How to Mourn as a Jew

January 24, 2013
English: A lit Yahrtzeit candle, a candle that...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mourning is a time like no other.  Someone with whom we had a close connection has died, and our world is out of balance. We have spent years depending on that person, or supporting that person, and interacting with that person and suddenly they are … GONE.   On top of that, there is much to do:  arrangements must be made, legal requirements fulfilled, and all while we are stunned by the news.

For American Jews, it is particularly confusing because as with many things, we are pulled in two directions.  American secular culture largely avoids mourning, and encourages us to be self-sufficient individuals, bravely getting on with life with as little disruption as possible. The dominant Christian religious culture suggests that loved ones have gone “to a better place.”

Jewish tradition takes a different path. It structures mourning as a staged process undertaken by those who are closely related to the deceased:  children, siblings, parent or spouse.  This definition of “mourner” can be updated to reflect the needs of all kinds of families, but the principle behind it is that we recognize some relationships as especially close. If you have lost someone whose absence will significantly alter your life, then consult with your rabbi for help in following the Jewish mourning process.

1. ANINUT is the time from the death itself until the burial is completed.  This is a time of concern for the body of the person who has died. Because it is so important in Judaism to treat the body with respect, the mourners have no responsibilities other than to make the funeral arrangements. They are relieved from other ritual requirements, and all social niceties. They are also assumed to be in deep shock and mourning, and friends should be available to assist if need be but should not intrude. Persons in aninut do not go to work, and are not responsible for other commitments.  They may tear an article of clothing and then wear it during shiva, or pin a torn ribbon to their clothing, to express their feelings of loss.

2. SHIVA begins at the moment the body is safely laid to rest, and continues for a period after that, usually a week. (For calculations for the exact length of shiva when holidays are near, consult a rabbi.) Mourners in shiva remain at home, and friends help them with the necessities of life.  Friends visit to offer comfort.  (For more about the mitzvah of a shiva visit and what to say to a person in shiva, see Five Tips for Shiva.)

If you are the mourner, it is OK to ask for what you need, even if what you need is silence.  When you are sitting shiva, you are not entertaining. People may come to the house, but you do not have to look nice or have a neat house. It is OK for other people to do your dishes and to bring food to you.

Often American skimp on shiva, saying that they need to get back to work, or they don’t want to be any trouble.  If you possibly can, let shiva do its work. It can be boring and uncomfortable, but its purpose is to allow you time and space to mourn. You have suffered a loss.  It is OK to take time to acknowledge that loss.

3. SHELOSHIM is the 30 days after burial, including the seven days of shiva. At the close of shiva, mourners leave the house again.  Gradually, mourners will return to the routines of life.

4. MOURNING A PARENT goes on even longer, for eleven months or a full year, depending on local custom. One says Kaddish for the parent.

5. UNVEILING the tombstone (matzevah) is a ritual that became common in the 19th century, when close family gathers at the grave to unveil the marker and read Psalms and Kaddish. Timing of the unveiling depends on local custom: in some communities it is done at one year, in others at the end of sheloshim, and in others, at any convenient time at least a week after burial. It is traditional to visit the graves of loved ones, and to leave a stone on the tombstone as a sign that someone has visited.

6. YARTZEIT is the observance of the anniversary of the person’s death.  (The first yahrzeit is observed at the anniversary of the burial; after that, it’s the anniversary of death.)  Mourners say Kaddish for the person and it is the custom in some places to burn a yahrzeit candle. It is an opportunity to remember the person, and if the feelings are still there, to grieve in the arms of one’s community.

7. YIZKOR is a memorial service attached to the major Jewish holidays. It means “May [God] remember” but really, it is an opportunity for us to remember, and to have an opportunity to feel the feelings that may come up with memory. Yizkor takes place as part of services on Yom Kippur, on Shmini Atzeret, on the last day of Passover, and on Shavuot.

It takes time and effort to rebuild our lives after a significant loss. Jewish tradition allows us the time and space to fully mourn, then put away mourning for a return to life, all the while honoring the memory of the deceased.  Remember that if you have to deal with people who want you to “get over it” and get back to work or social obligations, Jewish mourning is a religious obligation as well as a psychologically healthy approach to dealing with loss.

