Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Like the Clay in the Hand of the Potter

One of the most metaphoric and beautiful piyuttim (poems) included in the Yom Kippur prayer service is Kee Hinei Kachomer.  In English, it is known as “Like the Clay in the Hand of the Potter,” which are the opening words of the first verse:

Like the clay in the hand of the potter
--he expands it at will and contracts it at will--
so are we in Your hand, O Preserver of kindness.
Look to the covenant and ignore the Accuser.

The subsequent verses (“Like the stone in the hand of the cutter,” “Like the ax-head in the hand of the blacksmith,” etc) follow the same pattern as the first verse. The anonymous author of this piyut wished to express the omnipotence and omniscience of God in concrete terms, and therefore used professional analogies.

Have you ever watched a professional potter at work? An experienced potter who takes the clay into his or her hands seems to “know” that clay. He/She knows whether the clay will be easily pliable, whether it is strong enough to form the desired shape, whether it will hold the proper glaze. Knowing about the raw material that is in his/her hands, the potter takes the clay and works with it, feeling its every movement. Indeed, as he/she works, the potter knows whether to expand or contract it. The potter, through his/her knowledge of the clay in his/her hand, is able to transform that clay into the best possible creation -- whether a bowl, a sculpture or a vase.

Every person is like that clay. God knows us and is trying to form us into the best possible person that we can be.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Inside Prayer

Jewish prayer is a complex, multi-layered activity. The sages refer to prayer as avodah she'balev, service, the same term used to describe the sacrificial service in the Holy Temple. However, since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., prayer has become our primary means of “connecting” with God. 

Avodah also means work--giving something of ourselves to God. But what benefit could God derive from our prayers? How do our prayers serve the Divine? The Hebrew word l’hitpallel means to pray. The root word is pallel, which actually means to judge, clarify, differentiate or decide. In the reflexive tense of the word--l’hitpallel, the subject acts upon him/herself. Prayer, therefore, is about self-definition and establishing some level of personal inner clarity. During prayer, one is able to clarify his/her relationship with God and with the world, thus opening a clearer channel of communication with the Divine.

The prayers that the sages chose to make up the daily service were selected because they were considered to be the most effective means of focusing a person’s thoughts to create the proper relationship with God. 

This is all the more so with regard to the prayers that make up the liturgy of the High Holidays. Yom Kippur is unique in that there are five separate prayer services (instead of the usual four on Shabbat and Yom Tov), and while some of the prayers repeat themselves, each repetition provides us with an opportunity to discover new understanding in the meaning of that prayer.

This Treat was posted on September 20, 2012.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Post Labor Day Whites

When is it fashionably acceptable to wear white after Labor Day? On Yom Kippur!

Many people have the custom of wearing white on Yom Kippur. In the synagogue you will often see women dressed in white suits or dresses and men bedecked in a white garment known as a kittel (Yiddish for robe).

There are several reasons for this custom:

1) Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the day on which we ask God to overlook all of our mistakes. Consequently, it is customary to wear white as a way of emulating the angels, who stand before God in purity. In Hebrew, angels are known as "malachim" (singular-mal’ach) which means messenger(s). The malachim were created as God’s spiritual messengers and are pure, totally spiritual creatures. Human beings, on the other hand, were created of both matter and spirit. It is this combination that gives us "Free Will," enabling us to make choices that, unfortunately, are not always the best. These unwise choices are what require us to engage in teshuva (repentance). On Yom Kippur, one wishes to emulate the malachim, the pure spirits who exist only to serve the Creator.

2) White garments, especially the kittel, are also reminiscent of the burial shroud. On Yom Kippur, one’s life is held in balance by the greatest Judge of all. When one is reminded of one’s mortality, a person is more likely to engage in honest introspection...Did I really act properly? Was there anything I could have done better? etc.

3) And of course, on Yom Kippur you don’t have to worry about food stains!

This Treat was last posted on September 9, 2013.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

What’s In The Book: Jonah

The Book of Jonah is one of the best known stories in the Bible and is read during Mincha (the afternoon service) on Yom Kippur because of its powerful message of repentance:

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Treat was last posted on December 13, 2011.

Copyright © 2013 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Spiritual Matters

Prepare for Yom Kippur by focusing on spiritual matters.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Fast of Gedaliah (Tzom Gedaliah)

The Fast of Gedaliah is observed to commemorate the murder of Gedaliah the son of Achikam, which is described in the last chapter of the Second Book of Kings. This murder resulted in the exile of the Jews who remained in Judea after the Babylonian conquest.

After the first Holy Temple was destroyed (586 BCE) and the Babylonians had exiled the majority of the Jewish people, a small minority were permitted to remain in the Land of Israel. Also, Jews who had fled during the war returned and began to work the land.

Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian King, appointed Gedaliah to be the Jewish governor over the remaining population. The King of the neighboring country Ammon, who was vying with the Babylonians for control of the Land of Israel, commissioned Yishmael the son of Netanyah to remove Gedaliah.

