Thursday, March 31, 2011

Parasha of the Month

This Shabbat is Shabbat Parashat HaChodesh, the Sabbath of “The Month.”

The Torah portion that is read as the Maftir (additional reading) after the conclusion of the reading of the regular weekly Torah portion, commands that the Jewish people declare Nissan to be the first month of the lunar calendar and instructs the Children of Israel to prepare for the Exodus (Deuteronomy 12:1-20). Parashat HaChodesh is always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh Nissan, or on Rosh Chodesh itself.

The reading begins, “And God spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying: This month shall be for you the beginning of the months, it shall be for you the first of the months of the year” (Deuteronomy 12:2).

When God first commanded that the Israelites count the new month, they were still in slavery. As slaves, time was something over which they had no control. This command, however, was God’s way of gradually empowering the people to take hold of their own fate.

The command also promises a future. At this point in time, nine out of the ten plagues had already struck Egypt. The land was decimated, almost all the livestock had perished, and the people themselves were scared and desperate. The Israelites, who had remained unharmed by the plagues, became increasingly concerned about the pent-up anger of the Egyptians. (Not to mention that Pharoah was still refusing to let the Israelites leave.) Beginning a calendar process, however, underscored that they would have a future.

Having been reassured and empowered, the Israelites were able to obey Moses’ instructions to take a lamb on the 10th of the month and mark their doorposts with the lamb’s blood on the night of the 15th, when God would strike the Egyptian firstborn and the Children of Israel would finally leave Egypt.

This Treat was originally treated on March 19, 2009.

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

Prep on Friday

At your Friday night Shabbat meal, begin preparing for Passover by reviewing some of the laws.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

In Honor of Doctor's Day

If you enjoy television medical dramas, then you probably have certain pre-conceived notions about doctors. After all, we see the doctors on television far more often than we see our own medical practitioners. It is interesting, then, how many television doctors, like the currently popular Dr. House, often appear to have what people call a "God complex."

According to many commentators, the potential for doctors to become arrogant, due to their ability to save lives, and the way others view their healing skills, led to the statement that, "The best of doctors are destined for Gehinnom" (Kiddushin 82a). According to Rashi, commenting on the Talmud: "Being unafraid of sickness, they are haughty before the Almighty. Again, they sometimes cause death by their treatment; while on the other hand, by refusing treatment to the poor they may indirectly cause their death..."

One might wonder whether absolute faith in God means, as some other religious groups believe, that a person should not visit the doctor when ill. This is not at all the case in Judaism. The Jewish view on healing is that all healing is in God’s power, but that the Al-mighty works His will through human hands. According to the opinion of the sage Abaye, the verse “He shall cause him to be thoroughly healed” (Exodus 21;19), teaches that “permission has been given to the physician to heal" (Brachot 60a). This knowledge, however, should be utmost in the minds of both patient and doctor. Thus, the Talmud noted, that "On going in to be cupped [undergoing a medical procedure] one should say: ‘May it be Your will, O Lord, my God, that this operation may be a cure for me, and that may You heal me. For You are a faithful, healing God, and Your healing is sure" (Brachot 60a).

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

A Special Prayer

The Rambam (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, Maimonides), one of the most famous Jewish scholars, was also a renowned physician. If you have a doctor to whom you wish to give a beautiful gift (or if you are a doctor yourself), seek out a calligraphy of the Rambam's Prayer for a Physician. Here is an English Translation.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Spiritual Diagnosis

Common wisdom, and often specific regulations, discourage doctors from diagnosing or healing their own close family members. In such cases, the necessary objectivity is often missing. Additionally, that which one considers "first hand knowledge," might impede a proper diagnosis. This rule, however, is not unique to modern medicine. The Mishnah (Negaim 2:5) states that "A man may examine all leprosy signs--except his own. Rabbi Meir ruled: [he may] not even [check] the leprosy symptoms of his relatives."

While ancient doctors would diagnose and heal physical ailments, the kohanim were the only ones able to make a spiritual diagnosis. The leprosy mentioned in the Bible is not the bacterial disease of the modern age. Known as tza'ra'at, it was a physical symptom of a spiritual illness. If one noticed whitish-red spots on the torso, he or she would consult with a kohain (priest) as to whether it was or was not tza'ra'at. If it was tza'ra'at, the person was put into isolation and underwent specific rituals to cure the infection.

Since tza'ra'at was a spiritual illness and not a communicable disease, an explanation is needed as to why those afflicted needed to be sent into isolation. "Rabbi Samuel ben Nahmani said in the name of Rabbi Johanan: Because of seven things the plague of tza'ra'at is incurred: slander, the shedding of blood, oaths taken in vain, incest, arrogance, robbery and envy" (Arachin 16a). All of these transgressions share a common anti-social element, but the oral law places the most stress on the first sin, slander. Persons placed in isolation, hopefully, become aware quickly of the anti-social aspects of their actions.

