Seven Facts about Passover: for Beginners

Matzah!

1. Passover is the most-observed Jewish holiday.

2. Passover falls in the springtime. It begins on the 15th of Nisan.

3. Passover lasts for seven days (in Israel) and eight days (in the Diaspora.) Most Reform Jews follow the Israeli practice.

4. Passover is primarily a commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt. It is layered on an agricultural holiday celebrating the arrival of spring and planting time.

5. Observant Jews remove all products containing wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye from their homes. They prepare for Passover with a vigorous spring cleaning.

6. The primary observance of Passover is the Passover Seder, a meal and learning experience through which the foundational story of the Jews is learned and relearned. The script for the seder is called the Haggadah.

7. During the week of Passover, Jews eat matzah instead of leavened bread. Passover matzah is specially baked unleavened bread. This has resulted in an entire cuisine of Passover cooking.

Passover Preparation, for Beginners

Rabbi Tarfon taught: It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it either.  [Pirkei Avot 2:16]

It is tempting to take an “all or nothing” approach to mitzvot.   Some of us are overachievers, and we want an “A” in everything we do.  Some of us are worried about the opinions of others.  Some worry that if a commandment is not fulfilled properly, there was no point in bothering.  To any beginner in Jewish observance, my first word of advice is: Start Small.

The journey of the Exodus began in Egypt.  The Hebrews could not keep the commandments; they had not yet received the commandments.  Anyway, they were slaves:  they were not free to keep the commandments.

So if this is your first time cleaning for Passover, do not think, “I must do all of this perfectly,” because you are in Egypt.  You are only beginning the journey! If this is your first time cleaning for Passover, think:  What can I reasonably do this year to observe Passover in my home?  Here are some ideas for beginning your journey to Passover, one step at a time.  Even if you do only the first step, or the first two this year you will have made a good beginning.

If, on the other hand, you are looking for official standards on how to prepare a proper kosher-for-Passover home, and you are already an old hand at this, you will be much better served by the Pesah Guide published by the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative Movement.)  This post is for those who are new to the mitzvah of preparing for Passover.

1.  LEARN ABOUT CHOMETZ.  Chometz / Chametz / Hametz (all spellings are transliterations, all are the same thing)  is a product that is both made from one of five types of grain (wheat, rye, spelt, oats, or barley) and has been combined with water and left to stand raw for longer than eighteen minutes.  Chometz is sometimes defined as “leavened products” which is confusing, since that makes modern people think of leavening agents like baking powder and yeast.  But no, chometz is basically wet grain,  or grain that has been wet at one time for more than 18 minutes.

Anything in your home that contains one of those grains (wheat, rye, spelt, oats, barley) and may have had any moisture get to it on purpose or by accident is chometz.  Ideally, a Jew will find and get rid of all the chometz in the places under his or her control before Passover begins.

You can learn more about chometz and Passover observance in an article at My Jewish Learning.  There you will also learn that Ashkenazic Jews also dispose of rice, millet, corn and legumes like beans and soy [kitniyot] because those things often behave like the forbidden grains.

If this is all you can do this year, that’s OK.   

2.  CHECK YOUR CHOMETZ.  The Hebrew name of the process of looking for chometz is bedikat chometz, literally “checking for chometz.”  The first step is to figure out where the chometz is.  You can’t get rid of it if you don’t take stock of it, right?

Go into the kitchen, open the cabinets, and make note of all the chometz products you normally own and use.  There may be bread, and flour, and mixes, and cereals.  There may also be processed foods that contain grain products.  Notice what they are, how many they are, how basic to your cooking and consumption these products are.  Notice, also, all the beer and spirits and other grain-based fermented products you may have: those, too, are chometz.  Then close the cabinets, and move on.

Go into the rest of your home, and think about all the places that crumbs can hide:  sofa cushions, carpets, pockets, shoes.

Contemplate the ubiquity of chometz:   It’s really everywhere.

If this is all you can do this year, that’s OK. 

3.  GET RID OF BIG CHOMETZ.  I said “start small” but at this stage of the journey, we’ll just get rid of what I call “big chometz.”  Set aside all the chometz in your kitchen and say, “what can my household consume before Passover?”  All the rest of the chometz will need to go for you to complete this third step.  Eat it up, give it away, or throw it out:  those are the chometz choices between Purim and Passover.  Locate a donation dropoff for your local food bank, and use it.

