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Jewish Life – Yiddish Show


In this Jewish Life Show, we interviewed Arthur Schwartz (head of the SB Yiddish Club,) heard a Yiddish song by Lorraine Klein, and saw a Yiddish Play based on a famous Jewish Story. Join us for a Yiddish Night!

Yiddish vs. German: an experiment.


A comparison between Yiddish and German. I made up a bunch of sentences to highlight some of the differences between German and Yiddish with respect to vocabulary, grammar (especially word order), phonology (sounds) and vowels. The sentences were read aloud in English and my friend Frank, a native German speaker from Bavaria (but speaking Hochdeutsch/standard German) translated them into German and I translated them into my non-native Ukrainian Yiddish. Even if you don’t speak either language you can hear where the two are different and perhaps pick up a bit of either one or both. German speakers should note that other Yiddish dialects (Litvak, northern Ukrainian) pronounce “u” the same way as in German so “und” (and) is “und” but in my dialect it becomes “in”. Otherwise all of the differences in the vowels between the two languages are pretty normal. You may also notice that there are words in Yiddish that exist in German dialects but not Hochdeutsch (“epes” for “etvas”, “do” for “hier”) and there are words in German that Frank uses that are also used in Yiddish (Geschaft, Stunde) but which I don’t use. Of all the German dialects Yiddish is probably closest to some forms of Badisch and Swiss German. Yiddish was the language of Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jews until the Holocaust and is now primarily spoken in Hasidic communities in Israel, the USA, England, Australia, Canada and Belgium. It is written in the Hebrew alphabet.

, דײַטש, ייִדיש, אידיש, שפּראַך, דיִאַלעקט, דײַטשיש , גרמנית, ידיש, דיאלקט, שפה, מדגישה, בלשנות

Yiddish, Ladino and Jewish English: Do American Jews Speak a Jewish Language?


Funny SLANG Words – FUN Hebrew, Jewish & Yiddish Slang Words – OY VEY – LoL


Funny SLANG Words – FUN Hebrew, Jewish & Yiddish Slang Words – OY VEY – LoL is right. Some of these words not only sound funny, but their meanings and definitions can be just as hilarious. I wanted to just have some fun instead of all the learning and lessons in writing, reading and speaking Hebrew, so I decided to have a laugh with some slang words. Most of the words are Yiddish, including some Hebrew and Jewish, but I hope they are all a source of some fun and laughs. I know I had some fun making this video, and I hope you enjoy it too (sorry about the somewhat muffled audio).

Alright, I guess I can write down the words for you, just in case it helps to find the video, or for a preview of what you might see and hear in the video: mah neeshma, kosher, glitch, bupkes, mazel tov, oy vey, shlemiel, shlimazel, schmuck, shtick, mashugana.

Mah Neeshma (ma neeshma) – How’s everything? What’s up?
Kosher – Okay to eat for Orthodox Jews. English, when referring to something shady or suspicious, “That’s not kosher.”
Glitch – Yiddish word that means slip, skate, nosedive. Common American usage, such as a glitch being a minor problem or error.
Bupkes – Used by American Jews for worthless or less than nothing (actually means goat droppings, lol)
Mazel Tov – Used for congratulations. Literally means good luck or good constellations. Not referring to the future, as in saying good luck, but rather for the good luck one might have just experienced.
Oy Vey – Self explanatory just in hearing it, showing exasperation, grief, and dismay.
Shlemiel – A klutz, and or a clumsy and inept person.
Shlimazel – Someone with continual bad luck. “Shlemiel, Shlimazel,” was used in theme song for the TV show, Laverne and Shirley.
Schmuck – Insulting word describing a fool (although, a self made fool). Literally refers to the male anatomy, lol.
Shtick – Something one is known for doing, especially concerning entertainment
Mashugana – Means crazy and/or bizarre. Can also describe someone that is easily distracted (spaces out, lol). Hey, are you paying attention?

Funny words, no doubt, and easy to use in a lot of comical situations.
3D Dry Erase Board by “The Board Dudes” + Azuna

Seinfeld in Yiddish . . . Jewish Singles Event


Oifen Pripitchik: Yiddish Jewish Classic Song


M Generation choir sings this Yiddish Jewish classic song on the Chabad Telethon. Watch it live 8/25/13 on KTLA5 / WLNY 10/55/ KTSF 26/ DIRECTV channel 366 -nationwide. For complete channel info please visit

Mamele, Yiddish Folk Song, The Moscow Male Jewish Cappella, A. Tsaliuk


Jewish Yiddish Folk Song,
Arrangement – Kuzma Bodrov,
The Moscow Male Jewish Cappella,
Artictic leader and Conductor – Alexander Tsaliuk,
Soloist – Mikhail Chesnokov,
Piano part – Alexander Velikovsky;
The Moscow Male Jewish Cappella – Artistic Leader and Conductor – Alexander Tsaliuk
International Memorial Evening dedicated to the Holocaust Victims.
January, 2014

