Hanukkah Candles

This week we get to light both Shabbat Candles and Hanukkah Candles. The custom is to light the Hanukkah candles BEFORE Shabbat Candles in order to avoid desecrating the sabbath.
Since our candles need to burn into the night – the next day according to our Jewish/lunar calendar – we try to use candles or enough oil to last at least 30 minutes after sunset [until approx. 5:07].

Little Sister – Achot Ketana

This poem was written in the 13th century by Abraham Hazzan Gerondi of the Catalonian town of Herona. The poem consists of eight metrical stanzas; the acrostic gives the name of the author “Abram Ḥazzan.”

The opening words of the hymn are taken from the Shir Ha sherim (Song of Songs 8:8)”We have a little sister”: “We have a little sister, and as yet she has no breasts. What shall we do for our sister on the day when she is spoken for?” Verse 8:8, as for that matter the whole of Shir Hasherim is full of ambiguities, double meanings, and circular references that exploit numerous meanings. Here is the opening stanza of Abraham Hazzan’s poem “Little Sister”. Perhaps would it help you to formulate your own connection between the Little Sister of the poet Abraham Hazzan and the Little Sister in the Song of Solomon if I told you that Achot Ketanah is sung on erev Rosh Hashanah? The “Little Sister” is perhaps a symbol of the soul of the world or the children of Israel. The little sister prepares her prayers And intones her praises. O G-d, we beseech Thee, Heal now her infirmities. May the year and its misfortunes Now cease altogether.

Jacques Abourbih

A Lonely Levantine Shabbat

This is the Story of another Synagogue half a world away, also called Shaar Hashamayim. I had my bar mitzvah in it. The article mentions R. Albert Gabbai as a young boy in the choir at Shaar. I remember singing with him in the choir at the close of Yom Kippur the Sephardi Hymn El Nor ou’Alila—the same one Isaac Abitbol and I used to sing in days by at the Shaar in Sudbury.

The author Lucette Lagnado is the sister of an old classmate in Egypt. She wrote a highly acclaimed book about the history of her family’s emigration from the iron inferno of Egypt. Lucette works as editor at the Wall Street Journal.  I correspond with her periodically.

Dr. Jacques Abourbih

Original article: http://www.thejewishweek.com/special_sections/text_context/lonely_levantine_shabbat

A Lonely Levantine Shabbat

In Cairo, the once-crowded Shar Hashamaim is restored, but there are almost no Jews left to pray in it.

Lucette Lagnado
Special to the Jewish Week
Wednesday, April 28, 2010

“I make it a point to go to shul on Saturday morning, and that wasn’t going to change when I found myself in Cairo last summer. Yes, it is in an Arab country, but it is my Arab country, where I was born and where of late I have found myself traveling again and again. There is no one there for me — the 80,000 Jews who once lived in Egypt are pretty much gone, as are all my relatives. Cairo, to paraphrase Janet Flanner, was yesterday.

While at a festive gathering at the home of the United States ambassador, I asked if there were services I could attend that coming Saturday. Everyone shrugged, but then the head of Egypt’s virtually nonexistent Jewish community, Carmen Weinstein, spoke up to say there was certainly a place where I could pray, and I thought I detected a certain edge in her voice.

I could go, she informed me, to the magnificent central synagogue, Shar Hashamaim — The Gates of Heaven. My parents were married there back in World War II, and I have always had a romantic attachment to it. When I’d first returned to Egypt in 2005, I saw little beauty in the careworn massive stone building. Like most of the synagogues in Cairo, it looked like the house in the Addams Family: dark, frayed, forbidding.

But since that time, Weinstein had overseen a major renovation, encouraged and embraced by the American Jewish Committee, to restore the temple to its former splendor. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were apparently spent by the Egyptian government to fix it up, and there’d been a formal ceremony marking its reopening. The Gates of Heaven has no rabbi and no regular minyan, but come certain holidays, the handful of Jews who remained in Cairo, many quite elderly, venture out and reunite in the sanctuary.

One Saturday morning last June, my husband and I made our way to downtown Cairo, the hub of what had once been an intensely glamorous city; the synagogue had been situated steps from delightful patisseries, fashionable department stores, cinemas and boutiques. But, of course, that was when Jews and a multitude of Europeans — French, Swiss, Italians, British and Belgians — made Cairo one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. Since these “foreigners” were thrown out or forced out, Cairo had become hopelessly provincial. The elegant stores gave way to cheap emporiums. And the Gates of Heaven was essentially abandoned — there were no Jews left to pray.

