Monday, March 31, 2014

OMG! Passover is Coming

The intensive physical and emotional preparations for Passover come from one seemingly simple commandment: "Seven days you will eat only matzah, but on the first day you shall have put away chametz from your houses..." (Exodus 12:15). Therefore, by the beginning of the holiday of Passover, no chametz whatsoever may be in one's possession.

What is chametz? Chametz is defined as leaven, any product in which wheat, oat, barley, spelt or rye come in contact with water for 18 minutes or longer (without kneading or manipulating). To be considered chametz, the food must be edible (defined as something that a dog would eat).

To eliminate chametz, it is necessary to clean one's home, office and even one's car (any personal place where chametz may have been brought). It is especially important to be particularly thorough when cleaning the kitchen and dining room areas, where food is generally found.

Once the house has been cleaned, it may be "turned over "--the kitchen converted from chametz status to "ready-for-Passover" use. "Turning over the kitchen" includes changing dishes and cookware to those reserved for Passover use and covering counters and table tops, which come in direct contact with chametz.

All food items that are actually chametz must be consumed before Passover, given away, thrown out or otherwise removed. In instances of significant monetary loss (e.g. economy size boxes of cereal or bottles of scotch), it is customary to sell chametz through a rabbi to a non-Jew. For more details, please consult your local rabbi.

Any item that does not contain chametz, but is not specifically labeled Kosher for Passover, should be stored in a cabinet for the duration of the Passover holiday, and the cabinet taped closed.

Please note that this is a very brief overview. For more detailed information on Passover preparations, including the search for and burning of chametz, please visit NJOP's Passover Preparations page.

*This Treat was published on March 6, 2013.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved

First Step

To avoid feeling overwhelmed, begin purchasing one or two food items for Passover each time you go to the supermarket. Store them separately from your regular food.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Parasha of the Month

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

The Torah portion that is read as the Maftir (additional reading) after the conclusion of the reading of the regular weekly Torah portion, commands that the Jewish people declare Nissan to be the first month of the lunar calendar and instructs the Children of Israel to prepare for the Exodus (Exodus12:1-20). Parashat HaChodesh is always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh Nissan, or on Rosh Chodesh itself.

The reading begins, “And God spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying: This month shall be for you the beginning of the months, it shall be for you the first of the months of the year” (Exodus12:2).

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

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

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

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved

Shabbat Enjoyment

Choose your favorite foods as a means of enjoying Shabbat meals.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

My Kids’ Inheritance

There’s a cute bumper sticker that says “I’m spending my kids’ inheritance.” If you were to ask whether the great Jewish scholars would approve of such an attitude, you might be surprised by the answer.

The Talmud states, “Rab said to R. Hamnuna, ‘My son, do good yourself now if you can, for there is no enjoyment in she'ol [the grave] nor will death be long in coming. And should you say: "I would leave a portion for my children" -- who will tell you in the grave [if it is being used well]?” (Eiruvin 54a).

This citation is not advocating leaving one’s children penniless nor spending money on frivolous items just for the pleasure of buying and having. It is could, however, be implying that one should not deprive oneself nor should one hesitate in spending money on mitzvot (giving charity, buying a nicer lulav) because one is saving the funds to pass to one’s children.

It is interesting to note that further on in the Talmudic tractate of Eiruvin, it is asked what one who takes “possession of the property of a proselyte [should] do that he will be worthy of retaining it? Let him purchase with it a scroll of law” (64a). The presumption here is that the convert does not have any heirs.

In the secular world, wealth is almost always seen as a blessing, especially inherited wealth. The traditional Jewish attitude toward money, however, is that it is given to a person as an opportunity to do good.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved

Just A Letter

The writing of Torah scroll is costly, but one can participate in the writing of a Torah scroll by sponsoring one letter.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Navy Man

In honor of the anniversary of the founding of the United States Navy in 1794, which is tomorrow, March 27th,  Jewish Treats presents a biography of Uriah P. Levy, the U.S.’s first Jewish commodore. Today is Levy’s yahrtzeit on both the Jewish and the Gregorian Calendar.

