Friday, December 30, 2011

Modern American Rabbis on celebrating New Year's Day

We have written in previous HOTD about the various views of modern orthodox rabbis regarding the celebration of different American holidays (see here). All orthodox rabbis are very strict in forbidding, for example, the celebration of Halloween in any way, while most would not oppose the celebration of Thanksgiving. The question is: to what extent a particular Holiday is considered 'a religious' celebration? Halloween has clear origins in Pagan culture, and some of those customs are still followed in its celebration today. While Thanksgiving is more of an historical celebration.

What about New Year's day?

According to Christian tradition, January 1st, is the day of the circumcision of Yeshu (eight days counting from December 25), when his name was given to him. 

Five centuries ago, Rabbi Terumat Hadeshen and Rama, both living in Christian countries, classified New Year's day as a religious gentile holiday (Darkhe Moshe and Rama, Yoreh Deah 148:12). Terumat Hadeshen refers to January First as "the eighth day of Christmas." He clearly viewed this holiday as 'religious' in nature. Most Rabbis --myself included-- would oppose the 'celebration' of New Year's Day based on this consideration.

Other Rabbis, however, have a more lenient view, because in their opinion New Year's has lost entirely its religious overtones and can be rationally explained as a celebration of a new civil calendar's year.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Iggrot Moshe, Even Haezer 2:13) writes with regard to New Year's: "On the question of celebrating any event on a holiday of Gentiles, if the holiday is based on religious beliefs [such as Christmas], such celebrations are prohibited .... even without intent, it is prohibited because of marit ayin . . . The first day of the year for them [January 1] and Thanksgiving is not prohibited according to law, but pious people [ba'ale nefesh] should be stricter [and avoid its celebration]."

In Rabbi Michael Broyde's opinion (see below) the status of New Year's day has changed in the last three hundred years. In contemporary America there is little religious content on New Year's Day, and while there might be many problems associated with the way some celebrate it, he thinks that few would classify it as a religious holiday, since there is a clear secular reason to celebrate the beginning of the new calendar year. New Year's day, in his opinion has lost its status as a religious Holiday.

I would say that Rabbi Feinstein's words articulate what we implicitly practice in our community. While one should avoid its commemoration and won't promote any official celebration, rabbis won't actively oppose or preach against its private celebration by individuals, as we do with regards to Halloween, for example.

Shabbat Shalom!

Candle lighting in NYC: 4:18 PM
Shabbat Ends in NYC: : 5:27

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Shema Israel. Pasuq 4. Declaring our love of God.

(1)And you shall teach (these words) to your children, and you shall speak of them (2) when you are sitting in your house and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up.
In this pasuq the Tora commands us to express our love for God with our words and speech. 
In the first part of this pasuq (=verse) we learn about the duties of the parents to teach their children to love HaShem with all their heart, with all their soul and with all their might. Additionally, we are told, we must speak of our love for God and prove that it is real and that it influences our conduct at all times.   Our rabbis explained that the education process of our children always takes place as mimetic (imitative) experience. They said: When (or How) does it happen that we teach our children the love of God? At the time that we convey our love of God with our words.  Not when we preach to them about loving God, but when they see us practicing it: studying Tora, praying to Him and thanking Him for all we have.  

The second part of this pasuq teaches us that love of God is an integral part of our daily lives. We should not limit our prayers and words to Him just when we are in Synagogue. The pasuq emphasizes that we should express our love for Him when we are sitting at home, by ourselves or with our families in the privacy of our home, but also outside home, in the street, in front of others.  Our love for God should be the first thing we declare when we get up in the morning, and the last, when we go to sleep.

A good example of expressing our love for God constantly with our words, is when we say at all times (MEANING IT!) "barukh HaShem"= "Thanks God" , or "be'ezrat haShem" ="with God's help".

The SHEMA ISRAEL  by Rabbi Hayim Pereira-Mendes (1905)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The untold story of Chanukka (part 2)

In the year 169 BCE (3591, Hebrew calendar), Antiochus Epiphanes launched his reign of terror against the Jewish people. Impatient with the slow results of the Hellenization process of the Jews, after trying for 150 years to assimilate them,  Antiochus led his armies to Jerusalem. He canceled the sacrifices and desecrated the Temple.  In the year 167 BCE, practicing Judaism was forbidden under death penalty. Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh, Kashrut laws and particularly, circumcision were banned. Jews were forced to bow down to idols and thousands chose death, instead of worshipping idols.   When the Greeks got the city of Modi'in Matiatyahu haKohen was ordered under the threat of execution to offer a sacrifice to an idol. He refused and killed those who were carrying the orders of the King. He was the first Jew that instead of martyrdom (= letting himself to be killed) chose rebellion, and thus, started the insurrection against Antiochus the tyrant. He and his sons, especially Yehuda haMaccabbe, defeated the Greek armies in several battles and in 165 BCE restored  (for a few years...) the Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel.  

Ironically, it was Antiochus' impatience what triggered the uprising against the hellenization of the Jews. Rabbi E. Melamed hints that if the Greeks would have been more persistent, assimilation might have eventually taken place with most of the Jewish people, as it happened with the rest of the civilizations at the time. It was providential that Antiochus lost his patience. Similar to the time when HaShem hardened the heart of Pharaoh, allowing for the portents of God Almighty to be witnessed by His own people. In the case of Antiochus, by forbidding the practice of Judaism, the Jews were inspired to react and generated the rebellion.  (Penine Halakha , zemanim, 218-220)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The untold story of Chanukka

The decrees of Antiochus Epiphanes forbidding the practice of Judaism in 170 BCE, was the straw that broke the camel's back, and what triggered the rebellion of the Jews (or the Macabeem) against the Greek army. 

