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A Foodie Rosh Hashanah: Appetizers for Personal Growth

Dipping an apple in honey is the most popular in a series of simanim, symbolic foods, associated with the Rosh Hashanah feast. The custom is even recorded as far back as the Talmud. There are many other simanim, some simple and some exotic, that vary by community including: fish, pomegranate, fenugreek, black-eyed peas, carrots, dates, pumpkin, leeks, beets, fish heads or gefilte fish, and even chicken livers.

Some simanim correspond to curses and call for destruction of the enemies of the Jewish people. Some imply that their consumption will improve the general position of the Jewish people amongst the nations. Some are indications for having many children, and some that our merits be recalled and that evil decrees be undone.

So, if these simanim are so powerful then perhaps one could think that we don’t need to plead our case to God. Maybe we could just hold massive date and fish-head eating rallies and instantly safeguard the Jewish people and decimate our enemies? [I wouldn’t have that rally just yet.]

The late 13th century Catalan scholar, Rabbi Menachem Meiri, asked whether the simanim are a prohibited form of sorcery. This was several centuries before the Shulchan Aruch, which has chapter on simanim. The Meiri answered that simanim could be construed as sorcery, but they are really there to prod us into action:

“And so that we do not stumble into the forbidden territory of nichush, sorcery, the rabbis instituted that [along with eating them] one should recite statements that inspire teshuvah. So we say on the gourd that our merits should be ‘recalled before you,’ and on the fenugreek that ‘our merits increase,’ and on the leek ‘our enemies be cut off’ – it is referring to sins, the enemies of our soul – and on beets, ‘our sins be removed,’ and on the date, ‘our iniquities be vanquished etc.’” (Beit Habechirah, Horayot 12a).

So we can understand from the Meiri’s explanation that dipping the challah and apple in honey to symbolize our desire for a sweet and good year cannot on its own bring Hashem’s Mercy. Even though mercy is alluded to in the honey — דבש, honey, has the same gematria as אב הרחמים, Father of Mercy — it cannot be received without teshuvah, resolutions, and sincere prayers to Hashem. We use honey to remind us.

Just eating a sweet Medjool date isn’t going to have an effect on our physical enemies, nor on our internal spiritual enemies. Rather, the date reminds us that we can, and must, fight a battle with the yetzer hara (evil inclination).

Somewhere along the road we might have lost a deeper understanding of this teshuvah technology. We started to think that the simanimthemselves have the power to bring forth change in the world. No matter how much honey we eat, it won’t bring transformational change. However they can inspire change. As one of my students remarked, “It will remind me to look at the sweet things in life and not focus on the bitter.”

But rather than ignore the complex practice of the simanim because we don’t understand how to use it, or are afraid that it borders on sorcery, let’s enhance it.

There is also a wonderful mindfulness element that is part of the ritual, as we offer a kavanah an intention before eating each food. Most of the intentions are connected to a play on words between the Hebrew name of the food item and the desired outcome. (Read them here.)

Consider adding additional simanim (found in most traditional Rosh Hashanah prayer books) to your festive table. It might be pomegranates, heirloom beets or pumpkin pie. Use these as appetizers to start the conversation about teshuvah, prayer and tzedakah. The presence of these simanim foods can guide the Rosh Hashanah meal like the Seder plate guides the Pesach Seder, pr

oviding opportunities to share insights into teshuvah and encouragement, and to elevate the spirit.

Wishing you a real foodie Rosh Hashanah! May we all enjoy many delicious simanim as catalysts for the intense inner-work and heartfelt prayer we all need to bring about the changes we seek, and may we our world merit an outpouring of Divine Favor.

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Rabbi Yonah Bookstein is co-founder of Pico Shul, a dynamic spiritual community in Los Angeles dedicated to spiritual growth, Torah learning, and helping others. During summers he operates Shabbat hospitality at national music festivals with Shabbat Tent. Rabbi Yonah also serves as Alevy Rabbi-in-Residence at USC Hillel.

