logo1.gif (1591 bytes) Basic Judaism 3


Please note: the following is the entire content of a booklet I prepared about Basic Judaism. The entire content is copy-righted by me. You may printout a copy of this material, making sure to give me "credit" for authorship. You may not make multiple copies nor sell such copies for profit.


Table of Contents - In this segment you will find:















IN OUR OWN TIME                  THE FESTIVAL OF PURIM                  MEGILLAT ESTHER 


S H A B B A T - THE DAY GOD RESTED             ZIONISM                    BIRTH OF A MOVEMENT 


For other subjects try   Basic 1   or   Basic 2




The Jews set aside days of celebration, solemn assembly and commemoration that fall into four categories: (1) the Sabbath, the day that God made holy; (2) the High Holidays, the celebration of nature — of God’s creation and the relation of man to God; (3) the "Major holidays" (also known as the "Pilgrimage Holidays") — which are holidays that were ordained for the Jewish people in the Torah; (4) the "Minor holidays" which are the holidays ordained for the Jewish people after the Torah was "closed" (about the year 1000 b.c.e.). The Shabbat, of course, is the number one holiday because it was the day that God rested from the work of creation. Here is the 'scoop' on the second category:



The Jewish calendar, as a distinct time keeping instrument, originated some 3,500 years ago, when the Jews became a nation — at the time of the exodus from Egypt. Even before they actually left Egypt, God had said to Moses, "This shall be unto you the beginning of months;..." [Exodus 12:2] By saying this to Moses, God actually bid him establish a Jewish calendar. To be sure, the Jews did not originate the calendar — they adapted for themselves a calendar that the peoples around them used. But they gave their calendar a national Jewish character and, because they were a covenant people, in a relationship with God, they abolished all traces of idolatry from it. Thus, the calendar of Moses had no names for the months -- for these names were usually related to a pantheon on gods -- only ordinal numbers (i.e. 'first month,' 'seventh month,' etc.) The calendar was a tool for creating a national feeling among the emerging slaves who were to become the nation of Israel.

Long before the exodus took place, though, the lore of the Israelites established the Fall season as the time of year when God had created the world. This lore may be understood in connection with the agrarian nature of the proto-Israelites: for nomadic sheep keepers and farmers, the cycle of creation begins in the fall, when the seeds are put into the earth, when the grass withers and dies, when the trees shed and shade is a rare commodity. Thus, even though the national calendar began in the month of Aviv (spring), there was a different time to mark the beginning of all things!

Moses, in establishing the celebrations of the Israelites, was commanded by God to set up a special time, in the fall, for spiritual renewal: "...In the seventh month, in the first day of the month, shall be a solemn rest unto you, a memorial proclaimed with the blast of horns, a holy convocation... Howbeit, on the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; there shall be a holy convocation unto you, and ye shall afflict your souls... for it is a day of atonement for you before the Lord your God..." [Leviticus 23:24-28]

Time-keeping is a human preoccupation that probably dates back to the beginning of civilization. When human-kind became aware of the cycle of nature and the cycle of time, they tried to make sense of the changes that occur in the course of these cycles by predicting when they will occur. Without doubt humans became aware first of seasons: at times it was warm, and at other times it was cold. Later, they noticed the phases of the moon: some times there was a full moon, other times the moon was less than full, and at times there was no moon at all. This cyclic change of the moon led humans to create a timekeeping system that is called a 'lunar calendar.' The Jewish calendar is one such instrument. In Temple days the priests set the calendar for a month at a time just before it began by actually observing the condition of the moon in the sky. After Jerusalem fell and the Jews were exiled from their homeland, it became necessary to set (or reset) the calendar and regulate it — for the Jews needed a uniform system that they could keep from year to year and from land to land in their dispersion all over the world.

Rabbi Hillel II (330 - 365 C.E.) is credited with fixing the calendar permanently by a special mathematical formula - though the formula took many generations to work out. It is also assumed that it was Rabbi Hillel II who changed the order of the months, setting the time of the new year in the fall. Though he did not leave us his reasons for doing so, we can readily understand what they were: national life had ceased for the Jews, and their lore concerning God's sovereignty based on His ownership of a world He created needed reinforcing.




The last month of the calendar is a time of preparation for the period of repentance and return known as the High Holidays. According to the same basic principle that teaches that those who don’t prepare on Friday cannot rest on Shabbat, Judaism also teaches that you cannot reach a spiritual climax during the Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur season without "training" during the month of Elul.

A special "penitential" Psalm (Psalm 27) is added to morning and evening services for the duration of this last month of the year. This psalm includes the verse, "...Hear, Oh Lord, my voice when I call..." -- and in so doing bids us to call on Him. It concludes with the words "Hope in the Lord, be strong and let your heart take courage; Yea, hope in the Lord!" A good message to fix in one’s mind at this time of the year.

From Rosh Khodesh (the 'head' of the month of) Elul to Yom Kippur Sepharadic Jews rise long before the sun to recite before the morning prayers a special service called "slikhot" or forgiveness. Among the Ashkenazim, on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, the faithful congregate in synagogues at midnight, and thereafter before dawn, for a pre-Shakharit (morning) service known by the same name, Slikhot. This tradition continues to this day.

Tradition suggests that the origin of Slikhot is with King David, who, having been told that Israel will suffer punishment for their transgressions against God offered the first penitential prayers to try and avert God’s wrath and actually change the bad decree. We know for a fact that Rabbi Amram, in the ninth century, transcribed an order of Slikhot prayers to be used on all fast days.

Perhaps the best known slikhot prayer is the Avinu Malkenu"...Our Father, our King, We have sinned before you. Our Father, our King, we have no sovereign but you... Our Father, our King, Deal with us with loving-kindness and mercy — and save us..."


Judaism celebrates the New Year as the anniversary of creation, and it is a time of new beginnings — since the "old" year is over and a new year is about to begin. Repentance and atonement are the central theme of the High Holiday period. When Rosh Hashanah (the new year) arrives, we perceive God as judge trying us in His court. Then, on Yom Kippur, sentence is passed and our fate for the coming year is sealed.

Why do we do it? We perceive God as looking down upon His creation. Mankind has developed a tool of looking at history which is called a "time-line." If we make a time-line for our century, each year would be represented by one one-hundredth of our line. If we make a line, of the same length, and put on it the "history of humanity," we would have to make each year count for (maybe) one one millionth of the line -- a mere dot or speck. Now carry this to its ultimate, to use "God's time-line" -- He is infinite, looking at our existence, upon this world -- all He sees is that speck which encompasses the totality of our history! Creation, the evolution of our world, the evolution of living things, the history of humanity -- all of it a mere fraction of that speck. Therefore, in the perspective of God's view, creation, today, and all our tomorrows are occurring at this same instant! If God sees our plight today, in the same blink of the eye as the idea of creation comes to Him, He may choose not to create. Thus is today, and every say, the day of judgement. Thus, also, is the particular day of Rosh Hashanah Judgement Day.

In today’s world, as advanced and sophisticated as we are in matters of science and in technology, the idea of God as a judge passing sentence on us may be a little difficult to accept - we are not 'primitive' enough to accept a God-person, a master puppeteer; at the same time (if you think about it seriously and honestly you will conclude as I have) we are still too 'primitive,' not enlightened enough, to grasp the concept of an infinite, nonphysical, unique and singular sovereign God that Moses and our other great religious leaders tried to teach us about.

How, then, should we view a 'day of judgement?' Maybe we can look at it as a psychodrama: We are all familiar with the study of the inner workings of the mind, which we call psychology, and how stress can bring about a physical or a nervous breakdown. Our forefathers understood these problems of the psyche two millennia before Dr. Freud wrote about it and set it down as a subdiscipline of medicine. Our sages realized that the mental well-being of each and every one of their co-religionists depended on being rid of all guilt — known and unknown. Absolution from guilt can be arrived at in a number of ways — and Judaism, being an ethical faith, tried to bring it about through good deeds, loving-kindness and making amends.

Thus the concept of a period of repentance is one which demands of us to try to makes things right, to "square" things, with our fellow men. Next we spend some time and effort in meditation, seeking the peace of mind that comes from communion with God. Beyond the prayer for God's forgiveness and the time we spend in prayer, we have a symbolic physical activity, called "tashlikh" (throw-away), in which the entire congregation goes to a river, a lake, or the sea -- and each congregant "casts away" his/her sins into the flowing water. This process is meant to restore our spiritual and psychological balance.



Psalm 81 gives us the formula for celebrating this event in our calendar. "Blow a shofar at the new moon, at the full moon on our feast day. For this is a statute for Israel, an ordinance for the God of Jacob. This He ordained in Joseph for a testimony, when He went out through the land of Egypt." Commentary tells us that the "feast of the full moon" refers to the two week-long holidays, Sukkot in the fall and Hag Hamatzot in the spring, both of a full week which occur on the fourteenth day of the month, when the moon in full. These holidays are part of the "Major holidays" which I mentioned earlier. The "new moon" time, at which the shofar is blown, is the anniversary of creation, an the time of new creation and recreation. It is a time to recall and to remember -- to reflect on our life and our experience, and try to realign our lives to our goal of serving God and His purpose.

God, we are told, also remembers, and God, in His infinite wisdom and vision, decides on the future of all of his creation. Thus the shofar, the ram's horn, is an instrument of sounding the alarm, a warning, which is called in Hebrew 'tru'a.' We speak of God as judge, who on this day makes us all pass before Him in judgement.



The Torah commands us to afflict our souls, and the Rabbis explained that "affliction" means fasting, depriving oneself of food from before sunset of one day till after sunset on the next. Before the Jews came over to the New World, before America became the land of overabundance, depriving oneself of food was indeed a big sacrifice.

People, since the dawn of creation, had less food than appetite. In such circumstances the fast was really a challenge and an ordeal. In our own times, however, we are so well fed, indeed -- so overstuffed, that affliction (almost) becomes a "cure" — merely a one-day diet (usually followed by an orgy of eating to "break-the-fast" that cancels the diet value of the fast, and adds inches to the waistline). Thus, the fast is merely an exercise in self control, a worthy and not very difficult challenge, or task, that reinforces other customs of Jewish existence. Many, these days, claim that "fast" is not a valid form of afflicting ourselves!

There is, however, another, more symbolic, reason for the fasting: on this one day we try to make ourselves less human, or "animal-like," and more like the hosts of God - like the angels. The Rabbi and the Cantor wear white robes to remind us of the Angelic heavenly hosts. We avoid the necessities of our physical being and concentrate on our spiritual qualities. Since we don’t ingest anything, we have no need to evacuate, and our whole being is less "body" oriented. We concentrate on communication with God and communion with Him. Some people suggest that 'atonement' is actually the act of being at one with God, or 'at-one-ment.'

Why is it necessary to deprive oneself of food during Yom Kippur? The answer lies in the very name of this holiday. The Day of Atonement is a day of reckoning — a payment for wrongdoing. Atonement is not repentance, nor forgiveness — rather, it means payment for deeds done. The only difference between atonement and mere ‘payment’ is that in atoning one is supposed to be very sincere in the desire to reform, so that one won’t repeat the transgressions. Yom Kippur, a day that is spent completely and exclusively "beyn adam lamakom" -- between man and His God, is a time to reflect on past failures and plan a course of action that will allow us to grow, to improve, to realize the potential that God has placed in each and every one of us. Different prayers trigger in us anxieties, remorse, hope and faith. All our yesterdays fell short of God's promises -- but all our tomorrows are endowed by our Creator with possibilities, with promise.



