Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Should Old Acquaintances Be Forgot?

“Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind?” This question is posed by the classic New Year’s Eve song Auld Lang Syne. The song originated in Scotland and is sung at times of farewell (to the old year, with an uncertain new year ahead).

The Talmud (Berachot 58b) cites an interesting rule about old friends and how, indeed, they are never truly forgotten. “Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: One who sees a friend after a lapse of thirty days says: Blessed is He who has kept us alive and preserved us and brought us to this season. If [it is] after a lapse of twelve months he says: Blessed is He who revives the dead. Rav said: The dead are not forgotten till after twelve months, as it says (Psalms 31:13): ‘I am forgotten as a dead man out of mind; I am like a lost vessel.’”

Jewish life, however, is long on memory. The first year after a person passes away, there are numerous commemorative markers (shiva - the first seven days; shloshim - the thirty day mark; yahrtzeit - the one year mark). Afterward, the annual observance of the anniversary of death (yahrtzeit) generally keeps a person’s memory alive for many more years.

In some cases, a person who has passed away only comes to mind at the time of their yahrtzeit, just as the return of an old friend into one’s life brings back memories of times past.

The custom of greeting an old friend with a blessing is no longer in general practice. Of course, in this day of telephones, internet and the various social media platforms, it is far less common to completely lose touch with good friends. 

This Treat was last posted on December 30, 2010.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Safe to Celebrate

Remember that keeping oneself safe and healthy is a mitzvah.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Under Cover of Darkness

Of the ten plagues that devastated the land of Egypt, the plague of darkness appears to be the most benign. Certainly being trapped in the dark is frightening (sensory deprivation is a recognized form of torture), but is it as devastating as rivers of blood, ravaging beasts or painful boils?

While the plague is simply known as darkness, the Torah actually refers to it as “thick darkness” (Exodus 10:22). In normal darkness, a person’s eyes slowly adjust to the darkness around them. This did not happen in Egypt. The Bible, in Exodus 10:21, calls it a “darkness that may be felt,” which, according to tradition, means that the darkness was so thick that it was physically tangible. The Midrash states: “one who sat could not stand up, one who stood up could not sit down...” (Exodus Rabbah 14:3).

This thick darkness served several purposes. The first had to do with the spiritual state of some of the Israelites. During the next and final plague, the death of the firstborn, any Israelite who did not mark their door (meaning: who did not choose God) suffered the same fate as the Egyptians. There were, however, some Israelites who were such vile transgressors that they did not even merit this choice. During the plague of darkness, these Israelites perished and were buried. Because these burials were obscured by the darkness, the Egyptians could not absolve themselves of responsibility for the plagues by pointing out that Israelites had also died.

The exceptional darkness did not affect the Israelites, as it says: “but all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings” (Exodus 10:23).The significance of this is explained in the Midrash, which notes that during the darkness, the Jews inspected the homes of the Egyptians to know where their valuables were hidden so that, before leaving Egypt, they could claim the valuables as remuneration for the many terrible years of slavery (Exodus Rabbah 14:3).

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Good Neighbor

If the area you live in is effected by severe winter weather, make certain to check in on neighbors. 

Friday, December 27, 2013

Shabbat Day Songs

Zmirot are the songs that celebrate the holiness and beauty of Shabbat. There are designated zmirot for each of the three Shabbat meals, and even post-Shabbat zmirot. Two of the most popular songs for Shabbat day are:

Baruch Ehl Elyon is attributed to Rabbi Baruch ben Shimon of Mainz, a well-known 13th century scholar and prolific payton (religious poet). The attribution to Rabbi Baruch is supported by the acrostical spelling of Baruch that appears as the first letter of each verse.

Baruch Ehl Elyon is a song that lauds those who guard and remember Shabbat, as its repetitive chorus states: “Those who keep Shabbat, the sons and the daughters, are as pleasing to God as a meal-offering on a fire-pan.” It begins, however, with praising God for giving the Jewish people a day of rest and a day on which to celebrate with “pleasant foods and assorted delicacies with elegant clothing and a family feast.” The next five stanzas are focussed on the spiritual rewards due to those who faithfully observe Shabbat. The final verse is a straight-out reminder of the blessings brought by the Sabbath Queen.

Dror Yikra is attributed to the 10th century Baghdadi grammarian and payton Dunash ben Labrat. An extremely popular zemer to which there are many different tunes, Dror Yikra focuses on the time of redemption when the Children of Israel will cause the promised land to flourish despite its enemies. The final paragraph of Dror Yikra is an indirect reminder of the way that this dream of ultimate redemption can be made real: “Know wisdom, that your soul may live/And it shall be a crown for your brow./Keep the commandment of your Holy One/Observe the Sabbath, your sacred day.

To listen to Baruch Ehl Elyon, click here.

To listen to Dror Yikra, the Yemenite version, click here.
To listen to Dror Yikrasung to the tune of The Beach Boy's "Sloop John B," click here.
To watch the Maccabeats' version of Dror Yikra based on the "Cups" phenomenon, click here.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Music in your Life

Use your voice to uplift your Shabbat experience.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Can I Return It?