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Protecting a Life is Always a Priority

(Published in Jewish Journal March 27)
The Torah commands us protect our lives, and those of others. Based on the verse, “Guard yourself and guard your soul very much” (Deut. 4:9). According to Jewish law, it is a duty to take all due precautions and avoid anything that may endanger life. “Anyone who violates such prohibitions, saying ‘I’m only putting myself at risk – what business is that of anybody else?’ or ‘I’m not particular about such things’ deserves a lashing, while those who are careful about such things will be blessed” (Choshen Mishpat 427, 8-10).”

Every family that cares for keeping the sanctity of the Sabbath also must care for the sanctity of life and take extra precautions to ensure the safety of our homes.

Below are some guidelines in accordance with Jewish law:

  • All families must install dual-sensor smoke and fire alarms and additional carbon monoxide alarms around their homes, test them weekly, and gently vacuum them monthly. They should be installed in bedrooms, hallways, attics, basements, and you can check the National Fire Protection Association website for details.
  • Never use cracked, worn or sheared electric chords – whether on a hot plate, Sukkah lights, lamps etc.
  • Do not overload sockets or improperly use extension chords.
  • Keep candles under adult supervision, use self-extinguishing Shabbat and Hanukkah candles – and extinguish menorahs before going to bed.
  • Never leave flammable material (curtains, hand towels etc.) in proximity to heat sources such as hot plates, Shabbat, Hanukkah or Yom Tov candles.
  • While we are not permitted to extinguish a fire without reason on Shabbat, it is a mitzvah to extinguish a unintentional fire in a home on Shabbbat as it is a direct threat to people in adjacent homes. Even in an isolated home, with no apparent neighbors, the fire must be put out because it could spread to the field or forest and harm someone else.

Food Safety Guidelines for Shabbat Observance in accordance with Halacha:

  • To enjoy warm food on Shabbat, electric hot plates should be used with an appliance timer, which turns off at bed time and back on in the morning. On Shabbat, solid foods should remain on the cold hotplate overnight. On Yom Tov, when it is permitted to cook, any food can be placed back on the hot plate in the morning.
  • Chulent or Hamim can be cooked safely in an electric slow-cooker overnight. Reminder to remove the pot insert from the slow cooker before serving the chulent in order to avoid stirring a cooked food in a cooking vessel. Also the slow cooker can be put on a timer to turn off after your meal time.
  • Leaving on a gas-range on a low flame is common practice whether on Shabbat or on Yom Tov among orthodox families – please be very cautious. Try to find alternatives. On Shabbos use a metal “blech” to cover a low flame. On Yom Tov, any time the flame is not being used for cooking, covered with a pot of water. If a flame goes out – turn off the gas immediately.
  • Ovens that have built-in Sabbath modes – which overrides the auto-shut-off function for the duration of a three-day holiday – have been tested for this use and are designed to safely operate for 72 hours.

We have a sacred duty to protect life. By educating ourselves, and protecting our families and communities with diligence in these and other safety issues, we are fulfilling that mitzvah.

Feel free to contact me with any questions.

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Never Forget: Iran is the Problem, not Boteach

IMG_6447In a Jewish world desperate for unity, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach succeeded in uniting a broad array of Jewish groups, including Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, secular and religious, right leaning, and left leaning, centrist and apolitical — to condemn his full-page ad attack against National Security Advisor Susan Rice in the New York Times.

If only that unity could be channeled into publicizing the existential threat a nuclear Iran poses to America and the world, perhaps the US Administration would truly recognize the danger that a nuclear armed Iran would be, and reject any deal that would leave Iran within reach of the bomb.

Boteach’s tactics are reminiscent of Peter Bergson (aka Hillel Kook) and his supporters who tried to move the United States to protect the Jews of Europe being slaughtered by Germany during WWII by allowing increased immigration of European Jews into America. Bergson’s group ran shocking full page ads in the Times and other newspapers as part of their campaign to tell the world of the destruction of European Jewry.

Boteach knew that his attack on Rice would be controversial. The establishment’s denunciation only proves to Boteach and his supporters — and he counts the outspoken Sheldon Adelson among them — that American Jewish leadership is incapable of articulating a unified position on Iran.

