Friday, January 30, 2015

History for Everyone

Barbara Tuchman (January 30, 1912 - February 6, 1989) never earned a doctorate in history, but the books that she authored injected new life into the layman’s study and understanding of history. While Tuchman herself credited her interest in history to the books she read as a child, it would be remiss to dismiss the experiences and life opportunities made accessible by her influential family. Tuchman’s father, Maurice Wertheim, was a wealthy banker, owner of The Nation, founder of the Theater Guild, who was the President of the American Jewish Congress, and held a host of other important positions. Her grandfather was Henry Morgenthau, Sr., President Woodrow Wilson’s ambassador to Turkey and Mexico and her uncle was Henry Morgenthau Jr., President Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Treasury. 

After Tuchman graduated from Radcliffe College (where she studied history and literature), she traveled with her grandfather Morgenthau to the World Economic Conference in London, did research and editorial work at the American Council of the Institute of Pacific Relations and contributed to the journal Foreign Affairs. She also worked as a correspondent for The Nation, during which time she reported on the Spanish Civil War. Tuchman also spent time in Tokyo, Peking, Moscow and Paris. During World War II, she worked for the Office of War Information. 

Tuchman’s first book, The Lost British Policy: Britain and Spain Since 1700, was published in 1938. In 1940, she married Dr. Lester Reginald Tuchman, and spent the next decade and a half raising their three daughters while researching for her next book. In 1956, she released Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour. This was followed by nine more books over the next 30 years. For her work, Tuchman received two Pulitzer Prizes (Guns of August and Stillwell) and numerous honors (including several honorary degrees).

Barbara Tuchman died in Connecticut, from complications of a stroke, on February 6, 1989.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

The Shabbat of Song

Music speaks to the heart, and, not surprisingly, the heart often speaks through music. Thus, when the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds (aka the Red Sea) and witnessed the destruction of the pursuing Egyptian army, they burst into spontaneous song (led by Moses). 

Az Yashir Moshe U’v’nei Yisrael... Then sang Moses and the Children of Israel...(Exodus 15:1). The song, which is recorded in Exodus 15:1-19, is known as the Shirah (the song). The Shabbat on which this Shirah is chanted in the synagogue (Parashat B'shalach) is known as Shabbat Shirah.

The lyrics of the Shirah constitute exalted praises of God, Who saves the Jewish people. Recounting the miraculous event, the Shirah calls out: “For the horses of Pharaoh went into the sea with his chariots and his horsemen, and God brought back the waters of the sea upon them; but the Children of Israel walked on dry land in the midst of the sea.” (15:19).

Why is a special name given to this Shabbat? Because the Shirah inspires us to remember the heights that our people can reach.

Those who have read Bible cannot help but notice that such spontaneous praise and gratitude from the Israelites was rare. The Israelites spent much time complaining. They wanted meat (Exodus 16), worshiped the golden calf (Exodus 32), sinned with the Moabite women (Numbers 25), etc. But when the Israelites reached the far side of the Sea of Reeds, their faith in God and in their own significance was at an all time high. There was no restraint in their praise of God.

This Treat was last posted on January 10, 2014.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Read Up

This Shabbat, relax with a nice book about Jewish history.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Jar of Manna

While the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, there were few things more miraculous than the manna, the food from heaven that fell like dew so that each morning, except for Shabbat, the Jews could collect their sustenance for the day. (For more on the miraculous nature of manna, click here.)

Many are unaware that one container of manna was preserved per God’s instruction. The Torah reports: “And Moses said: ‘This is the thing which God has commanded: Let an omerful of it [manna] be kept throughout your generations; that they may see the bread wherewith I fed you in the wilderness, when I brought you forth from the land of Egypt.’” Aaron collected the manna, put it in a jar and “As God commanded Moses, so Aaron laid it up before the Testimony, to be kept” (Exodus 16:32-34).

This unopened jar of manna was placed inside the Ark of Testament and remained there throughout the travels in the wilderness, the period of the Judges and the era of the First Temple. The Midrash Mechilta (as quoted by Rashi on Exodus 16:32) notes that “In the days of Jeremiah, when Jeremiah rebuked them [the people, saying] ‘Why do you not engage in the Torah?’ They would say, ‘Shall we leave our work and engage in the Torah? From what will we support ourselves?’ He brought out to them the jar of manna. He said to them, ‘You see the word of the Lord’ (Jeremiah 2:31). It does not say ‘hear’ but ‘see.’ With this, your ancestors supported themselves. The Omnipresent has many agents to prepare food for those who fear Him."

What ultimately happened to the jar of manna? Just before the Babylonian conquest, the Midrash reports that the Ark was hidden in a secret cave under the Temple and that “hidden with it were the bottle containing the manna, the bottle containing the sprinkling water, the staff of Aaron, with its almonds and blossoms, and the chest which the Philistines had sent as a gift to the God of Israel” (Talmud Yoma 52b).

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Common Miracles

Look at the world around you and appreciate common miracles.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Blood is Life

January has been labeled National Blood Donor Month, making it an ideal time for Jewish Treats to reflect upon Judaism’s special attitude toward blood.