Every legal system, including halacha (Jewish law), has its letter of the law, its spirit of the law, and the gray areas in-between. Commercial dealings are one area of life in which those gray areas occur frequently. Take, for instance, the act of returning an already purchased item.

There may be many factors why a person chooses to return a purchased item. The most obvious is because the product is defective. According to halacha, there is no time limit for returning a genuinely defective item - a defect that was always there and was unnoticed by the buyer at the time of purchase. Once the defect is noticed, however, the item should not be used.

The gray area occurs on issues such as what defines a “defect,” and how is the true meaning of a no-questions-asked return policy properly interpreted. For instance, is there a problem with buying an item with the intention of using it once or twice or for a limited time and then returning it? What about returning a school bag that is frayed after two years of use in order to receive a new bag without charge?  In neither case is the item defective, but in both cases the company policy permits the return. The question is, does halacha?

In Jewish law, there is an important concept known as G’neivat Da’at -- meaning misleading and deceptive behavior. Open return policies are introduced by marketers in order to encourage people to shop in their stores and feel free to purchase something on a trial basis if they are uncertain. It is disingenuous to pretend that one is trying out an item that they have every intention of returning. Being honest about one’s intention is a major aspect of Jewish law, and returning an item after two years of heavy use as if one is dissatisfied is certainly an act of questionable definition. Allowed by policy yes, the intention of the policy - perhaps not.

(Please note that while halachically a return on a flawed item has no time limit, most stores today have specifically stated and limited return/exchange policies.)

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.


Make an honest assessment of your intentions when making a purchase.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Franz Rosenzweig

To students of Jewish philosophy, the works of Franz Rosenzweig are a must read. Those who simply enjoy learning about the lives of fascinating Jews may also enjoy this introductory mini-bio.

Rosenzweig was born in Kassel, Germany, on December 25, 1886. Like many German Jewish families, the Rosenzweigs were thoroughly assimilated into the German middle class, and their Jewish practice was minimal. In fact, Rosenzweig’s Jewish connection was so fragile that, for wider social acceptance, he came close to converting to Christianity.

Encouraged to convert by several of his cousins and friends, Rosenzweig decided that he wished to experience one last High Holidays season before converting. That Yom Kippur, which he observed in an Orthodox synagogue in Berlin in 1913, was a major turning point in his life. Not only did he not convert, but he committed himself to an observant life.

Rosenzweig’s great philosophical tract, The Star of Redemption, was published in 1921. In it, he posits that revelation is constantly occurring as part of the interaction of two triple relationships: the first between God, man and the world, and the other between creation, redemption and revelation.

As part of his quest for Jewish growth, Rosenzweig founded “The House of Jewish Learning” (Der Lehrhaus) in 1920, where any and all were welcome to participate and study, explore and discuss all aspects of Jewish life.

Rosenzweig is often associated with Martin Buber. Although there were many issues upon which they disagreed, they worked together to produce a highly-regarded translation of the Torah into German.

In 1922, Rosenzweig developed ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), and paralysis slowly overtook him. Even as he lost use of his limbs, he continued until work to the end, eventually communicating by blinking as the alphabet was recited by his dedicated wife, Edith.

Franz Rosenzweig passed away at age 42, on December 10, 1929, in Frankfurt.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.


Remember to smile and be friendly, as noted in the Talmud: "The man who [by smiling affectionately] shows his teeth to his friend is better than one who gives milk to drink" (Ketubot 111b).

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Nittel Nacht

Jews of the 21st century may comment, or even grumble, about the pervasiveness of Christmas in our society, but, let's be honest, in this day and age, the effects of the holiday season are rather benign. Of course, we must still deal with frequent questions from our children about festive trees and the jolly guy in the red suit. But, nowadays, people do their own thing.

It might surprise some to know that Christmas Eve actually has a name in Ashkenazi Jewish tradition: Nittel Nacht. In many Ashkenazi communities, particularly in Chassidic communities, it is customary NOT to learn any Torah on Nittel Nacht from sundown until midnight. After midnight, however, one is encouraged to study.

Nittel (which may mean either hanged/crucified or birth) Nacht (night) is a custom whose origins are, unfortunately, lost. Many believe that the custom of not studying Torah on December 24th arose as a pragmatic act of protection. On a night of religious fervor among their Christian neighbors, and during days when one needed no real excuse to start a murderous pogrom, it was safest, perhaps, for Jews to stay inside their darkened homes rather than venture out to study collectively in a hall/synagogue. Other opinions believe it may be a custom that was established to minimize any feeling of holiness on that night. Still others opine that it is an act of mourning, commemorating the suffering of the Jewish people during various periods of the "Christian Age."

In Jewish life, customs have a strength of their own. Whatever the reason for Nittel Nacht, it is a custom that is still followed in various Ashkenazi communities around the world.

This Treat was last posted on December 24, 2012. 

