Category Archives: Philosophy

Jewish philosophy and belief

When in Rome, do as the Jewish Romans do

Shabbat or Shabbos?

Last week I reviewed a solution for weekends on the road in the post Shabbat Travel Kit, but the issue which bugged me most while writing, was whether I should write “Shabbat” or “Shabbos”?

Personally I’m more comfortable with Shabbos, also known as the Askenazic pronunciation. That’s what I grew up with and use till today for prayer and Torah study. For day-to-day speech in Israel, I use the Sefardic pronunciation, which is ubiquitous in the country. But when I write posts in English for the English speaker, I’m in a quandary what pronunciation to use.

This past post really put the issue to a test. The product I reviewed is named “The Shabbat Collection”. I can’t change the name of the product, but I personally prefer Shabbos, so I ended off with a mishmash, including writing Shabbat in the post title and Shabbos in the body of the post.

One day I’ll make a firm policy for my posts but in the meantime pardon me if I occasionally switch allegiance from time to time. If you have any advice for me, please write.

when in rome
Beth-El Synagogue in Casablanca

This issue brings me to the topic of today’s post. Lets say you follow the Askenazic version and pronunciation and you’re now at the Beth-El Synagogue in Casablanca, Morocco. All the locals are praying Sefardic. What about you?

Or lets say you hail from a very traditional Yemenite family and find yourself praying in the Ohel Jakob Synagogue in Munich, Germany. What about you?

when in rome
Ohel Jakob Synagogue in Munich

Which tradition do you follow with the pronunciation and the Nusach (version)? Is there a difference if you are praying as one of the congregation in silence or if you are saying Kaddish out loud and they hear you? If you are honored by being the Chazzan (cantor) do you follow your own tradition or the local one?

There are two main opposing factors to take in consideration:

  1. According to the Zohar there are twelve gates (or windows) in Heaven; one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel, and the prayers of each tribe passes through its own distinct gate. This idea implies that there is no “one size fits all” but rather each tribe or group has their own unique style of prayer. In addition, the verse “V’Al Titosh Torat Imecha” (translation: Do not abandon the Torah of your mother) implies that you may not abandon the traditions of your family.
  2. The verse “Lo Titgodedu” (translation: Do not make factions). This refers to the prohibition of creating factions among Jews when some practice one law or tradition and others follow a different one, in the same location. The implication is that you must follow local custom for the sake of unity among Jews.

When you pray in a synagogue with a different tradition than yours, you need to balance these two opposing principles of maintaining your own tradition while refraining from negatively impacting Jewish unity.

The Sages from Talmudic times up till the modern age discuss the issue extensively. I’m not sufficiently scholarly to write the Unified Theory for Cross Cultural Prayer, but here are a few simple guidelines to keep you out of trouble on your trip:


  • When reciting the silent Shmoneh Esrei, say it according to your own tradition.
  • When you are responding to Kedusha, say it according to the local custom.
  • If you are asked to be the Chazzan, say the silent Shemoneh Esrei according to your tradition but when you repeat the Shemoneh Esrei out loud do it according to the locals.


  • Stick the pronunciation you are used to whether you are praying as a congregant or as a Chazzan. Unless you have a lot of practice switching, it will confuse you and make a mishmash of words.

As a footnote, according to the online Encyclopedia Britannica, Ashkenazim constitute more than 80 percent of all the Jews in the world, vastly outnumbering Sephardic Jews. In the late 20th century, Ashkenazic Jews numbered more than 11 million. In Israel the numbers of Ashkenazim and Sephardim are roughly equal, and the chief rabbinate has both an Ashkenazic and a Sephardic chief rabbi on equal footing.

So the next time you go synagogue hopping with a different tradition, remember – When in Rome, do as the Jewish Romans do (at least in public).

Spirituality of an Earthquake

Korach and the Earthquake

Since the days of Korach, the mere thought of a major earthquake fills people with dread. Of course Korach’s untimely demise along with his rebellious followers was a unique divine punishment for trying to incite the Jewish people against Moshe’s leadership. A singularity. Hopefully never to occur again.

In the post-Korach era, I’m sure that no normal human being would deliberately be present at an earthquake, whether the earth opens up or not. I doubt that even the dedicated photographers of National Geographic would run after them.

Haiti Earthquake (2010)

Just to get some perspective on the experience, here’s part of a first person account from the horrific 2010 Haiti earthquake when the catastrophe struck millions.

