The Metaphysics of the Dreidel

I often get asked the questions, “What is the symbolism of the dreidel? What exactly is its origin?” The dreidel is a four cornered top that was popular in the medieval era and originally used for gambling. Jewish folklore purports that when the Syrians prohibited the study of Torah, the Jews insurrectionists would take a top to gamble with, so that the soldiers would let them play their game in peace. The name, “dreidel,” is a Yiddish word that derives from the German verb, “drehen,” (“to turn”).

Historically, the origin of the dreidel is not quite so apocryphal. During the medieval era, gambling dice often had four letters inscribed, N,G, H, and S, representing “nichts,” (nothing), “ganz” (i.e., winner takes “all”), and “shtell arein” (“put in”).  Jews subsequently transformed the dice into a top and added four Hebrew letters, נ (N), ג (G), ה (H), and שׁ (S)—signifying, נֵס גָדוֹל הָיָה שָם  “nes gadol hayah sham” (“A great miracle happened there”).

The symbolism gets more interesting when we take into consideration the numerological patterns the Kabbalists cleverly add when redesigning the dreidel during the medieval era.  The value of the four letters equals 358, the same numerology (gematria) as Moshiach (Messiah)! This could suggest several things:

(1)   The wandering of the Jews (drehen) is not purposeless, though it may seem that way at times. Israel’s wandering serves to bring the world that much closer to its final redemptive stage of human history—the Messianic era.

(2)  As the dreidel spins, it represents the pulsating movement of the Divine; we who observe it, cannot see how its final stage will unfold until it actually occurs. Such a concept has its antecedents in the Talmud’s famous statement, “Three come unawares: Messiah, a found article and a scorpion” (T.B. Sanhedrin 97a). I have always liked this passage, for in its simplicity, the Sages teach us that it is not for mortal men–or women–regardless how pious or learned they happen to be, to engage in the mindless pursuit of messianic prognostications. The Messiah will appear when we least expect him to arrive.

(3)  Our fortunes in life are much like the chaotic turnings of the dreidel; those of us who lost our fortunes with the crash of the Stock Market crash, know the wisdom of this teaching only all too well …

In short, although our existence is unpredictable, faith is the compass that provides us with the wisdom and radar to navigate through even the most difficult of times, like today.

Knockout: Combatting African-American Teen Violence (new version 12/1/2013)



Jesse Jackson once said that he gets nervous whenever he sees a group of young black men standing on a corner doing nothing—and  he’s not the only one.

By now, most of you may have heard about a game called “Knockout.” In places like Crown Heights in Brooklyn, where Jews and blacks live peacefully together, young black hoodlums play this game to see how many Jews they can “knockout” by punching them in the head as these pedestrians walk down the streets. After a person has been knocked out, the black youths dance around the victim and high-five their fellows for their achievement.

The violence perpetuated has caused numerous concussions, disfigurements, and deaths.

The social problem of “Knockout” is getting exponentially larger because many of the large media outlets such as ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and MSNBC refuse to do a story about it. Jewish communities are reluctant to talk about it as well. The black youths committing the assaults have even filmed videos of the incidents showing the violence and their subsequent celebrations, including some called “Polar Bear Hunting” and “Knock the Jew.” By hiding these hate crimes from the public, the television stations are enabling this kind of behavior to continue. FOX News deserves considerable credit for breaking the story.

Thomas Sowell, an important voice sof the black community, wrote an article for the New York Post. In it, he acknowledges that such assaults on innocents are nothing new:

  • Despite such pious phrases as “troubled youths,” the attackers are often in a merry, festive mood. In a sustained mass attack in Milwaukee, going far beyond the dimensions of a passing knockout game, the attackers were laughing and eating chips, as if it were a picnic. One of them observed casually, “White girl bleed a lot.” That phrase — “White Girl Bleed a Lot” — is also the title of a book by Colin Flaherty, which documents both the racial attacks across the nation and the media attempts to cover them up, as well as the local political and police officials who try to say that race had nothing to do with these attacks.[1]

Shonda Lackey speaks directly to the root of the social problem affecting young black teens.

