Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Fearing God

“The fear of God is the beginning of knowledge...” (Proverbs 1:7)

The idea of “fearing God” carries with it overtones of fire and brimstone, a puritanical flavor that seems foreign to our 21st century mentality. With humanity (especially Western society) feeling secure in its understanding of the universe, most people no longer fear the so-called “wrath of God.”

The Jewish concept of “Yirat Hashem,” Fear of God, is not meant to serve as a threat to force people to obey the Torah. If that were the case, Reish Lakish, a third century sage, would not refer to it as a “treasure” (Shabbat 31a). Serving God out of fear of punishment or fear of losing one’s reward is actually a rather primitive form of devotion (although valid). This fundamental type of fear of God, cannot explain why in Judaism fear of God is often viewed as a path to knowledge.

In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 3:11), “Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa said, "Anyone whose fear of sin precedes his wisdom, his wisdom will endure. And anyone whose wisdom precedes his fear of sin, his wisdom will not endure." This sage advice implies that seeking knowledge should be the direct result of Yirat Hashem. Knowing, seeing and recognizing God’s infinite power should drive a person to want to better understand God. Each new discovery (each new revelation of the Creator’s magnificence) should encourage each person to desire to know more, while, at the same time, recognizing just how all encompassing God is.

It could be said that this was what Moses meant when he told the Israelites that all God wants of them is “merely to fear God you Lord in order to walk in His paths and serve God your Lord with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 10:12).

Learning to sincerely fear God is not easy, but it is attainable. As the sages say: “Everything is in the hands of Heaven except for fear of Heaven” (Berachot 33b).

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

Choosing Perception

When something good happens, thank God by thinking about the multiple manipulations that had to happen for it to come about.

Monday, August 30, 2010

School Thoughts

September looms and children all over have either just begun school or will be starting shortly. Judaism has always been a culture focused on learning. The Torah commands parents to teach their children, but since many parents are not capable of fulfilling the role of teacher, schools have become a necessity. Baba Batra 21a discuss extensively our Sages’ views on education.

Local schools are important. The Sages even discuss whether a child may be forced by circumstances to go from one town to another to receive a proper education.--“Joshua ben Gamala came and ordained that teachers of young children should be appointed in each district and each town.” Thus was established in the first century C.E., the first edict requiring compulsory education for any child over 5 years of age.

While kindergarten is, technically, the beginning of “school” in western society, it is viewed by most educators as a transition year. Children are generally six years old in first grade.--“and that children should enter school at the age of six or seven. Rav said to Rabbi Samuel ben Shilath: 'Before the age of six do not accept pupils; from that age you can accept them and stuff them with Torah like an ox.'”

The Sages’ opinions even reflect the modern discussion regarding homogenous or heterogenous classes. --“The attentive one will read, and, if one is inattentive, put him next to a diligent one...”

Class size, no matter where or what century, has always been a contentious issue.--“Raba further said: The number of pupils to be assigned to each teacher is twenty-five. If there are fifty, we appoint two teachers. If there are forty, we appoint an assistant, at the expense of the town.”

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

Positive Education

Remember that your attitude toward education influences the children in your life. (Don’t disparage teachers, the school, the system, etc., even if it’s how you really feel.)

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Maharal of Prague

To the Jewish community and general population at large, the Maharal of Prague is the revered, mystical medieval rabbi who created the Golem to protect the Jews in the Prague ghetto. But the Maharal’s true contribution to Jewish life has little to do with the legend of the Golem.

The acronym, MaHaRaL, stands for Moreinu HaRav Loew,* whose full name was Rabbi Yehuda ben Betzalel Loew (1520 - 1609). The Maharal is also known by the title of his most distinguished publication, Gur Aryeh (Ahl HaTorah) - “The Little Lion on the Torah.” His use of the title Gur Aryeh is a reference to Jacob’s Biblical blessing of his son Yehuda (Judah) and is significant either by reason of the fact that Loew is a derivitive of the German word for lion or an allusion to the Maharal’s ability to trace his lineage back to King David.

While the Maharal is credited with being well-versed in kabbalah (hence his assumed ability to create a Golem), his studies and commentaries in Torah and Talmud are highly regarded. The Maharal stressed the importance of understanding the p‘shat, mainly the simple, literal meaning of the words. He was also well-versed in Aggadah, the non-halachic, homiletic passages of the Talmud.

