Thursday, October 31, 2013

Lilith - Queen of the Demons

Although it is not a well-known aspect of Judaism, demons abound in Jewish lore. Mentioned throughout the Talmud and Midrash, they are forces that work against humankind except when they are “enslaved” to perform specific tasks (a feat accomplished by  the like of King Solomon).

Most of the demons mentioned in Jewish lore have a definitively masculine persona. And then there is Lilith, a demoness who has come to be referred to as Queen of the Demons by those who have become fascinated by her. (It should be noted that there are other female demons, but none as famous as Lilith.)

“Rabbi Hanina said: One may not sleep in a house alone, and whoever sleeps in a house alone is seized by Lilith” (Talmud Shabbat 151b). This Talmudic reference is the source from which it is understood that Lilith is the night demon who torments men in erotic visions.

Kabbalistic sources present Lilith as the first mate created for Adam. When Eve was created, Adam said: “This one is bone of my bones and flesh of my fresh...” (Genesis 2:23), implying that there had been a previous creation that was not an appropriate mate for him. During her brief union with Adam, Lilith bore children who became the demons of the world.

Lilith is a fascinating yet controversial figure. Some see her as a projection of misogyny, others as the symbol of feminine power. Some of the legends of Lilith are based in Jewish scholarship while others are the fantastic work of one of humankind’s greatest gifts, the human imagination.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Good Neighbor

When reading about the supernatural in Judaism, recognize that there is much in the world that we do not understand.  

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Clothing Makes The Man - Clothing Makes The Woman

Although it is often noted that traditional Jews dress differently than members of their  surrounding culture (particularly members of the Chassidic communities), there is not much written in the Torah defining a specific dress code.  Most of the traditional garb reflects the clothes that were specific to the region in which the Jews resided, with additional details dictated by different communities.

The only Torah law that specifically states the way in which one should dress is the statute that prohibits men from wearing the clothing of women (beged isha) and women from wearing the clothing of men (beged ish). While there is no reason stated in the Torah for the prohibition of wearing the clothing of the opposite gender, there has been much speculation on this law throughout the ages, and it is frequently understood that it was intended to prevent licentious behavior.

One might ask who defines what clothing is a man’s and what is a woman’s garment? After all, styles of dress are different throughout the world. Did the sages specifically designate what is men’s clothing and in which ways a woman may dress? According to halacha (Jewish law) , male and female garments are defined by the society in which one lives. Thus it is that a Jewish native of Scotland (male) may wear a kilt (which resembles a skirt), but a Jew who is not Scottish may not.

In the modern age of fashion, this prohibition has lead to the question of garments that are non-gender specific. Such items might include t-shirts, sweatshirts, neutral color winter coats, etc. Because the general society defines them as unisex, they are generally permitted to both genders.

There are two other important points to note when talking about fashion in Jewish life. The first is that there is a Torah prohibition of wearing any mixture of wool and linen, a combination known in Jewish tradition as shatnez. The second is that Jews are expected to “walk modestly with your God” (Micah 6:8), which is a source for the traditional rules of modest dress.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Dress To Express

Dress in such a way that your outward appearance reflects your inner values. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The House of Assembly

Did you know that the Greek word 'synagogue' is actually a translation of the Hebrew term Beit K'nesset (English = House of Assembly). The 'assembly' referred to is the minyan (quorum of 10) necessary for a full prayer service.

By the time of the compilation of the Babylonian Talmud, the beit k'nesset was an essential part of Jewish communal life. Aware of the importance of maintaining the dignity of a place set aside for worship, the sages recorded numerous rules and discussions on worshipers' attitudes and comportment in a beit k'nesset. For instance (Talmud Megillah 28a-28b): ' a synagogue one may not conduct oneself with levity, one may not eat in them, nor may one drink in them, nor may one adorn oneself in them, nor may one stroll in them...' In other words, the beit k'nesset is a place to be respected and revered.

One is, however, permitted to study Torah and halacha (Jewish law) in a beit k'nesset. It is, therefore, not uncommon for many batei k'nesset to double as study halls. In fact, this is most probably the source for the Yiddish term shul (which also means school), which is the expression used by many traditional Ashkenazim to refer to their local synagogue(s).

Other terms for a beit k'nesset are:
Temple--This term is used most often by Reform worshipers to signify that Jews can create a holy space in lieu of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.
Esnoga--This term is used by Spanish and Portuguese Jews.
Knis--This term is used by many Arabic-speaking Jews.

In order to address the need for both a place to pray and a place for socializing, during the past century most synagogues began to include social halls in their buildings. As these rooms are designated for non-worship/study purposes, it is permitted to eat, drink and be merry there.