Born in Philadelphia in 1792, Levy took to the seas early (some sources report that he was 10 and that he returned home for his Bar Mitzvah, others indicate that he was 14) when he signed on as a cabin boy. Levy joined the navy when he was barely 20. His military skills were immediately put to the test as the United States entered the War of 1812 against England.  While Levy’s early assignments kept him on the Atlantic seaboard, he joined the crew of the Europe-bound U.S.S. Argus in 1813. When the Argus captured the British “Betty,” Levy was made Acting Lieutenant and put in charge of the valuable prize ship. Unfortunately, in August 1813, the Betty was captured by the British, and Levy remained a prisoner until December 1814.

Not surprisingly for the era, Levy’s career was sometimes jeopardized by fellow officers who disliked him because he was Jewish. Additionally, Levy faced animosity due to his outspoken opinion against flogging. (He is considered the father of the anti-flogging bill that was passed in 1850.) In 1857, Levy was “downsized” along with 48 other officers but, after appealing his dismissal, was reinstated. Shortly thereafter he was given command of the Mediterranean fleet.
 "I am an American, a sailor and a Jew."

Outside of the navy, Levy made many successful New York real estate investments and was well-known for having purchased and restored Thomas Jefferson’s historic Monticello estate. Levy was also a philanthropist who took particular interest in Jewish causes.

Levy was the first president of the Washington Hebrew Congregation and an active member of New York’s Shearith Israel Congregation. He passed away on March 26, 1862.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved


Be positive about opportunities to be philanthropic.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Read That Back

Did you know that even in the days of the Talmud there was such a position as court stenographer?

The establishment of a court system and a clear system of justice are fundamental mitzvot  for Jewish society. It is not surprising that the Talmudic tractate Sanhedrin is dedicated to the discussion of the Torah's court system. In fact, the entire body of the Talmud contains a wealth of fascinating features, many of which have been adopted widely and are reflected in the Western court systems today. For instance, the aforementioned court stenographer.

The image of the court stenographer is familiar from popular courtroom dramas on television. The job of the court stenographer is to transcribe every word spoken in the courtroom so that a written record remains. While the art of stenography is a modern development, the importance of recording the activities of the court was noted in the Talmud: “Two judges’ clerks stand before them [the judges]...and record the arguments of those who would acquit, and those who would convict. Now, as for the arguments for conviction, it is well [that they be recorded], for on the following day another argument may be discovered, which necessitates postponement of judgment overnight (All final convictions were postponed overnight in case one judge decided to change his previous conclusion and acquit instead of convict.).” (Sanhedrin 34a).

While the rest of the passage is of a more complicated nature relating to the proper way to interpret scriptural law, it is clear that the purpose of these court recordings was to prevent what we today might call a miscarriage of justice leading to a mistrial.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved

As You Would Want

Judge the behaviors of others as you would wish your own behavior to be judged, with the benefit of the doubt.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Leper’s Leap of Faith

There is a fascinating story in the Second Book of Kings about an enemy general, an Israelite prophet and a greedy servant.

The Aramean General Na’aman suffered from the biblical disease of tzara'at (often referred to as leprosy). Among Na’aman’s servants was a captured Israelite handmaid who suggested that the prophet Elisha could heal the general’s affliction.

Na’aman received the King of Aram’s permission to go for healing and received a letter to the Israelite king. King Jehoram did not know what to do with Na’aman. He worried that Na'aman could not be healed and that the Arameans were looking for an excuse to make war.