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Family Time

Use your time off to spend time with your family and enhance your family's Jewish pride by talking to them about the things that make you proud of being Jewish. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Digging For One’s Roots

In the world of new holidays known to many only through the internet, today is “Roots Day.” It appears as if this holiday derives from the fact that at this time of year there is such a strong focus on family, that many people are inspired to look into their genealogical roots.

In Jewish life, knowledge of one’s lineage has always been important. In Jewish life today, it identifies those from the tribe of Levi and those Levites who are descendants of Aaron and serve as the kohanim (priests). Both groups still have specific rules and obligations. In the days of the Temple, one’s paternal lineage was one’s tribal identity. This identity also connected one to specific territory in the Land of Israel, which reverted to full tribal possession every 49 years during the Jubilee Year.

Another important role genealogy plays in Jewish life is related to the Messiah, who, as noted previously, will be a descendant of King David. In fact, because of this extremely significant fact, many of the greatest figures in Jewish life have maintained detailed genealogies linking them back to King David. These scholars include Hillel, Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, Yochanan Hasandler, Rashi, the Maharal of Prague, as well as others.

In addition to its importance in questions of priestly or royal heritage, genealogy is also a fascinating and fun hobby to explore. As the Jewish people enters into the post-Holocaust survivor era, genealogy will play an even more significant role in connecting Jews to our beautiful, intricate and age-defying history.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Record It Now

Take the time to record the histories of your older relatives to preserve them for posterity. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

Preacher Man

One does not often associate preachers with Judaism. There are, however, certain distinct personalities in Jewish history who are known for their ability to inspire through their oratory. The maggid (literally “teller”), as such a person is called, is known for bringing Torah and Jewish law to life through stories. This unique skill was epitomized by Rabbi Yaakov ben Wolf Kranz, better known as the Dubner Maggid (Maggid of Dubno, c. 1740 – 1804).

Born in Zetil, near Vilna, in Lithuania, Rabbi Kranz first began speaking in public in Mezeritch, Poland, where he was a student of the yeshiva there. He so impressed the town elders that they offered him a position as a preacher. After working in Mezeritch and Zolkov, he accepted a position in Dubno, where he remained for 18 years. 

What made the Dubner Maggid such a powerful speaker was his use of parables, stories that illustrate moral points. When asked how he produced such accurate parables, he replied with a story of a man who found an archer at an archery range who had only perfectly accurate shots. When the man asked the archer how he had such consistent accuracy, the archer responded that first he shot the arrow and then he painted the target. The Dubner Maggid felt that this was very similar to his own method of preaching. First he understood the point he wished to make, and then he created the parable. 

To help his listeners understand the words of the Torah, the Dubner Maggid created parables concerning kings, princes, parents, children, in-laws, and a wealth of other characters to whom the common person could relate. He was also recognized as a great scholar of Jewish law and his company was sought out by one of the greatest rabbis in Jewish history, the Vilna Gaon. 

The Dubner Maggid passed away on the 17th of Tevet in 1804.

This Treat was last posted on December 24, 2010.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Story Talk

Use stories to help transmit Jewish values to the children in your life. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

No Nicknames

Did you have a nickname growing up? Did you use it, or was it a name reserved for use by your closest friends or just family?

It is fascinating to note that Jewish law frowns upon bequeathing nicknames. This does not mean “Billy” instead of William or “Lefty” for a left-handed friend, but more the types of nicknames that a child might receive from a bully. These hostile nicknames are regarded in the Talmud as evil names, and it specifically states that “All who descend into Gehinnom (purgatory) re-ascend, excepting...[one who] gives an evil nickname to his neighbor” (Baba Metzia 58b).

In Talmudic times, far more so than today, a person’s nickname often distinguished them from others with the same name. As there were no last names at that time, people were often called by their distinguishing features. Sometimes that was as simple as the name of the person’s father (thus Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, Simon the son of Gamliel).  Other times, a nickname reflected a person’s job (such as Rabbi Yochanan HaSandler, the sandlemaker). Nicknames were sometimes as simple as descriptions of height, hair color, place of origin, etc.

When one gives a neighbor a negative appellation and uses it over and over, the name comes to stick. At first “Daniel the Dull” is a joke until it becomes the way people think of Daniel.

According to Jewish tradition, parents have ruach hakodesh (Divine inspiration) when choosing a name for their child, and a person’s name has spiritual influence on the person they become when they develop. Not only does a nasty nickname negate the positive influences of a person’s name, but embarrasses them as well.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Your Hebrew Name

Discover the origins of your Hebrew name.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Lost Language of Scholarship

When most people think about Jewish language they think of Hebrew or Yiddish, and sometimes of Ladino. In honor of UN Arabic Language Day, Jewish Treats would like to recognize the important role that Judeo-Arabic has played in Jewish life.

Judeo-Arabic, like most dialects within the Jewish community, is a combination of the local cultural language, in this case, Arabic and Hebrew with a touch of Aramaic. While Judeo-Arabic had its origins within the Jewish communities of the Arabian peninsula, the use of the language only began to flourish after the Islamic conquest of the Near East, North Africa and Spain.

