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Tu BeShevat

Tu BeShevat, the 15th of Shevat is celebrated this year on Wednesday night January 15 - Thursday, January 16, 2014. It marks the beginning of a “new year” for trees. This is the season in which the earliest-blooming trees in the Land of Israel emerge from their winter sleep and begin a new fruit-bearing cycle. The reason for the festive mood of the Rosh Hashanah of trees is that the 15th of Shevat recalls the praise of the Land of Israel, for on this day the strength of the soil of the land is renewed. With reference to the fruits of the trees and the produce of the soil, the Torah praises the Land of Israel:

Although the 15th of Shevat is called Rosh HaShanah, the designation applies only to the matter of tithes that are due from fruit of the trees. Work is not prohibited, and there are no required festive meals, and no special prayers added to the regular prayer services. Nevertheless, the day is invested with a festive sense. Tachanun is not said and eulogies are not delivered.

We mark the day of Tu BeShevat by eating fruit, particularly from the kinds that are singled out by the Torah in its praise of the bounty of the Holy Land: “A land of wheat and barley and vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey (of figs and dates)” (Devarim 8) . i.e. grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates. It is customary to eat a new fruit from the Land of Israel of which one had not yet partaken the present year, so that the “beracha” or “blessing” of SheHechiyanu may be said.

On this day we remember that “man is a tree of the field” (Devarim 20:19), and reflect on the lessons we can derive from this botanical comparison.

In the Middle Ages, Tu BeShevat was celebrated with a feast of fruits. In the 16th century, the Arizal instituted a Tu BeShevat seder in which the fruits and trees of Israel were given symbolic meaning. The main idea was that eating ten specific fruits and drinking four cups of wine in a specific order while reciting the appropriate blessings would bring human beings, and the world, closer to spiritual perfection.

In contemporary Israel the day is celebrated as an ecological awareness day and trees are planted in celebration.

The name Tu BeShevat is derived from the Hebrew date of the holiday, which occurs on the fifteenth day of Shevat. "Tu" stands for the Hebrew letters Tet and Vav, which together have the numerical value of 9 and 6, adding up to 15. Tu BeShevat is a relatively recent name; the date was originally called "Ḥamisha Asar BeShevat" which also means "Fifteenth of Shevat."

Tu BeShevat appears in the Mishnah in Tractate Rosh Hashanah as one of the four new years in the Jewish calendar. The discussion of when the New Year occurs was a source of debate among the rabbis: "And there are four new year dates: - The first of Nisan - new year for kings and festivals - The first of Elul - new year for animal tithes. Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon say: the first of Tishrei. - The first of Tishrei- new year for calculation of the calendar, sabbatical years and jubilees, for planting and sowing - The first of Shevat, according to the school of Shamai; Theschool of Hillel says: the fifteenth of Shevat" (Rosh Hashana:2a)

The rabbis of the Talmud ruled in favor of Hillel on this issue. Thus the 15th of Shevat became the date for calculating the beginning of the agricultural cycle for the purpose of biblical tithes.

Fruit that ripened on a three year old tree before Tu BeShevat is considered orlah and is forbidden to eat, while fruit ripening on or after Tu BeShevat of the tree's third year is permitted. Tu BeShevat is the cut-off date for determining to which year the tithes of 'maaser sheni' or 'ma'aser ani' belong.


Prioritizing and Balancing Ones Deeper Propensities

We all know that The Torah (Bible) can be understood on different planes and we all know that Noach had three sons: Shem, Ham and Yefet. What we may not know and appreciate is the underlying, message to us that their names convey.
One of our great scholars and philosophers Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch in his Biblical commentary sheds tremendous insight into these names and thus an insight into why Noach is called a Tzaddick (righteous individual) and into how the ideal personality should develop.
Shem – means name – conception of objects and discernment into the use of different things and into ones own self-identity and place in the universe. Shem is also the root of the word Neshama or soul – or spirituality - the inner ability to find G-d in the universe.
Cham – means hot – the glowing excitement of emotion and sensuality.
Yafet – beauty or aesthetics.
These three factors: Spirituality, Sensuality and appreciation of Beauty, comprise the whole life of our minds
In an unhealthy life the love of beauty and passion subdue the spirit and lower the person into a passionate, hedonistic, materialistic and sensual being.

