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The Flags of the Tribes The Flags of the Tribes

On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress resolved that: “the flag of the 13 United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white: That the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” In celebration of this resolution, June 14 was officially established as Flag Day (as of 1916).

The Tribes of Israel also had flags, but these were more like organizational guides. By Divine order, the Israelites encamped “each person by his flag, according to the insignia of his ancestor’s house, at a distance surrounding the Tent of Meeting shall they encamp” (Numbers 2:2). According to the Midrash Rabbah Numbers 2:7, this meant that each tribe had a specific color and emblem:

Reuben – Red flag, with mandrake flowers
Simeon – Green flag, with buildings of the city of Shechem
Levi – Red, white and black flag, with the High Priest’s breastplate
Judah – Sky blue flag, with a lion
Issachar – Bluish black flag, with a sun and moon
Zebulun – White flag, with a ship
Dan – Blue flag, with a snake
Naphtali – Deep wine colored flag, with a deer
Gad – Black and white flag, with a tent camp
Asher – Pearlescent colored flag, with an olive tree
Joseph – Black flag, with Egypt depicted upon it (Since this tribe was divided into Joseph’s two sons, their flags were similar. However, Ephraim’s flag had a bull, while Menasseh’s had a wild ox.)
Benjamin – Multicolored flag, with a wolf

*Some flags refer to historical occurrences (Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Joseph) while others reflect Jacob’s blessings (Judah, Zebulun, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher and Benjamin).

Which Day Of The Week Were You Born?
Which Day Of The Week Were You Born?

Do you know on which day you were born? Not your birthday…which day of the week. It doesn’t appear to be a relevant fact, but more of an interesting bit of personal trivia. According to the sages (Shabbat 156a), however, the day of the week on which one was born can influence a person’s personality.

People born on Sundays tend to be more extreme. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi describes a Sunday child as being “a person without one…” which is understood by Rabbi Ashi as being “completely virtuous or completely wicked.” Sunday (Day One) was the day on which God created light, and thus darkness.

Monday’s child will be ill-tempered because on Day Two of creation, God divided the waters, but He did not settle the waters until the next day.

One might think that the settling of the water on Day Three would bode well for a child born on Tuesday. Alas, this child, according to the sages, will be “wealthy and unchaste…because Herbs were created” on Day Three. (Herbs multiply with exceptional speed and can live with many other types of plants.)

Born on Wednesday? The Wednesday baby will “be wise and of a retentive memory,” because on Day Four, God placed the stars, moon and sun in the Heavens. In the Heavenly bodies, God encrypted great knowledge.

On Day Five, God created the fish and the birds, who, according to some explanations, live purely on God’s loving-kindness and mercy. Therefore, a Thursday birth means a benevolent child.

One born on Friday is said to be a seeker. According to Rabbi Nachman ben Isaac, this means a seeker of good deeds.

Finally, the Talmud notes that one “who is born on Shabbat will die on Shabbat, because the great day of Shabbat was desecrated on his account.” This, however, applies only as a rule to those who are particularly holy.

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

A Convert of the Inquisition
A Convert of the Inquisition

The first auto-de-fe (live human burning) of the Spanish Inquisition took place in 1481. The Inquisition was not, as many believe, an institution set to destroy the Jewish people, but rather was a system meant to ensure that converts to Christianity were sincere in their conversions. Many Jews had converted in name only, a situation that the Catholic Church refused to tolerate (never mind that most of the so-called crypto-Jews had converted under threat of death). In 1492, anyone still wishing to profess the Jewish faith had to leave Spain. The Inquisition remained a frighteningly strong force for hundreds of years and was only formally ended in 1834.

During this time of persecution, a young Spanish nobleman named Don Lope de Vera (1619-1644) who was not descended from Jews, began to study Hebrew language and literature at Salamanca, and found himself drawn to Judaism when he read the Old Testament in its original language. His interest and enthusiasm for the Jewish faith was noticed by the Inquisition, and he was arrested at Valladolid. He was only twenty years old.

While held by the Inquisition, Don Lope declared his conversion to Judaism. Not only did he change his name to Juda el Creyente (Juda the Believer), but he also circumcised himself with a sharpened bone!

The pure Christian lineage of Don Lope/Juda was a particularly great embarrassment for the Inquisition. For six years they imprisoned him, pushing him to both confess his “sin” and return to Christianity. Finally, in July of 1644, Juda was led to his execution, chanting Psalms all the way to the stake to which he would be tied. Juda the Believer remained steadfast even as he died, crying out from the flames “I entrust my spirit into Your hand” (Psalms 31:6).

