Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Modern Rabbis on celebrating New Year's eve

We have written in previous HOTD about the views of modern orthodox rabbis regarding the celebration of different American holidays. We have seen that all rabbis are very strict in forbidding, for example, the celebration of Halloween; while most would not oppose (and some would even encourage) the celebration of Thanksgiving. The difference between Thanksgiving and Halloween is that the latter has a clear origin in pagan culture and that some of those idolatrous customs are somehow still practiced in its celebration today (see this). 

What about New Year's eve?

According to Christian tradition, January 1st, is the day of the circumcision of Yeshu (the eighth day 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.  For the Jews living in Christian lands Christmas and new Year were not very happy days.  One example:  on New Year's Day 1577, Pope Gregory XIII decreed that all Roman Jews, under pain of death, must listen attentively to the compulsory Catholic conversion sermon given in Roman synagogues after Friday night services.  On New Year's Day 1578, Gregory signed into law a tax forcing Jews to pay for the support of a "House of Conversion" to convert Jews to Christianity.  On New Year's 1581, Gregory ordered his troops to confiscate all sacred literature from the Roman Jewish community. Thousands of Jews were murdered in the campaign (U.S. News and World Report December 23, 1996).

Despite all this, many modern American Rabbis have a more lenient view in regards to New Year's day. 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, which we all somehow follow, for example, for taxes purposes. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe, Eben Ha'ezer 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 [a religious intent] . . .  However, the first day of the civil year [January 1] and the day of Thanksgiving are not bound to this prohibition according to the letter of the law. Pious Jews [ba'ale nefesh], however, should be stricter [and avoid its celebration]."   Following Rabbi Feinstein, other rabbis assert that, since the status of New Year's day has changed in the last three hundred years and in contemporary America there is no 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.) few would classify it as a religious holiday, since there is a clear secular reason to celebrate the beginning of the new calendar year. 

Most Rabbis I know will not promote and would actually oppose to any public or official commemoration of the New Year's eve by their congregation.  At the same time, based on some of the above mentioned considerations, they won't actively preach against its private and sober celebration by individuals, as they would do, for example, with celebrating Halloween.

READ two different opinions on celebrating New Year's eve. 

Blasting 'Western ignorance' on region and questioning Palestinians' desire for peace, Moshe Ya'alon lays out hard-line stance

By Stuart Winer, form the "Times of Israel"

Monday, December 30, 2013

Maimonides on 'aboda zara: What's wrong with Harry Potter?

MT 'aboda zara 11:10:  "Who should be considered an enchanter? The one that cast spells [or pronounces words] that have nor meaning in a regular language, nor any intrinsic content, and he imagines that these [magic] words will have some effects [or powers]".   

A spell, charm or incantation is a set of  unintelligible words or a formula used to invoke some magical effects. Magicians, heathen priests and wizards in the ancient pagan world would use spells to cure, to protect and to harm (remember Maleficent and the Sleeping Beauty?) . 

Casting spells was such a popular practice that you could hardly find the performance of any act of magic which would not involve the use of incantations. Magical speech was a ritual act of equal or even greater importance to the performance of non-verbal acts of magic. According to Bronisław Malinowski the pagans believed that  "the knowledge of the right words... gives man a power over and above his own limited field of personal action." 

The Tora calls the person who cast magic spells hober (see Deut. 18:11) and this practice is one of the idolatrous crimes forbidden by the Tora.   Judaism believes that  nothing could be achieved by magic or supernatural means. Everything is regulated by the will of God. For Maimonides the enchanters were mere charlatans who deceived people (specially people in despair!) giving them false hopes and unrealistic expectations.

One might think that in our modern world incantations, as well as all other sorts of idolatrous practices, are not as popular as they used to be. That might be true in many areas of life except for the best selling book series in the history of humankind: "Harry Potter". In Harry Potter, a children book, virtually all protagonists use spells, usually with the help of a magic wand, to acquire some sorts of superpowers.   As we explain, the performance of magical spells and other procedures was seeing by our Tora and our Prophets (see for example Eze. Ch. 13) as a distinctive sign of godlessness. From this point of view, Harry Potter might be a good educational tool for us and our children to illustrate, in an ingenuous background, the ideas and beliefs of ancient pagans, against which Judaism fought for centuries.  

