Apr 062019
 

Today may be the birthday Moses ben Maimon, commonly known as Maimonides, and also referred to by the acronym Rambam. His birthday depends what year he was born in because it is recorded that he was born on Passover Eve, but either in 1135 or 1138. So, it could be today or March 30th. Maimonides was a medieval Sephardic Jewish philosopher who became one of the most prolific and influential Torah scholars of the Middle Ages. In his time, he was also a preeminent astronomer and physician. His fourteen-volume Mishneh Torah still carries significant canonical authority as a codification of Talmudic law. He did have contemporary critics in Spain, but he was revered by many Arab and Muslim scholars as well as being influenced by them.

Maimonides was born in Córdoba during the end of the golden age of Jewish culture in the Iberian Peninsula. At an early age, he developed an interest in sciences and philosophy. He read those Greek philosophers accessible in Arabic translations, and was deeply immersed in the sciences and learning of Islamic culture. Though the Gaonic Talmudic academic tradition, especially in its North African version, formed the basis of his legal thought, Muslim law, including Almohad legal thought, also had a substantial influence. Maimonides was not known as a supporter of mysticism, although a strong intellectual type of mysticism has been discerned in his philosophy. He expressed disapproval of poetry, the best of which he declared to be false, since it was founded on pure invention.

The Almohads conquered Córdoba in 1148, and abolished dhimmi status (i.e., state protection, through payment of a tax, the jizya, of the life and possessions of non-Muslims). The loss of this status left the Jewish and Christian communities with conversion to Islam, death, or exile as their options. Many Jews were forced to convert, but due to suspicion by the authorities of fake conversions, the new converts had to wear identifying clothing that set them apart and made them subject to public scrutiny. Maimonides’ family chose exile. For the next ten years, Maimonides moved about in southern Spain, eventually settling in Fez in Morocco. During this time, he composed his acclaimed commentary on the Mishnah, between 1166 and 1168.

Following this period in Morocco, together with two sons, he journeyed in Palestine before settling in Egypt around 1168. While in Cairo, he studied in a yeshiva attached to a small synagogue (which now bears his name). Maimonides shortly thereafter was instrumental in helping rescue Jews taken captive during the Christian King Amalric’s siege of the Egyptian town of Bilbays. He sent five letters to the Jewish communities of Lower Egypt asking them to pool money together to pay the ransom. The money was collected and then given to two judges sent to Palestine to negotiate with the Crusaders. The captives were eventually released.

Following this triumph, the family, hoping to increase their wealth, gave their savings to Maimonides’ youngest brother, David ben Maimon, a merchant. Maimonides directed his brother to procure goods only at the Sudanese port of ‘Aydhab. After a long arduous trip through the desert, however, David was unimpressed by the goods on offer there. Against his brother’s wishes, David boarded a ship for India, since great wealth was to be found in the East. Before he could reach his destination, David drowned at sea some time between 1169 and 1177.

In a letter (discovered later in the Cairo Geniza), he wrote:

The greatest misfortune that has befallen me during my entire life—worse than anything else—was the demise of the saint, may his memory be blessed, who drowned in the Indian sea, carrying much money belonging to me, to him, and to others, and left with me a little daughter and a widow. On the day I received that terrible news I fell ill and remained in bed for about a year, suffering from a sore boil, fever, and depression, and was almost given up. About eight years have passed, but I am still mourning and unable to accept consolation. And how should I console myself? He grew up on my knees, he was my brother, [and] he was my student.

Around 1171, Maimonides was appointed the Nagid (leader) of the Egyptian Jewish community. With the loss of the family funds tied up in David’s business venture, Maimonides assumed the vocation of physician, for which he was to become famous. He had trained in medicine in both Córdoba and in Fez. Gaining widespread recognition, he was appointed court physician to the Grand Vizier, al Qadi al Fadil, then to Sultan Saladin, after whose death he remained a physician to the royal family.

