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August 31, 2015 / 16 Elul, 5775
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Posts Tagged ‘Holy Temple’

The Mystical Message Of The Chanukah Dreidel

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

Chanukah commemorates our victory over the Syrian-Greeks and the Hellenists – Jews who betrayed their own people in order to curry favor with the gentiles.

Not much has changed in this respect in nearly 2,200 years. The battle continues. We cleaned up and purified the Beit HaMikdash, but were we truly liberated? The Greeks were ousted from our land, but were they expelled from our minds? What light did the menorah provide that proved the battlefield victories warranted an annual celebration for the remainder of Jewish history, despite the Holy Temple’s eventual destruction?

Our sages make a strange statement about the Greeks. They inform us that Greece – a nation noted for its scholars, wisdom, and academics – is the image of darkness (Bereishit Rabbah 2:4). We, a people with great appreciation for the intellectual, find this baffling. The Baal Shem Tov explains that it is as simple as a Chanukah dreidel.

All of creation is a rotating wheel, a dreidel. Things constantly change, revolve and become transformed. This is because all things, no matter what they are made of, have one root. Before they manifest themselves as they are, they pass through an interface known as “hyle” (Ramban on Genesis 1:1). A person’s roles also change over time, providing and dominating one day, receiving and following the next. Nations, too, rise and fall.

Why do we play with a dreidel on Chanukah? Because – like Chanukah, the dreidel parallels the concept of the Beit HaMikdash, which spun things around in a number of ways. It manifested the concept of the revolving wheel by being the home of the Shechinah while its design was simultaneously engraved on high (Tanchuma, Pikudey 1; Zohar 1:80b).

Additionally, it somehow limited the Divine presence of a transcendental God to a physical space. As Shlomo HaMelech put it, “Behold the Heavens, and the Heaven of Heavens cannot contain You, how much less this Temple?!” (Kings I 8:27).

Furthermore, it is impossible to rationally explain how flesh-and-blood human beings can influence spiritual realms and how a sacrificial animal can produce “a sweet savor” (Genesis 8:21, Exodus 29:18) to God. Yet God did constrict His presence to the Beit HaMikdash and did accept sacrifices as “a sweet savor.” By doing so, God debunked the Greek model of rational philosophy with the Beit HaMikdash – as we do with the dreidel.

The Greeks are “darkness” because the rational mind (or, rather, the insistence on being rational always), limits one’s possibilities. One becomes stuck, “engraved on the horn of an ox,” and one can no longer think out of the box.

As Jews, we must always bear in mind that God has reasons that our reason cannot know. As God says “For My thoughts are not your thoughts and your ways are not My ways” (Isaiah 55:8). This is why we dare not despair, even in the longest darkest, tragic periods of personal and national life. This is what enabled the Maccabees to undertake the struggle to fight the spiritual darkness against all odds.

The essential quality of the ultimate Redemption which we await is that of the Beit HaMikdash, the revolving wheel, the dreidel, when we will see and know that in fact all is one – that God is One and God’s Name is One (Zechariah 14:9).

May we soon see the arrival of Mashiach, the rebuilding of the Holy Temple and the Redemption of the Jewish people.

Rabbi Ephraim Sprecher is dean of students at the Diaspora Yeshiva in Jerusalem.


Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

Something about this Purim bothered me. It seemed too relevant. Once again, a Persian Haman has emerged – Haman-nejad (nejad or nezhad is a Persian suffix meaning “descendant of”), who has again made the existence of Israel a topic for debate. Some say that the world is better off with Israel, and others say that the world is better off without Israel. “Enlightened” academia has not yet decided, but it looks like the scales are tipping in favor of a world without Israel.


These days are reminiscent of the 30s. The giddy optimism after World War I was gradually replaced by the foul winds of anti-Semitism and hatred. Slowly but surely, the enlightened world surrendered to the new fashion. Weak politicians made peace with the trend. Frightened Jews closed themselves in their neighborhoods as violent anti-Semitic incidents became routine. The establishment explained that the Jews must ride the murky wave – and that with time, it would pass.


