Friday, October 29, 2010

Who Leads The Prayers

A congregational rabbi’s job is to teach and guide a community, officiate at life-cycle events, answer appropriate questions and be the representative of the community. A rabbi must therefore have intelligence, scholarship and interpersonal skills...but a nice singing voice is not one of the requirements. So whose job is it to lead the prayer service?

In many small congregations, the leader of the prayer service can be anyone who steps forward to volunteer. This person is known as the Shaliach Tzibur, the messenger for the congregation. Some congregations will designate one specific lay person to lead services, particularly on Shabbat and festivals. This person is known as the Baal Tefillah, the master of prayer. Many congregations, however, take the more professional route and hire a chazzan, a cantor.

The chazzan is a trained vocal professional and is a recognized member of the congregational clergy. In addition to leading services, the chazzan is often responsible for teaching the youth and preparing them for Bar/Bat Mitzvah while sharing some of the pastoral duties with the rabbi.

While the term chazzan is found in the Mishna (Sotah 7:7-8), this refers to a general synagogue-helper type of position. It was not until the Geonic era (c. 600 - 1000 C.E.) that the community’s prayer leader assumed the formal title of chazzan. The great rabbinic leaders of the generations that followed the Geonim included the chazzan in their discussion of synagogue professionals and required chazzanim to be especially upright people, acceptable to the congregation and well-versed in Torah.

Different styles of chazzanut (cantorial performance) developed in different regions. In some area of Eastern Europe, the chazzan sounded more like an opera star. The “Golden Age of Chazzanut” was in the 20th century between the two world wars, when chazzanim would even offer concerts to packed concert houses.

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


Listen to some samples of different styles of chazzanut:

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A King, a Ghost and a Witch

Across the Western world, children are reveling in the realm of the un-dead, an off-shoot of a distinctly non-Jewish holiday (Halloween). Yet the underlying interest in ghosts, goblins and witches has valid Jewish sources. Take, for instance, the story of King Saul and Samuel’s ghost (I Samuel 28:4-20):

At the end of his reign, surrounded by the Philistine army, King Saul tried, unsuccessfully, to communicate with God. Terrified of defeat, Saul ordered his servants to find him “a woman who speaks by ghosts,” and they brought him to the witch of Endor. Reluctantly, the woman agreed to call forth the ghost of the prophet Samuel. The ghost immediately asked Saul, “Why have you disturbed me and brought me up?” and then reiterated what Saul already knew, that he had lost God’s favor. The ghost then told Saul that he was doomed to perish the next day.

This is a simple summary from which there is much to learn. King Saul is a conflicted personality who had, prior to this incident, commanded the people to “put away those that divined by a ghost or a familiar spirit out of the land” (28:3) (accounting for the witch’s reluctance to practice her witchcraft.) This was in accordance with Deuteronomy 18:10-11: “There shall not be found among you ... a soothsayer or a sorcerer ... or one that consults a ghost or a familiar spirit, or a necromancer.” But Saul’s desperation drove him to violate the law. The story does, however, teach us not to immediately assume that all talk of witches and spirits is mere foolishness.

And what of Samuel’s ghost? Rabbi Abahu explained (Shabbat 152b) that the witch was able to call Samuel’s spirit forth because “it was within twelve months of his death...For it was taught: For full [twelve months] the body is in existence and the soul ascends and descends...” --affirming as well that ghosts are not necessarily a figment of the imagination.

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

Speak Well

Remember to speak well of the dead. Their souls continue on but they can no longer defend their actions.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Mourner’s Kaddish

Jewish belief in the afterlife is affirmed in almost all of the Jewish rituals of mourning. Of these, by far the best known is the recitation of the Kaddish prayer by the mourner.

In addition to being recited at the graveside, the Mourner’s Kaddish is said during every prayer service. Ideally, a mourner recites the Mourner’s Kaddish at three prayer services each day for 11 months after the death (usually of a parent, although Kaddish may be said for others). It is then recited every year on the anniversary of the death (yahrtzeit).

Kaddish, in different versions, is actually recited numerous times during services. Written in Aramaic, the common language of the Talmudic era, Kaddish makes almost no reference to death. Rather, the text of Kaddish is all about the greatness of God and the kindness He does for the world.

