Friday, December 30, 2011

Are You Drunk

The end of December is a festive time of year. Regardless of religious beliefs, most people in North America are swept up into the celebrations of the season, if only because of the legal holidays and the days off from work.

Included in the festivities are, of course, the parties, both social and the not-to-be-missed office holiday party. As we know from the abundant ads and warnings at this time of year, alcoholic drinks are often free-flowing.

Drinking is one of humankind’s oldest pleasures, or one of its oldest vices – depending on your perspective. Indeed, Noah had barely set foot on the newly dried earth after the flood when he planted a vineyard (a fact that the Torah does not consider to be to his credit). Yet, while drunkenness, which was Noah’s goal, is frowned upon, the consumption of wine is a basic fact of Jewish life. Almost every celebration or festival is sanctified by a blessing over a full cup of wine.

As in most things, moderation is the appropriate path. For those, however, who would like specific guidelines, it may surprise you to know that this, too, is a subject discussed in the Talmud (Eruvin 64b):

When are people considered slightly intoxicated and when are they considered drunk? They are considered slightly intoxicated if they are capable of speaking before a king [able to speak coherently to a person who is held in awe]. People are considered drunk if they are unable to speak before a king.

Of course, most of us have little contact with royalty. Nevertheless, we can understand it clearly from a more mundane perspective: How would a person behave in front of his/her boss?

This Treat was originally published on Friday, December 30, 2008.

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

In Your Celebration

Keep in mind the importance of moderation when attending celebrations.

Thursday, December 29, 2011


“A person should never discriminate among his children even to the extent of a thread [garment] weighing only two weight-measures of silk, similar to that which Jacob gave to Joseph but not to the other brothers” (Shabbat 10b).

It may seem like common sense that one should not show favoritism to one child over another. But, most parents, aunts/uncles and even grandparents, will be unable to deny that there are times when they definitely feel a preference.

The story of Jacob and Joseph (Genesis 37 and 38) is a powerful cautionary tale against favoritism: Jacob made no effort to hide his special feelings for Joseph, and indeed he went out of his way to make him a special coat, declaring to the world that this was his favored child. This led to the animosity of his older brothers, who eventually plotted to kill him, but settled for selling him as a slave!

The sages propose several reasons that might have caused Joseph to be so favored by

1) Joseph was the firstborn of Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife.

2) Joseph looked very much like Jacob.

3) Joseph was a particularly gifted scholar who exulted when learning about the ways of God from his father. He thus reminded Jacob of himself as a youth, since Jacob was known as a “man who sat in the tents” (meaning that he was a scholar).

The warning against favoritism goes well beyond parents. All those who are in the role of authority must ensure fairness by not favoring one side unfairly over the other. (There are a great number of halachot - Jewish laws - that stress this point.) In fact, the sages even censure Joseph for unfairly showering Benjamin with gifts: “To each man [brother] he gave changes of clothes; but to Benjamin he gave 300 shekels of silver, and five changes of clothes” (Genesis 45:22). The sages are concerned that the abundant gifts would stir up the jealousy of the other brothers. (They had, thankfully, already learned this lesson quite well.)

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

An Evenhand

Even if one does feel a sense of preference for one child (grandchild/niece/nephew/etc) over another, make certain to show even-handedness.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Book(s) of Maccabees

Chanukah is neither directly ordained in the Torah (like Rosh Hashana, Passover, etc.) nor mentioned in any other biblical text (as Purim is in the Book of Esther). The Books of Maccabees are not included in the Biblical canon, because these events occurred after the sages had declared the Tanach (complete Hebrew bible) closed to further additions (around 250 B.C.E.). Writings, such as the Books of Maccabees, which have historical import but are not included in the Tanach, are often referred to as Sfarim Chitzonim (external books) or by the Greek term Apocrypha (hidden books).

While Maccabees I was originally written in Hebrew, only the Greek translation survives (although it has been re-translated from Greek into Hebrew). Maccabees I is a historical work that describes Antiochus Epiphanes’ assumption of the Selucid throne (175 B.C.E.), the actions of the Jewish Hellenizers, and in detail, the revolt of the Maccabees. The book concludes with the death of Simon the Hasmonean (Maccabee) and the appointment of his eldest son John Hyrcanus, as ruler (135 B.C.E.).

Maccabees II was written in Greek, and, in the style of Greek historians, is full of drama and rhetoric. Focusing mainly on the deeds of Judah Maccabee, the leader of the rebellion after the death of Mattitiyahu, Maccabees II also includes details of the actions of the Hellenizers (power-plays and bribery were a serious problem in the priesthood at the time) and acts of sacrifice and martyrdom by those dedicated to keeping the Jewish faith.