This Treat was originally posted on February 10, 2010.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Take The Time To Explore

If you do not already belong to a synagogue, take the time to get to know the congregations in your area.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Betty Boop, Popeye and Superman - The Jewish Connection

Name the first talking animated film. The answer most people usually offer is Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willy (1928). In actuality, however, the first talking cartoons were produced by Fleischer Studios.

Fleischer Studios was the business name for the collaboration of two Jewish brothers, Max and Dave Fleischer, who were both extremely talented and ambitious. (Their brother Lou was also part of the business.) It all began with Max’s invention of the Rotoscope, which allowed animators  to draw over live action footage and thus create more natural movements. With this technology, the Fleischers created their Out of the Inkwell series (begun in 1914), which featured Koko the Clown (drawn over footage of Dave) and Fritz the Dog. Incredibly, these short films were able to combine live action and animation

As technology advanced, the Fleischers used the new phonafilm process to bring sound to their pictures. Song Car-Tunes (begun in 1924) are also famous for the first use of “follow the bouncing ball” sing along format.

The Fleischers’ famous flapper, Betty Boop, made her debut in 1930, and shortly thereafter, they introduced the “Popeye the Sailor” animated shorts. In his heyday, Popeye was the number one competition to Mickey Mouse. Success, however, came at a great price. To continue production, they took a large loan from Paramount with their studio as collateral.

Disney's 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first full length animated film, put Disney in a league of its own. Nevertheless, the Fleischers continued to produce successful animated shorts, and their Superman serial was received with great acclaim. In producing their two feature length films - Gullivers Travels (1939) and Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941), they defaulted on their loan, were absorbed by Paramount, and had personal disagreements that split them apart.

Each went on to successful solo careers in the film industry. Max died in 1972, Dave in 1979. Both animation “superheros” deserve to be saluted on International Animation Day.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Cheering Up

If someone you know is feeling unwell, make an effort to help them feel better.  

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Three Mitzvot of Sarah

Jokes about dominant Jewish mothers are abundant and frequent. Perhaps this is because, historically, Jewish mothers have been responsible for building the foundation for passionate Jewish living in the home. This tradition began with the matriarch Sarah and is highlighted by Isaac’s reaction after he is introduced to Rebecca: “ And Isaac brought her [Rebecca] to the tent of Sarah his mother, and he took Rebecca, and she became his wife, and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted for [the loss of] his mother” (Genesis 24:67).

According to the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 60:16), this verse is also the source of the three key mitzvot that are meant to be the specific responsibility of Jewish women:

Family Purity: “You find that as long as Sarah lived, a [Divine] cloud hung over her tent; when she died, that cloud disappeared; but when Rebecca came, it returned.” This may seem like a strange allusion to family purity, which is the euphemism used for the laws pertaining to marital relations, but one of the primary concepts of family purity is that such matters should remain private (clouded). 

Challah: “As long as Sarah lived, there was a blessing on her dough (understood to mean that the dough stayed fresh all week).... And so when [Isaac] saw [Rebecca] following in his mother's footsteps, separating her challah in cleanness and handling her dough in cleanness, and ‘Isaac straightway brought her into the tent’” Although anyone may make challah or one may buy challah, the mitzvah of “taking challah” (separating a part of the dough as sacred) has always been viewed as a woman’s mitzvah. 

Candle Lighting: “...and the lamp used to burn from the evening of the Shabbat until the evening of the following Sabbath; when she died, these [the cloud, the challah and the lit candles] ceased, but when Rebecca came, they returned.” While it is traditional that the “woman of the house” lights the Shabbat candles, a man may also light  Shabbat candles. 

(Please see sidebar for related Treats.)

Related Treats:
Who lights The Shabbat Candles
Biblical Euphemisms

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Enjoy the Glow

Infuse your home with the beauty of Shabbat by lighting Shabbat candles just before sunset. 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Crémieux Decree

On October 24, 1870, The French government issued a decree to recognize the Jews of Algeria as French citizens. The law had been written and passed after much campaigning by powerful French Jews such as Adolphe Crémieux. 

Like most of the North African region, Algeria has a recorded Jewish presence dating back to the 1st century CE. Some Jews were nomads and some were city dwellers, but they all lived with the ebb and flow of the region, which frequently changed rulers.

By the eighth century, North Africa was under Arab rule and the population had mostly converted to Islam. Under Islamic law, Jews and Christians were dhimmis, meaning they were “residence in return for (sometimes extremely high) taxes.” They were granted this status as monotheists  and were what one might call “second-class citizens.” Algeria generally remained under Islamic control, until 1830, when the French began their conquest of the region.

