Monday, December 31, 2012

American Rabbis on celebrating New Year's Day

We have written in previous HOTD about the views of modern orthodox rabbis regarding the celebration of different American holidays (see here). All rabbis are very strict in forbidding, for example, the celebration of Halloween in any way, while most would not oppose (and some would even encourage) the celebration of Thanksgiving. 

The difference between Thanksgiving and Halloween is that the later  (i) has a clear origin in pagan culture, and (ii) some of those customs are still practiced in its celebration today. 

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, the rabbi Terumat Hadeshen and the 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. 

Other Rabbis, however, have a more lenient view, because in their opinion New Year's today has lost entirely its religious overtones and can be rationally explained as a celebration of a new civil calendar's year. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot 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 [January 1] and Thanksgiving is not prohibited according to law, but pious people [ba'ale nefesh] should be stricter [and avoid the celebration]."   Following Rabbi Feinstein,  Rabbi Michael Broyde (see below) asserts that 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 New Year's is celebrated (drinking, etc.) he thinks that few would classify it as areligious holiday, since there is a clear secular reason to celebrate the beginning of the new calendar year. 

Most community Rabbis I know would oppose to celebrate, and won't promote any commemoration of the New Year's eve or day. If not for its religious content, for ḥuqot hagoyim (See Rabbi Hofman's article). But at the same time, based on the above mentioned considerations, they won't actively preach against its private celebration by individuals, as they do with regards to Halloween, for example.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Religious integrity

The real test of integrity takes place when someone is faced between keeping his word and suffering a financial loss. King David expressed this idea in Tehillim: nishba lehara' velo yamir... The honest man would keep his promise even at the cost of losing his money.  Illustration: Mr. A promised to sell an item to Mr. B for 100 dollars. But later on Mr. C offers Mr. A 150 dollars for that item...  If Mr. A follows King David's instruction, he will sell the item to Mr. B for 100, despite the potential monetary loss, because he already gave Mr. B his word.

The Talmud brings the ultimate example of integrity:

"Rab Safra had a donkey for sale. A gentile came to his house and offered him 50 coins for the donkey. At that precise moment Rab Safra was reciting the Shema Israel, so he could not answer back, but, the Talmud asserts that in his heart Rab Safra accepted the offer of 50 coins. The buyer, however, thought that Rab Safra's silence meant that he expected a higher price so he offered him 60 coins. Rab Safra was still reciting the Shema, so he did not react. The buyer then offered him 70 coins. At that point Rab Safra ended the Shema and he refused to accept the 70 coins. He said that in is heart he had accepted the first offer, 50 coins, and he would not take extra money from the buyer."  Rab Safra was considered by the Talmud the epitome of yr-e shamayim, a man with a highest level of respect and reverence to God (Makot 24a, Rashi)
"Integrity includes but goes beyond honesty. Honesty is... conforming our words to reality. Integrity is conforming reality to our words - in other words, keeping promises and fulfilling expectations. This requires an integrated character, a oneness, primarily with self but also with life." (Stephen Covey,  The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People)  

SEPHARDIC RABBIS: Refael Aharon ben Shimon (1847-1928)

 Rabbi Refael Aharon ben Shimon was born in Rabat, Morocco in 1847. In 1854 he came to Israel with his father, Rabbi David ben Shimon, who was also his main teacher. The family established themselves in Jerusalem.  Besides his Rabbinical studies, especially in the field of  Jewish law, Rabbi ben Shimon learned European languages. He was fluent in Italian, French and Spanish.   In 1890 he visited Morocco and once there, he searched writings that were unpublished and he recommended the establishment of a institution mekiṣe nirdamim to publish old books and manuscripts of Moroccan Rabbis which were not accessible to the general people.  On his way back from Morocco he was invited to visit the important Jewish community of Egypt. Once there, he was offered to serve as the Chief rabbi of Cairo, instead of the previous rabbi Yom-Tob Israel, who retired from the rabbinate.   He served the Egyptian jewish community from 1891 until 1921.  

Rabbi Ben Shimon had to face new challenges. The modern world brought about many innovations in technology and social values which needed to be reassessed from an Halakhic perspective.  In the introduction of his most famous book, umiṣur debash, he mentions a few subjects that he had analyzed in research-like responsas. Among them: the use of electricity and matches on Yom Tob. The use of chariots driven by gentiles for the sake of burying a death during Yom Tob. The assessment of the Cairo water supply system in order to be considered as mayim lo she-ubim (non-transported waters), and therefore be suitable for a Mikve. The status of the children of mixed marriages, converts, etc. And the status of a wedding which took place in a private ceremony.

Let me refer briefly to this last issue.  Rabbi ben Simon witnessed a new trend. Men coming from Europe would marry a Jewish girl in a private ceremony and then, after a few years of staying in Egypt, these gentlemen would come back to Europe abandoning their wives. These poor women would be considered now'agunot, i.e, not formally divorced from their husbands and therefore unable to marry again. Together with rabbi Elyahu Ḥazan from  Alexandria and Rabbi Mendel haCohen, the rabbi of the Ashkenazi community of Cairo (sic.) they forbade the celebration of secret marriage ceremonies, annulling those weddings retroactively (hafqa'at qiddushin) and thus, releasing these women from their status of 'aguna.

