3 Powerful Israeli Songs of Hope and Victory

From ancient times, through pre-state pioneering days, to statehood in 1948 and beyond, Israel has inspired Jewish lyricists and composers to retell its most stirring historical events in song. Here are the stories of only a handful of the most beautiful and best-known melodies:

Hatikvah

The Israeli national anthem’s name literally means “The Hope.” Much like the country itself, “Hatikvah” has a rich and multifaceted history. Not only is “Hatikvah” the official national song of Israel, it has also served for generations as an anthem for Jewish and Zionist communities worldwide.

The basic story of “Hatikvah” is a simple one. It expresses the yearning for a Jewish homeland that has lived in the hearts of Jews everywhere throughout centuries of persecution.

Naftali Herz Imber wrote a poem originally entitled “Tikvateinu” (“Our Hope”) at the time the first wave of European Jews began fleeing increased anti-Semitic persecution by immigrating to what was then known as Palestine. Imber, a native of Galicia who arrived in Israel in 1882, published the poem in his book Morning Star in 1886. The poem drew inspiration, in part, from the establishment of the town of Petach Tikvah by a group of Zionist pioneers. In 1897, the First Zionist Congress adopted the song as the musical emblem for the Zionist movement.

The background of the melody is less clear. Some sources trace it to Zionist farmer Leon Igli, said to have set Imber’s words to music as early as 1882. However, Igli’s version proved difficult to sing, and an 1888 setting by another musician incorporated the tune we know today. Ordinary people in pre-state Israel made “Hatikvah” popular, often assuming it was an old folk song.

Many listeners find the melody strikingly similar to Bedřich Smetana’s “The Moldau,” although musicologists do not believe there is a direct connection. Most scholars believe that both melodies likely drew on the rich repertoire of Moldavian and Romanian folk tunes for their structure. Musicologists today credit Samuel Cohen, originally from Moldova, with the now-universal 1888 version of the melody. Some also believe that Cohen’s and Smetana’s ultimate source was a 400-year-old Sephardic prayer.

Hava Nagila

Like many other contemporary Jewish and Israeli songs, “Hava Nagila” (“Let Us Rejoice”) began its journey to global popularity in the folk melodies of Eastern Europe. Music scholars believe its tune derives from a Hassidic nigun (a melody without words) of the region. The Hasidim from Sadigora in Bukovina, in present-day Ukraine, usually receive credit for its creation.

A group of Sadigorer Hassidim who immigrated to Palestine during the first wave of immigration brought the tune with them, but it was cantor and musicologist Avraham Zvi Idelsohn who introduced it to the world outside that tightly knit milieu. Idelsohn, a committed Zionist, collected numerous folk melodies from Jews of all backgrounds in Jerusalem. He went on to create arrangements of these songs, including “Hava Nagila,” which became widely popular throughout the fledgling nation of Israel.

In 1918, under the British Mandate, Idelsohn arranged the tune for a performance celebrating a British victory over the Turks. He added words from Psalm 118:24, which speaks of singing and rejoicing in the day God has created. This arrangement quickly became a staple of Zionist youth and patriotic groups all over the world.

In the generations since Idelsohn so successfully married words to melody, “Hava Nagila” has featured in most Jewish weddings, bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, and other joyous gatherings—usually to accompany lively communal dancing of the hora circle dance. It has been recorded by artists as diverse as the Barry Sisters, Neil Diamond, the Beatles, Lena Horne, and Harry Belafonte, who used it time after time as a moving close to his performances.

Jerusalem of Gold

This song (“Yerushalayim shel Zahav” in Hebrew) is perhaps the most beloved of all Israeli melodies. Naomi Shemer wrote both the words and the music in 1967 to be performed at the Israel Song Festival. A few months after the festival, the song was on the lips of every patriotic Israeli. In June that year, the Israeli army won the Six-Day War, and paratroopers liberated the Old City of Jerusalem from the Jordanians to reunify the city under Jewish control for the first time in two millennia. In the years since its composition, “Jerusalem of Gold” has shaped the emotional identities of countless young Israelis.