Details of the Iran deal, currently being worked on in secret by America and Iran, have been leaked across the media for days. By all accounts it allows for Iran to maintain a serious nuclear program.

Yet news that Iran will be on the path from being a pariah state, to a legitimized nuclear power, has not galvanized major American Jewish organizations to protests, mass petition campaigns or to even to take out ads in the Times.

Rather, American Jewish groups are distracted, busy fighting a very public battle over whether Bibi’s speech to congress this week is good or bad for Israel and the Jews.

Boteach, many American Jewish leaders, and the Christian Zionist lobby, believe Bibi’s speech to the US Congress can help to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons and make the case for strengthening America’s resolve against Tehran’s nuclear aspirations.

He is not alone. Even the Obama Administration, wrote Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic, is afraid that Bibi’s speech to congress could scuttle a deal with Iran.

We can look into the historical record to see who stood against Peter Bergson’s tactics to bring the plight of European Jewry to the pages of the NY Times and in public demonstrations in Washington. We can see their publicly stated positions aimed at defusing any hint the American Jews might be accused of disloyalty to America in favor of foreign Jews.

According to recent scholarship, prominent Jewish organizations tried to have Bergson deported and had the IRS audit his group to try to find irregularities. Likewise nearly every mainstream Jewish organization, including the greatest Zionist leaders tried to discredit Bergson.

In addition to Bergson’s ad campaign, and renting Madison Square Garden, the Hollywood Bowl and other massive venues for a show he produced called “We Will Not Die”, he organized a March of Rabbis on Washington.

Bergson and the March of 500 Orthodox rabbis on October 6, 1943 did not succeed in meeting President Roosevelt, or in being heard in congress. Instead, the Jewish establishment blocked them any way possible worried that these Jews would increase American anti-Semitism.

When asked about his tactics, Bergson said in 1973, “Why did we respond the way we did? The question should be, why didn’t the others? We responded as a human and as a Jew should.”

Bergson’s March, which included Jewish War Veterans, met the Vice President and a few members of congress. Their pressure helped rescue of some 200,000 mostly Hungarian Jews through changes in the policies of the War Refugee Board.

We see today that those who condemn Boteach’s NY Times advertisement and demand he publically apologize, seem to be echoing the concern Jews have always felt when we have achieved a high level of acceptance within any nation – we are worried that to press for protecting World Jewry, and Israel in particular, makes us vulnerable to the anti-Semites’ claim that Jews are a fifth-column or have dual loyalties.

This fear is burned into our collective memory as a foundational fact of our national story. From the time recorded in the Bible when Pharaoh’s advisors feared that the Israelites would join with some potential invading force and overthrow Egypt, to today’s Zionist conspiracies, our enemies have accused us of treachery. This fear of being accused of disloyalty runs deep in our national psyche.

While Boteach’s tactics — a personal attack on a prominent politician — are very controversial and offensive to most, it’s because Boteach believes the stakes are very high.

The Jewish Establishment has proven the point that Boteach has set out to prove — that there is no unified voice on how to combat a mortal enemy of the Jewish people, but only on trying to make the Jewish community not seem ungrateful for everything that Susan Rice and the US Administration have done for Israel.

As in Bergson’s day, it appears to some Jews in America who have taken to Boteach’s defense, that the Jewish Establishment is more concerned about losing its good access to the White House than the threat of Iran with the Bomb.

If history can be any kind of teacher, then the lesson must be: If Iran is allowed to build a nuclear weapon, to regain its standing it the world and lose its pariah status, it doesn’t matter how many good deeds Susan Rice and the President have done for Israel. They will have given Israel’s mortal enemy the ability to slaughter Jews by the millions.

One cannot help but take note of the state of affairs in American Jewish life when the Jewish Establishment agrees to roundly condemn a fellow Jew. The unified criticism aimed at one well-known Jewish American is unprecedented in recent times. Public and strident Jewish critics of Israel, whose names are respected, and whose current criticisms are simple reiterations of poisonous anti-Zionist rhetoric, have never received such treatment. The danger of their Jewish attack on Israel’s right to exist does not seem to galvanize anyone, let alone the diverse groups now condemning Boteach.

