Friday, April 30, 2010


The fifth week of Sefirat Ha’Omer, the counting of the days between Passover and Shavuot, is dedicated to the Sephirah of Hod - Splendor. (For an explanation of the sephirot, please click here).

Splendor is only one of the terms used in association with hod. It is also defined as humility, as it relates to the root word that it shares with the term hoda’ah, which means acknowledgment or gratitude. It might seem, at first glance, that splendor and humility are contradictory terms. However, this is not so when one understands that the splendor referred to here is not one’s personal splendor, but an acknowledgment of the Divine splendor.

One brings hod into one’s life by recognizing God’s presence and influence, finding therein all the more at which to marvel. One might say that whereas the sephirah of netzach, victory/eternity, is about making choices in one’s day-to-day life, the sephirah of hod is about recognizing that God provides ample opportunities for each of us to succeed. In recognizing this, a person is able to highlight the splendor of the Divine presence in the world.

Shabbat Splendor

Celebrate Shabbat as a way of acknowledging God’s presence in the world.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Bows and Arrows

Lag Ba'Omer, the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, is a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar. Its observance commemorates the end of a tragic plague that took the lives of nearly all of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students. It is also the yahrtzeit (anniversary of death) of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the great Kabbalist and presumed author of the Zohar.

While Lag Ba’Omer is most commonly associated with the lighting of bonfires, another popular Lag Ba’Omer activity is archery. One does not usually associate a hunting tool/weapon of war with a Jewish holiday. The bow and arrow, however, remind us that Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai lived under the oppressive rule of the Romans after the destruction of the Holy Temple. In this era, these great Torah scholars were outlaws, since teaching Torah was forbidden under penalty of death. In fact, Rabbi Akiva lived during the famous Bar Kochba Rebellion, around 135 C.E.

Bar Kochba was a talented military leader, and he even managed to capture and rule a portion of Judea. So highly was he regarded that many, including great sages such as Rabbi Akiva, believed him to be the Messiah. The hope was shattered, however, when Bar Kochba was killed by the Romans during the capture of Betar. The association of Rabbi Akiva with Bar Kochba is one possible reason for the bows and arrows on Lag Ba’Omer.

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

Take A Shot

On Lag Ba’Omer (Sunday, May 2, 2010) teach your children (including nieces, nephews, grandchildren, etc) to shoot a bow and arrow--most toy stores have excellent “suction” arrows.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Rabbi Meir

The Mishna is a collection of citations of the oral law by an array of brilliant scholars. There are, however, many Mishnaic statements that are anonymous. According to Talmud Gittin 4a, these anonymous statements are all the rulings of Rabbi Meir.

Rabbi Meir is believed to have been a descendant of the Roman Caesar Nero and was a student of the great Rabbi Akiva. He was also a student of Elisha Ben Abuya and remained close to him even after Elisha became the Talmud's paradigmatic apikores (non-believer), was excommunicated and called "Acher" (Other). Rabbi Meir was the husband of Bruriah, famous in the Talmud for her brilliance and piety. (Both "Acher" and Bruriah are fascinating in their own rights and will be subjects of future Treats). Rabbi Meir was respected by scholars and lay people alike and is also noted for making the law accessible via parables.

This great sage was known as Rabbi Meir Baal Ha’neis (Master of the Miracle), and his name is thus invoked, even to this day, on behalf of many charitable collections for Torah scholars in Israel. The following story is the source of this title: Rabbi Meir rescued his sister-in-law from her imprisonment in a Roman brothel by bribing the guard. He told the guard, frightened lest his superiors find out that he accepted a bribe to free a prisoner, that should any trouble occur he should call out: “God of Meir--answer me!” Eventually the guard was caught and sentenced to death by hanging. On the gallows, the guard cried out, “God of Meir--answer me!” and the rope snapped, saving the guard’s life.

The 14th of Iyar (today) is the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Meir.

