Thursday, January 18, 2018

In a South American City

On January 18, 1535, the city of Lima, Peru, was founded to serve as the capital of the Peruvian Viceroyalty. The region’s mining riches drew, among others, a large number of Crypto-Jews (Conversos, Jews who lived as Christians in public) who lived in relative peace until February 7, 1569, when King Phillip II of Spain ordered the establishment of the Inquisition in Lima.

Early Peruvian Jewish history is not a happy one. The first auto-da-fe occurred in December 1595. These grim trials of pre-determined guilt were repeated in 1600 and 1605. In 1639, the largest auto-da-fe ever occurred in Lima. Over 60 people, accused of being part of La Complicidad Grande (The Great Congregation), were tried for practicing and/or preaching Judaism.

The end of the Inquisition in Lima in 1806 meant Jews could come to Peru and live openly. Moroccan Jews came as trappers and traders in the early nineteenth century. In the 1870s, there was an influx of Jews from Alsace, France. While they assimilated into the general populace, they established the Sociedad de Beneficenci Israelita, which still exists today. Around this same time there was a boom in the demand for rubber, drawing adventurous businessmen into the interior of the country. A smaller Jewish community developed in the interior region in Iquitos, and while that community was not sustained, it left a mark on the region such that a surprising number of their descendants have come forward today looking to rejoin the Jewish people.

World War I brought Jews from the fallen Ottoman Empire - from Turkey, Syria and North Africa. It is interesting to note that there are particular references to the immigration to Lima and other South American cities of a large group of Jews from the town of Novoselitsa on the Romanian border.

The Jewish population of Lima has never been large. Today there are still several active synagogues and the Leon Pinelo school to serve that community of a little more that 2,500 members.

By Reproducción (Museo de la Inquisición (Lima)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

State Your

Take time out of your day to talk to God about the things you most desire.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Where to Wear Tefillin

While Jewish Treats has previously discussed the requirements for kosher tefillin (Click here for a full description of tefillin, including the difference between the box worn on the head and the box worn on the arm), it should be noted that the ways in which the tefillin are worn are profoundly symbolic. The actual method for “laying tefillin,” as it is called, is intricate and should be reviewed with a rabbi or one experienced in putting on tefillin.

The tefillin shel yad (of the arm) is always placed on the “weaker” arm. Thus righties place them on their left arms and lefties on their right arms. The box of the tefillin shel yad is placed on the inner arm above the elbow, on top of the muscle, and is lined up to aim at one’s heart, the center of one’s emotions and desires. Speaking of heart, many find meaning in the fact that the strap of the tefillin shel yad is wrapped around the lower arm seven times, just as a bride circles a groom seven times beneath the wedding canopy, alluding to the concept that the Jewish people are married to God. Finally, the strap of the tefillin shel yad is wrapped around one’s hand so that the different criss-crossings create the letters shin, daled and yud, Sha’dai, a name of God representing "He Who sets boundaries on the world."

The box of the tefillin shel rosh (of the head) is placed centrally just above the forehead (at the natural hairline), while the knot that ties the two ends of the strap of the tefillin rests just above the nape of the neck. Just as the tefillin shel yad symbolically represents dedicating one’s emotions to serving God, the tefillin shel rosh represents the dedication of one’s intellect to serving the Almighty.

This Treat was last posted on January 26, 2012.

Copyright © 2017 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Take A Hand

If you are new to "laying Tefillin," don't hesitate to ask for assistance. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

For the Freedom of Religion

January 16th is marked on some United States calendars as National Religious Freedom Day in commemoration of the acceptance of Thomas Jefferson’s statute for religious freedom by the Virginia General Assembly. In honor of this important occasion, Jewish Treats presents a recent event in the country’s history of standing up for religious freedom: The Williamsburg Charter.

Begun in 1986 and officially presented on June 25, 1988, The Williamsburg Charter was created as a reassertion of the importance of the Bill of Rights’ guarantee of religious freedom through both the “Establishment” clause and the “Free Exercise” clause ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof").

As noted within the document:

Religious liberty is the only freedom in the First Amendment to be given two provisions. Together the clauses form a strong bulwark against suppression of religious liberty, yet they emerge from a series of dynamic tensions which cannot ultimately be relaxed. The Religious Liberty provisions grow out of an understanding not only of rights and a due recognition of faiths but of realism and a due recognition of factions. They themselves reflect both faith and skepticism. They raise questions of equality and liberty, majority rule and minority rights, individual convictions and communal tradition.