However, when Elisha the prophet heard of Na’aman’s afflictions, he requested that Na’aman be sent to him so that the Aramean would “know that there is a prophet in Israel” (ibid 5:8). By healing Na’aman, Elisha would be making a kiddush Hashem (sanctifying the Name). Elisha’s emissary then instructed Na’aman to wash himself seven times in the Jordan River. Na’aman was furious! Not only did Elisha slight him by not greeting him personally, but he provided what appeared to Na’aman to be a mindless cure. If the cure was as easy as washing in a river, Na’aman could have done such in the great rivers of Aram and would not have traveled all this way. Na’aman’s servants calmed him down and convinced him to just give the Jordan River a try.

When the cure worked, the Aramean general returned to Elisha, declared God’s greatness and forsook further idol worship. Elisha refused all payment, much to the consternation of his servant Gehazi. After Na’aman’s departure, Gehazi slyly ran after him and told Na’aman to give him silver and garments for sons of the prophets. Grateful for the cure, Na’aman did so. Gehazi took payment, hid it and returned to Elisha. When asked where he had gone, Gehazi said that he had not left. Elisha, however, knew what Gehazi had done and chastised him for it. When Gehazi left Elisha’ presence, Gehazi had become a leper.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved

Helping Effects

Helping another person has many benefits beyond just the actual act of helping. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Ketoret Number Five

Human beings gather information about the world around them through their five senses. Of those senses, the sense of smell is often the most under-estimated, and yet it is said that smells can have the most psychologically provocative effect. A specific fragrance can makes us happy, sad, hungry, or even fearful. Indeed, it says in the Book of Proverbs: "Ointment and perfume rejoice the heart” (Proverbs 27:9).

Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that the Midrash refers to the ketoret, the ancient incense offering of the Temple, as being “more precious than all the sacrifices” (Numbers Rabbah 18:8).  The ketoret is introduced in Exodus 30:34-38, which refers to a combination of stacte, onycha, galbanum and frankincense. According to the Talmud (tractate Kretot), the ketoret was actually composed of many more ingredients, but these four were the primary spices.

A small portion of the ketoret was set aside in the ohel moed (tent of meeting) and the Torah instructs that “it shall be to you most holy.”

Like many of the items used in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the Temple, the true ketoret formula is no longer known. One could certainly attempt to combine the listed ingredients, but this would actually be a violation of separate Torah commandment that states: “And the ketoret that you shall make, according to the composition thereof, you shall not make for yourselves; it shall be holy to you for God. Whosoever shall make similar [shall try to replicate it], to smell thereof, he shall be cut off from his people.” (Exodus 30:37-38).

Wishing you all a happy Fragrance Day.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Shabbat Scents

Buy some flowers to decorate your Shabbat table. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Kosher in Gracie Mansion

Although New York has one of the oldest Jewish communities in the United States (the first Jews arrived in 1654), the first openly Jewish mayor of New York City was not elected until 1974.* His name was Abraham Beame, and he unabashedly loved New York.  

Beame’s parents (last name originally Birnbaum) were from Poland, but he was born, on March 20, 1906, in London. Three months later his family settled on the Lower East Side, New York. As an adult, Beame studied accounting. He and his wife Mary (née Ingerman), whom he met at a Lower East Side Social Services Center, were both active members of the Democratic party. 

In 1961, Beame, who had previously served as the city’s Budget Director, was elected city Comptroller. Four years later, he unsuccessfully ran for mayor against John Lindsay (winner) and William F. Buckley.  Two terms later (1973), his bid for mayor proved successful.

The 1970s were a difficult decade for politicians across the nation. Unfortunately, Mayor Beame was immediately faced with a harsh fiscal crisis (created by overspending in the previous administrations). His four years in office were marked by constant job cuts, wage freezes and service reductions, as well as a citywide blackout and the “Son of Sam” murders. On the other hand, during his time in office, the city successfully hosted both the 1976 Democratic National Convention and national Bicentennial celebrations. 

According to’s Tthe First Ladies of Gracie Mansion,” the Beames were down to earth people. The article notes, in particular, that while Mrs. Beame did hire one of Jackie Onasis’ cooks, she continued to order her meat from a kosher butcher in Queens.

