Why is the Jewish Calendar so Weird?

Time Selector

Elul, the month of looking inward, is almost over.  Wednesday night is Erev Rosh HaShanah, the evening of the New Year.

Jewish “days” start at sundown, because in Genesis 1 it says, over and over, “It was evening, and it was morning.”  This is something that takes some getting used to, if you don’t grow up with it:  the day begins when the sun dips below the horizon.  The fact that you’ve been up for hours has nothing to do with it.

Jewish living is like that, tilted 90 or 270 degrees from Western secular life.  The day begins at sundown.  The year begins in the fall.  (Also in the middle of winter and in the springtime.)  Sunday is yom rishon, the first day of the week (and it begins on Saturday night.)  The whole thing is cockeyed.

There is no doubt about it, we are a stiff necked people, as the God of Israel comments to Moses in Exodus 32:9.  Only a stiff necked people could insist on their own cockeyed timetable for thousands of years of diaspora, tripping over other people’s holidays and calendars and clocks and whatnot.  Ask anyone who asked for Rosh HaShanah off this week:  it’s a nuisance.  Yet we stick out our stiff necks and insist on it year after year after year, annoying our bosses, confusing our neighbors, and making some paranoid types certain that we are Up to Something, an international conspiracy, perhaps.

Why not accomodate?  Why not assimilate?  Why not go with the flow, for crying out loud?

We stick with it because time is sacred.  The traditional story is that the day begins at sundown because Genesis says so.  But we could as well read it the opposite direction:  we have that story to explain, to remind us, to keep stepping to that Jewish drummer:  it was evening, it was morning, it was the first day.  The creation story doesn’t tell us “how the world was made,” it tells us how to look at the world.  It’s easy to say, the day begins when I get up in the morning — then the world revolves around my state of consciousness. It’s easy to say, the day begins at midnight, because the government and mutual agreement say so.  But Genesis says, “It was evening, it was morning,” to throw us off balance, to say, “Stop!  Look!  Think!  PAY ATTENTION!”

Pay attention, because some years, like this year,  Rosh HaShanah is “early.” Mind you, it always comes on the first day of Tishrei, but if you usually live on the Gregorian calendar, this year 1 Tishrei comes on the evening of 4 September, which is unusually early in September. Pay attention, because while in the “regular” world it is 2013, in the Jewish world, it is about to be 5774.

Notice the passage of time.  Notice the cycle of seasons.  Notice when the sun goes down and comes up, and that will require you to take your eyes off the computer screen, off the TV, off your own navel, and out to the horizon.  Live out of step with the ordinary, so that you will step lively.  Pay attention.

Pay attention, because as Chaim Stern z”l wrote for Gates of Prayer:  “Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.  Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk.  Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed.   And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder:  How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it!  Blessed is the Eternal One, the holy God!”

Jewish Astronomy: The Moon

Full Moon Over Jerusalem
Full Moon Over Jerusalem (Photo credit: zeevveez)

Did you know that you can tell where you are in the Jewish month, just by looking at the night sky?

Every Jewish month begins on the New Moon, when the sky is darkest. We call that day Rosh Chodesh, “Head of the Month.”  In ancient times, that’s how the calendar was set: experienced Jews would look at the sky from the Temple Mount and decide when it was the New Moon. They would then make the official announcement of the arrival of the new month.

So if the moon is dark, it’s a new Jewish month. To find out which month, consult a Jewish calendar.  <- If you click on that link, it will take you to the niftiest Jewish calendar imaginable. If I could access only one website, it would be hebcal.com, no kidding.

If the moon is waxing (appearing to grow larger) then we are in the first half of the month. If it is waning (appearing to grow smaller) a new month is coming. Some Jewish holidays (Purim and Passover, for example) begin near the 15th of the month: no surprise there, it’s the Full Moon!

This is also the reason that the Jewish calendar sometimes seems crazy relative to the secular calendar. The Jewish year is lunar (matched to the moon) with periodic adjustments to keep it in sync with the seasons (the solar year.) So some years the holidays seem “early” or sometimes “late.” Really, they’re right on time.

The best thing to do is to get a Jewish calendar and use it. But some things you can know just by looking at the sky: “It’s Rosh Chodesh!” you can say, whenever you see the New Moon.

“Why bother with a separate calendar?” some might ask. The beauty of the Jewish Calendar is that it brings us into sync with the rhythms of nature.  Days begin at sundown, not at a mark on a clock. Months begin when the moon is dark; they swell and then fade.  While we can learn details and names from a calendar or a website, the plain facts of Jewish time are in the sky above us, if we are only willing to go outside and look. 