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Hilkhot 'aboda zara 11:8: Maimonides vs. Astrology

Astrology,  the supposed influence of the stars on human events, is alluded to in the Hebrew Bible more than once.  In Lev. 19:26 and Deut. 18:10 the Tora warns about idolatrous practices like theme'onen (=the seer of times).  The prophets of Israel were also aware of this very popular pagan practice among the Babylonians and virtually all other ancient civilizations, and they scoffed at the  "star-gazers"  or  hobere ha-shamayim, "The readers of heavens". Isa. 47:13 and Jer. 10:2. 

In the Talmud astrology is called itstagninutThis is also the term used by Maimonides in Mishne Tora.  In Hilkhot 'aboda zara 11:8 he writes: "Who should be considered a me'onen? The one that predicts the times, saying through astrology (itstagninut) such-and-such a day will be a good day... or a bad day, such-and-such a day will be auspicious for performing this task, and such-and-such a day will be bad for doing that task, etc." It is forbidden by the Tora, as part of the prohibitions against idolatrous practices, to tell fortunes, to seek astrologers or fortunetellers and even worse, to act upon an astrological sign or warning.

To clarify even further Maimonides' position on this matter I'm quoting his words in Perush haMishnayot, 'aboda zara, 4:9: "Astrology... is not as some people believe, a credible science which the Tora wished to forbid. It is a nonsensical superstition... by which people attribute to the stars imaginary powers... [astrology] together with witchcraft, demonology, incantations, divination and summoning the spirits of the dead represent the essence of idolatry ('aboda zara)". 

Upon being asked by the rabbis of southern France whether it was possible to combine astrology with Judaism Maimonides replied that he had explored the principles of astrology and concluded that "[astrology]... is no science at all, but mere foolery and superstition ...  I well know that you may seek and find in the Talmud and Midrashim isolated sayings implying that the stars at the time of a man's birth will have a certain effect upon him... but this need not perplex you".  The supposition that the fate of a man could be dependent upon the constellations was ridiculed by him. He argued, furthermore, that such theories were devised to rob life of purpose and to make people dependent on the whims of the readers of heaven.

Friday, December 13, 2013


Today, Friday December 13th we observe the Tenth of Tebet, a fast day.  The main event we remember on this day is the onset of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuhadnezzar, King of Babylonia. The siege of the city signaled the beginning of the battle that ultimately destroyed Yerushalayim and our first Bet haMiqdash in the year 586 BCE.  Hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed, died of starvation during the siege or were sent as captives to the Babylonian exile. The date of the Tenth of Tebet was recorded by the prophet Yehezqel. At the time of the destruction of the Bet haMiqdash Yehezqel was already exiled in Babylonia with the first group of Jews who were taken there by Nebuhadnezzar eleven years earlier.

On the 10th of Tebet there are only two restrictions: eating and drinking. 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 z"l) authorize to wash one's mouth or brush one's teeth in this Ta'anit provided you are careful to lower your head, avoiding swallowing water unintentionally.

The Tenth of Tebet is the only fast day that might fall on a Friday. In NYC the fast began today at 6:16am.  Today, we will be receiving Shabbat while fasting and we will break the fast with the Qiddush, which should be said not before 4.49pm, NYT.  Minha service this Friday will probably be early than a normal Friday, because we will have Tora reading and Birkat Kohanim.  Follow your community's calendar and notifications.

Shabbat Shalom!

Candle lighting in NYC:    4:09 p.m.
Shabbat ends in NYC:        5:09 p.m.

Who is exempted from fasting today?
*Minors: boys under 13 and girls under 12 years old are completely exempted from fasting.
*Nursing women: According to the Sephardic tradition 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.

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. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Tenth of Tebet and ezra haSofer

This coming Friday, December 13th we will observe the Tenth of Tebet, a fast day which remind us of three tragic events.  The main event we remember on this day is the onset of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuhadnezzar, the King of Babylonia.  But there are two other events that we also recall on this fast day. The translation of the Tora to Greek (which occurred on the 8th of Tebet,  see this) and the death of Ezra haSofer (9th of Tebet).  

