Friday, March 31, 2006

With a Grain of Salt

There is an old custom to have salt on the Shabbat table. Some people confuse this custom with a different custom of dipping your challa in salt, which comes from a time when people made their challah without salt. If you've ever forgotten to add salt to your challah, then you know where that custom comes from.

But the custom of having salt on the table is derived from the Temple, where salt was used and eaten with the offerings, where it's proscribed as "the salt of God's covenant". What is the covenant of salt?

During the six days of creation - recounts the Midrash - when the "waters above" were separated from the "waters below" the lower waters protested that they were now very lowly and far from God. So God promised them that they would be elevated by humanity. How do we get sea salt? We boil water - thus, even the water gets elevated, leaving only the lowly salt down below. The "covenant of salt" therefore teaches that we should look for spirituality in all parts of creation, not just the obviously "holy" things and activities.

Ask at your table: What is an activity that most people don't consider spiritual? How could you turn that into a spiritual activity?

Bonus - make your own challah: Since we began with challah, I would like to share with you the recipe for my wife's famous challah (in her humility she claims she cribbed the recipe from her friend Tal). She claims that it is easy to make. All I know is that it is easy to eat - so much so that I have to remove it from the table lest everyone fill up on challah and not have room for the rest of the meal.

2 cups water, 1 TB dry yeast
3/4 or so vegetable oil
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg
about 2 cups whole wheat flour
add white flour (about 5 cups) until consistency is right (not sticking to fingers)
Let rise until it doubles in size
Punch, braid, let rise another while, then bake at 350 until brown.

(I've never made this recipe but have learned over the years how to tell when it is done by the smell - when the whole house wafts with an enticing smell, it's about done)

How to eat challah:
King Solomon decreed that we should have salt on our Shabbat table in order to make our table a symbolic altar. Like the priests, we wash our hands with a washing cup, dry them and then don't speak until Hamotzi. The one making Hamotzi holds the 2 challas with all ten fingers, to have in mind the 10 labors required to turn a wheat seed into bread and the 10 words in the bracha (BARUCH ATOH A-DONOI E-LOHAYNU MELECH HA-OLAM HA-MOTZI LECHEM MIN HA-ARETZ)....remember "Eeny-Meeny-Miny-Mo" from a few weeks ago?

Friday, March 24, 2006

Knock, Knock

Knock, knock jokes would be so polite, if they weren't so rudely bad, with one notable exception.

Ask at your dinner table: Have you ever been startled by someone walking into the room unannounced? Have you ever startled someone else by walking into a room unannounced? Does it matter if the person coming in lives there and has every right to be there? What if the person in the room is expecting the other person to arrive at any moment?

Q: From where do we learn that this is a problem and that one should first go "Knock, knock"?

A: From the High Priest's robe. Try to picture this:

On the robe's hem they made pomegranates of turquoise, purple and scarlet wool, twisted. They made bells of pure gold, and they placed the bells amid the pomegranates on the hem of the Robe, all around, amid the pomegranates. A bell and a pomegranate, a bell and a pomegranate on the hem of the Robe all around.... (Ex Ch. 39)

The rabbis of old asked, What are the bells for? The answer - so that the Priest - the Cohen - would be heard before he entered the Holy of Holies. But that's strange - who's there to hear him? The answer is, no one but God, and God presumably knew he was coming, right?

From we derive that it is good manners to knock before entering a room, even if it's your own room and people are expecting you, it's not nice to startle them.

So here's the world's only polite knock-knock joke:

Knock Knock
-Who's there?
-Tank who?
Your welcome.

With apologies (;-)>

Shabbat Shalom.

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Friday, March 17, 2006

Eeny Meeny Miny Mo On You

(In memory of Dennis Seinfeld, David ben Eliezer, who treated every person as an individual without a begrudging eye.)

This week is one of the most action-packed chapters in the Torah - Moses is on top of Mt. Sinai gets the two tablets but the people mis-counted by a day - he had said he would return on the fortieth day, and he meant that he would be gone 40 complete days, but they counted from the first day. So when he did not come back when he said he would, they got nervous. There was a lot of fire and smoke up there, maybe he died? That was the rumor, and you know how rumors can spread. Soon a small group of non-Israelites whom Moses had allowed to leave Egypt with the Israelites decided to replace Moses with a Golden Calf. Hur tried to stop them but they killed him. Aaron tried to stall them but could not prevent the party that ensued. Party!

