Friday, March 31, 2017

A Holiday for Kids

Why is this night different from all other nights?

Ask the kids! Or better yet, let the kids ask you.

It might surprise you to know that Passover, more than any other Jewish holiday, is focused on the children. The retelling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt to the next generation is actually a Biblical commandment. “And you shall tell it to your child on that day saying: ‘This is done because of that which God did for me when I went out of Egypt’” (Exodus 13:8).

The essence of the commandment to retell the story of the Exodus is fulfilled by educating the children. The method for doing so is set out in the Talmud and is built into the framework of the Haggadah itself. (Thus the Four Questions about eating matzah and bitter herbs, dipping vegetables and reclining, as well as other special Passover seder rituals, are included in order to inspire the children’s curiosity.)

One of the best known and most interesting sections of the Haggadah is the section concerning the Four Children: the wise child, the wicked child, the simple child and the child who does not even know how to ask. This section helps us understand that at the seder, we must all view what is going on as if through children’s eyes: with awe, wonder and, most importantly, with questions. The Haggadah thus provides four questions, the Mah Nishtanah, with which to begin!

This Treat is reposted regularly in honor or Passover.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved

A Day of Rest

Use the day of rest to rest and recharge.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Coco Koller and Cocaine

Today is National Doctors Day. Because the date, March 30th, was chosen in honor of the day on which the first general anesthesia, a dose of ether, was used in surgery in 1842, Jewish Treats presents a brief look at Dr. Carl Koller (1857 - 1944), the man who used the first local anesthetic.

A native of Austria, Koller was a medical student with a focus in ophthalmology living in residence in Vienna. He and his fellow medical resident, Sigmund Freud, began experimenting with cocaine (the coco leaves from which they are made had only recently become reasonable to transport and process in Europe). After another colleague accidentally touched his tongue to some cocaine powder and noticed that it became numb, Koller began experimenting with using cocaine as a local anesthetic for eye surgery.  He succeeded, and his paper on his innovation was presented at the Heidelberg Ophthalmological Society on September 19, 1884.

One would expect that such a discovery would guarantee Koller a place in any ophthalmology department, but Koller felt as if doors were closed to him due to latent anti-Semitism. In truth, anti-Semitism probably did not hinder his career, but an incident stemming from an anti-Semitic comment did.  When another doctor called him an “impudent Jew,” Koller slapped him, resulting in a challenge to a duel. Duelling was illegal, and Koller, who was uninjured in the duel, scored two heavy sabre slashes on his opponent.

Koller studied ophthalmology in the Netherlands and moved to the United States in 1888. He was the recipient of many awards and was suggested for the Nobel Prize several times, but the discovery was too long ago to qualify.

Carl Koller, whom Dr. Freud nickamed Coco Koller, died in New York on March 21, 1944.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Something New

If you are able to, buy something new to wear on the upcoming Passover holiday.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Mother of Charities

Reading the biography of Frances Wisebart Jacobs leaves little doubt that she well-deserved the title of “Denver’s Mother of Charities.” Over the three decades that she lived in Denver, Jacobs transformed her zealotry for Jewish communal life into a passion for helping the entire city.

Born in Kentucky on March 29, 1843, Frances Wisebart was raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. After completing her public education, she taught school until her 1863 marriage to Abraham Jacobs (her brother Benjamin’s business partner). The couple lived in Central City, Colorado, until they moved to Denver in 1869, after their store was destroyed in a fire.

In 1872, Jacobs helped found the Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society. The Society was created in response to the poverty and illness that was rampant among the primarily Eastern European immigrant Jewish population in Denver. Two years later, Jacobs widened her philanthropic scope and helped to organize the Denver Ladies Relief Society. At the same time as she organized these two societies and raised her family, Jacobs also focused her incredible energy on early education and opened the city’s first free kindergarten in 1885.

With all her knowledge of charity work, Jacobs joined forces with several religious leaders to form the Charitable Organization Society, which later charged its name to Community Chest and  eventually developed into the United Way.

