Ask the Rabbi: 613 Mitzvot? Where?

July 15, 2014

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

July 11, 2014
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!

 


Beginner’s Guide to the Jewish Bible

June 26, 2014
You'd be surprised how many of these books are Bibles.

You’d be surprised how many of these books are Bibles.

If you grew up in a Christian context, you may have learned that the Jewish Bible is “the same as the Old Testament.” That’s not quite accurate.

I want to be clear about one thing: when you are working with a scripture, anyone’s scripture, the safest thing is to use the version recognized for the community. So I recommend that Christians doing Christian study use the appropriate version of their Bible, and I recommend that someone doing Jewish study use a Jewish Bible.

The Jewish Bible differs from the Christian bibles in several important ways. To wit:

ARRANGEMENT: The Jewish Bible is arranged into three parts: TORAH, NEVI’IM, and KETUVIM, meaning “Torah,” “Prophets” and “Writings.” Torah is the five familiar books of Moses. Nevi’im is the books of the Prophets, starting with Joshua and ending with the post-exilic prophets. Some of the books are named after prophets, some have names like “Kings.” “Writings” is everything else, including Psalms, Wisdom Literature, the 5 Scrolls, and Chronicles. This is to some extent a ranking according to the honor the tradition gives to the books. Christian Bibles are arranged quite differently.

Because of this arrangement, one name for the Jewish Bible is Tanakh, a Hebrew acronym for Torah/Prophets/Writings.

CONTENT: Some Christian Bibles, notably the “Catholic” Bible, include some books that are not in the Jewish Bible. Those books are not in Protestant bibles like the King James Version, but may appear in a separate section labeled Apocrypha. These books didn’t make it into the Jewish canon: Judith, Baruch, Maccabees, Tobit, and others. However, since they were part of an earlier Jewish collection of sacred books, the Septuagint, they were included in some versions of the Christian canon.  (“Canon” means those books accepted as scripture by a community.)

SOURCES: Jewish Bibles are based on the Masoretic Text of the Bible. Early Biblical texts lacked vowels and punctuation, just as the Torah scroll in a synagogue does today. The Masoretes were a group of Jewish scholars who added versification and vowels to the text between 500 and 900 CE. They examined the multiple versions of texts floating around in their time and put together a standard version of the text for the community. This is still the standard Jewish text, which is mostly in Hebrew; a few of the Writings contain a bit of Aramaic.

Christian Bibles draw on a variety of sources: the Vulgate translation in Latin (405) by the Christian scholar Jerome, the Septuagint in Greek (200 BCE), as well as others. Notice that while these texts are older than the Masoretic text, they “pass through” a third language on their way to English. In the case of the Vulgate, that translation includes Jerome’s Christian interpretive filter.

TRANSLATION: Rabbi Leo Baeck wrote in his essay, “The Pharisees,” “All translation is commentary.” When a translator chooses one possible translation of a phrase over another, it limits the text in a way it was not limited in the original language. For instance, a famous example, Isaiah 7:14:

לָכֵן יִתֵּן אֲדֹנָי הוּא, לָכֶם–אוֹת:  הִנֵּה הָעַלְמָה, הָרָה וְיֹלֶדֶת בֵּן, וְקָרָאת שְׁמוֹ, עִמָּנוּ אֵל.

Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign: behold, the young woman shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Jewish Publication Society, 1917)

Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (King James Version, 1611)

I’ve highlighted the biggest difference between the two: “HaAlmah” in the KJV is “a virgin” and in the JPS it is translated “the young woman.” Now, when I translate it, I go a little further, still a legitimate translation:

Therefore the Lord (God) will give to you a sign: Behold, the young woman will conceive and she will give birth to a son, and she will name him, “God is With Us.” (Adar, 2014)

Granted, these are not huge differences, but you can see that it might color one’s interpretation of the book. Consider the considerable difference between Jewish and Christian notions of prophecy. Add to that Christianity’s doctrine of the virgin birth, alongside Judaism’s belief that the baby mentioned here is King Hezekiah. Notice, too, that “Emanu-El” or “God is With Us” was not a name given to either Jesus of Nazareth or to little Hezekiah by their respective youthful mothers!  And this is just a single example – the translations are full of them.

There are number of different Jewish Bibles on the market. The Jewish Publication Society’s  1985 translation is used in most American liberal congregations.

Now, having said all that, if you are serious about Jewish study, I recommend you learn a little Hebrew, because then you will no longer be at the mercy of translators. For more about that, check out “Why Study Hebrew.”

Happy learning!

 


What’s an Aufruf?

June 25, 2014

A few days ago I mentioned that friends who were getting married “had an aufruf.” I gave a link to definition, but thought this was a nice opportunity to say more about Jewish wedding customs.

Aufruf is Yiddish for “calling up.” Ashkenazic synagogues often call the groom up for an aliyah to the Torah on the Shabbat before the wedding. In liberal congregations, the couple is usually called up together. They have an aliyah, which means that they chant the blessings before and after a section of the Torah reading.