Shemer’s inspiration for “Jerusalem of Gold” came from her family’s familiarity with traditional Yiddish and Hassidic songs, as well as her own passionate love of the city. Among the mental images that caught her attention as she was writing it was the rabbinic legend of Rabbi Akiva, the renowned ancient scholar. The story has it that, after he married his beloved Rachel, her father disowned her, and the couple had to live in a hayloft. The young Akiva promised his bride that one day he would buy her a “Jerusalem of Gold,” a beautiful piece of jewelry.

From its status as the unofficial patriotic anthem celebrating victory in the Six-Day War to its place as a universally beloved hymn celebrating one of the world’s most beautiful cities, “Jerusalem of Gold” remains popular with Jews and non-Jews around the world.

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A Look at 5 Joyous Jewish Celebrations

Chanukah

Chanukah is not mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures, but that doesn’t stop the millions of Jews all over the world from enjoying it with potato latkes and other distinctive foods, dreidels, chocolate or real gelt (coins), candles, feasting, and song.

The non-canonical books of 1 and 2 Maccabees recount the history of Chanukah. In about 160 B.C.E., the Syrian Greeks ruled the conquered Land of Israel and tried to encourage the Jews to adopt the Hellenistic worldview. Many Jews did so, lured by the pagan philosophy and way of life. But others joined the Maccabees—Judah Maccabee and his brothers, sons of the priest Mattathias. After several years of war, the Maccabees and their allies succeeded in recovering the Jews’ holy Temple and rededicating it to the worship of the God of Israel. The word “Chanukah” means “dedication.”

candles, manorah

Tradition has it that, when the Jews rededicated the Temple, the oil they used burned not only for one day, but—miraculously—for eight. This is the reason Jews today celebrate the holiday for eight days. Until recently, Chanukah was considered a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar. After exposure to Western, particularly American, celebrations of Christmas, Jews began to celebrate the holiday as a major gift-giving event.

Today, Chanukah is celebrated on the 25th day of the Hebrew winter month of Kislev. There are special readings in the synagogue, and at home Jews celebrate by lighting the candles of the menorah and saying the special blessings that commemorate the Maccabees’ bravery and the freedom they won for the Jewish people.

Tu B’Shevat

This “New Year of the Trees” occurs on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, which falls in January or February of the Gregorian calendar. In many synagogues or religious schools, children plant trees or collect money to finance the planting of trees in Israel. Some communities and families hold Tu B’Shevat seders, similar to the Passover seder, but focused on ecology and stewardship of the earth. Such seders date all the way back to the Kabbalists of the 16th century, who used special music, readings, and foods to honor the earth and its bounty.

In ancient Israel, Tu B’Shevat was one of several “new years” on the Hebrew calendar, and it was originally the time when the Jewish people determined the age of trees for the purpose of tithing. Tu B’Shevat comes with few traditional customs, but these include tasting a new fruit, or enjoying one of the “seven species” that in ancient days grew abundantly in Israel.

Purim 

This often-raucous holiday falls on the 14th day of the spring month of Adar. Purim celebrates the delivery of the Jewish people living in ancient Persia from the genocidal plotting of the prime minister Haman, who has come to symbolize all anti-Semitic oppressors throughout history.

kosher bread

Jews are actually commanded to make merry on Purim, to feast, to enjoy parties, and even traditionally to become so drunk with wine that they cannot tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai, the hero of the Purim story. Today, Jewish children and many adults dress in costume for Purim, as on Halloween. In synagogues, congregants read the scroll of Esther, and each time Haman’s name appears, they rattle noisemakers called “graggers” to drown out the evil sound. Hamantaschen pastries, made with a variety of flavorings, are baked in the shape of Haman’s three-cornered hat.

