Friday, December 30, 2011

Modern American Rabbis on celebrating New Year's Day

We have written in previous HOTD about the various views of modern orthodox rabbis regarding the celebration of different American holidays (see here). All orthodox rabbis are very strict in forbidding, for example, the celebration of Halloween in any way, while most would not oppose the celebration of Thanksgiving. The question is: to what extent a particular Holiday is considered 'a religious' celebration? Halloween has clear origins in Pagan culture, and some of those customs are still followed in its celebration today. While Thanksgiving is more of an historical celebration.

What about New Year's day?

According to Christian tradition, January 1st, is the day of the circumcision of Yeshu (eight days counting from December 25), when his name was given to him. 

Five centuries ago, Rabbi Terumat Hadeshen and Rama, both living in Christian countries, classified New Year's day as a religious gentile holiday (Darkhe Moshe and Rama, Yoreh Deah 148:12). Terumat Hadeshen refers to January First as "the eighth day of Christmas." He clearly viewed this holiday as 'religious' in nature. Most Rabbis --myself included-- would oppose the 'celebration' of New Year's Day based on this consideration.

Other Rabbis, however, have a more lenient view, because in their opinion New Year's has lost entirely its religious overtones and can be rationally explained as a celebration of a new civil calendar's year.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Iggrot Moshe, Even Haezer 2:13) writes with regard to New Year's: "On the question of celebrating any event on a holiday of Gentiles, if the holiday is based on religious beliefs [such as Christmas], such celebrations are prohibited .... even without intent, it is prohibited because of marit ayin . . . The first day of the year for them [January 1] and Thanksgiving is not prohibited according to law, but pious people [ba'ale nefesh] should be stricter [and avoid its celebration]."

In Rabbi Michael Broyde's opinion (see below) the status of New Year's day has changed in the last three hundred years. In contemporary America there is little religious content on New Year's Day, and while there might be many problems associated with the way some celebrate it, he thinks that few would classify it as a religious holiday, since there is a clear secular reason to celebrate the beginning of the new calendar year. New Year's day, in his opinion has lost its status as a religious Holiday.

I would say that Rabbi Feinstein's words articulate what we implicitly practice in our community. While one should avoid its commemoration and won't promote any official celebration, rabbis won't actively oppose or preach against its private celebration by individuals, as we do with regards to Halloween, for example.

Shabbat Shalom!

Candle lighting in NYC: 4:18 PM
Shabbat Ends in NYC: : 5:27

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Shema Israel. Pasuq 4. Declaring our love of God.

(1)And you shall teach (these words) to your children, and you shall speak of them (2) when you are sitting in your house and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up.
In this pasuq the Tora commands us to express our love for God with our words and speech. 
In the first part of this pasuq (=verse) we learn about the duties of the parents to teach their children to love HaShem with all their heart, with all their soul and with all their might. Additionally, we are told, we must speak of our love for God and prove that it is real and that it influences our conduct at all times.   Our rabbis explained that the education process of our children always takes place as mimetic (imitative) experience. They said: When (or How) does it happen that we teach our children the love of God? At the time that we convey our love of God with our words.  Not when we preach to them about loving God, but when they see us practicing it: studying Tora, praying to Him and thanking Him for all we have.  

The second part of this pasuq teaches us that love of God is an integral part of our daily lives. We should not limit our prayers and words to Him just when we are in Synagogue. The pasuq emphasizes that we should express our love for Him when we are sitting at home, by ourselves or with our families in the privacy of our home, but also outside home, in the street, in front of others.  Our love for God should be the first thing we declare when we get up in the morning, and the last, when we go to sleep.

A good example of expressing our love for God constantly with our words, is when we say at all times (MEANING IT!) "barukh HaShem"= "Thanks God" , or "be'ezrat haShem" ="with God's help".

