Monday, November 30, 2009

The Babylonian Talmud Completed

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

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

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

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

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

Study Zone

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

Friday, November 27, 2009

Twice the Tithe

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

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

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

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

A Little More

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

Thursday, November 26, 2009

It's Not A Big Chicken

If there is one thing that is guaranteed to be in supermarkets in November, it’s turkey! In fact, many supermarkets even give them away to promote large purchases of other groceries.

As you put the turkey into the oven, take a moment to think about the significance of that bird. Did you know that a vast amount of rabbinic ink has been expended in discussing the kosher status of turkey?!

While the Torah specifically identifies those features that make animals and fish kosher (chews cud and split hooves for animals, scales and fins for fish), it does not specify the identifying features of a kosher bird. Instead it states that one may eat “all the clean birds,” and then lists only the birds which one may not eat (Deuteronomy 14:11-20).

This has created a problem because not all the birds identified in the Torah’s prohibited list are known today. The Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch completed in 1563) therefore ruled that only those birds traditionally known to be eaten by Jewish communities were allowed. This included chicken and ducks.

The turkey, however, was not a traditional bird. Turkeys are indigenous to the “New World” and were not seen by European Jews until explorers brought them back from America. As turkeys became more common fare in the general European community, the rabbis began to receive questions about the bird’s kosher status.

The turkey, which shares many similarities to other known kosher birds – the nature of their stomach, the shape of their beak, the structure of their feet, and that they were not predatory – was deemed kosher by almost all authorities.

So go ahead. Stuff the bird!

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

Express Your Thanks

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

The Blessings of the Amidah: Ingathering of Exiles

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Feast of Gratitude

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

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

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

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

*Volume 3, page 59

Thank You For

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

The Morning Blessings-Blessing #7: Clothing

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Spinoza

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

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

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

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

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

Lets Get Philosophical

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

Monday, November 23, 2009

Community Ties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get Involved

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

Friday, November 20, 2009

North American Shtetl

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exploration

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

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Population Question

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

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

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

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

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

The Funniest Questions

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

The Blessings of the Amidah: Livelihood

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Keshet of Kislev

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

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

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

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

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

Rosh Chodesh Delight

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

The Morning Blessings-Blessing #6: Sight

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Friendly Emperor

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

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

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

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

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

Rosh Chodesh Club

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

Monday, November 16, 2009

Sigd, The Ethiopian Holiday

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

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

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

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

Keep It In The House

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

Friday, November 13, 2009

G-O-D

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

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

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

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

Tongue Guard

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

Sabbath Prayers: The Candle Lighting Blessing

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Rain, Rain...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks So Much

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

The Blessings of the Amidah: Healing

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

In Honor of Armistice Day: A Jewish War Hero Remembered

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honor A Hero

Ask a Jewish war veteran about his/her experiences.

The Morning Blessings: Blessing #5: For Men

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Kindness To Animals

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

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

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

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

To All Animals

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

Monday, November 9, 2009

Beyond Their Means

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Free Coffee

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

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Torah Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

Divided by Seven

To familiarize yourself with the weekly Torah portion, read one of the seven aliyot each day.

Sabbath Prayers: The Blessings Over The Torah

On Shabbat morning, seven different people are called to recite the blessings over the reading of the Torah. Each person is referred to as the oleh, "he who has come up." The blessings begin with Barchu, a call to the congregation:

Barchu et Ah'doh'nai ham’vorach.

Bless God, the Blessed One.

To which the congregation responds first and then the oleh:

Ba'ruch Ah'doh'nai ham'vorach l'olam va'ed.
Blessed is God, the Blessed One, for ever and ever.

The oleh then recites the blessing:

Ba’ruch Ah’tah Ah’doh’nai Eh’lo’hay’nu Melech ha’o’lam, asher ba'char banoo mee'kohl ha'ameem, v'natan lanoo et To'rato. Ba’ruch Ah’tah Ah’doh’nai no’tain ha'Torah.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has chosen us from all the peoples and given us His Torah. Blessed are You, Lord, Giver of the Torah.

