29 posts categorized "Jewish history and tradition"

Maccabee - What's in a Name?

KB and Gemara
Happy Chanuka!

There are three known sources for name "Maccabee":

  1. Acronym of Hebrew phrase "Mi Kamocha B'elim A'donoi" (Exodus 15:11) - Who is like You among the gods, Hashem?
  2. Acronym of Mattathias's name "Mattatyahu Cohen ben Yochanan".
  3. The ancient Greek word for "mighty" or "hammer". 

In any event, the word "Maccabee" was embroidered on their flags as they went into battle. With that in mind, I choose above option #1 as the most plausible source of the term "Maccabee", although above option #2 could have become their family name. The Maccabees themselves certainly wouldn't have used a Greek term to nickname themselves, so I don't think that above option #3 is likely.

Mattathias the High Priest (Cohen Gadol) and his five sons Yehuda, Shimon, Yonatan, Yochanan and Elazar were all holy men and Torah scholars of the highest order. What's more, they had unshakable emuna. Sure, they were history's greatest fighters, but only their emuna enabled them to withstand such insurmountable odds. Eventually, Yehuda and Elazar were killed in battle, while Shimon, Yonatan and Yochanan were assassinated in politically motivated plots. What is history teaching us? While the might of the Maccabees didn't prevent their untimely deaths, the light of the Maccabees lives on to this day. What do we learn from this?

The kettlebells are great, but they're not enough. You need the Gemara too. May the light of Chanuka illuminate your home, amen!


Vezakeni: Prayer for our Offspring

Zaidie Lazer and Yanky

Zaidie Lazer learning Torah with grandson Yaacov Yosef Brody from Jerusalem (photo from 2008)

One of my biggest joys in life is grandchildren at my Shabbat table...

Whenever Zaidie (grandfather) Lazer Brody gets together with his grandchildren, we sing a moving song that 51uh9RTsdfL._SY450_ comes from a woman's prayer after lighting Sabbath candles. Many young couples also say this prayer on their wedding day:

Vezakeni legadel banim uvnei banim, chachomim u'nevovim ohavei Hashem, yirei Elokim anshei emes zera kadosh b'Hashem deveikim. Um'irim es haolam batorah umaasim tovim uvechol maleches avodas HaBoreh.

"May I merit to raise children and grandchildren who are wise and discerning, who love Hashem and fear G-d, men of truth, holy seed, clinging to Hashem, and who illuminate the world with Torah and good deeds and all the work of serving the Creator."

It's our family custom to sing this lovely melody at the Bar Mitzvas of my grandsons, three generations with three-part harmony.

Baruch Levine composed this melody, and performs it ever so beautifully. Enjoy! May you have nothing but happy occasions in your family, and joy from your offspring, a wonderful Shabbat, amen!


The Blacksmith of Grodno

Blacksmith of Grodno
Shabbat Chanukah reminds me of my great grandfather, who died some 26 years before I was born.

My maternal great grandfather, Reb Yankev ("The Blacksmith") Podrub from Grodno, Belarus (formerly Poland) was a legendary figure in the annals of Stolin-Karlin Chassidus. He arms were like twisted steel, but his disposition was extremely gentle. Although he was a blacksmith. he was also a Talmudic scholar. He worked so that his little brother, Arie Leib, could attend rabbinical yeshiva. Ultimately, Arie Leib became the head rabbi of Meretch in Lithuania and one of the prime students of Rav Chaim Ozer Grudzinski, osb"m.

The renowned "Yanuka" of Stolin, the famous Rebbe Yisroel Perlov ob'm who had over 20,000 Chassidim, would stay in Reb Yankev's house every Shabbat Chanuka when he'd visit his chassidim in Grodno. Even more, The Stoliner Rebbe - who loved horses - insisted that only Reb Yankev shoe his horses. From what the old Stoliner Chassidim told me, the Rebbe loved my great-grandfather's pure and simple emuna and the innocence in which he served Hashem. Reb Yankev would be so excited that the Rebbe was a guest in his home that he'd dance all night long. Rav Binyomin Adler, who was head of the Kashruth Department in the Jerusalem Rabbinate, heard from his uncle - who was also a guest in my great grandfather's home when the Rebbe was there, that Reb Yankev danced all night long in the living room, singing, "Shabbat! Chanukah! Rosh Chodesh! Rebbe!" and making such a commotion that no one could sleep.