The genius of the Maharal is acknowledged by Jews from many walks of life. His work had a significant influence on the Vilna Gaon (Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman, 1720 - 1797), and he was the great-grandfather of the founder of Chabad Chassidim, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (“Baal HaTanya,” 1745 - 1812). The Maharal was also well-known and respected outside of the Jewish community. He communicated with the astronomer Tycho Brahe and had a memorable audience with the Emperor Rudolf II of Austria.

*alternatively spelled Lowe

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

Come Over

Invite friends over to enjoy a Shabbat meal together.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Children of Abraham and Sarah

“Children of Israel,” an often used title for the Jewish people, is a name defined by the familial relationship of the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. This familial relationship (which even DNA studies have confirmed) plays a strong role in both Jewish identity and Jewish life in general. For instance, one of the common forms of addressing God in Jewish prayer is “Eh’loh’haynu vay’lo’hay avotaynu,” our God and God of our ancestors.

At the same time, the Jewish people have always welcomed sincere converts and permitted them (after a detailed process of learning and commitment) to join the ”family.” The question now arises: Is Abraham the great-grandfather of converts also?

Genetically, perhaps not. Spiritually, however, there is no doubt.

Rabbi Zerikan said: Rabbi Z'eera asked, Does not “our fathers” refer to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? ...It has been taught in the name of Rabbi Judah:...because it says ‘”you shall be the father of a multitude of nations (Genesis 17:4)” In the past you [would have been] the father of Aramea [those of Aram, Abraham’s birthplace] but from now on you shall be the father of all nations (Jerusalem Talmud Bikkurim, Halacha 4).

When a person chooses to become a Jew, and goes through the necessary conversion process, he/she is considered spiritually reborn. This rebirth is physically manifested by immersion in the mikveh (ritual pool). At the same time that a person completes the conversion process, he/she chooses a Jewish name by which he/she will be known for all matters Jewish. To that name is attached “ben/bat Avraham Avinu v’Sarah Eemaynu” – the son/daughter of Abraham our father and Sarah our mother.

Welcome to the family!

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


Always treat a convert with respect.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


The story of the Golem of Prague is one of the best-known, fantastic and romantic Eastern European tales. It has been retold in both prose and play-form and is perpetuated in the oral tradition that one generation passes to the next.

For those unfamiliar with the story:
In the late 16th century, Rabbi Yehuda ben Betzalel Loew (a.k.a. the Maharal, 1520 - 1609), the chief rabbi of Prague, created a man-like creature from river clay. He brought the creature to life by using kabbalistic secrets (ineffable name of God, the use of the word emet--truth, etc.) that he had learned from Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation). Heeding the instructions of the Maharal, the Golem, silent but strong, protected the Jewish residents of the Prague ghetto. Some legends say that eventually the Golem grew violent. Others maintain that he was disappointed in love. Whatever the reason, it became necessary for the Maharal to undo the creature’s animation and return him to a shaped lump of clay. According to legend, the body was then secreted away in the Altneuschul’s attic.

Did the Golem really exist? Many deny the veracity of the story. Others credit the Maharal’s disciple Rabbi Eliyahu Shem Tov with the creation of a Golem ... the truth may never be known.

That an automaton such as the Golem could exist, however, is within the Jewish realm of possibility. The Talmud even relates that “Rabbah (2nd century Talmudic sage) created a man (Golem) and sent him to Rabbi Zeira. Rabbi Zeira spoke to him, but received no answer. Thereupon he said to him: ‘You are a creature of the magicians. Return to your dust’”(Sanhedrin 65b). Furthermore, even the greatest of rabbinic legal texts, such as the Mishnah Torah, Beit Yosef and Mishnah Brurah discuss, the status of a Golem.

Some say that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is based in part on the Maharal’s Golem.

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


Read articles about the wonders of modern science and then ponder the greatness of God’s creations.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Holiday Greetings

The standard pre-Rosh Hashana greeting of “K’tiva v’chatima tova” ("May you be written and sealed for good”) is deduced from a Talmudic discussion concerning the three heavenly books that are opened during the High Holidays.

