Is there a sequence for lighting the Hanukah candles? Should it be done from right to left, or from left to right?

ANSWER: There are a number of ways of lighting the Hanukah menorah and each method is considered appropriate. R. Israel Isserlein (a.k.a, the “Rema”) indicates that the Rhineland tradition began at the left of the menorah and continued in sequence day by day. On the other hand, he also notes that in Vienna, precisely the opposite sequence was used, and one moved from right to left, in other words, in the fashion of the Hebrew writing.[1] To the best of my knowledge, there is no earlier discussion of this matter and there is no Talmudic or Mishnaic basis for any decision. The Shulhan Arukh (the Code of Jewish Law) decided that the candles should be inserted from the right, with one added each night, but lit from the left, with the newest lit first, a kind of compromise.[2]

The Talmud (T.B. Shabat 21b) is concerned with another problem, i.e., should one add a light each night or diminish the number each night? The School of Shammai began with eight candles and diminished the number until on the last night only a single candle was lit. On the other hand, the School of Hillel began with one candle and built to a climax of eight candles. Tradition has chosen to follow the School of Hillel, and we continue in this pattern.

Clearly then, family tradition in this matter may be followed, though the path of the Shulhan Arukh has historically become a general custom, and we should follow this pattern along with the majority of the Jewish community.

Ask your Kids the following question: What is the most important candle of the Menorah? Try to justify your answer.  Let me know what kind of answers you come up in your postings.

[1] Responsa of the Terumat Hadeshen #105

[2]  Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayim 676.5.

Hanukah: Celebrating the Gift of Being Different

Today, I conducted a little workshop for the 6th-7th grade classes on the relationship between Hanukah and Christmas. Bear in mind that close to 50% of the children come from intermarried homes; for them, this discussion proved to be quite revelatory. A series of questions were posed to the kids helping them process the awkward feelings families often grapple with whenever this time of the year arrives.

For me personally, these questions are quite familiar; I remember growing up in a small Pennsylvanian steel-mining town where being a Jewish kid was an uncomfortable experience. My father was a Holocaust survivor, and the last thing he wanted to hear from me was singing the traditional Christmas carols chanted at school. During music, I would often sing off-key to express my protest of having had to sing, “Joy to the World,” or “Silent Night.” You could say that it was one of my first of many experiences in civil disobedience!

Back to our story … the children at our joint religious school mentioned some of their experiences. One child was thrown out of his music class (Boy—that sure sounded familiar!), while others politely sung the songs without much fanfare.

In my discussions with the kids, I tried to stress that Christmas is a lot like a personal birthday party; whenever attending the party, one can be happy for the person celebrating his birthday, but in the final analysis, it is that child’s own special occasion—and no one else’s. As Jews we need to respect the holidays of our neighbor or loved ones. Nobody has the right to diminish that individual’s right to celebrate the holiday—but the celebration is not a Jewish one. However, we also have our own holidays, many of which we observe throughout the year.

We went around the room going over the sundry Jewish holidays we celebrate.

Here are some of the comments I heard that night: Shabbat, Pesach, Shavuoth, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkoth, the list goes on and on. Although Hanukah is an important holiday that celebrates religious freedom and the right for a minority to worship God as they see fit, it is still a relatively minor holiday of the Jewish year. Christmas, on the other hand, is more like a Christian Rosh Hashanah. It is not realistic to expect that Hanukah should be equal to Christmas in terms of importance because it’s not. Continue reading “Hanukah: Celebrating the Gift of Being Different”

A Mystical Hanukah Message

One little candle can create much light. The candle’s light reminds us that our mission in life is not to shake up the world but to fasten its pegs, not to climb to the heavens and holler and roar, but to walk softly on the ground, not to create a storm but rather a dwelling–an earthly home for God’s reality to become the center of our reality.

One of my favorite 20th century Jewish mystics is Rav Abraham Isaac Kook. In one of his books, Rav Kook discusses the difference between “Chinuch” (Education) and “Hanukah” (Dedication). “Chinuch” indicates that we are preparing the stage for later growth. By training our child while they are young and impressionable with positive habits, we hope to influence him or her in future years.