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Give Them A Choice
Give Them A Choice

There is an oft-cited Midrash (Sifrei, Dvarim 343) describing how God offered the Torah to the other nations of the world before He gave it to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. According to this Midrash, the first nation to whom He offered the Torah asked what was in it. When God told them about the law prohibiting stealing, they couldn’t fathom a life without theft. The next nation reacted incredulously to the prohibition of adultery; they were horrified at the idea that God would monitor people’s bedroom behavior! Another nation was unable to accept the prohibition of murder…and so on. When God asked the Jewish people if they would accept the Torah, there were no questions. They declared: “Na’aseh v’nishma” (“We will do and we will listen”).

So, if one understands the Midrash correctly, it sounds like the so-called “chosen people” were God’s last choice for receiving the Torah. However, God understood that, unlike the other nations, the Israelites were truly free to accept the Torah since they did not yet have a homeland, they did not yet have an existing government, culture or “way of life.” It was this freedom that God gave them when He brought them out of Egypt into the wilderness that made the Jews more inclined to receive the Torah. They were not chained to a pre-existing life-style and thus were not reluctant to change themselves for the better. This is the practical reason why the Jews were able to accept the Torah so readily.

One must also bear in mind that the Israelites still remembered the generation that had come to Egypt and those who had been enslaved. They still claimed the spiritual heritage of Abraham & Sarah, Isaac & Rebecca, and Jacob, Rachel & Leah.

It is this heritage that we have today. On Shavuot we commemorate the day that God gave the Torah to our ancestors. Now the choice is ours.

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Green Cheesecake at Midnight?
Green Cheesecake at Midnight?

The holiday of Shavuot has three well-known, and well-loved, customs:

Decorating our homes and synagogues with plants and flowers: According to the Midrash, at the time of the giving of the Torah, Mount Sinai burst forth in blossoms of verdant greenery, covered with plants and flowers. This is the basis for the custom of decorating our homes and synagogues with plants and flowers on Shavuot.

Dairy Foods: On Shavuot, it is customary to eat dairy foods – cheesecake and blintzes are particular favorites.

Among the reasons given for this custom are:

Once the Torah was given, the Israelites refrained from eating meat because they needed to learn the laws of kosher slaughter and to make their utensils kosher. They specifically chose to eat dairy and give themselves the time necessary to learn the laws.

On a more mystical level, the gematria (numeric value of the Hebrew letters) of the word chalav, milk, is 40. Forty corresponds to the forty days and nights that Moses spent on Mount Sinai learning the Torah.

All-Night Learning: To demonstrate our love for Torah and our appreciation for God’s revelation on Mount Sinai, it is customary to stay up all night on the first night of Shavuot either studying Torah, listening to lectures on Torah topics, or simply discussing Jewish ideas.

Another reason given for the custom of learning all night is to atone for the apathy of the Israelites, who actually overslept on the morning that they were to receive the Torah, rather than being wide awake in excited anticipation.

For further explanations of these customs, please visit the National Jewish Outreach Program’s Shavuot website. (The customs are at the bottom of the page.)

*This Treat was originally published on May 28, 2009. It is being re-Treated to help us better understand the holiday of Shavuot.

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

When Bread Isn’t Bread
When Bread Isn’t Bread

A question for those who bake and for those who love dessert: What is the difference between bread and cake? Yeast, some might answer. Bread has yeast and rises. But what about yeast cakes such as babka or cinnamon buns? Believe it or not, the definition of bread is a question discussed thoroughly in halacha, Jewish law.

Bread is more than just something we eat. Bread, in Judaism, represents actual sustenance, as it is the basic necessity for survival (at least before everyone began to eat processed, white bread, of course!). For this reason, when sitting down to a meal with bread, it is considered appropriate to ritually wash one’s hands, recite the hand washing blessing, and then recite the blessing of Ha’Motz’ee before eating the bread. A meal with bread concludes with the Grace After Meals (Birkat Ha’mazon). Likewise, whenever one eats bread, even if not as a sit-down meal, one is required to wash, recite Ha’Motz’ee and say the Grace After Meals when finished. When Ha’Motz’ee is recited, it is no longer necessary to make individual blessings over the other foods of that meal (with some exceptions).