While Maccabees III and Maccabees IV are sometimes grouped together with the first and second books mentioned above, neither of them are accounts of the events of Chanukah, nor are they accorded the same historical veracity as Maccabees I and II.

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

Last Day

Chanukah ends at sunset tonight. Make the most of this last day by wishing your fellow Jews one last chag sameach, happy holiday.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Chanukah Heroine

Have you ever heard of Yehudit (Judith), the daughter of Yochanan the High Priest, who saved her city, Bethulia, from destruction at the hands of the Syrian-Greek general Holofernes?

As the Jews in the town neared starvation due to the enemy siege, Yehudit told the elders that she had a plan to deliver the enemy into their hands, but they must not ask her about it. They must simply have faith in her. Knowing her reputation for wisdom and piety, they agreed.

Accompanied by one maidservant, Yehudit managed to gain an audience with Holofernes and told him that, for the sake of those suffering from the siege, she wanted the city to fall. She proposed to report to him, daily, on the town’s supplies and let him know when was best to strike.

After several days, Yehudit felt that she and her maidservant had gained the trust of the enemy. They came and went as they pleased.

When she told Holofernes that the city had no food left and that it would be good time to strike, he invited her to come alone to his tent to celebrate. She agreed, insisting that he partake of her ‘renowned’ goat-cheese. As he ate the salty cheese, Yehudit quenched his thirst with the heavy wine that she had brought with her. When Holofernes finally fell into a stupor from too much food and drink, Yehudit cut off his head with his own sword. The two women wrapped the head in a cloth and returned to Bethulia.

Yehudit instructed the Jewish elders to attack the Syrian-Greeks immediately.

The Syrian-Greeks soldiers awoke to find the Judeans attacking and their leader mysteriously dead. The Syrian-Greek army fled in confusion and panic.

*This Treat was originally published on December 25, 2008. It is being re-Treated to help us better understand Chanukah.

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

Dairy Delicious

Enjoy a dairy treat to commemorate Yehudit's victory.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Chanukah and Divine Order

Chanukah always overlaps with at least one Shabbat (if not two), and since Chanukah begins on the 25th of Kislev and lasts for eight days, the holiday always coincides with the celebration of Rosh Chodesh(the new month of) Tevet. (Today, 30 Kislev, and tomorrow, 1 Tevet, are both Rosh Chodesh.) This is significant, because both Rosh Chodesh and Shabbat were loathed by the Syrian-Greeks and their observances were outlawed.

The very first commandment that the Jewish people received as a nation was, "This month shall be yours as the first of months" (Exodus 12:1-2), instructing the Jews to sanctify the beginning of each new month. The Syrian-Greeks felt threatened by the Jewish concept of Divinely ordained time, since the sanctification of the month was based on the sighting of the new moon, rather than by a humanly calculated number of days.

The Syrian-Greeks were against the observance of Shabbat, not because it sanctified time, but because it was a day of rest, a day of no creative labor. "Six days shall you work and do all your labor, but the seventh day is Shabbat for the Lord your God. On it, you shall do no [creative] work" (Exodus 20:9-10). This contradicted the essence of Hellenistic culture, through which the Syrian-Greeks proclaimed their control over the world. The Jewish idea of taking one day off to demonstrate belief in God’s control of the world, negated the Syrian-Greek belief in the ultimate power of the individual.

That the Jews held fast to their belief in one unseen God who knows and controls the entire world infuriated the Syrian-Greeks, who wished to show that humankind was in control of nature. The Syrian-Greeks therefore prohibited the Jews, under penalty of death, from sanctifying the new moon (Rosh Chodesh) and keeping the Sabbath.

This Treat was previously posted on December 17, 2009.

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

A Time For Festivities

Celebrate Rosh Chodesh and Chanukah by enjoying a special meal tonight.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Challenge of Fitting In

The weekly Torah reading of Miketz (Genesis 41:1-44:17), which always coincides with Chanukah, tells the story of the rise of Joseph the son of Jacob from slave to viceroy. And while Miketz contains no Jewish oppression, no battles, and no outright miracles, Joseph’s story could well be viewed as a stark contrast to the story of Chanukah.

The story of Joseph is an affirmation of how to remain true to one’s faith while still succeeding in non-Jewish society. He spoke Egyptian without an accent and pretended not to understand Hebrew. He dressed in royal robes. The people called him Tzaphenath Pa'nayach. Joseph was so well disguised by his Egyptian identity that even his own brothers could not recognize him.

