Thursday, June 30, 2011

Free To All

On June 30, 2008, the first Jewish Treat was posted to There were less than 50 people on the subscription list. Today, we are proud to say, over 2,500 people receive Jewish Treats in their inboxes every day, and hundreds more read Jewish Treats via links on Twitter and Facebook. The feedback that Jewish Treats has generated over the last three years is a source constant encouragement.

The seemingly limitless variety of topics that Jewish Treats have been able to present to our readers is not surprising, in light of the following passage in Nedarim 55a:

(Please Note: The sages are commenting on the verses in Numbers 21:18-19, which note the movement of the Jewish people in what seem to be obscure locations: “From the wilderness [Midbar] to Mattanah; and from Mattanah to Nachaliel; and from Nachaliel to Bamot.”)

When a person makes himself like the Midbar (wilderness), which is free to all [meaning, he teaches Torah free of charge], the Torah is presented to him as a Mattanah (gift), as it says, “And from the Midbar to Mattanah.” And once he has the Torah as a gift, God gives it to him as an Nachala (inheritance), [“and from Mattanah to Nachaliel”] And when God gives it to him as an inheritance, he rises to greatness, for it says, “and from Nachaliel to Bamot (the heights).”

Each time recipients of Jewish Treats gain new knowledge of their heritage, share something that they learned and enjoyed with others, or forward the e-mail of the day, they too are making themselves like the wilderness, receiving the Torah as a gift and making it their own.

On the occasion of our third anniversary, Jewish Treats thanks you for your continued support.

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Keep On Giving

Share Jewish Treats with your friends and families.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Tziporah and Elisheva

“Behind every great man...” So who were the women who gave their support to Moses and Aaron, the leaders of the Jewish people?

Tziporah, Moses’ wife, was one of the seven daughters of Jethro, the Midianite priest who sheltered Moses when he fled Egypt. Tziporah is singled out by Scripture for saving her husband’s life by circumcising their son--a story worthy of its own Treat (Exodus 4:24-27). However, Tziporah also appears to be the topic of discussion in Numbers 12: “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the “Cushite woman whom he had married...”(Numbers 12:1). Cush, in Hebrew, is Ethiopia, and thus, “a Cushite woman” is a description of Tziporah as a black woman. Since her father was a Midianite, Rashi understands that “this teaches that everyone agreed to her beauty, just as everyone agrees to the blackness of a Cushite.” He further states: “[The word cushit is] numerically equivalent to y’faht mar’eh [beautiful in appearance].”

Elisheva, Aaron’s wife, is noted (Exodus 6:23) as the daughter of Aminadav and the sister of Nachshon, the prince of the tribe of Judah. Aaron and Elisheva had four sons. The sages note that at the inauguration of the Tabernacle, Elisheva had five reasons to rejoice: “her brother-in-law [Moses] was ‘king,’ her husband was high priest, her son [Eleazer] was second [to the High Priest], her grandson [Pinchas] was the priest anointed for war, and her brother [Nachshon] was prince of a tribe [Judah],” (Zevachim 102a). However, instead of rejoicing, she was mourning her two sons, Nadav and Avihu, who, on that very day, died when they brought an unauthorized sacrifice (Leviticus 10). Although Aaron was able to set aside his grieving and continue the joyous celebration of the inauguration of the Tabernacle, Elisheva’s life perspective was forever marred by the tragic loss of her sons. Elisheva is therefore described (rightly or wrongly) as one unable to appreciate all of the gifts in her life.

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Give Them Credit

Thank your spouse for the support he/she gives you.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


One of the most popular Psalms, number 135, praises God for killing mighty kings. It then lists Sichon, King of Amorites, and Og, King of Bashan. According to the Midrash, Sichon and Og were more than just belligerent kings, they were powerful giants. Little is said about Sichon other than that “Sichon and Og were the sons of Ahijah, the son of Shamhazai”(Niddah 61a). Og, however, is the subject of a great many legends.

According to tradition, Og survived the great flood by holding on to the Ark. Noah agreed to transport and feed him in return for the promise of Og’s service afterwards (Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer 23). Later, it is said, Og was the one who came to tell Abraham of Lot’s captivity (Genesis 11:13)--his motive, however, according to the Midrash, was not noble. He hoped that Abraham would be killed in war so that he might marry Sarah.

