Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Eight fun facts of Chanuka

Put on your yarmulke, Here comes Hanukkah! So much funukah, To celebrate Hanukkah! 
 - Adam Sandler

Of all the holidays, Chanuka has always been my favorite. Courage, miracles, good guys, bad guys, soofganiyot, chocolate coins, and a week off school. What could be bad?

Of course, the greatest miracle of Chanuka is not gaining weight from all the latkes and donuts. I have it on excellent sources that during the holiday itself, calories evaporate.

The other greatest miracle is that we are still here, over 2000 years after Yehuda HaMacabi, lighting candles, remembering the Holy Temple and - even a greater miracle - doing so, once again, in our Land.

The story of Chanuka is one, not of victory, as is usually assumed (the war was eventually lost), but of hope. When it's the darkest, even a spark can dispel it; we have only but to light it.

One of the ways to celebrate Chanuka is learn about the holiday. So here are eight fun facts - one for each night - that you may or may not know. Please feel free to add your own.

1. The word dreidel is Yiddish, and means to spin. It is said that, in the time of the Greek occupation of the Holy Land, because Torah study was outlawed, youth would gather to learn in secret and bring games – sometimes a spinning top made of clay – with them. If foreign soldiers found them, they would seemingly be playing innocent sports. Therefore, the game of dreidel dreidel dreidel is over 2000 years old and still popular. Even if it’s not dry and ready.

2. A Menorah and a Chanukiah are NOT the same thing. The Menorah – a seven branched candelabra – was lit by the High Priest daily in the Holy Temple. It was made from one solid block of gold, and originally designed and built by Bezalel in the desert. Under Greek occupation, the Temple was profaned, and the ceremony was stopped. When the Temple was reclaimed by the Maccabees, the Menorah was once again relit with the famous pure bottle of oil that was found and which lasted eight days. A Chanukiah – a nine branched candelabra – is what we light to remember the Menorah. (A copy of the Temple Menorah has been rebuilt – at the reputed cost of three million dollars – and is on display on the stairs leading to the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem.)

3. The tradition of giving gifts – usually coins (or gelt—money in Yiddish) – to children was to reward them for learning Torah and to teach them to give tzadaka – charity. Keeping up with Xmas had nothing to do with it. Chocolate is good too. 

4. The Maccabean war against the Greeks was actually a civil war against Hellenized (i.e., assimilated) Jews. Many Jews, it seemed, wanted to be more Greek than the Greeks, and thought the ‘Orthodox Jews’ antiquated, primitive, and barbaric. They dismissed the practice of Brit Mila (it spoils the 'perfect form'), desecrated the Sabbath (time cannot be holy, only men and the gods), ridiculed the laws of modesty (they played sports in the nude as was Greek custom, showing off the 'perfect form'), and dishonored the Holy Torah (reading, instead, the Greek plays and legends). The Maccabees brought Jewish life back to the HolyLand. Over the years, this bit of the story was overlooked, mostly because it was considered 'unpleasant' to bring up the fact of internecine fighting.  

This would have gone down well. 

5. The Greeks were actually Seleucids (and not Greek at all), whose center of power was in today’s Syria (and not Athens) and, at the time of the Chanuka story, was ruled by Antiochus IV. He added the name ‘Epiphanes’ to his own—meaning God’s Manifest. However, the Jews called him Epimames–the mad-man. He was not a very nice man.

Bust of Antiochus IV

6. The Maccabees weren’t really an army. If they were around today, chances are they would look like a cross between charedim and IDF soldiers. (Something to think about.)

something like this

7. Chanuka is the only Jewish holiday without its own book to read. The Book of Maccabees, which tells of the early wars and the rededication of the Temple and other stories associated with the wars, was originally written in Hebrew, but survived only in Greek. (It's been re-translated back into Hebrew, English, and other languages). For various reasons, it was not included in the canonization of the Bible. 

in Latin

in Greek

8. The Maccabean revolt lasted over 20 years. The re-dedication of the Temple occurred, probably, in the third year. The leader of the revolt, Matityahu, died in the first year. His sons took over, with Yehuda the Maccabbee leading. Yehuda was killed shortly after the rededication of the Temple. Of the five sons, only one – Shimon – survived the wars. He ushered in 80 years of Jewish independence, until infighting, dissension, and sedition allowed the Roman army to occupy the country, leading to the eventual destruction of the Holy Temple and the exile of the Jewish people from their Land.

There is another custom, one my friend E told me about and I wrote about here, and that is to describe, while the candles are burning, a miracle that happened to you. This is to publicize G-d mercy and greatness; that His miracles are are around us.

So while you're at it, feel free to tell me miracles.

Wishing all of Am Yisrael a happy and blessed Chanuka.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Good to the Last Walk

I like long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me.
― Noël Coward

In the last few months, in the pursuit of a healthier lifestyle, I have taken to walking around my neighborhood. It turns out that simply not moving any of one’s muscles at all – ever – is not the optimum way of exercising.

And so, I have been striding up and down the streets around my home.

In the interests of full disclosure I must state that I dislike walking. I much prefer watching reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Get Smart and eating cake crumbs (so that the calories leak out). However, I dislike walking less than I dislike, say, cooking or cleaning or doing laundry or waking up my kids to go to school or taking out the garbage or scraping the grunge off the stove or peeling potatoes or sewing elastic on old underwear rather than buy a new pair because the owner REALLY LIKES that pair and you can’t find them like that anymore or dusting the blinds or scrubbing the toilet or cleaning out the penicillin growing in the fridge or wiping down the light switches or making beds (actually I wouldn’t know about that – I’m not sure I’ve ever done it….) or, and especially, ironing.

In the summer, when it’s hot, I wait till late in the evening to go out, after the sun has gone down and the temperatures drop dramatically—from 39° C down to 35° C. (Just kidding about the dramatic part.) Actually, summer temperatures make a great excuse to sit at home and watch reruns of BTVS with a fan directly on my face. 

But when winter (and I use the word in the Israeli sense, hahahaha Old Country) comes, the weather actually invites walking. So, two, three, four, and  – once, memorably – FIVE times a week, I strap on my walking shoes and trudge forth. Lucky for me, winter only lasts a week and a half.

I live in a nice residential area on the south-western edge of Beer Sheva. 15 minutes of sprightly walking brings one to the edge of town, right into the desert. (It takes me about 45 minutes - I don't do spright.) Down the street from me is a ‘forest’ (forgive the term). Made up of a couple of acres of untended trees, mice, and a family of fox, the forest is used by youth groups for fun activities by day, and by slightly more unsavory youth for slightly more unsavory fun activities by night. The trees give the street the feel of ‘country’ within the city. Sometimes, there are sheep grazing, and once or twice the place has been visited by camels. That’s always fun. I avoid walking through the forest, but I do walk past it on my nocturnal wanderings. 