Coming Home To Yiddish
The Jewish Week
“I perform songs written by Yiddish poets from Minsk in conjunction with her lectures on the history of the Jewish community there.” Add to that a …
Mazel Tov to Former Los Altos Resident for Handmade, Award-Winning ‘Yiddish Alphabet’ Book
The Addison-Penzak Jewish Community Center of Silicon Valley is featuring the award-winning book, The Yiddish Alphabet, by Frederica Postman, …
Santa Barbara Jewish Festival Returning to Oak Park on May 4
“The Santa Barbara Jewish Festival promises to be outstanding, truly … Playing and singing Yiddish, Israeli, Hassidic and Klezmer music, Ventura …
Elsewhere: Bringing Yiddish back to Poland, digital Haggadah, Seth MacFarlane: Anti-Semitic?
St. Louis Jewish Light
Elsewhere: Bringing Yiddish back to Poland, digital Haggadah, Seth … ”I think whatJewish culture taught me is that all these embarrassing things,

Yiddish poetry wins at children’s book fair

(JTA)—A book on Yiddish published by a Polish Jewish group has won first prize at one of the world’s leading professional fairs for children’s literature …  

Hidden Treasures: Celebrating 100 Years of Yiddish Song & Montreal Poets

On Sunday, March 30th. at 7:30P.M. at the Jewish Public Library, 5151 Cote Ste-Catherine Road, theYiddish Cafe presents “Hidden Treasures: 
Jewish Film Festival offers cinema for all interests
WMTW Portland
More than 20 films that capture and explore the Jewish experience will be showing  The films showcase Jewish culture through the drama, comedy, 
From the Archive: A yeshiva births a college
St. Louis Jewish Light
A Jewish college — the first institution of its kind in America — will be  be blended with the bases of Jewish culture to develop informed and devoted 
For Boy George, Music And Style Is Just ‘What I Do’
In 1982, the Irish Catholic singer joined a Jewish drummer, a Protestant guitar-and-keyboard player and a Jamaican bassist to form Culture Club.
Tad Taube stepping down from Koret Foundation
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
He continues to preside over the Taube Family Foundation and the Taube Foundation forJewish Life and Culture, the principal private funder of the 
The Dramas of Jewish Education
Galus Australis
Judaism is a culture and a history they recognize but not their native one. They know it but they do not feel it. Of young Jews whose affiliation is not 
WJC urges UN Human Rights Council to drop anti-Israel bias
World Jewish Congress
 he is a published author and chairman of the Association of Jewish Culture Hans Jonas.  The Jewish connection to Israel is embedded in our soul.


PARENTING: Chalkboard of Life

Chalkboard of Life
Adar II 23, 5774 · March 25, 2014


When I was in second grade, I remember my teacher assigning classroom tasks to keep our class organized, clean and functioning well, giving the students a chance to be responsible.

My favorite task was erasing the chalkboards.

I’m not sure why, but I would imagine it had something to do with the gratifying feeling of perfectly aligning each swipe of the chalkboard eraser, creating clean, smooth lines. I remember trying to limit the dust which automatically filtered into the classroom air in light puffs of white powder—the remnants of the day’s work.

It very much resonates with me today

I think I found comfort in knowing the following day would start anew, with fresh handwriting on the chalkboard, giving us insight into all subjects of life.

Many years later, as a mother of a special little boy, I think about this childhood experience, and I realize that it very much resonates with me today.

The chalkboard of life.

Our days are filled with challenge, emotions and milestones. Laughter, tears, frustration, hopes and dreams.

Our chalkboards are decorated with sensitive subjects, with detailed questions and answers to explore, with script that on some days may be entirely illegible. Illegible because sometimes there is no time to pause, no time to take that breath. And we must keep on writing, keep on advocating, keep on believing.

But then, something beautiful occurs. For me, it is at the end of the day, when I sit in my children’s room and say the Shema prayer with them. It is my tool, my eraser, that gently wipes clean that day’s chalkboard. It is the very personal task of

I try to limit the dust

erasing the day’s hardships and choosing to keep all that inspired me, all that changed me and all that helped us grow together as a family.

As I smooth out the lines, I try to limit the dust, the remaining puffs of heartache, longing, and often personal failures of the mother I strive to be. I take a minute to stand back, looking at my chalkboard, looking at my peaceful, sleeping children. And I smile.

Not because I love the task of erasing my chalkboard, but because when I awake in the morning, I will start fresh. With new chalk. With new dreams.

