Friday, December 31, 2010

L'Chaim

Fiddler on the Roof made the Jewish drinking toast “L’Chaim” - To Life! - famous. Where does the phrase come from? Why do Jews say “To life!” when drinking?

Many concepts in Judaism can best be understood through exploring where they are first mentioned in the Bible. The first person to drink wine was Noah, shortly after he emerged from the Ark. He got drunk and humiliated himself in front of his sons, before two of them covered him with a blanket.

The next to get drunk was Abraham’s nephew, Lot, whose daughters took advantage of his inebriated state to become pregnant from him.

We wish “L’chaim” to others when we drink in the hope that the alcohol we consume will not do any physical or spiritual damage to us. It has been scientifically suggested that those who drink wine in moderation actually receive health benefits from it. Health benefits = good life! We’ll drink to that! L’Chaim!

This Treat was originally posted on September 9, 2008

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

Choose Winely

Kosher wine offerings have been expanding by leaps and bounds. Ask your local wine seller to see their kosher products.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Should Old Acquaintances Be Forgot?

“Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind?” This question is posed by the classic New Year’s Eve song Auld Lang Syne. The song originated in Scotland and is sung at times of farewell (to the old year, with an uncertain new year ahead).

The Talmud (Berachot 58b) cites an interesting rule about old friends and how, indeed, they are never truly forgotten. “Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: One who sees a friend after a lapse of thirty days says: Blessed is He who has kept us alive and preserved us and brought us to this season. If [it is] after a lapse of twelve months he says: Blessed is He who revives the dead. Rav said: The dead are not forgotten till after twelve months, as it says (Psalms 31:13): ‘I am forgotten as a dead man out of mind; I am like a lost vessel.’”

Jewish life, however, is long on memory. The first year after a person passes away, there are numerous commemorative markers (shiva - the first seven days; shloshim - the thirty day mark; yahrtzeit - the one year mark). Afterward, the annual celebration of the anniversary of death (yahrtzeit) generally keeps a person’s memory alive for many more years.


In some cases, a person who has passed away only comes to mind at the time of their yahrtzeit, just as the return of an old friend into one’s life brings back memories of times past.

The custom of greeting an old friend with a blessing is no longer in general practice. Of course, in this day of telephones, internet and the various social media platforms, it is far less common to completely lose touch with good friends.

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

Contact

Get in touch with an old friend and share some memories.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

It’s At the Lost and Found

Many a comic strip cartoon has tried to gain a laugh by focusing on the strange objects returned to the “lost and found” department of large stores or buildings. Anyone who has ever misplaced a package, lost a watch or forgotten their umbrella on the bus is certainly grateful when they can reclaim their possession.

Returning a lost item is a specific mitzvah in the Torah. This mitzvah is known as Hashavat Aveidah, and there are strict halachic (legal) parameters as to what one must do upon finding a lost item or seeking to claim an item. For instance, a claimant must be able to present an identifying mark (such as a design or a blemish).

According to Wikipedia (“Lost and Found”), “The first lost and found office was organized in Paris in 1805" by Napoleon. But, in truth, there was a lost and found in ancient Jerusalem: “There was a Stone of Claims in Jerusalem: whoever lost an article went there, and whoever found an article did likewise. The latter stood and proclaimed, and the former submitted his identification marks and received it back” (Baba Metzia 110a).

The mitzvah of Hashavat Aveidah was considered so important that, in the times of the First Temple, “whoever found a lost article used to proclaim it during the three Festivals and an additional seven days after the last Festival (three days for going home, another three for returning, and one for announcing). After the destruction of the Temple--may it be speedily rebuilt in our own days!–the place of proclamation was moved to the synagogues and schoolhouses” (Baba Metzia 110a).

Whether at synagogue, through posted signs, ads in the classifieds, word of mouth or on the internet, it’s a relatively easy mitzvah to perform.

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

Even A Pen

Don’t underestimate the value of a lost item to its owner.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Your Mother's Brother

There’s an old wives’ tale that a man’s hair pattern (i.e. baldness) can be predicted by the hair of his mother’s brother. The genetic veracity of this claim is debatable, but, according to the opinion of the Talmudic sage Raba, “most [male] children [do] resemble their mother’s brothers” (Baba Batra 110a).

This seems to be an odd assertion. Modern psychology/sociology, and general life experience, would certainly disagree with such a general statement. Raba’s remark was based on his interpretation of Exodus 6:23, “Aaron [married] Elisheva, daughter of Aminadav, sister of Nachshon.” Since the mention of Nachshon appears superfluous, Raba opined that the Torah was teaching that “He who [wishes] to take a wife should inquire into her brothers.”