My forest
Not my forest

There are parks and tennis courts, shops, shuls, schools, a soccer field, and a running track all close to home. The streets are quiet and there is little traffic on the side roads. It’s a lovely area, and in the evenings – winter and summer – there are usually dozens and dozens of people out walking, running, jogging, skating, hiking, marching, rambling, strolling, strutting, and riding bikes. It really can be quite pleasant. 

However, this is Israel, and nothing is simple, even a walk in the park.

Beer Sheva is a quiet and safe town. The level of crime is relatively low. My kids have walked around at all hours of the day and night with no problems.

The other night was very quiet, with almost nobody around. I was at a crossroad, debating whether to turn left and take a shortcut home, or turn right and enjoy the quiet and the air for a little longer. Just then, an old dilapidated tender (is tender an English word? A small pick-up truck is what I want)[i] – the kind casual workers would use – stopped across from me and a young disheveled man got out, I immediately turned left , and scurried home.

An evening or two later, I ventured out again. It was earlier in the evening and I hoped more people would be around. I took my usual route, through quiet and dark streets. There were a few people walking, but in couples or in groups. I was the only lone walker. I had just reached a lighted busy street, when a man brushed past me. I let out a little scream and jumped out of both the way and my skin. I scared the man almost as badly, and I found myself apologizing to him. “You got scared?” asked the man’s walking companion – presumably his wife – “it’s the times. Everyone is jumpy”. I let the couple pass me, took several deep breaths, and continued on my way down a now well-lighted street with lots of traffic. 15 minutes later, relaxed and listening to Katy Perry (I know, I  know, don’t start), a high-pitch screeching whizzed by me on a bike. Maniacal laughter, which only a 12-year old can manufacture, could be heard in the distance. I picked myself - and my heart, which had jounced clear out of my body - up off the wall I had crashed into, and watched the kid ride away. So much for Katy Perry. I went home.

I’m not a nervous person, really I’m not. But Israel today seems to be full of angry, brainwashed people who find it fulfilling to stab/run over/throw stones at Jews. This can influence one's nerves. 

Warning: Graphic content.

I could go on and on. But I think the point has been made. These attacks come from anywhere, at any time, on anyone. All you have to do to get stabbed is be alive.

I’m still walking. I watch over my shoulder, and I stay on well-lit streets with lots of traffic. I’m brave, but not stupid. (All Israelis are de facto brave, and most are heroic.) Sometimes, it’s hard to hear Katy sing with the noise of the passing cars, but at least I get to pass the largest mall in the Middle East as I stride with head held high and eyes wide open .

If I’m going to dislike walking, it’s going to be on my terms, and nobody can take that away from me.

Except maybe Buffy and Angel.

[i] The myth goes that during the British Mandate, British soldiers would point to a 10-seater van and yell “ten over there and ten there! In Israelspeak, this became “ten der and ten der”. These vans became known as tenders. I don’t know if this is true.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Until When?

My hope is that gays will be running the world, because then there would be no war. Just greater emphasis on military apparel.
- Roseanne Barr

I have told the following story approximately a million times, so I apologize in advance if you’ve already heard it. But it makes a good introduction.

When my older sister was preparing for the brit milah of her first son, she told me that the ritual was barbaric in nature. “Everyone is sitting around fressing and celebrating, while a little baby is in pain” is how she put it.
My sister, I figured, is a nut. Here’s a ritual that’s taken place among Jews for more than 3500 years, given to us by G-d Himself as a covenant, and she’s calling it barbaric. She’s just an avant garde, vegetarian, tree-hugging, anti-traditional, radical, extremist, liberal, I reasoned. 

And then, about six years later, I had my first son.

Believe me, I am NOT an avant garde, vegetarian, tree-hugging, anti-traditional, radical, extremist, liberal. And apparently, neither was my sister. The ritual of Brit Milah suddenly seemed awfully barbaric to me. I stood at the back of the hall where the brit was taking place and cried.

I went on to have two more sons. For both ceremonies, I left the hall altogether. By the time my grandson was born (the son of the son who had turned me into a radical extremist liberal), I almost didn’t come to the brit at all. I sat in another room, with my head on my knees, breathing deeply.
All the boys came through the ritual far better off than I did.

A brit milah might change a boy physically, but not emotionally or mentally.

The army, however, is a whole other story.

When I first came to Israel, the soldiers I knew or saw weren’t close enough to me to think about worrying over any of them. My male friends who went through the army were admired. They were applauded. They were drooled over.

When my husband was drafted, it was for a shortened service and his basic training was about two weeks. He served for almost 20 years in the reserves, but not as a combat soldier.

My friends had kids in the army over whom they worried. I sympathized.

And then my son went into the army.

And then my second son went into the army.

And then my third son.

When the first went in, I repeated the brit experience. I sat in my room and cried. For the second son, I decided to be brave. I sat in my room and breathed deeply. I allowed myself to cry only in the bathroom. The third was drafted during Operation Protective Edge. His brother was serving on the Gaza Border. I was no longer brave. I just cried, anywhere and everywhere.

I learned a lot from my boys when they were in the army.

I learned the names of the different army divisions – kita, machlaka, pluga, gdood, chativa (roughly – squad, section, platoon, company, and battalion).

I learned the colors of the berets for the different battalions.

I learned new words:

Kalab (קל"ב) short for ‘karov l’bayit ((קרוב לבית) – close to home. Serving on the Lebanon border or on Mt. Hermon is not Kalab. Serving in Gaza is.

Kumtah (כומתה) - a soldier’s beret. Each battalion has a different colored beret. Combat soldiers receive their colored kumtah only after a Masa Kumtah (מסע כומתה) – a 50 km hike in full battle gear (weighing approximately 40 Kg). At night. Only then, is he a real soldier. This is celebrated at the Tekes Kumta (טקס כומתה – beret ceremony), where the soldiers are given their berets in front of their families. I cried. Twice. One ceremony was cancelled because of snow. I cried it was cancelled.

Gimmelim – sick leave (to receive 3 gimmelim means receiving 3 days of sick leave). I don’t believe I’m the only Israeli mother who said “Yay, he’s really sick!!! He got gimmelim!!”

I learned that soldiers are divided into ‘veteran’ and ‘young’. Veteran soldiers are those who have been in the army for more than two years; young soldiers less than two years. (Veteran soldiers are often younger than young soldiers.) Young soldiers aren’t supposed to drink milk. They risk getting beaten up if they do. I don’t know why.

I learned that עד מתי!! is the clarion call of all soldiers.

עד מתי is literally translated as until when? But the real meaning is how long is this going to last?

עד מתי the boys would shout, as they slogged through mud and weeds on yet another night trek.

עד מתי can be heard when they were told that their weekend leave was cancelled because there was intelligence that mischief was afoot, and more manpower was needed.