Throughout his stunning career, however, Joseph never forgot who he was. When Joseph finally revealed himself, he declared: “. . .for it was to preserve life that God sent me before you” (Genesis 45:5).

Joseph recognized that his ability to maintain his faith, while living as an Egyptian, was beyond most people. That is why, when his entire family came to settle in Egypt, he asked Pharaoh to allow them to settle in Goshen as shepherds, separated from the Egyptian people by land and profession.

Chanukah celebrates Jewish identity and the determination of the people to fight assimilation. When the Syrian-Greeks conquered the land of Israel, they presented their Hellenistic lifestyle as one that was exalted and universal. But as Jews took on the external affectations of the Greeks--their dress, their language, their names--they did not have Joseph’s strength to eschew the heathen practices that were integral to the Hellenistic lifestyle.

Assimilation into surrounding cultures with a corresponding loss of Jewish identity has always been a challenge for the Jewish people. Joseph met the challenge successfully, can we?

This Treat was originally posted on December 18, 2009.

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

The Time Is Now

Use Chanukah as an opportunity to increase Jewish pride.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Giving Gifts

“One who is diligent in lighting Chanukah candles will have children who are scholars” (Talmud Shabbat 23b).

The desire for scholarly children was actually one of the motivations for the custom of giving Chanukah gelt (money). In modern times, money has been replaced by Chanukah presents. What is the connection between Chanukah lights, intelligent children and gelt?

Publicizing the miracle of Chanukah is so important that even a pauper, who has no money at all, is required to borrow money in order to buy oil for lighting. People therefore began to give a little money (gelt) to the poor so that they would not be embarrassed or forced to ask for assistance. Because the idea of “being diligent in lighting the Chanukah lights” is primary in both giving to the poor and meriting wise children, it became the custom to give children gelt as a reward for studying. Children who were diligent in their studies were rewarded with a shiny coin.

While gifts are an offshoot of the holiday, they represent an important element of Chanukah--chinuch, Jewish education.

The Maccabees fought so that their children and their children's children would be able to study Torah freely and be knowledgeable about their Jewish heritage. Jewish children are taught about Judaism not only for today, but for posterity as well, as it says in Proverbs 22:6: "Educate a young person in his/her own way, when he/she grows old he/she will not turn from it."

Over time, the simple practice of giving gelt (coins or presents) became a Chanukah custom – and not just for children. In truth, however, it is not surprising that gift giving has moved beyond just children. In our own day and age, we, the adults, also need encouragement to learn about who we are and what our Jewish heritage means.

*This Treat was originally published on December 22, 2008. It is being re-Treated to help us better understand Chanukah.

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

What To Give

Maintain the tradition of Chanukah being a time for study and give Jewish books as Chanukah presents.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

It's A Chanukiyah!

The menorah, the symbol of the holiday of Chanukah, is actually a misnomer! “Menorah” is the name of the great seven-branched candelabra that was built in the wilderness following explicit Divine directions. It was used first in the Tabernacle and later stood in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

The Chanukah candelabra that we light is actually called a chanukiyah. It has nine branches - eight lights for Chanukah and a shamash, a "helper" candle to light the other candles.

In preparation for the holiday and to make Chanukah truly shine, Jewish Treats presents some “things to know” about the chanukiyah:

1) You really don’t need a chanukiyah (or a menorah)! That’s right, one could technically light a series of tea lights (for example) one next to the other and still properly fulfill the mitzvah of Chanukah lights.

2) The lights should be in a straight line without any difference in height between any of the Chanukah lights. They may be in a semi-circle as long as all the lights are visible at the same time. The place for the shamash on the chanukiyah, however, should be differentiated from the other lights. Usually it is higher, lower or out of line with the others.

3) There should be enough space between lights so that the none of the flames merge with their neighbor. Also the candles must be far enough apart that one candle does not cause the candle next to it to melt.

4) It is preferable to use olive oil for the Chanukah lights since the miracle took place with olive oil. One may, nevertheless, use wax or paraffin candles or other types of oils as long as they produce a steady, clean light.

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

Let It Shine

If you don't have a proper chanukiyah/menorah, call your local Judaica store or synagogue gift shop.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Story of Chanukah

Around the year 167 B.C.E., the Syrian-Greek rulers of Judea tried to force the Jews to assimilate into Hellenic culture. They summoned the Jews to the town squares where they were forced to worship idols or to sacrifice a pig before the idol.