The tensions between the Jews and the Greek empire started long before that. Around the year 320 BCE Alexander the Great conquered Israel (and the rest of the civilized world). At the beginning, he demanded what was considered a normal token of submission, that his statue be erected in the Bet-haMiqdash. The Jews, of course, politely refused and offered him instead, that every Jewish child to be born in that year, be named Alexander in his honor.  Alexander accepted the offer and left the Jews relatively in peace. 

After his death, Alexander's empire was divided between his three generals and a period of hellenization began. The Greeks introduced their new values everywhere: sports and competition; art and the idealization of external beauty; theater and the entertainment industry, and more.  These new cool things were immediately and happily adopted by the whole world, except for the Jews. 

During the next 150 years, the Hellenist tried to assimilate the obstinate Jews to Greek culture. They first targeted the most vulnerable strata of the Jewish people: the rich and famous, those who had most to lose for their disobedience. They lower their taxes, promised good positions and generous pensions, and slowly but surely, the most influential Jews became voluntarily assimilated. The peak was reached when the High Priests, Jason and later Menelaus, attended the sport competitions in a stadium built right next to the Bet haMiqdash, instead of leading the services to God in the Temple. 

While many followed the ways of the assimilated Jews, still, most Jews remained loyal to their faith. And that is when Antiochus lost his patience with the Jews...   

(To be continued....)

Monday, December 26, 2011

Chanukka and Rosh Chodesh Tebet

Besides Chanukka, today we also celebrate Rosh Chodesh Tebet.

In the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) the name of this month is Chodesh ha-Asiri, the tenth month, counting from Nisan. In the Torah the months are named numerically (first, second, etc). The name Tebet was coined in Babylonia, same as the other commonly used names of the Hebrew months (Nisan, Iyar, Cheshvan, etc.).

Some years Rosh Chodesh Tebet is observed for one day and some years--for example, this year--for two days. Why? Because Kislev, the preceding month, consists sometimes of 30 days (ma-le) and some years of only 29 days (chaser). The 30th day of the preceding month is always the first day of Rosh Chodesh of the next month, and the second day of Rosh Chodesh is the 1st day of the new month. Today, is the 30th day of Kislev, which is Rosh Chodesh Tebet. 

The month of Tebet itself, is always 29 days long and because of this lack of variation in its length, Rosh Chodesh Shebat, the month which follows Tebet, will always be celebrated for just one day (the 1st of Shebat).

Today and tomorrow we say Ya'ale veYabo and 'al haNisim in the Amida and in Birkat haMazon. 
In the morning we read the full Halel, then we take out two Sifre Torah. On the first one we read the Rosh Chodesh portion, but instead of dividing it into 4 parts (or Aliot) as we do every Rosh Chodesh, we divide the reading into 3 Aliot. In the second Sefer Torah we read the part corresponding to the 6th day of Chanuka. We also say Musaf, including 'al haNisim.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Shabbat and Chanukka candles

Third day of Chanukka. Today before sunset we light the fourth candle

Every night we light Chanukka candles after sunset, but today, Friday, we should light the Chanukka candles 20-25 minutes BEFORE sunset: approximately at 4:10 PM (NY time). Why? Because at 4:14 PM we light Shabbat candles (see here), and Chanuka candles must be lit before that.

Another specific rule for Friday's Chanuka candles: while every night the candles should last at least for half an hour, on Friday, the candles should last for more time. So, make sure your candles are long enough, or have enough oil to burn for approximately one extra hour.

When Shabbat is over (after 5:20 PM, NYT), at home you should first recite the Habdala and then you light the Chanukka candles. In the Synagogue, for practical reasons, we should first light the Chanukka candles and then do the Habdala.

When spending Shabbat at your parents /in laws house etc., do you have to light your own candles in your room or at home before you leave?

If you will spend the whole Shabbat at you parents/in laws, once you're at their house, you (spouse, children) are considered part of the extended family of your parents, and since you also partake the same food, boarding, etc. you are included in their Chanukka candle-lighting without further requirements. So, you don't really need to light your own Chanukkia.

However, if you and your family are going to your parents/in laws/relatives house after Shabbat began or for dinner, then you should light Chanukka candles normally at your own house. In this case, it is recommended that you don't leave your house while the candles are lit, to avoid any fire hazard!

Shabbat Shalom and Chanukka Sameach!

Chanukka candle lighting in NY: 4:10 PM
Shabbat candle lighting in NY: 4:14 PM
Shabbat ends in NY: 5:20 PM

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Tora Reading for Chanukka

Second day of Chanukka. Tonight we light the third candle

During the eight days of Chanukka, we read the Tora in the morning.  Now, what Biblical text was chosen by the Rabbis to be read on Chanukka and why? 

Let me first explain the question. On every Jewish Holiday we read in the Tora a portion corresponding to that specific Holiday. During the eight days of Pesach, for example, we read eight Tora portions alluding to the Exodus from Egypt, the Mitzvot of Pesach, the Pesach sacrifice, etc.  But the events of Chanukka happened around the year 160 BCE, and were not recorded in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible). The rabbis, therefore, had to choose a Biblical text to be read, which somehow will be related to Chanukka.

Our Rabbis chose the section of Naso in the book of baMidbar ('In the desert'), dealing with the inaugural offerings of the tribal leaders at the time of the dedication of the mizbeach (=altar of the Tabernacle).


