March 2009

Shabbat: Parsha Vayikrah

Shabbat Shalom and welcome to Judeo Talk. The Torah portion for this week is Vayikrah, Leviticus 1-5. At this point in the Tanakh, the tone and the format changes significantly. Much, but not all, of what follows from Leviticus through Deuteronomy is a recitation of specific laws. In essence, the epic poem of the Jewish people's origin has concluded. Only a few closing scenes remain and they will be scattered throughout these next three books. From this point on, the Torah is a document of everyday spiritual practices and civil laws. In Vayikrah, God is explaining to Moses some more details concerning the act of sacrifice. The instructions list what animals or other materials are to be used, what counts as a suitable sacrifice and some of what the priests are supposed to do upon an offering. As always, modern Jews tend to skim these parts of the book because we no longer perform ritual sacrifices.

The Star of David

A reader recently emailed me asking about the origins of the Star of David, the most recognizable symbol of the Jewish people. While the Star has a long and nebulous history, its origins don't stretch back as far as its name implies.
The six-pointed star associated with Jewish culture and Israeli independence doesn't actually have much to do with King David.

Shabbat: Vayak'hel-Pekudei and Hachodesh

Shabbat Shalom and welcome to Judeo Talk. The Torah portion for this week is parsha Vayak'hel-Pekudei, Exodus 35:1-40:38. But it is also Shabbat Hachodesh. The word "Chodesh" comes from the word "Chadash" which means "New". We are entering into a new month in the Jewish calender, the month of Nisan. After the Torah reading on Shabbat morning, a special prayer will be said to bless the new month. The first thing that should pop into a reader's mind this week is a question- Why are we reading two parshiot? This has to do again with the Jewish calendar. Unlike the secular calendar, the Jewish variety is lunar instead of solar. This results in an uneven distribution of days in a given Jewish year. Some years are 54 weeks long, others have fewer. We happen to be in one of the shorter years, so an extra Torah portion has to be covered this week so we can finish reading by the end of the year. This actually results in some interesting symmetry in the parshiot.

Person of the Week: Rav Akiva

Perhaps no development in the history of Judaism was more important than the rise of Rabbinic leadership. In its earliest incarnations, Judaism was just another ancient faith centering around rigid geographical boundaries and the practice of animal sacrifice. But by the first century CE there came a trend toward a combination of communal study and social services. People began to seek the counsel of men made wise through dedicated learning instead of relying on priests who wielded power in old rituals and claims of holy lineage. These sages were the first Rabbis, the religious leaders who served the communities in which they lived. It wasn't until the destruction of the Second Temple and the diaspora that followed that the Rabbis became spiritual leaders as well. The model for the modern Rabbi is often thought to be based on one very influential man. His name was Akibah ben Yosef, but we know him today as Rav Akiva.

Shabbat: Parsha Ki Tisa

Shabbat Shalom and welcome to Judeo Talk. The Torah portion for this week is parsha Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11-34:35. The big, well-known events in the Torah tend to distract people from the more meaningful moments. As in life, biblical profundity occurs just as often in the quiet, even during the downtime, as it does in the epic episodes. That is certainly the case in today's parsha. The most interesting moment in the entire portion just happens to be flanked by big, strange things that people remember first. But before we get to that, how about some comparative religion? Early in the parsha, God tells Moses to make anointing oil and incense using particular spices, and also to have a brass basin of water just outside the Tent of Meeting so people can wash their hands and feet before they enter. The first thing that popped into my mind while I re-read this segment of the parsha was that it looked a lot like a Catholic cathedral.


Shalom and Chag Sameach. Welcome to Judeo Talk. Even though it's Wednesday, we won't be doing our regular Person of the Week feature because tonight is a special holiday. Every year on the 14th day of the Jewish month of Adar, Jews gather to celebrate the story told in Magillat Ester, the Scroll of Esther. Though it is considered one of the minor holidays, i.e. not mentioned in the Five Books, Purim has been celebrated all over the world for several thousand years. The Scroll of Esther describes a period of time when the Jewish people were living in Persia during the Achaemenid dynasty. They were living there because the Persian Empire took over the territories of the Babylonian Empire which conquered and held captive the Israelites. These are the same Babylonians who destroyed the First Temple of Jerusalem. The story of Purim revolves around a king named Ahasuerus, but he would have been known in his own country Khashayarsha.

Shabbat: Parsha Tetzaveh

Shabbat Shalom and welcome to Judeo Talk. The Torah portion for this week is Parsha Tetzaveh, Exodus 27:20-30:10. As the Israelites approach the Holy Land after receiving the law, the parshiot become preoccupied with the details of day-to-day religious life. Last week God gave specific instructions concerning the construction of the tabernacle, while this week there were similar instructions about how to craft the priestly garb that Aaron and his sons would wear while performing their duties as the Cohanim. Of the twelve tribes of Israel, many were given specific stations in the emerging kingdom. The tribe of Cohane was selected to fulfill the roles of priests. In the ancient times when there was still a Temple in Jerusalem, the Cohanim were the ones who administered every sacrifice, as well as other religious rites. When the Second Temple was destroyed by the Roman Empire, sacrifice ceased to be a practical part of Jewish faith and so the position of the Cohane disappeared.

Person of the Week: Golda Meir

Shalom and welcome to Judeo Talk. This week, we will be learning about one of the most important political figures in Jewish history, Golda Meir. Golda was born in Kiev, Ukraine in 1898. Her father was Moshe Mabovitch, a carpenter. Life for Jews at the end of the Russian Empire was difficult. They frequently experienced pogroms, random attacks against their communities that were often State-approved, if not ordered. It was also very difficult for Jews in Russian territories to make ends meet. Golda's father emigrated to New York in 1903 to find steady work, sending his wife and children to live in Pinsk, Belarus where Golda's mother's family resided. By 1906, Moshe had saved up enough money working at a train yard in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to bring his family to America. When not working in the grocery store her mother ran, Golda attended school at the Fourth Street Grade School. There she showed her early proclivities for politics and leadership by organizing student fundraisers for supplies and books.