Friday, May 29, 2015

Shabbat in the Spring

As spring takes hold of the northern hemisphere, and the hours between sunrise and sunset lengthen, people often spend the long Shabbat afternoon enjoying the outdoors. Even as one soaks in the sense of kedusha, holiness, on a restful Shabbat afternoon such as this, one must still remember to guard the Sabbath day. Almost all of the 39 m’la’chot, the creative works that are prohibited on Shabbat, are related to agriculture, and thus to nature. So here are a few quick tips for observing Shabbat while enjoying the outdoors:

1) Most people will easily conclude that mowing the lawn on Shabbat would be prohibited. The ma’la’cha of kotzair, cutting, however, also includes “plucking” at the grass, a habit most people develop in their childhood. Not only does refraining from this sort of “harvesting” of grass, flowers or even weeds uphold the observance of the Sabbath, but it encourages an environmentally friendly attitude towards plant life, if only for the day.

2) Every woman enjoys the sweet gesture of a bouquet of wildflowers, whether from a partner, child or friend. But, gathering wildflowers (assuming that they were already plucked, see above) falls into the category of m’amair, gathering things that grow.

3) A refreshing cup of lemonade or iced tea is perfect in the yard. But one should be careful not to empty the cup in the rhododendron bush. People often casually spill their drinks on the ground. But this actually constitutes watering the plants...which is part of the ma’la’cha of zorey'ah, seeding.

4) Bugs are God’s creations too. On Shabbat one should avoid trapping and/or killing insects (an exception is made for dangerous insects such as bees and hornets, although one should not use a specially designed trap) as both acts are ma’la’chot (tzad and shochait).

This Treat was last posted on May 27, 2011.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

A Walk

If the weather is pleasant, take a long Shabbat walk.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Be Strong

For many readers, completing a book leaves one with a variety of feelings. Some people have a sense of satisfaction, others of relieved accomplishment, and still others are left with a vague sense of longing for the book to continue. For those who so strongly connect to the book that  they are reading, these emotions are very real.

It is interesting to note that it is a custom among Ashkenazic Jews to acknowledge the significance of completing a book.

The Torah is divided into the Five Books of Moses - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Each of these books is divided into parashiot (singular form is parasha) that are read in order on a weekly basis.  At the conclusion of the reading of the final Torah portion of each of the Five Books, the custom is for the congregation to rise and call out “Chazak, chazak, v’nitchasek - Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen each other.” The Torah reader then repeats the phrase after the congregants.

The phrase chazak, chazak v’nitchazek can be sourced back to several biblical verses where similar terminology is used, such as  “Only be strong, and let not this book of the law depart from your mouth” (Joshua 1:7-8). Many understand that the point of reciting this phrase in synagogue is to serve as a call to the congregants to strengthen themselves and continue their dedication to the Torah, particularly as they begin the next book of the Torah. Conversely, it can also be understood as a call for the congregants to be strengthened in their faith and practice from all that they have learned in the Torah book that they have just completed.

Reading Alone

If you cannot attend Shabbat services, try to review the Torah reading.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A Hero of Science

Today’s Treat presents the sad, brief biography of Edward Israel (1859-1884). The son of the first Jewish family to settle in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Israel had an avid interest in science and enrolled at the University of Michigan to study astronomy.

In 1881, as Israel was completing his degree, one of his professors nominated him to serve as astronomer on the Lady Franklin Bay Polar Expedition, a scientific journey sponsored by the United States government. Although Israel was young, his professor was impressed by his intelligence.

The expedition, which was led by Lieutenant Adolphus Greely, began well. Leaving Washington, D.C. on June 9, 1881, they eventually set up camp (which they named Fort Conger) far north of the Arctic Circle at Lady Franklin Bay. They spent the next two years there running various scientific experiments.

The expedition had begun with enough supplies for two years. When the planned annual supply ship did not arrive in 1882, perhaps they should have been concerned. When the 1883 supply ship did not arrive, however, the 25 man crew knew they were in trouble.

The expedition team deserted Fort Conger and, using Israel’s astronomical expertise to guide them, headed toward Canada’s Cape Sabine, where they found that the supply ship had sunk. They waited to be rescued, but the fierce arctic winter and the lack of food took a devastating toll. Out of 25 men, 19 succumbed to exposure, frostbite and starvation. Edward Israel perished on May 27, 1884, approximately three weeks before the survivors were rescued.

Israel’s body was buried in the Jewish section of Kalamazoo’s Mountain Home Cemetery. Three thousand people escorted their hometown hero to his grave. His fellow explorer, Sergeant David Brainard said of him: “Everyone was his friend. He had no enemies. His frankness, his honesty, and his noble generosity had won the hearts of all his companions.”

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Discover Local

Do some research and discover local Jewish heroes.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

From Them I Learned

Our modern media culture likes to “label” successful people: The richest person, the prettiest person, the person of the year, and etc. And because our culture is so influenced by the images we see on screen and the stories we read in magazines, we sometimes forget that some of our greatest heroes are the people living just next door.

The ability to recognize the greatness of one’s neighbors and coworkers begins by first being aware and conscious of one’s interactions, and appreciating the things we learn from them. In the sixth chapter of Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers, it is stated: “One who learns from his fellow a single chapter, or a single law, or a single verse, or a single word, or even a single letter, must treat him with respect” (6:3).

