Ask the Rabbi: 613 Mitzvot? Where?

July 15, 2014

9647972522_eb1f0c3ca7_zA reader asks: “I know we’re supposed to ‘do mitzvot’, but what are they? Where is the list?”

We often hear that there are 613 mitzvot [commandments, sacred duties] in the Torah. For many of us this inevitably brings up the question: can I see the list? Behind this question is the worry, “How am I doing?” or another worry, “Have I missed something?” After all, 613 is a LOT.

The first mention of “613 mitzvot” is in the Gemara, Makkot 23b, where it quickly becomes clear that like many numbers in Torah, 613 is as much or more a symbol than an enumeration. (If you are curious about the discussion, click the link.) 365 is the number of days in a solar year, and it also happens to be the number of negative (“Thou shalt not”) commandments. The rabbis believe 248 to be the number of parts of the human body. Add them together, (think: time + humanity) and voilá: 613 mitzvot. 

Having come up with a great number that both tells us that the mitzvot have to do with all human concerns, and that also says “a LOT,” various rabbis through history have provided us with lists of “The 613 Mitzvot.” Our clue that the number came before the lists is that the lists differ.

That said, it can be satisfying and comforting to see an actual list. Probably the most famous is that of Maimonides, in the Sefer HaMitzvot [The Book of the Mitzvot.] If you click the link and study the list, you will discover (likely to your relief) that the number of mitzvot that actually apply to you, a 21st century Jew, is much less than 613. 

One Orthodox scholar, the Chofetz Chaim, has written that there are 194 negative and 77 positive commandments that are available to us to observe without a functioning Temple in Jerusalem, and that of those commandments, 26 apply only if one is living in the Land of Israel. By that reckoning, a 21st century Diaspora Jewish male of the priestly line (Kohen) need worry only about 245 mitzvot. Within Orthodoxy, even fewer of those mitzvot apply to non-Kohanim and even fewer to women.

How can a liberal Jew make sense of Maimonides’ list? One way is to use it as a template for growth. Take each mitzvah, and look it over a bit. Ask:

1. Do I understand this mitzvah? (if not, study; if so, continue)

2. Is this a mitzvah I currently observe? 

3. If I do observe it, how’s that going? How does it mesh with my other observances? How could I improve, either with my observance or the choices I make about this mitzvah? Do I want to learn more?

4. If I don’t observe it, how’s that going? Why don’t I observe it? Do I feel guilty about not observing it? Have I ever tried observing it, or do I assume I’d feel persecuted/silly/deprived if I observed it? What do I really know about this mitzvah from a reliable source? Do I want to learn more?

5. In either case, how does my observance/non-observance affect my relationship with my Jewish community? Does it separate me from my community, or bring me more into tune with it?

6. Is this a mitzvah I might want to observe someday, but not yet? 

7. Do I want or need to talk to someone about this?

After looking over those questions, if you feel satisfied for now relative to that mitzvah, move on to another mitzvah on the list. (Nowhere is it written that you have to follow a particular order.)

Now, if you are reading this and feeling panicky, let me suggest something from the original passage in Mattot: “Isaiah [came] and reduced them [the commandments] to two, as it is said, “Thus says the Eternal, ‘Maintain justice and do what is right.'” (Is 56:1)

Image: “Question Box” by Raymond Bryson – Some rights reserved


Moderation and Mitzvah

June 18, 2014
"Candles" by Lars Hammer (some rights reserved)

“Candles” by Lars Hammer (some rights reserved)

A reader asked:

Rabbi, do you think that it’s acceptable to use repurposed items for home ritual such as Shabbat? Right now, living on a shoestring budget, I don’t really have the money for $200 candlesticks or a Kiddush set for Shabbat, so I’m using items I already had in the house (for now, at least). Sometimes I worry that this isn’t really as acceptable as I want it to be. Any thoughts?

