Friday, February 8, 2013

SHABBAT: Understanding the Habdala ceremony

The fourth of the Ten commandments states: "Remember the  day of Shabbat to sanctify it". This means that we should sanctify the Shabbat with words, by beginning and ending Shabbat with a ceremony in which we declare the holiness of Shabbat and its distinction from all other days of the week. 

The opening ceremony we make at the initiation of Shabbat is called qiddush (=consecration). And the closing ceremony we do at the end of Shabbat is called habdala (=distinction).
The Rabbis, in this case the anshe keneset hagedola ( Men of the Great Assembly, ca. 450 BCE) instructed us to perform  these two ceremonies over a cup of wine.   

The Habdala ceremony includes four blessings:  1. A blessing over the wine. 2. A blessing over aromatic spices 3. A blessing over the light of a fire.  4. A blessing in which we state the distinction between holiness (Shabbat) and the ordinary (= ḥol, i.e., weekdays).  

Smelling an aromatic spices, according to the some opinions, is a symbolic compensation for the loss of the "additional soul" (neshama yetera) which accompanied us throughout the Shabbat. 

The purpose of the blessing over the light "Blessed are You, haShem...the Creator of the light of the fire" - is to show thatmelakha (=an activity forbidden on Shabbat) is now permitted. It also remind us that a new week begins, and the first thing God created in the Creation-week was light (Gen.1:3).  When saying the blessing over the light one should actually benefit from the light. The Rabbis said that the light should be intense enough to distinguish, for example, between two similar coins, one from your country and one from another country. The custom is to bring our hand --semi closed-- near the candle, distinguishing between the shadowed area and the lighted area of the hand (light vs. darkness).  Some have the custom to look at their fingernails, benefiting from the light which helps to recognize the nails from the fingers. 

Shabbat Shalom  

Candle lighting in NYC:  5:05 pm  
Shabbat ends in NYC:      6:03 pm  

Yoram Gaon, 
a Ladino presentation (with Hebrew subtitles). 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

THE 13 PRINCIPLES: # 13: Tehiyat hametim, just for the righteous?

The thirteenth principle of the Jewish faith states our believe that the dead will be brought back to life.   This is known as resurrection or in Hebrew teḥiyat hametim. ("Resurrection" should not be confused with what ḥakhme haqabbala call gilgul neshamot , or reincarnation).

In his "ma-amar 'al teḥiyat hametim" Maimonides explains:         

"The concept of resurrection is well known among all Jews, and there are none who dispute it. It is mentioned many times in our prayers... prophets and sages.  The body and the soul will be reunited again after they have been separated by death. This concept if found in the book of Daniel (12:2): "Many who sleep in the dust shall awaken, some to everlasting life, some to everlasting shame and reproach".
We have no specific details about how or when exactly teḥiyat hametim will take place.

For Maimonides, the resurrection of the dead is just for the righteous (ṣadiqim).   "It will be absurd for the wicked to be brought to life again, for even when they are alive they are consider dead".   In the wise words of Rabbi Hayim Pereira Mendes. "The reward of the righteous in future life is spiritual happiness, the punishment of the wicked is exclusion from it." Wicked people, do not recognize God and are not aware of the existential goal of this life: coming closer to Him (uldobqa bo). If given a new opportunity the wicked would waste his life in vanity, physical pleasures and material endeavors.  

To better understand Maimonides idea, let us imagine a scenario close to teḥiyat hametim. If I'm now 80 years old, and I'm offered the elixir of youth to become again a 20 years old, what would I wish to do with my life now?   If I say: "Well, now that I know what is important in this life, and I'm given this new opportunity, I will dedicate myself to strengthen my connection with HaShem", then, I qualify for Maimonides' teḥiyat hametim!.  But if I say: "If I'm 20 again, I will party all day long" or something like that, then I don't.  


by Audrey Weitz

Helping your teens navigate the exciting and potentially scary world of social media.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Rabbi Eliyahu Hazan: The first Sephardic Bat-Mitzva

After being in Tripoli for a few years (see this), rabbi Eliyahu Hazan was invited to serve the Jewish community of Alexandria, Egypt, replacing rabbi Moshe Pardo, who passed away in 1888. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, Alexandria was a cosmopolitan city, with a strong European influence.  The Jewish community was at the vanguard of the socio-economic progress. Those were times of reform and secularization. Jewish education was not popular at all. Many parents were sending their children to the "prestigious"  Christian (some of them missionary!) schools of the city.  As they struggled to find the delicate balance between Jewish education and the increasing demands of the parents for dedicating more time to secular studies (including: art, tennis and dance) the few Jewish schools of Alexandria did not achieve the desired goals in terms of basic Jewish scholarship, particularly with the Jewish girls.   The schools (or the parents) would provide special tutoring in preparation for the boy's Bar Mitzva. The girls, however, were largely ignorant of Judaism and "could not utter a single word in Hebrew". 