Colorado’s climate and altitude drew a large number of consumptives (those suffering from tuberculosis). Throughout her work, Jacobs paid particular attention to the needs of those suffering this disease, the majority of whom could not be cured. She therefore put tremendous energy into creating a special tuberculosis hospital, but, tragically, Frances Jacobs succumbed to pneumonia seven years before the National Jewish Hospital for Consumptives opened.

Frances Wisebart Jacobs has been greatly honored since her passing. She is one of 16 Colorado settlers with a portrait window in the Colorado Capital Dome.

March is National Women’s History Month.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Hand In

If you have extra time, volunteer at a local organization that helps those less fortunate during the Passover holiday season.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Crazy for Coffee

It is a fact fit for any game of trivia that the first coffee house, known as The Angel, in England was opened in Oxford by a man known as Jacob the Jew around 1650. Coffee has its origin in Africa and the Arabian peninsula, but it is not surprising that Jews, known for their international trade connections, became involved in the commerce of coffee. It is believed that Jews not only imported the coffee bean to Europe, but also the idea of a coffeehouse (Livorno, Italy 1632). Coffeehouses were very popular in the Arabic world. These establishments, which were most often for men only both in the Middle East and Europe, were popular for more than just their caffeinated beverage as they were also places to gather for “intellectual” conversation and political debate.

As coffee became more popular, the rabbis of the time were presented with several questions, such as what blessing should be recited over a cup of coffee. (The answer is sheh’ha’kohl, a blessing for food that has been processed.) One of the most important questions among European Jews was whether coffee beans were considered kitniyot (legumes), which are rabbinically prohibited to Ashkenazim on Passover. Don’t worry - the majority ruled that they are permitted because the “beans” were actually berries that grow on trees.

There is one other interesting connection between coffee and Passover. In late 19th century New York, there were numerous coffee businesses of Jewish origin, such as Martinson’s Coffee, Savarin and, perhaps the most well-known, Chock Full O’ Nuts. In the 1930s, however, Maxwell House (not Jewishly owned) won a huge swath of the Jewish market when they began distributing free haggadahs The Maxwell House Haggadah, which was the idea of Jewish advertising executive Joseph Jacob, is still published and distributed, and is a part of the fond Passover memories for many American Jews.

*It is interesting to note that Jews were not readmitted to England until at least five years later.

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If you have friends or family who do not yet have plans on attending a seder, invite them to join you at yours.

Monday, March 27, 2017

OMG! Passover is Coming

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

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

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

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

All food items that are actually chametz must be consumed before Passover, given away, thrown out or otherwise removed. Chametz may also be sold through a rabbi to a non-Jew. For more details, please consult your local rabbi.

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

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

*Certain items, depending on the material, may be kashered or may not need to be covered.

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

This Treat is reposted annually.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved

All Together

Begin preparing for Passover by placing all of your chametz on one shelf.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Parasha of the Month

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

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

The reading begins, “And God spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying: This month shall be for you the beginning of the months, it shall be for you the first of the months of the year” (Exodus12:1-2).

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

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

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

This Treat was last posted on April 8, 2016. 
Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved

Use It Up

Use flour based products from your pantry in preparing for Shabbat as a way of getting ready for Passover.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

It's About Leadership

“For the kingdom is the Lord’s, and He is the ruler over the nations” (Psalms 22:29).

The Vilna Gaon (Elijah Ben Solomon, 1720 - 1797) considered one of the most brilliant men of his generation, used this verse from Psalms to describe the difference between a king and a despot. “A melech (king) rules based on how the subjects want to be ruled; a moshel (despot) is a ruler who forces his rule upon his people.” In the case of Psalms 22:29, the Gaon explained that this was the difference between God’s relationship with the nation of Israel and His relationship with those who do not recognize His Divine Kingship.