Seventy years after the destruction of the Bet haMiqdash, approximately the year 516 BCE, the Jews were allowed to come back to Erets Israel by the Persian Emperor Cyrus. Roughly forty thousand Jews were led back to Israel by Zerubabel and years later  by Nehemia and Ezra the Scribe. 

Ezra had the tremendous responsibility of reeducating the Jews who, after two or three generations in exile without Jewish institutions (schools or synagogues) and living, and in many cases marrying, with the local population.  Most Jews had forgotten the Tora and its laws, and adopted many customs and values from the surrounding Babylonian culture. Ezra established  the Anshe Keneset haGedola, the first Jewish Parliament, composed of 120 scholars and prophets.  With the court that he presided, Ezra issued many new rulings to reclaim and revive Jewish values and reeducate the Jewish people.  He increased the days of public reading of the Tora,  composed the text of the Amida (main prayer), adapted the names of the Hebrew months and the fonts of the Tora-text, etc.  Ezra also had to make very tough decisions, like excluding the Samaritans, a semi-pagan mixed population living in Israel from the times of the destruction of the Bet haMiqdash, who reclaimed to be considered as Jews. Thanks to his wisdom and courage the Jewish people was able to survive and reestablish again in Israel as the Nation of God.  Ezra was also considered by the Rabbis as the historical link between the written Tora and the oral Tora, which was forgotten in the long Babylonian captivity and retrieved by Ezra the Scribe. Together with Nehemia, they also concluded the building of the second Bet haMiqdash and the protective wall around the city. Ezra died on a 9th of Tebet. He was regarded by our Rabbis as second to Moshe Rabbenu.

about the 

The Tenth of Tebet is the only fast that might fall on a Friday. In NYC the fast will begin tomorrow morning, Friday Dec. 13th, at 6:16am.  We will be receiving Shabbat while fasting and we will break the fast with the Kiddush, which cannot be said before 4.49pm, NYT.  Minha service this Friday will probably be early than a normal Friday, because we will have Tora reading and birkat Kohanim.  Follow your community's calendar and notifications.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Tenth of Tebet and the Septuagint

This coming Friday, December 13th, we will observe the Tenth of Tebet, a fast day which remind us of three tragic events.  The main event we recall on this day is the onset of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuḥadnezzar, the King of Babylonia.  But there were other two events that we also remember in this day, the rendition of the Tora into the Greek language and the death of Ezra haSofer. 

On the 8th of Tebet (=today), approximately in the year 300 BCE, in Alexandria, Egypt, King Ptolemy ordered 72 Jewish scholars to translate the Tora (the five Books of Moshe or Pentateuch) to Greek. King Ptolemy sought to disprove the existence of an unified Jewish tradition to find an excuse to humiliate the Jews. The 70 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) in many cases the authors of the Septuagint deliberately deviated from the traditional Jewish understanding of the Tora and adapted the Biblical text to the Greek mentality and sensitivities to please the king 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 was used to advanced the agenda of the Hellenist Jews who sought to syncretize Greek and Jewish values.  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 based on the Jewish Scripture.  The Bible was now reinterpreted and used to justify non-Jewish ideas or beliefs "in the name of the Bible", all of which caused uncountable tragedies to the Jewish people. 

As Timothy McLay explains, "the Jewish Scriptures as they were known, read and interpreted in the Greek language, provided the basis for much, if not most, of the interpretive context of the New Testament."

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

KASHRUT: Meat and fish together

Eating fish and meat together is not restricted by Biblical law. However, the Rabbis considered that mixing fish and meat together could be harmful for one's health (סכנה).  The Gemara Pesahim (76b) is not explicit about the particular health hazard meat and fish together would trigger. It describes the problem as משום דקשיא לריחא ולדבר אחר . dabar aher, which literally means "something else" is a term which is usually used in the Talmud as a euphemism. It might be indicating thus that the rabbis were describing some type of disease which we are not able to identify today. 