What’s Tu B’Av?

Israeli Dancing
Israeli Dancing (Photo credit: bethisrael1)

Tu B’Av is a minor but fun Jewish holiday. After the mourning of Tisha B’Av, this is a lovely little day to be happy and to celebrate love.

  • Tu B’Av = Fifteenth of the Month of Av. In Hebrew, the letters that form the number 15 can also be pronounced “Tu.”
  • Today in Israel, it’s called Chag HaAhavah, the Holiday of Love, and it’s a favored day for weddings. Think of it as Jewish Valentine’s Day.
  • In Temple times, in Jerusalem, the grape harvest began on the fifteenth of Av and ended on the tenth of Tishrei, Yom Kippur. On both those days, single girls dressed in white and went to dance in the vineyards in the afternoon. It was a traditional time for courtship.
  • There are no big religious observances for the day. However, it’s a good day to get married, a good day to fall in love, and a great day to tell your loved ones “I love you.”

In 2014, Tu B’Av falls on August 10-11 (begins at sundown, runs until sundown.) For future years, check the Hebrew calendar at http://hebcal.com.

“Oy! What To Cook for Shabbat?” said the Non-Cook.

Shabbat Dinner Table
Shabbat Dinner Table (Photo credit: feministjulie)

I got a request this week from @farrahudell on Twitter: “How about 8 easy recipes next? I’m good on ritual, cooking not so much…”

Guess what – I am not much of a cook, either. I have a few things I do well, but that’s it.  The question behind the question, though, is one worth asking: what to do, if you are not a very good or a very confident cook? What if you hate to cook? Here are some ideas for those readers:

1. IT’S A TRADITION! – Is there a meal you and your household like and that you are comfortable cooking? Make that Shabbat dinner every week! If someone asks, tell them it is your tradition. If your tradition is to eat grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup for Shabbat, that’s lovely. A guest who criticizes the menu is way out of line: don’t invite them back. (If it is someone you must ask back, maybe add a green salad next time, or her favorite dessert.)

2. BUY A GOOD COOKBOOK – If you like to cook but don’t know any “Jewish” recipes, buy a cookbook! There are some great Jewish cookbook writers: Joan Nathan, Leah Koenig, Arthur Schwartz, to name a few. Epicurious.com offers a list of “Our Seven Favorite Jewish Cookbooks.” But also keep in mind that the food does not have to be a particular kind of “Jewish” food to be great for Shabbat. Jews have lived just about everywhere – the real question is, is it something your household enjoys?

3. FOLLOW A JEWISH FOOD BLOG – If you like to find your recipes online, and want something a bit less traditional-Ashkenazi, check out Michael Twitty’s Afroculinaria. Michael’s recipes make me want to cook. Even more, they make me want to eat.  There are lots of good Jewish food blogs – just browse around on wordpress.com or any of the other places bloggers do their thing.

4. ASK AT SYNAGOGUE – Suggest to your synagogue that a cooking class would be fun. Or just ask around and find out who’s a good cook, and ask him/her for some lessons. As Rabbi Hillel said in the first century, “The shy will not learn.” Ask!

5. JOIN WITH OTHERS – If your life is stressful and you’d really like to just “come to dinner” three Shabbats a month, what about forming a Shabbat chavurah? If you rotate among households, then it’s less work and everyone can pitch in together to do the dishes afterwards. Or rotate houses and bring potluck.

6. NO SHAME IN TAKEOUT – If you hate to cook, don’t have time to cook, or you don’t have anywhere to cook, there is no shame in takeout for Shabbat. Again, get something you like, that your household likes, and don’t stress over it. This is Shabbat, you’re supposed to enjoy it! Home made challah is lovely, but challah from the store isn’t bad, either. I recall one very special Shabbat dinner when we ate cheese pizza and  salad.

Also: keep in mind that through the centuries, while Jews have tried to make Shabbat dinner a special meal, sometimes it was also a very simple meal. Some of the nicest Shabbat dinners I’ve had were very plain: soup and challah, salad and challah, a roasted chicken and some salad, etc.

One last note, but an important one: Shabbat is not a time for scolding and nagging. It’s not a great time to introduce picky toddlers to new foods, or to insist that your 8 year old eat her Brussels sprouts. It’s absolutely not a time to nag someone whose diet you’d like to change, even with “hints.” Let it be a gentle time, with easy things to eat, pleasant conversation, and love.