1. Chanukka means 'inauguration', and it remind us that once the Greeks were defeated, the Jews rededicated the altar --which had been defiled by pagan offerings-- to HaShem. The Perasha we read is also about the dedication of the mizbeach in the Tabernacle (zot chanukkat hamizbeach).

2. The Tabernacle was completed on the 25 of Kislev. The same day we celebrate Chanukka.

3. On the last day of Chanukka, we read in beha'alotekha the paragraph dealing with the lighting of the Menora, which remind us of the miracle of the oil.

4. Me'am Lo'ez brings an additional reason. The tribe of Levi did not participate of the offerings at the time of the dedication of the altar, narrated in the Tora. During Chanukka, however, the Chashmonayim --Cohanim descendants of the tribe of Levi-- were the ones who recovered and rededicated the altar

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

CHANUKKA: Ashkenazi and sephardic traditions

There are no major differences between the Sephardic and the Ashkenazi traditions in the order of candle lighting, just a few minor variations. 

Some of them are:

1. The Ashkenazi tradition is to say the Berakha: Lehadlik ner shel Chanukka, while Sepharadim say: Lehadlik ner Chanukka, without the word "shel." (In our community, however, some families still add the word 'shel' following the Bene Tzion Siddur).

2. In the Ashkenazi Minhag, one first lights the auxiliary candle (Shamash) and with it one lights the rest of the candles.  The Sephardic Minhag is to light all the candles first, with a regular match or candle, and the Shamash is lit at the end. In this case, the Shamash is seen as auxiliary, in that it avoids benefiting from the light of the candles, not necessarily for lighting with it the other candles.  

3. For most Sepharadim, it is customary to light only one Chanukkia for all members of the family. In many Ashkenazi communities they light one Chanukkia for each member of the family. Following the Ashkenazi tradition, for example, a student who lives in his own apartment, lights his or her own Chanukkia with Berakha, even if he is still dependent on her parents (see here). Incidentally, this is also the case regarding Shabbat candles: while according to the Sephardic Minhag only the mother lights the candles, in the Ashkenazi Minhag the daughters also light their own candle, saying Berakha for it.

4. Playing with the Dreidel, spinner or sebibon is originally an Ashkenazi custom, which Sepharadim did not use to practice in the past. Same as Chanukka Gelt (money or gifts to the children).

Obviously, in these matters there is no right or wrong. Each one should follow his community and family's traditions. 


Tuesday, December 20, 2011


In our community, we light one Chanukkia per family, not per individual. Other communities have the custom to allow or encourage children and other family members to light their own Chanukkia. 

The father or the person in charge of the family, recites the following three blessings before he lights the candle. (On all subsequent nights, only blessings number 1 and 2 are recited).

Blessing #1: Barukh Ata Ado-nai Elo-henu Melekh ha-olam, Asher Kid-deshanu be-Mitzvo-tav, Ve-tzee-vanu le-had-leek Ner Chanukka.

Blessing #2: Barukh ata Ado-nai Elo-henu Melekh ha-Olam, She-asa Nee-seem la-abo-tenu, Baya-meem ha-haem baz-e-man ha-ze.

Blessing #3: Barukh ata Ado-nai Elo-henu Melekh ha-olam, Sheh-he-che-yanu ve-kee-yihemanu Ve-hee-gee-yanu laze-man ha-ze.

The following text is also read each night, after all the candles, or at least the first one, has been kindled:

Ha-nerot ha-lalu anu mad-likin Al ha-nissim ve-al hapurkan ve-al hageburot  ve-al ha-teshu-ot ve-al hanif-laot ve-al haniflaot she-asita la-abo-tenu Ba-yamim ha-hem, ba-zeman ha-zeh Al ye-de kohan-ekha hake-doshim. Ve-khol shemonat ye-me Chanukkah Ha-nerot ha-lalu kodesh hem, Ve-en lanu reshut le-heesh-tamesh ba-hem ela leer-otam bilbad Kede le-hodot li-shmekha Al ni-sekha ve-al yeshuo-tekha ve-al nifleo-tekha .

"We kindle these lights for the miracles and the wonders for the redemption and the portents, salvations and marvels which You performed for our ancestors in those days, at this time (of the year) through Your holy priests. During all eight days of Chanukka these lights are sacred and we are not permitted to make ordinary use of them, but only to look at them in order to express thanks and praise to Your great Name for your miracles, and Your salvations and Your wonders, ".

Then we recite: Mizmor shir Chanukkat haBayit leDavid



Monday, December 19, 2011

CHANUKA: A family Mitzva

Unlike most Mitzvot (Jewish religious commandments), Chanukah is not an individual Mitzva like Tefila or Tzedaka, but a family Mitzva. In some ways, similar (but not identical) to the Mitzva of lighting Shabbat candles, which is not done individually by each member of the family.  

Illustrations: If one's son (or daughter) lives overseas, and he is financially dependent on his parents, he does not need to light his own candles. To this effect, a son or daughter is considered part of the immediate family while they are financially dependent on their parents (somekh al shulchan abiv). However, if they live in their own home and are financially independent (i.e., file their own Tax-return) they should light their own candles, even if they are still single.

If the husband is in a business trip, technically, he is included in the candle lighting done at home by his wife and children.

In both cases, if those who are away from home still want to light the candles away from home, they could do it, but without saying a Berakha. 
If you are spending Shabbat in your parents' (or in-laws) home, you and your immediate family (spouse, children) are considered part of the extended family of your parents, since you also partake the same food, house, etc. So, when they light the Chanuka candles, your family is included in their Mitzva without further requirements. However, if you are going to arrive at your parent's house after Shabbat has begun, then you should light Chanuka candles at your own house. 