In a healthy life the soul directs the emotions and the love of aesthetics to higher, lofty spiritual goals. This should be our aspiration. Noach had this balance of priorities right and was thus call a tzaddick (righteous individual).

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Superstitions Run Contrary to Faith in God

It is hard to comprehend that though we are living today in a technologically advanced civilization and consider ourselves culturally many more times ‘advanced’ than our ancestors certain old superstitious ideas and practices still persist. It seems that modern man will clutch at any straw to learn about the future however remote from the truth it may be and make up for the lack of faith in an all-powerful G-d to protect them from all harm with belief in charms and voodoo. We see this interest and practice in society around us:

Fortune tellers, palm readers and psychics abound.
People still believe in astrology, that fate is tied to the stars. Many daily newspapers still carry horoscope predictions.
Many believe in the concept of auspicious times for various events.
Charms of different shapes, sizes, and colors are often worn to bring good luck or for protection against evil forces and the evil eye. Hai’s; garlic; blue stones; red strings; hands are worn not for decoration but for luck or protection.
Chinese fortune cookies are very popular.
Self titled magicians and mind readers are still around and witchcraft seems to be making somewhat of a comeback..
Reliance on signs or omens. Tossing coins or casting lots to make decision on ones future is still common.
Fear from evil spirits and the “evil eye” are still prevalent. Knocking on wood and other pagan customs have become commonplace.
Unproven popular cures.
People still try to contact dead relatives through seances or other mediums.
The Torah refers to these practices in two short paragraphs in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy  and warns us not to be a part of the prevalent decadent and superstitious culture. Deuteronomy 18:9-13 states:

When you come into the land which the L-rd your G-d gives you, you shall not learn to do after the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you any one who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or who uses divination, or a soothsayer, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all that do these things are an abomination to the L-rd; and because of these abominations the L-rd your G-d drives them out from before you. You shall be perfect with the L-rd your G-d.

Reasons For the Prohibitions against Superstitious Practices

As stated in the closing verse in the above section “You shall be perfect with the L-rd your G-d.” We are commanded to develop a perfect relationship with our Creator anything which detracts from a complete faith in G-d causes a schism in our relationship with Him as is to be deplored. Because of the nature of superstitious practices they usually ascribe powers to agencies other than G-d.
Rambam states that “the object and purpose of the whole Torah is to abolish idolatry and utterly uproot it, to eliminate the opinion that any of the stars could interfere for good or evil in human matters, because it leads to worship of the stars. He notes that all these evil practices, were all connected with idolatry and were prohibited in order to save man from idolatry and the evil entailed. In fact the paragraph in the Torah mentioned above, starts with the instruction not to emulate the pagan nations beliefs and practices.
In his Commentary on the Mishnah (Avodah Zarah 4:7), Rambam explains that tribal chieftains used idol worship as a means to unite their people and develop a communal identity. Accordingly, they assigned a name of a G-d and a personality to many of the heavenly bodies and built temples to their worship. In this manner, astrology and idol worship grew up hand in hand. The astrologers would describe the gods’ motives and behaviors based on the movements of the heavenly bodies, and the idol worshipers would invent different means of service to appease and give thanks to these imagined deities.
The Rambam also attributes magic, divination, and other occult arts to a similar motive. In order to impress the common people of their power, the pagan priests would perform “wonders” through these different crafts. Similarly, they would predict the future through various techniques of divination to demonstrate their mastery over the forces of nature.

As he states openly in Hilkhot Avodah Zara, Chapter 12, Halakhah 16, the Rambam believed that all these crafts were “falsehood and lies,” “emptiness and vanity which attracted the feeble-minded and caused them to abandon all the paths of truth.” He does not attribute any power whatsoever to the practitioners of the occult – except the power of persuasion. He explains that the Torah has forbade these practices, not because they tap a spiritual force of undesirable origin, but because they are foolishness and of no avail (Guide of the Perplexed, Vol. 3, Chapter 29). Therefore, in Iggeret Teiman, he advises his readers to “wash your minds from these ideas as one washes a garment of filth.”