Today is also Pesach Shaynee, the Second Passover. Click here to learn more about Pesach Shaynee.

To Give

Put a tzedakah (charity) box in a convenient location in your home.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What A Pretty Little

Appearances can be deceiving. Take little children, for instance. “What a pretty little girl” might be a misplaced compliment in many traditional communities where it is customary to refrain from cutting a boy’s hair until his third birthday. Among Ashkenazim, this custom is commonly known as upsherin, which is Yiddish for “shearing-off.” However, the Sephardim (among whom the custom most probably originated) call it chalakah (Arabic for haircut).

The oldest record of this custom is in the writing of Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543 - 1620), who wrote that his teacher, Rabbi Isaac Luria (Ha'Ari) “Cut his son’s hair on Lag Ba'omer, according to the well-known custom.”

This custom is often related to orlah, the Biblical law that requires that a fruit tree remain unharvested for its first three years (Leviticus 19:23). Jewish tradition often compares people to trees in that they mature into adults and their good deeds are their fruit.

This custom is specific to boys because boys are obligated in the positive, time-bound commandment of learning Torah. (Women, however, are definitely commended and encouraged to learn as much as possible.)

While there is no defined ritual for upsherin/chalakah, the most common customs are:

(1) The first cut is where the tefillin usually rests (center forehead). Many times family and friends will then take turns with the remaining cuts.

(2) The child is given sweets in the shape of the aleph-bet (Hebrew alphabet) or licks honey off Hebrew letters so that he will associate Torah learning with sweetness.

(3) Many parents, especially those whose sons’ birthdays are during Sefirat Ha’Omer, will wait until Lag Ba’omer to cut the boys’ hair. In Israel, there is a popular custom to take the children to Mount Meron, where Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, author of the Zohar is buried, and perform the ceremony there with great fanfare.

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


Since Lag Ba'omer is this Sunday, reschedule your planned haircut for Friday in honor of Shabbat.

Monday, April 26, 2010


The Jewish people have often been cast as the proverbial “scapegoat.” When millions died during the Black Plague, the Jews were accused of poisoning the wells. Blood libels accusing Jews of drinking the blood of gentile children (frequently associated with Passover) were all too common throughout history. Medieval (and not so medieval) rulers often blamed the Jews for their own calamitous economic policies.

The concept of the scapegoat is actually of Biblical origin (Leviticus 16). God commands Moses to instruct Aaron, the High Priest, to take two identical goats and cast lots upon them in order to choose one goat for God and one for Azazel. The goat given to God is sacrificed in the Tabernacle/Temple, but the other goat is sent to its death in the wilderness as an atonement.

The description of this ritual, which was performed on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is difficult to understand. There are numerous attempts to define Azazel. While Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, 1040-1105) defines Azazel as a “hard, rocky place,” other commentators have stated that Azazel is the name of a reputed demon.

The goat sent to Azazel is the source of the scapegoat concept. Through the Septuagint (the translation of the Bible into Greek), the goat came to be known as the “goat that is sent away.” This goat (symbolically) carried the sins of the Israelites, just as the blame for a crime or a catastrophe is placed on the modern scapegoat.

One cannot, however, forget the other goat, the one offered to God. Perhaps this goat was meant to remind the people of their own personal sin offerings and their own personal repentance. No sin can be wiped away by blaming others. Only by turning directly to God and asking for His forgiveness can sin be expiated.

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

Don't Excuse Me

When you make a mistake, admit it rather than making excuses.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Netzach - Victory

The fourth week of Sefirat Ha’Omer, the counting of the days between Passover and Shavuot, is dedicated to the Sephirah of Netzach - Victory. (For an explanation of the sephirot, please click here).

Victory may seem a strange term to use when talking about spiritual concepts, but the victory that is called netzach is that of a person overcoming obstacles to spiritual growth. For instance, a tight-fisted person who gives charity above and beyond what might be expected has overcome a spiritual blemish within him/herself. This is true victory.

