American countries has approximately 200 Jews, most of whom live in the capital city of Paramaribo. However, there are still two functioning synagogues: 1) Neve Shalom, originally built in 1719, and dedicated to the Ashkenazi community of German Jews in 1735, and 2) Zedek v-Shalom, built in the 1730s for the Sephardic (Portugese) community.

The first Jews to settle in Suriname were Sephardic Jews who had fled from Portugal to Holland and then to the Dutch colonies in Brazil. When the Portuguese defeated the Dutch and took Brazil (c.1639), these Jews fled, fearing that an Inquisition would come with the Portuguese. Another population of Jews came to Suriname along with the British, who were also settling the area.

By 1661, the Jewish community was large enough to create a community, the “Portuguese Jewish Congregation of Suriname,” and, in 1665, a synagogue building project was undertaken (completed in 1667) in Jodensavanne and named Kahal Kadosh Beracha Ve Shalom (The Holy Congregation of Blessing and Peace).

The year 1665 was also historically significant for the Jews of Suriname. On August 17, 1665, the English gave full rights to the Jews of Suriname, allowing them to practice Judaism freely and to run their own affairs. This remarkably liberal charter was allowed to stand when the Dutch conquered Suriname from the British a few years later. And while the next several centuries were not without incidents of anti-Semitism, the history of the Jews in Suriname is, in general, one of religious freedom and tolerance.

Shut The Tap

Conserve water! Taking care of the world is a mitzvah everyone can do!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Sing!

Express the joy of Shabbat by singing. You can even make up your own song.

Sing the Songs of Shabbat

Music is said to raise a person’s spirit (Berachot 57b), and there is no time more appropriate for joyousness than Shabbat, the day of rest.

To honor Shabbat, and to bring it more tranquility, more joy and more celebration, it is customary to sing special songs (known on zmirot) at the Shabbat table. As Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach sang: “The whole world is waiting/to sing the song of Shabbat.”

There are zmirot that are designated for each of the three Shabbat meals, and even post-Shabbat zmirot. Two of the most popular songs for Friday night are:

Yom Zeh L’Yisrael, in its full version, contains an acrostic of the name Yitzchak Luria Chazak, and is attributed to the Arizal, the great 16th century Kabbalistic rabbi. The song speaks of the spiritual contentment of Shabbat and also of the neshama yetayrah, the additional soul, that enters the Jew on Shabbat, to enhance his/her tranquility. It’s chorus is: Yom zeh l’Yisrael, ora v’simcha, Shabbat menucha - This day for Israel is light and gladness, Sabbath of contentment.

Menucha V’simcha, one of the shortest of the Shabbat zmirot, was written by an unknown author in the sixteenth century. The title, Menucha V’simcha, means contentment and happiness of the Sabbath day, which is the theme of the song. Its verses speak of the exaltation of God, God’s giving Israel His sacred gift (Shabbat), the strengthening power of Shabbat, and the beauty and merit of the Shabbat mitzvot.

Listen to: Yom Zeh L’Yisrael

Listen to: Menucha V’Simcha

Thursday, August 13, 2009

What Are Tefillin?


“And you shall bind them [the words that I command you today] for a sign upon your arm, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes... (Deuteronomy 6:8)”

The above verse refers to the mitzvah of tefillin (although the word tefillin does not actually appear anywhere in the text of the Torah). While repeated four times in the Torah, this very limited text is the way the mitzvah is described. Our entire understanding of tefillin’s physical form comes from the oral law, passed down from Moses to Joshua and onto the elders and the sages.

Tefillin are small black leather boxes that are strapped to the arm (tefillin shel yad) and to the head (tefillin shel rosh). The box of the tefillin shel yad (arm) has a single compartment in which is placed a single scroll containing the four Torah passages that refer to this mitzvah: Exodus 13:1-10, Exodus 13:11-16, Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Deuteronomy 11:13-21. The box of the tefillin shel rosh has four separate compartments formed from one piece of leather--each of the four Biblical sections is written on a separate scroll and placed in its own individual compartment.

In order to be kosher:

1) The scrolls with the Torah verses must be written on parchment with ink, bound by the hair of a kosher animal and wrapped in a strip of cloth.

2) The black boxes (made from the hides of kosher animals) and their stitches (sewn with the sinew of a kosher animal) must be perfectly square with an opening made for the straps. The tefillin shel rosh must have the letter shin embossed on both its right and left sides.