Yishmael, who was a descendant of King David, came to the town of Mitzpeh and murdered Gedaliah and all those who were with him. Fearing retribution for the murder of the appointed governor, the remaining Jews fled the Land of Israel, thus completing the exile.

The Fast of Gedaliah is observed on the third day of Tishrei, the day after Rosh Hashana. If the third of Tishrei is Shabbat, the fast is observed on Sunday. The fast begins at dawn and ends at nightfall.*

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

This Treat was last posted on September 8, 2013.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

From Holy God To Holy King

On Rosh Hashana, God judges the world (and all the people therein), but their fates are not sealed until 10 days later, on Yom Kippur. It is during these ten days that we must present a compelling case of our worthiness to the heavenly court.

These ten days that start on Rosh Hashana and conclude on Yom Kippur, are known as the Aseret Y’mei Teshuva, Ten Days of Repentance. During this time, people go out of their way to make amends both with their fellow humans and with God. In addition to the acts of teshuva, the sages of the Talmud altered the words of the Amidah in order to create the mind-set necessary for this time of year:

“Raba ben Chin’neh’na the Elder also said in the name of Rav: Throughout the year one says in the prayer [Amidah], ‘The holy God’, and ‘King who loves righteousness and judgment,’ except during the ten days between the New Year and the Day of Atonement, when he says, ‘The holy King’ and ‘The King of judgment’” (Berachot 12b).

While the Talmud specifically mentions these two changes, there are several other verses of the Amidah that are altered during the Aseret Y’mei Teshuva (all of which are noted in most prayerbooks).

These changes are discussed at length in the codes of halacha. The general consensus is that if the change from “King who loves righteousness and judgment” to “the King of judgment,” or any of the other alterations not singled out in this Treat, is not made, the Amidah need not be repeated. However, the acknowledgment of God as King is so important that those who forget to change “the holy God” to “the holy King,” are instructed to repeat the entire prayer.
This Treat was last published on September 9, 2013.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


The Rosh Hashana tashlich ceremony is a tradition that is dear throughout the many diverse Jewish communities. Tashlich literally translates as "You will throw." But what, exactly, is it?

Tashlich is meant to be a symbolic physical representation of casting away one’s sins. Along with a selection of Psalms and supplications, Micah 7:18-20 is repeatedly recited: "Who is a God like You, pardoning iniquity and forgiving transgression to the remainder of His heritage. He retains not His anger forever, because He delights in kindness. He will again have mercy on us. He will suppress our iniquities; yes, You will cast our sins into the depth of the sea."

The reference in Micah to the depth of the sea appears to be the source for the custom of reciting tashlich next to a body of water, such as a lake or a river (or an ocean, of course) in which fish live. As long as one can see the water, even from a distance (even by climbing to the rooftop of a building), one may recite tashlich.

Tashlich is usually performed in the late afternoon on the first day of Rosh Hashana. However, if one is unable to do tashlich at that time, the ceremony may be performed until Hoshana Rabbah. If the first day of Rosh Hashana is on Shabbat, Ashkenazim wait until the second day.

Although descriptions of tashlich often include the casting of bread crumbs, feeding wild animals is prohibited on Shabbat and the holidays. The casting of bread is a poetic physical expression of tashlich, but is not necessary to the ceremony. This custom may have evolved from the chassidic custom of intentionally shaking off crumbs to represent casting away sins.

This Treat was originally published on September 4, 2013.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Annulment of Vows

"I swear that this time I will lose weight"

"I am going to pray every day..."

We make promises all the time. We swear that we are going to do something, and then hope that we will be in a position to fulfill the vow.

But did you know that according to the Torah, words often have binding force and may not be taken lightly? The Jewish legal view on oaths and vows is based on the verse, "He shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that he has uttered" (Numbers 30:3).

When you swear to do something, you’ve made a serious commitment. Words, from a Torah perspective, are binding. (It is for this reason that many people, after promising to do something, will append the caveat "bli neder" - without intending to vow, to prevent themselves from vowing falsely.)

According to the Torah, vows and oaths, however, can be retroactively nullified, by a "court" of knowledgeable people.

It was considered particularly important by the sages that, as the High Holidays approach, people ensure that they have not violated their previous year’s vows. They therefore created a formal nullification of vows that all are urged to perform before Rosh Hashanah. Known as "Hatarat Nedarim," the traditional "annulment of vows" takes place in front of a Jewish court of at least 3 knowledgeable men. In addition to nullifying past vows made "in error," the Hatarat Nedarim also declares that any such statements made in the coming year should be considered null and void.

(Of course, the nullification only covers those vows that are allowed to be nullified - not vows such as those regarding owing someone money - and vows that are made by one individual to another.)