This blog came about in response to someone who wanted recipes, and I’ve pretty much weaseled out of the recipes. (Trust me, you are not missing anything.) But here is one recipe I’ll share:

RABBI ADAR’S EASY CHICKEN SOUP

Count your guests, and put that many chicken thighs (with skin and bone) into a large pot (1 per guest.) Add one peeled and quartered onion, a handful of peppercorns, a small bunch of fresh dill, and some celery tops. Cover with water. Bring almost to a boil then simmer until the chicken is falling apart. Strain the whole thing through a sieve or cheesecloth, saving both the soup and the stuff you drained out. Pick the meat off the bones, chop it or tear it into manageable pieces and replace in the soup. Salt to taste. Serve.

Variations: At the end, you can add any of these to the soup:  (1) cooked noodles (2) chopped greens (bok choy, kale, etc.) (3) other vegetables.  Add enough veggies and it’s a one pot meal.

Whatever you decide, enjoy! Remember that Shabbat is for rest, for joy, for sharing. If your current practice leaves you feeling guilty, stressed-out, angry, or overwhelmed, it needs adjustment.  Do whatever you need to do to make Shabbat what it is meant to be, an oasis of joy and rest!

Time for Shabbat, already!

shocked
(Photo credit: apdk)

I do not remember the last time I was this desperate for Shabbat.

This has been a dreadful week, beginning with the bombing of the finish line at the Boston Marathon. Even though I did not know anyone present, the images that came streaming at me from the television, the computer, and even my smartphone were pixillated nightmares. Even though I was nowhere near Boston, have only been to Boston a few times in my life, it felt personal.  I got angry, and made an appointment for a blood donation. I needed to act, rather than simply stew in stress hormones.

Random bits of horror in the news kept poking at me: ricin, the Senate’s choice about the gun loophole, news about local violence. It seemed to never stop.

Then, Wednesday night, when I got in my car at 9:30 pm after a class, I turned on the radio and  learned about the factory explosion in West, Texas. A dear friend is the rabbi in Waco, just 20 miles distant, and I had no idea where she actually lives. I worried about her until she posted on facebook that she was OK.

That relief lasted only a few minutes, when the other details about the disaster began to sink in: 5 city blocks destroyed in a tiny Texas town. Volunteer firefighters were probably trapped in the exploding factory. Why was there a nursing home across the street? Why schools nearby?

I donated blood. This, I can do.

Then late last night, after another class, more violence, more weirdness, in Boston. I turned off the electronics and cleaned house.  I thought about my sermon for this evening. I kept forgetting and turning something back on – and would turn it off again, because honestly, I’d had enough.

Douglas Rushkoff‘s new book, Present Shock, describes what has been going on with  me this week. Events come pouring in faster than we can process them. Narratives fracture before they are even formed. Conspiracy theories multiply and divide.  Email, facebook, twitter, the radio, the news, the news, the news demand my attention and in a bad news week it WILL make me crazy.

I’ve been reading Rushkoff’s book this week, too, and that’s why I finally turned everything off and began scrubbing the bathroom.  My baby-boomer brain as well as my baby-boomer heart and soul were overwhelmed. I recognized myself in his pages and declared, “TIME OUT!”

Of course, I had to start all over again this morning, wake up to more strange “breaking news” un-narrative from Boston, along with assorted bits nearer to home. The people in Texas seem to have dropped off the news cycle, which sort of worries me – will anyone remember to check on them?

But today, at sundown, Shabbat will come. I don’t know if she’ll be wearing bridal white or a nice nurse’s outfit this week, but she will come and gather us in her arms. The electronics will be off. The buzz will be busted for a while. We will catch our breath. We will gather our strength.

Blessed are you, O Holy One, Ruler of Time & Space, Master of the Now, Maker of  Shabbat.

Three Ways to Take an Inventory of the Soul

Checkbook-ageddon
Checkbook-ageddon (Photo credit: adamthelibrarian)

 

The month of Elul is for taking inventory of the soul. The Hebrew term is cheshbon hanefesh, literally “an accounting of the soul.”  This is not an easy task, because many of us have trouble seeing ourselves clearly. Here are three nontraditional but effective ways to get a reality-based take on what’s really going on in our lives:

1. ROLODEX.  I know, you have something more high-tech, a contact list on your phone, an address book, something. Whatever lists all the people in your life, look through it, slowly. Be aware of your body: are there any names that make you a bit uncomfortable?  Make a list of those names, the uncomfortable names. That’s your Elul to-do list: call those folks and deal with that discomfort. Take responsibility for your end of whatever happened. Do not try to get “satisfaction” from anyone – just take responsibility for yourself.