The Jewish community welcomed French rule and often helped the French administration, for instance, by serving as translators. But, French rule was a double-sided coin for them. On one hand, the French were more friendly to the Jews and Christians than to the natives. On the other hand, the French limited the Jewish courts to only officiate over marriages, divorce and liturgy (and eventually not even that), whereas before, the Jewish community had been autonomous.

Although the intentions of the Crémieux Decree were noble, it caused the Jews of Algeria to become isolated even further from their neighbors. Additionally, many of the French were themselves anti-Semitic. Over the next decades there developed anti-Semitic political parties, and, from time-to-time, riots broke out against the Jews.

The Crémieux Decree was formally revoked by the Vichy government in 1940, but reinstated in 1943. Through the civil war that lasted from 1954 until 1962, Algeria was decolonized and became independent. The majority of the Algerian Jews moved to France.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Lend A Hand

If you see a neighbor with too many bags and bundles, offer to help them out. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Jazz Singer

Breaking into show business has never been easy. Like many early twentieth century entertainers, Asa Yoelson (1886-1950), along with his brother Hirsh (Harry), moved from singing on the streets to performing in a traveling circus, a burlesque show and in Vaudeville.  His progression through the theater world transformed him from Asa Yoelson to Al Joelson and finally to Al Jolson. 

In 1904, as a means of reducing stage anxiety, Jolson covered his face in burnt cork, appearing in what was then called “blackface.” The persona he created as a blackface comedic singer propelled him to stardom.

In 1911, Jolson appeared on Broadway for the first time in La Bell Paree, a variety show that ran at the new Winter Garden Theater. In his second Broadway show, The Whirl of Society, Jolson introduced his blackface alter-ego Gus, a persona he would eventually bring out in multiple roles and performances.

Al Jolson is best known for his role in The Jazz Singer, the first full-length talking motion picture. Surprisingly, Jolson was not the producers' first choice for the film that seems to  replicate Jolson’s own biography. The protagonist, Jack Robin, chooses an entertainment career over following his family tradition of becoming a cantor. Jolson’s own father was a rabbi who was greatly disturbed by the non-religious lifestyles adopted by both his sons. (At the end of The Jazz Singer, Jack Robin agrees to take the place of his dying father and lead Kol Nidre.)

The Jazz Singer was the pinnacle of Jolson’s career. After several more movies and Broadway productions, Jolson headed overseas to entertain the troops during World War II. Two movies, The Jolson Story (1946) and Jolson Sings Again (1949), were loosely based on his life.

In September 1950, Jolson flew to Korea and gave 42 performances in seven days to US troops. One month later, on October 23, he suffered a fatal heart attack.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.


Pursue your dreams, but stay grounded by remaining connected to your roots

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

An Act of True Kindness

Death is one of the unquestionable facts of life. Yet, most people would admit being uncomfortable with the idea of being in a room with a dead body. Seeing a corpse is a “too close” reminder of our own mortality and that we mere mortals do not have control over our own fate. Any therapy would agree that the death of a loved one arouses a wide range of negative emotions--from anger to depression, and everything in-between.

However, as uncomfortable as people may be with death and dead bodies, escorting a body to its final resting place is considered a very important mitzvah. And those who volunteer for the chevra kadisha, the holy society that prepares the dead for burial, are performing what is known as chesed shel emet, an act of ultimate kindness.

The chevra kadisha's primary responsibility is the tahara (purification), the preparation of the body for burial. This solemn act is performed with the utmost care for both the body and the soul, which, according to tradition, remains near the body until burial. During the cleansing process,
only the specific area that is being washed is exposed, never the full body. The tahara is done in silence, so that idle chatter not take away from the dignity of the deceased. Indeed, nothing is even passed over the deceased, lest one forget that here lies a vessel that once held a holy soul, not just a body.

Additionally, before and after the tahara, members of the chevra kadisha recite a prayer asking the departed to forgive any inadvertent offense or disrespect.

The tahara concludes with the dressing of the body in a clean white shroud. The body is now ready for burial, which is also often conducted by the chevra kadisha.

This Treat was last posted on June 11, 2009.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.


If you are able to, volunteer for your local chevra kadisha(society for the burial of the dead).

Monday, October 21, 2013

Heralded With Blessings

The opening prayer of Pesukei D’zimra is Baruch She’amar - Blessed is He who Said. It is a prose poem that uses an anaphora, a literary style in which the same word is repeated at the beginning of each sentence.  In this case, the word is baruch, blessed. 