While this verse is specifically referring to learning Torah (or, in the case of a single letter, language with which to study Torah), it is a concept that is easily transferable to the acquisition of all types of knowledge. An earlier Mishna in Pirkei Avot praises a person who learns from all people: “Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? He who learns from everyone” (4:1) Because gaining knowledge is what makes a person wise, one must treat with respect all people from whom one acquires knowledge, no matter how simple it may seem.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Thanks for That

When you learn something new from a person, acknowledge it and thank them.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Book of Ruth

Ruth was the Moabite wife of Machlon, one of the sons of Elimelech and Naomi, a wealthy couple who had fled Bethlehem during a bitter famine. Elimelech's family had settled in Moab, a neighboring country with which Israel had a history of conflict.

When Elimelech and his two sons died, Naomi chose to return to her homeland. Her two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, decided to go with her. When they reached Israel, however, Naomi urged them to go back to their fathers’ homes. Orpah did leave. Ruth refused, declaring: "Where you [Naomi]  go, I shall go, your people will be my people...your land will be my land, and your God will be my God" (1:16).

Upon their return to Bethlehem, Ruth and Naomi lived a lonely and impoverished life. People resented that Naomi’s family had fled the famine, and they did not trust her Moabite daughter-in-law. To keep from starving, Ruth gathered excess barley that fell during the harvest in the field of Boaz, a relative of Elimelech. Boaz noticed Ruth’s unique qualities of modesty, loyalty and humility and encouraged her to continue gleaning in his field until the end of the harvest.

In the meantime, the elders of Bethlehem debated whether Ruth was a true convert and whether she could marry a Jewish man. Naomi, however, knew that Ruth was devout and sincere. She directed Ruth to go to the ceremony at the close of the threshing and seek out Boaz, who had been so kind to them. She told Ruth to present herself to him as a potential mate and assured Ruth that Boaz would take care of her.

That night, Ruth demurely waited at Boaz’s feet, signaling her intentions. Boaz, who was much older, an established landowner and a leader in the community, had not thought of himself as a possible suitor until that night.

Boaz and Ruth married and their son, Oved, was the grandfather of King David.
The Book of Ruth is read on Shavuot.

This Treat was last posted on June 3, 2014.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Give Them A Choice

There is an oft-cited Midrash (Sifrei, Dvarim 343) describing how God offered the Torah to the other nations of the world before He gave it to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. According to this Midrash, the first nation to whom He offered the Torah asked what was in it. When God told them about the law prohibiting stealing, they couldn’t fathom a life without theft. The next nation reacted incredulously to the prohibition of adultery; they were horrified at the idea that God would monitor people’s bedroom behavior! Another nation was unable to accept the prohibition of murder...and so on. When God asked the Jewish people if they would accept the Torah, there were no questions. They declared: “Na’aseh v’nishma” (“We will do and we will listen”).

So, if one understands the Midrash correctly, it sounds like the so-called “chosen people” were God's last choice for receiving the Torah. However, God understood that, unlike the other nations, the Israelites were truly free to accept the Torah since they did not yet have a homeland, they did not yet have an existing government, culture or “way of life.” It was this freedom that God gave them when He brought them out of Egypt into the wilderness that made the Jews more inclined to receive the Torah. They were not chained to a pre-existing life-style and thus were not reluctant to change themselves for the better. Perhaps this is the practical reason why the Jews were able to accept the Torah so readily.

One must also bear in mind that the Israelites still remembered the generation that had come to Egypt and those who had been enslaved. They still claimed the spiritual heritage of Abraham & Sarah, Isaac & Rebecca, and Jacob, Rachel & Leah.

It is this heritage that we have today. On Shavuot we commemorate the day that God gave the Torah to our ancestors. Now the choice is ours.

This Treat was last posted on June 1, 2014.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Happy Holiday

NJOP and Jewish Treats wish you and yours a beautiful Shavuot holiday.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Preparing for the Torah

Shortly after the Israelites encamped at the base of Mount Sinai, they agreed to accept the Torah and do all that God had commanded. And so, God declared that He would bring Himself, in the form of a thick cloud, close to the people, that they might hear Him speak. First, however, God instructed Moses that the people must prepare themselves.

There is no way to describe the effects of being in the presence of God because there is no human being alive today who has experienced this level of holiness. In fact, Moses was the only prophet who had direct interaction with God, and God’s Presence at Mount Sinai when the Torah was given was a one-time-only event.

However, it is understood that being in the Divine Presence requires preparation, both physical and spiritual. Therefore, the Israelites, under the guidance of Moses, prepared themselves for three days. They washed their clothes and prepared their souls.

It was not just the people who needed to be prepared. God’s presence affected the inanimate earth as well. The Israelites were instructed, under threat of death, not to go up, or even draw close to, the mountain until the shofar was sounded.

The three days preceding Shavuot (Sivan 3, 4 and 5) are known as Sh'loshet Yemei Hagbalah, the three days of boundaries. These three days were, and still are, days of preparation. Today, while we do not stand at the physical base of Mount Sinai, we can, and should, prepare ourselves to ascend to a higher level of spirituality and religious commitment on Shavuot.

Today is the first day of the Sh'loshet Yemei Hagbalah, the three days of preparation. The holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates the receiving of the Torah, begins on Saturday night, immediately after Shabbat. This

Treat was last posted on June 1, 2014.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

The Littlest Mountain

When the Israelites were gathered at Mount Sinai, God gave them the Torah.

Scholars and academics have spent lifetimes debating the exact location of Mount Sinai. The Sinai peninsula is covered with mountains, some wide and flat, others tall and rugged. Trying to establish which mountain is actually Sinai based on the fact that the Jews converged on Mount Sinai just short of 7 weeks after leaving Egypt, is almost impossible given the many different factors such as speed, route taken and stops made.

There is a mountain on the Sinai peninsula that is called Mount Sinai (in Arabic Jebel Musa, the mountain of Moses), but many doubt that this is the true location.

