Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What is Chanukah?

Chanukah starts tonight (December 20th) at sunset.

The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) records an unusual conversation.

Our sages are discussing the particulars of the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles.  When to light, where to light, who should see the lighting, etc.

Then, almost as an afterthought, someone poses the question:

What IS Chanukah?

No one in the Talmud ever asks "What is Passover?", or "What is Rosh Hashannah?"  Those, and a few other holidays, are commanded explicitly in the Torah.

You might say: well, obviously Chanukah can't be in the Five Books of Moses - the war and the miracle happened much later!

That's true.  However, we have another post-Torah holiday in Judaism, called Purim.  Yet, the Talmud never has to ask "What is Purim?"

The Talmud assumes that anyone reading its hallowed pages, already knows the Hebrew Scriptures thoroughly.  One of the books in the Hebrew Scriptures (the collection of Scriptures that Christians refer to as the Old Testament) is the book of Esther.  So even though Purim is not mentioned in the Five Books of Moses, it IS mentioned at the end of the book of Esther.

Chanukah is the only festive holiday we have that is not mentioned within the Hebrew Scriptures.

There is a book called the Book of Maccabees, with full details of the Assyrian-Greeks trying to take over Israel, and the small band of zealots who wouldn't give in to assimilation and foreign rule.

However, this book is not part of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Therefore, it lacks the authority to inform Jewish law and practice.

Which returns us to the original question.

"What is Chanukah? The rabbis taught:  On the twenty-fifth day of Kislev Chanukah commences and lasts eight days, on which mourning and fasting are prohibited. When the Hellenists entered the sanctuary, they defiled all the oil that was found there. When the government of the House of Hasmoneans prevailed and conquered them, oil was sought (to light the menorah of the Temple) and only one vial was found with the seal of the high priest intact. The vial contained sufficient oil for one day only, but a miracle occurred, and it fed the holy lamp eight days in succession. These eight days were the following year established as days of good cheer, on which psalms of praise and gratitude were to be recited." 
  -Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat21b

Now that we know what Chanukah is, let's look at how we commemorate the miracle.  Specifically, what do we light?

Many of our readers are used to seeing a Chanukah menorah look something like this:

These colored candles, available at most American supermarkets, have come to symbolize Chanukah for many people.  It's perfectly fine to light your menorah this way, but you should be aware of a few issues.

- The menorah flame should last at least 30 minutes.  Sometimes the colorful candles go out sooner.  

- On Friday, when we have to light before shabbat starts, and we want our menorah flame to continue to burn 30 minutes past nightfall, your average supermarket Chanukah candles just won't cut it.

- The miracle itself happened with oil!  

Because of these concerns, some of us actually light with glass cups filled with olive oil, and special wicks designed for this purpose.

To be fair to the candle users, I have heard one argument in favor of using candles over olive oil cups.  That is, the quality of the flame from a candle is better.  Some people think it looks nicer.

Since the whole point of lighting the Chanukah menorah is to publicize the miracle, attractiveness is a factor in the decision of how to light.

What do you do?  Candles, oil, something else?  

Also, what's your favorite Chanukah food?  

Leave us a comment below!

Monday, November 28, 2011


I'm so excited to meet a great group of Israel supporters in Las Vegas!

Come join us as supporters of Israel meet to hear the latest news on daily life in the Holy Land.

Topics will include:
-Arab-Jewish relations
-conditions in the North
-the continuing threat from Hizbullah
...and some GOOD NEWS (for a change) on the future of Israel.

When: Wednesday November 30th, 6:30pm

Where: UNLV Wellness Center, meeting room 1020 (next to Thomas and Mack Center)

Hope to see you there!

An aerial view of our new campus, in Akko

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Tweetup / Meet the man behind the blog

It has been quite awhile since our last blog post. We hope to return to more regular contributions of Torah topics and interesting insights soon.

My attention has been focused on planning my fall trip to the United States.

If you're in the New York area (or even if you aren't!), come join us this Saturday night (November 12th) at 8pm for a "tweetup" at Burgers Bar - 1906 Coney Island Ave, Brooklyn, NY.

Meet the guy who has been tweeting and blogging all about our amazing yeshiva for these many months.

Meet others who care about Israel and interact with our school online.

Most importantly - bring your friends!

What: tweetup / melava malka hangout

When: Saturday night, November 12, 2011

Where: Burgers Bar, 1906 Coney Island Ave, Brooklyn, NY

RSVP is encouraged, but not required.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Who shall live...

