What is Chol HaMoed?

April 18, 2014

Matzah brei serving

Matzo brei – a Chol HaMoed treat.

 

In the middle of Passover and Sukkot, you may hear the term “Chol HaMoed” or “Hol HaMoed,” and you might wonder, “A Whole What???”

That’s what Jews call the middle days of Passover and Sukkot. Both festivals run for a week. The first day (or two) of the holiday is called a “Chag” and is extra special, almost like Shabbat. Same for the last day: ideally, one is home from work and attends synagogue.  The middle days of the week  are still special but do not have so many restrictions: some businesses in Israel might be open, and Jews in Diaspora go to work. “Chol” means “Ordinary” and “HaMoed” in this context means “of the festival” – these are more ordinary days of the holiday.

Now, just to confuse things, you may also encounter this term: Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach. That’s the Shabbat in the middle of Passover, when it doesn’t fall on one of the “Chag” days. It has its own special Torah and Haftorah readings. There’s also one of those for Sukkot in some years. For information on this particular year, consult a Jewish calendar.

There’s a special greeting for these not-so-ordinary days in mid-festival: if someone says to you, “Moadim l’simchah!” it means “Festival of Joy.” You can reply with the same words, or you can just say, “Same to you!”

Note: There’s a trick for saying that “ch” sound in Hebrew. What noise does an angry cat make? The “ch” sound is a little bitty short version of that. If you truly can’t do it, use an “h” sound instead. 

Image: licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


The Perfect Word

January 12, 2014

.ובמקום שאין אנשים השתדל להיות איש

The absolute best thing about being a teacher is the opportunity to learn from one’s students.

I’m currently teaching a class on Pirkei Avot, the Verses of the Fathers, at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA. Today we talked about Chapter 2, and a question came up about the verse that is usually translated:

In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.

I pointed out that in a spirit of greater inclusion, some translators translate anashim as “human beings” and ish as “human being.” One student offered the following translation, which I love:

In a place where there are no menschen, be a mensch!

Originally, the Yiddish word mensch came from the German for “person.” By the 20th century, it had taken on an additional layer of meaning, that of a person who is decent and kind, one who embodies the best of humanity. The Jewish-English Lexicon offers Rosten’s translation: “An upright, honorable, a decent person.”

Perfect, no?


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.

 

 

 

 


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.

 


What is the Kotel?

September 29, 2013
Photograph,early 1900's,by one of the American...

Photo of the Kotel in the early 1900′s by one of the American Colony Photographers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The Kotel” is one of the most famous holy places in the Jewish world.

“Kotel Ha-Ma’aravi” is Hebrew for the “Western Wall,” a retaining wall built by Herod the Great. It is all that is left of the Second Temple, built in 20 BCE (Before the Common Era) and destroyed in 70 CE by the Roman armies of Titus during their sack of Jerusalem.

Among gentiles it has sometimes been known as the “Wailing Wall” but that term has never been in common use among Jews. It got that name from the sound of the prayers of devout Jews who made pilgrimage there during the centuries of Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman rule.

Many visitors to the Kotel write prayers on scraps of paper and press the paper into the crevices in the Wall.

Today the Kotel functions as an open-air synagogue. It has been in the news because of controversy over the norms for prayer at the site. For 25 years, the Women of the Wall have pressed for the right to pray aloud, to read aloud from the Torah, and to wear tallitot (prayer shawls) at the Kotel.  Their struggle is ongoing.

 

 


Sukkot Vocabulary 101

September 19, 2013
Welcome to the Sukkah!

Welcome to the Sukkah!

Sukkot may be the kick-back holiday of the Jewish year, but it is also a holiday with its share of special words. Here are some of the main ones you may hear. When I give two pronunciations, the first will be Sephardic Hebrew, the second the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation.

Remember, all “ch” sounds are like the German in Bach or a bit like a cat spitting. If you can’t make that sound, just go for an “h.” Pronouncing it as a K is not cool.

GREETINGS

Sukkot sameach! – (soo-COAT sah-MAY-ach) or (SOOK-us sah-MAY-ach) means “Happy Sukkot!”

Chag sameach! – (CHAG sah-MAY-ach) Happy holiday!

Gut Yuntiff!- (Goot YUN-tif) – Happy holiday!

and you might still hear Shana tovah! (sha-NAH toe-VAH) – Happy New Year!

PEOPLE & THINGS

Sukkah – (soo-KAH) or (SOO-kah) is the little shack or booth with furniture in which we hang out for the holiday. Think “play house.”

Etrog – (EH-trog) is a citron. It looks like a big lemon. We shake it with the lulav. If it has a little twig sticking out of it, do NOT break it off. Your host might cry, because a broken pitom (PEE-tohm) renders most etrogim un-kosher.

Lulav – (LOO-lahv) is technically the closed frond of a date palm. It also is used to denote a bouquet of that palm frond with a branch of aravah (willow) and hadass (myrtle). During Sukkot, some Jews hold the lulav and etrog together, say blessings, and wave them around in 6 directions.

