Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Importance of Dad

In honor of Father's Day, Jewish Treats presents this classic Treat on the importance of a father.

Where does a child learn to be a mentsch (a good person)? From his/her parents! Indeed, in the Talmud (Sukkot 56b) it even notes that a child repeats in the streets what he/she hears at home.

According to Dr. David Pelcovitz (author of Balanced Parenting), research studies have found that the active involvement of both parents in a child’s moral education is the strongest predictor of children's moral reasoning and empathy as they grow older.

In the traditional family model, in which mom tends to have the central role in parenting (i.e. spends a lot more time with the kids), it is important to note that these studies have found particular importance in dad’s involvement.

The father is often seen as the enforcer of the rules laid down by the mother. However, far more important than being involved in discipline is dad’s actual involvement in teaching his child(ren) how to live a Jewish life (i.e. being a mentsch), which has an incredibly positive influence on the child’s future. As King Solomon wrote in Proverbs (22:6), “Educate a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

According to the sages of the Talmud, after circumcision and Pidyon Haben (redemption of the first born son), a father’s primary responsibilities are to teach the child Torah, to find him/her a spouse, and to teach the child a trade. Some say, to teach him/her to swim too (Kiddushin 29a). At the bare minimum, his fatherly obligations are to make certain that the basic necessities of child-rearing are attended to (by a third party if necessary). But, the best child-rearing includes dad sharing his time, knowledge and wisdom, and truly leaving a lasting and meaningful impression on his children.

This Treat is reposted each year in honor of Father's Day.

Copyright © 2018 NJOP. All rights reserved

Call If You Can

If you haven't already, call your father for a shmooze.

Friday, June 15, 2018

A Trap of Wealth

If I were a rich man...The most important men in town will come to fawn on me...When you’re rich they think you really know...

The now classic words from the Broadway show Fiddler on the Roof speak a sad truth -- people often convolute having wealth with having wisdom or deserving of leadership status. In many ways, this was the case of Korach, a cousin of Aaron, Miriam and Moses, who led a rebellion against their leadership.

The Aggadah and Midrash (extra biblical texts containing further narrative, part of the oral tradition) add some critical information about Korach that help explain why the sages state “Which [dispute] was not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach” (Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers 5:17).

Korach was used to being in charge and respected. He was not your average Israelite or even an average Levi. The Talmud maintains that Korach was a fabulously wealthy individual and records that “The keys to Korach’s treasury were a load for 300 white mules. They even declared that the verse in Ecclesiastes 5:12, ‘Riches hoarded by their owner, to his misfortune,’ refers to the wealth of Korach” (Talmud Pesachim 119a). Furthermore, according to the Midrash, Korach acquired his wealth as “overseer of Pharaoh’s house, and the keys to [Pharaoh’s] treasuries were in his hands” (Numbers Rabbah 18:15).

One of the many underlying themes in Jewish life is to remember that all of one’s blessings come from God. And yet, the more successful one is, the more easily one believes that success is solely a product of one’s own efforts, which is an attitude that leads a person to seek out honor. The Midrash states about Korach: “Two men of wealth arose in the world - Korach of Israel and Haman of the nations of the world, both of whom perished from the world. Why? Because their gifts were not from the Holy One Blessed is He, rather, He allowed them to grab them for themselves” (Numbers Rabbah 12:7).

A wealthy person may be wise, or a wealthy person may be a lucky fool blessed with good fortune. It is prudent to always judge leaders not by their apparent success, but by their words, actions and wisdom.

Keeping Humble

Be grateful for your successes.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

This Surgery Is Elective

In the late twentieth century there was, according to anecdotal evidence, an epidemic of “deviated septum” among American Jewish girls. The implication, along with many not-so-funny jokes, was that many young Jewish women were finding medical reasons to have rhinoplasty.   Today, in the 21st century, cosmetic surgery and rhinoplasty are basic and easily available options and have moved from being a tabloid title of derision to being an advertised standard option for anyone.

Pikuach nefesh, saving a life, is always a primary priority in halacha (Jewish law) discussions. But, plastic surgery, particularly elective procedures done purely for aesthetic purposes, does not fall into the life-saving category, and one might wonder if these procedures are therefore allowed according to Jewish law. This question has been discussed by many important halachic experts since the 1960s, when the practice first became popular.