(To be continued...)

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

TEFILA: matir asurim, appreciating our ability to move

ברוך אתה ה´ אלוקינו מלך העולם מתיר אסורים

The expression matir asurim, "HaShem sets free those who are imprisoned" appears in the book of Psalms (Tehilim, 146) and it is part of the pesuqe dezimra, the Psalms that we read every day in the morning prayer.  In Tehilim its author King David praises HaShem for His compassion with the needy. God defends the cause of those who are oppressed, He gives bread to those who are starving, and He sets free those who are imprisoned.  

In the 'Amida the idea of setting free the prisoners appears in the second berakha (blessing). This blessing, Geburot (God's powers), describes God's infinite might asserting that He employs His power to nurture, to support, to cure and to deliver (matir asurim). 

In Birkot haShachar the Rabbis used the idea of matir asurim,  applying it to a different context. Almost as a poetic motif. They instructed to say this berakha in the morning, at the time of waking up, when a person stretches his body and sits in his bed. The question is: what is the connection between the idea of setting free the prisoners and the movements of our body?

The simplest explanation is that when we are sleeping we have no control over our body. It moves involuntarily. Our conscious mind, i.e., the seat of our willpower, is asleep. And we are, in a sense, imprisoned inside our bodies.  Not only our bodies but our minds as well are beyond our control. While asleep we have no voluntary thoughts, but involuntary dreams. When we wake up and we start moving our limbs we realize that we have recovered control over our mind and body. Now, our body moves if we just will so. We are in control. We are free. 

When saying this blessing we recognize the power and wisdom of HaShem behind the recovery of our ability to move our body. 

10 Unknown facts about the West Bank

Monday, December 24, 2012

THE KETUBA: The financial obligations of the husband (Part 2)

Previously we explained that the Ketuba records the financial duties of the husband, particularly the monetary compensation due to his wife in case, God forbid, they get divorced or the husband passes away.   This compensation is composed of three elements. Last time, we explained iqar haketuba or mohar (roughly a minimum year salary) i.e., the principal or the minimum amount assigned to the wife as a marriage insurance (see here). 

Today we will explain the other element: nedunya, often translated as dowry.  
The nedunya includes the valuables the wife brings into the new couple. The Ketuba mentions as examples: silver or gold articles, jewelry, house-utensils, bedding, etc. These articles are mentioned explicitly to show that the wife is not coming into the marriage empty handed.  Technically speaking the husband has the right to trade or use the value of the dowry as he sees fit, but he still accepts responsibility for losses. These assets become for the husband "iron sheep" (ṣon barzel), which means that his financial responsibility toward them will never expire. Therefore if the marriage is dissolved, it is his responsibility to restitute the value of the dowry to his wife.

Now, regardless of how much valuables the bride brings into the marriage as her dowry, the ancient custom is to assess all valuables that she brings at the sum of one hundred pieces of silver (me-a zequqim dekesef, which according to some opinions in today's market value it will worth around $17,000). Jewish tradition views this uniformity of the value of the nedunya as  a way to avoid any distinction between a rich and a poor bride, and save a bride with no means from embarrassment. Thus, no matter what the value of what a bride brings into her marriage is, the husband obligates himself to eventually pay her back this fixed amount.

(to be continued...)


Friday, December 21, 2012

The Tenth of Tebet and the Kaddish haKelaly

This coming Sunday, December 23rd 2012, we observe the fast of the Tenth of Tebet. We remember the siege of Yerushalaim, in the year 586 BCE, at the time of the destruction of our first Bet haMiqdash (see this). 

On the 10th of Tebet there are only two prohibitions: eating and drinking. The fast begins at dawn and it ends at 5:03 p.m. NYT.

NO additional limitations apply, such as the prohibition of wearing leather shoes, working, driving, washing the body, etc.

Most contemporary Rabbis (R. E. Melamed, Rab O. Yosef) authorize to wash one's mouth or brush one's teeth in this Ta'anit, when necessary, provided you are very careful to lower your head, avoiding swallowing water unintentionally.

In modern Israel, the 10th of Tebet is also recognized as the day of the Kaddish haKelaly. According to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, on the Tenth of Tebet a remembrance-candle should be lit in the Synagogue and the Hazkara leHalale haShoah should be recited. Additionally,  all those whose parents are not alive should say the Kaddish Yatom (luach dinim uminhaguim 5772, pages. 55,109).

This point requires more explanation. 

In 1949, and before the day of Yom HaShoah was established, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel decided that the Tenth of Tebet should be assigned as the national remembrance day for the victims of the Holocaust. They recommended traditional Jewish ways of remembering the dead, such as the study of Mishna Mikvaot, saying Tehilim, lighting a candle and a communal recitation of the Kaddish for the victims of the Holocaust whose names and date of death remain unknown. Fasting, the most common Jewish expression of sorrow, was already prescribed for this day. 