The Book of Esther in the Bible recounts the Purim story through the central figure of Esther, who marries the Persian king in order to save her people. Her cousin, Mordechai, who had previously saved the king’s life, assists Esther in foiling Haman’s plans, and Haman himself ends up hanged on the gallows he had prepared for Mordechai.

Passover

This eight-day festival, celebrated from the 15th through the 22nd day of the Hebrew month of Nisan, is among the most culturally and historically significant on the Jewish calendar. It is also among those most frequently observed by families, with relatives and friends gathering around the seder table in homes, community centers, and synagogues to retell the story of the ancient Israelites’ liberation from Egyptian bondage.

The Book of Exodus tells the Passover story: When the Israelites suffered as slaves in Egypt, Moses arose as a leader among them. Moses demanded that Pharaoh let the people go, but the Egyptian ruler refused until the last of ten devastating plagues swept over the land. These plagues “passed over” the homes of the Jews, hence the English version of the name. Even after he allowed the Israelites to leave, Pharaoh had his warriors pursue the fleeing Israelites by chariot across the Red Sea (known biblically as the Sea of Reeds). After God parted the waters of the sea to allow the Israelites to pass through, the waves closed upon the heads of the Egyptians.

The theme of redemption from slavery has continued resonance in modern times, and many contemporary haggadot—collections of history, legend, and tradition used at the seder table—draw comparisons with the American Civil Rights movement and the oppression of people around the world today.

Shavuot

This early summer holiday, whose Hebrew name literally means “weeks,” is traditionally known as the day when God gave the Jewish people the tablets of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Shavuot marks the conclusion of the seven-week period after Passover.

Many rabbis teach that, spiritually speaking, all Jews who have ever lived were standing at Sinai to receive the teaching of the commandments. Shavuot is marked by intense Torah and text study, often taking place overnight in synagogues and among small study groups. Traditional readings include the Book of Ruth, which makes this pilgrimage festival of particular significance to people who have converted to Judaism. Dairy foods are the traditional foods of the holiday.

5 Significant Jewish Holidays – What Do They Mean?

Every fall, the Jewish year begins anew. Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of this cycle, Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, Sukkot is the fall harvest festival, and Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah conclude the cycle. The following is only a brief look at the rich and meaningful histories and traditions of these holy days:

 Rosh Hashanah

 Rosh Hashanah, literally the “Head of the Year,” is also known as the Jewish New Year. In ancient times, Jews celebrated four “new years:” Rosh Hashanah, on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei; Tu B’Shevat, or the “New Year of the Trees,” in the middle of the month of Shevat; the first day of Nisan, which coincides with the historical Exodus from Egypt celebrated at Passover; and the first day of the summer month of Elul, which marked the time of paying tithes for cattle.

Rosh HashanahRosh Hashanah begins the 10-day period known as the High Holidays, the High Holy Days, or the “Days of Awe,” which conclude with Yom Kippur. Observant Jews consider this season the holiest of the year. Orthodox and Conservative Jews observe Rosh Hashanah for two days; Reform Jews, and those living in Israel, typically only count the first day of Tishrei as the holiday.

Tradition says that Rosh Hashanah marks the anniversary of God’s creation of the world, and of Adam and Eve. Jews spend the day in synagogue, in prayer, study, and contemplation. The special High Holiday prayer book, or machzor, contains the traditional prayers for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and the service is marked by the cantor’s recitation of distinctive and deeply moving melodies specific to the season. Prayers include the hauntingly beautiful Avinu Malkeinu (“God, Our King”), and a number of liturgical poems, known as “piyyutim.”

On Rosh Hashanah, congregants gather to hear the sound of the shofar, the ram’s horn, whose tropes are designed to invite contemplation and repentance. At the conclusion of the Rosh Hashanah service, Jews typically go to a body of flowing water to recite the prayers of tashlich, in which they symbolically cast away their sins of the previous year.