I spotted a small, armed militia outside the temple’s doors. They looked suspiciously at us, but I was ready for that: Egypt likes to post armed guards outside all its Jewish sites no matter how dusty. Gotta give them credit. How many other Muslim countries protect their Jewish sites with such diligence? Once we showed our passports, we were free to enter.

The synagogue was poorly illuminated, but it was clear much work had been done to restore it to its original splendor. The marble steps leading to the Holy Ark were gleaming. And the wooden pews that once accommodated hundreds of worshippers had some of their original luster. On the bima, I saw an open Torah scroll.

There were all the elements of a great synagogue except one: people.

I went up on the bima and put my hand on the scroll. Then, I climbed the marble stairs and kissed the velvet curtain that covered the Holy Ark. I looked around me, unsure what to do next.

I felt excruciatingly lonely. Though I have prayed the Sabbath morning prayers a thousand times, I didn’t feel I could recite them anymore, not without the soothing voice of a rabbi or a cantor or fellow worshippers. It all seemed heartbreakingly pointless.

The Gates of Heaven had once accommodated several hundred worshippers, and its women’s section upstairs alone had scores of seats. I had been told the strict separation between men and women only encouraged romance; young men would stealthily look up as pretty girls dressed in their loveliest clothes would preen as close to the balcony as possible, to make sure they were noticed by their intended. There were flirtations and matches and fateful encounters, every Shabbat.

I grabbed a prayer book and flipped to the page of the Amidah, the silent devotional, and prayed quietly. Then, after taking one last walk around the empty sanctuary, I picked up my passport from the guard in the booth, took my husband by the hand, and left.

I could think of nothing more to do on this lonely Levantine Sabbath.

*     *    *     *

In the last couple of months, we’ve heard that Egypt is repairing more synagogues; indeed, that they expended funds to restore the most venerable temple of all, Rav Moshe, in the Old Jewish Quarter, where Maimonides was said to have studied and prayed some 800 years earlier. Egyptian Jews, myself included, regularly went to Rav Moshe when they were sick, hoping to be healed. I traveled to Cairo again last month to visit Rav Moshe and was impressed by the meticulous restoration. The Egyptians have also begun work on a broken-down Karaite shul and vowed to renovate some other once-grand institutions.

It all has seemed pretty wonderful to me — an Arab country faithfully restoring its Jewish institutions? It was as if my most fervent wish was coming true. Or was it? Is fixing up the empty, abandoned Jewish properties in countries devoid of Jews really worthwhile?

Looking back at my less-than-transcendent experience at Shar Hashamaim, I wonder if what I did had any meaning. Perhaps I could have communed with God nearly as well by staying in my room at the Marriott and davening there. It would have been more cheerful.

In Philadelphia, Rabbi Albert Gabbai of Congregation Mikveh Israel, who was born in Egypt and even sang in the choir of Gates of Heaven as a child, echoed the view that repairing it and other synagogues is essential — if only to remind the world, he says, that once upon a time Jews were there and in substantial numbers.

Since he left Egypt decades ago — after spending some years in prison camp, which is what happened to Jewish men who lingered — Rabbi Gabbai has had no desire whatsoever to go back, except to his synagogue, except to Gates of Heaven. He embraced my decision to pray there. “It means that you are reclaiming the place for Jews — for you as a Jew, and for all the Jews — [saying that] it belongs to them.”

Not everyone would agree. Rabbi Gerald Skolnik of the Forest Hills Jewish Center casts a tepid eye on efforts to refurbish synagogues in places where there are no Jews; from Poland to Egypt, he wonders what is the point other than to attract tourist dollars.

“Is it better for a synagogue to be rehabilitated instead of being torn down or made into a mosque? Halachically, yes. But what is sadder than seeing an empty synagogue?”

Rabbi Elie Abadie, who presides over the Edmond J. Safra congregation in New York, staunchly argues in favor of restoring these lost synagogues. As a native of Lebanon, he has suffered the heartbreak of watching grand houses of worship destroyed or converted or sold or abandoned — as most were in and around Beirut. He passionately believes that the governments that drove out their Jews “have the financial and ethical responsibility to restore the synagogues.”

