Friday, November 22, 2013

HANUKA: Why we don't celebrate the military victories of the Hashmonayim?

As we explained yesterday, the victory of the Jews over the Greek army was not considered just an epic military triumph but a great miracle that HaShem granted us.  For two centuries the Jews remembered and celebrated these victories and the events that represented a turning point in the fight against the Hellenization of the Jews.  Megilat Ta'anit was an ancient book of chronicles composed at the beginning of the common era by Hanania ben Hizqia. In it we can find a record of all the holidays, a total of  thirty-five, which celebrated the victories of the Macabeem (also known as Hashmonayim).

Some illustrations: 
  1. The 13th of Adar. "Yom Niqanor". In that day the Macabeem defeated the large army of the Greek general Niqanor. 
  2. The 14th of Nisan, when the Jews recovered the city of Ceasarea. 
  3. The 22nd of Elul, when the Hashmonayim brought to justice those Jews (meshumadim) who joined the enemy's army . 
  4. The 22nd of Shebat, when Antiokhus  came with his powerful Seleucid army and surrounded Yerushalayim. It was very unusual for the King himself to come and lead his army. But Antiokhus wanted to make sure that this will be the final battle against the rebellious Jews. His intention was to destroy Jerusalem and kill all the Jews living in the city. On that day, news came to Antiokhus that the Parthians were rebelling against him in the capital city of his Kingdom. Antiokhus decided to postpone his final attack against the Jews. He took his army back to Herat where he was defeated and killed.    
Upon the destruction of the second Bet haMiqdash, in the year 68 ACE, the Rabbis reasoned that we should not be celebrating these "national" holidays anymore once we are defeated, enslaved and in exile. They suspended then all the celebrations of military victories recorded in  Meguilat Ta'anit (=batela meguilat ta'anit) except Hanuka, because of the miracle of the oil.  This is why Hanuka's celebration, lighting candles, does not focus on military victories, but mainly on the miracle of the oil.  Still, in Hanuka's prayers ('al hanisim) we do mention the victories of the Hashmonayim and we recite the Halel, thanking HaShem for the miraculous ways He saved our ancestors from their powerful enemies.  

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

Thursday, November 21, 2013

SPECIAL EDITION: The untold story of Hanuka

The tensions between the Jews and the Greek empire started long before Hanuka. Around the year 320 BCE Alexander the Great conquered Israel. At the beginning he demanded what was considered a normal token of submission in those days: that his statue be erected in the Bet-haMiqdash. The Jews, of course, politely refused. They offered him instead that every Jewish child born in that year would be named Alexander in his honor.  Alexander accepted the offer and left the Jews relatively in peace.
After his death, Alexander's empire was divided between his three generals and a period of hellenization (=embracing Greek future and religion) began. The Greeks introduced their new values everywhere in the civilized world. Promiscuous pagan practices, idol-worshiping, sports and competition, the idealization of external beauty, theater and the entertainment industry, etc.  These new, cool and very popular "values" were immediately and happily adopted by every people in the Greek empire. Except for the Jews. 

The Hellenist tried to assimilate the obstinate Jews by non-violent means. They first targeted the most vulnerable strata of the Jewish people: the rich and famous. Those who had most to lose for disobedience. They enticed their betrayal by lowering their taxes, giving them good governmental positions and generous pensions. Slowly but surely the most influential Jews became assimilated. The peak of this situation was reached when one Shabbat, the High Priest Jason, attended the sport competition in a stadium built right next to the Bet haMiqdash, instead of leading the services to God in the Temple!  But while many followed the ways of these assimilated Jews,  most Jews still remained loyal to their faith.  

