Friday, May 26, 2006

What’s your tribe?

Are you an MOT? Do you know what an MOT is?

That’s modern Jewish slang: “Member of the Tribe”.

Member of which tribe? Weren’t there supposed to be 12 tribes? Like from the 12 sons of Jacob?

Well, we’re not sure whose from which tribe, so by default we’re all from Judah/Yehudah – aka, Jews. But technically speaking, a Levy or a Cohen is not a Jew!

This is more than historical trivia; ideally, there should be 12 cultural variations in Israel, 12 paths if you will. And there is even a cosmic connection – for instance, the 12 tribes are mapped according to the 12 constellations of the Zodiac. So we still care about knowing the names of the 12 tribes.

Here’s the list. Children around the world enjoy learn this list by singing it. Try the tune of “Bumpin’ up and down in my little red wagon” - see if you can get everyone at your table to sing it. After a few rounds, you’ll know all twelve.

These are the twelve sheh-va-tim.

For those who enjoy history, here’s a nutshell explanation of how we all became Jews:

First, the descendents of Levy were separated from the pack and given priestly duties, but in exchange they didn’t get any territory. Joseph’s tribe was then split into two, in order to maintain the number 12.
Second, after 500 years in the land, the 10 northern tribes seceded from the southern 2 tribes (Judah and
Third, a few hundred years after that, the northern kingdom was conquered and destroyed, leaving only Judah and Benjamin. Judah was the senior partner, and retained their name, Judaites, or Jews.

Now, there are still thousands who can claim to be from the tribe of Levy. Not because their name is Levy or Cohen, but because their father was a Levite or a Cohen.

Also, when the northern kingdom was destroyed, there were members of all the tribes in Jerusalem. So it is possible that any one of us is from any of the other tribes.

So maybe MOT should stand for “Member of the Tribes”.... What do you think?

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, May 19, 2006

My brother's (and sister's) keeper

A true story told by Rav Yissachar Frand:

In Russia (in what's now called Belorus), a former yeshiva student from Brisk had become a secular anarchist and gone so far as to burn the Czar in effigy. Needless to say, this was not only an illegal form of expression, it was in fact a capital crime.

When Rav Chaim of Brisk (1853-1918) heard about the plight of his former student, he told the community leaders that they would have to ransom the youth. However, there was a great deal of reluctance to get involved. After all, hadn't this young man put himself into this particular pickle? Hadn't he thrown off his Judaism? Hadn't he intentionally and recklessly provoked the authorities? Did he not deserve whatever he had coming?

We do this all the time. We see someone who overspends on their credit card, they live beyond their means, and then when they're bankrupt and impoverished, who wants to bail them out? "He should suffer! Look at how reckless he has been!"

But this is not the Jewish way. When Yom Kippur came and the community still had not rallied to this young man's rescue and his sentence was soon to be carried out, Rav Chaim did not arrive in shul for the Yom Kippur service. Someone went to his home to check on him and he declared, "I refuse to come to shul until you ransom that young man!"

And so the community leaders had to go door to door - on Yom Kippur itself - to collect the thousands of dollars required to save the life of a Jew who had dug his own grave.

How do we create a society of Rav Chaim's - people who care so much for each other that they help each other even without deserving it?

Shabbat Shalom.

(To read more on the life of Rav Chaim, click here.)

Friday, May 12, 2006


I heard the following story from Rav Yaakov Hopfer (Baltimore), who told it in the name of Rav Dovid Cohen (New York):

In Bnai Brak, Israel, there lives a man named Rabbi Avraham Firer, who is known all over the land of Israel - in fact, the world over. He is a Belzer Chassid who, although not a doctor, has great knowledge of medical issues. People call him from all over for references for the best doctors all over the world, in each particular field. He has a personal relationship with most of these doctors and is highly respected by them.

A very wealthy individual went to visit Rabbi Firer and after the visit, they decided they would go to the Western Wall together. It was about 2:00 a.m. and there were very few people at the Wall. As they came closer to the Wall, they heard heart-wrenching sobs coming from an individual. His cries pierced their hearts and Firer told his friend, "Look, if it's medical, I'll take care of it; if it's money, it's your job," and he agreed.

They went over to the man and gently asked him how can tehy help him. He refused their help and said he needed to be by himself, and continued those heat-wrenching cries. They couldn't take the pain and suffering that emanated from this man and went over to him again and were more insistent, but were rebuffed again.

This happened again and this time they just insisted, to which the man told them, "Tonight, I married off my youngest of twelve children, and I was so full of thankfulness and gratitude for all the that the Almighty has bestowed upon me. I had to come here after the wedding and show my appreciation. These sobs were sobs of happiness and gratitude, and I just couldn't control myself."

When we look around and realize the good that we have been given, we should have the same feelings. To be a "Jew" means to be a "Yehudi" which means etymologically to have an extra capacity for thankfulness. That's the root of Jewishness.

(Firer's non-profit website is and I found a long piece on him from the Jerusalem post republished here.)

Friday, May 05, 2006

Thicker Than Water

A question: What makes salt kosher? Is regular salt unkosher?

Your average Morton table salt is 100% kosher, since it does not contain non-kosher ingredients.

So what is “kosher salt”?

It all begins with the blood. The blood of an animal is its “life” - so eating its blood is akin to consuming its spiritual essence. So what? Well, the primary purpose of life is to elevate ourselves above our animal nature. Eating meat without the blood is like eating the shell that held the animal but not the animal qua animal.

Some add that holiness requires an awareness of what we are doing. When I slaughter an animal for food, I am ending its life, and not eating the blood helps elevate my consciousness to the fact that I took a life in order to eat.

The problem is that when a butcher cuts up meat, there is a lot of blood left in the veins. Big-crystal salt works well to absorb that blood from the meat. So the salt isn’t any more kosher than table salt, but it is called “kosher” because it is used to make meat kosher.

That's not the only use for kosher salt, however. The flavor is distinct from ordinary table salt, and some cooks prefer to use it in all their cooking. Like other coarse salts, kosher salt can be used in recipes that call for a salt crust. You can even use it to salt the edge of a margarita glass. (L’chayim!) (after you down your second one, ask “If you salt a bloody mary, do you get a vodka martini?”)

Nutritionally speaking, kosher salt is identical to table salt, minus the iodine. The human body needs salt to regulate the electrolyte balance inside and outside of its cells. But studies have shown that diets low in salt lower a person's blood pressure. As with many health issues, scientists and doctors don't universally agree on the health benefits and problems related to salt intake. (source:

    Number of crystals in a pound of table salt: 5,370,000.
    Number of crystals in a pound of kosher salt: 1,370,000.
Those stats come from this transcript from the food network (includes photos).

In researching this post, I discovered this handy list of kitchen tips.

“Salt is what makes things taste bad when it’s not in them.” - Irene Chambers

Seasonally yours,

Shabbat Shalom