Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Annulment of Vows

“I swear that this time I will lose weight”
“I am going to pray every day...”
We make promises all the time. We swear that we are going to do something, and then hope that we will be in a position to fulfill the vow.

But did you know that according to Torah, words have binding force and may not be taken lightly? The Jewish legal view on oaths and vows is based on the verse, “He shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that he has uttered” (Numbers 30:3).

When you swear to do something, you’ve made a serious commitment. Words, from a Torah perspective, are absolutely binding. (It is for this reason that many people, after promising to do something, will append the caveat “bli neder” - without intending to vow, to prevent themselves from vowing falsely.)

According to the Torah, vows and oaths, however, can be retroactively nullified, by a “court” of knowledgeable people.

It was considered particularly important by the sages that, as the High Holidays approach, people ensure that they have not violated their previous year’s vows. They therefore created a formal nullification of vows that all are urged to perform before Rosh Hashanah. Known as “Hatarat Nedarim,” the traditional “annulment of vows” takes place in front of a Jewish court of at least 3 knowledgeable men. In addition to nullifying past vows made “in error,” the Hatarat Nedarim also declares that any such statements made in the coming year should be considered null and void.

(Of course, the nullification only covers those vows that are allowed to be nullified - not vows such as those regarding owing someone money - and vows that are made by one individual to another.)

This Treat was originally posted on September 29, 2008

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

Promises, Promises

Always be aware of the power of the promises that you make--even to children.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


The Rosh Hashana tashlich ceremony is a tradition that is dear throughout the many diverse Jewish communities. Tashlich literally translates as “You will throw.” But what, exactly, is it?

Tashlich is meant to be a symbolic physical representation of casting away one’s sins. Along with a selection of Psalms and supplications, Micah 7:18-20 is repeatedly recited: “Who is a God like You, pardoning iniquity and forgiving transgression to the remainder of His heritage. He retains not His anger forever, because He delights in kindness. He will again have mercy on us. He will suppress our iniquities; yes, You will cast our sins into the depth of the sea.”

The reference in Micah to the depth of the sea appears to be the source for the custom of reciting tashlich next to a body of water, such as a lake or a river (or an ocean, of course) in which fish live. As long as one can see the water, even from a distance (even by climbing to the rooftop of a building), one may recite tashlich.

Tashlich is usually performed in the late afternoon on the first day of Rosh Hashana. However, if one is unable to do tashlich at that time, the ceremony may be performed until Hoshana Raba. If the first day of Rosh Hashana is on Shabbat, Ashkenazim wait until the second day.

Although descriptions of tashlich often include the casting of bread crumbs, feeding wild animals is prohibited on Shabbat and the holidays. The casting of bread is a poetic physical expression of tashlich, but is not necessary to the ceremony. This custom may have evolved from the chassidic custom of intentionally shaking off crumbs to represent casting away sins.

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

Make An Outing Of It

If you will be unable to do tashlich on Rosh Hashana, make a Sunday family outing to a nearby lake or river and perform the ceremony.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Symbolic Foods

Since Rosh Hashana is the Day of Judgment, it is customary to eat simanim,* foods with symbolic meanings that invoke God's blessing. We also recite a short prayer before eating them. While apple with honey is a universal custom, other symbolic foods eaten depend on family custom. Here are some examples:

Apple and Honey: A slice of apple is dipped in honey. After reciting the blessing for apples (Boray p'ree ha’etz) and taking a bite of the apple and honey, the following brief prayer is recited:
--May it be Your will, Lord, our God and the God of our ancestors, that You renew for us a good and sweet year.

Beets: The Hebrew word for beets is selek, related to the Hebrew word l’salek, "to remove."
--May it be Your will, Lord, our God and the God of our ancestors, that our enemies be removed.

It is said that each pomegranate has 613 seeds, representing the 613 commandments of the Torah.
--May it be Your will, Lord, our God and the God of our ancestors, that our merits be as plentiful as the seeds of a pomegranate.