1. How are we supposed to relate to the Golden Calf business?

What a party. Imagine the Burning Man festival. Sound like fun? So now imagine a group of non-Jewish neighbors having a wild burning man festival in the basement of your synagogue on Rosh Hashana. Would you tolerate it? Or would you ask them to pack it up? The Jews’ error in the desert was allowing this inappropriate “religious” expression to go on, and their lack of sensitivity caused Moses to break the tablets when he saw what was happening.

Actually, although the Torah says that Moses was angry, the Midrash says that the tablets were physically too heavy for a human being to lift, and Moses had been able to carry them because of his spiritual high. When he descended the mountain to the level of the people, the tablets became too heavy for him and they fell to the ground.

Ask at your table: Were you ever in a situation where you saw someone doing something wrong? How did you react? Were you ever in a group where the mob-mentality affected good people and made them do crazy things? What’s the solution?

2. Counting on you

The opening paragraph of the chapter may be a clue: Moses is told to take a census of the Jewish people by collecting a flat tax of 50¢ per person. That way, he could add up all the money and divide by 2. Why this indirect method? The mystics say that counting something make invoke someone else’s jealousy and a spirit of rivalry, which is spiritually extremely dangerous. We shouldn’t compete with each other to have the biggest house or fastest computer, but those who do are harming only themselves. When it comes to people, however (especially children), creating spirit of jealousy and competition can harm others.

Therefore we don’t directly count people and spiritually sensitive people don’t ask or answer the question, “How many children do you have” without adding the phrase “kyna hara” – literally, “without an evil (or jealous) eye”. (This usage resembles the Christian, or some say pagan, expression, “knock on wood”. Although both expressions are used in similar circumstances, the difference is that “knock on wood” is a superstitious attempt to ward off a negative consequence and “kayna hara” means, “We are having this conversation in good spirits and without the spirit of jealousy or competition – in other words, kayna hara is supposed to help me elevate my own thought patterns).

Each person counts as an individual, we don't want to turn people into numbers.

Ask: How can you count people indirectly? (when we want to see if there are 10 present for quorum, the custom is to count using a sentence with ten words, such as "eeny, meeny, miny, mo, catch, a, tiger, by, the, toe."

Shabbat Shalom.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Purim Table Talk

Wondering how to get yourself and family into the Purim mood? Get yourself down to Starbucks, where you can now get Hamentaschen-flavored coffee, just for Purim. Starbucks announced that the special flavor would only be available in participating locations, and only on the day of Purim.

Also newsworthy, Google has announced that, in partnership with an enterprising Rabbi in Silicon Valley, they will soon launch the first on-line circumcision service. Called gMOIL, the service will be available to both men and women alike and will be, for the time being, a free service.

OK, those were really bad, sorry. All in the Purim spirit. But quite seriously – how does a busy person get himself or herself or the kids into a proper Purim spirit? Here’s a secret that few people know.

While for most of us Purim - if we observe it at all - is all about the Megilla-reading and the costumes, and to a lesser extent on the festive meal (and liquor), 1,000 years ago Maimonides’s gave the following amazing perspective: while it's always nice to do any mitzvah better, on Purim in particular if one is going to do more than the minimal, it is best to increase money to the poor.

But why? We give tzeddaka all year long – why especially increase it on Purim? Listen to his reason: the main goal of Purim is to be happy – really very happy – and the thing that creates the most joy is to help someone who's down - a poor person, an orphan, a widow, a new immigrant.

The problem is, many of us don’t know where to find such people (at least, those of us who don’t drive through San Francisco)... For that reason, some thoughtful people have created avenues to give, where you can be sure your tzeddaka is going to the very neediest. Here are two links:

The idea is to be extra generous on Purim, to give to anyone who opens up their hand. That’s Purim in a nutshell, the rest is commentary.

Happy Purim.


Friday, March 10, 2006

The Stones' Reunion

For your dinner table tonight, here is some interesting trivia about the High Priest's breastplate.