If you have gotten to this stage, you will also need to think about “What will my household eat during Passover?”  This does not mean that you must buy many specialized products for Passover.  Maybe you will choose to buy matzah, and otherwise stick to unprocessed non-grain foods for the week of Passover:  salads, fruit, meat, fish, etc. If you live with other people, you need to include them in the menu-planning for Passover week.  The average child (or adult, for that matter) will not feel loved if you simply announce that we are out of Cheerios and will be out of Cheerios until next week, tough luck!  If you have animals, you will need to plan for them as well.  However, keep in mind that an animal that eats grain needs proper nourishment:  consult your rabbi if you have questions about how to meet the needs of pets during the holiday.

If this is all you can do this year, that’s OK.   

4.  DISHES AND UTENSILS  If you are even more serious about keeping a kosher for Passover home, you will want to seal up or pack up all your usual utensils and dishes, and use either “Passover dishes” that you keep boxed up the rest of the year or use disposables.  This is more or less expensive depending on how you go about it.  My everyday Passover dishes are not particularly nice (they were on sale at Target)  and I only have a few of them, since other than the seder, I don’t entertain during Pesach.  However, I only look at them for one week a year, so I wasn’t picky.

Another possibility is to buy a package of paper plates. This is less wasteful if there is some way to compost them instead of putting them in the landfill after use. During Passover, I use more disposable products than at other times of the year, but I try to use them responsibly.

If this is all you do this year, it is more than OK. 

5.  FIND AND DESTROY HIDDEN CHOMETZ.  This brings us to something that looks suspiciously like “spring cleaning.”  Remember the chometz you thought about back at #1:  the crumbs in the carpet, your pockets, the car, the back of cabinets?  At this level of cleaning for Passover, you will get rid of as many of those as you can.  Take a moment to think a grateful thought for  all the clever inventors of the vacuum cleaner.  Most observant Jews will get their carpets cleaned in the week before Passover. Wipe surfaces down.  Dust everywhere.  Vacuum out the shoes in the closets.

If this is all you do this year, it is more than OK. 
6.  RECONSIDER “CHOMETZ  Some thinkers have suggested that chometz can be spiritual rather than physical. If this idea intrigues you, here are some articles that explore it:
7.  REMEMBER, LIFE, LIKE EXODUS,  IS A JOURNEY.  In the beginning, start small.  Don’t tear your home up and then collapse in despair.  Pay attention to the mitzvah that you are doing, to whatever degree you can perform it.  Remember that at different stages of life, our abilities are different:  a beginner, starting out, will not approach Passover in the same way that a person who has grown up in a kosher observant household will approach it.  In a year with illness, or money troubles, or other challenges, the way we observe the mitzvah may shift.
Instead of judging ourselves for what we cannot do, and comparing to others who “do more,” we accomplish the most when we approach the task with kavanah [intention] and do what we can to the best of our ability.   Remember the words of Rabbi Tarfon that opened this post:  It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it either.
_____
This is an update of a post from 2012.

Israel & Texts: Online Learning!

LehrhausLogoHave you ever wished you could take a class to sort out what words like Torah, Tanakh, Gemara, Mishnah, and Talmud really mean? Wondered how “Jewish law” is related to the Torah text? Ever wished you could learn more about the history of Israel and the Jews?

Registration is open for the Winter session of Intro to the Jewish Experience, “Israel and Texts” and it includes an online option! Class meetings will take place at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, CA on Wednesday evenings from 7:30 – 9pm (PST) beginning January 14. For those who cannot attend in Berkeley, we offer the option of attending via Adobe Connect, a cloud-based classroom. All meetings are recorded, so that students also have the option of watching the class recordings.

All classes are taught by me except for Jan 21 and 28. I’m honored to welcome Dr. Jehon Grist as our guest lecturer on Israel.

Class schedule:

Jan 14 – Welcome & Introductions:  Jews, Texts, and Shabbat
Jan 21 –Ancient Israel – Guest: Dr. Jehon Grist
Jan 28 –Modern Israel & Zionism  – Guest: Dr. Jehon Grist
Feb 4 – Torah, Tanakh & Midrash
Feb 11 – Beginnings of Rabbinic Judaism
Feb 18 – What is the Talmud?
Feb 25 – Codes, Responsa and Jewish Law
March 11 – Jewish Values, Jewish Ethics

For registration, go to the class page in the Lehrhaus Catalog. Class tuition is $105.