Midrash Rabbah Genesis 53:10 notes that the “great feast” that Abraham held in honor of Isaac’s weaning was actually “a feast for great people, Og and all the great men of the time were there....[Og said] ‘is he [Isaac] not puny? I can crush him by putting my finger on him.’ Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to him: ‘What do you mean by disparaging My gift! By your life, you will yet see countless thousands and myriads of his descendants, and your own fate will be to fall into their hands.’”

When the Israelite’s had to fight Og and his army (Numbers 21), Moses needed reassurance from God, which is explained thus in the Talmud:

He [Og] said: "How large is the camp of Israel? Three parsangs..." He went and uprooted a mountain of the size of three parsangs and carried it on his head [to throw onto the camp]. But the Holy One, blessed be He, sent ants that bored a hole in it, so that it sank around his neck....[Moses] then took an axe ten cubits long, leaped ten cubits into the air, and struck him on his ankle and killed him (Berachoht 54b).

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Small Change

Put your loose change into charity collection boxes.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Seven Blessings-Sheva Brachoht

A couple just starting their lives together inspires joy and hope, and everyone wants to wish them success. These blessings of good will are so important to a new couple that the Jewish marriage ceremony begins* with blessings. Seven of them, to be exact, known as the Sheva Brachoht, the seven blessings. (Sheva Brachoht is also the name used to refer to dinner parties held in honor of the bride and groom during the week after their wedding.)

Generally, the Sheva Brachoht are recited under the chuppah over a cup of wine. The blessings, which are discussed at great length in the Talmud, Ketuboht 7b-8a, are either recited by a rabbi/chazan or are assigned as honors to be recited by distinguished wedding guests.

The seven blessings begin with the blessing over the wine, as a sign of joy and a means of sanctifying the ceremony. The second blessing lauds God as He “who created everything for His glory,” which reminds the bride, groom and all wedding guests that, at such a joyous celebration, there is no better time to praise God the Creator.

The third and fourth blessings are similar, in that they refer back to the Creation of humankind. The third blessing praises God, “the Creator of Adam” and the fourth blessing details how God created Adam in His image and “provided for the perpetuation of his kind.” According to tradition, God created Adam as a creature both male and female, and then separated them. When a man and woman come together in marriage, it is as if they are recreating the original ideal merged creation.

The last three blessings, praise God for bringing joy and happiness to the Jewish people and to the bride and groom. The seventh blessing, which is the longest, is often sung at the chuppah (with the wedding guests frequently joining in).

* The second part of the wedding is Nis'oo'in, which consecrates the marriage. (The first half is actually Eyr'oo'sin, a formal engagement.)

**For a translation of the Sheva Brachoht, please click here.

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Simple Blessings

If you know a bride and groom, give them your own personal blessing (e.g "May you have a long and happy life together.").

Friday, June 24, 2011

Go Wash Your Hands

Mothers always instruct their children to wash their hands before supper. After all, children play in unclean places, touch strange objects and suck their thumbs, so their hands definitely need to be washed before they touch any food. In a Jewish household, however, the request for a child to wash his/her hands might only be an indicator that the child is about to eat bread.

According to Jewish law, before eating bread it is necessary to ritually wash one’s hands as follows (in the same manner that the priests of old washed their hands in the Holy Temple): Remove any rings. Fill a large cup with water. Holding the cup in your left hand, pour the water twice over the right hand, making certain that the entire hand is rinsed, then (after switching hands) twice over the left hand. (Some have the custom of pouring 3 times over each hand.) As the hands are dried, the following blessing is recited:

Ba’ruch Ah’tah Ah’doh’nai Eh’lo’hay’nu Melech ha’o’lam ah’sher kidishanu b’mitz’vo’tav v’tzee’vanu ahl n’tee’laht ya’da’yim.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us through His commandments and commanded us to wash our hands.

After this blessing is recited, one should not speak until the blessing over the bread (Ha’motz’ee) has been recited and a piece of bread has been eaten. This silence maintains the connection between the washing of the hands and the eating of the bread.

Notice that the word for washing in the blessing is “n’teelat.” Technically the Hebrew word “to wash” is lir’chotz. Ahl n’teelat yadayim literally means “the lifting up of hands.” The ceremonial washing has the effect of “lifting” one’s hands to a higher level--the hands being consecrated for nobler deeds in fulfillment of God’s commandments.