During the 1977 Democratic primaries, Beame ran against six other democrats (including Bella Abzug). He placed third, and Ed Koch went on to win the general election. 

While Beame received much criticism over the frightening fiscal situation, many later historians praised his scandal free administration and his attempts to rectify the previous financial mismanagement. 

Abraham Beam passed away on February 10, 2001. 

*It should be noted that Fiorello H. La Guardia’s mother was Jewish, but he practiced the Protestant religion of his father.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Human Judgement

Do not judge others, even public figures, because you may not know all of the background information.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Birds of a Feather

Ornithologists distinguish the birds they admire by their shape, size, eating habits, plumage and a host of other distinct features. Those looking at birds to determine whether they are kosher or not may be frustrated by the lack of easy-to-recognize features. While the Torah declares that certain animals are kosher if they chew their cud and have split hooves and that fish are kosher if they have both fins and scales, no such specific markers are designated for birds.

When discussing which birds are kosher, however, the Torah simply states: Of all clean birds you may eat. But these are they of which you shall not eat” (Deuteronomy 14:11-12), and then provides a list of prohibited birds. Although many of the birds that are then listed are no longer identifiable to us, knowledge of the forbidden birds provided the sages with enough information to state:

“The sages have established, "That every bird, which strikes its talons into its prey [predatory birds] is of the unclean: every bird which has an additional claw, a crop, and of which the internal coat of the stomach may be readily peeled off, is of the clean species." Rabbi Eleazar ben Zadok said, ‘Every bird which [when placed on a perch] divides its toes equally, is an unclean one.’” (Mishnah Chullin 3:6).

Because these distinguishing markers are not specifically listed in the Torah, the halacha (law) is that a bird is only kosher if there is a known history of the bird being kosher, a tradition passed down through the generations. Essentially this breaks down to chicken, dove, duck and certain types of pheasant, geese and quail. Turkey, which is not on the list, is considered kosher by most rabbinic authorities. (Click here to find out why.)

March 19 is Poultry Day.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Supper Choices

Find out which stores in your area carry kosher chicken.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Left-Handed Warrior

The Book of Judges tells of the men and women who led the Children of Israel from the time of the conquest of the land of Israel by Joshua until the selection of the first king, Saul. These judges provided political acumen, guidance on Jewish law, and, often, military leadership. One tale of intrigue and adventure is that of Ehud the son of Gera.

Ehud, who was from the tribe of Benjamin, led the Children of Israel while they lived under the dominion of Eglon, the king of Moab (a neighboring nation). While not much is known about Eglon’s reign, whether he was a kind or cruel, the fact that the children of Israel send Ehud to assassinate him leads one to believe that his rule was not benevolent.

The first, and surprisingly, perhaps the most important, description of Ehud is that he was left-handed (Judges 3:15). Ehud went to the Moabite court of King Eglon under the pretense of bringing the king a gift. Ehud strapped his double-edged dagger to his right thigh. As left handed warriors were rare, none of the guards checked Ehud’s right side and he was not only granted an audience, but allowed to present his gift in private.

Once alone with King Eglon, Ehud stated that he had a message for him from God. Ehud approached the king and stabbed Eglon in his belly. Eglon, however, was a man of great girth, and was stabbed so hard that he was unable to remove the blade.

Ehud made his escape, locking the doors behind him. Eglon’s servants saw that the parlour doors were locked, and assumed that the King was relieving himself. They waited and waited, until they grew embarrassed that the doors had been locked for so long. Finally they opened the door to discover that their king was dead.

Ehud returned home, rallied the army of Israel and overthrew the Moabites.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Laudable Leaders

Explore the fascinating narratives of the stories of the ancient leaders of the Jewish people. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Purim Again!

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

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

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

"And the rest of the Jews in the states [not Shushan] of the king grouped together, protecting their lives, and were relieved of their enemies...on the 13th of the month of Adar, and they rested on the 14th, making it a day of feasting and joy. But the Jews in Shushan grouped together on the 13th and 14th, and rested on the 15th, making it a day of feasting and joy."