One common argument raised in the discussion of cosmetic surgery is the religious prohibition of chavala, injuring one’s body. However, it is commonly accepted, as explained by Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides/Rambam), that this prohibition refers specifically to hostile actions.

Another primary point made is the question of safety. It is not permissible to put one’s life in danger unnecessarily, and many cosmetic procedures require general anesthesia. Advances in technology and medicine, however, have made those risks negligible in most cases. Pikuach nephesh raises the issue of health and healing, the validity of which many may question when discussing cosmetic surgery. However, in may cases, the benefits of the surgery is to heal a person’s internal needs by helping to create a positive sense of self, which can be just as important as a healthy body.

Like most choices filtered through a Jewish lens, every case involves an individual halachic decision and one should always discuss such issues with a rabbi.

I Like Your....

 Be generous in giving compliments to those around you.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Other Hand Washing

It’s been a lovely meal, from the fresh-baked French bread to the sinful chocolate mousse -- every bite. All that is left to do is to recite Grace After Meals (Birkat Hamazon) thanking God for the food. But would you be surprised to learn that there is an additional religious rite to perform before the concluding Grace?

Just as the hands are washed before a meal (in which one eats bread), before the conclusion of the meal there is a special hand washing ritual known as mayim acharonim (literally: “final waters”).

Mayim acharonim is usually done at the table with a small cup of water and a small bowl into which to spill the used water. There is no blessing, and the “dirty” water should either be covered or removed from the table before Birkat Hamazon. Customs for mayim acharonim vary. Some only do it when there are three or more people present, some only when there are 10 or more, and others every time one eats bread. Likewise, how much of the hand or fingers are washed varies according to custom.

Some sages have disputed the necessity of maintaining this practice because it stems from the need to wash off “Sodomite salt.” This pungent salt was sometimes mixed into table salt in Talmudic times and could potentially cause blindness if rubbed in the eye. Since this salt is no longer in use, the mayim acharonim might appear to be unnecessary.

Washing one’s hands as part of Jewish ritual, however, is not about cleanliness of the body (although that is an added bonus), but cleanliness of the soul. As one is about to thank the Creator for all that has been provided, washing one’s hands reminds a person to separate from the physical and to focus on the spiritual.

This Treat was last posted on January 30, 2009.

The Custom of the Law

When confronted with different customs on fulfilling Jewish law, check with your family or local community rabbi to know which custom to follow.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Choral in the Capitals

The history of Jewish settlement in Russia is as long and complex as the narrative of the ever-shifting areas of Russian power. In the 18th century, Empress Catherine the Great banished all Jews from Russia proper, sending them to the Pale of Settlement, but exceptions were made and small Jewish communities began to develop in cities such as St. Petersburg and Moscow. By 1869, several years after Czar Alexander II relaxed the restrictions on Jewish settlement, there were at least 10 Jewish prayer groups meeting in St. Petersburg. With special permission from the Czar, and in agreement to his specifications, the development of St. Petersburg's Grand Choral Synagogue began in 1870, although a plot of land was not purchased until 1879.The synagogue came into partial use in 1886 and was finally consecrated and opened in 1893.

Like Russian Jewry, the Grand Choral Synagogue has survived the challenges of war and oppression. It served as a hospital during World War I and was bombed during the Siege of Leningrad (as the city was then known) during World War II. Having maintained its sacred trust even throughout the anti-religious Soviet era, the Grand Choral Synagogue is, today, a registered landmark.

In Moscow, which became Russia's capital in 1918, there is also a Choral Synagogue that was built around the same time. The Jewish community hired Simon Eibschitz to design a synagogue in 1881. In 1886, the plans were officially approved. In 1888, when construction was well-underway, the city insisted that an exterior image of a Torah scroll and the building's domes be removed. The builders complied and work resumed, at least for a little while. In March 1891, the city's new General Governor, Prince Serge Aleksandrovich, began expelling groups of Jews, starting with artisans. By June 1892, when Aleksandrovich officially shut down the Choral Synagogue along with several others, close to 20,000 Jews had been expelled.