When I was a boy, I was taught that another Holocaust cannot happen because we have a state. This line of thinking was bolstered by religious Zionist determinism that declared that the redemption process was a given. I always found comfort in the thought that while the State of Israel could bring suffering upon itself, its existence was guaranteed. Today, I no longer think so. The redemption is certainly guaranteed, but on one of the declines on the path that leads to redemption, we can certainly lose our state – at a terrible price.


Every physical holocaust must be preceded by delegitimization and dehumanization of the intended victims. The murder of six million Jews would not have been possible if not for the fact that it was preceded by the negation of their honor and basic human rights. The Persian tyrant’s nuclear plans are not as dangerous as the public debate that he has managed to arouse and the “Jewish Question” that has once again found its way into public discourse.


The average Israeli prefers to hide his head in the sand and trust Israel’s leadership to deal with the problem. Outside Israel, anyone who does not look too Jewish can still feel fairly comfortable. But that is precisely the syndrome of 1938: the threat is so horrific that the average person cannot integrate it – and chooses to ignore it instead.


This is not a problem that will go away if we ignore it. If you read the Scroll of Esther, you will understand what made Haman hate the Jews. Then listen to Haman-nejad and you will find the same paradigm.


The story of Purim begins with a feast that King Achashveirosh hosted in his palace, a celebration of his royal decree forbidding the rebuilding of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. In honor of the auspicious event, Achashveirosh invited the Jews of his capital, Shushan, to celebrate. He made sure that the Holy Temple vessels that had been stolen by the Babylonians when they destroyed the Temple were prominently on display.


The Jews were flattered to be invited, and wanted to prove that they were good Persians. They relished the opportunity to rub shoulders with Persian high society. That is where Haman stepped in. If you look at the caricatures in the Nazi Der Sturmer, you will see that the assimilated German Jew aroused the same disgust as the German Amalek.


And what does Haman-nejad say? He says that he has no problem with the Jews. He only has a problem with the Zionists. “It is a shame what the Germans did to the Jews,” he says. “So let the Austrians and Germans find them a place to live in Europe – not at the expense of the Palestinians.” And between us, the Foreign Ministry of the “Singapore of the Middle East” has a hard time explaining why the modern-day Haman is mistaken. If we are not a Jewish state, but rather a state of all its citizens, then what right do we have to act like colonialists?


In Tel Aviv, we hear this: “It is all the settlers’ fault. We will eliminate their settlements and everything will work out.” There were German Jews who also thought that the hatred they were experiencing was because of the Ost Yidden – the Eastern (Polish) Jews. About a year ago, I read an interview with German Jewish Holocaust survivors who are still convinced that the horrors that they experienced could have been prevented if not for the Ost Yidden.


The Purim story has a happy ending. But Jewish history has other stories that do not end quite as happily. We would be wise to learn the Purim story well to understand what caused the turnabout that saved the Jews. It just may help us deal with the storm clouds gathering on our horizon.

The Inner Miracle Of the Oil: Chanukah as Precursor to Redemption

Wednesday, December 17th, 2008

  The Chanukah story as we know it describes a wicked tyrant, Jewish resistance, and the miracle of oil that burned for eight days instead of one.

  Behind the tale, in the pages of history, lies a parallel story that amplifies what we know of ancient times and also raises a couple of interesting questions.

  When Antiochus IV issued a series of decrees outlawing the Jewish religion, it was the first recorded instance of massive religious persecution. Historians, notably Victor Tcherikover (Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews), have noted that it was also an anomaly in the ancient world where polytheistic tolerance was the norm.

  Why did Antiochus forbid circumcision, kashrut and specific mitzvot such as the consecration of the new moon? Why, when he needed allies instead of enemies in Judea as he consolidated his power in the region, did he incite the people to rebellion?

  The usual answer is that Antiochus, continuing the process begun by Alexander the Great, wanted to unite his empire under Hellenic culture and religion, and the Jews were the last stubborn holdouts, the only people who rejected the new gods and new customs.

