Thursday, February 28, 2019

How to Unify the Nation

This Shabbat we read in the Torah both parashat Vayakhel and the special Torah portion for parashat Shekalim, that describes the half shekel donation given in Temple times to the Temple treasury to support the Temple’s budget, but also to serve as a way of conducting a census of the nation.

Parashat Vayakhel’s opening verses (Exodus 35) juxtapose two major themes: the mandate to construct a mishkan -- a portable tabernacle, with the call to observe the Sabbath. Prior to mentioning both of these lofty directives, Moses gathers all of the Children of Israel.

A famed Chassidic Rebbe, Rabbi Abraham Bornstein, the first Rebbe of Sochatchov (1838-1910, Poland) found significance in the order of the three items that are mentioned in the opening verses of Vayakhel: 1) first a call to unify and to gather the nation, 2) then an admonition to observe the Sabbath, and 3) only then are the people encouraged to erect the Tabernacle. Rabbi Bornstein points out that prior to consecrating the Tabernacle, individual Israelites would sacrifice to God on bamot, elevated stages that were found throughout the Israelite camp. With the consecration of the Tabernacle, use of the bamot became prohibited. As the sacrificial order became unified, the Jewish nation was united with the Tabernacle serving as the nation’s headquarters. For this reason, advances the Sochatchover Rebbe, the command to unify and gather came first, followed by Shabbat, the special sacred day that holds the secret of Jewish unity. Only after those first two levels of unity are established, does the third take place, centralizing Jewish worship by consecrating the Tabernacle.

This coming Friday night is the 23rd annual SHABBAT ACROSS AMERICA AND CANADA, which has transformed the Divine mandate and the Divine gift of Shabbat into an international movement and phenomenon. SHABBAT ACROSS AMERICA AND CANADA‘s goal has always been to unify North American Jewry through the sanctity of Shabbat. NJOP has passionately endeavored to bond Jews to their Jewish birthright and heritage. When we celebrate Shabbat together, the observance is ennobled, and becomes more uplifting, uniting us all.

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Ritual Unites

Jewish rituals work, and given their uniformity throughout the Jewish world, unite Jews around the globe.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Live Long And Prosper

Every "Trekkie" knows that Spock’s Vulcan salutation is accompanied by a strange hand gesture. What many don’t realize is that Leonard Nimoy borrowed this symbol from his traditional Jewish upbringing. It’s actually a one-handed version of two-handed priestly blessing gesture.

In Numbers 6:23-27, God instructs Moses that the priests shall "place My name upon the Children of Israel, and I Myself shall bless them." The blessing the priests were to recite was:
May God bless you and watch over you.

May God shine His face toward you and show you favor.May God be favorably disposed to you and grant you peace.

Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing, is also known as duchenen (Yiddish, referring to the duchan the special platform in the Temple from which the blessing was recited). Birkat Kohanim is also known as Nesi'aht Ka’payim (lifting of the palms/hands).

While Birkat Kohanim was bestowed daily in the Temple, current customs vary as to how often the blessing is bestowed by the kohanim(daily, every Shabbat, holidays only).

To bestow Birkat Kohanim, the kohanim (priests) stand facing the congregation, their tallitot (prayer shawls) draped over their head and arms. They stretch out their arms and, beneath the tallit, arrange their hands with the ten fingers separated to create 5 spaces (pinky-ring-space-middle-index-space-thumb-space-thumb-space-index-middle-space-ring-pinky). The position of the hands reflects the latticework mentioned in Song of Songs (2:9): "My Beloved...looks through the windows peering through the lattice."

The prayer is recited responsively, one word at a time, first by the cantor and then repeated by the kohanim. While Birkat Kohanim is being recited, congregants are not to look directly at the kohanim and many cover their faces with their prayer books or prayer shawls, following the Talmudic dictum (Chagiga 16b) "One’s eyes will grow weak if one looks at the hands of the priests [during the blessing]."

Leonard Nimoy died on February 27, 2015.

This Treat was originally posted on June 2, 2011.

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Popular Culture References

Express Jewish pride when popular cultural references find their source in Jewish tradition and wisdom.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

General/Prime Minister Sharon

Ariel “Arik” Sharon served with unusual distinction and considerable controversy both in a military uniform and as a politician. Sharon’s life of accomplishment was punctuated by his ruthless grit and legendary Israeli confidence.

Ariel Scheinerman was born on February 26, 1928 to Shmuel and Vera Scheinerman in Moshav Kfar Malal, near Raanana, Palestine (now Israel). David Ben Gurion requested that Scheinerman Hebraicize his last name to Sharon.

As a teen, Ariel joined the Haganah, which eventually became the Israel Defense Force (IDF). Ariel Sharon fought for Israel’s independence (where Sharon was wounded in the groin, stomach and foot). He created Israel’s first commando unit that eventually became the IDF’s Paratroopers Brigade, and was a hero of the 1967 Six Day War, leading an armored division in the Sinai. Sharon came out of retirement when the Yom Kippur War broke out. Arriving at the front in his civilian car, Sharon’s forces crossed the Suez Canal, encircled the Egyptian Third Army, and effectively, ended the war.

