Kabbalah

Kabbalah is mystical teachings of Judaism. Followers of Kabbalah believe it is absolutely necessary to study Kabbalah as it is an inextricable part of being an observant Jew. Rabbis today are divided as to whether Kabbalah should be accessible to the simple person on the street. Here are a number of sources that actually emphasize the need to study Kabbalah.
•    The Zohar is the foundational work of Kabbalah. It is written there that in the merit of studying the Zohar, the Jewish people will merit to be redeemed from the present exile in a merciful manner (Parshat Naso, 124b).
•    The Arizal was a Rabbi and mystic who lived in Tzfat in the sixteenth century. His school of thought in Kabbalah is known as Lurianic Kabbalah (after his name which was Isaac Luria).The Arizal was adamant that along with a Jewish person’s obligation to learn the Bible in both written and oral form, one is also obligated to learn the mystical side of the Torah. He claimed that nothing brings greater pleasure to G-d then seeing His children engage in the study of the secrets of the Torah, through which they get to know His beauty, awesomeness and supremacy (Etz Chaim).

•    Rabbi Avraham Azulai authored Kabbalistic works and compared one who doesn’t learn Kabbalah to a beast because such a person’s performance of Mitzvot lack the reasoning behind them when performed without the Kabbalistic reasons behind them.
•    The Ramchal (whose actual name was Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto) was an outstanding Rabbi, Kabbalist and philosopher who wrote the book Mesillat Yesharim, an ethical treatise with mystical underpinnings that is studied world-wide until this very day. He claimed that the Jewish people who recite the Shema, which is the centerpiece of morning and evening prayers that proclaims the unity of G-d, without understanding the secret of the unification through Kabbalah are essentially calling out to G-d in vain.
•    The Vilna Gaon, or Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman Kramer, was a foremost leader of non-Hassidic Jewry in the eighteenth century and until this day. He wrote that those who are able to study the secrets of the Torah (Kabbalah), yet neglect to do so, will be judged harshly. Moreover, he claimed that the evil urge is powerless over those who are occupied in learning the secrets of the Torah.
•    The Baal Shem Tov, a Jewish mystical Rabbi who founded Hassidic Judaism explained that this generation, the one that is before the Final Redemption, have a special commandment to learn the hidden aspects of Torah and that the Final Redemption is dependent on such learning.

Hanukkah

Hanukkah

What is Hanukkah?
Hanukkah is an eight-day minor festival in the Jewish calendar. It begins on the twenty-fifth of the Jewish month of Kislev. The festival is a celebration of the victory of light over darkness, purity over impurity and spirituality over materialism.

Why is Hanukkah celebrated?
Over twenty centuries again, the Seleucids ruled the Land of Israel. The Seleucids sought to force the Jewish people to assimilate. A small group of Jewish people led the courageous fight against one of the largest, most powerful armies of the time, drove them out of the land, reclaimed and rededicated the Holy Temple. When the Jewish people wanted to light the seven-branched candelabra (known as the Menorah) in the rededicated Temple, they found, to their despair, that only a solitary jug of pure oil remained that hadn’t been contaminated by the Greeks. G-d performed a miracle and the oil lasted eight days, the amount of time needed to prepare new oil.

The Sages instituted Hanukkah so as to commemorate and publicize the miracles that occurred. Each night a Menorah is lit and each night one more candle is lit until all eight candles are lit by the eight night.

Are there any special prayers for Hanukkah?
On Hanukkah, the prayer called Hallel is added to prayers. Hallel is a collection of Psalms recited on festivals when Jewish people wish to offer special praise and thanks to G-d. Al Hanissim is also added to prayers.

Al Hanissim is a prayer that is only added on the festivals of Hanukkah and Purim. Al Hanissim begins the same way on both festivals and is then followed by a paragraph that is unique to that holiday that describes the events for which that day is celebrated. On Hanukkah, we praise and thank G-d for “delivering the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few…the wicked into the hands of the righteous.”

Are there special Hanukkah customs?
There is a custom to eat foods fried in oil, such as potato pancakes that are commonly called latkes by Jewish people of Ashkenazi descent and levivot in Modern Hebrew and doughnuts that are called ponchkes in Yiddish or sufganiyot in Modern Hebrew. This is to remember the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days.

Another custom is to play with a spinning top called a Dreidel in Yiddish and Suh-vee-von in Modern Hebrew which has four sides, with each side bearing a Hebrew letter- Nun, Gimmel, Hey and Shin (or Pey in place of Shin in Israel). These letters make up an acronym for the Hebrew phrase Nes Gadol Hayah Sham – meaning- a great miracle happened there (in Israel Nes Gadol Hayah Poh- a great miracle happened here).

There is also a custom to give children gifts of money- called gelt in Yiddish- on Hanukkah. Legend has it that as a way of celebrating their victory over the Seleucids, the Jewish people minted national coins and therefore the custom of giving gifts of money on Hanukkah evolved.

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