Yirat Hashem at the CJM

Night Begins the Day Photo by Linda Burnett

Recently Linda and I toured the exhibit “Night Begins the Day: Rethinking Space, Time and Beauty” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, curated by Renny Pritikin and Lily Siegel. The exhibit explores the notion of yirah, awe or fear, which is one of the core concepts of Jewish theology, as it plays out in the work of 27 “artists, scientists, and creative thinkers.”

The concept of yirah is a troublesome one for many modern Jews. “Why would God want us to be afraid?” some ask. Sometimes our personal theologies develop in reaction to antisemitic notions of Judaism, statements that the “Old Testament” message is about fear while other books are messages of love. It’s understandable that in pointing out the ways in which the God of the Hebrew Bible is loving and caring, we down-pedal the fearsome. However, “fear” as a translation for yirah also falls a bit short; there is no tidy English translation for it.

Exodus 9 offers us a lovely juxtaposition to help us understand of the concept of yirah. Before sending the plague of hail upon the Egyptians, God sends Moses to warn Pharaoh and the people of Egypt that the plague is coming, and to get the servants and animals inside before it comes. Then some took heed of the warning, and some did not:

He that feared the word of the Eternal among the servants of Pharaoh made his servants and his cattle flee into the houses, and he that did not pay attention to the word of the Eternal left his servants and his cattle in the field. – Exodus 9:20-21 (translation mine, very literal)

“He that feared” took the warning seriously. But “he that did not pay attention” left his people and animals in the fields to die. The parallel phrases suggest that another way to define yirah is “paying attention.”

Artists and scientists are in the business of paying attention. They see the world in very particular ways, and they call our attention to aspects of the world that we might otherwise miss. That’s what goes on in this remarkable exhibit at the CJM: artists and scientists invite us to see the world in all its grandeur and mystery, and to engage with it in awe.

If you are wondering what the title means, consider that in Jewish time, a calendric day begins at sundown: night begins the day. It is a fundamental Jewish idea, and it is also a way in which Judaism is out of step with most ordinary ways of perceiving time. For more on this idea, read Why is the Jewish Calendar so Weird?

Some of the objects in the exhibition are what you expect when you hear the word “art.” Some of them are not. What they all offer is a trip outside of ordinary reality by way of paying close attention: to the shape of a raindrop, to the sound of a pocket watch, to the idea of time, to the useful fiction of longitude. All, however, also point beyond themselves to the More we commonly call “God.” If you will be in San Francisco area anytime before Sept 20, go see this remarkable show.

Night Begins the Day is at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco until September 20, 2015. 

What is Sinat Chinam?

"Hatred" by Ben Slow, photographed by MsSaraKelly

Sinat chinam (see-NAHT hee-NAHM) is  usually translated “baseless hatred.” It has also been translated as “useless hatred.” We practice sinat chinom when we hate another person or group of persons without having a good reason.

The sages teach us that the Second Temple was destroyed on account of sinat chinam. Jews quarreled fiercely and allowed those quarrels to escalate to mistreatment of one another. They forgot to look for the image of God in one another.

Hatred can be subtle. We hate when we can no longer see the other person as having the spark of the Divine within them, as human as ourselves. We tend to say, “I don’t hate anyone” because we know it is an ugly thing, but the proof of hate is not in our perceived emotions but in our behavior. Do we speak ill of a group of people we do not actually know? Do we deny others basic courtesy or rights? Do we ignore them, failing to give them the courtesy of our attention? Do we fail to speak up when others mistreat them?

Racism is a form of sinat chinam. Antisemitism is another. Political and religious disagreement can escalate into sinat chinam if we allow it.

As we begin the solemn day of remembrance of Tisha B’Av, let us search our hearts for sinat chinam, and cleanse ourselves of it with acts of love and compassion for those from whom we differ. Then perhaps we can begin to build a better world, healed and whole.

(Image: “Hatred” by Ben Slow, photographed by MsSaraKelly, used under a Creative Commons license.)

What’s a Parashah?

Jews have a whole vocabulary for talking about the Torah. One of the words that puzzles newcomers is parashah.

For starters, we say it a lot of different ways: pah-rah-SHAH, PAR-shah and sometimes par-SHAHT in front of another incomprehensible word. So here’s the deal:

The Torah is a huge scroll, and without divisions, it would be hard to locate anything in it. First, the Torah is divided into 5 books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Those are sometimes referred to as the Five Books of Moses. Those are their Greek names, by the way. The Hebrew names are Bereshit (buh-ray-SHEET), Shemot (sh’MOTE), Vayikra (vah-yee-KRAH), Bemidbar (b’meed-BAHR) and Devarim (d’vahr-EEM.)

