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Ask the Aish Rabbi a Question

Recent Questions:

Sylvester Day

I understand that in Israel the secular New Year is referred to as "Yom Sylvester." Where does this name come from?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

In 46 BCE the Roman emperor Julius Caesar made adjustments to the Roman calendar, including beginning the new year on January 1 rather than in March. (He egocentrically decreed that the calendar should henceforth be called the "Julian" calendar.)

In practical terms, all cultures celebrate the new year according to their particular calendar and the Romans were no different. When the Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire under Constantine, at his mother Helena's behest, the Christian world carried on the custom of celebrating the Roman new year.

In many European countries this day was named after Saint Sylvester. There have been three popes named Sylvester (who later became Saints), but the one after whom the day is named is Sylvester I (314-335). Christianity grew under his rule and it is believed that he died on December 31. In addition, during his rule it was believed that he had been swallowed by the Leviathan sea monster and that the monster would return in the year 1000 to destroy and kill. When it did not, people were relieved and they celebrated.

As you see, there is nothing remotely Jewish about "Sylvester Day." So why is it celebrated in Israel?

Israeli society flows according to the Jewish calendar. Schools and businesses are closed on Shabbat, and the whole country shuts down on Jewish holidays like Yom Kippur. For that reason the secular/Christian new year has little significance. Yet when some ultra-secularists discovered that most of the world holds a "New Years party," they didn't want to feel left out.

Yet they couldn't call it "New Years" because that title was already taken by Rosh Hashana. So the name Sylvester was adopted in its stead.

Judaism: All Or Nothing?

I have been testing the waters, trying to get involved in Judaism. But I feel like I'm swimming in a vast ocean of unfamiliar concepts: Hebrew texts, legal nuances, culture, etc. I'm not sure any of this is for me!

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

There is a misconception that many people have about Judaism, what I call "the all or nothing" syndrome. With 613 mitzvot in the Torah, things can seem a bit overwhelming. People take a look at traditional Judaism with all these different commandments and say to themselves, there's no way that I can be successful at living that type of lifestyle, so what's the point of looking into it or getting involved? Where to start? What to focus on? How to make sense of it all?!

That's not the Jewish way!

Imagine you bump into an old friend and he tells you how miserable he is. You ask him, what's the matter? He says, I'm in the precious metals industry. My company just found a vein of gold in Brazil that's going to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

You say, that's fantastic. Your financial problems are solved. What's the problem?

He says, you just don't get it. Do you realize that this is just one vein of gold? It represents such a tiny fraction of all of the unmined gold in the world. What do I really have, compared with what's out there?

You say, are you nuts? Who the heck cares about what you haven't found yet? What you've got now is a gold mine!

That's the Jewish approach. Any aspect that you learn about, or can incorporate into your life, is a gold mine. What does it matter what aspect of Judaism you're not ready to take on? In Judaism, every mitzvah is of infinite value. Every mitzvah is more than any gold mine. Don't worry about what you can't do. Even if you never take on another mitzvah, you've still struck eternal gold.

The best advice: Relax.

Here's a true story that happened about 80 years ago in Jerusalem.

One Saturday afternoon, a young boy was walking in the Old City of Jerusalem. Suddenly he saw a gold coin on the ground. This was no mere candy money; this was a gold coin! Since it was ownerless he would be able to claim it as his. But there was one problem: The boy would not handle money on Shabbat. Suddenly he had the idea to guard it by putting his foot over the coin - and stand there until Shabbat ended... in four hours!

One hour passed and then another. Things were going well. But then some older boys came along, and said, "Hey, why are you just standing there like that?" He didn't answer them, so they pushed him down and took away the coin.

The boy returned home very very sad. He had tried to do the right thing by observing Shabbat, but wound up losing his gold coin. Later at the synagogue, the rabbi saw the boy and asked, "What's wrong?" When the boy explained the whole story, the rabbi said: "I have an idea how we can fix it. Come to my house when Shabbat is over."

After Shabbat ended, the boy went to the rabbi's house, and they sat down to talk. "I know how disappointed you are at having lost the gold coin," said the rabbi, "so here - I want to give something." And he pulled out of his desk a gold coin - just like the one the boy had found earlier that day!

"But," the rabbi continued, "I'll give you this gold coin on one condition. In exchange, you give me the merit of the mitzvah you did in observing Shabbat."

The boy thought for a moment and said: "Hmmm... If the mitzvah is worth that much, then no deal!"

