Monday, March 29, 2010

Can You Count To 49?

There is a Biblical commandment (Leviticus 23:15) to count the 49 days that immediately follow the first night of Passover and, on the 50th night, to celebrate the holiday of Shavuot. This period of time is called Sefirat Ha'omer, the Counting of the Omer, because the counting begins on the night before the barley offering (omer) was brought to the Temple, which was on the second day of Passover.

The connection between Passover and Shavuot: The departure of the Jews from Egypt was only the beginning of the redemption. The Exodus actually culminated with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and is commemorated by the holiday of Shavuot. This connection is clearly marked by Sefirat Ha'omer, the Counting of the Omer.

How to Count the Omer: Each night, starting with the night of the second Seder, a blessing is recited and the new day is counted. The blessing is as follows:

Baruch Ah'tah Ah'doh'nai, Eh'lo'hay'nu Melech Ha'olam, asher kideshanu
b'mitzvotav v'tzeevanu al s'feerat ha'omer.

Blessed are you Lord, our God, Ruler of the world, Who sanctified us through
His commandments and commanded us, regarding the counting of the Omer.

The blessing is followed by the actual counting of the day. For example: "Today is day one of the Omer"...."Today is eight days, which are one week and one day of the Omer." The formal counting of the day is followed by a prayer for the restoration of the Temple: "May the Compassionate One return to us the service of the Temple to its place, speedily in our days. Amen, Selah!"

If a person misses the counting of a complete day, counting may be resumed on subsequent nights, however, the blessing is no longer recited.

*This Treat was originally published on April 13, 2009. It is being re-Treated to help us better understand the time between Passover and Shavuot.

Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Chart It

Set up a chart on your fridge to keep track of your daily counting of the Omer.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Fast of the Firstborn

There has always been a lot of pressure on firstborn children, as they were often expected to care for the family property or business in order to ensure stability within the community. Even in modern society, the firstborn usually receives the most attention, the most responsibility and the most mistakes.

For all those reasons (and more, we re sure), the final plague, the Death of the Firstborn, was the most devastating (even though people had died in, or as a result of, the other plagues). The Death of the Firstborn was also the first plague during which the Israelites needed to take an active role in order not to be affected (marking their doorposts with blood).

While Passover is a commemoration of the story of the Exodus, there is also a special Fast of the Firstborn, which is observed on the 14th of Nissan, the day before the first seder.* It is observed only by the firstborn. This includes minors--except that, halachically, minors (under the age of bar/bat mitzvah) are not supposed to fast. Therefore, it has become the accepted practice that the firstborn’s father fasts instead.

It is interesting to note that the Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 18:3) infers that Egyptian women/girls also died during the Death of the Firstborn, and therefore there are different opinions as to whether firstborn women/girls should fast as well (one should follow the custom of the community).

The Fast of the Firstborn begins at sunrise and ends at nightfall (with the start of the seder). It is customary, however, for those obligated to fast to attend a seudat mitzvah (the feast of a mitzvah) such as a brit milah (circumcision) or, most often, a siyyum (celebration of the completion of learning a section of Torah), which cancels the fast.

*unless it coincides with Shabbat

Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.


While only the firstborn fast on the day before Passover, remember that everyone must stop eating chametz (leaven) after the fourth hour of the day.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


From a young age, the Biblical Miriam was noted for her prophetic voice, declaring that her mother would bear a son who would redeem the Children of Israel (Talmud Megillah 14a). In fact, the Midrash tells us that, after Pharaoh decreed that all male babies be thrown into the Nile, Miriam s parents, Amram and Yocheved, divorced, leading other Israelites to divorce as well. Miriam went to her father and rebuked him, warning him that his actions would lead to the end of all Jewish babies, not just the boys. Amram and Yocheved therefore remarried.

Within the next year, Yocheved gave birth to Moses. Once again, Miriam took an active role in insuring that the prophecy was fulfilled. When the baby was pulled from the river by Pharaoh’s daughter, Miriam boldly offered to find her a Jewish nursemaid (his mom, of course) to help the child survive and thrive.

Little more is heard about Miriam until after Pharaoh finally allowed the Israelites to leave Egypt. In fact, she is not mentioned again until after the Jewish People crossed the Red Sea, when Miriam the prophetess “ ... took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam sang unto them: Sing you to the Lord, for He is highly exalted: the horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea” (Exodus 15:20-21).

