Jewish History Blog

Don’t Tread On Me

dont treadIn the American Revolutionary War, General Christopher Gadsden designed the famous flag depicting a rattlesnake and the words, “Don’t Tread On Me!” The symbol of the rattlesnake dated back as far as 1751 when Benjamin Franklin sardonically wrote that since the British were sending convicts to the colonies, the colonists should send rattlesnakes, which were native to America, over to England. Both the flag and the phrase have been appropriated in many contexts – from the Tea Party movement to rock ‘n roll songs – so now I will appropriate it for a message of Torah.

This week’s Parshah is Eikev, which, in the context of the opening verse, means “since” or “because.” It usually denotes a cause and effect relationship, such as, “Because you will observe God’s commandments, then blessings and physical rewards will descend upon you.” The great medieval commentator Rashi, however, uses an additional meaning of the word: “foot” or “heel.” He explains that there are commandments and values in Jewish life that the Jews sometimes take lightly. They grind them into the dust of everyday life by stepping upon them with their foot and/or heel. They tread on them. But these neglected commandments and values are actually the true key for spiritual success and a good life. So the choice of the word eikev is not merely literal. With the choice of that particular word, the Torah is teaching us the valuable lesson that there really are no small or inconsequential acts in life. (more…)

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Posted in:
Modern Jewish History
by
Rabbi Berel Wein
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  • August 26, 2016

Tu B’Shevat Thoughts

 

Decaying eastern white pine tree stump along the Pine Brook drainage in Lincoln, New Hampshire USA. This area was logged during the East Branch & Lincoln era, which was an logging railroad in operation from 1893 - 1948

Decaying eastern white pine tree stump along the Pine Brook drainage in Lincoln, New Hampshire USA. This area was logged during the East Branch & Lincoln era, which was an logging railroad in operation from 1893 – 1948

“Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree,” wrote Joyce Kilmer, famed British poet who was killed in action in World War I. More than perhaps any other form of nature, the connection of trees to the Creator appears throughout Torah, Talmud, and later Jewish thought. Eternal life and knowledge are represented in the Garden of Eden in the form of trees. The wanton destruction of trees by man is expressly forbidden by Jewish law. In fact, the human race itself is described in the Torah as being a tree: “For humans are as the tree of the field.” (Deut. 20:19)

All later Jewish thought and practice has been influenced by this use of trees as the metaphor for human life in the Bible and Talmud. Trees, therefore, bear study and contemplation. They can aid us in our never-ending search for ourselves and our destiny. So here are a few thoughts for us wooden-headed humans.

A number of years ago, my wife and I were able to spend a few days in Yosemite National Park. Among the awesome wonders of nature that can be viewed there is a famous grove of sequoia trees. They are the oldest living things on our planet, some of them already being thousands of years old. They are massive in height and girth. If anyone needs a lesson in humility, standing in the midst of that sequoia tree grove in Yosemite will do nicely.

As the park ranger explained their growth and nature, and as the immensity of the trees gradually overwhelmed the visitors, a tremendous hush and palpable silence filled the air of the sequoia grove. I thought to myself, “I am standing next to a living creation of God that was here when the Temple in Jerusalem stood on its foundation, when Rome was the colossus of the world, and when there was no London, Paris, or New York. What wonderful secrets it could tell me, if only it could speak!” (more…)

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Posted in:
Sabbath/ Holidays
by
Rabbi Berel Wein
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  • January 25, 2016

The Christmas Tree

by Jonathan Rosenblum

Rabbi Berel Wein was once invited to a meeting with the editor of the Detroit Free Press. After introductions had been made, the editor told him the following story.

His mother, Mary, had immigrated to America from Ireland as an uneducated, 18-year-old peasant girl. She was hired as a domestic maid by an observant family. The head of the house was the president of the neighboring Orthodox shul.

Mary knew nothing about Judaism and had probably never met a Jew before arriving in America. The family went on vacation Mary’s first December in America, leaving Mary alone in the house. They were scheduled to return on the night of December 24, and Mary realized that there would be no Christmas tree to greet them when they did. This bothered her greatly, and using the money the family had left her, she went out and purchased not only a Christmas tree but all kinds of festive decorations to hang on the front of the house. (more…)

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Posted in:
Ethics
by
Rabbi Berel Wein
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  • December 28, 2015

The Ninth of Tevet

The breaching of the walls of Jerusalem.