What do you picture when you think of Mount Sinai? Given the important event that occurred there, most would assume that it was a tall, grand mountain when, in fact, it was just the opposite: The Midrash relates that all of the tall mountains fought to be chosen as the location for the giving of the Torah. Mount Sinai, knowing that it was the smallest of the mountains, remained silent, and God chose Sinai because of its simple humility.

The allegories of the Midrash are not whimsical fancies, but are an important means of teaching critical life lessons. Judaism considers humility to be a most important character trait. Moses is described as the most humble human who walked the earth. However, being humble, according to the Torah, does not mean making one’s self a doormat. Rather, a humble person will know his/her own strengths and self-worth (as well as his/her weaknesses), and will not need others to acknowledge his/her significance.

This Treat was last posted on May 30, 2014.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

For A Memorial

This year Shavuot and Memorial Day overlap. Use the time to remember and reflect on those who have given their lives to let America remain the land of the free. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Day of Distinction

On the first day of Sivan in the year 2448 (Jewish calendar), only seven weeks after leaving Egypt, the Israelites reached the Wilderness of Sinai. On the desert plain around the mountain, they set up camp and watched as Moses set off toward the mountain to hear God's will.

The next morning, Moses called for the elders of Israel and transmitted God's message to them (which they then related to the rest of the nation). God had instructed Moses to tell the Israelites:

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings, and brought you to Myself. Now, therefore, if you will listen to My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own treasure from among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation (Exodus 19:4-6).

On that day, 2 Sivan 2448, the Israelites made the most monumental decision in history. They chose to become a people with a distinct and direct relationship with God. They chose to become God's servants, to follow His rules and to faithfully serve Him. They chose to strive for holiness. On the second of Sivan, they chose to be “chosen” when they responded with one voice: “All that God has spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8).

The second day of Sivan is not marked as a holiday, as is the sixth of Sivan (Shavuot), the day on which the Israelites actually received the Torah. However, to honor the agreement that was presented and accepted on this day, the second of Sivan is known as Yom Ha'meyuchas, the Day of Distinction.

This Treat was originally posted on May 10, 2013.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Take Two Tablets

Most artistic representations of the Ten Commandments present two rectangular tablets rounded off at the top. As pleasing to the eyes as this rounded design may be, tradition suggests that the luchot (tablets) were “six handbreadths in length, six in breadth and three in thickness” (Baba Batra 14a). To clarify, the luchot were large, thick and square (and incredibly heavy).

Two large, square chunks of carved stone may not appear to be particularly artistic, but the Torah itself provides some interesting details that allow us to imagine just how magnificent the luchot were. The Torah records that Moses stood on Mount Sinai for 40 days and, at the end of that time, God gave Moses “the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.” (Exodus 31:18). Similarly, it is written “Moses turned, and went down from the mount, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand; tablets that were written on both their sides; on the one side and on the other were they written. And the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tablets” (Exodus 32:15-16).

The tablets of the Ten Commandments were not fashioned with a hammer and chisel, but rather “carved” with the finger of God. The luchot had the miraculous effect that “The writing of the Tablets could be read from within and without” (Shabbat 104a). According to tradition, this does not mean that God wrote the same words on both sides, but that, although God carved straight through the stone, the writing was legible from which ever direction one looked. 

This Treat was last posted on January 30, 2013.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

On Schedule

Call your local synagogue for their holiday schedule.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Feast of Weeks

Shavuot, which we begin celebrating Saturday night (May 23rd), is the only holiday in the Torah not listed by the date on which it is to be observed. Rather, the Torah teaches that this festival takes place on the day following the 49th day after the first day of Passover (see Counting of the Omer). The name Shavuot, therefore, reflects the fact that this holiday occurs seven complete weeks (shavuot) after Passover. In mystical terms, the number 7 represents the natural order of things, and so, a complete, natural cycle has occurred.

The natural cycle that has been completed is agricultural. Therefore the holiday is also called Chag Ha'bikurim, The Holiday of the First Fruits, and is the time when the offering of the First Fruit of the harvest was brought to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem as a gesture of thanksgiving for the successful crop.

Seven times seven days, the count of 49, expresses the natural cycle, but Shavuot takes place one day after the seven weeks--one step beyond the natural cycle. It is, therefore, also representative of an event beyond nature.

When the Israelites left Egypt, the people acted as though they were merely cousins bonded by mutual misery. By the end of seven weeks, however, at the base of Mount Sinai, the former slaves rose above their normal human limitations and, by accepting the Torah, took upon themselves a total commitment to God, the final step in becoming the Nation of Israel. Shavuot is therefore also known as Z'man Matan Torateinu, the time of the giving of our Torah.

This Treat was last posted on  May 9, 2013.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Whose First Fruits

When the Oral Law was first codified, most Jews lived in agrarian settings. Today, being less familiar with agrarian culture, some people find it difficult to relate to some of the discussions in the Mishna (Oral Law) regarding planting or livestock. Although we may no longer farm or herd flocks, the importance of responsible land ownership and use is a value that has remained throughout time.

For Jewish farmers in the land of Israel, one of the mitzvot that is part of the cycle of crop production is that of bikkurim, the first fruit offering. The first fruit to blossom on each plant of the seven species of the land of Israel (wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates) is marked (with a string) to be set aside for an offering at the Temple. One might assume that this mitzvah would apply to all farmers, but, in fact, the rabbis understood the pronouns in this commandment to be very specific: “You shall take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you shall bring in from your land” (Deuteronomy 26:2).

