Celebrating ‘Çhag Ha’Sylvester’ or New Years – What’s the fuss about?

31 12 2014

jewish new years

The question of whether or how Jews should mark the secular New Year comes up each year.

Obviously in business there is no problem in wishing non-Jewish clients and colleagues a ‘ Happy New Year’ – in fact there is probably more of a Halachik problem in not.

Also, as those of us who have worked with non-Jews abroad know, there are often office parties which everyone is expected to attend. I don’t see why there is a problem is attending as it’s for business rather than pleasure.

The question is, is there a problem in formally celebrating the secular new year – like the non-Jews, for purely social reasons. No, of course there is nothing wrong with socializing and mixing with friends, including on the evening of the 31st of December. But again, that’s not what I’m referring to. I’m talking about copying and behaving like non-Jews do in the evening of the December 31st at parties by getting into that secular spirit and culture.

Here is some background behind the day and other ideas I wanted to share:

1)Chag Ha’Sylvester’

The Israeli term for New Year’s celebrations, ‘Sylvester’, was the name of the Saint and Roman Pope who reigned during the Council of Nicaea (325 C.E.). The year before the Council of Nicaea convened, Sylvester convinced Constantine to prohibit Jews from living in Jerusalem. At the Council of Nicaea, Sylvester arranged for the passage of a host of anti-Semitic legislation. All Catholic Saints are awarded a day on which Christians celebrate and pay tribute to that Saint’s memory. December 31 is Saint Sylvester Day; hence celebrations on the night of December 31 are dedicated to Sylvester’s memory.

2) In Halacha:

There are 2 issues that came to mind:

(1) Avoda Zarah (Idol worship);

(2) Chukot Hagoy (customs and mores of the Gentiles),

(1) Chag Ha Sylvester is rooted in Christianity which still has remnants of  Avodah Zarah.  The fact that Jews wouldn’t attribute religious significance to a day some claim Jesus had his circumcision is irrelevant.There is therefore a pseudo – Halachik problem in being connected to such a day. Therefore there is also a problem in wishing someone, ‘Happy New Year’ unless you need to.

The question is (2) of Chukot Hagoy.

The Torah, in Vayikra 18:3, says that Jews are forbidden to copy the customs of non-Jews.

The Vilna Gaon said that all customs were deemed ‘Chukat Hagoy’ unless we are certain that they have a valid Jewish basis.

The Shulchan Aruch, of Rav Yosef Cairo, was more lenient and said they didn’t need to have a Jewish basis. The Rema, (Rabbi Moshe Isserles) adds that the prohibition against copying non-Jewish customs applies to activities that encourage inappropriate or immodest conduct or that are linked to Avoda Zarah.

Rav Moshe Feinstein, rules that as New Year’s Day nowadays is detached from its religious origins, it is permitted to mark the day as he says about Thanksgiving in the US. However, he does say that ‘Ba’al Nefesh’ – people who are particular about their observance won’t take part in celebrations.

3) In Jewish History:

Even though from a Halachic perspective, there may not be anything wrong with celebrating, it’s worth bearing in mind that the time period between the 25th of December and the 1st of January was a period of increased Anti-Semitism and Anti-Jewish activity and persecution in Europe:

On New Year’s Day 1577 Pope Gregory XIII decreed that all Roman Jews, must listen attentively to the compulsory Catholic conversion sermon given in Roman synagogues after Friday night services. On New Year’s Day 1578 Gregory signed into law a tax forcing Jews to pay for the support of a ‘House of Conversion’ to convert Jews to Christianity. On New Year’s 1581 Gregory ordered his troops to confiscate sacred literature from the Roman Jewish community.

Throughout the medieval and post-medieval periods, January 1, supposedly the day, on which Jesus’ circumcision initiated the reign of Christianity was reserved for Anti-Jewish activities: Synagogue and book burnings and persecution.

4) Celebrating in Israel?

Rav Moshe Feinstein was writing in America. I’m not sure if Rav Moshe was writing in present day Israel, he would have seen a need to permit celebrating the secular New Year, above showing respect to our non-Jewish colleagues, clients and friends. TG we have many reasons in our own Jewish calendar to celebrate.