Sharon helped found the right-leaning Likud (unity) political party in July, 1973. As a supporter of settlements, Sharon became the patron saint of the “Gush Emunim” movement, who strove to build Jewish settlements in the internationally-disputed areas that Israel gained during the Six Day War. Sharon emerged from the 1977 Knesset elections as Minister of Agriculture, and after the 1981 election, Minister of Defense. In this capacity, in 1982, he helped launch “Operation Peace for Galilee” to expel the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) from their base in Lebanon. While the PLO was forced to relocate, the war is remembered for a massacre of Lebanese Moslems by Lebanese Christian troops. A blue ribbon Israeli commission concluded that Sharon, who had overall responsibility as Defense Minister, didn’t stop the carnage, and found him indirectly culpable. Sharon resigned as Defense Minister but remained in Prime Minister Begin’s cabinet. Sharon eventually became the Likud’s leader and was elected Prime Minister on February 6, 2001.

Despite Sharon’s history as a hard-liner, in May, 2003, Sharon endorsed U.S. President George W. Bush’s “Roadmap for Peace.” To allow for Palestinian autonomy in Gaza, Sharon supported removing all Israeli citizens and forces from the Gaza Strip, captured in the Six Day War. In August, 2005, 9,480 Israelis were expelled from 21 settlements on the Gaza Strip. Although 80% of Israelis supported the Gaza disengagement, the move was extremely unpopular within the Likud party. On November 21, 2005 Sharon resigned as head of Likud and created the Kadima party.

On January 4, 2006 Sharon suffered a massive stroke, which left him in a coma. Ehud Olmert assumed the prime ministership upon Sharon’s debilitation and won the Knesset elections in March, 2006. Sharon succumbed on January 11, 2014.

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Study About Israel’s Heroes

Learn about the lives, sacrifice and heroism of Israel’s founders and pioneers.

Monday, February 25, 2019

The Circle of Life

“The Circle of Life,” is both an apt description of the ups and downs of the life cycle, and also an award-winning song written by the legendary Sir Elton John for the 1994 movie hit “Lion King.” The “Circle of Life,” could also be the appropriate title of a much earlier fascinating event described in the Talmud.

A rabbi named Choni, who lived in the first century BCE, committed an act of great audacity toward God. The Talmud (Ta’anit 19a) states that most of the Hebrew month of Adar had passed and rain had still eluded the land of Israel. The Jewish leadership asked Choni, known for his extreme piety, to pray for rain. He did so, but to no avail. In an act of desperation, he drew a circle on the ground, and stood inside it, refusing to leave the circle until God sent rain. This act forever labeled him as Choni Hama’gel, Choni the circle drawer.

A light rain began, but those assembled complained that unless a strong rain would come, they would all starve. Choni did not leave his circle and prayed for a more robust rain. No sooner had Choni prayed, a torrential rain began, threatening to flood the world. Choni then directed his prayer to God: “It is not for this that I have prayed, but for rain of good will blessing, and bounty.” A hefty rain began. Choni then prayed that the rains cease, and they did.

Some rabbis viewed Choni’s ultimatum to God as overly impudent. Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach, president of the Sanhedrin, told Choni, that were he not someone so close to God and so beloved, he would have been forced to excommunicate Choni for his chutzpah toward God. In the end, the Sanhedrin applied a Scriptural verse (Job 22:28) to Choni, describing his ability to “demand” something of God: “You shall also decree a thing, and it shall be established to you; and the light shall shine upon your ways.”

According to Megillat Ta’anit, which features an ancient listing of important dates on the Jewish calendar, this Talmudic episode with Choni occurred on the 20th of Adar. This story teaches us about the power that God gives to the righteous, and God’s willingness to be dictated to by those whose motives are purely to protect God’s chosen people.

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Pray for Rain

Although most of us acquire our food at a grocery store or supermarket, let us not forget that the wrong amount of rain can destroy food for millions of people. When we pray for rain, we pray for food.

Friday, February 22, 2019

“Do You Believe in Miracles? Yes!”

The word “miracle” brings to mind Biblical stories, spiritual epiphanies, theological fervor, and religious symbols and icons. Hardly anyone would associate the term “miracle” with ice hockey. But on February 22, 1980, the word was used by the celebrated sportscaster Al Michaels, to describe the unlikely victory of the U.S. hockey team against the Soviet Hockey team, recognized as the best team in the world, in the 1980 Winter Olympics, held in Lake Placid, NY. The win placed the U.S. team into the finals, which they won and earned the coveted gold medal. “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” was the spontaneous and now-iconic extemporaneous reaction by Michaels as the clock ticked down to the end of the game. The 2004 movie about the scrappy group of amateur ice hockey players who beat the Soviet behemoth was entitled, “Miracle.”

The Hebrew word for miracle is “nes.” Yet the very same word also means “pole” in Hebrew. What can we learn about the Jewish concept of miracles from a pole?

The first appearance of the word “nes” in the Torah appears not in the context of miracle, but regarding its cognate, pole. God had just said to Moses, “Make a venomous serpent, and set it upon a pole; and it shall come to pass, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks upon it, shall live.” After the Children of Israel fought a successful battle against the Canaanites, the nation became embittered, complaining that there was no bread or water, and how they were becoming tired of the manna which sustained them. God sent venomous snakes to the Israelite camp, who bit many people who died from the injuries. The nation approached Moses, admitted that they had sinned and asked Moses to pray to God to remove the snakes. It is here where God instructed Moses to make this pole.

Regarding this cryptic response of constructing a pole, the Mishnah (Rosh Hashana 3:8) asks, “Does a snake give life, or cause death? Rather, what the text means is that when the Israelites looked up, they subjugated their hearts to God in heaven and were instantly healed.”