In his medical writings, Maimonides described many conditions, including asthma, diabetes, hepatitis, and pneumonia, and he emphasized moderation and a healthy lifestyle. His treatises became influential for generations of physicians. He was knowledgeable about Greek and Arabic medicine, and followed the principles of humorism in the tradition of Galen. He did not blindly accept authority, however, but used his own observation and experience. Maimonides displayed in his interactions with patients attributes that today would be called intercultural awareness and respect for the patient’s autonomy. Although he frequently wrote of his longing for solitude in order to come closer to God and to extend his reflections – elements considered essential in his philosophy to the prophetic experience – he gave over most of his time to caring for others. In a famous letter, Maimonides describes his daily routine: After visiting the Sultan’s palace, he would arrive home exhausted and hungry, where: “I would find the antechambers filled with gentiles and Jews … I would go to heal them, and write prescriptions for their illnesses … until the evening … and I would be extremely weak.” As he goes on to say in this letter, even on the Sabbath he would receive members of the community.

In 1173/4, Maimonides wrote his famous Iggeret Teman (Epistle to Yemen). Maimonides died on December 12th, 1204 (20th of Tevet 4965) in Fustat in Egypt at the age of 69. It is widely believed that he was briefly buried in the study room (beit hamidrash) of the synagogue courtyard, and that, soon after, in accordance with his wishes, his remains were exhumed and taken to Tiberias in Galilee, where he was re-interred. The Tomb of Maimonides on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee in present-day Israel marks his grave.

Here is a recipe for a Passover dish from the Sephardic community. It is a kind of pie or lasagna made with matzoth rather than pastry or pasta. In Spain it is called mina de maza, in Italian, scacchi.

Mina de Maza

Ingredients:

Spinach Filling

2 tbsp butter
1 medium onion, peeled and finely diced
10 oz spinach, chopped
8 oz feta cheese, crumbled
8 oz farmer cheese
2 eggs, lightly beaten
salt and pepper
ground nutmeg
1 tbsp minced fresh dill

Mushroom-Artichoke Filling

2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely minced
8 oz mushrooms, sliced
8 oz artichoke hearts, sliced
salt and pepper
2 tbsp roasted pine nuts

8 regular matzah squares
2 cups vegetable broth
1 egg, beaten
2 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese

butter for greasing the pan

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Lightly grease a 13″ x 9″ pan with butter. Set aside.

Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a 2-quart pan over medium heat. Sauté the onion until golden. Add the spinach, and cook until wilted. Mix in the feta, farmer cheese, eggs, seasonings, and dill, and then set aside.

Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter in a small sauté pan and add the garlic. Cook for 20 seconds over medium high heat, and then mix in the mushrooms, sautéing them for about 5 minutes, until they have given up most of their moisture. Add the artichokes and stir to heat through. Mix in the toasted pine nuts and season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Warm the broth. Pour into an 8-inch square casserole or a deep dish that will hold the liquid and soak 2 sheets of matzah at a time until they are soft and pliable. Once you have 4 soft matzoth, fit them into the bottom and sides of the buttered dish. Spread the spinach mixture over the matzoth, then top with the mushroom mixture. Soak the remaining 4 sheets of matzah in the broth and then cover the filling, trimming or tucking in the sides.

Add the remaining egg to the leftover broth in the dish (if there is no broth left, combine an additional ½ cup of  broth with the egg) and pour it evenly over the entire casserole. Sprinkle the Parmesan cheese over the top and bake for 35-45 minutes until golden brown and bubbling. Serve hot or at room temperature

 

Oct 112016
 

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The Jewish high holy day of Yom Kippur begins at sundown today. Until that time it is the eve of Yom Kippur, known as Kol Nidre. Yom Kippur  (יוֹם כִּיפּוּר or יום הכיפורים), which can be translated as the Day of Atonement (or Atonements), is the holiest day of the year in Judaism. Observant Jews of all sects traditionally observe this holy day with an approximate 25-hour period of fasting and intensive prayer, sometimes spending most of the day in temple services. Even non-observant Jews usually treat the day with respect, avoiding public or ostensible secular work. Degrees of observation vary widely. In Hebrew Yom Kippur is pronounced with long vowels – Yowm Kippoor – not rhyming with Tom Kipper (pet peeve of mine).

