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!”


Learn About Judaism Online

June 4, 2014

I said in an earlier post that I was going to share some online study resources.  Here are some favorites (not an exhaustive list). I have included only free sites, although several of them accept donations. If you use one of them a lot, consider contributing to them.

Hebcal.com – This is an online Jewish calendar, easy to use and easy to personalize. If I could have access to only one Jewish website, this would be it. It will tell you what day it is today and what Torah readings are assigned to the day (both for Israel and for the Diaspora, which sometimes differ.) You can go there and use the “date converter” to find out what day in the Hebrew calendar you were born. It will give you links from each weekly Torah reading to the reading itself, to an online tikkun (reading with and without vowel markings), and to assorted divre Torah (short sermons and studies) on the portion. You can even export parts of the Jewish calendar to your Google or Outlook calendar.  Hebcal.com ROCKS.

MyJewishLearning.com – This is a searchable, hyperlinked, massive Jewish learning site. The articles are written simply and clearly by reputable scholars who know their subjects. It has recipes, definitions, holiday information, news, and a couple of online magazines. There are blogs addressing every imaginable aspect of modern Jewish life. Best of all, it’s a very inclusive site, respectful of all branches and flavors of Judaism.

JewishVirtualLibrary.org – This is another massive Jewish site full of great information. Again, the articles are from scholars of repute. It is a bit more challenging reading than MyJewishLearning.com, which may be a plus or a minus, depending on your interest and background.

JTA.org – The Jewish Telegraphic Agency calls itself “the Global Jewish News Source.” When there is news in the Jewish world and you want information, this is an excellent place to look. You can also sign up for their daily newsletter.

JewishEncyclopedia.com – The Jewish Encyclopedia was published from 1901-1906, and its full text is available online at this site. While it does not have information about topics after 1906, for everything before that it is quite good.

YouTube.com – YouTube is great for “how-to” demonstrations. Want to see exactly how to light Chanukah candles? Search “Chanukah” on YouTube. Want to learn some fun Purim songs? Search YouTube. Want to make a virtual visit to many sites in the Jewish world without buying a plane ticket? Often you can find a video on YouTube that will give you a distinct “You Are There” experience.

ReformJudaism.org – A good central source of information on Reform Judaism online, with links to all the major Reform organizations.

OrthodoxUnion.org – A good central source of information on Modern Orthodoxy.

USCJ.org – The central address for Conservative Judaism on the web.

Jewish Reconstructionist Communities – The central address for Reconstructionist Judaism online.

ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal – The central address for Jewish Renewal online.

 

Some cautions:

Wikipedia on Judaism is a mixed bag. On the one hand, there are many articles there on Jewish subjects, from the weekly Torah portions to holidays to history. On the other hand, you don’t have any way of knowing how reliable a source the authors are using, or what the background of a particular writer. If you are a beginner, you don’t have much way to know the reliable sources from the unreliable ones.

Beware of any site that trashes other Jews. There are plenty of good websites that don’t do that, so why hang out on those that do? Any site that speaks scornfully of “liberal Jews” or “the Orthodox” is not worth your time.

Beware of allegedly educational sites that are not produced by Jews. Other people sometimes have very peculiar ideas about us, to put it politely. If you read something on a website that is troubling, talk to a rabbi about it or leave a message on a reputable site that has an “ask the Rabbi” feature.

Finally, keep in mind that while the Internet and your computer are powerful tools, there’s no substitute for learning with real live people. Find yourself a rabbi. Find yourself a study partner. There is a richness available in in-person Jewish study that even the best website cannot match.

Happy Learning!


What is God’s Name?

May 21, 2014

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God has a lot of different names and titles in Judaism. Here is a short guide to just a few of them:

For teaching purposes, I am writing most of these names out as they would be pronounced. Some Jews do not pronounce certain names of God out of reverence except it prayer, or at all. 

Names

YUD-HEY-VAV-HEY (never pronounced aloud) –  This is the personal name of God, four letters that appear to be related to the verb “to be.” It has not been pronounced aloud since the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. For a long time before that, it was pronounced only by the High Priest, and only on Yom Kippur. When an observant Jew sees this name, he or she substitutes other names for it in Hebrew, usually “Adonai” or “HaShem” (more about them below.)  Some English translations transmit it as “LORD,” often in caps. Some modern Jewish translators prefer “The Eternal” as a substitute for translation.  This name is also referred to as “The Tetragrammaton” (Greek for Four Letter Word).

EHYEH-ASHER-EHYEH – (pronounced as written) – This Hebrew phrase is one of the answers given when Moses asks the name of God in Exodus 3:14. It translates in English to “I will be what I will be” or “I am what I am” or “I am what I will be.” In the same verse, God also gives Moses the shortened form of the same name “Ehyeh”. The next verse, Expdus 3:15, gives the Tetragrammaton as the name.

