The Dreidel and Chanukah
According to Rabbi David Golinkin, the dreidel, or sevivon, is the most strongly linked symbol, next to the Chanukah lamp, for Jews at Chanukah. Apparently the dreidel is not an indigenous custom, but one that is modeled after other cultures. In 16th century England, Ireland and in central Europe, there were games called Totem, which also had spinning tops with gambling directions. T is Take All, H is Half, P is Put Down, and N is Nothing. How very ironic that a holiday with a message to hold tenaciously to one's laws and customs has as one of its main symbols one derived through imitation!
But this does not stop our rabbis from attributing other meanings to dreidels, after the fact. Some claim that the letters nun, gimmel, hey and shin stem from the miracle of Chanukah shortly after declaring Nes gadol Haya poh, or in the diaspora, Nes gadol Haya Sham–A great miracle happened here/there. The game of dreidel, it is claimed, was begun for the purpose of concealing Torah study, which Antiochus prohibited, and that the letters equal the numeric equivalent of 358, which is also the value of the word meshiah. Chanukah begins a time of messianic redemption.
Finally, some claim the letters represent the kingdoms that Jews have “spun circles around” and vanquished. Nun, gimmel, hey and shin remind us N, Nebuchadnetzar=Babylon; H, Haman=Persia=Madai; G, Gog=Greece; and S, Seir=Rome.
But the following is the take-away that I like best. The dreidel is a representation of what we mean by the middle Chanukah candle-lighting blessing. Praise and bless God, who has given us miracles in those days and in this time. “This time” refers not to our era, but rather “human time” real time. the whole story of Chanukah is that the miracle is driven from below by the Maccabees in real time. The centripedal force of the spin is driven not by the little handle above, but rather the body below. Similarly, it was the assumption of actions below that drove the victory and the success over the Greeks. The weighty actions and decisions we make in our life, in our time, are what allows miracles to happen. “Actions below lead to stirring above,” say our sages. That is what the letters of the body of the dreidel are telling us.
May all of us enjoy Chanukah and our dreidels. And may they inspire us to weighty actions and decisions that drive our reality. And let us say, Amen.
In November, we had the opportunity as a congregation to say good-bye to our Cantor. In December, many of us will have opportunities to say personal good-byes to a dear friend. Cantor Nussbaum has been a constant presence in our synagogue life. It will be very strange to not see him on the bimah or in the Religious School. I will miss his melodic baritone, "What's going oonnnn?" I will miss his enthusiastic "guess"-timates of attendance at various functions. I will miss the way in which he has always made my family feel welcome and loved in our shul.
If you have not already, I hope that you will have opportunities to wish Ralph well as he and his family embark on this new stage in their lives. Shake his hand. Share a memory. Give him a hug if that feels appropriate. (Just try not to make him cry. He hates that!)
Now, as a community, we must look to the future. We are at once both diminished by our loss and stronger for having had the Nussbaums in our midst. As we adjust to their absence, we will gradually develop a new sense of balance and normalcy.
Shalom, chaverim! See you in shul!
I bid adieux to my colleague of now 14 years, Cantor Ralph Nussbaum. It has been a joy and an inspiration to work alongside him.
The parasha mentions three functions in regard to Abraham that applies to our Chazan Nussbaum. First, Abraham is a teacher–he even teaches God that so important is hospitality, it is even more important than a private meeting with God. Abraham runs from his audience with God himself to welcome his guests. Thus, Abraham is a teacher, even instructing God himself. Chazan Nussbaum is also a great teacher.
The portion of Torah also mentions that Abraham caers a feast–a mishteh gadol–literally, a festive meal. Customary at festive meals was instrumental and vocal music. I am not sure Abraham sung, but Cantor certainly has embellished and beautified our ritual with his melodies and his chanting. As a musician, as a soloist, as choir director, as teacher, as balabus, as administrator, Chazan Ralph has graced this community for 23 years. We are so very sad to see this relationship come to an end, but we are happy to have been blessed by so many years of his dedication.