Jewish wisdom is telling us that a miracle is like a pole, on which is flown a banner or flag. We rally around a banner, and the banner is often a means to inject pride and faith. So too with miracles. Supernatural Divine events are not themselves the source for inspired faith; they are occurrences that we can rally around, helping us grow in our trust in the Almighty.

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Seek Out Faith Banners

Faith, by its very nature, cannot be proven. But events we encounter and witness can help bolster our faith. Seek out those inspired events.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Moses' "Spartacus Moment"

The episode of the Golden Calf represents one of the most tragic episodes in the history of the Children of Israel. A mere 40-days prior, the Jews stood at the very same Mount Sinai, after the miraculous redemption from Egypt, and heard God, their Savior, declare an absolute severe prohibition against any forms of idolatry. How could the people who heard and experienced Revelation create, or minimally, rally around the creation of an alternative leader? Furthermore, how could they ever recover from such a misstep?

The text of the story in parashat Ki Tisa states, (Exodus 32:19), “And it came to pass, as soon as he [Moses] came near to the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing; and Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands, and broke them beneath the mount.” How could Moses break the most precious physical objects ever created? After all, God personally fashioned the tablets, as the Torah describes (Exodus 32:16). The sages offer many answers. Some suggest when the Jews worshipped the golden calf, the miraculous tablets lost their power. As such, Moses discarded them as useless, or, according to another version, was unable to lift them anymore, as the supernatural component that allowed him to hold them disappeared with the sin. Still others argue that Moses cast them down due to anger and disappointment over the Jews’ errant behavior. One opinion in the Midrash proposes that Moses shattered the tablets as a betrothed man would sever the marriage contract in light of infidelity of their betrothed, as the consequences for adultery are much more severe. Moses too shattered the tablets, which symbolized the binding covenant with God.

One Midrash, however (Shmot Rabbah 46:1) uses the breaking of the tablets to highlight Moshe’s role as leader. “Upon seeing the iniquity of the golden calf, Moses realized that the Children of Israel could not withstand the sin. Wanting to include himself with them, he broke the tablets. Moses said to the Almighty, ‘They sinned and I sinned as well when I broke Your tablets. If You forgive them, you can also forgive me. If you will not forgive their sin, do not forgive mine. You can ‘erase my name from Your Book’ (Exodus 32:32).”

We can all learn an incredible lesson of leadership from Moses. He sought not glory for himself; he saw his job primarily as representing and defending his people.

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Lead Your Flock

Although there are many factors leaders must consider when making decisions, never lose track that a leader first and foremost must represent and protect his or her flock.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Judaism at the Barber

On February 20, 1816, Rossini’s classic opera, The Barber of Seville, premiered at the Teatro Argentina in Rome. In tribute, Jewish Treats will address the Torah’s instructions for barbers.

The Torah (Leviticus 19:27) declares, “You shall not round the corners of your heads, nor shall you mar the corners of your beard.” In order to understand this Biblical verse, we must identify what are the “corners of your head,” what is considered “marring,” and upon whom is this proscription?

The rabbis (Makkot 20a), have declared that this prohibition, which only applies to men, refers to five parts of the face. There is some dispute as to where these five spots are, but many identify them as the two bones where the skull meets the cheek, the two bones on the bottom of the face near where glands would be checked, and the chin. Since there are multiple opinions, “shaving” is not recommended on any part of the face from the temples down to the cheeks on the front and sides of one’s face.

Shaving, however, is defined narrowly, as using a razor. Using scissors to cut the hairs, or depilatory creams or powder would be permitted. As such, a Jew using an electric shaver to shave his face must ascertain that the blades of the electric shaver function as scissors (i.e. two blades cutting the hair at a distance from the root) and not as a razor. There are opinions that Jewish men should refrain from shaving their face altogether, and allow side-curls to remain, as seen primarily among Chassidic men.

A male Jewish barber must not violate the Torah prohibition of shaving another Jewish man’s face. A Jew who is shaven with a straight-edge razor by a non-Jewish barber, violates the prohibition if he is an active participant. May a Jewish woman shave a Jewish man’s face with a razor? Maimonides rules that a Jewish woman who shaves a Jewish man’s face is exempt from the prohibition. However, the Code of Jewish Law, Shulchan Aruch, records that “some say” that a woman does violate the prohibition if she shaves another Jewish man’s face. Some argue that while a woman may technically be exempt from the prohibition of shaving, she may still be in violation of the dictum of “not placing a stumbling block in front of the blind” by allowing the Jewish man to have his face shaved.

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

Copyright © 2019 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Instruct Your Barber

Explain to your barber prior to your haircut how you want him or her to cut your hair, both aesthetically and religiously.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Purim Katan

In a Jewish leap year, a second month of Adar is added to the Jewish calendar, creating Adar I and Adar II. The question that arises is, in which Adar does one celebrate the important events that occur in that month? On a communal level, this question refers to the holiday of Purim. On a personal level, this affects the observance of yahrtzeits and bar/bat mitzvahs.

The holiday of Purim marks the anniversary of God’s overturning the wicked plot of Haman (read the full story) on the 14th of Adar. According to tractate Megillah 6b, during a leap year Purim is observed in Adar II. However, during Adar I, the importance of the 14th of Adar must also be acknowledged. Purim Katan, “Little Purim,” as 14 Adar I is called, is therefore observed as a minor holiday. On Purim Katan certain aspects of the prayer service are omitted, fasting is forbidden and eulogies are generally prohibited. Additionally, it is considered praiseworthy to mark the day with a small festive meal (perhaps preparing or ordering a nicer lunch). 