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

Keep In Mind

Keep in mind the advice against treating immediate family in all situations where one might cause pain (e.g. financial advice).

Monday, March 28, 2011

They Called Him “Two-Gun”

The nickname “Two-Gun” evokes images of a rough-shaven cowboy in the Wild West. Actually, the nickname belonged to one Morris “Moishe” Cohen.

An immigrant child from Poland to London, young Cohen was drawn away from his observant home to boxing arenas and minor crime. In 1905, at age 18, when he was released from the Hayes Industrial School for wayward Jewish boys, his parents sent him to Canada in the hope that a new location would reform him. While trying agrarian life, Cohen learned to shoot a gun and play cards.

In Saskatchewan, Cohen befriended the local Chinese population, and, during World War I, worked with Chinese laborers rebuilding Belgian railroads. Subsequently, in 1922, Cohen managed to find a job in China as a bodyguard to Sun Yat-Sen, the leader of the nationalist revolution. While working for Sun, he was wounded, after which he always carried two guns.

After Sun died in 1925, Cohen, now a general in the Chiniese army, remained in China training troops. When the Japanese invaded in 1937, Cohen fought against them, and, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Cohen helped Sun’s widow, Soong Qingling, escape, but was himself captured. He spent two years in a Japanese prison camp.

In 1943, Cohen settled in Montreal (where he was briefly married). His ties to the Chinese people were so strong that, after 1949, he was one of the few people able to travel to both Taiwan and communist China.

Cohen’s close relations with the Chinese proved beneficial to the Jews. At the founding conference of the United Nations, Cohen arranged meetings between the Chinese delegates and important Zionists, which were vital in achieving China’s support for protecting the rights of Jews in Palestine.

Cohen died in 1970, in Salford, England, where he had been living with his widowed sister.

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

Weekly Focus

Choose one mitzvah on which to focus each week - for instance, praying or visiting the sick.

Friday, March 25, 2011

How Now, Red Cow

Every year, on the Shabbat following Purim, a special reading from Numbers 19, is added to the regular Shabbat Torah reading. Known as Parashat Parah, the Torah reading concerns the special purification ceremony of the Parah Adumah (Red Heifer) one of the most intricate and mysterious laws found in the Torah.

The process of purification via the Parah Adumah is complex and difficult even for those who have spent years studying the Torah. A simple explanation is that a pure red heifer (cow) is sacrificed, and its ashes mixed with holy water, the mixture of which was then sprinkled on those who seek spiritual purification. Most famously, the ashes of the Parah Adumah “cleanse” a person from the ritual impurity of coming in contact with a dead body. The precise process is described in Numbers 19 and in Mishnah Parah.

For the Parah Adumah, however, any-old red cow just won’t do. The animal must be a cow that is preferably three or four years old (but older than two years) and has never been mounted by a bull. Additionally, it should never have been yoked, or done any physical labor like most other domestic animals normally do.

Physically, like all sacrifices, the red heifer must be blemish free, both internally and externally. The most critical factor, however, is the definition of “red.” In order to be considered an actual Red Heifer, the animal may not have more than two hairs of a different color on its entire body!

Finding the exact specimen was so difficult that the sages recorded only eight red heifers from the time of Moses to the end of the Second Temple: “Moses prepared the first, Ezra prepared the second,... Simon the Just and Yochanan the High Priest each prepared two, and El'y'ho'aynai ben Hakkoph and Cha'nam'ayl the Egyptian each prepared one” (Mishnah Parah 3:5).

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

Shabbat Pleasure

Enjoy a special dinner tonight in honor of Shabbat.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Rising Early

Anthropologists, sociologists and others who study the ways of different cultures all recognize the importance of language in understanding a people. It is commonly stated (whether true or not) that Eskimos have many different words for snow, because snow plays such a central role in their lives. What, then, does it say about Judaism that the Torah has a specific word for rising early in the morning: l’ha’shkim.

When the word va’yash’kaim is written in the Torah, it implies z'riz'ut, which is often translated as alacrity to do a mitzvah. Alacrity, however, implies haste. Proper z'riz'ut, however, requires a combination of speed and attention to detail. Acting without forethought, or completing an action improperly because of haste, nullifies z'ri'zut.

One of the most dramatic narratives in the Torah where the word va’yash’kaim is used, is Genesis 22:3: “And Abraham rose early in the morning, and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son; and he cleaved the wood for the burnt-offering, and rose up, and went to the place of which God had told him.” After God instructed him to bring Isaac, his son, for a sacrifice, Abraham arose early the very next morning. He may not have understood why God was asking him to do this, but if he was going to fulfill God’s command, Abraham intended to do it enthusiastically.

