Thursday, May 2, 2013

How many commandments contain the Ten commandments?

Many Jews (especially those living in Christian countries) probably believe that the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments looked as something similar to the McDonald's symbol  (two arched tablets, bond to each other) because this is how Gustave Doré (see this) , and even Marc Chagall ( see this ) among many other artists have painted them. There is no source for this popular image, and it actually seems that the Tablets of the Law looked more like the tablet which Lady Liberty is holding in her left hand: two square tablets, independent from each other . According to the Talmud Baba Batra 14a the tablets were rectangular, with no arc. They each measured 6 tefahim [=handbreadths. Each tefah is a little more than 3 inches] high by 6 tefahim wide by 3 tefahim thick.

 In any case, this is just a visual and relatively minor non Jewish myth.

  The major differences between the Biblical and the Christian tradition, which we will analyze BH in the coming weeks, are related to the content: for example, the way non-Jewish tradition reinterprets the prohibition of making images, or the observance of the seventh day.  But before we analyze the major issues I would like to point to another popular misconception.  According to Jewish tradition the Ten Commandments contain more that ten commandments. For Maimonides, for instance, the Second Commandment includes four precepts:  The prohibitions of 1. believing in any god, other that haShem; 2. making idols;  3. bowing down to idols;  4. worshiping idols.  Consequently,  the Ten Biblical Commandments contain actually 13 precepts or Mitzvot, not 10.  

What is more disturbing about this misconception is that the Biblical text never called the Ten Commandments "commandments" (i.e., 'eser hamitzvot) but debarim ('aseret hadebarim, or in Rabbinical Hebrew 'aseret hadibberot), which in Hebrew mean the ten "words, enunciations, proclamations". 

Quoting Rabbi Hayim Pereira Mendes: "The Ten Commandments are called in Hebrew 'Asereth Hadebarim"-"the ten words or declarations." In English they are called "the decalogue," from two Greek words, deka ten, logoi, words."

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

TEFILA: The underrated importance of wearing a belt

כשהוא חוגר את חגורו, הוא אומר: ברוך אוזר ישראל בגבורה.

When describing the blessings to be said in the morning (birkot hashahar) the Talmud explains that when a person girdles his belt he says: 'ozer Israel bigbura.  "Blessed are You, haShem, Who girdles Israel with strength". 
We have already explained that birkot hashahar are said for the small "events" we experience every morning, from the moment we wake up until we are ready to leave home.  For example: poqeah 'ivrim, when we open our eyes; malbish 'arum, when one wears his main cloth (in those days  a plain tunic) or she'asa likol tzorki, when we wear our shoes ( see this ). Now, in ancient days, when these berakhot were established, men did not wear pants or undergarments. How do we know? We have a priceless barayta in Masekhet Shabbat 120a which describes the typical 18 garments that a person would normally wear in those days. There are socks, scarfs, coats, etc. but not pants (a Kohen, however, would wear pants during his ritual duties).  A belt around the waist was then an essential tool to keep the tunic in place. The Halakha stresses the importance of the belt. At the time of praying, for example, the belt would avoid the possibility that a person would see his own nakedness while praying ( there is also another special Halakha in this area related to the belt "shelo yihe libbo ro-e et ha'erva", see here). 

This is indeed an atypical berakha. Up until now we have seen that each of the berakhot describe what a person experiences in the morning, acknowledging haShem for it.  In this case, however, the wearing of the belt becomes a motif of the dynamics between HaShem and Israel. I found two ways of interpreting this symbolism. 1. In the same way the belt protects the clothing from being loose or falling, HaShem protects His people Israel. Or 2. This berakha might refer particularly to the Tora's guidelines and restrictions in the area of sexuality.  When we control our desires, we become stronger. As the Rabbis said: "Who is considered strong?  The man who controls his impulses". i.e., through His Miztvot, HaShem girdles Israel with strength.  

If one of the readers has any other suggestion about the explanation or symbolism of this berakha, please, feel free to share. Write to   

Early childhood is a great time to expose our kids to Jewish education. The results can last a lifetime.
by  Yvette Alt Miller, from 

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

SPECIAL EDITION: The Touro Synagogue

Today, I had the pleasure to pray in the beautiful Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. 

In 1658, approximately 15 Jews from Barbados settled in Newport.  Several Jewish merchants flourished through trade with American ports, the West Indies, England, and West Africa. By far the most successful was Mr. Aaron Lopez, who emigrated from Portugal in 1752. He gained renown as an accomplished merchant, shipper, and manufacturer.
The first Congregation was called Yeshuat Yisrael (Salvation of Israel), it was established in 1756. Peter Harrison, a Newporter and one of the colonies' most distinguished architects, designed the exquisite two-story brick building with a central bimah based on the Synagogues of Amsterdam and London. The Synagogue accommodated approximately 30 Jewish households or 200 people. Rabbi Hayim Caregal (see this) was brought by Mr Aaron Lopez in 1772 from Hebron, Israel, to serve the Jewish community of Newport. His inaugural speech was published in the  Newport Mercury. It was the first Jewish sermon published in North America.
In 1781, President George Washington visited the synagogue when it housed Rhode Island's General Assembly and Supreme Court. When he returned to Newport on August 17, 1790, Washington received a congratulatory letter from the Hebrew congregation, written by the Hazan Moses Seixas. Washington's reply was perhaps America's most important expression of religious liberty, proclaimed "For happily, the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should discern themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support." 
As Newport's economy declined Jews sought opportunities elsewhere. In 1822, Moses Lopez, the last Jew in Newport, departed for New York City. In that same year Abraham Touro provided funds to maintain the synagogue in memory of his father, Isaac, who had been the congregation's first ḥazan. In 1854, the magnanimous bequest by Abraham's unmarried brother Judah, of New Orleans, provided for the perpetual care of the synagogue and cemetery. 

In Honor of the hatan and kala, Mr Ralph Dweck and his wife Naomi Tawil, who got married last night in Newport, Rhode Island.