Baruch She’amar is meant to put a person in the mind-frame of praise. A person who must write a speech about someone else, first writes down a list of that person’s accomplishments (let’s see, he wrote a book, cycled around Europe, chaired this committee, etc.).  In the world of prayer, Baruch She’amar lists some of the reasons we humans should desire to praise God: He created the world, He maintains the world,  He rewards good deeds, He has mercy on the earth and on creatures, He rewards those who fear Him, He is eternal, etc.

In addition to being a song of praise, Baruch She’amar is itself a blessing, signifying the sanctity of the prayers that follow. 

Baruch She’amar heralds in the Pesukei D’zimra, and just as a herald stands to announce the king or the king's visitors, Baruch She’amar is recited while standing.  

The Mishna Berurah (a halachic compendium by  Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan Poland, 1838–1933, a.k.a. the Chofetz Chaim) records an interesting legend about the origin of Baruch She’Amar. According to the Mishna Berurah , Baruch She’amar was composed by the Men of the Great Assembly based on the words found on a message that fell from the heavens, on which this prayer was written.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Your Praise

Make an effort to praise God at least once a day.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Can Jews Be Part Of "No Beard Day"?

Today is National No Beard Day.

The Torah states in Leviticus 19:27: "Do not cut the hair on the corners of your head; Do not cut the corners of your beard." This is one of the rare prohibitions in the Torah that only applies to men.

The “corners of your head” is understood to refer to one’s sideburns, from the cheekbone up to the ear. Chassidic Jews take upon themselves a kabbalistic stringency to not cut the sideburn hairs at all, leaving them long enough to either curl, wrap behind their ears, or tie behind their heads underneath a yarmulka/kippa.

Non-Chassidic Jews fulfill this commandment  by allowing the sideburns to grow down to the cheekbone and by not shaving above the cheekbone.

Not cutting the corners of your beard accounts for the Torah’s prohibition on using a razor to remove hair from five points on the face. For hundreds of years this meant that Jewish men were always bearded. The development of depilatory powders gave Jews the possibility of being clean shaven, but the powders were often pungent and sometimes dangerous to the skin. The development of the electric shaver made shaving both halachicly permissible and pleasant. Unlike a straight razor that lifts the hair from the skin and cuts it below the surface, the electric razor uses a scissor-like motion that cuts against the shaver's guard (metal against metal) instead of against the skin.* It is, however, customary for Chassidim to maintain full beards.

*Taking technological advances into consideration, one should make certain that this is the way the electric shaver actually performs.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Razor Check

If you have an electric razor, check the method it uses to cut the hairs of the beard.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Avoid The Court of Sodom

Every once in a while, there are outlandish news reports that make people shake their heads, sigh, and wonder what the world is coming to. Preposterous stories such as a homeowner being sued by a person who injured himself while trying to burgle the person’s house or a person suing a restaurant for an injury they received out of their own carelessness, sometimes defy our faith in humankind.

According to Jewish tradition, God gave all of the people of the world seven commandments (known as the Seven Laws of Noah). Six of these are prohibitions (idolatry, theft, murder, sexual immorality, blasphemy and eating the limb of a live animal). The seventh is a commandment to create an effective judiciary, and establish a civil code that would enforce the first six laws.

Having a court system that distorts the idea of justice is, unfortunately, often a gauge of a society’s viability. An excellent example of how this is so is the story of the biblical city of Sodom:

According to the Midrash (legendary interpretation of the Bible), there were four judges in Sodom, [named] Shakrai, Shakurai, Zayyafi, and Mazle Dina (these fictitious names mean, Liar, Awful Liar, Forger, and Perverter of Justice). In Sodom, if a man assaulted his neighbor's wife and bruised her, they would say [to the husband], ‘Give her to him [the assaulter], that she may become pregnant for you.’ If one cut off the ear of his neighbor's donkey, they would order, ‘Give [the donkey] to him until it [the ear] grows again.’ If one wounded his neighbor, they would say to him [the victim], ‘Give him a fee for bleeding you [and providing you with medical care].’ He who crossed over with the ferry had to pay four zuzim, while he who crossed through the water had to pay eight” (Talmud Sanhedrin 109b).

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Cost Analysis

Before starting a court case, consider whether the cost to one's peace of mind is worthwhile.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Honoring The Boss

According to Wikipedia, in the United States and Canada, October 16 is the traditional day for employees to thank their bosses. In honor of “Boss’s Day,” Jewish Treats presents wise words from the Talmud regarding the “Ultimate Boss” - the Al-mighty!

In the second chapter of Ethics of the Fathers it is written:

“Rabbi Elazar said: ...Know before whom you toil and who is your employer who shall pay you the reward of your labor” (2:19).

The world was created by God as a home for His foremost creation--the human being. When the first human beings were created, however, they were given the task of caring for the world. It’s a tough job that humanity continues to struggle to fulfill. There are many aspects of caring for the world, both physical and spiritual. One interpretation of the command to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6) is that the Jewish people are meant to maintain the spiritual health of the world.