Mourning the loss of a parent is a year long event, although there are different stages of intensity.
Psychologists have noted that death often evokes many emotions: guilt, sorrow, anger, etc.
The sages recognized that, given human nature, a person experiencing these emotions might feel isolated from, or angry at, God. The text of Kaddish is a reminder that God runs the world and always has our best interests in mind, although we may not realize it.

That the Mourner’s Kaddish is recited for only 11 months after death is based on the kabbalistic understanding that only a truly evil soul goes through an entire year of “cleansing” in Gehinnom. By stopping Kaddish after 11 months, a person affirms that their departed parent was a righteous person.

The responsibility for Kaddish falls on the child, as the recitiation of Kaddish elevates the departed soul in the heavenly sphere. If there is no one able to recite Kaddish, a righteous person should be hired to do so.

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

Kaddish Help

Learn how to say the Mourner’s Kaddish (Here's a helpful video from, please God, you will not need it anytime soon.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

From Here to There in the Blink of an Eye

At science fiction and fantasy conventions, one might expect to hear strange tales of talking animals, shape shifters and teleportation. These things are not, however, commonly thought of in relation to Torah, but perhaps they should be. Balaam’s donkey talks to him, literally (Numbers 22), Moses changes his staff into a snake (Exodus 7), and, according to the sages (Sanhedrin 95a-b) “the earth contracted” for Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, and for Jacob (as well as Abishi ben Zeruah in the time of David).

“Our sages taught: For three did the earth contract...Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, as it is written ‘And I came on this day unto the well,’ implying that he had set out on that same day...” Eliezer had been charged with the task of going to Abraham’s brother's household to find a bride for Isaac. This is certainly an important task, but why was it so important that God changed the laws of nature? In truth, Eliezer’s mission was very difficult for him personally. Part of him wanted it to fail so that Isaac might marry his own daughter. Perhaps it was to reduce that temptation that God caused him to arrive in just one day, on what should have been a long, multi-day journey.

The concept of God contracting the earth is referred to in the Talmud as Kefitzat Haderech. Kefitzat derives from the word “jump,” and derech means road. Many of the tales of the great chassidic rebbes, particulary the Baal Shem Tov, include Kefitzat Haderech.

The idea of the earth shrinking, or being able to jump from one place to another, is intriguing and appealing (especially to those stuck in rush hour). In fact, it is so appealing a concept that one science fiction writer did take it from the Talmud...Frank Herbert’s Dune series contains a power called Kwisatz Haderech, the shortening of the road.

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

Shorter By A Thought

When taking a car ride, make the trip feel short by involving yourself in meaningful conversation (perhaps by sharing and discussing some Jewish Treats)!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Moving On Up

The relationship of the Jews with the Land of Israel is long, varied and quite complex. While Jews have not always had sovereignty over the land, they have almost always had a presence there. Similarly, since the first expulsion by the Babylonians, the Children of Israel have consistently sought ways to return to the Promised Land. Although the vast majority of Jews remained in Babylon, and the diaspora in which the majority of the world’s Jews currently reside is a direct result of the Roman expulsion, prayers and hopes to return to Israel were always an ongoing part of Jewish life.

So important is the concept of settling in Israel that this particular act of immigration has a name of its own: “aliyah.” The word “aliyah” is derived from the infinitive la’alot, to go up. In this same vein, someone who “makes aliyah” is referred to as an oleh (male), olah (female), or as o’leem (plural). While aliyah is used to describe the act of immigrating to Israel, it is also used to define segments of modern Israeli history, e.g. the First Aliyah (1882-1903), Second Aliyah (1904-1914), Third Aliyah (1919-1923), etc, referring to large waves of immigration to Palestine.

The Hebrew language often reflects beautiful nuances, and in this one word, aliyah, contains the idea that Judaism considers the land of Israel to be holier than any other place on earth. Moving to Israel is therefore considered a move upward spiritually. While most of the Torah’s commandments may be fulfilled anywhere in the world, there are a fair number of mitzvot that are specifically ordained for, “When you come into the land that I have given to you” (Leviticus 25:1). The promised land is a sacred land with a unique and innate holiness, and living in this holy place unquestionably elevates one’s soul.

