Friday, January 29, 2016

Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai and the City of Yavne

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai lived during the tumultuous times when the Jewish residents of Judea rebelled against Rome, and the Romans besieged and then destroyed Jerusalem. At the time, there was a great deal of divisiveness among the Jewish people. Religiously, the Pharisees opposed the Sadducees. Politically, the Biryonim (zealots) agitated for war while the rabbis called for peace. Rabban Yochanan was the leader of the Pharisees and a staunch believer that fighting was not in the best interest of the Jewish people.

A disciple of Hillel, Rabban Yochanan was renowned, not for his particular activism, but for his intense focus on Torah study. It is reported in the Talmud that no one arrived  earlier to the study house than Rabban Yochanan, “nor did he sleep or doze in the college...nor did anyone ever find him sitting in silence, but only sitting and studying.” (Sukkah 28b).

While the city of Jerusalem was under siege, no one was allowed in or out (by order of the Biryonim). Rabban Yochanan, however, was determined to try and ease the situation for  the people. His nephew, the leader of the Biryonim, agreed to let him out, but the only way to do so was through subterfuge. Rabban Yochanan feigned a fatal illness and death so that he was carried out of the city in a coffin.

Once outside the city, Rabban Yochanan went to the Roman General Vespasian and hailed him as king. Vespasian nearly had him executed for his insolence, but at the exact moment that Vespasian uttered the judgment, a messenger arrived to declare Vespasian the new emperor.* Before heading off to Rome, Vespasian allowed Rabban Yochanan to make one request. Rabban Yochanan asked that the city of Yavne be protected and allowed to be a home for Jewish scholars. Thus it was that after the fall of Jerusalem, people looked to Yavne and its scholars for religious guidance.

*Josephus records a similar story about himself.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Shabbat Warmth

Start your Shabbat meal with some nice warm chicken soup. 

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Accepting Wisdom

“Ben Zoma said: ‘Who is wise? One who learns from all people, as it is said (Psalms 119:99): 'From all those who taught me, I gained understanding'” (Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers 4:1).

At first glance, this statement from Mishneh [Pirkei] Avot seems to be a sage, yet simple, path to wisdom. It can be rephrased in many ways, covering diverse but important messages: There’s something to learn from everyone. Make the most of your education. Never underestimate the knowledge you gain from the people around you.

As we go through the frenetic-pace of modern life, it often feels as if we are caught in a deluge of information. Facebook and other social media sites are full of would-be philosophers and “support blogs” can be found for just about any issue. So how should we apply the words of Ben Zoma in order to gain wisdom?

This question may be answered by looking at the example of Moses. Not long after the Children of Israel received the Torah at Mount Sinai, Moses was approached by Jethro, his father-in-law, who gave him advice about how to lead and manage such a large group of people. Jethro advised Moses to create a hierarchy of judges, with Moses serving as  the ultimate judge for those cases/questions that could not be resolved by others.

Jethro was a man with an interesting background. When Moses first met him, Jethro was a priest of Midian, a leader in a nation of idol worshippers. Moses could easily have dismissed Jethro’s advice and assumed that guidance from the world of idol worshipers would be unacceptable for the newly-crowned Israelites. Moses, however, did not hesitate to take Jethro’s advice and apply it to the needs of the Children of Israel and the path set forth for them by God.

Putting Ben Zoma’s advice into practice requires recognizing wisdom, even when it comes from an unexpected source, and to use that wisdom to enhance Jewish life.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Honoring Jewish Treats

If you enjoy Jewish Treats, join NJOP in honoring Jewish Treat's author Sarah Rochel Hewitt at NJOP's 28th Annual Dinner on February 3rd

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Local Heroes

In honor of International Holocaust Memorial Day, which is observed on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Jewish Treats presents the stories of two survivors who became leaders in local Holocaust education.

Rose Van Thyn (nee Rozette Lopes-Dias, 1921-2010) was a young bride in Amsterdam when the Nazis began deporting Jews from the Netherlands. She was squeezed into a cattle car with over a hundred other people - including her husband, parents and sister. Rose survived gruesome medical experiments, being shipped to Ravensbruck, as well as a brutal death march, only to find herself a lone survivor. She met Louis (Levie) Van Thyn, who had lost his first wife, and they married in 1946. In 1956, the Van Thyns, now with two children, were sponsored for immigration to the U.S. by the Shreveport (Louisiana) Jewish Federation and the A.A. Gilbert family.

Beginning in the early 1960s, Van Thyn began to speak publicly about her experiences. She made a particularly favorable impression at the local Centenary College, which granted her an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters in 2002 and created the Rose and Louis Van Thyn Holocaust Awareness Professorship Program in 2009.