This Treat was last posted on September 3, 2013.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

To You and Yours

NJOP and Jewish Treats wishes you and yours a healthy and happy new year. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Day Without Sleep

While Rosh Hashana is frequently translated as “new year,” the literal meaning of the Hebrew words is “ head of the year.” According to Jewish tradition, one’s actions on these auspicious days serve as templates for one’s actions in the year to come. For this reason, people make a conscious effort to be especially careful of the words they utter on Rosh Hashana, they pray with proper awareness and are careful to recite blessings over the foods they eat. 

The impact that one’s actions on Rosh Hashana have on the year to come is reflected in the statement made by the sages of the Jerusalem Talmud: “If one sleeps at the year's beginning, his good fortune likewise sleeps.” 

There is much discussion about what “sleep” is referred to in this Talmudic dictum, given that Rosh Hashana is celebrated over a two day period. It is generally understood that sleeping overnight is completely acceptable and that the sages of Israel were referring to sleeping during Rosh Hashana day itself, since that is the time of judgment. Napping, on the other hand, is avoided by many people so as not to set a “sleepy tone” for the rest of the year.

While the custom not to nap is a literal understanding of the sages’ words, the statement actually presents a philosophical insight into the importance of Rosh Hashana. The Day of Judgment is a precious opportunity granted to the Jewish people to make a fresh start for the year to come, an opportunity through which one would certainly not wish to sleep.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Remembering the Akeida

In neither of the two Torah references to the holiday of Rosh Hashana (Leviticus 23:23-25, Numbers 29:1), is there a specific mention of the shofar, the ram's horn. Only the Teruah, the sound made by the shofar, is noted. So why do we only use the shofar on Rosh Hashana when the same sound can be made on another instrument?

In the Talmudic discussion, Rabbi Abahu (c. 279-320 C.E., Caeseria, Israel) responded to this question by referring to the oral tradition that God wanted the Jewish people to use a ram's horn to remind Him of the binding of Isaac (known as the Akeidah), which culminated in a ram being offered as a sacrifice in Isaac's stead. The shofar represents that ram.

Why is it important to God that the Jewish people remind Him of the Akeidah on Rosh Hashana? On a simple level, the oral tradition states that the Akeidah took place on the first of Tishrei, which is Rosh Hashana. More importantly, however, is the fact that the Akeidah reminds God of the Jewish people's commitment to the ways of its ancestors.

On Rosh Hashana, humanity is judged...and far too often it is the negative side of the scale that is weighed down. However, when God sees the Jewish people recalling the patriarchs' and matriarchs' devotion and commitment, and demonstrating that we, ourselves, strive toward that devotion, His attribute of mercy can override His attribute of judgment and enable Him to judge us favorably for a good year to come.

This Treat was posted on September 14, 2012.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Rest Ahead

Go to bed early to have the best focus going into the new year.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Symbolic Foods

Since Rosh Hashana is the Day of Judgment, it is customary to eat simanim,* foods with symbolic meanings that invoke God's blessing. We also recite a short prayer before eating them. While apple with honey is a universal custom, other symbolic foods eaten depend on family custom. Here are some examples:

Apple and Honey: A slice of apple is dipped in honey. After reciting the blessing for apples (Boray p'ree ha’etz) and taking a bite of the apple and honey, the following brief prayer is recited:

May it be Your will, Lord, our God and the God of our ancestors, that You renew for us a good and sweet year.

Beets: The Hebrew word for beets is selek, related to the Hebrew word l’salek, "to remove."

May it be Your will, Lord, our God and the God of our ancestors, that our enemies be removed.

Pomegranate: It is said that each pomegranate has 613 seeds, representing the 613 commandments of the Torah.

May it be Your will, Lord, our God and the God of our ancestors, that our merits be as plentiful as the seeds of a pomegranate.

Head of a Sheep or a Fish: The head of the sheep or fish can be eaten or can be left on the table as a visual symbol. The customary prayer is as follows:

May it be Your will, Lord, our God and the God of our ancestors, that we be like a head (to lead) and not like a tail (to follow).

There is one type of food that is actually avoided on Rosh Hashana: Nuts. They are not eaten since the numeric value of the Hebrew word for nut, egoz, is equivalent to the numeric value for the Hebrew word for sin, chayt.

This is just a sampling of the simanim. For more foods and their associated prayers, click here.

*The simanim are eaten at the beginning of the evening meal.

Treat was published on September 2, 2013.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Shofar Shorts

The shofar is one of the most recognizable symbols of Rosh Hashana. Although it is preferable that a shofar be fashioned from a ram’s horn, the horn need only come from a kosher animal.* However, not all the horns of a kosher animal are usable. For instance cows’ horns and deer antlers are solid bone and cannot be fashioned into a shofar, whereas the horns of animals such as rams are made of keratin and can be hollowed out to become a shofar. 