God called the very first human being Adam (aleph-daled-mem). While the most obvious connection is to the Hebrew word adama (ground -aleph-daled-mem-hey), it cannot be ignored that Adam is also connected to dam (blood - daled-mem). When the Torah states (Deuteronomy 12:23) that “Blood is life,” one cannot help but reflect on how clearly this is implied in the very name of humankind.

The technology of blood transfusions was not available at the time of the Talmud. However, the sages did live in the era when bloodletting was considered an effective treatment, both as a cure and for prevention. In fact, a large portion of page 129 of tractate Shabbat is dedicated to the care one must take when being bled. In these dictums, one can already find many of the practices that are commonly used by blood donors today. For instance:

“Rav and Samuel both say: ‘One who has been bled should wait awhile and then rise’...Samuel said: ‘The correct interval for bloodletting is every 30 days.’”

Jewish thought makes very clear that blood is life and that people must recognize the life-affirming power of blood. For instance, one is not allowed to consume blood as food or drink, and if one deliberately sheds the blood of wild animals or fowl when slaughtering for food, the blood must be covered as a sign of respect.

Since human blood cannot be consumed, one might ask whether blood transfusions are permitted. The answer, simply, is yes. One may both give and receive blood transfusions because Judaism puts the utmost importance on preserving life. For those who need it, Ezekiel’s words: “By your blood shall you live” (Ezekiel 16:6) has some very literal implications.

This Treat was last posted on January 23, 2012.

Sign Up

Discover your nearest blood donation center and, if you are able to, register to give blood.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Uprising at Auschwitz

January 27th, which has been designated International Holocaust Remembrance Day, was the day on which Auschwitz was liberated 70 years ago. The Auschwitz-Birkenau complex was a place of great terror. In the course of its far-too-long existence, there was only one armed attempt at a revolt.

The uprising, which took place only three months before Auschwitz was liberated, was organized by the Sonderkommandos, special units of (mostly Jewish) prisoners designated to work within the Nazi killing machine. They worked in the selection area, the gas chambers, the crematoriums, etc. The Sonderkommandos not only suffered the psychological horror of assisting the Nazi genocide plan, but being a Sonderkommando was a guarantee of their ultimate non-survival. To ensure that their forced assistants would never be able to bear witness to the atrocities, each Sonderkommandos unit was killed when they outlived their usefulness to the Nazis.

By the summer of 1944, the number of prisoners arriving in Auschwitz slowed, so the Nazis decided that it was time to thin the number of Sonderkommandos. That September, 200 members of Sonderkommando Unit 12 were executed. However, the organization of the revolt had already begun and the remaining Sonderkommandos of the unit proceeded to revolt. Several women working in the munitions factory had been smuggling tiny amounts of gunpowder to the Sonderkommandos, and outside rebels passed in small weapons and instruments such as insulated wire-cutters.

On the afternoon of October 7th, the uprising began at Crematorium 1, and the overseer was disarmed and pushed into the oven. A gun fight ensued, and the Sonderkommandos in Crematorium 3 and 4 joined the fighting. The rebels of Crematorium 2 began cutting through the wire fences, allowing prisoners to escape. While the revolt was quickly subdued, the Sonderkommandos had managed to irreparably destroy Crematorium 4, and some prisoners had managed to escape.

The Nazi vengeance was intense and brutal. The Sonderkommandos who survived the initial firefight approximately 200 - were summarily executed. Five of the gunpowder smugglers were captured and tortured. Three weeks before liberation, the women were hanged. Twelve days later, the Nazis forced around sixty thousand prisoners on the infamous Death March, less than two weeks before the Soviets arrived to liberate the camp. Fifteen thousand prisoners died on this march, just a few days before liberation.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Memorial

If there are Holocaust survivors in your family, make sure to take down their stories for posterity.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Before Michigan

The foundations of Michigan’s Jewish community were laid by the German Jews who came to America in the 1840s and spread out across the continent. Jewish history in Michigan, which became the 26th state on January 26, 1837, began, however, with some hearty frontiersmen who traversed the territory for trade.

Credit for being the first Jewish settler in Michigan is given to Berlin-born Ezekiel Solomon, who arrived in Montreal during the French and Indian War. After the 1760 British victory, which gave England control of Canada, Solomon obtained a license to trade with the native population. In 1761, he set up shop in the area of the Straits of Mackinaw near Fort Michilinackinac. It is believed that he partnered with five other Jewish men - Benjamin Lyon, Chapman Abraham, Levi Solomons and Gershom Levy, each of whom took a trading territory.

Living a frontier life was not easy. It is recorded, however, that several of these Jews maintained a strong connection to the Montreal Jewish community. In fact, Chapman Abraham, who is considered the first Jewish settler of Detroit, and Benjamin Lyon are mentioned in the membership regulations of Shearith Israel, the first synagogue in Montreal. (They were given extra time to fulfil certain obligations due to their great distance.)