My very own chalkboard of life, in my very own school of thought. Filled with subjects of all kinds, and dreams of every nature.


COMMENT: Fighting Ire with Fire

Fighting Ire with Fire
Adar II 24, 5774 · March 26, 2014
The spiritual ammunition of the Shabbat candles


© James Stock

“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”1 Perhaps, but being small-minded makes for much easier conversation. There is something so natural and compelling, so addictive, so cathartic about talking about other people. Gossip is charged with intrigue, and feels innocuous at the time. It’s usually afterward that the guilt settles in: “What was the point of that conversation?” “Did I violate someone’s privacy?” “Would I be embarrassed if they knew that I was talking about them?”

Gossip is charged with intrigue


Maimonides says that “people who habitually gossip will end up denying G‑d.” Gossip makes the small mind grow smaller. G‑d becomes less relevant. “What’s G‑d got to do with it? I care about what he said, what she said.”

In biblical times, there was a spiritual ailment called tzaraat, leprosy. One of the classical triggers for contracting tzaraat was speaking lashon hara, gossip. Once the mistake was rectified, the tzaraat healed. Although gossip is a common human vice, the consequence of tzaraat was quite severe. Not only was the leper considered to be impure, but the things that he came in contact with would also become impure.

The Mishnah gives the following scenario: If a leper walks into his friend’s home, the vessels in the home become immediately impure. Rabbi Yehudah says, however, that the owner of the home does have the opportunity to asks the leper to leave before his vessels become impure. And what is the homeowner’s window of time before it’s too late? The amount of time that it would take to light a candle.2

The commentators question Rabbi Yehuda’s timeframe. Lighting a candle is a momentary action, not a very generous timeframe to give to the unfortunate homeowner. He has to realize that the leper has walked through his doors and ask him to leave, all within a miniscule amount of time. The commentators conclude that Rabbi Yehudah is referring to lighting not an ordinary candle, but a Shabbat candle. Lighting Shabbat candles is a focused and uninterrupted process that can take several minutes to complete. Hence, the homeowner has enough time to ask the leper to leave before his own vessels become impure.

To a mystic, a simple teaching contains layers of meaning. Nothing in the Torah is simple or technical. The mystic looks for hidden references, the code to an entirely new dimension of understanding.

The Rebbe’s father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, was one such mystic. He was a brilliant Torah scholar and the charismatic head rabbi of the cosmopolitan city of Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine. To Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, the fact that Shabbat candles are used to gauge the homeowner’s timeframe is more than a technical calculation. Shabbat candles, he explains, are the perfect antidote to tzaraat. As long as a person is involved in lighting Shabbat candles, he will be immune from thetzaraat affliction. Here’s the Kabbalistic logic behind it: Tzaraat is a consequence of the loss of ohr ha-chochmah, “the illumination of wisdom.”3 In other words, the leper has a dimmed consciousness; the light of his intellect has been withdrawn. Lighting Shabbat candles, on the other hand, draws down the ohr ha-chochmah, illuminating and

The leper has a dimmed consciousness

expanding the consciousness of the one who lights the candles, her home, and the universe at large. When a person is busy with kindling Shabbat light, lights of greater consciousness, she won’t be contaminated by the impurity of tzaraat, limited consciousness.

Mitzvahs are compared to a candle, and Torah to light.4 Mitzvahs light up our perspective, exposing the hand of G‑d behind the veil of the mundane. And according to the Zohar, the mitzvah that is most illuminating of all is the mitzvah of Shabbat candles!5 While all mitzvahs draw down a more illuminated consciousness, the Shabbat candles do so quite literally. That physical light is a tangible display of the metaphysical light that comes from the mitzvah. In essence, Shabbat candles are the symbol for all of Judaism.

The Talmud describes the mitzvah to light a candle for Shabbat in pragmatic terms. On Shabbat, lighting a fire is prohibited, so we are commanded to light a candle just before sunset so that no one will trip over stones or tree branches. The candles thus bring shalom bayit, peace in the home.6 But why does the Talmud single out stones and trees? Isn’t it enough to say that the candles light up the home so that no one trips?

The Rebbe senses a deeper message: The Talmud doesn’t want us tripping over stones and wood, the materials that were used to fashion idols. Idol-worship is disrespectful because it gives credit where credit isn’t due. And although today we aren’t tempted to serve idols of stone, we are impressed by other idols: money, intellect, power, fame. The stuff that runs “without” G‑d’s help. So, the Talmud says, if you add light—develop an enlightened consciousness—you’ll see that the idols are the matrix G‑d uses to orchestrate our lives in a meaningful way. And that awareness is what will bring true shalom bayit.