It’s fine to use ordinary candlesticks for Shabbat candlesticks, or to use a plain wine glass for kiddush. I often use tea lights for Shabbat “candlesticks” when I travel, because they are light, hard to break and easy to pack. In a hospital setting, where fire is out of the question, we might use electric lights that are shaped like candles. The mitzvah is lighting lights, not buying fancy candlesticks.

It sounds like you are dealing with two competing Jewish values. One is hiddur mitzvah, the beautifying of a mitzvah, which is a praiseworthy thing to do. Beautifying the mitzvah broadens its appeal to our five senses and the pleasure we take in the mitzvah.

The other Jewish value here is m’tinut [moderation.] The great 12th century scholar Maimonides argued that moderation in all things was one of the marks of a chacham [Torah scholar.] It is not good to be a miser nor it is good to be a big spender. Rather, we should seek the level he called the Sh’vil HaZahav, the Golden Mean. This is true for every aspect of life: what we eat, what we wear, our use of time and money, even our choices for study. The exact standards will vary depending on our means and situation.

If the only candlesticks you own have other religious symbols on them, then it might be better to get some from the hardware store, or use tea lights. But there is no requirement that you spend large sums of money to perform this mitzvah.

My first havdalah “set” consisted of some foil to hold the candle, a sprig from a rosemary bush for spices, and a shotglass for the wine. The only purchased item was the candle, which had to have multiple wicks. Even for that, there are inexpensive options.

There are some mitzvot that are very expensive: Torah education, keeping a kosher home, making aliyah (moving to Israel), having children, to name just a few. But that’s because of the intrinsic cost, not the extras. Hiddur mitzvah by its nature is an extra, something done to make things a bit nicer. It’s a good thing – in moderation!


Can You Name 50 Mitzvot?

June 17, 2014

9647972522_eb1f0c3ca7_zRecently, one of my readers over on twitter read “Living on the Mitzvah Plan” and asked for a list of mitzvot for working the plan.

If you haven’t read the article, the gist of it is in this paragraph:

The Mitzvah Plan isn’t just for depression. Bored? Do a mitzvah. Frustrated? Do a mitzvah. Insomnia? Do a mitzvah. What, you did it and you are still bored, frustrated or awake? Do another mitzvah. And another. Keep doing mitzvot until you feel better or the world changes. Then do another mitzvah.

The idea is that mitzvot can keep us busy when we need a plan for what to do. They can keep us busy and out of trouble. They can take us outside ourselves and give us some reason to feel better about ourselves.

So, @travelincatdoc, here’s a list for you, with examples:

  1. Care for the body (bathe, brush teeth, exercise, get enough sleep)
  2. Pay a bill. (Paying workers on time is a mitzvah.)
  3. Study some Torah (anything from reading a little to actual study of a commentary)
  4. Smile when you greet someone. (You don’t have to feel friendly, just act friendly.)
  5. Give tzedakah. Even very small amounts count.
  6. Say the appropriate blessing before eating. English is OK.
  7. Learn the appropriate blessing to say before eating.
  8. Refrain from participating in gossip (yes, NOT doing some things is a mitzvah.)
  9. Feed or water your animals.
  10. Befriend a stranger.
  11. Write a thank you note to someone.
  12. Say Shema when you get up and when you go to bed.
  13. Honor your parents.
  14. Do some small act of kindness for someone.
  15. Visit someone who is sick, or give them a call.
  16. Visit a mourner, or give them a call.
  17. Attend a funeral or shiva house.
  18. Attend a wedding and compliment the bride.
  19. Attend a Torah study class.
  20. Drive the car with an awareness of all the lives in your hands.
  21. Fix something at home that was unsafe.
  22. Teach a Jewish child to swim.
  23. Teach Torah to another Jew.
  24. Join a local minyan for weekday prayers, even once.
  25. Keep Shabbat.
  26. Keep the holidays.
  27. Apologize to someone you have injured.
  28. Accept an apology.
  29. Be honest in business.
  30. Pass up an opportunity to steal something.
  31. Help someone who is injured.
  32. Stand up for someone who needs help.
  33. Let go of a grudge.
  34. If you find lost property, try to return it.
  35. Treat a stranger kindly.
  36. Bless after eating. (Birkat HaMazon)
  37. Refrain from embarrassing another person.
  38. Refrain from hitting or cursing your parent.
  39. Get married.
  40. Tell the truth kindly.
  41. Rest on Shabbat.
  42. Rejoice on Shabbat and festivals.
  43. Repay a debt.
  44. Keep your word.
  45. Fulfill promises quickly.
  46. Do not leave something around the house that may cause injury.
  47. Refrain from murder.
  48. Refrain from cursing the ruler or government of your country.
  49. Refrain from idolatry.
  50. Love God.

