Dr. Henry Abramson’s lecture series Jewish History, But Skipping the Boring Parts continues on March 9. (photo from Henry Abramson)
What do country music superstar Shania Twain and Orthodox academic Dr. Henry Abramson have in common? They both spent plenty of time in Timmins, Ont., before moving on to adventures in New Zealand and the United States.
While not as widely known as Twain, Abramson – the dean of arts and sciences at Tuoro’s Lander College in Flatbush, N.Y. – is popular in different circles. For example, during this interview, he mentioned an in-depth article about him in Der Veker, a Yiddish-language journal. He is known as a knowledgeable and entertaining lecturer – facts that the local community can check out for themselves in his five-part series Jewish History, But Skipping the Boring Parts, which began on Feb. 9. Sponsored by the estate of Sara Elias and hosted by Congregation Beth Israel, the series is open to the entire community.
The first lecture zipped through Jewish history touching on, as promised, the non-boring bits of history that are supported by archeological evidence. Many of the earliest artifacts are negative views or accounts of what we now call the Jewish people and Abramson was quick to point out, with humour, that these ancient people wrote nasty things about Jews but we’re the ones still around thousands of years later.
By the end of a well-polished 45-minute presentation, which included lots of images to break up the narrative, and a 15-minute Q & A, the 100-plus attendees were up to speed on the Maccabean revolt. One highlight was numerous examples of medieval depictions of a famous battle in which Judah Maccabee’s brother, Eleazar, kills an elephant. This story was popular with Christian medieval artists but their knowledge of elephants was clearly lacking.
Born in Iroquois Falls, Ont., Henry Abramson was the only Jewish boy in town. His grandparents had fled Lithuania in 1904 and found themselves in this town with a population of about 1,000. Abramson’s grandfather, and then his father, ran the town’s dry goods store. His parents’ commitment to ensure that he had a Jewish home life, education and sense of community are how he found himself in Timmins every Sunday as a child. His parents drove 100 kilometres each way, every week, to take him to learn with other Jewish children from the area. Abramson’s comment about Jews in tiny rural places was, “Break open a roll, out pops a Jew.”
Three years before his bar mitzvah, his parents went one major step further with his Jewish education. They found an apartment in Toronto and enrolled him, for a few years, in Eitz Chaim, a religious day school. His mother stayed with him during the week and his father took the train down on the weekend. Abramson said his father’s greatest talent in preserving the Jewish identity of his family was his ability to listen to the women in his family.
“My whiplash-like experience – going from being the only Jewish kid in town to the only northerner kid who knew what 40-below felt like – tempered my understanding of how Jews fit in the world as a whole,” he said.
After high school, Abramson enrolled at the University of Toronto, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. Disillusioned with his studies, he flew to New Zealand to become a ski instructor. There, he fell in love with another ski instructor. Having grown up skiing, Abramson was living the dream and had planned to continue traveling the world, but he was involved in a ski accident that severed his femoral artery. During the six-month recovery that followed, he rethought his future and focus. He and his then-soon-to-be wife Ilana returned to Toronto, where Abramson earned a master’s in history.
Although the pair was involved in a Conservative shul during the early years of their marriage, they became attracted by the BAYT (Beth Avraham Yoseph Shul) in Toronto and began moving towards Orthodox observance. To complete his doctorate, Abramson went to Jerusalem to work at Hebrew University. After earning his PhD, he spent a year learning at Ohr Somayach Yeshivah, cementing his life as an Orthodox Jew. He went on to complete post-doctoral work at universities including Harvard and Oxford, and has written seven books.
To join the lecture series and find out how well Abramson delivers only the most exciting parts of Jewish history, visit bethisrael.ca. The remaining lectures take place on Zoom March 9, April 6, May 11 and June 1, 7 p.m. Visit bethisrael.ca.
Michelle Dodek is a freelance writer living in Vancouver.
Left to right: Amit Shmuel, Eitan Feiger and Matan Roettger. (photo by Bentzi Sasson)
On Nov. 24, Chabad UBC invited two former Israel Defence Forces soldiers to the Nest on the University of British Columbia campus to speak about their personal stories and life lessons from serving in the army.
Amit Shmuel, a former soldier in the elite Palchan unit, and Matan Roettger, a former soldier in the Kfir Brigade, shared some of their experiences in service; stories of their courage and the sacrifice they made protecting and defending the state of Israel, and especially of their perseverance in the face of suffering and adversity. Both suffered career-ending injuries in the line of duty, and their strength and resilience to mentally and physically recover from their trauma were remarkable.
The two soldiers were at UBC as part of a larger tour of college campuses all across North America, along with Belev Echad, an organization dedicated to providing financial and moral support to IDF veterans wounded in action and to easing their transition back into civilian life.
The local event was sponsored by Hasbara Fellowships, which helps train young student leaders to become Israel ambassadors and activists on campus. As a Hasbara Fellow myself and having firsthand experience in Israel, I found the stories of Shmuel and Roettger to accurately represent the victory of hope over despair, the value of the sanctity of life, freedom and dignity that have been deeply encoded in the fabric of Israeli society and the Jewish community worldwide.
Just as the Maccabees 2,000 years ago rededicated the Second Temple from destruction to restoration, so too did these two modern-day Maccabees rededicate their lives from tragedy to triumph. They inspire us to not focus on what we cannot control, but rather on what we can: to elevate our attitude and response toward life’s misfortunes by sharing with others our light of faith and hope for a brighter future.