Most of us, thankfully, are not asked to face such dire challenges. That does not mean that we cannot learn something from Abraham’s actions. It’s easy to hurry to perform a mitzvah that one finds meaningful, such as visiting a sick friend. The real mitzvah of z'ri'zut, however, is in hurrying to do a mitzvah that is outside of one’s comfort zone, such as changing the soiled bedding of an elderly shut-in.

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

With Alacrity

When presented with an opportunity to do a good deed, don't hesitate.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

An Eye On The Nations

The world has been hit by a series of devastating natural phenomena. Powerful earthquakes and raging floods have created monumental scenes of destruction. With great pride, many Jews point out that the Israeli emergency response and search and recover units are often among the first to arrive with assistance. It is interesting to see the connection of these actions of goodwill to all humankind in the Biblical story of Jonah.

For most adults, a review of “Jonah and whale” is rather brief: Man gets swallowed by whale, lives inside the whale and gets spit out (Please note: the text specifies a big fish, not a whale). Some people might even recall why Jonah was in the fish in the first place (he tried to run away from fulfilling God’s instructions that he reprove the people of Nineveh for their sins).

According to the Midrash, Jonah ran away because he was concerned about shaming the Jewish nation if the citizens of Nineveh listened to the message of repentance, while the Jews would not.

After Jonah was released from the fish and presented his message to Nineveh and witnessed the entire city repenting, he was greatly disheartened. The narrative then reports that Jonah fell asleep, and while he slept, God caused a gourd to grow above him and shade him from the heat. But, that night, God sent a worm to destroy the gourd, causing Jonah to weep over the loss. God then rebukes Jonah for having pity on a plant that appeared and disappeared in one night, but having no compassion for the hundreds of thousands of people in Nineveh.

Although dispersed across the globe, the Jewish people are a tight-knit family and tend to stick together. When a tragedy strikes Jews anywhere in the world, Jews respond. But, one of the most important messages communicated by the Book of Jonah is that God views all of humanity as His children, and Jews are expected to show compassion to all people.

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

They Still Need Help

Donate to help with the disaster relief in Japan!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Renaissance Woman

A brilliant business mind, a flare for statesmanship and a charismatic personality... today’s Jewish Treat focuses on a renowned Jewish Renaissance Woman: Dona Gracia Mendes (Dona Gracia Nasi).

Gracia was born in Portugal in (c.)1510, approximately 13 years after the Portugese expelled all Jews who refused to “convert” to Catholicism. Born in Portugal to a Marrano (secretly Jewish) family, she was baptized Beatrice de Luna Miques. At 18, she married Francisco Mendes, also a Marrano. Francisco and his brother Diogo established a trading house and bank that quickly grew in influence. By the time of Francisco’s death in 1538, the House of Mendes was a small financial empire. Gracia took her infant daughter Brianda (also called Reyna) and moved to Antwerp, where Diogo had established a branch of the business.

Once in Antwerp, Gracia circulated among the aristocratic society, assuming her husband’s role in the House of Mendes. She proved to have a brilliant business mind and, when her brother-in-law, Diogo, died in 1543, Gracia assumed complete control of the bank.

Through her financial dealings with European royalty, Gracia was also able to influence the fate of the Jews, by bribing the Pope to delay the Inquisition in Portugal and creating a Jewish boycott on the Papal States of Ancona.

But Gracia spent much of her life moving from one country to the next in order to avoid religious persecution (often an indirect ploy to acquire her wealth). At one point, she was even arrested by the Inquisition, having been denounced as a Jew by her own sister. It was only after this, when she moved to Ferrara, Italy, that she lived openly as a Jew for the first time.

Gracia finally settled in the Ottoman Empire. Eventually, the Sultan leased to her the city of Tiberias, where she tried to establish a Jewish settlement. Her daughter married Joseph Nasi, Gracia’s nephew, who later became the Duke of Naxos and the Seven Islands.

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

Women's History Month

Acknowledge the important contribution of Jewish women in history!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Purim! Again?

Unique to the Jewish calendar, Purim is actually observed on different days depending on location.

The majority of the Jewish people celebrate Purim on the 14th of Adar (yesterday). However, Jews living in the city of Shushan (now the city of Shush, Iran), Jerusalem and all cities that had walls at the time of Joshua's conquest of Canaan, celebrate Purim on the 15th of Adar (today).

The delay in the Purim celebration is based on Esther 9:16-17.

And the rest of the Jews in the states [not Shushan] of the king grouped together, protecting their lives, and were relieved of their enemies...on the 13th of the month of Adar, and they rested on the 14th, making it a day of feasting and joy. But the Jews in Shushan grouped together on the 13th and 14th, and rested on the 15th, making it a day of feasting and joy.
The majority of the Jews were able to stop defending themselves on the 13th, and so rested on the 14th. In the capital city, however, where Haman's evil plot had aroused greater hatred, the Jews were forced to defend themselves through the 14th as well, and rested on the 15th.