  • The plain truth is that many young black men are not being raised to be productive members of society. It seems they aren’t being raised at all. Without proper guidance from their mothers and particularly their fathers, black children struggle to develop a healthy sense of self. If these black youths don’t value their own lives, it will be difficult for them to value the life of another human being. The perpetrators involved in the “knockout” attacks don’t seem to care if their target might retaliate. They also don’t seem to care about repercussions such as incarceration. In fact, they appear to think they are invincible. [2]

I think there are several other factors contributing toward the social violence. The “New” Black Panther Party endorses inter-racial violence. The NBPP’s deceased chairman, Khalid Abdul Muhammad identified the “white man” as the “devil” and claiming that “there is a little bit of Hitler in all white people.[3]

You may remember the New Black Panthers King Samir Shabazz from the voter intimidation allegations that were leveled at him in 2008, which was ignored by the Obama Administration’s Department of Justice. In one recent broadcast, Shabazz calls for black Americans to form an army and murder white people in very explicit terms. Here are just some of his comments from the newly discovered 2012 radio broadcast.

  • We gonna need preachers going into the cracker churches throwing hand grenades on early Sunday morning when the cracker got his hands up, ‘please white Jesus!’ Well we gonna throw a bomb in that Godd@mn church, burn up the cracker, burn up the cracker Jesus, and burn up some cracker white supremacy. …You’re going to have to kill some of these babies, just born three seconds ago. You’re going to have to go into the Godd@mn nursery and just throw a damn bomb in the damn nursery and just kill every­thing white in sight that ain’t right.[4]

Attorney General Eric Holder’s behavior is all the more suspicious in this matter.  The Department of Homeland Security said recently that an African-American employee named Ayo Kimathi still runs a racist website predicting and advocating a race war. To date, he has been put on paid administrative leave and is still collecting a paycheck for his job. He has been working there since 2009. His website criticizes whites, gays, those of mixed race, and blacks who integrate with whites.

The NBPP’s ideation is deliberately stoking the fires of hatred by preparing and encouraging  the racial war conflict in the United States.  We have yet to hear from Jesse Jackson, Eric Holder, and the President himself condemning the violence. We have yet to see Eric Holder label the NBPP as a terrorist organization. Yet, the President had no difficulty posting the NBPP’s political recommendation on the Re-elect President Obama website and  marched with Shabazz back in 2007.[5]

When revelation about this endorsement occurred, I asked: “How would the country like it if the President posted a KKK endorsement on the Presidential website?” You know the answer: people would justifiably feel outraged.

Among prominent liberal African American social leaders, only Al Sharpton has condemned the racial violence.  In fact, he said he would even organize rallies to help prevent the spread of gratuitous violence. He commented, “How would we like it if it were white people preying upon blacks?” I am personally pleased to see Sharpton for taking an ethical stand on this matter.  Continue reading “Knockout: Combatting African-American Teen Violence (new version 12/1/2013)”

A Tale of Two Digitized Talmudic Translations: The Artscroll and the Steinsaltz Digital Talmud


ArtScroll App Main Portfolio Image

Steinsaltz Talmud sample page 1

In his Torahmusings,  R. Gill Student cites an endorsement of R. Steinsaltz’s translation from R. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb. His comments are especially important for anyone interested in the science of translation as it pertains to the translation of the Talmud:

  • Every translation is to some extent a commentary… However, I think a good translator has to know not to give too much of his own ideology or his own commentary. Commentary is necessary to explain the text but a good translator gives over the text, the flavor of the text, with just enough extra commentary to make it clear and the rest is up to the student. What we’ve tried to do in this whole project is to allow the student to study and ask. It’s designed to provoke discussion and to provoke questions, not to provide answers but to open things up.[1]

This pithy statement certainly sums up the nature of translating a monumental work such as the Talmud. In this brief article, we shall examine two new digitized translations of the Talmud: The Koren Edition of the Steinsaltz Talmud and ArtScroll’s The Digital Library of the  Schottenstein Edition of the Babylonian Talmud. Each translation gives the reader a remarkable glimpse into the world of the Talmud as seen from Rabbi Steinsaltz and the rabbis of the ArtScroll Publishers, one of the world’s most successful Jewish publishers of Orthodox books.

Very few publishers have revolutionized the study of the Talmud like R. Adin Steinsaltz and ArtScroll Publishers. In this article, we shall examine some of the fascinating aspects of their newly digitized editions of the Babylonian Talmud.

In many ways, R. Adin Steinsaltz deserves credit for starting the Talmudic revolution; he began making a Hebrew translation of the Talmud in 1965 and completed the project in 2010. This is no small feat. One could arguably say that R. Steinsaltz is like a modern day Rashi—a comparison that makes much of the Haredi world (who also happen to be the producers of the ArtScroll Talmud) bristle with disdain. Random House published a number of volumes between 1989 and 1999, but the project met with little success.

