A Beginner’s Guide to the Torah Scroll

December 12, 2013
Hakhnasat Sefer Torah

(Photo credit: Avital Pinnick)

Ten facts about Torah scrolls:

1. The proper Hebrew name for a Torah scroll is Sefer Torah, a book of Torah. It’s pronounced “SAY-fehr toe-RAH,” or in the Yiddish/Ashkenazic pronunciation, “SAY-fehr TOE-rah.” It means “book of Torah.”

2. A sefer Torah contains exactly 304,805 Hebrew letters in a special script. There are no vowels and no punctuation. One must study in order to be able to read or chant from the sefer Torah.

English: Hebrew Bible text as written in a Jew...

Numbers 10:35 in a sefer Torah. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3. It takes a sofer (SOH-fehr) (specially trained scribe) approximately 18 months to produce a sefer Torah. It takes so long because every letter is written by hand, every detail has to be checked and rechecked, and there are special rules for writing the name of God. As a result of this care, the text has been preserved over the centuries.

4. The sofer writes the text in a special ink on parchment produced from the skin of a kosher animal. If he or she makes a mistake on an ordinary word, they scrape the word off the parchment with a knife and continue. If they make a mistake writing the name of God, that entire panel must be cut from the scroll and a new panel sewn in in its place.

5. A typical sefer Torah weighs 20-25 pounds, although some are as heavy as 50 pounds. A sefer Torah is both massive and fragile.

6. Reading from a sefer Torah is a public act, normally performed on Monday mornings, Thursday mornings, Shabbat and holidays. The text may be read or chanted to a traditional melody called trop. It is always translated, or a translation is provided, for all who do not understand the Biblical Hebrew.

7. We carry the sefer Torah around during the Torah reading service in a ceremony called Hakafah, (hah-kah-FAH). You may see people reaching out to touch the torah with the fringes on their prayer shawls, or with their prayer books, and then kissing the object that touched the Torah. We do this out of reverence for what the Torah represents, thousands of years of tradition, learning, and revelation. We do not worship the Torah scroll.

8. During the Torah service, and at other times, we stand when the sefer Torah is out of its cabinet, often referred to as the Ark or the Aron. We always face the sefer Torah if possible, so during Hakafah we turn to follow its path around the room.

9. On Simchat Torah, (“Joy of the Torah”) a fall holiday, we celebrate finishing and restarting the yearly reading of the Torah with singing and dancing, often with the sefer Torah itself.

10. Every synagogue has customs and rules about who may handle a sefer Torah. Generally speaking, only a person who qualifies as a member of a minyan may hold a sefer Torah. When in doubt about the custom of a particular synagogue, ask the rabbi.


Nelson Mandela z”l

December 5, 2013
English: Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, Gaute...

Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, Gauteng, on 13 May 1998 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When you see the letters z”l after a person’s name, it means “may their memory be for a blessing.” The wish seems almost unnecessary here: Nelson Mandela was a blessing in life to his country and to the world, and his memory will certainly be for a blessing as well.

He did not seem to make his choices out of fear, no matter how legitimate the reasons for fear. If more of us could learn that one thing from him, our world would be a better place.


What Makes Wine Kosher?

November 15, 2013
This image shows a red wine glass.

Kosher or not? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Periodically I will hear someone say that a food is kosher because “a rabbi said a prayer over it.” Not true. Kashrut is a complex topic, so I’ll tackle in it manageable “bites.”

Since Shabbat is coming, let’s start with wine.

  • Kosher wine is wine that has been produced and handled only by Sabbath-observing Jews, and for which all ingredients were also kosher.
  • You can tell if wine is kosher by looking for the hecksher (rabbinical mark) on the label.
  • The rules for kosher wine go back to ancient times, when wine was used to worship idols. To avoid wine that has been tainted by idol worship, kosher wine must be handled only by observant Jews. This includes the servers who pour the wine.
  • Wine has an important role in many Jewish celebrations, including welcoming Shabbat, making Havdalah at the end of Shabbat, kiddush for holidays, brit milah (circumcision) and weddings.
  • Not all kosher wines taste “like cough syrup.” Some labels are now producing wines that can compare favorably with non-kosher wines on the market.
  • Some people like the sweet wines like Manischewitz.

For more information about kosher wine, check out this article from the Kosher Wine Society.


Is there a Jewish Vatican?

November 9, 2013
English: Western wall in Jerusalem at night

Western Wall in Jerusalem, administered by an office of the Orthodox Rabbinate (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Judaism has no central office.

We have national and international organizations which address various aspects of Jewish life, and in some countries there is a “head rabbi” who represents the Jews to the larger community, but there is no central office that sets policy and makes decisions.  There is nothing analogous to the Vatican for Catholics or Salt Lake City for the Mormons.