Yom Kippur is the tenth day of the seventh month (Tishrei) in the Hebrew calendar. Rosh Hashanah is the first day of that month http://www.bookofdaystales.com/rosh-hashanah/ . Yom Kippur completes the annual period known in Judaism as the High Holy Days or Yamim Nora’im (“Days of Awe”) that commences with Rosh Hashanah. According to Jewish tradition, God inscribes each person’s fate for the coming year into a book, the Book of Life, on Rosh Hashanah, and waits until Yom Kippur to “seal” the verdict. During the Days of Awe, Jews are commended to amend their behavior and seek forgiveness for wrongs done against God and against other human beings. The evening and day of Yom Kippur are set aside for public and private petitions and confessions of guilt.

The Yom Kippur prayer service includes several unique aspects. One is the actual number of prayer services. Unlike a regular day, which has three prayer services (Ma’ariv, the evening prayer; Shacharit, the morning prayer; and Mincha, the afternoon prayer), or a Shabbat or Yom Tov, which have four prayer services (Ma’ariv; Shacharit; Mussaf, the additional prayer; and Mincha), Yom Kippur has five prayer services (Ma’ariv; Shacharit; Musaf; Mincha; and Ne’ilah, the closing prayer). The prayer services also include private and public confessions of sins and a unique prayer dedicated to the special Yom Kippur avodah (service) of the Kohen Gadol (high priest) in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

As one of the most culturally significant Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur is observed by many secular Jews who may not observe other holidays. Many secular Jews attend temple on Yom Kippur, much as (primarily) secular Christians attend Easter Sunday services. In both cases attendance soars because observance is as much about cultural identity as religious faith.

Erev Yom Kippur (“eve of the day of atonement”), the day preceding Yom Kippur, corresponding to the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, is commemorated with additional morning prayers, asking others for forgiveness, giving charity, performing the kapparot ritual, an extended afternoon prayer service, and two festive meals.

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Leviticus 23:26-28 decrees that Yom Kippur is a strict day of rest:

26 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 27 “On exactly the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall humble your souls and present an offering by fire to the LORD. 28 “You shall not do any work on this same day, for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the LORD your God”

Five additional prohibitions are traditionally observed, as detailed in the Jewish oral tradition (Mishnah tractate Yoma 8:1). The number five is a set number of special holiness according to tradition.

    No eating and drinking

    No wearing of leather shoes

    No bathing or washing

    No anointing oneself with perfumes or lotions

    No marital relations

A parallel has been drawn between these activities and the human condition according to the Biblical account of the expulsion from the garden of Eden. Refraining from these symbolically represents a return to a pristine state, which is the theme of the day. By refraining from these activities, the body is uncomfortable but can still survive. The soul is considered to be the life force in a body. Therefore, by making one’s body uncomfortable, one’s soul is uncomfortable. By feeling pain one can feel how others feel when they are in pain.

Total abstention from food and drink as well as keeping the other traditions begins at sundown, and ends after nightfall the following day. One should add a few minutes to the beginning and end of the day, called tosefet Yom Kippur, lit. “addition to Yom Kippur.” This is sometimes known in English as “putting a hedge around the law” – that is, doing all that is required by the law, and then just a little extra to make sure.

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Virtually all Jewish holidays involve meals, but since Yom Kippur involves fasting, Jewish law requires one to eat a large and festive meal on the afternoon before Yom Kippur, after the Mincha (afternoon) prayer. Before sunset on Kol Nidre worshipers gather in the temple and the Ark is opened and two people take from it two Sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls). Then they take their places, one on each side of the Hazzan (cantor), and the three recite (in Hebrew):

In the tribunal of Heaven and the tribunal of earth, we hold it lawful to pray with transgressors.