The breaching of the walls of Jerusalem.

The fast day of the tenth of Tevet, which is tomorrow, marks the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem, which eventually led to the destruction of the Holy Temple and the exile of the Jewish people from their homeland. However, Jewish tradition records that today, the ninth day of Tevet, is also a sad day on the Jewish calendar, so much so that is worthy of being declared a fast day by itself.

This ninth day of Tevet is mentioned in the Jewish Code of Law. But the language there is cryptic. All it states is that the ninth day of Tevet is a sad day for “troubles that occurred on that day that are no longer known to us.” How are we to commemorate a day that has no meaning for us?

The prayers for the tenth day of Tevet make reference to the ninth of Tevet as the day of death of the great Jewish leader, Ezra the Scribe. The prayers, as well the above section in the Code of Jewish Law, also mention the eighth day of Tevet as a day that is a candidate for being a fast day. Thus, we have three consecutive sad days following one upon the other. All of these sad days have been united into the one fast day of the tenth of Tevet.

We are still left with the troublesome and somewhat mysterious question as to why the Code of Jewish Law did not clearly identify the ninth day of Tevet as being the day of the death of Ezra the Scribe. Ezra ranks second to Moshe in the hierarchy of the transmitters of Torah to the Jewish people. The rabbis of the Talmud taught us that “if the Torah had not been given through Moshe, then it would have been given through Ezra.” Why would the rabbis purposely hide Ezra’s day of death and give that sad day an anonymous character? (more…)

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Posted in:
Ancient Jewish History, Bible/ Tanach, Sabbath/ Holidays
by
Rabbi Berel Wein
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  • December 21, 2015

Black Friday

Black Friday Shopping Madness

Black Friday Shopping Madness

In the United States, the day after Thanksgiving is called Black Friday because the stores have the largest volume of sales for the year, and the merchants are therefore “in the black” as far as their ledgers are concerned, while otherwise they could be in the red with negative balances and sparse sales.

 

On Black Friday of 2008, a large retailer advertised that it was going to sell large screen TV sets at a considerable reduction in price. The store would open its doors at 6AM to accommodate the expected large crowds of bargain hunters. And indeed, at 6 AM, a poor, hapless part-time employee opened the doors to a waiting horde of shoppers. The mob of shoppers surged forward, pushing him to the ground and trampling over him. Ignoring him on the ground, they just grabbed their TV sets. Paramedics were called to revive him, but he died anyway. To those shoppers, the value of a human life was less than that of a flat screen TV set purchased at a bargain price.

 

On that very same Black Friday, there was a massacre of innocents by fanatical Moslems in Mumbai, India. There, too, human life was of no value. There was no strategic or tactical gain from the attack, just as there was none in the recent attacks in Paris. It was just cold-blooded, indiscriminate murder. (more…)

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Posted in:
American Jewish history, Ethics, Spirituality
by
Rabbi Berel Wein
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  • November 27, 2015

Mistakes

The  burnt Tomb of Yosef Hatzaddik.

The burnt Tomb of Yosef Hatzaddik.

Mistakes, large and small, national and personal, are part of human existence. They also have a tendency to come back to bite us. The current wave of terror, lone wolf as it may be, is pretty much directly traceable to a number of major mistakes made by well-meaning leaders of Israel. All of these mistakes were made with good intent, and since no one possesses the gift of prophesy, the resulting troubles may not have been apparent initially. But that in no way changes the consequences of those mistakes.

 

The 1967 Six-Day War gave Israel and the Jewish people sovereignty over the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Until then, the Moslem Wakf ruled the Temple Mount and excluded Jews from praying at the Western Wall, though this was in violation of all armistice agreements signed between Jordan and Israel in 1948. However, recognizing that it was defeated in the war that it had helped initiate, it handed over the keys to the Temple Mount to the Israeli army.