May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.


Why Join a Synagogue?

January 18, 2013
We Celebrate The Torah

(Photo credit: wordsnpix)

1.  CRADLE TO GRAVE JEWISH EDUCATION OPPORTUNITIES. Whether you are the parents of toddlers or a grandparent yourself – or a single person who wants to deepen their Jewish life – the most likely place to find opportunities for Jewish learning and growth is your local synagogue. Even if formal classes aren’t offered, you can find other Jews interested in film, or mysticism, or cooking, or whatever your heart desires.

2. RABBI ON-CALL. Not every congregation has a full time rabbi, but those who do offer you a rabbi you don’t have to shop for in a crisis. Some things you can schedule ahead of time, but most of life’s most stressful times do not come at our convenience.  Also see above: a rabbi is a teacher.

3. EXTENDED FAMILY. Many of us find local extensions of “family” at synagogue, people who can be there for us in good times and bad. When our relatives live far away, it can be good to have some family nearby.

4. OPPORTUNITIES FOR PERSONAL GROWTH. Do you have talents you long to share? Synagogue communities can be a place to learn and cultivate leadership skills, music skills, and public speaking skills. They are a place to find support for parenting challenges and for “sandwich generation” stresses. It is a community of shared values in which we can grow to be our best selves. And yes, a synagogue is the place for Jewish spiritual growth via worship and learning.

5. BUILD JEWISH COMMUNITY.  In every generation, some Jews have kept the hearth warm at synagogue for newcomers.  If you join a synagogue, you support the Jewish future by keeping the doors open for Jews.


Do New US Tax Laws Affect Tzedakah?

January 3, 2013

 

coins

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Tzedakah means “money given for charity.”  It is a mitzvah, a commandment, to give to reduce the suffering of others.

Some individuals, Ari Fleischer for instance, have come out in the press saying that the changes in the U.S. tax law (that fiscal cliff business) will cause them to reduce their charitable giving. Nonprofits are very worried about exactly this thing. If the tax advantages for giving are reduced, will people give?

Before this change in the rules, some people gave to charity as a “smart” thing to do, taxwise.  Give a little money to nonprofits, and while it is still out of your pocket, at least you decide where exactly it went.  Certainly that was true, and under a maximum, will still be true.

However, Jews are not commanded to give to the needy because it is “smart.”  We are commanded to give to the needy because it is just – hence the name, tzedakah, which comes from tzedek, justice.

There are still hungry people, still homeless people, still people who cannot afford education or healthcare or the other necessities of life. There is still suffering that can be remedied with cash.  That does not change.

So how should all of this affect my giving? I can think of two possibile answers:

– Not at all.  I am still commanded to give.  I personally will still aim for the standard the Rambam suggests,  10%.

– Another possibility:  if the need increases because fewer people donate, perhaps I should consider giving more than before.  The Rambam is firm that no one should give so much that he endangers his ability to support himself: there IS an upper limit.  But perhaps I should keep my mind open about unexpected needs, since the situation may change.

Bottom line: if you gave in the past because it is a mitzvah, then nothing has changed.  It’s still a mitzvah, and if predictions come true, there may be greater need than ever.

 


Why Celebrate Hanukkah?

December 10, 2012

BeetlebopMenorah

  • Because Judaism may be a small light, but it can shine brightly.
  • Because  it is good to take pride in who we are.
  • Because miracles do happen.
  • Because it doesn’t hurt Christmas to get a little pushback.
  • Because winter is long and dark (in the northern hemisphere) and we need warmth and light.
  • Because children love it.
  • Because it is good to stop for a moment and enjoy a little candlelight with the one(s) you love.

Why Learn Torah?

November 29, 2012
Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem

Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I learn Torah because I think it offers a framework for living my life.

If I am busy observing 613 mitzvot [commandments] there is not much time or energy left for getting into mischief.

If I am busy blessing the food that I eat, the mitzvot I perform, and the ordinary pleasures of life there’s very little time left for being unhappy.

