Welcome to the Month of Av

Francesco Hayez, "Destruction of the Second Temple" 1867, photographed by marsmet543
Francesco Hayez, “Destruction of the Second Temple” 1867, photographed by marsmet543

Av (ahv) is the eleventh month of the Hebrew year.

It’s often mentioned as the “unluckiest” or “saddest” month of the year, based on a mention in the Talmud in Taanit 19a: “When we enter Av, our joy is diminished.”

Av has a number of sad anniversaries in it. Foremost of those is the 9th of Av, Tisha B’Av, on which we remember the destruction of both the first and second Temples, as well as the Expulsion from Spain in 1492. These were the greatest disasters in Jewish history before the 20th century.

Av is also a hot, dry time in the Land of Israel, when water is even more precious than usual and when the sun beats down even in the relatively cooler places like Jerusalem and Sefat. 

Rosh Chodesh Av (the 1st of Av) began July 27 at sundown in 2014.

In 2015, it will begin at sundown on July 16.

In 2016, it will begin at sundown on August 4.

What are your associations for this time of year?

Learn from the Best

https://www.flickr.com/photos/78428166@N00/
Image by Tony Alter

Today I attended a funeral for a wonderful woman. It was sad, as all funerals are sad, but it was also a celebration, because Henrietta Garfinkle, or “Hank,” as her friends knew her, had been waiting for this day. She buried her great love, Vic, 18 months ago, and while she was not a person to grieve herself to death, she looked forward to spending eternity with him.

A lot of people avoid funerals. It’s too bad, because at the funeral of a mensch – a deeply good person – you can learn a lot about how to become a mensch yourself. We heard stories from Hank’s children, and her children’s spouses, about how she had been with them. We heard from her rabbi. And as is the case with Jewish funerals, they told the truth about her. That is actually a rule about a Jewish hesped, or eulogy: it has to be true, even when the truth is difficult.

I can’t remember everything that was said. What I know is that I left that funeral with a clearer idea of exactly the sort of mensch that Henrietta was, and that as a result, I know some new things about how to be a good Jew and a good person. I learn not only how the person was good, but I get a sense of what their challenges were in being a good person. This happens every time I attend a funeral.

So the next time you hear of a funeral in your congregation, consider attending. It is a mitzvah to attend a funeral, even if you didn’t know the person well. If they were part of your community, it is a mitzvah to go, period. If they were especially beloved in your community, be SURE to go, because it’s a great opportunity: you’re going to learn from the best.

There’s an App for Blessings!

blessingsA reader asked about blessings: how can one learn them, learn which is for which, and so on?

The easiest way to learn that I know is an “app” from the Central Conference of American Rabbis (yes, I’m a member.) It’s called “Daily Blessings.” It includes the traditional blessings, plus some innovative ones that the Reform rabbis found useful.

It sorts them by menus, so that you can use the app to figure out which blessing is appropriate. It gives you the Hebrew, the English, and a transliteration of the Hebrew, so that you can say the blessing in either language. If you want to hear the Hebrew, you can play the blessing, voiced by an Israeli rabbi. It’s available through both GooglePlay (Android), iTunes, and NookApps.

At $1.99, it’s a deal.

Go and learn!

 

For Beginners: Israel in Conflict

The situation in the Middle East grows more and more grim as Shabbat approaches. A couple of thoughts, especially for those readers who are beginners in Judaism:

1. Those of you who are feeling upset and disturbed, this is a time to reach out to your teachers and your community. Go to services this Shabbat. Contact your rabbi, or your teacher, and let them know what’s going on with you. Simply be in Jewish space; it will help.

2. One way to feel less helpless is to do something to help innocents who are suffering.  The International Committee of the Red Cross has an an “Israel and Gaza Appeal Fund” to assist those who are suffering in the current conflict. It coordinates and assists both Magen David Adom (The Red Star, in Israel) and the Palestine Red Crescent Society. The International Rescue Committee also works in this area. Every gift of tzedakah, no matter how small, will help sufferers and will also help the giver feel less helpless.

3. If you are just beginning to study about Judaism, let this be a time to learn, not a time to attempt to teach others. Some may approach you and ask you to explain the conflict, knowing that you are interested in Judaism. If you don’t want to engage on the topic, say so. All you need do is say, “The situation in Israel and Gaza breaks my heart. Can we talk about something else?”