In case you will leave the Chanukia lit at your house, you have to take extreme precautions to avoid any fire hazard.

Friday, December 16, 2011

CHANUKA: The basics of lighting the candles

1. The Chanuka candles are kindled in the evening preceding each of the eight days of Chanuka. The custom of many communities is to light the Chanukia shortly after sunset, which is approximately 4.30 PM, in NYC. Other communities light it at nightfall (approximately 5.00 PM). In either case, the candles must contain enough fuel at the time of the lighting to burn for 30 minutes after nightfall. If one did not light the candles early in the evening, they can be kindled later, when the family is home.

2. The candles could be made of wax, paraffin, etc., but ideally one should use olive oil, because the miracle of Chanuka happened with olive oil. In addition, oil candles will last for more time than small wax candles. The Mitzva of Chanuka candles cannot be performed with 'electrical candles', even when real candles are not available. An electrical Chanukia, however, can be placed in the house in addition to the regular Chanukia, especially during day time.

3. Some families have the tradition to place the Chanukia outside the door, on the opposite side of the Mezuza, which technically, is the best place for it. Nowadays, however, most families place the Chanuka candles inside the house, close to a window, in a spot that is visible from outside.

4.  Technically, it is enough to light one single candle every night. As we say in the Berakha: lehadlik NER Chanukah (to light thecandle, not the candles, of Chanuka). As we all know, today our custom is to add one more candle for each night. However, in extreme cases where one cannot light additional candles, for example, if one is on a trip or in a Hotel room, etc., lighting one candle any night will be enough.

Shabbat Shalom!

Candle lighting in NYC: 4:10

Shabbat Ends: 5:18

Thursday, December 15, 2011

CHANUKA: Celebrating Jewish victories

In the days of the second bet haMiqdash (Holy Temple in Jerusalem),  there were many holidays, besides Chanuka, that celebrated the military victories of the Macabeem (or Chashmonayim) over the powerful Greek army. Some of them were: the 13th of Adar, when the Jews celebrated "Yom Niqanor", because in that day the Macabeem defeated the large army of the Greek general Niqanor. The 14th of Nisan, when they recovered the city of Ceasarea. The 22nd of Elul, when the Chashmonayim brought to justice those who betrayed them joining the enemy's army (meshumadim). The 22nd of Shebat, the day that Antiochus himself came with his powerful army and surrounded Yerushalaim with the intention of destroying it and killing all the Jews. That day, news came to Antiochus about the Parthian rebellion against him in the capital city of his Empire. Antiochus was forced to abandon his plans against the Jews. He took his army back to Greece where he was defeated and killed.    All these minor holidays were mentioned in the famous Meguilat Ta'anit.     

After the destruction of the second Bet haMiqdash, in the year 68 ACE (some say: 70 ACE) the Rabbis thought that there was no reason to celebrate previous victories, while we are enslaved, defeated and in exile. They suspended all the practical matters brought on Meguilat Ta'anit (batela meguilat ta'anit) and indicated that the only Holiday that should still be celebrated was Chanuka, because of the miracle of the oil.  Accordingly, Chanuka's celebration does not emphasize the military aspect but mainly the miracle of the oil. That is why we celebrate Chanuka by lighting the candles. Still, during Chanuka's prayers ('al hanisim) we mention the victories of the Macabeem and we recite the Halel, thanking HaShem for delivering our ancestors from their more powerful enemies.  

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What does Chanuka mean?

The word Chanuka means 'dedication' and it is widely used in this sense in phrases like 'Chanukat haBayit', dedication of one's home.

So, what 'dedication' are we referring to in our holiday "Chanuka"?
During the Second century BCE the Jews in Israel lived under the rule of the Syrian-Greek army of Antiokhus Epiphanies. They were not permitted to practice their religion and at one point, the Bet haMikdash (The Holy Temple of Jerusalem) was captured and defiled by the Greeks.
They introduced an image of their pagan god, Zeus, and dedicated our Holy Temple to him, offering sacrifices of impure animals like pigs. In the years 165 BCE the Jews lead by Yehuda Maccabi rebelled against the powerful armies of Antiokhus and miraculously defeated them. When they regain possession of the Bet haMikdash, they purified the Holy Temple and in order to re-dedicate it to God Almighty they needed to light the Menorah, which indicates that the Bet haMikdash was fully operating to God's service. They found one small jar, with an amount of oil which normally would last only for one night.

They lit the Menorah and joyfully dedicated the Bet haMikdash back to God. They thought that they will need to interrupt the rededication of the Temple until new oil could be produced, but miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days, the exact time needed to make new pure olive oil.

In Chanuka then, we celebrate the 'dedication of the Bet haMikdash' to God Almighty, after years of being defiled.

Chanuka is observed by the kindling of candles during the nights of the holiday, in remembrance of the miracle of the oil.

Chanuka is celebrated on the 25th of the month of Kislev. 

This year, 2011, Chanuka begins Tuesday Dec 20th, at night.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

CHUPA: Dating and Lashon haRa

Lashon haRa, i.e, telling something negative about somebody else, is one of the most serious prohibitions in our Tora and its effects could be devastating. Yet, there are a few instances in which we are allowed or even required to speak up to and reveal certain negative information to prevent someone else's damage, for example, in the world of business (see here ). 