The cantor then chants the Kol Nidre prayer. This prayer is recited in Aramaic. Its name “Kol Nidre” is taken from the opening words, and translates “All vows”:

All personal vows we are likely to make, all personal oaths and pledges we are likely to take between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur, we publicly renounce. Let them all be relinquished and abandoned, null and void, neither firm nor established. Let our personal vows, pledges and oaths be considered neither vows nor pledges nor oaths.

The leader and the congregation then say together three times,

May all the people of Israel be forgiven, including all the strangers who live in their midst, for all the people are in fault.

The Torah scrolls are then placed back into the Ark, and the Yom Kippur evening service begins.

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The Kol Nidre meal before Yom Kippur services is very important and can be the subject of much debate. It should be a nourishing meal because the following 24 hours (or so) are meant to be free from food or drink, and it should be a festive meal. But . . . it cannot be a lengthy meal, and preparations cannot be extensive on the day because people are in a hurry to get to temple before sundown (and typically get there on foot). The obvious solution is to prepare a good meal ahead of time, and this gives me the opportunity to talk about the importance of making soups and stews the day before they are to be served.

I’ve frequently talked about the importance of cooking soups and stews ahead of time, and I suspect that most people know that these dishes generally taste better on the second day. The question is – why? The answer is complex, and I’ll begin by admitting that culinary science does not have all parts of the answer – yet. Here’s what we know. Simply continuously cooking soups and stews for lengthy periods of time is not enough to reap the rewards that resting and refrigerating do. That’s good news for the cook (and a nice metaphor for the idea that rest is as important as work for achieving desired outcomes).

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First, there is the issue of “marrying” flavors. I like the metaphor of marriage here. One’s partner can become more attractive to you over time, not because in some “objective” sense they have become more physically attractive, but because you have grown emotionally closer (if you have !!!). Herbs, spices, and other aromas also have an analogous way of blending over time. This process is achieved partly through cooking and partly through resting. The flavors “like” each other more. Second, there are measurable changes in sweetness as complex carbohydrates (such as fructose from vegetables or lactose from dairy) and starches break down into sweeter-tasting simple sugars. This process also causes the mellowing of strong flavors from vegetables such as garlic and onions that tend to stand out on the first day. They are still there on the second day but their new-found sweetness allows them to blend more, as do the fats and collagens from the meats, especially lamb and beef, (pork too, but we’re talking kosher here), which absorb flavors and retain them well for the blending process.

One caveat: soups and stews thickened with egg or starches such as flour or cornflour, will generally not hold their texture overnight. Thickeners should be added on the second day when reheating to ensure proper texture when serving.

All of this means that the best plan is to do the heavy cooking the day before Kol Nidre, and then all you have to do is reheat and finish off the dish the next day before going to Yom Kippur services at sundown. I often work on a three-day plan. Day 1, brown the meats and then simmer them in broth with aromatics. Browning is important because the Maillard reaction generates flavorful sugars. Refrigerate. Day 2, skim the fat that has solidified overnight, reheat and add the vegetables. Adjust seasonings as necessary, simmer until the vegetables are barely cooked (even slightly undercooked), then refrigerate overnight again. Day 3, reheat the dish, thicken as necessary, and serve.

Jun 122016
 

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Today is Shavuot (שבועות‎‎) in certain Jewish traditions, translated as the Feast of Weeks in English versions of the Hebrew Bible and Pentecost (Πεντηκοστή) in the Greek Septuagint. It falls 50 days after the feast of Passover, and was the feast that evolved into Pentecost in the Christian tradition according to the Acts of the Apostles — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/pentecost/. By the Jewish calendar it falls on the sixth day of the month of Sivan.