Miriam’s greatness is attested to by two important incidents mentioned in the Torah. The first was that she suffered a severe case of tzara’at (i.e. spiritually induced skin affliction) when she spoke harshly about Moses--a rather severe punishment for a seemingly minor infraction. The second was that upon her death (on the 10th of Nisan), the well that had miraculously traveled with the Israelites in the Wilderness, ceased to provide water.

Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Take The Lead

Take a leading role in your community, even if it is just organizing one event at a local synagogue.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Talmud And The Popes

If the Torah is the heart of the Jewish people, then the Talmud is the spine--without either one, the Jewish people could not survive. But while the Talmud is essential for Jewish life, it is a work that became the foremost fascination for one historic dynasty --the Popes of the Middle Ages.

Whereas the Books of the Torah were part of the Christian lexicon (and so had to be respected), the Talmud was the focus of numerous attacks by the Papal See. There were disputations (the most famous was the disputation between Nachmanides and Pablo Christiani*), burnings (first occurrence in Paris in 1244) and censorship (in 1264, the Dominicans ordered the removal of passages they deemed anti-Christian ).

The sentiments of the church toward the Talmud varied according to world politics and the changing personalities of the popes. In the 1400s, a Papal Bull was issued prohibiting the Jews from reading the Talmud (which they did anyway), but, in 1520, Daniel Bomberg (a non-Jew) was permitted to print the complete Babylonian Talmud. Thirty years later, copies of the Talmud were once again burned in Rome and other cities.

Perhaps the strangest proscription against the Talmud was issued on March 24, 1564, by Pope Pius IV, who eased the restrictions of his predecessor (Pope Paul IV) and even allowed the Jews to print and study the Talmud ... with one small caveat. The Talmud itself was included in his Index Expurgatorius, a list of prohibited books, so the Talmud could only be printed without mentioning the word Talmud.

Alas, the leniencies of Pius IV were revoked by his successors. The Jewish community, as well as the Talmud, continued to thrive or struggle at the whims and predilections of the Popes.

Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Book Salvage

If you notice any old Judaica books at a garage sale or used book store, rescue them and read them.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Setting The Seder Table

Before beginning the Seder, it is important to make certain that everything necessary is available. No Seder table is complete without the following:

1) Three Unbroken (Kosher for Passover) Matzot -- One should try to use shmura (specially guarded) matzah for the Seders.

2) Wine/Grape Juice (Kosher for Passover) and wine glasses -- All participants should be given a glass or cup (minimum size of 3.3 ounces) from which to drink the required Four Cups of Wine/Grape Juice.

3) The Seder Plate -- It is traditional to place the following items on a special Seder plate:

Bay'tza / Roasted (hardboiled) Egg, symbolic of the cycle of life because of its round shape and representative of the Jewish character - the more you boil them, the harder they get.

Z'roa / Shank Bone (of a lamb or the bone of another kosher animal or fowl), representing the Passover lamb offering that we cannot bring today because of the absence of the Temple.

Maror / Bitter Herbs, reminding participants of the bitterness and pain of slavery.

Karpas / Vegetable (usually a piece of celery, parsley or potato), which is dipped in salt water as part of the Seder ritual.

Charoset, a tasty mixture of chopped walnuts, wine, cinnamon and apples, representing the mortar the Jewish slaves used to build Pharaoh s cities (recipes may vary by community).

Chazeret / Bitter Vegetable (like lettuce or celery), which is sometimes placed on the Seder Plate to remind us of the bitter lives of the Israelites as slaves.

4) Salt Water -- The karpas (vegetable) is dipped in salt water as a reminder of the tears of the Jewish slaves. Usually, the salt water is not placed on the Seder Plate, but near it.

5) Elijah's Cup -- This cup, filled with wine, is used to invite Elijah the Prophet, the harbinger of the Messianic age, to come to the Seder, and hopefully, begin our final redemption.

Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Set It Aside

Print out this checklist and review it on the day before Passover to make certain you won t be missing something at the last minute.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Development of the Haggadah

On Passover night we are commanded v'hee'ga'd'ta and you shall tell, the story of the Exodus. (Notice the shared root of hee'ga'd'ta and Haggadah.) The Passover Haggadah serves as a step-by-step guidebook for telling the story of Passover.