If not for the Russian Revolution, this would possibly have been the end of the synagogue. In the midst of the chaos, Czar Nicholas declared religious freedom. The synagogue was refurbished by architect Roman Klein and then reopened in 1906.

Once reopened, the Moscow Choral Synagogue managed to stay relevant during the Soviet Era, although there were many times of danger. In 1948, Israeli Ambassador Golda Meir attended High Holiday services there, much to the chagrin of the Soviet authorities watching her, which launched a major movement of Jewish consciousness among Soviet Jews.

Today, the synagogue has once again been refurbished and is now the center of the city's Jewish life.

Synagogue Life

Get involved in your local synagogue, explore your options of prayer services, social programming or, quite often, community activism.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Philosophy, Religion, A Jewish Civilization

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan was born on June 11, 1881, in Lithuania. His family moved to America in 1889. After receiving a traditional Jewish education, Kaplan studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) while also attending first the City College of New York, followed by graduate studies at Columbia University. Upon completing his education, Kaplan accepted a rabbinic position at New York's Kehillath Jeshurun and began teaching at JTS.

Early in his career, Kaplan began developing certain unique thoughts and concepts about Jewish theology. He placed great importance on viewing Judaism as an evolving civilization, which he called "peoplehood.” One way he put this philosophy into action was in supporting efforts to create places like the Jewish Center in Manhattan, of which he became the founding rabbi in 1918. The Jewish Center acted as a community center with arts, culture and athletics, built around a synagogue. As Kaplan's personal philosophies continued to develop away from traditional thought, however, he was released from his employment at the Jewish Center in 1921. The next year he helped create the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, where he served as rabbi and where he oversaw what is considered the first American public Bat Mitzvah, that of his daughter Judith.

Developing philosophies such as prayer as a tool of self-conscientiousness and a naturalistic concept of God, Rabbi Kaplan found himself more and more isolated from the established and more traditional American Jewish theologic organizations, although he did maintain his teaching position at JTS. In 1939, beginning with Judaism As A Civilization, Rabbi Kaplan published books explaining his unique view points. Following his belief in a broader understanding of a Jewish society, he helped create the University of Judaism (now the American Jewish University), that strived to encompass the diversity of the American Jewish community. Five years after Rabbi Kaplan's retirement from JTS (1963), he and his son-in-law, Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, created the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, marking the official founding of the Reconstructionist Movement.

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan passed away in New York City on November 8, 1983, at age 102.

Proud Judaism

Fill your home with items that enhance your pride in being Jewish.

Friday, June 8, 2018

The People's Request

One of the most significant events in the journey of the Children of Israel through the wilderness was the incident of the spies. Sent into the Land of Canaan to assess its potential for settlement, ten of the twelve tribal leaders sent as spies reported upon their return that the land was fearsome and that the Children of Israel would be no match for its inhabitants. The Israelites cried out in panic and, in consequence, God determined that their entry into Israel
would be delayed for one generation. 

In the Book of Numbers, the description of these events begins with two small but significant words: “Shlach lecha,” “Send for yourself” (Numbers 13:1).  According to many commentaries, these words, spoken by God to Moses, point to the fact that God did not plan on having the Children of Israel send spies into the Land of Canaan, but that He commanded it in response to a request from the Israelites. This understanding is supported by Moses’ own words as he related the history of the Israelites’ travels in the Book of Deuteronomy: “Then all of you came to me and said, ‘Let us send men ahead to spy out the land for us...” (Deuteronomy 1:22).

It is easy to think of Scripture as a tome of commandments, of one-directional instructions from God to Moses to the Jewish people. The narrative of the spies, however, reveals a subtle insight into the deeper relationship of God and the Jewish people, which is never one-directional.

A Chance To Enhance

This Shabbat, spend a few moments meditating on how you can enhance your relationship with the Divine.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Great Jewish Tenor

There was a time, in the first half of the 20th century, when chazanut (cantorial/synagogue music) was the rage in the American Jewish community. In fact, there were celebrity chazanim (cantors), some of whom were even famous outside of the Jewish world. Of these “superstars,” the most prominent was Yossele Rosenblatt.