4. Another things you can do is study. A popular recent book on the subject is My Promised Land, by Ari Shavit. Another excellent book is Israel is Real, by Rich Cohen. He is not a scholar, and I have some quibbles with details, but it’s readable and honest. Or ask your rabbi for a recommendation!

5. Do not believe everything you see on the Internet.  Again, if something disturbs you, contact your teacher or rabbi. Also, be careful what words and images you spread. Unsubstantiated rumors do not help the situation, no matter whom they allegedly favor.

I wish you a Shabbat of peace and learning, of goodness and grace, of light and love. Shabbat shalom.

Why Mitzvot? Why bother?

I woke up this morning feeling that something was missing from my last post. I realized that while last night I answered the question about the 613 mitzvot, I forgot to include something important: why keep mitzvot? Why bother with a long list of “do’s” and “don’t’s,” many of which don’t even apply in our century?

The answer to that question is imbedded in the words of blessing that we say before doing many mitzvot:

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space, who sanctifies us with mitzvot

We keep mitzvot [observe the commandments] to make us holy, to continue the process of sanctifying our lives.

In the 21st century western world, there are no kosher cops to swoop down and arrest you for working on Shavuot. There are no mitzvah minders to report you to the Jewish Central Control if you choose not to say the bedtime Shema. Individual Jewish communities may employ peer pressure, or even (God forbid) violence to attempt to enforce their particular understanding of a mitzvah but even in the Jewish state of Israel, if you eat a bacon cheeseburger while wearing a bikini in public on Yom Kippur, it’s basically your own business.

There are some mitzvot, called Mishpatim [Laws,] that are self-evident rules for an orderly society. We may argue about the interpretation of “Do not commit murder” and “Do not steal” but most civil societies have incorporated them into their laws. If you rob banks and get caught at it, the kosher cops won’t get you but the regular city police will!

Other mitzvot, called Edot, [Testimonies], call to mind the Jewish worldview and story. We do them to remember narratives and to continue learning from those narratives. That’s the reason we eat matzah on Passover: we remember the Exodus from Egypt, and in doing so, continue to apply the lessons learned in our present day world.

The last group of mitzvot, Chukim [Decrees] appear to have no reason at all other than that it says in Torah that God commanded them. For instance, we can talk about possible reasons “why” the laws of kashrut, but really, that is speculation. God said, “Don’t eat pigs.” (Leviticus 11:7) Again, there are no mitzvah moderators to come get you if you chow down on pork BBQ. But Jews can argue (for hours!) about how exactly to interpret the mitzvot. (OK, the rule about pigs is pretty clear cut.  But what if it comes into conflict with respect for a parent who insists on serving bacon and who feels hurt if you don’t eat it? There’s always room for a discussion.)

So why bother? Again, it’s for the pursuit of holiness, and the mitzvot are a framework within which we seek holiness. If you ask a Jew why he keeps a particular one of the chukim, he might say, “It’s the tradition” or “In solidarity with other Jews” or “it’s how I was raised” or “it’s a spiritual discipline.” Or she may say, “To heal the broken world.”

Keeping all the available mitzvot all the time is a huge, life-consuming task. Ask anyone who is shlepping children (“be fruitful and multiply”) to Hebrew school (“teach your children Torah”) while reading labels carefully to keep kosher (“Don’t eat stuff on this list”) and getting ready for Passover (Oy Vey!). Because not only must she (or he!) do all that, he (or she!) must do it while being honest it all dealings, kind to animals, respectful to parents, without embarrassing anyone, not giving scandal to outsiders… on and on. If you look at the whole list, it’s like juggling 613 (or even just 245) plates in the air.

That’s the tricky bit about a life of mitzvot: observant Jews are always on the brink of failure, if not sitting on our behinds in the middle of the broken plates. Perfection is not the point. The point is the pursuit of a better Jew, and a better world – holiness.

You will meet Jews who have completely given up on most of it. You will meet Jews who say, “I will keep this mitzvah, but I can’t possibly do that one at this time.” You will meet Jews who say, “I am only going to try to keep these mitzvot, and the rest of them just seem like overkill.” You will meet Jews who say, “I disagree with the traditional interpretation of that mitzvah, so I am going to follow a different interpretation.” You may be one of those Jews – actually, in a long Jewish life it would be very surprising if you weren’t one of them sometimes.

Don’t judge any of them. Nor take it to heart if someone says to you that you are a “bad Jew” if you don’t juggle all the plates, their way, all the time. But you may find, as you add one mitzvah after another to your life, slowly and carefully, that you like the changes you see, in yourself, in your home, and in the world.