In the area of Shiddukhim (=dating) Lashon haRa might cause tremendous and long-lasting damage in the emotional and psychological life of the victims. I know many engagements which were tragically broken, because of Lashon haRa; people --friends, relatives--made negative comments about the bride or the groom, innocently or sometimes deliberately, out of jealousy or resentment. 

Still, there might be some 'negative'  information about the bride and the groom that we know, and we believe it should be known to the other party. Should we disclose that information? 

I will summarize the matter of Lashon haRa and Shiddukhim, with the following two basic rules:

1. If you have first-hand information of a 'serious/objective' matter that affects the bride or groom, you can (or sometimes 'you should') reveal this information to the potential partner. For example, a major issue in the past, like a previous marriage; a life threatening disease, a serious mental problem, etc.  However, in other 'subjective' areas--where you apply your judgment more than your knowledge of certain facts, like 'compatibility', character, rumors, etc. you should not interfere. Different personalities might complement each other and make for beautiful marriages.

2. FOR ALL CASES, and before you say one word, PLEASE, always seek the advice of an experienced Rabbi or an expert counselor, to help you assessing if the information you have, it is indeed a 'serious/objective' matter which deserves to be disclosed, or if it pertains to your own subjective judgment, and therefore you need to let the bride, the groom and their families, to decide by themselvesif and when they want to reveal it.  A good advisor will also help you decide when and how to reveal the information, as well as verify if this information has been already disclosed, and you did not know about it. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Bioethics: Abortion and Jewish Law (1 of 4).

The case of abortion primarily discussed by the Talmud refers to what we call today "therapeutic abortion", i.e., when the life of the pregnant mother is in danger, and the doctors estimate that the only way to save her life is by taking out/killing the unborn baby.  Independently of how Jewish Law considers the status of an unborn baby--we will analyze that later on--in this case, the early Talmudic sources (Mishna Aholot, 7:6, written ca.200 CE) already established unequivocally that if necessary, the unborn baby should be sacrificed in order to save the mother's life.  The Mishna understand that this is a case of rodef ("chaser", a potential killer) and therefore the principle of "self defense" is applied: If  A is attacked by B, if necessary, A can kill B to save his life (habba lehorgekha, hashkem lehorgo, Sanhedrin 72a). The baby, ironically, is viewed as an "involuntary" rodef

The Talmud analyzes the Mishna's statement and asks what happens when the baby is actually at the very process of birth. Should we still apply the same criteria of self defense and allow to sacrifice the life of the baby to save the life of the mother? After all, in this extremely difficult situation, the mother is also a rodef toward the unborn baby! The answer of the rabbis, in very simple terms, is that before the baby is born, the life of the mother has priority, because the life of the baby is still a 'potential life'. But once the baby is born, i.e. when at least the head and /or the majority of the body is already outside, his life could not be sacrificed, and both mother and baby are in an equal situation. The doctors should try their best to save both lives.

(Adapted from penine halakha, Rabbi E. Melamed, liqutim B, page 241-242).   


Friday, December 9, 2011

Shema Israel: Pasuq 3: "Words and the heart"

In previous weeks we've learned from Verse One the principles of Jewish faith (see here) and from Verse Two our duty to love our God (see here). Today we will analyze Verse Three. 

 "And these words which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart".

The words which are to be upon our hearts are the words: "You shall love HaShem your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might."

What does it mean: "that these words should be over the heart"? It means that love for God must rule over our hearts and shape our conduct. Merely saying 'with words' that we love Him is not enough. Our actions, what we do, must prove our words and feelings. Same as in a relation between husband and wife, feelings only count when they are expressed by compatible actions.   When our words conflict with our deeds, what count is our deeds. Children know this better than anyone else. They are the best polygraphs! They don't listen to what parents say: the see what we parents do.  We don't need words to transmit religious values to our children. They will not necessarily follow our preaching, but they will surely imitate our doing.

These words... should be over the heart... Loving haShem with ALL our heart means that we should avoid wrong thoughts--like excessive material ambitions-- and wrong feelings--like jealousy or hatred-- to take over our heart. Wicked thoughts and wrong values drive love for God out of our hearts. So, even when we cannot help wrong thoughts and negative feelings coming to our heart, we can, and must, prevent them remaining in our hearts.
(Adapted from R. Hayim Pereira-Mendes: "Jewish Religion Ethically Presented")

Shabbat Shalom!

Candle lighting in NYC: 4.10 PM

Shabbat ends in NYC: 5:18 PM

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Rabbi Isaac Lampronti (1679–1756)

Rabbi Isaac Lampronti was born in Ferrara, Italy.  He studied Torah under the great Italian rabbis of his generation: Manoach Provençal and Isaac Chayim Cantarini. In addition, he studied philosophy and medicine at the University of Padua.  Padua was an important center for Hebrew studies by virtue of its rabbinical academies and the fact that Jews were drawn there from all over Europe to study in its university, which was open to Jews.  

At the age of 22, he began to teach in the talmud torah of the Italian community. He introduced many improvements in the curriculum, insisting on the teaching of the humanities concurrently with the study of Torah. In 1718 he was ordained rabbi and in 1743 was appointed head of the Yeshivah - a position which gave him the status of senior rabbi of the city.   

Rabbi Lampronti practiced as a physician. He was an outstanding doctor who gave his services for free to those of limited means.  He had a great reputation as physician, and his contemporaries generally added to his name the epithet "the famous physician."

Rabbi Lampronti's main reputation, however, rests on the fact that he wrote the first Jewish Encyclopedia Pachad Yitzchaq. Pachad Ytzchaq  is arranged alphabetically, each article including material from the Mishnah, the Talmud, the posekim, the rishonim, and the responsa literature. 