Is this just an old superstition? There are many statements in the Talmud that seem to be random, but at their heart there is true wisdom. The lesson Raba is presenting is that most people are a reflection of their family. People who are dating usually put on their best faces. A person’s siblings, however, often reflect a more honest image of the family’s underlying values and ethics.
And remember, the statement in the Talmud is advice only.

The story of Jacob and Esau both validates and invalidates Raba’s statement. Jacob and Esau were twins whose lives and personalities were polar opposites. Whereas Jacob is known as a tzadik (righteous person), Esau is known as a rasha (wicked person). Who was their mother’s brother? Laban, a notorious con-man and crook.

Laban’s bad character is a possible explanation for how two righteous people, Isaac and Rebecca, could produce a son like Esau. Certainly, Esau's oppositional personality is an interesting study for the modern day conversation regarding “nurture” verses “nature.”

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

Early Enrollment

Find out about local Jewish day schools or after-school programs in which to enroll your children next year.

Monday, December 27, 2010

A Man of Torah, A Man of Science

Perhaps you’ve heard of Maimonides (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, Rambam) and Nachmanides (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, Ramban), two medieval scholars whose works are quoted frequently even today. You may not, however, have heard of Gersonides.

To Jewish scholars, Rabbi Levi ben Gershon is best known as the Ralbag, the author of Biblical and Talmudic commentaries, Jewish philosophy and Hebrew poetry. However, he is better-known to philosophers, scientists and mathematicians as Gersonides.

In the medieval era, science and philosophy were often categorized together. Thus Sefer Milhamot Hashem (The Wars of the Lord), Gersonides’ philosophical tractate (similar to Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed), also contains the author’s exploration into the scientific world.

While not all of Gersonides’ scientific works have been upheld by the test of time, many of his findings were far ahead of his times. For instance, Gersonides estimated stellar distances and refuted Ptolemy’s model of the solar system. He also worked with and refined scientific instruments such as the camera obscura and is credited with inventing the Jacob's staff, a navigational instrument designed to measure the angular distance between celestial objects. Rabbi Levi’s Craters, a lunar geographical formation, honors Gersonides’ astronomical work.

Gersonides is also noted for his work in mathematics. His treatise Ma'aseh Choshev dealt with square roots, binomial coefficients and algebraic identities (and more).

Gersonides’ rational thought process, which is reflected in his scientific works, also shaped his philosophic ideas, which was shaped by Aristotelian philosophy. Like the philosophy of Maimonides (also an Aristotelian), Gersonides’ philosophy was criticized and rejected by many leaders in the Jewish community. However much they disagreed with his philosophy, his brilliance could not be denied and his commentaries remain popular to this day.

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

Re-Use

Try to re-use leftovers...Judaism is opposed to wasting food.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Preacher Man

One does not often associate preachers with Judaism. There are, however, certain distinct personalities in Jewish history who are known for their ability to inspire through their oratory. The maggid (literally “teller”), as such a person is called, is known for bringing Torah and Jewish law to life through stories. This unique skill was epitomized by Rabbi Yaakov ben Wolf Kranz, better known as the Dubner Maggid (Maggid of Dubno, c. 1740 – 1804).

Born in Zetil, near Vilna, in Lithuania, Rabbi Kranz first began speaking in public in Mezeritch, Poland, where he was a student of the yeshiva there. He so impressed the town elders that they offered him a position as a preacher. After working in Mezeritch and Zolkov, he accepted a position in Dubno, where he remained for 18 years.

What made the Dubner Maggid such a powerful speaker was his use of parables, stories that illustrate moral points. When asked how he produced such accurate parables, he replied with a story of a man who found an archer at an archery range who had only perfectly accurate shots. When the man asked the archer how he had such consistent accuracy, the archer responded that first he shot the arrow and then he painted the target. The Dubner Maggid felt that this was very similar to his own method of preaching. First he understood the point he wished to make, and then he created the parable.

To help his listeners understand the words of the Torah, the Dubno Maggid created parables concerning kings, princes, parents, children, in-laws, and a wealth of other characters to whom the common person could relate. He was also recognized as a great scholar of Jewish law and his company was sought out by one of the greatest rabbis in Jewish history, the Vilna Gaon.

The Dubno Maggid passed away on the 17th of Tevet in 1804.

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

Story Time

Use stories to teach the children in your life about Jewish values.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Separation of Church and State

Recently @JewishTweets mentioned, in passing, a website created specifically to give cheers or jeers to those who would or would not say “Merry Christmas.” Many of the jeers were given to local municipalities--once again raising the issue of separation of church and state.

Traditionally, the ideal Jewish nation is one with a pious king (as the standard set by King David), but with a clear separation between the civil leadership and the religious leadership. The king is the head of state; the High Priest is the religious leader.