Eitan Feigeris a student at the University of British Columbia, class of 2024.
Judah Maccabee purifies the Temple, etching by Julius von Carolsfeld, 1860.
Every year, we look forward to Chanukah, even though it is not even mentioned in the Torah. Its name means “Dedication” and it starts on erev the 25th of Kislev, which, this year, falls on the night of Nov. 28.
The festival celebrates the triumph of the Maccabees, led by Mattityahu and, later, by his son Judah, over the Greek Syrians, led by Antiochus. As a result, Jewish sovereignty was reestablished in Judea for a time.
But we should not forget that this ancient conflict was also a civil war between the Jewish people themselves. The Hellenists admired Greek culture, which they began to emulate; whereas the Maccabees remained steadfast in their adherence to Judaism’s ideals and beliefs. The factions disagreed on various issues, including the rite of circumcision, a fundamental and crucial Jewish ritual that the Hellenists claimed violated the perfection of the body.
In 175 BCE, Antiochus tried to wipe out the Jewish religion entirely by substituting the Greek language, gods and customs. The final blow came when the Temple was defiled and a giant statue of the Greek god Zeus was erected there, with the Jews ordered to worship it.
Some, like Hannah and her seven sons, resisted passively, choosing death rather than idol worship. Hundreds hid in caves and some suffocated to death. But there was no active resistance until the Hasmonean family of Mattityahu and his sons at Modi’in raised a banner: “Whoever is for the Lord, follow me!”
A small army was formed, with Judah Maccabee as its leader. Antiochus sent three armies to suppress the revolt, but the Maccabees triumphed. Their first priority after victory was to purify the Temple.
As the story goes, all the cruses of oil had been defiled except one. Instead of burning for just one day, it miraculously lasted for eight days, until more holy oil could be acquired. Hence, the celebration of Chanukah for eight nights and days.
Today, Chanukah still has relevance. We remember not only the heroism of the Maccabeans, but other heroic acts. Many times in Israel we have seen the victory of a tiny nation against a larger and stronger one, the few against the many.
In 1948, the young Israel Defence Forces defeated much larger Arab armies to usher in the independent state of Israel. Earlier, in the Second World War, there was widespread Jewish resistance to Hitler’s brutal policies and Jews fought in the ghettos and joined partisan units in forests outside Polish and Russian cities conquered by the Nazis.
Israel’s operation into Entebbe to rescue hostages in Uganda is another instance of modern heroism and our history abounds with examples. The revolt of the Hasmoneans is the symbol of the spirit of Zionism. Today, in Western society, no tyrant is forcing us to abandon our faith, but many Jews are in great danger of losing their Jewish identity nonetheless. Hellenism, in a different form, is alive and well.
Chanukah has broad human significance as a festival of liberty and religious freedom, not just for us, but for all people. It is a humanistic festival. The symbol of Chanukah is light and the real miracle is that, despite millennia of persecution and dispersion, the light of our people has never been extinguished.
Dvora Waysmanhas written 14 books, and the film The Golden Pomegranate was based on her book The Pomegranate Pendant. Her latest novel is Searching for Sarah. She can be contacted at [email protected].
What are the letters on a dreidel outside of Israel? Inside Israel?
In which book of the Bible do we read the story of Chanukah?
Who was Judith and why is she mentioned on the Shabbat of Chanukah?
What was Mattathias’s wife’s name?
How many candles are in a box of Chanukah candles?
Why do we give gelt on Chanukah?
How many years occurred between the desecration of the Temple and the killings in Modiin by Mattathias and the Maccabee uprising?
According to Jewish custom, what kind of oil should be used for the Chanukah lights?
Why were the schools of Hillel and Shammai in disagreement about Chanukah?
What is unique about the mitzvah of kindling Chanukah lights?
How should one popularize the mitzvah of lighting the candles for Chanukah?
What king ordered the people of his kingdom to become Greek in religion and culture?
Why don’t Jews celebrate the things really done by the Maccabees?
Why did Judah Maccabee want this holiday celebrated for eight days?
Who were the Hasmoneans?
How long did the war continue after the Temple was rededicated?
How did each of the Maccabean brothers die?
One tradition says it means hammer and was applied to the Maccabee family because of their strength. Another says it stands for Mi kamocha baelim Adonai, Who is like you among the great ones, O G-d?
Judah, Jonathan, Jochanan, Eleazar, Simeon
Nun, gimmel, hay, shin; nun, gimmel, hay, po
The story does not appear in any book of the Bible. It is found in Maccabees I and Maccabees II, part of the Apocrypha, books not included in the Bible.
Judith was a Hasmonean woman, whose story is a book of the Apocrypha. She saved her town from destruction by killing the general in charge.
No one knows because she is never mentioned in the books of Maccabees.
During the Middle Ages, adults began to play games on Chanukah. In the 1700s, children began to play dreidel and were given coins for playing.
Hillel wanted one light on the first night and additional lights added each night. Shammai wanted eight lights on the first night and one subtracted each night.
Even if one does not have food to eat, one should beg or sell their clothing to buy oil and lamps to light for Chanukah.
Place the lights at or near the outer part of the door facing the street or in a window facing the street.
The rabbis did not want military battles commemorated, so they created the story of the oil being found by the Maccabees and lasting eight days.