Rose Van Thyn, and her husband until his passing in 2008, received numerous awards in recognition of their work. But, the greatest reward she received was knowing the impact her story had on thousands of schoolchildren.
When the Nazis came to the Netherlands, Leon Greenman was living in Rotterdam. Greenman, his wife Else, and their son were actually British citizens. They had stayed in Rotterdam after being assured that, in case of war, they would be evacuated. But when the Nazis came, all the diplomats fled, their papers were lost and, consequently, they had no proof of their British citizenship.

The Greenmans were shipped first to Westerbork and then to Auschwitz. Leon Greenman had no idea that their separation upon arrival at Auschwitz would be the last time he would see his family. But, the hope of reunion carried him through numerous camps and a final death march.

After the war, Greenman returned to England, but  never remarried. After hearing the leader of the British fascists speak at a rally in 1962, Greenman was moved to fight back. He began to visit schools and to share his experiences. He took an active role at the Jewish Museum in North London, wrote a book and gave guided tours of Auschwitz. Greenman passed away in 2008, but his legacy remains, as his story is now a permanent exhibit at the Jewish Museum in North London.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved.


Hear Them

Make an effort to hear the stories of local Holocaust survivors.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Nice and Simple

It is a fairly well-known fact that there is a traditional Jewish dress code. For many people, that concept - “traditional Jewish dress” - may bring to mind scenes of Fiddler on the Roof; other people may immediately imagine chassidim, with their long black coats, full beards and fuzzy shtreimels (fur hats). The fact is that all these types of dress are most often based on community minhagim (customs), and upon the guiding principle of modesty.

In general, the concept of dressing modestly refers to keeping one’s body appropriately covered so as not to draw attention to one’s physical self and guidelines exist for both men and women.

The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (Abridged Code of Jewish Law) records  another interesting aspect to dressing modestly:

“One should not wear expensive clothes, for this leads a person to pride...” (3:3). Wearing expensive or showy clothing also goes against the concept of modesty. At the same time, one should take pride in how one dresses: “...and not wear clothes that are open or dirty, in order that one will not be ridiculed by people; but one should have moderate priced and clean clothes” (Ibid.)

Not drawing attention to oneself is not just about how much skin one reveals or whether the dress can be termed “indecent.” For both men and women, the idea of dressing modestly is meant to be a physical demonstration of a person’s innate respect for him or herself.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Closet Close

Cull your closet for any clothes that you feel don't fit your image.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Terrific Trees

In honor of the New Year of Trees (Tu B'Shevat), Jewish Treats presents some thoughts on trees and nature as found in the Bible.

1) In the second chapter of Genesis, humankind is instructed to not only "work" the land, but to carefully "guard" it. "And God put the human being in the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and to protect it" (Genesis 2:15).

2) The Bible sets as a foremost priority caring for the land by properly seeding and planting it. "When you will come into the land, and you will plant any tree for food..." (Leviticus 19:23). Planting trees is regarded as the first step in building an ecologically sound environment.

3) The Bible insists that newly planted trees must be properly protected so they may thrive--"For three years [the fruit] shall be restricted to you, it shall not be eaten" (Leviticus 19:23). In Hebrew, this mitzvah is known as orlah.

4) Even in times of war, when human lives are at stake, the Bible forbids wanton ecological destruction. Jewish armies were strictly enjoined from destroying the fruit-bearing trees of cities under siege: "When you lay siege to a city for many days to wage war against it and to capture it, you must not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them" (Deuteronomy 20:19). The rabbis warned that when a tree is cut down for no purpose its cry extends from one end of the world to another! (Me’am Loez)

To find more information on Tu B'Shevat and an outline of a Tu B'Shevat Seder, click here.

This Treat was last posted on January 16, 2014.

Foods of Tu B'Shevat

Today, Jews around the world celebrate Tu B'Shevat, the new year of the trees. Tu B'Shevat is often celebrated with the 7 species for which the Torah praises the land of Israel: “A land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey (from dates)” (Deuteronomy 8:8).

Wheat (chitah): The Sages noted the importance of wheat in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 3:21): “Where there is no flour, there is no Torah. Where there is no Torah, there is no flour.”

Barley (seh’o’rah): At Passover time, the Omer offering (a measure of barley from the new harvest) was brought to the Temple, symbolic of the start of the spring harvest.

Grape (gefen - literally grape-vines): The transformation of grapes into wine reflects humankind’s ability to choose to uplift itself or debase itself depending upon how they use the grape.