Anyway, just some thoughts.

Benjy Singer.

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Vayigash – You need the Ups and Downs

26 12 2014

ups and downs

So, firstly check out our new website called IsraelK. I’m in the middle of finishing it- http://www.israelk.org .

One reason why Sefer Beraishit is my favourite Sefer in the Chumash is because it is a book that focuses on human beings and their journeys and challenges.

At the moment, we are learning about Yosef, his brothers and their father, Yaakov.

We read in Beraishit 37:4 that the brothers hated Yosef and couldn’t speak peacefully with him. On the other hand as time passes and the context changes they are able to get on and put the past behind them. The Torah says in chapter 35, that when Yosef identifies himself, they kiss each other and weap and then they speak with him.

As a nation too we experience ups and downs. In the time period of the 1st Bet Hamikdash, we had the crisis in the time of Yeravam Ben Navat when the Jewish People were then split into 2 Kingdoms – Yehudah and Yisrael. In the time of the 2nd Bet Hamikdash, we suffered from Sinat Chinam – baseless hatred, which resulted in the destruction of the Temple and Exile for 2000 years.

The Maharal says that Ahavat Chinam and looking for peace, harmony and calm is the source of success and prosperity both on the national and personal level.

You need the ups and downs in life to appreciate what you have and to make you grow and learn about who you are and where your strengths are.

Shabbat Shalom!

Benjy Singer.

10 Halachot for Hadlakat Neyrot – Chanukiyah lighting

16 12 2014

The Annual Chanukah Dilemma

So, firstly check out our new website called IsraelK. I’m in the middle of finishing it- http://www.israelk.org .

Also, make sure to look through our My Shteiblech Chanukah listing to find out what’s happening: https://www.facebook.com/events/743688082385923/?ref_dashboard_filter=upcoming

Secondly here is a brief overview of 10 basic halachot for chanukiyah lighting:

1) In Israel we light from shkiyah – 4.43 today.

2) You can light until dawn, as long as people are still walking around.

3) You should preferably use olive oil, but can use candles.

4) Women living by themselves have an obligation to light.

5) Where you light depends on where you sleep that night.

6) It is not the accepted custom to fulfil ones obligation at parties etc.

7) If you live in a block of flats you light by the window if it’s below 20 amot-cubits, so people passing can see them. If your window is above 20 amot, it gets complicated. Some say as long as people in the opposite building can see the lights, you can still light there and say a bracha. Others say, if you window is above 20 amot, you should either light at the entrance to the block downstairs or by the entrance to your flat so at least people in your building can see the lights. Either way, best thing if possible is to light below 20 amot so people passing can see.

8) You can’t benefit from the light from the oil or candles.

9) In a hotel you should light in your room. Unless they insist not.

10) The oil or candles need to light for 30 minutes. Erev Shabbat longer.

Chag Urim Sameach!

Benjy Singer.

R’Naftali Z’L and Rav Benny Lau as a model for Sefer Beraishit.

11 12 2014


I am asked to daven from the amud quite regularly at Ramban Shul . As anyone who leads davening in a big community like Ramban knows there can be many distractions – Noise from children, the community not joining in, people talking, as well of course not always feeling 100%, suddenly needing the toilet or being unsure which tune to sing.

Whilst being chazan at Ramban over the past few years I was often distracted, but for a very different type of reason – a far more positive one. What was it that often took my eyes away from my siddur? It was seeing at such close range the way Rav Benny cared and looked after his father Naftali Z’L during tefilah.

Making sure he was sitting comfortably in his wheelchair, holding his siddur, helping him have his tallit on properly, ensuring his kippa was on correctly, standing behind him during the amidah to help him keep his balance etc. The care both him and his children showed Naftali was very special.

