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Central to the festival of Passover is hametz.  But what, exactly, is hametz?  The technical definition is clear: any of five grains that come into contact with water for more than eighteen minutes.  But the technical definition merely tells us how grain becomes hametz.  It does not tell us what hametz is.  And suggesting that hametz is simply leavening – a substance that causes dough to rise – is not very helpful.  Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) causes dough to rise but is not hametz according to Jewish law.   Hametz, it seems, is not just a chemical agent. So what is hametz?

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How it is possible to “love another as oneself” (Leviticus 19:19) remains a philosophical conundrum.  It would seem to violate the natural law of self-preservation, as already noted by second century Rabbi Akiva who asserted that your own life takes precedence over any one else’s (Baba Metzia 62b).  But what that “love” entails was quite simple and straightforward: at least to Maimonides.

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Passover is the foundational holiday of Judaism.  It is the holiday celebrated first.  It is the holiday that falls in the month that sets the Biblical calendar.  It is the holiday that marks the transformation of a group of liberated slaves into a people with a common purpose and a collective memory.  It is called “Hag HaMatzot” (Exodus 34:18).  It’s name reminds us of the central symbol of the holiday: the unleavened bread (matzot) that served as a reminder of both the bread of affliction eaten in bondage and the hasty rations taken along at the time of departure from Egypt.  But what of the word “Hag?”

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Words to live by

We cannot childproof the whole world; we have to world-proof our children.

- Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Parenting