Fig (t’aynah): “... All the figs on one tree do not ripen at once, rather a few each day. Therefore, the longer one searches in the tree, the more figs one finds. So too with Torah: The more one studies, the more knowledge and wisdom one finds" (Eruvin 54a).

Pomegranate (rimon): According to the Midrash, the pomegranate has 613 seeds equivalent to the number of commandments in the Torah.

Olive (zayit): “...Just as the leaves of an olive tree do not fall off either in summer or winter, so too, the Jewish people shall not be cast off--neither in this world, or in the World to Come” (Menachot 53b).

Date (tamar): While the Torah uses the word d’vash, honey, it is understood as referring to date-honey because the date is frequently boiled to make a type of honey. “The righteous shall flourish like a date-palm tree” (Psalms 92:13), for those who act holy are sweet in God’s eyes.
This Treat was previously posted on January 25, 2013.

Delightful Fruits

Enjoy one of the special fruits of the land of Israel in honor of Tu B'Shevat.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Tu B'Shevat is Coming

While it may seem as if winter has just begun, it may be time to look beyond the turbulent weather and see that spring is just around the corner. You might wonder how one can possibly think of spring at the present time, but, according to Jewish wisdom, now is precisely the time because Tu B'Shevat is the New Year for trees.

Tu B'Shevat, literally, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, marks the official start of spring in Israel, even though the weather is still cold. According to Jewish tradition, this is the day on which the long dormant sap in the trees begins to flow again.

Why is Tu B'Shevat celebrated as a holiday and elevated to the status of being one of the four New Years on the Jewish calendar? In Judaism, a holiday usually marks a day on which there is a unique connection between the spiritual and physical worlds and signals an event from which we can learn and grow.

Because of Tu B'Shevat, Jews around the world are given a moment to stop and think about the trees and the greenery around them. Spiritually, there is much that one can learn from a tree. For instance, almost every person goes through a “spiritual winter,” a time in which it is hard to connect to God or to follow religious beliefs. According to tradition, deep within each Jew there is a pintele yid (Yiddish for a "little bit of Jewish spirit"). Like the frozen sap that is thawed by the coming of spring and brings new life to the tree, the pintele yid can be ignited by a spark of inspiration and revitalize the Jewish soul.

Some people follow the custom of eating special Israeli foods and conduct a special Tu B'Shevat Seder. For more information on Tu B'Shevat or for an outline of a Tu B'Shevat Seder, please visit

This Treat is posted annually in honor of Tu B'Shevat.

Spring Inspired

Let the idea that spring is coming infuse you with joy and help you find new ways to praise Divine creation.

Friday, January 22, 2016

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 the 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 is reposted each year for Shabbat Shirah.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Sing Out

Enliven your Shabbat meal by singing zemirot, Shabbat songs.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Jews of Bucharest

The history of the Jews of Europe is a narrative of highs, when communities flourished, and terrible lows, when anti-Semitism turned life into a harrowing nightmare. Each region has its own unique history. Today, Jewish Treats presents a history of the Jews of Bucharest, the capital of Romania (originally the capital of Walachia). 

As the Balkan Peninsula is a crossroad between Europe and Turkey, the members of Bucharest’s original Jewish community were of Turkish/Sephardic origin. These Jews, however, suffered greatly in 1593, when Prince Michael the Brave revolted against the suzerainty of Turkey and murdered his Jewish creditors as well.

By the 18th century, there was a recognizable Ashkenazic community in Bucharest alongside the small Sephardic community. During the 18th and 19th centuries, between outbursts of anti-Semitism, the community grew. Their autonomous rule within the larger populace was guided by the Breasla Ovreilor (Jewish Corporation) and their religious life was guided by a Chacham Bashi (Chief Rabbi). By the mid 19th century there were eleven synagogues in the city. In 1857, when there was a proposal to charter a new synagogue inspired by the progressive movement among German Jewry, a rift formed in the Ashkenazic community. The Choral Temple, as this new synagogue was called,  was permitted, but the unity of the city’s Jewish community dissolved. 

The Bucharest community continued to grow. By 1930, there were nearly 75,000 Jews (over 10% of the city’s population), with 40 synagogues, 19 schools and several other communal institutions.

The Romanian government became an early ally of the Nazis. On January 21, 1941, when the far-right Legionnaires/Iron Guard rebelled against their leader Ion Antonescu, a three day pogrom took place during which 125 Jews were butchered (literally) and hundreds were injured. Once order was restored, the Jews lived under tense conditions and many of the men were taken to perform forced labor. However, enough Jews survived the Holocaust that the city’s Jewish community could still maintain two Jewish newspapers during the early Communist era that followed World War II.

