A Guide to High Holy Day Greetings

Rabbi Michal Loving blowing Shofar

There are a number of ways Jews greet one another during the High Holy Days.  The easiest, all-purpose greeting is:

SHANA TOVA – (shah-NAH toe-VAH) – literally “Good year” it means “Happy New Year.” You can reply with the same words.

Some other greetings you may hear leading up to Rosh Hashanah and on the day:

L’SHANA TOVA (luh-shah-NAH toe-VAH) – literally “To a Good Year.” It also means Happy New Year, and you can reply in kind.

L’SHANA TOVA TIKATEIVU (shah-NAH toe-VAH tee-kah-TAY-voo) literally, “May you be written for a good year [in the Book of Life.]

GUT YUNTIFF – (GOOT YUN-tif), (Yiddish) “Happy Holiday.”

From Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur, it’s polite to assume that someone has already been “written in the book of life” so you wish them a “good sealing”:

GAMAR CHATIMAH TOVAH – (ga-MAR chah-ti-MAH toe-VAH) – “May your final sealing be good.”

Remember, you can never go wrong greeting or answering with “Shana Tovah!”

Thank you to Rabbi Michal Loving of Temple Beth Orr, Coral Springs, FL for the photo featured with this article. I use it by permission of Rabbi Loving, and all rights to its use are hers.

Ki Tetzei: A Trans-gression?

Clothes line https://pixabay.com/en/clothes-line-laundry-colorful-wash-615962/

A woman must not put on man’s apparel, nor shall a man wear woman’s clothing; for whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord your God. – Deuteronomy 22:5

Historically, this commandment has mostly been used to reinforce the status quo around gender. It guards against the danger that women will cross-dress and usurp men’s power, or that men will cross-dress as a way to trespass in the harem. In other words, it safeguards patriarchal inheritance rights.

Fast-forward to the gender anxieties of the 20th century, when some of us have been very worried that women were trying to “wear the pants” or that men were “being castrated” by women. Back in the 1960’s I remember a lot of fuss about women and slacks; this verse was always a popular proof-text. Today it is handy for those who wish to buttress transphobic feelings with Biblical texts.

In fact, Jewish tradition has not always seen gender in a binary way. The sages of the Talmud recognized and discussed six genders:

  • zachar – male
  • nekevah – female
  • androgynos – one having both male and female characteristics
  • tumtum – one whose gender characteristics are unclear or unformed
  • ay’lonit – one who is identified as female at birth but develops male characteristics and is infertile
  • saris – one who is identified as male at birth but develops female characteristics and/or is lacking male genitalia

Notice that some of these categories are mutable and change over the course of a lifetime.

Some readers may think that this is a wild Reform reading of the texts.  (I am certainly a Reform rabbi!) If you are interested in following up, I recommend Terms for Jewish Diversity from Classical Jewish Texts by Rabbi Elliot Kukla. He gives citations and a count of the time these terms appear in the texts. The Religious Action Center offers a readable article on the subject, Gender Diversity in Jewish Tradition.

So now, in the present day, what might we do with the commandment that seems to say “no crossdressing?”

What if we were to make a new interpretation of this verse? Try this:

Do not disguise yourself as something that you are not, unless it is necessary for the preservation of life. Do not oppress someone on account of gender, because we are all made in the image and likeness of the Holy One.

What do you think? I have no idea if I have any trans readers, but if so, I’d be particularly interested in hearing from you.

Coming or Going? Exodus and Elul

snake

One of the odd things about being a writer is that often you do have to do things out of season, because of a publishing schedule. I just finished writing a d’var Torah on Parashat Bo, a section of the Book of Exodus. However, the materials I reviewed for it made me think it was very appropriate for Elul.

Torah portions gets their names from the first distinctive word of the portion. In this case, “Bo,” which is usually translated “Come,” isn’t translated that way. Here’s the opening verse of the portion:

And the Eternal said unto Moses: ‘Go in unto Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might show these My signs in the midst of them. – Exodus 10:1

So here most translations say “Go” instead of “Come.” It makes more immediate sense, so that’s what they do. However, if you read Hebrew, or you start looking in the commentaries, it stands out as a very interesting situation indeed.

The Kotzker Rebbe took a very simple approach to the Come/Go question. He said that things were getting scary, and God said “Come” to reassure Moses that God would there with him in the throne room of Pharaoh.

The Zohar, a mystical work, takes almost the opposite tack. It says that really God was calling to Moses from the throne room of Pharaoh, and that the throne room was a dark tunnel in which there lived an evil snake. (I don’t recommend the Zohar at bedtime, unless you like nightmares.) Like all mystical works, the Zohar is full of metaphor and clouded language, but the message in this passage is loud and clear: “Danger, Moses!”

We are in a season of the year when our task is to plumb the depths of our own souls. Sometimes that requires confronting ugly aspects of ourselves: our selfishness, our cowardice, or our defensiveness. It can be like following an ugly snake down into a dark hole, and then, when we are down there with it, wrestling the thing.

The good news is the Kotzker Rebbe’s interpretation: we may be down there in the hole with our worst inclinations, but we don’t have to go there alone. God goes with us into those dark places. I find it reassuring to remember that Jews all over the world are with me in this struggle, too, each of us wrestling our own private demons.

Whatever we wrestle this Elul, may we never forget that we are not alone!

Leonard Nimoy – “You and I” – A Poem for Elul and All Times

rabbiadar:

Rabbi John Rosove’s blog is well worth reading on a regular basis. This particular entry, with a poem by Leonard Nimoy z”l, is particularly appropriate for Elul.