The term is also applicable to human leadership. While in an ideal world according to the Torah the leader of the Jewish people is a Divinely chosen king, the sages discuss the importance of the popular acceptance of every leader:

Rabbi Isaac said: We must not appoint a leader over a community without first consulting it, as it says (Exodus 35:30): ‘See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel, the son of Uri.’ The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: Do you consider Bezalel suitable? He replied: Sovereign of the Universe, if You think him suitable, surely I must also! Said [God] to him: All the same, go and consult them. He went and asked Israel: Do you consider Bezalel suitable? They replied: If the Holy One, blessed be He, and you consider him suitable, surely we must! (Talmud Brachot 55a).

This passage demonstrates the ideal relationship of the People of Israel with God,. God chooses a leader, but wants Israel to agree, and Israel wants to agree because they trust God’s choice of leadership.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Giving Graciously

When giving charity, make sure to do so without any hint of reservation or disdain.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Young Man...

The Jewish community has an incredible penchant for organizing and for creating organizations. Indeed, American Jewish life is an alphabet soup of acronyms, and one of the best-known is the YMHA, the Young Mens Hebrew Association. Although many people presume it is just another form of Jewish Community Center and an imitation of the Young Mens Christian Association (YMCA), it was originally created as a philanthropic and benevolent organization.

The first YMHA was organized on March 22, 1874. The founding meeting, attended by prominent members of the New York German Jewish community, took place at the home of Dr. Simeon Leo. The mission of the YMHA organization was “to promote a better feeling and a higher culture among young men and to unite them into a liberal organization, which shall tend to their moral, intellectual and social improvement.” To that end, they organized public lectures and debates, classes on a variety of subjects including Hebrew, stenography and bookkeeping, and physical activities. Additionally, the YMHA created a library that was eventually integrated into the New York Public Library.

YMHAs were organized in several other cities as well, most notably: Philadelphia, New Orleans, St. Louis and San Francisco. In 1888, a tangent women’s organization, the YWHA was annexed to the New York YMHA. (A separate, independent YWHA was founded on February 6, 1902.)

The New York YMHA was reorganized in 1895, and New York business magnate Jacob Schiff donated a building at Ninety-Second Street and Lexington Avenue. The new building, which is a major New York cultural venue today (the 92nd Street Y), included a library, reading rooms and gymnasiums.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Communal Works

Involve yourself in organizations that help build the local Jewish community.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Rahel the Poetess

The poetry of Rahel has been described as both lyrical and sad, reflecting the challenges of her relatively  brief life and her passion for the Land of Israel.

Rahel Bluwstein Sela was born in Saratov, Russia, and raised in the Ukraine. In 1909, Rahel and her sister Shoshana, who had moved together to Odessa two years earlier, traveled to Palestine with a group of like-minded youth. The sisters fell in love with the land and decided to stay.

After moving to Rehovot, Rahel and Shoshana permitted themselves to speak Russian for only one hour a day, forcing themselves to learn Hebrew. Dedicated to the Zionist cause, Rahel headed to Kevutzat Kinneret and joined the first female training farm. In 1913, she was sent to study agronomy in Toulouse, France. Stuck in Europe because of World War I, Rahel went back to the Ukraine, where she worked in a school for refugee children and, tragically, contracted tuberculosis.

In 1919, Rahel took the first boat, the Rusland, back to the Holy Land and moved to Kibbutz Degania. Alas, she was too weak for farm labor and it was unsafe for her to work with children. There was no other job available to her at Degania.

The next few years were years of wandering for Rahel. There were also days of productivity. Her first Hebrew poem, in fact the first Hebrew poem published by a woman, was professionally published in 1920. Between 1920 and 1925, Rahel earned a living by tutoring English, French and agronomy. Her first poetry collection was published in 1927, followed by a second collection in 1930.

On April 16, 1931, at age 40, Rahel succumbed to tuberculosis. A third collection of her poetry was published posthumously shortly thereafter. Rahel has been widely recognized and honored for her contributions to Hebrew poetry. Many of her poems have been set to music. In 2011, her likeness was chosen to be printed on the new 20 Shekel bill, which will be released in the near future.

