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The interior of the Spanish Synagogue in Prague, Czech Republic

Judaism (originally from Hebrew , Yehudah, "Judah"; via Latin and Greek) is the ethnic religion of the Jewish people, comprising the collective religious, cultural and legal tradition and civilization of the Jewish people. Judaism is considered by religious Jews to be the expression of the covenant that God established with the Children of Israel. It encompasses a wide body of texts, practices, theological positions, and forms of organization. The Torah is part of the larger text known as the Tanakh or the Hebrew Bible, and supplemental oral tradition represented by later texts such as the Midrash and the Talmud. With between 14.5 and 17.4 million adherents worldwide, Judaism is the tenth largest religion in the world.

Within Judaism there are a variety of movements, most of which emerged from Rabbinic Judaism, which holds that God revealed his laws and commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai in the form of both the Written and Oral Torah. Historically, all or part of this assertion was challenged by various groups such as the Sadducees and Hellenistic Judaism during the Second Temple period; the Karaites and Sabbateans during the early and later medieval period; and among segments of the modern non-Orthodox denominations. Modern branches of Judaism such as Humanistic Judaism may be nontheistic. Today, the largest Jewish religious movements are Orthodox Judaism (Haredi Judaism and Modern Orthodox Judaism), Conservative Judaism, and Reform Judaism. Major sources of difference between these groups are their approaches to Jewish law, the authority of the Rabbinic tradition, and the significance of the State of Israel. Orthodox Judaism maintains that the Torah and Jewish law are divine in origin, eternal and unalterable, and that they should be strictly followed. Conservative and Reform Judaism are more liberal, with Conservative Judaism generally promoting a more traditionalist interpretation of Judaism's requirements than Reform Judaism. A typical Reform position is that Jewish law should be viewed as a set of general guidelines rather than as a set of restrictions and obligations whose observance is required of all Jews. Historically, special courts enforced Jewish law; today, these courts still exist but the practice of Judaism is mostly voluntary. Authority on theological and legal matters is not vested in any one person or organization, but in the sacred texts and the rabbis and scholars who interpret them.

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Tefillin (or phylacteries) are a set of small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah, which are worn by observant Jewish men during weekday morning prayers. Although "tefillin" is technically the plural form (the singular being "tefillah"), it is loosely used as a singular as well.The hand-tefillin, or shel yad, is placed on the upper arm, and the strap wrapped around the arm, hand and fingers; while the head-tefillin, or shel rosh, is placed above the forehead. The Torah commands that they should be worn to serve as a "sign" and "remembrance" that God brought the children of Israel out of Egypt. The tefillin each contain four portions: Exodus 13:1-10, 13:11-16, and Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:13-21, all of which mention the commandment. In the hand-tefillin, these are all written on one scroll, but in the head-tefillin each has its own scroll and compartment. (Read more...)

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Garden of the Righteous at Yad Vashem

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Joel Brand

Joel Brand (1906 - 1964) was a sailor and odd-job man, originally from Transylvania but raised in Germany, who became known for his efforts during the Holocaust to save the Hungarian-Jewish community from deportation to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. He is remembered in particular for his negotiations with the German Schutzstaffel (SS) officer, Adolf Eichmann, to exchange one million Jews for trucks and other goods, a deal the Nazis proposed and called "Blut gegen Waren" ("blood for goods").

Brand was a member in the 1940s of the Hungarian Aid and Rescue Committee, an organization of Zionists who helped Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe escape to the relative safety of Hungary, before the German invasion of that country on 19 March 1944. Shortly after the invasion, Brand was summoned to a meeting with Eichmann, who asked Brand to help broker a deal between the SS and the United States or Britain, in which the Nazis would release up to one million Jews in exchange for 10,000 trucks for the Eastern front, and large quantities of soap, tea and coffee.

In the end, nothing came of the proposal. Historians believe the Germans intended it to serve as a cover for high-ranking Nazi officers, including Heinrich Himmler, to negotiate a peace deal with the Western Allies that would exclude the Soviet Union, and perhaps Adolf Hitler himself. Whatever its purpose, the proposal was thwarted by the Jewish Agency for Israel and a suspicious British government. (Read more...)

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Weekly Torah Portion

Vayeira (?)
Genesis 18:1–22:24
The Weekly Torah portion in synagogues on Shabbat, Saturday, 18 Cheshvan, 5776; October 31, 2015
"Is anything too wondrous for the Lord?" (Genesis 18:14.)
Abraham and the Three Angels (engraving by Gustave Doré)

As Abraham was sitting at the entrance of his tent by the terebinths of Mamre at the heat of the day, he looked up and saw God in the form of three men, and he ran, bowed to the ground, and welcomed them. Abraham offered to wash their feet and fetch them a morsel of bread, and they assented. Abraham rushed to Sarah's tent to order cakes made from choice flour, ran to select a choice calf for a servant-boy to prepare, set curds and milk and the calf before them, and waited on them under the tree as they ate.