Shofars are prepared by applying heat. They are cleaned in boiling water, and heat is applied in order to either straighten or bend the horns. A shofar may be engraved or decorated with metal as long as the weight does not alter the shofar’s sound. However, extra material may not be placed near either end of the shofar.

On Rosh Hashana four distinct sounds are blown on the shofar: 

Tekiah - The tekiah is a long, solid blast like the blowing of a trumpet at a king’s coronation. This sound reminds us that God is the King of Kings.

Shevarim - The shevarim are three medium-length blasts, reminiscent of deep sighs or soft crying, (where one is gasping for breath). The shevarim represents the first step in recognizing all that God does for us, and all that we could be doing, thus the sighing sound.

Teruah - The teruah are nine quick staccato blasts which evoke the feeling of short piercing cries of wailing. It represents the recognition that the new year is upon us, and the time for repentance will soon pass.

--A combination of Shevarim-Teruah is also sounded during the shofar service. 

Tekiah Gedolah - The tekiah gedolah, the final blast, is a long solid note. It is a triumphant shout that reaches out to the hearts of all to assure them that their prayers have been heard.

(*If one has absolutely no other option, one may use the horn of a non-kosher animal, but cannot recite the blessings over hearing the sounds.)

This Treat was last posted on September 2, 2013.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Menu for the New Year

Be creative and incorporate traditional foods such as apples, honey and pomegranates into you Rosh Hashana meals.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

God's Secret Things

In a less than a week, Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, will be celebrated. While New Year’s celebrations are nice (the Jewish calendar actually has four of them!), Rosh Hashana’s significance is far greater than a mere New Year. It is, in fact known as Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment, and is a time when Jews focus on recognizing God as the King of Kings.

The weeks leading up to Rosh Hashana are meant to be spent reflecting on one’s actions and evaluating whether one has sincerely become a better person. Unfortunately, our 24-hour media-fueled world not only teaches us to focus on that which is going on around us, but also presents a world of tragedies.

As we move into Rosh Hashana (and, in truth, throughout the year), the way in which we perceive the often tragic events in the world colors our ability to connect with and relate to God as the King of the world.

Why did a hurricane flood Vermont? Why is there a drought? Why did any tragedy strike? The answer is...we don’t know. As painful, difficult and unhappy as these situations are, Jewish tradition teaches that God runs the world and therefore there is a reason for everything.

Not knowing is a great challenge for many people, especially in today’s “information age.” In the Western World we are accustomed to being in control, which makes it harder to accept the Bible’s declaration that “the secret things belong to the Lord our God” (Deuteronomy 29:28).

Moses makes this statement after describing the violent repercussions that will happen to the Israelites if they cast off the yoke of Torah. However, like every verse in the Torah, it has a deeper meaning as well. The Torah is a guidebook for living, and it contains much wisdom to help us to better understand the world. We must always remember, as the conclusion of the previously cited verse states, that “the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”

This Treat was last posted on September 22, 2011.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Holiday Greetings

The standard pre-Rosh Hashana greeting of “K’tiva v’chatima tova” ("May you be written and sealed for good”) is deduced from a Talmudic discussion concerning the three heavenly books that are opened during the High Holidays.

Rabbi Jochanan (as quoted by Rabbi Kruspedai) clarified that on the New Year there is a book for the completely wicked, a book for the completely righteous and a book for those in the middle. According to Rabbi Avin, the existence of these books is alluded to in Psalms 69:29: “Let them be blotted out of the book of the living, and not be written with the righteous.” According to Rabbi Nahman ben Isaac, Moses actually refers to one of these books in Exodus 32:32: “...blot me, I pray You, out of Your book which You have written” (Rosh Hashana 16b).

Both of the proof-texts brought in the Talmud appear to refer only to a Book of the Righteous. Since tradition has it that the world is balanced between extrev must also exist. This, of course, leaves a gap for those who are neither completely righteous nor completely wicked...in other words, the majority of humanity. Thus it could only be assumed that there was a third book.

Rabbi Kruspedai further explains that, on Rosh Hashana, the completely righteous and the completely wicked are immediately written into their respective books, but “the judgement of the intermediate group is written but not finalized from the New Year till the Day of Atonement” [when it is sealed].

Because of the “suspended” status of most people between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, after Rosh Hashana the greeting is altered to “G’mar chatima tova” ("May it finish with you being sealed for good").

Jewish Treats wishes all of its readers l’shana tova tikatayhvu v’taychataymu (that’s the plural form).

This Treat was last posted on  August 20, 2013.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Best Wishes

When you run into a friend, don't forget to wish them a good new year (even if you can't remember the Hebrew phrase).

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Light of the First Day

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters. And God said: 'Let there be light.' And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness” (Genesis 1:1-4).

When most people think of natural light, they think of the sun. Strangely enough, the sun (along with the moon and stars) was not created until the fourth day. So what was the “light” that God placed in the world on the first day?