A few years after the British took control over the territory and the Jewish traders arrived, Chief Pontiac lead the native Indian tribes in an uprising. Ezekiel Solomon, Chapman Abraham and Levi Solomons were captured (separately) in the uprising. Ezekiel Solomon escaped captivity and little is known about Levi Solomons. Abraham, it is reported, escaped his captors by pretending to be a madman.

Following the Pontiac uprising, the Jewish traders appear to have continued their trading. There are historical markers in Michigan honoring both Ezekiel Solomon and Chapman Abraham.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Stay Connected

Even when you are living far from other Jews, stay connected to a Jewish community.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Calligraphy

In honor of National Handwriting Day, Jewish Treats explores the unique calligraphy practiced by a Jewish sofer (scribe). The Hebrew letters used in a Torah scroll, as well as on other sacred parchment scrolls such as those in mezuzot and tefillin, look different than the letters in printed Hebrew texts, even though both are the block letters known as ktav Ashuri. The differences are in the extra flourishes on top of certain letters. These ornaments or crowns, called taggin in Hebrew, are as much a part of the mesorah (tradition) as the pronunciation of the unvowelled words.

Not all letters receive crowns. “Raba said there are seven letters which require three strokes, and these are shin, ayin, tet, nun, zayin, gimmel and tzadi”  (Talmud Menachot 29b). Other letters, the bet, daled, hey, chet, yud and kuf, have one tag.

According to tradition, the taggin represent kabbalistic (mystical) concepts that provide another dimension of meaning to the words of the Torah. Tradition further attributes the knowledge of taggin to a manuscript, Sefer Hataggin, that is reputed to have been transcribed by Joshua the son of Nun and passed down throughout the generations.

Many of the interpretations of the taggin were brought to light by Rabbi Akiva - a fact highlighted by a beautiful Midrash in the Talmud that states: “Rab Judah said in the name of Rab, ‘When Moses ascended on high he found the Holy One, blessed be He, engaged in affixing crowns to the letters. Said Moses, ‘Lord of the Universe, Who stays Your hand? [What the point? No one will understand their meaning!]’ He answered, ‘There will arise a man, at the end of many generations, Akiva ben Joseph by name, who will expound upon each crown, heaps and heaps of laws’” (ibid).

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Take a Look

 
If you have an opportunity, visit a sofer and discover the beauty of how a Torah scroll is written (call first and arrange a visit).

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Origin of the Word Anti-Semitism

Today, January 22, has been earmarked for an informal meeting of the United Nations General Assembly on the growth of anti-Semitism. It would be impossible for Jewish Treats, in its limited 300 word form, to discuss the history of anti-Semitism* or even the proposed causes for it. Jewish Treats will, however, provide the interesting history of the word anti-Semitism.

The term Semite, which was first used in 1781 to define languages related to Hebrew, initially referred to people of Near East origin. The word Semite is derived from the name Shem, the son of Noah. Abraham was a descendant of Shem. While there are varying groups who can be termed Semitic, anti-Semitism is specifically the hatred and persecution of Jews.

“Anti-Semitism” came about (in its Germanic form) in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1860, an Austrian Jewish scholar, Moritz Steinschneider, introduced the term antisemitische vorurteile (anti-Semitic prejudices). He used the expression in a piece he wrote countering the ideas of French philosopher Ernest Renan, who claimed that the Semitic race was inferior to the Aryan race.

The term anti-Semitism was made common by Wilhelm Marr, a German publicist and agitator. Unfortunately, his 1879 pamphlet, “The Way to Victory of Germanism over Judaism,” in which he used the term Antisemitismus, was very popular. That same year, Marr founded the League of Antisemites. It is interesting to note that Marr’s first three wives (he was married four times) were all of Jewish lineage and that, in 1891, he published an essay titled “Testament of an Antisemite,” apologizing for his mistaken anti-Semitic notions.

*There are two schools of thought on whether this term should be hyphenated or not. In America it is most common to hyphenate it, and so it is hyphenated in this Treat.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Jewish and Proud

The greatest ammunition against anti-Semitism is living a proud, Jewish life.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

You Say It's Your Birthday

January, March, June or November (or any of the other months not listed)...Nope, that's not the birthday about which we are writing. Jewish Treats wants to know: Do you know your Hebrew birthday?

Knowing the date of one's Hebrew birthday can be an important building block in one’s Jewish identity. There are two reasons why one might want to have this information. The easy and obvious reason is that two birthday parties are better than one! (Hey, you’ve got lots to celebrate, right!)

On a more serious note, however, the Jerusalem Talmud (Rosh Hashana 3:8) relates that a person has a special mazal on his/her date of birth on the Hebrew calendar. “Mazal” is a difficult word to translate, often defined as luck or fortune. Mazal, however, is a much more spiritual concept--it is the spiritual influence that affects a specific person or time. Some days are known to have particularly good or particularly bad mazal. For instance, the ninth of Av (Tisha Ba’Av-date of the destruction of the Holy Temples) is a day of notoriously bad mazal for the entire Jewish nation.