Today, March 21, is World Poetry Day and March is Women’s History Month.

A sampling of Rahel's poems.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Poetic Phrases

If you enjoy writing, express your gratitude to God using verse.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Are They Out There?

People have always been intrigued by the unknown, such as far off lands and just-out-of sight mysteries. One of the most fascinating avenues of exploration, both real and imaginary, is outer space. With each new galaxy that modern astronomers discover, there is the hope for, and perhaps the possibility, of finding extraterrestrial life.

Does the belief in, or desire to find, the existence of aliens contradict basic Judaism? Oddly enough, this is not a new question. There are records of discussions about “Torah and aliens” even in the Middle Ages. In fact, the idea is even presented in the Talmud, which is not surprising, as there is written acknowledgement of other planets as far back as ancient Babylon.

According to one Talmudic suggestion, Scripture alludes to other-worldly life when, in the Book of Judges, the prophetess Deborah’s song of victory states: “They fought from the heaven, the stars in their courses fought against Sisera...’Curse you, Meroz,’ said the angel of the Lord, ‘Curse you bitterly the inhabitants thereof, because they came not to the help of the Lord’” (Judges 5:20, 23). Meroz, states one Talmudic opinion, was the name of a star (Talmud Moed Katan 16a), and, if so, its inhabitants would be extraterrestrials.

As in the larger world, among the Jewish scholars throughout the ages there are those who believe and those who don’t. The general overall attitude toward this question, however, is that whether aliens are out there or not, God is Master of the Universe. He created everything, all worlds--and since His power is limitless, aliens are not a complete impossibility.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Universal Awe

Look at the universe, both near and far, with a sense of awe.

Friday, March 17, 2017

How Now, Red Cow

Every year, on the first or second Shabbat following Purim, a special reading from Numbers 19, is added to the regular Shabbat Torah reading. Known as Parashat Parah, the Torah reading concerns the special purification ceremony of the Parah Adumah (Red Heifer), one of the most intricate and mysterious laws found in the Torah.

The process of purification via the Parah Adumah is complex and difficult to understand even for those who have spent years studying the Torah. A simple explanation is that a pure red heifer (cow) is sacrificed, and its ashes are mixed with holy water. The mixture is then sprinkled on those who seek spiritual purification. Most famously, the ashes of the Parah Adumah “cleanse” a person from the ritual impurity of coming in contact with a dead body. The precise process is described in Numbers 19 and in Mishnah Parah.

For the Parah Adumah, however, any-old red cow just won’t do. The animal must be a cow that is preferably three or four years old (but older than two years) and has never been mounted by a bull. Additionally, it should never have been yoked or have been engaged in any physical labor like most other domestic animals normally do.

Physically, like all sacrifices, the red heifer must be blemish free, both internally and externally. The most critical factor, however, is the definition of “red.” In order to be considered an actual Red Heifer, the animal may not have more than two hairs of a different color on its entire body!

Finding the exact specimen was so difficult that the sages recorded only eight red heifers from the time of Moses to the end of the Second Temple period: “Moses prepared the first, Ezra prepared the second,... Simon the Just and Yochanan the High Priest each prepared two, and El'y'ho'aynai ben Hakkoph and Cha'nam'ayl the Egyptian each prepared one” (Mishnah Parah 3:5).

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Related Treats
Parashat Shekalim
Parashat Zachor
Parashat Hachodesh

Red Wine

Choose a fine, kosher red wine to enjoy this Shabbat.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

An Advocate for Mothers

In honor of Women’s History Month, Jewish Treats presents a brief biography of Flora Suhd Hommel, a woman whose lifework benefited thousands of other women. Hommel was one of the primary proponents of self-regulatory pain control during childbirth, and one of the first Lamaze instructors in the United States.