The majority of the Jews were able to stop defending themselves on the 13th, and so rested on the 14th. In the capital city, however, where Haman's evil plot had aroused greater hatred, the Jews were forced to defend themselves through the 14th as well, and rested on the 15th.

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

This Treat was last posted on February 25, 2013.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.


Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Purim Story in Under 300 Words

At the end of a 180-day feast, the King of Persia-Medea, Achashverosh, banished (some say executed) his wife, Vashti, for refusing to appear at his banquet. He then staged an elaborate beauty contest to find a new queen.

Esther lived with her uncle, Mordechai, in Shushan, the capital city. She was chosen for the contest because she was particularly beautiful, and was selected to be queen. Mordechai instructed her not to reveal her Jewish identity.

Achashverosh’s new Prime Minister, Haman, asked for and received permission to destroy the Jews. A royal edict was issued saying that on the 13th of Adar, the Jews in all 127 provinces were to be killed and their property kept as plunder.

Mordechai told Esther of the plot and asked her to seek mercy from the king. Esther agreed, but requested that all the Jews fast for three days and repent for their sins while praying for the heavenly decree against them to be reversed.

Esther, welcomed by Achashverosh, simply requested that Achashverosh and Haman join her for a private feast--at which she requested that the three of them return for a second feast on the next day.

After the first feast, Haman went home and built a gallows on which to hang Mordechai.

That night, Achashverosh instructed Haman to reward Mordechai for revealing an assassination plot by immediately leading him through town, dressed in royal robes, on the royal steed.

At her second feast, Esther explained to the king that Haman’s evil plan for the Jews included her.

Haman and his 10 sons were hanged and Mordechai became Prime Minister.

The Jews celebrated with great feasts, and Esther and Mordechai codified all the practices of Purim for future generations: the reading of the Megillah, the festive meal, gifts of food and charity to the poor.

This Treat was last posted on February 12, 2013.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.


Enjoy today's celebration.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Sabbath of Remembering

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

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

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

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

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

This Treat was last posted on February 22, 2013.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

The Whole Megillah

Whether it’s a long-winded tale, or a story overloaded with details--it’s called a “whole megillah!” (In “the old country” they would have said “a gantse megillah!”)

So what exactly is a “megillah”?

Technically, a megillah is a rolled scroll. Specifically, the term megillah is used to describe the five canonical works from the Ketuvim (Writings) section of the Bible that are read in the synagogue on different holidays. The five megillot are:

Shir HaShirim - The Song of Songs - written by King Solomon and read on Passover.
Ruth - The Book of Ruth - written by Samuel and read on Shavuot.
Eichah - Lamentations - written by Jeremiah and read on Tisha B'Av.
Kohelet - Ecclesiastes - also written by King Solomon and read on Sukkot.
Esther - The Book of Esther - written by Mordechai and Esther and read on Purim.

When preceded with a definite article, however, “the Megillah,” refers specifically to the Book of Esther. Megillat Esther is the only one of the five megillot which one is obligated to read/hear. In fact, on Purim, one should hear it read both at night and during the day.

As for the catchy phrase “the whole megillah”--according to, it came into the English vernacular in a variety of forms through its use by Jewish entertainers. The specific wording of “the whole megillah,” however, had its first recorded colloquial usage on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In in 1971.

This Treat was last posted on February 21, 2013.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Try To Hear

Try to make it to synagogue to hear Parashat Zachor being read. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Hester Panim

One might think that the Book of Esther is a heroic tale about Mordechai and Esther saving the Jewish people through diplomatic skill (Click here to read a summary of the Book of Esther), after all God is not mentioned once in the entire text. Looking deeper, however, one is struck by the overwhelming number of "coincidences" of the right people being in the right places at the right times. To follow one such line of "coincidences":

1. Esther was the niece of one of the leaders of the Jewish people.

2. While women throughout the kingdom hoped to be chosen queen at the beauty pageant, Esther's beauty was noticed and she "was taken to the king's palace" (Esther 2:8). Ultimately, she was chosen as queen.