As for my woebegone feeling on that Cairo Sabbath, he says, “If a person is praying in a synagogue — albeit empty — those prayers are at a higher level and more meaningful because the synagogue maintains its sanctity. Even if there is no minyan [quorum of 10 men] the prayers are at a higher level,” Rabbi Abadie contends. God, he says, was of course there in the original Great Temple, and then in the Second Temple. “Once the Temple was destroyed, its sanctity was transferred to all synagogues all over the world,” he said. When a synagogue is built, he said, “it is believed that God enters it and remains there,” till eternity.

I found comfort in hearing that while I may have felt desperately alone that Sabbath morning, God was indeed there beside me in that great cavernous space in Cairo.”



The Tehillim (Book of Psalms) has occupied a special place in our heart throughout the centuries. Perhaps Jews faced communal tragedies from persecutions in the ghettos or the Mellah. Perhaps it was pogroms, or experiencing personal trials, illnesses, or death. Collective or private pains have found in this unique source comfort and hope that Hashem will not abandon us.

Some Psalms in particular have acquired special meaning, like Psalm 121, the one that says: אֶשָּׂא עֵינַי, אֶל-הֶהָרִים– מֵאַיִן, יָבֹא עֶזְרִי, I will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains: from whence shall my help come?

Psalm 121 was chosen to be read by Rabbi Shearyashuv Cohen, the chief rabbi of Haifa in the presence of King Hussein 1st, Yitzhak Rabin and President Bill Clinton on October 24, 1994 on the occasion of the signing of the Peace Accord between Jordan and Israel. Perhaps it was premonition of history as it would unfold in the years that followed that motivated Rabbi Cohen to choose this particular psalm: The next verse says:    עֶזְרִי, מֵעִם ה My help comes from the L-RD

And then of course there is Psalm 23.

I bet you have never thought or looked at Psalm 23 in this way even though you heard it again and again, or even recited it perhaps yourself.

Take another look at it again:

מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד: -ה רֹעִי, לֹא אֶחְסָר. 1 A Psalm of David. Hashem is my shepherd; I shall not want.

That speaks of the personal relationship that Hashem has with you

ב בִּנְאוֹת דֶּשֶׁא, יַרְבִּיצֵנִי; עַל-מֵי מְנֻחוֹת יְנַהֲלֵנִי. 2 He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters.

That is His promise to you of rest and refreshment in the midst of the turbulence in your life.

ג נַפְשִׁי יְשׁוֹבֵב; יַנְחֵנִי בְמַעְגְּלֵי-צֶדֶק, לְמַעַן שְׁמוֹ. 3 He restores my soul; He guides me in straight paths for His name’s sake.

That is His shining light that guides you when all else around you is darkness…

ד גַּם כִּי-אֵלֵךְ בְּגֵיא צַלְמָוֶת, לֹא-אִירָא רָע– 4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,

…Even in a world that makes no sense to you anymore.

כִּי-אַתָּה עִמָּדִי; שִׁבְטְךָ וּמִשְׁעַנְתֶּךָ, הֵמָּה יְנַחֲמֻנִי. For Thou art with me;
Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.

This is His eternal promise that He will never abandon you.

ה תַּעֲרֹךְ לְפָנַי, שֻׁלְחָן–    נֶגֶד צֹרְרָי; 5 Thou prepared a table before me in the presence of mine enemies

“Why are all these things happening to me?”  Hashem is testing you…

דִּשַּׁנְתָּ בַשֶּׁמֶן רֹאשִׁי, כּוֹסִי רְוָיָה. Thou have anointed my head with oil; my cup runs over.

For even in these difficult moments though it seems not, Hashem is healing you.

ו אַךְ, טוֹב וָחֶסֶד יִרְדְּפוּנִי– כָּל-יְמֵי חַיָּי; 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life

This is an affirmation of your faith in Hashem’s eternal goodness,…

וְשַׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית-הand I shall dwell in the house of the LORD

And His assurance to you that you shall dwell in the shelter of His protection…

לְאֹרֶךְ יָמִים. Forever.

May it be so!

The word mellah refers to a walled Jewish quarter of a city in Morocco, an analogue of the European ghetto. It has come to mean for Sephardim Jews a “salted, cursed ground”. On May 14, 1465, Jewish inhabitants of the Mellah of Fez were nearly all killed. Jews in Arab and Muslim countries suffered episodic attacks at the hands of their Muslim neighbors.

