Beginner’s Guide to the High Holy Days, 5776

Shofar

Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown on September 13, 2015. Here are some basic facts to know about the holiday season:

Happy Jewish New Year!

Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish New Year. Observant Jews will go to synagogue that day, and will do no work. Many other Jews may take the day off for reflection and celebration. The mitzvah [commandment] for the day of Rosh HaShanah is to hear the sound of the shofar [ram’s horn.] The basic greeting for the New Year is “Shanah Tovah” [literally, “Good Year!”] For other greetings, see A Guide to High Holy Day Greetings.

Days of Awe

Rosh HaShanah begins a very serious time in the Jewish year called the Days of Awe. Unlike the secular New Year, which is mostly a time for celebration, the Days of Awe are an annual period for reflection and for mending relationships and behavior. Synagogue services use solemn music and urge Jews, individually and collectively, to mend what is broken in their lives, and to apologize for misdeeds.

Teshuvah: Sin & Repentance

The Jewish understanding of sin is that all human beings fall short of their best selves from time to time. When we do wrong, even inadvertently, we are required to acknowledge what we have done, take responsibility for it, and take steps to assure it will not happen again. This process is called teshuvah [literally, “turning.”]

Yom Kippur

The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is the culmination of the process of teshuvah. Observant Jews fast for 24 hours and spend the day in synagogue, praying and reflecting on their lives. Other Jews may take the day off for reflection as well. Yom Kippur is a day for atonement for sins against God and/or Jewish law; it only atones for sins against other human beings if we have gone through the process of teshuvah (taking responsibility, apologizing, and taking steps to prevent a recurrence.) If you have a health problem that requires regulation of food and/or liquids, do not fast – there are other ways to observe.

In the Synagogue

Very important, for newcomers: Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are the days of the year when the greatest number of Jews attend synagogue. However, they are not good days to attend synagogue for the first time. The services are longer than usual and much more solemn. For a first visit to a synagogue, a regular Shabbat service on Friday night or Saturday is much more typical of Jewish practice and belief.

Tickets for Prayer?

Because of the high attendance, many synagogues do not have seats for visitors for their main services. If they have a few extra seats, they sell tickets for those seats to offset the extra expense of the visitors (members pay their share via membership dues.) Note that synagogues often make arrangements for reduced rates for membership for those who wish to participate in synagogue life but who cannot afford full dues. Consider joining a synagogue – they offer much more than High Holy Day services.

There are several options for attending High Holy Day services for low or no cost. You can always call the synagogue and ask; they may be able to direct you to a synagogue which offers free High Holy Day services.  Some synagogues offer free High Holy Day tickets for college students or members of the military. If you are in a city in the USA, call the Jewish Federation or other local Jewish agency for information about locations for free or low-cost services.

Get the Most out of Your High Holy Days

To get the most out of the High Holy Days, observe the month of preparation that leads up to them. Attend services at a local synagogue (guests are welcome at regular services). Ask yourself “What about my life and behavior needs to change?” and make those changes. Mend relationships that can be mended, and do your part even in those relationships that cannot be mended at this time. Consider reading a book about the High Holy Days, or keeping a journal. Like everything else in life, the more you invest in this experience, the more you will get out of it.

There is much more to know about the High Holy Days; this is just a beginning. If you are curious about Judaism, this is a great time of year to contact a synagogue about adult education classes, since many classes in synagogues start immediately after the holidays.

L’Shanah Tovah: I wish you a fruitful beginning to the New Year of 5776!

A Little Tip for Hebrew Learners

overcoming difficulty

There is a common sound in Hebrew that is a dead giveaway that an English speaker didn’t grow up with the language. It’s the sound associated with the letters  ח and  כ. We often transliterate it with “ch” or “kh” (that’s been my practice here) but the sound simply doesn’t exist in English.

People who learn Hebrew as children pick up the sound pretty easily, but for adults it can be harder.  We usually tell adult students “it’s like the ch in Bach” which is only much help if they speak German. Here’s what I tell students:

  1. Lift the rear part of your tongue to your soft palate. Blow air out around it.
  2. Think of a cat hissing. Now make that sound very short.
  3. That’s ח and  כ.

