At the back of the hill

Warning: If you stay here long enough you will gain weight! Grazing here strongly suggests that you are either omnivorous, or a glutton. And you might like cheese-doodles.
BTW: I'm presently searching for another person who likes cheese-doodles.
Please form a caseophilic line to the right. Thank you.

Thursday, December 21, 2006


[Note: two errors spotted by attentive readers (one at 4:55 pm, the other at 5:03 pm) have been corrected. Thank you. If anyone spots any other factual errors, pleas let me know. Errors of snarkiness can be debated in the comments. If I like what you say, I'll steal it.]

You guys are so lucky that Yeshiva Chipas Emmess sends out these lectures. Spreading lomdus is a mitzvah, you should be so grateful.

[For the full Yeshiva Chipas Emmess experience, and all the lectures by Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein soll sein gazunt, see here: Go on, click. You know you want to. You lust after wisdom, you beheimah.]

Below, for your pleasure and edification, is the Christmas Drasha of Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein, soll sein gazunt, rosh yeshiva, soll sein gazunter.




Christmas = Nittel. A Russian celebration during which the Cossacks get drunk and drive their sleighs into the wall of the shul next door. Repeatedly, and at great speed. Whereupon they invite themselves in, and continue their celebration with the Rabbi’s liquor cabinet, before borrowing your station wagon for a middle of the night drive to Bayonne.

Nittel used to be celebrated in January, but since the revolution it has been celebrated a few days after the solstice.

Our minhag is to play chess that night - there are so many malicious spirits about on nitel night that we couldn’t possibly lern Toireh or Talmud, for fear that our good friends the Cossacks might come to an accident.

Rabbi Yoichanan Ben Zakai, in a Braisa brought down in Maseches Airuvin, asks: What is the true mitzvah of Christmas? Is it to share the joy, the festivities, the gift-giving, and the spirit of good will towards all men? Or is it to go to a matinee, pay half price, and stay the hell off the street until the goyim sober up?

Yochanan Ben Zakkai = A close friend and chavrusa of Rish Lakish, whom Yochanan treasured because he challenged everything that Yochanan said, testing his logic and his reason till it was watertight – we all need such a chavrusa.

Oh, wait - DTL tells me that was Rebbi Yôhhonon bar Nappohho (Sepphoris, then Tiberias; died in 279 CE), not Rabbon Yôhhonon ben Zakkai (Jerusalem, then Jamnia; died around 80 CE).

[Crap, these Chazalic names are all so confusing! Why couldn't Chazal have nice normal names like Dovbear, or XGH, or Margavriel, or Steg, or Jameel, or Tafka?]

Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai used to say, "If you have learnt much Torah, do not reckon it as merit, because for that purpose you were created."

Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai dictated the Zohar to Rabbi Abba on his deathbed, expiring on the thirty-third day of the Omer (thirty three days after Peysach). On that day, the sun stood still, to give Rabbi Yochanan time to finish, and fire burst out all around the house where Rabbi Yochanan and his talmedim were gathered. With the last word, a brilliant light enveloped the building and Rabbi Yochanan’s soul returned to the Master of the world.

Oh, wait..... that's ALSO some other dude. Shoot, all those names look alike.

The Zohar was written by Shimeon BarYohai, who spent thirteen years in a cave, at the end of which time he probably heard voices. Shimeon was reincarnated by Moishe Ben ShemTov DeLeon, a Castillian charlatan, between 1250 and 1305. His latest incarnation is as Madonna Louise Ciccone (b. 1958), who after a sex-change operation renamed himself Esther.
Beraisa = ‘On the outside’; a statement or argument not included in the Mishna, but of equally ancient ancestry, often written in one of the extra-mishnaic works, such as the Tosefta, the Mechilta, Sifra, and Sifrei.

Often Beraisos are included as annotations or margin notes in Talmudic commentaries.

