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Questions With a Rabbi Questions With a Rabbi

When getting to know someone new, whether on a date, at a party or at a social gathering, one can expect to hear their fair share of questions.  But what happens when the line is crossed and basics such as, “what do you do?” and “what’s your favorite movie?” devolve into the prying, personal inquiries of bad date folklore?  Moment asks a spectrum of rabbis whether there is such a thing as asking too many questions, and here’s what they said.

May His Name Be Erased
May His Name Be Erased

When a righteous person passes away, it is customary to add the following laudatory phrase after mentioning the deceased’s name: “zecher tzaddik liv’racha” (May the memory of this righteous person be a blessing). So too, when referring to an indisputably evil person, it is customary to say “yimach sh’mo” (May his name be erased) after his/her name. In some cases, the term “yimach sh’mo v’zichro” (May his name and memory be erased) is added.

Jewish tradition places great importance on a person being remembered after death. Parents name their children after their own parents and/or grandparents (in Sephardi tradition this occurs while they are still alive, in Ashkenazi tradition a child is named only after deceased relatives). The anniversary of a person’s death (yahrtzeit) is observed by the deceased’s children for the rest of the latter’s lives. According to tradition, positive actions done in the name of the deceased bring them honor in the afterlife.

Most often, the memory of a person is kept alive from parent to child (or by a young person upon whom the deceased had a meaningful influence, like a teacher-student or uncle-nephew). In fact, the word “toldot,” which appears frequently in the text of the Torah, is often translated both as generations and actions. A person is remembered in this world both by the generations that he/she produces and/or by the impact of his/her actions upon others.

In the history of humankind, there have been a number of people who could be considered utterly evil. On May 1st, the world learned of the death of one such thoroughly evil person, Osama bin Laden, “yimach sh’mo v’zichro,” who was killed by the U.S. armed forces. (Coincidentally, it was also on May 1st, in 1945, that it was confirmed that Hitler, “yimach sh’mo v’zichro,” had died.)

May we never see such evil again.

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

Off With His Head
Off With His Head

Capital punishment is one of the modern era’s great controversies. Does a judicial system have the right to sentence a person to death? Like most such controversial topics, similar questions and discussions may be found in the Talmud.

The best known Talmudic reference to capital punishment is found in Makot 7a: “A sanhedrin that effects an execution once in seven years is branded a ‘destructive tribunal.’ Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says once in seventy years. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva say, ‘Were we members of the sanhedrin, no person would ever be put to death.’”

The Mishnah cited is an excellent reflection of the Jewish attitude to the death penalty. Even though the written Torah calls for execution (“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man will his blood be shed – Genesis 9:6), the oral Torah regulated the process to the point where it becomes almost impossible to convict someone of murder.

Capital crimes, such as murder, incest or idolatry, were usually tried by a beit din (tribunal) of 23. Conviction required a majority of at least 13. If all 23 judges voted to convict, however, the accused was acquitted because of the implausibility that not a single judge doubted the witnesses (implying that there was a conspiracy). In capital cases, the witnesses were critical since no circumstantial evidence was accepted. Therefore, not only did the witnesses need to be upright, law (Torah) abiding citizens, but they must have definitively warned the accused that the intended act was a capital offense. The testimonies of both witnesses had to match, flawlessly, and lying was, itself, a capital offense.

If conviction was virtually impossible, why bother? The reverberations of the rare cases in which an execution did actually occur were enough to dissuade others from committing the same crime. Thus, said Rabbi Simon ben Gamliel, “If we never condemned anyone to death, we might be considered guilty of promoting violence and bloodshed…[and] multiply murderers in Israel” (Maakot 7a).

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

Remember
Remember

The Jewish nation has a long historical memory. Jewish history is replete with accounts of those who attacked Jews and Jewish communities, and the records of countless victims. On the other hand, the Jewish calendar also records dates commemorating the defeat of those who sought to destroy the Jewish nation. There is even a Biblical commandment to remember how the nation of Amalek tried to destroy the Jews by attacking the weak and the stragglers as they marched in the wilderness. The mitzvah is known as Zachor, which means remember.