Aside from Purim, individual life cycle events may also be affected by the extra month of Adar. A child born in Adar during a regular year celebrates his/her bar or bat mitzvah in Adar II, if it occurs during a leap year. During a leap year, a bar or bat mitzvah celebration is only celebrated in Adar I if the child was born in Adar I. (This leads to the possible interesting anomaly that a child born on the first day of Adar II celebrates his Bar Mitzvah one month before a child born on the 30th day of Adar I, if the Bar Mitzvah year is not a leap year.)

With respect to yahrtzeit observances, however, there is a difference of opinion. The Ashkenzi custom, which follows the Rema, is to observe the yahrtzeit during Adar I (but there are those who observe in Adar II, and even those who observe both Adars). According to Sephardi custom, which follows Rabbi Joseph Karo, the nachala is observed during Adar II. However, the yahrtzeit of one who passes away in either Adar of a leap year is observed only in the Adar in which they passed.

This Treat was originally posted on February 14, 2014.

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30 days to Purim

Begin planning costumes, menus and plans for Purim.

Monday, February 18, 2019


“Is there an eruv?” is one of the first questions on the lips of observant Jews when seeking to move to a new community. Read on to learn why, and in honor of President’s Day, discover how and why a U.S. president was involved with one community’s eruv.

One of the 39 prohibited acts of Shabbat, known as melachot, is carrying, or transferring an object from one domain to another. This melacha differs from the other 38 in a few ways, one of which is that the sages promoted a loophole to allow for carrying, pushing baby carriages and transferring domains, by transforming “public” domains, where carrying is proscribed, to a large “private” domain, where these acts are permitted. This is accomplished by encircling the public domain with what Jewish law would call a wall. Jewish law offers four types of “walls” or legal barriers: natural walls such as river banks, mountains, actual walls, and what is called tzurat hapetach, the outline of a doorway. The latter allows for a wall to be comprised of a series of “doorways,” so long as each “door” has the minimal form of a doorway and a lintel. Often telephone poles and utility wires can be used. The word eruv comes from the Hebrew root to mix, i.e. mixing the private and public sectors.

The sages mandated that all those residing in the area of an eruv must symbolically become unified. There are two ways to accomplish this. One is by collecting a food item from all Jews in the area, usually facilitated by using communal funds to purchase a box of matzah (matzah remains edible for a long time). The blessing over creating a communal eruv is typically made annually over this box of matzah. The second method of unifying all residents – Jews and non-Jews – is by renting the area from the local jurisdiction for the purpose of Shabbat carrying and transporting. Often this “rental” takes place through a mayoral proclamation for 99 years at the price of $1.

What happens if the area that you intend to surround with an eruv includes Federal land? In 1990, Kesher Israel Congregation of Washington, D.C. endeavored to build an eruv, but their plans included territory owned by the United States government. The synagogue reached out to U.S. President George H.W. Bush, who provided a letter granting them permission. President Bush wrote, “Now you have built this eruv in Washington, and the territory it covers includes the Capitol, the White House, the Supreme Court, and many other Federal buildings. By permitting Jewish families to spend more time together on the Sabbath, it will enable them to enjoy the Sabbath more and promote traditional family values, and it will lead to a fuller and better life for the entire Jewish community in Washington. I look upon this work as a favorable endeavor. God bless you.”

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Appreciate our Freedoms

On this President’s Day, appreciate the fact that Jews and Judaism are protected and promoted in our great country.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Do “Clothes Make the Man?”

The phrase “Clothes make the man” was adapted by Mark Twain from Shakespeare’s “For the apparel oft proclaims the man,” a comment made by Polonius in Hamlet. “Dress for Success” was a 1975 bestselling book by John T. Molloy, which began the discussion of “power dressing.” Does Judaism agree that the clothes indeed have such an impact?

Parashat T’tzaveh’s main theme revolves around the special clothing created for the kohanim, the priestly caste descended from Aaron. The fourth verse in the parasha serves as an introduction to the importance of proper raiment: “And you shall make vestments of sanctity for Aaron your brother, for glory and splendor” (Exodus 28:2).

The clothing one wears can impact a job interview, a date, or any forum where one wants to make an immediate positive impression. The Talmud speaks disparagingly about a scholar with a stain on his clothing (Shabbat 114a). But when serving as priests, humankind’s emissaries to God, does God really care about what is worn? Is God not able to see our souls? Is external garb relevant when communicating with God?

What we wear indeed has no bearing on God’s impression of us. But we must understand that it has an impact on us. We see ourselves differently when dressed with “glory and splendor.”

On January 20th, 2001, George W. Bush was sworn in as president of the United States. Among the presidential directives he signed on his first day in office, a new rule required formal attire when in the president’s Oval Office; jeans and casual clothes were banned. In a Washington Post article (January 26, 2001, pp. C2) the reporter concluded, “Bush suggests that by wearing proper attire he will constantly be reminded to be on his best behavior in the Oval Office.”

Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzhal, Chief Ashkenazic rabbi of the Old City of Jerusalem, asks why do we wrap a gift? We spend much time preparing the wrapping, which, in most cases, is immediately placed in the trash bin. Is this not a waste of time? Just give the gift? He answers that the wrapping paper, the bows and the time spent preparing the wrapping augment the gift’s value. The wrapping dignifies the beautiful present. The gift wrapping always adds “glory and splendor.”

