What’s a Parashah?

Jews have a whole vocabulary for talking about the Torah. One of the words that puzzles newcomers is parashah.

For starters, we say it a lot of different ways: pah-rah-SHAH, PAR-shah and sometimes par-SHAHT in front of another incomprehensible word. So here’s the deal:

The Torah is a huge scroll, and without divisions, it would be hard to locate anything in it. First, the Torah is divided into 5 books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Those are sometimes referred to as the Five Books of Moses. Those are their Greek names, by the way. The Hebrew names are Bereshit (buh-ray-SHEET), Shemot (sh’MOTE), Vayikra (vah-yee-KRAH), Bemidbar (b’meed-BAHR) and Devarim (d’vahr-EEM.)

Next, each of those books is divided into parshiot (pahr-shee-OAT.) Genesis has the most parshiot, at 12, Exodus and Deuteronomy have 11, and Leviticus and Numbers have 10. In the whole Torah, there are 54 Torah portions, or parshiot.

Torah portions are not the same as chapters in the Bible! Sometimes they begin or end with a chapter, but sometimes not. Chapters were actually the divisions made by Christian scholars, although they are so useful for finding things in the text that Jews use them today, too. Parshiot tend to be much longer than chapters, too.

If you are interested in how the Jewish Bible is different from the Christian Bible, I have an article, Beginner’s Guide to the Jewish Bible, which will explain some of it. (Clue: it isn’t just that the Christian Bible has the New Testament.) For a chart comparing the Jewish Bible, the Catholic Bible, the Christian Orthodox Bible, and the Christian Protestant Bible, there’s a good chart at Catholic-Resources.org.

In general, Jews read one Torah portion aloud every week in synagogue. ]However, the Jewish year is on a lunar calendar, so every few years we double up some of the portions, reading two in a given week. The schedule by which this is done is complicated. Most Jews just look it up on a calendar. If you’d like to see a list of all the Torah portions and their names, there is a good one at http://www.hebcal.com, a good online Jewish calendar.

Verses are an even smaller division of the Jewish Bible (and they are usually the same as in the Christian Bible.) In very old rabbinic literature, bits of Torah are not referred to by “portion and verse” but by a word or two of the verse. The ancient rabbis had the entire Torah memorized, so when they heard a few words of a verse, they knew exactly what was up for discussion! Today in a Torah study, we refer to chapter and verse, don’t worry!

Now, as for those words for portion that I mentioned earlier: pah-rah-SHAH is the Sephardic or Modern Israeli pronunciation. PAHR-shah is the Ashkenazi pronunciation (these are different ways of pronouncing Hebrew.) And pahr-SHAHT is a form meaning “The Portion of” which is always followed by the name of the portion. For example, I might say, “This week we are reading from Parshaht Devarim, which is the first parashah in Devarim (Deuteronomy.) Parshaht Devarim translates literally to “the portion of Devarim.”

Are there words or phrases you have heard people use at Torah Study that confused you? Don’t worry about the spelling – all transliterations of Hebrew are approximations. I’d like to help demystify the words – words should illuminate, not get in the way!

Shelach-Lecha: Another Year Older

Mikveh, Oakland, CA

I’m celebrating an anniversary this week.

There are various ways of keeping track of things in Jewish time. One can celebrate the exact date of something in the Jewish calendar (say, 11 Sivan, 5774) or the Gregorian calendar (June 8, 2014.) My way of keeping track of this anniversary is to celebrate when a particular Torah portion comes up in the calendar: this week’s portion, Shelach-Lecha, the story of the scouts (Numbers 31:1 – 15:41.)

Shelach-Lecha was the Torah portion the week I became a Jew. I think of this week (whenever it falls, depending on the year) as my Jewish birthday, and it’s a big deal to me, in a quiet sort of way. I don’t give a party, but I do attend services and spend some time reflecting on my life as a Jew.

The story in the portion is pivotal for the Israelites in the wilderness. God tells Moses to send scouts into the Promised Land, as they are camped just outside it. God even tells Moses which men to send. Twelve scouts go into the land. Ten of them report that it is totally scary, the people are giants, and we’ll all die there. Two scouts, Joshua and Caleb, come back and say, hey, it’s fine. The people are so frightened by the account of the ten, however, that they panic. God is disgusted by their reaction, and says that clearly these people are not ready for the Promised Land – the next generation will get to go, but not them. And that’s how the 40 years in the desert happened.