When speaking of the victory of netzach, it is important to remember that these victories are almost unnoticeable as one goes through life. It might be making the choice not to gossip, or deciding to start learning about Jewish traditions...these are the kinds of small victories that often lead to upholding the eternal traditions of Judaism.

Additionally, God is referred to as the “Netzach Yisrael” by the prophet Samuel, who then defines this term by saying that God will “not regret, for He is not a human who regrets” (I Samuel 15:29). Samuel uses the term netzach, relating to both the “victory” that is called netzach and to its alternate meaning of “eternity.” Making choices that do not lead to regrets (overcoming the obstacles to spiritual growth) results in decisions that affect eternity.

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

Hard Choice

Stay home tonight with a good Jewish book in honor of Shabbat.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Precious Creation

While there are many appropriate themes with which the Torah could have begun (Abraham, Mt. Sinai, etc.), it begins instead with a day-by-day description of the creation of the world, commencing with the creation of heaven and earth on Day One and concluding with the creation of humankind on Day Six.

In fact, the description of creation is lengthened by extensive repetition, as much of the action is first declared by God and then described as it happens. For instance: “And God said: 'Let the earth put forth grass, herb yielding seed, and fruit-tree bearing fruit after its kind, wherein is the seed thereof, upon the earth' And it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, herb yielding seed after its kind, and tree bearing fruit, wherein is the seed thereof, after its kind; and God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:11-12).

Why the repetition?

"When God created the first human, Heshowed him all the trees in the Garden of Eden..and said to him, 'See My handiwork, how beautiful and choice they are... be careful not to ruin and destroy my world, for if you do, there is no one to repair it'" (Midrash Rabba - Ecclesiastes 7:13). God began the Torah with a thorough description of creation to indicate not only the work that went into the world’s creation, but the love and care as well.

Alas, it was not until the late twentieth century that a significant portion of humanity took the time to take stock of how carelessly humanity was performing its job as the earth’s guardian.

As people around the world today observe Earth Day (April 22), the opening chapter of the Book of Genesis is an excellent reminder that we must view every part of this world as a precious gift to be fervently treasured and protected.

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

Earth Day

Take part in at least one Earth Day activity. For suggestions, visit

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Ghetto Of Venice

The Jewish ghetto of Venice, made famous in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice ( “Shylock” ), was actually the very first “ghetto.” That does not mean that when the Venetian Ghetto was established in 1516, it was the first time Jews were relegated to a specific living area, but it was the first such usage of the word "ghetto."

While today the word “ghetto” conjures up an array of connotations, from the Holocaust to the inner-city, in 1516 it was simply the Italian word for "foundry." The government-specified living area for Jews had once been a cannon factory.

The creation of a Jewish neighborhood was meant to appease the Inquisition and, in this way, protect the Jews of the city. It did not take long for it to become an effective means of isolating and oppressing (taxing) the Jews. The gates of the ghetto were open only during the daytime. At night, the ghetto was guarded and its inhabitants were required to abide by the “curfew.”

Even with restricted living conditions and other discriminatory measures (such as yellow badges on clothes), the Jewish community of Venice flourished. The only way that the community could accommodate its increasing number of residents was to build upward. Some buildings reached a height of six stories (which was impressive for the middle ages). In 1541, an adjacent area was added (Ghetto Vecchio) in order to accommodate an influx of Sephardic Jews.

Life was hard for the Venetian Jews due to anti-Semitism, but within the ghetto walls, Jewish life remained vibrant. Synagogues were built (many of them are still in existence and some are even in use), scholars shared their Torah knowledge and Jewish families educated their children.

The ghetto itself came to an end in 1797, when Napoleon and his army threw open the ghetto doors and emancipated the Jews.