Concerning the Holy Temple of Jerusalem, however, the situation is much different. Already when it was first established, it contained all of its future greatness and holiness. Future times will just fulfill the potential which existed from the very beginning. Thus the Temple’s dedication is called a “Hanukah”, in the feminine form of the word. Its state is one of intrinsic holiness and completeness.

Kook further asserts that the lights of Hanukah represent those enlightening blessings which the Jewish people, over history, have bestowed and will bestow to the world. All of the nation’s potential gifts are included in the dedication of Hanukah. These include the “light’ of Torah, Prophesy, Wisdom, Justice, Kindness, and so on.” Like the Temple, these qualities are inherent in each of us, so the word “Hanukah” is appropriate. In certain situations, each of these “lights” needs its own emphasis and distinct value, in order to retain the appropriate impact. At times, these divisions can even lead to ideological strife. Someone whose heart is close to one value in particular, may look upon those who stress other values as detracting from the principle, most important “light.” In truth, by each person advancing that value which speaks to his soul, the entire Jewish people become enriched. Continue reading “A Mystical Hanukah Message”

A Thanksgiving Meditation

Once upon a time, some American tourists went to Mexico on a vacation; they toured some hot springs, where they saw the natives washing their clothes! One tourist said to his guide, “My, isn’t it wonderful how Mother Nature provides her children with hot water to wash their clothes?” The tour-guide replied, “So you might think, Senor, but the natives complain that Mother Nature doesn’t provide the soap!”

It’s been said that the hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings.  Chinese wisdom teaches, “When you drink from the stream remember the spring.” Research has shown that people who regularly practiced grateful thinking were more than 25 percent happier, slept better, suffered lower levels of stress and even spent more time exercising. People sure like to complain. According to one recent author, who wrote a book on Gratefulness, Prof. Richard Emmons explains that” Preliminary findings suggest that those who regularly practice grateful thinking do reap emotional, physical, and interpersonal benefits. […]  Grateful people experience higher levels of positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, love, happiness, and optimism […] The practice of gratitude as a discipline protects a person from the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, greed, and bitterness.”  Politicians, especially, love to create class-warfare between the haves and the have-nots, as if creaturely comforts would ever dictate our inner and spiritual state of mind.

In Yiddish, we have a word for such a mindset; it’s called “Kvetching,” or chronic complaining. It’s as old as the Bible itself. It seems that many folks, for whatever the reason may be, have an innate bias towards being or feeling negative.  In other words, for some of us, being a grouch comes naturally. Therapists and psychologists alike tend to focus on the ethos of victimization, and narcissism rather than engendering a life-attitude of thankfulness. Continue reading “A Thanksgiving Meditation”

Overcoming Infidelity–Learning to Forgive

In our self-righteousness, sometimes we lose sight of how we inadvertently push the people we claim to love away. Here is a wise tale for those who struggle with this issue. I rewrote the parable to give it a more Jewish flavor, but the message is truly universal. Letting go of anger is never easy; its toxic poison blinds our soul from seeing reality as it truly is. More often than not, we get stuck in anger; we want to be “right,” but the truth is more complicated, and sometimes even too painful to admit. . . . But if we look into our souls, we will hear a voice of purity that speaks out to us–I believe that voice of conscience is God’s calling card. All we need to do is say, “Hineni,” “Here I am ready to listen and learn.

Originally, I gave this sermon at a Yom Kippur Kol Nidrei Service, and I decided that it was time to post it as a meditation for the sad soul because of a good friend of mine who is going through some difficult times in a relationship that recently died. I wish him well …

“The Parable about the  Magic Eyes”

In the Hassidic village of Meseritz, there lived a long thin baker named Jacob—a righteous man, with a long thin chin and a long thin nose. Jacob was so upright that he seemed to spray righteousness from his thin lips over everyone who came near him; so the people of Meseritz preferred to stay away.

Jacob’s wife, Rachel, was beautiful and stunning. Everyone wanted to be in her soft and radiant presence

Rachel respected her righteous husband, and loved Jacob too, as much as he allowed her; but her heart ached for human affection and attention, for her husband Jacob was too busy to notice

And from this seed of sadness and loneliness, she strayed.

One early morning, having worked all night long in the bakery, Jacob came home and found a stranger in his bedroom lying in Rachel’s arms.

Soon Rachel became the gossip of the town; as everyone whispered her name with contempt and shock.