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


If you know someone who is making Aliyah, support them with encouraging comments.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Say Shabbat Shalom

Life provides us with a plethora of opportunities to pronounce blessings. There are blessings on foods, blessings on doing a mitzvah, and even a blessing after using the restroom. Not all blessings are formal declarations (those that start with Baruch Ah’tah Ah’do’nai..., Blessed are You God...). Saying “God bless you” when a person sneezes is also a blessing.

The greeting “Shabbat Shalom” is also a blessing. Shabbat is a day of rest, of spending time connected to the Divine...this is hard to do if one is not at peace, or is agitated or worried. Additionally, the word “Shalom” is derived from the word shaleim, which means whole or complete. Greeting someone with “Shabbat Shalom” is more than wishing them to “have a nice day,” although it is sometimes meant as such. Rather, it is a blessing for someone to have a Shabbat of peace in which no worries interfere with their connection to the Divine, so that their souls can feel the wholeness promised in the World to Come. (Shabbat is said to be a “taste of the World to Come.”)

If one truly intends that the words “Shabbat Shalom” be a blessing, the words must be pronounced in the proper manner. Too often, as people hurry on their way, even when walking home from synagogue on Shabbat, they mumble “Shabbat Shalom” at any Jewish-looking person who draws close. Ideally, we should wish “Shabbat Shalom” while smiling and looking our fellow Jew in the eye. This is regarded as presenting a “sever panim yafot,” a cheerful countenance, as prescribed in Ethics of the Fathers 1:15.

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

Your Blessings

Give at least five people the blessing of “Shabbat Shalom” this Shabbat.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Angel Names

Groups, in general, frequently form some sort of hierarchy. There are always those who are placed in charge, or who take charge. Since the celestial world is a mirror image of this world, it should not be surprising that there is a hierarchy among the mal’achim--angels.

While the number and names of mal’achim are usually not known, certain arch-angels are known -- even by name. One part of the bedtime Sh’ma prayer says: “In the name of the L-rd, G-d of Israel, may Michael be at my right, Gabriel at my left, Uriel before me and Raphael behind me.”

Each of these names is also a description. Michael, (Mee’kha’El), “Who is like God?” He is the guardian angel of Israel, the nation that praises God. Michael is presented as the head of God’s army and intervenes to assure the continuance of the Jewish nation.

Gabriel means “My strength is God.” Gabriel, the angel of power, is the angel most often referred to in scripture. In the Midrash, Gabriel is often associated with saving individuals such as Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah.

Uriel means “God is my light.” He was so called in deference to the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings “by means of which the Holy One, blessed be He, atones for sins and gives light to Israel” (Numbers Rabbah 2:10).

Rafael means “God is my healer.” Because of his association with health and healing, his name is familiar to many.

The Midrash says that Rafael was one of the three “people” who visited Abraham three days after his circumcision in order to heal him. Michael and Gabriel were the other two visitors. Michael came to Abraham to announce that Sarah would bear a child and Gabriel came to oversee the destruction of Sodom.

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

Now I Lay Me Down

Introduce the bedtime Shema into your nightly routine.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

What's in the Book: Jeremiah

The Book of Jeremiah describes the final 40 years of the Kingdom of Judah.

Jeremiah was a reluctant prophet, whose first prophecy came when he was still young, but God said that He would put the words in Jeremiah’s mouth. Jeremiah was also aided by the scribe Baruch ben Neriya, who recorded his prophecies.

Jeremiah raged at the Judeans' unfaithfulness to God, comparing them to an adulterous wife. He criticized the people for their inappropriate confidence in Temple sacrifices without making the necessary changes in their lives. (“Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, worship Baal ... and stand before Me in this house, whereupon My name is called, and say: ‘We are delivered?’” 7:9-10)

As Babylon grew strong, Jeremiah tried to warn the people that Nebuchadnezzar was the tool of God’s vengeance and that calamity could be averted if Judah pledged its loyalty to Babylon.

King Jehoiakim fell to Babylon, as Jeremiah predicted. When Nebuchadnezzar’s handpicked ruler, Zedekiah, decided to rebel, Jeremiah openly stated that God was with the Babylonians. Jeremiah was arrested for “treason” and remained imprisoned for a portion of the final years before the Temple fell.

After all of Jeremiah’s pessimistic prophecies came true, the victorious Babylonians granted Jeremiah his freedom. When the new governor, Gedaliah, was murdered, the remaining populace fled, taking Jeremiah with them.