Thinking of Judaism as a job may make it seem burdensome rather than the joyful lifestyle that it truly is. However, only two verses later in the Mishna, Rabbi Tarfon is quoted as saying: “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet, you are not free to desist from it. If you have studied much in the Torah much reward will be given you, for faithful is your Employer who shall pay you the reward of your labor. And know that the reward for the righteous shall be in the time to come” (2:21).

In other words, do your best and know that God, the Ultimate Boss, always makes sure that payment is rendered.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Thanks For The Job

On Boss's Day, stop and say thank you for your job.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Rachel's Tomb

Kever Rochel, the Tomb of Rachel, in Bethlehem is considered to be the third holiest site in Jewish tradition, after the Temple Mount and The Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

The building that stands now, is not the original tomb built for Rachel. According to the biblical account, “Jacob erected a monument on her grave; that is the tombstone of Rachel until this day” (Genesis 35:20). Given that he was traveling with a large family, it is believed that the original monument was a simple pillar of rocks. Apparently, it was a tall enough monument to remain standing for centuries. The Midrash Rabbah mentions that when the Jewish people were driven out of the Land of Israel, they passed by the very same road where Rachel lay buried. Upon seeing her weeping descendants, the soul of Rachel presented herself before the Heavenly Court and successfully advocated for mercy for her children. (Click here to read more.)

Because of the scarcity of written records, it is difficult to ascertain who maintained the tomb over the centuries or what the tomb looked like during the various stages of early Middle Eastern history. The 12th century traveler and writer Benjamin of Tudela describe Rachel’s Tomb thus: “This monument is constructed of eleven stones, equal to the number of the children of Jacob. It is covered by a cupola (a type of dome), which rests upon four pillars; and every Jew who passes there inscribes his name on the stones of the monument.”

While the site of Rachel’s Tomb was reconstructed in 2011, the image that is most familiar is that of the post-renovation building sponsored by Sir Moses Montefiore after the tomb was damaged by an earthquake in 1837. Aware of the fact that the Muslims also revered the site of the tomb, Sir Moses not only rebuilt the domed structure over the tomb but also built an ante-chamber where Muslims could pray and prepare their dead for burial in the nearby Muslim cemetery.

Today, 11 Cheshvan, is the yahrtzeit of Rachel.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Related Treats:
Rachel The Great Romance
Mother Rachel
Rachel's Curse
Rachel's Influence
May You Be Like

On The List

If you visit Israel, make certain that Rachel's Tomb is on your itinerary.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Jews of Genoa

In honor of Columbus Day, Jewish Treats presents a brief history of early Jewish life in Columbus’ hometown of Genoa (also called Genova).

Although it is generally presumed that Jews settled in Genoa (Northeast Italy) during the Roman era, the earliest official record of a Jewish presence there is from the early sixth century. Following the conquest of Genoa by the Ostrogoths, King Theodoric affirmed the rights of the Jews who lived in the city and granted permission for repairing the synagogue. The Jews were not, however, allowed to enlarge the synagogue building.

Jewish life in Genoa during the Early Middle Ages was, for the most part, stable. Kingdoms came and went (the Byzantines, the Lombards, the Franks, etc), with little attention paid to  the Jews in contemporary historical records.

The twelfth century, an era of Christian fervor, brought on the Crusades. As occurred in so many other medieval cities, the Genoese sought to limit Jewish settlement and therefore declared a tax upon Jewish settlement, the revenue of which was to go directly to supplying the oil for the lamp on the altar of San Lorenzo Cathedral.

Whether this tax convinced Jews to leave Genoa, or the Jewish departure was due to an unrecorded expulsion, is unknown. But, by the time the famed Jewish traveller Benjamin of Tudela arrived in Genoa  (c. 1165), he was only able to record a Jewish population of two brothers from North Africa. However, by the mid-13th century, Jews had returned.

Significantly, many Spanish Jews arrived in Genoa in 1492, following their expulsion from Spain (when Columbus left for the “Indies”). The many ships arriving with refugees were permitted to land for repairs and supplies for three days. Permission was repealed in January 1493, however, when plague struck  the town. The further history of the Jews in Genoa during the Middle Ages consisted of a series of expulsions (many of which were never fully enforced) and return.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Summer's Passed

As you fill your closets with your fall/winter wardrobe, set aside those articles that you probably won't wear and donate them to those in need.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Personal Preparations

The celebration of Shabbat is meant to be the high-point of the week. Indeed, it is considered proper for one to spend time each day preparing for the coming Shabbat. In order to ensure that people understood the appropriate ways of honoring Shabbat, the rabbis of the Talmud discussed at length what is appropriate to eat, to drink, to wear and how to prepare one’s home for Shabbat.