Under Communist rule, the Romanian state created a Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania to oversee Jewish communal organizations. But, as in most Communist nations, the state maintained strict control of all activities. In 1969, there were approximately 50,000 Jews in the city. Twenty years later, when the communist regime collapsed, Jews were able to live an open Jewish life . Today, there are approximately 7,000 Jews in Romania, most of whom live in Bucharest, where there are three active synagogues.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Planning for Charity

Set aside a small percentage of your pay check to dedicate to charity. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Sixth Rebbe

Today, the 10th of Shevat, is the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, who is also referred to as the Rayatz (an acronym of his name). Far more than just the spiritual leader of his own chasidim, the Rayatz dedicated himself to working tirelessly for the Jewish people as a whole. 

Born in 1880, in the town of Lubavitch, the Rayatz became and active member in the court of his father, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe. At 15, he became his father’s personal secretary and, shortly thereafter, began attending international rabbinic councils. A year after he married in 1897, he was placed in charge of the new Yeshiva, Tomchei Temimim, that his father had opened. Under his directorship, multiple branches were opened throughout Russia.

Life in Czarist Russia was very difficult for the Jews as there were many restrictions placed on them concerning their means of earning a livelihood. To help the challenging financial situation, the Rayatz found financial backers and established a textile factory. During the Russo-Japanese war, he sent kosher food and Passover supplies to Russian Jewish soldiers. Between 1902 and 1911, despite being arrested 4 times, the Rayatz remained determined in his efforts.

Upon the death of his father in 1920, the Rayatz became the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe. However, Russia was now a greatly changed place. Under communist rule, the Jews were no longer financially suppressed, but were now religiously persecuted. The Rayatz worked diligently to strengthen Jewish life any way he could, while at the same time building Chabad infrastructure outside of Russia, in places such as America and Uzbekistan.

In 1927, he was arrested, held in solitary confinement and condemned to death until his sentence was commuted due to international pressure. He was released on 13 Tammuz, which is celebrated as a holiday in Lubavitch communities.

The Rayatz resettled first in Riga and then in Warsaw. When the Germans invaded in 1939, he tried to help evacuate as many people as possible before finally moving to New York, where he once more became politically active. His primary activity, however, was creating a Jewish infrastructure in North America.

When he passed away in 1950, his son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn became the seventh and final Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved.


Wherever you are, work to build up the Jewish community.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Water, On the Rocks

Reams of text have been written about the one seeming error in Moses’ life - the one act for which he was prohibited from entering the Land of Israel. This was an incident recorded in Numbers 20, when, shortly after the death of Miriam, Moses (and Aaron) struck a rock to bring forth water from it, rather than speak to it, as God had instructed. For this one time, when Moses and Aaron failed to “sanctify Me [God] in the eyes of the Children of Israel--therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I gave them” (Numbers 20:12).

It is fascinating to note that Numbers 20 is not the first time that Moses was sent by God to draw water from a rock. Not long after the Children of Israel crossed the Red Sea and began receiving the heavenly manna for food, the people turned to Moses and demanded water, to which he responded: “Why fight with me? Why don’t you ask God?” (Exodus 17:2-3). Scripture reports that the people then thirsted there for water and murmured against Moses.... When Moses asked God what he should do, God instructed him to pass through the people, gather the elders and, with his staff, go to the rock at Horeb and strike it (Exodus 17:6).

The two passages seem similar, but there are actually numerous differences. One major distinction is that the Israelites in Numbers 20 are the generation after the Israelites in Exodus 17. The generation that came out of Egypt was very different than the generation that was about to enter the Promised Land. Moses should have seen that the latter generation did not need the show of Divine strength that their elders required. The new generation needed to be inspired by a show of the very completeness of God’s control of the world, and Moses and Aaron failed to teach them that important value.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Impact of your Acts

Use words instead of force.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Rabbi Dr. Joachim Prinz

Can you name the speaker who preceded Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington? It was Rabbi (Dr.) Joachim Prinz, a German Jew who had been expelled by the Nazis in 1937. A passionate player in the fight for civil rights, Rabbi Prinz consistently spoke out against the great crime of silence.

Born in 1902 in Burkhardsdorf, Silesia, and ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau in 1925 (two years after earning his PhD in philosophy with a minor in Art History at the University of Giessen), Rabbi Prinz began his oratorical career at the Friedenstempil (Peace Synagogue) in Berlin. From early on, Rabbi Prinz was recognized as a brilliant and popular speaker who drew crowds, but he also upset many by his early warnings about National Socialism and by encouraging Jews to emigrate. When he himself arrived in the United States under the sponsorship of Rabbi Stephen Wise, his message portraying the dire circumstances in Germany, was met by charges of exaggeration and pessimism.