Born in a small Ukranian town in 1882, Rosenblatt was already performing by the time he was eight, and once he was Bar Mitzvah, he was often asked to lead services by serving as chazan. At 17, Rosenblatt began a journey that took him and his new wife to Vienna, then to Munkacz, where he served as a chazan for the chassidish community, and then to Pressburg, where he remained for five years until he moved to Hamburg. In 1905, Rosenblatt made his first of more than 200 recordings, the distribution of which helped spread his name throughout the worldwide Jewish community.

At the invitation of Congregation Ohab Zedek, Rosenblatt came to New York City in 1912. His duties as the congregation’s chazan left him time to travel and perform, and Rosenblatt quickly gained renown. In 1917, while traveling on a Liberty Bond Tour, he was offered a position with the Chicago Opera, who even offered to assure conditions that would meet all of his religious needs. But Rosenblatt felt uncomfortable with the secular setting and declined.

Rosenblatt held featured recitals at both Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera. He was paid handsomely and received regular royalties from his recordings. But, in addition to his eight children and extended family, Rosenblatt was both extremely generous and overly trusting. In 1925, he was forced to declare bankruptcy after a bad investment. In order to repay his creditors, Rosenblatt began performing in Vaudville. He insisted on performing without scenery or costume and was hugely popular. When Warner Brothers began filming The Jazz Singer, they offered Rosenblatt an incredible sum to play the father. When he refused, the producers convinced him to allow one scene of him performing a popular Yiddish song.

Yossele Rosenblatt passed away at age 51, in Israel, on 25 Sivan, 1933. He had just finished a performance tour of the Holy Land while also recording a documentary when he suffered a fatal heart attack.

Deep Inspiration

Listen to Jewish music and allow it to inspire your spiritual side.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Mezuzah: Complete Fulfillment

A mezuzah on the doorpost is a public sign of a Jewish home. If you open the decorative container of the mezuzah you will find a piece of parchment with two sets of Hebrew verses from Deuteronomy, hand-lettered in black ink. The first set opens with the words: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (6:4-9). The second begins with “And it will be if you will listen diligently to all my mitzvot” (11:13-21). Both verses contain the commandment to “write these words on the doorposts of your house and on your gates,” the very mitzvah that is fulfilled by attaching these verses to one’s doorway.

On the back of the parchment, the scribe writes the Hebrew letters shin, daled and yud, one of the seven names of God that is also an acronym for the words Shomer Daltot Yisrael, He guards the doorways of Israel. But the mezuzah is not supposed to be regarded as a good luck charm. Rather, the mezuzah is meant to serve as a reminder of what is written on it--that there is one God and we have a relationship with Him--so that we might cultivate our awareness of Him and walk in His ways.

To help us remember God at all times, the mezuzah is affixed to the doorpost at the entrance to every room in our home (except for the bathroom). Although synagogues and study halls do not require a mezuzah because both already have their own innate sanctity, nevertheless mezuzot are often hung at these locations, but without a blessing. Also, we do not affix a mezuzah to a non-permanent structure, such as a sukkah. The presence of the mezuzah elevates the atmosphere of our homes and reminds us of what truly matters.

This Treat was last posted on March 23, 2009.

To Find Mezuzot

Contact your local Judaica store or Jewish scribe to purchase any mezuzot you might be missing.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

No Refuge in Alaska

Purchased from the Russian Empire in 1867, the territory of Alaska was the United States’ “Last Frontier.” Following its 1899 gold rush, which helped lay the foundation of Alaskan infrastructure for many of its larger population areas, development soon became a priority of the territory’s governing bodies. Among the many opportunities discussed is one that became almost a footnote in Jewish history.

In November 1938, just after KristallnachtHarold Ickes, the United States Secretary of Interior, suggested at a press conference that the territory of Alaska could be a haven for the Jews of Germany and German occupied territory. A formal proposal titled “The Problem of Alaskan Development” (focusing on development rather than a humanitarian campaign) was written by Interior Undersecretary Harold Slattery. The proposal called for four areas to be designated for the settlement of refugees, particularly, but not exclusively, Jewish refugees. The goal was not altruistic. Ickes and Slatterly and their supporters saw the potential for these refugees to boost the area’s economic development.