The new Koren Edition of the Steinsaltz Talmud  made several improvements in the design of the Talmudic text and added color pictures to illustrate the various creatures the Talmudists commented upon in their legal discussions. Steinsaltz did something very bold: he altered the text in order to make it a little less cumbersome for a growing and interested Israeli populace. ArtScroll considered Steinsaltz’s innovation heretical. Many Haredi friends of mine used to say, “Who does Steinsaltz think he is to change the Vilna Talmud?”[2] The fact that Steinsaltz is a Chabadnik may account for part of the animus the Litvisher yeshivas feel toward him. In addition, Steinsaltz added partial punctuation for the Tosfot, which made it imminently more readable. Talmudic purists generally look upon these types of innovations as crutches.

Less than a decade ago, Steinsaltz gave in and finally made a Vilna version of his Talmud—one that would appeal to other young yeshiva students of the Haredi yeshivas. It is a pity that the ArtScroll Talmud project has never given any credit to Rabbi Steinsaltz; in many ways, he is the godfather of their magnificent translation. Currently, ArtScroll is rapidly translating the Jerusalem Talmud.[3]  There is also an excellent translation of the Jerusalem Talmud written in Hebrew by the Israeli scholar Rabbi Bar Lev (1943–). Aside from being a Talmudic scholar, he also received his doctorate in educational psychology from the University of Arizona in 1976 and has written several books on Jewish mysticism. Unlike Steinsaltz, he frequently adds philosophical and psychological perspectives to his expositions. Unlike the Steinsaltz and ArtScroll Talmud translations, his work is free (!). His approach is similar to Steinsaltz and there is no doubt that this excellent work will someday be translated into English.

As a student, I can recall the days when the yeshiva administration discouraged the study of the Steinsaltz edition because it was too modern looking of a text. Years later, I discovered that all the yeshiva teachers all had their own Steinsaltz volumes proudly displayed in their dining and living rooms. Steinsaltz’s volumes help Israelis and Haredi scholars alike to learn Talmudic Aramaic. His comparison to Greek and Latin cognate terms makes his study a wonderful resource to have—and now, the English speaking public will find these features very useful and effective.  Steinsaltz’s summaries on the bottom of the Hebrew or English page, along with the biographical sections of the rabbis, or his expositions about rabbinical life in the days of Late Antiquity—make the modern study of Talmud crisp and easy to follow.

The ArtScroll Digital Library  has been described as “a revolutionary new way to study the Talmud! Ground breaking technology enhances the bestselling Schottenstein Talmud – and will allow you to study the Talmud in ways never before possible.”

This statement is quite accurate.  The Schottenstein Edition of the Babylonian Talmud by ArtScroll (hence referred to as the “ArtScroll Talmud”) is much more of a Lithuanian rabbinical product—one which captures the rich intellectual environment of a forgotten era. Anyone who wants to delve into intricate halachic details of a Talmudic text will never tired studying the ArtScroll Talmud, which replicates most of the great debates of the Rishonim (medieval) and Achronim (modern rabbinical) scholars. Unlike the Steinsaltz edition, the ArtScroll edition is not terribly interested in the historicity on how the Talmud originated. Unlike R. Steinsaltz’s herculean stamina in producing his translation and commentary, ArtScroll uses a committee of several rabbinical scholars. In this sense, R. Steinsaltz is more like Rashi and Maimonides—both of whom did not employ a committee in producing their works.

ArtScroll preserves the Vilna Talmudic text’s classical style. However, it is important to note that they too—like Steinsaltz—added a Modern Hebrew translation on the opposite side of the page (in the Hebrew editions). They did the same with their English translation as well.  Each Hebrew page is contrasting a page of English translation—one Hebrew folio takes approximately six to eight pages of English to translate. This layout can be a tad bit tedious—certainly much more tedious than the Steinsaltz edition, or for that matter—the Vilna edition itself.

The ArtScroll Talmudic notes are superlative; as an avid student of the Talmud, I thoroughly enjoy the scholarship the ArtScroll writers demonstrate. Since their work is annotated with countless cross-references of the Talmud and the legal codes, one would have to sometimes open several volumes to flow the train of Talmudic thought. In my opinion, the newly digitized version of the ArtScroll Talmud’s best feature is its ability to hypertext a Talmudic text to other discussion found elsewhere in the Talmud. Moreover, when you read a specific section of the Talmud, the text immediately is highlighted in yellow—both in the text and in the ArtScroll notes. Note that the ArtScroll Talmud has the strange habit of transliterating in Ashkenazic Hebrew rather than Sefardic Hebrew. (Incidentally, this was one of the principle reasons why I sold my English ArtScroll Talmud for the Modern  Hebrew translation. One suspects that the Brooklyn-based company has always felt somewhat ambivalent about the Modern State of Israel, but that’s for another discussion.).