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MAIMONIDES (RAMBAM) FOUR STAGES OF PERFECTION

The ancient and the modern philosophers have shown that man can acquire four kinds of perfection:
The first kind of perfection, the lowest, in which people spend their days, is perfection as regards property — the possession of money, garments, furniture, servants, land, and the like. The possession of the title of a great leader belongs to this class. There is no close connection between this possession and its possessor. It is a completely imaginary relation when, on account of the great advantage a person derives from these possessions, he says: “This is my house, this is my servant, this is my money, and these are my workers.” When he examines himself he will find that all these things are external, and their qualities are entirely independent of the possessor. When, therefore, that relation ceases, he that has been a great king may one morning find that there is no difference between him and the lowest person, and yet no change has taken place in the things that were ascribed to him. The philosophers have shown that he whose sole aim in all his exertions and endeavors is the possession of this kind of perfection, seeks only perfectly imaginary and transient things; and even if these remain his property throughout his lifetime, they do not give him any perfection.
The second kind of perfection is more closely related to man’s body than the first. It includes the perfection of the shape, constitution, and form of man’s body; the utmost evenness of temperaments, and the proper order and strength of his limbs. This kind of perfection must likewise be excluded from forming our chief aim; because it is a perfection of the body, and man does not possess it as man, but as a living being. This is in common with the lowest animals; and even if a person possesses the greatest possible strength, he could not be as strong as a mule, much less can he be as strong as a lion or an elephant. He, therefore, can at the utmost have strength that might enable him to carry a heavy burden, or break a thick substance, or do similar things, in which there is no great profit for the body. The soul derives no profit whatever from this kind of perfection.
The third kind of perfection is more closely connected with man himself than the second perfection. It includes moral perfection, the highest degree of excellence in man’s character. Most of the mitzvot (precepts) aim at producing this perfection; but even this kind is only a preparation for another perfection, and is not sought for its own sake. For all moral principles concern the relation of man to his neighbor. The perfection of man’s moral principles is, as it were, given to man for the benefit of mankind. Imagine a person being alone, and having no connection whatever with any other person, All his good moral principles are at rest. They are not required, and give man no perfection whatever. These principles are only necessary and useful when man comes in contact with others.
The fourth kind of perfection is the true perfection of man; the possession of the highest intellectual faculties; the possession of knowledge of G-d. With this perfection man has obtained his final object. It gives him true human perfection; it remains to him alone. It gives him immortality, and on its account he is called man.
Examine the first three kinds of perfection, you will find that, if you possess them, they are not your property, but the property of others. According to the ordinary view, however, they belong to you and to others. But the last kind of perfection is exclusively yours. No one else owns any part of it, ” They shall be only your own, and not strangers’ with thee ” (Prov. 5: 17). Your aim must therefore be to attain this [fourth] perfection that is exclusively yours
Jeremiah, referring to these four kinds of perfection, says : “Thus says the L-rd, Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; but let him that glory in this, that he understands and knows me.” (Jer. 9. 22,23). See how the prophet arranged them according to their estimation in the eyes of the multitude. The rich man occupies the first rank; next is the mighty man; and then the wise man; that is, the man of good moral principles : for in the eyes of the multitude, who are addressed in these words, he is likewise a great man. This is the reason why the three classes are enumerated in this order.
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THE LAWS AND PRACTICES OF YOM KIPPUR