I was four months pregnant, sitting at my desk in the United Nations office in Port-au-Prince, when my world changed. It was nearly 5 p.m., but I was in no rush to leave because my husband, Eduardo, was in Italy, training for a U.N. security job.

I heard a thunderous noise. Then the room was vibrating, and the walls were swinging. I wondered, “Should I hide under the desk? Run outside?” Everything around me was plunging — bookcases, computers. I tried desperately to shield my belly as I, too, fell to the floor and pieces of the ceiling crashed down around me. Then my office-mate grabbed me by the only thing he could reach, my ponytail, and dragged me down the front steps of the building.

Outside, I knelt on all fours on the pavement, which was still heaving. The sun was setting and the air was thick with dust, but I could see that the six-story U.N. building had collapsed. I realized I was listening to tens of thousands of people screaming. It sounded like Armageddon.

(“I Survived Haiti’s Earthquake, Pregnant” By Amelia Shaw as told to Nicole Caccavo Kear from “American Baby”)

Spirituality of an Earthquake
Shih Gang Earthquake

Earthquake Reality and Facts

Interestingly enough, earthquakes aren’t rare at all. It is estimated that there are 500,000 detectable earthquakes in the world each year. 100,000 of those can be felt, and 100 of them cause damage. If you want to see exactly what’s going on with earthquakes worldwide, check out the U.S. Geological Survey site. They have loads of interesting facts and even a real-time tracker and map (link) for seismic activity. So far today, June 17th, there were 37 recorded quakes over 2.5 magnitude.

Earthquakes are definitely acts of God and mostly caused by rupture of geological faults. But man too shares in the responsibility of causing an earthquake by storing large amounts of water behind a dam (and possibly building an extremely heavy building), drilling and injecting liquid into wells, coal mining and oil drilling, and of course nuclear tests.

Spirituality of an Earthquake

OK, so how does all this relate to the Jewish traveler? What’s the religious perspective and practical to-do list if God forbid you get caught in an earthquake somewhere along one of the oceanic and continental plates where the risk is highest?

Spirituality of an Earthquake
Tectonic plates of the world

Earthquake Blessings

Upon witnessing the quake one should make a blessing:
Baruch Atta Ado-noy Elo-hai-nu Melech ha’olam shekocho ugevurato malei olam.
translation: Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, whose power and might fill the world.

Some have the tradition to say a different blessing:
Baruch Atta Ado-noy Elo-hai-nu Melech ha’olam osei ma’asei vereisheet.
translation: Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who reenacts the works of creation.

If one was in physical danger during the earthquake then one should also say Birkat HaGomel after the event, to thank Him for surviving.

When one later returns to the location of the event, them one should make an extra blessing: Baruch Atta Ado-noy Elo-hai-nu Melech ha’olam She’asa Li Nes BaMakom Hazeh
translation: Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has performed for me a miracle at this spot.

Experiencing an earthquake helps bring into focus how the forces of nature are all truly from God and expressions of His majesty. One merely needs to feel the ground shake a bit to know without doubt who is really in charge.

Japan 2011

Keep safe!

The Spiritual Dimension to Traveling

A friend sent me the following inspirational video clip:


A former neurologist called Dr. John Kitchen, gave up a lucrative medical career to spend the rest of his days roller skating along the Pacific Beach boardwalk. He now goes by the name of “Slomo” and skates day and night. His life philosophy is “Do as you want to“.

It made me think. When you travel, not to get from place A to B or to accomplish a specific task at place B, but just for the enjoyment of traveling, is there a meaning to it? Is there more to travel then just “Do as you want to“?

Can one integrate into a journey, a deeper significance (as a Jew) and make long-term travel into something spiritual?

This reminds me of a story:

The Chafetz Chaim and the Bus Driver

The Chafetz Chaim got on a bus and upon discovering the driver was a Jew, told him how much he envied the driver’s share in the World to Come.

“You do so many acts of Chessed (kindness) all day by taking people to their destinations”, the Rabbi exclaimed. “But this is my job. I get paid to drive people around. I’m not taking them purely for altruistic reasons”, protested the driver.

“Even though you’re getting paid, your focus should be on the fact that you’re helping your fellow Jew get from place to place”, answered the sage, “Your salary is to enable you to do acts of kindness. Without earning a living, you couldn’t invest your time in driving people to their destinations”.

I understand from the Rabbi’s words that one can and should imbue even simple and mundane actions with a deeper spiritual dimension. It’s all a matter of focus.

Spiritual Dimension to Traveling
Traveling for Business or Pleasure?