Unlike the ArtScroll Talmud, R. Steinsaltz is far from finishing his English translation. That being said, Koren is rapidly keeping up with the Daf-Yomi (a lectionary for the daily study of the Talmud). In addition, the ArtScroll lets you know which Talmudic tractate is being studied so that one may study with the international Jewish communities whom have made the Talmud an important part of their daily lives.

The new Digital Steinsaltz Talmud is printed in a PDF format, and it assumes that the purchasers of these books will not illicitly use a pirated copy. On the heading of each folio is a warning to that effect. Personally speaking, I have always found it odd that yeshiva students would literally “steal” an electronic rabbinical text in order to study Torah. Such behavior is strangely reminiscent of Alice and Wonderland. However, there is must be a kosher way to go down the “Rabbi hole.” As a PDF, the text files are easily downloadable for and PC or Android device. The Digital ArtScroll Talmud is produced in an Apple and Android version. Sorry, this product is not available for Windows. Since I wanted this product so much, I went to the Sprint store to purchase a cheap Samsung Tablet for $50 and I have downloaded the volumes from the Android shop. Continue reading “A Tale of Two Digitized Talmudic Translations: The Artscroll and the Steinsaltz Digital Talmud”

Conservative Judaism’s Struggle for Self-Definition and Authenticity

 This past week, I went to the local sushi bar for some Nova Scotia sushi rolls. While I was there, I noticed the large screen television featuring a bout that took place at Wrestlemania. Despite some of the usual shtick, the bad guy won fair and square using a very clever wrestling trick. The scene reminded me of Jacob’s wrestling match with a mysterious and supernatural opponent in this week’s Torah portion—Parshat Vyishlach.

Jacob wrestling with the angel is a reminder that biblical stories invariably serve as metaphors about the human condition in general; they also serve as instructive lessons about the nature of Jewish identity.

Who was the strange person who attacked Jacob?

According to the Book of Hosea, it was an angel (Hosea 12:4). We wonder: Did the attack really occur? Or did it occur in a prophetic vision or dream?

Philo of Alexandria, Maimonides, and Gersonides contend that the story occurred in a prophetic dream. The psychologist Carl G. Jung explains that every aspect of a dream serves as a symbolization of the dreamer’s inner life.

Simply put: Jacob is not just fighting with his estranged brother; he is also fighting with God, with God’s emissaries. However, Jacob is also fighting with himself as well.

Jacob is not the only one fighting within himself and with God. Even today, Jews are still wrestling with God—but they don’t consciously realize it—at least yet!

The Conservative Jewish scholar, Robert Gordis wrote an interesting response to the most recent Pew Report’s prediction concerning the demise of the Conservative Movement in America. His response was eerily entitled, “Requiem for a Movement,” in which Gordis signals the death knell of Conservative Judaism.

  • Nowhere is this rapid collapse more visible than in the Conservative movement, which is practically imploding before our eyes. In 1971, 41 percent of American Jews affiliated with the Conservative movement, then the largest of the movements. By the time of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, the number had declined to 38 percent. In 2000, it was 26 percent, and now, according to Pew, Conservative Judaism is today the denominational home of only 18 percent of Jews. And they are graying. Among Jews under the age of 30, only 11 percent of respondents defined themselves as Conservative. . .  ”Nor was what doomed Conservative Judaism the incessantly discussed vast gulf in practice between the rabbis and their congregants.  What really doomed the movement is that Conservative Judaism ignored the deep existential human questions that religion is meant to address (emphasis added)

Gordis’s bristling words only describes the symptoms of the problem. Intellectual answers, while important, cannot cut the “Gordian knot” of the Conservative Movement’s quandary. In some ways, the Gordian knot is an apt metaphor for our situation. According to Greek mythology, there was a legend that anyone who could loosen the famous Knot of King Gordius, he would become the Lord of Asia. Although many tried, all failed until Alexander the Great arrived. He simply took his sword and cut the knot.

Although there is a natural alliteration between Gordis and Gordius, I would argue that Rabbi Gordis still has not cut the knot that is afflicting the Conservative Movement. However, I would say that he is on the right track. It seems to me that one of the serious problems he is ignoring is the tendency for Conservative Rabbinical leaders of the movements to look only toward cognitive solutions to its dilemma. The Conservative Movement needs to reclaim an emotional connection with its faith. One way of thinking about “emotion,” is to think of it in Einsteinium terms: E = Energy, as in “Energy in motion.”