Rashi, commenting on Genesis 1:4, explains that God “saw that it was not proper for the wicked to use it [the first light] so He separated it for the righteous in the world to come.” Obviously, the light that Rashi is describing is not our everyday light. That first light is frequently construed to be a form of righteousness “spiritual light.” In fact, the Midrash in Bereshit Rabbah explains the first light as the light that shone when "God cloaked Himself in a white shawl, and the light of its splendor shone from one end of the world to the other" (Bereshit Rabbah 3:4). This description implies that the light refers to a Divine radiance, a pure form of righteousness.

Rabbi Elazar states that with this first light “a person could see with it from one end of the world to the other”(Chagigah 12a). After God created the light and saw that it was good, He separated it from the darkness. Or, as our tradition explains, He hid it in the Torah!

The idea that the righteous light was hidden in the Torah, brings a new dimension to the verse in Psalms 97:11: “Light is sown for the righteous.” The righteous, through their relationship with Torah and mitzvot, can uncover this holiness.

But what about the rest of us, the not so righteous? Proverbs 20:27 declares that “the soul of man is the candle of God.” Just as a candle holds a small bit of light, each human is invested with a spark of the Divine light with which we are able enlighten the entire world.

This Treat was last posted on September 3, 2010.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.


In addition to the unique prayer services of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the High Holidays are known for one other service: selichot. A collection of religious poems and verses, selichot are penitential prayers that help one focus on the mood of the season.

An integral part of the selichot service is the repetition of the "Thirteen Attributes of God's Mercy" (Exodus 34:5-7). After the incident with the Golden Calf, Moses returned to Mount Sinai and assuaged God’s anger at the Israelites. According to the Talmud (Rosh Hashana 17b), God, appearing as a prayer leader wrapped in a prayer shawl, instructed Moses that the Jewish people should recite the following "Thirteen Attributes of God's Mercy" and they would be granted forgiveness:

Hashem: He is merciful (to one before he/she sins).

Hashem: He is merciful (to the sinner who repents).

Ayl: He is powerful.

Rachum: He is compassionate.

V’chanun: He grants even undeserved favors.

Erech Ah'payim: He is slow to anger, allowing the sinner time to repent by not exacting immediate punishment.

V’rav Chesed: He abounds in lovingkindness and leniency.

V’emet: He abounds in truth and keeps His promises.

Notzer Chesed La’alafim: He maintains lovingkindness for thousands of generations.

Nosay Avon: He forgives sins that result from temptation.

Va’fesha: He forgives sins of rebellion against Him.

V’chata’ah: He forgives sins committed carelessly or unknowingly.

V’nah'kay: He completely forgives the sinner who returns to Him in sincere repentance.*

In Sephardi communities, the recitation of selichot begins on Rosh Chodesh

Elul and continues through Yom Kippur. In Ashkenazi communities, the recitation of selichot begins on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashana (unless Rosh Hashana begins on a Monday or Tuesday, in which case it begins the previous Saturday night). The first communal recitation of selichot in the Ashkenazi community usually takes place after midnight. On all other days until Yom Kippur, selichot are usually recited prior to the morning service.

--Explanations of the 13 Attributes are from The Companion Guide to the Yom Kippur Prayer Service by Moshe Sorscher, printed by Judaica Press.

This Treat was previously published on Augusts 30, 2013.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.


Use the Divine light within you to guide you in your actions.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Three Ts

On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur we declare: "Repentance, prayer and charity remove the evil of the decree!" In Hebrew, these constitute the 3 Ts: Teshuva, Tefila and Tzedaka.

Teshuva (repentance), a central theme of the High Holidays, means more than just saying "sorry." Teshuva means recognizing one’s errors and making an effort not to repeat them. In many ways, teshuva is a private act because one must be introspective in order to recognize one’s own mistakes.

Tefila (prayer) is the acknowledgment of God as the King and Ruler of the universe. Tefila is almost private, but not quite. It is a conversation between the person and God.

Tzedaka (charity) is a critical step necessary to reverse an evil decree simply because it constitutes an action. The performance of this mitzvah affects the person giving, the person receiving, and its benefits often extend to others as well. Tzedaka is reaching out beyond one’s self, and is thus a public act.

Everything that a person does affects the world in multiple ways. It affects the person’s relationship with him/herself, his/her relationship with the Divine and his/her relationship with his/her fellow human beings. The path to reversing an evil decree must therefore involve the private, the spiritual and the public spheres of our lives.

*This Treat was previously published on August 22, 2013. 

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Five Names of Rosh Hashana

In Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashana has several names that can help us understand the importance and power of this holiday.

Rosh Hashana literally means "Head of the Year" because Rosh Hashana marks the point when we begin the new calendar year (e.g. from 5774 to 5775).

Yom Harat Olam means "The Birthday of the World."

Yom Hazikaron means "The Day of Remembering."