The Journey of a Sefer Torah

The Journey of a Sefer Torah from Cairo, Egypt to Montreal, Canada

by Jacques Abourbih

The two decades following Israel’s war of independence in 1948 were a time of great upheaval for all the Jewish communities that had once flourished in many parts of North Africa and the Middle East.  The story of the Sefer Torah that is recounted here begins in one such community, the Egyptian Jewish community.  This community, one of the most ancient established societies dating back to before the 9th century C.E. , was very vibrant numbering over 100,000 members. Jewish institutions including schools, synagogues, hospitals, and old age homes had been established and the Jews had made over the years numerous contributions to the commercial, industrial, political and artistic life in Egypt. However, with the advent of Arab nationalism and the political turmoil following the war with Israel, Jews felt unsafe and no longer welcome in Egypt. Some were forcibly evicted following the war in 1956 while others were able to stay a few more years and leave in a more orderly fashion.

My family was among the later group. My parents, concerned with the safety and welfare of my grandparents and other family members, were hesitant to leave. There were also the unknowns associated with immigrating to a foreign land to contend with.  Would my father be able to find work? Would we be able to adapt to a new way of life? However, these considerations were quickly swept aside as the situation for the Jews worsened. My parents began preparing earnestly for our exit from Egypt. Although other family members had immigrated to many countries among them Israel, Chile, Brazil, Switzerland, France and Britain, the choices for my parents were quite limited.  In the end, my parents chose to apply to immigrate to Canada because we spoke French fluently and my aunt was already settled in Montreal and was willing to sponsor us. The necessary applications were submitted and after a tense year long wait, we received in 1961 the necessary visas conditional on passing the medical examinations.  The next step in the preparation was to gather the belongings that we were allowed to take with us. The laws in Egypt were strict. Only a limited amount of belongings could be taken out of the country.  The choice was quickly made to take mainly wool clothes, heavy coats and jackets. After all, we were going to the country that bordered the North Pole and that was blanketed in snow, something we had never experienced in Egypt!

As the Jewish community in Cairo was dwindling fast, there was concern for the numerous Sefer Torahs that were left behind in synagogues that no longer had active congregations. My father was approached and was asked if he would be willing to take two Sefer Torahs with him. He readily agreed. The two Sefer Torahs were packed along with our belongings.  Finally, in May 1962, we left from Alexandria on a small Greek passenger ship.  The ship made stops in Piraeus, Greece and Naples, Italy and arrived in Marseilles a week later.  To our dismay, we found out that during the transit from Cairo, some of our belongings had been looted. Furthermore,   some of the luggage had also been damaged during the loading and unloading from the ship.  My father quickly surveyed the damage and hired a handyman in Marseilles to perform the necessary repairs. Thankfully, the two Sefer Torahs were in a trunk that had not been damaged nor looted. We spent a month in transit in France and at the end of June we left from Le Havre on a Cunard Line ship. We arrived in Montreal, Canada a week later where we were met at the docks near Old Montreal by my aunt. My mother asked apprehensively about my grandparents who had stayed behind in Egypt and to our great surprise, my aunt told us that my grandparents had been able to leave Egypt and had arrived in Montreal before us since they had been able to come by plane.  On this positive and welcome news, we were able to put behind us the hardships that we had endured and to enjoy our newly found freedom in Canada.

My aunt had come to Montreal in 1957 and had worked for Rabbi Lavy Becker. In fact, Rabbi Becker had supported my aunt in her endeavours to sponsor us to Canada. Upon our arrival in Montreal, Rabbi Becker invited my family to join the religious services of the congregation that was to become Dorshei Emet.  Our first Jewish High Holidays outside of Egypt were celebrated with the congregation in the auditorium of the JPPS School on Van Horne and Westbury in 1962. We were made to feel so very welcome by everyone. Since the Sefer Torahs needed a permanent home, my father donated one of them to Rabbi Becker’s congregation. The second Torah was donated to the small Egyptian Jewish congregation that met in the small Chapel of the Young Israel Congregation.

My family made a long voyage when it left Egypt for Canada. The two Sefer Torahs that we carried with us throughout our trip kept us out of harm’s way and allowed us to arrive to our destination safely.

A Politically Correct Haggadah


by Jacques Abourbih

The Hague International Tribunal for the Prosecution of Persons Responsible for Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law:


It is now official: The Israelite slaves of the biblical times have been declared responsible for genocide of innocent Egyptians. “We must never forget the Holocaust of my people, even with the passage of 4000 years” declared the Egyptian representative at the United Nations, brandishing a Torah containing the evidence against the Jews written by their own hands.

