What’s a Megillah?

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A megillah (meh-gee-LAH or meh-GILL-ah) is a scroll. Usually, the term refers to one of five specific scrolls (megillot) read on specific days of the Jewish calendar:

Song of Songs (Shir ha Shirim)- read on the Shabbat during Passover.

Ruth – read on Shavuot

Lamentations (Eicha) – read on Tisha B’Av

Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) – read on the Shabbat during Sukkot

Esther – read on Purim

The megillot are not merely read, they are chanted to a particular tune or trope for the day of observance. This is not the same tune used for Shabbat Torah readings – it’s quite distinctive. I’ve linked each of the titles above to recordings, so that you can get a little taste of the trope.

Listening to a recording is a poor substitute for the experience of hearing a megillah chanted in person. Each reading takes place in the context of a community, and in the case of Lamentations and Esther the congregation also has a role to play. You’ll get a sense of that, too, from the recordings above.

Have you ever heard a megillah chanted live? What was that experience like for you?

Keeping Anniversaries, Happy and Sad

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When I logged on today, WordPress (the people and software that host my blogging) informed me that it’s been seven years since I opened my WordPress account. That’s a small anniversary, especially when I keep in mind that it was another year before I figured out how to use the software!

Yesterday was a bigger anniversary: it was one of our wedding anniversaries. My generation of LGBT folks have complicated anniversaries as couples. Our “big” anniversary is the anniversary of our chuppah, but we also have a civil anniversary, and yesterday was it. The chuppah was a big party at our synagogue, and a chuppah, and two rabbis, and all the trimmings, back in 2007. The civil wedding was smaller: we met our sons at the Alameda County Courthouse and got hitched in the eyes of the State of California. Our ceremony was so simple, the justice of the peace kindly snapped our photo (see above.)

There are sad anniversaries too: every family has them. I remember the anniversaries of the death of my close relatives (yahrzeit) and days that bad things happened. Every year on October 17 I remember the Loma Prieta earthquake with a shiver: our house was badly damaged and for a while I thought something terrible had happened to Linda. Two days later we remember the Oakland Hills Firestorm, which scared us witless and destroyed the homes of friends. These events are part of our story as a family; they shaped the people we are today.

This coming weekend the Jewish mishpacha [family] will keep a sad anniversary. We’ll remember the destructions of the great Temple in Jerusalem, first in 586 BCE and then again in 70 CE.  Just as my family remembers the quake with a shudder, Jews worldwide remember these casualties of war. We are who we are today because we lost the Temple, not once but twice. It is not merely a loss: each time it set in motion changes that would shape the Jewish People going forward. We made choices, we set policies, and nothing was ever quite the same.

How are you going to keep Tisha B’Av this week? A traditional listen to Eicha, fasting, or something nontraditional? I hope you’ll share your plans in the comments.

Rosh Chodesh Av 5775

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Av (ahv) is the eleventh month of the Hebrew year. It began at sundown last night, July 16, 2015.

Av is often mentioned as the “unluckiest” or “saddest” month of the year, based on a mention in the Talmud in Taanit 19a: “When we enter Av, our joy is diminished.”

Av has a number of sad anniversaries in it. Foremost of those is the 9th of Av, Tisha B’Av, on which we remember the destruction of both the first and second Temples, as well as the Expulsion from Spain in 1492. These were the greatest disasters in Jewish history before the 20th century.

Av is also a hot, dry time in the Land of Israel, when water is even more precious than usual and when the sun beats down even in the relatively cooler places like Jerusalem and Sefat.

What are your associations for this season? How might they fit into the Jewish understanding of this time of year?

It’s Not Too Early to Think about the High Holy Days!

"ShofarSound" by Jonathunder - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Rosh HaShanah begins this year at sundown on September 13, 2015. That’s less than two months from now.

Every pulpit rabbi is busy with sermons and service plans. Every synagogue staff is frantically busy with preparations. But for the rest of us, fall seems a long way off.