A person’s birthday is a day of positive mazal for that person because it is a day that represents potential. Great leaders of Jewish life have viewed birthdays in many different ways. Some have felt that a birthday is a day meant for introspection, reflection and resolution for the future. Others have used it as a day to celebrate with those close to them, or to bring the celebration to others by handing out tzedakah(charity) and brachot (blessings).

So now that you know the significance of this date in your life, we repeat: Do you know your Hebrew birthday?! (If the answer is no, click here to find the date.)


This Treat was last posted on January 21, 2009.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Birthday Blessings

On your birthday, thank God for the gifts in your life.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Weakening Resolve

The Biblical narrative of the 10 plagues visited upon Egypt may, at first glance, seem repetitive - Moses and Aaron ask Pharaoh to let the Israelites go to worship God in the wilderness, they threaten a plague if Pharaoh says no, Pharaoh says no, the plague strikes, Pharaoh begs for relief and makes promises of freedom on which he quickly reneges.

However, not each plague has the same dialogue, and a closer read provides interesting insight into the weakening of Pharaoh’s resolve.

The first sign of weakness displayed by the Egyptians happens just before the hail strikes, when those Egyptians who feared God brought their servants and cattle into the house (Exodus 9:20). This verse adds context to the Midrash that explains the significance of Exodus 10:6. After describing the threat of the next plague, locusts, the Torah states “And he [Moses] turned and went out from Pharaoh.” Exodus Rabbah 13:4 notes: “Why did he do so? Because he saw them turning to one another, as if inclined to believe his [Moses] words; he therefore went out to allow them to take counsel how to repent.”  In the next verse in Exodus (10:7), Pharaoh’s servants actually confronted Pharaoh and encouraged him to let the Israelite men go before the country is destroyed. Pharaoh seemed ready to agree, until Moses declared that all the Israelite men, women and children must be allowed to go.

Following the plague of darkness, Pharaoh declared himself ready to let all of the Israelites go, but refused to allow their flocks or their cattle to depart with them. Holding the flocks “hostage” would guarantee that the Israelites would return, since without cattle or sheep, they would face starvation in the wilderness. (No one could then conceive of the miraculous manna.)

By partially agreeing to let the Israelites go - first just the men, then the people without their flocks, terms to which Moses could not agree - Pharaoh made it seem as if it was Moses’ unreasonableness that was keeping the Israelites in Egypt.

It took one final plague, the death of the firstborn, for Pharaoh to realize that his “negotiation tactics” were doomed. Finally, he let the people go.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Haggling

Be honest in any negotiations in which you are involved.

Monday, January 19, 2015

A Civil Rights Leader

Rabbi Arthur Joseph Lelyveld was a man of incredible activity. While he made his mark on history with his activism, the number of Jewish organizations with which he associated is astounding. At different points in his life, he served as the leader of the Committee on Unity for Palestine (1944-46 - during which time he helped  influence President Harry Truman to support a Jewish State in the British Mandate Territory of Palestine), Bnai Brith Hillel Foundation (1946-1956), the American Israel Cultural Foundation (1956-58) and the American Jewish Congress (1966-72).

Today’s Jewish Treat, however, focuses on his work in the Civil Rights Movement.  But, first some basic background: Rabbi Lelyveld was born on February 6, 1913, in New York City. After graduating from Columbia University, he attended the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, and received his Master of Arts in Hebrew Letters and his ordination from there in 1939. During his first four years as a rabbi, he held positions in Hamilton, Ohio, and Omaha, Nebraska, and then began his career of service to Jewish organizations. In 1958, Rabbi Lelyveld accepted the position of senior rabbi at Anshe Chesed Congregation (Fairmont Temple) of Cleveland, a position he held until 1986, while also continuing to serve as a lay leader of national Jewish organizations.

At the 1966 biennial convention of the American Jewish Congress, Rabbi Lelyveld declared, “I do not serve the cause of Negro emancipation because I expect the Negro to love me in return. The command to remember the stranger and the oppressed is unconditional.”

Rabbi Lelyveld participated in the great civil rights marches, he was a member of the board of the Cleveland branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and he was appointed to the board of trustees of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change. In the summer of 1964, he was seriously injured when segregationists wielding tire irons beat him and two companions for assisting with black voter registration in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

Rabbi Lelyveld died on April 15, 1996.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Civil Rights

Stand up against people being treated unfairly.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Writing a Law For Freedom

Thomas Jefferson is renowned for being the author of the Declaration of Independence. But, this was only one of Jefferson’s many, many accomplishments. It is interesting to note that, per his instructions, Jefferson’s grave is marked only with the three accomplishments of which he was most proud: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.”

Shortly after he returned from the Continental Congress in 1776, Jefferson drafted a Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. Filled with the zeal of the impending revolution, Jefferson wanted to bring the ideals of the Declaration of Independence to Virginia. Alas, not everyone in the Virginia General Assembly shared his zeal. The members consisted of different factions, many of whom had their own agendas concerning religion.