3. Esther's presence in the palace allowed Mordechai to get word to the king about an assassination plot.

4. Esther was the necessary "insider" to foil Haman's plot. As Mordechai pointed out: "Who knows if not just for a time like this you reached this royal position?!" (Esther 4:14).

These "coincidences" are the ultimate display of Divine Providence, acting behind the scenes to make certain the Jews are saved. This concept is known as Hester Panim, God hiding His face from the world.

One can better understand Hester Panim by the following analogy: If a child is told not to eat a cookie, as long as the mother remains in the kitchen the child will not take the cookie. However, once the mother leaves the room, it is the child's free choice that determines what happens to the cookie. Nevertheless, even when the mother leaves the room, she is aware of her child's behavior, listens for danger and is ready to jump to the rescue.

God gives His creations space, allowing humankind to make their own choices, but He is always watching from the periphery.

This Treat was last posted on February 20, 2013.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Costume Time

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

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

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

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

This Treat was last posted on February 19, 2013.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Eyes Open

Pay attention to the way small moments, often unexpected, move the flow of one's life and recognize the subtlety of Divine intervention.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Fast of Esther

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

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

If the 13th of Adar occurs on Shabbat, (as happens this year) the fast is observed on the Thursday prior. Thus Ta'anit Esther will be observed this year on Thursday, March 13, 2014.

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

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

1. Selichot (Penitential Prayers) and Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King) are recited during the morning and afternoon service.  When Ta'anit Esther is observed on the eve of Purim, Avinu Malkeinu is not recited in the afternoon.  

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

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

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

This Treat was last posted on February 20, 2013

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

The Power of Propaganda

In the last decade, there has been a noted increase in anti-Semitism, especially in Europe. But, attacks against the Jewish people are hardly new. Even the authors of the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, however, were not original in their intentions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Without question, Haman was a master propagandist.

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

This Treat was last posted on March 8, 2011.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Fast Prep

Plan a nice dinner to break the fast tomorrow evening after nightfall.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Her Other Name

Do you have a Hebrew name that’s different than your legal name?

The custom of giving children both secular and Hebrew names is not a modern tradition, but rather goes back to ancient times. In fact, it even occurs in the biblical text of the Book of Esther, where scripture states: “And he [Mordechai] brought up Hadassah, that is, Esther” (Esther 2:7).

Why does scripture share the fact that Esther, the title character of the Purim story, was also named Hadassah? 

Jewish tradition asserts that a person’s name is usually connected with a person’s character. The sages therefore looked to understand more about Hadassah/Esther from the meaning of her names.

Hadassah (Hebrew word for myrtle):
It has been taught: Esther was her proper name. Why then was she called Hadassah? After the designation of the righteous who are called myrtles [hadassim]...Ben ‘Azzai said: Esther was neither too tall nor too short, but of medium size, like a myrtle. Rabbi Joshua ben Korha said: Esther was sallow, but endowed with great charm” (Talmud Megillah 13a). 

Additionally, the sages note that “Just as a myrtle has a sweet smell and a bitter taste, so too Esther was good and listened (“sweet”) to the righteous Mordechai, and was adverse (“bitter”) to the wicked Haman” (Esther Rabbah 6:5).

Esther (Hebrew for hidden or concealed):
Rabbi Judah says: Hadassah was her name. Why then was she called Esther? Because she concealed the facts about herself, as it says” Esther did not make known her people or her family. Rabbi Nehemiah (offering an additional reason) says: Hadassah was her name. Why then was she called Esther? All peoples called her so after Istahar (a reference to the planet Venus, alluding to Esther’s beauty) (Talmud Megillah 13a).