The period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is the time to make amends with anyone whom one’s conduct over the previous year may have injured or offended. Referring to the fate of each individual, the Unetaneh Tokef prayer says, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed.”

Foods typically eaten on Rosh Hashanah include apples dipped in honey – a treat beloved by generations of Jewish children – and round (rather than the typically oblong) challah loaves.

Yom Kippur

The most solemn day in the entire Jewish calendar is traditionally marked by fasting from all food and drink, and abstention from specified activities associated with daily comforts and pleasures. Observant Jews spend all or most of the day in synagogue, deeply immersed in prayer. Most religious authorities say that on this day, a Jew is the closest he or she can be both to God and to his or her own best self. This Day of Atonement lasts from a few minutes before sundown on the ninth of Tishrei until after nightfall on the following evening.

The Yom Kippur evening service begins with the beautiful and deeply meaningful prayer called Kol Nidrei in the Aramaic language of the prayer book; it literally means “All Vows.” Many Jews find that the melody of this prayer alone can send shivers up and down the spine. Hundreds of years ago, Jews recited this prayer in order to absolve themselves of vows made under duress, often those made when they converted to another religion under threat of death. Today’s rabbis often focus on the prayer as a moment of opening oneself to ask for, and receive, God’s mercy.

dinner table

In preparation for Yom Kippur, observant Jews eat and drink abundantly, in order to sustain themselves throughout the fast. Because of the central Jewish value of preserving life, ill, elderly, and pregnant congregants are not required to fast. Children below bar mitzvah age also typically do not fast.

The conclusion of the Yom Kippur service is distinguished by the moving metaphor of the closing of the gates, “Neilah,” which literally means “locking.” At this time, the gates of heaven are said to be closing, with the souls of the repentant safe within them.

Sukkot

Sukkot takes place from the 15th to the 21st day of Tishrei, and commemorates the ancient Israelites’ dwelling in temporary booth-like shelters, or sukkahs, for the 40 years of desert wandering. God’s spirit protected these ancestors, so in commemoration, a Jewish family today may construct a hut in the backyard and have all their meals in it for the full week of the festival. The sukkah’s roof is thinly thatched with branches, so that those within can see the stars. Another tradition involves the ceremonial shaking of the lulav, a bundle consisting of the “four species:” an etrog, or citron; a palm frond, called the lulav; and branches of willow and myrtle.

Shemini Atzeret

Shemini Atzeret follows the conclusion of Sukkot, and itself concludes with Simchat Torah. Shemini Atzeret, which means “assembly of the eighth day [of Sukkot],” features a traditional prayer for rain to fall, to help the land of Israel bloom.

Simchat Torah

The name of this holiday means “rejoicing in the Torah,” and that is exactly how it is celebrated. Congregations complete their yearly cycle of Torah readings with the last portion in Deuteronomy, and begin again at Genesis. The entire congregation enjoys a parade (“hakafot”) around the synagogue to honor the Torah. The holiday is filled with dancing, singing, and often an unrolling of the entire Torah scroll, lovingly supported on the hands of the congregants.

A Survey of Seven Essential Jewish Books

yosefmeystel

Jews aren’t known as “The People of the Book” for nothing: From ancient times to the present, they have cherished the written word. The Jewish tradition has given the world works filled with profound wisdom, deep insights into human nature, broad comedy, high drama, and ethics centered on the concept of the One God who created human beings to be His partners in perfecting the universe. What follows is a brief look at seven ancient and modern books that have come to define the Jewish experience.

 

  1. The Tanakh – No survey of the most important and influential books in Jewish culture would be complete without the Hebrew Bible. Today’s Bible appears in numerous editions published by a wide variety of presses, usually annotated by leading scholars and rabbis representing the full range of denominational affiliations: Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and others. The traditional Bible incorporates the Five Books of Moses and sets out, among other religious doctrines, the Ten Commandments. These Five Books, also known as the Torah, give the TaNaKh the first letter of its acronym. The books of the Prophets (“Nevi’im” in Hebrew) and the books of Writings (“Ketuvim”) finish it.