The Greeks realized that they had tried peacefully to assimilate the Jews for 150 year. But it was not working.  In the year 169 BCE  Antiokhus Epiphanes decided that it was time to stop being nice and persuasive... Now, it was the time to impose the Greek values upon the obstinate Jews. Antiokhus led his armies into Jerusalem. First, he stopped the offering of the daily sacrifices. Then, he seized and desecrated the Temple.  After finishing with the Temple he continued by imposing a new lifestyle to the individual Jews.   By 167 BCE practicing Judaism was a crime punished by execution. Shabbat, Rosh Hodesh, Kashrut and particularly, circumcision were banned. Jews were forced to publicly bow-down to idols. At the beginning they did not fight back. Thousands of Jews chose death instead of worshipping idols. But something changed. When the Greeks entered  the city of Modi'in, Matitiyahu haKohen, the leader of the town was ordered to offer a sacrifice to an idol. He refused. He fought and killed those who were carrying the orders of Antiokhus. He was the first Jew that instead of martyrdom (=letting himself to be killed) chose rebellion, and thus, started the armed insurrection against Antiokhus the tyrant. With God's help, Matitiyahu and his sons defeated the powerful Greek armies in several battles and at the end, in 165 BCE they restored the Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel.  

Rabbi E. Melamed says that, ironically, it was Antiokhus' impatience what saved the Jews.  Had the Greeks been more patient, massive assimilation might have eventually taken place, and the consequences would have been devastating.  It was providential, heaven-sent, that Antiokhus lost his patience. By forbidding the practice of Judaism, the Jews--even the assimilated Jews--were inspired to react and start the rebellion (Penine Halakha , zemanim, 218-220)

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

Naive Australian volunteers discovering the truth 
of the Palestinian plight

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

SEPHARDIC RABBIS: Rabbi David ben Zimra (1479-1573)

Rabbi David ben Zimra, known as the Radbaz (רדב"ז) was born in Spain in 1479. At the age of 13, when the Jews were expelled from Spain, his family moved to Israel and settled in the city of Safed (צפת). There rabbi David learned with Rabbi Yosef Zaragosi, the Rabbinical leader of the Jewish community of Safed at the turn of the century. 

In 1517 he moved to Egypt where he was appointed as the Hakham Bashi, or Chief rabbi of Egypt, a position that he held for over forty years. The Radbaz was a man of independent means. He was a successful merchant,  dealing with wheat and leather. He amassed a considerable fortune, which allowed him to support his own Yeshiba.  Some of the students of that Yeshiba were great luminaries, like rabbi Betsalel Ashkenazi (שיטה מקובצת) , rabbi Isaac Luria (the Ari haqadosh), rabbi ya'aqob Castro ( מהריק"ש) . 

Upon attaining the age of 90, the Radbaz resigned the chief rabbinate in Egypt.  He distributed his fortune among the poor, making special provision for Tora scholars, and moved to Erets israel. He settled in Safed and became an active member of the rabbinical court presided over by rabbi Yosef Karo. The Radbaz died in Safed in 1573. 

His most important book, she-elot utshubot Radbaz, is a collection of ver 3000 Rabbinical expositions and response. 
A few illustrations: 

In one of his most famous responses (4:219) he discusses the origin of the Jews of Ethiopia (פלאשים) which he considered legitimate Jews (see this interesting article in English).
He also wrote about the exact place and identification of the Temple mountain (הר הבית) and authorized the access to it. 

The Radbaz reintroduced in the Egyptian synagogues the tradition to repeat aloud the Amida (חזרת הש"ץ) in accordance with the older tradition.

He also replaced the old Jewish Civil Calendar used among Egyptian and Babylonian Jews since the time of the Second Bet haMiqdash (מניין שטרות, the Seleucid calendar, year 1=312 BCE. See here).  The Radbaz reintroduced the custom of counting the years from the Creation of the world, as was widely in use among Jews in most other countries and as it is used by all today.

Download Teshubot haRadbaz here

Some other works by Radbaz

דברי דוד  Dibre David ("Words of David") - containing decisions and hiddushim (original Torah thoughts) on Mishne Tora. 

יקר תפארת Yeqar Tif-eret ("Honor of Excellency") - refuting the criticisms  Rabbi Abraham ben David (Ra-abad) on Maimonides, which the Maggid Mishne overlooked. 

כללי הגמרא Kelale  ha-Gemara ("Rules of the Talmud) - a book on the methodology of the Babylonian Talmud.  