When the Syrian-Greek soldiers demanded that the Jews of Modiin sacrifice a swine to one of their gods, Mattitiyahu, a priest from the Hasmonean family, refused to allow this desecration to take place and slew the Jewish heretic who volunteered. Mattitiyahu, together with his sons, also attacked the Syrian-Greek soldiers. They won that battle, but they were forced to take refuge in the hills. Mattitiyahu's sons became known as the Maccabees.

Under the leadership of Judah the Maccabee, the Jews launched a guerilla war for freedom. In 165 B.C.E., the Maccabees finally succeeded in routing the vastly superior Syrian-Greeks forces and retook the Temple, but by then the Syrian-Greeks had thoroughly desecrated the holy site. The Jews immediately set to work removing the alien idols, rebuilding the altar and performing the many tasks necessary to rededicate the Temple.

Unfortunately, there was no undefiled oil left with which to light the golden menorah. The Jews searched for sealed jars of pure, consecrated oil, and finally found a single flask with its seal intact. They rejoiced and hurried to light the Menorah and rededicate the Temple.

But it was only one flask of oil, good for only one day. It would take at least another week for fresh pure olive oil to be prepared and consecrated. Not wanting to postpone performing the mitzvah, they decided to light the Menorah with what they had--and the miracle of Chanukah occurred. Despite the small quantity of oil, the menorah remained lit for the entire eight days, proclaiming to the world that God's presence had returned to the Temple.

*This Treat was originally published on December 23, 2008. It is being re-Treated to help us better understand Chanukah.

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

Tell The Story

When you light the first Chanukah candle tonight, retell the story of Chanukah.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Chanukah-What's The Mitzvah?

Here’s a quiz:
What is the primary mitzvah of Chanukah?

a) Eating latkes (potato pancakes)
b) Giving Chanukah gifts or gelt (money)
c) Publicizing the miracle of the oil that lasted 8 days
d) Playing Dreidel

The correct answer is C. While the customs of Chanukah include eating latkes, giving monetary and other gifts and playing dreidel, the only actual mitzvah of Chanukah is to light the menorah and display the lights, thus publicizing the miracle when the lights in the Holy Temple burned for 8 days.

In order to fulfill this mitzvah of publicizing the miracle, the menorah/chanukiah should be lit where it can be seen by the public. Chanukah lights were originally lit only in the doorway of the home, opposite the mezuzah, facing the street. However, it is now common practice outside of Israel to place the menorah in a window facing the street.

In order to make certain that the lights are visible, the menorah is lit after sunset. (There are two opinions regarding the correct time to light, so please consult your local rabbi.) On Friday evening, however, the menorah is lit before the Shabbat candles and extra oil (or longer candles) are used.

If one is unable to light at the appropriate time, one may light later in the night, as long as there is someone else in the house who is awake (thus fulfilling the requirements of publicizing the miracle).

If it is very late and no one is awake, one should light the menorah without the blessings.

If there are still people in the street or in the apartments of a facing building who would see the lit menorah, it is also permitted to light and say the blessings.

If the menorah was not lit at all during the night, there is no "make-up" lighting during the day.

NOTE: Please be sure to review fire safety procedures with your family.

For more information about Chanukah, visit NJOP's Chanukah webpage (click here).

This Treat was last posted on November 29, 2010.

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

Time To Shop?

If you haven't already done so, purchase your Chanukah supplies.
And don't forget Jewish Treat's Complete Guide to Chanukah (just click here for your free copy)!

Friday, December 16, 2011

It's All Good

One ancient and ongoing philosophical question is: If God is perfect, and God created the world, can anything that God created be inherently bad? We all know that there is evil in the world, that there are things that appear to be bad. But when one takes the world as a whole, we realize that while the bad is usually unpleasant, difficult to understand and, in truth, terrifying, it is also necessary as a contrast to the incredible good we are given.

The commandment of Shabbat is linked to the phrase “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but He rested on the seventh day.” On Shabbat, one effect of refraining from m'la'chot, (the 39 acts of creative labor that are prohibited on Shabbat because they were used to build the Tabernacle in the wilderness) is that one is constantly reminded that God continually creates the world and that the world He creates is whole and perfect.

The actions restricted by the m’la’chot are all actions that create change. It is interesting to note the similarity of three of these m’la’chot: winnowing (zoreh), sorting (bo’rayr) and sifting (m’raked). Winnowing is the act of throwing grains in the air to separate the wheat from the chaff. Sorting refers to removing something one does not want from among things one does want (picking bones from a piece of salmon). Sifting is running food through a vessel in order to hold back the unwanted particles.

While each of these m’la’chot is, in fact, unique when examined in detail, it is fascinating to note the obvious emphasis the Torah places on refraining from sorting out the bad from the good on Shabbat. Perhaps this is because classifying an item as “bad” might imply a flaw in God’s handiwork, and on Shabbat we take extra measures to celebrate the fact that God completed His creation of the world.