On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, as at the beginning of all Shabbatot and khagim (holidays), the woman of the house lights candles. If there is no woman, or if the woman is not capable of blessing the candles, a little girl can do it, too. Only where no female is available is a man allowed to bless the candles. Please understand: the candles must be blessed, not merely ignited. The blessing over the candles is pronounced on the eve of the holiday and repeated on the second night of the holiday. The candles are lit and blessed no later than twenty minutes before sunset. If the holiday falls on Shabbat, the first night the candles are lit twenty minutes before sunset, and the second night (which is at the end of Shabbat) they are lit after havdalah, forty minutes after sunset. We recite two blessings, (for candles) Barukh ata Adona'y, Eloheynu melekh haolam asher kidshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu lehadlik ner shel (shabbat ve) yom tov. Barukh ata Adona'y, Eloheynu melekh haolam shehekhe'yanu veki'yemanu vehigi'anu lazman hazeh.

It is traditional to recite a silent prayer immediately after the candles are lit and blessed. Because the holiday is "yom Hazikaron" (remembrance day), it is a good idea to pray to God as "aloheynu velohey avoteynu, elohey Avraham Yitzkhak ve'ya'akov, Sarah, Rivka Rakhel veleah -- our God and God of our fathers, God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah." It is also a good time to mention our generations of martyrs who lived by God's precepts and died for His glorious name -- and finally it is traditional to ask for a good year for us and our families, friends and neighbors, nation and world.

Next, the man of the household recites the Kiddush - the consecration of the wine. There are two texts for the Kiddush: one for Shabbat and the other for holidays. On Rosh Hashanah we use the holiday text, adding words specific for this holiday. However, these words do not say "new year" - rather, we use the words "yom hazikaron" - the day of rememberance, "yom Tru'ah" - a day of the blast [of the Shofar - a ram's horn].

After the wine is consecrated, we wash our hands (netilat yada'yim) and recite the blessing (for washing hands) Barukh ata Adona'y, Eloheynu melekh haolam asher kidshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al netilat yada'yim. We are then ready to sit at the holiday table, and it is traditional to have a round khallah with raisins, a container of honey, and an apple cut to slivers. We cut the bread and recite the "hamotzi," Barukh ata Adona'y, Eloheynu melekh haolam hamotzi lekhem min ha'aretz. We dip the khallah in the honey and eat it. Then we take a sliver of apple, dip it in the honey and recite the following blessings:

(for Apples & honey) Barukh ata Adona'y, Eloheynu melekh haolam boreh pri ha'etz. Yehi ratzon milefanekha, Eloheynu velohey avoteynu shetekhadesh aleynu shanah tova um'tuka. Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the universe, who does create the fruit of the tree. May it bee Your will, our God and God of our fathers, to grant us (renew for us) a good and sweet year.

In some homes they also have the tradition of offering a pomegranate section to each person at the table, and they recite a blessing, (for pomegranate) Yehi ratzon milefanekha, Eloheynu velohey avoteynu shenirbe zkhu'yot kerimon. May it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our fathers, that our good deeds be as numerous as the seed in the pomegranate.

(Blessing we pronounce upon each other) Yehi ratzon sh'yislakh Adona'y Eloheynu al kol khataim veyiten lanu shanah shel shalom, shanah shel bri'ut, shanah shel brakha vehatzlakha. Leshana tova nikatev v'nehkatem. May the Lord our God and God of our fathers forgive all sins and grant us a year of peace, a year of health, a year of blessing and success in all that we undertake. May we all be inscribed and sealed for a good year.



In Jewish tradition, we differentiate between those holidays commanded to us in the Torah and those of post-Torah origin.

The first set of holidays, those mentioned in the Torah, include the High Holidays and three festival, pilgrimage holidays, known in Hebrew as Shloshet Regalim or three pilgrimage holidays. There holidays are:



"On the fifteenth day of this seventh month is the feast of tabernacles [sukkot] for seven days unto the Lord. On the first day shall be a holy convocation unto you... it is a day of solemn assembly...howbeit on the fifteenth day of the seventh month when ye have gathered the fruits of the land ye shall keep the feast of the Lord seven days.... and ye shall take you on the first day the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willow of the brook, and ye shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days...ye shall dwell in booths seven days....that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths [sukkot], when I brought them out of the land of Egypt..." [Lev. 23:34-43] We can conclude from this text that Sukkot was meant to be an important holiday from the very time of the establishment of "the Jewish way of life." It was to be a different celebration from all other times.



Judaism is not merely a faith in one God, and so its holidays are geared to be the agent that binds the Jewish people into one nation. Thus, the national feelings of the Jews were reinforced through their holidays. Sukkot is a perfect example of this reinforcement process: the travails of the years of wanderings in the desert commemorated through the tabernacles or booths were meant to create a physical feeling of a common past.

The trials and the tribulations of the past, when they are overcome, become a fond memory. So it is with the desert and the generation of the desert; in retrospect, the wandering and the grumbling of the people were forgotten while the miracle of survival in the desert and the spirit that made a crowd of slaves become a nation of God-fearing people shone as a bright star. It is this star that illuminates the holiday of Sukkot.

To be sure, there is also a "natural" element to celebrating the holiday, since it was the end of the harvest season and a time of thanksgiving for God’s bounty.



Though the period of repentance and return ends with Yom Kippur, the theme of absolution from transgressions -- and Divine pardon for sins - is carried on to the end of Sukkot. The reason for this is that if penitence is real and sincere, if we really charge our emotions and electrify ourselves with the fervor and spirit of the High Holidays, then it is close to impossible to "turn off the juice" with the last sound of the Shofar at the end of Ne’ilah (the closing prayer of Yom Kippur). We need an extended period to release and discharge the tremendous feelings generated and brought to a zenith on Yom Kippur -- a time to "come back down to earth."

This calming down period was incorporated into the holiday of Sukkot. Though allegorically God passes judgement and decides our fate for the coming year on Yom Kippur, and though the period of repentance ends on that day, the next ten days or so are considered a "grace period," a time to mitigate God’s decree by the measure of mercy and empathy.



During the holiday of Sukkot we no longer ask for God’s forgiveness, as we did during the High Holidays, but instead we ask God for pardon, for a reprieve through mercy and salvation above and beyond reason and justice. It is in relation to this request for salvation that we use the symbols of Etrog and Lulav.

The Etrog is a citrus fruit related to the lemon, but larger and more sturdy, with a sharper and more pungent aroma. Its shape and size resemble the human heart — which the etrog symbolizes. The etrog is the "fruit of a goodly tree" mentioned in the Torah text.

The lulav is made up of a thin, straight branch of a palm tree, bound and entwined with branches of willow and myrtle. The palm branch represents the spinal column, the sheath that contains the nerve cells, the electric circuit that keep the body intact and functioning. The willow leaves represents the arterial network system feeding the blood from the heart throughout the human body; and the myrtle leaves represents the veins of the body, returning the blood from the limbs to the heart. Another version sees the myrtle as a symbol of the eyes and the willow as a symbol of the mouth. At any interpretation, we see that the etrog and lulav are symbolic of the vital organs or the body, the organs that insure our continued (physical) survival.



Services for the Major holidays include a special service called "Hallel." Before we begin the Hallel of the Festival of Sukkot, except on the Sabbath, the etrog and a lulav, symbolizing the vital organs of the human body, are held together while a special blessing is recited over them. During the Hallel, every time the words Hosha-na (meaning "Please save") are said, the etrog and lulav are shaken.

This symbolizes the anxiety of all the life-preserving organs of our body in the face of God’s judgement — begging still further to mitigate our "sentence" from the time of trial of the High holidays. We also have a special prayer just before the conclusion of the morning service, called "Hosha’na," from which the Christians got the religious term Hossanas. To draw attention to the importance of the etrog and lulav in the service, a Torah scroll is taken out of the Ark for this part of the service, though it is not going to be read. An etrog and lulav are held by the leader of the service, who then chants pleading verses asking for God’s saving grace. In many congregations the Torah and the etrog and lulav are taken around the pews, and people who do not have etrog and lulav sets carry branches of willow which are easy to get almost everywhere. The end of every verse is the Hebrew "Hosha Na."

"Because You are our God, please save us. Because You are our Creator, please save us. Because you are our Redeemer, please save us. Because of the truth of Your Covenant, because of Your Greatness and Your Glory, because of Your Goodness and Holiness, save us now!" [text in the holiday prayerbook] On the seventh day of Sukkot we have more Hosha-na prayers than on the first six days, as this is "the last day of appeal, and the day is called "Great Hosha-na day" - Hosha-na Rabbah.



The day after Hosha-na Rabbah is the "eighth day of assembly," and is not really a part of Sukkot. Rather, it is a day of special gathering, a solemn occasion to remember the Israelites of all past generations. This Memorial day, to be celebrated throughout Israel’s history, was prescribed for us in the Torah: "On the eighth day you shall have a solemn assembly; you shall do no labor in it;" [Num. 29:35] (There is a similar statement in Deuteronomy 16:8 concerning the Feast of Unleavened Bread "Six days you shall eat unleavened bread; and on the seventh day shall be a solemn assembly to the Lord your God; you shall do no work in it.") On this day the Jews were to remember their departed. This tradition continues on to this day.



On the last day of Shloshet Regalim, the three Festival Holidays, we have a special service during the morning prayers just after the reading from the scrolls of the Torah which is called "Yizkor" (Memorial) service. Originally, there was such a service in the Yom Kippur liturgy. The origin of this service, on Yom Kippur, is in the verse, "Forgive, oh Lord, Thy people whom Thou hast redeemed." [Deut. 21:8] Commentary on this verse suggests that we have two 'counterparts' here: "Forgive, oh Lord, Thy people" refers to the living, while "whom Thou hast redeemed," refers to the dead -- those of past generation, such as those who left Egypt. The commentators suggest that God judges all -- the living and the dead, and therefore, it becomes incumbent upon us to pray for God to forgive the dead as well.

Many commentators on our prayerbook suggest that the Yizkor service did not actually come into our liturgy until the end of the first Crusade, at the beginning of the twelfth century. The entire Jewish population of many of the small towns of the Rhein river and of Western and central Europe were massacred or forced to convert. It was during that period that "Kiddush Hashem" -- dying for the sake of glorifying God's name became an honored and accepted tradition in Judaism. In the aftermath of the death of so many, the question was asked, "who shall mourn for these martyrs, who left no offspring to recite the Kaddish for them?" The community leaders instituted the communal mourning service -- Yizkor! One of the reasons that this is believed to be the 'history' of the memorial service is the fact that this particular service is only offered in Ashkenazic congregations. Sepharadic congregations recite a prayer to memorialize the dead at every service, but they do not have a special "Yizkor" service.



Outside of Israel, after Shmini Atseret, we have yet another day of celebration when we end the cycle of the reading of the Torah, and begin again with the first portion in the book of B’resheet, or Genesis. It is believed that the tradition of reading the Torah dates back to the time of Ezrah the scribe, at about 500 B.C.E. -- it is recounted that he read the Torah to Jews on "market days" when they came to town to sell their produce.

The reading is done in weekly portions, so that at the end of Sukkot the reading is completed, and the new cycle is begun. To mark this ending and beginning we hold special services, giving honor to our ancient and sacred book — the Torah. In Israel, Simkhat Torah is celebrated on Shmini Atseret.

The reason that it is celebrated as a special, extra day outside Israel has to do with an old tradition - and a newer reason. In ancient times, when the Jews lived in Israel and in the Mesopotamian diaspora (500 B.C.E. to 100 C.E.), the new month was fixed month by month by the religious authorities in Jerusalem. The announcement of the new month was made by lighting a great bonfire on the highest hill outside of Jerusalem. Observers would see the fire and light their own bonfire from one lookout spot to another all the way from the Hills of Judaea to the banks of the rivers of Babylon.