3) The straps must be colored black.

The common translation of tefillin is “phylacteries,” which is a Greek word meaning amulet.

To see how tefillin are prepared, visit a virtual tour of a tefillin factory.

Get Them Checked

If you own a pair of tefillin, have them checked by a local sofer (scribe) to see if they are "kosher." In older tefillin, the words on the scroll can fade or the stitching can break.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

"If It Walks Like A Duck..."

There is a famous statement attributed to the American writer James Whitcomb Riley (1849 – 1916) that asserts: “When I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck." And while that conclusion seems logically unimpeachable, the Torah makes a strong point for investigating that duck just a little more--especially when that duck attests to being a prophet.

Deuteronomy 13(:2-6) warns the Jewish people that anyone claiming to be a prophet who performs signs and wonders (“miracles” or seeing the future), but tries to entice others to worship false gods, then that person is a false prophet. No matter how convincing that so-called prophet’s magic may seem.

The first thought that passes through a modern reader’s mind pertains to the “signs and wonders.” We today are great skeptics of “magic,” but there is conclusive testimony in the Torah that there once were people who knew how to manipulate the forces of the natural world in a seemingly unnatural way. While this was a talent and a skill, it was not a sign of holiness.

More importantly, God is reminding the people that all the wonders in the world pale in comparison to what He has shown them and done for them (the Exodus, the splitting of the sea, giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, etc.), and that more important than all other things is staying true to our relationship with God.

As for the false prophet, he/she shall be put to death; because he/she spoke falsehood about the Lord ... "so shall you clear away the evil from your midst” (Deuteronomy 13:6).

Researched Giving

When deciding which charities to give to, spend a few minutes to make certain that the money is put to proper use.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Redeeming the Captive

If you’re a fan of swashbuckling historical romance novels, then you’ll know that, for much of history, there was a pretty good chance that people from all walks of life might be taken prisoner. Imprisoned in jail, held for ransom by highwaymen or taken captive by pirates at sea...all were risks that we may find hard to imagine today. Indeed, in the middle ages it was particularly common for Jews to be held for ransom, sometimes by the government itself.

Living in an era when a life of slavery was a definite possibility for one taken captive, the sages were fully aware of the perils of captivity. Indeed, Rabbah ben Mari explained (Talmud Bava Batra 8b) that captivity is worse than natural death, sword and famine, and therefore the redemption of captives is a religious duty of the greatest importance.

Maimonides (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon/Rambam Spain/Egypt/Israel 1135 - 1204) wrote that the act of pidyon shevuyim, redeeming the captive, was part of three different mitzvot in the Torah: 1) "you shall not harden your heart" (Deuteronomy 15:7); 2) "you shall not stand idly by the blood of your brother" (Leviticus 19:16); and 3) "you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18).

At the same time that the sages proclaimed the greatness of this mitzvah, they also decreed that captives should not be redeemed for more than their worth, to prevent abuses (Mishna Gittin 4:6). These limits were decreed a) for fear of burdening the community with impossible ransom obligations and b) for fear that overpaying would encourage the kidnappers to take more captives. While this concept certainly prevented some redemptions (see the story of Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg), most captives were redeemed, often from community funds specifically collected for pidyon shevuyim.

DISCUSSION POINT: In what ways can the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim be performed in the 21st century?

A Friendly Face

When someone you know is going through a rough patch, be their friend and offer your support.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Shiva Call

Consoling the mourner (often referred to as paying a shiva call) is one of the most fulfilling, and challenging, mitzvot.

One who is going to console mourners (menachem avel) should remember that this is not a social visit. The mourner(s) are not meant to serve as host(s). They will not greet those who enter, nor will they see them out.

The food at an Ashkenazic shiva house, unless clearly marked, is for the mourners, not visitors. In Sephardic communities, it is traditional to eat a variety of foods so as to make many blessings in honor of the deceased. If one wishes to bring food to a shiva house, it is advisable to speak to the person who is organizing the shiva to see what is needed.

The laws of being menachem avel stress that it is important for the visitor to follow the lead of the mourner. Therefore, it is customary not to speak until the mourner(s) opens the conversation. There may be situations in which the mourner(s) does not feel like talking and therefore says nothing to the visitor. However, the very presence of the visitor serves as a comfort. One should not speak lightheartedly in the presence of a mourner, nor make idle small talk. Visitors are encouraged to speak about the deceased with the mourner, to relate stories and fond memories of the person.