The Torah portion is then read either by the baal korey, the official reader, or, at certain times, by the oleh. After the reading, the final blessing is recited by the oleh:

Ba’ruch Ah’tah Ah’doh’nai Eh’lo’hay’nu Melech ha’o’lam, asher natan lanoo Torat emet, v'chah'yay oh’lam na'ta b'tochaynoo. Ba’ruch Ah’tah Ah’doh’nai no’tain ha'Torah.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has given us the Torah of truth, planting eternal life in our midst. Blessed are You, Lord, Giver of the Torah.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Salt and Hospitality

The region of the Dead Sea (a.k.a. Yam Ha'melach - The Sea of Salt) was once the home of Sodom and Gomorrah, famous for their destruction by fire and brimstone, as recorded in Genesis 19. While it is well-known that these cities were “evil,” not many people are familiar with their peculiar wickedness.

Based on the midrash (legends), “inhospitable” would be an understatement for the people of Sodom. Visitors, especially those who were of no benefit to the city, were not welcome. The rabbis describe the guest “accommodations” provided to those seeking overnight hospitality: If a person was too long for the bed, the people of Sodom would cut off the “extra inches” of his feet; if they were too short, they would stretch the person on the rack.

Genesis 19 relates that angels came to Abraham’s nephew, Lot, and warned him of the city’s impending destruction. Lot, his wife and two unmarried daughters fled. On their way, Lot’s wife disobeyed the directive of the angels not to look back. When she looked, she was transformed into a pillar of salt. A seemingly strange punishment, but perhaps not...

When Lot ordered his wife to prepare a meal for the two strangers who had come to his door, she went to a neighbor to borrow salt and to complain about the guests. The news spread, and the people of Sodom came and demanded that Lot hand over his guests (for the rest of the story, see Genesis 19).

Salt is more than a seasoning. The Talmud states: “...all dishes require salt, but not all dishes require spices” (Beitzah 14a). The story of Lot’s wife, and, indeed, the incredible saltiness of Dead Sea region, remind us that hospitality and kindness to others, like salt, is a necessity, not an enhancement.

Open Door Policy

If you hear of a friend in need of hospitality (perhaps due to apartment renovations), don't hesitate to offer assistance.

The Blessings of the Amidah: Redemption from Difficulties

The nineteen blessings of the Amidah make up the core of the Jewish prayer service. The seventh blessing addresses our need for help, our need to be redeemed from difficult situations.

R’ay v’an’yaynu v’reevah ree’vaynu, oog’a’laynu m’hayrah l’ma’an sh’meh’cha, kee go’ayl chazak Ah’tah. Ba’ruch Ah’tah Ah’doh’nai go’ayl Yisrael.

Look on our affliction, plead our cause, and redeem us soon for Your name’s sake, for You are a powerful Redeemer. Blessed are You, Lord, the Redeemer of Israel.

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

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Building of Solomon's Temple

The 17th of Cheshvan marks the day on which King Solomon declared the work on the Holy Temple (Beit Hamikdash) to be complete. By then, Solomon had been king for eleven years, and the Kingdom of Israel was a well-established, glorious empire with vast territory and strong alliances.

The Temple was an impressive structure on which Solomon spent massive amounts of money. Building it took seven years of quarrying stone, transporting cedars and meticulous workmanship. The building was approximately 180 feet long, 90 feet wide, and 50 feet high (although at it’s highest point it was close to 207 feet). The labor was performed by almost the entire nation, as Solomon commandeered a work force of 30,000 men (who rotated in tri-monthly shifts of 10,000 men sent north to Lebanon to harvest the cedars), 70,000 laborers and 80,000 stonecutters. These workers were in addition to the 3,300 men overseeing the construction (I Kings 5:27-30).

While the Temple was made of immense stones and soaring logs of cedar, metal work of all kind was also necessary. Gold, silver, bronze and other metals accented the beauty of the Temple, elevating the building aesthetically and creating an awe-inspiring structure. Additionally, exquisite cloths were manufactured by the women of Israel that served as coverings and curtains in the Temple.

The building was completed on the 17th of Cheshvan, but was not consecrated for nearly one year (in Tishrei, 11 months later) while King Solomon awaited the completion of the many special Temple vessels necessary for the Divine service. Finally, when all was gathered, he had the priests bring the Holy Ark to Jerusalem to the Temple.

More Than Mazal Tov

When friends or relatives are making a simcha (special occassion such as a brit milah, bar/bat mitzvah or a wedding), do more than just offer your congratulations. Try and find a way to help them prepare, even if it's simply lending an ear or taking them out for a stress-free cup of coffee.

The Morning Blessings-Blessing #4: For Women

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

Ba’ruch Ah’tah Ah’doh’nai Eh’lo’hay’nu Melech ha’o’lam sheh’ah'sanee kir'tzo’no.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has made me according to His will.