Because the men had been fighting at the time of Sukkot and had not celebrated it, they decided to commemorate that holiday by observing this one for eight days.
The Maccabees were part of the House of Hashmon and called Hasmoneans, a title of honour that denoted its high standing.
The war continued 127 more years.
Judah was in battle and his unit became sandwiched between two enemy divisions. Eleazar was under attack by a unit on elephants – he thought the king or general was on a particular elephant so he thrust a sword into the elephant and it fell on him and crushed him. Yochanan was attacked by a tribe near the Dead Sea. Simeon was entertained by his son-in-law, made drowsy from wine and assassinated by the son-in-law’s accomplices. Jonathan was put to death by the Syrian king Tryphon.
Sybil Kaplanis a journalist, lecturer, book reviewer and food writer in Jerusalem. She created and leads the weekly English-language Shuk Walks in Machane Yehuda, she has compiled and edited nine kosher cookbooks, and is the author of Witness to History: Ten Years as a Woman Journalist in Israel.
For us to become a glowing menorah, casting light in and around us, and lighting up the world, we must be oil-like. (photo from Cinco Resources, Inc.)
The story of Chanukah takes us back to the year 164 BCE, two centuries before the destruction of the Second Holy Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans. Then, Israel was under the rule of the empire of Alexander the Great.
The Greeks, in the year 200 BCE, had a great impact on the civilization of the whole world and the Jewish people. Although the Jewish people were very strong spiritually, they were very weak politically and militarily. The spiritual strength was attributed to the men of the Great Assembly; great sages and their successors, the Tannaim (codifiers of the Mishnah). When Alexander the Great of Macedonia conquered the civilized world, he brought the Greek culture, language, thoughts, beliefs, philosophy, customs and modernization to the masses and these beliefs rapidly spread.
When Alexander conquered Palestine, he gave complete freedom of religion to the Jews. He abolished taxes on the Sabbatical year, when the Jews didn’t work the land. As well, he freed Jewish soldiers from duty on the holy Sabbath. Alexander the Great died at the young age of 33. After his death, Jewish nobility and upper classes began taking on Greek ideas and customs. Would you even guess that the words synagogue and sanhedrin (supreme Jewish court) are Greek words?
Greek culture, aka Hellenism, began to make a serious impact on Jewish life in the Holy Land. The great rabbis of the generation saw the dangers of the Hellenists, threatening the traditions and faith of the Jewish people and the Torah. Hellenists were springing up everywhere.
Eventually, King Antiochus Epiphanes set out to destroy the last remnants of the Jewish people. He decreed the death penalty for any Jew found abiding by the laws of Torah, for observing the Sabbath and holy days, for the reading and teaching of Torah or gathering in houses of prayer. The building of the Beit HaMikdash, the Jewish Holy Temple in Jerusalem, was changed officially into a temple for the highest Greek god, Zeus, and an idol was set up before the holy altar. Altars were also erected for the Olympian gods, and there were heathen altars. The king’s soldiers forced Jews to bring offerings to these idols and bow down to them in the cities.
The study of Torah was not only forbidden, but the Torah scrolls were destroyed and their owners burned at the stake. Parents who circumcised their children were killed and teachers of Torah were tortured for trying to perpetuate the forbidden Jewish religion.
King Antiochus had no idea that his attempt to eradicate the Jewish religion would have just the opposite result. Many Jews became strengthened in their faith. When they came to the city of Modiin, Mattityahu, the father of the Maccabees – named for the verse in Exodus (15:11), “Who is like you of the lords of Israel” – came out and killed a traitor who was offering sacrifices to a Greek god.
His experience inspired many miraculous victories, including the large military victory over the Greeks in the year 3622 (139 BCE). Thereafter, the enemy was cleared out of the land, and Jerusalem and the Holy Temple were liberated. The victorious Jews set out to destroy the idols and altars in the Holy Temple and the golden menorah was replaced with an iron-wrought one. This took place on the 25th of the month of Kislev and the rededication of the Holy Temple lasted for eight days, until more oil could be made and brought to Jerusalem.
One small bottle of olive oil with the high priest’s kosher stamp on it was found, which was just enough to last for one day and yet, miraculously, it lasted for eight days and the entire dedication ceremony, being used to light the menorah again in the Holy Temple daily. The prayer “Al HaNissim” – about the miracles – is recited in the Grace After Meals and also the Amidah prayer during Chanukah and recalls the many miracles that took place.
Judaism and Jewry were undoubtedly saved from one of the greatest dangers that ever threatened the existence of our people. It was a struggle not only of the few over the many, but of the holy versus the unholy and of Judaism and Torah over Hellenism. The forces of the Torah prevailed.
Why do we celebrate so much about the oil? The miracle of the oil would seem of minor significance relative to the military victory of the Jews. Had the Jews been defeated by the Greeks, there would be no Jews today, G-d forbid. If the oil wouldn’t have burned for eight days, the menorah wouldn’t have been kindled. Why then, is the main focus of Chanukah on the oil?
Many insights have been offered. A symbolic explanation follows that shows how oil has the same characteristics as a person. This is based on a letter written by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, before Chanukah 1947.
In writings of Jewish mysticism, all physical properties of an object are seen as continuations of their metaphysical properties. Every object originates in the realm of the spirit, embodied by a particular sublime energy. The energy evolves to assume a physical reincarnation, giving rise to particular physical characteristics that mirror their spiritual source. This is how a person ought to behave in their life. This, parenthetically, constitutes an extremely rich component of Judaism.