This system worked well when the two leaders did not interfere with each other’s direct succession. Sadly though, one finds much civil discord throughout Jewish history brought on by kings’ appointing High Priests or taking the priesthood for themselves. After the Maccabees ousted the Syrian-Greeks (Chanukah), they assumed both the civil leadership and the religious leadership, which led to highly corrupt governments and, finally, to the heavy-handed rule of Rome. While the dual leadership of king and High Priest was never meant as a means of “checks and balances,” in practice it worked.

Far worse than an abused system, however, is when the civil leader bans traditional religious worship completely. For instance, Jereboam ben Nevat, the first king of the Northern Kingdom, banned his subjects from traveling to Jerusalem on pilgrimages for fear of losing his sovereignty. He even blocked the roads and put up idols to try and convince the people that he could create a new home for the Divine Presence. For this the Talmud says: “of Jeroboam and his companions... ‘the name of the wicked shall rot’” (Taanit 28a).

This does not answer today’s conundrum of how to best separate church and state (too little vs. too much), but it does provide an interesting insight into the Torah’s perspective on government.

Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved

Pride

At this time of year, do something to show your Jewish pride: wear a Jewish star pendant, hang a new mezuzah, put on a yarmulka/kippa in public, etc.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Stingy?

Is being frugal a Jewish trait? After all, being “tight-fisted” is one of the most common slurs against Jews.

One might think there is some truth to this statement when reading in Sotah 12a: “She [Yocheved] took for him [Moses] an ark of bulrushes -- why just bulrushes? Rabbi Eleazar said: Hence [it is learned] that to the righteous, their money is dearer than their person...” Instead of assuming that Yocheved chose bulrushes because they were available and would not attract attention, Rabbi Eleazar understands that this was a conscious decision not to spend money on hardwood (which might have made a better boat).

This is only shocking until one reads Rabbi Eleazar’s explanation: “... and why so?--That they should not stretch out their hand to robbery” (Sotah 12a). The inferred meaning is that the righteous do not spend unnecessarily on physical comforts lest they start to excessively desire them and are led to take liberties with other people’s property.

This frugality within the Jewish community stems from a desire that one’s money should always be put to good use. This means that one should spend less on luxuries in order to ensure that there is more to use for mitzvot and tzedaka (charity).

What does it mean to spend money on mitzvot? Jewish law encourages hiddur mitzvah, beautifying a mitzvah–for instance, purchasing beautiful candlesticks for Shabbat.
Yet, even while the sages encouraged hiddur mitzvah, they were concerned that this should not lead to excessive spending. Pointing out that “On fast days they used curved shofars of rams’ horns the mouths of which were overlaid with silver,” the Talmud ponders “Why in the other case [on Rosh Hashana] should gold have been used and here silver?” the response is that “... the Torah wished to spare Israel unnecessary expense” (Rosh Hashana 27a).

Perhaps it is true that Jews are frugal...but not when it counts.

Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved

Tzedakah Plus

Make sure not to be stingy when it comes to giving charity.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Total Eclipse

Last night/early this morning, North Americans were able to view a complete lunar eclipse. While this is not a rare occurrence, it is always a fascinating event.

One might expect the sages to record eclipses as moments of awe, but instead the Talmud (Sukkah 29a) ascribes what seems to be a strange meaning to them:

“Our Rabbis taught, When the sun is in eclipse, it is a bad omen for the whole world...when the moon is in eclipse, it is a bad omen for Israel, since Israel reckons by the moon and [others] by the sun...But when Israel fulfills the will of the Omnipresent, they need have no fear of all these [omens]”

Although there are numerous places in the Talmud where it discusses the sages’ knowledge of both astronomy and astronomers, this statement seems like a superstitious view of eclipses. However, the fact that it concludes by reminding the Children of Israel that if they follow the “will of the Omnipresent” they need not fear, provides an insight into the minds of the sages.

Humankind came to worship the heavenly bodies, according to Maimonides, because “they believed that it would be pleasing to God if they were to venerate the forces of nature which serve Him...Soon they were...offering sacrifices and hymns of praise to them..." Knowing humankind’s fascination with the heavenly bodies, the rabbis most probably described eclipses as bad omens in order to inspire prayer and repentance.

Why did the rabbis differentiate between eclipses? A solar eclipse, when daylight is blocked, is noticeable to almost everyone. A lunar eclipse, however, is less noticeable because people are used to the waxing and waning of the moon and may not notice unusual darkness. But watching the moon is an integral part of the calculation of the Hebrew calendar, and therefore the opportunity for repentance at the time of a lunar eclipse is particularly potent for the Children of Israel.

Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved

Astronomical Awe

Observe the incredible workings of the heavens and be inspired by the wonders of creation.

Monday, December 20, 2010

What’s in the Book: Ezekiel

The 48 chapters of the Book of Ezekiel are filled with wondrous visions. Ezekiel’s first vision is of a fiery chariot drawn by creatures with four faces (of a man, a lion, an ox and an eagle) and four sets of wings.