Judeo-Arabic was both a spoken and a written language. In its written form, it was transcribed with Hebrew letters and sometimes included extra vowel markings taken from Arabic.

Today, since the majority of the Judeo-Arabic communities live in Israel or in western countries, Judeo-Arabic has become a lost language.  However, it was the language of scholarship from approximately the 8th century to the end of the 13th century. Indeed, some of the greatest works of Jewish scholarship were originally produced in Judeo-Arabic. These works include the writings of Saadia Gaon (including his Emunot v’Deot, Book of Doctrines and Beliefs), Bachya ben Joseph ibn Paquda (including his Chovot Halevavot, Duties of the Heart - link), Judah Halevi (including the Kuzari), and Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Rambam, Maimonides, including his Moreh Nevuchim, Guide For The Perplexed, although his Mishneh Torah - codification of Jewish Law - was written in Hebrew).

In addition to original scholarly works, many scripture and prayer books were translated into Judeo-Arabic. The translation of the Torah into Judeo-Arabic was known as sharh, which means translation. (This is similar to the word targum, which is the Aramaic translation of the Torah.)

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

In Your Language

Read ahead on this week's Torah reading,Sh'mot/ Exodus, in the language in which you are most comfortable.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Tribe of Issachar

As the ancestors of the tribes of Israel, the lives and personalities of each of the twelve sons of Jacob significantly impact the history and behavior of the tribe members who descended from them.

Jacob’s deathbed blessing to Issachar was: “Issachar is a strong-boned donkey, crouching between the saddlebags. When he saw how good was security, and how pleasant was the country, he bent his shoulder to the burden” (Genesis 49:14-15).

Issachar inherited a section of the Land of Israel that was pleasant, fruitful and bordered by other tribes rather than foreign nations. The reference to Issachar as a strong-boned donkey can be understood as a reference to material comfort. The word for donkey, chamor, is also the word for material luxury.

Once Issachar saw that he had comfort and security, he “bent his shoulder to the burden.” This is considered a reference to the natural partnership of the Tribe of Issachar with the Tribe of Zebulun. While Zebulun toiled in commerce, Issachar “toiled” in Torah. The Torah scholars of Issachar were thus supported by the merchants of Zebulun.

At the end of his life, when Moses blessed the tribes, he spoke of Issachar and Zebulun together, saying: “Rejoice, Zebulun, in your going out, and, Issachar, in your tents. They shall call people unto the mountain; there shall they offer sacrifices of righteousness; for they shall suck the abundance of the seas, and the hidden treasures of the sand” (Deuteronomy 33:18-19). Even before they settled on the land, their mutual relationship was developing.

“Rejoice...in your tents,” Moses proclaimed to Issachar. Staying in the tent is a reference to those who sit and study Torah. This was later confirmed in the Book of Chronicles: “From Issachar, men who understood the times, and knew what Israel ought to do” (I Chronicles 12:32).

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.


If you are able, support Jewish educational organizations.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Yogurt by Greeks

Greek yogurt may be all the rage in food today, but did you know that it was the Greek-Jewish Carasso family who created Dannon yogurt? The descendant of a prominent Sephardic family, Isaac Carasso (1874-1939) was born in Ottoman Selonik (modern Thessaloniki, Greece). In 1912, after he moved his family to Barcelona, Spain, Isaac Carasso noticed that many Spanish children suffered from digestive disorders. He applied the theories of Ilya Metchnikoff that postulated the positive effects of lactic acid bacteria, and began producing yogurts containing lactic acid bacteria. These yogurts were sold by pharmacists. He named his new company Danone, the nickname of his son, Daniel.

Daniel Carasso (December 16, 1905-2009) moved to Paris in 1923 and continued his father’s yogurt tradition, but only after studying both business and bacteriology. Carasso expanded Danone’s market through sharp marketing (Delicious and healthy - Danone is the dessert for happy digestion) and innovation (adding fruit for flavoring).

Shortly after the Nazis entered Paris, Daniel and his new wife, Nina, escaped to New York, where Daniel quickly returned to yogurt making. After purchasing a small facility in which Greek Yogurts had been being produced, Carasso, along with Joe and Jose Metzger, created the Dannon Milk Products Company.

The Carassos returned to Europe after the war. Their business had survived under the care of friends. Carasso started a campaign to increase his yogurt’s popularity and, in so doing, became an international business superstar. Daniel Carasso passed away at age 103 in Paris.

In the last few decades, yogurt choices have expanded immensely. Of the many yogurt products available in North America, however, Dannon is known for producing yogurts that are kosher for Passover. Please note, however, that not all Dannon products are kosher and certification on the packaging is required.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Kosher Check

Always check for proper kosher certification of a food item, even one with which you are familiar. 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Fasting on Friday

The general rule of Jewish fast days is that they cannot occur on Friday. This rule is meant to protect the joy and happiness of Shabbat, for the sages felt that entering Shabbat hungry after a full day of fasting might diminish the joy and happiness of the holy day.