When Jefferson first introduced the bill to the Assembly in 1779, it failed to gain a majority of the votes and the topic was not reintroduced until after the conclusion of the American Revolution (1781). In 1784, when the subject of religion next came up in the Virginia legislature, Jefferson was in France. The legislature came close to passing “A Bill for Establishing a Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion,” but James Madison pushed for a vote delay. Madison reintroduced Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. With some revision, it passed as  the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom on January 16, 1786.

The text did not point to any one particular religious group, but rather disassociated religion from all questions of government. For instance, within the Statute it states: “That our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.”

Bibliographic note: Peterson, M. (1994, December 1). Jefferson and Religious Freedom. Retrieved January 13, 2015, from http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/96oct/obrien/peterson.htm

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

The Freedom of Shabbat

Put aside thoughts of business and politics and enjoy the day of rest.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi

While Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745 - 1812) did not come from a family of Chassidim, he would become not only a follower of the new movement, but also the founder of what is today known as Chabad/Lubavitch Chassidut. Born in Liozna, Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (today Belarus), Rabbi Shneur Zalman was a great-great grandson of the Maharal of Prague (Rabbi Judah Loew). In his youth, he was noted for his Talmudic scholarship, but he also spent time studying mathematics, geometry and astronomy.

Although Rabbi Shneur Zalman had studied some Kabbalah (mysticism) in his youth, it was nothing compared to that which he would learn as a disciple of the Maggid of Mezeritch, who was the successor of the Baal Shem Tov.

By the end of the 18th century, Rabbi Shneur Zalman had become an established Chassidic leader, with thousands of loyal followers. At the same time, there were many who opposed the burgeoning Chassidic movement, and some of these people reported Rabbi Shneur Zalman to the Russian authorities. In 1798, Rabbi Shneur Zalman was arrested. He remained in prison for several weeks on charges of trying to form a new religion and other trumped up charges. The Hebrew day of his release, 19 Kislev, is celebrated to this day as a holiday by Chabad Chassidim.

Two years later, further false charges of rebellious acts against the Russian government led to a second arrest.  That summer, a few months after his release, the rabbi moved his court to the town of Liadi, where it remained until Napoleon’s troop invaded Russia. Although the French promised “freedom,” Rabbi Shneur Zalman recognized the underlying threat to traditional Jewish life that was posed by Napoleon’s army. On 24 Tevet 1812, while fleeing the French, Rabbi Shneur Zalman died. He was succeeded as rebbe by his son, Dovber Shneuri.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi was the author of Tanya (Likkutei Amarim), Shulchan Aruch Harav and Siddur Torah Or.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Polite

Be upfront, but polite, with people with whom you disagree.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Work of the Frogs

Frogs are fascinating creatures. They are, perhaps, the most common and best-known amphibians. There are over 4,800 types of frogs.

While some frogs are poisonous, they are, on the whole, benign creatures - which makes one wonder what was so upsetting about frogs? Stranger still is the fact that the Midrash Rabbah refers to the frogs as the most grievous of the plagues (Exodus Rabbah 15:27). The Midrash explains that the frogs “destroyed their [the Egyptians’] bodies and emasculated them, for it says (Exodus 7:28), ‘[and the river shall swarm with frogs, which shall go up and come into your house] and into your bed-chamber and upon your bed...’”

The frogs were insidious. They were everywhere - in the beds of the Egyptians, in their food and even in their ovens.

The Talmud records a fascinating discussion between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah concerning a statement by Rabbi Eleazar (from an earlier era), who said that the Torah’s use of the singular word “frog” in Exodus 8:2 meant that there was just one frog and that single frog “bred prolifically and filled the land...Rabbi Akiva said ‘There was one frog that filled the whole of Egypt [by breeding].’ But Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah said to him, ‘Akiva, what are you doing with Aggadah (legend)...One frog croaked for the others, and they came [at its call]?’” (Talmud Sanhedrin 67b).

Whichever way the frogs came to swarm Egypt, they succeeded in their task. The frogs made life for the Egyptians so unbearable that Pharaoh was forced to beg Moses and Aaron to ask God to remove them.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Amazing Animals

Take time to contemplate the many unique creatures that God created.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

One's Own Life

There is nothing more sacred in Jewish law than human life. According to halacha, one must guard one’s life in all cases unless one is forced to commit murder, worship idols or partake in illicit relations. In these three situations only, is one permitted to give up one’s life.

Given these parameters, what is Judaism’s view on taking one’s own life? Suicide is a very difficult topic, and is not one explicitly dealt with in the Torah. Many scholars, however, understand Genesis 9:5 as a prohibition against taking one’s own life: “But for your own [life]blood I will require a reckoning.”

Tractate Semachot was critical for later halachic judgments and definitions of suicide. The legal definition of suicide requires one to very clearly declare with one’s own voice the intent to take one’s own life at that time.  That is why, in most situations, Jewish law rules that one who takes one’s own life is not considered in control and is therefore not considered to have committed suicide. The halachic interpretation of duress is extremely broad in its interpretation. (For instance, one suffering depression is considered to be under duress.) The body of a victim of suicide committed under duress is treated like any other Jewish corpse.