The United Nations General assembly voted unanimously on a motion by the Philistine rep. condemning the Jews for use of excessive force during Operation Exodus that left all First Born Egyptians dead and caused starvation and epidemics as a result of economic plagues imposed by the Jews.

In this not-so-imaginary world, the headlines and video clips highlight stark images of blood flowing in the Nile and the devastation from frogs, boils, locusts and other plagues.

The BBC sends a team of reporters and producers to document the devastation in Egypt for a 10-part series – one for each plague.

In Canada, daily editorials in the Toronto Star attack the government for its pro-Israelite ideology, and the CBC Radio team of Carol Off and Barbara Budd hold moving interviews with carefully chosen Egyptian victims, reached in their servant-less Cairo villas.

These media stories are accompanied by United Nations Human Rights Council resolutions condemning the Israelites for brutal violations of international law and the disproportionate use of force. (European, accompanied by some Canadian diplomats, are seen squirming awkwardly in their seats and wagging their fingers at the Israelite delegation.)

In parallel, the leaders of moral non-governmental superpowers and watchdog groups, such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International, hold press conferences and give sage-sounding interviews to voice their condemnations, while demanding independent investigations and prosecution of Moses.

HRW’s Middle East division publishes glossy research reports filled with Egyptian eye-witness testimony and characterizing each of the 10 plagues as collective punishment, a war crime on an unprecedented scale. The Richard Goldstone of the time is appointed to head a committee that collects all of these NGO claims into a United Nations report for use in the case against Moses, Aaron and the 70 Israelite leaders.

Nowhere in these reports is there any mention of the almost 400 years of slavery and brutal treatment that preceded the plagues and March to Freedom, with little more than hard crackers for food.

And Pharaoh’s order to drown the firstborn boys is explained as a legitimate form of “resistance”. Instead, in this narrative, the Israelites are presented as foreign occupiers who conspired with Joseph to steal the land of Goshen from the natives.

The record of failed negotiations, which could have ended the conflict peacefully, is completely erased, as are Pharaoh’s trail of broken promises (peace breakthroughs of the time) to let the Israelites go.

On university campuses, NGO activists mark Israelite Apartheid Week (actually two weeks, but who pays attention to such details?).

Frogs and red water are brought in to simulate the suffering caused by the plagues, and mock trials are held, which start with the conclusion that Moses is guilty. At Laurentian University in Sudbury, speakers at conferences and mass rallies call for a campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions to punish and isolate the Israelites.

Then, as now, these condemnations and activities are supported by a small but noisy group of disgruntled Israelites, motivated by an exaggerated sense of self-importance and the belief that a rightwing conspiracy led by Moses is responsible for all of the problems.

Through grants provided by the New Israelite Fund, these “independent voices” join the demands that the Israelites return to Egypt immediately, apologize and provide compensation for damages.

And these problems did not end with the parting of the Red Sea, or Sea of Reeds , and the drowning of Pharaoh’s army (a weapon of mass destruction, and use of non-conventional warfare weapons prohibited by the Geneva convention) in hot pursuit of the runaway slaves.

Later, in the desert, as the Israelites prepared for returning to their homeland in the Land of Israel, first Moses and then, 39 years later, Joshua dispatched groups of spies to prepare for the invasion. The biblical text provides many details of these complex intelligence operations, including the role of double agents, but it doesn’t describe the nature of the passports they used, or whether they were disguised. Today, this action would have led to pompous denunciations about the invasion of Jericho’s sovereignty, and calls for more investigations, while self-righteous governments sanctimoniously expel an Israelite representative over the use of disguises to infiltrate Jericho.

Thus, as our generation struggles for justice, as did our ancestors, the Passover story and the Exodus remain very relevant. The names and details may change, but the overall situation has a great deal to teach us, 4,000 years later.

Join me as we prepare a week long program of events on campuses and in private homes denouncing the Biblical account of the Exodus!!!


Jacques Abourbih


Meditation – Fasting as substitute for The Avodah service

by Jacques Abourbih

A recitation of the sacrificial service of the Temple in Jerusalem traditionally features prominently in both the liturgy and the religious thought of the holiday. The Avodah service in the musaf prayer recounts the sacrificial ceremonies in detail.

The description is rooted in the Babylonian Talmud. It tells how to attain atonement following the destruction of the Temple. According to Talmud tractate Yoma, in the absence of a Temple, Jews are obligated to study the High Priest’s ritual on Yom Kippur, and this study helps achieve atonement since the ritual can no longer be performed. Studying the Temple ritual on Yom Kippur represents a positive rabbinically ordained obligation that Jews seeking atonement are required to fulfill.

