Pass It On!

October 31, 2013
English: Girl lighting shabbat candles

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been a Jewish professional for almost 14 years.

I started with the Outreach Department of the Union for Reform Judaism (then the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.) There I was part of a national staff that assisted congregations in planning programming to be more welcoming to new members of the community, including converts to Judaism, interfaith households, and Jews who had grown up without Jewish community.

“Programs” were at the heart of the work. We designed programs to help people integrate into their congregations. We designed programs to help the congregations grow into more welcoming places. We designed programs to help people talk about difficult topics like Christmas trees, and in-laws. And all that work was important.

Looking back, though, I think the most important programs were those that taught people how to “do Jewish”: how to light Shabbat candles, how to prepare for the High Holy Days, how to set a Passover table, and so on. Those programs taught people that they didn’t need programs: they needed to take action themselves. And in retrospect, we left out a very important instruction: Now that you know how, go include others in this mitzvah you’ve learned how to do.

I continue the Outreach work in this blog with my “Especially for Beginners” category of posts. I’ve got posts on cooking Shabbat dinner, and posts on Synagogue Vocabulary. I’ve written about what “Yashar Koach” means and how to find a rabbi. And all this is good and necessary, judging from the fact that the blog gets lots of readers via searches, people looking for bar mitzvah etiquette and rules for funerals and whatnot.

But “programs” are not the reason that Jewish civilization has thrived for three millennia – Jews living Torah and teaching it to others is how we have survived to this day. Instruction books can only tell “how to,”  whether written in codices by 16th century mystics or in blogs by modern day rabbis. They cannot transmit the warmth of the table, the camaraderie of an afternoon spent decorating a sukkah with friends, the laughter around a Shabbat table. They cannot transmit the power of simple human presence at a shivah.

Many of us want the warmth, the camaraderie, the laughter, and the comfort. But we will not get them from “programs.” We will get them from living Torah with other Jews. That is why I’m moving into a place where I can more easily have people over: I want to teach Torah by Doing Torah. And what I want to tell you is that you can do this too.

Join me on this adventure. Invite someone for this Shabbat. Invite others to join you, even if nothing is kosher, even if it is at a restaurant, even if you do it with takeout on a card table. Don’t think of it as entertaining – think of it as what it is: Torah.


Yom Kippur 5774

September 13, 2013
Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge (Photo credit: Frank Kehren)

R. Samuel bar Nahman said: Prayer is likened to a mikvah but repentance is likened to the sea. Just as a mikvah is at times open and at other times locked, so the gates of prayer are at times open and at other times locked. But the sea is always open, even as the gates of repentance are always open. – Lamentations Rabbah


9 Things to Know about Kol Nidre

September 13, 2013

Kol Nidre is a famous and much-misunderstood part of the Yom Kippur service.

  • Kol Nidre (KN) means “All Vows.”
  • Kol Nidre is pronounced COAL nee-DRAY.
  • Kol Nidre is a legal formula recited at the beginning of the evening Yom Kippur service.
  • Kol Nidre is a legal formula declaring that religious vows made in the coming year are null and void.
  • The purpose of Kol Nidre is to underline the seriousness of vows, and to nullify vows made out of passion or frivolity.
  • Kol Nidre does not affect oaths taken in court or any other secular vows or promises made to human beings.
  • Kol Nidre is written and recited or chanted in Aramaic.
  • We do not know when Kol Nidre was first recited, but we know it appeared in the prayer book of Rav Amram in the mid-9th century CE.
  • Today Kol Nidre sets the mood for the beginning of the Yom Kippur services, the most solemn in the Jewish Year. Its significance goes beyond any literal meaning of the prayer; rather, it puts the congregation into the mood to do the serious prayer work of the evening and the day that follows.

To learn more about Kol Nidre, you can read this article in the Jewish Virtual Library.

 

 


If I Can’t Fast, How Can I Observe Yom Kippur?

September 10, 2013
Hebrew

(Photo credit: Kashif John)

So you can’t fast this Yom Kippur: you are pregnant, a diabetic, you have an eating disorder, you have medications that cannot be taken without food.

Thank you for taking care of your body. That is a mitzvah, did you know? The Hebrew for it is Lishmor HaGuf, “to guard the body.” It is just as important a mitzvah as any other, including the Yom Kippur fast.

So how can you observe the holiday, if you must eat or take water? Here are some ideas:

FASTING IS NOT JUST FROM FOOD Traditionally, we refrain from several things during the 24 hours of Yom Kippur: eating & drinking, sex, anointing, washing, or wearing leather shoes. If your health dictates that you must drink and/or eat, you can still refrain from the other things. It’s just not as cool to complain about them in public.