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

It Was Bashert

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

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

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

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

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

This Treat was last posted on February 24, 2013.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Name Pride

If you are uncertain of your Hebrew name, ask your parents or a relative.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Viewing Vashti

She was raised a royal princess, he was raised in the stables. Vashti the daughter of the great Babylonian king, Belshazzar, and Achashverosh the son of Darius the Mede, were a match never meant to be. When Darius assumed the throne after assassinating Belshazzar, however, the new king took pity on the young girl. He spared her life, but insisted that she wed his son, Achashverosh. This is the history of Vashti and Achashverosh according to the Midrash.

But Vashti was no sweet innocent victim of her husband’s drunken tantrums. Indeed, the Midrash tells us that Vashti insulted her now royal husband, publicly reminding him that he had once been her father’s stable boy (Talmud Megillah 12b).

Upon reading the first chapter of the Book of Esther, one might feel sympathy for Vashti. Her only crime appears to be refusing Achashverosh’s command to come with the royal crown and show off her beauty. Even more to her credit, one Midrash maintains that when Achashverosh demanded that she appear wearing the “royal crown,” he meant wearing only the royal crown and nothing else!  Vashti, the granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar, certainly expected to be treated with a great deal more respect than to be shown off as a ”trophy wife.”

An alternate Midrash maintains that she wasn’t upset about appearing naked. In fact, she was more than willing to partake in the implied immorality, but she would not, according to tradition, present herself to her husband because she had been suddenly struck with leprosy and refused to be seen in public with the shocking physical blemishes.

While her refusal to attend her husband’s party is Vashti’s only scene in the Book of Esther, the Midrash portrays her as a woman who thrived on cruelty and who held a particularly fierce grudge against the Jewish people. “The wicked queen used to bring Jewish girls, strip them naked, and make them work on Shabbat” (Talmud Megillah 12b). Because of this, the Talmud notes, Vashti’s disgrace and fall from power occurred on Shabbat as well.

Who Was Achashverosh?

Now it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus--this is Ahasuerus who reigned, from India even unto Ethiopia, over a hundred and seven and twenty provinces..." (Esther 1:1).

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

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

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

This Treat was last posted on March 10, 2011.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.


Begin preparing Mishloach Manot, gift baskets, to deliver on Purim. 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Four Mitzvot of Purim

This year, Purim will be celebrated on Sunday, March 16th (beginning Saturday evening, March 15th, after sunset). Four mitzvot are associated with the holiday:

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

Mishloach Manot/Shalach Manos - Sending Gifts - On Purim day, every Jew should give at least one Mishloach Manot gift containing at least two different types of ready-to-eat food items.

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

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

The Purim seudah is often associated with drinking. The Talmud says "A person should drink on Purim up to the point where they cannot tell the difference between 'Blessed is Mordechai' and 'Cursed is Haman.'" (Megillah 7a and Shulchan Aruch--Code of Jewish Law) - generally, this is interpreted as drinking more than one usually does or enough to make one sleepy.

(While drinking on Purim is often seen as a mitzvah, risking one's life is never permitted. Whether host or guest, it is important to be responsible:
1-Do not drink and drive.
2-Beware of underage drinking. While Purim is a religious holiday, and underage alcohol consumption is allowed for religious occasions, adults are still responsible for minors. Please do not give young people any alcohol beyond the bare minimum of wine, if at all.)

This Treat was last posted on February 19, 2013.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

The Purim Commitment

What does the holiday of Purim have to do with Jews reconnecting to their Jewish heritage? Purim is more than a celebration of the victory of the Jews over an enemy who wished to annihilate them. At the end of the Book of Esther, one verse subtly informs us of a most significant event of the Purim holiday: "And the Jews took upon themselves to do as they had begun" (Esther 9:23). This verse perhaps refers to the customs of Purim, but it is also understood to be a statement of rededication to tradition by the Jewish people.

In the Persian-Medean empire, the Jews were a scattered minority. The eldest of the Jews had witnessed the destruction of the Temple, the sacking of Jerusalem and the oppressive reign of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. In the era of Achashverosh, however, Jews were finally starting to feel settled and secure. In fact, they were starting to feel so welcome that the Jews of Shushan the Capital even “enjoyed the banquet of that wicked man” (Megillah 12b) when Achashverosh threw a week long party for the citizens of the city.

