Passover, Part 1

Begins at sunset on April 18, 2011

Tonight Jews around the world celebrate Passover. The origin and the name of Passover goes back to the Egyptian days, when the Jews were slaves in Egypt.

According to the second book of the Torah, Exodus, God unleashed ten plagues upon Pharaoh and his people in an attempt to convince Pharaoh to emancipate the Hebrews. Or as the late great Charlton Heston said, to “let my people go.”

The last and deadliest of the ten plagues was the killing of the first-born male in every household. In the book of Exodus, God commands Moses to tell Jewish families to put the blood of a sheep over their doors, so that God would know to “pass over” the house, hence the name Passover.

The first nine plagues were:

1. Turning of the River Nile to blood:

“…and all the water was changed into blood. The fish in the Nile died, and the river smelled so bad that the Egyptians could not drink its water.”

Amazing as that sounds, Pharaoh was not impressed. His sorcerers/magicians could also duplicate the feat of turning water into blood. Apparently this was the three-card shuffle of ancient Egypt.

Scientists have put forth numerous theories to explain the seemingly supernatural forces of the plagues. One theory is that a then-active Ethiopian volcano poured sulfurous lava into the Nile, upstream from Egypt.

Another theory is that of the ‘Red Tide. Red tide is a common occurrence brought on by algae in salt water or in stagnant water, but rarely in free-flowing fresh rivers like the Nile.

Both theories would explain how toxic elements in the Nile altered the color of the water and killed the fish. The extermination of millions of fish that piled up on the banks of the river would have created the awful stench from the water and would have set off a domino effect that could account for several of the following plagues:

2. Frogs

God, a devout fan of P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia, smited Egypt with the plague of frogs:

“…and the river shall bring forth frogs abundantly, which shall go and come into thine house, and into thy bedchamber, and upon thy bed…”

Amphibians would have left the toxic polluted waters in vast numbers to take shelter on land, where they would die of dehydration.

3. An infestation of “Kinim”

Kinim is translated as Gnats, Lice, Fleas, or Mosquitos.

The dead fish and amphibians would have caused Insect populations to explode, accounting for how the “dust throughout the land of Egypt became “kimin.”

4. Swarms of Flies

The Hebrew word arov literally means “swarms,” though it doesn’t say swarms of what. It’s generally believed to be flies or mosquitos, though also translated as wild animals, rodents, or vermin. Any of these would have been present following the fish and frog catastrophe set off by a toxic Nile.

5. Disease upon the livestock and other animals.

Swarms of vermin, rodents, and mosquitos would increase the pestilence level, diseases which may have struck the livestock first. The King James Bible mentions horses, donkeys, camels, oxen, sheep and cattle.

6. Skin disease among people, commonly thought to be boils.

And then pestilence would have infected the people, taking the physical manifestations of painful boils.

Rabbinical scholars often looked at the first nine plagues as a trilogy of trilogies, much like George Lucas’s original plan for the 9-part Star Wars…

Continued in Passover, Part 2

Tu B’Shevat – New Year for Trees

February 7-8, 2012
January 25-26, 2013
15th day of the month Shevat

The evolution of this holiday is a bit unusual. In ancient times Tu B’Shevat wasn’t really a “holy day” at all, but more of a tax day. Fruit-bearing trees were taxed differently depending on their age. And fruit could not be taken until after the tree’s third year. The fifteenth day of the month of Shevat was chosen as the “birthday” for all trees in the land of Israel, regardless of when they were planted.

Lone Pine, Monterey
Lone Pine, Monterey, California

Today it is celebrated as more of an Arbor Day for the Jewish people.

The is no one way to celebrate Tu B’Shevat.

In Italy Rabbi Barbara Aiello and her congregation bring green plants to the residents of a local retirement home, to bright up the rooms.
In Modiin, Israel a kindergarten class plants trees.

Many Jewish families around globe have a special “sedar” or meal on Tu B’Shevat. Four types–or colors really–of wine are consumed during the sedar, as well as different types of fruit.