Unless there is a clear indication that the mourner wants a visitor to stay longer, 15-20 minutes is the maximum time for a shiva call.

At the end of the shiva call, it is customary in Ashkenazic communities to say: May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem (Ha’Makom yenachem etchem b'toch sh'ar aveilei Tzion vee'yerushaliyim). In Sephardic communities, it is customary to say: May you be comforted from Heaven (Tenuhamu min Hashamayim).

Condolences By Phone

If you are unable to pay a shiva visit, call and offer your condolences by telephone.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Birkat Ha'mazon

Have you ever forgotten to tip the waiter after eating at a restaurant? Probably not, because that’s society’s conventional manner of thanking the wait-staff. While we do not usually have the opportunity to thank the chefs or the farmers (or any of the other people involved in the provision of food), every Jew has the opportunity--and the obligation--to thank God for providing the food.

“Grace After Meals,” known in Hebrew as Birkat Ha’mazon and in Yiddish as Bentching, reminds us that we need to express our gratitude after eating. Birkat Ha’mazon is recited after any meal with bread, for which one would also have washed their hands and recited the ha’mo’tzee blessing over the bread. (There are shorter blessings that are recited following a snack.)

The mitzvah of making a blessing after food is a direct Torah commandment. “You will eat and be satisfied, and bless the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you” (Deuteronomy 8:10).

In actuality, Birkat Ha’mazon is a series of blessings composed by the sages.

The first blessing thanks God for giving food to the world.

The second blessing thanks God for taking the Jews out of Egypt, establishing His covenant with us and giving us the Land of Israel.

The third blessing prays for Jerusalem. After the destruction of the Temple, the words were amended to reflect a longing for the rebuilding of the city and for the coming of the Messiah.

The fourth blessing emphasizes the constant good that God renders to humankind. (This blessing was added by the rabbis approximately 65 years after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans.)

There are also special paragraphs recited on Shabbat and holidays.

Raise Your Voice

At your Shabbat meal, sing Birkat Ha'mazon aloud together with your guests.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Law of the Land

For nearly 2000 years, the Jewish people have been in exile. During this time, Jews have lived in nearly every country and under nearly every form of government, while, at the same time, maintaining their own laws as the basis for Jewish society. These Jewish laws (halacha) are based on the traditional understanding of the Torah by the great sages as set down in the Mishna and the Gemara (together called the Talmud), and later codified in the Shulchan Aruch.

The Talmud was organized and codified after the destruction of Jerusalem (70 C.E.), when the Jews were scattered across the Roman empire. Living under a foreign power, the sages recognized the importance of making clear the halacha regarding the “law of the land.”

“Dina d’malchuta dina,” the law of the land is the law, is a phrase repeated numerous times in the Talmud, and always attributed to the sage Samuel. According to Samuel, there is no question that a Jew must obey the laws of the land in which he/she resides... unless that law directly contradicts halacha (for instance a law ordering everyone to worship idols).

In certain cases, the rabbis determined that certain rulers and their unfair and harsh laws were dangerous to the Jewish people, and therefore permitted the local Jews to "skirt the laws" or even to ignore them (such as the anti-Semitic decrees of the Russian Czars). In a country like the United States, however, there is no question that dina d’malchuta dina must be strictly observed.

What does this mean? This means that being a law-abiding citizen is more that just one’s civic duty, it is one’s religious obligation as well. Taxes, civil law, even the “rules of the road” are our responsibility to uphold.

Seat Belts and Cell Phones

Obey your local traffic laws, staying safe is a mitzvah from which everyone benefits!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Tu B'Av And The Offering Of Wood

Tu B'Av, the fifteenth of Av, was celebrated in ancient times by unmarried maidens who went out on this day to dance in the vineyards hoping to be chosen by an unmarried youth to be his bride (For more information on this ceremony, please see:No Holiday As Joyous.) However, this day was marked for celebration for several other reasons.

The fifteenth day of Av marked the final day of the calendar year on which wood could be cut for the Temple sacrifices. After the fifteenth, the sun's power, which has already begun to diminish, was no longer considered strong enough to dry out the wood sufficiently (Jerusalem Talmud,Taanit 4:7).

