Friday, January 31, 2020

Under Cover of Darkness

Of the ten plagues that devastated the land of Egypt, the plague of darkness appears to be the most benign. Certainly being trapped in the dark is frightening (sensory deprivation is a recognized form of torture), but is it as devastating as rivers of blood, ravaging beasts or painful boils?

While the plague is simply known as darkness, the Torah actually refers to it as “thick darkness” (Exodus 10:22). In normal darkness, a person’s eyes slowly adjust to the darkness around them. This did not happen in Egypt. The Bible, in Exodus 10:21, calls it a “darkness that may be felt,” which, according to tradition, means that the darkness was so thick that it was physically tangible. The Midrash states: “one who sat could not stand up, one who stood up could not sit down...” (Exodus Rabbah 14:3).

This thick darkness served several purposes. The first had to do with the spiritual state of some of the Israelites. During the next and final plague, the death of the firstborn, any Israelite who did not mark their door (meaning: who did not choose God) suffered the same fate as the Egyptians. There were, however, some Israelites who were such vile transgressors that they did not even merit this choice. During the plague of darkness, these Israelites perished and were buried. Because these burials were obscured by the darkness, the Egyptians could not absolve themselves of responsibility for the plagues by pointing out that Israelites had also died.

The exceptional darkness did not affect the Israelites, as it says: “but all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings” (Exodus 10:23).The significance of this is explained in the Midrash, which notes that during the darkness, the Jews inspected the homes of the Egyptians to know where their valuables were hidden so that, before leaving Egypt, they could claim the valuables as remuneration for the many terrible years of slavery (Exodus Rabbah 14:3).

This Treat was last posted on December 30, 2013. 

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Appreciate Sight

Jews thank God every morning for giving humankind the gift of sight. Never neglect to appreciate that invaluable gift.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Forced Closing of the “Ivy League” Yeshiva

The idea of a school with a dual curriculum, teaching both Judaic and general subjects is not too farfetched. Dozens, if not hundreds, of such private schools can be found around the globe today. Mixing Judaic studies with a western civilization curriculum, however, was not always as popular as it is in contemporary times.

The Etz Chaim (Tree of Life) Yeshiva in Volozhin, Russia (located today in Belarus), founded by Rabbi Chaim Volozhin, a student of the Vilna Gaon (the great sage of Vilna, Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, 1720-1797), was established in 1806. Known as “the Mother of all Yeshivas,” Volozhin served as an incubator for elite students, serving, by some accounts, 500 young Torah scholars in its heyday, many of whom became great and influential rabbis. Rabbi Chaim died in 1821, and the yeshiva underwent several leadership changes. First Rav Chaim’s son Rabbi Isaac (known as Rav Itzeleh) took over, until eventually, Rav Itzeleh’s younger son-in-law, Rabbi Naftali Z.Y. Berlin led the yeshiva into its glory days, with Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, Rabbi Chaim Volozhin’s great-grandson, as his assistant (not to be confused with Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik’s great grandson of the same name, who is associated with Yeshiva University).

On March 1, 1887, Russian governmental authorities and rabbinic leaders, including Rabbi Berlin, agreed that in order to accommodate contemporary educational developments, yeshivas would need to hire special instructors to teach written and spoken Russian, with the rabbis approving the textbooks. At first, the students refused to attend, citing the secular studies as a diversion from their Torah studies. Rabbi Berlin begged them to attend, noting that the teacher was sitting in an empty room for half an hour.

In 1892, the government instituted further educational stipulations, which would effectively strip Volozhin of its identity. The new rules stipulated that all faculty were required to have earned college degrees; only secular studies could be taught between 9:00 am and 3:00 pm; no studies of any kind could take place at night, and the total amount of hours of study per day could not exceed 10. Rabbi Berlin reluctantly decided to close the yeshiva. The yeshiva closed for good on February 3, 1892, corresponding to the 4th of Shevat.

Rabbi Rafael Shapiro, Rabbi Berlin’s son-in-law, reopened a much scaled down version of the Volozhin Yeshiva in 1899, which also closed with the advent of World War II, and re-opened once again in Israel after the Holocaust. In 2007, the original site of the yeshiva was returned to the Jewish community of Belarus, but seven years later, the Belarus government threatened to repossess the building unless the Jewish community raised $20,000 for renovations. Agudath Israel of America raised the money, and the building was saved.

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Balancing Torah and General Studies

While different Jewish schools offer different amounts of study hours devoted to secular studies, all schools subscribe to value of studying Torah and Jewish studies. Everyone can find a bit more time to learn Torah and seek knowledge about Jewish history and heritage.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

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 January 9, 1570, corresponding to the 3rd of Shevat, when King Phillip II of Spain ordered the establishment of the Inquisition in Lima.

Please see

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

This Treat was last posted on January 9, 2019. 

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Learn the Jewish History of Your Travel Destinations

Due to the extensive Jewish diaspora, most spots on earth have a history of Jewish communal life. Before traveling, be sure to learn the local history.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Data Privacy: Yesterday and Today

The Council of Europe’s Convention for the Protection of Individuals with Regard to Automatic Processing of Personal Data was passed on January 28, 1981. “Data Privacy Day,” established in 2007, is celebrated in the United States, the U.K. and other European countries. In 2009, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution creating the “Data Privacy Day”.

Judaism has a similar policy that was established over a millennium ago. Rabbi Gershom ben Judah (960-1040) of Mainz, Germany, known as the “Light of the Diaspora,” led the most prestigious Torah academy in Germany. He also enacted a number of important communal decrees which had more bearing communally than legally. The Hebrew word for decree is takanah and the Hebrew word for ban is chay’rehm. It was Rabbi Gershom whose court banned bigamy (the Torah permits it), and it was Rabbi Gershom’s court that insisted that although Biblical law allowed a woman to be divorced against her will, assent from both the husband and wife was required before a divorce could be granted. Another one of his famous takanot was a ban on reading other people’s mail. While some suggest that Rabbi Gershom’s decrees would expire at the end of the fifth millennium (the Jewish year 5,000 corresponds to the secular year 1240), others see no reason he would have included a sunset clause.

Further, there are arguments to be made that reading someone else’s mail was already prohibited according to Jewish law and Rabbi Gershom’s cherem is unnecessary. Reading mail intended for another could fall under the prohibition of using someone else’s property without permission, as well as commandments such as “love your fellow as yourself,” do not act as a tale-bearer, and potentially causing damage to another person.