Many of those commandments are worth their own articles. Are there any that surprise you? Any you’d like to add?

 

 


Special Effects in Scripture?

June 7, 2014

9647972522_eb1f0c3ca7_zJonathan Lace wrote an excellent question in reply to Please God, Please Heal Her:” 

My wife and I were discussing this topic just the other day. We both recognize that there is a tradition of the miraculous healing in both Jewish and Christian tradition. But we live in a post-scientific age. So either (1) God does not intervene and miracles in the Bible are just misunderstood natural events, (2) God does intervene, with miracles, some of which could be described in the Bible. But doesn’t the knowledge that science gives us relativize what we can say about whether or not miracles have occurred? 

I once heard Rabbi Arthur Green speak about conflict between science and religion. He said that the forces of religion fought two great battles in the twentieth century, one against evolution and the other against Biblical criticism. Religion lost both battles. He went on to say that if both science and religion are a search for truth, then perhaps it is more useful to consider that they are concerned with different aspects of human experience, and therefore with different truths.  (If you are curious about Rabbi Green’s views, I recommend his book, Radical Judaism.)

Anyone who attempts to use the Torah as a physics or biology text will have to choose between disappointment and delusion. Even when we read the text literally, it hints that it is not talking about the kind of truth one can establish with scientific method. The fact that houses and clothing can “catch” a “disease” in Leviticus 14 points towards the possibility that tzara’at is not a physical disease, for example.

Similarly, all the interesting theories attempting to establish natural causation for the plagues in Exodus are beside the point. It may be that volcanic eruptions in the Mediterranean gave rise to experiences for which we have traces in the descriptions of the plagues. But the narrative is about a battle between two powers, Pharaoh and the strangely named god of Israel. Pharaoh rules the kingdom Mitzrayim (Egypt, but it translates nicely as “narrow place” in Hebrew). He keeps slaves and he hates foreigners. And since he is Pharaoh, a god on earth, no one dares argue with him about it. The god of Israel has a name that is four vowels; the deity’s name is a breath, and it is a form of the verb “to be.” The god of Israel wants the people to be free of Mitzrayim, free of Pharaoh. The newcomer god doesn’t keep slaves. This god is a life-affirming deity, insistent that the people called B’nai Israel [the children of Israel] will go out into the midbar, the wilderness, which is the exact opposite of a narrow place. Wonders happen. Things get broken. In the end, people die. The champion of freedom wins in the end, and the people go out into the wilderness, which scares the dickens out of them.

[If I have upset some readers by lower-casing the word "god" understand that I've done so to make a point, that in the Exodus narrative as written, Pharaoh is one of the gods of Egypt. A newcomer god fights with him over a bunch of slaves. I'm talking narrative here, not contemporary theology.]

If you read this story as a description of the ultimate values of the Jews, as what theologian Rabbi Michael Goldberg has called their “master narrative,” then the details of the plague are interesting only in the way that the details of special effects are interesting in a 21st century movie blockbuster. If the movie is any good, the special effects are not the point of the film. The plagues are not the point of the Exodus story. The point of the story is that the Jewish People understand themselves to be a people united with a deity who has taken them as partners in a project to heal the world. The values undergirding this project are freedom, loving-kindness, wisdom, goodness, truth, and more.