Head of a Sheep or a Fish: The head of the sheep or fish can be eaten or can be left on the table as a visual symbol. The customary prayer is as follows:
--May it be Your will, Lord, our God and the God of our ancestors, that we be like a head (to lead) and not like a tail (to follow).

There is one type of food that is actually avoided on Rosh Hashana: Nuts. They are not eaten since the numeric value of the Hebrew word for nut, egoz, is equivalent to the numeric value for the Hebrew word for sin, chayt.

This is just a sampling of the simanim. For more foods and their associated prayers, click here.

*The simanim are eaten at the beginning of the evening meal.

This Treat was originally published on September 7, 2010. It is being re-Treated to help us better understand the month of Elul and the High Holidays.

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

Share Back

Does your family have a special food they eat on Rosh Hashana? Tell us about it.

Friday, September 23, 2011


In addition to the unique prayer services of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the High Holidays are known for one other service: selichot. A collection of religious poems and verses, selichot are penitential prayers that help one focus on the mood of the season.

An integral part of the selichot service is the repetition of the "Thirteen Attributes of God” (Exodus 34:5-7). After the incident with the Golden Calf, Moses returned to Mount Sinai and assuaged God’s anger at the Israelites. According to the Talmud (Rosh Hashana 17b), God, appearing as a prayer leader wrapped in a prayer shawl, instructed Moses that the Jewish people should recite the following “Thirteen Attributes of God” and they would be granted forgiveness:

Hashem: He is merciful (to one before he/she sins).
Hashem: He is merciful (to the sinner who repents).
Ayl: He is powerful.
Rachum: He is compassionate.
V’chanun: He grants even undeserved favors.
Erech Ah'payim: He is slow to anger, allowing the sinner time to repent by not exacting immediate punishment.
V’rav Chesed: He abounds in lovingkindness and leniency.
V’emet: He abounds in truth and keeps His promises.
Notzer Chesed La’alafim: He maintains lovingkindness for thousands of generations.
Nosay Avon: He forgives sins that result from temptation.
Va’fesha: He forgives sins of rebellion against Him.
V’chata’ah: He forgives sins committed carelessly or unknowingly.
V’nah'kay: He completely forgives the sinner who returns to Him in sincere repentance.*

In Sephardi communities, the recitation of selichot begins on Rosh Chodesh Elul and continues through Yom Kippur. In Ashkenzi communities, the recitation of selichot begins on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashana (unless Rosh Hashana begins on a Monday or Tuesday, in which case it begins the previous Saturday night). The first communal recitation of selichot in the Ashkenazi community usually takes place after midnight. On all other days until Yom Kippur, selichot are usually recited prior to the morning service.

(*Explanations of the 13 Attributes are from The Companion Guide to the Yom Kippur Prayer Service by Moshe Sorscher, printed by Judaica Press.)

This Treat was previously published on September 2, 2010. It is being re-Treated to help us better understand the month of Elul and the High Holidays.

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

Seeking Selichot

Call your local to synagogue to find out when they have the Selichot service.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

God's Secret Things

In a little over a week, Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, will be celebrated. While New Year’s celebrations are nice (the Jewish calendar actually has four of them!), Rosh Hashana’s significance is far greater than a mere New Year. It is, in fact known as Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment, and is a time when Jews focus on recognizing God as the King of Kings.

The weeks leading up to Rosh Hashana are meant to be spent reflecting on one’s actions and evaluating whether one has become a sincerely better person. Unfortunately, our 24-hour media-fueled world not only teaches us to focus on that which is going on around us, but also presents a world of tragedies.

As we move into Rosh Hashana (and, in truth, throughout the year), the way in which we perceive the often tragic events in the world colors our ability to connect with and relate to God as the King of the world.

Why did a hurricane flood Vermont? Why is there a drought? Why did any tragedy strike? The answer is...we don’t know. As painful, difficult and unhappy as these situations are, Jewish tradition teaches that God runs the world and therefore there is a reason for everything.

Not knowing is a great challenge for many people, especially in today’s “information age.” In the Western World we are accustomed to being in control, which makes it harder to accept the Bible’s declaration that “the secret things belong to the Lord our God” (Deuteronomy 29:28).