עד מתי is whispered as the boys lay under the small amount of shade they could find trying to survive yet another 50° (C) summer day in the Judean Desert. 

I learned that pride and fear don't cancel each other out. Indeed, they egg each other on.
עד מתי 

My youngest son was officially released from the army yesterday. I can't stop crying.

We’re done. For now.

Until the next call up.

עד מתי –Until when – will mothers and fathers cry?

Friday, November 6, 2015

To Be Continued In the Land

And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years; these were the years of the life of Sarah: and Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Hevron, in the Land of Canaan.
Genesis, 23:1-2

This Shabbat we read Parshat Chayei Sarah. Two main episodes are related in the parsha; the first the death and burial of Sarah, the wife of Avraham, and the second is the acquisition of a wife for Yitzchak, his son. Both of these episodes are related in great detail.

In the first episode, we are told - not how or why Sarah died - but how Avraham went about finding a suitable gravesite for her; how he bargained for it, how he was careful to pay a full price, how much he paid, where it was, who owned it, etc etc. The second episode is not only detailed, but actually repeated! Why are these two episodes so lengthy in description?

To answer this, we must understand what these episodes represent. 
Avraham had been promised two things by G-d. The first promise is that the land of Canaan would be his, and the second promise is that he would be the father of a great nation. 
Both promises are made no less than 5 times each (trust me on this). 
But at Sarah’s death, where does Avraham stand? He is not in possession of the Land, and his 37 year old son, Yitzchak, is not even married, let alone having children. Despite all of G-d’s promises, Avraham is worried. He therefore makes sure that the burial site is his for a fair price. Indeed this is the only bit of Eretz Canaan that Avraham actually owns in his whole life. And his second mission, that of marrying off his son, he takes great care to make sure that the proper wife is selected.

Yet why Avraham so careful with these two missions?  Why is he so worried? Why doesn’t he just rely on G-d’s promises? The answer is because the promises aren’t exactly promises. They are G-d’s covenant. They are a part of an agreement. “You do this, and I’ll give you that”. And what is it that Avraham is supposed to do to receive the Land and descendants? 
It is only with the total commitment and participation of Avraham that G-d’s promises can come into being.   Only with devotion, sacrifice, and sweat, will these things come into beingsometimes against seemingly unbeatable odds-not only for Avraham, but also for his descendants. .

G-d’s promise of the Land – Israel – and His promise of children – Jewish continuity – are basically the two concerns which occupy Jews today. 'Will Israel be safe for Jews, and will I have Jewish grandchildren'.

And it is these concerns that have occupied Jews for the last 4000 years. The story of Chanuka (celebrated in five weeks) is a story of Jewish continuity. The battles of the Maccabees were battles against Hellenism, Greek culture undermining the Torah, The Maccabees won that battle – suffering great losses, showing faith in G-d’s word, and through that faith allowing His promise to be fulfilled.

Today we face the same challenges. G-d’s promises will come true, but only if we do our part. Avraham’s trials show us that faith does not mean inaction, but rather the opposite. 
We must take action, sometimes at an unbearable cost. We must fight for our identity, continue to settle our Land, fight against the Hellenists among us, who insist that the Land of Israel can be a Fun Place To Visit. That is not our goal. Our goal is to be, like the chanukia, a light to dispel the darkness, in our Land, in this generation, and for all generations to come.

Sarah's burial ground, the Cave of the Patriarchs, Hevron

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

In the Beginning

Where there is Torah, it sustains the world.
- HaRav Ovadia Yosef

Last Shabbat, I read a dvar Torah about Parshat Breishit. It was simple, but I had never thought about it before. After all the horrible events of this week, it seems to be relevant too.

The first line in the Torah is:

בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹקים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth

The question is asked, ‘Why does the Torah start with the letter beit (ב), the second letter of the alphabet and not the first letter, alef (א)? There are many answers to this, and there is great significance to the order of the words. (I'm afraid I'm not going to link anything here - knock yourselves out and look it up.)

That significance is shown in the following story from the Tamud: (Tractate Megillah 9a):

In the times of the Greek/Roman occupation of the HolyLand, 70 (or 72) Rabbis were forced by the Egyptian King Ptolemy II to translate the Torah into Greek. (Known as the Septuagint, it was considered to be a great tragedy, as the Torah is supposed to be learned and read only in Hebrew so as to avoid misinterpretation in language or connotations.) The King and the Greeks/Romans wanted to prove that the Torah could not possibly be written by G-d and that having different translations by different Rabbis would prove this. Each Rabbi was placed in isolation so they could not discuss the wording with each other. When each Rabbi finished his translation, it was found that each version was IDENTICAL to the others. Not only were the Greek words the same in each version, each Rabbi changed certain wording in the same places with the same phrases, so as to avoid misinterpretations. One such change that each of the 70 (or 72) Rabbis made was the very first sentences. Their translation, began, not with the words in the beginning (בְּרֵאשִׁית), but rather with the word G-d, (אֱלֹקים), i.e., “G-d created the heavens and earth in the beginning”. 

The change was made this so that the Greeks/Romans would not think that a god named Breishit/Beginning created anything.

However, this change raises its own question: If there is a danger of misinterpretation, why does the Torah begin with the word 'breishit' בְּרֵאשִׁית and not with the word God?

Because, say our sages, there were no worries that Bnei Yisrael, to whom the Torah was given, would misunderstand. There was no reason for Moshe Rabbenu not to write the words in the correct order, laden with its meaning and significance.

The Torah is cyclical, we never stop reading or learning it.

The last line of the Torah is:

לְכֹל הַיָּד הַחֲזָקָה וּלְכֹל הַמּוֹרָא הַגָּדוֹל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה משֶׁה לְעֵינֵי כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל
‘and all the strong hand, and all the great awe, which Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel’.

On Simchat Torah, we read the end of the Torah, and immediately begin again from the beginning, so what we are reading is:

לְעֵינֵי כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹקים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ
Before the eyes of all Israel, in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.                       

In other words, G-d created the heavens and earth right in front of our eyes. How can we not believe in the one true G-d and in His Word.
And when we continue to read the Parsha, we know that all He created was good.

וַיַּרְא אֱלֹקים אֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וְהִנֵּה טוֹב מְאֹד
And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Times for Joy

"May the Merciful One restore for us the fallen sukkah of David [i.e. the Holy Temple]."

I have always loved that I live in Israel. I love the sunrises and the sunsets. I love the blue skies, and the starry nights. I love seeing Hebrew on road signs, and I love hearing dogs bark in Hebrew (huv huv). I love being able to say Shabbat Shalom, and Erev Tov (good evening) to random strangers as I walk in the neighborhood. I love that I know the geography of the country and that you can travel one hour and not only is the landscape dramatically different, so is the climate.
I love that at holiday time, the supermarkets are full of special foods for the holidays. I love the fact that the day after the Festival of Succot is over, soofganiyot are available everywhere.
All this time, and it never gets old.

