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Ask the Aish Rabbi a Question

Recent Questions:

History of Palestine

I'm a bit confused about the term "Palestine." Today everyone uses it to refer to Arabs, but my grandfather played in Palestine Symphony Orchestra which changed its name to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra when the Jewish state came into being in 1948.

So what's the scoop on "Palestine"?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

In the year 70 CE the Romans burned down the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, murdering and exiling the Jews of Jerusalem. Following an unsuccessful revolt against Rome in 135 CE, the Roman emperor Hadrian decided to excise all things Jewish from the promised land. Jerusalem was renamed "Aelia Capitolina" and the penalty for any Jew daring to venture into the city was death. In addition, an idol to the pagan god Jupiter was erected in the remains of the Temple.

Further, Hadrian asked his historians who were the worst enemies of the Jews. The scribes said, "The ancient Philistines who vanished half a millennium prior." It was thus declared that Land of Israel would from then on be called "Philistia" to dishonor the Jews and obliterate their history. Hence the name "Palestine."

For the next 2,000 years, Israel remained at the forefront of Jewish consciousness. Jews always maintained a presence in Israel, and prayed to return en masse.

The rhetoric about a massive Arab presence being overrun by "invading Jews" is dispelled by Mark Twain, who visited the area in 1867 and wrote in his book, "The Innocents Abroad":

"We traversed some miles of desolate country whose soil is rich enough but is given wholly to weeds – a silent mournful expanse... We never saw a human being on the whole route... hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country."

The vast majority of Arabs came to Israel after the early Zionists pioneers began to rebuild the land, thereby creating modern infrastructure and economic opportunities, which attracted Arabs from both surrounding territories and far-away Arab lands.

At the time, Jewish residents of Palestine were considered "Palestinians," whereby the Arabs were officially referred to as Arabs. The "Jerusalem Post" newspaper was called the "Palestine Post," and the Jewish Agency-issued postage stamps read "Palestine." As far as the Arabs were concerned no political entity called Palestine existed.

But that is all past history. The Arabs, in their decades-long war against Israel's very existence, have succeeded in convincing the world of a Palestinian Arab identity deserving of their own state. So that's the reality today, and we are trying to deal with it in a way that satisfies both world opinion and the security requirements of the citizens of Israel.

Why Dip Bread in Salt?

I was at a Shabbat dinner last week and after they ate the challah, they dipped it into salt. I know there must be a reason, but I was too shy to ask.

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

In Talmudic times the practice was to dip bread in salt to give it some flavor. Jewish law states that for "clean bread" (and ours surely qualifies) this is not required. Even so, salt should always be on a Jewish table, and there is a Kabbalistic custom to dip the bread in salt 3 times at the start of every meal. (Many are particular to do this on Shabbat.)

The reason for this custom is because the table that we eat on is compared to the Altar that once stood in the Holy Temple. The home is likened to a miniature Temple. Just as all offerings on the Altar were salted, the bread that we eat is salted, too.

Also we place salt on the bread because salt is a preserver, symbolizing that this meal is no longer merely a transitory experience, but a moment that will last for eternity.

Further, Genesis 3:19 says that we should eat our bread with the sweat of our brow (sweat contains salt).

The Torah (Leviticus 2:13) speaks of a "Covenant of Salt," where God instructs us to use salt on all the offerings as if to say that His covenant with us is eternal, sealed with salt. Since salt never spoils, it is a symbol of indestructibility.

(sources: Talmud Brachot 55a; Leviticus 2:13 with Rabbi S.R. Hirsch; Mishnah Berurah 167:30)

The Name "Eliezer"

My Bar Mitzvah is coming up in a few months, and I have to prepare a speech to say in front of the whole congregation. The rabbi suggested that I talk about the meaning of my Hebrew name, Eliezer. Can you help?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

The first biblical record of the name Eliezer is in reference to Abraham's servant (Genesis 15:2). It is a beautiful name, meaning “God is my helper.”

Here is an inspiring Talmudic story about Rabbi Eliezer Ben Hurkenas, which you may enjoy incorporating into your Bar Mitzvah speech.

One day, Eliezer was plowing on the mountain, and began to cry. Eliezer's father, Hurkenas, a leading rabbi of his generation, said to him, "Why are you crying? If it's hot up on the mountain, I'll move you down to the plain." So Eliezer began to plow in the plain and cried there too.