  Or one could say that the deep-seated anti-Semitism of a Haman, a Hitler or an Antiochus needs no rationale. Documents show that the ancient Greeks – the Yevanim in Jewish literature – were in fact contemptuous of the Jews and their religion in a way that foreshadowed later European anti-Semitism.

  But the record also reveals that a growing rift in Jewish society, plus total corruption within the religious hierarchy of the Holy Temple, had already made Jerusalem all but unrecognizable as the Jewish capital.

  By the time Antiochus issued his anti-Jewish decrees in 167 B.C.E., the following had already taken place:    * An irreligious Jew, probably not even a kohen, held the office of high priest.

  * The Temple had been desecrated and sacrifices offered to a Greek god.

  * The name of the capital had been changed from Jerusalem to Antioch.

  * All official power was in the hands of the Jewish Hellenist sympathizers – more accurately described as collaborators in the destruction of Jewish religious and political autonomy.    The story that culminates in the discovery of a jar of pure oil and the rededication of the Holy Temple really begins in the previous century with the first Hellenistic inroads, and continues with the activities of several shady individuals who gained power.

According to Their Ancestral Ways

  Alexander of Macedonia entered Jerusalem in the summer of 332 B.C.E. His scheme for world domination included acculturation as much as conquest. He grafted new settlements and military colonies onto ancient towns throughout the Middle East and gave them new names. He gave them a new style of government, the polis, which brought economic and political privileges. As part of his master plan, he encouraged his soldiers to intermarry among the local population.

  Alexander was the first of a series of kings to give the Jews in Judea permission to “live according to their ancestral laws” and other rights, such as exemption from taxes during the shmittah year.

  In Jerusalem the Holy Temple, rebuilt after the return from Babylonian exile, was the center of both national and religious life, with little or no distinction between the two. The hereditary kohen gadol was head of state as well as spiritual leader of the nation.

  The majority of the populace consisted of farmers and small craftsmen. All evidence indicates that for the average Jew, life continued to reflect the powerful influence of Ezra the Scribe, who had rebuilt the Temple and restored Torah observance among a people weakened by defeat and exile.

  The sages of the Sanhedrin ruled on all matters of civil, criminal and religious law. The complex laws of agriculture applicable to the land of Israel described in the Mishnah were carefully observed, and the religious institutions we know today such as the synagogue, the division of Torah readings into a yearly cycle and the form of the prayers were already a part of Jewish life.

  What happened to undermine this way of life?

  Under Greek rule, Judea was a transit station for all goods moving from the East to the Mediterranean and between Egypt and its colonies. Trade with the Greek cities presented the Jews with new possibilities. Improvements in agriculture and impressive works of architecture were obvious manifestations of the material superiority of Greek culture.

  Various priestly families, meanwhile, were beginning to attain wealth and influence, a situation that can be traced back to the their status during and even before the exile. Many of these families lived as landed gentry on country estates, returning to Jerusalem for their turn of service at the Temple.

  A new class rose on the crest of commercial development under the Greeks as the gentry found common ground with local Greek settlers.

  The Greeks brought philosophy, technology, drama and art to Judea. As they didn’t seem to take their gods too seriously, the Jews didn’t let the Greek paganism keep them from following some of their ways. First steps away from tradition included adopting Greek names and manners. For example, a letter written by a man named Toviah  opens with the standard pagan expression, “many thanks to the gods.”

  Toviah had been one of the chief opponents of Ezra’s religious reforms; his descendant would later be a key player in the unraveling of Jewish institutions.

The Greeks’ Jewish Problem

  The Yevanim despised the traditional Jews for their intolerance, which they considered barbaric. These Jews refused to dine socially on non-kosher food, to intermarry, to give lip service to the ceremonial gods – and in short, to behave like any “civilized” people.

  Moreover, the Jews actually believed in their ancient religion of Torah and mitzvot, and in a system of morality and law they considered to be divine.