In 1872, the city of Ferrara publicly honored the memory of Rabbi Lampronti. A stone tablet was placed on the house in which he had lived bearing the following inscription: "Abitò in questa casa Isacco Lampronti, nato nel MDCLXXIX., morto nel MDCCLVI. Medico Teologo tra i dotti celebratissimo. Onorò la patria. Riverenti alla scienza alcuni cittadini posero MDCCCLXXII."

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The 13 principles of Judaism: 3. God does not have a body

"The Creator, blessed be His name, has no bodily form, and bodily conditions cannot affect Him; He cannot be compared to nothing whatsoever."

Attributing to God a human image, figure or condition is called: "anthropomorphism" and it is one of the most characteristic features of pagan religions. The pagan gods are born and die, have desires, fight with other gods, and have bodies. They are in a sense a reflection of those humans who conceive them.

The Tora, numerous times uses references to what seems to be God's body,  like "haShem's eyes watch over the land of Israel" but our tradition explains unequivocally that those are just figures of speech, metaphors, and should not be taken literally.

While other religions conceived their gods in the image of humans, our Tora says that humans were created in the image of God  (Bereshit 1:27). Let me explain this concept. God is the epitome of power, which means that He can do whatever He decides to do, without being pushed or constrained by any exterior impulses or even motives. This is why we call Him "Almighty". Of all creatures of earth, only humans have the power of "freedom of choice", choosing between right and wrong. Humans resemble God in that they are not driven by blind uncontrollable impulses, like animals. Like God, humans have the power of making moral choices.  The more we exercise this power the more we resemble God, and the less we exercise this power and let ourselves be driven by our impulses, the less we resemble God.
In the beautiful words of Rabbi Hayim Pereira-Mendes: "When the Torah says we are created in the image of God, it means not in a bodily but in a spiritual likeness. To be like God we must lead lives that are Godlike or Godly. We are like Him when we exercise loving-kindness, justice and righteousness and take delight in these things." 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

CHUPA: Helping our children to get married

The Mitzva of peryia veribyia "be fruitful and multiply" is achieved when one has a son and daughter (see here) but it is fully completed only when we have grandchildren: a grandson and a granddaughter from two of our children (shulchan 'arukh, eben ha'ezer, 1:6).  Part of the Mitzva of peryia veribyia, therefore, consists in the parents helping their children to get married. In this way the parents are partners with their children in fulfilling the first Mitzva of the Tora. 

How do parents help their children? The parents help throughout the life of their children, raising them to be honorable and respectable individuals, and investing in their Jewish and professional education. A good education enables our children to marry with a suitable spouse, and provides them the means and techniques to maintain themselves. Parents also help their children providing them counseling and advise about dating and marriage. When the time comes, parents should be willing to help their children financially with the expenses of the wedding, obviously, according to what the parents can afford. They should also be willing to assist their children in the initial steps of their new life, according to the needs of the new couple and to what parents can afford.

Similarly, every Jew should be willing to help the needy and poor when they want to get married. One of the most important forms of Tzedaqa, considered a category by itself, is the Mitzva of hakhnasat kalla: helping an orphan or needy bride (or groom) to get married. It is a very special merit for individuals and for a community, to assist financially a bride or a groom with insufficient means, to get married. According to the shulchan 'arukh (yore de'a 249:15) hakhnasat kalla, takes precedence over all other types of Tzedaqa. 


Monday, December 5, 2011

Switching to Barekh Alenu

On Shemini Atzeret, we begin reciting in the Amida "mashib ha-ruach umorid ha-geshem" praising HaShem for creating and directing the mechanism of precipitation (=rain). But we still refrain from asking haShem to give us rain for our plants. 


In Israel, because although, after Shemini Atzeret it is a time for rain, we postpone the prayer for rain until the travelers who had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret, are finally back home. For them rain is not going to be a blessing. 

In Israel, therefore, even in our days, Jews start praying for rain two weeks after Shemini Atzeret, on the evening of the seventh of Cheshvan. 

In Babylonia, at the time this disposition was established, the Jews who lived there did not need the rain so early, so the Rabbis ruled that in Babylonia the Jews would begin praying for rain on the 60th day of the season of (tequfat) Tishri,  or the "Hebrew calendar autumn".

The Rabbis gave an easy round number for determining the beginning of each Hebrew calendar season. A season consists of exactly 91 days 7 hours and 30 minutes. This makes each year exactly 365 days and 6 hours long, about 11 minutes longer than the actual astronomical calculation of a solar year.

Jews who live outside of Israel, follow the practice of the Jews of Babylonia. Therefore, it has become tradition for all Jews who live in the Diaspora to start asking for rain in their prayers as the Babylonian Jews did.

Based on this calculation, this year, 2011, we will switch to 'Barekh Alenu' tonight, December 5th, in our Arbit prayer.

(Thanks to Mr. Mehran Etessami --our community expert in Hebrew calendar calculations-- for his help with this HOTD)

Watch  Israel wants peace, friendship request pending

Friday, December 2, 2011

Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh mi-Modena (Venice 1571–1648)

Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh (Leon) mi-Modena was born in Venice in 1571.

A prodigious child, he studied Bible, Hebrew language, poetry, letter writing, voice, music, dancing, Italian, and Latin. At the age of 13, he wrote a short book, sur me-ra', on compulsive gambling and its destructive power. 

Modena was commissioned to write for James I a description of Judaism, the Riti Ebraica, the first vernacular description of Judaism written by a Jew for a non-Jewish audience, first published inParis in 1637 and subsequently republished and translated many times.