The books in the Tanakh include the creation story of Genesis, the wisdom of King Solomon in Ecclesiastes, the histories contained in Chronicles and Kings, the sublime poetry of the Psalms, which are attributed to King David, and many more. For traditional Jews, the Bible is the word of God, interpreted later through the rabbis of the Talmud.

 

  1. The Talmud – The Talmud is known as the “Oral Law” and interprets the “Written Law” of the Torah as a necessary accompaniment. Traditionally, Jews have believed that the Torah was given directly by God to Moses, and that the Talmud was present at that same time, only awaiting the rabbis of the first few centuries of the Common Era to write it down.

Through the thoroughgoing translations, with copious scholarly notes, by ArtScroll publishers and by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, today’s readers can become familiar with the entire treasure house of Talmudic wisdom. Steinsaltz, one of the contemporary world’s most renowned and respected authorities, has also written a number of individual commentaries on the Talmud.

The text of the Talmud deals with every conceivable situation that could arise in Jewish life at the time it was written, including laws on ritual purity, ethical buying and selling, marriage and family life, kosher food, and the giving of charity. The Babylonian Talmud and the Palestinian Talmud, so designated because of the locations of their chief authors at the time, are variations on one another, although the Babylonian Talmud is the version typically studied and referenced today.

 

  1. The Lonely Man of Faith, by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik – Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, widely known simply as “the Rav,” was a leading 20th century Orthodox scholar whose life’s work included building bridges between the Orthodox community and others. In The Lonely Man of Faith, he gave the world a short but surpassingly eloquent treatment of the place of the thoughtful person of faith in today’s chaotic, materialistically oriented world. The work united its author’s thinking on Jewish sources with his interpretations of philosophers of the modern age.

 

  1. Jewish Literacy, by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin – In his 1991 book, Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know about the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin took up the challenge of providing a comprehensive yet concise education in Judaism to intelligent laypeople of all faiths. The book, a pleasure to read, study, or browse, contains information on religious terminology, famous Jews throughout history, anti-Semitism, Biblical concepts, and a host of other topics among its more than 350 thematically arranged entries.

 

  1. Night, by Elie Wiesel – Elie Wiesel, now nearing 90 years of age, has authored numerous books of fiction and non-fiction about the Holocaust. Night, his searing memoir of losing his family at Auschwitz while only in his teens, is among the most important books of our time to outline the horrors wrought by hatred, bigotry, and mankind’s basic inhumanity. The short book has become a classic, widely read and quoted in high school classes and beyond.

 

 

  1. The Sabbath, by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – Conservative Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was a leading figure in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the author of profound meditations on Jewish religion, history, and philosophy. In fewer than 200 pages, The Sabbath presents a deeply thoughtful look at the meaning of holiness in daily life. Heschel paints a moving portrait of the holiest day of the week as a “cathedral” situated not in space, but in time.

 

  1. As a Driven Leaf, by Milton Steinberg – Before his untimely death at age 46 in 1950, Rabbi Milton Steinberg published this now-classic historical novel of the early Talmudic sages, as well as the widely referenced non-fiction work Basic Judaism. As a Driven Leaf brings together some of the greatest personalities of the second century of the Common Era—Rabbis Akiva, Meir, and Elisha ben Abuyah, the central figure in the narrative. Elisha becomes an apostate and leaves his people to study the cultures of the Greeks and Romans, hoping to reconcile the faith of Judaism with the rationalism of the classical world. This problem continues to haunt men and women today, and has earned the novel a continued place among the most important books for Jewish and non-Jewish readers alike.