The SHEMA ISRAEL  by Rabbi Hayim Pereira-Mendes (1905)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The untold story of Chanukka (part 2)

In the year 169 BCE (3591, Hebrew calendar), Antiochus Epiphanes launched his reign of terror against the Jewish people. Impatient with the slow results of the Hellenization process of the Jews, after trying for 150 years to assimilate them,  Antiochus led his armies to Jerusalem. He canceled the sacrifices and desecrated the Temple.  In the year 167 BCE, practicing Judaism was forbidden under death penalty. Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh, Kashrut laws and particularly, circumcision were banned. Jews were forced to bow down to idols and thousands chose death, instead of worshipping idols.   When the Greeks got the city of Modi'in Matiatyahu haKohen was ordered under the threat of execution to offer a sacrifice to an idol. He refused and killed those who were carrying the orders of the King. He was the first Jew that instead of martyrdom (= letting himself to be killed) chose rebellion, and thus, started the insurrection against Antiochus the tyrant. He and his sons, especially Yehuda haMaccabbe, defeated the Greek armies in several battles and in 165 BCE restored  (for a few years...) the Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel.  

Ironically, it was Antiochus' impatience what triggered the uprising against the hellenization of the Jews. Rabbi E. Melamed hints that if the Greeks would have been more persistent, assimilation might have eventually taken place with most of the Jewish people, as it happened with the rest of the civilizations at the time. It was providential that Antiochus lost his patience. Similar to the time when HaShem hardened the heart of Pharaoh, allowing for the portents of God Almighty to be witnessed by His own people. In the case of Antiochus, by forbidding the practice of Judaism, the Jews were inspired to react and generated the rebellion.  (Penine Halakha , zemanim, 218-220)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The untold story of Chanukka

The decrees of Antiochus Epiphanes forbidding the practice of Judaism in 170 BCE, was the straw that broke the camel's back, and what triggered the rebellion of the Jews (or the Macabeem) against the Greek army. 

The tensions between the Jews and the Greek empire started long before that. Around the year 320 BCE Alexander the Great conquered Israel (and the rest of the civilized world). At the beginning, he demanded what was considered a normal token of submission, that his statue be erected in the Bet-haMiqdash. The Jews, of course, politely refused and offered him instead, that every Jewish child to be born in that year, be named Alexander in his honor.  Alexander accepted the offer and left the Jews relatively in peace. 

After his death, Alexander's empire was divided between his three generals and a period of hellenization began. The Greeks introduced their new values everywhere: sports and competition; art and the idealization of external beauty; theater and the entertainment industry, and more.  These new cool things were immediately and happily adopted by the whole world, except for the Jews. 

During the next 150 years, the Hellenist tried to assimilate the obstinate Jews to Greek culture. They first targeted the most vulnerable strata of the Jewish people: the rich and famous, those who had most to lose for their disobedience. They lower their taxes, promised good positions and generous pensions, and slowly but surely, the most influential Jews became voluntarily assimilated. The peak was reached when the High Priests, Jason and later Menelaus, attended the sport competitions in a stadium built right next to the Bet haMiqdash, instead of leading the services to God in the Temple. 

While many followed the ways of the assimilated Jews, still, most Jews remained loyal to their faith. And that is when Antiochus lost his patience with the Jews...   

(To be continued....)

Monday, December 26, 2011

Chanukka and Rosh Chodesh Tebet

Besides Chanukka, today we also celebrate Rosh Chodesh Tebet.

In the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) the name of this month is Chodesh ha-Asiri, the tenth month, counting from Nisan. In the Torah the months are named numerically (first, second, etc). The name Tebet was coined in Babylonia, same as the other commonly used names of the Hebrew months (Nisan, Iyar, Cheshvan, etc.).

Some years Rosh Chodesh Tebet is observed for one day and some years--for example, this year--for two days. Why? Because Kislev, the preceding month, consists sometimes of 30 days (ma-le) and some years of only 29 days (chaser). The 30th day of the preceding month is always the first day of Rosh Chodesh of the next month, and the second day of Rosh Chodesh is the 1st day of the new month. Today, is the 30th day of Kislev, which is Rosh Chodesh Tebet. 

The month of Tebet itself, is always 29 days long and because of this lack of variation in its length, Rosh Chodesh Shebat, the month which follows Tebet, will always be celebrated for just one day (the 1st of Shebat).

Today and tomorrow we say Ya'ale veYabo and 'al haNisim in the Amida and in Birkat haMazon. 
In the morning we read the full Halel, then we take out two Sifre Torah. On the first one we read the Rosh Chodesh portion, but instead of dividing it into 4 parts (or Aliot) as we do every Rosh Chodesh, we divide the reading into 3 Aliot. In the second Sefer Torah we read the part corresponding to the 6th day of Chanuka. We also say Musaf, including 'al haNisim.