  1. Some are accustomed to visit cemeteries before Yom Kippur (Rama, OC 605).
  2. Others participate in kapparot (ibid.) by swinging a live chicken which is then given to the poor to eat, or a small sack of money above their heads. This Minhag was originated by some of the Geonim. Ben Ish Chai states to slaughter a white rooster on behalf of each male and a white hen for a female. The Shulhan Aruch adds that there are those that reject this minhag, most likely because there is a strong similarity between this practice and those of the pagans (Mishnah Berurahסימן תר”ה ס”ק א ). In its place many Jews do Kapparot using money and donating it to Tzedakah.
  3. Some are accustomed to receive symbolic malkot (lashes) in order to motivate themselves to repent.
  4. It is customary to ask forgiveness from one’s fellow before Yom Kippur.   This practice is based upon the following mishna: For sins between man and God Yom Kippur atones, but for sins between man and his fellow Yom Kippur does not atone until he appeases his fellow.
  5. Men should immerse in a Mikva on Erev Yom Kippur. R. Akiva (Yoma 85b) draws a comparison between teshuva and mikva. R. Akiva said: Fortunate are you, Israel! Before Whom do you cleanse yourself? And who cleanses you? Your Father in Heaven!… And it also says: “The mikva ofIsrael is God.” Just as a mikva cleanses the contaminated, so does the Holy One, blessed be He, cleanses Israel.
  6. Viduy and other Prayers of EreYom Kippur. The Talmud (Yoma 87b) teaches that one should recite the viduy BEFORE the meal on EreYom Kippur. The Sages said: One should confess before he eats and drinks, lest he lose his mind at the meal.  And although he confessed before he ate and drank, he should confess again after he eats and drinks, for perhaps something unseemly happened at the meal. Rashi (s.v. shema) explains that the Sages were concerned lest one become intoxicated, while the Rambam (Hilkhot Teshuva 2:7) writes that they were concerned lest a person choke and die before repenting.
  7. The Mitzva to Eat on Erev Yom Kippur. The Talmud (Yoma 81b) teaches that there is a mitzva to eat on the day before Yom Kippur, and that eating on Erev Yom Kippur and then fasting on Yom Kippur is somehow tantamount to fasting for two days. Rashi understands that one should eat on the ninth in order to prepare for Yom Kippur.  For this extra preparation, one receives “credit” as if one fasted on both days. The Rosh understands the mitzva, like Rashi, as a preparation for the fast, but he adds that it demonstrates God’s affection for the Jewish People and His will that they should not suffer. Conversely, the Shibbolei Ha-Leket (307) suggests that one should eats “well” on the day before Yom Kippur to experience MORE discomfort on Yom Kippur itself. Rabbeinu Yona (Sha’arei Teshuva 4:8-10), writes: If a person transgressed a negative commandment and repented, he should be concerned with his sin, and long and wait for the arrival of Yom Kippur in order that God will be appeased… And this is what they meant (Rosh Hashana 9a), that one who eats a special meal on the eve of Yom Kippur it is as if he was commanded to fast on the ninth and tenth and did so, as he demonstrated his joy that the time for atonement has come, and this will be a testimony for his concern for his guilt and his anguish for his sins. Second, on other festive days we eat a meal for the joy of the mitzva… and since the fast is on Yom Kippur, we were commanded to designate a meal for the joy of the mitzva on the day before Yom Kippur.
  8. Tzedaka  It is also customary of all Jews to give charity during the Ten Days of Repentance, especially on Erev Yom Kippur.
  9. One is obligated to light candles before Yom Kippur just as one would on Shabbat, to ensure there is peace in the home, Shalom Bayit.


