December 2007 Archives

(This Original Paper is Copyrighted by Shelomo Alfassa - All Rights Reserved / Syndication is Available)

In New York City, we have both Ashkenazi and Sephardi 'rabbis' which come from Israel to provide 'blessings' to those who visit them. These rabbis also read palms; claim to be able to tell people when they will be married; advise people if they are infected with 'ayin harah' (the evil eye); tell people about their past; advise them on their future; and, tell them who they were in past lives. Such statements, and assorted various others, are issued to their victims who come to have their fate told and who provide a cash donation to the good 'rabbi.' This paper strives to advise people, male and female, but primarily the latter, that these charlatans are nothing more than fakes. It is the hope of the author that many Jewish women will read and share this paper, written with a Torah-grounded intellectual (not emotional) approach, to learn for themselves, that they are being taken advantage of by visiting with these pseudo-rabbis. The author would like the reader to know that by participating with these people, that they are being taken advantage of, and are unintentionally conducting themselves in a way that is not in line with the Torah and goes against the desires of the Almighty.

The full paper is 2,466 words and is located here:
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The things you won't hear on the nightly news...

(This Original Essay is Copyrighted by Shelomo Alfassa - All Rights Reserved / Syndication is Available)

While the assassination of Benazir Bhutto was tragic, history remembers who this woman was--and she was--no Mother Teresa. Recent media coverage of Benazir's assassination in Pakistan has become another media circus. Benazir is being made to look like a saint, a poor little victim, and a sad woman who was a rising star in Pakistan, the wild west of the Islamic world. While politicians and media personalities continue to call for a "democracy" in Pakistan, and as they desire to get rid of Pervez Musharraf the current President of Pakistan, and former Chief of Staff of the Pakistan Army, they must be blind to the fact that it is he and his military that are holding the Islamic terrorists at bay with an iron fist.

Benazir would not have made a good leader, she demonstrated this on more than one occasion over past decades, her days as a leader were long over. Her first bout with trouble may have been thirty years ago, when in 1977 at Karachi International Airport, police officers lifted the veils of the incoming passengers searching for Benazir Bhutto who had been in London and whom they had learned might have been coming to Pakistan to disrupt elections. Benazir was twice elected prime minister of Pakistan, 1988-1990 and 1993-1996, and twice expelled from office because of a slew of corruption charges. In 1991, one year after she lost her Prime Ministership, she suffered a setback when Pakistani terrorists loyal to her, armed with knives and hand grenades, hijacked a Singapore Airlines flight, doused passengers with alcohol and began a countdown to start killing them; they were later killed by the police.

Her primary problem was that while in office, she asserted her authority without sufficiently understanding her own Constitution or how her own military functioned. A 1996 scholarly paper in the University of California's Asian Survey records that a botched 1990 operation to stop terrorists who were stockpiling weapons, resulted in 30 persons being killed and a reaction in the city of Karachi resulted in another 350 dying. The situation was complicated because then Prime Minister Benazir had acted without involving the top military brass. Once the situation was finally resolved, the lead General who arrived on scene was met with slogans of "impose martial law, remove Benazir Bhutto." The same paper records that Benazir was "not very effective or skillful in managing relations with the army," and that her "her poor comprehension of the workings of the military" were a source of continuing problems.

The end of her second role as Prime Minister came in 1996 when Farooq Leghari, the president of Pakistan, telephoned Bhutto to let her know she was fired; he claimed her government had been dishonest. It was reported that in the city of Karachi, women handed out sweets and men danced in the streets over her ouster. The Economist said in 1996, "Miss Bhutto's political problems are largely self-inflicted. She antagonized the judiciary last year, when she appointed many ill-qualified judges-some of them party loyalists."

A 1997 New York Times article reported that Pakistanis saw, "Ms. Bhutto's Government as one of the most corrupt in Pakistan's nearly 50-year history," and reported that investigators said that "Bhutto Government officials looted billions of dollars from public funds." It has been alleged by government sources from various countries that Ms. Bhutto and her husband had been conducting themselves in a corrupt manner. This includes the Polish government who in 1997 alleged she and her husband accepted millions in kickbacks from the sale of equipment; a 1998 French deal which involved a the sale of military fighter aircraft; and suspicious deposits in Dubai, where millions of dollars were said to have stemmed from questionable or illegal kickbacks from gold dealers.

In 1998, Swiss authorities located more than $10 million dollars in bank accounts belonging to Bhutto and her family. One year later, a government prosecutor in Switzerland provided 150 pages of evidence to the Pakistan government demonstrating corruption and kickbacks which included the purchase of a $188,000 diamond necklace for Ms. Bhutto. She was later convicted (along with her husband), and sentenced to five years in prison, as well as fined $8.6 million dollars for taking these kickbacks while in office. From 2004 until the day of her death, Swiss government officials had been conducting the investigation into allegations that she had used Swiss banks to launder millions of dollars in kickbacks. A 1998 New York Times article reported, "Pakistani investigators insist that some $500 million has been uncovered in 19 Swiss bank accounts. The proceeds, they say, are from Ms. Bhutto's cuts on Government contracts and drug deals."

Even while government investigators demonstrated that Benazir was filling her pockets with illegally obtained money, a 1998 article in The Economist spoke about how she would continue to travel the world seeking funds for her poor country, and that she was, "an accomplished beggar." Economic Review magazine reported that in 1999, the government of Benazir Bhutto, "in it's own pursuit," had mounted campaigns to recover hundreds of billion of dollars in defaulted loans, "mainly for propaganda and publicity purposes." Prof. Robert LaPorte Jr., Professor of Political Science at The Pennsylvania State University wrote in 1997, that "the Bhutto government had succeeded in alienating the business community, the judiciary, the military, the president, the international assistance community (the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in particular), and given the lack of protests against the dismissal, the Pakistani public-at-large."

It is bizarre to see the world media speaking of the successive "tragedies" that the Bhutto family has experienced. Her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a former Pakistani Prime Minister, was executed by the government in 1979, not assassinated as has been reported on the cable news channels. And her brother, Murtaza Bhutto, who was killed in 1996, was not a supporter of his sister Benazir--as a matter of fact, her brother had been a long time political opponent of her's, and he persistently accused her of operating a government culture based on extensive corruption.

Yet, corruption is not the worst problem in Pakistan, Islamic fundamentalism is. Pakistan remains a breeding ground for jihadists, and according to a CNN poll (Dec. 2007), 46% of Pakistanis approve of Osama bin Laden. Yes, the military is not as strong as they should be, and yes, Musharraf may not be the finest leader, however--it is the government of Musharraf and the existing Pakistani military which is the only body able to hold off the Taliban and the terrorist forces of Al-Quaeda from taking control of the floundering country. The pampered wealthy Benazir was no Musharraf, a man (whether you love him or hate him), had been an officer in the military since 1964 and who has experienced many years of the blood, sweat and tears of combat experience.

We should remember. That unlike any other Islamic country leader, Musharraf issued an important speech against Islamic extremism in 2002 and pledged to combat Islamic extremism within his country. He also banned funding of madrasas and mosques from outside of Pakistan (think Saudi Arabia!), and he mandated modern sciences and computer technology be taught in Islamic schools. In 2005, Musharraf spoke to the American Jewish Congress, in New York where he denounced terrorism and opened the door to relationships between Pakistan and Israel, as well as between the Muslim world and Jews worldwide. This brought criticism from other Islamic nations, but he didn't back down nor change his promises.

A widely popular Western ideal is that democracy is an end-goal and that Islamic countries such as Pakistan can't live without it. But just because Benazir Bhutto called for democracy, does not necessarily mean she or the country was ready for democracy. Nor did it mean she was qualified to help bring it to fruition or even institute it, if it could ever be achieved. Politics alone will not stop those that are well trained and well armed. Politics cannot make a poor country rich, nor stop a well trained and well armed religiously-based fanatical militia. It should always be remembered, that voting does not bring about democracy, it is democracy itself, when stable and healthy, which brings about voting.

Familial Mediterranean Fever (FMF) is a inherited disorder affecting Sephardic Jews, Arabs, Armenians and Turks. It is a rare disease which usually begins in childhood and occurs primarily among persons of Mediterranean ancestry. It is characterized by short, self-limited, febrile episodes that may occur alone or with inflammation of serosal surfaces. Some individuals may exhibit an erysipilas-like erythema, almost always on the lower extremities. These attacks are associated with considerable morbidity and may lead to unnecessary surgery, but this disease does not appear to be associated with an increased mortality, except in those individuals who develop amyloid nephropathy. For those patients death usually occurs below the age of 40 years although longer survival has been reported. This complication occurs frequently in Turks and Sephardic Jews, but only rarely in individuals of other ethnic origins.

Familial Mediterranean Fever is an autosomal recessive disease. It also affects Morrocan Jews, largely descended from Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition. The disease is characterised by paroxysmal bouts of fever with acute and painful serositis. Appearance of renal amyloidosis indicates severe prognosis. The disease appeared several thousands of years ago in an ancestor common to Sephardic Jews, Turks, Armenians and Arabs. The full clinical description, including renal complications and familial forms, was made by two French investigators and dates from the 1950s. That this description is relatively recent is due to the scarcity of medical treatment and the poor living conditions in the regions concerned, which also explains the occurrence of endemic diseases (in particular tuberculosis), the frequency of acute rheumatic fever, malaria and pyogenic infections. Familial Mediterranean Fever is one of the most frequent recessive disease in non-Ashkenazi Jews.

The above information was assembled from abstracts recorded in:
Ethnic Sephardic Jews in the Medical Literature
Edited by Shelomo Alfassa
ISBN 978-0-9763226-6-5 Hardcover / September 2006

Posted in honor of YK!

Rabbi Mark Angel on Rational Judaism, a Lesson for the Thinking Jew

An Interpretation of a Great Lecture

By Shelomo Alfassa

Introduction: The following text is not a transcript of a lecture. This is just one man's write up, an interpretation if you will, about an extraordinary lecture, given by Rabbi Dr. Mark D. Angel, Saturday December 22, 2007. Rabbi Angel's lecture took me five hours to digest and expand upon here, and any errors are my own. It was an incredible lecture, and I present a summary here for all Jews of all background to read. If you are going to listen/read one thing by a rabbi this year--this is it. This article addresses two major problems we have in the Jewish world today. The audio version of the full lecture will be online, contact me for the link shelomo(at)

Rabbi Mark Angel's original title was: "Rambam and the Philosophers: What Reason Can and Cannot Attain." I think it should have been called, "Rational Judaism, a Lesson for the Thinking Jew."

I am one of "those" people who find it difficult to get inspired by most rabbis and their, frequent, dull lectures. Of late, I find too many rabbis repeating subjects of fundamental substance, often delivered and brought down to a level that is so simple, and so full of subjective emotion, that I am jaded within the first few moments. This didn't happen when I had the pleasure to attend several lectures by Rabbi Mark Angel, Rabbi emeritus of the Congregation Shearith Israel, the historic Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York City. Rabbi Angel's congregation was founded in 1655 and is the oldest congregation in America. The rabbi was born in Seattle's Sephardic community, his ancestors came from Turkey and Rhodes and he grew up speaking Ladino at home.

Rabbi Angel had come to speak as the scholar-in-residence at Sephardic Institute, one of the main Syrian synagogues in the Brooklyn, New York Jewish community. The event was sponsored by Rabbi Ricky Hidary's Mercaz Moreshet Yisrael.

* * *

Rabbi Angel spoke on several different topics, including rationalism, ignorance, and power. He started the Saturday evening conversation by introducing Baruch Spinoza, a 17th century Jew from Holland who is remembered as a great philosopher. Spinoza's ancestors were Conversos who fled from Portugal to escape the Portuguese Inquisition and return to Judaism. Spinoza came from a traditional family and learned Torah from great rabbis. Yet, before he was 30, he was excommunicated and considered an outcast and heretic to his religion because of his questioning of religion and the Bible. Spinoza became cynical about his religion for many reasons including those attributed to these two stories:

Rabbi Angel told that a young Spinoza was sent to a pious Jewish woman's home to retrieve a debt for his father. When the boy went to pick up the money, the woman attempted to trick him and keep some of the funds for herself. However, Spinoza caught her, and asked her for the rest of the money. Once home with his father, Spinoza said, "father-this is our religion? A woman is so pious but she tried to cheat me?"

Another case unfolds when the young Spinoza was in class and a rabbi told him he was not allowed to ask certain questions. "We don't want to hear those questions, they will confuse the other students." I believe Rabbi Angel was bringing up a point, that if the rabbis would have entertained Spinoza's questions, and even sat and spoke with the young man, he may not have ran away or turned against his religion. Rabbi Angel told that Spinoza, a rationalist, thought the Almighty endowed humans with reason--and He would not have provided us with such a virtue unless He wanted us to use it.

The past two reasons are only two of what may be many more reasons that Spinoza became obviously jaded and cynical, something we can see happening to both young and old Jews today. Rabbi Angel communicated that while we would never want our Jewish children to be like Spinoza, we must recognize there is a world outside of the Jewish people, there is philosophy and that there is value in it. We should allow our children to be exposed to it, but we should protect them.

Rabbi Angel quoted Rabbi Prof. David Hartman of the Jerusalem based Shalom Hartman Institute. He related that Rabbi Hartman indicates there are four ways of trying to deal with the world of Torah and the world of philosophy.

The first is "the way of insulation…we have the truth, they don't!...anything the world has to say is not relevant to us." Rabbi Angel tells us through this approach, [one that is certainly taken by the haredim] children aren't  exposed to anything outside of the closed community. Children that are raised this way today, are taught that others outside of the community are bad, reform, goyim, etc. The rabbi said that while there is some logic to it, it is not a proper answer to the problem.

The second is to compartmentalize. To be one way on the outside, and maybe, another way on the inside. He used an example, that if you "dress religious" and look the part, your children will see you and think you are doing everything right, and they will learn to do everything right themselves. Rabbi Angel infers that this is not a proper way to be, because there is definitely a disjoint between the way you think and the way you act in the society around you. He said that there is no harmony in this manner.

The third way is to go the way Spinoza chose, and that is rejection. The rejection process says that if you have both the Torah and philosophy, and that if you decide that the latter is the truth, then you simply put aside the Torah, eliminating it all together.

The forth way is integration. In this method, you integrate both the Torah and general wisdom. You study them both, rationally, and from that process you are going to be a better person, this is the approach of Maimonides (RaMBaM). If you use a mathematical equation as an example, you will find that it is much more significant to comprehend how to calculate an equation and come up with an answer, then just knowing the answer. It is the path of thinking which educates. Rabbi Angel mentioned that the RaMBaM said there were many people that are ignoramuses of the law, people that skip the steps, people that if they know the answer, say, "Why do I have to do the calculations for? Analogous to this, Rabbi Angel remarked, the purpose of the Torah is not to just do misvot, but to understand why we are doing misvot. He added, that we shouldn't be doing misvot just in form, but we should understand the substance behind them.

I believe Rabbi Angel was commenting that if we truly understand--why we do--what we do--then we will be able to (and desire to), do it with more meaning. He said that while we will never understand God's ultimate reason and wisdom for some misvot, there is no reason not to want to understand and thus become closer to God as best as we can. Among many benefits, Rabbi Angel said that the advantages to ‘doing the calculations' is that it teaches us to think.

The RaMBaM indicates there are different ways to understand these passages. One group are very foolish and cynical people, they say that the stories of the great rabbis [the Hakhamim, commonly called Sages], don't conform to reason, so this means the Sages were unreasonable, and thus we won't listen to them. This, Rabbi Angel said, was the way of rejection. [This is the way Spinoza took, this is a way that does and has led many educated people away from Judaism.]

The RaMBaM encouraged the use of intelligence and rationalization, he gave reason tremendous power. Yet, he felt that if rationalization became too common and people interpreted everything based on how they felt it should be translated, we would end up in disorder. Rabbi Angel said that if we all tried to translate and interpret everything ourselves, we would end up with a religion that is no longer a religion, with people all doing their own thing. To counter this, the RaMBaM thought there had to be authority, had to be boundaries to prevent people from reinterpreting the Torah, and as Rabbi Angel mentioned, becoming like a "Spinoza."

The RaMBaM said that Sages were highly intelligent, and that if they said something that sounded unintelligent or foolish, we should understand that the Sages were speaking poetically, in illusions, they were discussing things which had a deeper hidden meaning. Rabbi Angel said the RaMBaM indicated that once you understand why the Sages spoke in such language, you realize their words were not foolish--but were wise. Yet, sometimes the Sages had things wrong, and the RaMBaM admits it. He said the Sages sometimes admit this too, for example, the Sages admit the Greeks knew better on certain issues such as Science. Rabbi Angel held that on where the Sages give medical advice, we should not listen to them, we should go to a physician. To paraphrase Rabbi Angel, "The Sages believed in things which are not aspects of our faith, such as shadim [demons], and thus we are not bound to accept this concept." Throughout this discussion on the RaMBaM, Rabbi Angel is trying to demonstrate that being a literalist, someone that takes the statements of the Sages for their face value (as well as stories of the midrash), is not proper.

RaMBaM's approach tells us we should take misvot at face value when there is no question about them. But, when there is a question about a certain misva, we should use reason to understand it, but always follow tradition; we should follow the words of our Sages, from generation to generation. Rabbi Angel tells that the RaMBaM's approach is a very difficult approach, and it has confidence in people's ability to think-and-it demands that we think. He adds that if we don't think to the best of our ability, that we are not in fact being religious.

Speaking of superstition again, Rabbi Angel brought up the absurd practice of treating the mesuzah on the door as a magical charm. On how when people have a problem, they put their hands on the mesuzah, or how people feel that a mesuzah can provide protection to the house. "That is not religion...the RaMBaM was absolutely against such practices." The rabbi said the custom of "checking" the mesuzot when something bad happens, is not a religious practice. He spoke of how people take holy items and put them near crying babies, and how this is not part of Judaism. He said the RaMBaM called people like this both fools and kofrim, deniers of God. He said the RaMBaM says "Torah was not given for this is a terrible misunderstanding of Torah."

Rabbi Angel said that the RaMBaM was so very strong about this topic, because he knew religion could slip into a magical formula for some. The RaMBaM didn't want people to see religion like the pagans did where there was a salvation if you construed the right formula or mouthed certain words. The rabbi said Judaism is a thinking person's religion and that it is not for people who want shortcuts or magic. He said we are not a religion where we should do things without thinking about why we do them.

It is my interpretation, that Rabbi Angel supposed that the RaMBaM's ways attempted to halt creating people like Spinoza, people who are easily turned away from the Torah because they see superstitious or other ideas and stories as just ridiculous. He said, "If I was Spinoza's rabbi, I would teach him more of the approach of the RaMBaM." Rabbi Angel added that this approach, a rational one based on the RaMBaM, should be taken with today's Jewish children.

Rabbi Angel then moved on, telling that another other type of Judaism is based upon authoritarianism, xenophobia, intellectual unsoundness, superstitiousness, and other characteristics. He gave some examples including how a certain Rosh Yeshiva speaking at the latest Rabbinical Council of America convention said that rabbis' jobs are to marry people, burry people, counsel people, lead them in prayers, make them feel happy, etc. The Rosh Yeshiva said, "when it comes to thinking…to serious questions…stay out of it—come to us and we will give you the answer." Rabbi Angel said this frustrated him, and what people like this are really saying is, "We do the thinking for the Jewish people--you are not authorized to think!" He said they are restricting people's right to decide and use their own brain to decide. As a further illustration, he mentioned how the National Council of Young Israel has now restricted which rabbis can be hired around the country. How only a few select people will have power over who gets hired. Rabbi Angel said this demonstrates how a small group is attempting to control the larger organization. He said, increasingly small groups of people who call themselves Gedolim, are telling the average person--you have no right to think, to come to conclusions, nor to decide anything. These self-proclaimed leaders are saying, "You have an Algebra problem and you have an answer--just take the answer, don't worry about understanding the calculation which brought you to the answer."  The rabbi said that these people are really telling us, "We don't want you to think, we have the answer, and we will give it to you."

Rabbi Angel said once this type of philosophy becomes dominant [which has rapidly become the norm in the Ashkenazi world and is not encroaching in the Sephardic world], it is the first sign of death. The rabbi said we are already beginning a process of intellectual, spiritual and cultural strangulation.

Shockingly, Rabbi Angel told the audience, that in Israel, most food has a kashruth supervisory stamp from the "Badatz of the Edah Hareidit," and that when you buy any of these foods you are supporting them. He revealed that the Badatz are a group that shares a Satmar philosophy that is anti-Israel as well as, "anti-all of us that don't follow their ways, they have civil wars among themselves, they even called for one hassidic rebbe they didn't like to be killed by a hitman." Rabbi Angel said the Orthodox Union (OU), supports Badatz of the Edah Hareidit, and that the OU in Israel called the Badatz of the Edah Hareidit "the best" kashruth supervision. In a mostly serious manner, Rabbi Angel confirmed, "Edah Hareidit are religious, their frum, because they wear black hats they look very religious, but they are insidious destroyers of the people of Israel, even among themselves they are killing each other, literally, figuratively and spiritually."

"We have lost our balance as a people," declared Rabbi Angel, "we don't even know what is right or wrong anymore." He said the people who are ultimately in charge, the office of the chief rabbinate, allow the Badatz to function by giving them permission. Rabbi Angel told a story which most people in Brooklyn know, then when young people go to learn in Israel, the first thing they are taught [brain washed] is to only trust the kashruth supervision of the Badatz. The rabbi lamented, "We have entered a Twilight Zone where self-appointed individuals are saying ‘we know best for you.'" He added that while these people think they know what is best for the Jewish people, all the facts demonstrate otherwise. He added that what these people are doing is not good for any Jews, Orthodox or other.

Rabbi Angel then spoke on the topic of midrashim, and how too many people take these old Jewish stories literally, when they should not be. He mentioned that at a recent conference in the USA, he heard a rabbi [Rabbi Nachum Eisenstein], stand up and say that anyone who believes the world is older than 5768 years, is a heretic, the person is not a Jew, the person is not going to go to heaven, the person cannot be a rabbi, etc. He said Eisenstein indicated that believing the world is only 5768 years old is a principle of Judaism--but it is not! Rabbi Angel indicated there were many more people and rabbis greater than Eisenstein that assumed the world was billions of years old.

Rabbi Angel said that the RaMBaM would say, if science could show, in a reasonable way, that is the universe is billions of years old, then we should accept that it is billions of years old. "You don't have to teach people to be morons," he said. Calling it an outrage, he told how some haredi teachers today are telling Jewish children that dinosaurs never existed, and that fossils are only buried dog bones which were swollen with the waters of the flood of Noah.

The rabbi told how an American man opened a New York style pizza shop in Israel but had rocks thrown through the windows because he allowed boys and girls to both eat in the restaurant at the same time. He said the American had a sign with the Statue of Liberty on it for which the haredim also attacked him. They said "liberty is not a value among us…freedom is not the issue, following the rules is the issue." Eventually the pizza shop was boycotted, closed and relocated. Rabbi Angel's overall theme was that we have brains, and we should use them, and we should not feel that we shouldn't. He spoke on how self-proclaimed rabbis including rabbis such as Ovadia Yosef, are speaking up on behalf of Jews, when they don't represent all Jews.

Rabbi Angel indicated he was worried some young people would succumb to this type of lifestyle. He said there were those who want to think, but feel a "thought mafia" was controlling them. "They want to live responsible lives, but they feel they are being strangled," he said, "The people want to stay with in the boundaries of the Torah, but the Torah is not properly being presented to them."

He said, while we don't have the answers to everything, it is important to be allowed to ask and question, and certainly understand that we can do this in a framework of the Torah, and that we should never feel oppressed by Judaism. He said both rabbis and laymen should take more active responsibility in their communities and that we all can do something. He said we should never let self-appointed cowboys be the spokesmen for Judaism. Rabbi Angel said we should never say "how can we win when there are more of them and they control the mikvahs, the kashruth, etc." He said we should at least protest and have our voices heard. He said we should build up a resistance to this by speaking to friends, children and others.  

Rabbi Angel's new institute, The Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, ( plans to publish and distribute materials based on topics relating to this lecture and other topics. Rabbi Angel has a vision of Orthodox Judaism that is intellectually sound, spiritually compelling, and emotionally satisfying. It is based on an unwavering commitment to the Torah tradition and to the Jewish people, it fosters an appreciation of legitimate diversity within Orthodoxy.

Jerusalem's Moat of Blood

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(The following is a narrative from 1847, from the forthcoming book by Mr. Shelomo Alfassa, "A Window Into Old Jerusalem.") This short legend of Jerusalem has been long forgotten--until now.

On the east side of Jerusalem, opposite to the side of the Mount of Olives, lies the site of the Temple, to the southeast of the present town. To the north and the west are those large buildings, which touch the Western Wall, and surrounds the site on all sides. The Jews of Jerusalem perform their evening devotions near this spot each Friday afternoon and on the eves of their high festivals; but no one dares to tread on the inner part, which is strictly guarded by the Turks. On the site of the Holy of Holies stands a splendid building erected by Solomon, dedicated to the religious solemnities of the Mussulmam.

It is said that there is here to be found a cave; the contents of which are unknown however, to this day. The Jews assert that the sacred coffer of relics is concealed here. The first Turkish rulers wished to have it examined; but when persons sent for that purpose attempted to enter, they were struck dead; and so all further researches have ceased.

The Medrass of Solomon, a building erected by that king, is the spot, where, according to tradition, the Jews established the Sanhedrin (or high Court of Justice). To this place there are two entrances; one to the north, the other to the west; the southern side is distinguished by numerous windows. The way from this building to the Temple is through an avenue of trees, surrounded by a moat. The Arabians tread this path with bare feet; as they consider the soil sacred; and to this spot they bring their dead, previous to interment, in order to protect them from the judgments of God. There is, to the west of the Temple, a trench which is called by the Arabians Bir-el-dain (trench of blood); they believe that in that trench was poured the blood of the burnt offerings. Beside this trench, tradition goes on to say, Nebusaradan, a captain of Nebuchadnezzar, caused many children, Jewish mothers and Priests to be massacred, in order to avenge the innocent blood of Zachariah, son of the Priest Jehoiada.

Outside the city, but still within the walls surrounding it, is a cave, excavated by command of King Hiskia. It is related that Zedekiah, the last King of Judah, escaped through it, in order to avoid falling into the hands of the Chaldeans. This cave is near the gate Bab-el-Amoud [Damascus Gate], and according to the assertion of some Jews, it is said to be large enough to contain a man on horseback. They say also that in it is a square room hewn out of stone, which was intended for a synagogue; and in the wall of this room was embedded a written roll of the Pentateuch; but a search there is forbidden. Through a cleft in the rock which time had caused, I could perceive something of the interior of this cave.

Jerusalem, once so flourishing and prosperous, then for along time demolished and desolate, is now inhabited by people of all climes.


[From the writing of the Jewish traveler, Israel Joseph Benjamin, 1847.]

"A Window Into Old Jerusalem"

ISBN: 978-0-9763226-5-8 (0-9763226-5-X) 6x9 inch Casebound Hardcover, 371 pgs. w/ photos

(Original research by Shelomo Alfassa)

This Week in Sephardic History (Dec. 10-15)

December 12, 1626: Inquisitional authorities arrested Francisco Maldonado de Silva, after his sister (a devout Catholic) turned him in because he told her he believed in Judaism, as their father had. His passion for Judaism came after studying a book written in 1391 by the Bishop of Burgos. The Bishop, a convert Jew, was born as Solomon Halevi. He had written a book to defend the Catholic faith. Halevi's words put doubt into Francisco's mind about Catholicism, and brought him closer to Judaism-the religion Francisco's father had already been following. In the end, Francisco went to his death January 23, 1639 for his faith in Judaism.  

December 13, 1847: The Portuguese congregation of New Orleans held their first annual meeting and elected the following officers: Jacob L. Levy, President; A. C. Labatt, Vice President; Joseph De Pass, senior Trustee; A. T. Ezekiel, Junior Trustee; Isaac Rodriguez, Treasurer, and Jacob Ezekiel, Secretary.  

December 11, 1914: Hahambashi Rabbi Nahum calls upon Ottoman government in Palestine to for protection of the Jews in the face of an anti-foreign movement.  

December 10, 1915: Moise Cohen of Constantinople was appointed professor of finance at Ottoman University.  

December 15, 1916: Jewish community in Sophia, Bulgaria agree to erect and maintain a large military hospital.

December 15, 1916: Greeks call up all Jews 19-30 for military service. The response was so overwhelming, that the authorities ordered police not to arrest any Jews in the streets or delinquents in their houses.

December 11, 1917: British troops under General Allenby make their way into Jerusalem, defeating the Ottoman Turks. The whole city turned out to greet the General, as did the Chief Sephardic and Ashkenazic Rabbis who came to hear him speak.  

December 14, 1917: Reuters telegram to Amsterdam reports the population of Palestine is suffering terribly; and that the population has been reduced to one third because of hunger, sickness and distress. Only 23,000 of the 60,000 Jews are left in Jerusalem.

December 10, 1920: Greek General Zymbrakakis, commander of the forces in Thrace blames the Jews for partly causing anti-Venizelos manifestations. Jewish deputies at Salonica and Adrianople protest this declaration.  

December 10, 1930: The savings bank which many members of the Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood in New York had their money in closed and no funds were made available; this was during the Depression. The collection of dues began to fall off at an alarming rate, and there was a high demand for financial aid from a Secret Relief Fund.

December 14, 1932: Died, Dr. Angel Pulido y Fernandez, Spanish researcher of the Sephardim. He was born in Madrid in 1852, and became a physician in 1873. In addition to medicine, he was active in politics and historical research. In 1904 he wrote 'Espanoles sin Patria' (Spaniards without a home) which sparked the idea of the Sephardim returning to Spain. He became a member of the Spanish Parliament, and later the King made him a Senator. He spent the latter part of his life passionate about Sephardic return, writing, meeting and advocating this idea.

December 14, 1968: The Spanish Minister of Justice annulled the 'Edict of Expulsion' given by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. Mr. Samuel Toledano was the first to hear of this annulment when he sought a permit for the opening of the synagogue.

Who Was Nahmanides ??

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Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman was the leader of Spanish Jewry in the end of the turbulent thirteenth century. He is commonly known as the RaMBaN, as well as by the Greek name, Nahmanides. Not only was he officially the chief rabbi of Aragon and Catalonia, but he was a well respected leader of Jews everywhere. The rabbi was born in Girona, Catalonia, Spain in 1194 (4955) and grew to become the crown of Western European Jewish scholarship. Today we acknowledge that his great Torah scholarship, laudable personal life, and incisive analysis of Jewish history, remains a beacon of light shining through the centuries.

Nahmanides was related to the great Rabbi Yonah of Girona.  Girona was a location with a circle of mekubalim (kabbalists). This city in northern Spain is notable because it was where kabbala flourished in the period prior to the introduction of the Zohar. As a young man, Nahmanides was mentored in kabbala by Rabbis Ezra and Ezriel, both who had arrived from Genova, a seaport city in northwestern Italy.

Once an adult, the rabbi demonstrated he was a true intellectual, a Sepharadi who set the mold for others who followed--he was a man of faith, of Torah, and a man of the world. He was not only a Torah commentator, Talmudist, and kabbalist, but also a student of medicine, something which he practiced professionally. Nahmanides studied physics as well as excelled in numerous languages. He had been one of the earliest writers to build a bridge of understanding between the French and the Spanish schools of Jewish thought. On the one side, his Spanish birth and training made him open to the world, yet he possessed the Ashkenazi devotion to the Talmud that was already existent in France.

Despite the fact that Nahmanides was only a boy of ten when Maimonides passed away, as he matured, he developed an intellectual affection toward his writings.  Eventually, it would be Nahmanides that struggled to unite European Jews that had entered into an incredible schism fueled by the works of Maimonides. Nahmanides had great reverence for Maimonides' works, but he disagreed with Maimonides' rationalizing of the Scriptures and his enumeration of the 613 Commandments.

Nahmanides tried to reconcile the supporters and opponents of Maimonides, including Rabbi Yonah of Girona who was vehemently against Maimonides' writings. Nahmanides defended Maimonides against his detractors, claiming that most of the criticisms were simply false. His need to defend Maimonides ended after Nahmanides most famous defense of Judaism ended in King Louis of France burning all the copies of the Talmud in Paris. After this sad event, Rabbi Yonah and other detractors of Maimonides felt that the events in Paris were a sign that he and the others critics of Maimonides were seriously wrong, and Rabbi Yonah and his colleagues backed down from this matter and all matters that caused division among the Jewish People.

In the Disputation of 1263, Nahmanides brilliantly defended the Jewish religion. This particular disputation took place in Barcelona after King James I of Aragon ordered the rabbi to participate in a public religious debate with the Jewish apostate Pablo Christiani. One of the main themes of the debate was, "Has the mashiah arrived, or is he yet to appear and redeem the world..." Disputations such as this were not that unusual. Heretical converts from Judaism to Christianity challenged rabbis to defend the Talmud against challenges of anti-Christianity. Pablo Christiani demonstrated his knowledge of the subject by basing his arguments on Biblical and Talmudic texts. Nahmanides resisted the attacks of Christiani for four days. He responded, taking advantage of the freedom of speech which the king had granted him. In doing so, the rabbi destroyed Pablo's arguments. It can be observed that the rabbi won the battle but then lost the war. Although he won the disputes, copies of the Talmud were consequently gathered and burned by the Church.

While the king was very impressed by the rabbi's victory, arguments continued after the dispute, with a Dominican priest claiming that Christiani had won. As a result of this claim, Nahmanides wrote Sefer Havikuah (the dispute), which detailed the event. As a result of the printing of this book, the religious authorities charged him with humiliating the Catholic religion. He seemingly offended the Dominicans (the promoters of the Inquisition which would be instituted 200 years later), as well as Pope Clement IV. Soon after, the rabbi was banished from Spain forever.

In 1267 at the age of 72, Nahmanides emigrated to Jerusalem where he established a synagogue from the ruins of an old Crusader-period church. This synagogue was used by all sections of the Jerusalem community for centuries, growing significantly as the Jewish population bloomed following the conquest of Eretz Israel in 1517 by the Turks; the Turkish Ottoman Empire permitted Jews who had been expelled from Spain to settle there. Today, the Nahmanides or RaMBaN Synagogue, is the largest active Ashkenazi synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Nahmanides spent the last years of his enormously productive life finishing his monumental commentary on the Torah that he had begun in Spain. He eventually settled in Acco, north of Haifa, where he continued to write. Through his commentary, he offered a clear view and explanation of the Torah, showing the moral and ethnical lessons that it contained. In many places throughout his commentaries, he introduced midrashic and kabbalistic explanations. Another gem of those final years was Igeret HaRaMBaN, the letter in which he sets forth eloquently and concisely the ethical principles by which his son should conduct himself.

The elderly rabbi remained in Acco while waiting for a decision that would permit his return to Spain. This decision never materialized and he never returned nor saw his family again. Nahmanides died in 1270. It is believed he is buried at the foot of Mt. Carmel.

Nahmanides: First to introduce mystical thought into a Torah commentary

Translated and edited by Hakham Nissim Elnecave and Shelomo Alfassa

INTRODUCTION: The perasha last week spoke about the two dreams Yosef had. Yosef dreamt that he and his brothers were gathering sheaves in the field, tying them up together. Yosef's sheaf stood up, and the brothers' sheaves bowed down to his (Bereshit 37:5-9). In his second dream, the sun, the moon and 11 stars bowed to him. The issue here is whether this was a prediction for the future; would the brothers bow down to Yosef? Due to their similarity, it seems that the interpretation of the dreams were the same. The simple interpretation is that Yosef would rule over his brothers. It appears that it took twenty-two years for this to be fulfilled. This happened when the brothers arrived in Egypt to buy grain and found themselves bowing before their brother Yosef. Nahmanides, in his commentary to the Torah, carefully delves into the questions that arise from this story. Nahmanides is among the first to introduce mystical thought into a Torah commentary.

* * *

Nahmanides on Fulfilling Dreams
(Perashat Mikes)

On a particular night Par'o (Pharaoh) had two dreams. The best known dream is the one involving cows. Par'o was standing by a river where he saw seven beautiful meaty cows come out of the marsh. Following them were seven other cows, ugly and thin, that ate the beautiful cows. Arising in the morning and not having anyone capable of interpreting the dream, he called upon Yosef. Yosef told him the dream meant that seven years of plenty would arrive--followed by seven years of incredible famine. The Torah relates to us that after Yosef interpreted Par'o's dream, he was appointed as Viceroy of Egypt, and his duties included preparing the land for the forecasted famine. Yosef was asked to supervise and to stockpile all the produce of the land during the seven years of plenty so he could distribute the food when the seven years of famine began. Years later, when the famine started, Yosef's brothers arrived into Egypt, amongst many other people, to obtain food. Nahmanides wonders if this is the event that will show Yosef's dreams coming to fruition.

The question that should be asked is: Why are all of the people, including the brothers, having to pass directly in front of Yosef? The Torah states, "It was he [Yosef] that sold grain to all the people of the land" (Bereshit 42:6). Nahmanides explains in his commentary, "It is possible that the people from all lands came before him, and he would question and investigate them, and then [he would] command the officers, "Sell so much food of this-and-that to the people of that city. Thus it was necessary for the children of Yaakov to come before him among those who came from the land of Canaan..."

Although the Torah says, "And Yosef saw his brothers, and he recognized them," we know the brothers did not recognize Yosef. Nahmanides give us two possibilities as to why the brothers could not recognize him, he states, "Immediately as Yosef saw them, he recognized them, and he feared they would recognize him. So he made himself strange looking by putting a mitre [hood] upon his forehead and part of the face, thus disguising himself." Nahmanides gives us a second option, "It may be here that he made himself strange by his words, speaking to them harshly and asking them in anger, "From where do you come to appear before me?" And they said, "From the land of Canaan to buy food." When the men mentioned this to him, it became clear to Yosef that they were indeed his brothers. This is the meaning of the expression, "And Yosef recognized his brothers," which is mentioned a second time to indicate an additional sense of recognition of their identities.

Nahmanides says, "...Scripture states that when Yosef saw his brothers bowing down to him, he remembered all the dreams which he had dreamt. He knew that, in this instance, not one of the dreams had been fulfilled." Nahmanides feels that, as the first dream entails, all of the brothers have to bow down to Yosef. In addition, as in the second dream, the brothers also must bring the father to bow to Yosef. Nahmanides understands the dreams have not been fulfilled yet, and that Yosef must maneuver in order to make them come true.

Yosef only saw ten of the brothers, they arrived together without Binyamin. Nahmanides says, "Now since he did not see Binyamin with them, he [Yosef] conceived a strategy devising a charge against them, so that they would also have to bring Binyamin to him, in order to fulfill the first dream. Without Binyamin bowing with the other ten men, the dream was not fulfilled. For this reason, Yosef wasn't ready to tell the men that he was their brother."

It was only after fulfillment of the first dream that Yosef revealed himself, and Yosef thought the setting was ready for the men to bring the father to fulfill his second dream. According to Nahmanides, Yosef had to strategize to fulfill the interpretation of his own dreams.  Nahmanides said that Yosef, "Assigned each [moment] to its proper time in order to fulfill the dreams." Ultimately, we learn that, in Nahmanides' opinion, Yosef had to maneuver to bring these dreams to fruition, even while causing his brothers and father anguish.

So what do we learn from Nahmanides' viewpoint?

Nahmanides seems to infer through his commentary that one cannot just dream of the future, one must strive to make his dream come true. It is not just fate we live, but a fate of our own making. As we have seen, Yosef was given the dreams by the Almighty, and thus Yosef knew what needed to be done. Furthermore, Yosef was great enough to wait for the right time and place, and, with effort, to follow the path God had laid-even bringing pain and suffering to himself, his brothers, and his loving father.

(This Original Essay is Copyrighted by Shelomo Alfassa - All Rights Reserved)

Recently, revisionist historian David Irving appeared at the University of Oxford in England and set off a mass protest by Jews and others. Irving has written many books, some which defend Hitler and some which deny the systematic attempt to extermination the world Jewish population by the German government during World War II. His statements include: "There were never any gas chambers in Auschwitz," and "I don't see any reason to be tasteful about Auschwitz. It's baloney, it's a legend." So why would Oxford, the oldest university in the English-speaking world, allow this man to speak on campus?

Irving was invited to speak at Oxford by the president of the Oxford Union debate society which now has been accused of promoting anti-Semitism. Oxford has hosted other anti-Semites and Jew haters on their campus before, including Malcolm X, Richard Nixon and Jerry Falwell. The university has had a long historic history of conducting itself in a manner that, shall we say, has been less than hospitable to the Jews over the centuries. Compounding this insult is the fact that the University of Oxford was built upon land both given by, and taken from, Jews.

The University of Oxford is made up of several constituent colleges. The university's 2007 Website states that Oxford has been an important center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies "since the sixteenth century," yet, Jews were not allowed to attend Oxford until the nineteenth century! They had been banned from day one, never allowed to matriculate from the origin of the institution in 1264 to 1854; for 590 years, the university was a mandatory Jew-free zone.

Nevertheless, Christian scholars consulted with rabbis and Jewish scholars who lived in Oxford, and who, it is thought, studied in a Talmudic academy in the Jewish part of town. Jews have had a important influence on what would become the university, even before its inception. The first Jew had arrived in the city of Oxford in 1073 and others followed "in great number" in 1075. Property deeds extant today, demonstrate that Oxford university is located, at least partially, on land deeded to it by Rabbi Moses who had come from the city of Bristol around 1210, as well as other Jews. In 1190, the Jewish community developed a cemetery at Oxford, in which today stands in its place the University of Oxford Botanic Gardens.

Accounts of anti-Jewish attitudes originating in 1141, included several varied incidents, including the burning of the house of "Aaron, the son of Isaac the Jew." Aaron's home was burnt down by King Stephen in order to exact payment of a fine. About 1228, two houses owned by "David of Oxford" and "Isaac ben Moses" were confiscated. They were used as the new Oxford town hall and court house. A new building was built atop the site in 1292, then replaced in 1752, which was demolished in 1893 to make way for the current building, the landmark Town Hall, an enormous structure, that remains till this day on the site of the former Jewish owned real estate.

In 1244, Christian students rioted and attacked Jewish homes, claiming that their studies at the university were halted because all the books were pawned to Jewish money lenders. Some 24 years later, a riot was started after a Jew allegedly damaged a cross during a religious procession at the university. Resulting from this matter, Jews were imprisoned, then forced to pay for a large marble cross that was placed at Merton College, Oxford's first college that was built around 1264, one of many constituent colleges of the university.

Blood libels and other accounts of the Jews kidnapping, crucifying, and torturing English children to utilize their blood in Jewish religious affairs were rampant before King Edward I expelled the Jews from England in 1290. In History of Oxford University, published by the Oxford University Press, we learn this expulsion led to financial hardship for the scholars of Oxford, and that "The university had few extra resources of its own from which to supply credit and for probably the first time in its history, found itself in need of substantial sums of money."

During the expulsion, the Jews of the city of Oxford had their goods and property confiscated and sold to William Burnell, Archdeacon of Wells. He turned the property into residence halls for students at the University of Oxford. In 1307, after the death of Burnell, the halls were passed to Balliol College, another of the constituent colleges that make up today's University of Oxford. Afterward, the Bishop of London bought the structure and it became known as London College. This college was eventually replaced by the massive Christ's Church, another college on the Oxford campus.

The passing of the Oxford University Act in 1854 allowed Jews to enroll, but anti-Semitism and intolerance endured, causing Jews to conceal their faith. As late as 1938, when Dr. Cecil Roth returned to Oxford as a lecturer, the university continued to require Jews, as well as others, take examinations on Saturday. Roth, an observant Jew, would use his influence to strike a change in Oxford's long held policy.

While today, Oxford beams of a history that includes the teaching of "Hebrew and Jewish Studies," what they don't tell you, is that these studies were conducted by non-Jews--while Jews themselves were ethnically marginalized from the campus.

Could this be a sort of latent hatred of Jews and/or Israel that may have surfaced once again at Oxford? It is lamentable that the university has provided Holocaust denier and Nazi sympathizer David Irving a platform to speak. Providing him with an opportunity to spread his lies and mishistory, especially when he is on the stage of such an acclaimed university, has the effect of conferring a sort of legitimacy to this convicted criminal. The mere fact that they have found him important enough to participate on their campus, even after the Jewish students have vehemently demanded he not be allowed to spread his anti-Semitic and hurtful lies, demonstrates Oxford's lack of sensitivity for its Jewish students and the worldwide Jewish community at large. The fact that the Oxford Union had sent Irving an invitation, and that the University allowed him to come, tarnishes the name of the institution.

(Edited by Shelomo Alfassa)

Rabbi Dr. Henry Pereira Mendes was rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York 1877-1937. Dr. Mendes was the founder of the Orthodox Union (OU) and was president of it during the first 16 years of its existence. He was also a co-founder of the (originally orthodox!) Jewish Theological Seminary with a fellow Sephardic rabbi, Sabato Morais. Here, Rabbi Mendes writes in his Ruach Hayim, about Hanuka:

THE celebration of Hanuka is observed by lighting one lamp the first night, two lamps on the second, three lamps on the third, and so on for eight nights. On each night the benediction is recited. The historical reason for the festival is to commemorate the eight days of cleansing the Temple, after the defilement and ruin caused by Antiochus, King of Syria and Greece (c. 168 BCE).

A jar of oil sealed with the high-priest's seal, and therefore judged to be of requisite purity for the Temple "Menorah" or Lamp, was found with enough oil in it to last for a week until more could be made. This is the origin of lighting the Hanuka, or "Dedication" lamps.

The wise parent will seize the opportunity Hanuka affords to prepare their children to "dedicate their lives to Jewish loyalty." For Hanuka falls about the time of the great Christian festival, whose atmosphere invades stores, the streets, the schools, the very life of the community in which we live. Our children are affected by it consciously, unconsciously and subconsciously.

To counteract, we must counter-attract:

1. Let us make Hanuka attractive—let it be a happy home festival.

2. Exchange presents; have a happy evening gathering;

3. But allow no Christmas tree in the home;

From the viewpoint of history, that tree is symbolical of a religion hostile to ours, and every leaf is red with the blood and wet with the tears of our martyrs, due to its hostility. To have that tree in a Jewish home stamps the father a traitor and the mother a traitoress to our religion, to duty and to God.

4. Read the story of Hanuka to the children. The battles of Beth-Zur and Emmaus are as glorious as Yorktown or Waterloo. The suffering of the Jewish patriots in the Judean hills was as intense as those of American patriots in Valley Forge. The daring and loyalty of Hannah and her seven sons, of the aged Eleazer, is equal to any story of daring and loyalty in all history. Let the children thus learn to be patriots, proud of a splendid ancestry. But let the grown men and women know that the story of Hanuka means the salvation and triumph of monotheism and morality and the defeat of polytheism and immorality.

Except for this triumph, Judaism would have stamped out of existence, and Christianity, the daughter of Judaism and Paganism, would never have been born to lift mankind half way from the religious slime of the so-called classic world to the heights of Sinai. The world owes much to our race, to our Law-giver, to our prophets and psalmists, to our heroes and martyrs, among them the heroes and martyrs of Hanuka.

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