The holiday is one of three Biblical pilgrimage festivals. It marks the conclusion of the Counting of the Omer, and its date is directly linked to that of Passover. http://www.bookofdaystales.com/counting-the-omer/

Shavuot is one of the less familiar Jewish holidays to secular Jews in the Jewish diaspora, while those in Israel as well as the Orthodox community are more aware of it. According to Jewish law, Shavuot is celebrated in Israel for one day and in the Diaspora (outside of Israel) for two days. Reform Judaism celebrates only one day, even in the Diaspora.

In the Torah, Shavuot is the season of the grain harvest, specifically of the wheat. In ancient times, the grain harvest lasted seven weeks and was a season of gladness (Jer. 5:24, Deut. 16:9-11, Isa. 9:2). It began with the harvesting of the barley during Passover and ended with the harvesting of the wheat at Shavuot. Shavuot was thus the concluding festival of the grain harvest. During the existence of the Temple in Jerusalem, an offering of two loaves of bread from the wheat harvest was made on Shavuot.

The Talmud refers to Shavuot as Atzeret (עצרת‎‎, literally, “refraining” or “holding back”), referring to the prohibition against work on this holiday and to the conclusion of the holiday and season of Passover. Since Shavuot occurs 50 days after Passover, Hellenistic Jews gave it the name “Pentecost” (πεντηκοστή, “fiftieth day”).

In the Torah, Shavuot is the season of the grain harvest, specifically of the wheat. In ancient times, the grain harvest lasted seven weeks and was a season of gladness (Jer. 5:24, Deut. 16:9-11, Isa. 9:2). It began with the harvesting of the barley during Passover and ended with the harvesting of the wheat at Shavuot. Shavuot was thus the concluding festival of the grain harvest. During the existence of the Temple in Jerusalem, an offering of two loaves of bread from the wheat harvest was made on Shavuot.

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According to tradition, in the largely agrarian society of ancient Israel, farmers would tie a reed around the first ripening grains in their fields. At the time of harvest, the fruits identified by the reed would be cut and placed in baskets woven of gold and silver. The baskets would then be loaded on oxen whose horns were gilded and laced with garlands of flowers, and who were led in a grand procession to Jerusalem. As the farmers passed through cities and towns, they would be accompanied by music and parades. I doubt that the specifics are accurate, but there’s no reason to doubt that general harvest festivals took place at this time of year in ancient Israel.

Shavuot is unlike other Jewish holidays in that it has no prescribed mitzvot (Torah commandments) other than traditional festival observances of meals and celebrations, and the traditional holiday observances of special prayer services and the required abstention from work. However, it is  characterized by many minhagim (customs).

A mnemonic for these customs is the letters of the Hebrew word acharit (אחרית, “last”). Since the Torah is called reishit (ראשית, “first”) the customs of Shavuot highlight the importance of custom for the continuation and preservation of Jewish religious observance. These customs, largely observed in Ashkenazic communities, are:

אקדמות – Akdamut, the reading of a liturgical poem during Shavuot morning synagogue services

חלב – Chalav (milk), the consumption of dairy products like milk and cheese

רות – Ruth, the reading of the Book of Ruth at morning services (outside Israel: on the second day)

ירק – Yerek, the decoration of homes and temples with greenery

תורה – Torah, engaging in all-night Torah study.

Akdamut (Aramaic: אקדמות) is a liturgical poem extolling the greatness of God, the Torah and Israel that is read publicly in the synagogue right before the morning reading of the Torah on the first day of Shavuot. It was composed by Rabbi Meir of Worms, whose son was murdered during the Crusade of 1096. Rabbi Meir was forced to defend the Torah and his Jewish faith in a debate with local priests, and successfully conveyed his certainty of God’s power, His love for the Jewish people, and the excellence of Torah. Afterwards he wrote Akdamut, a 90-line poem in Aramaic which stresses these themes. The poem is written in a double acrostic pattern according to the order of the Hebrew alphabet. In addition, each line ends with the syllable “ta” (תא), the last and first letters of the Hebrew alphabet, alluding to the endlessness of Torah. The traditional melody which accompanies this poem also conveys a sense of grandeur and triumph.