What was so special about Reb Yankev? He never spoke small talk. Even at work, he'd mumble tehillim and mishnayot. Also, his trust in Hashem was phenominal - he'd only work long enough to earn that same day's bread with one extra kopeck; he saved the extra kopecks in a jar all year long, and then at the end of the year, he'd use the money to travel to his Rebbe in Stolin for Rosh Hashanna. As such, my great grandfather lived his connection with the tzaddik all year long.

The minute Reb Yankev finished his day's work, he'd fly up the stairs to the Stoliner shtiebel, conveniently located on the second floor over the smithy, and open up a Gemara. Grodno lore holds him as one of the hidden tzaddikim of the area, may his blessed memory be cherished always.

***There's a poignant epilog to the above story: when I received my rabbinical ordination in 1992 from Rav Yitzchak Kulitz of blessed memory, former head Rabbi of Jerusalem, he told me that my great-uncle Arie Leib, Reb Yankev's younger brother, was the rabbi who ordained his father. In fact, when Rabbi Arie Leib passed away, Rav Kulitz's father took his place as the head rabbi of Meretch in Lithuania. It was my great grandfather who enabled his little brother Arie Leib to learn in Yeshiva. Now, Rav Kulitz was ordaining me - a lovely cycle was completed.

I heard the above stories and many more from my grandmother Kailie of blessed memory, from Rav Yitzchak Kulitz of blessed memory, former head Rabbi of Jerusalem, who as a little boy saw my great grandfather, and from Rav Benyamin Adler shlit'a of Jerusalem, whose uncle knew my great grandfather well, and from the elderly Stolin-Karlin chassidim of Jerusalem.

I know that alte zaidie (Yiddish for great grandfather) has nachas (gratification) that his great granchildren are continuing on in the way of Torah and Chassidus. You know what that means? The Greeks and the Hellenists lost, and so did Hitler and western assimilation. With simple emuna, we shall continue to overcome, with G-d's help. Have a wonderful Shabbat Chanukah and Rosh Chodesh!


I Prayed for This Child

The moving story of Hannah appears in the first and second chapter of Samuel I: Hannah had no children, and she begged Hashem in the holy tabernacle at Shilo that if He gives her a child, she will dedicate this child to the service of Hashem. Hashem heard her prayers, and Samuel was born.

When Samuel was weaned, Hannah brought him to the High Priest Eli in Shilo, where the little Samuel grew up devoting his entire life to serving Hashem. As Hannah presents her son to Eli, she says, "This is the lad I prayed for; Hashem granted me the request that I asked of Him" (Samuel I, 1:27).

In a beautiful age-old Jewish tradition, when we check on our sleeping children at night, and we see them like little angels fast asleep, we repeat the above passage as an expression of gratitude to Hashem, and we continue to pray for their spiritual and physical welfare and development.

Shraga Gold and the Shira Choir sing Rabbi Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz's lovely rendition of Hannah's moving expression of gratitude in the following beautiful clip, which we hope you enjoy as much as we did. Shabbat Shalom!


Two Good "Yiddishe" Boys

Louie Armstrong Colin Powell
At the beginning of last century, in the emotional hotbed of New Orleans a child slave of the ghetto was born of a prostitute mother and “missing” father. He somehow stumbled into the attention of a financially poor but loving Russian Jewish immigrant family, the Karnofskys. This little fellow, with an appreciative, magnetic personality, attached himself to the father, to help him with his horse-and-wagon hauling business. The Karnofskys loved the child, took him in for dinners, including Shabbat, and provided more than bed and shelter. They provided him with the love he needed, and his first musical instrument that led this confused, hungry youngster onto worldwide fame — as a jazz performer, music innovator and worldwide ambassador for humanity. Louis Armstrong proudly spoke fluent Yiddish, from his childhood through his whole life, and always wore a Star of David around his neck.

* * * * *

Sickser's back in the early 1950's was located on the corner of Westchester and Fox in South Bronx, and specialized in "everything for the baby" as its slogan ran. Swamped on day with loads of work and many customers, Mr. Sickser ran out of  the store and stopped the first youth he spotted on the street. "Young man,"  he panted, "how would you like to make a little extra money? I need some help  in the store. You want to work a little?"

The tall, lanky black boy  flashed a toothy smile back. "Yes, sir, I'd like some work." "Well then, let's get started."

The boy followed his new employer into the store. Mr.  Sickser was immediately impressed with the boy's good manners and demeanor, and made him a regular employee at the store. It was gratifying to find an employee with an almost soldier-like willingness to perform even the most menial of  tasks, and to perform them well. From the age of thirteen until his  sophomore year in college, this young man put in from twelve to fifteen hours  a week, at 50 to 75 cents an hour.