Sometimes when people hear that there is such a thing as “Jewish Law” they imagine that there is an authority that administers and defines it, and in fact there is no such entity. There are groups of Jews who are more or less in agreement on an approach to Jewish Law and traditions (“movements”), but there is variation even within those groups.

Within the State of Israel, there is the Orthodox Rabbinate, which has been established by Israeli law as the chief halakhic (Jewish legal) authority inside the State of Israel. It has authority over marriages, divorces, kashrut, burials, and overseeing the religious courts that administer those functions. However, even in Israel, there are many Jews who differ with the Orthodox Rabbinate on religious questions and which have their own institutions and synagogues. There are also a large number of secular Jews in Israel who choose to have little to do with the Orthodox Rabbinate.

So the next time you hear someone make a blanket statement about Jews (“All Jews believe such-and-such”)  be cautious. Even if you limit it to “All religious Jews believe …” it’s a very broad statement. Jewish tradition puts a very high value on minhag (local custom) and Jewish beliefs vary widely.

 

So, is there no such thing as normative Judaism? In the fine details, no. But in broader strokes, I can make a few statements with confidence:

  • Jews share a narrative that begins with Abraham.
  • Jews look to the Torah for that narrative and revelation of the best way to live. We differ on how to interpret Torah.
  • Jews affirm the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, The Eternal  is our God, The Eternal is One.” “The Eternal” is a stand-in for the four letter Name of God which we do not pronounce; and yes, we argue about what words are an acceptable substitution for the Name.
  • When Jews say “The Eternal is One,” we mean that there is only One God, without Persons or any other divinity. Jews do not believe Jesus was, much less is, divine.
  • Jews look forward to a better world. We disagree whether that world comes with a particular Messiah, or in a Messianic Age, or whether the “better world” is an ideal towards which we are striving.

So no, there is no Jewish Vatican, and there are no Jewish enforcers. “Enforcement” happens by peer pressure, if it happens at all outside the State of Israel.  This has up-sides and down-sides, but it is important to know when you are getting to know us: that’s the reason that sometimes the best answer to many questions about Judaism is “It depends.”


Shabbat Isn’t Just Friday Night

November 8, 2013

Kiddush Lunch

Kiddush Lunch (Photo credit: jordansmall)

From the articles you see for beginners about “Keeping Shabbat,” you might get the idea that Friday night is the whole shooting match.  Not true!

Friday night is “Shabbat dinner,” true, and in many Reform synagogues, Friday night is the most-attended service, but Shabbat goes on until sundown on Saturday, and for me, Saturday can be the best part. Some things I love about Saturday and Shabbat:

  • Yes, the Saturday morning Torah service is long. It’s also beautiful, and we get to take the Torah out and march around with it and handle it and read from it. There are few more powerful ways to connect with our ancient past (more about Torah scrolls in a future post, I promise.)
  • Saturday kiddush lunch is the meal after the Saturday morning service. It might be at synagogue, or it might be at home. It starts with the kiddush (a toast to Shabbat, basically) and involves tasty food eaten in a leisurely fashion, preferably with friends. Yum.
  • Saturday afternoon is full of possibilities. For starters, there is Napping. Napping on Shabbat is glorious and decadent: it perhaps says better than anything that we are not slaves.
  • Saturday “naps” can also be put in quotations. If there is a time during the week when it is the accepted routine for the entire family to nap, that frees parents for affection and lovemaking. 
  • Saturday afternoon can also be a time for hanging out and chatting. Before electronics took over every nanosecond of our lives, when the world was young… you remember. Or not. But that world can come back for a little while on Saturday afternoon.
  • And then – let’s be real here – maybe your world is set up in such a way that Friday evening Shabbat, services or dinner, simply can’t be observed properly. If that is the case, then don’t despair – find some Shabbat on Saturday.

Maybe you have your own ideas for Shabbat afternoons – I invite you to share them in the comments section.  But whatever you do, don’t let anyone tell you that Shabbat is only Friday night, because Friday night is only the beginning!