The Jews had an enemy, the Samaritans, who wished to see the Jews break their Holy obligations. These Samaritans would sometimes ignite fires on hills near enough to the "signal" hills for the observers, far away, to mistake for the real fire — and that caused confusion among the Jews of Babylon. If there were fires two nights in a row -- which night was the "real" night of the new [moon] month? To avoid the possibility of profaning a holiday, the Rabbis ordained that two days of holiday should be celebrated instead of just one, thus one of the two days would be the Torah-decreed holiday.

When Rabbi Hillel fixed the calendar mathematically, there was no longer a question as to which was the "real" and exact day for any holiday. The question came up: "should the ‘additional day’ celebrated in Mesopotamia be dropped?" The Rabbis decreed that it should not. They reasoned that the very atmosphere of the Land of Israel is imbued with holiness. However, outside of Eretz Yisrael, one needs more time to get in the spirit of the holiday, and therefore the extra day, except for fast days, helps to keep the spirit of the holidays alive. This explanation of the need ofmore time to get in the spirit of the holiday was deemed to be so profound that the Rabbis determined that Rosh Hashanah should be a two-day holiday even in the Land of Israel!



Very few people are not familiar with the story of Israel’s bondage in, and exodus from, Egypt. Yet, very few people recognize the full importance of the event for the Jewish people throughout their history. The Kiddush (sanctification of the wine) prayer, with which the festival commences, does not mention the term "Passover" at all — but three other names are given to the holiday: "The season of our freedom; the feast of unleavened bread; the remembrance of the departure from Egypt."

"And this shall be unto you a memorial, and you shall keep it a feast unto the Lord; Throughout your generations you shall keep it a feast by an ordinance forever. Seven days shall ye eat unleavened bread." [Ex. 12:14-15] That ordinance for the holiday was not long in coming. In the book of Leviticus, also known as "Torat Kohanim" — the teaching of the priests — all the feasts of Israel were prescribed in detail. First among them was, "In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at dusk, is the Lord’s Passover. And the fifteenth day of the same month is the feast of unleavened bread unto the Lord; seven days shall ye eat unleavened bread..." [Lev. 23:5-6] The fourteenth day of the month, at dusk, is the Lord’s Passover — but surely not the seven days of the festival! What is the "Passover?" — the act of God passing over the homes of Israel in striking the first born in all Egypt. God Himself came down to perform this last plague, the Torah tells us, an act of omnipower — a punishment of Egypt for the cruelty of Israel’s bondage. God also demanded a reciprocation from the Israelites: "And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Sanctify to me all the firstborn, whatever opens the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast; it is mine." [Ex. 13:1,2] The first born of Israel did not die – they had to be dedicated to God.

This teaches us in the most concrete way the humane character of Judaism, which forbids us to gloat at anyone’s misery! How can we spend seven days in celebration of death and destruction? Indeed, how can we spend even one night, one hour, one minute in such a celebration? Reconsider, then, the story of the slaying of the first born: the Lord demanded that the children of Israel mark their doorposts with the blood of the Paschal Lamb before he visited death upon Egypt. Does the Omnipotent One need a sign upon the door to know who dwells therein? Surely, the sign was not, as we so simplistically believe, for the Lord! It was for us — it was a mark of our commitment! As of that day, we were either in or out! The night of the Passover celebrates commitment to the faith and fate of the Jewish People! What was important was not the blood of the lamb – but rather the mark on the door!

This mark on the door continued in the homes of the Israelites ever since then, in the form of "mezuzah" - the little container on the doorpost that houses a scroll of the call-words of the Jewish people, the "Shma:" "Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord; And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words, which I command you this day, shall be in your heart; And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up. And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the posts of your house, and on your gates." [Deu. 6: 4-9]

So this is the night of Passover, the prelude to the Exodus! We celebrate the great event with a home ritual called "Seder Pesakh" — the Order of the Passover. However, the seven-day holiday that commences on the morrow is Hag Hamatzot — the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

Actually, the holiday was first and remains to this day a celebration of springtime, the season of the year when the earth turns green, and so it is called "Khag Ha’Aviv" — the Festival of Spring. The Major festivals in Judaism are all thanksgiving holidays. Each celebrates a different aspect of God’s generosity to Israel. Hag Hamatzot thanks God for the gift of freedom.

However, before we can celebrate and thank God for freedom, we must understand what freedom really means. God spoke to Moses in the Burning Bush and commanded him to go down to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to "Let My people go that they may serve me!" [Exodus 7:16] Real freedom comes with the service of God. It is the realization of this basic truth that makes the holiday a time of rededication to God.

There are two times a year in the Jewish calendar, six months apart, when our personal commitment to God is renewed: at the New Year, the time of creation, and at Khag Hamatzot, when we realize the true meaning of freedom - commitment to God through service for (and of) mankind.

Throughout Jewish teaching, when the importance of a lesson needs to be made, we read, "You shall remember that you were a slave in the Land of Egypt, and the Lord redeemed you..." [Deuteronomy 15:15] Every time we consecrate the wine at the beginning of Shabbat or a holiday we recall "Zekher litzi’at Mitzra’yim," A remembrance of the time of the exodus from Egypt.

On the second evening of the Festival of Unleavened Bread we begin a countdown to the spring harvest, called "Counting the sheaves" — Sfirat Ha’omer. Since the time of the Exodus is in spring, it begins the count-down to the harvest. It is a time of waiting and anxiety for a farming society. Will the weather cooperate? Will the rain come in its time and be plentyful? Will the sun caress and kiss the fields and make the wheat ripe and good – or will it parch the fields and combust them? We count the days down to harvest-time, forty-nine nervous days. During the revolt of Bar Kokhba, in the year 135, the Jewish army suffered a plague that saw young zealots die every day of this counting of the Omer. Only on the thirty-third day of the counting were there no deaths. Consequently the ‘counting’ period has been considered a time to avoid celebration and joy, except for that thirty-third day, which is called "Lag Ba’Omer." This day has become a day of mirth and joy, a time when Jews celebrate picnics and field-days, birthdays and weddings.



"Seven weeks shalt thou number unto thee; from the time the sickle is first put to the standing corn shalt thou begin to number seven weeks. And thou shalt keep the feast of weeks unto the Lord thy God after the measure of the freewill — offering of thy hand, which thou shalt give, according as the Lord thy God blessed thee. And thou shalt rejoice before the Lord thy God, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy man-servant, and thy maid-servant, and the Levite that is within thy gates, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are in the midst of thee, in the place which the Lord thy God shall choose to cause His name to dwell there. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in Egypt; and thou shalt observe and do these statutes." [Deuteronomy 16:9-12]

Shavu’ot is the third festival holiday of the Jewish calendar (in its current configuration). Unlike the other two, however, the reason for celebrating Shavu’ot is not clearly explained in the Torah, and the date of celebrating the holiday is not given as an actual date, but rather it is related as "the fiftieth day after the night of the Exodus."

Resolving our ‘convoluted mathematics’ we conclude that the Torah ordains this most joyous and significant holiday on the sixth (and seventh outside of Israel) day(s) of the month of Sivan. It is celebrated, by Divine injunction, at the end of the "countdown" of the sheaves — forty nine days, which is (seven times seven days) a "week" of weeks, hence the name Shavu’ot.

Most, if not all, commentators and historians believe that the origin of both the "counting of the Omer" and the celebration at its end — that is to say, Shavu’ot — predate the Exodus and are an agrarian celebration born of the anxiety of waiting for the harvest and the joy of its conclusion and, hopefully, its bounty.

Shavu’ot is also called "Khag Ha’bikurim" — the feast of the first fruits of the early summer harvest. "Also in the day of the of the first of the fruit, when ye bring a new meal offering unto the Lord..." [Numbers 28:26] No one is sure when this practice began, but it is an ancient tradition to read the Book of Ruth during this holiday -- maybe because Ruth met her second husband, Boaz, during the gathering of the harvest.

In establishing Jewish national events on the religious calendar, Moses prescribed the three festivals as a time when the Jews will come to serve God in the place where God’s Temple (or shrine) would be (see Deuteronomy 16:16), which means that the major holidays were all pilgrimage holidays, designated in Hebrew "Shalosh Regalim" - the three times of "walking up" to Jerusalem. Shavu’ot is celebrated as the thanksgiving for the gift of Torah.

It is not certain if the time elapse between the morrow of the Night of the Passover and the day when the Israelites stood at Mount Sinai to hear God speak (49 days) is correct, but we accept the sixth of Sivan as the date of the encounter between the children of Israel and God at Mt. Sinai. We call it "Matan Torah," the time of the giving of God’s teaching. In spite of this most momentous anniversary, Shavu’ot is the shortest of the three festivals: in Israel it is celebrated for one day only, while abroad we extend it by an additional day.

Because the festival celebrates the giving of God’s mitzvot, a tradition developed of behaving in a manner that is most harmonious with God’s creation during this holiday: unlike any other holiday, the Shavu’ot repast was established by tradition to be a non-meat meal. Depending on the country of one’s origin, one may feast on blintzes (cheese or fruit filled crepes), cheesecake, koogle (noodle pudding made with cheese and fruits), potato knishes, and cheese and/or herb bourekas (a baked delicacy of North African and Spanish Jewry).

It is traditional for Jewish homes to be decorated for Shavu’ot with flowers, green foliage, and potted plants. Fruits and vegetables are used both as decoration and as food.

It is also traditional to wear white or light colored clothes and avoid the use of leather goods, such as shoes. The rationale behind this avoidance of meat or leather is that God in his lovingkindness and mercy has seen fit to teach us his life-sustaining wisdom -- and we show our appreciation by avoiding the use of products that require the taking of a life during the celebration of the holiday.

There is no doubt that in our times the Festival of Shavu’ot is the least celebrated of the Major holidays — at least among the less pious, less observant Jews. Yet, in fact, it may be considered the most important — for it celebrates the giving of the Torah, without which no other holiday would have been instituted!



As I mentioned above, it is an ancient tradition to read the Book of Ruth during the holiday of Shavuot. Ruth, a Moabite woman, married an Israelite man who died young. Her mother-in-law, Naomi, set her free from any obligation to her dead husband, but Ruth refused to leave Naomi, stating, "Do not entreat me to leave you, or to keep from following you; for wherever you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; Where you die, will I die, and there will I be buried; the Lord do so to me, and more also, if even death parts me from you." [Ruth 1:16,17] Jewish law ordains that a widow who does not have a male child must marry a close relative of her dead husband, to beget a son and keep the man’s family from extinction. Ruth followed her mother-in-law back to her hometown of Beth Lehem, where she met Boaz, a kin to Naomi, during the gathering of the harvest. He became Ruth’s second husband, redeeming the dead man’s name. Ruth’s grandson was Jesse, father of the shepherd boy, David, the sweet singer of the Psalms, the great anointed king of all Israel.

The importance of this story is in the relationship of the righteous proselyte, Ruth, and the great king, David. This relationship proves beyond any law or claim, that Judaism accepts converts and regards them as full-fledged Jews for any and all purposes – from participation in ritual to establishing a great family blood-line.

Judaism is not a missionary religion. We do not regard our relationship with God as exclusive. There are many ways to reach God and worship Him. We believe that God made His covenant with Abraham to make him a teacher and prophet to carry God’s message of love and grace – but we also believe that many people can find many ways to know and worship God. Having said that, we must also report that Judaism has had a few periods in its history when there were mass conversions. One such time is reconrded in the book of Esther, "The Jews ordained, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all who joined themselves to them, so as it should not fail, that they would keep these two days according to their writing, and according to their appointed time every year;" [Esther 9:27] Also in the time following the victories of the Maccabees, in the century before the advent of Christianity many heathens accepted Judaism and converted to the faith of Abraham. These mass conversions, history has shown, did not benefit Judaism. Indeed, they proved to be detrimental to our people. Hence, after the Roman exile and the evolution of Rabbinic Judaism, there has been a marked reticence to accept converts.

