Hamsa

What is a Hamsa?
Hamsa is a hand-shaped charm. It commonly has three extended fingers in the middle and two shorter fingers on either side. It is well-recognized in the Middle East and North Africa. It is a shape often incorporated into jewelry and wall-hangings. It is believed to ward off the evil eye.

What is the source of the name Hamsa?
Hamsa is the Arabic word for five, in reference to the five fingers. The word Hamsa is closely related to the Hebrew word for five, Hamesh. Some Jewish people believe that the five represents the five books of the Pentateuch.

Alternative names for Hamsa are the hand of Fatima, in reference to Fatima the daughter of the prophet Mohammed and the hand of Miriam, referring to the sister of Moses.

Why is the Hamsa also called the hand of Fatima?
The story is told that Fatima, the daughter of Mohammed was stirring a pot when her husband entered with a new wife (Muslim men are allowed to marry up to four women). Fatima was overcome with sorrow and as a result did not notice that the ladle she had been using to stir the soup had slipped from her hand and she was using her own hand. Due to her intense grief she didn’t notice the pain. Ever since then Fatima’s hand has become a symbol for patience and faith.

What is the origin of the Hamsa?
Hands are a universal symbol of protection. Evidence of such can be seen in Mesopotamian artifacts, in teachings of Buddha and Christianity. Some claim that the Hamsa is connected to an ancient Egyptian two-fingered amulet that represented the protection of parents over a child.

The Hamsa is very strong in the Islamic world, believed to ward of the evil eye. It seemed to have made its way into Jewish culture via the Jewish communities who lived in Islamic countries.

Why is the Hamsa a popular item?
Due to the belief that it wards off the evil eye, the Hamsa made it into main-stream Israeli culture. Hamsa shapes are often hung from walls and worn on necklaces or bracelets. Judaism has its own signs of protection which are much more solidly based in valid Jewish sources such as the Mezuzah so the adoption of the Hamsa is somewhat strange. Having said that, the beautiful shape of the charm and the common incorporation of fish, a Jewish sign for good luck, in Hamsa-shaped pendants have made these items increasingly popular.

Bar Mitzvah Gifts

What is a Bar Mitzvah?
“Bar Mitzvah” translates to mean “son of the commandment” and is used to describe a Jewish boy that reaches the age of thirteen. In Judaism, the age of thirteen for males is a milestone at which the young person becomes responsible for keeping the commandments of the Torah.

Bar Mitzvah is also used to describe the event that many of these boys will hold to celebrate their “coming of age” even thought strictly speaking it refers to their status. Even if a boy does not have a special ceremony or event to celebrate their coming of age, he will still automatically become Bar Mitzvah.

What is the mystical reasoning behind the Bar Mitzvah status?
According to Kabbalah, just as thirteen is an age at which boys often begin to change physically, their souls are also changing and it is believed that a person’s spiritual being has several levels of soul and at the time of Bar Mitzvah a new level of soul is awakened leading to moral awareness and sensitivity which enables the taking of responsibility for one’s actions.

Furthermore, there is a well-known rule in the Talmud that a commandment performed by one who is commanded to uphold it is considered greater than the commandment performed by one who isn’t obligated to do so. This is because when told to do things people have a natural aversion to do so. To overcome this aversion shows maturity and this is what the Bar Mitzvah celebrates- the stage of obligation.

Calling up to the Torah
On the Sabbath of his thirteenth birthday, the young man celebrating his Bar Mitzvah is called up to the Torah and in most synagogues it is customary to pelt the young man with candies. It is customary for the father of the young man who has reached Bar Mitzvah age to recite a blessing symbolizing the fact that from here on his son takes responsibilities for his own actions.

The Bar Mitzvah will then read a portion from the Biblical prophets and after services a small buffet is often held that begins with a blessing over the wine.

The Reception
It is popular to hold a reception in celebration of the Bar Mitzvah, ideally on the day the boy turns Bar Mitzvah. Often the Bar Mitzvah boy will give a short speech that is related to Torah thoughts. It is preferable that the celebration not be ostentatious so as not to place the emphasis on the wrong things- the spiritual significance of the day comes first and foremost.