In the Kabbalah tradition the fruits symbolize different levels of the world:

  • 1. assiyah, the level of “action,” is symbolized by fruits with an inedible shell, such as nuts. The inside represents holiness, protected by the outer shell.
  • 2. yezirah, the level of “formation.” This level is represented by fruits with edible outsides and pits on the inside.
  • 3. beriah, the level of “creation,” is symbolized totally edible fruits, such as apples, grapes, figs, and raspberries.
  • 4. atzilut, the purest level is known as “emanation,” and is not symbolized by fruit or anything for that matter, as it cannot be represented by anything concrete.

In modern times Tu B’Shevat has been adopted by the environmental movement, and a sort of Earth Day culture has developed around it. The modern tradition of planting trees goes back to 1884 when settlers in Galilee planted 1500 trees. Today it is common for schoolchildren in Israel to do the same.
Another reason Judaica may have latched onto the holiday tighter in diaspora than originally in Israel, was the representation of the tree and tree’s roots as symbols for the roots of the Jewish people back in the Holy Land, and fruit symbolic of the Jewish family and future yet to be realized. The theme of genealogy and family grew to be of fundamental importance during the eras of exile. Tu B’Shevat’s imagery of trees and land tapped into the scattered people’s longing for a faraway homeland.

The blessing for the fruit is:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Elohaynu Melech Haolam, borei pri ha’eitz.

“Blessed are You Adonai, our God, ruler of the universe, who brings forth the fruit of the tree.”

Tu B’Shevat begins, as all Jewish holidays, at sun-down and continues the next day.

10th of Tevet – the Siege of Jerusalem

January 5, 2012

December 17, 2010

Wailing Wall, Jerusalem, early 20th century

The Big Guy of the three consecutive Jewish holy days is the last, the Tenth of Tevet. It is a day of fasting.

The Tenth of Tevet marks the first day of the siege of Jerusalem in 589 BC by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar (630-562 BC). The city would fall thirty months later in 587. It was actually the third time in as many decades that Jerusalem had faced the Babylonians.

The first was in 606 BC by King Nabopolassar; the second around 597 BC by his son, the new king, Nebuchadnezzar, and finally eight years later by Nebuchadnezzar again. This time Nebuchadnezzar was feeling less charitable toward the city’s residents. After the city’s walls were breached, Solomon’s Temple was destroyed, Jerusalem was razed to the ground, and its remaining inhabitants were exiled.

This date is among the most tragic in all of Jewish history and yet, as Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair points out, “on the tenth of Tevet itself, ostensibly, nothing really tragic happened. No wall was breached. No one died. Not a shot was fired. Only the siege was begun.” However the day marked the beginning of the end. The diaspora that would define the shape of Judaism for millennia.

The 10th of Tevet has also been chosen by some as a symbolic anniversary date of the millions who died in the Holocaust, whose dates of death may not be known.

In March of 2003, as the U.S. prepared for war, stories circulated about Saddam Hussein comparing himself to the ancient biblical king Nebuchadnezzar. And an evangelical minister stated in his sermon that Nebuchadnezzar was one of “the world’s greatest terrorists, maybe even higher than Bin Laden or Hitler…” Yet in Iraq he is considered a national hero. How is this dichotomy possible?

Nebuchadnezzar’s reign lasted 45 years, during which time Babylonia was at the peak of its power. He wrested his father’s territory from the Assyrians, halted Egyptian dominance, and defended the empire from Persian invaders. Under his rule Babylon grew to be the largest and most glorified city in the world with a defensive wall that stretched 56 miles. The metropolis boasted hundreds of towers, including the massive ziggurat we know as the “Tower of Babel” and the Great Temple of Marduk which held a 25 ton golden statue of Baal. His most innovative creation may have been the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Gardens were irrigated by a series of hydraulic pumps. According to legend the Gardens were built to cheer up Amytis, Nebuchadnezzar’s wife, who was homesick for her native land of Midea.

It would be like a single President ruling America from FDR through the Reagan years, taking the country from depression to superpower and defeating both Germany and the USSR in the process–not to mention overthrowing a few Central American republics along the way. So it is not difficult to see how he could be regarded as a national hero to one people, even though he brought about the near annihilation of his enemies.

The strange truth is, though Baghdad sits near what was once Babylon, the ancient civilization bears little resemblance to Iraq. To the Judeans Babylonia symbolized the boundless superpower. An ostentatious empire governed by decadence, arrogance and amorality.

Its leader was the son of the former leader Nabopolassar. Both father and son waged large military campaigns in the Middle East. And during their reign Babylonia won out over its enemies as the world’s single superpower.