Contemporary rabbis see no reason to distinguish between reading someone else’s letter, and reading an email addressed to someone else. They are both prohibited.

Here is an example of potentially competing considerations. Saving a life, or potentially saving a life, overrides all Biblical laws, and certainly rabbinic laws, and decrees. In a situation where reading someone else’s mail could potentially save specific people’s lives that are potentially endangered, it would seem clear from a Jewish legal point of view, that it would be permitted. But, this would need to be weighed against all the reasons described above and the Jewish virtue of following the law of the land (dina d’malchuta), as the U.S. Constitution offers citizens an assumed right of privacy. 

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 © 2020 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Protect Your Privacy and Everyone Else’s

Human nature gave people instincts to protect themselves. Morality and Torah insist that we protect other people.

Monday, January 27, 2020

75 Years since the Liberation of Auschwitz

Today, January 27th, which marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz Death Camp by Soviet troops, falls out on the first of the Hebrew month of Shevat, which, according to one opinion in the Mishnah, is the beginning of the spring season. How appropriate! The Red Army arrived on this day and liberated the 7,000 prisoners who were still in the camp. Another 60,000 prisoners had been removed from the camp by the Nazis and sent on the infamous death march.

Auschwitz included a concentration camp, a killing center, and forced-labor camps. It was located 37 miles west of Krakow (Cracow), near the prewar German-Polish border. It is estimated that a minimum of 1.3 million people were deported to Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945; of these, at least 1.1 million were murdered.

The horrors of the depravity that Jews experienced at Auschwitz is described simply as “Night” by renowned survivor and historian, Elie Wiesel. The odyssey from this depravity, to the successful emergence of the State of Israel and the rebuilding of strong Jewish communities world-wide, including some in Eastern Europe, is nothing short of miraculous. As a result, this historically significant day, January 27th, has been designated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day,* a proposal that was put forth by the State of Israel 15 years ago.

Given the significance of this year’s anniversary, the Israeli government hosted the Fifth World Holocaust Forum at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. This year’s forum includes over 40 world leaders, representing top level officials from the protagonists of both sides of World War II, including the United States, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, Italy, and of course, an Israeli delegation headed by president Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The meeting, titled, “Remembering the Holocaust, Fighting Anti-Semitism,” is expected to be the biggest political event that has ever taken place in Israel. Holocaust survivor and Chairman of the Yad Vashem Council, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, the former Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel and currently the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, will be among the speakers.

*It should be noted that since 1953, Jews have observed a special Holocaust memorial day on the 27th of Nissan, which has been designated by the State of Israel as Yom Hashoah. Many traditional Jews mourn those who perished in the Holocaust on Tisha B’Av, the ninth of Av.

This Jewish Treat includes materials previously published in the following Jewish Treats:

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Remember the Horrors of the Holocaust

It is not enough to devote a few days a year to remembering the horrors of the Shoah. Make an effort to think about the Holocaust, its victims and survivors every day.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Beyond Boils

When the Torah was translated into English, the Hebrew word makkah was translated as plague. In the modern lexicon, however, the term plague often brings to mind the hideous Black Plague that decimated Europe in the Middle Ages. While the ten makkot spread across Egypt with the speed of a devastating contagion, the only plague to manifest as a medical condition was the sixth plague: boils. Of course, it would only be fair to note that the "plagues" of frogs and the lice (plagues 2 and 3) were extremely physically uncomfortable for the Egyptians.

The plague of boils is unique in other ways, for it appears to have also been the final blow to the once powerful Egyptian magicians:

"And they [Moses and Aaron] took soot from the furnace, and stood before Pharaoh; and Moses threw it heavenward; and it became boils breaking out into blisters upon man and upon beast. And the magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils; for the boils were upon the magicians, and upon all the Egyptians" (Exodus 9:10-11).

During the makkah of lice, the magicians had finally admitted that this particular plague was a magical feat that they could not replicate and had even acknowledged God's power: "And the magicians did so with their enchantments to bring forth lice, but they could not: so there were lice upon man, and upon beast. Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, 'This is the finger of God'" (Exodus 8:14-15).

During the plague of boils, the magicians were so personally affected by the boils that they could not even stand in Moses' presence when he appeared before Pharaoh. It is interesting to note that now, with the complete and total defeat of the magicians, it was God who "hardened the heart of Pharaoh" (Exodus 9:12).

This Treat was last posted on January 7, 2016.

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Illusions and Magic

Make sure to distinguish between an illusion and actual “magic” which is a problematic issue in Jewish law.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Maryland’s Jews

While the mid-Atlantic State of Maryland is often associated with un-kosher seafood, Maryland has a vibrant history of Jewish settlement. The state of Maryland’s “Act to Extend to the Sect of People Professing the Jewish Religion the Same Rights and Privileges enjoyed by Christians,” colloquially known as the “Jew Bill,” was passed on January 5, 1826, corresponding to the 26th of Tevet, by the Maryland General Assembly, allowing Jews to hold public office statewide so long as they affirmed their belief in “reward and punishment” and the “hereafter.”

The colony of Maryland was established in 1634 as an asylum for Catholics. Denying the validity of Christianity was a crime punishable by death. While Jews mostly avoided Maryland since its economy was driven by tobacco and Maryland boasted few cities, there were exceptions. David Fereira, a tobacco trader from New Amsterdam (current day New York City) appeared in Maryland in 1657, and Dr. Jacob Lumbrozo, a physician engaged in trade, was recorded to have been in Maryland that very same year. A year later Dr. Lumbrozo, known to be somewhat colorful and provocative, was arrested for blasphemy after offending neighboring Christians during a conversation about religion and theology. He was released before trial as part of a general amnesty. Despite the virtual ban on the practice of Judaism, Jews began moving to Annapolis and Fredericktown (now Frederick) prior to the American Revolution. The practice of Judaism was legalized in 1776, which is also around the time when Baltimore became a significant port city. The existence of a Jewish cemetery in Baltimore in 1786 indicates that a community existed there at that time. The state of Maryland was established on April 28, 1788. By 1825, prior to the passage of the “Jew Bill,” there were about 150 Jews in Maryland.