As long as you are busy lighting

Idol worship is disrespectful because it gives credit where credit isn’t due

the Shabbat candles, says Rabbi Yehudah, the impurity of tzaarat won’t overwhelm you. It will stay at the doorstep, but it won’t invade your household. So long as you are flooded with G‑d consciousness, thetzaraat consciousness won’t get to you.7

The Lubavitcher Rebbe campaigned for all Jewish girls and women to light Shabbat candles. Over the years, I’ve had opportunity to share the mitzvah of Shabbat candles with women I’ve met on planes, in parks, in supermarkets and in my home. When I meet a Jewish woman and I don’t have a Shabbat-candle brochure on me, I think of the American Express slogan, “Next time, don’t leave home without it!”

A prominent women was travelling to Israel with loads of Shabbat-candle brochures in her suitcase. “Yesh lach neshek?” (“Do you have ammunition?”) asked the El Al security agent. Thinking he was referring to the common acronym used for Shabbat-candle brochures, NeSheK—for neirot Shabbat Kodesh, sacred Shabbat candles—she replied enthusiastically, “Of course!” The security guards were promptly called, and she was whisked away for further interrogation.

The Rebbe explains that the acronym NeSheK, which literally means “ammunition,” is a fitting reference to Shabbat candles, because those candles truly are a Jewish woman’s ammunition to protect her home—adding more light and enlightened consciousness each Friday.

1. This quote is often attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt.
2. Negaim, chapter 13.
3. See Likutei Torah, Parshat Metzora.
4. Proverbs 6:23.
5. Zohar 2:166a.
6. Talmud, Shabbat 23b.
7. Likkutei Sichot, vol. 17, p. 141.

VOICES: The Rebbe’s Attention for a Young Girl

The Rebbe’s Attention for a Young Girl
Adar II 23, 5774 · March 25, 2014
Mrs. Yehudis Engel


Mrs. Yehudis Engel

I was born and raised in Williamsburg. When I was a little girl, my father was involved with the Malachim, an insular chassidic group. The men never looked at women. I remember one of them eating a Shabbos meal at our house, and he covered his face with a napkin so that he wouldn’t have to look at my mother.

Eventually my father left this group. I was a little girl when this happened, so I don’t know the reason, but he joined Chabad. And that’s when I discovered how differently the Rebbe related to girls and to women.

I remember one Shabbos—it would have been in 1954. The Rebbe had just completed afarbrengen, a chassidic gathering, where he would speak on Torah topics for several hours.

I was ten years old at the time, and I was standing near the door of the Rebbe’s study. As he walked out and saw me standing there, he stopped, turned to me and asked: “Did you say l’chaim at the farbrengen?”

As he walked out and saw me standing there, he stopped, turned to me and asked: “Did you say l’chaim at the farbrengen?”


“I did not,” I answered.

“Why not?” he gently asked.

“Because a girl doesn’t say l’chaim,” I said.

“Why not?” he persisted.

To this I had no answer, so the Rebbe just smiled and continued on.

Four weeks later—it was also a Shabbos—was the next time the Rebbe held afarbrengen. At that time, the farbrengens would take place in the courtyard beside 770. I was standing at the back, behind the men, when suddenly a man handed me a cup and said, “The Rebbe gave this for you; he said you should say l’chaim.” That was the Rebbe’s way: he remembered a conversation he had with a little girl in the hallway a month earlier and, between his addresses on the loftiest topics, he remembered to give her a l’chaim.

On another occasion, it was at the end of one of the major Jewish holidays. Afterhavdalah, the ceremony concluding the festival, each man would pass by the Rebbe, and the Rebbe would pour out a bit of wine from his cup, with a short blessing to each person. It was called kos shel berachah. The farbrengen was held in the small synagogue on the first floor at 770, and I was in the back room, where there was a little window high up above a bookcase. I could perch there and see into the shul.

“The Rebbe gave this for you; he said you should say l’chaim.”


At the end of the farbrengen, my father went up to receivekos shel berachah from the Rebbe. And the Rebbe asked my father if I was there. My father said I was. “Where?” the Rebbe wanted to know. My father pointed up at the window where I was sitting. And the Rebbe said, “Let her come down and get kos shel berachah.” So I climbed down from the bookcase, came inside the men’s section, and the Rebbe gave me kos shel berachah from his hand.

As I grew up, I realized the high regard in which the Rebbe held the women—he always treated us as individuals, seeing us as full partners with our husbands as Chabad’s emissaries in the world. I can attest to this from the many incidents that happened in my own life.