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Shabbat Wash

Wash your hands and recite the blessing Ahl n’teelat yadayim when celebrating Shabbat dinner tonight.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Importance of Circumcision

This coming November, the people of San Francisco will vote on a referendum to make it a misdemeanor to circumcise any male under the age of 18. And while many Americans were surprised by the proposal, and great debates are raging on the internet, if the referendum passes, this will certainly not be the first time that circumcision has been outlawed. The most famous prohibition of circumcision occurred during the rule of the Syrian-Greeks during the era of the Maccabees. At that time, however, circumcision was actually a capital offense.

According to Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar, as quoted in the Talmud: “Every precept for which Israel submitted [themselves] to death at the time of the royal decree, e.g. idolatry and circumcision, is still held firmly in their [the Jews’] minds” (Shabbat 130a).

Brit Milah, as circumcision is called in Hebrew, is a mitzvah that has withstood the test of time. Even Jews with only a tentative connection to Judaism still have their sons circumcised. Perhaps it is because this is a mitzvah that is done joyously (accompanied as it is with a festive meal) as it not only affirms the parents’ connection with Judaism, but the child’s link as well. According to Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, the joy with which the Jewish people accepted this mitzvah is the reason that it is still observed.

Brit Milah is so important a mitzvah that the Talmud states: “Great is circumcision, for it counterbalances all the [other] laws of the Torah” (Nedarim 32a).

To those who oppose circumcision, the practice seems bizarre and arcane. And while numerous explanations for the ritual have been suggested by different sages throughout the generations, circumcision is a chok, a law that is performed as God’s decree, and no further explanation is needed.

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

We Know It's Early, But...

The Brit Milah ceremony is often held early in the morning, before work. As difficult as that may be, it is a great mitzvah to join parents in celebrating their son's Brit Milah.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Missing Ark

Mention the Ark of the Covenant and most people think of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the 1981 movie starring Harrison Ford. The real Ark of the Covenant, created concurrently with the other vessels of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), was placed in the Holy of Holies of the First Temple by King Solomon. The question of the present location of the Ark is debated by the sages. When the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple, was the Ark taken into captivity by the Babylonians or was it hidden?

There are those who maintain that “The Ark went into exile to Babylonia, as it was said: ‘... King Nebuchadnezzar sent and had brought...the precious vessels of the house of the Lord.(II Chronicles 36:10)’...[Others maintain]: The Ark was hidden [buried] in its own place, as it was said: ‘And the staves were so long that the ends of the staves were seen from the holy place...but they could not be seen without; and there they are unto this day’ (I Kings 8:8).” (Yoma 54a).

If the Ark was stolen by the Babylonians, then perhaps it is lost forever. If the Ark was hidden, the question is by whom, and where? “Who hid it?–[King] Josiah hid it. What was his reason for hiding it?--He saw the passage [in Deuteronomy 28:46]: ‘The Lord will bring you and your King...unto a nation that you have not known...and there shalt thou serve other gods, wood and stone.’ Therefore [King Josiah] hid it [under the Temple in a secret chamber], as it is said: ‘And [Josiah] said to the Levites, who taught all Israel, that were holy unto the Lord: Put the holy ark into the house [Temple]...There shall no more be a burden upon your shoulders now. Serve now the Lord your God and His people Israel’ (II Chronicles 35:3).” (Yoma 52b).

*The Holy of Holies in the Second Temple did not house the Ark of the Covenant.

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Flower Patch

Plant flowers in your yard--they make others smile and they remind everyone of the magnificence of God's creations.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

No Sin For The Humble

Unfortunately, it would not be difficult to write a list of powerful men whose careers have been toppled by the scandal of adultery. Alas, we often say, sarcastically, what more can one expect of politicians, sports stars, celebrities, etc? The connection between wealth and power to the vice of adultery is, sadly, nothing new. “Rabbi Hiyya Ben Abbas said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: Every man in whom is haughtiness of spirit will in the end stumble through an [unfaithful] married woman” (Sotah 4b).

Recognizing the connection between power and adultery may make it less surprising to learn that there was a time in the Wilderness when Moses himself was suspected of adultery.