Nine Basic Facts about Tzedakah

November 6, 2013
English: Charity pouch

Small purse for coins to be used for tzedakah (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you Googled “tzedakah” today you got about 598,000 results, topped by a l-o-n-g Wikipedia entry. Here are eight basic facts about tzedakah:

  • Tzedakah (tzeh-dah-KAH or tzeh-DAH-kah) is the Jewish word closest to “charity.”
  • The word tzedakah is one of a group of Hebrew words related to the idea of “justice.”
  • Strictly speaking, tzedakah is money given for the relief of suffering or injustice.
  • Tzedakah usually refers to monetary gifts, but can also refer to other kinds of contributions.
  • Jews are commanded to give tzedakah for the benefit of the poor, the sick, and those who have suffered an injustice.
  • More broadly, people use the word tzedakah to refer to money given for charitable causes.
  • Every Jew is commanded to give tzedakah, even those who are recipients of tzedakah.
  • It is customary to give tzedakah in memory of the dead, in honor of others, and before Shabbat and holidays.
  • The proper amount of tzedakah depends on the means of the giver. Maimonides wrote in the Mishneh Torah that the ideal is 10% of income, and that more than 20% is foolhardy unless given in time of famine or to aid a captive. One should not give so much tzedakah that he puts himself at risk of needing to receive tzedakah from others.

For more about tzedakah, MyJewishLearning.com has a great article.

 

 

 

 


A Simple Shabbat at Home

October 25, 2013

1stShabbatMV

I am constantly telling my students that Shabbat dinner can be simple. Here is an example from my own life.  We have not-quite-moved-into a new home. There is only a little furniture, but we do have running water and electricity, so I decided that tonight was the night for our first Shabbat dinner here. Menu:

  • takeout roast chicken – my spouse picked it up at a store that makes tasty chicken
  • salad – nothing fancy
  • challah – made and brought by a friend (our first Shabbat guest!)
  • grapes and dates for dessert
  • a bottle of wine
  • Kiddush cups
  • Candles

… on a folding table. We have two chairs so I will sit on the exercise ball I brought here to rest my back while moving.
It’s makeshift. It’s ramshackle. It will be very tasty, and it will be shared with a friend. SHABBAT!

My point is, YOU CAN DO THIS.

Now I have to go and see if we have anything for napkins. Shabbat shalom!


Kaddish, Kiddush, Kodesh – what’s up with that?

October 22, 2013
Kuf Dalet Shin

Kuf Dalet Shin

Hebrew is cool. It’s a Semitic language, and it works very differently from English.

 

Most words in Hebrew grow from a three-letter ROOT. The root expresses a general idea, a family of possible  words with three basic consonants. We add vowels, endings, and prefixes to make the variations on the theme.

 

For instance, K-D-Sh (Kuf, Dalet, Shin) is a root whose general idea is “holy.”  With appropriate vowels, etc we get:

 

Kaddish – (kah-DEESH or KAH-dish)* The prayer mourners say, which also divides the service into sections.

 

Kiddush – (Kee-DOOSH or KID-ish) The blessing-toast for Shabbat and holidays, or a meal that begins with that blessing.

 

Kodesh – (KOH-desh) – (adj.) Holy

 

Kiddushin – (kee-doosh-EEN) – Jewish marriage, in which each partner is sacred to and set apart for the other.

 

Can you think of any other words in this family that you’ve heard around synagogue?

 

Are there any other Hebrew words you’ve heard that sound like each other and confuse you?

 

*Some words have two pronunciations listed. The first is the modern Israeli pronunciation, and the second is the Ashkenazi pronunciation, which sometimes pops up in American English. Both are correct.

Also, in the illustration above, remember that English reads left-to-right but Hebrew reads right-to-left. The Shin is the letter on your left.

 


Guest Blogger: “Own Your Judaism!”

October 13, 2013
Dawn Kepler and a Rainbow Challah

Dawn Kepler and a Rainbow Challah

From Rabbi Adar: Dawn Kepler is my friend and teacher. Years and years ago, she mentored me through conversion. She is the founding director of Building Jewish Bridges: Embracing Interfaith Couples & Families in Berkeley, CA.  Dawn has worked in outreach to unaffiliated and interfaith couples since 1990.  BJB’s programs also address the unique concerns of Jewish minorities that are often a subset of the interfaith population – multiracial, multiethnic and LGBT Jews. 

In response to the needs of seekers and converts to Judaism, Dawn works with Linda Burnett on programs offered through the website www.becomingjewish.net

She wrote to her mailing list about my Who’s the Most Jewish? post and said some things I wish I’d said. So I thought, “Gosh, it’s time for a guest blogger!” 
———

Whether you were born Jewish or converted to Judaism it is highly tempting to get caught up in the mental high jinks of other people, especially ones who are verbally poking you with a stick.  But don’t.  Don’t let someone else’s insecurity color your confidence and your actions.

Read Rabbi Adar’s article, Who’s the Most Jewish? and ask yourself, do I need more learning?  Do I want to read Hebrew better?  Would I really feel better if I had converted or was converting in a more traditional movement?  

Do what YOU need to feel authentic.  I have a friend who began with a Reform conversion and years later decided to have a Conservative one.  Then more years passed and she became Orthodox and had a third conversion with an Orthodox rabbi.  Some people refer to this as an ‘upgrade.’  It’s not.  An upgrade means to raise to a higher standard.  What standard are you shooting for? Judaism demands that we use our brains, learn what our sages have taught and then upgrade our lives. 

