Monday, April 25, 2011

What is Lag B'Omer?

Dear Tanta,
I’ve heard something about taking a break during the counting of the Omer, Lag something. What are we taking a break from and why?
Falling behind in my understanding
My dearest Hindmost,
Ah the joys of symbolism. First, lag b’omer literally means “the 33rd day of the omer”. Lag comes from the combination of the Hebrew letters lamed and gimmel, which symbolize 30+3.
The holiday in not biblically based. Instead it commemorates events that occurred during the time of the great Talmudic scholar Rabbi Akiba. (50-137 CE) Rabbi Akiba had a school which had thousands of students. 
According to the Talmud, for more than four weeks a great plague raged through the area and many died.Tanta Golda’s sources differ on this next point, but it would seem that somewhere between 10 and 24 thousand of his students died during this time. Oy! How do you bury 6,000 people a week?  But I ramble, miraculously the plague ended on - you guessed it - the 33rd day of the counting of the omer!
(Now of course, why wouldn’t there be another opinion - there are those who say that the students were actually kill by the Romans who were a little upset by the Bar Kokhba revolt.)
So my questioning one, t the counting of the Omer is treated as days of mourning and as such, no weddings or celebrations take place and men do not cut their hair. However, Lag B’Omer is seen as an acceptable time to take a break from mourning and celebrate the joyful end of the plague!
Several traditions have developed over the centuries, including the building of bonfires (very popular in Israel), picnics, sporting games - especially archery, and traditional first hair cuts for young boys.
The bonfires apparently have their roots in honoring one of Rabbi Akiba’s few remaining students, Shimon bar Yochai, who was said to go on to be the ‘light of the Torah’.
I’ve been asked, why do some traditional Jews wait until a boy is 3 to give him his first hair cut? Once again we look to symbolism: The Torah says that if you plant a tree, all fruits which grow during the first three years are orlah -- off-limits (Leviticus 19:23) and "A person is like the tree of a field..." (Deut. 20:19). So, if we continue this chain of thought, a child - a tree of the field - should not be plucked until he is three. (Tanta Golda has no idea if this applies to girls as well, but since their mention in the Talmud is limited, I would say not.)
In the Hasidic community, the upsherin (hair cutting ceremony) marks a male child's entry into the formal educational system and the commencement of Torah study. A yarmulke and tzitzis will now be worn, and the child will be taught to pray and read the Hebrew alphabet. The joyous time when we are thinking of the scholar Akiba to many seems a fitting time for this ceremony.
I hope you no longer lag behind the other scholars in your knowledge of Lag B’Omer, which this year is on May 21-22. TG

Friday, April 22, 2011

Not all Chametz is Obvious - a case for Coke Cola

My darlings,

I've noticed a number of inquires about "other" foods that might be considered chametz, so I thought I'd jot a quick note.

Many Ashkenazi Jews follow the rabbinical halacha not to eat corn or corn products during Pesach, because corn can be dried, ground into a flour, and made into baked goods which could be confused with chametz.

True chametz is any flour meal that when mixed with water ferments - becoming leaven. Corn does not, but it has become halacha for many to abstain "to be on the safe side".

This prohibition is why there are many Jews who do not partake of products that are made with corn syrup. This includes standard marshmallows, most sodas, and candy. Some companies, like Coke Cola and Bartons, make kosher for Passover versions of their products which use cane sugar instead of corn syrup.

Now Tanta Golda is old and therefore, opinionated. To me it seems that Passover is all about symbolism. Therefore, I've opted to avoid Passover cakes that "look" like leaven cakes, and I do eat foods with corn syrup and even nibblet corn, which to me, obviously aren't leaven.

If you are uncertain what the custom is in your area Tanta Golda recommends that you check with your rabbi.

Chag semach! Tanta Golda

Sunday, April 10, 2011

To Pilgrimage, or not to Pilgrimage - Omer Question

first published in 2010

Dear Tanta Golda,
I know that we are counting the Omer towards something. Is it a holiday? I also heard something about a pilgrimage? I know that in the middle ages Christian holy men would go on pilgrimages to Jerusalem, and that one of the five pillars of Islam is to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, but am I supposed to go on a pilgrimage somewhere too? Will I need sunscreen?
Packing my bags with caution.
Dear Cautious,
Ah, I love the curious ones! Yes, we are counting the Omer for 49 days until the holiday of Shavuot. Shavuot is one of three ancient pilgrimage holidays commanded in the Torah, which celebrate both agriculture and historical events, the other two being Passover and Sukkot. During the time of the Temple, these holidays were a time when offerings of the harvest were brought to the Kohanim for ritual worship. They were also a time to reaffirm our communal commitment to our covenant with HaShem. However, you must remember that our people were not so spread out as we are now. When the second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, pilgrimage was deemed no longer obligatory. This means you’re off the hook - unpack your bags, put your feet up, and have a nice cup of tea.

While Shavuot was initially an agricultural holiday, in post-biblical times it developed into a celebration of the giving of the Torah on Mt.Sinai. You will note that I said ‘giving’ not ‘receiving’. The rabbis, a wise lot, say that while we receive the Torah every day, we were given it but once.

It is a tradition among some more observant Jews to stay up all night on Shavuot studying Torah and related works. Many eat dairy foods, such as cheese blintzes, cheesecake, etc. This is often explained as being based on the Torah verse that says the land of Israel flows with milk and honey. Some who live in modern day Israel will go to the Western Wall, which as you remember is a remanent of the Temple, in order to emulate the pilgrimage. This year Shavuot will begin on the evening of June 7th (2011).

Take a moment on Shavuot to give thanks for your bread (the wheat harvest.)
Love as always- and keep sending me questions,
Tanta Golda

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How To Count the Omer

First published 2009

Dear Tanta Golda, 
My neighbor said she heard that Jews do a count down to something just like they do for Lent. What is she talking about? Do I have to give up something more than bread?
Chametzly Impaired.
My dear Impaired,  
Ah, it’s wonderful when our Christian neighbors alert us to a question of Judaism!
There is a Biblical commandment (Leviticus 23:15) to count the 49 days that immediately follow the first night of Passover and, on the 50th night, to celebrate the holiday of Shavuot. This period of time is called Sefirat Ha'omer, the Counting of the Omer, because the counting begins on the night before the barley offering (omer) was brought to the Temple, which was on the second day of Passover. (Passover was also a harvest holiday, and the first crop of barley came in at this time.)

The departure of the Jews from Egypt was only the beginning of the redemption. The Exodus actually culminated with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and is commemorated by the holiday of Shavuot.
Now you may be wondering how does one count the Omer?  Each night, starting with the night of the second Seder, a blessing is recited and the new day is counted. The blessing is as follows:
Baruch Ah'tah Ah'doh'nai, Eh'lo'hay'nu Melech Ha'olam, asher kideshanu b'mitzvotav v'tzeevanu al s'feerat ha'omer.

Blessed are you Lord, our God, Ruler of the world, Who sanctified us through His commandments and commanded us, regarding the counting of the Omer.

The blessing is followed by the actual counting of the day. For example: "Today is day one of the Omer". When Tanta Golda was a little girl, if you can believe such a  thing, we would drop a counter into a jar each night until we got to 49. It was a special treat to be the one who got to add the counter.
Happy Passover, and enjoy counting the Omer! 
Love, Tanta G.