Before the destruction of the Holy Temple, most Jews traveled to Jerusalem to offer the Pascal lamb. Because the lamb had to be eaten before midnight, it was the common practice for several families to purchase a lamb and partake of the festive meal together while retelling the Exodus story, discussing the Midrashim (legendary commentary on the Torah) describing the Exodus, and reciting the ten plagues. These early Seders also incorporated the other basic mitzvot of the Seder: eating matzah and maror (bitter herbs) and drinking four cups of wine.

After the Second Temple was destroyed (70 C.E.) and the Jews dispersed, the oral law was written down (Mishna and Talmud) in order not to be lost to future generations. By the year 200 C.E., the basic outline of the Passover Haggadah had been set, including the order of questions and discussion (Mah Nishtana - the Four Questions).

The oldest existing Haggadah that we have today is from 8th or 9th century Palestine. While there have been modifications and additions over time (as people have added prayers of devotion and songs of praise), the basic form of the Haggadah has not changed. With the advent of the printing press in the Middle Ages, the Haggadah text was set, based on the prayer book of Rav Amram Gaon, who headed the Babylonian Yeshiva of Sura between 856-876 C.E. While certain parts of the Haggadah, such as Chahd Gad ya ( One Kid ), were not added until much later, the basic text of the Haggadah has remained the same to this day.

Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.


Review the Haggadah before Passover so that it will be familiar to you at the Seder. (Order an explanatory Haggadah from NJOP?)

Friday, March 19, 2010

Sacrifice and Innocence

Inherent in traditional Jewish thought is a longing for the Holy Temple. Many Jews long for the days when columns of smoke rose from the flames of the altar as devout worshipers brought their sacrifices to the priests.

Despite the destruction of the Temple and the cessation of animal sacrifice, thousands of pages have been written exploring and explaining the meaning of the sacrifices. On the simplest level, the Hebrew term for sacrifices is korbanot...the root of which, "k-r-v," is also the root of the word "close." The sacrifices in the Temple were meant to help the Jewish people draw close to God.

Wait...what? Let's be honest, most Jews of our era find the idea of animal sacrifice uncomfortable and strange. Killing an animal to draw close to God? But, we live in an age when a person must struggle in order to even conceive of the spiritual realm, let alone to begin to understand it. We are rational and scientific ... and, in many ways, we have lost our innocence.

In fact, Rav Assi, one of the great Talmudic sages, notes in Leviticus Rabbah 7:3, that children should first be taught the Book of Leviticus (Vayikra - the third book of the Pentateuch) rather than Genesis (Bereshit - the first book of the Pentateuch). He reasoned that the purity and innocence of childhood allowed children to have an easier time understanding the pure motives of the sacrificial service.

Because we as a people, and humankind on the whole, have lost both our innocence and much of our spiritual connectivity, it is much harder for a twenty-first century Jew to relate to the sacrificial service. It is the Jewish belief and hope, however, that someday the Temple will be rebuilt and all such esoteric matters will once again be understood.

Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Wallet Offering

Giving charity is often considered a means of attaining the atonement once accomplished by the sacrificial service.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

How Pharaoh Enslaved The Israelites

While reading the Book of Exodus, one might wonder at the swift descent of the Jewish nation from being the privileged family of the Viceroy, Joseph, to becoming downtrodden and abused slaves. Xenophobia, the fear of foreigners, is a common historical phenomenon. But, one would think that transforming a nation into slaves would take generations or result in rebellion.

The sages, however, explain in the Midrash that the Egyptians were cunning and enslaved the Jews through artifice. This is understood from Pharaoh, whose name can be broken up to mean peh rah, which means evil speech, and can be understood as well to relate to peh rach, soft speech.

Language is a powerful tool, and even Pharaoh understood this. When he decided to enslave the Jews, he declared a national week of labor during which all good citizens of the realm were to come and help in the building of the great store cities of Pithom and Ramses, with Pharaoh himself in the lead. The Jews, wanting to show their great loyalty to their host country, joined in enthusiastically. The next day, however, when the Jews arrived at the building sites, the Egyptians did not return. Shortly thereafter, the Jews found themselves surrounded by taskmasters who demanded that they perform the same amount of work that they had done on their own volition the day before. It was through soft and cunning words that Pharaoh lured the Jewish nation into slavery.

Not only is this Midrash itself interesting, but it is reflective of the importance that Jewish thought and Jewish law place on the use of words. Obviously, what Pharaoh did was wrong. In fact, Jewish law even forbids the use of words to manipulate another person into paying for lunch (let alone to enslave them).

Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Personal Assessment

If you find that you have a friend who is easy to influence, work hard at using language carefully when speaking with that person.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Oh My Gosh...Passover is Coming

The intensive physical and emotional preparations for Passover come from one seemingly simple commandment: "Seven days you will eat only matzah, but on the first day you shall have put away chametz from your houses..." (Exodus 12:15). Therefore, by the beginning of the holiday of Passover, no chametz whatsoever may be in one's possession.

What is chametz? Chametz is defined as leaven, any product in which wheat, oat, barley, spelt or rye come in contact with water for 18 minutes or longer (without kneading or manipulating). To be considered chametz, the food must be edible (defined as something that a dog would eat).

To eliminate chametz, it is necessary to clean one s home, office and even one s car. It is especially important to be particularly thorough when cleaning the kitchen and dining room areas, where food is generally found.

Once the house has been cleaned, it may be "turned over "--the kitchen converted from chametz status to "ready-for-Passover" use. "Turning over the kitchen" includes changing dishes and cookware to those reserved for Passover use and covering counters and table tops, which come in direct contact with chametz.

All food items that are actually chametz must be consumed before Passover, given away, thrown out or sold. In instances of significant monetary loss, it is customary to sell chametz through a rabbi to a non-Jew (e.g. unopened economy size boxes of cereal or bottles of scotch). For more details, please consult your local rabbi.

Any item that does not contain chametz, but is not specifically labeled Kosher for Passover, should be stored in a cabinet for the duration of the Passover holiday, and the cabinet taped closed.

Please note that this is a very brief overview. For more detailed information on Passover preparations, including the search for and burning of chametz, please visit NJOP s Passover Preparations page.

*This Treat was originally published on March 26, 2009. It is being re-Treated to help us better understand the month of Nisan and Passover.

For a look at the deeper meaning of chametz, please read Demystifying...Bedikat Chametz (The Search for Chametz), an article on NJOP’s Passover Writings page.

Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Cut The List

In preparation for Passover, remove all but the most necessary chametz items from your shopping list so that you won t have them in stock over Passover.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Teach The Girls

In the late 19th century, European Jewish communities began to notice that the younger generation of women were focused on the outside world and were no longer interested in maintaining the traditions of their foremothers.

While most people did little to change anything, one young Polish seamstress, Sarah Schenirer (1884 - 1935) not only transformed the world in which she lived, but her legacy continues to have a profound impact on Jewish life even today.

While her formal education ended at age 13, Sarah Schenirer's father provided her with Hebrew/Yiddish texts, which she studied intently. Looking around at Jewish society, she was dismayed not only at the lack of piety that she witnessed but, most critically, at the lack of knowledge. While boys were sent to yeshiva, the girls were often uneducated, even in the basic tenets of Jewish life.

Realizing that the young women were already hardened against spiritual growth, Sarah Schenirer rented a small room and began a school with 25 girls. She faced great opposition. Even her brother thought her ambitions were foolish...until the Belzer Rebbe (of whom he was a chassid) blessed her endeavor. When her school gained the endorsement of Agudath Israel, Sarah Schenirer began receiving requests from other communities to help them start schools too. These new schools, known as Bais Yaakov (House of Jacob), were staffed by her first graduates.

Sarah Schenirer dedicated herself to convincing communities of the importance of educating their daughters, traveling extensively to seek the endorsements of the great rabbis of the era. Most importantly, she had the support of the leader of the generation, the Chofetz Chaim.

At the time of Sarah Schenirer's death in 1935, Bais Yaakov had become a full-fledged movement. Today, around the world, there are hundreds of Bais Yaakov Schools dedicated to teaching Jewish girls and women.

-March is Women's History Month

Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

It's Never too Late

If you feel that you missed out on a Jewish education in your youth, find out what Jewish adult education classes are available in your community.

Monday, March 15, 2010

What's In The Book: I Kings

I Kings begins with Adonijah’s rebellion against his father, King David, the declaration of Solomon as heir to the throne, and King David’s death.

King Solomon built the Holy Temple. I Kings provides detailed architectural descriptions of the building. The completion of the Holy Temple was accompanied by great celebration.

Solomon's empire stretched from the Euphrates River to Egypt, and the many vassal states paid him tribute. Solomon married many women for political reasons. He had over 700 wives and 300 concubines, including foreign ones who brought idolatry into his palace.

Solomon’s heir, Reheboam, ignored the elders’ advice and taxed the people brutally. The people rebelled and the once united kingdom was divided. Reheboam remained king only over the Southern Kingdom composed of Judah and Benjamin, while the remaining 10 tribes formed the Northern Kingdom, ruled by Jereboam ben Nevat.

