Basics of Blessings

Blessings (berakhot) are the most basic form of Jewish prayer. You can recognize them because they begin with the word Baruch [Blessed]. Ideally, we say a blessing before every mitzvah, before every bite we eat, and before many other life events. The Gemara says that every Jew should try to say 100 blessings a day.

There are three kinds of stand-alone blessings:

1.  Blessings we recite before or when we experience a pleasure of creation. For example, we say blessings before eating food,  to acknowledge that the food comes from God:

Example: Blessing before eating bread:

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz.

Blessed are You Adonai, our God, Ruler of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

2.  Blessings we recite before performing a mitzvah:

Example: Blessing for putting a mezuzah on a doorpost of a Jewish home:

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav, vitzivanu likboa mezuzah.

Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, Ruler of the Universe, who sanctifies us with mitzvot and commands us to affix a mezuzah.

3. Blessings we recite at remarkable times and events:

Example: Blessing when we hear that someone has died.

Baruch Dayan ha’emet.

Blessed is the true Judge.

There are many, many Jewish blessings to be said for every kind of food, for many mitzvot, and for many different events and experiences. To learn more blessings, there is a list of blessings of various sorts in the Reform Judaism website.

If you listen carefully in the daily and Shabbat worship services, those are also made up of blessings: there are blessings before and after the Shema, and the Amidah is a series of blessings, stacked up like the sacrifices on the Temple altar of old.

If you wonder why Jews make blessings, read this: Why Bless?

If you recite Jewish blessings, when and why do you do so?

What Vestments Do Rabbis Wear?

Question

I’ve been looking at the Google search strings again, the words that people use to get to this blog. Yesterday one set caught my eye: “Jewish Rabbi Vestments.”

I’m going to take that to mean, “What special clothing does a rabbi wear?”

The most accurate answer to that is that a rabbi does not wear any special clothing. Rabbis are ordinary people with specialized knowledge. Unlike a priest, we do not have special powers. A rabbi is a person who has studied Torah, Jewish law and tradition. Someone, either an institution or another rabbi, has declared that they can call themselves “rabbi.”  Rabbinical study involves multiple languages (Hebrew and Aramaic, at least) and it generally takes five or more years.

Rabbis wear what other people in their community wear. A rabbi from a Hasidic group will dress like other adult men in his group. I dress like a 60 year old woman from the Bay Area of California. If I lived in New York City, I’d dress up a bit more (because, New York!) but otherwise I would look very much like one of my congregants or students.

I imagine this person was thinking about worship. To lead a service at any time of day, most rabbis will wear a tallit, a prayer shawl, and they will wear a head covering, called either a kippa or a yarmulke. But any service leader will wear the same things; those are not reserved for rabbis. And in theory, any adult Jew should be able to lead a service. (In Orthodoxy, men only can lead the service, unless only women are present.)

U.S. Air Force Rabbi, Chaplain, Captain Sarah D. Schechter leads the evening le'il shabbat service on Friday, Sept. 4, 2009 at Lackland Air Force Base's Airman Memorial Chapel. The more than 25 basic military trainees and other attendees participated in a religious education class, then Ma'ariv prayer service for the setting of the sun, followed by a meal provided by volunteers supporting the service. Because of training schedules some ceremonies and events are earlier than traditionally held. By order of commanders, those who want to attend any or all religious services of their choosing are given full permission and opportunity to do so.  Chaplain, Captain Schechter is an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran and considers her deployment there to be one of the highlights of her career. Schechter was the first active duty female Rabbi in the Department of Defense. (U.S. Air Force photo/Lance Cheung)
U.S. Air Force Rabbi, Chaplain, Captain Sarah D. Schechter leads the evening le’il shabbat service on Friday, Sept. 4, 2009 at Lackland Air Force Base’s Airman Memorial Chapel. The more than 25 basic military trainees and other attendees participated in a religious education class, then Ma’ariv prayer service for the setting of the sun, followed by a meal provided by volunteers supporting the service. Because of training schedules some ceremonies and events are earlier than traditionally held. By order of commanders, those who want to attend any or all religious services of their choosing are given full permission and opportunity to do so. Chaplain, Captain Schechter is an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran and considers her deployment there to be one of the highlights of her career. Schechter was the first active duty female Rabbi in the Department of Defense. (U.S. Air Force photo/Lance Cheung) Note Rabbi Captain Schechter is wearing her tallit over her U.S. Air Force uniform.