Next, each of those books is divided into parshiot (pahr-shee-OAT.) Genesis has the most parshiot, at 12, Exodus and Deuteronomy have 11, and Leviticus and Numbers have 10. In the whole Torah, there are 54 Torah portions, or parshiot.

Torah portions are not the same as chapters in the Bible! Sometimes they begin or end with a chapter, but sometimes not. Chapters were actually the divisions made by Christian scholars, although they are so useful for finding things in the text that Jews use them today, too. Parshiot tend to be much longer than chapters, too.

If you are interested in how the Jewish Bible is different from the Christian Bible, I have an article, Beginner’s Guide to the Jewish Bible, which will explain some of it. (Clue: it isn’t just that the Christian Bible has the New Testament.) For a chart comparing the Jewish Bible, the Catholic Bible, the Christian Orthodox Bible, and the Christian Protestant Bible, there’s a good chart at Catholic-Resources.org.

In general, Jews read one Torah portion aloud every week in synagogue. ]However, the Jewish year is on a lunar calendar, so every few years we double up some of the portions, reading two in a given week. The schedule by which this is done is complicated. Most Jews just look it up on a calendar. If you’d like to see a list of all the Torah portions and their names, there is a good one at http://www.hebcal.com, a good online Jewish calendar.

Verses are an even smaller division of the Jewish Bible (and they are usually the same as in the Christian Bible.) In very old rabbinic literature, bits of Torah are not referred to by “portion and verse” but by a word or two of the verse. The ancient rabbis had the entire Torah memorized, so when they heard a few words of a verse, they knew exactly what was up for discussion! Today in a Torah study, we refer to chapter and verse, don’t worry!

Now, as for those words for portion that I mentioned earlier: pah-rah-SHAH is the Sephardic or Modern Israeli pronunciation. PAHR-shah is the Ashkenazi pronunciation (these are different ways of pronouncing Hebrew.) And pahr-SHAHT is a form meaning “The Portion of” which is always followed by the name of the portion. For example, I might say, “This week we are reading from Parshaht Devarim, which is the first parashah in Devarim (Deuteronomy.) Parshaht Devarim translates literally to “the portion of Devarim.”

Are there words or phrases you have heard people use at Torah Study that confused you? Don’t worry about the spelling – all transliterations of Hebrew are approximations. I’d like to help demystify the words – words should illuminate, not get in the way!

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.

What Does Hallelujah Actually Mean?

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There are a number of words in Hebrew that have made their way into English. One of them is Hallelujah.

Hallel means “praise.” There is an entire service of praise we sing to praise all the many attributes of God. We sing Hallel on all major festivals, on Rosh Chodesh, and at Chanukah. It includes parts of several psalms (notably Psalms 113-118) and other prayers, and hallelujah in various forms is repeated many times.

The “oo” sound in the middle lets us know that in this case, hallel is actually a verb. Hallelu means “We praise.”

Finally Yah (often transliterated “jah”) is one of the many names of God, possibly a shortened form of the Tetragrammaton, the name of God that Jews do not pronounce. In the Bible, Yah appears in Psalm 68:5 (in a Jewish Bible) and Psalm 68:4 in other Bibles. We also see it as part of names: Elijah means “My God is Yah;” Isaiah means “Yah is salvation;” and Hezekiah means “Strengthened by Yah.”

Thus Hallelujah means “We praise God,” which is exactly how it is used by both Jews and Christians. In pop culture, we most often hear the word used by fundamentalist Christians, but the origins of the word are Jewish and in fact, observant Jews sing or pray psalms every day containing the word.

Hallelu-yah!

Mazal Tov!: Some Thoughts on Growing Pains

Zodiac mosaic in a 6th century synagogue in Beit-Alpha, Israel.  (Image: maksim)

“Every blade of grass has an angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow! Grow!'”

Lovely, no? This quotation, attributed to “The Talmud” appears in various places online. The only trouble with it is that it was translated so sweetly that it has lost its meaning. The moral of that  story: be careful about alleged quotations on the Internet, especially if translation is involved.