If I fill my days with chesed [lovingkindness] there will be no room for kveching.

If I fill my mouth with blessings there will be no room in it for lashon hara.

I learn Torah because it offers me a framework in which I can explore my options and make choices to live a better life. When I have a tough decision, I look to the tradition for the many discussions on that subject: what did the early rabbis have to say about it? What did Maimonides teach? What have more recent scholars had to say to people in my situation? What do my rabbis think? And then I use my brain, and I decide for myself.

But without the study, without the Torah, I have to make it up all on my own. There are things I won’t think of until it is too late. There are things I might never have considered. But when I have the Torah at my back, I know that while I may still make a mistake, I will know how I got there, and the tradition will still be with me to show me how to take responsibility and repair any damage.

With mitzvot [commandments] to shape my life, and the Torah to inform my choices, I believe I have a chance at making a real difference in the world.

I learn Torah because people much wiser than I found wisdom there.


Fringe Element in Judaism: The Tallit

November 11, 2012
English: Air Force Jewish Chaplain (Capt.) Sar...

English: Air Force Jewish Chaplain (Capt.) Sarah Schechter leads Jewish Services, wearing traditional Jewish prayer shawl (tallit), at 332 AEW Jt. Base Balad, Iraq, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A tallit is a prayer shawl. It may be pronounced “ta-LEET” or “TA-lis” depending on the kind of Hebrew spoken.   (The plurals, respectively, are “ta-lee-TOTE” and “ta-LAY-seem.”) The shawl itself is just a shawl; the important parts of the tallit are the long knotted fringes or tzitzit (tzeet-TZEET). We wear them to remind us of the 613 mitzvot [commandments].

Jews wear a tallit for morning prayers. The person who leads prayers often wears a tallit no matter what time of day.  We get the commandment to wear the tallit from two places in the Torah: Numbers 15:37-40 and Deuteronomy 22:12.  You can learn more about the meaning and history of the tallit from this article by Rabbi Louis Jacobs.

A tallit is one of those things reserved for people who were born Jewish or who have been through the process of conversion.  The purpose of the tallit is to remind us of our 613 sacred duties (mitzvot). Only a person who is bound by those duties needs to be reminded of them.

Occasionally you may see a tallit with blue cords in the fringes. Blue is a difficult dye to find in nature. In ancient times, Jews fulfilled the direction for a blue cord by using something called techelet, a product from sea snails, knowledge of which was lost in the Middle Ages.  Recently, scholars have come to believe that techelet is a dye made from the murex, a sea snail, so some Jews have begun wearing techelet fringes again.

Tallit & Tefillin 6

Photo credit: AngerBoy via Flickr

 


Why Study Hebrew?

November 4, 2012

My first Hebrew Text

My first Hebrew text had the encouraging name Prayer Book Hebrew: The Easy Way.  My teacher had taught us the Aleph-Bet (Hebrew alphabet) using handouts and flash cards, and I was excited to get at the book.  After all, it said, “The Easy Way!” I had struggled to learn the letters, but now I was to the easy part, right?

It is a very good book, and I recommend it, but let me break it to you gently: there is no easy way to learn to read Hebrew, unless you are young enough for your brain to soak it up naturally. (If you are reading this and you are under 25 or so, you are Very Fortunate and should go find a Hebrew class pronto, before things begin to harden.)

So the question in the title is a serious one: why bother studying Hebrew, if it’s so hard?

1. Returns are high on even the smallest investment.  Every tiny bit of Hebrew you learn will enrich every aspect of your Jewish life. Let’s say you only learn the aleph bet. When you stand by an open Torah, you will recognize the letters you see. When you visit Israel, the language of your people will not be squiggles, it will be written in letters that you recognize.  Wherever you go in the Jewish world, you will be in on the secret: those are LETTERS. They mean something. If you keep on paying attention, you will begin to recognize words.

2. Hebrew connects us to every other Jew on the planet. If you can learn to say “B’vakashah” (Please) and “Todah rabbah!” (Thank you very much!) you will be able to be polite to Jews everywhere. The more Hebrew you learn, the more you can communicate with Jews who speak Spanish, Russian, French, Farsi, or Hungarian. It doesn’t matter where you come from, if you and I both speak a little Hebrew, we can have a good argument.