Copyright © 2019 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Dress for Spiritual Success

Endeavor to dress up, in order to elevate religious practices such as prayer services, Torah study and other rendezvous with God.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

The Rise of Phoenix

The settlement of the Arizona territory, followed the California Gold Rush of 1848-1850. When gold was found in Arizona, many people moved there from 1862 to 1864, including many Jewish businessmen who had originally settled in California. When many of the gold mines’ resources were exhausted or proven economically non-viable, many of the mining towns were abandoned. But the pioneer Jewish families arrived and found other opportunities. Among these early Jewish settlers was Michael Goldwater, who was born Michel Goldwasser in Poland, grandfather of U.S. Senator and 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater (whose mother was Episcopalian and raised him in that faith). Goldwater worked as a government contractor, a wholesale and retail merchant, a mine operator and a forwarding agent. His son, Morris served as Mayor of Prescott, AZ for 22 years. 

Other prominent Arizonan Jews were Charles and Harry Lesinsky who operated copper mines outside of Clifton, AZ in the mid-1870s, and to facilitate deliveries, built Arizona’s first railway. In the 1870s, people who lived in the Eastern United States moved to Arizona seeking palliation to their tuberculosis in Arizona’s desert air.

In 1881, the first organized Jewish community was founded in Tombstone, AZ, while a B’nai B’rith lodge was launched in Tucson, AZ in 1882. With official statehood in 1912, more Jewish families moved to Arizona, mostly professionals such as doctors and lawyers, and those in merchandising. The Jewish population skyrocketed after World War II in the communities with existing Jewish communities, namely Tucson, Phoenix, Mesa and Scottsdale.

In 2000, the Jewish population of Arizona was recorded as 120,000, and as of 2017, it had declined slightly to 106,725. About 2/3 of Arizona’s Jews reside in the greater Phoenix area and the other third in the Tucson area, although Jewish communities are also found in Flagstaff, Kingman, Lake Havasu, Sedona and Yuma.

On February 14, 1912, Arizona was admitted as the 48th and final contiguous U.S. state.

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Learn the Jewish History of Arizona

Before you travel to or through Arizona, learn its rich Jewish history.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Can Jewish Names Be Changed?

Those unhappy with the name given to them at birth are in luck, for today is “Get a Different Name Day,” annually observed on February 13th. This allows Jewish Treats the opportunity to recall the importance of one’s name and how and when it can be changed, as described in the Jewish Treat below, most recently published on November 10, 2016.

It is not a coincidence that cultures around the world share a belief in the power of given names. In Judaism, it is believed that parents are granted a flash of ruach hakodesh, Divine spirit, when choosing a name for their child.

If names are so important, why do some people change theirs? The most common reason that people change their names is to add blessing, most often in times of challenge. When someone faces a life-threatening illness, they may be advised to add an additional name. Traditionally, the new name reflects blessing for healing, such as the masculine Refael (God has healed) or Chaim (life) or the feminine Chaya (Giver of life). This change is usually done with the guidance of, and in consultation with, a rabbi.

The concept of changing a name in order to alter one’s fate is noted in the Talmud, where it says: “Rav Isaac said, ‘Four things tear up the [evil] decree against a person, and these are them: charity, crying out (prayers), changing one’s name, and changing one’s deeds, and some say even changing one’s place of residence’” (Talmud Rosh Hashana 16b).

The act of changing names is even recorded in the Torah. God changed Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah. It was only once their names were changed were they able to conceive the son for whom they had waited so long (Genesis 17).

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Explore the Meaning and Calling of a Name

A name is meant to connect the individual with his or her namesake. Don’t underestimate the significance of a name.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Can the Theory of Evolution and God Co-Exist?

On this “Darwin Day,” commemorating the birth of Charles Darwin on February 12, 1809, we address the issue of Darwin’s own belief in God, given his authorship of the famed Theory of Evolution.

Darwin was raised Unitarian, but attended schools aligned with the Anglican (English) Church. He attended Cambridge University on his way to becoming an Anglican parson. At Cambridge, he took courses in natural history which piqued his interest. Many clergy members were naturalists, as natural science was seen as a manifestation of the wonders of God’s creation. Darwin was particularly drawn to the works of the Reverend William Paley who advanced a theory that nature proves the existence of a Creator, but also maintains that evil is independent of God. Darwin wrote of Paley’s Natural Theology, “I do not think I hardly ever admired a book more. I could almost formerly have said it by heart.”

Before embarking on life in the clergy, Darwin joined the H.M.S. Beagle on its journey around the world from December 1831 through October 1836 to survey natural phenomena around the globe. After the voyage, Darwin wrote in his autobiography that during the trip he was orthodox in his belief in the veracity of the Christian Biblical narrative, but over time he became skeptical.

By early 1837, when Darwin began writing about his famous theory on the evolution of the species, he viewed his ideas as a departure from the traditional dogma with which he was raised. Paley’s theory on theodicy (why bad things happen to good people) proved unconvincing to Darwin. Darwin stopped attending church in 1849, although his wife and children did continue their affiliation.