In Israel many people felt that the horror of the Holocaust should be remembered on its own, and a special day should be dedicated to the Shoah's victims' memory.   "For the Holocaust survivors there was only one day worthy of being a memorial anniversary for the Holocaust--April 19, the beginning day of the Warsaw ghetto revolt the greatest revolt of them all, the uprisings that had held the Nazis at bay for a longer period than the great French army"  (I. Greenberg). That is how the 27 of Nissan was chosen to commemorate Yom haShoah. Yom HaShoah was inaugurated in 1953, by a law signed by the Prime Minister of Israel David ben Gurion.

Since then, and in practical terms, there are two days in which we mourn for the Holocaust: Yom haShoah, the official day, and'asara beTebet, in which people say the Kaddish haKelaly to remember the victims of the Nazi genocide. 

Shabbat Shalom!

Candle lighting in NYC:    4:14 p.m.
Shabbat ends in NYC:       5:12 p.m.

Who is exempted from fasting on the Tenth of Tebet?
*Minors: boys under 13 and girls under 12 years old are completely exempted from fasting.
*Nursing women: According to the Sephardic Minhag, after giving birth women are exempted from fasting for 24 months, even if they are not actually nursing their baby.
*Pregnant women, especially after the first 3 months, are exempted from fasting.
*A person who feels sick--for example, flu or fever-- or one who has a chronic disease--for example diabetes-- should not fast.
*Elders should consult with their physicians if the fast will not affect their health. If it will, they are exempted (and in some cases, prohibited) from fasting.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Tenth of Tebet and the Greek Translation of the Tora

Yesterday we mentioned two of the three events that we remember in the Tenth of Tebet (see here). Once again, it is important to clarify that the main reason for which we fast on this day is the siege of Yerushalaim. The other two events are brought to our memory because they roughly coincide with the same date. 
3. Approximately in the year 300 BCE, on the 8th of Tebet, in Alexandria (Egypt) King Ptolemy forced 70 (some say "72") Jewish scholars to translate the Tora (the five Books of Moshe or Pentateuch) into Greek. King Ptolemy wished to disprove the existence of an unified Jewish tradition on the understanding of the Scripture, so the scholars were placed in separate workrooms. Yet, they all translated the Tora in the same exact way.  

This translation of the Tora is known as the Septuagint. Although it was done by prominent Rabbis, the Septuagint is not considered a translation which follows necessarily rabbinical tradition. As explained in Talmud Yerushalmi (Megila 9) the authors of the Septuagint in many cases deliberately deviated from the traditional Jewish understanding and adapted the Biblical text to the Greek mentality and sensitivities to please the Monarch and avoid a situation of danger for the Jews 

As a whole, translating the Tora to Greek was considered a dark event by Jewish historiography. Why? Because the new Greek Bible advanced the agenda of the Hellenist Jews who sought to incorporate Greek values into Jewish life.  Moreover, eventually the Septuagint paved the way for the advancement of non-Jewish "Biblical" religions. Unlike pagan cults which were clearly antagonistic to the Tora, these new religions were now supposedly grounded on the Jewish Scripture! The Hebrew Bible was now interpreted and reinterpreted to justify whatever ideas or beliefs non-Jewish monarchs or priests wished to say or teach "in the name of the Bible". 

(BTW, the official Jewish translation of the Tora is Targum Onqelos (=Targum Didan) done ca. 100 CE).

Read here more about 
the month of Tebet , 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The fast of the Tenth of Tebet

This coming Sunday December 23rd, 2012, we will observe the Tenth of Tebet, a fast day, which reminds us of three tragic events. 

1. The main event we remember in this day is the onset of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuḥadnezzar, the King of Babylonia. The siege of the city signaled the beginning of the battle that ultimately destroyed Yerushalayim and the first Bet haMiqdash in the year 586 BCE. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed or sent as captives to the Babylonian exile. The date of the Tenth of Tebet was recorded by the prophet Yeḥezqel, who was already in Babylonia, with the first group of Jews exiled by Nebuḥadnezzar, eleven years earlier than the actual destruction of the Temple.

2. On this day we also remember the death of Ezra haSofer (=the Scribe).  Approximately in the year 516 BCE a group of Jews (roughly forty thousand) came back to Ereṣ Israel with the blessing of the Persian Emperor Cyrus. They were led by Neḥemia and Ezra the Scribe. Ezra had the responsibility to reeducate the Jews who, after more than two generations in exile, had forgotten their language, the Tora and its laws and adopted many customs and values from the Babylonian culture. In the absence of a King or any other political institution, Ezra formed the Anshe Keneset haGedola, the first "Jewish Congress", composed of 120 scholars and prophets. They established many rulings to maintain and retrieve Jewish values. For example, the days of Tora reading, the text of the Amida (main prayer), many decrees to prevent intermarriage and much more. Ezra was considered by the Rabbis as the historic link between the written Tora and the oral Tora. Together with Neḥemia, they began the building of the second Bet haMiqdash. Ezra died on a 9th of Tebet. He was regarded by our Rabbis as second to Moshe Rabbenu.