1. What did it look like?
First imagine lots of gold and rich embroidery. Then imagine a grid of semi-precious stones, four rows of three stones each. Each stone is a different color and each one has the name of one of the 12 sons of Jacob (12 tribes) etched into it. There are so many opinions regarding the types of stones that we basically have no idea how to translate the Hebrew names (see Ex. 28:17-20).

I was in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History this week and saw how a great diversity of beautiful stones from around the world. The Israelites had come with much wealth out of Egypt, an empire with access to African, Asian and Mediterranean trade - there are likely many possibilities.

Here is one interpretation:

First row: carnelian, emerald, topaz.
Second row: carbuncle, sapphire, beryl.
Third row: jacinth, agate, amethyst.
Fourth row: chyrsolite, onyx, jasper.

Here is one attempt at reproduction. Here is another one, showing a pouting priest with colorful clothes - click on his various garments to learn more.

2. What's with the number 12?
The twelve tribes correspond to the twelve signs of the zodiac and the twelve moons (i.e., months) in a solar year (average). Thus, the number 12 represents cosmic completion as well as the annual cycle that defines life on this planet. Ask: what other things might 12 sybolize? What about the 4 rows of 3? (hint - think of nature and natural cycles)

3. What was it for?
Besides looking cool and strengthening the High Priests shoulder muscles, the breastplate had a practical function. The back of the breastplate had a kind of pocket into which Moses inserted a parchment with one or more ineffable names of God (there are numerous names of God in Hebrew, and some are more effable than others. The 120-letter name, for instance, is particularly ineffable). This parchment worked like an activator, juicing up the breastplate.

4. Where is it now?
That's the easiest one! It's with the lost ark! But where is the lost ark? Not in Ethiopia, and not in some CIA warehouse in Washington. King Josiah hid these irreplacable items in the tunnels under the Temple Mount when he foresaw that destruction was near in circa 500 BCE. Thus, the 2nd Temple never had an ark or breastplate. Are they still in the tunnels? Well, look at this photo - the first ever taken of the Chulda tunnels by archaologist Wilson in 1864, and reach your own conclusion. Here is another closed section of the tunnel. While we're at it, look at this and this striking ancient architecture under the Temple Mount.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Come and They Will Build It

From the famous 10 Declarations two weeks ago to the down-to-earth rules of civility last week, we now move to an area of Judaism that is strange and extremely hard to relate to....the blueprint for the Tabernacle that the former slave nation set up in the wilderness (Exodus 25-27).

Here are a couple interesting facts that can make for a lively table talk.

1. What did the Tabernacle actually look like? Some people (such as yours, truly) process visual information better than written. So you may enjoy printing a picture of the Tabernacle for a little show-and-tell tonight.

Here is a 3-D model you can “walk through” (also of Solomon’s Temple, which replaced the Tabernacle 500 years later) (requires free VTML software to view but even without that you can see some stills)
Here’s a full-size replica someone built in the Negev desert.
Here is another model and description.

2. While we’re on the subject of the Tabernacle, did you know that this portable “temple” was used for about 500 years before Solomon built the permanent Temple in Jerusalem (around 900 BCE)? Every been to Israel? Would you like to go? Here is a gem of a site – an American rabbi has organized and published some of the original photos and drawings made by 19th Century British explorers to Jerusalem – you can take a tour underneath the Temple Mount to see the fabulous sites there (scroll down to “Temple Mount Gallery”).

3. Did you know that the Tabernacle was not part of the original plan for Judaism – it was built as a “fix” for the grave mistake of the Golden Calf. But the Golden Calf incident hasn’t happened yet! This is one of the numerous places where the Torah is written out of chronological order.

4. The weekly portion ends with Ex. 27:19. But Chapter 27 goes on for another 2 verses. That is to say, the next portion begins in the middle (or very near the end) of a chapter. Why is this?

The answer is that the chapter divisions of the Torah are not Jewish. They were created by Christians in late Antiquity attempting to organize their newly-canonized Bible. Jews ignored these artificial divisions until forced to debate Christians in public in Medieval Europe. It’s hard to win debating points when your opponent says “Well, how do you explain Isaiah 53:7?” and you’re fumbling through your Tanach, trying to guess what he is talking about. It turns out that numbering each and every verse is useful, so the habit stuck, but it never over-rode our original weekly episode divisions.

Shabbat Shalom.