The Tenth of Tevet, however, is the exception to this rule. The “Fast of the Tenth” as it is referred to in the Talmud (Rosh Hashana 18b) marks the date when the Babylonians began their siege of Jerusalem. It is one of the four annual fasts that relate to the Temples’ destruction. The 17th of Tammuz marks the date on which the walls of the city were breeched. The Ninth of Av (Tisha B’Av) is the day of mourning for the destruction of both Temples. The Third of Tishrei commemorates the murder of Gedaliah, the governor of Judea, after the destruction of the first Temple, which led to the final expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem. 

What is so significant about the beginning of the siege that commemorating it merits affecting Shabbat? 

It could be cogently argued that the beginning of the Babylonian siege, the Tenth of Tevet, was actually the most tragic day of all. As the Babylonians grew in power far to the east, the Jews were warned that the time to mend their ways was at hand. As the Babylonians marched toward Judea, Jeremiah, the great prophet, tried desperately to get the Jews to heed his call. Even as the Babylonians encamped outside the gates, Jeremiah cried out for the people to repent.

Without question the ultimate tragedy was the destruction of the Temple. That destruction, however, was the culmination of a history of missed opportunities that began when the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem on the Tenth of Tevet.

This Treat was last posted on December 17, 2010.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Moment of Reflection

Take a few moments and reflect on how Jewish life today is affected by the destruction of the Temples.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Tenth of Tevet

And it was in the ninth year of [King Zaddekiah’s] reign, in the tenth month, on the tenth (day) of the month, that Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, came, he and all his legions, upon Jerusalem, and encamped upon it and built forts around it. And the city came under siege until the eleventh year of King Zaddekiah. On the ninth of the month [of Av] the famine was intense in the city, the people had no bread, and the city was breached (The Second Book of Kings 25:1-4).

Siege! The word itself resonates with pain and suffering. In the case of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians (in 587 B.C.E.), it was also the beginning of the end.

Having just vanquished the great Assyrian empire, the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, sent his troops to quell any rebellion in the land of Judea, whose heart was the city of Jerusalem. The siege lasted for a year and a half. During this time, the city suffered immensely. Starvation, thirst, disease...all the horrors of siege were borne out, just as had been predicted by the prophet Jeremiah.

The siege of Jerusalem was the first step in what would become the Babylonian exile. When the Babylonians finally broke through the walls of the city, they destroyed the Holy Temple built by King Solomon. Adding to this great tragedy was the fact that the majority of the Jewish people were then exiled to Babylon.

The great sages declared the Tenth of Tevet, the day that the fateful siege began, as a fast day from sunrise to nightfall, to provide a time for people to reflect on their actions and do teshuva (repentance).

This year, the Tenth of Tevet is tomorrow, December 13, 2013.

This Treat was last posted on December 21, 2012.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Prepare For The Fast

If you would like to eat before tomorrow's fast, set your alarm to be up and finished before sunrise.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Twice To The Grave?

What happens when a final resting place isn’t so final? In our modern era of perpetual development and expanding cities, it is not unheard of for there to be requests to relocate entire cemeteries. Not surprisingly, Jewish law has an opinion on this very subject.

The dignity of the dead is exceedingly important in Jewish law. A body is buried as quickly as possible and, before burial, the body is washed and prepared by a special society trained in maintaining the dignity of the dead. Therefore, disinternment is generally not permitted.

“The bones may not be removed from an honorable grave to an honorable grave, from one unworthy grave to another, from an unworthy grave to one that is honorable and no need to state, from an honorable grave to one that is unworthy” (Jerusalem Talmud Moed Katan 2:4).

And yet there are numerous examples in Jewish history of bodies being exhumed from their graves and re-interred elsewhere. Indeed, in the Torah itself, Joseph instructs his brothers to tell their descendants that when they ultimately leave Egypt and return to the land of Canaan, they should take his bones with them.

The honor of being buried in the holy land is one of the several exceptions to the prohibition concerning the exhumation of a corpse. Others include being re-buried in a previously established family plot, being removed from a non-Jewish cemetery to a Jewish cemetery or when water seepage makes the grave unsafe. In situations of construction, since there is no recourse, the moving of the graves is generally permitted.

It is interesting to note that the immediate family of the deceased whose grave is being relocated must treat the day of disinternment and reinternment (which should happen on the same day) as a day of mourning, similar to the mourning during the week of shiva.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Visit In Honor

If you live in the same city as the cemetery in which your family is buried, take time to pay a visit to the graves.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Rescuing Bukharan Jews

The bleak and challenging history of the Jewish community under Soviet rule is well known. When most people think of the Russian Jewish community, however, they focus on the Ashkenazi communities of the western U.S.S.R.  Nestled in the southern Asian region of the Soviet Empire, however, the Bukharan Jewish community had their own trials and tribulations under Communist rule.