After the 1859 publication of Darwin’s magnum opus, “On the Origin of the Species,” many reviewers highlighted the compatibility of Darwin’s theory with the belief in God, while others saw it as proof that Darwin was an atheist. The truth lay somewhere in the middle. Darwin never shut the door on the existence of God describing himself as “agnostic.” He consistently refused to allow his writings and theory to serve as proof for atheism, although he did admit that he no longer believed in the Biblical account of a Divine revelation or in the Christian views of Jesus. Darwin wrote “In most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God. I think that generally (and more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.” In Darwin’s posthumously published autobiography, he addressed his receding belief in orthodox Christianity. This chapter, initially excised by Darwin’s wife and son, was published in 1958 by Darwin’s daughter Nora Barlow.

Judaism’s Oral Tradition that accompanies and explains the Biblical text, can accommodate the theory of evolution more comfortably than many Christian denominations. Jewish theology can draw on literature and opinions that allow for some nuance in the creation narrative, which, without commentary, is very cryptic.

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Judaism and Evolution

Seek out answers to perceived philosophical challenges to Jewish thought and observance.

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Samurai Who Saved Thousands of Jews from the Nazis

Often, when tragedy strikes, many seek to uncover a silver lining by searching for heroes and their selflessness. On the pantheon of such heroes during the Shoah (the Holocaust) is Chiune Sugihara, who served as Japanese Consul-General to the Lithuanian city of Kaunas (also known as Kovno). Sugihara assumed his post in March 1939, six months prior to the German invasion of neighboring Poland. Polish and German Jews flooded Lithuania. But Lithuania’s status as a haven ended abruptly on June 15, 1940, when the Soviet Union invaded Lithuania. The Soviets did allow Polish Jews to leave Lithuania through the Soviet Union. However, in July, 1940, with the Germans advancing on Lithuania, the Soviets ordered all foreign diplomatic posts to leave Kaunas. Sugihara requested and received an extension. The only other diplomat left in Kaunas was Jan Zwartendijk, the acting consul of the Netherlands.

Some astute Jewish refugees noticed that two Dutch islands in the Caribbean, Curacao and Dutch Guiana (now known as Suriname), did not require formal entrance visas. Consul Zwartendijk was authorized to stamp passports with entrance permits. In order to get to the Caribbean, however, passage through the U.S.S.R. was required. As a condition to obtain Soviet exit visas, the Soviet consul required Japanese transit visas, since passage through Japan would be required in order to arrive in the Dutch Islands a world away.

Upon learning this news, desperate Jewish refugees arrived at the gate of Kaunas’ Japanese consulate. Chiune Sugihara’s request to the Japanese foreign ministry to dispatch transit visas was unconditionally rejected. Sugihara had to make a gut-wrenching decision. He had to balance his disciplined traditional Japanese obedience with his Samurai calling to help those in need. Sugihara and his family chose to defy their government and help as many people as humanly possible.

For the next 29 days, from July 31 to August 28, 1940, the Sugiharas spent all their waking hours writing visas by hand, averaging 300 visas per day, which equaled the monthly average for the Kaunas consulate. Chiune himself refused to take lunch breaks, subsisting on sandwiches, and Yukiko, Mrs. Sugihara, would massage her husband’s aching hands each evening. Even during his last moments as Japanese consul in Kaunas, while aboard the Berlin-bound train on September 1, 1940, Chiune was writing visas and handing them to those pleading for them outside his train window. As the train was pulling away, he threw the consul visa stamp to a refugee who was able to “write” even more transit visas. As a direct result of Sugihara’s heroism, 6,000 refugees’ lives were spared from Nazi barbarism, as they were able to board the Trans-Siberian railroad bound for Kobe, Japan.

After World War II, Sugihara was fired from the Japanese diplomatic corps for his insubordination. He attempted to support his family by functioning as a translator, or an interpreter, and eventually worked as a businessman. It was not until 1969 that Sugihara’s incredible heroism and sacrifice was discovered by a survivor whom he saved. Chiune never spoke of his selfless actions. Chiune Sugihara died on July 31, 1986, at the age of 86.

According to tradition, Japan was founded in 660 BCE on February 11. How appropriate to learn about one of its greatest sons, one who was acclaimed as “Righteous Among the Gentiles” by Yad Vashem.

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Attitude of Gratitude

When anyone does anything that benefits you, your loved ones, your ancestors, or your outer social circle, no matter when it occurred, it is always appropriate to offer gratitude.

Friday, February 8, 2019

The Second Temple

When the Babylonians exiled the Jews and destroyed the First Temple, Jeremiah the Prophet promised that the exile would only last 70 years. The return of the Jews, however, was not a miraculous, overnight occurrence, but proceeded more like a slow trickle that began during the reign of Cyrus in Persia and is chronicled in the Books of Ezra and Nechemia.

Once back in Jerusalem, the Jewish people wished to resume the sacrificial service of the Temple. Without the financial resources to rebuild the grand structure of King Solomon's Temple, they chose to complete one section at a time.

That first Tishrei (the month of Rosh Hashana), the Jews built just the altar, in order to be able to offer the many sacrifices of Sukkot, which include offerings to honor the other nations of the world. But it took another seven months (until the month of Iyar) until they were able to pour the foundation of the Temple (Ezra 3).

With only a basic foundation, an altar, and the devotion of the Kohanim (priests) and Levites who served in the Temple, the Jews lived for 15 years with on-and-off construction (more off than on), which was frequently interrupted for political reasons, both internal and external.

Finally, in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius, the Second Temple was completed "on the third day of the month Adar... And the children of the exile kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month" (Ezra 6:15, 19).

This Temple was actually a modest building built by a people struggling to revive themselves. More than three hundred years later, Herod the Great rebuilt the Temple to the grandeur we see in most Temple replicas today.