Born on March 16, 1928, and raised in Detroit, Michigan, Hommel spent her early married years in Paris, where her husband was studying music. When Hommel discovered that she was pregnant, she became quite anxious since all she knew of childbirth were the “war stories” she had heard from her mother and other female relatives. During her pregnancy, however, she discovered the growing movement for natural, alert childbirth (as opposed to the then common option of sedating the mother)  and was delighted with the results during her own daughter’s delivery. Hommel became determined to share her positive experience with other women and began studying with Dr. Ferdinand Lamaze.

In 1953, the Hommels returned to the Detroit, and, in 1958, Flora earned her nursing degree from Wayne University. Two years later, Hommel established the Childbirth Without Pain Education Association (CWPEA). Her organization not only advocated for women’s choices during childbirth, but it also established training programs for birthing coaches. CWPEA particularly promoted using the Lamaze process of breathing, and encouraged expectant fathers to be part of the delivery process (or at least for husbands to be allowed into the birthing room). In addition to her work as the head of the CWPEA, Hommel served on the Detroit Health Commission. She was also a civil rights activist and spoke out against the War in Vietnam.

In 1994, she was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. Her papers were donated to Wayne State University. Flora Suhd Hommel passed away on May, 15, 2015.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Family Assistance

Offer to help out a family after the birth of a child.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Check Out The Horns

Have you ever heard the idea that Jews have horns on their head? It is one of the strangest anti-Semitic slurs, and yet it is one that continues to be issued by anti-Semites to this day. One would think that if such a physical distinction existed, it would be quite obvious. But, anti-Semites excuse such reasoning by saying that concealing Jewish horns is the reason that Jews keep their heads covered (rather than the concept of a constant reminder of God above).

What is the origin of this almost comical notion of Jews having horns? It is generally understood that the source of this idea is a mistranslation that occurred in the 4th century when St. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin (known as the Vulgate). The Vulgate, which became the accepted translation of the Catholic Church, translated the word of karan as horn. Moved the last sentence below

The mistranslation is based on a verse in Exodus that describes Moses after he descended from Mount Sinai where he received the Torah from God directly. “...and Moses did not know that his face shone with light when He [God] spoke with him” (Exodus 34:29). The Hebrew word for the light shining (karan) is basically the same as the word for horn (keren). They share the root letters kuf-reish-nun.

It was this translation that is the source of the strange horns attached to Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of Moses, furthering the absurd notion that Jews have horns.

Even though this mistranslation was acknowledged, the damage was already done and anti-Semites had yet one more slur to make against the Children of Israel.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Thought Through

Ignore stereotypes about any group of people.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

An Imperfect Measure

Building requires many measurements, and the numerous building projects discussed and described in the Torah include a great deal of widths and breadths and heights. From Noah’s Ark to the Mishkan (Tabernacle in the Wilderness), the Torah lists amot and tefachim (Biblical measurements) for each part of the project. One particular measurement, recorded as part of the palace that King Solomon built for himself, is interesting for the scrutiny it receives from the sages.

The Book of Kings reports: “And he [Solomon] made the ‘Molten Sea’ (a copper tank used for the priests) of ten cubits from brim to brim around in compass, and five cubits in height and a line of thirty cubits compassed it round about” (I Kings 7:23).

The sages mention the “Molten Sea,”  in a conversation about circumference: “Whatsoever has a circumference of three handsbreadths is one handbreadth in diameter. Whence are these calculations deduced?” (Talmud Eiruvin 14a)  After quoting the text of I Kings 7:23, the rabbis debate the accuracies of these measurements. Rabbi Jochanan set forth the question: “But surely there was [the thickness of its] brim (which would increase the diameter),” to which Rabbi Papa replied: “...But there was [still] a fraction at least? When [the measurement of the circumference was computed it was that of the inner circumference” (ibid.).

The rabbis were aware that the measurement of the ratio of a circumference to its diameter is never perfect. It is, in fact, the irrational, seemingly-unending number of Pi: 3.14159....