In 1939, Rabbi Prinz assumed the position of rabbi at Temple B’nai Abraham in Newark, New Jersey. Once again, his oratorical ability drew large crowds. Thereby, revitalizing a synagogue that was faltering under great debt and failing membership. He served Temple B’nai Abraham until his retirement in 1977. Additionally, he was active in many Zionist and national Jewish organizations such as the World Jewish Congress, the World Zionist Organization, the American Jewish Congress and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

This Treat was last posted on January 16, 2012. 

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved.


Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is an excellent opportunity to examine the prejudices we may not even know that we have. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

National Hat Day

From a historical perspective, it seems rather strange that there is a “National Hat Day” even listed on the calendar. As recently as 100 years ago, it was not only common for most adults to wear a hat, but to go out bare-headed was often regarded as vulgar.

Like many articles of apparel, hats were often more than just fashion accessories. The hat one wore represented one’s profession or class status. In many places, in different eras in history, specific hats were also mandated for the Jewish people as a means of distinguishing them from the general populace.

While there is an abundance of historical records of church and government decrees regulating the dress of the Jews, the most comprehensive source depicting the clothing that Jews wore may be in medieval artwork. In paintings and wood-cuttings, Jews are often portrayed wearing a distinctive pointed hat.  Such depictions are also found in specifically Jewish artwork, such as the famous Birds’ Head Haggadah. Sometimes the hat appears soft, other times stiff and almost metallic. Most often, by order of law, the hat was yellow or white, although not always.

The Papal laws, most notably those of the Fourth Latern Council of 1215, were aimed at making certain that Jews and Christians did not become intimate. The dress code regulations generally applied only when the Jews (adult males specifically) left the ghetto.

It should be noted that in Europe, similar laws applied to the “Saracens” (Muslims). On the other hand, although less depicted in art – since the painting of images is prohibited by Islam - similar laws concerning distinctive headgear and/or garb was imposed upon dhimmis (Jews and Christians) by Muslim leaders.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Suit Yourself

Don't judge others by the clothing they wear.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

What Are Tefillin?

“And you shall bind them [the words that I command you today] for a sign upon your arm, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes... (Deuteronomy 6:8)”

The above verse refers to the mitzvah of tefillin (although the wordtefillin does not actually appear anywhere in the text of the Torah). While repeated four times in the Torah, this very limited text is the way the mitzvah is described. Our entire understanding of tefillin’s physical form comes from the oral law, passed down from Moses to Joshua and onto the elders and the sages.

Tefillin are small black leather boxes that are strapped to the arm (tefillin shel yad) and to the head (tefillin shel rosh). The box of thetefillin shel yad (arm) has a single compartment in which is placed a single scroll containing the four Torah passages that refer to this mitzvah: Exodus 13:1-10, Exodus 13:11-16, Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Deuteronomy 11:13-21. The box of the tefillin shel rosh has four separate compartments formed from one piece of leather--each of the four Biblical sections is written on a separate scroll and placed in its own individual compartment.

In order to be kosher:

1) The scrolls with the Torah verses must be written on parchment from a kosher animal with ink from a kosher source, bound by the hair of a kosher animal and wrapped in a strip of cloth.

2) The black boxes (made from the hides of kosher animals) and their stitches (sewn with the sinew of a kosher animal) must be perfectly square with an opening made for the straps. The tefillin shel rosh must have the letter shin embossed on both its right and left sides.

3) The straps must be colored black.

The common translation of tefillin is “phylacteries,” which is a Greek word meaning amulet.

To see how tefillin are prepared, visit a virtual tour of a tefillin factory.

This Treat was last posted on August 13, 2009.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Check Them Out

If your tefillin are old, consider taking them to a local sofer (scribe) to make certain they are still kosher.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Skeptic Questioning

Today, January 13, is National Skeptics Day, a day that encourages people to ask questions. One might be inclined to ask whether Judaism has any room for skepticism, since faith, according to modern day media, connotes believing without thinking, which is more correctly termed “blind faith.” And, while Judaism is a religion of faith - emunah, as the term is known in Hebrew - Jewish tradition is built on the act of questioning.

Throughout the Torah, the ancient Jewish people are referred to as a “stiff-necked people,” inferring that they did not easily accept their new role as the nation chosen to follow the laws of the Torah. Perhaps this was their genetic heritage from Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel, which literally translates as: “He who has struggled/wrestled with God.”