It is commonly believed that Jewish law does not permit one who committed suicide to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. The fact is that the Talmud states: “A suicide must be buried without any ceremony...This is the general rule: Whatever is for the honor of the living may be done; but everything which is not for their sake, it is not imperative for the congregation to do for such” Semachot 2:1). The mourning practices that honor the deceased are limited in the cases of the rare halachically defined suicide, but those rituals that benefit the mourners are always maintained.

NOTE: As with all Treats dealing with halacha (points of Jewish law), one should consult one's local rabbi for practical application.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Well Being

When faced with challenging times, don't hesitate to seek professional help for your own well-being.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Jews of Finland

For most European countries, the history of its Jewish presence begins some time in or before the Dark Ages and is accented by varying periods of exile or oppression. Since Jews were not legally permitted to settle in Finland until 1825, and even then, permission was limited to retired Cantonists (Jewish soldiers forcibly conscripted to the Russian Army for 25 years of service - Russia took Finland from Sweden in 1809), the history of Jewish life in Finland is therefore relatively recent.

Although Finland functioned as an autonomous zone, it was still controlled by Russia until 1917. During this period of Russian control, the small Jewish community struggled to gain basic rights. Jews were restricted in work, forbidden from attending fairs and at constant personal risk of expulsion. This all changed shorty after Finland gained its independence from Russia. On January 12, 1918, the "Mosaic Confessors" law went into effect, allowing Jews already settled there to become Finnish nationals and foreign Jews to have the same rights as other foreigners.

The Jewish population in Finland was never large - several thousand at its peak. The Finnish Jewish community survived the devastation of World War II because Finland refused to identify them or turn them over, even though Finland had allied itself with Germany. In one of the strangest historical events that occurred with the Jews of Finland, Finnish Jews fought alongside the Germans to ensure that Russia did not try and reclaim its lost territory. It has even been noted that this battle was probably the only time a Jewish prayer tent was set up in the midst of a camp full of Nazi soldiers.

With the creation of the State of Israel, many of Finland’s Jews made aliyah. It is said that Finland represented the largest per capita aliyah to the new state. Today, only about 1,500 Jews reside in Finland.

This Treat was last posted on December 6, 2011.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

It's A Plan

Make a plan for your charitable giving for the year 2015.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Rights in Connecticut

At the time that Connecticut ratified the Constitution on January 9, 1788, the fifth state of the United States was not particularly welcoming to Jews or anyone else who was not Protestant.

The colony of Connecticut was established in 1636 specifically as a Puritan settlement. The colony’s royal charter established the Puritan faith as the official religion, although by 1708 they agreed to tolerate Anglicans, Quakers and Baptists. The charter officially denied Jews the right to build synagogues, gather for worship or build a cemetery. Individually, Jews could not vote or hold public office. Nevertheless, Jews did settle in the colony, although the only ones on record are those listed for being in trouble with the law (quite possibly because they were Jews).

As part of New England, Connecticut was at the heart of the American Revolution. At that time, there were small communities in Branford, Hartford, New Haven, Norwalk, Stamford and Woodstock.  Despite the colony’s hostility toward Jews, Jew settled in Connecticut. In fact, Hartford’s State Street was referred to as “Jews Street.”

Although Article VI of the U.S.  Constitution prohibits any sort of religious test for Federal office, not all of the states accepted the same standard when they joined the union. Connecticut did not permit Jews to vote or hold public office until 1818. The new state constitution that finally granted these rights also proclaimed a general freedom of religion for all the state’s citizens.

With the influx of German Jews in the mid-nineteenth century - particularly in Hartford - restrictions against Jews congregating was no longer deemed acceptable. In 1843, the Connecticut General Assembly received a petition on behalf of the growing Jewish community, which led to the passage of Chapter 39 of the Connecticut General Status, allowing Jews to have the same rights as Christians in matters of congregation. That same year, the first congregation, which eventually became Congregation Beth Israel, was established in Hartford.

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Together

Spend Shabbat with friends and family.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

So Where Are You From?

When reading about Judaism, one often comes across the terms “Ashkenazim” and “Sephardim.” While these names are ethnic subdivisions of the Jewish world, they are actually based on geographic distinctions.

Ashkenazim (the Hebrew name for Germany is Ashkenaz, hence Ashkenazim) refers to those Jews whose ancestors settled in the communities of the Rhineland in the west of Germany in the early 4th century. It was not until the 10th century, however, that these communities became more substantial and spread into Northern, Central and Eastern Europe (France, Poland, Russia, etc).

Ashkenazi communities interpreted Jewish laws in similar ways, shared Torah leaders and adopted similar customs. For the most part, the common language of the Ashkenazim was (until WWII) Yiddish, a combination of German and Hebrew written with Hebrew characters.

Among the Ashkenazim there are many sub-groups: Litvaks, Galitzianers, Chassidim and Yekkes (Germans), to name a few.