 

Substitutions

ADONAI (ah-doh-NIGH) – This is the word most often substituted for the name that isn’t pronounced. It is usually translated as “Lord” or “My Lord” in English. Many observant Jews do not even speak this word aloud except in prayer.

HASHEM (hah-SHEM) – “The Name” – This is not a name per se, but it is used as a substitution for the four letter name of God. In English, it’s usually rendered as “God” or simply as “Hashem.”

 

Attempts at Pronunciation

JEHOVAH (not used by Jews) – This is a vocalization of the four letter name for God, an estimation made by Christian scholars using the four consonants of the Tetragrammaton combined with the vowels in Adonai. It appears in William Tyndale’s English (Christian) Bible as the translation of the Tetragrammaton. This pronunciation is now thought by most scholars to be in error.

YAHWEH (not used by Jews) – This is the vocalization of the Tetragrammaton used by most academic Biblical scholars today, although there are still questions about whether it is the pronunciation used by the ancient Jewish priesthood. However, observant Jews will seldom if ever pronounce this word – they will instead use one of the substitutions above.

 

Titles

Often, God is not referred to by name but by title, just as one might refer to Elizabeth of Windsor as “The Queen of the UK.”

ELOHIM (el-loh-HEEM)  – This is the first title of God that appears in the Torah, in Genesis 1:1. It is a curious word, since it is technically in the plural, although it is understood as a singular title. Generally English translations render it as “God.”

EL (EHL) – This is both the Hebrew word for “god” and the name of a Canaanite deity.

GOD – God is an English title, not a name of the Eternal. The word has Germanic roots.

LORD – This title is from the Old English Hlaford, meaning “master.” It was also used to translate the Latin word Dominus.

 

Bottom line: Modern Jews avoid pronouncing the four letter name of God. First, we don’t know how to say it correctly. Secondly, tradition forbids saying it. To some it may seem silly; we know that lightning will not strike if we say it. It is a matter of respect, and a way of reminding ourselves that the Eternal is, above all, a great mystery beyond any words we can say or any image we might make.

Image by Emily Rose, some rights reserved.


What is Midrash?

May 9, 2014
Midrash!

Midrash!

I went to see the film Noah. Seen it? What did you think?

For my comments about the film, check out its entry on the Jewish Film blog. The bottom line: I thought it was great midrash.

Midrash is often spoken of as literature that fills in the gaps in the Biblical story. For instance, what does the Bible tell us about Abraham’s childhood, or for that matter, what does it tell us about why God picked Abram for the covenant?

If you said, “nothing,” that was the right answer.

If you said, “What about the story about his father Terah’s workshop?” then you are referring to a midrash from the 5th century collection Genesis Rabbah.

If you are an eager beaver and want to find books of midrash, you can do so but you may find that they are somewhat daunting. The colorful stories are embedded in sermons, ethical debates, and legal discussions. Classic rabbinical midrash took very specific literary forms which are foreign to modern readers. For a little taste of this sort of midrash, you can find Genesis Rabbah (also called Bereshit Rabbah) online.

Midrash is also a modern process. A film can include midrashic elements (see Noah and The Prince of Egypt.) Novels like The Red Tent can be built completely of midrash.

You can also do midrash on your own. In fact, you probably already do. Have you read a passage from the Torah and thought to yourself, “But what about….?” or “Why did he…..?” If you began to speculate about possibilities that are not actually IN the text, you were engaging in midrash.

Here’s an interesting exercise: try to read a Biblical text and NOT add anything to the text. If you start filling in details, stop. If you start wondering about something, stop. Just deal with the words on the page. It’s tougher than you might think.

Midrash is a very human impulse. We want to understand the text, and when what’s there seems awfully skimpy, it’s natural to speculate. It’s just important to keep track of what is really IN the text and what isn’t.


What to Wear to a Jewish Funeral

May 6, 2014
A funeral is a time to be present for the mourners.

Funeral clothing doesn’t need to be elaborate.

The most-read post on this blog is “10 Tips for Attending a Jewish Funeral.” A lot of people find that entry by Googling “what to wear to a Jewish funeral” – so I thought it might be helpful for me to expand on the subject. When a person is in a new or uncomfortable situation, it helps to feel that one’s clothing is right.

THE MOST IMPORTANT THING is not your clothing, but your presence. It is better to show up in clothing that is a little bit “off” than to stay away.

THE BASIC PRINCIPLE IS RESPECT. We attend a funeral to show respect for the dead and to comfort the family. Therefore it’s important that our clothes show that respect: be clean, be tidy, and avoid anything flashy or attention-getting. The star of the show should be the departed, not someone in the third pew.

THE IDEAL FUNERAL OUTFIT for men or women is subdued in color, appropriate to the weather, and low-key in general. Think “subdued business clothing.”