Although Maimonides does not mention this prohibition, the shulhan 'aruh does (Yore Dea'a 116:2).  Rabbi Yosef Karo writes about it in the chapter where he deals with hazardous foods.  Following Rashi's opinion, Rabbi Yosef Karo identified the harm triggered by this mixture as tsara'at.  Now, we are not certain what type of disease tsara'at was. And although tsara'at is traditionally understood as a type of leprosy Maimonides explained that tsara'at should not be identified narrowly as leprosy but in a more broadly sense, probably as a general skin disease (MT Tsara'at 16:10). It is possible that eating fish and meat together might cause in some people an allergic reaction. Perhaps, as the famous commentator of the shulhan 'arukh Magen Abraham said, in our days human nature has changed (נשתנו הטבעים) and people are not affected anymore by this mixture as they used to be affected centuries ago. 

Other rabbis have a completely different interpretation about the physical risks of eating meat and fish together. In their opinion it has to do with the possibility of swallowing a fish-bone hidden in a piece of meat.

In any case, and although contemporary rabbis have not reached a definitive conclusion as to what is (or what was) the physical danger caused by eating fish and meat together, we strictly uphold this restriction, following the rulings of the shulhan 'arukh (קבלנו הוראות מר"ן).  It is important to clarify that unlike milk and meat, fish and meat may be eaten one after the other at the same meal as separate courses.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Mirror, mirror….. Maimonides on 'aboda zara 11:6

In MT Hilkhot 'aboda zara 11:4 Maimonides dealt with the definition of nihush, or reading events or natural phenomena as divine signs from God.  In 11:6 Maimonides defines the qosem. Although in modern Hebrew qosem is a magician/entertainer in Biblical and rabbinical Hebrew the qosem was a diviner, a future-teller. Maimonides explains that a qosem is the person who performs certain ritual acts, enters in a trance (mishtomem) and pretend to tell the future: this is going to happen, etc. Some of these diviners, he says, use different methods for divination. Some of them use mirrors (remember Snow-white?) and some of them  a crystal ball ('ashashit).  Maimonides explains 11:7 that it is forbidden to perform any act of divination and it is also forbidden to go to a diviner or seek his or her advice. As it is explicitly written in the Tora in the context of idolatrous practices ( Deut. 18:10) "Let no one among you be found who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens or engages in witchcraft".  

Divination and prediction of the future was an integral part of every pagan society. From the Greeks (the seers and oracles) to the Aztecas in ancient Mexico. The Aztecas diviners, for example, would tell the future casting maize kernels, looking into mirrors or bowls of water or tying and untying knots. As in many other pagan cultures they would also use hallucinogens (plants) to bring themselves into having "extraordinary visions of the future".  In many African societies divination is still practiced today.

For Maimonides, as per More Nebukhim 2:37, all diviners are charlatans who use their powerful imaginations and persuasive personalities pretending that the future is revealed to them by an external force.  For a Jew it is entirely forbidden to visit or seek the advice of any kind of diviner, psychic, card reader, etc. or whoever claims to foretell the future.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

SEPHARDIC RABBIS: Rabbi Abraham Saba (1440-1508)

Rabbi Abraham Saba (אברהם סבע) was born in Castilla, Spain in1440.  Like thousands of other Jews, at the time of the expulsion from Spain in 1492, he fled to Oporto, Portugal, hoping to live there under the noble King Joao the second. In 1496 the new King Manuel I (changing the Hebrew vocalization of his name, the Sephardim called this king "menuval", --מנואל--as per the famous qina which Moroccan Jews recite on Tish'a be-Ab: "yom me-ori hashakh begerush Castilla...").  King Manuel decreed that all Jews are considered di-facto Christians, therefore, from that momentany "new Christians" found practicing any jewish rite would be judged by the Inquisition (=tortured) and burned alive in an "auto de fe" to expiate for his or her sins. The worst part of these new edicts was that to assure that the parents will not teach Judaism in secret to their children, all Jewish children, especially infants, were taken by force from their homes and brought to convents to be raised as faithful Catholics.  This tragedy was also recorded in yom me-ori ילדים האומרים בכל יום שמע ישראל אמרו לעץ הקיצה ולאבן עורי.  Rabbi Abraham Saba's two sons were also taken from him....