Sephardim (the Hebrew name for Spain is Sepharad, hence Sephardim), on the other hand, refers to Jews whose ancestors settled in Spain or Portugal. Jews are known to have lived on the Iberian Peninsula since early Roman times. They experienced a Golden Age (10th through 12th centuries) that came to an astounding end with pogroms, forced conversion, expulsion and the Inquisition. Because of the Spanish exile (1492), Sephardi culture spread throughout the Mediterranean, as well as to cities in Central Europe and the New World.

Today, the term Sephardi often refers to any Jewish tradition that is not Ashkenazi. However, further distinction must be made between Sephardim and Mizrachim, a term referring to Jews of Africa/Asia who are not descended from Sephardim (such as the Jews of Syria, Yemen, Morocco, Iran, Iraq, etc.).

Of course, the bottom line is that a Jew is a Jew - whether Ashkenazi, Sephardi or Mizrachi. These distinctions are relevant, however, in order to understand certain laws and customs that evolved in these countries and were transmitted from generation to generation.


This Treat was originally posted on December 3, 2008.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Family History

If you are unfamiliar with your family history, ask a relative and write it down for posterity.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Insights into the Burning Bush

The mid-December release of the motion picture Exodus: Gods and Kings is the most recent in a long line of dramatic recreations of Biblical narratives. Such dramas have been attempted long before movie cameras were invented - in theaters and even before that by roving bands of actors and performers.

One of the most difficult scenes to recreate - and one which might, perhaps, truly be better left to the mind’s eye rather than to others’ artistic interpretations - is the miraculous and mysterious burning bush.

The narrative of the burning bush, recorded in the third chapter of Exodus, takes place as Moses is herding his father-in-law’s sheep. In fact, the Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 2:2) explains that Moses only came upon the bush because he went searching for a lost lamb. God appears to him in the burning bush and Moses reacts by saying, “Let me turn and see this great spectacle, why does the bush not burn up?” After calling Moses over and instructing him to remove his shoes, God explains to Moses that He is the God of Moses’ forefathers, that He has seen the suffering of the Israelites and that He intends to have Moses serve as the instrument who carries out His plan for redeeming His people.

The great Medieval Bible commentator, Rashi (Rabbi Shimon ben Isaac, France, 1040-1105) provides a beautiful explanation on the significance of God appearing in a burning bush. When Moses hesitates and questions his own ability to complete this mission, God reassures him, “For I will be with you and this is the sign...” (Exodus 3:12). On this verse, Rashi comments: “...Just as you saw the bush performing My mission and was not harmed, so will you go on My mission and not be harmed.”

The Hebrew word for bush used in this chapter is sneh, which is specifically a thorn bush. In his explanation on Exodus 3:2, Rashi, citing the Midrash Tanuchuma, notes that God appeared in a thorn bush in order to demonstrate that the Al-mighty himself was with the Jewish people in the very midst of their distress.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Faith

In times of challenge, don't hesitate to ask for God's help (just remember that sometimes God's answer is no).

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

A Day for Musicians


Today, Jewish Treats honors two musicians who were born on January 6: Maurice Abravanel and Menahem Avidom.

Maurice Abravanel (1903-1993), who was the descendant of Don Isaac Abravanel (the famous biblical commentator from Spain), was born in Salonika (now Thessaloniki, Greece). In 1909, the family moved to Lausanne, Switzerland, where they lived in the same house as Ernest Ansermet, the conductor of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, with whom the young Abravanel played piano.

In 1922, Abravanel moved to Berlin and began to study with Kurt Weill, who would become his life-long friend. He left Germany as the Nazis gained power. In 1936, he became the youngest staff conductor at the New York Metropolitan Opera. After two years at the Met and a few years working on Broadway, Abravanel accepted a position at the Utah Symphony Orchestra. In 1947, this was a small provincial orchestra. By the time Abravanel retired 40 years later, the Utah Symphony was internationally renowned and had recorded on major music labels. Abravanel passed away on September 22, 1993.

The acclaimed composer Menahem (Mahler-Kalkstein) Avidom was born in Stanislav, Russia (then Hungary), in 1908. Shortly after emigrating to Palestine when he was 17, Avidom studied at the American University of Beirut and then at the Paris Conservatoire. He then spent four years in Egypt before returning to Tel Aviv to teach at the Music Teacher Training College and at the Tel Aviv Conservatory. He also worked as a music critic, served as the general secretary of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (1946-1952), chaired the Israel Composers’ League (1958-71) and held several other prestigious positions.

Avidom’s composing style was deeply influenced by his travels. He mixed Mediterranean and Asian folk music and French culture into his music. His work in atonal composition influenced  music in Israel and brought him great acclaim, as did his later experiments with 12-tone technique. Avidom won the Engel Prize (1947), the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra Prize (1951), the Israel Prize (1961) and the ACUM Prize (1962). He died in Tel Aviv, Israel, on August 5, 1995.

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Your Talents

Use your talents to express your Jewish pride.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Great Bird Ziz

In honor of National Bird Day, Jewish Treats would like to introduce one of the great creatures of Jewish legend, the Ziz. Whereas the term Leviathan (the giant primordial fish) has entered the modern lexicon, the Ziz is a creature only vaguely mentioned in primary sources.

