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Fascinating Facts in Our Jewish History

March 22-23 Parsha Tzav

Choni HaMa'agal Prayed For Rain on 18 Adar
One year, the Land of Israel was afflicted with a terrible drought. There lived at that time a great man named Choni, and it was to him that the Jews pleaded to pray for rain. Choni prayed fervently but to no avail.

Choni grabbed a stick and planted himself firmly in one spot in a field. With the end of the stick, he drew a circle around himself on the earth. Then he cried out, "Master of the Universe, Your children need rain desperately. They have asked me to pray to You, and I swear that I will not step out of this circle until You have answered Your children."

The hint of a cloud appeared in the sky. The air became heavy. Slowly, tiny droplets began to fall. The excited people ran outside, but when they saw the meager rainfall they asked, "Will a rain like thissuffice to help us?”

A delegation returned to Choni and begged him to pray again, but this time for a strong rain to satisfy the parched fields. Choni  prayed once more and in minutes clouds overtook the sky. A heavy rain burst forth, flooding the earth and sending people running for shelter from the sheets of rain. This was a rain never before seen. The terrified people ran to Choni. He prayed once more, crying out, "This is not the kind of rain I requested. Please send your children good rain." Slowly a blessed rain descended, filling wells, drenching the cracked earth, falling and falling without end.

The people left their homes and gathered high on the Temple Mount to escape the flood. Alas, again they came to Choni, pleading for him to pray that the rain stop. But this time he refused, saying: "My teachers taught me that it is not permitted to pray to take away a blessing."

Finally they brought Choni a cow to be used as a thanksgiving sacrifice. Laying his hands on the cow's head, Choni said the following prayer: "Master of the Universe, Your children are unable to stand too much bad or too much good. Please, G-d, stop this rain and bring peace to the world."

Choni's prayers were accepted. The recently barren fields were full of ripe mushrooms and other edible plants that they picked and ate. Then, the people were able to understand that the rains had been a true blessing, and they offered thanks to G-d.

From that time on, Choni became known as "Choni HaMa'agal - Choni the circle-maker" because of the circle he drew around himself and refused to leave until his prayers were answered.


March 16-17 Parsha Vayikra

On the 14th day of Adar, the holiday of Purim celebrates our salvation from the hands of the wicked Amalekite Haman Yimach shemo (may his name be obliterated), who intended to destroy all Jewish people. Throughout history, many locales have experienced their own miraculous salvation. When these events occurred, the community would declare a local Purim.

Even the 14th of Adar was celebrated as a local Purim in addition to the Purim of Mordechai and Esther, due to local events. In 1840 the Jewish community of the Isle of Rhodes was going to be destroyed due to a Blood Libel. A young boy went missing and the Jewish community was accused of murdering him for his blood. The community was blockaded on the eve of Purim. For 12 days their fate hung in the balance, until a high official from the Ottoman government visited the island and ordered the Governor to drop the case. In addition to Purim, Jews on the Isle of Rhodes annually celebrated Purim Rhodes.

In more recent times another Purim miracle occurred. In 1991, Sadam Hussein, Dictator of Iraq, went to war with the intention of annihilating the Jewish community of Israel. He threatened to bombard Israel with rockets loaded with chemical weapons. In fact, 39 missiles landed in the heartland of Israel, including within the city of Tel Aviv in densely populated areas. (I have stood in the bomb crater). For weeks the population of Israel was terrorized, fleeing to sealed rooms and donning gas masks when the siren went off. The United States launched the 1st Iraq war at the end of January. On Purim 1991, the all clear was sounded and people emerged from their sealed rooms to celebrate the holiday of Purim. In
the end, only one man died due to the missile attacks on Israel. Another Purim had been added to the annals of Jewish history Purim Eretz Yisrael.