The misconception that Judaism is all-or-nothing includes the false idea that a person is either "observant," or "non-observant." But that's not true. In fact, here's a secret:

Nobody is observing all the mitzvot.

That's because certain mitzvot only women usually do - like lighting Shabbat candles or going to the mikveh. Other mitzvot only men can fulfill - like Brit Milah. Others only apply to first-born children, such as the "fast of the first born" on the day before Passover. And only a Kohen can fulfill the mitzvah of reciting the Priestly Blessing.

Other mitzvot - like getting divorced with a proper Get - are procedural mitzvot that are only done under certain circumstances, and that one hopes never to fulfill. Finally, there are many mitzvot that apply only in the times of the Holy Temple, laws that in our day are temporarily suspended.

So when we talk about the totality of mitzvot, we'll never do them all anyway! So rather than get overwhelmed with the vastness of it all, better to be realistic about what we can do, and move forward in a positive way.

Let's say, for example, that a person wants to try the mitzvah of prayer. We may go to synagogue and see someone immersed in intensive prayer for one hour. We cannot conceive of how we could possibly get to that point ourselves. That's understandable, especially for one who is not fluent in Hebrew. So it's a matter of knowing which prayer gets top priority - for example, the Amidah prayer.

The Amidah has 19 blessings, and it's very difficult to concentrate for that entire time without being distracted, or one's mind wandering to other things like shopping and checking your email. So the key is to take on a small goal: "I am committing that for the first prayer of the 19, I will not rush nor allow anything to interfere between me and these few words." That goal is realistic and attainable, and one can begin to approach a high degree of intensity and concentration on that one prayer.

What this does is give a taste of the higher goal. All that's needed is to extrapolate to all 19. This is much more effective than starting off by saying, "Today I'm going to pray the entire 19 with great concentration!" - and then after three words, you're thinking about what's for breakfast.

If it's too lofty a goal, then at least taste it once. Break down a huge goal into bite-size steps that are realistic to achieve, and will give a taste of the full goal.

In Jacob's famous dream, God shows him a vision of a ladder reaching toward Heaven. Spiritual growth, like climbing a ladder, must be one step at a time. By setting small, incremental goals, we are encouraged by the periodic success. To make the plan foolproof, make your initial goal something you know you can reach. Tasting success will bolster your confidence and determination, and you can use this energy to strive for higher goals. Remember, the longest journey begins with just one step. And what goes in slow, will remain.

Golem

I recently visited Israel and stayed at the home of distant cousins. We were playing basketball and one kid said to another: "Don't just stand there like a golem - do something!" I'd heard about the idea of a Golem before, but this got me curious. Can you fill in the background? Thank you.

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

The word "golem" appears in Psalms 139:16. A golem is a body in human form, but without an ability to speak - and therefore no soul. The Talmud relates that the Sages were able to create living beings through their knowledge of Kabbalah. This is achieved through combining the 22 letters of the aleph-bet into various Names of God.

This is similar to the process, so to speak, that God Himself used to create the world, as it is written: "And God SAID, 'Let there be light.'" (Genesis 1:3)

The Talmud says that for the first few hours of life, Adam was a Golem - i.e. without a soul and not yet "human."

Golems became famous in the Middle Ages when the Jews were frequently accused of blood libels. Apparently, when a Christian baby would die of some disease, it would be secretly left in the yard of a Jewish family. The police would then be called, claiming that "the Jews killed the baby in order to use Christian blood to bake matzahs." (In fact, this is one reason why the custom developed to open the door for Elijah the Prophet on Seder night - in order to be on the lookout for potential "baby plantings.")

Legend says that in the 16th century, the Maharal of Prague created a Golem to patrol the streets and protect the Jews. Apparently, the Maharal engraved God's Name on the Golem's forehead (or perhaps wrote God's Name on a paper and placed it in the Golem's mouth.) Either way, the Golem eventually got out of control and had to be killed. According to legend, his body was hidden in the attic of the old synagogue in Prague. It is likely that this became the source for Mary Shelly's book, "Frankenstein."

I don't know of any recent Golems, though it is said about the Vilna Gaon (18th century) that he was about to create one, when an angel came and told him to stop. "Why?" asked the Vilna Gaon. "Because you are not yet Bar Mitzvah," the angel replied. (The Vilna Gaon was a child genius.)

Today, there are those who want to suggest that a cloned human might in fact be a modern-day Golem. However, a child born to a human mother, from a human embryo, would almost certainly be considered a full-fledged human being with its own unique soul.