Seven Heavens Challah  Shavuot

Dairy foods such as cheesecake, cheese blintzes, and cheese kreplach among Ashkenazi Jews, cheese sambusak, kelsonnes (cheese ravioli), and atayef (a cheese-filled pancake) among Syrian Jews; kahee (a dough that is buttered and sugared) among Iraqi Jews; and a seven-layer cake called siete cielos (seven heavens) among Tunisian and Moroccan Jews are traditionally eaten on Shavuot, although this practice is not universal. In keeping with the observance of other Yom Tovs, there is both a night meal and a day meal on Shavuot. Meat is usually served at night and dairy is served either for the day meal or for a morning kiddush.

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There are five books in Tanakh that are known as Megillot (Hebrew: מגילות, “scrolls”) and are publicly read in the synagogues of some Jewish communities on different Jewish holidays. The Book of Ruth is read on Shavuot because King David, Ruth’s descendant, was born and died on Shavuot according to the Talmud, Shavuot is harvest time, and the events of Book of Ruth occur at harvest time.

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According to the Midrash, Mount Sinai suddenly blossomed with flowers in anticipation of the giving of the Torah on its summit. Greenery also figures in the story of the baby Moses being found among the bulrushes in a watertight cradle when he was three months old. For these reasons, some devout Jewish families decorate their homes and synagogues with plants, flowers and leafy branches in honor of Shavuot. Some temples decorate the bimah with a canopy of flowers and plants so that it resembles a chuppah, as Shavuot is mystically referred to as the day the matchmaker (Moses) brought the bride (the nation of Israel) to the chuppah (Mount Sinai) to marry the bridegroom (God); the ketubah (marriage contract) was the Torah. Some Eastern Sephardi communities actually read out a ketubah between God and Israel as part of the service.

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By common Rabbinic tradition, nowadays Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah to Moses (thence to the people) on Mt Sinai after the Exodus, rather than the wheat harvest, even though this tradition has no basis in the Torah, for fairly obvious reasons. It would be logically paradoxical to have the giving of the Torah to the Israelites described within the Torah, just as it is logically impossible for the Torah to have been written by Moses, yet to have his death described within it. But since the majority of Jews did not live in agricultural communities following the Diaspora, the celebration of the giving of the Torah largely replaced the harvest festival.

According to the Jewish mode of reckoning, Shavuot began this year (2016) at sundown yesterday, to be celebrated with a meal with meat. Today is the time for dairy products (without meat). A breakfast of cheese blintzes would be fine. Here’s a recipe for phyllo pastries with a cheese filling that are common in Sephardic and Middle Eastern households for Shavuot. There should be a mix of at least 3 cheeses (preferably 4) for the filling and they should be a mix of harder and soft cheeses – although the harder cheeses should melt easily and be well grated. Feta, Gruyere, Ricotta, and Parmesan is a good combination, but the choice is yours. You can make either triangular pastries or rolls.

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Cheese Phyllo

Ingredients

2 lb (1 kg) mixed cheeses
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 lb (500 g) frozen phyllo, thawed
6 oz (175 g) butter, melted
4 tablespoons sunflower oil
2 egg yolks, beaten (for glazing)
vegetable oil (for greasing)

Instructions

Pre-heat the oven to 350°F/175°C.

Mix the cheeses and the beaten eggs together well.

Cut the phyllo dough into squares and brush generously with melted butter. Place 2 tablespoons of the cheese filling in the center of each square, for triangular pastries, or in a straight line down one side for rolls. For triangular pastries, fold one corner to the opposite, diagonally and press the edges together with your fingers. For rolls, turn the pastry over the filling so that the package looks like a cigar with the filling in the middle. Press the loose side down into the roll to seal.

Place the pastries on a greased baking tray and brush the tops with a little egg yolk. Bake for 25 minutes, or until golden. Cool a little on wire racks, and serve warm.