Monday, May 11, 2009

Pope Benedict in Israel, 2009

LINK HERE to the official website.

Papal visits are among the most carefully orchestrated events reported. There are good reasons for this, including the ever present reality of misunderstanding. Sometimes it really is a MISunderstanding, but typically it is deliberate spin and twisting by one side or another of a multitude of sources with different agendas. The very idea of a pope in the Middle East stuns the imagination, so I'm not about to add to the mix. My little blogpost here is a bit of what the Web tosses up this morning....

I gave up several years ago trying to keep up with Israeli events and opinions. When I started blogging I was attracted to several Israeli sites by their wit, insights, appreciation for history, and persuasive arguments. But as time passed I came to the realization that those attributes can be applied by nearly anything Jewish, no matter what the politics or views. It's really true in the case of Jews where there are two Jews there may be not only three opinions, but half a dozen, all of which are under consideration and none of which is final. Good luck to anyone seeking to bring peace into this part of the world. The best that can be hoped for is not peace but civility. Agreement is out of the question.

Israel is often seen as a place of conflict and strife. In reality there is much more: there's business and research; art and culture; community and family. At ISRAELITY, Israelis blog their daily thoughts, experiences and insights. It's the real Israel, not the media's Israel. It's people living ordinary lives in an extraordinary place.

Go to Israelity for more links.

Judaism is by definition a religion, but in practice, due to the number and variety of secular Jews, it is more of culture than religion. It is not polite to say such things out loud, but my observation is that the same distinctions between religious and secular
qualities are subject to selective application all over the world. As a Christian I am certain that my fellow Christians have no problem with compartmentalized thinking, clinging equally tight to mutually contradictory ideas because while one is foundational to the faith the other is an obviously a secular reality over which there is no control. Or more likely, as God's children we ae called to his purposes to accomplish on his behalf what he seems unable or unwilling to bring about.

Here is an interesting custom of which I was unaware. Rabbi Shraga Simmons explains the Jewish ceremony of buying a baby boy for five silver coins.

Pidyon Ha'Ben, the "redemption of the first born son," takes place when a baby is at least 31 days old, and involves "buying him back from a Kohen." (see Numbers 18:15)

The background for this mitzvah is somewhat complex, but here goes:

Originally, God intended for the first-born of each Jewish family to be a Kohen -- i.e. that family's representative to the Holy Temple. (Exodus 13:1-2, Exodus 24:5 with Rashi)
God decreed that all the Kohanim would come from the tribe of Levi.

But then came the incident of the Golden Calf. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai and smashed the tablets, he issued everyone an ultimatum: "Make your choice -- either God or the idol" (Exodus 32:26). Only the tribe of Levi came to the side of God. At that point, God decreed that each family's first-born would forfeit their "Kohen" status -- and henceforth all the Kohanim would come from the tribe of Levi. (Numbers 3:11-12)

Which brings us to the mitzvah of Pidyon Ha'Ben. Since the first-born child is technically a "Kohen" whose potential cannot be actualized, he has to be replaced (so to speak) by a Kohen from the tribe of Levi. This is accomplished by the father of the baby offering the Kohen a redemptive value of five silver coins for the boy.

A deeper reason we perform this mitzvah is to remind us of the Exodus from Egypt, when God killed the Egyptian first born, yet spared the Jewish first born. Also, since a person loves his first born so much, it is a fitting time to re-acknowledge the fact that everything we own in fact belongs to God. (Numbers 3:13)


There are many factors that determine when and if to perform Pidyon Ha'Ben, so you will need to find a rabbi who is well versed in Jewish law to guide you.

In general, Pidyon Ha'Ben only applies to a son who "opened his mother's womb." Therefore, all the following conditions must apply:

1) The mother is Jewish, and she has never had a baby before, male or female.

2) The baby was delivered in the normal way, not via C-section.

3) The mother had no abortions or miscarriages prior to this birth.

4) The father of the baby is not a Kohen or a Levi, and the mother's father is not a Kohen or a Levi.