The rabbis even discussed the importance of bodily preparations for the holy day:

“This was the practice of Rabbi Judah ben Il'ai: On the eve of Shabbat, a basin filled with hot
water was brought to him, and he washed his face, hands, and feet, and he wrapped himself and sat in fringed linen robes, and was like an angel of the Lord of Hosts” (Talmud Shabbat 25b).

This may not seem very significant to those of us who live in the twenty-first century. After all, living with electricity and running water allows  us to enjoy a hot shower every day. However, in the days when a hot bath was a luxury most often attended to at a bath house, Rabbi Judah ben Il'ai's actions demonstrate the importance of preparing oneself physically to greet the Sabbath Queen.

Parenthetically, it should be noted that the Jewish customs of frequent hand-washing and the high value placed on personal cleanliness may actually have had an impact on world history. In the Middle Ages, when entire villages were at times decimated by the Black Plague, Jews had a significantly lower rate of infection. Unfortunately, many peasants assumed that this was because the Jews were spreading the disease or poisoning the wells.

If only they had known that the plague was spread by fleas on rats, and that the Jewish populace was far less effected because of the natural hygiene built into Jewish observance.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Shabbat Shalom

Wish your friends and family a "Shabbat Shalom."

Thursday, October 10, 2013

At The Mercy Of British Kings

Most people recognize Richard the Lionheart and his brother John from the saga of Robin Hood. In these overly-romanticized tales, Richard is the hero king fighting in the Crusades, while John is portrayed as the money-hungry usurper. From the perspective of Jewish history, these royal brothers make a fascinating contrast in their treatment of the Jews:

Richard’s reign (1189-1199) began badly for his Jewish subjects. When a group of Jews (who had been banned from the coronation ceremony) tried to present the king with gifts, they were refused entry, and the crowd grew violent. When the violence turned into murder, robbery and forced conversions, Richard spoke out against the anti-Jewish rioting. In fact, he ordered the execution of several participants in the massacre. Before leaving for the Crusades (less than a year later), Richard ordered the Jews to be left in peace. Unfortunately, during his absence, this was not enforced, and there were a number of small pogroms, the worst being the Massacre at York in March 1190.

Because many of those who attacked the Jews did so in order to destroy any records of their debts to the Jews, Richard, upon his return in 1194, created the Ordinance of Jewry, which formed an exchequer system for recording and verifying Jewish loans.

King John assumed the throne in 1199. While he first protected the Jews of his kingdom, by 1205 he found himself heavily in debt due to his repeated attempts to recapture Normandy. He turned more and more to taxation, especially of his Jewish subjects - a practice which culminated in the Bristol Tallage: on 6 Cheshvan (November 1) 1210, John imprisoned the wealthiest Jews and demanded 66,000 silver marks in ransom. When Abraham of Bristol refused to pay his 10,000 mark share, John’s men extracted one tooth per day until he changed his mind. Abraham of Bristol lost 7 teeth.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.


Participate in the democratic process by voting as a means of honoring the memory of those Jews who were denied their rights throughout history.  

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The First Rabbi In America

The first ordained rabbi to serve in an American congregation was Rabbi Abraham Joseph Rice (originally Reiss, 1802-1862). After studying in Germany, in Wurtzburg and then Fuerth, Rice was prevailed upon by his fellow rabbis to join the increasingly large number of German Jews heading to America and become their Chief Rabbi.

Arriving in New York in 1840, Rabbi Rice, his wife Rosalie and his sister Blume, discovered that the American Jewish community was not looking for, nor willing to accept, a Chief Rabbi.* The Rices next tried Newport, RI, home to the oldest synagogue in the United States. Again they were disappointed, for they discovered that Newport had not succeeded in maintaining a viable Jewish community.

In 1841, Congregation Nidchei Israel in Baltimore, Maryland, hired Rabbi Rice. During his decade of service at Nidchei Israel, Rabbi Rice established the Hebrew and English benevolent Academic Association (a school in the basement of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation) and oversaw the dedication of Nidchei Israel’s new building (now known as the Lloyd Street Synagogue). He maintained his scholarly studies, advocated for a National Beit Din (court of Jewish law) and was a frequent contributor to Reverend Isaac Leeser’s journal, The Occident. One of the most interesting questions Rabbi Rice dealt with as the only officially ordained clergyman was how to properly transliterate the names of American towns into Hebrew when writing ketubot and gittin (wedding contracts and bills of divorce).