God instructed Ezekiel to withdraw into his home and to remain mute from all but that which God tells him to speak. During this time, he physically acted out his prophecies (sort of like performance art): “You also, son of man, take a tile, and lay it before you, and trace upon it a city, even Jerusalem; and lay siege against it, and build forts against it...” (4:1)

The Book of Ezekiel also contains several potent parables, such as the wife who turned to harlotry (Israel as God’s unfaithful bride) and the young vine that withers (the fall of the House of David). At God’s command, he sets aside the ritual mourning for his departed wife as a warning to the people that when Jerusalem falls they too will be unable to mourn.

However, Ezekiel also spoke of a new leadership emerging, the return to Israel and a truly eternal covenant being affirmed.

The “Dry Bones” is the most famous of Ezekiel’s prophecies. Ezekiel was transported to a valley full of bones that then return to life (“Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel; behold, they say: Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off...Behold, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, O My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel” - 37:11-12).

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

Gift of Warmth

Donate winter clothes or heaters to those in need.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Fasting on Friday

The general rule of Jewish fast days is that they cannot occur on Friday. This rule is meant to protect the joy and happiness of Shabbat, for the sages felt that entering Shabbat hungry after a full day of fasting might diminish the joy and happiness of the holy day.

The Tenth of Tevet, however, is the exception to this rule. The “Fast of the Tenth” as it is referred to in the Talmud (Rosh Hashana 18b) marks the date when the Babylonians began their siege of Jerusalem. It is one of the four annual fasts that relate to the Temples’ destruction. The 17th of Tammuz marks the date on which the walls of the city were breeched. The Ninth of Av (Tisha B’Av) is the day of mourning for the destruction of both Temples. The Third of Tishrei commemorates the murder of Gedaliah, the governor of Judea after the destruction of the first Temple, which led to the final expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem.

What is so significant about the beginning of the siege that commemorating it merits affecting Shabbat?

It could be cogently argued that the beginning of the Babylonian siege, the Tenth of Tevet, was actually the most tragic day of all. As the Babylonians grew in power far to the east, the Jews were warned that the time to mend their ways was at hand. As the Babylonians marched toward Judea, Jeremiah, the great prophet, tried desperately to get the Jews to heed his call. Even as the Babylonians encamped outside the gates, Jeremiah cried out for the people to repent.

Without question the ultimate tragedy was the destruction of the Temple. That destruction, however, was the culmination of a history of missed opportunities that began when the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem on the Tenth of Tevet.

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

Shabbat Conversation

At your Shabbat dinner, discuss why today's fast was meaningful.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Source of Leadership

Great leaders can move mountains...or at least, masses of people. Ezra the Scribe was just such a leader, and it was his charisma and wisdom that inspired the Jews to leave their Babylonian exile and return to the land of Israel.

Many of the Jews living in Babylon had grown complacent in their exile. Ezra, however, was the student of Baruch ben Neriah, the man who had been the scribe and assistant to the Prophet Jeremiah in Jerusalem. As a living witness to history and a great scholar (and some say a prophet) in his own right, Baruch was an inspiring teacher. In fact, the Talmud (Megilla 16b) relates that “As long as Baruch ben Neriah was alive, Ezra did not leave him to go up [to Israel].”

The relationship of Ezra to Baruch and Baruch to Jeremiah is an important one for the Jews of every generation. Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers (1:6), encourages each Jew to “make for yourself a teacher/rabbi.” Ezra’s personal history demonstrates the significant impact that a teacher can have. Had Ezra learned with anyone other than the personal scribe of Jeremiah, perhaps he would not have had the strength to inspire so many people.

Ezra did far more than lead the Jews from one city to another. He oversaw the construction of the Second Temple. He also reinstated laws that had been forgotten in the exile, and created new customs (such as calling three people to read the Torah on Mondays and Thursdays). He was such a great leader that it was said of him “Ezra was worthy of [bringing] the Torah to Israel, had Moses not preceded him” (Sanhedrin 21b).

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

Fast Tomorrow

The Fast of the Tenth of Tevet is tomorrow. Refrain from eating or drinking from sunrise tomorrow until nightfall (when you make
kiddush to sanctify Shabbat).

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

To Dust You Will Return

Death is a big business, and the business of the funeral industry is geared toward comforting the mourner and helping them accept the passing of their loved ones. Therefore, most funeral homes offer an array of funeral and burial options. But, many of these options are actually contrary to Jewish law.

One common option is embalming, the process by which a corpse is “preserved” with chemicals. This practice is best known for its use by the ancient Egyptians (think mummies). In fact, the Torah mentions two Biblical personalities who were embalmed, due to the honor that the Egyptians wished to bestow on them: Jacob and Joseph. Embalming, however, prevents the fulfillment of the Torah precept of “for dust you are, and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). Additionally, the embalming process requires the removal of the body’s blood--and Jewish law requires a body be buried in as complete a state as possible.