One year after the Soviets took control of the region (1917), Rabbi Yosef Elyashiyov was born. Despite the anti-religious environment of the Soviet Union, Rav Elyashiyov devoted his entire life to fighting for Judaism’s survival. Raised in Samarkand, Rav Elyashiyov moved to Tashkent after his marriage. He and his wife raised their seven children in a traditional household. Dedicated to Torah, Rav Elyashiyov studied and taught the Torah and Jewish law even when it was against Soviet law to do so. Indeed, suspected of underground religious activity, he spent four years in custody and three years hiding from the KGB.

In 1971, Rav Elyashiyov acquired an exit visa. Traveling alone and bribing police as needed, he finally made it to the Promised Land. He settled in Bnei Brak and began working in the diamond trade. Eventually, he was able to bring the rest of his family to Israel.

Rav Elyashiyov’s greatest desire was to save Bukharan Jewry. In addition to helping bring Bukharan Jews to Israel, Rav Elyashiyov founded several schools, which he named Shaarei Torah institutions. In Israel, he also started a kollel (an educational institute with paid Torah scholars) and a special school specifically for Bukharan immigrants. Since their founding in 1980, many thousands of students have attended and been educated at these schools.

When Rav Elyashiyov passed away on 7 Tevet 2007, thousands came to mourn him.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Heritage Proud

Learn more about your Jewish heritage by familiarizing yourself with the region where you're from which your ancestors came.

Monday, December 9, 2013

He Shall Be Praised

Many of us remember learning to write research papers in school. Critical to receiving a good grade was composing a proper concluding paragraph to serve as a summation. While the prayer service of Pesukei D’zimra (Chapters of Song) is not an essay, it does have a concluding paragraph known as Yishtabach. The prayer of Yishtabach lists all the possible ways that the Jewish people can praise God: 1) song, 2) praise, 3) lauding, 4) hymns, 5) power, 6) governance 7) triumph 8) greatness 9) strength, 10) glory, 11) splendor, 12) holiness, 13) sovereignty, 14) blessings and 15) thanksgivings. Not coincidentally, the number fifteen in Hebrew would be written as a yud and a hey,* which is one of the basic names of God.

Yishtabach concludes with a blessing that expresses not only the greatness of God, but celebrates God’s desire to be praised with songs – exactly what the Pesukei D’zimra have just accomplished.

Baruch She’amar and Yishtabach are attached to each other, like book ends. One who does not say Baruch She’amar, does not recite Yishtabach. Likewise, both prayers are recited while standing. 

Additionally, it is preferable that when reading the 15 expressions of praise, the core of Yishtabach, one should try to say all 15 expressions one breath (or at least without interruption). According to the mystical teachings of the Zohar, when a person is interrupted during the 15 expressions of praise, “a fire comes out from the wings of the angels and says that whoever interrupts the recitation of God’s praise should be taken from this world” (Zohar, Terumah 132).

*Because yud-hey spells a name of God, the number 15 is abbreviated instead in Hebrew as tet-vav.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Appropriate Space

When praying or talking to God, try to find a place where you can be expressive.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Shabbat Heroics

Question: What does a Sabbath-observant doctor do when a friend or neighbor needs emergency medical assistance on Shabbat? The answer: Everything necessary. Call an ambulance, cut a bandage, use a defibrillator...

Jewish law is quite clear that when it comes to saving a life, there is no question that one may overlook the prohibitions of Shabbat. In fact, the rabbis declare: "The Sabbath is superseded when life is threatened; and the more alacrity with which this is done, the greater is the praise" (Yoma 84b).

This ruling applies not only to doctors, but to all people. And the very same passage in the Talmud cited above goes on to offer numerous examples of life saving actions, such as a child falling into the sea or into a pit or extinguishing a fire. Cases such as these (drowning, fire) are most often clear-cut situations when a person must think and act fast in order to save the victim.

But what of those cases that are difficult to determine whether they are life threatening or not?

This, as in many instances of Jewish law, requires one to be an honest judge of the situation. The operative rule always is: one must always err on the side of caution and do whatever is necessary to save a life.

And while one is permitted to override the rules of Shabbat in order to save a life, one has to keep those laws at the forefront of one's thoughts and not violate Shabbat unnecessarily. For instance, if one does go to a hospital and has a choice of an automatic door or a manual door, one should use the manual door to avoid completing the circuit that activates the electric door (as long as it does not delay treatment).

This Treat was last posted on February 23, 2010.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Hannah and Her Sons

The story of Hannah and her seven sons is the story of the Jewish resistance to Antiochus' attempts to Hellenize the Jewish people around 166 B.C.E.

When Antiochus demanded that Hannah's sons bow down to an idol before him, Hannah's eldest son stepped forward and said: "What do you wish from us? We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our fathers."

The king had him tortured to death and demanded the same of the second son. He, too, and each of his brothers after him, refused and was summarily executed. Finally only Hannah and her youngest son remained.

Antiochus begged the child not to be a martyr. He beseeched Hannah to convince her son to bow to the idol.

Hannah, however, said to her son, "I carried you for nine months, nourished you for two years, and have provided you with everything until now. Look upon the heaven and the earth--God is the Creator of it all. Do not fear this tormentor, but be worthy of being with your brothers."