“And Moses heard and fell on his face” (Numbers 16:4): According to the Talmud, Moses had heard that “they suspected him of [adultery with] a married woman, as it is said: ‘And they were jealous of Moses in the camp and of Aaron the holy one of the Lord’ (Psalms 106:16). And, said Rabbi Samuel ben Isaac, this indicates that everyone was jealous of his wife because of Moses.--There [again] it was done out of hatred” (Moed Katan 18b).

This resentment of Moses was incited by Korach, a Levite (and thus a cousin of Moses and Aaron) who was jealous that Aaron was to be the High Priest. The Torah, in Numbers 16, describes the rebellion that Korach organized against Moses, a rebellion that Korach spurred on by making people believe, falsely, that Moses and Aaron were taking power away from them.

The suspicions of Moses’ impropriety had absolutely no validity. If, as Rabbi Yochanan asserts, it is men of pride who are caught in such a sin, how could Moses be suspect, after all, the Torah describes him (Numbers 12:3) as “exceedingly humble, more than any other man on the face of the earth.”

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Think Of How You Act

Even modest flirtations can cause jealous thoughts. If you are married, think about how your actions will affect the emotions of your spouse.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Don't Wake Dad

You receive a telephone call offering you ten million dollars; all you have to do is go upstairs and wake your father from his mid-day nap. Who’d hesitate?

The Talmud tells an interesting story in praise of Dama son of Nethinah, a non-Jew, who went to great lengths to honor his father: “Go forth and see what a certain heathen, Dama son of Nethinah by name, did in Ashkelon. The Sages once desired merchandise from him, in which there was six-hundred-thousand [gold denarii] profit, but the key [to the vault] was lying under his father’s [head], and so he did not trouble [wake] him (Kiddushin 31a).

This story highlights an interesting conundrum. Beyond food, shelter and clothing, the halacha does not require a person to make financial sacrifices in order to honor one’s parents. But, waking one’s parent would be a transgression of the Fifth Commandment.* Perhaps that is why “Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said that the most difficult to observe of all the 613 commandments is ‘Honor your father and mother’" (Tanhuma, Ekev 2).

Honoring your mother and father, while it sounds like instructions for a child, is a mitzvah that one must perform throughout one’s adult life. As children grow into adults, the relationship one has with one’s parents is also constantly changing.

*If the parent would be distressed at the financial loss, one would be allowed to wake him or her.

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Father's Day Every Day

Observe Father's Day every day by honoring your father (and your mother).

Friday, June 17, 2011

Eat Your Vegetables

In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 3:21), the sages declare that without flour, there can be no Torah. In Jewish texts, “flour,” meaning bread, often refers to material sustenance. However, the sages were also aware of the importance of vegetables: “Rabbi Huna said: No scholar should dwell in a town where vegetables are unobtainable” (Eiruvin 55b).

Did the sages recognize the nutritional value of vegetables? This is a difficult question to answer, as even rabbis had different opinions regarding the “importance” of vegetables as a food item. The Talmud in Niddah 53b states: “There are things that require a benediction before them and not after them. [What was the last clause, “and not after them,” intended] to include?-- to include vegetables. But according to Rabbi Isaac, who did say a benediction after the eating of vegetables...[the phrase is meant] to include water.” The implication is that food that does not require an after-blessing is of lesser importance.

Of the many different types of vegetables discussed by the Talmud, garlic seems to have been particularly favored: “Our Rabbis taught: Five things were said of garlic: It satiates, it keeps the body warm, it brightens up the face, it increases semen, and it kills parasites in the bowels. Some say that it fosters love and removes jealousy” (Baba Kama 82a).

The above description of garlic's medicinal use demonstrates the general view of the sages regarding different vegetables. Other than discussing the appropriate vegetables for maror at Passover, the sages viewed most produce with the same perspective as Ben-Sira, who said: “God caused drugs to spring forth from the earth [vegetables]; with them the physician heals wounds and the apothecary compounds medicinal preparations” (Midrash Rabbah Genesis 10:6). For instance, “if radish appears, a life-giving drug has appeared” (Eiruvin 56a).

Today, June 17, is “Eat Your Vegetables” Day.

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Don't Veg Out

Celebrate "eat your vegetable day" by preparing a fun salad for Shabbat.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Zebulun, Son of Jacob

Throughout her life, Leah suffered from the terrible insecurity of knowing that her husband loved her sister Rachel more than he loved her. Each time she bore a child, the statement she made before naming him, reflected that sentiment (Simeon: “Because God has heard that I am unloved, He has given me this one also.” Levi: “This time my husband will become attached to me, for I have borne him three sons.” Issachar: “God has granted me my reward, because I gave my maidservant to my husband”--Genesis 29:33, 34 and 30:18).