Perhaps the most well-known text demonstrating the importance of questioning is from the Passover Haggadah and depicts the different ways in which a child might question a parent, or, in fact, any person who might question Judaism in general. The Wise Child asks for a definition of terms and is given an answer that one could almost call academic. The “Rebellious” Child asks a question for which he/she doesn’t really want an answer and receives a harsh response, meant, perhaps, to inspire deeper reflection. The Simple Child asks for an explanation and is given a narrative response. The fourth child does not know how to ask, and the sages specifically state: “you must broach the subject.” 

That questioning is a vital component in Jewish life does not mean that the element of faith is not involved. By questioning and investigating, a person is meant to come to a place of knowledge-based faith. On National Skeptics Day, Jewish Treats encourages all of our readers to answer their own questions by seeking knowledge.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved.


Don't ignore questions that you have. Ask a local Jewish authority.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Special Cures

The art of discovering cures and concocting remedies is a skill that is a fascinating blend of ancient and modern knowledge. In honor of National Pharmacist Day (January 12), which recognizes the contribution of the talented men and women who are critical to our modern day health care system, Jewish Treats presents some of the interesting cures recorded in the Talmud. 

The sages often listed the benefits and hazards of common foods, such as “A raw beet kills a healthy man...a dish of beet is beneficial for the heart and good for the eyes and even more for the bowels. Abaye added: This applies only [to such beets] that remained on the stove until thoroughly cooked” (Talmud Eiruvin 29a).

In other places, the sages recorded specific concoctions. For instance: “Egyptian Zithom, What is Egyptian Zithom? Rabbi Joseph learned: [A concoction made of] a third part barley, a third part safflower and a third part salt. Rabbi Papa omitted the barley and substituted wheat. They soaked them, then roasted them, ground them and then drank them...they who are constipated are relieved, while they who suffer from diarrhea are bound” (Talmud Pesachim 42b). The Talmud continues with a “warning label” such as one might find on any modern day laxative: “For an invalid and a pregnant woman, it is dangerous.” 

Many of the cures recorded in the Talmud sound bizarre, but at the time these were the remedies used by the great healers. Today, we have access to a wealth of medicinal knowledge and many skilled pharmacists to help keep us healthy. 

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Being Well

Maintain your health by following medical instructions.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Fulfilling a Holy Name

Rabbi Moshe Shik (1807-1897) is known among scholars as the “Maharam Shik.” The title, Maharam, is an acronym Moreinu Harav Moshe (Our Teacher, the Rabbi Moshe). While his family name may have been added on as a means of distinguishing him from an earlier scholar also called the Maharam, the name itself is not without significance. When the government ordered Jews to adopt family names, his grandfather took the name Shik because it is an acronym for Shem Yisrael Kadosh (“A Holy, Jewish Name”). 

Born in what is now Slovakia, the Maharam Shik excelled in his studies from an early age. At 14, he went to Pressberg to study in the yeshiva of the Chatam Sopher and quickly became one of his close disciples.

In 1838, Rabbi Shik became the rabbi of Yeregin, where he opened a yeshiva and remained for 30 years, until he accepted a position in the larger city of Chust (then in Hungary). During his time in Chust, he led a large yeshiva and became active in the national politics of the Jewish community. When the government sought to create a national Jewish congress, Rabbi Shik joined the special rabbinical assembly held in Pest that was meant to counter the growing power of the anti-religious (referred to as Neolog) faction of the Jewish community. The assembly became known as the Central Bureau of the Autonomous Jewish Orthodox Communities in Hungary, and it was recognized by the Minister of Religion eight months after the government recognized the Neolog’s National Jewish Bureau.

In addition to his community responsibilities and political activism, the Maharam Shik authored several important scholarly works. 

He passed away on the 1st of Shevat in 1879. Today is the anniversary (Yahrtzeit) of his death.

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Your Good Name

Be aware of the actions that will be associated with your name. 

Friday, January 8, 2016

How Elvis Was Jewish

Do a websearch on “Jewish Elvis,” and you will be astounded at what you find. Born on January 8, 1935, Elvis Aaron Presley was the great-grandson of Martha Tacket, who is reported to have been Jewish. Because Martha was part of his direct maternal line, according to Jewish law, “the King” was Jewish.

Although proud of his connection to Judaism, Elvis did not consider himself Jewish.

Instances of  people discovering a lost Jewish link, similar to Elvis, is not uncommon. The question for rabbinic in these situations is how to determine which claims are supported by Jewish law, making the person automatically a “member of the tribe,” and which require a person to undergo a formal conversion.