The committee that created this charter had many purposes in mind. Top among them was protesting the abuse of religion in the name of politics as well as stating the threat of hostility from non-religious elements toward religion and to the democratic ideals of America. The Williamsburg Charter was signed by 100 prominent personalities from politicians to journalists. Jewish organizations that were represented included the Foundation of Jewish Studies, the Synagogue Council of America, B'nai Brith, and the National Jewish Community Relations Council.

Jewish Joy

Celebrate the freedom of religious expression in the United States by freely expressing your Judaism.

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Thing About Nails

If you are a fan of manicures, you might be surprised that Jewish law has a thing or two to say about nail care. For instance, traditional Jewish thought discourages cutting one’s fingernails and toenails on the same day as it is said to lead to forgetfulness. It does, however, encourage a person to cut their nails on Friday in particular as part of one’s Shabbat preparation.

One would not naturally think that such a mundane activity as nail care could have spiritual ramifications, but it does. One such example is the fact that it is considered hazardous for a pregnant woman to step on discarded nails. This is based on the statement in the Talmud: Three things were said about nails: “One who buries them is [deemed] righteous. One who burns them is [considered] pious. One who throws them away is [regarded as] wicked. What is the reason? Lest a pregnant women pass over them and miscarry” (Talmud Moed Katan 18a). No further explanation of the danger is provided.

Beyond the considered danger of haphazardly discarding one’s nails, Jewish tradition also strongly suggests that one not cut their nails in order. Reference to this custom can be found in texts from the early Middle Ages along with the implication that cutting one’s nail sequentially might lead to forgetfulness,  poverty, and, even, God forbid, the death of one’s children! The preferred order, which has its roots in kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), is to begin with the left hand and trim the ring finger, index finger, pinky, middle and the thumb. Switching to the right hand, one then trims the index, ring, thumb, middle and then pinky. This custom applies to fingernails only.

Self Help

Take time to take care of yourself.

Friday, January 12, 2018

A Name Full of Promise

The best-known Hebrew name of God is spelled Yud - Hey - Vuv - Hey. It is a name considered so sacred that we never verbalize it, but instead read it as Ah-doh-nai (meaning “my Master”), and in speech and non-sacred texts it is replaced by the term Hashem (literally “the Name”).

This holy four-letter name of God, known as the Tetragrammaton, is found throughout the Torah and the Jewish liturgy. The familiarity of the use of this name makes God’s statement in Exodus 6:2-3 particularly interesting. After Moses despairs of success on his mission to liberate the Israelites, God says to him: “I am Hashem (Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey). Even when I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as E-l Sha-dai (another name for God that is commonly translated as “God Who Sets Limits” ), by my name Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey I did not make Myself known to them.”

If God’s Name, Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, is such an important name and is used throughout the Book of Genesis, is it really accurate to say that the patriarchs and matriarchs were unfamiliar with it? The commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac, Provence, France 11th century) explains that God was telling Moses: “I was not recognized by them [the patriarchs] by my attribute of keeping trust, and the reason for which My Name is called Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey is that I may be trusted to keep My promises but have not [as yet] fulfilled them.”

The name Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey is a Name that demonstrates God’s eternal omnipresence because it conjugates the Hebrew verb “to be” as past-present-future melded into one. God is telling Moses that He will fulfill the promise from Genesis 15, in which He told Abraham that his descendants will be enslaved in a strange land but that eventually they will go free with great wealth. It was a promise that spanned generations, but whose time had now come to be fulfilled.

Eternal Contemplation

As you celebrate Shabbat, contemplate the eternity of God and the incredible history of the Jewish people.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Stories from Safed

The city of Safed in the northern Galilee is one of Israel’s most popular tourist destinations. One of its primary draws is its magnificent synagogues whose congregations date back to the Middle Ages and the era of the kabbalists (mystics). Many of these famous synagogues, however, were actually rebuilt in the mid-nineteenth century, after their original buildings were damaged or destroyed by a powerful earthquake on January 1, 1837, the 24th of Tevet. In a city known for holy synagogues, the stories of what happened to these buildings provides insight into the city’s communal priorities.

The Abuhav Synagogue was built by Jews expelled from Spain who had been disciples of Rabbi Isaac Abuha (14th century Spanish Talmudic scholar). Among the synagogue’s prized possessions is a Torah scroll written by Rabbi Abuhav. After the earthquake, the only wall of the synagogue left standing was the southern wall in which the Torah scrolls were stored.

The Avritch/Beit Ayin Synagogue was completely destroyed except for the area immediately near the Torah scrolls. The earthquake occurred at the time of Mincha (afternoon service). A minute before the quake, according to legend, Rabbi Avraham Dov of Avritch called out, “Whoever wants to live come to me!” His congregants ran to him, and when the rest of the building collapsed, they survived.