Check out Lehrhaus’ other online course offerings this winter and spring.

Lehrhaus Judaica is a unique non-denominational Jewish studies adult school. Every course is open to the general public, and all interested adults are welcome, regardless of age, religion, or ethnicity.

 

 

Why “G-d” instead of “God?”

Question

A reader recently asked: “Why do some Jews type ‘G-d’ when they are writing about God? And why don’t you type it that way, Rabbi Adar?”

Jews traditionally hold the name of God, yud-hey-vav-hey in great reverence. We do not ever pronounce it (in fact, it’s been so long we don’t even remember how to pronounce it correctly) and if we write it, we treat the material it was written on with reverence. Here’s what it looks like in Hebrew letters:

יהוה

Part of our story is that God revealed this Name, God’s personal Name, to Moses at Sinai.

When I met the President of the United States, I did not say, “Hey, Barack!” I addressed him with his title: “Hello, Mr. President.” Had I met Mr. Bush or Mr. Clinton when they were President, I would have addressed them the same way, with the same respect.

So it is our tradition as Jews to address God by way of titles, rather than to be too familiar. When we see the name above in Scripture, we say, “Adonai” (My Lord) or “Hashem” (the Name), or “the Eternal.” We are aware that other people might say “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” (two attempts at pronouncing the name) but we don’t go there. God is too holy for us to presume to be on a first name basis. I do not ever use those words that attempt to pronounce the name except when I’m teaching about it.

In Hebrew, we often use an abbreviation to stand in for the Name:

יי

That’s two yuds: “yud, yud.”  Hebrew readers know that that stands in for the four letter Name, and so we substitute whatever title is appropriate instead of saying the Name.

Some English speakers and writers have extended the abbreviation to the word “God,” which then looks like “G-d.” It’s a form of reverence, and perhaps a way of remembering the holy four-letter Name without mentioning it.

I don’t choose that particular form for three reasons:

  • “God” is a title, not the Name. Only the Name is the Name.
  • “G-d” looks too much like the way people abbreviate profanity, and I don’t want to associate the Holy One (there’s another title) with profanity.
  • My grandmother, of blessed memory, did not like profanity, but when she had to quote someone else who had said, “God damn” she would abbreviate it “G-D.” So, again, profanity. Yikes.

Piety is individual. I am pretty fussy about saying and writing the Name. If it is meaningful to someone else to abbreviate the word “God,” it isn’t my business. It doesn’t work for me, so I don’t do it.

Is there a name or title of God that you particularly like? One you really don’t like to use, ever? Why?

Intro to Judaism Now Available Online!

One of my classes
One of my classes

I teach Introduction to the Jewish Experience, a Basic Judaism class for beginners, and this year we are extending our reach to include distance learners. That’s right, if you have a computer and access to high speed internet, you can take the class, too. We began last week, but recordings of each class are available online for registered members of the class. It’s not too late to sign up.

This is not a “conversion class,” although some of the people who take it may be studying towards conversion. People take the class for many reasons: they are in an interfaith relationship and want to learn more about Judaism, they are born Jewish but want an adult Jewish education, or perhaps they have begun working for a Jewish institution and want to understand Jewish life. If you are curious about Judaism, that’s all you need.

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you are studying with a rabbi for conversion, ASK YOUR RABBI before signing up for any online “Intro” class. He or she may prefer or require a particular class.

The class has three parts, which may be taken in any order:

  • Fall: Jewish Lifecycle & Holidays
  • Winter: Israel & Texts
  • Spring: Traditions of Judaism

You can learn more about the class and see the syllabus at the class website. This class is offered through Lehrhaus Judaica, an school for adult Jewish learning in Berkeley, CA since 1974.

To sign up for the class, visit the class page in the Lehrhaus Catalog online. There you will find more info about the class, including the schedule and tuition.