The Mishna (Bikkurim 1:2) states that “tenants, lessees, or occupiers of confiscated property--or a robber--may not bring them...because it says, ‘the first-fruits of your land.’” As significant as the first fruits are, the relationship of the farmer to the land upon which the plant grows is also important.

But ownership of the land is not the only criteria. “These may not bring them [bikkurim]: He who plants on his own soil, but sinks [a shoot] so that [it] nourishes from the territory belonging to an individual or to the public...[or similarly] that it grows on his own property”(Bikkurim1:1). In other words, this mitzvah can only be performed by one who makes certain not to infringe on the property rights of others or the public.

This Treat was last posted on June 2, 2014.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

All Blessings

As Shavuot approaches, take the time to thank God for the gifts He has given you.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Green Cheesecake at Midnight

The holiday of Shavuot has three well-known, and well-loved, customs:

Decorating our Homes and Synagogues with Plants and Flowers: According to the Midrash, at the time of the giving of the Torah, Mount Sinai burst forth in blossoms of verdant greenery, covered with plants and flowers. This is the basis for the custom of decorating our homes and synagogues with plants and flowers on Shavuot.

Dairy Foods: On Shavuot, it is customary to eat dairy foods – cheesecake and blintzes are particular favorites.

Among the reasons given for this custom are:

Once the Torah was given, the Israelites refrained from eating meat because they needed to learn the laws of kosher slaughter and to make their utensils kosher. They specifically chose to eat dairy and give themselves the time necessary to learn the laws.

On a more mystical level, the gematria (numeric value of the Hebrew letters) of the word chalav, milk, is 40. Forty corresponds to the forty days and nights that Moses spent on Mount Sinai learning the Torah.

All-Night Learning: To demonstrate our love for Torah and our appreciation for God's revelation on Mount Sinai, it is customary to stay up all night on the first night of Shavuot either studying Torah, listening to lectures on Torah topics, or simply discussing Jewish ideas.

Another reason given for the custom of learning all night is to atone for the apathy of the Israelites, who, according to tradition, actually overslept on the morning that they were to receive the Torah, rather than being wide awake in excited anticipation.
For further explanations of these customs, please visit NJOP’s Shavuot website. (The customs are at the bottom of the page.) 

This Treat was last posted on May 14, 2013.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

In the Wilderness

The Torah was given to the Jewish nation in the midst of the wilderness on a tiny mountain called Sinai. Throughout the Torah, however, there is much focus on the “Promised Land” and the mitzvot that can only be performed when the Israelites settle the land.

There are two significant ideas that one may learn from the fact that the Torah was given in the desert:

1) The Torah is not only for those who live in the Land of Israel. Its laws and precepts are meant to be practiced by the Jewish People no matter where they may live. (It must, of course, be noted that there are a significant number of mitzvot that can only be observed in the Land of Israel itself.)

2) Attaining possession of the Holy Land is a great reward. The Israelites spent their time in the wilderness preparing themselves, studying and practicing the laws of the Torah. The books of the Prophets, which record the history of the Jewish people following their entry into the Promised Land, teach that whenever the people strayed from the Torah, the land was conquered and the people subjugated until they mended their ways.

There is no question that the Jews are bound to the Land of Israel. This fact is evident throughout the Bible, the Talmud, the liturgy, and the extensive canon of Jewish writing. Judaism, however, is bigger than a particular location. Judaism is a way of living wherever a Jew may be.

This Treat was originally posted on May 13, 2013.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

How Lovely

Order flowers for the Shabbat/Shavuot.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Name Jerusalem

Initially, King David ruled from Hebron, but Hebron was not the ideal location for the seat of government. Not only was Hebron in the southernmost part of the Israelite kingdom, but it was deep in the heart of the territory of Judah. When trying to create a united kingdom, ruling from within one’s own tribal stronghold is not particularly astute. The ideal capital for a united kingdom would be a central city that was not yet claimed by any of the tribes. (There were still several remaining foreign enclaves within the kingdom.)

On the northern border of Judah there existed just such a city. Jerusalem (as we now call it) was a Jebusite city situated on the border of Judah and Benjamin (the tribe from which King Saul had come). So “the king and his men went to Jerusalem [and battled] against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land...Nevertheless David took the stronghold of Zion; the same is the City of David” (II Samuel 5:6-7).

The geographical spot on which Jebusites had built their city had already achieved acclaim in the days of Abraham. According to the sages, this was the place from where Malchizedek, King of Shalem, “brought forth [to Abraham] bread and wine; and he was the priest of God the Most High” (Genesis 14:18). The word “shalem” can be translated as both peace and as wholeness.

This same location is later called Mount Moriah, and was the site of the binding of Isaac. At that time, “Abraham called the name of that place Hashem-Yirah; as it is said to this day: ‘On the mount where God is seen’” (Genesis 22:14).

This city therefore came to be called a combination of these two names, Yirah (He will see) and Shalem (peace/wholeness), or Yerushalayim (Jerusalem). (Source Midrash Genesis Rabbah 56.)

This Treat was last posted on May 22, 2009.

Today, May 17, 2015/28 Iyar 5775, is Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) in honor of the anniversary of the unification of the city in 1967.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

King David's Day

According to tradition, King David was born and died on Shavuot. To try and summarize the life of King David in a 300 word Treat would be impossible. In the annals of Jewish history, David was more than a king. He was a shepherd, a warrior, a scholar and a poet -- and these descriptions do not even begin to describe the complex personal life of David and his family. 

There are many reasons given to explain why King David was considered so extraordinary, but the Midrash reveals that he was unique even before he was born. According to The Midrash, God showed Adam the entire future of humankind. Adam noticed one particularly bright soul that was full of potential but had no years of life attached to it. Adam offered to give  this soul 70 years of his own life. Thus it was that David lived exactly 70 years, and that Adam lived 70 years short of a complete millennium.