The first step in preparing for conversion is learning. One needs to be thoroughly familiar with all aspects of Judaism before one can make a considered, intelligent decision to enter the covenant. The length of time required to learn is not measured in time but in content. When one is familiar enough to make the choice, there is a procedure that involves a number of steps. Conversion is done by an individual with the help of a Rabbi and a Beit-Din – a Rabbinic court. The convert must go through "Tvilah" - immersion, reciting the proper blessings for the act. This immersion is a symbolic rebirth into Judaism. Next the convert comes before the Rabinic court and is asked questions to determine that (1) the convert knows what he is getting himself into, and (2) the convert does not intend to pervert Judaism by continuing to practice non-Jewish religious beliefs as part of the Judaism he is accepting. When the convert has satisfied the Rabbinic court with sincerity and knowledge, the convert makes a pledge before the court. The words of the pledge are not set down in our liturgy, but will be along these lines:


I, _____ hereby declare my desire to enter the Covenant of Abraham, to accept the principles of the Jewish religion, to live by and follow its practices and ceremonies exclusively, and to become a member of the Jewish people. I do this of my own free will, with an understanding of the significance of the tenets and practices of Judaism, and complete and full realization of the commitment I herewith assume. I understand that Judaism is based on the Hebrew Scriptures (Tanakh) exclusively, and that we neither profess nor accept the religious teachings of non-Jewish creeds.

I pray that my present conviction may guide me through life, that I may be worthy of the sacred tradition and fellowship I now join. As I am thankful for the privileges thus bestowed upon me, I pray that I may always remain conscious of the duties which are mine as a member of the House of Israel.

I declare my determination to maintain a Jewish home. Should God bless me with male children, I pledge to bring them into the covenant of Abraham. I further pledge to rear all the children with whom God blesses me in loyalty to the Jewish faith and its practices. I shall affiliate with a Jewish congregation and become an active member of the Jewish community.


Shma Yisrael Adona'y Eloheynu Adona'y Ehad

Hear, Oh Israel, the Lord Is Our God, The Lord Alone


Baruh shem kvod malhuto le'olam va'ed

Praised be His Sovereign Glory Forever.


Baruh ata Adona'y eloheynu meleh ha'olam shehehe'yanu vekiymanu vehigi'anu lazman hazeh

Blessed are you, Lord our God, who has kept us alive,

and sustained us, and brought us to this day.


Once the convert makes this pledge, and having fulfilled the obligation of the "Tvilah" - immersion (and, for the male convert, circumcision, or where the male was circumcised already, a drop of blood of the covenant), the Beit-Din responds with an acceptance, which can be worded along these lines:



This is to certify that on the ______ day of _______, 57___, corresponding to the ______ of __________, ______, in the city of ___ there came before the undersigned duly constituted Beth Din ___________________, who declared the desire to enter into the covenant of the People Israel as a righteous proselyte. She/He has fulfilled the required ritual of immersion (and, for the male convert, circumcision, or where the male was circumcised already, a drop of blood of the covenant), as prescribed by Jewish law and tradition.

We therefore declare her to be truly a member of the Jewish faith and a full member of the Jewish community, and we confer upon her the name of _______________.

May the God of our father Abraham bless him/her and grant him/her the strength and courage to abide faithfully and loyally by the precepts and observances of our holy Torah, so that s/he may grow up to become a worthy member of the house of Israel, chosen by God to bear testimony to His righteousness among all mankind. Amen




As stated before, the reason for calling the third group of holidays "minor" is because they are not mentioned in the Torah. However, this should not be taken to mean that these holidays are not important, either religiously or for their history. Indeed they are. There are quite a few minor holidays, some of which are quite obscure, and others that are better known to Jews and Gentiles alike. Some are quite ancient, while others were instituted very recenttly. The best example of the latter is Hanukkah.





In the third and second centuries before the common era, the world was dominated and influenced by Greek culture, known as Hellenism. The reason for this was the success of Alexander the Great [356-323 B.C.E.], son of Philip of Macedonia, whose armies conquered all the "known" ancient world, from the Greek islands in the north west to Egypt in the south west, to India in the far east, establishing the largest empire in the ancient world.

Coupled with the military/political success of Alexander, Greece was in the zenith of its culture: great strides had been made in art and philosophy. At that time, Jewish culture and religion were already about two thousand years old. The Jews had been through the exodus, the two kingdoms, the destruction of the kingdom of Israel and the dispersion of the Israelites to lands where they became known as "Yehudim" - Jews, the exile of Judea to Babylon, and the second Commonwealth (and Temple).

According to Jewish legend, Alexander had shown great deference for the Jewish religion and culture, and treated the Jews with equanimity. As a result of the conquest of Judea by Alexander, and in spite (or maybe because) of the fact that he allowed the Jews to keep their old traditions — many Jews began to associate with the Greeks and follow their life-style.

Thus began the Hellenist movement in Judaism. This movement was linked with a socio-political rift that had occurred in Judaea: a gulf had opened between ‘the people’ (including the lay leaders and the great Rabbis) and the ruling class - the priests (who were often not of the stock of Aaron, but bought their ‘office’ from the Greek rulers), the affluent and the politically influential who were running the government. It may be because of the affluence of the ruling class, or because of its close contact with the Greek officials, that the Hellenist movement gained most of its adherents from this ruling class. The introduction of this foreign culture into the mainstream of Jewish life in Jerusalem became a sore point in the relations between the minority (affluent) ruling class and the majority (poor and pious) of the people. Above all, in the eyes of the Jewish purists, this foreign culture was contradictory to Judaism.





The Hellenists were making headway in Jerusalem: they had built a gymnasium which they attended more frequently than the Temple; they translated the Holy Torah into Greek (the - in Jewish circles - "infamous" Septuagint, a bad and incorrect translation) and ceased to study and speak Hebrew; some of the men even underwent operations to reverse their "sign of the covenant in the flesh" — the circumcision!

One has to understand that Hellenism was a philosophy of life that was the complete opposite of the Jewish philosophy. Simply stated, one may say that Judaism believed that what is "good" is beautiful, while the Greeks believed that what is "beautiful" is good.

Judaism emphasized the importance of improving the mind, and the Greeks laid their emphasis on developing the body. The Jews established great academies and wrote great books — while the Greeks came together for the Olympic games (between wars among themselves and with other people).

After the untimely death of Alexander the Great (323 B.C.E.), his empire was divided between his generals. Judea was rules by the House of Ptholemi, whose capital was in Alexandria, Egypt. In the year 198 B.C.E., Judea fell to the armies of Antiochus III, the Greek king of Assyria, who granted the Jews many privileges, including religious rights. In the year 175 B.C.E., a new king ruled over Assyria, Antiochus Epiphanes (the Illustrious).

In an attempt to unify the diverse people in his realm, this king decreed that all people in his kingdom shall be made to worship the Greek gods - and none shall worship any other gods. Thus, with the Jewish Hellenists leading the parade, the Temple in Jerusalem was turned into a shrine of the Greek gods, and the pious Jews had to leave town or accept the "New Order."

Many chose death to giving up their homes and their ancient traditions. The Greek soldiers were without mercy — and the Jews who did not comply with the king’s law were put to death. By order of the king, the Greek soldiers then proceeded to carry the altar of Zeus to all towns and villages in Judea, to implement the edict of total Hellenization. In village after village, massacre, rape and pillage followed the refusal of Jews to worship Zeus. The soldiers often came to Jewish habitations on the Sabbath, and since the Jews were obliged to keep the Sabbath, they would not even take measures to hide themselves and their children.

In the village of Modin, in the Hills of Judea, less than twenty-five miles from Jerusalem, the Greek soldiers encountered resistance: The aged high priest, Mattathias the Hasmonaean, not only refused to lead the people of his village in the forbidden sacrifice — but when a Hellenist Jew did come forward to offer a sacrifice, Mattathias drew a sword and slaughtered the man. His five sons came to his aid, killing the soldiers of the small Greek detachment that came into the village to carry the Hellenization process.

This unprecedented act of religious zeal raised the banner of revolt. Mattathias’ rallying call is very important to note (and to remember): Mi L’Adona’y Ela’y — whosoever is for God, let him come to me! This battle cry, and the men who heeded its message, were a ‘first’ in the annals of human history: a totally volunteer army established to wage war not for gain of territory nor for booty — but merely for the right to do something (worship) as they wished.

In other words, the war was waged for a principle, for an ideal! It is on this precedence that all future noble causes would be fought. Mattathias, in this respect, is the true father of American democracy - the first, the originator of the principle upon which stands the Declaration of Independence! He was the first to fight for human rights!





In the year 166 B.C.E. Mattathias died (of old age, it is believed). His followers from Modin had by then been joined by many pious Jews who fled Hellenistic persecution in Jerusalem and other towns and hamlets. His third son, Yehuda (Judah), led them as they began to nibble at the Greek armies - attacking by surprise here and there, choosing the time and place of battle that would give them the advantage over their numerically superior and better equipped enemy.

Judah adopted as his motto the words from the "Song of the Sea" in the book of Exodus: "Mi Camokha Ba’Elim Adona’y - who is like unto Thee, Oh Lord, among the mighty." The initials of the Hebrew words spelled Macabee - a name by which Judah - and later his army - became known. (It was not until much later, with the help of a "misspelling" of the Hebrew word macabee that the meaning "hammer" came into existence!)

Judah turned out to be a great military strategist. In quick succession, he defeated the legions of the Greek generals Apollonius, Seron, Gorgias and Lysias. With the defeat of Lysias the road to the capital, Jerusalem, was open, and the city lay undefended.

Judah and his men entered David’s capital, driving before them the host of Hellenized Jews who realized that Jerusalem would no longer be a haven for them. Then the Macabees cleansed the Temple, kindled the eternal light and offered thanksgiving sacrifices.





The word "Hanukkah" means dedication, recalling the reconsecration of the Temple to the worship of God which took place on the 25th of Kislev in the year 165 B.C.E. The duration of the holiday, eight days, is explained by lore with the story of the miracle of the oil: a small vessel of pure oil, which had been prepared by the priests in the prescribed manner, was all that the Maccabees found in the Temple. It would have taken eight days to prepare new oil, and they were sure the oil they had found would not suffice to fuel the Eternal Light for more than one day.

The Eternal Light’s flame was a symbol of the establishment of "normal" conditions of Jewish worship in the Temple. The Maccabees were in a dilemma: Should they wait till the new oil was ready? The people were anxious to begin worship in the Temple again; or should they kindle the flame, and allow it to go out when the oil was gone? The Maccabees made a choice — for the immediate service of God. They kindled the light, and it continued to burn until the new oil was ready (which is to say, for eight days). Thus we kindle lights for eight days, and we have given the holiday a second name, "Hag Ha’urim" — the Festival of Lights.

Another legend: there was a Jewish widow in Antioch, named Hannah who had seven sons. The king asked the children to bow to Zeus and they refused — the mother refused to command them to follow the king’s order. To coerce the woman to acquiesce to the king and tell her sons to opt for the Greek gods, her sons were executed before her eyes one after another — until finally only the youngest, a baby, was left in her arms. Hannah ran to the roof of the building and threw herself to the ground beneath still clutching her child in a final embrace, affirming her faith with the words of Deuteronomy 6, "Shma Yisrael...," choosing death to a life of dishonor before God — and maybe for these eight martyrs the duration of the holiday has been set at eight days.





