Wednesday, January 31, 2018

More Than Just Trees

Thousands of blue boxes and a dream that encompassed a nation...that was the foundation of the Jewish National Fund (JNF or Keren Kayemet L'Israel). Today, JNF is best known for its commitment to environmentalism and its dogged campaign to reforest the land of Israel (you know, plant a tree in honor/memory of a loved one). 

One might say, however, that JNF was founded as a giant real estate conglomerate whose sole client was the Jewish people. At the Fifth Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1901, the assembled delegates discussed (as they had at previous congresses) the establishment of a national fund to purchase land in Palestine. When the Congress tabled the motion, Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, stepped forward and called upon his colleagues to reconsider their hesitations. After his passionate speech, a new vote was held and the Fund was established.

The Zionist Congress resolved to raise 200,000 pounds sterling...and so it began, donation by donation, much of it collected in little blue charity boxes from around the world. In fact, these blue charity boxes (or pushkahs) became a symbol of the Zionist movement.

When JNF acquired its first parcel of land in Hadera, it immediately began planting trees, an act vital to the development of the land. Much of what had once been arable land had been overworked or neglected. The topsoil had been eroded. The trees helped revitalize the land.

In time, after the creation of the State of Israel, JNF was transformed into an organization that dealt with a wide variety of Israel’s needs, from environmental to employment for new immigrants. JNF has focused on the Negev desert, investing in new and innovative ways to bring life to the harsh desert climate, and dealing with Israel’s critical water resource issues. 

This Treat was originally posted on January 18, 2011.

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 25, 2016.

Copyright © 2018 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Thinking Trees

Go forward from Tu B'Shevat with a greater conscientiousness toward the importance of trees.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

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 (halachic) 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.

Feast of Fruit

Gather some friends and share a fruitful feast to honor the New Year of the trees.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Do you Shukle?

If you’ve ever watched a traditional prayer quorum, or even just the prayers of a traditional Jew, you might wonder what all the motion and bodily movement is about. Forward-back, forward-back - the movement is almost like swaying (and indeed, some people do shukle side to side). This rocking-like action is known by the Yiddish term shukling, which means shaking.

An original source for shukling is not clear, but Rabbi Moses Isserles (a.k.a. the Rema 1520 - 1572) connects it to the verse in Psalms that states, “All my limbs will declare ‘God, who is like You?’” (Psalms 35:10).

Shukling is not just for prayer. It is also common for someone immersed in the study of Torah to shukle. According to Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (a.k.a. Ba’al Haturim, 1269-1340), this swaying is connected to the trembling of the Children of Israel when they received the Torah at Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:14). Interestingly, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (1075-1141) wrote in The Kuzari: “Have you not seen a hundred people reading in the Torah as if one man stopped reading in one moment and continued in the next” (2:80), which some have understood as implying that the forward-back motion of shukling developed from people taking turns looking in the holy books (before printing presses made books easy to replicate).

While shukling is a common practice, the most important objective during prayer is to have kavanah (proper focus). Therefore, if the act of shukling is distracting, one should pray standing still or move in a way that better helps them concentrate. While shukling, it is discouraged, however, to make large or strange motions that might distract others or, more specifically, from swinging one’s head from side to side, in a way that might look arrogant.

Copyright © 2018 NJOP. All rights reserved.

My Place

Establish a place in your home where you are able to concentrate while saying prayers.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Rebuke for Good

It is “human nature” to question the ups and downs of life. Of course, people mostly question the downs of life. The Jewish view of the world, however, is that nothing happens by chance. We mortals only have a limited view. The larger picture, however, is something that people, nations, and even entire generations, cannot see.

One perspective on the hardships of life can be found in the writings of King Solomon in the Book of Proverbs: “Do not reject the discipline of the Lord, my son; Do not abhor His rebuke. For whom the Lord loves, He rebukes, as a father [does to] the son whom he favors” (3:11-12). The message conveyed in these two verses is one of comfort. The challenges that God sends in one’s life are meant to help one grow, and the tests one endures and survives are meant for one’s own benefit. According to many commentaries, the ordeals that one suffers in this world countermand potential punishments in the World to Come.

An important aspect of these verses is the analogy of God’s relationship to humankind as that of a father to a son. Just as a parent does not delight in punishing a child, so too God does not bring suffering to a person for no reason. A parent, however, sees how the consequences of reproof often help a child become a better person. This proverb of King Solomon serves a reminder that in times of trial one should look for a way to grow and remember to think of God as a father that cares.

Copyright © 2018 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Favorite Wine

Use your favorite wine to sanctify Shabbat by reciting kiddush tonight.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

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 © 2018 NJOP. All rights reserved.


Remember to express your gratitude to God and to other people.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Maiden

Among the many remarkable women who appear in the annals of Jewish history, the Maiden of Ludmir stands out as a unique and holy woman. Her actual name was Chana Rochel Verbermacher, and according to Chassidic lore, she was consider very much like a Chassidic Rebbe who gathered followers in her court of holiness.

Born around 1806 in Ludmir, Ukraine, Verbermacher was the only child of a well-to-do merchant who provided his daughter with a superior education, far beyond the norm for girls at the time. According to the oral tradition (and there are very little written records of the Maiden of Ludmir), Verbermacher suffered a near-death illness in her teens, perhaps not long after she lost her mother.

Unlike most young ladies in her shtetle, Verbermacher had no interest in marriage. After her father passed away, leaving her a substantial inheritance, Verbermacher had a Beit Midrash (study hall) built. She devoted herself to studying holy texts.  Others came to study with her and soon her Beit Midrash mirrored the activities of a Chassidic court. She shared Torah wisdom, offered advice, gave blessings and shared meals with her followers at a Tisch.