According to the Midrash, Jacob and his wives knew that he was destined to have 12 sons. Therefore, when Leah gave birth to her sixth son, she joyfully announced: “God has endowed me with a good dowry, now my husband will dwell with me because I have born him six sons” (Genesis 30:20). The Hebrew word used for dwell, yizbelayni, infers, according to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a “home that completely corresponds to all the purposes, wishes and demands of the one for whom it is designed.” Because Leah felt that she had finally created a place where Jacob could feel so at home, she named her son Zebulun.

Almost nothing is known of the life of Zebulun other than his name. However, something of his personality can be understood from the death-bed blessing that he received from his father: “Zebulun will live at a haven of seas, he himself will become a haven for ships, and his extreme province will reach Sidon” (Genesis 49:13). According to the sages, Zebulun and his descendants were merchants of great skill, who used their acquired wealth to support Issachar’s study of Torah.

The referral to Sidon, according to Rabbi Hirsch, teaches us further that Zebulun was, in fact a modest person who did not go farther than the great, near-by seaport in order to acquire even more riches.

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Almost Shabbat

Get ready for Shabbat early by cooking tonight! (Find some great recipes in Jewish Treats Complete Guide to Shabbat eBook. Click here to download your free copy!)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

There Might Be Giants

Are there really giants in the world?

Actually, giants are frequently referred to in the Torah. Me’am Loez, an 18th century book of commentary on the Bible, notes seven different names with which the Torah refers to giants: Nephilim (Genesis 6:4, Numbers 13:33), Gibborim (Genesis 6:4), Refa'im (Genesis 14:5, 15:20; Deuteronomy. 2:10-11, 3:11,13), Anakim (Numbers 13:22, Deuteronomy 2:11), Ay'mim (Deuteronomy 2:10-11), Zam'zumim (Deuteronomy 2:20) and Ah'vim (Deuteronomy 2:23).

The first reference to giants is found in Genesis 6:4: ‘The Nephilim were in the earth in those days...the same were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown.” According to the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Bereishit 44), the “Nephilim” were the offspring of angels (“sons of God”) and women.

Being the descendants of angels, the giants had supernatural attributes. Not only were they incredibly tall and strong, they also lived for extraordinary lengths of time. The giant Og, who was noted in the Midrash (Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 23) as being young at the time of the flood, was killed by Moses (Berachot 54b).

While certain specific giants (such as Og and Goliath) enter the Biblical narrative, giants as a nation are mentioned in particular in Numbers 13:33: “And there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak who come of the Nephilim: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so were we in their sight.” The Israelite spies thus described the inhabitants of the Land of Israel and discouraged the Israelites from conquering it.

In time, the giant nations died out. Goliath, famous for his defeat at the hands of a young David (before he became king), is the last one mentioned in the Bible.

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Summer's Coming

Get ready for summer by either teaching a child to swim (or sponsoring swimming lessons for a child who can't afford them). It's a mitzvah to teach your child to swim...and if you don't know how, sign yourself up for swimming lessons as well!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Flags of the Tribes

On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress resolved that: “the flag of the 13 United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white: That the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation." In celebration of this resolution, June 14 was officially established as Flag Day (as of 1916).

The Tribes of Israel also had flags, but these were more like organizational guides. By Divine order, the Israelites encamped “each person by his flag, according to the insignia of his ancestor’s house, at a distance surrounding the Tent of Meeting shall they encamp” (Numbers 2:2). According to the Midrash Rabbah Numbers 2:7, this meant that each tribe had a specific color and emblem:

Reuben - Red flag, with mandrake flowers
Simeon - Green flag, with buildings of the city of Shechem
Levi - Red, white and black flag, with the High Priest's breastplate
Judah - Sky blue flag, with a lion
Issachar - Bluish black flag, with a sun and moon
Zebulun - White flag, with a ship
Dan - Blue flag, with a snake
Naphtali - Deep wine colored flag, with a deer
Gad - Black and white flag, with a tent camp
Asher - Pearlescent colored flag, with an olive tree
Joseph - Black flag, with Egypt depicted upon it (Since this tribe was divided into Joseph’s two sons, their flags were similar. However, Ephraim’s flag had a bull, while Menasseh’s had a wild ox.)
Benjamin - Multicolored flag, with a wolf

*Some flags refer to historical occurrences (Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Joseph) while others reflect Jacob’s blessings (Judah, Zebulun, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher and Benjamin).