And the fact that Pi appears unending is beautiful in its connection to a circle, which has no beginning and has no end and is the Jewish metaphor for the cycle of life.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Inspiring Awe

Study science with an eye toward the amazing way in which the world was created.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Purim, Again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Treat is reposted annually in honor of Purim.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved. 

Bye Candy

Donate unwanted Purim left overs to an organization that works with children.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Purim Story in Under 300 Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Treat is reposted annually in honor of Purim.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved. 

Purim Greetings

Jewish Treats and NJOP wish you a joyous Purim!

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Sabbath of Remembering

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

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

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

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

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

This Treat is reposted annually on the Friday of Parashat Zachor.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved. 

Counting Shabbat

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

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

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

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

This Treat was reposted in honor of Purim.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Don't Miss It

Don't miss this week's Saturday night Megillah reading (after which you can come home and change your clocks!).

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Let’s Hear Your Shpiel

Traditional Jewish life is rarely associated with theater or satire, but Purim is a time for turning things on their head. The Spiel (pronounced/also written: shpiel or schpiel), best defined as a satirical play, is one of the many well-loved customs associated with Purim.

That historians trace the origins of the Purim Spiel, which is an Ashkenazic tradition, to Medieval Europe is not surprising given the concurrent re-emergence of theater in the late Middle Ages. What began in the 14th century as humorous monologues about the Megillah, was transformed by the late 15th century into actual plays. The spiel began as creative retellings of the Purim story using costume and staging, and starring yeshiva students as actors. (Women did not perform in Middle Age theater.) In some towns the spiels were performed in the private homes of the wealthy following the holiday's festive meal.

By the 18th century, the topics of the spiels expanded to include other Biblical stories in addition to the Book of Esther. All of these narratives were retold with melodrama and humor. Sometimes, however, the revelers got carried away, and performances became lewd to the point that there were communities that banned the spiels for several years.

Despite the occasional ban, Purim “spieling” became a beloved tradition. Imbued with the topsy-turvy spirit of Purim, many spiels were written to poke clean fun at the often "untouchable" leaders of their communities. The custom holds strong to this day, and in many communities, spielers take great pride in their communal contributions.

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Who Was Achashverosh

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

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

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

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

This Treat was reposted in honor of Purim.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved.

A Heartfelt Smile

Remember that something as simple as a smile can change the mood of yourself and everyone around you.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Fast of Esther

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

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

If the 13th of Adar occurs on Shabbat, (as happens this year) the fast is observed on the Thursday prior. Thus Ta'anit Esther will be observed this year on Thursday, March 9, 2017.

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

On Ta'anit Esther, as on other fast days, special prayers are added to the synagogue services:
1. Selichot (Penitential Prayers) and Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King) are recited during the morning and afternoon service. When Ta'anit Esther is observed on the eve of Purim, Avinu Malkeinu is not recited in the afternoon.
2. At the morning and afternoon service, excerpts from Exodus 32 and 34 are read from the Torah. These include the 13 attributes of God's mercy. At the afternoon service only, the Torah reading is followed by a special haftarah for fast days.
3. The Ah'nay'noo prayer, which asks for special forgiveness, is added to the morning and afternoon services by the prayer leader. An individual who is fasting includes Ah'nay'noo in the blessing of Sh'ma Koh'laynu (Hear Our Voices) when saying the afternoon service.

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

This Treat is reposted annually before the Fast of Esther.

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Her Other Name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Treat was reposted in honor of Purim.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved. 

Water Please

Drink extra in order to make tomorrow's fast easier.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Costume Time

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

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

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

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

This Treat is reposted annually in honor of Purim.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved. 

Purim's Villainess

Anyone familiar with the basic Purim story knows that the primary enemy of the Jewish people was Haman. What may not be as well-known is that there are several other "lesser" villains who played pivotal roles.