Rabbi Rice was greatly troubled by the impoverished quality of Jewish life in America. Not only was lax Shabbat observance tolerated, but standards of Kashrut were often questionable and there was constant pressure on him to alter the synagogue liturgy. In 1849, Rabbi Rice left Nidchei Israel, but was asked to return in 1862. He agreed on the condition that there would be strict adherence to Orthodox standards. Unfortunately, only a few months later, Rabbi Rice suffered a fatal heart attack on October 29 (5 Cheshvan), 1862.

*The first person to hold the title of Chief Rabbi of New York was to be Rabbi Jacob Joseph - who also struggled with the community’s independence.

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Community Work

Take the initiative of becoming involved in community organizations. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Algerian Purims

Previously, Jewish Treats has presented the history of “Minor Purims,” days on which particular communities commemorate being saved from tragedy. (See Purim of Florence and Purim of The Curtains). Algiers has two such dates:

The small, ancient Algerian Jewish community flourished in the 14th century, when Jews fled the Christian “reconquista” of the Iberian peninsula. It is noted as home to two scholars of great renown: Rabbi Isaac ben Sheshet Perfet (aka Rivash, 1326 – 1408), and Rabbi Solomon ben Simon Duran (aka Rashbash, c. 1400 – 1467).

In the 16th century, the Algerian Jewish community, despite living within the Ottoman empire, was not beyond the reach of Christian Spain and its Inquisition. Continually looking to expand Spain’s potential international empire, in 1541, King Charles I of Spain (also known as Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor) led a Spanish fleet against Algiers. Bad weather plagued the expedition, and the day the troops began to disembark an exceptional storm sunk at least 30 ships, wrecked 15 or so more, and dispersed the remainder. The Spanish Fleet retreated. The Jewish community credited their salvation to the prayers of Rabbi Solomon Duran, the grandson of the Rashbash, and, in commemoration, celebrated the 4th of Cheshvan as Purim Edom (“Edom” being a euphemism for the belligerent Christianity of Spain).

Two hundred years later, the Spanish Fleet once again threatened Algeria. This time they were under the command of an Irish expatriate, General Alexander (Alejandro) O’Reilly. While history attributes the victory to the courageous defense led by Dey Mohammed Ibn Uman, the legend of the Jewish community has it that flames shot out of the graves of the Rivash and the Rashbash defeating the invaders. In celebration of having once again escaped Spanish rule (which was still supporting the Inquisition), a second Purim, Purim Tammuz, was declared for 11 Tammuz.

This Treat was last posted on July 13, 2011.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Spare Change

Keep spare change in your pocket to distribute to those seeking charity. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Who Was Hagar?

Stating simply that Hagar was the second wife of Abraham and the mother of Ishmael simplifies an incredibly complex character whose emotions and motivations are fleshed out in the Oral Traditions and transcribed in the Midrash.

This is Hagar’s basic story: Sarah was barren, and so she gave her Egyptian handmaid, Hagar, as a wife to Abraham. When she [Hagar] “saw that she had conceived, her mistress [Sarah] was despised in her eyes” (16:4) When Sarah tried to deal with the situation, Hagar fled into the wilderness, where an angel promised her that her son would become a nation. Hagar returned and gave birth to Ishmael (Genesis 16).

Years later, when Sarah noticed that Ishmael was a bad influence on Isaac, Abraham ordered Hagar to leave, sending her and Ishmael into the wilderness with meager provisions. “And she departed, and strayed in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. And the water in the bottle was spent, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs. And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off’ expecting Ishmael to die. (21:14-16).  Hagar sat and cried. Once again, an angel rescued her by showing her a well (Genesis 21).

Let’s first start with Hagar’s origins. The Midrash relates that “Pharoah took his daughter [Hagar], and gave her to [Abraham], for he said, ‘It is better for my daughter to be a handmaid in [Abraham’s] house than a noblewoman in another house” (Genesis Rabbah 45:1)

Another interesting Midrash points out that “Hagar would [mockingly] say: ‘My Mistress [Sarah] is not the same inwardly as she appears outwardly. She cannot be as righteous as she seems, for so many years passed without her having children, whereas I conceived after one night.’” (Genesis Rabbah 45:3).

Finally, it is written in the Zohar that “When Hagar parted from Abraham, she worshiped the idols of her father’s house. Later, she repented fully and bound herself to good deeds, for which her name was changed to Keturah. [After this,] Abraham sent for her and remarried her.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Discover The Backstory

When reading the Torah narratives, remember that the Written Torah contains basic information, but Oral Torah highlights the character development.

Friday, October 4, 2013

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.