Mordechai and the great sages of the time felt that it was important to separate Shushan's celebration from that of the rest of the people. Because they were still in exile, however, the sages wanted to make certain that the people remembered the holy city of Jerusalem and the Land of Israel. It was therefore declared that, in addition to Shushan, any city that was surrounded by a wall at the time of Joshua's conquest of Canaan would celebrate Purim on the 15th.

This Treat was originally published on March 1, 2010. It is being re-Treated to help us better understand the holiday of Purim.

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

Purim Plus

Enjoy a special treat in honor of Shushan Purim.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Sabbath of Remembering

This Shabbat is Shabbat Parashat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembering.

The Torah portion that is read as the Maftir (additional) portion after the conclusion of the regular weekly Torah reading, commands the Jewish people to remember that the nation of Amalek attacked our weak, tired and elderly shortly after the Jews crossed the Red Sea (Deuteronomy 25:17-19). Therefore, there is a mitzvah to destroy Amalek. Zachor is always read on the Shabbat before Purim.

The Amalekites traveled many miles in order to attack the Jewish people from behind, attacking the weak and the stragglers. Miraculously, the Jewish people defeated the Amalekites in a one day war. This attack underscored the evil character of the Amalekites. God had just performed great miracles for the Israelites and no nation dared attack them, except Amalek, who hit them from the rear.

The nation of Amalek is known for its all-consuming love of self, and reliance on violence to prove its superiority. The Midrash (Sifrei 296) tells us that the wording in Deuteronomy 25:18, "Asher kar'cha ba'derech," literally means that Amalek "happened" upon the Jews. This, the rabbis explain, is an explanation of the personality of Amalek: Amalek represents the belief in chance, of the haphazard dictates of "fate" and "destiny," which opposes the Jewish belief in Divine providence. Amalek's philosophy negates the concept that there is a purpose to humanity or to creation itself--again the antithesis of Jewish philosophy.

Parashat Zachor is read on the Shabbat before Purim because Haman was a direct descendant of Amalek. Like his forefathers, Haman was the archenemy of the Jews. He wanted to wipe them out. Neither begging, bribery nor debate would have changed Haman's mind because the Jewish nation represented a spiritual force which he abhorred.

*This Treat was originally published on March 6, 2009. It is being re-Treated to help us better understand this special Torah reading and the holiday of Purim.

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

A Special Time

In the act of giving gifts to the poor on Purim it is noted: “Kol HaPoshet Yad Notnim Lo- Whoever stretches out their arm [asking for help] we give them” (Shulchan Aruch - Laws of Megillah 694:3). So too, prayer on Purim is considered especially auspicious because God follows this same rule and does not turn away any who "stretch out their hands" to Him.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Four Mitzvot of Purim

Purim is celebrated on Sunday, March 20th (beginning after Shabbat on March 19th). Four mitzvot are associated with the holiday:

Megillah Reading - Book of Esther - The Megillah
is read twice on Purim, once at night and once during the day. In order to properly fulfill the mitzvah of Megillah, it is necessary to hear every word during the reading. For this reason it is imperative that people not talk to each other during the Megillah reading.

Mishloach Manot/Shalach Manos - Sending Gifts - Every Jew is obligated to give at least one Mishloach Manot gift containing at least two different types of ready-to-eat food items.

Matanot La'evyonim - Gifts to the Poor - Giving to the poor is a mitzvah all year round. However, the mitzvah to do so on Purim is in addition to the general mitzvah of tzedakah (charity). To properly fulfill the mitzvah of Matanot La'evyonim one must give to two poor individuals. Although one may fulfill this mitzvah by giving a minimal amount of money to each person, the sages noted that the highest form of fulfilling this mitzvah is by giving enough money for a meal, or the equivalent in food. This mitzvah may be fulfilled by donating beforehand to an organization that will distribute the money or food on Purim day.

Seudah - Festive Meal - One is obligated to partake in a festive meal on Purim day. The minimum to fulfill this mitzvah requires that one ritually wash (netillat yadayim), eat bread and then recite the Birkat Hamazon, the Grace after Meals.

Part of the Mitzvah of Seudat Purim is drinking. "A person should drink on Purim up to the point where they cannot tell the difference between ' Blessed is Mordechai' and ' Cursed is Haman.'" (Talmud Megillah 7a and Shulchan Aruch--Code of Jewish Law). On Purim, one is commanded to drink wine to a point of inebriation* - generally, this is interpreted as drinking more than one usually would or enough to make one sleepy.