SHOES should be comfortable, and if you are going to graveside, remember that you’ll be walking on plushy grass. Stiletto heels are stupid and dangerous in a cemetery. However, your favorite Nikes are a bit too casual unless your only other shoes have 4″ heels.

MODESTY is another way of showing respect. If the funeral is Orthodox, everyone should dress in clothing that covers at least shoulders and knees. Men should wear a head covering or accept a kippah (skullcap) if offered. It may be the custom for adult women to cover their heads as well. If you do not own a nice hat, carry a scarf so that you can put it on if needed.  For an Orthodox funeral, women will be wearing skirts.

Even if the funeral isn’t Orthodox, a funeral is not a place to wear a sun dress, your shortest miniskirt, or shorts for either gender.

IN VERY HOT CLIMATES (say, Las Vegas in August) you may want to wear a hat that will give you shade and carry a bottle of water. Again the basic principle is that you don’t want to draw attention, so stay hydrated and shaded so that you don’t require EMT’s.

CELL PHONES should be SILENT.  If you are a physician on call, set your phone or pager to vibrate. Otherwise, just turn it off and leave it alone for the service.

A TIP: Death comes periodically in every circle of friends, and often does not have advance warning. Figure out ahead of time what combination of clothes in your closet would be OK for a funeral. If you don’t have anything that would “do” for a funeral, it may be time to add something to your wardrobe. Accompanying the dead and comforting the mourner are important mitzvot, and when the time comes for you to go to a funeral, you don’t want to be worrying over fashion.

Finally, remember: showing up is the main thing. If the only way you can get there is in your bunny slippers, show up in bunny slippers.

Still have questions? You can add to the usefulness of this entry by asking your questions in the Comments below.

Image by Tony Alter, 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.


What is Yom HaShoah?

April 26, 2014

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Yom HaShoah (Yohm Hah-show-AH or Yohm Hah-SHOW-ah) is Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was established in Israel as Yom HaZikaron LaShoah v’LaGevurah, Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day.

Yom = Day
Zikaron = Remembrance
Shoah = Catastrophe (refers now to the atrocities against the Jewish People in WWII.)
Gevurah = Heroism.

It began in 1953 as Israel’s day for remembrance of the 6,000,000 Jewish men, women and children who were murdered in the 1940’s in Europe, established by Israeli law as a Memorial Day. Increasingly it has been adopted as a day for remembrance by Jews the U.S. as well. It is a memorial for our dead and for the heroes among them.

The originators proposed the date for the 14th of Nisan, which was the date of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, to underline the fact that there was also Gevurah (heroism) involved, to counter the myth that Jews were passive victims.  However, that is also the day immediately before Passover, so that was impractical. Instead, it was set for the 27th of Nisan, except when that day falls immediately adjacent to Shabbat, in which case it is moved by one day, forward or back as appropriate.

Like all Jewish days, it begins at sundown and ends at sundown. In Israel, it is marked with solemn assemblies and flags at half mast. TV and radio stations play classical music and documentaries. At noon, everything stops in the country: people even stop their cars on the street, and get out of them, to stand for a moment of silence.

In the United States, Yom HaShoah is marked with community memorial ceremonies and educational programs. If survivors of the Holocaust are available as speakers, they tell their stories. With the passage of time, that is more and more rare.

Not all Jews observe 27 Nisan as Holocaust Remembrance Day. Some Orthodox and Hasidic groups include Holocaust remembrance in the Tisha B’Av memorial of the disasters to the Jewish People.

Upcoming Dates of Observance in the Gregorian calendar:

2014 April 27

2015 April 16

2016 May 5

2017 April 24

2018 April 12

Image: Abel Francés Quesada, some rights reserved.


What is Yizkor?

April 19, 2014

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If someone especially dear to you has died in the past, you know that we never really stop mourning them. The absence of a loved one eventually becomes a kind of presence of its own, an ongoing awareness that that person was an important part of our lives and is no longer with us. Healthy grieving after months and years have passed is not overwhelming, but the sadness is there, and sometimes it is sharp.

Jewish tradition makes time and space for long-term mourning for those especially close to us. The service of Yizkor (literally, “Remember”) is held four times annually in most synagogues: on Yom Kippur and Shavuot, and at the end of Sukkot and Passover. There are psalms and readings appropriate to mourning, and at the end of the service, the service leader reads or chants El Male Rachamim and leads the congregation in the Kaddish.

The Yizkor service is usually attended only by those who have lost a parent or a close relative, although if you are remembering someone who is not a relative but dear to you, you are welcome to attend. It is an opportunity to let your guard down and grieve, or simply to attend as a respectful remembrance of the dead. Some attending the service will be recently bereaved; others may be remembering someone who died long ago. Some people cry a little. Some sit quietly and respectfully. You are welcome to let the memories come and to let emotion come with them – no one goes to Yizkor to look at other attendees.