3. Hebrew connects us to other Jews across space and time. When I say “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad” (Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is one) and I understand what I am saying, it enriches my prayer. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched at Selma, said that prayer in those words. Hannah Senesh, who wrote poetry and died fighting the Nazis, said that prayer in those words.  Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides, said that prayer in those words. Rabbi Hillel, who lived when the Temple was still standing, said them too, exactly that way. When I pray in Hebrew, my voice blends with theirs.

4. Hebrew is one key to feeling like an insider in this tribe. One does not need perfect fluency to feel a part of things in a Jewish community, but if you don’t know a resh from a dalet (clue: the dalet has a tushie) it is easy to feel left out.  That last sentence was an example: the people who know that resh is  ר and dalet is ד  are smiling at the tushie thing.  Now see?  You are smiling too.

5. You will make friends studying Hebrew. Research shows that people bond when they go through a challenge together. Want to make friends at synagogue? Take Beginning Hebrew. By the time you make it through the aleph-bet, you will have some friends.


Why I Belong to a Congregation

October 13, 2012
English: Exterior of Temple Sinai - First Hebr...

English: Temple Sinai – Photo credit: Wikipedia

Today I was reminded again why I belong to a congregation.

My partner is out of town, enjoying a long-planned trip with friends. The friends with her are good friends of mine, too — but the three of them are doing something that I wouldn’t enjoy. So I don’t begrudge her being gone, nor do I begrudge them. Truly, it’s all good.

Only I’ve been lonesome. It’s been a stressful week, for a lot of reasons that are not for a public blog, and I was a bit sad and a bit lonely.  I’ve been following my instincts when lonesome and stressed-out, which is to watch more TV than is good for me, and to work more than is really necessary. In other words, I’ve been hiding.

But today I had a commitment to keep: I had promised to read the haftarah for services this morning. This morning, as I got dressed up to go, I wished I didn’t have the commitment. I wished I could just hide some more. But I got up, dressed up, and went to services at Temple Sinai.

As soon as I walked in the door, most things were familiar. I noticed that the prayer books and chumashim (books with the Torah and haftarah in them) were jumbled on the shelf, so I tidied them up. I chatted with a acquaintance, and met a couple of new people. I reconnected with a recently widowed person with whom I hadn’t really talked in years.

The service was nice. Some of the words blew past me, but others reminded me of the person I would like to be, the person I intend to be.  We learned a little  Torah, and the chair of the Green committee told us what that committee does (encourage recycling and improve water use around the shul.)  The music was excellent, although I was a trifle annoyed that I didn’t know all of it.

At kiddush (the Shabbat meal) afterwards: more friends, more little conversations.  Nothing earthshaking, just a reminder that I’m part of a community. I’m needed, if I will just step up and straighten the books, or volunteer for something. I’m needed to pay attention, too. Other people have troubles, bigger troubles than mine: I heard about recovery from surgery, and new widowhood, and disappointments in business.  I heard a few jokes, applauded a couple of impending birthdays, complimented someone’s Torah reading. I resolved, as I left, that I need to be more present in this place, because it connects me to other Jews, to people with Jewish values.

This is the real reason I belong to a congregation.  I came home reconnected to the Jewish people.  That is almost always what happens to me when I go to shul (synagogue). Some of it was good, some of it was boring, some of it was trivial, but it was centered on Torah. I am reminded of who I am, what I want to do in the world.

I am a Jew.  I am part of a People. I remember that best when I can touch base with other Jews, and the best way I know to do that is with my congregation.

Thank you, Temple Sinai.  I love you.


Simchat Torah for Beginners

October 4, 2012

Simhat Torah Flag

A few basic facts about the holiday:

WHAT IS SIMCHAT TORAH? Simchat Torah – “Joy of the Torah” – is the festival marking the day that we finish reading the Torah scroll and begin reading again from the beginning.

WHEN DO WE CELEBRATE SIMCHAT TORAH? This holiday falls immediately after Sukkot in the fall.

