Torah CafeSep 24, 2023
Chazzonus - Cantors and Cantorial Singing
One of the central roles of the High Holidays Service is the Chazzan, the cantor who leads the prayers singing melodies and tunes to the words of the prayers. Chazzanim (cantors) have been part of Jewish liturgy from the earliest times and many of the tunes have been used for hundreds of years or longer.
A fascinating discussion about Chazanim and Chazzanut - Cantors and the history of Cantorial music.
Why did G-d create us?
It is a fundamental Jewish belief that G-d created us. But why? Why did he create the universe? What did he expect to get out of creating us?
Reading the Torah
One of the central parts of Jewish services in the synagogue is when the Torah scroll is taken out of the ark, placed on the Bima. Various men are called up to say blessings and then the Torah is read.
Learn all about the Torah reading in the synagogue.
Is G-d Angry and Vengeful?
People often think of G-d in the Torah as being angry, vengeful and punishing. The Torah tells us of the plagues brought against the Egyptians and others who disobeyed him. The Torah warns a number of times of punishments that we will get for not listening to G-d's instructions.
Is G-d vengeful and angry? How does that fit with the description of a loving and caring G-d?
The Agunah Problem
What happens when a spouse disappears and cannot be traced. Could they have died without anyone knowing? Could they be alive but have taken on a new identity? What should the remaining spouse do? Are they still married? Are they widowed?
The question of a missing spouse, called Agunah, has been one of the most troubling scenarios that Jewish scholars grappled with throughout Jewish history, becoming the most extensive and complex field of Jewish law.
A fascinating discussion about the Agunah problem and its evolution to a new Agunah problem that we face today.
Egla Arufa: The Mitzvah of the Decapitated Calf
One of the more intriguing mitzvahs in the Torah is the ceremony of the eglah arufah (decapitated calf), performed in ancient Israel when a murdered stranger was found out in the field and the killer was unknown.
A fascinating discussion about the Eglah Arufa ceremony, why and how it was performed and how it impacts us today!
What Makes Fish Kosher?
The Torah says that for fish to be Kosher they have to have fins and scales but what exactly are the scales that make a fish Kosher? Do fish that drop their scales or have a handful of scales count as kosher? What about fillet where the skin has been removed? How can we know if the fillet is kosher?
A fascinating discussion about what makes fish kosher and how we can identify kosher fish.
Are we the figments of someone's imagination?
Ever wonder if we really exist or perhaps we are just figments of someone else's imagination?
Chassidus (Jewish mysticism) teaches that indeed we are simply figments of G-d's imagination.
Discover how we know we are figments of G-d's imagination and what that means for us.
The Future Temple
One of the central parts of Judaism is the Holy Temple in Jerusalem where our ancestors brought sacrifices and served G-d fulfilling many of the commandments. Our second Temple was destroyed almost 2,000 years ago. Since the destruction of the Second Temple, we have prayed, hoped and waited for the building of a Third Temple. We firmly believe the Third Temple will be built in the same spot in Jerusalem in the future and we will once again serve G-d there.
A fascinating discussion about the Third Temple, what it will look like, when and how it will be built and why we are certain that it will happen.
The Prophet Isaiah
One of the most important prophets of the Jewish people was Yeshayahu ben Amotz - Isaiah who served as the spiritual leader of our people during the Assyrian invasions of Israel and some of the most traumatic times our people experienced. His prophecies were immortalized in the book that bears his name.
The Jewish View on Gun Control
Should there be limits on people's ability to purchase and safely use weapons? Should we have the freedom to arm ourselves as we feel necessary to protect our family and property?
A fascinating discussion about the Jewish view on the gun control / gun rights debate.
Why is life so unfair?
At a young age we discover that life just isn't fair. If we believe that our universe and our lives are controlled by G-d then why does G-d make life so unfair? Some people do really well, some struggle. Often our challenges are due to circumstances beyond our control. Can't G-d level the playing field?
The Great Escape from the Soviet Union
In 1946-1947, a group of a few thousand Chassidic Jews escaped from the Soviet Union to the West in one of the most daring escapes of the 20th century. This is an attempt to retell this story that has never been fully told before, with only bits and pieces shared in various historical personal accounts.