Wave Your Flag

If you are an American citizen or live in America, proudly display the flag as a means of showing gratitude to a country that has given Jews freedom to be Jews.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Which Day Of The Week Were You Born?

Do you know on which day you were born? Not your birthday...which day of the week. It doesn’t appear to be a relevant fact, but more of an interesting bit of personal trivia. According to the sages (Shabbat 156a), however, the day of the week on which one was born can influence a person’s personality.

People born on Sundays tend to be more extreme. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi describes a Sunday child as being “a person without one...” which is understood by Rabbi Ashi as being “completely virtuous or completely wicked.” Sunday (Day One) was the day on which God created light, and thus darkness.

Monday’s child will be ill-tempered because on Day Two of creation, God divided the waters, but He did not settle the waters until the next day.

One might think that the settling of the water on Day Three would bode well for a child born on Tuesday. Alas, this child, according to the sages, will be “wealthy and unchaste...because Herbs were created” on Day Three. (Herbs multiply with exceptional speed and can live with many other types of plants.)

Born on Wednesday? The Wednesday baby will “be wise and of a retentive memory,” because on Day Four, God placed the stars, moon and sun in the Heavens. In the Heavenly bodies, God encrypted great knowledge.

On Day Five, God created the fish and the birds, who, according to some explanations, live purely on God’s loving-kindness and mercy. Therefore, a Thursday birth means a benevolent child.

One born on Friday is said to be a seeker. According to Rabbi Nachman ben Isaac, this means a seeker of good deeds.

Finally, the Talmud notes that one “who is born on Shabbat will die on Shabbat, because the great day of Shabbat was desecrated on his account.” This, however, applies only as a rule to those who are particularly holy.

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

The Strength Within

One of the most important lessons Judaism teaches about human personalities is that we all have the free will and the strength to overcome any natural negative character traits.

Friday, June 10, 2011

A Convert of the Inquisition

The first auto-de-fe (live human burning) of the Spanish Inquisition took place in 1481. The Inquisition was not, as many believe, an institution set to destroy the Jewish people, but rather was a system meant to ensure that converts to Christianity were sincere in their conversions. Many Jews had converted in name only, a situation that the Catholic Church refused to tolerate (never mind that most of the so-called crypto-Jews had converted under threat of death). In 1492, anyone still wishing to profess the Jewish faith had to leave Spain. The Inquisition remained a frighteningly strong force for hundreds of years and was only formally ended in 1834.

During this time of persecution, a young Spanish nobleman named Don Lope de Vera (1619-1644) who was not descended from Jews, began to study Hebrew language and literature at Salamanca, and found himself drawn to Judaism when he read the Old Testament in its original language. His interest and enthusiasm for the Jewish faith was noticed by the Inquisition, and he was arrested at Valladolid. He was only twenty years old.

While held by the Inquisition, Don Lope declared his conversion to Judaism. Not only did he change his name to Juda el Creyente (Juda the Believer), but he also circumcised himself with a sharpened bone!

The pure Christian lineage of Don Lope/Juda was a particularly great embarrassment for the Inquisition. For six years they imprisoned him, pushing him to both confess his “sin” and return to Christianity. Finally, in July of 1644, Juda was led to his execution, chanting Psalms all the way to the stake to which he would be tied. Juda the Believer remained steadfast even as he died, crying out from the flames “I entrust my spirit into Your hand” (Psalms 31:6).

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

An Extra Thanks

This Shabbat, take an extra moment to think about, and be thankful for, the ability to live a Jewish life without persecution.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Give Them A Choice

There is an oft-cited Midrash (Sifrei, Dvarim 343) describing how God offered the Torah to the other nations of the world before He gave it to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. According to this Midrash, the first nation to whom He offered the Torah asked what was in it. When God told them about the law prohibiting stealing, they couldn’t fathom a life without theft. The next nation reacted incredulously to the prohibition of adultery; they were horrified at the idea that God would monitor people’s bedroom behavior! Another nation was unable to accept the prohibition of murder...and so on. When God asked the Jewish people if they would accept the Torah, there were no questions. They declared: “Na’aseh v’nishma” (“We will do and we will listen”).