5) Since the mitzvah applies to any son who "opens his mother's womb," a Pidyon Ha'Ben could also be required in the event of a father's second marriage.


If the above conditions apply, here is the Pidyon Ha'Ben procedure:

1) Find a Kohen with a very strong tradition in his family that he is indeed a Kohen.

2) Get five silver coins, containing approximately 110 grams of silver. Five U.S. silver dollars are often used, though the specific type of coins depends on where you are in the world. Ask your rabbi.

3) The Pidyon Ha'Ben ceremony is held when the baby is 31 days old. If the 31st day is Shabbat, the ceremony is held the following day.

4) The ceremony is held in the context of a festive meal. To show love for the mitzvah, the baby is usually brought in on a silver tray decorated with jewelry.
The Kohen asks the father: "Which do you prefer, to give me your first born or to redeem him?"

5) The actual ceremony is as follows: The father attests to the fact that this is indeed his first-born son. The Kohen then asks the father: "Which do you prefer, to give me your first born or to redeem him?" (It is really a rhetorical question, because the Torah requires the father to redeem the son.)

The father then says the following two blessings:

(1) Baruch ata Adonoy, Elo-heinu Melech ha'olam, asher kid'shanu bi'mitzvo-sav, vi'tzivanu al Pidyon ha'ben.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who sanctified us with His mitzvot, and instructed us regarding the redemption of a son.

(2) Baruch ata Adonoy, Elo-heinu Melech ha'olam, Sheh-he-che-yanu vi-kee-yimanu Vi-hee-gee-yanu laz-man ha-zeh.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.

The father then gives the coins to the Kohen, who blesses the child, and recites a blessing over a cup of wine. The full text of the ceremony is printed in the siddur.


If your baby does not meet the conditions for having a Pidyon Ha'Ben, don't be concerned -- there is no defect in his status. In fact, only about 1-of-10 families ever meet all the conditions for Pidyon Ha'Ben.

If someone was supposed to have a Pidyon Ha'Ben as a child, but never did (i.e. their parents neglected to do so), then the obligation is on the person to take care of it himself. In such a case, one should contact a rabbi ASAP to arrange the ceremony.

Check the sidebar for a couple more links.
Bernard Avaishai's blog is part of my essential reading.

Lisa Goldman is a journalist. Her posts are less frequent but I always check them out.
This one, Sex With an Arab in the Promised Land, is a bit racy, but it illustrates that Jews are just like everyone else. Maybe more so.

Noam Sheizaf, journalist and proprietor of the ever-interesting and often provocative Promised Land blog, brings us a hilarious post about the super-sensitive issue of Jewish-Arab sex in Israel. It’s a subject that often elicits Faulkner-esque responses in our otherwise liberal society; luckily, we have people like Yedioth Aharonoth columnist Karin Arad to poke hilarious, irreverent fun at our prejudices.

Arad answers questions about sex for Blazer, a wanna-be Gentlemen’s Quarterly that’s owned by the Yedioth group. Noam translated part of her answer to a man’s discomfited query about his feelings regarding his girlfriend’s admission to having once had an Arab lover. In her fabulous response, Arad reminds the reader that she (Arad) is half Arab. Who knew? Well, Noam did, and he assumed that most people were similarly well-informed. But based on the responses of my Facebook friends, Noam is better informed than we are.

In response to the request of reader Doshka, I agreed to translate the rest, which I’ve patched together with Noam’s excerpt, below. The original in Hebrew is here.

If you are offended by frankly sexual talk, curse words or any type of discourse that muddies the boundaries of the politically correct, stop here. Do not click on the page jump. Seriously.

I have formatting trouble when I go to her site -- too many sidebars or something with images chopped off, etc -- but I'm not a stickler for those details. I just accept techie issues as little wrinkles in the system less important than content. I'm just glad she takes the time to translate Hebrew into English.

For a sober reminder of how important the Popes's visit can be, along with all other efforts to bring reconciliation to this conflict-possessed part of the world, see another post, The killing and funeral of Bassem Ibrahim abu-Rakhma, April 17 and 18.

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