 

Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan, however, immediately returned the keys to the Wakf and restored their hegemony over the holiest site in the Jewish world. Since then, the Wakf has been busily destroying all possible remnants of the Jewish Second Temple and other artifacts proving Jewish sovereignty and connection to the site. (more…)

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Posted in:
Israel/ Zionism
by
Rabbi Berel Wein
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  • October 26, 2015

Yom Kippur and Jewish Memory

Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur” by Maurycy Gottlieb

Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur” by Maurycy Gottlieb

The central theme of Yom Kippur is naturally repentance and heavenly forgiveness. This theme is emphasized in the order of the prayer services of the day. The recitation of the confession of our sins and our commitment to try and do better are an integral part of all of the prayers of this holy day. Yet, there is another, more subtle idea that haunts the Yom Kippur prayer services. That is the recollection of the story of the Jewish people, of our past troubles and triumphs and our ability to endure all and survive and remain vital.

The Kol Nidrei prayer, which begins the Yom Kippur evening service, evokes for us the memory of the converso Jews of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition and expulsion. In the Kol Nidrei prayer, we state that we are permitted to pray together with all of those Jews who have transgressed and even fallen away from Judaism’s practices and values. We remember all of the dark periods of Jewish life over our long exile – the persecutions and forced conversions, the auto-de-fes and the crypto-Jews forced to practice their faith hiding in dark and dank cellars. Yom Kippur therefore comes to remind us not to write off any Jew. There will come another generation of return and rejuvenation. Yom Kippur reminds me of Dona Gracia Beatriz Mendez and Rabbi Menashe ben Yisrael. Both were baptized as Christians when they were infants, yet both rose to become defenders of Jews and Judaism. Kol Nidrei reminds me of Russian Jewry of our time, risen from the atheism and persecution of communism to reassert their Jewishness and return home to the Land of Israel. Their ancestors may have rebelled and cast off Judaism in their zeal to build the brave new world, but they have returned home to help build the strong and growing Jewish state. (more…)

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Posted in:
Sabbath/ Holidays
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Rabbi Berel Wein
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  • September 22, 2015

HURRICANES AND HUMILITY

Flooding after Hurricane Katrina

Flooding after Hurricane Katrina

It is now the tenth anniversary of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. It seems that natural disasters are common events in the lives of millions of human beings. We are constantly bombarded by the somber news that our planet is undergoing global warming, and that unless checked, we face very dire health and ecological consequences. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and hurricanes are all regular visitors, if not permanent residents on our planet. The overwhelming forces of nature make mockery of humankind’s efforts at taming them.

 

Care for the world, both its animate and inanimate components, is one of the basic values of Judaism. The Torah bids us to be careful regarding our stewardship over this planet. We are allowed to develop and use its bounties, but we must be careful not to damage and destroy it. After Hurricane Katrina, there was much political opinion afoot not to rebuild the city of New Orleans in that location because of its vulnerability to flooding. In effect, that opinion proposed a surrender to nature and its wrathful and destructive unpredictability. Such an admission of defeat is a humbling reminder of how puny humans are in relation to natural disasters. All of our great technological achievements, wondrous as they are, still cannot overcome the forces of nature implanted by our Creator. There is little room for hubris in the face of the devastation brought upon us by such a natural disaster as Hurricane Katrina. We stand in mute shock at witnessing the forces of nature beyond our control or even our imagination. (more…)

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Posted in:
Ethics, Modern Jewish History, Sabbath/ Holidays
by
Rabbi Berel Wein
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  • August 31, 2015

The Three Barons

Jews of the Vineland, NJ farming community

Jews of the Vineland, NJ farming community

In Europe in the 19th century, there were three Jews whose wealth and social connections earned them a title of nobility: baron. Each of the three barons devoted their time, wealth, and efforts to help solve or at least alleviate the “Jewish problem” in Europe. But their tactics, aims and solutions were markedly different from one another.

 

Baron Edmond de Rothschild of France was a scion of the famous and fabulously wealthy Rothschild banking family. He was a traditional Jew, and in a most unlikely pairing, teamed up with Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever, the rabbi of Bialystok and leader of the Chovevei Tzion (Lovers of Zion) organization. Rabbi Mohilever was interested in creating “colonies” for Jews in the Land of Israel, and until they became self-sufficient, the Baron was willing to foot the bills. Eventually there were thirty-nine such “colonies,” many of which have grown into major cities in Israel that still exist today.