Tosefta = Supplement; a compilation of the oral law, like the Mishna, and from roughly the same era. It was compiled by Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Oshayah, whereas the Mishna was compiled by Yehudah HaNasi (Judah the prince, a scholar descended from Melech Dovid), a leader of the talmidish olam in the second century CE who is accorded such stature that he is also referred to as Rebbi (my teacher) and Rabbeinu HaKadosh (our saintly rabbi).

Mechilta = Two separate books are meant: Mechilta Dhe Rabbi Ishmael, and Mechilta Dhe Rabbi Shimon Ben Yohai. Both are exegetical midrashim on Bereishis.

Sifra = A third century CE commentary on the Mishna, of uncertain authority and authorship.

Sifre = Halachic exegesis on Seifer Bamidbar (Numbers) and Seifer Dvarim (Deuteronomy).

What has come down to us is not the full corpus, parts are clearly missing, and the Talmud references parts which were changed or lost.

Maseches Eruvin = Blendings; second tractate of Seder Mo’ed in the Bavli.

The twelve tractates of Seder Mo’ed are Shabbes (Sabbath laws and Chanuka; #1), Eruvin, (blendings, and permissible Sabbath space; #2), Peysachim (leavening, pascal sacrifice, and the seder; #3), Beitza (egg; food which may be prepared on festivals; #4), Hagiga (feasting; offerings during festivals; #5), Mo’ed Koton (minor times; intermediate festival days; #6), Rosh Ha Shana (New Year; #7), Ta’anis (fasts, and self-deprivation; #8), Yoma (day – Yom Kippur; #9), Sukko (booth – feast of tabernacles; #10), Shekelim (tithing and sacrifice-contributions; #11), and finally Megilla (which is about Purim; #12).

This line of questioning echoes a story of Eliyahu Hanavi, as he faced down the priests of Baal on Har Carmel. As they each brought sacrifices and rejoiced in their Avoidah Zarah, Eliyahu chose to sit on the side and clip coupons, rather than participate. And when it came time to show the power of the Aimishteh, Eliyahu chose to consume all the priests with fire, rather than pay to provide refreshments for everyone.

Eliyahu HaNovi = Elijah the Prophet. The name Elijah translates as ‘my god is lord’. His nickname, from his place of origin, is ‘the Tishbite’ (haTishbi). A rabble-rouser and bad-influence, you don’t want your children to play with him.

His period of exile in the wilderness is oddly echoed in the tale of John the Baptist, who was fed by crows while living in the wilds near the river Jordan (as, indeed, much of the Kristic mythos is a conscious echoing of well known themes from Hebrew scripture - as Koheles says, there is nothing new under the sun, and all is vanity).

Eliyahu HaNovi left the world of the living in a fiery chariot, pulled by flaming horses, which came from the sky to lift him up. It is said that when the Moshiach comes, his imminent arrival will be announced by the return of Eliyahu, for whom we fill a cup and leave a space each peysach, and for whom a chair is provided at each bris, in the hopes that mirtzeshem it should happen soon and in our lifetime.

According to the RAN, this story captures the essential dilemma of ambivalence we all feel at this time of year. All year long we function as a part of external secular society, with our own traditions and peculiarities accepted in an air of viva la differance. But at Christmas time we are not Battul BeShishim; we stand out as the minority that we are.

The Ran = Rabbeinu Nisim Ben Rav Reuven Girondi (d. ~1380), whose supercommentary on the mefarsh of the Rif (Rabbi Yitzhak El Fassi, 1013 – 1103) is printed in the back of the Gemoro, along with the Rosh (Rabbi Asher Ben Yechiel, 1250 – 1328). Every student encounters these three with regularity, and learns to appreciate the interplay of their reasoning and thought processes.

Battel be shishim = Annulled by (as less than one part in) sixty, a point at which contamination of food is considered negated, EXCEPT during peysach. During Peysach, any contamination, no matter how minute, disqualifies the substance thus polluted, which must be discarded as unfit.
Assimilation can only go so far – comes a point when we have to say ‘include me out’. We are to be separate, bein ha goyim – that’s why country clubs and retail pricing exist.