You know the story of Zusya who wept for fear that he had not been himself. In other words he had not fulfilled his potential. The upgrade you must pursue is to and do whatever it is that you were created for. Only you really know what that is.

So let’s think about it.

One of the most empowering things for a Jew by choice is to be active in Jewish community.  If you are on a committee, setting out the oneg, cooking for the homeless project, helping out in the shul office, bringing snacks to Hebrew school, you’ll gain a sense of personal ownership.  Make your shul, YOUR SHUL.  Make your rabbi, YOUR RABBI.  

I have a friend who decided to get on the chevra kadisha (the committee that prepares the dead for burial), another one joined the hospitality committee, another volunteers at Jewish Family & Children’s Services, another donates services from his business to various agencies’ fundraisers, another reads with kids through the Jewish Literacy Project, and another heads his shul’s blood drive.

Find out what your passion in the Jewish community is and DO IT.  OWN your Judaism!
Now lech lecha!  Get going!  


“my teacher said im not jewish”

October 12, 2013

English: Google Logo officially released on Ma...

Sometimes I get inspiration from the search terms people use to find this blog. And sometimes I get angry.

I hope that the child who searched Google with this string found some comfort from a real live human being, but just in case anyone ever Googles it again, I’m writing this blog post and titling it “my teacher said im not jewish.”

To anyone who has Googled this:  There’s another blog post here that will explain why some Jews get excited about who is “in” and who is “out.” That is theoretical stuff. You are dealing with real stuff, not theory. If someone says to you, “You are not Jewish” or “You are not really Jewish” here is what you can do:

1. First of all, ask yourself, “Do I feel a part of the Jewish People?” or “Do I love Judaism?” If the answer to either of those is “yes,” then:

2. Go to a rabbi and say, “My teacher said I am not Jewish. But I feel a part of the Jewish people!” or “I love Judaism!”  then ask:

3. In our community, how do we fix this situation?

The reason that you ask it that way is that different Jewish communities will approach this in different ways depending on the specifics. Maybe the teacher was just wrong and out of line. Maybe the teacher was correct about some technical matter of halakhah [Jewish Law] but forgot he was talking to a real human being. Most importantly, if it is a Jewish legal thing, then there’s a way to fix it.

I’m not going to make pronouncements here on a blog about what exactly should happen, because I am not your rabbi.

If you are reading this because this happened to you long ago and you no longer have a rabbi, you need to GET a rabbi. I have a blog post for that.

Do not be discouraged by this “technically, you’re not” business. Your rabbi (once you get one) has tools for making things right. You may have to work with him or her to make everything kosher. That is just how Judaism works – we are a religion, and a people, of doing.

To anyone who has made a pronouncement about someone else’s Jewishness:

1. Are you a rabbi? My colleague, I understand that you were conveying necessary information. I pray that you always consider the Jewish values of chesed and rachamim when you choose your words. Hurtful words have consequences for all of Am Yisrael.

2. Oh, you aren’t a rabbi? You are just a helpful person teaching others about Judaism? Understand this: You are out of your depth. You do not know as much as you think you know. The words you carelessly sling around may make you feel important, but you may have chased away the parent of one who would have been a tzaddik. You may have caused hurt that could someday have terrible consequences for the Jewish people. The correct answer if someone asks you a question as important as “Am I Jewish?” is “Let me give you the phone number of a rabbi.” Even if you are really pretty sure they aren’t Jewish, just say, “Go talk to a rabbi.” If they are your student in Hebrew school, do not injure a child’s budding Jewish identity with your cruel self-importance, talk to the rabbi yourself.

I work at the edges of the Jewish community with people who are not affiliated with a synagogue. Usually they are not affiliated because they have a story to tell: a story about hurt feelings, a story about someone who rejected them or neglected them. Often what they were told was wrong, or it was delivered in such a way that they misunderstood, or it was delivered with cruelty so that they ran away in pain.

Anyone who is concerned about the survival of Judaism should be concerned about this matter. After the events of the 20th century we cannot afford to throw away Jews or potential Jews. Even without the terrible events of the Shoah, we still have the fact that all human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.  When the great rabbi Hillel was asked by an impertinent questioner to summarize the Torah while standing on one foot, he said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. Go and study.” Kindness, chesed, is at the very heart of Torah!

May the person who made the original Google search “my teacher said im not jewish” find kind and knowledgable help in pursuing his or her Jewish destiny. And may all of us be part of the building of Klal Yisrael [all of Israel] and not part of tearing her down.


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