A couple just starting their lives together inspires joy and hope, and everyone wants to wish them success. These blessings of good will are so important to a new couple that the Jewish marriage ceremony begins* with blessings. Seven of them, to be exact, known as the Sheva Brachoht, the seven blessings. (Sheva Brachoht is also the name used to refer to dinner parties held in honor of the bride and groom during the week after their wedding.)
Mothers always instruct their children to wash their hands before supper. After all, children play in unclean places, touch strange objects and suck their thumbs, so their hands definitely need to be washed before they touch any food. In a Jewish household, however, the request for a child to wash his/her hands might only be an indicator that the child is about to eat bread.
This coming November, the people of San Francisco will vote on a referendum to make it a misdemeanor to circumcise any male under the age of 18. And while many Americans were surprised by the proposal, and great debates are raging on the internet, if the referendum passes, this will certainly not be the first time that circumcision has been outlawed. The most famous prohibition of circumcision occurred during the rule of the Syrian-Greeks during the era of the Maccabees. At that time, however, circumcision was actually a capital offense.
Mention the Ark of the Covenant and most people think of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the 1981 movie starring Harrison Ford. The real Ark of the Covenant, created concurrently with the other vessels of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), was placed in the Holy of Holies of the First Temple by King Solomon. The question of the present location of the Ark is debated by the sages. When the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple, was the Ark taken into captivity by the Babylonians or was it hidden?
Unfortunately, it would not be difficult to write a list of powerful men whose careers have been toppled by the scandal of adultery. Alas, we often say, sarcastically, what more can one expect of politicians, sports stars, celebrities, etc? The connection between wealth and power to the vice of adultery is, sadly, nothing new. “Rabbi Hiyya Ben Abbas said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: Every man in whom is haughtiness of spirit will in the end stumble through an [unfaithful] married woman” (Sotah 4b).
You receive a telephone call offering you ten million dollars; all you have to do is go upstairs and wake your father from his mid-day nap. Who’d hesitate?
In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 3:21), the sages declare that without flour, there can be no Torah. In Jewish texts, “flour,” meaning bread, often refers to material sustenance. However, the sages were also aware of the importance of vegetables: “Rabbi Huna said: No scholar should dwell in a town where vegetables are unobtainable” (Eiruvin 55b).
Throughout her life, Leah suffered from the terrible insecurity of knowing that her husband loved her sister Rachel more than he loved her. Each time she bore a child, the statement she made before naming him, reflected that sentiment (Simeon: “Because God has heard that I am unloved, He has given me this one also.” Levi: “This time my husband will become attached to me, for I have borne him three sons.” Issachar: “God has granted me my reward, because I gave my maidservant to my husband”–Genesis 29:33, 34 and 30:18).
According to the Midrash, Jacob and his wives knew that he was destined to have 12 sons. Therefore, when Leah gave birth to her sixth son, she joyfully announced: “God has endowed me with a good dowry, now my husband will dwell with me because I have born him six sons” (Genesis 30:20). The Hebrew word used for dwell, yizbelayni, infers, according to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a “home that completely corresponds to all the purposes, wishes and demands of the one for whom it is designed.” Because Leah felt that she had finally created a place where Jacob could feel so at home, she named her son Zebulun.
Almost nothing is known of the life of Zebulun other than his name. However, something of his personality can be understood from the death-bed blessing that he received from his father: “Zebulun will live at a haven of seas, he himself will become a haven for ships, and his extreme province will reach Sidon” (Genesis 49:13). According to the sages, Zebulun and his descendants were merchants of great skill, who used their acquired wealth to support Issachar’s study of Torah.
The referral to Sidon, according to Rabbi Hirsch, teaches us further that Zebulun was, in fact a modest person who did not go farther than the great, near-by seaport in order to acquire even more riches.
Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.
Are there really giants in the world?
Actually, giants are frequently referred to in the Torah. Me’am Loez, an 18th century book of commentary on the Bible, notes seven different names with which the Torah refers to giants: Nephilim (Genesis 6:4, Numbers 13:33), Gibborim (Genesis 6:4), Refa’im (Genesis 14:5, 15:20; Deuteronomy. 2:10-11, 3:11,13), Anakim (Numbers 13:22, Deuteronomy 2:11), Ay’mim (Deuteronomy 2:10-11), Zam’zumim (Deuteronomy 2:20) and Ah’vim (Deuteronomy 2:23).
The first reference to giants is found in Genesis 6:4: ‘The Nephilim were in the earth in those days…the same were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown.” According to the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Bereishit 44), the “Nephilim” were the offspring of angels (“sons of God”) and women.
Being the descendants of angels, the giants had supernatural attributes. Not only were they incredibly tall and strong, they also lived for extraordinary lengths of time. The giant Og, who was noted in the Midrash (Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 23) as being young at the time of the flood, was killed by Moses (Berachot 54b).
While certain specific giants (such as Og and Goliath) enter the Biblical narrative, giants as a nation are mentioned in particular in Numbers 13:33: “And there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak who come of the Nephilim: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so were we in their sight.” The Israelite spies thus described the inhabitants of the Land of Israel and discouraged the Israelites from conquering it.
In time, the giant nations died out. Goliath, famous for his defeat at the hands of a young David (before he became king), is the last one mentioned in the Bible.
Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.
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).