From the vantage point of Torah, the truths of science, physics, chemistry, biology, etc., and the truths of philosophy, spirituality and psychology, are merged together in a perfect mosaic, since all that is physical has a realm in the spiritual.
Olive oil contains four interesting qualities:
1. It is produced by crushing and beating ripe olives. The olive must be severely “humbled” and pressed to emit its oil.
2. Olive oil penetrates solid substances deeply – as do many other oils extracted from minerals, plants and animals. We know how difficult it can be to remove oily grease from our fingers and clothes. Oils have been used throughout history as remedies for bodily wounds, since oil penetrates the body far beyond its external tissue.
3. Oil does not mix with other liquids. When you try to mix oil with water, the oil remains distinct and will not dissolve in or combine with the water.
4. Not only will oil not dissolve in water, it rises and floats on top of other liquids. On a symbolic level, this appears paradoxical. Is oil humble or arrogant? It gets beaten badly, yet rises to the top.
These four qualities displayed by oil are essentially a physical manifestation of four spiritual and psychological attributes from where oil originates.
In our lives, we may attempt to become “oil-like.” How? By learning how to cultivate the four properties that characterize oil.
1. The crushing and pressing of the olives into oil represents the notion of humility. Seeing ourselves for who we really are, being open to discovering our biases, blind spots and errors, allows us to genuinely grow.
2. The direct result of this “pressing” is our ability to become oil-like, and affect others deeply. We can share ourselves with others and be in a real relationship. It takes courage to show up in the world with the “real you” and to then connect with other hearts profoundly.
3. Humility and genuine relationships must never allow one to be pulled down completely and dragged down emotionally. One must not forfeit their individual identity. The beauty of a relationship is the fact that two distinct individuals choose to share themselves with each other. Just like oil, you know how to feel and experience another human being meaningfully, while not becoming consumed by the other’s identity.
4. This threefold process of crushing yourself, bonding with others and at the same time retaining your distinctiveness, should ultimately cause you to rise, just like oil, to the top, and “float” above all that is around you. Realizing that you are a “piece of the Divine” (Tanya, Chapter 2) and that every moment you are a representative of G-d to our world, allows a person to experience themselves as indestructible, and wholesome. This comes not from arrogance, but from realizing that one’s soul is part of the infinite.
This is the deeper mystical significance of the miracle that caused the oil to last beyond its one day. It is also why we celebrate with a focus on oil, as this story captures the rhythm of our lives. For us to become a glowing menorah, casting light in and around us, and lighting up the world, we must be oil-like.
First, we must discover the art of humility and integrity; second, we must allow ourselves to show up genuinely in our relationships; third, we must retain our distinctiveness and individuality; and fourth, we must always recognize that part in us which is always “on the top.”
Judaism, particularly its festival of Chanukah, comes to teach ordinary human beings how to become oil-like. If we wish to ignite a heavenly radiance in our lives, we ought to take a good and deep look at the olive oil in our menorahs.
In that sense, oil embodies the essence of Chanukah, the Festival of Lights. Indeed, in many a Jewish household, the Chanukah lamps consist of wicks dipped in olive oil, replicating the Temple menorah lamps. Throughout the holiday, to commemorate the miracle of the oil, we eat various foods cooked in oil, including such delicacies as latkes and sufganiyot.
The following is a story I read recently.
In Brooklyn, N.Y., there was a Jew named Yankel, who owned a bakery. He told the story of how he survived the Holocaust. He said, “You know why it is that I’m alive today? I was just a teenager at the time. We were on a train, in a cattle car, being taken to Auschwitz. Night came and it was freezing, so deathly cold in that cattle car. The Germans would leave the cars on the side of the tracks overnight, sometimes for days on end without any food, and, of course, no blankets to keep us warm.”
Yankel continued, “Sitting next to me was an older Jew – this beloved elderly Jew – from my hometown. I recognized him but had never seen him like this. He was shivering from head to toe and looked terrible. I wrapped my arms around him and began rubbing him to warm him up. I rubbed his arms, legs, face and neck. I begged him to hang on. All night long, I kept the man warm this way. I was tired, freezing cold, my fingers were numb, but I didn’t stop rubbing the heat onto this man’s body. Hours and hours passed this way. Finally, night passed, morning came and the sun began to shine. There was some warmth in the cabin, and then I looked around the car to see some of the other Jews in the car. To my horror, all I could see were frozen bodies, all I could hear was deathly silence.
“Nobody else in the cabin made it through the night – everyone had died from the frost. Only two people survived: the old man and me. The old man survived because somebody kept him warm; I survived because I was warming somebody else.”
Yankel’s life was saved by and for assisting another human being.
When you warm other people’s hearts, you automatically warm yourself. Humans need each other and get elevated by helping and supporting others. When you seek to support, motivate, encourage and inspire others, then you discover support, encouragement and inspiration in your own life as well.
This is the lesson of the olive oil: to penetrate and make a difference in humanity and, in turn, this will empower us to do more, like the light of Chanukah, which increases every night of the festival. Beginning with one candle with its small flicker and increasing every night by adding one more candle, until the menorah shines its eight lights in total splendor and beauty.