March 8-9 Parsha Pekudei

Rabbi Dr. Solomon Schonfeld was born on 21st February, 1912. His family were originally from Hungary. He was educated at Highbury County School but also attended Hebrew classes. When he reached adulthood, he became the head of an Orthodox community in London. When Hitler ym’sh came to power in 1933, Jewish leaders in Britain recognized that they had to do something for those living underNazi rule. Rabbi Schonfeld  visited the Home Office to secure visas for rabbis and synagogue officials to come to Britain with their families. He was responsible for bringing both children and adults to Britainprior to the war.

Although they did not open their doors to the endangered Jews of Europe, after the events of Kristallnacht, Rabbi Schonfeld convinced the British government to be more sympathetic to the plight of children. The government relented and allowed children to travel to Britain where they would be sheltered. Rabbi Schonfeld played a leading role in organizing trainloads of Jewish children to leave endangered areas to be resettled in Britain. These trains became known as the Kindertransport. Thousands of children were saved via the Kindertransport. Rabbi Schonfeld was intimately involved with each transport. The first Kindertransport was meant to have left on the 10th December 1938, but that
day was Shabbos. Rabbi Schonfeld journeyed to Germany and managed to delay the train's departure until Sunday.

Rabbi Schonfeld maintained responsibility for the Kinder after they arrived in Britain. He organized kosher places for them to stay and study. This led to a prodigious fundraising responsibility as many of the host homes could not afford to feed and clothe the Kinder.

The last Kindertransport came to Britain from the Netherlands shortly before the Nazi invasion. In addition to all of his activities on behalf of the Jewish refugees, Rabbi Schonfeld served as the Chief Chaplain for the British Armed services during the war.

After the war, Rabbi Schonfeld travelled to Poland as well as other places in Europe to help those who had survived the camps, especially children. These children are also known today as Schonfeld’s Children. He wore a military uniform while visiting the camps and was escorted by soldiers. Around 1,000 children from the Displaced Persons Camps were rescued by Rabbi Schonfeld’s work after the war. These post-war Kindertransports left Continental Europe in 1946 and 1947.

Rabbi Schonfeld is heralded as one of the most remarkable, yet least known, of the Holocaust heroes. His valor and dedication remain an inspiration to all to never stop trying even when the task appears insurmountable. Rabbi Dr. Solomon Schonfeld died on Adar 4, 1984 May the memory of the Tzaddik be a blessing.


March 1-2 Parsha Vayakhel

Although born in Europe, Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg was an All - American Gadol BaTorah / Torah Sage. He came to America in 1919 at the age of 9. Soon after he married, he and his wife traveled to Europe so he could study in yeshivos there. By the time he returned to America before the outbreak of WWII, he was a renowned Talmid Chochom. For 25 years he taught in the Chofetz Chaim yeshiva inQueens, NY. In 1965 he made the decision to move to Israel. There he founded Yeshiva Torah Ore and  was the Rosh Yeshiva there until his passing. During that time, he authored many volumes of halachic responsa, and Yeshiva Torah Ore was one of the most vibrant institutions in Israel.

Rabbi Scheinberg was noted for his outstanding piety. He wore tefillin all day and had the unusual custom of wearing many pairs of tzitzis, at one time as many as 300. He felt that each pair of tzitzis was a separate mitzvah. He was much sought after for advice, particularly by couples for maritalcounseling (his own marriage lasted 81 years) and down to earth advice.

In 2002 Congregation Ariel was honored by the presence of this great sage. In his remarks, he told the assembly that in his youth he studied Torah, but was outstanding in his abilities as a Baseball pitcher. Here counted scuffles he had with teammates, and the anti-Semitism that he endured while his career advanced. He had been offered a tryout with a professional team when the most important event in his life occurred. He injured his hand. It became obvious that his pitching career was over. He decided to devote his energies to Torah study.

Rabbi Chaim Pinchus Scheinberg passed away on the 27th day of Adar 1 in 2011 at age 101. Zecher Tzaddik livracha - May the memory of the Tzadik be a blessing.


