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.