Ushpizin – (oosh-pee-ZEEN) or (oosh-PEE-zeen) means “visitors.” It refers not to the regular visitors, but traditionally to seven exalted guests one hopes will visit the sukkah: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David. Modern Jews may also welcome Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Miriam, Deborah, Tamar, Ruth, and others. Pictures of them may decorate the sukkah.

If you could invite anyone in history to your sukkah, whom would you invite?

 

 

 


Beginner’s Guide to High Holy Day Greetings

September 3, 2013
5774 / 2013 -- THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 5 ...item 2...

Photo credit: marsmet548

There are a number of ways Jews greet one another during the High Holy Days.  The easiest one to learn is:

SHANA TOVA – (shah-NAH toe-VAH) – literally “Good year” it means “Happy New Year.” You can reply with the same words.

Some other greetings you may hear leading up to Rosh Hashanah and on the day:

L’SHANA TOVA (luh-shah-NAH toe-VAH) – literally “To a Good Year.” It also means Happy New Year, and you can reply in kind.

L’SHANA TOVA TIKATEIVU (shah-NAH toe-VAH tee-kah-TAY-voo) literally, “May you be written for a good year.”

GUT YUNTIFF – (GOOT YUN-tif), (Yiddish) “Happy Holiday.”

From Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur, it’s polite to assume that someone has already been “written in the book of life” so you wish them a “good sealing”:

GAMAR CHATIMAH TOVAH – (ga-MAR chah-ti-MAH toe-VAH) – “May your final sealing be good.”

Remember, you can never go wrong with “Shana Tovah!”

 


Which Bible is Best, Rabbi?

June 4, 2013
Bibles

Bibles (Photo credit: Mr. Ducke)

“Which Bible is best, Rabbi?” That’s usually how the question is phrased. Rather than talk about which is “best,” let me give you a quick lesson on which Bible is which, and you can decide for yourself.

The JEWISH BIBLE is different from the Christian Bible. The obvious difference is that there is no New Testament. Then if you compare tables of contents, you will also see that the two are arranged differently and that many Christian Bibles have more books, even after you take away the NT. Those books were included in an early translation of the Jewish Bible, but were not included when the Jewish Bible was finally set at 24 books in roughly the 2nd century of the common era.

For Jewish study and prayer, I strongly recommend a Jewish Bible.  It will be easier to use with the group, if only because the books will be in the same order and have the same names. The Jewish Bible is often called the TANAKH. That is an acronym of the words Torah [Teaching], Nevi’im [Prophets] and Ketuvim [Writings], the three divisions of the Bible.

Unless you read Hebrew, you will read the Bible in TRANSLATION.  The Jewish Bible is written in Hebrew, with a few short passages in Aramaic. No translation is perfect; every translation reflects choices by the translator.  If you want a really good idea of what the text says, you will have to learn Hebrew. Next best thing is to check a couple of different translations when you are wondering about translation.  Here are some of the most common ones:

New Jewish Publication Society Version (NJPS or NJV) – This is the translation you will encounter in most liberal (Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist) synagogues. It was begun in 1955 and completed in 1984.

Old Jewish Publication Society Version (1917). Similar to the NJPS, but the English of the translation is evocative of the King James Bible. It is available online.

The Living Torah (1981). A user-friendly but still scholarly translation by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, an American Orthodox Rabbi. It is noted for its detailed index, footnotes, and cross-references.

Koren Jerusalem Bible – This is the first Israeli translation of the Bible into English. (It should not be confused with the Catholic Jerusalem Bible, which is a completely different thing.) The Koren Bible is distinctive in that proper nouns, names and places are transliterated and not Anglicized.

Art Scroll Tanach – Mesorah Publishing issued the Art Scroll Tanach in 1993. The English translation is amended with explanations from Rashi and other commentators. It is a less literal but more traditional interpretation of the text.

There are also some notable modern translations of Torah (1st five books of the Bible)  and a few more books:

Everett Fox – This is possibly the most literal translation of the words in the Torah. To stay close to the Hebrew, Fox sometimes mangles the English. It can be a useful aid but I would not want this to be the only copy of the Torah in my possession.

Robert Alter – Alter’s translation, like Fox’s, hews close to the Hebrew, but with a more poetic ear.

Richard Elliot Friedman – published his translation of the Torah in the volume Commentary on the Torah, 2001.

If I had to answer the question above with a single title, I would say, “the Hebrew Bible.” (Then we could argue about which manuscripts, but I know that’s not what you mean.) If you are looking for a good Jewish translation of the Bible, each of the titles above have its advantages and disadvantages.  My advice is, get yourself a Bible, whichever one appeals to you, and then do your best to wear it out. The best Bible is the one you actually read.


Synagogue Hebrew 103

May 31, 2013
Birthday cake written "Mazal Tov" in...

Birthday cake written “Mazal Tov” in Hebrew on it (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For other quick and easy Hebrew lessons in this series, check out Jewish Greetings 101 and Synagogue Hebrew 102.

B’vakeshah - [beh-VAH-keh-SHAH] Please, also “you’re welcome.”

Todah - [toh-DAH] Thank you.