HOW DO WE CELEBRATE? Celebrations begin during the evening service.  We take out the Torah scrolls and parade them around the synagogue in seven hakafot [Torah processions.] We sing about the Torah, and may dance with the Torah scrolls. Children carry special “Simchat Torah flags” (see the example above) and may also receive candy. After the dancing, Torah readers read from the end of the scroll, and then from the beginning of the scroll.

WHERE DO WE CELEBRATE? Simchat Torah is celebrated mostly at the synagogue.

WHAT’S THE POINT? The Torah is the most precious possession of the Jewish People. We’ve had it for thousands of years. Many Jews spend their lives studying it, reading it, arguing about it, and struggling with it. When we come to the end of the scroll, we celebrate the fact that once again, we have read the whole scroll, and even more, once again we are beginning again. Our love affair with the Book never ends.


A Beginner’s Guide to Sukkot

September 27, 2012

A Pretty Sukkah

Sukkot is perhaps the most joyful Jewish holiday. Here are a few basic things to know about it:

WHAT DOES SUKKOT MEAN? Sukkot [soo-COAT] is the plural of Sukkah [soo-KAH], which is the Hebrew name of the little booth we build for the holiday. You may also encounter the Yiddish pronunciations, [SOOK-us] and [SOOK-uh].

WHO CELEBRATES SUKKOT? Jews worldwide celebrate Sukkot, although the holiday is most festive in the land of Israel.

WHEN IS SUKKOT? Sukkot is a fall harvest holiday. It begins on 15 Tishrei, the fifth day after Yom Kippur. It lasts for eight days (seven days in Israel). It will begin on Oct. 1, 2012. On the first two days and the last day of Sukkot observant Jews do no work.

WHAT’S THE POINT? Sukkot started as a harvest holiday. Nowadays it is a chance to foster our relationships with friends and family. Remember, we just spent the last six weeks mending our relationships — now it’s time to enjoy those improved relationships! The little sukkahs also remind us of our temporary dwellings in the wilderness, and of the impermanence of most possessions. The observance of Sukkot is commanded in Leviticus 23:40-43.

WHERE DO WE KEEP SUKKOT?  Sukkot is unique in that we actually build the place where we celebrate it fresh every year. A sukkah (soo-KAH) is a little shed built to very precise directions, open on one side with a very flimsy roof of branches or reeds. We build it outside and eat meals in it. Some people actually sleep in their sukkah. Many Jews entertain guests in the sukkah, and in Israel, many restaurants also have them for customers to enjoy. It’s customary to decorate the sukkah with hangings, artwork, and home-made decorations.

WHAT ELSE HAPPENS DURING SUKKOT? Observant Jews also “wave the lulav.” It’s a bouquet of palm, willow, and myrtle, held together with an etrog (citron) and waved to all the compass points, with a blessing. If you want to learn about waving a lulav and etrog, you can find more information here.  There are also special festival readings and prayers of praise in the synagogue.

ARE THERE ANY MOVIES ABOUT SUKKOT?  Yes!  There’s a very funny Israeli film Ushpizin which is set in a very traditional community in Jerusalem during Sukkot. Ushpizin [oosh-pee-ZEEN] or [ush-PEE-zin] are visitors to the sukkah.

WHAT IF I DON’T HAVE A SUKKAH? Most synagogues build a sukkah. Calling them to ask about activities in the sukkah is a great way to learn about your local synagogues. Even if it is not practical to have a sukkah at home, however, you can do some similar activities:

  • Go on a picnic with family or friends.
  • Get out in nature! Go for a hike!
  • Invite friends over that you haven’t seen for a while.
  • Reach out to someone you think might become a friend.
  • Reach out to someone who seems lonely.
  • Get to know your neighbors.
  • Reconnect with someone you’ve been meaning to call.

Sukkot is a great time to practice the mitzvah (commandment) of Hachnasat Orchim, Hospitality.  Whether you spend this Sukkot as a guest or as a host or (best of all!) a little of both, I hope that you are able to spend some time with friendly people, enjoying the fall weather!


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