Between 1830 and 1870, more than 10,000 Jews, mostly from Germany and Central Europe, immigrated to Maryland. Jews from Eastern Europe began settling in Maryland in the 1850s, and those numbers grew exponentially from the 1880s, with most opting to live in Baltimore. Baltimore synagogues were established in the 1820s and 1830s. The first synagogue outside of Baltimore was established in 1853 in Cumberland. When immigration quotas were tightened in the 1920s, synagogues were built in Frederick, Hagerstown, Annapolis, Frostburg, Brunswick and Salisbury. Approximately 65,000 Jews resided in Maryland at that time.

After World War II (Baltimore was a ship-building center during the War), the numbers of Jews in Maryland grew, and many Jews entered the political realm. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw Marvin Mandel, a Jewish Baltimore native, elected governor of Maryland. Currently, one of Maryland’s senators, Ben Cardin is Jewish and a known member of a Baltimore synagogue. The late 60s and 70s also saw many of the Jews living in the District of Columbia moving to the Maryland suburbs of Washington, such as Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties. In 1998, the Jewish population of those two MD counties surrounding Washington D.C. was 104,500. The Baltimore area was home to 94,500 Jews.

As of 2017, Maryland’s Jewish population was approximately 240,000 people.

Copyright © 2020 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Jewish Maryland

When traveling, try to learn the Jewish history of the places you plan to visit.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Pungency of Peppers

While some people love adding “heat” to everything that they eat, January 22 has been designated as “Hot Sauce Day.” Hot sauce is made by crushing or pureeing raw, cooked, smoked, or pickled chili peppers with spices. The heat of a pepper derives from chemical compounds called capsaicinoids. While a heat index relates to the weather outside, the pungency of peppers is measured in the Scoville Scale: the higher the rating, the greater the heat.

Pungency of vegetables has halachic (Jewish legal) ramifications as well, which are most appropriate to be reviewed on “Hot Sauce Day.” According to Jewish law, the ta'am (literally, flavor or taste) of a food (milk and meat, kosher and non-kosher) is transferred through heat, with heat meaning a high temperature above 110 degrees Fahrenheit. However, transference can also take place where foods have a certain level of natural heat (spicy, pungent or sharp foods).

Heat causes transfer: For instance, if one melts a stick of butter in a new pan, that pan becomes dairy because of the hot butter. Similarly, a bowl that contains hot clam chowder cannot be used to serve kosher food without first being made kosher. So while a pot used for meat may be scrubbed clean from any meat residue, be’liyot (the absorbed flavor of meat) still remain within the walls of the utensil for 24 hours after the meat was heated above a temperature where one would reflexively remove their hand from the heat. Since heat plays a role in the transfer of the ta'am (taste), heat is also necessary for the kashering process. In fact, the rule is that an item is kashered by the same process by which it absorbs. Thus, a pot that was used to cook non-kosher liquids can be kashered by boiling it in water.

If one cut a carrot (a non-davar charif – an item that is not considered spicy or sharp) with a meat knife that had cut extremely hot meat within 24 hours, the carrot does not absorb by the ta’am of meat. While Ashkenazic Jews would not eat that carrot together with diary, all Ashkenazim would agree that the carrot remains pareve. One would not need to endure the waiting period between eating meat and dairy after eating that carrot. Sephardic Jews would eat that “meat-flavored” carrot even with dairy.

Pungent and spicy foods are the equivalent to hot. Using an onion as the paradigmatic davar charif, a meat knife that was used to cut extremely hot meat within 24 hours was used when cold to cut an onion, that onion becomes imbued with the ta’am of meat and is considered a meat onion. Eating that onion with milk products would thus violate the prohibition of mixing meat and milk. The reason this onion becomes meat while the carrot does not (despite rabbinic stringencies among Ashkenazim) is because the pungency of the onion absorbs the meat ta’am (flavor) from the cold knife. Although the cold knife cut a cold onion, the heat of pungency transfers the meat ta’am from within the onion.

So enjoy “Hot Sauce Day” and keep in mind the power of heat!

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 © 2020 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Take Extra Precautions to Maintain Kosher Standards

Make sure your kitchen at home is properly set up to keep all the kosher laws, which includes proper labeling and separation of meat and dairy pots, pans and silverware.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Unsung Hero

War heroes are not always soldiers in arms. Often they are the men and women who work behind the scenes. Such was the role of Haym Salomon, an unsung hero of the American Revolution.

Born in 1740 in Poland, Salomon immigrated to New York in the early 1770s, where he established himself as a financial broker for merchants engaged in overseas trade and became a member of the Sons of Liberty (a secret organization of American patriots).

Salomon was quite successful in business and put his business acumen to work for the colonials. He was arrested as a spy in 1776, but was pardoned and put to work by the British as a translator for their Hessian mercenaries (whom he covertly encouraged to desert). When he was arrested again in 1778, he received a death sentence but managed to escape. Salomon fled to Philadelphia, penniless.

Re-establishing his brokerage business, Salomon resumed his work for the revolution. When George Washington found himself on the verge of victory but with an empty war chest, Haym Salomon managed to raise the $20,000 needed. Washington was thus able to complete the Yorktown campaign--and win independence for the United States. Salomon also negotiated with France and Holland for war aid and helped members of the Continental Congress support themselves in Philadelphia. His financial genius was also put in service to the new federal government, which lacked financial stability.

Unfortunately, Salomon also involved himself in considerable financial speculation. When he died on January 6th 1785, corresponding to the 24th of Tevet, his unexpected debts left his family penniless.

This Treat was last posted on May 5, 2010.

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Financially Support Important Causes

If you are unable to personally help important and worthy organizations personally, you can always help with your checkbook.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Inauguration Oil

Elected U.S. presidents are inaugurated on January 20th. But, it wasn’t always that way.

The Congress of the Confederation set March 4, 1789, as the date for “commencing proceedings” of the new government that the Constitution described. George Washington took the oath of office in New York City on April 30th, 1789 due to a difficult winter. His second inauguration occurred on March 4th, 1793 in Philadelphia. While presidential elections occur in November, time was needed to count ballots, assert the victor and travel to Washington for the inauguration. When technology allowed for easier tabulation and travel, the 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, that was ratified on January 23, 1933, set the inauguration of subsequent presidents for January 20th. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first U.S. president sworn in to office on the new date in 1937, launching FDR’s second term.