There is so much in the Land that is peculiarly Israeli.
The buses say Happy Holiday!.

People sing the national anthem while traveling on the bus. (confession, I tear up each time I see this video. Corny, eh?)

Stores sell these kind of items:

Milk knives

Shoes for Yom Kippur

We are in the middle of the holiday season, here in the Holy Land. This comes with it's own set of challenges, which you wouldn't find in any other country.

This year, because the holidays fall mid week (week after week after week), no work gets done. It's one thing to have to wait until 'after the chagim' to receive the package you are waiting for, or to fix the the drip in your toilet - annoying enough as that is - it's quite another to find that the supermarkets are out of eggs and cucumbers, and lettuce, and chickens, and apples, and bananas, because there was no one to gather the eggs, or shecht enough chickens, or pick the cucumbers and lettuce, or ship the apples and bananas, because EVERYONE was celebrating the holidays. The problem is exacerbated by EVERYONE eating ALL THE TIME, and the stores run out of food.

Special holiday foods are, in fact, sold in most supermarkets throughout the holiday season. Pomegranates and fresh dates dominate the produce sections.  are Stacked next to apples of all colors are jars of different flavored honey - red, green, yellow and pink (that's the honey). And in the freezer section, one can find cuts of meats not always available year round: lamb chops, veal, and even goat meat. This is in addition, of course, to packaged sheep heads.

Courtesy of Rich Tasgal
 I suppose that grocers put the sheep heads into the freezer to kill people's appetites so they won't buy so much and the supermarkets won't run out of food (see above). Devilishly clever that - a yiddishe kop.

Israel is probably the only country in the world that comes to a complete stop on a religious festival. On Yom Kippur, throughout Israel, there are no cars on the road; no buses, taxis, or trucks. This, of course, allows children to ride their bikes, scooters, skates, wagons, Segways, snowmobiles (admittedly rare), horse-drawn sleds, buggies, mopeds, unicycles, broomsticks, chariots, oxcarts, wheelbarrows, and rickshaws, up and down the otherwise empty streets. And down and up and up and down and up again. When one of these adorable, rambunctious children rams his 4000 NIS electric bike right into the empty stomach of an unalert adult walking to prayers, ambulances can't get through, because the road is blocked with discarded skateboards and bamba wrappers.

Even in the relatively secular neighborhood in which we live, there are sukkot in many of the yards. When we sat outside in our sukkot we could hear other families partaking in the holiday meals also. Up and down the road, families were singing, conversing, playing, laughing, arguing, shouting, screaming, slurping soup, and banging on drums till 4 AM.

The holiday of Sukkot is known as זמן שמחתינו - the time of joy. After the somber days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Sukkot is a time when we sit outside in a modest hut, relying on G-d's graciousness, and delighting in His gifts to us, including the blue skies, the soofganiyot, the lack of eggs, and the neighbors.

Wishing all of Am Yisrael a festive, joyous, warm (but not hot), and wonderful Sukkot!

Monday, September 21, 2015

Gone Shopping. I'll Be Back in a Week

"The odds of going to the store for a loaf of bread and coming out with only a loaf of bread are three billion to one."
-Erma Bombeck

In my first years in Israel, shopping was not a difficult chore. This was mostly because there was nothing to buy. (Every time I went to visit the Old Country, I returned to the Land with a suitcase full of Head and Shoulders shampoo, Colgate toothpaste, and Zest soap, all completely unattainable in Israel.) Many neighborhood grocery stores were the size of a small bedroom (sometimes they actually were a small bedroom), where most of the merchandise was behind a counter and you had to ask for it. This was challenging on a few levels. First, you had to get the attention of the storekeeper, who was: a) chatting up some girl, b) counting bags of pasta, c) snoozing, or d) willfully ignoring you as part of his job description. Second, you had to know exactly what you wanted before purchasing it. There was no browsing or impulse buying, and no improvising if something looked better because you couldn’t actually see anything. Third – and the hardest part for the language-challenged person such as myself – you had to know how to say what you wanted in Hebrew. You had to go into the store and bravely tell the shopkeeper “I want some cheese, please." And the shopkeeper would answer "What kind of cheese?" It wasn’t enough just to ask for cheese. You had to say white cheese with 9% fat. Or simply 9%. You had to say “I want some 9%, please.” Of course, the shopkeeper, would then reply “9% of what??”

But, as I said, shopping wasn’t difficult because I avoided these grocery stores completely and ate mostly at ice cream parlours. Pointing to the large containers of colourful ice cream is much easier (and tastier) than asking for cheese. To heck with the fat content. 

Things have changed dramatically in the Land since then. Huge shopping centers dot the countryside replacing orange groves and ancient olive trees and, unfortunately, ice cream parlours.

Today, supermarkets are abundant and enormous and they all have the word ‘super’ in their names: 'SuperSol' (named after the original owner Solomon[1]) and ‘Supermarket’ (in case you didn’t know where you were) started the trend, and has since gotten a bit out of hand with the SuperDuper Store, the ‘SuperWonderful Store’ the HyperSuper Store and the SuperDuperHyperAmazing Store. They are all the same – acres and acres of foods, sundries, pharmaceuticals, kitchen ware, office supplies, small electrical appliances, flowers, lawn furniture, 46” HR TVs, lawn mowers, flags, wooden models of wild animals, and baby rose bushes. But no limes.

Normally, I’m not daunted by grocery shopping. It’s a chore I do weekly and I know my way around most supermarkets in the city.

During the ‘Holiday” season, which is now upon us, simple shopping can be somewhat overwhelming.

In the Old Country, there is the concept of 'loss leader'. The theory was that a store would actually take a loss on the price of selected items and thereby entice shoppers to come to the store to buy the more expensive items along with the very cheap ones.

There is no such concept here in the Holy Land. Nobody is going to risk losing a buck. What are we, friars? Instead. stores offer exotic items for sale, hard-to-get 'necessities' not available elsewhere. Produce such as fresh coconuts or pineapples, once completely unavailable, are now found in many supermarkets close to the holidays. Some supermarkets advertise 'American products', such as Heinz, or Hellman's or Del Monte, to pull customers in. Other stores stock up on household items such as sets of dishes, pretty serving platters, or washing machines to entice shoppers to choose their establishment for their holiday shopping. Some supermarkets will sell clothes and shoes to make the store a 'one stop shopping for all your holiday needs'!

However, I don't know how to cut a fresh pineapple, nobody in the family likes coconut, and, despite five kids, I don't need another washing machine.

What I look for is cheap potatoes and chicken.

Alas. That is not to be. Like our prayers, prices soar in proximity to holidays.