In a morning service, adults may wear a tallit (in a Reform service, some will wear one, in a Conservative service, most adult men and women will wear them, and in an Orthodox service, you will see the tallit on adult males only.) Alternatively, some men wear the fringes you see on the prayer shawl on a sort of undershirt, so you don’t see the tallit but the essential part, the fringes, are there. In addition, in the morning service, in Conservative and Orthodox synagogues you will see people wearing tefillin, also known as phylacteries. Those are the black boxes attached to head and arm with leather straps.

Here is a photo, showing a boy and two men dressed for morning prayers. Notice that they are not all dressed alike. We cannot assume from the dress that any of them are rabbis.

Photo by  Peter van der Sluijs, This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.
Photo by Peter van der Sluijs, This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.

In an afternoon or evening service, you will not see the tallit except on the leader (it shows who is leading) and you will not see tefillin at all. Head coverings will still be in place. For an example, look at the first photo on this page, of U.S. Air Force Rabbi Chaplain Captain Sarah Schechter leading an evening service. Notice that except for the tallit, she is wearing her uniform.

Now, there are some Reform congregations that have a custom for the rabbi to wear a pulpit robe (like a judge’s robe) with or without a tallit. They are increasingly rare, though. Also, I anticipate (and welcome) comments about the customs at local synagogues, or in various communities: there is a great variety of Jewish practice, and my statements here about what Jews wear for worship are meant only to be general.

Rabbis and cantors are primarily teachers: the rabbi teaches Torah, and the cantor or chazzan,  is a specialist in the language of the service and in liturgical music. Both also officiate at lifccycle services, like baby namings, funerals, and weddings, and if they went to accredited schools, they have training in things like premarital counseling, grief support, and in navigating the gray areas and complexities of Jewish custom.

But we really don’t have special outfits. My “vestments” for prayer are exactly the same as you would see on any other observant Jew in my community. Gender can make a difference, depending on the tradition of Judaism in question.

We all stand before the Holy One as members of our community. We each bring different gifts and different skills, but our clothing is basically the same.

The Patience of a Little Dog

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When Linda is away, Princess often waits by the front door. She stares at the frosted glass, hoping for a shadow. Dogs are wonderfully patient. Princess will go do other things for a while, but she always returns, hoping.

This is one of my mental images of prayer. We sit by the frosted glass, hoping for a glimpse of the Infinite One. Maybe this morning, maybe not. But as Princess would tell us if she could, it’s worth the wait.

Transformation

The news today has been depressing: Baltimore. Iran. Chernobyl. Nepal. Drought. Most of these stories involve human failure to listen, to think, to care, or to act. Some of them are also natural disasters, infinitely complicated by human failures. It’s so, so sad.

So it lifted my heart today to see something new in my garden: a brand-new monarch butterfly drying out his wings. This creature just emerged from his chrysalis and was taking advantage of the noontime sun, getting his wings ready for flight:

NewMonarchWeb

He is sitting on a grape leaf, the leaf under which his chrysalis hung for the last little while:

Chrysalis

“Well, how nice, rabbi,” some of you may be thinking. “But what does a butterfly have to do with all the grief in the world today? How can people change enough to make any difference at all?”

Change is hard. Ask the butterfly – he had to struggle to get out of that jade box! For him, transformation was inevitable: nature had hard-wired it into his system. For human beings, change is harder. We are stubborn, and sure of our own ideas.

In Jewish tradition, this is where prayer comes into the picture. Human beings rarely change on their own in Torah: they change when they come into contact with the Divine, with that which is greater than themselves. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it so much better than I ever will, so I will finish with a quote from the introduction to his Siddur:

When, at the end of his vision, Jacob opened his eyes, he said with a sense of awe: “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it.” That is what prayer does. It opens our eyes to the wonder of the world. It opens our ears to the still, small voice of God. It opens our hearts to those who need our help. God exists where we pray. As Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk said: “God lives where we let Him in.” And in that dialogue between the human soul and the Soul of the universe a momentous yet gentle strength is born.