  The Yevanim didn’t understand it and they came to loathe it. After all, like the Greeks themselves, the Jews had a reputation for being “philosophers,” the highest Greek accolade. Yet they combined with their philosophy “a number of observances which could only seem the grossest superstition to the Greek world. This disapproval was natural, for whereas the Greek intellectual stood in sharp opposition to the simple-minded Greek who worshipped the gods, the Jewish ‘philosophers,’ in other words the teachers in the Jewish synagogues, believed intensely in the Jewish religion” (James Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue: A Study in the Origins of Anti-Semitism).

  Just believing in a supreme being wasn’t the problem. Aristotle had set forth the idea of a first cause, or creator, but one who set the world in motion like a clock and had no further dealing with mortal affairs. In the Greek view the Jewish God should likewise have stayed in the heavens where He belonged instead of dictating behavior and morality on earth.

  Even stranger and more provocative to the Yevanim, the Jews believed their mitzvot should be followed in obedience to God’s command – “Your Torah” – and not because they were logical or even within the realm of human logic. It was unforgivable that the Jews ascribed limits to reason and logic even as they used and excelled in them.

  The Jews also claimed to affect the natural condition of the world by bringing something they called kedusha, holiness, into the physical universe. The Greeks’ strictly materialist philosophy, codified by Euclid in space and Aristotle in time, saw an already perfect world in which physical nature ruled absolutely according to a fixed system of cause and effect. This view negated any possibility of a spiritual dimension within the real world.

  Along with all this came an amoral and hedonistic lifestyle that held the promise of pleasure without consequences.

Tax Collectors and Games

  The Jews who bought into the Greek philosophy likewise developed a strong a distaste for the particulars of the Jewish religion.

  A scion of the House of Toviah named Yosef was one of these. Yosef ben Toviah was worldly, ambitious and international in his outlook, feeling little Jewish or Judean identity.  When the high priest, Onias, failed to send the high tax revenues demanded by Antiochus III, Yosef obtained the position of tax collector for himself, on the pretext of smoothing things over with the king. For the first time, this function was removed from the office of the kohen gadol.

  The tax collector had a free hand to gather the funds demanded by the king, and could keep any excess for himself. It was an opportunity for ruthless and unscrupulous persons to make a fortune at the people’s expense, and Yosef and his circle did just that – even to the point of executing 20 leading citizens of Ashkelon who resisted paying the harsh taxes. The elders and the “simple people” may have been outraged – but it was now possible to ignore them.

  With the ascent of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (also called Epimanes, the “madman”) to the Greek-Syrian (Seleucid) throne, Jews opposed to the old order decided to get rid of the ineffective Onias, and replace him with a high priest more to their liking. Onias’s brother, Jason (originally Yehoshua), bribed Antiochus with 300 talents of silver and thus became the new kohen gadol.

  He then did something that altered the character of Jerusalem and deepened the growing schism within the Jewish people: He attained permission from Antiochus to build a gymnasium at the foot of the Temple Mount and to replace the existing government of Jerusalem with a Greek polis to be named Antioch.

  With one stroke, he wiped out the longstanding constitution of the Jews that provided for a government based upon their ancestral laws. Performance of the commandments, while not forbidden, was no longer protected by law, which was now in the hands of the newly constituted government of Antioch at Jerusalem.

  The gymnasium further undermined Jewish life in Jerusalem, as the institution par excellence of the Greek way of life: Here young men received the education fitting for a Greek citizen. Philosophy and the arts were combined with the ideal of physical perfection. In the arena, naked contestants competed in athletic contests and games; sacrifices were offered to Heracles and Hermes.

  The author of the First Book of Maccabees tells us that the young kohanim began running to witness the competitions instead of attending to their priestly duties in the Temple. Before long, Jewish youth began to compete in the games as well.

  After three years, an even more ardent Hellenizer, Menelaus, became high priest. According to the Second Book of Maccabees, Menelaus, who was not even a kohen, possessed “nothing that qualified him for the high priesthood, but with the passions of a savage tyrant and the rage of a wild beast.” His oppressive actions, including robbing the Temple treasures, led to riots in the streets of Jerusalem.