We are fast approaching the Holy Day of Rosh Hashannah. Although the observance of Rosh Hashannah extends for two full days (in Israel as well as the Diaspora), we refer to the Jewish New Year as one "long day".

What happens exactly on Rosh Hashannah?

Every human being, as well as every nation, receives a judgement for the year.

In one of the most moving stanzas from our Rosh Hashannah prayers, we recite:

"On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed, and on Yom Kippur will be sealed, how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by upheaval, who by plague, who by strangling, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted."

Today, a lifetime terrorist leader, the mastermind of countless Jewish murders, and now the dictator of the Palestinian Authority, Machmoud Abbas, will address the United Nations.

He intends to ask the nations of the world to bolster his attempt to destroy the Jewish homeland.

The jihad against the Jews has little to do with Judea or Samaria. It is a purely ideological fight. It is an insult to the jihadists honor that any non-Muslim enjoys sovereignty in the Middle East.

Ideally, these terrorists seek worldwide allegiance to fundamentalist Islam. However, they are practical enough to accept this goal in stages. Stage one is full domination of the Middle East.

This fight continues here in Akko. A demographic war is being waged against our city. This city, nowhere here the so-called "disputed territories", is in danger of falling to a growing number of non-friendly Arab Muslims.

Ultimately, we must realize that G-d will decide our future. It is no accident that this UN provocation comes right now, as we are about to be judged for the year.

Will the nation of Israel live or die? Will the city of Akko enjoy tranquility, or suffer?

More importantly, what can we do to improve our annual judgement?

In the very next line of the same Rosh Hashannah reading, we recite together:

"...but Repentance, Prayer, and CHARITY, cancel the severe decree!"

Will you stand with us, at this auspicious time?

Will you help to insure for us, and yourself, a sweet judgement?

Will you contribute to strengthening the Jewish people?


Thursday, September 8, 2011

Response to Shaun Wolfe

Check out the comment thread on the previous blog post. Shaun Wolfe posted a few comments, the latest of which deserved (by my estimation) its own blog post for my response. Shaun wrote:

" If you can take whatever action is deemed appropriate based on your beliefs regardless of secular constraints, then why can't others -- as long as they are genuine in their belief?"

In short - 'cause we're right and they're wrong. :o)

Again, the source of Western morality is Torah. We, in the Western world, take for granted concepts like "life is sacred above all else"

In Islam, as well as many Asian traditions, honor is more sacred than life.

Kamikaze pilots in World War II, suicide bombers in Israel, Muslim fathers killing their disobedient daughters in the U.S., these people aren't crazy. They just have a different value system.

If we take the secular view, then we truly can't say that any value system is inherently superior to any other.

I don't subscribe to that view. I say that we (of Judeo-Christian civilization) are right and everyone else (to the extent that their values contradict ours) is wrong.

I don't have the exact quote in front of me, but I heard Mr. Jillette say something in an interview, something about how he respects those with religious conviction much more than those in liberal churches (synagogues). He can say to them "you're dead wrong" and they can say to him "you're dead wrong", but at least they can have a dialogue and present arguments for each side.

Without an anchor, without an objective value system by which to live, we have no justification to tell anyone else that any given action is "right" or "wrong".

So, that's why it's wrong for people to hijack airplanes and fly them into buildings, even if they think they are serving some higher power by doing it.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Response to Penn Jilette and his new book "G-d, no!"

For those of you who may not know, Penn Jillette is one of the greatest magicians alive today. Along with Teller (yes, that IS his full legal name), Penn performs in Las Vegas several times a week, usually to a packed house.

Penn is famous for his personal views as well as his professional acumen. He advocates for Libertarian politics, including free-market capitalism and a repeal of laws against "victimless crimes".

Penn is also an atheist. This is the topic of his most recent book "G-d, no!"

[He doesn't use the hyphen in his book title. It is our policy not to write the Creator's name, in any language, in this forum, because of a prohibition to casually use Hebrew names for G-d]

I have great respect for Mr. Jillette. He does not attack religious people, and in fact encourages them to continue dialogue with the rest of the world. He has said things like (not an exact quote), "Please, pray for me, if you think it will help!"