Jereboam set up two golden calves (one in Bethel and the other in Dan) in order to prevent Jews from visiting Jerusalem, announcing to the people, “Here is your God!”

The two intertwined kingdoms struggled for survival and supremacy.
Judah’s kings (mentioned in I Kings) after Reheboam were: Abija, Asa, Jehosophat.
Israel’s kings (mentioned in I Kings) after Jereboam were: Nadab, Baasha, Elah, Zimri, Omri, Ahab.

A major player in I Kings is the Prophet Elijah, who spent much of his “ministry” confronting Ahab and Jezebel (queen and pagan priestess). There are many famous stories of Elijah and his battle against the idol worship promoted by Ahab and Jezebel, including Jezebel slaughtering the priests, Elijah’s “sacrificial duel” with the idolaters, as well as of the miracle wrought by Elijah providing food for the widow of Sidon and reviving her son from death.

I Kings ends with the death of Ahab during a battle against Aram.

Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Like Royalty

All Jews are considered children of the King (i.e. God). Try to insert the ideals of royalty into your life.

Friday, March 12, 2010

You Say Tomay'to, I Say Tomah'to

Just as Jews from different countries have different ritual customs, so too do their prayerbooks have slight but important variations. The different formats of the prayer service is known as a Nusach.

Nusach Ashkenaz came from central and eastern Europe and is the shortest of the different prayer versions. While the wording and prayer order of Nusach Ashkenaz is the same in all Ashkenazic communities, the tunes of the prayers vary greatly between the communities of Germany and Western Europe and those of Eastern Europe.

Nusach Sefard, a second Central/Eastern European Ashkenazic custom, used mostly in Poland, Hungary, Romania and the Ukraine. Nusach Sefard developed after the resurgence of the study of Kabbalah under the guidance of Rabbi Isaac Luria (Safed, Israel 1534-1572), better known as the Ari. Under the premise that the Sephardic rite is more spiritual, Nusach Sefard incorporates part of the genuine Sephardic nusach into already existing Ashkenazic traditions. Almost all Chassidic sects use Nusach Sefard.

Nusach Ari is a version of Nusach Sefard specific to the Chassidic sect of Chabad Lubavitch. In 1803, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (Lubavitch) compiled a siddur including what he believed to be the most accurate recreation of the Ari and Chassidic teachings.

Nusach Teman, the rite of the Jews of Yemen, is as distinctive as their unique pronunciation. There are two versions: Baladi and Shami (incorporates some Sephardi customs).

Nusach Sepharad is from the many Sephardic communities (i.e. North Africa, Middle East, Iran, etc.), which have many different, but basically similar, nuschaot. Many of the customs that differentiate these services are not based on written texts but are oral traditions. One of the most common Sephardi nuschaot is Nusach Edot Hamizrach, which originated in Iraq, but has grown in influence in the State of Israel.

Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

What They Did, What They Do

Try to discover what nusach your ancestors used and what nusach is used in your community now.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Thou Shalt Take A Surname

Goldberg, Rosenstein, Feldman...typical Jewish Ashkenazi names. Historically, however, until the early Industrial era, Jews were generally known by a patronymical : Rabbi Shimon ben (son of) Gamliel, etc. This system was common in many cultures (i.e. Johnson, Ivanovich, etc.). Sometimes people were known by their geographic origins such as Benjamin of Tuleda, a famous medieval adventurer.

As societies began to urbanize, and civil entities became larger and more organized (from city-states to nations), more and more people began to use surnames. While this occurred naturally in some communities, most Jews assumed surnames by force of law. One example of such a law is the Edict Concerning the Civil Status of the Jews in the Prussian State, * issued on March 11, 1812, by King Fredrick William III. (This edict applied only to Jews who had resided under Prussian authority since before 1772.) The edict stated:

...Jews and their dependents dwelling at present in Our States, provided with general privileges, patent letters of naturalization, letters of protection and concessions, are considered as natives and as state citizens of Prussia ... The maintenance of this designation as native and state citizen is allowed only under the following obligation: that they bear strictly fixed surnames; and that they use German or another living language not only in keeping their commercial records but also in the drawing of contracts and legal declarations of intention; and they should use only German or Latin script for their signatures...

The rest of the edict enumerates the rights the Jews received.