Immediately after the restoration of the Temple, Judah and his brothers turned over the reigns of leadership to the priests and Levites in the Temple. They retired from public office and went back to the little village of Modin, only to be called back when the Greek armies returned.

One by one the Maccabee brothers fell in the continuing battle to keep Judaea Jewish (long after the celebration of Hanukkah was established) — until only one, Simon, remained alive. By then, 142 B.C.E., the Antioch government was involved in battle with the Parthian Empire and had internal troubles in Asia Minor, and was looking with distress on the rising power of Rome. So a treaty was signed between Antioch and Jud ea allowing the Jews self-government. The Jews in Jerusalem wanted to crown Simon king, but he refused, claiming that only descendants of David had a right to the crown of Jerusalem; when the people still insisted that he remain as their leader, he accepted the title "Nassi" — president — not king.





The Hebrew for lamp is "menorah." On Hanukkah, though, we use a special menorah, called "Hanukkiyah." The difference between a regular "Jewish" menorah and a hanukkiyah is that the former has seven branches and the latter has nine. The "ninth" candle is the "Shamash" (sexton), which is lit first, without a blessing. It is with the shamash that the other candles are lit. As the Shamash kindles one light on the first night, and an additional light every succeeding night, so that on the last night all eight candles are lit, we recite the blessings: "Barukh... lehadlik ner shel Hanukkah." "Barukh... she’asa nisim la’avoteynu ba’yamim hahem bazman hazeh." Only on the first night we also chant the "Shehekhe’yanu."

Children play a game of chance on Hanukkah, using a "top" called "dreidle," or "sevivon" in Hebrew. The top is shaped in such a way that it has four sides, and when it stops spinning it falls on one face and another face is "up." On each "face" there is a Hebrew letter that stands for one of the four words "Nes Gadol Haya SHam," — A great miracle happened there. (In Israel the word "SHam" is replaced with "Po" -- meaning here.)

There are special Hanukkah foods: in the Ashkenazic tradition, one serves potato pancakes; in the Sepharadic tradition, bakhlava and tishpishti (sweet nut-rolls in honey) are served; in the State of Israel, the tradition is to eat jelly doughnuts; obviously, the intent is to eat rich, oily, sweet foods as a sign of well-being associated with celebrating a great victory.





While we need to know what the Jewish holidays celebrate, it is just as important to note and remember what Hanukkah in not. It is not "the Jewish Christmas" — nothing could be further from the truth, nor could anything do less justice to the people who were responsible for the first Hanukkah. We have good reason to be proud of our heritage, of the events that led to the establishment of this great holiday. We must celebrate it with full understanding of its true meaning and scope. There is a tradition of giving gifts on Hanukkah. Again, it is not an attempt by the Jews to imitate the Christian custom. Rather, the tradition originated when, on the rededication of the Temple, gifts (sacrifices) were offered to God, special gifts of thanksgiving for His deliverance. When the Temple was destroyed (in 70 c.e.), the Jews ceased the offering of sacrifices; and so gifts were given to the children. From this the custom developed the tradition of giving gifts to one and all. Sometimes, money was given, which was known as "Hanukkah gelt."





The people who kept Judaism alive in the days before the revolt of the Macabees were called Hassidim. Many generations have passed, and yet Hassidim are "still among us." When we think about religious Jews, we often think that the most religious are the ones called "Hassidim." We also bunch all "Hassidim" together, as though they were all the same. That is just not so, and at this time, in honor of those who maintain the traditions of Judaism, I thought I would tell about the Hassidim.

The term KHassidim comes from the Hebrew hesed, which is translated in the dictionary to mean grace or lovingkindness. The term "hassid," applied to a person, is mentioned in the Book of Macabees and in the Talmud for the zealots who opposed Hellenism. The Hassidim were men who showed great piety and resolve on behalf of God, and some were said to know how to personally connect to His powers. Some were capable of performing miracles, of healing, and other deeds that were considered supernatural. One such man was Honi, "the circle-maker," of whom the story is told that at a time of drought he "threatened God" -- he drew a circle on the ground, stepped into the circle, and informed God that he would remain in that circle until death overtook him if God would not send rain to bless the earth. However, today’s khassidim do not trace their roots to these early men of faith.

The modern Hassidic movement began in the 18th century, in the aftermath of generations of persecution of Jews, and in particularly as a reaction to the disappointment of the rise of a number of "false messiahs" who first excited the imagination of Jews with the message of salvation and redemption, and then broke their heart in the discovery of their inability to truly redeem and succor. Orthodoxy became less and less fulfilling and satisfying to the people, and many drifted away from Judaism. Into this vacuum were pulled many men of faith who preached the need to renew a zeal for God and His teachings.

One who caught the imagination and attention of a large following was Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem Tov - "the owner of a good name." There are different explanations about this name: some saying that it meant that he was well known as a good person, while others maintain that it refers to the fact that he knew the "secret" name of God, which made it possible for him to perform miracles invoking that name. One thing is known, and it is that he was capable of performing miracles, and he developed a whole movement, the Hassidic movement, whose most important tenet was that "it was a great mitsvah to be happy at all times."

Israel ben Eliezer Ba’al Shem Tov, who is known by the initials Besh"t, was born in central Europe into a very poor family and orphaned in childhood. He became an assistant teacher in a "heder" (a one-room-school for tots), and a watchman in a synagogue. Later he married and moved out of town to meditate in the Carpathian mountains and "find God." At about the age of thirty five he emerged from seclusion to become a healer and teacher who was magnetic and charismatic and drew a large following. The Besh"t preached the concept of "dvekut" -- adhesion to God and His mitsvot. This was done in the spirit of Joy in which God created the world. Music, song, and gladness were hallmarks of Hassidic life, and the use of musical instruments, called "klezmer" -- instruments of song, long out of use in the Jewish community, was another innovation of the Hassidim. The music of the Hassidim, typically, was similar to (and more than likely influenced by) the music of central Europe -- where it developed. It is similar to Gypsy music and the music of Hungary and Rumania. After the Besh"t died, his disciples parted ways, each learned Rabbi settling in another town in central and northeastern Europe and establishing different Hassidic "courts" where the Hassidic tradition was changed according to its local leader’s interpretation of God’s will and the teaching of the Ba’al Shem Tov.

In the days of Rabbi Israel, and in the following generations, the majority of pious Jews considered the Hassidim to be uneducated and ignorant Jews who could not be called a part of the "mainstream" of Judaism. The Hassidim were the "reform" movement of the eighteenth century, and traditional Judaism considered them as one step away from apostasy. Indeed, these non-Hassidim formed a movement, which was called "mitnagdim" -- meaning those who oppose, to counter the charismatic teaching of the Besh’t. This conflict between the traditionalist pious (orthodox) Jews and the Hassidim continues to this day.

At the end of the nineteenth century, mass migration out of central and eastern Europe brought Hassidim as well as mitnagdim and freethinkers to this country. Most Hassidim who immigrated here in earlier decades melted rapidly into the larger American Jewish community. However, those who arrived in consequence of Naziism and the holocaust, in the 1940's and later, refuse to assimilate quietly into the American "salad" society: they almost never intermarry, attend the theater, watch movies or television, or seek advanced secular education. The reason for this change has to do, probably, with two factors: Those who came before the second world war were ready to leave the protective canopy of the Rebbe, the Hassidic leader of the community, and they came of their own free will to this country, to start a new life. Those who came after the rise of Nazism fled the burning ground of Europe, had no choice but to leave Europe, and came to this country at the behest of their leader, who followed them to this country. Many Hassidim, particularly the Lubavitch group, settled in New York City, in Brooklyn. Others settled in Boston, New Jersey and other places.

Today, a large percentage of American Hassidim work in the diamond and knit-goods industries, while others work at jobs related to the community’s religious needs, such as teaching at yeshivas (schools) or handling kosher food products.





The Brooklyn Hassidic community’s social and economic organization closely replicates that of the prewar eastern European villages where Hassidic Rebbes and their courts were established. The Rebbes were the descendants of the disciples of the Baal-Shem-Tov and Rabbi Dov Baer, the two figures who initiated the khassidic movement in the mid-eighteenth century. The early Hassidim separated themselves from established congregations and initiated a range of religious and social changes: the scholarly rabbi, who decided on questions of law, became subordinate to the inspired Rebbe; a more esoteric liturgy was substituted; prayer and devotion were intensified, and some rituals, such as visiting the ritual bath (a small pool, deep enough for one to completely immerse oneself while standing) were emphasized. As the disciples of the first Hassidic leaders gathered their own followings, Hassidic dynasties developed, with the Rebbes and their Hassidim taking the names of the towns were the Rebbe lived. 

The various Hassidic courts, which were once scattered throughout eastern Europe, are now located in this country and in Israel. Here, they are concentrated in three Brooklyn neighborhoods -- Williamsburg, Crown Heights, and Borough Park. Most Hassidim in Williamsburg are of Hungarian origin and have allegiance to Satmar. The Russian khassidim of Lubavitch are settled in Crown Heights; while the growing community in Borough Park, comprising a range of courts of diverse geographic origins, is strongly influenced by its many American-born Hassidim. Each court’s size, which varies from fifty to several thousand families (for the Satmar community), is related to the number that survived the war, the percentage that preferred to settle in Israel, and the reputation of its Rebbe.

The strength of the present Hassidic community derives in great measure from the intimacy and shared responsibilities within the courts. Each court is attached to a particular Rebbe and bound by special customs and traditions and a common language. Its followers have a shared point of view regarding religious and political matters and an oral literature concerning its Rebbes from the past to the present. Each court maintains its own yeshiva and "besmedresh" [beit midrash in Hebrew] (schools) which are supported by tuition and voluntary contributions, generally 10 to 20 percent of every household’s income. The duties and shared obligations develop strong, self-perpetuating bonds, sons assuming the loyalties and responsibilities of their fathers.

Like all Orthodox Jews, the Hassidim are regulated by the 613 commandments (mitzvot in Hebrew) of the Hebrew Scriptures and by the elaborations of rabbinical interpretation. The mitsvot embrace every area of human activity and are the moral and legal guides for daily life. Each Jew’s personal fate, as well as the destiny of the community, is believed to hinge on the fulfillment of the laws. The Hassidim, are viewed as more fervent and punctilious than other Orthodox Jews, zealots of the law -- except for the ultra-orthodox but this perception is nor correct at all!

In accordance with the most pervasive commandment, the Hassidim honor the Sabbath, Shabbat in Hebrew, and the holy days, pray three times each day, bind phylacteries (tefillin) to the forehead and arm each morning, eat only kosher food, and use separate kitchenware for milk products and for meat in strict observance of the rules of Kashrut.

The Sabbath is divinely mandated and its observance is public and communal. From Friday sundown until Saturday night all work comes to a halt and a sense of solemnity and joy pervades the community. Services are long and are completely in Hebrew, and they are followed by home observance. The Shabbat eve meal is followed by songs and story-telling on the portion of the Torah and many tales of Hassidic lore.

Although every Hassid is observant of the laws, the Rebbe’s zeal and insight are considered to be on a different scale from that of other kHassidim. As a Lubavitcher Hassid described it, the Rebbe "worships God every second of the day with all his heart and soul." Because of his prayer, his piety, and his family lineage, the Rebbe is thought to be in contact with enormous spiritual power. In fact, before his death, many of the Lubavitch Hassidim have come to the conclusion that their Rebbe is the physical manifestation of the messiah in our times.

The Satmar Rabbi has told the following story to illustrate his point of view. "The difference between Satmar Hassidim and other Jews is this: Once when the time came to put the Torah (the parchment scroll of the Five Books of Moses) back in the covering, it was too difficult to fit it in, and the man who was putting it in suggested that they cut the Torah to make it fit. Ridiculous? Of course. You have to cut the covering to shape. We will adjust our environment to fit the Torah and not the reverse."