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

It's A Small World

Donate to an organization that provides assistance to those affected by natural disasters.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Hallel and Yom Ha'atzma'ut

Is Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Israeli Independence Day, a religious holiday for Jews or a national/secular celebration? This question is at the heart of the debate as to whether one adds the prayer of Hallel to the morning service on Yom Ha’atzma’ut. Hallel, a specific collection of Psalms praising God, is recited on Biblical festival days (Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot) and on the post-Biblical holiday of Chanukah. It is also recited every Rosh Chodesh (celebration of the new month).

According to one reference in the Talmud (Pesachim 117a), Hallel is to be recited “in every important epoch and crisis ... when they [the Jewish People] are redeemed they recite [it in gratitude] for their redemption.”

The recitation of Hallel on Chanukah seems to provide a good argument for the recitation of Hallel on Yom Ha’atzma’ut. After all, Chanukah celebrates the redemption of the Jewish people from the threat of the Syrian-Greeks and marks the beginning of an important era--the renewal of Jewish autonomy in the land of Israel. Yom Ha’atzma’ut similarly commemorates a renewal of Jewish autonomy, as it is the anniversary of the proclamation of the State of Israel, but it does not celebrate an actual military victory. Additionally, Chanukah commemorates the miracle of the lights, a revealed miracle appropriate for the spiritual victory that is central to the Chanukah story--and sufficient reason by itself to say Hallel.

This sensitive topic, involves various halachic (legal) opinions, and therefore no definitive answer as to which practice is correct is provided here. Find out the custom in your community by asking your local rabbi. And remember, whether one recites Hallel or not, the day marks a momentous occasion for the Jewish People and should be properly acknowledged.

Jewish Treats and the National Jewish Outreach Program wish Israel a happy 62nd birthday! For a history of Israel Independence day, click here

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

A Point of Pride

Display an image of an Israeli flag to show your support for the State of Israel.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Jews and War

The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) is one of the world’s top fighting forces. This is not so surprising when one recalls that the Bible is filled with references to military might. Even Abraham the patriarch has a military battle recorded in the Torah:

“And when Abram heard that his brother (referring to his nephew Lot) was taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued as far as Dan.
And he divided himself against them by night, he and his servants, and smote them, and pursued them...” (Genesis 14:14-15).

Hundreds of years later, the Jews conquered the Promised Land with a brilliant military campaign. In fact, many of the great national leaders listed in the Book of Judges were also military leaders (Gideon, Samson, etc). Additionally, one must not overlook the military genius of King Saul or King David, both of whom were renowned for leading the armies of Israel to victory.

The Torah includes laws that pertain specifically to times of war and also advocates a philosophy on victory. The Jewish people can, and do, involve themselves in war. But a true Jewish army will always remember that both victory and defeat are in the hands of God. This lesson was taught to the Israelites in the infancy of their nationhood, when their success in defeating the attacking Amalekites depended on whether Moses held his hands high in the air (Exodus 17:8-13), signifying the army’s focus on God’s power, not just on military might.

Unfortunately, each miraculous victory of the IDF, came at a tremendous cost in human lives. Today is Yom Hazikaron, Israel Memorial Day, and Jewish Treats honors the great sacrifice of those who gave their lives for the Jewish nation.

For more on Yom Hazikaron, click here

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

Silence Please

Create your own moment of silence to remember those who have fallen in defense of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.

Friday, April 16, 2010


The third week of Sefirat Ha’Omer, the counting of the days between Passover and Shavuot, is dedicated to the Sephirah of Tiferet - Beauty. (For an explanation of the sephirot, please click here).

While tiferet is literally defined as beauty or adornment, it has a far deeper meaning when associated with the sephirot. When the power of chesed (lovingkindness) and the power of gevurah (inner-strength) are combined in perfect balance, the harmony that results is known as tiferet. The distinction becomes clearer when dispensing charity. Giving a person a generous handout without asking any questions is regarded as chesed. Giving someone advice about how to find work is considered gevurah. Neither is perfect, since the ideal of charity is defined as enabling someone to become self-supportive. Don’t simply give and don’t just lecture, but work with those in need to help them find a balance in their own lives.