Yes, it is a chutzpadik [outrageous] idea. Notice, though, that under this master narrative, no one is obligated to buy into the Hebrew/God-of-Israel worldview. No one is blasted for failing to leave Egypt. At Sinai, where the deal is sealed (in another scene with great special effects) everyone enters the covenant freely. There are some midrashim that say otherwise, but notice that they are in effect minority opinions, not in the Torah itself. And in later centuries, while there’s no applause for a Jew who assimilates and simply leaves the project, no one is saying she will “go to hell,” either. She’s free to go, even as it pains us to see her go, because freedom is a key value. (Yes, some families will refuse to have anything to do with an apostate Jew. And others will still love them and have them to dinner.) As any rabbi tells people who inquire about conversion, they don’t have to become Jewish to be acceptable to God in the Jewish narrative.

OK, back to miraculous healings: I prefer to look at all supernatural goings-on in the text as special effects in the narrative. Maybe they are based in an experience someone couldn’t describe in other terms, or maybe they are there to make a particular point via metaphor. But the truth in the text requires me to work. I have to study the text, ask questions about it, dig around in it to find the values that lie underneath. I’m still free to argue with some aspects of those stories, such as the passages that seem to set women as unequal to men. For instance, I find it easier to read the Daughters of Zelophechad narrative than from the Lot’s Daughters narrative. But notice that in the rabbinic literature and since then, Lot’s daughters have come in for more nuanced readings. Many scholars have taken the trouble to look for underlying values in their story, difficult as it is. When I’m struggling with a text, I look to see what others have found in it.

It’s a truism that Judaism is more about doing than about belief.  Science is good at describing and explaining our world in such a way that we are able to manipulate it. I can’t and won’t speak for all religions. Judaism is about making choices about our actions, including those actions made possible by science. Judaism often uses narrative and metaphor to talk about those choices, thus our texts require study.

But really, are the texts of science any different? If you don’t bother to learn, a smartphone is a miracle, is it not?


What’s a D’var Torah?

June 6, 2014

9647972522_eb1f0c3ca7_zA reader asked: What’s the difference between a “drash” and a “d’var Torah?”

First of all, let’s talk definitions:

DRASH is an interpretation of something in scripture.

e.g. Rabbi Akiva gave a drash that explained the crowns on the letters of the Torah scroll.   OR

e.g.: “That’s an interesting drash,” the teacher said, after Abe speculated that perhaps the burning bush was a door into another dimension.

D’VAR TORAH (duh-VAHR toh-RAH) (literally, a “word of Torah”) is a short teaching linked to a passage of Torah. (Please do not refer to it as a “d’var.” That means “a word of,” which is annoying; a word of what?)

e.g. Will you give a d’var Torah to open next week’s meeting?

While we’re at it, let’s look at some related D (for Dalet) words:

DRASHAH (drah-SHAH) is the same as drash, but usually refers to something more formal, like a sermon or lesson.

e.g. On the High Holy Days, Rabbi Cohen’s drashah might be as long as 45 minutes.

A DARSHAN (dar-SHAHN) is a man who gives a drash. When a woman does it, we call her a DARSHANIT.

e.g. I asked Rivka to be the darshanit for next week’s service, but if she can’t do it, ask Robert to be the darshan.

MIDRASH (mi-DRASH or MID-drash) – See What is Midrash? 

e.g. The story about Abraham’s father the idol maker is a midrash.

——

So the answer to the original question is “not much!”


Ask the Rabbi: What’s “Baruch shemo”?

May 15, 2014

9647972522_eb1f0c3ca7_zAndrew Silver asked:  Quick question: During prayers when the reader says Baruch Atah A…, they pause and the congregation says what exactly? Baruch hu shemo, or something like that. 

Baruch shemo  or baruch hu shemo in this context means “Blessed is God’s name.” (Literally, it’s “blessed is his name” but of course God has no gender.) It’s a little addition that some people like to make to the blessing, when the blessing includes the Name of God, or rather, the stand-in for the Name.