The Hassidim are threatened by internal as well as external change. The growing Hassidic population has resulted in greater geographic spread; as a consequence, social controls within the courts have been weakened. Some Hassidim have expressed distress over the contrast between the appearance of religiosity and true piety. They distinguish between the "frum" (observant) who obey the basic tenets of Orthodox Judaism, and the "ehrlicher "(honest) Hassid whose piety requires him to do more than the law requires.

Many people in the Jewish community at large feel that the Hassidim are over-zealous is their practices of religiosity, almost to the point of being a cult. They point out that the rule of the Rabbi, though it is voluntarily accepted by the Hassidim, nonetheless is autocratic and arbitrary, and therefore similar in nature and scope to charismatic cult leaders. Hassidim come to seek the Rabbi's advice and consent for matters from the most mundane to the most personal matters. Should one accept a job offer, should one move, and whom should one marry. They also point out that the Hassidim turn their new members from the families from which they came. They espouse political opinions that are sometimes against "mainline" Jewish opinion -- such as public funds support for religious education, prayers in school, etc..





"Mishenikhnas Adar marbim besimkha" -- When Adar enters there's much joy.



Of all the holidays celebrated by the Jewish people, Purim is the most unusual and controversial.

The origin of the holiday is in the Book of Esther, one of the "megillot" (scrolls) that are part of the third section of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Scriptures) that is known as "the writings" (Ketubbim). Yet, the holiday is not one of the "major" festivals, and a number of Jewish communities that were separated from the main body of Judaism from Scriptural times to recent years (such as the "Falasha" Jews of Ethiopia and the Jews of the Atlas Mountains of North Africa) did not celebrate it. Nor did they have a book of Esther in their Tanakh!

Another strange thing to report: archeological findings in the Dead Sea area included fragments from more that 100 separate scrolls (known as the Dead Sea Scrolls) that were of Scriptural text. The texts were of all the books of the Scriptures except for the book of Esther! And yet! We know that the Book of Esther is a part of our Tanakh. We are aware that it forms an important part of post-Scriptural discussions. Almost a full tractate of Talmud (called, fittingly, Megillah) deals with the text of this strange book, its interpretation, and interpolation of holiday rules. Consider for a moment: of all the books of the Hebrew Scriptures, the book of Esther is the only one in which the word ‘God’ (in any form used anywhere else in the Hebrew Scriptures) does not appear!

Indeed, there is a school of thought that suggests that the Megillah was "lifted" (or borrowed) from Mesopotamian lore and is not only not Jewish, but in fact a secret attempt to get Jews to worship the local Mesopotamian or Persian idols. According to this school of thought, Esther is a "Hebraized" Astarte (or Ashtaret), and Mordekhai is Murdok — the chief idol of that time and place. Thus, the Jews at the end of the reading of the Megillah are honor bound to give thanks and pay homage for their survival to none else than the two chief deities of the Persian Empire.

Well, let us consider: is this a possibility? Could the Jews have been ‘hoodwinked’ into accepting the historical event that did not happen — and thus became idol worshiping pagans?

We know that remembering our history is a form of practice of our faith; we know that the Jews of Persia did not assimilate en masse — and that, in fact, in the days of the reign of the son of "Akhashverosh" (and possibly of Esther, as well!) of Megillah fame (king Xerxes I [486-465 B.C.E.]), the Jews of Persia had enough power and prestige in the Persian world to have a Jewish governor in Jerusalem (Nehemiah), who had been the closest advisor (cupbearer) to the king, and who completed the building of the Second Temple. Judaism, then, not only did not disappear, but, in fact, prospered.

Well, then, we must accept that the events that are recounted in the Megillah did, in fact, happen. The tragedy was, indeed, averted -- and did not take place. And we must comprehend the Hebrew text and its facts, grasp the full scope of the story, and fathom it’s mystery.





Why is the book called the Scroll of Esther and not the Scroll of Mordekhai? Why does the text say, in introducing the heroine [Esther 2:7], "...and he reared Hadassah, that is Esther..." -- which of the two was her name, and which was an alias? The Midrash says that both names were hers, and both were meaningful. Hadassah is the Hebrew for myrtle, the plant used as one of the elements in making a lulav. The smell of the leaves is fine, and the taste is bitter. The midrash said she brought a fresh breath to the Jews — the breath of life — and to Haman, who wished to devour her — a bitter taste, the taste of death!

Esther, according to the same sources, comes from the verse in Deuteronomy [31:18] "Astir pana’y ba’yom hahu" — I shall hide my face on that day. The midrash suggests that God hid his face from the world because of its wickedness. I would like to suggest to you a slightly different view of the same word: "Seter," the root of Esther, means mystery. The ways of the Lord are indeed mysterious as he guides the innocent through the maze of life! The Megillah implies much that is not spelled out nor is obvious on the surface.

Mordekhai is introduced [ibid 2:5] as "...a Jewish man... Mordekhai, son of Yair, son of Shim’i, son of Kish, a Benjaminite..." The fact that the introduction begins with "A Jewish man" (in the Hebrew ‘ISH’) is interpreted as a sign that he was a ‘great man’ as in the discussion of Moses in Leviticus we read, "and the man Moses was very humble..." [Lev. 12:3] Now this worthy man is called "Yehudi", which normally means of Judah. And yet we are told that by lineage he is of the tribe of Benjamin. This is considered to be very good — for Benjamin was the only son of Jacob who did not participate in the selling of Joseph. Furthermore, the lineage of Kish is a Royal lineage! King Saul was of the same line, a noble family worthy of being God’s instrument for preserving the Jews of his generation. Being of Royal lineage, Mordekhai is also given a legitimate reason in court protocol not to bow to Haman. Yet, the megillah is named for Esther! Why? It is a mystery!





If the origin of the megillah is in doubt, and if the reason for the name is shrouded in mystery, the content of the book is nothing less than scandalous for a religious book. It tells of the corruption of orgies of eating, drinking and depraved living. It speaks of the abuse of power and the total disregard for human life or the most basic rights of safety under the law in a civilized world. One is almost thankful that God’s name (or His very existence) is not mentioned in this book.

We learn of the king of a great empire, who spends his time and his subjects’ wealth on parties and merriment lasting months at a time. We read of conspiracies to overthrow the ruler, uncovered through the good offices of a man close to the king — who is not recognized for his vigil nor rewarded for his devotion. We are shocked by the monarch who is so uncaring as to surrender the life of a portion of his citizenry to the vile hater of the Jews. We may even be appalled to find the king so weak in his resolve that he is ready to disown his minister’s plans (and life) for the continued acceptance by a new ‘first lady!’

If this story was, indeed, meant to make the Jews leave their faith behind, as has been suggested — it misses its mark by a country mile! All we can say when we are done reading this account of life among the Medes and Persians is "How goodly are your tents oh Jacob..."







At the conclusion of Megillat Esther we read, "That is why the Jews... celebrate the fourteenth day of the month of Adar as an occasion of gladness and feasting..." [Esther 9:19] and "... the Jews confirmed and undertook upon themselves and their posterity and upon all who join them to observe these two days without fail..." [9:27] Jewish tradition suggests that the events of Purim took place in the days immediately before Persia conquered Babylon, the Jews returned to Jerusalem and began rebuilding it, and with it also the second Temple.

Purim has been celebrated for over two thousand years! In times of desperation, when it seemed to the Jews that there is not the slightest chance for them to survive, much less persevere, the holiday of Purim reminded them that as long as there is life there has to be hope, and succor will come from the least expected quarter. Until modern times, in fact, Purim was a much more "important" holiday than Hanukkah – and was much more faithfully celebrated. The customs associated with this holiday are different and strange – they must be regarded as a chance to ‘break training’ as it were – to let off steam and allow ourselves a moment of levity and merriment in a life that is, at all other times, most serious and demanding.

In the synagogue, the reading of the Megillah is accompanied by the noise of obliterating Haman’s name by pounding with feet on the ground or using special noise-makers called groggers. We are commanded by the Talmud to feast on good food and drink till "we know not the difference between ‘blessed is Mordekhai’ and ‘cursed is Haman!’"

This is a festival in which the poor are to be particularly remembered. We are commanded to send sweets to one another (called Shalakh Manot) and "gifts to the poor." [ibid 9:22] The holiday is unique not only by how we celebrate it - but by what we don’t do this day. While on every other holiday we chant praises of God called Hallel, on this holiday we do not! We also do not recite petitions to God, as it is recognized that God answered and saved on this day without His name being mentioned!

You may recall that when Esther was asked by her uncle to go unto the King and plead for the life of the Jews, she asked that the Jews of Shushan assemble and fast and pray for her! For h e r, not for their own safety.

The Talmud commands us to give thanks every time and in every place where and when we were miraculously saved from peril such as the one in Persia in the days of Haman. The celebration of such thanksgiving is a "regional" Purim, which was called "Purim Katan" or a minor Purim. There are more than a hundred known "minor Purim" celebrations from Algiers to Zborow (A to Z) and from Baghdad to Tetuan & Tangiers (East to West).



There are quite a few other holidays that we added to the Jewish calendar after the Tanakh was "sealed." Some have to do with the destruction of the Temple: the 10th of Tevet and the 17th of Tammuz. The saddest day in the Jewish calendar is the 9th of the month of Av. One may call it "Jewish disaster day." On this same date (among other things) the first and second Temples were destroyed, the Jews were expelled from Spain, and in a manner of speaking, events were set in motion that brought about the Holocaust! There is Jewish Arbor day, the 15th of Shvat. In our own generation three holidays have been added: Yom Ha’Sho’ah, Holocaust commemoration day; Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, Israel’s Independence day; and Yom Yerushala’yim, Jerusalem Day -- marking the reunification of Jerusalem, Israel’s eternal capital city.


"The heaven and the earth were finished and all their host. On the seventh day God finished His work which He had made; God ceased on the seventh day from all His work which He had made; and God blessed the seventh day and made it Holy for on it He ceased from all His work of creation..." [Genesis 2:1-3]

Shlomo HaLevi, a poet who lived during the golden age of Spanish Jewry, wrote a love song to the Sabbath queen, one of whose verses says, "Sof ma’aseh bemakh’shava t’khila" — the last act of creation was the first in His thought. The day on which God rested, according to Jewish tradition, was in His mind all along during the six days of creation. Indeed, there is a folk-tale that says, "God wanted to create Shabbat. To do this, it became necessary for Him to spend six days creating the world..." We, too, shall consider it at the end of our review of Jewish holidays, maybe because it is the most important of holidays.

Though it occurs once in every seven days, it is the one holiday that was made unique not by Jewish tradition or the Torah — but by God Himself! Other Jewish holidays are all measured by the yardstick of Shabbat! A semi-Shabbat is not as important as a full Shabbat, and the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, is recognized to be so holy because the Torah calls it "Shabbat Shabbaton" — the Sabbath of all Sabbaths — no matter what day of the week it falls on!

The Sabbath begin just before sunset of the evening before the day we celebrate, as, indeed, do all Jewish holidays. This is because of the text, in the story of creation, "and there was evening and there was morning, the first day..." Thus, Shabbat commences on Friday evening. Shabbat and all holidays are marked in the Jewish home by the lighting of candles, some twenty minutes before sunset. The obligation of doing this is given to the woman of the house.