The ARI Ashkenazi Synagogue, which had been built in the 16th century by Greek Sephardim but had become a chassidic synagogue, was destroyed by the earthquake. Among the rubble, however, Rabbi Shmuel Heller (1809-1884) was discovered alive but buried up to his neck in debris. (He was bed-ridden for 6 months and never regained the use of one arm.) Rabbi Heller remained a leader of the Ashkenazi community, even after the quake that killed his wife and children.

Over 2,000 residents of the city’s Jewish quarter were killed by the quake and resulting landslide, along with hundreds of other victims in the northern Galilee. While many survivors decided to move, many others heeded the pleas of leaders like Rabbi Avraham Dov to stay and rebuild the community.

Life Gift

Give blood to your local blood bank.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Purims Plus in Tripoli

Throughout history, Jews have faced times of peril, and when the times of danger were over, Jews always found different ways to express their gratitude to God for their survival. In quite a few instances, this has taken the form of an annual local Purim.

In the city of Tripoli, Libya, two such Purims were celebrated and both were in the Hebrew month of Tevet.

Purim Al-Sharif, observed on the 23rd of Tevet, celebrated the end of a siege on the city by Ibrahim Al-Sharif, the Bey of Tunisia, in 1705. Al-Sharif was upset when Tripolitan corsairs captured an Egyptian ship bearing presents for him. Eventually, Al-Sharif’s troops were forced out of the city. Although the siege did not single out the Jews in particular, the Jewish community of Tripoli took upon itself an annual celebration. On this thanksgiving day, the Jews feasted, exchanged gifts and charity and did not work. On the Shabbat prior to Purim Al-Sharif, a special Mi Kamocha (Who is like You [God]) Poem, written by Rabbi Shabbeti Tayyar, was read to the community.

Purim Burghul, observed on the 29th of Tevet, celebrated the city’s release from the reign of terror of Ali el-Jezairli, who was also known as Ali Burghul. Burghul took control of the city at the behest of the Sultan of Istanbul when the ruling Karamanli family began fighting among themselves. Burghul was merciless and pressed heavy taxes upon the people, particularly the Jews. A peace between the Karamanlis was negotiated (with the assistance of a Jewish man named Rahamin Barda), and they retook the city. The Mi Kamocha commemorating these events was recorded by Rabbi Avraham Khalfon, whose son had been burned at the stake by Burghul.

References are all in the past as there is no longer a Jewish community in Tripoli.

Local Time

Participate in local celebrations and demonstrate Jewish pride in your community.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Not Such a Little Theft

The entry of the Israelites into the Promised Land is a fairly well-known narrative. It began with the miraculous battle of Jericho, which ended victoriously when the walls came crashing down (click here for more details). Far less famous, however, is the second battle fought by the Israelites in the Land of Canaan.

After the victory at Jericho and a quick scouting of the city of Ai, the Israelites presumed that they faced an easy victory. In fact, they decided to send only a small force, assuming that, just as at Jericho, God was with them. Only He wasn’t.

Before the Battle of Jericho, the Israelites were given a few specific instructions, most importantly: “You must beware of that which is forbidden , or else you will be accursed. If you take anything from that which is forbidden, you will cause the camp of Israel to be accursed, you will bring calamity upon it” (Joshua 6:18).

Fearful of the punishment, all the Israelites refrained from touching the booty of Jericho. All but one.

The first battle of Ai ended in defeat. Distressed by the outcome, Joshua resorted to a lottery for Divine guidance to determine who had sinned. The outcome identified Achan the son of Carmi from the Tribe of Judah as the violator. Achan admitted that he had taken the booty and had buried it beneath his tent. Achan and all those who knew of the hidden valuables were executed by stoning. Shortly thereafter, the Israelites captured Ai.

Achan’s story is tragic. One moment of greed led not only to the violators’ death, but to the death of the innocent soldiers who went into battle at Ai.

However, Jewish tradition relates that, before his death, Achan repented. His words of teshuva (repentance) were recorded and are found in the second paragraph of the Aleinu prayer (which begins Al Kein Nekaveh an acrostic of Achan’s name) that is recited at the conclusion of each of the three daily prayer services. (Click here for the words).


Always consider how your individual actions might affect other people.

Monday, January 8, 2018

What's With The Hat?

Hair Is A Woman's Crowning Glory

Is there any question that a woman's hair is an essential element of her beauty? Think about all those shampoo commercials where a woman seductively whips her hair about--no doubt they are playing on the attractiveness of luxurious locks.