  In 169 B.C.E. Antiochus invaded Egypt, but his victory was erased through the intervention of the newly emerging Roman Republic. Rumors then arose that Antiochus had been killed, and Jason saw his chance to recapture Jerusalem by attacking the city.

  Antiochus, receiving word of a rebellion in Jerusalem, and confirming his reputation as a madman, unleashed a reign of terror in the city in which 40,000 men, women and children were massacred and an equal number taken captive. A fortified military complex was established adjacent to the Temple mount, where  Syrian soldiers were joined by a number of Jewish sympathizers. The soldiers plundered, raped and destroyed at will.

  Large numbers of people fled to the hills and caves outside Jerusalem. In Kislev of 168 B.C.E. a pagan idol was set up on the altar of the Holy Temple, and on the 25th of the month, hogs were offered up to Zeus Olympus. Every type of desecration was perpetrated upon the Temple including lewd acts common to the cultic prostitution of the time.

  The Jews saw their way of life being swept away. But it was only after Jerusalem had been sacked and the Temple desecrated that Antiochus outlawed Torah and mitzvot on pain of death.

  At this point, with all power in the hands of the Yevanim and their allies, and with the Temple service completely compromised, it seemed as if the Jewish day in history was over.   But the spiritual battle had yet to play out. Antiochus (presumably with information given to them from within the camp of Hellenizing Jews) aimed his poison arrow directly at the Jewish concept of holiness and the physical mitzvot that, to the Romans, represented the Jews’ alien and barbaric way of thinking.

  But something happened that neither Antiochus nor the Jews themselves could have foreseen.

Pure Oil of the Soul

  Led and inspired by the Maccabees, almost everyone except for Menelaus and his circle of extreme Hellenizers now switched sides and participated in the revolt against Antiochus and his decrees, helping the Jews to fight and ultimately win the war. Even those who had abandoned Jewish tradition began to observe the commandments.

  Pushed to the brink and faced with the annihilation of Judaism, they left all reason and logic behind and joined the losing side, even risking their lives to die as Jews rather than continue to live as Yevanim.

  Their turnaround is explained by Kabbalah and chassidut as an arousal of the innermost core of the Jewish soul called yechidah, also symbolized by the pure uncontaminated oil found in the sanctuary of the Holy Temple.

  This aspect of the soul transcends intellectual understanding and cannot be contaminated because it is never severed from its divine source.

  Although Greek philosophy had permeated Jewish thinking, this supra-rational level of the soul burst forth even before the miracle of the oil and gave the Jews strength to withstand the decrees and win the war.

  So the decrees of Antiochus precipitated the rallying of the Jews and their victory, resulting through Divine Providence not in the demise of the Jewish religion but in the survival of Judaism as we know it. The Jews were strengthened spiritually to withstand the persecution and exile that still lay ahead, and the ranks of the sages expanded beyond the priestly class as a new age of Torah scholarship was ushered in.

  The memory of those who gave their lives with mesirat nefesh, total self-sacrifice, rather than transgress the commandments echoes through history as the battle against the Yevanim is waged over and over again – ” in those days, at this time ” – only to be finally won, the prophecies tell us, with the coming of Moshiach and the ultimate victory of light over darkness.

  Tzivia Emmer is a freelance writer. She can be reached at tziviaemmer@gmail.com.

Broken Glass

Wednesday, January 9th, 2008

To my eldest daughter, Esther, upon her recent marriage.



It happens at every chuppah. After the bride’s encircling of the groom seven times, after the recital of the special blessings, after the ring has been placed on her finger, there are a few seconds of collective silence in anticipation. Then there is the definite loud crunching of glass as shards are being broken under foot, followed by the uproarious “mazal tov” issued in unison from everyone present.


The broken glass under the chuppah is meant to remind us of the destruction of the Holy Temple. Even in a moment of such blissful happiness at the uniting of two souls in marriage, we remember that we are still in bitter exile.