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

World View

Pay attention to how you judge objects of the world.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Maggid of Mezeritch

It is often noted by commentators on the Torah that whereas Abraham was a charismatic leader, his son, Isaac, was an introvert who spent much of his time studying. This same comparison could be made between the founder of the Chassidic movement, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (aka the Besht), and his successor, Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezeritch (c. 1704-1772).

The first time the Maggid of Mezeritch, as he came to be known, met the Besht, he nearly walked away. Having lived his life in poverty, the Maggid had many health problems and it was suggested that he visit the Besht, who was known as a healer. Although the Maggid was not a follower of the new Chassidic way of thinking, he went for Shabbat. During Shabbat, he was completely unimpressed with the divrei Torah (Torah statements) that the Besht offered. As he prepared to leave after Shabbat, the Besht called him in and privately revealed the very deep spiritual meaning of his earlier statements. Needless to say, the Maggid stayed.

Not long after the Besht’s passing, the Maggid became recognized as the leader of the growing Chassidic movement. Because he was disabled in one foot, he did not travel and his disciples gathered around him. His closest students were sequestered with him during the week, but on Shabbat he made himself available to all. Although he himself never published his Torah thoughts, his teachings were preserved in writing by his disciples and later published.

Perhaps the Maggid’s greatest contribution to the future of Chassidut was his dispersion of his students. As he approached his last days, he told each of his main disciples, based on each individual’s personality, where to settle to be the most effective. These students came to lead their own Chassidic courts and to advance the revolutionary development of the Chassidic movement that the Besht had begun.

The 19th of Kislev, today, is the yahrtzeit of the Maggid of Mezeritch.

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

Teacher, Teacher

If you find a teacher of Torah particularly inspiring, keep careful notes of his/her teaching.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Don't Roll Your Eyes At Me

The plaintive cry of exasperation, “Don’t roll your eyes at me!” that parents often address to their children is one that each person should consider saying to him/herself, omitting, of course, the concluding words “at me.”

Rolling one’s eyes is often meant to demean others, to hold them in contempt for their inability to understand and to embarrass them. Jewish law, however, considers embarrassing another person as a form of murder! Rather extreme, wouldn’t you say? Actually, no. The sages of the Talmud teach that there is a physiological comparison to murder since when a person is embarrassed, blood rushes to his cheeks in a blush and then drains away, leaving a pale white face, not unlike the appearance of a murder victim.

More important, however, is the fact that one’s self-esteem is integral to one’s emotional welfare. Let’s face it, we all want to feel that others like us, respect us and want to be our friends. That’s human nature.

Rolling one’s eyes when someone else is speaking, or when speaking about someone else, can often say more than words. Body language is a unique and highly effective means of communication. Nodding or shaking one's head head during a speech reveals as much, if not more, than a person’s direct comments.

Such actions are included in what is known in Jewish legal literature as “avak lashon ha’rah,” the dust of evil speech. Even if one is not gossiping directly about someone or slandering them, one's body language, or other form of innuendo, can lead to lashon ha’rah and result in demeaning or embarrassing that person.

This Treat was originally posted on November 17, 2008.

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

Stand Tall

Remember your body language when talking with people with whom you are uncomfortable.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What's In The Book: Jonah

The Book of Jonah is one of the best known stories in the Bible and is read on Yom Kippur because of its powerful message of repentance:

God instructs Jonah to go to the Assyrian city of Nineveh and warn them that Nineveh will be destroyed unless the people mend their ways.

Hoping to flee and avoid this mission, Jonah boards a ship.

God sends a great storm. The people on the ship, fearing for their lives, discern that Jonah is the cause of the storm and, at Jonah's suggestion, throw him overboard. Jonah is swallowed by a large fish. (The Hebrew word is fish, but it is commonly translated as a whale.) Jonah lives inside the fish for three days, praying to God and accepting God’s command to go to Nineveh.

When Jonah is spit out and returned to dry land, he goes to Nineveh to bring them God’s message. The people repent and are saved. Jonah, however, leaves the city depressed and angry that this city of idol-worshipers heeded God’s warning and will be saved, while his fellow Jews often do not. He sits outside the city waiting to see what will happen.

Jonah falls asleep, and while he sleeps, God makes a gourd grow over him to shade him from the intense heat. Jonah awakens and rejoices over the gourd. On that very night, God sends a worm to destroy the gourd that provided him with protection from the harsh sun, causing Jonah to weep.