*While drinking on Purim is a mitzvah, risking one's life is not. Whether host or guest, it is important to be responsible:
1-Do not drink and drive.
2-
Beware of underage drinking. While Purim is a religious holiday, and underage alcohol consumption is allowed for religious occasions, adults are still responsible for minors. Please do not give young people any alcohol beyond the bare minimum of wine, if at all. Remember, our children are deeply influenced by our own behavior.

This Treat was originally published on March 5, 2009. It is being re-Treated to help us better understand the holiday of Purim.

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

Package Preparation

Have fun preparing Mishloach Manot/Shalach Manos with friends.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Fast of Esther

"Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day; I also and my maidens will fast in like manner; and so will I go into the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish" (Esther 4:16). So responded Esther to her uncle Mordechai when he requested that she present herself, unbidden, before King Achashverosh.

In commemoration of that fast, Jews around the world observe Ta'anit Esther, the Fast of Esther, on the 13th of Adar, the day before Purim.

If the 13th of Adar occurs on Shabbat, (as happens this year) the fast is observed on the Thursday prior. Thus Ta'anit Esther will be observed this year on Thursday, March 17, 2011.

The fast begins at dawn (aloht hashachar)* and ends after nightfall, during which time eating and drinking are prohibited. (Pregnant and nursing women, and others with health restrictions may be exempt from fasting--please consult your rabbi).

On Ta'anit Esther, as on other fast days, special prayers are added to the synagogue services:

1. Selichot (Penitential Prayers) and Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King) are recited.

2. At the morning and afternoon service, excerpts from Exodus 32 and 34 are read from the Torah. These include the 13 attributes of G-d's mercy. At the afternoon service only, the Torah reading is followed by a special haftarah for fast days.

3. The Ah'nay'noo prayer, which asks for special forgiveness, is added to the morning and afternoon services by the prayer leader. An individual who is fasting includes Ah'nay'noo in the blessing of Sh'ma Koh'laynu (Hear Our Voices) when saying the afternoon service.

*Some people will get up before dawn and have an early morning breakfast (but this is permitted only if a decision to do so is verbally expressed the night before).

This Treat was originally posted on Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Fast Day Help

It is considered specially meritorious to give charity before or after the Mincha service on a fast day.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

It Was Bashert

Bashert, which in Yiddish means “predestined,” is most commonly applied to the concept of one’s intended soul-mate. This idea that, when dating, one is searching for his/her bashert, his/her divinely intended life partner, stems from Sotah 2a, which states: “Forty days before the creation of a child, a Heavenly Voice issues forth and proclaims: ‘The daughter of A is for B.’”

The concept of bashert implies that the person one will marry is preordained even before birth. There are a great number of discussions that stem from this concept: questions concerning dating, marriage, bad marriages, divorce, second marriages....But the question Jewish Treats wishes to address today is the broader understanding of the concept of bashert.

The quote from Sotah 2a goes on to state that just as a Heavenly Voice calls forth intended marriage partners, it also calls out “...the house of C is for D; the field of E is for F!” The Jewish idea of predetermination versus free-will allows that certain points in one’s life are set, but how one gets there is determined by one’s free choices.

Those pieces of our lives that are “pre-determined” may be related to one’s wealth, the country in which one lives or the person one marries. And while we may never know why these points of bashert happen, they are often important aspects of a greater story.

The upcoming story of Purim is a perfect example of a mysterious match that made sense only in heaven. Nothing, not even the words of Mordechai her guardian, could have comforted Esther when Achashverosh chose her to be his queen. He certainly was not the type of man she expected to marry. Yet, had she not been queen, she would not have been able to undo Haman’s decree, and save her people.

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

Seeing Bashert

Look for the good even in difficult situations.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Costume Time

Those who first hear about the custom of Purim costumes might assume that the tradition began as an imitation of Halloween. Research, however, places the origin of Halloween costumes in the 18th century, while Purim disguises are mentioned in rabbinic texts as far back as the 13th century.

Masks and disguises are a popular means of expressing some of the most important themes of Purim. For instance, “Ve'na'haphoch Hoo, and it was reversed” (Esther 9:1)--on Purim we celebrate the idea that what one perceives as reality can easily be reversed. This theme is also one of the sources for the custom of drinking on Purim. The Talmud states that “One must drink [on Purim] until one does not know the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordechai’”(Megillah 7b); disguising one’s self is another means of creating this same effect.

A second important theme of Purim related to the custom of wearing masks/costumes is hester panim. Hester panim refers to the idea that God conceals His involvement in human affairs. God is not mentioned even once in the Book of Esther, yet it is clearly Divine providence that determines events. This is hester panim, when God “hides” Himself from the world so that we can only see hints of His Divine plan. So too, on Purim, our true selves are hidden behind masks.