David was born the eighth son of Jesse of the tribe of Judah. He was born under what seemed to be questionable circumstances (click here to read more). In addition, according to Talmud Sotah 10b, he had the unusual distinction of being born circumcised.  

The Midrash also notes that King David's death was unusual. The Talmud, Shabbat 30a, relates that David was aware that he would die on Shabbat and wished to die on Sunday instead so  that he could be buried without any delay. God told him that this was not possible, but David took matters into his own hands. He spent every Shabbat immersed in Torah study so that the Angel of Death would have no power over him. Not to be put off from his Divine mission, the Angel of Death caused a great noise in the orchard beside David's study. David continued to study as he went to see what the noise was, but paused momentarily when a step broke beneath him. In that moment, the Angel of Death completed his mission.

This Treat was last posted on June 3, 2014.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Shavuot Prep

Prepare for Shavuot, which begins next Saturday night, by downloading Jewish Treats Guide to the Ten Commandments.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Math and Science

Born in Bialystock on March 31, 1810, Hayyim Selig Slonimski completed writing his first textbook on mathematics when he was only 24 years old. Alas, finances were so tight that the young scholar was only able to publish half of the textbook. The next year, however, he managed to release a collection of scientific essays - including one on Halley’s Comet. These, and his future works, were all written in Hebrew and brought many newer scientific concepts to the Orthodox population of Eastern Europe (where he was accepted because of his known strictness in his observance of Jewish law).

In 1838, Slonimski moved to Warsaw and became acquainted with Abraham Jacob Stern (1768-1842), who was a mathematician and inventor. Slonimski later married his mentor’s youngest daughter, Sarah Stern.

Slonimski’s first invention, a calculating machine, was presented publicly at the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences* and was awarded the Demidov Prize and received 2,500 rubles. The Slonimski Theorum behind the machine significantly influenced many future mathematical developments. Slonimski also invented a chemical process for plating iron vessels with lead, as well as a device for sending quadruple telegrams, which had a profound effect on the fledgling telegraphic communication industry.

In 1862, Slonimski opened a weekly Hebrew scientific newsletter, Ha’tsefirah. Six months later, however, Slonimski accepted the position of principal of the rabbinical seminary in Zhitomer (while also serving as a government censor of Hebrew books). When the seminary was closed by the government in 1874, Slonimski resumed the publication of Ha’tsefirah.

Hayyim Selig Slonimski passed away on May 15, 1904.

*There is some speculation that the calculating machine was Stern’s, who had passed away a few years earlier.

Science Talk for Shabbat

This Shabbat, talk about the ways Torah and science are symbiotic.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Eternal Study

In just over a week, Jewish people around the world will celebrate the festival of Shavuot, a holiday that marks the Jewish people receiving the Torah. For well over 3,000 years now, the descendants of the tribes of Israel have been studying the laws that were delivered at Mount Sinai.

One might wonder how it is that a text can be studied over and over for thousands of years and still continue to intrigue, confound and entice scholars. What is it that leads Jews in communities around the world to dedicate their lives to explore the mysteries of this sacred text?

There is a pair of fascinating Mishnas in Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers that provide an insight into the unique nature of Torah. The first is attributed to a sage by the name of Ben Bag-Bag, who said: “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it. Pore over it, and wax gray and old over it. Stir not from it, for you can have no better rule than it” (5:25).

Those who regularly attend Shabbat services will recognize how, throughout the year-long cycle of Shabbat morning Torah reading, rabbis constantly find new messages to draw from the weekly bible portion. Add to that the text of the Talmud, which is the written compilation of the Oral Law, and there are years’ worth of study.

The second Mishna follows the first and is attributed to Ben Heh-Heh, who said: “According to the effort is the reward.” The Torah is the birthright of every Jew, but the level of joy, enlightenment and anticipation one derives is dependent on the time and dedication invested in its study.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Make Time

Incorporate time for studying Torah into your schedule.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Shmittah Food Co-Op

In the land of Israel today,  they are well into the year of Shmittah (the sabbatical seventh year during which farmers let the land lay fallow). Since last Rosh Hashana, many Jewish farmers throughout Israel have voluntarily hung up the keys to their tractors, and Jews around the world have been careful in choosing the Israeli produce that they eat.

The laws of Shmittah are mentioned several times in the Torah, and the process of preparing for and observing the Sabbatical year has many fine details. The 25th chapter of the Book of Leviticus begins with the laws of Shmittah, where the Torah states: “And the sabbath-produce of the land shall be for food for you: for you, and for your servant and for your maid, and for your hired servant and for the settler by your side that sojourns with you;  and for your cattle, and for your beasts that are in your land, shall all the increase thereof be for food” (25: 6-7).

The laws of Shmittah specifically prohibit the formal harvesting of the crops of the field and the commercial use of the produce. However, as is expressed in the above verses, it was not prohibited to eat the food as long as that food had not been harvested. The owner of the field may collect what the family needs for immediate consumption. Even hungry strangers who pass through an orange grove can each take an orange to eat.

It is also interesting to note the large number of people and animals mentioned in Leviticus for whom “the land shall be for food.” Since there is no ownership of the produce that grows during the Shmittah year, there are no restrictions as to who may eat it.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.


Be generous with the people in your life.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Thank You Nurses

Today, May 12, is International Nurses Day, and so, today, Jewish Treats honors a woman who made a tremendous impact on the world of public health.