Spiritual Dimension to Traveling

Here are a few ideas which lend a spiritual dimension to traveling:

  •  Kiddush Hashem: Any action by a Jew that brings honor, respect, and glory to God and His Torah is considered to be sanctification of His Name, whereas any behavior or action that disgraces, harms or shames God’s name and his Torah is regarded as a Chillul Hashem (desecration of the Name). This means that even on vacation when you want to loosen the reins a bit, you still need to behave pleasantly and respectfully to the locals. Saying “please” and “thank you” are the very minimum, along with relating to people with honesty and integrity. When you behave yourself properly on vacation, people will feel that its good dealing with Jews and that’s a Kiddush Hashem.

Help people respect Jews.

There used to be a time (I hope this has changed by now) when Israeli tourists weren’t very welcome abroad.

The Israeli tourists would push ahead of others who were standing in line. They’d speak aggressively and look down at the locals. When staying at hotels they’d walk off with towels and room equipment. It got to the point that the Israeli government did a whole Public Relations drive to change tourist behavior abroad.

I think today the situation is much better. It hadn’t been that much of a Kiddush Hashem back then…

  •  Kindness: Like in the story of the Chafetz Chaim and the bus driver, wherever you travel you’ll meet people who need help. They don’t have to be starving orphans in Cambodia who need a slice of bread to survive. Even helping a handicapped fellow traveler with their luggage is an act of Chessed. So is giving a less knowledgeable traveler directions to their next stop.

Do simple acts of kindness every day of your trip.

  • Observing the Mitsvos in challenging situations: Keeping Shabbos and Kashrus and attending prayers in a synagogue are part of being an observant Jew. Doing them while in transit is a greater challenge. (What do you do if you’re stuck in a hotel room on Shabbos, and you can’t open the door without engaging an electronic sensor?) In fact it is written in the Rabbinical writings “Lefum Tsa’ara Agra“, the reward is proportionate to the difficulty.

Do your best to observe the Mitsvos under all conditions.

  • Teaching Torah: Whether you meet other Jews or Non-Jews, people are curious about Judaism. Don’t be shy, teach others what you know. You’ll be expanding their awareness of Torah, and you’ll understand more yourself.

Teach someone a bit of Judaism every day.

  • Spreading Sparks of Holiness: I remember the year of saying Kaddish for one of my parents. I did a lot of traveling at the time and for some reason kept a record of every different place that I said Kaddish. At the end of the year the list was long and fascinating. There is a spiritual significance not only to the act of doing a Mitsvah but also to the fact one did that Mitsvah in a specific location. I read that the Baal Shem Tov went from place to place to spread sparks of Holiness everywhere he went and make spiritually repairs everywhere he stayed over.

Leave your spiritual mark at every stop.

  • Appreciation for God’s creation: When one observes the wonders of the world like vast oceans or majestic mountains, then one can recite the blessing “Oseh Maaseh Breishis” to express our appreciation for the beauty God created in the world. One can’t make this blessing by looking up Niagara Falls on Google Images. You’ve got to be there and see them to feel thankful to God that they exist. Travel brings many Oseh Maaseh Breishis moments.

Thank God for all His beauty wherever  you go.

Whatever reason you have for going on the next trip, you can make it more meaningful, more spiritual and more significant if you invest a bit of thought and focus.

Of course you can “Do as you want to“. But put in a bit of spirituality at the same time.

Why are Jews so different – Judaism 101 in Transit

Judaism 101

An au pair girl from Europe was telling her friends back home about the American Jewish family she worked by for a year.

“They have very strange festivals”, she exclaimed.

“There’s a day called Shabbat, when they eat in the dining room and smoke in the bathroom”.

“Then they have something called Tisha B’Av, when they eat in the bathroom and smoke in the dining room”.

“And then there’s a day called Yom Kippur, when they eat and smoke in the bathroom…”.

The au pair girl might have remained ignorant of real Jewish practices for the entire year she was working, simply because she was too shy to ask a member of the family the reasoning behind their strange actions. But then they might not have known the real reasoning either and that was the cause of their inconsistency in religious practice in the first place…

I believe that when a Jew is on the road then he or she is an unofficial ambassador of the Jewish People and should react accordingly. Whether one covers their head and dresses in a way that makes them look Jewish or not, is not the point I want to convey. What’s important (in my opinion) is that you know how to respond to honest curiosity and questions in a way which leaves them more knowledgeable (and even respectful ) of who we are.

When you travel long distances, people tend to chat with their neighbors and fellow travelers. Eventually your religion will be mentioned (unless one hides the fact zealously) and the topic of Judaism or the State of Israel or religion in general could come up.