When the young boy refused to yield, he too was put to death. As her child lay dying, Hannah requested that, when he arrived in heaven, he remind Abraham of how he (Abraham) had been willing to sacrifice one son to prove his loyalty to God, while she had sacrificed seven; for Abraham it had been a test, for her it was reality. Pleading with God that she should be considered worthy to join her children in the World to Come, Hannah, fearing torture, jumped from a roof and died.

By teaching her sons that there are times one must give up even life itself for the sake of one's beliefs, Hannah made a stand that resonates with all who hear her story.

This Treat was originally posted on December 7, 2012.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Putting Chanukah in Perspective

The events of Chanukah took place about 150 years after the death of Alexander the Great (323 BCE), whose death brought 40 years of civil war to his empire. Eventually, the empire was divided into 3 smaller empires: the Antigonid Empire in Greece, the Selucid Empire in Mesopotamia and Persia, and the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt, Judea and Cyrenaica (Libya). By the time Antiochus IV Epiphanes assumed the throne of the Selucid empire in 175 BCE, Judea was under Selucid control. He began his oppression of the Jewish people in 167 BCE, after his attempt to conquer Egypt was thwarted by threats from Rome. Antiochus's initial anger at the Judeans was for the ousting of Menelaus from the office of High Priest, to which Antiochus had appointed him.

The Maccabees redeemed Jerusalem and re-dedicated the Holy Temple in 165 BCE. While they won religious freedom, the Jews never completely regained their political independence. Jewish kings reigned, but were often vassals to greater political empires. Sadly, the era following the great Maccabean uprising is one known for corruption and treachery. 

The Maccabeans began their reign just as a powerful new empire was emerging: Rome. Julius Caeser was born in the year 100 BCE. Just 100 years after the Maccabean victory, Pompey brought the Roman army into Judea at the invitation of Hyrcanus and Aristobolus, the two Hasmonean brothers who were vying for the throne. It was the beginning of a very sad ending to an inspiring victory!

This Treat was last posted on December 5, 2012.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Ready For Next Year

When you put your menorah away, make certain to clean out the left over wax or oil first. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Book(s) of Maccabees

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

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

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

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

This Treat was last posted on December 16, 2012.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Beauty and the Greeks

What does Noah’s son Yephet have to do with the story of Chanukah and the mitzvah of circumcision?

When the Syrian-Greeks sought to force Hellenization on the Judeans, one of the first mitzvot they outlawed was brit milah, circumcision. In fact, performing a brit milah on one’s child became a capital crime. The Syrian-Greeks found circumcision particularly offensive because of their own culture’s devotion to the beauty and perfection of the human body. The ancient Greeks are renowned for their sculptures and naked athletics. From the perspective of Hellenistic culture, the male body represented perfection. It was therefore unconscionable that the Jews should alter it, or maim it, especially by Divine decree.

The Greeks are known in the Bible as “Y’vanim,” the people of Yavan. They are, according to the sages, the direct descendants of Yavan, the son of Yephet, the son of Noah.

Noah had three sons: Yephet, Ham and Shem. Very little is written about Yephet other than the fact that, following Shem’s lead, Yephet covered his father’s nakedness, which had been exposed by Ham. For this noble act, Yephet is praised. (See Genesis 5).
There is, however, much one can learn about a biblical personality through his/her name. The name Yephet derives from the Hebrew root (y-ph-h), which is the base of the word Yafeh, beautiful. Thus, beauty, and the admiration of beauty, are part of Yephet’s nature. Consequently, Noah blessed him: “May God grant beauty to Yephet, and may it dwell in the tents of Shem” (Genesis 9:27).

Yephet is associated with beauty and adoration of the human body, the two cultural traits that came to define Yavan-Greece. Perhaps, then, it is not so surprising that they abhorred the dedication of the Jews to the mitzvah of brit milah.

This Treat was published on December 2, 2010.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.


On the last night of Chanukah (tonight), take extra time enjoying the menorah lights and thinking about how the ideas of miracles and salvations apply to your own life.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Chanukah and Divine Order

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

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

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

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

This Treat was previously posted on December 13, 2012.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

A Chanukah Heroine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In honor of Yehudit, there is a custom to eat dairy on Chanukah.

*This Treat was last published on December 12, 2012.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Special Dinner

Make a special dairy dinner in honor of Rosh Chodesh and Chanukah. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

Al Hanisim, For The Miracles

Most Jewish holidays are marked not only by feasting and celebrations, but also by special prayers. On Biblical holidays, such as Passover and Rosh Hashana, these special prayers include an entire additional service (Musaf). On Chanukah and Purim, which are considered “post-Biblical” holidays because their observance was not commanded by God in the Torah, there is no additional service. However, to fulfill the desire to add further prayers of thanks and praise to these holidays, Al Hanisim is recited during the silent Amidah and Birkat Hamazon/Grace After Meals. (Additionally, on Chanukah only, Hallel is recited as part of the morning service.)