The concept of tiferet is often associated with emet, truth, in that one can only see the truth if one looks at life without bias either toward others or toward oneself. This concept is personified by the patriarch Jacob, who combined his grandfather’s chesed and his father’s gevurah. Although Abraham and Isaac each had two sons (Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, respectively), only one of their two sons was able to maintain a relationship with the Divine. Jacob, on the other hand, was able to raise 12 sons (the twelve tribes) all of whom remained dedicated to their family’s spiritual goals.

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

Go for the Goal

Set out your personal goals for the next month; then make sure they are attainable

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Titanic Fate

The sinking of the HMS Titanic is one of history’s great tragedies. When the ocean liner that had boasted of being unsinkable hit an iceberg and sank, twice as many people died as survived. There is no exact count of the number of Jewish passengers, but it is known that there were enough Jews to merit the hiring of a kosher chef!

Among the Jews who died were Isidor and Ida Straus.

Isidor Straus was born in Germany but raised in Georgia. In 1873, Isidor and his brother Nathan opened a crockery and glassware business in the basement of New York City’s R.H. Macy’s Department Store. In 1893, Isidor and Nathan purchased the store and made Macy’s one of the best known and largest department stores in the world. Isidor was also politically active, acting as an advisor to President Grover Cleveland and serving in Congress from 1894-1895.

Ida Blun Straus, also a German born immigrant to the United States, married Isidor in 1871. Ida’s life was devoted to supporting her husband in his business activities and raising their seven children. It was known that the Strauses were devoted to each other, and, during his time away in Congress, they wrote daily letters to each other.

In 1912, the Strauses took their 15 year old granddaughter Beatrice to Europe and decided to return on the HMS Titanic. (Beatrice remained in Germany.) On the night the ship hit the iceberg, the Strauses were offered places on one of the lifeboats. The noble 67 year old Isidor declined, but urged his wife (63) to save herself. She refused, stating "I will not be separated from my husband. As we have lived, so will we die together."

They were last seen sitting on deck chairs awaiting their ultimate fate. Only Isidor’s body was recovered.

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

Royal Pair

Do something extraordinary today to make your significant other feel like a king or queen.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Hopeful Doctor- Doktoro Esperanto

Chu vi sciis, ke la iniciatoro de Esperanto estas judo?

Don’t worry, your daily Jewish Treats hasn’t switched languages. Did you know that the initiator of Esperanto was Jewish? Perhaps, though, we should first explain that Esperanto is a language that was created in the late 19th century in the hope of using linguistics to create universal peace.

Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof (given name Eliezer Levi Samenhof, 1859-1917) was born in Bialystok, then part of Russia and now part of Poland. He was fluent in Russian, Yiddish, and German, with an understanding of Latin, Hebrew and French. He was also familiar with Greek, English and Italian. Zamenhof believed that language was one of the great barriers to peace. In his own hometown, indeed, within his own Jewish community, Zamenhof noticed that language barriers seemed to either exacerbate, or even cause, dissension among people.

By 1878, prior to attending medical school (professionally, Zamenhof was an opthomologist), Zamenhof created his Lingwe Uniwesala (universal language). He was, however, unable to publish any work explaining and detailing his new language until 1887. When Lingo Internacia Antau was published, it was under the pseudonym Doktoro Esperanto, which means "Doctor Hopeful."

Esperanto is based on a combination of Romance and Teutonic language and grammar, with the goal of being easy to learn and politically neutral. While it never became a universal language, its popularity and wide-spread usage is astounding. There are at least several hundred thousand people who speak Esperanto, and it was recognized as an official language by UNESCO in 1954. There are annual meetings, and Zamenhof Day is celebrated among his admirers on Zamenhof’s birthday (December 15).

Zamenhof died on April 14, 1917, in Warsaw, Poland.