Alas, the plan did not receive the expected support. There were the obvious objections from anti-Semites who opposed any increase in Jewish immigration. However, the proposal also received little Jewish support. Ickes’ plan made the Jews of the time nervous that they would be accused of trying to take over a portion of the country. (In 1938, no one knew how desperately such plans would be needed!) The collapse of the Slattery Report was the result of President Roosevelt’s proposal that the United States would allow 10,000 refugees to be admitted per year for five years, but of those, no more that 1,000 per year could be Jewish.

In an interesting footnote to this footnote, the Slattery Report was not the first proposal for Jewish settlement in Alaska. In 1906, Russian emigre Abe Spring proposed that the Jewish victims of Russian pogroms be allowed to settle in the far north territory, but the idea was rejected by Congress.

Note: There was a resurgence in interest in the Slattery Report after the publication of Michael Chabon’s novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2009), which presented an alternate history as if the proposal had been accepted and Alaska had become a Jewish settlement area.

Thanks for the Yum

Take a moment and thank God for the wonderful array of foods one can choose.

Monday, June 4, 2018

A Proverb For More Than Parents

While there is no single Biblical or Talmudic text that can be compared to any of the formal parenting advice books that abound today, there are frequent pieces of sound parenting advice that may be found throughout the Biblical canon, particularly in Mishlei, The Book of Proverbs.

Often, when one reads advice on child rearing one is struck by how simple the advice is and, yet, how significant. With the verses from Mishlei, however, the wisdom’s seeming simplicity is also rife with deeper meaning to apply elsewhere in one’s life. For instance, Proverbs 13:1: “A wise son [hears] his father’s instructions, but a scorner hears no rebuke.”

From a parenting point of view, one could understand this as referring to recognizing the appropriate time and place to rebuke one’s child. Everyone hopes that their child will be responsible and not break rules, but when they do, when a child is in the heat of the moment or the throes of rebellion, nothing a parent can say by way of chastisement will be heard.

Wisdom does not always come with age. Indeed, the appellation of “scoffer” can apply to adults as well. One who wishes to enhance their Jewish living will do so, and this is, metaphorically, the wise child who hears instructions. But what of those who deliberately disdain Jewish life? This proverb is a succinct reminder that approaching such a person with harsh words or forceful actions will not change their point of view.


Rather than use rebuke, model the behavior you believe is best.

Friday, June 1, 2018

The Haftarah

Every week, on Shabbat, a portion of the Five Books of Moses is read in synagogue. This portion is known as the parasha. In addition to the parasha, a section from the Prophets (Neviim) is also read each Shabbat, immediately after the conclusion of the Torah Reading Service. This reading is known as the Haftarah. 

While there is no definitive source that confirms when this custom actually began, it is speculated that it commenced during the Syrian-Greek occupation of Judea (the Chanukah story). King Antiochus prohibited the study of the Torah. Because the prohibition was specific to the five Books of Moses, the Jewish people chose to read aloud a section from the prophets that somehow related to the weekly portion. After the victory over Antiochus, although the regular Torah reading was renewed, the custom remained.

Haftarot are read on Shabbat and festival mornings and during the afternoon service on fast days. (On Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, a haftarah is read during both the morning and the afternoon service.) The final person called to make the blessing over the Torah (the aliyah)is known as the baal maftir, the extra. In addition to making the blessing over the final Torah verse recited, the baal maftir also recites the blessings over the haftarah. 

On the whole, the basic content of the haftarah is the same throughout the Jewish world. There are, however, some differences in the choice of readings between Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities, and even between other smaller communities within this divide (for instance, the community of Frankfurt-on-Main, Germany).

Unlike the reading of the Torah, the reading of the haftarah does not need to be chanted from a scroll, although it often is. The haftarot also have a separate and distinct trope (tune) from the Torah reading.

This Treat was last posted on February 5, 2010.

Copyright © 2018 NJOP. All rights reserved.

The Prophets

Take time to explore the writings of the Prophets to get a better understanding of the development of the Jewish people.