When I was engaged, I went with my mother to see Rebbetzin Chana, the Rebbe’s mother, to bring her an invitation to our wedding. While we were there, my mother mentioned to Rebbetzin Chana that after we got married we would be moving to Montreal. Rebbetzin Chana replied, “I know; my son told me.” So it was obvious that the Rebbe was discussing me—in other words, after all this time he never forgot me, and I felt that I meant so much to him that he would even be discussing me with his mother, which to me was amazing. His caring was just amazing.

After all this time he never forgot me, and I felt that I meant so much to him that he would even be discussing me with his mother


Right after our wedding, my husband and I decided to give one of the gifts we had received for our wedding to the Rebbe’s institutions, as charity. My husband sent it in to the Rebbe, but the Rebbe sent it back. He wrote to my new husband that he could not accept it unless it also had his wife’s signature, indicating that she too agreed to give it.

On another occasion, my husband went to New York. The Rebbe gave him a blessing, but as he was walking away, the Rebbe called him back and said, “Why aren’t you asking for your wife?” So he asked for me, and the Rebbe gave him a separate blessing for me.

Our first assignment as emissaries of the Rebbe was in Montreal, where my husband worked as the principal of a Talmud Torah school. I also taught in that school. From time to time, my husband would send a report to the Rebbe, letting him what was happening at the school; he would mention the different teachers, and he would mention me and my class. At one point the Rebbe responded that he would prefer that I write myself rather than have my husband include me in his report. So I started writing on my own, and I received replies from the Rebbe.

A little later that day, we got a call that the Rebbe wanted to know what was happening, because he hadn’t heard from us


Before I gave birth to my third child, the doctor wanted to induce delivery, because I was overdue. So my husband called the Rebbe’s office to ask for a blessing, and he gave the details of what was going on. But then, the morning after I gave birth, my husband had a health issue, and needed to be hospitalized himself, so he never called New York to let the Rebbe know that I gave birth and that everything was okay.

A little later that day, we got a call that the Rebbe wanted to know what was happening, because he hadn’t heard from us. So, of course, we responded right away with the good news that our son Mendy was born. But then the Rebbe heard of my husband’s condition, and he realized that he was in no shape to help out with the baby, so the he issued instructions that somebody should be found to be there when I came home.

The concern the Rebbe had for his women emissaries, his regard for them, was so high that he remembered the smallest details.

When my oldest daughter got married, we were standing outside the Rebbe’s room with her groom, waiting for the Rebbe to come out. As was the custom, the Rebbe would give the groom his prayerbook, and the groom would use it to pray the afternoon service on his wedding day.

The Rebbe came out, handed over his prayerbook, gave the groom a blessing and started to walk away. Then he turned around, pointed at me and said to the groom, “Since she is a daughter of a kohen, you should learn an extra tractate of the Talmud before marrying her daughter.”

At this point in 1984, the Rebbe had tens of thousands of followers—not hundreds, not thousands, but tens of thousands—yet he remembered this small detail about one woman, that she was a bas kohen.

ESSAY: The Price of Free Speech

The Price of Free Speech
Adar II 24, 5774 · March 26, 2014


Hannah Smith was a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl living in Lutterworth, Leicestershire. Bright and outgoing, she enjoyed an active social life and seemed to have an exciting future ahead of her. On the morning of August 2, 2013, Hannah was found hanged in her bedroom. She had committed suicide.

Seeking to unravel what had happened, her family soon discovered that she had been the target of anonymous abusive posts on a social-network website. Hannah was a victim of the latest variant of the oldest story in human history: the use of words as weapons by those seeking to inflict pain. The new version is called cyberbullying.

Hannah was found hanged in her bedroom


The Jewish phrase for this kind of behavior is lashon hara, evil speech, speech about people that is negative and derogatory. It means, quite simply, speaking badly about people, and is a subset of the biblical prohibition against spreading gossip.1

Despite the fact that it is not singled out in the Torah for a prohibition in its own right, the sages regarded it as one of the worst of all sins. They said, astonishingly, that it is as bad as the three cardinal sins—idolatry, murder and incest—combined. More significantly in the context of Hannah Smith, they said it kills three people: the one who says it, the one he says it about, and the one who listens in.2

The connection with this week’s Parshah is straightforward. Tazria and Metzora are about a condition called tzaraat, sometimes translated as leprosy. The commentators were puzzled as to what this condition is and why it should be given such prominence in the Torah. They concluded that it was precisely because it was a punishment for lashon hara, derogatory speech.

Evidence for this is the story of Miriam,3 who spoke slightingly about her brother Moses “because of the Ethiopian wife he had taken.” G‑d Himself felt bound to defend Moses’ honor, and as a punishment turned Miriam leprous. Moses prayed for G‑d to heal her. G‑d mitigated the punishment to seven days, but did not annul it entirely.