The sages recognized the significance of hair to a woman's beauty and the role that beauty plays in married life. In the Talmud (Berachot 24a), a married woman's hair is defined as ehrva, those parts of the body that are kept covered for reasons of modesty.

The practice of women covering their hair was once a societal norm (as it still is in many non-Western countries). With the changing standards of fashion and modesty, however, different forms of hair covering are seen in the Jewish community.

In some communities, women may wear a hat or bandana with some of their own hair flowing out. In other communities, women will wear hats or scarves with all of their hair carefully tucked out of sight. Wigs (called sheitels) are also common in such communities.

Among some sects of Chassidim, women keep their hair extremely short and wear both a wig and a hat.

The mitzvah of covering one's hair is known as kisui rosh.

This Treat was last posted on February 3, 2009.


Try to understand Jewish law to enhance peace among the Jewish people.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Touching the Equation

Imagine having a passion for mathematics but lacking the language to express it. Math, with all of its detailed and complex problem solving, is an extremely visual field of study. Because of math’s visual nature, a young blind man named Abraham Nemeth was dissuaded from studying mathematics when he began his academic career at Brooklyn College. Instead, Nemeth studied psychology, and even earned a Masters in the field from Columbia University. His passion for mathematics, however, never dampened.

Born on October 16, 1918, Nemeth was blind from birth, a challenge his parents never used as an excuse and were determined to teach him to explore the world. His parents and grandfather, with whom he had a close relationship, encouraged his independence in his Lower East Side neighborhood and beyond. Nemeth received a full education at the Jewish Guild for the Blind School in Yonkers, New York.

Alas, in the mid-20th century, there were few professional opportunities for the visually impaired, and Nemeth was unable to find a position worthy of his Masters in Psychology. He earned a living playing piano and working in the shipping department of the American Federation for the Blind.

Nemeth continued to explore mathematics. It was his frustration at the lack of Braille coding for anything beyond basic arithmetic that fuelled him into action. In 1950, at the encouragement of friends, he presented the American Joint Braille Committee with an entirely new system that came to be known as the Nemeth Braille Code for Mathematics and Science Notation. It is still in use today.

Shortly thereafter, Nemeth was hired to teach at the University of Detroit and then attained a Doctorate in Mathematics from Wayne State University. Nemeth was able to teach seeing students by visualizing the chalkboard before writing precise lines of equations.

In addition to his incredible achievements for the general visually-impaired community, Nemeth put his talents to use helping the Jewish Braille Institute (now JBI International) produce Jewish books in Braille and create a single prayerbook (replacing the multi-volume Braille prayerbook).

Abraham Nemeth passed away on October 2, 2013.

January is National Braille Literacy Month.

Basic Behavior

Do not make presumptions about other people.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Based in Burma

Today’s Jewish Treat presents the unexpected Jewish history of Myanmar (formerly Burma), which gained its independence from the United Kingdom on January 4, 1948.  A synagogue is among the 188 Heritage Buildings in Yangon City (formerly Rangoon).

Although there was no Jewish settlement in Burma until the 19th century, it is recorded that a Solomon Gabirol was the commissar of the army of King Alaungpaya. However, real Jewish immigration only began after the British took control of the region. In the 1800s, Jewish merchants came from India and settled in Rangoon and several smaller cities. Many of them were involved in the teakwood trade. The Burmese Jewish community came to be comprised of Baghdadi Jews, Cochin Jews and Bene Israel, three distinct communities of the Indian subcontinent. (There is also a small Bnei Menashe community in the north.) The Jews were accepted well-enough by the general community that there were at least two Jewish mayors in the country during the 20th century.

The Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue in what is now downtown Yangon, started out as a simple wooden structure built in 1854. In 1893, construction began at the same location (a plot of land granted by the British Colonial Government) for a stone edifice. The new building was completed in 1896. It is said that there was a second synagogue built in 1932, when the Jewish population peaked at close to 2,500 people, but no record of it remains.

When the Japanese invaded Burma in 1942, they did not persecute Jews like their German allies, but they were suspicious of them as European sympathizers. As a result, the majority of Jews left Burma. After the war there were still approximately 300 Jews, but half of them fled the 1962 military coup that transformed Burma into Myanmar and greatly limited personal freedom.

Today, the Jewish community consists of only about 20 people, bolstered by the diplomatic staff from the Israeli consulate and occasional Jewish tourists. The synagogue remains a popular tourist stop.

Copyright © 2018 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Community Connects

Build connections between the different elements of your local Jewish community.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

A Look At The Law

There are three types of laws in the Torah...mishpatim, edot and chukim:

Mishpatim are basic laws. In fact, mishpatim are generally translated as those laws which are necessary and logical for the conduct of society. Don’t steal, don’t murder, set up courts of law...statutes that are all necessary for civilization to function and could be deduced through basic common sense.