May G-d help us celebrate this Chanukah with real peace in Israel and around the globe, and bring us the ultimate refinement of the world with the imminent coming of Mashiach. Then, we will all merit to light our Chanukah lights in the third Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the most beautiful and everlasting one.
Wishing everyone a joyous festival of Chanukah and a fabulous time with family and friends eating delicious latkes and doughnuts, playing dreidel and singing Chanukah songs. Chag sameach!
Esther Taubyis a local educator, writer and counselor. She offers many thanks to her husband, Rabbi Avraham Tauby, for his help with research for this article.
Dreidels for sale in Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem. (photo by Adiel lo via commons.wikimedia.org)
“Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay, and when it’s dry and ready, oh dreidel I shall play.” This children’s song has been sung for generations on Chanukah. A dreidel (Yiddish for spinning top; drey is Yiddish for spin) is a unique toy. It is still called by its original name all these centuries later and is enjoyed by children (and adults) of all ages the world over during Chanukah. It is also perhaps the oldest toy in history, but it is not only functional – it is wrought with symbolism.
In Hebrew, a dreidel is called a sevivon. It dates back to the time of the Greek-Syrian rule over the Holy Land, which set off the Maccabean revolt that culminated in the Chanukah miracle. Learning Torah was outlawed and was punishable by death. The Jewish children resorted to hiding in caves in order to study their beloved Torah. When Greek soldiers were on patrol and would approach them, the children would pull out their dreidels and pretend to be playing a game instead of learning. By playing dreidel during Chanukah, we are reminded of the courage of these brave children.
Dreidels generally do not require any maintenance at all. They are silent but strong. They are thrilled to be taken out every year for Chanukah from the cupboard to be a plaything, to see the sheer delight on the faces of generations of Jewish people who have survived so much persecution. They don’t mind if we touch them with our oily or sticky fingers, spin them endlessly, let them fall onto the floor repeatedly in our enthusiasm, smash them down mercilessly when we lose, throw them up in the air when we win, or spin them upside down to show off for our friends and family. They are so happy to be used for the eight-day festival, which this year begins on the evening of Sunday, Dec. 6, and continues until and including the last night, which will be on Sunday, Dec. 13.
Dreidels come in plastic, wood, metal and even crystal and are collector items, too. But, dreidels are not just objects to be admired and collected, they are actually used to play a game, which has rules. Players gather around a table and divide up a pile of items for tokens (coins, candies, peanuts, etc.). Players take turns spinning the dreidel to see how it will fall and then try to win the whole pot based on the turns. A dreidel has four sides and each side has a Hebrew letter: a nun, a gimmel, a hey and a shin.
After spinning, the top lands and the letter that is facing up determines what happens next. For nun, meaning nisht (nothing), you don’t do anything. For gimmel, meaning gantz (the whole thing), you get to keep the whole pot and then everyone has to put one item in to make a new pot. For hey (halb, or half), you get half of the pot and for shin (shtel arein), you have to put one in the pot. It boils down to having to give or take. It also gives us something to think about while we’re waiting for our next turn. Are we going to be givers or takers? Give: G-d gives us so much, so we can share with others this Chanukah (money, food, time, etc.). Take: we can take upon ourselves an additional aspect of spirituality (a Torah class, a mitzvah, synagogue attendance, etc.).
A dreidel is not a simple toy either, though. It is imbued with the blood of martyrs, the tears of the pious and the endurance of the faithful. No matter what material forms it, a dreidel is made of pretty tough stuff, just like us.
The letters on the dreidel spell out the Hebrew phrase, “Nes gadol haya sham,” which translates as, “A great miracle happened there” (meaning in the Holy Land). Israeli dreidels have the letter pey instead of shin to represent the word poh (here).
Aside from being a symbol of courage and a fun game, how does the small, simple dreidel embody the Chanukah message? What’s striking about the dreidel is that its “religious” aspect isn’t readily apparent upon looking at it. In fact, while it’s spinning, we can’t even make out any letters at all and certainly cannot make words out of the letters even when the dreidel stops. Its message is hidden.
Our lives are like a game of dreidel. In the course of our hectic day-to-day routine, we are often too busy to notice the “letters” – those small and big miracles that accompany us all the time. Taking a first breath upon waking in the morning, stepping onto the floor, being able to get dressed, being able to eat, pray, read the newspaper, drive to work and do all of the activities that we may take for granted in our busyness.
I like to think of the letters of the dreidel as modes of being. We all have our “gimmel” days, when we feel that everything is going great for us. Then there are our “hey” days, when things are going well but could be better. On the “shin” days, we spend time wishing for the hey and gimmel days. The “nun” days, when all the good things seem like a distant memory, we feel that we may never have another hey or gimmel day again in our whole lives.
Each of these letters though, represents only one face of the dreidel – a single perspective of the whole. Together, they spell out a sentence – and, every once in awhile, we have to give the spinning dreidel a break and reflect on its message, “A great miracle happened there.” This, of course, refers to the miracles of Chanukah that occurred in the Holy Land when the situation seemed beyond hope. The commitment of a few people turned the situation around (just like a dreidel) and brought about the miracle through G-d’s salvation. The Maccabees didn’t dwell on the fact that they were being oppressed and persecuted by an enemy larger and stronger than they were. They focused on the gimmel that was on the other side of the shin. They used this attitude to act to create a vehicle for a divine miracle.