Moses makes this statement after describing the violent repercussions that will happen to the Israelites if they cast off the yoke of Torah. However, like every verse in the Torah, it has a deeper meaning as well. The Torah is a guidebook for living, and it contains much wisdom to help us to better understand the world. We must always remember, as the conclusion of the previously cited verse states, that “the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”

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

Doing Jewish

According to Ethics of the Fathers, the world stands on Torah, Avodah (prayers) and G'milut Chasadim (acts of kindness). When we participate in these three things we bring peace and stability to the world.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Founder of the Council

It is said that, by nature, women are social creatures. This social, when organized, can be an incredible life-force. This idea became reality when Hannah Greenbaum Solomon (1858-1942) created the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW).

Daughter of successful German Jewish immigrants, Hannah first became aware of the power of organized women when she and her sister Henriette became the first Jewish women elected to the elite Chicago Women’s Club in 1876. From observing her parents’ active participation in Chicago’s Jewish community social service programs, Hannah was well aware of the great value that Judaism placed on helping others.

In 1890, Hannah (who had already served as the president of the Chicago Women’s Club), was asked to organize a Jewish Women’s Congress for the 1893 World Columbian Exposition Parliament of Religions. The Congress was so successful that it voted itself into a permanent organization, the NCJW, and Hannah was elected its first president.

Today the NCJW defines itself as “a grassroots organization of volunteers and advocates who turn progressive ideals into action. Inspired by Jewish values, NCJW strives to achieve social justice by improving the quality of life for women, children, and families and by safeguarding individual rights and freedoms.”

A mother of three, and devoted wife to her husband Henry, Hannah always placed her family’s concerns first while organizing and running the NCJW. Hannah also embraced many other social welfare projects, and was particularly involved in projects for the betterment of women, specifically the Illinois Industrial School for Girls. She was also involved in the Chicago Juvenile Court and the Chicago Civic Federation.

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

Peace Unto You

Today is World Peace Day, do something in your community to promote peace among people.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Three Ts

On Rosh Hashana we declare: “Repentance, prayer and charity remove the evil of the decree!” In Hebrew, these constitute the 3 Ts: Teshuva, Tefila and Tzedaka.

Teshuva (repentance) a central theme of the High Holidays, means more than just saying “sorry.” Teshuva means recognizing one’s errors and making an effort not to repeat them. In many ways, teshuva is a private act because one must be introspective in order to recognize one’s own mistakes.

Tefila (prayer) is the acknowledgment of God as the King and Ruler of the universe. Tefila is almost private, but not quite. It is a conversation between the person and God.

Tzedaka (charity) is a critical step necessary to reverse an evil decree simply because it constitutes an action. The performance of this mitzvah affects the person giving, the person receiving, and its benefits often extend to others as well. Tzedaka is reaching out beyond one’s self, and is thus a public act.

Everything that a person does affects the world in multiple ways. It affects the person’s relationship with him/herself, his/her relationship with the Divine and his/her relationship with his/her fellow human beings. The path to reversing an evil decree must therefore involve the private, the spiritual and the public spheres of our lives.

*This Treat was previously published on Tuesday, September 15, 2009. It is being re-Treated to help us better understand the month of Elul and the High Holidays.

One T At A Time

Focus on one type of action for which you need to do teshuva, such as gossiping, and dedicate 30 minutes a day for one week on making sure not to transgress.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Incomplete Repentance

“Repentance” sounds like a grand and powerful word. In truth, the most important adjective that must be attached to the act of repentance is the word “sincere.”

At one time or another, we all experience insincere apologies, and it doesn’t make anyone feel better to receive one. Since an apology is critical to the repentance process, an insincere apology does not bode well for true repentance.

One particular story in the Bible highlights the tragedy brought about by an insincere apology: King Saul, the first King of Israel, was responsible both because of a general commandment in the Torah (Deuteronomy 25:17-19) and a personal directive issued through the words of the prophet Samuel, to completely wipe out the Amalekites, ancient enemies of the Jewish people. While he was victorious over them, “Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of the sheep, oxen ... and lambs, and all that was good...”(I Samuel 15:9).