One method I have used here in TBS in Chula Vista that seems to work, is the incorporation of musical chanting and instruments during the services. It is not enough to merely sing Lecha Lodi or Shalom Aleichem, one must transform it into a mantra that serves to unleash the emotional energy that each worshiper is unconsciously yearning to express in worship. Understanding the power of the niggun (a Hassidic style melody that has no words) is vital in helping people allow the words of prayer to touch people’s hearts. In addition, we also explain the meaning and structure of the prayer in a way that makes the text spiritually challenging and relevant.

Gordis is correct about one thing:  Conservative Judaism will die unless people will see why it is spiritually relevant to our lives.

Although Judaism has a cognitive dimension to its faith, it also has an aesthetic and even gastronomical dimension as well. We serve God not just with our minds and hearts, but also with our stomachs. Every week at TBS, we have a sit down Shabbat luncheon that typically offers a salmon steak, soup, and dessert made by our loyal sisterhood. After eating and schmoozing, we sing Shabbat songs, say the grace after meals and offer a bilingual study of the weekly Parsha.

The net result: Our synagogue community continues to expand and grow because our version of Conservative Judaism is theologically heart-centered at its core and Flexidox in its practice. I know of other congregations that have tried similar approaches and are thriving. Continue reading “Conservative Judaism’s Struggle for Self-Definition and Authenticity”

Obama-care’s Cynical Exploitation of Young Women

One of the many reasons why Mitt Romney lost the presidential election was because he alienated the women voters. He gave his constituents the impression that he would overturn Roe vs. Wade.  Romney’s resentment toward Obamacare  also offended female voters; as of August 1012, insurers must cover “woman visits, domestic-violence screening, and breast-feeding supplies at no additional charge.  Insurance plans must also cover birth control, though religious institutions are exempted . . .” Romney’s  political position against Planned Parenthood may have placated the Religious Right, but most American women felt he was invading their privacy.

Reflecting the Catholic and Evangelical views, Romney promised that he would end the funding for providing young women with birth-control contraceptives. He gave ladies the impression  that some forms of birth control would be unfunded, e.g., intra-uterine devices and morning-after pills – prevent implantation of a fertilized egg, some social conservatives asserted that they cause early miscarriages and should, therefore, be banned.

That is how Obama’s discrediting of Romney led people to think that he was conducting a “War against Women.” Although Romney paid his female workers better than Obama did with his staff, this did not seem to change any women’s minds.

Desperate to win support and friends after alienating the entire country with explicit promises that he would never change their health plans, Team Obama has imaginatively come up with some of the most sexist ads we have seen in years.  The latest marketing gimmick wishes to imply that young women would only be interested in Colorado’s government-run health care exchange if they get coverage for birth control pills to have sex with strange men.

Had Romney used such an ad to attract women, the country would have justifiably  have thrown the proverbial kitchen sink at him. The new ad portrays attractive woman in her early twenties named “Susie. The young “woman is holding a packet of birth control pills with an open-mouth, wide smile. She is wearing a flesh-colored, low-cut, sleeveless top, tight jeans and open-toed black heels. She is flirting with a guy named, “Nate,” who is wearing a partially exposed shirt with the top four buttons undone in order to show off his manly chest with his hand slightly toward his crutch.  Nate looks like the cat that is about to eat the canary. “OMG, he’s hot!,” Susie is shown saying. “Let’s hope he’s as easy to get as this birth control. My health insurance covers the pill, which means all I have to worry about is getting him between the covers.” Continue reading “Obama-care’s Cynical Exploitation of Young Women”

Remembering Rabbi Akiba Greenberg: A True Rebbe of Our Generation

Photo: Baruch Dayan Ha'Emet... Our Rebbe, Our ZAYDI, our teacher and Maggid, Rabbi AKIVA GREENBERG has passed away. He was a Baal Niggun and brought the Kossov niggun back to Kossov; planted it, where it took root and nourished our community for 2 decades.<br /><br />Our hearts are broken.

One of the most remarkable people I met in Brooklyn of 1969 was a man named Rabbi Akiva Greenberg. He was not your typical Hassidic Jew. He came from a non-observant home and became a follower of the Viznitz Rebbe, who taught Akiva how to worship God in the spirit of the Baal Shem Tov.