Mausoleums, where bodies are placed in a vault, have also become common. This is often promoted to those who are uncomfortable with the thought of the body being buried in the ground. This method also prevents the return of the body to its original state of “dust.”

If the Torah prescribes that “to dust you will return,” it would seem that cremation should be the ideal form of Jewish burial. But, in truth, Jewish law also prohibits cremation because it destroys the body.

According to Jewish law, a body should be buried in a simple shroud and in a plain wooden box, enabling it to decompose naturally. In stating “to dust you shall return,” the Torah discretely underscores the importance of the cycle of life and death. Decomposition brings new life to the soil, which then brings forth vegetation to promote further life.

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

Make It Known

Let those close to you (next of kin) know your burial preferences.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Naphtali, Son of Jacob

After four years of marriage and desperate to have a child, Rachel gave her handmaid, Bilhah, to her husband Jacob to be an additional wife and to bear children in her name. Any children resulting from the union of Jacob and Bilhah would be raised as if they were Rachel’s children. Rachel was overjoyed when Bilhah bore her first son, Dan.

Shortly thereafter, Bilhah conceived again. Her second son, who, like the first, was to be reared by Rachel, was named Naphtali. When he was born, Rachel rejoiced and said: “I have attempted every means to influence God to grant me children as He did my sister, and I have succeeded”(Genesis 30:8).

Naphtali was the sixth of the 12 sons of Jacob. While one might suspect that the sons of a maidservant would be treated as second class children, Dan and Naphtali (and Zilpah’s sons Asher and Gad) received an equal inheritance with their brothers.

Little is written in the Bible about Naphtali as an individual. When Jacob, on his deathbed, blesses each of his sons, he says of Naphtali: “Naphtali is a deer let loose, he gives beautiful words” (Genesis 49:21). While Jacob’s description of his son is short, it is informative. Tradition notes that Naphtali was fast (a “deer let loose,” connotes swiftness) and therefore often acted the role of messenger. The Talmud (Sotah 13a) relates that Naphtali actually ran back to Egypt from Hebron when Esau demanded to see the legal deed proving Jacob’s right to be buried in the Cave of the Patriarchs.

Naphtali was the father of four sons: Yach'tzee'ayl, Gooni, Yay'tzer and Shillem.

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

Snow Run

Get involved in indoor exercise for the winter. Remember, taking care of your body is a mitzvah!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Always A Jew

There are certain renowned figures in history whose relationship with their Jewish heritage was so tenuous that they had no hesitation in accepting Christianity, but was strong enough that it shaped their lives. One such example is the renowned German poet, Heinrich Heine.

Born in Dusseldorf in 1797, Heine received a minimal Hebrew education with little Jewish involvement at home. After a brief employment experience at his uncle’s bank, Heine began to study law (studying in several universities).

It was during Heine’s student days that he first became known for his poetry. His ventures into literary life led him to associate with a wide range of notable personalities and to form strong political opinions, which were very much on the radical left.

The completion of Heine’s studies, and his decision to seek an academic career, coincided with the re-introduction of many discriminatory laws in Prussia, including one barring Jews from academic posts. Therefore, in 1825, Heine converted to Protestantism and justified this move by stating that conversion was “the ticket of admission into European culture.”

Oddly enough, the years just prior to his conversion seemed to have been his years of greatest Jewish interest. In Berlin, where he was studying, he joined the Verein für Cultur und Wissenschaft der Juden, a society which attempted to achieve a balance between the Jewish faith and modernity. He also developed a keen interest in Jewish history and began to write a historical novel, Der Rabbi von Bacherach (completed in 1840).

Ironically, Heine never held an academic position, nor was his Jewish heritage ever forgotten by those around him. And although he came to be considered one of Germany’s greatest poets, riots broke out when Dusseldorf commissioned a sculpture to honor the centennial of his birth. The stature, known as The Lauriel, eventually found a home in The Bronx, New York.

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

Translated Heritage

Read a translation of Heine’s works that reflect his Jewish heritage (The Rabbi of Bacherach, Shylock, and Hebrew Melodies).

Friday, December 10, 2010

The World To Come

This world is like the eve of Shabbat, and Olam Habah (the World to Come) is like Shabbat. He who prepares on the eve of Shabbat will have food to eat on Shabbat (Avodah Zara 3a)

Olam Habah is a reference to the afterlife. What is the possible connection between Shabbat and “the World to Come”? Just as all cooking for Shabbat must be concluded before Shabbat begins (since cooking is a melacha, a creative work prohibited on Shabbat), so too, in order to enjoy the world to come, one must prepare in advance, in the world of the living.