So, if one understands the Midrash correctly, it sounds like the so-called “chosen people” were God's last choice for receiving the Torah. However, God understood that, unlike the other nations, the Israelites were truly free to accept the Torah since they did not yet have a homeland, they did not yet have an existing government, culture or “way of life.” It was this freedom that God gave them when He brought them out of Egypt into the wilderness that made the Jews more inclined to receive the Torah. They were not chained to a pre-existing life-style and thus were not reluctant to change themselves for the better. This is the practical reason why the Jews were able to accept the Torah so readily.

One must also bear in mind that the Israelites still remembered the generation that had come to Egypt and those who had been enslaved. They still claimed the spiritual heritage of Abraham & Sarah, Isaac & Rebecca, and Jacob, Rachel & Leah.

It is this heritage that we have today. On Shavuot we commemorate the day that God gave the Torah to our ancestors. Now the choice is ours.

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Study Guide

Print out Jewish Treats' newest eBook on The Ten Commandments to read during the festival of Shavuot, which begins at sunset tonight. Click here to register for your free download!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Green Cheesecake at Midnight?

The holiday of Shavuot has three well-known, and well-loved, customs:

Decorating our homes and synagogues with plants and flowers: According to the Midrash, at the time of the giving of the Torah, Mount Sinai burst forth in blossoms of verdant greenery, covered with plants and flowers. This is the basis for the custom of decorating our homes and synagogues with plants and flowers on Shavuot.

Dairy Foods: On Shavuot, it is customary to eat dairy foods – cheesecake and blintzes are particular favorites.

Among the reasons given for this custom are:

Once the Torah was given, the Israelites refrained from eating meat because they needed to learn the laws of kosher slaughter and to make their utensils kosher. They specifically chose to eat dairy and give themselves the time necessary to learn the laws.

On a more mystical level, the gematria (numeric value of the Hebrew letters) of the word chalav, milk, is 40. Forty corresponds to the forty days and nights that Moses spent on Mount Sinai learning the Torah.

All-Night Learning: To demonstrate our love for Torah and our appreciation for God's revelation on Mount Sinai, it is customary to stay up all night on the first night of Shavuot either studying Torah, listening to lectures on Torah topics, or simply discussing Jewish ideas.

Another reason given for the custom of learning all night is to atone for the apathy of the Israelites, who actually overslept on the morning that they were to receive the Torah, rather than being wide awake in excited anticipation.

For further explanations of these customs, please visit the National Jewish Outreach Program’s Shavuot website. (The customs are at the bottom of the page.)

*This Treat was originally published on May 28, 2009. It is being re-Treated to help us better understand the holiday of Shavuot.

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Early To Bed

Go to sleep early tonight to prepare for tomorrow's late night study session!

Friday, June 3, 2011

When Bread Isn't Bread

A question for those who bake and for those who love dessert: What is the difference between bread and cake? Yeast, some might answer. Bread has yeast and rises. But what about yeast cakes such as babka or cinnamon buns? Believe it or not, the definition of bread is a question discussed thoroughly in halacha, Jewish law.

Bread is more than just something we eat. Bread, in Judaism, represents actual sustenance, as it is the basic necessity for survival (at least before everyone began to eat processed, white bread, of course!). For this reason, when sitting down to a meal with bread, it is considered appropriate to ritually wash one’s hands, recite the hand washing blessing, and then recite the blessing of Ha’Motz’ee before eating the bread. A meal with bread concludes with the Grace After Meals (Birkat Ha'mazon). Likewise, whenever one eats bread, even if not as a sit-down meal, one is required to wash, recite Ha’Motz’ee and say the Grace After Meals when finished. When Ha’Motz’ee is recited, it is no longer necessary to make individual blessings over the other foods of that meal (with some exceptions).

While “bread” sounds like a clearly identifiable food, the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch: Orach Chaym 168) defines bread as something made of the five species of grain (wheat, barley, oats, rye and spelt) that is baked in an oven or cooked in a dry vessel. It may not have sweets, fruits or spices as the major ingredients or fillings.