Rabbi Jochanan (as quoted by Rabbi Kruspedai) clarified that on the New Year there is a book for the completely wicked, a book for the completely righteous and a book for those in the middle. According to Rabbi Avin, the existence of these books is alluded to in Psalms 69:29: “Let them be blotted out of the book of the living, and not be written with the righteous.” According to Rabbi Nahman ben Isaac, Moses actually refers to it in Exodus 32:32: “...blot me, I pray You, out of Your book which You have written” (Rosh Hashana 16b).

Both of the proof-texts brought in the Talmud appear to refer only to a Book of the Righteous. Since tradition has it that the world is balanced between extremes (prophecy was balanced by idolatry, Moses was balanced by Balaam), a Book of the Wicked must also exist. This, of course, leaves a gap for those who are neither completely righteous nor completely wicked...in other words, the majority of humanity. Thus it could only be assumed that there was a third book.

Rabbi Kruspedai further explains that, on Rosh Hashana, the completely righteous and the completely wicked are immediately written into their respective books, but “the judgement of the intermediate group is written but not finalized from the New Year till the Day of Atonement” [when it is sealed].

Because of the “suspended” status of most people between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, after Rosh Hashana the greeting is altered to “G’mar chatima tova” ("May it finish with you being sealed for good").

Jewish Treats wishes all of its readers l’shana tova tikatayhu v’taychatayvu (that’s the plural form).

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

Happy New Year

Send a New Year’s card to a friend to whom you haven’t spoken in a few years.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Honor The Hoary Head

Senior Citizen Day, an annual event observed on August 21st, is a day meant to both honor older citizens and to remind the government that seniors are a large and powerful constituency.

In Judaism, honoring senior citizens is both a natural part of the cultural philosophy and, in truth, part of Jewish law. “You shall rise up before the hoary [aged] head and honor the face of the old man...”(Leviticus 19:32).

The Hebrew term for “old man” is zakein, which, according to the Talmud, refers to a sage, someone of great wisdom (as the 70 elders of Israel were called). The honor due a zakein is understandable, but what does the Torah mean by “You shall rise up before the hoary head”?

To stand up for someone is one of the primary ways to demonstrate respect for another. When a parent, teacher or political ruler enters the room, one is expected to stand up in his/her honor. In trying to understand this commandment, the sages discussed the different ways in which they had seen other great leaders act:

Issi ben Judah said: [The verse] implies any hoary head. Rabbi Jochanan said: The halacha is according to Issi ben Judah. Rabbi Jochanan used to rise [even] before aged heathens, saying: How many troubles have passed over these! Raba would not rise up, yet he showed them respect. Abaye used to give his hand to the aged. Raba sent his messengers. Rabbi Nahman sent his guardsmen...(Kiddushin 33a).

In the twenty-first century, with people leading extraordinarily active lives well into their golden years, it may be difficult to determine who deserves respect. It is best, therefore, to maintain the tradition that one is considered to be of “the age of wisdom” at 70.

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

Senior Partner

Dedicate an hour each week to spending time with an elderly relative or friend.

Friday, August 20, 2010


Reincarnation is a word that to most Jews screams of foreign cultures. What is not common knowledge, however, is that the reincarnation of souls is a concept found in Judaism (although not mainstream) known as gilgul.

Before discussing any aspect of gilgul, Jewish Treats feels that it must advise you that this is an extremely complex kabbalistic idea, which we can only present in a broad and superficial manner.

Gilgul is not mentioned in the Torah, nor is it a focus of the sages of the Talmud. In fact, the concept of gilgul only became a topic of study in Medieval times. It was discussed by scholars such as Saadia Gaon (882-942) (who rejected the idea) and Nachmanides (1194-1270) (who accepted it). It was the kabbalists of Safed, however, who delved into the depths of the idea of reincarnation. The teachings of the Arizal (1534 -1572) were published by his disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620), in the book Shaar Hagilgulim. These teachings then gained prominence in the early Chassidic movement.

The basic kabbalistic understanding of gilgul (which comes from the Hebrew word for cycle) is that every soul has a purpose. When a soul does not complete its purpose the first time it enters the physical world, it is returned to this world again in order to create a tikkun (repair). It is placed in a new life in a new body where the flaws of the previous life may best be rectified. And while chassidic/kabbalistic texts discuss reincarnation, it is not a primary focus in Jewish life because it then becomes a distraction to those creating the tikkun. (Sometimes, however, dramatic stories have arisen of special souls that made themselves known.)