Interestingly, though, the breaking of the glass has become the signal for everyone to call out the congratulatory, “mazal tov!” It’s almost as if it is the breaking glass that confirms the marriage, validates the joy, and endorses the momentousness of this wonderful new beginning.


Why has a moment that is meant to signify the sadness of the Temple’s destruction developed into such a congratulatory event, the signature moment, almost, of the marriage ceremony?


I was thinking about this, upon the recent marriage of my eldest daughter. And I thought that perhaps the deeper, more conceptual message of the breaking of the glass is the reminder that being in exile means that our lives are not perfect. That we are not complete, but rather broken.


There is no person who is flawless. True, every kallah (bride) standing beneath the chuppah believes (and should believe so) that her groom is so perfect, so wonderful, so talented and so capable, so sensitive and caring. And he, too, surely feels the same about her – that he is marrying the ideal woman, faultless to the core, and that there is no one in the world as special, intelligent and caring as she.


The two of them together have also dreamed the perfect dream of how complete and perfect their life together will be. How much they will both accomplish, how they will each work side by side harmoniously, how meaningful and fulfilling it will all be.


But perhaps the breaking of the glass under the chuppah is there to remind both of them (and all of us) that every vision is a little bit flawed, that every dream has a hole in it, that every life has some cracks. That every person has imperfections, deficiencies, and areas of incompleteness.


Perhaps it is only when we are each prepared to acknowledge that we don’t need to be flawless for there to be a strong love for one another, that our life doesn’t have to be perfectly whole for it to be rich and meaningful – only then can each of us move forward, and only then can a bride and groom truly begin their new unified life together.


So under the chuppah, the bride and groom (and each of us present) will make that small symbolic “shattering” of perception of each other’s perfection, and accept one another wholly as s/he is, cracks, fissures and all. That moment of absolute acceptance will forge the everlasting bond between the new couple.


And, as for those of us present, only once we are each able to break the vision of our own lives and dreams, as being so whole and perfect, are we ready to begin to repair our world, to pick up the broken pieces of our exile and to truly begin building a redeemed existence.


May it be with good mazal!

The Miracle Of Trying

Wednesday, December 19th, 2007

         Chanukah has come and gone, and so have the donuts, the latkes and the celebration of the two amazing miracles that took place at that time. The first, of course, was the successful revolt of a ragtag group of religious Jews against the physical and spiritual presence of the Hellenist Greeks in the land of Israel. The second was the lasting of one day’s supply of oil in the Temple for eight days.


         These miracles are not something to think about for just one week during the year. They should be on our minds daily, for they offer a life-enhancing lesson that we should take to heart.


         This lesson is simple. Do not let the facts on the ground ever deter you from trying to reach a goal.


         It might be amusing for some to discover (like I did) that this message of trying, despite the “facts” staring at you, was often brought forth in the popular science-fiction series, “Star Trek.” It would seem that in just about every episode, the chief engineer of the spaceship exploring the galaxy would be ordered by the captain “to get us out of here.” The spaceship would be in imminent danger of being destroyed by an exploding asteroid, swallowed up by a space monster the size of a planet or trapped forever in another dimension – unless it quickly went to warp speed and zoomed away.


         Often the captain would tell the chief engineer that he had about three minutes to repair the warp drive. And the chief engineer, in a reproachful voice, would tell the captain that he needed at least 30 minutes and that he “couldn’t change the laws of physics.” But he would always try, and he always succeeded.


         Of course this was television, and a happy ending was necessary for the show to continue. But the lesson here is the one we can glean by examining the Chanukah miracles that describe two situations that, on paper, seemed hopeless and thus not worth trying to do something about.


         The first revolved around a group of outnumbered Jews fighting to oust their enemy. The Greek army had a large, well-oiled fighting machine. It’s likely Matityahu, the leader of the Jewish freedom fighters, must have repeatedly been warned not to even think about fighting the Greeks.


         Similarly when it came time to light the menorah in the Holy Temple and there was only enough oil for one day, the opinion of most might have been, “don’t bother, the flame is not going to last – so why waste what you have?”