“The Talmud” is huge. The closest I’ve been able to come to locating this alleged quotation is something from rabbinic literature, but not in the Talmud. It’s from a collection of midrash called Bereshit Rabbah:

“Ben Sira said: God caused herbs to spring forth from the earth: with them the physician heals the wound and the apothecary compounds his preparations. R. Shimon said: There is not a single herb but has a mazal [constellation] in the heavens which strikes it and says, “Grow!” – Bereshit Rabbah 10.6 (my translation)

Translation is an art, and sometimes the most literal translation is not the most accurate in transmitting the meaning of a passage. However, sugar-coated translations can do more harm than good when they virtually reverse the meaning of a passage. The literal translation suggests that even plants have a destiny [a horoscope, at a time when rational people put faith in such things,] Rabbi Shimon adds that living up to destiny is not always a pleasant process: this mazal* “strikes” (and yes, that’s the verb, from the same root that gives us “flogging” for punishment) the plant and says to it, “Grow!”

Certainly it is more pleasant to think of angels whispering to blades of grass than it is to think of the stars whipping medicinal herbs into shape. Unpleasant or not, this midrash has something important to teach about growth: it often hurts. Leaving Egypt was a painful process: Pharaoh increased the workload, then God started bringing the plagues, most of which affected Israelites as well as Egyptians, then the scary night of escape, then the scary passage to and through the Reed Sea. Then everything else. If there was a pleasant, quiet “spiritual” moment in all that process, the Torah doesn’t record it.

We call them “growing pains” for a reason: growth hurts. That is why it behooves us, out of the mitzvah of kindness to suffering creatures, to treat those who are learning with kindness. No angels are bending over them whispering. No, whatever Torah they are called to do in the world is calling to them, striking them, saying, “Grow! Darnit, grow!”

And when we feel own growing pains, we must remember that like the medicinal herbs in this midrash, we are called to something important, in our case, lives of Torah. Growing in Torah is sometimes a painful process. Feeling the pain is not necessarily a sign that we’re on the wrong road: sometimes it is a sign that we’re actually feeling the growth.

That’s why we need teachers and advisers, why it is often said that “Every Jew needs a rabbi.” We must talk with our guides, reflect with them, when we feel growing pains. They may just be a sign that we’re well on our way to that “mazal,” the destiny which is ours to fulfill.

*Mazal did not mean “luck” in the time of Bereshit Rabbah. It meant “constellation” or “arrangement of stars” and “mazal tov” meant something along the lines of “the stars were in your favor!” It has survived as an idiom of congratulation in both Hebrew and Yiddish, even though we no longer believe that our fates can be predicted or manipulated with astrology. 

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#blogExodus, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, invites participants to chronicle the weeks leading up to Passover through blog posts, photos, and other social media expressions.

“Bar Mitzvah” is Not a Verb

“Oh, I love Rabbi Cohen! He bar-mitzvah’ed my son!”

< insert screech of fingernails across a blackboard here >

This is a line you may occasionally hear. Don’t be fooled: “bar mitzvah” is not a verb. A bar mitzvah is a person. Specifically, a bar mitzvah is a Jewish male over the age of 13.

Let me repeat that: A bar mitzvah is a Jewish male age 13 or older. The exact translation is “son of a commandment.” It means “old enough to count for a minyan [quorum for prayer] and as a witness.” In all cases, a noun.

“Bar Mitzvah” may also – as a noun! – refer to the celebrations connected with that coming-of-age event. These may include a service, a Torah reading, a kiddush lunch, or a grossly ostentatious party, but whatever the referent, the word is always used as a noun. And none of the above: service, Torah, lunch, or party are required for a boy to become a bar mitzvah. It’s automatic: he turns 13, he’s a bar mitzvah.

Same for “bat mitzvah.” That’s the feminine, again a noun. The girl may be 12½ or 13, depending on the custom in her community. What responsibilities she may take on at that age will also depend on the custom in her community. Again, it’s automatic.

A adult convert who stepped out of the mikveh 15 minutes ago is a bar or bat mitzvah, simply by virtue of being (1) Jewish and (2) past their 13th birthday.

In case you are wondering, the plural of bar mitzvah is b’nei mitzvah and the feminine plural is b’not mitzvah.

And yes, there is something called an “Adult Bar or Bat Mitzvah” which is usually a celebration and/or service marking the end of a period of intense study. In the US, some adult Jews who did not have a celebration at age 13 choose to have the study and celebration later in life. It’s a wonderful thing, but it’s still a noun.

There are a few things that make me really crazy. This is one. Thanks for reading.