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

Kind Friends

Be kind to people with special needs.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Dan, Son of Jacob

Rachel had Jacob’s heart, Leah had his children.

For four long years, Rachel watched her sister give birth to son after son until she could bear it no longer. Frustrated but determined, Rachel recalled the actions of her husband’s grandmother, Sarah, and gave her handmaid, Bilhah, to be Jacob’s wife. Any children resulting from the union of Jacob and Bilhah would be raised as if they were Rachel’s children. Thus, when Bilhah bore her first son, it was Rachel who named him Dan, saying: "God has judged me. He has also heard my voice and has given me a son" (Dan is from the root of the word “to judge”).

Little is written specifically about Dan in the Torah or the Midrash. Before his death, Jacob gathered his sons and gave them each a blessing that reflected their personalities and predicted their futures. Dan actually received one of the longer and more specific blessings given by Jacob: “Dan shall judge his people, as one of the tribes of Israel. Dan shall be a serpent by the road, an adder in the path, that bites the horse’s heels, so that his rider falls backward. For Your salvation do I long, God.”

According to tradition, the second half of this blessing is a direct reference to Dan’s most prominent descendant, Samson (he of the long hair, incredible strength and unfaithful lover--Delilah).

Dan had only one child, a son named Chushim. In the Talmud (Sotah 11a) we are taught that it was Chushim who cut off the head of Esau when Esau tried to stop Jacob's burial in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. This story demonstrate's Dan’s son’s instinct for justice. Chushim was able to assess the just solution for this situation without being swayed by Esau’s fallacious arguments.

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

Judge Fairly

Judge others fairly and always give them the benefit of the doubt.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Seeking God in Elul

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

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

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

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

This Treat was originally sent on Tuesday, August 25, 2009.

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

Daily Dose

Set aside five minutes each morning to recite Psalm 27.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Council of the Four Lands

While Jews suffered greatly as societal outsiders in many of the lands in which they lived throughout history, sometimes there were beneficial perks--such as a moderate level of communal autonomy. This was specifically the case in Poland (and Lithuania) from the end of the 16th through most of the 18th century.

The Council of the Four Lands (Vaad Arba Aratzot), as the Jewish governing body came to be known, convened for the first time in 1580 at the Lublin fair (which became one of its chief meeting places, in addition to the fair at Yaroslav). Representatives from each of the major communities attended, as well as scribes, tax collectors, bailiffs, and government lobbyists (shtadlanim). In 1623, the Lithuanian Jewish community broke off and created its own council.

Council records indicate that no area of Jewish life went untouched or unexplored. In the economic realm, the Council dealt with taxes, residence and work rights, trade restrictions, promissory notes, bankruptcies, etc. It pushed larger communities to underwrite the cost of providing education for the poor, the cost of maintaining yeshivot and took a strong stand against luxurious living by issuing directives to tone-down family celebrations and ostentatious dress.

Another significant item on their agenda was the division of the financial burden created by blood libels, "Host" (special church wafer) desecration libels and the nefarious activities of false proselytes. As the libeled community was often incapable of meeting the onerous fines that were levied as penalties, the council divided the expenses among the various communities of the particular community.

The Council of the Four Lands continued to exist officially until it was dissolved by the Sejm (Parliament) and the Polish King on July 17, 1764. Unofficially, the provincial councils and even the Councils of the Lands continued to meet until the First Partition of Poland in 1772.

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

Community Action

Get involved with your community’s government by finding out if there is a neighborhood committee or a town council.

Monday, August 16, 2010

For Her Protection

Historically, women (and children) have been the hardest hit victims of war. Beyond the killing, looting and pillaging that, until modern times (and some would argue that things are not much different today), were the normal “rights” of a conquering army, every woman in a conquered town was at risk of being raped or carried off as a captive.

Romantic stories of wartime love abound, but what happens when the powerful emotions of wartime collide with real life?

The rules of war in the Torah are meant to protect the Children of Israel, the soldiers and innocent victims of war. In Deuteronomy 21 (10-14), the Torah deals with the “unromantic” romance of war. If a Jewish soldier sees a captive woman and takes a romantic interest in her, the Torah forces him to get to know the “real” her. She moves into his home, removes her war clothes, shaves her head and cuts her nails and, for an entire month, “bewails her father and mother.” If after a month, he still desires to marry her, he may. If, however, he is no longer interested in pursuing her, he must let her go free.