Language Arts

The universal language of the Jewish people is Hebrew. Learn more about the Hebrew alphabet by reviewing this past fall’s Twebrew School Treats.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Boy or Girl

In Leviticus 12, God commands Moses to tell the Israelites that when a woman bears a son she is considered to be niddah (state of marital separation when a woman has her menstrual cycle) for seven days. When a woman bears a daughter, the amount of time of separation is doubled to two weeks.

Huh? Why should there be any difference between the birth of a boy and the birth of a girl...aren’t the births equally miraculous?

Niddah (often mistranslated as a state of impurity) is NOT a punishment of any sort. It is simply a state of being. Because of woman’s ability to carry life within herself and give birth to life, she has the opportunity to emulate God more closely than a man ever can. (This is not, of course, to deny the importance of the male contribution, just a basic fact of the difference in how life is created.) However, each monthly menstrual cycle is a sign that a new life was not created and, in fact, died.* In Judaism, human life is sacred, and any connection with the loss of life alters one’s spiritual state.

During pregnancy a woman contains “double life.” When she gives birth, the amount of “life-force” within her diminishes; she therefore enters a state of niddah. Since a female body contains extra life (a woman does not produce new eggs throughout her life, as a man does sperm), when a woman gives birth to a daughter, she has lost not just the baby's “life-force” but also the baby's procreational power as well. Thus the double loss of the power of life is the reason for the double time during which a woman is in an altered spiritual state.

Click here
for Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald’s explanation of this subject.

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

Spring Air

Walk outside and be grateful for the beauty of nature that surrounds you.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Gevurah - Strength

The second week of Sefirat Ha’Omer, the counting of the days between Passover and Shavuot, is dedicated to the Sephirah of Gevurah - Strength. (For an explanation of the sephirot, please click here).

The strength that is defined by the term gevurah has nothing to do with muscular, raw physical power. Gevurah is about inner strength or willpower. For most people, this translates into living a disciplined life and living a life based on one’s convictions.

Gevurah complements the other building blocks of creation and gives life focus. For instance, a person who relates only to chesed, lovingkindness, might spend their entire life doing good for others. While this is commendable on many levels, it is often an impediment to true self-growth.

The first chapter of the Book of Genesis, which describes God’s actions in creating the world, uses only the Divine name Eh’loh’him, a name that reflects din, justice. It is only in the second chapter of Genesis that the name Ah’doh’nai, which is seen as a reflection of rachamim, mercy, is used. Justice is an important aspect of gevurah, while rachamim is a reflection of chesed. The Midrash tells us that while God originally intended to create the world entirely based on justice, He recognized that, in order for human society to survive, justice/gevurah needed to be tempered with mercy. In other words, gevurah needs chesed (Source: Bereshith Rabba 12:10 and 14:1).

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

Show Restraint

Avoid office gossip by changing the subject.

Friday, April 9, 2010

There's A Key In My Challah!

It's a fact that many people spend much time thinking and even worrying about par'nassah (livelihood).

Jewish tradition teaches that different seasons have different spiritual strengths. Certain times are regarded as propitious to pray for rain, while other times are considered appropriate to petition for forgiveness. (Of course, these things may also be prayed for at other times of the year!) So too, our spiritual leaders have noted that there are certain times on the Jewish calendar when it is propitious to focus on praying for par'nassah. One such time is the Shabbat that immediately follows Passover, when it is a custom in some Jewish communities to make what is known as shlissel (Yiddish for key) challah.

There are a number of reasons suggested for this custom. Due to space limitations, Jewish Treats will present only a few:

1) The Mishna (Rosh Hashanah 2:2) states that on Passover the world is allocated its grain harvest for the coming year.

2) The Jews celebrated Passover just before entering the land of Canaan, at which point there was no more manna (the heavenly food of the wilderness) . Henceforth, the Jewish nation needed to generate its own par'nassah.