The Ziz is cited in the Talmud:
Rabbah ben Bar Hana further related: Once we traveled on board a ship and we saw a bird standing up to its ankles in the water while its head reached the sky. We thought the water was not deep  and wished to go down to cool ourselves, but a Heavenly Voice called out: 'Do not go down here, for a carpenter's axe was dropped [into this water] seven years ago and it has not [yet] reached the bottom. And this, not [only] because the water is deep but [also] because it is rapid. Rabbi Ashi said: That [bird that Rabbah ben Bar Hana saw] was Ziz-Sadai (Baba Batra 73b).

While the original Leviathan was removed from the world before it procreated for fear that it would overrun the world, the same is not so with the Ziz. According to the tales recorded in Louis Ginzberg's Legends of the Jews: Volume I:

Once an egg of the Ziz fell to the ground and broke. The fluid from it flooded sixty cities, and the shock crushed three hundred cedars. Fortunately, such accidents do not occur frequently. As a rule the bird lets her eggs slide gently into her nest. This one mishap was due to the fact that the egg was rotten, and the bird cast it away carelessly.

The Midrash Genesis Rabbah, (9:4) records two facts about the first Ziz: 1) it was a kosher fowl and 2) it was eaten by Adam.

Copyright © 2015 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Any Subject

Whether your reading interests are science, history, biography or something else, explore your favorite genre in a Jewish context.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Ahhh...Cholent

The highlight of many Shabbat lunch tables is cholent, a hot stew which simmers overnight in a crockpot, on the stove or in the oven. Known also as chamim by many Sephardim, cholent is the original "protest" food -- the purpose of having a hot stew on Shabbat day, as mentioned by tenth century Jewish scholars, is to underscore and emphasize our belief in the Oral Tradition of the Mishna and the Talmud.

During the time of the Greeks and the Romans, there was a sect of Jews called Saduccees who denied the authority of the Oral Law. While the Saduccees, as a group, did not survive the Roman exile, their belief in the literal interpretation of the Bible, without the instruction and explanation of the oral law, was revived during the Gaonic period (8th - 10th centuries) by the Karaites.

The Oral Law explains that a Jew is permitted to have a fire burning on Shabbat, it just can’t be lit, transferred or enhanced on Shabbat. The literalists, such as the Saduccees and the Karaites, maintained that the prohibition of fire on Shabbat was total, i.e. that “Thou shalt not burn fire in all your houses” (Exodus 35:3) excluded allowing even a fire lit before Shabbat to continue burning. They therefore sat in the dark, ate cold food, and froze in the winter.

Whereas hot food on Friday night could remain warm from before Shabbat, having hot food at Shabbat lunch signifies the use of a fire that existed from before Shabbat. That is why Jews all over the world developed a dish which some call chamin, meaning hot, and others call cholent (which is a combination of two Old French words for hot and slow)*. What unites these dishes is not the ingredients, but the purpose, which is to enjoy the Sabbath and to confirm our belief in the Oral Tradition.

*The Moroccan version is called Dafina. 





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Warmth on Shabbat

 Prepare something warm in advance to eat on Shabbat.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Entry Point

Although immigrants from around the world came through Ellis Island, the immigration station in the harbor of New York had a distinctive impact specifically on Jews and on American-Jewish history. As January 1 is the anniversary of the opening of Ellis Island as an immigration center, Jewish Treats presents a brief history of this famous island.

Ellis Island is named after Samuel Ellis, the man who last owned the island before it was acquired by the U.S. government in 1808. When the government purchased the island, however, it had basically been abandoned. The defense ministry controlled the island until 1890, when it was designated to serve as an immigration station.

Preparing Ellis Island for its new role required the government to expand the island, which it did via landfills. A beautiful Georgian building was erected, and the first immigrant (followed by 700 more newcomers) was welcomed on January 1, 1892. In June 1897, however, a fire destroyed all of the wooden buildings on the island - thankfully no lives were lost. The new brick compound, which still stands today, opened in December 1900.

Arriving at Ellis Island was a grand, exciting and terrifying experience for many of the immigrants, who mostly spoke no English. The immigrants were scrutinized for any health issues, and, quite often, the relatives they were expecting did not come to meet them. For Jewish immigrants, some relief came with the establishment of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) in 1902, who sent representatives to help the new arrivals. In 1911, HIAS was permitted to set up a kosher kitchen at Ellis Island, which was particularly helpful to the Orthodox Jewish immigrants.

Isolationist policies following World War I limited the number of incoming immigrants. During World War II, part of Ellis Island was used as an enemy detention center. Ellis Island was taken out of service after 1954.

*Determined to be legally New Jersey by the Supreme Court in 1998.

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Thoughts to Ponder

Today is the fast of the Tenth of Tevet, which commemorates the beginning of the siege that led to the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian exile. Take time today to contemplate what the concept of exile means to the Jewish people today.