It is said that looking for his sons and in an attempt to identify and try to save Jewish children, he disguised as a Christian peasant and visited numerous convents. In every convent he would recite out loud the Shema Israel. When hearing the voice of Rabbi Abraham, attracted by the familiar sweet melody of the Shema the Jewish children in the convent would come toward him and cry disconsolately.  He never found his children.

From Oporto he fled to Lisbon. There, he was caught by the Inquisition's guards trying to hide his Tora books and Tefillin. He was sent to prison. After six months confinement he escape to Fez (Morocco) where he lived, in illness and suffering, for ten years. 

In memory of Ezra ben Nizha - Rabbi Ezra Labaton z"l.

Most of Rabbi Saba books were lost or burned in Portugal. In Fez, however, he recommitted to paper from memory the following works

  • Eshkol ha-Kofer , a commentary on Megilat ruth and Megilat Esther.
  • Tseror haHayim  a commentary on Shir haShirim.
  • Tseror haMor , a commentary on the five books of the Tora. In it, one can also find many autobiographic insights. 
  • Tseror haKesef  a book of rabbinic responsa and legal decisions 

Click here to download the book TSEROR HAMOR, from hebrewbooks.org

Click here to read and listen to he piyut "yom me-ori"

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Rosh Hodesh, Hanukka and barekh 'alenu

Besides Hanukka, today we also celebrate Rosh Hodesh Tebet. Our prayers are longer than usual for a weekday.  Today, same as yesterday, we say ya'ale veyabo and 'al haNisim in the 'amida and in Birkat haMazon.  In the morning we read the full Hallel and we took out two Sifre Tora. On the first one we read the Rosh Hodesh portion and in the second Sefer Tora we read the text corresponding to the 7th day of Hanukka. We also said Musaf for Rosh Hodesh, including 'al haNisim.

Additionally, tonight in Tefilat 'arbit we will switch frombarekhenu to barekh 'alenu. In other words, we will begin asking God for rain.  

In Israel Jews start praying for rain two weeks after Shemini Atseret, on the evening of the seventh day of Heshvan. 

The Jews who lived in the Babylonian diaspora did not need the rain so early in the year. The Rabbis established then that Babylonian Jews should begin praying for rain on the 60th day of the season of Tishri, or the Hebrew autumn.

The Hebrew calendar also has four seasons called tequfot(in singulartequfa). The Rabbis gave an easy round number for determining the beginning of each Hebrew calendar season.  A season consists of  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.

Today, Jews who live outside of Israel, follow the ancient practice of the Jews of Babylonia. Therefore, it has become tradition for 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 2013, we will switch to Barekh 'alenu --the prayer for rain-- tonight, December 4th, in our 'arbit prayer.


Click here to read

"Is the US changing sides in the regional conflict between Iran and its enemies?"


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Tora Reading for Hanukka

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

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

Our Rabbis chose the section of Naso in the book of Numbers ("In the desert" chapter 7), dealing with the inaugural offerings of the tribal leaders at the time of the dedication of the mizbeah (=the altar of the Tabernacle).


1. Hanukka means "inauguration" or "dedication". In Hanukka we celebrate that once the Greeks were defeated the Jews re-dedicated the altar of the Temple--which was defiled by pagan offerings-- to HaShem. The Parasha we read is about the dedication of the mizbeah of the Tabernacle, our first Temple.  This seems to be the original reason for reading Perashat Naso.  But there is more to this story. 

2. In the dessert, the Tabernacle was completed on the 25 of Kislev. Coincidently, this is the same day we celebrate Hanukka.

3. On the last day of Hanukka, we read the paragraph dealing with the lighting of the Menora, which remind us of the miracle of the oil in the times of Hanukka.