Everyone assumed that Jacob would quickly divorce Rachel, for after all, he was a righteous man. But to everyone’s surprise, Jacob remained committed in his relationship to Rachel, and said that forgave her as the biblical prophet Hosea forgave his wife for straying.

But in his heart of hearts, however, Jacob could not forgive Rachel for bringing shame to his name, no could he forget. Whenever he thought about her, his feelings toward her were angry and hard; he despised her as if she were a common whore. When it came right down to it, he hated her for betraying him after he had been so good and so faithful a husband to her.

Jacob only “pretended” to “forgive” Rachel so that he could punish her with his righteous mercy.

But Jacob’s hypocrisy did not sit well in Heaven. Continue reading “Overcoming Infidelity–Learning to Forgive”

Meditations: Rediscovering the Meaning of Rosh Hashanah

Meditations: Rediscovering the Meaning of Rosh Hashanah

As I prepare my thoughts for Rosh Hashanah. I become aware of time. Yes, the New Year has arrived. We are blessed to have received it. It ’s true that for many of us the arrival of any New Year on some level makes us a bit anxious. Why is that?!!Time marches on …. We are all a bit older, but are we necessarily wiser? Rosh Hashanah stresses that while time is fleeting, we are ultimately accountable for how we manage and sanctify our time.

According to Jewish folklore, the city of Chelm was famous for its notoriously foolish “wise men and women” Yet, despite their foolishness, there are many wonderful pearls of wisdom in these anecdotes because, in a paradoxical sense, we are all “Chelmites.”

On one occasion the Chelmites complained about the lack of time in their lives. It seemed that they had long lists of things to do and never had time for themselves. At a town meeting, the Chelmites arrived at what appeared to be a novel solution to their dilemma–They would bargain formore Time!They all agreed to send Raizel–her bargaining skills were legendary among the Chelmites.

After she traveled to Warsaw, she met with many of the Jewish leaders and finally negotiated a fixed price for a large shipment of time that would be sent by a train to Chelm. The shipment of time was late. Well, actually, it never arrived.

All the townspeople were complaining; they didn’t know what to do.

One day Beryl, the mayor’s uncle, came to visit and found everyone waiting in the town square. When the Chelmites told Beryl what they were waiting for, he began to laugh. “Foolish people,” he said, “You cannot buy time. You can only use what time you have. Someone has taken advantage of you because you have tried to buy something that cannot be sold.”

There is something more important than the measurement and control of time; how we spiritually utilize our time is also of great importance. Continue reading “Meditations: Rediscovering the Meaning of Rosh Hashanah”

The Sins of Swiss Neutrality

During the week of Yom HaShoah, while Holocaust services were being observed all over the world, the United Nations reconvened its Durban Conference to discuss human rights issues and violations that are taking place throughout the world. Traditionally, the onus of blame has always been directed at Israel, as if all the other human rights issues of the world seem to pale, in comparison e.g., the genocide in Darfur, Jihadist terrorism, or the recent Russian invasion of Georgia and the theft of their land does not seem to matter.

Curiously, on Sunday April 19th, on the day that Adolf Hitler was born, the Swiss President Hans Rudolf-Merz decided to meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran.

As all of you probably know, the Iranian leader is an avowed Holocaust denier; he was slated to give the keynote address before the United Nations forum known as “Durban II”, which was being held in Geneva.

Well, as it turned out, members of the Western countries protested; entire delegations walked out of the hall right after Ahmadinejad continued to raise the vitriolic hatred of his rhetoric, blasting Israel and the United States of America for all the problems of the world. The only comical moment of the entire speech came when three clowns positioned themselves at opposite ends of the hall. When Ahmadinejad began speaking, they whipped out the clown wigs from their pockets and yelled “racist” at the Iranian president. Yes, Durban II was a circus. Continue reading “The Sins of Swiss Neutrality”

Why does the Bible tolerate slavery?

Q. I honestly would like to believe that the Bible is the untainted Word of God, but there are several passages that very clearly go against any sane standard of human decency. Two quick examples are Numbers 31, and the commandment that a Canaanite slave must be kept forever. I don’t understand how my God could demand such grotesque acts in the former tale, and condone eternal slavery in the latter bit. Since you are far more learned than I am, I thought you would be able to offer explanations.