(To be continued...)  

Click here to read 

Talking to your kids about the Connecticut school shooting.

by Yvette Alt Miller, from Aish

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

TEFILA: Opening the eyes of the blind

ברוך אתה ה´ אלוקינו מלך העולם, פוקח עורים.

As we explained last week, the Birkot haShaḥar are the blessings which we say following the different daily events that we experience as we wake up in the morning. These berakhot help us identifying these occurrences and seeing them as miracles that we witness every day.  

Previously (see this), we talked about awakening from sleep, which the rabbis described  as a sort of resuscitation or revival (consciousness),  and listening to the rooster (hearing), appreciating its God-given ability to differentiate between nocturnal and diurnal cycles (see here).   

Today we will examine the third blessing, poqeaḥ ivrim, which was originally established to be said when we open our eyes for the first time in the morning (sight). The berakha says: "Blessed are You, HaShem, our God, King of the Universe, Who opens (the eyes of) the blinds". 

When we are asleep our sense of sight does not function. We don't see not because our eyes are closed. Actually, many people might sleep with their eyes open and they still won't see. The rabbis understood then that during sleep we are "virtually" blind, and in the morning, we recover our sense of sight. Upon realizing this "miracle" we say the blessing, poqeaḥ ivrim, acknowledging that God has equipped our bodies with these amazing abilities.    

This berakha also helps us to value the preciousness of our sense of sight. Normally, we take for granted that we see.  Unless we have a problem with our eyes, we don't stop every day to think (and thank!) for the privilege of seeing.    This berakha, when said with the proper kavana or understanding, inspires us to value what we have while we have it. Moreover, by acknowledging God (and not just nature) as the One responsible for our sight, this berakha enables us to discover and acknowledge HaShem's Presence behind this daily routinely events, keeping our minds more focused on Him.

 by Peter Kreeft, 
Professor of Philosophy at Boston College 
(from Prager University). 

Monday, December 17, 2012

THE KETUBA: The husband's financial obligations

The Ketuba is the document that records the obligations of the Jewish husband toward his wife. In previous weeks we explained the general duties that the Tora stipulates for the husband (see here) while married.  Today we will begin to examine the financial obligations that the husband undertakes towards his wife. Particularly the monetary compensation that the wife would eventually receive in case, God forbid, of dissolution of the marriage.  

The value of this compensation is calculated according to three elements.

1. Iqar Ketuba or the "main" sum of the Ketuba

2. Nedunya, or dowry

3. Tosefet/tosafot, or addition/s.

1. The "main" Ketuba specifies the amount of money determined by Jewish law as the minimum compensation that the wife is entitled to receive from her husband or his estate in case of  dissolution of the marriage.  There is a discussion among the rabbis if this compensation is a Biblical (Rashi) or a Rabbinical (Maimonides) duty. This amount, also called mohar, consists of two hundred zuzim.  Although the present monetary value of these two hundred zuzim is a matter of discussion among scholars, in the times of the  Talmud  two hundred zuzim was the amount a person needed to maintain himself during a year (food, clothing), i.e., a minimum year's salary.    

1a. In many communities, the husband also adds to this minimum amount an extra sum ("tosefet ketuba") , which is an increment to the mandatory basic financial obligation. The amount of this increment is set at will or following the local customs. This is done as a gesture of love and appreciation from the husband to the wife. 

Again, the sum of money mentioned in the Ketuba is not related to any transaction or any money the husband actually pays to the wife or her family. It is a marriage insurance. The wife eventually collects the Ketuba if the marriage is dissolved by divorce or by death of the husband.  The man therefore, states that he accepts these financial obligations upon himself- in case of divorce- and upon his heirs - if he dies.

(To be continued...)

by Rabbi Shraga Simmons, 
from Aish 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Shabbat and Hanuka candles

Every night we light the Ḥanuka candles after sunset, but today, Friday, we should light the Ḥanuka candles BEFORE sunset:, approximately at 4:05 - 4:10 p.m. (N.Y. time). Why? Because at 4:11 p.m. we light Shabbat candles (see here), and Ḥanuka candles must be lit before that.

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

It is customary to light the Ḥanuka candles in the Synagogue. And today the candles should be lit also before sunset (if possible, after Minḥa). The berakha should only be recited if ten or more people are present there at the time of lighting the candles.  

For Ḥanuka candle-lighting after Shabbat ends, see this

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 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 Ḥanuka candle-lighting without further requirements. So, you don't really need to light your own Ḥanukia.

However, if you and your family are going to your parents/in-laws/relatives house after Shabbat began, or just for dinner, then you should light Ḥanuka 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,  Ḥodesh Tob and Ḥanuka Sameaḥ!

Ḥanuka candle lighting in NYC        4:05 PM
Shabbat candle lighting in NYC       4:11 PM
Shabbat ends in NYC                        5:11 PM

WATCH Against all odds by Rabbi Ben Tzion Shafler
 and Torah Live

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Hanuka and Rosh Hodesh Tebet

Tonight and tomorrow we will celebrate, besides Ḥanuka,  Rosh Ḥodesh Tebet.