The Hebrew name of God, the Tetragrammaton [τετραγράμματον is Greek for "four letter word"] is never pronounced aloud. It is spelled yud-heh-vav-heh, but we no longer have the vowels to pronounce it. Moreover, tradition has forbidden we say the Name since at least the time of the Mishnah (c. 200 CE,) and probably long before that. Instead, observant Jews make substitutes for the Name, and sometimes substitutes for the substitutes:

Instead of the name, in prayer we use the word Adonai (“my Lord” in Hebrew.) Some observant Jews do not use even that name aloud except in prayer, and in normal speech substitute Hashem (“the Name” in Hebrew.) Reform Jews commonly use “Adonai” but still avoid pronunciations of the Name itself.

But what about Baruch shemo? It’s a further way of paying respect to the Name of God. When in a blessing the shaliach tzibbur (service leader) says “Adonai” (the stand-in for the Name, remember?) some individuals may say “Baruch shemo“:

Service Leader: Blessed are You, Adonai –

Congregant: Blessed is God’s Name!

Service Leader continues: Our God, Ruler of the Universe…

In congregations where this response to the Name is common, service leaders often pause slightly for it, so that it will not obscure the rest of the words of the prayer.

Jewish prayer is active and interactive. We sing, we chant, we have choreography, and depending on the custom (minhag) of the congregation, there is room for improvisation. This is one example of the way that Jews make the traditional prayers our own.

Image: “Question Box” by Raymond Bryson – Some rights reserved.


Ask the Rabbi: What about the Messiah?

April 29, 2014

9647972522_eb1f0c3ca7_zFrank asked: “In the messianic era when mashiakh is here will all the sacrifice be… thanksgiving offerings?”

Before I can answer that, I need to write little bit about Jews and “the Messiah,” or in Hebrew, mashiakh.

There is no explicit mention in the Torah (Five Books of Moses) of a mashiakh. The term appears first in the books of the Prophets as mashiakh ben David, anointed son of David, referring to a king of Israel. Kings of Israel were not “crowned,” instead they had oil poured on their heads (see 1 Samuel 16:1-13).

Later in the prophets, we have more detailed descriptions of a future mashiakh and what this person will be and do:

  1. He will be a descendant of King David.
  2. He will be a political and military ruler over the land of Israel, rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem.
  3. He will gather the Jews in Israel (the ingathering of the exiles.)
  4. He will lead them to full observance of Torah.
  5. He will bring peace to the whole world.

Exactly how those things will be accomplished, or when this person will arrive, is a matter of considerable disagreement. Several individuals have been declared, or declared themselves, mashiakh. Two of the most famous led the Jewish nation to disaster: Simon bar Kokhba and Shabbatai Zvi, Such “false messiahs” have been attractive to the Jewish people during periods when our situation was particularly difficult.

“What about Jesus?” Christians might ask. He met only the first of the five criteria above. He was a member of the tribe of Judah, but did not have a political/military rule over Israel, did not bring Diaspora Jews back to the land, did not restore full observance of Torah, and while the world was under the so-called Pax Romana at the time, subjugation of the world under the fist of Rome is not “the lion and the lamb” lying down peacefully together. For Jews, Jesus simply did not fit the description of mashiakh.

Sometimes people confuse the word mashiakh with a similar-sounding Hebrew word, moshiah, meaning “savior.” While the words may sound alike to the ear of an English speaker, they are not even related: mashiakh is from a root mem-shin-chet, which means “to smear or anoint.” Moshiah is derived from the root yud-shin-ayin, which means “to save.” The word mashiakh denotes an anointed king, not a savior.

As scholar Stanley Rosenbaum wrote in 1982, not all Jews, in the past or present, are waiting for a mashiakh. For some of us, it is enough to live a life of Torah in the present and leave the future in God’s hands.