According to some authorities, the use of the phrase ‘Happy Holidays’ betrays one’s status as a secular humanistic Sodom-and-Gomorah lifestyle adhering liberal pinko commie (meaning, in this context, a Jew) – so it is recommended that instead of wishing someone a happy holiday, you merely grunt sincerely.

If someone tries to press the issue by insisting ‘merry Kratchmatch’, you may respond with a heartfelt ‘bah humbug’ (a neutral and traditional sentiment uttered at this time of year).
Or more grunting.

The minority that we are = Why is this said? Because Krutchmitch celebrates the birthday of Mithras, a Persian prophet, at the end of six days of orgies in Rome marking the solstice (it used to be called Saturnalia). Even if the followers of Yushka had not opportunistically grabbed the holiday as soon as the previous users had left, we would feel a little put off – the Persians tried to whack us several times, then the Romans tried to exterminate us.

Perhaps because this strange idolatrous Perso-Roman amalgam is NOT our first choice of inclusionary celebrations our ancestors ignored the advertising campaign and refused the free action figures.

Either that or tacky plastic figurines in red bekeshes remind us too much of those neighbors we can’t stand, despite having our ears to the wall all day Saturday listening to the game on their television, the heathens, and grunt sincerely whenever they greet us.

Mithras = The saviour deity of a syncretist Graeco-Persian mystery religion which competed with Christianity for the disaffected vote. Mitra was the intermediary between mortals and Ahura Mazda (the benevolent creator of all that is good), and protected adherents against Ahriman (the evil spirit). His sect was wide-spread in the Roman military, appealing to loyalists of Rome as well as mercenaries striving for honour. Very Roman.
The Roman military, in mittn drinnen, were psychopaths.

It is remarkable how many correspondences there are in the Kristic haggadah to Mithraist themes: three wise guys, a star in the east, divinely ‘inspired’ pregnancy, a mother of utter purity, miraculous childhood, disappearance for several years, disputations with priests, and a miraculous ascent, to name just a very few. There is nothing new under the sun, and all of this is utter vanity.

One could certainly think of Yushkism as a syncretic Hebreo-Persian corollary to Mithraism, a version of Zoroastrianism more tailored to stiff-necked rebels against Rome than to the troops sent to deal with uppity Jews of whatever stripe. Which it may very well have been, given the times and the tendency towards cultural fusion, contamination, and overlapping idolatries.
But no wonder so many Roman legionnaires converted – they were very confused, takkeh.
And psychopaths.

Did I mention that Koheles says there is nothing new under the sun?

It is davka because of all the avoideh zara going around in this period that Eliyahu Hanovi, being mamesh filled with bile, had the prophets of Baal put to death after besting them in a magic-competition on Mount Carmel.

Yet, we needn't abandon this Yuntif entirely, given our myriad connections to it:

- Jesus was, of course, a Jew. Indeed, a medrish in Matthew Rabbah refers to him using a cell phone in a movie theatre and taking Mary Magdolyn on a shidduch date for drinks at the local Marriot;

"Jesus was, of course, a Jew" = Wow! Am I surprised (I thought he was a min, or even a koifer ba ikker). And what a coincidence that he was born on the same day as Mithras!
Maybe they just couldn’t remember the exact day, and arbitrarily decided that a popular heathen feast-day was as good a day as any to celebrate a birthday – no work, lots of parties to go to, and a good old-fashioned bean-feed to cap it off.
Lots of bishel akum, some wine, and some really hot shiksas.

Of course, the fact that he didn’t graduate from yeshiva and make a good shidduch was also an excuse for high drama. That, and his evident denial of the fundamentals (ikkerim) of his faith (emunah). Amongst which are the non-mortality, the indescribability, and the indivisible unity of Hashem.

So imagine, if you will, a woman named Miriyam wailing: "I have no son! He’s dead, do you hear me, dead!"[I would’ve thought it much better to have her echo Yakov’s lament, when he was told that Yoisef had snuffed it; "Alas, I will go down to She’ol to my son, in utter sorrow" (Seifer Bereishis, Parshas Vayeishev (and he settled), psook (verse) 37:35).
But then, I’m not in the business of inventing a religion, and heck, she may have been told that there was no body and no proof - ‘have-us a corpus, or not have-us a corpus, that is the question’.]