What I took from the story at the time of my conversion was simple: “If you don’t go, you’ll never know.” There were things about Judaism and the Jewish community at Temple Sinai that I loved. But I knew that there was lots I didn’t know; I was more ignorant than many of the children. I’d taken an “Intro” class, I’d studied for a year, but I found Hebrew very difficult and some of the social stuff very challenging. For instance, I wasn’t a “huggy” person – I never touched strangers – and at that synagogue, people were constantly hugging and kissing (and for the record, they still do.) I wanted to fit in, but I still had a lot of fears.

Years later, I know that it was reasonable to have some fears. But I am so very glad that I took the risk of “entering the Land.”

The story in the Torah is full of people taking risks. Some were very well-calculated risks, but others were true leaps of faith. At Sinai, as they are offered the Torah, the people say, “We will do and we will hear.”  In other words, they agreed to the Torah before they knew what was in it. Becoming a Jew is something like that: you learn what you can, you hang with the community and see what it’s like, and then the day comes when it’s time to commit.

There has been some discussion of late in the Jewish press, wondering if the process of conversion is too long and too involved. “Should we be more welcoming?” some wonder, meaning by that, “Should conversion be an easier, shorter process?”

My take on it is that a year is the least it can take in most circumstances. Becoming a Jew is a shift of identity, and it has many aspects. Candidates for conversion often encounter surprises. Some discover that the parents they thought would be horrified, weren’t. Others discover that their relatives are antisemites. Some discover that it really hurts not to have Christmas, and others are surprised when they hardly miss it. Some find that the more they go to synagogue, the happier they are – and others find that they don’t enjoy being part of the community. Some think about Israel for the first time, and have to get used to the idea that as a Jew, they will be connected to it whether they like it or not.

It takes time to have these experiences. It takes time and support to process them. And some of those experiences may be deal-breakers. It’s easy to focus on the intellectual tasks: learning prayers and vocabulary. However, the emotional work of this transition is very serious business. It involves letting go of some aspects of the self, and adopting new aspects of identity. I am still the person who showed up at the rabbi’s office, all those years ago – I still have memories of Catholic school, and my Catholic school handwriting. I had to let go of some things: my habit of crossing myself whenever I heard a siren, for instance. It was a reflex left over from years before, but it took time to fade away. It took time and effort to figure out how I might respond as a Jew to a sign that someone was in trouble.

After a year of study, that process was well underway, but I can’t imagine being “ready” any sooner.

The ten scouts were scared. They weren’t ready. I suspect that even though Joshua and Caleb are celebrated as “good” scouts, they weren’t really ready either. They talked as if going into the Land was no big deal.

It takes time to change, and change is an uncomfortable process. The midbar, the wilderness, is a frustrating place. It’s big and formless and full of scary things. But sometimes it is only by passing through the wilderness that we can become our truest selves.

Online Conversion? Online Classes?

Class with Rabbi Adar

This morning I had a comment from a reader that he deleted before I could reply to it. The gist, as I recall: Why shouldn’t a person take online classes as part of preparation for conversion? Reading it on my smartphone, I realized that I’d communicated something poorly. I flagged the question to answer when I got to my laptop – but then it was gone. I am grateful that this person’s question has prompted me to clear up some confusion.

I’ve come out pretty strongly against online conversion to Judaism in two separate blog posts: Can I Convert to Judaism Online? and Online Conversion, Revisited. The very short version of my reasoning is that conversion to Judaism isn’t a private matter; a candidate needs to have a local community of Jews with whom to live Jewishly. Ideally, that community will have a rabbi with whom a candidate can work towards conversion.

The process of conversion normally includes at least a  year of living Jewishly, an Introduction to Judaism class, pastoral counseling and study with a rabbi, and significant Jewish involvement before one moves to the mohel, the mikveh, and the beit din to fulfill the requirements for conversion. The reason it takes so long is that once a person becomes Jewish, they and the Jews are stuck with one another. Kol Yisrael aravim zeh l’zeh: All Israel is responsible, one for another. This is a very big deal, not to be entered upon lightly.