Spelling Tsuris: Transliteration

Prayers with transliteration (Koren Siddur)
Prayers with transliteration (Koren Siddur)

OK, I couldn’t resist the title. Tsuris (TSOO-ris) is Yiddish for “trouble.” And it is a lot of trouble to make Hebrew or Yiddish available for non-Hebrew readers, because Hebrew has a funny alphabet (actually, aleph-bet) and runs right to left, backwards for English readers.

Solution: We transliterate the words, that is, put them into a familiar alphabet, running in the “right” direction.

For instance, consider these words:

יום כיפור

If you don’t read Hebrew, it’s squiggles. Not helpful.

If I transliterate:

Yom Kippur

Now, that is still a problem, because many Americans will pronounce that “Yahm KIP-per” which isn’t quite right. But that’s the accepted transliteration, so it’s what you will see in print and online.

That’s why I sometimes go a further step and give a sorta-kinda American pronunciation guide, avoiding specialized symbols:

Yohm Kee-POOR

Sometimes I get questions about spelling: Chanuka? Hanukkah? For that, all I can say is, pick your poison. There’s no “correct” spelling unless you are writing for a publication with a stylebook. Basically, they’re ALL wrong. If I were going to try to approximate the correct Hebrew spelling (חנוכה) I’d probably go for something like Khanookkah. If I were trying to tell you how to pronounce it, I’d write CHAH-noo-kah. Neither is a spelling that anyone is likely to recognize as “the holiday that falls on 15 Kislev, in the darkest part of winter.”

If you really want to know how to say Hebrew words, take a little Hebrew. You don’t have to study for years and years to learn how to pronounce words.

That said, for those of us who learned to read English phonetically, transliterations can be a big help in learning prayers, especially if we begin late in life. There’s no shame in using a transliteration if you need it. Just know that (1) it is an approximation and (2) spelling is anyone’s guess.

 

 

Good Books for Basic Judaism

Jewish bookshelf

Are you looking for a list of good basic books about Judaism?

This is the list I give to my students in Exploring Judaism and Intro to the Jewish Experience.

General Introductory Texts on Judaism

Settings of Silver by Stephen Wylen. (text for this course)

Basic Judaism by Milton Steinberg. A classic text, first published in the 1950’s but still good.

What is a Jew? by Morris N. Kertzner. Another good basic text.

Living a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant. 

Jewish Literacy by Joseph Telushkin.

Living Judaism by Wayne Dosick.

To Life!: A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking by Harold Kushner

Jewish Bibles

I don’t require you buy one for this class, but every Jewish home should have a Tanakh, a Jewish Bible. Most Reform and Conservative synagogues use a JPS Tanakh in some form.

If you are curious as to how the Jewish Bible is different from the Christian Bible, read Beginners’ Guide to the Jewish Bible. For a discussion of the various translations of the Tanakh available, read Which Bible is Best, Rabbi?

Jewish Holidays

Seasons of our Joy by Arthur Waskow.

Guide to the Jewish Seasons editor Peter Knobel.

The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel

Keeping Passover by Ira Steingroot

The Days of Awe by S.Y. Agnon

This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation by Alan Lew

Jewish Home

The Jewish Home by Daniel Syme

How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household by Blu Greenberg (orthodox practices)Jewish Lifecycle

Gates of Mitzvah: A Guide to the Jewish Life Cycle by Simeon Maslin

How to Raise a Jewish Child by Anita Diamant

The New Jewish Baby Book by Anita Diamant

Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah by Salkin, Lebeau, and Eisenberg

The New Jewish Wedding by Anita Diamant

A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort: A Guide to Jewish Bereavement by Dr. Ron Wolfson and David J. Wolpe

Mourning and Mitzvah by Anne Brener

Choosing a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant (conversion)

Choosing Judaism by Lydia Kukoff

Jewish Thought

Finding God: Selected Responses by Rifat Sonsino and Daniel Syme. Clear and simple approach to the question, What do Jews think about God?

The Book of Jewish Values by Joseph Telushkin

Jewish History

A Short History of the Jewish People by Raymond Scheindlin

Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews by Chaim Potok

My People: Abba Eban’s History of the Jews by Abba Eban

A History of the Jews by Paul Johnson

The Story of the Jews by Stan Mack (graphic novel format but quite good)

Israel

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit

Israel: A History by Martin Gilbert 

Israel is Real by Rich Cohen