When confronted the next morning by the Samuel (to whom God had already expressed his anger over Saul’s disobedience), King Saul’s response was to declare that he had listened to the Divine command, capturing King Agag alive and destroying the Amelekites. He then added, “the people took of the spoils, sheep and oxen, the chief of the devoted things” (I Samuel 15:21) to sacrifice to God. Finally, Saul admits his wrong-doing, but still does not take responsibility: “I have sinned; for I have transgressed the commandment of God, and your words; because I feared the people, and hearkened to their voice” (I Samuel 15:24).

By blaming the people, Saul voided his apology. Perhaps, if he had immediately recognized his mistake, admitted it and apologized sincerely , the dynastic line of kingship would not have been removed from his family and given to David.

This Treat was originally posted on September 10, 2009.

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

It's Up To You

Be sincere in your interactions with both friends and strangers.

Friday, September 16, 2011

A Song For The Dove

Most songs written for Shabbat (zmirot) focus on either God’s resting from creating the world on the seventh day or on the relationship of the Jewish people to Shabbat. The Sabbath song Yom Shabbaton certainly incorporates these two elements, but its chorus presents a unique association attributed to the Sabbath day. This zemer’s chorus describes an event that occurred in the times of Noah--far after creation and many centuries before there was a Jewish nation: “On it [the Sabbath] the dove found rest, there shall rest the exhausted ones.”

As interesting as it might be that the dove, who was first sent out from the ark on the 17th of Elul (today’s Hebrew date), finally found a place to rest on the Sabbath day, why did Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi (Spain 1075-1140, the presumed author) choose this as a topic worthy of singing about on the Sabbath? Perhaps he was inspired by the poetic use of the dove as a metaphor for the Jewish people that appears in Song of Songs 2:14 (“Oh my dove”).

Genesis 8:8-9 describes how Noah “sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground. But the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned unto him to the ark...and he put forth his hand, and took her, and brought her to him into the ark.” Since the destruction of the Second Temple, the Jews have been like a dove, finding no viable resting place, exhausted from the travails of exile. When the Jewish people are most weary, however, God inevitably reaches out His hand to provide them with aid and comfort.

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

Shabbat Appreciation

Use Shabbat as an opportunity to appreciate nature.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

I Am To My Beloved

The Torah verse that epitomizes the emotions of love is: “Anee l’dodi v’dodi lee” - I am to my beloved, and my beloved is to me (Song of Songs 6:3). The ideal love relationship according to the Torah is one in which both parties are willing to give themselves to their chosen partner (in a healthy way, of course). The Hebrew acronym for the verse Anee l’dodi v’dodi lee is “Elul,” the name of the Hebrew month that precedes Rosh Hashana.

When speaking of Rosh Hashana, the sages discuss the great sense of awe that one must feel. They do not, however, mean awe as in fear. Rather, they mean awe as in a sense of being overwhelmed by the greatness of God. The purpose of Rosh Hashana is not simply to make people feel guilty for their mistakes or promise to do better (although that too is important), but, as with much of Jewish life, it is to help develop each individual’s relationship with God.

To have a relationship with God, a person must recognize all of God’s roles--including King and Judge, as is the focus of Rosh Hashana. During Elul, however, we focus on God as the Beloved of the Jewish people.

In many rabbinic allegories, the Jewish people are likened to a bride while God is portrayed as the waiting groom. The Jewish people (both as individuals and as a nation) can gain the most by recognizing that God loves His people and wishes to bring blessing upon their home.

I am to my beloved, and my beloved is to me. When “I” (meaning the Jewish people) can truly give to “my beloved” (meaning God), then God will become ours in a beautiful and divine partnership.

This Treat was originally published on August 21, 2009.

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

It Is Beloved

Share your love of Judaism with your fellow Jews.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Whose First Fruits?