An Overview of Commandments Six through Ten

commandments-311202_1280Jewish and Christian versions of the Ten Commandments differ slightly, with the former consisting of 13 sentences and the latter containing four more. However, both are statements of the most basic Western moral laws. Many scholars categorize the first five commandments as those that deal with the relationship of human beings to God. In contrast, the last five commandments are often described as focusing on the relationships between people.

The Sixth Commandment

Exodus 20:13 commands human beings to avoid committing murder. Chassidic scholars often interpret the Sixth Commandment in context of its relationship to the First, which requires us to revere the one true God who delivered the ancient Israelites out of Egyptian bondage. This pairing of commandments directly opposite one another on the original tablets reminds us that the willful destruction of another human life is akin to violence against God Himself.

When one person murders another, he demonstrates that he believes that other person to be without significance. Jewish law takes the diametrically opposite view, holding that each individual, created by God in His own image, is irreplaceable, holy, and worthy of absolute respect. If God believes that every person has merit and is deserving of life, then human beings must do the same.

The Seventh Commandment

Presented to us in Exodus 20:13, this commandment admonishes us to avoid committing adultery. Jewish tradition places an exceptionally high value on the stability and sacredness of family life, thus those who break this commandment also break with the bedrock of Jewish culture.

Another reason for this commandment’s significance is its connection to the Second Commandment, which states “Do not have other gods before me.” One’s relationship to one’s spouse can therefore be viewed as parallel to one’s connection to God, and a person who breaks the bonds of the special intimacy between married partners may be more likely to break the bonds of his or her relationship with God.

The Eighth Commandment

In this commandment (Exodus 20:13), God forbids theft. This notion extends far beyond the simple prohibition to refrain from unlawfully taking the property of another. Rabbinic authorities state that it also includes an admonition to give our full attention to any work for which we accept payment, as well as a command to live up to all of our obligations.

Misusing one’s time on the job, arriving late to work, and engaging in too much pointless chatting with co-workers are all examples of ways in which people deprive their employers of their best efforts—in effect, “stealing” from them. According to some Chassidic commentators, the Eighth Commandment parallels the Third, which commands us to avoid taking God’s name in vain. Therefore, financial fraud against another person can be seen as defrauding God, whom rabbis consider a third party to any contract or agreement between individuals.

The Ninth Commandment

This commandment prohibits the bearing of false witness against another person. Found in Exodus 20:13, it highlights the importance carefully considering the impact of our judgments about the people. The Ninth Commandment enjoins us to consider carefully the words we use to describe the actions and dealings of others, so that we do not contribute to destroying their reputations unjustly. In fact, a number of rabbinic commentators specifically encourage us to always give others the benefit of the doubt, because we may not be aware of any contexts or mitigating circumstances regarding their behavior.

The Tenth Commandment

Exodus 20:14 forbids the coveting of one’s neighbor’s goods, home, and personal relationships. Far from being obsolete because it deals with oxen and servants, the Tenth Commandment translates easily to the modern age. How many contemporary people envy the new cars, luxurious homes, and expensive consumer goods owned by others instead of concentrating on the eternal values that make life worth living?

Rabbis often point out that this commandment involves the positive value of rejoicing in another person’s success. As such, this Tenth Commandment can be seen as the sum total of all the others combined. By respecting our fellow men and women and sharing in their joys and sorrows, we train ourselves to show love to others and to assist God in elevating the condition of the world.

A Survey of the First 5 Commandments

According to The Torah and Talmud, God gave 613 commandments to the Jewish people. The first 10 commandments, in particular, are of immense importance not only to Jews, but also to Christians and other people seeking moral guidance in the world. These Ten Commandments, as described in the Book of Exodus, were carved into the two stone tablets that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. Tradition tells us that, out of all the commandments, God selected these 10 as so significant that He communicated them to the Jewish people directly in this way.