Originally posted on Rabbi John Rosove's Blog:

It’s been six months since we lost Leonard, and his family misses him dearly, his gentleness and intelligence, his profound interest and concern about the world, his very large heart, curiosity, and penetrating mind, his simple loving presence.

This poem of Leonard’s below came to me from a friend. I had not seen it before which points to one of Leonard’s virtues – his modesty and humility. Though he knew what were his strengths and gifts, he didn’t talk about himself that way. He spoke rather about ideas, the creative process, the arts, world events, politics, and his family.

Leonard’s poem is part of a longer work that he published in 1973 that included a blend of poetry with black and white photography.

Given the poem’s theme, it is particularly appropriate for us to read now, during this season of Elul, the Hebrew month preceding the High Holidays. I post…

View original 150 more words

Question for You: Torah Study?

Shutterstock/IvelinRadkov

Today I’m going to turn the tables a bit, and ask you a question.

I’m thinking about offering an online real-time Torah study group. Details, as they stand in my mind right now:

  • Weekly session
  • Venue: Google Hangouts or Adobe Connect, still pondering that one.
  • Topic: Weekly Torah Portion
  • Duration: 1 hour
  • Level: Basic, no Hebrew required.
  • Cost: Suggested donation per session, via PayPal, but no requirement.
  • Starting date: With Parashat Bereshit, week beginning October 11.

Time is the tricky bit, since I am aware of readers in many different time zones. Also, other than a couple of Twitter followers who suggested this scheme, I have no idea whether anyone would actually be interested.

So here’s what I need from you, if you are interested:

  • Your time zone
  • Days and times that would work for you
  • Any comments or suggestions you have on the above.
  • Is there any other subject you’d like to study?

Please reply via Comments – I can get your email or your blog from that (never fear, your email will NOT show to the public and I will never let anyone else have it without your permission.)  I will contact you privately after a few days if it looks like this might actually work. Obviously, if you aren’t interested, no need to comment.

Curious to see how this goes.

How Can I Bless, After a Stroke?

question shutterstock_213583006

A regular reader asked: “Rabbi, I want to say a blessing before eating, but since my stroke it is hard for me to remember the words of all the blessings. Is there a “one size fits all” blessing which I could say?

First of all, good for you! Saying blessings before eating is a wonderful practice.

Because language provides many different challenges to people, here are several suggestions. Choose whichever you think might be helpful in your case.

  • You can say blessings in English if that would be easier for you. That is a perfectly valid option and not “cheating.”
  • For blessings over food, consider printing them out and putting the paper or card near where you eat. This page from MyJewishLearning.com would work nicely for that purpose.
  • The CCAR Press offers a nice app you can have as close as your smartphone or tablet: An App for Blessings
  • There is no official “one size fits all” food blessing, but you could try using these two if you like:
    • For a meal that includes any wheat product, the blessing hamotzi (follow link to the text) covers the entire meal, except for wine.
    • For a snack or meal that does not include bread, you could use the shehakol blessing (again, linked.) Some readers may point out that that isn’t quite traditional, but the literal words of the blessing seem to me to cover the subject sufficiently – definitely better than no blessing at all.
  • If you are sitting and looking at the food and can’t recall what to say, and your cue sheet isn’t nearby, here’s what you can do. Say: “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, who provides [name the food] for me.”
  • If there are other Jews present who know the blessing, invite them to bless, then say “Amen.”

Let’s take this one step farther, in case someone with aphasia searches this question and reads this. Let’s say speech is very difficult, or recalling words is difficult. You are ready to eat, and the blessing just isn’t there, or isn’t going to come out of your mouth. In such a case, I suggest you look at the food. Let the intention of the blessing enter your heart: appreciate God’s creation and this gift to you, God’s creature. Now eat. God knows what you just said with your heart.

Most of all, remember that this is not a contest. There’s a very famous story that applies here. I’m going to quote Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, since she tells it so well:

The story is told that once the Baal Shem Tov, the great Chasidic teacher, was leading a prayer service. Within the congregation there was a simple shepherd boy, who could barely read. He didn’t know any of the prayers. But as the Baal Shem Tov led the congregation, the boy was so moved that he wanted to pray. Instead of the words of the prayers, he began to recite the letters of the alef-bet. He said, “Oh God, I don’t know the words of the prayers, I only know all these letters. Please, God, take these letters and arrange them into the right order to make the right words.” The Baal Shem Tov heard the boy’s words and stopped all the prayers. “Because of the simple words of this boy,” he said, “all of our prayers will be heard in the highest reaches of Heaven.”

May our blessings, however fragmentary we feel them to be, speak our truths to the Holy One of Blessing. May the act of blessing itself bless us and our communities, near and far.

A Post During Shabbat?

Shabbat table

Sometimes I debate leaving messages here to post over Shabbat. I worry that I’m sending the wrong message about Shabbat, that I’m encouraging people to use the computer or to work on the holy day.

However, this blog isn’t for the talmid chacham (the person very wise in the life of Torah.) I like to have something scheduled to post for the person who is alone and lonely over Shabbat, and for the newcomer to Judaism who isn’t organized for Shabbat quite yet. Maybe Shabbat has been working on your heart to bring you to look for Jewish content during this time, or maybe you know it is Shabbat and you’re interested and don’t know what to do.

And of course, some of you will find it after Shabbat is over, and that’s fine too.

Feel free to browse around. I’ve got some messages marked “Especially for Beginners” (see drop-down menu to the right on your screen) and those may be particularly helpful. Just make yourself at home.

I hope that you have a blessed Shabbat, whatever that means for you right now, wherever you are in your own personal Jewish journey. You’re welcome here.

Shabbat Shalom!