What are Tzaddikim?
Tzaddikim means righteous people. What exactly are Tzaddikim? How does one become a Tzaddik? What is the role of a Tzaddik? Is it possible for people to rise above the ordinary and achieve a unique relationship with G-d?
A fascinating discussion about the Jewish belief in Tzaddikim.
Where did Yiddish come from?
Yiddish was the spoken language of most European Jews (Ashkenazim) and their descendants for almost 1,000 years. Why did European Jews start speaking Yiddish? How did the Yiddish language evolve? Where is Yiddish still spoken today?
A discussion about the origins and evolution of Yiddish.
The daily manna was among the most mysterious events that our ancestors experienced while travelling through the desert after having left Egypt. This strange food fell daily and became their primary source of food throughout their 40 years in the desert.
What exactly was the Manna? How was it prepared and eaten? What did it taste like? Why did G-d choose to send Manna?
Why do Jewish women wear wigs?
Many Jewish women always keep their hair covered by wearing a wig or sheitel. Why do Jewish women cover their hair? When did this rule begin? When did they start wearing wigs? What is the point of wearing a wig that can often look better than their real hair?
A fascinating discussion about why Jewish women wear wigs.
How do we know the Torah is true?
The Torah is the basic book and teachings of Judaism. Without it, there would be no Judaism. We believe that the Torah was given to us by G-d and contains G-d's instructions for us. How do we know that the Torah is true and its instructions are G-d's instructions?
Why are some words in the Torah misspelled?
In Jewish belief, every word in the Torah is exact but be spelled perfectly in the Torah scroll. If one letter is missing or wrong, the whole Torah is not Kosher. Yet the Torah itself has multiple misspelled words that are read differently than they are spelled.
If every word of the Torah is exact, why does the Torah have words that are misspelled?
A fascinating discussion about the phenomena of misspelled words in the Torah and the Tanach (Jewish Scriptures).
The Jews of Morocco
Jews have lived in Morocco since the time of the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. At one point the Moroccan Jewish community numbers more than 250,000 people and today more than 1 million Jews have Moroccan ancestry making it one of the largest Jewish communities with its own distinct customs and culture.
A fascinating discussion about the Jews of Morocco.
Does the Torah say to stone people?
The Torah lists many harsh punishments for transgressing various commandments. Among the punishments are capital punishment carried out in various different methods including stoning and burning. The Torah also mandates lashes for other transgressions.
Though all of the Torah's capital punishments or corporal punishments have been discontinued over 2,000 years ago and are therefore not carried out by Jews today, the question still remains; why are the Torah's punishments so harsh? Isn't G-d loving, caring and forgiving even to sinners?
Mishneh Torah - The Key to Mastering the Entire Torah
The Mishneh Torah, the largest and most important work of the Rambam - Maimonides, is the most comprehensive encyclopedia of Jewish law.
A fascinating discussion about the Mishneh Torah, its centrality to Jewish knowledge, how it was written and how one can read through the entire work following a three year Rambam study cycle.
How are humans in the image of G-d?
The Torah tells us that humans were created in the image of G-d. Yet, one of the fundamental beliefs in Judaism is that G-d has no image. How then can we be in the image of G-d?
A discussion about the age old question as we discover some of the many answers our sages have given over thousands of years.
Are we really free?
On Passover we celebrate our ancestor's freedom from Egyptian slavery. Today we live in a free country. Yet are we truly free? We may be free from slavery and political oppression but are really free to be ourselves? Could we be enslaved by other internal or external forces?
A fascinating discussion about freedom and how we can become truly free.
How did Matzah get flat?
We all recognize the flat cracker like Matzah but surprisingly, for almost 3,000 years of Jewish history until about 300 years ago, Matzahs looked very different from the flat Matzah cracker that we know so well.
What was the original Matzah like? Why did it change after 3,000 years? How did Matzah become a flat cracker?
Aliya - Going to the Land of Israel
Over 3,000 years ago our ancestors led by Joshua entered the Land of Israel and settled it. Years later, they were expelled from the land and forced to live in the diaspora. Yet Jews continuously returned to the Land of Israel from the four corners of the earth visiting the Holy Places and attempting to settle the land.
