What I Learned About Snow - January 19, 2024

Wow! None of us expected this. I hope everyone is doing well from the snow/ice storm. I know too many people and Jewish organizations that went or are without power, fallen trees, and burst pipes. Let’s hope the remainder of the winter months stay above freezing.


As a Floridian, I did did not experience snow until I was 17 while visiting the University of Michigan as a potential college. There was several inches of snow everywhere in Ann Arbor. When it came time to make my college choice, I said to myself, “What does a Florida kid do in snow all year round if I go to Michigan?” So, I attended college in Atlanta at a school I never saw until my parents dropped me off. In hindsight, I made the right choice. I may have missed out on big-time college sports, but I doubt I would have married my wife since she went to The Ohio State University.


While hunkered down this week, I was curious to see what Judaism says about snow. This article in The Forward shares many insights, including the Book of Samuel, which is the only time actual snow is mentioned in the Tanakh - the Hebrew Bible. A soldier named Banayah, one of King David's mightiest warriors, is described as killing a lion in a pit on a snowy day. And Rabbi Judah Loew, the Maharal of Prague, spoke of snow as “a vessel of spiritual light in the darkest days of the year.” (Not sure about the spiritual light when people had no power these past few days.)


Look what the Midrash says about what snow formed:


From where was the dry land of the earth made? From the snow that is under God's Throne of Glory. God took it and threw it upon the water, the water then froze, and the dust of the earth was formed. As the verse states (Job 37:6) "To snow, God said: Become land!"


Under the "Who knew?" category, I found this article on what you can/cannot do with snow on Shabbat. The rabbis really have thought of everything.


There is one story of a snowy Shabbat in the Babylonian Talmud. It is a story about the early life of Hillel, before he became a famous Sage, when he was a poor man who just wanted to learn.


Hillel would work each day to earn a half a dinar – a tiny amount. Of that, half would go to pay to come into the study hall and half he would use for his family. One day he could not find any work and the guard of the study hall would not allow him in. So he went onto the roof and sat at the edge of the skylight so that he could hear words of Torah being taught by the great teachers of that generation, Shemaya and Avtalyon.


It happened to be a wintry Friday and it started to snow. On Saturday morning, Shemaya and Avtalyon looked up and saw the outline of a man spread across the skylight. They went up to the roof and found Hillel covered in over three feet of snow. They pulled him out, washed and cleaned him, and despite the fact that it was Shabbat, sat him in front of a fire to warm him up.


The Talmud teaches us Hillel did not allow wealth, or the weather, to stand in the way of his Judaism. We also learn from Shemaya and Avtalyon that one's place of study should be open and warm enough for everyone. 


Tonight, nationally, is Shabbat of Love, the largest continental Shabbat celebration ever. Shabbat of Love was created to embrace the Jewish people and to spread love for who we are during one of the hardest times in our history. We hope you will experience the sacredness of Shabbat with family and friends and, like Shemaya and Avtalyon, make a Shabbat that is capable of warming us up even on the coldest day.


Due to the weather, the Portland Jewish Film Festival has rescheduled the screening of Irena’s Vow on Sunday at 2:00 p.m. at Portland State University. The Jewish Federation is the lead sponsor for this film that begins in 1939 Warsaw when the Nazis invade Poland and nurse Irena Gut is displaced and assigned to run the home of a Nazi commandant. Instead of following the path of least resistance, Gut risks everything to save a dozen Jewish refugees from persecution and murder, hiding them in her boss’s home. Purchase tickets here.


The Jewish Federation is bringing representatives from Sharaka ("partnership" in Arabic) to speak at Congregation Neveh Shalom on Monday evening at 7:00 p.m.. Sharaka was created by young adults following the signing of the Abraham Accords in September 2020. Representatives from Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Egypt will discuss peace and normalization between Arabs and Israelis during this difficult time in Israel and Gaza. I met members of the delegation several years ago when I visited the UAE and they are a special group. Registration is required – click here.


We continue to present our Weekly Wednesday Webinar Series with voices from Israel. This past week we heard from former Minister for Diaspora Affairs and Chief IDF spokesperson Nachman Shai – recording here. Next week, the Israel Policy Forum will provide a drone tour of Gaza, which will be of great interest. Register here.


Next Wednesday evening begins the holiday of Tu b’Shevat (15th of the Hebrew month of Shevat). Tu b’Shevat, or the "New Year of the Trees," is actually not mentioned in the Torah. Scholars believe the holiday originated as an agricultural festival celebrating spring in Israel. However, after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Jews were exiled, and the agricultural celebration stopped. Over time, Jews felt a need to symbolically bind themselves to their homeland, and Tu b’Shevat was a way to do that.


In the 16th century, the Kabbalists (mystics) of Tzfat created a new ritual to celebrate Tu b’Shevat called the "Feast of Fruits." Modeled on the Passover seder, participants read Jewish texts and eat fruits and nuts traditionally associated with the Land of Israel. More so today, Tu b’Shevat is an environmental holiday to remind ourselves of our duty to care for the natural world.


You can learn more here on this week’s Jewish Review podcast.


Shabbat shalom and may it be one filled with love and warmth.


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