Today, Reform Jews do not expect the coming of a literal mashiakh. Some look forward to a messianic age in which the world will be perfected; the concept is still evolving in Reform circles.

However, in some circles of Orthodoxy, notably the Chabad-Lubavitch movement and Israeli religious Zionists, the concept of mashiakh has seen increasing interest in recent years. One teaching that circulates is that once the mashiakh reigns the only sacrifices that will be offered in the Temple will be sacrifices of thanksgiving, since there will be no more sin (Zephaniah 3:13.) For more information about Chabad concepts on this matter, check out this article.

Personally, I am guided by the words of the great rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who said:  “If you are planting a tree and you hear that Messiah has come, finish planting the tree, then go and inquire.” In other words, there are important mitzvot (sacred duties) to do in this world, some of them rather ordinary and possibly boring. While the thought of mashiakh is very exciting, it is important not to allow it to distract us from the ordinary business of living Torah to the fullest.

 

Image: “Question Box” by Raymond Bryson – Some rights reserved.


New Feature: Ask the Rabbi

April 20, 2014

9647972522_eb1f0c3ca7_zLately I’ve gotten some great questions from readers. I’ve decided to set up a more formal “Ask the Rabbi” feature.

So here’s the deal: If there’s something you want to know, ask! You can click “Ask the Rabbi” in the menu bar above to ask your question, or you can ask in the comments for any article. If I’ve answered the post in a previous post, I’ll answer with a link, but if I haven’t covered your question already, I will use it in an upcoming post.

I look forward to your questions!

– Rabbi Adar

Image: “Question Box” by Raymond Bryson – Some rights reserved.


Ask The Rabbi: How are Sephardic rules for Passover different?

April 20, 2014

9647972522_eb1f0c3ca7_z

Regular reader and commenter temelevbarg wrote to ask, “Can you explain what is included in a Sephardic diet for Passover?”

Sephardic Judaism is the Jewish tradition handed down through the Jews of Sepharad, the Hebrew name for the Iberian peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal.) It includes specific interpretations of Jewish law, liturgical forms, and folk customs.   Other traditions of Judaism include the Ashkenazim (Jews from Eastern Europe) and the Mizrahi Jews (Jews of the Eastern Mediterranean.) While the majority of North American Jews today are descended from Ashkenazim and follow Ashkenazi customs, the first Jews to settle in North America were Sephardim.

For Passover, Sephardic Jews like all other Jews eliminate all chametz from their diets and their homes. This is based on Biblical commandments to observe Passover by refraining from eating or possessing chametz. (Exodus 12-13, Deuteronomy 16) Chametz is usually translated as “leavened bread.” The rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud later defined it more narrowly as any product of wheat, rye, barley, spelt or oats which might have become moistened. (The standard method of leavening in both the Biblical and talmudic periods involved the use of sourdough, wetting flour and allowing yeast from the air to grow in it.) The only bread allowed is kosher-for-Passover matzah, water and flour mixed and cooked so quickly that the leavening process has no chance to start.

Sephardic tradition differs from Ashkenazic tradition in that since the 13th century, some Ashkenazi authorities have prohibited the eating of kitniyot (rice, millet, and legumes) in addition to the prohibition of chametz.

Another difference is in the seder menu. Sephardic seder menus often include lamb, in memory of the original Passover sacrifice (pesach). Just as First and Second Temple era families roasted the lamb and ate it while telling the Exodus story to their children, Sephardic families eat lamb at the seder. By contrast, in Ashkenazi tradition one does not serve lamb at the seder out of an awareness that the Temple is no longer standing, so there can be no pesach sacrifice.

So when someone asks if you keep Passover by Ashkenazi or Sephardic rules, they are usually asking if you do or do not eat rice during Passover. It’s also possible that they are inquiring about the menu for seder.

Thanks for a great question! (For more depth on these matters, follow the links in this article.)

Image: “Question Box” by Raymond Bryson – http://www.flickr.com/photos/f-oxymoron/9647972522 Some rights reserved.


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