Like Isaiah, Jeremiah also prophesied consolation, telling the exiles that God wished them to live their lives in Babylon. He then predicted how, after 70 years, they would return and rebuild the Holy Temple.

Jeremiah’s life was difficult. He was ostracized, maligned, imprisoned and beaten, but his belief in God and love of the Jewish people did not allow him to give up on his sacred mission.

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


Invite a few neighbors over to get to know each other and to build a stronger community.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Mother Rachel

The patriarch Jacob had four wives (all at the same time): Leah and Rachel and their handmaidens Bilha and Zilpah. Rachel, however, was the wife that Jacob truly loved.

But while Rachel held Jacob’s heart, Leah had his children. Rachel watched her sister blossom time and again in pregnancy, while she remained barren. Desperate and jealous, she demanded of her husband “Give me children, for if not, I am as dead”(Genesis 30:1). When Jacob responded that this was God’s department, Rachel chose to give Jacob her handmaiden, Bilha, to be her surrogate. When Bilha bore Jacob two sons, Rachel named the older Dan ("God has judged me. He has also heard my voice and has given me a son") and the younger Naphtali (“I have attempted every means to influence God to grant me children as He did my sister, and I have succeeded.”)

It would seem, from her statement in naming Naphtali, that Rachel had accepted her inability to bear children. Therefore, it must have come with great joy and surprise when Rachel discovered that she was finally pregnant. (Leah, at this point, was pregnant with her seventh child, Dinah.)

Upon the birth of her first son, Rachel declared “God has taken away my reproach.” She named her son Joseph, stating “May God add to me another son” (Genesis 30: 23-24). It wasn’t, however, until eight years later that Rachel had her second child. His birth occurred as Jacob and his family were about to return to the land of Canaan. Sadly, “she [Rachel] was in hard labor....and it came to pass, as her soul was departing--for she was dying--that she called his name Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin” (Genesis 35:17-18).

Rachel’s Yahrtzeit is today, 11 Cheshvan. She was buried in Bethlehem.

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

True Prayers

Be sensitive to someone struggling with infertility, and take a moment to say a prayer on their behalf.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Thirteen Principles

The United States Supreme Court decides whether laws conform or do not conform to the U.S. Constitution. Similarly, the ancient sages decided and interpreted halacha, Jewish law, based on the written Torah and the Oral Law, Mesora, as passed down from generation to generation.

Traditionally, the hermeneutics (the art, theory and practice of interpretation) of Jewish law are governed by the 13 Rules recorded by Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha in the second century C.E. Rabbi Ishmael’s rules were based on an earlier framework of seven rules created by Hillel.

The 13 Rules are a critical tool in Talmudic study, but can appear quite complicated to those unfamiliar with the Talmud. Here are some examples of the rules:

Kal Va'chomer, literally “lenient and strict,” A rule from a lenient case may be inferred and applied in a strict case: If it is forbidden to pluck an apple from a tree on festivals (although one may cook in order to eat), surely such plucking is forbidden on the Sabbath (when one may not cook at all). In secular legal jargon, this argument is known as a fortiori.

K’lal U’prat, literally “general and specific.” When a general statement is followed by a more specific statement, the law applies only to the specific: When the Torah says regarding sacrifices: "From the animals, from the cattle and sheep/goat” (Leviticus 1:2) the sacrificial law being discussed here implies that only cattle and sheep/goat, and not undomesticated animals, may be used for a sacrifice.

Davar Ha'lamaid May’in’yano, contextual clarification. The prohibition against stealing, found in the Ten Commandments, is listed between the commandments prohibiting murder and adultery, both capital offenses. Since theft is not normally a capital offense, the sages understood that the statement “You shall not steal” was the prohibition of kidnaping, not general theft.

*Examples taken from commentary in the Artscroll Siddur.

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

Food Fun

Try to find a kosher way to recreate tasty non-kosher foods. (Hint: Soy cheese and fake crab meat work wonders.)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Do You Have the Right to Have Dessert?

Parents frequently use dessert in the negotiations to get their children to eat or behave at the table. But the question remains, is dessert a natural part of the meal?

While the Talmudic sage Abaya said “There is always room for sweet things” (Megillah 7b), most people don’t include dessert as an everyday part of their meal. Dessert is often a special treat or is reserved for special occasions (such as Shabbat/festival meals or a restaurant). Because dessert is not part of most people’s everyday menu, it falls into a special category of the laws of brachot, blessings.