The sages were realistic and quite blunt in their understanding of this law, stating that “the Torah was providing license for human passions...” (Kiddushin 21b). At the same time, however, they recognized the importance of the rule of law by stating definitively that “‘...then you shall bring her home’ (Deuteronomy 21:13) teaching that he must not molest her on the field of battle” (Kiddushin 22a). Many of the commentaries speculate that enemy women would dress suggestively in war in order to save their lives. Seeing the beautiful captive woman, now shorn of her hair, without her flowing gowns or long nails and in a state of emotional distress for an entire month, would quickly dissipate any passion the Jewish soldier ever had for the woman.

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

School Time

Donate spare school supplies to children in need.

Friday, August 13, 2010


In Tractate Pesachim 107a, beer lovers can find an interesting discussion about the use of beer for kiddush or havdalah. “Rabbi Hisda asked Rabbi Huna: Is it permitted to recite kiddush over [date] beer? [Rabbi Huna replied] In as much as I asked Rav, and Rav asked Rabbi Hiyya, and Rabbi Hiyya asked Rabbi [Judah the Prince] about pirzuma (barley beer), ta’ainy (fig beer) and asne (a fruit beer) and he could not resolve it for him, can there be a [different] question about [date] beer?” Now it was assumed from this: kiddush may not be recited over it, however it is possible that we may recite havdalah over it.

This opinion is interesting in light of the story of the sage Amemar’s visits to Mar Yanuka and Mar Kashisha. During his first visit, he refused to make havdalah on beer and waited until the morning when wine could be obtained (fasting until then). The next year when faced with the same scenario, Amemar said: “‘If so, it [beer] is [considered] the wine of the country’ [so] he recited havdalah and ate a little.”

It appears, from the text, that the reason beer was believed unacceptable for kiddush was the bitterness of its flavor and the after-effects of the drink: “Levi sent to Rabbi [Judah the Prince] beer strained thirteenfold. On tasting it he found it well-flavored. Said he: ‘Over such as this it is fitting to recite kiddush and to utter all the psalms and praises in the world.’ At night it caused him pains. Said he: ‘Seeing that the beer causes us pain, shall it be used to praise God?’”

While it’s interesting to read what the sages thought about beer, the halacha is that while wine is prefered, beer may be used for the Shabbat lunch kiddush and for havdalah. Beer may not, however, replace wine on Friday night (in the absence of wine/grape juice, the kiddush blessing should be recited over the challah).

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

Enjoy Responsibly

If you're going to enjoy a beer or two, remember to be responsible and ask someone else to drive. (Did you know that unflavored beers do not need kosher certification?)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Halachic Authorities

The connection between Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (the Tur, Barcelona, Spain, 1269-1340), Rabbi Joseph Caro (Safed, Israel, 1488-1575) and Rabbi Moshe Isserlis (Cracow, Poland, 1520 - 1572) is an excellent example of both the international Jewish community and of Jewish scholarship in general.

Rabbi Jacob ben Asher’s codification of Jewish law, the Arba’ah Turim, based on the Rambam’s Mishne Torah (which is based on the Talmud) was a ground breaking work that allowed Jews to understand, in a systematic way, what Jewish law required of them. The work, however, was criticized for its lack of sources and citations.

Rabbi Joseph Caro’s work, Beit Yosef, was both a commentary on, and a bibliography for, the Arba’ah Turim. In the Beit Yosef, Rabbi Caro explained how the Tur arrived at his halachic rulings. The Beit Yosef, however, was a large and exhaustive work and far too in-depth for the average person.

Impressed by Rabbi Caro’s scholarship, Rabbi Moshe Isserlis studied the Beit Yosef and wrote his own commentary on the material, known as Darkei Moshe. At the same time, however, Rabbi Caro was revising his work, condensing it to make it more “user-friendly” for those less scholarly.

On the 2nd of Elul 5315 (1555), Caro’s Shulchan Aruch was published. In English, this book is known as The Code of Jewish Law, which demonstrates the respect given to this work. While Rabbi Isserlis saw the tremendous merit of Rabbi Caro’s work, he noticed that the Sephardi rulings (Rabbi Caro was of Spanish-Jewish origin) could not be applied in Ashkenazi communities. He therefore wrote Hamapah (literally “The Tablecloth,” as shulchan aruch means “set table).’ Hamapah, which is printed in a different font within the text of the Shulchan Aruch, comments on the work of Rabbi Caro and notes the proper halacha for Jews of Ashkenazi origins.