Edot are commandments which testify to an idea or mark an occasion, like a holiday. The actual performance of the mitzvah is meant as a reminder of an event or a concept. For instance, Americans celebrate the 4th of July and commemorate their independence from Britain with picnics, parties and fireworks. Jews celebrate their freedom from the slavery of Egypt by thanking God, participating in a seder filled with actions directly related to the Exodus and by eliminating bread and leavened products, just as our ancestors did. The edot, the testimonies, do not just mark days or items as part of our history, but enable us to make the spiritual connection that bonds all Jews - past, present and future.

Chukim are those laws which generally cannot be logically explained, such as keeping kosher. These laws are usually the first to be cast aside because they are often difficult to understand. Yet chukim are very important in Judaism. Indeed, chukim go hand-in-hand with the very first commandment of the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God.” Since belief in God is a fundamental principle of Judaism, observing those laws known as chukim expresses our commitment to this fundamental principle of belief. Thus observant Jews keep kosher not because they believe it is a healthier diet, but because God commanded the Jewish people to live by these dietary laws.

This Treat was last posted on November 11, 2008.

Copyright © 2018 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Mitzvah Types

As you perform a mitzvah, think about which category or categories the mitzvah might fall into.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

More Than A Book Seller

Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh, born on January 2, 1836, to a poor family near Minsk, had a traditional religious Jewish childhood. After his father passed away when he was 13,  Abramovitsh lived as a yeshiva teg-essen (literally day eater) student who received free meals from different charitable families on alternating days.

In 1854, Abramovitsh settled in Kamionets-Podilsky, where he was introduced to the Haskala Movement that sought to promote secular education as a means of improving the lives of the Jewish people. He began learning Russian and other languages and  reading secular literature and philosophy. He also met Avram Ber Gotlober, a writer and poet who took Abramovitsh under his wing and even submitted Abramovitsh’s first work, an essay on education, to the Hebrew newspaper, Hamagid.

Abramovitsh’s first stories were written in Hebrew. However, after a few years, he switched to Yiddish, enabling him to address a much larger audience. In 1869, Abramovitsh’s Yiddish novel Fishke der Krumer (Fishke the Lame) included a character whose name became the nom de plume by which Abramovitsh is still remembered: “Mendele Mocher Sfarim” (Mendele the Book Seller).

In the 1870s, Abramovitsh moved away from the Haskala Movement and became an advocate of social reform. Much of his work in this era explored the challenges of the lives of the poor and sought answers for societal improvement.

In 1869, finding it difficult to support himself and his family, Abramovitsh moved from Berdechev to Zhytomer, where he trained at a government sponsored rabbinic school. In 1881, he was hired as the head of a new Talmud Torah in Odessa, where he remained for the rest of his life.

The Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem dubbed Abramovitsh the “Grandfather of Yiddish Literature.” His work was tremendously influential on the development of both Hebrew and Yiddish literature. Mendele Mocher Sfarim (Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh) passed away on December 8, 1917.

Copyright © 2018 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Basic Education

Even if you do not have kids in the system, help support your local Jewish educational institutions.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Should Old Acquaintances Be Forgot?

“Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind?” This question is posed by the classic New Year’s Eve song Auld Lang Syne. The song originated in Scotland and is sung at times of farewell (to the old year, with an uncertain new year ahead).

The Talmud (Berachot 58b) cites an interesting rule about old friends and how, indeed, they are never truly forgotten. “Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: One who sees a friend after a lapse of thirty days says: Blessed is He who has kept us alive and preserved us and brought us to this season. If [it is] after a lapse of twelve months he says: Blessed is He who revives the dead. Rav said: The dead are not forgotten till after twelve months, as it says (Psalms 31:13): ‘I am forgotten as a dead man out of mind; I am like a lost vessel.’”

Jewish life, however, is long on memory. The first year after a person passes away, there are numerous commemorative markers (shiva - the first seven days; shloshim - the thirty day mark; yahrtzeit - the one year mark). Afterward, the annual observance of the anniversary of death (yahrtzeit) generally keeps a person’s memory alive for many more years.

In some cases, a person who has passed away only comes to mind at the time of their yahrtzeit, just as the return of an old friend into one’s life brings back memories of times past.

The custom of greeting an old friend with a blessing is no longer in general practice. Of course, in this day of telephones, internet and the various social media platforms, it is far less common to completely lose touch with good friends. 

This Treat was last posted on December 31, 2013.

Copyright © 2018 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Reach Out

Reach out to old friends.