Boteach has been aiming to be a player in politics since he started at Oxford. Kosher Sex was never his end game. He won’t leave the issue of bilateral Israeli American relations to others, because he and his backers believe their voices need to be heard at the table. While Boteach had a following before, thanks to this avalanche of derision, Boteach now has a bigger platform. He can summon a NY Times ad with a few phone calls. He has a larger social media imprint than all the major Jewish organizations that condemned him — combined.

Boteach is the son of an Iranian Jew. He knows what happened to his family and the other Jews of Iran when the Islamists came to power in 1979, and he as well as every other Iranian Jew, distrust Iran more thoroughly than any other segment of our community.

Boteach is not a unifying figure. That is not his operating guideline. Neither was Bergson. Boteach is out to stop Iran from getting the bomb, and he’ll use all his political capital, connections, as well as the negative attention he can get to bring the issue into the public sphere.

Instead of turning on Boteach, the Jewish establishment needs to turn on Iran, publically, verbally, unashamedly, without fear of an anti-Semitic backlash.

Remember, never forget, it is Iran that has been supplying weapons, money, and training to Hamas and Hezbollah to wage a proxy war on Israel for decades.

Remember, never forget, it is Iran that is responsible for the deaths of more Americans that ISIS by many fold.

Remember, never forget, it is Iran that blew-up the Jewish community building in Argentina.

Remember, never forget, it is Iran has consistently lied to the world about its nuclear ambitions and hidden major parts of its nuclear program deep underground.

Remember, never forget, that it is Iran that has called for the repeated destruction of Israel

As we approach Purim, a Jewish holiday which commemorates our salvation from a Persian plan to destroy our people which was already set into motion, the world’s superpowers sit across the negotiating table from a murderous Iranian regime sworn to destroy Israel, and who have killed hundreds of Jews and Americans around the world.

Our sages created Purim to remember – and to never forget – that to ensure our survival as a people, it will take a unified community and holy chutzpah. Esther risked everything for her people.

Boteach has unwittingly unleashed some Jewish unity using some serious chutzpah. Can the American Jewish establishment use that to launch a major campaign against Iran reminiscent of the Soviet Jewry Movement or the Bergson group’s Emergency Committee?

I pray so.

Remember, never forget, Iran is the problem, not Bibi Netanyahu’s speech to congress and not Shmuley Boteach’s ad in the New York Times.

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A Kabbalist’s Feast: Tu B’Shevat Seder at Pico Shul

tubishvat 034.1Tu B’shvat is Coming! Celebrate Nature’s Holy Gifts and Wisdom at our Kabbalists’ Feast. Last year this event sold out!

Year’s ago in the ancient city of Tzfat a group of Kabbalists uncovered the mystical secret’s of Tu B’shvat. They revealed these mystical secrets in a ceremony patterned after the Passover Seder and made a festival meal on the night of Tu B’shvat, the 15th of the month of Shvat. There are four cups of wine, a recited text, and ritual foods eaten. However in place of the story of the Exodus from Egypt the Tu B’Shvat seder uncovers the inner dimensions of reality as revealed in nature. In place of Matzah and chicken soup with Matzah balls, there are a dozen kinds of fruit to enjoy and to fuel spirited conversation.

Join Rabbi Yonah for a memorable and delicious excursion into the mystical realm of Tu B’Shevat with this unique Seder he has written for the event based on the ancient Seder recited by the kabbalists in Tzfat centuries ago.

The Tu B’Shevat Seder will take place Tuesday, February 3rd, at 8pm at Pico Shul. Reservations are recommended as space is limit. RSVP for $15 before January 26th. Tickets go up to $20 on January 26th.

Tickets will be online soon!

FAQ:
There will wine served at event, have a designated driver, or us Uber

There is a lot of food being served.

This is a sit down event.

You may be able to pay at door if we still have space.