Anyone is welcome to take an Introduction to Judaism class online or offline. Taking the class is not conversion; it’s a step towards conversion, no more. I strongly recommend that anyone who wants the class to “count” towards conversion find the rabbi first and get their approval on it, lest you wind up having to take yet another Intro class, spending more time and tuition.

I will confess to having a stake in this, since I teach an Introduction to Judaism class that is available online. The next starting point for that class will be in the fall, on October 11, 2015. Registration is not yet open, but I will announce it on this blog as soon as it opens.  It is a 24 session course, offered in three parts, and costs $270 for the complete series.

I have had students who work with Reform, Conservative, and Renewal rabbis take my classes. If your rabbi would like to talk with me to consider whether the class is suitable for their process, I am happy to do that.

However, I don’t sponsor candidates for conversion, on- or off-line. I’m not a congregational rabbi, and I firmly believe that it is best to convert into a Jewish community, not just “to Judaism.” If you are seeking a rabbi with whom to convert, be sure and check out their credentials. The acceptability of your conversion in various Jewish communities will depend on your rabbi’s credentials. There is no “ultimate” conversion: even if you go through an Orthodox conversion there will be some communities that do not recognize it. However, what you want is a rabbi whose credentials will qualify you for the Jewish community with whom you want to live. An ethical rabbi will explain to you the realities of conversion with that rabbi.

So that’s the story. I teach Intro (I love teaching Intro!) and I do teach it online. I don’t sponsor people for conversion. My class is suitable for people studying for conversion provided their rabbi approves it, and it is also suitable for anyone looking for a basic Jewish education. If there is a synagogue in your area, check with them about Basic Judaism or Intro classes – they may offer live classes, and you’ll get to know the rabbi into the bargain.

I hope this clears things up. And I do hope that the mystery commenter returns to read it, because it was a very good question!

Greetings in Hebrew for Beginners

You walk into a synagogue for Friday night services, and an usher hands you a prayerbook, a sheet with announcements, and says, brightly — something in Hebrew. Or… something.  Then someone else says… something… to you as you take a seat.  You don’t know any Hebrew. You’re paralyzed. What to do?

If you are a little intimidated by the Hebrew phrases spoken casually around Jewish communities, you are not alone.  Here are some tips for coping, and some of the most common phrases you’ll encounter:

1. MOST PHRASES ARE ROUTINE. Most of the phrases like “Shabbat shalom” (see below) do not require more than a smile or a repetition back.  No one is going to ask you a real question in Hebrew. Most American Jews do not speak Hebrew. (This makes rabbis sad, but it is the truth.) No one will say “The building is on fire” or “Your car has its lights on” in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Ugaritic.  I promise. It’s almost certainly some variation on “Hi.”

2. PEOPLE WHO TALK TO YOU ARE POTENTIAL NEW FRIENDS. They are friendly. It’s OK to say, “What does that mean?” In fact, that gives you an opening for a real conversation, which is how you get to know people.

3. YOU GET POINTS FOR TRYING. When you begin learning greetings, you may mispronounce things, or use a phrase incorrectly. That is OK. Mistakes are how you learn. Your best bet is to develop a sense of humor about it.  Two examples:

– When I first became a Jew, several people came to me and said, “Mazal tov!” (Congratulations!) I was not sure how to reply so I said, “Mazal tov!” back to them. Eventually someone explained to me that “Thank you” might be better.  As far as I know, everyone thought it was, at worst, a little dumb but sweet.

– My spouse, Linda, mis-heard “Boker Tov” (Good morning) and when she tried to say it to someone else the first time, she said, “Boca Raton!” The person she greeted did burst out laughing – she had inadvertently hit on a very entertaining pun, since lots of retired Jews live in Boca Raton, FL.  But again, she got points for trying. And ever since, at home we say “Boca Raton!” because it’s fun.

4. IT IS OK TO REPLY IN ENGLISH. Below, when I write “you can reply” I mean “you can if you want, or you can reply in English.”