Clearly this was no minor matter, because Moses singles it out among the teachings he gives the next generation: “Remember what the L‑rd your G‑d did to Miriam along the way after you came out of Egypt.”4

Oddly enough, Moses himself, according to the sages, had been briefly guilty of the same offense. At the burning bush, when G‑d challenged him to lead the people, Moses replied, “They will not believe in me.”5 G‑d then gave Moses three signs: water that turned to blood, a staff that became a snake, and his hand briefly turning leprous. We find reference later in the narrative to water turning to blood and a staff turning into a serpent, but none to a hand that turns leprous.

The sages, ever alert to the nuances of the biblical text, said that the hand that turned leprous was not a sign but a punishment. Moses was being reprimanded for “casting doubts against the innocent” by saying that the Israelites would not believe in him. “They are believers the children of believers,” said G‑d according to the Talmud, “but in the end you will not believe.”6

How dangerous lashon hara can be is illustrated by the story of Joseph and his brothers. The Torah says that he “brought an evil report” to his father about some of his brothers.7 This was not the only provocation that led his brothers to plot to kill him and eventually sell him as a slave. There were several other factors. But his derogatory gossip did not endear him to his siblings.

No less disastrous was the “evil report” (dibbah: the Torah uses the

The hand that turned leprous was not a sign but a punishment

same word as it does in the case of Joseph) brought back by the spies about the land of Canaan and its inhabitants.8 Even after Moses’ prayers to G‑d for forgiveness, the report delayed entry into the land by almost forty years and condemned a whole generation to die in the wilderness.

Why is the Torah so severe about lashon hara, branding it as one of the worst of sins? Partly this has deep roots in the Jewish understanding of G‑d and the human condition. Judaism is less a religion of holy people and holy places than it is a religion of holy words.

G‑d created the universe by words: “And G‑d said, Let there be . . . and there was.” G‑d reveals himself in words. He spoke to the patriarchs and the prophets, and at Mount Sinai, to the whole nation. Our very humanity has to do with our ability to use language. The creation of homo sapiens is described in the Torah thus: “Then the L‑rd G‑d formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”9 The Targum renders the last phrase as “and the man became a speaking being.” Language is life. Words are creative, but also destructive. If good words are holy, then evil words are a desecration.

One sign of how seriously Judaism takes this is the prayer we say at the end of every Amidah, at least three times a day: “My G‑d, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from deceitful speech. To those who curse me let my soul be silent; may my soul be to all like the dust.” Having prayed to G‑d at the beginning to “open my lips so that my mouth may declare Your praise,” we pray to Him at the end to help us close our lips so that we do not speak badly about others, nor react when others speak badly about us.

Despite everything, however—despite the Torah’s prohibition of gossip, despite its stories about Joseph, Moses, Miriam and the spies, despite the unparalleled strictures against evil speech by the sages—lashon hara remained a problem throughout Jewish history, and still does today. Every leader is subject to it. The sages said that when Moses left his tent early in the morning, people would say, “You see, he has had a row with his wife.” If he left late they would say, “He is plotting against us.”10

Anyone from CEO to parent to friend who seeks to be a leader has to confront the issue of lashon hara. Firstly, he or she may have to put up with it as the price of any kind of achievement. Some people are envious. They gossip. They build themselves up by putting other people down. If you are in any kind of leadership position, you may have to live with the fact that behind your back—or even before your face—people will be critical, malicious, disdainful, vilifying and sometimes downright dishonest. This can be hard to bear. Having known many leaders in many fields, I can testify to the fact that not all people in the public eye have a thick skin. Many of them are very sensitive and can find constant, unjust criticism deeply draining.

If you should ever suffer this, the best advice is given by Maimonides: “If a person is scrupulous in his conduct, gentle in his conversation, pleasant toward his fellow creatures, affable in manner when receiving them, not responding even when affronted, but showing courtesy to all, even to those who treat him with disdain . . . such a person has sanctified G‑d, and about him Scripture says, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified’ (Isaiah 49:3).”11

That is in relation to lashon hara directed against yourself. As for the group as a whole, however, you should practice zero tolerance toward lashon hara. Allowing people to speak badly about one another will eventually destroy the integrity of the group. Evil speech generates negative energies. Within the group, it sows the seeds of distrust and envy. Directed outside the group, it can lead to arrogance, self-righteousness, racism and prejudice, all of which are fatal to the moral credibility of any team. Whether or not you are the leader of such a group, you must politely make it clear that you will have nothing to do with this kind of speech, and that it has no place in your conversations.