3) A “key” serves as a symbol to remind us that our prayers have the power to open the Gates of Heaven.

There are different ways to perform this custom. Some people bake an actual key (scrubbed clean or wrapped in foil/parchment paper) into the challah, while others mold their challah into the shape of a key. One custom mentions using a key to knead the dough, and there are still other customs as well.

Whatever one’s custom, it is hoped that the symbolic message will reach its proper destination and have the desired beneficial effect on one’s livelihood.

*This Treat was originally published on April 17, 2009. It is being re-Treated as an interesting fact for this time of year.

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

Baked In

If your local bakery makes shlissel challah, surprise your family and share with them the history of this tradition.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Ten Sephirot

Most people associate kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) with the Zohar (Book of Splendor). However, the earliest text to which the sages refer is Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation).* The exact origin of this text is unknown, but it is referenced as early as the 1st century C.E.

According to Sefer Yetzirah, God, who is referred to as Ain Sof (Eternal, Unlimited, With No End), created the world with the “building blocks” of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the 10 sephirot.

The sephirot are referred to in Sefer Yetzirah as “Ten sephirot of nothingness” (Eser sephirot bli mah). From this it is understood that the sephirot are both intangible and yet are the powers that serve to bind the structure of the world together (reading bli mah as blimah, binding).

The ten sephirot are:
1) Keter - Crown 2) Chachma - Wisdom
3) Binah/Daat - Understanding/Knowledge 4) Chesed - Lovingkindness
5) Gevurah - Strength 6) Tiferet - Beauty
7) Netzach - Victory 8) Hod - Splendor
9) Yesod - Foundation 10) Malchut - Kingship

While the sephirot of keter, chachma and binah (daat) are considered beyond the range of human emulation, the remaining seven lower sephirot are given special acknowledgment during the 49 days of Sefirat Ha’Omer, the counting of the days between Passover and Shavuot. One week is dedicated to each sephirah’s interaction with the other six.

Over the next several weeks, Jewish Treats will be presenting a brief overview of each of the seven sephirot.

The foundation of the first week of the Omer is Chesed, Lovingkindness, the most absolute expression of emotion. Chesed, is often thought of as compassionate giving, but it is really about reaching beyond one’s self to be both a giver and a receiver. Beyond all other traits that should be emulated, developing one’s spirit of chesed, is considered the most comprehensive way to relate to God.

*The essence of Sefer Yetzirah, and of kabbalah in general, is of a depth best left for study with an expert. Jewish Treats provides only a superficial and basic explanation of these concepts.

Weekly Work

Each week, try to incorporate the weekly sephira trait into your life. For instance, this week seek out an act of chesed such as giving a friend a ride to an appointment.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

What is Isru Chag?

The day after vacation is often a time of distraction and disorientation. The same is true of the day following a religious holiday, especially after one of the week-long holidays (Passover and Sukkot) during which one focuses for an entire week on spiritual, rather than mundane, matters.

In recognition of the challenge of transitioning from a religious festival to everyday life, a semi-holiday known as Isru Chag follows each of the three pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot.) Translated literally as "bind the festival," the term Isru Chag comes from Psalms 118:27, which reads "Bind the festival offering with boughs to the corners of the altar." From this verse, the sages determined that, "Whoever makes an addition to the festival by eating and drinking is regarded by scripture as though he had built an altar and offered a sacrifice" (Talmud Sukkah 45b).

In truth, the celebration of Isru Chag has little effect on the day-to-day conduct of most people...unless one is a parent of a child in a religious school (which may be closed for Isru Chag). Isru Chag also affects some aspects of the daily prayer service, in that tachanun (a supplicatory prayer) as well as memorial prayers are omitted, and private fasts are generally not permitted. (Example of a private fast: an Ashkenazi couple who is to wed on Isru Chag will not observe the custom of fasting before the chuppah).