A fascinating discussion about the 2,500 year Jewish Aliya - travel to and settling the Land of Israel
The Jews of Persia
Jews have lived in Persia (Iran) for more than 2500 years and played a central role in its long history including the story of Purim that took place there. While most Jews have left Iran in recent decades, thousands of Jews continue to live there today.
The Role of Music in Judaism
From the earliest times, music played a central role in Judaism. It was used extensively in the Holy Temple and later in Synagogue liturgy and at important lifecycle and community events.
A discussion about the role of music in Judaism and why traditional synagogues today generally do not employ musical instruments.
What happened to the artifacts from the Holy Temple?
The Holy Temple in Jerusalem was once one of the wealthiest places in the world with special utensils and furniture made of gold along with stores of gold and other precious metals. What happened to the artifacts from the Holy Temple when it was destroyed? Where did they go? Can we find them today?
A fascinating discussion about what happened to the artifacts of the Holy Temple!
The Jewish View on Labor Unions
Labor and trade unions have been around from the earliest times. In recent history, they have become a central part of the modern industrial and commercial world but their roles and rules of organizing and bargaining rights have been fraught with debate and contention.
What does Jewish law and ethics say about unions and collective bargaining rights?
A discussion about Jewish ethic of labor unions, collective bargaining and strikes.
What is a Yeshiva?
Jews gathered in Yeshivas throughout our history to study the Torah. The Beis Medrash, the study hall, is the central location in every Yeshiva but also found in all Jewish communities throughout our history.
A fascinating discussion about how Yeshivas developed over our long history and what it is like to go to a Yeshiva today.
What is the Difference Between a Rabbi and a Rebbe?
A Rebbe is a unique Jewish leader distinct from a rabbi. What is a Rebbe? What is their role? What makes the Rebbe unique? Are there many Rebbes or is there just one Rebbe? How does one become a Rebbe?
A fascinating discussion about the meaning of a Rebbe
The Blessing on the Moon
Every month, we gather and say a blessing and prayers thanking G-d for the moon. The blessing is a very special moment with many unique and unusual prayers included.
Why do Jewish men wear a Kippa?
One of the hallmarks of the Jewish dress code is that men cover their heads, usually with a Kippah or Yarmulke. Why do Jewish men cover their heads? Why do we use a Kippah? Must it be worn all the time or just in the synagogue? Why don't women wear a Kippah too.
A fascinating discussion about the Kippah and Yarmulke.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
The Dead Sea Scrolls, possibly the greatest discovery in Jewish history, were largely preserved scrolls from the late Second Temples period (2000 years ago) that were discovered near the Dead Sea about 80 years ago.
The Dead Sea scrolls describe the lives of the people who wrote them and lived with them as well as a number of parts of the Tanach (Jewish Scriptures)
The Story of Translating the Torah
For the first 1,000 years of Judaism, the Torah was only available in Hebrew. However, in the thousands of years since, the Torah was translated into Greek, Aramaic, Latin and eventually hundreds of other languages.
Some translations were done by Jews, many were done by non-Jews. Some translations were accurate while others corrupted the text. Some translations were seen by Jews as a major accomplishment while others were seen as a tragedy.
A fascinating discussion about the long and complex history of translating the Torah.
The Mystery of the Star of David
The Star of David is widely recognized as the symbol of Judaism and the Jewish people. Where did the Star of David come from? What is its significance? When did it become a Jewish symbol? Does it hold mystical powers?
A fascinating discussion about the mystery of the Star of David!
The Clash Between the Jews and the Greeks
Two of the greatest ancient civilizations were the Jews and the Greeks. After the Greek conquest of the Persian Empire, Jews and Greeks lived together all around the Middle East and beyond.
The two great civilizations with their respective beliefs, traditions and wisdom influenced each other greatly but also clashed. The most notable clash was the banning of Judaism in the Seleucid Greek Kingdom around 200 BCE that led to the rebellion led by the Maccabees.
A fascinating discussion about the great clash between the ancient Jewish and Greek civilizations.