The man of the house has the duty to welcome the Sabbath, which is compared to a queen or a bride, with songs of gladness and the consecration of the wine (Kiddush). It is traditional to have two loaves of Sabbath bread (Halot) at the table, in remembrance of the double portion of manna that the Israelites collected in the desert on the eve of the Sabbath. The Sabbath was ordained as a special day for the Jewish people, a day upon which no manner of labor should be undertaken. It is a day to commune with God, to enjoy one’s family and friends; a day for study and contemplation; a time set aside for the needs of the spirit - in contrast with the battle of survival which occupies us during the remainder of the week. It is also important to be part of a congregation on Shabbat.

While Shabbat occurs every seven days, every Shabbat is different, and is called by the name of the portion read in the Torah that week. Thus, the Shabbat after Simhat Torah (p. 22) is Shabbat Be’resheet (Genesis Sabbath). Some Sabbaths have special names: We call the Shabbat when we read the 15th chapter of Exodus, the "Song of the Sea," – "Then sang Moses and the Children of Israel this song unto the Lord, saying: I shall sing unto the Lord for He has triumphed gloriously, the horse and his rider has He thrown into the sea..." "Shabbat Shirah" — the Sabbath of Song. The Shabbat before Pesakh is called "Shabbat Hagadol" -- the Great Sabbath, and the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is "Shabbat Shuva" — the Sabbath of return. The Shabbat immediately after Tish’a B’Av, the time of the destruction of the Temple, is called "Shabbat Nakhamu" – the Shabbat of Consolation, and so on. Shabbat ends a full hour after the candles we lit the night before – or forty minutes after sunset, and we send it away with a special service called "Havdallah" – a service of separation. We separate from our beloved Queen, and we separate Shabbat from the weekdays. The "Havdallah" service is unique because we use a spice box, wine and a special multi-wick candle to conduct an experience of all the five senses: hearing, seeing, smelling, touching, and tasting.





One of the most sensitive issues to tackle these days is the connection of the Jews (particularly in our times) to the Land of Israel, that small but vital area along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea that had been the homeland of the Jews from the earlier time of their history to this day. This is why I did not touch on it earlier, except to note the historic connection of the Patriarchs to the land, and the place of the land in the development of other aspects of Judaism. Some people, Jews and non-Jews, argue that there is no place for Zionism in Judaism, while others argue quite as sincerely and vehemently that Zionism is a part of Judaism in such a manner that to be against the one automatically makes one be against the other. So, for the sake of clarity, let us start by defining our terms.

Definition: Zionism n. (1) the sentiment of yearning for the area called Zion, which is a mountain in Jerusalem - and by inference, all of the land inhabited by the Jews in Scriptural days. (2) the political movement, founded by Theodore Herzl in 1897, at the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, whose purpose it was to recreate in the ancient homeland of the Jewish people a safe and independent Jewish state that will be a sanctuary for persecuted Jews.

The second half of the 19th century was a time of national renaissance in Western civilization. Many small nations began a struggle for independence and self-fulfillment. Garibaldi united the many states into one Italy; the provinces of Germany were coming together; and the peoples that were forced to exist together in the Austro-Hungarian Empire were beginning their struggle for national expression that was to come to fruition at the end of World War I.

The Jews had lived in all of the lands of Europe, yet were never really accepted as citizens in any of the lands of their residence. Consequently, some became "internationalists" (and later socialists and communists) in the utopian belief that when the boundaries would come down, bigotry will disappear as well. A minority of Jews realized, even then, that the path to Jewish safety was not through finding the lowest common denominator (assimilation), but rather through the rebirth of Jewish national existence in its own homeland. The Jews had been exiled from the Land of the Promise — they must make every effort to return thence and reestablish their hegemony there.

It should be noted that the land in question (at the time - 1860-1897) was practically devoid of inhabitants. The claim by modern revisionist historians that Arabs lived on this land in great numbers just does not prove to be right based on all accounts by the travelers of those days. According to a census of the Turkish Ottoman government (1881), the province of Southern Syria — which encompassed the areas (on today’s map) of Southern Lebanon, the Golan Heights - to within five miles of Damascus, the whole of the Kingdom of Jordan, Israel (including the Judea-Samaria and Gaza territories), and the eastern third of the Sinai peninsula — had a population which totaled 210,000. Of these, some 35,000 were Jews!  Furthermore, according to the same census, 87% of the land area was owned by the Ottoman government. Therefore, when those early pioneers arrived in the land filled with the Zionist ideal, they did not disregard the inhabitants of the land -- there were just so few of them, nor did the pioneers dispossess them!

Mark Twain, who travelled through the land in 1867, was appalled by what he discovered. In "Innocents Abroad" he wrote: "There is not a solitary village throughout its whole extent, not for thirty miles in either direction (near Merom). There are two or three small clusters of Bedouin tents, but not a single permanent habitation. One may ride ten miles, hereabouts, and not see ten human beings. To this region one of the prophecies is applied: "I will bring the land into desolation; and your enemies which dwell therein shall be astonished at it..."

"No man can stand here by deserted Ain Mellahah and say the prophecy has not been fulfilled. Grey lizards, those heirs of ruin, of sepulchers and desolation, glided in and out among the rocks or lay still and sunned themselves. Where prosperity has reigned and fallen; where glory has flamed and gone out; where gladness was and sorrow is; where the pomp of life has been, and silence and death brood in its high places, there this reptile makes his home, and mocks at human vanity."


There were hardly any inhabitants at all in the area that the Jews were settling in! The Jews did not settle on government-owned land -- they had to purchase a portion of the 13% of the land that was privately owned. They purchased land from the Arabs, often land that was deemed worthless: swamps in the Jezrael valley, sand dunes in the Sharon valley and the seashore area near Jaffa, and bare rocks in the hills of Judaea and Galilee.

The map on the right is of the provinces of the Ottoman Empire’s eastern Mediterranean. It is quite evident that there was no "state of Palestine."




France is the cradle of modern democracy and the ideals of liberty, brotherhood and equality. In the last decade the nineteenth century, France was in the throes of a scandal emanating from the defeat of its army in the Franco-Prussian War. It had been discovered that there was a spy in the headquarters of the French joint chiefs of staff. An investigation led to the indictment of a captain named Alfred Dreyfus. The evidence against Dreyfus was circumstantial at best, and totally contrived, fabricated by the investigators.

The main argument for convicting Captain Dreyfus was that he was from the province of Alsace, which had a German speaking population, and that he was a Jew. Following the sensational public trial, and whipped by hysterical articles in anti-Semitic journals, throngs of Parisians stood in front of the courthouse where the trial was being held shouting obscenities against the Jews. The famous author, Emil Zola, tried to defend Dreyfus because of the unfair treatment he was receiving in court, and almost lost his life for his effort. Dreyfus was convicted as charged.

The correspondent for the Viennese newspaper "New Free Press" in Paris was an assimilated, well educated Hungarian Jew by the name of Theodore Herzl. His enlightened sophistication was shattered by the display of French bigotry during the Dreyfus trial. This anti-Semitic orgy in the land of liberty-equality-brotherhood convinced Herzl that the Jews will never be safe in Gentile society, and that their only hope for survival rested in a concentrated effort to reconstitute their national homeland.

He wrote a booklet, "The Jewish State," and he travelled to discuss the ideas promulgated in this booklet with like-minded, enlightened Jews in Great Britain, Germany, and Austria. Convinced by his contacts that his concept was correct, and that the time was ripe for such an undertaking to be launched, Herzl called together an international conference of Jews interested in reestablishing a national identity in their ancient homeland. That was the first Zionist Congress.

The Congress called on Jews to leave their homes in Europe and put down new roots in the Land of Israel. A world-wide fund-raising organization, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) was established to collect monies for the purpose of buying land for the Jews to settle on. Herzl was elected President of the organization he founded, and he launched a campaign of personal diplomacy, seeking to meet and convince European heads of Government to sponsor and support the aims of the Zionist movement.

Herzl travelled to Turkey, where he met with the Sultan and offered to buy the entire Land of Israel. This offer was turned down. While the Zionist movement found many adherents, and quite a few young Jews left Eastern Europe to establish farming communities in the Holy Land, Herzl’s diplomatic endeavors did not bear fruit. In spite of pogroms in Eastern Europe, the Zionist cause seemed to be at or near a standstill till the third year of the First World War.





In 1917, France, Britain and Italy were doing very poorly in their war against Austria and Germany. Their fourth ally, Russia, was on the verge of collapse and about to sign a separate peace with their common enemy. They knew that their only hope of victory lay in bringing the United States into the war on their side. Many high officials in the British Government believed that the Jews had great political power in the United States, and could convince the Congress and President to join the war on Germany.

To persuade the Jews to use this political clout in the U.S., the British Government promised prominent British-Jewish leaders to support Jewish "National aspirations in the Holy Land." In November of 1917, the Foreign Secretary, Lord Balfour, issued the now famous Declaration: "His Majesty’s Government views with favor the establishment, in Palestine, of a Jewish national home..."

The Zionists, spurred by the Balfour declaration, increased their effort to help Britain’s war aims. The future prime-minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, and the future second president of Israel, Yitzkhak Ben-Tzvi, went to America to "help raise an army." Thousands of young Jewish men (many of them recently arrived in the U. S. from Eastern Europe) volunteered to serve in the British army. These volunteers travelled at their own expense from the United States to Egypt where they were inducted into the British military, forming three infantry regiments that became known as the "Jewish Legion." Jews inside the Land of Israel organized a spy ring to help the British war effort.






Unfortunately, while the Foreign Office in London was pro-Zionist, the Colonial Office officials in Egypt were Arabists, and many of them anti-Semites to boot! After the conquest of Southern Syria from the Turks (in which the Jewish Legion and Jews native to the Land of Israel played a pivotal role!), a civil government was set up, using many of the Egyptian-based Colonial-Office Arabists whose sentiments ran contrary to the Foreign Office policy. Acting upon their sentiments, these officials, with British colonial arrogance, contradicted the official British government policy, established laws that favored the Arabs, and planted the seeds of conflict between Jews and Arabs.

Eventually, the Balfour Declaration was accepted as a policy guideline for the eastern shore of the Mediterranean sea by the U.S. congress, and as the blueprint for a mandate for Great Britain to rule the land, under the umbrella of the post-war international organization, the League of Nations. In 1922, the British Colonial Office arbitrarily divided the territory, ceding all the lands East of the Jordan river to an Arab notable, Emir Abdullah, who was not even a native of the area. In the spirit of cooperation and brotherhood, the Zionists accepted this de facto partition of the land, and agreed to restrict their settlement to, and aspirations for independence in, the land area west of the Jordan only.

Conflicting British promises to Arabs and Jews, combined with secret agreements between the British and the French to divide the Eastern Mediterranean area caused great frustration and anger among the Arab inhabitants. Whipped to a frenzy by the rhetoric of religious/political leaders, riots against the British authorities and Jewish settlers broke out again and again through the 1920’s and 30’s. In the spirit of appeasement that dominated foreign policy in Europe, each successive wave of Arab violence resulted in further and further abrogations of the Balfour Declaration policy.

With the rise of Nazism in Germany, and the anti-Semitic policy it promulgated, the Zionists clamored for an open door policy to allow refugees fleeing for their lives a safe haven — and the British Mandatory Government responded with restrictions, and an eventual total clamp-down on Jewish immigration into the land!

In a most cynical retrospective comment, Ramsey McDonald, Britain's Colonial minister, recalled years later, "War is coming. We knew the Jews would be on our side. They had to be. So we made a policy that would hopefully favor the Arabs and bring them on our side, too."