When the Oral Law was first codified, most Jews lived in agrarian settings. Today, being less familiar with agrarian culture, some people find it difficult to relate to some of the discussions in the Mishna (Oral Law) regarding planting or livestock. Although we may no longer farm or herd flocks, the importance of responsible land ownership and use is a value that has remained throughout time.

For Jewish farmers in the land of Israel, one of the mitzvot that is part of the cycle of crop production is that of bikkurim, the first fruit offering. The first fruit to blossom on each plant of the seven species of the land of Israel (wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates) is marked (with a string) to be set aside for an offering at the Temple. One might assume that this mitzvah would apply to all farmers, but, in fact, the rabbis understood the pronouns in this commandment to be very specific: “You shall take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you shall bring in from your land” (Deuteronomy 26:2).

The Mishna (Bikkurim 1:2) states that “tenants, lessees, or occupiers of confiscated property--or a robber--may not bring them...because it says, ‘the first-fruits of your land.’” As significant as the first fruits are, the relationship of the farmer to the land upon which the plant grows is also important.

But ownership of the land is not the only criteria. “These may not bring them [bikkurim]: He who plants on his own soil, but sinks [a shoot] so that [it] nourishes from the territory belonging to an individual or to the public...[or similarly] that it grows on his own property”(Bikkurim 1:1). In other words, this mitzvah can only be performed by one who makes certain not to infringe of the property rights of others or the public.

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

Who's Property?

Respect public property as you would your own.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

It's The Interpretation

From a distance, halacha, Jewish law, appears to be black and white. In reality, however, much of Jewish law is left to the interpretation of experts. A person with a legal question (such as how to attend a business lunch in a non-kosher establishment) asks his/her rabbi who either paskens (renders a legal decision) or refers the question to someone of greater learning and authority.

The variations on halachic interpretations are referred to as chumrot and kulot, stringencies and leniencies. Chumrot, on the whole, are created in order to protect people from transgressing the halacha. For instance, the custom of not eating gebrakhts (matzah that comes in contact with liquid on Passover) is a well established chumrah instituted to ensure that no leven is eaten on Passover.

While such chumrot can be found throughout Jewish law, there are many times when a decisor of law needs to look for a different perspective, one of leniency. Indeed, wisdom often tells us that it is preferable to find a way in which to permit an activity rather than to restrict it. An example of a kula would be allowing the use of government supervised milk in place of Chalav Yisrael (Jewish supervised milk), because the government would prevent the mixing of cow’s milk with the milk of a non-kosher animal.

Of course not all of halacha has variant opinions. Eating a slice of ham is prohibited by any interpretation of the law. Many chumrot and kulot are decided by the total community (such as the Passover example above), while others are based on individual circumstances.

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

Just Ask

If you are uncertain of the exact halacha, ask your local rabbi.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Benjamin, The Son of Jacob

The youngest of twelve brothers and one sister, Benjamin, the son of Jacob, appears in the Biblical narrative to be a passive personality whose life is seemingly dictated by the fate of those around him. His mother, Rachel, died while giving birth to him. Knowing that she would not survive, with her last breath she called him Ben-Onee, the son of my mourning. His father, however, called him Binyamin (Benjamin), which means son of my right hand.

Eight years younger than his charismatic brother Joseph, Benjamin was only nine when their father was informed that Joseph had been killed. The sole surviving son of Rachel, Benjamin took Joseph’s place as his father’s beloved child.

After their first trip to Egypt to buy grain because of the famine in Canaan, Jacob’s 10 eldest sons were afraid to return to Egypt for more food, since the Viceroy (really Joseph incognito) had commanded that they not appear before him again without their brother Benjamin. But when the grain ran out, and with great reluctance--only after Judah vowed to protect Benjamin--Jacob allowed his youngest to leave.

When the brothers arrived in Egypt with Benjamin, they were greeted with a feast at which “Benjamin’s portion was five times as much as any of them” (Genesis 43:34). Afterward, however, Joseph planted a cup in Benjamin’s sack and had Benjamin arrested for theft. Horrified, the brothers returned to Joseph, pleading Benjamin’s innocence. Judah even offered serve as a slave for life in Benjamin’s stead. Seeing the brothers’ strong commitment to protect Benjamin spurred Joseph to reveal himself.