The idea of Isru Chag is that one draws some of the holiness of the festival celebration into the less spiritually elevated reality of everyday life. Since feasting is one of the ways in which Jews celebrate festivals, it became customary to eat and drink a little something extra on Isru Chag to continue the feeling of celebration.

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


If you’ve already eaten lunch today, treat yourself to a special snack in honor of Isru Chag.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Time of Freedom?

The sages refer to the holiday of Passover as zman chay’roo’tay’noo, the time of our freedom. This may seem obvious, since Passover celebrates the redemption of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. But did you know that on several occasions the Israelites demanded to return to Egypt, back to slavery!

Indeed, when they felt trapped at the Sea of Reeds (Red Sea), the Israelites cried out that it would have been better to have stayed in Egypt. While one might justify their actions by stating that they were certain that they faced imminent death, it is important to remember that these were the very same people who had witnessed the miracles of the ten plagues.

Some commentators explain that what the people truly feared, both at the Sea of Reeds and in the Wilderness, was not death, but freedom! Suddenly they were responsible for their own decisions and their own actions.

So what is the “freedom” that we celebrate on Passover?

In Ethics of The Fathers (6:2), Rabbi Joshua ben Levi says: "... And it says (Exodus 32:16): ‘And the tablets are the work of God, and the writing is God's writing, engraved on the tablets.’ Don't read the text as 'chah’rut' (engraved) but rather as 'chay’root' (liberty)--for there is no free individual, except for one who occupies himself with the study of Torah...”

How can Torah learning be equated to freedom--after all, don’t we speak of the “yoke” of Torah and describe Torah as a “burden”?

One certainly might view the mitzvot as restrictive, unless it is understood that without structure and order in the world, without rules and boundaries, there is anarchy and chaos. Only by living by the guidelines of the universe (the Torah), which God gave the Israelites when He gave them the Torah, can one attain true freedom.

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

Feel Free

Ignore social pressures to do what others are doing and instead stay home tonight to celebrate and enjoy Shabbat.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Passover Story in Brief

On Passover, we commemorate the Exodus from Egyptian slavery. The following is a brief summary:

Jacob's family came to Egypt to escape a famine in Canaan. Joseph, Viceroy to Pharoah, settled his family in the land of Goshen, apart from the Egyptians.

Joseph's contribution to Egyptian society was forgotten after his death, and the new Pharaoh, feeling threatened by the success of the Israelites, enslaved them with cruel and bitter labor.

Alerted to a prophecy that the Israelites would be led to freedom by a boy yet to be born, Pharaoh ordered all newborn Jewish boys cast into the Nile. Yocheved set her newborn son (Moses) adrift in the Nile in a basket, where he was found by Pharaoh's daughter, who adopted him.

Years later, Moses came upon an Egyptian beating an Israelite. Outraged, Moses slew the Egyptian, but then fled Egypt fearing that his action had been discovered. He took refuge in Midian with Jethro and married Jethro's daughter, Tziporah. While shepherding Jethro's sheep, Moses came upon a burning bush which was not consumed, from which God instructed him to go back and lead the Israelites out of Egypt.

Moses, joined by his older brother Aaron, went to Pharaoh and demanded the release of the Israelites. Pharaoh repeatedly said no--nine times. Each time he said no, another plague (blood, frogs, lice, wild animals, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts and darkness) struck Egypt. Finally, God struck dead all the Egyptian first born. After this final tenth plague, Pharaoh finally said "yes" and the Jews left Egypt, matzah in hand.

Pharaoh changed his mind and chased the Israelites, who were eventually trapped between the Egyptian army and the Sea of Reeds. But the Sea miraculously split and they crossed safely while the Egyptians drowned in the returning waters. Only Pharaoh survived.

The Israelites then continued their journey to Mount Sinai, where they received the Torah.

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

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

The Child Who Does Not Ask

Share the story of the Exodus with a child and help him/her think of a creative way to "relive" the experience of the Exodus.