“Oh, you’re Jewish? I know someone Jewish from back home. If you’ve already mentioned it, I have a question. Why do Jews do…(fill in the blank)?”.

They might ask you about the reasoning behind Kosher food, the restriction of work on the Sabbath or about not eating bread on Pesach. Maybe they’ll inquire about the Jewish perspective on dating and marriage or your opinion on intermarriage and premarital sex. They may ask about festivals and the difference between Chanukah and Christmas. They may be interested in the various movements in Judaism and about why the so-called ultra-Orthodox are so different. They might have even heard about the Hassidic Movement and its customs and they’re fascinated to learn more.

Once the topic is opened, the options for questions and discussion are endless. At that moment you’re not merely a private citizen with your own opinions and religious practices. You’ve suddenly become an unofficial representative of the Jewish People, irrespective of your personal beliefs. But you freeze and your mind goes blank because you’re not very sure yourself why Jews do…(fill in the blank).

Even if you respond that you personally don’t observe or keep a particular practice or tradition, it’s still important for you to know exactly what it is that you are (or aren’t) practicing. As far as your partner in conversation is concerned you are the sole source of Jewish knowledge on the continent.

I’m aware that giving clear-cut, authoritative and definitive answers on Judaism isn’t for everybody. There are countless fine religious Jews who haven’t the faintest idea how to explain basic Jewish terms in clear and simple words, even to their fellow Jew. So when it comes to explaining to a non-Jew, why we don’t drink their wine and why we don’t intermarry with them and why we don’t eat their food and why we don’t enter their house of worship, one can really get flustered and start stammering.

I firmly believe that every Jewish traveler should be prepared with answers to the basic questions on Jewish practice and belief. Of course it’s hard to study everything in advance, so I’d like to share with you a few great resources for getting trustworthy and in-depth information on the road.

traveling ambassador jewish people
Judaism 101

My favorite site is called Judaism 101 at It contains clear and definitive information on hundreds of Jewish topics. The site is very light on the graphics. It’s nearly all text with clip-art, so the site loads very fast.  The author Tracey Rich put in clear categories of topics including IDEAS, PEOPLE, PLACES, THINGS, WORDS, DEEDS, TIMES, LIFE CYCLE and REFERENCE.

Rich also categorizes topics according their level of complexity and for whom the topic is intended, including BASIC, INTERMEDIATE, ADVANCED and even GENTILE. He really deals with an enormous amount of topics so you can get a quick definition for countless questions.

I just checked out the site on my smartphone and he’s definitely mobile ready. This means that if you’re on a train in South America with a bunch of backpackers and you get the Jewish question, just click the site and you’ll have an answer in a few moments. Of course I recommend going through the site BEFORE you leave on a trip, to get an idea of what’s available there and how to find it.

Another excellent site is

This site run by the Aish Hatorah Rabbinical Collage in Jerusalem (they’re located facing the Western Wall) delves deep into all aspects of Jewish philosophy, tradition and practice in an engaging and popular style. Like its mobile ready. You’ll need to study the material in your free time according to what interests you. It isn’t for looking up a quick answer to a live question while waterskiing.

Next time someone asks you a question on Judaism, don’t be shy. Speak up. You’ll feel prouder of your heritage. And most of the answers are just a click away…

The Jewish Road Less Traveled

If you grew up in the sixties and seventies and beyond, you’re probably familiar with the opening lines of Star Trek:

Space: The final frontier
These are the voyages of the Starship, Enterprise
Its 5 year mission
To explore strange new worlds
To seek out new life and new civilizations
To boldly go where no man has gone before

The Road Less Traveled
The Road Less Traveled

I wonder if the creators of the series were inspired by Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Many would interpret Robert Frost’s well-known poem as the essence of true Wanderlust, seeking out the unfamiliar in travel, instead of staying on the safe and well-beaten tourist routes.

For me, “The Road Less Traveled” is hard-wired into Jewish consciousness, from the time of our forefather Abraham. He was known as Abraham the IVRI, commonly translated as The Hebrew. But what IS a Hebrew? IVRI means “the other side”. While most of the world was theologically on one side (paganism), Abraham was on the other side (monotheism).

Being different then everyone else and going on a road less traveled is central to our reality, not only in belief but also in our day-to-day actions. The time when it is most noticeable, is during travel.

Wearing a Kippa for a man or a snood or wig for a woman isn’t that unique. Other religions cover their heads. It’s when you get into your packaged airline meal with the disposable dishware and all the Rabbinical stamps on the package, that you really feel how different you are.