Iinstead, I look for the cheapest potatoes and chicken. Also cornflakes. Unfortunately, the store with a deal on chicken has really expensive potatoes. And, obviously, the other way around. The best potatoes are are found in a place with overpriced chicken, which also happen to be teeny weeny chickens. And cornflakes are universally expensive.

In our community, every year on the first day of the holiday of Sukkot, we have a 'sukka hop', where the kids go from sukka to sukka grabbing cookies.

I bring in this lovely custom a bit early, and with a slight twist. I go on a supermarket hop, hopping from supermarket to supermarket grabbing carrots from one, Hellman's mayonnaise from another, and, what the heck, a spare washing machine from the third.

At least I don't have to shop for Yom Kippur.

Wishing good shopping and Gmar Chatima Tova to all of Am Yisrael!

Gone 1] The real name is actually ShuferSal – Sal being a basket, but there is a story somewhere about David Ben-Gurion striking a deal with an American to bring a supermarket to Israel.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Shana Tova U'Metuka

אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ חָנֵּנוּ וַעֲנֵנוּ כִּי אֵין בָּנוּ מַעֲשִׂים עֲשֵׂה עִמָּנוּ צְדָקָה וָחֶסֶד וְהוֹשִׁיעֵנוּ
Our Father, our King, be gracious unto us and answer us; for we are unworthy; deal with us in charity and loving-kindness and save us.
From the Rosh HaShana Liturgy

On the evening of Rosh Hashana, there is a custom to dip an apple in honey and say the blessing:
יהי רצון מלפניך, א-לוקינו וא‑לוקי אבותינו, שתחדש עלינו שנה טובה ומתוקה
May it be Your will, Lord our G-d and G-d of our ancestors, that you renew for us a good and sweet year .

On the days between the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashana) and the last day of the holiday of Sukkot, it is customary to put a bit of honey on one’s bread, rather than dip it in salt, as we do the rest of the year. This is to symbolize our prayers that we be merited to have a sweet year.

I have several honey pots, collected over the years, which are used specifically for this period.
I take out the pots on the eve of Rosh HaShana, and fill one or two with honey. The day after Sukkot, I scrape out whatever honey remains, and put away our honey pots for the year.

A sweet year

As we approach the New Year, the smell of autumn is in the air. This, despite the fact that there is no autumn in southern Israel. Leaves don't change color, there is no feeling of dampness in the air, and there is no respite from the temperatures, which are just as high as they have been for the past five months. The only small difference is that it gets cooler a bit earlier in the evening, and the maximum temperatures are reached only later in the morning. In other words, instead of being 36 degrees by 7:30 AM, it doesn't get there until about 9:00. But every little bit helps.

This past summer was very hot in Israel; breaking records hot. Walking outside, one's feet melted into the sidewalk. So hot, that I could make tea by just turning on the tap. And it was the cold water tap. So hot, that by the time I got the bread that I bought home, it had turned to toast. So hot, Israeli chickens were laying boiled eggs.

The best part of the summer was that there was no war. It was hot, but not THAT hot. 

While the Holy Days do not usher in the cooler weather (not in Israel anyway), they do usher in a time of holiness.

Let us proclaim the holiness of this day for it is awe-inspiring and fearsome” says the Unetanneh Tokef prayer.

In most neighborhoods, one can hear the sound of the shofar in the early mornings for the entire month before the holiday, as a reminder to stop and face G-d, to renew our commitment to Him, to our Nation and to the Torah. It is far more pleasant to wake up to the unique resonance of the Shofar than, say, the noise of garbage trucks, or the blast of a siren warning of an incoming missile. 

According to custom, prayers said during the month of Elul are twelve times more powerful than the other months. At prayer times, in the morning and afternoon, one can see men scurrying to ad hoc minyanim, interrupting the regular schedule of their days, because it is Elul. Women can be seen on buses, in waiting rooms, and on park benches saying Psalms or listening to divrei Torah. People who are involved in talking to G-d, are often nicer, less aggressive, calmer. 

I've received dozens of calls from various organizations in the last few weeks asking for donations.
They call now, just before the holiday, because before Rosh HaShana is a propitious time to give to those in need. It is also a reminder how much we do have, how much we don't need; how much we should be thankful for. 

תשובה, תפילה, צדקה מעבירים את רוע הגזירה
Repentance, Prayer, and Charity change the evil of the decree.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks - past chief Rabbi of the UK - says it like this:

By returning to one's innermost self (teshuvah), by attaching oneself to G-d (tefillah) and by distributing one's possessions with righteousness (tzedakah), one turns the promise of Rosh Hashanah into the abundant fulfillment of Yom Kippur: A year of sweetness and plenty.

On Rosh HaShana, Jews wish each other a ‘good and sweet’ year (שנה טובה ומתוקה). Why both good and sweet? Isn’t good – well – good enough?

We believe that everything G-d does is good. Often, we can’t immediately see the good. There are times when we NEVER see the good. We, as mere mortals, are not able to see the tapestry that is life and history. We can’t know how some events affect world affairs, except perhaps in the here and now. And sometimes, the here and now seems to really suck. So we wish each other a sweet year. We know it will be good, because everything G-d does is for the good. But we want it to be sweet; that we should recognize it immediately as good.

May we merit the courage to accept 'no' as an answer and the wisdom to recognize the good,
May we merit a year of joy and happiness, of comfort and of pride, a year of calm and rest.
And may all of Israel merit a year of sweetness and good.

!!שנה טובה ומתוקה

Thursday, August 27, 2015

No Regrets This Summer

All we have is this moment
Tomorrow’s unspoken
Katy Perry

Before the start of every summer, as far back as I can remember, I make plans as to how I will spend my time. When I was still in school, last century, I planned around which books I would read, which ice cream flavours I would try, and I how I could get my father to take me miniature golfing. When my own kids were small, I planned which books I would read to them, which ice cream flavours I would hide from them, and how many times I could get to the beach/pool with them (there's no miniature golfing in Beer Sheva).

As we all know, מענטש טראכט און גאָט לאַוגהס [man (or mothers) plan, and G-d laughs]. Seldom did my plans come to fruition. There was always some good reason.
Last summer, I computerized my plans, so gung-ho was I! Nothing could stop me but all out war. And lo, an all out war started, and the plans were dashed.

This summer, I was determined to make every moment count.  My kids are mostly grown-up and I don't have to plan for them anymore. I arranged to take random days off work so I could take the time to visit with family, go to the beach, and take day trips to other places around the country. Things started out well. I spent a super lovely day with a cousin I hadn't seen in years. My sister came to visit on a Tuesday, and we partook of an authentic Beer Sheva Tuesday afternoon meal of couscous. I even managed to clean out a couple of drawers.