In his youth Rav Sheishet was among the pupils of Rav Huna, the Rav of the academy of Sura around the year 250 CE. In what is today’s Iraq   the Babylonian Talmud, developed in cities such as Nehardea, Sura, Pumbedita, Mata Mechasyah, and Machoza, major centers of Jewish life.

Rav Sheishet was blind but his memory was incredible. It is daid that he knew the whole Mishna of the Tannaim by heart including the Baraitot and the Tosafot. Many scholars say of him that he was a man of iron.

Anti-Semitism began to take hold in Mesopotamia with the Arab immigration form the Arabian Peninsula. The Arab ruler of Palmyra in Syria, known as Papa ben Netzer in the Talmud, destroyed the area in 261, and the Jews suffered. Among those who fled Nehardea was Rav Sheishet.

The Talmud contains several references to Rav Sheishet’s rulings. It is evident from these rulings That Rav Sheishet did not care for logic-chopping in deriving new laws by hair-splitting details. He once replied about a ruling that appeared to him to be rather contrived: “I see you are one of those from Pumbedita who can drive an elephant through the eye of a needle.” (TB Bava Metzia 35 b)

What endears Rav Sheishet to me is his simple prayer that he inserted in his prayers when he was fasting. This prayer is particularly relevant in the context of the Yom Kippur and the Avodah service in the Musaf. I reproduce it here as it appears in the Talmud. (Berachot 17 a) I hope you find meaning in it as I have.

Master of the worlds:

We have learned that long ago,

In the days when the Temple still stood,

When people offered sacrifices as their atonement,

They offered only the fat and the blood.

That was sufficient to atone for them.

And now, when the Temple no longer stands, I am fasting,

And, as a result, parts of me will be diminished.

YeJhi ratzon, May it be Your will:

To regard those parts of me that are diminished

As if I had offered them up before You upon an altar,

And may You show me favor.

(Adapted from Babylonian Talmud: Berachot 17a)

Rosh Hashanah – Asking and Receiving: A personal story

Asking and receiving: A personal story

by Jacques Abourbih

On Erev Rosh Hashanah Zahava and Scott invited Karen and me to celebrate the holiday Kiddush and meal with their family-Sydney, Yehuda and Ben.  Sharing that first night with us was also Daniel Benzimra, a freshman at Laurentian University, who attends Shabbat morning services and studies Talmud with Scott and me.

What I cannot reproduce for you here is the wonderful aromas of freshly baked Challah and the food that greeted us as we came in from Shul. You will just have to use your imagination. The table was royally set in honor of the Moed. Yehuda had made little platter decorations for each one of us. The centerpiece at the table was of course the traditional head of fish.  Karen had cooked the head of a salmon. I remember looking at those lifeless eyes and the half-opened mouth of the salmon thinking, “You put lipstick on a pig, and it’s still a pig. How could this ugly thing symbolize everything good I hope for this coming New Year?”

Kiddush was beautiful. We made Ha-Motsi on the freshly baked Challah that Scott dipped in honey for each of us. Zahava had prepared a delicious, several-course dinner. The conversation at the table was very animated.

At the end of the evening, I was offered the mitzvah of leading Birkat Hamazon. I am afraid I did a terrible job at it.  Unfortunately, I had been fading away very rapidly during dinner. I was exhausted from teaching all that afternoon.  The pain in my left ankle that was to keep me away from Shul the next morning on the first day of Rosh Hashanah was beginning to set in.

I caught myself making many mistakes while reading the Birkat. One of them that I hope I avoided is in the final words of the invitational Zimun acknowledging the Almighty’s goodness in granting sustenance.

Let me show you the immense difference a single letter in the wording makes. The specific word is “u’vetuvo” [through his goodness]. It is so easy to insert inadvertently, while reading quickly or inattentively the text, the letter Mem and pronounce that word as “u’mituvo”. This transforms the meaning entirely to imply ‘and from His goodness [u’mituvo] we live’.