ATTEND SERVICES The Yom Kippur services are some of the most moving of the entire year. From Kol Nidre in the evening to Neilah the following evening, the services carry us on an arc of spirituality and emotion that must be experienced to be understood. Too few Jews avail themselves of the full experience.

EAT PRECISELY What I mean by “eat precisely” is eat exactly what you are supposed to eat, no more and no less. If your doctor has given you a diet, have you ever stuck strictly to it for an entire 24 hours with no little cheats? If you are supposed to eat 5 vegetables, eat 5 vegetables. If you are supposed to leave refined sugar alone, leave it alone. If you are supposed to eat 3 balanced meals, don’t wimp out with only one or two. Following doctor’s orders exactly is a discipline, too.

USE THE DAY FOR SERIOUS REFLECTION The larger purpose of Yom Kippur is to examine our lives, individually and communally, and to seek out ways to be better Jews and better human beings. You can do this whether you fast or not.

USE THE DAY FOR PRAYER “Prayer” can take a lot of forms. If you are uncomfortable with the words in the machzor (prayer book), you have two choices: (1) you can let them float on by you and say your own prayers or (2) you can struggle with them and think about why they bug you. That’s a form of prayer, too. I wrote an article a while back on options in prayer: New to Jewish Prayer? Ten Tips for Beginners. See if anything there appeals to you.

One other thing: as a kindness to other Jews, eat or drink out of their sight. Slip out to the car for your packed lunch, or go home for meals. Don’t carry a water bottle around if you can possibly avoid it. Rachmanes [mercy] is a mitzvah, too.


Will God be Mad at Me if I Don’t Fast?

September 7, 2013
English: Lightning 1882

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently I was asked if God would be mad if a person didn’t fast on Yom Kippur.

We have a mitzvah (a commandment or sacred duty) to refrain from eating or drinking from the sundown that begins Yom Kippur until the sundown that ends it. It’s a tough mitzvah. Some Jews observe this mitzvah because it is a commandment from God. Some observe it because it is a custom of the Jewish people. Some observe it because it puts them in better touch with what it feels like to be poor and hungry.

There is another mitzvah that sometimes cancels this one out. This is the mitzvah of taking care of our bodies. We have a sacred duty to care for our bodies, and if a pregnant woman, a child or a sick person (say, a diabetic) fasted it could do a lot of damage.  For those people, it is a mitzvah not to fast on Yom Kippur, but to eat exactly as prescribed by their doctor.

Let me repeat: If you are pregnant or sick or a child, it is a mitzvah to eat exactly as your doctor has told you to eat, even on Yom Kippur.

But what about the healthy person who can’t or won’t control herself for the 25 hours of the holiest day in the Jewish Year?

If you truly can’t master your urge to eat, this may be a wake up call that something is going on with the body. Talk with your doctor and get tested.  (I’m assuming here that you have access to medical care. If you don’t have access to medical care and think that something may be wrong, ask for help in finding free or low-cost medical care. It is OK to ask for help. And if you cannot find it, I am truly sorry.)

And if you won’t master your urge to eat – well, I do not think God “gets mad” at  people. I certainly do not think that you will bring down bad luck on yourself by not fasting. I think you are missing an opportunity to experience your bond with the Jewish people all over the world who are fasting, to find out just what goes on with your body when you go past hunger, to cultivate compassion for people who have no choice but to miss meals on a regular basis.

The purpose of mitzvot is to make us holy. That’s what we say in the blessing before we do a mitzvah, “Who makes us holy with mitzvot.” Fasting on Yom Kippur is an opportunity to grow in holiness, in connection to the Jewish People, and in understanding of a human situation.

Ready to give it a try in a few days? Check out Tips for Fasting on Yom Kippur!


Why 2 Days of Rosh Hashanah?

September 5, 2013
Tapuach bedvash

Tapuach bedvash (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wasn’t one enough?

In the Diaspora (outside of the land of Israel) many Jewish holidays are celebrated for two days. That’s because in ancient times, the Jewish  calendar was originally based on the observation of the moon from the Temple Mount. It took a long time to get the announcement of the New Moon to Diaspora communities, so there was uncertainty about holiday dates.

But Rosh Hashanah is observed for two days even in Israel! The reason for this is that the the moon’s cycle is 29 1/2 days. Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah, might have had 30 or 31 days, depending on exactly what the moon was doing that year. So there were two days of Rosh Hashanah, just to be sure to get it right.

Now, you may be wondering why it is that we do this even though we have calendars that know the exact dates years, even centuries, in advance.  The answer is that the custom became established very early, at least before the year 70 of the Common Era and perhaps much earlier. Many Jews are reluctant to alter a custom that is so old, and refer to the two days of Rosh Hashanah as a Yoma Arichta, Aramaic for “one long day.”