He went on to teach anthropology at the Touro College in Brooklyn. Akiva had a personality that was incredibly serene. His love and capacity to show his love knew no bounds. When I was 16, Rabbi Shlomo Cunin sent me to study at the Hadar Hatorah yeshiva in Brooklyn. The administration had me attend the Ocean Parkway Yeshiva for the morning studies, while I attended the yeshiva in the afternoons.

All in all, it was a terrible experience. The teachers at the Ocean Parkway High School did not know how to teach; the students had the moral qualities of a barbarian. I thought I was being raised by wolves. The craziness of the Chabad Yeshiva left a nasty impression on me. Little did I realize at the time why 770 seemed so distasteful. On one occasion, I remember meeting a lovely 16 year old girl from An Harbor, Michigan; I was also 16 at the time. Some smug young rabbinical student spoke harshly to me, “Samuel, you’re not to speak to the girls!!” I remember telling him one of the few Yiddish sayings I learned from my Mother; I told him, ” You can drey your own kop!” (translated: You can mind your own business!”

I told the incident to Rabbi Akiba, and he said, “I am so proud you told that arrogant young man off! You show much promise! … Besides, there is nothing wrong for a young man to flirt with a pretty young girl!” He sat and taught me the Mishnah in Kiddushin–and to this day, I never forgot the loving way he taught the Mishnah. With his help and the help of my Aunt Ceil, I managed to escape Brooklyn and returned to Alameda, where I finished my schooling before going to Israel to study for the rabbinate

Akiba had the most beautiful voice and his Shabbat table was packed every week with new guests. One person I once knew, wrote this about Akiba:

  • In 1972 while living in Crown heights as a young man on Eastern Parkway, I had the great fortune of meeting with my teacher and friend, Akiva. We would getup early in the morning, proceed to the Mikva and study Mishna. Later on Akiva would come to my home and bring great joy to my wife Tovah and me leading shabbat dinners. His beautiful voice singing the beautiful songs of his Vishnutz, and Chabad and his kind and happy approach was sweet nectar to the young group of new students that would gather in my home. Really, I could go on and on and write a book about this beautiful teacher. May you lie in complete peace my brother.

Another admirer of Akiba recalls:

  •  . . . [S]uch a reality happened to Reb Akiva, as a young man in search of a yeshivah to learn and a niggun to sing. Leaving the United States, he enrolled in Ponevezer Yeshivah, a misnaged yeshivah in Benei Brak, Israel, in the early 1950s. Quickly attracted to the Vizhnitzer Rebbe who held his court for chasidim in Tel Aviv, every Shabbos afternoon the young Akiva would sneak out of the misnaged yeshivah and walk 3-1/3 hours to Tel Aviv, where he’d spend the rest of Shabbos among the Vizhnitzer chasidim, deep into the night and early morning partaking of delicious foods, listening to stories of the Baal Shem Tov and, of course, singing niggunim. At such times, deep in song and prayer, it seemed to Reb Akiva that he did not belong to this world at all. Reb Akiva found what he was searching for, in a place where lay rich treasures and still fairer hopes. Understandably, each Motzoei Shabbos it was difficult to leave Tel Aviv and bus back to his yeshivah, but Reb Akiva knew he’d be back the following weekend, as it is written, “Man is not taken away before he has heard what he has come to hear and before he has said what he has come to say.” [1]

I will always regard him as a spiritual mentor; he personified the best of Yiddishkeit and Arlichkeit–He was a mentsch in the truest sense of the word. Akiba had over a hundred grandchildren–he definitely loved his wife. He was someone I always stayed in contact with for many years. Even decades later, he still remembered me  when I spoke to him a few years ago.

He will be surely missed by the thousands of people, whose lives he lovingly touched like a good shepherd.


Re-Paganizing Phylacteries and Mezuzah: An Example of Retrogressive Religion


Rabbi Kamin’s interesting article on the subject of Halloween reminded me of many of my own childhood experiences.

Is Halloween “permitted”? Is the children’s ritual of “Trick and Treating,” considered forbidden because it emulates the practices of the non-Jewish world?

Many years ago, a learned colleague of my from Yeshiva University once mentioned to his Young Israel congregation in Binghamton, NY, something that I have never forgotten. He claimed to have come across an Italian responsa dating back to the 17th century that claimed that the ritual had no religious significance whatsoever, and he concluded that there was nothing Halachically forbidden for Jewish children to dress up and collect candies on the night of Halloween.