In Jewish tradition, a full meal is defined by bread. For instance, before a Shabbat or Festival meal, one ritually washes one’s hands and recites the blessing over the bread (ha’motzee). With the exception of the blessings on wine and fruit,* no other blessings need be recited over the food eaten during that meal because other foods are considered to be food normally eaten with bread. It is therefore all covered with the blessing of ha’motzee...

Except, according to some opinions, dessert. Dessert is usually a food one would not eat with bread (chocolate pudding on bread....) nor is it generally eaten to satisfy one’s hunger. Because it is not always part of the meal, a new blessing may be required, depending on the food. If, however, dessert is eaten in order to satiate one’s hunger (perhaps there was not enough food or the menu was not to one’s liking) and, then it can be considered as part of the meal.

Jewish Treats presents this to you as another tasty morsel of the intricacies of Jewish law. However, because there are many differing opinions as to how to determine whether a blessing needs to be recited or on which foods, questions on this topic should be addressed to your local rabbi.

*Since plain fruit is not normally served as part of the meal, a special blessing is required, by most authorities.

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


Indulge in a delicious desert as a way of having oneg Shabbat (enjoyment and pleasure).

Thursday, October 14, 2010


The great military villains have usually been brilliant, determined and, it is often suggested, megalomanic. In which case they are very much the spiritual descendants of Nimrod.

Nimrod, the great-grandson of Noah, is described in Genesis: “He began to be a mighty one in the earth. He was a mighty hunter before God; wherefore it is said: 'Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before God.' And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and .... in the land of Shinar... Out of that land went forth Ashur, and he built Nineveh...” (Genesis 10:8-11).

The inclusion of Babel in the list of Nimrod’s kingdoms is the Torah’s way of revealing that he was the mastermind behind the notorious Tower of Babel. The reference to Nimrod as a “mighty hunter before God” is interpreted to mean that “He ensnared people’s minds with his speech and misled them to rebel against the Omnipresent” (Genesis Rabbah 37:2). Nimrod wanted people to fear him, instead of fearing God.

But Nimrod returned to power even after his great tower was destroyed. According to the Midrash, Nimrod was the ruler of Padan Aram, before whom Terach hauled his “heretical” son Abraham (who had just smashed all of Terach’s idols and told his father that they had destroyed each other). Nimrod told Abraham: “‘Worship the Fire!’ Abraham replied: ‘Shall I then worship the water, which puts out the fire!’ Nimrod told him: ‘Worship the water!’ [Abraham] replied: ‘If so, shall I worship the cloud, which carries the water?’... [Nimrod responded] ‘You pile words upon words, I bow to none but the fire - in it shall I throw you, and let the God to whom you bow come and save you from it!...’” (Genesis Rabbah 38:13). (Don’t worry, God saved him.)

Nimrod, the first great empire builder, was later killed by Abraham’s grandson Esau in a “hunting accident.”

Read more about Nimrod on Rabbi Buchwald's Message.

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

Someone Notices

If you have a friend who is feeling overwhelmed (person with crazy job pressure, mother with young kids), bring them dinner (even just a pizza) just to take the pressure off.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the Father of Modern Hebrew

The official language of Israel is Hebrew, but until the end of the 19th century almost no one spoke Hebrew colloquially. Lashon Hakodesh, the holy tongue, was used only for prayer and study.

Modern Hebrew usage is credited to the efforts of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (originally Eliezer Yitzhak Perlman), about whom the historian Cecil Roth noted: “Before Ben-Yehuda... Jews could speak Hebrew; after him they did.” Born in Luzhki, Russia, Ben-Yehuda abandoned his traditional background for more secular studies when he was a young adult. He also became an ardent Zionist.

Ben-Yehuda and his wife Devora arrived in Jerusalem in 1881. Even before he left Paris (where he had studied at the Sorbonne), Ben-Yehuda tried to use Hebrew to communicate with other Jews and many were able to respond to him because of their knowledge of Biblical Hebrew.

The Ben-Yehudas raised their children using only Hebrew. As they grew, Ben-Yehuda was forced to create new words for many objects that did not have a Hebrew equivalent. (Devora Ben-Yehuda died of tuberculosis shortly before 3 of her children were taken in a diptheria epidemic. Later, Ben-Yehuda married Devora’s younger sister, Hemda.)