One of the most interesting of these "minor" characters is Zeresh, Haman's wife. According to the Midrash (Targum Esther 5:10), her father was Tattenai, mentioned in the Book of Ezra (2:3) as the Minister of Trans-Jordan who actively tried to halt the rebuilding of the Temple. Thus, these two embittered souls, enemies of the Jewish nation, were truly a match made know where.

The Megillah describes an astounding relationship between Haman and Zeresh. Their relationship is one of the few instances in the Bible where one sees a wife actively being sought out for her advice. Not once, but twice, the text specifically states that Haman called for his friends and his wife to tell them of the things that had transpired (Esther 5:10 and 6:13). Indeed, one commentary on the book, Targum Esther (5:14), implies that it was Zeresh's idea to build a gallows for Mordechai since it was the one type of execution that had yet to be used against the Jewish nation. When Haman agreed, "His wife Zeresh played musical instruments, rejoiced, and declared, 'I will pay these workers well.'"

There's an old saying: Behind every great man is a greater woman. In this case, behind an evil man was an even more evil woman. Since Zeresh remained behind the scenes (only an advisor), no great fanfare is made over her role. However, her wickedness cannot be forgotten and, in some communities, it is even customary to softly hiss when her name is read from the Megillah.

This Treat was reposted in honor of Purim.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Dressed Up

If you decide to wear a costume, choose one that reflects the dignity of the holiday.

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Four Mitzvot of Purim

This year, Purim will be celebrated on Sunday, March 12th (beginning Saturday evening, March 11th, after sunset). Four mitzvot are associated with the holiday:

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Treat is reposted annually in honor of Purim.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved. 

The Whole Megillah

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

So what exactly is a “megillah”?

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

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

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

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

This Treat was reposted in honor of Purim.

All Four

Make arrangements for the proper fulfilment of each of the mitzvot of Purim.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Haman's History

According to the narrative in the Book of Esther, Haman’s plot to destroy the Jewish people appears to have been instigated by the fact that Mordechai refused to bow down to Haman. Talk about an extreme reaction! What was it about Mordechai that so angered Haman?

The sages asked a similar question and noted that “the explanation is in the dictum of Rabbi Hisda, for Rabbi Hisda said: The one came [to the court] as a counselor and the other as an envoy. Rabbi Papa said: They also called him [Haman], ‘The slave who was sold for loaves of bread.’” (Megillah 14b/15a).

To understand the statement of Rabbi Hisda, it is necessary to review the story as recorded in Aggadat Esther 5:9. Mordechai was among the Jews who joined Ezra to begin rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Unhappy with the idea that the rightful owners of the land might return, the neighboring nations sought to stop them by claiming that the Jews did not have royal permission to rebuild. (They did, from King Cyrus.) It was determined that representatives from each side would be sent to King Cyrus. The Jews sent Mordechai, while the neighbors sent Haman, who “was the barber in the village of Kartzum for 22 years” (Megillah 16).

As they were traveling together to the king, Mordechai ate his food conservatively, whereas Haman gluttonously consumed his entire supply at the outset of his journey. Virtually famished, Haman asked Mordechai to lend him a loaf of bread. Mordechai agreed to provide the food if Haman would agree to enslave himself. When Haman agreed, the “bill of sale” was written on the sole of Mordechai’s shoe. “Subsequently, when Mordechai was sitting at the gate of the king and Haman passed, [Mordechai] extended his foot with the shoe on which the deed of sale was inscribed. Thereupon ‘Haman was filled with rage’ (Esther 3:5)” (Aggadat Esther 5:9).

Haman’s history with Mordechai only added to Haman’s deep animosity against the Jews that he had acquired from his own family, since he was a descendant of Agag, the last king of the Amalekites. (Click here for the story of the Amalekites.)

This Treat was reposted in honor of Purim.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved. 

History of Hamantashen

If you are active on Jewish social media, whether on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or other, you have probably been inundated with a thousand and one ways to take hamantashen baking to a new level. These once simple cookies are now stuffed with everything from brownies to shredded brisket. These hamantashen recipes are not only delicious, but they are a continuation of Jewish culinary creativity. 