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

Visiting Gift

Visit or call a friend who is under the weather.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Alarm Clock

New beginnings are always difficult.

For those who are not “morning people,” every day is a new beginning, and we must be thankful to whoever invented the alarm clock, which keeps us from being labeled as “slothful” and “lazy.”

No other beginning is quite as profound as the one we face annually at Rosh Hashana. On the Jewish New Year, God gives all people the chance to face His judgment and wipe their slate clean.

The great symbol of Rosh Hashana is, of course, the shofar. When the shofar is sounded in the synagogue, it is meant to serve as an alarm clock that awakens our souls and reminds us of the awesomeness of the day.

Knowing well the nature of people, our sages realized that what we really needed was an alarm clock with a “snooze” function. Yes, “snooze,” that wonderful button that tells us that we must get up very, very soon, but not just yet. The snooze button reflects the recognition that people naturally desire to continue sleeping and not get up at what feels like the crack of dawn. The rabbis therefore instituted the blowing of the shofar every morning during the month of Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashana.

Every morning, during the synagogue services, the shofar is sounded in the synagogue, allowing us to push the “snooze” button, and reminding us that the real alarm, the Rosh Hashana alarm to which we must truly respond is soon at hand.

This Treat was originally sent on Monday, September 22, 2008.

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

A Little More

During the month of Elul, add some extra Jewish time to your schedule (join a class, read some Jewish books, etc.).

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Read This Blueprint Please

Most people can understand the layout and basic measurements of a building from its blueprint. But it takes an expert--an architect or an engineer--to use those blueprints to build a house.

The Torah is frequently referred to as the blueprint for life. The Torah can be read and understood by all people. But the more one studies, the more expert one becomes in understanding the intricacies of the Torah’s guidelines. Torah experts are the rabbis and judges about whom God commands the Jewish people: “And you shall come to the Levite-priests and to the judge who will be in those days, and you shall inquire, and they will tell you the words of the judgment...According to the law they instruct you and according to the judgment they say to you, you shall do” (Deuteronomy 17:9,11).

We all know people who insist that they don’t need help with directions, even when dealing with complicated issues that are far from their fields of expertise. God recognized this aspect of human nature and, therefore, gave His people implicit instructions to seek advice from those who truly know Torah law.

The sages, however, noted that the law limits the judges to those “who will be in those days.” Of course one would seek judgment from a living judge... “Can we possibly imagine that a man should go to a judge who is not in his days? This shows that you must respect the judges who serve in your time." [Even if they would seem to be inferior to the judges of previous times.] (Rosh Hashana 25b).

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

Write It Down

When a question about Judaism comes up, write it down in order to remember to ask your local rabbi. (Jewish Treats is happy to answer your general questions, but specific questions of halacha, Jewish law, should be presented to a Jewish authority who knows you.)

Monday, August 9, 2010


Horoscopes are fun to read, especially when they tell you that you are about to get rich or find sudden fame. While telling the future through one’s horoscope is not part of Judaism, this does not mean that all aspects of astrology are false.

It might surprise you to learn that Jewish tradition recognizes the twelve signs of the zodiac, assigning the visual symbol of each to one of the months of the Hebrew calendar. Even though the zodiac symbols are known today by their Hellenic names, they appear, according to historians, to predate even the first Mesopotamian cultures. The zodiac’s ancient origin supports the Jewish belief that God taught the zodiac to Adam, the first human.

It is interesting to note that the Jewish holidays and the zodiac month in which they fall are often related.

Aries/Ram - zodiac for Nisan, when the Israelites sacrificed lambs and left Egypt on Passover. (Don’t forget, Egyptians worshiped the ram.)

Taurus/Bull - zodiac for Iyar.

Gemini/Twins - zodiac for Sivan, when God gave the Israelites the Ten Commandments on twin tablets (Shavuot).

Cancer/Crab - zodiac for Tammuz.

Leo/Lion - zodiac for Av, while we mourn the destruction of the two Temples in Av, the sages teach that someday it will be a feast on which we celebrate God’s might (Tisha B’Av).