Ben-Yehuda taught Hebrew in schools, lectured, and printed Hebrew newspapers. His cause was not always popular. The majority “ultra-Orthodox” population of Jerusalem was highly opposed to the use of lashon hakodesh (the holy tongue) for everyday life.

The Committee of the Hebrew Language (later the Academy of the Hebrew Language) was created by Ben-Yehuda as another means of furthering the development of Hebrew. The Committee helped coin new words, worked through idiomatic difficulties and helped Ben-Yehuda create his 17 volume dictionary. Only 6 volumes were published before Ben-Yehuda died of tuberculosis in December 1922. His wife Hemda and son, Ehud, completed the remaining volumes.

This Treat was originally published on November 25, 2009, on, a subdivision of Jewish Treats.

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

Hebrew Talk

On October 13, 1881, Ben-Yehuda and his friends agreed to speak only in Hebrew. If you know, any Hebrew words, try to use them. If you want to know more about Hebrew, find out more about Read Hebrew America and Canada and

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

To Love, Honor and Cherish...

It would seem to make common sense that honoring one’s spouse is an essential part of any marriage relationship, and yet, the sages go out of their way to remind husbands of the importance of honoring their wives: “Rabbi Chelbo said: One must always observe the honor due to his wife, because blessings rest on a man's home only on account of his wife, as it says (Genesis 12:13) 'Abraham was enriched because of her [Sarah]'...” (Baba Metzia 59a) and “A man must love his wife as much as he [loves] himself, and honor her more than himself” (Yevamot 62b).

Our sages’ advice is an excellent guide to a balanced marriage. When a man treats his wife with honor, she returns it in kind.* When a woman feels loved, honored and respected by her spouse, it is in her nature to then give her utmost to help her husband succeed in all of his endeavors. Thus the sages note that Raba said to his community: "Honor your wives, that you may be enriched” (Baba Metzia 59a).

While the power-dynamic in marriage has leveled out greatly in the last century, the wisdom of the sages remains: Respect and honor of one's spouse is the foundation of a happy marriage.

*This is the understanding of Jewish wisdom in the majority of situations. Obviously there are exceptions to these rules. (The Talmud even notes the case of Rav, who treated his wife with the utmost respect even though she was nasty to him–see Yevamot 63a).

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


If you are going to be late getting home, call your spouse as soon as you know there will be a delay.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Sponsoring Columbus

Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon are, without question, the most famous monarchs in Spanish history. They were the sponsors of Christopher Columbus’ famous journey (although they are villains in Jewish history, having brought the Inquisition to Spain and having expelled all the Jews).

History, however, is not always as it seems. The Spanish monarchs did not rush to support the risky proposal presented to them, even though Columbus’ primary goal was to find a short-cut to India and thus give them an advantage in the international spice trade. Indeed, Columbus’ historic voyage might never have taken place had it not been for the Iberian Jews.

While numerous Jews (including Don Isaac Abrabanel) helped find the funding for Columbus’ expedition, two “conversos” (Jews whose families converted to Christianity but secretly maintained their Jewish heritage, also known as marranos/anusim) played critical roles in securing royal support: Luis de Santangel, finance minister of Aragon, and Raphael “Gabriel” Sanchez, treasurer of Aragon. In fact, these two men received identical letters from Columbus in the first dispatch he sent back. (Read Columbus’ letter to Santangel.)

Luis de Santangel is credited with making the final winning argument to convince Queen Isabella to support Columbus - suggesting that in helping Columbus reach India, the Queen would be able to further the spread of Christianity. there are those who speculate that his true motive was the hope that Columbus would find a safe haven for Jews, whose life in Spain was becoming more and more difficult. In fact, in a grand sweep of irony, Isabella’s written orders for Columbus’ voyage were signed on the same day as the edict of the expulsion of the Jews. (His ships sailed the day after Tisha B’Av, the ninth of Av.)

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

Happy Columbus Day

Celebrate Columbus Day by learning something new about the Jews of medieval Spain. (Google "Jews of Spain"...there's lots to learn!)