Yom Hadin means "The Day of Judgment."

Yom Teruah means "The Day of Sounding (the Shofar)." This is the actual name that the holiday is called in the Torah.

Ok, so there are five different names for the holiday. What is the significance of that? How do these different themes relate to each other?

The Teruah is the staccato sound blown on the shofar. Yom Teruah serves as a call to attention because this day is Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment, and it is imperative that one be cognizant of the importance of the day.

It is the Day of Judgment because it is Yom Hazikaron, the day on which God looks back and "remembers" our deeds, individually, collectively and historically (a record of over 4,000 years of Jewish history).

Why is this the Day of Remembrance? Because it is the anniversary of the creation of the world (Yom Harat Olam). Since the annual cycle is closing, it is the perfect time for reflection and judgment. This new beginning allows us to enter the new year with a clean slate.

And since the old year and the new year are seamless, this day is also Rosh Hashana, the head of the year.

This Treat was last posted on September 10, 2012.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Now Is The Time

If you have determined behaviors you wish to change in the new year, set up strategies to be successful.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Article VI

Today, September 17, is Constitution Day, in honor of the ratification of the United States Constitution in 1787. The Constitution was a radical document at that time, and one of the most unique aspects of it was its recognition that a person’s religious beliefs should not cause him/her to be denied political rights.

When discussing the separation of church and state, most people quote the First Amendment of the constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

This is not the only place where religious freedom is protected in the Constitution. The third paragraph of Article VI states: “...but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

To understand the significance of this law, one must know that even into the 19th century, a person seeking public office in a Christian country often needed to swear on a Bible and affirm that they were faithful to church and state. Article VI made it clear that religion would not hold a person back from Federal office. 

Because the framers of the Constitution were careful to maintain the rights of the individual states, the prohibition against requiring a religious test or oath was for Federal positions only. Each state had a right to determine its own law, and eight states did incorporate a religious requirement for their officeholders: Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. Some of these states have removed these laws, while other simply no longer enforce them.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

National Gratitude

As the High Holidays begin, be grateful for living in a country that protects one's freedom of religion. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


One of the dominant themes of the High Holiday season is repentance. In Hebrew, repentance is known as teshuva and it is a multi-tiered process that requires more than just feeling bad about one’s transgressions. 

Like almost all Hebrew words, teshuva is based upon a three letter root. The root letters of teshuva are shin-vav-vet. These letters are also the building blocks for words related to returning. If teshuva is a process of repenting - of regretting a wrong action, confessing it, apologizing and taking action not to repeat that same error - how is it related to the idea of returning?

According to tradition, each time a person transgresses a Jewish law, his/her neshama (spiritual soul) is distanced from its connection with the Divine. Acts of repentance bring one back closer to that connection. 

In the Torah, God clearly foretells that the Children of Israel will sin and stray from Torah observance, and that they will suffer as a result. The Torah also predicts  that the Jewish people will return to the ways of the Torah and that when they are ready to do so, their repentance will be readily accepted. 

Much of the language of repentance in the Torah is written in the plural form and speaks collectively to the Children of Israel. But the teshuva spoken of at this time of year is attainable for all individuals as well, as it says in Deuteronomy 30:2, “And you (singular) shall return to the Lord your God and hearken to His voice.” In this verse, the use of the singular is significant, reminding every Jew that teshuva is within his/her personal reach. 

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

To Do

Repenting, prayer and charity are the three keys to a successful new year. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Yente the Yiddish Writer

Yiddish literature entered its modern era in the 1860s, when Jewish writers began using the Germanic Jewish language to compose stories and poems. Many of the early writers of this era are still famous, such as Shalom Aleichem (Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich 1859-1916) and Isaac Leib (I.L.) Peretz (1852-1915).

Among those who made their mark in Yiddish literature was Yente Raybman Serdatzky. Born on September 15, 1877, in Lithuania, Serdatzky was the daughter of a scholar who supported his family by selling used furniture. Yente Serdatzky was given both a Jewish and a secular education, and was raised in a home that was a gathering place for Kovno’s Yiddish writers. 

After spending a few years in Warsaw, Serdatzky emigrated to America (leaving behind, it should be noted, a husband and three children). She went first to Chicago and then settled in New York, supporting herself running soup kitchens as she worked on her writing. 

Serdatzky published stories, sketches and one-act plays in a variety of Yiddish periodicals. After a fight with Abraham Cahan, the editor of The Forward in 1922, Serdatzky stopped writing for 27 years. Eventually, she began publishing again in the 1950s, mainly in Nyu Yorker Vokhnblat .

Serdatzky’s work often focused on immigrant women with similar backgrounds to her own. The lives of the women Serdatzky portrayed were not easy. The ideal world they sought to build was unattainable, they were often exploited by the men in their lives and alienated by the male activist  with whom they sought to partner in action. 

