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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.

Make Me the High Priest
Make Me the High Priest

The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) relates the strange story of a non-Jewish man who wished to convert to Judaism in order to ultimately become the High Priest of Israel.

The Jewish Prime Minister?
The Jewish Prime Minister?

Benjamin Disraeli has been called the first (and only) Jewish Prime Minister of England. The truth of this claim is…complicated. According to Jewish law, he was Jewish. His political detractors never hesitated to bring up his Jewish background. But at the age of 13–at the behest of his father Isaac, who had had a falling out with the Bevis Marks synagogue (the main Sephardi synagogue in London)–Benjamin Disraeli was baptized. He remained a member of the Anglican church for the rest of his life.

Lag Ba’Omer
Lag Ba’Omer

The period of mourning* (for the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva who died of plague) associated with Sefirat Ha’omer ends on the 33rd day of the Omer, a day known as Lag Ba’omer. In Hebrew, every letter has a numerical value. ”Lamed” equals 30, and “Gimmel” equals 3, thus Lag (spelled “Lamed Gimmel”) Ba’omer, literally means 33 (days) in the Omer.

What’s in the Book: The Twelve Prophets – Hosea
What’s in the Book: The Twelve Prophets – Hosea

The prophet Hosea lived during the reign of King Jeroboam II over the Northern Kingdom of Israel. He was also a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah.

The Second Passover
The Second Passover

On the first anniversary of the Exodus from Egypt, the Children of Israel prepared to celebrate their first Passover as free people. God decreed that they should eat matzah and maror (bitter herbs) in commemoration of the great event, and, most importantly, that the Israelites should all partake of the Passover sacrifice (lamb).

The Removal Office
The Removal Office

In the annals of American history, there are few immigrant stories that are as successful as that of the Jews. Generally, it only took two or three generations for immigrant families to become financially secure, if not successful, in America. Aside from uncommon devotion to education, one of the important factors in the success of Jewish immigration was the tradition of helping other Jews.

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