Although some people wear Halloween left-overs (Purim shopping begins November 1!), the characters of the Purim story are perennial favorites. (Of course, it doesn’t hurt that there are two queens--Esther and Vashti).

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

Reversal

If you don’t like costumes, wear your shirt inside-out and respond to people’s comments that it is in honor of “Ve'na'haphoch Hoo, and it was reversed.”

Friday, March 11, 2011

Read At Mincha

The climax of the Shabbat morning service is the Torah reading, which is often accompanied by great ceremony and beautiful chants. It is also an “interactive” ritual, since numerous congregants are involved. In contrast to this ceremony of great fanfare is the Torah reading of Shabbat Mincha (afternoon service).

On Shabbat morning, there are generally eight people called to recite the blessings over the Torah, whereas at Mincha, only three people receive an aliyah. The Shabbat Mincha Torah reading is actually a preview reading. Those three people called to the Torah read the verses of the first aliyah (division of the Torah portion) of the parasha for the next Shabbat.

The morning reading fulfills the need for a public Torah reading that has been customary since the time of Moses. (An annual cycle, dividing the Torah into weekly portions, began in the 2nd century B.C.E.) However, the Shabbat afternoon reading was only ordained in the time of Ezra (circa 4th century B.C.E.), when the prophet declared that “the law be read [publicly] in the Mincha service on Sabbath: on account of shopkeepers” (Baba Kama 82a).

Why shopkeepers? Because shopkeepers were unable to attend the public readings on Monday and Thursday morning. The Monday and Thursday morning readings had been ordained so that three full days would never pass without the Torah being read. “For it was taught: ‘And they went three days in the wilderness and found no water (Exodus 15:22),’ about which those who expound verses metaphorically said: “Water” means Torah... It thus means that when they [the People of Israel] went three days without Torah they immediately became exhausted” (Baba Kama 82a). The Mincha reading was ordained in order to give the shopkeepers an extra dose of Torah that would carry them through the week.

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

Saturday Afternoon

Attend Shabbat Mincha (afternoon service) at your local synagogue.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Who Was Achashverosh?

“In the third year that Achashverosh, who reigned over 127 provinces from India to Ethiopia, sat on the throne in Shushan the capital...With the army of Persia and Medea...(Esther 1:1-2)

While academic scholars struggle to identify Achashverosh (perhaps Ataxerxes II), the sages focused on who Achashverosh was as a person. Accordingly, he is described as a stupid man: “His stupidity made him the laughingstock of the world” (Esther Rabbah 4:12). But how could a stupid man control an empire that spanned 127 provinces? Some sages interpret the term who reigned (1:1) “as a slur, because it implies that he was not really fit to be king, but that he paid a great deal of money, and thereby rose to power” (Megillah 11b).

To consolidate his royal position, Achashverosh married Vashti, the daughter of the previous king, who, according to the Midrash, did not hesitate to belittle her husband and send him a message saying “You stable boy of my father [Belshazzar, the son of Nebuchadnezzar]. My father could drink as much as a thousand men and not get intoxicated, as you did, after just a little wine!” As soon as he [Achashverosh] heard this, his rage burned in him” (Megillah 12b).

Achashverosh’s foolishness, however, is best described by a statement from Pesikta Esther Rabbah 9: “He was arbitrary. He put his wife to death because of his friend and put his friend to death because of his wife.” The subtle understanding that one gets of Achashverosh from the text is that Achashverosh believed that every suggestion made to him was a good one. A good ruler listens to his advisors, assesses their opinions and makes a decision based on logic and fact. Achashverosh, on the other hand, immediately acted upon advice without considering the consequences.

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

Dating Advice

When dating, be selective in who you ask for "romantic advice."

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Relating to Sacrifices

“Rabbi Aha said in the name of Rabbi Hanina ben Pappa that God regards the study of the laws of sacrifices equal to offering them” (Leviticus Rabbah 7:3).

If studying the offerings is equal to offering them, then it is a good thing that one entire book (Leviticus/Vayikra) of the Torah focuses on the Temple service, with a large part of that text dedicated to the sacrifices. Without question, the Temple service and its offerings are critical to Jewish life. Yet for 2,000 years, the Jewish people have survived without the Temple or sacrifices. Is it not a contradiction that a Temple oriented religion has been without a sanctuary much longer than it ever actually had a Temple*?

When the Israelites were commanded to construct the Tabernacle as a temporary sanctuary in the wilderness, they understood that God was providing them with a way of drawing closer to Him. The ultimate goal of Jewish life has always been about creating a meaningful relationship with the Divine. For this reason, the sages stated that, nowadays, if people repent from transgression, it is considered by God as if they had gone up to Jerusalem, built the Temple and the altars, and offered all the sacrifices ordained in the Torah (Leviticus Rabbah 7:2). Repentance in Judaism is known as teshuva, which is based on the Hebrew verb meaning “to return.” Teshuva, when it is sincere and complete, is the ultimate means of coming close to God and creating a relationship with the Divine.