While this final qualification makes it simple to understand why cinnamon buns are considered desert/snack (and therefore one recites the m’zo’note blessing), this does lead to complications when a sweet challah (such as a raisin challah or other sweet challahs) are used for ha’motz’ee on Shabbat. The question comes down to the definition of “major ingredient.” According to the custom of the Sephardi community, the taste of the spice/flavor need only be discernable to disqualify it as bread. The Ashkenazi community, however, rules that the extra flavor must really alter the main flavor.

*One should ask their own rabbi for clarification, if one has a question.

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Your Own Challah

Try your hand at making challah (click here for a recipe).

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Live Long And Prosper

Every "Trekkie" knows that Spock’s Vulcan salutation is accompanied by a strange hand gesture. What many don’t realize is that Leonard Nemoy borrowed this symbol from his traditional Jewish upbringing. It’s actually a one-handed version of two-handed priestly blessing gesture.

In Numbers 6:23-27, God instructs Moses that the priests shall "place My name upon the Children of Israel, and I Myself shall bless them." The blessing the priests were to recite was:

May God bless you and watch over you.
May God shine His face toward you and show you favor.
May God be favorably disposed to you and grant you peace.

Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing, is also known as duchenen (Yiddish, referring to the duchan the special platform in the Temple from which the blessing was recited). Birkat Kohanim is also known as Nesi'aht Ka’payim (lifting of the palms/hands).

While Birkat Kohanim was bestowed daily in the Temple, current customs vary as to how often the blessing is bestowed by the kohanim (daily, every Shabbat, holidays only).

To bestow Birkat Kohanim, the kohanim (priests) stand facing the congregation, their tallitot (prayer shawls) draped over their head and arms. They stretch out their arms and, beneath the tallit, arrange their hands with the ten fingers separated to create 5 spaces (pinky-ring-space-middle-index-space-thumb-space-thumb-space-index-middle-space-ring-pinky). The position of the hands reflects the latticework mentioned in Song of Songs (2:9): "My Beloved...looks through the windows peering through the lattice."

The prayer is recited responsively, one word at a time, first by the cantor and then repeated by the kohanim. While Birkat Kohanim is being recited, congregants are not to look directly at the kohanim and many cover their faces with their prayer books or prayer shawls, following the Talmudic dictum (Chagiga 16b) "One’s eyes will grow weak if one looks at the hands of the priests [during the blessing]."

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Catch The Blessing

Try to be in synagogue for Birkat Kohanim on Shavuot (Wednesday and Thursday - June 8th and 9th).

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Old City

New York may be the city that never sleeps, but Jerusalem is the “City of Gold.” This description usually refers to the city’s physical appearance (casting a golden light at dusk due to the unique Jerusalem stone with which its buildings are built).

The heart of the city is the “Old City,” “Ha’ir ha’atika.” As ancient as the walls of the Old City may appear, the Old City is NOT the original city in which King David dwelled. The City of David (Ir David, as it is called today) now being extensively explored and excavated, is to the southeast of the current Old City, although the Temple Mount is part of both cities.

The current Old City encompasses the Temple Mount (known in Hebrew as “Har Ha’bayit,” The Mountain of The House) and its Western Wall (aka Wailing Wall, Kotel Ha'Ma'aravi), as well as the area to its west and north. It is a treasure trove of Jewish history. In the 1970s, archeologists discovered and excavated the wall built by King Hezekiah to protect Jerusalem from the Assyrians, and the Cardo, the famous central road from Roman times. Other archeological sites in the Old City, include Wilson’s Arch and the remains of priestly houses from the era of the Romans.

The famous walls that surround the Old City today were erected by the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, in the mid-sixteenth century C.E.. This enormous structure, with its 11 grand gates, encompassed structures from many previous eras in history, including the Temple Mount upon which stands the Al-Aqsa Mosque that was built in 705 C.E.

The Old City is divided into four quarters (Jewish, Armenian, Christian and Muslim - named for their local residents). The Jewish Quarter is the most modern quarter. Most of it was destroyed between 1948 and 1967, after the Jewish population of the Old City was taken captive and driven out of the city by the Jordanian army. During the Six Day War of 1967 (on the 28th of Iyar), the Israeli Defense Force took back the Old City and began rebuilding the Jewish Quarter.

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Jerusalem Smarts

Learn more about the "City of Gold" (click here).