It’s important to remember that whatever letter we seem to land on, it’s all part of one dreidel and that the dreidel has the message that miracles can and do happen every day. We can transform the dark situations of our lives into the bright lights of the Chanukah candles to help us battle the darkness. We only have to draw on the strength of the Maccabees, those brave children and the letters of the dreidel. When they fall, they get up, with a little help, and spin ecstatically over and over again.
After the terror we have seen over the past few months in Israel every single day, as well as the terror in Europe and all around the globe, we might think of how we can help during these horrific attacks on completely innocent civilians. In our physical world, there is the notion of cause and effect known as the “butterfly effect,” where a butterfly can flap its wings in one part of the world and cause a storm on the other side of the globe.
In a spiritual realm, a small positive action can push away and dispel much evil, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, said – a tiny light can dispel much darkness. How appropriate for us today. We can get involved in positive actions of any type wherever we find ourselves. This goodness will work to counteract the evil, even on the other side of the world.
We need not feel helpless at the terrible news we receive constantly, as there is much we can do through our positive actions. Let’s hope and pray that, as we say in the second blessing on the candles each night of Chanukah, “Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the Universe, who performed miracles for our forefathers in those days, at this time,” that G-d will continuously send us miracles and protection wherever we are in the world and wherever His protection is needed.
Esther Taubyis a local educator, writer and counselor.
Many Jews retain the custom of honoring Judith by eating cheese for Chanukah, and the custom of eating dishes like cheesecake and blintzes emerged from the story of Judith. Many Jews retain the custom of honoring Judith by eating cheese for Chanukah, and the custom of eating dishes like cheesecake and blintzes emerged from the story of Judith. (photo by Andrevan via commons.wikimedia.org)
Mention symbolic foods for Chanukah and everyone immediately responds – latkes and sufganiyot. But someone may say cheese pancakes. Cheese? Why?
The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), written in the 1500s by Rabbi Joseph Ben Ephraim Caro, a Jew from the Iberian Peninsula, is a digested version of commentaries on laws in the Talmud (commentaries on the first five books of the Bible). The Shulchan Aruch is meant to be an authoritative volume on commandments and, in this volume, there is a legend that dairy dishes and cheese pancakes were to be eaten for Chanukah to commemorate the bravery of Judith, who was a Hasmonean, the same clan as the Maccabee family. As well, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, the 16th-century Polish scholar (1525-1572), wrote, in Orach Chaim, that eating cheese commemorates Judith feeding milk to the enemy.
So, who is Judith and why do some Jews honor her at Chanukah? The Book of Judith is part of the Apocrypha – books not included in the Bible as read by Jews and Protestants. Originally written in Hebrew, the 16 chapters of the standard version of the Book of Judith are in Greek. It is surmised that the author of this book was a Jew who lived and wrote in Palestine and probably lived near Shechem.
In the Book of Judith, interestingly enough, Judith is not mentioned in the first half of the story. In the second half, first her lineage is described then we are told that this young woman was a widow for three years and four months. She was the widow of Manasseh, who belonged to her tribe and who suffered some kind of heat stroke while overseeing the barley harvest and subsequently died in the town of Bethulia in northern Samaria where they lived. Bethulia is near where Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. It was also a city in the hill country of Samaria that occupied a narrow, important pass at the entrance of Judea, from Jerusalem to Jezreel.
We read: “She was beautiful in appearance and was very lovely to behold.” Judith was also wealthy, having been left gold and silver and menservants and maidservants and cattle and lands.
In the story, it is related that Bethulia was under siege by the army of Holofernes, commander-in-chief of the sixth-century BCE Assyrian king Nebuchadnezzar. Holofernes was a soldier sent to destroy any people who did not support his king. In the story, he cut off the water supply of Bethulia. After 34 days, when the town leaders were ready to surrender to Holofernes, the town magistrate, Uzziah, suggested five more days as a compromise to see if G-d would intervene.
Judith was upset that her countrymen had no trust in G-d and did not approve of the five-day compromise, so she sent her maid to summon the town magistrates. She chastised them for putting G-d to a test, and she urged them to call upon G-d. “Therefore, while we wait for His deliverance, let us call upon Him to help us, and He will hear our voice, if it pleases Him.”
Of course, the people were thirsty, and Uzziah told Judith to pray for rain. She was not happy with that suggestion, so she convinced the magistrates to let her try to do something independently – “Stand at the town gate tonight so that I may go out with my maid…. Only, do not try to find out what I am doing; for I will not tell you until I have finished what I am about to do.”
First, she put ashes on her head and uncovered the sackcloth, then she prayed to G-d to hear her, and she prayed for strength to G-d to strike down the enemy. “Give to me, a widow, the strong hand to do what I plan.”
She then went to her house with her maid, removed her widow’s clothes, which she had worn for the past three years, washed her body, anointed herself, braided her hair and dressed as beautifully as when she was married. She adorned herself with bracelets and chains and rings and earrings and ornaments “to entice the eyes of all the men who might see her.”
She and her maid then went outside the city gates with wine and oil, roasted grain, fig cakes and bread, and dishes on which to eat. Together, they went down to the gate of Bethulia where Uzziah and the elders stood. They opened the gate and she and her maid walked down the mountain, past the valley until they were out of sight.
Judith was greeted by the Assyrian soldiers, who took her into custody. They inquired who she was and where was she going. She told them she was a woman of the Hebrews, fleeing from them. She told the soldiers she had information on the Israelites for Holofernes and she would show him how to capture the hill country. The soldiers then chose 100 men to take her to his tent.