So how can two societies with such conflicting memories of the same events ever find a common ground?

The answer may come in the shape of a figure who arrived on the scene an estimated 1500 years before Nebuchadnezzar: Abraham. Abraham (Ibrahim in Islam) is the father from which all three religions derive. He is the first monotheist. But his story is for another day…

Mother of All Sermons

Tenth of Tevet


December 20, 2011
December 8, 2012
November 27, 2013

Hanukkah, or “Chanukkah” as those in the know call it, is one of the most misunderstood Jewish holidays. In fact, we don’t even know what “Hanukkah” means. Many believe it means “dedication”; others say it’s an acronym for “They rested on the 25th”. (Hanukkah starts on the 25th of Kislev.)

Hanukkah is a minor holiday in Judaism–in theory if not in practice–and isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Hebrew Bible.

That’s not to say Talmudic scholars haven’t argued about Hanukkah’s customs for ages (Whether, for example, celebrants should light one extra candle per night, or light eight on the first night and take one away each night). But the absence of holiday regulations in the Jewish Scriptures may have contributed to Hanukkah’s ability to adapt to various cultures of the Jewish diaspora.

Hanukkah History

After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, the land around Jerusalem came under the power of the Seleucid Empire.

By the 2nd century BC, the Jews of and around Jerusalem were in the midst an identity crisis: whether to maintain their own religious traditions or to assimilate into Hellenistic culture. Many Jews in the cities were willing to adopt Greek ways. According to 1 Maccabees:

In those days there appeared in Israel men who were breakers of the law, and they seduced many people, saying “Let us go and make an alliance with the Gentiles all around us…Thereupon they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem according to the Gentile custom. They covered over the mark of their circumcision and abandoned the holy covenant…

Now back then the gym wasn’t Bally’s. It was the center of Greek social life, where men discussed topics of the day in the nude, a practice which went against Jewish law, and a place where Jewish men could not easily hide the 8th-day snip.

The Seleucid Emperor Antiochus set forth increasingly harsher restrictions on Jewish rituals, including the killing of newly-circumsized babies. He replaced the Jewish High Priest with his own puppet priest, turned Jewish temples into pagan ones, and eventually forbade the practice of Judaism altogether.

One religious leader known as Mattathias refused to make a sacrifice to a pagan god in the temple. When a Hellenized Jew attempted to make the sacrifice in his name, Mattathias killed the Jew as well as one of the king’s messengers. Mattathias then fled to the countryside with his 5 sons, and recruited traditionalist Jews to join his cause.

After Mattathias’ death, his son Judas “the Hammer” Maccabee (Maccabee means hammer) led a revolt against the Greek establishment. According to 1 Maccabees, despite being greatly outnumbered, Maccabee’s rag-tag crew defeated the opposing forces and re-consecrated the temple.

What’s up with the candles?

The miracle of the “Festival of Lights” was that the Jews only had enough oil to keep the temple’s sacred flame alight for one night. However, the flame stayed alight for eight days. For this reason, Jews continue to light an eight-candle “menorah” every year. The great Jewish philosopher Hillel won out on the menorah debate: Jews light one candle on the first night, and one more candle every night thereafter.

[One Jewish-Persian custom is to light eight candles the first night of Hanukah and eight more candles each additional night for a total of 64 on the eighth night, although we suspect this tradition was started by the Jewish-Persian candle-makers union.]

Hanukkah Ironica

Hanukkah originally represented a victory of Jewish culture over assimilation into Greek culture. However, much of the importance that Hanukkah has today is the direct result of assimilation.

The observance of Chanukkah grew in importance during the 19th and 20th centuries in predominantly Christian nations such as the United States, as Jewish culture sought to adapt to the growing influence of of Christmas. Modern Hanukkah traditions such as gift-giving are borrowed straight from Christmas, which is of course celebrated around the same time of year, and which owes many of its own traditions to solstice festivals of the Greco-Romans. So in a sense, over 2000 years later, Greek influence is still going strong.

Ilse, the spiritually-confused Maltese

Hanukkah is a modern example of how holidays continuously change by synthesizing attributes of merging cultures. It’s the type of transition that took place countless times in ancient and medieval history, though detailed records of such transitions have all too often been lost to time or intentionally obscured.