"My son, why are you crying?" Hurkenas asked.

"I want to learn Torah."

"Study Torah? Come on Eliezer, you're 28 years old! It's time to get married and start a family!"

But Eliezer would not stop crying. He cried until Elijah the Prophet came to him and asked, "Eliezer, why are you crying?"

"I want to learn Torah."

"Very well. Go to Jerusalem and seek out Rebbe Yochanan Ben Zakkai."

So Eliezer went to Rebbe Yochanan Ben Zakkai, the greatest sage of his generation. And you guessed it – Eliezer was crying.

"Why are you crying?" Rebbe Yochanan asked.

"I want to learn Torah."

"Didn't they teach you to say the Shema, the Amidah and Grace After Meals?"

"No."

"Come, I'll teach you."

And so the great sage, Rebbe Yochanan Ben Zakkai, taught Eliezer the ABC's of Judaism. Then he said, "Very good, Eliezer. We were successful. Now it's time for you to go."

When Eliezer heard this, he cried.

"Why are you crying?"

"I want to learn Torah."

"Alright, I'll teach you more Torah."

(Meanwhile, since Eliezer had failed to return home, Hurkenas got angry and cut off his inheritance.)

Rebbe Yochanan taught Eliezer the Five Books of Moses and the Oral Law. After this, Rebbe Yochanan said, "Eliezer, it is time for you to go."

Eliezer cried: "I want to learn Torah!"

And so it went, until one day... Eliezer was learning in the back of the yeshiva study hall, when unexpectedly, his father Hurkenas walked in. At which point, Rebbe Yochanan Ben Zakkai told Eliezer to move to the front and recite his Torah aloud.

After Eliezer had finished, Hurkenas stood up, and beaming with pride, said: "Eliezer, at first I wanted to give my property to all of my sons but you. Now I am going to give everything I have to you and you alone!"

Eliezer replied, "My father, if I wanted gold and silver, I would have stayed working on the farm. All I want is Torah." And Rabbi Eliezer Ben Hurkenas went on to become the leader of his generation, and the teacher of the great Rebbe Akiva.

There are many difficulties with this story:

1) How could it be that Hurkanas, a great rabbi himself, did not teach his son Torah? Even the simplest Jew teaches his son the Shema, the Amidah and Grace After Meals. Furthermore, Hurkanas was a wealthy man. He could have hired the best teachers in the world for his son!

2) Why did Hurkanas make his son do the menial labor of plowing? He could have hired 100 workers to plow, and given his son a supervisory position.

3) Why did Elijah the Prophet tell Eliezer to go learn basic Judaism from such an esteemed rabbi as Rebbe Yochanan ben Zakkai? Any intermediate yeshiva student could have done that!

4) And finally, why was Eliezer crying all the time?!

There is only one answer that explains all of these difficulties. Rabbi Eliezer Ben Hurkanas had a head made of straw. He was extremely slow.

Of course, Hurkanas had hired a teacher for his son. He got him the best teacher there was. He was rich and could afford anything. But even the best teacher could not get Shema into the thick head of Eliezer. So what should his father do – make him a foreman? No way! Give him a plow. At least he'll be productive.

But Eliezer cried. He wanted to learn! His father told him, "We've tried everything, son. Forget it." The only option left was the leader of the generation. Only someone with such genius could stand a chance of getting through to Eliezer. That was why Elijah sent him to Rebbe Yochanan Ben Zakkai.

Rebbe Yochanan struggled and achieved a major accomplishment: He taught Eliezer the basics and was then ready to send him home. But Eliezer cried for more, and Rebbe Yochanan decided to take a chance. It had worked once, maybe he could teach him more. And so it went, until Eliezer Ben Hurkanas became one of the greatest scholars of his generation.

From all of this we see that even the slowest of the slow can achieve greatness. The secret? You have to want it so badly that you will cry for it. This was the merit of Eliezer Ben Hurkanas.

So remember: Reaching great heights does not depend upon our natural talents and capabilities. Everyone can become great. Everything we accomplish is a gift from God, and God will give us whatever we need to succeed. He is just waiting for us to make the effort.

Mazel tov on your Bar Mitzvah. I am certain that with the trait of persistence, you can become as great as the Talmudic sage whose name you bear.

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