The Battle of the Two Souls
One of the most important books of Jewish mysticism is called the Tanya. The primary theme of the Tanya is that every person has two souls inside them that battle each other constantly.
A fascinating discussion about the Tanya's teachings of the battle of the two souls inside every person.
The Historical Riddle of the Missing 150 years
One of the greatest riddles in history is the strange contradiction between Jewish and Greek sources over the length of the Persian Empire. While Jewish biblical and rabbinic sources speak of a short empire that lasted about 50 years, Greek sources put the Persian Empire as lasting over 200 years.
This riddle has troubled historians for hundreds of years with various theories put forth to resolve it but still remains largely unresolved today.
The 12 Tribes
The Jewish people in ancient times were split into 12 tribes descending from the 12 sons of Jacob. Each tribe has unique features and roles in Jewish history.
A discussion about the 12 tribes, their histories, uniqueness and if we can know which of the tribes we come from today.
No Jew Will be Left Behind
When the majority of Jews in the world were mostly assimilated by the mid 20th century, many observant Jews worked to build their own enclaves where they could build traditional observant Jewish communities.
The Rebbe who led the Chabad movement, took a different approach. He encouraged his followers to build communities for unaffiliated Jews and slowly bring each of them back to their Jewish heritage.
The fascinating story of how the Rebbe refused to give up on a single Jew leading to him sending thousands of emissaries to reach each and every Jew.
Understanding the Daily Prayers
Jews pray three times each day with additional prayer for special occasions. Some of the prayers are quite long and can be confusing to follow.
An overview of the structure of our daily prayers and how they work.
Did G-d want Abraham to sacrifice his son?
One of the most challenging stories in the Torah is the Akeida when G-d commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.
This story raises some strong ethical questions. How could G-d ask for human sacrifice? How can Abraham agree to do it without questioning?
A fascinating discussion of the story of the Akeida and the ethical lessons we learn from it.
The Covenant with Abraham
The story of our people began when G-d made a covenant with Abraham telling him that his descendants will be slaves but with then leave with great wealth. He promised to give his descendants the Land of Canaan. This covenant is known as the Brit Bein Habetarim - Covenant Between the Pieces.
A fascinating discussion about the original covenant between Abraham and G-d.
How did people in the Torah live so long?
The Torah gives us ages for many Biblical figures. In the first few chapters, people live over 900 years. For the rest of the Torah it's common for people to live well over 100 years.
Are those ages really true? Could people really live that long? If they did, what changed? Why do we not live as long today?
Circling the Bima
Every day of sukkot we march around the Bima (podium) in the center of the synagogue with our Lulav. On Simchat Torah, we dance around the Bima with the Torah scrolls. What is the significance of circling the Bima and why do we circle the Bima on Sukkot and Simchat Torah.
Join us this Sunday for a delicious breakfast in the JCC Sukkah and a fascinating discussion about the customs of circling the Bima on Sukkot and Simchat Torah
Hakhel - The Year of Gathering
In ancient Israel, every seven years, the entire nation of Israel would gather in the Temple where the Torah was read by the king or leader in an event called Hakhel - gathering. Today, with the Temple no longer standing, the original event no longer takes place, yet we gather together to recommit together to the Torah.
A class about this ancient event and how it is still relevant today.
What is the Significance of the Yizkor Memorial Prayer?
One of the most notable prayers on Yom Kippur is the Yizkor Memorial Prayer where we mention the names of our parents and relatives who have died. Why is the Yizkor prayer so important? What does it signify?
A fascinating class about the origins, meaning and impact of the Yizkor Memorial Prayer.
Pruzbul - The Legal Loophole for Loans
The Torah commands us that every seven years at the end of the Shemitah (Sabbatical) year, all loans must be absolved and the creditor is forbidden from collecting those loans.
More than a thousand years later, the sage Hillel found a legal loophole called Pruzbul to allow creditors to collect their loan after the Shemitah year had passed.
What is the Pruzbul and how does it work? What is the point of a commandment if we have a loophole to get around it? Is G-d happy when we find loopholes to avoid his commandments? Even if it's legal, is it in the spirit of the Torah?
A class about the 'Absolving of Loans' and the Pruzbul loophole.