The ability to do mitzvot is limited to the world of the living (Olam Hazeh) as is noted in Psalms 115:17 “The dead do not praise the Lord.” Whatever “rewards” one receives in ”Heaven” are determined by one’s actions in this world. While there is no definitive description of Olam Habah and the rewards of the afterlife, it is generally understood to be an existence of pure holiness. The more meritorious a person, the closer that soul is placed to the ultimate source of holiness.

According to the Sages, every person has a share in Olam Habah. That share, however, grows or shrinks (or even, God forbid, disappears) based on a person’s behavior during one’s lifetime. It is important to note that each person is judged on how well he/she lives up to his/her potential. Thus, non-Jews who abide by the
seven laws of Noah
attain their Olam Habah just as Jews who observe the mitzvot of the Torah attain their Olam Habah as well.

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

Advanced Preparation

This world is like a lobby before Olam Habah (Ethics of the Fathers 4:16) prepare yourself in the lobby so that you may enter the banquet hall.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

My Father, Our Father

Many well-known Jewish songs are based on words from the Bible. While a vast majority of them are based on Tehillim (Psalms) one of the most famous is almost a direct quote from Genesis: Od Avinu Chai, “Our Father Still Lives.” In this song, however, an inferred meaning of the words is utilized, rather than the actual meaning in the Torah.

“Ha’od avi chai?” “Is my father yet alive?” (Genesis 45:3) is the question asked by Joseph to his brothers after he reveals his identity. In fact, other than saying"I am Joseph," these were the first words that Joseph spoke to his brothers after revealing his identity. Twenty-two years earlier, he had been separated from his father when his brothers sold him into slavery.

When the singer/composer Shlomo Carlebach attached a modified version of this verse to the phrase: Am Yisrael Chai, “The Nation of Israel Lives,” the understanding of “avi,” my father, changed from a reference to Jacob to a reference to God: “The nation of Israel lives! Our Father still lives!” The use of Avinu to refer to God as the Father of the Children of Israel is well-known from the prayer Avinu Malkeinu (“Our Father, Our God”).

The combined phrases create a powerful image of the essence of the Jewish nation. The Torah refers to the Jewish people as “kingdom of priests, and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6) whose role it is to be a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). Nations have come and gone, negating the "power" of their gods (Babylon, Greece, Rome) but the Jewish people’s belief in God has remained steadfast. Today, rather than being challenged by people who believe in different gods, the Jewish people struggle against a lack of belief in God. Yet the very existence of the nation of Israel for over 3,300 years is, in truth, testimony to God's might. And so: Am Yisrael Chai, Od Avinu Chai!

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

Sung To Inspire

Enjoy the music. Be inspired by the message.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Putting Chanukah In Perspective

Tonight we will light the final Chanukah candles. Let us take just a few more moments to make Chanukah real in our minds by placing it in its historical context:

The events of Chanukah took place about 150 years after the death of Alexander the Great (323 BCE), whose death brought 40 years of civil war to his empire. Eventually, the empire was divided into 3 smaller empires: the Antigonid Empire in Greece, the Selucid Empire in Mesopotamia and Persia, and the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt, Judea and Cyrenaica (Libya). By the time Antiochus IV Epiphanes assumed the throne of the Selucid empire in 175 BCE, Judea was under Selucid control. He began his oppression of the Jewish people in 167 BCE, after his attempt to conquer Egypt was thwarted by threats from Rome. Antiochus’s initial anger at the Judeans was for the ousting of Menelaus from the office of High Priest, to which Antiochus had appointed him.

The Maccabees redeemed Jerusalem and re-dedicated the Holy Temple in 165 BCE. While they won religious freedom, the Jews never completely regained their political independence. Jewish kings reigned, but were often vassals to greater political empires. Sadly, the era following the great Maccabean uprising is one known for corruption and treachery.

The Maccabeans began their reign just as a powerful new empire was emerging: Rome. Julius Caeser was born in the year 100 BCE. Just 100 years after the Maccabean victory, Pompey brought the Roman army into Judea at the invitation of Hyrcanus and Aristobolus, the two Hasmonean brothers who were vying for the throne. It was the beginning of a very sad ending to an inspiring victory!

This Treat was originally posted on December 29, 2008.

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

Eighth Night

Tonight is the last night of Chanukah. Discuss with your friends or family how the message of Chanukah can be carried into the rest of the year.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Maccabee Who’s Who

Mattityahu (Mattathias): A High Priest descended from the Hasmonean line, Mattityahu lived in Modi’in with his five sons. Mattityahu started the rebellion against the Syrian-Greeks when he refused to sacrifice a pig to a Greek god and then slew the Jew who volunteered to do so.