Complete teshuva, however, is difficult to accomplish. So, in these days when no Temple stands, the closest one can come to partaking in the service is to delve into the holy texts.

*The total years of both Temples was only 830.

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

Drawing Closer

Daily prayer is one way of forming a relationship with God.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Power of Propaganda

In recent weeks, several celebrities have achieved notoriety for making anti-Semitic slurs. Their slurs were far from original and, thank God, far from potent. Indeed, such attacks against the Jewish people are hardly new. Even the authors of the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, however, were not original in their intentions.

The first great anti-Semitic “big lie” came from Haman. Not only did he tell the king that the Jews ignored civil law and followed their own Jewish law, but, according to the Midrash Esther Rabbah 7, Haman wrote a letter of classic propaganda in King Achashverosh’s name to convince the local citizens to slaughter the Jews. The following are some interesting excerpts from the Midrash:

...a contemptible people who are arrogant, seek our harm and who curse the king. And how do they curse us? They say (Psalms 10:16): ‘God reigns forever; the nations shall be banished from His land.’ They also say (Psalms 149:7): ‘To inflict vengeance upon the nations, reproof upon the peoples.’ They acknowledge no gratitude to those who have bestowed good upon them...

Haman demonstrated his knowledge of Jewish texts and then took the quotes out of context in order to create a mythology that the Jews were blood-thirsty.

The letter goes on to refer to the historic events of the Bible (Enslavement, the Canaanite General Sisera, the defeat of Amalek, etc.) turning them into events of Jewish aggression and inferring that the Jews used sorcery to win battles against their enemies. Regarding the Holy Temple, The Midrash says that Haman wrote:

...I do not know what they had inside that house. When they prepare to wage war, they enter it and practice sorcery, and when they emerge they slaughter and destroy the world...

Additionally, Haman reassured the Persians that God had turned against the Jews, and he then encouraged their animosity by stating that the Jews “ridicule us and the faith we place in our gods.”

Without question, Haman was a master propagandist.

Translation of Midrash Rabbah 7 taken from The Book of Our Heritage by Eliyahu Kitov.

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

A Grain of Salt

When reading the news, always take what you are reading with a grain of salt.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Abraham Ibn Ezra

Biblical scholars study his Torah commentaries, poets read his verse, grammarians look to his linguistic work and a lunar crater is named in his honor. Meet Rabbi Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra.

As was common at the time, Ibn Ezra was a scholar of diverse interests who produced numerous works on mathematics and astronomy, and discovered a lunar crater (later named Abenezra). Ibn Ezra was also a renowned poet who followed the Arabic (and Sephardic) tradition of writing both religious and “romantic” (about love, friendship, wine, etc.) poetry. Ibn Ezra’s poetry was written in Hebrew, a language to which he dedicated a great deal of his scholarship. In addition to translating and writing several works on Hebrew Grammar, Ibn Ezra used grammar as the basis for his biblical commentary. His commentaries, which are included in most Mikraot Gedolot (bibles containing multiple commentaries), deliberately avoid explanations based on Midrash (legend) and focus on the direct meaning of the words/grammar.

A fascinating personality, Ibn Ezra also faced many difficulties in life. Born in 1089 in religiously tolerant Muslim-ruled Toledo, Spain, Ibn Ezra lost at least three children in infancy and his wife passed away at a young age. When the Almohads, a fanatical North African Muslim sect, conquered Iberia, Ibn Ezra and his remaining family became perpetual wanderers. His presence is noted in North Africa, Egypt, Israel, Italy, Southern France, Northern France and even England. Somewhere during their travels, his son Isaac converted to Islam, the ultimate tragedy of Ibn Ezra’s life. Ibn Ezra never succeeded in business and viewed himself as a man of ill fortune. In one poem he even wrote of himself: "if I were to sell candles, the sun would never set; if I should deal in shrouds, no one would ever die."

The Yahrtzeit of Abraham Ibn Ezra is Rosh Chodesh Adar (1164).

(Read a translation of Ibn Ezra’s poems.)

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

Into Words

If you enjoy writing, put your thoughts about God and Judaism into words.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Shabbat’s Angel Companions

In the Talmud (Shabbat 119b), Rabbi Josi the son of Judah is quoted as saying:

On the eve of Shabbat, two ministering angels accompany a person home from the synagogue. One angel represents the positive forces and one angel represents the negative forces. When the person arrives home and finds the candles lit, the table set and the house in proper order [in other words, a house prepared for Shabbat], the positive angel says "May it be thus for another Shabbat!" The negative angel must affirm this and say "Amen." If, however, the house is not ready for Shabbat, the negative angel says "May it be thus for another Shabbat!" The positive angel must affirm this and say "Amen."