A generation of Jews is now coming of age that is, in truth, the first generation who will need to be educated and, in effect, commanded, to remember the Holocaust. Those who survived the Nazi horrors are all too quickly becoming part of history themselves…and those who wish to distort history have gained strength as the number of eyewitnesses rapidly diminishes.

Holocaust Memorial Day, known in Hebrew as Yom Hashoah, literally “The Day of the Conflagration” is observed on the 27th of Nisan. Yesterday, people around the world recalled those who perished and the world that was lost. It is vitally important that time be set aside for each and every Jew (indeed, each and every person) to stop and ponder…What if I had been there? What if it had been me?

Just two weeks ago, at the Passover seder, Jews read the following statement from the Haggadah: “In every generation, they rise up against us to destroy us. But, the Holy One, blessed be He, rescues us from their hands.”

Zachor, Remember! Each and every Jew must remember the uniqueness of the Jewish nation. Our remembrance of Jewish tragedies affirms our survival and victory. Hitler may have wanted to eradicate the Jews, but instead, the Jews stand tall and continue to REMEMBER.

This Treat was originally posted on April 21, 2009.

There’s A Key In My Challah!
There’s A Key In My Challah!

It’s a fact that many people spend much time thinking and even worrying about par’nassah (livelihood).

Jewish tradition teaches that different seasons have different spiritual strengths. Certain times are regarded as propitious to pray for rain, while other times are considered appropriate to petition for forgiveness. (Of course, these things may also be prayed for at other times of the year!) So too, our spiritual leaders have noted that there are certain times on the Jewish calendar when it is propitious to focus on praying for par’nassah. One such time is the Shabbat that immediately follows Passover, when it is a custom in some Jewish communities to make what is known as shlissel (Yiddish for key) challah.

There are a number of reasons suggested for this custom. Due to space limitations, Jewish Treats will present only a few:

1) The Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 2:2) states that on Passover the world is allocated its grain harvest for the coming year.

2) The Jews celebrated Passover just before entering the land of Canaan, at which point there was no more manna (the heavenly food of the wilderness). Henceforth, the Jewish nation needed to generate its own par’nassah.

3) A “key” serves as a symbol to remind us that our prayers have the power to open the Gates of Heaven.

There are different ways to perform this custom. Some people bake an actual key (scrubbed clean or wrapped in foil/parchment paper) into the challah, while others mold their challah into the shape of a key. One custom mentions using a key to knead the dough, and there are still other customs as well.

Whatever one’s custom, it is hoped that the symbolic message will reach its proper destination and have the desired beneficial effect on one’s livelihood.

*This Treat was originally published on April 17, 2009. It is being re-Treated as an interesting fact for this time of year.

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

Women Who Work
Women Who Work

In 1993, Gloria Steinem and the Ms. Foundation for Women initiated the “Take Our Daughters To Work” program (in 2003, it became “Take Our Daughters and Sons To Work”) with the intention of boosting the self-esteem of girls by showing them that they too could do all types of work.

The question of working women was, in fact, not a question in the days of the Talmud. Marriage then was an economic arrangement, and it was assumed that a woman would work along with her husband, whether farming crops or shearing sheep. Without question, running a home in the days of the Talmud was a much more labor intensive task than it is in our age of microwaves and washing machines. The Mishnah actually lists some of the Jewish woman’s basic obligations for maintaining a home: grinding corn, baking bread, washing clothes, cooking, making the beds and working in wool (Ketubot 59b). A woman, however, could live a more leisurely life if, according to the Mishnah, she brought bondswomen with her into the marriage: “If she brought him one bondswoman she need not do any grinding or baking or washing. [if she brought] two bondswomen, she need not even cook…If four, she may lounge in an easy chair” (Ketubot 59b).

The Ketubah, Jewish marriage contract, stipulates that a husband must provide for his wife’s basic needs. But, Jewish law also allows a woman to be mochel (literally forgive or cancel) that obligation. “If, therefore, she said, ‘I do not wish either to be maintained by you or to work for you,’ she is entitled to do so” (Ketubot 58b).

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

Mimouna
Mimouna

Jews rejoice on Passover to celebrate their redemption from slavery in Egypt. Because of Passover’s connection to redemption, there is much hope that the final redemption will soon be at hand (thus the inclusion of Elijah’s cup at the Seder). At the end of the week-long holiday, on the day after Passover, in order to prolong the rejoicing and, many say, as a means of asserting their faith in the final redemption, Jews of North African origin celebrate a unique holiday known as “Mimouna.”