Are you interested in attending services this year? If you are not a synagogue member, now is the time to start thinking about where you would like to attend. For every person who wants a seat in an urban or suburban synagogue, there may be several people who want that seat. That’s one of the reasons that synagogues sell tickets for the big High Holy Day services. And that is why you should start looking for your service very soon.

Don’t want to “pay to pray?” There are probably free services available in your area if you live in a city in the U.S., but again, you may want to locate those services sooner rather than later. Call your local Federation or Jewish Community Center office and ask what they know about free High Holy Day services.

If you have been thinking that this is your year to join a synagogue, I strongly suggest that you visit synagogues before the High Holy Days. This has several advantages:

  1. Your dues will include your High Holy Day tickets.
  2. You will not be stuck in a strange synagogue for the High Holy Days.
  3. Summer is a good time to visit synagogues. The High Holy Days are a terrible time to visit synagogues.

If you are a synagogue member, now is the time to remind yourself that this is the most stressful time of year for synagogue office staff. In addition to their regular work, they are preparing mailings, service books, and handouts. As the membership agreements come in, they have to deal with people’s questions about tickets, their complaints about last year, their worries about this year, and assorted kvetching about the weather and the parking last year. If you aspire to be a mensch (and you should aspire to be a mensch!) BE NICE TO THOSE PEOPLE!

So yes, the High Holy Days are coming, and fast. Be menschen, that you may be sealed for goodness  in the Book of Life!

The Scroll of Pain and Sorrow

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Two days in the Jewish year stop for the reading of a scroll that is not the Torah. On Purim, we listen to the Scroll of Esther. On Tisha B’Av, we listen to the Scroll of Eicha, also known as the Book of Lamentations.*

Eicha does not mean “lamentation.” As with all the names of the books in the Hebrew Bible, it is the first significant word of the text, in this case, the very first word. It is both a word and a howl of pain: “HOW?”

Eicha was written in response to the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple by the Babylonian army. It is written in a literary form that we don’t hear much in the 21st century: it is a lament, a passionate expression of grief. It is both highly structured (an acrostic) and full-throated in its expression of heartbreak.

We don’t hear much lament in the 21st century. We tend to cut it off very quickly. When I am listening to someone who is in the midst of grief, they will often apologize to me for “taking my time” or for “going on and on.” And yet it is appropriate for the person in acute grief to talk it out in the days immediately following a loss. That’s why we observe seven days of shivaand why a single evening of “shiva minyan” is not really shiva. The immediate agony of individual loss is relieved by the opportunity to give it full expression; it then softens to an ache that is, alas, part of the human condition.

Eicha is the testimony of one who witnessed the destruction of a holy city and many of its inhabitants. It is tough reading, because it is blunt about the horrors of the siege. It is a cry from a heart filled with agony and horror.

As with other formal laments, such as Psalms 44, 60, and 90, Eicha moves from agony, to a plea for help, to praise. It is, ultimately, a statement of faith that the Holy One of Israel does not leave us wounded forever. It affirms the possibility of change, in fact, it has the chutzpah to affirm that while there is real hurt, the future holds real healing and a restoration to wholeness. The judgment of God is painful, but in that judgment are the seeds of new life.

Traditionally, we sit on the floor in a darkened room to listen to the chanting of Megillat Eicha. The trope (musical setting) is as bitter as the words. The listeners have been fasting for hours by the time they hear it (from sundown the night before.) They listen over growling stomachs and aching heads. If they are in a hot climate, they may be feeling thirst as well. Eicha is a miserable business, but it is an act of solidarity with our ancestors, and in this day and age, perhaps an act of solidarity with dispossessed people everywhere.

Whether or not you choose to fast this Tisha B’Av, I strongly recommend you seek out a synagogue where Eicha will be chanted. It is an unforgettable experience.