2. CHECKBOOK. “Checkbook” means whatever document gives me a fact based sense of where I spend my money. It may be last year’s tax return, or a budget, or a computer application. Ask: how do I spend my money? How much did I spend on food, housing, clothing? How much did I spend on entertainment? What were those entertainments? Where did I spend my money: what criteria did I use to decide with whom I would do business and with whom I would not? What did I spend on justice, on tzedakah, on relieving human suffering? Are there any red flags in this record: too much spending on alcohol, gambling, compulsive shopping? Would I be ashamed if my budget appeared in the newspaper?  How would it be different, to be a budget of which I could feel proud? What about the sources of my income: was all of it honestly earned?

3. APPOINTMENT BOOK. How do I spend my time? How is the balance between work and family? Does the record show appointments to take care of myself, my body, my soul, my legal obligations? What do I do on Shabbat, really? Do I show appointments for any volunteering or work that benefits others? Look through the appointments in the book: does anything here make me feel uncomfortable? Do I have appointments of which I am ashamed? Is there anything here I would not want my spouse or children to know? Is there anyone who does not appear in my appointment book because we have an unresolved conflict? What about the blanks in the appointment book: what filled those? Were they pursuits that really rested me, or were they pastimes in which I hid from something – and if so, what?

How do you take stock of yourself during Elul?

#BlogElul: Return (In which the rabbi pitches a fit)

If you are wondering what “#BlogElul” means in the title, I’m one of a number of rabbis and others blogging together as we approach the High Holy Days this year. We’re organized by Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, aka @imabima. If you’d like to hear a chorus of Jewish voices blogging this month, search for us on Twitter using the hashtag #BlogElul.

OK, so it’s the third of Elul and I’m only on the first topic: well, I’m a little rattled.  Actually, I’m a lot rattled, because I’m angry, and the topic of “Return” sums up what’s bugging me:

1. I’m angry at the RETURN of old lies.  US Rep Todd Akin of Missouri went on the record saying that pregnancy rarely results from rape. (Therefore, he suggests, raped women don’t need access to Plan B or abortions.) In case you were wondering, over 32,000 rapes in the U.S. result in pregnancy each years, according to a 1996 study published by the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.  Whatever your feelings about Roe v. Wade, vicious lies and misinformation do not help matters.

2. I’m angry at the RETURN of terms like “Legitimate Rape.” This brings to mind old canards like “she asked for it” and such. What happened, did I go to sleep sometime this summer and wake up in 1970?

3. I’m angry at the RETURN of outdated attitudes towards women in Israel, and the use of the police to enforce them.  For example, check out what happened this Rosh Chodesh (first of the new month) at the Western Wall, the so-called holiest site in Judaism, which is sounding pretty UNholy to me these days.  Four women were detained for hours by police for wearing white or black and white prayer shawls.  No, I’m not kidding. Read this blog entry by an eyewitness for the details. I’m too disgusted to repeat them in detail. For a sense of the bigger picture, check out Merav Michaeli’s excellent op-ed in Haaretz: “Be a Woman and Shut Up.”

4. I’m angry at the RETURN of lynching as a substitute for justice.  This headline that appeared today in Haaretz, the newspaper of record in Israel: “Israel Police: Hundreds watched attempt to lynch Palestinians in Jerusalem, did not interfere.” The article that follows describes something that sounds like it came out of the Jim Crow South. I am a lover of Israel, a proud Zionist, but I am covered in shame. This, from Jews? From the people whose holy Torah says, “Justice, justice, you shall pursue?”

5. I’m angry at the RETURN of yet more mass murders, in Colorado and elsewhere. Why can’t we figure out how to keep assault weapons out of the hands of dangerously deranged persons? Again, whatever your stand on the Second Amendment, the founders did NOT intend for us to have mass murder after mass murder.

I could keep on going; that’s the awful part.

I know that Elul is not about looking outside myself and seeing what makes me mad. It’s for looking inside myself and seeing what needs fixing.

So maybe the question is, if I’m so mad about the RETURN of these things, what could I be doing about them?  I can only change myself, but how can the world change if I haven’t bothered to do anything about it?

Thus begins Elul 5772.