While “bread” sounds like a clearly identifiable food, the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch: Orach Chaym 168) defines bread as something made of the five species of grain (wheat, barley, oats, rye and spelt) that is baked in an oven or cooked in a dry vessel. It may not have sweets, fruits or spices as the major ingredients or fillings.

While this final qualification makes it simple to understand why cinnamon buns are considered desert/snack (and therefore one recites the m’zo’note blessing), this does lead to complications when a sweet challah (such as a raisin challah or other sweet challahs) are used for ha’motz’ee on Shabbat. The question comes down to the definition of “major ingredient.” According to the custom of the Sephardi community, the taste of the spice/flavor need only be discernable to disqualify it as bread. The Ashkenazi community, however, rules that the extra flavor must really alter the main flavor.

*One should ask their own rabbi for clarification, if one has a question.

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Live Long And Prosper
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 Nemoy 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].”

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

The Old City
The Old City

New York may be the city that never sleeps, but Jerusalem is the “City of Gold.” This description usually refers to the city’s physical appearance (casting a golden light at dusk due to the unique Jerusalem stone with which its buildings are built).

The heart of the city is the “Old City,” “Ha’ir ha’atika.” As ancient as the walls of the Old City may appear, the Old City is NOT the original city in which King David dwelled. The City of David (Ir David, as it is called today) now being extensively explored and excavated, is to the southeast of the current Old City, although the Temple Mount is part of both cities.

The current Old City encompasses the Temple Mount (known in Hebrew as “Har Ha’bayit,” The Mountain of The House) and its Western Wall (aka Wailing Wall, Kotel Ha’Ma’aravi), as well as the area to its west and north. It is a treasure trove of Jewish history. In the 1970s, archeologists discovered and excavated the wall built by King Hezekiah to protect Jerusalem from the Assyrians, and the Cardo, the famous central road from Roman times. Other archeological sites in the Old City, include Wilson’s Arch and the remains of priestly houses from the era of the Romans.

The famous walls that surround the Old City today were erected by the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, in the mid-sixteenth century C.E.. This enormous structure, with its 11 grand gates, encompassed structures from many previous eras in history, including the Temple Mount upon which stands the Al-Aqsa Mosque that was built in 705 C.E.

The Old City is divided into four quarters (Jewish, Armenian, Christian and Muslim – named for their local residents). The Jewish Quarter is the most modern quarter. Most of it was destroyed between 1948 and 1967, after the Jewish population of the Old City was taken captive and driven out of the city by the Jordanian army. During the Six Day War of 1967 (on the 28th of Iyar), the Israeli Defense Force took back the Old City and began rebuilding the Jewish Quarter.

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

The Feast of Weeks
The Feast of Weeks

Shavuot, which we begin celebrating next Tuesday night (June 7th), is the only holiday in the Torah not listed by the date on which it is to be observed. Rather, the Torah teaches that this festival takes place on the day following the 49th day after the first day of Passover (see Counting of the Omer). The name Shavuot, therefore, reflects the fact that this holiday occurs seven complete weeks (shavuot) after Passover. In mystical terms, the number 7 represents the natural order of things, and so, a complete, natural cycle has occurred.

The natural cycle that has been completed is agricultural. Therefore the holiday is also called Chag Ha’bikurim, The Holiday of the First Fruits, and is the time when the offering of the First Fruit of the harvest was brought to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem as a gesture of thanksgiving for the successful crop.

Seven times seven days, the count of 49, expresses the natural cycle, but Shavuot takes place one day after the seven weeks–one step beyond the natural cycle. It is, therefore, also representative of an event beyond nature.

When the Israelites left Egypt, the people acted as though they were merely cousins bonded by mutual misery. By the end of seven weeks, however, at the base of Mount Sinai, the former slaves rose above their human limitations and, by accepting the Torah, took upon themselves a total commitment to God, the final step in becoming the Nation of Israel. Shavuot is therefore also known as Z’man Matan Torateinu, the time of the giving of our Torah.

Like all holidays on the Jewish calendar, Shavuot celebrates both the “mundane” and the holy, and, in this way, reminds us that nothing in life is mundane.

*This Treat was originally published on May 21, 2009. It is being re-Treated to help us better understand the holiday of Shavuot.

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

Call Him Ishmael…Rabbi Ishmael
Call Him Ishmael…Rabbi Ishmael

It may seem surprising that the Talmud quotes a sage named Rabbi Ishmael. Biblically, Ishmael the son of Abraham and Hagar, is portrayed as a wild trouble-maker sent away from Abraham’s home.

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