Due to the 'three weeks', which were during July, there were many things we couldn't do. Instead, I spent the time thinking of things we could do in August.
I planned shopping trips with my youngest. I looked up advanced craft projects to keep us occupied. I planned a trip to Tel Aviv to the Nachalat Binyamin Market (which is only open on Tuesdays and Fridays, and hence, needs LOTS of planning).

Instead of all that, though, I got sick. Man plans.....

First of all, I'm fine.

Much like rockets falling all around me, while the health incident was potentially life-threatening, at no time was I in danger. Also, staying overnight in the hospital was almost, but not quite, as much fun as having rockets fall all around me. I got less sleep in the hospital. But I did have to take it very easy for several weeks after.
So, no trips to the beach or to Tel Aviv. Instead, I sat around with the kid watching bad movies and reruns of worse TV shows.
It was great.

I was never on any deathbed, not even close, but my dashed summer plans help me to realize, yet again -and maybe, this time, decisively - how many things we regret doing or not doing much too late. And more importantly, I realized there are things I do, or want to do, and don't do because  not everyone everywhere thinks it's a good idea - some people downright disapprove - and yet, I would never regret.doing..

Everyone knows that no one, on their deathbed, regrets not spending more time in the office, or spending too much time with their family.

In my taking-it-easy time, for my own amusement, I thought of a few more regrets I'm NOT going to have and hope that no one has. Ever.

I wish I had cleaned the bathroom/pots/behind the kids' ears better.

I can't imagine ANYONE thinking that cleaning pots is an important part of life. Except, once, a long time ago, (and this is a true story) I worked with a young woman who had lost her mother at a young age. She told me that her mother had always spent a long time shining the pots after using them, sometimes with special cleaner so that they always looked like new. My young colleague thought that was the way things were supposed to be. But when her mother lay ill, she told her daughter that the pots were not important after all. I think of that story often, especially when I've just washed the floor on a Friday afternoon, and everyone comes in from an afternoon at the beach and brings the beach in with them....

I wish I had danced less.

Lately, I've been dancing A LOT. And I dance, as they say, as if no one is watching. That's mostly because no on is watching.

I wish I had spent less money.

Money seems so important, especially when you don't have much, and when you work so hard to get it. It's not fun being broke, and I understand the need for a budget.
But at the end of the day, if you receive happiness from some multicolor sneakers, but begrudge the 50 bucks or yen or shekel that it costs, maybe go for it anyway. Though I know people who get mad when anyone says this, but, really, it's only money. Happiness, in the form of multicoloured sneakers, is what keeps us alive.


I wish I had read fewer books. 

My mother often said that I was born with a book in my hand. I know that there have been times when those pots were left unattended, the kids' ears' were dirty, and the floor crunched beneath the feet of the dirty-eared kids, but I would be so engrossed in whatever book I was reading, I didn't notice. Who cares?

I wish I had fewer friends.

I can't describe how grateful I am to have so many friends, real, imaginary, or facebook (and a friend can be all three).

I wish I never acted so silly. 

'Nuf said.

We are now in the Jewish month of Elul, a time traditionally set aside by Jews for introspection, repentance, and forgiveness - a time to do and seek  tshuvah. I've never been very good at any of that, at least not in the formal practice of praying and saying selichot. (My mind wanders something terrible).
Elul is also the time to put your life on the right track, to seek out the important and positive qualities in you and act on them.. It's a time to stop regretting and move forward.

Wishing all my friends and family, and all of Am Yisrael, a sweet and healthy new year!

Monday, May 25, 2015

A Post-Shavuot Thought

Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children.
William Makepeace Thackeray

This is what we read from the Torah on Shavuot morning:

In the third month after the departing of the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt, this day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. And when they were departed from Rephidim and came into the wilderness of Sinal they encamped in the wilderness, and there Israel encamped before the mountain.
And Moshe ascended to G-d, and HASHEM called to him from the mountain, saying, “So shall you should say to Beit (the House of) Yaakov and tell to the Sons of Israel”
(Shemot 19:3).

Mt Sinai
A little background to the story:
After the children of Israel successfully escaped from slavery in Egypt, they traveled through the desert, eventually arriving at the mountain of Sinai. There they camped next to the mountain from which they were to receive the Torah. It says ‘this day (יום הזה) they came to Sinai’. Grammatically, it should say ‘that day’ (יום ההוא). This day is in the present, and that day is in the past, and the story takes place more than  3000 years ago. 

Rashi explains that it says this day, “so that the words of the Torah should be new to you as though today He gave them.” In other words, every day, when we learn Torah, we should come to it with the excitement, and the curiosity, and love that we feel when we receive something new. Every time you open a chumash you should feel like it’s your first time. 

That’s a difficult order. We are commanded to learn Torah every day. How do we keep the love of Torah fresh?

Rashi answers that too.

But first, let’s read this bit again: “So shall you should say to Beit (the House of) Yaakov and tell to the Sons of Israel”

Why does it say both Beit Yaakov and Bnei Yisrael? Essentially, they are the same thing. Rashi explains that Bait Yaakov are the women, and the sons of Yisrael are, well, the sons, i.e., the men.

Moshe is instructed to say (תאמר) to the women, and tell to the men (תגיד).

Both Rashi and Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch ask the question: why are the women mentioned first? Why does G-d tell Moshe to say to the women but to tell to the men. Why are two different words used, and what is the difference between them?

Rashi and Rav Hirsch both answer in the same way. G-d was about to give mankind His Laws. Through these laws, through the Torah, man would be redeemed. Peace would reign over the world. But G-d knows the Laws are not necessarily easy to keep. They are revolutionary. They are difficult. They require a certain amount of sacrifice of the self. And so, to get Bnei Yisrael – the men – to keep these laws, G-d had to go through the women.

To say לאמר:  Rashi says this means to speak with soft words. The way to learn Torah is softly, with love. While women are not required to actually teach (the Biblical meaning of  to tell [להגיד]) the Law, they are expected to set the atmosphere of the Law. Women have been entrusted to ‘set the atmosphere’ for Torah life. A child’s first encounter with Jewish life is through his/her mother, in the home. The home should exude an atmosphere of love and peace. The child should be taught to love G-d and to love his/her people with all his/her heart and all his soul; to cherish the Jewish way of life, so that later, the Laws are learned and practiced with love and awe. 

The home is considered to be the equivalent of the Aron Kodesh, the home of the Torah itself, a holy place. Whether the mother or grandmother, sister or daughter, it is the woman’s mission - her calling if you will - to ensure that love and peace flourish, that acts of kindness – chesed – abound, to make sure that the Torah is not just a book, but a life force, and that Torah life is exciting and fresh.

This mission; these responsibilities of living Torah are infinitely harder than simply learning or teaching Torah.