God then rebukes Jonah for having pity on a plant that appeared and disappeared in one night, but having no compassion for the one hundred and twenty thousand people in Nineveh.

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

In Situations

When things seem difficult, try to find the good in the situation.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Gunpowder Purim

There are many ways to thank God for saving your life. Many people donate extra tzedakah (charity) as a means of demonstrating their gratitude. In situations that were particularly harrowing, some people host a seudat ho’da’ah, a feast of gratitude. There is even a special prayer that is recited in synagogue for people who survive life-threatening events; it is known as birkat ha’gomel.

If you were a rabbi who witnessed the miraculous survival of yourself and your family, you might just declare a personal Purim, as did Rabbi Avraham Danzig (1748-1820). Rabbi Danzig was born in what is known today as Gdansk (Poland), formerly known as Danzig. Most of his life, however, was spent in Vilna. Though Rabbi Danzig did not accept an official rabbinic position (he was a merchant), he was known as one of Vilna’s most venerable poskim (plural for Jewish legal decisor). Additionally, he wrote several highly regarded books on halacha (Jewish law). The Chayei Adam (and its companion the Nishmat Adam) and the Chochmat Adam (and its companion the Binat Adam) both present in-depth reviews and summaries of sections of the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law).

On the 15th of Kislev, 1804 (18 November), a terrible fire broke out in Vilna. As nearby buildings were collapsing and being consumed by the flames, Rabbi Danzig and his entire family gathered in one room in their home and prayed. That night, the Danzig home was engulfed in flames. Even the walls collapsed. Incredibly, Rabbi Danzig and his family were unharmed. Thereafter, each year, on the 16th of Kislev, his family (and eventually his descendants) lit candles, recited Psalms, had a feast of thanksgiving and gave charity in honor of their remarkable survival. Rabbi Danzig called this day the “Pulver Purim" (Purim of the Gunpowder).

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

Personal Gratitude

Mark times of personal gratitude to God by giving charity or partaking in a particular mitzvah.

Friday, December 9, 2011

How Does God Rest

On the first six days of creation, God created (Day 1) the heavens and earth, light as separated from darkness; (Day 2) the firmament to separate the water (Day 3) dry land, a bringing together of the waters of the earth, plant life (Day 4) the sun and moon, the motion of the luminaries in the heavens (Day 5) the creatures of the sea and the creatures of the air, (Day 6) animals of the land, and, finally, Adam and Eve. And then God rested.

According to Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), God created the world by contracting and limiting Himself. The world maintains itself by God continuing to limit Himself. It is therefore understood by the kabbalists that every moment of the world's existence is only because God so wills it in His continuing act of creation.

What, then, does it mean that God rested on the seventh day, since God is always in a continual state of creating the world? Obviously God didn’t simply put up His feet and take a nap.

The feat of creation is described by the commentators as “yesh may’ayin,” meaning something from nothing. Before God created the world, there was nothing. In every act of creation, God fashioned something that had never existed before. When the Torah states that on the seventh day God rested, it means that God ceased to create anything completely new. Henceforth, all things that came into the world were built upon something that had previously existed.

While humans can be quite ingenious, people are only able to create from matter that already exists. Refraining from m'la'chot, the creative work prohibited on Shabbat, is a gift from God for the Jewish people to let us relate, on some level, to what it means to “hold back” and let the world run its normal course.

This Treat was originally published on October 16, 2009.

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

Book It

Stop by the library or borrow a good book from a friend and sit back and truly relax this Shabbat.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Woman's Strength

Born in 1859 in Vienna, Bertha Pappenheim was acutely aware of the advantages given to boys. She wished that she could receive the same education that her younger brother received. Instead, she spent her late teenage years at home doing needlepoint and waiting to be married. The waiting was cut short when she suffered a strange illness with symptoms such as paralysis of the extremities, disturbances of vision, hearing, and speech, and hallucinations. She was treated by Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud, who gave her “talk therapy” for what they termed to be hysteria.*

Pappenheim recovered, slowly, and by 1929, she was able to move with her widowed mother to Frankfurt am Main. In her new surroundings, Pappenheim was able to free herself from the constraints of the expectations of upper-middle class women. Pappenheim’s career began through acceptable social work channels--volunteering in a soup kitchen and working in an orphanage. Soon Pappenheim organized Women’s Welfare, a group that set up daycare centers, employment services and services to help the Jews in Eastern Europe. In 1904, she founded the League of Jewish Women (JFB). The goals of the JFB were definitely feminist--women’s rights and community involvement--but with a distinctive Jewish element. Pappenheim's famous women’s shelter was kosher and even had a Passover kitchen.