I was intrugued when, at the Men's Club Dinner, the Past Presidents awarded him with a decanter and proclaimed him an honorary Men's Club President. It was, as one congregant said, “decanter for de cantor.” It is interesting, though, that there may be a word origin relationship, although I may be completely wrong, etymologically. The root of the wrod "decanter" is to pour, and doesn't a cantor also "pour" out his heart and emotions as his soul "pours" upward the thoughts and aspirations, the petitions and the praises of the congregation? Certainly it can be decisively said that our Cantor Nussbaum poured out his heart for his congregation, in so many ways— in teaching, in his Chesed projects, in his visits to the sick, in his tending to the mourning and needs of our members. He has poured out his energies in so many respects, and yet we saw a maayan mitgaber, an overflowing, continuing spring of energy. It is therefore appropriate that in his words, “excitment fill the air tonight,” as we honor this man, our excellent chazan, both for his professionalism and his menschlichkeit.
For the blessing of clear vision, we thank you
For the blessing of humor and kibbitzing, we thank you
For the blessing of professionalism, we thank you
For the blessing of love of children, we thank you
For the blessing of melody and musicality, we thank you
For the skills of prayer and Haftorah, we thank you
For the blessing of your wisdom, we thank you
For the blessing of love of Torah and being able to convey it, we thank you
For the steady hand of instruction to our adults, we thank you
For the welcoming encouragement as choir director, we thank you.
Baruch ata be voecha o varuch ata betzetecha, Blessed are you and Avrille.
May the blessings you brought as you came into our shul redound upon you in your exit,
May your retirement bring you recuperation, added strength and new horizons.
May it be blessed with the joys of your wonderful family and deep and etched fond memories of your work at ENJC, and many more years of vitality.
We are forever grateful to you, our beloved Cantor, and to this, let us say, Amen.
In the Jewish calendar, this November corresponds to the month Cheshvan, also known as Mar Cheshvan or bitter Cheshvan. This is because after the frenetic pace of Tishrei with Rosh haShanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah in rapid succession, Cheshvan is an entire month without holidays. Rather than being a bitter time, many of us nowadays probably welcome the respite!
While the Jewish calendar is on hiatus this month, November is rich with civic and civil observances: Election Day, Veterans’ Day and Thanksgiving. While certainly not intended, this interspersal of Jewish and civil occasions allows us to reflect on our dual identities as Americans and Jews, each in turn.
Shalom, chaverim! See you in shul!
Much of our attention has been turned, recently, to our celebration of the Jewish holidays in the month of Tishri, which came a little “later than usual.” However, it is appropriate that we now turn our attention to a special little holiday that is distinctly American.
The holiday of Thanksgiving has many parallels to our Jewish festival of Sukkoth, which we celebrate at the end of the harvest season in the land of Israel. However, it may have other origins in some Protestant customs of establishing special days of thanksgiving when certain historic and momentous events take place in any given year. It happened that the pilgrims had a peaceful encounter with the Native Americans after sailing to Plymouth Rock and, therefore, Thanskgiving Day was declared. Since Thanksgiving happens close to harvest time, many of the harvest associations became connected to it.
In America today it represent the special occasion in which all Americans can lend their voice of thanksgiving to God for giving us a successful year of harvest and sustenance. With its distinctly American flavor, the holiday may be observed by religions of all variety. Historically, it took a little time for it to become a national holiday. I believe the first president to declare it as such was Abraham Lincoln. Since then, it has functioned as a great unifying moment for most all Americans to take stock of our many blessings and voice our gratitude heavenward, even though there are some who, for religious reasons, choose not to observe it.
Another fascinating item related to Thanksgiving is the name that is given to the great bird which we use for our feast. Some languages give it the name "Peru," thinking that it stems from that country. Most likely, these languages are more accurate in their claim of the bird's new world Meso-American origin. In English, the word "turkey" comes from the understanding that somehow, the country Turkey was involved in its breeding, production and importation. For those who don't speak Hebrew, the Hebrew term for the bird is “hodu,” which is also the name of the country India. The root of the word “hodu” is the same root as the word for thankfulness. So it is logical that the name of the bird is related to the Thansgiving holiday (or India)!
Perhaps you'll have occasion to bring up this interesting factoid at your family celebration! Whether or not you do, allow me and Beth to wish all of you a relaxing and restful Thanksgiving holiday, infused with a sense of gratitude to God for all of our many blessings. We are truly fortunate to be citizens of a remarkable country.