4. The book Me'am Lo'ez brings an additional reason. If you pay close attention to the offerings related in Perashat Naso, you will see that the tribe of Levi did not participate of the dedication of the altar. During Hanukka the Hashmonayim--Cohanim descendants of the tribe of Levi-- were the ones who recovered and rededicated the altar. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

HANUKKA, Ashkenazi vs Sephardic customs

There are no major differences between the Sephardic and the Ashkenazi traditions for the celebration of Hanukka, just a few minor variations. 

Some of them are:

1. The Ashkenazi tradition is to say the Berakha: "lehadliq ner shel Hanukka" while most Sephardim would say: "lehadliq ner Hanukka", 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  MT Hanukka 3:4 ) is "lehadliq ner shel Hanukka". Sephardim from Spanish Portuguese communities still preserve this version. 

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 last case, the shamash acts as an auxiliary candle not for being used to light with it the other candles but for avoiding benefiting from the light of the Hanukka candles.  

3. Playing with the dreidel, spinner or sebibon is an Ashkenazi custom that Sephardim never practiced.  Same as Hanukka Gelt (money or gifts to the children).
4. In Sephardic communities it is customary to light only one Hanukkia per family. In Ashkenazi communities the custom is to light one Hanukkia 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 Hanukkia 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 tradition only the mother lights Shabbat candles, following the Ashkenazi tradition the daughters would light their own candles, saying Berakha for it. 

Friday, November 29, 2013

Shabbat And Hanukka Candles

FRIDAY, BEFORE SHABBAT BEGINS: Every night we light Hanukka candles at or after sundown, but today, Friday, we should light the Hanukka candles before sunset (sunset in NYC is today at 4:28). Moreover, we should light Hanukka candles before we light Shabbat candles. Today, in NYC the time to light Shabbat candles is 4:10pm. Therefore we should light Hanukka candles a few minutes before that time.  

There is another rule for Hanukka candles on Friday: while every night the candles should last at least for half an hour, if you light at nightfall, on Shabbat eve Hanukka candles should be prepared to last for more time, because we want the candles to be visible at nightfall. So, make sure your candles are long enough, or have enough oil to burn for at least one hour and a half.

In Synagogue we should light candles ideally after Minha. But if that is not possible or if it might get too close to sunset time, candles should be lit before Minha. 

SATURDAY NIGHT: Once Shabbat is over (after 5:10 pm. NYT), at home you should first recite the Habdala and then you should light the Hanukka candles. In the Synagogue, for practical reasons, we first light the Hanukka candles and then we recite the Habdala.

SPENDING SHABBAT OUTIf you are spending the whole Shabbat at your parents/in laws, etc., once you are at their house, you (and 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 Hanukka candle-lighting without any further requirements. So, you don't really need to light your own Hanukkia.

However, if you and your family are going to your parents/in laws/relatives house after Shabbat began, for dinner, then you should light Hanukka 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 Hanukka Sameah!

Shabbat candle lighting in NYC           4:10 pm
Shabbat ends in NYC                               5:10 pm 

  (Psalm 120:7) אני שלום וכי אדבר המה למלחמה 

Nine resolutions against Israel pass in one day at U.N. General Assembly meeting * Interpreter, believing microphone to be off, says Israel is the only focus when bad things are happening all over the world * Awkward laughter ensues

Thursday, November 28, 2013

SPECIAL EDITION: Celebrating Thanksgiving, a Sephardic perspective

For Rabbi Sabato Morais (1823-1897), one of the most prominent orthodox Rabbis in 19th century America (see this), celebrating Thanksgiving was a no-brainer. In his view Thanksgiving is "a national holiday which connects Jewish people to their country and to their fellow Americans, irrespective of their creed." (D.H).

Thanks to Mr. Daniel Harari, a passionate student of Rabbi Sabato's works, and to Mr. Arthur Kiron, the Curator of Judaica Collections at the Penn Library, I got a copy of the original"Sermon delivered on Thanksgiving Day, Nov 27th 1851 by the Rev. Sabato Morais, Minister of the Congregation Mikvé Israel Philadelphia" which was published in the journal "The Asmonean" (החשמונאי).  I'm presenting here some selected paragraphs of it and a link to the full article. 