In Biblical times, the term of Jewish leaders began by anointing their heads with special oil (Exodus 30:30). This act symbolically consecrated an individual, or even an object (see Exodus 30:26, 29). The Bible mandates that the priests and the objects in the Tabernacle were inaugurated by pouring oil upon them. Eventually Jewish kings were also anointed with this special oil (Samuel I 10:1). The special oil was concocted by mixing pure myrrh, sweet cinnamon, sweet calamus, cassia and olive oil. Only Jewish kings of the Davidic dynasty were anointed with this special oil, as will the future king of Israel, known as the “Messiah,” which means anointed one. The Greek term for anointed is “Christos.”

Moses made the anointing oil by using the ingredients listed in the Torah and cooking it all together. According to tradition, no other oil may be used (see Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Temple Vessels 1:1). Prior to the Babylonian sacking of the Temple, the Judean King Josiah ordered that the Ark of the Covenant, Aaron’s staff, the jar of manna, and the anointment oil be concealed. All of these have yet to be found since that time. Therefore, priests during the Second Commonwealth were not anointed with the oil.

Happy Inauguration Day!

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Be a Jewish Leader

You too can help lead the Jewish people by assuming volunteer positions in almost any synagogue or Jewish organization.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Anatomy of a Jewish Leader

This week’s Torah portion re-introduces us to one of the most seminal characters of Jewish history: Moses. Known as Moshe Rabbeinu, Hebrew for Moses our teacher, Moses was unique among all rabbis, teachers, prophets and human beings. As the individual chosen by God to serve as His emissary to deliver the Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt and to be the great giver and teacher of the Torah to the Jewish people, Moses experienced God in ways that no other human being ever did. The Torah relates, that Moses spoke to God, “Face-to-Face” (see Exodus 33:11 and Deuteronomy 34:10) and Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Fundamentals of the Torah 7:6) asserts that the prophecy of Moses differed from that of all other prophets. Moses’ relationship with God was far more intimate than any other prophets.

Why did God choose Moses?

20th century Biblical scholar, Nehama Leibowitz, looks at the scant stories about Moses’ early life to answer this question. There are three episodes the Torah shares. First, Moses sees an Egyptian harshly beating a Jew. Moses saves the Hebrew slave by striking and killing the tormentor (Exodus 2:11-12). In the very next verses (Exodus 2:13-14), Moses sees two fellow Jews fighting with one another and asks the provocateur why he was striking his “brother.” Essentially, the men tell Moses, to mind his own business and ask if he plans to smite them as he killed the Egyptian? Realizing the Egyptian authorities would execute him for killing a taskmaster, Moses relocates to the desert oasis of Midian. When he arrives, the local priest’s seven daughters were preparing water to quench the thirst of their flocks (Exodus 2:16-17.) When the local shepherds chased the young women away, Moses arose to save them and provided water to the sheep.” Why are these three stories shared?

Professor Leibowitz explained that the Torah included these three episodes because they demonstrate that Moses showed interest and initiative in three different types of conflicts. The first conflict was between a Jew and a non-Jew, the second featured a quarrel between two Jews and the third involved a dispute between two non-Jews. Moses addressed each case. He felt compelled to take an active role and stand for justice and aid a victim, whether personally connected to him or not. Moses’ reflex was to help the victim, whether an internal matter between two co-religionists, or a matter outside of his purview such as a skirmish between two strangers. The Torah thus identifies “the ultimate leader” as one who cares about others for no reason other than empathy, justice and love.

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Stand Up for Justice

No matter what the circumstances, always assert all of your influence and power to make sure no one is bullied, taken advantage of or unfairly diminished in any way.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Judah Touro

Unlike many of the great philanthropists recorded in history, Judah Touro (1775-1854) was neither the scion of old money nor a man famed for his incredible business talents. His philanthropic activities were so important to him that his tombstone was inscribed: "The last of his name, he inscribed it in the Book of Philanthropy to be remembered forever." 

Judah Touro moved to New Orleans in 1802, where he demonstrated his business acumen. During the War of 1812, Touro enlisted in the military under the command of Andrew Jackson. During the Battle of New Orleans, Touro was severely wounded (a presumed fatal injury). He was rescued and nursed back to health by a close friend. 

Touro's philanthropic activities began on a civic level. He provided the funds, nearly $10,000, for the completion of the Bunker Hill Monument in Boston as well as significant support for the Massachusetts General Hospital. 

Late in his life, Touro befriended Gershom Kursheedt, who is credited with having renewed Touro's interest in Jewish life. Not only did Touro begin attending services on a regular basis, but he was also one of the founders and the key supporter of the Nefuzoth Yehuda synagogue in New Orleans (which became part of what is today the Touro Synagogue). 

In addition to supporting the New Orleans' Jewish community, Touro took a particular interest in the Newport (R.I.) synagogue where his father had once served as the chazzan (cantor). Jeshuat Israel, as it was then called, was founded in 1658 and is most famous for the congregation's correspondence with George Washington. Today, it is also known as the Touro synagogue in honor of the financial support it received from both Judah Touro and his brother Abraham. 

Judah Touro passed away on the 19th of Tevet (today), 1854. His will contained an incredibly diverse list of donations to a long list of Jewish and non-Jewish causes. One of the most sizable bequests was $50,000 for Sir Moses Montefiore to distribute among the needy Jews of Palestine.

This Treat was last posted on January 1, 2013.

Copyright © 2020 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Supporting Jewish Causes

While many worthy causes such as hospitals and museums were built as a result of Jewish philanthropy, make certain to also support other Jewish causes, such as Jewish education, helping the Jewish needy, and the State of Israel.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Always (Kosher) Coca Cola!

I’d bet you never heard of the Pemberton Medicine Company! Perhaps you have heard of the company into which it was incorporated on January 15th, 1889? That would be the Coca Cola Company of Atlanta, GA.