In fact, there are many thousands of people who can claim a genealogical connection to the Jewish people. Even more people may share some of the reported genetic markers that indicate Jewish ancestry. Each case, however, needs to be individually investigated and evaluated. And, while tombstones and family lore are helpful, quite often specific records or eye witness accounts are required.

Elvis was a generous donor to Jewish organizations, wore a Chai around his neck and was proud of his Jewish genealogy, but he had no interest in reclaiming his Jewish heritage. For those in similar situations who do want to reclaim their heritage, the first step is to speak with a rabbi or a community Beth Din (Jewish court of law).

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Share Down

Teach the children in your life about the joys of Jewish living.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Beyond Boils

When the Torah was translated into English, the Hebrew word makkah was translated as plague. In the modern lexicon, however, the term plague often brings to mind the hideous Black Plague that decimated Europe in the Middle Ages. While the ten makkot spread across Egypt with the speed of a devastating contagion, the only plague to manifest as a medical condition was the sixth plague: boils. Of course, it would only be fair to note that the "plagues" of frogs and the lice (plagues 2 and 3) were extremely physically uncomfortable for the Egyptians.

The plague of boils is unique in other ways, for it appears to have also been the final blow to the once powerful Egyptian magicians:

"And they [Moses and Aaron] took soot from the furnace, and stood before Pharaoh; and Moses threw it heavenward; and it became boils breaking out into blisters upon man and upon beast. And the magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils; for the boils were upon the magicians, and upon all the Egyptians" (Exodus 9:10-11).

During the makkah of lice, the magicians had finally admitted that this particular plague was a magical feat that they could not replicate and had even acknowledged God's power: "And the magicians did so with their enchantments to bring forth lice, but they could not: so there were lice upon man, and upon beast. Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, 'This is the finger of God'" (Exodus 8:14-15).

During the plague of boils, the magicians were so personally affected by the boils that they could not even stand in Moses' presence when he appeared before Pharaoh. It is interesting to note that now, with the complete and total defeat of the magicians, it was God who "hardened the heart of Pharaoh" (Exodus 9:12).

Listen Carefully

Make certain that the people to whom you turn for advice have your best interest at heart.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

A Community Revealed

In 1492, four families in Belmonte, Portugal began to live secret lives that would last for generations. Like many Jews on the Iberian Peninsula, in response to the Inquisition, which forbade the practice of Judaism, these families chose to outwardly profess Christianity while secretly living as Jews. However, whereas other conversos* either left for safer lands or slowly assimilated, these four families married among themselves and remained committed to their secret Jewish lives. And, slowly, the clandestine converso community of Belmonte grew.

For generations, the Belmonte conversos lit candles in secret on Friday nights, celebrated major Jewish holidays on a schedule delayed from the common Jewish calendar and avoided pork, rabbit, scaleless fish and food made with blood.

In 1917, a Galician mining engineer named Samuel Schwartz came to the region of Belmonte for work. Finding himself in a town with Jewish roots - there is a synagogue foundation stone dating back to 1297 - was interesting to him. Discovering that there were conversos was shocking for both sides. The conversos themselves did not believe that Schwartz was Jewish until they recognized God's name when he recited the Shema.

Even after the Belmonte conversos were discovered, it took decades for them to feel comfortable going public. In fact, it was just over 500 years after the Inquisition when the Belmonte conversos reached out to the wider Jewish community. Israel sent teachers, and Jewish tourists flocked to Belmonte. Many of the conversos formally converted to Judaism, but some chose to remain living their secret-style lives. Today in Belmonte, there is a small synagogue (Beit Eliahu) and a Jewish museum. 

*also referred to as marranos and annusim

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Never Too Late

It is never too late to start exploring your Jewish heritage.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Immersing the Vessels

When shopping for common kitchen items, one typically does not ask the sales clerk who manufactured them, but this information determines whether or not one must fulfill the mitzvah known ast’vee’laht kay’leem, immersing the vessels.

When a Jewish person acquires utensils or a vessel from a non-Jew (including items made by a non-Jew but sold by a Jewish merchant) that will be used for food or drink (pots, plates, cups, cutlery...any items that come in direct contact with food), the items must be completely submerged in a naturally flowing body of water or a mikveh.

This law applies to items made of metal and glass, but not those made of wood, stone or rubber. Earthenware vessels do not require immersion unless they are glazed.* (Most authorities do not require the immersion of plastic.)