Yente Serdatzky passed away on May 1, 1962.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Enjoy the Classics

Read Yiddish literature (in translation) to get a flavor of the lost world of pre-World War II Eastern European Jewry.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Property Lines

Building permits, site surveys, inspectors and codes are all part of the jargon when it comes to construction and land development in the 21st century. While frustrated homeowners may complain of the bureaucracy that these rules create, the fact is that they were designed for the protection of property owners. Whether intentional or not, these laws are also an extension of the Torah’s prohibition not to move the boundary-markers of one’s fellow. 

When the Children of Israel conquered the Promised Land, the territory was divided among the twelve tribes.  Within each tribal portion, the land was further divided among the families in a division that was meant to be eternal. Every 50 years, at the Jubilee, all lands were automatically returned to family of the original property holder. One might therefore think that this would make a prohibition against property theft irrelevant, but fifty years is a long time and it is easy to forget that ownership is temporary. (Remember, at the end of the day, the saying is true - You can’t take it with you.)

The act of moving boundary-markers is considered so insidious that God instructed it to be included among the actions of the accursed. In Deuteronomy 27, Moses instructed the Israelites that following their entry into the Promised Land, they were to position half the tribes of Israel on Mount Gerizim and the other half on Mount Ebal. The Levites were then to call out a series of curses, among which was “Cursed be he that removes his neighbor’s boundary marker”(Deuteronomy 27:17).

Perhaps this act is ranked as so offensive because it is both audacious and sneaky at the same time. It is highly likely that the markers were moved in the middle of the night, enabling the theif and perpetrator to point to the physical facts of where the boundary-markers are now set.  For this double perfidy, the perpetrator is especially cursed. 

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.


Be honest in your dealings with all people. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The First Moshav

Have you ever been to a kibbutz?  If you have toured Israel, or thought of touring Israel, then you know that a kibbutz is a collective agricultural settlement based on a Communist/Socialist philosophy. You may, however, have never heard of the other popular type of cooperative agricultural settlement - the moshav. The primary distinction between a moshav and a kibbutz is the independence of the members.

The first moshav, Nahalal, was officially established on September 11, 1921. Nahalal was built on land owned by the Jewish National Fund in the Jezreel Valley, an area known for its fertility and for its mosquitoes (and malaria). The name of the settlement is the same as that of a Biblical village in the tribal territory of Zebulun (Joshua 19:15).

The settlement of Moshav Nahalal was initiated by immigrants from the Second and Third Aliyah (waves of immigration to Israel from Europe). Many of the settlers of Nahalal who had previously lived on a kibbutz were attracted to the communal spirit of kibbutz life but wanted more independence. On the Moshav, members leased and worked their portion of farm land - as opposed to the land being communally owned and farmed. Another major distinction of moshav life was the maintenance of the traditional family structure. Whereas on the kibbutz children were raised in communal housing, the moshav children lived with their parents. The philosophy of the moshav was reflected in the architectural design of the moshav, which placed community buildings surrounded by family homes as the center of concentric circles.

In addition to being the first moshav, Nahalal was also known for its Girls’ Agricultural Training Farm, which was established in 1929 by the Women’s International Zionist Organization in order to help female immigrants from Eastern Europe acclimate to what was required of them to make the Jewish homeland flourish. In the 1940s, it became a co-educational farming school of the Youth Aliyah movement.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Family Life

As the holiday season gets busy, be considerate of the needs of your family.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Incomplete Repentance

“Repentance” sounds like a grand and powerful word. In truth, the most important adjective that must be attached to the act of repentance is the word “sincere.”

At one time or another, we all experience insincere apologies, and it doesn’t make anyone feel better to receive one. Since an apology is critical to the repentance process, an insincere apology does not bode well for true repentance.

One particular story in the Bible highlights the tragedy brought about by an insincere apology: King Saul, the first King of Israel, was responsible both because of a general commandment in the Torah (Deuteronomy 25:17-19) and a personal directive issued through the words of the prophet Samuel, to completely wipe out the Amalekites, ancient enemies of the Jewish people. While he was victorious over them, “Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of the sheep, oxen ... and lambs, and all that was good...”(I Samuel 15:9).

When confronted the next morning by Samuel (to whom God had already expressed his anger over Saul’s disobedience), King Saul’s response was to declare that he had listened to the Divine command, capturing King Agag alive and destroying the Amelekites. He then added, “the people took of the spoils, sheep and oxen, the chief of the devoted things” (I Samuel 15:21) to sacrifice to God. Finally, Saul admits his wrong-doing, but still does not take responsibility: “I have sinned; for I have transgressed the commandment of God, and your words; because I feared the people, and hearkened to their voice” (I Samuel 15:24).

By blaming the people, Saul voided his apology. Perhaps, if he had immediately recognized his mistake, admitted it and apologized sincerely, the dynastic line of kingship would not have been removed from his family and given to David.