A Sermon delivered on Thanksgiving Day, Nov 27th 1851 by the Rev. Sabato Morais, Minister of the Congregation Mikvé Israel Philadelphia. 

"...On the day which the inhabitants of this land have set apart to the Lord, let not Israel be found reluctant in responding to the religious call. True, we do not assemble to commemorate an event peculiar to us, yet, even as members of the house of Jacob, the present occasion must call forth our deepest feelings of gratitude toward God our benefactor.....  Everything around us beams with joy: Nature, obedient to her creator has smiled on the earth, the fields teem with productions, no unpropitious rains destroy our plants, nor have the scorching rays of the sun blighted our fruits. The invaluable blessing of plenty has been showered on us and we and our children reap the benefits thereof.  It is therefore to sing together in unison of voice and thoughts the praises of our merciful Father, that we have repaired to His holy mansion- to offer the sacrifice of a grateful heart, that we have foregone our daily occupations and flocked to his sacred altar....  A century has nearly elapsed since the scattered children of Judah here found a home of security and peace; here they have thriven and acquired wealth; no internal adversary has ever molested them, nor has the rod of tyranny reached these shores; here they have but to prove themselves worthy and they will rise as high as any free man can aspire; no disabilities, no legal impediments militate against them; what felicity is that of which you are made to partake! Dear brethren, the boundless field of knowledge is unclosed to you, you may enter it, and freely gather its delightful fruits... unimpeded in the exercise of your religious duties, in accordance with Jewish doctrine, you are not merely tolerated, but regarded with respect; for you also form part of glorious whole that constitutes the American Republic." 

"Sovereign of all ages [=רבונו של עולם], ... bless this country, this people, their homes, their fields, their commerce, their productions; maintain among them harmony of feelings, indissoluble brotherhood, and unity of power, now and evermore.   Bless all of them, of whatever nation or creed, who have this day like us gathered to thank thy abundant goodness... and over their old and young, over the rich and poor, over their wardens and officers, over their schools and teachers, unfold Oh God, the pavilion of thy peace, may their religious conduct and future progress in the path of true wisdom, shine brilliantly over America and on Israel thy chosen ones. Amen. " 

Read the full Thanksgiving Sermon 
of Rabbi Sabato Morais here

To read this article you will have to zoom it x 3.  This copy is also very special because Rabbi Morais would publish his articles and "then correct them after publication as a keepsake in his ledger. The annotations in pencil are his own corrections." (D.H.)

Wednesday, November 27, 2013


WHEN YOU ARE A GUEST: As we explained yesterday, the Sephardic custom is to light one Hanukkia per household, not per individual. An extension of this principle is the case of the akhsana-i, a guest. If I'm spending some days or Shabbat in a relative's or in a friend's house I should not light my own Hanukkia even if I'm in that house with the rest of my family and even if I was given my own private room in the house. When I'm a guest I don't have to light my own candles. I should be part of the candle lighting of the host. Why? Because to the effects of Hanukka, when I spend a day or a few days at someone's home, eating and sleeping there as a guest, I'm considered part of that household. Therefore we keep following the rule of "one Hanukkia per household". 

WHAT SHOULD WE DO TONIGHT? The parent or the person in charge of the household recites the following three blessings before lighting the candle. (On all subsequent nights, only the first and second blessings are recited).

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱ-לֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָֽׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו, וְצִוָּֽנוּ לְהַדְלִיק נֵר חֲנֻכָּה

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱ-לֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁעָשָׂה נִסִּים לַאֲבוֹתֵֽינוּ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם בַּזְּמַן הַזֶּה

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱ-לֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁהֶחֱיָֽנוּ וְקִיְּמָֽנוּ וְהִגִּיעָֽנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה

As we will explain tomorrow, BH, the Sephardic custom is to light the Hanukka candle first and then the shamash or accessory candle. 

After we light the shamash we recite the text "HANEROT HALALU" .

"We kindle these lights for the miracles, the salvation and the wonders that You performed for our ancestors in those days, at this time (of the year), through Your holy priests. And during all eight days of Hanukka these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make ordinary use of them, but only look at them in order to express our gratitude to Your great Name for your miracles, Your wonders and Your salvations".