Alternatively, kvelling over him besting his teachers at arguing Talmud-Torah.

And that rumour of Mary Magdalene being a prostitute sounds exactly like what a disappointed mother would say about that shiksa her son was seeing. Mary Magdalene was probably blonde.

It is said that when the children of Chassidim and Misnagdim marry, both parents mourn for the dead.

How much more so Kratchmachnikim and people.

Nearly two millennia later, and we’re still hearing about that woman’s ‘precious’ son.


- Christmas tree lights are a modern day expression on the ancient Germanic festival of lights commemorating the winter solstice. This, in itself, is partly reflected in the lighting of the Chanukah candles;

Ancient Germanic festival = Bringing dead pine-trees into the house is a recipe for disaster – there’s already a fire-hazard with the flame under the blech left on full bore over shabbes, ober mit an etz-kretshmatsh, dos gonze hoys volt gehn in flammen oyf.

Yule, by the way, the ancient Germanic festival referenced above, had Indo-European roots – hence the somewhat similar celebration in ancient Persia, also at the time of the solstice.
And, like peysach, Persians still celebrate the beginning of spring as the new year, and serve a fruit and nut compote as a festive dish, along with several symbolic foods in a dining ritual, reminiscent of the charoses we eat during chag ha aviv and the tiefe symbolizmuz of our own seder.

Might that mean that our yomim tovim are mere echoes or mirrorings of the chagim ha goyim?

Absolutely not!
And chasvechollileh!

The Zohar asserts that certain times of the year are mesugal that certain events have to happen then.

Pesach happened when it did because at that time of the year we have the shtarke tendenz of cheirus. Mimeila yetzios mitzrayim, b'hechrach.

At the end of the summer, the Shaarei Rachamim are especially open, and that time is mesugal for teshuvah – hence Yoim Kippur and the other Yomim Noraim.

This time of year normal people have a tiefe teivah for Chinese food.

- Christmas is a celebration of...RETAIL. According to the RAMBAM's Mishnah Toirah, one of the key Mitzvois Asei SheHazman Gerammah is the raising of ALL prices by 20% between December 10th and December 24th. Boruch Hashem for Kratzmach -- this Yuntif pays for my kids' Yeshivah tuition! Indeed, all of my talmidim are encouraged to contribute
to a Christmas fund for families who cannot afford toys, the Kratzmach Gemach, so that Jewish merchants will not suffer because the Goyim are in the middle of a recession.

The end of the civil year is mesugal for retail. We are zoiche to benefit from that, as indeed iz dos gonze oilam, baruch Hashem. It is an ungezetste tzeit, what better way to clear your karma than by buying geshenkn fur di gonze mishpoche – especially if you lack the kidooshah and nemonus to withstand advertising.

And with winter broken, the entire family can help in the store. A great yuntif.

- There is a famous Mishnah that states that just as Roish Hashanah is the New Year for the universe and Tu BiShvat is the New Year for trees, Christmas is the New Year for big, fat, bearded white guys. And I know many Rabbanim in our community who should therefore celebrate this Yuntif too.

Roish Hashanah, Tu Bishvat = Two new years festivals – Roish Hashanah takes place in autumn, Tu Bishvat in winter.

There is a famous Maiseh SheHoya about the Lubavitcher Rebbe. In an effort to raise money for vodka for his Chasidim one year, he dressed up as Santa Clause and stood in front of the local Bloomingdales, pretending to be from the Salvation Army. Who should walk by, but his archenemy, the Satmar Rebbe.

Lubavitcher = Adherents of the Chassidic lineage founded by Rav Shneur Zalman (1745 – 1813) of Liadi, a student of the Maggid of Mezzeritch Rav Dov Baer (1710 – 1772), who was taught by the Ba’al Shem Tov Rabbi Yisroel Ben Eliezer (1698 – 1760).