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SUKKOT - FESTIVAL OF BOOTHS

Sukkot, is a climax of all the festivals which commence with Rosh Hashannah.
When I was studying engineering in college in England, I had a Welsh professor as a tutor. He knew I was Jewish and he would ask me questions about some customs that interested him. He noticed one year that after being absent for Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur I was absent for another few days and asked me why. “It was one of our festivals” I replied. “Another festival!” he exclaimed. “It’s called Sukkot”. “Really,” he said “What do you do?”. “We build huts in our yards and dwell in them for seven days”. He scratched his head in astonishment “Why do you do that?”.
“It’s a remembrance that we don’t rely on our houses only for protection. We leave our physical quarters to get close to G’d and nature and we rely on His Divine providence to look after us.”
The reason for having a Sukkah, in which we spend much of our time for the week of the festival, is to commemorate the clouds of glory that surrounded the Jews while wandering through the desert for 40 years. By leaving our homes and transferring our lives to the Sukkah, we come to appreciate nature a bit more. We come to understand what a poor person feels when he lives in such a situation, being exposed to the natural elements, and most of all, we appreciate the blessings G-d has given us by having a home.
On Sukkot we abandon a home of comfort made of brick or wood and find shelter in a frail booth which the rain may flood and the wind overturn. On entering this hut we indicate our implicit faith and trust in our Maker, we submit ourselves to Divine protection.
“Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man from whom there is no help” (Psalm 146). But rather put your trust in the great G-d who is mighty and His promises are fulfilled, this teaches us to trust G-d irrespective of our station in life, whether we are richly endowed with worldly goods or troubled by want. Mastering this principle gives us satisfaction and happiness; therefore, this holiday is called the holiday of rejoicing.
Sukkot is another example of how Judaism asks more of us than just thought and verbalization, to experience the beauty of Judaism requires action.
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PRAYER IS FOOD FOR THE SOUL

Do you have the habit of praying regularly? If the answer is no, why not? Habitual, sincere prayer is the calling and need of every one of God’s children. Prayer, personal and regular, is not merely a recommended idea it is the command of God and is our need. It forms the very backbone of our spiritual life and helps to build a personal relationship with our Creator.
In the Book of Daniel chapter 6 we read about a plot had been laid against Daniel by wicked princes who were motivated by jealousy against him. These princes and presidents supervised the tax revenues that were received into the kingdom. Very often that tax money which they were entrusted to regulate would stick to their fingers. The king would often suffer damage or loss. But Daniel, who was exalted to prominence among them, was a faithful man. Daniel was the leading member of a triumvirate, a prime minister, so to speak. And his enemies could find no fault or error in him, for, we read, there was an excellent spirit in Daniel. Daniel was faithful. He did not say, “Well, I’m working at higher levels of government now, and I suppose I had better do business. I can’t avoid all the corruption around me in this office. After all, business is business. Just don’t let me know about it. I’ll turn my face at the appropriate moment.” Daniel did not take that approach. There was an excellent spirit in him. And at its heart was prayer. He applied that habit of prayer also to his workplace and to his life in the midst of the world. The evil princes persuaded King Darius to pass a law that no one was allowed to pray to any other god but to the King for thirty days on penalty of being thrown into a den of lions.
“And when Daniel knew that the law was signed, he went into his house – now his windows were open in his upper chamber towards Jerusalem – and he kneeled upon his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he did before.” (Dan. 6:11).
We look at the characteristics of Daniel’s prayer-life. First of all we see that it was habitual. We read that Daniel “kneeled upon his knees three times a day, and prayed, and gave thanks before his God, as he did before.” There was in his life regular, fixed, set times of prayer. This was something which his enemies knew before and which even the king knew. For they reported to the king that Daniel makes his petitions three times a day. And the king says to Daniel in verse 16, “Your God whom you serve continually.” These scheming princes did not have to stake out Daniel’s house to find out when Daniel was going to pray. They could not miss it. They knew exactly when he would be praying. So they convinced the king that, for thirty days, anyone who is found praying to any god but to the king should be put to death. They knew Daniel’s habits of regular prayer. For Daniel was faithful in private, personal prayer. It was a fixed pattern in his life.
Yes, there are times in our lives when prayers are occasioned by crises or when our conscience is troubled under the weight of our sins. But there must also be, as the backbone of our life, planned, predictable moments of prayer. We are to have fixed habits: as we sleep, as we eat, shower, shave, and comb, as we leave for work or school. Daniel, three times a day as before, even after the king made his decree that no prayer could be made, Daniel prayed at these set times.
Prayer is a positive commandment we mention at least twice daily in the Shema: “You shall serve Him with all your heart.” Deuteronomy 11:13. The Talmud Taanit 2b explains service of the heart is prayer. Rambam (Maimonides) explains that the heart is meant the mind i.e. one needs to focus the mind on the Prayer this means to meditate on the words and means to speak to G-d and let your deepest feelings come forth. It means telling Him whatever is on your mind, to praise Him, thank Him, to admit ones failings and to ask Him for your needs.
In ancient times – from the days of Moses through the First Temple Era – Jews would fulfill the Biblical commandment of prayer in exactly this very personal way. However, after the Jews were exiled to Babylon, the general population lost the art of arranging meaningful prayers on their own. Their once pure Hebrew with which they could describe the loftiest of holy concepts became muddied and the common Jew was no longer able to compose eloquent praises or supplications.
Ezra the Scribe and his court composed a standard text for every Jew. By using this script which includes in it general references to all matters one might wish to discuss with G-d, everyone would be sure to address G-d as articulately as possible. Each Jew’s personal signature, so to speak, would be in the feelings aroused in the heart during prayer.
Ezra and his court also enacted that Jews should pray at set times. Today one prays three times every day — morning, afternoon and evening — and four times on Shabbat, Biblical Holidays and Rosh Chodesh and five times on Yom Kippur – The Day of Atonement. Nevertheless, if one feels like speaking to G-d at any other time, one may and should do so as well. Indeed, that is the actual mitzvah from the Torah; that’s what it means to serve G-d with the heart.
And if you feel that your prayers are not answered, never give up but keep praying as does King David Psalm 55:16, 17: “As for me, I will call upon God; and the LORD shall save me. Evening, and morning, and at noon, will I pray, and cry aloud: and he shall hear my voice.” Similarly in Psalm 88:13, 14, “But unto thee have I cried, O LORD; and in the morning shall my prayer prevent thee. LORD, why do you cast out my soul? Why do you hide your face from me?” There the psalmist is in the deep hole of despair. He saw no light. He was tempted to give up on prayer. But he says, “Nevertheless, I will continue to pray. I am committed to pray. In the morning You shall find my prayers ascending to You, O Lord.”
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USING FOUL LANGUAGE