In the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) the name of this month is Ḥodesh ha'asiri, the tenth month. In the Tora the months are named numerically (first, second, etc) counting from Nisan. The name Tebet was coined in Babylonia, same as the other commonly used names of the Hebrew months (Nisan, Iyar, Ḥeshvan, etc.).

Some years, like this year, Rosh Ḥodesh Tebet is observed for one day and some years --last year, for example--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 Ḥodesh of the next month, and the second day of Rosh Ḥodesh is the 1st day of the new month. This year Kislev has only 29 days, so tomorrow, we will celebrate Rosh Ḥodesh Tebet for one day only. 

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

Tonight and tomorrow we will say Ya'ale veYabo and 'al haNisim in the Amida and Birkat haMazon. 
In the morning we read the full Halel, then we take out two Sifre Tora. On the first one we read the Rosh Ḥodesh portion, but instead of dividing it into four Aliot, as we do every Rosh Ḥodesh, we divide this text into three Aliot. In the second Sefer Tora we read the text corresponding to the 6th day of Ḥanuka. We also say Musaf of Rosh Ḥodesh, including 'al haNisim.

                                     HAPPY HANUKA 

                        Do you have any idea how hard it was to find a Jewish zebra?                           

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Tora reading for Hanuka

During the eight days of Ḥanuka, we read the Tora in the morning.  Now, what Biblical text was chosen by the Rabbis to be read on Ḥanuka 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 Pesaḥ, for example, we read eight Tora portions alluding to the Exodus from Egypt, the Miṣvot of Pesaḥ, the Pesaḥ sacrifice, etc.  But the events of Ḥanuka 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 Ḥanuka.

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 mizbeaḥ (=altar of the Tabernacle).


1. Ḥanuka 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 Parasha we read is also about the dedication of the mizbeaḥ in the Tabernacle (zot Ḥanukat hamizbeaḥ).

2. In the dessert, the Tabernacle was completed on the 25 of Kislev. The same day we celebrate Ḥanuka.

3. On the last day of Ḥanuka, 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 Ḥanuka, however, the Ḥashmonayim --Cohanim descendants of the tribe of Levi-- were the ones who recovered and rededicated the altar. 

READ  Jews and War  
"The Macabees realized that there is a time to fight" ,by Rabbi Benjamin Blech, from

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

HANUKA: Celebrating Jewish Victories

In the days of the second bet haMiqdash (Temple of Jerusalem),  there were many holidays, besides Ḥanuka, which celebrated the military victories of the Macabeem (or Ḥashmonayim) over the powerful Greek army. 

Some of them were: 
  1. 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. 
  2. The 14th of Nisan, when they recovered the city of Ceasarea. 
  3. The 22nd of Elul, when the Ḥashmonayim brought to justice those who betrayed them joining the enemy's army (meshumadim). 
  4. 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.    

These and other holidays are 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 it did not make sense to celebrate these national holidays while we are defeated, enslaved and in exile. They suspended all the celebrations of military victories brought by Meguilat Ta'anit (batela meguilat ta'anit) and indicated that the only Holiday that should still be celebrated was Ḥanuka, because of the miracle of the oil.  Accordingly, Ḥanuka's celebration does not emphasize the military aspect of it but mainly the miracle of the oil. That is why we celebrate Ḥanuka by lighting the candles. Still, during Ḥanuka's prayers ('al hanisim) we mention the victories of the Macabeem and we recite the Halel, thanking HaShem for the miraculous ways He saved our ancestors from their powerful enemies.  

Monday, December 10, 2012

HANUKA: Sephardic vs. Ashkenazi traditons

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

Some of them are:

1. The Ashkenazi tradition is to say the Berakha: "lehadliq ner shel Ḥanuka", while Sepharadim say: "lehadliq ner Ḥanuka", without the word "shel." It is interesting to know that, although there is not semantic difference between the two versions, the original version of the berakha (as per Maimonides; see MT,  Ḥanuka 3:4 ) was "lehadliq ner shel Ḥanuka".  

2. In the Ashkenazi Minhag, the auxiliary candle (shamash) is lit first 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 shamashis seen as auxiliary because it avoids benefiting from the light of the candles, not necessarily for lighting with it the other candles.  

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

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

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

Friday, December 7, 2012

ḤANUKA TUTORIAL (Saturday, December 8th, after 5:15 pm, NYT)

This year the first night of Ḥanuka falls out on this coming Saturday night, December 8th.  When Shabbat is over (after 5:15 p.m, N.Y. time), at home we first recite the Habdala, and then we light the Ḥanuka candles. In the Synagogue we should first light the Ḥanuka candles and then recite the Habdala, to promote the Ḥanuka miracle in a bigger crowd (pirsume nisa).  If we would say the Habdala first, most people would probably leave the Synagogue before the Ḥanuka candles are lit.   

Maimonides (MT, Hilkhot Megila vaḤanuka 4:1) explains that the Miṣva of Ḥanuka candle-lighting is technically fulfilled by lighting just one candle per family.  Those who wish to beautify (hidur) this Miṣva, let each member of the family, men and women, light their own candle. And those who want to excel in the fulfillment of this commandment (Miṣva min hamubḥar) should add one additional candle each night. 