Cyberbullying is the latest

Evil speech generates negative energies

manifestation of lashon hara. In general, the Internet is the most effective distributor of hate speech ever invented. Not only does it make targeted communication so easy, but it also bypasses the face-to-face encounter that can sometimes induce shame, sensitivity and self-control. Greek myth told the story of Gyges’ ring that had the magical property of making whoever wore it invisible, so that he or she could get away with anything.12 Social media that enable people to post anonymous comments or adopt false identities are as near as anyone has yet come to inventing a Gyges’ ring. That is what is so dangerous about it.

The story of Hannah Smith and other teenage suicides is a tragic reminder of how right the sages were to reject the idea that “words can never harm me,” and insist to the contrary that evil speech kills. Free speech is not speech that costs nothing. It is speech that respects the freedom and dignity of others. Forget this, and free speech becomes very expensive indeed.

All of which helps us to understand the biblical idea of tzaraat. The peculiar property of tzaraat—whether as a skin disease, a discoloration of garments, or mold on the walls of a house—is that it was immediately and conspicuously visible. People engage in lashon hara because, like wearers of Gyges’ ring, they think they can get away with it. “It wasn’t me. I never said it. I didn’t mean it. I was misunderstood.” The Torah is here telling us that malicious speech uttered in private is to be stigmatized in public, and those who engage in it are to be openly shamed.

To put it at its simplest: as we behave to others, so G‑d behaves to us. Do not expect G‑d to be kind to those who are unkind to their fellow humans.

1. Leviticus 19:16.
2. See Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De’ot 7:3.
3. Numbers 12:1.
4. Deuteronomy 24:9, and see Ibn Ezra ad loc.
5. Exodus 4:1.
6. Talmud, Shabbat 97a.
7. Genesis 37:2.
8. Numbers 13:32.
9. Genesis 2:7.
10. See Rashi to Deuteronomy 1:12.
11. Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodei ha-Torah 5:11.
12. See Plato, The Republic, book 2, 359a–360d.

WEEKLY STORY: The Sages in the Princess’s Chamber

The Sages in the Princess’s Chamber
Adar II 23, 5774 · March 25, 2014


Photo: Ali Taylor

At the time when the Roman armies conquered and ruled the Land of Israel, they set forth three new decrees. Their intentions were specifically to target and destroy Jewish identity. The decrees were that no one can: keep Shabbat (Saturday) sacred; circumcise their sons; or keep the laws of family purity. They realized that if these decrees would be successfully enforced, this would destroy the Jewish people as a nation and assure their assimilation.

The sage Rabbi Reuven, deeply concerned with the situation, decided to take action. He had his hair cut in the same style as the Roman officials (which normally is forbidden), and then took a seat among officials participating in their discussions.

When these new decrees came up for discussion, he inquired, “Why should we make the Jews work an extra day (Saturday)? Another day of work creates commerce, and brings wealth and strength to them.” So, accepting the logic of his argument, they nullified the decree. Continuing to play on their prejudice and misconception, he added rhetorically, “Doesn’t circumcision weaken the body? Why should we strengthen our enemy?” This decree was likewise nullified.

He then used a similar argument: “Why are we seeking to multiply their numbers by forcing cohabitation even during the menstrual period?” They nullified the third decree as well.

The news spread quickly, and caused much relief and joy to the Jewish people. However, unfortunately, this joy was shortlived, for the Roman officials realized that this new official that no one really recognized engaged only in discussions concerning the Jewish people, encouraging arguments to nullify their decrees. They came to the conclusion that he must have been an imposter, a Jew who had the gall to disguise himself and fool them. Immediately they reinstated the decrees, with no more discussions to be held on this matter.

The sages of Israel had no other choice but to petition the emperor. However, now that the Roman officers were enraged at their audacity, this meant that the petitioners would be in danger of being penalized and harmed, even before having the opportunity of reaching the emperor and presenting their petition. They therefore chose to send as their messenger the great sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, for he was sustained by miracles for the 13 years that he fled the officials and was hiding in a cave. Perhaps in his merit another miracle would occur and the Jewish people would be spared. The custom was to send two petitioners, so they sent Rabbi Eliezer bar Rabbi Yosei to accompany him.

As they were entering Rome, an evil spirit greeted Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and inquired of him, “Should I join you?” Rabbi Shimon was pained, saying, “Why should the salvation of the Jews people come from this spirit and not from an angel?” but on the other hand he rejoiced, saying, “Wherever the salvation will come from, it is welcomed.” He then instructed the spirit to go ahead of them. The spirit entered the emperor’s daughter’s body, and she became demented. The only clear words that she said were “Bring the sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, that he may pray on my behalf.”