         However, like the fictional chief engineer on the spaceship, Matityahu did not let logic or the laws of nature stop him from trying. He did not let the extreme odds against success hold him back from “going for it.”


         And neither should we. The road of life is full of potholes and seeming dead-ends. Faced with these damaging bumps in the road, or barriers and obstacles indicating that the journey is over – and that any attempt to continue is futile – there is the temptation to just accept the yoke of the status quo. The lesson of Chanukah, however, is clear. Do not give up; do not let the “facts” stop you from trying to change what seems to be cut in stone.


         Many years ago, while flipping through a newspaper looking for the comics, I came across the obit page. Most were a few lines, so when I saw a rather lengthy piece, I glanced at it out of curiosity. It started with the words, “eighteen years after being given six months to live, the family sadly announces the passing of…” It went on to say how this man in his upper 40’s, having far exceeded medical expectations, had outlived some of his doctors. Obviously, this man did not allow the “experts” dictate to him what his future would be. Despite the “facts on the ground” he fought – just like the Maccabees.


         So, too, must we not let “reality” stop us from trying to attain our heartfelt goals. There are many individuals who have been told that they are terminally ill, will never have children, will never walk again, or that their child will never be functional. Yet they or their loved one are alive and well, having achieved the supposedly impossible.


         The act of trying is itself a kiddush Hashem – an act of extreme faith. When attempting the seemingly impossible, you are expressing your belief that there is a Master of the Universe, who is above the laws of physics, nature, biology, etc. Hence, He can execute miracles. All He requires is that you take the first step.


         At the end of the day, since all is in Hashem’s wise hands, the true measure of your success will not be in the attaining, but in the trying. 

‘Geh Avek’ (‘Go Away’)

Wednesday, November 1st, 2006

       The question that is on many people’s mind these days is why the organizers of the international “Pride Parade” chose the holy city of Jerusalem as the venue for their exhibition. There are so many other cities on this planet that would be better suited for the festivities that they have planned – and where their activities would be accommodated and even welcomed. Why davka choose a place seeped in a tradition that totally rejects the lifestyle they are celebrating and whose residents in the great majority will be extremely antagonized and anguished by their presence and antics?


         I’m not by any means a psychologist, but their behavior triggered a memory of a long ago incident that I observed, and therefore I have my own theory as to why they are doing what they are doing.


         Many years ago, when I was 19, I spent a summer in Israel and have many interesting memories of that visit, but one sticks out to this day since it revealed a fascinating aspect of human nature.


         It was a sweltering Tisha BeAv and it seemed that every space at the Kotel was taken. There was a sea of humanity on both sides of the mechitza and all were occupied doing the same thing – praying.


         However, out of the corner of my eye I saw something that was different from the activity around me, causing me to take a second look. It was a bare-headed man who somehow had found a spot, perhaps on a nearby ledge that made him conspicuous – at least I noticed him. But what had captured my interest was that he was happily munching on a large slice of watermelon and being quite public about it.


         I have to admit that I was impressed. He was being quite ingenious. How better to show contempt for your religion and the beliefs of thousands of its adherents, how better to “rub their faces in it” than by eating refreshing, thirst-quenching watermelon on a hot summer’s fast day?


         The question that begs to be asked is – why did this obviously secular Jew deliberately eat his snack in full view of observant Jews keeping to themselves and mourning the anniversary of the destruction of the Holy Temple by fasting and praying? Why not just eat at home, as usual? He could do “his thing” privately, just like the religious people were doing theirs.


         My hunch is that on a psychological level he couldn’t, because, as the saying goes, “the best defense is a good offense.” Take this to the extreme and the offense becomes offensive. You can see this kind of behavior in children. When a child, for example, is chided for grabbing a toy from his playmate, his reaction is to toddle over and hit him. He’s trying to make the point that what he is doing is so OK, so right to that he will do more of it.


         This secular Jew followed this dictum and dealt with his defensiveness by going on the offensive – a self-serving form of denial that enables someone to “save face” and legitimize or whitewash one’s questionable actions or beliefs.