Friday, October 8, 2010

Saturday Night Hunger

As beautiful as Shabbat is, it was not God’s intention that humankind live in a constant state of Shabbat. Indeed, it has been understood that because the Torah says, “Six days you shall work and on the seventh day you shall rest,” that it is actually a mitzvah to do creative work on the non-Sabbath days. Additionally, there are numerous mitzvot which one may not perform on the Sabbath.

Shabbat officially ends at the time of the appearance of three stars in the sky, but only completely concludes (spiritually) with the recitation of Havdallah.

“...The sons of Rabbi Hisda said to Rabbi Ashi: Amemar once visited our town: lacking wine, we brought him beer, but he would not recite havdalah [over it], ‘and passed the night fasting.’ The next day we took trouble to procure wine for him, whereupon he recited havdalah and ate something...This proves three things; [1] even one who recites havdalah in the evening service must recite havdalah over a cup; [2] a person must not eat until he has recited havdalah; and [3] he who did not recite havdalah at the termination of the Sabbath proceeds to recite havdalah any time during the week” (Pesachim 107a).
The time between the recitation of the evening service* and the recitation of havdalah is therefore an intermediate time when one might perform m’lacha
(creative work) but may not eat. If one cannot perform havdalah on Saturday night, they may recite it the next day (as some do in the time zones where Shabbat ends exceptionally late) or even several days later, although this is not considered ideal.

*One who does not attend or recite maariv, the evening service, may simply recite“Baruch ha’mavdeel bein kodesh l’chol,” "Blessed is he who separates between the holy and the mundane” after the time when three stars would appear in the sky. M’lacha (creative labor) is then permitted.

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


Buy a multi-wicked candle for Havdalah.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Great Don

Few people in Jewish history understood the “wheel of fortune*” as well as Don Isaac Abrabanel (Lisbon, 1437 - Venice, 1508).

Born into a prominent, wealthy Portugese family, Don Isaac achieved great success over and over again through his extraordinary talent and brilliance. Professionally, Abrabanel was a minister in the court of various kings and a financial genius. He was the highly regarded treasurer of King Afonso V of Portugal until 1483, when Afonso’s successor, Joao II, accused him of conspiracy. Abrabanel was saved by a last minute warning he received that the king planned to have him beheaded.

His personal fortune confiscated, Abrabanel fled to Toledo with the intention of dedicating himself to Torah study. Before the end of his first year, however, he came to the notice of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Despite the tremendous revenue he managed to generate for them, Abrabanel was unable to convince (i.e. bribe) them not to expel the Jews. In 1492, with only a minute portion of his once vast wealth, Abrabanel headed for Naples.

In Naples he once again became a royal advisor, until he was forced to flee, together with King Alfonso II, when Charles of France captured Naples. He remained with the exiled king until the king’s death, after which Abrabanel, penniless, headed to Venice. The cycle repeated one last time, as the Venetian rulers sought his sage advice and Abrabanel became one of their leading statesmen until his death in 1508.

In addition to his talented statesmanship, Abrabanel was also a renowned Biblical scholar and Jewish philanthropist...and that is enough to merit a second Treat on Abrabanel’s next yahrtzeit, 29th Tishrei 5772.

*Sometimes a person is at the top of the wheel; at other times at the bottom.

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

Positive Outlook

Look upon difficult times as the path leading to better times.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Acher: The Sage Turned Apostate

Our Rabbis taught (Chagigah 14b): Four men entered the ‘orchard’ (pardes, a metaphor for Heaven), namely, Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher, and Rabbi Akiva. The Talmud informs us of their fate. Ben Azzai gazed and died ... Ben Zoma gazed and became demented ... Acher mutilated his shoots (became a heretic)... only Rabbi Akiva departed in peace.

Acher, which means “the other,” refers to Elisha ben Abuya. There is much speculation about Acher’s life, for details in the Talmud are sparse. We do know, however, that Elisha was once considered a great and pious scholar. This can be seen by that fact that his teachings were not completely stricken from the Talmud. Most famously, he is quoted in Ethics of the Fathers.*

One explanation for his apostasy, presented in Chagiga 15b, quotes Ecclesiastes 5:5: "Do not let your mouth make your flesh sin." The text then notes how Acher saw the archangel Metatron sitting in heaven. Since he had been taught that no celestial being other than God may sit, Acher declared “‘Perhaps there are two supreme powers.’... Then a heavenly voice was heard: 'Repent, O backsliding children! except for Acher.’"