In most Sephardic communities, one Ḥanukia per family--not per individual--is lit. Other communities have the custom to allow or encourage children and other family members to light their own Ḥanukia.  Also, today, the popular custom is to light one additional candle per night.

This Saturday night, the father or the person in charge of lighting the candles recites the following three blessings before lighting the candles. (On all subsequent nights, only blessings number 1 and 2 are recited).

Blessing #1: Barukh..... asher qiddeshanu bemiṣvotav, veṣeevanu lehadleeq ner Ḥanuka.

Blessing #2: Barukh... she'asa neeseem la-abotenu, bayameem hahaem bazeman haze.

Blessing #3: Barukh... sheheḥeyanu vekeeyihemanu veheeg-eeyanu lazeman haze.

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

Hanerot halalu....

"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 Ḥanukathese lights are holy 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 Ḥanukat haBayit leDavid


Candle lighting in NYC    4:11 p.m. 

Shabbat Ends in NYC       5:15 p.m. 

 ḤANUKA candle lighting ceremony, Moroccan style

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The basic rules of Ḥanuka candle-lighting

1. Ḥanuka candles are kindled in the evening, each of the eight days of Ḥanuka. The custom of many communities is to light the candles at sunset, which is approximately at 4.30 p.m. in NYC. Other communities light the candles 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 Ḥanuka happened with olive oil. In addition, oil candles will last for more time than small wax candles. The Miṣva of Ḥanuka candles cannot be performed with 'electrical candles', even when real candles are not available. An electrical Ḥanukia, however, can be placed in the house in addition to the regular Ḥanukia, especially during day-time.

3. Some families have the tradition to place the Ḥanukia outside the door, on the opposite side of the Mezuza, which technically, is the best place for it. Nowadays, however, most families place the Ḥanuka 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 Ḥanuka (to light the candle, not candles, of Ḥanuka). As we all know, the traditional 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.

Ḥanuka begins Saturday, December 8th, 2012, after Shabbat is over.  

READ "Exotic Hanukkah foods"   by Tzirel Chana, from Aish

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

What does the word Ḥanuka mean?

The word Ḥanuka means 'dedication' and it is used in this sense in Hebrew in phrases like 'Ḥanukat-haBayit', dedication of one's new home.

So, what dedication are we referring to in our holiday "Ḥanuka"?

During the Second century BCE the Jews in Israel lived under the rule of the Syrian-Greek army of Antiochus Epiphanes. They were not permitted to practice their religion and at one point the Bet-haMiqdash (The Holy Temple of Jerusalem) was captured and defiled by the Greeks. The Greeks 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 Makabi rebelled against the powerful armies of Antiochus and with God's help defeated them. When they regained possession of the Bet haMiqdash, they purified the Holy Temple. In order to re-dedicate the Temple to God Almighty they needed to light the Menora, which indicates that the Bet haMiqdash was fully operating to God's service. They found a small jar, with an amount of pure oil which would normally last for one night only.
They lit the Menora and joyfully dedicated the Bet haMiqdash back to God. The Makabim thought that they will need to interrupt the dedication of the Temple until new oil could be produced. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days, the exact time needed to make new pure olive oil.

Ḥanuka then celebrates the 'dedication (or re-dedication) of the Bet haMiqdash' to HaShem after years of being defiled.

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

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

This year, 2012, Ḥanuka begins Saturday, December 8, once Shabbat is over.  

Watch this beautiful video  THIS IS YOUR LIGHT    from

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

TEFILA: Thanking the Creator for the rooster's circadian rhythm

בָרוּךְ..... הַנוֹתֵן לַשֶכְוִי בִינָה לְהַבְחִין בֵין יוֹם וּבֵין לָיְלָה

"Blessed are you, HaShem... Who gives the rooster the understanding to distinguish between day and night."

Birkot haShaḥar is a series of blessings that we say in the morning thanking God for the renewal of the day. As we explained last week, as soon as we wake up we begin by thanking God for being alive (see this). Then, we pronounce the second blessing, acknowledging that the Creator granted the rooster the understanding to distinguish between day and night. 

To properly grasp the rational of Birkot haShaḥar we need to bear in mind that these blessings were said as a person was waking up, getting up from bed, walking and getting dressed.  

This blessing was pronounced when one would hear the rooster's crow. The rooster does not crow necessarily when it sees light or when the sun rises, but before dawn. Thanks to a biological process known as circadian rhythm, roosters  can  keep track of time after midnight, which is when they usually start crowing.  Some species of rooster would crow four times during the night with the third cockcrow at around four o'clock in the morning (see a very interest article here).

This berakha emphasizes the fact that the Creator endowed the rooster with this extraordinary skill, which used to help us to wake up and serve our Creator (Time measurement is traditionally regarded as an exclusive human ability. Many Rabbis actually understood the word sekhvi not as rooster, but as "heart" or human cognition).  