When he arrived at the palace, he was immediately taken to the princess’s room. He then instructed the spirit to leave her unharmed. In appreciation of having his daughter saved, the emperor offered to bring Rabbi Shimon into the private treasury room and grant him his any wish. Rabbi Shimon looked around until he saw the document bearing these decrees; he took the document and ripped it up, thereby nullifying the decrees.

We see to what great extent our sages went in order to preserve the commandment of brit milah.

(Talmud, Meilah 17a–b)

Two historic synagogues in Tzfat

Two historic synagogues in TzfatPosted: 24 Mar 2014 08:17 AM PDT

After a wonderful morning of davening the morning service with my family and celebrating my nephew as he became bar mitzvah, and a delicious lunch at the Bar-El guesthouse, our guide Kobi took us to visit two historic synagogues before setting us loose to wander the streets of the artists’ quarter.

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At the Karo synagogue: lights, and corner genizah; Sefardic-style Torah case.

The first is the synagogue named after Rabbi Joseph Karo, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, “The Set Table,” a compendium of halakha first printed in 1565 which is considered authoritative in many quarters even today. Rabbi Karo was born in Spain in 1488, though emigrated as a child to Portugal when the Inquisition began. After the Jews were driven out of Portugal, he made his way to in Tzfat, where he was chief rabbi for 35 years.

The synagogue we visited bears his name, though it is not precisely the one where he davened. That one was destroyed in the earthquake of 1759. It was rebuilt, and then a second earthquake in 1837 took the second version down, too! But both times, the wall containing the aron, the ark where the Torah scrolls are kept, remained intact. Some saw that as a miracle. Others, our guide noted, attributed it to the fact that the wall containing the ark was double-thick.

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At the Ari Ashkenazi synagogue: stained glass window; aron / ark, with wooden carvings.

From there it is a very short walk, only a few scant blocks, to the Ari synagogue, named after Rabbi Isaac Luria who is known as the Ari. That synagogue was built in the late 16th century, and may be the oldest synagogue in Israel to have been continuously in use. The Ari is the one of the original guiding lights of what we know today as kabbalah.

It was the Ari who took his disciples each Friday evening into a nearby field to greet the Sabbath bride — the custom which has evolved into the service we know today as kabbalat Shabbat, “receiving” or “welcoming Shabat.” (If you see a similarity between kabbalat and kabbalah, that’s because kabbalah literally means “that which is received” — wisdom which comes to us from beyond.)


Ceiling at the synagogue of the Ari.

When I think of the Ari, I think of kabbalah. The idea that when God’s initial light streamed into creation it was too powerful to be contained, and the vessels of creation shattered, leaving sparks of divinity scattered everywhere, and it’s our job to perform mitzvot mindfully and thereby uplift those sparks back to God…? That’s Lurianic; that’s what tikkun olam means.

When I think of Rabbi Joseph Karo, I think of halakha, because the Shulchan Aruch has been so foundational. It’s easy for me to forget that he too was a mystic. It is said that he was visited by an angelic being who taught him secret mysteries of Torah.

I can’t say that I had a mystical experience in either synagogue; perhaps the general tourist experience isn’t conducive to that. Still, they are truly beautiful prayer places, and I am glad to have visited them again.

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Leading my family in morning prayer, again

Leading my family in morning prayer, againPosted: 24 Mar 2014 07:35 AM PDT

Seven years ago I had the honor of leading my family in prayer as we celebrated my niece’s bat mitzvah. It was my first time leading services for my family, which was an incredibly meaningful experience for me. I had also never led a service by myself for such a large crowd; we were close to 150 people that Shabbat afternoon!

This morning I am once again presiding over a family simcha (joyous occasion) — the bar mitzvah of that niece’s little brother. This time around, a group of about 20 will be davening together in a more intimate setting — the prayer space at the Bar El bed and breakfast in Tzfat. (This is where the Renewal-style minyan of Tzfat meets during the Days of Awe.)

We’re borrowing a Torah scroll from my friend Reuven Goldfarb, who took my “Writing the psalms of our hearts” class at the ALEPH Kallah last summer. (I’m also borrowing a guitar through Reuven, which I deeply appreciate!) There will be song, prayer, poetry, and Torah aplenty.

It’s always a joy to be a part of a young person’s coming-of-age into a new stage of maturing Jewish identity, and the joy is increased when that young person is part of my own family.

For those who are interested, here’s the siddur we created for the occasion: MaxSiddurFinal [pdf]. (The ones we’ll be using this morning in Tzfat each have unique covers, featuring art courtesy of my niece; this is just the interior material.) It’s a pretty simple weekday morning siddur, with some good poetry interwoven with the prayers — I’m looking forward to using it.

Whether or not you are davening shacharit this morning, I hope you will think kindly of my family today as we celebrate this lifecycle milestone wtih joy!

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