 

Baron Rothschild was not a supporter of Theodore Herzl or the early Zionist movement. He refused to advance to Herzl the fifteen million dollars that he requested to “buy” the Land of Israel from the sick and corrupt Ottoman Empire. Yet, he invested much more money than that in building the colonies. His company, the Carmel Wine Corporation, was founded in 1882 and continues to be the leading wine producer in Israel until this day. He later gave the company to the farmers and vintners of the company who ran it as a cooperative venture. The Rothschild family contributed funds for the building of the Knesset building in Jerusalem, and there is a beautiful room in that building dedicated to the memory of the Baron. He was the great philanthropist behind the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland. (more…)

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Posted in:
European Jewish History
by
Rabbi Berel Wein
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  • August 11, 2015

Love, Jewish Style

ring

Photo by Bentzion Elisha

Today is the 15th of the Jewish month of Av, known as Tu B’Av. In Israel, it is called “the holiday of love,” or “Chag Ha Ahava.” Some have called it “a Jewish Valentine’s Day,” but the history and customs of the two days are very different. It is a popular day for weddings, but it celebrates love in its broadest sense: unity and continuity among the Jewish people and not the love between two individuals.

The Talmudic tractate Taanis 30b-31a describes the way Tu B’Av was celebrated in the times of the Holy Temple. The unmarried girls of Jerusalem would borrow clothing from one another, and in order not to embarrass the ones who did not have nice clothing, everyone wore plain white. Then they went out to the fields and they danced, and the young men would come to watch them. Torah Law does not permit such a thing these days, but in those times, people’s minds were purer. And the girls would call out to the men, advertising their advantages. Some have called this a “Jewish Sadie Hawkins dance,” but that is really a crass understanding of the matter.
The pretty girls would call out, “A woman is for beauty.” The ones who came from the most honorable families called out, “With me, you’ll build a great family.” Those who had wealth said, “We’ll never worry for money.” And the Talmudic Rabbis spoke for the girls who had none of these: “All Jewish women are beautiful. All Jewish women have great value. But poverty and circumstances sometimes hide them. A woman who fears G-d – she is worthy of praise.” In other words, look for character. That’s what counts.

The Talmudic commentators ask: what happened to a man who wanted it all? What if he wanted money and beauty and family and fear of G-d? One of my great teachers once said that if you find love with someone, you’ll find that she has everything you need. When you look past yourself, you see the greater value.

Many, many matches were made this way on Tu B’Av. That is how it became the “holiday of love,” not in today’s romantic sense of love, but in terms of a lasting relationship that builds a family and a future for the Jewish people.

But as I said, this was an ancient custom amongst the Jewish people. After that, marriages came about through matchmaking.

Yenta, the matchmaker from Fiddler on the Roof

Yenta, the matchmaker from Fiddler on the Roof

Matchmaking is an old and traditionally honored Jewish occupation. The Midrash teaches that matchmaking has been G-d’s primary preoccupation since Creation. (Bereishis Rabba 68:4). But reliance on “professional” matchmakers has waxed and waned throughout the centuries. So even when the professionals weren’t much in demand (as in pre-Internet twentieth century America), unofficial matchmakers have always operated. They recommend matches to their friends, scout for their relatives, and generally make themselves useful (or annoying, depending on the person) in influencing the search for the right mate.

Professional matchmakers charge a fee for their services, and this too is a long-standing tradition in the Jewish world. The rabbinic responsa books are full of recorded disputes between matchmakers and their clients over the payment of fees. What if the couple became engaged and then later agreed not to marry? Was the matchmaker nevertheless entitled to the fee? What if he or she knowingly misrepresented or withheld vital information? A little “puffing” is allowed, and even expected, but what is the limit? These are just some of the complex, sometimes humorous, and sometimes painful questions the responsa deals with. The general opinion of the rabbis is that a matchmaker is legitimately entitled to be paid a reasonable fee if the couple marries. It is considered to be truly “kosher” money, earned honorably in furthering the personal happiness of others and for the general public good.

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Posted in:
Modern Jewish History
by
Rabbi Berel Wein
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  • July 31, 2015