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Eat Your Vegetables
Eat Your Vegetables

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).

Zebulun, Son of Jacob
Zebulun, Son of Jacob

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.

There Might Be Giants
There Might Be Giants

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.

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.

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