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?

il_fullxfull.95033958

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. 

—–

#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.

 

 

 

 

Why Couldn’t Moses Speak?

There's an Easy Way?
There’s an Easy Way?

What was Moses’ problem?

And Moses said to the Eternal: “Oh Lord, I am not a man of words, neither in the past, nor since you have spoken to your servant; for I am heavy of mouth, and heavy of tongue.” – Exodus 4:10

And Moses spoke before the Eternal, saying: “Look, the children of Israel have not heard me; how then will Pharaoh hear me, I who have uncircumcised lips?’ – Exodus 6:12

And Moses said before the LORD: ‘Look, I have uncircumcised lips, and how will Pharaoh hear me?’ – Exodus 6:30

I have deliberately translated the Hebrew in these verses as literally as I can, so that we can look at them closely. What on earth are “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” and “uncircumcised lips?”

The medieval commentators disagreed. Rashi was sure that Moses had a stutter.  Rashbam, his grandson, was equally certain that Moses was saying that he wasn’t fluent in Egyptian. Ibn Ezra, writing in 10th century Spain, suggested that it meant that Moses was not a smooth talker. In a modern translation by Nahum Sarna, he echoes the verdict of Rashi on the phrase “uncircumcised lips,” that it indicates some kind of obstruction, and he points out that elsewhere the Bible refers to uncircumcised hearts and ears in a seemingly metaphorical way.

Whatever the trouble, Moses was bothered enough that he kept bringing it up. God appeared to take it seriously in Exodus 4, and suggested a aide for Moses, his brother Aaron. Then, after a disastrous meeting with Pharaoh in which he managed to get the Israelites work increased, and an equally disastrous meeting with the Israelites over the matter, Moses brings it up again. This time, God changes the subject to genealogy, and after that discussion, Moses repeats his line about “uncircumcised lips.” What is going on here?

First, notice that God suggests Aaron as an aide. Aaron is unlikely to be fluent in court Egyptian, the language Moses spoke most of his life. However, Aaron is fluent in Hebrew, the language Moses spoke at most during the years his mother was his wet-nurse, perhaps through age 5.

Second, after things have gone so badly with both Pharaoh and the Hebrews, Moses begins talking about “uncircumcised lips.” This phrase did not appear in the first discussion. What is different? Now the Hebrews are mad at Moses, and they’ve rejected him.

I think that Rashbam was almost right: I think Moses was worried that he didn’t speak Hebrew fluently. His lips were uncircumcised because his language doesn’t sound Jewish (well, Hebraic.) Pharaoh would be unable to hear him because he had no credibility: how could he represent the Hebrews before Pharaoh if they repudiated him?

Notice that in later years, in the desert, Moses’ speech problems were never mentioned. The Hebrews got mad at him fairly regularly, but we never again read about uncircumcised lips or a heavy mouth. I suggest that with practice, Moses became more fluent, and the problem went away.

I find this interpretation encouraging. First, for those of us who learn Hebrew later in life, it is comforting to hear that perhaps even Moshe Rabbenu (Moses our teacher) also felt insecure about his accent, but that it improved with practice.

It is a small thing in chapters with many more important points, but just in case someone reads this who is struggling with Hebrew, know that you are definitely not alone! With enough practice, we all improve.

 

Spelling Tsuris: Transliteration

Prayers with transliteration (Koren Siddur)
Prayers with transliteration (Koren Siddur)

OK, I couldn’t resist the title. Tsuris (TSOO-ris) is Yiddish for “trouble.” And it is a lot of trouble to make Hebrew or Yiddish available for non-Hebrew readers, because Hebrew has a funny alphabet (actually, aleph-bet) and runs right to left, backwards for English readers.

Solution: We transliterate the words, that is, put them into a familiar alphabet, running in the “right” direction.

For instance, consider these words:

יום כיפור

If you don’t read Hebrew, it’s squiggles. Not helpful.

If I transliterate:

Yom Kippur

Now, that is still a problem, because many Americans will pronounce that “Yahm KIP-per” which isn’t quite right. But that’s the accepted transliteration, so it’s what you will see in print and online.

That’s why I sometimes go a further step and give a sorta-kinda American pronunciation guide, avoiding specialized symbols:

Yohm Kee-POOR

Sometimes I get questions about spelling: Chanuka? Hanukkah? For that, all I can say is, pick your poison. There’s no “correct” spelling unless you are writing for a publication with a stylebook. Basically, they’re ALL wrong. If I were going to try to approximate the correct Hebrew spelling (חנוכה) I’d probably go for something like Khanookkah. If I were trying to tell you how to pronounce it, I’d write CHAH-noo-kah. Neither is a spelling that anyone is likely to recognize as “the holiday that falls on 15 Kislev, in the darkest part of winter.”

If you really want to know how to say Hebrew words, take a little Hebrew. You don’t have to study for years and years to learn how to pronounce words.

That said, for those of us who learned to read English phonetically, transliterations can be a big help in learning prayers, especially if we begin late in life. There’s no shame in using a transliteration if you need it. Just know that (1) it is an approximation and (2) spelling is anyone’s guess.