This is a blessing said only by women. Women, according to traditional Judaism, are not obligated in as many mitzvot as men are because they are too often involved in life events that would prevent them from fulfilling the obligations at specified times. Imagine a mother with a nursing baby trying to get to synagogue in the morning. This blessing helps women understand that while they may not have the responsibilities of ritual life that men do, their roles are of equal importance!

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

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

What's In The Book: I Samuel

The First Book of Samuel concerns the establishment of the Israelite monarchy. It opens with Samuel the Prophet, the last Judge, who was raised under the tutelage of Eli, the High Priest.

When Samuel grew old, his sons’ corrupt behavior caused the elders to request that he “make us a king to judge us like all the nations.” (8:12) Samuel was not pleased with their request because the Israelites should have recognized that God was their King and that their desire to be like other nations was improper.

God, however, led Samuel to Saul, who was anointed as the first King of Israel. Saul’s extraordinary military prowess won the loyalty of the people.

Saul’s “downfall” began at the end of the war with Amalek. Although he was under strict orders to fulfill the Torah commandment to wipe out Amalek, he allowed the Amalekite king, Agag, to live. For his failure to follow God's command, Saul was informed by Samuel that his kingship would end and not become a dynasty.

The other major theme of I Samuel is Saul’s relationship with David, who was secretly anointed by Samuel to be Saul’s successor (chapter 16). David first came to Saul’s court to serve as a harpist in order to ease the king’s troubled spirits. When the Philistine giant, Goliath, challenged the Israelites to one-on-one combat, David achieved fame by killing Goliath with a sling shot.

Saul suffered from a paranoid hatred of David, whom he tried to kill. David was extremely close to Saul’s family--his best friend was the king’s son, Jonathan, and his first wife was Saul’s daughter, Michal.

The First Book of Samuel ends with the death of Saul and Jonathan during battle with the Philistines.

Related Treats:
Samuel's Mother
Samuel and Saul

Winter Charity

With the temperature dropping, donate some of your unwanted warm clothes or blankets to those in need.

The Blessings Over Food: The Final-Blessing Bo’ray Ne'fah'shoat

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). However, we only recited the full Grace After Meals/Birkat Ha’mazon after eating a meal with bread. Otherwise one makes a bracha acharona, a final blessing. For most fruits, all vegetables and the foods over which one recites a she’ha’kol blessing, the bracha acharona is referred to as Bo’ray Ne'fah'shoat:

Ba’ruch Ah’tah Ah’doh’nai Eh’lo’hay’nu Melech ha’o’lam bo’ray ne'fah'shoat rah’boat v’chesro'nan ahl kohl mah sheh’ba’rata l’ha’chayot ba’hem nefesh kohl chai. Ba’ruch chay ha’olamim.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who creates the many forms of life and their needs. For all You have created to sustain the life of all that lives, blessed be He, Giver of life to the worlds.

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

Monday, November 2, 2009

In Cases of Illness

The advances in medicine in the last century at combating illness and extending human life have been astounding. At the same time, now that we now know so much more of the causes and effects of different illnesses, that which we are unable to heal and to cure is all the more frustrating, and, of course, heart-wrenching.

Numerous websites have pointed out the strange Talmudic passage referring to “swine” flu: (Ta'anit 21b) “Once Rav Yehudah was informed of a disease amongst the swine. He decreed a fast. [The rabbis ask:] Did he do this because he believed that rampant diseases amongst one species spread to others? [They answer] No, it was because humans have similar anatomy to pigs and are likely to suffer from the same diseases.” But, it appears that Rav Yehudah was referring to a digestive ailment, not the flu.

Perhaps H1N1 is what the sages referred to as “dever.” According to the Mishna (Ta'anit 3:1), dever is defined as three deaths from an unknown disease occuring during a period of three consecutive days (meaning one death each day for three days) in a town large enough to mobilize 500 foot-soldiers. The sages were, in effect, stating that an illness is categorized by how quickly the mortality rate increases.

The debate about H1N1 and its vaccine is fierce. The Jewish answer to such a situation, beyond prayer and teshuva (repentance) is to remember the words of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides, 12th century scholar and physician), “Since maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of God ... a person must avoid that which harms the body and accustom himself to that which is helpful and helps the body become stronger” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot 4:1).

Jewish Treats wishes all of its readers good health!

Extra Caution

Since maintaing one's health is a mitzvah, make an extra effort to wash hands and avoid germs this flu season.