The men who were with Holofernes left his tent, and Judith went inside, where Holofernes was laying on a bed under a canopy woven with purple and gold and emeralds and precious stones. She bowed before him, and his servants helped her up. He told her not to be afraid; he had never hurt anyone willing to serve Nebuchadnezzar. They talked, and she told him she would give him information so he could attack Bethulia. Holofernes and his servants were impressed.
Judith told him her people had exhausted their food supply and would kill their livestock. She devised a plan for Holofernes to go against them with his army and she would lead him to Jerusalem. Holofernes was delighted with her beauty and her wisdom.
Holofernes offered Judith food and drink, but she refused. She then left and went to sleep in her tent. She remained in his camp for three days and, each night, she bathed in a nearby spring and then returned to her tent. On the fourth day, Holofernes asked his eunuch to persuade Judith to come to a banquet in his tent. It appeared she had gained his trust. This time, she accepted. She adorned herself, and her maid entered his tent and placed skins on the ground near where Holofernes was sitting.
When Judith entered, we read: “Holofernes’ heart was ravished with her and his passion was aroused, for he had been waiting for an opportunity to seduce her from the day he first saw her.”
Judith drank and ate what her maid prepared. “Holofernes was greatly pleased with her, and drank a great quantity of wine, much more than he had ever drunk in any one day since he was born.”
His servants left them alone, and he fell asleep dead drunk. Only Judith and Holofernes were in his tent. Her maid was outside. Judith prayed for help from G-d. “Now, indeed, is the time to help your heritage and to carry out my design to destroy the enemies who have risen up against us.”
She then took Holofernes’ sword, took hold of his hair and struck his neck twice to cut off his head. She pulled his body off the bed and covered it with the canopy. She gave the head to her maid to put in their food bag. They left the camp and returned to Bethulia.
When the men of the city heard her voice, they called the elders to gather at the city gate and open it for her. Judith took the head of Holofernes out of the bag and showed it to them. They were astonished, and they thanked G-d. She told them to hang the head on the wall. At daybreak, she said, they should take up their weapons and look as if they were going to attack the Assyrian outpost. Holofernes’ men will run to Holofernes, she said, they will panic and flee, and the men of Bethulia will pursue them and cut them down.
At dawn, the men of Bethulia hung the head of Holofernes on the highest part of the wall and waited at the mountain passes with their weapons. The Assyrian soldiers could not believe their eyes, so they went to Holofernes’ tent and found his body on the floor. The eunuch ranted and raved about what this woman had done.
When the army heard the eunuch, “overcome with fear and trembling,” they rushed out and fled through the hill country. The Israelite soldiers chased after these enemies and slaughtered them and took their possessions.
The high priest came from Jerusalem to salute Judith and bless her. The people plundered the camp for 30 days. He gave the tent of Holofernes and the general’s possessions to Judith. Then, all of the women of Israel ran together to see Judith and they blessed her and performed a dance in her honor. They adorned her with olive branches, and she went before all the people in the dance, leading all the women, and the men followed the women.
The procession continued to Jerusalem, where Judith took the possessions of Holofernes and offered them as a gift to G-d. The celebrations in Jerusalem lasted three months, after which Judith and the townspeople returned to Bethulia. Judith continued to live there and rejected all the proposals from men who wanted to marry her. At the age of 105, she freed her maid and distributed her property since she had no children. She died and was buried in a cave in Bethulia with her husband.
“No one ever again spread terror among the Israelites during the lifetime of Judith, or for a long time after her death.”
Some scholars have come up with another reason that Judith is a heroine. Both 11th-century French talmudic scholar Rashi and 14th-century Spanish scholar Rabbi
Nissim ben Reuven Gerondi maintained that the Greeks had decreed that all virgins about to marry had to submit themselves to a prince prior to marriage. Because Judith, the daughter of Yohanan the high priest, fed the governor cheese that made him sleepy, and she seized the opportunity to chop off his head, she thus saved the virtue of all future brides from sexual exploitation (Mishnah Berura).
This story in the Mishnah says Judith fed Holofernes cheese to make him thirsty. Since Judith lived about the same time as the clan from which the Maccabee brothers came, and they are the heroes of Chanukah, around the 14th century, some Jews instituted on the eating of cheese pancakes and cheese blintzes at Chanukah in honor of her heroism.
According to an article in Schechter on Judaism (Vol. 4, issue 4, December 2003), entitled “Insight Israel,” Rabbi David Golinkin, president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, confirms the original story that, in Orach Chaim, section 670:2 of the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Isserles relates: “It is customary to recite songs and praises [to God] at the festive meals which are common [on Chanukah] and then the meal becomes a mitzvah meal. Some say that one should eat cheese on Chanukah because the miracle occurred through milk which Judith fed the enemy (Kol Bo and RaN).”
Golinkin writes: “Indeed, that is what the Kol Bo and Rabbi Nissim of Gerona (RaN) wrote. In his commentary to Rabbi Yitzhak Alfassi (the Rif) on Shabbat 23a … he says that, ‘it says in a midrash that the daughter of Yohanan [the high priest] fed the enemy leader cheese to get him drunk and cut off his head and they all fled, and, therefore, it is customary to eat cheese on Chanukah.’