The Rabbis discussed if this blessing should be said only when we actually hear the rooster's crow (Maimonides) or even if we did not experience the rooster's crow directly (haAri).  Yemenites and a few other Jewish communities follow Maimonides, but the majority follows the custom to recite this blessing anyways. 

Monday, December 3, 2012

THE KETUBA: 'ona, the woman's conjugal rights

In Biblical Law, conjugal rights are explicitly granted to the wife. The Tora indicates in Exodus 21:10 that the husband "must not deprive his wife from her food, her clothing and her marital rights". 

In the words of Maimonides, a husband's consistent refusal to engage in sexual relations, i.e., when  deliberately and/or maliciously the husband deprives his wife from intimacy is considered a transgression of a Biblical prohibition and the woman has legal grounds to ask for her divorce, claiming the full amount of the financial compensations established in the Ketuba. This  does not apply, however, when the reason for the husband's abstinence is health-related or so.  (Maimonides MT, ishut 14:7)

The wife has the legal rights to prevent his husband to go in a long trip (in ancient times, men use to go overseas for business for years) because that would deprive his wife of her conjugal rights (14:2).  The Talmud also discusses the frequency of sexual obligation based on the husband's occupation (14:1).  

Although not based on a specific Biblical statement, the wife is also expected to fulfill her conjugal duties. And a wife who without a justified reason (kede leṣa'aro) permanently denies from her husband his conjugal rights is called a rebellious wife (moredet) and, in case of divorce, she is not entitled to any compensations (14:9). 

It is important to clarify that the primary purpose of this Miṣva, sexual intimacy, is to reinforce the loving marital bond between husband and wife.  In a separate Miṣva the Tora indicates the commandment of having children (see here) but this Miṣva, 'ona, is independent from the intention of procreation. When conception is not possible, such as during pregnancy or when the woman is under a permissible form of birth control, or after the wife is no longer able to bear children the couple is still expected to have an active sexual life.  

Understanding  Israel's enemies 10 facts about Hamas by 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

SEPHARDIC RABBIS: Rabbi Hayim Palachi (1788-1869)

Rabbi Ḥayim Palachi (also Palaggi or Palacci) was born in Smyrna, Turkey in 1788.  He was the grandson of Rabbi Yosef Ḥazan, the author of Ḥiqre Leb, and the disciple of Joseph Gatenio, author of Bet Yiṣḥaq. 

In 1847 he became the ab bet din of Smyrna and of another six neighboring communities. In 1855 he was appointed Ḥakham Bashi of Izmir by the Ottoman authorities .

During his Rabbinate period he gave importance to social welfare; and as an important mission he thought of founding a Jewish hospital. He requested assistance from the wealthy Jews in town. With the help of respected Senior Leon Adut they contacted Baron Rothschild in Vienna and received the necessary support. He was also able to receive the support from Sir Moses Montefiore. The Jewish hospital was established. At the time, the population of Izmir was 220,000, with the Jewish population consisting of about 16,000 souls.

Rabbi Palachi's set a goal to maintain mandatory education to all Jewish children. He adopted a community law which required every Jewish father to give Talmud Tora education to his children. Children would continue their education until they were able to read and write properly, and could grasp the fundamentals of Tefila. Only the instructor was allowed to decide when the students had achieved the required educational goals. Rabbi Palachi made sure that all the poor children also received education.

Rabbi Ḥayim Palachi was very sensitive to events that affected Jews outside Izmir as well. During the blood libel in Damascus in 1840, he called for the support of his Egyptian Jewish friend Don Abraham Kamando, Baron de Rothschild and Sir Moses Montefiore. Through their intercession, the innocent Jewish victims in Damascus were exonerated. 

(Adapted from Rabbi Naftali Haleva, present day Rabbi in Istanbul, Turkey)  

This is a picture of the Izmir community in 1896. In the center, one can see rabbi Abraham Palachi (rabbi Ḥayim Palachi's son)


Rabbi Ḥayim Palachi was an extraordinarily  prolific writer. He  authored more than 70 works, most of them have been published. Many of his manuscripts were burned and a great number were not published. Most of his books contain in their titles his name, "Ḥayim"  or "Ḥay"

*Darke Ḥayim  on Pirqe Abot.

*Leb Ḥayim a, responsa, interpretations, and comments on the Shulḥan 'arukh.

*Nishmat Kol Ḥai , rabbinical responsa.

*Ḥiqeqe Leb , homilies and eulogies.

Other books: Nefesh ḤayimTora ve-ḤayimKaf ha-ḤayimMo'ed le-Khol ḤaiḤayim ve-ShalomSefer ḤayimGinze Ḥayim, etc. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

TEFILA: Elo-hay! Neshama... the blessing of a new day.

א' נְשָמָה שֶנָתַתָ בִי טְהוֹרָה, אַתָה בְרָאתָהּ, אַתָה יְצַרְתָהּ, אַתָה נְפַחְתָה בִי, וְאַתָה מְשַמְרָהּ בְקִרְבִי...