Lillian D. Wald (1867 – 1940) was born to middle-class, German-Jewish immigrants. In 1889, Lillian enrolled at New York Hospital's School of Nursing. When Lillian began teaching basic nursing to immigrant families on the Lower East Side of New York four years later, she was shocked at the living conditions she discovered. But Lillian Wald had found her calling. She took up residence on Henry Street and began what she termed “public health nursing.” The Henry Street Settlement (as it came to be known) became an open resource for the community. The nurses charged on a sliding scale according to need, kept patient records and offered educational classes. By 1905, there were 18 similar centers under the Henry Street Settlement auspices. In addition to actual health care, the Henry Street Settlement also provided social activities for youth (to keep them off the street and to educate them), vocational training, and other activities that today would be provided by municipal or private social work agencies.

Lillian Wald’s other accomplishments include the initiation of the first American public school nursing program, the development of a department of nursing and health at Teachers College of Columbia University, and assuming the first presidency of the National Organization for Public Health Nursing. Wald also spoke out in defense of immigrants and raised funds from the wealthy German-Jewish community of New York to help the needy immigrants.

Lillian’s work brought worldwide recognition of the need for reforms in public health and other areas of social policy. In 1912, she received a gold medal from the National Institute of Social Sciences, and two colleges granted her honorary doctorates. A public gathering was held in honor of her 70th birthday.

Lillian Wald died in 1940.

This Treat was last posted on May 11, 2011.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Thanks to All

Remember to express your gratitude to all people who assist you, no matter what their title.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Second Commandment

You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, nor any manner of likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them, nor serve them. For I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children of the third and fourth generation of those that hate Me; and showing mercy unto the thousandth generation of those that love Me and keep My commandments (Exodus 20:3-5).

Prohibiting the worship of any other god seems like an obvious next step after the First Commandment (“I am the Lord your God”), and the instruction to have no other gods seems fairly obvious. As basic as this commandment may seem, the text itself is very specific, detailing both ambiguous worship (unseen other gods) and the worship of any natural part of the universe (in heaven above, earth below or in the water--i.e. sun, moon, stars, etc). Since the worship of idols, according to the Midrash, stemmed from people thinking of the sun or thunder as more approachable servants of God, these details are important.

In addition to the detailed definition of not having other gods, the text of the Second Commandment includes what seems like an explanation of the reason not to worship other gods. The second half of the Second Commandment, which includes details such as God being a jealous god, conveys, in human terms, the seriousness of this transgression. Because God loves the Jewish people, He notifies them of the dire consequences of idol worship; that it doesn’t just affect one person, but impacts on many generations.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Spring, Spring, Spring

Celebrate spring by praising the beauty of God's creation.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Thank You, Mom

In honor of all our favorite Jewish Mothers, we've decided to re-Treat this special Mother's Day edition of Jewish Treats!

Don’t forget to call your mother today, or send her flowers or a card. For those very, very out of the loop, today is Mother’s Day. Mother’s Day is a day set aside to show the moms in our lives how much we appreciate them. It’s a sweet and wonderful idea...but according to the Torah, every day is Mother’s Day.

The very first commandment that God gave to Adam was to “be fruitful and multiply.” Traditionally, this mitzvah is only considered obligatory upon men, not women.

This seems strange. After all, women are the ones who carry the children in the womb, nourish the infants from their breasts, and, traditionally, take the brunt of the child-rearing responsibility. If anything, “peru oo’revu,” be fruitful and multiply, should be a woman’s mitzvah!

According to the sages, however, the mitzvah of “peru oo’revu” is not obligatory on a woman because of the inherent dangers in childbirth. It has only been in the last 100 years or so that the number of fatalities during birth has become minimal, and Torah law does not command people to put themselves in life-threatening situations.

Perhaps, however, the danger inherent in motherhood is not just physical. Motherhood changes a person, restricts her and demands that she sacrifice many of the things she most values in life (sleep, independence, etc.). At the same time, through motherhood, a woman has the chance to not only experience the immense power of creation, but also to emulate God's endless ability to give.

Motherhood, therefore, is both a choice and an opportunity. And it is because of this choice, and the sacrifices inherent therein, that one should give his/her mother honor, respect and even gratitude, not just on Mother’s Day, but every day.

For more on the mitzvah of honoring one's mother and father, please click here

This Treat was last posted on May 11, 2014.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Mom Share

Share this Treat with the mothers in your life (and, where appropriate, add a personal note of gratitude).

Friday, May 8, 2015

Why Honoring Your Parents is About Much More than the Parents

At one point or another, almost every parent (religious or not) quotes the Ten Commandments to their child/children when they call upon them to “honor your father and mother!” This fundamental concept is about far more than catering to a parent’s ego. Rather, honoring one’s parents is the first step to respecting the world, one’s past and the caring role of the Ultimate Creator. The sages even state specifically that “There are three partners in the creation of a person, the Holy One, blessed be He, the father and the mother. When a person honors his/her father and mother, the Holy One, blessed be He, says: I ascribe [merit] to them as though I had dwelt among them and they honored Me’” (Talmud Kiddushin 30b).

It is interesting to note that God does not include His own honor in the Ten Commandments. (He simply declares Himself in the first commandment and prohibits worshiping other gods or taking His name in vain, but He does not demand to be honored.) Perhaps this is because God places greater importance on interpersonal relationships than on mitzvot between people and God.

The sages recognized that within the commandment to honor one’s parents, it is also necessary to understand interpersonal relationships:

Rabbi said: It is revealed and known to Him Who decreed and the world came into existence that a son honors his mother more than his father because she sways him by words. Therefore, the Holy One, blessed be He, placed the honor of the father before that of the mother. It is revealed...that a son fears his father more than his mother, because he teaches him Torah, therefore the Holy One, blessed be He, put the fear of the mother before that of the father (ibid 30b-31a).