Yochanan (John) Gaddi: The oldest son of Mattityahu fought alongside his brothers. His death at the hands of the sons of Jambri from Medeba (in Moab, now Jordan) is recorded in the first Book of Maccabees.

Shimon (Simon) Thassi: The second son of Mattityahu, Shimon fought alongside his brothers. He was the first ruler of the Hasmonean Dynasty, who came to power around 142 B.C.E, and also served as the High Priest.

Yehuda (Judah) Maccabee: The third son of Mattityahu, Yehuda was the recognized leader of the revolt after his father’s death (about a year into the revolt). He is considered one of the greatest Jewish warriors in history. After the capture of Jerusalem and the rededication of the Temple, Judah continued to lead the battle against the still occupying Syrian-Greeks. The battles continued even after Yehuda’s death in battle in 160 B.C.E.

Elazar Avaran: The fourth son of Mattityahu was killed during the initial rebellion. The Syrian-Greeks had a cavalry of elephants. Elazar ran under one elephant and cut open its belly, but was unable to escape from under the animal before it collapsed on top of him.

Yahonatan (Jonathan) Apphus: The youngest son of Mattityahu, Yahonatan led the Jewish army after Yehuda’s death in 160 B.C.E. and also served as the High Priest. He was taken captive and killed by the Seleucid King Diodotus Tryphon in 143 B.C.E. (According to the historian Josephus, who claimed descent from Yahonatan’s daughter.)

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

A Gift To Give

When giving Chanukah presents, add a touch of Jewish education by attaching a fascinating Jewish fact. You can find many such facts in Jewish Treats' Complete Guide To Chanukah eBook. (Click Here to download your free copy today!)

Monday, December 6, 2010

Chanukah Yum

While Jewish holidays are known for their food (except Yom Kippur, of course), most of these foods are not known for being particularly healthy. Chanukah is no exception. Forget matzah or apples, those are healthy in comparison--pull out your deep fryer, because Chanukah is a celebration of oil.

Soufganiyot (that’s Hebrew for doughnut): Did you know that Homer Simpson’s favorite treat is a traditional Chanukah delight in Israel? Deep fried dough, most often filled with a pinch of jelly, is how Israelis celebrate the tiny cruse of oil found by the Maccabees. This tradition probably developed from the custom among some Sephardi Jews to celebrate Chanukah with
bimuelos,
which are best defined as a type of fritter.

According to
Jewishrecipes.org
, the Greek Sephardi community eat loukoumades, a popular, deep-fried Greek pastry comparable to a doughnut, coated with honey and cinnamon. “Romaniotes, the Jewish community in Byzantine Greece, called this pastry ‘Zvingous/Zvingoi.’... Today both Greek Jewish communities, Romaniotes and Sephardi--who immigrated to Greece five centuries ago--make these Chanukah treats.”

Latkes: (That’s Yiddish for pancake, in Hebrew they are called levivot): Read any children’s Chanukah book today and you’ll find descriptions of pancakes make of grated potato sizzling away in oil. But, potatoes were only introduced into European society in the 1500s (they originated in South America).

Prior to the introduction of the potato to the latke, Ashkenazi Jews celebrated Chanukah with cheese latkes. Same basic idea, yummy food fried into pancakes. Dairy, however, has its own special connection to Chanukah. Dairy foods were eaten as reminder of Judith (Yehudit), who, according to tradition, was a beautiful widow who beheaded an enemy general by plying him with cheese and wine until he fell asleep (read the complete story here).

Happy Chanukah. Now get out the griddle and enjoy!

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

Fry Together

Invite some friends over for a latke party.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Spin The Dreidel

I have a little dreidel
I made it out of clay
And when it’s dry and ready
With dreidel I shall play!

The Dreidel is a four sided top, with a single Hebrew letter on each of its sides. Before the game begins, all players are given an equal number of coins or candies. Each player makes an initial deposit of coins or candies to the middle of the circle and then takes a turn spinning the Dreidel. When it falls, depending on which Hebrew letter is facing up, the following occurs:

Nun: Nothing happens, on to the next player.
Gimmel: The player wins the pot.
Hey: The player takes half the pot.
Shin: The player must put a coin/candy in the pot.

Gambling?! On a Jewish holiday?

When the Syrian-Greeks ruled Judea (c. 167 BCE), they banned the study of Torah. The Jewish people defiantly continued to study and to teach their children. Under the threat of death, the children and their teachers met in secret, with a lookout to watch for soldiers. When the enemy approached, the books were quickly hidden and the Jews pretended to be gambling.

The letters on the Chanukah dreidel spell out Neis Gadol Hayah Sham, A Great Miracle Happened There (referring to Israel). In Israel, therefore, dreidels have a Pey instead of a Shin, representing the word Poh, which means Here, since the miracle actually occurred in the land of Israel.