If you practice it, it will come. Most adults have trouble at first, and then it gets easier. Make silly games with it to practice in private.  Substitute the ח sound for H in the sentence below:

Hi, I’m here to see Harry. (Khi, I’m khere to see kHarry.)

It sounds ridiculous, but if you keep doing it, your mouth will get used to it.

If you have tried, and you are quite sure you cannot make that sound, here’s another tip:  do not substitute a K sound for it. I get the impression that in some college Hebrew classes teachers allow that, and the trouble is that it will stand out like a neon flasher in synagogue.

Instead, substitute an H for it.  “H” is not completely correct, but it will get you closer to the sound. It also puts your mouth close to the right shape for the sound. “K” builds a bad habit. “H” leaves room for improvement. You may find, over time, that you will pick up the sound naturally.

If you are making the effort to learn some Hebrew, good for you! Every bit of it that you learn will help you feel more at home around Jews. More than almost anything else, the Hebrew language is our common ground. Every scrap of Hebrew that you learn will pay rich benefits in Jewish connection.

I learned Hebrew as an adult; started in my 40’s. It can be done, and if you are making the effort, kol hakavod – all honor to you!

No Nagging Shabbat

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So you have heard about Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. What you heard sounded very good, but the logistics are intimidating: no cooking, no electricity on and off, no work of any kind, no electronics. You look at your family and wonder how you are going to sell them on this idea.

Stop. Let me tell you about how I began to keep Shabbat more than 20 years ago.

It was about the time I began to study for conversion to Judaism. My enthusiasm was building, even though the other members of my family weren’t interested in going to services. I wanted to have some Shabbat at home, too.

My children were middle school age, so we were often frustrated with one another. Their rooms were disaster areas, they preferred wearing old rags to clothes, they were not industrious students, and I felt responsible for them.  There were a number of areas where it seemed that all I did was nag, nag, nag and I was sick of it.

One afternoon inspiration hit.

I had been reading The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel when suddenly light dawned: I knew what I wanted first for our “cathedral in time:” I wanted all the nagging to stop. I wanted to take a break from it, I wanted them to take a break from it, and I wanted us all to have as happy a Shabbat as possible. So that’s what I did: sat them down and declared a No Nagging Zone from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. They were skeptical.

“No nagging at all?” the younger one said, “Even about my homework?”

“No nagging at all. I can resume reminding you at sundown. But get this: you can’t nag either: no whining to go to the store, or to take you to the movies, or whatever. You can ask, but no whining or nagging. If anyone tries something that feels like nagging to us, all we have to do is say, ‘Shabbat.'” They looked at each other and shrugged: yep, she’s lost her mind.

Over time, it became a habit. If I mentioned “homework” or “making your bed” or later “college applications” they’d look at me and say simply, “Shabbat, mom.” I’d back off (until sundown.) We all relaxed. We began to look forward to Shabbat. Conversations happened on Shabbat, because all the nagging options were closed.

Later I began to decide how I was going to keep Shabbat in other ways: what was “work” for me, and what kind of observance would align me with my Jewish community. But that first step towards the peace of Shabbat was maybe the best.

We say “Shabbat Shalom” and it’s worth pausing a moment to think about what that really means. Do we invite peace into our homes? Do we relax? Is Shabbat a time when family can become closer? For some families that happens with food and routines and traditional observance, but for me and mine it began with the No Nagging Zone.

What was your first step in beginning to keep Shabbat? If you grew up with Shabbat, what is your earliest memory of it?

The Blessing for Study

Class with Rabbi Adar

A lovely and traditional way to begin a study session is the blessing for the study of Torah:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יהוה
אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶך
הָעולָם

אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָנוּ בְּמִצְותָיו
.וְצִוָּנוּ
לַעֲסק  בְּדִבְרֵי-תורָה

Ba-ruch a-tah A-doh-nai

Eh-lo-hei-nu Me-lech ha-O-lam

Ah-sher kid-e-shah-nu b’mitz-voh-tav

Vi-tsi-va-nu la’a-sok b’div-ray To-rah.

Blessed are You, Eternal One,

Our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space:

Who sanctifies us with commandments

And commands us to engage in the words of Torah.

It is perfectly OK to say the blessing in English. Some of you may know slightly different English words. That’s all right. Many of the Hebrew words in the blessing have multiple choices for English translation. I used the ones that I like; please feel free to do the same for yourself!