I’ve been to a catering company that produces Glatt Kosher meals for First Class passengers. They really put in a tremendous amount of effort to make an awesome Glatt Kosher meal, both in quantity and quality. But no matter how you make it, the person eating the Kosher meal will feel different from the rest of the First Class passengers.

road less traveled |
First Class Kosher Meal

You’re sitting in the First Class section, with all the other privileged passengers, and just before you dig into your sumptuous (I hope) Kosher meal, there’s a Bracha (Blessing) to be said. You then open up all sorts of double wrapped packages with Hebrew symbols that don’t look at all like what everyone else is getting. Then again at the end of the meal, there’s Birkat HaMazon to say too. Even your Segal’s Unfiltered Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 wine at $71.99 a bottle looks bit different…

I can give countless examples of how different we seem to the rest of the world especially during travel; the places of worship we don’t enter, the bars we avoid, opposite gender relationships we’re careful with and our absolutely different behavior on Shabbat.

Yes, we are very different…and vive la différence !!

Life is a Journey – So Pack Light

Life is a Journey

For me, travel is a metaphor for Jewish Living.  Whether we’ve lived in ten cities and toured the African and Asian Continents coast to coast, or whether we’ve spent our entire life in one city or country, we are still on a journey. Not merely a journey with a small “j”, but rather a “Life Journey” – from “This World” to “The World to Come”, and as they say, “Life is a journey, not a destination”.

life is a journey so pack light - jewish traveling
Success (Life) is a Journey

Seeing Life as a Journey has significance even on the practical level, as one can see in the following story about the Chofetz Chaim:

The Chofetz Chaim lived a very simple and minimalistic lifestyle. Until he was quite old, the floor in his house wasn’t even tiled. The table was not much more than a wooden plank, and instead of chairs there were just some plain benches. Once, a rich Jew visited the revered tzaddik to receive his blessing. As he entered the simple dwelling, he glanced around and saw the plain furnishings. He was shocked to see this eminent and revered personage living under such impoverished circumstances.

“Rabbi,” he asked, “how can you live under such conditions? Where is the courtly furniture that befits a person of your stature?”

Smiling gently, the Chofetz Chaim responded by asking a question of his own: “Tell me, where are you staying during your visit here?”

“In the village inn, of course! Where else?”

“I don’t understand,” replied the Chofetz Chaim, “You are quite wealthy, and must be used to only the best. That inn has only some old broken-down benches. It must be very uncomfortable for you there. Why didn’t you bring all of your beautiful furnishings with you?”

“Bring them with me? That’s absurd. When a person is traveling, he can’t take along everything he owns. Most of his possessions remain at home. He understands that his journey is only temporary, and he lives much more simply.”

“That sounds very reasonable,” said the Chofetz Chaim – “and now you have the answer to your question. My time in this world is only temporary. I am only passing through on a journey to my ultimate destination. Therefore, I live very simply.”  (from the book “Trust Me” by Rabbi Eliezer Parkoff)

Of course the Chofetz Chaim was a Sage and a uniquely spiritual person and most of us would find it impossible to emulate his austere lifestyle. Nevertheless, I believe that at the very least one can travel with minimal luggage, even if one can’t live that way all year-long.

There are many practical benefits to packing light:

  • Security – Less to lose or get stolen.
  • Economy – no extra luggage fees, no porters and you can walk or take a bus instead of only taxis.
  • Mobility – Later check-in, earlier check-out.
  • Serenity – Less time to pack, less stress, less to sweat.
  • Spirituality – Less dependency on material possessions.

My favorite website for packing light is Doug Dyment‘s site called The entire site is devoted to learning how to travel with one carry-on bag only and according to very clearly defined packing-lists. That’s it. Nothing else.

I guess that an observant Jew would have a few more things to carry, like a Talis & Tefillin for men, Shabbat clothes, a wig or head-covering for woman, some Kosher food or utensils, a book of Torah study. Yet I’m sure that even with our EXTRA stuff, we can still fit it all into one bag (and certainly in LESS bags than we’re used to).

YouTube has many good videos on the OneBag system. I recommend looking up also “Round The World” or “RTW” packing for men or for woman (different packing needs of course). OneBag even suggests a few versatile types of bags with lots of pockets which support the OneBag system.

Here’s a short video about the Red Oxx Air Boss bag and an extremely efficient packing system:

Next time you travel, remember:

The lighter you travel, the more you can enjoy and experience your journey.