A. I enjoyed your question. I wish everyone read the Torah with such a critical eye.

By the way the verse speaking of the Canaanite slave being kept forever is not from Numbers 31 but from Leviticus 25:46. Even there, nothing prevent a slave from having a family member purchase his freedom, or if he is determined to be free, he can choose to run away from his master for the Torah grants the slave instant freedom — even if he is a Canaanite slave!! “You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has taken refuge from him with you. Let him live with you wherever he chooses, in any one of your communities that pleases him. Do not molest him” (Deut. 23:16-17).

I would encourage you to bear in mind that any passage dealing with slavery must be viewed in light of the cultural and social setting of its day, and for this reason, the Sages taught: “The Torah speaks in the language of humankind.” The wisdom of this aphorism is significant. Language is never static, but continues to evolve in new and unpredictable ways. Each new generation must add its own interpretive voice, which will periodically require constant re-visioning and reinterpretation. Although there are numerous precepts that no longer apply to our day, nevertheless, there is wisdom to be gleaned from every precept — even the commandments that from a moral perspective strike a modern reader as offensive (e.g., laws regarding genocide of the Canaanites, “holy” war, the laws regarding slavery, and so on.). Rabbinic tradition in many ways “reformed” many of the more problematic passages of the Torah (e.g., the rabbinic interpretation of the lex tallionis – “the eye for an eye” found in Exodus 21:24) liberators. There are many other examples I could give, but time is limiting.

As an institution, slavery has existed in human societies since the dawn of human history. In societies that endorsed slavery, the number of slaves was always disproportionate to the number of free people. Four-fifths of ancient Athens was considered slaves. To maintain their control over the masses, the aristocracy imposed severe guidelines to ensure that the slave populations remain psychologically dispirited, insecure and fearful of ever staging a rebellion against their masters.

Even in the 21st century, developed and under-developed nations alike still practice slavery in one form or another. In modern Western countries like the United States, Japan, Israel, and the European nations, “white slavery” is a booming business. Arabs continue to sell black slaves while the Western world looks the other way. The Torah recognized its evils, and in the following section, took significant steps to try to ameliorate its dehumanizing power both on the slave, the master, and upon society as a whole. The Torah begins with delineating the laws affecting slavery because in the ancient world, slaves were considered nothing more than property. All the civilizations of antiquity had considerable difficulty separating human personhood from property and this area of social life needed careful defining.

According to Aharon ben Eliahu (ca. 14th century), the various laws of this chapter regarding the Hebrew slaves cannot be viewed apart from Chapter 25 of Leviticus. With respect to the latter, the Torah makes it emphatically clear that the Hebrew servants were not “servants” in the conventional sense of the term—especially when compared to how the Egyptians and ancient Near East nations treated their slaves. The Torah specified that the Hebrew slave was more like a hired worker, than he was an actual slave (Lev. 25:40) Moses created a work system within society where individuals could voluntarily sell their services to another for up to six years, in order to either pay their debts or make restitution, if the person was convicted of theft.

For a newly emancipated people who could easily remember their former experience as slaves, the laws governing slavery proved to be a litmus test as to whether the ethos of the Exodus experience had any effect on the way average people would relate to those who were society’s most marginalized and the disenfranchised members. Rather than banning the institution of slavery altogether, the ancient biblical writers realized that human nature is slow to change; therefore, the Torah imposes many rules and regulations upon a master so as to gradually domesticate the institution of slavery, with the purpose of eventually legislating it out of existence. The biblical ethos stresses: be considerate of your slave’s welfare. Every citizen ought to recall, “Remember that you were once a slave in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you; that is why I am giving you this order today” (Deut. 15:15).