From his ordination in 1609 until his death, Modena served as the chief Hebrew translator for the government and Cantor of the Italian synagogue.  He ordained candidates for the degree rabbi, including medical students in Padua. He approved the decisions of other rabbis, and authorized books for publication, with the result that by 1618 he was referred to as a gaon, and an excellent, well-known, honored and brilliant preacher. By 1627 Rabbi Modena signed his name first in order among the Venetian rabbis. In 1628 he was maestro di cappella for a Jewish academy of music, Accademia degli Impediti, which was popular both inside and outside the Venetian ghetto.

He also produced an autobiography, Chaye-Yehuda which was recently translated into English, documenting in poignant detail the turbulent life of his family in the Jewish ghetto of Venice. The book also contains accounts of Modena's sorrow over his three sons: the death of the eldest from the poisonous fumes of his own alchemical laboratory, the brutal murder of the youngest, and the exile of the remaining son who traveled as far as South America. 

Rabbi Modena died in 1648. 

Click here to read the book sur me-ra', a philosophical dialogue against gambling, written by Rabbi Modena at the age of 13. This is the version published in Vilna in 1896.

His writings include

Magen va-hereb, where Rabbi Modena criticizes Christians interpretations of Hebrew scriptures, refuting their claims and dogmas.

She'elot u-Teshubot Ziqnei Yehuda, Collected Responsa on various 'modern' subjects. 

Bet Lechem Yehuda, an anthology of statements of Talmudic Rabbis organized around 'en ya'aqob.

Tzemach Tzadiq, an Ethical Treatise.

Leb ha-Aryeh,  a monograph on memory improvement and mnemonics, in which he greatly extols the use of memory techniques to remember the 613 commandments. 

Pi ha-Aryeh, an Italian-Hebrew dictionary of all difficult words in the Tanakh 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Shema Israel. Pasuq 2. "You shall love HaShem your God"

The words of the Shema Israel are so important that we say them three times a day, every day of our lives. 

The first thing we are taught in the Shema is to love God. 

"You shall love HaShem your God with all your heart, with all your sold and with all your might." 

Our love for God is a reflection of His love for us. Because He loves us we love Him in return and we must inspire others to love Him.

To love God "with all our heart" means that we are happy just by knowing that He loves us. And if we do wrong, we are unhappy until we ask His pardon and obtain His love again.   How can you make sure that you really love HaShem? When you are happy doing what is right in His eyes, and unhappy when you do what is wrong in His eyes.  On the contrary, if you feel obligated but unhappy to do what is right in His eyes, then you might "fear" God, but not "love" God.
To love God "with all our soul" means to love Him so sincerely that we will willingly give our life for Him.   Our ancestors risked their lives and were willing to be killed and not abjure God. If so many of our ancestors gave up their lives for the sake of HaShem, should not we be willing to live our lives for the sake of HaShem?

Loving HaShem with "all our might" means: with all our possessions, our money, our time.  In this sense we should understand "to love God" as "to prioritize God" over our possessions, our money, our time.  The strength of our love for God is proved by the greatness of the sacrifices we are willing to make for Him.


Wednesday, November 30, 2011

CHUPA: The proper age to get married

The first Mitzva mentioned in the Torah is Peryia veRibyia, the commandment (and God's first blessing!) to get married and bring children to this world (see here).  

Two thousand years ago, in Pirke Abot, the Rabbis said that a boy should get married when he reaches 18 years old. They said that God himself 'watches him and waits for him' from 18 to 20 to see him getting married.  However, the Rabbis themselves explained that if the boy is busy with his studies and fears that once married he will have to stop studying (veitbabtel min haTorah) he could postpone his marriage (Shulchan Arukh, Eben haEzer 1:3). Some rabbis suggest that marriage should not be postponed beyond the age of 24 years old.

Clearly, according to our Rabbis, it is preferable to get married young.   But they themselves acknowledge that there are other elements beyond age to be taken into consideration. For example, the maturity of the boy and the girl, which is essential to have a happy life (=Shalom Bayit) and the possibility to provide for the basic expenses of a family.  Maimonides wrote: "Those who are emotionally-balanced (derekh ba'ale hade'a)they first secure a job which enables them to provide for their livelihood, then they get a home, and then, they get married. But those who are emotionally immature (tipeshim), first they get married, then they try to get a place to live, and then they look for a job..." (De'ot 5:11). 

We can see that, in the Rabbis' opinion, the younger one gets married, the better. Especially when one is emotionally mature and has the means to live a decent life, marriage should not be postponed!  From the other side, many other factors need to be considered in this equation, as the circumstances differ from individual to individual.     


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Practical Monotheism

The following lines are quotes from the  book " The Jewish religion ethically presented" written by Rabbi Hayim (Henry) Pereira Mendes in New York, 1904. 

"You shalt not have any other gods before Me.

"This commandment teaches us that there is only one God. He is our God and we do not believe that there are any other gods. Therefore to worship any being except the one and only God, is a sin. It is called idolatry".

"Self-Conceit, to give way to violent outbursts of passion, etc., are declared by our sages to be tantamount to idolatry. For the former shows that self, and the latter that passion, is a greater power with us than God is".

"If we believe in the one true God, we can prove it by not neglecting or disobeying Him for the sake of anything. Many neglect Him for the sake of business, or pleasure, which is as much as saying that business or pleasure is a greater power than God".