In 1993, in his position as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of  Staff, two years after he guided the American victory over Iraq in the Gulf War, General Colin Powell visited the Holy Land. Upon meeting Israel's  Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in Jerusalem, he greeted the Israeli with the  word "Men kent reden Yiddish" (We can speak Yiddish). As Shamir, stunned, tried to pull himself together, the current Secretary Of State continued chatting in his second-favorite language. Colin Powell never forgot his early days working at Sickser's.

* * * * *

Louie Armstrong and Colin Powell loved their "Yiddishe" roots. Unsung Jewish heroes like the Karnofskys and the Sicksers used their total color-blind love of their fellow human to help shape two of modern history's finest people.


The Remarkable Shepherd

Bedouin Shepherd boy Image, left: Bedouin shepherd tending his flocks along the banks of Nachal Lachish, east of Ashdod

The Midrash tells us that when Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chanania (one of Rabbi Akiva's teachers) was visiting Rome, he was summoned by Adrianus Caesar. Caesar said, "I find a sheep that is capable of surviving among 70 wolves quite remarkable!"

"Such a sheep is less remarkable," replied Rabbi Yehoshua, "than the shepherd that's capable of protecting it from the seventy wolves!"

Interpretation: The seventy wolves - the nations of the world, inherently hostile to Israel; the sheep - Israel; the shepherd - Hashem.


The Ancient Water Drawing Ceremony

Here's how the ancient "Water-Drawing Ceremony", Simchat Bet Hashoeva, was celebrated during the time of our Holy Temple, may it be rebuilt soon, amen:

A golden container was filled with water drawn from the pools at Siloam in Jerusalem. When the water carriers reached the Water Gate, they blew three notes on the shofar.

On the right side of the ramp leading to the altar, there were two silver bowls, each with a hole shaped like a narrow spout, one wider than the other. One bowl stood to the east and the other to the west. The shapes of the bowls allowed them to be emptied simultaneously. (The wider spouted bowl held wine, which flows more slowly than water.)

As the evenings of the festival approached, the people made their way down to the Court of the Women. There were golden candlesticks, fifty cubits high, with four gold bowls atop them. Four ladders led to the top of each candlestick, and four young kohanim mounted the ladders, holding in their hands large jars of oil which they poured into the golden bowls. Wicks to light the oil were made from worn-out clothing of the kohanim, and when the candlesticks were lit, the light glowed through out the entire city of Jerusalem.

The greatest Sages and tzadikim would participate joyfully in the celebration, performing the most extraordinary feats. Some of them would bear burning torches in their hands while singing Psalms and other praises of G-d. The Levites would play many various musical instruments, including harps, lyres, cymbals, and trumpets as they stood on the fifteen steps which led down from the Court of Women in the Holy Temple.

Two kohanim were stationed at the Upper Gate of the Temple, holding trumpets in their hands. As the roosters crowed the first light of dawn, they blasted their trumpets, and as they ascended the steps, they blew two additional rounds of tekiah's. They continued walking until they reached the gate which led to the east, whereupon they turned to face the west and uttered the words: "We belong to G-d and our eyes are turned to G-d."

The Sages relate that when the great Sage, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel rejoiced at the water festival, he would juggle with eight lighted torches, tossing them into the air, catching one and then throwing another, so that they never touched each other. He would also prostrate himself on the ground, bend down, doing a head-stand, kiss the ground and draw himself up again, a feat which no one else could do.

The Talmud relates many of these displays of prowess which the Sages performed at the Simchat Beit Hashoeva. They record that Reb Levi used to juggle in the presence of Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi with eight knives. Shmuel would do the same with eight glasses of wine, without spilling any of their contents. Rabbi Abaye would juggle before Rabbi Rabba with eight (or some say, four) eggs.

It is written in the name of Rabbi ben Chanania, "When we used to rejoice at the place of the water-drawing, our eyes saw no sleep." It is explained that the entire day was occupied with holy activities, so that the participants in the simcha were busy from day to night.

In the morning the sacrifice was brought, followed by prayers, and then an additional sacrifice. Then they would study Torah and eat breakfast. Afternoon prayer was following by the evening sacrifice and then the water-drawing festivities commenced.

The celebration of the Simchat Beit Hashoeva continued throughout the entire night, lighting up the city so brilliantly that there was no courtyard in Jerusalem which didn't reflect the light of the great candlesticks which illumined the Festival of the Water-Drawing.

reprinted with courtesy of our esteemed friends at L'Chaim weekly