Hamantashen are also an excellent example of the way in which Jewish food traditions can evolve. The cookies themselves appear to have become popular in the middle ages, and, over time, different aspects of these tasty treats were connected to the holiday itself.

1) Shape - There are many reasons proposed for the triangular shape of the hamantashen. One idea connects the three cornered cookie to the three sided table at which Esther hosted Achashverosh and Haman. More commonly, however, hamantashen are connected to Haman himself, representing either his supposedly pointed ears or tri-cornered hat.

2) Filling: Although today hamantashen are filled with just about anything, there are several flavors that have their own history. For instance, the original poppy flavor is the most probable source for the word “hamantashen,” derived from the Yiddish moon tashen or “poppy pockets.” Another traditional flavor is prune (lekvash), which supposedly became a common filling for hamantashen after a Czechoslovakian Jewish jam merchant was acquitted from an accusation that he had poisoned his plum preserves and his community celebrated by filling their hamantashen with this same jam. 

3) Pocket: Significance is also given to the fact that hamentashen are cookies in which the filling is stuffed and “hidden,” just as God’s presence was concealed (God’s name is absent from the Megillah) during the events of the Purim story.

This Treat was reposted in honor of Purim.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved. 

A Lesson of History

Make yourself knowledgeable about history.

Friday, March 3, 2017

A Love Song For Shabbat

The relationship between God and the Jewish people is often compared to a marriage. This is one of the reasons why  Lecha Dodi (Come My Beloved)*, the refrain of which refers to greeting Shabbat like a groom greets his bride, is recited on Friday night.

Among many Sephardic Jewish communities, this rich love relationship is also the reason for the weekly recitation of the entire text of the book of the Song of Songs (Shir Hashirim). With authorship attributed to King Solomon, this biblical text is written as an allegory of love spurned, love lost and love found again. Many commentators and scholars have delved into its poetic language, and it is frequently referred to in Jewish prayer. The great sage Rabbi Akiba states: “All the writings [of the Bible] are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies” (Mishna Yadayim 3:5).

While originally recited after the evening service, the Song of Songs is now most often recited on Friday evening between Mincha (the afternoon service) and Maariv (the evening service). Just as the custom is not consistent throughout the Sephardic world, it is not restricted to Sephardim either. The custom of reading the Song of Songs leading into Shabbat has also been adopted by many Chassidic Jews.

Related Treats:
Lecha Dodi

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How Does God Rest

On the first six days of creation, God created (Day 1) the heavens and earth, light as separated from darkness; (Day 2) the firmament to separate the water (Day 3) dry land, a bringing together of the waters of the earth, plant life (Day 4) the sun and moon, the motion of the luminaries in the heavens (Day 5) the creatures of the sea and the creatures of the air, (Day 6) animals of the land, and, finally, Adam and Eve. And then God rested.

According to Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), God created the world by contracting and limiting Himself. The world maintains itself by God continuing to limit Himself. It is therefore understood by the kabbalists that every moment of the world's existence is only because God so wills it in His continuing act of creation.

What, then, does it mean that God rested on the seventh day, since God is always in a continual state of creating the world? Obviously God didn’t simply put up His feet and take a nap.

The feat of creation is described by the commentators as “yesh may’ayin,” meaning something from nothing. Before God created the world, there was nothing. In every act of creation, God fashioned something that had never existed before. When the Torah states that on the seventh day God rested, it means that God ceased to create anything completely new. Henceforth, all things that came into the world were built upon something that had previously existed.

While humans can be quite ingenious, people are only able to create from matter that already exists. Refraining from m'la'chot, the creative work prohibited on Shabbat, is a gift from God for the Jewish people to let us relate, on some level, to what it means to “hold back” and let the world run its normal course.

This Treat was reposted in honor of SHABBAT ACROSS AMERICA AND CANADA.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved.