Author Archives: Ronald L. Eisenberg

Ronald L. Eisenberg

About Ronald L. Eisenberg

Ronald L. Eisenberg, a radiologist and non-practicing attorney, is the author of numerous books, including The Jewish World in Stamps.


Reprinted with permission from The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions, published by the Jewish Publication Society.

The honor of reciting the blessings over the Torah is called an aliyah (plural, aliyot), which means “going up.” This refers both to the physical ascent of the person to the bimah where the Torah is read and to the spiritual uplifting associated with participation in this hallowed ritual.

The number of aliyot varies widely (Meg. 4:1-2). Three people are called to the Torah on Monday and Thursday mornings, on Sabbath afternoons, during the mincha service on Yom Kippur, on the festivals of Hanukkah and Purim, and on all fast days.

Among the reasons offered for this ruling are the three classes of Jews (Kohanim, Levites, Israelites) that must be represented; the threefold division of the Bible (Torah, Prophets, Writings); and the threefold Priestly Blessing, the first of which contains three Hebrew words (Meg. 21b). On Monday and Thursday mornings, when congregants have to go to work, calling up more than three people would overly lengthen the service. If there were more than three aliyot at Mincha on Saturday afternoon, the service would not be completed before dark (Rashi, Meg. 21a).

Each aliyah must consist of a minimum of three verses (Meg. 4:4), and a public Torah reading must have a minimum of 10 verses (Meg. 21b)–a practice traditionally related to the number of commandments in the Decalogue. The only exceptions to this practice are the reading for Purim morning (Exod. 17:8-16) and the weekday reading for the section of Vayelekh (Deut. 31:1-9), when a total of nine verses are read.

Number of Aliyot

There are four aliyot on Rosh Hodesh and on the intermediate days (hol hamoed) of Passover and Sukkot; five on Rosh Hashanah and on the festival days of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot; six on the morning of Yom Kippur; and seven on Sabbath morning.

On Sabbath mornings, some congregations take advantage of a provision in Jewish law that permits dividing the Torah portion into more (but not less) than the required number of aliyot (Meg.23a). This is not permitted on Mondays or Thursdays or when Rosh Hodesh, Hanukkah, and fast days fall during the midweek, lest it waste the time of people who must go to work (bittul melakhah).

El Maleh Rahamim

Reprinted with permission from The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions, published by the Jewish Publication Society.

El Maleh Rahamim
(God full of compassion) is a prayer for the departed that is recited with a haunting chant at funeral services, on visiting the graves of relatives (especially during the month of Elul), and after having been called up to the reading of the Torah on the anniversary of the death of a close relative.

What is it and where does it come from?

In some Ashkenazic synagogues, El Maleh Rahamim is also a part of the Yizkor memorial service on Yom Kippur and on the last days of the three pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot). The prayer originated in the Jewish communities of Western and Eastern Europe, where it was recited for the martyrs of the Crusades and of the Chmielnicki massacres.

If one or both parents of either a bride or groom is dead, it is customary to visit the grave before the wedding and to recite El Maleh Rahamim. At one time this memorial prayer was recited during the wedding service under the huppah. Although a dramatic and effective way to remember the deceased, this practice marred the joy of the wedding.

Consequently, the fashion has changed and the memorial prayer is now usually recited (if at all) before the wedding ceremony in the presence of the immediate family, usually in the rabbi’s study.

Soul Music

El Maleh Rahamim is a plea that the soul of the departed be granted menuchah nechonah (proper rest), since the mere fact that a soul is in Gan Eden (Paradise) does not guarantee it complete contentment. According to tradition, the level of the soul in Gan Eden depends on its prior achievements on earth. Through our prayers and good deeds, we hope to earn God’s compassion for the departed souls of those who were dear to us.

The statement is made that the worshiper resolves to "contribute to charity in remembrance of his (or her) soul." El Maleh Rahamim includes the phrase "on the wings of the Divine Presence," rather than the more common "under the wings of the Divine Presence."

The latter phrase implies heavenly protection from danger by using the analogy of a bird spreading its protective wings over its young. The analogy is reversed when speaking of spiritual elevation–God’s presence is compared to a soaring eagle that puts its young on top of its wings and carries them aloft.


Shabbat’s Work Prohibition

Note: Jews observe Shabbat in a variety of ways. The following explains the most traditional and strict interpretations of what is and is not permitted on Shabbat.

Reprinted with permission from The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions, published by the Jewish Publication Society.

The Bible does not specifically list those labors that are prohibited on the Sabbath, although it alludes to field labor (Exod. 34:21; Num.15:32-36), treading in a winepress and loading animals (Neh. 13:15-18), doing business and carrying (Isa. 58:13; Jer. 17:22; Amos 8:5), traveling (Exod. 16:29-30), and kindling fire (Exod. 35:2-3) as forbidden work.

Beyond Torah: What Can and Can’t We Do?

In the Mishnah, the Rabbis enumerated 39 major categories (with hundreds of subcategories) of labor that were forbidden (avot melakhah) based on the types of work that were related to the construction of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, which ceased on the Sabbath (Shab. 7:2).
work on shabbat
Activities that cannot be performed on the Sabbath are basic tasks connected with preparing the showbread (sowing, plowing, reaping, binding, threshing, winnowing, selecting, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking), work related to making the coverings in the Tabernacle and the vestments used by the Kohanim (shearing sheep), bleaching, carding (changing tangled or compressed material into separate fibers), dyeing, spinning, stretching (material), making two loops (meshes), threading needles, weaving, separating, tying (a knot), untying (a knot), sewing, tearing, activities concerned with writing and the preparation of parchment from animal skin (trapping or hunting), slaughtering, flaying (skinning), treating skins (curing hides), scraping pelts, marking out (to make ready for cutting), cutting (to shape), writing, erasing, construction (building, demolishing), kindling a flame (lighting, extinguishing), carrying (from private to public domain, and vice versa), and putting the finishing touches to a piece of work already begun before the Sabbath.

Neilah Service: Closing of the Gates

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Reprinted with permission from The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions, published by the Jewish Publication Society.

Neilah, (Closing of the gates) is the final service of Yom Kippur. Some have suggested that the name refers to the historical fact that this extra service was recited at the end of the Day of Atonement, when the Temple gates were closing. However, the special piyyutim written for this service favor the idea that Neilah reflects the more spiritual concept of the closing of the gates of Heaven, which have been kept open to receive our final prayers and supplications.

This poetic image has imbued the Neilah service with a sense of urgency. In contrast to the leisurely pace of the other Yom Kippur services, the mood suddenly changes.

neilah locked gate

Although Judaism teaches that the gates of prayer are always open to the truly repentant, as individuals and as a congregation we feel that this is our final chance to pour out our hearts before the divine throne of mercy. Even those who have left the synagogue because of weakness induced by the fast usually return to participate in the Neilah service.

A Sprint to the Finish

Paradoxically, as the initial hunger from fasting wears off, many worshipers feel a revitalization of their spiritual strength. Beginning with the repetition of the Amidah, the ark remains open throughout the Neilah service. All who are physically capable remain standing, an act that requires additional effort and adds to the feeling of urgency and spiritual transformation.

The separate members of the congregation appear as one penitent, joined in their firm conviction that the divine judge will pardon their sins at this final hour of the day. In the Amidah,the phrase used since Rosh Hashanah, “inscribeus in the Book of Life,” now becomes “sealus in the Book of Life,” as the final seal is placed on the divine decree. Ashamnu and Avinu Malkeinu are again repeated, but the pressure of time forces the omission of the long Al Het.


This article contains information about some of the most popular Shabbat songs (Shalom Aleichem, Yom Zeh L’Yisrael, Yah Ribom Olam,Yom Zeh Mechubad, Tzur Mishelo,) followed by videos of them being performed accompanied by the words in transliteration, so you can practice singing them. The videos have all been embedded from YouTube and were not produced by MyJewishLearning. For a searchable database of zemirot recordings and lyrics, go here

Reprinted with permission from The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions, published by the Jewish Publication Society.

“Zemirot” is the term for the table hymns sung during or immediately after Sabbath meals. These medieval songs represent a unique blend of the holy and the secular, the serious and the playful, and allow family and friends to enhance the Sabbath experience.

Shalom Aleichem

The most famous of the zemirot is “Shalom Aleichem” (Peace be upon you), which traditionally is sung as the family gathers around the table on Friday night to welcome the “angels of peace.” This hymn, and believed to have been written in the 17th century, was inspired by talmudic legend (Shab. 119b).

Rabbi Yosi ben Yehuda taught: “Two ministering angels–one good, one evil–accompany every Jew from the synagogue to his home on the Sabbath eve. If they find the candles burning, the table set, and the bed covered with a spread, the good angel exclaims, ‘May it be God’s will that it also be so on the next Sabbath,’ and the evil angel is compelled to respond ‘amen.’ But if everything is disorderly and gloomy, the evil angel exclaims, ‘May it be God’s will that it also be so on the next Sabbath,’ and the good angel is forced to say ‘amen.'”

After extending our wishes for peace to the ministering angels “of the Most Exalted, the Supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He,” in the final three verses we successively pray “May your coming be in peace,” “Bless me with peace,” and “May your departure be in peace.”

Israeli Flag

During their wanderings in the wilderness after the Exodus from bondage in Egypt, the Jewish people raised banners and flags (degel) in their camps to signify their tribal identities (Num 2:2). According to the Midrash, each tribal prince had a flag (mappah) of a unique color, corresponding to one of the 12 precious stones of the breastplate of Aaron, the Kohen Gadol (Num. R. 2:7).

Theodor Herzl’s first design for a Zionist flag, as written in his diary in 1895 and proposed in The Jewish State one year later, was seven gold stars (representing the “seven working hours” of the day) on a white background (standing for “our new and pure life”). Although other Zionist leaders convinced him to accept the Star of David, Herzl insisted that six stars appear opposite the six points of the Magen David, with a seventh star above it. This design, with the inscription “Aryeh Yehudah” (Lion of Judah) embroidered in the center, became the first Zionist flag.

The combination of blue and white as the colors of the Jewish flag was derived from an 1860 poem, Judah’s Colors, by Austrian Ludwig August Frankl, which explained that the blue symbolized “the splendors of the firmament,” and the white represented “the radiance of the priesthood.” The blue stripes on the Zionist flag were also inspired by the stripes on the tallit. They provided “religious and ritual symbolism of Jewish life guided by precepts of the Torah, while the Star of David reflected the unity of the Jewish people.”

The dark blue stripes in the original flag were later lightened to enhance visibility at sea. Soon after the establishment of the State of Israel, the Zionist flag became the official national flag–“a white rectangle with two blue stripes along its entire length and a Star of David in the center made up of six dark blue stripes forming two equilateral triangles.”

Prayer as Polemic

In addition to being a means of expression for worship, prayer is also a statement of belief. As such, it not only is designed to articulate one’s own principles of faith but also is an attempt by the normative majority "to counter dissidents and sectarian minorities."

Liturgical examples in Judaism include the following:

Yigdal, a poetic rendition of Maimonides’ "13 Principles of Faith."

Elohai Neshamah, which emphasizes the purity of the soul that God directly breathes into a person and, by implication, refutes the Christian doctrine of original sin.

• The second blessing of the Amidah, which repeats six times the doctrine of resurrection (denied by the Samaritans and Sadducees).

• The verse, "Who forms light and creates darkness, makes peace and creates all things" (Isa. 45:7), attacking the dualist Persian (Zoroastrian) religion that believed that the world was created and preserved by two opposing forces, light and darkness, which manifest their existence in good and evil, respectively.

• Removing the Ten Commandments from the daily service, in opposition to the Pauline Christians, who accepted them but rejected the authority of other Torah laws.

Several polemics were introduced against the Karaites, who followed the literal meaning of the Bible and denied rabbinic interpretation of the text. The Rabbis introduced a special blessing over the Sabbath lights, and the Geonim inserted into the Friday evening service a recitation of Ba-meh Madlikin (With what may we light), a mishnah that discusses which types of wick and oil should be used to provide the home with light on the Sabbath (Shab. 2:1, 20b).

These practices, in direct opposition to the Karaite ritual of extinguishing all lights before the Sabbath and spending the day without heat or light, were designed to indicate unequivocally that having lights burning in one’s dwelling was not merely permitted but a positive commandment.

The 13 Attributes of Mercy

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Reprinted with permission from The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions, published by the Jewish Publication Society.

The core of the Selichot prayers is the 13 Attributes of Mercy, the very words that God taught Moses for the people to use whenever they needed to beg for divine compassion. Because the Talmud states that God was wearing a tallit at that time (Rosh Hashanah 17b), it is customary for the prayer leader to wear a tallit for the recital of the Selichot prayers, even though they otherwise are never worn at this early hour because it is too dark to see the tzitzit (which are meant to be visual reminders, as in the verse, “And you shall see them”; Num. 15:39).

The 13 Attributes of Mercy are found after the incident of the Golden Calf, when God threatened to destroy the people of Israel rather than forgive them (Exod. 32:10). According to the Talmud, Moses felt that Israel’s sin was so serious that there was no possibility of intercession on their behalf (Rosh Hashanah 17b).

At this point, God appeared to Moses and taught him the Thirteen Attributes, saying: “Whenever Israel sins, let them recite this [the Thirteen Attributes] in its proper order and I will forgive them.” Thus this appeal to God’s mercy reassures us that repentance is always possible and that God always awaits our return.”

Biblical Origins

The 13 Attributes of Mercy are based on two verses in Exodus: “The Lord! The Lord! God, Compassionate and Gracious, Slow to anger and Abundant in Kindness and Truth, Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, Forgiver of iniquity, willful sin, and error, and Who Cleanses (but does not cleanse completely, recalling the iniquity of parents upon children and grandchildren, to the third and fourth generations)” (34:6-7).

The Hebrew phrase “v’nakeh lo y’nakeh” (and who cleanses but does not cleanse) is a common biblical grammatical form that uses repetition to stress the action. The Rabbis ingeniously cut off the verse after v’nakeh, thus changing the meaning to indicate that God does forgive all sins.

Avodah Service

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Reprinted with permission from The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions, published by the Jewish Publication Society.

Avodah (literally, “service”), the name for the Temple ritual, is now applied to an essential element of the Musaf service on Yom Kippur. It vividly describes the sacrificial ritual in the Temple on the Day of Atonement, based on Leviticus 16 and detailed in Mishnah Yoma(1-7) and the Talmudic tractate of the same name.

The Avodah service has preserved the quintessential rite of ancient Judaism, the most solemn moment of the Jewish year involving the holiest person (Kohen Gadol), the holiest time (Yom Kippur), and the holiest place (Temple in Jerusalem). Although not one of the pilgrimage festivals on which Jews were biblically required to appear at the Temple in Jerusalem (Deut. 16:16), on Yom Kippur huge throngs of worshipers came to see the awesome ritual and to hear the words of the Kohen Gadol.

Origins of the Service

After the destruction of the Second Temple and the cessation of the sacrificial rites, how could the people achieve atonement? The Rabbis ruled that in this emergency situation, one could perform the Temple duties by reading about them, since the utterance of a person’s lips is equivalent to the actual performance of the ritual.

In addition, the Rabbis were convinced that a yearly recitation of the Yom Kippur ritual in the Temple would give Jews a sense of historical continuity and an intense longing for the restoration of their ancient homeland. The Avodah service was initially just a narration of the Temple ritual on Yom Kippur as related in Mishnah Yoma,but during the Middle Ages, numerous piyyutim were added.

Yom Kippur was the only time during the year when the Kohen Gadol entered the Holy of Holies in the Temple. Preparation for this event began a week before the Day of Atonement, when the Kohen Gadol went to a designated area of the Temple court to study the sacrificial ritual for Yom Kippur.

Meal of Consolation

Upon returning from the funeral to the home where shiva will be observed, it is traditional to ritually wash one’s hands with water from a pitcher placed outside the door. This custom is based on the biblical concept that contact with a corpse is a major cause of ritual impurity (Num. 19:11). It also stresses that Judaism is concerned with the value and dignity of life, rather than excessive attention to or worship of the dead.

The washing is performed with a cup of water poured alternatively on both hands; as with the shovel at the filling of the grave, the cup is not passed directly from hand to hand.

It is the obligation of the community to provide a meal of condolence (seudat havra’ah) for the mourners on their return from the cemetery. Indeed, the Jerusalem Talmud criticized neighbors who caused the bereaved to prepare their own meal, cursing them for being so callous to the plight of the mourners.

What types of food should be eaten?

Upon returning from the funeral to the home where shiva will be observed, it is traditional to ritually wash one’s hands with water from a pitcher placed outside the door. This custom is based on the biblical concept that contact with a corpse is a major cause of ritual impurity (Num. 19:11). It also stresses that Judaism is concerned with the value and dignity of life, rather than excessive attention to or worship of the dead.meal of consolation

It is customary to serve foods that are round to symbolize the cyclical and continuous nature of life. Among the most common are hardboiled eggs (a symbol of the close connection between life and death), lentils, garbanzo beans, and even bagels.

According to some, the egg is the only food that hardens the longer it is cooked, stressing that human beings must learn to steel themselves when death occurs. Similarly, the egg is completely sealed inside its shell, reminding the mourners to remain silent and refrain from casual talk.

Lentils are especially significant because, unlike most beans, they have no eye–symbolic of the deceased no longer being seen. Also, just as lentils have no mouth, so are mourners forbidden to open their mouths to greet people (Gen. Rabbah 63:14).

The critical importance of the seudat havra’ah to the mourners is that it is served by friends and other family members who care deeply for them. In modern times, guests now share in this meal, but it was once limited to those in mourning.

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