Zionists were helpless to offer succor as two thirds of European Jewry were annihilated in the Holocaust. When the war was over, the world was shocked by the magnitude of the crime perpetrated upon the Jews. The Zionists, determined that the Jews shall never again remain without a safe haven, demanded an end to British rule over the land they had turned from a desert to a blooming garden. When Britain refused to cede the mandate, a campaign of intimidation and embarrassment was mounted by the Yishuv (the Jewish inhabitants of the land) against the arbitrary and repressive British colonial rule. The British called it "terror," and it certainly had some of the same features: clandestine "underground armies" fighting a shadow war against a mighty oppressor. However, a close examination of the events of those days in the Mandatory region will quickly show that there was a great care taken to prevent unnecessary spilling of blood. The Jews wanted to embarrass the British out of their "twice promised" (by God and Lord Balfour...) homeland.





By 1947, London had had enough. The question of the future of the mandate area was returned to the League of Nations’ successor — the United Nations. A special commission of the U.N. investigated the situation and made a recommendation to the international body. On November 29, 1947, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution to partition the Mandate area of Palestine Eretz-Yisrael into an Arab state and a Jewish state.

The maps on the right tell the story of "land for peace" - how the Jews compromised again and again over the size of their "national home" in the hope of living in peace with their neighbors. Compare or contrast the map on top left, the original land promised by the Balfour declaration with the bottom left, the partition plan of the United Nations. Look at the 1967 map, and note that Israel gave the Sinai back to achieve peace with Egypt.

Five Arab nations, charter members of the world organization founded to solve international disputes without resort to war, refused to accept this partition resolution, and stated their intention to prevent the plan by force of arms! War came to the land on the very morrow of the U.N. vote - but the only thing the Arab nations prevented was the establishment of the Arab state. They did not stop the Jewish state from becoming a reality, and neither did they prevent the misery of the wretched Palestinian (Arab) refugees.

Israel’s population, which on the eve of Independence numbered 650,000 Jews and some 120,000 Arabs, has increased to over five millions. Taking in Jewish refugees from all over the world (including some 800,000 from Arab lands), the new state has had to build new towns and villages for them to inhabit; new industries, farms, and social services to support and provide a livelihood for them; new schools, hospitals, recreational facilities, a police force, and an army that cannot be defeated, to insure that the newcomers will have a future in this new land.

Israel did this in the face of constant threats of attack by the combined might of the Arab nations, aided and armed by the wealth of oil and the good will of the Communist world and most of the nations of Europe. Eight times in the state’s short history the threats became real, and war broke out, making necessary an all out effort on the part of Israel to win the battle and protect its boundaries.

With the help of world Jewry and the backing of the U.S., Israel raised itself with much effort and initiative from being an underdeveloped nation to a model modern state that provides training and expert help to other nations struggling to find their place in the family of nations.

In May of 1967, president Nasser and King Hussein signed an accord -- just before the Arab confrontation states, Egypt, Jordan and Syria, resolved to reverse the "shame of 1947" (and Nasser's defeat of 1956 in the Sinai) — which, as we all know, brought about the Six Day war, and Israeli occupation of the Golan, Judea, Samaria, the Gaza strip and the Sinai. Dreams were shattered... New dreams replaced them. Suddenly, Israel was a "power" to be reckoned with -- or so it was thought. From a position of strength, willing to return territory just captured, Israel sued for peace. The Arab nations responded with the Khartoom declaration: NO recognition of Israel, NO negotiations -- and NO peace! How dearly Israel paid for her miscalculations! The terror war waged against Israelis and Jews around the world, the War of Attrition, the Yom Kippur war of ’73, the Lebanon wars of the 1980’s and on to the first decade of the 21st century.

In 1977, after the Yom Kippur war of 1973 failed to dislodge Israel from the Sinai, Anwar Sa’adat came to Jerusalem. The world sat glued to the T.V. screens, and we spoke of "days of Messiah." It was finally happening! In 1979, with much help from the U.S., Israel signed a peace agreement with Egypt. Once Egypt signed a peace treaty, people reasoned, the others would fall in line to do the same... Instead, Sa’adat was assassinated by Moslem fanatics, and the peace with Egypt turned colder that the North Pole. The Palestinians began the "Intifada," blood was once again being spilled in the Holy land. The 1991 Gulf war pitted Arab against Arab, showing the world that Arabs and Moslems are not committed to each other’s well being — and Israel was the only nation that was not allowed to protect itself against Scud attacks from Iraq. The only way one can explain the fact that Israel did not suffer any casualties is by invoking Divine intervention!

On June 23, 1992, Israel’s citizens chose a new government in national elections. In Israel, they called it "mahapakh" -- the turnover. The new government was hailed as a catalyst for change in Israeli politics and in Israeli-Arab relations. For the first time since the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty in 1979, a window of opportunity had been opened for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. The government, presided over by Yitz’hak Rabin, was determined to open negotiations with Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinians. They were hopeful that substantive issues could be addressed, particularly in the realm of self-rule or autonomy for the Palestinians, bringing an end to strife in the territories, and an interim agreement with Syria that would lead to peace treaties with Syria, Lebanon and Jordan -- and possibly even with Saudi-Arabia and the Gulf states.

Israel's foreign office was negotiating a deal with the PLO, which culminated in what has become known as the "Oslo Agreement." Many called it the "Israel-Palestinian peace treaty" -- but it certainly was not that. Some called it "trading land for peace," but it was not that, either.

The Oslo Accord called on Israel to turn the Gaza Strip and Jericho to Palestinian rule within a few months. It called for further negotiations to transfer more Arab towns and villages to Palestinian Rule. It called for PLO recognition of the right of the State of Israel to exist. It called on the Palestinians to amend their Palestinian Covenant, purging it of all negations of the Jewish state's right to exist. It stipulated the building of trust and understanding between Jews and Arabs in the land in a transition period of five years leading to full and complete peace. It was designed as a step by step approach to an understanding between Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land. After the signing of the accord by Mr. Peres, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin spoke of the moment as a time that heralds "no more killing, no more death."

The only problem was that "Oslo" never had a chance -- because the Arab partner to the deal was not an honest broker, and did not really represent the Arab people of Judea, Samaria and Gaza. What the Israeli architects of the Oslo Accord had in mind was made clear by the foreign minister, Shimon Peres: Israel could not remain both Jewish and democratic if it continued to rule over close to two million Palestinians in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza. Sooner or later, the Palestinians would have gained the right to vote and would have turned the country into a binational state. The only solution that could prevent this from happening was to withdraw from "the territories" and let the Palestinians establish a state of their own, which would live peacefully side by side with Israel. Peres said that making peace with the PLO was the only way of preempting a "Hamas" controlled state that would fight Israel to its destruction.

None of this is specified in the Oslo agreement, which was touted as a prelude to Palestinian ‘autonomy’ or a confederation with Jordan. The talk of autonomy was obviously a palliative for an Israeli public warned for years - by Labor as much as by the Right - that a Palestinian state would threaten Israel's very existence. Yet the real intent was a return to the pre-67 war boundaries, if not (as the Arabs envisioned it) to the partition plan, in the assumption that most Israelis prefer peaceful coexistence to being in Jenin and Kalkilya, or even in Beit El and Shilo - regardless of what this says about their dedication to the Zionist ideal.

If the PLO had enough patience and vision, they would have subscribed to the Rabin government's view, the agreement would have been carried out by Israel, and Arafat would have had all the territories in his hands by 1998. However, something immediately went wrong. The worst wave of terrorism ever to hit Israel began even as the Declaration of Principles was being signed on the White House lawn. By March 1996, after Palestinian terrorists killed 220 Israelis, the process came to a screeching halt - not under Binyamin Netanyahu but under Shimon Peres. Yitzkhak Rabin was assassinated. The talks with the Palestinians were suspended, the withdrawal from Hebron was canceled, and total closure was imposed on the territories -- before Labor lost the elections. Yitzkhak Rabin used to say that the Oslo Agreements are full of holes. Yet the fundamental problem is not the inadequacy of the agreements' provisions, but the assumption that the Palestinian Authority intended to keep them.

If there was any good in the Oslo agreement, it is the fact that following it, in October of 1994 Israel signed a peace accord with Jordan, which Israel has been expecting since 1951. King Hussein had much to gain from this peace, and the Jordan-Israel accord has been the most successful undertaking in neighborly relations.

Have things changed? People talk about how Israel maliciously plowed-under the settlements in Sinai before evacuation — forgetting that they only did it because that is what the Egyptians wanted. They insisted that every vestige of the Israeli presence in Sinai had to be eradicated. On the day the peace agreement with Jordan was signed, a million Palestinian Arabs went on strike to protest the signing — an action called for by Hamas. President Hafez Al Assad of Syria -- a world center of terrorism, demanded that Israel disassemble all Jewish settlements and vacate the entire Golan to the middle of the Sea of Gelilee. Tomorrow it will be time to remove all settlements from Judea and Samaria -- Arafat is already making broad hints about it. The world has never recognized Israel's rights to D.C. — David’s capital, that is! Jerusalem has become contested territory, and the world is asking the Israelis to be flexible, to compromise, to give-in. What will remain? A truncated Israel, with indefensible borders, with enemies all around — welcome to the new Jewish ghetto, along the borders of the "Green line" -- the impossible to defend borders of Israel pre-June 1967 - twelve miles across at its waist, in the most populated area of metropolitan Tel-Aviv. Waiting for the day when the Arabs are strong enough, and the Jews are weak enough — Ho chi min said it, "We can wait ten years, fifty years, even a hundred years — but in the end we will bury you!" Will Tel-Aviv be the next Sarajevo? People fail to remember that more Arabs were killed in Hama, Syria, than in all the wars on the Arabs against Israel. More Palestinians were kills by Jordanians in "black September" and by Syrians in Lebanon than by Israelis in war and in the Intifada. What will it take to make them safe — and how safe can we, as Jews, despised by their religious principle, ever be? Many Arab nations (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Syria) subscribe to the teachings of, and continue to circulate, anti-Semitic tracts such as "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," and Hitler’s "Mein Kampf."

The terror war continues! Even with a "Palestinian autonomous area" Israeli civilians as well as young soldiers are still being attacked within and outside Israel. The goal of Zionism has not changed. Zionists throughout the world still hope and work for the establishment of a safe haven for Jews, and a democratic home for all the inhabitants of the land.

However, there are many outside Israel, who still consider Zionism as a form of racism. In Israel, revisionist historians claim that the Zionists, in coming to rebuild their land, have wronged the Arabs by taking their land and disinheriting them of their "national rights" to their own national home. They further claim that the very concept of a ‘Jewish state’ is a non-democratic and racist concept and leads to favoring one people over another. How can Jews claim a ‘right of return’ to a land they have never set foot in, while others, who left the land because of a war or for some other reason, are not allowed even the right to visit, let alone return and reclaim property left behind? They maintain that Palestinians have a ‘sacred duty’ to aspire to take back ‘their’ land - while the Jews must forever commit themselves to play a fair game by all the rules. Self hate goes a long way to debilitate Israeli moral and will to resist the enemy without.

In 1999 the citizens of Israel voted into office a new government headed by the Labor Center party headed by Ehud Barak. The new prime minister announced that at the top of his agenda was making peace with the Arabs at home and abroad. He failed to reach an agreement with Syria and in the summer of 2000 accepted an invitation to negotiate an agreement at Camp David, the U.S. presidential retreat. Barak made the most far reaching concessions and compromises to the Palestinians, but no agreement was reached. Two issues made agreement impossible: the Palestinians demand "the right of return" and the demand for full Arab sovereignty in Jerusalem. Barak and Arafat returned to their constituencies, and the Arabs began to riot in September, in what has become known as the "Al Aksa intifada." Hamas, the militant fundamentalist Moslem movement that opposes any negotiations or recognition of Israel took control of the Gaza strip, and the world stands idly by as the blood letting continues.

For more on Zionism and the Arab-Israel copnflict - here



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