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  • Sitting on a Seesaw, Finding Answers in Israel

    Posted on February 26th, 2013 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    The ascension of the Member of Knneset Ruth Calderon got me thinking about children’s songs.

    The early Zionists, busy with politics, originally overlooked the genre of children’s songs. It was easy for the great poet Haim Nachman Bialik to rush in to fill the void. But he did much more than whip off a few ditties in the modern language of Hebrew. Worried that without new songs the minds of children would be filled with old ideas, he packed with re-interpretations of classic Jewish texts.

    Take for example, his poem about a see-saw,



    נד, נד, נד, נד,
    רד, עלה, עלה ורד!

    מה למעלה? מה למטה?
    רק אני, אני ואתה.

    נד, נד, נד, נד,
    רד, עלה, עלה ורד!

    שנינו שקולים במאזניים
    בין הארץ לשמיים.

    Seesaw seesaw
    Go down, go up

    What is up above, what is down below
    Only me, me and you

    Go down, go up
    The two of us are balance on the scale
    Between heaven and earth

    Below the surface of this simple poem lies the genius of secular Zionism. What appears to be the regular gobedly gook of children’s rhymes (I sang it to my kids for years while they played in the yard) is actually a critique of Mishna Haggigah 2:1 and the existence of God.

    מסכת חגיגה פרק ב
    א פרק ב הלכה א משנה
    אין דורשין בעריות בשלשה ולא במעשה בראשית בשנים ולא במרכבה ביחיד אלא אם כן היה חכם מבין מדעתו וכל המסתכל בארבעה דברים רתוי לו כאילו לא בא לעולם מה למעלן ומה למטן מה לפנים ומה לאחור כל שלא חס על כבוד קונו רתוי לו כאילו לא בא לעולם:

    Anyone who meditates upon four things, it would be preferable for them if they had not come into the world: what is above, what is below, what is before, and what is after.

    And anyone who has no regard for the honor of their Creator, it would be preferable for them if they had not come into the world.

    Whereas the mishna makes clear that questioning the existence of God is a heretical, Bialik uses the language of the mishna not only to question the existence of what is above and below but to provide an answer –NOTHING. Using the simplest poetic form, Bialik engaged with tradition and turned it on its head. He used the words of the tradition to help express a new vision of Jewish reality.

    This ability to engage with but also question and transform traditional text is one of the greatest and most creative elements of Zionism. As successful as it was in the realm of children’s songs, this approach to text remained largely outside the realm of secular parliamentary politics. Until last week that is.

    Many have seen Member of Knesset Ruth Calderon’s speech to the assembly. Like all new MKs, Calderon was given the opportunity to address her colleagues. Instead of spelling out her policy goals, she chose to teach a section of Talmud. If you missed it, you can watch in the video below or read it here in English. Many have commented on the speech. Much has been made of her ability to engage with ultra-Orthodox MKs. Some have lauded her as the only hope for breaking the Orthodox monopoly on Judaism. Writing in the Daily Beast Zachary Braiterman critiqued Calderon for lacking policy and for setting a dangerous precedent mixing religion and politics.

    I have great admiration for Calderon. She earned a doctorate in Talmud from Hebrew University. She played a key role in creating the secular yeshivah movement in Israel and in promoting secular prayer for Shabbat and holidays.  Zachary Braiterman is correct, Calderon is not a veteran politician, she does not come into the Knesset with a step by step solution and a plan. However, I do see her mixing of politics and tradition as hopeful not as dangerous. One of her first acts in office was to set up a regular time for text study. She has reclaimed the project of the early Zionists and by doing so suggested a new vision for how we might go forward as we search for the proper path towards the future.

    Like the children in Bialik’s song, members of Knesset are searching for the definitive answers to life’s problems. Contrary to the mishna, far from being a heretical act it is a necessary one. The answers are not in the sky, or down below. They come from the dialogue that emerges from the back and forth that happens on the seesaw, the give and take of weight, of idea and positions. Anyone can make a policy speech but it takes creativity and vision to see that answers will come from and balancing between text and reality, between the ground and the sky.



  • A Hannuka Gift for yourself: Jewish Apps for your

    Posted on December 3rd, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder 3 comments

    For a while I have been thinking about doing a post on the best Jewish Apps for your handheld devices. As it happens, our conservative colleague Rabbi Jason Miller beat me to creating a list and did such a great job that this week I break from protocol and post his piece -with permission of course. I hope that these Apps bring a little light, or at least a little convenience and productivity to your lives. -Ruth

    The Best Jewish Apps Of 2010

    From tehillim to kosher restaurants, from kaparot to recipes, our tech guru picks the top 33 applications.

    Rabbi Jason Miller

    Special To The Jewish Week

    As more Jewish people acquire the latest in handheld technology – think iPhones, iPads, Android-powered smartphones, BlackBerrys and tablet PCs — there will be more Jewish-themed applications available for download.

    Some of these apps will be utilities for checking the Hebrew date or learning about the weekly Torah portion. Other apps will be novelties like making shofar sounds for Rosh HaShanah and grogger sounds on Purim. With many Jewish developers around the world, you can be certain there will be no dearth of Jewish apps in the coming year.

    What follows is a roundup (in no particular order) of the top Jewish-themed apps from the past year. This is far from an exhaustive list as there are hundreds of other Jewish apps available, including Jewish and Israeli newspaper versions, apps that let you donate to particular charities, a Gematria (Jewish numerology) calculator, and a guide for keeping kosher at Disney World. Check for a comprehensive listing of Jewish apps as they are released.


    POCKET iSIDDUR – Free: This free iPod and iPhone version of the prayerbook comes with every version imaginable, from Sephardic to Ashkenazic. The new version has adjustable font size. iPad version also available. Available from Apple’s iTunes App Store.

    SIDDUR – $9.99: RustyBrick’s version of the siddur for Apple’s mobile devices is expensive, but impressive. Comes with real-time zmanim (prayer times) for each day based on your location. Available from Apple’s iTunes App Store.

    iPARASHAH – $4.99: Created by JACA Software Solutions, this app gives you the weekly Torah portions in the palm of your hand. Search for any parsha by name or date with this app. Available from Apple’s iTunes App Store.

    TANACH FOR ALL – $3.99: Get the whole Jewish Bible on your iPhone, iPod or iPad. Developed by Yaniv Kalsky, the latest version includes Parshat Hashavuah and an onscreen Hebrew keyboard. Available from Apple’s iTunes App Store.

    MILA-4-PHONE – Free: Learn basic Hebrew on your iPod thanks to Birthright Israel NEXT, which just released this free Hebrew word flashcard app. Developed by Rusty Brick, this free app makes building up a Hebrew vocabulary quick and easy. Available from Apple’s iTunes App Store.

    TEFILAT HADERECH FOR ALL – $0.99: Another app by Yaniv Kalsky. This provides the English and Hebrew version of the traveler’s prayer for travel by air, sea, and long car trips. Available from Apple’s iTunes App Store.

    iBLESSING – $0.99: Not sure which blessing goes with which food? This app will remind you which blessing to say. If you’re Hebrew reading isn’t very good, just listen to the app say the blessing in Hebrew or English. Available from Apple’s iTunes App Store.

    iZKOR – $0.99: This app provides the text for the mourning rituals in Judaism that are said in all prayer services as well as at funerals and memorial services. Just input the name of the deceased and it will generate the memorial prayer for the individual.All of the following are available from Apple’s iTunes App Store.

    KOSHER – $4.99: Find the nearest kosher restaurant from the exhaustive database with over 2,000 trusted restaurants to choose from.

    TEHILLIM – $1.99: The entire book of Psalms with linear translation.

    iTALMUD – $24.99: CrownRoad developed this expensive English translation of the Talmud complete with thousands of footnotes, references and insights. You certainly get what you pay for.

    PIRKEI AVOT – Free: The teachings of Pirkei Avot, the ethics of the sages, available in Hebrew and translated into English, Spanish and Portuguese.

    KITZUR SHULCHAN ARUKH – $14.99: The entire Jewish legal code laid out in a beautiful format. Developed by RustyBrick, this app allows for quick keyword searches for specific laws and bookmarks to save texts for later.

    HEBREW/ENGLISH TRANSLATOR – Free: RustyBrick’s dictionary is easy to use and accurate. For a free Hebrew-English dictionary, you can’t do better. Great onscreen keyboard and copy/paste functionality.

    HEBREW CALENDAR – $4.99: Functions just like iCal, but with the luach (Jewish calendar) including all Jewish holidays, z’manim (special times for prayer including sunrise and sunset), event-setting feature, and easy switching between Hebrew and Gregorian calendars. Easy to read fonts on all screens.

    KOSHER COOKBOOK – $2.99: Choose meat, dairy, or parve meals and this app guides you to the perfect recipe. Also develops the shopping list for each recipe and allows you to email the shopping list to others.

    Available from

    JASTROW DICTIONARY – $14.99: The complete Talmud dictionary with over 120,000 entries and bi-directional Hebrew-English and Aramaic-English references.Available from


    Available from Apple’s iTunes App Store:

    iMENORAH – $2.99: Developed by Matthew Parrot, this virtual menorah lets you light candles with the touch of the screen and then watch them burn down on each night of the holiday. Perfect for small children and dorm rooms where lighting candles is not allowed.

    @THE KOTEL – $1.99: This app lets you put a kvittel (note) in the Western Wall (Kotel) in Jerusalem. Developed by Yoram Berkowicz, this app allows for note writing in several languages.

    SHABBAT CANDLES – $0.99: Light Shabbat candles virtually every Friday night from anywhere. Great app for the business traveler who might not be able to actually light the Sabbath candles.

    LULAV WIZARD – $0.99: Download this app to virtually shake the lulav and etrog in a realistic 3D motion with the blessings appearing on the screen.

    PARVEOMETER – Free: Press the meat or dairy button after your meal and this app will count down for you. You can set it to your own custom for the dairy countdown after a meat meal so you won’t miss a minute of being able to eat your ice-cream.

    KAPAROT – Free: The folks at PETA would be thrilled to see the custom of waving a chicken above ones head solely done virtually before Yom Kippur, but this app only provides the blessings for the ritual. It should be noted that a sack of money can be used in lieu of the animal.

    GROGGER – $0.99: If you forget to bring your noisemaker to synagogue on Purim, don’t worry and just download this app. Developed by Stuart Rubin, this app makes enough grogger sound effects to impress the whole congregation and drown out the name of the wicked Haman.


    iPRAY JEWISH FOR ANDROID – Free: Siddur developed by Envision Mobile for the Android. Available from

    HEBREW SONGS – $0.99: While this app doesn’t actually play famous Hebrew songs, it is great for learning the lyrics, and figuring out the source for various songs and which holiday they’re associated with. Available from

    DAF YOMI – Free: Learn Talmud on the go with this daily page of the Oral Law for the Android. Available from

    JEWISH RECIPES – $0.99: Developed by Brighthouse Labs, this recipe app contains the most extensive list of Jewish-themed recipes in existence. Available

    JBLESSINGS – $0.99: The Android version to determine which blessings to say before and after various types of food. Available

    HEBREW CALENDAR WIDGET – Free: Full Hebrew calendar including Jewish holidays and z’manim for the Android homepage. Available at

    PRAYER DIRECTION – Free: Find the right direction for your prayer. Jews in North America traditionally face east in prayer. Available from

    ANDDAAVEN – Free: AndDaaven strives to be a siddur application that is easy to use, and leverages the full capabilities of the Android platform.

    LUACH HEBREW CALENDAR FOR ANDROID – $1.99: Most complete Jewish calendar program for the Android powered smartphones. Available at

    Rabbi Jason Miller writes the Jewish Techs blog for The NY Jewish Week. He’s also the founding director of Kosher Michigan, LLC and president of Access Computer Technology, LLC

  • Immigrants – The Challenge of Inclusivity

    Posted on August 17th, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    This week, Professor David Levine,the  Sonabend Associate Professor of Talmud and Halakhah on the Jerusalem campus reminds us that the contemporary debates about immigration are not new. Indeed from ancient times, Jews have faced questions of how to deal with those who move from place to place. Drawing on his deep understanding of history and text, Levine explains what our tradition has to teach us for today.