One of the visitors told Abraham that he would return the next year, and Sarah would have a son, but Sarah laughed to herself at the prospect, with Abraham so old. God then questioned Abraham why Sarah had laughed at bearing a child at her age, noting that nothing was too wondrous for God. Frightened, Sarah denied laughing, but God insisted that she had.

The men set out toward Sodom and Abraham walked with them to see them off. God considered whether to confide in Abraham what God was about to do, since God had singled out Abraham to become a great nation and instruct his posterity to keep God's way by doing what was just and right. God told Abraham that the outrage and sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was so great that God was going to see whether they had acted according to the outcry that had reached God. The men went on to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before God. Abraham pressed God whether God would sweep away the innocent along with the guilty, asking successively if there were 50, or 45, or 40, or 30, or 20, or 10 innocent people in Sodom, would God not spare the city for the sake of the innocent ones, and each time God agreed to do so. When God had finished speaking to Abraham, God departed, and Abraham returned to his place.

As Lot was sitting at the gate of Sodom in the evening, the two angels arrived, and Lot greeted them and bowed low to the ground. Lot invited the angels to spend the night at his house and bathe their feet, but they said that they would spend the night in the square. Lot urged them strongly, so they went to his house, and he prepared a feast for them and baked unleavened bread, and they ate.

Before they had retired for the night, all the men of Sodom gathered about the house shouting to Lot to bring his visitors out so that they might be intimate with them. Lot went outside the entrance, shutting the door behind him, and begged the men of Sodom not commit such a wrong. Lot offered the men his two virgin daughters for them to do with as they pleased, if they would not do anything to his guests, but they disparaged Lot as one who had come as an alien and now sought to rule them, and they pressed threateningly against him and the door. But the visitors stretched out their hands and pulled Lot back into the house and shut the door and struck the people with blinding light that made them unable to find the entrance.

Flight of Lot (illustration by Gustave Doré)
The visitors directed Lot to bring what family he had out of the city, for they were about to destroy the place, because the outcry against its inhabitants had become so great. So Lot told his sons-in-law that they needed to get out of the place because God was about to destroy it, but Lot's sons-in-law thought that he was joking.

As dawn broke, the angels urged Lot to flee with his wife and two remaining daughters, but still he delayed. So out of God's mercy, the men seized Lot, his wife, and daughters by the hand and brought them out of the city, telling them to flee for their lives and not to stop or look back anywhere in the plain. But Lot asked them whether he might flee to a little village nearby, and the angel replied that he would grant Lot this favor too, and spare that town. The angel urged Lot to hurry there, for the angel could not do anything until he arrived there, and thus the town came to be called Zoar.

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (painting by John Martin)

As the sun rose and Lot entered Zoar, God rained sulfurous fire from heaven on Sodom and Gomorrah and annihilated the entire plain. Lot's wife looked back, and she turned into a pillar of salt. Next morning, Abraham hurried to the place where he had stood before God and looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and saw the smoke rising like at a kiln.

Lot and his Daughters (painting by Hendrik Goltzius)

Lot was afraid to dwell in Zoar, so he settled in a cave in the hill country with his two daughters. The older daughter told the younger that their father was old, and there was not a man on earth with whom to have children, so she proposed that they get Lot drunk and lie with him so that they might maintain life through their father. That night they made their father drink wine, and the older one lay with her father without his being aware. And the next day the older one persuaded the younger to do the same. The two daughters thus had children by their father, the older one bore a son named Moab who became the father of the Moabites, and the younger bore a son named Ben-ammi who became the father of the Ammonites.

Abraham settled between Kadesh and Shur. While he was sojourning in Gerar, Abraham said that Sarah was his sister, so King Abimelech had her brought to him, but God came to Abimelech in a dream and told him that taking her would cause him to die, for she was a married woman. Abimelech had not approached her, so he asked God whether God would slay an innocent, as Abraham and Sarah had told him that they were brother and sister. God told Abimelech in the dream that God knew that Abimelech had a blameless heart, and so God had kept him from touching her. God told Abimelech to restore Abraham's wife, since he was a prophet, and he would intercede for Abimelech to save his life, which he and his household would lose if he failed to restore her.