So go ahead, gather a few friends, spend a few pennies and spin the dreidel without any guilt.

To learn more about Chanukah in general, please visit www.njop.org.

This Treat was originally posted on December 24, 2008.

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

Dreidel Dance

See who among your family or friends can spin the dreidel longest.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Beauty and The Greeks

What does Noah’s son Yaphet have to do with the story of Chanukah and the mitzvah of circumcision?

When the Syrian-Greeks sought to force Hellenization on the Judeans, one of the first mitzvot they outlawed was brit milah, circumcision. In fact, performing a brit milah on one’s child became a capital crime. The Syrian-Greeks found circumcision particularly offensive because of their own culture’s devotion to the beauty and perfection of the human body. The ancient Greeks are renowned for their sculptures and naked athletics. From the perspective of Hellenistic culture, the male body represented perfection. It was therefore unconscionable that the Jews should alter it, or maim it, especially by Divine decree.

The Greeks are known in the Bible as “Y’vanim,” the people of Yavan. They are, according to the sages, the direct descendants of Yavan, the son of Yaphet, the son of Noah.

Noah had three sons: Yaphet, Ham and Shem. Very little is written about Yaphet other than the fact that, following Shem’s lead, Yaphet covered his father’s nakedness, which had been exposed by Ham. For this noble act, Yaphet is praised. (See Genesis 5).

There is, however, much one can learn about a Biblical personality through his/her name. The name Yaphet derives from the Hebrew root (y-ph-h), which is the base of the word Yafeh, beautiful. Thus, beauty, and the admiration of beauty, are part of Yaphet’s nature. Consequently, Noah blessed him: “May God grant beauty to Yaphet, and may it dwell in the tents of Shem” (Genesis 9:27).

Yaphet is associated with beauty and adoration of the human body, the two cultural traits that came to define Yavan-Greece. Perhaps, then, it is not so surprising that they abhorred the dedication of the Jews to the mitzvah of brit milah.

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

It's Chanukah

Today is the first day of Chanukah (the first candle was lit last night). Discover the deeper meaning of this holiday (as well as fun games and delicious recipes) with Jewish Treats' new Complete Guide To Chanukah eBook.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Rock Of Ages

“Rock of Ages let our song / Praise thy saving power / Thou amidst the raging foes / Wast our sheltering tower....” This is the first verse of Maoz Tzur as translated, loosely from the original Hebrew, by Marcus Jastrow and Gustav Gottheil in the late 1800s. And while tzur may mean rock, the rest of the verse actually means:

Refuge, Rock of my salvation/ to You is a delight to give praise
Restore my House of prayer/so that there I may offer You thanksgiving
When You silence the loud-mouthed foe/
Then will I complete, with song and psalm, the altar's dedication.


Maoz Tzur is one of the best known Hebrew piyyutim (religious songs/poems). Most people, however, are only familiar with this first verse (there are 5 more verses--click here to read the entire song). Thought to have been written in the 13th century, it has become a near universal custom to sing Maoz Tzur after lighting the Chanukah candles.

Maoz Tzur is a song of redemption. Its paragraphs refer to the many different exiles the Jews have endured, but also reflect the fact that God is always present in Jewish history as our Savior. The exiles are treated in chronological order:

Verse 2 - “...when I was enslaved under Egyptian rule”
Verse 3 - “...Then Babylon fell, Zerubbabel came: within seventy years I was saved”
Verse 4 - “The Agagite, son of Hammedatha (Haman)...”
Verse 5 - “Then the Greeks gathered against me...”
Verse 6 - “...Thrust the enemy into the darkness...(word admon refers to Roman exile)”

The author of Maoz Tzur, a man known only as Mordechai (the letters of his name serve as an acrostic of the first letters of the first five stanzas), focused on each exile in order to acknowledge the redemption that God has brought the Jewish people in the past and to pray for a speedy redemption in our own day.

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

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

First Night

Tonight is the first night of Chanukah, so celebrate the lighting of the menorah with friends and family.

Special For Chanukah: The Chanukah Blessings

On the first night of Chanukah, one candle/light is placed on the far right of the menorah. Each succeeding night, one candle/light is added to the left of the previous night's candle(s)/light(s). The newest candle/light is always lit first.

Before lighting, the following blessings are recited:

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

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

Ba’ruch ah’tah Ah’do’nai, Eh’lo’hay’nu melech ha’o’lam, sheh'asah neesim la'avotaynu, bayamim hahem bazman hazeh.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who wrought miracles for our ancestors in those days at this season.

The third blessing is recited on the first night only.

Ba’ruch ah’tah Ah’do’nai, Eh’lo’hay’nu melech ha’o’lam, sheh'heh'cheh'yanu v'kee'manu v'hee'gee'anu la'zman ha'zeh.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.

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