It is only because Mr. Jillette seems to be sincere in his quest for knowledge, (including religious knowledge), that I care to respond to the opening of his book. He starts out by asking:

"If G-d... ...told you to kill your child, would you do it? If your answer is no, in my booklet you're an atheist"

First I will answer Penn's question. Then I will challenge his assertion, according to a basic tenet of Judaism.

If G-d told me to kill someone, first I would check existing Jewish law and see what it says.

Jewish law says that I must kill someone if he/she is an immediate threat to my own life or the life of another. It also has provisions for war. The Bible mentions capital punishment for certain deeds, but capital cases can only be judged by a specific type of Jewish court that does not currently exist.

So if G-d told me to kill someone, but Jewish law says I can't, I wouldn't do it.

This certainly does NOT make me an atheist. Here's why.

G-d revealed His Law to our people, the Israelites, on Mount Sinai. We received the Written Law (The Scriptures, what Christians call the Old Testament), and the Oral Law, (later codified as the Mishnah, expounded upon in the Talmud, and clarified in volumes upon volumes of rabbinic discourse)

Before the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, if a person received some kind of Heavenly communication, the proper response was to listen. If that dream or vision included a command from On High, then one was supposed to follow that command.

Once the Law was given, it takes precedence over all other sources of information. In fact, G-d even warned us about this, after we received the Law.

"If a prophet arises in your midst, or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder come to pass, and then he speaks to you, saying: 'Let us go after other gods, which you have not known, and let us serve them' - you shall not listen to the words of that prophet, or to that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your G-d is testing you, to know whether you love the LORD your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul.
(Deuteronomy 13:2-4)

It is easy to love G-d and follow the Law when you're standing at Mount Sinai, witnessing the greatest event in human history.

When the excitement fades, and you're back to normal, everyday living, and then someone comes along with an amazing "sign" or "wonder"; then what are you going to do? Will you stick to the Law that you know came from G-d, or will you be lead astray?

This is THE ultimate test of life. Every moral dilemma that we face comes down to this: Follow G-d, or follow something else.

So you see, Mr. Jillette, I strive everyday to develop a deep, close, personal relationship with my Creator. Understanding G-d's Infinity means realizing that, unlike us mortals, G-d has no need for the backspace button. The all-powerful, all-knowing King of the Universe never makes a mistake, and certainly doesn't need to appear to me in a dream, or a vision, and tell me to violate the Law.

Please comment below - I would love to get a conversation going here.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

G-d made _____ happen BECAUSE...

There is a tendency for human beings in distress to ask the Eternal question, "Why?"

The "whys" that have been proposed to us in the rabbinical world range from "Why can't I make more money" to "Why did G-d allow/cause the Holocaust".

In nearly all of these cases, any question that starts with "Why did G-d..." does not have a worldly answer.

We must remember that most of the people who ask these types of questions are in great pain. Our obligation is not to answer their unanswerable question, but to attend to their pain and help them find a way out of their distress.

A bigger problem occurs when some individuals attempt to answer these questions.

There have always been self-appointed "diviners" who will offer up some connection between tragedy and transgression.

I loathe to link to any of their content, lest these charlatans receive more publicity. If you're interested, search on Youtube for the name of any tragic event, and you will inevitably find a video that will forcefully assert, "G-d made _______ happen BECAUSE..."

The Torah has already warned us against this.

"You shall not eat the blood [of an animal] ; neither shall you practice divination nor soothsaying." (Lev. 19:26)

Divination is the act of explaining G-d's actions on Earth. Soothsaying is casting spells, chanting mantras; anything that (we think) will somehow bypass G-d's control of the universe, and grant us some material benefit.

What is the connection between eating an animal's blood, and divination or soothsaying?

Perhaps we can say that, just as the concept of eating blood is so repulsive to us physically, we should feel spiritually disgusted by these spiritual transgressions.

How can we engender such a strong feeling against these practices? By understanding the true nature of G-d.

When we continuously learn, teach, and live a true understanding of the Holy One, severe mistakes in spiritual thinking become all the more apparent to us.

G-d is Infinite; beyond time, beyond space, beyond physicality, beyond the limits of human logic. It is the ultimate folly to try and limit the rationale for G-d's actions to whatever our limited minds can conceive.

The bottom line is, anyone who finishes the sentence "G-d made this happen BECAUSE" is transgressing an explicit Torah law.

When we are able to accept that we can't explain the Heavenly cause of apparently bad (or apparently good) events, we come one step closer to a sincere connection with our Creator.