Also, for those of us who heard Rav Benny’s drashot on Shabbat, he always mentioned his father when he was present and brought him to his Monday night shiur when he could. I also heard that whenever he was speaking around the country, Rav Benny took his father with him when he was able to. I don’t know the Lau family personally, but to anyone who saw them as a family knows the respect they all had for Naftali was very special.

naftali and israel mer

Often you see when Rabbanim and public figures become very popular, they neglect their personal and family lives. With Rav Benny, from what I saw, it was the opposite. He used his popularity to enrich his relationship with his parents and always included them. I saw him with his father and mother at Ramban most of the time.

I heard Ha’Rav Amital Z’L say, quoting a mishna ( I can’t remember where, but I think in Massechet Megillah) that one should daven in a shul which is intergenerational.

Why? Because young people need to see and learn from the wisdom of the elderly. That life experience is invaluable and you can’t always gain that wisdom from Sefarim or Halacha. You learn it from experiencing and seeing. I myself have realized that there are limits to what books can teach you. You often learn far more from real, human role models.

When I was standing there from the Amud at Ramban shul, seeing the way Rav Benny looked after his father davening, I realized what Ha’Rav Amital meant. You learn from people and how they behave and treat people, as much as from books and ideas. Learning is great and yes, you need to have knowledge. But, more importantly, is to see that knowledge implemented in real life.


Rabbi Lord Sacks often speaks about how Sefer Beraishit is a book about family relationships. At times these relationships are difficult, torn and tense as in these parshiyot with Yosef and his siblings. At other times in Sefer Beraishit, the family relationships are easier, more straighforward and simpler. But whatever the nature of the relationship, they are worth working at and investing time and effort in. For, it is only when we have healthy and happy relationships on a personal and individual level, that we can go on and build solid and strong communities and be part of a nation.

Those of us who are part of the Ramban community are privileged to have been exposed to the Lau family and the special intergenerational relationships in their family. We certainly learnt a lot from the way Rav Benny looked after and cared for his father, Naftali Z’L.

Shabbat Shalom,

Benjy Singer, Founder and Manager of the ‘My Shteiblech’ Social Media portal.

My Shteiblech comprises of 5 Social Media platforms you should like, subscribe to and use:

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5) Twitter: @myshteiblech

Yaakov: The Secret to Immortality.

5 12 2014


Even though many of us may not realize it, what drives us subconsciously is the human need to attain some aspect of immortality or at least to be remembered. Man is mortal, that is how G-d created us. But the question is, if we are to attain some aspect of immortality or at least to be remembered, how would we do it?

We know from Sefer Beraishit that the word for death doesn’t appear with Yaakov, like it does with Avraham and Yitzchak. In fact the word, ‘Vayechi’ – ‘he lived’, very much defines Yaakov’s life.

What can we learn from the way the Torah describes Yaakov as to why the Torah and Chazal ( the Rabbis) portray Yaakov as never dying?

One answer could be, using the Rashi at the beginning of this weeks Parsha who focuses on Yaakov’s ability to retain his sense of morality and religiosity even in the house of Lavan – in other words, as he demonstrated a very strong moral and Jewish identity, he was a role model and example to all those around him which gave him a sense of immortality.

Another answer we see in Chazal could be that Yaakov was the only of the Avot whose children all stayed in the fold and weren’t rejected or didn’t rebel. It was this sense of, ‘Shlemut’ – completeness, that meant through all his children he lived forever.

Furthermore, the Shemot Shmuel talks about how the character of Yaakov is very ‘Ruchani’ – spiritual. As a result even though he physically dies, as by the end of his life all his body was spiritual, he in fact lives on in his soul and spirit.

I would like to suggest another understanding based on the change of Yaakov’s name from ‘Yaakov’, the private individual and ‘Yisrael’, the public national figure. When Yaakov becomes transformed to a national leader, then and only then does he become immortal.

As when a person contributes and joins in the fate and destiny of his nation and community he not only has a more meaningful life, he also becomes immortal. When one acts for the ‘other’ and contributes to his community and society, every act is an immortal act and lives on in those affected and benefitting from that act of kindness and goodness.

Shabbat Shalom!

Benjy Singer, My Shteiblech.