This Treat was last posted on September 19, 2011.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Think First

Be sincere when you apologize.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Coming to California

When we think of California today, we think of perfect weather, beautiful beaches and Hollywood stars. Before these modern dreams, however, California was a land of wild settlers who had come to seek their fortunes in gold.

While there were some early Jewish settlers along the western coast, major settlement in the area began only after gold was discovered in 1848. Treacherous as the journey west was, whether by land or by sea, thousands arrived to seek their fortunes, either as miners or by supplying the miners.

The population of California grew so quickly that by September 9, 1850, California was able to become the 31st state of the United States. At the time of statehood, the largest city of the state was San Francisco, which was the location of the primary Californian Jewish community of the 19th century. The first organized High Holiday services took place in San Francisco, and in Sacramento, in 1849, and, by 1851, there were two established congregations: Shearith Israel (English, Polish, Sephardic) and Congregation Emanu-El (French and German).

During the boom years of the mid-19th century, the Jews of San Francisco flourished. It was estimated that in the 1870s, Jews made up 7% of the city’s population.* From early on, Jews were included and even welcomed in the municipal government. In 1887, San Francisco’s mayor, Washington Montgomery Bartlet, who was of Sephardic descent, was elected governor of California. Alas, nine months after taking office, the first (and only) Jewish governor of California died of Brights Disease.

By the turn of the century, the boom of the gold rush had subsided, although California’s population continued to grow. Thanks to the state’s early history, however, Jews were, by then, an established presence within the state’s population.

*JewishVirtualLibrary (http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/vjw/California.html)

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Two Weeks

As Rosh Hashana is in just over two weeks, make certain to have plans for where to attend services. 

Monday, September 8, 2014


Today, September 8, is the United Nations Organizations of Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO) International Literacy Day. Established in 1965, International Literacy Day is meant to bring attention to the importance of literacy and education, and to the fact that there are still millions of adults around the world who lack basic literacy skills.

Literacy, education and a schedule of study have always been top priorities in Jewish life. Traditionally, the teaching of the aleph-bet, the Hebrew alphabet, begins at the age of three. The verses of the Torah are taught beginning at age five, Mishna (the oral Torah) at age ten (Pirkei Avot 5:21). Indeed, as far back as the days of the Talmud, the Jewish people established a system of formal education when Joshua ben Gamla (1st century B.C.E.) “came and ordained that teachers of young children should be appointed in each district and each town”(Talmud Baba Batra 21a).

Adult literacy is just as valued in Jewish life as basic education. While until recently only the best and brightest (who could afford it) went on to advanced Torah schools, known as yeshivas, today, everyone  is encouraged to continue studying the Torah and the Talmud throughout their lives.

While the Torah’s directives for Jewish education are understood to be primarily focused on boys, as men have different obligations regarding studying Torah, Jewish women in most cultures had a considerably higher level of literacy than other women. In Europe, where they were not taught the “Holy Tongue” (Hebrew), Jewish women were often literate in Yiddish or the language of the country in which they resided. Today, many Jewish women study Torah on an advanced level.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Hebrew School

As the school year gets into full gear, see to it that the children in your life are also enrolled in a Hebrew school program. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Heartfelt Repentance

It is easy to speak of teshuva (repentance), but, actually, the process of repenting is quite challenging. Much can be learned about repentance from the story of Eleazer ben Dordia recorded in Talmud Avodah Zara 17a:

It is noted that ben Dordia “did not leave out any harlot in the world without coming to her.” Upon one such visit, a voice came out of the harlot declaring that Eleazer ben Dordia’s repentance would never be accepted (since he had lost his place in the World to Come).” Ben Dordia was terribly shaken. He cried out first to the mountains, then to the heaven and earth, the sun and moon and even to the constellations, asking each in turn to plead for mercy for him. Each element of nature refused to plead for him, declaring that they had their own need for mercy. Finally, ben Dordia declared: “The matter then depends upon me alone!”

Ben Dordia put his head down and wept until he died, at which point a heavenly voice declared that Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordia had earned his place in the World to Come.

It is interesting to note the Talmud concludes this story with the reaction of the sage Rebbi, who wept and said “‘One may acquire eternal life after many years, another in one hour!” (Avodah Zara 17a).

One of the most important parts of the teshuva process is acknowledging and confessing one’s transgression(s). But, just stating one’s guilt, or, in ben Dordia’s case, admitting that he had sinned and seeks mercy, is only a first step. One has to truly feel regret for the improper actions. Ben Dordia finally realized that just as he alone was responsible for his actions, he alone was responsible for his repentance.

Why did Rebbi cry? Because ben Dordia’s repentance was so honest and heartfelt that it was immediately accepted. It was, indeed,  so pure that he had achieved an almost unattainable level of repentance.

Copyright © 2014 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Shabbat Contemplation

Shabbat is a time for joy. This Shabbat, contemplate all the things you are doing right in your life.