Here are some common phrases you may hear, with possible replies:

Shalom! means Hello! or Goodbye! and you can answer: ShaLOM!

Shabbat Shalom! means Happy Sabbath! and you can answer: ShabBAT ShaLOM!

Boker tov! means Good morning! and you can answer: BOker TOV!

Lie-lah tov! means Good night! and you can answer: LIE-lah TOV!

Toe-dah rabbah means Thank you very much! you can reply: b’VAHkaSHA

Mazal tov! means Congratulations! You can reply Toe-DAH! (Thanks!)

Some phrases are not Hebrew, but Yiddish:

Goot Shabbes! means Happy Sabbath! and you can reply Goot SHAbes!

On holidays, there are special greetings:

Shanah tovah! means Happy New Year! you can reply Sha-NAH toVAH!

Chag sameach! means Happy Holiday! you can reply Chag saMAYach!

Goot Yuntif! means Happy Holiday! you can reply Goot YUNtif!

There are more greetings connected with particular holidays, but those are the basic ones. There are words for things you may often hear, but I’ll do a separate post for them.

Remember, it’s just people being friendly: the universal reply to all of them is a smile.

Basics of Blessings

Blessings (berakhot) are the most basic form of Jewish prayer. You can recognize them because they begin with the word Baruch [Blessed]. Ideally, we say a blessing before every mitzvah, before every bite we eat, and before many other life events. The Gemara says that every Jew should try to say 100 blessings a day.

There are three kinds of stand-alone blessings:

1.  Blessings we recite before or when we experience a pleasure of creation. For example, we say blessings before eating food,  to acknowledge that the food comes from God:

Example: Blessing before eating bread:

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz.

Blessed are You Adonai, our God, Ruler of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

2.  Blessings we recite before performing a mitzvah:

Example: Blessing for putting a mezuzah on a doorpost of a Jewish home:

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav, vitzivanu likboa mezuzah.

Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, Ruler of the Universe, who sanctifies us with mitzvot and commands us to affix a mezuzah.

3. Blessings we recite at remarkable times and events:

Example: Blessing when we hear that someone has died.

Baruch Dayan ha’emet.

Blessed is the true Judge.

There are many, many Jewish blessings to be said for every kind of food, for many mitzvot, and for many different events and experiences. To learn more blessings, there is a list of blessings of various sorts in the Reform Judaism website.

If you listen carefully in the daily and Shabbat worship services, those are also made up of blessings: there are blessings before and after the Shema, and the Amidah is a series of blessings, stacked up like the sacrifices on the Temple altar of old.

If you wonder why Jews make blessings, read this: Why Bless?

If you recite Jewish blessings, when and why do you do so?

Between Two Verses: Travel in the Book of Ruth

16 And Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” 18 And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.

19 So the two of them continued until they came to Bethlehem. – Ruth 1:16-19

This week we begin to read the book of Bemidbar, “In the Wilderness,” in the Torah. (It also goes by the name Numbers.) And always about the same time every year, we read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot. I think that this is a beautiful coincidence, because it reminds us to notice something odd in the Book of Ruth.

The little Book of Ruth is full of compelling events. Near the beginning Ruth makes a very extravagant statement of love to Naomi, her widowed mother-in-law. She then follows Naomi on foot from Amman in Moab, to Bethlehem in Judea. There a number of things happen that culminate in the birth of a child.

Ruth and Naomi’s walk from Amman to Bethlehem is about 50 miles as the crow flies across a wilderness with few roads, little water, and sharp rocks. They would have passed just north of the Dead Sea, one of the most forbidding landscapes in the world. The fact that the two women hike across it without assistance or company is impressive.

Look at the passage of Ruth that opens this post.  You will see that the walk across the wilderness is sandwiched in between two verses of scripture, verses 18 and 19. Amazing, no? The book brushes by this feat of endurance as if it were nothing.

What are we to make of this? The sages of the Talmud did something interesting with it. They give us an oral tradition that it was on that walk that Naomi instructed Ruth in the things she needed to know in order to become a Jew.