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

365 Days to Honor

Incorporate honoring your parents throughout the year, not just on Mothers Day and Fathers Day.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Lag Ba'Omer

The period of mourning* (for the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva who died of plague) associated with Sefirat Ha’omer is not observed on the 33rd day of the Omer, a day known as Lag Ba’omer. In Hebrew, every letter has a numerical value. "Lamed" equals 30, and "Gimmel" equals 3, thus Lag (spelled "Lamed Gimmel") Ba'omer, literally means 33 (days) in the Omer.

Because the mourning period is now over or suspended for the day, Lag Ba’omer is a popular date for weddings (which are not held during most of Sefirat Ha’omer) and haircuts.* Some have the custom not to cut a boy's hair until he is three years old, the age at which the child first begins to learn Torah. Since haircuts are delayed until after the period of mourning, and because there is Kabbalistic significance to hair, many put off the hair-cutting ceremony, called an Upsherin, until Lag Ba'omer.

Lag Ba’omer is also the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the famed Talmudic Kabbalist whose teachings are revealed in the Zohar. In Israel, tens of thousands of people travel to Mount Meron (near Safed) to observe his yahrtzeit near the cave in which he was buried. As per his deathbed request, his death is celebrated rather than mourned.

It is also common for families and friends to gather together for a bonfire and/or picnic on Lag Ba'omer, often on Mount Meron. There are several reasons given for this custom. One is that the word Zohar translates to “shining light,” and bonfires bring light to the world.

*Some people observe 33 days of mourning starting from the beginning of the month of Iyar until three days prior to Shavuot. In such cases, however, Lag Ba'omer is excluded from the mourning customs.

This Treat was last published on May 16, 2014.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Who Was Rabbi Akiva?

Akiva ben Yosef was once an ignorant and illiterate shepherd. So poor and downtrodden a figure was Akiva that his extremely wealthy father-in-law disinherited Akiva’s wife, Rachel, for marrying him.

At the age of forty, Akiva's life changed. According to legend, while tending his flocks, Akiva noticed a rock with a hole going straight through it. This hole was created by constantly dripping water. Akiva decided then and there to go and study Torah. If dripping water could bore a hole into solid rock, then even he, a forty year old man, could learn Torah through constant effort. He had to start from scratch, for Akiva ben Yosef did not even know the aleph-bet!

Strongly encouraged by Rachel, he went to study Torah for 12 years. When he returned he overheard his wife saying that she would gladly let him learn for another 12 years. And he did. When he finally returned, he had become Rabbi Akiva, the great sage, and had acquired over 24,000 students. (The majority of whom died of plague during the period of Sefirat Ha'omer.)

Sadly, Rabbi Akiva was one of 10 sages whom the Romans brutally executed for teaching Judaism. They tortured him by scraping his flesh with a large iron comb. Yet, Rabbi Akiva called out joyfully: "All my life I've been waiting to fulfill the concept, 'You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your resources.' Now I finally have the chance to fulfill those words.” With his last breath, he cried out the words of Shema (Talmud Brachot 61b).

Like Moses, Rabbi Akiva started as a shepherd. He became one of the greatest sages of the Jewish people with enough wisdom to unravel the intricacies of the law, guide the populace and inspire future generations.

This Treat was last posted on April 29, 2013.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Friends, Friends, Friends

In honor of Lag Ba’Omer, make a special effort to get along with others.  

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Rabbi Shimon’s Favorite Tree

On Lag Ba’omer, Jews around the world honor the memory of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a student of Rabbi Akiva who delved into the esoteric meaning of the Torah.  He taught what is today called “Kabbalah” (Jewish mysticism) to his fellow Jews, and his teachings were written in a book called the Zohar, which means “shining light” or “splendor.”

Like most of the rabbis who lived under Roman rule, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was considered a criminal for studying and teaching Torah. Along with his son, Rabbi Elazar, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai went into hiding, and, according to tradition, they sustained themselves for 13 years by eating the fruit of a carob tree  that God miraculously caused to grow in their cave (Talmud Shabbat 33b), hence the custom to eat carob (also known by the Yiddish name, bokser) on Lag Ba’omer.

Is it realistic to believe that grown men could survive on a diet of carob beans and water for 13 years? Perhaps. After all, the carob tree is actually part of the pea family, and the carob beans are packed with protein. In fact, the carob has a less well-known name, “Saint John’s Bread,” which reflects carob’s properties of sustenance. In fact, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Elazar are not the only people mentioned in the Talmud as having lived off the fruit of the carob tree. “Rab Judah said in the name of Rab: Every day a Heavenly voice is heard declaring, The whole world draws its sustenance because [of the merit] of Hanina my son, and Hanina my son suffices himself with a kab (measurement) of carobs from one Sabbath eve to another” (Taanit 24b). This statement, which seems to be in praise of Hanina’s austerity, confirms that the carob can be considered a valuable food source. (As an interesting side note, the word carat, the weight in which we measure gems and precious metals, is actually derived from the word carob.)

This Treat was last published on April 26, 2013.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

"The Splendor"

While the study of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) has always been a part of Torah study, it only gained public prominence in the early 14th century when a Spanish rabbi, Moses de Leon, published the Midrash de Shimon bar Yochai, better known today as the Zohar.

According to Rabbi de Leon, the Zohar was a compilation of the teachings of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi) that were recorded by his son Elazar and his disciples shortly before the great sage’s death. Jewish tradition believes that these teachings were given to him by the prophet Elijah while Rashbi and his son lived in a cave for 13 years, hiding from the Romans.