Apparently, Acher’s faith was shaken by a sight he didn’t understand (Metatron ), and he then felt cut off from the path of repentance. Acher said: “Since I have been driven forth from yonder world, let me go forth and enjoy this world. So Acher followed evil ways. He went, found a harlot and propositioned her. She said to him: ‘Aren’t you Elisha ben Abuyah?’ He then tore a radish out of its bed on Shabbat and gave it to her, where upon she said: ‘He is another [Acher]’” (Chagigah 15a).

*See today's action
For more on Elisha ben Abuya:

Read about his loyal student, Rabbi Meir.

Read more about the Pardes.

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

Find A Friend

If you have a friend who is also interested in learning more about Judaism, partner up and discuss the following statement (Ethics of the Fathers 4:20) - "Elisha the son of Abuya would say: One who learns Torah in his childhood, what is this comparable to? To ink inscribed on fresh paper. One who learns Torah in his old age, what is this comparable to? To ink inscribed on erased paper."

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Tales of The Phoenix

Mythological creatures are generally shrugged off today as figments of overactive imaginations. Nevertheless, a fair number of these fantasy creatures are noted by the sages of the Talmud.

Take the phoenix, which describes as: “A mythical bird of great beauty fabled to live 500 or 600 years in the Arabian wilderness [and said] to burn itself on a funeral pyre and rise from its ashes in the freshness of youth and live through another cycle of years.”

The Midrash describes this very creature and gives two separate, though not exclusionary, sources for the phoenix’s immortality:

Eve “gave the cattle, beasts, and birds to eat of it [the fruit]. All obeyed her and ate thereof, except a certain bird named hoi (phoenix), as it is written (Job 29:18), ‘Then I said : I shall die with my nest, and I shall multiply my days as the hoi’... The School of Rabbi Jannai maintained: ‘It lives a thousand years, at the end of which a fire issues forth from its nest and burns it up, yet a small piece the size of an egg is left, and it grows new limbs and lives again.’ Rabbi Judah ben Rabbi Simeon said: ‘It lives a thousand years, at the end of which its body is consumed and its wings drop off, yet a small piece the size of an egg is left, whereupon it grows new limbs and lives again’” (Genesis Rabbah 19:5).

In another Midrash, Shem, the son of Noah, is reputed to have said “Regarding the avarshinah (phoenix), Father [Noah] found it lying in its niche inside the ark. Father said to it: ‘Don't you need food?’ The avarshinah said to Noah: ‘I saw that you were busy, so I said to myself: I will not bother you with feeding me, too.’ Hearing this, Noah exclaimed: ‘May it be the will of God that you never die!’” (Sanhedrin 108b).

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

Animal Action

Be kind to animals.

Monday, October 4, 2010


Nothing symbolizes a Jewish wedding more than a chuppah, which we today call a “wedding canopy.” The chuppah-bridal canopy of today is meant to represent the home of the groom into which the bride enters. The home is symbolized by the roof.

But the translation of chuppah into today’s traditional bridal canopy is based only on an assumed understanding, since the word is used without explanation in the Talmud (Kiddushin 3a) in describing the ways in which a wife is acquired.

This confusion surrounding this issue was described thus by Rabbi Moses Isserles (16th century Poland):

There are some who maintain that chuppah is not seclusion, but rather bringing the woman to his [the groom’s] home for the purpose of Nissuin (marriage). Others maintain that the chuppah refers to the act of putting a shawl over her head during the recitation of the benediction. Others maintain that the chuppah of a virgin is when she goes outside with a veil... and the standard custom today is to call chuppah the place where a cloth is spread on four staves under which the bride and groom are publicly led and where Kiddushin (betrothal) takes place as well. The Blessings for Eirusin and Nissuin are recited there, followed by the guests accompanying them to their home where the couple eat together in privacy (Code of Jewish Law, Even Ha-Ezer 55:1).

While chuppah is not essential for a marriage to be valid, it is the preferred way. And while in some communities there are deeply rooted traditions as to what a chuppah should look like (e.g. a talit, prayershawl), the chuppah is an excellent opportunity to add beauty and creativity to the wedding ceremony.

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

Focused Tzedaka

Find and support a local hachnassat kallah fund. Hachnassat kallah (literally “welcoming the bride”) funds are used to help families in need to make a wedding.