Todah rabbah - [toh-DAH rah-BAH] – Thank you very much.

B’seder - [beh-SAY-der] OK, in order.

B’vakeshah - [beh-VAH-keh-SHAH] Please, also “you’re welcome.”

Todah - [toh-DAH] Thank you.

Todah rabbah - [toh-DAH rah-BAH] – Thank you very much.

B’seder - [beh-SAY-der] OK, in order.

B’hatzlacha – [beh-HATZ-lah-CHA] Good luck! (Remember “ch” is a gutteral, somewhat like the German “ch” in Bach. If you can’t make that sound just go with a spitty “H” sound.)

Slichah - [slee-CHA] Sorry! or Excuse me!

Yom huledet sameach – [Yohm hu-LEH-det sah-MAY-ach] Happy Birthday

B’teavon – [Buh-TAY-ah-VOHN] Bon appetit!

Ta’im! – [Tah-EEM] Tasty! Delicious!

L’hitraot – [Leh-HEE- tra- OHT] Goodbye!


Clean and Unclean: A Primer

March 7, 2013
Grafitti

Not Jewish Grafitti (Photo credit: tricky (rick harrison))

Apparently there’s a trend somewhere in Internet-land to label foods “clean” and “unclean” by how much processing they have undergone. I just read about it in a great post over on Tumblr. This inspired me to go dig around at the root of this nuttiness, which appeared as a way of understanding and managing holiness in the Hebrew Bible and then made its way into the popular culture of many different eras in wildly mutated forms.

The Hebrew word often translated into English as “clean” or “pure” is tahor (טָהוֹר) pronounced “tah-HOR.” It first appears in Genesis 7, where some animals are said to be tahor. In that context, it seems to mean, “when the Sinai covenant comes into effect, this animal will be OK to eat under certain conditions.” The Torah is not clear how Noah is able to understand what God is talking about, but there are many things in Torah to ponder.

Other animals are designated tamei (טָמֵא) pronounced “tah-MAY.” These will later NOT be OK for those under the covenant to eat.  (For more about Jewish dietary law, check out this article in MyJewishLearning.com.) This word is usually translated into English as “unclean” or “impure.”

Later in the Bible, when we get the rules for the Temple sacrifices, it gets much more complicated: tahor and tamei will have to do with states of being that cannot ever come into contact without consequences.  Think “matter and antimatter,” to get a feel for the (theoretical) mess it can make. One either overwhelms the other, or they explode.

Both concepts have to do, at their heart, with the energy of life, or life force. Tahor is the “charge” of the Holy One, the source of Life itself – so anything that comes into contact with God, or the place in the ancient Temple where God was understood to dwell (the Tabernacle) is tamei. (Stop and take that in before you read on.  God / The Holy One / God’s dwelling / Tahor.

But in the eyes of our ancestors, there were also things with a different “charge,” a different connection to the life force that had to do with the created world:  blood, dead bodies (human or animal), and secretions from bodies (menstrual blood, semen, afterbirth, etc.) These have the tamei “charge” and must be properly neutralized before coming into contact with things that are tahor. Hence the rules about menstruation, noctural emissions, sex, eating rare meat, etc. Those rules made it possible for women to be protected at vulnerable times, like menses and after childbirth, and time to bond with infants, especially female infants (who were doubly vulnerable, since they were less valued by the society as a whole.)

The process of neutralization is usually translated as “purification” which further muddies the water for English speakers.  In fact, there is no way in the present time to neutralize the tahor charge; the tools for doing it were lost when the Temple was destroyed in year 70 of the Common Era (aka 70 A.D.) The Temple sacrifices were the “technology” for making things pure, that is, for neutralizing the charge of tamei.

From my Reform Jewish point of view, then, it is all moot. We are past the era of tamei/tahor. In other words, don’t worry about it. It can be a very useful metaphor for looking at other issues (I’ll write about those another time) but in the 21st century, there’s no need to worry about ritual impurity.

However, all this ritual tech talk has crept into our thinking and popular culture in ways that can be horrifically destructive. Just as tamei doesn’t mean “impure,” it also doesn’t mean “dirty” or “bad.” Menstruating women are not bad. Women who have given birth are not bad. Men who have had a noctural emission are not bad. Rare steak is not kosher, but it, too, is in no way morally bad or dirty.  We can have ethical discussions about foods, certainly, but talking about “clean” or “dirty” food just muddies the water. (Pun intended!)

Bottom line, the take-away concept:  When you read “pure” and “impure” or “clean” and “unclean” in the Bible, remember that these are iffy English translations of techie jargon from more than 2500 years ago.  They do not mean “good” and “bad.”

Extra credit concept: When someone starts throwing around “clean” and “dirty” in reference to anything more complicated than a kitchen floor, be suspicious. They’re using iffy translations of 2500 year old tech jargon to sell you some judgments you may or may not want to buy.

Caveat emptor! (Buyer beware!)

[For the explanation of the concepts around ritual purity in Torah in language having to do with the life force, I am indebted to Rabbi Judah Dardik. However he is in no way responsible for where I have gone with that concept; my words are my own, so blame me for them, not him.]


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