15th of Tishri (October 12-19, 2011)

In the month of Tishri, Jewish holidays go from one extreme to the other. The month begins with the spirited Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) to Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), the most solemn fasting day in the Hebrew calendar. But on the 15th of the Tishri, celebrants are encouraged to eat, drink and be merry for Sukkot, the Feast of the Tabernacles.

Sukkah means ‘booth’ or ‘hut’. It refers to a temporary shelter like the kind the ancient Hebrews built during their 40 years wandering the desert. The festival of Sukkot lasts for seven days.

“Beginning with the fifteenth day of the seventh month, after you have gathered the crops of the land, celebrate the festival to the Lord for seven days…On the first day you are to take choice fruit from the trees, and palm fronds, leafy branches and poplars, and rejoice before the Lord your God…This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come…Live in booths for seven days…so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in booths when I brought them out of Egypt.”

Leviticus 23

There are all sorts of rules describing how to make one. For instance, you need to be able to see the stars from inside. We tried finding a Sukkah on Shopzilla, but all we got was this.

One of the main traditions of Sukkot is the waving of the ‘Four Species’; two branches (myrtle and willow), a palm frond, and an etrog (a type of lemon). The four elements of nature are bundled together and waved as shown here.

According to Judaism 101:

Many Americans, upon seeing a decorated sukkah for the first time, remark on how much the sukkah (and the holiday generally) reminds them of Thanksgiving. This may not be entirely coincidental…The pilgrims were deeply religious people. When they were trying to find a way to express their thanks for their survival and for the harvest, they looked to the Bible for an appropriate way of celebrating and found Sukkot.

Rosh Hashanah

September 29, 2011
September 17, 2012
September 5, 2013

Happy New Year!

It’s New Year’s in the Jewish calendar, but you won’t hear Jews counting down to midnight, or dropping a big sparkly ball from the Western Wall.

For one, the Jewish day—and thus all Jewish holidays—begin at sundown the night before. Second, Rosh Hashanah is not so much a time of celebration as a time of reflection and repentance.

Despite its name, “Head of the Year”, Rosh Hashanah actually marks the beginning of the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar. The first month is known as Nisan, which falls in the spring.

The Hebrew Calendar actually has four “New Year’s”:

1. In Winter, Tu B’Shevat is the New Year of Trees, originally the day farmers took inventory of trees for tax purposes.

2. In Spring, Jews welcome Nisan as the “first” month of the year, as God commanded Moses in the Jewish holy book, the Torah.

This month hall be considered by you as the First of the Months; it is the First for you of the months of the year.” — Exodus 12:2

3. In Summer, Rosh Chodesh Elul is the New Year of Animals, during which animals and property were counted.

4. Yet, it’s in the Fall that the big New Year is celebrated. According to Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah marks the sixth day after creation, the birthday of humanity. Thus, the beginning of the relationship between God and man.

Just as Tu B’Shevat and Rosh Chodesh Elul call for an inventory of property, Rosh Hashanah requires an inventory of the soul. Some scriptures say it’s during this time that God sits upon a throne with a book entailing the deeds of each human life. Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of a ten-day period of introspection, collectively known as the High Holy Days, which culminates with the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur.

During this time, practicing Jews attend special services at their local synagogue where Rosh Hashanah is marked with the blowing of a ram’s horn known as a shofar. Traditional Rosh Hashanah foods include apples and honey, previously collected this season, to symbolize sweetness in the coming year.

This year Rosh Hashanah marks the first day of the year 5771 in the Jewish calendar.

Tisha B’Av

9th of Av (August 8-9, 2011; July 28-29, 2012)

One of the most tragic dates in the Hebrew calendar, the ninth day of the month of Av commemorates not just one but several tragedies that befell the Jewish people on that date, from the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BC to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.

According to the Bible, the First Temple was built by King David’s son and heir Solomon in the 10th century BC, with materials and assistance from King Hiram I of Tyre and under the direction of Tyrian and Phoenician master-builders.

Model of Solomons Temple
Model of Solomon's Temple

It was said to house the Ark of the Covenant, which was moved from the tent in which King David had deposited it. The Temple stood for six centuries.

The siege of Jerusalem in 589 BC ended with the razing of the Temple three years later.