While Christian denominations may number the Ten Commandments differently than Jews traditionally do, the two faith communities share a commitment to the same basic principles they enumerate. What follows is a brief summary of the first five of the Ten Commandments—those carved into the first tablet—as Jews have traditionally understood them:

The First Commandment

Described in Exodus 20:2, this commandment declares that the Lord of the Hebrew Bible is God—that same God who delivered the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Some Chassidic commentators have placed each set of five commandments alongside one another and derived significant correspondences between facing pairs. In this view, for example, this First Commandment can be linked to the Sixth, which prohibits murder. The ancient rabbinic sages held this view, believing that to kill any human being was tantamount to killing God, because human beings are created in God’s own image.

The Second Commandment

Exodus 20:3-6 expands on the simple declarative statement of the first by requiring the Jews to worship only one God, and not to give praise to any other deity or supernatural being. Most scholars view this commandment as the arrival of monotheism into a pagan world that had traditionally seen multiple gods and goddesses as governing various parts of the world—the sky, the earth, the sea, and more. Also in keeping with the move away from paganism, God tells the Jewish people to refrain from making or worshipping idols. Medieval Spanish sage Moses Maimonides, revered as among the greatest rabbis of all time, focused on this commandment in his 13 principles of Jewish faith.

The Third Commandment

As given in Exodus 20:7, this commandment requires Jews to avoid taking the name of God in vain. Many traditional scholars consider this prohibition to mean that human beings commit a grievous sin when they use God’s name to justify acts of violence and injustice against one another. These commentators also often say that humans err when they presumptuously declare that they know the intentions of God and are acting on His behalf.

The Fourth Commandment

Exodus 20:8-11 deals with the holiness of the Sabbath, or “Shabbat,” in Hebrew. In this commandment, God tells Jews to remember the Sabbath, and to cherish and honor it in remembrance both of the seventh day of Creation, on which God rested, and of the Exodus from Egypt, when God brought the Israelites to safety and instructed them to enjoy the peace and rest of a Sabbath day.

On Friday nights, when Jewish families light Shabbat candles and make kiddush, the blessing over wine, they recite the Hebrew verses that memorialize both of these events. Jews who follow traditional practices refrain from 39 prohibited categories of work on Shabbat, instead focusing their energies on Torah study, worship, the enjoyment of life with family and friends, relaxation, and reflection.

The Fifth Commandment

The commandment, in Exodus 20:12, instructs Jews to honor their parents, so that their own lives may be long and happy ones. Judaism has always been a religion that celebrates the contributions and worth of older adults. In fact, some contemporary rabbis trace the Fifth Commandment’s importance to its position on the first tablet given to Moses, the one listing the commandments that involve honoring God. These rabbis state that this demonstrates that honoring one’s father and mother is among the ways human beings give honor to God Himself.

Jewish tradition holds that there are three partners involved in the making of new life: A father, a mother, and God. As living beings, we are obligated to view this process with awe and reverence, and God commands us to extend those emotions to our parents as individuals. Rabbis often point out that the Fifth Commandment is the only one that explicitly states a reward (a long and happy life) in return for following its directions. While 21st century life in the Western world has become, to a large extent, focused on the needs and wants of the young, this commandment reminds us that parents, grandparents, and older adults have often attained a depth of experience that is worthy of respect.

An Introduction to the 5 Books of the Torah

star-of-david

The Torah, also known as the Five Books of Moses, lies at the core of Judaism and Jewish tradition. The focal point from which all subsequent interpretations of Jewish law and values emanate, the Torah forms the first part of what we today call the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible. While many scholars consider the word “Torah” applicable to the whole sea of Jewish learning, it also refers to those first five books when used specifically.

Conservative and orthodox Jews believe that the entire Torah was given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. Scholars and rabbis also distinguish the “written” Torah, those same Five Books of Moses, from the Oral Torah. The latter refers to the compilations of laws and traditions based in the Torah and collected in the Mishnah and other rabbinical works.