What is the difference between the two phrases: “through His goodness we live” as opposed to “from His goodness we live”? The difference according to the Talmud is immense. The Soncino edition translates the Talmudic passage as follows:

“And from the way a man says the blessings it may be recognized whether he is a scholar or an ignorant person” (T.B. Berachot 50a). The Talmudic passage continues: “Rabbi Yochanan says: [If the one reciting the zimun says] ‘Blessed is the One, of whose bounty we have eaten and through His goodness [u’vetuvo] we live’ – this is an indication of wisdom. [If an ever so slightly different wording] concludes the statement – ‘and from His bounty [u’mituvo] we live’ – this is a sign of an ignoramus.”

The difference is that the ignorant man asks, begs, and demands of G-d as his wording implies, “From the goodness we asked of G-d, we live”. Compare this to the uttering of the scholar who says, “Through all the bounty He bestows on us, whether we deserve it or not, we live.”

At this time of the year when we ask, beg and request mercy and forgiveness, perhaps we should be less assuming in our demands and be more modest in our requests — things we actually deserve.

Mode Ani, Shema and Hatikvah

Our legacy to the next generation

by Jacques Abourbih

Today is the first day of our Cheder School for this year. It is the first time in twenty years that I will not be there to greet the children of our community and to teach them about our traditions and our Mitzvot. It is time that younger teachers take over the burden of passing on our heritage.

Last week we met at Emily’s home to work out the curriculum for this year. We discussed the opening exercises. There will be three components. The first is Modeh Ani Lefanechah, the second is the Shema, and the third is the Hatikvah. I am happy that I was able to participate in that meeting and influence my own legacy to the Jewish school of Sudbury I taught or help teach for almost twenty years. Each component is intricately tied with our past and our future, and our Jewish sense of belonging.

The Modeh Ani contains no mention of any of G-d’s holy names. We recite eleven simple words the moment we open our eyes. It is a simple doxology thanking G-d for restoring our soul and enabling us to serve Him yet another day.The youngest child to the oldest senior, the wisest sage to the unlettered person utter these simple words.

The Shema speaks of loving G-d, learning, and passing our traditions to our children. The Torah records Moses including the Shema in his farewell address to the Jewish people as his ultimate legacy.

The Shema is our declaration of faith, a pledge of allegiance to One God. It is said upon arising in the morning and upon going to sleep at night. It is said when praising God and when beseeching Him. It is the first prayer that we teach a child to say. A Jew says these last words prior to death. With the Shema on our lips, we Jews accepted martyrdom at the Inquisitor’s stake and in the Nazi gas chambers.

In the Sbarro Pizza bombing on August 9, 2001 in Jerusalem 15 people died at the hands of Arab Palestinian terrorists. Five members of a Dutch family were killed. One was Avraham Yitzhak a 4-year-old boy. As he was lying on the ground — bleeding, burning and dying — he said to his father, “Abba, please help me.” His father reached over and held his hand. Together they said the words of the Shema.

The Hatikvah is the symbol of our connection with all Jews in the world and our historical aspirations. The text comes from a poem by Naftali Hertz Imber called Tikvatenu, first published in Jerusalem in 1886. It soon became popular throughout the Jewish world and in 1933 was adapted as the anthem of the Zionist Movement by the 18th Zionist Congress. Upon establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Hatikva became the national anthem.

People at the meeting at Emily’s questioned whether our children singing the Hatikva would understand the meaning of the words they were reciting. Before you answer with your own thought, I invite you to go to this site: http://www.isracast.com/article.aspx?id=766

Bergen-Belsen was a Nazi concentration camp in Lower Saxony, southwest of the town of Bergen near Celle. Between 1943 and 1945, an estimated 50,000 people died there, up to 35,000 of them dying of typhus in the first few months of 1945. On April 15, 1945, British forces liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany. Sixty-thousand prisoners were living in the camp when the troops arrived, most of them seriously ill. Thousands more lay dead and unburied on the campgrounds.

BBC reporter Patrick Gordon Walker was among the press corps that entered Bergen-Belsen with the British troop. Over the next few weeks, he documented what he saw, recording the first Shabbat ceremony openly conducted on German soil since the beginning of the war. The Smithsonian institute preserved the records of these dispatches. In this dispatch, you will hear Walker’s voice:

“The few hundred people gathered together were sobbing openly, with joy of their liberation and with sorrow of the memory of their parents and brothers and sisters that had been taken from them and gassed and burned.

These people knew they were being recorded. They wanted the world to hear their voice. They made a tremendous effort, which quite exhausted them. Listen:”

At that point, in the recording you will hear those survivors singing the Hatikvah.

I am glad the Hatikvah will be part of our opening exercises, even if our children don’t understand the words today. They will later.