    After the epoch-making generation of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch at the turn of the second and third centuries, rabbinic activity split between two geographic settings, Late Roman Palestine and Sassanian Babylonia. The reasons for this do not concern us here, but an important point to remember is that this development is not to be construed as reflecting a dwindling Jewish community in Israel. This community would continue to thrive demographically, economically and culturally for another four centuries. The novelty of two geographic locations was first-and-foremost internal to the world of the talmudic rabbis. The traditional hegemony of Eretz-Israel was not about to relinquish its established role, and a budding creativity from across the Euphrates would soon assert its confident self-perception.

    One result of this new configuration was the migration of students and scholars between the two locales. The Bavli expresses this phenomenon when it calls the migrants ‘nehotei’ (descend-ers) and identifies certain traditions as having been stated when a certain rabbi arrived (ki ata rabbi ‘peloni’ amar). Two anecdotes from the Yerushalmi (Palestinian Talmud) portray the towering figure of Rabbi Yohanan as having difficulty understanding and dealing with his Babylonian students. These traditions convey the hardship of emigrants in a new social-cultural context, with people around them often indifferent, sometimes unfriendly.

    In a thrice told tale (Yerushalmi Berakhot 2:1 4b; Shekalim 2:7 47a; Mo’ed Katan 3:6 83c), Rabbi Yohanan (=RY) sees Elazar ben Pedat avoiding him and complains to another student Ya’akov bar Idi (in Shekalim: ‘Hiyyah bar Abba’), ‘These two practices of this Babylonian [are improper], one is that he does not greet me and the other is that he does not quote traditions in my name’. RY thinks that this type of behavior conveys disrespect, and he associates this disrespect with Elazar’s country of origin, Bavel. Ya’akov bar Idi is quick to correct this impression. In Bavel, students do not initiate a greeting to their masters: ‘The youth saw me and hid’ (Job 29:8) is a prescription for conduct. At worst there is a different cultural code at play, at best an acknowledgment of the esteem in which Elazar holds his master RY. The second correction that Ya’akov bar Idi offers, is instructive. When a student quotes his teacher’s opinion without attributing that opinion to the teacher, he is conveying dependence and intimacy. Everyone knows of the relationship between RY and Elazar, all are aware of the source of Elazar’s knowledge. The fact that this is assumed rather than stated, is a mark of intimacy. We can discern criticism of RY. Where he perceived alienation and repudiation there was actually a student in full recognition of all he owed his teacher, and who was acting with humility. RY is portrayed as being unable to transcend his own perspective. This anecdote challenges its audience to see situations through the eyes of others, empathizing with strangers whose experience is different and not easily accessible to others.

    This is not the only time we hear of inattentiveness to the hardship and the behavioral nuances of Babylonian disciples in Israel. Kahana came from Sura to Tiberias to study with the renowned RY (Yerushalmi Berakhot 2:8 5c). Probably dressed strangely, maybe with shoes instead of the usual sandals, the youth encountered an unfriendly reception from people on the street. ‘What voice [did you hear] in heaven?’ a ruffian threw out at him. Kahana retorted, ‘[I heard that] your verdict is sealed’. And indeed the ruffian died. It happened again, and Kahana thought to himself that this was not what he had bargained for: ‘Did I come to kill off the people of Eretz Israel? I will return to where I have come from’. However, one does not depart from his master without asking his permission. Kahana carefully formulated his request to RY, ‘If a person’s mother demeans him, but his stepmother respects him, where should he go?’. ‘One should go where he is respected’, was the unassuming reply. Kahana returned to Babylonia. Not realizing what he had sanctioned, RY asked why Kahana had departed without taking leave. The reply was ‘The conversation you had with him was his way of taking leave’. The master was unaware of what the young man had been going through, and even when Kahana expressed this hardship RY could not hear it. The parable of the mother and stepmother begs to be unraveled and understood on additional levels. The cry for protection of the parent-figure is almost explicit. It is lost on the rabbi. Mockery in the street is ironically paralleled by insensitivity in the study hall. One would have expected the beit midrash to provide this sense of safety. Not for Kahana. He is always alert, never able to trust his surroundings. The foreigner cannot find a place where he can feel protected and let his guard down. The ending is a pessimistic one, for the situation is not resolved.

    These two traditions – Elazar’s misunderstood behavior and Kahana’s unwelcoming reception – choose RY as the target of their implicit criticism. Like biblical narrative, talmudic stories have no problem casting their protagonists in uncomplimentary light. Unconcerned with historical accuracy, these rabbinic figures are employed to teach. Edifying behavior invites emulation, problematic conduct posts a warning sign. RY is a linchpin figure for the Amoraim of third and fourth century Palestine. Selecting him as the butt of this criticism raises the stakes. An indictment of RY stands for a condemnation of an entire community. The allegation is in the absence of a secure ambiance where a stranger might be included.

    In another context the Yerushalmi records a predicament of the small community of Cappadocian Jews in Sepphoris (Shevi’it 9:8 39a). Hailing from the Asia Minor these people did not seem to integrate easily into the social fabric of Sepphoris. The laws of Shevi’it – the agricultural sabbatical – require forfeiting ownership of produce (bi’ur) at a certain point during the year-long hiatus of work in the field. The produce would then become legally ownerless (hefker) with anyone permitted to gather it for themselves. A loop-hole was offered and a person could forfeit ownership of the produce in the presence of three trusted acquaintances, and immediately re-acquire this produce. In this way, a third party would not have the opportunity to act on the ownerless property and acquire it for himself. The ‘Cappadocians of Sepphoris’ asked Rabbi Ami how they could go about this particular detail of halakhic behavior. ‘Because there is no one who cares for us (literally: no one who loves us) and no one inquires about our well being, how are we to act?’ The technical solution which is offered should not mitigate this searing emotion of loneliness.

    Talmudic tradition challenges itself and its students to hear these voices, empathize with the feelings they express, and act to lessen the hardship. The biblical idiom of ‘ger yatom ve’almanah’ (the foreigner, orphan and widow) is a trope for those who are marginalized and disenfranchised. Who are the ‘ger yatom ve’almanah’ in our midst? Do we step up and assume responsibility for incorporating them in society?

  • Old Jastrow is New

    Posted on April 26th, 2009 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    Marcus Mordecai Jastrow

    Marcus Mordecai Jastrow

    It is impossible to imagine the study of traditional rabbinic sources without the aid of dictionaries and other aids that help us decode the complexities and subtleties of Hebrew that have evolved with time and place. Already in ancient times, scholars like Sadia Gaon engaged in the study of Hebrew language as they worked to understand the meaning of biblical and early rabbinic passages. The publication in 1886 of A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi and the Midrashic Literature, marked an important transition from the ancient and medieval study of Hebrew to the modern academic method of inquiry. Not only was one of the early wave of Jewish scholarly works to be published in the United States with English as the base language, but it remains after more than a century one of the most essential tools for the serious study of Jewish text.

    Jastrow, as the dictionary is known, was compiled by Marcus Mordecai Jastrow. Born in Rogassen, Prussia in 1829, the young Jastrow grew up in a multicultural, multilingual environment. He was home schooled as a child in a household that spoke Yiddish. The vernacular of the street was German but the Polish influence was strong as well. He attended university as well as rabbinical school receiving a Ph. D. and ordination as a rabbi. In 1866, Jastrow was invited to Philadelphia to become the rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Shalom.

    Living in the United States, he worked on many projects that helped set the foundation for intellectual Jewish life in the US. In addition to the dictionary which he worked on for over seven years, he participated in the compilation of the first English-language Jewish Encyclopedia and the first Jewish textually critical translation of the Tanakh into English.

    Today, the Jastrow has made another leap. This essential text is now available online, for free. Tyndale House, an independent fundamentalist conservative Christian research library in Cambridge England dedicated to the study of the Bible, has scanned the entire text of Jastrow and has created a search function. Clicking on the first letter of a word, users bring up a menu of all the entries beginning with that letter. It is easy to find the word you are looking for by scrolling through the list. Those accustomed to the layout of the paper and ink Jastrow will be comforted as clicking on the desired word brings up the original text and format of the book. An additional feature is the ability to size the text so that magnifying glasses and squinting are not at all necessary. With the Jastrow Dictionary only a click away, we can all take immediate advantage of this brilliant resource.

    For more information about the life and work of Marcus Mordecai Jastrow and the field of Hebrew Lexicography I recommend highly a site put together by the University of Pennsylvania libraries on the topic.

    Photo credit University of Pennsylvania Library.