December 2008

A Word on Prayers

Last night, the festival of Chanukah came to a close. In its way, Chanukah is unique among Jewish holidays. While many of the faith's observances last for several nights, none but Chanukah have an active ritual repeated on each of the nights. For those who diligently keep the customs of Chanukah this means lighting the Menorah eight times, a powerful sensory ritual. The sight of the flames, the smell of the smoke, even the motion of guiding the Shamas to each branch can evoke memories of childhood and of other Chanukahs past. We do these rituals not just because they are customs but because physical acts require enough concentration to focus us on the prayers and the feelings associated with the holiday. So, when we repeat the same prayers for eight successive nights, lent focus by the act of lighting the Menorah, it is natural for us to question what those prayers actually mean. We are a people who often pray in an ancient language that most of us can't speak. We frequently don't even know the literal translations, let alone the layers of meaning underneath. On Chanukah we say two prayers every time we light the Menorah and a third prayer on the first night only.

Shabbat Torah: Parshah Mikeitz

Shabbat Shalom. It's time once again for Shabbat Torah Study. Today's parshah is Mikeitz, Genesis 41:1-44:17. In this parshah there is a lot of drama. Joseph, who proved himself an apt dream interpreter last week, gets a chance to analyze two very troubling dreams had by the pharaoh himself. In the pharaoh's first dream, seven head of strong cattle come up from the River Nile, followed by seven more who are weak. The weak eat the strong so that there is no trace of the strong remaining. In the second dream, a similar episode occurs involving stalks of corn. Joseph's interpretation through God is that Egypt will experience first a seven-year period of high production and prosperity, followed by seven years of famine. In an interesting bit of his interpretation, Joseph tells the pharaoh that he had two similar dreams because it is God's way to assure pharaoh that the events alluded to in the dreams will most surely pass. In fact, repetition is a common device used in the Torah to indicate truth.

Wednesday Hebrew: Chanukah Edition

Shalom, everyone and Chag Chanukah Sameyach! Welcome to Wednesday Hebrew at Judeo Talk. Today's lesson is going to revolve around terms and phrases relating to the holiday of Chanukah. Tonight is the fourth night of the Festival of Lights. Word has it there's this other holiday happening sometime soon, though I can't seem to recall the name... Let's jump into the first part of the lesson. In my greeting, I used the phrase "Chag Chanukah Sameyach" which translates as "Happy Chanukah Holiday". ?? The word "Chag" (seen above) means "Holiday". It is a shortening of an older, now mostly unused word, ??? "Chagag". "Chagag" is an ancient word denoting a pilgrimage to the Temple of Jerusalem or even the celebration of that pilgrimage. In Arabic, there is a cognate of this word that is still used today. It is "Hajj" (??), the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are very strongly encouraged to experience at least once in their lives.

Chanukah: History and Tradition

On the 25th day of the Hebrew calender month of Kislev, it has been the tradition for several thousand years to celebrate a holiday called Chanukah. This festival commemorates the liberation of what would become Israel from the occupation of Seleucid forces under King Antiochus IV. Many people grow up with the fable about the oil in the Temple lamps during the rededication of the Temple after the war. Legend says that one day's worth of oil miraculously lasted eight days, but it is false to say that the holiday is meant to celebrate this supposed miracle. Jews today recognize that story as being a metaphor for hope and perseverance in difficult times. So, if Chanukah isn't about the miracle, why do we celebrate it? The real essence of Chanukah is the lesson of holding to one's beliefs regardless of external pressures. Many times throughout history, Jews have been persecuted for their culture and their faith. More than once, we have been pressed to convert to other religions.

Shabbat Torah Study: Parasha Vayeishev

The Torah portion for this week is Vayeishev, Genesis 37:1-40:23. This portion, or parasha, tells three stories, but today we will be concentrating on the trials of Joseph. There are two major themes running through this parasha: Justice and Brotherhood. Tied to these two concepts is the matter of faith. In circumstances where brothers don’t act very brotherly and the judgments of others are not just, the characters must choose to either despair for the trouble in their lives or to have faith that everything will come to good in time. It is important to remember that no story in the Torah exists in isolation. Every story can and often does make reference to an earlier story. Sometimes there is foreshadowing of stories yet to come. When we read Vayeishev, it is easy to see the parallels in the conflict between Joseph and his brothers, and the conflict between Cane and Abel, the first and therefore quintessential brothers. When Cane kills Abel, God asks Cane where Abel has gone. Cane responds, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” By the punishments that result, we can only conclude that the answer is yes.

Wednesday Hebrew: The Philosophy of Bet

Shalom, friends. It's Wednesday at Judeo Talk and that means it's time for our weekly Hebrew lesson. Every week we will be discussing a different Hebrew letter, word or phrase and its importance to Jewish faith and culture. This being our first installment of Wednesday Hebrew, we're already on the subject of beginnings. So, I thought I'd take the opportunity to give a quick lesson about one of the most famous phrases in the Torah. The word Bereishit (Beh-ray-sheet), which means "In the beginning". This is the first word in the Hebrew bible, known colloquially as The Old Testament. Hebrew is a very deep, complex language that is often used in the Torah in such a way that single words, even individual letters have multiple layers of meaning. The fact that Bereishit is the first word in the Torah, and more precisely that the letter Bet is the first letter in the Torah, is itself a lesson and an object of focus for the rest of the Hebrew bible. The Hebrew letter Bet makes the same sound as the English letter B.

Shalom from Judeo Talk

Hello, friends and web-surfers. My name is Michael Sarko and this is Judeo Talk, an interactive blog for the discussion of Jewish faith, culture, history and current events. I'll be updating three times a week, shedding light on a rich tradition that stretches back thousands of years and continues to impact the lives of millions of people worldwide. Every Friday, there will be a Shabbat D'var post providing an introduction to some of the themes in the week's Torah portion. Additionally, feel free to email me with any questions about Judaism and I'll do my best to post the answer in this blog. There is a famous Jewish story, known as a Midrash, about the importance of teaching and learning. In the story, a man goes to several different rabbis with the strange request of being taught Torah while he stands on one foot. Everyone was insulted by this request because it seemed silly and unnecessary. The only one who agreed to the stranger's odd stipulation was Rabbi Hillel, who was known for being a very open-minded and accepting man.