Unfortunately, I have never been able to locate the source of this mysterious responsa. I have attempted many times to look it up in the Bar Illan University database, but with no success. However, the logic of the responsa makes sense to me. Rabbinic scholars have also pointed out the pagan roots of Halloween, which has its roots

Many Jews seem to forget that many practices in Jewish tradition had their origins in pagan culture and beliefs. For example, the practice of wearing tefillon (not to be confused with Teflon) originated in the pagan world of Babylonian magic. In one issue of the Bible and Review Magazine, the author showed a picture of a Babylonian prostitute wearing golden phylacteries! The word “tefillin” is better known in English as “phylacteries,” which derives from the Greek word φυλακτήριον (phylaktērion), meaning “defenses,” as in charms and amulets.

One late 19th century scholar correctly noted:

  • [Among the Jews] It was customary to tie certain kinds of phylacteries into a knot. Reference to this ancient practice is found in certain Assyrian talismans, now in the British Museum. Following is a translation of one of them: “Hea says: ‘Go, my son! take a woman’s kerchief, bind it round thy right hand; loose it from the left hand. Knot it with seven knots; do so twice. Sprinkle it with bright wine; bind it round the head of the sick man. Bind it round his hands and feet, like manacles and fetters; sit down on his bed; sprinkle water over him. He shall hear the voice of Hea. Darkness shall protect him, and Marduk, eldest son of Heaven, shall find him a happy habitation.'”[1]

The famous Assyriologist A. H. Sayce (1846-1933) cites another reference that may explain why Jews wind the tefillin straps seven times:

  • Even medical science, however, was invaded by superstition. In place of trying the doctor’s prescription, a patient often had the choice allowed him of having recourse to charms and exorcisms. Thus the medical work itself permits him to ‘place an incantation on the big toe of the left foot and cause it to remain’ there, the incantation being as follows: ‘O wind, my mother, wind, wind, the handmaid of the gods art thou; O wind among the storm-birds; yea, the water dost thou make stream down, and with the gods thy brothers liftest up the glory of thy wisdom.’ At other times a witch or sorceress was called in, and told to ‘ bind a cord twice seven times, binding it on the sick man’s neck and on his feet like fetters, and while he lies in his bed to pour pure water over him.’ Instead of the knotted cord [121] verses from a sacred book might be employed, just as phylacteries were, and still are, among the Jews. Thus we read: ‘In the night-time let a verse from a good tablet be placed on the head of the sick man in bed.’ The word translated ‘verse’ is masal, the Hebrew mashal, which literally signifies a ‘proverb’ or ‘parable.’ It is curious to find the witch by the side of the wizard in Babylonia. ‘The wise woman,’ however, was held in great repute there, and just as the witches of Europe were supposed to fly through the air on a broomstick so it was believed that the witches of Babylonia could perform the same feat with the help of a wooden staff.

Historians of ancient Near Eastern culture and religion have taught us much about the practice of phylacteries among the Assyrian and Babylonian civilizations. In the marketplace of ideals, every culture has influenced its neighboring culture and religion. The ancient peoples of Egypt also were phylacteries as protective symbols of the deity. Cultures around the world used phylacteries for a variety of magical purposes.

So, what does all of this prove? Nobody has ever lived in a cultural vacuum. Subsequent Jewish tradition managed to detach the pagan roots of this custom. Maimonides heaps criticism upon anyone who thinks the mezuzah and tefillin are designed to ward off evil spirits. In a rationalistic manner, he writes:

  • It is a common custom to write [God’s name,] Shaddai, on the outside of a mezuzah opposite the empty space left between the two passages. There is no difficulty in this, since [the addition is made] outside. Those, however, who write the names of angels, other sacred names, verses, or forms, on the inside [of a mezuzah] are among those who do not have a portion in the world to come. Not only do these fools nullify the mitzvah, but furthermore, they make from a great mitzvah [which reflects] the unity of the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, the love of Him, and the service of Him, a talisman for their own benefit. They, in their foolish conception, think that this will help them regarding the vanities of the world. [3]

Elsewhere he adds:

  • A person who whispers an incantation over a wound and then recites a verse from the Torah, who recites a verse over a child so that he will not become scared, or who places a Torah scroll or tefillin over a baby so that it will sleep, is considered to be a soothsayer or one who cast spells. Furthermore, such people are included among those who deny the Torah, because they relate to the words of Torah as if they are cures for the body, when, in fact, they are cures for the soul, as [Proverbs 3:22] states: “And they shall be life for your soul.”[4]

Maimonides sums up the essential purpose of the ritual:

  • For as long as one wears them on his head and arm, he is obliged to be humble  and God-fearing; he will not allow himself to be carried away by laughter or idle talk, nor indulge in evil thoughts, but must turn his attention to the words of truth and justice.[5]

Toward the end of his life, Maimonides reaffirms the purpose of the mezuzah in his Guide for the Perplexed.  He notes that the express goal of this precept and others aims to instill a love for God that produces a God-consciousness that is permanent:

  • The precepts of the ninth class are those enumerated in the Section on Love. Their reason is obvious. The actions prescribed by them serve to remind us continually of God, and of our duty to fear and to love Him, to keep all His commandments, and to believe concerning God that which every religious person must believe. This class includes the laws of Prayer, Reading of Shema, Grace, and duties connected with these, Blessing of the priests, Tefillin, Mezuzah, Zizit, acquiring a scroll of the Law, and reading in it at certain times. The performance of all these precepts inculcates into our heart useful lessons. All this is clear, and a further explanation is superfluous, as being a mere repetition and nothing else.

Despite Maimonides’ attempt to redefine the precept of mezuzah and tefillin, subsequent rabbis like R. Menachem Mendel Schnersohn (a.k.a. Lubavitcher Rebbe) did his best to restore the precepts of tefillin and mezuzah as modern day talismans and amulets for the modern era.

Throughout his lengthy career as the leader of the Chabad movement, Rabbi Schnersohn always instructed his followers to check their tefillin and mezuzot when they were ill or had any number of problems in their lives. Schnersohn’s followers believed that hundreds and thousands of Israeli soldiers’ lives were saved due to the tefillin campaign the Lubavitcher Rebbe initiated during the six-day war. This brought protection and salvation to the soldiers.  The Rebbe’s theological position became internationally known shortly after the terrorist attack of the northern town of Ma’alot on May 15st, 1974. The massacre of seventeen children was due to the fact the school building did not have any “kosher” mezuzahs. Continue reading “Re-Paganizing Phylacteries and Mezuzah: An Example of Retrogressive Religion”

Boston Strong!

marathon bombing world series


Many of baseball fans I know have grown up and relished the great baseball rivalries of the last fifty years or more.  As a native San Franciscan, who could forget the rivalries involving the Giants and the Dodgers—Northern vs. Southern California? Indeed, today’s latest incarnations of the Giants and Dodgers still evoke a sense of tradition and nostalgia for the good old days.

For East Coast, the best rivalry in baseball is evident with the Red Sox and the Yankees. As a child, I never cared much for the Yankees. They were the team I loved to root against because they were so good.

This year, even Yankee fans ought to take pride in the Red Sox victory over the Cardinals. Both teams have won World Championships during the last decade. The Cardinals are an annoying team, just good enough to defeat the competition.

The Red Sox?

Simply remarkable. They finished first after being in last place in 2012!

They demonstrated a synergy that reminded me of my beloved Giant’s championship that we saw a year ago. Although this year’s Red Sox team did not have many of the great names of previous championship teams, they showed great spirit and played masterful baseball when the game counted the most.

So, why is this team so remarkable from previous Boston Red Sox teams? Why should the whole country be rooting for the Red Sox and their fans?

The feisty spirit of Bostonians everywhere made a powerful statement to the world.

The victims of the Boston Marathon bombing were honored with a tribute during Game 2 of the World Series at Fenway Park. Bombing survivors stood on the field during the seventh inning stretch Thursday night as singer James Taylor led the crowd in “America the Beautiful.”

Three people were killed and more than 260 wounded in the April 15 bombings near the marathon’s finish line. Throughout this past year, the Red Sox repeatedly honored the victims and survivors over the course of the season. Players visited the injured in hospitals and a giant “B Strong” logo was cut into the outfield grass.

Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia told reporters before the game that the team has tried to help the city through what he called “the toughest of times.”

Rarely does a baseball team therapeutically act as a healer to so many people who have suffered. Bostonians call this resolve, “Boston Strong,” and indeed, the entire city showed the heroic strength of a champion. This was the real reason why the Red Sox won. Anthropologists often speak about a participation mystique where the observer(s) become one with the participants of an event. The synergy that the Red Sox displayed included the hearts and souls of a people who would not yield to despair or hopelessness. The Red Sox showed this spirit not just during the World Series, but throughout the year.

Baseball is a wonderful American pastime. Sometimes the sport can become a metaphor for life itself.

This phenomenon occurred at the World Series this past year.

Kudos to Red Sox fans everywhere–and especially the mighty Bostonian spirit that ought to act as an inspiration to us all.