The sages do not speak favorably of the Jews of Shushan. It appears that they were so emotionally detached from their Jewish identity that they did not care that Achashverosh’s great party was celebrating what the king believed was the passing of the 70th year, by which Israel’s prophets had foretold that the Temple would be rebuilt. (Achashverosh had miscalculated).

When Mordechai donned sack-cloth and ashes, however, the Jews of Persia-Medea realized how far they had deviated from the ways of their ancestors. According to tradition, as noted by Raba, the Jews “re-accepted [the Torah] in the days of Achashverosh...[meaning that] they confirmed what they had accepted long before” at Mount Sinai.

This Treat was last posted on February 15, 2013.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Four To Do

Arrange your schedule for next Sunday with time to partake of all four of the mitzvot of Purim. 

Friday, March 7, 2014

Aishet Chayil and Esther

On Friday nights it is customary to sing a selection of verses from the final chapter of the Book of Proverbs (31:10-31) known as Aishet Chayil, A Woman of Valor. At this time of year [pre-Purim], one particular Jewish heroine stands out: Queen Esther.

Which verse of Aishet Chayil best defines Esther? Here are a few selections:

1) Proverbs 31:17
She girds herself with strength / and invigorates her arms.
Even after hearing of Haman's plan to kill the Jews, Esther was hesitant to appear unbidden before the king (an action punishable by death) and beg for mercy. But Esther girded herself with strength...the strength of both the Jewish people (whom she asked to fast and pray) and of her own prayers.

2) Proverbs 31:11
His heart trusts in her / and lacks no treasure.
Achashverosh, however, is pleased to see Esther and offers her anything that she wishes, "even half his kingdom." But all she requests is that the King and Haman join her for a feast.

3) Proverbs 31:12
She does him good, never bad / all the days of her life.
When Esther reveals Haman's plan, she puts all of the blame on Haman. In truth, Achashverosh, like Haman, also had evil intentions. But since Achashverosh was both the king and her husband, Esther allowed him to make the decision to overrule the plan, rather than embarrass him.

4) Proverbs 31:30
Grace is false, beauty is fleeting / it is for her fear of God that a woman is to be praised.
Had Esther only been a beautiful Jewess chosen to be queen by Achashverosh, an entire book of Scripture would not be named for her. Esther's true glory was that she overcame her circumstances, remained devout to her faith, and risked her life to save her people.

This Treat was last posted on February 22, 2013.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Shabbat Shalom

Jewish Treats wishes every one a great Shabbat Across America and Canada.

Counting Shabbat

“And the maiden [Esther] pleased him, and she obtained kindness of him; and he speedily provided her with her ointments, along with her appointed rations, and with the seven maids, which were designated to be given to her out of the king's house...” (Esther 2:9).

About this passage, the Talmudic sage Raba notes that Esther employed seven different maidens rather than one, so that “she could count the days of the week through them” (Megilla 13a).

Living in the palace, away from her home and community, Esther privately kept track of her own calendar, in order to maintain the secrecy of her heritage. In addition to using an alternating staff of maids to help her maintain her schedule, she assigned a specific maid to each particular day of the week, so that the Shabbat maid only served on Shabbat and therefore noticed no difference in Esther’s behavior on Shabbat compared to the rest of the days of the week.

This interesting Midrash about Esther underscores the importance of Shabbat in Jewish life. In fact, so important is Shabbat that in the Jewish calendar, the names of the days of the week are identified by their proximity to, or distance from, Shabbat: Day One, Day Two....Day Six, Shabbat.

In less than seven maidens (this Friday), the Jews of North America celebrate Shabbat Across America and Canada. The holiday of Purim begins on Saturday night, March 15.

This Treat was last posted on March 2, 2012.