“The Maiden” faced a great deal of pressure from the Chassidic establishment to marry and eventually she consented, but the marriage did not last long. “The Maiden” put all of her energy into studying and helping her followers.

Around 1859, Verbermacher left the Ukraine and moved to Jerusalem. Here too, she gathered a following of people drawn to her holy ways. In addition to acting as a spiritual leader, it is believed that “The Maiden” often led groups of Jews on a pilgrimage to the Tomb of Rachel.

The Maiden of Ludmir died in the late 1880s. Tradition states that a large group of mourners escorted her body to be buried on the Mount of Olives.

Copyright © 2018 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Encourage Education

Encourage the Jewish education of the children in your life.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Don’t Miss the Strategy

The story of the Exodus is one that is, perhaps, all too familiar. It is read annually as part of the weekly Torah readings, of course, at the Passover seder and has been integrated into popular culture by such films as The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt. However, its very familiarity makes it easy for a reader to overlook the important details of the narrative. One excellent example of this is the journey of the Israelites to the Sea of Reeds/Red Sea.

Have you ever wondered why, if the Children of Israel were being guided by God, they ended up trapped between the sea and the Egyptian army? It was not, as one might assume on a quick read, a situation of a strategic error, but rather part of God’s purposeful plan for Pharaoh. Until this point in the narrative, every time Pharaoh had agreed to let the Children of Israel go free, he had changed his mind. The permission he granted after the tenth plague turned out to be just as fickle, and so God arranged for the Israelites to witness the miraculous closure to Pharaoh’s hold over them.

Exodus 14 begins with God instructing Moses to speak to the Children of Israel “and let them turn back and encamp in Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea” (Exodus 14:2). Since God then told Moses how Pharaoh would react, the important words here are “let them turn back.”

The Biblical commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac 1040 - 1105) writes that the Israelites “approached nearer to Egypt during the entire third day in order to mislead Pharaoh, so that he would say, ‘They [the Israelites] are astray on the road.’” The plan, as recorded in the Torah, went precisely as planned. Pharaoh was lured into chasing his former slaves to the sea, where God provided a miraculous salvation and a final resolution to the problem of Pharaoh.

Copyright © 2018 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Learning Partners

Find a friend to become a "learning partner" and explore the intricate texts of the Torah.

Monday, January 22, 2018


The Hebrew word for blessing is bracha. People are most familiar with this term from the formulation of Jewish prayers that start with the word Baruch, Blessed. Those who are familiar with Hebrew will recall that almost every Hebrew word is derived from a 3 letter root. By looking at other words that share the root letters of bracha - Beit, Reish and Chaf - a deeper understanding of a bracha may be gained.

BERECH: The word berech refers to a bend in the body, usually referring to the knee joint. In ancient times it was common to pray on one’s knees, demonstrating humility and an acknowledgment that we mortals are not the source of our own achievements. Bowing reminds us to recognize that there is a Higher Power.

BRAICHA: A braicha is a well, a natural source of water. Water is the fundamental ingredient of life. On a spiritual level, the Torah is likened to water because tapping into the spiritual power of the Torah is essential for the soul. And what is the wellspring of the Torah, the source of this great spiritual energy? God. When you dip your hand in a pool of water, it ripples and radiates outward from the point of impact. No bracha is without its “ripple effect.” From these related words, we learn that a bracha is an act of reaching out to the Source of all energy (God). A bracha enables both the giver and the receiver to see beyond themselves to that Divine Source.

This Treat was originally posted on November 6, 2008.

Copyright © 2018 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Slow Talk

When you say a bracha, slow down and think about the words.

Friday, January 19, 2018

The Songs of the Ibn Ezra

The joy of Shabbat is expressed in many ways throughout the “Day of Rest.” For those of a musical bent (and even for those not so musically inclined), one of the joys of the Shabbat meals is the singing of z'mirot (Shabbat songs). Today’s Jewish Treat presents two z’mirot composed by Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164).

Ki Eshmara Shabbat is a zemer (song) designated for the Shabbat lunch meal. Its repeating refrain translates to “If I keep the Shabbat Day, God will guard me. It is a sign for eternity between Him and me.” The five verses of the song each describe a different aspect of Shabbat observance such as refraining from creative work, the use of two loaves of challah and even the prohibitions of fasting or mourning on Shabbat. Ki Eshmera Shabbat is included in most prayerbooks and in the special z’mirot songbooks used on Shabbat.

While many z’mirot have been penned over the years, not all remain popular. Ibn Ezra’s other zemer, Tzamah Nafshi Ley’lokim (“My Soul Thirsts for God”) , is not found in most Shabbat songbooks printed today. The song was composed to serve as an introduction to the Shabbat morning service’s Nishmat prayer, but was adopted to be sung as a Friday evening zemer. It is interesting to note, however, that this lovely poem about connecting to God was, according to record, always sung by the Chatam Sofer (1762 - 1839), who believed that it was written with Ruach Hakodesh (Divine inspiration).

To listen to a traditional version of Ki Eshmara Shabbat, click here.

Copyright © 2018 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Sing It

Enliven your Shabbat meals with singing.

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 than 2,500 members.

By Reproducción (Museo de la Inquisición (Lima)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Copyright © 2018 NJOP. All rights reserved.

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 © 2018 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.

Copyright © 2018 NJOP. All rights reserved.

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.

Copyright © 2018 NJOP. All rights reserved.

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.

Copyright © 2018 NJOP. All rights reserved.

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.

Copyright © 2018 NJOP. All rights reserved.

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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.