Satmar Rebbe = The Krulyer rebbe, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum (1887 – 1979), a descendant of the Yismach Moishe (Rav Moishe Teitelbaum, 1759 – 1841), who became Rebbe of Satmar in Hungary in 1929, and rebuilt Satmar Chassidus in the U.S. after WWII.

"So, Menachem-Mendel," the Satmar Rebbe declared in a loud voice, "Your movement truly has evolved into another religion."

Evolved into another religion = An accusation first made by the misnagdim about Chassidus. But who listens to them? They have charismatic rebbes? Teevee preachers? Madonna?

"Not at all," the Lubavitcher Rebbe calmly replied. "We simply never miss an opportunity to find joy. What do you say you and I do a couple of shots, sing a niggun, and make-up underneath the mistletoe?"

Niggun = A song with words of no particular meaning, or great particular meaning, often having a supra-textual meaning not immediately clear from the lyrics. Very Chassidish – when you’re happy, sing and dance. When you’re sad, sing and dance. Song and dance, in that they lift the spirit out of the ordinary, are a form of devotion.

Cynics say that a Rebbe with scant talent for mussar (didactic moral Torah lecture) will instead urge his chossidim to sing niggunim around the shabbes-tish. Yet others have said that only a great tzadik can compose an effective niggun, because only such a man can instill a complete sermon into pure emotion.

It is also said that a great Rebbe will infuse a mitzvah-tanz with all that is in the Torah, and perform with great spiritual grace at the chassunah, whereas an unexceptional Rebbe merely infuses it with the meaning of the Sears Catalogue, and crashes into the kallah.

You had to be there.

The Satmar Rebbe was so upset by the confrontation that day, he insisted that all of his followers use reindeer meat in their cholent that shabbos.

"When Father Kratchmatch’s son was born in the garage, native herdsmen came around with reindeer, and the Kingston Trio with da ganja, da spleeve, and da bong. Tiny Tim roasted a lamb, and they all got shikker on eggnog because there was no rum at the inn."

You wouldn’t believe the superstition and bobe-meises my youngest comes home with this time of year! Almost as if she was tinoke she nishba bein ha goyim. Urrrghh!

Cholent = A very dangerous dish made with meat, lentils, onions, spices, which is stuck into an oven on low over Friday night, so that, as is a mitzvah to us, we may partake of a hot meal and acid-reflux on Saturday afternoon. Only those zoiche to be nifter are excused, everybody else gets a shot of Pepso-Bishmoil.

Meanwhile, the Lubavitcher Rebbe raised enough money to keep his Chasidim drunk through the end of the month of Tayvais. That night, the Reboinoisheloilum came to him in a dream. "Rebbe," the Aimishteh said, "Have I not given you enough to celebrate in Yiddishkeit? Why are you and your followers embracing another religion?"

Embracing another religion = Did someone say that the Rebbe was the Moshiach Ben Dovid? But there are also those who hold that the Rebbe was Moshiach Ben Yoisif. Both beliefs are meshune, to say the least.

Ober voss iz mit a nomen? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

"But Hakkadoshbaruchhu," the Lubavitcher Rebbe responded, "we have not strayed from Yiddishkeit. It's not as if any of my Chasidim will ever embrace the concept of resurrection or anything like that."

Resurrection or anything = Instead, some doubt that he died. But thousands of others attended the funeral, and heard the hesped. There is scant room for doubt, though there’s always room for denial and years and years of therapy.
Damn’ hippies.

So we have a lot more in common with Christmas than we originally thought. We should therefore neither ignore the holiday nor treat it with disrespect. Rather, we should treat it as the money making opportunity that it truly is.

Sell them dreidels.

Ah Gutten Yuntif, You Mechutziff.

Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Yeshiva Chipas Emmess




Note: Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein soll sein gazunt is the Rosheshiva of the East Coast campus, the Rabam is a notorious drunkard in San Fra...., errrmm, I mean administers the West Coast campus, located in beautiful downtown San Francisco. Inquire about tuition. Takka mamesh a mitzva, sey gazunt. Bli neder.

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