Start with one. Change the world.

Ask the Rabbi: 613 Mitzvot? Where?

9647972522_eb1f0c3ca7_zA reader asks: “I know we’re supposed to ‘do mitzvot’, but what are they? Where is the list?”

We often hear that there are 613 mitzvot [commandments, sacred duties] in the Torah. For many of us this inevitably brings up the question: can I see the list? Behind this question is the worry, “How am I doing?” or another worry, “Have I missed something?” After all, 613 is a LOT.

The first mention of “613 mitzvot” is in the Gemara, Makkot 23b, where it quickly becomes clear that like many numbers in Torah, 613 is as much or more a symbol than an enumeration. (If you are curious about the discussion, click the link.) 365 is the number of days in a solar year, and it also happens to be the number of negative (“Thou shalt not”) commandments. The rabbis believe 248 to be the number of parts of the human body. Add them together, (think: time + humanity) and voilá: 613 mitzvot. 

Having come up with a great number that both tells us that the mitzvot have to do with all human concerns, and that also says “a LOT,” various rabbis through history have provided us with lists of “The 613 Mitzvot.” Our clue that the number came before the lists is that the lists differ.

That said, it can be satisfying and comforting to see an actual list. Probably the most famous is that of Maimonides, in the Sefer HaMitzvot [The Book of the Mitzvot.] If you click the link and study the list, you will discover (likely to your relief) that the number of mitzvot that actually apply to you, a 21st century Jew, is much less than 613. 

One Orthodox scholar, the Chofetz Chaim, has written that there are 194 negative and 77 positive commandments that are available to us to observe without a functioning Temple in Jerusalem, and that of those commandments, 26 apply only if one is living in the Land of Israel. By that reckoning, a 21st century Diaspora Jewish male of the priestly line (Kohen) need worry only about 245 mitzvot. Within Orthodoxy, even fewer of those mitzvot apply to non-Kohanim and even fewer to women.

How can a liberal Jew make sense of Maimonides’ list? One way is to use it as a template for growth. Take each mitzvah, and look it over a bit. Ask:

1. Do I understand this mitzvah? (if not, study; if so, continue)

2. Is this a mitzvah I currently observe? 

3. If I do observe it, how’s that going? How does it mesh with my other observances? How could I improve, either with my observance or the choices I make about this mitzvah? Do I want to learn more?

4. If I don’t observe it, how’s that going? Why don’t I observe it? Do I feel guilty about not observing it? Have I ever tried observing it, or do I assume I’d feel persecuted/silly/deprived if I observed it? What do I really know about this mitzvah from a reliable source? Do I want to learn more?

5. In either case, how does my observance/non-observance affect my relationship with my Jewish community? Does it separate me from my community, or bring me more into tune with it?

6. Is this a mitzvah I might want to observe someday, but not yet? 

7. Do I want or need to talk to someone about this?

After looking over those questions, if you feel satisfied for now relative to that mitzvah, move on to another mitzvah on the list. (Nowhere is it written that you have to follow a particular order.)

Now, if you are reading this and feeling panicky, let me suggest something from the original passage in Mattot: “Isaiah [came] and reduced them [the commandments] to two, as it is said, “Thus says the Eternal, ‘Maintain justice and do what is right.'” (Is 56:1)

Image: “Question Box” by Raymond Bryson – Some rights reserved

A Blessing for Tomatoes

From my garden
In my garden

Observant Jews make a blessing before we eat, not just before meals, but before we eat a bite of anything. It is a way of acknowledging that the world is not ours, that we did not create the food, and that we notice the blessings around us.

My garden is a little late this year, but I finally have tomatoes reddening on the vine. Before I eat one, I’ll say the blessing for food that grows from the earth:

 

Ba-ruch A-ta, Adonai El-o-hei-nu, Me-lech ha-olam, bo-rey pe-ri ha-adamah.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the earth.

 

If you are eating the tomatoes with a full meal, then you can skip the tomato blessing and “cover” the entire meal with the blessing for bread (assuming you have bread at the meal):

Ba-ruch A-ta, Adonai El-o-hei-nu, Me-lech ha-olam, ha-motzi le-chem min ha-aretz.

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

 

I’ll cover more food blessings in future posts. For now, if it grows in the ground, “borey peri ha-adamah.”

And if it is bread, “ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz.”

And yes, if the Hebrew is daunting, prayers in English absolutely do count!