“The Kol Bo, which is an anonymous halachic work written in Provence in the early 14th century, has a slightly different version of the story. It says that the daughter of Yohanan the high priest fed the Greek king ‘a cheese dish in order that he become thirsty and drink a lot and get drunk and lie down and fall asleep.’ That is what transpired; she then cut off his head and brought it to Jerusalem and, when his army saw that their hero had died, they fled, and that is why it is the custom to cook a cheese dish on Chanukah.”
The question, of course, is where did RaN and Kol Bo find this story? It sounds a lot like the story of Judith and Holofernes, as found in the apocryphal Book of Judith. Indeed, cheese is mentioned in some ancient versions of Judith 10:5, which lists the foods that Judith took with her when she left the besieged city to visit Holofernes. Nevertheless, Judith 12:17-20 describes the way in which Judith got Holofernes to go to sleep; it says explicitly that Judith gave him wine to drink and not a cheese dish. Medieval Jews knew the story of Judith from medieval Hebrew sagas called “The Story of Judith” and the like. Some 18 versions of the story have been published. Most of those versions, including the Book of Judith itself, say that Judith gave Holofernes wine to drink, but a couple of the versions do indeed mention milk or cheese.
“Ma’aseh Yehudit,” which was first published in Sefer Hemdat Yamim (Livorno, 1763), says that Judith “opened the milk flask and drank, and also gave the king to drink, and he rejoiced with her greatly and he drank very much wine, more than he had drunk in his entire life.” In other words, according to this version of the story, Judith gave Holofernes both milk and wine. It is clear that the author was influenced by the story of Yael and Sisera in the Book of Judges, because the phrasing was borrowed from Judges 4:19.
“Megillat Yehudit” relates that Judith, after fasting, asked her maidservant to make her two levivot (pancakes or fried cakes). The servant made the levivot very salty and added slices of cheese. Judith fed Holofernes the levivot and the slices of cheese “and he drank [wine] and his heart became very merry and he got drunk and he uncovered himself within his tent and he lay down and fell asleep.”
Finally, the milk and cheese version of the Judith story is mentioned in a Hebrew poem for Chanukah published by R. Naftali Hacohen in 1757: “… It is mitzvah to eat and rejoice / eating cheese – one cannot force. / It is customary to remember, not to forget / the story of Judith who did it on purpose / to feed him milk to make him sleep.”
American Jewish writer Rahel Musleah discovered that Jews of Tunisia celebrate Rosh Chodesh Tevet, which falls at the end of Chanukah, with chag habanot, festival of the daughters. Mothers give honey cakes and gifts to their daughters, men give gifts to their fiancées and they eat a festive meal to honor Judith.
Scholars have tried their hands at coming up with other reasons why one eats cheese dishes for Chanukah with a little gematria. The Assyrian oppressors forbade the celebration of Rosh Chodesh, Shabbat and brit milah. If one takes the first letter of the Hebrew word for month, chet from chodesh; the second letter of the Hebrew word for Sabbath, the bet of Shabbat; and the third letter of the Hebrew word for circumcision, the lamed of milah, you get the Hebrew word chalav, which is milk.
Matthew Goodman, the Food Maven of the Forward newspaper maintains that the first latkes were probably made from curd cheese and fried in butter or olive oil. By the Middle Ages, as Jews migrated into Eastern Europe, butter and oil were expensive and poultry fat became a frying agent, thus cheese would not be used. By the 16th century, pot cheese was either unavailable or expensive, so first buckwheat flour and then potatoes were substituted and, ultimately, potato pancakes became common fare for Chanukah.
Meanwhile, many Jews retain the custom of honoring Judith by eating cheese for Chanukah, and the custom of eating dishes like cheesecake and blintzes emerged from the story of Judith. Some believe the salty cheese that Judith served Holofernes may have been in the form of fried cakes. Recipes for ricotta pancakes in Italy and feta cheese pancakes in Greece may be modern versions of these ancient fried cakes.
It is a custom that women do no work on Chanukah as long as the lights are burning, and they should not be lenient in this matter. Among some Sephardi communities, women refrain from work all day during Chanukah. In other communities, this custom is followed only on the first and last days. On the seventh night, women sing, dance, drink wine and eat foods made from cheese.
The reason for particular emphasis of Chanukah observance on the part of women goes back to the harsh decree issued by the Greeks against the daughters of Israel – that every girl who was to be married was to be brought first to the Greek ruler. Additionally, the miracle itself came about through the heroism of a woman.
Among Ashkenazim, many serve latkes with sour cream, and will partake in blintzes. But, for the most part, serving cheese dishes at Chanukah is more popular in the Sephardi tradition. Sephardim typically prepare various rudimentary doughnuts (bunuelos and loukoumades) and fried pastries, such as shamlias (fried dough strips) and zalabiya (batter poured into hot oil in a thin spiral, similar to Amish funnel cakes, and coated with syrup or honey). North African Jews enjoy debla, dough rolled to resemble a rose, deep-fried and dipped in sugar or honey. Italians honey-dip deep-fried diamond-shaped pieces of yeast dough called frittelle. The Bene Israel in India prepare milk-based fried pastry called gulab jamun.
Whichever traditions you follow, you might want to add a new one to honor Judith.
Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, foreign correspondent, lecturer, food writer and book reviewer who lives in Jerusalem. She also does the restaurant features for janglo.net and leads weekly walks in English in Jerusalem’s market.