         Which leads to the next question that begs to be asked – why was this secular Jew being defensive? In the privacy of his home, there was no one to castigate and criticize him for eating and drinking on Tisha BeAv. With his doors closed and the curtains drawn, there was no one to make him feel that he was doing anything wrong.


         Except for himself. Deep inside him, a silent voice was telling him that he was doing something sinful. The pintele Yid – the spark of yiddishkeit that is buried in a Jew’s psyche was making him feel uncomfortable about his actions. His soul was making him feel guilty – albeit on a subconscious level which made him feel defensive, resulting in his offensive – and ultimately obnoxious behavior.


         There is no doubt that the spark of decency that resides in each human being is shouting out to the organizers of “The Parade” to put a stop to what many consider abominable behavior – and that is why they are so driven and so adamant to see its actualization on the sacred streets of Jerusalem. It’s not enough to indulge in immoral behavior in the privacy of their homes but they have to, out of pure spite, publicly “eat their watermelon,” fuelled by an internal guilt that they desperately are trying to extinguish.


         After all – the best defense is to be offensive.

The Niggun In Jewish Music

Wednesday, January 4th, 2006

In honor of Chanukah, a time of joy, I have been delving into the realm of Jewish music. Of the three types of Jewish music, klezmer (instrumental), chazzanut (cantorial) and the niggun (wordless tunes), it is the niggun that has evolved and is the most popular today.

There is no way to trace the exact origins of the niggun, a wordless tune that has become an integral part of Jewish culture. In my research I have read that one plausible origin is that at first musical instruments were not used in Jewish music, as an expression of mourning for the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. It was also deemed not proper to use words from the Torah or from the prayers when one was not either learning praying, so the wordless tune was created.

In more modern times the niggun was adopted by the chasidic movement as a way to achieve dveikut, the goal of every chasid of being in the presence of Hashem and serving Him with complete and utter joy.

The pure niggun was used whenever musical instruments were not available such as on Shabbat and Chagim. The Rebbe’s tish, where the Chasidic leaders would entertain their followers on Friday nights was a prime example of when niggunim were sung. The niggun was also used at the slightest provocation and can still be heard whenever the spirit overtakes a person. It is not unusual in a beit medrash to hear someone break out in song out of pure pleasure of being in the service of Hashem.

The chazzanim of pre-war Europe and even those dating back to the mid-18th century, when Chasidism first began to spread, performed in the great synagogues, often receiving large amounts of money for their services. The chasidim rarely used chazzanim from outside their group, and often the Rebbe would be the one leading the prayers. Chazzanim were also notorious for stretching the prayers and even repeating words to showcase their own talents. The chasidim were more concerned with the participation of every Jew in the prayers, and believe that there should be no repetition of words. Instead of the formal tunes of the chazzan, prayers were often sung to niggunim unique to either the Chasidic group, and sometimes to a region.

In chasidic thought, music brings a soul closer to Hashem. They believe that words constrain the melody, whereas the wordless tune repeated over and over can produce a sort of hypnotic state bringing the singer to ever-higher levels of oneness with the creator.

Many chasidic groups were famous for their singing ability. The Modzitzer chasidim who settled in Demblin, Poland, were renowned for their compositions, many of which are still sung today. In recent years there is hardly a chasidic group that does not have a record of their songs, and every record includes a few niggunim.

The chasidim incorporated niggunim into the prayers. These wordless tunes were then brought home and taught to family members at the Shabbat table and used during the singing of zmirot, the songs sung during the Shabbat meals.

Today the niggun has evolved words often are added and when permissible there – is instrumental accompaniment. The boundaries between the three types of Jewish music have blurred. Chasidic music is often today defined as any song whose words originate from a religious source, either the Torah, prayers or rabbinic writings. Most of today’s popular Jewish music is a combination of the three but can be traced to the niggun more readily than to klezmer or chazzanut.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/columns/the-niggun-in-jewish-music/2006/01/04/

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