February 22-23 Parsha Ki Sisa

Many have noted that it is normal for Jews from Lithuania, and those who have studied in Lithuanian style yeshivos, even the very religious, not to wear beards and peyos. It has also been noted that many married women who emigrated from these areas did not cover their hair. On the other hand, we have large chassidic communities who maintain the distinctive beard/ peyos/ kapote until this very day. As you might well imagine, there is a story behind this.

On March 2, 1855, Czar Alexander II succeeded his father Nicholas I as Czar of Russia. Nicholas I was a regressive despot and anti-semite. When Alexander II took over, Russia had been humiliated in the Crimea. Alexander realized that his country was backward and set about modernizing it. Alexander II is primarily remembered as the Czar who freed the serfs. Alexander also initiated a number of other reforms in the judiciary and military. He promoted the building of railroads and lifted censorship.

On the first anniversary of his ascension to the throne, Alexander II issued a decree banning all distinctive forms of dress. His stated idea was to erase ethnic differences and create a new Russian subject of the Czar. In reality, his decree was primarily focused on the Jews. For the Jews, this decree was particularly harsh. In addition to their distinctive belted kaftan and round fur hat, Jews also grew beards and peyos and the married women wore a distinctive head covering. These last items were not ethnic, but a religious imperative. The decree threw the Jewish community into turmoil.

For a few years, one could still pay a fee and maintain traditional garb, but in time the decrees were enforced and the enforcement was harsh. Police walked the streets with large shears on their belts. If a Jew with a kaftan was apprehended his kaftan was cut at the waist on the spot. At that time trousers were not worn under the kaftan so this treatment was a disgrace. Beards and peyos were similarly treated. A beard could be shorn by the police on the spot. Peyos were removed by holding them on the ground and rubbing them with a sharp rock until they were cut off or ripped out. Women had their hair covering ripped off and were ridiculed in public.

In time the kaftan disappeared from Lithuania and White Russia to be replaced by the western jacket or the more formal frock coat for Rabbis and people of distinction. Although beards and peyos were standard for Jewish men since biblical times, Rabbis ruled that one was not obligated to die to keep them. As long as a razor was not placed on the skin, the cutting of beards and peyos with scissors was permitted. For the first time, wigs made an appearance as a form of head covering. Mostly the wigs were made of horse hair and were unattractive, but they did not violate the new dress code. Some Rabbis ruled that women only had to cover long flowing hair, but that short hair needn't be covered.
 Wearing hair in a bun pinned close to the head became a popular form for women at this time.

In other areas outside of the realm of the Czar there were no similar decrees. Hungary, Romania and Galicia in the Austro Hungarian Empire, and parts of Poland, all had sizable populations that maintained distinctive Jewish garb. Most of the Chassidic communities that hail from these areas that were not affected by the decrees. As a matter of fact, almost the only Chassidic group that comes from Lithuania is Chabad Lubavitch and they generally do not sport peyos
, they wear frock coats and non-fur hats. By the time the Czars decrees were eased, modernity made it hard to turn back the clock.


February 15-16 Parsha Tetzaveh

Many of us wonder about the origin of our surnames. Weissman, Schwartzman, Silverman, Goldman. Where did all of these names come from? When did we assume them and why? The following might answer our curiosity.

In the 1700’s, Poland fought and lost, three wars. After each war, parts of Poland were partitioned to the victor. After the third war, Poland was partitioned completely and ceased to exist as an independent country. The Third Partition of Poland took place in 1795 and the partitioning powers of Austria, Prussia, and Russia embarked on a process of registration of the inhabitants of the formerly independent country. This affected all sections of society and was implemented as part of the process of social control and political subjugation. Jews, who had enjoyed
some autonomy under the old Polish state, now had to register with the civil authorities, a process which required a surname. Where surnames were not already in use – as was often the case – civil servants would assign a name to a family as part of the registration process.