*Yes, there are three other megillot (scrolls.) However, the other megillot are not nearly so central to the observance of Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot. Megillat Esther is the central event of Purim, and Megillat Eicha is the central event of Tisha B’Av.

Much of the material on lament I learned from a wonderful article, “The Costly Loss of Lament” by Walter Bruggemann. I recommend it highly.

Why Three Weeks of Communal Mourning?

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The three weeks preceding Tisha B’Av are traditionally a time of mourning in the Jewish world. They are called “The Three Weeks” and traditionally Jews avoid public entertainments, buying new clothing, and getting haircuts during that time. The period begins with Tzom Tammuz, and include three Shabbats which have special readings from the Prophets (Haftarot.) 

The Prophets in Jewish tradition reproach Israel for the rupture of relationship with God. (For more about Jewish readings of the Prophets, read “Blood Moons” and the Meaning of Prophecy.) In the world of the Prophets, Israel has become selective in her reading of Torah, and too often observes the letter of ritual law while flouting both the spirit of that law and the ethical commandments. The Haftarah readings during the Three Weeks are:

  1. Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3
  2. Jeremiah 2:4–28 plus 4:1–2 or 3:4
  3. Isaiah 1:1–27

Now one may well ask, what is the point of observing this period of time, especially for liberal Jews who do not pray for the rebuilding of the Temple?

This can be a time for reminding ourselves of the consequences of communal sins. If we are to grow and learn as a people, then we must not forget the times in the past when we have gone wrong. The sages teach us that Solomon’s Temple was destroyed because of idolatry, and the Second Temple was destroyed on account of sinat chinom, usually translated “baseless hatred.”  So this is the time to ask if Torah is truly the “operating manual” for our institutions and families, or are there things that we prioritize above Torah? And as for sinat chinom, this excellent article by Rabbi Shmuel Weiss asks some interesting questions.

This can be a time to remind ourselves that we are truly Am Echad, one people. Whatever our differences about practice, our history is unfortunately full of occasions when outsiders made no distinction between secular and observant Jew. What point is there in treating one another badly, when the world is so cruel?

This can be a time to learn about mourning. Grief is part of the human condition; only those who die as very young children manage to live their entire lives without experiencing it. Over the centuries, generations of our ancestors crafted this period in which we may or may not experience grief for the Temple itself, but in which we can read the words of lament, and observe the fact that the entire season is shaped as a process. There is the approach of disaster (the Three Weeks), the acute phase of loss (Tisha B’Av) and then the much longer period of Consolation, which stretches for seven full weeks. One way to get the most out of this period is to approach the various readings as a student, learning from our forebears how to mourn.

These are only three possibilities for growth during the Three Weeks. What experiences have you had of this period in the Jewish year? Does the thought of mourning for the Temple make sense to you? Why – or why not?

What is Tzom Tammuz?

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I am watching the sun sink towards the horizon ending the day of Tzom Tammuz, the Fast of Tammuz, so this post will reach most of my readers too late for the actual day this year.

The 17th of Tammuz is a “minor” fast day in the Jewish year. It commemorates the breach of the walls of Jerusalem by the Roman army, shortly before the destruction of the Second Temple. It begins a three week period of increasingly deep mourning in Jewish life, running from Tzom Tammuz until Tisha B’Av, the day on which we remember the destruction.

A minor fast is one that is kept only from sunrise to sunset. It applies only to eating and drinking, unlike the major fasts of Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur, on which we refrain not only from eating and drinking, but also from washing and anointing our bodies, wearing leather, and having sex. Major fasts last 25 hours, from sunset one day until three stars appear in the sky on the next.

Tzom Tammuz is the beginning of a three week period of mourning that leads up to Tisha B’Av, when we remember the Destruction of the Temple. I’m going to write a good bit more about that in coming days, but for now, just now that we have entered a time of mourning in Jewish life.

These minor fasts mark significant events in our life as a people. When you thinking about milestones in your own personal history, are there days you remember because they led up to major events? Do you do anything to mark them?