In addition to her JFB work, Pappenheim worked diligently to fight against human trafficking and was outspoken about the problem of prostitution in the Jewish world. In what spare time she had, Pappenheim was also a writer, a poet and a translator of texts she deemed important for Jewish women.

Although Pappenheim was initially opposed to Zionism and against the Youth Aliyah movement, she began to see the importance of the Holy Land after the legislation of the Nuremberg Laws (1935). On May 28, 1936, Pappenheim succumbed to cancer, never seeing the horrors that were to come.

*Pappenheim’s illness was chronicled under the pseudonym Anna O. and published by Josepf Breuer in Studies on Hysteria.

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

Your Own Strength

Use your own personal strengths to get involved in the community.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


The concept of forgivable bankruptcy--declaring one’s self legally destitute and thereby being forgiven of one’s major debts, is a recent development in history. Until the mid-1800s (in the United States), those unable to repay their debts were sent to debtors’ prison.

Without question, falling into debt is frowned upon by the Torah. At the same time the Torah encourages lending to the needy. In fact, it’s a mitzvah. The Torah also has quite a few unique laws relating to lending and debts. Most importantly, “At the end of every seven years you shall institute a remission... every creditor shall remit his authority over that which he has lent his fellow; he shall not demand it from his fellow or his brother...” (Deuteronomy 15:1-2). Every seven years, the year of the shmitta (Sabbatical year), when the farmland lies fallow, all monetary debts that are currently due are forgiven.

Was shmitta the world’s first forgiving bankruptcy law? Perhaps.

Aware of human nature, the Torah also declares, “Beware that there be not a base thought in your heart, saying: 'The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand'; and your eye becomes evil against your needy fellow, and you give him nothing...” (Deuteronomy 15:9). After all, who would want to lend money just to have the debt erased by shmitta.*

There are many Torah prohibitions against forcing the repayment of debt. For example:
“When you lend money to My people, to the poor man among you, do not press him for repayment....” (Exodus 22:24). “Do not take an upper or lower millstone as security for a loan, since that is like taking a life as security” (Deuteronomy 24:6).

The laws that seem to favor the negligent borrower are numerous because of the potentially overwhelming power of the lender. Underlying each of these laws, however, is the understanding that borrowers may not simply walk away from their debts but must make a good faith effort to fulfill their financial obligations.

*The sages also created ways in which creditors would be protected.

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

Put A Bit Away

If you need to repay a loan, create a plan of action (like putting $5 into an envelope whenever possible).

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Jews of Finland

For most European countries, the history of its Jewish presence begins some time in or before the Dark Ages and is accented by varying periods of exile or oppression. Since Jews were not legally permitted to settle in Finland until 1825, and even then, permission was limited to retired Cantonists (Jewish soldiers forcibly conscripted to the Russian Army for 25 years of service - Russia took Finland from Sweden in 1809), the history of Jewish life in Finland is therefore relatively recent.

Although Finland functioned as an autonomous zone, it was still controlled by Russia until 1917. During this period of Russian control, the small Jewish community struggled to gain basic rights. Jews were restricted in work, forbidden from attending fairs and at constant personal risk of expulsion. This all changed in 1917, when, shortly after gaining its independence from Russia, the Finnish government allowed Jews already settled there to become Finnish nationals and foreign Jews to have the same rights as other foreigners.

The Jewish population in Finland was never large - several thousand at its peak. The Finnish Jewish community survived the devastation of World War II because Finland refused to identify them or turn them over, even though Finland had allied itself with Germany. In one of the strangest historical events that occurred with the Jews of Finland, Finnish Jews fought alongside the Germans to ensure that Russia did not try and reclaim its lost territory. It has even been noted that this battle was probably the only time a Jewish prayer tent was set up in the midst of a camp full of Nazi soldiers.

With the creation of the State of Israel, many of Finland’s Jews made aliyah. It is said that Finland represented the largest per capita aliyah to the new state. Today, only about 1,500 Jews reside in Finland.

Happy Independence Day Finland.

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

Out Of Town

When traveling, find out if there is a Jewish community at your destination city and visit (if you have time).

Monday, December 5, 2011

Joseph, Son of Jacob

The story of Jacob’s eleventh son is a tale of epic proportion. The firstborn of Rachel, Joseph was his father’s favorite child, and Jacob never hesitated to display his feelings of preference. Joseph is noted as having been an extremely handsome youth who was naive as to how his actions (and the favoritism of Jacob) affected his older brothers. Additionally, Joseph never hesitated to share with them his dreams, which his brothers interpreted as Joseph’s desire to rule over them.