Oddly, throughout all this action, nothing is actually heard from Benjamin himself. Benjamin is an enigmatic character. According to one Midrash, he knew all along that Joseph was alive but did not tell Jacob. Passive as he may seem, the Midrash reveals that Benjamin was one of the few completely righteous individuals to ever live.

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

P Is For Positive

Notice the positive actions taken by the people in your life.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Honoring 9/11

Today is anniversary of the devastating attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. There are stories to be told of heroes, men like Abraham Zelmanowitz who stayed with a paraplegic friend rather than leave him to die alone, and Stephen Belson, a firefighter who lost his life trying to save others. There are also stories of those who demonstrated their strength of character in the days and weeks that followed 9/11, stories like that of the girls of Stern College.

Most college-age women have no reason to be familiar with the Jewish rituals of death and mourning. Although many of the Orthodox students of Stern College knew that the body of a Jewish person who has passed away needs to be “guarded” (with someone sitting nearby 24/7, often reciting Psalms) as a means of paying respect to the departed, few had actually sat shmirah (guard) themselves.

When the flames of the World Trade Center were finally contained, the unidentified remains of the victims were gathered into three container trucks to be identified later and buried. Although it was unknown whether the remains belonged to any Jewish victims (although the chances were great), an appeal was made for volunteers to serve on round-the-clock shmirah. A large group of volunteers responded from Congregation Ohab Zedek, a synagogue on the Upper West Side, but Shabbat posed a problem.

The bodies were being kept downtown, far from the Ohab Zedek community. The only nearby Jewish community was Stern College, Yeshiva University’s women’s division. A 20 year old student took the reins and organized a weekly schedule of students to sit shmirah in 4 hour shifts. For many weeks these young women dedicated their weekends, and the sancitity of their Shabbatot, to honor the victims of 9/11.

For more stories of Jewish heroism on 9/11, see the OU's Jewish Action Magazine.

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

In Their Memory

Dedicate the mitzvot you do this Shabbat to the merit of those killed on 9/11.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Mother Bird

There are many mitzvot in the Torah for which there are no given explanations. These mitzvot are known as chukim. For instance, there is a prohibition against wearing wool and linen together in the same garment. Among these chukim is one known as shiluach ha’kayn, sending away the mother bird: If one comes upon a roosting mother bird, one must send the mother bird away before gathering the eggs or the young chicks.

It has been suggested that this act is meant to teach humans about mercy. However, any proposed reason for this mitzvah, or any mitzvah in fact, is mere speculation.

Unlike many other mitzvot, the Torah even mentions a reward for shiluach ha’kayn: “That it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days” (Deuteronomy 22:7).

Most people today do not eat the eggs of wild birds and might assume that this mitzvah has no relevance to them. While most rabbis agree that one who has no use for the eggs is under no obligation to fulfill the mitzvah, it is assumed that doing so merely for the sake of the mitzvah itself is commendable. Don’t worry, to fulfill the mitzvah one does not have to actually use the eggs or eat the baby birds. Rather, one may simply pick up the eggs (delicately, preferably with an instrument), which under halacha is a form of acquisition.

Here are some important facts to know about the mitzvah: The bird must be a kosher, non-domestic species (dove, pigeon), roosting on eggs or newly hatched chicks and female (who generally roost in the evening and night). While some opinions assert that one must physically pick the bird up and send it away, most agree that the mitzvah is fulfilled by merely scaring the bird away from her nest.

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

Expect The Unexpected

As you go about your day, look for unexpected opportunities to perform mitzvot.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Jews of Brazil

The Jewish community of 21st century Brazil is much like that of other South American Jewish communities. The Brazilian Jewish community is diverse, consisting of Ashkenazim and Sephardim, traditional and assimilated Jews, the wealthy and the poor. Jews are generally accepted within the larger Brazilian population.