Why on the trip? Why not in Bethlehem, after they arrive? I like to think that this is because the rabbis knew that becoming a Jew as an adult is a complex process. Conversion involves becoming part of the People Israel, a process that involves loss as well as celebration. Some very dear things have to be left behind; others have to be repackaged for travel. It is one reason that conversions usually take a year or more. It is a long journey through wild and uncharted territory, different for every person who makes it.

So even if the original writer of the Book of Ruth saw fit to skip from Ammon to Bethlehem between verses 18 and 19, modern day Ruths and their guides are not going to be rushed. Some will arrive in Bethlehem, some in other destinations, but all is revealed as the journey unfolds, the journey through the midbar, the wilderness.

My Adventures with Kashrut

Knowing the basics of Jewish dietary law and keeping kosher in real life are two different things. The best way to learn how to keep kosher is to submit humbly to someone who actually does it.

When I decided to learn how to keep kosher, my rabbi pointed me to a woman in our Reform congregation who had kept a kosher kitchen for many years. Ethelyn Simon gave me a tour of her kitchen, and then we sat and chatted about it over a nosh. She reassured me that I could indeed do it – and then when she heard that I was about to relocate to Jerusalem to start rabbinical studies, she recommended that I wait and begin in Jerusalem.

“You can start with an already-kosher kitchen in your rental,” she said, “Israel is the easiest place in the world to learn how to keep kosher.”

My apartment. The fridge, sink, and counter with hot plate are just outside the frame at right.
My apartment. The fridge, sink, and counter with hot plate are just outside the frame at right.

It didn’t work out exactly that way, but close enough. My apartment did not have a kosher kitchen. I needed a ground-level apartment, and what I found was a basement office with a countertop, sink, fridge and bathroom in it. My landlord was a secular Israeli who thought that my whole project was pretty silly: a woman? Reform? in Jerusalem to become a rabbi? My desire for a kosher kitchen was just icing on the silly cake.

Undeterred, I cleaned the fridge thoroughly. I acquired a hot plate, a skillet, and two saucepans (one meat, one dairy.) I acquired two dish pans, and enough dishes to serve meat to two people and dairy to two people. I was horrified at what it all cost. Keeping kosher is not cheap, even if you buy the cheapest things you can find.

David, enjoying Peet's Coffee in my apartment in Jerusalem
David, enjoying Peet’s Coffee in my apartment in Jerusalem

I lucked out: my nearest classmate-neighbor was David, now Rabbi David Novak of Vermont. David had kept kosher for years. My method of study was to have him over regularly, then he’d tell me where I was messing up. No cream in the coffee after a meat meal! Switch that dishpan, girl! He was very helpful. After a year of this in Israel, setting up a more conventional kosher kitchen in Los Angeles was a snap.

I kept strict traditional kashrut for six years. When I moved back to the SF Bay Area, I set my kitchen up to be kosher and quickly realized that with my family back in the picture on a daily basis, it wasn’t practical. A kosher kitchen requires buy-in from every member of the household. Very soon I was manufacturing a drama of self-martyrdom: “Oh poor me, I have to do all the cooking and cleaning, because no one else cares to keep kosher!”

I decided that my attitude was (1) stupid and (2) bad for my family life. I no longer keep a kosher kitchen, for reasons of shalom bayit, peace in the home. That seems to me to be an appropriate set of priorities. When and if the day comes that I can keep the kitchen kosher without the martyrdom shtick, I’ll go back to keeping a kosher kitchen. Right now I lack sufficient holiness for it.

I am glad that I learned about kashrut, and glad that I lived the lifestyle long enough that I can teach about it with authority. It’s an important part of the Jewish tradition, and an important part of life for many Jews. It taught me a sacred mindfulness about food that I would not have learned in any other way.

Nowadays I am more concerned with the sources of my food than with kashrut per se. Where did this food come from? Who grew it? How were the growers and harvesters treated and paid? Were animals mistreated? Is it sustainable agriculture? What kind of carbon footprint is involved? Unlike kashrut, which is very clear and straightforward, these ethical and moral questions are complex and require balancing. And – I should add this, lest I set up a false dichotomy – there are many Jews who keep kosher and worry about the complicated questions, too.

Bottom line: These days, my kitchen is easier to keep, but the shopping is complicated. I’m OK with that. Check back with me in 10 years and I will have learned more.