The origin of the Zohar was, and remains, a controversy. Many believe that it was actually written by Moses de Leon, while others firmly accept de Leon’s attribution of the text to an ancient manuscript by Rashbi.

The Zohar, which means "The Splendor" or "The Brilliance," contains a mystical discussion of God, the structure of the universe, the nature of souls, sin, redemption, good and evil and related topics. It is written in Aramaic and Hebrew, and is structured around the weekly Torah portions. Numerous commentaries have been written that are studied alongside it.

Kabbalah, and thus the Zohar, views the world from a spiritually-oriented perspective. Every action in the world has an equal spiritual reaction that affects the world. Each person has the ability to bring the Divine closer, or to push the Divine away. The mystical allegory in the Zohar is based on the principle that all visible things, including natural phenomena, have both  common reality and an esoteric reality. (If you cannot understand the last few sentences, not to worry, you’re in good company - after all, it’s mystical!)

This Treat was last published on May 18, 2014.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Grab a Carob

In honor of Lag Ba’Omer, try some carob.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Moving Plans

It is not uncommon to picture the era of the rabbis of the Talmud as a world in which the vast majority of Jews still lived in all Jewish environments. In reality, however, the sages resided in areas that were all parts of the Roman empire. As the Roman Empire grew and expanded, so too did the geographical expanse of the Jewish community.

Perhaps it was due to the shifting population of that era  that encouraged the sages to include the following warning by Rabbi Nehorai in the Mishnah Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers: "Move to a place where Torah is studied, and do not say that Torah will follow you because your fellow students will make it your possession, and do not rely on your own understanding" (Pirkei Avot 4:14).

Moving to a remote location (meaning one without a strong Jewish community) under the incorrect assumption that one had already acquired sufficient knowledge or one's strong Jewish identity will be enough to fight the forces of assimilation, is risky business. While there are stories of men and women who did so successfully, there are many more stories of Jews who were lost to the Jewish people as a result of assimilation.

The Mishnah’s advice is just as applicable in the 21st century as it was in the era of the sages. Today, however, for those who do live far from an established community there are the unique benefits of the "Information Age." Recorded lectures, Jewish websites and, of course, Jewish Treats allow Jews everywhere to maintain their connection to the Jewish people from wherever they may be.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Research Mode

When contemplating a move, research the Jewish community in the area.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The First Jew in the Colonies

When does American Jewish history begin? Some would say that it begins in 1492, when Columbus set sail on his historic voyage accompanied by at least one known Jewish crew member (Luis de Torres). Others would point to the 23 Jews from Recife (Brazil) who arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654. Technically, however, history names Joachim Gans as the first Jewish colonist in America.

A native of Prague, Gans made his way to England in the late 1500s. This was approximately 75 years before Menashe ben Israel petitioned Oliver Cromwell to officially permit Jews to reside in England, from whence they had been banned since 1290.

A noted mining expert, Gans made a name for himself by introducing a process that reduced the time needed to purify copper by weeks. His knowledge of metals attracted the attention of Sir Walter Raleigh, who included Gans on his expedition to start a colony in the New World.

The Roanoke Colony was located on Roanoke Island in what is now North Carolina. The colonists arrived in the summer of 1585 and built a small fort. Settling the New World was not as simple as they had expected. Within a year, the colonists were short on food and had reached a stand-off in relations with the nearby native Indian tribes. When Sir Francis Drake sailed by and offered them passage home, almost all of the colonists (including Gans) agreed to leave. The supply ship for which they had been waiting arrived only after the colony had been abandoned.

Gans returned to England and settled in Bristol. In 1589, however, the Bishop of Chichester asked him some specific theological questions. The Bishop, however, did not like Gans' answers and charged him with blasphemy. The question of his fate was sent to the Queen's Privy Council, where, it seems, nothing more came of it - perhaps due to Gans' close relationship with several powerful men of the court.

Nothing more is known about the fate of Joachim Gans.

This Treat is in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

The Month of May

During Jewish American Heritage Month, take special pride in the history of our people in this nation.

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Second Passover

On the first anniversary of the Exodus from Egypt, the Children of Israel prepared to celebrate their first Passover as free people. God decreed that they should eat matzah and maror (bitter herbs) in commemoration of the great event, and, most importantly, that the Israelites should all partake of the Passover sacrifice (lamb).

On the eve of the second Passover, Moses was approached by a group of distraught men. “We are unclean because of the dead body of a man; why are we being held back so that we cannot bring the offering to God in its appointed time among the children of Israel?” (Numbers 9:7).

Contact with the dead renders a person tamei, spiritually impure, and any person who was tamei was forbidden to partake of the Paschal lamb.

In response to their plea, Moses sought instruction from God. God responded that anyone who was tamei due to contact with death or who was on a far-away journey at the time of the Passover offering (14th of Nisan), would then offer the Pascal lamb one month later, on the 14th of Iyar. Those celebrating “Pesach Shaynee” (Second Passover) had to eat the meat of the sacrifice together with matzah and maror, exactly as on a regular Passover.

Today, without a Temple, no one is able to bring a Passover sacrifice. Thus the laws of Pesach Shaynee have little practical effect in day to day Jewish life. However, there is a custom to eat some matzah on the 14th of Iyar to mark the date of Pesach Shaynee for ourselves and for future generations.

This year, the 14th of Iyar, Pesach Shaynee, is Sunday, May 3, 2015.

This Treat was last posted on May 14, 2014.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

More Matzah

This Sunday, eat some matzah in honor of Pesach Shaynee, the Second Passover.