The descendants of Abraham Abinu are called to be "a blessing to the nations of the earth, preserving for mankind the knowledge of God... Our ten Commandments are recognized as fundamental among all civilized nations. The wisdom of our Torah is recognized universally. The ideals of our Bible are the ideals of humanity. And our Psalms are read and sung in worship in countless cathedrals and churches- while they comfort and inspire countless hearts and homes."

"We will continue to be a source of "blessing to all the families of the earth"... by showing through the lives we lead, the wisdom and beauty of our Torah, and the ethical value of our religion and its ceremonies; by our loyalty to the ideals of our Bible- and by our standing at all times for God and Justice. When Jewish life means honor, when Jewish homes mean love, and when Jewish citizenship means righteousness- then Jewish example becomes a source of blessing to "all the families of earth."

Monday, November 28, 2011

Organ donation cards

In the previous weeks (see here), I explained the opinions of the Rabbis regarding living organ donation, and the differences on opinion over the determination of the moment of death, which affects the Rabbis' ruling on cadaveric organ donation.

In our days, the willingness to donate one's organs is stated in the driver license or in a card that one carries in his or her wallet.  The practical question we will address today is, what is the best way to declare that one wishes to donate his or her organs.

In my opinion, the best recommendation (and what I have personally done) for a Jewish person who wishes to donate his organs, is to register in the Halachic Organ Donor Society, and to carry their card in his wallet. 

The advantages of this card, compared to the general statement written in the driver license, is that the HODS card specifies the following points:

1. Organs should be removed only if they are to be transplanted, not for research or experimentation.  Due to the importance Judaism gives to the integrity of the body at the time of burial, only the possibility to save a life outweighs those concerns. 

2. To insure that medical care is not compromised in most sensitive moments, the HODS card specifies that:"Transplants may commence only after a medical team, that is independent of the attending physicians and that is unaware that I am a potential organ donor, determines death ...."

3. It also indicates that the body damage should be minimized: "All medical procedures must be done with proper respect, and minimum damage, to the cadaver." To this effect, consultations will be made with a family-appointed rabbi.

4. Finally, it gives the carrier the option to choose between one of the two major Halakhic opinions prevalent on determination of death:  a. Irreversible termination of  breathing activity, for those who follow the more stringent rabbinic opinion, or b. Irreversible brain stem death, for those who follow the Chief Rabbinate of Israel's opinion.  

Each person should consult with his or her Rabbi to make a final decision on this delicate issue. 

For those who wish to register as potential Halakhic organ donors, see here . 

For Israel, see here

May Hashem bless all of us with good health and a long life!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving to God, by George Washington

"WHEREAS it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the Providence of Almighty God; to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and,  
"WHEREAS both Houses of Congress have by their joint committee requested me to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public Thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness: ...a day devoted by The people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be...
"Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be, that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country .. for the great degree of tranquility, union and plenty, which we have since enjoyed; ... for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which He hath been pleased to confer upon us.

"And, also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the Great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually...
"To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us, and generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.
"Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year 1789.

"G. Washington"

American Rabbis have discussed the celebration of Thanksgiving.

The following lines by Rabbi Broyde summarize his conclusion and that of most Modern Orthodox Rabbis.

"Thus, halacha law permits one to have a private Thanksgiving celebration with one's ... friends and family. For reasons related to citizenship and the gratitude we feel towards the United States government, I would even suggest that such conduct is wise and proper".

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Rabbi Hayim (Henry) Pereira Mendes (1852-1937)

Rabbi Hayim (Henry) Pereira Mendes was born in England on April 13, 1852. Coming from a long line of Sephardic rabbis, including his father, Abraham Pereira Mendes, and his maternal grandfather, David Aaron de Sola.  At the age of twelve he began his studies at London's Northwick College, a boarding school which combined secular and religious studies, founded and directed by his father. From 1870 through 1872, while continuing his studies at Northwick, Mendes also attended London's University College.

In 1873, Mendes began his ministry at the newly-formed Sephardic congregation in Manchester, England. In 1877, he was called to the United States to serve as Rabbi in New York City's Congregation Shearith Israel, where he was to remain the rest of his life. 

In 1884 he received a medical degree from New York University. 

Apart from serving Shearith Israel as Rabbi and Hazan, he was involved in a vast array of other activities. He was instrumental in the organization of many communal projects in New York, such as the Montefiore Hospital, the Institute for the Improved Instruction of Deaf-Mutes, the New York Guild for the Jewish Blind and the New York Kehillah. 

Championing an enlightened modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Mendes used his privileged position as rabbi at Shearith Israel to work closely with all sectarian and social elements in Jewish life.  He was one of the founders and leaders of the Union of Orthodox Congregations of America and the New York Board of Jewish Ministers. Rabbi Mendes also served as professor of homiletics at Yeshiva Isaac Elchanan (Yeshiva University) from 1917 to 1920.

At the personal request of Theodor Herzl, he became one of the founders of the Federation of American Zionists. Until his death, he worked to promote the religious ideals of Zionism.

Rabbi Mendes was also a prolific writer. His books include religious books for children and adults, prayer books, poetry and plays.

Rabbi Henry Pereira Mendes died October 21, 1937 in New York City. 

Some of his better-known books are: Looking Ahead (1899), Bar Mitzvah (1938),Esther and Harbonah (1917), Jewish Religion Ethically Presented (1905), Jewish History Ethically Presented (1898), Mekor Ḥayyim: Mourners Handbook (1915), and Derekh Ḥayyim: Way of life (1934) . 

Read one Rabbi Mendes books online:  Jewish Religion Ethically Presented, by Google-books