As Coke became a household name nationwide, those who keep kosher sought to learn if they too could enjoy the refreshing taste of Coca Cola. Enter Rabbi Tobias Geffen (1870-1970), the rabbi of the Orthodox Congregation Shearith Israel in Atlanta, who, in the early 1930s, innocently called the Coca Cola Company requesting a list of their ingredients. Rabbi Geffen, born in Kovno, Lithuania, was unaware of the fact that the ingredients of Coca Cola are one of the most closely guarded industrial secrets in American history. Rabbi Geffen’s inquiry, however, was discussed at the highest levels of the beverage company and, despite the fact that only a handful of the company’s executives knew the ingredients, they agreed to disclose the ingredients to him, as long as he would keep them confidential. Rabbi Geffen agreed, and was given the list, without knowing the amount of each component of “the formula.” One of the items in Coca Cola, although only included in one part per ten thousand) was glycerin made from (non-kosher) beef tallow. Since the glycerin was added on purpose, under Jewish law, one could not rely on nullifying it even when it was present in a ratio equaling 1/60 or less, and Rabbi Geffen informed the Coca Cola company that kosher observant Jews could not drink Coke. The company however endeavored to find a suitable substitute and learned that Proctor and Gamble sold a glycerin from cottonseed or coconut oil, which was kosher. Once the change was made, Rabbi Geffen certified Coca Cola as kosher, however, due to traces of alcohol that were a byproduct of grain kernels, he was unable to certify it during Passover when grains are prohibited. Coke’s chemists learned that they could substitute sweeteners produced from beet sugar and cane sugar with those made from grains. The company agreed to begin using the alternative “sugars” weeks before Passover.

Decades later, it became clear that Proctor and Gamble’s pipes that were used to manufacture the kosher glycerin, were also being used to manufacture its non-kosher parallel version. Proctor and Gamble spent $30,000 to create a second piping system so that the kosher glycerin would not pass through the pipes used for the non-kosher version. As industrial kashrut grew in the United States, with kosher supervising agencies, such as the OU (Orthodox Union), certifying millions of products, teams of experts with years of experience are able to ensure that large and small factories and products are fully kosher. This all began with individuals, such as Rabbi Geffen, who blazed the kosher trail.

Copyright © 2020 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Kosher Supervision

Hundreds of thousands of items are under kosher supervision in the United States. Make sure all the food you eat is certified kosher.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

America’s First Synagogue

In 1656, Shearith Israel, the first synagogue was established in the territory that came to be known as the United States. The synagogue, also known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, was founded in New Amsterdam (today known as New York City) by 23 Jews who immigrated to the New World from Dutch Brazil. Despite, the anti-Semitic governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant’s attempts to bar the Jews from settling in the colony, official permission was granted in 1655. A cemetery society was established in 1656 and the congregation was organized the same year, although securing a building would only come decades later.

Congregation Shearith Israel of New York, purchased a lot on Mill St. in Lower Manhattan, on December 17, 1728, corresponding to the 17th of Tevet, for the purpose of erecting the first synagogue structure in New York. They dedicated the synagogue on April 8, 1730, corresponding to the 21st of Nissan. The Spanish Portuguese Synagogue is the first of six synagogues dedicated during the Colonial period. The others were: Mickve Israel in Savannah, GA (1735); Beth Elohim in Charleston, SC (1749); Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI (1763); Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, PA (1773) and Beth Shalome in Richmond, VA (1789).

Eventually Congregation Shearith Israel was rebuilt and expanded in 1818 and moving from location to location. The congregation first moved to 60 Cosby Street in 1834, to 19th Street in 1860 and finally to West 70th Street (the current location) in 1897.

In the 19th century, before the immigration of thousands of East European Jews at the end of the century, most Jews arriving in the United States came from Germany and were interested in the Reform movement. The Spanish Portuguese synagogue always conducted a traditional service. Shearith Israel’s rabbi, Henry Pereira Mendes, helped found a rabbinic seminary to counterbalance the progressive ways of the Reform Movement. The American Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) was founded in 1886 to train traditional rabbis and its classes initially met in Shearith Israel. He was also integral in founding a traditional synagogue umbrella group and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (known as the Orthodox Union, or OU, as an alternative to the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC). In 1896 Rabbi Mendes was elected president of JTS. As the U.S. Conservative movement slid further away from tradition, Shearith Israel disassociated from JTS. The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue remains a member of the Orthodox Union.

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Historical Synagogues

Make an effort to learn the history of houses of worship in the United States.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Skeptic’s Day: Or is It?

Happy “Skeptics Day,” is the annual opportunity to acknowledge those who need absolute evidence before believing anything.

What does Jewish wisdom teach about skepticism?

In a Jewish court, verifiable evidence is certainly needed to convict. Two witnesses, who must comport to high standards, must testify to having seen the alleged crime committed first-hand. Circumstantial evidence is not tolerated. Establishing courts of law to adjudicate cases is not only a Jewish mandate, but considered to be obligatory upon all of humanity, Jew and non-Jew alike. Jews understand that human courts may not be the source of ultimate justice: the heavenly courtroom of the Almighty is. So, if a human court is unable to convict due to a lack of witnessed facts, it is assumed that God will ultimately mete out judgment.

But, in life outside the courtroom, a balance is needed between fairness and avoiding naiveté. A story is told (Derech Eretz Rabbah chapter 5) about Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah who invited a man to his home and fed him. As his guest climbed to the loft to go to sleep, Rabbi Joshua removed the ladder. Alas, in the middle of the night, the guest robbed the host of many of his valuables and wrapped them in his coat. He sought to make his getaway, but when he attempted to climb down, he fell and broke his collarbone. When Rabbi Joshua arose the next morning and saw his guest sprawled on the floor, he told him that while he suspected him of being dishonest, he still treated him respectfully. In the end, the Mishnah states, citing Rabbi Joshua, “One should always view people as thieves, but honor them like the leader of the Jews.” Many centuries later, the phrase kabdeihu v’chash’deihu, was born, which means to simultaneously show esteem but maintain skepticism.

A verse in Jeremiah (41:9) attributes to Gedaliah, to some degree, the murder of 80 men, and the disposal of their remains into a pit. The Talmud (Nidah 61a) asks why Gedaliah would be responsible for such a mass murder. After all, the crime was committed by Yishmael the son of Netanyah, who had assassinated Gedaliah the previous day? The Talmud answers that Gedaliah was warned by Yochanan the son of Kar’ei’ach that the king of Ammon was sending Yishmael to murder him. Not only did Gedaliah refuse to believe the information, but he invited Yishmael to dinner, where Yishmael killed him. Because he refused to accept credible information, he is considered somewhat responsible, for all the deaths that resulted from his assassination.

The Talmud concludes, that although one should not fully accept negative speech (lashon hara) as fact, one should be mindful of it.

Happy Skeptic’s Day.