After the reading, the rabbi may offer a mishebeyrach (literally “May the One who blessed,” a prayer) for the couple. Usually then there’s singing and clapping. The YouTube video above is the usual song “Siman Tov uMazal Tov,” often sung at simchas (happy occasions).

Siman Tov uMazal Tov  uMazal Tov uSiman Tov (3x)
Hey lanu, y-hey lanu, y-hey lanu, uv’y’hol Yisrael (3x)

Translation:

A good sign and good luck, and good luck, and a good sign (3x)
May this be on all of us and on all of Israel! (3x)

In Sephardic and Mizrachi congregations, this is done on the Shabbat after the wedding.

So if you are invited to an aufruf, know that (1) it will take place in the middle of a Torah service and (2) If you clap along with the song, that’s good enough!

 

 


Scouting Conversion

June 9, 2014
Mikveh, Oakland, CA

Mikveh, Oakland, CA

I’m celebrating an anniversary this week.

There are various ways of keeping track of things in Jewish time. One can celebrate the exact date of something in the Jewish calendar (say, 11 Sivan, 5774) or the Gregorian calendar (June 8, 2014.) My way of keeping track of this anniversary is to celebrate when a particular Torah portion comes up in the calendar: this week’s portion, Shelach-Lecha, the story of the scouts (Numbers 31:1 – 15:41.)

Shelach-Lecha was the Torah portion the week I became a Jew. I think of this week (whenever it falls, depending on the year) as my Jewish birthday, and it’s a big deal to me, in a quiet sort of way. I don’t give a party, but I do attend services and spend some time reflecting on my life as a Jew.

The story in the portion is pivotal for the Israelites in the wilderness. God tells Moses to send scouts into the Promised Land, as they are camped just outside it. God even tells Moses which men to send. Twelve scouts go into the land. Ten of them report that it is totally scary, the people are giants, and we’ll all die there. Two scouts, Joshua and Caleb, come back and say, hey, it’s fine. The people are so frightened by the account of the ten, however, that they panic. God is disgusted by their reaction, and says that clearly these people are not ready for the Promised Land – the next generation will get to go, but not them. And that’s how the 40 years in the desert happened.

What I took from the story at the time of my conversion was simple: “If you don’t go, you’ll never know.” There were things about Judaism and the Jewish community at Temple Sinai that I loved. But I knew that there was lots I didn’t know; I was more ignorant than many of the children. I’d taken an “Intro” class, I’d studied for a year, but I found Hebrew very difficult and some of the social stuff very challenging. For instance, I wasn’t a “huggy” person – I never touched strangers – and at that synagogue, people were constantly hugging and kissing (and for the record, they still do.) I wanted to fit in, but I still had a lot of fears.

Years later, I know that it was reasonable to have some fears. But I am so very glad that I took the risk of “entering the Land.”

The story in the Torah is full of people taking risks. Some were very well-calculated risks, but others were true leaps of faith. At Sinai, as they are offered the Torah, the people say, “We will do and we will hear.”  In other words, they agreed to the Torah before they knew what was in it. Becoming a Jew is something like that: you learn what you can, you hang with the community and see what it’s like, and then the day comes when it’s time to commit.

There has been some discussion of late in the Jewish press, wondering if the process of conversion is too long and too involved. “Should we be more welcoming?” some wonder.

My take on it is that a year is the least it can take in most circumstances. Becoming a Jew is a shift of identity, and it has many aspects. Candidates for conversion often encounter surprises. Some discover that the parents they thought would be horrified, weren’t. Some discover that their relatives have unpleasant ideas about Jews. Some discover that it really hurts not to have Christmas – and others are surprised when they hardly miss it. Some find that the more they go to synagogue, the happier they are – and others find that they don’t enjoy being part of the community. Some think about Israel for the first time, and have to get used to the idea that as a Jew, they will be connected to it whether they like it or not.

It takes time to have these experiences. It takes time and support to process them. And some of those experiences may be deal-breakers. It’s easy to focus on the intellectual tasks: learning prayers and vocabulary. However, the emotional work of this transition is very serious business. It involves letting go of some aspects of the self, and adopting new aspects of identity. I am still the person who showed up at the rabbi’s office, all those years ago – I still have memories of Catholic school, and my Catholic school handwriting. I had to let go of some things: my habit of crossing myself whenever I heard a siren, for instance. It was a reflex left over from years before, but it took time to fade away. It took time and effort to figure out how I might respond as a Jew to a sign that someone was in trouble.

After a year of study, that process was well underway. I can’t imagine being “ready” any sooner.

The ten scouts were scared. They weren’t ready. I suspect that even though Joshua and Caleb are celebrated as “good” scouts, they weren’t really ready either. They talked as if going into the Land was no big deal.

It takes time to change, and change is an uncomfortable process. The midbar, the wilderness, is a frustrating place. It’s big and formless and full of scary things. But sometimes it is only by passing through the wildnerness that we can become our truest selves.


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!


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