This Treat was last posted on February 17 , 2010.

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Help Build Jerusalem

Like a magnet, Jews have been drawn to Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people, in each generation. Identify ways to help continue to build our Holy City.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

The Poles of the Ark

The second half of the book of Exodus commences with parashat Terumah. Nachmanides suggests that while the first half of the Book describes the physical redemption of the Children of Israel from the subservience and shame of slavery in Egypt, the second half of the Book of Exodus identifies a means of spiritual redemption by creating the Tabernacle, a physical structure where Jews can encounter the Divine.

The first vessel of the Tabernacle described in the Torah is the Holy Ark, also known as the “Ark of the Covenant,” a phrase made famous by the 1981 movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Torah states (Exodus 25:16) that the ark will contain “the testimony which I shall give you.” The Talmud (Bava Batra 14a-b) claims that a variety of historically important items were placed in the ark for safekeeping, including the broken Tablets of Law (which Moses broke upon witnessing the Golden Calf), the second complete set of Tablets of Law, and a Torah scroll written by Moses.

Since the Tabernacle was built for travel and mobility, attachable carrying poles were designed for many of the vessels in order to allow for easy transportation. The Torah, in describing The Ark, the Table upon which the special loaves of bread were placed, the copper altar where animal sacrifice took place, and the golden incense altar, also included commands to create accompanying poles and rings to hold the poles to allow easy movement of the vessels. The Torah, however, contained an anomalous command regarding the rings and poles of the Holy Ark: “The poles shall be in the rings of the Ark; they shall not be taken from it” (Exodus 25:15). Why were the poles of the Holy Ark non-removable, and designed to be a permanent part of the ark?

Some point out that the command to keep the poles permanently attached to the Ark was a practical one. Since the Ark remained sequestered in the Holy of Holies section of the Tabernacle, as such, it was not seen by anyone, save for the High Priest’s one annual encounter in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. But, Rabbi Israel Meir Hakohen Kagan, known as the Chafetz Chaim, identified an important lesson that may be derived from the law of the poles of the Ark. The Ark is the most significant material representation of the Torah. It itself contained the Torah! Yet its support, that which carries it, is eternally connected to it. The message is that those who support the Torah are connected intrinsically to the Torah itself. People who enable Torah to be studied, and elevated are literally equal partners with those studying, teaching and immersing themselves in the Torah’s messages.

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Support Torah

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Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Jews Paak their Caaahs As Well!

Aside from having one of the most difficult names to spell, the state of Massachusetts is known for its rich history, serving as a main catalyst for the Revolutionary War, the founding of major universities, the colorful and stereotypical accents of its citizens, and its well-known sports teams which people either love or hate. Massachusetts in general, and the greater Boston area in particular, is also home to a long-standing, enduring, resilient and active Jewish community.

In 1752, Aaron Lopez became the first Jewish citizen naturalized in Massachusetts in 1752. It was Lopez who founded the first Jewish community in Leicester, MA (west of Worcester) along with the family of Jacob Rodriguez Rivera. The two Sephardi families remained in Leicester until after the Revolution. The state’s first permanent Jewish community eventually settled in Boston in the late 1830s and was populated by central European immigrants. Congregation Ohabei Shalom, the state’s first synagogue, was established in the 1840s. After 1840, German and Eastern European peddlers, watchmakers, tailors, shoemakers and small business owners began moving to communities in central and Northern Massachusetts, especially to factory and mill towns including Pittsfield, Worcester, Holyoke, Springfield, Fall River, Lawrence, Lynn and Haverhill. The Sephardic community, dating from prior to the Revolution, endured in the southeastern port of New Bedford, through the 1850s, when Jewish German immigrants arrived. The first Jewish burial in Massachusetts occurred in New Bedford in 1857.

Nationally renowned Jewish institutions such as Brandeis University (Waltham), the National Yiddish Book Center (Amherst), the New England Hassidic Center/the Bostoner Rebbe (Brookline) and Hebrew College (Newton) make their homes in Massachusetts. The Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston serves as the Federation for the Boston area, while 12 other Jewish Federations serve other communities in Massachusetts. There are 45 Hillel Foundations in Massachusetts colleges (including at two Catholic colleges) and 10 JCCs, in addition to the Boston JCC Association. Countless Massachusetts Jews have served in local, state and Federal government and three Bay State Jews have been appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court: Louis Brandeis, Felix Frankfurter and Justice Steven Breyer, who currently serves.

By 1917, 190,000 Jews lived in Massachusetts. The Jewish population grew to 263,000 in 1937, and as of 2017, was determined to be 293,080, 80% of whom live within an hour’s drive of greater Boston. On February 6, 1788, Massachusetts became the 6th state to ratify the United States Constitution.

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Learn the Jewish History of Massachusetts

Before you travel to or through Massachusetts, learn its rich Jewish history.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Leap Year

The Gregorian solar calendar used by the Western world, is based on the cycle of the sun. The tropical (solar) year is 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes and 16 seconds. Thus every four years an extra day is added to the year at the end of February in order to compensate for the loss of 5 3/4 hours each year. 

Unlike Western society, Jews, Muslims and the Chinese all follow a lunar calendar. Like the solar calendar, the lunar calendar has 12 months, with each month measured by the waxing and waning of the moon.