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Righteous Skepticism

Every subject deserves the presumption of innocence, but that does not imply that one should throw caution to the wind.

Friday, January 10, 2020

How Many Tribes?

The challenge to name the number of tribes of Israel would fall into the category of  “easy” by trivia fans. However, the term “The Twelve Tribes of Israel” can be enumerated in different ways at different times.  Let’s clarify:

The Twelve Tribes of Israel began with the twelve sons of Jacob (also known as Israel): ReubenSimeonLeviJudahDanNaphtaliGadAsherIssacharZebulunJoseph and Benjamin.  While Reuben was the first born, his act of moving his father’s bed into his mother’s tent after the death of Rachel (Genesis 35:22) lost him his natural firstborn right. The rights of the firstborn were transferred to Rachel’s firstborn son, Joseph.

In Egypt, where the family of Jacob migrated to escape a famine in Canaan, Jacob met Joseph’s two sons Ephraim and Menashe. He told Joseph “Your two sons who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you, to Egypt, shall be considered mine, like Reuben and Simon” (Genesis 48:5).

When, after years of enslavement, the Children of Israel left Egypt, the descendants of Joseph were regarded as two tribes in one. In some situations, such as when Moses blessed the tribes, both tribes together are referred to as the Children of Joseph. But, in other situations, they are addressed as the Tribe of Ephraim and the Tribe of Menashe. They each had their own princes and their own encampments in the wilderness, which, though adjacent, were distinct.

The double portion (a firstborn right) of Joseph’s descendants was a counterbalance to the status change of the Tribe of Levi. When the Levites were designated as the caretakers of the Tabernacle and as the teachers of the people, they yielded ownership of a portion of the Promised Land that all other tribes received. As a result of the division of the children of Joseph into two tribes, the balance of twelve tribal areas of the Promised Land was maintained.

This Treat was last posted on June 20, 2014.

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E Pluribus Unum

Like the Latin statement (literally – from the many, one) about merging states into a federal government, the tribes of Israel were meant to become one unified nation. It is extremely important to express your fidelity to the Jewish people as a whole, despite some differences among the tribes.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Jews in Mississippi

In 1804, a year after the “Louisiana Purchase” was concluded, the United States government created the “Mississippi Territory.” On December 10, 1817, statehood was granted to Mississippi. In the middle of the 18th century, Jews arrived and settled in Natchez and Biloxi, where, in 1800, the first rumored Jewish religious services in Mississippi took place. In the 1840s, Jewish immigrants from Germany and Alsace moved to Mississippi due to the optimism generated by high cotton prices, inexpensive land and steamboat traffic. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe arrived in Mississippi. Most worked as peddlers, since farming was foreign to them, as Jews in much of Eastern Europe were prevented from owning land. Many Jewish merchants purchased their wares in New Orleans or Memphis and crisscrossed the state selling their merchandise to farmers. When the peddlers saved enough money, they would open stores in Mississippi towns. One such example was the Russian immigrant Sam Stein, who opened up a dry goods store in Greenville, MS. That store, “Stein Mart” is now a national department store chain. During this time, Mississippi banned stores from opening on Sunday. In order to make a living, most Jewish merchants, therefore, felt compelled to open their stores on Shabbat. Like many other synagogues nationwide at that time, the Orthodox synagogue in Meridian, MS, held its Shabbat morning service from 6 am to 8 am, allowing the congregants to pray, before reluctantly opening their stores.

In 1840, the Natchez Jewish community purchased land for a Jewish cemetery and in 1843, B’nai Israel Congregation was organized. In 1841, a synagogue was founded in Vicksburg. The synagogue’s name was changed to Anshe Chesed, when the synagogue was formally incorporated in 1862. In May, 1867, land was purchased in Jackson, MS, to erect Beth Israel, the first synagogue building within the state.

Jews have served as mayors of various Mississippi cities, and 200 Jewish Mississippians fought in the Civil War. The Jewish population of Mississippi has never been large, and has been declining since 1921, when it hit its peak with 6,420 Jews, 2,300 of whom lived in the Mississippi Delta area in 1937. In 2001, 1,500 Jews lived in Mississippi with fewer than 300 in the Delta region. As of 2017, 1,525 Jews lived in Mississippi, with fewer than 300 living in the Delta Region, supported by 13 Jewish congregations, two of which have a full-time rabbi.

On January 9, 1861, Mississippi became the second state to secede from the Union before the outbreak of the American Civil War.

Copyright © 2020 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Jewish Mississippi

When traveling, try to learn the Jewish history of the places you plan to visit.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Stairs or Ramps?

“National Take the Stairs Day,” is celebrated on the second Wednesday of January. It is an opportunity to take a small step toward better health. A 160-pound individual who climbs stairs for 3 minutes can burn about 30 calories. Avoiding the elevator is known to improve one’s health.

While maintaining one’s health is a solemn Jewish value, the path to the altar outside the main chamber of the ancient Holy Temple in Jerusalem, specifically was a ramp, and not stairs.

In Exodus 20, God instructs the Israelites on the proper way to erect an altar to Him. “And if you make Me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stone, for if you lift your tool upon it you have profaned it. Neither shall you go up by steps to My altar, so that your nakedness is not uncovered thereon” (Exodus 20:22-23).

Although these verses refer to how one should act while bringing an offering, it is a cogent example of the subtle lessons found in the Torah that actually apply to everyday life as well. In this case, the lesson reflects the necessity of modesty, since walking stairs requires one to lift their robe exposing their naked feet. The concept of modesty is often discussed in the context of religious life, usually in reference to a dress code. Modesty, however, goes beyond dress. It is a way that people carry themselves, the way they interact with the world.

Being aware that walking up steps might reveal one’s nakedness reflects a general awareness of one’s surroundings and the necessary appropriate behavior in those surroundings. There is a time for laughter and a time for seriousness. There are places where it is appropriate to dress casually and places where formal dress is necessary.

Being a modest person means knowing when it is the right time to walk up the ramp rather than take the stairs.

Portions of this Treat was previously posted on February 16, 2017.

Copyright © 2020 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Exercise is a Jewish Value

Staying healthy is a fulfillment of the Torah’s mandate to “safeguard your soul” (Deuteronomy 4:15).