An edict such as this one can be seen as both a way to integrate Jews into their country s culture, or as a means of forcing assimilation - that, however, becomes a discussion of opinion, philosophy and historical context.

*Text copied from:

Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

For Them To Know

Research the background to your family name(s) and share the information with the rest of your family.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Cut Off

"...Be as scrupulous in performing a 'minor' mitzvah as a 'major' one, for you do not know the reward given for the respective mitzvot. Calculate the...reward of a sin against its cost" (Ethics of the Fathers 2:1). While we do not know the full reward and punishment for each mitzvah in the Torah, there are some actions that are so severe that God Himself informs us that they are punishable by the dreaded Kareit.

Kareit, often defined as excision, is extremely hard to comprehend. In fact, the sages of the Talmud even debate what this punishment is. Many sages and rabbinic leaders have also noted that kareit may have a different effect on people today than it did in the days of the Holy Temple.

Kareit is often translated as being cut-off. It is believed that, in times when our connection to the spiritual realm was more tangible, kareit was actual death. (Not instant death, but rather death at a young age--under 60--accompanied by a lack of further offspring.) But, kareit is also understood as a spiritual excommunication, in which one's soul is cut off from God.

There are 36 crimes for which one might receive kareit, but only if one purposefully committed the transgression and did not repent for the act. Some offenses for which one is punished by kareit are: incest, eating blood, and consulting ghosts or spirits.

Almost all of the sins for which kareit is a punishment are prohibitions. However, there are two positive commandments for which kareit is the punishment when they are not fulfilled. These are (1) to have oneself circumcised (if not done when a man was a baby) and (2) to offer the Paschal lamb (when one is not in a category allowing for exemption).

Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Follow the Advice

Follow the advice of the sages and take joy in doing all mitzvot, without assessing the reward/punishment related to them individually.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Chassidim of Ger

While the Holocaust destroyed numerous chassidic communities, some of the surviving sects maintained their significance and impact after the war. Such was the case of the Ger Chassidim.

The first rebbe of Ger (aka Gur) was the Chiddushei Ha'rim* (Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter - Poland, 1799-1866), a disciple and brother-in-law of the Kotzker Rebbe, (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern - 1787-1859). When the Kotzker Rebbe died, in 1859, his followers asked the Chiddushei Ha'rim to become their new spiritual leader. Shortly after accepting the position of Rebbe, the Chiddushei Ha'rim was appointed the Rav and Av Beit Din (head of the religious court) of the town of Góra Kalwaria (known in Yiddish as Ger).

Ger chassidut is known for its focus on Torah learning and self-development. This exceptional scholarliness is reflected in the succession of Rebbes of the Ger Rabbinic dynasty. Each Rebbe in the Alter family is considered an intellectual giant.

The Chiddushei Ha'rim was succeeded by his grandson, the Sfas Emes (Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter, 1847 - 1905). He was succeeded by the Imrei Emes (Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter, 1866 - 1948), who opened a Yeshiva (named Sfas Emes after his father) in Jerusalem in 1926. The presence of this school turned out to be fortuitous, for the Ger yeshivot in Israel helped to revive the community after it was decimated in the Holocaust. (The Imrei Emes survived.)

The Imrei Emes was succeeded by : (1) the Beis Yisrael (Rabbi Yisrael Alter 1895 - 1977), (2) Lev Simcha (Rabbi Simcha Bunim Alter 1898 - 1992), (3) Pnei Menachem (Rabbi Pinchas Menachem Alter, 1926 - 1996), and (4) the current Rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter (born 1939).

Through their many schools and yeshivot, the Ger Chassidim have not only succeeded in revitalizing their community, but gained a reputation for excellence in Torah learning.

*The Rebbes are referred to by the names by which they were best known, which was usually by the name of their most popular published works.

Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Here You Are

While riding public transportation, if you see someone burdened with many bags or packages, offer them your seat (even if they aren't older, pregnant or disabled).

Monday, March 8, 2010

Her Name Was Emma

The history of the Jews in North America often reflects the "melting pot" character of its citizenry. This was particularly true of the early Sephardic settlers who maintained their Jewish identity but were rather casual about their religious practice. Such was the family of the famed American poet Emma Lazarus (1849 - 1887).

The fourth of seven children born to Moshe and Esther Lazarus, Emma's family originated in Portugal, but settled in New York during the colonial period. Initially, Emma's poetry and writing reflected the strong influence of the transcendentalists, and she was a great admirer of Ralph Waldo Emerson. However, this great interest seems to have diminished after a week in Concord, MA.