דיני רבה וזוטרא  Dine  Rabba ve-Zutra ("The Great and Small Decisions") - a commentary on the shulhan 'arukh. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

KASHRUT: Buying fish from a local store

Can I buy filleted fish from a local fish store, which is not under rabbinical supervision? 

There are two issues we should bear in mind to answer this question 1.Identifying the fish and 2. Using the same knife. 

Identifying a kosher specie is a Biblical positive commandment. (Lev. 20:25). Modern rabbis discuss if and when is possible to recognize a fish fillet.

I quote here two opinions on this matter. The first represents the standard Ashkenazi opinion and the second the standard Sephardic opinion. 

1) According to the stricter opinion a fish can only be identifiable if it still has some of its skin (=visible scales). Filleted fish with no skin left, cannot be properly identified. Therefore, you cannot buy it from a non Kosher store. This is the rule for whole fish and obviously for fresh or frozen skinless-fish-fillet (See guidelines and exceptions  here).

2) According to the Sephardic custom (as per Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Hayim שליט"א for example) if you can recognize this fish fillet as a Kosher specie --for example, if you would be able to identify this fish among five other filleted fish--then it is permitted for you to purchase that fish, even though the fillet does not have any more skin. This is the case for fresh or frozen fillet. 

Now, what about the knife?  Can you buy a fish that was cut with a non-Kosher knife? 

1) Some Rabbinical authorities require to take your own knife to the fish store and use that specific knife to cut the fish, in order to avoid any cross-contamination between the Kosher and non Kosher fish by means of the knife or the cut board (see idem).

2) Rabbi Ben Hayim explains that you can buy a filleted Kosher fish even if the seller uses his own knife, if you do a couple of things. 1. Make sure make sure that the seller washes the knife with water before he cuts the Kosher fish. That will remove any solid vestiges or traces (isur ba'ayin) of non-Kosher fish that might have remained in the knife surface (cross-contamination of taste particles is not relevant when the fish is cold) . 2. Once at home, you must wash the fish with water before cooking it to make sure that no solid vestiges or traces of a non Kosher fish remain in your fish.

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

Khamenei's phony fatwa forbidding the 
development of nuclear weapons. 
by Elliott Abrams, November 18, 2013

Monday, November 18, 2013

MAIMONIDES on 'aboda zara, 11:4. Judging Eli'ezer

Last week we explained that the Tora forbids nihush -divination- the reading of divine signs in natural or trivial events or in certain arbitrary signals that we set for ourselves (See this). Maimonides brings the actions of Eli'ezer, Abraham's servant (Gen. Chapter 24)as an example of nihush.   Abraham sent Eli'ezer from Canaan to Mesopotamia to find a wife for Isaac. Abraham did not give him any specific names or features to look for, but assured Eli'ezer that God will help him. When Eli'ezer approached the city of Aram Naharayim he set for himself (and for God!) a sign: "If I ask a girl water and she offers me and my camels to drink, that will be the girl that God has selected for Isaac". The Rabbis criticized the method of Eli'ezer. You can't play signs in the name of God!   
A great Talmudist, the Ran, defended Eli'ezer. He said that if Eli'ezer would have asked God for an arbitrary sign from heaven --e.g., the girl that will be wearing such and such color, or the girl that will have a bird flying over her head, she will be the chosen one-- then we could consider that as an idolatrous practice. But after all,  the Ran reasons, Eli'ezer asked for a sign which reflects character and virtue.  To offer unsolicited help or to do for others more than one was asked to do, was the earmark of Abraham Abinu, who went out of his way to provide his three guests unsolicited help (food and temporary shelter). Abraham also exceeded his guests expectations. He offered them a morsel bread and water, but ended up giving them  a full course meal!   

The Gemara criticized Eli'ezer tactics as inappropriate. The rabbis explained that Eli'ezer שאל שלא כהוגן, made an improper (and risky!) request. The story had a happy ending not because Eli'ezer's methodology worked out (=not because HaShem played by the rules established by Eli'ezer!) but because HaShem especially protected Abraham and Isaac, helping Eli'ezer to find Ribqa.

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