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

The Tenth of Tevet

And it was in the ninth year of [King Zeddekiah’s] reign, in the tenth month, on the tenth (day) of the month, that Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, came, he and all his legions, upon Jerusalem, and encamped upon it and built forts around it. And the city came under siege until the eleventh year of King Zeddekiah. On the ninth of the month [of Tammuz] the famine was intense in the city, the people had no bread, and the city was breached. (The Second Book of Kings 25:1-4)

Siege! The word itself resonates with pain and suffering. In the case of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in (587 B.C.E.), the siege was also the beginning of the end.

Having just vanquished the great Assyrian empire, the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, sent his troops to quell any rebellion in the land of Judea, whose heart was the city of Jerusalem. The siege lasted for a year and a half. During this time, the city suffered immensely. Starvation, thirst, disease...all the horrors of siege were borne out, just as it had been predicted by the prophet Jeremiah.

The siege of Jerusalem was the first step in what would become the Babylonian exile. When the Babylonians finally broke through the walls of the city, they destroyed the Holy Temple built by King Solomon. Adding to this great tragedy was the fact that the majority of the Jewish people were then exiled to Babylon.

The great sages declared the Tenth of Tevet, the day that the fateful siege began, as a fast day from sunrise to nightfall, to provide a time for people to reflect on their actions and do teshuva (repentance).

*This Treat was originally published on January 5, 2009. It is being re-Treated to help us better understand the Fast of the Tenth of Tevet.

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Purpose of Fasting

Fasting is meant to help people focus on important issues when tragedy strikes.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Completing the Cycle of Talmud

In August 1923, weeks before the High Holidays, Rabbi Meir Shapiro, dean of the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva in Poland, proposed that the entire Jewish world study a daily folio of Talmud (a folio consists of one page, both sides). According to this study plan, not only would Jews be studying the Talmud, but all Jews would literally be “on the same page.” In Rabbi Shapiro’s words: “A Jew leaves the United States and travels to Brazil or Japan, and he first goes to the Beis Medrash (study hall), where he finds everyone learning the same daf (folio) that he himself learned that day. Could there be greater unity of hearts than this?”

The international study of the Daf Yomi (daily folio) formally began on Rosh Hashana 5684, corresponding to September 11, 1923, a date that would eventually be associated with infamy. Rabbi Shapiro pitched his Daf Yomi idea to Agudath Israel, and its leadership warmly embraced the campaign. On that Rosh Hashana eve, the Gerrer Rebbe, Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter, (known as the Imrei Emes) asked that a tractate Berachot (the first tractate in the Talmud) be brought to him, and began studying its first folio. His chassidim, and tens of thousands of fellow Jews, followed suit. Since that night, through this past Shabbat – the day on which the last folio of the Talmud was studied for this cycle, the Daf Yomi program has completed 13 cycles, or the study of 25,243 folios of Talmud!

The entire Talmud contains 63 tractates, consisting of 2,711 folios. It takes close to seven-and-a-half years to complete a cycle of the entire Talmud when studying a folio a day. (Amazingly, and without coordination, Berlin’s Holocaust “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” contains exactly 2,711 slabs to seemingly appear as graves.)

Upon completion of a cycle, it has become customary to mark that accomplishment with a celebration known as a siyum. On February 2, 1931, the first siyum took place, at Rabbi Shapiro’s yeshiva in Lublin, Poland. In the United States, each subsequent Siyum HaShas (Shas is an acronym for shisha sedarim, representing the six orders of the Mishnah which form the basis of the Talmud) has gotten larger. In 1997, Agudath Israel of America, the sponsor of the Siyum HaShas, rented out two major indoor sporting venues in the New York area, Madison Square Garden and the (then-titled) Continental Arena. The 2012 Siyum HaShas was held in New Jersey at the outdoor MetLife Stadium, home to the New York area’s two football teams, drawing 90,000 participants. The Siyum HaShas held on New Year’s Day 2020 (a few days prior to the official completion of Shas) also took place at MetLife Stadium, with the overflow crowd attending Brooklyn’s Barclay Center indoor sporting venue.

In Biblical times, on the Sukkot festival, after the Sabbatical year, Jewish men, women, children and “strangers,” were called up to Hakhel, to literally gather the people together, that they “may hear, and that they may learn, and fear the Lord your God, and take care to do all the words of this Torah” (Deuteronomy 31:11-12.) The King of Israel himself read from the Torah and as the entire nation heard the words of the Torah from the king’s own mouth, and were inspired. Nothing in contemporary Jewish life approaches the impact of that ancient event save for the Siyum HaShas, which occurs not every seven years as does Hakhel, but every seven-and-a-half years.

Copyright © 2020 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Study the Talmud!

With dozens of resources online, including translations of the Talmud into multiple languages, studying that ancient text has never been more accessible.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Serach's Seranade

When perusing the list of the generations of Jacob found in Genesis 46, one gets a strange sense that there was a powerful genetic predisposition in Jacob's family for male children. Jacob had thirteen children - twelve sons and one daughter. Among the 67 descendants traveling to Egypt with Jacob, there are listed 53 grandsons and one granddaughter: "The sons of Asher: Yimnah and Yishvah and Yishvi and Vriah and Serach their sister" (Genesis 46:17).

Most of the great Biblical commentators agree that there were other granddaughters. What distinguished Serach that she alone was listed along with all the sons?

Turning to the oral tradition, transcribed in the Midrash, one finds that Serach was quite a remarkable young lady. She is best known for her role in informing Jacob that Joseph was still alive. According to the Midrash, Serach and her grandfather had a very close relationship, and Jacob was particularly fond of listening to her musical talents. When the brothers returned from Egypt, they were uncertain how to tell their elderly father the remarkable news that his favorite son was still alive. It might be too much for old Jacob to handle. They recruited Serach, who took hold of her harp and melodiously announced that Joseph was still alive (Midrash Hagadol, Vayigash 45:26).

Serach's name is actually listed twice in the Torah. Not only is she listed among the Israelites who went down to Egypt with Jacob, but she is also listed in Numbers 26 among those who came out of Egypt. (Another list with few women!) According to tradition, Serach's uniquely long life allowed her to assist Moses in locating Joseph's remains in order to transport his coffin to the Land of Israel (Sotah 13a).

Serach, who is said to have been extremely wise and pious, was rewarded with an exceptionally long life and, in fact, is considered to be one of the "nine [who] entered the Garden of Eden while yet alive" (Derech Eretz Zuta 1).