Because the lunar calendar is only 354 days long and does not correspond to the solar cycle, the lunar calendar will not relate to the seasons unless the extra days on the solar calendar are accounted for. If not, a lunar month might occur in spring one year and in winter the next. The lack of coordination between the lunar months and the seasons would not be such a problem for the Jewish calendar, except that it results in a direct contradiction to a Biblical command: “Observe the month of Aviv (Spring), and keep the Passover for the Lord your God; for in the month of Aviv, the Lord your God brought you out of Egypt by night” (Deuteronomy 16:1).

Consequently, the holiday of Passover must be observed in the Spring. To accomplish this, the month of Adar is doubled during a leap year (Adar I and Adar II). Why Adar? Before the Jewish calendar was fixed by mathematical calculation in 350 C.E. (approximately), the new month was determined by the Sanhedrin based on the testimony of witnesses who had seen the new moon. Likewise, the Sanhedrin declared the leap year based on their observations of the season. Adar, the last month before Nisan (the month of Passover) was the deadline for the declaration of a leap year. 

According to the current calendar, a Jewish leap year occurs seven times every 19 years. This year, 5779, is a leap year, and Adar I begins tonight after sundown.

This Treat was last posted on February 7, 2011.

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The Jewish people mark time through the Jewish calendar. Every Jewish person should possess a consciousness of Jewish time.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Hadassah: The Women's Zionist Organization of America

In the year 1912, there was no state of Israel, women had not yet earned the right to vote in the U.S., and Henrietta Szold (Baltimore 1860 - Jerusalem 1945) was inspiring Jewish women everywhere. The Daughters of Zion, the organization she started in 1912, was founded to provide medical care to people in what was then Palestine (Israel). Two years later, the organization was renamed Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America, after the heroine of Purim. (Esther's Hebrew name was Hadassah.)

Hadassah is not unique in its origin as a Zionist organization. What is extraordinary about Hadassah is that it developed into the largest women's service organization in the United States. By the 1990s, well over 300,000 Jewish women were registered members of Hadassah.

Hadassah started small. In 1913-14 they sent two nurses to Palestine. By the 1920s, however, Hadassah had already established a nursing school and two hospitals (one in Tel Aviv and one in Haifa) and was rapidly expanding into youth services. When terror struck the Jews of Germany, Henrietta Szold and the women of Hadassah took charge of the Youth Aliyah movement, bringing hundreds of German Jewish children to Israel. During World War II, Hadassah’s activities continued to expand. The first Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem was opened on Mount Scopus, and Hadassah began two vocational training institutes. After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 (which Henrietta Szold, unfortunately, did not live to see, as she passed away in 1945), Hadassah launched a medical school and opened the Ein Kerem Medical Center in Jerusalem. By the beginning of the 1950s, Hadassah had transformed itself into a full range social service organization.

Today, Hadassah is still a thriving organization. Through Hadassah, American Jews have enabled Israelis to increase their standard of living and medical care many-fold.

Henrietta Szold died on the 29th of Shevat, 1945.

This Treat was last posted on March 5, 2013.

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Friday, February 1, 2019

Remembering a Modern Day Jewish Martyr

“My name is Daniel Pearl. I’m a Jewish American from Encino, CA. My father’s side of the family is Zionist. My mother’s is Jewish. I’m Jewish. My family follows Judaism. We’ve made numerous family visits to Israel.”

Today marks a very sad anniversary. It was on February 1, 2002, that Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl, who uttered the powerful final statement above, was murdered by terrorists, moments later. Three different episodes in Tractate Avodah Zarah (10b, 17a and 18a) record the stories of three individuals, two of whom were not even Jewish, who performed such extraordinary actions of courage prior to their deaths that a heavenly voice declared upon their deaths that they were all immediately welcomed into the eternal Paradise of Heaven. Rabbi Judah the Prince, editor of the Mishnah, upon reading these 3 episodes wept, and declared, “Some people attain the World to Come in one moment.” The statement uttered by Daniel Pearl, with a sword literally poised upon his neck, certainly qualifies as a similar incident, making him a heroic martyr among the large and tragic pantheon of those who have died for being Jews.

Daniel Pearl was born on October 10, 1963 to Ruth and Judea Pearl in Princeton, NJ. The family moved to Los Angeles when Daniel’s father began teaching at UCLA. “Danny” attended Stanford University and in 1985, graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a Bachelor’s Degree in communications. After college, Danny worked as a journalist in western Massachusetts and in northern California. In 1990, Pearl began his tenure at the Wall Street Journal, working in the Journal’s Atlanta, DC and London bureaus. Eventually he became the Journal’s South Asia Bureau Chief, based in Mumbai, India. At the end of January, 2002, while investigating a story in Pakistan, he was abducted in Karachi by a group identifying itself as the National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty. Claiming Pearl was a spy, the terrorists demanded freeing Pakistani detainees, and the resumption of a halted shipment of US fighter jets to the Pakistani government. They threatened to kill Pearl if their demands were not met.

Nine days later the terrorists beheaded Daniel. Three weeks after Pearl’s murder, a 3 ½ minute video emerged on the internet chronicling his gruesome killing. Over 3 months later, his mutilated remains were found in a shallow grave about 30 miles north of Karachi. A Pakistani philanthropist helped send Pearl’s remains back for burial in the United States. The Daniel Pearl Foundation was formed by Pearl’s parents, and several books were authored inspired by Pearl’s own work, and his last words, including “I am Jewish: Personal Reflections by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl.

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Learn about the lives of Jewish Martyrs

The lives and legacies of those who die because they are Jews should be honored.