Just a little background in the recording engineer (of Hatikvah at Bergen-Belsen). Moses Ash of WEVD ( named after the politician Eugene V. Debs) was quite an activist. I recall hearing some songs by Pete Seeger and others concerning the Spanish Civil War which he (Moses) originally had recorded circa 1937. No, I was not around then. This was many, many years later, when I belonged to a left-wing Zionist group in Winnipeg (Hashomer Hatzair).

Actually, I have not heard that version of Hatikvah since 1948. Some of the words were changed, so instead of singing about going back to the land of our forefathers and to David’s city (cities), we now sing about being a free nation in “our” land, in the land of Zion and Jerusalem!

A Happy and Healthy New Year to all.

Phil Finkle

The Magen David – Star Of David

There was a lively exchange between Scott Goldsteinand Steve Darabaner about the origin, and the history of the Magen David, and how it became a symbol of the Jewish people. Substantially Scott highlighted the salient features. I would like to elaborate more on what he wrote.

The Magen David

by Jacques Abourbih

Evidence shows that for most of history the hexagram we now identify as the Magen David had no specific Jewish connection whatsoever. The Magen David became firmly established as a  recognizable symbol of Judaism only relatively recently. In some form or another, the hexagram was found almost universally in ancient times. The first appearance of this symbol in the Middle East goes back as early as 3000 BCE (5000 years ago). Later on, from Mesopotamia, Egypt and Pre Israelite Holy Land, it travelled to Greece, Cyprus and Persia.

The first mention of it in a Jewish context was in association, not with King David’ shield, but with King Solomon’s signet ring Hotem Shelomo.  At that, King Solomon used it not as a national Jewish symbol, but supposedly used it for its magical powers.

The first time the Magen David appears as a distinct Jewish symbol is on a coin struck by Shimo’on Bar Kochbah in the year 135 C.E. during the Jewish War against Rome. However, it was not likely chosen for its national emblem value. It was used because the hexagon symbolizes a star symbolizing the leader Bar-Kochbah whose name literally mean “Son of a Star”. In Hebrew, the word for Star is Kochav.  The Hexagram symbol on the coin also evokes the biblical prophecy that “a star will arise from Jacob” (Bamidbar–Numbers 24:17)

The next time we see the hexagram as a Jewish symbol is in association with kabbalah in medieval Europe. It was used as in Solomon’s days as a magical symbol. For 10th and 11th century kabbalists it was only a short step from speculative mysticism (Kabbalah Ma’assit) to magical practice. A 13th century work known as Iddra Rabba (Great Assembly) which is part of the centrepiece of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar,  refers twice to the Magen David: Magen David Arikh Anpin (G-d as long suffering) and Ze’ir Anpim (G-d impatient). Often the hexagram was used on amulets for women for protection during childbirth. Meanwhile the hexagram also continued in Christian Europe as a magical symbol.

In the 16th century, R. Yehudah Loew ben Bezalel (the Maharal of Prague) created the Golem using kabbalsitic incantations and the hexagram symbol. He inscribed on the Golem’s forehead the Hebrew word EMET (truth—one of G-d’s attributes). The Golem ran amok whereupon the Maharal removed the Aleph from the word EMEt on its brow leaving the rest. This spelled the word MET (meaning death in Hebrew), whereupon the Golem fell to dust.

The 14th century marks the first time that the Magend David is recognized as a Jewish symbol. This was in Prague when a flag with the Magen David officially represented the Jewish community. This marks the start of the Magen  David assumed prestige as a recognized Jewish symbol. The importance of Prague in the world politically at the time played a major role since Prague was the seat of the Holy Roman Empire. By 1642, the official seal of the Jewish community showed the Magen David.  It was then well on its way to become what it is today as an international Jewish symbol.  From there it travelled across Europe and via Amsterdam to the New World.

When the winds of liberation swept Europe with the French revolution in 1789, emancipated Jews needed an emblem of their own to march into the brave new world where post –emancipation made Jews less discernable in society. The Magen David was there to fill this role. The menorah depicted on the Arc of Titus in Rome evoked too much the memory of nationhood lost to claim status as a Jewish emblem. In 1897 at the First Zionist Congress in Basle, the Zionist movement adopted the Magen David as the symbol of the movement.

During the Nazi era, unfortunately the Magen David became a symbol with another meaning.  With the Independence of the State of Israel, the Magen David has resumed it proud place as our international emblem.