Have you ever sat by someone on the train or subway either talking on the phone or to someone else and just spewing out four letter words, I have. It’s pretty hard to sit through this kind of abuse for an hour, so thank G-d for noise-cancelling headphones.
In the beginning of the Torah portion of Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:20) we read an enigmatic instruction: ‘Kedoshim tihiyu – Be holy.’ This is different from the many other commandments before and after, which pertain to specific matters such as marital and ritual purity. The sages in the Sifri explain that the Hebrew word kadosh, which is normally translated as “holy,” actually means to be “distinct” or “separate.” Thus, these words are actually a commandment to separate ourselves.
The great Biblical commentator Rashi states that holiness is a direct consequence of not transgressing the prior sexual and moral prohibitions.
However Ramban – Nachmanides, states that this injunction of being holy includes not using disgusting speech, something that is not specifically prohibited in the Torah. Torah demands that a person go beyond the parameters it sets and live a life that is truly distinguished and uplifting. Using bad language can make a fine person into a crude one.
The Talmud Ketubot 8b speaks very harshly about someone who speaks in a vulgar way. “Whoever uses foul language even if there was a decree on them for seventy good years it will be changed into an evil decree.”
Rabenu Yonah in Shaarei Teshuvah states that using foul language runs against two of the fundamental character traits that we try to instill into ourselves: modesty and sensitivity.
Rambam – Maimonides states that the reason Hebrew is called a Holy Language is precisely because of its paucity of foul words.
Although we generally think of speech as just a superficial act, in truth, it has a strong impact on one’s inner self. The words that leave one’s mouth make an imprint on the mind and heart. No matter how fine and noble a character, a few rotten words can defile and corrupt a person. The flip side is also true. A crude person can become more refined if he or she improves the way he/she speaks. This is why shemirat halashon, “guarding one’s tongue,” is considered one of the first steps that need to be taken before correcting more serious character flaws.
Being careful that all words that leave ones mouth are holy is an important part of a living a “holy” life.