While some have suggested that the name Mimouna derives from ma’amoun, the Arabic word for wealth and good fortune, others connect it to the Hebrew word emunah, faith. Taking the latter opinion one step further, the name may be an Arabic adaptation of the phrase, “Ani Ma’amin” (I believe).

Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides, Rambam, 1135-1204) set forth the Thirteen Principles of Faith, each of which begins with the phrase “Ani Ma’amin.” The twelfth statement of faith is: “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah; and even though he may tarry, nonetheless, I wait every day for his coming.” The connection between the Thirteen Maimonidean Principles of Faith and Mimouna is further confirmed since Mimouna is celebrated on the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Maimon ben Joseph, the Rambam’s father (a great scholar in his own right).

The Mimouna holiday, which is most often associated with Moroccan Jews but is customary among many North African communities, has no specific halachot (laws). The customs, however, reflect the community’s exuberant, joyful nature. Tables are decorated, often with symbols of luck and fertility (golden rings hidden in bowls of flour, items set out in sets of five, and sometimes live fish in bowls). Sweet delicacies (made of chametz) are served, particularly mofletta, a special pancake served with honey.

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

The Song of Songs
The Song of Songs

“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for your love is better than wine. Because of the fragrance of your goodly oils, your name is ‘oil poured forth.’ Therefore, the maidens loved you. Draw me, we will run after you…” (Song of Songs 1:2-4).

And people say the Bible is boring…

Shir Hashirim, (The Song Of Songs), the Biblical love song attributed to King Solomon, is understood by the rabbis to be a prophetic allegory about the relationship of God and the Jewish people.

The poetic work describes a beautiful maiden who loves, and is loved by, a handsome youth. When he pursues her, however, she sends him away with various excuses, only to realize too late that he was her true love. Devastated at the thought that she has alienated and probably lost him, she wanders through the city streets looking for her lost lover and, in the process, suffers shame and embarrassment. Finally, the lovers are reunited and are joined by their sincere love.

Shir Hashirim is one of the five megillot (scrolls of canonical works) from the Ketuvim (Writings) section of the Bible. On the Shabbat of Chol HaMoed* Passover, it is customary for Shir Hashirim to be read in the synagogue.

Shir Hashirim was chosen as the Passover reading because the story of the Exodus demonstrates God’s patience with His beloved–the Jewish people, as represented by the maiden. Despite having witnessed the many miracles that God performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, the Jews strayed from their commitment to God. Eventually, God withdrew His favor from the Jews (Hester Panim), and they have since wandered the world trying to make amends for the damage caused to the relationship. The reunion of the lovers is a prophecy for the Messianic era, yet to be fulfilled.

*Passover is an 8 day holiday. The first two days and last two days are Yamim Tovim – days that are observed like Sabbath (except that one may cook on an existing flame, and carry in public areas). In Israel, Passover is only 7 days, and only the 1st and 7th day are Yamim Tovim. The in-between days are known as Chol HaMoed – weekdays of the festival.

This Treat was originally posted on April 7, 2009.

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

A Poet and A Martyr
A Poet and A Martyr

Hannah Senesh (Szenes) was born in Budapest, Hungary, to an assimilated, middle-class family. An avid diarist from the age of 13 until her death, Hannah maintained a personal journal that reflected the literary talent she had inherited from her father, Bela, a playwright who died when she was six.

The Film That Launched a Thousand Court Cases The Film That Launched a Thousand Court Cases

The Ten Commandments is “one of the most significant epic films ever made,” in part because it tapped into America’s Cold War self-perceptions, according to Loren P.Q. Baybrook, editor-in-chief of Film & History. The movie was “a declaration from Hollywood that American values, as opposed to Soviet values, were part of the longest history of moral principle,” says Baybrook, noting that its success was due, in no small part, to the way it artfully Christianized the film’s religious content. DeMille, whose German-Jewish mother converted before marrying his Episcopalian father, cleverly used the term “Hebrews” instead of “Jews” in order to appeal to his largely Christian audience.

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