The Jewish presence in Brazil is nearly as old as the original Portugese settlement (1500), since conversos (secret Jews) began fleeing Portugal as soon as the Portugese Inquisition was declared (1497).

In 1624, when Dutch forces conquered a large swath of northeastern Brazil, many conversos gained religious freedom for the first time. The Jewish community in Recife flourished and, in 1636, established the Kahal Zur synagogue. Six years later, Rabbi Isaac Aboab de Fonseca of Amsterdam arrived. In 1654, however, the Portugese succeeded in driving the Dutch out of their territory, once again creating hardships for the Jewish community.

Some Jews fled the return of the Portugese and the Inquisition (most famously the first Jews of New York). Those who remained, faced persecution, and the Kahal Zur synagogue was forced shut in 1655. By 1773, however, the Inquisition had lost its power and a Portugese royal decree abolished discrimination against Jews.

On September 7, 1822, Brazil achieved its independence and thus began a new, relatively peaceful, chapter in Brazilian Jewish history. Many Moroccan immigrants arrived in the mid-19th century. European Jews began to arrive at the turn of the 20th century via the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA). The agricultural colonies of the JCA failed, but the Jews themselves thrived.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Brazil was ruled by a fascist regime that shut down Jewish publications. In 1942, the Brazilian populace pressured the government to join the allies. After the war, except for a few anti-Semitic incidents (mainly in the south where many Germans had settled), Jewish life has flourished, just as it has for the greater Brazilian population.

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


Don't forget the benefit to the world of recycling and that caring for the environment is a Jewish value.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


Stories of the Zionist leaders of the early twentieth century usually begin: "He came from Poland (or Russia) and...” Golda Meir’s account, however, begins quite differently: She came from Milwaukee, Wisconsin (although she was born in Kiev).

Golda Malovitch Meyerson (1898-1978), who would, in 1956, change her name to Meir, began life in Palestine together with her husband, Morris, at Kibbutz Merchavya in 1921. Three years later, they left the Kibbutz and moved first to Tel Aviv and then to Jerusalem. Golda and Morris had two children, Menachem and Sarah.

With each move that they made, Golda was recognized for her natural leadership skills and fiery passion for the labor Zionist movement. In 1932, she returned to the United States for two years with her children (Morris remained in Palestine) to work as an emissary of the Hechalutz women's organization.

Golda was appointed to head the Jewish Agency’s Political Department in 1946, after the British arrested the department's senior leadership. Early in 1948, as politicians prepared for the end of the mandate, Golda returned to the U.S. to raise funds. She was expected to raise no more than $10 million, but she returned with $50 million. That May, Golda was one of 24 signatories on Israel’s Declaration of Independence and was brought into the government by David Ben-Gurion.

Ambassador (to the Soviet Union), Member of Knesset, Minister of Labor, Minister of Foreign Affairs...Golda Meir assumed the office of Prime Minister in 1969 upon the death of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol.

Golda’s time in office was tumultuous. She had to contend with constant fighting along the Suez (1969-1970), the murder of Israel’s athletes at the Munich Olympics (1972), and the Yom Kippur War (1973). Golda resigned and retired after that war. She passed away, at age 80, in 1978.

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

Schools Back

Across the continent, almost all children are back in school, so take extra care on the road.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Workers' Rights

Are workers’ rights a modern invention born out of the trials and tribulations of the industrial revolution? Everyone’s heard of the horrors of the sweatshops, child labor abuses and other workplace issues that, sadly, sometimes still take place today.

It should be known, however, that workers’ rights were a concern long before sweatshops and that workers' rights were addressed in many different ways by the Torah. One of the classic examples of workers’ rights in the Torah is with regard to the payment of wages. First mentioned in Leviticus 19:13, the Torah states: “...the wages of a hired servant shall not abide with you all night until the morning.” When a person hires a day laborer, the worker must be paid, without delay, before the beginning of the next day.