There is a tradition among Ashkenazi Jews that a person with both parents still alive should stay away from the Yizkor service, lest the “Angel of Death” be attracted to one’s parents.  However, if you need to mourn a sibling or a friend, there is no official rule against going to Yizkor; just be aware that if both your parents are living and known in the community, someone may warn you about the superstition!

Yizkor provides a safe space for us to mourn while honoring the memory of the dead.

Image by Bill Barber, some rights reserved.

 


What is Chol HaMoed?

April 18, 2014
Matzah brei serving

Matzo brei – a Chol HaMoed treat.

In the middle of Passover and Sukkot, you may hear the term “Chol HaMoed” or “Hol HaMoed,” and you might wonder, “A Whole What???”

That’s what Jews call the middle days of Passover and Sukkot. Both festivals run for a week. The first day (or two) of the holiday is called a “Chag” and is extra special, almost like Shabbat. Same for the last day: ideally, one is home from work and attends synagogue.  The middle days of the week  are still special but do not have so many restrictions: some businesses in Israel might be open, and Jews in Diaspora go to work. “Chol” means “Ordinary” and “HaMoed” in this context means “of the festival” – these are more ordinary days of the holiday.

Now, just to confuse things, you may also encounter this term: Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach. That’s the Shabbat in the middle of Passover, when it doesn’t fall on one of the “Chag” days. It has its own special Torah and Haftorah readings. There’s also one of those for Sukkot in some years. For information on this particular year, consult a Jewish calendar.

There’s a special greeting for these not-so-ordinary days in mid-festival: if someone says to you, “Moadim l’simchah!” it means “Festival of Joy.” You can reply with the same words, or you can just say, “Same to you!”

Note: There’s a trick for saying that “ch” sound in Hebrew. What noise does an angry cat make? The “ch” sound is a little bitty short version of that. If you truly can’t do it, use an “h” sound instead. 

Image: licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


Passover goes on for a WEEK? What Will We Eat?

April 16, 2014
Matzah!

Matzah!

Newcomers to Judaism are sometimes shocked to discover that Passover isn’t just a day – it’s a week-long event!  (To be precise: Seven days in Israel, or eight days in the Diaspora, unless you are Reform and think that Rabbi Hillel’s hard work in calculating the calendar should be honored, in which case, seven days.  Short version: ask your rabbi.)

Yup, you got it right: We are only at the beginning of a week of NO CHAMETZ.

Veterans of many years of Judaism and/or Jewish childhoods will tell you about the wonders of matzo brie (fried matzah), matza pizza, etc.  Those are fun and well worth trying. Some come to love them, and some not so much. It’s OK either way: you ate matzah at the seder and that’s all the matzah we are required to eat. 

Newcomers may also be appalled at the sudden outbreak of constipation jokes from fellow Jews who don’t indulge in such humor except at Passover.  All I know to tell you is that those jokes will disappear in a week, not to be heard again until next year. (To the purveyors of those jokes I say: no one forced you to eat that much matzah. Ahem.)

So in the meantime, what to eat?

Unprocessed fruits are all perfectly fine.

Vegetables will depend on whether you eat “kitniyot” or not. If you don’t know what that is, don’t worry about it this year. If you are among the Jews who refrain from kitniyot at Passover, you know what not to eat. Again, if this has not been part of your practice until you’ve read this article, don’t worry about it – veggies are OK! – but you may want to study and ask your rabbi before next year.

Meats, dairy products, fish, etc are all good, as long as there’s no chametz mixed in with them. (No yogurt with granola on top.) Again, just avoid the processed stuff and you will be ok.

Menu suggestions:

  • Leftovers from the seder, if there are any.
  • Tuna salad on matzah.  Ditto for egg or chicken salad.
  • Tuna salad on a nice mess of greens. Ditto for egg or chicken salad.
  • Green salads with meat or dairy for protein – always good.
  • Stews and soups are good, just (1) not processed – there will be chametz in there somewhere and (2) no dredging things in flour and (3) beer is chametz, so no Guinness stew. Serve over mashed potatoes, if you want.

Snack suggestions:

  • fruit
  • nuts
  • cut-up veggies
  • leftover seder treats (macaroons? candies?)
  • Kosher for passover chocolate and snacks

Before you panic, remember, it’s only a week. If you start feeling crazy, remember the story in Exodus 16. When our ancestors had been in the desert for more than 40 days, living on nothing but matzah, they complained to Moses about the food. God promptly sent them manna. I like to think that God was thinking, “Well! Finally! You learned to ask for what you need!”

So remember: you don’t have to live on matzah. Eat fresh if you can afford it. Look upon this time as a yearly “reset” button for your eating habits. And don’t forget to give tzedakah for those who cannot afford fresh food.

Happy Pesach!

Image by Avital Pinnick, some rights reserved

 


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