Early next morning, Abimelech told his servants what had happened, asked Abraham what he had done and why he had brought so great a guilt upon Abimelech and his kingdom. Abraham replied that he had thought that Gerar had no fear of God and would kill him because of his wife, and that she was in fact his father's daughter though not his mother's, so he had asked of her the kindness of identifying him as her brother. Abimelech restored Sarah to Abraham, gave him sheep, oxen, and slaves, and invited him to settle wherever he pleased in Abimelech's lands. And Abimelech told Sarah that he was giving Abraham a thousand pieces of silver to serve her as vindication before all. Abraham then prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech and the women in his household, so that they bore children, for God had stricken the women with infertility because of Sarah.

God took note of Sarah, and she bore Abraham a son as God had predicted, and Abraham named him Isaac. Abraham circumcised Isaac when he was eight days old. Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac was born, and Sarah remarked that God had brought her laughter and everyone would laugh with her about her bearing Abraham a child in his old age. Abraham held a great feast on the day that Sarah weaned Isaac.

The Expulsion of Hagar (painting by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo)

Sarah saw Hagar's son Ishmael playing, and Sarah told Abraham to cast Hagar and Ishmael out, saying that Ishmael would not share in Abraham's inheritance with Isaac. Sarah's words greatly distressed Abraham, but God told Abraham not to be distressed but to do whatever Sarah told him, for Isaac would carry on Abraham's line, and God would make a nation of Ishmael, too. Early the next morning, Abraham placed some bread and water on Hagar's shoulder, together with Ishmael, and sent them away.

Hagar and Ishmael (painting by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo)

Hagar and Ishmael wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba, and when the water ran out, she left the child under a bush, sat down a bowshot away so as not to see the child die, and burst into tears. God heard the cry of the boy, and an angel called to Hagar, saying not to fear, for God had heeded the boy's cry, and would make of him a great nation. Then God opened her eyes to a well of water, and she and the boy drank. God was with Ishmael and he grew up in the wilderness and became a bowman. Ishmael lived in the wilderness of Paran, and Hagar got him an Egyptian wife.

Abimelech and Phicol the chief of his troops asked Abraham to swear not to deal falsely with them. Abraham reproached Abimelech because Abimelech's servants had seized Abraham's well, but Abimelech protested ignorance. Abraham gave Abimelech sheep and oxen and two men made a pact. Abraham then offered Abimelech seven ewes as proof that Abraham had dug the well. They called the place Beersheba, for the two of them swore an oath there. After they concluded their pact, Abimelech and Phicol returned to Philistia, and Abraham planted a tamarisk and invoked God's name. Abraham lived in Philistia a long time.

Trial of Abraham's Faith (engraving by Gustave Doré)

Some time later, God tested Abraham, directing him to take Isaac to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering. Early the next morning, Abraham saddled his donkey and split wood for the burnt offering, and then he, two of his servants, and Isaac set out for the place that God had named. On the third day, Abraham saw the place from afar, and directed his servants to wait with the donkey, while Isaac and he went up to worship and then return. Abraham took the firestone and the knife, put the wood on Isaac, and the two walked off together. When Isaac asked Abraham where the sheep was for the burnt offering, Abraham replied that God would see to the sheep for the burnt offering.

The Angel Hinders the Offering of Isaac (painting by Rembrandt)

They arrived at the place that God had named, and Abraham built an altar, laid out the wood, bound Isaac, laid him on the altar, and picked up the knife to slay his son. Then an angel called to Abraham, telling him not to raise his hand against the boy, for now God knew that Abraham feared God, since he had not withheld his son. Abraham looked up and saw a ram caught in a thicket by its horns, so he offered it as a burnt offering in place of his son. Abraham named the site Adonai-yireh.

The angel called to Abraham a second time, saying that because Abraham had not withheld his son, God would bless him and make his descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore, and victorious over their foes. All the nations of the earth would bless themselves by Abraham's descendants, because he obeyed God's command. Abraham returned to his servants, and they departed for Beersheba; where Abraham stayed.

Later, Abraham learned that Milcah had borne eight children to his brother Nahor, among whom was Bethuel, who became the father of Rebekah. Nahor's concubine Reumah also bore him four children.

Hebrew and English Text
Hear the parshah chanted
Commentary from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (Conservative)
Commentary by the Union for Reform Judaism (Reform)
Commentaries from Chabad.org (Orthodox)
Commentaries from Aish HaTorah (Orthodox)
Commentaries from the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation (Reconstructionist)
Commentaries from My Jewish Learning (trans-denominational)


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