Then we recite: Mizmor Shir Hanukkat haBayit leDavid


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

HANUKA TUTORIAL: Oil or candles? Where to light? Who has to light?

OIL or CANDLES?  The candles to be used in Hanuka could be made of wax, paraffin, etc. but ideally one should use olive oil candles, because the miracle of Hanuka happened with olive oil. Moreover, oil candles will usually last for a longer time than regular or small wax candles.  The Mitsva of Hanuka candles cannot be performed with 'electrical candles', even when real candles are not available. An electrical Hanukia, however, can be placed in the house or in the Synagogue in addition to the regular Hanukia, especially during day-time. 
WHERE? Ideally the Hanukia should be placed outside the house's main entrance door, on the opposite side of the Mezuza. Nowadays, however, most families place the Hanuka candles inside the house. Since part of this Mitsva is pirsume nisa (to publicize the miracle performed to our ancestors) when lighting the candles inside the house we should place the Hanukia behind a window, in a spot visible from outside.

HOW MANY CANDLES?  Technically, it is enough to light one single candle (and the shamash or accessory candle) each night of Hanuka. The traditional custom anyways is to add one extra candle each night. However, in some 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.

A FAMILY MITSVA: Unlike most Mitsvot (=Jewish religious commandments), Hanuka is not an individual Mitsva like Tefila or Tsedaqa, but a family Mitsva. In some ways it is similar (but not identical) to the Mitsva of lighting Shabbat candles, which is not a requirement for each individual but for the family as a whole.  Following, I will present some illustrations that will help us understand the practical aspect of this particularity. 

1. If one's son or daughter lives overseas, and she is financially dependent on her parents, she does not need to light her own Hanuka candles. To this effect, a son or daughter are considered part of the family while they are financially dependent on their parents (somekh al shulhan abiv). However, if a son, even an unmarried son, lives on his own house and he is financially independent from his parents he should light his own candles with Berakha, etc. 

2. If the husband is in a business trip, he is technically included in the candle lighting done at home by his wife and children. In other words, he does not have to light his own individual Hanukia in his hotel room.  However, if he still wants to light the candles in his room, he could do it, but without saying a Berakha. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

HANUKA TUTORIAL: How many candles and when?

This coming Wednesday November 27th at night we will begin the celebration of Hanuka by lighting the first candle.  

TIME OF LIGHTING THE CANDLES: Hanuka candles are kindled in the evening (except Friday). The general custom is to light the candles at nightfall (tset hakokhabim). According to Rabbi Obadia Yosef z"l (as per halachayomit.com, see this) nightfall in NYC is at 4.40 pm. (11minutes after sunset, at this time of the year).  Many communities, however, follow the opinion of Maimonides (and the Gemara) which indicates lighting the candles right at sunset (4.29 NYT).  In either case, the candles must contain enough oil to burn for 30 minutes after nightfall. 
If one did not light the candles at these times,  the candles can be kindled later, when the family is home.  

HOW MANY CANDLES? Maimonides (MT, Hilkhot Megila vaHanuka 4:1) explains that the Mitsva of Hanuka candle-lighting is technically fulfilled by lighting just one candle per family.  Those who wish to beautify (hidur) this Mitsva, encourage each member of the family to light their own candle. And those who want to excel in the fulfillment of this commandment (Mitsva min hamubhar) add an additional candle each night.  The custom in Sephardic communities is to light one Hanukia for the entire family, not per each member of the family. The Ashkenazi tradition, however, is to light one Hanukia for each member of the family. 
Question from a parent: Should I light the candles at nightfall or wait until my son comes from high school at 7.00 pm? 

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed (see here) refers to this question and explains this case is different for Sephardim and Ashkenazim. Following the Ashkenazi custom (one Hanukia for each family member) one Hanukia should be lit at nightfall and then, when the son comes from school at 7.00pm he should light his Hanukia with Berakha. While following the Sephardic custom (one Hanukia per family) the family might wait for the son (especially if the son or the daughter are already Bene Mitsva) and light all together at 7.00 pm. 


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