That’s why I pray, today and every day, for a world in which justice is available to every person, a world in which wisdom and goodness win out over foolishness and meanness. I pray for change, beginning with me.

The Magic of the Minyan

minyan

I started my day with the Tuesday Morning Minyan, and at sundown, I will join a shiva minyan at the home of a bereaved gentleman in our congregation. In the morning we had learning, and prayers, and then coffee with the guys (this week they were all guys, except me.) In the evening, we’ll have some quiet visiting, and prayers, and then some nosh and more quiet visiting.

“Minyan” literally means “a quorum for Jewish prayer, or 10,” but beneath the surface, it means so much more:

– a group that comes together daily or regularly to pray and share the connections of community

– a group that comes together to comfort the mourners among us

– a group that can represent Am Yisrael, the Jewish People, standing before God in prayer

– a group of Jewish adults: the magic about the age of 13 for bar mitzvah is that that’s the age at which one counts for the minyan

– a group of Jewish adults: when women began to “count for a minyan,” it was a major step forward for liberal Jewish women

– Ten: the minimum number to say certain important prayers, such as Kaddish and the Barechu blessings

– Ten: the number needed for certain important activities, like reading Torah.

Why ten? The traditional answer is that that is the number of the “spies” who persuaded the Israelites that the Land was too scary to enter in Numbers 13-14. God refers to them as eda’ah hara’ah hazot – “this bad congregation.” (Num. 14:27) Their number was sufficient to drown out the good report of Caleb and Joshua; ultimately their voices spoke for the whole people.

I like to think of it in a more positive way: ten is the number of toes on my feet. A person who loses a toe can still walk, but balance will be impaired and speed will be impaired. Even the little toe is critical for the complex architecture of our feet. In the same way, each member is critical to the functioning of the minyan, from the 13 year old awash in hormones to the 93 year old who cannot see the prayer book anymore. Each has a part to play, even though it may be mysterious to us.

I knew everyone at the minyan this morning; odds are, I won’t know many people at the minyan tonight. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is the presence of every person in the room. What matters, for the Jewish people, is that we show up.

Kissing the Torah: Idolatry?

DressingScroll

The Bible has some pretty harsh things to say about idol worship:

I will lay the corpses of the Israelites in front of their idols and scatter your bones around your altars. – Ezekiel 6:5

All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. –Isaiah 44:9

Then the cities of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem will go and cry to the gods to whom they make offerings, but they cannot save them in the time of their trouble. – Jeremiah 11:12

And of course, there is the direct commandment against idolatry in the Torah:

You are not to have any other gods before my Presence. You are not to make yourself a carved-image or any figure that is in the heavens above, that is on the earth beneath, that is in the waters beneath the earth; you are not to bow down to them, you are not to serve them, for I the Eternal you God am a jealous God. – Exodus 20:3-5

So sometimes visitors are surprised to attend services in a synagogue and see Jews carrying the Torah with reverence, touching it, and even touching it and then kissing their fingers. Isn’t that idolatry?

I like what my friend Rabbi David J. Cooper has written about this: “…if it does seem like idolatry to you, you should definitely not kiss the Torah.” If any custom or even a mitzvah feels wrong to you, don’t do it. Wait, study, and talk with a teacher that you trust. If it continues to feel wrong, trust your conscience.

Many people, myself included, kiss the Torah. I also touch the mezuzah when I go through a doorway. Here are two things to know about this practice:

Kissing any religious object (the Torah, a mezuzah, the fringes on a tallit) is not an obligation. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to do it. It is a practice that is meaningful to some Jews and not to others.

There are many reasons for this kissing. If you ask four Jews “why kiss?” you will probably get at least five answers.

Why do I kiss the Torah when it passes by me? I kiss it out of love and reverence for what it represents.  To me, it represents the centuries of Jewish striving towards holiness, centuries of struggling with a book that is passed through imperfect human hands. The Torah itself is not holy; it is a signpost that points towards holiness. When I touch it and kiss my fingers, I remind myself that it is my compass, pointing towards that which I seek.

Other Jews will have other answers. If you are Jewish, dear reader, what do you do when the Torah passes by you during the service? Do you kiss it? Why or why not?

I’m looking forward to your comments.