"My God! The soul You gave within me is pure. You created it, You formed it, You breathed it into me, and You guard it while it is within me. One day You will take it from me, and restore it to me in the time to come. As long as the soul is within me, I will thank You, HaShem my God and God of my ancestors, Master of all works, Lord of all souls. Blessed are You, HaShem, who restores souls to lifeless bodies".

"Elo-hay! Neshama..." is the first blessing of Birkot haShaḥar, the morning benedictions that we say upon waking up in the morning. The Talmud  (Berakhot 60b) explains that when we wake up--before we even open our eyes-- upon realizing that we are alive, we praise God for having restored our souls to our inert bodies.  The Rabbis explain that every morning we witness in our own bodies a virtual act of resurrection (teḥyiat hametim), the beginning of a new life, since when we sleep, the soul--a fraction of it-- departs the body.  

This berakha also states an extremely important idea that differentiates Judaism from many other religions. We do not posses an unclean soul. Our God-given souls are originally pure. The task ahead of us is not reparation but preservation: each new day we must apply ourselves to keep our souls pure. We are beginning each morning anew, clean and pure as a newborn individual.

In this blessing we also acknowledge that our soul does not really belong to us.  God insufflated it within us; He did not give it to us. We know (and we say) that in the same way God gave us (= lentus) our soul, one day He will take it back... In the meantime, while the divine soul is within us, we will praise Him and thank Him for the most generous gift of all: life.

"A Cantor's tears" Dudu Fisher sings  Elokay! Neshama... at a Synagogue in Krakow.

Monday, November 26, 2012

THE KETUBA: "Her clothing" (kesutah) in Jewish Marriage Law.

As we have seen in previous weeks, the Ketuba establishes the duties of the husband toward his wife. Following a Biblical commandment (Exodus 21:10) the obligations of the husband are basically three:  

1. she-erah: to provide his wife with sustenance or maintenance (see here)

2. kesutah:  to supply her clothing and lodging

3. 'onatah:  to cohabit with her.

The second obligation, kesutah, which literally means "her clothing" states that the Jewish husband is obligated to provide his wife with appropriate clothing, bedding, furniture and a place of residence.   


Clothes: The husband has to supply his wife with appropriate clothing for each season of the year. Regarding the quality of this provision, the rule is that the husband must provide his wife with a level of clothing according to (a) what the husband can afford (b) the local custom, e.g., the social needs of a woman who lives in a farm are not the same as a woman who lives in a city (Maimonides, MT ishut 13:2). This category also includes the husband's obligation to provide his wife with luxury items (13:4) such as jewelry, cosmetics, etc. Again, at a level which results as the balance between the husband's financial possibilities and the wife's social needs ( or local custom).   

Place of residence:   The place of residence is determined by the husband. It is presumed that husband and wife agreed upon it in advance.  If the husband wishes to change his usual place of residence the wife is expected to move with him. Some exceptions are: 1. A disreputable neighborhood (13:15). The wife can refuse to move to a violent or corrupt place. 2. Israel: if the couple lives in Israel the wife can refuse to move out of Israel or if they live in Jerusalem, she can refuse to leave Jerusalem. (13:19-20). 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

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.

George Washington"

American Rabbis have discussed the celebration of Thanksgiving.

The following lines by Rabbi Broyde summarize his conclusion:

"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 21, 2012

SEPHARDIC RABBIS: Rabbi Hayim Nahum (1872-1960)

Rabbi ayim Naum was born in 1872 in Izmir, Turkey. He was an extraordinarily intelligent person with an exceptionally diverse education. He received his formal Jewish education in Tiberias and his secondary education at a French Lycee. He held a degree in Islamic Law from Constantinople. He attended the Sorbonne's School of Oriental Languages in France while at the same time attending the Rabbinical Academy of Paris. He then returned to Constantinople and taught at the Turkish Military Academy.

Rabbi Naum's unusual background and eclectic interests earned him great respect. From 1909 until 1923, he served as akham Bashi (Chief Rabbi) of the Ottoman Empire and was granted the title of "Effendi" (Lord) by the Turkish government. Rabbi Naum successfully intervened in favor of Jews in various localities of the Empire, especially in assuring government protection for them during World War I (it seems that it was due to him that the project of expelling the Jews from Jerusalem was averted).

In 1923, Rabbi Naum agreed to become the head of the Jewish community in Cairo, and thus the Chief Rabbi of Egypt. Here, too, Rabbi Naum became a man of noted success within the greater gentile society. From 1930 to 1934 he was a member of the Egyptian Parliament. He helped found the Royal Academy of the Arabic Language, and was instrumental in making possible the reconvening the Society for the Historical Study of the Jews of Egypt. 

With the rise in Arab nationalism in the late 1940s, life for Egyptian Jews became increasingly difficult. There was an abundance of political intimidation and economic oppression. Although he gave into government pressure to denounce Zionism (using vague, meaningless phrases), he held firm in his refusal to have synagogues recite prayers for an Egyptian victory in the 1948 war. Ignoring his own failing health (and blindness), Rabbi Naum spent his final years in service to the greatly diminished Egyptian Jewish community. He was 88 years old when he died.