Two major factors appear to have influenced Emma Lazarus' transformation from a poet who happened to be Jewish to a Jewish poet. The first was Daniel Deronda (1876, written by George Eliot, a non-Jewish writer) a novel which not only portrayed a wide range of Jewish characters, but also had strong nationalist (pre-Zionist) sentiments. The second was the large influx of Eastern European Jewish refugees fleeing Russian pogroms. When Emma volunteered to help the refugees, her preconceived notions of her co-religionists were rapidly transformed. Emma began to write about Jewish causes and to express pride in her Judaism. She also became a firm believer in a Jewish return to Zion.

Emma Lazarus is best known for her poem "The New Colossus," which was chosen as the inscription on the base of the Statue of Liberty ("...Give me your tired, your poor...").

In 1887, Emma Lazarus, age 38, passed away from Hodgkin's Lymphoma.

March is Women's History Month.

Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Discover Poetry

For the more literary minded, research how different Jewish poets throughout the ages were influenced by their heritage.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Shalom Zachar

The first celebration in the life of a Jewish baby boy is not actually the brit milah (circumcision).

Since every Jewish boy must pass through one Shabbat before his brit milah, it is customary to host a shalom zachar (literally, "welcome male") on the first Friday night after his birth.

The tradition of the shalom zachar, which is mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, is based on several concepts:

1) A little boy is not fully part of the Jewish people until he undergoes his circumcision. Since the brit milah does not take place until the eighth day, he undoubtably celebrates his first Shabbat as an orel (one who is not circumcised), so we make it as joyful as possible.

2) Symbolically, the shalom zachar represents the opportunity for the child to be embraced by the Shabbat Malkah (Shabbat Queen) so that the holiness of the Shabbat will carry him in good health to his brit milah.

3) Playing off the homonym of zachar (male) and zachor (remember), some have explained the shalom zachar, as a special celebration to stimulate the child to remember the Torah that he was taught by the angel in the womb. For this reason, it is customary to serve chickpeas, a symbol of mourning, in recognition of the fact that the soul of the child is mourning that loss of knowledge.

At the shalom zachar, light refreshments, provided by friends of the family (or excellent pre-planning by the parents themselves), are generally served to the friends and neighbors who come. Quite often beer, wine or schnaps are on hand with which the guests can make a l'chaim to bless the baby and his family.

Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

It's Not Too Late!

In just a few more hours, hundreds of synagogues and Jewish organizations across North America will begin their Shabbat Across America and Canada celebrations. Find out if there is a location near you by clicking here

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Shield Of Our Fathers

The Talmud (Shabbat 119a) describes the various ways the sages would greet Shabbat, emphasizing particularly the custom of going out into the field just before sunset. This custom is not only the source for the well-known Friday night prayer Lecha Dodi (Come My Beloved), but also the reason for reciting the Friday night prayer known as Magen Avot, Shield of the Fathers.

Unlike the morning and afternoon services, the Amidah is not repeated by the prayer leader (after the congregation has recited it silently) during the evening service. Therefore, the service concludes almost immediately after the silent Amidah.

Because the custom was to gather in a field outside of town, safety became a concern. If the service ended too quickly, then the person who was still completing the silent Amidah, might be left alone. Therefore, the special prayer of Magen Avot was added at the very end of the service...and remained part of the service even after people stopped praying outside the town limits.

The main theme of Magen Avot, which is recited by both the congregation and the prayer leader, is actually an encapsulation of the Friday night Amidah:

By His word, He was the Shield of our ancestors. By His promise, He will revive the dead. There is none like the holy God Who gives rest to His people on His holy Sabbath day, for He found them worthy of His favor to give them rest. Before Him we will come to worship with reverence and awe, giving thanks to His name daily, continually, with due blessings. He is God to whom thanks are due, the Lord of peace who sanctifies the Sabbath and blesses the seventh day, and in holiness gives rest to a people filled with delight, in remembrance of the word of creation.

Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Making Welcome

After attending Friday night service, greet any newcomers to your synagogue.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Guard of Shabbat

Two primary words of instruction are used in the Torah to command the observance of Shabbat: zachor, remember (Exodus 20:8) and shamor (Deuteronomy 5:12). According to tradition, remembering (zachor) refers to all of the positive mitzvot of Shabbat, such as wine/kiddush, challah, the special blessings, etc. Shamor refers to refraining from prohibited activities (m'lachot).