“Torah” in this case refers to all sacred texts, whether they are from Tanach or rabbinic texts. It might apply to a modern text that we are reading with the intention of Torah study: for instance, a modern commentary or even a work of fiction or poetry.

I am always a little amused by the word “la’a-sok.”  The first time I heard it, it sounded like the English word “soak” and I pictured the study group, sitting in a hot tub, soaking in the words of Torah. The more Torah I study, the more apt that image seems: we marinate in the words of Torah.

“[God] sanctifies us with commandments” – what do those words mean to you? How can a person be made holy by a commandment?  How do they apply, in the case of this particular blessing?

The Door to Amazement: Why We Bless

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…ברוך אתה ה’ אלוהינו, מלך העולם

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space….

Thus begins the most basic form of Jewish prayer, the blessing. We have some tiny little short blessings, like the one we say when we hear terrible news, and very very long blessings, like the Birkat Hamazon, the blessing after meals, which goes on for several pages and includes many smaller blessings. We have blessings for every kind of food we eat, and blessings for surprising things we encounter, and blessings for Shabbat and holidays.

While we often say these blessings rapidly and by rote, sooner or later every Jew finds her- or himself asking, “Why am I blessing God?” Because that is how the prayer begins: “Blessed are You, God.”  That question leads us to the larger question, “Why pray at all?” since really, if God is God, God doesn’t need prayer or anything else we can produce, right?

And what about those for whom the idea of God is more abstract, who find it rather odd to talk to an Idea? Why bother with blessings?

My favorite answer to this question – why bless? – is that blessings are not “for God.” Blessings are for the person saying the blessing, and sometimes for others who hear the blessing. When I bless the bread I am about to put in my mouth, I am acknowledging that I did not create the bread. I may have baked it, but many miracles and many hands were involved in that bread arriving in my hand. When I pause to bless, I make room for the acknowledgment that I have my place in Creation, but only my place, that I am dependent on daily miracles and dependent on hands other than my own.  When I bless the sight of a rainbow, I remind myself what a miracle it is that the rainbow is there for me – and that it is not there only for me. When I make the blessing for hearing the news of a death, I acknowledge that I am not qualified to judge any other human being.

Blessing is about a sacred pause: a pause to notice, a pause to reflect, a pause to appreciate one’s place in creation. That pause may only be a fraction of a second, it may even become a reflex, but it is a moment of sacred intention breaking in upon the mundane. This week, as I hurry about my work, those little pauses remind me that every mitzvah gives me an opportunity to bring the sacred into the world, even when I have to do them rapidly, even when I do not have enough time to do them perfectly. All of life is sacred, even a moment in the bathroom (yes, there is a blessing for that, too!)

It is when we choose to see the holiness in each moment, to infuse the ordinary with the sacred, that we open ourselves to the possibility of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement.” Blessings are one door into that state of amazement: may we all enjoy a glimpse of the Holy as we go about our days!

What is Tzom Tammuz?

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I am watching the sun sink towards the horizon ending the day of Tzom Tammuz, the Fast of Tammuz, so this post will reach most of my readers too late for the actual day this year.

The 17th of Tammuz is a “minor” fast day in the Jewish year. It commemorates the breach of the walls of Jerusalem by the Roman army, shortly before the destruction of the Second Temple. It begins a three week period of increasingly deep mourning in Jewish life, running from Tzom Tammuz until Tisha B’Av, the day on which we remember the destruction.

A minor fast is one that is kept only from sunrise to sunset. It applies only to eating and drinking, unlike the major fasts of Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur, on which we refrain not only from eating and drinking, but also from washing and anointing our bodies, wearing leather, and having sex. Major fasts last 25 hours, from sunset one day until three stars appear in the sky on the next.

Tzom Tammuz is the beginning of a three week period of mourning that leads up to Tisha B’Av, when we remember the Destruction of the Temple. I’m going to write a good bit more about that in coming days, but for now, just now that we have entered a time of mourning in Jewish life.

These minor fasts mark significant events in our life as a people. When you thinking about milestones in your own personal history, are there days you remember because they led up to major events? Do you do anything to mark them?

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!