This Treat was last posted on December 19, 2012.

Copyright © 2020 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Study about the Women in the Bible

There are many lessons learned from the women mentioned in the Bible, especially the righteous ones.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

A Kosher Buffet

While it seems a bit counterintuitive to have a day celebrating abundant eating the day after a national holiday, nevertheless, January 2nd is celebrated as “Buffet Day.”

The concept of a “buffet,” a French word describing a piece of furniture on which varied foods were displayed, was adopted because the Swedish term “smorgasbord,” introduced at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, seemed too difficult to pronounce.

Las Vegas, Nevada, features quite a few over-the-top buffets, such as the Carnival World Buffet, which offers more than 300 dishes, including 70 pastries, to anyone who will pay $24 for an all-day pass. There are similar buffets in “Sin City” that focus on seafood, Asian cuisine, poultry and pasta. 

Kosher buffets can be found, as well, at celebrations such as weddings and bar/bat mitzvah celebrations, at organizational dinners and even Shabbat “kiddushes” at synagogue. Despite their popularity, there are some halachic (Jewish legal) issues that must be kept in mind when attending a buffet.

First, the human body becomes satiated after eating a certain amount. At a buffet, people’s eyes may be larger than their stomachs. People may take more food than they need, because, consciously, or perhaps subconsciously, they tell themselves that since they already paid for the food, they may as well eat all of it. They may go back to the buffet even after they are full because it has already been paid for. Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Laws of De’ot 4:15) writes that “ravenous eating (achilah gassah in Hebrew) is as deadly to the body of every man as poison, and is the base of all sickness.” According to halacha (Jewish law), one who eats so much that it is difficult to continue eating, is not considered to be eating.

A second halachic consideration at a buffet is to remember to recite the order of the blessings properly. The general rule is that if one eats bread, no other blessings prior to eating need to be recited, save for the blessing on wine. If one does not eat bread, they should recite the blessings, based on a Biblical verse (Deuteronomy 8:8), in the following order: mezonot (recited over items made from wheat, barley, rye, oats and spelt), ha’etz (recited over fruit), ha’adama (vegetables) and she’ha’kohl (the blessing recited over non-organic food, such as meat, eggs and everything else).

While a kosher caterer will not include both meat and dairy on a buffet, you may find meat and fish on the buffet table. The Talmud (Pesachim 76b) prohibits cooking meat and fish together, claiming that doing so could yield a dangerous combination. The Code of Jewish Law (Yoreh Deah 116:2-3) proscribes eating fish and meat back-to-back without chewing and drinking non-meat or fish in between. Since we avoid eating fish and meat together, we also serve them on different dishes, so the mixture will be avoided.

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

Copyright © 2020 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Don’t Overeat

Eat well balanced, nutritious meals. Proper nutrition is always an important Jewish value.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Jews and 2020

On Rosh Hashana eve 2007, late night comic, David Letterman, quipped, “It’s Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year 5768, and I’m still writing 5767 on my checks.”

As Jews worldwide woke up this morning, it remains 5780, according to our Jewish calendar, but, last night at midnight, the world ushered in the year 2020.

In addition to being a new decade, “2020” also references eyesight. Jewish Treats would like to begin the year 2020 with a discussion of vision and the Jews.

On four occasions, the Torah describes the eyesight of four Biblical characters, and according to renowned ophthalmologist Rabbi Dr. Benjamin I. Rubin, there are medical inferences that can be made from all.

The first mention of vision challenges is to be found regarding the patriarch Isaac, whose eyes are described as “dim,” prior to when Jacob dressed up like Esau and received the blessing of the firstborn from Isaac’s father (Genesis 27:1). Rashi offers three reasons, aside from old age, why Isaac’s vision was impaired. First, the incense of the pagan offerings of Esau’s wives caused Isaac’s eyes to be cloudy, second, the tears of the weeping angels fell into Isaac’s eyes when he was bound on the altar during the Akeida on Mount Moriah, and third, Isaac’s poor eyesight was part of a Divine scheme so that Jacob would be able to acquire the blessing of the firstborn. Dr. Rubin notes that if angel tears are similar to human tears, they would be considered an antigen, or foreign protein, in the eye, which would cause an individual to mount an autoimmune response. Doctors identify autoimmune responses in the eye by looking for cells and flare. Flare, looks like smoke, which conforms with two of Rashi’s rationales for Isaac’s blindness.

Dr. Rubin found an interesting physiological component to Rashi’s third answer. People with impaired vision often have a sixth sense; Isaac should have perceived Jacob’s presence even without being able to see. However, if he suddenly lost his vision, even after a long history of vision decline, such as glaucoma, he would not have yet developed that extra sharp perception in his other senses. 

Second, the eyes of Leah are described as “soft” as compared to Rachel, her sister, whom the Torah designates as “beautiful and well favored.” (Genesis 29) Rashi comments that people would often approach Leah and assume that she would marry her cousin Esau, just as the two younger cousins, Jacob and Rachel, would be destined to marry. This caused Leah to cry excessively, hence her soft eyes. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra cites an opinion that claims that the Hebrew word for soft, “rakot” was really meant to be “arukot,” meaning long. When one squints, the eyes seem long. Perhaps, advances Dr. Rubin, Leah suffered from myopia. Without glasses, she would be constantly squinting. Interestingly, a Midrash (Seder Olam Rabbah 2) claims that Leah and Rachel were twins (similar to Esau and Jacob). Science has shown that it is possible for one twin to be myopic while the other twin is not. Perhaps this is why Leah’s eyesight, which led to constant squinting, is contrasted with Rachel’s beauty.

Finally, Jacob and Moses’ eyes are described in opposite ways. Prior to blessing his grandchildren Ephraim and Menashe, Jacob’s vision is described as “dim from age” (Genesis 48:10), yet Moses’ eyesight, at the age of 120 “did not dim.” (Deuteronomy 34:7) Dr. Rubin pointed out that cataracts make people very near-sighted and dim one’s eyesight. Prior to the description of Moses’ eyesight, he is brought up upon a mountain to see the entire world. (Deuteronomy 34:1) He was obviously not myopic, since he could see the whole world.

Happy 2020! May it be a year of enhanced vision!

Copyright © 2020 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Get Your Eyes Examined

Make sure to schedule an eye exam as part of one’s regular medical checkups.