However, as with many things in Jewish life, there is another custom, in some Reform communities, to celebrate Rosh Hashanah only on one day, now that we can calculate the New Moon accurately.  They argue that the Torah prescribes one day of Rosh Hashanah, so they celebrate for one day.

By the way, if you need a Jewish calendar, there is a good one at the Hebrew Jewish Calendar website.


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!”

 


Ten Things to Know About the Jewish Days of Awe

September 2, 2013
Apples and Honey

Apples and Honey (Photo credit: slgckgc)

This post is part of an ongoing series “Especially for Beginners” in which I will try to give simple explanations for words and concepts in Jewish life. There is always a lot more to learn than in these little posts. If you want more, follow the links. To see what other topics I have covered in this series, click “Especially for Beginners” in the Category cloud on the right side of your screen.

Things to know about the Days of Awe:

  • The Days of Awe are the ten days from Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, to the end of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
  • The Hebrew for the Days of Awe is Yamim Noraim [yah-MEEM no-rah-EEM].
  • The Days of Awe are a time for concentration on teshuvah [turning, repentance], for mending relationships and adjusting the trajectory of our lives.
  • Many Jews approach others during the Days of Awe to apologize for misdeeds, slights, and misunderstandings in the previous year.
  • The teshuvah of the Days of Awe should be not only personal, but communal. Jewish groups, and the Jewish People as a whole confess their wrongdoings and make changes.
  • Sometimes the Days of Awe are referred to as the Days of Repentance.
  • The Shabbat that falls during the Days of Awe is called Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Repentance.
  • Synagogue services during the Days of Awe are unusual. They have their own music, and they are frequently much longer. They are not typical of services the rest of the year. Hence this is not a good time to “shul-shop” [look for a synagogue.]  During services, someone may sound the shofar, the ram’s horn.
  • Synagogues often charge or sell tickets for the most crowded services, but most larger communities have services that are free or low-cost. Call a local synagogue or Federation to find out about your options, and do so well ahead of time (a month ahead is about right.)
  • The simplest greeting for the Days of Awe is “Shanah Tovah!” [sha-NAH toe-VAH]. It means (roughly) “Happy New Year!”

How can a beginner participate in the Days of Awe?

  • Attend services.  If you cannot find a free service and do not want to pay, know that many services do not charge for some of the less-attended services: Selichot, Second Day of Rosh Hashanah, or Yom Kippur afternoon services. Shabbat services (other than Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur) are open to visitors as they are all year long.
  • Read about the Days of Awe, either online or in a book. The Beginner’s Guide to the High Holy Days is a place to begin.
  • Participate in making teshuvah. For more about that, read Teshuvah for Beginners and The Jewish Cure for Guilt.
  • Eat the traditional foods of Rosh Hashanah: Apples, honey, sweets, pomegranates (for a sweet new year.)
  • Fast all or part of the day on Yom Kippur. See Tips for Fasting on Yom Kippur.
  • Wish your Jewish friends “Shanah Tovah!”
  • Consider signing up for a Taste of Judaism or Intro to Judaism course at your local synagogue. They often begin right after the High Holy Days.

I wish you a Shanah Tovah, a Sweet and Good New Year!

 

 


Why is the Jewish Calendar so Weird?

August 31, 2013

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!”


#BlogElul 18 – Rabbi Heschel’s Prayer

August 24, 2013
Description unavailable

(Photo credit: Egan Snow)

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, “In Selma, Alabama, I learned to pray with my feet.”

In English, we have a tendency to use the words “religion” and “faith” as interchangeable, and it is possible that it works for some religions, but for Judaism, it most emphatically does not work. Jews believe many different things: at the extremes, I know good Jews who are thoroughgoing atheists, and equally good Jews who have regular conversations with a God for whom the pronouns are male. The only real deal breaker for normative Judaism is monotheism: if a person believes in multiple gods or subdivisions of God or persons-within-God they are over the line.

Deeds, including speech, are another matter. I am still a Jew, but I cannot claim to be a “good Jew” if I stand by while my neighbor bleeds, if I do nothing while the vulnerable go hungry, if I do not pursue justice. That, with monotheism, was the great message of the Jewish prophets:  see chapter five of the prophecy of Amos if you doubt me.

So it is appropriate today, the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, to remember that we  pray with our feet, our hands, our keyboards, our wheels, our habits of consumption, and our speech to and about others.

Let us pray.

This post is part of the series #BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommers. Participants mark the passage of time during the month of Elul with social media meditations on topics connected with the High Holy Days and the month of Elul.


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