The building of the First Temple has been studied by religious leaders and Freemasons alike (Solomon’s Temple is considered the symbolic foundation of Freemasonry). However, few remains of this era have been excavated from the site on which it once stood*. This may be partly because construction on the Second Temple began only 50 years after the fall of the first one, and partly because excavation on the Temple Mount is forbidden: In addition to being sacred to Judaism, the Temple Mount is the location of the Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, two of the holiest sites in Islam, where Muhammad ascended to heaven (Isra wal Miraj) and where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son to God (Eid al-Adha).

The building of Second Temple was sanctioned by the Persian King Cyrus the Great and completed under Darius I in 516 BC. This temple stood for five centuries and was completely rebuilt around 16 BC by King Herod.

In 67 AD Judea rebelled against Roman occupation. Roman general (and future Emperor) Titus laid siege to Jerusalem. The siege culminated with the complete sack of the capital, the expulsion of the Jews, and the final destruction of the temple–again on Tisha B’Av (the ninth of Av) in 70 AD.

Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans - David Roberts
"The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70"- David Roberts, 1850

Tisha B’Av begins tonight at sunset and continues until nightfall tomorrow.

Freemasons and the Temple of the Solomon

Temple Mount Excavation Conflict

Crystalinks – Solomon’s Temple

*An October 2007 construction project unearthed remains believed to date from King Solomon’s Temple.

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Passover, Part 2

Where we last left off, six plagues had devastated Egypt, dealing mainly with water, animals, and disease.

The third of the three plague trilogies moves to the meteorological arena and has its most damaging effects on agriculture:

#7: Hailstorm of fire.

Described as fiery hail in the Bible, it’s also interpreted to mean lightning and hail. This hailstorm which was said to be so violent it would kill any person or animal left outdoors. The Bible makes an unusual parenthetical here (such as this one) to explain how the early crops of flax and barley were destroyed while the wheat and spelt, which were still in the ground, were unaffected.

#8: Locusts.

To the modern urbanite this sounds to be a plague of inconvenience. Who wants to scrub dead grasshoppers off your windshield every time you get gas? But to an agrarian society whose water, fish, livestock, and half their crops depleted, this was the kiss of death. To give you an idea of the damage locusts can do, a swarm of locusts in Ethiopia in 1958 cost the country 167,000 tons of grain—enough to feed a million people for a year. (The Desert Locust in Africa and Western Asia)

#9: 3 Days of Darkness.

In modern times, explosions from crashing meteors such as Tunguska 1908, and volcanic eruptions such as Tambora 1815, sent out ash particles that covered the earth’s atmosphere for months. (1815 was called the Year Without Summer.) Exodus doesn’t give much to go on, other than the strange weather pattern of the previous two plagues.

All this said there really is no explanation for the deadliest of the plagues, number 10 in which

…I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment. — God, Exodus 12

No known plague or disease makes any distinction as to birth order.

One theory is that the “first-borns” that were killed originally referred to the first-born crops, not the people. And that may make sense if, for nothing else, the events in the story of Exodus are not mentioned in any ancient Egyptian text of the supposed time. You would think a massive slave revolt and exodus, unprecedented horrors, plagues, and the killing of the first-born in every house would have at least garnered a footnote on a papyrus scroll. But nope.

The real miracle of Passover may be that it is one of the oldest continuously observed holidays ever. On Passover Jews gather around the table, and the youngest asks the elders “Why is this night different from all other nights.” The story of the Exodus is retold, and Jews continue to follow the instructions laid down in Exodus.

And this day shall be unto you for a memorial, and you shall keep it a feast to the Lord throughout your generations…Seven days shall you eat unleavened bread…

Jews eat matzoh during Passover in memory of their ancestors who left Egypt without time to bake their bread, which hardened in the hot sun on their backs.

Though Abraham the monotheist is considered the father of the Judeo-Christian religions, long before Moses walked the earth, the moment the Hebrews left Egypt is considered to be the beginning of codified Judaism as it is recognized today. (Note: It was a Passover meal that Jesus and the disciples observed over a thousand years later during the Last Supper.)

After escaping Egypt and crossing the Red Sea, the Jews spent 40 years roaming the desert for their homeland. Proof that even then Judaism, like Christianity and Islam, was a patriarchal society.

No one asked directions.