During the rebuilding of the Temple, a wood offering ceremony was introduced. When Ezra and Nechemiah brought the people to Jerusalem, they found that more than just the Temple had been destroyed...the land itself had been laid waste. In the process of destruction, almost all of the trees had been uprooted, creating a great shortage of wood. Anyone who was able to donate wood did so, and the “wood offering” became a tradition and a great honor.

This wood offering is associated with a story of the unique heroism of the Jewish people in their desire to serve God at the Temple. Once, during the times of the Second Temple, the people were prohibited from bringing wood to the Temple by the occupying power of the time. Rather than despair, the Israelites made ladders from the wood and, when asked at the roadblocks where they were going and for what purpose they needed ladders, the Israelites replied that they were taking the ladders to retrieve fledglings from their dovecotes (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 28a). After passing the roadblocks, the ladders were disassembled and brought to the Temple.

Modern Day Tu B'Av

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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Writing On The Wall - The idiom with Jewish roots

After the great financial chaos of the last year, many people wonder why none of the brilliant financial minds saw “the writing on the wall.” This interesting and unique idiom, however, is an explanation in and of itself...for the “writing on the wall” is usually something that people misunderstand or attempt to ignore.

This famous expression is actually straight out of the Jewish Bible - here’s the story:

Belshazzar, the last king of Babylon, made a great feast and served wine in the silver and gold vessels that his father, Nebuchadnezzar, had pillaged from the Temple. While praising his false gods during the feast, Belshazzar became the first person to see “the writing on the wall.”

At the feast, a supernatural hand appeared and wrote upon the palace wall. Terrified, the king called for his wise men and astrologers and announced that whoever would read and interpret the writing would be “clothed with purple, have a chain of gold about his neck, and will rule as one of three in the kingdom.” But none of Belshazzar’s advisers had any clue as to the meaning of the words.

However, Daniel the Jew, who had come to Babylon with the exiles from Jerusalem and who was known for interpreting dreams and understanding riddles, explained the message. First, however, he accused the arrogant Belshazzar of knowing God’s power and ignoring Him. Then he read and explained the writing on the wall: “MENE MENE, TEKEL UPHARSIN.

MENE MENE - God had numbered Belshazzar’s kingdom, and brought it to an end.
TEKEL - Belshazzar has been measured and was found wanting.
UPHARSIN (based on the root–peres) - The kingdom will be divided between the Medes and Persians.

Belshazzar rewarded Daniel as he had promised. On that same night, the king was assassinated and the kingdom overthrown.

Kindness in the Office

Offer to take a new co-worker out for coffee and fill them in about what they really need to know to be part of your office's "team."

Monday, August 3, 2009

Sir Moses Montefiore

Sir Moses Montefiore (1784-1885) had an extraordinary impact on the world.

Beginning a career in general business, Montefiore quickly gained one of the 12 brokers licenses allowed to Jews on the London Exchange. When Montefiore retired from business in his early 40s, he was already a wealthy man.

Moses Montefiore’s philanthropic endeavors and his willingness to step forward to defend his fellow Jews won him great admiration and fame. He sought the liberty of Syrian Jews imprisoned in Damascus for a blood libel and went to Russia to beseech the Czar for leniency toward the Jews. He was viewed by Jews the world over as their protector and leader.

Montefiore and his wife, Judith, supported Jewish and non-Jewish institutions in England. In Ramsgate, where they lived, they built a synagogue and a Sephardic yeshiva.

Montefiore is most revered, however, for his charitable work in the land of Israel, which he personally visited seven times. He supported industry and education, but also sought to make the Jews of Israel more self sufficient. Among the famous Montefiore endeavors are the windmill in Yemin Moshe and the building of the neighborhood of Mishkenot Sha’ananim, both of which were unique for being outside the walls of the Old City.

A Sephardic Jew, Montefiore’s observance of Jewish law was strengthened by his love of the Land of Israel. He was famous for traveling in his horse drawn carriage with his own Torah and shochet (ritual slaughterer) and for bringing his own dishes and food to banquets.

Montefiore was knighted by Queen Victoria, served as the Sheriff of London and was president (1835-74) of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. In 1846, he received a baronetcy. Sir Moses Montefiore passed away just a few months before his 101st birthday.

Little Acts of Charity

Choose a local organization and commit yourself to supporting it on a regular basis.