The act of immersion is quite simple. The item(s) are taken to an acceptable body of water, the blessing --Ba’ruch Ah’tah Ah’doh’nai Eh’lo’hay’nu Melech ha’o’lam ah’sher kidishanu b’mitz’vo’tav v’tzee’vanu ahl t’vee’laht kay’lee(m) (Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us through His commandments and commanded us to dip our vessel/s) -- is recited and the vessel(s) are then completely submerged, meaning that all parts must be simultaneously touched by the water. To accomplish this properly, one must remove any labels, stickers, glue or dirt. The item must be released in the water (or held very loosely).

The source of the mitzvah of t’vee’laht kay’leem is found in Numbers 31 (21-23): “Gold, and silver, brass, iron, tin, and lead, every thing that may abide the fire, you shall make to go through the fire, and it shall be clean; nevertheless it shall be purified with the water of sprinkling; and all that cannot survive the fire you shall pass through water.” Although this command was stated with regard to items taken in the Israelites war with Midian, the law applies to all items acquired from a non-Jew.

*Items about which there is a question should be immersed without a blessing or, better still, immersed following an item for which a blessing was made.

This Treat was last posted on July 21, 2011.

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


Find out if there is a kay'leem mikveh (mikveh for immersing vessels) in your city.

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Milkman and So Much More

Born in Bavaria, but raised from the age of six in America, Nathan Straus made a fortune as the co-owner with his brother of Macy’s Department Store and the Abraham and Straus Department Store. But really he should be best known as a philanthropist extraordinaire. Not only did he donate the majority of his wealth to help a number of worthwhile causes, but he took an active role in making certain that his public health initiatives for the poor were implemented.

In addition to his mercantile success, Straus was involved in New York City politics. He served as the city’s Parks Commissioner and was president of the city’s Board of Health.

Noting the horrible infant mortality rates in New York City (and in other urban centers), Straus realized that the problem was that many of the cows in the city were sickly and that the raw milk transported in from farms was stored in old containers in conditions that promoted bacterial growth. With his own funds, he built a plant to produce pasteurized milk in sanitary conditions with sterilized equipment. In the neighborhoods where he created distribution centers to sell the milk at minimal cost, there was a shocking decrease in infant mortality. He also opened soup kitchens, built shelters and sold coal at highly reduced prices.

Straus was partnered in all his efforts by his wife Lina.

In addition to their public health work, the Strauses were ardent Zionists. They traveled to Palestine in 1912 and immediately began working to improve the poor living conditions that he found there. Because of their devotion to their charitable work in Palestine, they even delayed their return, leaving Nathan’s brother and sister-in-law, Isador and Ida Straus, to travel back alone aboard the ill-fated Titanic. Straus took this as a sign, and redoubled his efforts in his Zionistic charity work. The Strauses established a domestic science school for girls, a health bureau and a public kitchen. They supported the work of Hadassah, funded the Nathan and Lina Straus Health Center in Jerusalem to serve all inhabitants of the city, and opened a milk pasteurization facility. The coastal city of Netanya is named in Nathan Straus’ honor. Straus also helped fund the American Jewish Congress and, in 1917, the Jewish War Relief Fund.

Nathan Straus passed away on January 11, 1931. His yahrtzeit is 22 Tevet.  

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Better World

If you have an idea for helping society, don't hesitate to try to make it reality.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Watch With Whom You Walk

Despite the primarily legalistic nature of the Talmud, one finds many social insights based on the words of the Bible. For instance:

Rabbi  Simeon ben Pazi expounded [the foregoing verse as follows]: What does Scripture mean by (Psalms 1:1), “Happy is the man that has not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seat of the scornful”? If he did not walk [that way] at all, how could he stand there? And if he did not stand there, he obviously did not sit [among them], and as he did not sit among them, he could not have scorned! The wording is to teach you that if one walks [toward the wicked] he will subsequently stand with them, and if he stands, he will end up sitting with them, and if he does sit, he will also come to scorn, and if he does scorn the scriptural verse (Proverbs 9:12) will be applicable to him, “If you are wise, you are wise for yourself, and if you scorn, you alone shall bear it [responsibility]” (Talmud Avodah Zarah 18b).

It is no secret that the people with whom a person chooses to associate have a significant impact on that person’s life. Whether one wants to admit it or not, our peers often influence the clothes we wear, the way we speak and even our philosophical views on the world. Generally this is neither a good thing nor a bad thing, just the nature of human society. Sometimes, however, people fall into the “wrong crowd” and, without intending for it to happen, become someone they did not intend to be.

This passage is a cautionary tale reminding the reader to consider carefully with whom you choose associate, and that ultimately, each person is responsible for their own behavior.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Friends For

Invite friends to join you for Shabbat meals.