This Treat was last posted on March 4, 2011.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Be Prepared

Prepare your home to have a special Shabbat atmosphere.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Question of Tattoos

Where once they were demarcations of sailors, soldiers and convicts, tattoos have become a common form of self-expression in Western society. Tattoos are no longer limited to biceps, but often decorate ankles, necks, faces and are now even being used to create the look of permanent cosmetics. 

There is a commonly believed fallacy that one who has a tattoo may not be buried in a Jewish cemetery. It is a fact that Jewish law prohibits tattoos, but that does not prohibit one from a religious burial.

The prohibition against tattoos is written in the Torah thus: “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor imprint any marks upon you: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:28). 

The sages further state: “He who writes an ‘incised’-imprint [in his flesh, is flogged]. If he writes [on his flesh] without incising, or incises [his flesh] without imprinting, he is not liable: [he is] not liable until he writes and imprints the incision with ink, eye-paint or anything that marks [permanently]” (Talmud Makkot 21a).

It has been suggested that the law against tattoos was a means of separating the Jewish people from the surrounding pagan cultures in which it was customary to tattoo one’s body with pagan symbols. There is, however, no specific explanation stated in the Torah, and the prohibition stands whether one has him/herself imprinted with a pagan symbol, a pretty rose, or even a Jewish star. 

It should be noted that once the tattoo has been imprinted on the skin, there is no halachic obligation to have the tattoo removed. 

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Showing Pride

Show your Jewish pride by wearing a Star of David pendant or other non-permanent decoration.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Becoming a Rabbi

In honor of National Clergy Appreciation Month (October), Jewish Treats presents a history of “the Rabbi.”

The basic definition of a rabbi is someone who has received rabbinic ordination from a respected rabbi or authorized institution. Generally, a rabbi serves as the spiritual leader of a congregation, a teacher, or a scholar. However, there are many people who have received rabbinic ordination who do not assume normal rabbinic positions.

The Hebrew term for ordination is semicha (more accurately pronounced s’meecha), which comes from the root of the Hebrew word for “close” or “connected” and is understood to mean a “laying on of hands.” The first time the term is used, is in the Torah in Numbers 27, when God commands Moses: “Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is spirit, and lay your hand upon him; and set him before Eleazar the priest, and before all the congregation; and give him a charge in their sight” (27:18-19).

The process of semicha began with Moses ordaining Joshua and continued unbroken for generations, with the elders of each generation teaching the subsequent generation and conferring upon them the right to be called Rabbi. The formal semicha process required that ordination be conferred in the presence of three witnesses (one being the rabbi conferring the ordination) in the Land of Israel.

It is written in the Talmud “Rabbi Aha the son of Rabba, asked Rabbi Ashi: Is ordination affected by the literal laying on of hands? – [No,] he answered; it is by the conferring of the degree: He is designated by the title of Rabbi and granted the authority to adjudicate cases of financial penalty” (Sanhedrin 13b).

While the term semicha is still used now to refer to the process of becoming a rabbi, the formal process of semicha ended when Emperor Hadrian (76-138 C.E.) made it a capital crime to perform and receive ordination.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Remember To Respect

Be respectful of the rabbi of your synagogue and remember that rabbis spend years studying in order to earn their title. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Original Vegetarianism: Here's The Beef

Adam and Eve were vegetarians. When God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden, the Torah tells us that God said: “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat...” (Genesis 2:16). While God had granted Adam dominion over all creatures, only the plants were marked for human consumption.

Vegetarianism, in fact, was the only diet of humankind until after the great flood. Following their departure from the ark, Noah and his family are informed by God that "Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; like the green herb, I have given you everything. Only flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, you shall not eat” (Genesis 9:3-4). Thus there was only one caveat to their completely carte-blanche could not eat an animal while it was still alive (including cutting off a limb from a live animal).

Why did God allow omnivorism after the flood? The exact reason is unknown. Some say that it was related to the fact that Noah saved the animals from destruction and was therefore entitled to benefit from them. Others note that the spiritual greatness of humankind in general had diminished over time, and since humans were now less spiritual and more physical, they needed the extra nourishment provided by meat. In fact, the Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush, Eastern Europe, 1809-1879) suggests that the physical nature of both humankind and the world in general was altered after the flood. Not only did produce no longer supply the same level of nutrients, humans themselves were now weaker physically.

While God initially allowed all creatures to be used for food, after He selected the Children of Israel to be a “Holy Nation,” He commanded them to limit their intake of meat/poultry/fish to kosher species, which were deemed spiritually beneficial, or at least not spiritually polluting.

This Treat is posted in honor of World Vegetarian Day. It was last posted on October 22, 2009. 

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Think First

No matter what you eat, think about where it came from and how you are about to elevate it spiritually before you take that first bite.