The Gift
It is the accepted practice to give a gift to the Bar Mitzvah boy. It is always advisable to check what is deemed acceptable in the community of the Bar Mitzvah boy regarding gifts. It is a nice idea to give something meaningful for this important milestone event; a beautiful charity box can be a lovely idea, a Jewish book that the Bar Mitzvah boy can enjoy, Tefillin that the Bar Mitzvah boy begins putting on can be an expensive but truly special gift, a Tallit in the case of Sephardi communities where the boy will also begin wearing one at Bar Mitzvah, etc.

The Hamsa in Jewish Religion

What is the Hamsa?
Hamsa is Arabic for five. Other names for Hamsa are the “hand of Fatima” or “hand of Miriam”. It is a charm that enjoys much popularity in the East and Africa. It can often be found adorning jewelry or walls of houses as it is believed that it defends those who wear it or own it from the evil eye.

What is the evil eye?
The evil eye is a concept that is found in many different cultures and refers to a look that has the power to cause misfortune to the person it is directed at. Often, it is believed that if people look at someone enviously this can cause bad luck for that someone. Also, if someone looks upon someone with dislike or hate this too can cause a bad eye for the person being disliked/hated.

What is the source of the Hamsa?
There is archaeological evidence that proves that the Hamsa predates the monotheistic religions. It can be found universally as a sign of protection in many different cultures and religions. There are different theories that relate the Hamsa to ancient deities.

How Did the Hamsa makes it’s way into the Jewish religion?
The Hamsa is a symbol that is widely known in Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish communities. The reason these communities adopted the Hamsa is believed to be related to the fact that they lived in the Islamic world and were influenced by their neighbors in the same way that Christians living in such countries were too.

What different forms of Hamsa exist?
There are countless designs of Hamsa on the market today, ranging from the traditional to the more modern designs in which the original hand shape can barely be identified. There are also many, many Hamsas that contain eye symbols and this is surely related to the idea of warning off the evil eye.

How has the use of the Hamsa changed in the history of the State of Israel?
When the State of Israel was established the use of the Hamsa was looked down upon as it was associated with “backwardness” by the dominant Western Ashkenazic stream. In recent years there has been a renewed awakening of interest in roots for Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews, leading to a pride in folklore and customs associated with them. Therefore, the Hamsa has once again become fashionable and is a symbol that has been adopted by all kinds of people in Israeli society. It can be seen often on jewelry, in homes, on greeting cards, on tiles etc.

Facts About The Shofar

What is a Shofar?
A Shofar is a horn of a Kosher animal (one that chews it’s cud and has split hooves). In ancient times it was used by the Jewish people to announce the beginning of the new Hebrew month. It was also used to call the people to war, to gather them together and to signal a sacrifice and to announce the Jubilee year. Nowadays, it is used most commonly on the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah during prayers.

Why is the Shofar blown specifically on Rosh Hashanah?
Rav Saadia Gaon, a renowned sage from the tenth century compiled a list of ten reasons for blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah:

  • Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world in Judaism, the day the Jewish people accept G-d as the Ruler of the world. In the same way that trumpets are blown at coronations, the Jewish people blow Shofarot to “re-coronate” G-d.
  • The Shofar is traditionally a ram’s horn. This reminds the Jewish people of the binding of Isaac and the way G-d had compassion on Abraham. We strive, through hearing the Shofar, to attain the level of faith in G-d that Abraham had.
  • The Shofar sounds like a cry, reminding us that we are still in exile without the Temple and inspiring us to pray for the ultimate redemption.
  • The Shofar sounds like someone crying out. In the same way that the prophets of old would cry out and tell us to return from our bad ways, we should remember to act in the name of justice and mercy, in the ways of G-d, as the prophets advised us to.
  • The Shofar was blown at Mount Sinai when we first received the Torah. We remember to study and cherish the treasure we have been given.
  • The call of the Shofar is meant to arouse us to return from our misguided ways and to repent before Yom Kippur, the ultimate Day of Judgment. Rosh Hashanah is the first of a ten-day-count-down to Yom Kippur.
  • We are meant to be humbled by the Shofar’s powerful cry and then to remember the mightiness of G-d.
  • On the Final Day of Judgment a Shofar will be blown announcing G-d’s Oneness- it is blown now to remind us that we should be preparing for that day constantly.
  • The blowing of the Shofar foreshadows the times of true peace and freedom that will come upon us at the end of times with the arrival of the Messiah- we are reminded to have unwavering belief in G-d’s ability to redeem us at any given time.
  • At the time of the Messiah the call of the Shofar will proclaim redemption for the entire world when all people on earth will recognize G-d’s Oneness.

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.