This Talmudic reference is the source for the singing of Shalom Aleichem when one returns home from synagogue (or just before one begins the Shabbat meal). These two angels remind us of the importance of the Shabbat atmosphere. Shabbat is more than just a day of resting from work, it is a day infused with holiness.

Throughout rabbinic literature, one finds Shabbat referred to as both the “Shabbat Queen” and the “Shabbat Bride.” The accompanying angels are like royal servants who have come to make certain that everything is prepared for the arrival of the Queen. So grand is the arrival of Shabbat, that even preparing for its arrival brings extra blessings to one’s home.

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

A Reason To Say Amen

Participate in Shabbat Across America and Canada TONIGHT!
(Check here to find a participating location near you.)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Why day Seven?

The number seven plays a significant role in Jewish thought. There are seven days of the week, with the seventh day being the holy Sabbath. The holidays of Passover and Sukkot are each celebrated for seven days. In ancient Israel, every seventh year the land is to lie fallow (shmittah) and every seventh cycle of seven years was* a Jubilee year (Yovel).

Shabbat is celebrated on the seventh day, because it was on the seventh day of creation that God rested from the acts of creation. God, being omnipotent, could, of course, have created the world in one moment, or taken millions of years (and indeed, it is difficult to assess how long a pre-human day actually was). So why does the Torah record seven days of creation?

When God created the physical world, He anchored it to established laws that we today call nature. There are six directions of movement in the physical world: forward, backward, right, left, up and down. If one imagines these six directions as a physical object, they would form a cube of four walls with a top and a bottom. The empty space in the center of the cube is the seventh “direction” and represents nature perfected and whole, since it only exists within the forces that create nature.

Additionally, if one thinks of each wall of the cube in terms of geometry, each is an infinite plane that goes on endlessly. The central space, however, is contained and, thus, at rest. This is the secret of the seventh day, it is nature in its perfect state.

*While the Jubilee year is not celebrated without the Temple, the laws of shemita are still observed in the Land of Israel today.

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

Celebrate the Seventh

Celebrate the seventh day of this week with your fellow Jews across North America. Find a Shabbat Across America and Canada location near you.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Final Analysis

After the soul departs, it journeys to the gates of heaven where it must present its case for entry. The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) states, “When an individual is brought before the Heavenly court for judgment, the person is asked:

1. Did you conduct your [business] affairs honestly (literally - with faithfulness or trustworthiness)?

2. Did you set aside regular time for Torah study?

3. Did you work at having children (literally - involved with populating the earth)?

4. Did you look forward to the world’s redemption?”

Aside from the simple interpretation of the words, perhaps there are deeper implications behind these questions. How can these questions be understood for those who were not meant to be Torah scholars, or those who did not have children?

1. Were you an honest person in the things you said and in all your affairs? Did you live a life in which everyone knew you to be trustworthy?

2. Did you learn about Judaism? Did you apply these teachings to your life? Did you study regularly to utilize your brain to its greatest capacity?

3. Did you leave the world a better place for children? Did you do your part to support the education of the next generation?

4. Did you do your part to bring about peace in the world (which will lead to redemption)?

Commandments and rituals are certainly important in Jewish life. But these “heavenly” questions focus on a person’s personal mantra and behavior as well as one’s interpersonal relationships.

This Treat was originally posted on Tuesday, September 16, 2008, and is being reTreated in honor of Shabbat America and Canada, March 4, 2011.


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

Pat On The Back

Never forget to give yourself credit for doing good deeds.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

In Thanks For Your Work

As history moves from the age of the Industrial Revolution into the age of technology, the western world has become a service based society. Yet as much as we depend upon the services we receive (someone delivering our groceries, laundering our clothes, preparing our coffee, etc.), the modern age has created a society of individuals, many of whom feel entitled to the services they receive.

In Jewish thought, great weight is placed on the importance of showing gratitude. A beautiful expression of this can be seen after the Israelite artisans brought Moses all of the vessels and pieces of the Tabernacle that they had fashioned: "Moses saw the entire work, and lo! they had done it; as the Lord commanded, so had they done. So Moses blessed them" (Exodus 39:43). Even though Moses had commanded the people to follow God's specific instructions, he was so grateful for the perfection of their work, that he blessed them.

The word for “thank you” in Hebrew, Todah, shares the same root as the word Hoda'ah, to admit, a term employed in Jewish courts of law. People who make a Hoda'ah admit to the civil claims made against them in the court. The words Todah and Hoda'ah both focus on the importance of acknowledging responsibility for our own actions and for the actions that others do for us.

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

Saying Thank You

If you attend Shabbat Across America and Canada this Friday night (March 4), make certain to find the coordinators and thank them for their hard work.