While the term shamor is the command form of the word guard or watch, the noun form is pronounced shomair. One who observes Shabbat according to the halacha, Jewish law, is known as a Shomair Shabbat, one who guards Shabbat. (The feminine version is Shomeret Shabbat.)

Only during the last 100 years, has the the term Shomair Shabbat come into common use as the title for a Sabbath observer. Perhaps this is because, prior to that, those who did not observe Shabbat tended to leave the Jewish community. The phrase itself, however, can be found twice in the 56th chapter of the Book of Isaiah: "Happy is the man that does this, and the son of man that holds fast by it: one who guards Shabbat against its violation, and keeps his hand from doing any evil ... Also the strangers, that join themselves to God, to serve Him, and to love the name of God, to be His servants, every one that guards Shabbat against its violation, and holds fast by My covenant" (Isaiah 56: 2,6).

Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

In Just Two Days

In honor of Shabbat Across America and Canada this Friday night, March 5th, we've produced a video we have a feeling you'll enjoy: I've Got A Feeling (The Shabbat Song).

Check out the video below and forward the link to your friends and family!

And don't forget, there are lots of great ways to be part of Shabbat Across America and Canada.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

If You Bring Me Flowers

Miss Manners might tell you that it is appropriate to bring flowers as a thank you gift when invited to someone else's house for a meal. A simple bouquet does make a lovely present - but if you are going to bring some for Shabbat, here are some basic facts to consider.

Bouquets of flowers are certainly thoughtful, but putting those flowers into water can also be problematic on Shabbat, as this falls into the catagory of m'la'cha (creative work prohibited on Shabbat) called zorayah, planting. Obviously, cut flowers will not continue to grow, but they will last longer in water and possibly blossom.

If you intend to bring flowers for your Shabbat hosts, they should be brought to their home before Shabbat. Once placed in water before Shabbat, the cut flowers may be placed on the table as a centerpiece and even moved about the house, as long as they remain in the same vase of water (and are not placed in a specific location where they might blossom better).

Perhaps you are wondering why moving the flowers is being mentioned at all. It is because the permissibility to move cut flowers distinguishes them from potted plants.

A potted plant is already planted and growing. It seems obvious that just as one may not put cut flowers into water on Shabbat, one may not water a potted plant--but what could be the problem with moving it?

The answer is sunlight. Basic science has taught even the most horticulturally-challenged among us that a plant needs light to grow. When a person moves a potted plant on Shabbat, he/she directly affects the amount of light the plant receives, and, therefore, its ability to grow.

A Fresh Bouquet

In honor of this Friday night's Shabbat Across America and Canada event, order a special bouquet to be delivered Friday afternoon (before Shabbat) to wish someone special Shabbat Shalom.

Special for Shabbat Across America : Use promotion code SHABBAT at and receive a special 15% discount on your order!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Purim! Again

Unique to the Jewish calendar, Purim is actually observed on different days depending on location.

The majority of the Jewish people celebrate Purim on the 14th of Adar (yesterday). However, Jews living in the city of Shushan (now the city of Shush, Iran) and all cities that had walls at the time of Joshua's conquest of Canaan, celebrate Purim on the 15th of Adar (today).

The delay in the Purim celebration is based on Esther 9:16-17.

And the rest of the Jews in the states [not Shushan] of the king grouped together, protecting their lives, and were relieved of their enemies...on the 13th of the month of Adar, and they rested on the 14th, making it a day of feasting and joy. But the Jews in Shushan grouped together on the 13th and 14th, and rested on the 15th, making it a day of feasting and joy.

The majority of the Jews were able to stop defending themselves on the 13th, and so rested on the 14th. In the capital city, however, where Haman's evil plot had aroused greater hatred, the Jews were forced to defend themselves through the 14th as well, and rested on the 15th.

Mordechai and the great sages of the time felt that it was important to separate Shushan's celebration from that of the rest of the people. Because they were still in exile, however, the sages wanted to make certain that the people remembered the holy city of Jerusalem and the Land of Israel. It was therefore declared that, in addition to Shushan, any city that was surrounded by a wall at the time of Joshua's conquest of Canaan would celebrate Purim on the 15th.

This Treat was originally published on March 11, 2009. It is being re-Treated to help us better understand the holiday of Purim.

Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

After Affects

Now that Purim is over, bring your spare "goodies" into the office and offer them to friends and co-workers.