What follows is a quick summary of each of the books in the written Torah, all of which are rich repositories of Jewish history, wisdom, and poetry:

 

  1. Genesis—The Hebrew word for Genesis is “bereshit,” which translates to “in the beginning.” Genesis not only contains the early traditional Jewish view of how the world began, but it also reveals a rich tapestry of stories of exceptional individuals who, nevertheless, exemplify the full range of human flaws.

The story of the creation of the world, with its stirring phrases and poetic images, is among the most treasured accounts of our origins in the annals of humanity. The verses that follow describe God’s creation of plants, animals, and human beings, as well as Adam and Eve’s transition from the Garden of Eden into the world of suffering, pain, and death.

Genesis also recounts the story of Noah and the ark he built to safeguard his family and the animals from the great flood. The Tower of Babel and its confusion of languages as human beings attempt to reach heaven is one of the stories from Genesis that often fascinates young children.

A focal point of this book is the tale of Abraham, the first Jew. He and his wife Sarah are considered the ancestors of the Jewish people, based on God’s promise, “I will make of you a great nation.” Moving through the generations that followed, Genesis recounts the deeds of Abraham’s son Isaac, his sons Jacob and Esau, and Jacob’s son Joseph, who was sold into Egypt by his brothers. The book ends with Joseph gaining power and honor in Egypt, and giving shelter to his brothers and their families during a famine.

 

  1. Exodus—Known in Hebrew as “Sh’mot,” meaning “names,” Exodus covers some of the most exciting events in the Bible. The exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt and Moses’ receiving of the Ten Commandments have been the basis of novels, films, and other forms of popular entertainment throughout history. And, of course, the Exodus story is the central part of the Passover Seder, which Jewish people worldwide retell every year from generation to generation.

The book begins with Pharaoh’s daughter lifting the baby Moses from a basket in the river, where his mother hoped he would find a rescuer after the decree that all Hebrew baby boys must be put to death. He grows up among the elite in Pharaoh’s household. After Moses’ encounter with the spirit of God in the burning bush, he fulfills his destiny by returning to Egypt and securing the freedom of his people. The Egyptians suffer the 10 plagues before Pharaoh relents and the Israelites escape. But at the last minute, Pharaoh orders his soldiers to pursue them. The Red Sea parts to allow the Israelites to pass through, but the waters return to drown the Egyptians.

The Exodus story also encompasses the Israelites’ wandering through the desert, Moses’ journey down from the mountain to present the Ten Commandments to the people, and the construction of the Tabernacle.

 

  1. Leviticus— The Hebrew word for this book is “Vayikra,” which means “he called.” This text deals with the laws of Judaism as God set them forth to Moses. It also contains details of the priestly service in the Temple, the laws concerning the kohanim, or high priests, the rules of ritual cleanliness, and the requirements for the festivals. In addition, Leviticus also contains the “Golden Rule” verse that commands human beings to love their neighbors as they love themselves. This emphasis on empathy and charity has remained a marked characteristic of Judaism throughout its history.

 

  1. Numbers—In English, the first words of this book mean “in the desert.” Numbers (B’midbar) discusses the wanderings of the Israelites and describes additional laws, the first census-taking, and the positions and movements of the various tribes. This book also tells how the Israelites sent spies out to survey the Land of Canaan, how Korach’s revolt affected the people, and how the Israelites captured and settled the Jordan River’s east bank.

 

  1. Deuteronomy—This book’s Hebrew name is “devarim,” which means “words.” It focuses on Moses’ final prophecies, as well as his warm encouragement and words of warning. Tradition says that Moses gave his final speech to the Israelites and then completed the writing of 13 Torah scrolls, one for each of the 12 tribes, and the final one for inclusion in the Ark of the Covenant. The Torah concludes with a moving and poetic account of Moses’ sight of the Promised Land as he prepared himself for his passage from life into death. Moses, knowing he could glimpse but never enter the land of Israel, was nevertheless granted a view of it from atop Mount Nebo.
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