Bearing in mind this responsibility given to women, it is no wonder that the two books in the Tanach that are named after women – Esther and Ruth – deal with chesed, and with examples of baseless love (ahavat chinam). This is one of Ruth’s connections to Shavuot. If Shavuot is Chag Matan Torah, what better way to illustrate what the Torah is really about than to read a book dealing almost entirely with chesed, because that is the essence of the Torah.

Shalom – peace – one of the names of G-d – will only come to our people if it is first found in the home. And we can have peace in the home when a Torah life is allowed to flourish, if acts of chesed abound, if love of G-d and people and the Land is nurtured. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Oh, for the Love of Esther

The Jews had light, and gladness, and joy, and honour.
The Book of Esther 8:16

As a person who hates being in the kitchen, I love Purim. It’s a short holiday with only one meal (as opposed to two on Shabbat or 4-6 on Rosh HaShana), you don’t have to turn the kitchen upsidedown (Pesach), or eat outside (Yom HaAzmaut). And mostly, it’s ok to eat junk ALL DAY LONG!! And the junk comes in present form. I don’t even have to buy it. 

The best part of Purim, of course, is that the story features women. No blurring names or faces here, 
no putting these women on the back of the bus, or behind a wall! The women in the story are front and center, named, described, and centuries later, dozens, if not hundreds, of little girls dress up as them (though there are more Queens of the Strawberries than Esthers). 

At first glance and first reading of Megillat Esther, the two women seem strikingly similar. Both are beautiful, both are of royal lineage, both stand up to a wicked drunken king.

The first of the two women to appear is Vashti. The Book of Esther opens at a party, and King Achashverosh orders his wife Vashti to appear and dance before the celebrants. It is understood that this is not just a simple dance, but that she is to appear in the nude. Vashti refuses. In what appears to be a noble and dignified gesture, Vashti refuses her husband's command to perform. She will not sacrifice her dignity on a stupid and drunken request. And so she sacrifices her life, as the king orders her executed[1].

But before we think of her as brave and tragic, let's take a quick but deeper look at Vashti.

We know that Vashti is the granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar (of destruction of the Temple fame) and daughter of Belshazzar. Her father and family and household had been killed by Darius – father of Achashverosh. Vashti is the only survivor of the massacre (which is described in the Book of Daniel) and she was captured and given to the young Achashverosh as a prize.

The Talmud tells us that despite her capture and forced marriage, Vashti lives up to her grandfather's cruelty. She enslaves Jewish girls, stripping them and forcing them to work on Shabbat. When Achashverosh commands her to appear naked at his party, she was busy having a party of her own, probably with the Chippendales. She answered him "you were but a stable boy when my father was king of all Babylon!" (Esther Rabbah 3:14) It wasn't that Vashti wasn't willing to sacrifice her dignity and not dance; she was not willing to sacrifice her ego. She was a queen, and the daughter and granddaughter of conquerors. She didn't dance for some stable boy. 

The Midrash tells us that Vashti was stricken with one of two ailments. Either she had Tzora'at (badly translated as leprosy), which is a physical manifestation of Lashon Harah. Lashon Harah is committed when one thinks one is superior to others. Or, says the Midrash, Vashti had a tail. That would symbolize her bestiality, her inhumanity. Whatever the reason, Vashti refused to dance and was desposed, thus ending the line of Nebuchadnezzar and its wickedness.

We can now turn to Esther.

Esther is also of royal lineage. Her family was taken into captivity in the first exile (at the time of the above-mentioned Nebuchadnezzar)—that of the aristocracy.

However, unlike Vashti – who taunted Achashverosh at every opportunity at the difference in their status – Esther tells no one of her family, her heritage, or her history.

A question that has often come to my mind when I read the tragic story of Esther is why did she submit to her fate? Why did Esther allow herself to be so degraded by being imprisoned in the palace; being forced into a beauty contest, and ultimately being forced to marry an immoral, uncultured, drunken egomaniac? Wouldn't it have been better to have even killed herself rather than endure what must have been torture? Considering that the Holy Temple had just been destroyed because of rampant acts of murder, idolatry, and sexual immorality, Esther's rebellion would have been heralded as a small rectification for the destruction.

Yet, her cousin/uncle/guardian Mordecai does not allow her to take this course of action. Instead, he tells her to go with the king’s men when they come for her and submit, but to keep her identity a secret, both from the king and from her own people.

So, orphaned, separated from her people, Esther begins her lonely existence in the palace, forsaken it seems even by G-d, for no miracle comes to save her.

According to Jewish law, Mordecai is right in telling Esther to keep her origins a secret.

When Esther becomes queen, she becomes a public persona, a target of the press, a symbol to the people, a person always in the public eye. Everything she does is scrutinized. Every chair she buys is appraised, and every bottle she returns to the store is counted. Every move she makes is judged. 

If Esther's nationality and religion are known, then, as a public figure, any minor desecration would become a chilul HaShem – a desecration of the name of G-d. Publicly marrying a non-Jew – no matter the circumstances – would be a horrific desecration.

However, as a passive and unknown victim to the king's advances, Esther would not be considered guilty of sexual immorality.

It is for this reason that Mordecai insists that she keep her identity a secret. And so Esther, unlike Vashti, suppresses her own needs, her own ego, her own identity so that she should not ever be guilty of sexual immorality or any other sort of chilul HaShem.

Later in the story, when Haman's plan for the extermination of the Jews becomes known, Mordecai tells Esther to go to the king. At this point, she asks Mordecai to have the people fast and pray for her, thus having her identity disclosed. Why now? Why publicize her heritage now?

Because now, by going to the king of her accord, Esther is no longer a "passive victim" to the king's advances. By seducing the king, she will now be guilty of immorality. It doesn't matter anymore if she is a public figure or private citizen.

Sexual immorality is one of the three cardinal sins for which one loses his/her place in the next world.

When Esther hesitates before going to Achashverosh, when she asks her people to fast and pray for her, it was not because she was afraid for her physical life, but because she was about to sacrifice her soul.

What made Esther act in such a way? There was no need. No one knew who she was. She would have survived Haman's extermination program. She would not have to commit immorality and sacrifice her place in the next world. Mordecai even told her that if she didn't step up, deliverance would come from another place.

It is written that we must love G-d with all our hearts and all our souls and all our might. And this is what Esther does. Out of love for G-d and her people, Esther gives up all. Showing total chesed, total Ahavat Chinam (loving freely without judgment), Esther is willing to sacrifice her soul for her people. In the end, not only does Esther save her people, but her Ahavat Chinam paves the way for the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash.[2]
And therefore it's no wonder that the Beit HaMikdash, built on the basis of Ahavat Chinam cannot exist in a time of Sinat Chinam (baseless hatred)[3].

Unlike Vashti, Esther transcends her own personal tragedy – which continues on even after her people are saved – and gives her heart and her soul and her might to G-d and to the Jewish people.