E.T.A. Hoffmann, a young German writer and musician, most famous for his story The Nutcracker, worked as a civil servant at Poznań (Posen), Płock and finally Warsaw during this period, and was charged with distributing names. The process Hoffmann used to give out names is described by a witness “He glares at a client in deathly silence and then shouts out the first word which comes to mind. This word, which is entered into the Register, becomes the client’s official surname. At the end, Hoffmann says when the certificate is to be collected and calls for the next customer.”

As described, the process, even when not demeaning, was completely arbitrary and often simply a matter of caprice: “Before dinner, or on an empty stomach, he issues serious or melancholy surnames, after dinner more amusing ones.”

One Friday, Hoffmann gave Jewish registrants the names of fish; on Monday the names of flowers. On other days, everyone was given the names of birds, or church-related names. Even if some of these stories are apocryphal, the attitude of the partitioning authorities to their new Jewish subjects is clear. The point is that Jewish family historians should not necessarily read too much into the surnames on our family tree.

To read more about this subject see Norman Davies Heart of Europe: The Past in Poland’s Present (Oxford University Press, 2001)


February 8-9 Parsha Terumah

Reprinted from August 2018

A Modern-Day Story….

Not all Fascinating Facts of Jewish History are in the distant past. In the early ‘90’s, Rabbi Binyomin Friedman, as part of his outreach duties for the Atlanta Scholars Kollel, established a Dunwoody Torah class that met in different homes twice a month. The main recruiter and host was past President of Beth Jacob, Louis Taratoot a”h.

A few successful Shabbatons were held in empty storefronts on Jett Ferry Road, hosted by Rabbi and Rebbetzin Friedman. There was talk of making something more. In 1992 Rabbi Menachem Deutsch, Rosh Kollel of ASK , went on a Federation mission to Israel. He became friendly with successful physician and Dunwoody resident Dr. Sam Eden a”h and his wife Terry.

Back in Atlanta, the Edens introduced Rabbi Deutsch to their dear friends Lester and Linda Czuper. The Edens were considering a change of synagogue. Rabbi Deutsch called a meeting of interested parties, including Terry and Jan Tenenbaum who had recently moved to Dunwoody, and Murray Siegel and his wife Iris a”h, and proposed the formation of a new synagogue in Dunwoody. His idea was greeted with much enthusiasm.

To start, the new shul would need a location. A small group chipped in money to make a down payment on a property. Rabbi Deutsch put his share on his credit card! A home was purchased on Sandell Drive. Louis Taratoot a”h assumed the duties of President of the new shul.

Now the new shul needed a Rabbi. Rabbi Binyomin Friedman declined the initial offer (it’s a long story!). Other candidates were interviewed, but none of them worked out. At that point Rabbi Deutsch was referred to Rabbi Shmuel Weinbaum, who was single at the time and didn’t have the conflict of relocating a family to a neighborhood where there were, as yet, no observant Jews. The group met with Rabbi Weinbaum, who agreed to serve as first Rabbi of the new synagogue.

Next, the new shul needed a name. That was chosen by Rabbi Weinbaum. The Temple in Jerusalem is referred to as Ariel - Lion of G-d, because an aerial view of the Temple gives the shape of a crouching lion. The new congregation would be named Ariel because all synagogues are considered miniature substitutes for the Temple in Jerusalem.

The new shul was ready to hold services, and that they did – in late August 1993, Parshas Eikev – 25 years ago! From that day on, the Jewish world has been steadily changed for the better, one Jew at a time.

A year after the founding of the shul, Rabbi Weinbaum chose to return to New York to marry and start his own family. Congregation Ariel asked Rabbi and Mrs. Friedman if they would reconsider and become the Rabbi and Rebbetzin of Ariel. They agreed, and that was the beginning of a long (and Blessed) story.

Sun, March 24 2019 17 Adar II 5779