The laws regarding the resident alien in ancient Israel is a profound witness to how the ethos of the Exodus inspired the nation to act kindly toward the resident stranger in their midst (Lev. 17:8; 22:17–19; Num. 15:14–16). After Israel became established as a nation and a people, remembrance of Israel’s past alien status justified laws regarding fair treatment of the alien among them (Exod. 22:20; 23:9; Lev. 19:34; Deut. 10:19). Officially, aliens in Israel enjoyed equal status with regard to worship and Sabbath rest (Num. 9:14; 15:15–16; Exod. 23:12; Deut. 5:14), and, with widows and orphans, protective care (Exod. 22:21–24;20–23; Deut. 24:17, 19–20; cf. Mal. 3:5). If you were resident alien living in ancient Israel, you could expect fairness in every civic area of life, and enjoy equal participation in rituals, participate at the holiday celebrations, and the list goes on. The ancient Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria (ca. 1st century) once wrote regarding the Essenes:

  • And they do not use the ministrations of slaves, looking upon the possession of servants of slaves to be a thing absolutely and wholly contrary to nature, for nature has created all men free, but the injustice and covetousness of some men who prefer inequality, that cause of all evil, having subdued some, has given to the more powerful authority over those who are weaker.” In the Contemplative Life [9:80]

Philo also wrote,

Behave well to your slaves, as you pray to God that he should behave toward you. For as we hear them so shall we be heard, and as we treat them, so shall we be treated. Let us show compassion for compassion, so that we may receive like for like in return.”

Maimonides’s own teaching on this particular subject is illuminating.

  • The quality of benevolence and the paths of wisdom demand that a human being conduct himself mercifully and justly toward his slave. One should not press his heavy yoke on his slave and torment him, but he should give him ample food to eat and drink of everything. The sages of old were in the habit of sharing with their slaves every dish they ate, and they fed the cattle as well as the slaves before they fed themselves. Nor should a master disgrace his slave by hand nor should he verbally abuse him, the Biblical law surrendered them to slavery but not to disgrace (Niddah 47a). Neither should he scream at them angrily, but rather should patiently listen to his complaints. Cruelty is frequently found among the heathens who worship idols, but for the progeny of Abraham however, the people upon whom God bestowed the goodness of the Torah, commanding them to observe laws of virtue, we are enjoined to be merciful towards all creatures. So too, when speaking about Divine attributes, He commanded us to imitate God through the mitzvot. As the Psalmist said, “His mercy is upon all His works” (Psa, 145:9) Whoever is merciful will receive mercy, for it is written ‘”He will be merciful and compassionate to you and multiply you’”(Deu. 13:18). (Maimonides, Hilchot Avadim 9:8)

Significance of the Number Four

Question: The Passover Hagadah speaks of four cups of wine, four sons, the four questions, and so on. What is the number four so significant in the Passover Seder?  I would also like to know about the specific origin of the famous Four Questions during Seder.

Answer: Good question. In the interest of time, let me be succinct. The idea of “four questions,” the “four types of children” draws heavily on the symbolism of the number four. The number four represents a totality e.g.,  world’s four cardinal directions, the cosmic ordering of time as seen in the four seasons, the four elements, and the four temperaments of classical thought. Basically, the number four conveys how reality is experienced in this world.

This is certainly evident with respect to the “Four types of Children” which covers every kind of conceivable child. The wise, the contrarian, the simple, and the silent serves as a spiritual diagnostic for the healthiness of the traditional Jewish family. Our Sages used the number four to stress the importance of having each child present at the Seder.

Continue reading “Significance of the Number Four”

The Inconspicuous Messiah

As Napoleon marched triumphantly through Europe, the Jews of the ghetto felt joyous by his arrival. Was Napoleon really the Messiah? Many of our ancestors thought so; but again, that was before Napoleon got defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. And then there was Franklin Delano Roosevelt better known to my parent’s generation as “FDR.” Many Jews living back in the gloomy days of WWII believed that FDR might have been the Messiah, but that was before we learned that FDR decided not to bomb Hitler’s crematoria.

To our surprise, the Messiah, it turns out, didn’t dress like an emperor, nor did he appear as a president. In Jewish tradition, the reality of deliverance comes disguised. At the Passover Seder, Jews express hope that the following year will be redemptive in character. By opening the door for Elijah, we keep the flame of hope alive that redemption is near at hand. Yet, for all the fanfare about the Messiah, the redeemer of Israel’s birth is uneventful and anonymous. Yet, curiously, he walks hidden among us.

When Moses first appeared to the Israelites, they never thought for a minute that this strange speaking man would be the savior of whom their ancestors had spoken. Here was a person who was originally discovered as a foundling in Pharaoh’s court, then as a shepherd who stammers and stutters before a burning bush. So, too, the ultimate messianic presence that we seek may lie hidden in the least likely person around. Continue reading “The Inconspicuous Messiah”