Attentive to this issue Rabbi Eliyahu Hazan introduced a new ceremony, not practiced until then among Sephardic Jews: The communal celebration of the Bat Mitzva. Unlike the boys' Bar Mitzva, which was centered on the reading of a portion of the Tora from the pulpit, the girls' new ceremony consisted in the recitation of some prayers and answering questions dealing with the basic principles of Judaism. 

For Rabbi Hazan the Bat Mitzva ceremony served a higher purpose: it allowed Rabbi Hazan to develop an innovative educational curriculum. The new program of Religious studies for girls was a prerequisite for participating in the Bat Mitzva ceremony. Now the girls and their parents, eager to participate of the popular celebration,  were provided with a great stimulus to read fluently Hebrew; to learn the basic prayers, and to master the foundations of Judaism.  

Rabbi Hazan served the Jewish community of Alexandria for 20 years, until his death in 1908. 

He was succeeded by Rabbi Raffaello Della Pergola (from 1910 to 1923) and Rabbi David Prato (from 1927 to 1936). Both from Italy. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

TEFILA: Our ability to walk upright (hamekhin mis'ade gaber)

כשהוא הולך, הוא אומר: ברוך המכין מצעדי גבר.

This blessing, "Blessed are You, haShem, our God, King of the universe, Who makes firm the steps of man" is based on a verse of Tehilim, the Psalms of King David. 

"The steps of a man are made firm by HaShem, when He likes that man's way" (Psalms 37:23). The pasuq means that when a person has the intention of conducting himself in the right way, going in a path that conforms with the will of God, HaShem will help him, watching that this man will not stumble on his way. As it says in the next verse (37:24): "If that man stumbles, he will not fall down, because HaShem will hold his hand [somekh yado i.e., will support him, preventing his falling] "  

The Talmud says that one should say this blessing when he walks (ki masge) in the morning. For Maimonides  (MT Tefila 7:6) it is said when a person is ready to walk out from his house in the morning  to go to Synagogue, to work, etc. (laṣet lederekh). The same idea expressed in the Psalms: once we have chosen the right path, we ask HaShem to prevent us from falling down.

It seems that according to other opinions, this berakha alludes (also) to the first steps we take in the morning, upon getting out of bed. 

"Just how do we tall, two-legged creatures manage to stay upright while in motion, or even standing still? How can we possibly keep our balance on those two small platforms we call feet? The answer lies in a remarkable web of coordinated systems-voluntary and reflexive, neural, muscular, and skeletal-that collectively allow us to walk along a sidewalk or run along a forest path, largely without a second thought." (Nova)

This berakha reminds us of the gratitude we owe God for our capacity to walk.   Recognizing that the Creator has endowed us, the human specie, with the extraordinary ability to walk upright.  


"My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish." by  Rabbi Benjamin Blech

Monday, February 4, 2013

WEDDINGS: Who can be a witness? (1 of 2)

As we explained last week, Jewish Law requires the presence of two witnesses in a marriage ceremony (see here).  As a general rule, no single witness alone is competent to attest or testify. 
Not anyone is competent to act as a witness.  
Some examples: 
In Jewish Law, a person is incompetent as a witness until he reaches the age of 13.  In some cases, real estate for example, the minimum age required is 20 (MT, Edut  9:6).
The wicked (resha'im)  are incompetent witnesses. This includes: criminals, swindlers, perjurers and informers; persons who have committed capital offenses, thieves and robbers, usurers, tricksters, gamblers and gamesters, as well as idlers or vagabonds who are suspected of spending their leisure in criminal activities (see more details in Shulḥan 'arukh Ḥoshen Mishpat Chapter 34). 

A man who has no basic knowledge of Tora (Bible) or Mishna, nor of civilized standards of conduct (derekh ereṣ), is presumed to be idle and disorderly and therefore is considered to be incompetent as a witness. This presumption, however, is rebuttable by evidence that, notwithstanding the man's illiteracy, his conduct is irreproachable.  

 A person called to attest or testify together with another person whom he knows to be incompetent as a witness must decline to testify since the incompetence of any one witness invalidates the testimony of the whole group of witnesses. This is why in a marriage ceremony the Rabbi will carefully choose two witnesses and indicate to the groom to appoint them "to the exclusion of all others", i.e., other people who are incidentally witnessing the ceremony and who might not qualify as witnesses.   
(To be continued...).

READ:  Ed Koch & Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau "I'm a Holocaust survivor too." By Ivette Alt Miller, from