Virgo/Virgin - zodiac for Elul, which is the month leading to the High Holidays in which we try to recapture the purity of our spiritual essence.

Libra/Scales - zodiac for Tishrei, when God judges the people on Rosh Hashana and seals His judgement on Yom Kippur.

Scorpio/Scorpion - zodiac for Cheshvan.

Sagittarius/Archer - zodiac for Kislev, when Jews celebrate the military victory of the Maccabees (Chanukah).

Capricorn/Goat - zodiac for Tevet.

Aquarius/Water Bearer - zodiac for Shevat, during which we celebrate Tu B’Shevat, the renewed growth of the trees.

Pisces/Fish - zodiac for Adar, when we celebrate hidden miracles (Purim) which are kabbalistically related to fish (hidden under the waters).

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

Changing Months

Rosh Chodesh Elul begins tonight. Celebrate with a special meal.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Birthday Cake For Shabbat

It is highly unlikely that Moses, Hillel even Maimonides (all experts on Jewish law) ever worried about what to write on a child’s birthday cake.

But different societies have different norms, and, today, a birthday cake with a delightfully sugary “Happy Birthday” is standard for any birthday celebration. For Jews observing the laws of keeping the Sabbath, however, the words on the cake may* present an interesting challenge. To break the words while cutting the cake may fall into the category of mo’chaik, erasing - one of the 39 m’la’chot (creative acts forbidden on Shabbat).

The forbidden act of mo’chaik is mentioned in a listing of m’la’chot in Talmud Shabbat 73a and is elaborated on page 75b: “Our Rabbis taught: If one writes one large letter in the place where there is room for two, he is not culpable. If he erases one large letter and there is room in its place for writing two, he is culpable. Said Rabbi Menahem son of Rabbi Jose: And this is the greater stringency of erasing over writing.”

Erasing is considered a constructive act because the builders of the Tabernacle would erase incorrect letters marked on the boards (for ease of assembly) and mark them correctly. The m’la’cha itself prohibits the obliteration of letters or characters and cleansing a writing surface.

Avoiding mo’chaik on Shabbat merely requires that one pay attention and be careful with details. For instance, when opening a package of food, one should try to avoid tearing any letters or breaking any words. (The tear may, however, go between two words). As for birthday cake, either cut between the words (but the piece may be huge...) or write the birthday message on a removable cookie!

*There are many differing opinions on this subject and one should consult one’s own rabbi with specific questions.

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


Avoid birthday candles on Shabbat birthday cakes.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Touched By An Angel

Virtually all topics concerning life are covered in the vast and varied discourses of the Talmud. Life, afterlife, and even pre-life. In Talmud Niddah (30b), the sages discuss the experiences of a baby as it passes from life in the womb to life out of the womb:

“It [the fetus] is also taught all the Torah from beginning to end, for it is said, 'And He taught me, and said to me: Let your heart hold fast My words, keep My commandments and live,’ (Proverbs 4:4) ... As soon as it sees the light, an angel approaches, slaps it on its mouth and causes it to forget all the Torah completely, as it is said, ‘Sin crouches at the door’(Genesis 4:7)...”

While a child is still in the uterus, according to the Midrash, an angel teaches it all of the Torah. When the child passes into the world, the angel touches the child just above the lips, creating the vertical groove between the upper lip and the nose (philtrum), and the child forgets everything he/she had known.

Great, so once we knew everything, but now we don’t. What’s the point?

In this way, when a person is confronted with emet, with truth, emanating from the Torah, he/she will be more likely to recognize it and be drawn to it. An example: the mitzvah not to steal. Your average person will feel that this is just an obvious law. But it is obvious only because it is something that was learned years before in that “mysterious” time just before we entered the world.

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


Sing Jewish lullabies to your children/grandchildren/nieces or nephews.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Moving Day

All the boxes have been packed. The moving trucks are waiting outside, loaded and ready to go. The house is empty. Only the mezuzot remain on the doorposts.

Wait. Before you pull out that screwdriver to remove them, you may need to find out to whom those mezuzot really belong.

The Talmud in Bava Metzia (102a) states: "Our Rabbis taught: If one rents a house to his neighbor, the tenant must provide a mezuzah. But when the tenant leaves the house, the tenant must not take the mezuzah, unless it was leased from a non-Jew, in which case, the mezuzah should be removed when the tenant leaves."