May we be blessed this Purim and may our People be united with the Ahavat Chinam of Esther, that the way should be paved for the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash and the coming of the Masiach, bimheray be'yamenuh.


[1] The text here is rather vague. The Megillah says ‘That Vashti come no more before King Ahasverosh’ and not ‘off with her head’ or anything like that. But it has been interpreted that she was, in fact, killed, the Hollywood movie with Patrick Dempsey notwithstanding.

[2] It is her grandson Koresh, King of Persia, who allows the Jews, under the leadership of Ezra and Nechemia, to return to the Land of Israel and rebuilt the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

[3] Our sages give the reason for the destruction of the Second Temple as baseless hatred. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Good of the Land

If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land
-Isaiah 1:19

The almond tree is blooming 
A golden sun is shining
Birds from every rooftop call
To tell us of the day for all
Tu b'Shvat is coming,
A festival for trees
Tu b'Shvat is coming,
A festival for trees
-Yisrael Doshman

An almond tree in bloom is a beautiful sight. Here in Israel, it signals the beginning of the end of winter and the coming of the Tu B'Shvat—the Israeli festival of trees.

One of the highlights of the my work year is receiving our annual Tu B’Shvat gift of a box full of dried fruits and nuts. People talk about it for weeks before, discuss recipes, which fruits they like, which are the most fattening, and how quickly their kids can scarf them down. We are receiving our boxes tomorrow. People cancelled vacations to be sure to get them.

The truth is that these days, everywhere you look, there are piles and piles of dried fruits for sale.

Really. This is what it looks like
Apricots, prunes, and raisins are old news.
Old news
Today’s cool buys are dried kiwis, bananas, and papayas. How cool is that!!

Cool new fruit
Tu B’Shvat is mentioned exactly zero times in the Torah, and one time in the Mishnah. That one mention is in relation to the four new years in the Jewish calendar. The first of Tishrei is the new year for the calculation of the calendar, sabbatical (shmita) years and the Jubilee (yovel), for planting and sowing. The first of Nisan is to the new year for kings and festivals.

They all get a new year

The first of Elul is the new year for animal tithes. The fourth new year is the new year of trees: According to the House of Shamai, it was to be the first of Shvat, but according to Hillel it was to be the fifteenth of Shevat (Rosh Hashana:2a).
The rabbis of the time ruled according to Hillel, as by the 15th of the month of Shevat it was decided that the majority of the winter rains had fallen, and the new agricultural season had begun.

And that is the only time we hear of Tu B’Shvat in Jewish Law.

There are three mitzvot that are indirectly associated with Tu B’Shvat:

  • Orlah is the prohibition on eating the fruit produced during the first three years after the tree is planted. 
  • Neta Reva'i refers to the biblical commandment to bring fourth-year fruit crops to Jerusalem as a tithe. 
  • Maaser Sheni and Maaser Ani were tithes, which was eaten in Jerusalem or given to the poor.  These tithes (or taxes if you will) were calculated by the amount of fruit that ripened from oner Tu B’Shvat to the next.

In simplest terms, Tu B’Shvat was, during Temple times, the end of the tax year. 10% of whatever fruit was grown (or the monetary value of it) was required to be given to the poor or to the Beit HaMikdash.
The only mitzvah of those three that is still relevant to us today is the mitzvah of Orla; to count three Tu B’Shvats before we are allowed to eat the fruit from a young tree. And even this mitzvah is relevant only here in Israel.

How then, did all these other customs - planting trees, eating dried fruit, having a ‘seder’ Tu B’Shvat - come about?

Well, I’ll tell you.

They were all made up.

Which isn't to say that it’s a bad thing.

After the destruction of our Holy Temple, and the exile and dispersal of our people, Tu B’Shvat ceased to have any meaning because the mitzvot associated with the date were  kept only in the Land.

Once the Jews were dispersed, all the festivals of the year took on different meanings, and all acquired new customs to take the place of the mitzvot that were kept in the Temple.

The festivals, which were originally agricultural in nature, took on more of a historical and religious nature in exile. Therefore, Pesach became the festival of freedom and celebrates our peoplehood; Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah; Succot is when we remember the miracles of G-d, and the hardships we suffered in the desert until we reached our Land.

Because the Land of Israel is an integral part of Judaism, and, while for the 2000 years of exile we remembered the Land in a myriad of ways, Tu B’Shvat slowly became THE day to remember the glory and the goodness of the Land.

It was in the Middle Ages that Tu B’Shvat began to be celebrated by eating the fruits of Eretz Yisrael. In the 16th century, the Kabbalists of Tsfat (who themselves were exiles from Spain) initiated the ‘Seder’ Tu B’Shvat where one eats several specific fruits and drinks four cups of wine. It was thought that this would bring the world closer to perfection.

(drinking four cups of wine can make anything seem pretty close to perfect).
The custom of eating dried fruits began only about 100-150 years ago, with the beginning of the return of the Jews to their Land. The Jews of Europe wished to partake of the bounty of the Land also, and asked the Jews who had returned to please send them fruit of the Land. Because it took so long to arrive by boat, the fruit was first dried and then sent. The Jews of Europe could eat the dried dates and figs and carobs of Israel.

I, myself, do not care for carobs.
As more Jews returned to the Land, they brought their old country customs with them, and the custom of eating dried fruits on Tu B’Shvat was one of those. But, here in Israel, most fruits are eaten fresh. Therefore, to meet demand, the National Importers Guild[1] decided to import dried fruit from abroad. Money is money.
As a consequence, today, to celebrate Tu B’Shvat, which is a celebration of the bounty of the Land, we import apricots from Belgium, pistachios from Greece, pecans from China, and raisins from California. In the Old Country, we ate dried fruit to remember the Land of Israel, and here in the Land of Israel we eat dried fruit to remember the Old Country. [2]

A bit of a slap in the face, if you ask me.

On the other hand, if you are going to make up customs, the custom of planting trees in Eretz Yisrael is certainly an excellent one. It is a great mitzva to plant trees (especially fruit trees) in the Land, any day. Setting aside Tu B’Shvat as a special day to plant is a lovely idea, and because of it, Israel was the only country in the world to end the 20th century with more trees than it had at the start of the century.

But this year is a shmittah year, when we do not plant and the Land lies fallow. So what should we do on Tu B’Shvat this year?

We should glory in the beauty and the bounty of the Land.

These flowers are Anemones, and grow in fields in the late winter 25 minutes from my house.

This is just a fun picture

dried fruit

the bounty of the Land!

Cool fruit


Baby tomatoes

An arial view of even more food

This is also the bounty of the Land!

[1] I don’t think that the National Importers Guild is actually a thing. I made it up, but you get the point.

[2] And yes, you can get Israeli produced dried fruit. I know. But two things: a) you have to look hard for it – about 90% of the dried fruits in the supermarkets are imported, and b) what’s wrong with fresh fruit??