Joseph was so unaware of the impact of his behavior that he was completely surprised when his brothers threw him in a pit and then sold him to passing merchants to be enslaved in Egypt.

In Egypt, Joseph worked hard, and rapidly rose through the ranks of his owner’s (Potipher’s) servants. But his handsome looks caught the attention of Potipher’s amoral wife. When the rest of the household went to celebrate a holiday, she tried to seduce him. Joseph refused to lie with another man’s wife, so she accused him of trying to rape her.

Joseph went to jail, where he correctly interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh’s butler and baker. Two years later, when Pharaoh had a dreadful nightmare, the butler told Pharaoh about the talented dream interpreter he’d met in prison. Freed from prison, Joseph explained Pharaoh’s dream as a warning of famine and outlined a plan to stave off disaster.

Joseph became the Viceroy (Prime Minister) of Egypt. Anyone wishing to buy grain went to him. Thus, Joseph was able to intercept his brothers when they came to buy food. Hiding his identity, Joseph insisted that his brothers not return to buy food in Egypt again without their youngest brother, Benjamin. When they eventually returned with Benjamin, Joseph had his younger brother framed for theft in order to see the others’ reactions. When they defended Benjamin, Joseph revealed himself, offered his forgiveness and beseeched them to bring Jacob to Egypt.

When Jacob came to Egypt, he met Joseph’s wife, Osnat, and their two sons, Menashe and Ephraim.

Due to the space limitations of Jewish Treats, this is a mere outline of Joseph’s life. Click here to read previous treats related to Joseph’s fascinating life.

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


Take the time to call your sibling(s).

Friday, December 2, 2011

With What May We Light

The Friday night synagogue service is actually two separate services, Kabbalat Shabbat (Greeting the Shabbat) and Maariv (Evening Service). Those attending Friday night services in traditional Ashkenazi synagogues (but not Chassidic) will notice a brief interlude between the two that is filled with subdued mumbling. This is the recitation of Bah'meh Mahd'leekeen, the second chapter of the Mishnah in Tractate Shabbat.

Bah'meh Mahd'leekeen literally translates as “With what may we light?” This chapter deals, primarily, with the appropriate kindling material to be used for the Sabbath lights. While candles are commonly used today, in Talmudic times oil lamps were the norm. The Mishnaic discussion includes what type of wick (one made of a material that burns evenly) and oil (those that burn well and are not malodorous) may be used. There is also a discussion of when one may possibly extinguish a flame (e.g. fear of bandits) and when not (to save a few cents).

The seventh section of the chapter notes that “a person must say three things in his home on the eve of Shabbat just before dark: ‘Have you tithed? Have you prepared the eiruv? Kindle the [Shabbat] lights’...” Most congregations recite this section before the evening Maariv service, while others have the custom of reciting Bah'meh Mahd'leekeen after the evening service or during the meal itself so as to fulfill the mitzvah of studying the laws of Shabbat.

This Treat was originally posted on October 23, 2009.

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

Winter Shabbat

The earliest Shabbats of the year take place in December, so enjoy the long Friday evenings together with family and friends.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Rachel's Curse

Reward and punishment are complicated concepts. Suffice it to say that Divine intervention in the world is often through seemingly mundane acts. For instance, the Torah describes the death of the matriarch Rachel immediately following the difficult birth of her second son, Benjamin, but her death cannot be discussed without mentioning “the curse.”

After Jacob and his family began their journey back to Canaan, Laban and his sons followed in hot pursuit. At first he accused Jacob of carrying away his daughters as if they were captives: “Why did you flee secretly...and did not allow me to kiss my [grand]sons and my daughters?” (Genesis 31:26-28). At the end of his great speech informing Jacob that God had warned him in a dream not to hurt Jacob, Laban suddenly asks, “Why have you stolen my gods?” (31:30).

Before leaving Aram Naharayim, Rachel had taken her father’s idols. While her motive is not recorded in the Torah, the Midrash explains that Rachel did not want her father to continue his idolatrous ways. When Laban demanded that his idols be returned to him, Jacob, not knowing of Rachel’s part in this matter, announced that “whoever you find has your idols, that person shall not live. In front of our kinsmen, identify for yourself what I have [that is yours] and take it.” (Genesis 31:32), When Laban came to search Rachel’s tent, she sat on the idols and told her father that she could not rise, “for the way of women was upon her.” Laban left without his idols.

Words have power, especially the words of a righteous man like Jacob. And while Rachel did not succumb to the curse immediately, several years later her life was, indeed, cut short.

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

Word Play

When you are angry, choose your words most carefully.