The most important factor, obviously, is who will be moving into the house. This information is easy to determine if the house that is being sold is yours, because there is usually direct interaction with the buyer. When one is renting an apartment, however, it is often much harder to obtain this information. If the apartment has not yet been leased to new tenants, and there is a chance that the mezuzot will be defaced, then the mezuzot may be removed.

The special challenge, of course, regarding this mitzvah is that kosher mezuzah scrolls (and the law only applies to the scrolls, not the boxes/covers in which they are placed) can be quite expensive. One may therefore make arrangements with the incoming tenants/owners that:

a) they ask you to take your mezuzot, since they have their own,

b) you replace the mezuzot with less expensive, but still kosher, scrolls and take the more expensive mezuzot to your new home,

c) they agree to financially reimburse you for the market value of the mezuzot.

If the incoming tenant/owner agrees to none of the above, or any other questions arise, a rabbi should be consulted.

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

Housewarming Present

A mezuzah makes a lovely gift for a friend moving into a new home.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Loan For Charity

Giving charity is one of the best known precepts of “religious” life. Making loans, however, is not. The Torah instructs (Deuteronomy 15:7-8) that if there is a needy person within your gates, “...you shall surely open your hands to him and shall surely lend (v’ha’a’vayt ta’a’vee'tenu--literally "lend, you shall lend him") him sufficient for his need in that which he wants.”

The sages use this verse to discuss how to “finesse” this mitzvah with someone who does not want to benefit from the charity of others. “The Sages said: It is given to him as a gift and then it is granted to him as a loan. As a gift? He, surely, refuses to take [gifts]! Raba replied: It is offered to him in the first instance as a gift [then, when he refuses the gift, as a loan].” (Ketubot 67b).

While this seems simple enough, the sages delve into the double language “lend, you shall lend him.” The first “lend” refers to money given to a person who has no means to earn money but does not want charity. Such a one is to be told “Bring a pledge and you will receive [a loan]--in order to raise his spirit” (Ketubot 67b). That loan, however, should be considered in the mind of its administrators as a gift (since it will probably never be repaid).

“You shall lend him,” on the other hand, refers to one who does have the means but does not want to maintain himself (a person who chooses not to work). To this person, the charity is given as a gift but is considered a loan that must be repaid. The sages even state the true intention of this law: “If he is made to repay it he would surely not take again!”

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

Gift It

If someone owes you money and you know they are unable to pay you back, verbally announce that you view that money as a gift rather than a loan. (Of course, you have to really mean it.)

Monday, August 2, 2010

When The Earth Moves

This day in history: 501 C.E., the coastal city of Acco (Israel) was destroyed in an earthquake.

One of the blessings recited every morning is: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who spreads the earth above the waters.” This blessing expresses our gratitude to God for making the ground beneath our feet firm.

Unfortunately, as we all know only too well, the earth is not always firm!

The sages of the Talmud teach us that upon witnessing “shooting stars, earthquakes, thunderclaps, storms and lightning, one should say, Blessed be He whose strength and might fill the world” (Berachot 54a).

A few pages further (59a), the Talmud relates that Rabbi Kattina was once walking past the house of a necromancer (one who summons information from the dead) when the earth rumbled. He asked if the necromancer knew the source of the rumbling, to which the necromancer replied: “When the Holy One, blessed be He, calls to mind His children, who are suffering greatly...He lets fall two tears into the ocean, and the sound is heard from one end of the world to the other, and that is the rumbling.” Rabbi Kattina dismissed this answer and stated that: “[God] claps His hands, as it says: ‘I will also smite my hands together, and I will satisfy my fury (Ezekiel 21:22).’”

Rabbi Kattina is apparently suggesting that an earthquake is a sign of God’s displeasure with humankind’s actions that is directed through the relatively limited destructiveness of an earthquake compared to punishing all of humanity.

It is impossible for mortals to fully comprehend the issue of Divine theodicy. It is, however, the responsibility of each of us to react to tragedies with love and compassion, and to help where we can. We must, of course, also examine our own behaviors to see how we can make the world a better place.

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

Safety Measures

If you live in an area that is in danger of natural disasters, find out in advance how you can assist elderly or invalid neighbors in times of crisis.