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.

Jewish Dietary Law for Beginners

Jewish tradition sanctifies the entire process of obtaining food, preparing it, and eating it. This has always been the case with us; some of the earliest writings about Jews by outsiders have commented upon our food practices.

KASHRUT (kash-ROOT) is set of rules set forth originally in the Torah, refined in the Talmud and subsequent interpretation. The key texts for Jewish dietary law are in Exodus 23 and 34, Leviticus 11, and Deuteronomy 14. Those texts outline which animals are suitable to eat, which animals are forbidden, which birds and water creatures may be eaten and which are forbidden. For more about food laws in the Bible, MyJewishLearning.com has an excellent article.

To summarize the rules, animals must have cloven hooves and chew their cud. Fish must have fins and scales. Birds must not be predators or scavengers. No “creepy-crawlies” may be eaten (no shrimp, no snakes, no snails, etc.) Meat and milk must be eaten separately. One must not consume the blood of any creature. Over the centuries, rabbis have set the boundaries of practice so that these rules are not accidentally broken.

Animals are slaughtered according to the rules of kashrut, which is derived from the process by which animals were slaughtered for sacrifice in the Temple. Animals must be calmed, and the knife must be very sharp, so that the animal does not suffer unduly. Proper shechitah [slaughtering] severs the carotid and jugular as well as the windpipe very rapidly; animals die within seconds. Only certain parts of an animal are considered kosher, and a kosher butcher has to be specially trained to cut the meat up properly.

Some have tried to justify the rules of kashrut by speculating that they are for health or cleanliness. As expressed in the text, and as practiced by Jews for centuries, they are not rules with “reasons why.” The “why” is that they are commandments.

Today Jews who keep kosher do so for many reasons, for instance:

  • Kashrut is commanded by God.
  • Their parents kept kosher, so they continue the tradition.
  • Some keep kosher in solidarity with Jews everywhere.

Some Jews do not keep kosher, but they avoid forbidden animals: they do not eat pork or shellfish. Some keep a limited form of kashrut, but only at home; when they are out, they don’t worry about it. Some Jews do not keep the food commandments at all, but they are aware that they do not keep them; even in non-observance there is awareness.

There are many interesting modern thoughts about kashrut. Some raise ethical questions about the treatment of laborers and/or of animals in modern kosher food processing plants. Some raise questions about sustainable food practices and our stewardship of the earth.

I heard a sermon when I was a student that made a huge impression on me. Rabbi Gersh Zylberman suggested to us that when we look at the dietary law as a whole, what we see is a complex of practices that discourage and limit the consumption of animal products. Combined with other texts that advocate for kindness towards animals, he argued that we should allow kashrut to move us toward a vegan lifestyle. Inspired, I researched a vegan diet and kept it for a time; but eventually I decided I was not yet ready for that degree of holiness.

Do you keep kosher? Is your diet influenced in any way by your Jewishness? Why, or why not?

Why Do Some People Think All Jews are Rich?

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You’ve heard the stereotypes, and the nasty little comments: “Jews are all rich.” “Jews control all the banks.” “All Jews are obsessed with money.” Some readers may have had pennies thrown at them. As a reader asked recently, where does this come from?

First, notice something: the word “all.” Any time you see that word, put on your skeptical hat! Global statements are a sign that there’s irrationality involved.

“Jews are all rich.” – Not true. Half a million Jews live under the poverty line in New York City alone, according to a study by the UJA-Federation of New York.  So why do people say that or think it? In purely contemporary terms, it is true that a higher percentage of Jews earn more than $100,000 than any other “faith group” in America, according to this chart from GOOD and Column Five.  It is also true that there are individual Jews who are famous for their wealth, for example, George Soros and Sheldon Adelson. But no, not all Jews are rich, and the majority of rich people are not Jewish. Some Jews are grindingly poor.

The association of Jews and money goes back to the Middle Ages. The Bible forbids usury – taking or paying interest on a loan “from your brother.” (See Exodus 22:24, Deuteronomy 23:20-21, and Leviticus 25:35-37 for examples.) Jewish law discouraged lending to non-Jews as well as forbidding lending at interest to other Jews.

However, sources of income for European Jews prior to about 1800 were extremely limited. Jews were barred from most professions and guilds. Moneylending was a viable way to make a living, especially since Christians were barred by their own laws from lending money. Thus moneylending became a niche for Jews. It was a dangerous niche, however: no one likes their creditors.

Financial skills are also portable. Jews were uprooted again and again from their homes in Europe, and those with portable skills were the best equipped to survive. One side-effect of the various expulsions was that families were often scattered to different cities. Having trusted family members in financial centers like Amsterdam, London, Paris, etc meant that money could be moved easily across the continent. For a more detailed history of Jews and banking, there’s an excellent article in the Virtual Jewish Library.

So yes, there are connections between Jews and money. But not all Jews are rich and not all Jews have access to wealth.

One way that these ideas spread was a hoax called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was produced sometime in the early 20th century in Russia or the Ukraine. It purports to be a blueprint for world domination by a Jewish conspiracy. It claimed that Jews plan to dominate the world by economic means. So even today, that is a central belief for many antisemites.

As for being “obsessed with money,” one might suggest that anyone making such a statement should take a look in the mirror!

Ask the Rabbi: Hostess gifts at Passover?

Ask the RabbiA reader asks: What can I bring as a gift to a Passover seder?

First and foremost, unless you are certain of your hosts’ Passover practices, don’t bring any food that is loose or homemade. While there are basic rules for Passover that apply in most households, no two families are exactly the same. Food marked “Kosher for Passover” in an sealed, unopened package is probably all right but for myself, I tend to avoid all food gifts at this time of year unless I have special knowledge of tastes and Jewish observance in that home.

Some good non-food items to bring:

  1. An interesting Haggadah is a nice gift. Some have beautiful illustrations, some have texts or commentary by famous rabbis, and some are just unusual.
  2. Small housewares are welcome this time of year: dish clothes, napkins, placemats, salt-and-pepper shakers, etc. Many families pack away their “regular” wares in favor of “Passover” things and so something new is particularly welcome at this time.
  3. Flowers are always lovely.
  4. If there are children in the house, bringing a Passover book, puzzle or toy for children is a very nice thing to do.
  5. Books or games are a fine idea.

If nothing on this list appeals to you, perhaps it has given you other ideas. Readers, can you suggest gifts you have given at Passover time that have been particularly welcome?