While this seems obvious--a man is hired to build a shed, he finishes the job and you pay him--there are many cases and situations in which a person might not be so careful. What about the teenage babysitter for whom you have forgotten to have cash on hand? This rule also applies to artisans...a customer is responsible for paying a worker upon receipt of the work he/she was to have done (for instance when a tailor delivers a new suit).

Often, a casual employer doesn’t realize how much a delayed payment can affect an employee. Perhaps the employee has debts that are due or a babysitter that must be paid. Perhaps it is simply that the employee had intended to use the money to make a particular purchase that evening.

The Torah’s views on workers' rights serve to remind us of the compassion one must always feel for human beings.

This Treat was originally posted on September 8, 2009.

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

Business Doings

If you are an employer, consider the Torah's business ethics as you conduct your own business.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Rav Kook

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) was appointed as the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine in 1921. A few years later, he founded the World Central Yeshiva, now known as Merkaz HaRav, in Jerusalem. As a prominent communal leader during the British Mandate, Rav Kook excelled at creating relationships and alliances with the secular Zionists, the religious Zionists and the religious anti-Zionists (who opposed the formation of a secular state). With the exception of those who evinced outright disrespect for Torah, Rav Kook’s ability to relate to different approaches to Jewish life and his belief that the return of the Jews to the Land of Israel was the beginning of the final redemption, were at the heart of his success.

Rav Kook’s family background was unique--the son of a Chassidic woman and a mitnaged (non-Chassidic) scholar. He was born in Griva, Russia (now Latvia) and, early in his life, was marked as a genius. In 1904, after serving in several European Rabbinic posts, Rav Kook and his second wife (his first died after only 2 years of marriage), moved to Jaffa in Ottoman Palestine. Rav Kook was greatly respected by both the religious community he served as Chief Rabbi, and by the nearby secular Zionist communities. Although he was criticized by those who opposed the secularists, Rav Kook’s opinion was that there were enough rejecters, and chose instead to take the role of embracer.

During World War I, Rav Kook and his family were in England (having been out of Palestine at the start of the war and unable to return). While there, he accepted the post of Rabbi at the Spitalfields Great Synagogue in Whitechapel. In 1921, he returned to Palestine, now under the control of Britain, and was appointed the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem and then of all Palestine.

Today, 3 Elul, is the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.

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

Table Talk

If you found today's Treat interesting, share it with your friends at the Shabbat table.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Leah's Story

On the morning after Jacob was to marry Rachel, he woke to find that his new bride was actually Rachel’s older sister Leah. “‘Deceiver, daughter of a deceiver!’ he said to Leah...She said to him, ‘Is there a teacher without disciples? Did your father not address you as Esau, and did you not respond?’” (Genesis Rabbah 70:19).

Leah was a woman of great strength who was singularly focused on achieving what she knew in her heart to be her destiny. Like the other matriarchs, Leah is credited with being both modest and beautiful. And while it is noted in Genesis (29:17) that she had weak eyes, the Midrash explains that this was a condition brought on by her tears. Leah’s father Laban, and his sister Rebecca, had agreed that Rebecca’s sons should marry Laban’s daughters (cousins frequently married in those days). But Esau’s reputation preceded him: “She [Leah] sat at the crossroads and inquired, ‘What are the deeds of the older [son, Esau]?’ They replied, ‘He is a wicked man who robs people.’ She wept until her eyelashes fell out” (Baba Batra 123a).

Leah’s hopes were fulfilled, and she was married to Jacob. And nearly every mention of her in Genesis reveals her desperate longing to feel loved. The names of the six sons whom she bore to Jacob (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun), reflect her desire to strengthen her relationship with her husband.

Unfortunately, Leah never seems to win the full affections of her husband. After the birth of her sixth son, she appears to accept her imperfect situation. Pregnant for a seventh time, the Midrash explains that she prayed for a daughter so as not to cause her sister further anguish. In one way, Leah did “win,” in that it is she, not Rachel, who is buried next to Jacob in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

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

On Going Prayer

Know that God answers every prayer--sometimes we just don't understand the answers or it is not the answer we hoped for.