The opening stanza of Al Hanisim, which is the same for both Chanukah and Purim, reads: “For the miracles, and for the salvation, and for the mighty deeds, and for the victories, and for the battles which You performed for our forefathers in those days, at this time.”

At this point, the prayers diverge. On Chanukah, the text continues with a description of life under the Hellenists, of how the government “rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah and violate the decrees of Your will.” It then continues to describe how, with God’s help, the enemy was delivered into the hands of Matityahu and his sons, who then purified the Temple, kindled the lights and “instituted these eight days of Chanukah to give thanks and praise to Your great Name.”

On Purim, the text describes Haman’s evil decree to “destroy, slaughter and annihilate all the Jews, young and old, infants and women.” Rather than describe the rest of the events narrated in the Book of Esther, the Purim Al Hanisim then praises God for the way in which he “foiled his [Haman’s] counsel and frustrated his intention.”

Click here to listen to a musical rendition of Al Hanisim.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Rock of Ages

“Rock of Ages let our song / Praise thy saving power / Thou amidst the raging foes / Wast our sheltering tower....” This is the first verse of Maoz Tzur as loosely translated from the original Hebrew by Marcus Jastrow and Gustav Gottheil in the late 1800s. And while tzur may mean rock, the rest of the verse actually means: 

Refuge, Rock of my salvation/ to You is a delight to give praise
Restore my House of prayer/so that there I may offer You thanksgiving
When You silence the loud-mouthed foe/
Then will I complete, with song and psalm, the altar's dedication.

Maoz Tzur is one of the best known Hebrew piyyutim (religious songs/poems). Most people, however, are only familiar with this first verse (there are 5 more verses--click here to read the entire song). Thought to have been written in the 13th century, it has become a near universal custom to sing Maoz Tzur after lighting the Chanukah candles. 

Maoz Tzur is a song of redemption. Its paragraphs refer to the many different exiles the Jews have endured, but also reflect the fact that God is always present in Jewish history as our Savior. The exiles are treated in chronological order: 

Verse 2 - “...when I was enslaved under Egyptian rule”
Verse 3 - “...Then Babylon fell, Zerubbabel came: within seventy years I was saved”
Verse 4 - “The Agagite, son of Hammedatha (Haman)...”
Verse 5 - “Then the Greeks gathered against me...”
Verse 6 - “...Thrust the enemy into the darkness...(the word admon refers to Roman exile)”

The author of Maoz Tzur, a man known only as Mordechai (the letters of his name serve as an acrostic of the first letters of the first five stanzas), focused on each exile in order to acknowledge the redemption that God has brought the Jewish people in the past and to pray for a speedy redemption in our own day. 

*Translation reproduced with permission from The Koren Sacks Siddur, © Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd. 

This Treat was last posted on December 10, 2012.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Relaxing Time

Use the time that the Chanukah lights are burning to read a Jewish book or learn a Jewish text.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Giving Gifts

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

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

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

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

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

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

*This Treat was originally published on December 6, 2012.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Chanukah Yum

While Jewish holidays are known for their food (except Yom Kippur, of course), most of these foods are not known for being particularly healthy. Chanukah is no exception. Forget matzah or apples, those are healthy in comparison--pull out your deep fryer, because Chanukah is a celebration of oil.

Soufganiyot (that’s Hebrew for doughnut): Did you know that Homer Simpson’s favorite treat is a traditional Chanukah delight in Israel? Deep fried dough, most often filled with a pinch of jelly, is how Israelis celebrate the tiny cruse of oil found by the Maccabees. This tradition probably developed from the custom among some Sephardi Jews to celebrate Chanukah with bimuelos, which are best defined as a type of fritter.

According to Jewishrecipes.org, the Greek Sephardi community eat loukoumades, a popular, deep-fried Greek pastry comparable to a doughnut, coated with honey and cinnamon. “Romaniotes, the Jewish community in Byzantine Greece, called this pastry ‘Zvingous/Zvingoi.’... Today both Greek Jewish communities, Romaniotes and Sephardi--who immigrated to Greece five centuries ago--make these Chanukah treats.”

Latkes: (That’s Yiddish for pancake, in Hebrew they are called levivot):Read any children’s Chanukah book today and you’ll find descriptions of pancakes made of grated potato sizzling away in oil. But, potatoes were only introduced into European society in the 1500s (they originated in South America).

Prior to the introduction of the potato to the latke, Ashkenazi Jews celebrated Chanukah with cheese latkes. Same basic idea, yummy food fried into pancakes. Dairy, however, has its own special connection to Chanukah. Dairy foods were eaten as reminder of Judith(Yehudit), who, according to tradition, was a beautiful widow who beheaded an enemy general by plying him with cheese and wine until he fell asleep (read the complete story here).

Happy Chanukah. Now get out the griddle and enjoy!

This Treat was published on December 12, 2012.

Here's A Gift

Consider giving Jewish Treats: 99 Fascinating Jewish Personalities as a Chanukah gift for a friend or colleague.